The China Train

To sum up what I’ve learned in less than two semesters of grad school in China; Studying development in a (developing) country where censorship, hypocrisy and saving-face are embedded in daily life is like falling asleep on the 1 train from Manhattan headed to Brooklyn, only to find out when you wake up that you’re back in Times Square because in fact, the 1 train doesn’t go to Brooklyn at all — the 2 and 3 do, but they’re on the all red line. Basically, the ride was a big fat waste of time and in the end, you end up where you started but angrier.

Here’s the thing about studying development in China; it’s paradoxical. “Chinese Development”, synonymous with economic growth, means only one thing: increase of wealth. But who does the wealth belong to? Let’s sweep that question under the table…

I’m currently taking a Research Design & Thesis Writing course in which the professor warned us against choosing “sensitive” topics to research. “Sensitive” here means anything negatively related to the government. Don’t even think about bringing up the terms “democracy” and “revolution” in a dinner conversation with Chinese officials (unless you’re praising the Cultural Revolution). They’ll eat you alive and feed your bones to the dogs, and then eat them too.

My professor’s specific example of a “sensitive” topic was the Diaoyudao/Senkaku Islands dispute. She is not incorrect to say that finding objective information on the conflict would be difficult in China, and I agree that presenting such a thesis topic to a panel of Chinese professors (many of whom are party members) may arouse uneasiness, but discouraging a group of progressive graduate students of international development from researching issues that are”too sensitive” is both infuriating and laughable.

Tsinghua University is a top-ranking institution and my department is even partnered with the likes of Harvard Kennedy School — impressive, no? — but now that I’m within the institution, it is disgusting how much propaganda and image-building I see the administration feed to its students and the public. Everything looks so good on paper. Our course syllabi look awesome and our professors are famous and award-winning! But as soon as they power on those PPTs (powerpoints) and start lecturing, it’s all China Dream China Dream China Dream. Whose China Dream? Who does the China Dream serve and how? Is the China Dream realizable? These are questions that we scrape the surface of, but no real answer is ever given.

China has come a long, long way since its Opening Up, but its development path is headed in the wrong direction. And just like that 1 train, the China-train might get to the end of the line and turn right on back to Tiananmen Square.


Disturbing Signs of Anti-Japaneseism

Yesterday a cab driver asked me if I thought China and Japan would go to war. Then today I saw this sign outside a real-estate agency in Wudaokou, the local hub of international students:

I was taken aback by the cab driver’s question because though I was aware of China and Japan’s territorial dispute over the East China Sea islands, I hadn’t realized the seriousness and scale of public discontent it had brewed up throughout China. That is until today.

At first when I read the bright yellow sign, I laughed and took a picture thinking My instagram followers will get a kick out of this ridiculous sign.  I had noticed that the Japanese flag was crossed out, and it had bothered me initially, but I didn’t think too much of it. A few hours later, however, as I kept thinking about the flag it increasingly bothered me to the point where I felt angry. It should’ve occurred to me the moment I saw the sign that the crude image of a bleeding Japanese flag could offend a Japanese passer-by. There were, after all, many Japanese students at the surrounding universities, including mine.

With the surge of my own discontent, I marched out of the cafe where I was “doing work” and walked determinedly back to the real-estate agency. I went straight up to the sign with paper and tape in hand and covered up the threatening image.

One of the real-estate agents hanging-out outside (I’ve never seen them working) asked me what I was doing, so I said innocently that I was covering up the bloody flag because it made me uncomfortable. The next thing he asked was if I was Japanese — I had expected this question. Then another employee, a young woman around my age, accused me of vandalizing their property and that that was disrespectful. To this I rebutted it was disrespectful to display such a threatening image in a neighborhood where many Japanese students roamed the streets. These Japanese students came to China to study, to study our language, our culture, and possibly one day to improve Sino-Japanese ties. Regretfully I didn’t say this out loud because I couldn’t think fast enough, especially not in Chinese. Besides, before I could say anything further another employee came at me exclaiming, “Was the Rape of Nanking not disrespectful?!?” Of course it was; it was disgusting and devastating and plain old wrong. But it happened in 1937, and I’m not saying it should be forgotten or forgiven — definitely not — but if we hold onto these bitter grudges we will never move forward.

What the first employee said next was extremely disturbing. When I asked him why they had drawn blood on the flag, he told me it was because the Japanese should be killed, roughly in those words. And he dramatically ripped the paper off to re-expose the bleeding flag. A very strong sinking feeling, similar to nausea, grew in the pit of my stomach. Finally, I left the situation (which captured the attention of a few nosy passerby’s) and went back to the cafe feeling totally defeated and unsettled.

I’ve never been good at defending my arguments, but I know inherently that what I did was right, or at least okay, even if I failed at it. Looking back on what happened, however, I don’t think I handled the situation effectively. It might’ve been more diplomatic if I had asked the real-estate agents who had made the sign if I could cover up the disturbing image explaining that it made me uncomfortable, rather than march right up to it and arguably “vandalize” their property. I think they would’ve at least considered my argument if I had respected their opinion first (even if it was ill-conceived).

I don’t have strong opinions on who should control the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, but I don’t think they are worth going to war for. And although I don’t think tensions will actually escalate to that level, the cab driver’s question alarmed me and brought to light the intensity of current unrest — everyone is talking about the dispute and protests broke out in various cities in China, including Beijing, this weekend. I am all for free speech (I grew up in Brookline, Massachusetts), but when it infringes on the livelihood of people around you — making people scared to admit their nationality, making them scared to even come out of their dorm rooms — shouldn’t there be some kind of (non-violent) intervention? Of course not to the scale of attacking the embassy and killing the ambassador…but something.

My uncle, a former historian, is not a fan of the Japanese. He individually protests by boycotting Japanese products, but he would never resort to disrespectful slurs or violence to express his dislike.

Yes, the Chinese are very patriotic (how can they not be? Patriotism is instilled, internalized, forced into the Chinese people) and their protests against the Japanese is a form of nationalistic pride, but throwing eggs and rocks at the Japanese embassy, blowing up Japanese cars, pulling the flag out of the ambassador’s car and making petty little signs do not make you look good in the international eye and it certainly isn’t a mature response to the dispute.

My own little dispute with the real-estate agents today was a slap in the face. It woke me up to how real the tensions are between the Chinese and Japanese. I came home and caught up on all the news about the East China Sea islands as well as the South China Sea islands territorial disputes, and tried to form my own opinion on who should own the islands. But I just can’t help thinking how ridiculous it is for people to hate one another because of pride and power and possession. On the other hand, it also showed me how unified the Chinese can be during times like these. If only people could aim these collective efforts towards something more domestically beneficial, like protesting against political corruption, or improving urban and rural sanitation, or building safer infrastructure, instead of worrying about piles of floating rocks in the ocean that the ordinary citizen will never be privileged enough to step foot onto anyway.

**I’m curious to know what you would’ve done if you had seen the sign above. Should I have just let it be (in the end it remained anyway…)? Did I try to cover up someone else’s right to free speech (even though there isn’t free speech in China) by attempting to cover up their drawing? Should I protest Century 21 (the real-estate agency)?? What are your opinions on the territorial disputes? And what the heck is this world coming to (with political unrest all over the world)????????


Southern Hospitality Widespread in Guizhou Province

The people of Guizhou province are the friendliest, most hospitable and generous individuals I have ever met in China. This observation is even clearer now that I’m back in Beijing, where everyone snarls at one another. Could be southern hospitality like in the States, though I wonder if I’d ever feel comfortable enough to ask a stranger to use their toilet in Texas…Probably not.

I was hiking down a hill toward a small village in Langdong when typical bouts of stomachache set in — bathroom emergency. The first house my friend, Yoyo, and I came across we asked to use the bathroom. Not only did the grandfather agree to let me let my bowels loose in his home (excuse the graphics!),  he also provided generous amounts of toilet paper!! This, being in a place where public bathrooms still charge tourists and everyone carries toilet paper on them at all times (except me because I always forget)!  I was so grateful I didn’t even mind the snorting hog in the next pen.

On my way out, the grandfather invited me and Yoyo to stay for breakfast with him and his grandson. We courteously refused — we wanted to witness the process of making handmade tofu at another home in the village — but we sat for a little while.

    

I was invited to “sit a while” by numerous neighborly strangers throughout Guizhou. I experienced a similar kind of welcomeness in Morocco where I was constantly invited to have tea and stay for free  in peoples’ homes. Sometimes yes, the hosts had intentions of making money. But in one of China’s poorest provinces, how could I not buy the handmade batik (wax art on cloth) that the nice lady overcharged my American companion for and then for which she offered me a “local” price? Especially after she voluntarily showed us around her ancient stone village?

Though Guizhou is home to many ethnic minority groups, I spent most of my time in Qiandongnan Prefecture where Miao villages are predominant. We saw people, most noticeably women because of their dress, from other minority groups such as Dong and Gejia, but most were Miao (Hmong).

When I told a Beijinger that I spent time in Miao villages, she remarked that Miao women are very beautiful. It’s true. Miao people have different features from Han (the majority–I’m Han). They have big, deep-set eyes and creased eyelids (now available via a simple surgical procedure), and their skin is darker from the powerful southern sun. Their costumes vary from region to region, as well as by age. In Huangping, for example, older women wear plain, bun-shaped hats while younger women wear more colorful ones. Old women just wrap towels around their heads, and instead of flowery garments, they wear undecorated royal blue robes. In Kaili, Leishan, Langde and Xijiang, women wear their hair in buns on the top of their heads, often supported by black yarn to resemble more hair. They decorate their hair with fake flowers and colorful pins and a special comb, but with different details from village to village.

Huangping

 Leishan

Photo credit: Judy Manton

Langde

(2nd photo credit: Judy Manton)

And how ’bout this fine gentleman sporting a Soviet winter hat in the middle of summer?

Stone Village, Anshun

Whole elaborate outfits are only worn for festivals. Women spend lots of time and money — often thousands and thousands of Yuan — embroidering, sewing, pleating and decorating these garments by hand. A small piece of hand-embroidery is worth hundreds, even thousands, of Yuan because it is so meticulous.

The silver they wear around their necks, on their heads and in their ears weigh a lot. But silver is believed to cast away evil spirits, so people always wear it, most often as a bracelet. Naturally, I bought one for myself.  I like to think that the silver not only protects me from evil, but also connects me to Guizhou.

It’s a relief to know that there are still people in China who are kind, un-abrasive, patient, and honest. I’ve been in Beijing for 3 days now and already feel anger and frustration in the pit of my stomach because people here can be so cold, which is ironic because it’s steaming outside.


Getting there is half the fun!

Remember the 11-day traffic jam in China 2 years ago?  I wasn’t there — thank goodness — but I felt an ounce of fear last night that something similar would happen to me on my way from the airport in Guiyang to Huangping, where I am comfortably air-conditioned now. After 2 hours of racing (I’m talkin’ The Fast and the Furious) through the windy mountainous roads, we came to a halt. For the next 2 hours. By the time we were rolling again, it was already 8:30 pm and would be another 2 hours before dinner. Oh, what’s a 4-hour delay??

(Indiscreetly peeing roadside.)

We were dropped off at the side of a highway (the first time was at a fork in the road), walked through a toll booth with our luggage, only to be picked up by another manic driver who would fly us to dinner, and eventually to our hotel. We were going 60 on roads that would’ve been marked 20 in the US.

One of our drivers (the one who was going to drop us off at the fork in the road). He was all drive, no talk (except when he got a phonecall, which was quite often).

I am safe and sound in Huangping county now, where it’s humid and grey and surrounded by green hills. The majority of the population here are Miao, people from one of the largest ethnic minorities of China.

The locals are very friendly and don’t stare rudely (as they do in Beijing) at the American teacher in our group, a 70-something lady from Jersey who has been teaching English in various countries for over 32 years. But she happens to love Guizhou–its terrain, the Miao and Dong people–so here she is again to train local/rural English teachers on developing their own teaching methods, and I am here to assist.

Nothing spectacular has happened yet, but getting here was certainly half the fun–if you’re into adrenaline rushes from near-death fright.

**If you want to see beautiful photography of Guizhou, check out John Fanai’s site.**


It’s Been a While, Crocodile

Apologies for the hiatus. I’m sure you’ve all been suffering since my last post…from the heat of course! It appears that a heat wave has swept across the globe, or at least in all the areas I’ve been visiting, rendering me into delirium — hence the corny humor (you must think I live in a tropical climate).

I returned to Beijing a couple of days ago to unwelcoming heat, humidity and smog. It thunder-stormed last night, which normally clears up the sky the next day, but not this time. The dense smog is here to stay, hovering above this crowded city like Dementors. At least there’s a bit of breeze this morning. How refreshing.

In just a few hours I will be flying out to Guizhou, a province in southern China that is rarely sunny, has ample rainfall, and is at its hottest in July. But don’t let my whining fool you, I am very excited for this 3-week teaching (ESL) trip!

More good news, I finally caved in to paying for a VPN service so I can access WordPress, Facebook, Youtube and the likes in order to keep up with you fine people.

I’m keeping this post short, but there’s lots to come because I have lots to tell you from my visit to New York and what’s to come in Guizhou. Stay tuned!

Hope all of you have been well and your joints not too swollen (from the heat)!

And now, some eye-candy:

Image

To my instagram/facebook followers: You will see many repeats! Sorry!


to be a kid again

If Peter Pan showed up at my window and asked me to join him in Neverland, I would fly away in a heartbeat. I’m only 23, but I can feel that as time ticks away, so do bits and pieces of things I treasured most in my childhood, like my imagination.

When I was little, the rooms of my dream house were connected by tunnels and slides. I built forts out of sofa cushions and blankets and it never felt small. One year the Tooth Fairy left me a purple crystal with my tooth in it, and other years she left me money under my pillow. But now that I’m an “adult” who “knows better,” I won’t expect an allowance under my pillow when my teeth begin to fall out, because that’s Life, as much as I wish it wasn’t.

The other day I noticed a little girl, maybe 2-3 years old, who stood wide-eyed before paper butterflies that hung from the ceiling at a mall entrance, marveling at the slight flapping of their wings from the breeze of the swinging doors. I had walked by this display earlier and thought how cheesy the decorations were, but watching the girl in fascination over the fake flowers and butterflies, I realized how much I miss seeing beauty in the ordinary. For a second I tried to envision what the girl saw–a thousand rainbow butterflies floating above a colorful meadow, sparkling with reflections of the sun. In that moment, I too could see the beauty of the cheap  display at the mall entrance. But a moment later, I walked out the swinging door and yelled at a driver for running a red light.

One of the reasons I love kids so much is that I am fascinated by them. They find beauty in ordinary things; they can make things come alive; they find life in obscure places and aren’t afraid to approach them; they don’t complicate things unnecessarily; they don’t discriminate; and they are fearless. Life can be taken at face value when you’re young and untainted. And when Life gets hard, kids can escape to worlds conjured up in their own minds, whereas adults hide their pain behind beer and pill bottles. It’s a shame we have to grow up.

Before I got into my first relationship, I remember wanting to feel heartache. I thought it was part of growing up, of  being human, and I wanted to experience it. Of course it hurt a lot when it actually happened, and rather than having spent hours upon hours analyzing what went wrong, I wish I could’ve just escaped to Neverland, or to an island where the Wild Things live. Reality would have been much easier to cope with.

After my parents’ divorce, I was glad to be far away from them so I wouldn’t have to deal with it. Unfortunately, like Dementors, Life seeped its way across the ocean to interfere with my usual cheerfulness. During that time I often wished to be a kid again, where living in blissful ignorance innocence veiled any and all miseries.

No one should have to grow up “too fast” but when they do, it’s nearly always a painful process. My family members often tell me how 单纯 (danchun), “simple, naive” I am, a fact that I think is ascribed to my Americanized upbringing. My cousin, on the other hand, grew up in China with divorced parents — still a taboo at the time — and a mother who didn’t act like one. While her parents carried on with their own misery or when her mother was absent, my cousin had to fend for herself. Besides what she dealt with at home, she saw ugliness outside too. She learned about Life and all its hardships at a young age when kids I grew up with in Brookline, Massachusetts were playing tag and painting pictures at daycare. Now at  22 years old, my cousin looks, acts and thinks far beyond her age, and definitely far beyond me. The painful part of all of this besides a lost childhood? She wants to be close to her mother.

Perhaps this is a generalization, but from my observations and conversations with adults and children alike, I’ve concluded this: Chinese kids grow up too fast. By the time they’re teenagers, imagination is drilled out of them. One of my biggest difficulties when teaching is getting my students to be creative. They are not yet adults, and they are playful, but their minds have been molded to fit exam bubbles. And this is just the result of the education system; Life, as it was for my cousin, is the other predator.

I started volunteering at a migrant worker community center on the outskirts of Beijing a couple weeks ago. Just being around the kids there is uplifting and even refreshing. They remind me how even the simplest things, like throwing a hackeysack in the air by yourself, can be fun. And getting dirt on your clothes, hands and face is no big deal (as long as you wash up with soap before sticking anything in your mouth). My responsibilities at the center are lacking, but just spending time with the kids is worth the 1 hour 45 minute commute.

As you can probably tell I’m reminiscent of childhood (but I wouldn’t go so far as to start acting like a baby). I like to believe that some of my imagination is still intact and that the rooms of my future house will be accessible by slides. Also, perhaps as subconscious resistance to growing up completely, I find the most enjoyment in stories/plots with child protagonists. Stories like The Little Prince, Where The Wild Things Are, Harry Potter, and Millions take me back to the best days of my life and remind me how precious it is to be a kid. Yes, they are all written by adults, but by adults whom I admire very much for their ability to tell stories from the point of view of size 2 shoes, a wolf suit, and a crown.

Maybe it’s the fact that I’m living at home again, or the fact that babies are everywhere in China, or the fact that Life throws negativities once in a while that has stirred me to think about my childhood so much lately. I also recently read Dave Eggers’ The Wild Things. More likely, though, it is a combination of all these factors. I can’t remember when my first time saying “I wish I were a kid again” was, but it has since become a commonly used phrase in my life. I know it’s never going to happen, but maybe if I wish for it at my next birthday and blow out all the candles, it will come true.

Meanwhile, I’m just “drafting through Fairyland…”

I thought I should mention, as I was writing this post, “The Circle Game” by Joni Mitchell came on, brilliantly summing up everything I just babbled about and gently bringing me back to earth. The world works in funny ways, even for adults, doesn’t it?

Yesterday a child came out to wonder
Caught a dragonfly inside a jar
Fearful when the sky was full of thunder
And tearful at the falling of a star

Then the child moved ten times round the seasons
Skated over ten clear frozen streams
Words like when you’re older must appease him
And promises of someday make his dreams

And the seasons they go round and round
And the painted ponies go up and down
We’re captive on the carousel of time
We can’t return we can only look
Behind from where we came
And go round and round and round
In the circle game *

Sixteen springs and sixteen summers gone now
Cartwheels turn to car wheels thru the town
And they tell him take your time it won’t be long now
Till you drag your feet to slow the circles down

And the seasons they go round and round
And the painted ponies go up and down
We’re captive on the carousel of time
We can’t return we can only look
Behind from where we came
And go round and round and round
In the circle game

So the years spin by and now the boy is twenty
Though his dreams have lost some grandeur coming true
There’ll be new dreams maybe better dreams and plenty
Before the last revolving year is through

And the seasons they go round and round
And the painted ponies go up and down
We’re captive on the carousel of time
We can’t return we can only look
Behind from where we came
And go round and round and round
In the circle game

– Joni Mitchell


The Brief Adventures of Lucia and Emily in China

These past few weeks with Lucia have been some of the best since I began my new life in China. For one, it’s always great to have close friends around. And second, I haven’t laughed so much in months! Too bad the expression “time flies when you’re having fun” is true because she’s gone now.

Between our time in Beijing, we spent 9 days in 3 other cities — Hong Kong, Yangshuo and Guilin. For budgeting purposes, we took trains, buses, and a boat between cities, totaling 66 hours of travel time. It was definitely not a trip you take with a difficult person or a person without a sense of humor. Lucky for Lucia, there wasn’t a moment that I wanted to kill her, except when she ate all the Ferrero Rochers.

One thing I love about traveling is eating as much as I want without worrying about weight gain. In Hong Kong where my mom has excellent connections (the kind with $$), Lucia and I were treated like princesses. We had our own driver, Willie, and we ate like Greek gods. Buffet-ing, dim-summing, seafooding…I literally could not have asked for more or I would’ve keeled over and died from overeating. In Yangshuo and Guilin, no longer royal, we gorged on street food and noodles while avoiding horse and dog meat. The ramen, chocolates, cookies, tea eggs, chips and McDonald’s we ate on train/bus/boat rides were just food for survival.

How did all this food digest you might ask? Well, the 5.5 hour-long bike ride through the countryside of Yangshuo certainly helped (the most exercise either one of us has had in light years). Racing through Ocean Park in Hong Kong and aimlessly wandering around rainy Guilin also made a difference to my digestive track.

Princess Emily having breakfast in Yangshuo.

Instead of boring you with all the nitty-gritty details of my trip, I’ll just tell you the highlights of each city. You’re welcome.

Hong Kong

Far beyond my expectations, this city is just perfect. From the movies (like Rush Hour 2) I thought Hong Kong was just another city. But OH MY WORD the views were incredible! 

The jade-colored water between the green hills and the wild monkeys with pink butts and nipples and mansions on hilltops and flowing traffic and random temples spotted throughout the city and beaches, all in one small place. It is a perfect balance of nature and city, traditional and contemporary. Though Hong Kong is known to the Chinese as shopping-haven, Lucia and I preferred the spectacular views and roller coasters. I must admit the most memorable part of Hong Kong, besides the food, was Ocean Park, an amusement park on a hill. We had so. much. fun.

Next up, we took this pimped out sleeper bus which blared house music 8 hours to Yangshuo:

Yangshuo

This was my favorite part of the trip.  When we stepped out of the bus, half-asleep and worried we’d left something behind after scrambling out of there at 5:30 in the morning, we looked up to find that we were surrounded by pointy hills (karst peaks).

And that’s the center of town! Can you imagine what the countryside looks like?! Well you don’t have to. Just look below!

Those hills plus the Li River equals stunning scenery that is rural China.

Because it was early March when the rains and fog are amidst, there were far less tourists than normal, much to our advantage.  Lucia and I could ride our bikes for miles and miles without having to share the road with other tourists. We didn’t take “the road less traveled” — we followed a Lonely Planet route — but it was still the best ride of my life.

As Lucia and I were biking through one of many farm villages, Lucia’s impossible shoelaces got stuck in the gears. It was a heaven-sent pause because out came three little girls running towards us and plopped down with books and pencils in hand. Knowing me, a teacher, kid-lover, and Ms. Emotional-to-anything-slightly-moving, Lucia had to tell me not to cry at the sight of this absurd cuteness. The girl in the middle was reading her English alphabet picture book upside down!

We were also greeted by other kids yelling “HELLO! HELLO! HELLO!” most likely at Lucia, who’s white, but I yelled back too. At one point we took the wrong road and geared off to find a pretty elderly lady with two long grey braids sitting on a bamboo raft by the river as her cows grazed the field nearby. I asked her for directions but it was difficult to understand the local dialect so she walked us to the correct path. She was a beautiful lady, inside and out!

We spent the rest of the time in Yangshuo strolling around and taking in the surrounding beauty. Two days later we were off to Guilin in a boat carrying Chinese and foreign tourists up against the currents of Li River. Along the way, we passed picturesque and widely photographed landscapes. While Lucia spent most of the ride with her nose in Jane Austen with throbbing heartaches for Mr. Darcy, I got wet taking a million photos of the passing views.

Four hours and two bus rides later we were in Guilin.

Guilin

Well, because Lucia and I were all boated-out, we decided to stay away from the highly regarded boat tours. Instead, we spent most of our time eating and wandering the city center, but our day and a half in Guilin dragged on because of the bad weather. This was the least exciting part of the trip because, surprisingly and much to my disappointment, it was just another city with not much to see except the Sun and Moon Pagodas.

Lucky for me and Lucia, we only had to share our cabin for half the ride back to Beijing, except we arrived 2 hours late in the middle of the night to freezing cold and sleet.

The train cabin we shared with 4 other rotating people from Beijing to Hong Kong.

That was my trip in a nutshell. I have much more to tell and show you, but I’ll save it for another time.

Overall, Lucia and I had a fabulous time and I’m sad she’s gone. But I have many good memories and photographs to prove it. I will definitely return to Hong Kong and Yanshuo in the future, but I’ll wait till the weather is nicer. And for you to get here. Anyone up for a 28 hour train ride?