First Impressions of China

Sorry about the delay. I’ve been busy planning my summer vacation! Here’s my itinerary:

JULY 21: LAST DAY OF CLASSES
July 24: Train to Kanazawa
July 25-26: Kanazawa
July 26-27: Temple Stay at Koya-san
July 27-29: Tokyo (Tsukiji, Yasukuni, Yokohoma)
JULY 29: FAMILY ARRIVES IN TOKYO
July 30: Tokyo City, Yomiuri Giants v. Chunichi Dragons in Tokyo Dome
July 31: Nikko, Shinjuku, climb Fuji overnight
August 1: Sunrise atop Mt. Fuji, Descend Fuji, Hakone, Kamakura, to Kyoto
August 2: Kyoto (Central/Higashiyama), Bunraku in Osaka
August 3: Kyoto (Higashiyama), Kabuki at Minami-za
August 4: Kyoto (Northwest), Eating/Shopping in Osaka
August 5: Kyoto (Fushimi Inari), Uji, Cormorant Fishing at Night
August 6: Nara
August 7: Himeji, Okayama Korakuen, arrive in Hiroshima
August 8: Hiroshima, Miyajima, to Nagasaki
August 9: Nagasaki (Anniversary of Atomic Bombing)
August 10: Nagasaki, to Kumamoto (Home), Dinner and Karaoke
August 11: Kumamoto Castle, Mt. Aso, Barbecue
August 12: Showing my family my town, introductions to everyone I know
AUGUST 13: FAMILY RETURNS TO AMERICA
August 13: Kumamoto Orientation – leading a workshop on Japanese Office Etiquette
August 14: Annual Physical, Work (haha)
August 15: All-night hike with 6th graders
August 16: Yamaga Lantern Festival
AUGUST 17: FLY TO HONG KONG FOR SECOND TRIP
August 17-21: Hong Kong, visiting Kevin and Serrie
August 22-23: Singapore
August 24-26: Kaohsiung, Taiwan
August 25: Day Trip to Tainan
August 26-27: Taichung, Sun Moon Lake for Qi Hsi
August 27-30: Taipei, return home
AUGUST 31: SCHOOL BEGINS AGAIN

And now for my long-awaited (or at least long-postponed) (and just plain long) email about China.

The first week of May is called “Golden Week” in Japan. Literally. The English words are sandwiched awkwardly into the usual Japanese subtitles on the news, though even “America” and “Barack Obama” are written in Japanese script. Half the days from April 29th to May 7th are holidays, so it’s like Japanese spring break. “Showa Day” is for reflecting on events during the reign of Emperor Showa, whom you know by his first name: Hirohito. He lasted until 1989, so he caught enough of the post-war reconstruction to upgrade his legacy in the country from “Disastrous” to “Mixed.” Really, though, I think we have Showa Day because the emperor’s birthday is always a holiday, and since Hirohito was the emperor for 63 years, people really got used to having that day off and decided to keep it around after he was gone. (The current emperor’s birthday is December 23rd, which helps everyone feel better about having to work on Christmas.) May 3rd is the anniversary of the post-war constitution; May 4th is Greenery Day, celebrating the environment (which the Japanese take way more seriously than anyone else, owing to Shintoism); May 5th is Children’s Day, as in South Korea. If any of these holidays falls on Saturday or Sunday, “substitute holidays” are added to preserve the five-day weekend.

If you have enough vacation time (like me) you can turn 2-4 vacation days into a 12-day break, enough time to try all sorts of different things. If you are Japanese, you aren’t comfortable with long vacations because they get you out of your work rhythm (I think this is why “Golden Week” is written in English, as if America enforced it in a package deal with the constitution), so you use only the mandatory five-day break, and you clean your house or travel somewhere inside the country. This was especially true this year, when the outbreak of “new type” influenza made the entire rest of the world seem terrifying to Japanese people. We’ve been getting documents at school every few days about what to do if a student catches it. Every single person who’s found out I went abroad has asked if influenza was a problem for me. Bookings for tours in New Zealand in May and June are literally down 75% from last year, and last I checked the only thing New Zealand has in common with Mexico is mediocre soccer. One ALT went home to Texas, returned with the sniffles, and was quarantined for two weeks. My host mother and her husband canceled a 2-week tour of Central Europe after their son-in-law, despite being a doctor, begged them not to go. When the flu arrived in Kansai, the whole region shut down for a week. (Just today New Flu made its debut in my home prefecture! I’ll tell you if I die.)

I, unfazed by a disease that has killed less people in its history than malaria did last Saturday, boldly flew to Henan province in China. (On the way, I boldly spent an overnight layover in Incheon, South Korea, where you can watch Starcraft fights on cable TV, and McDonald’s serves green tea-flavored Frosties…more awesome cultural insights like this after I spend a week in Korea in September!) This was a big trip for me. For much of my childhood, my father warned me about China’s spying, military buildup, and possible invasion of our country – which gives me something in common with my Taiwanese friends at Duke. I don’t particularly consider China a security threat, since then they’d never get their money back from The Fed, but it is emerging as one of the most important countries of my generation; its classical culture is one of the deepest on earth, and I’ll be studying Chinese when I’m finished here, so I had to see the mainland for myself. (If you’d like to do the same, keep in mind that an entry visa costs over $100, and you have to get it through the consulate.)

The Sites
Henan, south of the Yellow River and Beijing, is called the “cradle of Chinese civilization.” If men were angels, that would mean city after city of relics, sages, and museums, but sadly, five thousand years of civilization also means five thousand years of wars. Most temples are reconstructions, and almost the only genuine treasures remaining are the parks, since the warlords haven’t yet developed bombs big enough to blow up entire mountains and rivers. In case you’ve been to Henan, these are the parks we visited: Yun Tai Mountain, Qing Tian River, the Shadow Temple gorge, and Shen Nong Mountain, the traditional home of Taoist hero Shen Nong, the Yan Emperor, who invented farming.

The most famous place we visited was the Shaolin Temple. I don’t think there’s anything mystical about shaolin kung fu – if you spent your entire life jumping around and sparring, and you could do flips before you learned to read, you’d be pretty good at it too – but it was inspiring to see what a life of discipline can produce. Are there ten bankers who are as good at banking as the monks are at fighting? Or even ten janitors who are as good at cleaning?

We also saw the Longmen (“Dragon Gate”) Grottoes and the White Horse Temple in Luoyang, which was the capital of the Eastern Han until Dong Zhuo pillaged it and moved everyone to Chang’an, then was the capital of the subsequent Wei and Jin dynasties. (If you don’t know these names, I recommend spending your next Wikipedia hour on “Romance of the Three Kingdoms.” And if you do, did you know John Woo made a 2-part all-star film about the Battle of Red Cliffs this year? It was the biggest blockbuster ever in Asia.) The Dragon Gate Grottoes feature thousands of ancient Buddhas, big and small, carved into caves straddling the river, as well as a famous temple and the garden tomb of legendary poet Li Bai, who on a peaceful summer night set off on a boat, got drunk, and drowned when he tried to embrace the moon’s reflection in the water. The thousands of sitting Buddhas – sometimes hundreds were carved into the same wall – made me think the creation, not the viewing, of the images was the real spiritual exercise. As for the symbolism, the difference between Buddha meditating and Christ Pantocrator judging (not to mention Christ crucified) cuts the Eastern and Western spiritual traditions in two. It’s easy to stay that deep down, all faiths are the same…but…

The White Horse Temple was the first Buddhist temple in China. It’s well-maintained and spacious, and it primarily honors the two Indian monks who came to the Han court two thousand years ago and translated the sutras into Chinese. Some serious Buddhists came to the temple and laid face-down before the icons. The main temple yard follows the classic Chinese design: an ascending series of stone courtyards with shrines for Buddha, saints, or traditional gods (like the Four Generals). It was like an outdoor version of the pilgrimage cathedrals in Europe, in which one can walk around the perimeter and pray at stations with pictures and icons of Jesus, Mary, and the saints. You can burn incense sticks in front of the shrine, or kneel and pray to the icon inside. I didn’t myself, which was an interesting reversal from my cathedral-hopping days. You’ll often see a bell, a gong, stone tablets with Buddhist wisdom written on them, statues of turtles, shops run by monks, and living quarters which aren’t closed-off enough to prevent you from walking into them. There are no group worship services, besides ceremonies on special days, so there are no large buildings for them. In addition to the main temple, the White Horse temple has huge gardens on both sides, inside of which are other domes, pagodas, and memorials.

The City
We stayed in the foreigners’ dorm at a technical college in the “small” city of Jiaozuo (metropolitan population: 3 million). We never left Henan and never visited a city larger than Jiaozuo. Because of our unusual travel arrangement (more on that later), we spent a lot more time wandering around malls and grocery stores than normal tourists would. When there was nothing to see, I people-watched.

The country is shooting up like a junior high school student, and it looks similarly awkward and disproportionate. (I’ve read that many buildings erected at such cost in Beijing for the Olympics lie fallow now.) I’ve never seen so many construction cones, bumpy roads, apparently empty buildings, or clashing architecture. If I’d grown up in any other town, I could also tell you I’ve never seen so many roundabouts. Fresh high-rises and shiny eight-lane roads sprawl out from the center of the city, bordering and even enclosing old neighborhoods with dirt roads, brick houses, and donkeys. I fell asleep in a taxi, and when I woke up I thought he’d taken me to Mexico, but we were just passing through a neighborhood lying between highways.

I can’t speak for life in the countryside, which I’ve heard is still feudally old, but the cities seems middle-class enough. Electricity and water are not always reliable, and you do have to pack your own toilet paper, but there are tons of cars and an unbelievable amount of food in the markets, and public sanitation is acceptable…well, okay, I saw adults spitting on the floor inside malls and a three year old squat let one loose in the middle of the most crowded sidewalk in town, but at least there wasn’t any leprosy.

China is an alternate economic universe. Everything is at least 7 times cheaper than it is in America or Japan, albeit salaries are lower as well. I’m guessing it’s because everything “Made in China” comes from right next door. Plus there aren’t as many patent laws, so it’s easy to sell knock-offs. There are mind-boggling numbers of cute trinkets for sale. (Yes, we visited one of the infamous bootleg video stores where you can buy a hundred movies for 50 cents.) The bus costs 15 cents, but a local taxi ride costs only $2, and a round trip by taxi to a site a couple hundred kilometers away costs just $40, so we took the yellow cab everywhere. Even gasoline is far cheaper than it is in other countries, so the government must be subsidizing it, which isn’t so difficult for them because they’re investing in so many natural resources all over the world.

Food is cheap enough that you could eat yourself to death, so we sampled all kinds of things. I passed on dog and turtle, though I saw them on the menu, but I did have Peking duck, which was as good as advertised, and chicken feet, which is rightfully not advertised, with apologies to dim sum fans. Chinese gourmands like their snacks fried or dried. The nutrition and taste didn’t match Japan’s, but how many national diets do? Much of the food was the spiciest I’ve had outside of Mexican cooking, which was a great change of pace for me because Japanese flavors are so mild. I’m sure you know about Chinese peppers, but one thing I hadn’t realized is how important vinegar is to mainland cuisine.

The Cast
I traveled with Eugene, my best friend among the foreign teachers. He grew up in San Francisco Chinatown speaking Taishan (a Cantonese dialect), then learned standard Canto in Chinese school as well as Mandarin, Japanese, and a little Spanish at UC Davis. This was his first time on the mainland, too, since his whole family now lives in California and Vancouver.

Our host, named Brandon, graduated from college two years ago, at age 29, and set himself up in Harbin and then Henan to teach English and study Chinese and Tai Chi. His invitation was unexpected and generous, but it turns out he needed something in return: friendship and help putting his life together. Before college, he spent seven years as a clerk at a video store. Now he wants to marry and have a family, but he’s behind his peers, and thinking about this gives him a lot of stress, which in turn prevents him from getting things done. When life gets to be too much for him, he returns to his video clerk habits of watching South Park, Family Guy, and movies. I’m grateful he had us over, and we warmed up to each other and grew from the experience. We all cleaned up the place and cooked a lot, so I learned how to make salsa, tortillas, and burritos.

The shadowy fourth member of our group, whom we only met for one dinner but who was the actual planner of our trip, was Jiaozuo native and fellow Davis grad Bowen. Bowen talks and acts Like A Boss, which he is, because his parents are rich and well-connected doctors; he majored in a hard science; and his English is flawless. Brandon had only been living in Henan for a month, so Bowen told him where we should go every day and how we should get there, even introducing us to taxi drivers who were friends of his family. Bowen and Brandon are great friends, so Bowen didn’t mind the phone calls at all.

The Locals
I took Chinese 1 and 2 my senior year of college. It was a great stepping stone for Japanese because I got accustomed to reading Chinese characters, which basically have the same meaning in Japanese, albeit Japanese characters are easier than traditional Chinese (Taiwan, Hong Kong) and more difficult than simplified Chinese (mainland). After a year over here, my Chinese character recognition has improved dramatically, so I could read the signs in Henan and use the ATM, but my speaking abilities were corrupted. Even though Chinese has quasi-English grammar, when I first arrived I was using Japanese grammar because that’s my default foreign language now. Every time my students ask me to speak Chinese, I say the same thing: “I think Japan is very interesting and Japanese food is very delicious.” Then they say, “I don’t understand you!!! Wow!!!” (When they ask me to speak Spanish, I say, “Spanish is hard for me to remember because the pronunciation is so similar to Japanese. I like to eat sausages, and when I lived in Spain I ate a ton of them.”) By the end of the trip, after mercilessly carrying on conversations with locals and leaving a trail of confusion in my wake, my powers finally returned!

I had little interactions with plenty of people. It was especially nice to see girls my age, since I don’t meet any out here. I felt like I stood out much more in a Chinese city of 3 million than I do in a Japanese town of 8000. People were constantly staring at me and either secretly taking my picture or outright asking for a picture. At Longmen Grottoes, I was more popular than the Big Buddha. Children would point at me in the grocery store and say “Mom! Look! A foreigner!” Adults would wave at me and shout the only word they know: “Hello!” The shopkeepers, who are as aggressive as any in the third world, would inflect their hello’s to make cover a range of emotions. At first I was exasperated, since in Japan even strangers more or less treat me like I’m a normal human being, but after a certain amount of discomfort my irony defenses kicked in, so I started to ham it up for the camera, compete with Brandon over being the most popular foreigner, and say “Hello!” to other foreigners while taking pictures of them myself.

Someone living in Singapore warned me that Chinese people would be hostile to me – quite the opposite! They were extremely interested in me and wanted to hang out with me all the time. A foreigner is a golden goose, someone with more money and connections than the average person could ever dream of. Wealthy people are treated the same way. Resenting the fortunate won’t get you anywhere; you have to use them instead.

We were scammed three times, in case you were wondering. It might have been more if I’d interacted with more shopkeepers. First, an Internet café in the airport advertised free access. We got online, and the hostess said in return for that we had to buy drinks. So I ordered green tea. She charged me $20 for it. Second, one of the taxi drivers agreed to take us to and from the Shaolin Temple for $40, but costs overran his estimate so at the very end of the trip he bumped the price to $60 on us; Brandon acquiesced. Third, another taxi driver brought a bunch of his friends on one of the trips without telling us he was going to do so, and he didn’t charge them any money, but he still charged us the same agreed-upon sum.

At the base of Shen Nong Mountain, Eugene and I met a pair of cute 20-year old law students. We went all the way up and down the mountain with them, and we bought each other forget-me-not gifts at the end. They couldn’t speak English, but Eugene and I tag-teamed to converse in Chinese: I brought the enthusiasm, and he brought the ability. Our Mandarin leveled up about ten times. Truly, that was one of the most beautiful days of my year. ‘Twas a day for being young and joyful. They even came to the airport to see us off! We had fruit and tall glasses of leafy green tea together, and one of the girls hugged Eugene for an super long time and hand-wrote a letter with lots of formal expressions and not many details about how happy she was to meet us. We’ve emailed a couple times after that and since dropped out of contact, which is natural. I’m sorry to say we never ate the donkey meat they gave us, either. I just didn’t trust the expiration date, which said we could still eat it 14 months from now. Some loves, and some meat products, are only meant to last for a day.

I wanted to go to a Catholic church on the Sunday of the trip. Brandon sent me and Eugene to a huge Protestant church instead, and he couldn’t really explain why. The woman who hosted us at the Protestant church, a religious ed teacher, knew about the Catholic church and deliberately brought me to her church instead, but I couldn’t really understand her explanation. Anyway, it was nice to go to her church, too, and have the classic Chinese Christian experience. The church was a three-story building with the words “JIAOZUO CHRISTIAN CHURCH” emblazoned obviously on the front, so it was a state-approved parish. The structure of both the building and the service were just like non-denominational worship services I’ve attended in both Mexico and Summit in Durham, North Carolina. The opening song was even Western: “Holy, Holy, Holy” translated into Mandarin and transcribed for a big band. We sang seven songs or so about God’s love, and there were moments dedicated to personal prayer, when the building would hum while inside the building as everyone spoke to God in their own words. The pastor was a woman in her 50s, and the choir and assistants wore red robes. The sermon was based on the section in Revelation about the wicked and The Beast being cast into the lake of fire, and it went for over thirty minutes, but I couldn’t understand it. I would imagine, since she didn’t cross-reference any other verses, that she was counseling people on how to live rather than doing theology or exegesis. As in every church, there were more women than men, but the crowd was younger than the usual Sunday bunch, which is a good sign. I think the Church will keep growing there.

Our taxi drivers were 35-year old men of all kinds: veterans, rookies, talkers, silent types, too-cool guys with sunglasses. We had our longest trip with a talkative driver, so with Eugene’s help I got to discuss everything about the country with him. Another one of the taxi drivers was really close to a young obstetrician at the local hospital. She’s legally married, but eight years ago her husband, named Zhao Xiaosan, went to Nagoya on a 3-year research visa and never came home. She and the cab driver think he’s living out there with a false identity and a mistress, and they wanted me to help track him down. Eugene and I, using Google, read about his story on the Internet and traced his most calls to his wife (made over a year ago) to a Nagoya cell phone and a Hong Kong calling card. When I got home, I asked my Japanese host mother, Mrs. Mizumoto, about it, since her brothers both became police chiefs in Tokyo. “It happens all the time,” she said. And she’s right. This bird has flown, and now I’m carrying his picture in my wallet.

The Politics
China is the most apolitical country I’ve ever visited. Partially this is because there’s nothing to argue about: Americans constantly agonize about who to elect and what he should do, almost futilely believing their one voice can move history, but in China, the Party runs everything, and that’s that. Things are good enough for most that keeping one’s head down is better than sticking one’s neck out. The Japanese may feel their government is unrepresentative, but they still have a robust interest in Barack Obama; in China, I hardly saw his face at all, and the books that were published about him even seemed skeptical.

It’s certainly not a 1984 police state: all the police officers I saw were paramilitary soldiers, but there weren’t enough for them to blanket every street corner. Officially, China’s soldiers number 7 million (2 million active, 1M reserve, 4M paramilitary/armed police), which would mean there are only 5.3 soldiers per 1000 citizens, a lower rate than even the United States (11/1000) and France (13). Even if the government is deliberately undercounting by millions, the state is most likely less militarized than North Korea (259/1000), Singapore (117), Vietnam (114), and South Korea (76). One of our drivers took us past an unmarked military shooting range. No one cared that I had a camera. Usually troops just march around in packs, ready to smother a fire but less involved in daily life than Western police. If you’re a common citizen, law enforcement won’t create trouble for you, but it won’t help you, either. Solving a crime costs money, and getting redress from the authorities takes higher-level connections.

As for the Great Firewall, I could successfully access any American news website, even Rush Limbaugh, from a Chinese computer, but that doesn’t say anything about freedom: those sites are written in English! If your English is good enough to get something out of an American political website, good for you, but such people are very few. Chinese language websites and photo/video portals like Flickr and YouTube are strictly controlled, and recently Twitter, so useful to Iranian protesters, was blocked. Google is state-regulated.

We spent a couple hours in a large, Barnes & Noble-style bookstore. It was a good chance to see the intersection between popular interest and the state’s message control. If the stores sell books the people don’t like, they’ll go broke, but if they sell books the government doesn’t like, they’ll be shut down. The political section had its Little Red Books, as well as screeds from Western intellectuals I’d never heard of about what a great job China is doing and how little America appreciates it, but the biggest sellers were business books and biographies of American businessmen like Warren Buffett. The state may put Mao’s face on all the shelves, but instead people buy books about becoming wealthy with cash that has his face on it. My strongest impression of middle class intellectual life was apolitical: that we in the rest of the developed world are in huge trouble. Vendors are selling substantive books, not sentimental fluff. The romances and thrillers were the very last thing I found after strolling through aisle after aisle of classics and educational materials. The strangest items I found were a scholarly book on Asian latrines and a children’s picture book teaching the names of different kinds of weapons, like guns, artillery, grenades, tanks, and fighter jets.

I can’t tell you what’s taught in the countryside, but in the city bookstores, plenty of Western classics were available, and my taxi drivers seemed to have an idea of how things work in America. Maps of China include various pieces of disputed territory, such as Taiwan, but that’s to be expected. The state’s educational strategy, as it were, seems to be to present an extremely China-centric view of the world. Works of history, art, music, philosophy, and everything else focus disproportionately (compared to bookstores in other countries) on Chinese contributors to these fields. Grow up in China, and you’ll surely believe it is the greatest country ever. You’ll also well remember all the wrongs other countries have committed against you. I was told not to mention I live in Japan, and whenever I did, people brought up Nanking.

The government position on democracy and human rights was best expressed by Jackie Chan of all people. He may hail from Hong Kong, but his face was everywhere in Jiaozuo, and he said a few months ago, “I feel that in the 10 years after Hong Kong’s return to Chinese rule, I can gradually see, I’m not sure if it’s good to have freedom or not…I’m really confused now. If you’re too free, you’re like the way Hong Kong is now. It’s very chaotic. Taiwan is also chaotic…I’m gradually beginning to feel that we Chinese need to be controlled. If we’re not being controlled, we’ll just do what we want.”

The Culture
What made the biggest impression on me was not the government or the tourist sites but everyday life. Temples and sutras were created by the Great Ones millennia ago, and mountains and rivers were crafted by God, but contemporary culture is expressed in people’s habits. When I’d just come back, I breathlessly mentioned that China is “nuts,” but people survive and even thrive day after day, so the society isn’t built on sand. We may say they’re lawless, but they’d replay that they’re flexible.

The driving culture, I think, is a fitting symbol for the society. There are lane lines, signals, and passing rules, just like in other countries, but you don’t have to follow them: just honk constantly to let other people know you’re getting in their way, then power through. If you want to pass on the left lane, you honk to go around. If there’s someone in the left lane, too, you honk at both of them and cross into the opposing lane, sometimes cutting off traffic, to get around them. If there’s no room on there, you can even go out to the left shoulder, and if there’s no room on the left shoulder, the government comes with its Caterpillars, honks at the people who live there, and knocks down their houses to make the road wider. One of my students’ fathers creates GPS navigation systems for automobiles, and he says it’s dangerous, and often impossible, to make maps for China because cities reform year after year, and city mandarins boast that they can change whatever they like.

Pedestrians crossed busy streets anywhere, any time, often jumping between cars like Frogger. There are no seatbelts in the taxis. Sometimes the drivers pull the strap across themselves so they look legal, but they won’t actually buckle in. Many trucks were three-wheelers, a little cheaper and a lot less safe. Motorized rickshaws compete with the taxis. Bicycles are transportation for two, motorcycles for three. Typically, the man drives, and the girlfriend sits on the back wheel. I saw a four-year old fall out of his mother’s moped as she took a wide turn on a roundabout. The bruised child sat down and cried; no one stopped to help; the mother backed up, scooped him up, and sped away.

Either you figure out how to survive on the road, or you get killed, and the ones you see driving are the ones who aren’t dead yet. When I was in a taxi, I never felt unsafe. The drivers lived in those conditions and knew exactly what to do. They handled constant dangers effortlessly. The going only got rough when the roads weren’t paved. Accidents happen, but I didn’t see any.

“Chinese people are very clever,” he said when we discussed law and order. “They can make the best of any situation.” Indeed, the lack of rules oddly created a more efficient outcome, since each part of the road could be used at all times, and with people cramming together there were less vehicles on the road. If everyone could run red lights in the middle of the night when no one else was around, couldn’t our society be a little more efficient?

One time, Brandon was waiting at a booth to buy boat tickets for us. After three or four people cut in front of him, I practically commanded him to box other people out and get going. People did the same thing in the line to get on the boat, so I took the lead and pushed us through. I didn’t make eye contact, shove, or shout at anyone; I just took every piece of space available to me. When I talked to Brandon about it later, he said he knew how things work, but he didn’t want to lower himself that way. I replied that the queue isn’t a moral institution, it’s just house rules: do as they do and don’t feel guilty about it. If I were Chinese, I’d say that if you aren’t constantly defending your spot in line, you don’t want what you’re waiting for badly enough. I never got around to shouting commands at waiters in restaurants, the way the natives do, but I adjusted to other Chinese standards quickly enough. I think – I think – that if I had a good community, I could live there without my spirit becoming too damaged.

Living with Chinese pollution, however, would be a real sacrifice. Beijing famously shut down all its factories during the Olympics so the athletes could breathe enough to perform. Zhengzhuo seemed to sit in a dust storm. Jiaozuo smelled terrible and looked hazy from the day I arrived to the day I left, and the sky only looked blue from inside the national parks. After a couple days, I could breathe a little, but my nose was still irritated the whole time, and my lungs felt smaller. I never drank the water, and Brandon, after a year in the country, tried it a couple weeks ago and still got sick. Living on the mainland would age me.

This pollution, I think, is the physical manifestation of the country’s sins. Flexibility of house rules is fine. That’s a matter of taste. Chinese ethics, though, often crosses that line and enters into outright selfishness which damages other people. When an individual does what’s best for himself and doesn’t worry about the consequences, he wrongs a few, but when a manufacturing businesses does that, everyone gets sick and can’t do anything about it. When a construction company does it, houses collapse; when a baby food company does it, babies get sick. Why is such selfishness so widespread? I think it comes from the sentence I heard more often than any other:

“THERE ARE TOO MANY PEOPLE IN CHINA.”

This is not scientifically true, as even on the eastern seaboard the country is less densely populated than Japan. Overcrowding, though, is dependent not only on the raw number of people but also on the availability of resources, and even where there should be abundance in China, the weather and warlords have always created scarcity. For all of history, the gods in the clouds have brought earthquakes and floods, the gods in the castles taxes and pillage. So people have learned to fight for whatever they can get their hands on. Even when they don’t have to fight anymore, like the urban middle class, they keep doing it because that’s all they know. Whatever role the traditional institutions like Confucianism and Buddhism had in regulating common behavior has been greatly weakened by the many campaigns of the Party.

The belief that there are too many people causes heavy moral damage. It turns people into numbers, into obstacles, into things. It takes their humanity away. It makes them barriers to be overcome, not individuals to be respected. On top of that, it’s such a flexible excuse that both the meager and the strong can stretch it to justify anything they do. The tourist says, “Don’t judge me when I litter. Why should I make an extra effort, when no one else is, to keep this place beautiful for someone I’ll never meet?” The housewife says, “Don’t judge me when I steal plants from public parks. If I don’t what I can, there could be nothing left for my family later, and my children will be as hungry as I was.” The businessman says, “Don’t judge me when I cut corners on my product – if I don’t, a hundred other entrepreneurs will, and then I’ll go broke.” The police officer says, “Don’t judge me when I take bribes. There are too many criminals and too many crimes, and money is the best way to sort out the queue for my services.” The urban planner says, “Don’t judge me on property rights. We’re in the middle of the biggest urban migration in the history of the world, and if we don’t sacrifice some worthless huts, our cities will devolve into unmanageable morasses.” The police say, “Don’t judge us on freedom. If we let 1968-style unrest spread to the entire country, there will untold levels of suffering and destruction.”

And the social planner says, “Don’t judge me on population control. If we don’t keep the farmers from breeding, they’ll starve.” He is the most responsible, I say, for the country’s future problems, because his policy has the biggest effect on people’s lives. You can dodge the policy if you have money, but those are the privileged few that you see at tourist sites and the like. No government has ever controlled the makeup of the family as broadly as the Chinese regime. If I lived in China, the only way I’d be able to stand it is to convince myself that there really are too many people. Even those who would only have one child anyway must reflect about how they don’t have a choice. Countless children are growing up without siblings or even cousins. When a couple has one child and four grandparents in the house, the environment will feel old, not young. There’s no social safety net, so parents have one shot at raising the child who will take care of them when they’re old, and if his future disappears, so does yours, as happened to so many old couples in Sichuan. This scarcity of descendants is driving parents and children to work extremely hard. I could see it in the faces of the couples I met: they were totally engrossed in their only sons at all times, willing to teach them anything and everything. On a darker note, I’d imagine some young Chinese can relate to famous young pianist Lang Lang: when he was 9 years old, his father gave him a bottle of pills and told him he wasn’t working hard enough, so he should either take the pills or jump out the window of their Beijing apartment.

Boys are more socially valuable, and the government acknowledged that by allowing parents in some states to have a second child if their first was of the “wrong” gender. The two girls we met at Shen Nong Mountain both had younger sisters for that reason. Selective abortion is practiced more widely in China than anywhere in the world, and now there is such a glut of males that they have to work really hard to attract girlfriends. Even so, 100 million Chinese men won’t be able to find someone to marry: what will they do when they realize the family tree ends with them? It’ll be too late for them to become Shaolin monks. If parents are willing to kill their girls, what’s happening to handicapped and special needs children? I mentioned to my father that I’d been to Luoyang, and he brought up a young friend of a friend who’s working in an orphanage there for babies who are abandoned because they have cleft palates.

The clock has struck midnight, so I’ll leave it at that. This surely won’t be the last time I think about China. As you saw before, I’m scouting Hong Kong and Taiwan later this summer, and I’m leaning toward moving to Taiwan, but the mainland is in my thoughts and prayers and future regardless.

On July 5th, I’ll be taking the top level of the Japanese Proficiency Test for foreigners, so my next email about Japan will (should) arrive between that date and July 24th, when I’m off adventuring again. I hope you’re having a great summer! Peace be with you!

Explore posts in the same categories: China, Interesting Places, Politics

One Comment on “First Impressions of China”


  1. […] First Impressions of China […]


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