Monday, November 15, 2010

Impressions of China, Part 4 of 4

There and Back

I was surprised about the route for the flight to Beijing. I assumed we’d be heading north-west to get to China. That’s the way Sarah’s flights to China have gone. Instead we went pretty much due north, over the northern part of Greenland, over the North Pole, and then south through western Siberia to Beijing. As we approached the North Pole, the ice seemed to go on forever. With global warming, I’m sure there’s less ice than there used to be, but I don’t think you could describe the top of the world as open-water!

We came back the route that I thought we’d use to fly over. We left Beijing about 7:00 PM China time, hit the international date line about 12:00 Midnight (12:00 Noon Eastern Daylight Saving Time) and promptly went back to yesterday. A little before 1:00 AM (China) 1:00 PM (EDST) we hit Alaska and watched a beautiful sunrise. Alas, yesterday only had six hours of daylight. The sun went down as we hit the eastern border of Ohio around 6:00 AM/PM – an hour before we left …yesterday(?)…it boggles the mind!

I said it was an adventure. It was. An adventure in perspective.

Perspective in knowing that the world is a bigger place. Not just intellectual knowing but visceral knowing. There are a lot more people on the planet who are different from us, as Americans, than are the same. There’s a lot more going on in the world than US-centric news.

Perspective in knowing that people are people. The people we met were gracious and caring hosts with the same concerns in life as we have -- family, housing, careers, retirement and future.

Perspective in knowing what an historical infant we are. China’s civilization goes back 5,000 years and encompasses over 20 dynasties -- many which lasted several hundred years. At age 234, the US, in comparison to China, is just getting started. With that perspective, a little thought on issues from the perspective of millennium (versus milliseconds) may bode us well as we seek to perpetuate our young democratic dynasty. With any luck, we'll broaden our time horizon as we deal with the issues of the day. Here’s hoping for a successful first millennium for the infant USA!

Monday, November 8, 2010

Impressions of China, Part 3 of 4


Chinese are builders. I never really thought of them that way, but it was apparent in the three cities we visited. Beijing from the air looks like New York City times ten. It goes on forever! Shanghai must be one of the most modern cities on the planet. It seems to have been almost completely redone over the last twenty years with impressive sky scrapers and beautiful parks. And even Harbin is in a building boom.

But China is a land of contrasts. Some of the older apartment buildings in Beijing and Harbin look like tenements with deteriorating facades. They remind me of the “modern” buildings I saw in East Germany in 1981 – built fast, but not necessarily built well. And I’m not sure that electrical or plumbing codes have caught on universally. Electrical wires seem to be draped low and in random ways across buildings and intersections in parts of Beijing. Even in new construction, the plumbing seems a little delicate. I’m not sure why it won’t handle toilet paper or sure that it’s vented properly.

Finally, the country villages we saw in our travels look to have changed very little over the last several hundred years.

The Environment

From the air, many of the forests appear to have been planted like rows of corn. We did get to visit a forested mountain that didn’t seem that way. Again, it was a study in contrasts.

The path was paved in flagstone, but beside the first 1,000 feet or so were excavated trenches about 6 feet wide and four feet deep, that originated in the latrine. Much of the trail was lined with discarded trash. I don’t think the Chinese have heard about “pack it in, pack it out,” or “leave the camp better than you found it” or “take only memories and leave only footprints.” Littering is not a faux pas in China – there’s always someone, at least in the cities, to pick it up and sweep the streets with ancient looking brooms in the morning.

Once we got up the trail, we noticed a lot of yelling in the mountain. Another Chinese tradition. After climbing (well walking on the stone-paved sidewalk) the mountain for a while we ran into a woman selling drinks and renting hammock time. We saw an unpaved trail that went straight up the mountain that looked inviting. On both sides up this trail were Buddhist payer flags strung in the trees at chest level. They were a smaller version of the plastic flag strings used here to announce sales on used car lots.

The vendor woman warned us not to go up that trail (which was as wide as a one-lane road and straight as a mid-west highway) because we might get lost. We went anyway.

It was interesting that we went off the paved trail and up the mountain while the Chinese stayed on the stone-paved trail. Kind of an east/west metaphor. We were alone on this trail for the rest of the afternoon.

Later that week I read in the China Daily that there had been an increase in rescues over the National Day holiday. Unlike here where rescues involve getting someone out of an avalanche, or off a mountain peak, the Chinese rescues were just helping out people who were lost in the woods. The article encouraged people not to go into the forest without a trained guide.

Finally, as we left Beijing, the air quality was hazardous – the lowest level on China’s five point air quality measurement scale. I don’t remember all the scale descriptors, but I was struck by China Daily reporting that China’s goal was not for the top category, but for the second category -- “Fairly Good.” Seems like low aspirations coming from a place that aspires to clean air and water.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Impressions of China, Part 2 of 4


Chinese people eat better than we do. Less fat, let sugar, less refined foods. Not many baked products. They find things like our cookies too sweet. We think of corn as a vegetable. They put an ear of corn on a stick and eat it like cotton candy. Given the sugar in corn, I think they’re right.

Meals are generally slower than here. Maybe it was my skill level, but I found eating with chop sticks slowed me down enough that I could say “chur bao le” (I’m full) and really mean it. That’s a lot different from my normal mode of inhaling my food while I’m doing something else. And if you know the right places to go (generally a crowded very noisy place), you can eat extremely reasonably.

In Harbin the last night we were there, we picked up the tab for dinner for six. We had six or so dishes to share. The tab? About $12. Big spenders, huh! Of course that was the extreme. Things cost a lot more in Shanghai and Beijing. But the experience of eating out – store-front noodle shop, street vendor, street kitchen, etc. – doesn’t seem to be out of reach for locals.

Finally, the food is pretty good and recognizable – but not like the Chinese food we eat here. For example, rice is usually what you eat when you’re done eating and not always served with the main dishes. It’s used to top off the tank. If you stick to main dishes like chicken and pork, vegetables, you can survive. I must admit, I didn’t try the stinky tofu that was cooked about every ten feet outside in Harbin. I stayed away from the pigs knuckles and donkey meat (at least I think I did), too. And, I never realized how much I appreciated coffee,until I couldn't get it! But all in all, I found the cooking to my liking.

People We Met

In addition to bonding with people in crowded shopping areas, and seeing the 2010 Shanghai Expo with 447,000 close friends, we spent time and shared meals with Chinese friends of Sarah’s and a day with a Chinese tour guide. I can’t say that eleven or so people are representative of the 1.3 billion population but I was surprised by the apparent openness of the folks I met. Our tour guide pointed out the Cultural Revolution’s students destruction of a Ming dynasty’s emperor’s tomb. A graduate economics student, said “he didn’t agree with China’s national leadership” and speculated that China’s economic growth was in a bubble. People didn’t hesitate to ask us about health care or retirement in America or complain about the affordability of housing in the Chinese cities. While we avoided topics such as Tiananmen Square, it felt like a more open society than I expected. The Internet is probably responsible for much of this. The graduate student told us that there are back doors to western media. He’s a fan of the BBC, for example.

The people of the Northeast Forestry University were gracious hosts. In our honor, we had two banquets with faculty and staff of the university, a trip to the mountains with a barbeque, and finally an escort to the tiger park, where Mr. Yang, in spite our protestation, picked up the admission tab. We were treated like celebrities, which made me realize that fame is not what it’s cracked up to be. It’s good to have the freedom anonymity offers. No command appointments, no endless ceremonial toasts and freedom to come and go as you please. We appreciated the events scheduled for us, but it made the “off” time precious.

One thing about the Chinese is that they have pride in their roots. As far as I can tell, things got started over there about 4,000 years ago with the Xia dynasty. It’s quite a contrast with history of Europeans in America that goes back 400 years, but when I tried to make that point to a Chinese, I was quickly told that Chinese civilization goes back 5,000 years.