Sunday, July 29, 2007

"I Have Not Told Half of What I Saw" - Marco Polo

The air was crisp, dry and clean. Stars shone visibly in the sky. Last night I brushed my teeth and gargled with water from the tap. Yes, I have returned. Nine weeks has come and gone, and with it I have completed my first voyage to the Orient.

Over two odd months in China, I had constantly tried to suppress the temptation to inspire jealousy in the hearts and minds of the Chinese by detailing the many wonders of a democratic government, swimmable rivers, and siblings. However, I was quickly reminded of deficits in the overall condition of society as my cab driver recounted stories of gang violence as we drove through Northeast DC on the way back from the airport.

The great advantage of traveling to China at this point is to observe a society dealing with many of the issues that the United States handled about a century ago, and thus to relive a certain kind of social history. China, with its agricultural population still well above 50%, is struggling to join the list of developed countries. There is of course a significant and growing rich-poor gap, and vast discontinuities between cities and the countryside; but was the United States doing any better sixty years after our country became a nation?

According to me, and that means very little, the great mistake in approaching China is to assume a linear connection with the past. We are told justly of China's four or five thousand years of civilization, and the great inventions that China has contributed, i.e. paper, gun powder, the compass and printing. The difficulty of interpreting this kind of statement, however, is with the word "China". China exists since 1949, and maybe not even. Before the trip, I had envisioned coming face to face with stewards of ancient traditions and cultures. Instead, I found that very few Chinese have any grasp of traditional Chinese history and culture.

The 20th century in China was so tumultuous, that every single Chinese adult I met had a dramatic life story of some sort involving dislocation, starvation, et. The result of this is that the modern generation hardly even connects with the generation immediately preceding it, much less with life a thousand years ago. One of our teachers said that in China, a mere three-year age gap is a generation gap. Compounding this phenomenon, the younger Chinese said the older Chinese are not even willing to discuss the history of their youthful decades.

It is impossible to predict what China will look like in the future. An economic stagnancy, simple to envision, could cause utter chaos. At the same time, the continuation of current conditions could find China competing with the US at every level. I will point out some factors, however, that make it problematic to compare China too closely with the United States:

Population. China has an enormous population with which to contend. They also have very little in the way of a "frontier" into which to expand. Most importantly, they have a one-child policy that has had dramatic effects on the social structure. Women are increasingly underrepresented in rural areas because of illegal pregnancy tests and frequent abortion of females. Because parents rely on only one child for support, adolescent emphasis becomes studying for the college entrance examination which means that the arts, unless they are money-making, receive little emphasis. Single children have less experience sharing with others and a single child essentially has six parents, as grandparents have little to do but dote on their only grandchild.

Government. China is ruled by a government that calls itself socialist but that has become almost entirely capitalist. The government has extremely little power in some circumstances, such as enforcing copyright protection and preventing corruption, and yet unlimited power in other circumstances. Very few people still believe in the idealism of CCP's founding ideology and the statue of Mao Zedong at ECNU meant little or nothing to the college students I spoke with. That is to say, there is not yet a widely-held mythology underpinning China in the way that the US might have believed in the idealism of Jefferson, Washington, manifest destiny, etc. If there is a prevailing belief, it is that well-paying jobs must be pursued.

Religion. A majority of people are not motivated by common religious beliefs. Even though there are certainly many, many religions represented in China, the population as a whole remains detached from a single, organized religious practice.

I hesitate to go further I have probably already gone too far in making generalizations that are applicable to a quarter of the world's population.

I will now make a few comments about the kinds of people I met in China, as three categories seemed to develop over the nine weeks. The first loose category of people are those whom another Westerner explained to me are very difficult to get to know. That is, it is very difficult to become good friends with many Chinese; it takes a long time to win their friendship. For the most part, this group of people was closed off to my access because of the extremely short duration of my trip.

Then there are those who are too friendly. This is because they want something from you. While maybe all human interactions are driven by self-serving ulterior motives, this group of people is primarily in search of money. To have white skin in China is to announce that you have more spendable money than everyone else. Street vendors who befriend you hope that you will then support their business. Talkative college students hope that you will help them practice their English which will allow them to find significantly better jobs. Others will ask you to write letters of recommendation or utilize you for making connections with the Western world. My roommate Ryan and I noticed this category of people about halfway through the trip. One of our most commonly spoken vocabularly phrases became the Chinese translation of "ulterior motive", something like 密密的目的。

Finally, there is a category of wonderful people who are genuinely interested in learning about Western culture and who are willing to become friends in a relatively short period of time. In this group of people are those who will go so far as to spend some of their own money to invite you out to dinner or offer gifts without the promise of recompense.

I am looking forward to my next trip to China. Traveling always helps us appreciate our own worlds more when we return, and also offers us the new perspective necessary for fixing the problems of our own worlds. The thing I already miss most from China is the food. In two days I have gained back any weight I lost from eating the relatively healthier Chinese dishes. My next trip to China will likely involve research for my history major thesis.

The blog has been a selfishly wonderful way to keep a journal and at the same time keep friends informed without having to resort to individual emails. Ryan and I will be starting a new blog next month geared for explaining Western culture to a college-aged Chinese audience. Whent that gets up and running I will post a link from this blogsite. My warm appreciation to anyone who has read this far and who has been kind enough to express interest in my trip.

Friday, July 13, 2007

When We Were Kings

Your buck goes a lot farther in China than in the USA, particularly with regard to labor-intensive products. Such as massages. This evening Ryan, several teachers, and I treated ourselves to a mid-range massage that included a brief back massage followed by intensive foot massaging followed by ginger treatment. Two hours later, as the burning ginger sensation from our legs was wearing off, we paid our 70 kuai ($10) and returned home.

Massages are certainly one of the perks of life in China for foreigners. Next time I plan to experiment with some of the more elaborate massage offerings. I may decide not to bring along Ryan, as his pale and smooth skin attracts all of the compliments from the massage ladies. His masseuse suggested he get an advertising gig that would allow him to model his legs. She did not say, however, whether she thought he would be modeling women's high heels or men's running shoes. Highlights of our little cultural exchange in the massage parlour included trying to explain UVA's mascots (Cavalier and Wahoo) to our teachers and to the masseuses. We didn't get much farther than Oliver Cromwell and drinking beer.

Prior to this outing, I was invited by my earlier homestay-family to the Shanghai Symphony's season closing performance of Mozart and Bizet. In bow tie and my newly made linen jacket I arrived approximately 40 minutes late, though fortunately Mrs. Chen had given me the concert ticket yesterday and I strode in with the late comers during the first intermission. Why so late you ask? I had made the mistake of assuming that Friday evening traffic was better than Friday rush hour traffic. Thus after 30 minutes, I exited my taxi half a mile from where I had started and began jogging to the metro station where I launched my sweaty self onto the next train heading towards Pudong, nearly the opposite side of Shanghai. After arriving at the designated station, I flew up the stairs and was conveniently propositioned by a dozen motorcycle taxi's. As we blazed down the wide boulevard's of Pudong I deftly secured my bow tie around my neck and at long last made it to the Shanghai Art Center's concert hall. The performance was quite enjoyable, although I was certainly the only one in the audience with a buttoned collar, let alone jacket.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Communist Propaganda Art and the Civil Rights Movement

Despite the massive famines of the late fifties and the upheavals of the cultural revolution in the late sixties, Communists did a good job of educating the general public about the terrors of the outer capitalist world. Here is a photo from the Shanghai Propaganda Poster Museum depicting the depravity of the non-Communist world.

Ryan and I managed to locate this strange museum several days ago. Located in a non-descript apartment building with no road signs, this small museum is actually two rented apartments in building 4 of an average looking apartment complex in a residential part of Shanghai. In fact, Ryan and I were the only two patrons, excluding an Australian dermatologist who had spent the entire morning looking for the museum only to leave after about ten minutes.

Monday, July 9, 2007

Look Out Venice!

After spending the night with a Chinese host family, the Chen's, I was taken to one of the water towns outside of Shanghai called Zhujiajiao. Seated next to me is their 18 year-old son Zhang Fan. Saturday night I christened Zhang Fan with a new English name, Francis, on account of his interest in writing essays (Bacon). We are shown in the bow of our formidable boat being powered from the stern by an oarsman.

China's emphasis on restoring its historical heritage is new. The tickets to all of the town's museums are adorned with less than perfect English translations. The museums themselves, while often air-conditioned and housed in nicely renovated houses, offer little in the way of knowledge and less in the way of English translations. Fortunately, my host Mr. Chen, as the CCP Secretary for our district of Shanghai's regional development, told me he would rectify this, as he is friends with the town's administrator.

This particular town contained: lots of little souvenir shops selling reproduction handicrafts; about ten mini-museums relating to silk, rice, postal service, pottery, vases; about forty very nice old stone bridges; a temple complex housing both Buddhist and Daoist altars (?); and some quaint narrow alleys. Apparently China has dozens of these kinds of towns on the historic waterways. As you go about 100 meters inland however, the modern suburbs immediately destroy the notion of historicism.

My host family was very gracious and I was grateful to be assigned to a family with a new car and not one but two well-furnished apartments in a fashionable development. In fact, as they picked me up from the university on Saturday, I experienced my first ride in a private Chinese automobile. This experience of whizzing past all of the dirty sidewalks and street vendors offerred quite a different perspective of China than my usual foot-powered locomotion. While we have significant differences between rich and poor in the US, I found myself awed by the unfamiliar feeling of clean leather seats and the convenience of driving in the city. When the family dropped me off on Sunday afternoon at our dormitory, I felt like a Prince being returned in a golden sedan chair and was actually hoping that some of my classmates might notice my stylish mode of transportation. Such has China affected my consciousness.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Cultural Communication Continues

Here is another photo from the festivities yesterday as I have no pictures to share from today. Our Independence Day celebrations took place, of course, in the pagoda where our expedition first landed, if you will remember to the first entry, on the shores of the LiWa River in a small pagoda, perhaps the only traditional architectural remnant of traditional China within five miles of the university.

The weather continues to humidify, and one can hardly walk to class without feeling like his clothes have been shrink-wrapped around him. The other, more likely, explanation is that my appetite continues unabated as I fit in less and less exercise.

My day is ending as it usually does. I am unsuccessfully trying to remember interesting highlights of the day while sitting at my small desk in our dorm-room sized "hotel" room. I am relatively tired and not looking forward to getting up early to finish the homework I should have done during the day. Ryan is doing strange leg exercises while lying prone on his bed and reviewing his Chinese. The metalic hum of our ventilator drowns out the small noises.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Fourth of July with Chinese Characteristics

We began celebrating the Fourth of July 12 hours before most Americans as today culminated with an "American-style" BBQ. Unfortunately China lacks most of the essential ingredients, but we provided local passersby with amusement nonetheless. Ryan and I bought out the local grocery's store's entire selection of hot dog buns and all 2 packs of their hot dogs. We then supplemented "Taiwan sausage" for the rest of the meat source and purchased boiled corn on stick in large quantities. It seems the Chinese lack an intermediate between toilet paper and kleenex, so we resorted to toilet paper as the most traditional napkin option. Finally, a case of Budweiser, sweet tea, and Coca Cola confirmed our Western appearances in the check-out line.

Of course one cannot buy ice in China, let alone a cooler, so we had to bribe the kitchen staff of a nearby restaurant with 15 kuai to cool down our drinks in the industrial refrigerator for an hour and a half.

Ryan, ever resourceful, had purchased a 50 kuai ($7) grill at the larger, more distant super-market last week, so we fired it up with great labor and Colin eventually took command of cooking our mini-Asian-size hotdogs. A fireworks screensaver and an album of patriotic American songs from my laptop assuaged our nostalgic feelings for home while our dinner party became more and more crowded. Ryan passed watermelon around while the flags, as usual, hung limply in the thick, humid air.

Finally we sang the National Anthem and our teachers sang the Chinese Anthem with great enthusiasm.

Monday, July 2, 2007

Mind Your Manners, China

Yes, the Chinese have trouble with traditional manners when it comes to public spaces. The most common complaints from foreigners are usually related to forming lines. The Chinese have a tendency to scramble for things instead of lining up. Even older people cut in front of me in the cafeteria to get their breakfast. It takes a lot of patience not to start fights when this sort of effrontery occurs. I have to stop myself and remember that being hostile is not exactly polite either.

That said, spitting and garbage are other big issues. If you want to throw something away, you just drop it, and I think peasants come by later to clean it up, haul it away, and get paid by the waste authority. At the end of every day, the street outside the University's back gate is littered with napkins, used chopsticks, bottles, cups, rotted vegetables, and assorted plastic items.

The advertisement shown above is part of the government's effort to civilize public life by encouraging the orderly use of crosswalks and pedestrian lights, particularly with the influx of tourists arriving next summer for the olympics.