Excerpts from an interview with Yantai University architecture student Meng Xin, and observations made during my trip to Yantai, China in 2000
By the time Meng was in middle school he had learned that if he wanted to have an impact on larger issues, things beyond his own needs, he needed to choose his methods wisely and not fight the battles which were not worth the sacrifice of his own power.
From his earliest days in school Meng Xin felt the need to communicate about the things that do not work in his system. On his first day of school he got up and left after the first hour. He walked home and told his mother he didn’t need to go to school.
Although a self-described “naughty boy” Meng learned that acting out would serve no purpose, but by the time he reached middle school the rigidity of the classroom had become suffocating. He found a way to share his feelings through art. During his years of middle school he drew cartoons depicting the boredom, idiocy, or uselessness of the classroom structure. Fortunately he understood the difference between humor and ridicule, a fact that saved him from administrative wrath on several occasions. His teachers even laughed at times.
He found a second outlet when he discovered the Architecture Department at Yantai University.
“Everyone has his ideas but most of them cannot express them. They may feel them but they cannot express them to others. I find that in this major [architecture] I can express my ideas. I like to imagine possibilities and now I can express them.”
When I interviewed Meng in 2000 he explained that in 1998 his dreams of what is possible burgeoned after he was presented with the opportunity to come to study with a master teacher, James Hubbell, in San Diego. His weeks of working alongside James and students from Mexico, Russia, and the United States gave him the opportunity to understand something of how students from other countries work, and to see something outside of China instead of just reading, or seeing movies, or listening to his father’s descriptions of his work related trips to Korea, France, and the United States.
I noticed that there was a pattern in his expanding view of possibilities. He had gone from drawing irreverent cartoons, to architecture, to participation in the Pacific Rim Park and its international community while all the time his underlying thought was that all we can do is “try together to change the things that are not for human beings.”
The park had significance for him far beyond just the professional lessons he learned in San Diego. He discovered that people from different countries could share a vision and work together successfully. He walked away from the project with a sense of hope for the world having learned that everyone wants to live a good life, to live comfortably, to work freely, to enjoy their music and art.
“I think that maybe as we know each other, have the same aim we will become one world… We Chinese like to think things, to put a lot of time to thinking. Other countries they like to put things to reality, so I think it’s reasonable for us to work together to complement each other…. If we have the same aim we will learn to walk the same way one day… [We think the Park] is for every person… Our four countries were reaching for every country in the world to join us – South Africa, France, Korea, not only our four.”
With all the positive insights Meng shared with me during my stay in Yantai he was also troubled by something that he saw in San Diego two years earlier. Meng, Gao and Mr. Chen were all embarrassed at the misinformation and lack of understanding of the current state of affairs in China. People in San Diego would often ask questions about the lifestyle in China’s cities. The questions seemed to indicate that Americans have no concept of the fact that the cities of China are too full to allow for much single family housing. They also were unaware of the fact that museums, schools, movies, TV, DVD and other amenities were common.
“We [the Chinese students] think the outside, the other countries, do not really understand our country. They always talk about things 10 years ago 20 years ago. They can’t stop thinking about it, they can’t stop talking about it. We want to have a nice life. I think one day we must have a cross. We must work together. No one can work without others help. If you want others help you must know what other’s do.”
In response to the expression of these feelings I asked Meng if he could take me to his home and introduce me to his parents. He was so thrilled at the idea that he immediately went to my phone, picked it up and had a lively discussion, none of which I understood. He looked over at me expectantly and extended his Mother’s invitation for me to come to dinner. When I said yes he jumped up, grabbed his jacket, and headed for the door.
His excitement was so obvious that I was puzzled when he stopped and turned to me with a serious face and voice. “Is this OK with Mr. Chen? (The city official who chaperoned the Chinese students during their stay in San Diego) We’re not breaking any laws are we?”
I was totally mystified by the concern in his voice, but I had no concerns at all when I told him “I’m a 52 year old American woman and no one is going to tell me that I can’t eat with my friends.”
His dark moment of seriousness lightened and his buoyant mood returned. He grabbed his jacket and scarf. “OK! OK!”
We left the hotel with the usual smiles and nod to the doorman, who accepted my overtly friendly behavior with his usual sense of amusement and camaraderie. Walking down the driveway to the road and then out to the coast I realized that it was getting a bit cold and that it was a bit late to start out. The double-decker would stop running long before I could return and I did not even have the slightest idea where the development zone was. I mentioned all this to Meng, but he was unconcerned. He gallantly told me that he would make sure I got home safely. He seemed so pleased to be taking his American friend home. What started out as a curiosity on my part was allowing Meng to show a sincere display of friendship.
From the windows of our bus I saw that we were heading into a fairly new section of the city with modern business buildings on either side of a very wide street. I regretted that it was so dark. It was difficult to make out much detail, but here was a very different environment, at least from the façade which faced the road. We got off next to some new construction and as we walked along side the construction site Meng bemoaned the fact that this would perhaps be a new mall that would attract many people and disturb the relative quiet of the neighborhood.
We continued a short way and turned to the left where there were several small stores glaringly lit with bare fluorescent lights. I tried to have Meng help me find a little hostess gift for his mother, but this seemed to irritate him. “That is not necessary” “You don’t need to do that”. I tried to explain that at home this is a natural expression of appreciation and that I felt a need to do it, regardless of whether or not he perceived a necessity. His perplexity approached resentment. I was told that I should not feel that I need to bring something. I finally acquiesced, assured that manners here did not dictate the necessity of a gift. My own sense of gratitude would have to be expressed in some other way.
Soon we turned onto a path on the other side of the apartment building. There was some shrubbery, but not much light, something I had often noted in residential areas. As he opened the door to the building he told me to wait. There was complete darkness inside until he bounded up the steps —Then there was light. He explained that motion detectors in the halls of many new buildings help to save on electricity.
Up the sides of the stairwell there was writing on the walls and places where posters had apparently been torn down. It was not an inviting entrance by Western standards. It gave the impression of disrespect and lack of concern that we would associate with a gang infested area. But obviously there was nothing to fear. Here was my friend Meng, very serious, very wary, very proper, Meng with a huge grin, inviting me to come up to the top floor, the fourth floor, to meet his parents, both engineers, one relatively well traveled. I knew I was safe but I felt like Alice in the rabbit hole, not trying to understand, just observing.
When we entered the apartment I was delighted to find a very cozy home. Perhaps, by Western standards it was a bit small, but it was furnished and decorated in such a way that the size felt quite comfortable. The door opened into a room with a comfortable sofa, coffee table, and easy chair. Against the bedroom wall was a TV and above it a large painting of a sailing ship, done by a local artist in Yantai, in a distinctly European style. His parents sat down while Meng introduced us. His father greeted me in English, words he had learned years ago on a business trip of some sort. His mother spoke no English, but we felt at ease with each other immediately. We are approximately the same age, both professionals with children. She seemed pleased to meet a woman who was traveling alone, expressing regret at not having the opportunities to travel that both her husband and son have enjoyed.
Within a few minutes Mr. Meng asked if it would be OK to call a friend who was a local newspaper reporter. He seemed to think it would be fun but Meng became agitated again, showing his serious face. Meng’s response was “I don’t think that is a good idea. We are here just as friends. Nobody needs to know”.
At first his father and I ignored the shift in attitude, but I quickly realized that he was sincerely distressed and suggested that maybe we should forget about it. As with the earlier episode in my room, he immediately relaxed. “That is good. Just friends”
Exploring Meng’s World
As his mother left the room to start dinner Meng invited me to see the rest of the apartment starting with his parents’ bedroom. The room was large enough to hold a double bed and dresser comfortably and the closet took up an entire wall, floor to ceiling. It was well arranged to store much more then just clothes.
Meng’s room reflected his focused personality. I have never seen a young person’s room that was so organized. But even beyond the organization was the fact that he obviously maintains it in that condition at all times. When he left the last time he had not had any idea that he might have a visitor the next time he returned home. The foot of the bed came near to the door leaving a small space for neatly stacked books and written material. On the outer wall was his drawing table. His desk and computer were in the corner. Next to the desk was another large pile of papers from which he easily found a drawing he had chosen to give me. Finally, opposite the door was a bookcase completely arranged with a variety of items and books. He put my feeble attempts at organization to shame. His mind seems to have the same structure as his room – a place for everything and everything in its place.
This structure serves him well as long as he is not challenged to go outside his mental box. But I suspect the reality of his world, is far less comfortable than it might appear from his room. Meng has dreams and visions and beliefs that are larger than his mental structures. The expression of these beliefs are constrained by their environment, pushed to a point close to intolerable. He is constantly on the edge of confronting his conscience, constantly in fear of having to break a rule, thereby drawing attention to himself and possibly inhibiting his ability to achieve his visions. This is what his room told me just as eloquently as the color draining from his face at the thought of a reporter coming to see us, or of Mr. Chen’s censure.
While we sat there in his room he asked me to sit and watch a scene from Schindler’s List that had particular significance to him. In the scene Schindler redefines the meaning of power to the head of a concentration camp. The concept is shifted from the externalization of power, the expression of power by destroying something, to the internalization of power by controlling the urge to judge, to seek revenge. Schindler calls this internalized power the power to pardon.
The remarkable part of sitting there with Meng was not what the character in the movie said, but Meng’s reaction to it. This was his opportunity to share this idea of power with someone who might understand it at that same visceral level. This was very important to him that I should know him better through understanding this scene.
The sincerity of his response was indicated by his willingness to completely experience the scene. The inclination of his body towards the screen, absorbed into the thoughts and understandings of the characters, was accompanied by unguarded facial expressions and emotions. He understood the concept of pardon as a moral obligation. Most people who have not developed an internal power, or strength, will fail to control their destructive urges if they are deeply tested.
Many of his words and actions were actually clarified at that moment. It is obvious that much of the tapestry of Meng’s life is colored by frustration and a desire to change the system, but he understands that reacting destructively is not the answer . If change is to come it must come through the practiced and measured expression of personal power applied wisely.
These scenes seemed to me to bring him face to face with his own questions and fears. He understands that we all may fall prey to the destructive aspects of our nature if we are unaware of them, or do not understand them. These aspects of ourselves can override the deepest of convictions if they take us by surprise. If we don’t understand how people can turn away from a moral imperative there is the danger that we may repeat the same offense. This was the horror of the movie scene before us, on the screen. In those few minutes watching Schindler’s List, the sincerity and insight he displayed throughout the hours of our interview were confirmed as honest and deeply felt.
It was difficult for Meng to put into words his feelings and thoughts around the subject of power. I interpreted our intense conversation as an attempt, on his part, to tell me what he takes into consideration when making decisions and planning actions. In front of me was a student who, as a adolescent, spoke through his cartoons, but recognized that his power only allowed him to lighten the situation, not make any changes in the system. Through architecture he began to dream of quality housing for the people of China, but he also understood that during this period of study he must remain socially invisible until he has used the system fully and gained the knowledge that is available from it. And there is the political being that is suppressed, not by the system directly, but by his knowledge that fighting the system to make an inconsequential point may prevent him from being effective in an important standoff. Now he is getting ready to define which battles are worth fighting.
Communication with the Chinese students is difficult but I hope some day to find out where his dreams and personal principles have taken him. If I ever find out I will let you know.