This is a country where millennials driving cars share the road with Mao’s contemporaries driving carts, where women in booties sweep trash into cans that will be dumped in the rivers where their husbands are fishing, and where I inhaled more second-hand smoke in a month than in the previous decade of my life.
This is a country where grandparents tote grandchildren with the love and familiarity of their own offspring, where construction cranes freckle the landscape, and where facemasks are worn not to protect the lungs from cancer but the skin from aging.
This is a country where flowers are as delicate as a smile, where brick villages lay in crumbles at the feet of capitalism and overpopulation, and where I cannot touch the trunks of trees for they are painted with white pesticides.
This is a country where I fear for the traffic conductors on pedestals in the middle of intersections, where games of dominoes are played on street corners and where corpses of apartment buildings look as if they have seen death before being occupied.
This is a country where smog makes the sun look like a Clementine, where light-skinned models are Photoshopped into advertisements, and where lavish gates safeguard destitute villages.
This is a country where fields are filled with rice and wheat, where Chinese characters compose sentences of brush strokes, and where red lanterns dance in the breeze.
This is a country where motorbikes stop for nothing and nobody, where eggplant and tea are always found on the dinner table, and where hocking loogies as aggressively and loudly as possible never earns a disapproving look.
This is a country where babies wear bum-less pants for easy access, where storefronts line the streets like ants on a log, and where Mao is revered.
This is a country where friends hold hands on the street, where the cities are larger than life, but life in the countryside moves in slow motion, and where I am excited for lunch by the end of breakfast.
This is a country where Western toilets are a symbol of wealth, where cheetah high-heels are worn with polka dot pants and a floral blouse, and where playgrounds and parks can be found as easily as noodle shops and recycling bins filled with trash.
This is a country where students can always be spotted by their uniforms, where trees are planted in perfect lines, and where guards seem to guard everything and nothing.
This is a country where toddlers pee in the streets, where pagodas perch on mountain peaks, and where building exteriors illuminate the streets at night.
This is a country where I never saw a homeless woman, where people tell you things are very "interesting," and where drinking water is either bottled or hot.
This is a country that cannot be taught like a textbook.
This is a country of intense physical beauty -- terraced rice patties and cherry blossoms are only the beginning.
This is a country where social dynamics are as complicated as the environmental crisis.
This is a country that tires me, annoys me, challenges me and amazes me.
And, as one may imagine, this is a country that has provided me with many stories:
It was the Saturday prior to our return home. The Journey East participants’ final collaborative performance was the night before. My two fellow documentarians and I had spent the last month filming over 300 hours of footage. Everyone was tired.
Being a second-timer on this program I was not surprised that we had scheduled activities on our "off day" because really there are no "off days" on Journey East. Our scheduled activity was an afternoon home stay, which means two teenage American students are placed with a Chinese stranger and his or her respective family and friends for a day of cultural immersion.
So again it was midday Saturday, and we were all exhausted. Charly, a ninth-grade Journey East member, and I were placed with an English teacher who worked at the Arts College of Inner Mongolia. (Chuckles, if you happen to see this, hi darling and I hope you don’t mind that I am sharing our tale.)
Charly and I were a little curious right off the bat because it seemed that there was a small entourage following us out of our hotel. One woman had elaborate stage makeup on. The group stood about five feet behind us and did not speak.
Charly, the teacher, one of the teacher’s students and I were driven to the student’s house. When we got out of the car we noticed that two sleek black cars were pulling in behind us. You guessed it; the entourage was still tagging along.
We were shuffled up to the student’s apartment and asked to please sit down on her couch. The teacher came over and excitedly announced to us that the entourage was comprised of members of the local opera and photographers from the city’s television station. They were expecting us to put on a "performance." We promptly informed them that we were not opera singers. They did not care.
First a woman produced a "crown" (it was felt) that apparently could only be worn by extremely important people. We were allowed to touch it but not wear it, so for a short while Charly and I sat on the couch stroking a felt crown while two men took pictures of us.
A different bag produced two traditional stage costumes. Before we knew it we had been dressed in the garments, complete with floor-length skirts and floor-length robes.
Obviously this was not enough, though, so out came the props. Someone swiftly placed the crown-that-was-only-meant-for-very-important-people on Charly’s head (she was decided upon as the male in the situation and given that many Chinese value the patriarchy, she thus had the privilege of wearing the crown.) I, being the female in the situation, was given an enormous sparkling butterfly broach.
"Now use the language of your body to tell us a story."
"Tell us a story using your bodies and these beautiful props. It will be very interesting, yes?"
"We don’t quite understand ... you want us to do silent improvisation right now?"
"Yes, yes! You can begin now."
The subsequent 15 minutes followed as such: Charly and I stood in the middle of a living room that belonged to a family of strangers doing silent improvisation with fake ornamental clothing and props while 10 Chinese people watched, and two men took pictures.
At first we were confused and feeling a bit irritated, along with other realistic emotions one would feel when made to do this. But then we realized that we were simply in the middle of a photo shoot.
"They want you to look up at this corner!"
"Now admire the tree!"
"Please look like you are in love with each other!"
At once we tapped into all the valuable lessons from America’s Next Top Model and let loose with it. We were here, there, admiring the crown, adoring the broach, loving her, hating him. The 10 random Chinese strangers seemed incredibly excited.
When we were finished the English teacher told us that we were spectacular and she could really feel our emotions. She thought we were great actresses. Then they all thanked us for our amazing "performance."
I suppose if Charly or I ever fall on hard times at least we know we could probably find work as silent improvisational actresses with the Hohhot Opera.
That’s all for today. Until next time, Alana.
Alana Redden is a senior at Leland & Gray Union High School. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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