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.


Anonymous Mom said...

So good to hear from you. This is fascinating. Please write more. Happy Easter. Saving Peeps for you. Love, Mom

15 April, 2006 23:32  

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