Life was going great in Beijing! I couldn't be more thankful for the opportunity that was given to me by the Confucius Institute, the Hunan Normal University and the Southern Utah University. This opportunity was giving me the chance to see new places, taste amazing new meals and meet wonderful people. However, during my time in Beijing I had just few opportunities to leave the group and explore the city by myself.
To explain in other words, part of the reason why I need to travel is a big curiosity about a distinguish culture. While I'm traveling, I want to live the life like the locals do. Strangely--you'll probably think--I never have an interest for the touristic places, but just the deep local sociology. In China, I didn't want to go to the Forbidden City, to the Tiananmen Square, or to the Great Wall. Off course, I know a lot of these touristic places are popular because of its important history. However nowadays, the majority of these places are adapted to the visitors, losing then their authenticity. In Beijing, I wanted to go to a local restaurant, meet a local resident and have a long conversation with him. I wanted to understand how he grew up in China and how he would see the future of his country. But I didn't. While in Beijing, none of the three goals I wanted to achieve in China were successfully completed. So I quickly understood that I had to leave Northern China and travel south to Changsha, the capital of Hunan, in order of fulfilling my happiness. In Changsha, my traveling group and I were received by local students from the Hunan Normal University. These were the brave Chinese young fellows, who were committed to show me their city from the perspective of a local resident. I saw myself at the right place, with the right people, to learn more about the real China. These student-volunteers, mostly English major students, were both in need to practice English, as well as they were willing to teach me the Chinese language and the culture. A wonderful combination that would erase some of my Chinese negative assumptions.
In Changsha, Hunan, locals stay outside at the end of the day. © Tiago Costa
Traveling from Northern China to Southern China, it's like going through two different countries. According to Bryant Scott, in an article about the differences between the north and south, he refers that Chinese natives in the north are naturally closer to ancient Mongols, while Southern Chinese natives are closer to Thai. In terms of appearance, the northern Chinese people are generally taller with smaller eyes, while in south people have rounded face and have generally a darker skin. In terms of attitude, Chinese people in the north are more noisy, rowdy and naturally angry. They have the character to be leaders, heroes, conquerors or emperors. For other side, in south, people are more calm and soft, probably an influence of the farming life in the quiet rice fields. For Scott, Southern Chinese people are also more erudite, refined, cultured and they appreciate life surrounded by arts. However, these are ancient differences that can be seen today with less expression. Nowadays, the demography of China is fused. This results in a big volume of internal migration, where people look for better jobs and life opportunities.
My trip in China was definitely short, and for that reason not enough time to understand all those differences. I will, I'm sure, have much more chances in the future. Nevertheless, there are geographical and meteorological differences that were clear to me while there. The north is too cold or too warm, and it's dry and arid; while the south it's more tropical, it's highly humid and the temperatures are more balanced. The north is mostly desert and flat, while the south is composed by long mountains and dense rain forests.
For that reason, the north is known for noodles and dumplings (which use egg-paste), while the south has the perfect conditions to hold rice fields, and the products that are originated from these conditions are mostly made with rice. This different can be also seen in fruits or vegetables, which fills the meal in every restaurant.
In Changsha, at the Huo Gong Dian, or translated "Fire God Palace", a bronze statue
of the Chairman Mao imposes authority, while a family enjoys around a baby.
It's for me the past and the future represented. © Tiago Costa
I forgot the north for a while and wanted to squeeze my life in Changsha. At the Hunan Normal University, I had the opportunity to learn Chinese knots and Chinese paper-cutting. I had the opportunity to practice Kong-fu and Tai-chi with a professional martial-arts fighter. I learned that Chinese traditional music and instruments come somewhere from an angel land. I learned about the language, about the characters and the hand-writing. There, I also made good friends; and some of these friends thought me that a good percentage of the new Chinese generation is concerned about ecology and pollution, as well as is concerned about the relations with the international world.
I was invited to play ping-pong, and I was challenged to go to a local traditional market and buy groceries while speaking Chinese with locals. I'll never forget the first time a Chinese native-speaker understood me and we communicated. It took just a few seconds, but made my day. Language is and important key for someone who wants to travel around the world.
(Above) At the Hunan Normal University, the doors of a Kong-fu academy are closed. The characters "武道馆" can
be read "Wu Dao Guan" and translated "Kong-fu Training Place", while the four signs advice students to take-off their
shoes before enter. (Middle) At an old student male dorm in HNU, students hang their clothes outside. (Bottom) Chinese
students from the HNU, playing ping-pong in a room on campus. In China, ping-pong is considered national sport.
During my time in Changsha, my efforts to speak the Chinese language weren't comparable to my necessity to discover more about the culture. I'll not deny that I spoke mostly in English, as this was my primary necessity in order to find out more about my friends life perspectives and their dreams for the future. It was while speaking English, that I was surprised by their purity, kindness and love.
With the group-leader "Rachel", or 彭雪姣 (Peng Xuejiao) in Chinese, I learned that Chinese women can also lead with tranquility and a smile in her face. China is a country historically led by men and only men decides the future. For instance, I found interesting, but not surprising, that at the Hunan Normal University, only men is placed in an administration composed by ten. However, for those who know me, they know that I fight for equality. In my opinion, the only thing that should give you or take out of a job, it's the fact that you're more/less professional or more/less talented, and never the gender, race or sexual orientation.
With the most smily student-volunteer "Vivi", or 黄冬香 (Huang Dongxiang) in Chinese, I learned that calling rude to Chinese people is highly unreasonable. Vivi responded to everything in our daily-life with a big and honest smile in her face. She was the sweetheart and the pure character that our group needed. With "Ricky", or 雷凯 (Lei Kai) in Chinese, I learned that Chinese people are concerned about the quantity of trash, the pollution and the global environment. China is polluted; everybody knows. However, Ricky gave me hope when he said there's a long way to improve and the new generations are aware of the necessity. We talked a little bit about this topic, and in fact, I was surprised.
Especially, since my travel to the dense southern forests of China, I got surprised by the quantity of reforestation and the investment in plantation I saw. Then, I learned that China is actually one of the current leaders in green-energy investment and they are really trying to understand what can be done in order to decrease the emissions of pollutants. Also, China understood the recent Paris Agreement was a strong step in that goal, and they joint the rest of the world. And let me tell you, the world needs a green China.
At the Yuelu Academy, located by the Yuelu Mountain, Changsha, Chinese visitors gather
in one of the interior gardens. With more than 1000 years existence, The Yuelu Academy
is one of the oldest high education institutions in China. © Tiago Costa
China is part of my curious infant imaginary. Back in the time, everything started with Son Goku, Vegeta and other characters in Dragon Ball. During my childhood in the 90's, this was the first-time I ever remember to get images from the Chinese culture and get the curiosity about it. Even being produced by a Japanese artist called Akira Toriyama, this series is mostly inspired in the Chinese Journey to the West novel dated in the 16th Century. During my childhood, I remember to watch Dragon Ball and Dragon Ball Z, and get curiosity about a culture that was clearly different than mine, although interesting. Even being a fiction with super-powerfull humans and extraterrestrials, this series was full of symbols like the dragon, the martial arts, the meals involving rice and chopsticks, the temples, the meditation, or the medicinal herbs.
China is such a rich culture with a long history and many differences and equalities to discover. I know I'll be well received, like I know you are going to be well received. I'll travel to understand my assumptions. Travel to respect the differences instead of judging with no knowledge. Travel to fight my fears and share, while being amazed by the generosity of worldwide cultures. China, I'll see you soon.
While in China, I wasn't alone. To all of the wonderful Chinese people I met, and
others that were with me during this period of time, thank you. Thank you so much! Xièxiè!
brothel is now one of the most attended touristic places in this town. The Jinggang Town
was, in 19th century, one of the most prosperous towns by the Xiangjiang River. © Tiago Costa
A potter smiles while taking a rest in front of his store in Tongguan. The Town of Tongguan
is one of the most famous and protected ancient ceramic/porcelain kiln towns in China.
Mostly for this reason, Hunan is well-known by its ceramic objects. © Tiago Costa
"Willy" poses for a portrait while getting ready to lunch in the Nanfang High School cafeteria.
For the last weekend of my trip in China, I traveled to Zhuzhou, Hunan, where Willy and his family
received me. They were my home-stay family for one night and represented my opportunity to live
in the breast of a Chinese family. This was my last meal with Willy in Zhuzhou, just a few
minutes before I start my travel back to the United States. © Tiago Costa
article re-edited on March 22, 2018.
The "Weekly Journal" blog is updated every Sunday.