Three weeks. Shanghai, Beijing, Chengdu, Shenzhen, Hong Kong. Looking back on my time in China, I’m still blown away by the number of experiences I was able to have in such a short time. It is hard to appreciate such a jam-packed trip when you’re jet lagged, exhausted, and sleeping every chance you get on a rickety bus. However, now that I’m home with time for reflection, it is safe to say that my exploration of China was by far the best cultural immersion I have ever had.
A constant obsession throughout the entire trip was food. With chicken feet, scorpions, pig snouts and brain found at every turn, it was easy to see that no eatable part of an animal goes to waste in China. I found myself wondering whether these odd Chinese foods were made popular out of pure interest, or necessity. With such a booming population, I can only imagine the importance of maintaining a stable yet satisfactory food network. Items that aren’t commonly eaten are kept inside the borders of China. Could this be the reason for the abundance of “Westernly-discarded” animal parts sold for food? Or maybe it’s just because the Chinese prefer the taste of freshly cooked pig brain…
Before embarking on this adventure, I was told that Chinese people would constantly want to take pictures with Americans. Having been to India and experiencing this first hand, I was ready for the invasion of flashing cameras and curious stares. However, I was rather surprised at how few times I was asked compared to other classmates. Students with blonde hair and blue eyes or darker skin were considered far more interesting. I watched time and time again, as people would go up to these specific students and ask for photos and autographs. It made me very aware of just how infrequent it was for Chinese people to come in contact with diversity. However, this curiosity and fondness that Chinese people had for Westerners was often lost when dealing with taxis. There were countless occasions were I would miserably try and hail a cab for over an hour because drivers would refuse to stop for Americans. Empty cabs would drive right by me or pick up Chinese passengers further down the line to avoid having to deal with Westerners. Never before had I been somewhere where taxis would rather avoid business than pick up an American passenger. To this day, I have yet to understand the reasoning behind that constant rejection.
Stepping off the train into Beijing was another vivid memory from the program. I had never been in a city where I could see particulates in the air and feel toxins coating my throat with each breath. Arriving on a day with an “unhealthy” air quality rating, I became very conscious of the effect of human pollution on the urban environment. Prior to this trip, I was rarely cognizant of clean air. It took seeing floating flower particles and hundreds of facial masks to make me realize how much I had been taking for granted. Moving forward into an age of exponential population growth and continued corporate and domestic pollution, our future is looking dangerously foggy. Without immediate international reform, cities like Beijing will become more common… and clean crisp air much more scarce. Seeing the poor quality first hand in China has made me a stronger advocate for international environmental reform.
In closing, what stood out the most to me on this trip… present in every city I ventured to over those three rapid weeks… was passion. The hotel staff made it their personal mission to make sure everything in my path was accounted for. Small street restaurant owners who could speak English wanted to know exactly how I liked my meals prepared. Factory employees made sure every aspect of their work was drilled down to perfection. For a country with a startling 1.3 billion people, I never once felt insignificant in a sea of billions… something I least expected entering this journey. Every person I came in contact with seemed to be going about his or her days with a purpose. To teach, to cook, to serve, to entertain. Finding a niche is something I struggle to do in a small college city of 43,000 people. Watching these people over the past month thrive in such a densely populated world gave me a fresh perspective on the topic of individuality. Being 1 in 1.3 billion shouldn’t be something that brings frustration or dismay. Coming back to the United States, it is clear to me now that while we tend to focus our attention on the “1.3 billion” aspect of that ratio, the inspiring, colorful, and intriguing people of China have learned to love and appreciate being a fulfilled “1”. With my ratio viewpoint flipped, I thank China for allowing me to appreciate the path towards creating my own individuality, regardless of how many people surround me. Hopefully I will be able to return once more to this influential country… after getting closer towards finding my own niche.