Wednesday, May 6, 2009

The Charm & Challenge of China

Two and half years before I adopted my daughter, when my girl was nothing more than the germ of an idea planted, lying in wait, at the back of my mind, I decided to go to China.

I figured if adoption was feasible, if motherhood was pending, I should try and sate my appetite for adventure while I had the chance. I’d always wanted to see the Great Wall and thought, if I was going to adopt from China, it made sense to visit – to see if I felt an affinity for the people and the culture.

REI offered a bike tour through southeast China’s most picturesque country, through Guangdong and Guangxi provinces. The literature waxed poetic, painting peaceful, pastoral scenes of picturesque hamlets, villages, farms, crystal clear running rivers, and towering karst limestone mountains, scenes that inspired China’s great painters and poets. I signed on and convinced my friend Carol to join me. We embarked on rigorous training rides, imagining, anticipating the bucolic charms of China.

The reality proved slightly different.

By November ‘98, I found myself biking along a dirt path bisecting a long and narrow dike. It was our group’s first day out riding on open roads -- but all I could think was how relieved I was to leave the smog, the tension of the cities and towns, the odd looks from the locals, the stern lectures from our guide, and the ominously empty 7 Star Crag Park with its haunting lakes and lush gardens. To say the trip had strange, uneasy beginnings, that I had misgivings, was an understatement.

Our small group of six had flown into Hong Kong, briefly explored the smog-infested city, and stayed the night. Early the next morning, we boarded a commuter ferry and rode 4 hours up the Pearl River, deeper into the smog, squinting through thick layers of gray and brown haze. Factories and cranes, -- heavy industry -- hugged the shoreline.

I’m in China, I thought. So why am I thinking …Newark, New Jersey?

I exchanged nervous glances with Carol but said nothing. We landed in the PRC, in the town of Zhaoqing, and met our guide and driver. As we bumped and bounced along in our shock-absorbent-free tour van, our guide, Ji-wei, turned to welcome us. He had a solid muscular build, short cropped hair, a wholesome face, and a broad, handsome smile. Using close-to-impeccable English, he gave us an introduction, a lecture really, on modern China’s history.

China, or Chinese, he explained, was really Western nomenclature. For thousands of years, the people have called their country Zhōngguó, meaning central or middle kingdom, the world that lies between the celestial heavens and the underworld. (Hint, hint, he seemed to be saying, the center of civilization.) Mao Tse Tung the father of modern China, defeated the corrupt, debauched General Chiang Kai-Shek after a long and difficult civil war. (The notion of a Communist Revolution, again, was a western construct.) The Russians were not involved but America had meddled intrusively, backing the evil General. Mao understood and supported the people, lifting China up and out of oppressive imperial rule and medieval privilege. Deng Xiao Ping brought economic reforms and further transformed the country.

Lecture complete, the group stopped for lunch at an eerily empty resort, a place bounded by karst limestone formations and filled with pools, lakes, quiet paths, pavilions, pagodas, and lush green gardens. With little explanation (and a touch of disdain?) our guide noted the man who’d designed and built the elegant 7 Star Crag Park had paid for it with his life -- in the Cultural Revolution.

What to say? The group grew silent. Had I made a mistake? What were we doing here? I avoided Carol’s glances.

We climbed back into the van and headed deeper into the country. The van stopped again and Carol and I, and the others, tested and fitted our bikes. We set out, peddling, climbing a path up onto the dike, looking for a touch of something less …official, less ominous, more authentic.

A school girl rode her bike up beside us. She asked timidly, in broken English, if we were American. We nodded, smiled, and showed her our map. She offered to show us the way and asked if she might ride with us and practice her English. We nodded, Sure. We rode. We chatted. We began to relax.

Over the next 9 days, we biked 50-60 miles a day -- and encountered China, in all its rich, confusing complexity. We found a rapidly changing landscape, a country undergoing massive change, on a massive scale. We found a people, a culture, as charming as it was forbidding.

We biked through the country and saw paddies, fields, and farmland that glowed green and gold in the sun, even as coal factories hovered on the horizon, belching black plumes of unscrubbed smoke. We watched fishermen setting their nets, families working their fields, threshing rice, raking grain, burning the empty stalks. Those who weren’t fishing or working the land, dug ditches, lay roads, logged forests, erected new concrete and brick structures.

Everyone worked. Well, almost everyone. We passed clusters of men in small towns, lingering in pool halls, smoking, loitering in the square, leering as we passed. We noticed more often than not, that women and children worked in the fields. They carried astonishing loads, on heads, shoulders, bikes, and backs, lugging firewood, brush, persimmons, potatoes, hay, and big buckets of water. They smiled as we passed even when their bodies bowed under the loads they bore.
Some of the people were poor. Dirt poor. We passed a few places where hygiene seemed non-existent. The bathrooms were the worst I’d ever seen, putrid, open air fly-fests.

Ji-wei reminded us of China’s difficult history, of floods, famine, and quakes, of the terrible loss of life. The forces of nature prevailed. In the end, human life was fragile -- and cheap. It’s why, he explained, nature looms large in classical Chinese painting. Humans are small, insignificant figures against a larger landscape.

I looked for ways to encourage our typically tight lipped guide to share more of his life and culture. When I learned he had an 8 year old daughter, I asked for the stories he told her. He shared two examples:

The first was the story of a boy who rescued a sick, injured wolf he saw scrambling to escape a horde of hungry villagers. The boy took the wolf home and nursed him back to health. Later, when suspicious villagers confronted the boy, he hid the wolf in the folds of his coat. But the wolf chewed through the boy’s stomach -- and the boy dropped to his death.

Ji-wei stopped.

That’s it? I asked, somewhat shocked. (Where was the happy ending? )

Uh huh, Ji-wei nodded.

And.. the moral of the story is..?

If you show your enemy weakness, Ji-wei replied, he will destroy you.


Ji-wei launched right into his second example, a tale of a famous general. His troops had fought a long, hard campaign but ended up outnumbered, cornered with their backs to the sea. Several ships lay at anchor nearby but, as the enemy approached, the general burned every last ship, the men’s sole means of escape. The soldiers were forced to stand and fight.

So... they beat the odds and won? I asked hopefully.

No. Ji-wei replied. They were slaughtered.

I paused, eyebrows elevated. And, the lesson is…?
True patriotism is when you stand and fight to the finish -- even in the face of terrible odds.

It was the last story I asked for.

We continued along open roads, biking from town to town. We passed men peddling to market on rattling, rusted bikes that creaked and groaned with the weight of 200 pound pigs, or huge 100 pound sacks of grain slung over the back of the bike. We passed women hacking raw boulders out of the hillside. They wore straw hats, thin blouses, cotton trousers, and flip flops and worked with young children seated beside them.

It dawned on us what a sight we were -- in our space-age helmets, special shoes, spandex shorts, and padded seat pants. We rode brightly colored bikes with aluminum frames and fat tires, using fancy sprockets and shifters. We carried maps and a camera.

And yet, while a few people hid, or averted their gaze, others stopped and stared at us openly. More more often than not, the stares turned to grins, then smiles. They welcomed us with great curiosity and warmth. Mothers held up their children and waved. School boys rushed to greet us while the girls, more bashful, held back, wide-eyed, soaking in the sight of us.

One small girl with dirty hands, dirty face, dirty clothes, ran to bring me a present: a single, soot-covered taro. I was loathe to take it (was it dinner?) but I couldn’t refuse her.

We passed through local “hamlets” -- towns of 200,000, small cities of 500,000, and mid-sized cities of millions. We dodged pedestrians, pushcarts, pedal carts, pigs, bicyclists, buffalo, cars, cats, trucks, ruts, boulders, ditches, and dogs. The sheer number of people was staggering.

At the end of the trip, I traveled north to see Xian and Beijing. Streets and shops with neon signs promoted modern life’s amenities, from designer clothes to electronic gadgets. Young women wore make-up and tight trendy clothing. Men sported suits and cell phones. Still, signs of poverty and ill-health remained. I don’t recall seeing anyone with a weight problem and the smiles of many, especially the elderly, revealed crowded teeth, crooked teeth, missing teeth, even blackened yellow teeth. Beggars, some deranged, some deformed, wandered at will.

I saw the Terra Cotta warriors, the Great Wall, the Imperial and Summer Palaces and marveled. But I cringed at the sound of long throaty wind-ups, at men flinging their phlegm. I watched in amazement as parents held out their babies to pee through split pants at the edge of a public sidewalk. And I winced at the treatment of rabbits, chicks, cats, and dogs in various public markets.

We arrived back in the States and it felt good to be home. I looked through my pictures and saw China had so many different textures, so many different faces: people like Ji-wei, the official face of China. But also everyday people, the men, women and children we passed in farms, on fields, by the rivers and roads -- the unofficial China, the people trying to eek out a life, all the while smiling and welcoming us with a warmth that was hard to forget.

My favorite photo remains the one I took of the school girl we met that first day on the dike. She looks back over her shoulder and holds up her finger, as if she is pointing the way, beckoning me on toward my future.

Now my daughter and I join other FCC families. We celebrate Chinese New Year, Egg hunts, Moon festivals, and Heritage Camps. My daughter loves learning the language. She loves the martial arts, the dances, the costumes, the chance to perform. I watch her partake with pride. But part of me wonders if she’s learning Chinese culture or, if really she’s learning what is, for the most part, white, adoptive America’s take on Chinese culture. And I wonder someday if, when she travels to China, she will discover a deep rooted connection but also, a dissonance -- confronting that part of herself that is, like her mother, deeply American.

1 comment:

patti said...

Hi, just found you thru the Adoptive Parenting list. Great blog. I'm a single mom to 2 from China - 9 in August and just turned 6. My almost 9 year old has struggled a lot with China, birthparents, abandonment, but for the most part has kept her feelings from me. We've only had a couple of times when she couldn't hold things back and I actually got to talk to her and hear her talk back. Now her grief manifests itself mostly as a disdain, if not hatred for everything Chinese. Including people we know, which is quite distressing. She has told her younger sister that she is "over all that Chinese stuff. I'm American now." Ha, NOT. I took her to a Jane Brown workshop, but it seemed to anger her even more. I was going to take them back to China this fall, but have put it off indefinitely. I have a feeling she may just implode during a trip to China, so now that will wait until SHE asks for it. In the meantime, I'm thinking of taking them to visit Ireland, land of MY ancestors, to see if that would soften her up to exploring other places. I really want to explore China again. I loved the place, for all the difficulties of the trips.