Final Post in China.

G'bye, China.

That’s it for the part of this blog in China. I’ll probably end up doing some posts afterwards wrapping bad, because I feel terrible about writing exactly NOTHING about stuff this semester. I’ll also try and do a post about the culture shock, which I predict will be extensive, although those of you with less sensitive ears might want to pay attention to my livejournal, because I predict no less than three consecutive posts bitccomplaining about how materialistic and shortsighted and unfair and doomed America is, and the kind of white-flight suburbs I grew up in are driving us into the ground face-first.

Sometimes I wake in a cold sweat from a nightmare of unhealthy and unsustainable auto-dependent communities, segregated by race and class, and then I realize I live there.

Man, I want to be angry, but I’m listening to a best of disco album as I half-pack, half-write, and I’ve never met someone who can keep a grudge longer than three verses of Chic’s “Good Times”

“You silly fool, you can’t change your fate/

Let’s cut the rug, a little jive and jitterbug/

We want the best, we won’t settle for less/

Don’t be a drag, participate/

Clams on the half shell, and rol-ler skates, rol-ler skates.”

I guess if you insist, Norma Jean.

I think it’s mostly because my brain hears this music and thinks “We have to dance now, and compete with people running entirely on cocaine and polyester fumes. REDIRECT ALL MENTAL POWER TO DANCE COORDINATION.”

“Rol-ler skates, rol-ler skates.” I’m crazy.

AND DIGRESS FAR TOO FREQUENTLY. This is the last day of a ten-month period of what is, for me, deepest debauchery. Mostly sitting around my room, going on the internet, occasionally going out with friends for karaoke or dancing or most often, restaurants to go eat and chat. I go out to eat for every single meal, and occasionally to absurdly expensive restaurants. In Carlisle when I was wearing my Staples uniform to class under a sweater and biking straight to work after lectures, it would be a real treat for me to walk up to the Bosnian grocery and go buy some frozen burek and cheap imported cola to wash it down with, or go to the Mexican grocer-restaurant in the middle of town and get a nice bowl of nopales and some sweetbread to have for breakfast the next morning. I liked that kind of life, keeps you busy, keeps you sweating, keeps you honest, helps you understand folks more. It was really uncomfortable for me to get treated like some lost little princeling when I first got here, and get handed wads of cash–$500 US/month, handed out like toilet paper? And then another $300/month just for teaching a couple of classes on weekends? I was busting five kinds of butt this time last year and scraping by with 800/month as well, but that was American-scale wages (laughable as they are at the bottom of the ladder, particularly compared to the European scale) paying for American prices. I saved a lot of money at first, but after a while…I mean, I still have hundreds, probably over 1500 US, but today I decided to go have fun and buy a bunch of gifts for my friends and a couple of pieces of clothing and accessories for myself.

Giggle.

Only by the end of it, I was a half-dead, incredibly scraggly man dressed as a communist guerilla carrying two overstuffed and a tightly folded military winder greatcoat, dazed and dripping with sweat after running around the Beijing subway system for the entire day. I probably looked like an IRA terrorist, so I really can’t blame anybody for edging away on that last trip from Jianguomen to Changchunjie. It’s gonna be more fun because I’ll be lugging twice that while layered like an Inuit to save luggage space, running around O’Hara tomorrow trying to catch a flight. If Chicago summers are anything worth spitting at I’ll probably melt into a puddle halfway through the layover.

I’m a little worried about baggage issues, I’m leaving a lot of stuff here, or rather sending it off to the post office in the morning to get shipped to me and should arrive shortly after I go to Dickinson. This is of course assuming that I find $60,000 between now and August, and Financial Aid doesn’t have me frozen in carbonite and put in the HUB entrance hall as a warning to other financial truants.

Above: Dickinson College Assistant Director of Financial Aid

So I had fun mostly spending money on my family and some, a fair bit, really, more than I usually spend, on myself. All clothes and books and things, a couple of pairs of earrings, and the stuff  I got for other people I don’t want to spoil the surprise for, on the off chance that my family should check this in the next 36 hours. By the end I was falling asleep on my feet–if you’re lucky enough to think that’s only an expression, I simply cannot describe the hilarious and terrifying feeling of standing still, reasoning to yourself, “It’s okay, I won’t go to sleep, I’ll just close my…my…THUMP” as you fall asleep, collapsing into dead weight, then instantly waking up and putting all your weight on your half-bent knees as you stagger back to half consciousness, possibly doing this multiple times in minutes. It’s particularly hilarious if you’re on a crowded subway or bus with nowhere to sit down and plenty of audience members to watch, and laden down with luggage pressing your shoulders down every time you collapse.

So now I need to find a scale and something like a tape measure to make sure my luggage will work–it may well not, I’ve bought a lot of stuff, although I’ve thrown some stuff out and will just mail others back to myself, but there’s a lot of heavy books, especially in my carry-on.  Ah well.
I want to give some advice to people coming to China, in my last moments on the blog from the host country, and explain my experience a little.
Go and make Chinese friends. This sounds easy, it’s really not, at least it can be difficult unless you get lucky or your language or personal skills are very good. But it will help immensely in adjusting and understanding this place and this country’s people.
Go join Chinese clubs. They’ll have a big open house near the movie theater for the first couple of weeks of classes, go join one or two and have fun. Exercise groups are especially fun and not very demanding linguistically.
Cut out internet time as much as possible. It’ll hurt, but the more you stay off the umbilical the better it’ll be for you, special times for communicating with friends and family aside.
Keep a regular eating, exercise, sleep, and fun time schedule. It’ll help you feel less overwhelmed.
Eat things you wouldn’t otherwise. They’re like as not to be delicious.
Consider buying an electronic dictionary. Expensive but not too, and can be very convenient. Spring for a touch screen so you don’t have to look up radicals like I do in a book the size of my head.
Definitely buy a slang dictionary before you come here. You can get them at Borders and Barnes and Noble type places, look in the foreign language section and then look for small, scruffy little books with clever titles, they should be about $15, a worthy investment. I got “Niubi!” before I came here, which I especially recommend, and “Dirty Chinese” is okay, too. It gives you a nice primer for the way people really talk in a way that our lovely and rather conservative Beida teachers won’t, to say nothing of the New Practical Chinese Reader.
Take public transportation. Cheaper and more immersive. Buses can be especially nice as a fairly relaxing form of transportation on a heavy traffic day, if you get a seat.
Avoid Wudaokou and Zhongguancun. The big foreigner-heavy places, in addition to being very expensive, are not all that interesting compared to some of the smaller, messier apartment complexes, like up by the Summer Palace, for example.
Avoid exclusively staying in English-speaking circles, especially if you’re from the same country.
Realize that you are in the wealthiest 5 percentile of the city and act accordingly. You’ll get a lot of stares and stilted offers of friendship, not too mention beggars, that sort of thing. Take care of yourself.
Teach yourself some comebacks, put-downs, complaints, and aggressive statements, and listen to the locals for examples of banter. One of the best things about Chinese is the constant stream of banter between friends calling each other nonsense-speaking idiots, and if you join they will welcome you.
Try and communicate with multiple generations. There’s a fairly diverse society here but the generation gaps are huge and really fascinating, if you learn to talk with older or younger people it will improve your language and cultural and historical understanding.
Watch cartoons, or something you can find of interest on television or the internet in Chinese exclusively. There’s a lot of interesting and amusing media here, although most Beijing television is pretty bland.
If you go into a relationship with a Chinese person, realize what you’re getting into. Most relationships in China are still very serious, many are abstinent, and almost all are aimed at marriage. China is generally quite a cynical country but in this generation, especially with women, there’s a strong belief in ideas of true love. That said, some people will just use you for your wallet and passport, so keep an eye out in general. 
Explore smaller, local restaurants around your area. Many are cheap and delicious, look for crowded ones with a mix of social classes.
Buy a bicycle, learn to use it, trust it, and love it. Fear not the traffic, they know how to handle bicycles in an integrated flow, as long as you give clear signals and recieve them well.
Try and go to a couple of famous places every week or two. If you google “Lonely Planet X City,” you’ll get a map and a list of stuff to do there, and I’ve found that very useful for fun and interesting stuff. 
Think about a job. Teaching English is the main one, but there’s other moonlight-type work available and it helps you get into society more.
Talk to your family regularly, host family and home family. Communication is vital, I cannot understate this. More important than talking is listening and thinking before you act or say something. If you have a problem, regardless of how you think they’re treating you, they’re probably going out of their way to make sure you are at home in theirs, and if you come in complaining they will see you as ungrateful. Start from a patient position.
Learn to use proxy sites, for facebook addicts. Studyhallhelp.com is the one we mostly used this year.
Buy a newspaper every once in a while. Even if you don’t understand most or any of it, it’ll start conversations and you will slowly start to get it, I think Kevin used to do an article every session with his language partner and picked up a bunch of vocab about economics and business.
Get a language partner who isn’t a language partner. Find somebody you share some common interest with, a hobby, a sport, a movie director you both like. This can be difficult but basically the important part is you shouldn’t just find a language partner just because they’re around and they speak Chinese, try and find another network to help you out here. Hell, I found one of my best chinese friends through okcupid, nothing romantic but we both like talking about architecture and Tarantino movies.
Do you care about the NBA? China does.  Consider taking part in the pickup game of basketball out your window.
Basically, find something that makes you want to do that thing more and better, something that genuinely excites you, and do that.
Allright, that’s it, two cents given. Time to take care of some other business and head back to America. Lord, I’m sleepy. See you all soon.

Comments

Yet another pointless interlude

This blog is basically one of those really terrible half-spoken-word albums a lot of people put out after the various race riots in the 90s, where there would be a couple of meaningless songs about drugs and cars and then every other track would just be a bunch of guys mumbling into microphones in the studio, maybe doing some kind of skit or bunch of in-jokes talking about god or the time the crew went to 7-11 at 3 AM or how their sister went to rehab or whatever. But it’s even sillier, ’cause I just interrupt unevenly spaced travelogues to talk about Animaniacs and Carmen Sandiego, and today’s topic.

And if you are Kevin Dynan, or your views are represented by him, you are extremely dissatisfied with the fact that I am still 6 months behind on events posting, and only as the second semester is finishing up am I finally wrapping up my thoughts on the previous semester. This is partly due to my busy study, work, and social schedules, partly due to my ability to soak up free time with unproductive things, partly due to my desire to tell my family and friends all the sordid little details of our life here, partly because I’ve been splitting my thoughts between this one and the personal lj I keep for more serious, darker thoughts, especially political ones. If you are interested, here are some of the “lighter” ones (this one’s on clubbing but fails to convey the shallow, depressing activity it usually is), but you are warned that the language and content is really not at the PG level I keep here and does not represent Dickinson or whatever douchey disclaimers are supposed to say here. But it does represent a typical study abroad experience in China, it does represent an authentic part of life for people of all classes here, and it does represent the position of this typical American bourgeois leftist intellectual 20-year-old white male given 500 $US a month to get by in Beijing. So there.

But I don’t want to talk about that right now.

I want to talk about the Master of Orion series.

And if you are not in my immediate family you probably have no idea what I'm talking about.

Specifically, I want to talk about the playable alien races on Master of Orion II.

This is a Sakkra. Get a good look, they're the focus of today's extended simile.

 Master of Orion II was a game similar to Civilization, only set in space, so you controlled planets as you explored, colonized, and generally tried to expand your space empire as you interacted/clashed with your neighbors and tried to unite the galaxy, either by getting diplomatically elected Emperor of the Universe or just plain-old crushing all your opponents Warhammer 40k style.

It's exactly that kind of spirit that brings nations together. After an armistice, anyway.

But through this process of economic development from tiny backwater to galactic superpower, declaring, waging, and concluding wars, battling internal dissent, researching advanced technology, and struggling to keep demographic, agricultural, and economic balance and prosperity within my realms, I got interested in international affairs and government as a child and learned a lot about what realistically drives nations to do stuff.

Playing the game is a lot like managing a complicated spreadsheet, only most of the cells are beyond your control and only yield to your demands by ruthless aggression and carefully staged planning.

So at the start of the game you picked your alien race of choice, and that basically defined your strategy for the rest of the game.

Notice the fact that humans are puny, small, and badly dressed in comparison to the rest of the galaxy.

 Humans are capitalistic, freewheeling democrats who get what they want either through cold hard cash or with diplomatic weaseling, but we did get the sweetest theme song. The big orange guy is an Imsaeis, a gas giant dweller focusing on scientific research and diplomacy, with a dash of ecological terrorism thrown in, as revenge for having their homes wiped out during other races’ attempts at gas giant terraforming and mining. Meanwhile, the telepathic and militaristic Elarians were split into an honor-bound female soldier caste and a male philosopher caste united under a decentralized feudal matriarchy. 

It should surprise exactly no one to learn I played them a lot.

The two robotic races, the bourgeois -industrialist Cynoid and cold, idealogical, fully-robotic Meklar were involved in a civil war over how purely mechanical a life form must be to be free of the taint of flesh.

And then there are the Sakkra.

Grittily rebooted in the third edition.

 Now, the Sakkra are a challenging race to play OR fight, but kind of one-dimensional, all because of their main characteristic, both their greatest asset and potentially greatest hindrance: population growth.

They’re hatched from eggs in large clutches and as the major sentient species of their planets, they have no natural predators, so these guys multiply like CRAZY!  Meaning they fight a lot of wars for more turf and resources, especially cropland, and if you happen to be their neighbor you might have great relations with them one day and the next see dozens of battleships and troop carriers ready to take over those nice breadbasket planets on your frontier you’ve left undefended since signing that non-aggression pact.

Ah, the Ribbentrop Maneuver.

All because of their biology, their leaders tend to be ruthless expansionists, their science tends to focus entirely on planetary construction to maintain housing and meet agricultural demands, they’d evolved to live underground, increasing potential housing space, and they were very good farmers (had to be to get anything done beyond sustaining population growth). But for those of you who think this social-political scenario sounds familiar…

I mean, not that I can think of anything.

 …you can start to see a few problems in the scenario. Because the entire society is devoted to dealing with issues from its size and population, and as the society continues to expand and develop the problems from those issues tend to only get more extreme and complicated. Industrial farming creates industrial pollution and mass desertification creates famine creates need for more intensive farming. Mass production and large-scale industrialization creates massive underground labor unions creates mass social unrest creates giant treasury-sucking secret police force, enormous population requires decentralized political authority, resulting in sectarianism, rebellion, low government income, high maintenance costs and huge general inefficiencies, etc. If you can arrange it just so your massive forces of production outweigh your massive forces of consumption, you would win at everything, but if you let those diseconomies of scale start to build up you could be crushed ignominiously.

Not dissimilarly to this guy

When playing the Sakkra your strategy is very simple, following more or less the above guidelines. It’s more or less a matter of paying attention to your weak points and not getting caught up in the expansion, conquest, slaughter and glory of the good times so that you don’t suffer massive economic and demographic crises five years later on.

Once again, in this case I am speaking without thinking of any historical precedents at all.

 If you have the misfortune of having Sakkran neighbors, I hope you’re playing with the AI set to “dropped on its head as a baby,” because if you’ve got an advanced difficulty level going, your enemy isn’t going to make stupid overconfident mistakes based on the “I am giant and invincible” feeling you get as a human, because your computer has no feelings.

The major problem with trying to manage the Sakkra is that humans can’t think in the calculus and exponential mathematical language of population control very easily, so it’s easy to get stuck in Malthusian traps or economic/agricultural crises. But your computer does not think the y=x squared function of population growth is that hard to predict. And so your Mac OS 8.0 will crush you between scaly Sakkra claws.

"We accept your decision, but declare war anyway." You get this message a lot if you have reptilian neighbors, usually right after you politely decline their request of a 10% tribute to them. Whatever, lizard needs food.

 You would also have to listen to this while they were talking to you, which sounds like something that should be reserved for background for Sauron’s speeches to his orcish hordes, and even this creepy piece if they just wanted to say hello.

 Points for those who have stayed with me so far, just a little longer, I’m getting to my point. One more thing first, though. Look at that profile picture again.

Purple space Guidos.

Did you notice the planet in the background? Did you notice how the soil is gray, there’s no plant life, and no atmosphere? That’s not just artistic, these guys have a homeworld poor in mineral and biological wealth, and are adapted to planets like our Mars, with thin, dry, crappy atmospheres and poor, ferrous soil, thus bad worlds for agricultural development. If they weren’t born on a planet like that they probably would never have evolved to live underground. So they basically are like playing Tsarist Russia.

Or…hey, wait, what’s another feudal agricultural country has an enormous population and huge scarcity of arable land that has defined their nation and both driven and hideously stunted their nation’s economic and cultural growth?

OH SHOOT HE WENT THERE.

Yeah, that “We accept your decision, but declare war anyway” kind of statement should sound familiar to any Vietnamese, Taiwanese, Korean, or Indian readers here, and probably sounds very ironic to anyone Japanese. It’s also the kind of language that scares the crap out of the US Foreign Service when they think about China.

When I play Master of Orion, my strategy could basically be taken out of Hillary Clinton’s playbook or interoffice memoes from any G8 nation. Start by expanding as much as possible and investing in light and heavy industry as well as R&D. Get patents on as many things as you can–give them away to friends weaker than you are, you’ll still be able to manufacture them better. Open up free trade and reserach agreements with the same. Expand your sphere of influence as quickly and as far as possible, hold your borders with bluffs and quick maneuvering by a paper-thin military you’re not funding in favor of real investment, and then expand to those borders and exploit those territories as quickly as possible. After a gradual military-industrial-scientific build-up, you’re either a major diplomatic power at the center of things or a major rising power on the outside of a big xenophobic-military-industrial-bloc looking in. Strike at somebody big, wobbly, and unpopular (Tsarist Russia?), there’s always someone like that, and from there start making your inroads. Then pop the champagne.

I fight like an American, what can I say?

I mean, when I've not taken the equally compelling neoclassical ASSIMILATE ALL FLESH-HOST approach as a giant superkiller alien parasite.

The Chinese/Sakkra do not have the luxury of employing such nuanced games, at least not at the degree of subtlety and sophistication we execute ours at, because they cannot change their inertia the way the United States can. They simply have too many people, too much history, and too many concrete needs behind their policies to comprehensively reform them, even for good reasons.

“Now Shaun,” you might be saying to me at this point, if you lack a grasp of how computers work, “that’s all very interesting, but totally irrelevant. Why would you, a perfectly nice if apparently cripplingly nerdy boy who believes China’s rise definitely can and should be peaceful, would be comparable to a race of giant angry lizard people invading your planet?”

“The very idea,” you might say, shaking your head at either of this post’s pictures of a purple tyrannosaur wearing a gold chain and 80s shoulder pads.

But that is because you do not read British international political commentary! Ha ha!

For my fellow Trots and American patriots who turn up your nose at the Torygraph, here is a guy coincidentally named Shaun Kenney from Virginia also giving commentary.

I only found this article because I was looking up dirt on a guy named Shaun Rein, this guy who works for an investment firm pulling massive amounts of money into China and writes really grating, gushing, apologistic articles for Forbes and Businessweek and the like. He’s one of those really talented, experienced, and immersed businessmen blinded by the money surrounding him who have come to believe China is an invincible economic juggernaut on its own terms and is ethically justified in everything it does, and he likes to write about the clean, Asian, streamlined capitalism in China’s market. You know, the part that isn’t wildly corrupt, extortionary and brutal to the working-class, completely opaque at the management level, riddled with patent violations, intentionally sabotaged by the government to prevent autonomy, is harshly checked by the government on ideological grounds for reasons that simply cannot be justified by western standards, and probably most severely of all, totally in thrall to its inflation rates/inflamed property market and is extremely bubble-prone.

After reading a handful of his articles that aren’t concise and interesting columns on business management and market insertion, my new life goal is to replace him as the “Shaun” of China.

And him not even Irish, the nerve. Quit slouching! You look like a deer in somebody's headlights, Shaun Rein.

I understand the guy’s job is to write about how you should invest in China because it’s a nice country and you can make money here, because he runs a bloody (note: in the British sense only) Chinese investment firm, and he’s whitewashing to cover for it. But complete appeasement of the Chinese state–not even calling it or thinking of it as appeasement, just implying that it’s the sole logical, sane, and profitable course of action–is ridiculous, as is taking it one step further and simply overlooking the major problems that the Chinese government itself has acknowledged, like the pollution, corruption, inequality, inflation, housing crisis, etc.

But back to the main point of the article.

"The exssssssstended ssssssimile."

Does the other Shaun, Shaun Kenney, who is not Shaun Rein, have a point? From his stuff:

–Problem #1:  The Chinese Politburo doesn’t have to worry about dissent.– He says this in comparison to Wilhelm’s Germany, which started a war basically to split the Social Democrats and keep the Marxists from upending the country.

The Chinese government TOTALLY has to worry about dissent! It’s a much more j4smin3 type of thing, striking over unemployment and inflation and such, and it would take a magnification of current levels, but at present there are all sorts of small scale bombings being carried out by individuals all over rural and urban China, mostly protests over land seizure, pollution, and corruption issues. Like small-scale Timothy McVeigh type stuff, people throwing gasoline bombs at local government bureaus during meetings and the like, small-scale political attacks.

It’s not large scale because people generally put all the blame for the bad stuff in their life on their local government, not the national government. People don’t have any better ideas about how to run things, they’re afraid of more civil unrest and political power struggles that plagued the last two centuries of their history, and they’ll stick with the guys they know, who really aren’t so bad. But the Chinese Communist Party has not really had a steady finger on the pulse of its people since 1949, not on a policy level.

If America keeps calling names and exporting our inflation and debt burdens, if we spark some kind of economic crisis here and then play the political damage control really badly, for example, by having the head of our legislature and a large bloc of the House call Hu Jintao a dictator, which is technically true if extremely simplistic and overstating his authority, and then escalating trade embargos, for example, pressuring them really awkwardly on North Korea or Myanmar, etc…

 The young officers are taking control of strategy and it is like young officers in Japan in the 1930s. They are thinking what they can do, not what they should do. This is very dangerous. They are on a collision course with a US-dominated system.”

If such a group were possibly even sympathetic to an aggressive group of North Korean naval officers trying to start a conflict they would have to lose and then be absorbed in the aftermath, East-Germany-style, then we could see some really scary conflict.

Another point by my fellow Shaun though:

–Problem #3:  China’s ability to project force is a fraction of the United States.  China’s GDP is on par with Japan, Britain, France, and Germany.  Furthermore, the Chinese are surrounded by governments wary of the direction of the PRC — South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Thailand, India, and despite all outward appearances to the contrary, Russia.–

The reason China’s reaching out to nations all over the world for diplomatic, military, and economic partnership is mainly because all of their immediate neighbors save some central Asian nations and Pakistan are extremely mistrustful of them.

If you live in China you don’t go looking to Brazil for a military alliance because all your neighbors like you so much. And if you’re in Brazil’s position, you should be very suspicious here, for the same reason that, for example, Bulgaria and Romania should have been more suspicious of courting Germans in 1941: when a superpower is suddenly very interested in placing large numbers of its troops in your country, and simultaneously taking your best troops very far away from your own country and using them to invade Russia, you should be extremely worried.

Kein problem, Herr Antonescu, you can trust Onkel Guderian to vrap zis zing up real qvick and haff ze boys home bevor Christmas.

 So if ten years from now, China were to offer “limited personnel assistance” and “military advisers” in the event of, say, a revolt in the Amazon or escalation of civil war in Colombia/Venezuela, while borrowing some peacekeeping units for use in central Asia, that’s a gift horse you want to look in the mouth.

Quote here from prewar Germany

–”‘The only condition which could lead to improvement of German-English relations would be if we bridled our economic development, and this is not possible,’ said Deutsche Bank chief Karl Helfferich as early as 1897. German steel output jumped tenfold from 1880 to 1900, leaping past British production. Sound familiar?”–

And –Heaven protect us from unreconstructed Neo-cons such as ex-UN ambassador John Bolton, who wants to send aircraft carrier battle groups into the Straits of Taiwan, as if we were still living in that lost world of American pre-eminence in 1996, when China was still too weak to respond, and did not have operational missiles able to sink US carriers far at sea. Yet variants of the Bolton view are gaining ground on Capitol Hill.– It’s not just a Republican thing, Harry Reid, possibly just in an attempt to appear less like his usual underwhelming self, was at the forefront criticizing Hu when he was in D.C. It’s a US election thing, regardless of what party you belong to–if you want to seem less bleeding-heart and more tough as a Democrat, support Israel, bash China. If you want to appeal to a Republican constituency aimed more Tea Party, support Israel (maybe with a little less tax revenue), bash China a little harder.

–The political reality is that China’s export of manufacturing over-capacity is hollowing out the US industrial core, and a plethora of tricks to stop Western firms competing in the Chinese market rubs salt in the wound. It is preventing full recovery in the US, where half the population is falling out of the bottom of the Affluent Society. Some 43.2m people are now on food stamps. The US labour force participation rate has fallen to 64.3pc, worse than a year ago. Only the richer half is recovering. “China gets 10pc growth: the US gets 10pc unemployment. That doesn’t seem the basis for a happy marriage,”–

—The roots of this imbalance lie in the structure of globalisation and East-West capital flows – and no doubt the deficiencies of US school education – but China plays a central role, and this will not tolerated for much longer if Beijing is also perceived to be a strategic enemy. China’s economic and military goals are in conflict. One defeats the other.–

As a citizen of the rustbelt, I understand what China’s doing with its manufacturing sector, because America basically got rich the same way, propping up domestic barriers and financing other nations’ rise (Imperial Japan, Germany, eventually France and Britain, NOT Republican Spain, eastern Europe, or the Soviet Union), but it’s the twenty-first century now and we can’t do things the old way any more. Not if we want to stop the wars and the empty rivalry and the fear and seriously work together. Not if we want to really build something instead of just play King of the Hill on top of a big tower of spent bullet casings.

–Prof Ferguson said naval rivalry is passé – cyberwarfare is the issue of the future, and he advises the West to be a little more careful about its reliance on Chinese-manufactured microchips.–Be that as it may, the current flash-point is a very old fashioned showdown between gunboats in the Yellow Sea and the South China Sea (the latter now a “core interest” of China along with Tibet and Taiwan), also claimed in part by a ring of other nations who are not pleased.–

What’s encouraging though–The Chinese have no recent history of sweeping territorial expansion (except Tibet). The one-child policy has left a dearth of young men, and implies a chronic aging crisis within a decade. This is not the demographic profile of a fundamentally bellicose nation.–problem is that those handful of young men are under a huge amount of social stress for a zillion economic and social reasons I could talk for days about, and they could easily be led by circumstance or intent to make some stupid decisions with an enlistment card. The army is hugely popular as an employment branch right now, and they have very high requirements now for officer candidacy and have to limit their acceptance even for enlistment…

–The correct statecraft for the West is to treat Beijing politely but firmly as a member of global club, gambling that the Confucian ethic will over time incline China to a quest for global as well as national concord. Until we face irrefutable evidence that this Confucian bet has failed, ‘Boltonism’ must be crushed.–Appeasement, your hour has come.– Ah, the British right, endless font of wisdom. There is appeasement and then there is agreement to disagree but still do business.

The comparison to prewar Germany isn’t entirely accurate. Germany in 1910 had a lot more social unrest–back then it was full of actual Marxists who wanted to overthrow the monarchy and bourgeois instead of a ruling Communist Party who ARE the nucleus of a monarchistic bourgeois, because history repeats itself, the second time as farce, just like Marx said. But China’s demographic and economic issues are massively more pressing. Germany’s question was who was going to dominate European markets only; Britain was never really making any money off of its colonies, and Germany would have expanded into the only fields keeping England afloat, and would have dominated the then-major-developing countries in the Middle East and South America.

But China’s rise, as either a failed state still pushed on by economic momentum, a middleweight industrial power weighed down by internal problems, or a heavyweight rising superpower, would literally impact the entire world, from Australia to Russia to central Asia to Africa to North and South America to Europe to outer space itself. The Soviet Union’s rise swallowed up Germany by comparison, and the United States, in time, swallowed up the USSR. If America gets into a position where it feels it has to prove its dominance, once and for all…or China feels it has no choice but to really challenge American authority…or they both feel the other has done them some lasting harm…

More from Shaun–There’s a reason why China is pursuing stability above all other factors.  They know, as we know, that they will inevitably lose any future conflict.  Soft power by opening up the world’s largest consumer market is the key to any future prosperity.–

If it comes to war, America will win, no question, and we’ll use the opportunity to rebuild our domestic industry and reform our immigration system. China might take back Taiwan in such a conflict, though, and the Korea issue might get settled permanently, along with Japan’s perennial do-you-want-an-army-or-not issue. So if all those ducks got lined up in a row, somebody might take a shot at them, on either side really. I know South Korea’s been jonesing for a fight, lately. It seems everybody’s awfully edgy, don’t know if it’s something in particular or just that pre-2012 apocalyptic itch.

But hey, if I was looking at, “We accept your decision to not hand over the oil deposits of the Diaoyu Islands, but declare war on Japan anyway” I’d be edgy, too.

–Let it be said in China’s defence that it occupies no overseas military bases, and has no modern history of projecting imperial power. On balance, I remain hopeful that country with a one-child policy, an aging crunch from Hell, and a chronic dearth of young people, will show an enormous reluctance to support military adventurism. Losing an only child is especially cruel.–

–Let us hope that the Communist hierachy in Beijing can rein in those young officers. But as Dr Huang said, they can no longer control much of anything, least of all the 17m-strong base of the Communist Party. “The empire has lost control of its officials, which is how Chinese empires have always fallen in history.” This needs watching, I fear.–

But hey, that’s some heavy stuff there about wars and economic crashes and reducing the past and present heroes of the American political, military, and economic worlds to pawns in a giant Bismarckian game of Age of Empires.

So here's another Elarian pic to distract you. In my opinion, if your mate can't at least fight you to a standstill, outsmart you in a half dozen different areas, and keep you up three nights in a row, you're not trying hard enough.

 Kevin, don’t worry, I’ll post about Datong and Shaanxi soon, in the next three days or so, then Jiangxi, and then I want to talk about my personal life this semester, maybe do like a “day-in-my-life’ kind of feature to show an average day in China, and finish up with a post about what I’ve learned here and my advice to students coming over and people dealing with Chinese people and culture.

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Due South

Not this kind, unfortunately.

“Shaun Lawson!” I say to myself sometimes, in shock and disgrace.

“Shaun Lawson,” I said half an hour ago in the shower, “you have to be across town at the airport by 6 AM. Ignore the major problem here, which is that you will be missing the Man U-Barca championship game for this.” (EDIT: Beautiful game! Thank God for Messi and Villa, credits to Sir Alex’s side as well!)

“There is a serious logistical problem here,” I said sternly. “You are tighter with money than a Swiss hedge fund, so you’ll spend two hours on buses crossing town, thus spending .8 yuan while your classmates are spending over a hundred in taxis.” I nodded in agreement. (EDIT: I also had to take an airport shuttle, so it wound up being 1.2 yuan, or about 18 cents US)

“All of your friends in the neighborhood are asleep or sick of you. It’s too late to go to your host family’s other house and let them drive you in the morning. If you go to bed you’ll oversleep. You could go to Sanlitun, dance for three hours, then go back home and go to the airport, but that would be ridiculous and the taxi fee would be 100 kuai, and we’re back to the “Swiss hedge fund” factor. If I read a bunch of Chinese stuff I’ll pass out. 

那怎么办呢?” After a moment of thought and shampoo, I realized that I should finish blogging about my trip and everything else this semester, so that way when we come back from Jiangxi next weekend I’ll be up to date.

So I’ve put on some De La and want to finish this tonight! So Shanghai! And Suzhou! And back to Shanghai! And other places!

So we didn’t actually spend very long in Xiamen, but the general consensus among those who went was that it was the best place we went out of the trip, so Kevin and I wrote a lot about it.

I mean, it looks like this, come on.

 So after touring the tulou and the city of Xiamen itself–I am skipping over some things like our awesome tour guide, Alex, a very cool, intelligent, focused guy who really represented all the best things about the people of south China, and a tandem bike trip Professor Yang and took. Xiamen was kind of unusual for a Chinese town, I think, in that westerners aren’t really anything remarkable. This is probably due to 2 things–they were originally a treaty port and have been involved with intercontinental trade for centuries, and they were one of the first special economic zones to be opened up to outside investment in the 80s, so white people have been around.

But a twenty-year old scruffy American kid on a tandem with a Chinese woman a generation and a half older than him got stares. So I told a couple of onlookers that we were newlyweds and got a laugh out of them, and a slap on the back from my professor. Also, we were biking against the flow of the city’s annual marathon, and a bunch of people were running around the island. A nice atmosphere, really, but kind of odd. Yang and I had some nice discussions about Chinese politics, anyway.

So Shanghai.

Shanghai! Not very flatteringly! But I kind of like this photo because you can see a much more realistic portrait of all Shanghai, not just the crazy modern superimposed Pearl Tower in the background but a living, messy, complicated city.

We got up very early in the morning–

That's the eastern side of town. That early.

 …so that we could go and avoid the lines for the China pavilion from the World Expo, which was hosted in Shanghai last year. Last autumn was actually a really irritating time to be in China, actually, every single communication medium was saturated with references to the damn thing.

Also, this pudgy Gumby knockoff.

And that thing.

It reminded me of stories I’ve heard of the Nazi Olympics in the 30′s as an event hyped to exhibit a nation’s revitalization, unfortunately without the badass African-American athletes beating the living bejezus out of white supremacy, sometimes literally.

But the architecture was pretty okay, even if kind of silly by western standards, and some of the exhibits were all right.

As fabulous as I look, it doesn't really capture the scale or the style of the building well…

That's a little better.

During the peak season last year people waited in line for eight to ten hours. To see what is basically a very expensive 3d powerpoint presentation on why China is awesome. There's some really messed up sociology at work here.

I mean, it was a really sweet presentation. They had a giant escalator surrounded by artificial rainfall and gardens talking about water use and desertification, and the fact that they used that much water to make that point non-ironically is both hilarious and typically China.

 They devoted quite a lot of space and energy to talking about climate change with some pretty graphics, which was nice to see. The centerpiece was a scroll of a cityscape from the 10th century or something that had been electronically animated, and that was gorgeous.

06092010 796

Like this, only moving and larger than your house.

Worth the trip, definitely, just kind of silly at times.

After that we took a high-speed train to Suzhou, a nearby city famous for its gardens. The city itself wasn’t much, to be honest, and mid-December is really not the best time to go garden-hopping, but it was still nice. Particularly worth visiting was the old town area and the canal areas; we took a boat down one that was particularly pleasant.

Pleasant.

But I'd way rather have this and no other tourist groups than have to choke our way through summer heat and crowds.

just a nice little group photo and AAAH GLARE AAAH

Back to Shanghai.

At this point, our exploration of Shanghai had consisted of “those places our teacher dragged us to, plus that one lame shopping mall that’s mostly just obnoxious if you’re white,” and our hotel was really close to the Bund, a sort of classy European boardwalk kind of place that looks gorgeous at night, and very close to Nanjing Road, the center of Shanghai, as much as such a thing exists, so I decided to take a walk. Everyone else was lame and just passed out or watched TV or whatever.

And we shall soon discover who has the best winter holiday facebook albums, my friends.

Also, because I am the kind of person who wishes the present era was the kind of place the 80s thought we would be in 30 years, I took the underground Bund sightseeing tour. Which was a fascinating combination of strange, tasteless, ugly, expensive, and underwhelming.

To be honest, the emotional cocktail was almost worth the 45 kuai the ticket cost. That's a good day's wages in this country.

Dinner time!

 That night was New Years’, so we all went out on the town. Some of us had local contacts they went to go party with–Trang and Kevin, for example–

Others spent their time differently.

But yeah, it was kind of weird.  It was like the entire city was looking for someplace to watch fireworks, a difficult prospect with strict fireworks bans and the city’s weaksauce topography. We settled in this sort of commercial square cafe area with several hundred people, watched a handful of fireworks from whatever “official” annual celebrations were going on around the corner, mostly reflected in the windows of office buildings rather than being able to see them directly. Topography. And because it was a gathering of hundreds of listless loiterers, there was a huge police presence that slowly but rigidly dispersed the crowd.

What else did we do in Shanghai…we saw a little circus-acrobatics thing, and that was cool but not conducive to blogging.

Oh yeah, we went to a fun art gallery the next day. This is made entirely of rice, which I thought was really cool.

Also, I met Deng Xiaoping and discussed the results of his economic reforms.

 

Trippy! And the touchpad says something like "inheritance" or "tradition," for us art-deaf proles.

Ole! Soy un torero magnifico. I kind of have a thing for classical Spain, longstanding fantasy of being an International Brigadier notwitstanding.

But yeah, what else in Shanghai…um, we met my…host-brother-in-law, I guess. He lived with the Huang family several years before I did, and asked about Chen Chen (our mutual host sister) and we talked about his work in Shanghai and his Japanese then-fiancee (whom I later discovered at one point was brought “home” to meet his Chinese family after they met at Beida; my paternal host grandparents’ families were all brutally murdered by Japanese soldiers, forcing them into the Communist army, causing some initial embarassment on the poor girl’s part until my grandfather explained that it had nothing to do with her as a person or her generation). Very nice guy, fantastic Chinese. And Kevin’s doeppelganger.

Wow, that’s only Shanghai! Datong and this semester will be easier. But I need to get on that bus now! Talk to you guys again in a little less than a week! Ciao!

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Whoa hey guys

So hey, I’m still alive and still in China and still have opinions about things, how about that?

Even though it’s late April now (wow, yeah, it’s been a while), let’s start with a photo recap of winter vacation, because it was busy and fun and if anyone is reading this in advance of going to China next year they will appreciate it:

You know when you're driving through West Virginia or something they have all those folk art and homespun-type furniture markets? They have those, only Chinese, and that's a bottle of booze with a dead pickled cobra in it. Regional specialty, apparently. Next time I'll see if I can get a cup.

The tulou are all built as little self-sufficient communities, and groups of them tend to be organized into some kind of cottage industry. These ones made delicious delicious huangjiu, "yellow wine," a smooth and sweet non-distilled multi-grain spirit.

We got there on Christmas during a big workers' celebration that we were invited to join.

So these Chinese men with red-painted cheeks and Santa hats handed out handfuls of peanuts and candy to the workers and us. It was fantastic.

The hotel/tulou was run by a very sweet family who served us regional tea and a very hearty dinner of local specialties. I do remember that one of the women was VERY pregnant and was still running around serving food and taking care of her other kid.

 For such a family-oriented society, China doesn’t much shelter their pregnant women. Lot of poor people, I guess, and families need breadwinners. Noodlewinners. Whatever.

Come to think of it, there really is very little room for sentimentality in much of the Chinese popular mind, especially in the proletariat. The working class is very practical about its money, and will really only spend extra to either invest in a household’s children or treat others and show that they are cultured or hospitable. It’s a global pattern, just especially strong in China. It was probably strong in America and Europe, too, about a hundred years ago, and still is in rural America. The industrial bourgeoise, especially those who have acquired their wealth within one or two generations, will happily spend their money on creature comforts and on showing others that they can afford creature comforts, same as us and same as everybody the whole world round.

“You’re damned if you do, and you’re damned if you don’t/So you get yourself a job just to take something home/Now there’s food on the table/But nothing left over.”

Also as usual, there’s an intelligentsia class that enjoys being impractical and, alternately, either enjoying bourgeois life and burning through cash or soberly sympathizing with the people further down the ladder and (also very impractically) helping them climb up.

The dichotomy can be represented by, for example:

Tang dynasty poets Li Bai and Du Fu,

The Kuomintang/Guomindang and Chinese Communist Party

The left and right on the Chinese political scale (liberal reformers and socialist conservatives respectively)

The ambitious, prosperous early and decadent, corrupt late points in the traditional dynastic cycle

Taiwan and the mainland, or even Shanghai and Beijing to an extent

The success and quality of China’s rural agricultural bounty, river-valley merchant life, government efficiency, level of cultural and artistic growth, foreign trade, and military prowess all tend to very wildly over very brief spans of time, for all kinds of reasons, and a government is normally considered effective if it can keep about four of those six doing well at any time, along with reconciling their advocates and benefactors in a wheeling-deeling centralized bureaucratic system with none of the traditional outlets for public expression, like political parties, free speech and assembly, a western-style lobby system, etc.

The place just tends to be such an interesting mess, where massive public works and engineering projects are coupled with a society that just seems to never really get anything done, that lots of very interesting social questions never really get permanently answered so much as redefined. What to do about pensions? Civil service reform? Labor unions? Public education? Ask a Chinese official every twenty years and I guarantee you there will be different answers. Not just policy nuances, like in the west, like gradual increases in retirement ages or school vouchers. What to do about x ornery minority group(s)? How about this territory that used to belong to us? How much authority should regional governments be given?

There is very little progress towards solving social issues permanently by gradual integration/liberalization/state involvement, which tends to be how I think of America historically progressing towards the centre-left, solving issues like civil rights or homosexuals or social security or labor law by setting up permanent, enduring limits enforced by a weird combination of popular protest, legislative tomfoolery, judicial enforcement, and a vague we-don’t-go-there-any-more kind of unconscious public consensus. At the upper political levels at least, China doesn’t work that way. What are the needs of this generation? What is at stake and what will happen if we act this way? What historical precedents do we have to draw on, and what precedents go against us?

Maoist communalism and mass-movement peer-pressure leadership, Qin dynasty hardcore Legalism, Wall Street entrepreneurialism and libertarian market values, Leninist hierarchies, European-style social democracy and vaguely German cautious-but-expansive market socialism, Gilded Age/Soviet-ish robber barons in state-owned business, wheeling-deeling black market arrangements (like purchasing oil no-questions-asked from not-so-altruistic rebel groups in Africa), and Asian-style hegemonic consensus-based zaibatsu/Hong Kong mafia/PLA/Communist party leadership, all have their place here. 

Enough hot air. Hot text. Something. Enough rambling about politics, more pictures of exotic subtropical resort cities.

And this is what the place looks like during the height of winter. I'd like to see it in summer–or better yet in early Fall, when everybody's rushing around all this farmland t get the crop in. I've never really seen human-intensive farming on any scale bigger than a community garden.

embellished character posters designed to look like the meanings of their words–the left is "马," horse, the right is "舞," dance.

"Hey Kevin, look like you're thoughtfully contemplating nature for a sec."

Xiamen's downtown market area is a very nice, walkable area. They did this "Follow Singapore Development" campaign thingy so it's all this no-cussing no-smoking expensive-clean-fun kind of place.

But not far off the main drag there are some more down-to-earth mixed-use neighborhoods. And the kind of kitsch I haven't seen since I lived near the Virginia Beach boardwalk.

Prof. Yang took a boat trip out to the harbor. Xiamen is just across the channel from Taiwan, and used to be just a grimy military port waiting for war. If you can make it out on the photo, there's some foxholes and czech hedgehogs and things on the beach, along with a big Kuomintang slogan on the sign there.

 And as somebody who grew up in Norfolk and Virginia Beach, I have absolutely no experience with grimy decaying military ports or obnoxious coastal tourist traps.

The above picture’s not Taiwan, for the record, just a border island. Likely packed to the gills with decades-old missiles aimed at the mainland, just as the land across the border is probably packed with missiles aimed at Taiwan. Only Taiwan’s were funded by us and China’s by the Soviets. Hooray for the balance of powers.

Storytime with Yang about the Cultural Revolution. I really hope that China opens up about the Revolution within the next twenty or so years–it's a really fascinating time and the people who lived then have really interesting things to say. It would be a shame if the government just squashed their voices and left only those who have run to Hong Kong and so on free to structure the historical narrative.

Woo Gulangyu group photo. This is on the island that used to be the foreigner exclave when Xiamen/Amoy was a treaty port.

Went swimming in the Pacific for the first time ever.

There's a big fort-structure on top of the island, gives a great view of the whole bay.

Being all wistful.

The whole lower part of the island is a really nice little market district, with cozy overpriced cafes and overpriced fresh seafood and everything. Some areas have recieved more investment than others, however. It was kind of a relief to see some decay amidst all this neo-colonial-ness, to be honest. Maybe that's the Rustbelt Yinzer talking.

Bravely defending the mainland from fascist-imperialist aggression.

See, they do have a bunch of lovely Victorians down by the docks.

That’s about it for Xiamen. I’ll put up some photos for Shanghai later, and then move on to this semester, I guess. With Shanxi and the other places I’ve gone to and things I’ve been doing and such. I should also put up some advice to kids coming here next semester soon, on the off chance that any of you are reading these things. You should! They’re helpful! But if you’re reading this then you are! So well done!

Later.

Comments

All cities are mad, but the madness is gallant.

And all cities are beautiful, but the beauty is grim.

At some point, I will actually blog about the rest of our vacation in Shanghai and Fujian, Spring Festival, my internship, my dozen-odd new Chinese friends, my terrible language skills, and so on. I will also actually talk, at some point, to my family, with whom I have not really connected for months on end.  I will also eventually reply to Courtney’s email. Hi, Courtney. Yeah. I’ll do that.

But first I will try and explain what it feels like to be at the turn of an era.

My Chinese friend Xiao Zhi(小志)works at a hair salon. He lives in the basement of one of the nicest apartment complexes in Beijing. Imagine living in Das Boot, crossed with the Robert Taylor homes. I would have taken pictures, but it would have been incredibly disrespectful.

He gave me a really nice haircut.

See?

SEE? Cute, right?

He’s a really great guy. Really modest, has this rich southern Chinese super high-maintenance girlfriend, takes really good care of her. Makes his friends all get drunk, is really serious about making other people happy and takes care of them. He is completely and utterly full of hope and expectation.

“You see my house right now is how it is, but I really want you to come see me again in a few years, five, ten years. Hey, that Xiao Zhi, how’s he doing now?”

And he can do it. I believe it. He’s just full of…I don’t even know, but it’s amazing to watch. I invited him, his friends and family over for dinner and drinks, a fun bunch, and for the first time, I really felt like “I can live here.”

It’s this amazing feeling. Like I’m passing the baton of a century to them. This is your time to shine, you crazy people. Make this yours. Don’t waste a single minute, and I’ll help you however I can. It’s both my responsibility and my pleasure.

It’s a really beautiful feeling, watching them grow and explode and giving them help however you can. They are such natural networkers, the 21st century really is their time.

I haven’t explained it clearly, and I’ll have to try again.

But…

Allright, fine. I grew up Unitarian, we’ll do some hippy stuff. Guided meditation, all that jazz. Extended metaphors and such.

Imagine that you are an eagle, flying in the face of a warm summer day. You ride the thermals, you dive and eat fish when you’re hungry, whatever. Then the wind turns against you. You stop for a while, resting on the side of a cliff in the face of the warm sun and the cool wind.

Then you see another bird, with his new spring molting just finished, ready to really fly for the first time. You get him to jump off the cliff with you, and you fly together for a while, enjoying the sun and brotherhood.

But you’re tired. You need to go and rest for a while. There’s more than enough sea, more than enough fish for anyone to eat. You go and sit on a nice warm rock on the cliffside and watch your young friend circle in the sky, diving like a stone out of the sky, and coming out of the water with a fat fish in his claws, with that confident smirk birds of prey all seem to have. He gives you some, paying you back for when he was small and you used to give him stuff here and there.

You go and fly with him for a while, rest a while, and invite other birds to come as well. You see him find a female, you watch your friends hatch their chicks, and through them you’re young again, you live again, you’re thrilled and completely comfortable with life, not a single instance of jealousy.

I really can’t communicate this feeling. Probably because I’m a filthy red socialist who loves things like solidarity and health insurance and brotherhood and neighborhoods. I’m also used to speaking Chinese, which is  a much smoother language for using metaphors an talking about philosophy.

Eh.

Good night, guys. I’ll try this again later.

Wow, this would be really confusing if this was the first post you read of my blog. Hi, new people. I’ll write a new post really soon and actually talk about Chinese culture instead of my acid-trip explanation of what it feels like.

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¡Vacación! Part one: Fujian

  Hao jiu bu jian, guys! Long time no see. What a week, and now in the midst of finals! It’s been a real full time here and to be honest I’m not sure where to start.

I guess Christmas Eve? This is one of several parachuting Santa mannequins in the Xiamen airport right now.

I barely remember it. Lots of people wanted to go to bed early, so I hung out with a Chinese friend until it was time for my plane. Didn’t do anything special, just hung out, watched movies, 谈谈了. We actually passed out and I woke up “late,” at 6:00 2 blocks away from my apartment with my luggage when I had to be across town at the airport by 6:30. So I said goodbye and sprinted out to get my bags, called a cab, and ended up paying 100 kuai just to get to the airport. Then I found out from Professor Yang, who met us at the airport, that we weren’t leaving for another three hours. And that there’s a shuttle bus that leaves regularly for the airport to a couple of terminals within a medium-long walk of the apartment, or a real easy bus ride.

Edit: Actually, there was one that drops you off RIGHT by my house, but I didn’t find this out until after I bought the return ticket. 没办法.

Interjection: I really do think of it as “my” apartment or “our” apartment. Gao and Huang come by sometims and Huang washes dishes and the floors when we don’t, but it’s a lot more like a landlord-tenant relationship, like Phillippa says, rather than a family relationship. Which is too bad, really. They’re kind, smart, interesting people and I wish we had spent more time together this semester. Maybe the next one? We’re gonna do something nice for them this week, and I’ll probably try and do something on my own during Spring Festival, if I’m in town.

Anyway.

So we eventually get on this plane to Xiamen. It looked really small, only two big engines, compared to the crowed that was waiting for it. But we all got onboard and headed for Xiamen.

It was interesting seeing Beijing from the air again. The only other time I had seen it was the plane trip there, before I had even set foot in the city.

Flight was nice. Meal included for a three/four-hour flight, free drinks, etc.

After this I tried to stay awake to take photos and admire the countryside, but I was real sleepy and we started flying at or just above the cloudline, so there wasn't much to see except incoherent whiteness. Eventually I just went “you win, China,” and passed out.

Then Xiamen!

The name in Chinese is 厦门, the “door/gate to the mansion/big building.” It was originally a much more informal 下门,just the “back gate” or back port of the harbor strait it’s located on, but they changed it to 厦门 to up the general literacy of the name.

Think Miami if Guiliani Disney-fied it for about five or ten years, except replace all of the poor Hispanic immigrants with poor Fujianese migrant workers and all of the rich retirees and obnoxious students with obnoxious rich Taiwanese.

Our tour guide’s name was Alex Dong, sweetheart of a guy that became the yardstick by which everyone else we met on the trip was measured. From what I can understand he is one of the Hakka minority that grew up in or around 厦门 and works as a tour guide for a travel company based in Shanghai owned by Prof. Yang’s cousin David, who planned the whole itinerary, which altogether was quite nice. It was a very Chinese 关系/guanxi (relationship)-based affair.

As soon as we got off the plane we got onto a bus headed for western Fujian, for this community of houses called 土楼, tulou, earth buildings.

If you watch Chinese media or read travel magazines, you may have seen this picture with real Chinglishy ads telling you to "Visit Scenic Civilian Residence Building!"

Story time: So throughout  there was this general migration pattern of some people to move to China’s southern provinces, for all kinds of reasons. After the Tang dynasty fell, refugees came in the first wave, and then when the Song was established, people came south as well. When the northern barbarians were growing strong in the north during the Three Kingdoms, or for that matter any time life in the north got too aggressive, some people would head south. When the Taiping Rebellion was passing through the Yangtze River Valley to get to Beijing from Guangxi, the Qing were even encouraging people to move out of the way, thus reduce the available manpower of the Taiping state and military while maintaining some economic/agricultural stability.

So Han people moved south and east into these areas considered “foreign” or as good as such. They were known as 客家人 by the non-Han locals, which means ”the guest people” or “the visiting families,” in their own language spoken as ”Hakka.” To defend themselves from not-so-hospitable locals, gangs, dirt-poor famers-turned-bandits, and wild tigers, they built these things called 土楼, tulou, earth buildings.

Most of them look like little round western castles, or maybe like a post-cubist response to a traditional Pueblo village.

They built them out of whatever was handy, and they built them for defense. They share a lot of similar innovations with western castles. No windows on the lower floors, outer windows themselves real narrow, only one main gate closed by the last person to come in based on a series of signals, primitive bulkheads and sectioning to prevent fires, inner and outer keep rings in the larger ones (the inner one for guests, warmer and safer), wooden door covered with a half-inch sheet of solid iron to prevent it from being lit on fire, stuff like that. It’s always kind of cool to see peoples’ solutions when they don’t have much except labor and wits to solve problems.

Driving out of Xiamen, I really enjoyed seeing the massive harbor they have there. Rows and rows of huge cranes, although listening to Courtney it's nothing compared to Tianjin.

Oddly, however, they built them all pretty much entirely in the valleys around where they live, right by the hillsides–if they built any closer to the river running through the middle they’d risk flooding. So someone standing on a hilltop, or on the far side of it, could shoot down arrows into the open top without a whole lot of trouble. Weird. But building on the mountain would really expose you to wind, and possibly put you at risk for earthquakes. You just can’t win, I guess.

We had a nice little pattern going, driving through Fujian province. First we'd be in a dense but managable urban area, lots of green space and high-rises…

 

…then giant infrastructural construction wastelands…

…then seriously intensive banana plantations…

…and then a small industrial town. Then more infrastructure development, rice/tea/banana terraces, etc.

 Wow, I’ve not even finished the end of the first day, but it’s real late. I’ll post this as a post-in-progress just to get something out, and then throw the rest of our time in as I have time.

 Before I pass out, let me share a post of something I found online about the Unitarian Universalist church in China–as usual, we’re in committee discussing what we should call ourselves. It’s interesting, though. I didn’t know they had UUs in Hong Kong, but I guess…kind of disappointing I haven’t found any in Beijing. It’s certainly structured to be inclusive enough.

http://www.uupcc.org/docs/uu_chinese.pdf

G’night for now.

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Transimperialism and the modern family

You know you’ve got a liberal arts education when essay titles like that just kind of pop into your mind. It sounds so stupid to actually try and explain my course studies to anyone not familiar with American private schools.

“I’m an East Asian Studies Major, which is a very flexible program. For example, last semester I took a class on postcolonialism in greater East Asia, along with an analysis of pop culture as a window on the development of Japanese culture on the twentieth century. We spent a lot of time talking about Godzilla and the A-Bomb. But my favorite was my politics course, and the capstone of that was a twenty-page essay on the role of the PLA as a proxy government during the Cultural Revolution.” And this is before I start talking about my 19th century Germanic Interior Design course and begin my 30-minute prepared defense of Karl Freidrich Schinkel as the great genius of pre-1848 Prussia. I’m not making a word of this up.

Anyway, my dear friend Courtney put up a post on her experiences as a pretty white girl with long light hair running around in Beijing. She’s sick of getting stared at like she has a second head and getting mugged by people for photos with the exotic westerner. Along with most of us. But, mercifully, I am not a blond woman, and therefore am spared 99% of the suffering that Anna, Phillipa, and Courtney get put through here.

 But in the interest of gender balance, and trying to talk more about the issue of culture gaps and the experience of being a white expat and so on, I thought I would try and explain my feelings about the male form of that attention, and then talk about dinner with Huang’s family.

But first, as usual, I want to talk about something totally unrelated.

I was fooling around on Wikipedia, reading about the old Burmese coup and their earlier history, when I found this, a story written by George Orwell about the time he spent as a policeman for the Brits in Burma, which was then under the Raj. It’s real short and I recommend it. As another lefty who believes the worst thing a leftist party can do for the common people is form a dictatorship (because it never really is “of the proletariat”), I really enjoy reading Orwell. He writes from a solid centrist, individual perspective that makes him universally enjoyable.

But what makes this slightly relevant to my point is the feeling of the narrator. Regardless of how I feel about my country’s foreign policy (or lack of a consistent one), the way I walk, dress, and talk gives me away as American, and I was born and raised there. I believe wholeheartedly in American values like personal freedom, egalitarianism, personal informality and fraternity, eating like a pig, and cultural inclusiveness. I love my country, even if I don’t always like a lot of things about it. But I’m an American. I represent the wealthiest, most powerful, most influential country in the world to everyone I meet, and this gets a lot of different reactions.

Almost all of them are positive. The only negative reaction I have ever had was when I was in a Carrefour (France’s supermarket chain caught on here a lot quicker than Wal-Mart’s) and some middle-aged guys chatted me up over the rice cookers. Translated from Chinese:

Random Guy A: (looking up in surprise) “Ah, a foreigner!”

Moi: “Yep. I’m an American exchange student.”

RG A: “Really? America’s pretty all right.”

RG B: (clutching RG A by the shoulder) “Don’t talk to him. Americans are bad news. America only care about America’ problems. Just look at what they’re doing in North Korea.” (exit with RG A stage left)

Moi: We’re not all like that! (fade to black)

But that’s been it, pretty much, and Random Guy B was the only person I’ve met in China with a facial tattoo–a character I couldn’t read, maybe 10 years old, just under his eye. Possibly an ex-con, maybe just a veteran–the only native Chinese who seem to get inked seem to be one of the two.

But there’s always this pressure to behave like an American. A sahib has to act like a sahib, whether or not he likes being a sahib. Squeezed between a decaying empire you disagree with and a colony that gets on your nerves, put in a position of representing the home country, and…

But that’s been about it. Pretty much everything else has been something like, “Oh, you’re American! It’s such a nice country. I hope to go someday. I have a friend who went there once, to California/Texas/New York. I have an American friend in town, do you know him?” I play with peoples’ babies and toddlers on the subway while their parents try and get them to say “Hello” in English and “Ni Hao, Waiguo Shushu” (Hello, Foreign Uncle!). People try to teach me how to hold my pen properly when they see me doing homework and are stunned when they learn that I can’t write at all with my right hand, but that’s pretty much the worst that usually happens.

I do get stares and double takes, harassed by salespeople, the odd photo, and bland food at restaurants unless I make myself very clear to the wait staff that I want REAL spice, but to be honest I don’t really mind it. I’m not a girl and so it’s never that invasive or personal. Except at dance halls, every once in a while, but that’s what you’re paying for, I guess. Instead of getting casual assessments of my beauty in daily conversation with strangers and mobbed by long lines of Chinese tourists for photos anytime I go anywhere scenic, I get occasional nervous girls that ask me for a photo and asked about my family and school instead of my hair. Much more tolerable.

But there is just an element of performance in the whole thing, more so than there is in normal life. I do buy into a lot of the all-behavior-as-performance theory, the idea that we don’t really have any innate qualities, we’re just taught to believe in the idea that we do and try and perform to that standard.

But this is a country that hires white people in suits who don’t speak Chinese to do nothing at all but look professional, project a cosmopolitan, international flair, and try and build international connections in a very chancey, personal, abstract, Chinese kind of way. A country that covers its products in English that 99% of its marketing base doesn’t understand. That photoshops its models to look whiter, curvier, and more Anglo whenever possible. That mindlessly adopts the “western” products that international companies have carefully tailored to Chinese tastes and markets. Everything is perception here. And people-watching is the number one national recreational activity, way ahead even of the NBA.

There’s just this idea that we need to perform, that compared to them we aren’t being western enough, that they’re chasing us across the Pacific and we have to hide in more and more American places as they chase us and learn from us and become global citizens and change it and take all we have and twist it into something foreign and different and sour and wrong. Like they want us to be different and strange and powerful, so that they can justify the whole system and have something to turn into. The whole country wants so desparately to find something new to be, to find something new to believe in, and the Cultural Revolution made it impossible to either turn red or turn to the past. And being international cosmpolitans is nice, but you have to have somewhere to come home to, some kind of center, some kind of ideal, and something to move toward.

It’s weird being so many things to so many strangers. To an old woman I might be both the reason she survived the Japanese invasion, when we sent them food and medical supplies, and the reason her brothers were drafted and killed, sent unarmed and screaming into the front lines in Korea, and a guest to be treated with respect, and a customer terrified of getting cheated by the dastardly Chinese merchants, and an arrogant foreigner with lousy Chinese. To a teenage boy I might be something both to be envied and disgusted by, laughed and stared at. To a small child I’m a giant white hairy clown, and to a pretty girl I’m a giant white cute hairy clown with a big wallet. To everyone we’re walking jokes, waiting to deliver a punchline, and to everyone who sees me furiously studying Chinese textbooks, I’m an object lesson in globalization and a symbol of national pride in what China has become in the last twenty years.

It’s just…odd. I wonder if I could spend my life here.

Lots of people say that there are tens or hundreds of thousands of expats and foreign businessmen here all the time, and there’s no reason to give us a second glance any more, at least not in Beijing or Shanghai. I guess the way I do the math, Twenty million people divided by a hundred thousand expats (pure guessing there) is like five tenths of a percent. Given the income imbalance, political and economic history of China, and the visual difference, I guess it makes us a pretty remarkable minority–even if there’s a bunch of us, there’s a BUNCH more of them, and they don’t see a honky too often unless they spend a lot of time in upscale hotel lobbies or in Wudaokou–not places the average Zhou spends a lot of time in.

That’s a pun, for people who don’t speak Chinese, because “Zhou” is pronounced “Joe.”

Anyway, in the usual fashion of my essays, I will now actually talk about what the title references after thirty pages of exposition. Dinner with the Huangs! After work the week before last Saturday, Huang and Gao drove us to their second home in the southeast suburbs of Beijing. When I say suburbs, Pittsburghers, think one of the emptier areas around East Liberty or Lawrenceville. Lots of old closed factories, migrant worker communities, and houses for government workers, pensioners, and the nouveau riche–either people who can afford the car trip and the theoretically better air quality or who are too poor for more convenient housing. Our host family belongs to the former. It’s a very nice neighborhood, although it looks quite normal on the outside. They’re sturdy, warm, comfortable, four-story houses, probably even larger than my house at home, and this is a house built for three people at Beijing real estate prices and housing demands. Yeah.

The night before the dinner, Huang and Gao were busy cooking up a storm, so they shooed us upstairs to make us do homework and watch television on a flatscreen larger than some beds I’ve slept on that they don’t know how to use. Phillippa found an English channel and we watched New York Minute, a film starring the Olsen twins, cameoing Simple Plan, and keeping them both in as few clothes as possible and encountering as many bad ethnic stereotypes as possible. I feel like I am a stronger person for having sat through the film, but I still want those two hours of my life back.

The next day, the house was filled with people and the food Huang had prepared for them. He’s an excellent cook, in addition to being a former national basketball player (Gao was an Olympic swimmer and at one time was the best in China; that’s how they met) and a former Ministry of Health bigwig. His mother, father, three older sisters, their husbands, his (second?) oldest sister’s daughter and granddaughter were all there, pretty much all of whom are from and live around Beijing.

I caught the gist of a lot of the conversation and was able to participate in it a little. We got all the usual questions–what are our families like, what do our parents do, how long are we studying, what are our majors, how old we are, what we think of the food and China in general, yada yada. After a while they started talking about what each other had been up to, what the people who hadn’t come were doing, and so on.

To be honest it reminded me a lot of family gatherings in Erie and Kentucky, and some of the food did, too. The way Huang spiced his Mala Tofu and prepared the sauce made it came off as a veggie Italian dish I might pay $12 a plate for back in the States, and they served a very American style potato salad, although it was sweetened with red beans, rather than raisins, not that I regard this as a flaw. Pork and potatoes, those fermented eggs that are so popular here that I’m really developing a taste for, a nice fish dish that Gao served me lots of, Chinese bread rolls, and so on. Also, it might have been because the brand was high-quality, or because it was warmed, but when we had baijiu (sorghum wine that is VERY cheap and quite popular here), it didn’t just taste like acetone, which makes me think I might actually be getting used to it a little. As much as that is concievably possible.

The entire family dissected the granddaughter’s Chinese name, and weighed it against the other options they had been considering, and then the old-timers asked us about our names and told the naming stories about themselves or when they had been naming their kids. Chinese names have all kinds of literary and cultural meaning, and you want a real high-class name, one that sounds smooth and old but crisp and modern and may be difficult to write, but that can’t have any bad or weird homophones. So coming up with new ones is a problem when your language has as few sounds as Chinese. Previous to this discussion, I thought these kinds of discussions were just stories in Amy Tan novels, urban legends to scare white guys from getting involved with asian girls. Guess again!

After dinner Huang’s parents went up for a nap, lots of people went upstairs to play with the toddler, and Phillippa and I got dragged into a long, rambling political debate with a slightly drunk brother in law of Huang’s. Like I said, it was a lot like a family gathering in Erie or Kentucky. I started off understanding about three-quarters of what we were discussing, and that gradually pared down to maybe a fifth to a third. I was contributing and following along, which I’m very happy with, but not nearly as much as I oughta be. People were very impressed when I brought out my father’s thoughts on North Korea, and were amused by my explanation of Pittsburgh’s economic history and comparing it to Jilin and Manchuria. I was just happy I could say that in (very much simplified) Chinese.

“The untrained members of the labor union, who were the unions’ strongest supporters, pressured the factories not to modernize, because their jobs would get automated, so the factories couldn’t stay competitive” becomes “Many poor people, workers without education, needed the workers’ groups, so they told the managers that they couldn’t modernize the factories, so they didn’t have any competitiveness and had to stop after a while.” Of course, management didn’t want to spend the money on keeping themselves in business. They deserved each other, but in the process they ruined tens of millions of lives and destroyed entire generations of young working-class people. Grr. Angry pinko moment over.

Phillippa and I also got a real good look at the one-child problem. Two grandparents. Six aunts and uncles. Two parents. One toddler. So the poor kid is getting passed around from adult to adult while I’m trying to play with her and make conversation and she’s just trying to play with her train set.

Your generation is gonna be so messed up, sweetie. You’re never gonna learn how to share. Or take care of anything dependent on you. It’ll be real interesting when your folks count on you as their retirement fund. Man, this country is a real trip.

Compassion is the root of all right behavior,

Shaun

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疏食饮水,曲肱而枕,乐在其中矣。

“With coarse rice to eat, water to drink, and my crooked arm for a pillow, is not joy to be found therein?” The rest of the quote goes “不义而富贵,于我如浮云,” or “Riches and honors acquired through unjust ways are to me as floating clouds.”

I really find a lot of meaning in Confucius’ stuff. Not all of it; I’m really uncomfortable with his ideas of filial piety and subjecting oneself to one’s ruler, but it makes sense given his context of civil war, famine, and chronic unrest. The idea of the root of all happiness coming from one’s family and sense of morality, the important things in life being compassion, humility balanced with conscious action, and the desire to learn new things and improve the self, all of that I can really get behind.

However, I think a lot of the Neo-Confucian stuff that built up the Qing and the later feudal empires in East Asia went in the wrong direction–an interesting one, but not one that made society progress or improve much, and that’s what mattered when they ran into the likes of de Gama and Peary. It  really stagnated China at a time when it “should have been” developing, industrializing, trading, and building a commercial-colonial empire like England and France.

Maybe it was partly because Japan and Korea were too weak–after the Crusades and the Renaissance, the competition between France-al-Andalus, Italy-Spain, Spain-France, Spain-France-England, and France-England was so intense that I bet it really sped up the colonization and industrialization timetables, probably by an order of magnitude at least.

China had no real regional rivals, not in the same sense. It had bandit tribes in the north, but China would just get conquered, absorb, and sinicize them instead of drawing a territory along permanent geographic/ethnic/linguistic borders and competing directly with them. This happened, like, every two hundred years, almost like clockwork. Japan was, to China, rarely more than a few annoying pirates, and was too far away to totally conquer without a really good reason. Korea was basically a cultural colony as it was, and was protected by a buffer zone of bandit country until the Qing, who by then needed a buffer against Japan. Who else was going to threaten China’s agricultural heartland into developing Manchesters and Birminghams, Vietnam? The Kazakhs? Tibet?

Anyway, too much has happened lately for me to just wax poetic about history and philosophy. Busy times, you guys!

Thanksgiving, that’s a good place to start.

Heroines of the day! Because I cannot cook my way out of a cardboard box!

 Anyway, it is always nice to entertain at the big empty house we have away from campus and everybody else, and a bunch of Dickinson alums came as well.

If anybody has pictures, btw, please upload those, and if you can, send some of the good ones to me or someone else with a blog and we’ll post ‘em. But yeah. We had pieces of turkey I picked up from Carrefour (Wal-Mart in Frog-talk) along with some tasty stuffing that Courtney had brought in from New Hampshire and prepared. There wer also a bunch of other things–stir-fried string beans Trang fried up, a soup I made that had been salty to the point of death (next-time I get low-sodium chicken broth) that the girls saved from dishonorable death, and some other things I don’t remember. There was Chinese cornbread (doesn’t hold a candle to yours, Mom. I could really go for some of your chili and skillet-baked cornbread) and some of the prepackaged bread products they pass off as being western here. Think twinkies by way of Hong Kong.

Anyway, that was lots of fun, and some Dickinson alums came as well along with a Chinese friend of mine and some friends of hers. My former coworker/boss Anna, who left the position I may be being groomed for, brought along her boyfriend, who is the first person I’ve met here who has been proud to identify himself as Communist. They’ve been together for a while, since she was at Beida herself over two years ago.

We had a nice chat about politics, which I have missed so badly, while he was politely berated by his girlfriend. The story about how they met is painfully cute and if I wasn’t afraid of both bandwidth issues and gagging midway through I would tell it here.

The Anna I'm talking about is on the right. There's another Anna (L) and Courtney (C) and some of the spread (foreground). Eventually I should really learn how to work my camera's flash.

She is not actually a ghost of palest moonlight, I just never read the manual, as I am a guy. Anyway. Thanksgiving. Many people contributed to cleaning up the dishes, and there wasn’t even a whole lot of food, but…

AFTERMATH

It was kind of amazing. And this was after people were sneaking into my kitchen to wash dishes for me for like an hour.

Went to Karaoke with some Dickinson people, Anna, and her beaux later that week. I actually only learned last year that it was invented by the Japanese, although Americans don’t seem to like talking about that. As long as Asians can’t innovate, after all, and they send their best and brightest to work and study in the US, it’s okay that they’re smarter than us. Blah.
Karaoke was fun. I am jealous of Anna’s boy–he speaks really good Spanish and was singing a couple of cute pop songs in Mongolian and some southern dialects. For those of you who have never been to a karaoke bar in China, it’s usually a fairly cozy, private, upscale affair, often with a dinner buffet and bad booze. This helps distract us roundeye from the fact that we don’t know any of the songs and any attempts to sing along are hampered by the fact that the subtitles are in traditional characters, as China’s pop music, such as it exists, is headquartered in Taiwan and Hong Kong, which do not use the characters that were simplified by the Communist government to make reading and writing easier for people to learn.

Zoom in for an overview of Chinese characters, going from ancient to modern print.

My personal rule of thumb is that if it looks like crop circles, it’s Korean; if it looks like squiggles, it’s one of the simpler Japanese alphabets; if it looks blocky and really detailed it’s Kanji or traditional Chinese, and if it’s blocky but more streamlined it’s simplified.
But Taiwan and Hong Kong do more harm than simply making song lyrics difficult to read. They are bastions not only of rightist imperialism but also of truly hideously lame and sappy pop music. I really wish I could say that I am lying when I say that the Backstreet Boys are considered edgy by many here. There are a couple of harder acts, like the Tang Dynasty Band and some underground people who do live shows in big cities, but they are few and little-known.

These guys have a really sweet cover of the Internationale, actually.

 However, a lot of their pop music is based on American Top 40 hits, so our karaoke machine had loads of songs by the Bee Gees, John Denver, the Beatles, the Carpenters, and various boy and girl bands and modern poppy stuff–Ke$ha or however you spell her name and Beyonce and N’Sync and so on.

I realized that night that Scary Spice probably started my thing for black girls.

 So that was good fun. Beatles sing-alongs and Nina freaking out to Rocky Mountain High and bad wine and so on.

What else…I got a raise. I mentioned that Anna is my former boss–she got tired of getting WAY underpaid and WAY overworked and given NO latitude for teaching, so she left for another more solid job that gave her more moolah and more freedom to do what she wants. So since she was covering  90% of the school’s English classes, I picked up a couple of shifts and got a promotion–I think Wang might like me to stay on and take over for Anna, but I really don’t want to do that, and she’s not trying to put all her eggs in one basket any more anyway.

I want to get a real gig–the money’s great and I’m only working six hours a week, but I’d like to do something a little more involving, or at least something a little more consistent. I might try for a job at one of the night schools around here, teaching English. Not much I can do without a work visa, not legally, but such is the pitiful suffering of being a member of the international bourgeois.

Seriously, I really need some kind of pressure to perform, this is kind of driving me nuts here. I’m used to wearing retail uniforms to class under my shirts, biking like a maniac to my job after the bell, working six hours, and then going home around ten to start my homework and maybe spend some time with my girlfriend before bed. Being a student who isn’t an American scholarship kid is really weird to me; I’m not used to getting handed all this stuff, even if it’s what I’ve wanted for years and studied before when I learned about European education and economic systems.

And…oh, the jazz bar! Some people had been mentioning how much they missed swing dancing, and I miss NPR, so I found a couple of jazz bars on Lonely Planet and took Courtney and Nina to one about a week and a half ago. So much fun! Cover charge was 50 kuai, the bottle of iffy house wine was 200 (I’m not actually drinking that much here, for the record, just socially), and the wait was interminable, but the band was awesome, and we got to see an exhibition by some of the best swing dancers in Beijing. And they were good. Lovely trumpet solos, crazy drummer, bandleader talking in broken-English jive talk. Also, the bar is owned by Cui Jian’s former saxophonist.

Cui Jian was the first Chinese rock star. He wrote a song called 一无所有, Yi Wu Suo You, Nothing to My Name, which is generally considered the first Chinese rock star. He’s like Elvis, only instead of stealing black folks’ music and throwing in some of his own stuff he stole Keith Richards’ and David Byrne’s. Then he got involved with the big thing that starts with the letter T that is a bad idea to mention on blogs here and the political movement that starts with a d, but he has since been “rehabilitated” and is now considered a pretty conventional and influential musician rather than a radical.

So the bar is owned by his former sax player. Who came out and sang during mid-set. I was kind of flabbergasted. I mean, I’ve seen the Police live, and various members of the Marsalis family play, but this was like standing five meters away from Ringo on a subway and listening to him whistle “God Save the Queen” or something. Someone so foundational to hundreds of millions of peoples’ interpretation of music and life, just casually singing along with the visiting band and watching the customers dance.

There really is nothing better than watching happy people be happy together. If pigs ever start flying and my family rides one to Beijing, I’ll probably drag them there.

At some point I have to talk about the huge feast we had at my host father’s house with his extended family, but I think right now I just want to get this posted and pass out for a while. It was an experience.

Oh, P.S., apologies for the crazy randomness of the last post. All the people here just wandering around the internet probably think I’m crazy and all my friends and classmates probably think I’ve lost it. But what are blogs for, if not to allow us to vent all the nutsier thought out of our heads and keep them out? Certainly not for public edification or information spreading. 

Also, I am probably just jonesing for childrens’ programming. After class in America, I would go to the Cumberland County library almost every day and rent a bunch of Disney movies or Kratt’s Creatures episodes and watch them while I did my Chinese and German homework or read articles for class, or just unwind after a 14-hour day of classes and selling calculators. Those VHS tapes became a vital point of daily recovery.

It is therefore entirely within the realm of possibility that my “second language” centers in my brain have become linked to my “people getting hit with falling pianos and walking away making accordion noises” receptors. This could have disastrous consequences, but I suspect that there is also a way to manipulate this…

More on this later.

Ciao!

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How my brain works

Though at some point I need to talk about what’s been going on lately–busy times!–I just want to give you guys a little introduction to my thought process and teach you a little about classic American cartoons, as I need to mull over some recent happenings and the best way to do that is by thinking about other things.

There will be a test later.

I’ve been trying to name the bicycle my host family has loaned me for several weeks now. The beat-up, well-loved, mustard-colored hybrid bike I have at home is Rita–after Rita Moreno, an actress I greatly admire primarily for her film portrayal of Maria in West Side Story, but also because she voiced Carmen Sandiego (probably the woman I admire most in the world) in the 90′s cartoon, and she was one of the lead actresses in the Electric Company during the 70s. Teaching children language and morals through funk music and skit humor would be my second most ideal job. The first is nefarious time-traveling globetrotting criminal mastermind. It takes real vision to steal the entire Lourve, the state of California, the concept of medicine, or verbal communication. Not that stealing California would be any real loss.

And doing it all in pumps, an overcoat, and a fedora! That's style.

Also, when Rita was acting in anything else during the 70s, she told people to shoot around her Electric Company schedule, and that is awesome.

Right? Now imagine her saying "Better luck next time, Player" and blowing you a kiss as she jumps out your bedroom window to a waiting helicopter.

So I like her, and I like my bike at home. My bike here is a little folding job with 12-inch wheels, and it is prone to falling in on itself at times, but it is a good little bike and has seen me through some tight spots, and even though the tiny little gears don’t give me any leverage to get speed, I can still make a pretty good clip and its turning, breaking, and especially acceleration, thanks to those small wheels, can’t be beat. I’ve squeezed into all kinds of tight spaces and pulled off some really kind of daredevilly stunts here–pulling between slow-moving buses and matching speeds, then switching lanes to be on the other side–that I never could with a larger, more solid bike like Rita. And since it’s only like 15-20 kilos (I’m still bad at metric) I can also just throw it over my shoulder when I need to cross the street or climb stairs to get to a pedestrian overpass, which is convenient.

The yellow sandal in the foreground is about 12 inches long and is provided for scale.

So my bike has earned a name. So I started from the name “Rita” and started freely associating. I thought of Rita and Runt, the characters from the Animaniacs. Appropriate, as my siblings and I basically are Yakko, Dot, and Wakko, in order of age, and some of my language patterns are actually borrowed from Yakko Warner. For those of you who are not familiar with the awesome cartoon projects Spielberg worked on during the 90s (Animaniacs, Tiny Toon Adventures, Freakazoid, and Pinky and the Brain), YOU SHOULD BE because they are BRILLIANT.

Note the family resemblance.

Rita and Runt were a traveling cat and dog voiced by Bernadette Peters (another actress I greatly admire, and I have her name saved for my next hard-wearing, scrappy bike) and Frank Welker, a man no one outside Hollywood knows, but he’s done voice acting in like every film ever made. I’m pretty sure he’s the highest-grossing actor in the world by a fairly large margin; he’s worth over 5.5 billion, and that’s 800 mil more than Sam Jackson and 1.5 mil more than Tom Hanks.

This man probably makes more money than all the people I will ever meet combined.

Side note–looked up Frank Welker’s career, again, on Wikipedia, and realized that he voiced Freddie from Scooby Doo for like every single appearance the character has made, regardless of the series. Which made me look up the character’s page–there is a full page devoted to his relationship with Daphne–which made me look up the Scooby Doo franchise page. Those Hanna-Barbara series seem less and less logical the older you get. They make perfect sense when you’re small, but…they always break down on the way to or from a teen function, encounter monsters, look for clues, find evidence that it’s fake, make a Rube Goldberg machine to catch the monster, which Scooby blunders into, it catches the guy anyway, and it’s revealed to be the museum owner’s estranged assistant or something. And every episode was like that. And somehow that became a sizable part of our childhood and the childhood of our parents.

If the twentieth century had a motto, I think it would be "It made sense at the time."

However, because I was considering the name Frank for my bike, I gave it to Nina’s bike when she was talking about naming hers. It’s a top-heavy, badly balanced pink montrosity. The lock is clumsy and it’s too big for her in general, and often knocks down bikes around her when she’s parking it. So I thought of “Lisa Frank,” the pop artist who draws all those pink sparkles and rainbows and unicorns that were so popular like twenty years ago. But I suggested that she have it go by the name “Frank,” because the frame of the bike is awkward, masculine, and trim, an old, working bike.

A typical Lisa Frank piece. She does a lot of the artwork for Bratz now, I think.

Also just thought of something–both Moreno and Peters were two of Sondheim’s favorite actresses, and acted for him several times, and he’s one of my favorite playwrights. Steven should be saved for another name.

He ties for "World's Most Grizzled Man" with Tom Waits in People every year.

So I can’t name my bike “Frank,” and “Welker” doesn’t ring well or fit the bike, but “Runt” really does. It’s a natural pairing–Rita and Runt–and it is after all, a small, rather stupid bike that means well. I wouldn’t be surprised if my bike said to me “Yup, you’re a good biker, Shaun, definitely a good biker” when I was out. Runt’s character in Animaniacs, for the record, was based on Hoffman’s in Rain Man, and my bike is kind of like that–maybe not autistic, but definitely challenged by its design, but well-meaning, and eventually will win you over, although it is quite kitschy and difficult to take seriously.

Like Laurel and Hardy/Like Fontaine and Lunt…

See, my brain works like Google. Sometimes it makes me go on the verge of flying apart, and the thoughts come faster than I can put them into words or order, but it’s lots of fun up in here.

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物格而後知至

Hola, compañeros y compañeras.

Bought a Spanish language textbook so when I go back to Dickinson and chill with my Latino friends I don’t just nod and sip my chai. I get really, really weird looks from the people on the subway and the bus when I read the text aloud, which makes it so totally worth it. Also, studying Chinese has messed up my languages even more than I thought–I have problems pronouncing some basic Spanish words, and they’ve been second nature to me since I was a small child taking classes in it. “Enfermera.” “Cocinero.” “Panameña.” However, I got in touch with my inner príncipe heredero de España last night after a couple of pitchers with some Norwegian classmates, so I may have gotten a bit better with them.

Thought I’d get the blogosphere hat trick in this weekend, and avoid studying for my exams as well. So here’s this weekend for you all, it’s been pretty busy.

First up, the White Cloud Temple, a Daoist shrine not far from my host family’s apartment.

the front door!

I’ve been reading up on Chinese architecture, and according to the stuff online, there are generally two styles of national architecture, with lots of  regional things, a “vernacular” basically structured on what is called a “siheyuan/四合院,” a Beijing courtyard family compound, kind of similar to a Roman villa but built for keeping out Siberian wind chill and keeping in Confucian-style families, and an “imperial” style, which is similar in that there’s a square wall, lots of buildings next to it, and a big enclosed open space in the centre, but is much more heavily partitioned and spaced out, all of this structure with a lot of numerological underpinning. This emphasizes the bureacratic social divisions China can’t seem to reinforce enough.

Beijing loves bridges that don't cross water. This is either a wishing well or something for driving away evil spirits–you stand at the side and throw old-style metal coins at a small bell in the center of that wheel. It looked fun.

Anyway, Buddhist temples usually follow the imperial system–makes sense, they were often patronized by emperors and their belief in hierarchical afterlifes is conducive to that–and Daoists usually go for the commoners’ style. It’s a big u-shaped system, with guest houses and dorms for monks on the sides, the more significant gods/saints at the back, towards the north the big gate (see above) closing off the south/front, and inside the courtyards a series of small shrines towards variously themed dieties with small flames and big vats for incense in between them.

A typical part of the courtyard. Sorry, no pictures of the actual insides of the shrines–it felt disrespectful enough photographing what I did.

As usual we got presents, namely Snickers bars and really nice calligraphy sets, complete with pre-carved seal stamps with our names in Chinese. I don’t think I’ve talked about my Chinese name here–it’s罗松山,Luo Songshan, family name first. It’s actually an extremely close transliteration of my name, which I’m not used to in other languages. Gaelic is linguistically off on a very distant, lonely branch of the Indo-European language tree, and Irish names, without any Roman, French, Slavic, or Nordic equivalents, tend to translate really badly.

No riding the…bronze…horse. John's reaction: "Then why does it have a saddle?"

“Luo” is just a name, it’s also a net for catching butterflies. “Songshan” means “pine mountain,” and is also the name of a holy mountain in Henan province that I would like to hike some day. It is supposed to have some beautifully weird geology around it.

Professor Gao (not the mama) in front of a statue of a patron saint of students. The large head is that of my host not-the-mama.

It's a good thing I'm not very egotistical.

After the temple, we hit up a place for foot massages. All of these places are very close to my house, I should mention. It was good to have the crap smacked out of me like Chinese masseuses love doing. Also had a good time flirting with my masseuse (again, not some skinny rail of a thing! divine providence indeed) in Chinese and watching the charming acid-trip that is European childrens’ TV programming (dubbed in Chinese) over her shoulder. After the massage she invited me into their breakroom and we watched a slapstick-kung fu movie with her coworkers. Good times, or tong kuai, as they say in Mandarin.

They have some truly beautiful stone carving at these places. My astrological sign, except when I'm talking to cute strangers, when I'm a dragon (and therefore 22).

Then we went to an Anhui restaurant. Anhui’s a province in the lower Yangtze River valley, China’s traditional rice basket and part of the Chinese cultural heartland. Good food, too, but our orders creeped out some us. Duck heads, cow tongue, fish head, and other, delicious “normal” food, like baked millet and a spicy fish stew that I quite enjoyed. But I gotta say, as an ex-vegetarian, all meat is pretty much the same to me. It’s all dead chewiness that tastes like stringy metal.

It's a fish! A fish made of…gravy, or something! Aspic? Who knows, it's China.

Quick interjection–in China, it’s very common for people in a group to pick up some kind of stereotype or have their personality get reduced to a couple of characteristics that everybody jokes about, especially some body feature or something about their taste in food. I was explaining to Gao, my host mother, about my growing up in Virginia Beach, my therefore frequent dislike of non-fresh seafood, and my subsequent surprise about the quality of inland fish dishes in China, probably do to the fact that nothing is frozen here, and the chefs usually bring out a live fish in a net on a stick for you to approve of before they kill and cook it. So now I have become “fish guy” and she will order me a fish dish any time one is available, and while I’m eating it she will constantly serve me more and ask how I like it.

More temple shots ahead. They had some truly awesome carvings out back.

So the sweet and sour fried cow tongue was pretty tasty. Also, the duck we ordered came with the head cooked and split ad the head of the dish, and I had heard that duck heads are a real Beijing specialty, so I gave it a shot, to the approval of my Chinese family and the digust of some classmates. Eh. It’s very dark, tender, tasty meat, and difficult to eat given how little of it there is on a duck’s skull. For the record, eating eyeballs are not that weird, at least not when they are so small. Apparently they are good for your brain, according to my host father. 

Again, more awesome siltstone formations you aren't allowed to climb. Honestly, China has some truly messed up concepts of what is and is not safe to do. Riding mopeds on Beijing streets? Helmets totally unnecessary. Climbing three meters of rock? Whoa, now. Let's not get crazy.

I also got served the head of the fish in our soup (surprise, by my host mother) and that was allright. Tasty. Eyeballs were a little odd visually but pretty normal taste-wise.

They must have recently renovated. The pavilions look nice.

Moving on…

Had dinner with my Hanyu (Chinese language) class last night, wine and pizza at a place called Pyro, a western canteen styled on American college bars. It was interesting. I always forget that all western food is upscale here until I order some–who eats pizza with a knife and fork, much less on a dinner plate with prewrapped napkins?

Asian stuff!

Got into a philosophy argument with a Californian music snob classmate on inherent nature of people. We were talking about clubs, and I brought up the fact that I have a kind an issue because I like dancing but usually dislike the people who go there, because they’re the kind of industrial bourgeois kids who have let their class define who they are. Which he then counter-argued that if you have to be defined by something, it’s better to be class than race or whatever, because class is something you at least might have earned (this, of course, is ignoring the fact that we are discussing people in their early-to-mid twenties who, broadly speaking, haven’t earned anything at all). This then started a long, rambling argument on inherited versus desired-acquired traits, whether it’s really possible to become something you “aren’t” by sheer force of will and informed study, wigger culture and the concept of “slumming” and the possibility of real human understanding. As someone who doesn’t really believe the American dream exists as much more than a myth any more, I had a hard time taking his arguments seriously. Eh. He liked changing subjects whenever logic was against him, and encircling me in these weird spiraling arguments that were mostly just him being complaining about lots of things he doesn’t like. I’m no different, but the whole cynical-about-everything-belief-in-nothing hipster mentality still get on my nerves. Also, I’m not assertive enough yet to win debates with people who aren’t really anal nerds who just want to argue with facts.

Also had fun arguing politics and discussing vegetarianism with Norwegians and an Aussie classmate. Norwegians are fun here. Got accused of being Russian for being so off-the-wall and involved in a really long debate about the merits of Chinese versus western teaching methods. All of which are much more interesting when they’re fueled by three pitchers of Qingdao.

Diagrams!

Later went dancing around that district, Wudaokou, with an American classmate. Different than Sanlitun, the place I usually go for weekends. Smaller venues, for one thing, and a lot less dancing and a lot more student cliques standing around drinking and talking, which I guess is more healthy. A lot less hook-up-oriented, but that’s not difficult. Less pounding in your eardrums. I dunno. No cover charge, though, and I am always down for free dancing.

On the walk from the subway station to Sanlitun, there’s always a bunch of middle-aged people in street clothes outside a fancy restaurant doing ballroom dancing to traditional Chinese music set to waltz or tango beats coming out of a boombox, just dancing on the pavement–it’s always really beautiful and touching, just a picture of the beauty of human society, moving together in peace and understanding, overcoming isolation to build something bigger than the sum of our parts. I always want to go up and dance with them ask the women standing on the side waiting for their turn (some things are universal) if they want to dance, but I never have the courage or confidence in my Chinese or non-modern dance moves.

My street at night.

Anything else…um, my American accent is starting to sound really grating to me, although I don’t only notice other peoples’ very rarely. It sounds all nasal and flat and obnoxious. I don’t know. Probably just misdirected guilt, again. And I learned how to play this card game popular in Norway called “the American,” because the game is structured so that the winner keeps dominating and teaming up with other players to isolate and crush people, and part of the bidding process is to escalate until you’re at your most confident (and therefore American). The goal, if you’re not the hegemon-dealer, is to last as long as you can and dish out whatever you can against the odds. I like it.

Anyway, that’s about it, I think this thing is finally caught up. Shower and study time! Later!

Edit: Just realized one more thing I miss about America: Cici’s Pizza! I love that place, it represents everything I like about the US. Democratic, obnoxious, and dirt-cheap, welcoming people of all classes to eat limitless terrible, greasy, delicious pizza and play Area 51 and Die Hard in the arcade in back. So many happy memories of going to friends’ birthday parties, and scarfing chocolate/apple pie slices while watching episodes of Cow & Chicken. Man.

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