Whenever I leave South Africa, I never feel prepared. I always assume I must have forgotten something. Passport? Check. Wallet? Check. Everything else can be replaced. In theory – I am not sentimental. This entire process of anxiety is ironic because I flourish in organizing travel, and my visa is generally approved a month before my departure.
The day I chartered off to Beijing, however, I quickly realized how futile travel preparation had been. The week leading up my flight had been slightly chaotic (I say slightly, because come on, it’s me). It had not sunk in that I would wake up in Asia the next day until I passed through security. “I am going to China. China! What do I know about China?” I suddenly asked myself. Again an ironic-anxiety since I probably know more about China than most South Africans. I am doing my PhD on China for goodness sakes.
During my first couple of days in Beijing I realized, however, that nothing – no textbook, film, newspaper article, oral history lesson – could have prepared me for this. Beijing is enormous. In fact, the font of this post is too small to possibly indicate how BIG the city is.
As I tried to absorb everything that I’d seen in my first few 24 hour cycles spent in Beijing, I realised that at some point on this trip I was going to be overwhelmed. Not by the language barrier, or the busy streets, or the endless array of monuments and statues, but by everything that I didn’t know. Or let’s rather say, by everything I hadn’t known that I didn’t know. It is like that moment when you open up a book about evolution for the first time. Suddenly everything makes sense, and nothing makes sense. You can barely grasp how much you didn’t know. How much you hadn’t known that you didn’t know.
Where were you media, when I needed you to plant a seed of what China was like in my frame of reference? The place that Western media likes to demonise as the core of environmental destruction and human rights violations, turns out to be a country. With big cities. Where people live.
The tough part of being a critical thinking tourist (or maybe this comes as part of the PhD student package), is that you like to make sense of things. You like to notice trends, but not stereotype. You like to notice differences, but not do “othering”. You like to notice similarities, but not erase. Well, more than 30 million people live in Beijing. That means up to two thirds of South Africa’s entire population lives in this one city. As much as you like to make sense of Beijing, you can only do so a couple of hours before getting your brain fried.
For example. I sent my family a message in our Whatsapp group making the statement that “a lot of people in Beijing take the subway.” Beijing subway, what joy you have brought to my life! But the next day I noticed that a lot of people drive. Then I noticed that a lot of people ride scooters. Then that a lot cycle. Then that they walk! There are a lot of people, so they are doing a lot of things.
I assume this will end up being the crux of my study: you cannot culturally theorise a place that has so many people, with such different ways of expressing their individuality. Tick tick, boom! That was my brain. Splattered all over the screen where I was watching myself becoming more conscious.
I have received several questions from interested and slightly frightened humans upon my return. No, Beijing is not very English. Whoever spread that myth, it’s a lie! No, the language barrier is not that tough. As long as there were pictures on the menus and the meat looked slightly like chicken, I could go to bed with a full tummy every night. No, their culture(s) is not that different. I mean yes, it is. The Chinese population is big, so I saw everything from dancing grannies to a young Chinese journalist who loves classical music to teenagers shopping in gigantic eight-storey malls. There are elements of Chinese culture that are unique, that I have never seen or heard of before. I am not convinced that that makes China so different that we can justify misunderstanding them the way many of us have been.
No, the large population did not overwhelm me. But then again, I did not really notice the population was that big until it was a public holiday and I had to stand in a queue for about an hour to enter Tsinghua campus. I was also only there for two weeks, and my biggest struggle was coming to terms with my own insignificance, so this is not something I can fully answer. And finally, yes, the pollution bothered me. But almost the entire time it had indicated green, for low levels of pollution, and only about three days my mask was really necessary.
As a masters student in Oregon, USA, I had become close friends (okay let’s get real, she’s my bestie) with Jane Lin from Taiwan. Even then, spending time with her and her family, I had realized how little I know about the Asian continent. How limited my exposure and understanding had been about any of the cultures on the Eastern side of the world. Why, I can’t say for sure. There are a lot of positives and negatives about China – as a critical thinking human I am aware of this. But positive and negative could also be incredibly subjective. If you think you have the moral highground to label a country that big as either-or, then that’s you. As for me, I am grateful for the Chinese citizens who welcomed me with open arms, shared their experiences with me and have encouraged me to come back. Xiexie ni!
PS because these two weeks could never possibly fit into one blogpost, anyone is welcome to ask me questions.