O Sad Siberian night!

(Originally published in The Greenwich Citizen)

One wonders why the western Russians were so eager to conquer Siberia. The cold is the most obvious deterrent to settling in the area: lows in the winter reach the kind of temperature where you can spill your hot coffee and have it shatter when it reaches the ground in a frozen block. When summer finally comes, the flat landscape fills with pools of melted ice that breed mosquitoes straight out of a Victorian horror story. In the words of Kate Marsden, a British nurse who in 1891 rode across Siberia in search of a reported cure for leprosy:

‘During the summer the mosquitoes are frightful, both in the night and in the day… Even on the ground you will find them, and, as soon as a stranger comes in, it seems as if the insects make a combined assault on him in large battalions; and, of course, sleep is a thing never dreamed of. After a few days the body swells from their bites into a form that can neither be imagined nor described. They attack your eyes and your face, so that you would hardly be recognised by your dearest friend.’

It is easy to see why Siberia remained a scarcely populated haunt of nomadic tribes and plundering warrior bands for so long. It is also easy to see why, when Siberia finally was annexed, European Russians (those from anywhere west of the Ural mountains, including Moscow and St Petersburg) had to be forced to move there. The first colonists were convicts, sent over to harvest Siberia’s vast stores of natural resources of coal, timber, metals, and furs. Serfs, freed in 1861, were encouraged to go east and grow up with the country, but it wasn’t until the Trans-Siberian railway was built at the end of the 19th century that people began to settle there in earnest.

Earlier in the century, exile was lent a touch of glamor when the Decembrists, a group of aristocratic revolutionaries, were sent to Siberia after a failed uprising. They settled in what had previously been a little-known hovel toward the eastern end of the Trakt, the great east-west trade route of northern Asia before the Trans-Siberian. The Martha Stewarts of their day, their exile was not an eastward march in chains like the common criminals. They brought servants, families, and the discerning taste (and deep pockets) of imperial Russia to the hinterland and ambitiously set about constructing what would come to be known as the ‘Paris of Siberia’.

Irkutsk, as the city is known, is the first major city out of Mongolia on the Beijing-Moscow Trans-Mongolian train. It would be silly to expect much of this ‘Paris’: a Siberian town, however romantic, is not going to live up to a city that has been one of the cultural capitals of the western world for over a millennium. After the slash-and-burn architecture of China and the tent cities of Mongolia, though, anything more than a hundred years old was bound to look pretty impressive. The red and white facade of the old theater, lit dimly by the cloudy afternoon light, brought to mind the stately architecture of Eastern Europe. The slate roofs and beige stone of some buildings on Karl Marx St did look exactly like a decrepit version of Paris.

The real beauty of Irkutsk lies in its indigenous wooden architecture. Siberia is poor in all traditional building materials save wood, but what it lacks in limestone it more than compensates for in imagination. Houses are decorated like wedding cakes: intricate trim drips from the roof, arabesques frost the outside of windows. Like Russia itself, the houses have not been kept up and will not last. I walked by a half repainted building on the way to the train station, its thick new coat already bubbling over the unprimed wood. It looks better peeling, I remember thinking. At least until it all comes tumbling down.

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Clever Marketing

They call Irkutsk the ‘Paris of Siberia’. Given Paris : Siberia :: fertile bed of western intellectual history : region associated with forced exile and mass murder, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Wandering down Lenin St on the sort of cloudy afternoon one associates with doomed love affairs, it was easy to see why people draw the comparison.

As I wrote in an article for the Greenwich Citizen, to which I’ll post the link if it ever makes its way online, Irkutsk has a romantic history, but as I don’t really feel like writing about it again I encourage you to get the gist from this page.

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Postpunk Poems

Some say thirty million, others as much as sixty million: the numbers of people killed in Siberia in the twentieth century defy comprehension. You’d think, with all that bloodshed, that the land would seem haunted, disgraced, or even vaguely sinister. Surely so much suffering must leave its mark in eternity.

There is something to the old adages that say time heals all wounds, or life goes on. But what strikes me most about Siberia is that neither of those really apply: what wounds there were were small scratches on the vast canvas of Siberia. Nature, if she ever really noticed them, has now buried them. Looking out on the forever-forest that rolls by the train window, I can’t think of gulags or exiled Decembrists. All I can think is: the world is a big place, and I’ll never know the smallest bit of it.

Just over the Mongolian border into Russia, I notice our compartment has a copy of the monthly magazine ‘Sunny Mongolia Today’. I flip to the culture section and discover a set of poems by Galsanukh B entitled ‘Advice to God: Postpunk Poems.’ From ‘Impressionist Melody of Spring Time in Cow’s Native Land: Impressionism, Neoclassicism, and the grave of Beatniks in Cow’s Native Land’:

Today’s suffering is the same as tomorrow’s suffering.
Yesterday’s suffering is the same as today’s suffering.

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A spot of golf, Ghengis?

(Originally published in the Greenwich Citizen)

I hear a gasp from the back seat of the taxi.

‘Is that a…?’ my mother says, her voice full of horror.

‘It can’t be,’ says my brother.

‘Does that really say Chinggis Khaan Country Club?’

We’re driving through Terelj National Park near the Mongolian capital city Ulan Bator. My mother and brother Edward have decided I can’t have all my fun on my own and so have flown over to join me for the Beijing-St Petersburg leg of my journey. Mongolia is our first stop.

In my medieval history classes in college, the Mongols were the Apocolypse That Never Came. In the thirteenth century, Genghis Khan (sometimes spelled Chinggis Khaan) and his Golden Horde stood poised to destroy what we perhaps indulgently call western civilization. The Horde had devastated Russia and Central Asia, gobbling up the rich Silk Road cities one by one. At the Danube, they suddenly turned back, like a careful drunk who knows his limits. Over the next seven centuries, the Mongol empire gradually shrank to its present limits: a country the size of Western Europe with a quarter of the population of London, cradled on three sides in China’s embrace but fiercely, flagrantly proud of its independent culture.

Mongolians share the dark hair and Asiatic features of the Chinese, but the similarities don’t persist much further. Mongolians, simply put, have had it rougher. The vast majority of China’s population lives in the fertile basins of the Yangtze and Yellow rivers, where the most serious risk to society is overpopulation bred by an abundance of resources. Mongolia’s geography alternates between high-altitude desert and steppe land, with a few completely uninhabitable mountain ranges thrown in for fun. The distance from any appreciable body of water means there is little water vapor in the air to trap the sun’s rays, so the land scorches in the day and freezes at night. The temperature in winter bottoms out around -40°F and peaks in summer around 100°F.
Over half the population of the country lives within the capital city’s limits. The million or so scattered through the rest of the country are for the most part still nomadic, moving with their herds to make the most of the barely habitable land. Intrigued by the romance of this dying way of life (or perhaps just its novelty), we drove out to Terelj to stay with a nomadic family for a night. We had not imagined, when we headed out into the steppe, that we would be camping next to a country club. The nine holes of the golf course looked alien under the violet mountains and rolling clouds, as did the fence,
designed to keep animals out rather than anything in.

Our tent was perched under a peanut-colored rock face. A giant boulder, like the head of a colossal statue, loomed precariously over our camp, and I joked (a little uneasily) that one small cosmic sneeze is all it would take to return the steppe to uninvaded peace. Then I remembered that Chinggis Khan Country Club is just around the bend and decided it may take a few extra boulders.

Gretchen, who taught with me in China, has stuck with me for this leg of my travels, so my solo journey has now quadrupled. While my mother paints watercolors of the landscape, Gretchen, Edward and I set off for the nearest store on the only mode of transport readily available: horseback. Like true gringos, we have underestimated the amount of water we would consume in a day and half in the steppe. It is my brother’s first time on a horse and he is utterly mystified as to why anyone, especially a man, would think this is a fun way to spend an afternoon. I, on the other hand, can think of few places I’d rather be: the breeze is welcome, the wildlife is incredible, and I have never seen so much sky in my life.

If you can get there in the small windows of semi-temperate heat, Mongolia is a traveler’s dream. It combines the natural beauty of Africa, the exoticism of inner Asia, and the prices of a Chinese supermarket: a night at our guesthouse in Ulan Bator, including internet and breakfast, set us back six dollars, and our excursion to the national park, including transport, meals, horseback riding, and a night’s lodging, cost less than a few Starbucks lattes. Most people visit Ulan Bator as a stop on the Trans-Mongolian rail journey from Moscow to Beijing, but a few are beginning to catch on to Mongolia’s individual appeal. If anything I’ve written appeals to your sense of adventure, I’d advise you to carve out your vacation days before the horde of tourists turn descend and turn this place into yet another comfortable outpost of western civilization.

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City of Dreams

Leaving China is almost as traumatic an experience as arriving there – or at least it is if you are going to Mongolia. We spent what seemed like hours (wait, it was) in a between-country limbo sometime in the middle of the night. The customs officials managed to synchronize their visits to our cabin with my sleep cycle, so every fresh appearance startled me out of a shallow dream. Customs officials do not like groggy people. Actually, I don’t think they like anyone.
We, by the way, still includes Gretchen, a classmate from college and former teammate, who taught in Dongguan with me, and now my mother and brother Edward, who decided to tag along on possibly the most tedious part of my travels. We’ve just done the first leg of six days by train from Beijing to Moscow: a thirty-hour journey from Asia’s hot capital city to one that will never be. Sorry, Mongolia.

Ulan Bator is a city with an identity crisis. It can’t decide if it is newly wealthy or blightedly poor. A lone Dubai-knockoff skyscraper crowns the center of town, either half constructed or half destroyed, I can’t tell which. A tent city sticks to the outskirts of the downtown area, but there are power lines running into some of the tents, and satellite dishes outside: their inhabitants can claim neither permanence nor impermanence.
Thanks to the temperature swings I mentioned in my last post, building here can seem like an exercise in faith. It’s a leap many people don’t seem to bother to take. A little less than half Mongolia’s population of three million (or thereabouts) still lives in tents called gers, moving with their herds and the seasons. Another million crowd into Ulan Bator… where they still live in tents, often. Fun for the whole family: play I Spy with the picture below. See if you can find
1. An army truck provided by the USA – always good to try and curry favor with an Alaska-sized country rich in natural resources between Russia and China
2. A car that has never had its emissions tested (trick, it’s all of them)
3. A ger

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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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