When you say the name China, it means many things to many people. What does it mean to me?
My impressions of China are vast natural landscapes; crowded, chaotic, large urban centers; a long, fascinating history; wonderful, rich culture; and, finally, an important appreciation for family and food.
My first visit to China was in May 2007. I was invited to lecture on American law in Wuhan, in Hubei Province. I had never heard of this place before, yet nearly 12 million people call it home.
That first trip was truly an awakening. This huge mysterious country came alive with the colors, sounds, smells and tastes of a vibrant, interesting place.
After warm greetings at the airport, we were taken by taxi to the university campus. Taxi rides in China are an experience. In the West, streets and highways are lined for traffic flow and we are taught to drive in our own lanes and change lanes only when necessary. In China, traffic lanes are treated by those millions of new drivers as optional.
I recently heard a great description of traffic flow in China. It is like a large school of small fish, all tightly packed together. They twist and turn and move in unison. It is amazing that they do not bump into one another.
I am also impressed by the respect and admiration the Chinese have for education. I knew about the famous teacher Confucius – or Kongzi as he is referred to in China – but even in modern China, educators are held in very high regard.
Family and respect for elders is still valued. Meals are typically “family style,” with shared common plates or dishes. Seated around large round tables, all are included in sharing the meal and the conversation.
The food of China could easily be the subject of an entire article. Not long after they’ve eaten a meal, the Chinese start to think about when, what and where they will eat next. In fact, students in China often greet each other by asking, “Have you eaten yet?” If the answer is no, they quickly begin to make plans. All of the different regions, provinces and cities have their own favorite dishes or foods, and people take great pride in their specialties.
Overall it is a healthy diet with a lot of fruit and vegetables. When they eat steak they don’t “eat a steak.” The meat is usually sliced or cut and added to a dish. This is quite different from the West, where “steak houses” tout the size and cut of the piece of meat on your plate.
In China, where you are from usually dictates the kind of food you eat. People from the North eat noodles, and people from the South eat rice. The level and degree of spices added to a meal also varies from region to region.
Chinese history is long, deep and complicated. The name China in Mandarin is (Zhong guo) “zhong” meaning middle. The Chinese have always regarded their home as the middle or center of the known world. The ancient city Xian was at one time one of the largest, most diverse urban centers in the world. It was the end of the “silk road.” It was the New York City of its time. Xian was a melting pot of different cultures and people. I am concerned that young Chinese, eagerly looking to the West, have failed to remember their history. Short-sighted urban redevelopment has in many situations demolished and destroyed historic buildings and neighborhoods. For future generations, I sincerely hope this trend is reversed.
The people are truly as diverse and different as their huge country. Within China there are more than 50 recognized ethnic minority groups. The largest is the Han Chinese. With so many co-mingled ethnic groups, this is a country with diverse foods, customs, languages and local dialects.
The official language is Mandarin, but each region, even each city, has its own unique way of communicating.
At the age of 56, I am studying Mandarin Chinese. With the help of my wife, teachers at the Confucius Institute at the University at Buffalo and the Chinese Club, I am making slow but steady progress in listening and speaking.
Chinese people come in many different shapes, sizes and colors of skin. Sorry to be a “myth buster” but Chinese people do not all look alike. On my first visit to China, I was amazed at how different a boy from Inner Mongolia looks compared with a girl from Shanghai. Tall, short, light skinned, dark skinned; all very different depending on what region of the country they come from.
A word that often comes to mind when describing Chinese people is humble. They appreciate humility in themselves and in others. They value family, friendship, teamwork and working together as a unit. This is very different from Western culture, where we celebrate the individual and we divide people by winners and losers.
The natural beauty and wonders of China are beyond description. On my most recent trip, I visited the Three Gorges region and Xiling Gorge. It is a peaceful, tranquil, green, lush place. I can only hope the government will recognize the value in preserving the natural beauty of China for generations to come.
Finally, like all journeys, this article must come to a close. After 26 hours of non-stop travel, I am home in Buffalo. After a fitful night of trying to sleep and fighting jet lag, I get ready for work. As I walk out to my car, I’m struck by the quiet, the lack of people, traffic and noise. I have left the crowds and chaos behind. I am home.
Joseph G. Krenitsky, a graduate of the University at Buffalo Law School, is an international student adviser and chairman of the Paralegal Department at Erie Community College.