Coming home to Indonesia after six months, inevitably I always get asked *the* question: “Cina itu gimana? How is China?” And I think, where do I begin to describe its richness? In culture, history, beauty. I ask them what they most want to know and if they say, “Oh, anything!”I look in their eyes and give them the story I think they’d like to hear most. Whether it’s funny, enticing, gross, or beautiful, I spin words from the chambers of my memories, though not quite as eloquently as on paper.
I tell them that China is a special country, claiming to be the oldest civilization in the world. But if you want to know about its history, there are various other more credible sources you can delve into. So let me recount it from my own eyes. China is the cliched metaphor of an onion, with so many layers to uncover and explore.
Red as their lucky color, the Chinese people breathe fire as they talk. What I mean is that even when talking regularly they sound a bit angry, but this is because of the tones of Chinese language. There are four: the uptone, the downtone, the neutral tone, and the “slanted” tone. The tone is a crucial part of the language, because if it’s incorrect then what you’re saying could have a different meaning altogether! For example, the Chinese word for “is” is shì, with a downtone, whereas the word for “ten” is shí with an uptone. A more dire example is the word for “breast” which sounds similar to another word which I had meant to say (though I forget now what word it was I’d meant to say). This confusion happened in a restaurant when I was having dinner with my best friend’s larger family. That was embarrassing, to say the least. :’)
Anyways, red. It is an important color, for the young and old alike. They wear this color because they believe it brings luck. Traditionally, they even wear it as their wedding dress color. And, as you might know, it is used for decorations during Chinese festivals, such as the Chinese New Year.
Besides red, there are several other symbolism and superstitions that are so ingrained in their culture that they still uphold.
For example, when I went for Project Week, I noticed that all the houses had large metal gates in front of them, with some Chinese characters. When I asked my friend what they meant she said it was a superstition to ward off evil.
One thing that is a vital part of the Chinese culture is, obviously, food. In there they have special foods for special occasions. For example during the Mid-Autumn Festival, they have the tradition of eating mooncakes. I remember when around that time so many Chinese friends gave me mooncakes, in all different types. There were ice cream mooncakes, mooncakes with nuts, plain ‘ole sweet mooncakes. There was even a small workshop on making mooncakes. For Chinese New Year, eating with family is a must. Oh, and did you know that the way they eat is by sitting around a round table with a spinning glass top, where all the food is placed, which you can then take from in a buffet fashion onto your own small bowl. When you have leftover peels, you can’t throw it or take it outside during the New Year, but you need to leave it on the floor because if you don’t you might “sweep away good luck”!
I have also especially loved learning about their ancient traditions through museums, through wandering the streets of Shanghai and the pagodas of Suzhou and Nanjing. During my time working as a Mini-UWC counselor, we took a field trip to Suzhou with the campers, where we toured interesting museums for a Treasure Hunt, like the Fan Museum, an old Opera House, and the house of a scholar. In the morning, we walked by a canal, where the elderly strolled. We marveled lotuses, with their nauseatingly sweet smell, intoxicating us with each gust of hot summer air. We climbed up the city wall.
For this year’s Chinese New Year my friends and I decided to rent an Airbnb in Suzhou to study for the mock exams. I also wanted to use this chance to explore Suzhou better, but unfortunately, we spent our only four days learning how to “adult.” We bought things to clean and cook from the RT Mart (all while wearing stuffy N-95 masks due to the coronavirus), scrubbed the whole place including bathrooms because it was filthy, and spent most of the time attempting to cook. XD Seriously. I never cooked rice on the stove before, and it turned into porridge instead of rice. When I tried making “fried rice” out of that porridge, the result was disastrous… Due to the virus, my friends were also scared of going out too much. We were all a bit paranoid, honestly. But it’s better to be safe than sorry, I guess? Then on our fifth day there, we were all asked to leave China and return to our home countries. So here I am in Indonesia, typing my story about China, missing my friends and the small (slightly gross) but comfortable Airbnb we stayed at. Mostly, I miss being at school though. As stressful as it was, it was my second home, and I never felt bored there.
When I visited Shanghai last semester, my friends and I mostly visited the touristic destinations. Wandering through Old China Town, we experienced a reconstructed version of how my imaginations have always depicted China. Honestly, I love crowded bustling bazaars, especially when they are traditional, so for me, that was a great adventure. Visiting the Bund to take basic tourist pictures, we were surprised to find the buildings light up with classical music. Crowds of people visited the Bund that night, unfortunately. Just like most popular landscapes, I believe the Bund is a bit overrated. But, well, I couldn’t leave China without visiting, could I? Besides these, we also visited the maze which is Tianzifang. This was my favorite part of the trip. Picturesque shops and restaurants lined the snakelike road, each offering unique trinkets like tea or fans. That night, we got into a hassle with the Airbnb. At the last minute, the owner decided he didn’t want to take us because we were foreigners. Well, because we had nowhere else to go we still went there and demanded to see him, at least to have our money back. It turns out that Airbnb wasn’t even a proper one. It was in a run-down apartment, with a creepy elevator and stairs. The man didn’t even own the apartment, he just owned two rooms, and that in secret. Eventually, we got to sleep there, but with random strangers. So, dear internet friend, if you’re reading this please take my advice and be careful if you’re ordering an Airbnb. If you want to be safe, please just book a hotel room.
For last year’s Chinese New Year, I went to Nanjing with my two friends, Karol and Rola. I was hosted by my Chinese friend, Rola. That was one of the sweetest memories of my time here in China. We visited many places, including the Examination Hall, where we saw the history of national examinations in China (apparently China invented the National Exams, and they were one of the first to create the concept of moving up your social status through Exams, which would allow you to work for the royalty if you passed); the City Wall, where we strolled by the most beautiful and serene lake, and the Presidential Palace. In the bustling traditional marketplace where the Confucius Temple is located, auburn ornaments decorated the shops and canoes paddled down the river. For the first time in my life, I saw blankets of snow and made a real snowman. By myself, I visited the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Museum, which left tears in my eyes and a heavy heart. Overall though, I loved Nanjing, and I believe it is my favorite city so far.
I believe I have only scratched the surface of things to discover in China. I am still eager to explore more. As a student, it’s hard for me to travel as much as I would like. But when I’m done with school, I would like to travel to Beijing, Hangzhou, Guanzhou, Taizhou, Harbin, Inner Mongolia, Tibet, and so many other places. I want to live in a yurt with the people in Mongolia, and lay down under a constellation of diamonds in the open fields. China, you haven’t seen the last of me!
Now, you might have realized that I am only speaking positively about China. After all, I have only lived here for less than two years. There are also many not-so-cheerful aspects of Chinese culture. China’s past with communism during Mao’s reign has influenced much of the current society’s mindset. It has percolated through all aspects of Chinese life. The houses in China, at least when you are not in a major city or a touristic locale, have a similar lackluster quality. There is a lack of soul in them. In rural areas, gray buildings sprawl the streets, all alike. In the cities, skyscrapers tower. The people themselves were educated in such a way to have a collectivist mindset. When I visited the rural area to teach middle school students for Project Week last year, I observed how the students were made to recite the same nationalistic propaganda every week, how perfectly coordinated their movements were during the morning stretches and assembly, how they were all under pressure to succeed amongst the other 50 students in their class. There was a lack of air to breathe and create, especially considering how young they are. There was a lack of childhood joy.
China is also a bubble. In UWC, we use a VPN on our internet. However, without a VPN, people in China have no access to Instagram, Youtube, Google, and so on. They use their own search engine called Baidu. Most concerning to me, however, is the amount of brainwashing that happens through the Chinese media and government. You see, when I asked my Chinese friends about situations such as the Uyghur concentration camps, a lot of them have quite a one-sided opinion about it, stating how in the Chinese media the government is telling them how those people were terrorists who disrupted the peace of the nation. Of course, I do realize the possibility that the Western media is also slightly biased in their portrayal of the issue. Still, it is undoubtable that China wants to portray themselves in the best way possible. During the SARS outbreak, the Chinese government underreported the number of cases, which is why the pandemic became so widespread. The reason for this is the top-down system of ruling in China, where each person simply wants to impress the person of higher authority than them. There is a Youtuber who also shares how the Chinese state media created a false news story about him and his Chinese wife, which was all a gimmick, with the underlying motive being to undermine the US economy. He also created many other videos that depict his life as an outsider in China, such as this one, which details many of the subjects I dealt with in this post. It is slightly scary to think that one’s every move is watched, but this is what’s happening. There are cameras on the streets which show people disobeying traffic laws. And now China is even thinking of introducing the credit system, where the job you get, your position, etc. is determined by how rule-abiding and good of a citizen you are.
On the other hand, due to their large population size, could it be said that this repression of freedom (in speech, in actions, in mindset) is necessary for keeping the order of the country? To what extent can freedom be given up for peace? Should it?
On the flip side, to what extent can morals be given up in the name of freedom? I remember how during a GIF (Global Issues Forum) held by someone from Libya about the Libyan Civil War, one of the discussion questions posed was, “To what extent can children fighting in wars be justified in the name of freedom?” Most people answered that this was cruel and intolerable. However, I talked about this with my friend afterwards, and he brought up an interesting point, about a quote by Benjamin Franklin, who said, “Those who give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”
So, what do you think?