China via Baltimore and the Jersey Shore

Depth of culture, a rich history, an evolving and organic language, vast scenic landscapes, delicious food — China. Opacity, corruption, economic inequality, pollution, terrible drivers — my heart yearns for both ends of the spectrum.

These are some of the base expectations of my travel to China, from a very vague and external view of a deep-rooted nation. A B.A. in Asian studies and History pulls me toward Chinese culture and language so I have been learning Chinese for the past two years, three months of that being in Taiwan.

Having experienced life in Taiwan, I have not visited the mainland yet. Through my travels this summer the goal is to learn about life in China, rural and urban. I imagine myself sitting on a crowded street corner at 2am eating beef noodle soup. The noodles are hand-made directly in front of you (everything must be made in front of you, don’t trust anything else). Cars are zooming to and fro and I’m blissfully enjoying my post-midnight meal, but not alone. My girlfriend sits next to me, sharing my enjoyment of this delicious morning treat.

My girlfriend Robbin is an ethnic Malaysian who speaks Cantonese. She’s a brilliant scholar with a knack for detail and analysis and is well known in the art history field at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC). Her work ethic surpasses many others, but there is something her intellect can’t help her with: her tan.

A big difference between Chinese and American cultures is the color of one’s skin. In Eastern Asia a pale woman is considered far more beautiful than a darker one. Dark-skinned women traditionally work in fields, are rugged and unkempt. Pale women on the other hand spend their time indoors, pampering and taking care of themselves. So after we took our first flight from Baltimore to New York (where we had a one day layover), met with my cousin Ilya, and traveled to Point Pleasant on the New Jersey Shore, she was in trouble.

The Jersey shore is a bizarre place. It’s like an extreme example of a microcosm of American culture. Women with pounds of make-up, men with muscles larger than their heads, people spending more money than they should on junk food, alcohol, and entertainment, men feigning interest in women for pleasure, and women feigning interest in men for the same reason, it’s a vicious cycle; however, there’s pleasure to be found in getting a bucket of Coronas and laying out on the beach. We couldn’t ask for a more truly American experience before we left.

Japanese food was on the menu.
Japanese food was on the menu.

Once we had our fill of muscles, alcohol, waffles with ice cream, and fried boardwalk food we left for Ilya’s home and a traditional Russian dinner because no visit to a Russian home is complete without a table full of food and family. Traditional culture intertwined with the modern.

It happened to be my little cousin’s birthday tomorrow and more people were gathered at the table than a usual family dinner. We delved into conversation of China and my plans once I get there. I told them about my recent graduation from University of Maryland Baltimore County with a degree in Asian studies and completing the TESOL (Teaching English as a Second Language) certification. I want to research the English teaching environment in China and informed them of the five-week intensive Chinese course Robbin and I would both be taking beginning in July. Afterward we toasted for our safe travels – nothing is complete at a Russian dinner without a toast.

Now as Robbin and I sit over the Pacific Ocean, we relax knowing we have the confidence of six drunk Russians supporting us. This new chapter in our life is opening and our adventure is just beginning to be written.