I just returned from almost two weeks in China. Yes, this was my first trip to China, my first trip to Asia actually. I was asked numerous times, “What are your impressions? What surprised you?” And I was asked once, “What took you so long to visit here?” Good question.
I’m old enough to remember a very different China than the one I experienced on this trip. In the few HAA events I did during my travels, I talked about how China was viewed when I was a child and how differently it is seen today by my children. I knew basically nothing about China growing up. You couldn’t visit it. China was only ever mentioned by smart alecks commenting on my hole digging skills. “Hey, what are you doing? Digging a hole to China?”
Today, my children know so much more about China. They studied its history in school. They use its products everyday. They’ve heard about its technological advances from my days as an entrepreneur, and they’ve met China’s children, who have been my students at Harvard.
So, what took me so long to visit? The world, and especially China, changed faster than my understanding of it. Nothing we see or hear through our media or our politicians rivals what I saw and experienced on this trip.
I thought I’d use the next few posts to describe a few of the things that surprised me and impressed me on this trip. In this post, I’ll begin with my personal impressions of the cities we visited. I say “we” because I benefited tremendously from traveling with a number of Harvard colleagues who have broad experience and deep knowledge of China. My heartfelt thanks go to Xiao-Li Meng, Mark Elliott, Lydia Chen, Paul Keenan, Jon Petitt, and Tim Brown, who traveled extensively with me and tolerated my unending stream of questions. I also want to acknowledge Bill Kirby, Arthur Kleinman, Mike McElroy, and Lillian Wei, who worked behind the scenes at some of my stops.
That’s me on The Peak overlooking Hong Kong on a fairly smoggy day. I will admit that I was expecting a simple observation platform when I got to the peak. What I found was a full-fledged, upscale shopping mall.
My trip began in Hong Kong, a city that straddles Chinese and Western cultures. A good place to begin if you want to ease into the experience.
I did love this city with its meandering paths that took you through building lobbies, across walkways flying above the busy streets, and into quiet gardens sprinkled across the bustling city. You didn’t walk across town; you weaved through it. It’s not like walking the grid-like blocks of NYC, or the long main streets of London. I found it more confusing than the bowels of Penn Station, but also quite pleasant, as Margot Gill and Paul Keenan illustrate in one of the city’s gardens.
Ok, I didn’t enjoy everything; every building in Hong Kong pumps perfume into the air circulation systems of their lobbies. Yuk. I hope this trend doesn’t take hold in the USA.
After a few days in Hong Kong, we flew to Shanghai. Yes, the airports in China are modern and massive. In fact, the airports are so spacious that they felt empty to me. Not what I was expecting. Once airborne, on the DragonAir flight, Xiao-Li attempted to teach me how to recognize Chinese numbers and dates in a Chinese newspaper. We did this while Modern Family played on the plane’s flat-screen TV. Definitely not what I had expected.
Shanghai is a modern city. It is full of skyscrapers, each seeming to want to outdo the others in its modern design. I can’t imagine such a variety of architecture in an U.S. city.
Finally, after a few days in Shanghai, we took the high-speed train to Beijing. What a nice way to travel, and a great way to see the country (or at least a part of it).
Beijing differs greatly from Hong Kong and Shanghai. It retains a sense of history even in its new construction. It felt like I was now fully in China. And to celebrate, we were treated to a couple of beautiful blue-sky days. I hope China is able to overcome its pollution problems. When it’s clear, the country’s beauty is truly something to behold.
No filter needed for this beautiful blue sky.