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Hi, my name is Andrew and I spent a month and a half this summer living in Taiwan and China. While studying the Chinese language, living with the citizens of a foreign power proved an eye-opening experience. Raised in a middle-income suburban household, I had nebulous ideas concerning inequality and tangential encounters with poverty. I knew that other people existed, but that thought was only relevant in the same way that I knew that Mars existed. Lack of extra-national awareness isn’t unique to my life, but I had never truly encountered something “alien”. Having lived abroad I can say I still haven’t. It is important for us to keep in mind that different is not a value judgement by itself. Now, I’m not writing this to rail against injustice, nor am I attempting to label America as an ignorant nation. If I share anything, it is an attempt to shed light on aspects of life that we might never see.

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The Temple of Heaven.

Traveling in foreign climes is both a challenging and rewarding experience.  I have never left the American continent so I had no idea of what to expect.  I left with platitudes ranging from “You’ll have so much fun!” to “Just watch out, man” ringing in my ears.  China is a communist country and I expected something out of Orwell; what I found was a contradiction.  Yes, the government is repressive but its citizens are reaching standards of living unheard of in previous generations.  This rapid advance has come at the cost of a massive income disparity between the have’s and the have-nots’.  Beijing’s large number of rural laborers employed as construction and sanitation workers are prevented from educating their children in city, preventing them from accessing higher-quality education.  Further, growth in urban areas comes at a cost to rural China.  The majority of the population is centered on the east coast.  Civic development and social services including healthcare are lacking in comparison to more affluent regions.

Shanghai during a typhoon.
Chinese citizens will not directly criticize the government without having an established relationship.  The students we interacted with were directly instructed not to.  They were polite, courteous, and often friendly but refused to discuss the Party.  Who can blame them?  In America it is considered taboo to discuss politics with strangers but we face little danger if we do.  There is frustration if you look for it; I heard about the governments repressive policies on speech and protectionist attitude towards companies providing the Chinese with sub-standard or over-priced goods.  Chinese public propaganda blatantly ignores inconvenient truths.  I remember watching a presentation on China’s civic development citing the rapid growth of Chinese skyscrapers and the construction of High-Speed Rail, or the “bullet” train.  I had recently heard of a collapse of schools in the 2008 earthquake China suffered and a massive crash suffered by the bullet train in 2011.  Both incidents were criticized for government cover-ups and caused in large part by significant corruption in the Chinese government.  Neither incident was acknowledged in our briefing.
National Museum of China.
As a foreigner unaccustomed to living in a police state, I was struck by how total surveillance is.  I was also surprised at how quickly I became accustomed to feeling eyes on the back of my head.  At first, the constant presence of cameras felt stifling but their presence normalized quickly.  What was truly jarring was having my picture taken from a distance.  Now, many of the Chinese citizens would ask to take pictures with us but they were very polite in doing so.  Occasionally someone would take photos of us in a semi-discrete manner.  I’m self-aware enough to recognize I’m not worth surveillance and it’s quite possible these individuals were taking personal pictures but the atmosphere does instill a hint of paranoia. I found myself wondering if these people were private citizens or not.  That fear seems to inform many of the decisions and behaviors taken by Chinese citizens.
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Shanghai shopping mall.
Loosening controls on the free market and allowing Western imports serves provides an effective incentive for the Chinese citizenry to remain compliant.  Interestingly, it also seems driven as much by consumers desire for such goods.  This push-pull dynamic that exists between the state and its citizens is fascinating.  I went to a number of shopping malls larger than our own, filled with luxury shops.  Name brands like Gucci and Dior were common.  In a certain sense, the ready access to such merchandise supports the party’s claims that it has a legitimate right to rule without question.  The state is absolutely intent on maintaining control but the advent of the Internet has provided the Chinese population with some understanding that their existence is being filtered.  While the government can and has implemented draconian measures to quell unrest, it runs the risk of inciting further resistance.
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Street Vendor.
China was fascinating to visit.  While I often felt foreign I never felt ostracized or unsafe.  The people were welcoming, always happy to help a bumbling foreigner.  Although separated by a language barrier, people often tried to reach out and communicate with us.  Due to belligerent relations between our two nations, I had assumed the people would view me as an outsider at best and part of a dangerous adversary at worst.  I couldn’t have been more wrong.  The people I got to know received me warmly, speaking directly about issues their country faces and sharing meals with me.  People were generally positive, with a capacity for bearing hardship that certainly impressed me.  Thousands of years of history might give people a sense of perspective we in America lack.
The Great Wall.

While traveling, I was always struck by the fact that I was treading the same path walked by many over thousands of years.  History lies all around.  I hiked a portion of the Great Wall and the sheer resolve it took to build something so monumental without heavy industry is stunning.  Amidst the monuments, gardens, and museums, I was struck by how faceless the multitudes that toiled to create wonders were.  We reduce them to a teeming mass by labeling their society as “collectivist” but I wonder if that stems from mutual antipathy between democratic and communist countries.  The Chinese are as unique in their own way as Americans are in theirs.  China’s recent history has been tumultuous and it is difficult to fault them for desiring stability and a sense that the future brings better.

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Dinner at a new friend’s house.
More than anything else, I found that people share more than they believe.  At our very core, most of us seek to leave a better legacy for our family and friends than was left for us.  I watched mothers and fathers smile at their children, grandparents sing to their grandchildren as they took them for strolls, and friends laughing while playing basketball.  Barring the difference in language and ethnicity, little was truly “alien”.  This is no call to sit around a campfire and sing “Kumbaya” but we all might be served by a little more sympathy and patience.  Do yourself a favor and visit China with an open mind.  Maybe I’ll see you there.