As an NCTA Fellow, I spent a month in China during the summer of 2006. Three of those weeks were with the NCTA Fellows as we explored China, visited classrooms, and met some amazing teachers and students.
Many thanks to the Freeman Foundation for their generous financial support in helping teachers learn about Asia through first-hand experiences. I also extend heartfelt thanks to Darrin Magee, Director of HWS Asian Environmental Studies Initiative, Mary Bernson of the East Asia Resource Center, and Marilyn Levine, currently Provost at Central Washington University, for all of their wise guidance, knowledgeable discussions, expertise in the field, and, of course, for helping me navigate the complexities of being a foreigner in a Chinese hospital.
I spent three incredible weeks with these seminar leaders, learning, exploring, and experiencing both urban and rural China. We journeyed far, traveling by plane, train, and bus. The following map tracks our steps.
What follows are some of my reflections of events that occurred.
Place: Simatai Great Wall
Date: July 1, 2006
It was the first day of blue sky I remember seeing since I’d landed in China. Wispy clouds scooted across the expanse of heaven, contrasting with the rolling hills of green below. My lungs drew in great gulps of fresh air, far cleaner than they had experienced elsewhere so far on this adventure in China, and the burning in my throat eased. Climbing the Great Wall was not only going to be a dream-come-true, but also a much-needed break from humidity and pollution.
I packed my lunch and water bottles in my backpack, leaving my purse on the bus. After all, what could I possible need to purchase on the Great Wall? Certainly not a “three-generation t-shirt” that Wendy had warned us about!
My roomie, Cathy, and I took the gondola up, each of us pointing out the next fascinating bit of scenery and snapping pictures of one another. After we disembarked, the long, arduous climb came.
It was hot, there was little wind, and the steps were steep and uneven. We were having fun, chatting with others that we’d fallen in with, stopping every so often to catch our breath, to turn and look at the panoramic views, and laughing about the heat. Even though it felt very hot, it still felt better than Beijing. We rounded a bend in the climb when we saw a group of Chinese women in hats standing on the path above us. They openly watched us, and I caught the eye of one lady and smiled at her. Little did I know that I had initiated contact with my soon-to-be guide.
My self-assigned guide attached herself to me and became my constant companion. As I looked around, I realized that every person I’d been walking with now had a ‘guide,’ and it became increasingly difficult to stay together. I went on ahead, and everywhere I turned, my guide would point out a tower and call out a number. As I saw various other guides pulling out fans and umbrellas for their charges, I decided to step up my pace. Every time I turned around, however, there stood my guide. When I tried to simply ‘be’ on the wall and meditate, there stood my guide. When I tried to peek out of a guard tower and pretend I was a warrior-ette, there stood my guide. When I tried to take a picture of the pristine beauty, there stood my guide. I tried saying, “No, thank you,” in both Chinese and English, but she just smiled. I tried galloping up the stairs, but as soon as I stopped for breath, there she was. Finally, I told her the truth: boo yuan. Which I hoped meant, “No money.” She just looked at me. So I repeated myself. She said a few words (my elaborating memory wants to say: she spat out a few choice words but the truth is that I don’t know Chinese, so how would I know they were “choice”?!), turned, and trotted off. I don’t believe I saw her again.
Emotional: Emotionally, I was feeling several different things. First, I was feeling guilty about not having any money on me. I didn’t know how to communicate to her that she was wasting her time with me since I had no way to pay her or purchase something from her. I felt like I wasn’t playing the game correctly, and thus I was being rude. And I felt like I wished I had known ahead of time that I was supposed to have money with me.
Secondly, I felt a little frustrated that my time on the Great Wall, where I wanted to simply exist and experience the moment, was being constantly interrupted by not just another person, but by another person I did not know. There are times I want to make human connections, of course. After all, that’s what experiencing another culture is all about. However, on the Great Wall of China I wanted to stand and breathe and contemplate this incredible feat of man: all of the accomplishments and all of the sacrifices.
Cognitive: In retrospect, it’s funny. Here I was, trying to have some serious, all-important communion or whatever with the wall, and here was this woman, tagging along, trying to make a living.
Behavioral: At the time, I was as polite and firm as possible. I honestly didn’t want the dear woman to waste her time with me, so I told her I didn’t have any money. I don’t think she believed me – after all, what kind of idiot would leave her purse on the bus?!! But that’s what I did, and that’s what I said. After that incident, of course, I made sure to bring my purse along wherever I went so that I wouldn’t feel like I hadn’t any choices.
I’m still analyzing my emotions and thoughts, I think. The truth is that materialism makes me feel very uncomfortable. I don’t like purchasing things without investing a great deal of thought and time on the transaction itself as well as the item in question, and I don’t like owning things without thinking through the long-term effect and consequences, both on my psyche and on my living space.
This experience was significant because I was expected to do my part, fit within this microcosm, by purchasing something I didn’t want. I was thankful that I didn’t have my purse, to be honest. I singled out this experience because it was my first difficult one-on-one interaction with a Chinese person and because it was repeated when I returned with my husband. However, this particular experience is simply an example of how I felt the entire time I was in China. I really felt pressured (by vendors, etc, not myself) to buy things without thinking; it was an emotionally difficult aspect of China for me.
Responding differently next time is important to me. I think I began feeling very defensive and uptight about not buying things. Next time, I’ll just lighten up. I still won’t purchase anything, but I won’t feel guilty for looking and laughing and having fun with the vendor. At the time, I felt like I was wasting the vendor’s time if I looked at anything or talked to him/her, because I knew I wouldn’t buy anything. But the truth is, we all need to interact and learn from one another.
Place: KFC, Beijing
Date: July 3, 2006
We were leaving Beijing for Xian in a few short hours. We had taken the bus to the train station, and from there Wendy led us to a nearby Kentucky Fried Chicken for dinner. Of course, it took me forever to decide what to eat, but that wasn’t the hard part. The hard part was finding a place to sit. As I looked around, every available table was filled. There were occasional chairs open, but they usually had personal items stacked on them. There were no empty chairs where members of my group were sitting, so I simply waited and watched to see what the Chinese people did. They would go sit at an empty chair; no one waited for an empty table, and complete strangers sat with one another. That was all I needed. As I looked around for an empty chair, I caught the eye of a teenage girl. Her hair was teased out like a punk rocker, her shirt was hanging off the shoulder, and she had on a short skirt. She stuck her tongue out at me. Even though it shocked me, and I wanted to laugh, I made sure that my face registered no reaction, and I kept scanning the room. As I stood there, looking for a place to sit, I realized that the best place to sit was with the girl. So I sat down at her table and struck up a conversation. At first, she was embarrassed, but then she warmed up. She and her friend both tried to talk to me, and I showed them my pictures. Of course, they were very friendly. At first they told me that they were 21 and not in school; but when they found out I was a teacher, suddenly they were 16 and 18 and definitely in high school. Then they had to go, so I said good-bye, and that was the end of that.
Emotional: I was surprised that she stuck her tongue out at me, and it made me very curious. I wanted to talk to her and get to know her and understand why she would stick her tongue out at a stranger. I was also frustrated by the language barrier: I felt like I didn’t know if she was out-and-out lying to me (about her age and school) or if she was just having trouble with vocabulary.
Cognitive: I am very thankful I sat down with her and tried to communicate. It helped my curiosity, but I also think it was important for her to meet an American that didn’t necessarily fit the stereotypes (but how do I know I don’t fit the stereotypes?!!) I don’t think she fit the stereotype of a Chinese teenager; one always hears how studious they are and how important it is to be a part of the group vs. being an individual. I like the thought of that girl walking to the beat of her own drum!
Behavioral: At the time, I acted on impulse and sat down with her. I’m glad I did. Since that happened, I’ve shared my experience with others. I wish I’d taken a picture of her to keep that image fresh in my mind, but since I didn’t, I can only write about it and hope I remember.
This particular experience was significant because it’s a reminder to avoid judgment. If I had been offended or angered by the sight of this girl’s tongue, I never would have met or talked with her, never would have gotten to know her, never would have tried to share a bit of me (via pictures) with her. If I had judged her because of the way she dressed or did her hair, I might never have known that she was actually kind of shy. I chose to write a reflection on this because it was a one-on-one interaction with someone I didn’t plan to come in contact with, but just sorta fell into. If the opportunity came up again, I would most certainly dive into it again. Next time, however, I’d take a picture!!
Place: Streets of Shanghai
Date: July 16, 2006
Our last free day in Shanghai; our second to last day as a group in China: sporadic showers alternated with brief bouts of humid heat. It was my first real day up and about and exploring since my bout with bronchitis…my first day of feeling rather good. I was taking short excursions out of the hotel, never wandering too far, just trying to explore and see what I could see. I ran into Becky, and we decided to go adventuring together. After running into Cathy and friends, we decided to find the Pearl Shopping Center, where “all the Chinese people shop.” One of Cathy’s friends scribbled the name in English and in Chinese on the corner of our map, and we were off.
We found our way to the metro, figured out how much it would cost to take us to the end of the line, and hopped on the train-thing. We miscalculated the number of stops and almost missed our exit; if we’d stayed on, we’d have headed back in the direction we’d just come from!! Once off and on street-level, we stopped to figure out our map. A motorcycle taxi man tried to help us, but a Chinese man, well-dressed and accompanied by two well-dressed women, stopped and offered their help. After looking at our map, they told us to get a taxi. We smiled and told them we intended on walking, so they pointed us in the right direction.
To make a very long walk short, we walked for an hour before we thought we should have arrived at our destination. At that point, we started trying to ask for directions. We confused everyone, I must admit, and we started to think that the shopping center didn’t exist. Then one man, well-dressed and older, stopped to help us. He spoke about the same amount of English as we did Chinese: all we could do was apologize to each other. So he motioned us to follow him. Which we did. For an HOUR!! Then he started stopping and asking people for directions. Some Europeans directed us one way, and a Chinese woman told the man another; we didn’t know which way to go, but both Becky and I felt guilty for having him go so far out of his way for us. We ended up saying good-bye and taking off in the direction the Europeans told us to go. The funny thing is that both directions led to the same place. When he saw that we were determined, he smiled and waved and headed off in the direction we’d just come, an hour out of his way, and two hours of his life spent chasing down a shopping center he stopped four blocks short of.
Emotional: I felt a mixture of thankfulness at this man’s willingness to help, guilt that he was taking up so much of his time to guide us (especially since he was so obviously headed in the opposite direction!), and fear. I remember muttering to Becky something about the relative health of the white slave trade. Becky, however, exuded perfect trust and calm, and I bowed to her greater wisdom.
Cognitive: Looking back, it amazes me that he would take so much of his time to help us. I also have to say that although he was perfectly safe and trustworthy, I can’t always expect that out of strange men. In retrospect, it was smart to be wary and cautious, and I will continue to be wary and cautious when strange men beckon down strange roads.
Behavioral: At the time, I followed him. I thanked him best I could. I wish I could have thanked him better. He gave us his business card, and I intend to put together a little packet of postcards and Idaho souvenirs to send him. I can’t write him, since he doesn’t speak English, but I can thank him with a little package.
This particular incident was very important to me because here was someone who, out of the kindness of his heart, took a great deal of time and energy to try to help us find a shopping center. He neither expected nor wanted anything in return. He insisted on giving us Kleenex to dab our glistening brows with and tried to give us bottled water (which we refused as we had our own). I definitely plan on contacting him, and I hope that he will remember us. I wish I had had a business card myself or something to give him at the time as a thank-you gift, so that’s probably something I’d do differently.