China and its Discontents

Archive for December, 2010

“I’m Seeing My Grandsons for the First Time”

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It was a rather interesting flight from Beijing to SF yesterday. First, we were stuck on the tarmac for three hours because Beijing was too windy. Yes, too windy. I was seated in between a woman from Shanghai, and another from rural Hubei province. The conversation was quite interesting, given the regional pronunciation differences. Mandarin speakers from Shanghai change every zh and sh sound (the sound in jump and ship respectively) into simple z and s consonant sounds. This can be confusing, since Mandarin makes ample use of all four sounds, and the tonal nature of the language and relatively small number of consonant-vowel combinations (far fewer than in English) mean that more words are saddled onto half as many sounds.

The woman on my right had a very strong rural accent, even more difficult to piece together than the Shanghai accent. She didn’t know how to write pinyin or English to fill out her customs and entry form, so I helped to fill it out for her. She was seeing her two grandsons (4, and 8 years old) for the first time. Her son had left in 1994. She told me he played badminton. I assume professionally, but I’m not sure what money can be made from that in the US (in China, badminton sponsorships are commonplace). One of the questions on the entry form asked for an estimate of the value of all things on her person. I asked, “100 kuai, 200 kuai?” 200 kuai. All she had with her was $30 worth of clothing and a piece of paper with her son’s address and phone number. We were separated into two different lines during the customs process – I hope customs was able to get in touch with her son.

Traveling halfway around the world is a strange experience – your night becomes day and day becomes night. Added to that was my lack of sleep for the past two days; I couldn’t tell which way was up. Strange then, that I went to bed in San Francisco only to naturally wake up at 7 AM. I heard a rather strange sound for Saturday at 7: chants and songs. Outside was a line of marchers stretching down for half a mile. I decided it was a good day for a morning run; I was also curious about the marchers. It turned out to be for the Coronation of the Virgin Mary – they were walking from here to the Mission, on a 9-hour march.

Running on the path next to Colma Creek, I realized why running suddenly seemed so much easier: my lungs were no longer wheezing from the pollution. I took a loop around town, running from El Camino to Orange Park, walking to Ponderosa, and then running the rest of the way to Orange Library, through Alta Loma back to El Camino. The run got me thinking about some of the differences between here and what I would have seen on the same run in Beijing. Here is what surprised me, in no particular order:

  • Dogs higher than a foot.
  • Asian-looking people who don’t respond to me in Mandarin.
  • Parks that are empty at 7:30. Also, no old people practicing Taiqi, playing classical instruments, crooning into a microphone, or line-dancing to pop songs.
  • Public art installations at Orange Park. A couple new ones including two giant insect wings painted blue and a strange sheet of steel.
  • Birds on electric wires.
  • Canadian geese resting on a grassy field.
  • Empty streets.
  • Quiet.
  • Suburbia that is not reserved for the wealthy and wasn’t built within the last year.
  • People with tans.

Written by Will

December 11th, 2010 at 12:33 pm

“America is Our Best Friend”

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I was really touched when my homestay parents asked me over dinner, “Who do you think is America’s best friend? China?” I responded, thinking in terms of real-politik allies, “No, probably not.” But they said, “America is China’s best friend. Japanese students don’t come to China and live with Chinese families. They live together in dorms. The Koreans don’t come to China and live with Chinese families. They live out on their own. Only Americans do. They’re unique. More Americans understand China than in any other country, and more Chinese understand America than in any other country; more students study in each other’s country than in any others. That is why we are best friends.”

Also something that I had forgotten: they mentioned that George Bush Sr. had served as ambassador to China in the early 1970’s under Ford (he wasn’t actually ambassador at the time, because the US still recognized Taiwan, but was the official envoy, and acted like an ambassador). Furthermore, they said Bush Jr. was in China during this time, biking around Beijing taking pictures. For some reason, this really surprised me, simply because the perspective you would have as a foreigner in Beijing prior to the Reform and Opening Up would be somewhat unique, as there were really no foreigners in China prior to that time.

At some function (it’s unclear in what capacity), my homestay father got to know John Tsu, who he described as Bush Sr.’s “Chinese teacher” (he was chairman of the Asian-Pacific Affairs Committee in the White House). I thought that was an interesting connection as well.

Written by Will

December 8th, 2010 at 4:24 am

The Foreign Service is Competent? Whaaat?!

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While WikiLeaks made the trove available with the intention of exposing United States duplicity, what struck many readers was that American diplomacy looked rather impressive.

Is this really true? I don’t believe it!

No seriously, what did people expect? That we have amateurs representing our interests on the world stage?

Written by Will

December 7th, 2010 at 10:46 pm