A Day in Colonial Time

By Songyi Zhang

There is so much to learn about American history in colonial times. Our whirlwind visit to the prestigious town of Williamsburg, Virginia, on a breezy December afternoon was like galloping on a horse through a beautiful garden too swiftly to appreciate the details. Williamsburg is largely a recreation of the town as it existed in the 18th century, and it has special significance to me as the place where Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, James Madison, and many of the other Founders spoke.

It was winter, and the landscape was desolate—trees were bare, rocky roads were nearly empty, slush was piled at the curb. Biting wind scraped my ears. The townspeople wore plain colonial costumes. Occasionally, several locals—both Caucasians and African Americans—rambled on the street or politely greeted us in front of their shops. I couldn’t tell if they were actors or truly residents of the town. The brick buildings looked roomy from outside but the interiors were surprisingly cramped by dry goods and packages and made even more crowded by the oversized tourists in their heavy winter coats. I had to inch forward to the cashier for fear I would knock over the souvenirs on the shelf.

We went into an old-fashioned inn for lunch. The portion must be appropriate to the time—half the amount of a regular serving in a modern American restaurant. That amount was in fact the portion which the restaurants in China would serve. No wonder today’s Americans have bigger bones than those in the colonial time. In the inn, quite a few servers were African Americans in order to recall the slave history, while a majority of customers were Caucasians. I was the only Asian there. The space between each table was narrow, allowing me to glimpse at what the next table ordered, or to discover the tiny bottle that a woman patron kept pouring into her ice tea. The most intriguing sign in the inn was the direction to “the necessary.” I remembered in ancient Chinese there was a similar expression as well. I wondered if I told a modern American that I wanted to use the necessary, he would understand.

Even though I couldn’t see as much as I would have in summertime in Williamsburg, I appreciated the effort to be authenitic —the colonial court house, the public stock where wrongdoers were locked for public view, the horse wagons and the layout of the town. I couldn’t help thinking that while America has preserved its historical sites, China has demolished countless historical buildings to make way for factories and office buildings. One of my travel mates once commented that Shanghai is thousands of years older than New York but looks much newer. In Williamsburg, I became aware that China is destroying its past while America is recreating the look and feel of an older time.
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