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?

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