My first visit to China surpassed all of my expectations. I expected a China that most westerners have been taught to think of when they think of China – namely a poorly developed socialist country where people work for the common good and they all basically have similar lives under a government ordained economy. That wasn’t the China I found. The China I found had all the elements of a western capitalist society. It had the market driven economy. It had the consumerism. It had the exclusive European boutiques and the big chain stores. It had the macro development. It had the pop culture. It had the big shows, the glitzy lights, and the non-stop night life. It also had the pollution. It had the sharp contrast between rich and poor. It had the homelessness. It had the hopelessness. Like a lot of western cultures, including my own, the good comes with the bad.
I take back with me a lot of memories from China. Like the out-of-control taxis racing at record speeds through the congested city streets of Changsha and Beijing. The abundance and size of apartment buildings – they were so tall that I struggled to see the tops. The incredible beauty of Zhang Jia Jie. The intense smell of pollution in the city. The hopelessness of a poor homeless woman who smiled at me and begged for money outside my favorite breakfast place in Changsha – Rosa Bakery. I remember stopping at a small family-run cafe to get some lunch with my wife and her friend on the road to Shaoshan and the little girl who waited on tables touched my nose and proclaimed “Da Bizi!”, comparing it to her own, then proceeded to wonder why I had so much hair on my arms.
That’s the one thing that made me think China surpassed my expectations – the people. The most vivid memory I take back with me from China is how the people I met were so sincere and warm. Like that little girl in the cafe in Shaoshan. She was so honest and pure. The people I met had a sense of community and family that doesn’t exist much in our society. People talked to each other a lot – about themselves, their families, their problems, and about other people. It is through this ubiquitous communication that the people stick together and help each other. That’s what struck me the most – in my neighborhood back home in America, it is rare for neighbors to know each other. In fact, they mostly live in their own little worlds. It’s totally different in China. Neighbors not only know each other, but they share in all the issues of life on a daily basis. They help each other in many ways. One neighbor might buy something at the store for another neighbor, or one might help move another to a new apartment, or one might take care of a neighbor’s children until another returns home from work. Friends helped us get to Shaoshan, Yueyang, Junshan Island, and more, even though they had a family of their own. Helping friends was important to them.
I was watched closely by those same neighbors. They looked at me like I was some sort of space alien. But they always smiled and tried to communicate because they wanted to know all about me and what sort of person I was. Many of their children also tried out their English on me. For many it was a rare opportunity to test the reaction of a real American. I hope I passed the tests. I think I did. Each interaction I had was so positive and so warm that the people made me feel like part of their community of neighbors – part of their family. That was the greatest gift they could have ever given me. I became a part of their lives just as much as the memories of these people became a part of my life. They made me want to return to China. I can’t wait to see all the changes when I do. But I know that my friends in China will remain the same. That’s what’s important.
We flew into Beijing from Seatac spent a couple of days there, then it was on to Changsha where we spent most of the trip. From Changsha, we took day trips to Shaoshan, Yueyang Tower, Junshan Island, and the majestic mountains and intricate caves of Zhang Jia Jie.
Below I present images from some of the places we visited during our stay in China. To see more of my photography and to buy a beautiful large-format photobook of this journey, visit my online gallery.