Every summer since 2000, Flinn Scholars have marked the end of their first year of college with a group study-abroad seminar. This year featured the most significant change since the three-week seminar’s introduction: After a 12-year run with Budapest, Hungary as home base, the seminar has moved to China. Here are reflections from three members of the first class of Scholars to travel to China together. This year the seminar ran from May 20 to June 10.
This is the most intimidating blog entry I have ever sat down to write. And what’s more intimidating, I think it will feel like this every day from here until the end of June. It feels impossible to sort through the tangled, exhilarating blur of the last two days and come up with anything cohesive; to find threads or continuity, to locate the right stories and the right images that will come close to expressing the energy, the excitement of the last few days.
I need to write, I feel compelled to write. But it’s way too late to write. In fact, it’s impossible to write. I could write all night and still not have everything.
We had our first lecture today: an introduction to social, environmental, and economic sustainability and the challenges China faces in each category. I want to write about it, but not tonight. Much like the experience of being in Beijing, it was all far too vast to try to cover in one blog entry. It’s only by tethering myself to small things—stories, small victories, brief images—that I can find a sense of focus.
I am like a child in the way words and conversations drift and swim above my head, in the way I am led about by our tour guides, in the way I struggle and stutter to express myself, in the way I live for small things, taking wonder in what my Chinese teacher’s eyes pass over without a second glance: like the army of brightly colored water jugs clumped on a street corner, or the playful cartoons of police officers in public-safety messages, or the startling brightness of a yellow bike. I am three feet shorter, 17 years younger, and a hundred times clumsier than my American self.
A woman stood behind the bulldozer with gloves on, sorting through the waste.
As we got closer, we could make out a thin spiral of barbed wire around the roofs. Music began to scream through the windows of the house on the right and a man appeared in the doorway. Lu Laoshi explained our presence to him and began asking him questions in Mandarin. He translated the answer back to English.
“The government told them they were part of a restoration project in which they would move everyone out, tear down the village, rebuild it, and the villagers would be able to return within three years. But they didn’t have anything on paper, they were just promises. And you saw outside, the banner says this property is going to be used by Beijing University. Anyone can read that.” Lu Laoshi turned to the man again, asked a question, waited for the answer, and said to us, “The rest of the villagers, they did not have a very good education, so they didn’t know enough not to trust the government or ask for contracts, so they left.”
The man was clearly on edge. His golden retriever wove between our legs as he glanced back at the road. The music coming from his house continued to scream.
A student asked, “How long did they have?”
The answer: “They told everyone they had to move out and the next day the construction crews came. They do this so people don’t have time to think. But he says he lived here from when he was a child, and he knew enough not to leave without a contract.”
“There was a third house until a few days ago,” we learned. “But the construction crew hired thugs to get them out. They climbed in through the windows and beat the family up. Then they pushed them outside and the bulldozer smashed it while they looked on.”
“Are you safe?” we asked. “I am okay,” he answered. “We just make sure someone is in the house at all times. We have been like this for four months, but just yesterday they shut off our water. We called the water company to ask them why our water was shut off and they apologized and said they’d look into it.” It was clear this was a funny mistake. It exposed vulnerability in the menace of the government.
“I would be fine with leaving,” the man concludes through Lu Laoshi. “If they gave me enough money. But I know we will not be able to come back here, and we need a bigger payout for giving up our house.”
More money in exchange for the rights to his house. More money in exchange for rights to clean water. More money in exchange for culture. More money in exchange for clean air. More money in exchange for dialects. More money in exchange for natural resources. When does money lose its buying power with the Chinese people? When all the resources are gone, there will be nothing to spend money on.
My time in China has raised ten questions for every answer. Just when I think I understand a facet of this complex country, another event comes to turn my conclusion on its head. They say most of the body’s tissue cells are replaced every seven years as new cells are born and old cells die. As far as I can tell, Beijing is like every one of the humans that live here: it is under constant destruction and regrowth, always changing. Building are built and torn down again, the city’s membrane shifts, rises, compresses and stretches all the time. And here I am, standing in a razed village, talking to a man who watched his village disappear, his friends and family scattered to an ever changing city of 20.8 million.
On our last night in Jichang, all of the host families gathered for a feast on our family’s patio. A night of such celebration. We ate until we became human jiao zi. Then we performed a traditional, prestigious American song: “I love you” from Barney. We changed the lyrics to “I love you – You love me – You are great host families…” Then the mayor sang us a song with the families joining along in the background. We thanked them all for their hospitality, and they welcomed us any time. So much harmony.
When I looked back on this last picture (above), I was disappointed that Ai-yi’s face is turned away. I realize, however, this photo captures the difficulty of capturing generous, concerned, loving Ai-yi, and our experience being her host daughters. Photographing tourist locations and even people on the street is so much easier than taking pictures of the people you live with going about their daily business, especially since she shied away whenever we pulled out a camera.
Every aspect of this trip is so captivating and important that I want to document all of the moments to keep forever. But I can only keep in my memory the sound of her voice calling me to breakfast, scolding me for stepping on the floor without house slippers (zang! zang! dirty!), and her subtle smile and mm-hmm when we understood each other.
When we hugged her goodbye to board the bus Wednesday morning, she was wiping away tears from her eyes. She told us that if ever we came back to Jichang, she would always welcome us to her house. I doubt that Anna, Allyson, and I will ever be back all together, but I may return someday. The longer I spend here, the more I realize how China and I may fit together. Our village experience was so striking because of the way we were able to bond with this family from a completely different culture with limited communication. The more I learn to speak, the deeper connections I can make with people I grow to trust and love.
These five days I lived with a borrowed mama who made sure no fewer than two dozen times per day that we were full enough, warm enough, and wore shoes enough. These five days I learned genuine hospitality.
For more information:
“Flinn Scholars inaugurate group study-abroad seminar in China,” Flinn Scholars News, 6/26/2013
“Flinn Foundation partners with ASU Study Abroad Office,” ASU news release, 6/10/2013