Something there is that doesn’t love a mummy

I have been thwarted nearly every time I have tried to see dead bodies this summer. I saw one, towards the beginning, at the Changsha Provincial Museum in China, a mummy of some ancient queen. She was lying there as hundreds of tourists were pushing each other – seriously pushing, elbowing too – to get a glimpse of her. Normally Chinese people give me more personal space than they give each other. I call it the sphere of fear (my personal space). But everyone was looking at the mummy, so they didn’t notice I wasn’t Chinese, and I was bumped around like the rest. Eventually I wormed my way in and looked into the gaping maw of this poor ancient dead woman. It’s morbid, by definition, but absolutely fascinating. I was not looking at a vase or a plate or a piece of jewelry but a person who had used all these things, had thought, lived and breathed a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. We each define art and history in our own way. Call me twisted – I’ll call you crazy for thinking Mark Rothko is worth a second glance (looking at you, Hilary).

When we got to Beijing, then, it was only obvious that we should go and see Mao, who lies mummified in a tomb in Tiananmen Square. Well, it was only obvious to me. Gretchen and Jeanne had no interest in the pilgrimage and made me feel kind of creepy about wanting to. You’d think I’d have grown out of feeling subject to peer pressure. Nope.

Then we got to Moscow. Lenin’s body lies in Red Square, in a completely anachronistic Soviet block (har har) among the fanciful old imperial buildings. You used to have to wait for hours to be able to see him, but the queues have died down in recent years and it only takes about 45 minutes. Again, the rest of my party wasn’t interested, but I talked about it with an American ex-soldier who I met in my hostel. Somehow our wires crossed and he went without me; I figured I’d go the next day but apparently Mr Lenin does not accept visitors on Mondays.

Here in Kiev there’s an impressive collection of mummies of monks underneath the Kievo-Pecherskya Lavra Monastery. It sounds like dead body Mecca: an underground crypt, still lit by candles, with the remains of these venerated holy men an arm’s reach from the corridor (not that I’d want to touch them, I’m not thatcreepy). I visited the monastery with Olivier, part of the cultural attache of the French embassy, who was giving a tour to a visiting French artist named Guillaume Reynard and his friend Florence.
I’d forgotten how bitchy French women can be. I’m not talking about my host, Laure, who is a total angel: how else could you describe someone who agreed to host me in her apartment for free after one email exchange over Florence is cast of a different mold. We spoke in French, which I learned in high school and improved when I lived in France from 2004-2005. Not far into our visit, she turned to Olivier and said ‘She speaks French like a retarded Parisian’ – then turned and gave me a saccharine smile. ‘Her French, it’s not bad,’ chided Olivier, ‘and she can understand everything so far as I can tell.’ Florence didn’t offer an apology.

Just before the gates to the monastery, Florence declared that she was crevée (exhausted) and so we paused for a café before going in. We toured the grounds of the upper monastery, which was stunning in the decaying afternoon light. Much of the cathedral had been reduced to rubble by either the Nazis or the Soviets, noone’s really sure. It’s been rebuilt in fine form, with only one pocked golden dome (furthest left, above) showing the legacy of the tough twentieth century. It was all well and good, I thought, but where were the mummies?

‘Oh, I’m afraid we don’t have time because we stopped for café,’ said Olivier. ‘It closes in fifteen minutes.’

Some sort of divine providence witnessed my pain at missing yet another opportunity to see dead bodies, and so gave me a second chance. My trip to Kazakhstan did not pan out as planned (more on that soon) so I have another three days to revisit the Lavra and improve my unimpressive body count.

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The Middle Ages are alive and well

You meet the most interesting people traveling. This, for example, is Benedict.

His name is actually Tobias, but as that’s a very common name in his home country of Germany he prefers to go by Benedict. Benedict was born too late (1986) to be old enough to climb the Berlin wall before it fell, so he feels he has a ‘deficiency’ and must climb any and all available walls, preferably forbidden ones.

Benedict is a journey carpenter, part of a medieval guild of construction workers who upon completing their apprenticeship must travel for three years and one day. They are not allowed within 50 kilometers of their home and cannot pay for lodging: they’re supposed to camp if no one offers them a bed. They are meant to work for their lodging (and food, if offered), honing their skills under whatever master carpenters they find along the way. They wear a distinctive outfit, unchanged since who knows when, of bell-bottom black pants, black peaked hat, corduroy vest, and white shirtsleeves. Benedict’s pants unfortunately rotted in the Chinese heat and his shirt was on the way so he switched to a T-shirt. His traveling gear is not to exceed three bundles that can be strapped to a frame of sticks on his back, a journal for master carpenters to write reviews of his work, and a walking stick.

Most journey carpenters stay in Germany, where their outfits are recognized and hospitality is easy to come by. Because of the aforementioned obsession with walls, however, Benedict decided he had better come to the Great one. He spent five months hitchhiking, training, and working across Eurasia, and arrived in Beijing just in time to catch a minibus to the rather remote Jinshanling section of the wall. The merry minibusers included Gretchen, Jeanne, and myself; a Filipino diplomat currently stationed in Moscow on his way to North Korea; a Brazilian backpacker; a student from Minnesota; and a man and a woman from Barcelona who had never met but were fulfilling the same dream of hiking the wall.

We had plenty of time to bond over the 10km hike from Jinshanling to Simatai, and I learned many fascinating things:
Ulan Bator, the capital of Mongolia, is the capital city with the widest range of annual temperature change, from about -40 degrees Fahrenheit in winter to 100 in the summer.
The Japanese army infested Taiwan with poisonous snakes when it retreated in 1945. Talk about bitter.
The Russian government doesn’t read any of the policy briefings produced by the Filipino diplomatic service. Forgive me if I’m not surprised.
The nightlife in Sitges, the Provincetown of Catalonia, is supposedly the best in the world, even if you’re not gay.

UPDATE: Journey carpenters are known in Germany as Gesellen, or wayfarers. Apparently they’re undergoing a resurgence thanks to the recession.

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Oh, Modernity (take 2)!

It seems four weeks in southern China have gotten into my blood. Here in Beijing, I’m so excited every time I see a foreigner that I grab Gretchen’s arm and whisper ‘waigoren!‘ (foreigner!), just as the Chinese in waigoren-poor Dongguan used to do. We visit the hip 798 Art District and I hardly know what to order from the western-style restaurants. No lotus? No chicken’s feet? What is this thing called ‘fettucine’?

798 is one of the cleverer trousit traps designed by the Beijing Olympic Committee. It masquerades as an organic art community a la Brooklyn or East London: bleak warehouses repurposed as art galleries, a place for rich kids to produce Warholian Mao portrains and call themselves cutting edge. Unlike so many places in Beijing, there is money here, and lots of waigoren.

We stumbled upon a gallery opening down an alleyway. The first person I noticed was a barefoot Asian girl straddling a tree. A machine was blowing inky bubbles at her as an insect-skinny white man took her picture through a large window.

 I asked one of the artists if he could explain what he was trying to get at and he replied ‘I’m Canadian.’

 I ate some free hors d’oeuvres and made up my own theories – the artist had already taken care of all the free booze.

We end up splitting a cab to Sanlitun, Beijing’s club district, with Matt Hope, a British sculptor with a refreshing lack of pretension. I’m intrigued by anyone who can make a living as an artist, and I peppered him with questions: Why Beijing? (because he has his sculptures built in Chinese factories) Why Chinese factories? (because they’re cheap and willing to do limited-run, even one-off productions) What are the factoires like? (the fieriest stage of the Industrial Revolution: he describes a town outside of Dongguan known as Metal city, not to be confused with Leather city and Plastic city, where laborers turn metal in shells of buildings and the furnaces blast onto the street). I couldn’t help thinking it sounded like hell.

‘No,’ said Matt, ‘it’s just modernisation.’

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Dear, dirty Dongguan

(Originally published in The Greenwich Citizen)

There’s a silver lining to every cloud. My career as a foreign teacher in southern China’s Guangdong province ended early, which means I got to start traveling sooner. Part of the (very generous) compensation package for my job was a ten-day guided tour around Hunan province, Guangdong’s better-looking neighbor to the north. I’m not usually a fan of guided tours: they’re not flexible, they’re not immersive, and they’re not cheap. But it’s hard to say no to something that’s free.

It’s not long before someone on our tour comments that you get what you pay for. By the second day of our trip, we’ve spent eighteen hours on the bus. I think I am the only one in the group who doesn’t mind. I love watching the scenery change, and realizing all the things you miss about a country when you fly over it. Crossing the border from Guangdong into Hunan reminded me of why states have such jagged edges: they follow natural contours in the land, like humans had to before we started dynamiting through hills and stringing suspension bridges across rivers. The Guangdong-Hunan crossing takes us through a range of forest-clad mountains and deep gorges. It is somehow comforting to see that nature has created an area so intimidating that even Chinese industry can’t cultivate it.

Inside Hunan, there’s little to differentiate the highway from the New Jersey Turnpike aside from the roadside advertisements. There aren’t many of them, and those that exist tend to offer industrial goods: mobile phone parts, concrete mix, and in what I can only assume is a blissfully ignorant transliteration, ‘Strong Safe Screws.’ China’s highway system is used almost exclusively for industrial transport. The highway is smooth, fast, and underfunded by the government, which means that the tolls are high – prohibitively high for most Chinese, who rely on trains instead. This will likely change as the booming middle class starts to make enough money to construct that spoiled child of the developed society, the suburb. For the moment, however, we share the road with trucks, tour buses, and the occasional expensive car.

During a rare stretch of bottleneck on the highway, my bus is stuck next to a truck full of hogs. They are piled on top of each other, looking forlorn as prisoners on the way to the guillotine. Which I suppose is more or less appropriate.

The roadside rest stops are all identical. Each has a convenience store, a restaurant with no name, and a bathroom. In the first, the familiar signals for ‘vacant’ and ‘occupied’ were reversed: green meant someone was inside, red meant empty. It reminded me of the years of the Chinese Cultural Revolution (1956-76) when overzealous members of the Red Guard student movement declared that it didn’t make sense to stop at red lights, since red was the color of the future. From 1966-69, green meant stop and red meant go. The scale of the resultant traffic jams made the Greenwich-New York rush hour commute look like a jaunt on the Autobahn.

Leaving the highway is always an adventure. On the way to a remote village, we spend three hours lurching over potholes and around cows on an uneven dirt road. Hunan is just north of the Tropic of Capricorn, and I can imagine the green of the hills being overpowering in sunlight. But sunlight eludes us on all but one day of the tour. In a total of five weeks in China, I have seen a blue sky twice.

I leave the tour in Changsha, best known as the city where Mao converted to Communism. City really isn’t the right word. It’s more of a megatropolis: streets wider than Pennsylvania Avenue, buildings taller than New York’s skyscrapers, and everything under construction. The place already looks decrepit, even though most of these buildings can be no more than ten years old. The whole rhythm of life is accelerated here: buildings spring up in days, so it shouldn’t be surprising if they look ready to fall down in a couple of years.

Dilapidated architecture and squat toilets aside, I’m sad to leave China. It’s impossible to spend more than a month in a country and not fall in love with some parts of it. I’ve just made it to Mongolia, and I find myself missing the chili drenched squid I used to buy on the street and the irate looks my students would give me when I asked them to do grammar exercises. There is so much more to say about China, but, in the familiar words of Stephen Colbert, that’s all the time we have for tonight.

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Tall girls in a short country

Foreigners are still a rare, rare sighting in Hunan province. We are treated like safari animals: people point, take pictures, keep their distance or occasionally try to feed us. Bug-eyed stares are a given. The teachers have each come up with coping mechanisms: Mike take pictures of people taking pictures of us, Amanda waves and smiles for the camera, I make faces for them. We’ve developed a points system to keep things interesting:

  • 1 point for catching someone blatantly staring at us
  • 2 points for deliberate head turning or stopping to watch us pass
  • 3 points for pointing
  • 4 points for audible recognition, such as shouting ‘waigoren’ (foreigner) or loudly saying hello
  • 5 points for taking a photo (bonus if the person pretends to focus on something else, then snaps as soon as you enter the frame)
  • 6 points for being a guest star in a home video

And so on. We eventually eliminate the first three tiers as being too frequent to bear counting. Amanda, who is not only a waigoren but is black, is the runaway winner. She is the elusive lionness of our safari.

Being a giraffe of a waigoren – southern Chinese do not often see a woman approaching six feet – is helpful in some cases. People tend to give you more personal space. People snatch up their children before you step on them. (I’ve always had a problem with baby-trampling in the US, they’re just so far out of my normal sight line).

There is one place, however, where people don’t have time to notice if you are a waigoren. It is, apart from the Hong Kong border crossing, the most terrifying place in China for me: the train station.

My first experience at Beijing’s colossal domestic hub Peking West nearly scared me out of the country permanently. Fifty yards from the entrance, I was sucked into a slow-moving flood of people pressing towards the narrow gates of the entrance. As we neared the door, gentle shoves degenerated into kicking and clawing as people struggled to get their luggage onto the metal detector first. When I made it through – all in one piece, to my amazement – the mob abruptly dissipated, leaving me wondering if I had exaggerated its savagery. My friend Jenny, who emerged a minute later, was not so forgiving.

‘I don’t understand how eight millennia of a culture based on respect and self-sacrifice has produced this,’ she spat. ‘I’ve been holding onto my Chinese passport [she moved to the states in 1997] out of some sort of misplaced nostalgia. Forget that. I’m applying for US citizenship as soon as I get back to the states.’

Thankfully the Changsha station was not as ‘renounce-my-citizenship’ violent as Peking West. It probably helped that I was traveling with two other waigoren. Gretchen, descended from the blonde midwestern Amazon gene pool, was good for clearing paths through the horde, and Jeanne, nearly a foot shorter than both of us, burrowed skillfully. We made it onto the train with minimal emotional scarring.

The twenty-one hour train ride passed quickly thanks to a quartet of classical-guitar playing adolescents. Like a Sinic version of the Carter family, they turned the carriage into their tour bus, jamming and practicing well into the evening, pausing long enough to teach me the A and E chords. I’m saving C, D, and G for my upcoming train journeys: one and a half days from Beijing to Ulan Bator, the capital of Mongolia; twenty four hours to Irkutsk, the ‘Paris of Siberia’; and three and a half days to Moscow.
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Little Red Book Town

We’ve made it to Changsha, the capital of Hunan province. ‘Changsha is where Mao Zedong was born conversion to Communism’ says a sign at the local museum. The religious terminology is fitting: Mao’s brand of Communism is a religion, both the sense of blind irrational devotion and being an opiate of the masses. Would Lenin be disappointed?

We visit Shaoshan, Mao’s birthplace, at the end of a long day of driving. We’re late and the site is closed, but once again guanxi work their magic and a pair of dour-looking army men let us in. We’re not allowed to take photos, so I have to paraphrase some of the signage from memory. ‘Here is the fireplace where Mao would gather his family and enlighten them to the struggle of the Chinese workers.’ I picture a rustic Mao, before his middle-aged paunch, lecturing his little brother as he blithely picks his nose. ‘Here is where the Mao family keeps pigs.’ It’s a big pen inside the handsome house. The Mao family was clearly not poor.

The day is spitting rain. Tourists who do not share our guanxi huddle in little groups, staring. The army men stand at attention like the guards in front of Buckingham palace, who stoically allow tourists to give them bunny ears and snap their picture. No one tries to do the same with the Chinese army guards.

Nearby, a monumental statue of Mao is attended by a group of middle-aged Chinese tourists. There is a small red mat in front and people are taking turns prostrating, touching their foreheads to the damp concrete. It’s fascinating to me that Mao has managed to escape all culpability for the disasters of the Cultural Revolution, at least in the popular imagination. His wife and three other Communist party leaders, known as the Gang of Four, were put on trial, and found guilty of more or less everything that went wrong in China between 1956 and 1978. A quartet of villains for a quarter century of ills. If only all history were so easy to reduce.

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A Nation Run by Immortals

‘I think I’m going to die,’ says Tyler, the youngest of my group of travelers. He’s well on his way to being drunk under the table by the Minister of Foreign Trade for Yueyang City.

Tyler and I, along with eight of the other English teachers, are traveling around Hunan province with the Yao family. The Yaos founded Uniwise Bilingual School in Dongguan ten years ago, and have been importing Harvard students to teach at their ‘Summer Cultural Exchange’ for the last five. Part of the very generous compensation package for the job is a tour around a region of China. Hunan is Guangzhou’s better looking neighbor to the north, best known for being the birthplace of Mao Zedong.

The Yao family’s connections run much further than their local community, which means I was wrong in what I said a few weeks ago about guanxi. Here in Hunan, we’ve been treated to meals by uncles, a student’s mother’s college roommate, and now this government official in Yueyang.

Of all the connections, this is the most prestigious. People here speak of lower-level government officials with the kind of reverence that Americans save for the CEOs of major corporations. They have untouchable wealth, cachet, and influence. They function on an entirely different level from the common person. Which is funny, because they’re all Communists.

One of the things that makes government officials superhuman is their ability to drink more alcohol than science believes possible. Throughout our dinner, the minister challenges each of us to race him in chugging a large shot of beer. I do the math: ten English teachers plus three members of the Yao family means he is drinking thirteen times as much as the rest of us. He eventually singles out Tyler for extra challenges. As the only white male in the group, Tyler has been chosen to defend America’s manhood.

24 bottles of beer in, we all start shouting Disney songs at the top of our lungs. The only other place I have sung like this is on the stretching mat at Weld Boathouse, when my teammates on the Radcliffe Crew needed to let off some steam. ‘Let’s get down to business – to defeat the Huns!’ takes on a new dimension when you’re singing with a member of the CCP.

31 bottles of beer in, I challenge the minister to try and take some pressure off Tyler. The over-carbonated lager goes to my head almost immediately. The minister tells me I’m a pretty American girl, and I reply he’s not bad looking himself. Then I realize I might be drunk, and return to my seat.

38 bottles of beer in, we say goodnight. The minister walks off with his arm slung around Mr Yao’s shoulders, looking jolly but hardly tipsy. One of the teachers, destined for Harvard Med School this fall, remarks absentmindedly: ‘I’d like to get ahold of his liver when he dies.’ One of the Yao sisters responds: ‘Government officials never die.’
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Requiem for a Sangria

If you travel frequently, comparisons are inevitable. I took a long bus ride today and read a bit of the journal I kept last summer. I was working in Madrid, which is worlds away from China in every sense except literally. Comparing a typical day there and here in China says a lot about the differences between the two countries:
Sunday, 6 July 2008
  • Randomly met a musician from Cincinnati named Philip and a Quaker named Sue. Both in their forties, I think. Went to Reina Sofia (big modern art museum) with them.
  • Pitcher of sangria split three ways for lunch. Mmm.
  • Went to 2 exhibitions at CaixaForum (free gallery sponsored by Spanish bank). Exhibits on Alphonse Mucha and Charlie Chaplin.
  • Really need more supportive shoes.
  • On to the Prado. Depressed by Goya exhibit.
  • Walked through Retiro park. Hundreds of people come and drum on things in the park on Sundays. Loud.
Sunday, 26 July 2009
  • Informed that the teachers are being taken to Shenzhen for 7 hours of shopping. I am not enthused.
  • Walk around shopping area, think deep thoughts.
  • Take refuge in a Starbucks. Chat with English construction worker named Roy who has blown half a year’s savings to fly over here to see the eclipse. He spent much of the 80s hitchhiking around southeast Asia. Says Cambodia is the most beautiful place in the world.
  • Pass a street musician on the way back to the bus and wish I had time to stay and listen. Chinese violin is infinitely more tolerable than Chinese opera.
The comparison may not be fair: I did not spend all my Sundays in Spain museum-hopping, nor do I intend to spend every Sunday in China shopping. But it is telling that the supervisors in charge of the teaching program have taken us to a mall each of the past three weekends. And these are not like American malls, where you might find movie theaters or restaurants. Every inch of mall real estate is given over to shops. The idea of spending your leisure time looking at modern art or nursing a jug of sangria in the sun would be quite foreign to most Chinese.
Perhaps this difference in how the two cultures spend their leisure time explains why China is taking off and Europe is, in the rather apocalyptic words of my friend Etienne, ‘dead’ (for a not uncompelling counter-argument, see here). There’s something to be said for a robust consumer culture, or so Obama’s economists keep telling us. But I know where I’m happier, at least.
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Go East, young woman, and grow up with the world

(Originally published in the Greenwich Citizen)

This June was not the best time to graduate from college. Employers hired 43,000 fewer recent graduates than they had in 2008. Michael Jackson died. And as if the world weren’t already coming to pieces, the World Health Organization declared that swine flu was a global pandemic.

Given the circumstances, I leapt at a summer job opportunity in China, a country about which I know very little. I somehow escaped high school without a course on world history: the closest GHS came was freshman year’s ‘World Themes,’ which defined the ‘world’ as the US and Europe. I hardly improved on the record in college, where I focused on comparative government but, yet again, left out China.

Contrary to appearances, I have not been living under a brick, and I was eager to learn more about the country that houses one out of every five living people on this planet. I backpacked around China for ten days last summer with a Chinese-American friend, but the Olympics were in full swing and the entire country was on its best behavior. Factories were shut down to improve air quality, private cars were taken off the road, and guides in white and blue outfits hovered at every corner, eager to direct hapless foreigners to their destinations. I enjoyed myself, but I wanted to see what China was like outside of the big tourist-friendly cities. The job opportunity, teaching English in the heart of Guangdong province, seemed like it would do the trick. Guangdong is the powerhouse of China’s industrial south, adjacent to Hong Kong. Guidebooks describe it as ‘charmless,’ ‘uninteresting,’ and, my favorite, ‘a wasteland.’ I packed my bags.

Just before I flew over, a dispute at a factory in Guangdong sparked riots in Xinjiang, a province in northwestern China that is predominantly Muslim. Around 180 people were killed and 700 injured in some of the worst ethnic violence China has seen in recent years. I’d had a hunch China in the summer of 2009 was going to be very different from my experience in 2008. Now I was certain it would be.

The border crossing from Hong Kong confirmed my suspicions. The cheerful blue-and-white-clad welcomers were replaced with rifle-toting officials who surrounded my bus and pointed what looked like pistols at the forehead of every passenger. They were checking our temperatures – the ‘pistols’ were thermometers – in an effort to make sure that no one with a fever entered the country. Swine flu hysteria was just beginning to hit China.

I never bought in to all the fuss surrounding swine flu: yes, it’s new, and yes, it is highly contagious, but in the end it is a relatively minor illness that tends to pass after a few days and only seriously endangers people already in fragile health. Administrators at my college didn’t share my nonchalance: they banned handshakes and hugs throughout graduation week. But students, professors, and families alike laughed at the heavy-handedness of the policy and universally ignored the ban.

The reaction has not been so light-hearted in China. In a country of 1.3 billion people where 43% of the population lives in extremely crowded cities, it hardly seems worth the effort to try and contain a virus so contagious and relatively innocuous. However, memories of the 2002 SARS epidemic are fresh in China, and many feel that the government did too little too late to adequately address that health scare. The Communist party is taking no risks this time around. Strict quarantine has been imposed on people exhibiting flu-like symptoms. The detention of foreigners, mostly from the US and Great Britain, has kept consulates busy, though in this case at least the Chinese government has the upper hand: it was the American Center for Disease Control which generated so much of the hype around swine flu in the first place.

On July 27th, another counter-flu initiative was sent from the hallowed halls of the Communist Party: all schools, summer camps, and conferences were to be terminated immediately. The logic, if it can be called that, behind the initiative was that children’s parents could take care of them better than summer camp administrators. The reality was that millions of sick people flooded into the national transportation system. But at least they were on their way to becoming their family’s problem instead of the state’s.

Jacky Chen, my oldest student.

The ban shut down my school, of course, so I’m now out of a job in an unfamiliar, flu-crazy country. Let the fun begin.

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Drinkin’ Beer, Smokin’ Buds

Most people who travel to China take at least a few pictures of what is fondly known as ‘Chingrish’: the bizarre language spewed from online translating software onto tourist-oriented dinner menus and street signs. More often than not, there are enough imaginary words and misplaced adjectives to make Shakespeare blush. ‘DANGREE!’ admonishes a sign next to a cliff. ‘Meatish delight of the baby’, the (cannibalistic?) dinner menu offers. ‘Let pregnant people shit on you,’ instructs a sign on the bus. I could go on.
It’s one thing to try and communicate a message that relates to public safety, and quite another to clothe your body in slogans you don’t understand. But supply meets demand, and lord is there demand for clothes with English catchphrases. From the inane to the inappropriate, here are some highlights from the past week (the second might be my favorite of all time):
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Flesh-eating fishes and the Overnight City, part II

I’ve received some concerned emails about the title of my last blog post. I’m happy to reassure you that I was not making any cryptic metaphors. I took a bath with some flesh-eating fishes last weekend. The sensation of having live animals eating the dead skin off your feet and arms is not something you get to experience every day. The only troubling thing, really, was how ineffective they are. I expected to leave the pool feeling raw and rejuvenated. I should have just bought a pumice stone.
I’m not usually the spa type, but it’s hard to turn down a 90-minute massage when it only costs five dollars. I’m continuously blown away by how cheap labor is in China. Economist Judith Banister estimates that the average factory laborer in China earns 64 cents an hour, compared to $21.11 in the US. But if microeconomics doesn’t interest you, here’s another example. I got a very good haircut my first weekend for 38 RMB, which is about $5.50. A fellow teacher got a thirty minute massage, wash and blow dry for 15RMB, or about $2.20. The off-brand shampoo I bought from the clearance aisle at Walmart (yes, China has had Wal-mart since 1997) cost 42 RMB/$6.15. In other words, China has so many people that skilled labor costs less than common chemicals. On clearance.
In 1979, in an effort to combat overpopulation, the Chinese government declared that couples (with some exceptions) could have no more than one child. Many called it barbaric, but almost everyone who has witnessed the overpopulation of China first-hand calls it necessary. Some parts of the policy, most prominently allegations of forced abortions, can be seen as a violation of fundamental human rights. Because couples who can only have one child prefer sons, who traditionally take care of their parents in old age, there are many reports of female infanticide. And there are chilling implications for the future. An aging population means one grandchild could feasibly be expected to support two parents and four grandparents in old age. Multiply by a quarter of the world’s population, and the stress on the European health care system right now looks as easy to solve as the crossword puzzle in Seventeen Magazine.
My friend Robert pointed out another danger: ‘We’re looking at a rising generation that is almost 75% male. That means at least half the Chinese population will not get a chance to marry – might not even lose their virginity. How excited are you for the world’s most populous nation to be led by a bunch of men with no yin to their yang?’
There are other things keeping me up at night, I told him. But it’s something to consider.
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Flesh-eating fishes and the Overnight City, part I

Guanxi (see last post) came in handy again this weekend: the lawyer for the school happens to be the lawyer at a nearby resort, and so some fellow teachers and I found ourselves installed in lakeside bungalows with a free ticket to the spa. It was even better than the 80 cent DVDs.
The resort was on the outskirts of Shenzhen, a coastal city adjacent to Hong Kong. In 1980, the Chinese government declared Shenzhen a ‘special economic zone’: a hopeful utopia where western-style market capitalism could blend with Chinese social (and socialist) values, generating prosperity ‘capable of satisfying the needs of any person or business,’ to quote a tourist guide I picked up.
Like any well-thought out act of social engineering, Shenzhen comes with a creation myth. I will attempt to paraphrase from a variety of disagreeing sources.

From the first days of population in the 12th/15th century until the 1970s, the city was a poor and backwards/idyllic and wholesome fishing village. Evil British/admirable-mostly-Chinese Hong Kong pressured/inspired Deng Xiaoping to grant ‘Special Economic’ status in 1980 in an attempt to resurrect China from the economic disasters wrought by the visionary/bat-crazy Mao Zedong. A windfall of hasty/miraculous foreign investment resulted in unprecedented growth: Shenzhen, colloquially known as the ‘Overnight City’, has been the fastest-growing urban area in China for the last thirty years.

That the city’s success revolutionized China’s economic system is undisputed. Whether or not that is a good thing is the subject of heated debate.

The drive from Dongguan to Shenzhen carves through the the hills of the Pearl River Delta on China’s southwestern coast. I’ve driven through the Pallisades in New Jersey and the Delaware water gap every summer of my life and always thought of hills as rolling. Here, they rise and fall like mini-mountains, or a choppy sea frozen mid-swell. Many are grooved with terraced rice fields, reminding me for the hundredth time of how long people have been living in China. Some look like they hadn’t been cultivated for centuries, but still bear the marks of human hands: trees grow in obedient rows, mountain streams turn at abrupt and useful places. I’ve never seen such compelling evidence that humans can control the natural world.
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Sunshine after an eclipse

The Chinese word for eclipse translates roughly to ‘Moon eats sun’. The entire school had the morning off to watch the twenty-minute event, which was only visible on this side of the world (a cool animation of the trajectory can be found here). We stared at the disappearing sun through thick layers of colored cellophane, which I’m pretty sure is completely insufficient for avoiding retinal damage.

This didn’t seem to be an issue. In general, care for the future seems to be in short supply here. From toilet paper to computers, everything is expendable. Toilet ‘paper’ is plastic-based, which means it can’t be flushed or recycled, but is carted off in loads of foul-smelling garbage. Electronics are routinely fried by power surges, but they are replaced instead of repaired. Merchants sell fake or faulty goods – admittedly at rock-bottom prices – because the chance of any one consumer coming back to a store repeatedly is small: there is such a multiplicity of goods, and people are so often on the move, that courting consumer confidence hardly seems worth the effort.

But I’m not telling the full story. Of course some people settle, and these people build up tremendously important networks. Anyone who has tried to do business in China will tell you about the importance of guanxi, connections. I’d always thought of China as an almost obsessively meritocratic culture – test after test, heirarchy into heirarchy. I’ve been surprised to hear people say that top government positions, business contracts, and even University admissions are not earned, but traded.
The supervisor at my school has close guanxi with a DVD seller at the local mall, where she took the English teachers last weekend. The DVDs, which were retailing for around $3, were reduced to 80 cents when she was standing next to the cashier.

I took advantage of the discount to buy Sunshine, the mostly overlooked movie Danny Boyle made between 28 Days Later and Slumdog Millionaire. Boyle manages to take an absurd premise (team of scientist/astronauts on a mission to reignite the sun) with predictable plot development (they go crazy under the pressure), throw in a sort of undead monster (he’s good at this – see 28 Days Later), and turn it into one of the most compelling films since Apocolypse Now, which happens to feature an absurd premise (soldiers sent into the jungle to kill a renegade officer), predictable plot development (they go crazy under the pressure), and a half-dead monster-human (Brando, how little we knew ye).

I first saw Apocolypse Now in London. When I returned the movie to a rental place on Earl’s Court Road, the wiry-haired clerk looked at the jacket and laughed.
‘That’s my movie,’ she said.
‘What do you mean, your movie?’
‘I was the music producer on Apocolypse Now. I chose all the music.’
I was impressed. ‘How was that? I mean – what was it like?’
The clerk smiled and waved her hand, as if wafting away the ghost of ganja past. ‘It was great. We all just sat around, smoked a lot of spliffs, and listened to a lot of groovy music.’
I wanted to ask her why she was now a clerk in a movie rental place in London, but thought it might be rude. It does make me feel perversely better about being a soon-to-be-unemployed Harvard grad. One more week of teaching! If I can just figure out a way to teach a class of lower-intermediate English level kids about sustainability…
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What’s in a name?

Jacky Chen, Edward, Kevin, and Bob

A new student arrived last Wednesday. She is from Inner Mongolia. This sets her apart from the majority of students, who are either scholarship students from Dongguan or scions of the newly wealthy in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Guangzhou. At nearly six feet, she is the tallest person I have seen in China. She is sixteen and cannot weigh more than a hundred pounds.

The girl from Mongolia is the only one of my students who did not arrive in class with an English name. Apparently, choosing your American alter ego is the first step in English classes here. I feel guilty making the girl do the same: it feels like cultural imperialism. I said as much to my supervisor and she laughed at me. She asked if I am bothered by the dominance of western classical music in the opera houses in Beijing. That’s different, I told her. Have you ever tried to listen to Chinese opera? Watching a chorus of monkeys being electrocuted would be a more pleasant way to spend an evening. Chinese names, on the other hand, are beautiful and it seems odd to make my young students assume an alternate identity before I teach them.
The girls in my class have chosen names, and manners, straight out of the1950s: bookish Sophie, quiet Michelle, shy Diana, cute Yvonne. Then there’s Kinki. Kinki is nine years old and I have no idea how to tell her that she has a stripper name. I play through the situation in my head: I tell her that Kinki is a very unusual name in America and it might be good to change it. Bewildered, she asks why. I try to explain, and she looks at me like I have just told her Santa Claus touches children in inappropriate places.
My supervisor assures me that I am not the first to have to confront a student over his or her name. Last year, a boy named himself Chair, and steadfastly refused to change it. Two years ago, Icemen (not Iceman) arrived on campus and cried when his teacher changed his name to Henry. The woman who is teaching the sixth level of English let her students pick American names and somehow ended up with a boy named Cha-cha-cha. I didn’t want to take any chances with the girl from Mongolia, so I printed out the top fifty girl’s names in the US right now (FYI, there are going to be a lot of Avas and Makaylas graduating from college in twenty-odd years). In a display of remarkably good taste, she chose Lauren.
I stood next to Lauren as we watched the solar eclipse that arced over Asia this morning. It’s hard to get her to speak more than a few words at a time: she is painfully shy, like many tall girls. On her other side was Jacky Chen, who at seventeen is my oldest student. He is talkative in class, but tongue-tied around Lauren. So much is different over here, but the awkwardness of teenage romance seems to be universal.
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Oh, Modernity!

Another day, another typhoon. The concept of surge protectors hasn’t caught on in this corner of southern China. At the first rumble of thunder, there is a flurry of activity: everyone runs to unplug the computers, air conditioners, anything that might be fried by an errant bolt of lightning. This isn’t helpful, however, when the entire school is run on two circuits attached to faulty lightning rods. Yesterday’s typhoon succeeded in frying the entire system.
Teaching children English is never easy. It is especially difficult when the classroom is over one hundred degrees. The slightest movement exhausts you. Thinking makes you sweat. Everything seems to pulse, as if the heat has melted teacher, student, desks, fields, and walls into one big organism.
It’s not that I haven’t been hot places before. I worked in Madrid last summer, where the temperature seldom dipped below a hundred degrees, and I once visited Cairo, where it topped out around one hundred fifteen. But both places were dry. A pair of sunglasses and the hint of a breeze kept the days bearable, even pleasant.
Without power, there is no way to sanitize tap water, which must be boiled before it is safe to drink. Food can’t be cooked or refrigerated, and we’re told not to use running water while the electricians are at work.
The electricians, by the way, are six men who look like they have sprung straight to life out of an eighteenth century woodcut. Clothed in ancient overalls and wide-brimmed hats shaped like the bottom of an onion, they arrive before we have finished breakfast. They dig a hole in the ground to expose a set of thick wires, then squat on their heels and stare at it. When I pass by after morning classes, the only thing that seems to have changed is that they are eating a lunch the school provide. It is late evening before the lights flicker on and the air conditioners sputter back to life.
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It ain’t easy being Steven Chu

Small explanatory detail: I am teaching English for the summer at a small school in southern China.
At the school’s opening ceremony today, the head teacher opened with the following anecdote:

A very prominent Chinese scientist graduated with a PhD from UCBerkeley and his two younger siblings graduated with PhDs from Harvard. The Berkeley grad went on to win a Nobel Prize. He called his mom to tell her the good news and she said ‘So? You still didn’t graduate from Harvard.’ He went on to be named Secretary of Energy by President Obama. The mother: ‘So? You still didn’t graduate from Harvard.’ He was then invited to speak at the 2009 Harvard commencement, which means he was granted an honorary degree, and finally his mother was proud of him.

I think the Chinese have a skewed sense of the importance of a Harvard education.
The head teacher then turned to my fellow teachers and me with ‘a very interesting question.’ He said he knew a man who was eighty years old and was still so spry that he could leap up onto his roof whenever it needed to be repaired. He also slept only half an hour every night – but when he slept, you could light him on fire and he wouldn’t notice. Finally, he was a man, but he had two breasts that, if you squeezed them, would produce milk.
‘How do you explain that?’
I think the Chinese have a skewed sense of the breadth of a Harvard education.
He spoke in Chinese, which his daughter then translated to English. I know absolutely no Chinese, so his speech mostly sounded like a fundamentalist church on Pentecost. Occasionally, though, words would stick out: ‘Obama,’ ‘Harvard,’ ‘New York’. He also kept on saying something that sounded like ‘niggah’: ‘how-chi-kun-wey-niggah-qin-woah-niggah-wot’. I’m going to have to find someone to translate that word for me.
Update: Apparently ‘niggah’ in Chinese is the equivalent of saying ‘um’ or ‘er’ in English.
Facebook, youtube, myspace, twitter, etc, are not always blocked, but have since the beginning of the recent Uighur-related unrest in Western China. More on that – and less of me being a presumptuous news critic – soon.
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The Detroit-Kabul connection

I’m beginning to settle into the school where I’ll be teaching for the next month. It feels very remote, so naturally my first instinct is to get online. I find I can open very few of the pages that result from my search for ‘Uighur uprising.’ Facebook and Blogspot have been completely blocked (as have YouTube and Myspace). For the foreseeable future, then, I’m going to be exploiting friends’ good will to post these thoughts.
But more on China later. In a trend I foresee continuing, I want to backtrack a few days and an ocean.
On Tuesday, I drove from northern Michigan to Detroit with Jon, a friend of my brother’s who spent four months teaching accounting at Kabul University. (He too kept a blog, and I’m hoping I manage to keep this one as interesting as his).

Like any delusional idealist who studied post-conflict development in college, I’ve thought it might be interesting to look for work in Afghanistan. I heartily agree with the new philosophy governing (at least in theory) the latest troop surge. The language (Dari, a dialect of Farsi) is nowhere near as intimidating as Arabic. Three other friends who have worked there as civilians rave about the beauty and dynamism of the country. And, cheesy as it seems, I like to think that I could help build things there, and that I could put my education to good use.

I pestered Jon with questions for most of the four hour drive to Detroit. The news isn’t good. 

Kabul is, unsurprisingly, a disaster after thirty-odd years of intense conflict, starting with the Soviet invasion in 1979. Bombed-out buildings, no underground sewage, the kind of poverty that makes you ashamed to be human and not devoting all your efforts to changing things… To top it off, plants not far outside the city process sewage by burning it, giving the air high fecal content. I never thought I would hear about something that made the smog in China sound appealing.
Towards the end of our drive, we passed a gigantic factory on the outskirts of Detroit. Rivers of rust trickled down the side of the building as if it were the victim of a drive-by shooting. With the sun catching the edges of glass in the broken windows, it looked somehow splendid in all its catastrophe.
‘That,’ said Jon, ‘that is what Kabul looks like.’

I guess the news isn’t good in Detroit either.

Still, I think I might like Kabul. Feces notwishtanding.
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I climbed the Stairway to Heaven

My inspiration for going to China came from a classmate at Harvard. She taught English in southern China for the month of July and invited me to explore the north with her ‘because it would be easier to travel with a Westerner’ (she was born in Manchuria and moved to California when she was ten). I assumed this meant she – a petite, pretty Asian would feel unsafe traveling alone. But I was a bit confused: I may be tall, but was I really the best choice for a bodyguard?
As it turns out, my martial arts skills were never called for. In fact, I felt more comfortable walking down the street in China than I do in continental Europe, where any woman with two legs, no feathers, and possessed of a soul* can count on unwanted attention. Foreigners, especially, are treated with immense respect. Whenever I was on a crowded train or bus, people would insist I take their seat. If an official saw me waiting in line at a train station, I would be immediately taken to the counter. This special attention was the reason Jenny wanted to travel with me: as a Chinese girl, she would have to wait in lines and fight for space like the rest of her countrymen. By toting along a tall white girl, all that nonsense could be avoided.

(I should mention: this indulgence to foreigners, predictably, does not extend to the marketplace. Strangers with their favorable exchange rates are the natural prey of knockoff-Burberry-clad merchants. I only narrowly managed to escape buying a ‘Rolex’ worthy of a French President.)
We joined the obligatory herd of tourists at the terracotta army outside of Xian before catching a fifteen-hour train ride toTai’an, a town in Shandong province south of Beijing. The train was basic: six boards intended to function as beds to a compartment, a hole at the end of the car for a toilet, and a fan which probably last functioned under Mao for ventilation. Sharing our compartment were a middle-aged man who snored, a Blackberry-toting businessman, and two shirtless boys who stared at me for hours at a time. And I thought the businessman in Common Class would have been a more unusual sight.
Two days in Taishan were spent climbing on foot and descending by cable car Tai Shan, the ‘first of the five sacred mountains in China’. Taking to heart the posted warning ˜Obey the rules and have a good trip’, we mostly stuck to the path, which has been a pilgrim route since before Confucius’s time (571-489 BC) and is dotted with ancient temples and dramatic carvings on seemingly inaccessible cliffs. The last .2 kilometers our 10.7km climb up the ‘Stairway to Heaven’ had 1600 stairs, a fact I would have been happier to learn in retrospect. Suffice to say it was a good workout.
The view from most of the way up the Stairway to Heaven
We moved on to Qingdao, an old German colony with one of the most unappealing beaches I have ever seen: brown, rocky and weed-strewn, tidepools that smell more like cesspools, and a horizon dominated by ill-conceived modern architecture. We stayed for two days, and I headed back to Beijing on my own. On my way out of the city, I marveled at its size: it seems like there are enough skyscrapers to house all the jobs in the world. And yet there are cranes everywhere – dormant while the city struts its stuff for the Olympics, but ready to roar back into action. Celtic tigers and lionsnotwithstanding, it is hard to imagine a future not dominated by the Chinese dragon.
The beach at Qingdao
* Reading: Candide
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Over the Hills and Far Away

It is said that he who tires of London tires of life. She who tires of Madrid has reason. If the intermittent wind blowing stale, 110 degree heat across your face doesn’t get to you, the smoking and the locals’ propensity for public urination might.
Don’t get me wrong: for all its squalor, Madrid is an unforgettable city. Each of three big museums – the Prado, the Reina Sofia, and the Thyssen-Bornemisza – has a collection that would be worth a detour on any European trip. For those who would rather eat pig’s ears than be stuck looking at paintings, you could get them, served with salt, in any bar, along with an endless list of foods more or less deserving of the term ‘delicacy’. And while at that bar, you might make the acquaintance of a talkative of Madrilena, as the people of this city are generally friendlier than car salesmen. He or she might offer to show you the city, and you might find yourself arranging to meet at 2am, when the heat of the day has subsided to a comfortable 85 degrees. 
And then you might get an inkling of what La Movida was like. Or is like, depending on your interpretation: some people contend it’s still not over. The movida was an outbreak of joyful hedonism in the years that followed the death of Francisco Franco, the dictator whose oppressive, repressive rule defined Spanish life for nearly half a century (1939-1975). I imagine it as the Weimar Republic without the sense of impending doom.
Joyful hedonism notwithstanding, I got tired of Madrid. I spent the last weekend of July and the first weekend of August inBurgos and Basqueland, respectively, and took my summer vacation from my summer job in China. WIth a nod to the fact that this blog is supposed to be about living and working in Europe and similar disrespect to chronology, I’ll start with China.
From the forbidden city
The smog is not very noticeable, thanks to draconian measures taken by the government in the weeks leading up to the games. Beijing’s legendary traffic is likewise gone. The only vehicles on the road seem to be official Olympic transport (usually ominous black Audis with tinted windows that zoom by on the reserved lane on every highway), buses, or taxis. The taxi drivers generally have no idea where they are. Telling them a landmark like, say, Tiananmen square will not do; you must provide an intersection and optimally directions. You cannot buckle your seatbelt because there is a nice white cover with the Olympic logo on the seats. Public transport, by contrast, is a dream: the metro (which four years ago had two lines and now has 13) is spotless and equipped with TVs which endlessly broadcast whatever sport in which China is currently doing well. I have seen the synchronized diving enough times to have the entire routine memorized and might have memorized the shooting were it not so incredibly boring. And am I the only one to be disturbed by the fact that the average age of the Chinese gymnastics squad seems to be around 7?
Smog might be lessened, but the city does feel like it’s been engulfed in a cloud. The humidity is through the roof and visibility is ten New York blocks or so. Which makes the seemingly temperate temperatures miserably hot. If it weren’t tonic to my lungs after Madrid weather, I would be more bothered by the fact that my shirt is soaked through after a five minute walk.
I managed to get tickets to the quarterfinals and repecharges of the rowing events held on the 11th from a friend. While waiting to meet with her, I talked to one of the Olympic volunteers, who spoke excellent English. He wanted to convey how much China wanted to be respected and open to the rest of the world. I told him I’d had a wonderful time and everyone had been incredibly friendly (true) and it seemed like the Olympics had brought a lot of positive change. But I also heard that 300,000 people were forcibly displaced from their homes to make space for the Olympic green with its iconic Bird’s nest and AquaCube. ‘I think they would tell you they were happy to move,’ he said. I was skeptical, and said as much in an email I sent to my rowing teammates back at Harvard. But one of them, an ABC with lots of family back in China, informed me my suspicions were baseless:
‘It is very clear to me that though there are likely
exceptions, most Chinese people feel that they have won the lottery
when they are informed that the government (or some business) wants to
take over their property. The reason is that they are often
compensated to ridiculous excess. For all of the Chinese government’s
problems (and we are all aware that there are many), it does refuse to
force the people from their land. Business people are often upset
because the Chinese citizens usually don’t actually have formal rights
to the properties (though many of them built their own houses and have
families who have lived in the same place for generations- it brings
up good questions about ownership). There have been many cases of
Chinese citizens refusing to sell their properties to the government
until they are offered an amount that is satisfactory to them. That
amount is generally unreasonably high. If the people who gave up
their properties in Beijing for the construction of the Olympic venues
were able to get good compensation, then it is definitely possible
that they weren’t terribly upset to move. And the fact that they can
tell their friends that the Cube and the Bird’s Nest was built on
their land will probably give them immense pride- an extra benefit.’
I narrowly missed seeing the US women’s 8, stroked by Caryn Davies, a Radcliffe alum, coast to first in their heat, which lets them bypass the repecharge and proceed straight to the semifinal. They went on to win the gold, but failed to set a new world record, which they have both of the last two years. This is by no means a measure of athletic incapacity: in rowing, weather can make or break even the strongest set of oarsmen. A strong tail wind, ie wind going in the same direction of the racing, will boost speed, but make the boat less stable, which means that a well-balanced, technically expert crew stands a good chance of making a record.
I did get to see Michelle Guerette, the US women’s single sculler and Radcliffe athlete, coast to an easy first in her quarterfinal and then saw her chief competition, the Belarusian Ekaterina Kaarsten, ‘beast’ her heat, as some might say. In the semi-finals on Wednesday, Michelle led her heat for nearly the first 1750 m (out of 2000) of the race but was passed by a Chinese sculler with one of the most fantastic sprints I have ever seen, no doubt aided by the roar of the Chinese in the stands by the finish line. Both first and second place progress to the final, however, and I had a hunch Michelle was saving her fireworks for the more important race. Kaarsten likewise finished second in her heat. Sure enough, Michelle went on to an impressive silver to Bulgaria’s Rumyana Neykova, the current world record holder, and Kaarsten gained a bronze to add to her golds from Atlanta and Sydney. Another highlight was seeing the Winklevoss twins, the Harvard grads who contracted Mark Zuckerberg to program a facebook-like program called ‘ConnectU’ only to have him procrastinate and then publish his own version. They might not be billionaires, but stood a chance at being medalists, thanks to a spectacular last 500 meters that saw them surge from 9 seconds behind the leader and fifth in their heat (out of six) to second in their heat. They ended up placing sixth in the final.
I spent the evening after racing with a rowing coach I met in the stands and a friendly group of British men who live in Beijing and coach football. The semi-native Beijingers took us to two of their usual haunts in the center of town. At the first I ran into a friend from the church choir I grew up singing in. I seem to have a knack for this kind of thing (see ‘Why not?’).
After Beijing, I went traveling with a fellow Harvard student and Chinese native. We spent the first two days in Xi’an, which was the capital of China for, oh, 13 dynasties or so. Highlights include the city walls – 59 feet thick at the base, and still nearly perfectly intact, though they were built in 600something. Evidently the Chinese make better walls than Europeans. Or maybe Europeans are just better at breaking them. We also visited a sacred Buddhist pagoda that was cracked in an earthquake in the fourteenth century, and then seismically restored to perfection by another earthquake in 17something. Feeling holy, we continued with a mosque built in 742 – that’s 110 years after the Hegira, which marked the founding of Islam. Those Muslims traveled quickly. Seeing the religious buildings highlighted an interesting difference between Western and Eastern cultures: while many of us Westerners seem so preoccupied with religion that we see the world coming to a catastrophic battle between Islam and Christianity (Clash of Civilizations, anyone?), the Chinese have managed to exist for a few millennia absent any significant religious conflict, at least until the Cultural revolution. From the peasants to the emperors, they have been happy to identify themselves as Buddhist, Taoist, Confucian, and seemingly any other thing that came along that encouraged them to better themselves. And often multiple religions at the same time. My aunt’s take:
‘I’m not well versed in Asian religions, but I do know that Confucius stressed the collective over the individual (ie, family is more important than the individual; community trumps family; and state trumps community ) so an individual’s relationship with a higher being has little importance in one’s daily life in China. Actually, what an indivdual thinks, period, has little to do with affairs of state. By contrast, the three monotheistic religions in the West (Christianity and Islam, and their ‘parent’ Judiasm) stress an individual’s ties to God, so religion perhaps has greater importance to the average person in the West than it does in the East. We take it personally and emotion plays a role, hence our fuse is shorter when fervently held beliefs collide.’
To be continued.
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