Friday, December 28, 2007

Home is a happy dog

I am back from china, and it is hard to describe what it is like to come home and see this...


I left Beijing at 5:25pm on wednesday December 26th and landed in Chicago on Wednesday December 26th at 3:45pm.. yes the wonders of time zones meant i travelled back into time. This sort of flight can and did take its toll on my internal body clock.. especially when the flight homoe was populated by crying babies.

My last day in Beijing i ran around the city trying to shop and explore outside of the tourist sites. A friend of mine also arranged for her cousin to meet me and i got to see the nightlife of the city a bit more. Aside from burning my mouth and stomach with Hunan food, we saw a group of chinese couples gathered to dance outside in the park (in sub freezing temps). They all obviously knew how to swing dance... however the music was country.

here is a picture..

Anyhow, since this is my last post i wanted to share some of my observations and insights on my trip.

1) Ice water is unhealthy for you... at least according to the Chinese. I found it impossible to ever order ice water, even when a waiter or waitress gave in and said they would give me ice water... they just played a game of attrition, pretended not understand me, and protected my health even if i didn't know better.

2) Chinese people don't all lookalike. that may sound like a strange thing to say, but i honestly couldn't see all the variation and differences in chineseness until i went to china. It took a few days before my asian radar was hopelessly broken.. you know what i mean, the radar that kicks in when you walk into a room and try and find your brethren in a sea of white people. However.. there was some comfort in knowing this.. i never saw anyone that looked like me.. so i now declare that i am at least one in a billion.. yes, not one in a million, but one in a billion. Thank you. And the fact that i look young.. is not just an asian thing. Most of the chinese thought i was at least 8-10 years younger than i am. (oh yeah....)

3)The Chicago Transit Authority sucks when compared to the world. Hong Kong is extremely impressive and even Beijing's subways and buses were clearly more efficient and technologically advanced. Most of the buses had tvs and it was impossible to wait more than 3 minutes for a train in either city. FIX THE CTA!

4) People don't care about whether or not you are an american... unless they think they can get more money from you. When i first planned for the trip, i was wary of calling myself an american, it was a strange mixture of worry about being deemed the "imperialist" and being looked at as a source of easy cash. However, my dress took care of the concerns about being seen as a cash cow (everyone thought i was a student at best.. who said that the "shabby look" doesn't have advantages?). Most people were more fascinated that i looked chinese but ocouldn't speak chinese rather than the fact that i was american. People didn't give a damn.

5) Pollution is scarey. I already wrote about air quality.. so instead i'll show you. This is a picture of the sun.

mind you this wasn't dawn or dusk.. but 1:00pm... doesn't the sun make you want to go and pet it and soothe it?

6)The world is quickly starting to look like a giant template... you know how everyone gets mad at how the new parts of the city look like they all came out of cookie cutters? Well, i think the world is starting to look like it.

would you be able to tell that this was Beijing and not a view of Chicago, Boston, or New York if i didn't tell you?

don't misunderstand, it isn't all bad.. i mean the tourbook may call hutongs "charming" but i think the more accurate term is rundown, shabby, and shocking.

The fact that the world is shrinking has brought unbelievable progress, but there is no doubt that something is lost.

7) My stereotypes of the Big Brother Chinese government were certainly challenged. I expected people to be afraid to decry their government, yet taxi drivers on the first day in beijing were telling us that the Party hasn't done any good since 1949.. i thought internet control would prevent me from reading newspapers.. and yet aside from the strange obstacles from me being able to read my own blog i couldn't find many websites barred. And then, i found my biggest shock when i went to a bookstore..

Yes.. that is George Orwell's Animal Farm, i never thought i would see a copy of Animal Farm in communist china.

8) My dad asked me on the first day of my arrival to Beijing whether this trip made me feel more chinese or less. I didn't know how to answer him then, i hadn't been able to absorb much of what i had seen. I had just come back from Xian, saw the cultural history of the chinese that reached back more than 6,000 years, saw sights and wonders that made me reel.

I have thought about that question a great deal since my dad asked me that question and i think i have my answer.

I feel less chinese. Chinese culture was something that i held on here in the States as i grew up, in a way it was not just a form of my identity, but also a shield i used against racial slurs, and stupid prejudices that were directed at me. When people called me chink, made fun of my slant eyes, or mocked my "small penis" (please notice the quotes... thanks eddie murphy, really thanks a bunch...) i could always think of the accomplishments of my ancestors as a source of pride. We invented paper, we made fireworks, we were the mightiest nation in the world for a long time.

And yet, when i saw upclose what China has become, and realized that my view on china doesn't exist and probably never did, i realized that i am more american than i had ever before acknowledged. I say this as a person who cringes at nationalism, and hates seeing the stupid mindless patriotic blither that people use as a rationalization for the horrors inflicted on the world. But nevertheless, i do feel american, mostly the best parts i think. The newness of it all, a culture that is not devoid of history, but rather has had the blessing of cultures and histories of the entire world. A country that is also more free of the lessons and scars of history than most. I don't think people in this country realize what a rarity it is that our country is composed of such a wide range of nationalities and ethnicities. It really isn't just an empty catch phrase, even if it sounds like it could be a PSA announcment from the 1980s.

At the same time i feel less chinese, i also feel like it matter much less than i thought. The links and ties of humanity really are much stronger than the shades of culture, ethnicity and nationality. That is a comforting thought to me. I came home as the news of Bhutto's assassination hit the airwaves. This is a scary period, a time where strife, suffering and fear will spread. I can only hope that our shared humanity will be enough.

9) I am going to leave you now with some fun images..

tell me this wouldn't make a great album cover..

This is the roller coaster on top of hte great wall.. yes a roller coaster.

This crown is made of gold... gold woven so thin that it looked like pure thread.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

A Lazy Sunday of Blue Heavenly Feasts

Today the destination for our travels were an art museum (i can't seem to stay away) and then the Heavenly Temple.

First.. here is an image that may seem odd to y'all in the States.

It is a shot of blue sky... something i haven't seen since i left Chicago nearly 2 weeks ago. To say that the air quality here is bad, is like calling the Yankees Evil, Bill Gates rich, the Bush Adminstration Evil, and the Sun Hot. The only way i can describe it.. imagine you are in London Fog.. every day no matter the time and you can look directly at the sun because it is barely making its way through the haze. That is every day here.

While walking to the museum we saw thie group of old retired men using a water brush to write calligraphy. Quite cool!

I am no expert, but i thought the writing was beautiful, and it didn't seem like a bad retirement.

We got quite a treat in the museum, apparently we were at an exhibition of a particular chinse school of art.

Here are some of my favorites.

Most of the exhibit were paintings by modern artists in the style of old artists, but some were modern and quite striking.

And finally they showed some from the most famous chinese painter of the last couple centuries, Qi Baishi

After the museum, we got lost on the subways for a bit and made our way to the Temple of Heaven, or Heavenly Temple.

The Temple is in a large park, and tickets were available not just for a single visit, but also for the entire year. It quickly became apparent why this option existed.

As we were walking to the Temple, we could hear people singing, old chinese instruments, and as we got closer we saw groups gathered. I couldn't figure out what was happening at first, and was afraid that we walked into a Fulan Gong demonstration and would have to pull out my U.S. Passport and hope that someone was a hip hop NBA watching guard would show mercy. Btw, the NBA here is HUGE, and they are not all watching Yao Ming, they just love the sport.

As we got closer it became more obvious that this was just how people spent their sunday afternoon in the parks. People gathered to play old intruments, sing karoake (yes, OUTSIDE and within ear range of everyone.. brave brave souls), play bridge or Hearts, and even dance. It was also clear that people gathered randomly and while i am sure some were friends, i got the feeling that most were just people they met at the park that day. It was quite a sight, and for some reason it was really heartwarming. It definitely made me think about my life in Chicago, and how so much of my free time is spent in front of a screen... tv or computer.

Here are some pics..

Here is one of the temples that was in teh park. This was the location that sacrifices were made by the Emperor to guarantee good harvests. Pretty amazing, though after the Forbidden City, the awe was not quite there.

Here are the decorations around the temple

Btw, this entire structure as was the Forbidden City were made without nails...

The incense altars..

The view from the "Center Stone" where the emperor could address the crowd

I know this is weird, but i couldn't get over how many Pekinese Dogs in the city... they were everywhere. Everytime i saw them, i got a big kick out of seeing a Pekingese in Peking... weird i know.

A family friend wanted to treat us to Peking Duck, so we went to this nice restuarant that gave a photo book for a menu.. the food was delicious, and here are some of the dishes.


Sweet and Sour Fish

This is just the accroutrements for the actual duck.. i didn't take the picture only because i was too busy stuffing myself.

Tomorrow is the Great Wall, the largest example of a Civil Project that completely failed to do what it was supposed to do.

Forbidden Places and Acrobatic Positions



Those words either invoke images of people in coolie hats, roast duck (more on that later), or The Forbidden City depending if you ever have watched the movie, Last Emperor. (incidentally my great grandfather was briefly portrayed there, and not in a flattering way).

It is sort of hard to realize why they call it the Forbidden City until you actually step within the walls. The Forbidden City was where the Chinese Qing and Ming dynasties held court, it was the place of power, and only official court personnel along with the Emperor were allowed in the city. And, that is exactly right.. a CITY. The place is huge, and it has its own history and an innumerable number of buildings.. way more than my aching feet could handle.

Rather than rely on my dad attempting to give me his personal tour, i got this automatic audio guide thing that triggered a lovely british voice when i got to certain areas of the city. Sadly, a male voice shared duties with a lovely female one. Did i mention i love accents on women? Such a sad cliche, ah well. Enough of that, here is a picture of me in front of the Forbidden City.

Anyhow, we went in the back entrance and hence we started with the Imperial Garden. My dad laughed at me since i practically took a new picture every 3 steps, but i couldn't help it. The overwhelming power of the Forbidden City, wasn't its vastness, wasn't its layout, or the history behind it all. The power of the place laid with the art. The entire city was suffused with artistry and craftsmanship, from the celing tiles, to eaves, to the very ground. It was absolutely amazing, and impossible to describe. I tried to keep up with the details, but because i was running low on battery power i didn't take as many as i could.

Here are some examples of what i am talking about.. here is a typical eave, and a ceiling tile. Mind you, neither were uncommon.

This is a celing beam, and a center tile of one of the outlying garden structures.

I am going to share some random images i liked..

here is a bat design on the ground.

A kickass Kirin (a mythical chinese animal kin to the Unicorn)

This is one of the "roads" of the city.

These appear ALL around the city roof tiles, sort of gargoyles. You can't see it here, but they are usually gold and absolutely gorgeous

This is a giant single stone carving with dragons on it, this is where the Emperor was carried over, and no one else was allowed to be over it.

I am glad they kept my seat in nice order until i got around to coming back...

Btw, this was like only 1 of 5 thrones... the Emperors over the years chose different locations to rule, one emperor chose to the whole, "Concubine administration", I guess he wanted to see if he keeping ALL his concubines satisfied would bring the country some comfort... he almost died as a result.
One of the fascinating parts of the exhibits and buildings of the Forbidden City is the story of the last Empress Dowager, or Cun Xun. She was something else... she first entered the Forbidden City as a low ranking concubine (there are 6-8 ranks) and she quickly rose in rank, gave birth to the Crown Prince, than the Emperor mysteriously found himself dead, and the Emperor's Mother became the ruler of China. They called it "ruling behind the curtain" but everyone knew who held the power. I expect this to be made into a Lifetime Movie very shortly.

Some final images..

Here i am trying to give some perspective over how vast the city really is..

It is much bigger than the view shows, if you squint you can see the red tile eaves that stretch out.

And here is an amazing guard lion. It has a matching Male version with a ball under the paw, this one has a cub under her paw.

After the Forbidden City, my dad and i got tickets to see the Beijing Acrobats. I don't know why, but i was very excited to see a group of people contorting and flipping for my amazement.

We got to the acrobats' theatre and were quickling joined by about 20 or so patrons. This worried me, but i was quickly soothed by the complimentary hot tea, and the not-as-complimentary kettle pop corn. (but mmm!)

As soon as the show started, my mouth hung open for way longer than was healthy. The first impression that hit me was the youth of the performers... they came out in two groups, the boys and girls. The girls did all sorts of balancing, and flexibility acts, with the youngest girl being about 10-11. The boys did the majority of the strength, and leaping acts, with the youngest being about 8. Yes... 8 years old! I couldn't shake the occassional image of a 3 year old being torn from their parents, and being forced to practice positions and suffering under a whip, or made to skip meals while they learn how to balance plates, and glasses. I think this was one reason i kept looking for the performer who appeared to enjoy themself the most and smiled the biggest.

I felt bad about the small crowd, and especially bad because the crowd didn't quite know when to clap for the girl performers.. It wasn't that we couldn't appreciate their feats, but we were a bit afraid of when to clap and mostly were just amazed at them. The boys on the other hand were easy to clap for, when they land after their 8th flip, or jump from the top pole, we clap. But when do you exactly clap for a girl contorting their body into a pretzel, all the while holding separate pyramids of glasses with each foot, each hand and even her teeth?

The ubiqitous plate spinning

Boy jumping and flipping..

I can't even do a handstand...

These outfits led

led to this outrageous routine

an unreal position.

a ribbon dancer

Anyhow.. i am sure this is enough for now.