Back on the Air, and in the Home Stretch

So. . .how long has it been since I actually posted anything? A million years? More? I’m  not really sure. I could give you a host of reasons, but this is the blogosphere we’re talking about, where attention spans are about those of a swarm of gnats at a Michael Bay premiere (assuming, as I do, that gnats do in fact have short attention spans; I can’t imagine it would be otherwise), and it’s likely the people reading this blog noticed my absence for perhaps a few days, then shrugged and just moved on to the rest of the entries in their blog feed. Or not. Maybe your life fell to pieces and you took to drinking fortified wine in a homemade bomb shelter, reading Camus, and waiting for the darkness to come. If so. . .well, sorry, I guess.

But by way of excusing myself a little bit, I’ll just say that I got married, and present this picture as proof, then we’ll move on.

Barring a world-ending cataclysm, I’ll be leaving China, possibly for good, in four or five months. If you’ve read more than a handful of my posts, you’ve probably noticed a distinct upward curve in my cynicism. My relationship with China has been a troubled one these last few years. I burned out big-time on the education system when I was a teacher, then I got excited again when I started my master’s degree, then burned out bit-time on the education system again, only from the other side of the teacher’s podium, then I got excited again at the possibility of spending a year just studying and writing here, then I got burned out big-time on China generally. The latter was the most insidious because there really wasn’t anything left within the culture or the country itself to keep me going. Actually, maybe I should rephrase that. It isn’t that the culture just ran out of interesting things, but rather that I stopped being interested in them. There are lots of reasons for that, but the simplest way to explain is that I’m ready to move on. Ready to move on to a place where I can breathe again (the pollution here stopped being funny a long time ago, and this winter reached truly absurd limits), ready to be in an academic atmosphere where I’ll be stimulated and challenged, and really, just kind of ready to move on generally. I’ve done everything I meant to in mainland China, and once you’ve reached a point like that, the little everyday things just don’t have any wonder left for you, so you start lashing out at all the things you don’t like. And I’d gotten to a point, last semester, whenI didn’t like much of anything.

But here’s the problem with attitude, quite apart from the fact that when you let yourself go more than a few meters down that rabbit hole you end up sounding like an annoying, grumpy old man: it leaves too much out. Through a variety of circumstances I’ve been reminded this week of a whole lot of things I’ve forgotten about my time in China. Yes, it’s true that there’s nothing left here that I want to do, and yes, it’s true that I find lots of things annoying (I for one maintain it isn’t humanly possible not to be annoyed at Chinese traffic or the pollution in the air), but it’s also true that I’ve been involved with China, either full-time through living here, or part-time through thinking about it or studying the language on my own, since roughly 2001. That’s a long time to do anything. Anyone whose blog on a place he’s lived willingly for over 10 years is nothing but cynical is a giant hypocrite. That’s like going to same restaurant every day for a year and complaining to your friends about it every single day, the response to which is always a simple one, “Dude, go somewhere else.” Or even better, it’s like that joke Woody Allen tells at the beginning of Annie Hall, in which two old ladies go to a restaurant and complain about it, saying, “There are two problems with this place: the food is terrible, and the portions are so small!”

Accordingly, I’m going to try to write a lot more this semester, and the tenor of what I write is likely to be a good bit different from what it was. It’s hard to get your head around something like leaving for good a place where you’ve lived for over ten years, especially when it’s had so many memorable experiences. I’ll be exploring a lot of those memorable experiences over the course of this semester, and asking a few questions. One, what does it do to a person’s thinking to live overseas long-term and then return to their home country? Two, what can we understand about where China’s heading, socially, politically, and spiritually, from something as simple as an informal autobiography written by an outsider? Three, and I’ll put this simply: what’s China like? You can’t answer that last one if you’ve only been here a few months, or honestly even a year. You have to have time to fall in love with a place, fall out of love with it, then learn to love it in a warmer, longer-lasting way.

 I’ll also do my level best to keep things entertaining because this is still a blog (of sorts) after all. The last thing anyone needs in this insane world is another long, dark journey into the self. If that’s what you’re looking for, you can find any number of high-quality novels and poems on the subject with content profound enough to actually get you to think, as well as even more low-quality blogs with content less profound than a game of Frogger. There will be a certain amount of necessary self-exploration, but it will always be coupled with something about China generally, because who I am has been tied to this country for a long time. So keep reading, and if it gets frustrating, I understand fortified wine is easy to either buy or manufacture.

 

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New vs. Old

While in France this summer visiting my girlfriend’s (now fiancé’s) parents, we visited the medieval city of Provins, which has a 12th-century cathedral that is still in use. I don’t know if that amazes you, but it does me. In the U.S., if something is two hundred years old we organize tours to see it; in France, a 12th-century cathedral is barely even a tourist attraction. This contrasts sharply with China as well, where a tourist attraction is a tourist attraction with a capital T, with tee-shirts, costume photo sites, and in the case of the Badaling section of the Great Wall, a long slide by which visitors can get back to the bottom. And if we’re going to learn to relate to each other, it’s important to think about some of the reasons for this state of affairs.

Look a little closer at the perspective on old and new in France, China, and the U.S. and you come away with some interesting realizations. After I left France this summer, I went to the States for a few weeks, beginning with a three-day stay in Chicago to visit some friends. We took the architecture tour downtown, and if you’re ever in Chicago I highly recommend it. It’s a boat tour down the river that takes you past the famous skyscrapers and other buildings in the downtown area while a guide narrates the story behind their construction. It really is fascinating. And yet it’s fascinating in a completely different way from France. One of the unique characteristics of the U.S. over the years has been the almost obsessive encouragement of new things and ideas. Take Chicago, for instance. In the fire of 1870, roughly two-thirds of the city burned to the ground. During the succeeding decades the city leadership took this cataclysm as a chance to remake Chicago as something completely new, and if you ever take the tour you’ll get an appreciation for just what it meant to build a twenty-story building in the late-19th century. The idea that they should rebuild the city in roughly the same image, or at least by preserving the historical buildings in the city, was trumped easily by the idea that the new Chicago should look nothing like the old.

The trouble is, Americans tend to have a hard time with their history. It’s a giant mélange of immigration, expansion, and highly disturbing clashes between peoples who would not have ever mixed in any other place. Everyone in America came from somewhere else (even, if you hold to this particular view on prehistoric humanity, the native Americans themselves), and when the defining characteristic of your nation’s history is the idea that everything is, and should remain, new, then it’s awfully hard to know what to do with your history. Do we honor the architects of our Constitution by capitalizing the words Founding Fathers and demanding everyone march lockstep to their vision, as though Thomas Jefferson were Moses, or do we honor the current needs of the nation by branding the same men a bunch of racist bigots and reduce their contribution to a minor page in the grander political story? If you’re constantly updating, there’s not much room to learn how to live with your history.

Interestingly, roughly the same level of destruction occurred in Paris after the end of the Franco-Prussian war in 1870 as occurred in Chicago. The civil war that followed (I’m using the term loosely because it really only involved Paris) added to the destruction wrought by the Prussian artillery, especially with the fall of the Commune, the members of which burned whole sections of Paris as part of their defense strategy. The cathedral of Notre Dame itself was only saved by a bureaucratic technicality. Yet if you go to Paris today you’ll be immediately struck by how historical, how OLD the city feels. Nor is that due to the historical landmarks, like Versailles, or the Parc du Luxembourg; there’s an obvious air of historicity about the city, as though its inhabitants have spent generations making sure it felt that way, which isn’t far from the truth. Rebuilding the city after the Commune so many years ago, the government and residents didn’t see it as an excuse to experiment with the new, but as a duty to venerate the old. Anything that threatens to alter the proud historical character of Paris is either hotly debated or, if carried through, quite often detested. People still alternately writhe or purr over the Centre Georges Pompidou, for example.


Then there’s China. Chinese people have a stormy relationship with their history. While they are intensely proud of the intellectual and creative legacy of the Tang and Song dynasties (rightfully so), they are intensely embarrassed by the past two hundred years or so. The former birthed stunning art and innovation, and the poetic works of people like Li Bai and Du Fu, while the latter birthed the Opium Wars, the Japanese Occupation, and almost a century of deprivation and oppression. During the nine years I’ve been in China, I’ve found very few things that are true for a vast majority of Chinese people, but one of those things is an almost desperate need to prove to the outside world that China belongs in the pantheon of great modern nations. As such, although there are TV shows and movies about ancient culture, nobody really celebrates it. Saying you enjoy the TV adaptation of the classic novel Dream of Red Mansions is not at all the same thing as saying you appreciate that part of your own history. Nowhere is this more evident than the massive renovation projects currently underway at countless historical sites around China. Now when I, or for that matter most westerners, go to a place like the Temple of Heaven or the Great Wall, we want to get a sense of age. We want to see cracks in the wall, whole sections of some of the buildings crumbled into heaps, paint faded and dusty, because for us that carries an air of authenticity. It’s as though, by walking over an unrestored section of the Great Wall, with weeds poking through the untended stone steps, we’re actually standing in a distant century. This is not the way many other people in China see it. For them, the Temple of Heaven is far more beautiful if the paint is vibrant and new, the walls sturdy, and the buildings like they were in the beginning. A crumbled building doesn’t indicate venerability and age; it indicates workmanship that couldn’t last through the centuries. An unrestored section of the Great Wall isn’t a passport to a distant century; it’s a reminder that China’s history is full of things that broke and didn’t work, and if you want to be seen as a modern power, a host of broken-down ruins is something to fix, not something to display. Put another way, people want to visit the past, but in the fullness of its glory, not its venerated old age.

And here’s the thing: crumbling relics are all fine and good for people whose history has been a more-or-less steady ascent from (pardon the simplification here) undeveloped to developed, from ancient to modern. You can stick your chest out proudly about the cathedral at Notre Dame when you’ve also been at the forefront of intellectual innovation for most of the modern era, but an interesting aspect of historical pride is that it’s often closely connected to present contentment. Mainland China has really only had a period of steady ascent for something like 35 years (I would argue that the events in the late ’80’s count as a pretty major hiccup, but I’m simplifying for the sake of argument). Before that? Check out this roll call, going in reverse order from 1976: The Cultural Revolution, the catastrophic famines of the 1950’s, a civil war, World War II, well over a decade of active occupation by the Japanese, political corruption and upheaval during the period following the collapse of Sun Yat-Sen’s dream republic, more upheaval under Yuan Shikai, a few years of relative stability under Sun Yat-Sen’s leadership or tutelage, another war, the Boxer Rebellion, the forced establishment by foreign powers of treaty ports and concessions on Chinese soil, and pretty much the same kind of thing all the way back through the Opium Wars. People, that’s about 150 years of chaos, violence, oppression, invasion, and starvation. How would you approach that? A better question is: if that’s what your country had on its recent history docket, would you be more interested in “preserving” history or in kicking open the doors and letting in as much fresh air as possible? If you’d care to put it crudely: when your country has been keeping pace with modernization for centuries, a Starbucks is reason to gasp in shock and dismay, but if you’ve been ground under the bootheels of foreign powers and your own government for centuries, a Starbucks is a pretty exciting thing.

This is important to bear in mind as we move into a period of history when, frankly, no one can possibly predict which nation will emerge as the new power, or even if a single nation will so emerge. We have the U.S., which I would say is constantly looking forward while trying to figure out what it means to have the history we do; we have France (and along with it the EU), which looks forward tentatively, not convinced that the future is an improvement on the past; and we have China, which is almost desperate to keep its eyes fixed forward, so much so that it modernizes its history. As Americans, we would do well to remember a lot of this when approaching these nations. Just because it’s new doesn’t mean it’s inherently good, and just because it’s old doesn’t mean it’s inherently honorable.

 

 

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Why Strauss?

Lots of things still perplex me about China. That much probably stands to reason. Currently, because I’m at the university all day, I’m occupied once again with the question of music, specifically why it is Chinese society doesn’t seem to mind playing one song so many times that it begins to qualify as torture. At this university, for example, every time there is an official break in class (after 45 minutes) or it’s time to change classes, loudspeakers in the hall and on the campus play the first thirty seconds of Strauss’ “The Blue Danube Waltz.” I don’t have any grudge against Strauss or that song, but any song, if played partially and ad nauseum, can become a thing of nightmares.

And actually, I’m fairly lucky. It could be much, much worse. It could be Kenny G, the Carpenters, Celine Dion, or The Eagles. If I had to listen to “Yesterday Once More” every 45 minutes, I’d give myself a month before I went insane and bludgeoned a student to death with a pair of language-lab headphones.

But here’s my question: why does it have to be the same song every time? Why could they not play the first thirty seconds of a series of fifteen songs in rotation? I’d enjoy coming to school and hearing something different every day, like, say, one of Chopin’s Nocturnes or a Brahms cello sonata, and I can’t imagine it would take that much more effort to program it. I realize that’s a stupid question, of course. Every public place in China plays something awful, and frequently it’s the same something awful as another place. I’ll probably go to my grave never knowing why people like The Carpenters, for example, and I imagine there will be a visual picture of a Higgs-Boson particle before I receive an acceptable explanation for the ubiquity of “Hotel California” or “Country Roads.” I’m not even sure there is a reason, and if there is, it won’t matter because no one will ever do anything about it. There are bigger things at stake than one waiguoren’s displeasure at the music in the Tianjin West train station.

Another question, too, one I haven’t succeeded in answering: do people in China truly not hear background noise, like the same annoying song played fifty times a day, or do they simply not respond? I’m perfectly willing to accept the fact that I’m overly-sensitive when it comes to music, and therefore can’t tune out something hideous mewling from the speakers over my head at a coffee shop, but is everyone else in China truly oblivious? Do they legitimately love The Carpenters? Is it something else entirely?

Forget research into the origins of the universe. Someone needs to figure this out.

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Questions

One of the truly annoying things about everyday Chinese people when there’s a huge political flap on (like the one right now over the islands) is that they always, always, always drag America into it. Now it doesn’t usually bother me when someone criticizes America. It happens in lots of places, and at lots of times, so you can’t let it get to you. The annoying thing in China is that people will bring it up a propos of nothing at all. Let me give you an example.

Yesterday I took the bus to the post office so I could pick up a package from my sister. I got it with no trouble, then went to the bus stop to go back. I had no sooner walked up than a middle-aged Chinese man who was probably a construction worker or some other laborer (he had dark, tough skin, which is always an indication of someone who doesn’t have a lot of money) said, “Where are you from?” I told him, and he immediately said, “America and Japan are always doing terrible things to people!”

See what I mean? It isn’t that the sentiment itself is inherently annoying, but rather the timing. Who in the world introduces themselves and immediately says, “Your country sucks”? It wasn’t even a question. He didn’t ask, “Why do America and Japan do terrible things to other countries?” There was no request for information; there was merely the expression of an accepted fact. It was as though he had said, “America is a country bordered by the Atlantic and Pacific oceans!”

I immediately answered him, “Do you think my government represents what I think?”

“Oh, no.” (Which begs the question why he would even say what he said in the first place.)

“Good. Don’t assume I agree with my government.”

Preachy, yes, and it didn’t really have much to do with what he said, but one gets tired of that thing after a while.  It’s hard, too, because you can’t really get angry at people like the man at the bus stop for their opinions. The ideas are being drilled into them by a very active and insistent state-controlled media. Take any newspaper off the rack these days and you’ll see multiple stories about Japan’s perfidy, and several going after America, too. More insidious, though, is the way these days Japan and America are inherently linked in the media. Many headlines merely say Mei Ri (the characters for America and Japan, but put together) when referring to political powers intruding into China’s affairs, which in its tone makes it seem as though the two countries are intrinsically linked in their policies, goals, and even character. I find this helps me to be more patient. If everyone you meet is being fed the same line of propaganda, getting angry at them for their opinions is a little like getting angry at a computer for executing a command someone else gave it, especially here, where it’s very hard indeed to get a hold of media that doesn’t toe the party line.

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Back in the saddle again

It’s been a while since I was a full-time English teacher. Sometime back in 2009, if memory serves. So it’s back in the saddle again for me, at least for this year. I thought some observations about that might be in order.

First, it’s both wonderful and sad that Chinese students of all ages take such joy in simple interactive activities. For my first class, I always like to do an introduction exercise called “Find Somebody Who. . .”, which includes a series of statements for which the students have to find a classmate who fits. For example: “Find somebody who has traveled outside of China.” They have to move around the room and ask questions of each other. Every time I do the activity, the students enjoy it so much that it’s evident from my spot at the front. There are smiles, laughter, noise, and in short, a party atmosphere reigns. The thing is, it’s about the simplest activity you could devise. If I did the same thing in an American classroom, I’m willing to bet most of the students would find it stupid and not want to do it. I say this is both wonderful and sad in China because on the one hand it’s immensely rewarding to know that people are able to so enjoy something simple, and on the other hand, it’s sad that their educational experience prior to this class has been so devoid of anything truly stimulating or interactive. The vast majority of my students’ classes (they’re freshmen, so this is their first university experience) have been teacher-focused lecture courses where the only major activity is the exam at the end, with absolutely no interaction included.

Second, the old jokes still work. Here’s a tip for all you new English teachers out there: include the names of some local Chinese food in your class and you are GUARANTEED to get a laugh. Every time I mention da bing ji dan, which is a local street food consisting of a fried egg and special sauce in rolled-up flatbread, the class cracks up. Being an English teacher in China is a lot like being a stand-up comedian. After you’ve been doing it for a few years, you can predict what’s going to make people laugh, and if you want to, you can figure out a lecture or a short class that will consist entirely of side-splitting humor. Not even clever or witty humor, either. Make a few faces and funny noises, reference local food, tell them how much you suck at ping-pong, and they’ll think you’re a comic genius.

Third, the students are getting younger. I know, I know: I’m getting older, so maybe I’m the problem. But I swear to you, I have freshmen students now who look like they’re twelve years old. They’re so quiet and vulnerable; it’s like a class full of baby deer. Imagine you were teaching Bambi or the puppy from The Fox and the Hound and you’ll have some idea of what I’m talking about.

Fourth, man do they hate Japan. I’ve only had a handful of classes so far, and I’ve already had two students stand up and express their intense hatred of Japan, even though what they said had NOTHING to do with what we were talking about. In one class, I was doing a creative activity where I put the students into small groups and had them pretend they were a superhero team. They had to decide what their power was, who their enemy was, and what their goal was. I called on one student and said, “So what is your special power?” His answer: “F*&k Japan!” I answered, “Is that your superpower?” Which, sadly, he didn’t understand. I would have loved it if he’d said, “Yes!” because I’m pretty sure we could successfully market a line of “F*%k Japan Man” superhero tee-shirts. The other statement I heard, in a different class, was similar. I had asked the students, after reading in our textbooks about the importance of protecting your possessions when in a crowd (it’s a unit on law and order), if they’d ever had anything stolen. A cell phone perhaps, or a wallet? A student raised his hand and said, “Japan is trying to steal our islands from us!” Which, like the other, has nothing to do with anything, but whatever. Is it surprising? No, but it’s still disturbing.

Fifth, there are still surprises. In one of my classes I asked the students who wanted to study abroad someday. Several raised their hands. (Though I should point out that in China, that’s not an indication of how many people WANT to study abroad. If something is considered impossible or close to impossible, it’s common for someone simply to not “want” to do it, by which I mean they figure it’s not even worth thinking about.) I asked these students where they wanted to study. One said, “Japan.” This was, of course, followed by gasps, loud muttering, and general consternation. I politely reminded them that China has a very long tradition of sending scholars to Japan. Lu Xun studied there, after all. If you ever want to inject some perspective into an angry conversation about Japan, just bring up Lu Xun. Lu Xun is one of the only figures in Chinese history EVERYONE agrees is a hero, and the fact that his time in Japan was one of the great turning points in his life can be hard to grapple with if you’re convinced the Japanese are all evil.

More observations as they arise.

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Voices from on High

When it comes to symbolic representations, one could do worse than the loudspeaker announcements at a Chinese train station. I’m currently sitting in the Tianjin West station, a gargantuan place which, when lit up with its distinctive blue color scheme at night, looks like the interior of an alien spacecraft. It’s got all the trappings, too, including half a dozen international franchises which are all closed today. That’s probably because it’s a national holiday, but as it means I’m reduced to getting MacDonald’s again, I’m still going to go ahead and resent the fact in my standard pampered western way. I’m also rebelling against the ubiquity of Kenny G’s mewling soprano sax in Chinese public places by sticking in my earphones and listening to one of the year’s loudest and oddest releases: Swans’ new album The Seer. (For Swans, this is actually a highly listenable bit, though it includes two pieces that are over 20 minutes long. If you think I’m off my nut, you might take a quick listen to their first album, Filth, produced in 1981-ish. If you put it on the radio now, it would still sound much angrier and and much weirder than anything else.)

But that’s neither here nor there. What is, however, is the fact that like all Chinese train stations there are innumerable announcements sounding over the station loudspeakers. Most declare when and where a particular train is leaving, like most stations, but others advise travelers on station regulations. A recent one, for example, just said, “In this station, there are many travelers who are coming and going, so do not lie or sit on the floor because it will obstruct traffic.” And it will, of course. The trick is, people sometimes do it anyway. The Beijing South station also has announcements about ever five minutes telling people not to smoke, but again, everyone does, including the security personnel. Why? The simplest explanation would be to point simply to the mechanism of the announcements. They’re mysterious, echoing things that sound from some unknown source high above. For all we know, they could be coming from the walls themselves. The point is, they’re distant and detached. They’re not even being issued by live personnel; they’re pre-recorded messages signaled by a digital arpeggio. By the time they filter down to the ground, they’re completely without any human analogue. They’re just words. And quite often people treat them as such. Not always, of course; there are plenty of people who refrain from smoking or sitting and lying on the ground, but most of those are closer, both psychically and actually, to the power structure. They’re students or urban professionals, people who have grown accustomed to massive new train stations and automobiles. But then you have, well, about 90% of the rest of the country, the farmers and construction workers and beggars for whom the growing number of space-age train stations and suburban villas are  just another manifestation of distance. Here’s where you have the crux of the problem with modern Chinese society. It isn’t simply that there are rich and poor, or even that there are very rich and very poor, with little in between; it’s that there’s a mutual sense of alienness and unreality from one to another. To the poor, the rich are the ethereal voices on the loudspeakers, which are to be followed only under compulsion; to the rich, the poor are the people you have to keep off your nice, new floor so that the country can flow more efficiently.

And this distance is enforced everywhere. The vast majority of people in China used to live in the countryside, which means the geographical distance between those in power and those who aren’t, between those digging in the earth with rudimentary tools and those riding in chauffeur-driven Audis, would appear to be lessening. But as people flow into the cities in greater and greater numbers, the rich have begun flowing out of it. The idea of a suburb in China used to seem incongruous, like a riverboat port in a desert. But over the past few weeks I’ve had multiple opportunities these past few weeks to take a drive out farther than I usually go in Tianjin, and the differences are stark. The apartment buildings start going from thirty and forty stories to ten or twelve, and in quite a few places the apartment buildings give way to independent villas and gated communities. Nor is this an isolated incident. If you’ve got lots of money in China, in all likelihood you’re looking for a way to get it out of the country into banks in the U.S., Canada, Europe, or even offshore accounts in the Caymans. You’re also trying to get your kid into boarding school in the West as soon as possible. This is the case for some friends of mine who just had a daughter. They’re already talking about sending her to boarding school when she’s old enough, largely because they don’t want her to have the education they did.

Now this is totally understandable. If you have a great job, with plenty of money to ensure your daughter goes to the absolute best possible school, why would you send her to a school you knew would waste her talents? The tricky thing about China is that the class separation is so stark that the poorer classes by and large have a hard time even understanding that there’s something to be jealous of. It would be like me getting jealous of someone who kept a permanent city in orbit around Mars. I don’t understand that concept any more than a very poor farmer in Ningxia province understands why a boarding school in America would be a good idea. But ignorance isn’t always bliss, especially because when you’re poor enough, you don’t need to understand Das Kapital to get angry. You might think people on this level are cowed by those in authority, but that isn’t exactly true. For them, the government really is an ethereal voice. It’s entirely conceptual. What isn’t conceptual is whatever local cadre is in charge of their business. This means, too, that if things get bad enough, negotiation is out of the question. What is there to negotiate? As you’ve never been introduced to the finer points of civic responsibility or allowed to participate in some way (voting, for example, which, although oftentimes just a symbolic exercise, is still at least an exercise) in the process of governance, for you the problem is black-and-white: we are being pushed around for no reason by these people in front of us, and if we don’t want to get pushed around any more, we have to get rid of them. This would be why most of the emperors who’ve been overthrown in Chinese history have been overthrown popularly. The mystique and subtlety of power gets a whole lot less mystical and subtle when you don’t have any food, or when your village’s land or water rights have been sold off to some huge real-estate developer.

Which makes the train station example all the more vivid. Is there any actual Law in the train station? In one sense, yes. People still buy tickets, and adhere to some sense of order. But you still have plenty of people, even after so many years, who don’t line up and just walk right to the front, elbowing people out of the way. Most people don’t resort to sleeping on the floor, but plenty still do, just as people still regularly smoke. For them, and in fact for much of the society, there’s no Law (I’m using the capital letter on purpose), but rather authority, which incidentally is not the mysterious voice from the loudspeaker. That might as well not exist. Authority is what you can see and hear right in front of you. Authority is the train station security personnel, or the police if they’re necessary. Authority is entirely physical, and entirely based on will, theirs vs. yours. For the most part, the security personnel are clearly the stronger entity, and so people do what they’re told, but believe me when I say that the vast majority of Chinese people don’t do what they’re told because the police represent the government. They do what they’re told because the police are stronger and can have an actual, quantifiable impact on their lives. And insofar as the police also carry out government policy (which isn’t as clear-cut as it sounds), they represent the government, but my point is: that’s not why people obey them (when they do).

What this boils down to is a reminder of sorts. Western people read the news about China, which centers almost entirely on what is done at the national level, and worry about that. We should be concerned about what the national government does, of course, but we shouldn’t kid ourselves into thinking they’re the ones running the country. They’re the voice on the loudspeaker, but the people who actually decide the fate of the country are the ones who have to keep people from sleeping on the floor.

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Inflatable Recreation: A Government Policy

Let’s do this: I’ll tell you what I saw outside my bedroom window this morning, and you tell me what facility you think my apartment overlooks. Ready? Here goes: a large blue plastic tarp (probably fifty feet long and twenty wide) divided up into three lanes by some kind of colored tape; three rows of large metal rings (ten in each row) anchored to the tarp within the lanes; two huge inflatable pencils; a giant inflatable globe; an equally giant yellow balloon-ball. Your guess would be. . .the city’s civil administration bureau? Exactly! Well done.

Or perhaps that wouldn’t have been your guess. Perhaps you, like me, would have guessed anything from “primary school playground” to “set of a new Nickelodeon game show”. We’d both have been wrong. As it turns out, the whole setup was in place for a special company field day. It said so on a large banner draped just beneath the first-floor overhang. No, “yun dong hui” can’t be translated directly to “field day,” but neither am I willing to grant it legitimate status as an “exercise” or “sports” (both better translations of “yun dong”) event. When I hear those English terms, I think of actual sports or forms of exercise: basketball, football, yoga, swimming, whatever. I don’t think of relay races where local government employees run stooped through rows of metal hoops, or race back and forth trying to carry two large rubber balls simultaneously, or work in teams of four to tip up and over a pair of giant, and apparently somewhat heavy, inflatable rubber pencils on their ends, all to the raucous sounds of their colleagues cheering them on. Maybe you do, but I don’t. And before I move on, this also demonstrates why Chinese is so hard to translate, because the same term for today’s company jamboree (that’s actually better, come to think of it) was used for the recent nationwide University Games held in Tianjin, which actually did feature thinks like football (European, not American), basketball, track-and-field, and badminton. So how would you translate that?

Now let’s imagine for a second that right outside the window of your apartment (if you live in a house, just pretend for the moment that you actually live in an apartment) was your city’s civil administration bureau. If you looked out at 9:30 in the morning and saw them having a relay race with inflatable pencils, what would you think? “My, it certainly is gratifying to see that the managers of my city’s civil affairs are able to relax and let their hair down.” Possible, but not likely. Far more likely would be if you said: “What in the name of all that is holy are they doing with my tax dollars over there?” But things are different here. And not just because the Chinese are clearly worlds ahead of the United States in the quality of their inflatable recreation products.

In China, the professional environment is highly unrewarding. Even brutal at times. Overtime is a foreign concept, authority figures treat their subordinates either as petulant children who have to be constantly criticized or hounded or else as low-level apprentices whos primary responsibility is to carry out the commands of those above them, and innovation is squelched in the name of maintaining a rigid structure which keeps power concentrated at the top in the name of “harmony.” Because Chinese culture has been, for upwards of two thousand years, run in an entirely top-down fashion, with those at the time commanding unswerving loyalty from those beneath them, there’s a general idea that as an employee, or even a student, your job is to do exactly what your boss (or professor) says, and in most cases also make him or her look good. One of the reasons China is horribly lacking in any kind of innovation or progressive change is that those at the top expect their subordinates to obey them completely and not alter the course of the department, even if that alteration is a good idea.

How does this relate to inflatable pencils? In the same way a big company dinner with rivers of booze does. It’s the one time when everyone’s allowed to let down their hair and go crazy for a bit. There will never be performance-related job bonuses, or the chance to innovate within departments, but there will always be chances to laugh at your boss as he or she tries to balance two giant rubber balls while running fifty feet in work clothes. Does it work? Do people feel more relaxed and rewarded afterward? If my Chinese friends are any indication, then no. Oh, everyone finds the sight of the branch manager drunkenly singing a patriotic war hymn hilarious, and for the moment that’s nice, but ultimately it’s a distraction, the same “bread and circuses” with which the Roman emperors used to momentarily pacify their unhappy subjects. See your boss drinking and singing, and you’re likely to shake your head and think, if only for a moment, “Ha! I guess Manager Yang isn’t any different from us, really.” Until the next day, of course.

Now here’s the thing I find profound, and it might not seem profound right away. The people attending the field day outside my apartment weren’t going through the motions in their respective events. They were seriously into them. The four-man teams doing the inflatable pencil event were practicing a good hour or so off to the side before their turns came. Those who were supposed to roll a small metal ring across the ground with the help of a stick were practicing even longer than that. You see the same attitude among students playing some kind of ridiculous duck-duck-goose sort of game with their classmates on nice spring evenings. Within Chinese sociey there are few outlets for frustration, anger, or even competitive intensity. When an officially-sanctioned opportunity does arise, people throw themselves into it. If you think I’m overstating the level of catharsis that emerges in recreation in China, just watch a few guys playing cards on the side of the road. Cards aren’t placed on the table; they’re slammed down with enough force to buckle a standard card-table. It might not be consciously-channeled catharsis, but I’d bet a lot of money it’s still cathartic.

So what happens when people get so angry about something that company jamborees, KTV excursions, hard drinking, and card-slamming just don’t cut it any more? Keeping just on the other side of that line, you can bet, forms the vast majority of the Central Government’s domestic policy agenda.

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By Comparison, Tianjin is. . .Well, Hard to Describe

Some of you may be wondering: what has made you approach Tianjin with such a “meh” perspective? By way of explaining this, and also adding some pictures to my blog, which is currently photographically barren, I would like to submit the following:

This is a view of the village of Saints, where Marie’s parents live, an hour and a half from Paris. It’s so picturesque and beautiful that it seems almost unreal. This photograph doesn’t do it justice.

This is a little public park in Coulommiers, and I should point out that it isn’t a national landmark or anything. This is just a standard public park in France. In Tianjin it would be the absolute hub of the tourist industry.

And this is the cathedral across the street from Marie’s parents’ place. Across the street, people. But then that’s France: what would be a tourist attraction in another country is just a part of the neighborhood. I’ll try to post more pictures in the coming days and weeks, now that I finally understand how to do that (I know, I know). This is just an opening salvo, and I think you’ll understand why, with these kinds of visions dancing through my head, Tianjin isn’t exactly a dream destination.

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A Gallery of Absolutes

Contrary to the prevailing opinion of modern, post-modern, and whatever is post-that academics, there are absolutes. I know that term is becoming difficult to deal with, especially if you’ve spent any time considering the ramifications of the Higgs-Boson particle (“It exists! Er. . .well, it KIND of exists. That is, it’s in and out of existence so fast we can’t actually show it to you, or even show you a blip on a graph where it was, but math promises it exists.”) you know that something like corporeal existence itself is not exactly a given. And for those of you suffering from the intellectual torpor that can result from a “Definitely! But then again. . .” discussion, take heart! I have examples of absolutes you can hold close to your chest in the cold, hard, intellectual winter. I’ll dole them out a few at a time.

Absolute #1: Techno played at apocalyptically loud volume will not please the members of a retirement home.

See what I mean? Can you refute this? You could take any senior citizens on the planet, from any culture or period in history, even the previous heads of the record companies which once popularized techno, place them in front of a block of speakers, crank the volume, and none of them would start pogo-ing about the room. Not a one. (As a tangential point, I’ve always found it hard to believe that anyone, of any age group, could possibly enjoy techno at any volume, but we won’t get into that here.) This is absolute. And yet for whatever reason, this morning while waking up, I heard quite clearly, through two panes of glass, exactly that. I looked out my window and noticed that the doors to the big retirement home (or rather “retirement facility,” since it’s really too cold and uncomfortable-looking to count as a “home”) next door were flanked by rows of huge potted plants and two HUGE speakers. A red carpet was rolled down the steps and out about ten meters as well. Clear signs that some kind of important visitor was coming.

But really. . .who cares? Can you conceive of any visitor so massively important that the only way to properly celebrate is with throbbing club music at 8:00 in the morning, especially when said music is GUARANTEED to properly infuriate everyone in the facility said visitor is going to be visiting? Sadly, people in China have simply become accustomed to things happening without their say-so or approval, especially the elderly. As I scanned the facility courtyard, I noticed a very old woman sitting on a bench, hunched over her cane and watching the workers set up for Emperor Qin Shihuang’s visit from beyond the grave, or whatever could have necessitated such ghastly preparations, with an expression so weary and removed from daily life that it bordered on the transcendental. No other people were out and about. Smart, too. I know I didn’t want to go outside.

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Dueling Police Stories, Part Two: “When China Should Hate You, But Doesn’t”

Then there’s me. I had the same situation–I needed to get my residence permit–only I knew about it further in advance. Oh, there was still some hating going on, what with my university forgetting my visa paperwork entirely, prompting a series of frantic phone calls from me ten days before I was due to return to China, but I knew what I needed to do nice and early. Still, though, there are times when China’s hatred of someone else can bounce off onto you, like water from a fire hose. So I went into this process fully prepared to get screwed.

Not only that, but my caché with whatever cultural collateral gods exist in China was very, very low after two full weeks of curmugeonly, Ebenezer Scrooge grumbling about the city behind its back. I hadn’t been ripping it to pieces, the way I did when I came back from Taiwan last year, but it was still enough that I realized I should probably expect some lousy treatment. I started the morning by being unable to find my passport for several hours. If that’s never happened to you, let me just say that there are few fears greater than that in China. It will widen your eyes and loosen your sphincter for the duration. Without your passport, in China you’re nobody. You’re practically a criminal. Replacing it is a guided tour of the sixth ring of hell, which if Danté had had any sense at all would have been a single, massive government office. By comparison, replacing a lost driver’s license is about as complicated as a trip to Office Max. So I was pretty much losing my mind for a while. Then I found it. Under a book on the floor. (A Chinese dictionary, as it happens; is that irony, or just garden variety stupidity?) The only thing worse than realizing that the cultural collateral gods are trying to destroy you is realizing that your own stupidity is already doing the job quite well.

And maybe that’s what tipped the scales. Maybe China realized that my morning spent thinking I had become the bureaucratic equivalent of a caste-system untouchable was enough penance for one day. I like to think so, anyway. It would suggest there’s a kind of elegant logic to what at first glance appears to be insanity. Anyway, I took my passport, packed my bag full of study material, mentally prepared myself to be at the local police station the rest of the afternoon and still have to return the next day in a series of mounting legal lunacy like the kind Daniel had to endure, then arrived and saw. . .that the four people in the office were happily slicing up a watermelon on the reception desk.

You might have seen this as a bad sign, but I didn’t. Watermelon is a universal sign of good times in China. Other foods could go either way. Someone eating street food out of a cheap styrofoam container might be happy or angry. Ditto with a big cup of tea. But watermelon? That’s the kind of thing you bring to dinner parties here. All the employees in the little office were practically giddy. They got the thing sliced open, then promptly offered me a slice. I politely refused, mostly because I figured I was going to have to handle several documents, and didn’t want to do so with sticky hands. (Note: always accept a piece of watermelon if you can. I didn’t, but I forgot that when you’re eating with someone here, you’re no longer an annoying foreigner with a passport; you’re a fellow watermelon-eater. It’s not exactly the same kind of intense camaraderie as the Light Brigade or the Fellowship of the Ring, but it’ll earn you points with the people in the police station, and that’s never a bad thing.) When one lady had finished a slice of watermelon (another rule: never rush a Chinese person eating watermelon), she took my passport and sat down at a computer. It took us a few minutes to figure out I was already in the system, and then she asked me for my old passport number, which I had forgotten. She searched for it by my birthdate, and the first file that came up was a Korean girl. “Ah yes, that’s me,” I confidently asserted. “I used to be Korean. I changed my hair and my face.” The lady cracked up laughing, as did one of her co-workers. We joked about that for a while, and then she moved on with the process. (Yet another rule: if you can make someone laugh, you’re golden.) After five minutes she told me it would be 2 RMB. Quite embarrassed, I realized I hadn’t brought more than 1.5. Again, more stupidity. She just waved her hand. “Don’t worry about it.” Then she handed me my permit.

So, to recap. Daniel’s experience with the police = criticism, incompetence, laziness, a criminal record, and a forfeited hotel room. My experience with the police = watermelon, laughter, a free residence permit, and complete efficiency. Daniel has worked hard to prepare a series of cultural events for two universities from two different countries, in order to increase cultural exchange and understanding. I spent all summer in America and France gaining weight from, respectively, Mexican food and high-quality wine and cheese, then grumbled about China for two weeks. Which of those people would you reward with a good day at the police station, if you were a country?

Not that I’m complaining, mind you.

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