BEIJING, China—In a province that most people would never be able to point out on a map, eight of us Harvard juniors sit quietly, draped over a separate piece of rosewood furniture in the hotel room. It’s the fifth mandatory reflection session of our trip, a nightly ritual the administration created in hopes of broadening our understanding of China by probing us with pseudo-profound, dead-end questions (My personal favorite: What is China?). Every one of these meetings passes in uncomfortable silence. After all, what is there left to say and share when you’ve spent every waking hour of the past week with the same group of people?
Perhaps they’re recollecting how the week began, with us fifty Harvard students speeding through the Chinese wilderness, locked in train cabins playing mafia and poker to pass the hours as we trek from Beijing to Shanghai to Xi’an. We catch first glimpses of the sleepy city of Yan’an, once capitol of the Chinese Communist Party, after traveling hours more in a bus through dusty roads. There, we inhabit a local university hotel with rooms carved into the mountainside, where we stay up bonding with friends on the terrace under a rare sliver of unpolluted night sky, illuminated the unfamiliar presence of constellations. Nights generally pass peacefully, punctuated only when a giant insect invades a room and the entire floor bands together to gallantly save one of our own from the flying assailant.
Some may be trying to recall all the dishes of our extravagant twenty-course meals the government officials insist on presenting us with, where dishes move on and off the Lazy Susan so fast you don’t even have time to try and catch them between your chopsticks. During one particular formal welcome dinner with provincial officials, digital cameras immortalized the looks of pure shock on everyone’s faces when they open their gifts from the Yan’an government to find their doppelganger faces staring up at them, etched with ink onto the side of traditional Chinese waist drums. The next day, we spend two hours in the dry sun, jumping and contorting our bodies in an effort to mimic the movements of the professionals the government sent to teach us how to play those drums.
Others may be trying to relive the morning eager students bombarded us in a junior high school hallway, shoving notebooks and markers in our path, wanting to collect as many autographs from these Harvard foreigners. We emerge from the chaos a little shaken but we strut back on the bus like celebrities. That detour, though, meant that our driver had to speed through narrow unpaved mountain terrain in order to reach our next destination, even though he came harrowingly close to tipping our bus over a cliff and into the rushing Yellow River to do so.
We may also be reliving the experience of visiting the former cave dwellings of Party leaders, including Mao’s, a secular pilgrimage for party fanatics. We were led by a group of elementary school students who insisted on presenting us with several separate renditions of the unofficial communist anthem, “The East is Red”. I enjoy it almost as much as I enjoy listening to my own comrades singing “Tong Hua”, the Chinese equivalent of “Don’t Stop Believing”, in the back of the bus to pass the tedious intermissions made up of traveling between these sites.
Monday morning, back in Beijing, I am once again trapped the three-wall prison cell of my cubicle. However, my monotony is finally interrupted when a slew of emails flood my inbox from friends forged over the course of this trip, and we finally begin our real, organic reflections, no profound questions necessary.
Anna M. Yeung ’12, a Crimson magazine writer, is a social studies concentrator in Winthrop House.