A week before Christmas, my oldest sister and brother-in-law asked me to accompany their family on a trip to China. Their oldest son, Patrick, received a state funded scholarship through AFS-USA to study abroad with a host family for a full year while learning Mandarin and attending a nearby high school. As a teenager, I thought I was brave; but his level of courage – deferring a year of college to immerse himself in a foreign culture – is hard for me to imagine. Pride swelled from deep inside of me as I accepted this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
And thus, we departed less than a month later. This left me with no time to study the culture, customs, language, or laws of the land. The only reference points I had were arbitrary and fragmented: Bruce Lee movies, Thai Chi, Confucius sayings, communism, Kung Pao Chicken, government censorship, and a slew of products marked with the all-too-familiar “Made in China” sticker. This state of oblivion, however, offered a unique advantage as I had very little expectation or preconceived judgements. This, compounded with my role as a trip participant, not organizer, afforded the freedom to idly consume without the worry or burden of logistics. Every morning, I woke up to my sister’s beautifully designed and well-researched itinerary that told us where to go and what to expect that day.
And, during the course of the trip, Trump was inaugurated and new immigration laws signed. All this happening while we were stumbling through China trying to navigate their country armed only with our English. Talk about gaining perspective. Our level of vulnerability, dependency and ignorance was beyond humbling, but it was also life-giving. On my travels, you were there, reader, with me – walking the crowded streets of Shanghai, strolling through the well-balanced gardens of Suzhou, lighting incense at the Confucius Temples of Nanjing, and cautiously stepping over the uneven rocks that form the Great Wall. As we moved through these places, I wondered what I was meant to bring back to you here, what I’d be able to share of value, to offer as a token of gratitude for patiently waiting for my return. Trust, you have not waited in vain. During the next couple of months, I will be posting my China travel logs, judiciously peppering them into the folds of these musings.
But before doing so, I’d like us to get acclimated with China through the voice of a Chinese immigrant, author, and filmmaker, Xiaolu Guo. Embedded here is a 36:00 minute podcast featured in The Guardian, entitled: “‘Is this what the west is really like?’ How it felt to leave China for Britain.” Please, take the time to immerse yourself in Xiaolu’s story as she explores questions of nationality, identity, and the ideological differences enmeshed in native languages. As you do so, I encourage you to imagine yourself in her shoes straddling two worlds, struggling to understand what it means to be human, what it means to be Chinese, or British, or both. Towards the end, Xiaolu references a powerful Chinese proverb I’d like to end with today: “Uproot a tree and it will die; uproot a man and he will survive.”
A Warrior Princess