Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Some Final Thoughts/Reflections on China

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - Fact: as I have probably mentioned before, I haven't been out of the United States in, I'd say, 12 years or so. My last trip overseas was to Japan, and even then I barely remember anything about it except visiting my aunt, watching Die Hard for the first time and gorging on my American-TV obsession at the time, The X-Files (one two-episode VHS at a time); if we did any sightseeing, I don't recollect all that clearly what we saw. Since then...well, I could point to my parents always saying, at least up to late last year, that they were busy with their jobs---but I'd be talking about them, not me. Truth is, I've probably always been somewhat nervous about exploring the world far beyond the New York/New Jersey area---nervous about dealing with air travel, airport restrictions, all the reservations that would have to be made, etc. And yet, people are always suggesting to me, or flat-out telling me, that traveling to other countries is a good way to expand one's own perspective on the world around you---because, of course, everywhere is not like it is in the U.S. Books, films and TV shows are nice, but one can't hope to rely strictly on those to give you a tangible sense of how it is out there beyond the four corners of one's bedroom.

So when my mother hinted, last fall, of the possibility of a trip to China, I jumped at the chance to go (not least of which was the fact that my mother was paying for most of the trip, that we were joining a guided tour, and that a travel agent had made our air-travel arrangements in advance---to make things somewhat easier on all of us). I'm not sure if China is necessarily/technically a huge part of my heritage---my mother, after all, is a Taiwanese, not Chinese, citizen, and my father is a Japanese one. This trip, then, wasn't the personal equivalent of one of those Israel-birthright trips I see a lot of Jewish young adults take. But, even though English is admittedly the primary language spoken in our household, Chinese culture has always lurked on the margins, whether through adopted customs like rice-eating and tea-drinking, or through my own personal exposure to Chinese pop music (mostly from the '80s) or films. Thus, maybe this trip was a step toward finally bringing that culture to the fore, if not physically in our household, then mentally in my own consciousness.

How'd it go, then, you may or may not be asking? All in all, it was a fascinating and amazing experience, albeit an exhausting one. By my last couple of days overseas, when I visited relatives in Taipei, I could barely muster enough enthusiasm to get out of bed, much less get out of my aunt's house to do some minor sightseeing in the heart of the city. (The on-and-off rain showers didn't help much either.)

But that's at the end. What about the beginning?


Let's start with the tour group I was a part of. The tour company is called Grand Holidays, and it arranged---through a participating travel agent---everything, from airplane flights to restaurant visits to hotel stays, not to mention the tour itinerary. The company spared little expense, too; we got high-class restaurants (all of them buffet-style, with a movable round table in which food---often way too much food---is placed in front of us to pick and eat) and high-quality hotel accommodations. The Great Wall Sheraton in Beijing, the Grand Metro Park Hotel Suzhou (the best of them, I think), the 34-floor Tian Yuan Hotel in Hangzhou---none of them were too shabby, to say the least. (Being used to motels and their less snazzy accommodations when my family has traveled to other parts of the U.S., I was surprised to find that these hotels even went so far as to provide toothbrushes for its residents! Do American hotels do that? Or did I just show how just how sheltered I am by asking that question?)

All of this for a "mere" $1399 a person---really not a bad deal at all, considering how much we see and do in China. I couldn't imagine planning such an elaborate sightseeing tour for myself at that price.


The airports turned out to be a breeze, for the most part---although, on the early morning of Thursday, May 22, when we were driven by my dad to John F. Kennedy Airport to catch a 6 a.m. United Airlines flight to San Francisco, I initially got nervous when, while we were waiting in line to check in our luggage, a man started giving out elaborate instructions about things that couldn't be brought on board, things that needed to be displayed on a suitcase, things that needed to be shown right away in order to speed up the line, etc. (When he got to the part about cosmetics and other small things that could only be placed in zip-lock bags, I said to myself, "I sure hope we don't have things like that, or else this man sounds like he'd get pissed immediately.") Fuckin' 9/11 and the culture of fear. Anyway, there turned out to be nothing to worry about in the end. Everything was processed so methodically---and there were plenty of signs throughout the airport---that my previous fears about getting lost in a huge airport were soon discounted. (I had to conquer similar worries when I tried out NJ Transit and MTA subways for the first time years ago. Unfamiliar transportation and places worry me, what can I say?)


I guess I'll have to wait until another trip to deal with the prospect of having to fend for myself in a foreign country with little-to-no command of its national language, because on this tour, not only was I traveling with my mother and my aunt, both of whom understand and speak Mandarin Chinese fluently---our tour guides were native speakers who could also speak good, comprehensible English. That was necessary, of course, because not everyone in our tour group spoke Chinese; we had a couple of Filipina girls who didn't know the language, as well as a Russian couple from Queens who spoke only English during the tour.

Nevertheless, this trip did give me a chance to test my Chinese-language skills, see how much I could speak and understand. Years ago, when I was in elementary school, I took Chinese-language reading/writing/speaking courses every Saturday at a local junior high school; additionally, in my sophomore year at Rutgers, I took a year of Elementary Chinese. I'm not sure how much all of that previous education---combined with hearing a little of it spoken at home, either through my mother or through the Chinese-language movies I've seen over the years---helped during these 10 days (and, when we got to Taiwan, I was near-clueless when it came to comprehending the Taiwanese dialect). But, early on in the trip, my aunt commented on how good my Chinese sounded (of course, I responded with a humbled "xie xie"). And that, if nothing else, made me feel more confident in using Chinese in certain small situations---dealing with waiters and porters, for example. (When I got a full-body massage one day on the tour, I was forced to try to carry on a conversation in Chinese with the masseuses, even translating words I could understand for my younger brother, who understands just about zilch. I probably didn't make a great go of it, but the female masseuses seemed tickled by my attempts, and my mother eventually came into the room and conversed with them, saving me from further awkwardness.) In fact, I've already started to think about picking up the language full-scale; some people---including one intelligent guy in my tour group---are already predicting that China may eventually overtake the U.S. as the world power, so a working knowledge of the language would certainly be helpful. (That, and I think it's as beautiful and aesthetically elegant a language as I've ever heard and seen---that musical tone of pitches and the visual beauty of its characters!)


When I consider this trip as a whole, I don't think I'd go quite so far as to call it deeply profound or earth-shattering. Even in eight packed, sweaty days, however, I still felt pretty immersed in a culture totally different from the grab-bag American culture I'm so used to. I always tell myself that I love movies that successfully bring me into another world; I experienced that same exciting feeling with a real-life world in China, and that's an experience I count as valuable, or at least worth experiencing. (I wonder how American culture will feel after observing a culture that holds on steadfastly to its beliefs in being at one with nature and maintaining some kind of eternal balance. Oh, but then, on Sunday night, after my dad picked me up from the airport, I immediately decided to have Subway for dinner instead; last night I indulged in some ice cream for dessert. So maybe I'm already getting back to my American ways.) At minimum, this trip has made me more fascinated by Chinese culture (and hopefully not in a condescending Orientalist way); maybe I'll do my own intellectual explorations now that I'm back home. (Jia Zhangke and Tsai Ming-liang, here I come...)

Putting aside all that culturally-aware stuff, however, this China trip, most importantly, got me off my sheltered ass and onto the soil of a foreign country for a much-needed widening of perspective. It helped me get over my own fear of overseas travel and airports. If nothing else, though, at least I can now tell people Ive been to the Great Wall of China, the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, Shanghai, etc. (I got the pictures to back it up!)

I'm already feeling the traveling bug itching at me again. Maybe Hong Kong next...?

But first I have to get over this jet lag...not to mention get back to work at The Wall Street Journal (at the soon-to-be-kaput monitor desk, so I'll have to consider larger issues like what kind of job I'd like to try next), deal with this multiple-traffic-ticket situation, see the newest Indiana Jones flick, and many other mundane real-life obstacles that I'm sure will come my way. Ah the real world!

That's about all I've got right now in summarizing Fujishima in China. I'm sure I've forgotten something, though. So if any of you readers want to ask me any questions about my trip, feel free to ask them in the comments section.


Anonymous said...

You had a really great experience for a short trip. Your pictures are beautiful. Do you wish you had more time in China? It was really nice of your family to plan this. Where do you think you would like to travel to next time?

Jeffrey Hill said...

I thoroughly enjoyed your travel posts. I'd taken a trip to China in 2002 and saw several of the places you did - spending most of the time in Suzhou and Shanghai and not quite as much time in Beijing (I would have loved to visit the Temple of Heaven and take a day trip to the Ming Tombs). Back then, they were bulldozing the old neighborhoods in Suzhou at an alarming rate and building industrial complexes that were not unlike stuff here in the Midwest. Makes me wonder how much of the old neighborhoods are still left.

I hope you'll work in more reflections of your trip on the blog as you go along.

And your mom's family history sounds like it would be extremely fascinating. I know you mentioned she was a Taiwanese citizen (which I gather is the same as a Chinese Nationalist)...did her family move to Taiwan after the civil war in the late 40s and early 50s? If so, I wonder where on the mainland they came from. Or are they native to the island?

And I bet your dad's side is interesting too. Maybe your next trip should be a whirlwind tour of Japan!

Anonymous said...

How are u adjusting after the trip? Time for an update I would say.

Anonymous said...

Culturally-aware? What would Trayes say?

Glad you had such a great time.