“Nothing ever becomes real until it is experienced.”
― John Keats
I recall standing in my school uniform telling a friend how much I wanted to visit China. Years later, with numerous travel experiences enjoyed but somehow China felt rather elusive. Reflecting on why I never made it a priority comes down to ridiculousness: I was waiting for the right time… As we all know, no such time exists. Despite have 3 major essays and a dissertation to write, I applied for a study programme in China… One of 94 chosen students (from 1200 applicants) from the UK, off I went to East China Normal University where I engaged in 3 weeks of intense Mandarin classes. Fortunately, the 5 week course I had completed in the UK allowed me to enter an advanced beginner class of only 5 people. The trauma of discovering that Mandarin is easier, much easier, than Japanese has not yet subsided. But, more on the course and beautiful campus at a later stage.
China is rising and it’s fascinating to observe. This is not to say that China is perfect. Particularly in my field (human rights law), China ranks poorly. The trauma of forced abortions, lack of adequate childcare and education (in rural areas, in particular), forced evictions, lack of free speech and, in an area I feel strongly against, China (according to Amnesty International) tops the execution rate list. How does this abhorrent record of human rights tally with my wondrous, life-altering experience? I am slowly learning to accept that my experiences as a traveller and the experiences of a local are not always aligned, and though I feel the weight of that, I have to accept the realities. I’ve digressed… I’ll write more over the coming months.
I fell in love with Shanghai. Everything works! The public transport is insanely clean; food is fresh, delicious and inexpensive; people stop you in the street to see if you need directions and it is extremely safe (I read it is the safest city in China). I arrived a couple of days before my course started, just to explore and acclimatise to the city (and its scorching climate). I would often leave my hotel without really knowing where I was going; I felt safer than I do in London. I visited a local family where, with my colleagues, we made dumplings and exchanged information about the UK and China. It was a great insight into family structures and ‘my’ family was very open about women in the workplace, the importance of education, Chinese mentality and culture. It was a very special moment. Yes, sometimes people stare (particularly those travelling from other, less-international cities/town) but, as always, I simply smiled. And, guess what, they smiled back! Perhaps I am the only foreigner/non-white/curly haired/brown person they’ve seen. Maybe they’re just tired. Maybe they find me attractive. Maybe this, maybe that. It doesn’t matter. Just smile and connect. On the downside… The smog knows no bounds and, initially, it takes some time to adjust plus, rather obviously. there are people everywhere (and as an introvert, I found it very overwhelming being outside in the evenings). And the spitting… Oh, I could do without that!
I just read that, allegedly, only 9% of China’s 1.4 billion people identify as religious. Due to societal/governmental pressures, those responding to the survey may not have been fully open about this (China’s ruling Communist Party adheres strictly to atheism); this figure may be incorrect. Anyhow, as an enthusiast of religious architecture, I’m happy to report there was no evidence of this. I visited every temple, church, synagogue and shrine that would let me in. The use of incense in worship at the Buddhist and Taoist temples was a comforting reminder of church at home, and an even stronger connection to an important truth: we have more similarities than differences, and we ought to build upon said similarities.
Prior to arriving in China, I heard disparaging comments about Chinese people. It still shocks me that people feel it is appropriate to comment on an entire people based on nothing but ignorance. Veiled racism and, worse still, most people do not acknowledge their prejudices against certain people/nationalities/religions. I’m the first one to point it out: some people are shocked, others become defensive but that’s their issue; I’m not going to mollify a racist. One of the most troubling elements of my trip to China was acknowledging the disjuncture between British/Western rhetoric and my individual experience, and nobody seems to acknowledge the deleterious impact such rhetoric has on all parties concerned. Yet again, the negative narrative of the ‘other’; the uncivilised and barbaric with little to offer turns out to be the polar opposite of my experience.
And so my return to the blog begins… So much to share! In the meantime, I’m over on Instagram maintaining my addiction.