The 8th Wonder of the World

Enamel Warrior headI showed my mother the post that I wrote yesterday, and she immediately pointed out that I had used the wrong words in several spots.  It seems that starting the day without coffee has its effects on my ability to edit.  Oh well, at the moment I still have only a small audience judging these things.

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I woke up on New Years day with a massive headache, but was gung-ho to get to the Great Wall.  The weather was good, my spirits were better, and I was eager to witness first hand the artifact that is practically synonymous with China.  Despite feeling like I was going to collapse in the lobby, I found myself wearing a stupid grin and hoping that the contents of my stomach would remain in place.  I suspect that repercussions would come about if one were to vomit on a cultural relic.  I grabbed my camera, quickly consumed ten or twelve dumplings and met up with guide- Ronald and the others who were already waiting.

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The  Great Wall lies within Beijing, but it is not near Beijing proper.  I was told that the drive typically takes about an hour and a half, but could rise significantly if there was serious traffic or an accident.  Beijing disney worldTraveling on the Badaling (I love that name) expressway, we quickly left the center of the city, and began encountering much more typical Chinese living quarters.  The farther we moved outward, the lower and more aged the buildings became.   At one point we passed a very large Disney-castle style complex that looked to be long since abandoned.  Ronald explained that a Beijing tycoon of sorts had been in the process of constructing a theme park, the design of which had been taken from Disney World, but that the project had sucked his bank account dry and failed.

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About three quarters of the way to the wall, we stopped at a ‘jade’ factory/store called Jade Dragon.  True Jade is a naturally occurring stone, but the products that were being sold at the store were crafted from a material that I was told was produced on site.  This ‘jade’ was pretty, but was not the real deal and was generally overpriced.  In addition to a variety of stone carvings, the store also sold a huge number of enameled vases and objects.  Walking around proved to be quite a hazard, as many of the carvings on the floor had price tags in excess of ten thousand (American) dollars.  Enamel VasesAfter looking around for a short time, we went up to the second floor for our lunch, at which point a number of people became ill.  Whether it was a classic New Years day hangover or the grease factor of the lunch, I found myself fighting to keep the mornings dumplings down for the remainder of the bus ride.

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Vases in factoryThe Great Wall is quite a thing to witness.  In addition to being much larger than anything I had ever imagined, it is also incredibly steep in certain sections, courtesy of a sea of rolling hills.  It was amazing to stand on some of the higher towers and look down into the valley, seeing the wall crawling its way up and down the hills like a stone snake.  I would like to crush a rumor that I hear quite frequently by pointing out that the wall cannot in fact be seen from space.  It is little more than 25 feet wide in most sections.  It is also not a continuous wall, nor was the entire structure built within the same time period (it collapsed the country’s economy at one point, bringing construction to a standstill).  The portion of the wall that we visited was refurbished during the Ming dynasty, and is the best cared for section of the wall.  As far as I am aware, it is also the most visited.  Wikipedia claims that the major sections of the wall comprise a length of  more than 3,800 miles, though I am suspicious of this number.  Built using a conscripted force of over a million people (I think I read that this was a third of the population at the time?), the wall remains a testament to the power of the masses, and over the course of our trip I heard many Chinese refer to it as the 8th wonder of the world.
Great Wall Ticket booth

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The wall was great on its own, but what really made the trip for me was a conversation that I had with a small group of Chinese students who had come out to spend the first day of the Near Year on the wall.  On the way up to one of the towers, I had helped them take a group picture, and wished them a happy new year.  As we were returning, we crossed paths again, and one of them asked if I was able to speak  Chinese or whether I just new a few phrases.  Once I explained my interest in China and my major in school, we quickly got into a discussion comparing many aspects of Chinese and American culture.  Our conversation switched back and forth between Chinese and English, with each of us using our native language when we couldn’t quite find the right words.  The man asked a few small questions, testing the waters, and then started to move toward more calculated thoughts.

Great Wall rolling hills“What do you think the biggest difference is between the United States and China?” he asked all of a sudden.  I found it interesting that this was not the first question he had posed, but the first in which he had requested my permission to ask.  It was obvious that some part of the question made him uncomfortable, but I could also tell that he had great interest in hearing my answer.  Questions almost identical to this one would occur several more times on the trip, and each time it seemed to me that the person asking already had an idea of what my answer would be, and wanted to have it confirmed by hearing it firsthand.  Thinking for a moment, I told him that I saw great differences in the role of the family as it existed in our two cultures, pointing particularly at the way in which Chinese culture put heavy emphasis on family-first lifestyles.  Great Wall steepAfter I had tried to explain a bit about family life back at home, he looked a bit confused.

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“So you’re saying that family is not as important in America?”

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Not quite what I had said.  I was having trouble articulating the differences that I observed.  As I had witnessed, the thoughts of young people in China often came directly back to their family, in particular their parents, and how the choices they made would be perceived back home.  This is not completely different from the United States where nearly every student I have met has some level of concern about what mom and dad will think.  At the same time, however, the concern that I witnessed in China ran on a deeper level.  Articulating the differences between the two in a short period of time was very difficult, but I gave it a shot.  The man listened to everything I said and remained silent for a moment, still looking a bit confused.  We were approaching the exit from the wall and as far as I could tell he was only headed this way so that he could continue speaking with me.  I would have been glad to do so, but was late for the bus and couldn’t pause for very long.  I don’t quite remember his exact wording, but his final thoughts were something along the lines that although young Chinese are indeed very conscious of their families, more and more they are moving away and taking their own direction in life.  Coming to the gate, we quickly said our goodbyes and he headed back up the way we had come.
Great Wall sunsetAt the time of the conversation, it had seemed to me that this discussion had just come from the interest of one Chinese who wanted to hear about the United States, but looking back I think that there was probably a bit more to it than this.  After having similar conversations with a number of students in Sichuan, I began to have the feeling that many Chinese are concerned with the perception that Americans have of China and of Chinese culture.  In most of these conversations (I will document one or two more down the road), I enjoyed having the opportunity to make comparisons between our respective cultures, but often left with the feeling that I had not been the one directing the movement of the conversation.

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Courtesy of Hannah Richard

Courtesy of Hannah Richard

It wasn’t that such interactions felt scripted, but almost that the people I was speaking with expected me to have certain answers to their questions.  No one was mean to me, and in most cases they didn’t directly disagree (although disagreement is rarely presented quite as directly as in American culture).  I couldn’t help feeling, however, that these conversations were often subtle attempts at gaining a sense of my opinions and redirecting them if they didn’t quite match the opinions of the person asking.

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