I have been to China before. Or maybe to be more specific, I have been in China on a bus before, with my family, on a two-week tour-guided excursion where people would sell things to my parents at dinner, and my parents would buy everything they sold. For most of the trip, we stayed on the air-conditioned bus, with a window as a barrier between us and that world outside—China. We were dropped off and picked up at a variety of chosen, safe locations. Bus, nice hotel, bus, nice restaurant, bus, get out and take some pictures, bus again. When I think back to that vacation now, it is difficult for me to recall the times when we actually set foot on a street in Beijing or Shanghai, without following the purple flag of our tour guide. When we did become hungry enough to venture out tour-guideless into the streets of Beijing and find a snack, crossing the street felt like one huge obstacle. Cars and buses don’t stop for pedestrians, we soon found out. But, thank God, soon we were back in the hotel, safe and secure.
I was in middle school when my family took that trip back in 2007, and pretty much indifferent about it. But between then and around a month ago, right before I left for Shanghai to study abroad, I had gone through an interesting transformation. I guess I could blame it on all the documentaries I watched. All those documentaries about China, and all of China’s problems—I was obsessed. I watched young men and women from Guangdong take apart piles of electronic waste on the side of the road, eventually getting lead and mercury poisoning from the process of burning the parts to extract the metals. I watched China’s rural countryside disappear, replaced with a city almost overnight, the huge residential high-rises and mega-malls always on the verge of becoming ghost towns, since there is no infrastructure to bring in shoppers from outside the city. I watched parents leave their children in the countryside so they could work in factories far away, in the hopes that maybe their kids would be able to go to school and not have to do the same. I saw children resent their parents for doing this, and I saw those same children eventually working in factories. I watched all of this, all of China’s problems, through the screen of my TV or my laptop, matching the concerned expressions of the young journalists who interviewed those poor factory workers and filmed the abandoned malls.
Even on the plane ride destined for Pudong International Airport, instead of watching the in-flight movies, I opted to stick my nose inside an issue of The Economist that was solely dedicated to analyzing China’s “paradox of prosperity.” I dog-eared articles and underlined sentences that I thought sounded somewhat epic. As the man sitting next to me tried to wrap his head around the tumor in Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s spine and George Clooney running for president, I tried to grapple with the pollution problem in China and how a country could be both communist and capitalist. And by the time flight UA-87 taxied to the terminal, I had come to a conclusion that had always lingered inside me when I stayed up late hours of the night watching all of those documentaries. China needed to be saved. I think I thought I was some sort of missionary heading into this wild, untamed jungle whose inhabitants failed to see the folly of their own actions. I had already played a movie in my mind where by the end of my four months in Shanghai, I had discovered all the roots of China’s problems, and had them figured out too. But who did I think I was?
I have been in Shanghai for two months now, but it feels like I have been here for much longer. The first time I actually got a good look at Shanghai was when I rode the bus on the way to the ECNU campus from the airport. I saw giant building after giant building stretching up towards a sky that was a milky mixture of rain and pollution. Many of these buildings were still under construction, devoid of people and life. I remember writing in my blog that Shanghai was a “city ruled by cranes.” Whenever I reread that post, I don’t really understand why I wrote that. It doesn’t really make sense, but I think at the time I liked the way the sentence sounded. Writing about the architecture of Shanghai is sometimes easier than writing about my interactions with Shanghai’s people. I am American, but I am also a Chinese-American who can barely speak Chinese. I sometimes feel like a kind of walking false advertisement, like a person wearing a cop uniform who can’t help you if you get into trouble. Some of the local people here have been patient with me, and others not so patient. But I can’t help but feel that I have no excuse. My parents tried to put me through Chinese school when I was little. I didn’t like it, so they didn’t make me stay.
Back in the United States, I had read article after article about China that usually came to the same conclusion: China is full of contradictions. And yet here I am, thinking that I could even attempt to scrape off the surface of this complicated country when I can barely communicate with its people. In class, I sometimes surprisingly find myself on the defensive when I hear others complain of China’s terrible air quality or bad food sanitation, as if I am being attacked personally. But then in another class, I’ll talk about the terrible conditions that factory workers undergo in China. I knew China was complicated, but I didn’t think my relationship with China would be complicated too.
Before I came to China, I thought I knew almost everything about China. Now that I am living in China, I feel like I don’t know the first thing about China. Around a month ago, I had a conversation with my Chinese language teacher after class. He knows China has many problems, but doesn’t like listening to the news or reading the newspaper anymore. The amount of things that are wrong is too overwhelming and makes him sad. In the end, he says, it’s sometimes easier to adapt and just try to live a quiet, normal life. My teacher is only in his late twenties.
I think my first couple of months in Shanghai have changed me a little bit. I came in thinking that I could figure out all of the complexities of Chinese society, but now I realize that I first need to figure out my relationship with the environment in which I am surrounded by every day. I am not a missionary, nor am I a correspondent for CNN with a concerned expression on my face. I am still not sure where I fit in China; I have spent so much time trying to figure out where China fits in my idea of it. I still love documentaries and I actually want to make a documentary film myself, while I still have the motivation and a few more years until I, too, turn twenty-eight. I don’t think I will be any less interested in China’s complexities and contradictions when that time comes. I am too curious and wonder about too many things. But I hope that by then I will have learned how to approach China, in a way that I have not already read or seen.