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Caroline’s Wild Ride (In China)

May 8, 2008

As most of you may know, Joe V. has just returned from a trip to China. Joe shared some stories about his trip with FCNL staff last week, and it got me thinking about the month that I spent in China a few summers ago.

While Joe’s trip was overseen by committees of the Chinese government, mine was organized by Danny Tang, a 17 year-old college classmate of mine, and her father, a college English professor. When I signed on to the trip in May 2004, I was told that my fellow travelers and I (about 12 of us) would be staying in Guiyang, the capital city of the Guizhou province and teaching middle-schoolers English at the university there.

I arrived in mid-July, flying from New York to Beijing by way of Tokyo, and then taking a 36-hour “hard sleeper” train (read, open bunks, 6 bunks to each open cubby) to Guiyang. The first morning in Guiyang, I realized that this trip was going to be very different from how it was described: more chaotic and at times unsettling.

Instead of teaching a class of students in a classroom, I was assigned as the head of a “family” of students, with whom I was to converse in English as we traveled around Guizhou and the neighboring Hunan province. When I first met them, each of my students told me their English moniker (and refused to give me their Chinese names). My little family was made up of Caroline (me), Peter, Martin, Anna, Jane, and Cherry. (One of my friends had two girls who had named themselves Car and Blue). The kids were great, and knew English pretty well for 12 to 13 year-olds. They were definitely the best part of the adventures I would experience in the coming weeks.

I could write for pages about what those adventures were, but the list includes: climbing up six hundred uneven steps to the top of Fan Jin mountain (view from the top pictured below) and staying there for two nights,

Visiting a traditional ethnic village that had clearly been optimized by the Miao people (majority ethnic Chinese are known as Han Chinese) who lived there for tourists – and they seemed to be making a profit (note the satellite dish),

And the best part: staying with Anna’s family for four days in a small city called Liupanshui. After a rough couple of weeks traveling around with the kids, Anna’s family was so welcoming, taking me out to dinner every night, giving me a traditional Chinese dress (They had me try it on at the store, and after commenting on my large American hips took my clothes away so I could wear it for the rest of the night – to teach English in!), and even taking me to Anna’s school, where I got to answer questions from three different classes of about 50 students. The subjects ranged from whether I was allowed to have a boyfriend, to what my favorite food was, to my feelings about Taiwan. On this outing I also got to meet the local party secretary, who invited me to take up residence in Liupanshui and teach English full time.

Whew. Feel confused about where I went and what I did? At the end of the trip so did I. In fact, I took the few extra days we had before our plane left for home to fly to Beijing and see the Forbidden City, Great Wall, Tiananmen Square, and eat at the famous Peking duck restaurant (just vegetables though, I was a vegetarian). This last part of the trip reminded me how special the first had been – the flight and sightseeing in the capital was overseen by a business colleague of one of friends father’s and this pampered-business-tourist view was just the opposite of how I had perceived China in Guizhou.

And what was that perception exactly? Though I found the trip frustrating at times (for example when we took 5 “days of rest” because one of my fellow travelers came down with dysentery – didn’t that end after the Oregon Trail?), I believe that it was a fairly genuine look at China in the early 21st century. I saw both devastating poverty and rapid development (check out the Louvre-inspired Walmart below). The most striking impression (probably given the kids I was working with) was of a burgeoning middle class, at once desperate to emulate the west, and also to maintain their distinct national identity. At the core, China didn’t seem to me so different from the states – the upper-middle class Chinese kids I met with reminded me a lot of myself when I was an upper-middle class 12 year-old.

That’s my small experience with China. My good friend Nina, who was on the trip and currently lives in Beijing (she has also studied in Shanghai and a northern city called Harbin), tells me our experience that summer was totally different than most of her subsequent time in the country. But I think her reaction underscores that China is a real, complex country just like our own – and it is important to understand it in all its complexities. And the time to do so is now.

Since I’m based out of D.C., some policy thoughts:

Charm Offensive: How China’s Soft Power is Transforming the World

China’s Competing Nationalisms

Managing Sino-American Crises: Case Studies and Analysis

The Right Way to Pressure Beijing

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