Monday, April 17, 2006

Tropical Iceland

Beijing is interesting because, despite its general widespread apathy of most of its residents for internationalism, learning English, et cetera, and also despite the in general communist suppression of the totally free expression of dissidence, religion and certain other dangerous ideas and art-forms, it remains a relatively remarkably cosmopolitan city. Currently two of my former teammates from UPS rowing are here in Beijing, one working as a resident assistant and an administrative coordinator for International Exchange Studies (a small, low paid position in a large inefficient study abroad corporation), the other teaching English professionally at a night university. Among the educated elite, English is common and European friends or knowledge of international culture can mean status. I had not really expected this, until I went to an opera for which one of my ex-teammates was singing in the chorus. The tickets said Forbidden City concert hall and indeed, the concert hall was within the ancillary park adjacent to the old imperial palace, the symbolic center of the power of imperial china. Naturally, the hall was quite nice. There was an interesting mixture of Chinese and foreigners in formal wear, suits, dresses and such. Not to make us felt left out, there were also a number of students of cultural universities who had heard of the performance or where friends of one of the performers who were slightly more modestly (read slovenly) dressed. The opera was co-sponsored by the Italian embassy, which had flown in several professional singers from a local opera company in Italy, and attracted a wide range of Europhiles.

Being friends of one of the singers, we were also invited to an after-dinner for the singers and ensemble members, which was also interesting. We meet the incredibly drunk and flamingly British conductor, who spent a good portion of the later half of the dinner conducting a mixture of incredibly drunk chorus members and the almost as drunk women friends of the chorus members in a range of songs which are likely to be ruined forever for all present. The dinner was amazing also for the fact that, while costing $12.50 for cast members and the general public, it only cost us students $3.75 and included all you can it sushi, steak, seafood pasta along with a variety of other dishes. In short, economics is quickly making Beijing one of my favorite places to visit. We also met a few people who are quickly becoming the premiere generation of the Chinese version of the Japanese business man – incessantly and drunkenly climbing social ladders.

The next morning I managed – through friends – to locate an ex-pat church in order to go to Easter services. The church itself is rather idiosyncratic which is to be assumed considering our location. It was located in the basement conference room of Tower C of the Raycom Commercial Complex; one of the scores of clusters of modern skyscrapers that dominate Beijing. We were asked to bring a passport which would be checked at the door. “We need a passport to go to church? Where the heck are we, communist China?” …well, yes, actually… oh, well then, here you go. The church was based on the ex-pat community in China, so the services were in English and attracted an awesome diversity of people from a range of churches, including just about any American church you can think of, including Mormon and Mennonite and Quaker, along with a significant amount of people from Malaysia, Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Indonesia and the Philippines. But, just how everything about Asia attracts a sizable amount of people who were not considered “normal” in their home countries, the congregation was streaked with some less than desirable trends that might preclude any more visits to that church in particular. All the same, the tradition that the church did maintain was most comforting on a Easter Sunday away from home.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

A is for Action

China, the old saying goes, is crazy. After two months in India, China appears to run like a swiss clock, or really, for that matter, any part of Switzerland. Beijing is gearing up like mad-person in order to meet impress the world with its success at the Beijing 2008 summer Olympic Games. The streets have been doubled in width in the last three years, almost all the poorer neighborhoods have been bulldozed in order to build cleaner looking highrises to house the slums and almost all the signs are now written both in Chinese Characters and “pinyin:” the Romanized Chinese phonetic alphabet which is easier for westerners to use. A score of modern museums have sprung up in the last five years and the old standby tourist attractions are receiving major overhauls. When we went to the forbidden city, the traditional two square mile completely self contained imperial city of the last two dynasties, the main exterior temple/throne room was receiving a major renovation and most of the auxiliary houses and offices for the old imperial civil service were being revamped into mini-museums displaying Qing dynasty vases, jewelry or military regalia. At the summer palace that we went to yesterday, every sign was receiving a English translation and every little cluster of buildings was being converted to something to enhance the tourist experience. Renovations seems so prevalent I will probably, before too long, learn the Chinese for “Excuse our mess” simply by osmosis.
This, you might now, is a dramatic change from the insular china of the last five decades. Of any country we’ve been too, China seems to be the least concerned with tourism. Tourist don’t come here, almost no one knows a lick of English and English menus are almost unheard of outside of the extremely isolated and well delineated tourist districts. Even “Putonghua,” the common dialect of mandarin that is supposed to be a standard Chinese is not well spoken or understood by many Chinese people in Beijing. And as a westerner, having only learned Putonghua, this is most distressing.
For example, all the taxi drivers are supposed to learn survival English in time for the Olympic Games or lose their license. This being more than 18 months away and china being china, this has yet to happen and, at least a little bit, my survival Chinese comes in handy when trying to get to where we want to go. But, when I try on rely on my spoken Chinese and not written directions, most drivers, who have a hard time understanding putonghua and can only speak Beijinghua, or the Beijing dialect of mandarin, there is almost no understanding. Occasionally I run into a driver who speaks clear, slow and common dialect and it’s almost like he’s speaking English.
China, or at least Beijing, is astoundingly like America. A democratic spirit has infused many aspects of Chinese society after years of communist ideology. The girls on the trip have noticed it the most. As opposed to feeling like objects, women here fell relatively independent and safe. Hierarchies are more subtle in China, much the same as in America. And everyone says hello to everyone. There’s still a lot of racism, at least in Beijing, directed at the new immigrants from rural china, who have been arriving in mass in the last decades. Also, strangely, most Beijing people seem to genuinely like America or at least Americans. I don’t know if this is a result of several public campaigns to induce a spirit of western-style courtesy in time for the Olympic Games, or the result of growing economic ties and greater common interest (China is seeking to become an Eastern hegemony in similar manner to America’s western hegemony). People like talking to me in either English or in Chinese, just to see where I’m from or what I think about various topics.