The news coming out of the US during the past year seemed dominated by reports of gas prices, presidential politics and financial turmoil. I know there is so much that I probably didn't catch, but at some point along the way I had to accept I couldn't keep struggling to remain connected to the US through every headline or pop culture news item.
And I had enough to keep up with over here. There are years in people's lives that will always stand out in their own personal histories. I think all Americans will pause on the year 2001 when they are retelling the story of their lives, and share where they were and what their life was like then. Now, in the final days of December, I am sure that 2008 will be that year for most Chinese--certainly from what I've seen in the lives of my students and friends.
To recap--this has been the progression of the past year from over here (dates are based on my unofficial memory):
Jan/Feb--The worst winter in 50 years shuts down much of the country. Thousands are stranded in train stations during China's largest holiday of the year (and in a country where the major forms of transportation are train and bus and large migrant populations only get one time a year to go home and see their families--this is more significant than what you'd imagine in the US). (I was in SE Asia and decided to stay on the beach until the trains were running again!)
Feb/Mar--a situation of unrest occurs in a Western province (I must answer the question "Why does the American media, like CNN and NY Times, lie?")
Mar/Apr--The international reaction to that situation affects the Olympic torch relay and spurs rising frustration/nationalism among the Chinese people. (I learn to say "I am not French.")
Apr/May--a tragic train crash kills/injures hundreds near Qingdao (my travel plans are changed when my train to Qingdao is canceled)
May--The Sichuan earthquake brings devastation and sadness to everyone here in China
May/June--The responses of support/relief in China is overwhelming and bonds many together
July--Mass flooding in the South of China
Aug--the 2008 Olympics have a successful run in Beijing. China wins the overall gold medal count to the pride of the Chinese people. (Every question asked to a foreigner for the next two months begins with "Did you see the Olympics?")
Sept/Oct/Nov--The tainted/poison milk scandal affects nearly everyone--To a nation with a one child policy, contaminating baby formula for cheap gains is a low blow. (Fear hits me personally only when I learn it's reached the chocolate makers!)
Oct/Nov/Dec--Worldwide financial crisis hits Chinese investments/factories/lives (Maybe I'll stay abroad until I have good credit again--see ya in 7 years!)
I don't know if I can convey to you how personal these stories are to my students--even if these events didn't cause any actual changes in their personal lives. Sure, in America, we get annoyed when other countries pronounce their opinion of America's action, and sure, we have plenty of Olympic spirit every 2 years, and sure, we're all worried about finances too---but I don't think I've seen the level of personal/emotional devotion to patriotism the way that it exists over here. It is personal. A critique of China is taken as a critique of each of them, individually. It's been interesting to observe.
The earthquake hit everyone hard--as all natural disasters do. It was heartbreaking. In the days following, I began our classroom discussion by just asking how everyone was doing, how they were holding up. The air had that hush that occurs after great tragedies--we remember that quiet in America the week after 9/11 and Katrina. Nobody feels like they can or should laugh aloud. I never knew what to say so I turned to Mister Rogers for his words--and somehow that story helped us to cry a little together over the sadness of it all. We did what Mister Rogers told us to do--and we talked about the helpers. The post-80's generation came together in response to this earthquake--with hundreds and thousands of young people appearing in Wenchuan for cleanup and repair and countless students donating so much blood and money that they quit taking it. This is a generation once accused of laziness and selfishness--but they are now applauded for their response.
And after those low lows came the highs of the Olympics and the national pride that came with it. Beijing put on quite a show and the thrill is something my students still talk about. Many laugh that watching the Opening Ceremonies was better than all their Spring Festivals combined--and that that night was the first time they stayed awake that late. Though they are all 18-20 years old, they remind me of when I was 12 watching our female gymnasts in Atlanta. It's just fun.
And now we're all watching the financial crisis on all sides of all oceans. Sorry China, this one is our fault (errr....as in....the Americans'). I don't know if my students have parents who are affected--but it's something to watch. We're all in this one together.
I'm amazed to think that I have been here in China for most of this roller coaster historic year. It all hit home to me during one of the Christmas parties with my students. A student told me, "This has been a very colorful and big year in China--and you were our only foreigner we knew during the year. I think we will remember that."
There have been difficult questions in the past year. What is the difference between nationalism and patriotism? Who should be blamed after natural disasters initiate mass damage? What is the proper response as a citizen to corruption? How can we keep cultures unique and special and still accept globalization? The list goes on and on...
Some of these questions were mine and some were my students. It's been quite a year. It's too early for me to blog about how this year has changed me or changed China (as if I'd really know) or changed anything... for now I am just recapping for blog posterity the year of 2008. From here...in China. See you next year.
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