July 3rd 2006 I Want to Go to China (or Japan)

I’ve been (fervently) reading Thomas L. Friedman’s The World is Flat, a very eye-opening book about globalization in the twenty-first century. There was a passage about a city in China; unfortunately, I can’t quite remember which one. The passage described the city’s landscape, including its array of glass-and-steel skyscrapers. Friedman noted the city had been developed a lot in just the last ten years.

Maybe it’s just my Central Pennsylvania-induced Americoethnocentrism talking, but the passage really hit a chord with me. Growing up in the US, I developed a very Western view of the world. I learned of the gleaming cities of the United States, and I was taught that Europe, for the most part, was nearly the same (the unspoken lesson being that Western Europe was similar, of course). Places like China, however, were backwater areas, the “ghettoes” of the world, so to speak. China was a mass of people driving rickshaws and working in sweatshops to produce cheap toys and clothing for American kids. Clearly, I now know that this is not the case, but it’s still a bit striking—like a slap in the face—to be reminded that China is not a stone-age country like I was generally taught.

After reading this passage, I was suddenly struck by an urge to visit China. I’d like to see what the country is like with my own eyes, not through the myopic telescope of a Western world view.

I’d also like to visit Japan someday. In fact, lately I’ve been wishing I had studied Japanese when I started college. Partly it’s a pragmatic desire—Japanese is a major technological partner with the US, and being a computer science researcher in-the-making, I might very well be dealing with Japan sometime in the not-too-distant future (possibly even working there, depending on how the chips fall). Speaking Japanese, then, would certainly open up some possibilities. But my interest also stems from a more personal fascination with the country. I’ve long been interested in the East, but my first semester in college, I took a Japanese literature course (in English, naturally), and I’ve been fascinated with the culture ever since. It would be very eye-opening to visit the country in person.

Unfortunately, I speak neither Japanese nor Chinese. I know I could just go to the countries anyway (many people in both China and Japan probably speak English), but I’ve always had a problem with visiting a country and expecting other people to adapt their use of language to me. It seems…well, very Americoethnocentric! I wouldn’t be averse to traveling with someone who spoke the native language, and using him as a translator, but I wouldn’t want to visit a foreign country in which I couldn’t speak the native language by myself.

But I’d still like to go, so if anyone who speaks Chinese or Japanese is going to China or Japan anytime, give me a heads-up!