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  • Martina

Memories of a First Timer in China

Updated: Feb 27

Chinese Memories

Before going to China, I remember dreaming of it for years, wondering when the right time would eventually come. The reasons why I wanted to visit were many - some can be expressed with words while others are more sensations than actual thoughts.

Remaining in the field of rationality, my wish to see China came from a deep and genuine interest in understanding, feeling and touching with my own hands a country which history is one of the richest in the world, which culture had been a mystery for centuries for us Westerners but now seems closer than ever, and that has become such a vital player in the global chessboard that not being curios about it felt like a sin.

The land that greeted me upon my arrival was exactly like I imagined it and yet so far from anything I had seen before.

Big cities, bright lights, fast cars (literally, the Chinese drive like crazy, be aware!), concrete jungles. And then cozy neighbourhoods, street markets, hearty food and traditional architecture. The new and the old, the old-fashioned and the ground-breaking, former glories and modern wealth all together to build a single, unique representation of pride. The pride of a country that runs fast on the edge of progress but at times seems resentful towards a past that is still close but is felt distant.

Going around and visiting popular heritage attractions lets a foreigner understand the Chinese love their past, but do not stand being unable to define their path. Every single moment in history they don't recognize, they reject or hope to rewrite. In Guangzhou, where the colonial presence was strong for a brief period, this feeling hit me as crystal clear, the English translations in museums or guides never failing to convey it.

China is the embodiment of the Chinese people, and the Chinese people are only fully whole in China. This you don't hear or find written but strongly perceive. In China, there is a Chinese version of almost everything (brands, cars, fashion, shops, ideas and even historical facts) and most of the Chinese concepts can be truly understood only if you use the right words and characters (and, therefore, if you know the language). Every detail is tailor-made and the Chinese don't need to search for anything in the outside world - their country provides, their country embraces them. Also, most people do not know any foreign language so any external access is complicated, any contact is at least hampered. Those who leave - they know - will never find another place like home.

Indeed, I have seen very few foreigners in China (I haven't been to Shanghai or Shenzhen but I have been to Beijing). I wasn't surprised by this very fact, but the way people would stare at us fascinated me, I have never felt so visible and yet invisible at the same time. Visible, because you look physically different and your presence is apparent, invisible because connection can only occur through eyes, smiles, gestures and brief moments of proximity. I tried so hard to learn a little Chinese but once there I realized I was not even close to communicating, and everything around me looked and sounded obscure. But I never felt uneasy, never out of place.

Before going to China, some of the people I know who visited told me that once you see one city, you have seen them all and that one temple is enough because they all look the same. I have found this to be partially true for buildings - architecture is indeed quite replicated throughout the country, buildings are rarely authentically ancient and residential blocks often seem cookie-cutter - but so incredibly false for cities and regions. No place is like the other in China and every single one has so many faces several months would not be enough to unravel the spirit of a city. And yes, cities are huge and crowded and the traffic heavy and if you come from Europe the impact might be substantial, but the discovery will never tire you. Every district has its distinctive traditions, smells and heritage sites, and new food will reach you through your nostrils and then please your eyes before you decide to taste it.

In China, travelling means keeping your documents in hand and experiencing punctual little moments of fear when, every morning, you are unsure whether the passport has been securely placed in your backpack or not. Improvisation is not welcome in a country where hundreds of millions of people move around daily, and every traveller is supposed to know where they are heading. Booking, planning and scheduling are crucial in China, and no public place or transport can ever be accessed without prior identification. No distinction is made between locals and foreigners, if you visit China, you abide by these rules. Slightly uncomfortable at first, but maybe necessary - if a nation is made of those who have been raised hoping and believing that everyone would have a possibility, everyone would be like the other, you must let them trust this is still true, even if your actual possibility now depends on you, on how fast you tap your fingertip on the "book your place" button. Even if someone, in the end, will be excluded.

At the end of your trip, you are left wondering how complex and simple a country can simultaneously be, and if you will ever manage to see it all, if seeing it will ever be enough to know it, if books, movies, lectures will ever be of aid. As for me, at my departure, I had the strongest feeling I would forever want to go back, I would need to see China with my eyes again to remember it is true.


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