Up until this moment, there have been two major movements in my life. Before college, my life was one of passive observance. Same school for thirteen years, a life in and of Atlanta, in and of the South. Yet, my movement to New York felt more like a homecoming than a push for exploration. The things I found in New York were different than that in Atlanta. In the South, I defined myself on the basis of difference—as did everyone. When you know the same people for the same 13 years, all of the core structures of your identity are the same, and it is the outer imagined differences that you need to exaggerate in order to be unique.
In New York, it is with your similarities that you bond. I searched for the ways that people, even though they were so different, shared similarities with me. Not in upbringing or worldview, but in feeling, in exploration and in some sort of innate, academic feeling of sameness.
Moving to Shanghai, on the other hand, was sort of a vacation from the home-place. If New York was the beginning of the rest of my life, Shanghai was a purposeful detour. This put a unique pressure on experience that didn’t exist in New York. I do not seek to find myself in China. I seek to find China in China. I seek to find the parts of China that I love, the parts that are beautiful and the parts that are alien. How can I experience China for China and not China for me?
I arrived a week before the semester started and stayed with my old roommate Patrick for a week, as he had come to Atlanta to visit me last year. He spent the week showing me his home city, Jinan, and I spent the week trying to visualize my future in this place which was not mine. Not in the way New York was.
One Sunday, we climbed the Thousand Buddha Mountain, a mountain housing a variety of temples and, as you can guess, over a thousand Buddha statues. At the top, the landscape of the mountains captivated me more than anything in the US ever had. Different from the mountaintop views of Appalachia, which, because of the underbrush, only served to provide narrow views of the landscape, windows out of the trees and bushes to short yet broad mountains, the Chinese mountaintop provided a full view of the entirety of surrounding China. Hundreds of small mountains laid in every direction, and for a moment, you believe that China is the entire world. That the pattern of the mountains, almost structured, extended forever, building upon the one that you just climbed, and they all look the same.
Yet, as I stood at the top of Thousand Buddha Mountain and breathed in the air that, for the first time since I got to china, didn’t have the faint hints of cigarettes and gasoline, I couldn’t quite concentrate because there at the summit was a giant table of souvenirs, and several sellers with bullhorns. They yelled constantly, trying to get people to buy small red ribbons or other cheap, plastic replicas of Buddha or small golden cats whose arms swayed up and down endlessly. Their tables took over every part of the summit which was flat, leaving the viewers to hobble along the sides, trying to take pictures around one another without toppling into the underbrush below.
On the summit, there was a moment where I wondered what it is I should be experiencing. The view was beautiful, but was it China? We had views in the US, and while they were not the exact same, powerful landscape views existed all over the world. And I thought, maybe it’s not the landscape that was China, but the sellers. The loud booming of a megaphone and plastic Buddhas made 50,000 at a time.
So I bought something.