In Search Of The Sound Of Silence

I wake up Friday morning to my the-nuclear-reactor-has-been-breached-on-the-submarine klaxon alarm and scramble to cram in a few final characters before my test. My mind feels like a scrambled egg from all the studying last night, and my thoughts are sparse like a lobotomized insomniac. Still, I squeeze the characters into my brain like a final shirt in a bulging suitcase and go take my test, but not before first taking a shower.
The steam swirls and escapes through the open window, the noise of a Beijing morning fills the void. Car horns, bike bells, sirens, the jackhammer on a sidewalk bambambambambambam, steel beams clanging as a building is constructed, more of that kid from the Flintstones BAMBAMBAMBAMBAM drilling into my head to migraine depth; noise; noise like a city under attack or a mind besieged, the morning announcements and music from the college loudspeakers, the ding of the microwave in the next room, another classmate’s submarine klaxon alarm. It’s enough to drive a quiet country boy like myself insane. Before coming to Beijing in high school I’d heard friends argue that it wasn’t city noise but a kind of music, the pulse and tempo of a place. I say that if this is music, it’s musical barbarism. The music roars twenty hours a day morning day and night and there’s nowhere to hide; not in the bathroom or under the covers or in a park. Everywhere I go is within range of the music’s terror. This ‘music’ is like the bay of hounds chasing a convict, and like the convict I know that if I don’t escape it I’ll be trapped forever.
I step out of the shower and think of a line from The Unbearable Lightness Of Being, “Abroad, she discovered that the transformation of music into noise was a planetary process by which mankind was entering the historical phase of ugliness.” The noise drowns out words, but our words are often nothing but another form of the ugly music. Grasping for the right one but never being precise enough, the words are obliterated of meaning like the pleas of help from the boy who cried wolf, they turn into trash that fills our minds and mouth and clouds our ability to think. The noise is an unholy terror perpetrated by the modern age. When did we last do or listen instead of talking about nothing? How can there be 700 channels of talking and it all have meaning? We have created this ugliness, and like Frankenstein’s monster no longer know how to control it.
Where are the angry villagers? Or have we lost the ability to truly be angry in the noise as well?
These are the thoughts on my mind after my test as I pack my backpack for my two week trip to Xinjiang along the Silk Road. It’s a chance to escape Beijing, but will I escape the abominable music as well? What will I learn in the emptiness of the grasslands and desert?
I get off the bus outside Beijing West Train Station and have two people come up and ask if I’m looking for a hotel. No, I say with a sigh of relief, I’m leaving, not arriving.
Inside my ticket is punched and I’m waved through to the train, and so begins my two week hegira. I find my bunk and settle in for the long ride, book in hand. The train’s abstergent celerity whisks us out from beneath Beijing’s grey smog. I’m Frodo looking at the darkness around Mount Doom, but I’m going the wrong way to be Frodo, so I’m just me.
Our tickets are not all together, and as most of my classmates nap or crowd in a nearby car, I sit by the window and allow my thoughts to wonder. The Chinese passengers around me do the same. Only the noise of the ventose safety announcements and occasional cough punctuate the silence.
After a while I glance down at the book in my hand and consider reading it, but decide to read something more interesting instead. I read the landscape, and as such, history, through the window. China from east to west can be divided into a first, second, and third world country. I watch and read history made and history being made, watch the ruins of buildings be absorbed in the construction dust of a skyscraper. Everywhere there are construction cranes, China’s unofficial national bird. There’s a pollution smudge halfway up the window that sometimes gets in the way and sometimes disappears entirely. The farms and hills and dirty stations and roads…rocks…trees…cars…they blur together like a giant run-on sentence, the cities commas and towns periods, each stop a new paragraph but rarely a new chapter. I think of Chinese grammar and my translation class and how a Chinese sentence in any other language is a run-on. Punctuation was not one of the four great inventions, or so the joke goes. I look at my book, a political science report on the South China Sea in Chinese for confirmation of this. I look back out the window at the long sentence of wheat blurring by, and wonder if this is all somehow related.
That’s too much heavy thinking for one day, and I put my unread book away and go find my classmates. We tell stories and they play word association games until the lights go out, and we all laugh; I’m thankful that the Chinese around us don’t speak English.
The next morning we get off the train in Xi-An (西安), an ancient Chinese capital and the location of the famed Terra-Cotta Warriors. Our tour guide, a jolly local who always speaks in the third person, meets us with our bus. “I’m Beni,” he says. “Benjamin Franklin for short.” Over the next two days we all become accustomed to cries of “Follow Beni!” and the short raised tour group flag held aloft.
We were supposed to bike around the old city wall, but anti-Japanese protests prevent it and we spend most of the day exploring the city on our own. I’m disappointed, but only briefly. I’d planned for weeks to bike around the city wall singing a Queen song, but in lieu of that cultural exchange opportunity I get a better one in the form of the protests. We’re told to stay away, but what the teachers really mean is go, just don’t sue us because we’ve now said not to. It’s an amazing experience, and frightening. I don’t know what the Cultural Revolution sounded like, but the noise of thousands of angry shouts and raised fists against Japan and foreigners is enough to make my hair stand on end. The flags and banners stream past. A soda machine and some chairs are tossed through a third floor window, raining sharp shards of glass on onlookers below. Store fronts are vandalized, and every shop in town is putting up as many Chinese flags and “The Diaoyu Islands are China’s” banners as they can to avoid a similar fate. I creep vertiginously close and realize the protest is fast becoming a mob. There is no leader to tell them where to march next, and a Honda is flipped. One of my blonde classmates has rocks thrown at her. Curses are shot at them, and I’m thankful for my long experience in China and ability to blend with a crowd. It’s fast becoming chaos, and I get out of there.
Beni tells me that Japanese are dirty thieves and that he only has one Japanese friend, then redeems himself by explaining that the friend is actually American and just of Japanese descent.
The extreme anti-Japanese sentiment in China and racism is a product of changes in the education system and text books after Tiananmen Square when the government sough to direct negative energy outward, and though the government has backed off pushing the anti-Japanese message, it’s become a pet alligator that now bites them in the ass.
I’m all for patriotism, but this is too much. We only do this in America when a Detroit or LA sports team wins the national championship, and that’s in celebration, not hatred directed at foreigners. For the next few hours I and my classmates stay in our hotel, chants of “Down With Little Japan!” shaking the city. I remember I once had dinner with a guy in Beijing who told me he loved Americans because we dropped two atomic bombs on Japan. What madness a mob mentality creates!
That night when we go out for dinner, there are thousands of stern-faced riot cops about, shields and all. A light drizzle adds to the mood. I’ve never felt a more tense environment in all my time in China.
A police tow-truck arrives to take away one of the flipped Hondas or Toyotas. It’s a Japanese made tow-truck. The irony is too much, and I go to sleep laughing.
The next day we visit a mosque and the terra-cotta warriors, where there is a notable absence of Japanese and even Korean tour groups. We all “Follow Beni!” through the different stops. I ask my teachers why a tyrannical emperor who enslaved 750,000 people to build him an army of pots is celebrated as a hero in a socialist country run by a communist party. It’s an impressive achievement, but does ignoring all the evil Qinshihuang did for the little bit of good not set a bad precedent? They have no response and we all think of Mao, but say nothing.
It’s another train and I’m in Gansu province. We spend a few days in Xiahe visiting various Buddhist monasteries, including famed Labrang Monastery, one of the three major sites for Tibetan Buddhism in China. We hike around the area and enjoy the grasslands. Horses are ridden, photos with monks taken, yak butter milk-tea consumed.
On the second night in Xiahe I go with a few classmates to find a restaurant with local food and we stumble into a true China experience. The menu is in Chinese and Tibetan, but the proprietor speaks only a few words of Mandarin and we speak only a few of Tibetan. We read the Mandarin and point at the Tibetan to order, but he can’t read Tibetan either, so he goes next door to find a monk who can tell him what it says, then comes back and tells us if he has it available or not. It’s made his day that we’re here, and it’s making ours as well. We’re not even ordering amounts now, just letting him decide. His wife shows us how to make the dumplings. He brings out napkins to wipe out our dusty glasses with, then brings the beer. A drink to cut the dust takes on a new meaning for me. We are stuffed with yak dumplings, and the man turns on a old television set to a dubbed show about the Chinese heroically resisting and killing the Japanese during WWII. He listens to the dubbed Tibetan as we read the Chinese subtitles. There are dozens of shows like this on TV, and if one had an ounce of truth to it then the Japanese would have lost millions during the war to such gorilla actions. I’ve never seen such fantasy in a TV show before, but it’s still good fun so we stay and watch. We drink more beer together, and accept the cigarettes offered to us. We laugh and try to chat as best we can. More dumplings are made. We sit around doing this until well past midnight, drinking the stale beer and smoking the cigarettes, then the cigarette butts from the ashtrays because all the stores have closed. None of us smoke, but this is a true China experience. You don’t turn something like this down, and we don’t. We all go to bed that night in a food coma, our stomachs bursting with delicious yak dumplings.
The next morning we follow the trail of the thousands of prayer wheels around Labrang monastery. The air smells of incense, grass, and dust churned by the rounds of the faithful. It’s a statement on the effects of capitalism, technology, and science that even here only the old and the monks turn the prayer wheels. Everyone else is either too distracted, overly educated and blinded by too much knowledge, or too busy making money. Europe’s great cathedrals are empty of all but tourists, and this place may soon follow suit.
On our final day in Xiahe we ride out to a nearby monastery that is truly out in the country. It belongs to a difference sect than the Tibetan monasteries of the previous few days. The shamanistic religion of the area has been incorporated into Buddhism, or vice-versa. Prayer wheels here are turned the opposite direction and flags with swastikas flutter in the wind. This monastery’s pace of life is much slower than the other, as is the small town around it. The lone tractor in the fields putters by, the birds glide in lazy circles on the wind, and even the flies around the toilets buzz without purpose.
We hike up to a ridge overlooking the grasslands for lunch, but I’m not feeling that great and head down early for the nearest outdoor squatter, where I find myself squatting over a foul-smelling latrine just inches from the head lama of the temple. In a strange way, it’s reassuring to know that the local food has the same effect on the old man as it does my weak western stomach. I take some Chinese stomach meds and pray they work, my thoughts on the trip back to our hotel. I can’t imagine much that’s worse than being just liquid on a bus ride across that flat grassland, with naught even a bush to squat behind.
Luckily I better, and we’re supposed to play some of the monks in a basketball game in a bit. The others aren’t down from lunch yet, so I wander about, taking in the atmosphere. The tired groan and squeak of the prayer wheels fills the air. Sometimes the wind turns them, as if the mountains themselves are offering up a prayer. From a nearby temple comes the baritone diapason of chanting.
I look out at the beautiful scenery around me, nearly untouched by man. If asked, I would say the raw spirituality of these monasteries and mosques comes from the place, from the trees and mountains, not the temples. Even the monks seem to recognize this, having built everything in seclusion from the abhorrent music of the world so that they can better commune with the eternal. It’s a commonality between all religions, that connection.
The chanting stops. Whereas the omnipresent, disharmonious racket of modern life smothers any sensation of a soul, here the sound of silence is thick with it. Is there a cure for the phthisis zeitgeist of city life? I think there is, and here is a reminder of it.
The game begins and I’m feeling better so I join in. The monks can really move in their robes and sandals. There’s not much to do out here for fun, and they’re very good. Still, it’s difficult for them to box out and rebound when their opponent has six inches on every player.
We go elsewhere in Gansu and see more yaks and grasslands. We see the Thousand Buddha Caves, also known as the Mogao grottos, in Dunhuang, where I get to see a nine story Buddha statue. We ride camels in the sand dunes and pretend we’re on the old Silk Road. Some complain about the heat and soreness, but I love it. We also ride bikes out into the country and help a family pick cotton, which allowed me a redemptive chance after the canceled ride in Xi-An, so I sing “Bicycle Race” with my friends and enjoy the perfect fall day.
We finally get to Turpan, in Xinjiang, and go visit Jiaohe Ancient City. Our guide for Xinjiang greets us at the train station and begins by telling us that the Uigher are the dominant ethnic group in Xinjiang, and that they have beautiful faces because they have blue eyes but that sometimes their minds have problems because they think of things like “freedom” and “independence.”
We stop at a traditional Uigher home and feast on the sweetest grapes anywhere in the world, then off for a steep hike and a long bus ride to Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang. The Uighers look Turkic and Eastern European. For a week and a half we’ve journeyed by train and bus into Central Asia, snaking through hidden combes with mountains a foot from each window and then breaking free and speeding across places so flat and empty you wonder if God got distracted and forgot to finish it. This is a hilly place, this is a mountain range, a river valley, a desert, big sky country, grasslands and more desert. During the ride a car flying a giant Chinese flag and a “Down with Japan” banner passes us. It’s a Toyota. Out of the desert appears a city, and finally we’ve arrived. We’re in Urumqi. I go to sleep excited for the coming days.
We go to the Xinjiang Art College and listen to an amazing performance by traditional instruments and then go to a dance class, where we ‘learn’ a dance and then scar the students forever with bad club music, but it’s okay because they join in and soon it’s just a big dance party.
That night we go to KTV and stay out far too late, so when the next morning rolls around we all get on the bus to go hike a mountain hungover and running on just a few hours sleep. Even the tour guide is in the same boat as us, but the clean mountain air and exercise quickly gets us all on our feet again. I see two guys on a motorcycle herding a dozen horses down the road and wonder what time warp I’ve entered.
It’s a beautiful view from the top of the mountain, and well worth the hike. It was a tough slog though, and not everyone makes it to the top. I was spurred on by my friend playing Lord Of The Rings soundtrack music.
We eat at the top, looking out across a beautiful valley at snow-capped mountains and reflecting on Xinjiang. It’s so different here. Yes, Urumqi is a city, but it’s different because of the Uighur influence.
The thought strikes me with such clarity I’m shocked: This isn’t China. Now I’m not denying that China rules Xinjiang politically, but whereas other border regions have been absorbed by Han culture, like Yunnan, here the reverse has taken place. The Uighers adopted a few things from the Han, but for the most part have stayed the same. They are their own people and have seen political control over this region change hands for millennia. It’s a bit of the wild west out here, and as long as they are left alone they won’t be trouble because they know how history works. It’s quite a contrast between these people and the people back in Beijing. Both are happy with their lives, but the Uighers seem to understand life… I don’t know, better.
Why the difference? My guess is that it has to do with the geography and culture. Phone beeps, sirens, and vendor squawks fill the city day, and city nights are populated with headlights and car horns, both in Urumqi and in Beijing. But the people here in Urumqi can get out and escape the chaos, and often do; they have a cultural precedent that hasn’t been gobbled up by the postmodern life yet; family and tradition is still important and stands strong as the bedrock of life. Beijing, however, is like any other city, and each city is just a fresh take on the biblical Babel: nothing but a desperate and loud shriek into the void of space and time, desperate to let our brief existence be known even as we make more noise to hide the possible absence of an echo, lest we realize there is nothing and we are nothing more than finite anomalies in an infinite universe of infinite universes. Yet here in Xinjiang, there is no competition to build the tallest building; other parts of life take precedence. The timeless and things that last are deemed more important than they are in Beijing.
Sitting on the mountain, we shout to hear our echoes, and though the trees and snow absorb our shouts, in Xinjiang the void does return an echo: The whistling of wind over the sand, the twinkle of a thousand thousand stars from the blackness, the awareness of that fragment of the eternal in us all. Here, on this trip, there is more than just a whispered response from the void. Here there is a deafening answer, and in the emptiest of places when we realize how alone and isolated we are, we realize that much of that sense of isolation is self-imposed by walking down the street all trapped in our own digital sphere of friends and tweets and texts, ignorant of the person beside us. This is what Xinjiang reminds us, that we are never truly alone.
That night we all go to a street with lots of snack food and feast on traditional Uigher cooking. The lamb intestines are amazing, and we eat so many chuanr 串儿, a kind of meat kebab, that we probably take responsibility for slaughtering an entire flock of sheep.
The next day we go to the Grand Bazaar where we are quickly and expertly divulged of our money, and then have free time that afternoon. I go to the museum to see some really old mummies whose lineage clearly comes from west of here, but the PRC won’t allow testing on them because it might harm China’s claim to Xinjiang. The museum is cool, but it prevaricates an official story that brushes over the rich complexity of Xinjiang’s history, which is a shame.
I go out for more kebabs that night and find a PBR in the Muslim district of a city in Central Asia. I have to buy it and do, along with lots of Snickers for the long train ride back to Beijing. We board the next morning at ten and won’t get off until eight at night a day later; thirty-eight hours on a train is not my favorite part of this trip, but I manage. I read my book and frequently get my zen on by staring mindlessly out the window at a desert forested by power and telephone lines and wind turbines.
The next morning I wake up to blaring music from the intercom and settle in for another full day on the train. Out the window I notice an ignominious, dusty little town that trains race past every hour, but I wonder how many have ever really seen it. Traveling by train is a less sceptic experience than flying, but you still can’t detour like you can with a car or walk and discover as I did over spring break in Yunnan when hitching. The “It’s not the destination but the journey” crowd better not be flying, otherwise they’re hypocrites.
Then again, maybe I’m just tired and jealous of anyone who flew and avoided the hell of another long train ride. It’s an experience everyone should have if only to learn patience, but I’ve had enough of it. I can’t wait to get back to Beijing and take a shower.
But is it really Beijing that I miss? Beijing, with it’s endless millions and sardine can subways and people bustling about, always looking to make a few kuai with Mao’s stern visage on it. They do, too, but the kuai moved from the baker to the beer vendor and back all week until given as change on a Friday night to the college student who spends it across town, and that’s how the city works. Motion, everyone going, going somewhere else, constant motion but still always here, here in the dust and smog and chaos, here grabbing taking stealing hustling giving leaving sighing going coming crying laughing whining celebrating eating farting drinking stumbling cursing drunkenly doing it all again sleeping repeating and finally dying, and even then the motion doesn’t stop doesn’t rest doesn’t pause or even take notice. That battery of production is used up, insert a replacement in his seat and keep moving, just don’t stop. You’re in a city of twenty million and you’ve never had less privacy yet never been more alone.
No, it’s the shower I want, not Beijing. The music there is ubiquitous, it’s soul-deafening noise pervasive and pernicious like an ugly rumor. It’s enough to drive a man mad with envy or heavy with despair or so happy he or her or they (but never you or I) can’t stand it, and the difference is no more than a few digital zeroes on a corrupt bank account.
Yet, I am happy to return to Beijing. I enjoy walking amongst the quiet hutongs, playing chinese chess with old men in the park, going for a leisurely afternoon stroll along Xihai lake, hot honey lemon tea in hand, watching the retirees rib each other as they fish. I love Beijing; I can’t stand it at times. It’s fun; it’s too crazy. It’s Chinese; it’s international. It’s a sprawling city; it’s a close-knit community.
We can’t all live in solitude amongst the mountains, some of us have to descend into the chaos to progress the world for the next generation. The important thing, I think, is that we not forget about those mountains, that we not get too caught up in the rat race and remember what is really important in life. That’s what the Uighers in Xinjiang taught me.
Psychiatry is always coming up with new compounds to combat new complexes, yet the number of complexes and of those who are complexed ceaselessly increases. Perhaps the absence of purity that spawns complexes can be traced to the loss of the simple. I love Beijing, but I love getting away from it even more. In my two weeks on the Silk Road I got to experience the best of both worlds. Now that I’m firmly back in one, I can’t help but think of the other, even as I realize that for now, my place is here. My time and place back in the mountains close to the eternal has not yet arrived, so I sit down and study my characters, go out for a pint with friends, and fight for a cab during a rush hour that lasts for three.
Yet much like young Jim Hawkins, I always keep a weather-eye open for a chance to return, to escape, for a chance at another adventure.

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Lessons From Chinese History

Who knew Chinese history could bear such relevance for America now? Learning about Zhenghe, the great Chinese admiral whose ships were so large that Columbus’s ships look life rafts, was an epic adventurer and sailor during the Ming Dynasty. He made it all the way to Africa and the Middle East and even brought back a few giraffes for the emperor. Imagine that, just walk out the back gate of the forbidden city in downtown Beijing to see a few giraffes roaming the park. In true Chinese style of naming things in a very straightforward manner, they were called long necked deer.
One of Zhenghe’s ships even crashed on an island off the coast of Somalia and the sailors integrated with the locals, a story that was long considered myth until DNA testing showed the Chinese genetic markers present in the population. There is even some discussion as to whether he discovered America before Columbus (an absurd idea. He easily could have had he sailed that direction, but he didn’t). So why is he relevant to us now?
Let me throw out a hypothetical. Say that Zhenghe and his ships hadn’t been denied funding for further missions and had gone back out, this time coming around Africa and ending up in either the Mediterranean or off the French Coast. These ships were so big that it wasn’t until the age of the great battleships that a ship surpassed his in size… And he had an entire fleet of them. Just imagine what would have happened had the Italian or Dutch or English seen such a fleet pop up one day in the Aegean or sailing up the Themes, how different history would be. Europeans wouldn’t have gone on for centuries thinking of China as a city-state and the Dutch and English wouldn’t have been nearly so bold in going for control of the trading routes in that part of the world, something they were only able to accomplish due to the vacuum created when the imperial court refused to fund further exploration for Zhenghe and the fleet was scuttled.
I see this as an interesting parallel to NASA now. Sure, it’s expensive and it may seem like we’ve gone far enough for what it costs– we don’t have moon giraffes, but we do have moon rocks– but space exploration is winding down just when it should be pushing farther and harder. Who knows what we might miss out on discovering or claiming if we quit and let other countries take the lead, not to mention the numerous military advances that stem from NASA research and technology.
The Chinese dynasty system collapsed for many reasons, but the status quo satisfaction that allowed the European powers to enter China with such overwhelming force in the 19th century could have all been avoided had Zhenghe been allowed to keep exploring, to keep pushing the boundaries. It’d be a real shame if America suffered the same fate for the same reasons. Then again, learning from history has never been our strong suit.
Perhaps it’s time to make it one.

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Craving American Food

It’s that time of the study abroad experience again, when I get desperate for a real burger, cheese, real yogurt, poptarts, cheesecake, and pancakes.  It’s made me think about what I mean when I say I crave American food, and what I’ve realized is that the only thing that is truly American is….

The PB&J.

More commonly known as the peanut butter and jelly sandwich, the PB&J is a hallmark item for Americans.  It’s so frequently found in lunchrooms and cafeterias that even at Wofford, we have a PB&J bar for those special days when we really crave that familiar taste, or when the other 95 options aren’t agreeable to our “delicate” American palettes.

There are only three ingredients in the sandwich, but of course the peanut butter is the most important.  Its sweet stickiness makes the sandwich great, just like how it contributes to the greatness of various other foods and snacks.

For example, take the humble toasted peanut butter sandwich.  Considered by many as, quote, “weird,” the toasting of the peanut butter renders the sandwich infinitely better, and while not very innovative, it is much more imaginative than just a plain, boring, peanut butter sandwich on flaccid white bread.

And why shouldn’t we like toasted peanut butter?  Just because it has some flair to it is no reason to dismiss it.  Lance has made enough money from its toasted peanut butter crackers to buy a small European country- probably a former Soviet state, but that’s not the point.

Peanut butter is good for other reasons as well.  For starters, it’s cheap.  As such, it is a staple of the college student’s diet and the feature entrée on any young bachelor’s menu.  It’s also healthy.  A person could survive their entire life living on nothing but water, bread, and peanut butter.  Yet at the same time, peanut butter can be incredibly detrimental because of its absolutely massive sugar dosage.

Yes!  The brown-gold invention of George Washington Carver is the derivative of American deliciousness and the only food, and any food with peanut butter, that can truly be called American.  (Bonus points for anything with peanut butter that is deep fried, jackpot if you can also coat it with sugar and dunk it in butter).  We stole the rest of our diet from everyone else, mainly Europe.  (Yes, there are Mexican and Chinese restaurants in America, but they don’t serve authentic food).  But stealing their menus wasn’t enough.  After stealing Europe’s menu, we tossed out the imaginative and vibrantly tasty items in favor of the bland meal structure of meat and bread, or something like peanut butter.  Yes, peanut butter.  The simple, healthy, amiable food that is born and bred into Americans because everyone likes it and it’s easy to get along with.

We like peanut butter because it’s salty and sweet (a combination that guarantees the Chinese will never fall in love with it).  It’s simple, cheap, easy to make, easy to use, easy to store, goes down easy and doesn’t elicit stares from the people at the next table when we eat it.  In many ways, it’s like duct tape in the South, beer at a tailgate, and eye-rolling in Congress.

Peanut butter defines the American diet.  It epitomizes it.  The American diet would be nothing without peanut butter.  The graham cracker would still be single and lonely, southerners would have nothing to paste bananas to bread with, and children would have nothing to complain about: No scapegoat when telling mom that her hastily packed lunches are getting boring.  And if they do complain about that soggy ham sandwich, I bet the next day they get peanut butter.  So when I say I’m craving American food, it turns out I’m really just craving authentic Western food, because peanut butter I can get here.

Thought of the moment: Instead of thirteen sticks and fig leaves, maybe the Eagle should have clutched between its razor sharp talons a mega-size jar of Jif.

Peanut butter.  It’s more American than apple pie.  After all, we stole that from the British.

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Latest From The ‘Jing Volume II

Latest from the ‘Jing: When the 拉肚子 strikes, it’s like when Hitler swept through Belgium to hit France. It’s unexpected and ruthless, but even if it hadn’t been it wouldn’t make a difference.

Latest from the ‘Jing: Blue skies.

Latest from the ‘Jing: Why can’t all days have weather like this? Please smog, don’t come back.

Latest from the ‘Jing: So the guy selling pet rocks sold out tonight. Either there is something very esoteric going on here, or I’ve just met the best salesman since the devil impersonated that guy at the used car dealership.

Latest From The ‘Jing: Insomnia, due to ceaseless construction across the street.

Latest From The ‘Jing: You would not believe how difficult it is to find a Chinese Chess set. I still haven’t found one for sale, and all the old guys playing on the street and in the park are no help. They got theirs when Mao was still in power.

Latest From The ‘Jing: After zero sleep last night, fairly certain my one-on-one teacher now thinks I’m a dunce.

Latest from the ‘Jing: Feel like I’m in a McDonald’s commercial, because I’m loving it

Latest from the ‘Jing: This time next week, I’ll be on a train halfway to Xinjiang.

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Random Vol 1

So this has nothing to do with my experiences in China, but the video is from China so I thought I’d share. It’s a really, really big worm. And somewhere the fisherman within me is thinking about a big hook and Moby Dick.

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The Cost Of Progress

Yes, China has a population problem, but that may not mean what you think it means. Part of the problem is the same as Japan is now facing, that of top-heavy society filled with elderly retirees. Because in traditional Chinese society the children are the retirement pension, this places an enormous strain on the middle-aged middle class of modern China. Whereas in the past they would have had siblings and other family to help, now it’s all on them, not to mention the cost of their own child. This means that the middle-aged parents now are unable to put away anything for retirement either, because everything has to go into giving the child the best education possible. It’s a system that is so focused on the next generation that the last generation is forgotten. With the old neighborhoods of Beijing being demolished for high-rise apartments and the cost of a square foot rivaling a Central Park apartment, something has to give.
It will be interesting to see how China deals with this problem in the next twenty years, and it’s a problem that is worse here and in Japan than it ever will be at home. Americans are too unhealthy to ever have an epidemic of healthy old retirees puttering about taking up resources for an extra thirty years after they have last contributed to the economy. Retirees certainly still contribute to the society through cultural knowledge and by serving as baby-sitters and often surrogate parents as the biological parents work, but this is only a short-time gig. What happens when Grandma is 85 and her one child retires, and then her one grandchild is left to care for both parents and the grandparent? And if that child is a girl and she marries, she’s married into another family with similar problems, and traditionally the burden of taking care of aging parents would fall to her brothers, except now she has none. How are her and her husband to start a family and get ahead in life when they have six parents and grandparents to take care of?
In response to this problem, the rules of the one child policy have become more lax in recent years. For a long time minority groups and those in rural areas were often permitted to have two children, especially if the first child was a girl, but now it is becoming easier for city-dwelling Han to have two kids as well, provided that both the husband and wife are only childs. Yet here another problem arises. Because of the tremendous economic and social advancements of the last thirty years in China, these young newlyweds either don’t want a child, don’t want a child for a while so they can each focus on their careers, or only want one child.
All of this culminates in a problem that can’t be fixed just by legal changes. The traditional filial piety that governed traditional Chinese agrarian and mercantile society has been shredded by the hammer of capitalism that sends the lone child far away for work. Manners and many cultural norms that make up the fabric of Chinese society are dying. In another twenty years, the parks will be mostly empty in the mornings. The retirees doing Taichi into their eighties will be dead, and the next generation will have focused so busily on economic matters all their life that parts of Chinese culture will die with their parents.
It’s a bit like when the last of the old southerners died at the turn of the twentieth century, and with them went a way of dress and thought and mannerisms that the world would never see again. The occasion represents a mix of good and bad, but there’s an undeniable bad to it. There’ll never be another Yoknapatawpha for Faulkner to write about, just as there will never be the old hutong/bathhouse/tea house society in Beijing anymore. It’s gone, dumped by the wayside in the name of progress. It’s a loss that I lament, the passing of the morally conscious old guard into the mists of time.
Yes, in their place now stands a financial building from which smart men in suits rule mini empires, but the progress comes at a price. Though progress and such loss is inevitable, I can’t help but look at the cost and wonder what we are progressing towards. As the fabric of society and the customs and culture that bind people together is ripped apart, and the practices and ethics cast aside, progress suddenly becomes unbridled of a moral conscious, allowing it to move even faster. Yet now, for the first time in all of history, it lacks guidance as well.
Today I walked through a park and saw an old man playing Chinese chess with a friend over a cup of tea at a nearby teahouse. I felt the sudden urge to go inside and try to soak up as much as I could from the pair, fearful that if I wait until tomorrow they’ll be gone. Many in China feel the same, but there is nothing they can do.
Quite suddenly, I have the sensation I’m standing on a runaway train headed for a cliff while everyone else parties around me, oblivious to the danger.

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Sorry Texas

Sorry Texas, but you’ve lost claim to the “everything is bigger here” line. For years now I’ve tried and failed miserably to explain China to people, and while I certainly haven’t gotten it all down yet, I finally have figured out how to adequately explain the size of China.
For starters, China is roughly the size of America by total land mass, but remember that China is all together, whereas much of our acreage comes from Alaska. Despite having just one official time zone, there are parts of China, some of which I will be visiting in a few weeks, that are closer to Berlin than to Beijing. If you took Chicago and put it in China, it would barely crack the top 100.
Now for the people. Take the population of America and multiply it by 5, and that’s China. Now take the population of America and multiply it by ~4.7 and then move all of those people east of the Mississippi, and you get China. That’s how crowded it is here on the coastal regions. Beijing as a city, due to its history and geographic location, has grown out rather than up. If you go to google maps (yes China, I used the word google; please don’t smite my blog and internet access oh overlords of the internet, I promise not to do it again) and look at Beijing, then zoom out until you can see the entire circumference of the sixth ring road, that is, roughly, Beijing. Now take that same depth of zoom and center it on Wofford or Charlotte or any other place you’re familiar with the area around. My home in rural Chester, SC, is an apartmented suburb of Charlotte if Charlotte were Beijing, and by suburb I mean not that far out there.
Talk to any Chinese person and they’ll all say the same thing. There are just too many Chinese. Next time you criticize the one child policy, think twice before speaking. And the next time you have to get on a crowded bus or subway or are stuck in rush hour traffic, trust me, you ain’t seen nothing.

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That International Look

I’ve been in China long enough now that I’m beginning to realize that there is something different about me, something very Je ne sais quoi that separates me from my fellow students. I don’t mean that I’ve changed in any way, but that there is something just international enough and just Chinese enough about me that I don’t get labeled an American that often. At first I thought it just the occasional fluke when someone would guess that I’m European, but I’ve come to believe otherwise now.
Side note: when discussing someone’s country of origin in China, generally the options are America, Russia, Canada, Brazil, sometimes Mexico, the Caribbean, European, African, Middle Eastern, Jewish, Australian, or any of the plethora of central and southeast Asian countries.
Anyway, what I’ve noticed over time is that this is no fluke. People will ask me what country I’m from, and ask my classmates if they’re American. If I throw the question back to them then they guess American about half the time, but it’s a true guess without the assurance behind saying to my classmates: Where are you from? Followed immediately by a confident, America?
I bring this up because 北外,the college I’m at, opened up this week and students from all over the world are here now, and it’s interesting seeing the differences. I can tell that someone is French opposed to German, but the criteria I use are different than how the Chinese guess. I really can’t explain it, but for those of you who travel a lot or have lived in a truly international city (cities of immigrants like NY don’t count, sorry), you know what I’m talking about. It’s that subtle difference in body shape and dress, color and style, how they carry themselves and hold their coffee, not so much how we walk alone and in groups, but the difference in our motions when walking alone versus in a group; the shoes and type of jeans they wear, how loudly they talk, their gait and motions through a crowd. The European students are either very earth-conscious bohemian or fashion conscious, upper-class bourgeois in their dress with the occasional anorexic off-duty hooker look and I-just-got-off-my-yacht look mixed in, whereas we Americans, in a reflection of our cultural heritage, fall somewhere between the two.
The biggest difference, I’m ashamed to say, is that we Americans are the only ones not already bilingual.
Of course, the coolest identifier is the accent we have with our Chinese. The French accent doesn’t work well with Chinese, but Italian does. So does Vietnamese. The American accent is comprehensible, but noticeable. It’s close to the English accent an Indian immigrant of twenty years might have. Most everything is easy to understand, but occasionally some sound is just completely missed, especially when excited or cold and the tongue misbehaves. My Chinese always gets worse in the winter, because my numb tongue and lips are never quite where they should be. If lost and asking for directions, I have to bite the tip of my tongue before talking so I can become intelligible.
For me, I do dress more like a European than an American at times, but I think it’s more that I move and act like an expat instead of a student with a temporary visa. At home I’m just a southerner in his beloved hat or a preppie college kid, but here I’m neither. Part of it is the wardrobe cuts I made when packing, but nearly everything I wear can easily and quickly be dressed up or down, but remains comfortable. There’s a worldly wear to my decisive steps across a busy street or deliberations by a subway map.
By worldly wear, I mean both. It’s a worldliness that comes from traveling all over with the locals on the train or by overnight bus or even backpack, and the wear and weariness that comes with the tired knowledge that I face a crowded subway or a long line in the cold. Worldly wear manifests itself as a quietly confident stoicism.
That confidence is evident in my step in Beijing. The city is constantly changing, but it’s still a place I know. I may not know where that subway line goes or which bus line to take off the top of my head, but I understand the underworkings of the city, which means that I can always figure it out. And always having the confidence that I can figure it out, even if I don’t speak but a few words of the language or local dialect, is, I’ve realized, about as international as a person can become.

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Latest from the ‘Jing Vol. I

This will be a weekly post of my random thoughts that I post as statuses on Facebook or just think up.
Latest from the ‘Jing: I was raised in SC summer humidity and heat, and even I can’t tolerate this weather. In all seriousness, the hall is collectively considering setting up a small shrine to our AC unit.

Latest from the ‘Jing: My translation class teacher did the subtitles for Kung-fu Panda 2, and has won a ton of awards. And he wants me to argue with him about how to translate things?

Latest from the ‘Jing: 今天的听写比有些国家的军队厉害的多

Latest from the ‘Jing: On facebook, in class, in China. Pushing my luck much?

Latest from the ‘Jing: Headed to a Beijing TV station to watch and participate in a gameshow tonight. Oh yes.

Latest from the ‘Jing: So they had an open spot on the judges section, and I ended up in it… not to mention helping decide the winner with my vote. Fun night.

Latest from the ‘Jing: just carried an hour and a half conversation with a chinese guy about taiwan and the global economy and the history of chinese dialects while splitting a case of beer. I don’t know which to be more impressed with, our beer tolerance or my chinese.

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Traveling Through The FSAABB

There are two schools of thought on traveling (and life).  The first is that it’s the destination, not how you get there, and the other is that where you end up doesn’t matter, but the journey on the way.  For a semester studying abroad in Beijing, it may seem foolish to suggest that the journey mattered– It’s just a long flight, after all– but as I discovered, the journey can be just as much of an adventure.  I’m en-route to Beijing as I write this, just waiting for my flight to board.  You may think that means that I have no travels to write of yet, but you’d be wrong.  Like Dorothy, I’ve entered a very strange place.

I didn’t arrive here by tornado, though.  This morning I left the beautiful US of A and entered into the FSAABB (Federated States of Airports, Airport Bureaucracy, and Bureaucracy).  It’s been an interesting trip through the FSAABB.  After checking my lone duffel bag, I entered into a rat maze congested with congested people, and was sorely disappointed to not find a hunk of cheese at the end.

To enter into the CLT state of the FSAABB, I had to present valid ID.  The security force for this federation of unified but geographically isolated airport states, the TSA, wear blue uniforms and seem to be descended from desert nomads.  I say this because of how fastidiously and diligently they snatch all liquids before allowing you into the airport state they guard.  They do so behind x-ray machines, metal detectors, fearsome single-strand, elastic band fences, and some tube thing that swirls around you and reveals how many second portions you’ve had in the last month.  I half expected to hear someone say, “Energize,” be teleported to the Enterprise and greeted by Spock.  Sadly, I doubt the TSA has achieved that level of intelligence.

Nor have they achieved that level of physical fitness.  Two year olds can move faster than the people who checked my ID.  Shouldn’t security personnel have to pass a minimum standard of ability to run down a suspect?  Or maybe that’s what the golf carts are really used for, and ferrying the elderly and disabled is just a cover.

If you are suspicious looking the FSAABB’s blue uniformed security personnel may attack you with a beeping wand.  Should the wannabe Geiger counter click enough, they may even engage in what I can only describe as legal molestation.  Strangely, if you elect to forgo having Scotty beam you up, you get this treatment as the alternative, which begs the question of why I had to be radiated with microns and x-rays in the first place.  At least the dentist gives me a lead blanket to protect myself.

But alas, it’s all in the name of security, so I grin and bear it, knowing that the annoyance of a long line and friendly pat-down is better than the annoyance of finding myself on a hijacked plane.

Side observation: I think the FSAABB is governed by a totalitarian regime.  There are so many propaganda posters on the walls, and every few minutes an emotionally removed feminine voice tells me to watch my bag and not trust strangers.  Strange, because everyone here is a stranger.  It’s all very Orwellian, and I keep waiting to hear I’m in a bad 1984 adaptation.  The regime can’t be communist, though.  They allow too much advertising to be anything but ruthless capitalists.

Next, I travelled within the FSAABB from the state of CLT to ORD.  Based on how my seatmate pronounced that he wanted a cheeseburger and a coke for lunch (a cheeese-boyoiga and a coak), I think the ORD is located somewhere around Chicago.  Here, faced with a long layover, I sought a solid meal in the desperate attempt to avoid airline food later.  With 8% unemployment in America I know I shouldn’t be too critical, but it seems the FSAABB is suffering from a similar situation coupled with high inflation.  They wanted $10 for a sandwich, $3 for a bag of chips, $2 for a cookie, and the ungodly sum of $2.67 for a small container of bottled tap water.

$2.67, really?  What am I supposed to do with this change when surrounded by metal detectors?  Is this part of an elaborate ploy to pat more people down?  And why is the price so odd?  It would be much faster to keep it at a round number to keep the line moving, I think.  I must be wrong, however.  I am not an expert, as the people who run the FSAABB surely are.

The FSAABB also seems to be suffering from some mismanagement of what I judge to be a recent stimulus package to help their failing economy (though based on the line at Starbucks, I don’t know how they can be failing).  I have no other explanation for why there are so many closet NASCAR fans driving empty golf carts into crowds of people rolling luggage behind them.

I wonder how many kamikazes, err, I mean golf carts and drivers, a stimulus buys.  Do you need a driver’s license to drive one?  Or perhaps a special license?  Also, if there must be golf carts disrupting everything, whey can’t they be like the beverage carts on golf courses, complete with a smiling and cute blonde soliciting overpriced and warm beer over a batted eyelash and stale joke?  I mean, come on.  Overpriced and warm beer would fit perfectly beside their overpriced sandwiches and bottles of water.

One thing I have noticed about the FSAABB in my travels is how diverse it is.  There are at least seven different languages being spoken around my table as I eat my overpriced sandwich.  Assuming that they are only passing through the FSAABB on their way to America, it is a real testament to the character of our country.  I suppose they could be visiting just the FSAABB, but I find that unlikely.  Real estate and electrical are real commodities here.  There are no fewer than a dozen people crowded around one small table with a couple of outlets.

For the most part, we travelers are all the same.  There are really only four stories, and everything else is just a variant.  Going somewhere, Coming back from somewhere, Being redirected somewhere else, and Stranded.

Occasionally some flight officers will walk by in their crisp uniforms with wings.  I don’t think they are part of the TSA, as I have yet to see a TSA agent escorted by three or four smiling flight attendants.  Where that smile goes between the time that I see them in the FSAABB and when I see them on the plane is another question I have.  Do they always get bad news about a promotion or wages when they board?  Don’t get me wrong, they still smile on the plane as well, but then the smile doesn’t reach their annoyed eyes.

With the (liberty)-stifling security measures, unbalanced economic system, disparity between government employees and non-government employees, and obese bureaucracy, another thought does occur to me: Perhaps the FSAABB is really just a spyglass into the future.  If it is, then we’re all destined for diabetes because the Golden Arches are in every terminal and, quite inexplicably, the soda is cheaper than the water.

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