On a recent trip to China, I was prepared to be overwhelmed by the dramatic grand sights – the Great Wall, Forbidden City, Terracotta Warriors, Three Gorges – but what surprised me were the small exchanges I had with some of the Chinese people. Many of them were willing, even eager, to relate with Westerner visitors. Their openness made for lasting memories of a rich culture and remarkable individuals.
China seems to do everything fast, from building bridges and skyscrapers to making changes in social policy. In the late 1970’s when Deng Xiaoping decided to open up the country to tourism, the number of international tourists was only about ¼ of a million a year. With the development of the tourist industry those numbers rose steadily and this year close to 60 million will be coming from abroad to see the sights in China, making it the third most visited country in the world. And in most venues, local tourists far out way the numbers of visitors from outside China.
With a population of over 1.4 billion, the largest in the world, it’s difficult to generalize about China and it’s people. While the Han Chinese comprise over 91% of the populace, there are 55 additional ethnic groups, each with their own subculture, and sometimes language. Although the children study English in school and the people are approachable, our communications often went through a translator, our local guide. Even with that added obstacle, our conversations were free ranging and candid. Although their political system is still significantly different from ours, we found that the family relationships were similar to ours in many ways.
One of the more memorable experiences we had was playing with a class of energetic kindergarteners during their recess. They were enthusiastic about having us join them in their games on the playground. Just like my own grandsons, they wanted to see themselves in the pictures we took and use the camera to take their own photos. Another day, a smiling group of grade school children practiced their English with us, asking questions and answering ours. These youngsters all wanted to connect and learn about us just as we did them.
Among the hutongs – old neighborhoods of narrow streets – in the bustling city of Beijing, we entered an individual home, which had been in the husband’s family for 300 years. During the time of Mao, they had given up much of their courtyard so that two unrelated families could build houses in that space. Even with the reduction of privacy, their home was an ancestral heirloom and precious to the couple. Yet their adult daughter, an only child, had moved away to a newer high-rise apartment and they said she planned to sell the home when they died. Their sadness over her rejection of their way of living was palpable. Sound familiar?
We met with a family of farmers who had to move to a newly created city higher up when their home was submerged by the rising waters of the reservoir for the Three Gorges Dam. Sitting in their living room and learning about their experiences first hand made the dry statistics – between one and two million people relocated – more vivid and graphic. Their son, daughter-in-law and grandson lived with them in their new home and we could tell that the couple was just as smitten with their grandson as we are with ours.
The universal issues faced by aging parents and their adult children surfaced again when we visited a rural elderly couple who had been living in their 4 room mud home for 50 years. They explained that their 5 adult children had moved away and wanted their parents to join them in the city. The children had even built them a small brick house but the parents didn’t want to leave their place in the countryside. The couple reminded me of my own parents’ resistance when I wanted them to move closer to me so that I could better oversee their care.
Other brief connections we made while touring – in local markets, on subways, in parks – with just a smile and a wave reinforced our belief that sharing our planet with the families of the world is a gift we can give each other. We came back home with many beautiful memories – and just a few extra pounds. So bon voyage to you on your next journey.