The Big Global Dance

Four weeks ago in my first column about my trip to China I wrote how I hoped to encounter China’s “cultural core,” its Confucian “root,” and experience it.

During my two weeks in China I did encounter what I might call China’s ancient core a few times-in a ceremonial smudging outside a Buddhist temple and the timeless view across West Lake in Hangzhou, in the colorful ancestors’ tombs on the hillsides on the way to Yiwu, and upon arriving in that city listening to an old singer chant an ancient song in an ancestors’ temple.

Maybe I touched the core when I saw a 400-year-old ginkgo rising above a dynastic garden in central Shanghai. I think I even glanced it in a trip to the local Cineplex with my colleagues to see the newest Chinese blockbuster, Confucius.

But during the day-to-day my desire for contact with China’s core was mostly drowned under the complexity of present day business and the overwhelming rate of the vast country’s development.

What I didn’t expect to happen was for me to encounter and confirm my own “cultural core” in the traveling process. In China I looked for China, but what I kept finding was myself, John Lane, the American individual/idealist.

When my surface was rubbed thin by the foreignness of China, my own strong core poked through, and it was often the idea of the individual’s worth and the way we deeply value the creative, questing self.

My final morning in Shanghai I was tired of communal Chinese food served from a Lazy Susan at a round table. I didn’t want rice, China Snack, Red Bean Volume, or vegetables that had been anywhere near a wok. After two weeks I wanted my own food again, something that I’d chosen from a menu I could read. I didn’t want to share.

I walked with my friend John two blocks to the nearby Western-style shopping district. We ate at a bakery more French than Chinese facing the pedestrian mall. We drank strong dark coffee and sat across from each other at a square table and ate our individual breakfast buns.

Exiting the bakery we noticed that outside on the mall, the communal morning exercise was underway. This was nothing new. My first morning in Shanghai I’d wandered the Fudan University campus and watched transfixed as dozens of Chinese workers went through their tai chi moves in unison.

On that final morning we stopped for a moment and watched a group doing tai chi, and then another group a little further down the mall caught our interest. It was a much larger group of Chinese men and women dancing to what sounded like “beach music ” booming from a small CD machine.

“Oh my,” John said. “I think the Chinese have discovered the Shag.”

We watched. Yes, they were dancing South Carolina’s state dance.

Along the edge of the shag line were 10 or 12 men and women turned from the group staring into shop windows, partnering only with their own reflections.

I’m not sure why, but this scene hit me like a bolt of cultural lightning. I found something very hopeful and comforting about China in those solo dancers. The encounter freed me up to leave their country and return to my own.

So don’t weep for me, China. Don’t weep for America. We have more to offer than our capitalism and our subprime crisis, our gridlock two party system, and our crippling isolationism surfacing from time-to-time. You’ve already found the Shag.

Maybe you’ll find other cultural things of ours that will help in your journey deeper into modernity.

There may be a “China Century” underway, and you might even lead, but I’m now confident you have to dance with us.

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