Cultural appreciation is not limited to presenting large images adorning the customs of others, but choosing to actively learn about the cultural communities that exist here.
In the West, people often have very distinct tropes when they travel to China and its culture. It can be seen either as this so-called “magical” land of strangers, or as an opposing government that threatens our democracy. For me, China was neither. He represented the people I knew growing up in New York City, such as one of my mom’s work colleagues or friends I met through my after-school program. It was also represented by the abundance of Chinese restaurants dotted around the city, neighborhood establishments that had become staples of American culture.
Like African Americans, Chinese Americans are also a group of people whose traditions have been reduced to footnotes in American history textbooks. As a black woman, I had to actively seek more information about my African heritage and the collective history of black people in the United States. It wasn’t until I took the time to learn Chinese culture as a world history student that I began to understand how rich and grand it is.
So I decided to visit. I hoped that the trip to the country would give me a deeper perspective on the real China. Most international travelers start their trip to China in the most popular destinations that feature familiar images from television and media, cities like Beijing or landmarks like the Great Wall of China. My story takes place in Suzhou, one of the smallest and lesser-known cities in the country, a short train ride from Shanghai. Over the course of a week, I allowed myself to fully immerse myself in the culture of old and new in Suzhou. I had the opportunity to walk along the canals, sneak through the little shops amid its vast landscape, and do more to experience everyday culture and what life was like outside of the main city centers. international companies from China.
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Outside of Shanghai, Suzhou is considered one of the smallest cities in China compared to its capital Beijing. However, Suzhou still has just over 10 million inhabitants. For someone who had never been to the country before, it presented a quick overview of what Chinese culture looks like today – a blend of modern technological innovations and the preservation of centuries-old cultural traditions. It is home to the canals that inspired early explorers like Marco Polo, who details his views in his records of his travels in China, earning him comparisons to Venice, Italy. Today, the technology hub’s suppliers in Asia see it as a commercial production hub with luxury hotel chains to attract affluent business travelers.
The city is also best known for its magnificent gardens which serve as sanctuaries to the history of the city and its region. The Humble Administrator’s Garden and the Evergreen Garden are among the most famous in Suzhou, hosting performances showcasing cultural heritage for visitors. Heritage sites attract thousands of visitors each year, both at home and abroad. The greenery has been meticulously maintained with trees and flowers blooming among the waves of tourists strolling the concrete pathways. They can admire the natural beauty while learning about the history of local Wu culture through its theatrical performances and traditional music dating back to Zhou Dynasty, told through poetry and folklore. Buddhism is deeply linked to the local culture, and as visitors walk through the gardens and grounds of its many temples, they may pass large structures depicting stories and scriptures related to Wu shamanism and popular religion. These temples stand alongside a rich collection of museums housing historical artifacts showcasing the city’s history at the center of the silk trade, and are a haven for skilled artisans as well as scholars who have recounted the city’s ancient beginnings.
1. Buddha statue.Dana givens 2. Tower of the pagoda. 3. Suzhou Gardens.
Suzhou’s structures preserve the city’s long and complex history in the same way as cities like Rome or Paris, retaining century-old buildings located in residential neighborhoods. Its famous pagoda towers stretching above its vibrant gardens are a testament to its commitment to honor their heritage and pass their knowledge on to future generations. And beyond the historic and historic architecture, there were also very modern and busy shopping malls twice the size of anything near my home, with an abundance of luxury and brand name shops. for a new emerging class of Chinese consumers, and close to luxury hotels. It was the perfect illustration of how the country is a blend of ancient traditions and modern innovation.
In all of these places, I found myself in almost every place I visited, not just as a foreigner, but as a black woman with dark skin and coarse afro hair. As I perused the little shops, admiring their knickknacks and unique souvenirs, I often found myself at the reception of a shy – or at times very eager – stranger looking to take my picture or just say hello. Prior to my trip, I had seen countless videos and social media posts about the fascination of Chinese residents and tourists watching black travelers, especially in areas further away from tourist centers. We were curious about each other and it showed in different ways, but there was like an openness on both sides that allowed me to integrate and deepen my experience. It allowed me to start new conversations that dared to face the strong language barriers that created sincere and memorable moments of friendly meetings with nervous families who welcomed me to their country with warm smiles. I had discussions with other young professionals that I met during my time there and whose stories gave me a better understanding of their daily life here. School-aged girls who eagerly wanted to practice their English with me while I was in Suzhou.
1. Suzhou canals.Dana Givens; 2. Umbrellas in a small shop.
Suzhou showed both sides of China in one city – ancient structures in addition to modern advances somehow finding a balance. It was an experience that continued when I returned home and took me to research Chinese history in the context of the United States, as well as their community’s struggles with the Chinese government.
My trip really demonstrated the lack of exposure I had with Sino-American history. It also helped me better understand China’s complicated relationship with the United States and how this affects the current socio-political landscape. I realized that discrimination was common in terms of the treatment Chinese people received and that it was steeped in American history. The current flow of hate crimes against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders linked to COVID-19 propaganda is just one example of how the United States’ lack of understanding of Asian and Islander cultures. Pacific resulted in mistreatment. This trip gave me the opportunity to learn more about Chinese culture and history, so that I can be a steadfast ally for those in the Asian community who face targeted attacks in light of our political climate. current.
Cultural appreciation is not just about presenting large images adorning the customs of others, it is choosing to actively learn about the cultural communities you visit – and to apply and celebrate that understanding in relation to those. communities in the United States.