“It’s totally foreign”

Photo credit Jake Rosenberg for W Hotels

Photo credit Jake Rosenberg for W Hotels

So, it was a short fashion (“Styles” section) article so I don’t mean to say this is even trying to be authoritative. But it’s a bit meaningful in the category understanding/misunderstanding eachother. This pretty pic caught my eye in Sunday’s paper, a NYC-based fashion designer on a junket to Beijing, seeking inspiration at the Summer Palace, walking distance from where we lived. She says the first thing she did was hope on the subway:

“Nothing is written in English so you need to get detailed descriptions of what the characters look like for where you’re going…It’s totally foreign.”

As riders of Beijing’s massive subway system know, not only are all the signs in English — and maps and electronic notices. There is also an announcer’s voice, that comes on at every station, to say where you are, IN ENGLISH!

All Beijing subway maps are in Mandarin and English

All Beijing subway maps are in Mandarin and English

So what’s up with that? Is the narrative of “It’s totally foreign” so overriding that it has the power to overtake a really clear & obvious physical reality? Or maybe she was never really on the subway? Just thought it would be cool to say that? (Or is she a teeny bit crazy? Or did the writer make it up?) The other thing that’s odd about it is this designer has lived in the Arabian Gulf, and a few cities in Europe, before moving to the US.

The semiotician of colonial framing in me says, this is othering that happens unconsciously, even when it contradicts actual reality.

It’s really pretty considerate of Beijing – in a country that is Jekyll-&-Hyde, at best, in welcoming foreigners, but generally speaking is not that fond – to have all the capital’s subway signs, maps & announcements in English as well as Mandarin. More than you can say for NYC!!!!

[Lots of people probably noticed! The next day this ran online:

Correction: An earlier version of this post included a quotation from Ms. Nonoo that referred incorrectly to Beijing’s mass transit system. The subway has signage in English as well as in Chinese; it is not the case that “Nothing is written in English.” The quotation has been removed.”]

US-China Cooperation: Restoring Qianlong’s Secret Garden

Thirty women, China’s best embroiderers, in Nanjing, worked for one year to embroider the richly brocaded upholstery. Papermakers, working with a traditional and especially tough pulp from the mulberry tree, recreated the paper strong enough to support the Italian trompe l’oeil ceiling painting, from their papermaking studio in rural Anhui. Bamboo craft masters, recruited after a national search, prepared inner skin bamboo carving and bamboo thread marquetry with their grandparents’ tools. During the Cultural Revolution, many of these craftsmen’s parents, or grandparents, had their tools smashed. Some buried them and they survived. Many tools had been handed down for generations.

They chosen to were repair the emperor’s secret garden, Juanqinzhai. (The book🙂

juanqinzhai book

I learned about the project from a lovely documentary, The Emperor’s Secret Garden (by Mandy Chang and Zhou Bing, 2010, BSkyB Masterpiece productions). The Qianlong Emperor, who ruled around the American Revolution, was the richest and most powerful man on earth. As a highly cultured man, Qianlong wrote calligraphy, and we actually saw his handiwork on auction in NY a few months ago:

At Sotheby's Chinese calligraphy auction, NYC, Spring 2014

My son and I pretending we could afford Sotheby’s Chinese calligraphy on auction, NYC, Spring 2014. A few of Qianlong’s panels were set to fetch half a million dollars.

Qianlong, already living in earth’s largest palace, having sucked (as emperors do) the continent’s wealth, commissioned a secret garden where he envisioned retreating for a fashionable, scholar-monk-style retirement: 27 buildings, grottos and rockeries, a garden, and interiors of textile, friezes and woodwork, silk brocade so delicate it’s transparent, woven on looms 2 storeys high; a level of craftsmanship that blows the mind. Somehow, the retreat was locked up, and discovered dusty and crumbling in the early 2000s. It had been undisturbed since the 1700s. As WMF explains, it sparked one of the most awe-inspiring international  restoration projects ever.

From the World Monuments Fund slideshow on the project: A painting of the garden complex itself, and of one mural, of the royal family:

the emperors garden painting

wood panel showing royal family

The work was part of Forbidden City’s first international collaboration — and China’s first large-scale interior conservation project. The effort became a lab, and a classroom for training a young generation of Chinese conservators. But first, restoring the emperor’s secret garden required searching for what had  nearly disappeared: highly skilled traditional craftsmen and women.

Together with architects, engineers, scientists, archaeologists and curators, conservators and conservation scientists, helped by the World Monuments Fund, the hideaway was restored. Cultural heritage was strengthened. Traditional craftspeople fired up their shops. And the prestigious Tsinghua University in Beijing created, through Jinqinzhai, China’s first degree program in interior conservation. Which means preservation according to international standards, can begin to take hold here.

 

To see, as we have, the scale of destruction (even to this day) of the treasures scattered across mainland China is to understand what a huge big deal it is. The project also forged new levels of cooperation and trust between U.S. and China preservationists, a positive part of this emerging, fraught relationship. I expect it won’t be the last: Large sections of the Forbidden City are still in disrepair.

Qianlong Emperor (reign 1735-1799)

Qianlong Emperor (reign 1735-1799)

If you’re in China, you can go and visit, though the rooms open only part of the time.

For Temple Lovers Only: A Beijing Temple List

Chengde Puning Temple

Chengde Puning Temple

Baijynguan Taoist monk

Baijynguan Taoist monk

We have a joke (actually serious) about visiting active temples / monasteries: ‘It’s time to leave when you reach the monks’ underwear.’ Drying on a line, I mean. There comes that point. You can go no further.

We love that. We couldn’t see enough temples.

Beijing, having sucked the wealth from a continent, for millennia, has unknown minor temples that would be cover stories anywhere else.  There is Yonghegong & the Temple of Heaven. And there are many more. Here is the list had — and didn’t quite finish. Our 14 Beijing Temples List.

1)    Guanghua On HouHai/Shichahai, beautiful, very active Buddhist temple. 31 Ya’er Hutong, Xicheng, Beijing. The boys were given amulets there by the abbot.

IMG_59062) Zihua. At certain times, the monks play ancient Buddhist music. It is the only place of its kind.  A bit hard to find in Dongchen, about 14 blocks below Jianhuomen on Line 5; about 15 blocks above Chaoyangmen. Below Lumicang hutong, above Dafangjia hutong.

3) Mentougou 1 hr. outside Beijing. Best hire a driver for the day. The temple complexes are Tazhe Si, and nearby Jietai Si, from 600s & also very famous.

4) Chengde (many temples) ‘Little Tibet’, about 3 hours’ drive. Summer getaway of the Qing. Main palace in a vast forest park, plus (even better) the many outlying Tibetan-style temples built in tribute, and to rein in faraway lands. Need a car. We went in one too-long day. Best for a week-end. Less crowded at the outlying temples. Many under construction…or should be.

5) Dazhong Si (Great Bell Temple) Right in Haidian, buried in urban craziness. Huge bell! Has its own subway stop. Great.

jietai

6) Wanshou (Temple of Longevity) 5-minute walk from Beijing Foreign Studies U., and from Purple Bamboo Park. Ming. 1578.  Before fall of the Qing, a rest stop for imperial processions traveling by boat to the Summer Palace and Western Hills (it’s on a canal). Managed by Beijing Art Museum, houses collection of Buddha images. Suzhou Jie, Xisanhuan Lu, on the north side of Zizhu Bridge, Haidian District

Dajue Buddha

7) Zhenjue No.24 Wutaisi Cun, Baishiqiao, Haidian District, Beijing. (Chinese: 24; pinyin: Bĕijīng Shì Báishíqiáo Cūn 24 hào). We did not make it here! It’s still on our list!

8) Dahui (Temple of Great Wisdom) Haidian. Ming dynasty. Dahui Lu Si near Xueyuan Nan Lu. Built 1513; restored 1757.   We did not make it here, either!

9) Biyun Si (Temple of Azure Clouds) (Chinese: Buddhist, eastern part of the Western Hills, just outside the north gate of Fragrant Hills Park (Xiangshan Gongyuan). Can also see Sun yat Sen memorial & Fragrant Hills (has a chairlift if you don’t want to climb) We walked up, chairlift down. Taxi works well.

10) Dongyue Si  (Taoist, mid-Chaoyang) – probably the most important Taoist temple in Beijing, Buried in Chaoyang. Near the Russian market.

Dajue Tea House

Dajue Tea House

11) White Cloud Temple (Bai Yungguan) in Fengtai (southwestern) district. Home to the Taoist Association, very large, active temple in the middle of an ordinary residential neighborhood. There is one English speaker (top photo) who was so helpful with explanations.

Near Baiyunguan: a buddhist pagoda not on the premesis

Near Baiyunguan: a buddhist pagoda not on the premesis

12) Xi Huang Si – Western yellow, best lamaist architecture ,1780. This is fantastic gem, unknown. We found it closed to the public but talked our way in. I think its northeast 2nd ring?

IMAG1663

13) Bei Tai (White Pagoda) The temple atop the island hill in Beihai Park

Beihai

14) Dajue Si  at foot of Yangtai Hill, 1498 – Lovely site built into a mountainside. Has oldest extant Buddha statue in garden. Hire a taxi but have clear directions, no one knows where it is. Out beyond the secret military installation, kind of past/near Fragrant Hills. Gorgeous expensive tea house.

dajue spring and building

Start the Day Right (Chinese Food)

Canteen windows: breakfast variety

Canteen windows: breakfast variety

We have cold cereal, yogurt & fruit, maybe an egg, bagel. French toast or pancakes on week-end. Breakfast isn’t very varied. Love it but — I’m saying, it’s not that involved. Totally different story in China. We were strictly using the university canteen (cafeteria) in Qingdao this summer, having no kitchen. Breakfast choices were just as varied as dinner, with more than a dozen windows, each totally different. Soup with beans or greens or noodles, buns, dumplings, all kinds of meat, breads, vegetables, eggs and lots of kinds of pickles, & much more.

Fried little buns, like a savory beignet

Fried little buns, like a savory beignet

Unfortunately, first sight entering the canteen is the slop tables, ladies scraping food garbage into giant stainless steel pails. Not a great image! But the ladies are lovely! Below, a few pix of soup, dumplings & breakfast in a Chinese university.

Canteen ladies, China Petroleum University

Canteen ladies, China Petroleum University

Breakfast wontons (hwin dun)

Breakfast wontons (hwin dun)

Canteen tables, China Petroleum University, Qingdao

Love the dumplings!

Love the dumplings!

Grab your chopsticks

Grab your chopsticks

 

Morning soups

Morning soups

Teacher, Friend, Son of Artists

Xiao Xiao's mother's art

Xiao Xiao’s mother’s art

Kenny art vincents mother2art vincents motherhad a wonderful “tutor” in Qingdao who took care of him while I was teaching, a part of the university compensation (which was also room & board and a lot of lovely perks like trips, and kindnesses like dinners); you could say it that way. Or it was a part of Chinese hospitality. Or it was part of an authoritarian system we saw in Beijing, where students are ‘volunteered’ time-consuming institutional duties that are anything but voluntary.

Upshot, this magnificent young man, a grad student (they say “post-graduate”) in translation specializing in the petroleum industries, and his fiancee, same field, were our companions and especially, Xiao Xiao and Kenny were often together. He kicked Kenny’s ass in badmitton, and recruited guys to play basketball at all hours of the day and night. They ate in Sichuan, Dongbei, and local restaurants around campus. They made silly movies using an iPad app.

And we learned Xiao Xiao’s parents are both noted artists: his father has a studio at Beijing’s 798 and runs an art complex there. His mother’s work (above) is traditional style, and she’s a calligrapher.

And his father’s work is below. His grandmother in Fujian was a village teacher. His grandfather hid the village’s “cultural relics”–treasures from the temple — during the Cultural Revolution, and suffered terribly as a result. Now the relics are in temples and museums.

art vincent's father

Writing in English, Wishing for Reform

My students, writing.

My students, writing.

 

Last time I taught liberal arts types in Beijing at a famously liberal university. Here we are in a province (Shandong, central coastal China) in an engineering school and my students are in either public administration or one of many busines majors (accounting, finance, international trade, management). Lest we think only the urbane Beijingers are reform-minded, here is a bit of one student’s first paper for me:

“I want to be a government leader, wher I can take powers to reform our political system. As we all know, there are many problems in our country politic area, such as democracy deficit, freedom restricted, civil rights violtions. Our Chinese democracy is not complete.”

PS We have very sporadic internet and VPN. LIkely to blog less than we would wish.

 

 

(Some) Coplans (Soon) in China

QingdaoNightThis is Qingdao at night. Beer lovers, yes: Tsingtao. It was once controlled for a few years (was a “concession”) by Germans. It’s on the ocean, about between Shanghai and Beijing, in the prosperous province of Shandong. The air is good, for China.

In our 10 months back in the U.S., we felt a bit guilty calling this blog Coplans IN China. But now (visas in hand as of an hour ago) we can safety say half of our family is returning to China  for a bit more than a month (in July). Kenny and I will be living in Qingdao at China University of Petroleum (CUP) .

I will teach business students international communications. Kenny, my young translator, will be kindly provided with a Mandarin tutor, and he also hopes to improve his ping pong and pick-up basketball.

He also wants to do week-end visits to cities we missed: Hangzhou and Nanjing (and possibly also Suzhou; our visit was so brief it almost wasn’t).

Other goals: Reconnecting & reaffirming bonds with friends and colleagues, especially while passing through Beijing, to set up the basis for future collaborative teaching. And (for Kenny) to — during the last 5ish days — get to Wudang Shan, the holy mountain most powerfully pulling on him, where we never made it.

More news when we’ve got it.

Meanwhile here is a picture of Kenny last year this time, giving a farewell speech, in Mandarin, to my students at a reception organized by my then-supervisor who runs the MA program in communications at Beijing Foreign Studies University, the wonderful Qiao Mu.

MVI_8229

An American Boy in China (watch video)

Adventures of a third grader in Beijing for a year. All about having fun in China, the land and its geography, history and politics, and visiting China’s different regions and peoples. Do shadow puppetry, ride a camel in the Gobi, make dumplings on a farm, and cheer for the Guoan (World Peace) soccer team.

Doctor of Tropical Medicine

Gratuitous sunrise shot: Early drive to Manhattan

China isn’t (mostly) tropical. But we suspect maybe one kid picked up a so-called ‘tropical’ disease there.

Today we left before dawn to see Kevin M. Cahill, M.D., author of Tropical Medicine, a textbook now in its 8th edition from Oxford University Press. One kid’s gut problems have lasted 7 months (since visiting the Tibetan yak herders in W. Sichuan), plus, lately, terrible headaches and dizziness. All the pediatricians, gastroenterologists, lab tests (soon he’s also to see a pediatric neurologist) said head and stomach pains were UNrelated. That seems odd. And they said no, it wasn’t infectious, from China.That also seemed, maybe…wrong.

Food- and water-borne diseases are bad in China, still, including in cities. The other child got giardia (a parasite) there, with timing suggesting he picked it up in Beijing. Docs told us they see it constantly. (Along with the better-known Traveler’s Diarrhea, a bacteria.) Parasites are, for one, in the water. No one drinks the water, & we brushed our teeth with bottled water. Still, water comes into contact with things you eat.

Dr. Cahill is the U.N.’s chief advisor on medicine in humanitarian crises, and has written or edited about 10 books on tropical medicine. He is renowned for his parasite knowledge. He’s said to shun commercial labs and to examine specimens under his own microscope. One reference he showed us notes that a study (NYC, 2010) found 70% of parasite and amoeba test results at commercial labs were faulty.

Just an antique: Dr. Cahill sharing his 18-th century acupuncture kit.

Why were our docs so sure, why didn’t they suggest seeing a tropical medicine specialist (I note with gratitude that my friend Aviva did)? Dr. Cahill said medical schools here spend no time on tropical diseases. Well, why? Unlike the U.K., he said, this country never occupied conquered colonies. Aside from the odd adventure traveler, Peace Corps volunteer, or U.N. official, there’s no call for tropical medicine in the U.S. — among the elite. And there just isn’t much concern for the (mostly poor) immigrants who suffer from these things.

When budget cuts come to NYC hospitals, as he put it, “what gets cut are the things the Dominicans get.”

Dr. Cahill’s souvenir acupuncture kit, a gift from a patient.

He also told us (before doing a sigmoidoscopy, sampling the intestinal wall) the stool tests our doctors rely on won’t show parasites or amoebas because the creatures live inside the intestine walls — not in stool.

Dr. Cahill thought a parasite might be the cause of things. We’ll find out tomorrow for sure. I desperately hope so, because this child is suffering.

Heartfelt thanks to friend Eric Pearl, & Cousin Liz, who recommended Dr. Cahill.

PS – Thank you, our 33 new subscribers this week! That’s so lovely to have you. If anyone else wants to get notified by email when we post, click “Sign me up” on the right.

Post Script: The great Dr. Cahill found an amoeba, E.Histolytica, the thing that causes amoebic dysentery (among other symptoms). The illness is called amebiasis and is said to affect 50 millionin the world, especially where it’s poor, crowded and hygiene is not good.  With 2 meds and some time to heal, we believe he’ll be on the mend. And I’d like to take this opportunity to again “thank” the pediatric G.I. we saw repeatedly who insisted there was no reason to believe the cause of this kid’s suffering was tropical or infectious.

Soulful Mongolian Horsehead Fiddle

Mongolian horse head fiddle

We saw Arga Bileg perform — a Mongolian orchestra fused with piano jazz — at the Asia Society last night. The orchestra included three horse head fiddles (above), a magical instrument that emits a horse’s cry.

Legend says a shepherd once received a flying horse he rode each night to his lover. But a jealous rival cut off the horse’s wings. After  it died, in his grief, the shepherd made the first horsehead fiddle in its honor, and all day and night, played poignant songs about — not the lover he wouldn’t be able to see, but his horse. Another fiddle legend says a wicked overlord killed a little boy’s favorite white horse. The white horse’s spirit then appears in the boy’s dream, telling him, ‘Make an instrument out of my body so we’ll always be together.’ And he does.

In both stories, the fiddle sound box is stretched with horse’s skin, its strings are made from horse hair, and horse bones become the fiddle neck. And of course, the scroll is the beloved horse’s head. I’m not an expert, but there are such lutes, of trapezoidal sound box, all around Central Asian steppes – Tuvan, Kazakh, Kyrgyz.

Our guide in Innner Mongolia played it, and also played horse head fiddle on mP3. Talk about great driving music. It is hauntingly beautiful. But only last night did I hear horsehead fiddle accompanied by throat singing. That’s when the singer attains two tones at once – a sound that seems to come from another planet. Imagine that under an uninterrupted bowl of stars on the empty steppes.

In China, we heard another artist perform Mongolian fusion: Sa Ding Ding, a half-Mongolian pop star they call “the Bjork of Asia.’ She acvtually shared the bill with the Black Eyed Peas at a U.S.-China friendship concert the embassy sponsored. She also sings in Tibetan and Sanskrit.

Sa Ding Ding, Chinese ethnic pop influenced by Tibetan Buddhism.

Mongolian folk rock is kind of hip in Beijing. (Someone called it “Chinagrass” i.e. bluegrass, in English). We heard some at an outdoor Beijing indie music festival. Hanggai may be the biggest group; apparently they were Beijing punk rockers who heard throat singing one day, sparking an interest in their (mostly lost) Mongolian heritage.  Now Mongo-rock is part of the scene. Like the folk music we heard in Mongolia, like the Mongolian-jazz fusion we heard last night, Hanggai is also often mournful, open-sky plaintive. This is Hanggai. And this is their best known song, I believe an updated folk song, “Xiger, Xiger.” It’s also here. Like many Mongolian songs we’ve heard, it alternates between fast and slow. When the tempo picks up, a horse begins to gallop.

There is loss and longing here. After witnessing the desecration of the grasslands in Inner Mongolia, the ever-worsening disappearance of language and culture as resource-rich area is mined and settled and overtaken, it’s impossible not to read that into this music.

Being global, it wasn’t only Mongolians in NYC giving a hollering standing ovation to Arga Bileg last night, but a typically varied NYC audience, appreciating the sounds of one of history’s greatest peoples, keeping its culture alive.

NOTE: Thanks for the horse head fiddle pic to an English teacher in Mongolia called “Jim” who writes the Wandering the World blog.  The instrument is found elsewhere (like E. Europe); in Mongolian it’s called morin khuur. In Chinese, matouqin – 马头琴.

China Chic in U.S. Magazine Ads

Who’s strategizing these full-page colorful China ads for American magazines? I’m struck by the sensibility – the Wall as raw, unspoiled, broken-down-&-dirty wildness, at odds with how 99.99% of folks will experience the Great Wall.

Trip on broken rocks at unrenovated Great Wall?

It’s like the eco-hiker sensibility, which is great, is the image. How we saw the Wall, with a hiking group, but very, very few visitors do. It’s great, though, we saw its wild sections, in snow, in autumn color. All the more power to Beijing Hikers. But since when is this China’s projected national image?Is the idea targeting the under-reached eco-traveler?

This ad also struck me – in a U.S. magazine, a full page ad for Moutai from Guizhou. Well, good. Never saw this before.

Brave enough to drink it?

Finally this last ad struck me, as well — for the Waldorf Astoria 5-star hotel chain, featuring a pretty young (chaste?) Chinese couple. In a U.S. magazine. Is the idea reaching Chinese visitors to the U.S.? Or is it that gorgeous Chinese models are the thing now in America? –How ironic that would be!!  — since in China the models are more often than not blue-eyed blondes!!

Be global chic: Be young, beautiful & Chinese.

Has a slim, sexy, doe-eyed young chinese couple become America’s new norm for chic, jet-set cool? I’m struck. I’m intrigued. I’m mystified.

If you like Coplans In China, please click “sign me up” to Follow the blog and receive email when we post, about once a week.

More Great Student Journalism

Writers Workshop, my apt

If you’re unmarried at 27, you’re a “leftover lady” – Reese explores this ridiculous problem in the third and last batch of student final pieces, (the first batch here) presented aloud at my apt, over lunch. For a look at some parents’ alarmed, creative reaction to their kids potentially being leftover, we travel with Jolie (and in a related piece, Natalie) to Matchmaker’s Park, a well-done tale (she’s even recruited as good bride material). THose poor, anxious parents stand for hours with placards advertising their children to other anxious parents.

Jolie

Natalie

Lucia told the story of an NGO founded by China’s  leading, pioneering investigative journalist Wang Keqing, who sometimes teaches in this department, to help miners and other impoverished Chinese industrial workers with black lung disease. Some on staff were initially persecuted, for embarrassing the government. The NGO is one of few–it’s a new and uncertain area of China’s nascent, still-beleaguered civil society. Happily, it recently got on the government’s good side, and a few celebrities have lined up for a big fundraiser this month.

Aileen takes us on a journey through her feelings of patriotism and yet demand for information about her home that she loves,  China, on a trip into the troubled Tibetan area, Qinghai. She seeks to explore the unrest (while translating for a journalist from India), and must grapple with being accused by security forces, at every step, of being a traitor.

Aileen journeyed to Tibetan Qinghai

Susan looks at Confucius Institutes (from her days earlier this year interning in NYC), particularly the one at Pace University, and realizes the U.S. students there are learning more about Peking Opera, silk, calligraphy and classical poetry than she knows, as a devoted English student. She determines, then, to rediscover her own culture.

Susan

Laura shows us why Christianity, despite the hype and worry, won’t catch on in China. We see her quit, after too much uncomfortable touchie-feelie hugging and what feels like too much fake saying “I love you.”

Cynthia shows us a migrant laborer who founded a hotline to help others, a well-drawn bio piece about a modern-day hero.

Susan Yu takes us inside student union election politics – a microcosm for Party politics, and urges change towards a more truly democratic process.

In a

Susan Yu

nother great piece, we see how Chinese senior citizens, displaced from the center and their old communities by Beijing’s rampant, outward, horizontal growth pattern, are now being accused of clogging up mass transit when they travel back to their favorite old spots at rush hour.

Cynthia

And Guanlin tells the story of life as a Beijing public toilet cleaner who actually lives inside a stall, with his wife and grandchild.

Liya wrote about Beijing’s oldest foreign-owned small business, run by China’s original British hipster.

Shao Yao Jews

ImageWe are constantly changing trains at Shao Yao Ju, especially on Jewish holidays — when I go get the boys at school in order to go to synagogue. At first our Woody Allenesque way we referred to the station was, “Shao Yao Are-You-Calling-Me-a-Jew?”

Now we just call it, “Shao Yao People-of-the-Jewish-Faith.”

Image

 

No Lies Beijing

Sunday: Saw nothing quaint, antique or traditional. No orange-robed monks. Real Beijing was the library construction site outside — home to migrant laborers’ trailers — springing back to life after the Lunar New Year.

View from our window

Riding the subway and learning from billboards everywhere that Beijing has a new motto: “Patriotism, Innovation, Inclusiveness, Virtue.”

If it says so, it must be so

Visiting Tiananmen’s lone old watchtower, and a historic district (Dashilar or Dazhalan) restored, in part, with a Fanieul Hall/South Street Seaport artificiality. It was Ethan buying Mao’s Little Red Book there, a fake-antique.

Sayings of Chairman Mao

Eating hot pot without drama: only minor hand burns.

Emperor ate hot pot here

And dinner in chichi Sanlitun with a NY childhood friend, late-40s like me, who’s produced (and exported) U.S. theater here for 2 decades. Today, her old contacts, partners, friends, have hit (or anticipate reaching, come October’s transitional Party Congress) China’s very highest levels.

Glossy, glassy Sanlitun

If you’re a 40- or 50-something, a Chinese regional or industrial or political or bureaucratic somebody, this is your time. Or maybe I should say, whoever you are, wherever you live, whatever you do: Whatever the world will become next — it’s our turn now.

ParkGiant Pandas! Bamboo!

Our overseers, the university’s Foreign Experts Office, hauled a busload of us to a holiday kungfu show. The performance was underwritten by the municipality of Beijing. World champs displayed snake style, drunken style, monkey style, swords, strung together with a search-for-elusive-panda plot. The stage backdrops were computer-generated, floor-to-ceiling projections of flying through a futuristic, neon Beijing…eerily emptied of cars and people.

Impossible not to think for a moment this post-neutron-bomb scenario enacted a fantasy/dream wish-fulfillment for the sponsor (city hall). It can’t be easy running this place…

Afterwards, the ritual we’ve grown accustomed to: big posed group photos, here with the martial artists–some of whom managed their gravity-defying moves in giant panda costumes. That can’t be easy, either.

Purple Bamboo Park, old bridge

Just outside the park

Bamboo grows in city as well as forest. So we learned walking in a direction we’d never gone before–sideways, on the Third Ring Road. After 15 minutes of overpasses and skyscraper vistas, we hit a scruffy, slouchy, century-old red Buddhist temple on a canal (dwarfted by modernity, a Chinese “Little Red Lighthouse”). Behind it, well hidden, was Purple Bamboo Park–lake, pavillions, bridges, and many large stands of bamboo. Bamboo, said a sign quoting a classical Chinese poem, symbolizes

“Uprightness, imperviousness to flattery, and the ability to emerge unstained from filth.”

Hiking With (100,000) Friends

All together now

Aaaah: the fall foliage hike. Today we and our friends shared this pleasure with a few (million) other people. This is Fragrant Hill, or Xiangshan.

Sharing the journey

It’s half an hour from our apt. Climbing Incense Burner Peak was a real Chinese mountain experience: Stairs, a sea of fellow hikers, stops at man-made features en route (pavillions, pagodas, gardens built 800 years ago). Nearby is a closed military shelter for national leaders in an emergency, attached (they say) by secret tunnel to Tiananmen Sq.
Another difference from hiking at home is how people hang blessing ribbons on trees–for longevity, a happy marriage, prosperity. The mountain isn’t quite 2000 feet in elevation. Still, tiring. Amazing: he found a solitary rock above Glass Pond.

Smiling (Non-)Buddha

Lue Mnjun's enigmantic grins are everywhere.

The smiling work of leading Chinese contemporary artist Yue Minjun is everywhere–huge, grinning self-portraits, often in bubblegum colors. Taking Kenny to an all-day football (soccer) tournament yesterday, passed this. Ethan felt the smiles were genuine, goofy happiness. The Times piece linked above suggests the smiles may be the “illusion of happiness headed toward extinction.” Lue is part of what some call China’s Cynical Realism school, which meets the despair of contemporary urban China sardonically, with a sense of the absurd. Take it straight or metaphorically–Yue’s famous smiles are referencing Buddha’s smile. I don’t pretend to get Beijing life today. But I often think of a student, native of the city whose home was razed as part of the rezoning of low-rise alleys so high-rise towers could rise, who said, “I’m homesick every day.” And of an Edison, NJ dad born here and now back several years, for a hedge fund, who gets lost driving his own hometown.
My students’ latest sets of writing have wrestled the inexplicable delays in banning waste (“sewer”) oil from returning to the food stream; the wrongness of not letting a good candidate who wasn’t hand-picked run for office, and the anger on campus when hundreds of students were forced to “volunteer” for the administration, with work sometimes lasting until midnight, under penalty of disciplinary action. And there’s this. The smog (using the Embassy’s Air Quality Index, or AQI) has been above 400 this week & today, a multiple of emergency health conditions almost impossible to express. I didn’t put Ethan in his mask yesterday because our Chinese playdate didn’t have them. My friend said it was just fog, rolling in before the rain.

Forest Park, beside the Olympic stadia

Breakfast!


Front of campus is jumping at 7:15 when the kids get picked up for school. The action is breakfast. Having caffeinated at home, commuters & students line up for porridge cups, smoothie man, pickles in grilled dough, and famous jianbing (crepes filled with eggs, bean paste, crispy stuff, etc.). It’s a bus stop. Along with my university, there are several publishing houses here. Snapped these with my phone just now. One of a hundred million little neighborhods waking up to something warm.

I am into leek and egg steamed buns, about a dime. She deserves more money for them.
Thank you!

Lost (a personal post)

About having a complete break down and crying in public.

I was to meet my boys after Kenny played a baseball game against the German School, at a spot none of us had ever been to before. We were arriving separately (nearly an hour from my university). My phone ran out of juice. Ethan’s phone was lost. Two different cabs tried to find the spot and both got lost. I wasn’t late, but could one or both boys have been early? Since the spot was hard to find, had Ethan’s driver gotten lost? He’d never been there. He doesn’t speak English. I couldn’t be reached — with a dead cell phone.

I found the spot–another outpost of the British School. My instructions were to find Ethan by a Construction Bank of China “across the street.” There wasn’t one.

How would I find him? Where was he?

And did Kenny really play a game? What if the bad pollution cancelled? Where was he?

Beijing (counting outlying areas) is 90 miles wide. And if he’d played, where would the baseball bus actually stop? School, yards, parking, covered a large area. Sightlines were blocked by office towers and garages. If he’d arrived and not seen me, maybe they took him to the next bus stop–an hour away. How would I know?

Where were my children?

Found.

After calls by lovely people still working at school at 6 pm and many tissues, about 45 minutes later, they turned up. Ethan’s driver had, in fact, gotten lost. And Kenny’s team had lost the game.

Contermporary Art

The 798 Art District is no longer cutting-edge, but still, it’s a glimpse into Beijing’s world-class art scene. I saw both documentary frankness and irony; a multi-pronged social critique. One show depicted a warehouse full of headshots of a sex worker, taken every few minutes all day. There are tons of Mao quotations for sale (on posters, shirts, bags, mousepads). I’m told this is nostalgia (hard for outsiders to understand) along with the irony we get immediately.

“Being a man of ‘noble-minded and pure, a man of moral integrity and above vulgar interests, and a man who is of value to the people.’ ” As a China scholar said during my orientation — Mao didn’t send his son to Harvard Business School, but to die on a battlefield in N. Korea. There’s a KFC logo shirt rendered PRC (People’s Republic of China) with Mao as the Colonel. We liked Chairman Meow, where Mao is a cat.

The British Curriculum

When you’re in Montclair doing the town soccer legue and their motto is, “If you have fun, you won,” well, at the British School of Beijing i wouldn’t go by that.

At Bradford school at recess the aids are making us play tap football and if someone gets injured, it’s go straight to the nurse, no more football for a week. Well, if you went to BSB, it’s totally different. Me and my mates are playing full contact rugby, we are tackling each other and diving for the ball; sometimes a tutor (a teacher) will be refereeing a game and if you are down he will be barking at you yelling, “It’s legal and get your ass off the ground and keep playing!”

Our school uniform is a white button-down shirt a school tie, a sweater with the school insignia on it, a blazer with the insignia on it, a nice pair of trousers, and polished black leather shoes. And the thing is, that is what we are playing rugby in. One time a friend ripped his pants. I ripped my sweater. Another time a teen tried tackling someone, missed, and started crying. I walked him to the nurse.

Back to “If you had fun you won.” Well, that is definitely not true. We have 4 houses: the Romans, I’m in that house, the Normans, the Saxons, and the Vikings. There is a house cup like at Hogwarts and tutors and kids will get angry if they lose and olny 1 house will get a trophy — unlike town league soccer where every single palyer om every team gets a trophy. So BSB is a very athletic school.

On teachers, some are great and a few have a very rude sense of humor, they call a girl in my class “the girl with no brain.” A teacher calls me “sweaty boy” since I play a ton of sports. In Montclair, if they had that sense of humor they would probobly get sued. But some teachers are awesome.

If you think your child is having are hard time in school wait until you hear this: I am required to take 3 hours of intermidate Chinese, which is sometimes hard, plus 2 hours of French a week. If you think the punishments get bad at Bradford, wait until you hear this: if you are late, lunch time detention. If you are bad, after school detention. If you are very bad, weekend dentetion, or worse getting expelled.

Leaving for Beijing

Can one teach journalism and the role of social media without mentioning the Arab Spring?

What can you feed a family of four using the only cooking tool available in the faculty apartment (a hotplate)?

How many size-13 men’s shoes, boots and ice skates get into suitcases before you exceed Continental’s  per person weight limit?

For answers to these questions and more, see you on coplansinchina.