Ok, found myself wide awake at 3:00am the first night in Beijing after a flight over the Pacific. Great. Jet lag? Of course, or at least that is what I expect it is in my current state of grogginess. But then I start to remember the nightmare that really woke me up. Running through the Athens airport as a 16 year old, traveling alone for the first time to visit a sister living overseas, turning a corner and nearly crashing into the barrel of a submachine gun, which was the most frightening thing I had ever experienced and something that made no sense to me, the naïve teenager who had never before left the relative safety of the United States. And here I am laying in the dark in a bed in an unfamiliar room, watching the entire scene as if through the eyes of that terrified teenager traveling alone for the first time.
So why this memory of experiencing an abrupt change how I expected the world to work this time? This is something that hasn’t been thought about in decades. So why now? And why in the middle of the night in a luxury hotel in Beijing?
Then the pieces of the puzzle start to come together. Just hours earlier, there was a frustrating afternoon spent attempting to connect to my usual lines of written communication. My trusty Yahoo account, Google, everything I usually use to connect with those I care about aren’t accessible or are nearly impossible to use in China.
It took a couple of hours before it finally dawned on me what was happening; all those modes of communication and others that I don’t even use weren’t options anymore. Now, on an intellectual level, I had known for years that this was the reality of China. But, did I ever think that would affect me as a tourist? To be honest, no, I had never even considered it. I had spent my entire life pretty much being able to communicate how and with whom I wanted and now I was finding just the opposite to be the case.
While it only took a short time to get over the shock of my new communication norms, it was what came next that created more confusion and was even more interesting. Right or wrong, I had expected a be visiting a country full of people hesitant to discuss anything that might be considered anti-government. But, being lucky enough to interact with a number of locals, I was surprised to find that almost everyone was very open, discussing everything from politics and what they felt was good and not so good about the government to social issues such as the one child government edict and how to circumvent it. It was an eye-opening contrast to experience.
This dichotomy continued to both interest and frustration as I continued on my journey throughout China. It didn’t seem to matter if you were in the big cities of Beijing and Shanghai, or at famous historical sites such as the Great Wall and Xian for the Terracotta Warriors. It was even encountered from the people while visiting the natural beauty of the Yangtze River and it’s gorgeous canyons – this uncensored openness among so much censorship was curiously everywhere.
And yet, even with the appearance of complete transparency and openness with the people you can meet along your journey in China, there were times when the realization of how just much the government holds immense influence over it’s citizens.
In Tiananmen Square, we were cautioned not to say anything about politics and the government by our knowledgeable guide. In Beijing, the hotel we visited was told they had no choice but to close their doors for 24 hours and just send their guests elsewhere because of the upcoming World War II Military Parade that would be passing near the hotel. And, more than anything, my texts home, which were nearly always received with several Chinese symbols at the start of each communication (most likely indicating that someone somewhere had read the text before it reached the intended source).
While in the scope of things, these communication issues were inconsequential during the two weeks I was in China. It had the curious effect of making me aware of what I sent in writing and how I worded it, even to the point of not using the ‘T’ word for that famous square in Beijing. It just wasn’t worth saying something that might possibly interrupt what communication avenues I did have, as did seem to happen to a couple of my fellow travelers.
This never once caused me to regret the wonderful experience of visiting China for the first time and seeing so many incredible sights that most people never have the chance to see. Standing on the Great Wall or staring into the eyes of Terra Cotta warriors from centuries ago was truly awe inspiring. But, at the same time, knowing that the freedoms I have as an American may seem the same on the surface in other places but can really be truly very different.
When I reflect back on my nightmare that first night in Beijing, I realize that what I didn’t understand as a 16 year old staring down the barrel of a submachine gun at the Athens airport makes much more sense now many decades later. Travel is an incredible opportunity, so enriching and rewarding. But, travel also helps prove how fortunate I, as an American, am to enjoy freedoms, such as the ability to communicate openly and honestly on any level, that people in other countries often do not enjoy. And, for me, that is the real beauty of travel…knowing how fortunate I am to live life the way I do. And, what better way to learn this than through the experience of seeing how others live throughout the world.
[Written by Earl Davis]
[Image taken near Tiananmen Square by Mark Rippstein]