As some or less than some of you may know, after a grueling 9 months in the real world, and perhaps at the brunt of it all in the sweat soaked streets of Manhattan, I sought respite through a 4 month vacation (that is still largely ongoing) beginning in China, specifically Shanghai, Beijing and Hong Kong. For the first few days after landing in Shanghai I felt really good, maybe a little too good. There was something very unusual but also incomparably comforting about entering into a sea of bodies just like mine that made me feel at home even though I was thousands of miles from it. The first week in Shanghai was a national holiday so everyone was off work and on the streets, slowly ambling along the river that separates the old Shanghai from the new. You couldn’t escape the luxuriously slow rhythm both because people had nothing else to do but enjoy the sun and also because it’s nearly impossible to upset the pace of a million people walking in tandem. It’s hard to explain the “at oneness” I felt there, maybe it was the realization of my unconscious habit to give a tip of acknowledgment or self effacing smile to Chinese couples on the street or to groups of mandarin speaking cliques moving inseparably through crowds of brown and blonde hair, or maybe it was looking around and seeing every phenotypic variation of myself without the need for that same reminder of solidarity. The fact that I pored over thousands and thousands of faces in what felt like complete disguise -no one had a reason to look or not look at me- and yet I wasn’t incognito, I just was without any need for explanation or justification. I was just another face in an ocean of black hair and brown eyes, which surprisingly made me feel even more welcome.
But eventually this romantic impression left me for a much less satisfying one. It wasn’t long after these first few days in Shanghai that I became increasingly annoyed with the different cultural norms that showed themselves at every available opportunity. Perhaps it was the brazen lady who shoved her way to the front of a dense mass of people waiting altogether civilly for their turn to get on the subway, or the middle aged man in a tank top barely big enough to cover his pouting belly who hocked a wad of semi opaque loogie right next to my foot, or the woman squatting at the top of a staircase refilling used and thrown out water bottles to resell downstairs while I looked on in horror, speechlessly shoveling boazi into my jaw dropped mouth. Yes, it must have been one or all or a lot more of these moments that made me crane my neck in nostalgic comradeship when overhearing a tourist say “general Ts-oh’s chicken please” or “no American toilet? Never mind then”
But then there were enchanted moments like when Jenny, the restaurants manager at the Grand Hyatt where I was neither a guest nor patron, walked me down deep into the mall to hand deliver me to a box of tampons that was so fortuitously the literal only box that it seemed as if it’d been hand selected and reserved for me, or UFC who drove us two hours to and from a sparsely populated beach framed by two heaps of seemingly floating mountain that looked straight out of the movie Avatar, or distant relatives I’ve only ever met once and ten years ago who treated me like a combination of their best friend and master.
Which leads me to a slew of somewhat obvious and less obvious conclusions. I’ve determined the feeling, maybe even rush I got when I first arrived in China is similar to waking up on a Saturday morning, strapping on my maize and blue and making my way to the Big House for a fall afternoon football game–everyone’s fumbling through the streets as obnoxiously as you, people are hanging off wooden porch beams screaming because everyone else is and no one cares cuz we’re all in this together. That sense of unity is forgiving and justifying, you don’t have to have a reason why you’re laying face down in someone’s lawn, you’re part of a greater shared experience that exempts you from judgement or explanation.
Yet the fact remains that sometimes I think people in China do gross and/or rude and/or strange things, but that’s ok because I’ve realized (and have been realizing through different experiences abroad) that I’m much more than I’d like to admit a spoiled, often ignorant, and entitled American. And as much as I’d like to rage with people wearing the same jersey as mine, I wasn’t brought up with the same school spirit. While I uncompromisingly appreciate, protect, and am proud of my ethnicity & background (and I can’t emphasize this enough), I’m still more culturally American than I am anything else–I’m used to sitting on a toilet that stands off the ground when I have to potty, to people who are polite even if just for formality sake, and to whining and complaining when things aren’t as entirely convenient as I think they should be. I guess for better or for worse that’s what makes me feel at home, even if we’re not all Chinese.
Our first day in Shanghai looked something like this:
It’s not easy to always have a clear picture, partly because information is distorted by those who own it, partly because misapprehensions are made by those who don’t live it. So as best as I understand it, this is what’s been happening. In 1997 Hong Kong was returned to China after 150 years of British rule with the promise that in 2017, it would be able to democratically elect a leader, a function of the “one country, two systems” principle that acknowledges Hong Kong as a semi-autonomous state that, unlike Beijing, is not communist. But as of this year and breaking its promise, China decided that a committee from Beijing was still necessary to appoint its leader (presumably to carryout the interests of the mainland). This violation of basic recognition and political trust rippled through the region as people united in their outrage and took to the streets. Their position stands that Hong Kong citizens deserve the right to a democratic election and society—a right to which they were promised. Instead, they’ve been faced with mounting force tactfully used to villainize and silence the movement. On our fourth day in Hong Kong, we met two 20 year old students walking in Admiralty, a zone of peaceful protesting bustling with door to door single occupancy tents decorating a major highway. They were passing out yellow ribbons for individuals to wear in solidarity with the movement. A few minutes later and our interest piqued, they were wide-eyed spewing their passions and frustrations about the government conspired police perpetrations against the protestors, urging us to stay away from more dangerous areas of protest where the police employ third party triade members to ambush peaceful protesters, often times with harassment and violence. They explained that the peaceful movement was being falsely demonized for refusing reconciliation efforts when in fact it was government representatives that had purposefully missed scheduled negotiations. They confided their concerns for the future—the growing class divide, the increasing unaffordability, and the fissuring culture of Hong Kong. They lamented on the immigration policy that has allowed a fast growing population of mainland immigrants to overwhelm the Hong Kong population, resulting in fewer jobs for Hong kong citizens and exorbitant housing prices. The students worry about their present lives, their future selves, and how they’ll get a job and place to live after college. They seek to be heard, considered, and validated as a member of their own community, condemning the abuse of power and failure of mainland China to recognize Hong Kong’s right to democracy and autonomy.
A few days earlier in Beijing, my brother and I met for the first time, and my mom for her third, an old friend of my grandmother’s. Uncle Feng Cheng was wistful and stoic, as evidenced from his entirely unexpected yet poignant Christmas letter that we received last Christmas to our Michigan address after decades of lost contact. Dressed each day in tan khaki slacks, a navy wind breaker, and Nike tennis shoes that predate the ’90s, he recounted stories of his impoverished youth, his love of Jane Austen books, and harangued somewhat sarcastically and somewhat seriously about the power and inevitability of cats to mystically possess their owners. We spent an evening in his home, which is sparse but well adorned– turn a corner and you’ll find a collection of classical music records even though there is nothing with which to play them because he has given both of his record players away to friends. The small details, and the big ones—his overt and unfaltering generosity, his openness and warmth, his calm and collectedness reveal a whole, contemplative and earnest person. In the following days in Beijing and then on our travels back to Hong Kong, we shared brief but resonant discussions of his views about the protests (of which he was not in support but neither vocally opposed). He recounted fleeing with his father to Hong Kong during the Japanese occupation of China at a time when there were only roughly a million people living in Hong Kong. Desolate, removed, and extremely poor, they lived on the beach in a small hut. From an early age he began to memorize lines of English literature on his way to and from school, eventually memorizing whole books at a time. Finally at 16, he left for the states to attend Harvard, and came back two years later to Hong Kong where he’s lived and worked at Hong Kong University ever since. He reflects on this with a certain air of melancholy, emphasizing that he grew up in very dire circumstances but insisting that hard work, above everything else, created opportunity for him. It’s with this conviction that he believes that everyone deserves an opportunity, and, defined by his experience, believes that mainland China is in a very good position to provide everyone with that chance. To him, he sees the economic boom and prosper of his country, a country that not long ago was vastly poor and rural—the empowerment of his people and reform that has transformed living standards, social rights, infrastructure, education, and global involvement & prominence. He believes in the strength of China, in its values and politics that have given rise to a rebirth of a faltering country. He believes in its future for him, for Mainland, and for Hong Kong. His experience is as genuine as the students’ handing out ribbons of solidarity in Admiralty, both equally as valid and supported by experience and passion.
I personally don’t know enough of the history or current political climate to make a claim as to who’s more “right” or “wrong,” but see the purpose in at least trying to understand the emotional and intellectual reasons that affect both sides of this or any conflict, because undoubtedly if you don’t no progress will ever be made.