Maria Holland

Create-Your-Own China

In Uncategorized on January 26, 2010 at 11:25 pm

Today is the 5-month anniversary of my arrival in Xiamen and, in the tradition of this blog, I’m going to share some general thoughts on my time here in China.  Dad did [most of] the blog today, so I’m even off the hook and don’t have to write about the events of today.

Something I’ve been thinking about recently is the parable about three blind men who come across an elephant and try to figure out what it is.  One feels the tail and thinks it’s like a rope; one feels a leg and thinks it’s like a tree; and one feels the trunk and thinks it’s like a snake.

This reminds me a lot of China.  I’ve had the opportunity to touch the elephant twice, but still my observations and experiences are incredibly limited in the vast scope of things.  I realize this every now and then, when I realize that someone else has touched this huge animal somewhere else and come up with a very different conclusion as to it’s nature.  The Lee’s, for instance, my Cantonese-Canadians friends from church who have a private car and driver and had never tasted malatang – even their Xiamen is different than mine! 

Also, it’s interesting to think about my two different experiences, and marvel that they’re part of the same animal.  ‘My China’ is both a heavily wooded hillside and a tropical island studded with palm trees.  My China is both a Special Economic Zone and the Yanbian Sub-Autonomous Region.  My China is the site of both massive foreign investment and the home base for many foreign missionaries.  My China is a port with special concessions to the outside world, and it’s also a launching point into a neighbor that is much more closed to the outside.  My China is populated by people who speak not only Mandarin, but also Korean and Minnanhua.  My China is both a farm where I worked with dirt and poop and a university where I spend my time studying.  My China is a small group of Christians gathering in a house and a cathedral packed full of faithful to see deacons ordained. 

There’s also a list of things that My China is not.  It’s certainly not Beijing, and it’s definitely not Hong Kong.  It’s also not Shanghai or Guangzhou or Chengdu; I felt as much like a tourist there as my parents did.  The Great Firewall is more a part of My China than the Great Wall is.  There are a lot of things that I thought would be part of my China that aren’t.  Fortune cookies don’t exist here.  There are no pandas or bamboo anywhere near the places I’ve lived, and it’s hard to even find those things as souvenirs.  As much as I can, I avoid tea and Buddhist temples, so those really aren’t included in the China I’ve made for myself.  My China usually doesn’t even seem communist – maybe just really inefficient sometimes. 

This trip with my parents has been a chance to see parts of China that aren’t really part of My China.  Eating dim sum in Guangzhou, riding the world’s fastest train to Wuhan, watching pandas in Chengdu, seeing the world’s largest statue of Buddha, and climbing the Great Wall aren’t part of my life here any more than a weekend in New York City would be.

I was really excited to show my parents My China but I’m realizing that they’re creating a China of their own.  Our drastically different language abilities certainly influences perceptions, and by the time they return home they’ll have spent as much time in Chengdu as in Xiamen, and even more in Beijing.  (Anyway, My China includes a lot of restaurants that charge under a dollar for a meal but don’t really offer much in the way of tables, chairs, or shelter from the elements, so it’s probably better that we’re exploring something new together.)

These last two weeks have been an interesting learning period for me.  Classes ended and I’ve completely stopped my Anki vocabulary reviews (trying not to think about the digital pile of flashcards that will await me after my parents return home), but I haven’t stopped learning Chinese.  I’ve added to my vocabulary as I’ve tried to accommodate my parents’ interests – you might be impressed at how well I can converse about the military in Chinese, for my Dad’s sake.  I’ve gotten to practice translating from Chinese for them, which is a significant step harder than internalizing meaning without having to verbalize it.  I’ve also had to translate the other way, expressing things on my parents’ behalf that I never had the will or skill to say before.  I’ve booked more planes, trains, buses, and hotels than I’ve ever done in English, and became familiar with a few cities based on maps written entirely in characters.  I’ve also gotten to act as a Chinese teacher for the first time, shepherding my earnest pupils from their very first Chinese words to the sometimes-painful process of piecing them together. 

I think that it’s also been a period of learning life lessons as well.  I’ve taken responsibility for this trip in a way that I’ve never done – or had to do – before.  On previous trips there have always been friends to rely on or at least consult, but here I am the cultural expert, translator, tour guide, map-reader, travel agent, and teacher.  It’s been exciting to find out that I’m capable of doing this, even in China. 

To be honest, I’ve been amazed at how well this trip has worked out.  It’s definitely due more to a series of lucky coincidences/blessings than to my skill, but we’ve had some wonderful experiences.  The perfect timing of everything in Xiamen, our local tour guide in Guangzhou, or blessedly brief stay in Wuhan, our special hour with the young pandas in Chengdu – it was all better than I had imagined or could have planned. 

That is, until today.  I really was in a bad mood, right up until we put the numbers into Quicken and I could get them out of my mind.  I guess the mountain was nice and the scene from the top was pretty special, but I am still put off by the unexpected things we ran into today.  My time in China is punctuated by episodes of receiving wrong information, but today was especially bad.  From the littlest things like trying to find the ticket counter or the right bus station in Leshan, to the big things like the price of entrance to Emeishan, I was fed wrong information from every source.  By the time I got to the summit, I had calculated that we had spent about $100 on this expedition – approximately our daily budget for food, lodging, local transportation, and tourism – and had a hard time enjoying the vista properly.  Sometimes My China isn’t very honest and it’s almost never straightforward, and by the end of today I just didn’t want to deal with it anymore. 

I think that it was just a little bit of a bad day, but I guess 1 out of 150 ain’t bad.

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  1. Wonderfully written!!!! Very interesting! Wish I knew how to share it with everyone! Love all three of you.

  2. Don’t know what that means?

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