Why I love—and hate—mainland China

Nov 13, 2018

I’ll be the first to admit that my relationship with mainland China is complicated. As someone with Taiwanese heritage, I grew up with strong biases against the mainland. Most kids of my background do.

But then in college, I studied abroad in Shanghai and fell in love with the bluntness of the people there and the allures of the Chinese countryside. People in Taiwan—while saccharinely nice—can be stiff and calculative in how they communicate. People in the mainland—at the least the ones I like—tend to be straight shooters, often erring on the side of rudeness.

As an American, I find myself more comfortable with the latter.

Of course, these are just observations based on my own limited exposure of both places. My conclusions are not definitive or scientifically sound. I can only write about what I’ve seen and what is revealed to me as a young woman who looks Chinese.

Porcelain bowls in Jingdezhen.
Porcelain bowls in Jingdezhen. / Photo: Clarissa Wei

Within the last five years, I’ve been to more mainland Chinese provinces—18—than I have American states, and I’ve inadvertently spent more time in China than I ever intended. I come in and out, often departing abruptly and leaving very angry at the country.

Yet I always find myself back there again and again, drawn by some obscure story, artisan, maker, or chef.

I hate the crowds, the spitting, the acrid smell of the toilets that follows you everywhere you go, the lack of personal boundaries.

I hate how waitresses don’t even attempt to mask their misery, the random security checks, the yelling, the weird intersection of lawlessness and authoritarianism, the censors, the patriarchy.

A crowded subway station in Beijing.
A crowded subway station in Beijing. / Photo: Shutterstock

I know a lot of these are symptoms of a country that has been through a lot. The older folks have been traumatized, I’ve been told, and they push because back in the day, if they didn’t, they wouldn’t have gotten their food rations. They don’t line up because, “Our population is vast,” a security guard once told me at a train station. “How can we even enforce lines?”

Traveling China is exhausting. It is constant sensory overload, and eventually, you drown in an ocean of people and forget who you are and what you’re doing here. So you leave in frustration, as I have done over and over again.

A train station in Shanghai.
A train station in Shanghai. / Photo: Clarissa Wei

Yet there’s a beauty to the chaos. I love squatting in a village corner with countryside men and women whose Mandarin is just as accented as mine, eating pumpkin seeds and drinking tea. For most people in China, Mandarin is actually a second language, learned in school and enforced in the public-facing side of society. Inside alleyways and homes, you’ll hear hundreds of different tongues.

I dig the spontaneity. Once, Jenny Yang and I wondered aloud in Chinese why the food in Wuxi on the east coast was so sweet. And there, in a small Wuxi grocery store, a bunch of old grannies gathered around us and started debating the origins of the provincial cuisine.

Hiking in Gansu.
Hiking in Gansu. / Photo: Clarissa Wei

I love the edges of China. Xinjiang is especially beautiful—the aridness of China’s northwestern frontier reminds me of the best of Nevada. Once in Urumqi, the capital, a young Uighur man obsessed with American hip-hop picked up me and my friends from a street corner and gave us the most wonderful tour of the surrounding mountains in exchange for a glimpse of what it’s like to hang out with Americans.

But Yunnan in China’s southwest is my all-time favorite province for its rich diversity in plants, animals, food, and people.

Preparing tea in Yunnan.
Preparing tea in Yunnan. / Photo: Clarissa Wei

I love the traditions, the tribes who are still making their own indigo-dyed garments, the people who produce liquor in ancient pits, and the farmers who still retain knowledge of medicinal and edible plants. I just wrapped up a shoot in Jingdezhen, where I found people still making clay with water-powered mills and porcelain bowls with only their hands and with so much heart.

Spinning clay in Jingdezhen.
Spinning clay in Jingdezhen. / Photo: Clarissa Wei

But then I get angry when I see the encroachment of greed under the guise of development, when I see deep-rooted establishments—both physical and conceptual—torn down for the sake of progress. The people who protest are silenced or jailed to maintain a veil of order.

The silver lining: at least some of these traditions remain alive and well. In the States, you’d be hard-pressed to find nomads who still weave tents out of yak hair like they do in Sichuan, or grannies who weave shoes out of rattan like in Yunnan, or men who can find water in sand dunes by looking at the way the land slopes in Inner Mongolia.

You can see now why I oscillate so quickly between love and hate for this place. China is both extraordinarily old and extraordinarily new. It is the cause of my frustration and fascination. My way of processing this experience is by telling stories, and I hope that through these stories, you, the reader, can gain a more nuanced perspective of China and learn with us as we continue to grow.

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