Hamsters, “shoe shampoo,” roasted meat skewers, hair-bows, Popeye T-shirts, turtles, multicolored contacts, Coca-Cola can purses, teapots, fried chicken, Peppa Pig cellphone cases, cotton candy, light-up balloons, “Balenciaga” slippers and kittens all overflowed from various cramped stalls at the Shida night market.
When rain started to fall, shopkeepers hurried to cover their products with plastic tarps. My classmate and I ducked into a clothing stall and browsed. I noticed that nearly all the shirts had English writing or brand names on them – “trashy,” “New York woman,” “Adidas,” etc.
We wandered to another stand and as my classmate looked at counterfeit purses, I chatted with a man selling earbuds and speakers. The conversation shifted to American politics and he said that he loved Trump and Ivanka.
“The U.S. has the biggest military, and they’re the most powerful country in the world,” the shopkeeper continued, his eyes wide. “If I ever get a chance to go to America that would be amazing.”
In my Classical Chinese class we learned an idiom 狐假虎威 (hújiǎhǔwēi) which means to bully people by flaunting one’s powerful connections. Literally, the idiom translates to, “the fox borrows the fierceness,” because in the original story a clever fox convinces a tiger to walk behind him and scare away all of the other animals.
After learning this idiom, I started noticing many words that contain the character 威
威 = forceful; mighty; impressive strength
威望 = prestige
威信 = popular trust
威慑力 = deterrent
威胁 = threaten; menace
Does the strength to threaten and deter others attract prestige and trust? Do we only trust, respect and admire others in order to avoid their threats?
Why did the shopkeeper at the night market bring up the American military and his amazement with the country in the same breath?
We also learned an idiom 物极必反 which means that extremes touch at the same point (wùjíbìfǎn) – when something reaches one extreme it turns into the opposite extreme.
I’ve been really mentally and physically exhausted from all of my classes lately and honestly am having trouble finding inspiration to write, so here is a story I wrote a couple months ago about my experience climbing the Great Wall of China last summer — it sort of compliments what I just talked about above.
The not so Great Wall of China
The people holding umbrellas and wearing plastic ponchos looked like ants carrying candy wrappers across the Great Wall. But the looming brick towers I had always seen in photos were invisible behind thick cloud curtains. I felt like I was climbing on the earth’s backbone.
We were some of the very last tourists permitted entrance due to impending thunderstorms. Some of my classmates complained about the rain but I ditched my umbrella and sprinted – we only had one hour to explore, and I wanted to reach the highest point possible.
Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of a unified China, commanded the original construction of the wall in order to protect against the Xiong Nu people of the north. Now 2,000 years and 1 million lives later, the fortification stretches across 21,000 kilometers and provides a perfect backdrop for a study abroad Instagram photoshoot.
1 million workers died building a wall that’s sole purpose is to defend “territory” from “foreign” invaders.
But what is territory? And why are we willing to die for it?
In my international studies 101 class we did a 3-week unit on territorial disputes and one article we read really stands out in my memory because the author pointed out that borders are social constructs, which enable power to be mapped onto land.
“Without the cartographic ability to portray geography in a manner that allows neat boundaries to be drawn on it, sovereignty could not primarily refer to territory,” Danish professor Jeppe Strandsbjerg wrote.
After that 101 class, and a failed attempt to get involved in model UN, I changed my major. I realized I don’t care much for foreign affairs – because so many of them revolve around war or the threat of war, which is inextricably linked to the concepts of “country” and “territory.”
In the United States, no honor is greater than risking your life for your country. But we, ourselves, draw these imaginary lines to demarcate so-called “countries.” We self-impose these borders and then fight and kill each other over them – all for the pride, prestige and dominance of our chunk of land.
We think we’re so special with our language, upright posture, long life-spans, spaceships, submarines and smartphones. We’re so much smarter than chimpanzees and primitive Neanderthals who beat each other with sticks.
No, we don’t use sticks to fight – we use guns and nuclear weapons, which makes us so much more advanced, right? We’re so intelligent that we invented genocide. We’re able to kill each other like no other mammal can. And we’re proud of it – we fetishize violence in video games and movies, we honor and revere the bravery of our soldiers, we even reenact war.
After running up the slippery boulder-like steps of the Great Wall as fast as I could for 30 minutes, I made it to what seemed to be the tallest lookout in the vicinity. The fog cleared for a moment and I looked out at the expansive border imagining an army attacking.
The tower walls were marked with carvings of the names of tourists who had come before me, which reminded me of how countries stamp the land they conquer with their flags. I wondered if humanity would survive long enough for archaeologists to one day excavate the tourist carvings, and if so, what would they make of them?