There they’ll stay

Legality is fuzzily defined in China. It’s how I imagine things were here in the States in the earlier parts of the twentieth century, when instead of having clear divisive cans and cannots, whether or not something could be done depended on how much money one was willing to spend. I never complained. I took advantage of the system when I was there, working semi-legally, paying taxi drivers to take me places I wasn’t supposed to be, handing off sums for after-hours head CTs. Conveniences.

Most of the time, nothing happens, not even when the police are in vicinity watching with amused eyes. They themselves are likely on the beneficiary end of this long chain of conveniences. Yet, once in a while, probably due to Party pressure, or some local leader acting to show his power, the authorities like to make a demonstration, an example, out of some unlucky fool who had pushed the boundaries too many times to escape a bad draw.

Street food vending is for the large part, unregulated. I mean, who in their right mind complains about the availability of delicious food at all hours of the day, and night, around every neighborhood and street corner? Although I’ve never seen an on-duty officer eating at one of these spots, I’m sure every last one has slurped and sweated away long nights under those same steamy canopies. Since there’s no discussion on whether these stands are beneficial, the question becomes whether they are legal. Probably not, at least not the meals-on-wheels or fully-lined-bed-sheet-ready-to-swing-over-the-shoulders-as-soon-as-the-smell-of-law-enforcement-hits variety. Once in a while though, a quick getaway is impossible, and the entire herd watches as a dozen or so officers (where do they all appear from?) sloppily break down the whole affair. It’s a medium-paced destruction of salvaged construction material, plywood, aluminum siding, maybe a glossy signage or two, and the purveyor(s), usually a sad-looking middle-aged couple with ruddy cheeks and rough hands. They are never confrontational; the risk comes with the territory, and there’s an unspoken knowledge that they will be back to it again in no time.

Bystanders pass by with a lingering gaze or two. This is commonplace. When I was in Beijing last month, I witnessed such an event, yet another familiar sight to add to my brimming case of nostalgia. But it was when I pulled out my phone (blasted smart phones with camera capabilities) to take a picture when I realized that maybe this wasn’t just some ordinary event, deemed perfectly acceptable for the masses to see. The advent of pocket-sized film and photo technology in recent years has led to unpopular and potentially damaging social critique headlines the likes of “Two-year old Girl Ran Over By Van and Ignored By 18 Bystanders,” “Chinese Politician’s Son Dies in Ferrari Sex Orgy Crash,” and so forth. No official wants to become the next Li Gang, or whoever has taken the place of that meme in recent years (I haven’t kept up). Maybe it was reactionary then, as I whipped out my phone and snapped a few fuzzy stills, that the officer in charge who had been standing to the side would notice, trudge up to me, and ask me what I thought I was doing. There was an honest burst of fear as I quickly lowered and dropped my phone back in my pocket. Anxieties followed in waves. Would he take my phone? Would he require that I remove all evidence or smash it if I refused or even hesitated? Would he take my name, ask for my identification only to learn that I was not a Chinese citizen? Would I be black-listed from the country? A bit extreme, that last one, but as he stood there and told me not to forget who I am, who my heart belongs to (China.), I could feel myself getting cold. “Don’t forget,” he said before turning away from me.

Diaoyutai

Anti-Japanese sentiments in China are strong these days. Recent developments were long time coming, the result of the buildup of years and years of resentment, layered over a tempestuous history, spurred on as younger generations grow increasingly frustrated with the complacency of their elders and the political leaders who represent them. Some of the mob actions are borderline barbarous and contemptuous, but only confirm the hostility that still runs rampant since the end of the war.

The latest battle over Diaoyutai/Senkaku certainly looks to be a political maneuver; the location and potential for resources are a great draw for all parties involved. However, the reasons behind China’s actions may be more domestic in nature. Recent “weak” displays in foreign policy leave the Chinese leadership in an uncomfortable situation, desperate to prove to the restless masses that they are not still struggling to find their footing on the international playground. There is a lot of concern that China does not command respect from her peers, that she has not displayed the same sort of presence that her gigantic population, economy, and bed of resources ought to. Internally, the party still struggles with inconsistency, corruption, and the like, truths which cannot be veiled simply by economic success in numbers.

Ultimately, there is still something to prove. Enough dissidence shake people in their Feiyue boots, and a broiling tide of discontent struggles beneath the curtain of censorship and state media. Picking a fight in the East China Sea seems a logical outlet, a way to redirect the flames, especially when the enemy is a well-known and equally well-hated one. This was going to be a domestic success before it even started.

Still, the act cannot shake the appearance of comedy. Like an overgrown schoolyard bully who picks a fight because his new physical prowess grants him the right, China is obligated to flex her muscles, but immature for fulfilling the stereotype. And why is the US playing such a provocative part in all this? Stoking the fire for yet another confrontation only feeds our characterization as a warmonger, and goes nowhere in changing the ugly, ugly Sino-Japanese reality that the US played a large part in building.

River fractal

噫吁戏,危乎高哉!
蜀道之难,难于上青天!
蚕丛及鱼凫,开国何茫然。
尔来四万八千岁,不与秦塞通人烟。
西当太白有鸟道,可以横绝峨眉巅。
地崩山摧壮士死,然后天梯石栈相钩连。
上有六龙回日之高标,下有冲波逆折之回川。
黄鹤之飞尚不得过,猿猱欲度愁攀援。
青泥何盘盘,百步九折萦岩峦。
扪参历井仰胁息,以手抚膺坐长叹。
问君西游何时还,畏途躔岩不可攀。
但见悲鸟号古木,雄飞雌从绕林间。
又闻子规啼夜月,愁空山,蜀道之难,难于上青天!
使人听此凋朱颜。
连峰去天不盈尺,枯松倒挂倚绝壁。
飞湍瀑流争喧虺,砰崖转石万壑雷。
其险也如此,嗟尔远道之人胡为乎哉!
剑阁峥嵘而崔嵬,一夫当关,万夫莫开。
所守或匪亲,化为狼与豺。
朝避猛虎,夕避长蛇,磨牙吮血,杀人如麻。
锦城虽云乐,不如早还家。
蜀道之难,难于上青天!侧身西望长咨嗟。

李白这首诗真是令我赞叹,很后悔没有利用去年的大好时机去一趟四川。也是,这么多年,这么多机会,其实是可以在三峡水坝建成之前去。但是这一篇历史也随水淹没了,现在的长江已不是昔日的长江,而当年险峻的三峡流域也已被人降伏。

Transported by words to some near and distant past, when women beat laundry on the shore and two rows of burly men on either coast sing and heave a struggling boat upriver against the current. A poet stands on the bow looking through the torrential fog, pondering danger, how this is the only mode of transportation up the Yangtze River valley into Sichuan, and luck, who has allowed him to survive this journey twice.

Indeterminant

Sometimes we give it a day, sometimes a week, sometimes more. I’m speaking of mourning, departure, goodbyes.

This is it, Beijing; our illustrious love affair, it is coming to its close. It’s hard to know how much emphasis one should place on the whole idea of departure. Too much, and it would seem that one couldn’t let go; too little, and the entire foray becomes insignificant. But really, this is the portion I both love and dread. This begins the process during which all the negatives are forgotten and only blurry, romantic images of wonderful past times remain. I envision myself regaling with the occasional anecdote when people ask: ah yes, worldly people, hidden hutongs, immense personal growth, it was all provided to me by this city. Was it? Was it the city, or was it the times?

What was it that I got here which I couldn’t have gotten elsewhere? The whole experience, why, of course. But in reality, the weight of the ordeal lies in the fact that these were my personal experiences. They affect me so because I lived through them. Still, as a firm believer in chance, I like attempting to puzzle meaning into what could be simply interpreted as a slapdash of random encounters. As humans, we need to give meaning to our happenings.

So, wonderful, really, is what I want to say about it. Thanks for a great time.

Location: Beijing, China

Photos on the road

Apparently summer is just not conducive to blogging, at least for me. In the past two or so months, I’ve been busy dashing back and forth between all sorts of places and Beijing. Memorable cities, mountains, people, conversations…just very memorable.

Photos:
Hong Kong
Taipei
Singapore
JB, Malaysia
Gansu (甘肃)

And a few shots of the great wilderness that was Southern Gansu:

What’s to become of all this?

I’ve made it thus far, and I’m making plans for all the craziness which is to come. There are things to focus on, things to enjoy, things to get better at. Beijing has suddenly transformed into a muggy, imposing blanket of dust and dirty water, and my ideas are floating up on the bog like bodies locked in during the lengthy months of winter. One expected and unexpected text message, and a night out, unplanned, a mug of frosty beer, covered in condensate, squeezed between a host of dear people, and one business idea is born and dealt. A night’s sleep and a day’s planning indicated that it was definitely too good to pass up. But still, this is insane, what am I thinking? I’m already way into the future with this thing, with all the possibilities of what it could be.

I feel like this is the way ideas always go: the crazy ones are all over the field and the good ones are rare. But when I stumble upon the one rare poppy in the middle of a poisonous field, how do I know? How do I realize what is calling out to me? How do I decide what to pursue or how to pursue it?

I remember when I first came back to China, I learned an important piece of advice. When you’re young, you can afford to fail, but when you’re forty, or fifty, or so, it’s no longer an option. It’s true; it’s only now: family-less, commitment-less, when I can do these things. And well, all this timing seems too perfect for some great cosmic joke, so I guess I’ll just ride the wave and see when it breaks.

Location: Beijing, China

It’s a sea of red

I had heard or possibly read somewhere a few days ago that the Chinese government was cracking down on cellular phone calls. If a person were to mention the word revolution or uprising more than twice, the phone call would be spontaneously dropped. The entire idea of this seemed laughable to me; why would a regime so concerned with uprising terminate the call instead of listening in on the details. I suppose, in a telecom-based world, backed by an insistent and seemingly impenetrable firewall, the act of preventing information flow is enough to keep an uprising from existing. Seriously, though, I had wondered whether it was true, and as I brought up the subject with some friends during lunch, we mutinously picked up our phones and repeated back those keywords.

My call wasn’t dropped, but this didn’t quell the suspicion that calls were being dropped in other places, during conversations that weighed a lot more than mine. In all honesty though, the threat of popular revolution in China is so undeniably low right now. People are happy, oblivious to the sorts of freedoms they are lacking. As much as one man is willing to mock the injustices of the communist regime, another hundred or thousand stand up to attest to the fact that the economy is in great shape and that the standard of living is higher than ever before. No one talks about how things still suck outside of the major cities, how people are still being shunted out of their homes, how rivers are being diverted and used for their energy producing capabilities, with little to no regard for the people and cultures which live and depend on them. And this is success to some degree, in the way that the goal of the system is to prevent people from talking, to make them complacent, to give the rich enough that they live on happily, and to give the poor just enough to placate them. The middle class, what small middle class that exists here, is so busy making enough money to afford a place to live and send their ambivalent children to the best schools that there’s little attempt or effort to change anything.

Life isn’t great here, but history has shown time and time again that all of a society need not be great in order to persist or grow. And of course, just good enough is hardly a revolutionary condition.

Location: Beijing, China

Qing Ming

清明时节雨纷纷

“Qing ming shi jie yv fen fen…”

The Qing Ming festival is best embodied with rain and wind. A cloudy day for a cloudy occasion, I suppose. Enough wind to swirl up fires, scattering tattered embers every which way, the smell of incense, candles, fire, pervading every pore of air. Because this is a day for honoring the dead, and the dead speak to us through the wind.

Of course, Beijing is not much of a Southern city. It hardly ever rains here, or even gets cloudy. It’s dry, hot, and clear in a most hazy way. But even then, weather seemed cooperative on this day. The sky was overcast, a muddy, sullen grey. Sweater weather, dangerous to arthritics, with a tinge of cold that seeps into the bone as a mild spring cowers around the corner.

As I shivered on the streets on my way home, I passed by a bridge, cast over with the impending evening darkness. But the water was aglow. Every few meters down the entire length of this bridge, at least as far as I could see, the warm glow of fire, eating away at piles of paper and letters, crackled in the air. A cool breeze, broken with the heat of flames, billowed into my face and hair; embers flew up and swirled around me, and in that moment, I could hear the world howl.

Location: Beijing, China

In need of some tweaking

Balanced. What an important thing to be, what a difficult thing to achieve. I’ve often been in the search for something like it: to be aware, to be in tune, to be at peace in certain ways. And I, compared to most people, prefer to be in a state of flux, to be in the process of searching as opposed to resting on something that is found. In this blur of over-thinking, push and pull, and stimulus, I have chosen the setting of these crises to be Beijing, an absolute ideological cesspool. But the thing that is wonderful is, nearly all the foreign-born and foreign-raised people I have met here seem to be in that same constant state of existential crisis, which when brought together, compounds into something quite lovely, youthful, and wrenching.

I think of it as a renewed sort of spring awakening. The winter killed me, brought about all sorts of negative thoughts about the world, both here and there and the rest of it, disaster, cold, gut-churning uncertainty — but as the earth flips over and turns green again, I find a certain profound happiness is returning to my being, my individual. I like to think about these questions, questions with no answers, where I’m coming from and where I’m going to, what is my part, what is my plan, what, why, how, where, and especially when all these things will fall into place. Coming here has really thrown into relief how much of an idealist I really am. I pride myself on it, whether it be negative or positive.

I need a tune up, I need to reflect on myself, how I’ve grown and what I’ve learned. I need to stop saying yes so much. I need sunlight. I need to make some decisions.

Location: Beijing, China