Young Chinese national: “Wow, Henan! I’ve always wanted to go there.”
Young Chinese national, still smiling: “No, actually, not really.”
This conversation is usually followed with a statement like “Why don’t you go to Beijing or Shanghai? Why not Hong Kong?” Or “The Henan accent is really strong. You’re not going to be able to understand anything.” Or “Henan food isn’t that great. You should go to Sichuan.” And on and on and on.
Yes, I know that Sichuan food is delicious and that more foreign students study in Beijing and Shanghai, but come on, Henan can’t be all bad. I mean, Wikipedia calls it “the birthplace of Chinese civilization” – civilizations don’t just spring up from terrible places. On top of that, I’ve read that the population is 94 million. That’s more people than California, Texas and New York combined. You can’t tell me that 94 million people are just rolling around in the mud, talking about bad food in a dialect that no one understands.
A few weeks back, I had a conversation with a guy who grew up in Henan. He was older than some of the other Chinese nationals I talked with and always spoke with a funny smirk on his face. “When they hear that you’re from America,” he told me, “they’re going to ask you, ‘How long was your train ride?’” – joking that planes are a little beyond the common folk.
He went on to say that the modern history of Henan is fairly bleak. I may have misunderstood a bit of his Chinese, but it sounded like, during the Mao years, there were multiple failed government farming campaigns that took chunks out of Henan’s population. People moved in (or were told to move in), the campaign failed, mass starvation, and then the process was repeated.
So, needless to say, there’s a bit of dark history surrounding Henan, but that doesn’t discourage me. After all, this is 2015, not 1975. Mao is gone, culture has shifted, and ads for McDonalds, Starbucks, and Nike now fill Chinese smart phones just like our’s at home.
That said, I’m sure the past will still be present in Zhengzhou, if not in the soon-to-be-destroyed buildings of an old neighborhood, then in the faces of seniors practicing qigong in the parks. For China, it’s just the nature of the beast. It’s inescapable. Sometimes, history hangs in the air like smog. You meet a grandma on the street and hear she’s lived in Beijing since the thirties, and after calculating the Japanese invasion, the communist rise to power, the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, the advent of capitalism, and Tiananmen Square, you can’t believe she made it so far.
The more I study this language, culture and history, the more I’m in awe. How does it keep going through all the challenges and struggles? How does it define itself in the face of iPhones, oil crises, Beyonce, corruption charges, human rights violations, and Kentucky Fried Chicken? For me, I have to see for myself. And it looks like this time, ground zero is going to be Henan.