(originally from Aug 13th)
My host family took me on an overnight trip to a town in Sichuan with more ethnic minorities, many similar to the Zhang (Tibetan) cultures. We passed a beautiful man-made lake, held back by a recently built dam.
This area was devastated by the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan, but has since been rebuilt with the help of funds from nearly every province in China. The new “old” town looks as if it were untouched for 200 years, and the stores lining the streets sell jade, tea, herbs, dried fruit snacks, tofu, and sausages of all flavors/cuts of meat.
I purchased a jade (or “jade” rather- authenticity not certain) pixiu, a mythical creature that will bring its owner good fortune and great amounts of wealth. My host mom joked that with the pixiu’s guidance I would eventually quit the peace corps and return to banking. Not funny. At all. We spent the night at an inexpensive inn, and I stayed up late, smoking and talking with my host parents for one of our final weekends together
The next day we visit an important site- we drive to Wenchuan county, which was at the epicenter of the 2008 earthquake that killed 70,000 people. A school building still remains in ruins, and we were hustled into taking a walking tour of the complex.
In some countries it is the norm to leave structures crumbling if they were destroyed during war (primarily to honor victims, but also a good way to build national morale, to remind the world what nation XYZ did to your citizens, and to induce guilt that could be leveraged for several decades down the road during future conflicts- I’m too cynical, I know…) But here the aggressor was nature.. and there’s really no point in shaming tectonic plates for slipping over each other on a lake of magma. However, My host father explained it’s also a moment of pride for the Chinese, since it was the first time the nation came together to volunteer time, services and money for their own people on such a large scale.
At various points along the tour, we would stop and pose for pictures taken by designated photographers, and then later have to option to buy pictures for exorbitant prices. In America this would be considered so tasteless and exploitative (remember the 9/11 cheese plate???) but I’m learning that we are a much more politically correct country than many others, and for the most part everyone else in the world is happy to take selfies and spend some pocket change for a souvenir.
Things get even more offensive (to this culturally sensitive American, at least) when across the street a 4-D EARTHQUAKE SIMULATION RIDE was open for business! WTF?! my jaw dropped and all these diplomat-in-training words raced through my head: objectionable, distasteful, vulgar, crass, commercial, insensitive… but my 10 year old host brother derailed my train of thought when he grabbed my arm and we run toward the ride. So, we paid 60RMB for two tickets (just under $10 USD, hella expensive) and sat on a ten minute shaking car facing a giant LED screen that was part epcot center, part grand theft auto- complete with exploding gas lines, crumbling buildings, fire hydrants gushing water, cars crashing into cafes, and (inexplicably) a giant tsunami that floods the entire city. The last scene switched from ground level view to bird’s eye view of the ruins, so I think we drowned in the chaos.