My life is richer, simply because I asked

Or: An oral history project, incredible families, much talk on adoption, China, love, and family, and how I found a title for this project

Last January, I was struck with an idea for a project. I had read a book about a generation of Chinese girls who had been adopted into families worldwide, with a huge number of them becoming part of American families. (I wrote about it too.) Tens of thousands of these girls are growing up Chinese-American, in predominantly upper-middle class families, and they have a distinct perspective on the world, and their spot in it.


That Americans have been adopting from Asia is not new information to most people; American families with an adopted Chinese (or more generally Asian--Korean, Vietnamese) child is more and more common in the general public. On the sitcom Modern Family, Cam and Mitchell adopted their daughter Lily from Vietnam, and that diversity is one of the mainstays of the "modern" aspect of the family composition on the show. In your own community, at the grocery store or Target, multicultural families are an ever more common site within the larger populace.


What I realized--in one of those sudden ideas that come to mind only when a combination of other triggers intersect perfectly--is that there is an important historical story here, and that I could help to tell it, begin to collect it, with the tools I have. I had been thinking a lot about identity, and the concept of "roots," genealogy, and biology, and thinking about how much, how deeply, it doesn't matter in the end. I had been thinking a lot about how much I want to adopt in my own life. And I had been thinking about the group of people--oftentimes members of Families with Children from China (FCC)--who is here, connected, who live this story every day: the families. Also being a public radio addict, I love podcasts and the new media we have to share stories and collect and share history, and decided the internet combined with an audio format would be the perfect way to tell this story.


Over the course of a few months in early 2011, I wielded in and narrowed my enormous original scope, and decided on what would become the final capstone project for my master's in public history.


I would collect oral histories of families who had adopted children from China (mostly girls, but a few boys as well), who live in the Metro Atlanta area. They will be delivered in an online format, much like a podcast, and often in small series that connect the stories of various families to each other.


I wrote a paper to end the semester, with grand ideas, plans, and notions of this project. Then in the fall, I had to begin to deliver on my many (many) promises. An important thing to point out is that I knew not one singular person in the Atlanta community who had adopted a child from China. I am not in the age demographic of adoptive parents, and I am not even married. Nor do I have kids. I spend a lot of my time at work and at school. So I started cold-calling people, with a very strange request, indeed, when they did call me back or answer my unknown number: "Yes, hi, I am a graduate student at Georgia State, and I am working on a project about families who have adopted children from China. If you are interested, could I explain a little bit about what I am doing?"


Strangely, I only felt really nervous the very first time I did a dialing session. That first, painful, jump into the icy water. Turns out, the water was not cold at all. A few returned my calls or answered, and connected me with people who were either more directly involved, or spoke to me themselves. In each case that I have spoken with a mom, dad, or family as a group, I have been allowed a little more access into their lives, and they have shared my project with their friends, people also connected through FCC--the Atlanta chapter and beyond. It has been extraordinary.


What began as a few contacts in the fall has snowballed in 2012. I have been graciously welcomed into homes, invited to hear personal tales of how these families became what they are--decisions about family, ethnicity, fertility, biological children, and all other manner of real, complex lives.


I ate Chinese food to celebrate Chinese New Year with one very active playgroup, the kids averaging about six to ten years old, and it was a rowdy, wonderful evening, meeting parents and further discussing and explaining this project and my goals.


I watched a rehearsal performance of the Atlanta Chinese Dance Company, which has become a haven and passion for a number of adopted Chinese girls over the years, many of whom continue to dance into high school and college.


I was invited to a monthly book club begun by mothers of adopted Chinese girls and boys, who found there was a need to read the literature (spanning many topics) on kids, adoption, China, parenting, and a number of issues within these topics, and that reading them together was more meaningful. I have begun attending them, and the most striking note I took away from my first session was that there are issues of confidence, perception from outsiders, and even simple semantics that arise in every adoptive mothers' mind, and that the support from small groups like this one is indispensable for these women. It was so lovely to sit and discuss their most recent selection, Lucky Girl, with them--quite frankly, most I did was listen.


I listened to one mother console another on the fear that she, who had never had children biologically, somehow loved her daughter in a less, or different, way than the mother who had two biological boys before adopting her Chinese daughter. This second mother listened earnestly, and then vehemently countered that, having both, she promises there is not one thing different in the love for each of her three children, biological or adopted. She repeats this for emphasis, staring her friend straight in the eye. She is brought to tears when talking about it further.


It is moving. There are many times I am near tears in working on this project. The stories, the love, the shared experiences are so moving. I am up to my ears in adoption stories, and pictures of young, growing, and grown-up families; it only makes my conviction and desire to adopt stronger, if that was possible.


I was invited by two girls, ages 8 and 9, to watch the videos their older sister (film-producer earning her master's at Columbia, might I add) made of their respective adoptions, after I had finished interviewing their parents. It was the first time in the course of this work that I watched, in moving picture, the moment when a little two-year-old met her parents and sisters. It was remarkable, joyous, and scary, and sad all at once--many in that room captured on film feeling so many varieties of emotions all at once. It is a moment not everyone would perhaps want to share with me; I was honored, yet again, by their gracious invitation into the lives of others.


Is it that adoptive families tend to be willing to share, because they are used to being the ones in the room who created their family in a manner somewhat different from "normal"? I don't know the reasons, but I am grateful for their positive responses to this project, the excitement some have expressed, and the thanks others have shared. We all recognize that these are stories worth telling, collecting, connecting, sharing. I think they are especially rich in the aural format, voices captured in this moment in the lives of these families. The little girls, little boys, teenagers I have spoken to--those voices are being saved, and their notions of themselves are now recorded, as documentation that this is how they felt in 2012, about their spot in this wide world. I giggle, I cry, I am in awe as I listen back to the words and thoughts that I have collected. How far I have brought this, into fruition, into something quite extraordinary--something I wanted but that, if I'm being honest, seemed impossibly large to attempt.


I have been invited into homes, back into homes, met kids, siblings, parents, friends, interviewed many of them. I've met with people without the voice recorder on as many occasions, listening and talking and proving that I can be trusted with their family's history.


I was most recently offered two beautiful, hardcover books that have been compiled from families' personal photographs ad writings, on the China adoption experience. The collection is from photo collections and families across the United States, who all have this same experience in common. The first of the books was compiled and designed in the basement of the family I most recently interviewed, and they insisted they had "too many copies" lying around, so gave me one of each of these two books. They are cherished additions to the resources I have already compiled as I entered this world to begin work on this project. From one, I found the inspiration to finally settle on a title:

A Thousand Ways Richer:

The China adoption experience in Atlanta, An Oral History


I have been shown unbelievable support, consideration, and openness as I have thus far explored the China adoption community in Atlanta. The most striking discovery has been confirmed and reaffirmed by nearly every mother or father I speak to: the adoption of their daughter, son, or multiple children has brought them more than just a child--their lives have been enriched in a thousand ways they could not have imagined before. A child, yes. Also, culture, dance, food, language, history. Also, activity, sports, small businesses, and an entire community of support, best friends, love, play groups. Some who share this initial experience go on to become lifelong friends. One man's Chinese daughter has already made him reconsider his perception on race, and interracial marriage--and she's only eight.


I will explore many of these facets in the forthcoming website, where I post the stories and some of the audio. But the quick thesis to this thing, what has inspired the title, is a combination of the thousands of ways life is changed by adoption, and the countless ways I am also richer for knowing these incredible women, men, daughters, and sons. The ways my life has been enriched are too numerous to count, and I would have missed every single one of them if I had shied away from doing this, in favor of something easier, smaller, with people I already knew. It has been exhilarating to know what I am capable of, if I just pick up the phone and ask.

Being Yi Jie Xie

"Yi Jie Xie, how do you keep your white skirt so white?" For some reason, I have never forgotten this sentence, uttered to me on a hot summer day in Yangzhou, after an afternoon watching Chinese students play table tennis against American students with quite sub-par abilities. We were walking back to our own dorms, I was with a few other Americans who were in the same study abroad program. We had spent so much time together in class, learning about one another in the context of China, that we felt more comfortable calling each other by the Chinese names we had adopted.

It seems so far away now, my summer as Yi Jie Xie. I can't recall the names of the other six students who took on Chinese nomenclature with me; things like Facebook have ensured I know them best now by their given, English names. But I still adore my Chinese name, and the months, weeks, days I spent introducing myself with it. I also did wear skirts almost exclusively, and so that is also emblematic of the Chinese summer heat, of wearing the same few outfits and hanging them to dry so many times that by the end they had none of their original shape or structure. Not that these items needed much in the first place.

By the second month of being there, you just sort of sink into China. All the jitters, counting the days, complaining of heat, squatter-bathroom situations--they all become mundane, part of life, and you relax. Six of us stayed for the full two months, and you could tell us apart from the five newbies; they had all the nerves and questions and panic and dietary questions we had had four weeks earlier.

I was Yi Jie Xie, very tall and blonde girl who wore skirts. I had sunk in. I knew which drinks and snacks and brands of bread I liked best from the market on campus. I knew where to buy the best bananas for breakfast. I had my canteen for my morning jasmine tea, and I never really brushed my hair. I had discovered John Mayer's album Continuum, which lullabyed me through long nights on a Chinese mattress. I talked to my family once a week on the phone. I learned how to ask in Mandarin when the Internet repairman would be arriving. Once, I was out late after dinner with my roommate, and I had to pee so bad, I went over by an old demolished building site and did my business behind the remnants of a wall.

Recently, I finished reading a book written by a Chinese American woman who was adopted from Taiwan by American parents in 1972, and in adulthood, she went back and began a relationship with members of her birth family. What struck me most about her six sisters was their penchant for changing their names. Several of them had had at least two Chinese names, legally changed time and again, and an English name as well.

It always seemed so cool when I met other students, my counterparts, who had taken on English names, as they could pick anything that sounded pretty or cool or modern or traditional or meaningful to them. Janet, Rose, May--things like this. Simple, and also often not set in stone. It struck me that this is often how I feel, and wish I could express, in my own name. Can't I be more Chinese, and just switch my name as it feels right? I'm afraid there's far too much legal and bureaucratic attachment to my name here. My school, my work, online names, paychecks, social security, passport, taxes... eek. How does anyone change their name in this age? And then there's the question, what would I even change it to? I like Jess, Jessica, and I especially like Claire, my middle name, even if I love many other names that are not mine. I wish sometimes I would have gone by my middle name. But many people love and know me as Jessie. I like that a lot too. There are names I love so much, but I cannot imagine selecting one of them, a "best," to somehow become mine. I could not. But I really like the idea of flitting through life as several people. It is perhaps so intriguing because it seems so impossible in 2012.

But I also love that I spent a summer as someone else who is the same as well, as Yi Jie Xie. That's what my friends knew me by. In China. I had another name entirely. How amazing is that?

Ai Weiwei: A game of chess and China's elemental flaw

I have been fascinated by Ai Weiwei, the 54-year-old provocative artist and voice of dissidence in China, since May, when I heard an interview with his English translator on one of the my favorite podcasts. He was detained and questioned and kept by the government for 81 days this year, after his blog incited uproar from citizens who agreed and officials who saw him as a dangerous beacon. A tumultuous year has left him listed as one of Time magazine's People of the Year, as "The Dissident." I find him interesting in his amorphous and fluid form and interpretation of art, connecting what we think of as "Art" with unconvention and with blogging and microblogging (i.e. Twitter and very brief forms of connecting online), combining his artistic impulses with his gift for words, writing pithy and prophetic bits. That's a kind of artistry I greatly admire, especially in the face of the Chinese State And All Its Men. There is quite a difference--and a kind of bold bravery I cannot imagine--between being an artist in a free and functioning democracy and being an outspoken artist in a state which does not value or embrace free speech, open access to information, or the fullest extent of self-expression--even if it means criticizing the men upstairs.

In his Time interview he was asked "What would you like to see in China?" This was part of his brilliantly explained answer:

We need clear rules to play the game. We need to have respect for the law. If you play a chess game but after two or three moves you change the rules, how can people play with you? Of course you will win, but after 60 years you will still be a bad chess player because you never meet anyone who can challenge you. What kind of game is that? Is it interesting? I'm sure the people who put me in jail, they're so tired. This game is not right, but who is going to say, 'Hey, let's play fairly'?

I've been studying China, Chinese politics, language, culture and history, for more than six years now, and my own thoughts on its political system have shifted at times between the two most polar ends of the argument: that either the "Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics" official plan has merit, is working, can improve and continue; or that China will inevitably give way democracy because it has already given much up to a free market economic system, and its people still hold memories of the extreme poverty and problems that stemmed from early plans in the early years after the Communist Revolution. People--around the world--have spent much time waxing on the future of China's political system. No one has explained its crucial fissure in its system so well as Ai Weiwei, himself a son of China, and the actual son of a revolutionary poet.

On people, or: "I didn't want to start with an issue"

Peter Hessler, former English teacher in China and author of several books on Chinese life and people, both historical and modern, is a 2011 MacArthur Fellow and long-form journalist. In his interview in reception of his prize, he spoke on what it is to write about China and Chinese life, to him:

“There's always been a tendency to see a place like China in very political terms. I think this is partly because it’s a communist country, it’s run by the Communist Party. And from my perspective, living in China, starting especially the way that I started, as a Peace Corps volunteer, in a small community, teaching in a small college, it gave me a very different starting point. And I really wanted to write about ordinary people in China. I didn't want to start with an issue, or start with a political idea, I wanted to start with an individual, start with a community.”

To me this exemplifies the kind of approach that public historians take to topics of history that have traditionally been very idea-based, politically oriented, and top-down in nature. We can look at a country or an issue or a group of people through these high-minded mechanisms, or we can study people themselves, and how they fit into the larger historical fabric. That is a much more important goal, and ultimately more meaningful.

Hessler is a journalist, that is an important distinction; but he writes based in a historical context, referencing the past at each step, and this is also valuable. (I will fight with people who dismiss great books written by journalists.)

Looking at one individual person's perspective can lead towards a dangerous of generalizing based on not enough larger perspective, yes, but it is in knowing the balance, and in incorporating these people into history that we are best served by learning of the past. Genealogy is not real historical study, but it gets people engaged, and that is important. Someone is interested in feeling a personal connection to the past, and that cannot be ignored in our own, professional approaches to studying history.

I am always reminded of British writer and historian William Dalrymple's  fantastic skill for emphasizing the individual's experience of history, as he does in The Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty: Delhi, 1857which keeps the reader vividly engaged by showing us the Indian Rebellion of 1857 through the eyes of several key player on the ground. I have never read a book of history in which I felt so deeply connected to the characters of the era, and when they all begin falling at the hands of their enemies, I had a true emotional reaction to the destruction of this city and these lives. I've heard he does the same thing in one of his other works, White Mughals: Love and Betrayal in Eighteenth Century India.  An inspiring example--though not without his critiques--of this kind of engaging historical writing.

If the Chinese middle class permits

Bill Saporito's October 31 Time article said it best: "Consider the cosmic irony: wobbly Western economies are depending on the Chinese Communist Party to save their capitalist bacon. Likewise, the Chinese government's grand scheme to rebalance its economy hinges on Western-style materialism." "Shop 'til you drop" probably isn't what Mao Zedong had in mind during the years he was in power, as Saporito points out in his piece on the Chinese middle class, a spending class that precariously faces what could wind up saving the global economy--or busting it even further.

What China is planning is a shift away from export-based industry to a consumer-spending based system, but it will not be easy and there are plenty of potential hiccups involved in fundamentally shifting an economy of 1.7 billion people. But the middle class of that country, which they are projecting to be 70 percent of the population by 2020, could be the saviors of the global economic structure; they have immense capacity for spending, a huge group like that.

The American century, the twentieth, is over. It's been over for awhile, and there's no stopping the growth of India and China now. It will be interesting to see what does happen in the Chinese economy, in the next fifty to one hundred years. Right now, we cannot predict which way it will go, but the result will be felt greatly worldwide, whichever way it swings. Spending too much time focused so exclusively on the United States means Americans, I think, are not thinking quite so realistically about the end of our own era. Not that we're going away, it's just not going to be our job to be Mister #1 anymore; that's not a bad thing. China, if it takes over that spot, certainly has plenty of its own issues--inherent in its government system--that its leaders will need to sort out, not least of which includes their rough human rights record.

Companies have known for years that the developing world was an important place for them to seek new markets for their goods. Couple that with a recession across the West and other developed nations, and you see a kind of exodus now, towards those booming, growing, expansive markets--the new consumers who have their eyes on fancy goods. Gap, the American jeans company, is closing twenty percent of its U.S. stores and tripling the number it has in China.

Saporito's most memorable bit:

If successful, the shift to consumer spending will take a good chunk of the weight of the global economy off the shoulders of American consumers and make China a gotta-be-there market for everything from video games to surgical tools to potato chips. "This generation, these strivers, they will be the saviors of the global economy," says Tim Minges, chairman of the greater China region for PepsiCo, which is pouring billions into China in anticipation of that growth. "I really do think the Chinese middle class will be like the U.S. baby boomers."

I, for one, am putting my faith in this Chinese middle class, as the new version of the U.S.'s baby boomers, to save us all.

Oral history in practice: find the people, and a project becomes real

I've started putting into practice the things that up until this point in my oral history class have only been discussed, that existed only in theory, as things we would eventually have to do. I've begun the process of cold-calling a list of strangers, to me, nothing more than a series of names and phone numbers that I found on a national organization's Atlanta chapter site. And to them, I am a stranger asking to be let into their lives, who is asking to hear their stories, often quite personal and emotional. I am asking, after all, about the process of adopting their own children. This is a very strange thing to explain in a message on an answering machine to a person you've never spoken to.

And in several cases, I've had kids answer the phone, and take the message. This is even stranger, having to summarize in a brief sentence or series of key words to a child or teenager why this random graduate student wants to talk to their mother. (Note: It's about them. Talk about awkward to explain.) "My name is Jessie, I'm a graduated student at Georgia State, and I want to talk to your mom about an oral history project I am starting, on families who've adopted children from China." Hmm, random, indeed.

The first time I dialed a number, I was so thankful it was no longer in service, because I slammed the phone down and felt my heart rate come back down from through-the-roof heights. A few deep breaths, and onto name #2 on the list. Many calls later, I am slowly but surely reaching out to some families. All in its own time, I am in no hurry, and want these families to feel they can respond to my request in time. We're all busy people.

This is, by the way, preliminary work for what will be my master's capstone project: an oral history series and podcast series, compiled and stored on a website that also allows for interaction and visitor submissions, on the stories and histories of Metro Atlanta families who have adopted daughters from China. This enormous diaspora of Chinese girls has spread far across the world, and Atlanta is just one corner of that vast space. This community, the girls and their adoptive (and biological) families, are part of an important historical event, beginning largely in the early 1990s and reaching a peak around 1999 - 2005, and waning in recent years as the process has become extremely cumbersome and slow for adoptive families. This twenty-odd-year period marks an important occurrence in China-U.S. relations that reaches directly into the homes of American families whose families have changed forever because of it; and I want to study this in that historical context, by compiling the oral histories of those living it.

To do this, I've had to muster up some courage I haven't used since my days in student journalism--when it was nothing to phone a stranger and ask them some questions.

But oral histories are by nature very intense, quite distinct from a journalistic effort. And it has been thrilling so far, to find what's at the other end of the line, when you call someone out of the blue--a total stranger--and ask them about something like the experience of adopting their own child.

Exhilaration even more enormous than calling as a journalist. No, I'm not a reporter, I'm a historian, and I want to record your oral history. Just as we have talked about in class, people immediately begin to question you ("How did you get my number?"), and question themselves, retrospect on their own life--"I haven't done anything important." But they have and that's the point of oral histories. They are a part of history.

I am awestruck all over again, every time I think of the phone call I received last night, in return to one of my messages left with a woman's daughter. She was rightfully questioning of me, but I clearly passed the test, because she became so open and willing and engaging, by the time I hung up with her my jaw was literally hanging open. I sat in shock in the driver's seat of my car.

This family has an extraordinary part in the history of Chinese adoptions, from a very early point in the larger narrative timeline. Each of their three daughters is from China, adopted in the 1990s. I have researched this process and read books and articles, and I have never heard of a family like this, ever. And they are part of the exact Metro Atlanta community that I so want to document. I absolutely cannot wait to speak with her further, and collect her story (stories, for sure).

There is a huge difference between theorizing and structuring and dreaming up a plan, a project, and executing it--and making the final product effective, interesting, helpful to participants and the larger public. Without knowing who is out there to talk to, I had no idea if this would even work. I now feel that it is not only possible, but it has the potential of being extremely fruitful. The families who have adopted from China are an extraordinarily connected and close-knit community, across the nation. I hope this small project can somehow contribute to those within that cross-national community, and inspire other initiatives. It's an important international event that deserves to be contemplated in its proper historical context. I'm so excited to bring us a step closer to doing this.

Tell it right, and a western can make me cry.

I have always been a sucker for a good story. The simplest tale, told in the right way, brings me to tears. It is almost silly how often I have found myself sitting in the movie theater at the end of a great film, or even a mediocre one, and suddenly, some small trigger in the narrative, some small act right at the end, brings a full-on wave of emotion, and I am bawling. Or at least, tears flow freely. The effect is the same with books. Heck, it can happen with a 2-minute YouTube clip, or even a commercial, if it's been really well-made. This happened to me when I read The Kite Runner. I would find myself laying on my bed, engrossed in the story of two young boys whose lives were forever impacted by the wars, conflicts, and tragedies that have befallen Afghanistan, and I would suddenly weep thinking of its enormity. I would literally cry for Afghanistan, big and small. It happened as well in the movie True Grit--which still kind of mystifies even me. I mean in the last sixty seconds, when the little whippersnapper girl, all grown up, visits a ruff and tumble landscape and inquires about her old travel partner, Rooster Cogburn, and it is established that he has since passed away. Their whole story culminated in my mind, and I was overcome, to tears.

I guess this is why, from a young age and with a big imagination, I have always been drawn to good stories, and long wanted to create them myself as well. I adamantly wanted to make movies--write, direct, etc.--that was what I told people in high school. I also wanted to be a journalist. I now have a history degree and want to tell stories in museums, and hopefully in books of my own. These are all careers, ways of storytelling, coming from this same spout of emotion that rests inside me, ready to well up anytime some sort of meaningful conclusion, resolution, decision, gesture, or tragedy has been proffered in a story. And in the grand tradition of learning, we discover more of the world that we just can't begin to fathom; we know that in fact, the more we learn, the less we can really ever know. I claim to know a little bit about a few things, but man, the world is big.

I just finished reading a perfect summer book. I have referenced it several times lately, because it is about a 22-year-old fresh college graduate who takes off for China in 1986, and discovers a lot of things about herself--and many of those things mirrored in stark and hilarious ways insights I had about myself when I traveled to China as well (but in 2007, to a vastly different country). Susan Jane Gilman has gone on to do a lot of awesome things since her mid-eighties escapades, working as a journalist and living abroad now.

But her recounting of the life of a Chinese woman that she met on her memorable trek, and reunited with on a visit in 2005, brought the tears. She writes about how even when they bonded in the '80s, she knew (she assumed) that Lisa, this young woman the same age as her, would have a very linear life, one that had almost none of the potential that her own, Gilman's, could have, because of where she lived in the world. As it turns out, Lisa grew her small restaurant into a series of businesses in Yangshuo, China, and is now referred to as "an institution" in Lonely Planet guidebooks on China. She had coffee with President Clinton when he visited her restaurant and served on a delegation that welcomed him to China in the late nineties. She has gone farther than Gilman ever expected or could have dreamed. But she has still not the opportunities as this visiting American; as of 2005, she still cannot travel independently abroad, say, perhaps to visit her friend Gilman in Switzerland. Her whole story brings me to tears. And what makes me the most emotional, I think, is our own assumptions, the things an American might think or assume about anyone else. Assuming that a 22-year old Chinese woman would be destined to live out her life in servitude to her husband, with one child, cooking pancakes for foreigners and backpackers in Yangshuo with no foreseeable economic or lifestyle opportunities beyond that.

In the whole book, there is so much drama, so many insane travel antics that occur, yet here I am bawling at the very end over a small reunion of two fleeting friends, and over the complicated and sometimes tragic things we assume, learn, and discover about one another in this wide world. The larger plot line of her time in China, actually, has not ended in resolution, and is rather bittersweet. But in this little subplot, here, we can rejoice in the wonder, in the sadness, in the immense emotion that real, raw, and meaningful stories provide us.

I believe they are the lifeblood of our existence as humans, propelling us forward, reminding us to believe that we can be part of incredible things. Incredible stories.

(Even if, sometimes, they are made up inside out brains. Fiction has such enormous ability to transport us. I am jealous of people who can write it.)

Instead of reading for class...

... I've been reading a good old travelogue, like those which sustained my interest for a few years, when I first discovered the Travel Essays section of the bookstore, until I realized that mostly, that shelf does not have new releases very often, and I had read all the best ones already. The rest, I would pick through, but to this day, I have that shelf mostly memorized by its titles and the colors of the spines. (I'm not kidding.) But I hadn't looked at it in a while, and so recently I checked back on it, and found a new publication. Susan Jane Gilman's memoir and travelogue of her travels in China, Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven was there, in which she divulges the post-college culture and travel shock that she and her college buddy received when they headed off to China in 1986--then basically still a closed state, for all intents and purposes, and relatively untraveled by the modern American. I immediately loved her candid, honest descriptions of the way travel on your own, for the first time, really feels. ("Not at all triumphant.")

I read two chapters while sitting in the bookstore, ignoring the books I should have been using to do research for summer classes. Of course, as soon as I need to read about Cuba, I want to read about China. But Gilman's narrative has been absolutely engaging, and very funny.

I wanted to share one bit, that rings so true, on the hubris, the adventure-seeking, and the irony behind The Backpacker. That timeless first-world traveler who seeks the true thrills in life. She muses on this very thought (an irony I think about often) while describing the bar scene she has found in Beijing. After three weeks of travel through southern China, Gilman and her friend arrive in Beijing and head out on their first night to toast the kind strangers who have helped them during the day, when their bicycles broke down a number of times while traversing the city. To celebrate, they wind up at the same bar as many of the other backpackers in the city, all of whom begin a story-telling competition to determine, without actually saying so, who is the most hardcore, who has traveled in the worst conditions, so as to win some sort of invented (but totally real, to them) honor among the crowd.

Soon we were all vying to establish our backpacker' street cred, to prove how intrepidly we'd been traveling, how much discomfort we'd incurred at how little expense. The irony of this was wholly lost on us. We were too young and myopic to recognize the perversity of a logic that equates voluntary deprivation with authentic experience. We thought that by wearing burlap pajamas, contracting intestinal parasites, and opting to ride in third class with "the people," we were somehow being less Western and more Asian. It never seemed to occur to us that only privileged Westerners travel to developing countries in the first place, then use them as playgrounds and laboratories for their own enrichment. Only privileged Westerners consider it a badge of honor to forsake modern amenities for a two-dollar-a-night roach-infested guesthouse. Only privileged Westerners sit around drinking beers at prices the natives can't afford while sentimentalizing the nation's lower standard of living and adopting it as a lifestyle.

The Asians we were seeing, of course, didn't live famished agrarian lives due to some sort of Eastern spirituality or enlightenment. Give most of the world's population our money and opportunity, and they weren't going slumming at all. They were booking a Club Med vacation in Cancun and drinking a mai tai.

Granted, it was good, even admirable, that we young backpackers at least attempted to break through the barriers of culture and class to experience firsthand how people in Southeast Asia really lived. But we were kidding ourselves in thinking that we were somehow transcending our Western privileges by doing this.

She gets exactly at some of the complicated feelings I have about being a Westerner traveling in developing countries. All the same, I find them far more interesting than places like France or Greece. (Not dissing those places, by any means.) I just find so much irony in the whole thing, escaping lives we are so lucky to have, to feel something real. But then, I am so fortunate to have been given a life, a nationality, that allows me to explore far beyond my borders. So, I need to use this blessing, right? Being careful not to Orientalize anyone I encounter, along the way.

Shaolin Temple in the spotlight, and its role in one of the best days of my life

This morning I was reading my copy of the current National Geographic, and the standout piece was the story and photographs of the Shaolin Temple, which stands in the midst of the Song Mountains in Henan Province, China. The temple is serving as both an important component of a resurgence of popularity of kung fu and martial arts in the nation, but it is also hell-bent on branding itself and marketing much of the cultural and historic value that it has, becoming just as much of a tourist money-maker as a place to send your young Chinese son if he's got an attitude problem. Dengfeng, the city nearby, is the modern-day kung fu capital of China, with more than 50,000 boys enrolled in at least 60 different schools in the area (source: Nat Geo article). I got a hint of this enormous population of young men when I visited the Shaolin Temple in May of 2007: just as we were returning to our bus, an unfathomable line of boys in red track suits began marching down the wide road into the complex, and they just kept coming, and coming, and... I was so overwhelmed by the sheer number of people (all teenage boys, too), I tried to take a picture. They all turned out horrible, but I was tickled to find those same red track jackets on the boys featured in the article, which has at least one photo that begins to suggest the huge population of boys living in this region and learning the art of kung fu--which was discouraged during the Mao years, considered an old-fashioned relic of times gone by.

That day was ridiculously hot; in retrospect, looking at my pictures of the Temple and the mountains and scenery, I wistfully forget this detail, preferring to wax nostalgic about the beauty of everything around me. This day traveling among the Song Mountains, between them on winding roads in a gigantic bus, remains one of the best days in my life. That is no overstatement. I was breathless the whole day over the beauty of the mountains, and I could not figure out why. As dusk approached, I realized internally that I had never actually been around mountains of any true enormity. These geographic giants gracing the backdrop of everything we did was an entirely foreign context for me.

As night approached, we attended a show vaguely titled Zen Music Show, which does absolutely no justice for the stunning music and dance that was performed, again in the shadows of the mountains--in fact, using them as part of the story of man and his long relationship to the land, to music, to sounds of nature as being music, and to his own body as a form of art. Again, none of my photos do this night justice at all. But I was in tears over the blessing of such an amazing experience, which I knew would never be recreated in exactly the same way. I floated through the day, and the night was so amazing as to feel surreal. Not to sound crazy or too-far-on-edge, but natural high" might be the most accurate description of this day and subsequent evening.

Add to this the dinner we'd feasted on before the show: a traditional fare of what a monk would eat in a Buddhist monastery, eaten in a monastery that glimmered with fresh flowers, vines, and twinkle lights in its charming courtyard. I honestly do not care if the whole thing was a tourist establishment, because it did not feel this way, and the food was some of the very best I had in China. With meat out of the picture (traditional monks are vegetarian), all the sudden spices and vegetables were the delicious focus, and it was as if the two composed a symphony of flavors together, shining, instead of serving as sideline components to dinner. The vegetables were incredible, cooked perfectly. Nuts, rice, and other key dishes in the monk's mix were also extraordinary. I realize this might have been compounded by my already-blissful feelings on the day, but even while eating the meal and when considered against every other night I ordered food in two months in China, it remains on a very short list of stand-out meals.

The actual Shaolin Temple itself was a bit of a sham: it is proclaimed as ancient and historic. They sort of add on as a parenthetical detail the fact that the actual temple and all extra buildings on the campus were built in the 1980s, as part of the budget for a kung fu movie (kid you not). The one before that had been destroyed during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), when all things deemed "traditional" were slated as insignificant for the new and communist China, and were seen as potential threats that might cause citizens to revert back to old fashioned ways and challenge the larger system. This included arts and religion, and many educators and practitioners of these things were beaten or killed for their interests. (There's a book on the memories of many who have been silent, but who lived through much of this, here.) And the Shaolin Temple that the Red Guard burned then was built in the early twentieth century.

I have lessoned my outrage over time regarding this part of the Temple, as sometimes history happens and we just have to do the best we can with the tumultuous times we witness. Buildings get destroyed, and if they matter enough to the people around it at the time, they are rebuilt. But I had real issues with the way it was portrayed, as the "real thing." The grounds and cemetery are the real thing, where generations of the kung fu masters have their final resting place. That is significant. I remember feeling a bit betrayed when they informed us that this temple was circa 1980s, about as old as me, right at the end of the whole spiel.

One small speck on my day though. All these memories were coming back to me this morning, and I took some time to reflect again on the way I felt that day, and reminded myself again that experiences like that have been vastly influential in my life as a whole. Bites of life like that are what give it so much meaning. And, I was so utterly thankful to be there, drinking in this country, this language, this landscape, so unlike my own.

Modern-day "Peril"? Chinese language in American classrooms, and that long-standing friend-or-enemy dilemma

China has the second-largest economy in the world, a fact that looms ominously over the shoulder of El Numero Uno: the United States. And when you are as connected economically as China and the U.S., it behooves each side to attempt friendliness; it also means it would be nearly impossible for either side to start a conflict with the other, as the economies are so dependent on one another that any such move could bring collapse to both.

And perhaps the most important lesson for the United States to learn, the one it struggles with most, is coming to honest terms with the fact that China is not a democracy. It functions as a fast-paced consumer economy, and does allow more economic freedoms today (like job choice and sometimes location of residency, for example), without really having changed its governmental system at all; much has been written on this unique breed of national existence, this "socialism with Chinese characteristics," and so the basic system remains today--with obvious cracks and some severe humanitarian issues on its plate. America has trouble with this sometimes, this issue of engaging as an ally a country with fundamental differences from its own governmental policies.

Neither condoning nor condemning China's policies, though, it must at least be admitted that China cannot be ignored. Without condoning their humanitarian infractions, myself and many Americans have been able to learn about the Chinese people's language, culture, history, food, and customary idiosyncrasies; each American who speaks Mandarin Chinese is contributing positively to the larger relationship between these two economic powers, to the extent that it is hard for me to understand the neglect this language currently sees in U.S. schools. In urban areas, more is inherently available to students; but in smaller towns, like the one where I went to high school, French and Spanish are the only options, and only through the required level "two." (Let's not get into that larger discussion on our monolinguist nation.) Meanwhile there are 264 million children in China under the age of fourteen, going through school right now, and I'll give you one guess what language they're also learning. It just seems so very clear that we're putting our own children at a disadvantage for their lifetime and their job choices, if they are unable to compete with the bilingual Chinese children who can communicate in both directions in the business and politics of the twenty-first century.

Photo by Mustafah Abdulaziz for Education Week; link to story: the Chinese government has "stretched its linguistics muscles" this year by committing millions of dollars to U.S. schools to build Mandarin language programs in more K-12 schools. In a time of near economic crisis, and definite panic at least, in many schools across the country, this should be a welcome supply of funding, to get kids involved in their global world, and to infuse their studies with a new diversion--beyond their math, science, and social studies regulars. A connection with an Asian culture gives kids a much wider perspective on lifestyles around the world, connects them to a new level with Chinese-Americans in their communities, and, quite simply, gives them a "cool" language to study. Decoding Chinese characters is a thrilling revelation, for anyone who's studied the language.

But naturally, given the menacing vision of China as an economic bully (granted, the fixed Chinese currency is a festering thorn in the side of economic negotiations and discussion), and given its less than stellar past of censorship, political freedom, and dissemination of information, there are bound to be cries of cultural infiltration: these Chinese will infect the minds of our kids! It's Yellow Peril for a new age.

In a recent article from Education Week, this issue was explored. Some see it as accepting resources from a country who will provide language, with a heavy dose of propaganda on the side.

That dust-up caught the notice of Chester E. Finn Jr., a former education official in the Reagan administration and the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington think tank. He argues that public schools should not accept aid from the Chinese government.

“This is not an ally. This is the country on the planet from which the United States faces the largest and most worrisome long-term threats,” he said. “And for its government to be funding our schools to teach its language, I think, is an alarming and menacing development. And that our schools are welcoming this development strikes me as outrageous.”

Countering this, some educators see its value for the future or global relations, as well as for the schoolkids.

“It’s a great opportunity,” William C. Harrison, who chairs the North Carolina state board of education, said of his state’s program, to which China is expected to supply more than $5 million in direct aid and “in kind” services. “The best way to become globally competitive is to develop an understanding of those with whom you compete, being able to communicate with them, and being able to collaborate with them.”

He added: “We’re looking at the number-two economy in the world with prospects to be number one. ... I think it’s in our best interest to develop positive relationships.”

The key lies somewhere in the balance of being economic allies while respecting differences; we don't have the best reputation with that. Shortsightedness now will have a crippling effect on our country's standing in the future, and the people leading it then will be the ones in school now, learning minimal Spanish and French. Our world will look mighty different then; can we find those areas of change now, and adapt?

UPDATE 12/9/2010: Here is another article on America's trials and tribulations in building a Chinese language program in K-12 schools. From Newsweek: "America's Chinese Problem"

Adventures in an undergrad history thesis, or, four months with Young John Allen

The fall semester has ended, and with it, the largest writing project of my life (so far). The function of a senior seminar in history is to prove that you've acquired the skills to read and analyze scholarly work, do research in primary and secondary sources, and develop your own historical argument-- one that contributes to a larger body of work. The final written product needed to be around the 6000-word ballpark; we had four months to become semi-experts on the subjects we were researching, enough time to hopefully learn enough that our own thesis could grow out of the discoveries we made while reading. We read.

For two months we read an array of articles from the Georgia Historical Quarterly, on various topics in Georgia history from the Civil War to the early 1970s. During this time, we were each seeking to become well-read in our respective areas of interest, often guided through the sources by our professor, Dr. David Parker. Then around the end of September, we stopped meeting to discuss articles and hypothetical topics and started using that class time to scour the archives, the library, and the research databases we'd used to much less extent in previous classes: we had to come up with a thesis and flesh it out into a contextual and well-argued history thesis by Dec. 7.

No pressure.

Young J. Allen in his early twenties; he mentions in a letter to his aunt and uncle (who raised him) that he stopped shaving his beard at the outset of the American Civil War. It is apparent that he never picked up the habit again.

I had arrived in this class at the eleventh hour, signing up about two weeks before the start of fall semester-- and without one last prerequisite class I needed. And in fact it was quite surprising to some of my history major friends that I would end up in a Georgia History senior seminar after spending college studying Asia. But several weeks earlier, in mid-July, Dr. Parker and I had found a way to combine these two seemingly unrelated regions: Young John Allen.

Young J. Allen (yes, Young is his first name, not a kindly prefix) graduated from Emory College when it was just a newly-founded school in Oxford, Georgia, and spent his life as a Methodist missionary in Shanghai, China. He left the United States in Dec. 1859 and remained in the Far East until his death there in 1907. His manuscript collection as well as a large library of his own books reside at Emory University in Atlanta, deeming Allen the subject of a day's trek over to the archives at their Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library (MARBL). What started as a fun mini-project for my summer class (which I also took with Dr. Parker) would have to become my senior thesis topic; when else was I going to find a subject that would so perfectly blend documents in Georgia and three years' worth of my knowledge about Chinese culture, language, politics, and religion? Plus, I was raised Methodist, so I would get to know a little more about that history to boot.

What I would discover was much more than the life, failures, and triumphs of Young J. Allen and the Methodist Episcopal Church, South in China, but simply how enthralling it is to pour over documents that he poured over more than a century earlier. Call me a dork, or a call me a historian, but it felt utterly like touching history. Thankfully, he had somewhat legible handwriting, so I read what I could of his hand-written letters, journals, sermons, and notes for the books he wrote. It felt romantic in the way it seems when you read The Historian and follow a generation of historians across Cold War Europe in search of Vlad Tepes (the prince who inspired tales of Dracula) but also monotonous in the way that you feel work must inevitably be. The result is a happy medium, a wholly rewarding experience and with any luck, worthwhile when you sit down to write.

What did I find?

Allen would spend his life devoted to not only evangelism but the added social goals of education, journalism, writing, and translating.

I found a man inspired by God, baffled by Confucius, and bound to pragmatism. The state of the young Methodist mission was sad when he arrived, and much as he tried to expand it, the American Civil War stole any hope of support or funding from abroad. Allen and his fellow missionary J. W. Lambuth spent nearly a decade working odd jobs to keep themselves afloat. Their families were present in Shanghai too; in fact, Allen had six children with his wife Mary Houston Allen, but only three survived past toddlerhood. By the time funding returned in any sense, Allen had made his own revelation about Chinese society. The non-receptive citizens he'd been preaching to had been anything but successful; but the young men he taught while working at a government school seemed just the type, the upper class families, who may have more influence in a hierarchical Confucian society. Maybe, he decided, reaching these people first and educating them in western subjects (including but not exclusively Christianity) could later influence more people through the top-down formation of their citizenship. These people would not only receive the accompanying western education that Allen considered paramount, but might have more success at reaching the laypeople with whom he'd become so disenchanted.

Allen spent the rest of his life working to varying degrees in education in Shanghai. The Anglo-Chinese College, Shanghai would eventually merge with two others to become Suzhou University in 1901, which had been one of his life's goals. He would also play his hand in journalism and publishing, using his Wan-kuo kung-pao magazine to propel a combination of world and national news, essays on religion, and attacks on Confucian lifestyle. He contributed many translations of tomes on politics and religion, including The Relations Between East and West that was popular among his colleagues and governmental gentry. He wrote several books of his own as well, including one that you can find on Google Books today (by the way, it's in Chinese!). While he did not abandon his evangelistic goals, he expanded those initial plans by adding his social missions to his ambitious strategy to win converts. He wound up somewhere in between fully accepting Confucian society and fully condemning it, and allowed students to learn about Christianity in a non-pressured way. At the end of the day, he saw both mental and spiritual parts of man to be significant.

My thesis touches on this and other aspects of what made Allen a combination of the two worlds of missionary work that grew out of that late nineteenth and early twentieth century, as Americans and other missionaries encountered reluctant natives in the field; a strong camp of traditional strictly evangelical missionaries would go forth alongside the newer social progress proponents. It wound up being around 8000 words (thirty pages double-spaced). I had an embarrassing number of library books checked out from mine and other university libraries across Georgia.

It was an incredible exercise in being a historian. Almost every person in my ten-student class ended up spending at least a few days in an archive somewhere in Georgia, from Emory to Koinonia Farm and in between. What any of these theses will become in the future remains to be seen, but I think we all felt like historians during those months. I am one of the only living experts on Young J. Allen, and I think that's pretty darn cool.

My bread-and-butter

Having finished the first half of the semester, I have finished writing one of the two main research papers that have been assigned to me this spring. The first was the easier one, and also the less interesting of the two. The second is the one I turn to now, to focus my attention and tackle head-on. Sitting at the very beginning of projects like this is the worst part for me; the whole thing looming in front of me is intimidating. The paper is not due until the final week of class, around April 21 I think, but this is going to require a lot of thought and time. I also hate hate the crunch feeling of finishing a huge assignment the day (or even last few days) before it is due. So, ahead I charge. The assignment (for my World Since 1945 class) is to research an event of international political significance that has taken place between 1945 and 1999. Approaching it at a specific angle-- versus just attempting to do "the Vietnam War"-- we need to examine three primary sources relating to that event. So basically, I need three sources coming from the time period that the event occurred, analized and compared in 5 pages. I've not done much yet in my career in history with primary sources, and that is essentially the bread-and-butter of an historian's job. Examining the documents (journals, letters, government documents, etc.) that remain from history give us the real insight. It is when the analysis comes in that books and essays are created, giving us the perspectives we may have on history. You have historians to thank for compiling and tidying much of the history you know.

For my topic, I have chosen the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution that Mao Tse-tung began in communist China in the 1960's. His confidence that tradition and intellectuals would ruin the socialist society was so strong, thousands died in the wake of their attempted obliteration. This is when the Red Guard came to be, and images  still linger of young children in their Maoist uniforms patrolling their country for "revisionists" who posed a threat to the state.

From this period of Chinese history I will draw several primary sources and narrow it down to the three that best bring varying viewpoints to the table. My initial research returned several works of compiled documents from the state and Mao, a compilation of first-person accounts of the response of Chinese villagers and peasants, and several works from reporters and diplomats from abroad who experienced the Cultural Revolution firsthand while there. I will be going through these sources and others, and hopefully narrowing it all down to my main three points of view on the singular movement. From there, I will look at the Cultural Revolution as an entity and use those three viewpoints to analyze it; vise-versa, I will use the context of the Cultural Revolution to analyze what is said in the documents I choose.

Sitting at the start, this seems like both a daunting and exhilarating project. But at the same time, this is an essential part of doing research-- looking at primary sources. And I couldn't ask for more flexibility in the topic, nor for a better topic. China is, after all, full of intrigue for a foreigner. So, I must get started.

Our “Flat” World: Revelations for an American in China

In The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century, journalist Thomas Friedman theorizes that through a series of significant events and developments, the world has become—hence the title—flat. This means the playing field in everything from the availability of information to the producing of software, furniture, and foods had been leveled in ways no one could have dreamed even just thirty years ago.

Friedman explains his theory in terms of ten “flatteners,” or pivotal occurrences which have given the world the appearance and opportunities it has today. I have been exploring this book throughout my time in China, and have been blown away by the things I have learned. Even as a young person in such a fast-paced, quickly changing world, there are forces at work behind closed doors that I never dreamed of. I buy products from Wal-Mart, am a slave to my iPod and laptop computer. I use the internet for everything from research to networking with friends to shopping, and expect instant results and all the information that relates to whatever I’m looking for. I grocery shop expecting to see the same assortment of vegetables and fruits year-round and call 24-hour-a-day service centers and have technology repaired within days of the initial malfunction.

Within all this, I understand that there have been great advances in the service, quality, price, and availability of all this; however, I had no idea the fundamental innovations and trends that the last two decades have held in making my life the way it is. Starting with the fall of the Berlin Wall (therefore creating a relatively unified sort of direction of the world—no longer split by two major polarities and their opposing economic systems) and the implementation of Windows as means to run PCs, Friedman tracks the progression of our world into one of open-sourcing, outsourcing, offshoring, supply-chaining, insourcing, and in-forming—all greatly allowed by the laying of fiber-optic cable across the world and the extreme growth and development of the Internet and technology powerful enough to handle all this.

“Flattener #6” is offshoring, specifically the immense impact China’s manufacturing and production had had on the world and how businesses run, make money, and maintain themselves. China’s role is raising the stakes across the board, in business and trade, in education, and in technology, making the world a more competitive place.

Right now, I see a China that is definitely developing, an odd paradox that contrasts glossy, western-influenced shopping centers, high rises, and new cars against piles of rubble, slums, and squeaky rickshaws and bicycles. Comparing this to my native land, it would be easy for me to dismiss this massive nation as simply developing, to think that hopefully one day it will set its feet firm on the international playing field.

Even after learning in classes and through the media about all the places China is headed, seeing firsthand how much of its current situation is provincial, impoverished and undeveloped could make the uneducated eye skeptical. That is why augmenting my trip with The World is Flat has been so enriching. On several occasions I have been so amazed by what I’ve learned—things that exist and take place in my world every single of which I had no idea—that I have exclaimed out loud, in excitement and revelation. Those who have been around me know how often I mention something I’ve read in Friedman’s book, how often his name comes up. It is all particularly pertinent to those of us on this trip, as we are the ones who will be bridging the relations between our own nation and the huge global power we are visiting and observing.

I recommend the book to anyone interested in global current events or business. This might sound boring, but don’t be afraid of the book’s size (469 pages) or its classification as current events—I assure you the way Friedman presents his theories is interesting and exciting. He explains things in terms that the average person can understand, appreciate, and delight in.

The World is Flat has extremely enhanced my experience in China, and will make me more observant and aware upon my return to the United States.

Thoughts on History: Part II

Continuing my discourse on history, and what that concept means and entails, I will admit that I am skeptical of the history I have seen in China. A good illustration of my reasoning came with the field trip my history class took to Anyang, an ancient Chinese city and the location of the famous oracle bone inscriptions. Before visiting the site, we were assigned some reading about the meaning and significance of the oracle bones and their messages, the tombs of leaders and their wives, and the human sacrifices and huge graves that were prepared in their names, including the burying of entire carriages with the horses that would “pull” them in the afterlife. Although I found this type of tomb preparation a bit absurd, I felt prepared and was interested to visit these relics.

What I found were some rather subtly announced “recreations” of what the oracle bones might have looked like during the time of their use, which were displayed outside. Inside a little room, the “real” bones lay in a dimly-lit pit, in piles of indiscernible rubble. Owing to the condition of these, I was dubious to believe that even these “authentic” ones were the oracle bones, laying in that condition.

The clincher for my dismissal of authenticity came when looking at the human sacrifices: skeletons laying in pits under round glass enclosures, soaking in the sun so the tourists could marvel over them. Doesn’t it seem a bit odd that “ancient skeletons” would be exposed to various weather and temperature conditions for the sake of attracting tourism?

Seems to me that thousand-year-old human remains might have to be contained in proper storage. Upon close inspection, it was clear that some of the skeletons were real. I don’t doubt that—I’m sure some humans were sacrificed, or at least utilized after dying anyway, when this site was being established. Perhaps during the Cultural Revolution? Punishment for political insurrection?

Another example is the Shaolin Temple. It’s beautiful, no denying that, and the site itself has a long and significant history in China and within Buddhism. The tour guide then explains that the temples were destroyed many times, and the most recent ones were built in the 1980s.

Oh, OK. That takes away some of the grandeur the visit may have held for me. I’ve lived in houses much older than that.

The phrase I like to use to explain my process of viewing history now is the old aphorism of taking life “with a grain of salt.” I can absorb the things I see— the temples, museums, mausoleums, relics, pagodas, walls, and their stories—and appreciate what they stand for, and what they mean to the nation who holds them as part of their past. I then move on, knowing that what these stand for is much more important than the actual items or sites themselves. It is unwise and unnecessary to consider these things as more than they are—and placing undue authenticity on them just doesn’t make sense to me.

This process builds on something I learned last fall in a “world language and culture” class. In reading any set of statistics, one can often see the agenda of the publishers of such information. My professor— herself an absolutely brilliant and delightful intellectual—emphasized the importance of also approaching maps and history this same way. Cartographers also have an agenda; they are out to prove their point.

Political maps? Chock-full of biases. Maps detailing which languages are spoken where, or which religions are practiced most? That research changes according to who is retrieving it.

The same is the case with history. As I said in my previous discourse, history is distorted over time, across borders, in various contexts, for different races, religions, and economies

I take it all with a grain of salt. I learn as much as I can with the best use of the resources available, and also keep in mind that I’m storing this information in a western-bred mind. Being outside one’s own culture does emphasize what is not consciously considered when within it—how deeply people are defined by their society.

This resonates with the studying of history; ask a Ukrainian child and American child about the Cold War and you will get two different accounts. Ask a Japanese student and a Chinese student about the presence of Japanese military in Nanjing, China, and you will hear two different tales, with different enemies and reasoning behind the event.

So can I really blame the Chinese for wanting to present a rich, deeply archeological past? There’s no doubt they have this history. Seeing the relics and sites so far, I have established my own perception of all this history, and it has altered the way I see history. It is an important revelation; for the rest of my life, I will see history in other countries and other contexts and take it all in with a grain of salt, stepping away from the biases presented at face value, and appreciating it all for what it stands for.

Thoughts on History: Part I

The more I learn and see in my life, the more I am convinced that “history” is a multi-faceted term, and that history itself is largely subjective, relative to time and location, and deeply influential in national psyche. Within each city, museum, temple, mausoleum, and other culturally significant thing I have visited, I am reminded constantly of China’s truly ancient civilizations. This is something that is remarkable in the mind of an American, as my nation’s history stretches only so far as the discovery of the Americas in the late fifteenth century. Compared to China, North America and the United States specifically are infants in terms of social evolution, innovation, war, and cultural identity.

China was also the homeland of one the four academically accepted “cradles of civilization,” the areas of earliest known human habitation. While I might consider my own nation’s history—early New England settlers, western expansion, the famed founding fathers, entrepreneurialism, the advent of television, rock & roll, and fast food, for instance—to be lengthy, progressive, dynamic, and influential, it is relatively uneventful compared to the thousands of years that China has been cultivating its own stories.

While touring half a dozen museums full of relics from the past does lose its novelty, there is something remarkable about statements like, “This was from the Shang dynasty, dating back around three thousand years.” It makes centuries of history seem frighteningly minuscule in relation to the life span of individuals, and puts in perspective the relative significance of different nations and civilizations and different times in history.

As an American in the 21st Century, I tend to think of the U.S. as an everlasting leader, more owing to my American psyche than by my understanding and education. While I have always been fully aware of the fleeting leadership of any nation, mine included, being in China and learning about its long and dynamic history have put that idea into more literal and realistic terms

One thing my history teacher in Zhengzhou mentioned was that Chinese people tend to each claim a favorite dynasty from their nation’s past, and that which one they choose is largely suggestive of that person’s character. This is an interesting observation, and I have found China’s past to indeed be largely influential within the nation and upon its citizens.

What comprises history and fact changes depending on who one asks, the context in which said information is analyzed, and its relation to other, correlating and opposing histories. I find that the more I interpret and understand Chinese history, my grasp on world history and U.S. history is also challenged, reaffirmed, and adjusted.