Julie Gaynin, daughter of HWH PR Executive Karen Gaynin, worked at our PR agency for a few weeks this summer. Julie is a Senior at Stuyvesant High School and spent last summer traveling in China. Since HWH is very involved in promoting many Asian products and services, I thought it would be interesting to read about Julie’s travels and her perceptions. Americans everywhere are reading Ted Fishman’s book, China Inc. and corporations/organizations are paying big bucks to hear him speak. We give you Julie Gaynin first hand for free.
Lois Whitman: Why did you decide to go to China?
Julie Gaynin: For a while now I have had a growing interest in the “Asian world.” I spent the summer before my Junior year of high school traveling in China and this past year (Junior year) I became very involved with a program called the “Chinatown Literacy Project,” a free ESL class for Chinese immigrants. Then this past summer, I participated in a series of workshops geared at empowering the youth of the Asian American community in New York City. I didn’t actually intend to get so involved in the Chinese community. It just sort of happened. I guess it began with my father’s business trips to China back when I was in sixth grade. He went on average three times a year and each time he would bring back a heavy load of unusual, not to mention bizarre, gifts accompanied by an equally intangible story. Flash forward to high school when I heard from a friend about a company, “Where There Be Dragons,” that runs teenage-led trips to the Far East. Dragons (as the program is referred to) had one particular trip that took youths across China from the West border to the East, exploring the minority cultures and varying landscapes. As I flipped through the brochure I was immediately interested in a particular trip called “Silk Road” (because it traveled along the ancient Silk Road) and in the Spring of my Sophomore year signed up.
LW: What was the trip all about?
JG: The company took students to developing countries in Asia and South America with the premise that introducing young minds to different cultures leads to a more accepting and peaceful relationship between the two cultures.
LW: How long was the trip and what cities did you visit?
JG: The program lasted for six weeks during the summer. We traveled across China beginning in Kashgar and ending in Beijing. In between we saw Urumqi (capital of Xinjiang Province), Dunhuang (an oasis in the Gobi Desert), Lanzhou (Capital of Gansu Province), Xiahe (a small town in the Greater Tibetan Region), Xining (also a small town in the Greater Tibetan Region, yet more commercialized and exploited than Xiahe), Xian (famous for the Terracotta Soldiers) and Beijing. We traveled mostly by overnight trains, though on a few occasions we took very long bus rides. The idea behind this was that we would travel the way the common Chinese man or woman would travel and thus avoid any contribution to the exploitation that tourism has brought to each area. Almost each of the cities that we visited had some sort of attraction that degraded the city. For example, in Kashgar, peasants drank from the sprinklers on the sliver of grass next to the sidewalk because they did not have running water in their own homes. Another example is the Christmas lights that the Government placed on the rooftops of Buddhist monasteries to anger the monks while Tibetan schools lacked essential learning materials.
LW: Who else was on the trip?
JG: The trip was composed of 12 students from all over the U.S. and three leaders. Our leaders were all college graduates who had an interest in travel or East Asian culture. Two of our leaders were fluent in Mandarin, but by mid-way through the trip they pushed us students to navigate on our own and only translated when we were near death.
LW: What was the most memorable part of the trip?
JG: I liked many of the places we traveled to but had especially fond feelings for Kashgar. The city, which is located in Xinjiang Province, is the western most city in all of China. It was a major stop on the historic ancient Silk Road and is the home of the Sunday Market, the largest outdoor market in the world. Kashgar was both the most exciting and the most difficult place to visit. It was the most exotic and different place I had ever been to as well as the most underdeveloped. Many areas of the city were full of poverty and it was a very difficult experience for me. Another thing about Kashgar is that it has a very defining feel to it. Many of the cities that we visited were large, industrial and unattractive. After a while they began to look the same. Kashgar on the other hand had a very vibrant culture, a mixture of Muslim, Indian and Han Chinese that dates back to its beginnings as a crossroads for travelers on the Silk Road.
LW: What is the most vital message you can tell Americans about China?
JG: The thing about China is that it is not all Lucy Lius and Jackie Chans and most Americans do not know this. Of course much of this naiveté comes from the Chinese themselves. The communist government is very tight on all tourist regulations and very strict about keeping visitors inside of the country’s cities. This way, the country’s heavily suppressed minorities and poor inhabitants are kept a secret from outsiders. It is important to realize that what you see in China, or in the media about China, is not what the country is necessarily like. Many stereotypes are fostered by this misrepresentation and the people of China are severely hurt by it. For example, the AIDS epidemic is growing in China at titanic amounts. However, the government denies the extent to which the disease has spread, which means that international organizations that fight the disease have made little effort, compared to what is needed, and more and more people continue to get infected because of this.
LW: How has this trip changed your life?
JG: The Dragons trip did more than just expose me to a new and different culture. It also taught me how to travel off the beaten path of a country in which I do not know the language (or even the exchange rate). They taught me how to be sensitive to a society’s culture, yet also cautious in regard to my safety and personal possessions (passport!). Most importantly they taught me the best time to use each attitude. I would like to say that going to China made me more knowledgeable on Chinese culture and language. Unfortunately it did not. Not really, no. What it did do though was teach me how to be open to different philosophies and viewpoints and how to keep my cool in overwhelming situations.
LW: Would you ever want to go back?
JG: Kashgar is definitely the first place I would go back to if I had the opportunity. China is modernizing so fast that a place in six months would be different from what it originally looked like. For example, when the SARS epidemic broke out, a major hospital for the disease was built in Beijing in just three days. I’d be curious to see how different each of the cities I visited have changed in five years.
LW: Why should Americans want to visit China?
JG: If you’ve ever been to Chinatown you know that Chinese culture stands out against any Western one. More than just a language, history, philosophy, Chinese culture has simply a different way about it. For example, in New York City, if you are walking down a street and asking for directions you might say “Excuse me, can you please tell me where the bank is?” In China, you would just say “Where’s the bank?” People are not as polite. At hotels they have buckets in the halls where people can spit into because spitting is something that the Chinese do publicly. I personally like this style a lot. It is much more honest and although they are blunt, the Chinese people are extremely friendly in a very sincere way. At the same time, the concept of Face is very important in Chinese culture. Face is about reputation and pride. You would never confess that you made a mistake nor would you tell someone that his or her cooking is awful because then he or she would lose Face with you. To lose Face is one of the worst things that can happen to a person in Chinese society. Of course, China does boast some famous tourist sites; The Great Wall, The Forbidden City, The Terracotta Soldiers, but it is more about visiting a country so different and so powerful.
LW: How will China influence the rest of the world over the next five to 10 years?
JG: In America, we would never believe that our economic success would exist without our Democratic politics. But China proves it doesn’t have to work that way. China’s government is Communist but it has many Capitalist properties. It is industrializing so fast that it literally builds over its past. The Government is very corrupt and it will be interesting to see how it will change as the country becomes more and more economically powerful.