Sunday, June 17, 2012

Different is Okay

Our son, Dru, is traveling in Asia this summer with a group from school. I’ve enjoyed the texts that mostly come in the middle of the night, when I get to sit up, grab my glasses and try to snap into consciousness in case something bad has happened. The first one freaked me out, blaring as it did from my nightstand at 3:30 AM. It was a relief to learn that, apparently, tall blond Americans are in short supply in China. Dru was asked by a group of local girls to pose for pictures with them so they could show their friends they had met ‘a hot American boy.’ I can understand why that couldn’t wait till daylight.

And the ‘Yak Attack’ was critical information. It’s not every day your son eats yak meat in Tibet and spends the next two days fighting off others to get to the bathroom first. This is important news.  

The texts have come in, highlighting differences between that part of the world and ours. The stories are amusing. They are fun. This is not the first time I have had occasion to notice that we do things a little differently here in the U.S. than they do elsewhere.

Not that long ago, I visited China as part of a delegation of American and Canadian women attorneys. At the time, China was in the throes of its emergence as a world economic power. The Chinese government was still trying to control its people socially and politically, but global trading had made the once-reclusive country vulnerable to the Internet. The Chinese populace was talking to the rest of the world and starting to figure out that all the repression was not what everyone else was getting. Our tour guide explained with half-hearted conviction, dosed-up by a hint of shame at having been cowed so late in the game, that they just knew to stop if the bright red screen came up and told them they’d strayed into forbidden territory when surfing the Internet. To continue would be to risk arrest and, possibly, detention.

Censorship was still an accepted concept. We heard they had rooms of interceptors who would read facsimile traffic to screen for politically disruptive communications. How archaic that seemed. In times of transparency and global connection, it was difficult to picture rows of informants sitting in a room reading other people’s faxes, ready to snitch on anyone who dared to write something critical of the government. What followed the tattletaling – armed officials at the door to snatch the dissident from bed and haul him off?

As we drove through the streets of Beijing, huge cranes sat everywhere, poised in the midst of transformation. Old Beijing was a series of thatched compounds, where generations of families lived together. Grandparents watched children play in the courtyard, while parents walked to their shops and earned a day’s wage. As we tourists rode by in our buses, the compounds came down to make way for progress. Shops closed. Grandparents were shipped to retirement communities in one province; parents and children were sent off elsewhere. Families were scattered as change blew through their communities.

Against the backdrop of cranes and newly constructed skyscrapers, we visited the Chinese Supreme Court. Out in the hall was a little closet with a hole in the ground. This was the justices’ bathroom. I pictured them in there, hoisting their robes and squatting to avoid the splash. You’d think they would have brought in toilets before the cranes.

Speaking of bathroom habits, we walked to a restaurant for dinner on our first night in Beijing. Apparently, the Chinese hadn’t yet discovered diapers. Instead, children wore pants with a slit in them. When the child had to go, he would simply spread his legs and pee or poop right there in the street. We learned this tidbit as we walked behind a couple with a young child. The boy sat on his father’s shoulders, slit in the pants stretched wide open. Even before I could ask, the child wiggled and the dad put him down to do his business. There was no looking over their shoulders and not a hint of embarrassment. Clean-up didn’t seem to occur to them. Neither did wiping. The threesome just walked away, leaving the toddler's pile there on the sidewalk for the rest of us to enjoy.

Then came dinner. As we sat around the elegant table, which was draped in white, the waiter placed shot glasses in front of each of us. He returned with a snake, long and dangling. Its tail end wiggled up by my ear, the way snakes’ bodies do. I’d like to have jumped up and run, but did not.

Without a word, the waiter laid the snake on the table and chopped off its head. Lucky for me, I was right next to the execution, so the splattering etcetera came my way. The waiter turned the snake upside down and filled our shot glasses with blood, dripping from one glass to the next. The table cloth looked scary.  

He poured himself a shot, then laid the body at my elbow. We all sat like statues, one by one grasping the grittiness of what was coming next. The waiter lifted his glass, as if in toast to our two nations. What could we do…shun the gesture? Insult our host? Maybe people who refused snake blood were deemed reactionaries and disappeared in the night.

A woman on the far side of the table picked up her glass. I could see her hand shake. The rest of us followed, tentatively, shrinking from the task before us. The waiter said something, probably akin to ‘cheers,’ and tossed back his shot. A long pause followed. One of the heartier among us mustered herself to the challenge and raised her glass. She waited, certainly not willing to go the distance alone. One by one we gathered our nerve and then, together, we downed viles of snake blood. A few gags escaped from beneath napkins quickly brought to the mouth. Several of us were unable to handle the whole shot at once, and had to take it in two gulps. Some of the ladies had overflow making its way down their chins, lending a gruesome finish and reminding everyone of what we had done.

The next day, we walked through the marketplace and saw stands like we have for hot dogs. Only these had cauldrons of boiling water and cats in cages behind the vendor, ready for selection. Eons apart, their culture and ours.

As our time in China passed, I found myself judging their ways, their customs, even them as people. I thought of them as a bunch of barbarians who hadn’t traveled all that far from days of throwing those who died building the Great Wall into its spaces, then covering them over, casting them in forever, like so much debris that mattered to no one.

I needed directions one morning and a local man stopped to help me. He didn’t speak English, but that didn’t deter him. After considerable gesturing and what looked like a game of charades, he whipped out some paper and a pencil. We started drawing pictures and diagrams. Eventually, I figured out what he was trying to tell me. Before we said goodbye, I took a lingering look at my new friend’s face. It was a kind face and I could tell the man behind it was a kind man. He and I had interacted, not as an American and a Chinese, but as two human beings. This lovely individual had, unwittingly, given me much more than directions.

As I went on my way, I felt a new attitude sneak in to replace the cynicism that had started to take hold. Till then, I’d been living up to the unflattering reputation of an American snob. Anything different was not as good. I’d been passing judgment without intending to do so.

China is a country undergoing monumental change on several fronts. It will emerge as something quite new and different, I suspect. Regardless of how the transition manifests itself, China is a fascinating place. Its people are kind. Their artwork and food are amazing. The Great Wall, the Emperor’s Palace and the Tomb of Emperor Qin Shi Huang Di and his terra-cotta army in Xi'an are just a few of the architectural treasures that tell of a history rich in complexity and drama.     

It’s easy to fault those whose outlook or customs are different from our own. I imagine people traveling to the U.S. might have a thing or two to say about some of the stuff that goes on here. I began my trip to China with a closed mind. Thankfully, I turned that mistake around before I had wasted the experience. Today, I am grateful for having had the opportunity to see this intriguing country up close. It’s a pleasure to have interacted with people whose lives and history are so different from my own, and it is wonderful to realize that, despite those differences, most of us are very much alike. We want the same things; we suffer the same emotions.

Since the trip to China, I have tried to apply the new attitude here at home. There is a tendency even on familiar territory to judge others for being different. I know I don’t measure up all the time, but I think it’s a goal to keep in mind.

I will say, though, the next time I am in China, I intend to politely excuse myself if the waiter comes walking in with a snake in his hand.

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