The ride is bumpy today. Temperature is -65°C. I am speeding over the Gobi desert, going west towards Urumqi. I’ll probably reach there in a few minutes. And in a few minutes more it will be far behind me. We are taking the same Silk Route as I drove 4 months ago, though now I’m at a height of nearly 10 km and I’m heading back to Holland, not to Kashgar.
Time flies and so do I. Here in the plane a young mother is constantly chasing after her little boy while father watches his third movie with the compliments of KLM. And that is about as good as it gets with KLM: they didn’t have enough bread for all, let alone a second round; no leg space; no service and the movie system got stuck have 10 minutes into the flight. KLM is truly outstanding: its prices beyond British Airways, its quality below Air Asia. And thus my direct neighbors are sleeping away their frustration but I’ve made sure I got the arm rest. An old Chinese two rows down is coughing up his phlegm from a storage that by the sound of it must be far larger than any Chinese illegal coal mine at the point of collapse, spitting full his second disposal bag with so much noise that alarmed stewardesses are storming our aisle now for the third time. Most passengers are now awake while others are still snoring away in this small world so highly elevated above the reality far below. So detached. Yet, somehow, up in these high realms, this is a community at peace and time is standing still -at least for the next 9 hours. You can’t really go anywhere; neither call the secretary to make sure you’ll be ready for the next appointment; nor check your emails. That blessing, by the way, is a curse in disguise: by the time the plane touches down on the other side, I am likely to find that my unread emails have accumulated to a 3 or 4 digits number.
But beneath us the landscape is constantly changing. Sichuan Tibetan mountains make way for the wide Qinghai grasslands that are replaced by different forms of Xinjiang deserts. Change. Over the years of living in the dusty yet thriving city of Chengdu, we have grown accustomed to the reality that yesterday’s farm fields are today’s shopping malls and that today’s mud roads will be 5 lane highways tomorrow. No use buying a map or washing your car. What you wipe clean in the morning is black and dust covered in the afternoon. The few signs of God-given seasons are always covered under layers of dust. If the air is not filled with desert sand, it will be full of smog particles from factories and construction sites.
And so, Holland became our heaven. Fresh air and four seasons. The place that never changes. Each time we return, my kids find grandpa buried under books in his study or in the bushes of his garden; grandma juggling with word puzzles or painting her chair – again; the daffodils under the chestnut tree -53 cm to the left; the cats and birds flying freely through my sister’s home and the queen as ever missing neighbor. Eating vegetarian by my aunt around their old wooden round table or enjoying a good French wine with my uncle under one of his treasured trees by his self-made arch in their garden, listening to his many tales or discussing the latest news. Over the last many years all this never seemed to change. I can still use my maps bought in the previous century. Our anchor of stability. A community at peace.
But today is different. My uncle is no more. His unexpected departing shocked us all. A world is gone, and not just his. The world as I know it no longer exists. No more wine under the tree. No more talks and tales. Only memories and an empty turning chair. His sudden death has kicked me awake. The reality of the fairytale I so much wanted to believe has taken an ugly turn. Awakened from this self-imposed deception I now see that even in Holland, between the 200-year old trees, the medieval castles and Roman roads, time moves on. The Holland I knew when we left -the Holland of 8 years ago- does not exist; the Holland that exists I do not know. And where China can never really be our home, then where now is home?
The mother is still chasing her boy now that we’re in Kazakhstan airspace – come to think of it: she chased her boy all the way from Chengdu to Kazakhstan and still didn’t get him. Why does this feel so familiar?
A young fellow came and sat down with us. He looked fresh from college, smartly dressed in the newest sportswear. Smelled as if he had just taken a dive in a bottle of cheap Adiddas aftershave. We were to discuss the use of his swimming pool -not his, of course, but the one he manages for his boss – who was reported to be 40 years old and hopefully more matured. We were close to making a deal when Adiddas boy asked: “Do you have any Japanese students?” It came to me as a surprise and the essence of this question didn’t dawn on me until after I said, “Yes, some; and Americans, Dutch, French, Taiwanese, you name it! All great kids!”
“You can’t bring the Japanese. They are bad.” He didn’t say that last sentence but I clearly heard it. When he realized how ridiculous this must have sounded from one still wet behind the ears and surely barely out of his split pants – the Chinese environmental friendly and cheap solution to the early-years diaper need; you can literally see them peeing all over the place – he added quickly that his boss had stipulated this. “I’m just doing my job, sorry.” That was the end of the deal and my first encounter with the result of a government’s effectively stirring-up of a collective anger as if the Japs had left only yesterday, fueling the people’s emotions and increasing need of national unity, political distraction and a common pride. This was one year ago.
Here, you will never find these stories in the newspapers. Ah, newspapers! One of the pleasures I really miss here in China. The sensation that comes from unfolding a newspaper after a days long work. Letting the world go by knowing that there isn’t really anything you can do about it. Drought in Africa while you sip your coffee. But the emotion it stirs up in you creates a sense of belonging and self righteousness and is worth the paper and time.
Well, that’s what I miss. And so, even the China Daily will do. Kind of China’s paper version of the Voice of America; freely printing away anything the party allows and keeping out what is not good for the people. Not that there is any choice: the China Daily is in most of China the only English paper available. But the time has past that China had just as much papers as it had provinces. Magazines and periodicals were in thin supply and printed on even thinner recycled paper made to look unattractive as befits the communistic era. That was the time that cars were small and rusty from day one; villas were unknown and the apartment blocks were joyless gray with blue windowpanes and prison bars sticking out as monkey cages in front of it. Back then, all that was OK because there was no competition, no one who cared and no one who dared. These magazines are still there – just as some of the gray living quarters that still stand in the shadow of high skyscrapers; as prehistorical bones found around Chengdu, small reminders of a time that no longer exists- but on the shelves they are now overshadowed by glossy magazines of all sizes and topics. The publishing market is exploding and so tempting for western media empires that Murdock married his way into the Middle Kingdom and Maxwell gave up trying.
The content is improving though. Global Times – never heard of it before, but there it is- from 2010-09-30 mentioned a survey among China’s city and provincial governments about transparency. China has a “transparency watchdog”. That alone is good news! Only 2 of the 43 government bodies barely made the open-information requirements set by Beijing as did only one-third of the cities. Tibet and Taiwan were not included. You wonder why. Nor was the USA. Maybe next year. At the bottom of the list was Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Luckily that only the facts were out and no analysis or possible explanation or solutions were given. Just the naked facts; true transparency untroubled by irritating and irrelevant opinions. And most Chinese seems OK with it. “Don’t our leaders know better?” They don’t wonder. Whether this willingly blind submission is due to their so tempting and yearly increasing pay-check or the patriotic urge to beat Japan and conquer USA or behavior ingrained in the Chinese culture over many centuries of imperial rule or a recovering Confucius awareness or all of this together, one must admit that the party’s approach to developing and modernizing China has been very effective. Some confuse it with democracy.
The West should be happy. They are not. Like the older brother that jealously disposes the success of the younger brother, or a big bully that sees its victim outgrow him and awaits trembling in cold sweat what is to come. After a century of slicing up, drugging, humiliating and even massacring China and it’s people, the powers of old can all but wait. The child we once beat is now the adult we so desperately need to stop us from going down the cliff. Will he want to hold our hand, and honestly, why should he?
If the present is a window to the future, let’s face it. For several weeks now, the first Chinese Nobel Prize winner is locked up in the cold north; the South China Sea islands and every drop of oil in-between and underneath are claimed by China causing clashes with Vietnam, Japan and the Philippines; Churches are built with government support but 400 Christians ready to attend a conference in Singapore were forbidden to leave the country. These are the enlightened days to get rich and shut your mouth. And you’re fine as long as you don’t mention ‘democracy’, ‘freedom’ or ‘Tiananmen Square’ in one sentence.
And once again riots against Japanese companies and expats have stirred the cities. The police and military that otherwise are so quick to suppress are now playing mahjong on the side of the road. Two Chengdu girls wearing traditional Chinese dresses from a famous Chinese dynasty of long ago; a period of time when China greatly influenced the Japanese culture, were forced to undress because the gowns were thought to be Japanese by the mob, mostly students. So much for the historical knowledge of this future generation of intellectuals. But then, you can’t really blame them in a land where history is rewritten every other decade.
At the end of the day, no matter who and where you are, it is not the hurt from the past that will move us forward, but the never ending opportunities of the future. And maybe it was for that reason that my daughter said: “Dad, can we eat at the new Japanese restaurant tonight?”
I’m traveling quite a bit for meetings, conferences, trainings and sometimes I’m not even sure why. I love it. It get you out there; meet other people. The best of it is though that here in China, flying is a door-to-door business. Taxi drivers fly you to and from the airport in a way that is really strengthening your prayer life and pilots take care of whatever distance is in between. And they –the pilots- are apparently doing a good job at that because statistics show that although the Chinese aviation industry has seen a doubling of its flights, it can boast of being in the top ten most safe air traffic. And believe me, Chinese like to boast! The increase of road traffic has put them on another top ten list though.
Reading about this safety record that is hanging in the air surprised me much. Fresh are my memories of Chinese co-passengers who would start a telephone call just after the announcement to turn off the phones; or hordes of passengers who would unbuckle after the flight attendant had specifically told them not to. Often passengers would stand in the aisle dropping their suitcases out of the overhead compartments long before the plane comes to a stand. But, they are among the safest in the air, so who am I to comment on this.
I love these flights. Alone in the crowd. Served at the blink of an eye or the push of a button. “Could you give me the English paper please”; “Another coffee please” or if I’m in the mood “A red wine please”. All this drinking makes me a regular toilet visitor, but that is OK since I am also an aisle person. Nothing worse than having to climb over your sleeping neighbors when the pressure is up. Armrests are an issue.
A serious issue. I don’t want to end up having one of my armrests being taken by the one next to me. It upsets me. How can he be so arrogant? Who does he think he is, stealing my armrest? Wait until you go toilet boy!! All the more reason to put on the earphones to further retreat into the seclusion of my own world. No need to say a word. Or should I?
But sometimes it is time to talk. With taxi drivers – and this is impossible to avoid.
I remember a time I was on the way to the airport. I got a talkative taxi driver that was quite impressed with the numbers of years that I have lived in Chengdu now. Why only Chengdu? Because I love it! Most shiji (taxi drivers) are pure Chengdu–ren, so what else could I say? We talked for about 6.2 minutes. I wished my Chinese language teacher was here now; it would have impressed her and above all encouraged her: it is possible… But then again, she would have noticed that the driver was the one doing most of the speaking, while I was bravely nodding my head. She would surely also have notice the driver’s eyes in the rear mirror rolling upward wondering why he had complimented me on my Chinese already after my first sentence, (a common politeness they utter as quickly as saying ‘hi’), after I clearly crossed the line of my linguistic boundaries followed by an awkward silence. I would tell myself I didn’t want to talk anymore and do some writing; she would say I blundered. But then; she wouldn’t say that since she’s my teacher and I employ her. And she would not want me to lose face –at least, not more than is good for me, that is.
Talking with drivers can be a challenge. I learned that during a trip to Tianjin for a meeting at TIS. A choir team also going to TIS traveled on the same plane. Driver Feng would pick me up from the airport, holding a big sign with the letters ‘TIS’. Walking into the arrival hall, there it was: TIS.
Ni shi Feng shiji ma? “You are driver Feng?” I asked in Chinese.
“Yes, yes, I’m the driver. One person?”
“Yes, I’m alone.” A short strange look -I should have known!- and he signaled me to follow him. And so I did, across the parking lot to his vehicle. A huge bus.
“Are you sure you only need to pick me up; not the choir team as well?” Confusion. “So your surname is Feng?”
“No, I’m Huo.”
Arg, I walked away with the wrong driver! We quickly headed back to pick up his choir and I, my driver Feng. We found driver Feng, still with his huge TIS sign in his hand, somewhat confused with the choir team jet-legging around trying to figure out how he could get these 20 students in his VW Passat…
Feng; Huo, it does sound the same…. When I say it…
I’m sipping from a large cup with steaming hot black tea, of course with milk and sugar. Tea as it is supposed to be: the British way. It is one of those things I like on a quiet morning while enjoying the cool start of the day from my living room balcony. No work. No rush. No family members awake yet. The ideal Saturday morning. Birds chirp in the trees below. A baby cries for its first breakfast fresh milk. Geese honk from a neighboring rooftop ready for diner. Somewhere a child is practicing violin before going off to her extra English class on this day off. A boy yells his orders to his mum or maid – and honestly , what is the difference? Mornings in our neighborhood start slow. A little later the tick-tick-tock sound of bamboo sticks hit on each other from a knife sharpener or ear cleaner looking for early business is added to the symphony of street sounds and the first buses can be heard for their horn seems to be connected with the gas pedal. As I said, quite a quiet morning to enjoy. But on weekend-days like this, there’s always music blaring from the neighborhood loudspeakers that are hung in trees or hidden in fake rocks or giant mushrooms. Often it is some Chinese traditional tune played by a flutist nobody knows. Sometimes it is classical music nobody would want to know. Most of the time the music is pleasant enough or was it not that you have no choice. For whatever reason the guard or gardener or cleaner in our compound turns on the music box at the time we turn off our alarm clocks. No one is really listening but you can’t escape hearing it.
In days long gone, in the grey past of ages not yet forgotten but surely not willfully remembered, these speakers would blast hymns to Chairman Mao in an attempt to educate his people. But his people wouldn’t listen. And still don’t. They’ve learned to ignore all sounds around them. Horning on the roads; shouting in the restaurants; the noisy morning exercises from a nearby school; they couldn’t care less. They’ve become a good example of a tolerant society.
But these community announcements have become rare. Gone are the days that the loudspeakers were used to spread Mao’s enlightening thoughts from his Little Red Book. While Mao is still overlooking Chengdu’s central square, holding his giant hand up (and I’m still not sure whether it is in the give or take position), people hardly remember him. His thoughts are forgotten and his mistakes carefully covered up -nobody wants to loose face. Right in front of his stony eyes, the solid grounds have been up-turned and dug away. No earth nor clay is left for his fellow countrymen to go back to and put their hands in. Instead, the huge square, once only used for extravagant shows and massive parades for this last emperor has become the center of capitalistic development and the heart of Chengdu’s new subway network. Lots of space is reserved for chain stores, magazine stalls and souvenir shops. And like everywhere else in China, the best selling souvenirs are Mao’s Little Red Books; small Mao statutes; small Mao busts and large Mao posters. Mao is popular once again. He – or is it better to say ‘it’- has become bestselling commodity in China’s capitalistic 24-hour economy. Somehow, comrade Hu can make it all fit in his “socialism with Chinese characteristics”. It’s the Chinese way. Not my cuppa-tea!
My wife and daughter had taken the afternoon and evening off. Recognition flights. Recognition flights for mum and daughter surveying personalities and shops, developing character and taste, and previewing which future paths to take and which latest movies to skip. I usually receive a full report upon return. From both. My wife will reflect on the topics discussed; My daughter on the items not bought. Nonetheless, a good time, not the least because they’re leaving the men to themselves.
It is during these imposed men’ s nights that my son Asher and I drive around -with Asher behind the wheel, be it on my lap; that we go for a walk in the neighborhood; that we photograph the man on his bike, the ducks hanging head-down from the tree, the small red butt sticking out the split in the baby’s trousers, or that we play chess. Later on in the evening we get our huge Chinese chopping knives out and fix our favorite dishes while sweating away in our too small kitchen. For reason no one has ever been able to explain, kitchen counters in Chengdu are very low, even for the Chinese. They keep forgetting to build drawers. I have to stand legs wide when I do the dish wash like a giraffe drinking water from a well. I convinced my wife that this is not healthy for me and we agreed to delegate the dish washing duty to our kids. The kids were for obvious reasons not in on this meeting.
It was during an orange chopping session that Asher dropped the question: “Dad, what does the F-word mean? Some kids in my class know it but I don’t…” There are those questions you know will come at some point in time, but when they come you feel desperately ill prepared. Here hidden away under the shadows of the most eastern Tibetan hills, sex, drugs and rock’n roll are still centuries away. Though HIV and drugs aren’t unknown in China, it isn’t on people’s radar as much as in The West and teenage-moms are virtually unheard of. Kids here seem to stick to their innocence and do their homework a bit longer and are not worried about boyfriends or condoms or clean needles. I guess you can call it one of the blessings of a family-oriented society where two parents, a handful of grandparents and a busload of uncles and aunts pressure the one and only child to perform and eventually provide. Or is it the blessings of an internet policy that prevents half the ‘morally corrupting’ sites available in http://www.freeworld.com to be seen? Maybe it is just due to lack of catchy TV stations to watch.
But it wasn’t so much the sexual aspect of the topic that troubled me. I’ve worked enough with kids as well as parents who habitually used these words in every sentence -for as far as they were able to speak complete sentences anyway- explaining to them the origin and the meaning and the use of this abbreviation and the word. No, it wasn’t so much the meaning that troubled me as much as the time it would take to do so. As a hard working dad, I needed some personal wind-down time. So I planned an escape.
“No dad, I don’t know any S-word. I mean the F-word.”
“Sure you know the S-word; you’re teacher uses that every day in class! Doesn’t she always say: ‘as soon as I say the S-word, you can start’?”
“That’s not the S-word, that’s the G-word, dad.”
“Aha, I see.”
“Yes, the G-word, and it stands for ‘go’.”
A thoughtful silence followed. I desperately needed some time to think. All I wanted was to quietly read my book. For a moment I flirted with the idea to delegate this question. “Why don’t you ask your teacher tomorrow?!” but I couldn’t. Wasn’t this our men’s night? Wasn’t this the ideal stereotype question fitting an evening as this? Still, I needed time. “I’ll shower first, we’ll discuss this later -go and play after you’re done here.”
I found him playing in the living room with his favorite cars; causing traffic jams and accidents on the Cheng Guan Kuai Kong Road. I was just about to feel relieved when he looked up to me – and I knew: the question would come again. And so over dinner that evening, father and son were talking about eggs, seeds, stems and testicles, slowly painting a simplified picture of the complexity called reproduction that even scientists have not yet fully unraveled, just because of the F-word. Before we reached the heart of the matter though, Asher had lost interest and turned to more urgent and pressing issues: how to solve his traffic jam and what chess piece to move. I suppose it had been sufficient enough for a ten year old. Just as I sat back and picked up my book, the doorbell rang; mum and daughter had returned.
With more time on hand as long as it lasts, I decided to start a blog site. Not that this is the first time for me to try this though. If you google the different blog names I have used in the past, you will find several unfinished sites of mine that I myself have never seen. So no need to give you these names. Another of those blessings of living in China. Twice I started a blog site and twice our Chinese moral angels thought it better not to permit these blog providers to be seen by the apparently unstable and easily influenced masses and other residents. The Smurfs are not alone.
The fact that you are reading this, however, means I have found a site that has China’s blessings. WordPress.com; these guys probably made some immoral compromises on US’ 1st Amendment but that’s OK: I can now at last freely speak out!
But then, a rapid increase of laptops, iPads, iPhones, iTouches and other I-don’t-know mobile web surfing tools have resulted in a daily web-traffic jam and is reason for more, though different, headaches. To give an example. At 8 pm I start the computer. 3 past 8 the Firefox is up and running. Still loading my blog page though. I check google news in other tabs, skipping the YouTube links since those are branded ‘evil’ and ‘a danger to the state security’ since the Uyghur turmoil, and after about 5 minutes I return to my blog site. Glad to see that the website is already 85% loaded, although it doesn’t show me the complete site, it is enough to enable me to click the link that gets me to the page where I need to make an adjustment. I want to add a photo to the story (or to be more precise: add just a link to that photo) and adjust the page lay out a little. I copy the HTML link and press paste. To see whether it is looking good, I select ‘view’. The new page starts loading and I decide to get myself a cup of coffee from down stairs, read a few pages of the latest ‘More Chengdu’, one of the many free expat magazines where the ads are more interesting then the cover story, and check in again. Half way. I check my emails, cut my nails, gaze outside and enjoy the view of a Chengdu preparing for the night. Ah! 90%, nearly there! -but the page is still blank. Sunrise. A second cup.
It starts raining. In Chengdu, sporadic thick drops are the messengers for the storm to come. No weatherman is needed here to tell the future. I go out to cover the garden chairs and empty the washing line. Just on time. Having a garden is one of the advantages of living on the top floor in Chengdu -so different from most other cities in China and beyond: the top floor comes with a nice roof garden. (Or at least: you get the roof and need to make it into a nice garden.) Where other cities are just gray and boring, Chengdu’s neighborhoods from the last 10 years have interesting architectural designs borrowed from around the world and much green –even on the roofs.
Back on the screen I watch my page being built. Done! But it doesn’t look the way I want it to be. Ages have past and all I accomplished is one adjustment that surely needs more polishing up and much more time waiting.
The time it will take to get it ALL done is enough to write a book and publish it. I look outside and a new 21 storey building is now blocking my view. My nails could use a cutting again. You may wonder why I go through all this trouble; well, so do I. Here in China, overcoming the well known writer’s block is not enough to actually write a blog.
It is nice to be home and not yet have anything to do. It allows me time to reflect. Let me begin with a reflection on some of today’s China Daily articles. A good start of the day.
A major mining company caused a pollution that killed not only 15 thousand tons of fish up to time of writing, it also killed the lifestyle for many fishermen and their families left with no source of income and heavily in debt. They are forbidden to sell the fish for at least the coming 3 years. No word is spend on the company’s responsible leaders. I assume they had secured enough guanxi (=influential connections) to continue life as normal. They may even buy some
of the fish farms for a bargain price now that fishing is not allowed and turn it into tea house recreation resorts. Probably employ the desperate farmer as parking aid, his wife as sweeper and his daughter to serve the tables and please the guests in whatever way requested. New reality as normal.
Not as normal will it be for the Smurfs now that the Chinese government has decided to promote and protect their own national cartoon industry. No more foreign cartoons allowed between 5 and 9 pm on any Chinese channel. Unspoken but well known is the hidden agenda to keep the education of their young ones in control. Foreign cartoons too often promote cruel, selfish and spoiled behavior. Truth is: I can’t disagree with that. So why do I feel unjustly treated? Because it is China? All countries in the world want and are protecting their own soil’s industry and US is the front runner in this. So what is my problem? It is the way China does it. Open. Naïve nearly. Just block it from TV. That’s asking for negative press. It’s even in China Daily. A reader commented that in the ’80’s she was fan of the Smurfs, one of the few cartoons allowed at that time. With their blue and white uniformity and small subtle differences to emphasize some personality, collectively storing their food and fighting evil, they taught her the true meaning and value of communism. A shame if that is withheld from the new Chinese yuppies, who care as much for their fellow Chinese citizens as they do for cockroaches or fish farmers. Many are the stories of the behavior – or rather misbehavior- of these nouveau riche.
While in China’s southeastern manufacturing regions over 30 strikes are head-aching the CEO’s and shutting down production for days or even weeks for a higher share in wealth and better and saver work and living conditions, more and more company kings simply move west to the still low wage – don’t care Sichuan. Or, further south: to Vietnam, where, though still troubled by a medieval infrastructure, investments need half the money and wages are peanuts.
For these yuppies, luxury villa resorts and golf courses are illegally erected in the countryside. 35% more than last year, reducing the already shrinking arable land of China even further. But then: why should they care? With green cards for the US and their only child boarding away in Canada, their future is secured. China is dreaming the same dream only to wake up one day and discover that life isn’t as normal and there’s no turning back.
So much for a good start of the day. Just another day.