China Through My Eyes
As best I can recall, my first visit to Beijing, in the hot summer of 1990, was an almost overwhelming experience. I visited a wide range of places over a three week stay, including some truly amazing historical sites like the Great Wall, the Old Summer Palace, the Temple of Heaven, the Forbidden City, etc., as well as a Chinese University, markets, an old courtyard house, restaurants, parks, book stores, and hutongs. Amongst it all, what struck me most was the friendliness people showed me, and their genuine desire to converse, in English or in Chinese, about a range of topics – from political issues, to AIDS, to what Australia was like, and so on. There were a host of almost topsy-turvy differences between my own country and China. Aside from obvious differences, such as the food, and the weather, one could not help but be overwhelmed by the vast difference in population not just in terms of people, but there were so many bikes and many less cars (very few of which I could recognize)! I was also amazed to see donkey carts in the capital of such a major up and coming nation – something I had certainly not envisioned! While life at that time seemed tough for many people, there was a tremendous sense that something extraordinary was taking place and that China had a great future ahead of it. It was during this exciting three-week period of exploring a very foreign culture that I met, completely by chance at a party at my younger brother’s University, a young Chinese woman student who would change my life. We spent many hours together exchanging ideas and information on where we lived, on what films and books we had read, and so on, until finally it was time for me to return to finish my University degree. While completing my degree in Australia, I continued to keep in touch with my female friend in Beijing, and decided to return to Beijing upon graduation to study Chinese for six months as a self-funded student.
After arriving in Beijing again, with a University degree under my belt, I began my first experience of living overseas without my family. It was both lonely, as well as exhilarating to live in a somewhat segregated dormitory – a world of foreign students from a wide range of countries – floating amongst a sea of Chinese students.
Since all our classes were held in the same building as our dormitory rooms, we had relatively few opportunities to meet Chinese students. The main opportunities were to meet at English corners, the Chinese students cafeteria (most foreign students ate at their own better quality, more expensive, private and segregated cafeteria), at restaurants, or on the sports field. But through patience and a strong desire to mix despite our differences, we overcame the language barriers, the differences in income, the cultural barriers, and the barriers set by the University, and mix we did! Today, 10 years later, some of my best Chinese friends are still the friends I met at University in 1991.
An enormous amount has taken place during the 11 years since I first visited China. During that time I have lived in China for more than 8 years, most of it in Beijing, but with a year spent living in both Nanjing and Guangzhou. My own views on China have no doubt also altered over that time as China has experienced such rapid growth and change, and as I have, over time, and through travel to most parts of China, gained a better understanding of the size and diversity of your country.
No longer do I find China such a bewildering place as I have come to understand, if not always to agree, with Chinese views on such important topics as the new world order, the death penalty, family planning, human rights and maintaining the stability essential for economic growth. Having now spent more than half of my adult life in China and being married to the same Chinese girl I first met 11 years ago, I am the proud father of twin daughters who are half Chinese and half Australian. I sometimes feel much the same way myself!
Edward Smith is an Australian business consultant and investor who has lived in China for more than 8 years. He speaks, reads and writes Chinese and is a graduate of Monash University in Melbourne and the Johns Hopkins Center at Nanjing University. In addition he has undertaken further studies at Melbourne University and the Beijing Second Foreign Language Institute. He is married with twin daughters and lives in Beijing where he also serves as a member of the Board of Directors of the China-Australia Chamber of Commerce.