China: Heroes Only

Benjamin Olmstead is a student at Hartwick College and an ISA Featured blogger. Benjamin is currently studying abroad with ISA in Shanghai, China.

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The Forbidden City welcomes you.

It is a confusing time, but it is an interesting one none the less. It’s been maybe more than two months I’ve spent here. Do I feel any more comfortable? Do I have a better understanding of what is going on? The businessman spending his two days in Shanghai on the Bund is the one you can ask for a solid answer regarding what it’s like in China. He has learned everything via word of mouth and he’s willing to fill your head with a top-down view of the situation. The answer is: there is no answer. It’s a controlled chaos, an experience that falls in most approximately with life in general.

The skies are blue some days but rest assured they will be cloudy in the not too distant future. You have learned how to write the Chinese characters quickly and yet you’ll soon find you don’t know sentence order, or even what to write. Or you could be a fluent speaker of standard Chinese and walk the streets of Shanghai and discover you know very little of what’s being said in conversations where dialects abound. Even right outside of Shanghai in Zhujiajiao my Shanghainese advisor Amy finds the farmer’s language indecipherable. In the subway trains the air is thick, shared by masses of people breathing down your neck. Something inside your mind filters everything you see to keep you from the fact that you’re cramped in a big metal tube with zero room to move, buried deep under the ground.

You may be walking the streets and suddenly hear what you think are gunshots, but this is never the case. In class I heard these bangs today. Most likely it is a building being torn down, replaced by another building which will again be torn down a few years later. The evolution of this city’s architecture is on the scale of micro-organisms, whereas perhaps a city like New York’s is on the scale of a large mammal. Shanghai is said to possess double the number of high rises that make up the latter. They had to change the definition of a high-rise here to mean anything above sixteen floors. In New York it is defined as anything above eight. On occasion when you hear the loud reverberations your fear turns to awe as you look up and see the colorful glitter of fireworks raining down, followed by more whistles and bangs for which more color will play in the skies. It’s amazing, but the reason usually remains unknown even whilst fireworks explode in broad daylight.

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China’s ancient ghosts can be found in remote areas.

On almost every morning that I’ve been here I’ve heard beautiful flute music playing from the adjacent Changfeng Park. Then when I walk around the city I smell awful things, children defecate in public areas through a slit in their jeans, and grown men urinate in bushes. No matter where you are there can always be heard a deep, guttural hawking noise of the throat before some unknown offender launches their spittle onto the pavement. And yet, there can be found refinement in all things here – varieties of teas from leaves, flowers and herbs in the hundreds, writing styles that can be traced to times B.C., expressions of heaven and life in artwork, the pride the Chinese keep in their cuisine region by region, forms of medicine and therapy practiced today which produce unheard of results – the discrepancies seem to perversely scatter the foreigner’s mind.

China is not a destination for the lay-traveler. Those who make this journey lightly will cling on to their old customs with an always failing grip, finger by finger letting go into some awkward comparisons between their old lives and the place they now find themselves in. The old and new worlds of China, not of your world, find themselves pitted against one another here. Chances are you can’t bargain where you’re from. Chances are if you can bargain where you’re from a toothless beggar won’t tug on your sleeve the entire time. This happens all of the time, but just the other day my friend had a drink snatched out of his hand while he was bargaining and the same one who did the snatching tried to sell it back to him all for the hopes of receiving less than five cents in return! The results of these monetary encounters produce laughs, groans and the occasional epiphanies on human nature. But for now I’d like to avoid issues of money, people’s views on it and how these views differ in wicked ways from each other. The friction I’ve encountered between the have and have-nots in this Communist country could fill pages. Be aware that in a city like Shanghai, money will be on your mind and will be an ever-present element of life.

China, like I mentioned before, isn’t a destination for a lay-traveler. Instead it’s a destination for a heroic traveler. Living here is a classic example of what it means to be out of your comfort zone. Our friend Xin’s favorite response to any complaints about China seems to be, “Then why did you come to China?” And complain you will, and question you will, all about this foreign land and even more foreign situation you’ve come to inhabit. If you make it here and thrive, if you take the good and leave the bad as though the bad were just a passing phase – then I promise you will be a hero no matter where you travel.

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Embracing the ideals of heroism at the Great Wall.

When you stand on top of the Great Wall and admire the structure you stand upon, then, for instance, you are also a hero – at least according to what Mao Zedong said once, and what our tour guide repeated to us. The bricks are scraped with the names of thousands of tourists. If I didn’t know better I’d be forced to conclude that tourists must have been coming here for centuries, as the wall is supposed to be at least a thousand years old and therefore in a truly otherworldly state of preservation. This section of the wall was renovated in the 1980’s, but maybe renovate is too weak of a word. I noticed a crumbling stone structure covered in trees close-by. Furthermore our tour guide and most people swear to the idea that the wall is visible from outer-space. We could just make it out as we rounded the corner of a mountain. It’s a funny thing to be fascinated by a wall, and even in nearby Beijing the old city wall was a thing of wonder in its authentic state of disrepair. The walls were originally built to keep people out, only now with their original purpose dead do we flock to them like vultures.

And the Forbidden City – what a sight it is! Trampled by the feet of millions throughout the years, all constructed of wood and built without a single nail – fit together perfectly and in keeping with celestial orientations. It wasn’t always trampled by people like this – quite the opposite. But since an emperor in China ceased to be a thing this royal city has now been conquered by our modern world. The emperors used to pass their reign with disinterest in what happened outside this city, luring their concubines to private corners while the eunuchs serving within crafted the future of the public beneath his nose. The buildings all have grand names such as the Hall of Military Eminence, or the Hall of Mental Cultivation – no doubt just as impressive if not more so in the native tongue. It is an amazing complex. Yet pictures I took through the crack of two heavy locked doors show piping held up with nails and the “Museum Shop” being built with help from a table saw. In the future the entire place threatens to become one big museum shop, as I’ve seen so often elsewhere in China.

The creation of a museum shop within the Forbidden City.
The creation of a museum shop within the Forbidden City.

The apocryphal Chinese saying goes, “May you live in interesting times.”  And indeed here I am. I’ve been tortured for a long time by things of interest here and am finally willing to talk. I’ve interviewed people here about their lives as well. Anecdotes from my calligraphy teacher, an ex-pat brewer, and a fashion boutique owner have been collected so I may share on this blog. I’ve stretched my legs outside of the city. I’ve done my best to become rooted here, to understand who makes up this locale, from the man who picks bottles out of the trash to the CEO in the penthouse club. I’ve seen a Taoist temple as well at Lake Taihu. I have borrowed the Taoist method of what we call “going-with-the-flow”.  I will show you why China deserves your attention, why every discomfort is ultimately worth it, and finally how well off you stand to become by keeping yourself hopelessly confused and learning.

Think about it: there are few places left in the modern world you can go and return home as a hero.

5 thoughts

  1. Like many other countries in Asia, China really doesn’t make that much difference. Especially, what you have visited are most modern cities in China already. What you have seen and experienced is pretty much like what you have seen or experienced at Flushing, NY, or Chinatown, SF.

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