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Their going hence even as their coming hither.

This summer I returned to China, but unlike the past few trips I’ve made, I spent most of my precious June, July, and August as an unabashed tourist. Some interesting things had been happening in China before I flew into Shanghai with a mountain of luggage and a huge Nikon D-whatever. Some interesting things happened while I was there. And some interesting things continue to happen as I sit in front of my MacBook uploading photos and eating water crackers.

As I have my late night snack and type this blog post, McCain’s acceptance speech at the RNC blasts from our television. Which is very much déjà vu, because while I was typing a blog post in China and snacking on cheap Shanghai scallion crackers, I listened to Jacques Rogge deliver the standard world-harmony-amazing-athletes-Olympic-spirit speech during closing ceremonies on August 25th. I’m not so politically apathetic that I don’t bother to distinguish between the two speeches, but very generally speaking and if I zone out just enough, I just hear a lot of well-wishing, a lot of delirious cheering and the occasional interjection of a catchy slogan, and most of all, many many many many promises of unity.

This abstract unity manifested itself everywhere this summer, primarily because of a little event called The Olympics. There is the bordering-on-terrifying patriotism of so many native Chinese. There is the pride of various countries’ tourists as they watch their athletes break world records. There is particular unity among critics–an event like the Olympics can partition thus–those who hate the weather in Beijing, those who hate the lack of attention the Tibet/Mongolia/Xinjiang issues receives from the Chinese media, those who hate the idea of the Olympics in general, and those certain indignant wrathful people who hate everything regardless of time or place.

As a cynical tourist, life is kind of hard, since cynics are surrounded by this cloud of highly-opinionated irony and hypocrisy. Maybe the Chinese “government” should do a better job in “dealing with” Tibet (Autonomous region…). Maybe the air is truly shitty and the sun is obscured by this impenetrable smog. Maybe the aftermath and the rescue process in Sichuan is really a continuation of disaster but the media conveniently chooses uplifting Reader’s Digest-type stories to report on the ten different strictly government-filtered channels of CCTV. Maybe the Olympic athletes are only jumping, or running, or swimming, or shooting, or kicking their way to million-dollar commercial deals and early retirement from the monotony of professional athleticism. Maybe the Chinese female gymnasts are really only SIX or SEVEN but in fact appear much older than their true ages.

I would think all of the aforementioned, if not for the fact that my front row ticket to see Usain Bolt’s 100-meter world record cost about 200 American dollars. And the minute fact that I was buying groceries and listening to my iPod and doing other very normal things in the very city hosting the Olympics. Inevitably the Olympic atmosphere (or the ubiquity of “Beijing 2008” Olympic flags) began to brainwash me. I drifted in and out of a scary mode of patriotism and nationalism. I thought the Fuwa, the five strategically marketed Olympic mascots, were cute. That was my lowest point. Or shall we say farthest away from cynicism.

For Bolt, I cheered and cheered and cheered. I told everyone I knew that I had tickets, authentic tickets to a track event. I took about a thousand pictures of this steel thing, also known as the National Outdoor Stadium. I took no less of a tofu-shaped blue bubbly thing, also known as the National Aquatics Center, also known as place where Michael Phelps won eight gold medals and hugged his mother. I even bought a Brazil jersey, expressly for the purpose of blending in at the Brazil vs. Nigeria football match. Who knows what else I did. Everything sounds out of character in retrospect. I watched the opening ceremonies the night of in a bar and ran around the streets trying to catch a glimpse of the closing fireworks. I bought sixty-dollar baseball hats emblazoned with nothing but a tiny Beijing 2008 logo.

Maybe my mood is exclusively influenced by location.

Odi et amo. Quare id faciam, fortasse requiris.

I have returned to the cradle of the Purple Valley, also known as Williamstown, where everything, if open at all, closes by dinnertime or sunset, because we are primeval like that. Shanghai is so different from Beijing, which is so different from Williamstown. Since modern Shanghai is very much about extravagance and show, especially as the World Expo draws nearer, it’s interesting to see what these cliched photographs of the famous bund at night look like desaturated. Deprived of its neon, sheer geometry of a building is more obvious, although I am not sure whether the bund in black and white is any less of the flamboyant city Shanghai is becoming.

But I am too exhausted and jetlagged to draw coherent conclusions long enough to fill a post. So to divert attention, a link to a hilarious video:

I like English, because it is very, very nice.







He was little or nothing but life.

Nerdily enough, the Chinese texts we’ve been reading have provoked me to write this post about heritage sites and the paradox of maintaining tradition through architectural preservation. The point of this post is, I’m a huge nerd.

First of all, the academic Chinese are obsessed with the idea of globalization, probably better defined in their eyes as the IDEAL of globalization. The essay we read claimed westernization and anglophilia were both at the root of modernization and also globalization, and perhaps the Chinese should redirect their cultural preferences and societal inclinations towards their own roots rather than towards western roots. It all made pseudo-sense, only the essay was written by a Chinese scholar. In English. It was then translated into Chinese, and that is what we read. Peculiar, and moderately hypocritical.

No one is against preserving the Great Wall, since it just looks spectacular and no one in their right minds is going to oppose preservation, and no one in their right minds is going to build another Great Wall the same way it was built before. Sometimes I believe in things very plainly, that is, if it looks cool and cost lives, it should probably be maintained if only for the sake of those who were forced to build it. Many of the sites in Beijing should be maintained this way, without doubt and without debate over whether preserving an ancient facade will really preserve and ground ancient tradition and history. We all go to the Great Wall for the sake of taking pretty pictures and proving how widely we’ve traveled; no one goes to the Great Wall to learn much. We all climbed as far as the twelfth tower, posted photographic evidence on Facebook, and spoke some Chinese. We admired inwardly that emperor’s insanity and some of us probably felt a little bad for the oppressed laborers who laid the stones one by one. Maybe it’s enough to know greatness exists; there is no need to pinpoint a source.

Monomaniacal pursuit of outward preservation is also scary. Political figures are using preservation of heritage sites as a platform. Scholars are arguing about it like they would argue about nihilism or something. We preserve the site, we lose the history. We insist on better historical education, we learn about sites vanished to dust and sand.

In conclusion, I don’t know what I’m talking about. But I am entirely dissatisfied.

You do not have to be good. You do not have to walk on your knees

Skylines, treelines, and horizons.

Again and Again, However We Know the Landscape of Love

There is a great discrepancy between the interior of the apartment where my paternal grandparents live and the neighborhood of skyrises surrounding their building. The washed-out building façades are scraped raw like skin to reveal hazardous cement cracks and streaks of dirty laundry water like human tears. A precariously heaped mountain of waste in front of our building has just crumbled under heavy rain—from ten floors above the neon plastic bags and the bright watermelon shells almost look pretty. When the sun comes out the damp heap will swarm with maggots and flies, but while it rains the weather is bearable and the breeze is steady and cool. The inner circuit of my grandparents’ neighborhood is a road forever stamped with spit, gum, and garbage thrown carelessly from rooms high above. Nothing looks cleaner than was a few years ago, although admittedly pristine would be a difficult look to achieve when the drooping sky casts everything in a dustier shade. I notice only a few differences: the new air conditioning machines sitting out on the ledges of every apartment window, still white from the department store and the small parade of fancy cars encircling each building in the neighborhood. The old preschool playground I can see to the left is exactly the same as it was eight years ago. The barbershop in front of the playground gates has lost its signature barbershop roll and still has not been painted to look a bit more welcoming for patrons, since its only regular customers are the elderly looking for a trim to affirm that their hair is still growing. The biggest difference is beyond the neighborhood gate, where the highway is congested by five in the morning, buses wait splattered with colorful advertisements for Olympics merchandise, taxis dart in and out seeking business, and motorcycles with horns replace the former school of rickety bicycles with bells. The constant rush of traffic, punctuated by angry horns and engines, never quiets. The city truly never sleeps. In all its smog and smoke, I have never seen a true sunrise and sunset to mirror our most instinctive pattern of sleeping and waking. Here is the face of urban China.