It's hard to believe it's been more than a week already since our ship landed in Tianjin. One does not exactly take China by storm so much as China fully takes you. I have to admit, coming to Beijing was not at the top of my very long mental destination list before I set out on this trip -- but I am so very thankful to be here (all consuming food poisoning incedent and all). It seems impossible to sum up what we've seen so far into a bite sized first impression paragraph -- but I guess that's the jist of it right there - it's the sheer unconceivable enormity of it all.
In three adjectives, I would say that China feels incredibly raw, alive, and of a level of granduer for which there is no scale. As for the first two, they're more of feelings than describable sites or sounds or smells. China does not put on aires so to speak. There is no sensation that one is not seeing the country and its people for what they are. Somehow it simultaneously feels like a completely different world and yet very much like one I know well. Much more so than any other city I've visited abroad, Beijing has to feeling of the poorer sections of huge American cities like New York to me. It's the sensation that you are walking through it like a shadow unnoticed. There are no cars that will slow for your crossing, no people who will acknowledge your presence in que or your concept of personal space on a train, no bycicles that will share the sidewalk with you. Before coming many other travellers warned us that China would be incredibly rude and harsh to our senses. But there's something in it, maybe because I've been living in the south and missing the northeast for too long, that I find quite comforting.
On a whole though, my first impressions have been most shaped by the breathtaking magnitude of it all. It's not just the size of the country (Beijing alone is roughly the size of Belgium I've read) or the hugeness and diversity of its population that makes me say this. It's the whole picture - it is a country whose "modern history" chapter begins in the 1500s; it is a vast land with an all consuming concentration of power that reaches every pocket of the country and exists even to this day (isn't it difficult to imagine in a country of this size that there could still be someone out there monitoring what I write in this very blog and sheilding its populous from corrupting media outlets like the BBC?); it is a land covered with temples, palaces, and various public works projects of uncountered proportion and scale which have been standing for longer than many countries have even existed; it is the fact that there are 1500 dialects spoken by just one of China's ethnic groups (there are 54 additional ethnic minorities, each with their own myriad of dialects); it is the breadth and rapidity of the country's economic progress over the past two decades; it is all of this and so much more that weighs on the outsider with this feeling of hugeness. It's a country that has always had, and continues to have, a grand vision. And more importantly, the ability to make those visions come true. It is truely awe-inspiring.