Extensive is the travels and it’s heavy on the sneaks.

Today’s title: comes from the Digible Planets single “Pacifics,” a song about how NY projects are really sweet and calm early on Sunday mornings, when you can just enjoy hip hop culture and not worry about turf or beef or cash flow too much. It’s a good song from a good band on a good album.

Today’s opening non sequitur: I do believe that De La’s ”Bitties in the BK Lounge” is my new favorite song, ever, and probably the apex of new-school hip hop. The topic and tone are exactly what you think. But honestly that whole album is awesome. “Millie Pulled a Pistol on Santa” might actually be better, though. It’s about child abuse. Exactly.

It's pretty sweet? Get it.

Anyway, yesterday I finally put up another post, and it was all philosophy/general musing, so I thought today we’d have something cohesive about the last months’s events catching up to today.

Anyway, about three weeks ago we went to the Temple of Heaven/Tiantan/天坛, a big park in the south where the emperors used to pray for good weather and harvests, and sacrifice crops and animals toward that end. Nowadays, it’s a pretty cool park that makes a nice break when you get realize you’ve spent too much money at the Pearl Market. I still find the idea of parks you pay to get into really weird, though, even if they are historical.

It was pretty gray out, which gave a nice contrast to all the greenery.

Rain here doesn’t quite work the same way–it rains less, first of all, and is generally much more dry than anywhere I’ve been or lived–and when it does rain the clouds are thin and consistent. The little droplets come down slow and light and consistent, sometimes for hours, in varying, steady, light waves. No character! No drama! Nothing like rainstorms at home, all texture and pattern, thunder and flooding every third or fourth day. I miss them. It has been weeks without a drop. And I miss being able to get a pretty good guess at what weather patterns are going to be for the next three or four days by looking at the northwest. I lived in the mid-Atlantic basically my whole life, and spent a lot of my childhood playing soccer in muddy grass, guessing at clouds.

Of course, if it did rain like home, it would flood the city. China may love its huge fields of treeless pavement and miles of modern highways, but they don't do much for drainage. We (Phillipa, Huang, Gao, and I) showed up early to meet everyone else, who all came late. It was raining, windy, and really cold, and pretty miserable waiting for people to drag their butts out of bed early on a Saturday. Eventually everybody showed up and we went in.Because of the weather, a lot of the park was pretty empty…

But then, it's a historical site in China.

 The park itself follows a pretty standard Chinese format. Big wall around it, gates at cardinal directions with bored provincial policemen telling you where to park and buy tickets. Big playground so the kids have something to do, public exercise equipment on the side (think 80′s-era playground equipment converted into all-weather exercise machines, they’re kind of fascinating and I really like using them when I have time to kill). Inside is all little shops and huge pavilions (changting, 长亭) and large paved roads with fenced off rectangles of sparse forest or interspersed with trees.

A lot like this. I fail to understand the Chinese love for massive amounts of paved emptiness. Says the citizen of the world's biggest parking lot.

Most Chinese parks are actually designed by artists, poets, and cultural figures rather than architects or urban planners or whatever. So they tend to be a lot more rigorously shaped by human hands than western parks, I think. They’re not really that different–Dickinson and Pitt’s campuses have trees just kind of left up hither and yon, and it’s that more “natural” effect that I’m used to, rather than seeing such specific patterns, or obvious paths through “nature,” even though both are rigorously mowed and weeded and tended. Eh. It’s different in how it’s not different at all. Although I’m not sure I understand the point of a park where everyone keeps off the grass.

All the trees are thriving, but in an evenly spaced grid. They remind me of the apple orchards in Camp Hill

Within the park itself there are lots of shops selling touristy things, food and drinks, surrounding the actual sights, the temple and surrounding shrines, all for sacrificing things to various gods and members of the trans-dimensional bureaucracy that is the Chinese vision of the divine. Our ideas of the afterlife mirror our culture, of course. China has a bureaucracy on Earth that encompasses and consumes all things, and couldn’t imagine life after death to be any different.

CHINA!

Within the Temple is a complex of towers and prayer halls, all painted green and blue(prayers for rain) rather than the usual red and brick-brown that’s common here otherwise. It gets old pretty quickly, to be honest. But it’s fun to go through the whole anthro-socio thing. What was the purpose of this? What is the meaning of this prayer hall? Why is this sacrifice done, and how has it changed? I also take a sick kind of pleasure in trying to work out the mental math of the cost of supporting the feudal bureaucracy on the peasantry versus the psychological benefit they recieve from having a “good emperor.” Measuring the suffering of a sheep’s life against the value of a shepherd.

Lots of throne rooms are scattered around the place. It must have been difficult to keep in shape as the emperor; they must have been a pretty listless bunch.

 Outside of the actual tower is a point that is considered the nearest point on earth to “Heaven,” so if you stand there and say something your voice is supposed to be more likely to be heard. So the emperor used to stand on it and ask for things.

Free Mumia.

There’s also a path of special steps leading to and away from these points that only the emperor was allowed to walk on. Now, as we were joking in our three-year old vocabulary with our professors, China is communist and everyone is an emperor.

So liberating. Looking at these pics makes me miss rain, though. The only water vapor in the air comes from car exhaust here.

 

Agh, and hills! You would never be able to see this far in a straight line back home.

Later we went to a famous Chinese traditional hospital. Mom and Dad, according to my host mom I have gall bladder problems. She looked at my ear and told me to get my dictionary, and then pointed to the character for “gall bladder” and asked me if I have any family history of problems with it. For those of you who don’t know my sister, she actually had  to have hers removed. So that’s weird. It’s recommended that I don’t eat anything sour and I get it checked out immediately when I get home. Chinese traditional medicine is always weird and weirdly right more often than it should be, which is not nearly often enough to raise western medicine’s eyebrows.

Other news…um, went to a couple of birthday parties, and those were fun. Out dancing a couple of nights…I keep meeting people, exchanging phone numbers, and then having no further contact with them, ever. I feel like this would be really frustrating in the long term given how impossibly huge this city is. In Pittsburgh it’s impossible to disappear–two people with large enough social networks eventually meet at a couple of points at random. Here, you’re just another face.

Sometimes they are pretty faces: my classmate Trang on her birthday. The crown comes with the cakes.

Anyway, I will probably update again in the next couple of days about today’s trip to the White Cloud Daoist temple, foot massages, and Anhui food. Sleepy times.

It is impossible to get decent coconut magma these days.

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好的,不好的,和丑的

Literally, the good, the bad, and the ugly.

So I have like three drafts of posts to put up, which I hope somehow makes up for the month I haven’t put anything up here. To be honest it has been really boring. I study Chinese, I take buses and subways home, I try and get out with mixed results. Eh. I thought I’d do a direct comparison between China and the US this time. Starting with some of my sticking points…

I miss goths. Real goths, not this ribbons and dresses visual kei nonsense imported from Japan. I want leather and studs and guitars and darkwave and spells and real blackness. I want to look at hot women and men wearing layers of leather and vinyl and spikes and consider them worthy adversaries in dance, love, conversation, or combat. You’d think a country on a legacy of geomancy, industrial decay, rehearsed violence in general, and apathy towards towards authority could manage the goth stuff well, but you’d be surprised.

I miss hyphenated Americans. I miss blacks, latinos, asian-americans, indians, eastern europeans, southerners, northerners, New Yorkers, Jews (I miss Jews so much! They are so nice to have around, and I have never before appreciated this), even Californians, although I stop missing them when they open their mouths.

To say nothing of the total deprivation of booty here! Everyone is made of sticks and sinew here, man and woman alike. And non-east Asian ethnic groceries. I miss eating my dollar samosas and drinking Limca in the park outside Carnegie.

Ooh, and Italians! You can get pizza here, if you want to call it that, but oregano and basil were unlikely to be invited to the party in your tummy, and if they were, they had some jerk friends who came along and crashed it.

But now that the major sticking points are out of the way–fairly small ones, really–I want to share my list of things I like. It’s difficult to show a snapshot of life here and my impressions of it from a blog I update so rarely, even if the posts are super-long, but I thought the best way to do it was by giving a comprehensive, overwhelming list of alternating good and bad points about China, or things I like here that are different versus things I find inferior or miss about America.

So let’s begin!

Letter sized paper does not exist here. While the many options of paper size can be convenient for different tasks, it makes binding impossible. Paper money is pretty. But I hate constantly breaking hundreds. I miss Indian food. But seeded watermelon is very common here, and thanks to Monsanto it is not in the US. As a cheap hippie, I miss used book/clothing/music stores. But there are lots of bootleg/copyright infringing/cheap new goods here that are about equivalent. It’s never easy to find seats on public transit like it is in the US. But then, buses and subways actually go places here. Frequently. On time. Even at night.

No Jews here, therefore impossible to get decent bagels or talk about economics. As a biker, I do enjoy the total lack of traffic laws, although I bike pretty dangerously, to be quite honest. Repetitive WWII television sitcoms and talent shows. Teeny tiny filthy proletarian delicious retaurants. Health risks of said restaurants. Italian food. Cheap and convenient public transit. Latinos in general. Cheap everything. Black people, especially women. Helpful and bored policemen everywhere. CURVES. Entire city is bikable. Mexican/Hispanic food. People don’t care that you can’t speak the language well (2 theories about this: 1 is that it’s because I’m American and “wealthy,” 2 is that China has a super-long precedent of being a multi-lingual unified state and language problems are expected).

Turn signals, and seat belts, I miss both of them. Inquisitive, kind people. Park benches are few. Street food. Clean air, water. Lack of zoning enforcement means eating, shopping are always convenient. Drinkable tap water (free in restaurants…although sometimes boiled water/kaishui is here). All the Russians here. Vegetarian entrees, and menus I can understand readily. How easy flirting is, even if it makes me uncomfortable how much power I have as a pretty white boy. Basic public acceptance of latent human sexuality (the battles rebellious youth won in the sixties through the nineties are still being fought here). Yanjing beer, it’s 45 cents US for 600 mL of 10 proof beer that tastes like wheaty carbonated water. Skimpy clothing. Free public workout spaces.

Vegans/art students/potheads. Traffic laws, or lack thereof. RAIN and HILLS. Propaganda; the banners everywhere are both amusing and depressing. The service culture here is awful. Free tickets to cultural events that make me feel all worldly and awesome. Bike helmets. Living in skyscrapers all the time. Music, pop music here is terrible. Sense of history, subjectivity in every single conversation, it’s like every person I meet is their own tiny world. Goths. Economic diversity–all the people I meet at school are all totally immersed in industrial bourgeois culture and totally fine with that, when they’re aware of it at all.

My dog. Cheap and effective knock-off brands. Classical architecture. The fact that the most expensive, exclusive club in Beijing has a US $7 cover charge. Produce in general is scary here, huge, misshapen Frankenfood covered in pesticides and needed to be peeled before eaten. But I do not miss seedless watermelon, and other things that are subtly twisted until they’re no longer plants so much as factory goods. Salespeople can be very aggressive here. But everything is cheap, local, and readily available.

Women shouting at me “Mister, you want go LADY BAR” every time I go to Sanlitun. Flash fried fruit slices covered in carmelized sugar. Total lack of stars in the night sky, although that’s true of Carlisle as well. How well old people and children are treated here. The general vulnerability of my school, apartment, daily routine, and the city in general to zombie attacks. You laugh, I worry. Stairs! They’re the next best thing to hills and necessary so I don’t lose my mountain-biking thighs here any more than I have to. The constant coating of dust on everything here. Everyone here is fit! Homophobia. But even though there’s a lack of organized religion here, the maintenance of culture and behavior is arguably much stricter than Europe or America’s ever was.

More later. Homework now! Au revoir.

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Oh, let me have just a little bit of peril?

No, it's too perilous.

Which was a shame, because the rock formations were those really sweet eroded limestone hills they have here, the ones with the random holes and wacky textures.

Like this.

Anyway, it’s Midterms Week, which means it’s procrastination time, and therefore time to update my blog. I mean, uh, we went to the Forbidden City(故宫,Gugong, or literally Ancient Palace) and I want to share the experience with my friends, family, and schoolmates.

It was a very serious cultural experience.

So when Kublai Khan conquered China, beginning the Yuan Dynasty, he moved the capital to Beijing, a former dynastic capital and provincial town. It was far south enough to be definitively in ethnic Han ”China,” far north enough for the geography to be similar to Mongolia and good for cavalry. Over the next two dynasties it was burnt down and rebuilt a couple of times by conquerors, and the Ming eventually built this huge imperial complex in the heart of the city, where the imperial family and their army of eunuch servants lived.

The man in the red jacket on the left is my host father. The man in blue is our old Chinese teacher, Gao Laoshi.

This tradition of isolation for the imperial family was maintained until the fall of the Qing in 1911, to the detriment of the Chinese people. Some rulers (notably Empress Dowager Cixi, the last real monarch of China) never left the Forbidden City during their entire lives, and as such they lacked perspective and let internal power struggles undermine their ability to rule the country and effectively battle imperialism in ways that some smaller, more dynamic kingdoms (Thailand, the Punjab, Zululand, Japan) were able to. Cixi, in particular, was famous for this–fearing the growth of either traditionalist or modernist forces, she played off both sides against each other. She never left the imperial city and never really understood the poverty, corruption, misrule, imperialism, and banditry that was the late Qing.

Of course, walking around the Forbidden City, it's easy to see how China saw itself as the centre of the world. It's called a "City" for a reason–it's huge.

Imagine a quarter of Carlisle, or an area the size of the Mexican War Streets, reserved for concubines alone. Another quarter or the North Shore for guard barracks. It’s that big.

We had a little semi-guided tour, courtesy of our old pal Gao Laoshi, not my host mom but the crusty old Beijinger. We also had these automatic audio tours that told us stuff. Weird occurence of the week–they had those little tour guide machines in like sixty languages, and of course everyone in our group was given an English one, except me, who got a German one, and I have no idea why. I was thrilled though, because I miss German. It’s a nice language and a cool culture, but isn’t very useful for what I want to do with my life. I could catch some of it, but my skills are quite rusty. It was nice to hear that nice, soothing Hochdeutsch baritone that all German recordings seem to use.

Much like D.C., Beijing is a short city, especially in the central area. From even the Tiananmen Gate lookout tower, you can see for miles.

And as usual, all the names sound infinitely more impressive in German. “Die Verbotenstadt” and “Kaisernpalast” both sound like such  impressive and more natural translations of “故宫.” While the Hall of Heavenly Purity sounds silly and pretentious, die Halle der Himmlischen Reinheit sounds like you’re going to get shot by a seven-foot tall Einsatzkommando named Jurgen if you track mud on the floor. Considering the kind of place it used to be, that’s a much more accurate translation.

I am struggling to understand the traditional Chinese obsession with massive fields of pavement. I guess it's a humanist thing? Or a purifying thing, trying to remove the nature and her unpleasant green reminders of the farming peasantry from the cities.

The tour was cool, although repetitive after a while. A lot of the museums and landmarks here are quite static and repetitive, they don’t really engage you. They seem to rely on an unstated meaning and significance, and try to overwhelm you with their physical presence. You’re supposed to be impressed by their grandeur and power and authority, rather than be a consumer to be engaged and entertained. I suppose American landmarks are much the same way, places like the various war and presidential memorials. Culture is a very subjective and local thing, and it’s difficult to spread ideas, much less communicate values, across language and cultural gaps. Sigh, solidarity…

The PLA/PAP/Beijing police (can't tell the uniforms apart yet) who guard the place actually live in the old barracks of the palace wall…

…which means pool tables and basketball courts scattered around the southern inner keep. Totally surreal. I really wanted to go play ball.

Afterwards we went out to dinner, which was interesting. As per usual, we were given concert tickets and snack food (large bags of Chips Ahoy/趣多多!/Very Very Delightful! and hawthorn jelly candies) and had a huge banquet of food ordered for us, which I personally thought was one of the better spreads we’ve had, although I may be in the minority there. At the end we had stinky tofu, which tasted nasty, although most other people had much more violent reactions to it than I did.

Anyway, little to tell beyond that. The concert tickets were for some early modern troupe–a harpsichordist, two cellists, and a cellist/violinist. Their last piece was a Beatles song, which should amuse Matt Michrina, although it will disappoint him that I don’t remember which one it was. Nina will bug me about it later.

Midterms now! I am so behind in my work that it is not very funny. I’m just so used to being my little pretentious “gifted” polymath self that having to just study one subject and stick to a couple of small tasks really bores me and I lose interest after a while, especially for longer written pieces above my comprehension level. I wish we were taking a more intensive cultural/political/socio course like some of the other roundeye kids here are.

Nose to the grindstone now! Hui tou jian!

This place was built before Colombus was born, when parts of Spain still spoke Arabic. Five years after the battle of Agincourt, for goodness. And this is the youngest capital in China.

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This thing is becoming my facebook page

I really wish I had access to it, because facebook was the perfect distribution system for weird or absurd or horrifying news stories. Like THIS ONE:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-11511886

BEST THING EVER.

I want a giant inflatable tank. Or a missile launcher. Or a small radar station. I would bounce on it and invite my friends to camp on it and put it outside my house and have parties on it. It would be amazing.

That’s…that’s really all. It’s very quiet. I’m struggling to get into a routine that includes social exposure to both Dickinson and local students, physical exercise, exploring of the city area, and sufficient language study time. I’ve not worked it out yet, but considering that most of my past systems have hinged on the “get a steady girlfriend and build your life around hers” plan, I’m doing okay.

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Bread and circuses

I really have little to say, but this is the best thing I’ve seen in weeks.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-11500012

I’d take a calendar of university students in lingerie telling me to run for office over a parliamentary vote of confidence any day. And I’d be a lot likely to respond to their questions and concerns when they are posed in the form of a calendar rather than a press conference. But I can’t speak for Vladimir Vladimirovitch.

Little to tell. It’s been a quiet couple of weeks. Was going to take a bike trip to the Tianjin coast but had to cancel due to work–back to class in two and a half days, and I’ve got a lot of homework and studying to do before that. Hooray for national day-the anniversary of the PRC’s founding and one of the biggest vacations of the year-I had planned to get up early on the First itself and go to Tiananmen, to see if there was going to be a crazy Cold War-style parade of ICBMs on trucks and goose stepping soldiers, but as usual I slept in and have no idea if there even was one. Sigh…what’s the fun in having the state run everything if you can’t have some circuses?

Went to see the Ethnic Park today–they have tiny museums for every one of the 56 recognized ethnic groups in China. And that was pretty cool.

More later!

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I WILL BE LEON TROTSKY

Only one that had, like, lived longer, and organized a successful Fourth International. I’m cool with hanging out with Frida Kahlo and whipping the Red Army into a discipined people’s militia in between writing books.

Anyway, I really want to pick up a couple more languages. I’ve been on the fence about several different ones for a while now–Spanish, French, Russian, and Arabic, in no particular order. Six seems about like a good number of languages to be able to speak. And refreshing my German, I guess, so that would be seven. But French is like Spanish spoken with your nose tilted up forty degrees, so that’s closer to six and a half.

I’m genuinely not sure how much of my desire to learn about other cultures and languages comes from a genuine interest in my friends and cool people and stuff around the world and how much of it comes from most of my role models speaking like nine languages. I just always feel so cut of place when my friends are out on a veranda, and they switch from humoring-the-gringo mode to “let’s actually relax and speak korean/norwegian/spanish/arabic for a while, you guys.” 

And when I was dating my Russian Ashkenazi girlfriend, did I ask her to teach me Russian? Did I furiously pounce on her offer to teach me when it was offered? Noooooo.

But there are a bunch of cool Russkys and Germans here, and I’ve been meaning to pick Spanish back up for SOOOOO long that I stopped into a bookstore in Zhongguancun and picked up some intro textbooks for Russian and Spanish and a collection of Heine and Goethe’s poems, in German and Chinese. All of the books are for Chinese students of foreign languages, so studying them carefully should get me a lot of new vocabulary and good grammar. And the translations of the  German romantic poems should help build my vocabulary for when Gao wants to talk philosophy with me again, like I’m sure she will in a few weeks.

I’ve also started trying to find new ways to pick up language lessons for free. For example, Sandra and Woo is an adorable webcomic for both German and English speakers–http://www.sandraandwoo.com/2008/10/19/a-sly-raccoon/

And I’ve subscribed to http://www.chinese-course.com/ for over a year now, but I’ve also subscribed to its sister sites for German, Spanish, and Russian now! They also have French, Thai, Japanese, Dutch, Italian, Swedish, Portuguese, and Korean! They send you new sentences and vocabulary words with sample sentences every day that you can vary by level and frequency, and they have a bunch of texts and a really cool electronic flash card service I don’t make nearly as much use of as I should.

I’ve also somehow overlooked the fact that Courtney also has a blog? She is another homestay student, whom I am quite jealous of, because her homestay family actually lives at the same house most of the time, and she speaks with them more often. Anyway, she has a good blog!

http://blogs.dickinson.edu/courtneyinchina/

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Taaaaaaake a journey back in tiiime

I cannot watch this hear, but you should if you have never heard the song: www.youtube.com/watch?v=0k3gxj4nrW4

Ha, so I was reading Kevin’s blog and realized that I had completely forgotten about the whole dog meat fiasco. Also I want to talk about seeing the Monte Carlo modern ballet troupe’s production of Cinderella last night, because it was interesting and I think I’m more into theater than Kevin is. He is like the Sports and Business sections of the newspaper that is the Dickinson China blogstream, and I am the Magazine section and AP World News column. We split the op-ed and local coverage between us.

So dog meat.

So Sunday before last we’re at the Great Wall, and afterwards we hit this absurdly nice Chinese restaurant for an exorbitant banquet (as is wont to happen here, thanks to a combination of developing nation exchange rates and Dickinson footing our group activities) in our own little private room. I’m really not comfortable with the degree of relative wealth and preferential treatment I’m approached with here. I’m a dumb immigrant who can’t even speak the native language, and even in America I’m a student barely scraping by on scholarship and a constant stream of almost minimum wage retail work. I’m really not comfortable with private rooms and food waste and the attention. As I am not blonde or a woman, I am simply a walking curiosity rather than a photo op or an opportunity to make an unintelligible pass. It’s kind of pathetically easy to attract girl in clubs if you’re white, though, but I’ll talk about that in another post.

So lunch. Wow, I have got to find an outlet for all this political stuff.

Anyway, we had a private room, which was weird, because I would have preferred to have an environment of Chinese people rather than close-in white walls in a Chinese restaurant, because I am crazy like that. We had our old standbys, like Peking duck. I don’t particularly care for it, but that’s just as well. I should explain that in Chinese custom the host is deferred to in pretty much all areas–they are the first to touch their chopsticks, or touch the food, and they are normally the unanimous voice on ordering food. So we never have any idea what food we are eating until it arrives, when we all share some from a common area (usually on a giant Temple-of-Doom-opening-sequence-style Lazy Susan), sampling some of each dish.

I’m really not too crazy about a lot of the food people have bought for me here. It’s usually really meat centered and frequently not nearly as flavorful as I like food to be, focusing mainly on exploration of different textures and balancing moderated amounts of different flavors, like sour, sweet, spicy, salty, and bitter. I do appreciate how balanced meals tend to be here, as far as taste goes. I think it comes partly coming from traditional Chinese approach to nutrition, which is kind of similar to Elizabethan concepts of elemental composition. Things have hot, cold, wet, and dry aspects, and humors have to be in balance, and stuff like that.

So late into the meal this one dish comes in, a moderate-sized meat stew that’s simmering with some vegetables. China is a lot less squeamish about slaughtering animals than we are; they tend to leave in a lot of bones and ligaments and tendons and things Americans would take out, as much to improve the texture and wholeness of the dish as for economical and nutritional reasons. I approve of this, but it also meant that someone (Courtney?) noticed a small vertebra in the food, which we all thought was weird, but we just kind of ignored the issue in favor of debating the conjugation of the word “vertebra/e.” Which should tell you something about our group. I guess I’d rather we have focused on that than just getting grossed out?

Anyway, some people, including me, tried some of it, and thought it was kind of eh. It tasted exactly like beef, the muscle fibers were thick and dark and short like some beef cuts. Nobody really dug into it, it wasn’t really remarkably bad or good, but I did enjoy the large slices of green pepper in the broth.

Gao Laoshi (host-mom-in-absentia and program director) then comes in with a video camera towards the end of the meal. They’ve been taping lots of stuff, so nobody really thinks much of it, but she starts making really pointed questions about the center dish, the meat stew thing. Nobody had very much if they had any, and most people thought it was fair to middling and said so. Then she said, “Do you know what kind of meat that was? That was dog meat!” I don’t remember my exact reaction at that moment, and if I say it was something specific for narrative effect I know I’ll be proven wrong by the film later. But a BUNCH of people freaked out, especially Alex Brody (big dog person) and a bunch of people were like “That’s pretty douchey.”

Phillippa and I mostly thought it was pretty funny. We both read a lot and had figured out independently before coming to China that we were probably going to end up eating dog meat in something. That’s what happens when you combine dirt-poor agrarian nation (with relatively little arable land) that goes through chronic floods and famines with HUGE population density.

Joker, I apologize, and it doesn’t reflect my feelings towards you or your people. Devon and Chloe, it really wasn’t a big deal so don’t freak out about it. I don’t like it and don’t want to eat it again, really. Mom and Dad, it really wasn’t a problem and I don’t need to talk about it.

I mean, I’m coming at the situation as a very recently ex-vegetarian after being on the tofu train for like four years. Social animals are social animals, and eating one over the other isn’t particularly more or less cruel. And I’d rather eat meat here than in American factory farms. Better for the animal here, and better for the environment. And the Chinese people actually have fresh memories of being a farming people, unlike us, who like to pretend meat comes from a store and the cute little cows on the side of the road are owned by Lamar Advertising, and are there to make the trip more scenic and rustic. The only really weird thing I find about eating dog specifically is that it’s already a predator (theoretically). It’s very rare that humans eat something that eats other animals these days, because we already killed and ate most of them.

To be fair, I don’t really like meat. I don’t get the point. It’s…expensive? Dead? Manly? I understand the nutritional need for proteins and stuff, but that doesn’t mean you need to chomp on the same string of muscle tissue from a cow for years on end and pretend that’s healthy for you. I like some light meats, like a bit of chicken or tilapia (WHICH MAKES SENSE BECAUSE I AM A MONKEY AND DO NOT NATURALLY PREY ON LARGE HERD ANIMALS) but heavy fish like salmon or heavy meats like beef, or apparently dog, really aren’t attractive to me. There’s a reason that most humans that eat herd animals tend to completely denude their environment and kill everything around them in their endless hunt for more pasture land, guys! Just look at the history of the American midwest (before or after the Trail of Tears; the Sioux were on the verge of exterminating the buffalo even before we came along), or of how pastoral life has completely destroyed western India, the Fertile Crescent, most of Africa north of the Congo, and now a lot of southern Latin America as land is increasingly geared towards beef farming.

China has some really handsome dogs, though. I was having a good time playing with this one imported beagle. And the main breed of big dog in north China is the Siberian husky, which I entirely approve of. Gorgeous animals, and they actually like the climate here. Most of the breeds are really small, though, which I never really got the point of. Why would you want to be friends with something totally dependent on you and incapable of physically challenging you? Keep your tiny dogs, crazy people.

Also, saw a really cool adaptation of Cinderella last night by a (the?) modern ballet troupe from Monte Carlo! Not as many people went as last time, which is partly my fault, as I ran out of money on my phone and couldn’t coordinate it very well, but some people really enjoyed it.

It was a very weirdly male reading of the story, really. They explored the characters of the prince and father much more than I’ve ever seen done. Also, the score wasn’t terribly original, and much of it was just randomly chosen Russian pieces, but as there was a bunch of Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev in there, I have no complaints. I could listen to the Lt. Kije suite for days.

But yeah, men. The father is usually kind of an absent, drunk, or dead character (the gendered corrolary to my theory that for boys to have adventures, their mother must be incompetend or dead), but here he was the fulcrum on which Cinderella’s character developed. She’s defined as a good person by her desire to be an innocent child with him, by her love and care for him, and by her attempts to protect and free him from the women who control him, and by extension her attempts to stop him from being sexually controlled by her stepmother. It was kind of odd, but I approve, because the alternative is just kind of “Oh, I am so poor and overworked, sympathize with me because I am sad and revel in my joys vicariously when I get rich, and use this myth to justify your national narrative.” I mean, what? Anyway. It’s not a character drama, without any personality. Otherwise the story is just, “sometimes life sucks, and sometimes good things happen to people for no reason, and when remarkably good things happen to unusually badly treated people, it makes good television.” She’s usually only virtuous because everyone else is evil, and since I started taking politics seriously I’ve become less and less satisfied with the “Rebel Alliance” approach to morality (we’re the good guys because the other people are pretentious racists with funny accents who blow up planets and strangle people). I am all for being Marxist, but you need to keep your ideals and your goals in sight at all times, and decisively compromise between the two when necessary. The American labor movement, Mao Zedong’s faction of the CCP, and the Soviet Union all collapsed (and deserved to) because they lost sight of the bigger picture and took up impossible crusades that didn’t actually benefit anyone. Perspective is vital.

They explored the character of the Prince much more as a bored and lonely guy who enjoys his bros and his power but probably should start growing up and being responsible and building a family and stuff. He also takes himself rather a bit too seriously, but when he meets a dark and charming working-class girl he lets go of a lot of the pretense and can be himself. So I can’t say I identify with him at all, really.

Also, finally got my residence permit today! I went to pick up my passport from the office at Beida, and went to the municipal police administration building in Chaoyang because I thought I had to do something else to get my residence permit approved. But when I got to the front of the line of the big scary Chinese bureaucratic machine (after only like five minutes, even!) the lady working there was really confused because my permit was already issued and everything was fine. I was really nervous because I forgot a bunch of forms, but afterwards I realized that Beida had just kept them and I don’t need them any more. Because I live here now.

It’s especially liberating because they keep leaving the expiration dates blank on all my paperwork. It’s like China says, “It’s cool, dude! Stick around if you want, there’s plenty of room! You can get a job teaching English with my cousin or something, and there’s room on the couch if you can’t find a place to stay!” and then they give me a bunch of high-fives and we play volleyball.

It’s exactly like that.

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Harmony is crucial for a harmonious society

You know, authoritarian capitalism may have bunches of problems, but at least the constant stream of propaganda and antics from a central party-oligarchy-plutocratic central bureaucracy living in total fear of its citizens is really amusing.

Another productive day in Hanyu class. That is a picture of a yawning baby drawn as Ronald Reagan in West Berlin, for the record.

 Save that picture as a .jpg and open it in MS Paint, then draw a shoe in his hand and take the hair off to make him Khruschev! Khrushco…Khrushchev! It’s only a transliteration of his name anyway, but for somebody who listens to as much of the Red Army Choir’s greatest hits as I do, my Russian is awful.

The Amish have been a long-oppressed Chinese minority.

Speaking of music and Russians, Lana has saved my life by introducing me to GROOVESHARK, which is a fantastic website that is like Pandora only more awesome in that you can select which songs from a public database, and is usuable outside the US. Hooray for loopholes in copyright laws, because they don’t really make sense to begin with…also hooray for eighties synthpop, and lots and lots of red/black/green east coast hip hop, and soviet pop songs, as my supply had previously been cut off to all of these!  It is for the best; nine months with nothing to listen to but angry fax machine noises with broken English and mumbling Spanish lyrics would probably have me hating everything forever. And getting a Mexican work visa. I mean, what?

The woodpeckers around Beida look weirdly like the Downy ones on the east coast. I wonder how they keep them in check, with all the wooden buildings?

Anyway, long long long time since the last post. Sorry, the internet!  It has been kind of crazy but I am also lazy and blogging only comes naturally to me when I want to kill things or walk my dog late at night. I would stroll dramatically around the city late at night, but this part of town is not really conducive to that. Too flat and dry, and full of construction work. The parks are ouside hotels and the entire country keeps off the grass. So weird to me. Maybe after I get regular bike access? I’m only a few kilometers from Qianmen, anyway.

Anyway, classes have been really busy lately. I’m kind of in over my head, especially in Hanyu, but that’s mostly a good thing, especially since it’s really only the one class I have trouble in, and I can get around that by just studying harder. I have a very Newtonian approach to studying, just coasting by on my intellectual momentum unless and until I encounter some kind of friction or resistance, or I encounter some object I’m attracted to. That’s why I try and put myself in realistic, natural, less than ideal circumstances. I just abhor a vacuum. I much prefer having some kind of force or object pushing or pulling me, really feeling myself move, instead of just cruising along but not perceiving any changes.

Yep. Cheap physics jokes, here on my blog. Cheap obsolete physics jokes, at that.

Anyway, THE GREAT WALL OF CHINA

Gaze upon my works, ye mighty, and buy a t-shirt!

Last Saturday we had a full-out China Cultural Experience Day. Got up to take a bus to a section of the Great Wall called Juyongguan. It was kind of a big circular fort area covering a large mountain pass just north of Beijing. Fat lot of good it did, of course, considering two of the three dynasties headquartered at Beijing were originally nomadic northern warrior tribes.

If I ever want to visit a dry, mountainous version of Virginia Beach, I know exactly where to go.

I mean, still totally impressive. Although I must say as the populist I am, that I can’t help thinking that every brick laid here by peasant conscript workers was a field not planted or harvested. Monarchies are a dumb way to run things. The only way to actually be important or accomplish anything is to rally a bunch of labor together and have them build some great public work that won’t be completed until after you’re dead. Except the way feudal systems work is by having everyone socially and economically locked into the positions they are in to minimize the risk of destabilization, and when you disrupt that process by creating some kind of massive miserable forced labor, you create a huge domino effect that starts with a bunch of people starving for reasons that are not in their personal interest or the interests of their grandchildren, and ends up with your limp body swaying from a tree before being burnt and having unspeakable things done to it. And then the new dynasty dances on your grave when they put one together in a couple of years and go “Look, someone’s old, badly empty, giant canal! Let’s clean this up to massively increase our wealth and popularity! Hey, didn’t a bunch of people die digging this like a hundred years ago? Well, yes, it is irrelevant, let’s go make some money and give it to people with armies and land and stuff and have them be our friends in exchange for favors!” You can make run-on sentences if you want, you’re the Emperor. Only in Soviet Russia does grammar rule you.

The above paragraph is a brief history of the Sui Dynasty, and by extension, the Grand Canal, and by further extension Beijing itself.

Man, it’s actually kind of depressing how much that also applies to democracies, and human forms of government in general. Democracies even more so, because our rule isn’t legitimated by an idea of Divine Right so much as whatever happens to stick in people’s short-term memory over four years. The best ruler to elect, from a citizens’ short term standpoint, and the most popular policies, will be ones that cut taxes, increase doles and general public welfare at the expense of marginalized groups, and generally entertain the public in some way. Democrats who dump on the rich or other groups (only to court them later) are as guilty of this as Republicans. Probably even more so, because Republicans tend to do it much more successfully.

SO HOW ABOUT THAT CHINESE HISTORY HUH PRETTY HISTORICAL

I digress. Anyway, the entire structure is a huge, several-kilometer circle around these couple of mountains, and we only had an hour and a half or something, because the wall closes really early. Lots of people went up to the first flight or so (LAME) and some other people went quite a bit further up, but turned around when they ran low on time. Jamal and I wanted to see the peak, so we went up there.

Some people say not to worry 'bout the air.

 Which was an excellent choice, let me tell you! The lower flights of stairs were totally flooded with people, but as you get farther up, the density of people and air pollution both decreases to quite a satisfying degree.

I was going to say that breathing on top of the Great Wall was a breath of fresh air, but then I realized how stupid that sounded.

 Seriously, though. Seventeen million people and no rivers, or hills, or large forests, or natural resources, or any other attractive features other than the fact that large armies used to move through here on a regular basis, often enough to annoy a couple of emperors. But that excuse only works for the Ming! The Yuan and the Qing just wanted a city that reminded them more of home! Mao had no excuse for not moving the capital to Nanjing or Shanghai or even just Tianjin. So much air pollution here…glad it’s not the seventies, though. I wouldn’t have liked to try to breathe here when Mao was telling the nation to smelt its silverware to up metal production.

I wanted to sing Eye of the Tiger so badly on the way to the peak. Or at least the Internationale, or something.

It's kind of maddeningly beautiful. Especially when you think about the labor and time that went into it. The futile, futile labor.

Insert paragraphs of angsty debating the justification of human action and the idea of progress as a necessary evil in philosophy and society at large, and following that morose realization that my whole thought process is totally irrelevant to the actions of the whole, and society cares nothing for the happiness of the individual save their relevance to the production of common goods and services to the whole.
So it all comes back to political economy anyway! Isn’t it nice when things make circles?

This bell is twice as old as my country. It's not even like we're Liberia or the BRD or some new fancy thing. It's older than the Iriquois Confederacy, I mean, or the concept of mercantilism.

 Afterwards we went to this really old bell museum, which started with a “Z” and I cannot remember the full name of it. It was really cool, actually. They had all these really crazy old bells, going back to times in Europe when we were running around in the Dark Ages. Most of them belonged to various temples around the Beijing area that were hidden when the Red Guards when all crazy against anything that wasn’t personally blessed by Mao and viscerally tore apart anything obliquely criticized by him. Us in America, our attitudes toward our leaders in the sixties were much more refined and nuanced. Like, “I like that man’s hair,” or “He likes black people too much.” Totally irrelevant, but one of my favorite stories about Lyndon Johnson (and the reason I rather like him) is that when he was signing the Civil Rights bill, he said, “You know, I think we may have lost the South forever,” speaking for the Democratic party. He was probably right, if exaggerating a little. Forever is a long time. Isn’t that right, Virginia and North Carolina? This too shall pass.

This one weighs several tons, is four or five meters tall, and is entirely covered inside and out with hundreds of thousands of Chinese characters of prayers and blessing. Again, a fat lot of good they have clearly done over the past 200-odd years.

 After the bell museum, we went out to a really luxurious spa. The guys got naked and hit up this Turkish bath thing, and that was kind of ridiculous, but good bonding, I guess. The foot massage was even better. The other guys had pretty but rather nasty girls rubbing their feet, but I really lucked out. The woman massaging me was this delightfully full-figured girl from Hubei who was quite happy to chat. I asked her how the job was, and her home life, and if she was going home for the national day holiday, and she asked me about studying and home life and if I was going traveling for the holiday. It was so nice talking with and being touched by a Chinese girl not made of balsawood or afraid of a little melanin.

I am glad to know that the things I miss have pretty much stuck to the two things I predicted I would (curves and Hispanic food). I might have to get a summer internship in Colombia at the end of this to make up for the deficiency. They have a Pacific coastline and are right next to the Panama Canal (which is, lol, under the control of the historically ethnically distinct and repressed nation-state of Panama which is in no way a puppet colony of the US shipping industry) so they must have a bunch of people in need of people who speak Chinese and some really awful Spanish. Right?

Anyway, we also saw a performance of this Chinese ballet thing called Ten Mile Tresses (Shi Li Hongzhuang), which is this weird sort of anti/proto?/trans?feminist thing about the need women have to get married and be an object of celebration and have all the attention and material wealth and have her dreams made manifest, only she is thwarted when her childhood love goes away to make his fortune, promising to marry her when he returns from the big city and can support her. It can also therefore be read as critical of the effect of industrialization on agrarian societies, causing massive social disruptions in the life of the people not actively engaged in or benefiting from the market growth? I guess? Anyway, he never comes back and she eventually decides to marry herself or something. Its like a central Chinese version of the Awakening or something? Or maybe like someone put Henrik Ibsen’s translated works in a time machine back to seventeenth century China and they were adapted to the audience. Crazy. It was really gorgeous to watch, though.

The theater is kind of absurd. It’s called the Egg and it’s right in the middle of town, it’s this big postmodern sphere of death on the outside, and this kind of awkwardly vertical awe-inspiring column of air and glass on the inside. You have this perpetual feeling that you should be falling to your death and a vague sense of awareness that the pool of blood you will leave will match the soft furnishings quite nicely. Tonight we have tickets to a Monte Carlo troupe’s performance of Cinderella, so that should be quite exciting.

Anyway, last Friday was awesome too! People came over to our place because Gao lives here and she taught people to make jiaozi (hand-compressed dumplings) and play majiang! She also found out it was my birthday and bought me an absurdly delicious ice cream cake made of chocolate and little berries and surrounded by little delicious sticks of chocolate. It was like a tiny fort of scrumptiousness. Also, baijiu was had, and I therefore have no understanding of how to play majiang. Other than that it’s vaguely like inverted Uno crossed with hold-em. This is not a working understanding, however, and is little assistance in actually playing.

Okay, homework now! Will try to stick to weekly updates in the future to avoid more posts like this!

Just one more Great Wall pic GOOD GRACIOUS WOULD YOU LOOK AT THE HISTORY

The name of the Great Wall in Chinese is Changcheng, which is be translated as ”long wall.” I thought that was originally rather painfully obvious. After trying to walk like 1/100000 of it, I now understand it’s quite an understatement. HA HA EMPEROR QIN YOU ARE QUITE THE DRY-WIT FUNNY MAN OH WAIT YOU ARE DEAD AS ARE YOUR GUIDING PRINCIPLES AND YOUR ENTIRE FAMILY.
Zing.

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Bu yuan zuo nuli de renmen, Part One

I want to start a game show called “Chinglish T-Shirt or Indie Rock Song Lyrics?” The contestants will either be Guangdong textile merchants or record store owners from the Pacific Northwest. It will be impossible to win.

Kevin’s blog has already talked a bunch about the Chinglish here, and he has funnier examples than I do, but I keep seeing really amusing things all over the place, especially in more cosmopolitan areas that aren’t actually connected with direct foreign investment, like domestically-owned supermarkets and clothing stores.

Pharmacies and tobacconists right next to each other. There's some collaboration there, I think.

The only really interesting thing I’ve done lately is hit the Military Museum and teach my weekly 2 hours of English. After a bit of research into the various clubs and bars and places for enterprising young gentlemen of stature to frequent, I decided to try out Cargo, which is apparently more dance-oriented, cheaper, and overall one of the best of Beijing’s clubs. But I made the mistake of using Lonely Planet’s map instead of the actual address of the club and ended up having a lovely three-hour stroll of Chaoyang instead, which was quite nice, if slightly disappointing. I need some real aerobic exercise, and walking will not cut it in this pancake of a city. Biking may, and I need to ask my host family about using theirs, or to Beida’s biking club. Intense people. I’d like to hunt down Salsa Caribe and try to take some lessons or just dance a bit. I miss Latinos, being now devoid of SSA, Mexican grocery stores in walking distance, and my collection of Hispanic folk songs and Cuban and Colombian Marxist music. Hasta sieeeeempreeee Commandaaaaantteeeee…you know you’ve been in Asia when you want to pronounce the name “Juan”  as”Ju-An.” Also when you stop laughing because your teacher is Professor Dong or Teacher Wang.

But what I really want to talk about today is my visit to the Military Museum of the Chinese People’s Revolution this Sunday. I swear, I am not making up that name.

Uniiiiited foreeever in frieeendship and laaaaabor…this is the Museum, from maybe 250 meters away.

The interior is huge. Maybe a dozen planes and several dozen tanks and mobile artillery pieces on the ground floor, an entire wing devoted to small arms, a floor devoted to gifts of foreign ambassadors to China (some of which were really cool and others were really amusing, like the Jordanian Foreign Minister’s’ gift of a gold-plated submachine gun engraved with Arabic calligraphy.

Classy, Jordan. Classy.

Some of the stuff was really cool, though. Don’t worry Dad, I have a photo gallery of over a hundred and fifty pictures you can see when I come home. I didn’t know what was rare or stuff you hadn’t seen in person, so I took pictures of lots of stuff and figured some of it would be cool and fresh. For those of you who don’t know my father, he spent his childhood wanting to help fight the Cold War, and when the USSR fell apart he wanted to move to Russia. I take after him, believe it or not.

On the veranda are some of the guns that fired the first shots of the Opium War, and some guns used by the Taipings to defend Nanjing, and to defend Beijing when we invaded.

I come from a country that has no real sense of time. We’re very young and live in the moment. We like tearing our history down and forgetting our past, especially our mistakes, and celebrating the present, without thinking about the future. China is a very four-dimensional country, and Beijing is a very four-dimensional city. You can walk up or down or in or out of an area and step back in time, into a different way of life and different ways of thinking. America is much more homogeneous, I think, although you could probably say the same things about the differences between Detroit and upstate Michigan, or different parts of New Orleans or D.C. It’s just not on the same scale as Beijing, though. There are migrant workers here who couldn’t make what I make in a day back home in a week, and the quality of the working conditions or hours worked can’t even be compared.

My hand, next to the oldest known handgun in the world.

They had a really cool section on ancient weaponry and the military history of China. I’ve always been much more interested in old weaponry than new ones. Partly that’s because I find primitive firearms and melee weapons really cool. I understand the mechanics much easier, and enjoy going through the process of “okay, we have an explosive and want to fire a projectile, but how do we concentrate the force in a specific direction?” kind of basic physics problem. Also, I really liked the episode of Star Trek where Kirk had to kill the Gorn with a bamboo shoot, a rock, and handmade gunpowder. the concept of pointing at someone and killing them seems kind of unnatural to me, but then I’ve never fired a gun, but have trained with swords before when I was studying aikido. Wonder if there are any dojos here that could teach me, or any sifus in any of the parks? Should look into that…modern weapons just seem so classless. It’s so easy to kill someone with a gun, it’s just a spatial perception exercise, but proficiency with a sword or a spear or a staff, that’s an art and exercise and takes years of practice.

Mao Zedong, or Christopher Walken? We report, you decide.

After going through all of the exhibits I am more convinced than ever that “China” is a subjective concept rather than a real concrete nation-state. It’s like Judaism, it’s more of a millennia-long running argument than a complete object. It’s true of all countries, especially big countries with lots of flat, arable land that are thus prone to civil war and migration issues (India, Iraq, Germany, South Africa, Zaire, Russia, I’m looking at you guys), but it’s especially true of China. It’s been locked in balkanized feudal states as long as it has been unified in bureaucratic empires, and the borders and ethnic compositions are constantly changing, to say nothing of its oral languages, capital cities, or general cultural characteristics. But it’s always had the idea of a unified, Confucian, ”harmonious society,” ever since and even millennia before the Han Dynasty, with the legends of the Zhou, Xia, and Shang “Dynasties,” and national unification and establishment of a bureaucratic empire from the Yangtze to the Huang River Valleys have always been in the back of every pissant bourgeois family since Qin Shihuang’s death. Even though it’s only during the times of chaos, civil war, and political infighting that China’s cultural heritage is defined! When philosophers, artists, and merchants freely practice their trades, when people think about what they want out of their country, what their country is, and who they want to be.

I’ll talk more about this tomorrow, when I have more to say and more pictures to share. Mingtian jian!

P.S., red moon tonight. Really gorgeous against the city lights. They're not that harsh in reality, I can't get the exposure right.

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我不怕死,只怕忘德

First off, I just want to post a link to this really cool article I read on Buddhist economics. http://blogs.dickinson.edu/buddhistethics/files/2010/06/Essen.pdf

This is an article discussing two Buddhist economic models, the cooler but less practical being this Buddhist-collectivist model practiced by a series of small agricultural communes and temple communities, and the more readily applicable one coming from no less than HMK Adulyadej the Great. They both work on the same basic principles, but the communal one’s quite stringent and far more collectivist, and more pious in its reflection of Buddhist morality rather than channeling market forces toward Buddhist ends.

They basically work by internalizing other peoples’ suffering as externalities, and keeping one’s long-term karma and ideas of Right Livelihood as central to operating principles. The Middle Way is very important in the King’s model as reflecting neither blind pursuit of profit nor stark asceticism. It’s quite interesting, and I wonder if anything will come of it in the long term, if Asian markets keep freezing and then exploding but leaving lots of people behind every five or six years like they have been.

Last night I went out walking, as I’ve been doing most nights since I’ve arrived here, with no real goal in particular other than getting a rough but workable understanding of where I am and what surrounds me. After about 45 minutes and a few kilometers of pavement behind me, a middle-aged woman with some lines of hard work on her face comes up to me, asking for money.

Following standard protocol, I offer to walk her to a restaurant, and she accepts. We’re walking for a fairly long time, and it’s clear I’m inconveniencing her and she’s tired, so in the end I just hand her thirty kuai, making sure to keep my wallet tilted away so she can’t see my real cash. I would have given her less, but I had read some articles earlier in the day talking about how women tend to be more likely than men to spend money on worthwhile necessities instead of booze or gambling or whatever.

I wish I could have taken a picture of her eyes when I handed her those three blue bills with Mao’s face staring off into the distance. She was almost crying, this forty-fifty year old woman. She tried to get me to take some back, or follow her to a telephone booth. She wanted to call home and thank me specifically, and get my number to pay me back when she earned it herself.

We are arguing in the street for at least five-ten minutes over this thirty Renmin Bi, ‘The People’s Currency.” Less than $5, or about an hour’s work in the U.S. at minimum wage after taxes. In the end I finally convince her that it is just 一点小意思, yi dianr xiao yisi, a small token, and refuse her attempts to compensate me later. We part ways amiably and I can’t look at the old woman standing over her kebab rack, or the foreigners eating there, the same way. Or the bored kids working the midnight shift at the hair salons and massage parlors. Or the fruit vendors, lean and laughing and waiting for deportation back to their villages. Or myself, when I finally step back in the door.

I see the fat in my cheeks and the pink of my skin and think about the odds of being a white, healthy, upper middle class, suburban American male during the 21st-century. Versus the odds of being anything else. I’m not even gay! Or asthmatic! Or anything! I have been given the world, and what have I made of it? What have I done with my opportunities?

This morning, on my way to the bus station, there was an old homeless man laying down on the pedestrian overpass. He was jingling a wooden bowl of coins, which are usually worthless plastic here, especially the smaller denominations. He looked up at the passers by and jingled them slowly and relentlessly. But when I came within ten feet of him he looked down and went silent. He set his bowl down on his thin blanket and rested it there. And when I had walked by another five feet, he started jingling his bowl again.

He wouldn’t accept charity from foreigners. He wouldn’t dare ask it of me. I’m going to start carrying spare bottles of water and mantou, northern Chinese bread rolls, to share with these people. God knows I can afford it.

My experience of this city is restaurants and shopping malls and attending classes at the finest university in the nation, riding on clean subways and taking brand-new buses home to a gated community watched by armed guards around the clock to a third-floor apartment (away from the air pollution) with over twice as much space as I’ve ever had to myself, at Dickinson or in Pittsburgh. This in Beijing, where living space is at a premium.

I work 2 hours a week teaching English because I want to and get paid $100 kuai or over $15 an hour, almost triple my American salary. My stipend is over $500 US or 3500 kuai a month, which is a very high salary indeed here. I don’t know what to do. My world is shopping malls and restaurants and no tipping or cleaning up after yourself when you spill food, which happens constantly because I have to use chopsticks right-handed. I have a handful of obligations around the house, but few real possessions and few real friends. No music, and the only stuff available is on vampirefreaks, as Pandora and Myspace, my two staples, are blocked here. So I listen to industrial music and stare at the city rushing past me. I live in a little cocoon of English and leave it for luxury and the prospect of a bright future as a member of the international bourgeois.

How do other people see this city, I wonder. What did the happy old fat hutong man we spoke with, forced into tearful retirement when his state-owned factory went under, think of the laowai wandering past the home he was born in, three blocks from Tiananmen? What horrors and joys and tens of millions of little rat races has this city seen that I will never?

My favorite parable of Jesus has always been the parable of the talents. A master going away tells his three servants to keep his money for him, and each was given money according to his ability. The first was given five bags of coins, the next two, the last one bag. The first two put their money into investments, and double their given rewards. The last is afraid of squandering or losing his master’s money, and so digs a hole and hides his bag in the ground. At the end of the master’s journey, he returns and says to the first two, “Well done, good and faithful slaves! Enter into the joy of your master,” and they are allowed to keep the wealth they have accumulated.  But the last one is chastised for squandering his master’s trust and wealth, and is cast out of the household, his money given to the one who invested the most.

We must work for the good of all the world. Our gifts are not our own and we do not deserve them. We must eternally strive to be worthy and work hard to pass our gifts on to others, to our world, and to ourselves. Our talents and gifts must be put to work. They are an investment and our masters expect returns on their investments.

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