In addition to sightseeing in Beijing and Shanghai, getting a Chinese body massage is a must! Including the elements of aromatherapy, chirotherapy, and cupping, and with prices of only $20 USD for an hour or about $30 USD for two hours, this massage is a real bargain. The masseuses’ skills are quite impressive as well – only after a few minutes of massaging one’s body, they are able to identify areas with the most pain and spend most of the remaining time working those areas.
Massage salons in large cities in China tailored towards a Western customer. Even though most of the workers there do not speak English, they have Sino – English (and I am sure Sino – any other language) translation phone applications. Quite often, massage salon customers tend to see on masseuses’ phone screens the Chinese translation of the following phrase: “Your shoulders [or any other part of your back] are not good, you need some cupping.” At the same time, when asked how to get to a restroom, salon workers are able to give the directions only after seeing a miming gesture of one washing his hands. Not surprisingly, masseuses are quite familiar with the notion of tipping, even though it is not a common practice in China. Even though there is no mention of tips anywhere, masseuses tend to wait for one right at the exit, hoping to get some extra cash for their hard work.
And the work is hard. Their work day starts around 11 am and ends at 2 am. They work seven days a week. Despite such demanding working conditions, happy and smiling faces of these migrant workers do not show even signs of exhaustion to their customers. They are eager, however, to share their stories by using their colleagues who speak English. Rosy (using a pseudonym), for instance, is only 25 and already has two children. She moved to Shanghai in a search of a job. Luckily, her kids are young enough that she was able to bring them with her to Shanghai (unlike 61 million children in China who are left behind). When asked if she likes Shanghai, she answered: “Yes, I like.” And then she paused, smiled, and added: “I like money…” Her friend and colleague, Andy (using a pseudonym), who served as a translator looked at her and said — “I hate Shanghai” – without any further explanation. This was the only opinion that Andy shared that day.
Andy is a unique type of massage salon employee. His English is almost good enough for him to work as an interpreter. He seemed reluctant to share his personal story, and we were careful not to ask.
There are many people like Rosy and Andy who move to a large coastal city searching a job and better life. With a fairy tale in mind, these migrants end up facing reality – challenging working conditions, visiting their children and parents only for the holidays, and hoping for a better future.
We spent very little time in Shanghai and Beijing to learn more about migrant workers in the massage salon industry and other industries. I wish we had more time to find out why people like Andy end up working as a masseuse and whether Rosy was really happy with her job in Shanghai. I wish we had enough time to listen to millions of the untold stories of these welcoming, smiling, and hard-working migrant workers in China.
On our second day in Beijing, we were invited to join the 2017-2018 Carnegie Global Dialogue Series at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy. The panel was discussing China-India relations and assessing the implications of India’s “Look East” policy as China continues to expand its role on the world stage. South Asian economic integration, regional trade relations, the Belt and Toad Initiative, and maritime security were other subjects of discussion. The panel consisted of experts in China-India relations – one from India, two from China and one from France. The two our discussion ended up focusing on the recent developments in Dokhlam and Wu-Han and how these affected China-India relations and the way forward from here.
Each of the panelists first spoke about their views and later the discussion opened up to questions from the audience. The first panelist to speak, the person from India, started by giving a brief introduction of India’s foreign policy strategy since its independence in 1947. He described India’s Non-Alignment Movement in the cold-war era and how it was more of a defensive approach to diplomacy. He went on to say that now India, with the sixth largest economy in the world and fifth largest military expenditure, was no longer a play thing for major powers in the international arena. India was now influencing great-power-relations. In this light, relations with China and the U.S. will be the central questions in Indian Foreign Policy. Referring to the Wu-Han meeting between Xi Jinping and Narendra Modi, he said that the two have agreed to a new way of diplomacy of not crossing each other’s core interests.
The second speaker (from China) outlined the various outcomes of the Wu-Han summit as 1. Repairing relations after the Dokhlam episode, with leaders on both sides – Xi and Modi – being very strong domestically. 2. Reached an agreement on how to deal with problems in the present world – like terrorism and climate change – despite skirmishes like Dokhlam. 3. Taking up common resolves and working on common perspectives. The third speaker, from France, spoke about the how India could respond to China’s rise. His answer was for India to economically rise itself. He said that China’s rise was an existential threat to India, especially after the 1960 war. He outlined some of India’s strategies in the past, like the Look East policy of the 1990s, attempts to increase FDI, and the economic success during the early 2000s. He said that as China became more assertive, India moved towards the U.S. to protect itself. But now the scenario is troubled because of uncertainty in U.S. foreign policy due to Trump and also the security dilemma in the Indian Ocean.
The final speaker, also from China, spoke about the major issues in India-China relations and identified border issues and Dalai Lama-Tibet issue as the major irritants. He was of the view that India and China were victims of circumstances and was optimistic that despite all the issues and such a long border, not one bullet was fired in the last 50 years. He also spoke about the geo-political perception mismatch of both countries – India was suspicious of China’s activities in South Asia, but these activities were not necessarily targeted against India, but only to protect China’s interests. He was optimistic that despite all the political issues, trade and investment between the two countries continue to prosper with little friction in economic relations.
Although I agreed with most of what was said, I disagreed with some statements. I thought that most of the speakers were frank in their opening remarks and their answers to audience questions but also unbiased, it was interesting how some speakers were very cautious in their answers so much that it seemed like they were self-censoring themselves. While most statements clearly outlined issues between both countries and were practical in outlining solutions and the way forward, some, I thought, were biased and politically motivated. For e.g. I thought that saying something on the lines of “India should not be suspicious of what China is doing in South Asia and should instead focus its limited resources on solving its internal problems” was too patronizing and dismissive of a nation.
However, most of the session was objective and unbiased. There were some brilliant points made about the effects of current uncertainty of U.S. foreign policy on the increased participation of China and India in multi-national organizations and how the uncertainty has helped in bringing both countries together. The call by the panel for both countries to set aside their differences and not let disputes harm their relationship, to work on strategies to deal with mutual distrust, the call for practicality in diplomatic relations and increased people to people interactions between the Chinese and Indian societies were brilliant, in my opinion. It was a great learning experience to hear about the issue from some of the best experts in the field.
There is a Telugu (my native language) saying that says “There are two kinds of people, those who eat to live and those who live to eat”. I identify as and am recognized by family and friends as the latter kind. Being a through and through foodie, I was very excited to have street food in Guangzhou with a couple of friends on the trip. But when Ann (Lin) and Susan (Waltz) were going to a hot-pot, we decided to join them instead. To be honest, I was a little disappointed because I had been to hot pot dinners with my Chinese friends in Ann Arbor. But I decided to stick with the plan.
We went to a nice hot-pot restaurant in a mall close to our hotel. The ambiance and music were great and I started to get excited for the food. For the uninitiated, a hot pot is a Chinese cooking method with a simmering pot of broth placed at the center of a dining table. While the soup/broth is kept simmering, various kinds of vegetables, meat and seafood are placed in the hot pot and cooked right at the table. The cooked foodstuff is then eaten with a dipping sauce. There is a specific way of placing the order and fortunately we had Ann, who knew how this was done, with us. We got three different kinds of soup – bone broth, spicy broth and tomato soup. We ordered several things to put in our hot pot – crab sticks, fish, shrimp dumplings, fish balls, seaweed, thin noodles, lettuce, water spinach, okra, lotus root and river mushrooms.
While our food was being prepared, we were artfully served some amazing herbal tea with eight ingredients, called the “Eight Treasures Tea” (Ba Bao Cha), the base of which was created during the Tang dynasty. This tea is “known as an elixir in China because it helps improve blood circulation, raise energy levels, boost the immune system, clear light-headedness, aid liver function and breathing, help remove dark under-eye circles, hydrate dry skin, fight fatigue, and can help women maintain a regular menstrual cycle.” While there are many different varieties of Ba Bao Cha, the one we were served had green tea, dried chrysanthemum flowers, goji berries, dried Chinese red dates, dried fruit and rock sugar among others. Our tea was constantly refilled from a pot with a very long beak throughout the two hours that we were there, which made me feel like royalty.
Though I wasn’t available at the table when our broths arrived, I was told that the spices in the broth were mixed beautifully. I had to step out for an interview call while the rest of the party had started enjoying the hot-pot. I joined the group after 45 minutes when the meal was in full swing. I was directed to make my own dipping sauce with garlic, cilantro, spring onions, sesame oil and soy sauce. I picked some of the food from the pot using my chopsticks, dipped them in the delicious sauce and savored them with great delight. I under estimated the spice level of the spicy broth, since I take great pride in my tolerance to spice by virtue of being an Indian. My god, was the chilli broth spicy! It had chilli oil, red peppers and the numbing Chinese peppers. I was very thankful for the sweet tea. Even though I thoroughly enjoyed the spices, I was careful not to eat too much of it since it was burning my mouth. The bone broth and the tomato broth were delicious too. The food was so amazing that I kept eating non-stop for the next one hour.
We ended the meal by drinking the broth as a soup, mixed with what was left of our dipping sauce. We were then served some delicious ice cream. This heavenly meal cost us a little less than ten USD per person. It is hands down the best meal I’ve had on the trip, even though I had a stomach upset the next day because of it. My mouth was watering now, as I was describing the meal and I am seriously considering starting a chain of hot-pot restaurants in India and the U.S.
 Benjamin Chasteen, “Eight Treasures Tea: An Elixir From Ancient China”, Epoch Times, January 6, 2014
It took me coming to China to understand just how confused and yet how clear I am about my own identity. Most of the international travel I had done before this was 1) with my parents, and 2) to countries where the language barrier wasn’t so great. I had never been on a study abroad trip before and had very little exposure to East Asian languages. I was expecting to stand out in China as I do pretty much anywhere, but there were some significant differences in how I traveled and how I felt about my identity during this particular trip. And while it is impossible to offer a holistic perspective after spending only two weeks in a few cities, one can share stories of their unique experiences.
Funny you think that:
It is unsurprising that us foreigners got a lot of stares as we roamed the cities, attended meetings, and visited tourist sites. The Chinese were curious about our presence on their turf, and rightly so.
After climbing the Great Wall, a Chinese man started pointing at my veil and spoke in Mandarin – I understood nothing. My Chinese classmate told me that the man did not believe I was American because I was Muslim and I wore the hijab. She explained to him that while I was Muslim, I was definitely an American. I wasn’t angry at the man’s comments because I don’t fit the traditional mold of what it means to be American. I was also grateful for my friend who was able to communicate with the man. I had never been unable to at least attempt to defend myself.
There was also the case of the taxi driver in Beijing who mentioned that I looked like I came from China’s Xinjiang province, located in the west and heavily populated with Muslim ethnic minorities. He then switched his mind and said I may be from Lebanon.
I don’t blame the Chinese for being unable to categorize me as an American – Americans themselves have problems defining what it means to be American. What made me feel so self-conscious and sometimes uncomfortable in my own skin was the realization that no matter where I go, people will reject the possibility of me being what I know myself to be.
In Hong Kong, the story was different. There was a lot more diversity there, and so I had fewer stares and fewer people discussing my background. One taxi driver made the comment that everyone in the cab came from somewhere different, and I didn’t even realize that until he said it. He said it in a very lighthearted way. Hong Kong felt very different from Mainland China in that it seemed more familiar to the class because of its colonial past. It seemed like I could fit in just a little bit more.
Throughout China and Hong Kong, you can find Halal restaurants (the Islamic equivalent of Kosher):
One evening I went out to one of them in Beijing, and I was intrigued by the fact that only a portion of the restaurant’s menu provided halal options, and they were mostly beef/mutton. Usually, halal restaurants are…well, entirely halal. Of course this does not mean that other restaurants across China were like this. Also, it was interesting to think that conceptions of halal meat excluded chicken: why? What made the label “halal” apply more exclusively to red meat as opposed to white meat?
Also, the prices for halal items on the menu were literally twice that of the non-halal foods on the menu. I assumed that there weren’t as many halal meat producers in the area, and thus was more expensive. No one goes into a halal meat store unless they really want the halal meat experience (in this case, the Chinese way).
It was absolutely delicious and I couldn’t have enough of it. I regretted not making a conscious effort to try halal food in other parts of China.
We visited the “Huaisheng Mosque” or “Lighthouse Mosque” in Guanzhou, China, built over 1300 years ago. It is one of the oldest mosques in the world and is currently undergoing reconstruction. The architecture here was quite unique from the other mosques I’ve seen because it incorporated traditional Chinese design. The minaret was of a completely different style and seemed to stand out from the rest of the mosque.
There was a man who frequented the mosque who volunteered to act as our tour guide. We walked through the mosque and got to learn that many Chinese Muslims migrated from the Xinjiang province to settle in places like Guanzhou. Many imaams (the equivalent of a pastor) across China, especially in Hong Kong, were Indian or Pakistani. Perhaps the most interesting fact was that while both the Chinese and the citizens of Hong Kong were given freedom of religion, people of Hong Kong were more open about their faiths in public.
It reminded me of the differences in American and French culture: The French discourage symbols of faith including yarmulkes, cross necklaces, or veils – separation of church and state, prevention of radicalization, safeguarding the value that faith belongs to an individual and shouldn’t be imposed on others, you name it. Americans, on the other hand, believe that they should be allowed to practice their faith however they wish, as long as it does no harm unto others – this often leads to discrimination, another thing the French wish to avoid.
Unfortunately, I did not have the opportunity to see anyone pray or read the Qur’an. I wondered if there were any differences in how they practiced Islam, and particularly how the mosque preached Islam.
Above else, this trip taught me more about myself. I came out of this experience learning that it’s alright to feel different, because it’s a reality that I have to face. I also realized that while I may feel different, there are always pockets of space where I can feel more like I belong – whether it’s through halal restaurants, mosques, or strips of roads where you can see a lot of other veiled women. It’s also acceptable to joke about your experiences, as I did quite frequently with my classmates.
It was important for me to go to a foreign place with peers with vastly different backgrounds, because I didn’t have my family to fall back on. I had to learn to navigate my feelings and my identity around people who didn’t always understand where I was coming from unless I tried to explain myself, and vice versa. It wasn’t on everyone’s agenda to eat halal food as often as possible (although my fellow Muslim classmate and I cherished the idea). I also realized that despite all our differences, I was never alone to begin with, and I never will be. We all found ways to accommodate each other and love one another for who we were.
The Chinese national psyche has been primarily molded by the anti-West, cultural re-education vis-à-vis the history of humiliation China faced during the opium war era. Britain disrupted China’s booming economy in the mid-19th century to force China to allow them into their lucrative trading markets. The humiliation that resulted from the opium war is etched in the minds of Chinese leaders, past and present, and they have made it a duty to consolidate power domestically by interlocking it with China’s anti-West, national identity.
A walk through the National Museum of China elucidates why Chinese people have tacitly consented to a tradeoff between personal privacy for collective security. The “Road to Rejuvenation” exhibition showcased remnants of the Opium war and how China will never again face the kind of humiliation it experienced in 1840. Consequently, the juxtaposition of this unfortunate history and the ascension of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) draws a clear picture of why Communism has been a successful tool for governing in China’s context. The CCP represents China’s triumph over the imposition of Western ideals and is a symbol of unification toward autonomy and self-determination for the various ethnic groups residing within its borders. The trepidation caused by the Opium war provided a great opportunity for national unity and later eased the transition into a more controlled, communist society.
I was particularly struck by the influence of Marxism in China as it seemed to be a bit of a contradiction for China’s efforts to resist outside ideals. The museum had pictures of Karl Marx showing how his philosophy was a major catalyst for overthrowing the Qing Monarchy in the 1911 revolution ending a 2000 years’ dynastic rule and ultimately establishing a bourgeois republic. The proliferation of Marx’s ideals and its influence on Chinese workers provided an environment for the CPC to takeover national rule. Subsequent revolutions and the Japanese invasion only drew the Chinese people closer to the CPC as it was seen as a successful form of resistance against outside forces.
As a foreigner looking in, I was in awe at the sight of China’s development considering the West’s demonization of Communism. The grandiose buildings and picturesque architecture was a sight to behold as it tells of China’s ascension to a unipolar power – it illustrates the idea that China is capable of leveling with the so-called “developing” countries in every aspect. Ingenuity and technological advancements speaks to China’s comprehensive approach toward becoming a world leader under the tutelage of Communist principles. The picture of Mao in the Museum illuminates the idea that China is unified under Communism (gathering of military generals and prominent Chinese leaders) with promising prospects of a bright future (the florescent skies).
This image depicts the sculpture that stood in the main hall of the Opium War museum exhibition in Guanzhou, China. Designed by Zhang Xian, the structure depicts a Chinese perspective on its tension with Great Britain during the 19th century. You can see 1840-1842 and 1856-1860, the dates of the two wars. You can also see British canons and gears, representing the industrial might and naval superiority of the British that helped them win over the Chinese. Lastly, the iron chains are a metaphor for the Chinese people being shackled by foreign colonialism.
During the 19th Century, the Chinese major exporters of goods including silk, tea, and porcelain to countries like Great Britain. However, the Qing Dynasty did not feel the need to open its doors to the West – it was the Middle Kingdom and superior in its own right. To that effect, very few ports were accessible for trade, including the Guanzhou port. The British then decided to export opium, and China responded by appointing viceroy Lin Zexu to get rid of it all. Insulted that the Chinese would dump opium into river pits, the British invaded parts of China and won the war.
Then again in 1956, the British and the French used the death of a missionary as an excuse to invade China and loot its palaces. They won the war, and China was divided into various spheres of influence (nations like the United States and Russia were also part of the division process).
National Humiliation and Unity:
“The subsequent battles are now largely forgotten in Britain. From the British point of view, they were minor compared with those of the 20th century”. The only thing that really mattered to them was that they won.
For the Chinese, however, the Opium Wars mark a period of national humiliation, one that should never be allowed to happen again. Throughout the museum exhibition, it was very clear that the Chinese believed that the wars were unjust and that British aggression and obsession with colonial overreach were to blame for the death of Chinese soldiers. At the end of the exhibit, the walls were covered with questions about what the Chinese could have done to prevent the wars. Could they have opened themselves to foreign trade and perhaps learned more about other cultures? Could they have built their navy instead of tearing it down to ensure they could keep up with the growing maritime strength of their British counterparts? Could they have tried to modernize in unique ways to compete globally instead of remaining isolated to the outside world? Our tour guide told us at the end that the purpose of the museum was for the Chinese to learn from history. It reminded me of the Germans, who had learned from their mistakes early on, and made me wish that Americans did not deny or try to neutralize their past with regards to racial and other forms of oppression. Instead of hiding from their history, the Chinese chose to confront it – they admitted they were weak compared with the British, and needed to make some changes.
It was also interesting to see that the museum made very clear that the Chinese were a unified people. Colonial forces had attacked different parts of China, but they were all China indeed, and the entire country suffered from these wars. The entire nation mourned for China. I don’t know what exactly it means to be Chinese, but I felt that the Chinese had a much better idea than Americans, who are consistently divided in defining what it means to be American.
The exhibit made me believe that perhaps China’s current political structure is a natural response to such a major period in the country’s history. Maybe from the Chinese perspective, the one-party system solidifies this notion that the Chinese must be unified in their pursuit to advance themselves both politically and economically and avoid humiliation at all costs. And one can argue as to the merits and the serious flaws of this system (i.e. surveillance and social credit scores), but the core of the communist party system stands upon the idea that the Chinese need to stick together.
Unlike nations like India, China was never under British colonial rule. When I was in the museum, I felt in my core pain from the British aggression that led to the oppression of South Asians, the people of which I am a direct descendent. I understood the reason that the Chinese refused to tiptoe around the history. Doing so would prevent the Chinese from becoming stronger moving forward. There are many parts of the worlds that have suffered from similar fates, but the Chinese were able to avoid being completely under control. And they don’t intend to fall into control by any other country anytime soon, for good reason. Why should they?
On the other hand, one may argue that the Chinese may become more aggressive towards the West because of these historical realities. I believe that the Chinese are competitive, like countries including India, Pakistan, and many others that have been colonized, but have no intentions of starting a war with the West. They wish to have a voice of their own (mainly through fierce economic competition in a globalized world), and not to fall under the thumb of countries that have continued to impose their power upon others.
In summer 2008, I sat on my cousin’s floor in Florida and watched the Beijing opening ceremony in awe. No other Olympic ceremony has reached the bar that China set that summer.
Beijing’s Olympic Park complex is home to several competition venues, most notably the aquatic center (“the cube”) and the National Stadium (“the Bird’s Nest”). The Bird’s Nest—an architectural accomplishment taking over five years to complete—held the opening ceremonies as well as soccer and track and field events. Former Olympic parks from Pyeong Chang (2018) to Rio de Janeiro (2016) to Athens (2004) to Georgia (1996) have been abandoned or demolished, but China’s Olympic Park is unlike any other.
Inside the Bird’s Nest looking out at the Cube in Blue
In May 2018, I navigated the Beijing subway system to find the Olympic stadium that I remembered from ten summers ago. As dusk came and went, the lights of the stadium turned on to illuminate the intricate architecture of the Bird’s Nest and the panels on the Cube slowly changed colors.
Inside the Bird’s Nest at dusk
The Bird’s Nest remains a tourist attraction and sports venue; it hosts concerts and light shows, in addition to domestic and international competitions. Walking through the entrance to the Bird’s Nest, one can feel the excitement and tension of thousands of spectators and athletes who have passed through the gates. The stadium has been maintained well enough to host the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2022 Winter Olympics.
Nightly light show over the track (attendance ¥100)
The Bird’s Nest did not always boast such bustling tourism. In 2012, NPR described the stadium as a “largely empty” “government-backed vanity [project].” But the successful conversion of the Cube to an indoor water park and Chinese pride in the National Stadium led to creative use of the space, including VIP tours, cultural shows, a winter festival, and a vast underground shopping mall.
Stops on the tour of the Bird’s Nest
Why did China prioritize maintenance of the Olympic Park when so many other cities choose not to or are unable to afford the upkeep? Many believe that the government wished the stadium to remain as a monument of China’s progress and opening to the West. The night life indicates that Chinese people appreciate the access to an historic site and recreation area. This Olympics fan was thrilled to walk in the footsteps of the world’s greatest athletes.