I had the privilege to fulfill my dream (and my International Affairs curriculum) to live in China and study at Peking University during the Fall of 2005. Not only was the experience academically and socially challenging, but it was personally enriching and spiritually defining.
China is a land full of paradoxes, sometimes disturbing, sometimes beautiful, and always fascinating. As a Chinese-American, a paradoxical identity, living in China made me realize my "dual vision," and this is my attempt to illustrate these paradoxical realities I observed and lived through. These images include Beijing as well as cities and territories across diverse landscapes and contexts. They range from the seductive cities to the simple countryside, from the flatlands of Inner Mongolia to the plateaus of Tibet, and the futures of the new and the legacies of the old.
As I walk through these diverse places and meet different people, I was challenged to ask questions about the consequences of development, the tension of racing toward the future and sustaining continuity with the ancient, and the challenges and responsibilities of a global citizen.
These delicate roof decorations from the Emperor's Summer Palace are iconic in Chinese architecture. But they were for the elite eye as the color yellow and the glazed ceramic materials were reserved only for imperial palaces. The foreground reveals part of the ever-expanding Beijing skyline filled with modern fortresses.
I attended this local state-sanctioned church nestled between an internet café and a noodle shop near campus. Every Sunday, congregants are lined up down the block minutes before each of the six services.
Being at a large university, where international students alone outnumbered Gordon's student body, was quite a paradigm shift. Here, students parked their bikes by one of many cafeterias around campus. It is overwhelming to know that only a generation ago, my father was not given the opportunity for college because of the Cultural Revolution. Now, I have the privilege of studying in China's premier institution--where revolutions got their sparks. But now, the most popular majors are not Marxism, philosophy or literature but science, technology and business.
In the West, statues are often erected for great individuals. Socialist images of common workers and the proletarian revolution are ubiquitous in the capitol. The contemporary China of double-digit GDP growth juxtaposes what these statues symbolize, but the undertaking of capitalistic development is revolutionary nevertheless--with its own propaganda, consequences and leaders.
This is a gallery space which retained its name from a former communist factory. Its name, "798," is just as bland as its architecture, but it is now transformed into a dynamic modern art mecca. Artists from Beijing and around the world are exploring new ways of expression unprecedented in modern China and the results are anything but products of soviet assembly lines. The big red characters are slogans declaring: "Chairman Mao is our great leader and helmsman…"
It is said that one is not Chinese until one has marched on the Great Wall. This couple is awed by the height and length of the Great Wall. I was humbly reminded that it was a privilege for me to see this renowned symbol of civilization at such a young age while many do not get such an opportunity.
At a visit to a nearby village for a field trip with a Rural Economics class, we learned about the lives of the people, the history of collectivization, and agricultural practices. This door is adorned with New Year banners to welcome filial blessings and prosperity.
After an overnight ride on the train to Inner Mongolia, we stayed in yurts on the plains at the other side of the Great Wall. The people and their customs were quite different from the majority Han Chinese.
Hohhot: the capitol of Inner Mongolia, where the traces of Mongolian culture are evident only in the signs while the rush of Chinese migrant workers overwhelms the city.
As a Christian and Han Chinese, I felt very out of place in Lhasa. Here, Tibetan Buddhists were praying at Jokhang Temple and many of them made their spiritual pilgrimages to the Potala Palace alongside tourists like me, extremely awkward but irresistible.
Playing a makeshift instrument, this Tibetan boy and other children were singing for tourists, but poverty was not an entertaining matter. It was rather a troubling moment that will stay with me.
In stark contrast to Tibet, the Pudong skyline in Shanghai, which virtually did not exist a decade ago, is emblematic of the speed and scale of China's urban development.
Sights of the elderly gathering in centuries-old street corners to play chess, cards and practice Tai Chi are fading away in urban China while the traditional lifestyle is being replaced by large apartment complexes and malls.
A striking scene: this was rarely witnessed in China since public protests are prohibited. I did not find out the fate of this group, but what they did was tremendously courageous--and it highlights the social tensions, hunger for change and human struggle in the context of such dizzying developments.
Being one of the few walled cities that are preserved, Pingyao is the site where Raise the Red Lantern is filmed. Tourism has boomed over the years since. How will the city stay in balance between increased economic activity and traffic and the very elements of simplicity and antiquity that attract business?
This scenery is regarded by the Chinese as "the finest under heaven." These dramatic hills are unique to Guilin, located in the southern region.
Take a glance at any ancient structure in China, and it is probably older than America itself. This cliffside wooden monastery, located in Shanxi province in central China is a testament to that enduring heritage. It was built centuries ago by monks, which took monastic life and scholarship to new heights--in all senses of the word.
Looking a lot like the United States, car traffic in the "nation of bicycles" is now a nightmare. It is hard to imagine when China reaches per-capita rates of car ownership in America--if it is even possible for the planet to sustain it.
A common sight in Beijing, the Uyghurs (a minority group related to the Turkish) have popularized these spiced lamb kebabs cooked on an open fire. They will convert any vegetarian to a carnivore! The finest kebab spots import their mutton from Xinjiang - China's northwest.
Olympic spirit was omnipresent in Beijing as the nation was busy getting ready to host the Games for the first time in 2008. Magnificent stadiums were being completed, the air was being cleaned, English signs were being corrected for grammar, traditional communities were dislocated--and all eyes will be upon China.