Friday, July 30, 2010

Black Babies and Wheelchairs

One of our young Chinese friends has just arrived in the US for graduate school, and he shared some of his first impressions of the country he knows only from books, TV, movies, and the stories of his American colleagues in Beijing.

Chen, who is versed in fields as far-flung as superconductivity and the history of Jesuit experience in imperial China, surprised us -- and I think himself -- at what he noticed in 5 days, which he had never before seen in 28 years.

"I saw little black babies," said Chen. He had, of course, seen black-skinned adults in Beijing (mostly Africans) and probably in his central-China home province of Hubei, but had never seen small black children. I thought back to my recent 3 years in China, and I would agree that I probably had not seen them either.

And "I saw so many garages and basements," he said, adding that he had known about these from descriptions and from movies, television, and some upscale expat housing developments in China's big cities. But seeing so many garages and basements in person was as curious as seeing the big, sprawling private houses they belonged to.

I think the biggest surprise to Chen was the number of handicapped people he saw. When in China, we all had noticed the scarcity of handicapped people out on the streets (except noticeably, the blind, who deftly use their canes to feel their way along the inlaid corrugated strips on sidewalks). But here, said Chen, you see more than the blind or the occasional old person in a wheelchair. "There are so many young people, without a limb or with some other problem" who are out and about and functioning normally.

Finally, Chen was describing a quick stop in Mechanicsburg, PA, a few days ago. He and his host took an early morning walk through the quiet streets. "It looked just like Desperate Housewives!" he remarked.

(image from


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