The Center of the Universe
My first week in China was off to a beautiful start as I was greeted by clear blue skies and sunshine raining down on the golden rooftops of central Beijing. Tiananmen Square was more massive than anything I had ever witnessed, and it was surrounded by monuments to history, government and culture just as monolithic. The mausoleum of Mao Zedong, the Forbidden City, National Art Museum and the National Performing Arts Center were all overpowering in there presence and worked I tandem to express a obvious statement of power and importance. My classmates and I wondered in awe as the waning sun bathed everything in golden light.
The Proving Ground
After walking around the center of the universe, as Tiananmen used to be during the imperial period, we walked down to Qianmen gate area. Qianmen street runs from the main gate of the central city all the way down to the center of the new outer city. This area was the premier shopping and entertainment street in Beijing and after completion of renovations it has begun to regain this title. This was the place where I began to see how my preparation for this trip had paid off. I was one of the few Chinese speakers in the entire group and this skill came in high demand extremely fast. Despite programs in schools and an enormous influx of Chinese teachers over the recent decades, English is still not commonly spoken in large cities in China. This is especially true in Beijing where it was near impossible to exist without being able to speak, read or write Mandarin. The mere act of ordering an ice-cream became impossible for nearly everyone. Once it was found that I could understand Mandarin many came to me for help. I know what it feels like to be unheard and how frustrated it can be to be incapable of communicating your desires. It is because of this that I decided to help without hesitation. I believe this made the start of the trip a bit easier for everyone including me as it proved I could not only help myself, but others as well.
The following day we returned to Qianmen Street and were guided to the neighborhood of our future project, Dashilar. This district was irreplpacable in the history of Beijing as it was the incubator of Beijing Opera. The resulting tea house culture that developed in tandem with the burgeoning opera scene made Dashilar the center for the arts, opera, artistic education. This environment even fostered social interactions that shaped society in Beijing and the empire. It was here that we witnessed the state complexities and contrasts of Beijing’s historic center. There are refurbished streets full of art and history clearly on display. Then there are run down alleys entangled in wires and car traffic. Refurbished Siheyuan, the traditional Beijing courtyard style house, share walls with homes containing fourteen families when it was only meant for three. It is in this environment of energy, contrast and history that we begin our project.