Saturday, December 13, 2008

Memories of China

I've been re-reading the journal from my trip to China, and reviewing my memories.

One of the things that stood out for me was how friendly and open all the people I met were, and how completely un-oppressed they acted. I was in Prague in 1986, when there were still Soviet tanks in the streets, and a cloud of fear hung over everything. People told me, in all seriousness, that they never jaywalk because they don't want to come to the attention of the police. Opposition was expressed in cynical, satirical jokes, which were very funny but conveyed a sense that the people were completely separate from the government that they hated and feared.

In China I saw nothing like that. Our guide in Beijing did lower his voice when he confirmed that we were standing in the square where protesters were killed in 1989, and he smiled a cynical little smile when he pointed out that the new headquarters of the Chinese FBI overlooks the spot. But Tienanmen Square was the only place we saw soldiers in China, and neither our guide nor anyone else we saw seemed to have any fear of the police. I saw people vociferously disputing with cops, I guess over traffic tickets, and in Beijing we saw a small protest against the demolition of a historic house. Outside the capital nobody seemed to give any thought to the government at all.

Despite the nationalism that I know is a real force in China, we never encountered anything that even hinted at anti-Americanism. Our guides were all great, willing to talk about anything, never prickly about Chinese problems or accomplishments. Of course that was their job, but everyone else was equally pleasant: shop keepers, people on the train, Chinese tourists at the Great Wall and the Forbidden City who all wanted to take pictures of their children posing with ours. I remember a few slightly suspicious looks as we went around with Zhen Zhen, but considering that foreigners have taken a hundred thousand or so little Chinese girls out of the country in the past 15 years, I was surprised there wasn't more hostility. I am sure many of the people we met mistrust the American government, but perhaps, living under a government that they know lies to them all the time, they understand that the Americans they meet don't control Washington and may even disagree with what the American government does.

Another thing that impressed me about China was how many Chinese people there are. Cities I never heard of have two or three million inhabitants. Even at the biggest tourist attractions, almost everyone you saw was Chinese. And though there are subtle differences between the people of north and south, all Han Chinese look pretty much the same. So walking down the street in Beijing is nothing like walking down the street in New York or London. Perhaps that is one reason the Chinese are so pleasant to small groups of Americans, since they can just look around and see how vastly they outnumber the round-eyed devils.

I would go back tomorrow, if I could. China is an exciting place, rapidly joining the rest of the world but in a very Chinese way. I saw many amazing things and met many delightful people. I imagine that when Zhen Zhen is older we will take her back to visit the land where she was born, and I am very much looking forward to it.

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