Foreign Correspondence: Mao Don’t Live Here No Mo

Opinion by and
Nov. 4, 2010, 12:18 a.m.

“Bidà xī mén.” In theory, after you have said those words, your Beijing taxi driver should nod his head and begin driving. If said incorrectly, as I managed to do every single time I get in a taxi, a more precise “Běijīng dàxué” should do the trick. “Běijīng dàxué” translates to Beijing University or Peking University, which is where the Stanford Beijing Overseas Program is based. Think of PKU as the Stanford University of China, if Stanford was unquestionably the best college in the United States. (Awkward pause.)

As I’ve learned over the past six weeks, Beijing is less Chinese than it is cosmopolitan. Although a portrait of Mao will still greet you as you enter the Forbidden City, the shops of Sānlǐtún or the towers of eastern Beijing’s Central Business District could be found in anyone’s London, New York or Paris. The changes that China has gone through over the past 30 years have been transformative, and PKU’s proximity to Zhōngguāncūn, China’s Silicon Valley, allows you to engage in that experience.

Outside of Beijing is a bit of a different story. Instead of getting a reprieve before the madness that is weeks nine and 10 of fall quarter finals preparation, our Thanksgiving break occurs during China’s National Holiday, which falls during a standard week two. So after three days of hànyǔ (Chinese), a group of Stanford students flew down to Chengdu in Sichuan province and my limited language skills were put to the test. As I started walking around the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, a Chinese man approached me and motioned to his camera. Even though toddler pandas were frolicking right before us, I turned around, put on my best smile, listened for the one-two-three before the photo, and then promptly turned away.

It turns out that this photo would be the first of more than 30 that were going to be taken of me that week. The most egregious ask occurred when a middle-aged woman gestured for a picture at the feet of a 233-foot Buddha cut out of a cliff in Leshan. While it might be reasonable to assume I was more youthful and arguably better looking than the 1,000-year-old Buddha, I was still taken aback by people’s attention to my foreignness. Even though I knew I was African-American in a nation that is almost entirely Han Chinese, it still was a little unnerving at first to be treated as some sort of attraction worthy of awe or amusement.

Those first few weeks in China, I could not overcome my overt feeling of different-ness. In my United States life, I almost pride myself on not looking uneasy when I am in public places. In China, however, I felt it did not matter if I looked relaxed or confused because my blackness made me stand out. I made it a habit to walk around Beida with Stanford friends, or I would throw on my hoodie with headphones jammed in my ears. I found myself blocking out what I thought was an uncomfortable experience.

Nevertheless, I began to realize my feelings of different-ness were shared by everyone who has experienced China after growing up in another culture. Although my race might have made me feel more out of place than others, ultimately it was I, not the stares of the Chinese people, who defined how those differences affected my experience. My performance of disinterest with my headphones, hoodie and Stanford block of friends protected me from my own assumptions more than it did the assumptions of those Chinese people I passed. Once I let myself get immersed in all that China had to offer, I started to more fully appreciate my time abroad.

And it has been a fantastic time. In China I have played with the pandas in Chengdu, sung on rolling hills of Inner Mongolia (courtesy of Dr. Peter and Mrs. Helen Bing) and hiked backward the 3,000 steps of the Tai Mountains where Confucius chilled. A Beijing-sized amount of time has been given to the study of the Chinese language. Fortunately, I have a wonderful PKU language partner, 支锂 (Zhi Li), who has taken four hours out of her six-day, nine-class school week (which is the norm at PKU) to help me learn the language. Somewhere in between all that, I have also been able to have substantive conversations with people about the role of the Chinese Communist Party in everyday life, highlighted by conversations about Liu Xiaobo’s Nobel Peace Prize.

Even though words like “billion” and “communist” normally come to mind when China is invoked in various efforts to demonstrate the country’s different-ness, I’ve found that China is a far more familiar place than you would expect.

So I stand as a testament to that story of a foreigner, lost in a new world, who subsequently loses and finds himself. Maybe cliché, but not bad for week-six introspection.

If you would like to share your own cliché foreign experience or buy the book and/or television rights to Brian Wanyoike’s, please e-mail [email protected]

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