The study abroad program that I’m currently on has an independent travel week in early October. For the whole week, I was class-free and exploring the country. The only downside to it all was the rest of China, doing the exact same thing.
The independent travel week coincided with one of China’s Golden Weeks – a holiday allowing Chinese citizens to take a break from work and meet up with family and relax. There’s also a lot of domestic tourism involved. A lot.
During this Golden Week, I went to Xi’an. I hadn’t realized how packed the city would be, especially since it initially seemed pretty quiet. In fact, I was surprised at how subdued the place felt compared to the verticalness of Shanghai. Xi’an is structured around wide, straight roads and blocky structures. When I was being driven from the airport to my hostel, I could see smokestacks and cranes on the horizon, straddling the edges of the city. Though the inner areas didn’t have the same industrial feel, it felt like the architecture was sturdier, all right-angles. There weren’t nearly as many skyscrapers as there are in Shanghai.
I checked into the hostel and I still hadn’t felt like I’d landed. The layout and density was so different from what I’d grown familiar with that I kept wondering, am I really downtown? The compact, hectic atmosphere of Shanghai wasn’t really present. Instead, Xi’an had the feeling of a relaxed sprawl.
There was also an increased level of visibility. Not as many visibly foreign people walked around the streets of Xi’an, even during this time of travel. I saw a few others at some of the more notable tourist spots, but I tended to be the main target for shop owners. When they’d yell at me to come and check out their wares, I just kept it moving. That’s the ironic thing about learning a new language. Knowing when to ignore what’s being said to you can be just as important as knowing how to respond.
The most bustling site that I visited has to be the Terracotta Army, a Xi’an historical site with endless rows of terracotta statues modeled after the first emperor of China’s soldiers. Now, whenever I hear the saying “人山人海” (rén shān rén hǎi), it’s the first place that I think of. The saying roughly translates to “there are a lot of people here” — not a direct translation, but that’s the gist of it. The Terracotta Army is probably filled with visitors all year round, but Golden Week didn’t do me any favors. The crowd was so dense that I felt as if we were merging into one, giant, picture-obsessed and tour flag-waving organism.
And it wasn’t just the actual terracotta army excavation pits that were swarmed, where we could look down into pits and see the original terracotta sculptures – the whole site was structured with tiered sections, each one filled with restaurants and souvenir shops and other more clever tourist traps. One group of guys sung and danced with the kebabs they’d cook for their customers, while another chef pounded away at what I assumed was some sort of glutinous rice product. The guy pounding made a real show of it, taking a giant hammer and swinging at the white mass. Spectacle and food all rolled in one. I was tempted to try it out but I somehow found myself at a McDonald’s.
Speaking of McDonald’s, I’m going to go on a really brief tangent. Fast food joints. No matter where you go, those are weird spaces to be in. Chinese McDonald’s isn’t the same as American McDonald’s, and neither are the Pizza Huts or KFCs or Starbucks – but even if you’re eating a Pizza Hut Beijing roasted duck pizza or a Mid-Autumn Festival KFC meal, you’re surrounded by the same aesthetics that you’d find back in the States. Same color palettes, same strange, liminal interior design that doesn’t know whether it wants to be a restaurant or a pick-up-your-food-and-go ordeal.
Americans abroad tend to seek out these spaces, thinking that they’ll find refuge. A lot of times we’re tricked by superficial similarities to expect a cure for homesickness. The hope is that maybe, if we ignore the altered menus, if we squint hard enough, the golden arches will take us back to what we know. I think that hope is a bit misplaced. Searching for these little glimmers of America in different places will only be recontextualized by the environments we find ourselves in. But yeah, sometimes? I just want a burger.
Tangent over. Back to the Terracotta Army! Seeing it in person felt like observing an exposed fragment of history. Industrial beams and lighting overhead pinned the sculpted soldiers in place, and little signs marked different areas that are still being excavated. I hadn’t realized how much of an ongoing process uncovering the soldiers was.
The origins behind the soldiers is pretty different than how they’re treated today. Looking back on it, it’s almost fitting that the commercial spectacle was happening on the outskirts. By uncovering the sculptures and interpreting them through our contemporary viewpoints, we add something to the experience. We recontextualize it, just as the restaurants and shops outside play with the expectations that we bring to them.
I think that understanding this push and pull of influences is the key to adaptation. The subjectivity of how we look at our world and the histories we bring along with us will make things weird. Weird like transient fast food spaces. As I’m learning Mandarin, I hope that I can get to a point when I can explain some of these thoughts through it. But for now, when I gave my Chinese teacher my travel report, I spoke within my limitations and focused on the most important part about my independent travel week: Xi’an’s history is layered and will keep on changing.