By Ceileigh Mangalam
21 Aug 2009
Before I went to China, I expected a homogeneous society: black bangs and sharp speech; smoothly uniform in an uninterrupted pattern. I expected one people, all the masses firmly bound together underneath the Chinese flag, without much consideration for the individual. I was not prepared for the sheer number of cultures and peoples that make up the Chinese ethnicity. It’s a morass of traditions and ancestry, and even the few I managed to comprehend completely bowled me over.
Our first city was Xiamen, one of many tiny city-islands found between Taiwan and the mainland China. When we stepped out of the airport, it was like being slapped in the face with a damp towel. Warm, muggy, and perpetually misty, Xiamen is attempting to gain the reputation of a tourist beach town. Everywhere you look, construction teams work at clearing away slums and low-income housing for the Marriotts and and Holiday Inns. The hotels are sterile and scrubbed of any street dust. Concierges scramble to open taxi doors and clerks at the front desks hunch their shoulders as they return papers: demure, servile. Outside is chaos. Taxis honk their horns indiscriminately and straddle the painted white lines on the road. They barely miss the mist-shrouded pedestrians on the faded crosswalks. Those who are shooed away from hotel fronts gather in forgotten places – under bridges and on sidewalk corners, sometimes sleeping, sometimes begging, oblivious to those who step over them. The rich live cheek-by-jowl with the impoverished in this city, in a bitter sort of normality that made me cringe. Yet the city does hold some hope for the future. Xiamen University is a beautiful place, attracting applicants from many countries. While on tour in the city, we were assigned a student guide, who was at our beck and call each day, no matter the time. Doubtless, the University was trying to make a good impression, to call more people to visit the city, and to spread word of its hospitality. The students were eager to exercise their English, and demonstrate their knowledge of Xiamen.
The next city, Lijiang, I will remember for it’s beauty. Because of the concern during the Olympics about the levels of pollution in Beijing, I expected the same airborne squalor in every city. I was very wrong. I have never in my life seen a sky so blue. Lijiang’s Jade Snow Mountain towers above the valley, and light from the sunrise hits the rocky peak in an explosion of gold. Lijiang is a city holding on to it’s old buildings and heritage. While there, we saw a local play in which all twenty-one of Lijiang’s ethnicities performed. Twenty-one costumes, twenty-one cultures, twenty-one different traditions, all crammed into the small town. The play is a beautiful example of the diversity in just that little part of China near Nepal. Lijiang’s Old Town center mirrors the melange of cultures with a splayed maze of shops and stalls under gray, ceramic-tiled roofs. The streets are cobblestone, worn and smoothed from the years of tourists and locals hiking up and down the winding paths. In the light of day, the shops under the multicolored awnings are shadowed, and shop owners rest in chairs next to the cool walls, getting out of the sun. Groups of old men sit around square tables, playing games of Chinese chess, and drinking tea from seashell-thin cups. At night, however, the old city bustles, orange light glowing under the eaves, and the shops light up their displays, inviting us in. Silk scarves, porcelain figurines, jade bracelets, paintings and watches all sit out under the red paper lanterns. “Two yuan! Just two, two!” The salesmen clamor. Those who don’t know English whip out their cell phones, dialing up prices in the screens, showing you how little they ask. We were dazzled by the lights, children in a huge candy shop, and we all bought more than we intended to, I’m sure.
The next city we visited, Xi’an, is just as fascinating as Lijiang. It is surrounded by an enormous wall, which is flat on top, with bicycles for rent so tourists can bike around the circumference. But the sight that I will never forget from Xi’an is the Bell Tower. We went at night, on our way to visit Muslim street (as busy as Old Town Lijiang, with roasted meat and sweets for sale as we walked under strings of lights and lanterns.) The Bell Tower and the Drum Tower, which face each other from opposite sides of the surrounding wall, are famous for their past in Xi’an, originally constructed in 1384. The Bell Tower is lit up at night, a shining beacon drawing the crowds of tourists and opportunistic merchants like flies to the floodlights that turn the tower bright gold. Many of the Chinese salesmen in the square make much of their money selling kites. The strings are about thirty feet long, with anywhere from thirty to forty-five miniature paper squares along the line. The kites require only small breezes to get them off the ground, and the light from the tower transforms them into golden water snakes and dragons, spiralling off into the dark sky. We bought five strings. Xi’an is also where we went to see a Chinese opera, composed of famous pieces from Chinese myth and history. We saw Chinese stories in a high-colored fantasia of dress and dance, flying sleeves, falsetto notes, gold-armored acrobats and arching, black-painted eyebrows.
In the last few days of our trip, we toured Beijing. We took a side trip to the Great Wall, where, once we hiked away from the twanging music piped via loudspeaker from the touring office, we could hear the wind whistling through the watchtowers, and funneling along the steep, gray stone walkways. We saw the Forbidden City, in all its golden-roofed glory. On the curving end of each roof corner, eight ceramic animals keep watch over the royal ghosts. We walked the streets in Beijing, taking in the crisply dressed officers, whose shoulders were thrown back so far that their spines curved. We saw again the diversity, the obvious individuality of the Chinese persona. That man begs as if in prayer on the stairs to the subway, head swathed in a white rag and close to the ground. This man holds a briefcase, dressed in an impeccable suit. This woman in loose linen and a blue bandanna holds a child, cooing into its face; that one walks quickly in stiletto high heels, tight jeans and jabbers into a cell phone. I wonder if they are aware how strange they seem to an unprepared foreigner: wonderful and new, exciting and unfamiliar.
Of course, it is also my own foreignness that causes this fascination. I am white, blond, and blue-eyed. During the trip I was pulled aside several times by people who wanted a photo of the American girl with a camera aimed everywhere. I enjoyed meeting their stares, raising my eyebrows, and crossing my eyes at the smaller children. I tapped my camera and smiled when I wanted permission to take a photo. They usually nodded, amused to be as strange to me as I was to them.