So I had my last final this past Wednesday, and I'm busting out of the wild, wonderful world of Beijing sometime either next Tuesday or Wednesday. Destination: northern Sichuan/Gansu/eastern Qinghai. Not that these names mean anything to most of you, but I'll try to lay down a preview of coming attractions. I'll start in Chengdu, which is the home of "Szechwan" food. After a thorough removal of several layers of my tongue, I will move north into this big grasslands area, where hopefully I will do catch some horse-riding, yurt-living, Lamaist-temple-seeing action until my visa runs out on July 31. This whole area has so many ethnic Tibetans (and is relatively obscure) that it would be like visiting Tibet without having to pay $300 per day for permits or having to hang out with a bunch of fresh off the plane Beastie Boy fans.
Last Friday I camped out on the Great Wall. It was rather unlike Vinny's experience. I went to the Simatai section by myself at around 6 PM at night. The reason why I went solo was that my so called "friends" couldn't be asked to not be at a bar when there's no class the next day. When I arrived, I was so late that I managed to run past the unaware vendors, who usually hang around the gate and greet every foreign friend with a warm "Cold ice water Coke ice beer film batteries!" and follow you until you tell them repeatedly to go fuck off. Furthermore, the ticket office was closed, precluding the need of buying a ticket (an even greater scam along the same lines that I learned last summer is that you can enter the Grand Canyon for free if you camp in the forest just outside the northern rim and drive in around 6 or 6:30 AM). I busted a nut up the trail, trying to get as high as possible so I could catch the sunset, set out my sleeping bag, and sleep until about 4 AM for the sunrise. At about the fourth watchtower up, however, I met some vendor guy hauling a crate of bottled ice tea. At the time I was sitting down taking a rest and was considering packing up my shit and running as far away as possible. However, we got into a conversation and it turned out that he lives up in the eighth watchtower, where he makes his living out of selling crap during the summer. So I spent the night there, just me and this guy and his wife, hanging out on the wall. I taught him how to play spit and he forced baijiu and cheap Chinese cigarettes on me. (Yes, I have learned how to smoke out here. Chinese cigarettes are egregiously vile but smoking is an essential social skill. When a Chinese guy offers you a cigarette, which they will do every five minutes, and you refuse, it's the social equivalent of holding your hand out for a high five and pulling away at the last second.) I still got up at about 4 AM, clambered up a bit further, and through blurry eyes had my first solitary nature experience in about a year. It was so relaxing being able to sit on a rock overlooking these mountains, no one else around, eating my breakfast of overripe bananas, half melted chocolate bars and warm mineral water, and the only noise being some birds and the livestock waking up in the farms down below. I hung out until 7 AM, whereupon I took a nap for a couple of hours and headed back down. Of course, the whole spell was broken about three quarters of the way down when I could hear a distant speaker blasting Chinese pop music and I passed a tour group of middle aged, obese red-faced English people wheezing, puffing, sweating, and clumsily using their newly bought $60 Plexiglas hiking poles, all before the steep part even began. And of course, the vendors were ready for me when I got back.
Last week, I went to the Old Summer Palace and I learned quite a bit about the motivations behind the way China's government acts. Here's a little pop quiz.
1) What do you think is the best way for Tibet to gain its independence?
a) For Hollywood stars like Richard Gere and musicians like Ben Harper and the Beastie Boys to form charitable organizations whose sole purpose is to hold large benefit concerts that are attended by people who could not point to where Tibet is on a map.
b) For human rights groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights in China to urge people to write letters to American lawmakers, which will promptly be ignored because the politicians are more interested in realpolitick (or the soft money from multinationals that would benefit in a trade deal with China) than preventing the "China-fication" of a completely unrelated culture.
c) To launch a full-scale military invasion of China and force Jiang Zemin at gunpoint to sign a treaty freeing Tibet.
2) What do you think the best way for America to encourage the Chinese government to grant Taiwan independence?
a) For America to reject NPTR with China despite the fact that the EU already has permanent normalized trade relations. Thus American products would still be levied high tariffs while European companies would make a shitload of money selling duty-free cars, wheat, etc.
b) For American politicians like Jesse Helms to make soundbite-worthy speeches in Congress about how only when China begins to respect democracy, then we will approve of them entering the WTO.
c) To launch a full-scale military invasion of China. Only by putting Jiang Zemin at gunpoint will he give Taiwan independence.
If you answered "a" or "b" to either one of these questions, sorry, but you don't have a clue about how the Chinese government thinks. What does this have to do with the Old Summer Palace? For those of you not schooled in Chinese history, let me rap to you. When the British and French imperialist fuckers came during the 17th and 18th centuries, they tried to milk China for all its worth. The British wanted all that silk and tea but the Chinese didn't really want any of Britain's crap, so the British started importing opium. When some Chinese officials started resisting all of this importation by destroying cargoes of opium, the British and French went ape shit and proceeded to tear shit up with the Opium War, starting with the burning of the Old Summer Palace. The Chinese got their asses thoroughly beaten (so much for inventing gunpowder several centuries before the West) and were forced to sign the humiliating Treaty of Nanjing. There's more after this (the foreign suppression of the Boxer Rebellion, the Japanese invasion) but the Old Summer Palace is the definitive symbol of China's humiliation at foreign hands. It's hard to overstate how strong most people's feelings are regarding this, because China (like most other Asian cultures) is really stuck up. They really do think they are the best race/country in the world and are intensely ashamed when they see objectively they aren't perfect or haven't conquered the entire world yet. Most Chinese people realize that the systematic destruction of temples during the Cultural Revolution and the bulldozing of hundreds of students in Tiananmen was wrong, but when you get nosy foreigners (like myself) coming in bragging about how free market/human rights/liberalism is the one true right way or how China has pretty weak claims on Tibet or Taiwan, they get extremely defensive. No amount of diplomatic pressure is going to make them give. No stick, no matter how large, is going to prod China to do anything we want, because to them, compromising would be another loss of face, another burning down of the Old Summer Palace.
Back to my story, the Old Summer Palace was interesting. There are a couple of ruins scattered around the place and next to each one is a picture of what it would look it if it hadn't been burned down. You can walk all around the ruins and take pictures. People have scratched all sorts of graffiti on them; luckily I brought my dictionary and was able to translate a lot of them. They tended to run along the lines as "The motherland is great and mighty" and "Never forget this national humiliation. Avenge this terrible shame." I bumped into this one guy who gave me surly looks. I told him, "Hey, don't look at me. I'm American." (Indeed, the only thing America really has done wrong to them is the embassy bombing last year. Other than that, they love our music, movies, cell phones and McDonald's.) Anyhow, I got into this conversation with this guy, which was rather interesting. He went on and on about how China is so mighty now, that it's able to fight a war for up to 100 years. I explained to him the game theory implications of nuclear weapons. He then told me how America was justly defeated by China in the Korean War after we tried to invade North Korea. (Indeed, they refer to the war as the "War to Resist American Aggression.") I explained to him that it was the Commies who started the war by invading the South. Furthermore, the border now is essentially the same as it was before the war, with the only result being several million people dying in the line of fire or being massacred by retreating American troops. He then started ragging on me about the Vietnam War. I told him that most people in America opposed the war and that these people who opposed the war weren't sent to a political re-education camp for 20 years but instead most of them now own SUVs. And besides, Vietnam and China are no friends; they fought a war in the late 70's.
Anyway, considering this will probably be my last email en masse until I return to the States, I thought that I would give a little wrap-up about my feelings towards Beijing. So far, when anyone's asked me, "How's Beijing?" my reply has been, "I fucking hate this shithole." This past month or so, I've rethought this answer. Certainly the warmer weather makes this place a lot more pleasant. The woman-watching has improved a little, at least in terms of women walking down the street wearing less clothes. I also think this semester was more fulfilling than the fall semester. I made a real effort to hang out with Chinese people. Whereas last fall, I could say I had one study partner who helped me with my homework, now I can say that I have 5 or 6 really good friends who are Chinese. On the other hand, I've completely alienated myself from the foreign students here. Before, I would be eating lunch and dinner every day with a group of people (mostly from London University) while recently it's been more and more solo. The reason why I stopped hanging around with most of them is that conversation tended to revolve around which club to go to next Saturday and how much ecstasy to bring there. The Japanese students are OK, if somewhat cliquish. I'll describe my not so nice feelings towards the Korean students out here in a later essay.
The sad thing is that it's really hard for foreign students in Beijing to escape from the vicious circle of constantly only hanging out with other foreigners. It's mainly that Chinese students are usually really busy and there really aren't too many venues for meeting other people outside of bars and discos. Another thing that bothers me is that usually Chinese students have an actual workload made up of substantial material, sort of comparable to Swat. The foreigner's curriculum here is shit and there is no doubt that Chinese universities consider these programs solely as cash cows, charging foreigners 15 times as much tuition (which still runs at the cost of a state school) in order to spoon feed us propaganda drivel. You'll learn Chinese out here, of course, but then again out here you would have to actively try out not to learn any. Thus, when I said, "This place is a fucking septic wasteland", I was more describing my feelings towards the college and the foreigners instead of to the city itself. I'm sure that if instead I had a full time job out here, I would have had a much better time.