Xenna Goh '13: China is Changing

Xenna Goh was one of the 2013-2015 Shansi Fellows at Shanxi Agricultural Univeristy. This is her first year narrative. 

We were sitting in an overcrowded dumpling shop full of panicked and exhausted train passengers right outside Beijing West station waiting for an order that would most likely never come when I asked Karl, Shansi fellow to Banda Aceh, what he thought of China. For two weeks before this, we had traveled together through the mountains of people to Xi’An, visited the small and dusty town of Taigu I have learned to call home, and had biked across Beijing’s city center. We had witnessed mob scenes at the train station, trekked through miles of Chinese city in search for an affordable swimming pool, played billiards in dimly-lit pool parlors, eaten fragrant noodle dishes from hole-in-the-wall restaurants, biked to polluted mountain-side villages in ShanXi, and had even seen the terra cotta warriors.


“Hm,” he replied, trying to think of adjectives that had not already been given to him in news articles or guidebooks. We looked around at our fellow diners in the dumpling shop. There was a family fighting for a seat with an older man, the sounds of screaming babies filling the suffocatingly humid air. “I don’t think China has any magic,” he said cautiously. “Or...it has lost its magic.”


I couldn’t stop thinking about his honest account of what China was. I find many travelers have similar feelings when they enter China for the first time. I certainly did; I certainly do. The first image of China in our mind is either that of a powerful nation with a powerful economy that will one day out-power the United States, or we imagine Ming Dynasty-era architecture and red lanterns. These relics still exist in China, but in many places those red lanterns have been stamped with the Coco-Cola logo and old architecture has been restored to the point of looking like it appeared from Disney Land. I reflected on a few instances when I found this to be true, and when the magic was there, but buried under layers of Chinese obscurity.


Last winter I visited the ancient city of Pingyao with some students. Pingyao is described in the guidebooks as brimming with old-town charm, and while I certainly agreed, I was surprised by the reactions of my travel companions. While peering over some statues at a local Buddhist temple, one student leaned over and whispered, “I feel like I have no connection with any of this. No connection with my own country’s history. I can only really know about the present day, all of this means nothing to me.” Here, things change so quickly it’s hard to feel a connection to that past.


A few months ago, my tutor Francis introduced a few different styles of local Chinese opera to me, explaining that it was something going out of fashion and really only watched by older people in village communities. Still, traditional Chinese opera has been performed for nearly 2,000 years and is widely watched by Chinese audiences--albeit a little older--today. He showed a few video clips of Shanxi opera, as well as opera specific to Taigu, performed in the local dialect. The brief clips I saw of the opera, along with Francis’ translation into Mandarin Chinese, were utterly hilarious. He told me that the traveling Shanxi opera would perform in a week in a village nearby, and invited Charlotte and me to join him.


On a rainy Saturday morning, Francis picked us up in his car and drove us through the muddy roads of a village close to Nongda’s campus. After he parked his car, the three of us raced to the village outdoor amphitheater--an enormous and old structure--narrowly dodging exploding firecrackers set up in the street facing an old temple. The performance in front of us consisted of a man dressed in elaborately embroidered robes and long eyebrows that twitched and swooped with every flick of his head. He sang in a loud, shrill voice accompanied by a traditional Chinese orchestra. I was completely enchanted by the performance. Similarly, many members of the audience--consisting mostly of bent-over, smoking old men--were amazed by the presence of Charlotte and me. A few players in the orchestra stretched their necks out from behind the stage’s side curtain, peered curiously into the audience, found the foreigners, and snapped a quick picture on their phones during an orchestral pause.  During the performance, we snuck behind the stage and into the “green room” where actors and were casually waiting for the man with the long eyebrows to end his scene. The cloth roof leaked with the rain from outside. Women in long gowns, hair done in mountains on top of their heads and faces painted intricately with makeup stood around. After talking with a couple of them, I realized that most were younger than I was. We chatted a bit and watched the performance from behind the stage. After less than an hour, we left; though the opera was scheduled to last another several hours.


In late May, I was biking with a few friends to the mountains and wanted to show them where the festivities from a few months before had taken place. I traced Francis’ route back through the narrow alleyways of the old village until I found the temple and the street where the firecrackers had exploded. There was no sight of the amphitheater--instead the entire area had been completely bulldozed over and in its place was a mountain of rubble and trash. Although it is entirely possible that the village was in the middle of constructing a new amphitheater, I couldn’t help but think of how quickly the tranquil scene of a village opera-watching had been completely obliterated from memory.


Moments like this make me realize how quickly things change here in China. An ancient tradition is carried on for years and years in a small ShanXi village, and then one day its platform is completely torn up. China is changing, and I am desperately trying hard to keep up. Integrating this change into my daily lifestyle has been an unexpected challenge, as it requires flexibility that was once almost unforgivable during my life in the U.S. Meetings occur at the click of a finger; we are called to banquets a few minutes before mealtimes; store hours are never constant. Sometimes it has reached a point where I do not even feel slightly guilty for canceling on a student because I am too tired for the horrible excuse that they are so used to it.


Students here experience the constant and unbalanced movement of change so much more than we do. For this semester’s final project, my students created short films in groups of 4 or 5. They were given a list of words they had to use during the film and time to storyboard and write a script.  In the end, the project resulted in an enormous diversity of movie topics and stories, but the most common one centered around the theme friendship will last forever. In these films, a few friends were introduced, experienced some hardships, experienced a lot of change, and in the end were still friends. Although simple, this formulaic story structure demonstrated what many of these students wanted most: a sense stability through community. A few graduate students have told me that they have remained roommates with their friends since their undergraduate freshman year. Many student videos also provided a window into their dormitory lives, where they sleep in bunk beds 8 to a room with no air conditioning in the hot summer months and sometimes no heating in the freezing wintertime. When I ask a few about their close living quarters, I am met with different responses. Many shrug and say their roommates are their best friends and it’s fun for the time being. Others admit it’s a bit of a struggle. While visiting the ancient prison in Pingyao (with the same group of students as before), one girl peeked into a jail cell and upon seeing two beds in one room laughed, “ha! These conditions are better than our dormitory!” The others laugh in agreement, though they’re quick to point out that at least they can leave the dormitory on their own free will.


During the winter months, when the outdoor world looks like a canvas smattered with mud and nothing more, I find myself wondering where the “magic” and “beauty” of all this really is. It’s true--Taigu has completely redefined my definition of “beauty,” especially knowing that there is indeed beauty to come in the summer months.  But this re-evaluation, this upheaval of everything I thought I knew turned upside-down, this surprise is what I love most about living in this rapidly developing mid-west coal town. Despite the slower pace of life in the Chinese countryside, living in Taigu is like living with fewer constants. As I continue another year in Taigu, I look forward to the surprises I will face through its everlasting change.