Posted February 26, 2013
A Dream Becomes Reality: My Travels In China
By Ann Kappell Danner
My husband Bob and I took a direct fourteen hour flight from Washington to Beijing, leaving deserted Dulles Airport midday Tuesday, and arriving at bustling Beijing Airport on Wednesday afternoon. Dulles Airport was quieter than I've ever seen it the day we departed, and the passengers on our near empty plane were mostly Chinese. Americans seem to prefer to avoid air travel on this particular Tuesday, September 11. This worked for us because we each had a row of seats on which to stretch out, allowing us to get some rest during our journey. More than 20 years after sharing my fascination about China by including it in the Sidwell Friends Middle School History curriculum, I was embarking on my second travel adventure to learn about the people and culture first hand.
Four years ago I had the good fortune to accompany my husband when he was invited to speak at the Chinese Society of Critical Care Medicine annual conference. By the end of that trip I knew I had to return to China. When my husband was offered the opportunity to return this past fall I was granted a Green Acres "sabbatical" so that I could join him for another trip. [After completing seven years on the Green Acres faculty I was eligible to apply for the school's one week sabbatical.] Our 2012 itinerary included a visit to Hunan Province, not a popular destination for American travelers, and time in Beijing, where the Critical Care meeting was being held.
My visit to Hunan Province focused on reconnecting with old friends and making new ones. Four years ago we had the good fortune to be invited to Changsha, the capital city of Hunan province where Bob spoke at a teaching hospital. During that trip we met a young attending physician, Peng Yue. After our tearful parting in November 2008, we have been corresponding by email. We were reunited for four days of travel through the province, along with personal and professional discussions.
The people in Hunan Province are proud of their spicy, complex cooking and their strong connection to Chairman Mao, who was a native of Hunan. Yue, with the help of her family, friends, and colleagues treated us to meals and snacks representing many Hunan specialties. One of my favorites, which I remembered from the earlier visit, is "stinky tofu." On a road trip to the birthplace of Mao Zedong we learned that the Chairman's favorite dish was braised pork, which we were served in a small local restaurant owned and run by his family's descendants.
Shaoshan, the birthplace of Mao, is a pilgrimage site for Chinese tourists. His home and memorials are in a setting backed by mountains and surrounded by lotus ponds and rice fields. After waiting on a long line with Mao’s admirers, visitors have the opportunity to walk through the farmhouse where he was raised. We were the only foreigners/westerners visiting the site. In walking distance from the homestead is a large statue where Chinese visitors show their respect by purchasing and placing large flower arrangements the colors of the Chinese flag. It was clear from our visit that many people feel that Mao still represents the "heart of China."
Our travels within Hunan Province also included a long drive on an unpaved road in order to spend the night in a traditional Chinese bed in a hotel in Phoenix Ancient Town. Our way was blocked by three cows ambling along in front of us. In Phoenix Town we wandered winding streets, helped steer a traditional boat on the river, and viewed some of the native Miao people wash their clothing in the river and carry their goods to market.
For me, one of the true highlights of our days in Hunan was an evening meal at Yue's home, where we met her three-year-old daughter. Yue's mother-in-law and brother-in-law live with them and her mother-in-law prepared a feast . It was wonderful to be welcomed into Yue's home after many days of eating in restaurants.
My Hunan holiday ended with a morning visiting a Changsha primary school where I was treated like a VIP. I presented their school counselor with a bag of Jolly Ranchers [the candy I keep on my desk in the counseling office for my Green Acres middle school students], toured the school, and had an opportunity, with the help of three translators, to discuss Chinese and American schools with members of their faculty. The students were intrigued by the sight of a "foreigner" walking their halls. (Here is the link to my Chinese "digital footprint" from my school visit in Changsha: http://www.yljy.com/news.asp?id=23293)
Back in China’s capital city, I missed a photo opportunity that would have served as an excellent symbol of what Beijing, and urban China, is all about -- rapid growth and expansion. This photo would have shown the proliferation of cranes and construction projects that dominate the horizon. Everywhere you look a new building is going up in this city of about 22 million people. There are still pockets of low-rise traditional Chinese residential compounds, known as hutong, but many of these disappeared to make way for modern buildings and roads and most recently in preparation for the 2008 Olympics. Others are being gentrified (my word) as young, affluent Chinese families buy and renovate the courtyard homes and neighborhoods so that they can live in the central area of the city and because these historic houses are thought to have good feng shui. While some construction projects are creating housing, others are producing architecturally unique office towers that sit in close proximity to ancient palaces and temples.
My 2012 trip to China began and ended in this city of old and new where my husband spoke at the Chinese Society for Critical Care Medicine and where I was invited to join the festivities planned for his conference. On one of the mornings my husband was giving a lecture to his Chinese colleagues I rallied the courage to take myself, with the help of my two Chinese vocabulary words, on an adventure. Being a city girl originally from Manhattan, I am usually more comfortable navigating any city in the world than following a trail in the woods. However, Beijing is a challenge. The signs are written in Chinese characters, the overwhelming automobile, motor-scooter, bicycle, and pedestrian traffic makes moving about the DC area seem like a picnic. And, even though English is taught in the schools few people really seem to understand or speak the only language I know.
We were staying in a hotel near the Olympic Park and convention center, which is a relatively new neighborhood quite a distance from the center of the city. With a city map in hand and a slip of paper written in Chinese characters indicating my destinations I left the hotel hoping I would find my way back. What awaited were the sights, sounds, and smells of central Beijing. I explored an area with lakes and hutongs not far from the Forbidden City. I treated myself to a glass of jasmine tea in a traditional tea house. I hired a pedicab to take me on a tour of the area and into a traditional courtyard home where an elderly artist who spoke no English created and sold scroll paintings. During this tour I spotted a bride and groom preparing to have their wedding photo taken with Houhai Lake as a backdrop. Uncertain how to find transportation back to my hotel I stopped into a tourist center which advertised "English spoken." Unfortunately they did not seem to know where or how I might find a taxi, so I relied on my "New York City skills" and hunted one down on my own.
My only disappointment in Beijing was that I was unable to connect with SFS alumna Alison Friedman. Given that I first immersed myself in Chinese history and culture as a Sidwell Friends history teacher and chair of the Middle School department it would have been perfect to spend time with Alison in her adopted home. However, even though we exchanged emails before each of my trips and tried to find a time to meet, ironically Alison seems to travel to DC when I visit Beijing. I guess I need to make a third trip to China.
There is too much to write about my China travels in this short essay. So, if you see me feel free to ask questions about my trip. I also have many more photos to share. I tried to capture both the usual and unusual by American standards. Just to pique your interest, I have a photo of skewered insects waiting to be grilled for someone's midday snack.
The Warmth of Other Suns:The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration
by Isabel Wilkerson
Our book club meeting with Lee MacVaugh, Jeanette Levin, Marian Dowling, Denise Terry, Peggy Kane, Peggy Lodeesen, Jane Hartquist, and Carol Borut, at the home of Carol Borut
by Carol Borut
On Sunday afternoon, February 10, nine of us circled around in my living room to discuss this compelling and well researched historical account of the mass exodus of African-Americans from the South to the North and West of this country between 1915 and 1970. This movement which came to be called America’s Great Migration was precipitated by a labor shortage during World War I in the factories of Northern cities together with the Jim Crow laws of Southern states that compelled those who left their homes and loved ones to seek greater freedom and opportunity for themselves and for their children.
Isabel Wilkerson opens each section of this book with African-American voices, such as the following poem by Richard Wright:
“I was leaving the South
To fling myself into the unknown . . .
I was taking a part of the South
To transplant in alien soil,
To see if it could grow differently.
If it could drink of new and cool rains,
Bend in strange winds,
Respond to the warmth of other suns
And, perhaps, to bloom.”
This complex story comes to life through the narratives of three individuals: Ida Mae Bandon Gladney who left Chickasaw County, Mississippi in l937 for Milwaukee and then moved to Chicago; George Swanson Starling who left Wildwood, Florida in 1945 for New York; and Robert Joseph Pershing Foster, M.D. who left Monroe, Louisiana in 1953 for Los Angeles.
The life journeys of these three individuals are representative of the six million African-Americans who knew the power of hope and went wherever the “overground railroad” would take them, many to cities where they knew someone who had gone before them. Many moved to cities where they vied for decent housing and decent jobs with other immigrant groups, only to face segregated neighborhoods, rejection by labor unions and employers, as well as those African-Americans who had arrived before them. Although African-Americans shared many commonalities with other immigrants, “a name change would have had no effect in masking the ethnicity of black migrants like Ida Mae, George, and Robert.”
Isabel Wilkerson impressively weaves together the narratives of these three people with the history of racial relations and events which contributed to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and to the changes that have been made and to the ongoing struggle for equality. This book was written with keen insight into the impact of race, class, and political power on American society.
In our book discussion, we shared our reactions to racial discrimination that we have personally observed in our own lifetime in social, professional, and academic settings. We discussed the difficulties involved in deciding to leave one’s known world for the unknown, the impact on families, and identity issues involving what to value and hold on to and what to shed from one’s past. We talked about the commonalities and the differences between the Great Migration and today’s focus on immigration. We noted the difficulties and at times tragic results for young people returning to the South who were not cognizant of the “social rules” or observant of Jim Crow laws. We shared our own experiences and observations in the important process of diversifying the student body, the faculty, and the administration in schools, in particular Sidwell Friends. We shared specific passages in the book that we particularly noted. This was a discussion that could have lasted much longer, had we had more time, a discussion that we will continue to have as we talk with others about this powerful book.
There was certainly a consensus that this is an important book to read. We concurred that no matter how much we think we know about American history, we emerged from this book with a greater understanding and a commitment to racial freedom and justice that impacts us all. Isabel Wilkerson begins her Epilogue with a quote from Barack Obama’s Presidential Inaugural Address of January 20, 2009:
“Because we have tasted
the bitter swill
of civil war and segregation,
and emerged from that dark chapter
stronger and more united,
we cannot help but believe
that the old hatreds shall someday pass;
that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve;
that, as the world grows smaller,
our common humanity
shall reveal itself . . . . “
I suggest that we each take time to visit Isabel Wilkerson’s excellent web site, www.isabelwilkerson.com, where you can learn more about this Pulitzer prize winning author and more about The Warmth of Other Suns. We hope that noone will be deterred from reading this book because of its length of 525 pages. It is a page-turner!
Note: Would you be interested in our scheduling another book club meeting? Do you have a good discussion book to recommend? Please e-mail your suggestions to Carol Borut or Denise Terry.
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