The first time I set foot in China was in 1989, a few months after the infamous incident in Tian An Men Square. I was not yet 20 years old, and I felt I had touched down on another planet. There were different species of trees, and unique landscapes. Cooking charcoal, diesel exhaust and swarming masses of people gave the air a savour I had never experienced. Buildings were different, and even in the middle of a huge city, the ever-present scaffolding was made of bamboo. The rhythm of life in China played a tune I had never heard, but could not stop listening to. Although I could already speak and read Chinese, even this was a source of amazement; instead of feeling somewhat at home because I could read the signs, it was rather like landing on on another planet, discovering, let's say, that the inhabitants of Mars really do, in fact, speak English. That first landing in China sticks out among the clearest and most treasured memories of my life.
What I didn't know at the time was that that trip would be only the first of many, and that I would return many times and end up spending a lot of time in China, and even more thinking about China, and studying China. Yet, China never lost its magic for me. I want to talk about people living in cozily made-up caves on the hillsides of Yan An, and dental extractions performed on the streets. I want to talk about being an object of wonder in a town that hadn't seen a foreigner since Marco Polo, and an object of fear in the streets due to my tattoos. I have stories of the overwhelming peace of a Buddhist monastery high in the mountains, and tales of drinking with Mongols and signing around the table of a yurt until early in the morning. I recall villages of mud-brick houses with rapeseed drying on the roof, children playing around stacks of watermelon and cabbage, and an old woman, with bound feet, asking me how long the train ride from America had been. Most of all, I remember the kindness and willingness to make friends of people throughout the country; the sweet potatoes roasted over metal drums in the winter time; the million stars in the sky in the middle of the endless northern grassland, where the nearest electrical outlet was 200 miles away.
But I am afraid. These moments of joy, and many more, live on inside my head, but I don't know if they live anywhere else. Its been many years since I last returned to China, but I have two children who travel there fairly often, and the reports I receive are not good. I hear of McDonald's and KFC on every corner, SUVs parading around town, and western fashion eclipsing all things Chinese. I am told of country villages dotted with satellite dishes, cell phones stuck to each commuter's ear, and children who played happily in the fields just yesterday donning t-shirts of American sports teams and playing Call of Duty until late in the evening.
Worse, I hear stories of even greater losses. Young people leaving their homes in ever-growing numbers in pursuit of the almighty dollar. Obesity, drug abuse, and other diseases and ills of modern culture on the rise. Stories of grandparents who sacrificed literally everything so their family could prosper being forced to live in sub-standard nursing facilities because their ungrateful progeny, who advanced on the backs of these old folks, just don't give a damn about the debt they owe to their parents. These things were unimaginable in the China that still lives in my daydreams.
People, have called my position on this selfish. Who am I, in fact, to wish to deny progress, to hope for less riches rather than more, and a more closed rather than a more open world for over a billion people, just because the older ways were more pleasing to me? Maybe I am selfish. It may also be true that my feelings are inevitable, given the life I lead. Maybe the beauty of travel is that it creates these glimmering one-of-a-kind moments that can never be re-created, no matter how badly one wants to.
Maybe. I just don't know. But I do know this. I pray that, while I may not be able to re-live the China of my memories, that the real China will continue to exist, as the kind of place that can inspire memories like them for others. I want to go and see for myself, but I'm afraid of what I might find.