Next installment: Wednesday.
I've lost track of the date. Crazy how that eventually happens. We rushed home from the antiques market excursion because Linda began having intense stomach pain (I've now started with either sympathetic pain or it's hitting me too but not so bad), and took nearly an hour in the taxi, even though it looked on the map as though that's near where I walked yesterday and took only 40 minutes to walk it! Beijing traffic is sooooo bad. Much worse than LA or NY, but Brett is right that there is no road rage here—everyone is so cheerful about it. Honking horns, but in good spirits. Not that smiles are common in Beijing, they are rare birds. The singing club yesterday surprised us with that. Linda is ok, though, I think. Dawei went to pharmacy downstairs and got the equivalent of Pepto-Bismo. We had lunch at a Sichuan restaurant, also Yunnan food. One dish of radish sprouts (not what we thought we ordered—Linda thought it was pea shoots from the picture—she could read it but thought she just didn't pay close enough attention) was very, very spicy.
This morning was another temple, White Cloud Temple. Taoist. The god of wealth had its worshipers, and then the same people walked across the way to the god of good luck, of official rank, of long life, and of good health, of heaven, of water, of earth, etc. One god for each thing, and many others, too. When you think about it, they ARE all different. We began discussing which we would rather have, if we could only have one or two. We rubbed the monkey (supposed to be good luck), also. The question is whether the religions follow the culture, or vice versa. How could one decide? Beautiful architecture, colorful paint everywhere. Little muted or drab. Definitely Chinese. Shiny gold leaf, bright blue, deep green, flashy red. Intricately painted in historical patterns. A whole country undergoing renovation all at once.
True to her word, Anna (Brett's wife and my new friend) arranged for me to meet with a journalist friend of hers, Lee Chin**. She came to the hotel with him and we sat over tea and juices while chatting for hours. She had to do translation duty because Linda was still not up to joining us, but Anna did very well. Amazing considering she only spent a couple of years in the US. Joining in with her own opinions and experiences as well, Anna turned out to be a great "informant" (in the social anthropological sense) also, so I got the yin and yang. In the course of the delightful conversation, so open and unguarded, I warmed to them both and took copious notes. Actually transcribing this may have to wait till I have more leisure, but some highlights, and I may have misinterpreted them in some areas because my notes on re-reading are incomplete and confusing at times:
Lee, although only 36, is a senior editor with a newspaper that is a Communist Party organ. He's never been abroad, but has many friends who have (mostly the US), and he would love to travel—to Germany, France, Russia, Japan. Not the US? No, he feels that he knows it too well already, from his friends and all the information about it, whereas the other places are still a mystery. He would like to live abroad, but has "given up." While he was a student in Beijing University, he had a chance to go abroad, but didn't, because he "just wanted to know more about China itself." But he'd like to go now. "When I was younger, I didn't understand that I should go outside."
His opinion about the changes in China, all around him? External change is great, even extreme, but internally, it is very slow, too slow. Buildings are demolished, chaos reigns physically, but attitudes and policies have not kept pace. Most Chinese are morbidly anxious all the time, about their lives, what will happen, survival, their children's education, their houses. Three mountains loomed before them to be surmounted: education, housing, medical care. Worry is constant, and no one feels secure. I was amazed they even (in their 30s) worry about retirement—with the world changing so much, why worry about something decades from now? But symbolic, perhaps, of their state of mind. He quoted a popular saying, roughly translated as "Don't let children fail at the starting line." When children are barely born, maybe even in the womb, education is paramount in their parent's worry. With all this anxiety, worry, stress is a constant companion. Brett had mentioned stress as being a huge factor in his life, so even for business people, it must be true. Anna pitched in that her overriding impression of people's mindset differences between Chinese and Americans is that Americans enjoy life more (and yet many Americans I know feel very stressed). Chinese think you must be successful, then you can be happy, both Lee and Anna said, yet both of them personally felt happiness was more important, if you felt confident and did what you wanted, success would come.
Formerly a senator in the local congress, Lee talked about his experiences with that, and with feeling stifled editorially about what he could say or not. Better than "before", yet still not acceptable, he felt, freedom of speech was paramount on his wish-list. What is first on his wife's wish-list, I asked (he has a wife who teaches Chinese to foreigners and a 7-year-old son). "Money." Mainly money for education—the special education extras that mean their son will excel in the intense competition with all the other children: art lessons, Olympic math, music, sports, etc. Apparently one must collect "points" beyond excellent grades to get into the prestigious high schools and colleges (sound familiar to you American parents?). Nominally free, primary education (9 years) costs parents plenty for the special lessons (and kindergarten and high school is not free). Not entirely mythology, Chinese millionaires are also not as prevalent as the myth. When ordinary citizens, such as Lee buys a house (he has one), they incur a big mortgage. His bank, for example, must be paid 2,000 rmb per month. Not much of a stretch, but it locks him into his current job. Dreams of going free-lance to write his novels, his science articles, his book reviews are shelved. Yet, of course, the value of his apartment is increasing all the time—I think perhaps he can later sell his house and do as he likes in a smaller city (he says things are easier outside Beijing). He's the oldest of four children, including a younger brother, a doctor in a smaller city where the pressure and stress is not as great.
Doctors, it turns out, do not enjoy a high salary, being government employees. If medical care is free, why the universal worry about medical care and lack of insurance? Apparently a "tip" system not only greases the palms of all doctors but ensures that (if they participate—who admits to such an illegal practice), the costs of "free" medical care are skyrocketing. To get the "attention" of the doctor, one needs to "tip" them. What if people complain, what is the penalty? Extreme, if anyone ever did, but who would risk alienating the very person who could save your life or your loved one's when you need it most? The "iron rice bowl" of the past, if it truly did exist for the ordinary citizen, is broken now. How to protect the rights of workers, of children to education? All children are special, unique, he says, but the educational system has one standard, one program, which everyone is taught. Teaching to pass the tests is the main goal, and nothing out of the ordinary is included. Anna cited her friend's hyperactive, super-intelligent son as an example: his teachers asked him to stay out of the school because of his unruly behavior. Anna, with the help of Brett's company games, decided that he was just bored, and could actually excel if taught properly to his strengths. She suggested her friend send him to a private school, but even finding one that doesn't do the same curriculum is tough. Even if you want to teach your own children is not so easy, you encounter a lot of resistance from others, who are critical of your way. Anna strikes me as able to buck criticism and find her own path.
What is the way forward for China? Lee says, "it is hard to say. China will be special in the world, unique. Special does not mean good or bad, but just different, he cannot see exactly the nature, and if he can't, perhaps no one else can imagine what it will really be, either." When it is crushed, you have to rebuild, which will be a good way for China in the future. He's optimistic about this future, because Chinese people are adept at many things. I told him some people are saying China is the only country which may be challenging the U.S.'s hegemony in the world. Interpreting this militarily, he disagreed. But when I clarified that these people meant economically, he considered. Anna asked whether the U.S. isn't the one benefiting from the cheap Chinese labor, but I'm not sure I agree with that, since much cash is flowing to China from the trade imbalance. Together they told me: "One Chinese is a dragon but a group of Chinese is a worm," a rough translation of a current favorite Chinese saying, basically meaning that one Chinese is very smart, but they don't work well in a team. But my own observation is the contrary—Chinese teamwork , possibly because of their collective past, is unparalleled. Maybe it is poor compared to the past, but not if you look at other countries. We had a long discussion about this which I'm not sure I can do justice to, but clearly they are making sense of this and adjusting to a new reality, critical of both. Is selfishness human nature, or trained?
Anna: In the past, many people were selfish, but that part of their motive was hidden beneath the opposite rhetoric. If each person does his best, then China will be greater. Are men and women equal in China? (Everyone is familiar with Women Hold Up Half the Sky and the attempt to make women equal).
Lee: yes, I believe they are equal, and some women are treated very well, even spoiled, treated nicer than men.
Anna: I don't think so, but in my life, I try to ask for equal opportunity, even though sometimes I am refused the chance. When I graduated [from college], I went to the government, and said I do not want to do just "female" jobs, I can do many things better than men. Although sometimes I was not treated fairly, I insisted I can do it. Maybe journalists get paid equal.
Lee admitted that all leaders of the newspaper are male, and many more in government and at the upper echelons, entirely male. Maybe women don't like politics. Some don't want to be aggressive, and are softer, more humble, but not because of policy. He did admit that members of each gender may see things differently, and we moved on. The imbalance of boys and girls: a terrible thing, and both said the population policy should change (I was the only one who brought up the problem of too many people—with an expanding economy, overpopulation isn't so obviously problematic). Lee said the solution might be that men would have to steal other men's wives. I'm still not sure if this was a joke or a mistranslation. He would like to have a girl, to keep the balance. Anna was curious about whether this imbalance might be true everywhere in the world, but skeptically accepted that the opposite is true. Both agreed that the rich aren't limited to one child, especially business people who wouldn't lose their jobs over it—a fine of about 50,000 rmb and being fired are the sanctions for having a second child (in the city—country people can have more under certain circumstances).
The biggest problem is how to cope with [the extreme, constant] change. Lee shared that college classmates of his who went to America and returned, said they can't accept China. America is more stable, while everything here is changing too fast, a bit crazy, makes them crazy.
Anna: China has a lot of opportunity, but I'd like to stay more quiet.
Lee's parents are peasants, in jiangxi province. They own land, but are waiting for him for everything. They are "old and can't do anything anymore" (could they be older than me?—he's younger than my two older children). Both Anna and Lee were born in 1970. Lee's younger brother is a medical doctor in a medium-sized city, and his income is low (defined as less than 3000 rmb per month). Anna's parents work for the electric company, and have good medical insurance. She says they give money to her brother, but not to her, although she gives money to them. Both agreed girls have no "duty" to support or help their parents, however. Lee's parents want to live with Lee, but his wife doesn't want it.
(I'll try to add more from the notes from this conversation later.)
Two long taxi rides today through a giant's forest of massive, gargantuan buildings. They are so many, and so big! Mile after mile of them, most of them different, although occasionally there are a dozen or so by the same pattern clustered together. First we went to the north part of Beijing to a 6-story building filled with all kinds of electronic and electrical media: computers, cellphones, ipods, dvds, software, TV's, etc. Dawei got his Chinese programs (Vista, Photoshop, etc.), we wandered around awhile amid the forest of beckoning salespeople and brands, and gratefully left the blaring noise behind. At one point I couldn't contain my mirth at the image of us walking down a row of animatronic robots which come to life as we walk by, spouting their sales messages, and go dark as we continue past. It's so like that! You can't look at anything without two or three salespeople dogging your every step, suggesting this and that. Navigating the street amidst the crowd of people, cars, motorcycles, wheeled carts, we finally reached the Mongolian restaurant, merely across the street and up to the third floor. But it felt like a journey!
The food was worth it: Mongolian hot pot, which is a dish of simmering on a stove in the middle of the table (even sometimes boiling) broth (flavored with ginger, ginseng, garlic, leeks, and sometimes peppers) into which you drop whatever things you ordered: thin, thin slices of meat, cabbage, mushrooms, tofu, tofu skins, etc. Delicious, but overate again! Our eyes are always bigger than our stomachs, an apt expression my mom used to say.
Last night we went to Lee Chin's house in the north of the city. More than an hour in the cab past gargantuan buildings, thousands of them marching along the road, and away from us in every direction. Beautiful ones, neon-lit ones, elegant ones, ugly ones, old ones, new ones: ten New York cities have been added since I was here before, it seems. When we arrived, seemingly at the end of the city (but no end in sight), 30 or 40 buildings (possibly as many as 100) obviously by the same architect, built at the same time, rose majestically from streets and paved courtyards. Small vendors sold food from carts, small shops housing seamstresses or convenient stores occupied the first floors, two or three restaurants anchored the main streets. Lee met us at the bus stop (the cab driver missed it and overshot) and led us through a maze to his building, his 17th floor, his door. He told me three years ago this area was a small village, he bought his apartment a bit more than two years ago. Two bedrooms, a study, kitchen, bathroom, and a large Ping-Pong table dominating the main living room,which also held a couch, their dining table, chairs, the walls lined with shelves and closets, and capped with an alcove of windows hanging over 17 floors above the street, which doubled as their clothes drying area. Cozy and beautiful, but still very compact, with the shower, sink, toilet for example in a 5x5 square.
His wife was gracious, petite and pretty, his son handsome and boisterous, delighted with the attention of five adults. She spoke English well, but most of conversation drifted to Chinese. My understanding is improving, but too slowly—Linda graciously continues as my main translator, for which I am very grateful. Over tea and cookies, we chatted awhile about their lives and ours, filling in the gaps.
Lee's wife teaches Chinese to foreign students at the #1 institute for that in Beijing. More than an hour's travel, by bus and then subway, from their respective jobs, they take turns coming home by 4:30 for their son. He attends school five days a week from 7:30 a.m. to 4:30, usually attending after-school (art, special tutoring, etc.) only on Fridays. Lee often works from home, writing in his study and sending in his stories over high-speed internet. Lee has a way with words even in English, which is improving even over two days I've known him. I was deeply touched when he referred to our conversation of the previous evening, saying that he could tell I loved Chinese people and culture. The poetic ring he gave it I cannot recreate . Despite his criticism of his country, he said, he wanted to make clear that he was proud to be Chinese and loved his country also. It is his business, his livelihood, to be critical, an idea which his wife reinforced. Perhaps they discussed it a bit, and his comments to me, worrying that I would misunderstand. I don't think I did, but the language barrier is strong.
Lee's son is only seven, but reads very well (at 5th level even though he is only first level, they said), reading aloud Peter Pan (in Chinese) to us before we left. From the living room, we proceeded to the nearby restaurant, simple, with pictures of the food above the ordering counter, no tablecloths but with waitress, not self-serve. The food was also simple, northern style with noodles (zha zha mein and beef noodles), zhou (rice soup, mung bean soup), a fried sesame bun with sweet bean paste inside, steamed wrapped meat and mushroom. So much they took four containers home. The little boy read the characters on a small sign on the table, trying to teach me to say them, but I was a poor student, never quite getting the tones or sounds right (in the noisy restaurant), and despite his saying them louder and louder, I would never quite succeed to his satisfaction. He was bold and confident, and probably had trouble understanding why this grownup couldn't even read as well as he could. He walked (or ran) home alone after dinner, something American parents like them (middle class) probably wouldn't allow, but it was the suburbs, not the city, perhaps some at home would. We returned to the apartment briefly to play a bit of ping-pong and a bit more conversation before catching another cab home. The four hour-long cabs we took that day hovered around 45 rmb, about $8, not much money, but a lot of time in small, seat-belt-less cars. We didn't mind so much, though, despite the harrowing traffic, because each driver took a different route, giving us extensive views of Beijing.
Yesterday rain finally hit while we were at breakfast in Hou's Wonton, today we awoke to grey skies and bone-wearied bodies. Taking off the morning, we're still deciding what to do with the rest of the day, but a break feels good. Overwhelmed with information and experiences. I look down from the hotel window at the street-sweepers and the pedestrians. A different approach to cleaning, Beijing's army of street-sweepers, brooms and ashcans in hand, roam tirelessly all day into the evening, sweeping in all weather. Mechanical street-sweeping vehicles, smaller than the US but bigger than France's miniatures, wend their way through traffic and parked cars, without apparent schedules or alternative-side parking restrictions. The result is that Beijing is very clean, despite its loess-laden winds and armies of tourists and residents. Red banners strung between trees or on buildings urge residents to treat the city like their own home and keep it clean. Occasionally these banners also remind people to watch their bikes and other belongings, or to consider the army the people's friend. Trash collectors on bicycles or motored bikes with flat-bed backs or bins call for various varieties of trash as they ply the hutongs or cross traffic on the dajie's (large streets). Apparently pretty much everything is recycled.
I ended up taking a couple of hours' walk through the neighborhood—the luxury hotels (the Peninsula, the Regent, the Park Plaza), the Waveform (designed by a New York architect) which is a many-floored "restaurant and rooms for resting, but not a hotel" (according to the young woman who "helped me [barred my way]" in the lobby, the hutongs just behind the hotels, with their small restaurants, beauty shops, public toilets, shabby local residences. Here, one block will resemble the most upscale NY places, and just behind, Africa at its shabbiest. The contradiction is sharp.
**Note, I've changed some people's names to protect their identities.