Wednesday, October 24, 2007

New passport

The photo in my passport is 10 years old. When I showed it to the guard at the U.S. consulate, he commented to his colleague, “So old!” And they laughed. Time for a new one.

After waiting a mere week (!), I went back to pick up my new passport. The format has changed quite a bit since I was 16. First of all, they’ve added Spanish to the English and French. Second of all, they’ve added patriotic illustrations and quotations about how amazing America is. In the background of each page of my old passport are the seals of each state. In the background of each page of my new passport are pictures of cowboys, cacti, buffalo, and American landmarks such as the liberty bell and Mount Rushmore. At the top of each page is a quotation: the words of Lincoln, Kennedy, Johnson, and FDR grace the pages, as well as quite a few non-Presidents. I’m surprised by one or two of them: one is a Mohawk quote about how nice it is to have animals around. I must sign my name over an American flag and an eagle. On the last page is a rather random picture of outer space, with some planets and a satellite: the next frontier.

I’ve always been fascinated by passports. They are the most solid physical embodiment of the international system, an official symbol of our national identity, sanctioned by the state, that you can hold in your hand and that other governments acknowledge. The message inside from the secretary of state, requesting that all foreigners give the bearer all lawful aid and protection, is an affirmation of national belonging. What such a document includes and what it leaves out must surely mean something.

Why the changes? It’s hard to say. Maybe the people in charge these days simply like that kind of thing. Or maybe, while travelers used to be fewer and more cosmopolitan, the greater number of Americans who need passports (you need one for Canada now after all) has also increased the demand for patriotism while traveling, as people do like to remember their own country when they are out of it. Or perhaps, along with the changes in the way Americans feel about their country over the past few years – unease over decreasing world power, the trauma of the Sept. 11 attacks, the failing war in Iraq, the realities of a world now starkly different from a simple Communist/non-Communist demarcation – the passport’s format fits into a larger trend of anxiety over where the country is going. At such times patriotism is always emphasized, in an effort to make up for national uncertainty (a phenomenon that is crystal clear in China), and in American culture you can see the phenomenon everywhere (just look at the popularity of some alarming recent films, such as “300,” which glorifies Western “reason” over the barbarity of the Persians, all in excessive, bloody violence.) At any rate, when I show my new passport, with all its patriotic trimmings, to border agents, I’m not sure if I’ll feel a surge of pride or a tinge of embarrassment.

Friday, October 19, 2007


Recently an American workmate said, half-jokingly, “China is great… except for the Chinese people!” Complaining about Chinese manners is a common pastime for foreigners. Some merely express shock at the spitting, the motorbikes on the sidewalks, and the blatant theft of taxis that clearly stopped for you. Getting on the bus during rush hour resembles a medieval battle. The little old ladies are the worst: they push and jab and shove. Then there are the differences in relationships, the concept of “losing face,” the intricacies of cultivating guanxi, or “connections.” These cultural differences have been written about extensively by Westerners trying to “understand” China; my own understanding of them remains sketchy, partly because, I think, I’m uncomfortable with trying to fit the way people behave under refined labels and explanations.

Most foreigners who have lived here for some time accept Chinese manners with weary resignation, admitting that they’re not here to “change China” but wishing things could be just a little bit different. I have certainly had my moments of incomprehension at people’s rudeness: the staring, the giggling, the constant cigarette smoke, the impossibility of walking even on the sidewalk without fear of being run over, the blunt comments about my weight or a pimple on my face (“Oh, you have a pimple!” “You’re fat.”). Recently we were having trouble with our water pipes in our apartment, so we called a plumber. Not only did he smoke (expected), he also decided to leave his cigarette butt on the floor of our shower (unexpected). “Don’t worry,” my roommate said when I complained about it. “He smokes so much that he’ll die soon.” Somehow, that did not reassure me.

Some take the complaining to a much higher level – take a look at the incredibly cynical blog to see what I mean. People like this have a strange relationship with China. The country is like someone whose every habit, innocuous or not, turns into unrelenting irritation, like spending too much time with a roommate. My question for these kinds of people is: why are you still here?

My workmate’s comment is not new. (I’ve heard it in other contexts – a Turkish friend of my family’s was once told something similar on a plane in reference to Turkey, from another European passenger.) Such a statement could be unpackaged – European manners are the standard; those who don’t live up to the standard are “uncivilized.” What interests me is the degree to which Chinese people agree that they are uncivilized. My workmate made his comment in front of our Chinese colleagues, who, if they were offended, didn’t show it. (Surely they must have been at least somewhat offended.) In Chinese cities there are constant and unrelenting campaigns to make Chinese people more “civilized” (wenming). It is unclear what precisely the word is referring to, but it is woven into society in the form of signage: signs implore people to be civilized in relation to protecting the environment, to standing on the bus, to waiting in a line, to driving on the street, to walking in a park, to sitting in a movie theater. Class is certainly a factor – the higher trying to educate the lower. And, of course, there is also a strong sense of China trying to reclaim its “civilized” past (whatever form that would take), both for itself and for the foreign gaze.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Thailand, China's national day

Here’s a new post after a whopping hiatus. First are some notes about my trip to Thailand, and then a little bit about the National Day holiday on the first of October.

You can look at the photos of the trip at this website for pictures of Bangkok, beaches, and Ayuthaya, the former capital—they will probably do the best job of giving a summation of the trip. I’ll list the places where we went, in case anyone is interesting in looking them up (“Koh” means “island”): Bangkok, Koh Tao, Krabi, Phuket, Koh Phi-Phi, and Ayuthaya. Koh Tao, the first island we went to, had some great snorkeling. (I saw a shark swimming under me! It was big!) Bangkok is suitably nutty, though not so nutty as the buildup had led me to expect. Unfortunately it rained a bit on the beaches, but not too much. Thai food is simply amazing—you can find the same stuff as in Thai restaurants abroad, but I also discovered several things that I never knew existed, including some of the best sweets I’ve ever had. Thai street food is the most exciting, as it’s varied, delicious, cheap, and abundant.

Thailand is a fascinating and thoroughly unique country. The people’s respect for the royal family, especially the King, is incredible. Compared to China’s extremely insecure nationalism, Thai nationalism was somewhat refreshing—no constant reminders of the vast length of Thai history, just a quiet self-assurance of its solidity.

Check out this gem from my Lonely Planet guidebook: “As the only Southeast Asian country that’s never been colonized by a foreign power, the Thais have a strong sense of their own identity. Religion, royalty and tradition all play a vital role in creating the national sense of ‘Thai-ness’. In fact, this national self-confidence may have played a major role in keeping the European colonial powers from Thailand’s door.” So which was it? Did Thailand’s success in staying independent create its nationalism, or did its nationalism prevent foreign encroachment? Thailand is indeed extremely self-confident in its nationalism. But this kind of historical reading demonstrates a profound confusion about the very period in which modern concepts of the nation were formed.

The standard narrative of modern Thai history is that the 19th century kings were successful in staving off colonialism by learning to modernize, with the help of Europeans like Anna Leonowens (of “The King and I”), the Belgian Gustave Rolin-Jaequemyns (who helped solidify modern international law and who thought international law should aid small, weak countries), and many, many others. Those kings are greatly revered, and the current one is seen as continuing the trend. According to the narrative, the Thai government learned the “language” of Western international law and the importance of Western-style modernization very quickly, and was therefore successful in “modernizing” Thailand while still retaining its fundamental character as a Buddhist nation.

The Muslim population in the south, of course, is one foil to the narrative. Here’s another prizewinner from LP: “In the far south and in rural corners, Islamic culture dominates but it has been mellowed by Southeast Asia’s gentleness.” The statement is referring to the freedom of women relative to their Arabic counterparts. While there is no doubt that Muslim women enjoy greater freedom in Thailand than in many Middle Eastern countries, the causes of that freedom are not clear, and reducing them to “Southeast Asia’s gentleness” is an alarming simplification. Many factors have served to radicalize Islam in the Middle East, not least among them colonialism—it is not simply due to some local, intrinsic quality. And it should be obvious that calling Southeast Asia “gentle” is an incredible act of forgetfulness. The region has been the site of some of the most horrific violence of the 20th century, not to mention just as many wars throughout the ages as anywhere else. Perhaps the sentence is referring to the supposed gentleness of Buddhism? Whether Buddhism is more “gentle” than Islam would be a rather silly argument, one that would necessitate extremely one-dimensional and simplistic understandings of the two religions.

Back in China, the National Day holiday on October first at the Bund was crowded, crowded, crowded. On Chinese holidays at popular tourist sites, you can come a bit closer to getting a sense of the unbelievable number of people squeezed into this country. The city closed off numerous streets, including East Zhongshan Rd., in front of the Bund, transforming them into pedestrian streets. It’s interesting that the automatic site for the National Day celebrations—and the most famous site in Shanghai—is the Bund, a grand monument to colonialism in East Asia. Embrace the buildings but reject the context in which they were built seems to be the popular attitude.

I’m not sure what most people’s opinion of the national day holidays is. In most countries, flags are abundant on national days, but in Shanghai they can only be found on taxis and buses, where they were no doubt ordered to appear by the government. Do Chinese people simply not have the same flag-waving habits as elsewhere? Or is there some other reason for the scarcity of flags? People are of course ecstatic about having days off (those who do are anyway), but apart from that, I don’t sense much excitement about the holiday itself.

Most guidebooks mention that the clock on top of the Customs House on the Bund, built in 1927 by the same firm that designed Big Ben, played “The East is Red” during the Cultural Revolution, and to my delight, it chimed a few bars of it last night! The song was supposedly invented by a farmer in Shaanxi Province who was inspired when he saw the sun rise one morning. Wikipedia says, “Because of its associations with the Cultural Revolution, the song was rarely heard after the rise of Deng Xiaoping in the late 1970s. Today in China the song is considered a somewhat unseemly reminder of the cult of personality associated with Mao.” I would mention, however, that my friend Angel is very familiar with the song, and learned it in school in the 1990s.

Here is an English translation of the lyrics, which, whatever they may sound like to foreigners, are still rich in meaning and significance for millions of people:

The east is red, the sun is rising.
China has brought forth a Mao Zedong.
He amasses fortune for the people,
Hurrah, he is the people's great savior.
Chairman Mao loves the people,
He is our guide,
To build a new China,
Hurrah, he leads us forward!
The Communist Party is like the sun,
Wherever it shines, it is bright.
Wherever there is a Communist Party,
Hurrah, there the people are liberated!

Wednesday, July 18, 2007


When thinking about China, everyone focuses on different issues. Academics have their particular interests, as do diplomats. Reporters, who are usually educated but not too educated (and I don’t necessarily mean that in a negative sense), tend to lie somewhere in between. An extremely large proportion of American and other Western countries' reportage about China focuses on China's human rights problems or its relations with Western countries: What does the lack of freedom of speech, crackdown on dissent, labor abuses and the lack of freedom of religion mean for China? How soon will China become a democracy? Will China be a threat to the "West," will China seek to militarize space, will China try to be dominant in Asia, what exactly is China's purpose in regions such as Africa? It's very difficult to find an accurate answer to any of these questions -- usually, there are no accurate answers. People form their conceptualizations of China through what questions they ask about it; in this respect, it may be that the questions themselves are more important than the answers. In the past few years I've studied or lived in China in various contexts and capacities, and I've found that what questions people ask, and how they ask them, is always a matter of perspective.

Perspective 1. University life in the US, 2005-2006. When I was a student, the general attitude in the East Asian Studies department regarding political issues in China was a strange mixture of frustration and support. The academic context and the distance from China itself gave us the freedom to explore how complicated what we were studying really was. We were always dismayed with the tactics of the Chinese government, but we were also dismayed with Western commentators for resorting to stereotypes and simplistic readings of Chinese history, culture, and politics. One professor of modern Chinese history who had been active in protest movements of the 1960s (and beyond) told me about the deep sense of betrayal and disappointment she felt after the Tiananmen massacre in 1989. In various classes, I studied how the communist party has sought to define and package history to support itself; how Chinese nationalists focus on such abstract ideas as culture, ethnicity, and nation to promote the state or what is perceived as state interests; and how the government seeks to control religion and minority groups, and viciously cracks down on any hint of dissent, such as in Xinjiang.

At the same time, the statist focus was always complicated. We also examined the importance of subjectivity in historical retelling and the role of the subject and the impossibility of knowing; others who seek to impose their own narratives of Chinese history, such as Japanese and American commentators; the vilification of the communist party in Western narratives and the need to acknowledge the CCP and its actions as an enabling force. In short, on the one hand we constantly cautioned against being judgmental, and on the other hand we couldn't help but judge.

Perspective 2. U.S. Consulate, Guangzhou, Summer 2006. Priorities in the consulate were, quite naturally, focused on American interests. However, those interests varied widely, and often included simple information gathering for reports. Some officers were concerned with China’s economy; some dealt with immigration issues; as an intern in the Political/Economic section, I focused on such issues as media in South China, labor rights, intellectual property rights, and foreign communities living in Guangzhou. I gave a speech to a Chinese audience about Ronald Reagan as part of the consulate’s public diplomacy efforts – this too fell under the purview of “American interests.”

Attitudes in the consulate regarding China’s political environment tended to be very ad-hoc. We sympathized with activists, since they were seen to be striving for democracy. We worked with Chinese government officials, since they were, after all, the people in power. In short, the consulate’s stance towards Chinese politics was malleable in its efforts to find the right track, and sometimes seemed contradictory – much like American political culture in general.

Perspective 3. News agency, Shanghai, 2007. The news agency where I work deals mostly with business news. From our business articles it would seem that readers care only about how many megawatts of installation capacity certain power plants have; how soon TD-SCDMA, China’s 3G telecom technology, will be released; and how much money a computer game is making. This kind of reportage is designed to attract as little negative attention from the Chinese government as possible. However, it is impossible to be a foreign reporter with a foreign audience in China and not have other subjects on your mind (which often find their way, albeit obliquely, into our articles).

Mainstream Western audiences care about three broad issues related to China: geopolitical power issues; human/labor/political rights; and the “New China” (evidenced by the huge number of articles that seek to compare the “modern” and the “traditional”; take, for example, Howard French’s quest to photograph what he calls the “authentic” in Shanghai).

In addition, long-time foreign journalists working in China always have horror stories of their dealings with the Chinese government, such as Peter Hessler’s account in his book, Oracle Bones, of his ordeal when he happened to stumble onto a local village election, which are always tightly closed to foreigners, while hiking outside Beijing. The constant push-and-pull between Western reporters, who are used to press freedoms at home, and the government, which seeks to control them, constantly informs foreign reportage on China.

Perspective 4. My apartment, July 2007. When I get home, my roommates are almost finished making dinner. They buy fresh produce from a local market and make delicious food. It usually involves at least one dish of greens, a meat dish, rice, and soup. Two of them work at B2B (business-to-business) websites, and one works at an Irish export company. One wants to go back to school to study psychology. During dinner I try to understand what they talk about – usually stories from work, or gossip about their friends. After dinner, we do various things: lately, two of my roommates have been obsessed with a TV soap opera about drama in a Chinese business. It involves overseas Chinese living in Canada and Hong Kong. As far as I can make out, at least one of the characters is extremely evil, and at least one is extremely good. They also read a lot: a magazine of Chinese short stories, a memoir by a Chinese reporter, and Chinese translations of The World is Flat by Thomas Friedman, the Harry Potter books, a collection of American short stories, and Watership Down are a few of their recent selections. One night I said I thought Taiwan shouldn’t necessarily be a province of China, and a roommate got offended; another time, I argued that Uighurs should not necessarily be considered “Chinese.” Once I asked one of them whether she’d heard of the Tiananmen protests of 1989. “Sure,” she said. “Of course I’ve heard of that."

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Learning to swim

Last week I joined a gym that has a pool. The first time I went swimming I walked out of the locker room and couldn't find the entrance to the pool. There was one, but it was locked shut. I walked all around the glass walls -- I could see everyone swimming happily -- and finally found an unlocked door at the far corner of the wall. I walked in and a lifeguard looked at me with surprise. "No! You enter over there!" he said, pointing at an entrance connected directly to the locker rooms. "And leave your shoes!"

I deposited my flip-flops by the locker room and stepped in a big pool of water to clean my feet -- clearly this was the correct procedure. The lifeguard eyed my swimming trunks.

"You can't change here," he said. He was wearing a speedo-like suit, which seemed to be the norm.

"This is a swimming suit," I said.

Then I jumped in the water. When I emerged, the lifeguard was gesturing frantically at me.

"You have to wear a swimming cap!" he said.


"To keep the water clean," he said. "Can't you see that everyone else is wearing one?"

I couldn't, actually, because I wasn't wearing my glasses, but I didn't say anything.

"Where do I get one?" I asked.

"You have to buy one," he said.

"I didn't bring any money."

He looked at me wearily. "Okay," he said. "You can borrow mine."

Now I know what it feels like to be the stupid foreigner who doesn't understand how things are done. But it still doesn't make sense to me: we don't have to take a shower before getting into the pool, but we do have to wear a swimming cap! Oh well. Now I own my first swimming cap.

That same day, I tried to teach my friend Angel how to swim. She's never learned, and in the pool she's like a fish out of water. The very first thing I did was to demonstrate the dog paddle. "Just do this," I said. She tried, and immediately sank like a stone. She came back up, spluttering. "Okay," I said. "First, we'll learn how to kick." I remembered from my fourth grade lessons that kicking was one of the first things I learned. Together, we held the edge of the pool and began to kick. "Try to make small splashes," I said. She wasn't making much progress, and I could see why: her legs were moving in and out, instead of up and down. "Push against the water," I said. "Against the water." She seemed to improve a bit, and I found a swimming board. "Practice with this," I said. She grasped it firmly and kicked until she was out of breath, but she stayed in the same spot. "Okay," I said. "Let's take a break from that and learn how to use the hands." I showed her how to close the fingers so water can't get through, and how to paddle. "You should feel the water," I said. "Push against the water."

We went back the next day and kept at it. I tried teaching her how to float on her back, how to float on her stomach, and how to avoid getting water in her nose while underwater. At the end of the day we tried the dog paddle again. She gave it all her effort, and sank like a stone.

I suppose learning how to swim is a lot like learning how to ride a bike, or learning a language: if you do it when you're young, it seems completely natural for the rest of your life. I don't remember learning, so I'm probably not the best person to teach. Anyway, if anyone has any advice, any at all, about how to teach someone how to swim, please send it to me as fast as possible.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

China's dirty laundry

Despite the bad reviews, I was excited about seeing "Pirates of the Caribbean 3," and I was happy to hear that it is being shown in the theaters in China, since everyone knows that seeing a movie in a theater is much better than watching it at home. I was also interested to see what they would do with Chow Yun-fat, the Chinese Pirate King!! :)

Then I learned that parts the film have been censored in China. Why? I asked. Was it too violent? Was there nudity? Did Disney pirates of the 19th century advocate Tibetan independence?

No: they had cut half of Chow Yun-fat's scenes because they "vilify and humiliate the Chinese," as Xinhua, China's official news wire, reported.

I haven't seen the movie yet (and I certainly won't in a Chinese theater), but according to some blogs, it's now difficult to follow the plot. The censors were apparently offended by Chow's bald head, long nails, and scarred skin. It reminded me of the reasons behind China's censorship of "Mission Impossible III," when scenes were cut in which Tom Cruise is in China, and runs past laundry hanging from clotheslines. I suppose the censors didn't want China to be portrayed as a "backward" country, in which, presumably, people hang laundry from clotheslines.

Such censorship is unbelievably inane, and indicates the hyper-sensitivity and pride that is often prevalent in contemporary Chinese nationalism. It's not even proper censorship! Usually things are censored because they are "subversive" in some way. "Devils on the Doorstep," a film about Chinese villagers in World War II, was banned in China for obvious reasons: the villagers in the film are often foolish and weak, and there's no sign of the Communist army. But what possible reasoning lies behind banning images of clothes hanging from clotheslines from a version of the movie that will only be shown in China? Even if we accept the idea that clothes on a clothesline indicates backwardness, there is no other way to hang clothes in China (the only dryer I've ever seen in this country was in a US consulate). Will Chinese viewers who see the clothes suddenly realize their country is backward?

The reasoning behind the censored bits of "Pirates" is slightly less hazy, though equally absurd. One film magazine wrote that Chow's appearance is "in line with Hollywood's old tradition of demonizing the Chinese." That may be so (though "tradition" is a bit strong), but how does preventing Chinese people from seeing those scenes possibly help the situation? Will a Chinese viewer suddenly get depressed because he realizes that his ancestors must have been pirate kings with bald heads and scars?

These are cases of censorship not being thought through, and of China's frequent bristling defensiveness about how foreigners view the country. They are annoying and ridiculous, but they are basically harmless. However, they may also be indications of the Chinese censorship system, which is quite sophisticated, slowly going crazy as it tries to censor too many things coming into the country. To a large extent the system relies on people's apathy -- after all, anyone who is determined can find restricted information. But China is so big, and is changing so fast, that the censors may feel they can't possibly keep up, so they panic too easily and react too hastily.

Beyond cutting out cinematic laundry, the deep absurdity of China's censorship system, and of censorship itself, is revealed during those moments when the system comes full circle to bite itself in the behind. On June 6 of this year, a very small classified ad was published in the Chengdu Evening News that read, "Paying tribute to the strong[-willed] mothers of June 4 victims." It was referring to a group of mothers of students who were killed during the Tiananmen protests in 1989, and who have been vocal in demanding answers from the government about the massacre. Normally, such a thing would never have gotten through, but, according to a source from the Chengdu paper who was quoted in a Hong Kong newspaper, the clerk who received the ad was born in the 1980s and had never heard of the Tiananmen protests. As a result, she didn't know that she was supposed to censor it.

Censorship of information about the Tiananmen protests is revealed to be remarkably, frighteningly effective, so effective that it doesn't work, as censorship never does. And what happened to the girl who unknowingly let the ad slip through? It's unclear, but according to an Internet blogger who may have contacts at the Chengdu paper, several editors have been fired, and the poor clerk has been arrested.

Monday, June 4, 2007


Yesterday my roommate went to the market to buy meat and vegetables for dinner, but she forgot to buy cloves of garlic. The food that my roommates make often uses garlic, though not in the same way that I use garlic. Usually they chop it up and put it in some kind of spicy sauce with other vegetables. Sichuan food especially often uses garlic combined with a very, very spicy sauce that burns your tongue and makes you want to cry, but you keep on eating anyway because it's so, so good.

The market next to our apartment is a fairly large, friendly place with numerous local stands. However, I rarely go there because I'll inevitably be charged more than Chinese people. In fact, my roommates usually don't want me to go, for exactly that reason. It's a good arrangement for me -- a valid excuse for getting out of the shopping! When I went to buy the garlic, for example, I bought four cloves for 3 yuan, about 39 cents. "What!" my roommate said when I returned. "That should just cost 2 yuan!" She shook her head and sighed. I knew I wouldn't have to go to the market again for a while.

Though we white folks must often pay the foreigner tax, I've found that once people in the neighborhood get to know you, they usually don't ask for more money. I got a haircut at a local barbershop, and I mentioned I lived in the area; at the end I mistakenly paid 15 yuan, and the barber told me it was just 10. I usually buy beer at a small shop beside my apartment -- recently I paid 25 yuan by accident, but it was just 20. Likewise in another store with bread, and another with DVDs.

The market, though, will never get to know me, since I rarely go there, and even if it did, it seems to be part of market culture to always charge foreigners extra. I probably wouldn't know what to buy anyway. My roommates are all good cooks, and they can choose best. We usually have a few dishes: some boiled vegetables; some meat, perhaps with vegetables and some sauce; sometimes lamb, sometimes beef, sometimes chicken. We usually have soup too, and always, always rice.

If we're feeling a little peckish late at night, there are a couple of excellent night food stands close to our apartment. The best one by far is a barbeque where you can buy, among other things, roasted spicy lamb, roasted chicken, and roasted tofu. The lamb is a classic in Chinese cities. Once I was eating some and my sister, who is a vegetarian, called me on my mobile phone. "What are you doing?" she asked. "Eating lamb on the street." "EWWWWW!! That's so GROSS!!" I guess it sounds kind of disgusting -- lamb on the street -- but it's so, so, so good.

Every now and then I'll make something for dinner too, but I usually end up eating most of it. My curries have proven to be somewhat popular, as have my salads. Pastas have been greeted with a lukewarm reception, and I've generally decided to stop making them, since most of the ingredients are imported and it's a bit expensive. Unfortunately I can't unleash my cookie-baking skills, because we don't have an oven. My pizza, with its simple flour dough, will therefore go untasted, which is a shame, because sometimes I yearn for it in the face of so much healthy homemade fare.

In those cases, I'll sometimes resort to good 'ol Mai Dang Lao. If you don't know what that is, say it out loud and you'll probably be able to figure it out.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007


“I never realized just how many people are in China until I came to Hangzhou.”

A Chinese friend said that on our fourth and last day in Hangzhou, “the most beautiful city in China.” The city is considerably less beautiful when you can’t see its famous West Lake because of the thousands and thousands of black-haired heads in the way, or traffic that takes an hour and a half to go a mile or so. On Tuesday, May 1, the first day of the Chinese Labor Day holiday, it was chaos. As Chinese have become more and more affluent, they have begun to travel around their own country; when a holiday such as Labor Day rolls around, the country’s famous tourist cities become seething masses of tourist flags and cameras.

The first day we arrived in Hangzhou, the city still belonged to its residents. Labor Day was still three days away. That Saturday, after getting off the train and making our way to our hostel, we saw hundreds of surly police officers lining the streets, a few meters apart, their hands clasped behind their backs in exactly the same way, looking straight ahead with serious looks. We didn’t know what was going on—was Hangzhou always like this? Soon we learned that the city was holding a parade for its Third Annual International Cartoon Festival. The police, though, were treating the parade the same as any public march, which always had to be closely monitored and controlled. As cartoon characters marched down the street—Spiderman, Garfield, Mickey Mouse, as well as many, many unfamiliar ones—the hoards of police kept the screaming children strictly on the sidelines, and made sure nobody did anything subversive such as try to touch Minnie Mouse. Many kids did anyway, of course. In fact, it was remarkable how thoroughly the gruff police were ignored.

As the long line of characters walked past, waving at the children, I was very surprised to see, tucked in between a float of Disney characters and a line of creatures doing back flips, an ethnic minority contingent. There were several of them, some not Han Chinese dressed in ethnic clothing (as is common when displaying the country’s ethnicities) but actual members, it was clear, of China’s 55 minorities.

China is dotted with “ethnic theme parks,” places where visitors can walk amongst “authentic” ethnic houses, see people dressed in ethnic costumes, and eat ethnic food. I’ve been to such parks in Beijing, Shenzhen, and Nanning. In the National Congress, representatives from the country’s ethnicities usually wear their ethnic costumes, whereas Han Chinese always wear Western style suits. Such packaging and displaying of China’s ethnicities is part of the government’s obsession with control, an obsession that reaches into many aspects of people’s private lives—ethnic identity, religion, etc. (The F_a_l_u_n G_o_n_g never intended to become politicized, and never did anything to directly challenge the communist party; they simply became too well-organized, and their activities often extended beyond the control of the state.) China’s ethnic groups are neatly organized into 56 categories (including the Han), and regulating the 55 minorities to a straightforward display of “authentic” architecture, food, and costumes that can packaged and sold serves to eliminate uncomfortable ambiguities and keep them firmly in their place—happy squares in the patchwork of China.

This tendency to display extends to the business world. KFC in China, which is known for incorporating elements of “Chinese culture” into its restaurants (such as models of the Great Wall, Chinese architecture, and displays of folk art), has recently introduced a new hamburger that uses a sauce made from tomatoes and other spices. It is being marketed as a Miao sauce, the Miao being one of China’s ethnic minority groups. In an advertisement on TV for the hamburger, a Han Chinese backpacker hikes to a remote hut, in which a Miao couple, who happen to be wearing their bulky, colorful costumes, greet him. They give him delicious soup, and he loves it so much that he fakes problems that prevent him from leaving. Eventually he returns home, and is delighted to find the exact same sauce in the KFC hamburger.

As in some progressive countries, minority groups in China enjoy many special privileges in education and government—in some areas, a certain proportion of the local government must be comprised of members of the local minority, and many minorities have more opportunities to go to college than Han Chinese. In addition, some groups have managed to use the government’s obsession with control to their advantage, displaying what is expected of them while continuing their own activities and debates under the radar (see Sara Davis's interesting article, "Dance, Or Else: The Politics of Ethnic Culture on China’s Southwest Borders"). Yet putting ethnicities on display in such a blatant way—and including them in a parade specifically intended for cartoon characters—points to a deeper problem in China, a problem that has to do with where, and how, such minorities can be incorporated into a country that has never had a single race, nor a single homogenous culture, yet is constantly trying to develop unifying claims of history.

Monday, April 23, 2007

New rich

Today I was walking along the street and I heard drums behind me. A large group of people were marching along the sidewalk, banging large drums. They wore vests with flower patterns, red sashes around their waists, and they twirled red and green flags. There were thirty or forty of them. I thought it must be some Chinese festival I hadn't heard of. Or, I thought, it might be a wedding. I knew that Chinese weddings were loud and colorful; beyond that, I didn't know much about them. Most of the people in the parade were young: were they the bride and groom's friends?

The parade came closer to me, and I stopped to watch it. Ahead of it, three or four people were handing out flyers. I took one. On it were pictures of wine bottles and a big building. It was an advertisement for a restaurant.

In the US, gimmicks are easy to spot, but in China, they often become spectacles. Partly this is due to the abundance of cheap labor: if you want a parade of forty people marching down a busy sidewalk waving flags, you can make one yourself. But it’s also due to the business mentality that has taken hold of China's urban areas--the frenzy to become part of the new rich.

Signs of this frenzy are everywhere. There's a building going up nearby, and judging from the signs outside, it will be called B&W. At first I assumed the initials were two people's surnames--Bing & Wang, or Bu & Wu, or something like that. Then I saw the caption: B&W stood for Boss & Winner. I suppose the implication is that if you live or work in that building, you'll not only be a boss, but you'll be a winner, too.

On the cover of my notebook, which I bought for about 20 cents and which consists of about 50 pages held together by a cheap plastic spiral, it says: "Gambol notebooks, made with future technology, for tomorrow's most outstanding achievers." I'm certainly glad I bought one!

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Lanzhou lamian

For lunch the other day I went to a local lamian restaurant. Lamian literally means "pulled noodles," and it involves yanking and stretching and pounding great slabs of dough and then boiling them into long, long noodles. They're typically eaten in a bowl of broth with meat, green onions, or other small vegetables. The food originates from Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu province, in the northwest, and is associated with a large ethnic group in the area, the Hui, who tend to be Muslim. Even if you don't know the characters for Lanzhou lamian, you can usually tell a lamian restaurant. They tend to be hole-in-the-wall places. The women who work there wear scarves and the men wear little round white caps. The spicy sauce found in lamian restaurants is the best spicy sauce I have ever tasted.

I struck up a conversation with the workers. They wanted to know if their kind of restaurant could do well in the US. "How much would that sell for in America?" a waitress asked me, pointing at my bowl. She was 21 years old and wore a beautiful scarf with pictures of flowers on it. I looked at the bowl of noodles. It had cost me 4 RMB, about 50 cents.

"This would probably cost between 30 and 40 RMB in a big city," I said. They smiled at each other in mild amazement.

"How much would it cost to rent a place to have the restaurant each month?" the waitress asked.

"I really don't know," I said.

She thought for a moment. "What do lamian restaurants look like in America?"

I said that most Americans haven't heard of Lanzhou or lamian, but there are many Chinese noodle restaurants in America. "Most people just call them Chinese noodles," I said.

"Do they look like this?" she asked, gesturing at her own restaurant.

I didn't really how to respond: I didn't want to say that they tended to be cleaner and more comfortable, so I just said, "they resemble McDonald's."

One of the waiters put a VCD into the TV hanging above our heads. What looked like a club scene started to play.

"That's in Lhasa," he said, dancing along to the techno music. "In Tibet."

"Have you been there?" I asked.

"Yes." Tibet is relatively close to Gansu province.

"Why did you come to Shanghai?" I asked. "Why did you leave Lanzhou?"

The waitress smiled. "Money," she said, shrugging. "We needed money."

A friend of mine who works in Shanghai once said, "Shanghai is a good place for making money. I don't think it's really a great place to live."

Many migrant workers have this attitude. An American journalist recently commented that in Shenzhen, China's recent boomtown in Guangdong, everyone is so focused on making money that there is no time for friendships, or relaxation, or love; hence in Shenzhen there are many "lonely heart hotlines," where people who need someone to talk to can call. Shenzhen is a city of migrant workers. The average age is about 29, and everyone there automatically speaks Mandarin to each other, China's common language, even though the city is in the heart of Guangdong, where people speak Cantonese. Shanghai is a much older city, with an entrenched Shanghainese population, but for migrants it can still be a lonely place. For all the talk in China about a unified, homogeneous Chinese culture, a migrant worker in a city like Shanghai can still feel very much like a foreigner.

Monday, April 9, 2007

Things to miss

Five things I miss from North America

1. Movies in theaters. In China, there's a quota of how many foreign movies theaters can show each year. Because the quota is so low -- around 10 or 15 -- distributors tend to opt for sure-hit blockbusters that are often very boring. I would love to watch more Chinese movies, but my Chinese isn't good enough to really understand them without subtitles, which of course they don't have.

2. American Chinese food. I love Chinese food, and I love American Chinese food, and those two things are not the same. Oh, how I miss expertly made General Tso's Chicken, crispy on the outside with tender chicken on the inside! Can't find that here.

3. Orderly lines. Here's a thought: when we're waiting at the bus station, and the bus pulls up, let's not all push and shove to try to get on first. And when someone hails a taxi, how about we don't dart in front of that person and jump in the cab? The Beijing government, by the way, has been putting up signs urging people to queue and not to spit, in preparation of the big influx of foreigners during the 2008 Olympics. In Beijing, the 11th day of each month is "Queuing Day," on which people are especially urged to queue. Apparently, that number was chosen because it resembles two people standing side by side.

4. Cottage cheese. Perhaps influenced by my mother, who had the same frustration while living in Turkey, cottage cheese is one of my most-missed Western foods. It's difficult to find any real cheese in supermarkets, but cottage cheese has, so far, been nonexistent.

5. Non-smoking areas. That includes bathrooms and markets. Enough said.

Five things I'm sure I'll miss from China

1.Cheap DVDs. The abundance of cheap DVDs easily belies the paucity of movies in theaters. That said, if you're looking for something specific and rare, you might be out of luck. But thumbing through hundreds of DVDs, each for less than $1, is one of my favorite shopping pastimes.

2. Being treated like a celebrity just for knowing a little bit of Chinese. What can I say, I hunger for the spotlight.

[2.5. Being treated like a celebrity just for being a foreigner. Not true so much in Shanghai, but very true in other places.]

3. Cheap beer. Get a big bottle of Qingdao beer for 50 cents; can't be beat.

4. Mahjong players. Outside my apartment window, elderly Shanghainese people congregate on nice days to play mahjong. It looks fun and complicated.

5. Parks. In Chinese parks, there's a sense of community that comes with a wonderful lack of self-consciousness. In the mornings old people do taiji or other exercises, and in the afternoon or evening there are numerous kinds of activities -- dance classes, aerobics classes, card games or chess games or mahjong or other kinds of games with huge audiences, fencing, people practicing martial arts, women holding up signs and trying to find a husband or wife for their children, etc.

Thursday, April 5, 2007


The definition of an expatriate is, "One who has taken up residence in a foreign country." But then what are immigrants? Being in Shanghai, it seems strange to think of, say, a poor Mexican who has settled down in the US an expatriate. A more accurate definition of an expatriate might therefore be, "One who has taken up residence in a foreign country, but not permanently." But then what are sojourners? Can Chinese laborers who worked in France, America, or South Africa, but who were not welcome to settle down in those places, be called expatriates? Perhaps a more realistic definition would be, "One who has temporarily taken up residence in a foreign country in which the average per capita income is less than the average per capita income of the person's home country." That certainly more closely matches the status of expats in Shanghai. After all, the Web site, which lists corporate job fairs, expat gatherings at expensive bars, and where to find good hamburgers, is certainly not aimed at Shanghai's non-Western foreigners, such as Filipino women who come here to work as maids.

The word "expatriate" originally meant "one who was banished or exiled"; its modern usage emerged in the nineteenth century, with the rise of the nation-state system. It is interesting that it has now attained upper-class overtones of wealth. The strange labels under which foreigners must live -- "immigrant," "sojourner," "refugee," "expat" -- signify difference from the citizenry of the nation-state. But there is, of course, not just one kind of foreigner. Like citizens, foreigners are also classed, if not legally, then practically.

That's in the real world. The denizens of the bureaucratic realm are quite happy to give expats the greatest hassle possible under the law.

The Chinese government insists on keeping tabs on all foreigners living or traveling in China. Wherever you're staying, whether it's a hotel, a hostel, or a friend's apartment, you must register at the local police station. If you're at a hotel, the hotel will do it for you, but if not, you have to trudge over to the local police station and show them your passport and your visa. You can get away with not registering, but if you want to extend your visa (as I had to do this morning), you need a special registration paper from the police station that proves you registered. And, if you happened to put off registering because you didn't think it was a big deal, you have to pay a fine of 300 RMB ($38), as well as wait for an hour or so while various police officers chat, smoke, discuss an excel document they happen to be working on, ask for photocopies of things you didn't bring, ask to see the lease of the apartment you're staying in, ask for the contact information of your host, ask for the contact information of the landlord of your host (I later learned that the police called the landlord to make sure she knew that a foreigner was staying in her apartment), fill out numerous forms, make you sign numerous forms, and, finally, inquire as to whether you have any statements you wish to make. (I did, of course, but I thought it would be wiser if I didn't voice them.) In addition to paying the 300 RMB fine, you must also write down the serial numbers of each of the three 100 RMB notes on (another) special form. This was a new one to me. I suppose they want to make absolutely one hundred percent sure the bills are not counterfeit, as well as provide a safeguard against corruption. At any rate, if by any chance you want a receipt for your 300 RMB fine, you have to trudge back to the police station after about a week, by which time the bank will have checked out your three 100 RMB bills, and ask for it. To ensure that you can get the receipt, they give you another receipt. I suppose you'd call it a receipt for a receipt. That seems logical.

Friday, March 30, 2007

Bless you

A few weeks ago, my roommate let out a big sneeze. "Whoa! Bless you!" I said.

She looked at me. "What?"

"I said, bless you."

"Oh." She looked confused. "Bless me?"

"Yes. You say that when people sneeze."

"Oh." She continued to look confused. "Doesn't 'bless' mean zhufu?" (That's the literal translation of "bless.")

"Well, yes, it does, but, you know, Westerners say it when someone sneezes, to, you know, bless them." I paused. That explanation didn't seem to have helped. "It's just a way of being nice."

"Oh." She considered this. "Okay."

"You can also say gesundheit," I added helpfully.

"Oh? And what does that mean?"

"The same as bless you."

"Right," she said. "Well, in China we don't say anything like that."

The closest I could come to any etymology of "bless you" was an image of a nice old lady chuckling merrily and saying, "Oh, bless you, child!" at a little girl's sneeze. I supposed that it had something to do with the sneezer's innocence, and the notion that some small affliction had come down upon her through no fault of her own. Beyond that, I had no idea.

(It turns out that "bless" comes from the Anglo-Saxon bletsian or bledsian, probably from blod, blood, from the use of sacrificial blood in ancient blessing ceremonies. That really doesn't help. Someone on the Internet thinks that the phrase originated during the plague in the 14th century, since a sneeze was thought to be the first sign of death. If that's true, my image of the nice old lady chuckling merrily seems so very, very wrong.)

Even though a sneeze in China is met with complete silence, the urge to say "bless you" when I hear one usually outweighs the difficulty I know I'll have of explaining what it means. In fact, half the time I say it without meaning to. When this happens people either look confused or, if they know about the strange Western practice, smile knowingly at their friends. Oh, these foreigners!

In a way it's alarming how deeply this cultural practice has become embedded into my habits, so much so that it becomes unconsciously reflexive, as innocent as a sneeze itself. It's alarming because the same thing can be said for so many automatic habits and assumptions, some not nearly so innocuous, or unfathomable, as the little phrase, "bless you."

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Crossing the street

Whenever you encounter a new city, it is imperative to learn how to cross the street. If you think the same rules apply in Muncie, Indiana as in New York, or, moving into more dangerous territory, in Istanbul, Hanoi, or Shanghai, you’re liable to get smooshed by a passing taxi, motorbike, or bus (respectively). I’ve found that the best strategy when learning the ropes is to wait patiently at the street corner until a local comes up beside you, then keep your eyes glued on his feet—and only his feet—all the way to the other side. In Chinese cities this may not work, since you could get clobbered from behind as well as from the side. Sidewalks are fair game for any manner of transportation on two wheels (and sometimes three). And in Hanoi, it’s better to think of the road as not so much a road as a kind of lava pit that you must jump over by intermittent stones strewn randomly across it. Sometimes you must pause while an especially fierce bunch of lava rumbles past, and you must never, ever turn and dwell upon the wall of fire that could hit you. Actually, as someone who grew up in Muncie, I had to learn at an old age how to cross the street, since in Muncie no one does so. If one lives across the street from the grocery store, and one needed some eggs, one would typically climb into one’s car and drive there. Consequently, when a Muncie driver does see someone crossing the street, the driver often doesn’t know what to do, and either swerves out of the way at the last minute or slows down far too soon in advance. In Shanghai, slowing down in advance is heavily frowned upon, though cars turning right always swerve out of the way at the last minute, so there is some similarity, though they always honk while doing it, while in Muncie honking is a really big deal. In Shanghai, cars turning right always have the right of way, or believe they do, which amounts to the same thing; and they guard that right fiercely, much like certain Americans might guard their right to have guns by shooting people who get in their way.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

English corner

On Sunday I went to the “English Corner,” an area of People’s Square Park in central Shanghai where people meet every Sunday to practice their English. A few foreigners stood scattered around the area, each surrounded by a mass of Chinese people shooting them questions. I spoke for more than three hours about (in no particular order) real estate prices in America and China, costs of going to college, loans and interest rates, costs of living, car insurance, what children do with their elderly parents, what “alpha dog” means, what “up and coming” means, what “stereotype” means, whether black people are violent and lazy, whether Jews are good at making money, whether Chinese living in America are hard workers, that Xinjiang is beautiful (from a Uyghur man whose accent sounded Turkish, not Chinese); the 1996 American election, the 2000 American election, the 2004 American election, and who will win the next American election; in addition, why there’s so much violence on American TV, whether Americans are really as promiscuous as they are on “Sex and the City” and “Friends,” whether it’s easy for American poor people to advance economically, what annoys me about China, what parts of Chinese lifestyles are most different from American ones, whether Shanghai is similar to New York, why the US attacked Iraq, differences between American girls and Chinese girls; also, what I think about Chinese culture, Chinese food, Chinese philosophy, Chinese literature, Chinese history, and Confucius. I was offered drinks, e-mails, phone numbers, and a job. It was really impossible to escape. People came and left my group, but always I had to stay.

In general, I sensed a great desire to travel, but travel to where? Traditionally, we think of Chinese as imagining the world in a China-Western (plus Japan) framework—that is how histories of modern China are usually written. Recently, it’s become clear that that is not the whole picture: awareness of other “developing” countries, for example, has played a huge role in imaginings of the world in the past 120 years or so. Still, finding ways in which Chinese conceptualize the world in ways that include the non-West usually remains limited to intellectual history. Common Chinese people now, I believe, very much privilege certain cultural hubs: American and Japanese for the most part (though recently Korean TV shows and movies have been hugely popular). I was struck at the English Corner by how focused people were on America, and not just because they were talking to an American. For many Chinese, to some extent at least, the world seems to be limited to a few certain spatial categories, “America” (a word that itself carries much baggage) paramount among them.

Thursday, March 8, 2007


Southeast Asia is infested with western backpackers. China is different. I stayed in a hostel in Shanghai for a week, and didn’t have a substantial conversation with a single westerner. Instead, the most common hostel guest was Chinese. Especially in the past decade or two, as people have made more money and it’s become easier to travel (while remaining very difficult for the vast majority of Chinese to get visas to “developed” countries), Chinese people have taken to tourism in their own country. (Many people I’ve talked to, though, desperately want to travel the world, but are held back by visas and money.) In China the problem I mentioned in an earlier post, of western backpackers just hanging out with each other, is not so serious (though interactions are usually limited to fellow Chinese travelers who can speak English). In my room the flow of travelers, apart from Chinese, included Koreans and Japanese. What’s more, though everyone spoke at least some English, the language of choice among East Asians was Mandarin. Is this a glimpse of the future?

I’m still waiting for the purported excitement of Shanghai to kick in. It seems to me that contemporary Shanghai, like the mythical Shanghai of the early twentieth century, is at its best for people who have money. An average salary for a Chinese coffee shop employee in Shanghai is about $120-150 a month (usually that includes lodging and maybe some food), while an entry-level office job usually brings in less than $400 a month. A night in Shanghai’s bars and clubs would cost at least $5 to $20, depending on where you go, so the nightlife is really intended for the city’s rich and its expats (of which there are many). I went to an informative talk on Art Deco the other day at a glamorous bar overlooking the Bund, the center of Shanghai’s former International Concession area. The place was filled with expats wearing black and drinking wine who were in love with Shanghai’s architecture. But the negative forces that enabled the creation of that architecture (which is indeed amazing), such as imperialism, were not mentioned. This glaring silence seems to too often be a feature of Shanghai expat life.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Yangshan (photos below)

The first thing I noticed when I walked into Angel’s home was the calendar on the wall, featuring Mao Zedong. I haven’t been in many Chinese homes, and the thought had half crossed my mind that such portraits were usually in places where other people could see them, such as in shops, the fact of their presence being as important as the meaning they purported to convey. But the longer I am in China the more I realize how significantly the experience and memory of Mao, no matter how much it differs from the “truth” of history, has permeated the everyday lives of many Chinese people, attaining a meaning differing from, though linked to, the realities of his rule. Many foreigners who see such portraits—of Mao in China, of Ho in Vietnam—look upon them with some disdain. They know better; modern Chinese subjects have, regrettably, been duped by the state. But such thinking may just be an updated brand of orientalism, for how can I possibly presume to know what Mao means for Angel’s parents, who have chosen to include his memory in their private space?

The identical calendar of Mao hung on the walls of her other family members—Angel’s uncle got it from his workplace and gave it to everybody, and as I made the circuit from one household to another, and then back again, I realized how close-knit the family is. A particularly raucous dinner wasn’t a dinner so much as an attempt to grab a bite or two between toasts of wine. At that dinner I struggled to understand an uncle (I think) telling me about how an American pilot, a member of the volunteer Flying Tigers which flew for China during the Japanese invasion before the US officially entered the war, was shot down in Yangshan and protected by its citizens. He also told me that the US and China are the world’s greatest nations, which I of course found very interesting! (Incidentally, the Chinese word for nation, minzu, is also the word for race. Its etymology is complicated and much discussed, but it involves the important influence of racial imaginings of the Han in the conceptualization of the Chinese nation in the early twentieth century. Anyway it’s sometimes difficult to figure out which exactly people are referring to, or whether they themselves even know!)

The Spring Festival (or New Year's Festival) very much revolves around chatting with family members, often in front of the TV. Pictures of happy pigs (this year is the year of the Pig) hang everywhere. People put money inside hongbaos, which means “red envelopes,” and are, um, red envelopes, and give them to family members and friends. I got a ton from various people, though when I gave out some of my own I was a little confused about proper hongbao etiquette. I gave one to my friend Su and she said, “Oh! Are you getting married?” I also gave a hongbao to Angel’s parents, one for both of them. I happened to hand it to her mother, but apparently I should have given one to each of them—according to Angel, her mother won’t split the money!

On the first day of the festival (this year February 18th), many people in the town visit the local temple, a very beautiful, recently constructed place on the outskirts of town. There they burn incense and stare particularly shamelessly at any foreigner who might happen to be present. They also set off firecrackers, but there really isn’t anywhere that people don’t set off firecrackers during this time of year. Quiet is precisely what the Spring Festival is anything but. Especially at midnight on the eve of the first day, the noise is unbelievable! It was like a war had suddenly broken out around us. I don’t think I’ll forget the image of Angel’s dad grinning and holding his cigarette while throwing a bunch of extremely loud firecrackers out his front door.

Angel’s parents are extremely nice, but more than that, they are very interesting people, and I’m very glad to have met them. They are low-key and give the impression of knowing what’s up. Unfortunately I had a very difficult time understanding them because they speak Mandarin with a fairly strong accent, though they spoke very slowly for me. They speak I don’t know how many languages, as many Chinese people seem to: Mandarin, Cantonese, the requisite local language (“Yangshanese” I guess), plus two dialects of Hakka (because they grew up in a city with a big Hakka population, though they are ethnically Han).

It was interesting to see different ways of doing everyday things, for example ways of keeping things clean. And I realized that Americans are way too uptight about keeping things in refrigerators. Angel’s family doesn’t have one, but they still have plenty of eggs (which you don’t have to refrigerate) and eat lots of leftovers. Also, it seems that everyone keeps live chickens somewhere. Eating habits are different, as people frequently eat more food late at night. So are showering habits. People almost never shower in the morning, but do it at night instead. Many shower in the late afternoon or early evening because it’s “good for your health,” though I never found out why.

Monday, February 19, 2007


On Friday night I took an extremely nice train from Nanning to Guangzhou, where I shared a compartment with a couple of young quiet types who work for Texas Instruments in China. In Guangzhou I made my way to Shamian island. Shamian is beautiful, and looks exactly the same as when I lived there for three months last summer in the US consulate—except that now there’s a Starbucks to compete with my dear Blenz! They’re taking over the world.

In my Shamian hostel I met a traveler from Poland who had been in China for just a few days, and was ready to get the hell out. His plan was to go back to Hong Kong and catch a cheap flight to the Philippines. He’d seen enough of China. Hectic, crowded, and difficult were the impressions he conveyed. What he hadn’t realized is that traveling in China during the Spring Festival is about as easy as climbing Mount Everest with your teeth. He’d made his way to the railway station to buy a ticket to go further into the country (he had planned to travel here for about a month), took one look, and ran away with all possible speed. When I passed by the station later, I saw what he meant. The line was unbelievable. I couldn’t figure out where it ended. It didn’t resemble a “line” so much as a great seething mass of people. Where were newcomers supposed to stand? Luckily my friend and I were not about to venture into that outgrowth of Hell, but were on our way to the adjacent bus station, which for some reason was much less frenzied than the train station (though after that experience, my whole conceptualization of “frenzy” has undergone somewhat of a revolution, sending the calm and familiar image of big crowds to the guillotine and replacing it with a frothing, distorted version of its former self). And there we bought our tickets to Yangshan.

Yangshan is a smallish town about three hours northwest of Guangzhou that sees absolutely no foreigners. Walking down the street lets me know what it’s like to be a celebrity, or a monster, or a flock of sheep cycling by while playing violins, because people would probably stare at each with the same amount of shock. A typical scenario is the casual glance, the double take, and then the relentless, shameless staring. It’s difficult to get used to.

I have two friends from Yangshan, whose English names are Angel and Su. They both studied English in Guangzhou, and I met them there last summer. Angel’s parents kindly invited me stay in their home while I am in Yangshan, letting me see their life during the Spring Festival. It’s an extremely interesting and rewarding experience, and I’ll write more about it later.

Friday, February 9, 2007

Nanning (Feb 6-9)

Nanning is a nice medium-sized Chinese city (about 1.2 million people) that is easy to get around in. There isn’t much to see here, except for some parks, a museum or two, and plenty of shopping, but it’s a good place to just hang out. A nice girl showed me around a bit, and pointed out a good local specialty, laoyou mian, which means “old friend noodles”—sometimes Chinese names get it just right! The next day I went to a museum about the Miao and Zhuang minorities, where a woman who worked there showed me around. She really impressed me: she had taught herself English in two years, and was in the process of struggling through Watership Down! She asked me some questions about vocabulary in it, which were almost all words in rabbit language that the author invented! I don’t think she really understands everything that is going on—the book is, after all, extremely British!—but she’s making a valiant effort. I can’t imagine tackling a similarly difficult book in Chinese after just two years of study.

At the museum I met a very nice French lady whose son had married a girl from Guangzhou whom he had met in France, so she (the French lady) was visiting them and traveling a bit by herself before heading to Kunming to celebrate the New Year with her daughter-in-law’s family. She was staying at the same hotel as me, and we went to a couple parks and ate a couple meals together during the next day and a half, which was very nice. (She’s really into gardening and was interested in the names of all the plants.) Some travelers are amazing: she told me about a Belgian guy she had met in Xi’an who had biked there all the way from Belgium! It took him five months. Some people take traveling very, very seriously.

On the street I randomly bumped into the man from Pingxiang whom I met on the bus in Vietnam, which was quite a surprise!

Hanoi-Nanning (Feb 6)

The night before I left for Nanning I went with Naomi’s roommate Greet and a friend of hers to a meeting of artists from Hanoi and elsewhere around the world, who meet every week to hear about a local artist’s work. The translator had studied at the Art Institute in Chicago!

Getting from Hanoi to Nanning probably could not have been any easier. I’ll outline it in brief so the future tourist can have some inkling of the pleasures of traveling out of Vietnam.

First, you buy your bus ticket for $22 a few days in advance from a nice looking travel agency in the touristy part of Hanoi. The arrangement is for the travel agency to drive you to the station on a motorbike at 7:00 in the morning on the day you leave to catch the 7:30 bus. The employee tells you to come back the following day to pick up the ticket, which seems like an extra and unnecessary trip, but you shrug and do it anyway, confident that the locals know what’s up. Upon arriving the next day, the employee tells you that the ticket isn’t available yet, so you should just come at 7:00 on the day you leave. Assuming that this is just a small mix-up and not at all indicative of any larger twist of fate, you do so. But upon arrival on the day of departure the store is closed tightly, so you wait for somebody to arrive. 7:15 comes. Then 7:30. While turning away numerous ladies selling food, you begin to get anxious, because you think you’ve missed the bus. At 7:45 someone comes and you tell her so. She runs off to get an important looking man in a suit, who tells you to come back at 8:30 to catch the 9:00 bus. You then wander around for 45 minutes, and return at 8:30 to learn that there is no 9:00 bus. Listen to another employee tell you how bad management at this company is, which would have been fascinating information a few days earlier. You’re then offered two options: 1) Get $10 back and get a ride to the border on a smaller minibus, where you can hopefully find a bus to Nanning. 2) Get a free hotel room (how generous of them!) and get the bus tomorrow. Since your visa for Vietnam expires that day, you choose the former option. You hop on a motorbike and get a ride to a minibus, where thankfully there is someone there from Pingxiang, a Chinese town at the border, who speaks Chinese. Cram in with him and hear his opinions about the war in Iraq (all about oil), women in America (are they really “easy”?), and how America’s economy got to be so strong (lots of reasons). Get to the Vietnamese border town, drive around dropping people off at various places, then hop in a new car with your Chinese companion and another Chinese man, which drives to Friendship Pass, the border. Crowd by the exit window, because in Asia lines are luxuries. Passport vanishes, then reappears with an exit stamp. Proceed to the Chinese entry point, where an astute border guard examines your passport very carefully, looking at every single previous visa and entry or exit stamp. Rewrite entry card in ink instead of pencil. Then the guard spots a problem with your passport: why is your passport number 086747655, but on the Chinese visa is written U86747655!?!?!?!?! Which is it, 0 or U?? He calls his superior and they initiate a deep and engaging conference on the subject. You try your best to explain that it’s just a silly mistake that the Chinese consulate in Chicago made because your passport is old and the number 0 is a bit smudged so it could be a U. After much discussion, they waive you through.

The other side is like a cool swim on a hot day, a nice stretch after a cramped bus ride, ease after difficulty. There’s a bus waiting… to Nanning! Not only does it have seatbelts, but the stewardesses make you wear them! It has air conditioning! It drives you directly to a station! (Instead of random hotels that have deals with the bus company.) In Nanning the air is fresh, the traffic is light, and sidewalks are sidewalks instead of motorbike parking lots. Best of all, when people speak they are not totally unintelligible. It’s nice to be back in China.

Monday, February 5, 2007


You have to strike a fine balance when posting something on the Internet—writing all your thoughts while keeping in mind that anyone can look at them. When traveling, though, you have a little more leeway, because you can say whatever you want about people who don’t speak English! A nasty trick perhaps, but such are the traits of the language barrier. I shudder to think what has been said about me in front of my face these past two weeks in Vietnam. “What’s that terrible smell? Is it coming from that foreigner? Hello! You very handsome! This just 5 dollar cheap okay!”

In a place like Hanoi, the relationship between tourists and the people who deal with them is often one of misunderstanding, anxiety, even hatred. On the street, tourists are offered products of every kind, from pirated Lonely Planet guidebooks to pastries. Sellers grab at your arms and clothes, and the constant barrage of hassling can wear the poor tourist down. The worst are the motorbike drivers. They sit on street corners and shout, yell, and wave their arms at any passing white person. Tourists, in turn, learn to ignore them or return rudeness with rudeness.

Traffic in Hanoi is lots of fun, both for the driver and the pedestrian! Most people are on motorbikes, and crossing the street involves wading into the middle of a horde of passing bikes. You must walk very slowly but steadily while they weave around you. Driving one involves constant vigilance. Only ex-pats wear helmets. The most distressing sight is seeing a father driving with his wife perched behind and their little child on his lap, all helmetless! Brittany Spears’ lapse of judgment was the pearl of motherhood compared to these transgressions.

My trip has been limited to Hanoi, where I plunged into the (relatively) luxurious ex-pat lifestyle with Naomi and her friends (for Vietnam is cheap, very very cheap); Hue, a city just south of the former DMZ; Hoi An, another city a few hours south of that; and Hai Phong, a city an hour or two east of Hanoi, whose port was mined in 1972 by American ships, which returned the next year to help clean them up. Hue was the only important city held by the Vietcong for a significant amount of time (3 and a half weeks) during the Tet offensive in 1968 (when they murdered thousands of people suspected of working with the Americans), and you can still notice traces of the intense fighting that happened there. Hue was the capital of Vietnam for a while, and it has an impressive citadel that was built in the early 19th century. In Hue, I went on a day trip to the DMZ area from the American War (as it’s called here) and saw battlefields, many of which were household names in the US in the 1960s: the Vinh Moc tunnels, Khe Sanh combat base, the Rockpile lookout post, and the bridge that “connected” North and South Vietnam. At Khe Sanh they had a couple captured US helicopters on display, which was strangely disconcerting for me. All these areas are overgrown now, which is how it should be, though in some of them huge bomb craters can be seen every few meters. There are still plenty of unexploded artillery rounds, projectiles, and mines strewn about. A fairly large number of people die or are injured each year from the stuff. It was heartbreaking to see big billboards warning children not to play in minefields or touch pieces of metal on the ground. One sign showed a child crying with his hand flying through the air. Imagine having to worry about that as a kid!

Hoi An is a beautiful little town with impressive colonial architecture that combines influences from many parts of the world. I stayed in a guesthouse in a stunning 200-year-old building, which had been passed down through the same family was inhabited by a few ladies of various ages—probably aunts and grandmothers. I didn’t see any men or younger people there. It was right beside a beautiful covered bridge built by Japanese residents in the 1590s to connect their area with the Chinese area. One of Hoi An’s most interesting features is the cultural blending that often comes with port cities—influences from all over Asia as well as Europe can be seen in the architecture around the city.

Vietnam is a big backpacking country, and a typical route has people starting in Thailand and going to Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. A lot of them are shockingly vapid and incurious, and a lot of them aren’t. Backpacking is a strange product of our modern times, and often seems to simply involve Westerners traveling to far-away places to hang out with each other. The only locals they can interact with are those who speak some English. It’s an interesting subculture, and one that merits further thought.

Tomorrow I’m off to Nanning, where, to my great relief, I shall finally be able to at least partially transgress the dreaded language barrier!

Sunday, February 4, 2007

First post

Well I figure having a nice little internet site people can go to will be more straightforward than sending out a bunch of e-mails, and it will be easier to ignore too! :) So I will post every week or two probably, hope you enjoy it!