Hessler Strikes Again!

rivertown1I’m having trouble coming up with an adjective that accurately describes the level of anticipation that I have for an upcoming book by my favorite author, Peter Hessler.  It is fair to say that my expectation of this book surpasses that which I held before the release of most of the Harry Potter series.  The best part is that I don’t believe there is any risk that it will be sold out!

Early in my study of China, Hessler was one of the first authors that I really latched on to, and his style of writing has had a great impact on the way that I try to formulate my own thoughts.  I cannot by any means come close to matching his abilities, nor his capacities for observation.  Travel writing has a dangerous tendency to be sneakily vapid.  Authors manage to turn out pages of material that is inviting, but doesn’t actually say anything about the culture they observe or the people that they meet.  A good writer can make you feel like you have read something extremely profound without saying much of anything.  Politicians do it all the time.  I have never felt this to be the case with Hessler, who’s work as an independent author as well as a long time correspondent for New Yorker has never failed to be entertaining and incredibly insightful.  If you get a chance, I would strongly recommend reading either of his books, “River Town” and “Oracle Bones”.  The first is my favorite, documenting the two years that he spent as a teacher in a city within Sichuan.  It is an amazing portrayal of a part of Chinese life, and a great read even for those who’s interests do not lie directly in China.  Do it.

Hessler’s new book, entitled “Country Driving: A Journey Through China From Farm to Factory”, focuses on the particular driving culture that has developed within China, tying it into aspects of change that are reshaping the nation.  This should prove to be a very interesting topic, and I am very curious to see how he manages to frame the subject.  The manner and methodology behind driving in China is completely different from that within the United States, and though it would seem that the Chinese take a rather holistic approach to navigating the roads, there is much more at play.  If Hessler is able to make good connections between the Chinese driving style and the culture itself, I will be utterly impressed and continue to spread his name as that of a legend.  February 9th, I suspect a trip to the book store will be in order.

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Third times the charm?

Passport CoverHello to all of you in internet land!  I’m in the process of preparing more about the discovering China trip, but in the meantime I have some updates and some thoughts to post.  This gives me more time to write, all of you get something to read, (almost) everyone goes home happy.  It seems that there is a bit of karma that likes to put roadblocks in my path to China.  Over the past two years, going to a Chinese university has been an overall goal, if not during school then certainly after graduation.  My thoughts on why I am going and for how long change quite frequently, but the overall interest in spending some time there (greater than two weeks) has remained quite consistent.

My plan for this upcoming semester had been to go to Beijing or Hangzhou to continue studying, but at the moment the reality of this plan is growing fainter by the minute.  I don’t have the money to get over there, and I am not particularly interesting in taking out additional loans or having people give me any more money than they already have.  I also have some concerns about health insurance, of which I currently have none.  It would be easy to spend a whole post ranting about the problems that this raises, but it is not my intention for this blog and I’m sure that most American readers have a sense of the state of healthcare.

To my surprise, the paperwork that I needed to apply for the proper visa actually showed up earlier than I thought it would.  Even if I had been able to find a means to fund the trip, it would mean nothing if I was being held back by a visa.  I had been planning on going to the Chinese consulate yesterday afternoon to apply for entry, but found out that the necessary medical paperwork was not in order, which generally prevents me from applying at the moment.  Taking into account the number of things that would have to happen for me to get these documents, and perhaps more importantly, for me to pay for them sans insurance, it is fair to say that I have had enough with trying to get to Beijing before march.  It is a disappointment, but for the last several weeks something in the back of my head has been screaming that I should further postpone until I have even a bit of a bank account and a more secure plan in mind.  I’m not sure if this is a good or a bad thing, but in either case, it seems at the moment like I don’t really have much choice in the matter.  Oh well.  China isn’t going anywhere, and I suspect my interests won’t either.

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The 8th Wonder of the World

Enamel Warrior headI showed my mother the post that I wrote yesterday, and she immediately pointed out that I had used the wrong words in several spots.  It seems that starting the day without coffee has its effects on my ability to edit.  Oh well, at the moment I still have only a small audience judging these things.


I woke up on New Years day with a massive headache, but was gung-ho to get to the Great Wall.  The weather was good, my spirits were better, and I was eager to witness first hand the artifact that is practically synonymous with China.  Despite feeling like I was going to collapse in the lobby, I found myself wearing a stupid grin and hoping that the contents of my stomach would remain in place.  I suspect that repercussions would come about if one were to vomit on a cultural relic.  I grabbed my camera, quickly consumed ten or twelve dumplings and met up with guide- Ronald and the others who were already waiting.


The  Great Wall lies within Beijing, but it is not near Beijing proper.  I was told that the drive typically takes about an hour and a half, but could rise significantly if there was serious traffic or an accident.  Beijing disney worldTraveling on the Badaling (I love that name) expressway, we quickly left the center of the city, and began encountering much more typical Chinese living quarters.  The farther we moved outward, the lower and more aged the buildings became.   At one point we passed a very large Disney-castle style complex that looked to be long since abandoned.  Ronald explained that a Beijing tycoon of sorts had been in the process of constructing a theme park, the design of which had been taken from Disney World, but that the project had sucked his bank account dry and failed.


About three quarters of the way to the wall, we stopped at a ‘jade’ factory/store called Jade Dragon.  True Jade is a naturally occurring stone, but the products that were being sold at the store were crafted from a material that I was told was produced on site.  This ‘jade’ was pretty, but was not the real deal and was generally overpriced.  In addition to a variety of stone carvings, the store also sold a huge number of enameled vases and objects.  Walking around proved to be quite a hazard, as many of the carvings on the floor had price tags in excess of ten thousand (American) dollars.  Enamel VasesAfter looking around for a short time, we went up to the second floor for our lunch, at which point a number of people became ill.  Whether it was a classic New Years day hangover or the grease factor of the lunch, I found myself fighting to keep the mornings dumplings down for the remainder of the bus ride.

Vases in factoryThe Great Wall is quite a thing to witness.  In addition to being much larger than anything I had ever imagined, it is also incredibly steep in certain sections, courtesy of a sea of rolling hills.  It was amazing to stand on some of the higher towers and look down into the valley, seeing the wall crawling its way up and down the hills like a stone snake.  I would like to crush a rumor that I hear quite frequently by pointing out that the wall cannot in fact be seen from space.  It is little more than 25 feet wide in most sections.  It is also not a continuous wall, nor was the entire structure built within the same time period (it collapsed the country’s economy at one point, bringing construction to a standstill).  The portion of the wall that we visited was refurbished during the Ming dynasty, and is the best cared for section of the wall.  As far as I am aware, it is also the most visited.  Wikipedia claims that the major sections of the wall comprise a length of  more than 3,800 miles, though I am suspicious of this number.  Built using a conscripted force of over a million people (I think I read that this was a third of the population at the time?), the wall remains a testament to the power of the masses, and over the course of our trip I heard many Chinese refer to it as the 8th wonder of the world.
Great Wall Ticket booth


The wall was great on its own, but what really made the trip for me was a conversation that I had with a small group of Chinese students who had come out to spend the first day of the Near Year on the wall.  On the way up to one of the towers, I had helped them take a group picture, and wished them a happy new year.  As we were returning, we crossed paths again, and one of them asked if I was able to speak  Chinese or whether I just new a few phrases.  Once I explained my interest in China and my major in school, we quickly got into a discussion comparing many aspects of Chinese and American culture.  Our conversation switched back and forth between Chinese and English, with each of us using our native language when we couldn’t quite find the right words.  The man asked a few small questions, testing the waters, and then started to move toward more calculated thoughts.

Great Wall rolling hills“What do you think the biggest difference is between the United States and China?” he asked all of a sudden.  I found it interesting that this was not the first question he had posed, but the first in which he had requested my permission to ask.  It was obvious that some part of the question made him uncomfortable, but I could also tell that he had great interest in hearing my answer.  Questions almost identical to this one would occur several more times on the trip, and each time it seemed to me that the person asking already had an idea of what my answer would be, and wanted to have it confirmed by hearing it firsthand.  Thinking for a moment, I told him that I saw great differences in the role of the family as it existed in our two cultures, pointing particularly at the way in which Chinese culture put heavy emphasis on family-first lifestyles.  Great Wall steepAfter I had tried to explain a bit about family life back at home, he looked a bit confused.


“So you’re saying that family is not as important in America?”


Not quite what I had said.  I was having trouble articulating the differences that I observed.  As I had witnessed, the thoughts of young people in China often came directly back to their family, in particular their parents, and how the choices they made would be perceived back home.  This is not completely different from the United States where nearly every student I have met has some level of concern about what mom and dad will think.  At the same time, however, the concern that I witnessed in China ran on a deeper level.  Articulating the differences between the two in a short period of time was very difficult, but I gave it a shot.  The man listened to everything I said and remained silent for a moment, still looking a bit confused.  We were approaching the exit from the wall and as far as I could tell he was only headed this way so that he could continue speaking with me.  I would have been glad to do so, but was late for the bus and couldn’t pause for very long.  I don’t quite remember his exact wording, but his final thoughts were something along the lines that although young Chinese are indeed very conscious of their families, more and more they are moving away and taking their own direction in life.  Coming to the gate, we quickly said our goodbyes and he headed back up the way we had come.
Great Wall sunsetAt the time of the conversation, it had seemed to me that this discussion had just come from the interest of one Chinese who wanted to hear about the United States, but looking back I think that there was probably a bit more to it than this.  After having similar conversations with a number of students in Sichuan, I began to have the feeling that many Chinese are concerned with the perception that Americans have of China and of Chinese culture.  In most of these conversations (I will document one or two more down the road), I enjoyed having the opportunity to make comparisons between our respective cultures, but often left with the feeling that I had not been the one directing the movement of the conversation.


Courtesy of Hannah Richard

Courtesy of Hannah Richard

It wasn’t that such interactions felt scripted, but almost that the people I was speaking with expected me to have certain answers to their questions.  No one was mean to me, and in most cases they didn’t directly disagree (although disagreement is rarely presented quite as directly as in American culture).  I couldn’t help feeling, however, that these conversations were often subtle attempts at gaining a sense of my opinions and redirecting them if they didn’t quite match the opinions of the person asking.

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Beijing at Night

outside Sol BeijingPandora has just informed me that I am approaching my monthly usage limit, of which I did not even know one existed.  I typically listen to a strange combination of ambient mixes while I write, things that sound good but don’t draw my attention away from the thoughts at hand.  According to Pandora’s records, I have already spent 36 hours this month using their site.  I should probably consider moving away from the internet.

After much thought and some delay, I am finally beginning to broach the subject of Chinese nightlife, but now that I have started to write I think I may have to revise a bit.  Once again, it is one of those topics that could end up being book-length and still remain unexplained.  This is a short piece of several posts to come.  There is a logical reason for the predominantly post-sundown existence of clublife, stemming namely from the fact that a good portion of people have jobs to attend.  It is also true, however, that the night brings a greater level of fantasy to the mind.  Lights a myriad of colors are commonplace, an almost interpretation of the daytime.  When I go out for the night, the daytime and the evening typically remain joined as part of the same day, but part of me seeks a separate and transported feeling.  A winter night can bring on the sensation that one has been commuted into another realm, bourn on the suggestive glow of lights that give small depth to such greater darkness.
DSCN0646China during the day and China during the night are just as distinct and different as the time frames in which they exist.  When the sun goes down, Beijing comes to life with a rainbow of neon and a mess of LED strands, lanterns and streetlamps.  Still bustling with traffic and activity,  the night somehow relaxes the tensions of the day.  Though I am no particular critic of architecture and urban layout, I cannot say that I found the daytime Beijing to be particularly appealing.  It is a bit overwhelming, the skies are frequently grey and I was not especially attracted to any of the buildings.  Once the sun had left the world behind, Beijing became a different city.  Almost every building we passed had lights adorning the sides, the corners and cornices.  Lights of every color, flashing, flickering, blinking, shifting in intensity and shade to create a mesmerizing and ever undulating glow, a synthetic and strange interpretation of the day.  It is the same city, but as if seen through the tweaked lens of a dream.

We went to a few different clubs and bars while in Beijing, but my favorite and certainly the one that stood out the most was a small place called Sol, somewhat comically named and heavily themed after the lessDSCN0645 frequently spotted beer (Corona without the price tag).  If ever there were a bar that could be called a “family oriented” place, Sol would be it.  Although I didn’t see any children, or families for that matter, it was a small and very approachable place, with a light and relaxed atmosphere.  Keep in mind that the whole of the time we spent in Beijing fell right around New Years, and as a result the place was consistently filled and in great spirits.  Each night that we went, the bar was holding an open mic of sorts, comprised of bar patrons and paid performers, assuring not only that there was consistent entertainment, but that many of the acts were very good.  The owner is an extremely charismatic middle-aged man who happens to be a virtuoso of accordion-pop music.  A strange variety of pictures of the man and his instrument are hung around the bar, only slightly visible in the low light and heavy smoke.  Shot like the cover of a Gunther album, the pictures dripped with the mannerisms of early 80’s hair metal stars; each pose was done with an almost goofy seriousness, a poor attempt at conveying some unearthly swagger.  They were completely tacky and confirmed my love of the place.

For the Chinese, the New Year celebrated on January first does not have the importance of that held in late winter (Feb 14th this year), but it was a serious celebration nonetheless, and everyone in the bar was having a great time buying one another drinks and shouting 新年快乐! (Xinnian kuaile is happy new year) over the din of the music.  They seemed excited to have a number of happy go lucky American college students hanging out with them, particularly with some of our group who were more than glad to get up on stage and dance.  And of course, there was probably some incentive in knowing that there were at least two hundred other students who could supply the bar with a solid flow of customers for the duration of the week.  Upon first entering I noticed that each of the attendants and a good portion of the patrons were wearing ridiculous hats and wigs in a variety of colors, and soon found myself being fitted with an unsightly but entirely appropriate sailor cap.  In addition to the hats, many people were swinging plastic noise makers and clappers, only adding to the extensive ruckus.  Never in my life have I witnessed such a varied set of performances on one stage.  We went from hearing a traditional song played on a dulcimer to seeing a dance off, to watching a more conservative ballerina followed by a display of spectacular bartending tricks.  Every aspect of this placed clashed, but the atmosphere that grew out of it all was amazing.  There was a certain kind of unity among such consistent discord.
Night market rainbow signAs New Years eve turned into New Years day, and as I began to realize that I would be headed to the Great Wall in a matter of hours, I decided that it was due time to finish my drink and decamp back to the hotel.  Before making my way to the door, I somehow became engaged in saying goodbye and goodnight to a number of people that I certainly had never met.  This is something I can’t picture myself doing in the United States, but people were, for the most part, much more inclined to speak to me in China, due in no small part to my being American.  It was also New Years.  People were more than a little drunk and everyone was walking around wishing each other a prosperous year to come.  Finding only one person remaining from the group that I had started with, we gathered our jackets and began to move toward the door.  Passing a husband and wife, I wished them both a xinnian kuaile, at which point the man put on a huge smile and bear-hugged me, followed by kissing the girl next to me.  After hugging his wife and receiving a barrage of good wishes, we managed to move past the giggly/tipsy couple and out the door.  Back on the street and into the open Beijing night, I found myself very happy to have experienced this little moment, this friendly yet alien night world.

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Avatar strikes back!

avatar-movie-posterFor days I have been looking forward to writing a particular post focusing on China at night, and had planned on writing it this afternoon.  Sometime around three o’clock I remembered that I have an essay due tomorrow or the day after, a requirement assigned as part of the trip I just came back from.  I have tons of material already written on the darn trip, but I don’t particular think that any of it falls under the guidelines for the paper.  It seems that China’s nightlife will just have to get pushed back another day.  Oh well.  After writing my other paper, I don’t feel like writing anything very large, but happened to see an excellent post on the Shanghaiist blog this morning that I found it to be particularly entertaining, and it fits well with my own post of a few days past.  It seems that the Avatar craze extends farther than I had previously guessed.  According to CNNgo.com, an Asia-specific counterpart of the American media group,

“Officials in Zhangjiajie, Hunan Province, have renamed one of their famous mountains in honor of James Cameron’s movie hit “Avatar”.  The peak, formerly known as the South Pillar of Heaven, will now be called Hallelujah Mountain”

I won’t go into more specifics than this, but I will say that the article is well worth a read, and is guaranteed to put a smile on your face.  A confused smile, but a smile nonetheless.   Here are the two links, to the actual article as well as the original Shanghaiist post.

“Avatar”: You’ve seen the movie, now climb the mountain
(@ CNNgo.com)

Zhangjiajie Mountain Renamed After Avatar (@ Shanghaiist


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The Forbidden City and Peking Duck

EntrancetigerThe Forbidden city, what can I say?  By the time we arrived at the ancient palace, I, along with generally everyone in my group, was so cold that getting my fingers to turn on the camera was a chore.  By my best recollection, the temperature was somewhere between 10 and 15 degrees.  I won’t lie, I hated the Forbidden City.  It was just so damn cold that I was unable to do much of anything other than focus on getting through as quickly as possible and back to the relative warmth of the bus.  Under most circumstances, I am more than happy to relax and enjoy a good historical site, but this was not one of those occasions, and my cynical half was out in full force.  The initial excitement that I had about visiting this famed attraction degraded with each of the courtyards we passed through.  It was a gorgeous place, but after the second dauntingly large plaza I had determined that all of the sections and buildings looked remarkably similar, and was happy to move on.

One of the joys of traveling amongst a massive group is that inevitably you will loose someone.  Be it in a crowd, during a bathroom stop, distractions at a tourist attraction, somewhere along the way one or more people will get split up.  And though many talks had been had about the importance of staying together, along with an equal number of threats about the little remorse that would be had in leaving stragglers behind, these tacticstraditional paint scheme proved to be no means to an end.  Having made our way to the end of the city (which I had taken to calling the ‘Frozen Shitty’), we found all but one member of our party.  The plan had been that if anyone were to become separated, we would reconvene at a clearly visible set of benches in front of the exit. Arriving at this point, it was apparent that the missing individual hadn’t heard these instructions, or believed that we had already left him behind.

Stuck.  I trolled around in the gift shop for all of five minutes, mostly for the warmth, got completely claustrophobic and left in search of a cup of coffee, only to find that there was none to be had.  Finally, after a good half hour of waiting and a number of phone calls, Ronald determined our friend had gotten on to a bus with a different group, and we were off and rolling once again, very cold, slightly agitated, but ready for a long anticipated lunch of Peking Duck.

Forbidden City

This meal, which is (surprise surprise) a Beijing specialty, has a name that brought me some confusion.  Peking, though spelled differently, is pronounced the same way as Beijing (look here for an explanation of Pinyin and Wade-Giles pronunciation).  My confusion came from the fact that every time I said Beijing Duck, as opposed to its traditional western pronunciation with a P and K, I found myself being corrected by our guide.  When using Chinese, however, this was not the case.  It is as though the western name has overridden its Chinese counterpart.  But enough about linguistic nuances, lets eat!

During the short ride to the restaurant, I was told that part of the preparation in a traditional Peking Duck meal was the usage of all parts of the duck to create a variety of dishes and components.  I thought I was clear on this aspect, but upon beginning the meal, it was apparent that by all parts, Ronald did in fact mean all of them.  At this point, I will note that I almost never eat duck at home, and find it for the most part to be far too heavy for me to digest easily.  DSCN0429At the time, I was of the mind that I was in China and if there was any place in the world capable of crafting a legendary meal out of a canard, it would certainly be this restaurant that we had entered.  Every one of the five floors we walked up had a restaurant, and each one of them specialized in duck.  I was told (though I have no proof of this) that ours was the finest.  It sat all the way up top.

A few meals into our stay in China, I began to work on the principle that it was far better to eat first and ask about ingredients later.  Ninety percent of the time, the dishes I tried were amazing. The other 10 percent were moments in which I gained an almost immediate sense that whatever I had eaten was a mistake.  The duck meal looked relatively innocuous, comprised of many small dishes, and I quickly began to load up my plate.  One of the first things I ate was a small dark cube, very smooth in texture.  Assuming that it was a piece of chocolate, I tossed the malicious block into my mouth, immediately finding it to taste horrid.  I was told by the fuwuyuan (general term for an attendant at a restaurant and other places of service) that it was some combination of fat and liver scrapings.  Strike one.  There were long strips of a gelatinous material, and after much debate about their contents (and having been disheartened by the initial culinary horrors that I had already suffered), we asked what they were before daring to taste.  “Duck Webbing”.

Duck Webbing

Duck Webbing

Duck Webbing?  Like the material in between the feet?  Sure enough, duck webbing can also be used for a dish.  I eventually gave in, ate one of the strips, instantly regretted the decision, and spent the next minute or so fighting the urge to run to the bathroom before being able to swallow the so-called delicacy.  Enough with theses petty starter dishes, I said, moving on to the main course.

The rest of the meal was very good, though the general abuse that had been dealt to my taste buds early on remained strong in my mind.  Sometime later, as we wound our way around town for an evening of parties and celebration, the meal would come back to haunt me.  But hey, it was China, and if Andrew Zimmern survived, so would I.  With the lunch concluded, we loaded back onto the bus and headed off to Beijing Language and Culture Institute (北京语言大学)to meet with Madame Liu, who Ronald labeled the Hillary Clinton of China.  We were on the bus for no more than thirty seconds before realizing that, for the second time that day, we were missing someone.  Stuck again.

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Last day of 2009, decades on Tian’anmen

DSCN0379New Years eve and day have become blurs in my mind, which is strange, considering that they were two of the more interesting and certainly busier days that we spent in Beijing.  On the last day of 2009, we set off as a group to visit both Tian’anmen square and the Forbidden City,perhaps the two most notable tourist sites (both domestic and international) within Beijing proper.  It was a gorgeous day, but by far the coldest of any that we encountered, and not ideal for the amount of time that we would be spending outside.  These two days held a huge amount of activity, so I’m going to break them up into a few posts.  Off to the square!

After many years of reading and hearing about the legendary Tian nman square, I can safely say that seeing it in person blows away any hearsay account of its size.  Our guide, Ronald, told us that it was twice as large as Red Square in Moscow, making it the largest in the world by a solid margin.  It was built, he explained, using large rectangular paving stones around 1×3 feet in size, the idea being that each one would designate a spot for a person to stand.  There are more than 500,000 of these stones.  Like I said, big.

There is a definite tension that exists at Tian’anmen. For the 21 years that have followed the 1989 democracy demonstrations and subsequent massacre, the Chinese government has held Tian’anmen under constant watch, on some occasions bordering on lock-down.  What started as an attempt to crush a large student demonstration completely backfired on the party.  Not only did they catch years of negative press from all corners of the world, they effectively established Tian’anmen as a symbol for the domestic struggle of a Chinese public in search of greater rights.  This square was no longer simply representing the democracy movement; it had become a staging ground for Chinese looking to gain immediate attention (if you are interested, you can look into the Falun Gong movement.  For fear of later censorship issues, I won’t  post a link).

DSCN0340These tensions that exist are visible in a few different ways.  The first things that grabbed my attention were the large fence encircling the entire square and the security checkpoint that we needed to pass through prior to entering.  It was not dissimilar to a security checkpoint at any number of airports, though it seemed that these guards were significantly more relaxed than any of the TSA officials I have had the pleasure of meeting.  While we were standing in line waiting to pass through the tunnel that contained the checkpoint, a girl next to me nudged my shoulder, whispering a question in a not entirely joking manner.    “I guess its not a good idea to ask them about their thoughts on democracy, right?”.

I have heard it said that there is no such thing as a bad question.  This is not true. I quietly shuffled a few people ahead of the girl, picturing the helicopters and white vans that might already be racing to collect us.  It seemed unlikely that DSCN0359there was much threat in whispering such taboos, but then again we were a group of Americans standing on line to enter Tian’anmen, the ground zero of  China’s political sensitivity.  Standing among a mixture of Chinese tourists that I didn’t know, it seemed best to separate myself from classic stupidity.  In these places, it is always possible that someone is listening.

In addition to the obvious checkpoint, there were several other objects and events that caught my attention.  The first, and perhaps least surprising, was the incredible number of cameras that were attached almost vine-like to the sides of every pole and lamppost.  Not a single spot was out of view of a lens.  This did not concern me in the least, but it was no less a reminder that it would be a difficult place to remain invisible.  At one point, I witnessed a Chinese man having his bag taken apart by a group of police.  I was not this mini-interrogation that grabbed my attention, but instead and awareness of a group of fellow students that started to gawk at the process.  This is not a great thing to do in any situation involving the law, but it was only when one student decided to take a picture that a police officer strode over and told them quite firmly that they needed to leave.  Toward the end of the time that we spent within the square, our mini group wanted to take a photo together, with the Gate of Heavenly Peace as the backdrop.  We had a banner with our group name and the name of the trip, but Ronald was told quite firmly by someone in uniform that he was not allowed to unroll it.  There is a definite fear that people will unroll banners containing political or religious slogans in opposition to the practices of the government.
DSCN0362Finally coming to the end of the square, we entered a similar tunnel to that by which we had entered, and coming out on the opposite side of the road I found myself standing in front of the Gate of Heavenly Peace, above its center entrance hanging the legendary portrait of Mao Zedong.  I knew that at some point we would visit this spot, but standing in front of the painting of the Chairman brought on a feeling that still surprised me.  After several years of study, many, many books and pictures later, and with a solid knowledge of the history of the Communist party in China, seeing this painting firsthand brought about a greater sense of the reality of all that I had studied.  Prior to this visit, I had no doubt that I would find the picture hanging on this wall (and will probably continue to do so for many years to come), but up until this moment, it had been nothing more than an image in a text.DSCN0376

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Despite My Best Intentions

DSCN0587When I first set out to document the ‘Discovering China’ trip, I had planned on writing a day by day account of our travels, totaling some 11 days of material to be covered. It seemed only logical to document everything in a straight forward, chronological order. I mean, day one was followed by day two, it should work the same way on paper, right? It appears, however, that the more I write about the experience, the more I realize that documenting memories in this manner doesn’t really convey a good sense of the trip as a whole. It ends up sounding, well, chronological, and in most respects would be rather boring to read. Some days were amazing, but there were plenty of others that had little to nothing remarkable about them. I’m quite sure that if I wrote about each of the welcoming ceremonies we attended, this would end up reading like the minutes from a rotary club meeting. I have nothing against the rotary club, I’m just saying that it probably wouldn’t draw much interest.

There is something else that doesn’t sit well with writing such a straight forward account, namely the fact that the trip itself was not straight forward. Though my physical experiences within the two weeks could only have been one day after another, I find more and more that my ability to observe and analyze everything that we experienced only began to develop once I was able to break things down, to separate each memory as an individual moment. As a whole, there was little to no coherency within any portion of the two weeks. Each day found a new schedule, a new set of plans, and not a single person with any idea of what we were actually going to be doing. This lack of definitive schedule made many people anxious. It is not, as many people believed, that the Chinese have no belief in following a schedule, but rather that schedules are formatted with the knowledge that they can be changed, reworked, and even completely disregarded. Now I know as some of you are reading this that you are sitting there thinking “but doesn’t that go in opposition to the purpose of a schedule?”. I’m afraid that I can’t give a firm answer on that end, nor have I really decided where my own opinion lies. There is a large cultural aspect at play, one which I believe can only really be understood after many years of life in China. After two weeks in country, I still could not grasp the nature of Chinese scheduling, but at the same time no longer felt a need to worry about our plans. Doing so took too much effort, and invariably led to my guesses about destinations being wrong.

But all of this is idle thought, and I have yet to get to my main purpose in this particular post. I generally groan when a piece of literature starts with the standard “to get the beginning, we must start at the end”, but in so many situations this is the case. I have found China immensely difficult to document, simply because there is so much happening at any given point, and it has become more apparent that in order to document correctly, you must do nothing short of including all aspects at once. DSCN0611During the course of our stay in Beijing, we saw any number of important sites (The Great Wall, Forbidden City, Tian’anmen) considered to be the pinnacle of Chinese “cultural relics”. These represent rich portions of Chinese history, but on the whole I found that I gained much more from the lesser activities. Trips to various clubs and bars may not seem to be the essence of Chinese society and culture, but I ultimately gained far greater insight by spending time within these areas. Culture exists at all points, in all places. Some experiences do not immediately reveal as much culture as others, but at days end it was the cross comparison of experiences (ie, conversations I had with Chinese on the Great Wall as compared to those I had at the bar) that really brought about greater understanding of the endless nuances that exist within Chinese culture.

I am currently reading “Ghost Train to the Easter Star”, a semi-memoir by the writer Paul Theroux. Though I can appreciate his ability to write, I find him to be nothing less than an ass when it comes to his observations of culture. My main complaint stands in his interest in looking for the “real” within each country that he visits. Looking back on our first week within China, I can now see that I was probably doing something similar, and I think that it is almost unavoidable in any adventurer (for an excellent, nearly selfless portrayal of Chinese culture, get a hold of Peter Hesslers River Town). It is very important, albeit it difficult, to make a distinction between the categorizations of real and typical. Everything is real. So long as we were in China, there could be no “fake”. There are, however, aspects that are not good portrayals of a culture as a whole. New York City can be seen as the premier American metropolis, but spend as long as you want in and on its streets and you will have only seen a sliver of American culture. The same applies for Beijing. Amazing city, amazing people, but step outside and you will quickly find yourself overwhelmed by how much farther the culture extends.

DSCN0647I have once again lost my place in this (very) large thought. In short, this trip has done nothing short of school my understanding of the way in which I analyze the things I see. I came home from China unable to put words to any of the experiences that I had. It wasn’t that these experiences were beyond words, but that they sounded flat when I wrote about them as they occurred. I was writing thoughts in sequence, and though they had happened in a particular order, I found that writing about these experiences only made sense if I pulled them out of context and began to juxtapose them against one another. I have yet to post any such works, but once I get into the dating and drinking scene (of which I will never claim to understand), then I will really start to mash things up. Very much like the trip, this post continues to fight consistency. I will end here.

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Seen “Evader”?, no I’m afraid I haven’t

While I was in China, a large number of students that I spoke with excitedly asked me if I had seen the movie “Evader”.  Each one of them described to me that it was not only a perfect work, nothing short of a masterpiece, but that it was also the current best selling movie in the U.S.  Having never heard of  this “Evader”, I began to suspect that many of these poor students had been duped into believing that a domestically produced film was in fact American.  I was unable to find a single student who had a bad opinion of any of the American movies that they had seen, as figured that simply tagging a film as American-made would be enough to make it a best seller.  Wrong.

The story did not change once I got to Leshan, as my host family’s nephew soon asked me if I had seen the legendary “Evader”.  His eyes lit up as he described the movie, and it was clear that it was the greatest thing he had ever watched, but for some reason or other (And this was the case with everyone), he was unable to give me any sort of plot summary for the film.  Instead, he focused his entire description on how the movie made him feel, and how it was sure to remain a classic for years to come.  Perfection.

One evening, having decided to go for a walk in a local park and to see the city at night, we passed the front of a large movie theater, at which point I saw a sign for Avatar.  Knowing that my host-nephew was painfully eager for any details of what was current and popular in the States, I pointed to the banner.  Immediately, his eyebrows went up, a grin came out, and he said “yes, you see, Evader”


“yes, Evader”.

This morning, I read an an article from the New York Times site, detailing an announcement made by the bureau responsible for moderating the Chinese film industry.  Apparently, the ever sucessful “Avatar” is soon to be removed from any theater that is not able to display the movie in 3-D.  Why you ask?  More censorship? Resentment toward the possible underlying message about the environment?  The decision comes simply from the a financial standpoint.  The film is doing too well

Avatar has taken China by storm, quickly becoming the  top selling movie of all time within the PRC, finally ending the long running dynasty known as Titanic.   With the soon to be released domestic production “Confucius”, a documentary on the beloved figurehead of Chinese philosophy, it appears that the film industry in China worries (and not without reason) that a western production will steal the revenue from their own market.  I figure that this is fair enough.  Read the below article for the finer details.

China to Pull back  ‘Avatar’ for Movie on Confucius

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Schools, Galleries and Louis Vuitton

DSCN0194The mention of the names Beida and Tsinghua to any of the students who attended the Discovering China trip will almost certainly illicit a scrunched face, a sound of disgust and possibly some cursing.  Standing as the most famous and most prestigious universities in China, Beijing University and Tsinghua are the Chinese equivalents of Yale and Harvard, and it is the dream of any parent to have their child attend either one.  The Chinese are very proud of these establishments both for their age (Beida being just above 100 years in age, and Tsinghua standing just at 99) and for the great honor bestowed on the extremely small number of individuals who are fortunate enough to attend one of them.

It came as no surprise that they wanted to take us on a tour of both campuses while we were still in Beijing and show off the pride of the Chinese academic world.  This is all well and good, except that the weather was hovering somewhere around 20 degrees, and spending the entire morning outside was not something that any of uDSCN0201s had much interest in doing.  Although the campuses were both quite beautiful, we did not manage to see the insides of any of the buildings, nor converse with any of the students, and the purpose of the trip was ultimately lost on the group.

By the time we got back to the bus, most people had less than savory words for the experience as a whole.  Strike two for the planning committee.     •

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The main building at Tsinghua and an Office at Beida

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DSCN0255For the afternoon, our hosts had arranged for us to visit the legendary 798 art gallery.  Although the activities of the morning had generally been considered a failure, and though most of us were complaining about the temperature and overall irritation with the amount of time spent on the bus, the gallery proved to be one of the most intriguing and memorable visits that we made over the course of our stay in Beijing.  I had previously watched a short documentary on the young and developing art scene within China, and seem to recall a mention of the 798 gallery.  DSCN0253To say that it was a gallery is not exactly correct, as it was more of a community, a large section of land in Beijing surrounded by an old brick wall.  From what I could tell, it appeared to be the remains of old industry, some sort of factory grounds, that had been turned into spaces for dozens of small art galleries rented out by individuals.  It was comparable to many of the areas in Williamsburg and Redhook, but a bit more organized and intentional in its separation from the surrounding community.  The all encompassing wall that encircles the property had an interesting way of affirming that this was indeed its own little community within a much larger one.  Were these galleries trying to keep the rest of China out, or were they the ones being kept in?

I do not believe that I can begin to scratch the surface of the meaning contained within much of the art that I saw in many of the galleries I walked through.  I found almost nothing comparable to the art featured in the myriad of Brooklyn and SOHO galleries, and generally everything that I saw quickly conjured up a profound emotion of one sort or another.  All of the art was young, seemingly free of the overexposure that sometimes leads artists to unintentionally replicate the styles of those who came before and inspire them.  This art was distinctly individual, and thoroughly Chinese.  I was able to take some pictures, but where I felt it necessary I tried to obey the ever present request to not do so.

I will not bother trying to describe any of the work (save a great painting of many pop-culture figures, including a space-marine Obama with naked wife in tow) as this is a futile effort.  Most of the works that I looked at contained strong bits of culture from the last 60 years, the period of the Communist Party.  Many of them were hard to look at, absolute representations of the pain and anger that is finally being released after the very difficult decades under Mao.  Other works were euphoric, almost ethereal, some simply appearing to scream “I am Chinese”, a sign of strange pride and acceptance of identity among these young artists.  The search for one’s identity within China, especially as I have observed among young people, is a confusing path.  To be growing up in a time when your country and its culture are constantly in transition, and yet still so bound to memories of the past;  this is what was apparent in the art.  I have spoken previously about the constant duality between past and present that seems to exist within China, and this is one of the best examples that I witnessed.  As I wrote down in my journal, “Sometimes the new is just the old in a different skin”.

DSCN0304Our day closed with a trip to the legendary Beijing Pearl Market, four floors of every conceivable knock-off you can imagine (now that I say that, I realize I saw no DVDs), along with a large wholesale market exclusively for the pearl trade.  We were ever grateful for Ronald, as we had been told that we wouldn’t have time to make such an excursion, but he managed to get us out of the art gallery a bit ahead of schedule and guide us to the market, providing one of the most outrageous spending and bargaining adventures that I have ever had.  Even if you have no knowledge of Mandarin, chances are fair that by the time you leave the market you will know how to say “how much” and “too expensive”, both of which being vital if you want to get a good price.
DSCN0297The moment you set foot onto any one of the floors, you are immediately swarmed by a group of (typically) female stand attendants, all telling you not only that you are either very pretty or handsome, but that they have a special price just for you, and that it is better than any of those around them, all of whom happen to be selling the same thing.  The price that any of these masters of sale initially give you is always exorbitant, and anyone who accepts the first offer is instantly labeled as a sucker.  By some magic method of communication the rest of the selling community quickly hears of such a folly, and the poor fool who didn’t haggle is permanently labeled as easy prey. text that will soon be invisibletext that will soon be invisibletext that will soon be invisibletext that will soon be invisibletext that will soon be invisibletext that will soon be invisibletext that will soon be invisibletext that will soon be invisibletext that will soon be invisibletext that will soon be invisible

I was surrounded by mounds upon mounds of cheap, fantastically copied goods.  Nike’s for $10.  iPhones for $30.  Every camera you have ever heard of, all for less than $100.  I studied the phones for quite a while, along with a few “ipods”, and came to the conclusion that those that weren’t copied were probably stolen.  The vast majority of them were quickly identifiable as cheap imitations.  Most of them didn’t look the same, or the language used was not recognizable (mixing Chinese, English and symbols), or they simply didn’t work.  I found myself baffled for the better portion of time that we spent inside.  I was surrounded by really cool stuff, and for the first time in quite a long time had no urge to buy anything.  Finding myself far happier to practice speaking with a ready and willing audience, the few things that I ultimately purchased came almost exclusively from an interest in starting a good conversation.
DSCN0299Without exception, every one of the sellers started their pitch in broken English, simple statements that pertained only to buying and selling.  Most people were quite happy to use Chinese with me, and in some cases even dropped the price quite a bit more.  The process of bargaining is a long standing tradition within the Chinese market scene, and essential to obtaining a good deal.  In some cases, it can even be seen as disrespectful not to haggle with a seller, a sign that you do not take them seriously.  The agreement on a price is quite final, and you will not be able to go lower once you have done so.  Beyond this, it is considered unfair and extremely low to back out of paying once you have agreed on a price.  If you spend more than about 30 seconds examining a product, consider yourself as having signed a contract to purchase.  Once the exchanges were done, I found that most people were more than glad to talk to me about why I was in China, what it was like living and studying in the United States, and any number of similar topics.  After I bought a pair of t-shirts, one young girl was very excited to hear about New York, and it was apparent that she was pained by the fact that she simply could not afford the ticket to make the trip.  For a moment, I felt very dirty in understanding the privileges that allowed me to act as the consumer in this environment.  But as quickly as this feeling came over me, it was erased by the salesgirl’s final question.  “Would you like to look at this jacket sir? Excellent price, just for you”.

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