Monday, July 24, 2006

China Stories Pt 19: The Holidays

I don't mean Christmas. This being a fairly linear narrative, I'm talking about holidays in the spring. Spring has holidays, oh yes.

On St. Patrick's Day, I ended up drinking beers with some students from UCLA in a bomb shelter on the Beijing University campus. It seemed appropriate.

After the PRC split with the Soviet Union, Chairman Mao became extremely paranoid about being attacked by the Russians. Among the crazier things Mao did was move entire industries to remote, protected areas. Equipment, families, schools, everything. He did this with Second Auto Works, China's largest truck manufacturer - relocated it from Shanghai to a remote valley in central China. Imagine picking up General Motors, lock stock and barrel, and moving it into the Appalachians.

"Kids I've got good news and bad news."
"What's the good news?"
"Daddy got promoted today! And I still have my job."
"What's the bad news?"
"Well, the whole company is moving to Gnaw Bone Holler, Kentucky. And because our society doesn't allow any individual freedom of movement, chances are our family will be stuck there for generations. What's for dinner?"

Mao also built bomb shelters all over Beijing. The downtown area was riddled with shelters and interconnected tunnels. One of them was used as a shopping arcade.


On Easter, I got up early with my friends to go out to the Great Wall for a sunrise service. It was a long drive out there, maybe an hour or so, so we left in the dark. It was so quiet and peaceful, the throngs of tourists blissfully absent. It was beautiful to be on the wall as the sun came up.

During the service, three students in front of me kept whispering. It was mildy annoying. At first I thought they were just being rude. Then I realized that one student was translating the Chinese to English for the second student, and then that student in turn was translating it into French for the third student, who was African. That was pretty cool.

(Many Africans come to study in China. Frequently they are not well prepared for their studies, speaking a little English and no Chinese. They don't have much money, and are unable to return home until they are done. They are even less prepared for the culture shock of living in China. They were generally treated very poorly - especially if they socialized with Chinese women. But the rare opportunity to be trained as a doctor or an engineer was, I guess, highly motivating.)

After the service, we explored the wall a bit. Since there wasn't anyone out there yet, it was exhilerating. We weren't asses-to-elbows with ten thousand other tourists! Nobody was yelling "hello!" at me randomly! Nobody was harrassing me for an hour to buy a t-shirt!

We went all the way to the end of the restored section, then continued on the unrestored section of wall. (There was nothing saying we couldn't - it was just not as easy.)

The wall itself, great. But the place that most tourists visit - the place where we were, Ba Da Ling - has been meticulously restored. No doubt it was necessary from wear. But everything is new, so it has an ersatz quality. Like everything in Las Vegas.

(It reminds me of a Chinese classical music show I attended once, where they announced in solemn tones that the instrument that was being played was over three hundred years old - but each part of it had been replaced.)

(Lots of parentheticals today. Sorry.)

Climbing on the unrestored part of the wall was something else - it was much easier to get a sense of the age of the wall, and what an achievement its construction must have been.

After our hike we returned to the city and gorged ourselves on brunch at the Jian Guo Hotel. I spent a good-sized little chunk of my CBS money on champagne and pancakes.

Fortunately, I was about to have another opportunity to earn some spending money courtesy of CBS.

China Stories Pt 18: Mao's-o-leum

I made the obligatory visit to Chairman Mao's Tomb. It was a sunny spring day, but still a little cool, I recall.

There was a long line that snaked back out into the southern flank of the square, full of Chinese tourists making their first (maybe their only) trip to Beijing. Tian An Men Square was as much of a tourist destination for Chinese as it was for foreigners; probably more so, in fact. The Tian An Men gate, where the portrait of Mao hangs, is the place where Chairman Mao announced the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, and the place from where he watched National Day parades, and waved to throngs of adoring Red Guards. In the fevered heyday of the Cultural Revolution (1960s), a trip to Beijing and the square was a quasi-religious pilgrimage. While American hippies were hitch hiking to Haight Ashbury with flowers in their hair, young and idealistic Chinese Red Guards were hopping trains to Beijing (for free) in hopes of catching a fleeting glimpse of the beloved Great Helmsman, Chairman Mao.

Now they lined up and waited, patiently, orderly, pretty certain that this time, they would in fact see the Chairman.

There were rumors that when Mao died (in September 1976), China was not prepared, and did not have the skills to properly prepare him for public display, so they had to send for a Soviet expert do it. In the intervening days, there had been some, um, degradation. So there were stories - that one of his ears was completely fake; that something had fallen off; that he was shrinking.

My friends and I had a little local knowledge, which was that foreigners didn't have to wait in the long line; they could go directly to the front. This was not uncommon. Sometimes, you sensed hostility from the locals, but more often than not, they didn't mind. They seemed to accept that we received this preferential treatment, and just ascribed this treatment to our bizarre foreign-ness. Now that Chinese are more accustomed to Westerners, I can't imagine that type of deference exists anymore. It seems quaint, vestigial. Familiarity breeds contempt.

As we wound our way inside, the suspense was building. There was a sign that asked you to remove your hands from your pockets and keep them at your sides. I believe the primary intent of this directive was to create an atmosphere that was solemn and respectful, though it was probably a security measure as well.

We got to the front of the line relatively quickly. They kept the line moving - and why not? A lot of people want to see the Chairman, and frankly, once you see him, there's not a lot of reason to hang around.

He didn't appear lifelike at all - it was hard, really, to believe that this was in fact, the actual person Mao Zedong. Rather, it was just a profoundly lifeless figure, posed under glass and white lights, like a cake at a diner.

I don't think we actually stopped moving, so before we knew it, we were being pushed out the rear of the building into a gauntlet of souvenir shops, all selling Dead Mao memorabilia. Because after all, what better way to remember the somber occasion of seeing the Great Helmsman than with a commemorative plate? No? How about a baseball cap?

I had to buy something. I debated getting the lighter that played "The East is Red" when you opened it, but opted instead for a set of chopsticks that said "Chairman Mao's Tomb" in Chinese characters on them.

I know I made the right choice. Buying a lighter would have been... I don't know, crass.

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting

China Stories Pt 17: The Square

After President Bush left town, everything settled down for awhile. I went to class, hung out with my classmates, taught my little English class. I did the normal stuff you're supposed to do (as opposed to working for CBS News and spending 18 hours a day with two dozen Beijing taxi drivers).

I did a little local sight-seeing: visiting the local Tibeten buddhist lamasery (Yong He Gong by name), riding my big-ass Flying Pigeon socialist bicycle out to the Summer Palace, and the Old Summer Palace. (The new one was quite an upgrade - it included a marble boat on the lake out front. A boat. Made out of marble.) I went to the Forbidden City where China's Emperors had lived. I went to Jing Shan park behind the Forbidden City where, if I remember correctly, the last Emperor of the Ming dynasty fled and hanged himself. This would have been in 1644. (The hanging part. I was there in 1989.)

I went to Tian An Men Square with Bob. He took the picture of me that you saw earlier.

Seeing the square for the first time was exciting. As I got close to it, I was slightly giddy with anticipation. In front of me I could see - sky. The unbroken skyline could only mean that there was a large expanse of open space ahead.

I'd seen pictures. I'd pictured it in my head many times. The giant portrait of Chairman Mao staring placidly out across the square. Finally, I was there.

Tian An Men Square was awe-inspiring. It's enormous, and it's surrounded by giant austere granite buildings. To the west, the Great Hall of the People- the seat of the government of the People's Republic of China. To the east, the Museum of the Chinese Revolution. To the north, the Tian An Men Gate* (after which the square is named) and the Forbidden City. And to the south, Chairman Mao's mausoleum.** Tian An Men Square is imposing, and its location, its physical and political context, give it added gravitas. Its scale makes the individual feel tiny and insignificant.

This is not an accident.

*Beijing is laid out very logically and geometrically - and has been for hundreds of years. From north to south and east to west across the city, there are gates that are all aligned with each other, and aligned with - I can't remember, I think astronomical observations. I could have looked it up, but that might have compromised my blog's sense of spontaneity and immediacy. Also? "Men" means gate, as in "Gate of Heavenly Peace." So Tian An Men Gate means "Gate of Heavenly Peace Gate."

**Yes, of course I called it the Mao's-o-leum. I couldn't pass that up.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

China Stories Pt 16: Hi! My name is...

I had a job teaching English classes a couple days a week to employees of CAAC, the national airline. It was really fun- especially the first day, when my co-teacher and I helped our students pick English names.

Some students already had names, either because they had been given names by prior teachers, or because they had chosen names for themselves. Some students were more successful than others at choosing names. My class included a man named Sally.*

One interesting aspect of choosing names was learning my student's real names, and what they meant. Chinese given names can be descriptive, and revealing of the time they were born. For instance, at the time of Communist "Liberation," in 1949, many boys were named "Guoqing," which literally means "national holiday." Later, in the years when Mao was focused on modernization and catching up to the Soviets and the West, popular names included "Hongjun" (Red Army), "Guoqiang" (strong country), even "Gang," which meant "steel," or "Hong" meaning "red."


I have a name in Chinese. My name in Chinese is Bai Qingyun. It was given to me during my first year studying Chinese by one of my professors. The teachers tried to give us all names that were in some way reminiscent of our real names, but also sounded like real Chinese names. In earlier times, foreigners didn't really have Chinese names so much as Chinese characters that imitated the sound of their foreign names. So Frank became "falangke," John became "yuehan," Mary became "meili."

My surname, Bai, is also the name of an ethnic group in southern China. It's not one of the most common surnames; those would be Li (pronounced Lee) and Wang. Bai means "white." I took some pride in the fact that I shared the surname of my professor.

Qingyun literally means "celebratory clouds." White celebratory clouds. Cool. I thought it sounded Daoist.

On a few occasions, well-intended Chinese people told me to change my name. They said that the character "yun" had a feminine connotation. One of the taxi drivers suggested a new name for me, one which was more masculine: Bai Qinggang. White celebratory steel. I declined.

Bai Qingyun is my name in Chinese. It just is. It's been my name for almost 20 years. It's become a true part of my identity.


In my English class, one of my favorite students was Wang Jun. (Jun means army.) His English name was Jack.

He was born in the 1950s, in the early days of the PRC. He'd grown up in Beijing, and was an airline mechanic. We became friends - really, he was my first Chinese friend besides my teachers. He was the first Chinese person whose home I visited. It was a nice, clean little apartment, and he made dumplings, which I love. (I don't know why, but my experience has been that Chinese men don't cook, with the exception of dumplings. Men make dumplings.)

He was eager to learn English, but also amenable to speaking Chinese with me. Alternating between English and Chinese, we talked a lot. I was fascinated because he had lived through all of the recent Chinese history that I found so interesting.

We would walk and talk after class, but mostly he humored me, answering my questions. He had been a Red Guard during the Cultural Revolution, for instance. He had been present for an incident of interest to me.

In the waning years of the Cultural Revolution, Chairman Mao was in declining health and had been effectively co-opted by a group led by his wife, Jiang Qing. They were known as the Gang of Four. They were nominally left-wing radicals who claimed to speak for Mao and advocated "continuous revolution." They were said to have been the prime movers behind the Cultural Revolution. After their fall from power, they became the scapegoats for the entirety of it. They certainly deserved some of the blame, but also neatly shielded the beloved Chairman Mao from any blame.

One of the few brakes on the most radical and destructive impulses of the Cultural Revolution and the Red Guards was China's Premier, Zhou Enlai. He was one of the original leaders of the Communist Revolution, along with Mao. Unlike many of Mao's other colleagues, he had deftly avoided being pushed out of power. He was China's leading diplomat for decades, and he was almost universally respected and loved by the Chinese people.

Zhou's death in January of 1976 prompted an outpouring of grief. Thousands of people mourned his death by going to Tiananmen Square on April 4 and 5. April 5th is Qing Ming, a holiday where people honor their ancestors by sweeping their graves.

The mass turnout in Tiananmen Square was something more: it was a daring act of dissent and defiance, a bold demonstration of dissatisfaction with the government. The government cleared the square of all of the wreathes and poems, which only aroused greater anger among the public. The turnout alarmed the leadership. They - the Gang of Four, supposedly with Mao's assent - decided to use force to clear the square.

It became known as the Tiananmen Incident, or simply "4-5" for short.**

My friend Wang Jun had been there - he told me about the people he saw, on the bus on the way to the square - people crying over the loss of Zhou. Many people wrote elegies for Zhou which also contained a subtext of criticism of the Gang of Four. He told me about a professor who sang a tribute to Zhou. About people being beaten.

This was something I had read about in books, but Wang Jun had been there- right there in the Square, in 1976. Imagine that.

*As names went, Sally wasn't too bad. In Hong Kong I met a Ringo and an Adolph. In Beijing, I knew a woman whose Chinese name was Rong Rong,so naturally her English name was...Echo.

**Much the way a later incident became known as "6-4."

China Stories Pt. 15 1/2: Your questions answered.

Sometimes in the course of telling my little story, my readers* bring to my attention points that require elaboration.

For instance:

frazzeeee said...

i have a ton of questions!

- was it a bad thing that you missed classes?
- was it competitive to be selected as a temp. employee for CBS? (i would think lots of people would be signing up)
- what were other people/students being employed to do?
- what did the cabbies think of you?
- was the food different? american? why was Roy complaining about it?

(sorry, just curious!)

So I'm taking a moment out to answer these questions.

Q: Was it a bad thing that you missed classes?
A: Not really. I learned a ton, and I was speaking Chinese day and night because I was stuck in a hotel room with two dozen Beijing taxi drivers. I doubt the classroom could have done as much to improve my language skills.

Q: Was it competitive to be selected as a temp. employee for CBS?
A: As I recall, it was not competitive. The CBS cameraman based in Beijing was an alum of my study program, so he sought us out. My program just had an "in."

Q: What were other people/students being employed to do?
A: A lot of things, including serving as translators for camera crews and reporters. Some people did odd jobs such as fix airline tickets. I will have more to say about this later.

I should add that the other broadcast networks (plus CNN) were covering the event too, and we were all in the same hotel. I distinctly remember watching Brit Hume walk off an elevator. We made eye contact, and as we did, he tripped over a bunch of cables snaking across the lobby. In retrospect I wish I had laughed at him.

Q: What did the cabbies think of you?
A: You know? I'm not really sure. I think they liked me, but thought I was an oddity. They probably thought that about most foreigners. I was this twenty year-old kid with a beard, and I was telling them what to do. I tried to get them food that they would like and bought them cigarettes. In 1989 in China, a pack of Marlboro Reds was still a great way to smoothe over any misunderstanding. Much like Mentos are now.

Q: Was the food different? American? Why was Roy complaining about it?
A: We had the five-star hotel cater Chinese food, and the drivers hated it. I understand - it was mostly Cantonese food, which tends to be light, a little sweet, and heavy on seafood. But the main problem was simply that it wasn't local food, such as dumplings and mutton hot pot and bok choi. These guys did not have cultivated palates, nor were they interested in broadening their horizons. They were interested in going to sleep full.

We tried western food as well. One time a driver came in late, after the catered dinner was over, so I ordered him a hamburger from room service. It came open-face, the way hamburgers do. On one side of the plate was a meat patty sitting on a bun; next to it, another bun with lettuce and tomato. The driver proceeded to use a fork to break up and eat the bun and patty, and then did the same to the bun with the lettuce and tomato. I'm certain it never occurred to him to put it together and eat it with his hands - that would just be weird. I know it never occurred to me that someone wouldn't know how to eat a hamburger.

Why didn't I show him how to eat it the right way? Well, I told him, but he didn't go for it. Maybe he thought I was playing a joke on him. He was content to use his own method.

Eventually we started giving money to one of the drivers, who would go out and bring back food more to their liking.

*Okay, reader.

Friday, July 07, 2006

China Stories, Pt. 15: Back to School (Sort of)

I was back at Bei Da, and back in class, which was nice. I settled into a routine of going to class, and studying. For a while.

Basically, here's how my days went.

7:00 am - wake up; walk down the hall to take a shower; shave (optional).

7:15 - make coffee (NOT optional); eat Muesli with local yogurt.

8:00 - class (I can't remember - grammar? listening comprehension?)

9:30 - some other class

12:00 - lunch

1:00 - do homework back in dorm room.

1:30 - take nap (they cleaned the hallways with kerosene, and the fumes made taking a nap seem like a good idea)

3:00 - study

7:00 - dinner

My roommate Chad had shown a decided lack of interest in scholarly pursuits. While Bob and I had gone to Sichuan for Spring Festival, Chad went even further, to Xinjiang. Because it's farther away, he had left early. This meant missing classes, which the program supervisor discouraged. Nevertheless, off Chad went to Urumqi and Kashgar, cities closer to Kabul than to Beijing. Even though he had left early, he had returned late, again, missing classes. He had decided this was not so much a problem for him. He was not even getting college credit for this program, so he reasoned that if he thought that the opportunity to go to Xinjiang was too good to pass up, he would go to Xinjiang.

I didn't object. I had to admit it sounded like a pretty cool trip. Besides, I enjoyed having the room to myself.


Routine was nice, but it didn't last long.

Emperor Hirohito died in late January, and President Bush planned to visit China after attending Hirohito's funeral. CBS News was planning extensive coverage of the President's visit to China. As a result, they were in need of some temporary employees. I signed on, even though it meant missing classes. How could I pass up a chance to be part of a Presidential visit to China?

Besides, they would pay us $100 a day, and give us a per diem of about $25, to allow us to eat in the hotel. $100 seemed like a lot, and after eating noodles in the cafeteria, I hardly knew how I would spend $25 a day on food. (I figured it out.)

The visit itself I don't remember much, but the experience was tremendous. CBS News took over a whole floor of a five-star hotel. They rented a couple rooms at other hotels, which I had the run of for two nights. I went to the breakfast buffet everyday.

My friend Randy and I spent most of our time on one task: managing a car pool. That meant, essentially, babysitting 20 Beijing taxi drivers until the CBS folks decided to go somewhere. Randy and I enjoyed being with them for the most part. We had nicknames for them - one was Roy, because he looked like country singer Roy Clark. Another one we called Bluto since he looked (and acted) like John Belushi's character in "Animal House." One we called Sleepy because he looked like one of the seven dwarfs. So we had conversations like this.

"Bruce Morton wants to go to the Friendship Store - who shall we send, Roy?"

"No, let's get Bluto out of here. He's clipping his toenails and it's disgusting."

"Okay. Let's send Roy too. All he's done is complain about the food for two days."

I can't imagine learning as much Chinese in a classroom as I did sitting around a hotel room watching TV with a bunch of Beijing cabbies. If you can understand a roomful of cabdrivers talking with each other, you're starting to get some significant language comprehension.

It probably wasn't the healthiest way to learn, since the cabbies smoked their way through every waking hour.

I was happy - I learned a lot, made $500, and made numerous trips to the omelette station.

Best of all, CBS told us they would hire us again in April, for Gorbachev's visit to China.