Let’s be honest: I’ve neglected this blog since the summer, and even in the spring, I got skimpy with my updates.
I’m not here to give excuses, though I have to admit I did type a few before I decided on the moral high ground and deleted them. Let’s play catch up instead.
Last May I helped chaperone a trip to Beijing (not to be confused with the trip Xiao Ming and I took later in June to Beijing with the six high schoolers, although Xiao Ming did join me for the Lego trip, too. She helped out quite a bit when we needed to find a hospital for a student who somehow wound up with an infected insect bite of some sort, but more on that at a later time) with 23 middle schoolers for a Lego Competition at the British International School, Xiao Ming and I took the three-day weekend of Dragon Boat Festival to visit Nanjing and Hangzhou (West Lake and the storied Lei Feng Pagoda were inspirational for another novel idea), I travelled to Shanghai with a couple friends for a Guy’s Weekend in the middle of June, went back to Beijing for another chaperoning trip (wrote about that already), spent all of July in France (a few days in Paris then a train ride south to Nice where we camped in a one-hobbit sized hole in the wall for more than three weeks while we hung out on the oddly comfortable stony beach and wandered around ancient villages tucked away in mountains–all while also working on our tans), started work in August and welcomed new teachers, another Guy’s Weekend to South Korea to catch a baseball game, took part in some professional development, one of which sent me, along with three others, down to Shenzhen, a southern city next to Hong Kong for the weekend, and then…
I suppose the next thing I should mention is that Xiao Ming and I got married.
As I write this, the two of us are in Sanya, the only sunny, beach paradise that China has to offer, spending the winter break and our honeymoon soaking up some sun and enjoying the sand and water. It has been a very relaxing trip, and I’m incredibly glad that the cloudy,windy weather of the first few days passed by, letting the sun out for a measure of freedom that has made for gorgeous afternoons and cool evenings.
Now that we are officially fuqi (a married couple), it would be dishonest not to disclose a personal agenda of mine. Part of my master plan to indoctrinate Xiao Ming into American culture includes movies, and so, each evening leading up to and including Christmas, we watched well-known American Christmas flicks. We watched Scrooged, It’s a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Carol, and the list would have continued, but, unlike me, she has a hard time sitting still for extended periods of idleness. Last Christmas we watched National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation–my personal favorite, and next Christmas I intend on expanding the list to include all I’ve mentioned (because repetition ad nauseam is the key to any happy family tradition) and also A Christmas Story, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Home Alone, and even though it’s not a Christmas story, per se, and even though we’ve already watched it, my second favorite, Groundhog’s Day.
This idea occurred to my while we were in France. At some point we somehow stumbled into a conversation about the great American patriot, Rocky Balboa, and it became obvious to me that Xiao Ming did not know of his remarkable tale. I remedied that by downloading all six films and watching them with her over a week-long period. A lover of American music, mostly the Grammy winners CD collections from the nineties and early 2000s, Xiao Ming surprised me by having very limited knowledge of film. Through my detailed investigation I uncovered that she is not familiar with Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and basically any Western that has Mr Badass Himself, The Man with No Name–Clint Freaking Eastwood.
This is actually all my fault. I should have guessed this alarming deficiency a long time ago when she and I watched all three Back to the Futures and she admitted having never seen them before. Yes, I dropped the ball, but I’ve since picked it up, dusted it off, and taken to carrying it around with me so much that people make their small children walk on the opposite side of the street as me.
My point is, as you can no doubt guess, I like swimming on vacations.
During New Year’s Eve, the two of us attempted to find a bar, but Sanya’s nightlife is a bit….local. I have no qualms with chillin’ in mostly Chinese bars, but these ones were not just bars, they were Disco Bars. Full of emotionless, talentless, techno schizophrenia and too many identically young nouveau riche, or as they call them in Mandarin, baofahu, toting around phones the size of my forearm, these places are just a jumble of noise and posturing egomania. So we ditched the effort, found a reasonably quiet patch of sand along the beach, and brought in 2015 holding each other, talking of our hopes for the year, and kissing.
And then they lit off an inordinate amount of fireworks because, you know, China.
We’re here for a few more days, and then we head back to Dalian and the Siberian winds that whip across the peninsula and force people into several layers of clothing, one of which usually being long, thick, fuzzy underwear. Can’t wait to get back.
Where to begin? France, Monaco? Back to Dalian and the start of the school year, or the weekends in South Korea and Shenzhen? A lot has happened during the silent interim, but I’ll get back to this blog shortly. School has kept me busy, but I’ve also been focusing on finishing a novel.
I’ll be breathing some new life into this site soon. This is just a pulse check.
On my fifth time to Beijing I found an area that I’d actually like to visit again. Generally, as a rule, I dislike Beijing with a fiery passion. The only other big Chinese city that’s elicited such ire from me is Zhengzhou. Each time I’ve been in Beijing the weather has been atrocious, the crowds overwhelming, and the humidity incapacitating, but on this fifth go-round things were different.
Xiao Ming and I chaperoned an internship with six high school students during the final week of June. Overall, it was uneventful (that adjective is good when children are involved) and pleasant (that adjective just isn’t often associated with the Chinese capital).
We had reservations at the Sanlitun Youth Hostel, a clean, centrally located place that served pretty decent Chinese and Western food. The staff, young and mostly helpful, was overworked, and sometimes it was easy to see. The area known as Sanlitun has a bit of a flashy, sordid past, but over the last few years it has grown into just a popular area for expats to shop, drink, and entertain themselves between sightseeing and whatever other business they have there.
The weather also seemed to be on our side, mostly. Sunny, blue skies greeted us each day, and at night I could even see a few stars. Summer in Beijing is hot. We walked the students to the company the first couple days, but even at 8:30 we were drenched by the time we got there. We let them take cabs after two days of that.
That first day at the company, a water conservation non-profit called THIRST, we stayed with the students until after lunch, just to make sure everything ran smoothly. The six of them had been quiet since Xiao Ming and I met them at the train station a day before, and we still hadn’t heard them talk much. This wasn’t a bad thing, but it was just…odd. The last two trips I took with students felt like I was a cat herder. This group almost made me feel like I wasted my time coming along for the trip. After the first day of this oddly self-sufficient behavior, I changed my approach. I gave them curfews, the hostel’s business card, and gave them perimeters they couldn’t pass. That did the trick. After that they were more talkative, friendlier, and always on time. The reason these six kids were chosen for the internship is because they were rock stars already. Mature, responsible, and focused. I did not need to babysit these guys like I did the 22 middle schoolers when we went to Beijing in May, or the 23 High Schoolers I went to Ningxia with.
Xiao Ming and I used our afternoons to turn the trip into a pre-summer vacation vacation. Once we dropped the kids off at the company, we would wander around the city. I finally got to see the Summer Palace, the one tourist sight I’d yet to see. It wasn’t as crowded as many other places because it wasn’t a holiday, and the complex sits pretty far away from the center of the city. Wandering around in the heat zapped us, and while sitting and resting on the bridge near the palace, both of us fell asleep for forty minutes. When we woke up old Chinese couples were smiling at us.
Or we would hang out at the very hip and modern, Korean-owned Café Groove across the street from the hostel. This place had a modern-artistic-industrial feel to it, and in the evenings they opened their glass walls so that it became an open-air café with free wifi and comfy seats. Even the students chilled there a few times in the evenings.
Sitting in Café Groove also allowed Xiao Ming and me to play a game we dubbed, “Count the Prostitutes.”
While the area has been made relatively cleaner due to the police and local government shutting down some bars due to solicitation, people are crafty. As we sat there, people watching, I noticed two very tall, thin, dolled-up Chinese women walking along the back of the café, down an alley behind the hotel next door. These girls came by like five minutes a part, but both in the same direction. They also both checked their phone the same way, as if checking a time or number, and then tucked it away.
By the third, nearly identical girl, I told Xiao Ming, and we watched as three more girls walked by in a matter of minutes. Unable to fight my curiosity, I stood by the outside of the café and watched as another girl walked by.
This time, however, I saw where she went. Five tall Chinese guys, broader than the average Chinese man, stood guard at the back door of the hotel. All of them wore snazzy suits, and one sat at a computer set just inside the doorway. The girl (and all of the other ones probably) went to him, leaned down, looked at the screen, and then stood and entered the elevator and disappeared. I relayed this to Xiao Ming, and she also checked it out the next time we saw a girl walk by.
On her return to our table, she said that it was definitely prostitution because after the girl got in the elevator one of the guards radioed someone in the hotel and said the girl had arrived for the customer in a specific room number. Each evening, Xiao Ming and I hung out at Café Groove and played our game as the students worked on their computers. There were a few times that we lost count, too. If the cops are at your front door, use the back, I guess.
Because it was a school trip, and Xiao Ming and I were “On” the whole week, we didn’t get to partake of the nightlife in Sunlitun. Arguably, one of the best areas in Beijing to hang out and drink, the JiuBa Jie (Bar Street) was off limits to us. We found it, saw it, walked the perimeter, but did not dive in. Next time…
The week flew by, and before we knew it, Friday had arrived and a train ride back to Dalian was in order. The students had a good time and learned a lot during the week, Xiao Ming and I met some cool people at THIRST and had a nice mini-trip, and most importantly: no one lost any limbs. We boarded the train, and six and a half hours later we said goodbye to the kids as their parents picked them up at the Dalian North Station. Third Chaperoned Trip during my First Year. Done.
The last day of school at an International School is sort of like your favorite TV show’s season finale. Some characters are taking off—possibly staring in their own spinoffs—many are coming back—wiser than the year before and, with interesting stories between filming breaks. Even season-long arcs have been resolved—grades, projects, committees, testing—while mid-season changes—administration in new spots, new staff, new students—will cast mystery over the opening of the next year.
I doubt we’re going to be syndicated anytime soon, but there were a bunch of cameras out today. Kids and teachers alike tried to snap photos with each other while also juggling their yearbooks and signing their friends’. Students helped pack up some rooms between the hugs and signing, but their attention spans were about as long as a goldfish’s. The whole day flashed by, and came to a close at 1:30 as the buses rolled out and the staff waved goodbye for the summer.
Then, for the rest of the day, the teachers packed up their rooms, filed some papers, and wandered around the silent halls until about 4:30.
We’ve got an in-service day tomorrow, but the year is done. First full-time teaching post at an accredited International School in the bag, ladies and gents.
However, the work is not finished. Xiao Ming and I are chaperoning one last trip. I am taking 6 High Schoolers to Beijing for a week so they can do an internship at a water conservation organization named THIRST. They will be working throughout the week, and we get to be their supervisors. This’ll be my third trip as a chaperone this year!
And once we return on the 28, there will be about two days, and then we head to Paris. Three days in Paris and then three weeks in Nice.
Fun times ahead. Hopefully I’ll be writing from a French beach next time.
Whip lash, motion sickness, jet lag, temporal displacement sickness (okay, made that last one up), these are nothing compared to the Culture Shock of the first few weeks in a new country.
Sounds Abound, Just After Touch Down
Two American friends of mine here in Dalian like to say that if you’ve been abroad for a few months to a year you can write a book, a year or two and you can pen a few articles, anything more and you’ll find it hard to write an essay. Now that I’ve been kicking around China for nearly three years, I hope that’s not true.
My plan to thwart this prophecy is by keeping a good journal. Remembering exactly what those first days and weeks were like is important, and when I look at the pages of my journal the noises of China are what stand out the most.
The sound of the rising and falling tones in the Mandarin language hit my ears like a tidal wave striking the shore. Only I had no levies or infrastructure designed to withstand the onslaught. I couldn’t tell where words began or ended. I had no way of figuring out the sentence patterns in the bird language I heard in the Beijing airport, and I knew only a muddled version of “Hello” to tide me over until language classes could start.
One year would not be enough to master the language. I knew that without a doubt the first night in China on that September 17 in 2011. The guttural retroflexive “r” at the end of many words in the Dongbei (north east) accent, the confusing interchangeable use of shi and si to mean either four or ten, and even the entirely knew phrases for common Mandarin greetings like “Have you eaten?” (normally ni chi fan le ma? But in Dalianese sometimes spoken as, ni dai fan le ma?) would add even more burdens to an already insurmountable task.
When the classes did start, I eavesdropped on every conversation I could. All the time. I still do, to tell you the truth. I’ll be sitting at a restaurant or at Starbucks, and I’ll just listen to people around me. I know it’s rude, but it’s in the name of education. That makes it okay. I looked up the rules.
The Music of Daily Life
The morning after I arrived in China, I discovered that even though there were no farms around for miles, someone had a rooster. And then I learned that fireworks are an acceptable form of declaring to the community that something of note has occurred…even at 6 am.
Fireworks are not relegated to one specific event or holiday in China. Since moving here, I’ve heard them EVERY single day, multipletimes, at all hours. People light them off for weddings, funerals, grand openings, grand closings, construction milestones, and sometimes, just because it’s a Tuesday. Spring Festival is the biggest holiday for Chinese people, and during this week-long celebration one could mistake Dalian for a warzone. At night the skyline is afire with brilliant blasts of colors and sounds, and they DON’T STOP for a week.
Shortly after the rooster crowed in the morning and some fireworks sounded off in the distance, maybe around seven-ish, the public school next to the apartment complex began, what I came to learn, was their morning routine. This sounded like a bunch of nonsense blasted over an external PA system at first, but was really counting in Mandarin so that the students could do their morning calisthenics. I learned to count in Chinese because of that PA system.
A walk down any street with storefronts can have serious repercussions to your hearing. Whereas I was used to having music playing softly in the background of most places of business in the States, the complete reverse in China was quite a shock at first.
Shops will blast pop music into the crowds walking by with large speakers they sit just outside the threshold of their business, hoping to wage some sort of warped psychological warfare on the unsuspecting–and now partially deaf–would-be patrons, all in the guise of commercialism. The music doesn’t necessarily beckon or lure customers so much as it frightens them into submission. The lucky ones are those on the fringes who watch their brothers-in-arms fall to the sensory barrage and turn the corner before it’s too late.
Okay…it’s not that bad. But pretty close. If there are five stores, you can bet there will be five different loudspeakers pumping out Chinese, Korean, or even American pop hits at decibel levels unsafe for the common ear. After a few weeks of shopping in this terrain the shock wares off and your senses adjust. Eventually you begin to only walk around the streets with good taste in music, making a soundtrack out of your jaunt.
Another noise that eventually subsides to the background of your day is the constant honking of car horns. I swear, sometimes it’s like an involuntary muscle for some drivers. If they’ve gone five seconds without pressing it their body takes over and BANG! Drivers here honk so much that I’m surprised pedestrians haven’t mobilized horns and made them pocket-sized for clearing paths along the sidewalks when they’re in a hurry.
When you’re not avoiding the musical assault in front of stores, dodging wild drivers honking their horns, and ducking the falling fireworks debris you might be trying to not make eye contact with the men standing on the corners of shopping centers shouting out their destinations in rapid-fire, auctioneer Mandarin as they try to pick up passengers for their rundown buses that probably shouldn’t be on the road. Almost every time I walk by them they walk a few steps with me until I tell them, no, I’m not going into downtown Dalian today. In other parts of China they’ll be shouting other names, but here it’s always, “Dali Dali Dalian!! Dalian!!”
Pushing their ancient karts around while balancing the tools of their respective trades, older men and women wonder around town chanting mantras that advertise what service they provide. “Mo jian zi lai! Qiang cai dao!” Come sharpen scissors and knives. Even the trash or cardboard collectors call out to people, hoping to make some money by reselling the unwanted refuse. And in the evenings, in neighborhoods and parks all around China is the music and sound of masses of people doing synchronized square dances. This group activity—guangchang tiaowu, square dancing—is open to all. The young and old alike join in on this, and some even get matching sweat suits and outfits made up to feed the feeling of solidarity among the really hardcore and the casual dancer.
A City Soundtrack
On their own, each of these sounds might have a tendency to make your ears bleed, but together…together they’re something else entirely. They’re the sounds of life in a Chinese city, of people and the patterns of their days playing out in an intricately synchronized chaos that sometimes sounds like a symphony. You just need to learn to find the music.
I barely get by taking care of myself, but a few weeks ago over my school’s Spring Break, someone thought it a good idea to put 22 other lives in my hands. I wasn’t alone; one other chaperone came, but still, 2 vs. 22 is a big difference. Despite the unfair odds, we made it there and back with all appendages accounted for.
As I wrote before, Ningxia is not a hopping commercial place. More like desert-adjacent land of dust, wind, and rocks. We didn’t go there to sight-see, though.
A small, two-room village school an hour away from any paved road was our destination. To get there we had to cross our Ts and dot all the crossed Is. Lots had to get done to make it happen, but it all did and things were great.
I’ll just keep the commentary short and share the photos instead on this one.
Never doubt that a small group of commited people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.
After a few months of twice-a-week classes in Mandarin, I would spend my free time thinking up short (really, really short) stories that I could translate into Chinese and share with the staff during lunch. This impressed everyone, and convinced them that I was some sort of language prodigy, not just someone who had manically tried to memorize just the words written. Somehow, listening to an American recount a three minute story made the Chinese teachers incredibly excited. It gave my teacher—which ever of the staff taught me that particular month—a lot of face, and, in China, that’s a big deal. And everyone loved the story about the wolf and the dog.
At Jayland, the English training school I worked that first year in China, we had an AYi, an older woman who cooked, cleaned, and seemed to spend a lot of her time fretting over the state of the young female Chinese teachers’ marital statuses. We called her Dajie, big sister. She smacked my shoulder the first week I met her when, at lunch, I placed my chopsticks directly into the rice, leaving them standing up in the air. It was quickly revealed to me that chopsticks placed like that symbolized death, and I never did that again (but to this day think about it every time I have a small bowl of rice). She was also one of the most enthusiastic about my Chinese story-telling, and months later, I heard her repeating the final line of the story about the wolf who chose freedom over being made a pet.
The story I told about the wolf and the dog came from a Native American myth, but many similar stories can be found from all over the world. Essentially, a tired and hungry wolf meets an energetic and well-fed dog one day. The two get to talking, and before long, the dog convinces the wolf to come home with him and live in his house with his master. The wolf loves the idea of never going hungry again, and agrees happily. As the two march off, the wolf catches a glimpse of the dog’s neck. “What’s that there, brother dog,” he asks. The dog turns a bit dour and remarks that his master ties him up every day so that he can’t run away. This startles the wolf, who then howls in anger and shock, “I would rather die free then live fat and a slave,” before dashing off back into the woods.
Dajie loved this story, and I’m not sure quite why, but lately I’ve been thinking about what the wolf said to the dog. Freedom versus slavery is a no-brainer, but what about slavery is so scary? Having no right to change, living by someone else’s rules, not being able to do what you want—these are easily on the tip of the tongue, right? I agree to all of these, but I am sort of surprised by the odd arbitrary nature of this idea of slavery.
Calling slavery captivity works when you visit a zoo, or when the species is near extinction, but isn’t the captive in a cell from which he cannot escape? Doesn’t he get meals and free time at the discretion of another? When the crowds call, isn’t there sometimes a trainer there coaxing him from his hiding place? True, he’ll get medical care when he needs it, not need to fend off vicious attacks from predators, and probably live a longer life than he would in the wild. The wild is where he belongs, though.
Humans, many have argued, are in a similar boat. Our cultures and laws, taboos and norms, and even our religions tell us stories that, in many cases, place bars firmly around an invisible perimeter no one is supposed to cross. Traveling is a great way to get a superficial look at these boundary lines, but being a tourist doesn’t make you a captive of the cultures you visit. At most, the traveler is on a day pass from the prison, but is expected to return to his cell eventually.
I’m too tired to bring this argument subtly to the point I’m trying to make, but the bottom line is we are subject to the wolf’s dilemma every day of our lives. At eighteen who isn’t hit with a near unbelievably strong urge to hit the open road, to just rip the fabric of their daily reality in two and step through the torn canvas of their life, out into something different, into something new? I remember driving home at night down Genoa, a back road that led to my parents’ house, window down and my hand slicing through the air with my fingers spread apart. A lot of the time my Intrepid would be the only thing out there, and I’d have the open sky and 97.5’s classic rock keeping me company as I cruised along. There were times I’d wish that road just kept going, that it could run straight out passed all the boundary markers I knew, all the barriers I still needed break through.
I’d turn into the neighborhood at Mollane, never really giving the road the chance to be what I knew it never could.
There were other times, when I was even younger, when I’d fantasize about running away. These whims didn’t spring from traumatic experiences or family troubles—no, I just wanted to wander around with a backpack slung over my shoulders, stomping through the small woods behind our neighborhood, and maybe I even thought I could hop a freighter or something as it passed behind the middle and high school buildings, ride it out to a new city. A few times I even packed a sorry little bag and stashed it around my bedroom. Once or twice I even climbed out my window and hung out in the woods for a few hours. I’d always return because it’d occur to me that I hadn’t finished my homework or that I’d forgotten to pack underwear. Once back inside, no one even batted an eye once they saw me. Apparently being outside for a few hours during the summer afternoon doesn’t really constitute a full-scale Amber Alert.
This idea of slavery vs liberty, or freedom vs civilization, has been around since one proto-human looked at the other and said, “This cave mine. You want in, do as I tell.” And, since it was raining outside, the other guy said, “That sounds just fine by me. As long as I get to stay warm and dry, I’ll follow the guidelines you’ve outlined.” The other proto-human studied at proto-university, evidently.
We live this compromise when we buy Roth IRAs, open lines of credit, or even restrain ourselves from rear-ending the idiot in front of us. We’ve been schooled in the subtle intricacies of this covenant with others in our human society, and we in turn educate the succeeding generations year after year. Fear of the rain may have prompted the first deal that paved the way for the rest of the civilization pact, but each one of us also makes a private accord with the world, and that accord ends with us relinquishing parts of our freedoms in return for the benefits of captivity. In short, one could say we are afraid of going hungry, just like the wolf.
Without a doubt, the benefits of civilization are far-reaching and just about innumerable, but there is still something alluring, almost provocative about the idea of an almost feral freedom that answers to no one, heeds no man-made border or boundary. Thoreau, Emerson, Whitman, Paulson, Quinn, Conrad, Kerouac and the Beat Generation writers, and countless others all analyzed these prison bars. In fact, just about every age and era of literature has a group of writers that peel back the veneer I’m rambling about and take a good look at what’s behind it. They wonder what it’d be like to leave the world of the bimonthly paycheck and the alarm clock wake-ups. They preach and prattle about the power of the road and the pull of the wild prairies left undiscovered…but they, like all of us, almost always eventually subscribe, at least in part, to some sort of civilization membership plan. Thoreau camped out on his friend’s property and routinely went into town when supplies dwindled, Jack drank himself into an early grave, and some of the other greats ended their stories by their own hands while others just sort of went mad in their own private ways.
We don’t ever really escape. The most we can do is walk the perimeters and toss stones over the fences we see. Honestly, if I were feral or “free,” I have no clue what I’d do. My life would not be what it is today, wouldn’t even have the values that it has now, so who’s to say that it’d be a “better” existence? If I want to say, “screw it, I’m going to Australia,” I suppose I could. It would cost me money, and I’d probably lose my current job, but I could be in Australia tomorrow if I so chose…But I don’t. Because I don’t have money to burn, an expendable job, and a solitary life. It’s almost as if being able to rail against the “bars of civilization,” is a fringe benefit of actually following that civilization’s rules. If I were to step out of its confines I’d have no way to know who I would become. And that is scary because I more or less like the Jordan I am. The wolf has always lived his way, but when he saw the leash marks on the dog’s neck he refused that life. We—I—have always had the leash, and as I’ve grown, the slack in the line has increased, giving me the chance to globe trot a bit, but the thought of throwing off the collar all together scares the living daylights out of me.
Did I just ramble myself into a circle, or, as they say in a Chinese idiom, “wu bing shen yin,” moan about an imaginary illness?
Either way, it’s Sunday night, and I’m going to get ready for another work week.
Along the Kai Fa Qu shoreline, just a short five or eight minute drive east of the center of the Development Area, there is a modern, artistic white bridge. If you sit out there at night you can see the stars over the harbor, and listen to the fishing boats rock back and forth on the waves as they rest for the evening anchored close to land. Even the ambient light of the city recognizes this is no place to invade, leaving the light and noise pollution off to the horizon along the peripherals. Very few people are there during these quiet hours, and if you sit still long enough, you can forget you’re sitting in China, circa 2014.
The effect is not necessarily magical so much as it is mystifying. Just a short ways up the road is the Da Yao Bay where the Dalian PX plant sits alongside a few other factories. This plant exploded a few years ago, leaking tons of oil into the water, polluting the bay as far up as the Golden Pebble Beach. Though the scene in front of the bridge is beautiful, the land around these businesses is scarred and rough. When you get up to leave the bridge, though, you may catch a glimpse of some construction going on behind it. When you look closer you see that old, derelict homes are being demolished by bulldozers and bobcats. Looking even closer, you notice that a few of the homes have clothes still hanging out to dry. The small remnant of some village is being destroyed, and the people haven’t even all left.
Kai Fa Qu, or the Development Zone, was touted as China’s largest, and there were high expectations for the area. The reality of the last twenty years has shown that those ambitions were rooted too much in fantasy. KFQ has become a residential zone, more or less used by citizens of downtown Dalian to escape the din that makes up all Chinese cities, not a haven for businesses to set up shop and bring in the big bucks. Sure there are businesses here, but not enough to keep KFQ in the limelight.
During the last few years, the construction bubble that made so many filthy rich in China has definitely popped, or at least began to fizzle. Empty rectangular complexes stand outlined against the smoggy skies like enormous playing cards that bluff the people, promising expansion and enhancement, but unable to do anything but loiter where their foundations were laid. Construction company owners and those willing to play high-stakes poker with their money bought, built, and sold these vacant goliaths for years, loving every minute of it as the gambles paid off and the money rolled in. However, now the Chinese government is getting a bit miffed about all these hollow homes, and they’re beginning to tax people with similar empty deeds. Better late than never, eh?
But the mad construction bubble is just a symptom, isn’t it? It is just one element of a much grander paradigm of thought. Yu Hua discusses at length how the ideas of copy cat products have infiltrated every stratosphere of Chinese economics, and how grassroots millionaires can be made over night in his book, “China in Ten Words.” He doesn’t come out and point a finger, but it’s pretty obvious what the culprit is: an addiction to money and the conveniences it can provide.
China is at the top of the world in the consumption of luxury goods, surpassing even the US in this ranking (Chang, chinadaily.com). In an article published just over a week ago it’s also made abundantly clear that knockoffs aren’t good enough for many consumers. Lyu Chang says, “Chinese appetite for luxury is the reason why all major European designers, such as Chanel, Gucci, Louis Vuitton and Christian Dior, have a large presence in China.” It’s difficult for me to pronounce some of these brands let alone entertain the notion of purchasing one of their outrageously priced products, but large groups of Chinese men and women are driven to fork over their cash in order to get their hands on these logos. From chic cosmetics to classy cars, consumers in the Middle Kingdom can’t get enough. However, this need to get the latest in Western fashion doesn’t end with products you buy on a shelf, but rather escalates to purchases made in acreage. The 2014 Annual Report on Chinese International Migration revealed that many Chinese are racing to buy up real estate abroad. America and Canada have seen large numbers of Chinese investors since 2011, when China became the second-largest foreign property buyer in the United States (chinadaily.com). Population numbers certainly have a role in these statistics, but so too does the prevalent belief in the power and intoxication of money.
Where did this manic desire for Western products come from in the East? For crying out loud, before the 1800s England and other countries west of India were generally viewed through the lens of suspicion by the Chinese and Japanese. Then, after the First and Second Opium Wars, the Boxer Rebellion, and the forced signing of what became known as the Unequal Treaties, this suspicion basically became fiery hatred. How the hell do we go from unwelcome “Yang Gui zi,” foreign devils, to the trend-setting idols of the modern Asian world?
The Foreign Devil
English is fashionable here. Kids and adults throw random English words and phrases into their daily life to spice up their lexicon, and people walk around with misspelled brand names and shoddy logos on their clothing. American TV shows are downloaded and streamed by teens. Friends is watched and analyzed as though it is some sort of cultural Rosetta Stone that will magically help the viewer absorb all that is Red, White, and Blue. English, and the culture that uses this language, has become a symbol of success to many parents who force their four year olds to chant and sing songs in this foreign language before they even master their own mother tongue. How did the two cultures, at their heart so vastly different from each other, become so intertwined in today’s world?
I think it had something to do with a few bombs that were dropped, the fact that during WWII the US had almost no damage done to her country, and because, for a short time, America did behave as several countries’ righteous big brother, not the spoiled only child that she’s become today. Because the US infrastructure suffered no damage, the economy kept pumping along after the war. Bullets became ball bearings, missiles turned into microwaves, and atomic bombs made way for automobiles. These products helped shape a new world that needed to pull itself out from the rubble left over from a world war, and in the process, became the first heralds of a new culture, the American Cultural Monopoly.
The consequences of this cultural imperialism can easily be seen today around the world, and many travelers who eat at Pizza Huts in Egypt, Dunkin’ Donuts in Shenyang, China, Seven Elevens in Thailand, or Dairy Queens in Cambodia can see this clearly. Just last night we had dinner with a group of friends, all from different parts of the world, and Malaysia got brought up. Billed as the “real Asia,” Malaysia left two of my friends shaking their heads and thoroughly disappointed. Segregated and culturally bland, the country did not live up to the hype, they said. Too much division and no actual blending of cultures left them feeling like they had visited a set on some stage, not a rich nexus of culture. Another Canadian friend mentioned that many of the cities in her country were all the same. Whether she was in Toronto or southern Ontario, it all looked the same. Then Xiao Ming mentioned that most Chinese cities had this very quality as well. From Luoyang to Beijing or Tianjin to Xiamen, it all blurs because there is no diversity.
It’s this lack of diversity that is alarming. Within one country the diversity may not be as pronounced, but when you begin to see a waning of it internationally, the hairs on the back of your neck better be standing on end. Are cultures really being obliterated, consumed by one encroaching, smothering mass of ideas, entertainment, and convenience being paraded around as culture? Yes.
Let’s go back to the bridge. Remember that construction going on behind it? Well, that small pocket of homes is the last of an old fishing village that had been there for centuries. In fact, all of Kai Fa Qu and most of Jinshitan was a fishing community up until a few decades ago, but now only a few houses here and there would hint at this past. Instead, Jinshitan is promoted as a scenic spot that, “…aims to become an all-round resort that integrates tourism with entertainment. Many projects are still under constructions, such as Theme Parks, Hi-tech Agriculture Sightseeing and Demonstration Park and Golden Pebble Valley Country, etc,” (travelchinaguide.com). There already is one theme park, a few golf courses, a hunting range, and even a wax museum.
These promotional endeavors are surrounded by architecture inspired by neither rich Chinese history nor by the Russian influences of the area’s hectic modern history, but by what appears to be an American southwestern style reminiscent of Arizonian or Californian suburbs. Having traveled throughout China the last few years, I can’t describe to you the amount of souvenirs that are identical all across this country. Mass-produced, faux ancient relics with no meaning are sold along every alleyway and street from here in Dalian all the way to Lhasa, Tibet. Those 56 minorities that the Han majority is so smitten with right now barely managed to keep the tatters of their cultural identities throughout China’s often prejudiced dynastic eras. Today they are regarded as Chinese gems, banners that the government likes to wave around at international audiences as a way of saying, “look at us, we still have more culture left!” Sadly, when you visit these minorities in their homelands the truth is made clear. They are oddities to many, attractions that need to stay on the stages provided for the entertainment of the masses. Much like the Native Americans living on the reservations, these minorities in China have their culture dictated to them. You can do your dances and wear your quaint clothing, but just don’t leave the fenced in area.
Lack of assimilating has always been a way some cultures have been spared destruction, at least for a while, but then natural curiosities abound in the minds of the majority group. That curiosity doesn’t always bode well for those being observed. Who are they? Why are they wearing those? Why do they always do that on this day of the week? No, son, you can’t date that girl because she’s one of them. I didn’t make enough last month, and it’s because those people keep taking the jobs. They always have money while the rest of us have to tough it out. Maybe they are the ones to blame. Yea, let’s blame them. But blame is not enough. They have to pay for their crimes. Our leader also blames them, but he knows how to deal with them. Soon they will be all gone and we will finally have what we deserve. Yes, son, you can kick that girl. She’s one of them.
Cultures get blotted out due to human atrocities all the time, but that’s not what is so startling right now. It’s the willing annihilation of some cultures that freaks me out. In China, even old Han villages are demolished, and along with them their folk traditions and way of life. In an article published in the American Conservative last month China’s on-going bulldozing of villages is explored:
Why are villages so important? What makes them distinct and culturally significant compared to cities? Villages support subsidiarity and diversity, whereas cities usually promote mass movement and centralization. Of course, the village’s specificity has downsides: it can foster clannishness and biases toward “outsiders.” Nonetheless, without the village, we would lack the kaleidoscopic culture that makes art and life so rich.
Without the village, we’d likely forget valuable traditions. Villages tend to have a longer memory than cities, due to their permanency. Landowners and families are generally more stayed, often remaining in the same area for generations. In contrast, cities often inspire new enterprise and “the next big thing.” They foster pop culture, not folk culture. In the small community, neighbors, family, and friends are almost inescapable. Whether gathering at the city hall, church, or merely visiting the grocery store, familiar faces abound. One must learn to live in communion with others. In cities, it is easier to live alone—and easier to be lost in the clamor and crowd.
The forgetting of valuable traditions is what I fear, and I’m not alone. Addictive consumerism and this race for urbanization have costs that many never saw coming. Quoting Gordon G. Chang, who wrote an article in the Times, Gracy Olmstead’s article last June says, “…the Standing Committee of China’s National People’s Congress was planning to build a city of 260 million people, in an effort to propagate economic growth and consumption. This mammoth enterprise would require moving 250 million people from farm to city in the next dozen years,” (theamericanconservative.com). These people making these migrations are giving up more than their homes and generations of memories that are tied to the land. By adapting to city life they unwittingly let their traditions slip by the way side.
In the daily lives of young men and women, this has real side-effects. I often have conversations with Chinese people about the differences between the West and the East, and it’s amazing how conflicted they are. Values and traditions once held sacred are now sources of confusion as they navigate a world so saturated with mixed meanings, innuendo, and relativism. Role-playing, stereotypes, skewed assumptions—these are words that define the actions and thoughts of many adolescents today, but when you place a nebulous cultural identity that is constantly assaulted in the mix, you may not get just an angsty teen.
Just two weeks ago I wrote about the recent Lantern Festival, and I joked about the people hanging out in front of a McDonalds as they lit their lanterns and about the Chinese couples who cuddled and exchanged flowers because of it also being Valentines Day. A shift in thought the last few years has given rise to wide-spread acceptance of Western holidays in China. Despite most people here not caring one bit about the values and traditions of these holidays, they seem to celebrate them nonetheless. This is a byproduct or consequence of the commercialism Li Yang writes about in her China Daily article Lantern Festival Losing its Luster. She complains about how the lanterns today have sold out and are no longer handmade, but mass-produced and lack any originality. She reminisces about the detail and wonder of the Lantern Festival from her childhood, and laments the way the tides have changed the traditional Chinese holiday into a commercial event. Her complaint is very similar to my mother’s annual irritation at the faux Christmas cheer that gets shoved down our throats by the stores just so they can make their money. This is not a Chinese thing, and that’s my point. But since I live in China and this blog is about China, I’m writing about…China.
It’s this commercialism that is the weapon of the cultural imperialism I mentioned earlier. Left unchecked, international consumerism leads to cultural atrophy, or an ignorant variation of a suicide pact in which everyone is bleeding their values and traditions dry in order to get the next big thing. It’s always the commerce, the trade, the exchange of one thing for another that gets a product from point A to point B. In the case of Chinese buyers, they want the image, prestige, and convenience of Western products, but they have no clue that with each swipe of their credit card more is being bartered than they agreed to.
By the time they realize their folly the damage has been done. In China this has played out dramatically ever since the Cultural Revolution. Spurred on by Mao’s battle cry of, “Destroy the Old World; Forge the New,” entire collections of paintings and relics were destroyed, temples and ancient structures were ransacked and burned, and nearly every shred of literature was hunted down and tossed onto bonfires. Then, right after this monumental gaff, China opens itself up commercially and the gap left in the psyche of the Chinese from that cultural lobotomy got filled—by Western products.
People around the world know this. There are institutes fighting this tidal wave, but their voices are nearly drowned out by the rushing tides. In 2010 the Goethe-Institute’s president, Klaus Dieter-Lehmann talked to DW about how his group fights against this very cultural atrophy. His group works to educate and spread the German culture, but they also help keep other countries’ culture alive in their own borders. He talks about China in a part of the interview he did with Aya Bach:
When it comes to such a big power like China, couldn’t it be that the country says, we don’t really want to have anything to do with the European Enlightenment, we want to defend our own values?
All I want is for people to reflect on their values. Right now, people are only thinking about money. And that’s disastrous for a society. Because as soon as money stops rolling in, the society will break down and look critically at its behavior. That’s when thinking about values will clearly take on importance. But the process of reflection can be about great Chinese traditions and philosophers; after all, there’s also a concept of the Chinese Enlightenment.
Do we end up then in a kind of cultural relativism, where certain values become questionable because they’d be viewed differently in another culture?
I’m in favor of a compromise. I don’t believe in cultural universalism because it reduces our world to something less rich than it is. Insofar as cultural relativism enables dialogue, sharing and reflection, then I support it. But, for much too long, cultural relativism had the effect of partitioning cultures off from each other. That doesn’t work. We have a globalized world. We also have wealth in the world, but that only becomes clear to those who are able to take part in it.
I’m not a stone-thrower. I am not demonizing globalization and capitalism, but I do not think they exist together in our world without dangerous and negative consequences. They are not the enemy; it is our tendency toward forgetfulness that is to blame. Make your millions. Become a grassroots success story. Just do it without forsaking what makes this world diverse.
If evolution has shown us anything it’s that diversity equals success. Single-celled to complexity beyond the human imagination, that’s the story of our world. Creating a one-world culture will have disastrous results, I swear it.
Back on the bridge, where these ideas seem to be tossed back and forth on the wind, it’s obvious that right now in China the momentum is pushing toward a willful forgetfulness. There are factions here that fight for that cultural identity they see slipping away, but with this invisible, but very real, race for power on the world stage never slowing, villages and their way of life will continue to be bulldozed.
This week it has occurred to me that working in an international school presents a few opportunities and challenges that are nearly nonexistent in traditional state-side public schools.
Wading through the cultural differences is definitely at the top of the list, but few understand what this actually looks like in the classroom. Let’s take history, for example. Say you’re looking at a map, or even talking about the time frame of the early twentieth century, and you happen to mention that China and Taiwan are separate. Better be prepared for a few kids to pipe up with a, “Um, Taiwan is China,” and a few others to counter with, “No it’s not! I’m Taiwanese, not Chinese.” I’ve had to run peace-talks between these eighth grade emissaries a few times.
Or, you’re correcting a student’s mistake in class—him smiling the whole time—only to find out later you’ve completely disgraced him by taking away his “Face.” OR you try to pulse-check the class by wondering out loud if there are any questions or if everyone “gets it,” and they all nod their heads, eager for you to just keep going with the assignment. Start the task a minute later and no one moves for three minutes because they have no clue what’s what. You learn later that they didn’t want you to lose face by making it seem like you had not explained things clearly.
Sure, there are a bunch of kids that have been in the American system a few years and have been pretty much indoctrinated into the ways of the prepubescent monster that is their Western counterpart, but there are enough Chinese students still fresh to the US curriculum to pose this problem.
Then you have the variety of vocals that fill the halls when students are traveling from one class to the other, their many different languages pummeling your ears in ways impossible for you to decipher. Classroom English is stressed, absolutely, but rare is the class wholly without a whispered word in a native tongue. Most of the time this utterance is innocuous, but there have been a few snippets that have been anything but. One time in the library while students were doing research for a history project, I heard one boy talking about the breasts of a video game character he had seen in a website advertisement. When I looked up from across the table I told him he needed to change the topic. Confused and shocked, he asked if I had understood and I just nodded. He hasn’t said anything inappropriate in the months since then.
Bullying is always something teachers need to be vigilant about putting a stop to, but when you add in languages that no one on the staff speaks and a culture that encourages harmonious interactions, even when you’ve been slighted, this can get to be an enigma even the most well-versed behavioral specialist may find perplexing. Throw in new tech like We Chat that allows people to interact in ways faster and more ubiquitous than IMing and E-mail and you’ve got a hot mess on your hands.
The kids and the teachers in international schools also have the opportunity to have some of the widest social circles of any group of people. If your deskmates all hail from a different continent chances are that you’re going to be bringing different points of view to small group conversations. Teachers who work together for a few years and then move on to other posts don’t ever really lose touch, not today with Facebook and E-mail. Goodbyes may be more frequent, but the friendships formed can be made quicker and with more depth, too. Saying goodbye to two students this week proved to be a harder task than I had anticipated. Both of their families are heading back to their home countries, Korea and Japan, because of work changes. Staff and students took pictures with the kids and some even cried at the end of the day when they left the school for the last time. These farewells are important, though, and not always final. Sometimes they just give people destinations to travel to on vacations.
Fun days like International Day definitely get spiced up, though. Being truly international, the environment at the school on this day and the days leading up to it can be very enlightening. Families from all over the world and students with vastly different experiences can share their culture with all the flare of the opening ceremony of the Olympics.
And parent-teacher conferences get a little twist when translators are used so the parents can understand what the teacher is saying about their kid. We just finished our two-day conferences and I needed to have a person translating for about three of them. I was able to use my Chinese for the first one, but then the remaining conferences required me to say things I didn’t know how to, so I got a translator.
Also, the happy birthday song in one class being sung in 8 different languages is an awesome thing to behold. Having a German student translate political cartoons during a history lesson, or a Chinese student making a connection between a Native American legend and a Song Dynasty poet’s work can make for amazing teachable moments—the students teaching the teacher, that is. Students learning how to make art from a well-known artist from Peru, or how to make film from a teacher with more experience than half the young Hollywood directors today, or learning English from a teacher who brings great stories from 20 plus years abroad to every class are fantastic ways to learn a thing or two.
Even chaperoning trips isn’t the same. In March, I am supervising a volunteering trip to the Ningxia Autonomous Region. A group of High Schoolers are going to a small village in this area and volunteering their time for a week. We’re going to teach at the small school, and do community work for the impoverished town of Tongxin, outside the capital, Yinchuan. Even though this is during Spring Break, it’s like I’m not giving up a thing. Then in May, I’m going to be going to Beijing to help supervise the Lego Robotics competition. Despite hating Beijing, I love being able to go with the kids and see them compete in this big event. These are places I just wouldn’t get to see teaching in a public school back home.
There are a dozen other things that could go in this post, but I’m tired and I have an early Professional Development training at the Canadian International School in town, so I’ll call it quits now.
I finished “Ishmael,” Daniel Quinn’s philosophical novel this weekend. The story follows the Socratic conversations between the male narrator and a telepathic gorilla as they task themselves with understanding, “The way things became the way they are,” and then positing an action plan for saving mankind from its own destructive tendencies.
In a poorly phrased nutshell, the way things got to be the way they are today (today being a negative path leading ultimately to man’s and the rest of the world’s total annihilation due to an imbalance of resource supply and demand) starts with identifying two groups of people—Leavers and Takers.
Leavers were those early groups of Homo sapiens sapiens that lived for about three million years alongside nature in a variety of ways that didn’t tax the environment and life around them to the breaking point. Takers are those clever saboteurs who struck the earth and tilled some soil with their first insipient stab at agriculture in the Fertile Crescent around the Tigris and Euphrates rivers some 8-10,000 years ago.
From that first successful reaping of that first crop a new path, a new culture of thought and action, began. This path, using the Leaver story of Cane and Abel, Ishmael the gorilla explains, sets the stage for a war between the Agriculturists, embodied by Cane, who believe they have the Knowledge of Good and Evil (which is outlined in the novel as the sacred knowledge to know who should live and die) and the Pastoral/Hunter-Gatherer people, symbolized by Abel, that live in accordance with the earth and “in the hands of the gods.” The Takers view themselves as the masters of the earth, the pinnacle of evolution, and thus devise a myth or culture that takes them out of the natural lineup of the Community of Life, excusing them from the laws of competition and the “peace-keeping” law that all living creatures—save man now—follow.
Removing themselves from this lineup allows them to justify their push for total domination of the earth, at any cost. Species, terrain, and ways of life are wiped out as the Takers plow along, reshaping the world in the image they see fit. The problem, as any anthropologist or ecologist will tell you, is that a species’ population can only grow as large as its limiting factors will allow. When a fox population grows, the rabbits die. Then the foxes dwindle, and the rabbits come back. That’s the way it goes. But man, being the master of the earth, takes the world around him and shapes it to his will. The Takers produce more food to feed the masses, but the production just encourages even more growth, which in turn pushes the Takers to exert their god-like control over even more of the earth to sustain the larger numbers. The big problem arises when we realize that the earth, her resources and the life on her, are limited. If the Takers have destroyed their limiting factors, what’s the logical conclusion then?
Boom! Or rather…the wheezing, hoarse cry the last of us Takers will let loose as we starve to death on what will then be an empty dust ball hurtling through space.
Connecting his theory with the sciences of ecology, biology, and anthropology, Ishmael takes his student through a journey of thought that leaves the reader reeling. From a strictly cultural standpoint, the use of Biblical stories from Genesis provides a great way to conceptualize Ishmael’s theory in a linear, narrative form, but with the objective science, and back and forth dialogue between the gorilla and the narrator the novel transforms, or evolves, into a book very difficult to put down. Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” and many others have looked at the conflicts that emerge when a group that sees itself as “civilized” clashes with a perceived, “primitive” group (those would be Takers and Leavers, in the vernacular of “Ishmael”). These novels depict this all out war as an inevitability that stems from an inherent flaw in man. “Ishmael” weaves this battle into the design of his theory well, but he does something with it. Unlike most doomsdayers or pessimists, the theory does not necessarily dictate that man is damned or inherently deficient. It does offer up a solution by pointing the reader back in the direction of the Leavers, those that lived within the Community of Life for three million years, and, at least in some remote places like jungles and deserts, still do. Hope for the Takers, Ishmael teaches, is in relinquishing the title of master of the earth, and reclaiming a place in the lineup of Life.
I didn’t mean to write a mini-book report here. Seriously. I just wanted to think, and for me, thinking usually involves writing. There are plenty of elements worth analyzing such as why Ishmael is a gorilla, what the narrator’s next steps may be, what really is the meaning of the ambiguous sign on the wall of Ishmael’s apartment, and I’m sure we’ll have our students cogitate on all these and more (oh, I didn’t mention: I read this in preparation for teaching it with a history and English teacher I work with). For me, though, I just wanted to work my head around this book with a little rambling. This novel didn’t come out of left field with a whammy, but it is the first one that followed the line of inquiry long enough to point out something new to me. Much like Robert Heinlein’s “Stranger in a Strange Land,” this novel’s dialogue works like a spell, capturing my mind and reshaping certain thoughts—making some appear and others vanish. Even Dan Brown’s new one, “Inferno,” tackles the idea of overpopulation, but his is amped up to the nth degree and a bit darker.
The numbers in the book surprised me, too. At one point Ishmael says there were about 3 Billion people on the earth. In a science class that I work in the students watched an old Bill Nye video from the late 90s, and the Science Guy said there were about 5 Billion of us. About a year ago, I read that we are right around 7 Billion. These numbers, and the speed at which they’re growing, are freaky.
Living in China, one of the most densely populated places on this rock, I can’t help but think about the futures portended by “Ishmael,” “Inferno,” and good old fashion Mathematics. The scales here are so imbalanced it’s not even funny. People mountain, people sea in one place, and then tumble weeds in the next. China has entire cities that are uninhabited, they have complexes with beautiful exteriors and vacant interiors, and they seem to have a near-phobic reaction to open land in close proximity to their cities. It’s as though they can’t abide grass and hills when perfectly good apartment buildings could be sitting there.
Just the other day Xiao Ming and I were driving around Jinshitan, and all along the perimeter of the town vast numbers of empty buildings loomed like mausoleums that even the dead would rather avoid. Between Dalian and Kai Fa Qu there is an entire neighborhood that seems to be populated by three street sweepers who idle their time away by snaring errant pieces of litter that blow into their turf.
All my life I’ve been a Taker, but there have been occasions when I’ve dreamed that I was not. It’s more than rebuking money, materialism, control and civilization, it’s about recognizing the imbalance all around us and realizing that, shit, this isn’t what we had planned.
None of these thoughts are new, and even “Ishmael,” wasn’t the first or the tenth to lay it all out. Even Lao Zi, the founder of Taoism in China caught on to the idea. He preached about the principles of Wu Wei, or in English, the Art of Inaction. He used this idea broadly, but there are strong similarities between it and some of Ishmael’s thoughts. The way ambition leads to so many negative consequences can be seen as the Takers enacting their god-like powers over the earth. A quote from the Tao Te Ching goes, “Try to change it and you will ruin it. Try to hold it and you will lose it.” That sounds a lot like Takers screwing things up to me.
I’m excited about teaching this novel, and seeing how the students react to it and its ideas. I can’t wait for our own Socratic discussions about the topics within its pages, and listening to their points of view.