Posted on April 28th, by matt_schiavenza in Travel. 1 Comment

I recently spent a few days in Beijing, a city I hadn’t visited since the beginning of 2008- a lifetime ago in laowai years. As always, a trip outside Kunming calls for a few observations.

– For the first time ever, I visited Beijing in decent weather. Normally my visits to the city coincide with either harsh winter or scorching summer temperatures, necessarily limiting my desire and capacity to explore the city on foot. On this occasion- barring one day of rain- the skies were blue and temperatures perfect. This made a big difference in forming my impression.

-The local food in Beijing is best avoided. As a Kunming-bred friend of mine says, Beijing restaurants to take all the flavors available around the country and replace them with heaping mounds of salt. I had a bowl of daoshaomian, a favorite noodle dish of mine, and nearly wept when I tasted it. Give me southwestern lajiao every day.

That being said, Beijing has an array of cuisine on offer befitting a great capital city. And the prices are reasonable, too. I had passable Mexican food with real guacamole and didn’t have to pay through the nose to get it. One regret from not staying longer was being unable to sample all the fine food on offer.

– So how is Beijing in comparison to Shanghai? This, my friends, is a question that arouses fanatical opinion in China. As a person who has lived in neither city and a resident of the hinterland, I don’t really have a dog in this fight. What struck me more was how similar the two were to one another, and how different both were to Kunming. I truly felt like Rip Van Winkle walking around, gaping with amazement at the dazzling array of, well, stuff there was to buy and see and do.

But alas I am not Switzerland; neutrality is not an option. And I must place my lot firmly in the Beijing camp. This isn’t really a slight to Shanghai, which is a helluva city in its own right and one I look forward to seeing again. But Beijing has better retained its essential Chinese-ness in the process of its development than has its southern counterpart.

While in Beijing I stayed at a chain hotel in Shuangjing, a fairly non-descript neighborhood just off the third ring road. Within walking distance of my hotel was a Starbucks, a French bakery, and the other trappings of a major international city. Yet also nearby was an ordinary Chinese neighborhood with noodle houses, Sichuan fry-up dives, a few gritty looking bars, and the normal hum of daily life so common in China.

I didn’t find this in Shanghai. Maybe I didn’t look hard enough, but what I saw was a city eager to shed its Chinese-ness rather than embrace it. Of course, ‘out with the old’ is as Chinese a concept as face, chopsticks, and dragon boat races. But in the opinion of this humble correspondent Shanghai looks a little too much like a shanzhai Hong Kong*, with the exception of the magnificent architecture along the Bund that is truly one of Shanghai’s great trademarks. It’s difficult to imagine a hutong in Shanghai, for instance, being used for anything other than a German beer garden and Gucci outlet.

In writing this, I am trying to avoid the easy temptation of romanticizing pre-development China, a trait associated with spoiled rich-country writers the world over. Given where it was 30 years ago, contemporary Shanghai is a staggering, momentous tribute to China’s economic miracle. But it feels so disconnected with the rest of the country that the effect is almost jarring. Beijing seems to possess a better mixture of quotidian Chinese life and the international sophistication the country has embraced.

– As much as I enjoyed my time in Beijing, it was good to get back home to Kunming. On the drive home my taxi got stuck in a traffic jam caused by two men who had parked their cars in the middle of the road and engaged in a furious fist fight. The short guy with the cap had a quick jab, but he was foiled by the tall guy’s swift uppercut, though before long the boxing match descended into good old fashioned rolling-on-the-ground brawling. Ah- it’s good to be home.…

Liberals, Conservatives, and Open-Mindedness

Posted on April 10th, by matt_schiavenza in Navel Gazing, Politics. 2 comments

At Marginal Revolution, Tyler Cowen asks his readers whether self-identified conservatives are more ‘closed-minded’ than self-identified liberals.

To me, the answer is quite plainly yes, and not only because I am a liberal who dislikes conservative values. Once upon a time, the conservative movement actually contained useful ideas about domestic, economic, and foreign policy that provided an intellectual balance to liberalism. This balance no longer exists, in large part due to conservatism’s abandonment of intellectualism.

What has happened over the past generation is that the conservative movement has effectively embraced anti-intellectualism as its guiding creed. This began with the election of Ronald Reagan as President and has reached its apotheosis with the rise of Sarah Palin. In the conservative mind, Palin’s lack of knowledge and expertise are virtues rather than liabilities. Her very simplicity makes her somehow more authentic.

This dislike of intellectualism has led conservatives to adopt an essentially reductionist set of policy ideas. Economic policy? Cut taxes and everything will be fine. Environmental policy? Drill baby drill. Foreign policy? Perpetual war, uber-patriotism, obsessive veneration of the military, and other fascist trappings. Domestic policy? Guns and God.  That’s basically about it.

A generation ago, when conservatism still had intellectual integrity, the answer to Cowen’s question might have been ‘no’, or at least ‘not necessarily’. Nowadays  closed-mindedness isn’t just a characteristic of conservatism, it’s a principle.…

China Divide, This Site, and Me

Posted on April 10th, by matt_schiavenza in Me, Self-Promotion. 3 comments

A couple of announcements for a lazy Saturday morning in hot and sunny Kunming, China…..

Keen followers of the China blogosphere may have noticed that there’s a new kid on the block: China/Divide. Combining the talents of Stan Abrams of China Hearsay, Kai Pan of CN Reviews, and Charles Custer of China Geeks, China/Divide has already become a go-to source for smart, witty analysis on all things China.

To my delight, I have been invited to join the team. My first contribution, a piece discussing the recent thaw in Sino-American relations, is now live. Go and have a look.

Some of you- ok, maybe just close friends and family members- are probably thinking, “Damn, Schiavenza. You already write for Lost Laowai, China Intelligence Online, Yunnan Magazine, and Don’t you think you’re stretching yourself a little thin?”

Perhaps. There is only so much time to blog each day, and only so many things to blog about. As a result, I’ve decided to change the direction of my personal site and make it, well, more personal. Since its launch in summer 2007 I’ve consciously tried to devote this space to thoughts and reflections about China, deviating only occasionally into rants about US politics and other subjects. Doing this has brought focus to my writing as well as a group of intelligent and interesting regular readers.

So while I still plan to write often about China, those posts will likely appear elsewhere. This space, then, will become a repository for the millions of other things clamoring around in my brain. In the past I’ve wanted to write about books, baseball, movies, politics, and other subjects but refrained in an effort to maintain the China focus on this blog. Now, posts about those things will begin to appear more regularly.

With that out of the way, I’ve got another announcement to make, one which will likely not be news for most of you. Beginning this fall, I will be a student at Columbia University in New York City, pursuing a Masters in International Affairs. Leaving the Dragon for the Apple will be a big change, no doubt, and I’m sure I’ll have a lot to say about it. Though I’ll be sad to be leaving China after six wonderful years, I’m excited about this new challenge in my life and feel now is the best time to go for it.

Anyway, I hope all of you stick around for the ride- writing this blog has been one of the best things in my life both personally and professionally, something that would not have been possible had you not popped in with comments. Once again- thank you very much.

Now, back to regularly scheduled programming……

Can Do People

Posted on April 8th, by matt_schiavenza in Language. 3 comments

Yesterday while attending my first yoga class in well over a year, my teacher kept using the term huiyuan to signify those- not me- who were able to do the positions properly. The term appears to me to be a combination of 会 and 员, literally ‘can person’. Yet when checking on Wenlin the term 会员 has only one meaning: member.

Does anyone know whether this is an actual term, or was my teacher simply making words up on the spot? In any case I found it a clever use of the language, and aspire to be a yoga ‘can person’ myself.…

UPDATE: Dylan in China

Posted on April 6th, by matt_schiavenza in Uncategorized. 1 Comment

James Fallows also picks up on the Bob Dylan in China story and now has an interesting rejoinder provided by Zachary Mexico, the former Kunming laowai whose book China Underground I reviewed in this space last July:

I have it on good authority that the Chinese government did not deny Bob Dylan permission to play in China. It was the Taiwanese promoter’s outlandish financial requests that made the tour unrealistic.

If there’s anyone I know of who would be in position to know this thing, it’s Zach, so this could well be the case. If so, I’d like to issue a hearty apology to the culture warriors at Zhongnanhai for my insinuation that they were behind this travesty. Who knows? Maybe Hu Jintao was more of a Beatles guy than a Dylan fan.…

Stay Bobby Stay

Posted on April 5th, by matt_schiavenza in Current Events, Music. 2 comments

According to the Guardian, Bob Dylan will not be permitted to play concerts in Beijing and Shanghai, thus scuttling his proposed East Asia tour:

China‘s ministry of culture, which vets planned concerts by overseas artists, appeared wary of Dylan’s past as an icon of the counterculture movement, said Jeffrey Wu, of the Taiwan-based promoters Brokers Brothers Herald.

Dylan fans denied the chance to see their hero might also blame Björk, who caused consternation among Chinese officials two years ago byshouting pro-Tibet slogans at a concert in Shanghai, Wu told Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post.

The verdict scuppers Dylan’s plans to play his first dates in mainland China. The singer, who plays around 100 concerts a year on his Never Ending Tour, had hoped to extend a multi-city Japanese leg with concerts in Beijing, Shanghai, Taiwan, South Korea and Hong Kong. All these would now be called off, Wu told the newspaper.

I think I own or have listened to most of Bob Dylan’s music, and I’m struggling to remember if China, Tibet, Taiwan received any mention at all in his lyrics. Dylan also hasn’t been a counter-cultural icon since the early ’60s. When the hippie movement blossomed in the latter part of that decade, Dylan was living on a farm in Woodstock, New York and making folk/country albums like John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline.  In other words, he hasn’t raged against the machine since before the Cultural Revolution was in full swing.

I also find the Bjork connection dubious. Ministry of Culture apparatchiks are understandably not paid to keep up with Western pop music, but had they seen just one of her videos they’d have realized that the Icelandic ice queen isn’t exactly a bellwether of mainstream Western culture. If anything, her embrace of Tibetan rights would almost be enough to discredit the movement.

Once again, the Chinese government reveals its inept approach to international public relations regarding the Tibet issue. Moreover  I doubt even the most rabid fenqing would have been riled up by a near-septuagenarian folk singer entertaining a few thousand nostalgic boomer laowai.…

The Chinese Fly

Posted on April 3rd, by matt_schiavenza in Travel. No Comments

Over the past three weeks I spent some time on the road, visiting first Shanghai and then Chongqing. Unavoidably, this meant a lot of time in airports, the truest indication that in the words of Thomas Friedman, the world is indeed flat.

I’ve been to airports in probably 25 different countries, and what strikes me is how remarkably similar they all are. It’s as if airports exist as a country unto themselves, peaceful enclaves surrounded by an often hostile world. The prices, too, seem to have little relation to how much things cost elsewhere, a point most humorously made by Jerry Seinfeild. “Tuna sandwiches, 14 dollars. Tuna’s very rare here,”.

In China, the verisimilitude of airports is even more striking, as China itself is so vastly different from everywhere else. For those who haven’t had the chance to visit our lovely Middle Kingdom, China is a smash of sights, noise, attitude, excitement, and hustle.

So airports here provide a respite from the madness, an oasis of order, sanity, and direction. Nevertheless, differences in the flying habits do persist.

Over the course of my lifetime airports in the United States have become progressively less pleasant. This is of course a consequence of our idiotic ‘homeland security’ regime, in which airports enact inept and reactionary policies in a futile attempt to ward off terrorism. The security check at American airports is particularly galling. Uniformed officials herd us together like cattle, barking orders like kindergarten teachers on a school field trip. Once the passenger approaches the magic security point, he’s ordered to remove all clothing that might remotely trigger the ire of the metal detection machine.  Should he neglect to remove a coin, or a belt, or some other harmless item, he’s forced to try again, keeping the queue from progressing smoothly.

In China, on the other hand, the system is far more laid back. For some reason, I set off the metal detector each and every time I walk through it. No problem. I merely step on a platform, have a polite official scan my body with a wand, and then am sent through. Far more humane and pleasant.

The Chinese though are rather impatient when it comes to getting on and off the plane itself. People hover around the gate anxiously, trying to block others from marching into the passageway first. When the gate opens, people hurry through in a desperate attempt to sit still in their uncomfortable seat before all others. I’ve had little old grannies slip past me so slyly I thought I’d been caught in a basketball-style pick’n’roll. In the end, though, we all end up tied- sitting still in our seats, breathing recycling air, ready for the ritual of the flight.

The flights themselves are mostly unremarkable, though is it just me or do the Chinese seem unnaturally eager to announce the onset of turbulence? On the one-hour flight from Chongqing to Kunming, the stewardess announced that we’d encountered turbulence no fewer than five times, so much so that I became irritated by the constant ‘fasten your seatbelts’ bell sound.

Then there’s the landing, which is so ordinarily so rough you might as well have parachuted in. While the plane taxies around the airport at high speeds, Chinese passengers are fond of standing up, switching on their phones, and organizing their luggage. The young, pettite stewardesses try in vain to get everyone to calm down to no avail. Again, all the rush is for no apparent benefit. We all end up having to stand in a straight, orderly line anyway before disembarking.

Finally, there’s the baggage claim. The Chinese have turned jockeying for position at baggage claim terminals into something of a contact sport. At the airport last week I counted no fewer than five people literally poking their heads into the space where the bags come out from, as if to call for the bags to arrive sooner. Of course, this is again a waste of time. All the movement, pushing, shouting, and frayed nerve do not make the slightest bit of difference into when we actually get to arrive at our eventual destination.

That last bit depends on the taxi. So once you’ve miraculously gotten off the plane, found your way into baggage claim, fought successfully for your suitcase, navigated the crush of people in the terminal, and gotten outside, you’re faced with an even bigger challenge: China itself. And there, as if they’d been waiting for you all along, stand a group of men and women who’d love to take you to your hotel if you’d just be willing to pay three times the meter price.

So maybe the flying experience in China isn’t like it is everywhere else, after all. Yet like airports and airplanes all around the world, China’s are possessed by ritual and habit and arcane rules and a million other little things that are uncannily part of the process of moving, very quickly through air, from point A to point B.…