Derek Paylor

Major: International and Area Studies

Hometown: Roxboro, NC

Study Abroad Program: UNC Asian Studies Summer in Beijing

June 21, 2007

I've been in China for over a week now, and I finally have access to a steady and free source of internet. I can now participate in the wonderful sharing you've all been doing.

The 15-hour plane ride over, as everyone can attest, was absolutely horrible, but after landing, things began to look up considerably. We were picked up at the airport in Shanghai and taken straight to our hotel, the Silk Road Hotel, where we began our journey in style. My first impressions of Shanghai, as we took the 50 minute drive from the airport to the hotel, was of pleasant clutter. When compared to other cities like Tokyo which are just pure confuse in terms of layout, Shanghai was neatly divided into the old section and the newer, business section. I was in awe of the heights of the buildings, and the water that could be seen in the distance. The city, known as the whore/pearl of the orient (just like a lover, there are good and bad ways of viewing someone), is filled with architecture from the quasi-colonial period, and our tour guide took great pleasure in pointing out the different influences from the French and the British who quasi-ruled the city for over a century.

The first day was pretty uneventful--we just ate at a local restaurant that was, like all the subsequent restaurants, designed for tourist. In Chinese restaurants, I've learned, large groups don't have their food served directly to them by a waiter like they would in the US, but here they place the food on a GIGANTIC Lazy Susan made of glass, and the guest spin it around to retrieve what they want. The food down here is cooked in too much oil, but the dishes are prepared superbly well. So far, the oddest things I've eaten has been a deep-fried kidney. We also try not to complain about the food we eat if we don't like it because our group has a vegetarian, and vegetarians don't do well in China. For each meal, our guide asked for a special dish, and that dish would be, without fail, some 家常豆腐 tofu or a soup dish with only a /little/ meat, but not too much!

Being in Shanghai also made me more aware of how I differ from the rest of the group. Everyone in our group is white, or of Asian background. I, being black, receive a larger share of the looks that all non-Asians receive. Being black and Asia has its pluses and disadvantages: while several Chinese have wanted to take pictures with me, and are more tolerant of my terrible Chinese, there are times when the stares (which vary from open-mouth gawking to pointing to a backward glance to a smile and an "hey-ROO!") get a little too much. While in Japan, I got used to the stares, but in China they are always there. Always. At the market, on the sidewalk, by the staff at hotels, walking into the bathrooms... everywhere. If people of color come to East Asia, they must be self-confident, or the constant attention might prove to be too much to handle.

June 27, 2007

When coming to Beijing, we took a 15-hour soft-sleep train from Hangzhou to Beijing from the station our tour guide dropped us off. The train ride was an interesting experience, and even though lengthy and at many times mind-numbing because we were confined to such a small space for 8 people, the perks included being able to chat with “real Chinese people,” the kind who whisper when we step on the train “those foreigners sure to stink” (We had walked around all day without the opportunity to return to a hotel room—deodorant can only do so much). From the train the Chinese countryside was amazing, passing by as if frozen in time, calling back to an era that still exist although many would love to believe otherwise. On the train we saw the poverty, the children running around without clothes or shoes to wear, dogs eating from garbage cans, and houses still saying, I was told, Maoisms that may still hold relevance for these people. It was on the train where I was reminded Chinese’s status as a developing country. Although neon lights and (fake) designer clothes abound, they rarely reach the hand of the peasants even though, admittedly, many are closer to attaining that goal than they were decades ago.

After running out of things to say to each other, we arrived in Beijing where a CET representative picked us up at the train station. The first thing I noticed when we pulled our suitcases up a ramp to exit the station: “Wow! Isn’t the view…something else.” The sky, unlike southern China without an ocean breeze, was brown, chocked with dust, soot, and the distinct smell of burning wood hung in the air, ‘causing all of us lugging our suitcases to heave and try to forget the air which seemed to cling to our skin and clump together in the nasal passages. Heaving, we left the train station, and one of us had her train ticket snatched directly from her hand. It wasn’t the best of introductions—a city full of grime and shady individuals—yet things seemed to look up when we were able to check into the CET dorm here at Beijing Institute of Education (北京学育大学). The dorms here are nice, better the Hinton James, and we foreigners got along well with each other, although as most were just leaving the airport, conversation was limited. Out school is located an considerable distance from the city center, which has its pluses and minuses (one minus being a 15-20 minute walk to the subway, a plus being we get to see Chinese who are trying to make a living, not concerned with looking fly going down the block). So far I’ve met a few of the shop owners who appear to really appreciate our business as we’re not as tight with money as locals, since the US Dollar does quite well against the RMB. Although my initial impressions of Beijing are that it is dirty, gruff, and people here speak akin to pirates, it’s an extreme change from southern Chinese, which I’m still unsure whether that’s good or bad.

August 7, 2007

Build it up/Tear it down

For all those interested in public policy, there isn’t a better place than Beijing to really see the “text book” come alive. Today, Beijing is only one year before the opening ceremonies to the Olympics, and most people know that the country at large is gearing up for the festivities. Being in China at this time, however, and seeing the change up close and personal leaves know room for second guessing this assumption.

For example, out school is located in the Xizhimen district of Beijing, home to the Beijing Zoo… and not much else. What’s frustrating to us students is that we are equally far from both the subway stations—Xizhimen and Chegongzhuang, making getting to other parts of the city a hassle. When we became aware that they were building a stop closer to our school, we students were intrigued, and went to check out the constructions. Since the 3rd week here, not much has been going on in the area—there wasn’t even a blade of grass for most of the walk, and the walk was made very dangerous from the random bricks popping up along the walkway, very similar to Chapel Hill. Within this last week, however, much has changed in the area. This area now has an overhead rail for the future subway, signs on the street to let traffic know the correct lane, a gate to separate the lanes, and new traffic lights… in less than 5 days.

One night around midnight I was taking a taxi back to campus after visiting a friend, and to my surprise, sparks flew from the far-off skyscrapers as if some sort of short-circuiting was happening. As we approached the building, the construction grew was clearly visible on the street below. In Beijing, trucks carrying construction materials aren’t allowed within the city limits until after 10pm. What that means for many people is that when they wake up, the street on their daily commute is completely different than the day before. At times, I as a short-term resident have to do double takes—have I become lost?…this wasn’t there before?...why is the horse and buggy in the financial district?

Most people know about the hutongs being torn down, but do they know about the shopping centers, thoroughfares, and subway lines that come up in their place. Of course, those who have money are the ones who can enjoy these innovations, but the chance to experience them, no matter how slim, is a sign of progress.

August 24, 2007

Returning

The weeks here in Beijing ended in joy.

After getting healthy, finally, I experienced what it felt like to really be in this city without any handicap, free from all of the limitations holding me back for the last few weeks, as my health was a relative concern of mine as long as it didn't interfere with taking the opportunities that were before me. I partied and coughed, participated in a city-wide speech contest while clutching my stomach, and traveled to Xi'an while having my roommate nurse me back to health in our hotel room. Finally, to be without physical restraints really made the trip worthwhile.

The last weeks were a blur for me, as if I were living in fast forward. Sleep was the last thing I wanted to do because I knew that a considerable amount of time would pass before I would be able to see any of my new friends again. In a sense, I began saying goodbye very early, in my own special way, going the extra distance to say the things that I should have said earlier but didn't care to do so, or to find out some of the gossip that takes place whenever young, mobile, and bright people are together in a confined space. That time seems now like I didn't even really live it, and now recalling the details, I'm not really sure if it's real...it's really an odd situation.

When people ask me how is China, I now tell them that I feel as though I've come from the wilderness. There was dust, not a drop of water to drink unless it was bottled, and things seemed to be poised on the edge of civilization without really being able to grasp it completely. There were people who spoke in languages I didn't understand, and the hunger one feels to survive is very present in the country. I've never come across a people who were so upward-moving yet grounded so thoroughly in the past. I felt confused as to whether I should hold on to my traditional values or adopt more cosmopolitan values because there wasn't a cultural norm to which I could adopt. Sometimes I felt as if I belonged, and I even suffered from a superiority complex when I was with other Americans. When with Chinese, I felt my flaws quite profoundly, and I realized that what I call success doesn't matter when one doesn't have great adversity to measure against it.

In the last days, I began to romanticize, a process that usually happens after one has already left. During the 10 weeks, I began to feel that China was my home and that America was only accessible through phone calls and emails, not through any emotional connection. I missed my family less and less, and focused on our Chinese roommates and the Americans whom I spent so many stressful times, and knew that without the people, cheap beer and great classes wouldn't mean a thing if there weren't people with whom I could share these things. I miss my roommate, the Americans, the woman who ran the shop beside our school, and her son who REFUSED to say hello to me, but always called me "wai-guo-ren!" and tried on several occasions to banish me from the store. I miss the man down the road who always knew what we were doing (trips, projects, breaks, you name it) and who never wore a shirt at night time, even though he was far from being in shape. I miss broken conversations with taxi drivers and flirting in clubs and signs in Chinese. It's all part of a world that seems so distant from mine as it's on the other side of the world. It's all so far away, and seems as if it doesn't even really exist.