Rustic Pathways

Rustic pathways travel SummerThe big debate of a recent graduate: Do I stick with what job security I have and try and maintain employment? Or, do I instead say to hell with it and pack my bags come summer time, spend a few months abroad and come back to try and come up with new plans?  Well my friends, in this situation, there may just be a best of both worlds.  May I introduce you to renowned youth trip leading program, Rustic Pathways.

Established in the 80s as an alternative service trip program for high school students, Rustic Pathways is a well established trip program, specializing in trips abroad that promote community service, cultural observation and language study.  Sounds like something right up my alley.  They have a number of summer programs that run in mainland China, in all parts of the country.  What could be better then spending a summer getting paid (minimally) to take teenagers on a trip across China?

I have spent a good amount of time leading backcountry trips within the United States and Canada, so I have a pretty good background to be considered in applying, but we will see.  Does it exactly match my interests?  Not quite.  I really want to focus on getting my language skills up to excellent fluency, and staying in Beijing would be the best option for this, however a summer of employment is by no means a bad thing.  It seems like a sensible option, especially if I want to branch out in the world of eco, adventure and historical tourism and have something China relevant on my resume.  But this, my friends, is the sensible option, and it is all speculation at the moment.  Should it not pan out, what then?  Well, we will just have to see.  Step one is to apply.  More info to come, I’m sure.

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The Chinese Hukou

Household Registration HukouMore and more, I find that the things I write branch out and away from China.  I think that in the long run this in inevitable, and in many respects not a bad thing.  At the end of the day, I would like to be able to tie everything back to my beloved country, but the long and short of it is that I am interested in everything.  A bit of diversity never hurt anyone.  Perhaps I will have to change the tagline of the site; A young college graduate and his quest to find the answer to life.

I have often thought about running simultaneous blogs, ones which focus on different subjects but in some way trend toward observations on culture and all of its peculiarities.  Each day I have a new idea, but each day I also find myself short of time to get material onto just one site.  I have thought on numerous occasions that it would be interest to blog about my current job (Outdoor educator), and at some point merge my interest with the outdoors into a blog on my pursuit toward leading tours in China.  It is more than a little bit lofty of me to lay such direct plans for my future, but it would be interesting.

One of the main requirements for my degree was that I complete a year long study and large paper on a topic of choice.  Being the somewhat arrogant ass that I can be, I decided to take on a project focusing on the more recently defunct Chinese Hukou system (Household Registration, 户口).  Though I was majoring in history, I had a dangerous tendency to try and study history through the writings of anthropologists and political scientists.  This is not a bad way to go about things, you just have to be careful when the time comes to put it all into historical terms.  I had approached my advisor with the idea that I wanted to study the large-scale movement that plays out amongst Chinese migrant workers and the plight that I felt they suffered.  Beyond knowing that a migration existed, I had little technical knowledge of the people, of their social position, or any of the causes behind their migration, the result being that I probably sounded like an amateur when I waltzed into his office with my plan.

My advisor was a calm, collected and very traditional man.  Having left China in his early twenties, he arrived in the United States to find that no academic institution would credit his Chinese Masters degree.  In the mindset of a true academic, he went back to school and came out with an additional B.A., and yet another Masters, followed by becoming a Professor at Purchase College.  I always found him to be a mysterious individual, and it was often difficult to gain a sense of his thoughts.  My presentation to him of a project focusing on migration was met with a very indirect response.

“Ah yes, William, you should look at Hukou”

In short, Hukou was established as a method by which to industrialize the nation at light speed by harnessing the power of the individuals living in the country side.  Now bear with me as this gets a bit complicated.  Seeking to industrialize as quickly as it could, the CCP engaged the Great Leap Forward, an ambitious plan that placed every available resource on the creation and operation of heavy industry.  In a massive rush to fill the need that was presented by this ill-fated leap, crop production quotas were set at an almost unreachable mark.  Beyond this, competition reached a feverish pitch as communes attempted to out-perform one another.  Fearing that they would appear to be slacking, local officials began to exaggerate their reports of how much food was being produced, leading other officials to do the same.  At the same time, huge numbers of the rural population began to leave the land and head to the cities to help in the great cause of pushing forward industrialization.

And then it all crashed in on itself.  Fraudulent reporting of grain stock led to a supply bubble, and the reduced numbers of farmers on the lend resulted in a massive, widespread food shortage.  This, in combination with what proved to be an atrocious growing season, led to one of the largest famines in documented history, and the country was brought to its knees.  Enter Hukou system.  In an attempt to reign in the losses and do damage control, the CCP enacted to full restrictive forces of the Household Registration system.  They bound individuals to their native region (that in which they were born) by preventing them from being able to receive social benefits in any other area.  In order to receive food rations, see a doctor, go to school and a wide variety of other civil benefits, you would need to be present within your home region and with a valid Hukou.  This forced the huge numbers of people within the cities to make an exodus back to the countryside, and kept them on the land as insurance against a repeat of the GLF.

Now this is a very simple overview of what exists as a very complicated apparatus, but you get the idea.  The main result was that the state was able to generate revenue through the collection of grain from the rural majority.  Everything that I listed above fell into the category of things that I did not understand at the beginning of my project.  I was only able to see Hukou for its restrictive aspects, and not for the major role that it played in the overall development of the nation.

Each time that I would arrive in my advisors office, draft in hand, he would read it over, make some notes, and then tell me to go back and look through my materials once more, indicating that I had once again missed the mark.  This happened many times, to the point that I was ready to give up on the whole thing, frustrated with feeling as though I was looking at the answer and not seeing it.  Finally, after many drafts and a whole box of red pens, I let go of my bias toward the system and tried to state the facts straight up;  did the system effect people in a negative manner?  Hell yeah it did, but at the same time it accomplished what it needed to, establishing a level of control as well as providing a means through which the government could feed its people, thus creating social stability.  It is a misunderstood system, a piece of political machinery so deeply embedded within the workings of modern China that its effects are seen across the board.  And as such, it was only right that my professor steer my project on the migrants in this direction, though I would have much preferred to hear about it directly and not have spent so much time playing guessing games.  Alas, I ramble.  Goodnight folks.

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Riding the Iron Rooster

Paul Theroux Iron Rooster ChinaI’ve just about finished reading Theroux’s ‘Riding the Iron Rooster’, a lengthy work covering his year of train travel across China.  I recently read his “Ghost Train to the Eastern Star”, which was nothing short of amazing.  To my surprise, Theroux expressed a strong dislike toward my beloved China, stating that there could be nothing worse than a stay within one of the Chinese cities.  He didn’t mention, however, that he had not only spent a year traveling there, but even gone so far to write a book about it.

To begin with, I will say that Amazon really pulled the cotton over my eyes when I bought this book.  The site showed that it was published in 2006,  and I thought that it would be a great read to gain a sense of a more recent China.  To my great irritation, however, an examination of the publishers page revealed that it had actually been first printed in 1988.  2006 is just a second publication.  Despite this annoyance, I was still looking forward to reading a more personal account of travel in this period of time.  The trip itself took place in 1986, a time of great change and expansion in a recently opened China.  Mao had been dead for just over a decade, and the nation was still dealing with a serious post-cultural revolution hangover.  This comes up in most of the conversations that Theroux has with the people he meets.

The trip itself is stupendous in length, covering every major portion of China, including the remote regions of Xinjiang, Tibet and the frozen and bleak expanse of northern Heilongjiang.  In many respects, the trip was so long that it actually becomes boring.  Just as Theroux drags on about the monotonous nature of Chinese cities, the way in which each one looks just like the last, so each progressive chapter seems to follow.  Toward the last four or five sections of the narrative, the text becomes nothing short of gray as Theroux recounts every moment of the trip.  Although he does cover an incredible distance and view a diverse range of landscape, he does not manage to convey very much about the area beyond the way things looked and the conversations he has.

These details are all well and good, but Theroux looses himself in the more broad descriptions of travel, and seems unable to form many solid impressions of the people that he meets.  I did enjoy that he is consistent with the type of questions he asks, most of which pertain to people and their thoughts on the effect of Mao and the end of the Cultural Revolution.  He is unforgiving in his questions and his thoughts about the people that he meets, often interviewing in a manner that will make you grind your teeth.  In many cases he is nothing short of offensive, but in many cases his worst questions are the ones that reveal the most about the people he encounters.

If you are looking for a good, straight-up account of a pretty amazing journey, you may find this book quite enjoyable.  I would have liked to see it edited down significantly, but I don’t see any reason that skipping ahead here and there would damage the overall narrative, if that is what you chose to do.  I would not recommend reading this book if you are looking for any particular insight into this time period in China, as there are many other works that can do a much better and more balanced job of this.  Theroux has strong bias about a limitless number of things, and though he is an amazing writer, he doesn’t always provide a clear view of what is really going on.  He does, however, put some well developed thoughts on the role of the traveler into play.  His knowledge and beliefs on what it is to travel are unparalleled, in my opinion, and this book is worth a read, if only to see the mindset of a traveling maniac in his element.

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The Mystery of a Traveler

header testI am fascinated by those who travel, or, more specifically, those who feel more at home traveling than they do while they are at home.  In a world of pre-fabricated lives, many of us are taught to reject the nomadic lifestyle, to shun those who have not committed themselves to the big three assets (car, house and phone?).  And yet, while we so frequently stand and debauch the names of those ‘commitment-shy’ personalities, deep in their soles, most people that I have talked to long for such freedom, the lack of major assets and the freedom that can only be afforded by a life of travel.

My girlfriend and I just finished watching that horrible movie ‘Up In The Air’, and I was set to thinking on the realities of such a lifestyle.  The ways of a rogue traveler have been romanticized for no small number of years.  Kerouac, Steinbeck, Hunter S. Thompson, all of them reveled in the joys of the unbound individual.  More than this, though, the worship given by readers further celebrates this nomadic individual, allows them to be the person most of us cannot (or are unwilling) to act as.

I wonder, is it such a great joy to be the one out in the world?  Could it be that those who travel are just in search of the seeming experience held by those before them?  It has been said that writers do not have lives any bit more interesting than ours, but that they have a way of putting them into more appealing perspective.  Paul Theroux, who’s books I have recently delved in to, has spent the better portion of his life living either on the road or established in places that are not his native country.  It is evident through his writing that he could not survive any other lifestyle, but at the same time I have had the prevailing sense that he is generally unhappy, and certainly never feels relaxed if acting stationary.  It is that perpetual wanderlust that drives such people.  As Theroux points out, it is the travel itself, the hours spent sitting on a freezing train, that truly make him alright.  Just keep on moving.

And yet I find myself with this same sensation, a need to see the world and to experience it all.  I have never really felt that I belonged in one spot, nor have I ever had an inclination to stay in one area for any great amount of time.  If I could, I would quickly rid myself of this sensation, this wanderlust as it can be called.  There is so much out in that world, and I cannot but wonder at it all, worry that I might not catch every bit of it that can be garnered in one day.

The person abroad is a strange creature.  I marvel at those people who feel truly out of place in their own country.  In the valley opposite the one I live, there is a remarkable house, widely known as the Tison Estate, named after the individual responsible for its construction.  The house, which stands far from what I would call a worldly area, is inspired and built after traditional Japanese designs, holding the serpentine roofline and overhanging eves found in older Japanese buildings.  Its gardens are also made to appear as something straight out of the land of the rising sun.  Mr. Tison was a longtime professor at the University of Tokyo and brought back many of the visual elements of Japanese culture to be built into his stateside retreat.  It is something just shy of anachronism, this display of foreign culture and ancient architecture in the heart of the Catskill mountains, and yet in a strange manner it does not quite seem out of place.  It is the inner fascination with exploring the unknown that sustains the traveler.  It is the temporality of travel that can be so comforting, the knowledge that there may be no end of mystery and of new things to see.  But at the end of the day I still wonder, is there not something far deeper in appreciating the things to which we are accustomed?

In other news, I found the website that I had been looking for.  It’s called the China Boom Project, and contains a huge number of interviews.  I haven’t had a moment to look at it yet, but as soon as I do, I will review.  May the force be with you.

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The Lost China Site

DSCN0139Heck yeah, three posts in the same week.  We’re feeling ambitious here!  I sat down for a nice session of writing, only to be brought away by a call for firewood, location issues with the square dance lady and other miscellaneous pursuits in the way of camping.
Thanksgiving is coming soon, which, in addition to bringing the standard thoroughfare of bird, stuffing and altogether too much alcohol, will mark the one year anniversary of this site and all of its contents.  A lot of change in the course of that year, but in the end I think it has been a good one all around.  I will probably have a year in review to post on that day, because I just know all of you are dying to here the little details in between.  Its just like the re-release of an album; you bought it once, but it just sounds better when you spend money on it a second time.
I’ve been trying to locate a website that I found a few weeks back.  The name started with China, but that doesn’t help too much.  It was a site containing a large number of interviews with prominent individuals in the China interest community.  Between business owners, CEOs, politicians and the like,  Chinese, American and every other in between, it seemed like it held great content.  Unfortunately, I can’t remember the name or how I actually came about seeing the damned thing.   If this sounds familiar, drop a note and let me know.

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Lonely Planet

Lonely-Planet-ChinaI must admit, I’ve committed the ultimate sin in the way of travel planning. During a recent moment of weakness, I purchased the Lonely Planet guide to China. As far as I can tell, the thing leads you to generally every tourist hounded location within the Peoples republic, namely religious relics, museum villages (ones that open there doors at a cost, and rusticate large portions of their homes to appeal to backpackers). Knowing how much tourists love to see China in a certain light, native Chinese in many regions have built their towns into living museums, similar to those museums found throughout the united states that bring you back to a certain time in history. Lonely planet has thousands of such villages listed all over the country.

It isn’t all bad. In fact, it has suggested a number of things that I wouldn’t have thought of, as well as giving relatively detailed information on bus and train times, fares, and good suggestions for plotting out itineraries and overall thoughts on the quality of each region. It would be great to spend some time traveling around the country and getting a wide spectrum view of the culture, but on the same note I wonder if I would not be better suited (or for that matter if it would be more beneficial in the long run) to stay in one area and get a stronger sense of finer details of that region. In terms of language study, staying still is probably the way to go, but there are just so many things to see along the way. If anything, the thousand some pages of Lonely Planet have only made the country seem larger.  Great.

If you are interested in purchasing your own copy, you can check out the current addition on amazon –  It’s worth a look- just click on the image below!

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The Opera

Oh yeah, that’s right, back again with my first post in about a month or so.  In the world of blogging, I’m not very good at keeping fresh material on the board.  On the other hand, work always takes precedent.  Besides, its good to get away from the computer while you can.  The internet is mostly full of crap, so you should stop reading now and go find a book.

A few weeks ago Megan and I went to watch the Bronx Opera do a special performance at our place of employment.  Having spent to better portion of this last year living a significant distance from anything in the way of a music or performance center, it was a great chance to get out and add to a very limited set of social events.  The performance overall was fantastic, and given that we were two of maybe twenty others, it was basically a private showing.  While sitting and listening to a strange mix of musicals and dark stuff from a famed Norwegian Romantic, I couldn’t help but wonder at the differences between this and the Beijing Opera (or really any Chinese opera).

The Beijing Opera, which exists as one of the most traditional and well established forms of Chinese theatre, has been in existence for the past two centuries.  Putting together music and performance, it differs from western opera in that the performance is exaggerated and not necessarily bound by realistic presentation of life.  Instead, it relies heavily on the movement of performers.  Little is done in the way of stage arrangement.

During the Chinese Cultural Revolution, a decade of chaos in which the government promoted the expulsion of all capitalist and bourgeois elements from Chinese society, this form of performance was seen as a classic example of the things which Mao stood against.  It was temporarily replaced by the Model Operas, performances meant to inspire and demonstrate model citizenship and behavior.  This has died out post revolution, and the original form is reinstated and quite alive.

There you have it, a complex and heavily nuanced art form condensed into the space of a few lines.  Should I make it back to China, I would love to get a chance to see such an opera and give a bit more enlightening report on my findings. I still haven’t managed to get the post-flood pictures off of my camera, but perhaps next time.

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More Reading

Well, last I had left, I was writing about my joy of the rain, followed by waking up to one of the largest days of flooding that I have ever encountered.  Eight and a half inches of rain over the course of about three days.  A river was running around my house, which happens to sit on a very large field.  When I have some time I will put up the pictures that I was able to take of the aftermath, along with what little story can be included.
As usual, I haven’t been keeping up with the writing.  I have, fortunately enough, been finding the time to study and to read some great works, most recently working on Paul Theroux’s ‘Riding the Iron Rooster’, as well as Roderick Mac Farquhar’s ‘Mao’s Last Revolution’, a great history of China’s Cultural Revolution.  Amazon pulled a fast one on me and claimed that Theroux’s work was published in 2006.  As it turns out, it was really just a second printing, the first work was published in 1988, making it an interesting but generally outdated read (that’s a bit of the history student speaking).  As of yet, I have not found it to be nearly so profound as Ghost Train, though it is still quite entertaining.  The work on the Cultural Revolution is absolutely astounding.  Macfarquhar is one of the leading historians of modern China, with particular expertise in the 1950s and 60s.  I have been meaning for some time to brush up on my understanding of this period in time, and this book has certainly been a great start.  Dense as hell, and often a bit hard to understand, but overwhelming in its coverage of what stands as a remorselessly chaotic decade.  I recommend it to anyone with some interest in China.
Well, that’s all for tonight, I have to go run a class for a bunch of 11th graders.  Hope all is well in your respective worlds.

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The Rain

I don’t frequently go through the front door of my house, and when I do, it is to stand on the porch, a momentary event at most as the porch is gross and crumbling.  The front of the house stands about 20 feet away from a picturesque county road, with a small horse pasture on the opposite side.  Having been mentioned as one of the country’s best day rides in a prominent motorcycle magazine, large groups of bikers pass through during the warm months, and people frequently stop and attempt to feed the horses various things that horses probably should not eat.  A french-fry in the car is worth two in the field.

Seemingly overnight, the leaves had transitioned into a spectrum of reds, the mountains appearing to be the smoldering remains of a fire.  Some of the trees are already without those leaves, providing strong contrast against the warm September day and significant clumps of remaining green, small deciduous groupings still fighting back the coming winter.  The mountains warp the seasons, melding the period between late summer and winter so that it is sometimes hard to tell where one starts and the other ends.  The fall is quick, often unrecognizable as a season.  You may go to bed in August and wake up to find yourself transported to the far depths of November, at least in terms of the flora.

I stood in front of the house, looking at the golden mountains not far in the distance.  How long do we have before these mountains are bare, before the protracted silence of the cold months settles in the valley?  Three weeks?  A bit more perhaps, but the year already displays it’s age, the sun hanging lower in the sky, the birds with less conversation than they were having just a few weeks ago.  It has rained hard all day, and now the wind shoves the leaves from the boughs.  I say shove, not pull, as a shove is certainly the more aggressive of the two.  The sky drops what can be nothing less than all the water lost to this summers drought.  The ground, stubbornly dry, denies the fluid mass any quarter, forcing it onward and overland, acres and acres of a puddle.

I have come to love the rain and the wind and solitude that can be found within them.  Something in the biting, pelting of this late September downpour makes me feel safe as I stand, a life preserved within the confines of delicate fabric and cloth, enveloped by sheets of life itself.  A bubble in space.  There is, as far as I know, no better way to meditate on one’s thoughts than the spend some hours in classically bad weather.  To be at one with the weather, to embrace the different days as nothing but a variation on the theme, this I believe is true mediation.  I once watched a documentary, probably during a college course, as a monk submerged himself into the icy waters flowing off the base of a Himalayan glacier.  The interviewer inquired of the man, insisting, “but how does he not freeze?”.  Far from freezing, however, the monk began to billow with steam.  Asked later on about this ancient ritual which has been performed for hundreds of years, the monk explained that cold was a relative matter, an inconvenience of the mind, and one that could be overcome through training.  In fact, one could even train the body to rise in temperature on command, allowing an individual to sit still within waters bordering on the freezing point.
I do not wish to be the monk in these waters.  I don’t think it is my destiny to spend so much time in contemplation, though I have often wondered at the peace that these individuals must find.  No, I don’t believe I could possibly find freedom in such a lifestyle, so I must instead take these moments in the rain, a minute and solitary place.  The world changes, but the peace and stillness of the storm does not. .

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Ghost Train

TherouxI’m almost finished with “Ghost Train to the Eastern Star”, probably going to wrap it up this afternoon. Amazing does not do it justice. Theroux does a remarkable job in conveying the greatness of each country and region, talking about the passions and fears of the people he encounters in each place. I have found the book to be incredibly in that he manages to present hardships and beauty side by side, making them appear to be interdependent. Traveling to a number of nations that have suffered both genocide and war, Theroux works to give a good representation of the feelings of local people, asking them about their memories of the hard times, and what they feel at present. These thoughts were particularly profound in his travels through the nations of Vietnam and Japan, given his status as an American national moving through areas hit heavily by U.S. military campaigns. I knew that Tokyo had been utterly destroyed toward the end of the war in 1945, but the last few chapters of this work have brought a new understanding of the life that was lost.

“This place looks old.”
Murakami smiled grimly. “Postwar. Like everything else.”
Murakami took out a picture, part of the folder he had prepared for our city tour. The panoramic photo showed twenty-five square miles of Tokyo flattened – not just flattened but scorched, burned to the ground.
“This is what the city looked like on the ninth of March, 1945.”
A wasteland, just ruble and cinders, one or two blackened buildings still standing, the river coldly gleaming. “People went there,” he said, his finger tracing the river, “but even the river burned. Everything was napalmed.”
As we hunched over the picture, the bowls of hot soba noodles were brought out on trays- a tray for each of us, a tray for the chopsticks, a small dish of pickled vegetables on a smaller tray.
“The B-29s dropped the bombs. It was all planned by Curtis LeMay.” If I asked any of my well-read friends who had masterminded the firebombing of Tokyo, I doubt whether one of them could have supplied the correct name.
“A hundred thousand people died in that one night, mostly civilians,” Murakami said. He was moving his finger from ash pile to ash pile on the photo. “It was a wall of flames. We’re here.”
His fingertip rested on a featureless patch of ashes.

This conversation with Haruki Murakami, one of Japan’s most loved and well know writers, paints a broad picture of the terror at the end of World War Two. And yet Japan was rebuilt and has prospered, trailing just behind the U.S. as the second largest economy until very recently. This is much of Theroux’s examination of each nation; tragedy and human suffering right alongside beauty and great accomplishment. The same was found in Vietnam, flattened by American bombs just decades before, but with what appears little resentment toward the individual American of the modern day.
In every city and region that he visits, Theroux presents the reader with balanced thoughts and criticism of the culture that he observes, looking at the good and the bad in the same light, and for the most part presenting them on an equal plane. Upon arriving to China, however, he brought forth a new emotion. Within the space of two pages, this author who I have come to revere manages to desecrate the country I love, putting his feeling into such eloquent words that I could not help but second guess my adoration. His description of China as a chaotic and claustrophobic place are not out of reach of the truth. The nation’s cities are extremely large and have a tendency to leave the outsider feeling simply that: excluded.
The vast majority of Chinese cities have not been designed with aesthetics in mind, but with a need to keep pace with development beyond measure. With this in mind, I have felt that there is an absolute beauty in these disjointed sprawls, and unpredictable, almost self-conceived art. Theroux, on the other hand, makes reference to cities as groupings of massive tombstones, at one point referring to Tokyo as a necropolis, a city for the dead. Mr. Theroux, I can take your dislike of the Chinese megacity in stride. In fact, I have gone farther than that and have purchased another book of his, “Riding the Iron Rooster”, a chronicle of his travels through China by train.  He can verbally desecrate quiet well in the space of two sentences, so I am quite excited for an entire book.

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