After two months of life-swallowing work with a local Congressional campaign this fall, my wrap-up post on our year abroad is long, long overdue. In fact, the concept of “wrapping up” this kind of year is fairly ridiculous to begin with, since if you could wrap it up, you probably wouldn’t have gotten up off the couch to do it in the first place. Nevertheless, and despite my extended blogging hiatus, I do have some closing thoughts I’ve been wanting to share about Guatemala, China, and what it might mean to have spent a year in strange and distant places.
In a year-old comment on this blog, my Uncle Rob referred to Guatemala as a “desperate and beautiful” place. I extolled Guatemala’s beauty both early and often, but that post, “Hungry” (along with several later posts) was written in part to characterize the desperate circumstances of so many of Guatemala’s people. Still, it is Rob’s combination of these two words that has remained with me. Only when used together can the words “desperate and beautiful” approach an understanding — especially a wrapped-up one — of the country of Guatemala.
Maybe it’s the way those words apply to each other. Guatemala’s beauty is desperate: its most dramatic and gorgeous mountains are unpredictable, havoc-wreaking volcanoes; its stunning historical monuments mark one society that self-destructed in famine and violence, and another that arrived bent on destruction. Its mountains are routinely stripped for concrete, its jungles burned and its monuments looted for treasure. Its people, wrapped in colors that outdo nature, have witnessed horror after horror.
So how could Guatemala’s desperation possibly be beautiful? Not because it’s sentimental; there is nothing at all sentimental about poverty witnessed up close. But being close to people who are in such desperate circumstances does make it impossible not to feel involved. Traveling from the United States, an unthinkably privileged country deeply implicated in the problems of today’s Guatemala, to the crumbling concrete “classrooms” of La Cuchilla and Candalaria, to the sheet metal houses of their families, was a journey of such immense and wrenching distance that I could not help but feel personally implicated in it. There was no beauty in the poverty we witnessed, but there was something stark and powerful in the opportunity to be a witness to it. Because once you are a witness, you take on a responsibility that has something of beauty in it, a responsibility that forces you to acknowledge the qualities you share just as much with people who regularly get sick and die from drinking polluted water as you do with those who you work with or see on television. The beauty is in the acknowledgement of your part in the world. And only in that acknowledgment is the possibility of change.
Lacey and I will be returning to Guatemala for a week in March 2009, visiting old friends, students, families, classrooms and volcanoes. We’re planning to take as many school supplies as we can fit in our bags, and we’re also hoping to raise money once more for Manos de Colores and its programs to educate young students who would otherwise be working to try to support their families. If you would consider giving again (or for the first time) to Manos de Colores, please send me an e-mail or leave a comment on this post and I’ll get in touch with more details. For more information you may also want to refer to the El Nahual / Manos de Colores web site.
China is huge. This is true in so many concrete, measurable ways, but it is true conceptually as well. China’s physical dimensions and variety, its population, its changing urban and rural landscapes, its history ancient and modern, its culinary traditions and its recent rate of economic growth are not only staggering, but also all deeply, deeply layered. In some ways the subject of China is the most giant thing about it. So to “wrap” today’s China might take more paper (or silicon chips?) than could even be manufactured there.
Still, it is precisely China’s complexity that provides some clues as to the nature of this place in transition. For me, the quintessential example was the enormous controversy over the riots in Tibet, and the ensuing response in China and around the world. Lacey and I followed this story from within China in both the New York Times, still available to us online, and the China Daily, China’s English-language newspaper. We also listened to Chinese students and friends who watched the events unfold with unprecedented intensity. The initial picture we got, from just these three sources, was already quite complex:
1) According to The New York Times and other Western news sources, monks’ protests over decades of religious and cultural repression became a more widespread outcry in Tibet and neighboring provinces, ultimately leading to rioting in the streets of Lhasa and a crackdown by the Chinese government.
2) According to the China Daily, the “Dalai clique” had finally begun what it had been planning all along: a violent separatist movement designed to break apart the Chinese motherland. Tibetan seperatists had killed dozens of Chinese people in the streets in a coordinated attempt to advance this movement.
3) Finally, our friends and students, rapt in front of newspapers and grainy online video of the rioting, were more concerned with how Tibetans, who had been lifted out of poverty by China, could possibly act in this way toward the Chinese government and people. The deaths of innocent Han Chinese in Lhasa was a tragedy that sparked deep and unassailable nationalism: riots in Tibet were a direct challenge not only to China’s unity, but to the identity of Chinese people everywhere.
This intensity of attention focused on the situation was one of the first major revelations for us as we witnessed events unfold from within China. No one ever followed the news this closely. Traditionally, news in China has meant good news; the actual reporting of (some) bad news is only a recent phenomenon. But after the riots, in a year of bad news that seemed to have reached its nadir (sadly it hadn’t), our students who normally could not be kept awake suddenly held newspapers over their desks to read during class, while students who usually paid attention tucked the newspapers inside their desks instead. Everyone was hungry for information, all the more because news like this — of people on the Chinese mainland fomenting direct rebellion against their government — was almost unheard of.
But if our students were rapt, we were no less fascinated by what was happening on the other side of the country. Being a Westerner in China as Tibetans took to the streets brought much more nuance to my limited understanding of Tibet’s history. For instance, according to some indicators, the Chinese claim that Tibetan people are far better off under Chinese rule holds some weight: certainly many Tibetans have benefited economically from Chinese rule, and Tibetans no longer live in the well-defined social castes that have been compared to feudalism, or in some cases slavery. Further, at the time of China’s invasion in 1959, Tibet’s independence had been semi-officially declared for just a little over fifty years, and even then was never fully recognized by a China that had so often acted as Tibet’s big brother. For centuries, the relationship between Tibet and China had been in flux, a flux in which it is unclear how often Tibet was simply a “benefactor” of the relationship and how often it was a fully subordinate entity.
On the other side of history, however, Chinese claims that the Dalai Lama instigated the separatist riots in Tibet appear especially ludicrous in light of the Dalai Lama’s consistent, publicly repeated calls for Tibet to remain under Chinese rule, a position he has taken for almost 30 years. In fact, from his position in exile, the Dalai Lama, unbeknownst to many Westerners, is pushing only for more autonomy for Tibet within China (including increased religious freedoms), but not for independence.
The outcry from the Western world about events in Tibet last spring prompted a second wave of Chinese reaction, including innumerable, indignant public declarations that Tibet “was, is, and will always be part of China,” (this phrase taken from ubiquitous t-shirts and at least one giant sticker I saw affixed to the side of a car parked on campus). Following comments by the French government and the disruption of the Olympic torch relay in Paris, Lacey and I witnessed firsthand a series of nationalist anti-French demonstrations and megaphone-powered citizen boycotts of the chain Carrefour, protests which were ultimately damped down by the Chinese government itself (which clearly likes protests even less than French criticism). A student friend of mine even dropped his French major and switched to English. Westerners, and the western press in particular, were vilified across China, sometimes rightly, for a total lack of understanding of the situation between China and Tibet — a reaction we probably escaped simply because we were there.
Throughout this episode, I kept trying to think of ways to prod my Chinese friends or students to find fresh perspectives on what had happened, to stop regurgitating the line spit forth by party officials, the China Daily and so many other government-controlled news sources (see Lacey’s great post). I tried using the example of the Los Angeles riots, figuring that acknowledging some problems in my own country first might help. The Los Angeles riots were a tragedy, my careful opening line went, but they were also a warning that race and class relations in Los Angeles and across the United States were in a fragile, untenable state. But the usual reaction to this was just a nod; everyone knew that race relations in the US were terrible. This was not news. I was out of ideas, but still it got so I wanted to shake people: but what about in Tibet? Why do you think the riots happened there?
So why didn’t I shake anyone? In the end, the answer to this question was one of the simplest things I learned about China. In a country whose history is undeniably long and glorious, whose economic growth is unprecedented, and whose population is enormous, the lack of rights experienced by all Chinese people is still a gigantic problem. And this lack of rights, while it is experienced differently (and often more harshly) by Tibetans, is nevertheless shared by everyone. My friends and students had no access to Chinese-language news sources that were outside the control of the government, a government they had no part in choosing, since they could not vote. They could not demonstrate freely; they had no access to a judicial system that would redress wrongs. We had a Chinese friend whose family’s house was robbed, but even with one glaringly obvious suspect, moving beyond a brief initial police report was impossible. She had no avenues for redress or appeal. Given this deeply ingrained and widely accepted lack of personal rights and freedoms, how could my friends and students be expected to think beyond the party line about why Tibetans were rioting? Many of their families had suffered, along with Tibetans, through the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution; now they were more interested in putting history behind them. The focus in today’s China is on gaining personal economic stature and independence, an opportunity that has only recently been granted. And so the rioting may have felt more like an insult, a disruptive reminder, a claim to something that no one else had, either, but that everyone was trying to forget. If China was a family, Tibet was the abused younger sibling, and everyone else still had to deal with the same set of parents.
Guatemala forced me to think about my own country’s wealth and comfort, but China made me deeply grateful for its core values. The United States is deeply imperfect, but the right to publicly discuss these imperfections is not one to be taken lightly. We are so privileged to be able to draw our own conclusions about the events of the world, about our leaders and our policies, and to have the opportunity to change them. Watching events unfold in Tibet reminded me of that. So when Lacey and I finally reached the Olympics to watch soccer, gymnastics, volleyball, track and field, and diving, we had no hesitation about buying a giant American flag and wrapping ourselves in it. And thanks to my Chinese friends and students, glowingly good people who are moving with the best of intentions through an unfathomably complex new world, I had no qualms about waving the Chinese flag, either.
Going Away and Coming Back Again
As we expected, living abroad could be difficult, but it was also frequently goofy and sometimes downright hilarious. Usually the language differences and cultural oddities were just fun, and we often saw astonishing, jaw-dropping things. And most of the time we remembered to be profoundly grateful to be where we were.
When you spend time somewhere far away and then come back, people ask you a lot of the same questions over and over again, with “How was it?” and “Does it feel weird to be back?” being the hands-down winners. These questions are impossible to answer. But everyone knows that; you just need to find a way through them so you can both move forward again with whatever you’re doing right now, in the present. Sometimes the easiest way ahead is to tell a quick story, or even just drop a snappy one-liner like “I had two separate cab drivers fall asleep at the wheel while I was in China.” After you get your easy laugh, someone else will remember a time when they nodded off at the wheel, and soon you’ll be right back in the present where everyone is most comfortable.
Still, I always experience a lingering regret that I can’t answer those questions better. Especially because, if you do it right, there really is something invaluable you can learn from going away and coming back again, something that will get under your skin so that you can hardly remember a time when you didn’t understand it this way. For me this was the understanding — the personal, fully assimilated knowledge — that those are real people out there in the world. And because they are real people, and because you are a real person, you are connected to them in a way that might be easy to lose sight of but should never be forgotten, because we are so clearly one species, one humanity, with the same proclivity for laughter and tears, the same sets of needs and desires, the same tendency toward goodness and mercy and the same urge to look out for one another. We are connected in ways that might at first appear difficult to grasp, but become incredibly simple when experienced directly, when being adopted into a family in Guatemala or watching friends get married in China or coming back home and hugging strange men on the street after the Phillies win the World Series.
This is what I’d like to say when people ask me those questions. For brevity’s sake, I’ll probably keep answering “good, it was great,” and “no, it doesn’t feel that weird” — but for anyone who wants something a little more substantial, now I have somewhere to send them.