This round in more depth.
1. Thanks to inspiration from friends, I held the intention of getting to know my grandparents on this trip, and record the "interviews" of their life stories. This is probably among the most meaningful things I have ever done in life. It filled me with awe and gratitude. I wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone to ask their grandparents about their life stories and their ancestors. It will surely be an unexpected journey of discovery, remembrance, and thanksgiving.
I am lucky to have all four grandparents still living healthily. They are in their late seventies and mid eighties. Every meeting with them could be the last time I see them. This very real urgency added to my curiosity about their life, their times, and by extension, who I am, and where I came from.
With the recording app on smartphone ready, I started to ask my grandparents about their earliest memories, about their grandparents and parents, about their childhood and upbringing. Then, about how grandma met grandpa, how they decided to (or were arranged to) get married, and have children. About how they persevered through the great famine, the social turmoils, the revolutions, the wars, the migrations, the harsh winters of Inner Mongolia, and the decades of hard work building the new frontier.
Their stories made history come alive. Landlords became the lower class; siblings died fighting in the revolution; applying for approval from Communist party official in order to go on a date... It was like traveling through time. Memories deeply embedded in the blood were awakened. The lineage of values and ethics became clear. Grandpa is no longer just "grandpa", but a human being with his own hopes, dreams, and regrets. Grandma is no longer merely "my mother's mother", but the witness and participant of China's transformation from a feudal, agrarian society to the world's second largest economy.
Hearing about my grandparents' memories of their parents and grandparents revealed to me the great intention and care with which family values have been passed on through generations. Generosity, kindness, thrift, hard work, integrity, patriotism... These are the values embedded in the family blood stream, and embodied by the grandparents. The idioms and family sayings are like prayers and chanting through the ages, reminding us what's important and true.
On the second day of the "interviews", my grandma said in a serious and gentle tone, "I am deeply gratified that my oldest grandson is asking me about my life stories. I want to tell them while I am still able. Your cousins are still too young to have interests, and when they want to know, I might be not there to tell."
2. Chinese politics happens on a local level. The central government can issue all kinds of orders and decrees, and calls to action, but the local government have much wiggle room, or ways to get around the Emperor in Beijing. It's almost impossible to manage a country that big from the top down.
3. The politics is still very feudal. Western notions such as rule of law, civil society, simply have no historical roots and cultural context in China. Not that these concepts are exactly what China needs. And this is not to say that Taiwan and Singapore -- Asian cultures -- haven't done well with democratic experiments.
4. Food safety is on everybody's mind. My aunt said of the food, "No matter how tasty, eat just a little bit -- it might not be safe after all." We asked the hotel front desk if the tap water can be boiled and drank. She said, "No, there's heavy metals and that type of stuff." After 50 years of economic development, the top concerns for ordinary Chinese came back to the basics: food, water, air. Not their availability, but safety.
5. There is an explosion of entrepreneurial energy in China. Encouraged by the many self-made entrepreneur-billionaires, such as Jack Ma, many young Chinese no longer limit their options to golden rice bowl of government employment, or high paying jobs at corporations. The government also looks to start-ups and small businesses for job creation and employment pressure diversion. Central TV stations host shows featuring young entrepreneurs and business competitions. Recent policy changes try to make life easier for small business and start-ups. The golden age for entrepreneurship in China might be here.
6. For those who studied abroad before I did, their foreign educational/work background is an advantage in China. For my cohort of Chinese students, our Western schooling and experience is a requirement. And for those who came after us, studying abroad might even be a disadvantage. There are so many "sea turtles" (those who studied abroad and then returned to China for work) these days in China, that even Ivy League "sea turtles" are a common sight.
I am even more startled by the number of Westerners who speak fluent Mandarin. It is no small feat to master Chinese. I remember that growing up, if a Caucasian speaks fluent (and imperfect) Chinese, he is almost certainly guaranteed a job as a TV show host, or something prestigious like that.
The waves of sea turtles are changing the face of China. One example, mentioned by relatives in the legal system, is that there are so many sea turtles educated in US law schools, that they brought many common law ways of thinking and legal concepts to China where the legal system is largely based on German civil law.
7. I do feel that my generation in China faces the historic opportunity to bring higher union to three pairs: traditions and future, East and West, and the spiritual and the material. Not because we have received any revelation of Manifest Destiny with Chinese characteristics, but because China's acute crises can not be solved any other way.
In China today, we have three generations with very different experiences and worldviews. My grandparents' generation still have access to the way that China has been for 2,000 years. My parent's generation have experience of the painful reincarnation of a civilization into a new body, and of the modernization of a confused society. My generation has only vague recollection of the past, and has our eyes on the future, a global future. We must tap into the wisdom of the past to shape a future that has a memory. We must face -- and heal -- the past so that the future would have a conscience.
We also must embrace the best of both East and West, and be neither chauvinistic nor self-doubting. On this trip, I visited old capitals on the Silk Road, where generations of seekers and monks went to India to bring back the Buddhist classics, and translated the Sanskrit and Pali texts. The infusion of "Western wisdom" then greatly enriched the Chinese culture and innovated (such as Zen) and spread the Buddhist teachings. Only a civilization confident in its own value can have the humility to learn from all others.
I also saw the explosive growth of Christianity in China, and believe it is a good thing -- just as the spread of Buddhism and Eastern wisdom traditions in the West.
Finally, China's struggle is deeply spiritual, with intense material symptoms. I have a feeling that China's spiritual awakening -- the search for meaning, truth and peace -- will be a turning point in 21st Century history. The time is not yet ripe, but the forces have been building all along.