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China's Many Faces
Grandma and child in Xianggelila, in southwestern China. Photo by Clayton Dube.

China's Many Faces

San Francisco teacher Greg Adler participated in the Calfiornia NCTA 2004 study tour of China. Here he shares his first impressions of China.

By Greg Adler

A 16-hour flight is enough to make anyone a little disoriented but as I stepped out of the airport I wondered if my dream had become a nightmare. You see my SARS-postponed China trip was on the verge of becoming a reality and I had naturally built up my expectations to the sky. The Beijing sky that was greeting me was a threatening grey and that grey persisted in different shades no matter where I looked. It was as if I had walked into a black and white movie scene. The air was hot and humid and the tour buses waiting patiently had created such a cloud of smog at the airport that I felt like Charlie Brown’s pal Pig Pen as I lugged my suitcase onto the bus followed by a cloud of dust. What had I gotten myself into?

These were only the first of many impressions of China I gleaned this summer. I was part of a three-week study tour that would take me to several corners of China. After Beijing, we traveled over 5,000 miles in 12 days encountering a lot of hospitality and a few of the challenges this emerging nation presents. Our tour was funded by the Freeman Foundation and was organized and lead by Loyola Marymount Univeristy and the UCLA Asia Institute, two California National Consortium for Teaching about Asia (NCTA) sites. NCTA is a US-based institution that encourages teaching and learning about Asia through seminars for teachers hosted by universities and summer study tours to Asia.

Our tour started in the capital, Beijing, home of the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square and over 10 million people. For our first week we were ensconced in the campus of Beijing University. “Beida,” as China’s premier university is called is called, is where the best and the brightest Chinese find themselves after an arduous process of exams. Inside its walls you’ll find a comparatively quiet space where students who are often housed eight to a room continue to compete for space in the library or cafeterias. I took my jet-lagged walks around the campus lake only to find students already up at dawn reciting English aloud or listening to news broadcasts on the radio. I got the impression early on that there were not many slackers in China.

This observation extended outside the walls of Beida where you’re met by a cacophony of sounds and a whole lot of people. An army of construction/destruction workers are up just as early or working just as late as any Beida student. Their tasks are no less challenging: removing the decaying houses almost brick by brick to make room for the modern 40-story skyscrapers. Tucked away in other corners of the city are small parks where morning, noon and night you witness the population at “rest”. There is a ballroom dance group in one open area, a grandfather and son doing soccer drills in another, a retired couple playing badminton and countless others doing Taiqiquan (Tai Chi) exercises.

The task of transporting millions of people is accomplished by a constant flow of buses and taxis whose horns seem to never stop. The horns are more often to warn someone you, the driver, are going to make a ridiculous move into on-coming traffic and only rarely used to admonish someone’s similar reckless driving. When the coal black cloud of exhaust from the last bus lifts and you are confronted with the most popular mode of transport: pedal power. Uniformed students, business suits and grandmas all pedal past you. You meanwhile are trying to make your way through the most populous country in the world and you quickly get used to being bumped into. Whether you find yourself praying in a Buddhist temple, eating Peking Duck or drinking Starbucks in the Forbidden City, there is always someone next to you. And if it is any of Beijing’s popular tourist spots they more likely than not have postcards, Rolex or a DVD to sell you too.

So maybe this is not really China but just Beijing, which needless to say is a major city of millions. What about the rest of the country? We boarded China Eastern Airlines and headed to Dunhuang on the western edge of Gansu Province to find out. We were now closer to Moscow than to Beijing. We have left a bustling city and find ourselves on the edge of the Gobi Desert and at the end of the Silk Road. This corner of China features a crisp blue sky, a shadowy desert, and a lively night market. We toured the Mogao Caves, sanctuaries of Buddhist art that combine towering Buddhas with intricately detailed murals that give some window into life in this outpost a thousand years ago. Whether you are a religious scholar or not, a giant Buddha is impressive. The gouged faces and desecrated art also remind us of more recent and much more violent revolutionary history. And of course who could come to the Silk Road and not take a camel ride or go sand surfing?

After this glimpse of Western China our tour continued on to Xi'an where we visited the famous terracotta soldiers. Dug up accidentally by a farmer looking for a well this army of individually carved statues are often considered one of the eight wonders of the world. From Xi'an we doubled back to southwest China and Yunnan province on the doorstep of Tibet. The faces and wardrobe had changed as we found ourselves suddenly walking the cobbled streets of Old Town Lijiang. We climbed up to a Tibetan Monastery and crisscrossed the Tiger Leaping Gorge before one more flight brought us back to the future: Shanghai.

A modern, sprawling city of department stores, huge hotels and millions of people seemingly in constant movement. Once again we were thrown into a sea of bodies and bombarded by the sounds of progress. Shanghai, where the west has met the east for so much of modern history, offers a peak into the future of China. It was an appropriate place for us to leave China and begin to reflect on all that we had seen during our tour.

There are so many faces of China that stick out in my mind: the eager children in the classrooms, the tireless construction workers, the proud Naxi minority, the helpful smiles in all our hotels. How best to describe China to my kids back at school? Maybe that is what China really is? So many different faces and so many different places. While there may be a One China Policy I know I will never again be able to think of this country as just one China again.

Actually for me three weeks in China was not enough, so I decided to stay. I now teach and live in Shanghai looking for more of the faces of China.

Greg Adler can be reached at

You can see photos from the trip at: Jonathan Weil and Robin Wang of LMU and Clayton Dube of the UCLA Asia Institute served as trip leaders.

For resources to aid in teaching about Asia, please visit the Asia Institute's "Asia in the K-12 Curriculum" website.

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