Our trip started in Changsha, capital city of Hunan province. I could not wait to explore this city when we arrived in the airport.
Anticipating the Unknown
How much do I know about Hunan?
I love their food, spicy and homey. The most common staples are turned into delicious home-made dishes. And that’s what I call real good cooking, not the type of cooking with expensive materials like lobsters, shark fins or abalone.
Hunan food is like an unassuming person that knocks your socks off with extraordinary performance or a woman that does not have much makeup on and yet can talk stuff that amazes you.
Additionally, for those that are into the recent history of China, Mao Zedong was born in Hunan. As a controversial figure, he lead the communist to take over the whole country in 1949. For many years that follow, China and its people experienced endless political turmoil, including the 10-year long cultural revolution. In many people’s opinion, he’s one of those that contributed to the country’s stalled (if not retracted) development and the agony in Chinese people’s lives. (For a more complete account of Mao Zedong’s life, please visit http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mao_Zedong).
Furthermore, one of Hunan’s famous archaeological discoveries is the Tomb of the Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220) at Mawandui, and its well-preserved female mummy from 2,100 years ago. Can you believe her joints were still flexible when freshly out of the tomb?
Oh, and in terms of its culture, Hunan embroidery is one of the major export products of the province.
All these scattered information, unfortunately, was not helpful in putting together a reasonable expectation before I hit Changsha. After all, most of what I know about Hunan was history. And, after all, I have been told over and over, how much change China is going through…
We did not waste time after checking into our 5-start hotel, Plaza Royale Furongguo Hotel. With a map in hand, we headed out to a major street in front of the hotel towards the Xiangjiang River. Xiangjiang is the largest river in Hunan; one that I’ve only heard in songs and seen in articles.
Excited at the opportunity to experience the city first-hand, I kept turning my head, eyes wide open. What I did not know at the time was that, I was going to re-live, in a city other than my home town, the reminiscence of my childhood.
I exhilarated at the roasted yam and peanut carried by a cart. The candies and many other snacks being sold in the playground after school came back to memory.
I beamed when my eyes met the old buildings, and the clothes being hung high up in the yard. I remembered the days when we had to rush home to take in the clothes at the imminent threat of a rain; or the days when the sun finally came out and every one in the community put the mattress out to take out the moisture in the filling.
I realized it’s not just the way life used to be that’s familiar. It’s the spirit of life. It’s how people take time to live their lives that resonated with what I had somewhere in my memory.
It’s the people sitting at leisure, waiting for their tea to arrive, at less than $0.50 each…
It’s the ones gathering by Xiangjiang River, playing poker, watching free Peking opera, or being watched playing their instruments…
When all this leisure and time-has-left-us is in the air, I did notice the skyscrapers inching in to the old buildings. The (“to be torn down”) marks on the discolored walls tell a looming end to them.
Modern Development – To be, or Not to Be
We were later told that the residents in those old buildings were going to be moved into modern structures. I remembered the time when my great uncle’s family was moved out of their house in Shanghai more than ten years ago.
Back then, at the age when I could not wait to welcome modern development with open arms (in fact, I went the extreme and came to the US to pursue the modern life-style), I was happy for them. I had in mind the convenience of modern amenities that we’d been accustomed to in the US.
I was happy that they did not have to cram with many other households in one building that’s meant for one family anymore, with no privacy, and climbing up and down squeaky stairs every day. I was happy that they would not have to share the kitchen with others at meal time anymore. I was happy that they did not have to leave the house to use public restrooms anymore. And, I was particularly happy that they would finally have their own shower, heated water, A/C unit, kitchen, and most importantly, privacy.
And yet, my great uncle was not happy. They were sad, at the thought of leaving the neighbors that they’d shared their lifetime with.
Now, sixteen years after I left China, my life does not have to revolve around things like when the rain is coming anymore. And with everything moving at the speed of microwave oven, or wireless internet, or a blackberry/PDA, I find myself seeking out what I had left behind sixteen years ago. I start to understand my great uncle a little better…
I have to admit that I can not deny and truly value the modern convenience. And yet, I wish I’m wise enough to tell when modern development and tradition retention are in good balance.
While it is a large subject, the question that I have to face is that with the old buildings being torn down and people moved out, how much of what I saw today will remain in Changsha and where do I go next to find my childhood memory?