I spent four months in Xi’an, Shaanxi, China, as a volunteer English teacher at the end of 2016. I learned how to haggle, how to say a handful of phrases in Chinese, and how to navigate subways, which (as a Utahn) I’d never had to do before. I often walked the streets of Xi’an waving my hands and calling, “bùyào” (don’t want), rejecting fans, Obama-dressed-as-Mao shirts, Bible verses written with Chinese characters, and rides in tuk-tuks. Often, people would stare at me and ask to take pictures with me; small children would point and say, “wàiguó rén” (foreigner).
About two months into my stay, a few American members of my church’s congregation invited my roommate and me to watch a performance at the Sunshine Lido Grand Theater. The performance was meant to reflect the “grandeur and splendor” of the Tang Dynasty. The performers wore traditional Chinese dress with long flowing sleeves and intricate headdresses. One woman, wearing a soft blue dress, her hair contorted in giant loops above her head, played the guqin. The seven-stringed instrument’s melody carried across the theater, reminding me of the background music in the animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender.
Words were displayed on either side of the stage, describing the performance. One side was in Chinese, the other in English. It read, “From 618AD to 907AD ,Chinese [sic] people realized tremendous cultare [sic] and artistic a chievements [sic]. During this time, Xi’an or Chang’an was the most beautiful city in the entire word [sic].”
By this point, I had already visited several Chinese museums and tourist attractions, including the Terracotta Warriors. Most of the signs displayed at these museums or attractions described Xi’an’s previous prosperous state when it was the capital of China, and at that time, it was the greatest city in the world.
How do they know? I wondered. The signs described Xi’an as a beautiful, prosperous cultural hub along the Silk Road, but still, how did the Chinese know it was more prosperous or beautiful than any other city around 3,000 years ago?
Besides, I thought, everyone knows New York is the greatest city in the world now. I surprised myself with this almost knee-jerk response. I hadn’t even been to New York, yet I was sure it was the greatest. Hamilton knew it. My family, friends, and teachers knew it.
Did the Chinese know it?
When I came back to the US, the number one question I was asked was, “Weren’t you scared?”
In fact, a friend of mine (let’s call her Jen) said, “You’re the only person I know who’s gone to China and come back alive.”
This comment bothered me. How many people did Jen know who’d gone to China and didn’t come back alive?
Usually, my response to these concerns was the same.
While in China, I tried to talk with the locals as much as possible—a difficult task seeing as I didn’t know more than a handful of Chinese phrases. One day, I struck up a conversation with a woman on a bus who spoke English with only a slight accent. I don’t remember how the conversation started. She probably asked me where I was from—that was usually the first question, and I’d always try to respond in Chinese, “Měiguó.”
Somehow the conversation moved to a topic common in the US in 2016: gun control.
“We can’t have guns or…” she searched for the right word then held her hands out, indicating a large object, “long knives.”
“Oh, I see,” I said as she expressed her view that America was dangerous, even scary. Huh, that seems backwards, I thought, but I understood her reasoning. The news constantly talked of shootings. And some people, like her, saw China’s restrictions as good because they were protective.
I began to see Jen’s and others’ views of China (it’s scary) and my own views (the US is better than China) as related. We were outsiders, viewing and evaluating China based on our American perceptions. Until going to Xi’an, I’d never tried to view China (or America) through Chinese eyes.
When I left for China, I expected to learn more about a culture I knew virtually nothing about, but I was surprised how much I learned about my own culture.
I vividly remember sitting on a bus, holding on to a side rail as the driver plunged down the street, weaving in and out of lanes. I watched an elderly woman talk with another woman holding a lot of money. It had taken me a while to figure out that I was supposed to give my bus fare to the woman with the stack of bills, and I was jealous and embarrassed that everyone else knew that but me.
The first woman’s hands were covered in fingerless gloves, and she made a gesture with her hand that I didn’t understand. Clearly the money woman did.
I felt so isolated.
It was like everyone on the bus knew a secret code that I couldn’t figure out. Of course, another name for their secret code was culture. But all I could think about then was how left out I felt. The women’s facial expressions, throaty language, hand gestures, and bus system escaped me.
I felt alien.
But I also knew I had my own nation. I had a culture and a place of belonging. Somewhere there were people who could decipher and share my language, gestures, and thoughts. Despite my momentary self-pity, I knew I wasn’t really alien.
Ultimately, the challenge is to understand how both American and Chinese cultures are flawed yet exemplary, beautiful yet ugly, progressive yet stagnant, and powerful yet weak. It took traveling to China and becoming a wàiguó rén for me to realize I needed to see the nuanced aspects of my own culture as well as others to realize all cities/humans/cultures can be the “greatest in the world.”