Random Reflections on My First Visit to China   4 comments

Sometimes travel brings us to places where we see buildings (or what’s inside of them), shop, dine and hang out with the people we brought with us.  Sometimes we get involved in the lives of the people around us.  My trip to China was about both, which is the way I prefer to travel.  You see, I get bored with sightseeing.  Always have.  I want to experience life and living in the places I visit.  I don’t want to just eat the food.  I want to know why certain foods are eaten in certain places.   I want to hear stories, dance to the music and meet people that I did not know before.  I was blessed to do all of that in China.

China is a place of immense proportions where things are done on a massive scale.  The Three Gorges Dam Project, hailed as the largest mostlycostly energy generating venture in the world, is a prime example.  I was awed by the rows upon rows of apartment buildings that, depending on the city, all looked the same to me, much of which are being built to house many of the 1.4 to 2 million people displaced by the Dam project.  Thousands of miles of train tracks, each day transporting tens of thousands of people.  And cities that sprang up against a sky so vast that I wondered if the entire world was not China.  The sense of being one in a billion at times weighed on me in ways hard to describe.

But I stood out in China, to an extent that I had not expected.  I was not only a foreigner, being a 6’1” – honestly I am, or used to be – 220 lb. black man brought me attention and experiences that I needed to quickly learn how to manage, internally as much as externally.  To not have embraced the attention that I often drew, I feared, would have made the energy created by the sometimes disconcerting experience of being a Black man in China the focal point of my trip.  So, standing in Tiananmen Square was, I decided, made more awesome by the woman who thrust her baby into my arms for me to take a picture with him. 

My walks on Qingdao’s picturesque boardwalk, with the beach and ocean surf onone side and a bustling city scape of close to 9 million people in the background, often brought looks, a few smiles, some hellos and several people who wanted to take pictures with me.

There were also times when it felt a little tense.  In Changchun, where the palace of Puyi, China’s Last Emperor, still draws visitors, as my friend Aiping and I walked to dinner a guy spat mumbling something that she did not want to translate.  But the disdain he was expressing was quite clear.  Walking through Changchun’s mall of the Future produced what felt like were a thousand eyes upon me, making me wonder if I was the first person that looked like me many had seed in their lives.  In Beijing, being called niggah by a taxi driver late one Saturday night after refusing his high priced offer to take me back to my hotel was almost comical.  I mean, because of my up-bringing here in the United States, I was taken aback.  But I also found the word strange coming from the mouth of a Chinese dude.   Maybe it was the many Grey Gooses (or is that Grey Geese) that I had had at one of the Sanlitun section clubs I had visited that night.  Actually it made me laugh, which he did not like either.

What was really funny, at times people would use stealth appearing in my space without me knowing it. I would be standing, or sitting, someplace and a person or people would just be there.  Like the group of Chinese tourists that before they boarded their bus found a way to stand close to me.  I did not know where they came from.  I just turned around and they were there.  It never made me afraid.  It was just thedamndest thing.  In Qingdao the hotel staff had to shoo a guy away from the outdoor table where I was seated. I was writing and having tea, and he just came to my table and sat down, without saying a word.

The assertion by some people, or perhaps I should say insertion, also conspired to give me some nice memories.  The couple who were at my hotel attending a wedding and the father on the board walk in Qingdao wanted desperately for their naturally timid children to show off their English speaking skills.  I was grateful that the Muslim man at the temple in Xian was brave enough to ask me, through a translator, if I and all people from the United States thought that Muslims were terrorists.  It is important for me to say here that almost all of the people that I met treated me with kindness and wanted me to feel welcome in their country.  A club manager in Changchun made sure when I came in that a complimentary fresh fruit platter, accompanied my drinks.  The Tibetan tourist and his friends from Guangdong, who I met on the river cruise, told me with winks and smiles directed to our young hostesses of the places in China that I should not miss, as they kept the beer flowing whether I wanted it or not.  I even got an offer, in Changchun, to be a private English teacher.  Perhaps contrary of popular belief, Chinese women can be very assertive.

Our president is popular among many Chinese people.  I saw many t-shirts with President Obama’s face in traditional chairman Mao uniform.  The words “Oba Mao” were written on the back and the words, translated for me, meaning “servant to thepeople” written underneath.  I did see a few other people of my ethnicity on my trip: the jazz man from Chicago on the Great Wall said he had been in Beijing for 15 years; two couples from California at the Shanghai museum; and few young African doing the Beijing club scene.  It was never opportune to talk to them about their experiences of China.  I wish I had.

In China sometimes the old world and the modern stand side by side with very little attention to planning and detail.  In Beijing, you will find modern edifices next to 12th century looking market places.  The Hutongs (meaning old lanes) are neighborhoods that look like alley mazes formed by lines of siheyuan (a compound with houses around a courtyard) give visitors a glimpse of old world life in Beijing.  In the country side factories and coal burning power plants coexist next to rural farms.

One of the things that I could not adjust to was how much and how many people smoke in China.  I have never been around so many smokers in my life.  At two of my hotels (Beijing and Qingdao) I learned that asking for a non-smoking room does not guarantee that the room will not have been smoked in.  Fortunately both hotels changed my room because the air was still dense with the aroma left behind by the people who had smoked in them before I arrived.  Smoking is an inescapable part of Chinese culture.

China was also a bit grey to me, almost a little dirty.  The clothes seemed dark and sometimes even drab.  Except in Shanghai where fashion, design, futuristic architecture and creativity are like testaments to the promise of a bright future for China.  It is a city that I wish I had made more time to experience.

China is very power conscious.  I do not mean world dominance, though I did get a sense of nationalism there.  No I mean energy.  Rolling heat supply outages are not uncommon.  And the lights go out of many buildings at night.  The Chinese government is very conscious of energy consumption and managing it well.

China is more welcoming that I imagined.  I was also surprised by the technology.  Bridges, roads, high rise apartments, subway systems, railway stations, and much more were all in construction in the cities that I visited.  Chinese cities are full of technology.  Digital images can span the side of buildings.  Highways and bridges are lined with bright lights that make driving at night seem like being in a DreamWorks production.   The nightlife in most major cities is both easy to find and festive with clubs, street vendors and great places to eat.  And yes, for a single brotha there is no shortage of places to go to get your groove on.  It is like a giant welcome sign is being hung over the entire country. And what one will find is not the stuff we, at least us baby boomers, were taught in school.

Oh, did I mention the trains.  The trains are amazing.  They are fast, efficient, comfortable, inexpensive and on time.  Taking the train from Beijing to Qingdao, like going from Washington D.C to Boston, took only 5hrs and 15 minutes and cost $53, first class.  Love the trains.  Why can’t we have these trains????

They say to visit Beijing is to know where China has been.  To visit Xian is to visit where China is. And to visit Shanghai is to visit the China of the future.  All three cities should be on everyone’s itinerary that travels to China for the first time.  I would only add that to visit China is to see the world from a very different space.  And sometimes seeing the world from a different space is exactly what is needed to see ones place in the world.

Posted July 9, 2012 by Wayne

4 responses to “Random Reflections on My First Visit to China

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  1. Beautiful!! Each paragraph could be an intro to its own essay. I wanted to know more and more.

  2. I am Amazed,I regret i never had a chance to visit China,but reading each paragraph ,its like i was there.Thank you Wayne for taking me to China through your writings.I really enjoyed reading. God bless You Always.

  3. Another reading segment. Thanks…/NM

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