Not really, but once you’ve experienced the claustrophobia-inducing bus rides, the I’d-rather-chew-on-my-weenis-and-sacrifice-loved-ones-than-stand-here-for-two-days ticket lines, or the, we-have-a-toliet-but-you-can’t-use-it-now-because-we’re-so-overbooked-that-thirteen-people-are-sitting-in-there-for-the-duration-of-the-twelve-hour-ride train rides, you may think my translation is a bit more appropriate.
The Lunar New Year is the BIGGEST holiday for Chinese people. Spring Festival (Guo Nian) is the celebration of the new year, and everywhere in China you can see more red than usual, doorway hangers with meaningful and auspicious phrases greet guests as they enter homes, and many kids and business men will receive little red envelopes with crisp, clean bills in quantities of 100-1000 RMB.
As the legend—there’s always a legend in China—goes, Nian was a great and terrible monster that harassed a village, eating its people and basically causing the real estate market to crash. He did this for a while until an old man convinced him to switch his diet to other creatures that weren’t…human. The man turned out to be an immortal—there is always one of them running around in Chinese myths, too—and, additionally, told the people how to scare off this beast if he ever returned.
Wear a bunch of red, make noise, and light things on fire was his advice, and the Chinese have held true to these sage words so well that, for a week during this holiday, some Dalian neighborhoods resemble what I imagine downtown Baghdad might look like. Sulfur fills the air, conversation is blotted out by explosions, and flashes of light illuminate the sky. And occasionally a pedestrian gets fourth degree burns and street cleaners lose phalanges.
Guo Nian, once known as the “passing of the beast,” now mostly just means Spring Festival, but it’s fun to know the source, ain’t it?
Stories and myths are nice and all, but when you’re standing or squashed hip-to-hip with smelly strangers or sharing the bathroom with seventy other dudes, you come to learn that a new beast has appeared in China, and like Nian of old, it comes around once a year to ravage even the most civil of citizens—Chun Yun, Spring Festival Travel Rush.
Families, students, migrant workers, and tourists all travel in China during Spring Festival, which usually falls around the first week of February. Some will fly, drive, take buses, trains, ferries, or even hitchhike to get back to their dear mom and pop.
Airlines here are being, “…instructed to take measure to avoid flight delays as the world’s largest annual human migration…draws closer…”(Wang, Chinadaily.com.cn), but in a country of so many, and a severe pollution problem that routinely grounds and delays flights out of big cities, this “instruction” might just be wishful thinking. Heck, Shanghai alone is projected to have more than 9.3 million travelers pass through (Chinadaily.com.cn). That number might not seem so scary, but consider that Shanghai is just ONE of hundreds of cities with airlines in China. Still not convinced? Then think about the most popular form of travel: the trains.
Last year more than 220 million passengers took to the trains, and this year already more than 148 million tickets have been sold for these suicidally filial citizens (Chinadaily.com.cn). At its peak, more than 500 train tickets a second were sold! To put that in perspective—I have no way to cognitively register such a number of sweaty, pushy, humans—in the US this year AAA projected that about 94.5 million people traveled 50 miles or more during the Year-End holidays, and we Americans don’t even like trains—that number is a total for ALL travel forms (Newsroom.com). Less than 100 million compared to more than 220 million…That. Does. Not. Compute.
Living in China introduces you to myriad situations that test your gumption and resolve, but nothing zaps the will so much as the sheer force of numbers. I’ve avoided markets and stores until I was about ready to boil the leather of my shoes, just to not have to deal with people. I’ve walked a block out of my way instead of allowing myself to become part of the anarchy that is the pedestrian parade crossing the street. When I see a China-size crowd, I feel like I need a pep talk from Jesus telling me not to take a machete and cull the multitudes.
That being said, there are three reasons that people smarter than me blame for the rage-birthing throngs in China this time of year. Besides the simple answer of This Is China, or “Damn that’s a lot of people,” three reasons do stand out as the origins of so many annual aneurisms:
Traditions of traveling back home.
Education/Work reforms that promote students attending universities in other cities, and large numbers of workers that travel city to city for work most of the year.
Spring Festival, along with the Golden Week of the National Day holiday in October, are two holidays that EVERYONE has off. Because of this, they like to take their trips during these times as well as visit the ‘rents (Coonan, “Two billion journeys in China’s own great migrations”).
China is aware of these issues, and, believe it or not, they are working on it, but this Spring Festival travel season is already upon us, and all I can say is, “God’s speed to you crazy commuters, you.”
Weibo, China’s answer for its American counterpart, Twitter, is largely comprised of Chinese language speakers. In 2012 there were more than 500 million users on the site and about 100 million messages posted daily (Josh Ong, TWN). Today they got one more to add to the stats, a goofy American.
The Chinese version of the site isn’t exactly easy to navigate, even with the additional support of Google Chrome’s attempt at translating the pages, but I figure why not look into it anyways. Though I’m not necessarily a tech-savvy individual, the goings-on in the Chinese blog/web-o-sphere fascinate me.
This change in the registration process was supposed to take place last March, but if you checked out the linked article, you’ll see that foreigners with our damn foreign names were in somewhat of a Weibo purgatory, a Weiburgatory, if you will. And even now there are still stirrings saying the policy could take place. Will my profile be frozen or blocked? Will I—Intrepid_Nomad (my Weibo Nickname)—be another of the site’s statistical burps? Or will I be able to hang around the site and play a while?
It’s not like I’m planning to spread dissent throughout the ranks of the microbloging netizens or anything fancy like that. Since joining a few days ago, I’ve only made a few innocuous posts about beginning work again, and I posted a few photos from trips in China I’ve taken. Within minutes the posts were viewed about a hundred times each, and the numbers keep changing, but I doubt any of the thousands or so full-time Censors are counted among those views. Most likely the posts didn’t even illicit a beep from the keyword software Weibo and the Great Chinese Firewall use to monitor searches and the publishing of sensitive content. Well, one of the tags I have is “American,” so…Yeah, maybe they’ve started their dossier.
Keyword recognition software being used for censorship isn’t new, and isn’t even particularly Chinese, but it is used quite a bit here. As anyone in China can attest, most Western social networking sites are blocked. Facebook and WordPress, Twitter and Tublr—you ain’t surfin’ them unless you’ve got yourself a VPN. But of course it isn’t just these sites that are blocked. No, as Econsultancy writer Ben Davis points out, on any given day in China you can’t freely peruse topics that pertain to:
…Chinese politics (human rights etc), socially sensitive content (pornography, gambling etc), people (dissidents), sensitive events, technology (spyware, URLs etc) and other miscellaneous topics.
As you can see, these are pretty general topics that most Americans or web users routinely look up. In China, though, looking up any political leader can get you a slap on the wrist. Checking in on Tibetan protests might do more than slow your internet connection speed. Claiming affiliation with a known activist group or promoting religious views—total no nos.
That being said, people are crafty. Chinese netizens are sly and still do talk about all of these topics, just not in obvious ways. The Grass mud horse (Cao ni Ma—in pin yin) is a great icon for the Chinese blogger who wants complete freedom of speech. A homophone for “mother fucker,” the meme became the animal of the Censorship Fighter on the Chinese net a few years ago. It’s still around, too.
Using the Chinese characters for 6 and 4, people have been able to write and search for info on the June fourth Tiananmen incident. Using euphemisms so veiled that even fluent Mandarin speakers aren’t always sure of their meaning, ideas are passed around and the Great Fire Wall is hopped over like a backyard fence.
Even with censors, in 2011 Weibo was used in a way that even Wikileaks would be proud of. When a high-speed train collision in Wenzhou that killed 40 people was being swept under the rug Weibo users took to the net and lambasted the government for the cover-up. People were criticizing the government’s actions on a scale never before seen in China, and people realized it. Information was spread.
Weibo didn’t remain so open, though. It has been, like all of the Chinese Internet, subject to severe and speedy censorship. Even after the “Real Name” policy got put on hold due to the outpouring of user (domestic and international) criticism, the censors didn’t go away. In recent months, though, that censorship is changing. According to Jason Q. Ng at Tea Leaf Nation, “Through the testing of searches of key “sensitive” terms on the site, it has become clear that some previously-blocked search terms now return results.”
He goes on to squash the celebration by saying that the strategy has changed, not the end goals. These “results” are heavily filtered, sanitized, and censored. Now you can pull up info on June 4th, Xi Jingping, and a few other “sensitive issues,” but what you’re getting isn’t objective answers. Jason Q. Ng sums it up nicely by saying,
Before, Chinese users knew when their results were extra sensitive (most, if not all, Chinese users are aware that censors routinely work behind the scenes to delete sensitive posts), yet the new changes – combined with other tactics documented by GreatFire like only showing search results from verified users for certain terms and delaying posts from appearing in search results – create even more uncertainty as to the boundaries of discourse online, perhaps encouraging greater self-censorship by users. What is and is not off-limits has now become slightly harder to determine – another step in making censorship invisible and all-pervasive.
In a country with the insane population numbers of China, the uneducated are a large demographic. Rumors that start on the net can spread and cause serious damage if not monitored. Those who have no way of forming their own views can be guided to think and believe just about anything. It’s happened all around the world before, and it’ll probably happen again. I suppose I get that, to an extent. A country does have to have the ability to be objective, and if that means admitting to itself that your citizens are too incompetent to make informed decisions, than that’s one thing. Some of the censorship in China is up this alley.
But not all, or even most of it. When you take away objective, educated journalism or news, that’s when the fit hits the shan. Now they’re taking it further and doing a form of “reeducation” by allowing searches that produce authorized results. People notice these things. They’re treated like sheep, but not all of them follow the shepherd so closely.
And the truth is: people here are curious. Hell, they’re more than curious. I’ve spoken to Masters students who have aired the issues they have with Chinese censorship, and I’ve seen the looks my Business Education students have given one another when the conversation has strayed into territory that is not supposed to be discussed openly.
The government knows its people are restless, too. In 2004-2006 a talent show called with the English name Super Girl allowed people to call in a vote for their favorite contestant. The show was a lot like American Idol, and it had viewers tuning in in the hundreds of millions. The democratic one-call, one-vote platform was too much, though. Chinese officials cancelled the show, and even its second reincarnation, Happy Girls. The official reasons were due to timing issues and the “risqué” nature of some of the episodes, but it was pretty obvious when it got the axe that seeing such a large percentage of its citizens taking part in something so democratic was not what China wanted (China Cancels Talent Show ‘Happy Girl’ For Being Too Democratic, Business Insider).
Linette Lopez’s article for Business Insider had another great quote, too, “Some people sight that if only we could vote in Chinese elections, as we do in ‘Happy Girl’, then we’d lock horns and join the contest…This is the truly sensitive issue.”
The people know all the faults in their system, and people in other countries are foolish if they think otherwise.
That’s just it, though: it’s their system.
Living in China for a few years does not make me any closer to being Chinese. Learning the language will not grant me the Golden Ticket into this culture. Joining Sino Weibo and having a WeiXin account does not give me any sort of street cred. It does, however, give me a more scenic seat.
In her recent book, “People’s Pornography: Sex and Surveillance on the Chinese Internet” Katrien Jacobs sheds a lot of light on the interesting worlds surviving and thriving behind the Great Fire Wall on the net. The Chinese people may seem docile and complacent in the face of an oppressive, secretive, and Big government, but that is only what they appear to be. They are quite a bit more. Their lot has forced them into challenging the system in unique and unorthodox ways, and, yes, many have taken large gulps of the Mao Era Cool-Aid, but there 300 million bloggers (about the population of the entire US) out there trying to find something of an individual identity. Some are whispering and others shouting. There are the voyeurs and the voices, the loners and the leaders, and they are pushing against the boundaries that have been placed around them.
It’s going to be interesting to see how much pressure the “Great Fire Wall” can take when the people inside it are pressing against it, trying to get out. Will it stand the test of time like The Great Wall, or come tumbling down like the one in Berlin?
I’m just hoping that doing research for this entry without my VPN doesn’t get me deported and my new Weibo account deleted.
If it’s possible to be nostalgic for the future, as a teenager, I managed it.
For about five years, on December 31st, I would round up the four or five closest people in my life and force them (on more than one occasion threaten them) to pen an epistle to their future selves. Each year the “To be Opened” date was randomly selected. I think the first time around was when I was 16. Patience wasn’t a strong virtue of mine then (nor is it one I champion now), so I think we wrote to two years into the future. The next time around was maybe three. And so on.
The first group to be strong-armed into this included my brother, best friend, girlfriend, girlfriend’s cousin (my neighbor), and girlfriend’s cousin’s boyfriend. And me.
Madly in love with my girlfriend, I wrote largely about her. I threw in some obligatory concessions to family and friends, but mostly, it was to her. I don’t know what the others wrote about because I delivered their letters to them without prying.
The deal was that they’d write the letters and I’d seal them in envelopes and make sure they got them at the appointed time. Because we had planned to write them each year, burying them like time capsules didn’t seem practical. Instead, I placed them (alongside other childhood treasures like cards, middle school notes, an old pocket knife, and oddly enough, those Jaw-Dropper Magic infomercial VHS tapes) in an army tin and slid the thing under my bed.
True to my word, I never looked at the letters and I got them to their writers each time. Even after I broke up with the girl I had written about, I got her letter to her (and her cousin with whom I was not on speaking terms). The years went by a few more times, and the letter writing continued. The group changed, with a few of us staying and others going. In 2010 I got a group together for the last time and we wrote letters.
The group consisted of my best friend, mother, brother-in-law, my wife, and me.
I just found these letters today, lying at the bottom of the tin, under the Jaw-Dropper videos. They were to be opened on January First, 2013. That didn’t happen because I was in China.
Considering the changes that have taken place in all of our lives since their writing, these letters make me apprehensive. I’m no longer married, I’ve been out of the country for more than two years, and I haven’t seen my best friend yet since I’ve been home for a little more than a week. The rest of the group had a crazy last couple of years, too, so as I stare at the envelopes setting atop the desk I used to complete homework on in high school, I’m hesitant to read mine. I have no clue how to get the letters to the two others that I don’t see, and I’m not sure if my friend even wants his. I can hand my mother’s to her, but then what about mine?
In 2010 I had a life trajectory that I could see ahead into for years. By the end of 2013 that path has been demolished and built over so that now, I’ve got visibility for about a few months out or so. Not only is it a new path, it’s a route that wasn’t even on the damn map before.
As I wrote before: I count myself among the truly blessed to be living the life I want to be living. Even if it comes to an end sooner than I want, I have been able to lead the very life I have always wanted to lead. How many people can say that?
That being sad, there have been plenty of mistakes on my part. I’ve hurt people, and I’ve let others down. I’ve gone through pain and no small amount of stress due to the things I’ve done or haven’t done right.
And every time my eye catches the corner of the envelope hanging half off the desk, I’m reminded of these failures. I truly have no idea what I wrote about, but one thing is certain: I had no way of knowing the Jordan who would be reading the words written.
On this day, though, as is the heart of the holiday, I’m looking ahead as well as at what is in my past. I will read the letter, and I will let the words do whatever they plan to do, but then I will fold up the paper, tuck it back into the envelope, and put it back in the tin where it will stay. The tin will get slid back under the bed that is no longer mine, and I will go about my life.
I’ve got so much yet to learn from life that I can’t be consumed by the lessons of yesterday. Forgetting them would be equally foolish, but then again, I’ve never been one to let go of the past anyways. Instead, I’ll learn from the experiences and just simply let go of the baggage. I recently read a fantastic quote on a friend’s Facebook.
“Experience is not what happens to you; it’s what you do with what happens to you.” — Aldous Huxley
This is my motto for the coming year. Just decided it, and I feel good about the decision.
Where ever you are and whoever you’re with, take your experiences and do something crazy. Learn, Love, and Live in 2014!
*And because I won’t be able to get the song out of my head until Chinese Spring Festival, here’s a classic.*
Should old acquaintance be forgot, and never brought to mind ? Should old acquaintance be forgot, and old lang syne ?
For auld lang syne, my dear, for auld lang syne, we’ll take a cup of kindness yet, for auld lang syne.
And surely you’ll buy your pint cup ! and surely I’ll buy mine ! And we’ll take a cup o’ kindness yet, for auld lang syne.
We two have run about the slopes, and picked the daisies fine ; But we’ve wandered many a weary foot, since auld lang syne.
We two have paddled in the stream, from morning sun till dine† ; But seas between us broad have roared since auld lang syne.
And there’s a hand my trusty friend ! And give me a hand o’ thine ! And we’ll take a right good-will draught, for auld lang syne.