Chinatown, an Amazing Experience, and a Flaw in My High School Education

 

Every Saturday evening, my mom and her band partner would travel to the fanciest restaurant in town to play jazz music for the diners. In exchange, the restaurant owner provided dinner for the two of them. Unfortunately, this left my twin sister, dad, and myself to fend for ourselves once a week for dinner. Sometimes my dad would heat up some leftovers or throw a frozen pizza in the oven, but often we would end up venturing into town out of pure convenience. Despite all its advantages, living in a three-stoplight town with five thousand people means that dining options are limited. There isn’t too much to choose from besides the ubiquitous fast food trio: McDonalds, Pizza Hut, and Subway. Often, the three of us would find ourselves stopping at “Chinatown.” Much like the décor of the entire restaurant, the sign was of minimalistic design, consisting of red and yellow block letters that blandly announced the name. Inside, a series of tables and sticky faux-leather booths encircled a single line of dishes. Heat lamps cast a harsh yellow light on the food. I found that it was better not to consider how the food was reheated or how long it had been sitting on the table. “Chinatown” was simple and unimpressive, but my family and I enjoyed it enough to visit every few weeks.

That restaurant in my hometown represented the extent to which I knew about China (although I would soon discover that the food was not authentic at all). Since visiting China, I have begun to realize how unaware I was of the country and its significance during the first eighteen years of my life. I rarely cast a thought to the vast and complicated population, economy, government, and culture on the other side of the globe. From the effects of increased Chinese demand for beef (I live on a cattle ranch) to the prevalence of low cost manufactured goods, I also had no idea how much China influenced me every day. I was oblivious to my own ignorance.

School did not help eliminate my ignorance, and in hindsight I have some concerns with the material taught at my high school. The last time I remember learning anything related to China was in middle school, when we completed a brief unit on the terra cotta soldiers. That lesson was less about China and more of a quick overview of notable sites from around the world. I now realize that I have learned about pre-1865 United States history during three different classes. I believe that this is an important period for students to learn about, but covering the same material three times is redundant and a waste of time. My high school offered a single world history class that all juniors took. In hindsight, this was not really a “world” history class at all. We only learned about European history, and only up to the Industrial Revolution.

After visiting China, I now recognize how much my history classes skipped over or never even covered. I would argue that a thorough understanding of recent history is invaluable knowledge that can be exercised daily to better understand the world. In less than one hundred years, China has undergone a complete transformation. It has changed from an impoverished, predominantly agricultural country to one with highly developed, technologically advanced hubs of commerce and production. China’s rapid growth is not only economic, but also political and social. Recent changes by China’s leadership has put the United States and other world powers on edge. A new culture of innovation and capitalism seems to be emerging from a once strictly communist society. The United States must constantly address a myriad of issues that arise in the complicated relationship with China.

After landing in Beijing, I had one number stuck in my head. Twenty-two million. The population was surprising for those in my group from major U.S. cities, so it was especially shocking for a ranch kid whose nearest neighbors live two miles away. I quickly learned that yielding to pedestrians isn’t a thing in China and when someone honks, you better get out of the way. I was also unnerved to see security cameras hanging from every street corner. There was no place in the city to get out of sight—from human or electronic eyes.

My first night with a host family quickly showed me that there is a lot more to Chinese culture than the huge population. My host families taught me new manners, customs, and traditions. Throughout the two-week trip, my chopstick skills transformed from lacking to moderately proficient. Perhaps my most memorable experience came in Chengdu. My host sibling and a friend brought me to park at the center of the city. I sipped green tea while attempting to learn the thousands of years old game of Mahjong. Almost every table at the park hosted a group of Mahjong enthusiasts. I cherish this experience because it was so genuine and traditional.

The trip to China not only exposed us to a new culture, but also to vastly different political and government landscapes. Of the little information that I had gleaned from U.S. news sources prior to the trip, I somewhat grasped my country’s views on U.S.-China relations. A meeting with several officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs introduced me to China’s official perspectives on matters such as Taiwan, tariffs, and the South China Sea. It is a very powerful experience to have candid and open discussion about contentious issues with someone who has fundamentally different opinions. Near the end of the trip, my group met with diplomats from the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu. In that setting, I would learn the U.S.’s official stance on the same issues. Both meetings were enlightening because they offered two very different viewpoints, but also the hope of understanding and compromise.

My time in China left me with countless memories that I will not forget. Through photos and stories, I have enjoyed sharing my experiences with friends and family. However, my trip has left me with a much greater responsibility. I am humbled to have witnessed a country that I was but faintly aware of before this experience, but I realize that there are many people in my pre-trip shoes; China is just a dot on the map for them, another name that gets forgotten in the daily rush of school, news, and debate. Yet China does and will continue to affect the United States in all aspects. As current issues fade from the news cycle, new ones will pop up such as the One Belt, One Road initiative and Chinese environmental concerns. I want my family, peers, teachers, administrators, and fellow citizens to understand the importance of a well-rounded, global perspective. In a globalized, interconnected world, Politics on the other side of the world are arguably as relevant as those that occur within our borders. As I have discovered, poor quality Chinese food is not sufficient to understand the multifaceted characteristics of a country that influences us in so many ways.

Rhett Pimentel is 2018 U.S. Presidential Scholar from Wyoming.  He is currently a freshman at Michigan State University.

2018 Student Leaders Exchange

The 2018 SLE took place July 7-25, including a three-day, informative pre-departure orientation outside of San Francisco. The itinerary included stops in Beijing, Guizhou Province (Guiyang), and Sichuan Province (Chengdu). 

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