Is It Possible to Be Fully Immersed and Lost in the Crowd?

Awards 2015


Scene in the Beijing Subway

China is a huge country. Ranked fourth in the world in terms of land size, and first in terms of population, China is the epitome of large. Yet despite its size, China remains one of the most ambiguous countries in the world, known mostly in the minds of Americans for its communist government. This stereotype displays the image of an oppressed and poor population. This is the danger of a single story for us as Americans, because China is much more than that stereotype.

This spring break, along with three other WFS students and the upper school Chinese teacher, Xiaohong Xu, I travelled to China for a ten-day experience. We visited Beijing, Chengdu, and Shanghai: three major cities in a major country. The purpose of this trip was not to be a tourist; the purpose was to experience ‘the real’ China so that we could have a better understanding of how 1.3 billion people live.

This immersion was not easy because of the many differences between Chinese life and American life. To start, China is very crowded; Beijing’s population of 11.5 million people can be very overwhelming. On our first day in China, we took the subway to go visit a school where we would be spending time with Chinese students. In order to get into the train car, we had to elbow our way through. Jammed into the car with absolutely no space, I was thanking fate for giving me the height that stopped the impending claustrophobia. As I was trying to position myself with the most space possible, our teacher said to us, “This isn’t even crowded!”

Kelly Hartwick ’16, one of the four students on this trip, noticed the larger population as one of the main differences between the two countries: “One thing that struck me about China was the sheer number of people. At times it was very overwhelming, but it also gave me a larger world perspective that I don’t think we are given in America. We have a tendency of giving kids a feeling of ‘you’re special’ and it is strange to go to a country like China where it feels like you could get lost in the crowd so easily. It is a reminder that the world is so much bigger than we realize, and it can make you feel very small.”

One aspect of China that none of us were prepared for was the censorship. We were cut off from most forms of social media and Google while there. When I asked one of the Chinese high school students what his views on censorship were, he told me that he thought the government was just protecting them. He explained that they have their own forms of social media that prevent them from seeing material that could be possibly dangerous. It is an interesting perspective that the participants of our trip had a hard time grappling with because of our predetermined definition of true freedom that comes from being an American citizen.

All of our interactions with Chinese people were polite and hospitable, something that eased the cultural barriers. On our third night, we drove two hours outside of Beijing to stay in a rural village in a local family’s home. The kindness that we were shown was tremendous. The ‘mother’ of the house and her friend cooked us a huge and delicious meal, which introduced us to the spicy food common in Sichuan Province that was to come. Imagine the spiciest thing you have ever eaten, and then multiply it by a hundred. The first time I tasted spicy food of this caliber, I thought I had just eaten some sort of chemical cleaner, and my whole mouth went numb. Another culture shock of traditional Chinese living was the beds. These beds were simply wood planks with a blanket on them. Chinese people sleep on hard surfaces because they believe that this will give them better posture. As we got ready for bed in the bitter cold we were skeptical of any comfort that night. Our hosts, aware of how cold we were, came and brought us one of their few archaic heating lamps. Although we were afraid that this lamp might set the house on fire, it was an act of generosity that I am sure saved us from freezing overnight.

The village that we stayed in was right next to a portion of the Great Wall, which was called the ‘Wild Great Wall’ by locals. Completely different than the section that attracts tourists, due to its restored state in Beijing, this section of the wall was deemed too dangerous to climb by the Chinese government. Despite this warning, we climbed it anyway. This was one of the scariest experiences of my life. The climb was practically vertical rock climbing, except the bricks that we would grab onto would occasionally fall out when we touched them. This, coupled with the fact that there was nothing to protect ourselves from a sheer drop into nothingness added an element of danger that I was not expecting. Despite its danger, the climb was completely worth it once we got to the top. The view was the most spectacular sight I have ever seen. A sense of freedom came over me, to know that I had just done something that was one in a million. This climb showed me how diverse China can be. One minute you can be packed on the subway, and the next completely alone on  top of the world.

There were many different forms of culture shock on this trip, but the biggest surprise came when I discovered I was an outsider. As a tall, curly-haired, white female, I stuck out. In the subway car, my head was above the rest. When I walked down the street, people would stare. Oftentimes, people would unabashedly ask to take a picture with me, or better yet just take a picture of me from far away. These photos were taken everywhere we went; even while eating dinner in a restaurant. It is an overwhelming sense of otherness to understand that no matter how hard you try, you will never fit in. But this did not stop me from immersing myself as much as I could. And at certain times a feeling of inclusion would fall over me and I could not help but think about how much I had fallen in love with a culture and place completely different than my own.