From Regina to Kunming: The View from a Changing China

Study Abroad is supposed to be transformative: that’s the whole point. Yet, as every stubborn college student does, I underestimated how much a couple short months would change my perspective on almost everything. These are my thoughts and reflections on a trip that was the best decision I have ever made.

Allied with the Other Side of History

Tokyo, Japan

June 10, 2019

With thirty-six hours of travel done, I have landed on an island where Toyotas drive on the left and the subway is sterile enough to be an operation room. Japan isn’t my final destination, but I know that it is commonly sought-after among study abroad students. I now see why. Its culture is distinct enough that you don’t feel like you are still in the West, but everyday life is still somewhat comfortable.

Tokyo’s sheer size is its most impressive attribute. The largest cities in the U.S, New York and Los Angeles, have two NFL teams each. Tokyo’s magnitude is so many times greater that it has multiple subway systems, Tokyo Metro and J.R. East (Japan Railway). I was fortunate to have my first few hours in a completely unfamiliar continent facilitated by a friend, who took me to the best views, museums, and temples around the city. Without her, I might still be inside a train station figuring out why all the lines on the system map just changed colors.

I have long studied international history and thought I understood how societies view themselves in the world. It only took a few hours before I realized I was completely wrong. Political books often highlight Japan’s post-WWII transformation as a dazzling success for American foreign policy and the world order it leads. These scholars have obviously never visited the Yasukuni Shrine in the heart of Tokyo.

The Yasukuni Shrine and the museum attached to it pay respect to Japanese warriors, explicitly including soldiers considered to be war criminals. The shrine is the subject of recurring controversy, as occasional visits by Japanese prime ministers have provoked outrage from East Asian neighbors such as South Korea and China, who were both brutalized by Japanese soldiers. Meanwhile, its museum retells Japan’s military history since the mid-19th Century from a Japanese point of view. English and Japanese plaques describe artifacts and justify atrocities like the Manchurian Incident and the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Today, Japan is an indispensable American ally, but this exhibit, like the isolated Japanese soldiers who continued to fight Americans after the surrender, is stuck in another era. As I would learn again and again throughout my travels, among enemies and even among allies, their past may be long gone, but the fight for history is hardly over.

Public Services with Chinese Characteristics

Kunming, Yunnan Province, China

June 12, 2019

CRASH!

Behind me, I hear a classmate drop a barbell in the gym at the same moment I nearly tear my shoulder out with a dumbbell I thought I could lift. After a few awkward exchanges with locals, we realize that the weights in the gym are labelled in kilograms instead of pounds, and thus more than twice as heavy as we thought they were

No problem. I’ll just Google the conversions and the interface will tell me how heavy everything actually is. However, this would also be beyond my capabilities since China’s “Great Firewall” blocks Google along with most American social media platforms. The Chinese equivalent, Baidu, is clumsy and does not recognize abbreviations like “kg” or “lbs.” It takes several minutes to find information that I am used to receiving instantaneously.

Access to information on demand is an integral facet of daily life in the West. While some utilities are simply not developed yet, the Chinese government takes extraordinary measures to block the free flow of information on the Mainland. The government has a million internet censors on its payroll to find and block material deemed as harmful to the state.

I remember my mother worriedly telling me to not drink the tap water; I assumed it was yet another episode on the Over-Cautious Mom Show. However, when your language immersion teachers switch from Mandarin to English to tell you to avoid even rinsing your toothbrush with tap water, you tend to listen. I am still not sure what “heavy metals” would translate to in Mandarin, but I also wasn’t interested in learning how to say “lead poisoning” either.

Austin itself had a tap water scare about a year ago after some flooding. It lasted about a week and was enough to send the city, or at least our campus, into a panic. Flint, Michigan infamously still deals with lead-contaminated water years after sparking national outrage. Yet, even in the most modernized urban centers, unclean water in China is the status quo, and no one seems particularly hurried to fix it.

Confucian Consumerism

Lijiang, Yunnan Province, China

July 7, 2019 

I suppose tourist traps are described as such for a reason, and on this rainy weekend in a remote village and UNESCO World Heritage Site, my friends and I were certainly stuck.

From the outside, Lijiang’s Gucheng (Ancient City) looks like the picturesque Chinese village that every adventurous soul yearns to find. Yet, within the stone walls and narrow paths is the physical embodiment of the Chinese idiom renshan renhai: literally “people mountain, people sea.” The huts that lined the cobblestone streets have been retrofitted with electricity and house shops that sell everything from T-shirts to tea. My two friends and I are the only visible foreigners in a crowd of what must be thousands of tourists.

What ten years ago might have been a real-life Shangri-La today closely resembles Disney World. In a great book on the transformation of Yunnan and Mekong Region, scholar Brian Eyler details the extraordinary shift in Chinese culture. Confucian values have long been the foundation for Chinese culture; Confucianism covets the old, such as the in its core doctrine of filial piety, which demands reverence and submission to the elderly.

Meanwhile, China’s extensive high-speed rail network, Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road project, and the Party’s Made in China 2025 initiative all present China to the world as an up-and-coming superpower at the forefront of what is new and cutting edge. As a teacher pointed out to me after I returned from Lijiang, the commercialization of Lijiang provides immense wealth and opportunity for what otherwise would be a sleepy, impoverished village.

Yet, in Eyler’s book, he points out that while these villages may have had small GDP figures, they were not necessarily on the verge of starvation. The biological abundance of the mountains and rivers of Southeast Asia sustained remote cultures for centuries before being incorporated into the contemporary nation-state of China. For better or worse, the pursuit of the Chinese dream is reinventing the far-flung fringes of China on an almost daily basis.

The Peoples of The People’s Republic

Kunming, China

July 19, 2019

Beyond a huge parking lot and a number of snack shops, visitors lined up with their selfie sticks to take pictures with an elephant chained to the ground by its ankle. There was no way the single chain was strong enough to restrain such a large animal, which can only mean that years of abuse had scarred the poor creature into submission.

This would be one of many unsettling experiences on our program’s field trip to the Yunnan Nationalities Village. This expansive area was designated as a place where one could come to see the cultures of the dozens of ethnic minorities that live in Yunnan Province. However, as the chained elephant foreshadowed, this destination more closely resembled a zoo where Han people could ogle at exotic, non-Han ethnic groups.

The Han are the largest demographic group in China, but the People’s Republic recognizes over 50 different ethnic groups, 26 of which live in Yunnan Province. State propaganda touts the harmonious relations between groups, but the history of Tibet and ongoing developments in the Xinjiang province seem to indicate otherwise.

More advanced students were tasked with interviewing the performers who were employed to entertain visitors. I shadowed one friend to see how openly minority Chinese people would talk about their experience. In one instance, when my friend asked a dancer permission to interview her, she shrugged and told us she wasn’t actually a member of this particular ethnic group. When we found people who did speak on behalf of their cultures, they gave us suspiciously similar answers. We talked with individuals from at least three different groups, and each time we were given throwaway lines about the government’s success in promoting economic growth. While the push to standardize Mandarin Chinese is often blamed for the decline in ethnic and regional languages, the interviewees repeatedly spoke of cross-cultural harmony.

I realize that the country where I was born and the country where I grew up in both have long histories of mistreating minorities. However, I am yet to see or visit a “Minorities Zoo” in either the U.S. or Canada.

Though if there is anything I learned from my time in China, it’s the critical need to distinguish a people from their government. While President Xi Jinping’s hostile rhetoric castigates the West for China’s “century of humiliation,” I was constantly welcomed by locals who went to great lengths to welcome foreign students. As we stumbled to pronounce menu items correctly, restaurant workers patiently allowed us to try four, five, six times to get it right, and then tell us “nimen de zhongwen feichang hao!” (“Your Chinese is extremely good!”) with a broad smile.

My favorite story to demonstrate Chinese hospitality happened to me as I was on a run. Central Kunming has a beautiful park and a road that wraps around it for about two kilometers. The sidewalk is filled with people walking dogs, senior citizens practicing tai chi, and parents pushing strollers. Thus, I often ran in the bike and scooter lane between the sidewalk and the single lane of traffic that circled the park. As in most places in the world, pedestrians are not supposed to mix with vehicle traffic, so as I dodged cyclists and mopeds, I realized I was probably committing some kind of infraction.

During one low-traffic afternoon, a black van with tinted windows slowed down as it caught up to me. I read the white characters 警察 (“police”) printed on the door and began to wonder what the punishment would be for a violation like “disrupting the peace and order of The People’s traffic.” The van pulled up to me, rolled its window down, and a man with a toothy grin poked his head out.

“Hello!” he yelled. I took a couple seconds to process what was just said to me before I could clumsily reply. 

“Oh, uh, Nihao!” The officer grinned even wider and sped off. I uneventfully finished my run with gratitude for not being arrested as well as for receiving such a welcoming spirit from strangers.

The Ghosts of Tiananmen Square

Beijing, China

August 12, 2019

I’ve completely zoned out as I scan the area around Tiananmen Square. It’s not as big as I thought it would be, which makes the thousands of deaths that occurred at this spot thirty years earlier even more chilling. This place has a somber aura, where innumerable souls risked everything in a push for democracy…

I’m jolted out of my trance by an arm around my shoulder and a smartphone in my face. A man snaps a selfie, says “Xiexie” with a smile, and carries on his way. Other people seem to notice that I am apparently available to pose with strangers. I feel stuck in a horror film where I am the only one able to see the phantom or the monster. I’ve never been much of a scary movie fan, so I make a beeline to the passport checkpoint to carry about my day.

Unlike many Westerners, I decided to forego using a VPN (Virtual Private Network) which would allow me to access Western social media and news websites from within Mainland China. This functioned as a long overdue social media cleanse, but it also made me feel isolated from the outside world.

I kept up with both global and American news through state-controlled English language news apps, like Global Times and China Daily. I developed a hobby of reading the rather novel perspectives in their Party-sanctioned opinion sections and noted how different Chinese news is. In the United States, news is almost always a minefield of gloom and tragedy. Meanwhile, Chinese editorials applaud the government, downplay domestic tensions, and hail the near utopia of the “opening up” of China.

These editorials also provided a useful lens into seeing how China views the United States. One particularly interesting article rebuked the Trump administration for criticizing China’s human rights record. China cites its economic boom and their near elimination of poverty as an alternate form of human rights apart from the western-centric belief in democracy and individualism. The article also slams mass shootings and “racialism” as violations of human rights that give the U.S. no right to criticize China’s treatment of Uighurs, Tibetans, or political dissidents.

Though I read Chinese news for entertainment purposes more so than for information, one can still learn quite a bit from a serious look at a divergent perspective. Being in the tight grasp of the Chinese Communist Party, Chinese media is what it is: propaganda. But even as McDonald’s proliferates in China and globalization makes the world a smaller place, ideological struggle between East and West is here to stay.

One Last Line in the Sand

The Demilitarized Zone, Korean Peninsula

August 16, 2019

“You guys realize this is still a war zone, right?” 

The U.S. Army private in charge of my group’s Demilitarized Zone tour was evidently not in a good mood for a Friday afternoon visit. He went on to describe an earlier tour group’s bad behavior and inform us that if we did not comply with all his instructions, our tour would be cancelled. Eager to see those three blue huts and ground zero of one of the last remaining Cold War conflicts, we nodded in unanimous obedience.

A 15-minute drive through rice fields from the DMZ visitor center eventually ends at a roundabout and a large building called the House of Freedom which hosted Donald Trump’s cross-border meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jung-Un. On the other side of the House of Freedom are the famous three blue buildings and the ROK (pronounced “rock” and refers to the Republic of Korea, i.e. South Korea) soldiers standing at attention in a modified Taekwondo stance.

Most pictures of the DMZ will show these soldiers with large black helmets and pistols attached to their hip, but on my visit, the soldiers were completely unarmed. As a result of an inter-Korean summit between Kim and South Korean President Moon, all weapons have been removed from the DMZ. The Neutral Nations Supervisory Committee, staffed by the Swiss and Swedish militaries, has certified that both sides have complied.

By the halfway point of the tour, our guide has seemed to remember he is at the brink of starting his weekend. He starts to cheerfully answer our questions about the peace process, and even adds that decades-worth of progress has been made in just a few years. 

Granted, in the weeks after my visit, North Korea would hurl missiles into the sea and insult Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Often, when people travel, they prioritize seeing things that might not exist when they visit again someday. This often conveys a touch of sadness and gloom at the possibility of an animal going extinct or an environment being destroyed. I am not sure when I will be back to Korea, but there is a slight yet reasonable chance that the DMZ might be gone when I do. For once, I think this extinction would be a welcomed goodbye.

The Long Way Home

Toronto, Ontario, Canada

August 19, 2019

Travel, especially flying, can be annoying, but undoubtedly makes for good small talk, and telling people that I was flying between Tokyo and Dallas through Toronto was an especially good conversation starter. After navigating many logistical quagmires, flying Air Canada was the least expensive of a few expensive options. Moreover, as any friend will attest, Canada holds a special place in my heart, and even a short layover was enough to energize me through 28 hours of travel.

The descent over Toronto is still a few hundred miles from my birthplace, but the patchwork of green grain frields and yellow canola crops puts me at ease. More than a few times, living in a nation of over a billion people caused me to remember my home province’s population density of less than two people per square kilometer. As my grandmother likes to kindly remind me, it’s been too long since I’ve been back, and especially in China, I missed it more each day.

Living in a foreign country is a transformative experience; that’s a given for anyone. It’s also been my entire life, by the very definition of being an immigrant. My family has made our home in the United States, just as our ancestors came from Europe to make their homestead on the prairies of Saskatchewan. As they worked to turn the bush into humble family farms, I don’t think they ever thought that the children of their children’s children would venture halfway across the world once again. But then again, maybe they did dream that their work would make future adventures possible, and their toil is the reason I love my birthplace as much as I do after all these years.

At 11:00 P.M. on a hot August night at the curb outside the international terminal, I finally loaded my luggage into the family car, and just as if she picked me up from another day at school, my mom asked, “So, what did you learn?”

I went to China to learn about a society completely different from my own, and I was largely successful. But I also learned a lot about where I was born, where I grew up, and who I am. I left to learn about our differences, but I returned with a deep appreciation of our similarities. American Dreams, Canadian Dreams, and even Chinese Dreams all envision finding a home in a changing world. As my parents saw almost twenty years ago, and as I discovered this summer, sometimes the best way to find your home is to look back from some place far, far away.

Author’s Note: I would like to dedicate this essay and the adventure that inspired it to my whole family, including all the Boyles and Romanows. I want to thank my brother Tommy for always being just a text message away, and my grandma Darlene for not worrying too much about me, but still quite a bit. And most of all, I want to thank my mother and father for managing every hiccup and crisis, at every hour of the day and night, and for giving me the same sense of adventure that brought them from the plains of Saskatchewan to the heat of Texas two decades ago. I love you all.



Categories: Foreign Affairs

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