I missed my regular Monday travel post last week due to study deadlines, some of which are still looming. So today I’m thinking it would be really nice to be able to go somewhere different enough that my mind would be compelled to think about things in different ways, to be opened up to new perspectives. And the place that comes to mind is Beijing, the first place I visited in China, and a place that certainly reminded me that different cultures and histories lead to very different ways of viewing the world.
What did I love about Beijing?
The beauty of its history and culture.
The peacefulness of the grounds at the Summer Palace, an oasis in a bustling city.
The grand spectacle of just a small section of the Great Wall a few miles outside town
The ancient temples bearing witness to generations of people’s commitment and devotion.
The opulence of the Great Hall of the People.
I was taken by the simple and profound art displayed inside too.
I also enjoyed seeing the pride of the people in the way they had pulled off the Olympics a couple of years prior to my visit.
What did I learn from Beijing?
I certainly often felt like an outsider. I didn’t always understand what was going on. It is good for me to experience that sometimes, and hopefully it helps me develop compassion for those who feel it in places where I feel comfortable and at home.
Nowhere was my lack of understanding clearer than at the most popular attraction in Tiananmen Square – the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong. After walking straight into the Art Museum and Great Hall, it was a surprise to me to see a queue that went several times around the block. After checking in cameras, bags, phones etc., I joined the line which moved at a brisk pace, almost “marching” into the foyer overflowing with fresh flowers, and then solemnly filing past Mao’s embalmed body. It was over before I really knew what I had seen, and while it seemed for many locals to be a sombre, even sacred experience, for me it was quite surreal.
I was also very conscious of looking like an outsider; an oddity. At times this presented the wonderful gift of meeting people – people who were usually apprehensive but pleased to make my acquaintance. At the Forbidden City I had a couple of individuals come and ask to have their photo taken with me. At the Summer Palace I had a lovely lady stop me to practice her English on me. I was reminded of the privilege that comes with the colour of my skin and the language of my tongue. Even if I am greeted with bewilderment, I am rarely rejected outright.
That’s not to say that I didn’t experience being stared at and even being “stalked.” I was walking down the street one day and a young couple were walking in front of me. They had obviously noticed me and wanted to get a photo with me. So the girl slowed down until she was walking beside me, then called out to the guy who quickly turned around and snapped a photo of the two of us, before they both sheepishly ran away. My best guess is that they were visiting from another part of China, and wanted to be able to show their friends at home the white person they “met” while in Beijing. I would have been happy to be photographed with them if they had asked, but I realised perhaps my privilege also makes me intimidating.
The strong presence of the army was something else I am not used to from my own country. I spent a fascinating 20 minutes in Tiananmen Square watching as an officer meticulously corrected one of his soldier’s hand movements, and pondering the many choices I have had in my life that others have not.
I wondered about the ancient mindset of building a wall to protect your nation’s borders; especially as perhaps the only parallel in my own country’s history is a fence to keep the rabbits out.
I also wondered anew how much of my own perspective is shaped by growing up under the political, social and economic systems I did, and thought a lot about how easy it is to judge others without really being able to understand where they are coming from. As I find happens so often when visiting different cultures, I asked as many questions about myself as I did about the people I saw and met.
And of course, in the end, I caught enough glimpses of every day life to be reminded once again that people are people everywhere, even in places that seem about as different from what I am used to as I can imagine. I may find the way they do things a little unusual, but their hopes and dreams and hearts are really much the same.