Lessons from China (or why museums are the best)

Just like that, another month and another country have passed by. This trip is going so much faster than I expected, so I took the last week to reflect and recuperate in Hong Kong. China certainly proved to be a challenging and trying experience, but I'm excited about all the connections I made, all the personal growth I saw, and, of course, all I learned. Here's what I'm leaving with:

History is Often about Who Discovered It and When

I've always been a museum junkie. Perhaps it's because my childhood was shaped by them. Instead of trips to the movies or arcades or wherever else kids spent their free time, my dad took every opportunity he could—even on family vacations—to take me to a museum. So, whenever there's been a rainy day so far, I had no pause about how I would spend it.

 Poly-chrome glazed statues, developed during the Tang Dynasty.

Poly-chrome glazed statues, developed during the Tang Dynasty.

One such day in Xi'an, I made my way to the Shaanxi History Museum, the largest museum in the province. I became a part of the large holiday crowds and snaked through tourist groups, taking extra care to find the few descriptions that had been loosely translated to English. I remember the pangs of jealousy as I saw others deeply discussing the artifacts in front of them, reading detailed timelines and historical contexts. I suppose I could have spent money on a guided English tour, but I'm still very much in frugal college student mode and find it hard to spend on anything more than food and a roof over my head.

What I could read, however, were the titles and dates of all the objects, and this was enough to leave an impact. As I went from one object to the next, I saw bronze vessels from over 3000 years ago, the start of modern-day ceramics, and Buddha statues scraping the ceiling. Although I shouldn't have been surprised, all I kept thinking was how much more vast this country's history was compared to the US, and yet if not for an awesome AP World teacher, I would have heard nothing about it.

Walter Benjamin said that "History is written by the victors," but it's also written by those who gave themselves the power to write it. China's history, as well as India and many other colonized nations, is thousands of generations deeper than the US, but youwouldn't know it by watching our news or asking the average student what they know about the countries on the other side of the globe in their classroom.

I keep reminding myself that all of these issues are deeply intertwined with modern-day problems with immigration and international policy. Western nations' refusal to acknowledge the significance and contributions of other nations started with the first white man that docked a ship on land that wasn't his and will continue with the Donald Trumps and Rush Limbaughs of the world. Until we see that history is more colorful and intricate and deeper than we can ever know, and we acknowledge all the players in this complicated story, we cannot understand the full picture.

The Importance and Power of Communication

China is filled with expats. The opportunity to teach English is not limited in any sense. As someone with a degree in English, and several years of teaching experience, I was pushed even further towards this type of work. Thus, a week of my time in China was spent in the beautiful village of Yangshuo, at an English college for adults.

I had only taught children before, so the idea of having students that were all my age or older was a bit nerve-wracking. I also had very mixed feelings about teaching English, not wanting to contribute to the notion that one must speak English to have success, but also understanding that I have privilege in being able to hold that opinion, too. After all, it is only because my parents were able to leave India that I "speak English like they do on TV," as I've been told time and time again.

Perhaps I let go of these emotions because of how much I bonded with the students and other teachers, or because I couldn't find an answer for my internal debate. But, one day (at yet another museum I should add), I stumbled upon a page from the Canton Weekly News, a paper for the Guangdong region.

 Excerpt from the Canton Weekly News regarding the existence of a bilingual paper.

Excerpt from the Canton Weekly News regarding the existence of a bilingual paper.

In it, the paper justified its usage of both Cantonese and English, stating that through this bilingual existence, they allowed a link between multiple worlds, and also gave a chance for those learning new languages to practice and understand.

I also thought about the number of times I had felt frustrated or lonely or powerless because of my lack of language skills in Japan and China. How many times I had wished that learning Japanese or Mandarin could happen in a few days instead of a few years. I thought about how much power my students talked about feeling once they had reached the upper level classes, and how much shame came with not being able to speak English for the new students. With language comes identity and with identity comes pride. It is all about a level of self-recognition.

In this, I realized the issue is not that people want to learn English, it is that native English-speakers often refuse to learn other languages. The number of expats I met who had lived in China for years even and could not speak a single word in Mandarin nor Cantonese was astounding. These individuals perhaps felt that (and many unashamedly said this) they did not need to learn another language because they knew the only one that matters. And perhaps in some ways this is true, but only because people continue to state it as the truth. In denying the importance of a language, you deny the importance of a people. By validating communication between all types of people, all levels of literacy, and all different languages, we can open up new worlds, just like the Canton Weekly News hoped to do.

We're More Similar—and Different—Than We Think

On yet another rainy day at a museum, this time in Shanghai, I wandered through more than five floors of exhibits to see as much as I could before the museum closed in a few hours. I knew that I couldn't see everything, so I picked up a museum map and checked to see what caught my eye. Immediately, one exhibit stuck out: the Chinese Minority Nationalities' Art Gallery. I made my way up to the top floor and walked into the exhibit, immediately struck by colors and patterns all over.

I wandered around, taking in beautiful coats, pants, dresses, jewelry, weapons, theatre props, and more—all handmade, as I had to keep telling myself. What was even more remarkable than the the incredible designs and details, however, was how much these things reminded me of others.

I saw a headdress that reminded me of Native American headdresses. Uyghur designs pulled from all parts of the Muslim world, reminding me of both South Asian and Arab designs. The theatrical masks were reminiscent of those I had seen in Japan. The more I saw, the more I remembered other things I had once seen. The diversity of China was not only its own, but also of the whole world.

In China, I saw things unlike that which I had ever seen before, some which I'm sure I did not understand, but I also met strangers with whom I connected within our first five minutes of conversation. I did my best do broaden my understanding outside of what I had been taught of China and I believe that I did, but I look forward to continuing my learning and continuing to move forward.

 Traditional outfits showcased in the Chinese Minority Nationalities' gallery.

Traditional outfits showcased in the Chinese Minority Nationalities' gallery.