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March 15, 2009

Every Westerner who visits China feels like Marco Polo.

There is no way to sum up the swirling, surreal, unalloyed alienness that is China. Yes, of course there are "Westernized" areas - especially in response to the 2008 Olympics - and funded primarily by the billions of ubiquitous knick-knacks we all buy at discount stores with that little "Made in China" sticker.

The progress is visible - and stunning.

For example, when I first arrived at the Beijing airport in February of 1999, there was one terminal - with one baggage carousel. The massive and glistening new system is designed to handle 19,200 pieces of luggage per hour.

The Beijing airport, shaped like a giant two-mile long medieval dragon rising from the dry plains to the east, is now the world's largest...

... larger than all the terminals at London's Heathrow combined.

Those of us from America or Europe think that we know what a city is, but upon arrival in China, our sense of scale is inverted. One Beijing term which tries to captures the urban scene is "Beijing blur". In the downtown core one sees a single massively nearly full block sized intricately designed building that is an astounding architectural monument. Then you might glance down the street and see another, and another, and another... They blur into the distance - in every direction.

Depending on the weather, the "blur" can get even more intense: when the prevailing wind from the northeast carries fine dust from the Gobi Desert and it combines with the industrial pollution, the sky is the same concrete gray color as most of the buildings. On these days there is an odd, disorienting sense of vertical urban infinity.

This sensation is only increased by the hundreds of building cranes across every horizon - and the rope and bamboo scaffolding holding the scrawny craftsmen as they do the fine tuning on these massive buildings - hundreds of feet up, with no safety equipment.

One China observer noted that China builds a new city the size of New York City – every six months!
And yet, it doesn't take long to step into the China of 500 years ago. Even downtown, you can walk or bike a few minutes and step beyond the modern patina cast over the city.

Back in 1999 I had lunch with some of my Chinese students at a tiny cafe about two blocks east of Tiananmen Square, the center of Beijing. I noticed that the Chinese staff and other customers were hushed as I came in. Through my students, I asked if this little lunch place saw many foreigners. After a short huddled and clearly embarrassed discussion, they let me know that I was the first one.

So what are your stories of encountering new and puzzling worlds? Send them here. We all want to hear them.
In April, I'll be starting a series on book recommendations - books related to language, teaching, travel or anything related to the ESL teaching & learning experience. So send in your travel stories soon.

My best to you,


Listen, read and speak. Make your new language your own.

About the author of this entry:

Morf has a B.A.from the Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington and an MAT (Master's in Teaching English) from the University of Washington (Seattle). Morf spent about six years working for a Native American Tribal College, a few years teaching various humanities, English, writing and ESL courses with the community college system in Washington State (including one year as part of a faculty exchange program with The Beijing Foreign Language University). While in China, Morf was briefly a radio host for CRI (China Radio International) and did recordings for the "English can be enjoyable" book and tape series. Morf currently teaches English and writing for a local technical/vocational college with many international students. Morf prefers international and independent films, foods he can't pronounce, music no one else likes and riding his bicycle in unlikely and ridiculous situations.

Posted by mmorf at March 15, 2009 05:16 PM

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