Big Country

Boulder photographer and emergency vet John McGee grew up with the same view of China as most baby boomers: The nation was a big, crowded, backward place where people were oppressed by scheming Maoists. But then he and his wife traveled to Fujian province, on the massive country's southeast coast, to adopt an infant daughter (now seven), and the mystery that is China opened its arms to him.

"People who go to China are either fascinated, or they can't wait to get out of there," McGee says. "Everything is so different; I guess it just got into my blood." So thoroughly did the initial experience saturate his consciousness that a few years later, he took his family back to live in Guangzhou, China, for a year while he taught English at a university. All the while, he snapped pictures of the culture around him. Drawing on these riches, he'll present Living in Today¹s China, a slide presentation of the images, this Sunday at Boulder's Academy of Martial and Cultural Arts.

Life in China had its pros and cons for the McGee clan, which then also included a second daughter adopted in Vietnam. "To summarize the good," McGee explains, "there's more of a sense of living in the present in China. It's also a more peaceful culture. You don't see the same kind of everyday anger, the road rage...none of that, even though they're packed tighter than sardines. There's no outright aggression."

Also, he notes, Chinese are brought up to put the good of the people first, with less emphasis on being individualistic. "While there, I was able to slip into the same mode of thinking," he says.

"But on the downside, they are made to conform more," he continues. "There's no real free expression or spontaneity." In spite of that, there does seem to be a real feeling of hope in modern China, which is rapidly embracing more competitive economic standards. "People feel like they have greater opportunities, and they're focused on that," he adds, noting that the Chinese people's current mood resembles that of Americans in the '60s: They're trying to get ahead.

In other ways, McGee says, the Chinese remain resolutely inscrutable and ethnocentric. "They grow up with the same kind of perception of their government that we have of ours: They really feel the communist government looks after their best interests. It's just that we get cynical about it much sooner in life; there, censorship plays a role as they grow older. Even with more access to television and the Internet, it's hard for them to accept our side of the story -- they have a great pride and arrogance. Even the Chinese who come here still go back with the same opinions; their eyes are not opened. It's like, yeah, they did come and see, but they decided it's not that much better here."

Still, while he was a foreigner, McGee felt totally accepted, especially as a photographer. "People were very open, and I knew enough Chinese to ask them what I wanted." Though not fluent in the language, McGee says he "learned enough to get into trouble: I knew how to ask questions but didn't always understand the answers." He has since returned to China with the objective of photographing orphanages there for a proposed book geared toward adoptive families who want to learn more about the communities from which their children came.

In light of his orphanage project, McGee plans to visit China again, but for the time being, he doesn't crave the same kind of immersion he and his family experienced there. Ironically, his daughters faced more open prejudice in China than they do here in multicultural America and, not unlike those Chinese emigrés returning to their homeland, he still views his own country as a better place.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Susan Froyd started writing for Westword as the "Thrills" editor in 1992 and never quite left the fold. These days she still freelances for the paper in addition to walking her dogs, enjoying cheap ethnic food and reading voraciously. Sometimes she writes poetry.
Contact: Susan Froyd