Roll up those taxi windows, drag your bags through security… this only comes every ten years. Beijing’s bitter wind welcomed 2270 delegates yesterday to shine their shoes and take their seats in a room booked for the “18th National Congress”. While the U.S. lets out its breath to enjoy another four years under Obama’s leadership, China prepares itself for a new president and premier (7 of the 9 current Politburo Standing Committee members are retiring this year). Xi Jinping, the likely candidate to replace President Hu Jintao, emphasized four main questions to be addressed at this year’s conference, namely: What flag will we wave? What path will we follow? And in what state of mind? To continue advancing towards what kind of goals? (我们党将举什么旗、走什么路、以什么样的精神状态、朝着什么样的目标继续前进) Specific, I know. Citizens wait eagerly to see what solutions the committee generates for problems like insufficient health care, inflated real estate, and the growing gap between the rich and poor. As news stations flash snippets of animated discussions over round mahogany tables, the mysterious lure of the national government grows in the eyes of the people. Local and provincial governments may be corrupt or unfair, but loyalty towards the national government is a tradition that stretches back thousands of years, born from the people’s innocent dependency and undying hope in a power that remains faceless. Just as religion presses followers to have faith in what they cannot see, a government too can round up millions of supporters if only by providing a mirage of hope.
The shock is over… that which once opened my eyes to the exotic and unexplored is starting to decay, scene by scene. The “East” suddenly feels anything but “far”, and attempting to compare my diary to the journals of early explorer Joseph Needham would be an immense disappointment. What happened to parched paper and ink and the desire to collect every new scent and sound into a glass jar to bring home and admire? Perhaps everyone throughout history assumes that those who came before had a grander experience, but I can’t imagine what it must have been like to walk the streets of Shanghai at the turn of the 20th century. Surely the fabrics of every 旗袍 qipao were made of genuine silk instead of fraying polyester. Surely there was no “地沟油“, or contaminated oil, in the nightly street-side delicacies. But maybe even the Shanghai girl, sitting in front of her bedroom mirror painting a careful arch for each brow before stepping out into the night, reminisced earlier days of emperors. When, how, I wonder, can one paint the daily grind with more splendor? And I don’t mean stuffing more adjectives into written accounts. I think it starts with perception and how one senses things in the world. That eloquence must still exist, I imagine, amidst monotonous construction sites and sleek grey lobbies. I’ve been trying to find it, to capture it in unexaggerated language for quite some time now, and after a long search, I’ve seen that it exists in every living thing left undisturbed and unnoticed.
The snails around my office, for example, are exactly 3.5 inches long and about 1 inch wide. The first time I saw one I snapped a photo with my phone and admired it for a day. I also recall feeling like I’d entered the movie, “Honey I Shrunk the Kids”, though that excitement has long gone now. I suppose back in Needham’s time I would have pulled a journal from my pack and sketched a picture of the snail, writing detailed observations so that I could record every color, scent, and measurement for scientists back home to read about and explore.
And then I see the people of China, who, in my eyes, are most worthy of admiration. Given a nearly 50% unemployment rate for recent college grads, a dying social welfare system, societal pressure for men to become millionaires and women to never grow old, real estate prices about ten times higher than those in the U.S. with salaries about ten times lower, pollution and corruption and contaminated foods, Chinese still find a way to persevere. What’s more, they actually thrive, not merely survive. Chinese see the importance of relationships, of finding opportunities to chat the night away on a pink plastic chair with a bottle of beer or between the blur of shuffled poker cards. There is an undying light in people here… the same beauty that you sometimes catch a glimpse of in those depressing indie classics. It’s artistic in the crooked sense, like a rustic scene or wildflowers, and it will probably forever bring me inspiration in photography and writing and living. I can’t describe exactly what is so possessive and captivating about the nature of people here except that, even while I often groan at certain smells or sounds or attitudes of 老百姓, “common people”, I still find a way to genuinely smile at them sometimes. The moments usually come I’m walking alone through dirtier streets—you know, the ones where you can really see humans living at the naked core. I’ll be walking along and I’ll suddenly see a fruit vendor extending a plate of watermelon to bewildered passerby, yelling, “It’s free! Yes! It’s okay… take one! Our boss isn’t here today!”. Or I’ll see an old, skinny man spinning his granddaughter through the air as they wait for her school bus. Or maybe I’ll find a crowd of twenty men watching one chess game, faces staring intently at the board before simultaneously breaking into unified expression. It never feels as exotic as what I read in the diaries of past westerners in China, but it sure invites an inexplicable love for the fresh, for the spontaneous unexpected, for the world that I would never dare call my own.
I can’t bring myself to believe that the past, at any time, was better. We have those thoughts wherever we are, whenever we watch films like Midnight in Paris or read the works of old authors. Different, yes. And the entire approach to life was different, given the highly varied technologies and resources of each decade. Yet there’s no reason why we can’t reposition our minds to find the wonder that exists in every old street corner we pass. Routine happens everywhere. The “ordinary”— that stale and suffocating feeling of boredom— will perpetually creep over every place we inhabit. Still, I simply can’t believe that anything has truly changed beyond our narrowing perspective. I’d like to think that a happy life consists of stringing together those moments when you realize that the old carpet in your living room has long since gone out of style— it’s seeing things for the first time. Really, truly, seeing.