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Nation embraces old and new as it ages

China has 5,000 years of written history, yet she is adapting to the 21st century lifestyle, which at quick glance looks much like what I see in America today. Would I be stretching it if I say this ancient country has a young heart?

The old China and young China equally present here in Jingdezhen.

I often see from the window of the ceramic studio here at Sanbao a procession of three men hauling a large porcelain jar, as tall as me, on an old, rickety, two-wheeled wagon — one man pulling at the front and two pushing from the back. The brush maker wakes me up every morning with tapping noises as he pounds bamboo with a hammer until it turns into fine fiber like human hair. At the creek, someone is always doing laundry, beating garments with a wooden bat. In the field, men and water buffalos are partners, tilling and plowing together, ignoring the fact that machines are doing most of the farm work in other places.

But when you cross the city limit of Jingdezhen five miles away, you’re in young China. The streets are noisy with persistently honking car horns, roadside vendors shouting their specials, and Chinese pop songs blaring from speakers. Every gift store you walk in is a mini Wal-Mart that sells jeans with holes, T-shirts with images of American entertainers, stuffed Winnie the Poohs and a collection of kids’ accessories printed with Dora’s face. You can’t find anything that gives you the flavor of old China except ceramic items.

As a Korean-American senior citizen living here for a limited time, I notice something else — the large placards with the names of Korean companies such as Hyundai or Samsung or Kia flapping in the wind. You’d never guess what it feels like seeing the names of your homeland companies from this side of the globe.

For centuries, China has shown power and supremacy over the rest of Asia. During the Ching Dynasty, Seoul had four gates to receive foreign guests, and one of them, East Gate, served strictly for cultural exchange purpose between China and Korea. Through this gate, Chinese delegates entered to visit and council the Korean monarchy, and the Korean envoy left for China to pay respect to the Emperor, often bringing the gift of ginseng, slaves and gold.

Today, the Koreans are supplying new blood in China’s economy, as 25,000 Korean companies are manufacturing anything from giant ships to zippers. With this in mind, the general impression I get from the locals toward me is warmth and even admiration. One taxi driver said to me when he heard that I was Korean, “We like Koreans!”

A young country living in her ancient body is my impression of today’s China, and I know she will still grow and change. But a human life is limited. Each day we live is an irreversible journey to the end without another chance. How unfair it is that we humans aren’t given the same privilege as a country.

As my last day here is fast approaching, many thoughts linger in my head. What will China be like 10 years from now? When I return, will I still see those brush makers tapping away all day, separating the grains of bamboo tips, and buffalos and men working together in the fields? Wait, 10 years? Where will I be 10 years from now?

I’ll give some serious thought to this when I get home.

Therese Park, who lives in Overland Park, published two novels.