Between high school and college….how I spent my summer vacation. The third and final article in a series by three recent graduates of Pawling High School and the Trinity Pawling School.
Deep and mournful is the sound of a Boeing 777 as it runs through its preliminary engine checks. I sit window-side, behind the aircraft’s behemoth wings and watch super-heated air ripple past the last images I’ll have of American soil for three weeks. It distorts my view of the ground crew into obscene figures. The moan of the rotating turbines seems to beg the pilots for release, so that this giant of solder and aluminum can keep solidly grounded for one more precious moment. But as it is, the brakes disengage, the nose turns towards the great interminable runway, and the wing engine’s whine reaches a fever pitch. These were my thoughts as the landing wheels alighted from the solid Earth and resigned themselves, like me, to turbulent carriage aboard flight 6507.
Now reflecting on the three weeks I spent in China at my own kitchen table, feeling the cool comfort of fresh morning air warm into summer heat–––coffee in hand, pen on paper–––I can begin to feel how surreal the time I spent in the Middle Kingdom truly was. And before I begin to babble carelessly on, let me promise to be brief. I’ll just touch upon the subjects that I find especially telling of my experience: the course I took, the cities I saw, and the culture I absorbed.
After touching the tarmac once again, and having said my farewells to the exhausted machine that bore me across the Atlantic, Leo and I stayed a week in his hometown of Hong Kong before setting out on our tour of the mainland.
In Hong Kong opportunity is old news. It is no great secret that China is steadily becoming the world’s next superpower (if it hasn’t already). China holds vast amounts of American dollars, and in Hong Kong this reality can be tangibly perceived. I first encountered this while on a ferry in the harbor. Gently rocked on the undulating brine, Hong Kong’s most intimidating skyscrapers–––fully lit and austere–––projecting pools of blue-green light onto the black water beneath, I was utterly dwarfed. These buildings (the tallest and most striking of which are both banking offices) speak to the financial capital the city has become. It all reeks of aristocracy and finely honed business sense and corporate agenda.
Wuhan was our first stop in mainland China and is home to millions of flocking working class families, eager to attain employment in a fast-growing industrial sector. Opportunity there is a kind of novelty. There is filth in Wuhan; it floats in the dust and pollution of construction sites and factories; on the street it lies in gutters, in the puddling stream of children urinating into storm drains, in the wrinkled faces and cracked calloused fingers of the homeless. And yet, life teems all around; it rides on mopeds and bicycles, is displayed ostentatiously in cramped marketplaces, and floats aromatically from corner stalls selling fish balls and stinky tofu. In the urban center of Wuhan I got the feeling that fortunes were simultaneously being made and lost all around me–––a constant strain to hold on to some small semblance of financial security that was not resented but universally accepted–––an opportunity that was not easy to exploit but always present.
A high-speed train ride later, we found ourselves in Shanghai, to see the World’s Expo. It was crowded, but my claustrophobia was assuaged by a freeing sense that I was exactly where the world is turning. Though it is perhaps egotistical, this feeling is inevitably pervasive of China, and especially prominent in the thriving city of Shanghai. Hong Kong may be an established trade capital, but Shanghai is the fastest growing city in China, a fact made evident by the myriad construction cranes towering over its busy streets. The Bund, a strip of buildings and wharves on the Huangpu River, epitomizes that growth–––physical counterpart to Hong Kong’s rising prominence in the international market. Walking along the crowded river rampart and seeing the buildings across the way, it is incredible to think that in just the decade past, most of the buildings making up this famous skyline were not yet planned.
Hangzhou is a city just south of Shanghai, and home to the West Lake, a body of water whose beauty (in as far as my experience goes) is unsurpassed. Yet, even here, where such natural beauty seems so raw and ancient, the business mind of the Chinese people has set up the trappings of tourism. Shying away from the camera equipped crowds, we rented bikes and made our way around the scenic pathways encircling the lake. The day’s outing was needed respite from Shanghai’s busy schedule and stuffy streets. Just being able to sit and follow the sway of hanging willow branches against the shimmering water beyond was worth the entire trip’s expenses.
Xi’an was the western most stop in our mainland journey. In ancient times it was China’s capital, and to this day is host to a rich deposit of history. Aside from its towers and pagodas, original city walls, or the fact that it was the eastern end of the famed Silk Road, Xi’an houses the Terracotta Warriors. The life size clay replicas were commissioned and buried along with the first emperor of unified China so that he might take his wealth and armies with him in the afterlife. Standing before the majesty of ancient China, so ostentatiously flaunted even in the modern age, is a humbling experience.
Macau is an island west of Hong Kong that has become the eastern Las Vegas counterpart and was the last stop I made before returning stateside. I like to think of the place as a great fountain quenching the insatiable gambling thirsts of 1.3 billion Chinese appetites. While they blindly plunge their heads into the sweet nectar of cheap thrill, it in turn feeds off of their readily sacrificed paychecks, taken so easily from their unguarded back pockets. The casinos lining the main strip thrive on the promise of fortune to which the national consciousness has so long been attuned.
I regret I cannot be more thorough in my description; what I saw in China is not, could not, be accurately portrayed by my incompetent descriptions. These remain only the barest of impressions I managed to gather. And so, if I were to use my experience to some productive end, to take from it some greater meaning, it is this: China has the feel of what I imagine Industrial Revolution London must have been like–––to that extent, what Railroad Boom Chicago was. Everywhere you turn there is the evidence of rapid change, and the elusive, seductive spirit of prosperity. I am no economist or politician, but it doesn’t exactly take one to see the direction China is heading. Then again, if you don’t take my word for it (which is more than likely a prudent choice), see for yourself. I promise that it is a trip you’ll not soon forget.
Ben Ros is a recent graduate of Trinity Pawling School where he was the editor of The Phoenix.He will matriculate at Kenyon College this fall, where he intends to major in writing.