The first time we visited China, we began in Shanghai, just before it was due to be turned over to the Chinese by the British. The country was beginning to emerge- as though from a cocoon. It had wrapped itself in isolation and secrecy for so long, and now had decided to come forward, with all the power you could imagine would be required for a great nation.
There was a sense of purpose and what is probably best described as "muscularity" that first time. It was even stronger the second time we visited China. Today, it is clear to everyone that China, though still growing, has grown up. Nancy and I are especially pleased that we were there to see the start of its modernization, and can appreciate how far the country has come in so short a time.
Even in the largest cities, there was a lack of sophistication, almost to the point of innocence. In the heart of Beijing, automobiles had not yet taken over the roadways, and everyone rode bicycles. Despite this, thousands of old Russian tractors, converted to wagons, were on the roadways- absent mufflers and catalytic converters, pouring tons of smoke and particles into the air. It was so bad that by 10 in the morning, we could not see the buildings at the end of the block from our hotel in Beijing.
Shocking to a Westerner, disposable diapers and simple street cleanliness had not reached even to the heart of the capitol. As we strolled around admiring the Giant Pandas in the Beijing Zoo, a small child in front of us, taking full advantage of 'split crotch diapers', felt the call of Nature.
When he was finished, he and his Mom just walked on, never thinking of the event as anything unnatural.
In those days, a common worker was paid the equivalent of about $200.00 a month. Conditions were poor- little cleanliness, little light- little ventilation
But unmistakably fine quality production. Here Nancy, my brother Vince and I are visiting a factory that produces cloisonne jewelry and decorative artwork. Their things are stunning.
There are ingenious people everywhere on Earth. We saw a great concentration of folks who found interesting ways to make a living. Consider this tailor, setting up shop on the corner of a busy street:
All around us we were aware of the gentle curiosity of the people. In smaller villages, children would come over, stand near the wheelchair- but not touch- as they had never seen a person in one before.
Sometimes, especially in larger cities, people were bolder. We were on the grounds of the Summer Palace in Beijing when I noticed a young woman walking through the crowd directly toward us.
She immediately gave me a "High Five" and began speaking in a strange, antiquated form of English. It turned out that she had worked for a gentleman whose wife kept a large library of 18th and 19th Century romance novels. She was permitted to borrow these, and self-taught herself English, with all the flowery phrases and extreme niceties no longer fashionable in ordinary society!
We started a conversation- as most Chinese we encountered wanted to learn English, especially from a native speaker. You can see that at the onset, there were already a few people gathered around us- at a respectful distance. After no more than a few minutes, there were hundreds of people around us, listening, learning, practicing. I could see their lips, moving, but they made no sound, so as not to disrupt the chat this young woman and I were having.
Finally, one of our favorite pictures that embodies the "innocence" mentioned earlier. We were in Xian, walking the main street with a young student, off for the holidays, whom we had hired as a guide.
On the sidewalk in front of a fast food restaurant, a large crowd had gathered to look at the cartoon character hired by the restaurant. The two darling children took several minutes standing in front of him before they gathered enough courage to actually touch him! But especially note the man on the left, in the brown suit, above where I have marked an arrow on the picture. He is staring, gawking, disbelieving, at the cartoon figure, not sure if it is real- some sort of strange bear- or exactly what? It was an incredibly sweet moment.
It doesn't’t matter if you are in the big cities or in the “boonies”, it is happening in China.
In Shanghai, and practically everywhere we went, there was construction. Workers swarming over bamboo scaffolds put up around buildings being built all over the city. It was infectious; you could feel it permeating everything around you.
Even in the countryside, massive housing projects were being put up, bringing electricity to the fortunate ones who would soon be moving from huts with dirt floors into the 20th and 21st Centuries.
On our first trip, on the train, passing through countless outlying villages, we could see men pulling ploughs while women walked behind, controlling the blade. The second time we went, on a similar train, there were machines in the fields everywhere- plowing, planting. You are aware of an underlying pride and power everywhere you go.
I was a small boy, perhaps six or seven years old when I saw my first picture of the Great Wall of China. I wanted to be there more than anything else in the world. Almost forty years later, we got there.
In this picture, Nancy is smiling. But Nate is in ecstasy! Difficult to put into words how you feel at the very moment you realize you are living a dream come true.
What is most striking about this photo, however, is what you don't see. Unseen is all the work that went into getting here. It wasn't easy. The first time we tried to get permission to travel to China, the Chinese Travel Bureau refused to let us. You can read about it and see some fabulous pictures in Disabled Travelers Guide. It was certainly worth the effort, and we are so glad we did not take "NO" for an answer.
We took a train from Beijing to Suzhou to visit the famous silk factory. We watched as skilled artists created pictures using hair-thin strands of different colored silk threads.
The director of the factory came over and presented us with a series of small screens- her gift in appreciation of the effort and courage it took for us to get there, thousands of miles from our home.
One evening, we parked the car and walked quite a distance down a very dark and narrow street. I was concerned, especially when I learned the street was once famous for being the place where unsuspecting sailors would get "Shanghai'd" and disappear forever. Instead, we were treated to a concert of songs, dances, and traditional musical instruments:
We then traveled to Xian to see the famous Terra Cotta Warriors. When we were there, they would not permit taking pictures. Today, there are videos posted on YouTube. Marvelous.
But the impression that is most vivid and longest lasting is the one we saw in Beijing, in Tiananmen Square. This time, however, the same place where protesters were slaughtered June 5, 1989 was now the scene of hundreds of thousands of young people and students. They assembled in the Square in celebration of a national holiday. A sea of fresh, smiling faces. Of neat, well behaved children who would one day lead China forward to take command as one of the most powerful nations on Earth.
To be in China, in Tiananmen Square that day, there was little question about where the country was headed. No doubt this was going to become a great nation.
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