It was yet another sumptuous banquet with a continuous stream of food delicacies being placed in front us. “Ganbei,” which is the Chinese toast meaning literally “dry cup,” was heard frequently. To allow myself a fighting chance of actually walking out of the room, I learned to just sip the drink even though the expectation was that it be finished and refilled with each toast. A new dish was placed in front of me: three oddly shaped little birdlike bodies on a stick. I tried one and found little meat and a lot of inedible matter, so I asked one of my hosts what kind of bird this was. He said that he didn’t know the English word for it but that it was one that only came out at night. Now I know that there are birds that fly at night, but the first thing that came to my mind was “bat”. I made a show of eating the rest, but I just couldn’t finish.
My experiences from a three-week visit to China with a group of eight other professors from The University of Dubuque in 1990 ranged from the utterly sublime to the slightly bizarre. We were guests of the government, and at all times we were treated like visiting dignitaries with great respect and all the privileges accorded honored guests. The only limits placed upon us were the time constraints of a full schedule. On the contrary, we were free to walk through streets thronging with early morning pedestrians and bicyclists and to engage anyone in conversation. The limits to our inquisitiveness were somewhat self-imposed through a concern for protocol and privacy, but that is not to say that our conversations never left the surface topics of weather and food (which we ate in large quantities and are still talking about).
There were many confirmations of things we already knew about China, but there were many surprises as well. Poverty is still a part of China, but the government appears to have made great strides towards providing for its massive population. While basic needs for us might include several high definition TVs, air conditioning and an automobile (or two), once we focused our cultural eyes, we began to understand better what basic needs are: adequate shelter, clothing and food, and for most it seemed these needs were being met. The surprise was the personal time and funds used by the vacationing hordes to fill the trains, resorts, parks and beaches.
While it is always awe-inspiring to see those wonders of the world one encounters in textbooks and documentaries, this really is not what world travel is about. The Great Wall, the Forbidden City and countless ancient temples were certainly the focus of our cameras, but the focus of our memories will be the people we met. One day we visited a remote mountain village, and we were the first foreign visitors since the territory had been opened a few years before. Spoken language could not be shared, but the extralinguistic communication abounded. Broad smiles, children singing a Chinese version of “Are You Sleeping” and eager helpers and companions said more than any spoken words. A young woman who accompanied me and spoke some English gave me a gift of a leaf on which she had written a short poem. On another occasion at a temple we were visiting, a young man engaged me in conversation on the pretext of practicing his English. He really wanted to know how Americans felt about the Tiananmen Square student protest one year past; he had been a participant in the protest, and his involvement had adversely changed the course of his life. His parting words to me were, “Please tell the Americans not to forget us and what happened.”
In describing our China experience I remind myself of the story of the Indian blind men trying to describe an elephant, each one perceiving the elephant differently depending on which portion of the elephant he was touching. We touched only the leg of China, and so I always temper my descriptions and observations with that reminder. The vast spread of such a geographically, ethnically/culturally and linguistically diverse nation such as China makes it difficult for the casual traveler to firmly draw any conclusion. However, our experiences, while admittedly directed by the Chinese government, were positive, and the people we met were warm. And if the motivation of the students we encountered is typical, China is not a country to be ignored; in addition to the mind-boggling potential China could have if she harnessed all her energy, she has much to teach us all.