Last in a series
All images by Greg Gross and property of I’m Black and I Travel unless otherwise identified. All rights reserved.
China can be enthralling, infuriating, fascinating, confounding, intimidating and enchanting. One visit in a lifetime may be enough for you — but don’t count on it.
When you spend a handful of days in a country with 5,000 years old that is hell-bent on modernizing itself almost overnight, you’re going to come away with a whirlwind of memories, images, impressions, many of which may be confusing or downright contradictory.
You’re scarcely scratching the proverbial surface and you know it. Yet even in that most superficial scratch, you see, hear, absorb so much. How much of it is true, how much of it is real?
In the case of China, the short answer seems to be: All of it, even the contradictory bits.
It starts the moment you arrive in Beijing, heading to pick up your luggage in one of the newest and most ultra-modern airports in the world, only to be stopped cold at the sight of one of Xi’an’s 1,900-year-old life-sized terracotta warriors.
It continues as you try to balance the sight of virtual forests of skyscrapers with a seemingly endless stream of ancient superstitions that governed the building of China’s historic palaces and temples, which still stand.
Like the one that creates a doorway threshold so high that small children may need step ladders to enter a room. Why? To keep out ghosts, whom the Chinese believe have no knees.
Because of this visit, you’ll return home knowing that the next time you see a pair of stone lions guarding a doorway in some distant Chinatown, that the male lion is always on the right, and that even the lion itself is an import from ancient Afghanistan.
And that the more small animals you see lining the curled end of a roof beam, the more important the building — and its occupant.
The Chinese themselves may seem at times brusque, abrupt, downright rude, at other times, friendly and engaging. They are the human equivalent of Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get.
And speaking of chocolates…if you’re a black American, you’ll see an astonishing number of Chinese who want a picture of you. They don’t know who you are and don’t care, but they will be eager, at times almost desperate, to immortalize you in their camera or cellphone.
Sometimes, they’ll come right up and ask you to pose with them in a pic. Other times, you’ll catch them trying to sneak a shot of you. At times, you may feel as if you’re surrounded by your own private army of Chinese paparazzi.
If you’re a person with hair-trigger sensibilities, this may not be the place for you. If you go the other way and roll with it, or even have some fun with it — at least with the polite ones who ask first — you come away somewhat bemused by the whole thing.
But if you’re a black American, the thing that may stun you most of all in China’s capital, Beijing, is the number of folks you see who look and sound like you. In significant numbers, the “family,” so to speak, is showing up in China.
We’re going on our own. We’re going with the tour groups that land in Beijing daily. We’re even going as expatriate students, teachers, professionals. Black America is “representing” in the Middle Kingdom.
Even as they welcome us, the Chinese don’t seem to be quite sure what to make of “us,” as this blog article about black American expats will attest.
Africans, meanwhile, have their own issues with and within China, a topic we’ve already touched on here and will do again in the coming months.
All this seems only fair to me. I suspect those of us descended from the Mother Continent, regardless of which side of the Atlantic on which we were born, puzzle the Chinese as much as they puzzle us. Who are these people? Where are they heading? What do they want?
I think it’s fair to say that attitudes in both directions are in for a lengthy adjustment.
After a first visit lasting all of six days, there’s one thing I know with absolute certainty about China. On second thought, make that two things.
The first is that I don’t know China.
I don’t know the old China that was so fiercely holding on to its old ways, and in some ways still is. Nor do I know the new China, the one now determined with equal ferocity to modernize, build a better life for itself and become a dominant voice in the world.
The second thing is that China, in all its confusion and self-contradiction, is worth getting to know.
One visit might be enough for many folks, but in a very real sense, it could never be enough. There’s just too much here that’s worth seeing, feeling, learning.
And until they get here to scratch that exquisitely complex surface for themselves, your friends who’ve only been to Europe or Nassau or Honolulu will have no idea what they’ve been missing.
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IBIT in CHINA: The Series
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