I recently visited China for a brief time. I have posted many photos from my trip on this blog, but you can see my black and white essay on my website.
I traveled through China with my mother, a Chinese woman born in Utah. Neither of us had visited before and were excited to see the homeland. We saw a country with a deeply rooted history and a stark realism. China is crowded with people and packed with air pollution- the country is thick and gritty. Living in this environment, the people are very practical, stable and honest.
From my trip, two experiences helped me feel true freedom in this country with tones of oppression. The first happened in Xi’an, a city over 3,000 years old with more than 8 million residents. One night, an artist working in our hotel let me borrow his electric bike. I took it and zoomed around the city, weaving in and out of skinny bike lanes, and often no bike lanes at all, during evening rush hour traffic. Everybody stared at me with curiosity as I rode by; I knew I looked like a crazy foreigner, with an ear-to-ear grin. I rode past an enormous ancient wall that was built in 1370 to surround and protect Xi’an. As I kept riding, I got a little further from the wall, which was surrounded by a moat. I took a left at the end of the wall and ventured down a street lined with small shops selling bright household goods, fruits and vegetables, and car repairs. Scattered groups of people walked up and down the street, tired at the end of the day. I rode until I got too far for comfort and upon turning around, realized that getting back was going to be a much bigger challenge than I anticipated. The way I had come had a distinct bike lane, protecting me from traffic. The way back had no bike lane and it forced me to mingle with the dense traffic and construction walls. I suppose my most frightening moment came riding around the round-about, where I just had to go for it and say a mental safety prayer. I then tried the same bike lane, but discovered I was going against full traffic and had to move. I was trying to stay on the same streets in order to find my way back, but I was forced to move to a side street. This street was calm and slow, contrasting nicely from the crowded, noisy main road. I leisurely found my way back to the hotel.
I felt exhilarated as I locked up the bike and returned the keys to the generous owner, Aron Xieyi.
When you look through the window at the moon shadows, you get homesick.
The second freedom moment came under the moon shadows, deep in the heart of Shanghai. Late one evening, I took a walk in the area surrounding the hotel. It was an extremely hot day in Shanghai, even in the dark hours. The local paper said there was a record heat wave; people were actually frying eggs on the sidewalk. I walked up the freeway overpass, a big square surrounding a major intersection. At the top was a middle-aged man, flying a very long and lovely kite. The kite had small paper butterflies spaced out every few feet. The whole scene seemed surreal as he was flying this kite with a background of skyscrapers lit up in the evening. I was mesmerized as the kite slowly and smoothly weaved in and out, back and forth. Every so often, a small breeze blew past me. The man recognized my infatuation with his kite and gestured that I was welcome to fly it. I only had the kite for about a minute, but as I held the kite, it felt as though time stopped via serenity and connectedness. Masses of cars and people passed by down below, but on the freeway overpass, things felt calmer.