contemplations from china

There’s something undeniably magical about travelling to and around China. In less than twenty-four hours, you’re transported to a whole new world – where skylines extend for miles, gray skies are the norm, and your stomach is never not full.

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The views flying into China are always amazing. We typically fly west and north and then drop down, cutting south. The arctic, icy scenes of Russia starkly contrast with the brown, mountainous landscapes that crop up outside Beijing. The desert ecosystem bordering the endless metropolis that is Beijing serves as a timely reminder of the fragility of our constructions. Cities are not indestructible and all good things will come to an end.

The aerial views of China are unlike anything one might experience in the United States. The US has vast swaths of suburbia – identical homes swirling on and on out of a distinct city center, identifiable by a handful of skyscrapers, perhaps a nearby river, and a few major interstate arteries leading in and out of the city. In China, there too may be some nearby body of water and wide highways connecting the city and the rest of the country. Along those highways, however, coal and nuclear power plants, pumping out energy to an insatiable country, casually jut out of the sickly farmland. The thick layer of gray-brown smog always remains. But unlike in America, there’s no handful of skyscrapers. Every building is a skyscraper.

The cityscape of a large Chinese city is like nothing else I’ve ever seen. Replace each American suburban home with a 15-floor apartment building and that’s pretty much what constitutes a Chinese “suburb.” The apartment building is often one of four or five or more identical buildings, each one capable of housing the equivalent of an entire suburban neighborhood’s population. Nowhere is it easier to take things for granted. To normalize buildings that would often be the highest building in a typical American city. This normalization is easy.

The reversal, however, is not. It takes a conscious effort to appreciate the normal. While feeling overwhelmed by the urban landscapes of Beijing and Shanghai, I was reminded of my time in college. I may have only experienced a little over a semester of Harvard, but I’m certainly not foreign to the ease in which we normalize the spectacular. To attend a university some can only dream of. Whose resources are unparalleled by any other institution. Accustomed with campus visitors like Hillary Clinton, Rihanna, Aung San Suu Kyi. As students of Harvard University, we become used to the remarkable.

It’s easy to lament the dormitories’ pests and draftiness instead of appreciating the history they are steeped in. That movie producers like Darren Aronofsky lived in our very room and world-changers like Mark Zuckerburg just two entryways over. It’s easy to envy those who have “their shit together,” who have amazing summer plans, who are better at x/y/z. It’s harder to appreciate these peers, to foster and encourage their growth, along with ours. It’s easy to stress over grades, careers, social dynamics, appearances. It’s hard to take things as they come, in small steps, to cherish the moments where things may not necessarily be as smooth as we’d hope for them to be.

We’re quick to criticize, slow to empathize. Quick to forget others, slow to reach out. Quick to skirt responsibility, slow to sacrifice our time. Quick to generalize, slow to understand. Quick to be a cynic, slow to be vulnerable.

The thing is, these things – the easy and the not so easy, the quick and the slow – are all devastatingly human. But as imperfect humans, we should strive to better ourselves, no? Take the harder way, the slower approach, the more interesting route. Let us gawk at every twenty-story building. Let us retain our wonder.

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