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China: 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 hadn’t entered my mind until I met Xu Binong online.

Mark Sullivan 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 still farms.

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 heating.

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 McDonald’s seems to be closest to right on with the taste of back home. In the same building is Carrefour’s, 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 David Letterman.

The SARS outbreak has had an impact, but we expect things to return to normal soon. Shenzhen lost business as people didn’t 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 isn’t 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 there’s 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, I’m accustomed to the landscape and people and I think the images are a little better thought-out or a little more observant.

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 '91 (photography)

Visit www.markjosephsullivanphotography.com for more images of China.

If you would like to submit an essay or letter, write to The University Magazine, University News Services, Rochester Institute of Technology, 132 Lomb Memorial Drive – Bldg. 86, Rochester, NY 14623. E-mail can be sent to umagwww@rit.edu. Please include your telephone number.

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