inside thoughts on China and beyond

The Stroller

My traffic light is red. I stop. (Do take note of this; stopping for traffic lights isn’t anyone’s second nature after more than 10 years in China – remarkable, really!) I wait and watch thick raindrops splash on my windscreen. Soon I will need to switch the wipers from interval mode to constant. A young woman is crossing the road. With one hand she pushes her stroller loaded with Aldi shopping bags hanging heavily on the handlebar while holding an umbrella with the other.

I’ve had my portion of stroller-pushing in my early years of fatherhood and I feel like telling her that hanging your shopping like that is making a catapult from your stroller. My son knows what I’m talking about. You don’t do that! Gravity is pulling and before you know it, it is propelling your darling-baby into the air for its first fly-and-crash experience, leaving you with an everlasting guilt syndrome. But why would she listen to me? Besides, it’s raining and unconsciously I am hoping for some action and I’m quite interested to see how far this baby will fly. Gives me something to write about. I wait. Wait and watch. (You would to read it, wouldn’t you?!) I listen to the wipers. Uuws-eK … Uuws-eK … Uuws-eK. I change the wipers to constant mode in the hope to have a better view. The world is a different place when it rains. Vision changes. Sound changes. The world looks blur and Photoshopped. Drips tear reality apart until the wipers sweep across the window. It sounds harder, colder, Uuws-K-Uuws-K-Uuws-K. As if a catastrophe is just around the corner.

I’m surprised to see so many Aldi plastic bags openly going around in this place. Aldi is one of those bargain supermarkets that first invaded the Netherlands some 20 years ago -from Germany, naturally. It is not unlike Carrefour in France and Walmart in the rest of the world: a place where everyone buys but nobody wants to be seen. You can’t get it any cheaper, only better. Walking with these bags is a statement. Just like with Gucci, and Chanel and Louis Vuitton and Prada. Only with the opposite message. In China’s online world, this is a booming market. The sales of shopping bags, I mean. Real fake brand-bags. You can order them by sets of 5 for just a few yuan. Many stiletto-heeled ladies parade the local market near my home in Chengdu with Gucci bags on the left and Prada on the right. And all filled with cabbage and carrots and pieces of chicken and pork tail sticking out.

Back in China, the Aldi-type bags (meaning: cheap-shop bags) have a complete different use. In particular by those who can’t afford an umbrella. There, they function as rain cap, with the bag handles skillfully wrapped around the ears. I quite like it and I might just try it myself once I’m back. I wouldn’t be surprised if this will become a fashion one day soon. Miuccia Prada releasing into the world -on the rainy streets of Milan to start-off with- her latest creative, environmentally friendly  head cover, all from real 100% recyclable plastic. Another statement.

In Holland in the late ’80s and early ’90s we -that is: all of civilized humanity as it was back then- were terrified by rain because it wasn’t just water falling from the sky. There was acid too. It was eating away not only our pine forests but also the statues of heroes and rulers of the mostly forgotten past. First vandalized by pigeon acid, now by acid rain. First the sharp edges were rounded, but soon complete noses and ears and chins disappeared in thin air -or to put it more correctly: in polluted rain.

Considering the levels of pollution in China, I’m surprised that all those Mao statues are still standing (complete with one arm up). This should be a feast for the acid devils -and a nightmare for Xi Jinping, China’s latest ‘father of people’. Xi has been showing us more of his true face in the last few months. And it is called: Mao. Besides his praiseworthy combat against corruption and poverty and pollution (which, come to think of it, will increase the longevity of the Mao statues too), he is now pointing his arrows at journalists and constitutionalists. Those are his true acid devils. Not so long ago, President Xi Jinping issued a call to arm against the country’s ‘unruly internet’, ordering the Communist Party’s propaganda machine to build “a strong army” to “seize the ground of new media”. To students he said: “We must turn Chairman Mao‘s old residence into a base for patriotism and revolutionary education, in particular to make it play a greater role in the education of the younger generation.” He tightened censorship in academia and the media, and has ordered journalists to attend yearly conferences to learn ‘correct reporting’. Barbara Demick, correspondent for the LA Times, rightly noted that “In public speeches, Xi tends to elevate the Communist Party above the nation and even above the Chinese people. He’s tried to clamp down on criticism of Mao.” For a Party that believes itself to be above the law, and acts accordingly, talks about free press and a Chinese constitution are among the most feared. The truth is simple: one cannot denounce a leader who is the architect and builder of the very same powerhouse you benefit from without digging your own grave. Mao The Untouchable; as historic figure, as concept, and, for now, as statue.

Back to my own little world, with or without acid, rain is still falling down and my wipers still go Uuws-K-Uuws-K. Since no baby is flying yet I suspect mum has additional shopping gain inside the stroller as counterbalance. baby milk powder, surely. Or then again, maybe not. Uuws-K-Uuws-K-Uuws-K. These wipers never stop, do they?

Mum is still there, skillfully pushing her stroller onto the sidewalk as she moves on. Chedadak-chedadak-chedadak – the small wheels bump over the uneven tiles. She starts rushing now, hastened by the rain. Chedak-chedak-chedak. The baby is flying up-and-down inside her stroller, surrounded by stuffed Aldi ‘airbags’. Despite the umbrella, mum is soaked and the baby is crying as they are about to disappear around the corner. Uuws-Cheda-K-dak-Uuws-Ched-K-adak.

Strange, such an encounter. A short glance into another world. I will never see them again and I will never know their names. I could get out into the rain and wish them well. I could horn to say goodbye. But several cars behind me are already frantically horning and blinking their headlights. I look up; the light is green. When did that happen? Uuws-K-Uuws-K-Uuws-K..

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