A residual discussion among members of our group is how to talk about China. Though I’ve struggled to put a finger on it, something has made it an uncomfortable question to answer. Fortunately, I have such a wealth of good memories to fall back on.
One of my favorite elements of culture is food, and China’s cuisine did not disappoint. From dumplings that put UVA’s dumpling truck to shame to tongue searing spices in the Sichuan Province, I had the great pleasure of sampling a wide range of excellent dishes. I survived insects, congealed blood, and countless encounters with the “street meat” I had been warned about. I have always considered myself an adventurous eater, but China pushed my limits. I will not pretend to have enjoyed our adventure at the hotpot restaurant in Chengdu, but it stands out as a highlight for me, despite the pain and discomfort. Getting to sample food renowned for its unique and intense spice and commiserating with the other members of the trip who fair just as poorly with spicy food is a memory I will not soon forget.
I certainly blurred the line between “enough pictures” and “way, way too many,” but who could blame me? It seemed every day we were visiting site I’d seen in National Geographic—in fact, there were National Geographic photo shoots at both the Summer Palace and the Temple of Heaven while we were in Beijing! The draw-dropping skyline of Shanghai, the Forbidden City, the big Buddha, the Great Wall of China… I still cannot believe we were on the Great Wall of China!
The wonders of Chinese architecture through the ages astounded us at every turn. That workers, unaided by backhoes or bulldozers could accomplish the Dujiangyan Irrigation Project seems almost impossible. The scale of the temples we saw turned heads. One such example is the founding place of Taoism, atop Mt. Qincheng in the Sichuan Province, known as the Laojun Pavillion. The structure is more than eight stories high and houses statues of immense size. It’s a wonder it was ever built without a crane, but when you consider the location, the feat is all the more miraculous: it sits atop a mountain that requires an hour and one half hike that got the best of several members of our group. The prospect of hauling the great stones and pillars of the temple up the mountainside makes my glutes and quads quiver. It is easy to draw parallels between the unyielding spirit it must have taken to construct such a place and the industrious, meticulous, and ambitious Chinese workforce that now dominates international manufacturing.
To that end, I easily convey to my inquirers how valuable the business visits were. I went into the trip with the intent of gleaning as much as possible from interacting with these firms, and I sought with every visit to go beyond the mega-trends we learned about in class to see how being a business in China affected their operations. One small example is the average guest at one of Aetos Capital’s hotels is between twenty and thirty-five, indicating how much power, wealth, and influence are concentrated in younger generations.
Another example is the very different place Walmart holds in China compared to the US: here, Walmart is a category killer that squelches the competition through scale and viciously low prices. In China, the comparatively poor infrastructure and transparency of market do not allow Walmart to achieve the same level of supply-chain efficiency and subsequent low prices. As a result, Walmart is just another big box retailer, fighting a bloody price war against its competitors.
Perhaps the most insightful company visit was to the future sight of the Shanghai Disney Resort. A large part of the presentation we were given centered on how to make the park “authentically Disney, and distinctly Chinese.” We got to see how the incorporation of Chinese culture, superstition (a building which is built with the motif of the lucky number eight), and the Chinese love of all things big factors into the park’s plans. My exposure to these and all the other businesses we visited was a wonderful primer to my enrollment in the Commerce School this Fall, and it hopefully will allow me to add some insight to class discussion.
And of course the trip would hardly be the same without the fantastic group of travelling companions I was blessed with. It took all of two days for our motley crew to mesh, and even us second years were quickly welcomed. I loved being able to share moments like our little party on the Great Wall, the literally gut-wrenching experience of the hotpot, and eventually my acceptance into McIntire with such a fun group of people.
But for all these wonderful memories, the question “How was China” still troubles me. For some reason, I felt slightly off balance for much of the trip. Was I still stressed from finals? Was culture shock getting the best of me?
I realized in Hong Kong that it was anxiety stemming from my inability to immerse myself in the culture. I sought to find what makes business in China different from business in America. To a large extent, I found that. I wanted to see the sights and hear the sounds. I saw and heard them. But the entire time I was there I felt as though I was skimming the surface rather than diving in. Our second to last night on the trip, I took some time to reflect on a recent purchase. Forgive me as I wax poetic for the next bit, but I think what I wrote is pertinent to my experience for the entire trip:
I feel I’ve done a good job seeing Hong Kong in the short time we have here. I’ve seen the big Buddha, the skyline at night, Lai Kwai Fung, and the Ladies Market. I got to lose money in Macau, and I even bought a painting to hang and remind myself of the good times I’ve had here. But more so than in any of my previous travels, I feel like I haven’t truly been experiencing Hong Kong.
When I purchased the piece, the painter, an old, kind-eyed man lamented in broken English the state of his beloved hometown. “Hong Kong is dying,” he said as his silent companion nodding in knowing silence. “Tell your friends it’s too late to visit.” It was this melancholy statement that inspired me to search for the spirit of Hong Kong I felt I was missing, that whatness which makes (or made?) it such a remarkable city.
New York’s is that of a peacock: big, loud, beautiful, and eager to show you exactly how big and beautiful it is. Córdoba’s is a sage old man that has been through it all but invites you to seek out stories of his splendor rather than shove them in your face. Capetown’s is gangly man that grew too fast and, for all its history, still is unsure if its future. But what is Hong Kong? Not that I expected to discover the secret heart of this town in a few hours time, but my wanderings and reflections tonight were entirely unfruitful. It still feels shallow. Huge and vibrant and shallow.
I don’t think Hong Kong is dying, but I’m not sure the Hong Kong I was looking for ever even existed. Perhaps the painter’s Hong Kong is dying, though. Maybe Hong Kong is a phoenix. Born again and again, each time more beautiful, but different. More attractive, but less magical, looking with each rebirth, I think, more like a peacock.
“Hong Kong,” I said, “must have been a lot more English when you were a boy.”
“A lot more Chinese, too,” said Basil. -Pico Iyer, “Ghost in Central”
Perhaps China is just too different from the world I know for me to overcome it all and feel part of it. But I think, more likely, I was looking for something that wasn’t there, trying to force a preconceived notion onto what I was experiencing. I realize now that I nearly missed the forest for the trees. I was so intent on finding some narrative for my time in China that I grew anxious in pursuit of it. Maybe the question “What’s China like” does have a proper response. My experience in China, though, was defined by food, friends, learning, architecture, and wonder inspired by a place I do not fully understand. I still don’t have a trite answer if you ask me “How was China,” but I have myriad stories and pictures I would love to share.
On my honor as a student, I have neither given nor received aid on this work.