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?

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.

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.

Visit to Best International School, Zhengzhou

On our last full day in Zhengzhou, after having finished up our two classes and all the accompanying readings and papers, our group of exhausted Americans got a final treat. We had been invited to Best International School to celebrate International Children’s Day with the students. The school is bilingual, so the students study both Chinese and English, in addition to their other subjects. As the institution is private, I gleaned that it was a rather substantial investment to send a child there. I would say, however, that the money seems to be well-invested, because the facilities were impressive, the staff seemed large, and the children’s English was exceptionally adept. To illustrate the conditions in which the children learn, the interior courtyard— surrounded by classrooms and other facilities—boasted a huge indoor pool.

We were told that International Children’s Day is a very important holiday to the children of China, as it is a day to celebrate being a child. Our entire 30-plus group was shuttled to the school, in downtown Zhengzhou, via Best International charter busses. Along the way, we were assigned groups of several students and a teacher as an assistant. We would spend the day with our group, get to know them, play and have fun, and celebrate being a student and a child at any age.

Our arrival was met with hundreds of primary and elementary-school aged kids lined up along the front stairs of the school. As we pulled up, they began shouting, singing, and laughing, excited about their guests and the day of events ahead. Getting off the bus and walking into the school, it felt what I assume it would feel like to be a celebrity—aware that all eyes are on you. As I have no experience with that feeling, I was by no means numb to it, and couldn’t keep a straight face. The kids were all wearing their uniform red or blue Best T-shirts, and full of energy; for lack of a better word, they were absolutely adorable.

We met our groups and enjoyed a performance of dance, music, and speaking that the older students had prepared. Our day was spent with the older children, upper elementary, as they have a better grasp on English and are able to make friendships with us more easily. My group was four students, most notably Robin, who was always ready to be in the middle of the action. Incidentally, he was also the chubbiest student of the entire group, which along with his personality, I immediately found endearing. The kids all presented me with greeting cards that they had hand-made and decorated with stickers, markers, and other embellishments they felt would welcome me graciously. To date they are my favorite souvenirs from my time in China.

Heading into the center courtyard (where the pool is located), the kids informed me that we were going to have dumpling- and noodle-making contest. They were very excited to learn that I had made dumplings before (with my host family in Zhengzhou, during our Sunday afternoon together), and were keen to win.

The traditional Chinese dumpling is something I rarely see in America, and definitely not a part of standard U.S. Chinese food. It is one of the things I will miss most as far as food; in fact, I know already that although some of it is strange and not at all appetizing to me, the real Chinese food I’ve had here will make American-style pale in comparison. It will be awhile, I think, before I pick up a plate of American Chinese food upon my return to the U.S.

Turns out we were not the fastest dumpling-makers in the world. However, in an act of true elementary school anticipation, award medals had been collected for all participants. In the middle of the “medals” were tiny chocolate coins, of which Robin quickly proceeded to eat two (I’m not even sure how he found two…).

His talents came out (or at least his excitement and pride) when the noodle-making started. Thick, hand-made noodles are also a staple of the Chinese diet, cooked in broth and mixed with various meats and vegetables. Robin explained that he was an excellent noodle-maker, and that sometimes he prepared them at his own home, as help when his mom was still at work. I loved his enthusiasm and the command he had of his thick strand of dough.

After all the groups ceremoniously received their medals, we entertained the students (in true Chinese performance entertainment) with our rendition of the Hokey-Pokey.

A mass exit and hand-washing led us back outside, for lunch. Steaming carts on wheels provided us with hot, delicious egg-and-vegetable dumplings, Chinese rolls, vegetables, rice, and dim sum (another authentic type of food, little pastry-like items stuffed with various things, including meat mixtures, vegetables, or sweet bean paste—my personal favorite). Hot, fruity tea was also served, which I found to be an interesting fusion of Chinese culture and kids’ universal taste for excessively sugared drinks.

Recess followed, and was the final event of our time with them. The school seemed to really value a strong education, and as such, fostered healthy, curious, and loved children. Matt, one of the American boys, had made such an impact on one of his little girls that she burst into tears and attached herself to him as we made to leave. There were hugs abounding, and smiles on every student’s face, Chinese and American alike.

The day passed quickly, and was a perfect way to draw a close to our time in Zhengzhou, a connection to the city and its children that I will remember and value long after they graduate from Best International.

The school posted photos from our visit, which you can see at http://www.best-intl-school.com/hd/61x/index.htm.

Do You Speak Chinglish?

As a native English speaker arriving in China, one of the first things I noticed was the English translations of many signs, billboards, advertisements, brand names, labels, and other items. Initially, I found it helpful. It is also a telling piece of evidence to both the growing popularity of English as a second language in China and an increased number of non-native English speakers visiting, doing business, and studying in China. It does not take long to find oddly-phrased, jumbled, or even nonsensical translations is these signs, providing a little comic relief while perhaps visiting a historical sight, using a public restroom, or throwing something in a trash can. It is a largely lovable aspect of daily life for an English speaker in China.

As one of my friends in the general studies program pointed out, the translations can sometimes point to aspect of Chinese society, values, and language characteristics, and can be quite telling. The signs warning against walking through the grass or harming the trees, for instance, usually personify the plant, asking guests not to harm the plant. Stating that the protected plants have feelings offers a subtle insight into Chinese and Confucian values of existing in harmony with the earth and everything it contains. I found this intriguing and quite accurate.

There is an effort among government and its officials, however, to adjust these “Chinglish” translations, as they have come to be known. English-speaking university faculty are being called upon to assist in the effort to put better, more aptly-stated English translations on many signs on streets and in major tourist locations across China. Beijing in particular is being targeted for Chinglish clean-up, in preparation for the 2008 Olympic Games and the arrival to the city of hundreds of thousands of visitors, many among them English-speakers.

Some of my favorites I captured on film, and they are an interesting, funny collection so far.

Illegible

Instead of "King of Beef Noodles"... NO SNOKING!!! A place for you to put your organisms

Someone named "carefully" has the electricity...

Beijing, Architecture, and the Chinese People

I first became interested in Chinese architecture when I read journalist Ian Johnson’s book Wild Grass: Three Portraits of Change in Modern China about one year ago. The book is a well-researched account of three different situations where Chinese people are standing up for their rights within the confines of Chinese policy and government philosophy. Through Johnson’s accounts of conversation with Chinese people living in Beijing, I learned about the paradox between Beijing’s lasting cultural history and its modern changes, growth, and aim towards leading China into the 21st Century and into a significant role in the world. Beijing is a city rooted in culture and history, but arguably, the changes taking place rapidly in Beijing and across China are jeopardizing both those aspects of the nation. One of the focuses of Johnson’s research was the tearing down of the city’s hutongs, which are narrow streets that run throughout the city. Think of a hutong like an artery pumping through a city—it’s lifeblood, and home to millions of its citizens. According to many accounts, the government is confiscating homes within these neighborhoods that have housed many generations of families, dislocated those residents to slums miles away, ultimately compensating for grossly little of what was taken. Attempting to present their case to a court, petitioning groups of Beijingers have been making slow progress (with much failure and many setbacks) towards retrieving compensation—or at least increasing awareness of this process. The 2008 Olympic Games and the overall development of the city contribute to the death of the hutongs and other sources of Chinese society and culture.

I did not forget what I had learned, and came to China and Beijing curious as to what I might really find or witness. Indeed, across the city, it is evident of the vast changes taking place in Beijing, the construction of buildings, high rises, major highways, and the destruction of things that may have previously occupied that space. The city’s appearance is a representation of China: its identity truly hanging somewhere along the spectrum of agriculturally-based developing nation and one of the world’s next dominating powers.

Fortunately we took a tour, via rickshaws, through several of the hutongs. I was able to peek firsthand into these vessels, these intimate neighborhoods where government officials live behind ornate gates, next-door to laborers who might live with several families. What I saw were real people, living everyday lives in this major city, and I found the proximity of living quarters to be very communal—and therefore wholly Chinese. We got to visit one the homes (although I think it involved the residents’ ability to market their goods to an even greater audience, most specifically American tourists), see the interior, and feel for ourselves the atmosphere of close-quartered living. It was my favorite part of our visit to Beijing, and one of the most memorable things for me thus far. I liked the personal connection I felt to the city and its people, and I also felt that I had a slight piece of insight into what might be missing if the destruction I’d read about continued, and at the same pace.

I enjoyed the visit, in its personal affect of me; it was also an important experience in that I have both the journalistic research of others and my own personal experience and feelings on this one aspect of a modernizing China. It has stirred a reflective, rather reluctant emotion, a mix between celebration of culture, sadness about the homogenization that comes with globalization, longing for this historical, intimate community, and pity for the same community’s current condition and predicament.

For the history class I took in Zhengzhou in May, I wrote my final paper on the relationship I had discovered between Chinese and their architecture. Further traveling through China brought several new insights related to the close connection they have to their history, and the implications it holds, and this interested me because of what I had learned and seen. Looking to their past as guidance for present and future, the Chinese as a society are widely influenced by their nation’s history, and within this, their architecture. I found this to be an interesting paradox, as China moves ever-towards becoming fully modern.

I wonder, is it possible for China to maintain its same relationship with its history— and incidentally, its architecture—while growing more capitalistic with each new towering high-rise or all-inclusive shopping center?

I continue to ponder and analyze this question, each time I walk along a city street or watch the bustling life blur past the window of our little bus.