Different faces, same Chinese Dream[Special]
I was a bit nervous about attending the Capital Literary Festival Beijing as I thought the panel discussion for the anthology Unsavory Elements would be a bit dry and hosted by old-China hands.
I was surprised, then, to find most of them were relatively young and had begun their friendship with China as teenagers.
For instance, American author Kaitlin Solimine walked into the venue with an old Chinese man.
I later learned 72-year-old Chen Guanmiao was Solimine's Chinese godfather, whom she home-stayed with during her first visit to China in 1996.
The bond between the American and the Chen family is intense and she has stayed with the family every year since 1996.
Chen sat in the second row, smiling, though a bit nervous when Solimine read onstage about her China experience.
Most of those attending the one-hour launch and panel discussion of Unsavory Elements were foreigners.
Five writers read excerpts from their stories, in English, while everyone gathered had a good laugh at their experiences, such as buying a huge assignment of T-shirts that were too small.
For Matthew Polly, author of American Shaolin, who learned kung fu at the Shaolin Temple in 1992, he has successfully maintained his kung fu skills as well as Mandarin.
"When I first visited, all my knowledge of Shaolin Temple was based on US TV shows made by Hollywood writers who had never been to China."
"They (the monks) pour you tea and say, 'Drink one'. And I say, 'No sir, you drink first.' And they will say, 'Wow! This foreigner understands politeness!'"
It turned out that he was welcomed by the monks but had to pay the "foreigner tuition price" of $1,300 per month, which forced him to sell T-shirts to make money.
"I visited the temple again in 2003," he says. "Tourism has changed it, obviously. And there are more kung fu schools teaching foreigners," he says, adding that people are much better off and clearly had no problem finding enough to eat, as was the case previously.
Most stories in the anthology derive from 10 or even 20 years ago.
"How does their experience a decade ago help today's expats understand the country?" I asked.
"Foreign people coming to China is a timeless adventure," Tom Carter, editor of Unsavory Elements, answers. "There are certain things that foreigners in China will always be interested in. And as we wrote in the introduction to the book, in China, as more things change, the more they stay the same.
"So learning kung fu at Shaolin, it's more touristy now. But if you want to learn, you still have to hike up Songshan Mountain and find a kung fu school, just like Matthew Polly's experience two decades ago. That is just one of the features that is still timeless in China."
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