by Khristan Antoine
Extreme is the word that sums up my experience of China: extreme numbers of people, vast expanses, cluttered skylines, extreme smog.
I had never traveled outside the US, not even to Canada or Mexico. I didn’t even own a suitcase. Then I was selected as one of 13 African -American students from the East Bay to travel to the world’s mightiest country, without a clue about language, culture, or history.
On a trip organized by East Oakland Youth Development Center and China-U.S. Study Exchange Foundation (CUSEF), three McClymonds students, Umiika Rose, Brandon Vonderwerth and I experienced China in all its complexity.
We travelled with photographer Nicka Smith and EOYDC director Regina Jackson as part of a movement to bring more African American students to China.
There was more study than tourism. Every morning, we had lectures by professors and college students on culture, history, traditions, and economics. The day we landed, we checked into the hotel, took a shower, got dressed for a greeting dinner. We were welcomed with a dinner with varied foods and Peking duck. They prepared welcome signs, greeted us with smiles and an introduction; the Chinese delegates gave brief speeches and we all broke into conversation (through our translators) and ate.
Our first day set the tone and pace of our stay: we went to Beijing foreign studies to attend our first lecture (we had 8 lectures and three Mandarin classes.
The most memorable moments were when we could explore the city, as tourists. We walked through Tiananmen square and the forbidden city. I enjoyed walking up the Great Wall (I wouldn’t say it was easy at all as it was a challenge climbing the uneven stairs and walking up the steep hills).
As we toured, the reaction of people in the street was to stop, stare, and snap.
The biggest surprise for me was seeing the same deep divide between the rich and the poor in China that we know all too well in the United States.