Article and photo by Craig Windt
A month has passed since my Continental flight from Newark touched down in Beijing. I can't believe how quickly the time has gone, yet at the same time, it feels as if I've been here in Xi'an for ages. When I arrived in China, I really didn't know what to expect. Of course there are some things that I knew: it's a communist nation, it's the most populous nation on Earth, it has a long and rich history, Chinese food came from here, etc. But I really didn't know how those facts would manifest themselves.
My experience with communism has been Eastern European, Soviet-dominated communism. I'm used to seeing the imposing, omnipresent Soviet-style buildings that state very clearly who has power and where power is centered. I have not really experienced that here in China. Maoist communism certainly did retain many of the architectural traditions of Chinese past. What is breaking with traditional building styles and architecture is the influence of Western capitalism. Even Xi'an has a McDonald's and a Starbucks on the main square. (On behalf of all Americans, I apologize, China.) There is an increasing dichotomy between the traditional China that we learn about in the textbooks back in the United States and the increasingly modernizing nation that is now the second largest market for luxury goods in the world after the United States. That doesn't seem very communist, but when you think about it, being a communist doesn't really entail taking a vow of poverty, right?
However, there is still a presence of a dictatorial government. The media are government controlled. There is no voting here. In order to get ahead in society, it is important to be a party member. What I can access on the Internet is restricted as well. No Facebook, no Blogger. I've had to send my blogs to my partner via e-mail to have him post my writings and photos for me. So, this is far from a free society.
The number of people here just amazes me. Xi'an is a city of nearly eight million, yet most Americans have never heard of it. Within China, it's not even among the ten largest cities. A Xi'an-sized city in the United States would rank higher than Los Angeles in population. As a result of the population, people's sense of personal space here is quite different. People don't run into each other, but it's almost as if the space that they are occupying is theirs and there's no reason to move. People will walk right in front of you and walk so slowly that it's painful, but it's their space—deal with it. Contrary to what you may have read in your geography classes in high school, there are cars everywhere. The streets are jammed with cars of every make from around the world, even Fords, Chevys, and Jeeps. Pedestrians do not have the right of way, though there are so many of them. In addition, there are three-wheeled motorized carts, motorcycles, mopeds, and yes, bikes. At major streets, it's usually wise to take one of the many pedestrian walkways over the street.
As a country that has been around for thousands of years, it makes sense that China would have a history and culture that puts those of our young nation, and even many of those in Europe, to shame. We learned about a village in Banpo that was thriving to the northeast of Xi'an nearly 7,000 years ago. My group saw the remains of that village; we studied how the villagers made pottery, how their homes were constructed, how they buried their dead, and so on. We saw how the Chinese moved into the Bronze Age and how the emperors united the nation and brought safety and security to the nation. This nation was doing so much long before most European nations existed. I remember sitting in a lecture one day, and Dr. Juliano of Rutgers University was talking about how the capital was moved to different locations by different dynasties. I was thinking that they sure moved the capital a lot. Yet then when I realized that in most cases, it was hundreds of years between moves, the knowledge reinforced how long this nation has been developing
My time spent in China has been well spent. This has not been a vacation for me, but a lot of hard work. Yes, it has been enjoyable work, but I went on this trip to expand my knowledge of China, so that I can better teach about China in the future. I made this trip with my students in mind. It seems that so few teachers in my district are willing to take part in these types of professional development activities, feeling that they would be "giving up their summer." To me, this is the most meaningful type of development, and I will continue to seek out these opportunities, so that I can continue to become a better teacher.
Visit www.craiginchina.blogspot.com to learn more about this trip.
© Craig Windt, 2009