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So Far Away from Me, China

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imagesI’m in a small town in Missouri, and it feels about as far away from China as I can possibly get. The weather has been cool for this time of year, lower 80’s. Last night, we sat around a campfire, and I found myself thinking, what’s wrong with this picture? Why wouldn’t this happen in China, and why do I love it so much? Of course, nothing is wrong with this picture, it’s just that it’s so different than my experiences in the last six weeks. I went to China with an open mind, and I’ve tried to come home with that same open mind, that same curiosity. The openness is fading as I find myself settling back into familiar routines, but I’m trying to hold onto that sharpness, that awareness of the incredible differences between these two places, and the many things I now see about the US, about Illinois, about my own house and neighborhood that I didn’t see before.

So, why wouldn’t people in China sit in their backyard around a campfire? Where do I start? First, let me clarify that my travels in China all took place in cities, huge cities by US standards. So, in a Chinese city, you don’t sit around a campfire in your backyard because almost no one has a backyard. The population density is so immense that most people live in hi-rises and multiple family dwellings. Another reason is that burning wood for the pleasure of watching it burn is probably too far on the wasteful side to ever occur to a Chinese person. Everything is useful, and the only burning I ever saw there was for cooking and for getting rid of debris. yangtzePeter Hessler, in his books River Town and Oracle Bones, covers the topic of the Chinese and their relationship to the natural world much better than I ever could, especially with reference to how they name mountains and how they decided to dam the third longest river in the world. Required reading for anyone wanting to travel to China.

One afternoon in Wuhan, when I was walking back to my hotel after a morning at the coffee shop, I walked by a market that had been recently razed. Long before I got to the market, I could smell the smoke. They were burning demolition debris, and the smoke spread for blocks and blocks, noxious fumes that added another layer of density to the already humid, heavy air. Air quality in China is appalling. We got lucky–in most places, it rained shortly before or after we arrived, so the air generally wasn’t too bad. On the days when it was bad, though, it was terrible. A yellow fog that hung on and on. I was sick the entire week we were in Shanghai, and of course I couldn’t help wondering how much of it was about the air quality. I was probably sick just because the stress of traveling for four weeks had finally worn me down, but I’m sure that the hazy mist obscuring the sky and the distant buildings each morning didn’t help.

I do love a campfire. I can stare into the flames for hours. Campfires remind me of camping, of being outside, of trees and rivers and hills. Friends and family. chinese friendsIn China, I saw lots of evidence of people treasuring their friends and family–happy greetings, embraces, smiles, grandparents caring for their grandchildren, friends walking arm in arm. But their feeling about the natural world seems to be quite different than mine. I’ll clarify that it seems many Americans have a different feeling about the natural world than I do, especially those under 25 who have been using technology all of their lives and have grown more accustomed to existing in the world through the computer than through direct experience. I’ll rant about that another day. For today, I’m just wondering why Chinese people seem to have little connection with the natural world. I did see evidence of remnants of a connection–artwork honoring lotus flowers and cranes and fish and flying bats. Now that I think about it, though, much of that artwork was in museums; it was ancient art, and it reflected, perhaps, a connection with the natural world that has passed from China.

When I talk about the “natural world,” I’m well aware of the difficulties of that phrase. It’s nostalgic to see the natural world as a beautiful place of refuge, and it indicates a high degree of privilege. Only people with a certain amount of wealth can afford to see the natural world as a source of pleasure instead of a source of heat or food or shelter or livelihood. Not too long ago (200 years?), Westerners were equating the natural world (aka wilderness) more with Satan and death than with respite and beauty. So, I realize I’m part of a recent tradition of romanticizing nature. Still, though, I love to be outside… except when it’s 104 degrees and the air is unbreathable. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOne afternoon in China, when I was walking along one of the many streets in Wuhan that are planted with sycamore trees, I looked up and thought about how the trees don’t care what language people speak. The dogs don’t care. The birds. These things were a comfort to me, because of course I care what language people speak.

On one of my last days in Shanghai, I visited a foreign language bookstore. The entire first floor was filled with books written in English. Almost every title was either a book I had read or a book I wish I had taken the time to read. After the first few moments of surprise and joy, I started crying. I was suddenly aware of how lonely and isolated I had been feeling for the previous four weeks. My husband and his colleagues had been busy every day teaching, so I was on my own. Yes, I enjoyed exploring the city, but I seldom had the chance to talk to anyone or to understand anything on the billboards or menus or storefronts. When I first read Lost on Planet China, I thought he was being clever with the title and over the top. shanghai foreign bookstoreAfter my time in the bookstore, though, I started really feeling like I was on another planet. I thought of all the science fiction books I’ve read, and how disorienting it can be to be in a place where the language is different, the alphabet, the clothes, the food, the facial expressions. Yes, the Chinese are human, just like I am, but their language and culture are just different enough that I felt like I was surrounded by an impenetrable barrier that I would never be able to cross. I know they have a rich history and culture, but those things didn’t exist to me while I was in China because the language is so different, so alien. I did try. But seven weeks (two in class, five in country) is not enough to even peer past the surface. Oh, China.

Here’s a song I love and haven’t heard in a long time. Maybe you like it, too.