China


        With the recent election and financial crisis, I feel like I am missing out on a very important point in American history.  I guess “missing out” is not the correct terminology because it is more like I am very far removed from the epicenter.  I still feel the shock value of what is happening in America, but I don’t necessarily experience it in real time. 

       On one hand, it is almost a blessing.  Not having CNN playing in the cafeteria or more than one popular newspaper printed in English has allowed me to live in blissful ignorance of the rankling of politicians leading up to Election Day.  On the other hand, on Election Day I would have killed to be back in America.  Instead I went to an expatriate café that was having an election party for Obama supporters.  The owners had promised that if Obama won, everybody would receive a free beer.  The café was absolutely packed.  Almost everybody there was a student skipping class (the polls closed in the late morning China time) to watch the polls return on live TV.  Obviously, most of them were Obama supporters (which includes Democrats and Republicans), but there were a couple McCain Republicans in the mix as well (really self-imposed torture I believe).  Also there were several other foreign students who came to watch.  (A TV crew from Finland was also there, so look out for me on Finnish TV!!!)  Even though I was in China, in that café I felt like we created a little piece of America just for that morning.  Today in class, my Chinese teacher shared her thoughts that the choice for Obama was good, because he is black.  Some Americans in the class tried to explain why that isn’t/shouldn’t be a factor in politics, but since I’m sure we can’t even find a consensus on that feeling using English, it was pretty much a lost cause to try and start the debate using Chinese.  Whatever anybody’s feelings on that matter are, the truth is that most foreigners see Obama’s election as significant mainly because of his race.  My teacher today tried to explain that it was in the interest of many countries, because it shows that a leading world power can have a minority as their leader.  Although China is not diverse in the sense that it is not home to several races, China does have over fifty minority groups, each with their own distinct culture.  Like any minority group, there is the same struggle against prejudice and the inherent disadvantage that comes with not being part of the majority.  To see that the world’s leading power has chosen a minority to lead them is something people all over the world can relate to and understand its significance.  All I can say is that I have never been so proud to be an American as when I was crammed in that room, drinking Chinese beer, and celebrating something only a democracy can afford: my right to choose a leader.  I’m sure some of my relatives aren’t really enjoying this paragraph, so I will move on to my perspective of the financial crisis. However, the historian in me compels me to share this factoid:  During Obama’s presidency, America will celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation.

       Moving along…

       I must admit that my perspective on the financial crisis is very limited.  I was a little behind on the news, so I basically missed the whole debate in Congress about what steps the government should take to lessen the impact and solve the problem.  I have attended a lecture given by Andrei Schleifer, a professor from Harvard who came to speak to Beijing University’s business school.  Since the audience was Chinese students, Professor Scheifer explained very simply the American economy, which was great because my capacity to understand economics is very limited.  The most interesting thing about the talk was Scheifer’s last PowerPoint slide, which asked the question: Is this the end of America’s market economy?  It was even obvious to me, the economics dunce that I am, that the answer was no, but I realized that I had to think about the audience he was addressing.  After all, it has only been within the past three decades that China’s economy has shifted towards a market economy. 

       I feel like being abroad has very much removed me (for better or for worse) from the constant and daily reminder of the severity of this crisis.  One time, a Chinese student once came up to me and asked me if I was “afraid for my life.”  In truth, the meaning of his question was lost in translation, but it made me realize just how easily it is to slip into a state of ignorance about the problems facing my country when I am abroad.  The thing about the crisis I have been discussing the most lately is the sharp decline in American consumerism.  As a result, the demand for exports from China is low, which has caused several factories in China to shut down, putting several hundreds of thousands of Chinese out of work.  Since finding work is hard enough in China, the loss of these jobs is a big concern among the Chinese.  I guess in the months to come there will be more concerns in China as the effects of the American financial crisis continue to shake the world economy. 

       I guess I will wrap this up in saying that one thing I notice about my personal analysis and opinions on the current events in America are that I now consider how these events not only affect America, but China as well. When I discuss American issues with my Chinese friends (or other foreign friends) I always have a small sort of reality check that indeed I have a very American centered point of view.  You don’t realize there is such a thing until you are confronted with the Chinese point of view.  My stay in China has certainly opened my eyes up to new perspectives and a great awareness for how American issues have a global effect.

奥巴马要改变美国!

Note: This is a very long entry and I entirely forgive you for only briefly skimming it.  I would however encourage you to take a look at my pictures from my trip which paints a better picture of Inner Mongolia than I think my lengthy entry might. You can find the pictures at http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2041079&l=f0ab7&id=17303707

On October 1, 1949, the Communist Party came to power and the People’s Republic of China was born.  The Chinese celebrate this event every October by having a weeklong National Holiday, meaning that nearly everybody in China has off from work, school, etc.  My classmates and I, not really thinking about what the whole nation of China going on vacation entailed, started our search for a place to go visit only a few days before the holiday began.  Basically all the train tickets to everywhere were sold out except a packaged tour to Inner Mongolia.  At this time of year, Inner Mongolia is relatively cold and rather brown and ugly compared to its summers and springs, so it made sense that it would basically be the last option available.  National Week is the only break that I have before Christmas so I was willing to go anywhere outside of Beijing.  As I found, even during its “ugly” season Mongolia still has its charms.

       On Monday night, I along with three other Dickinson classmates boarded a sleeper train to Houhot, the capital of Inner Mongolia.  In China, you have two options concerning train tickets: hard (second class) or soft (first class).  Being the cheap college students that we are, we opted for the hard sleeper.  This meant that we were in a small cabin with six beds stacked three and three.  There wasn’t much to do but lie in your bed or be crowded in the small hallway outside the cabin.  At four thirty in the morning we were woken up by the conductor for our arrival to Houhot.  We met the travel agent outside the train station and were told that our train had arrived earlier than expected and we should go wander around till 7:30 when our tour was scheduled to leave.  Although I was initially not pleased, in retrospect I had the unique experience of seeing a city wake up.  We sat a little bit in Mr. Lee’s, a Chinese food restaurant from California (I really don’t know how they justify that in China) and then walked around and bought the first street food I have had in China—it was phenomenal!  I may have mentioned this before, but there is something about Beijing right now that is so… artificial.  For the Olympics, so many things were done to cleanse the city of anything that made Beijing look at all dirty or poverty stricken.  In Beijing, trash hardly stays on the street for a moment, potted plants line the sidewalks (so aesthetically pleasing but so in the way), and street vendors, until recently, were not allowed.  Houhot was a far cry from the Olympic crazed Beijing, and the chaos and crowdedness of the sidewalks full of pool tables, shoe-shiners, food stalls, and fruit stands.  The traffic was also a lot crazier than Beijing.  You literally had to play Human Frogger to cross the streets.  Luckily that is the only video game I can play so I wasn’t hit by a taxi or anything (no worries Mom!)

       At the appointed time we boarded a bus which took us far out of the city to the Mongolian prairie.  As soon as we got off the bus, we were greeted by the workers of the touristy little Yurt camp we stayed the night in, who gave us baijiu (白酒) while singing a traditional Mongolian song.  Baijiu literally translates into white liquor and the Mongolians are known for drinking a lot of it.  Baijiu has the fiery taste of liquor combined with this strange black liquorish flavor (bleh).  Afterwards, we went on a horseback ride around the prairie.  I have ridden plenty of horses but the difference between a western trained horse and an eastern trained horse is something I really wasn’t expecting.  How perfect that I would also be given the most stubborn horse of the lot.  My horse basically ignored all directions I gave with my reigns and at one point began wildly galloping away from my group.  It was at this moment that I realized I had no idea how to say stop to a horse in Chinese.  To save you all from running into this problem I’ll have you know the word is “yu.”  Mongolian horse saddles are also another story.  They are basically wooden saddles, with a thin blanket over them.  Needless to say, after two plus hours on the horse, which trotted a good deal of the way, I was very sorry to not have packed a spare glutious maximus in my suitcase (there wasn’t enough room after my winter jacket).

       That night we slept in yurts, but these were the cheap ones, meaning that rather than being made out of the traditional canvass and poles, these yurts were made out of cement.  In Mongolia at this time of the year, the days are very comfortable and the nights are always freezing no matter the season.  Sleeping in a dome of cement on a cement block made the night seem even colder than it was and I was very glad to have brought so many layers.

       The next day we drove five hours (ugh my poor tushy!) to Baotou, located on the edge of the Kubuqi desert.  A severe environmental problem facing China right now is the desertification of Inner Mongolia.  Due to over grazing, farming, and too much development near the edge of the desert, the scarce supply of water in the region is scarcer still, and the grasses and plants that grow on the edge of the desert are not able to survive.  Consequently the strong winds in Mongolia create dust storms that plague Beijing and the rest of China particularly during the fall.  The Mongolian dust actually reaches all the way across the pacific to the mountains on the West Coast.  The dust lands on the snowcaps of mountains, darkening the snow and causing the snow to absorb the sun’s heat rather than reflect it, increasing the rate at which the snowcaps melt.  Sorry for this tangent, but seeing first hand how the actions of one country towards its environment can effect another country’s environment halfway around the world only strengthens my conviction that to solve the environmental problems we are facing today, international cooperation is vital. 

       But I digress!  At the dunes we rode camels and took all the appropriate videos and pictures to show that we were stranded in the desert.  That night we returned to Houhot and were finally able to take showers!  Our next day was spent exploring the city of Houhot and visiting a Lama temple where the third Dalai Lama visited in the 14th century (I believe).  There is also something to be said about the significance of temples in China.  Since the Communist government is atheistic, its treatment of religions, especially Lama Buddhism has been severe.  This has created a country full of temples, but without any religious patrons.  Temples have transformed into place holders and mere reminders of the religions that once had a large presence in Chinese culture and history.  I must admit I view these houses of worship turned tourist site rather critically.  Having visited active Buddhist temples in the past, I feel very sacrilegious being able to enter a building that houses the Buddha with shoes on.  Also, even though there are signs forbidding pictures, they are ignored by the visitors and not enforced by the caretakers.  At this particular temple the caretakers were “monks” wearing the typical robes that Buddhist monks wear, only they were wearing them over their everyday clothes and holding prayer beads which they occasionally pretended to use.

       Having just realized the length of my blog, I feel I must wrap it up.  On Thursday night we were scheduled to take another sleeper train back to Beijing.  We had several hours before our train left and with time to kill we decided to stop and play at a playground.  We thought we would scare away the children on the playground, but were quickly proven wrong as we were soon surrounded by a pack of children who were excitedly shouting “Waiguo ren! Wai guo ren!” (Foreigners!  Foreigners!)  I took the opportunity to point out the obvious to them and shouted back, “Zhongguo ren! Zhonguo ren!” (Chinese people!)  They were so excited that we could speak a little Chinese and were very excited to practice their English.  I was so surprised how little encouragement they needed in communicating with us, complete strangers and foreigners to boot!  Their parents were not of the same nature and I’m not sure if they were more sketched out that we were foreigners or that we were young adults playing with ten year olds.  In any event, I am now convinced that playing on monkey bars is the easiest way to make Chinese friends.  The group of people with me consisted of students from Mexico, America and Vietnam.  I’m pretty sure the children had never met so many people from different countries.  I had so much fun on my trip and enjoyed very much seeing another part of the country, but by far my hour spent playing on the playground with the children of Houhot was the best experience.

Ok so finally I have got pictures up of my trip to Thailand so now it’s appropriate to write this blog.

Before classes started in Beijing I took a 15 day trip to Thailand.  While there I returned to the village just outside of Chiang Mai to visit my host family from my trip three years ago.  It was so crazy to return to the village and see how people had grown up and changed.  My host sister is now 18 and in her last year of high school.  Next year she will go to a university in Chiang Mai, she wants to study politics.  The village was so excited to have me return as well.  Since my visit three years ago, the village has hosted EIL students every summer.  I am the first of any of the other American students to return.  I also reunited with my Thai chaperone P’Keng who is now living in Bangkok.  I met his wife, who was his girl friend three years ago.  P’Keng told me about an internship at his college for some international student program that would be open by the time I graduate from Dickinson.  This is all hopes and dreams, but I think working in Chiang Mai after I graduate would be pretty awesome.

While I was in Bangkok, the protests that made international news were going on.  I had several friends in China e-mail me worried about my safety, but honestly I was never in danger or ever inconvenienced by the shutting down of the airport.  When I would ask Thai people about their opinion of the protests they would respond, “We don’t really care.  These protests are just annoying.”  I guess that is a lot of the response that American would give about protests as well…  In truth the only impression I have of the protests is that it made traffic in Bangkok IMPOSSIBLE!

Ok well I know this is a very short and vague description of my trip to Thailand but my metere is running out on my computer.  You can see pictures of my trip to Thailand with this link: http://www.new.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2040062&l=4c80b&id=17303707

In all I traveled to Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Pa Pai Village, Chiang Rai, Myanmar (for one hour), Phuket, and Koh Phi Phi.  When I saw P’Keng for the last time, it was more like see you later.  I know I will return to Thailand and continue to have a relationship with my Thai host family and friends.  Sawadee ka!

Next Page »