Saturday, December 31, 2011


I am Shanghai and my buildings are budding, reaching beyond steel to their organic counterparts.

I am a building that flowers at the top. I am shooting glass, reaching upwards 1,555 feet, giving visitors who climb my 101 stories astounding views of the city far below

I am Shanghai and business happens here. Men in white shirts, tucked in with no jackets or ties, look busy. Women travel through my streets in designer dresses sporting angular haircuts that dip and point to accentuate delicate features.

Visit The Bund, a riverside neighborhood that combines the pulse of the city and a wider expanse of river and sky.

At night, my trees drip with lights and my people come out to stroll or dine.

I am modern China in motion. I reach into the past to remember harmony and the earth. I reflect the light and water. I watch and learn everything the world will teach me. I am a fast learner and my history runs deep.

By remembering who I am and by embracing everything science and nature offers, I reinvent myself on the world’s stage. I cannot be ignored.

Monday, December 12, 2011

The Great Wall of China

We are in Mutianyu and we are climbing above the treetops. I see the curving stones in the distance and Simon, our guide, tells us we will soon arrive at the Great Wall of China.

Being here in China makes me feel like a flake, blowing against history, small and fragile, yet lucky enough to be aware of the journey. The part of the wall we are visiting was built in the 3rd Century B.C., for the purpose of fortification. Thousands died in the process and their stories form a part of the wall; the tears of their children and parents cradled by the dome of heaven above.

We get to the wall and some of our group immediately takes the athletic route, bounding over the stones to a place where a slide will allow them to soar down the side of the mountain.

Mary from Delaware and Debbie from New York and I decide to take it slower. We take our time climbing up through an area that leads to a small turret and enclosure. We pose for pictures and voice our amazement about being here. A few clusters of teachers are also near and doing a similarly slow and meditative exploration. We feel the heat on our shoulders and marvel at the Chinese women who are teetering on heels while carrying fancy silk parasols.

The sky is almost crystal clear with a few puffs of clouds and you can see in every direction for miles. The sun is hot and our digital picture captures the intense light that bleaches my skin.

I’m not in the kind of shape I wish I were. I’d like to be scooting over these walls like some of my more fit colleagues, but since this thing goes for 3,000 miles, I will only get to examine a piece of it no matter how much I take on. I’m happy to have Mary and Debbie’s good company and humor and that of the other roving bands of educators who run their fingertips along these stones.

It’s one thing to read about this and yet another to touch it.

The wall winds through the countryside, cutting a path through the trees, dividing identical land on one side and another.

Makes me think about borders and how much effort we put into them. This is “you” and that is “me.” You are “my people” on this side and those people on the other side are not.

Imagine spending so much time, energy and lives to create a division!

We protect what is “ours” when we divide something that we imagine will be violated by some kind of “otherness” that we don’t want.

We want “us” and not “them.”

What’s funny in history is that those we consider family and those we do not consider family varies by the chances and fortunes of history, the political decisions, the greed or generosity of leaders and the power of natural disasters or bounty.

Do you speak my language?
Does your face look like mine?
Would I marry your son?

Walls. Here stands a great one that makes me think about the power and majesty of human enterprise, the futility of dreams that live in silos and our need to figure out ways to leap across colossal barriers.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Reflections on China

Some things are out of our reach because they happened long ago and we just don’t know the story. What is this stone? What child, hundreds of years ago, kicked it down the path or tossed it in a stream?

Other things are forbidden to us. The access may be blocked because we live in a racist society, which keeps people sorted by skin color or because there are walls, keypads, and barriers. We have the code or we don’t. We gain access or we don’t.

The barriers we get used to are invisible to us. We don’t see them yet we breathe them in like air. We walk between lines painted on pavement because we “are supposed to” and years ago, in an wretched moment in our history, many believed that we were “supposed” to keep races apart in separate schools, bathrooms and lives.

For me, China was an exotic, forbidden place with palaces guarded by fire breathing dragons and inscrutable people.

Years ago, people would actually say that out loud, when referring to Asian people- “inscrutable” - and then, others would nod, “yes, yes and so they are.” How do we move from a cartoonesque image of a people to finding out who they are? We have to strip ourselves of imposed images and inherited words. It takes work. What is my work here in China? What will this place and its people teach me?

Tiananmen Square

Our tour bus pulled up at Tiananmen Square. It was a vast space flanked by massive sculptures on one side – I saw the sculpted images of glorious workers building a country – a strong woman, solid men.

In the Square, the people strolled freely. Debbie snapped a picture of Mary, Tom, and I. The sky was grey and it hung a quiet feeling over the place.

But I felt like something was supposed to happen. A siren? An unfriendly look? Nothing. Just our guide, Simon, pointing out the features of the place over the audio device we hung from our necks. Mao’s giant picture over there, red Communist flags flapping on the top of the wall. It’s was the 50th Anniversary of the Chinese Communist party. People were happy to be enjoying some free time with their kids and friends.

The Summer Palace

We climbed on the bus and drove to the Summer Palace. Tour buses of Chinese tourists were already congregating outside of the entrance and they were staring at us, as we exited the bus, but not in a mean way. They looked at us to learn us – to study our faces, to take in our height or unusual hair, our gait – the way we stood and spoke.

Alex, our Tour director explained, “This is probably the first time these people have seen Westerners.” I stared back at the Chinese tourists and didn’t look away, my eyes wide open.

There was a lily pond just below, where we’ve pulled up, foliage floating in clustered packs, buds rising up.

Turns out that the Palace was only a fraction of the place it once was. Intricate painted ceilings, water everywhere, a dragon boat that moved through lily pond water. The Chinese walked around eating ears of corn as if they were ice cream cones. Vendors squatted down near enormous buckets and Chinese dads scooped up an armful of ears of corn for everyone. It was a special day. Small children wore jumpsuits with a slit from front to back so that they could be held over earth to relieve themselves when their parents or grandparents felt that their body was preparing to evacuate. Tender.

Forbidden City

I always wanted to go here. There’s a lot in a name. Forbidden! Who says? You can’t say that to me, I thought.

This place was once a massive city, more than just a single palace, built according to the principals of Feng Shue for the Emperor and his servants, his many wives, his palace officials. Incense was burnt here, with offerings lifting to heaven. Gongs were rung. Young and beautiful women were offered to the Emperor as young concubines, who lived in tiny apartments, hung with silk.

We walked through large spaces leading to palaces and then that palace would lead to another space or square. I was trying to imagine it all filled up with people, soldiers, and children. I saw some women with elegant parasols who managed to walk on the stone slabs with heels on. Years before, Chinese women had bound feet. Would they have been carried with their delicate feet over the enormous space till they were safely installed in their rooms?