When I first set out to document the ‘Discovering China’ trip, I had planned on writing a day by day account of our travels, totaling some 11 days of material to be covered. It seemed only logical to document everything in a straight forward, chronological order. I mean, day one was followed by day two, it should work the same way on paper, right? It appears, however, that the more I write about the experience, the more I realize that documenting memories in this manner doesn’t really convey a good sense of the trip as a whole. It ends up sounding, well, chronological, and in most respects would be rather boring to read. Some days were amazing, but there were plenty of others that had little to nothing remarkable about them. I’m quite sure that if I wrote about each of the welcoming ceremonies we attended, this would end up reading like the minutes from a rotary club meeting. I have nothing against the rotary club, I’m just saying that it probably wouldn’t draw much interest.
There is something else that doesn’t sit well with writing such a straight forward account, namely the fact that the trip itself was not straight forward. Though my physical experiences within the two weeks could only have been one day after another, I find more and more that my ability to observe and analyze everything that we experienced only began to develop once I was able to break things down, to separate each memory as an individual moment. As a whole, there was little to no coherency within any portion of the two weeks. Each day found a new schedule, a new set of plans, and not a single person with any idea of what we were actually going to be doing. This lack of definitive schedule made many people anxious. It is not, as many people believed, that the Chinese have no belief in following a schedule, but rather that schedules are formatted with the knowledge that they can be changed, reworked, and even completely disregarded. Now I know as some of you are reading this that you are sitting there thinking “but doesn’t that go in opposition to the purpose of a schedule?”. I’m afraid that I can’t give a firm answer on that end, nor have I really decided where my own opinion lies. There is a large cultural aspect at play, one which I believe can only really be understood after many years of life in China. After two weeks in country, I still could not grasp the nature of Chinese scheduling, but at the same time no longer felt a need to worry about our plans. Doing so took too much effort, and invariably led to my guesses about destinations being wrong.
But all of this is idle thought, and I have yet to get to my main purpose in this particular post. I generally groan when a piece of literature starts with the standard “to get the beginning, we must start at the end”, but in so many situations this is the case. I have found China immensely difficult to document, simply because there is so much happening at any given point, and it has become more apparent that in order to document correctly, you must do nothing short of including all aspects at once. During the course of our stay in Beijing, we saw any number of important sites (The Great Wall, Forbidden City, Tian’anmen) considered to be the pinnacle of Chinese “cultural relics”. These represent rich portions of Chinese history, but on the whole I found that I gained much more from the lesser activities. Trips to various clubs and bars may not seem to be the essence of Chinese society and culture, but I ultimately gained far greater insight by spending time within these areas. Culture exists at all points, in all places. Some experiences do not immediately reveal as much culture as others, but at days end it was the cross comparison of experiences (ie, conversations I had with Chinese on the Great Wall as compared to those I had at the bar) that really brought about greater understanding of the endless nuances that exist within Chinese culture.
I am currently reading “Ghost Train to the Easter Star”, a semi-memoir by the writer Paul Theroux. Though I can appreciate his ability to write, I find him to be nothing less than an ass when it comes to his observations of culture. My main complaint stands in his interest in looking for the “real” within each country that he visits. Looking back on our first week within China, I can now see that I was probably doing something similar, and I think that it is almost unavoidable in any adventurer (for an excellent, nearly selfless portrayal of Chinese culture, get a hold of Peter Hesslers River Town). It is very important, albeit it difficult, to make a distinction between the categorizations of real and typical. Everything is real. So long as we were in China, there could be no “fake”. There are, however, aspects that are not good portrayals of a culture as a whole. New York City can be seen as the premier American metropolis, but spend as long as you want in and on its streets and you will have only seen a sliver of American culture. The same applies for Beijing. Amazing city, amazing people, but step outside and you will quickly find yourself overwhelmed by how much farther the culture extends.
I have once again lost my place in this (very) large thought. In short, this trip has done nothing short of school my understanding of the way in which I analyze the things I see. I came home from China unable to put words to any of the experiences that I had. It wasn’t that these experiences were beyond words, but that they sounded flat when I wrote about them as they occurred. I was writing thoughts in sequence, and though they had happened in a particular order, I found that writing about these experiences only made sense if I pulled them out of context and began to juxtapose them against one another. I have yet to post any such works, but once I get into the dating and drinking scene (of which I will never claim to understand), then I will really start to mash things up. Very much like the trip, this post continues to fight consistency. I will end here.