URBAN GORILLA

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USC Asia Architecture & Urbanism Study Abroad Program

My China

As a class we have talked often about experiential phenomena in the city.  Tokyo, Hong Kong, Seoul, Beijing, Shanghai…they all have high rise buildings, elevated expressways, subway systems, bustling boulevards, bright lights, and throngs of people.  We have seen this together as a group but experience, the interpretation and comparison of small differences, occurs on an individual basis.  Experience is the stuff of memories, the ideas we take away from a place and the ones that resonate with us even if nobody else pauses to notice.

With only a couple weeks left in China, two thoughts chase me around everywhere I go.  The first is my excitement to return home to California, where life will regain a sense of normalcy.  The second is fear that this normalcy will handicap me, that my jolting experience abroad will by comparison render anything back home inadequate – or worse, boring.  So what is my experience? What has China been to me?  Here are a few of my favorite parts of the day – the things I look forward to when I wake up and the things I will miss most.  This is my China.

-At the beginning of the fifteen minute walk to the subway station, we cross a large boulevard shortly after leaving the hotel.  A concrete pedestrian island separates lanes of car traffic passing in front and bike traffic passing behind.  When I huddle on this island with ten other people, the city whizzing by on all sides, I imagine a boulder sitting still in a fast moving river.  This is the most peaceful part of the day.

-Whenever I get change at a market, it’s always a mystery whether the cash register attendant will give back One Yuen notes or coins.  I try to guess which one it will be, and secretly hope to get coins because the notes feel small and insubstantial.  Occasionally the coins will be counterfeit, but nobody seems to pay too much attention.

-Most subway stations have a pair of soldiers standing silently at the entrance and exit.  For some reason one of them stands on a one-foot tall pedestal, and the other on the ground.  The shorter soldier always stands on the pedestal.  This makes me happy.  I have not sought out any further explanation, and don’t plan on doing so.

-When ordering drinks, ‘lemon iced tea’ is almost always written as ‘ice lemon tea’.  If you say the former, servers will correct the order of your words.  To order Coca-Cola do not ask for ‘Coke’ or you will get a confused look.  Ask for ‘Cola’.  Drinks invariably come with knotted straws that force your beverage to make a loop-the-loop as you sip it.  The jury is still out on whether this adds anything to the experience.

-The undersides of elevated expressways are all brightly lighted.  A nighttime cab ride passes underneath, on top of, and above floating ribbons of color twisting their way through high-rise canyons.  I think about how this looks futuristic, and also a little bit silly.

-Elevators usually have no button for number four, because the Chinese word for it resembles the word for death.  This always reminds me of how many American buildings omit a thirteenth floor.  Superstition both amuses and annoys me but I’m not even sure why thirteen is superstitious to begin with, so I find the Chinese version more legitimate.  Checking for this is always the first thing I do in an elevator.

-Inside the subway station there is a long corridor you must walk down between the entrance and turnstiles.  At rush hour the corridor is filled with people, some walking briskly, some walking four abreast, some on their cell phones, some listening to music, some holding briefcases, and some completely unremarkable.  All these people moving at different paces make it impossible to walk the length of the corridor in a straight line.  You have to judge speeds, make passes, navigate groups, twist and turn your body, rub shoulders, and keep alert.  I love this.

Matt Luery

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Filed under: America, Architecture, China, everydayness, experience, phenomena, Urbanism

A Weekend in Xi’an

On our recent trip to Xi’an, I was exposed to the last frontier of China.  On the outskirts of Xi’an around Qingyun Ma’s Jade Valley Winery, small clusters of dilapidated houses and a vast, green patchwork of farmland covered the landscape.  I was in agruarian China, right at the cusp before development.  Next to the clusters, I could see the construction of a new school and a small town center starting to take form.  This experience of being away from the city was a relief, but for the people who lived there, this was their everyday life.  For cityfolk like me, anything beyond the city that I did was a spectacle, or even absurd.

In Henri Lefebvre’s Everyday and Everdayness, he sees the world destroying diversity and working towards uniformity.  He stated that “Every complex ‘whole’ from the smallest tool to the greatest works of art and learning, therefore possessed a symbolic value linking them to meaning at its most vast: to divinity and humanity, power and wisdom, good and evil, happiness and misery, the perrennial and the ephemeral.  These immense values were themselves mutable according to historical circumstance, to social classes, to rulers and mentors.  Each object was thus linked to some ‘style’ and therefore, as a work, contained while masking the larger functions and structures which were integral parts of its form.”  However, because the “functional elements was itself disengaged, rationaled, then industrially produced, and finally imposed by constraint and persuasion: that is to pay, by means of advertising and by powerful economic and political lobbies”  these everyday items have lost their “essence.”  We have been numbed by society to not see differences and be curious about the world.

Our class had to take cars to visit Dean Ma’s father’s house and one mode of transport was in the back of a pickup truck.  Riding on the back of a pickup truck in America is different than riding it in the Xi’an countryside even if the pickup trucks were the same.  With my conditioned mode of thinking, I have rationalized that its dangerous and the police would not hesitate to issue me a ticket for such ridiculous behavior.  But in Xi’an, I wanted to ride the back of the pickup truck because there were no such thing as rules to govern me.  I was responsible for my own injuries because it was my decision to ride in the back of the pickup truck.  For the people living in the Xi’an countryside, people ride in the back of trucks all the time.  Society has conditioned me to think that riding anywhere besides the passenger seats is considered unsophisticated and dangerous.  Most of my classmates and I WANTED to sit in the back of the pickup truck because we could break free from society’s constraints and enjoy the Xi’an countryside in an absurd, but memorable way.  Our bickering to ride in THAT pickup truck in THAT setting subconsciously justified our appreciation and desire to experience the everyday.

This event reminded me of the film Weekend because it extremitized the everyday by making it completely ridiculous and because of its absurdity, thus making events more memorable.  One particular scene filmed a traffic jam with cars set ablaze and dead bodies sprawled, but some people have casually parked their cars having a picnic, or running around.  At the time, I was thoroughly confused and thinking “WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON”, but those emotions and thoughts jolted me out of my complacent mindset of what a movie should be.  But does the absurdity of the everyday imply that it’s impossible to occur?  I would argue that it is more improbable than impossible that the absurdities occur, especially in a desensitized world today.  But when noticed, they give me a jolt of excitement that I immediately want others to also see.

Back in the city, I visited Xi’an’s city wall.  The width of the wall was wide enough for charriots to pass through, and now as a tourist attraction, visitors can ride a bicycle along it.  After recently watching Beijing Bicycle, this strange coincidence came full circle.  In the movie, the bicycle becomes takes on a character because the movie shows it being more than it is.  For one character, the bicycle is a dream to have, enjoy, be cool and to attract a girlfriend.  The other character values the bicycle because it is his way of making a living delivering packages.  Both become attached to the bicycle that stir a range of emotions like sadness, courage, fear, and worry.  The bicycle transcends its normal meaning of transporting a person from point A to B.

Seeing the Beijing Bicycle and Weekend helped me understand that I was not just riding a bicycle.  I was riding it on a relic and ancient artifact of the city.  I was seeing the roofscape of the buildings inside the city wall.  I was seeing the new skyscapers just outside of the city wall.  Riding a bicycle on the street would not have given me this same experience [nonetheless riding a bicycle in a country that doesn’t give the pedestrian the right of way is another expierence].  The meaning of this bicycle went beyond just riding it, but all the other sights that came about after I started pedaling.

I am ashamed of the fact that I have been numbed by society and blinded to see the excitement and beauty around the city.  Now that I notice that simple things that occur in the city as part of the everday experience, the city is not just a place where I inhabit. It is a larger, living organism that has varying scales of activity that my curiosity allows me to see.

_Joyce

Filed under: America, beijing bicycle, China, conditioning, Desensitize, everyday, experience, society, transcend, weekend, Xi'an

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The views and opinions contained in this blog are solely those of the individual authors and do not represent the views and opinions of the University of Southern California or any of its officers or trustees.

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AAU FALL 2013:

University of Southern California
School of Architecture
Asia Architecture and Urbanism
Study Abroad Program

Director:
Andrew Liang
Instructors:
Bu Bing
Steven Chen
Yo-Ichiro Hakomori
Andrew Liang
Yuyang Liu
Neville Mars
Academic Contributors:
Thomas Chow, SURV
Bert de Muynck, Movingcities.org
Manying Hu, SZGDADRI, ITDP, Guangzhou
Clare Jacobson, Design Writer, Editor, Curator
Laurence Liauw, SPADA, Hong Kong
Mary Ann O'Donnell, Shenzhen Noted, Fat Bird, Shenzhen
Paul Tang, Verse, Shanghai
Li Xiangning, Tongji University, Shanghai
Students:
Daniel Aguilar
Hong Au
Michael den Hartog
Caroline Duncan
Nefer Fernandez
Christian Gomez
Isabelle Hong
Jin Hong Kim
Ashley Louie
Javier Meier
Paula Narvaez
Ashlyn Okimoto
Tamar Partamian
Samuel Rampy
Luis Villanueva
Krista Won
Tiffany Wu