up close and personal
Mark J. Sullivan
91 (photography) wrote this essay about his life in China.
Although I had been
thinking of taking a trip to Asia for some time, the idea of China
hadnt entered my mind until I met Xu Binong online.
and his wife, Bea, on the Great Wall of China.
I was impressed by
her command of English and what she told me of China as well as
the photos she sent. So in Septemter 2002 I went there for a three-week
visit. That visit has turned into a long-term relationship with
the country. Xu Binong (pronounced she belong) –
or Bea for short – and I were married last Dec.12.
China is a country
with its feet firmly in two worlds. The most important thing to
remember is that there are 1.3 billion people – roughly
five times the population of the U.S. – living mostly on
the east coast of the country. The most modern electronics are
made and sold here, while close to 80 percent of the population
Shenzhen, where we
live, is a very modern city of roughly 6 million people. It is
beautifully landscaped, with flowers and blooming trees, palms
and bamboo everywhere. There are beautiful buildings with enclosed
open spaces and most modern conveniences. On the other hand, the
running water in your home is not drinkable and there is no central
Just across the street
from where we live is the farmers market where they sell fresh
fruits and veggies – including some I have never seen –
along with live chickens, ducks, fish and seafood. Just down the
street is KFC, although McDonalds seems to be closest to
right on with the taste of back home. In the same building is
Carrefours, a huge, modern food store from France. Here
I can buy the latest DVD player, CDs, digital cameras, plasma-screen
TVs, clothing and cosmetics as well as food. In the foreign section
of the city, I can get American products, not a large variety
but enough to cover the cravings for western food.
We have inexpensive
high-speed Internet and cable TV, mostly Chinese. We do get the
Hong Kong channels and I can watch the ABC or CBS news each morning.
It is still limited but, as Bea says, she can gauge her increasing
English skills by how well she can understand that fast-talking
The SARS outbreak has
had an impact, but we expect things to return to normal soon.
Shenzhen lost business as people didnt go out much and
we did see people wearing masks. Beijing and Shanghai seem to
have been hard hit and took strong measures, but the idea that
the country was in any big uproar isnt correct at all!
At this point, the
cultural shock of being in China has pretty much worn off. The
usual cues to life such as sounds, snippets of conversation, the
language issue, and visual cues like signage and newspapers are
all missing, so you are thrown back on observation with a lot
of blanks to fill in. After a time it starts to make sense and
the otherness of it feels comfortable. As a photographer, this
has helped me to zero in on the commonplace – the expressions
of the people, the comings and goings, the baseline of all societies.
The period of newness
is a great motivator and theres a strong urge to shoot
everything, but this first flush needs a second and third go-round
to really zero in on the best photo or strongest images. At this
point, Im accustomed to the landscape and people and I
think the images are a little better thought-out or a little more
We intend to move back
to the New York City area when Bea receives a visa, hopefully
this fall. We also may move back to Asia from time to time in
the future as we explore work opportunities. Whatever happens,
I am now connected to China and look forward to seeing the changes
and growth in store for the country.
Mark J. Sullivan
for more images of China.
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