By David Cole
I am not a student of language, nor am I particularly adept at comprehending or learning foreign languages. I am, however, an ardent student of culture and art. It was through a humanities-based fellowship at the University of Kentucky that I was introduced to our Confucius Institute and the opportunity to undertake a learning experience in Shanghai, Xi’an, and Beijing.
As an American, my knowledge of Chinese art and literature is woefully underdeveloped. For years I have been exposed to the stories of the great masters in the European and American traditions, but never have I encountered Chinese writing outside of Wu Cheng’en’s Journey to the West. I understand that this is akin to someone being unfamiliar with European writing outside of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and am thankful that I’ve been able to begin remedying my situation. During my visit to China, I was introduced to the work of Lu Xun and Bei Dao, writers I am looking forward to pursuing study of as I seek to improve my literacy of writers and poets outside of the American canon.
Though this brief foray into the incredibly deep cultural pool that is Chinese literature stands out as a course to follow in my coming days, I must also give credence to the ways in which the trip shaped me during its course.
I had never been outside of my home country before traveling to China but had long harbored dreams of globetrotting. Arriving in China was tiring and I was completely awash in culture shock. I’d expected differences, of course, but being on the opposite side of the globe opened my eyes to not just the range of differences between Chinese culture and my own, but the striking similarities.
Those similarities came, without fail, through my interactions with people.
An astonishing number of people I interacted with in China proved positive in their spirit and livelihood. Never have I found myself surrounded by people who I couldn’t verbally understand, but wholeheartedly felt a connection towards.
Here is an anecdote to prove my point:
When my group made it to the City Wall in Xi’an, many people were excited by the chance to ride around its perimeter on bikes. However, I come from an area in which biking is uncommon due to the terrain, therefore, I had never learned to ride one myself. Feeling adventurous, I rented one anyway and received some beginner’s tips from two of my fellows. However, when they took off on their own and I was left to stutter about on my bike as if I were a toddler. As I experienced this embarrassment, a Chinese family of four approached me and began to demonstrate to me, through gestures and sound effects, the proper way to ride. My trouble continued, but their kindness was powerful. In time, another couple joined us and I found myself surrounded by six locals all trying to teach me how this whole biking thing worked.
I still don’t know how to ride a bike, but that period of time atop the old wall in Xi’an gave me something more valuable than a timeless skill: a true sense of the universal nature of humanity. I could not previously imagine the strength of human kinship, even in the face of a daunting language barrier, before the Confucius Institute sent me to China. For the opportunity to witness firsthand the indomitable strength of personal bonds across cultures, I am certainly indebted and immensely thankful.