Saturday, May 30, 2015

The City God Temple

On Thursday I took the opportunity to visit the City God Temple in the center of Xi’an. This temple is exemplary in a few different ways. The temple’s architecture and organization are unique and beautiful, it portrays an incredible amalgamation of Daoism, Confucianism, and local religion, as well as, most importantly, the temple is still in use by many of the locals. Visiting the temple was quite an invaluable and rewarding experience.
The temple is extremely hard to miss as it stands as an enormous red and gold monument to the past, its archways jutting into the street and looming over passerby. The passage into the temple is crowded with various street vendors, the majority of whom sell incense and prayer papers, which are more expensive at their usage points further into the temple. Due to such market activity, the entrance is loud and boisterous, goods from produce to children’s toys being hawked and bartered. This is why it is even more startling to enter the silence of the temple proper. In Confucian style, the temple is bisected into two courtyards, the first of which, in earlier days, would be for guests and visitors, and the second for family, or in the case of a temple, the clergy. The guest courtyard is dominated by a large pool full of koi, surrounded by tables where monks in robes and old men played Chinese chess and loudly debated ideas.
Once you walk over the divide into the second, private courtyard of the temple, the ambiance changes once again. Here, two rooms lie on either side of the courtyard, and a large building rests at the back. The smell of incense fills the air. There were no other tourists. Instead, a few locals walked past, placing incense in the burner and entering the large building gin the back to pay their respect to the gods within. The side rooms each contained three statues to local gods, their interiors ornately painted. Entering the main building at the rear placed you in the middle of five gargantuan statues, forefront of which was the City God of Xi’an, wise, robed and gilded. As is common in Daoism, the philosophy had fused itself with the local religion, becoming a Daoist temple to the city’s local gods.
This temple is an awe and wonder inspiring feat of architecture; the style and beliefs it holds are a beautiful blending of Confucian, Daoist, and local beliefs. It was a privilege to be given the opportunity to visit such a spectacle.  

Friday, May 29, 2015

Information Overload and Modern Nature

    First impressions are often given the majority of credit for someone’s assessment of a person, a region, or a people. However, it is with prolonged exposure that one may gain a broader assessment of such a thing. I have been in Xi’an for nearly a week now, and I feel that I have a better understanding of the society than my first impressions endowed me. Specifically, there are a few little observations that I find intriguingly different from the US. To begin, there is a stark visual contrast in Xi’an compared to much of the US. In Xi’an, the first thing to notice is that signage is much more prevalent. From street signs to hundreds of shop signs, there is never a lack of visual information. The most interesting thing I noticed about the signs is that they are most often in at least two languages. These languages are primarily Chinese and English, however many signs also contain a Japanese, Korean, or French translation as well. And although most places have signs in both Chinese and English, I am often hard-pressed to find a shopkeeper who speaks both languages. Most shops in the city are incredibly small, allowing for many more than I’ve ever seen in the US packed onto one street. Due to their size, they are all fighting over signage real estate, so day or night every street is garishly lit up. Parallel to the streets, the wide sidewalks are usually made thin by street vendors and haphazardly parked cars, the vendors who, of course, must also find space for their own signs.

    The second little observation offering a stark contrast from Xi’an to the US is the amount of vegetation. By this I do not so much mean natural vegetation, but instead the pervasive amount of potted and household plants. That is not to say that there is not very much vegetation in Xi’an, conversely, the humidity and climate allow for ubiquitous greenery throughout the city. Every shop, every house, even the interior of restaurants and bars have various potted plants clustered on shelves and on the porch. I believe this has a deep rooted connection to Daoism in Chinese society, especially the Daoist ideal of naturalism, blending the natural environment with the modern environment. I also enjoy the amount of beauty that all the plants bring to the region, contrasting gray and brown of modern architecture. These are a couple small observations that I have noticed differ quite a bit from the US, and in a small way, create a unique society in Xi’an.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Late Starts, Missed Flights, and the Great Firewall of China

               Ah yes, the first post on a new travel blog. Usually fresh, exciting, and setting up a grand adventure yet to come, the first post is a groundbreaking event. However, this is not such a traditional post. This study abroad story begins instead with a student’s close friend and worst enemy: procrastination. I believed that I would be leaving for China on Thursday, May 21st, so I planned to set up a VPN (a necessity in China, but more on that later) and this blog, a day or two before (see: procrastination). Alas, as often befalls procrastinators, one bump in the road derailed all my plans. Well, “bump” may not be the correct comparison, try “cliff.” See, I fell prey to every world traveler’s worst nightmare; I missed my flight.
               Now, you may thinking, ‘That’s awful! Of course, there must be an entirely plausible reason for such a tragedy!’ And I wish you were right! However, that is not the case. Remember how earlier I mentioned that I thought I would be leaving on Thursday, May 21st? Well, it turns out that my flight was actually on Wednesday, the day before. You can probably see the problem. The situation played as you would expect. I turned off my phone Tuesday night, had a restful night, and then turned on my phone in the morning to find out that I had missed my 6am flight! What a crazy day! As I am currently in China, it can be puzzled out that I was able to resolve the situation (quite expensively, of course), and catch a flight a few days later. I arrived at Shaanxi Normal University in Xi’an with, thankfully, only a few missed events. After arriving, it was time to create this blog!
               Not so fast. I discovered quickly that China was not overly fond of Blogger, as it is run by Google, whom they disapprove of. Censorship in China is widespread and varied, across many sites and companies, and is often referred to as the Great Firewall of China. Now, I did have a plan to circumvent this wall, by using a VPN I had set up while in the US. However, missing my flight just so happened to put that plan into disarray. In order to create this blog, I needed a VPN. In order to get a VPN, I needed to not be in China…or use a different VPN. So, to that effect, I have spent the last two days attempting to get a VPN, without a VPN, with no luck. Today, I was incredibly worried I wouldn't be able to create this blog, until I was talking with a friend, who said she had a way to help me! She let me use her VPN to get online long enough to find a good VPN and purchase it, which was a huge relief. So, with my feet firmly on Chinese ground, classes started, and blog created, I am excited to spend the next four weeks broadening my horizons and imbibing the local culture!