Beyond the Hem | 途·中
By Ran Lavin Huo, SM ’17 (visiting student)
Ran Lavin Huo, a Beijing native and an exchange student from the University of Hong Kong, presents her interwoven feelings during travels around the globe.
Traveling is not as much about having your breath taken away by wondrous views as it is about self-reflection. Last year, I toured several places that seemed very different, in all of which I felt the juxtaposition of old and new.
Early last year, I was on an entrepreneurship trip to Israel with the Techcracker Lab program. On the first day, the relentless wind drove us into a huge yurt, which held 60 people. In the middle of the yurt, we encircled a fireplace. Every time we were about to take a step, we had to take care not to step on anyone’s toes. However, just two days later, we arrived in Tel Aviv, a hotbed for prestigious tech startups. The co-existence of desolation and technological advancement in one region comes from the Israelis’ understanding of their nation: realizing Israel’s lack of natural resources, they used technology as their source of development.
While Israel’s development strategy builds on top of what it does not have naturally, the outskirts of western Sichuan, a province in southwestern China, seek to preserve their primitive form against the mainstream backdrop of modernization. During my trip to Sichuan last summer, my camera would not stop clicking in the picturesque Hua Hu (Lake of Flowers) and Yue Liang Wan (Bay of Moon). No matter how many photos I took, I felt as if I were examining only the hem of a beautiful gown. But soon, I lifted that gown, only to find a pair of worn out muddy sandals. Food was bland: once, I had stir-fried potatoes, steamed potatoes, and potato chunk in the same meal. Although potatoes don’t seem to fit with the richness of the view, they are easy to grow and cook in western Sichuan’s high altitude. Eventually, after we arrived in Chengdu, the provincial capital of Sichuan, we all experienced some sort of culture shock and unfamiliarity, when we stayed in a four-star hotel and enjoyed a buffet. In retrospect, it was the backward primitive feeling we experienced in the outskirts of Sichuan that nourished the peacefulness within that scenery.
When I came to America, I experienced a similar backward feeling on Yale’s campus. The Gothic buildings here make people feel as if they are in pre-Renaissance Europe. I discovered that most dormitories were not equipped with elevators or air conditioners, in order to preserve the authenticity of the Gothic architectural style. Though I constantly complained about the inconvenience of carrying my luggage up to the fourth floor, I was impressed that while many modern institutions flaunt their “contemporary” glass walls, Yale is still wearing a classical outfit. Clearly, it is not because Yale is running out of money for renovation. Yet in classrooms, the honey colored desks and chairs continue to creak as generations of world-class scholars pass on their knowledge of art, politics, or science to students.
Speaking of glass walls and modernization, Hong Kong is not to be missed. I spent two years studying in Hong Kong, where I saw buildings are so tall and thin that they reminded me of skinny models suffering from malnutrition. But sometimes at street corners, I could see signs of the good old days. This sign might be a traditional tea stand at the street corner, where I would order a particularly bitter but healthy tea. The shopkeeper would take out a china bowl, lift the lid of the steel pot in front of her, and take a spoonful of liquid from it. The moment I held the bowl in both hands, the pedestrian rush and neon logos would fade away and time would slow down quite tolerably. Or it might be a modest-looking Yum Cha store, serving China-style brunch tea. Once, with a good friend, I hurried to find a seat amid the crowd, and learnt that this store was a renowned restaurant in the neighborhood with decades of history. Sometimes, even celebrities would come here to taste the original recipe. The restaurant, however, did not build up its fame through fancy decorations. It stood there quietly, the same way it did ten or twenty years ago. Perhaps that is why visitors from a decade ago are still lining up at the counter.