Friday, August 10, 2012

My essay on China on my way to China

I sit crunched on the 11th hour of my flight to Shanghai. I am physically confined but my spirit soars like our plane.

We flew north from Newark, NJ to pass near the North Pole then headed south over Russia and Mongolia. My spirit soars because going to China has been a dream since I was a young girl. Since I was young I was very interested in all things Asian. But for me China is more than just an Asian country, it also has another aspect: Communism, which has been an obsession of mine for many years. In the past ten year's I've read several books on Russian including a biography of Khrushchev, many histories of Russia, and Stalin. In 2010 I read One day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. This fascination with Communism brought me to read a book on North Korea in January of 2012 called Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick as well, which only fueled my interest in China since it had a different path with Communism.

In November of 2011, I randomly bought a book called Old China Road by Rob Gifford, an NPR journalist. This book reawakened my fascination with China and Asia. But the real fuel came on Christmas day 2011, when I met Shou. He is a 20 year old college student at University of Indiana visiting Miami and the Keys when his credit card was stolen. When I found him he was walking to Miami from Key West. It was a hot Key West day and my family and I had just finished a Christmas Service and lunch at our church on US1 highway. He came into the church and asked if there was a store. We offered him some food, but he refused. We gave him some water and said there was a store not far up the road. I was gripped with a pain for this young man who carried a huge military style duffle bag that was obviously extremely heavy. He was dressed in clean kakis and a white t-shirt. He wore glasses and had hair about 1.5 inches long that stood up in every direction. I knew he didn't realize how long it was to Miami.

We got into the family car and drove up the road to my sister’s house which is just about a half mile north of the church on the highway. I saw him again there on the road walking and the pain in my heart grew stronger. The verse in the Bible that reads, "Stop those stumbling towards destruction"
I felt that if there’s nothing else I do, I need to try to help that poor young man.

When we got to my sister, Abby's house I left the group telling them I was going to talk to the young man and find out what his story is. I had to walk a long way before I found him. He had just left the gas station store and had a cookie in his hand.
"How did you get on this road?"
"I am hitchhiking to Miami"
"Oh. Why is that?"
"I lost my credit card in Key West and I need to get back to Miami and save money."
"Do you live in Miami?"
"No I go to school at University of Indiana."
"Where are you from?"
"Do you want to come up stairs to my family's house?"
"No I am too shy."
"What if you just come up for a few minutes? Just see if the people are nice and then you can leave."
"No really, I am too shy."
"Just see what you think."
"No I am so shy."
"Please just come for a minute."

He came up to the apartment which my sister shares with her husband and two small sons. Most of my family, all nine kids (except one of my sisters) was there and several close friends. We all welcome Shou into the home. I introduced him and announced that he was stranded in the Keys. Everyone came and shook his hand. They all smiled and greeted him warmly. I asked him if he wanted to stay for a little bit. He agreed.
Then we started asking him if he wanted food. He kept saying no, then I made him a plate and brought it too him. He thanked me and started eating it hungrily. I realized he was starving. That’s when he started crying. All ache overflowed at that moment and my eyes also watered. The family meanwhile had been getting ready to open presents. My family has the tradition of my father taking each gift from under the tree and handing it to the person and then everyone watching the person open it and admire what they received together. We began. Shou watched the proceedings quietly. I was watching him watch us wondering what he must think. Then I realized that with the one child policy in China, he must never have seen so many people related. I was getting more an more interested in talking to him about China and his experiences there. All the things I had just learned in the book by Rob Gifford were coming to me.
When we were nearing the end of our present opening we found two presents under the tree with Shou's name on them. My sisters had wrapped up presents for him quietly. He again was so touched as he unwrapped a print of my sister's painting.

After presents we started to sing. My sister Georgia and mom play guitar. We'd look up music online and they'd play and we'd all read the lyrics online. We were all gathered around my iPad and iPhone singing our hearts out. Shou joined in and it felt like he'd been a family friend for years. We sang late into the night.
I asked my dad if Shou could stay for a few days at our church. My dad agreed. We decided that we'd either send him home on a bus or Tony, my husband, and I could drop him off in Miami in 10 days on our way back our home to Tampa. Shou was delighted.
The family posed for pictures and Shou stood with the family.

The next day Shou joined us for a game of soccer and went everywhere with us for the next 10 days. We brought him to the beach, Mallory Square, church, and wandering in the Keys. He helped my soccer team win a few soccer games and I was very happy. Meanwhile I peppered him with questions on life in China.

After the 10 days he invited us to come visit him in China in the summer when he went home for summer break. I told him Tony and I would definitely come. He also taught us a few words in Chinese.

For the next few months I occasionally exchanged emails with Shou, but I was very busy with work and my other commitments. In May when I had some time I began planning our trip to China!

I started researching the Visa process, the airline tickets. Then in June I got even more serious. I signed Tony and I up for Chinese lessons. We wrapped up the Visa process. I started listening to books on China like mad.

Here’s a summary of each of the books I finished on China:

My First book: China Road - Rob Gifford 2010

Rob hitchhiked the old Silk Road which was a trade route from the Middle East to China. He met a lot of interesting people and gave a nice picture of the changing China. He met many truck drivers who gave him stories of their never ending delivering of loads of goods to satisfy the demand of the developing country.

Second book, China in Ten Words Yu Hua

Yu wrote his book by selecting 10 words that describe China then using them to tell personal stories, history of China, and modern implications.
Yu Hua was a teenager during Mao's Cultural Revolution. He and his brother experienced the turbulence of that time. His father and mother were both doctors and they were went out to work in the country but managed to survive it. Yu would write big character posters which denounced his teachers because that was how everyone fit in. His grandfather had been a landlord, but had wasted all his wealth before 49, but because of that legacy, his descendants had to be careful. At one point it was made public, and the whole family had to write a confession and hang it inside their house confessing if they had any feelings of superiority. To the father and mother it was ridiculous, but the children really got into it.
Some of the words include Leader, meaning Chairman Mao. He includes research that shows today's youth love Mao. They idealism him and think if he was resurrected the world would be perfect. He also describes some of the stories of Mao such as his famous swim to demonstrate how strong he was. His constant use of aphorisms like "Find Truth from Facts." The utter damage he did to the country by having all the farmers work on random projects instead of farming causing the largest human caused famine in recorded history. His population growth program that rewarded people for having as many children as possible causing a huge population growth.
Yu also covered other words like Copy Cat to talk about the obsession with knocks and Bamboozle to talk about the incessant lying that everyone does and then use the word Bamboozle to make it "OK."

Third book is Big in China by Alan Paul.

Alan's book is mainly the story of an expat living in Beijing with his wife and three children. Alan was a music and basketball journalist and armature guitar player. His wife was the Washington Times journalist. She was offered the Beijing bureau chief job. So the family went to China. While he was there he found a few guys who also played instruments. They created a band called Woody Alan and slowly became the most popular blues band in Beijing. They ended up touring the whole country. Alan's descriptions of Beijing and Chinese culture are interesting, but mostly this is a book about being an ex-pat and leading a band.

Fourth book is Country Driving by Peter Hessler.

Peter's book had three parts covering three different stories. The first part is about Peter's drive along the Great Wall of China. He picks up many hitchhikers and gets to know some of their stories. The second story is about a tiny village two hours north of Beijing and one family's story. They have one small son who we watch grow and go to school. The village also gets a new road which starts brining tourists. The family creates a restaurant to meet the new tourists' appetite. It also covers the politics of the tiny town with the father of the family decides to run for office. This part of the book is very personal as Peter becomes very involved in the family's life especially watching the young son grow up.
The third part of the book covers the inception of a new factory in a development district to its final full production. He covers all the ups and downs of setting up factory equipment, the mindsets of the owners, the hiring process, the mind sets of the workers. This is utterly fascinating. He compares the boom of factories with the industrial revolution in the West. He says that in the West the first organizations to get set up in a new area is the church and civic services. But in China the factory starts with nothing else, then vendors come in to service the needs of the workers.
Peter does such a great job of describing life in these places. He follows several of the workers lives and describes their hopes and dreams. Many of the workers read motivational books and put motivational slogans on the white bare walls of their dorm rooms. They often dream of going back home to their small village and opening a small business.

I really enjoyed Peter's book so when I discovered he had written two more I immediately bought them. Country Driving is Peter's third book.

Fifth book: Oracle Bones. Peter Hessler's second book.

This beautifully laid out book covers several stories and interweaves the history and stories of the Oracle Bones and one key researcher who worked on them and then committed suicide. It’s set up a bit like a mystery as we try to figure out why the professor killed himself. The stories covered include several of Peter's students and one man he met in his neighborhood. I loved this book because he really digs into the ancient history of China as revealed by studying the Oracle Bones which are Bones that the emperor would have cracked to tell the immediate future. An example that was repeated over and over was "There will be no tragedies in the next 10 days"
Peter interviews lots of historians and discovers that one expert published a book on Bronzes and spent quite a bit of time in the US. This professor ended up killing himself after he was publicly humiliated and banned from publishing any more works. He turned out to be a victim of the Cultural Revolution. Mao went through a short time when he wanted to hear from the intellectuals about how his new administration was doing. The professor published an article saying that the Chinese characters should not be changed. Mao had been close to changing the way Chinese was written from the over 8 thousand characters to an alphabet. He had been pressure from many people that China could never modernize unless they got rid of their ancient Chinese language. The outcome of that was simplified Chinese which is only used in Mainland China and not by Taiwan or the Diaspora. If I had to pick one of Peter's books, I'd pick this one because of its history mixed with the modern stories.

Sixth book, River Town by Peter Hessler, and his first book.

It is a very personal story of him living in Fuling on the Yansee river teaching English at a teachers college. This is different from his other books because its really his story of learning Chinese and accepting his life in China. He describes the three gorge dam which is being built, the small businesses he frequents in town, the drinking wars between college faculty, and the stories of his students which he continues in is two other books. Its a beautiful book and gives a good feel for the country.

Seventh book on China is titled China by Murray Sayle.

This book covers all of Chinese history in one quick swoop. This tied together all the pieces that Peter and Yu describe in a full narratives. What I got from this book is that China used to be ruled by dynasties that had bureaucrat who ran the country. Then Chang Kai Shek took over the rule of the country and Mao also wanted to rule the country. They struggled but world war two interrupted them. They joined together to fight the Japanese. They then resumed their fight. Mao knew very little about anything but had learned a little Marxism. He had never been a farmer, but believed he could speak for them. He said that the Chinese people were like a blank slate that anything could be written on. One hundred thousand communists began a long march. Eighty thousand of them survived and they came into power in 1949. Chang Kai Shek took his existing government and escaped to Taiwan. They set up the Chinese Government there where it remains today. Mao began his experiments on his blank slates. But the key thing I learned from this is that ancient china was ruled by an emperor with a huge army or bureaucrats just like today its run by a communistic dictator and an army of bureaucrats to execute the decrees.

Now as I enter China, I am excited to see how it will be for me. Shou and his family will be hosting us and we will be visiting Beijing, Shanghai, and Xi An.

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