Thursday, May 11, 2006

Changchun, China

First of the “my time living with the Chinese” post.

Before I kick off I should make thing one thing clear. When I refer to China and my life in it I am talking about China Mk. II. This is the 3-400 million strong, modernizing, urban China that goes online, hosts Olympics, gets told by their government not to piss in the bushes when visiting Hong Kong Disneyland and pays the likes of me to teach English to their one precious child. This is where I live, work and get sloshed and what will follow for he next year will probably be mainly about this version.

There is another, bigger, quieter and, in some ways, more significant China that I have only glimpsed or walked through on some nature jaunt. This version has not changed much in the past few centuries and is not getting a piece of the pie. I am talking about rural China. The peasants of China have always been disregarded and treated like manure but this time they are getting huffy as they know that some of their brethren have ceased to suffer as they do and they have even had the odd riot against bent officials. According to the government there are 300 million of these chaps still living in abject poverty and proper sources put the figure at 800 mil.

If we start seeing Europe, the US and China as greedy lardies fighting for the same resources, rural China is actually of great significance to our privileged little hides. There are essentially two scenarios that matter to us. The first possibility is that the recently decreed New Socialist Countryside masterplan will work and millions of Chinese will be ushered into the 20th if not the 21st century. This would be good news for the Chinese and bad news for us. It means we will be suddenly have a numerically superior bunch of people with the same sense of god-given entitlement to anything on, in and above land or sea if they can pay for it. They will want to acquire, upgrade and uptrend their cars, gadgets and appliances just as much as we do and, like us, they will only care about how they will be able to pay for it.

Scenario 2 is that, like all programs with the word Socialist in them, the masterplan will go tits-up and the conditions of the peasants not improve on bit. China 2.0 will carry on draining resources out of the old version and fuck them over and things could get nasty. The locals have already protested against some of the depredations inflicted on them and got repressed brutally. This will in all probability re-occur and the leaders will probably respond by even nastier clampdowns. The past protests may seem paltry back home but when you consider that in China public dissent is a synonym of suicide it shows how bad things are in the sticks.

The core of the problem is the institutionalised corruption of Chinese mandarins (will do one post on this little pleonasm at some point). Essentially, rich townies get in cahoots with local supremos and grab some land. The folk who work and live on said land get bugger all compensation and face the prospect of starving or joining the vast crowd of illegal migrant workers who sift through my rubbish, build the skyscrapers around me and have less rights to travel freely and work than I do in their own country. Unsurprisingly this annoys them a bit and I suspect that stupid glory stunts like putting men into space might make them question the truly egalitarian nature of the Socialist Brotherhood of Man they live in. Hence, revolt.

This could very well lead China to take a big step backward and kick off a low intensity civil war between the townies and the oiks. The government would stamp out what small freedoms they have doled out and the great economic expansion would probably brake suddenly as foreign investors bail out. The government might then use the tried and tested method of diverting the locals’ interest in domestic matters by going all nationalistic and belligerent about Taiwan, Japan, the Spratlies or some perceived slur by the US. However this time they might get serious and things could get out of control.

As I am on a Nostradamic rant I might as well push my hypothetical musings to the end and see what it would mean for the West. Basically China would probably cease to bankroll the American economy which would then go into recession which would in turn hit us Europeans. We would eventually recover from that probably thanks partially to selling shedloads of weapon systems to very jittery Taiwanese and Japanese citizens and we would get back to taking out loans (by now underwritten by Indian consortiums) for a bigger flat screen TV without having to worry that some chap in Shanghai wants one as well and will pay more for it. We might even take a break from watching internet videos of numbnuts injuring themselves or putting cats in washing machines and use our new handheld, wifi equipped, communications and entertainment device filled to the brim with African nickel and cadmium to fire off a quick email to Amnesty in support of the thousands of Chinese farmers now languishing in a growing network of gulags.

The sweet irony of this is that the solution to the problems in the Chinese countryside is obvious and easy yet impossible for the boys in Beijing. All they have to do for this shit to stop is to make local officials accountable to the peons by having them elected and not appointed by the Party. They can them use the 800 billion US dollars cash reserves they are sitting on to help the rurals with some hope it will get to the beneficiaries and not just transform itself into a new fleet of Mercs with inbuilt karaoke systems. They won’t do this as this would start a very novel trend of questioning the infallible wisdom of the Party and that can’t happen.

For what was going to be a quick qualifier on my blog the above has gone off on a somewhat tedious, weirdly alarmist and lengthy tangent but since I have spent the last half hour pondering and writing it I’m going to post it.. Soz for that but my point is that it is in our interest to keep an eye out for what is happening in the paddy fields as it will affect us as a group. Plus, as you people don’t need to use an ever dwindling list of proxy servers to get reliable info about this country I am kind of hoping you’d give me a heads up if things seem to heat up. Anyways, as there are better geopolitical blogs out there written by well informed and rational people who haven’t been swigging cheap Chinese brandy for the past 4 nights in a row I will get back to more usual task of trying to make myself sound interesting. So as per last post’s categories:

Ego trip: I am now a member of an “expat scene”. This differs from the backpack crowd in as much that we have bothered to learn how to say our address in Chinese for the drunken taxi ride home and the reality that we can’t avoid facing the consequences of our latest pissed up misbehaviour by sodding off to another town. The local expat crowd consists broadly of 3 groups.

There is a Volkswagen plant here so there is a large contingent of Germans who live in secluded neighbourhoods and have made themselves popular by barring Chinese people from their favourite haunts. Then there is a number of Russians here involved in all number of shady deals (most of the pirate DVDs here have Russian as the default language) who can be easily spotted from afar as the women look stunning and the men look dangerous. Finally there is a big bunch of assorted Anglos which include the usual countries we think off plus some Nigerians, Ghanans, Philipinos and a honorary bunch of French and Italians. The latter group spend most of their time teaching English, getting drunk, sleeping with one another, making jokes about the Germans and weighing up the opportunity of scoring with a normally way-above-their-league Russkie beauty against the likelihood of getting a severe beating by chaps in black leather jackets called Arkady.

As I have no problems sharing facilities with Chinese people and I don’t know how to dismantle a Makarov pistol I have accepted that my assigned expat crowd is where I am going to be doing most of my liver damage. I am however still backpackery enough to be snobbish of those who spend more time with their likes than the locals plus at the moment the weather is nice. What this means is that the streets in my neighbourhood come alive at night as everyone goes walking about or plonks furniture on the pavement next to enterprising blokes with barbecues and beer crates. I love places where there is still such a thing as communal street life so at the moment I am quite happy getting sozzled and eating barbecued bread and lamb just outside my building while my neighbours enjoy listening to me mispronounce whatever new vocabulary I am trying to learn. My persistent cocking-up of the colours was quite a hit and one guy now brings some crayons with him just to ensure there will be some fun with the laowai while the coals heat up.

Laowai Life: For a category I though would be prolific with anecdotes I find I have little to chuck n here. The only thing I can think of is that I now have a Chinese name. This was made official by the opening of a bank account. I was ready for the worst so I got a Chinese colleague to babysit me and refused to believe her when she said it would take 5 minutes. Back home such a process requires 2 weeks and nothing short of a sperm sample so I was geared for a long wait. It did indeed take 5 minutes most of which I spent worrying about the teenage security guards with shotguns lugging bags of coins to an armoured van and finding it cool that the tellers still used an abacus. Anyways, I walked out of there with a cash card and an account under a new name that I still have trouble pronouncing.

I was going to write down what it is but considering tat I have managed to put in nearly every sensitive key word except for Dalai Lama and Falun Gong (might as well go for it now) in the text above I reckon that giving out a legal name would be making the authorities’ life too easy if they decide to have a pop at foreigners blogging in China. If I am going to get in trouble I would rather they put some effort into it. What I like about my Chinese name is that it has a poetic meaning to it. This is not unusual as Chinese names often have a literal meaning. When kids get to choose an English name for the class they often come up with fun stuff from the predictable (Tiger, Dragon, Flower) to the strange (Dumpling, Ricecake, Fist). This is why most teachers just present lists of names for the kids to choose from in order to avoid fuelling future pisstakes.

The way my name came about is that I told my real name to my Chinese colleagues who then got one of the staff who didn’t speak English to try and pronounce it. They then took that version and brainstormed word combinations that sounded similar but wouldn’t end up with me walking around calling myself Electric Pillowcase or something. This is often a big problem with people called Ben as, with the right tone, Ben is Chinese for stupid. However, they managed in my case to find something reasonably bucolic. When I finally get back to the backpacker trail what happened above will, for purposes of impressing Scandinavians females, have mutated into some tale whereupon my natural mystique, virtues and/or some noble deed prompted folk to call me by a cool sounding moniker. Saving puppies from burning buildings might have to occur. Possibly even orphans.

Know your masters: This category also left me scratching my head about what facet of Chinese society I could write about as I hate to expose my ignorance more than I have to. Thankfully, Jacques Ob put down a comment that gave me a choice topic to rant about. He mentioned that some of the boys back home had a wee chat about my reports and the position that a man called Romj took, namely that murdering 1.2 billion human beings is a good idea.

Had it been anyone else I would have been seriously concerned about how the feelings this blog originates but thankfully all that happened is that the Chinese have just joined the long list of people whom Romj believe should be chastised in some way for existing. If memory and bar anecdotes serve true these include; people he hasn’t known for ten years that look at him funny or might, people he has known for ten years but who at some point had a half forgotten argument with him or anyone that he thinks should be allowed to live, people he knows and likes but believes a bit of a beating would improve and, of course, Gypsies trying to sell roses to people in cafes.

Anyways, the comment did lead me to ponder an aspect of Chinese society that I dislike and, to an extent, fear. I am talking about widespread racism. The virulent hatred of the Japanese I can sort of understand in light of what Tojo’s boys did here and the fact that they are constantly being fed anti-Japanese mantras by their government. What bothers more me is the condescension and contempt towards other Asian nations.

I should be honest now and say that as a white laowai the worst I suffer is inflated expectations on my capabilities and the odd occasion where people check my clothes to see if I have dressed properly for the weather. I actually benefit from it in any ways. The Africans in Changchun however, do not have it so good. One of my Nigerian colleagues is now used to the inevitable chorus of protest from parents when he starts a new class or takes on over from a departing colleague. His classes are also conspicuously smaller than all other teachers. I often get a shock when chatting to youngish anglophone Chinese people as they seemed well clued up and genuinely open but will suddenly come up with vicious stuff that you wouldn’t hear back home from anyone who has spent more time in school than prison.

So, in view of my last post, is this something I can category claim as wrong without being prejudiced myself? Not really.

I have given some thought on the subject and I am now wondering if I can really be judgmental. I am not trying to be some patronizing twat who smiles benignly on the Heathen Chinee as they “don’t know any better”. I am simply acting on my views on what racism is, why we don’t like it and why it is condemned in most Western societies. I don’t really think racism is good or bad. What bothers me about it is that it’s stupid. It’s the Us versus Them position for those who are so fucking thick they can’t even remember enough facts to be nationalists. It’s placing people on an inexistent natural scale of merit based on the amount of melanin their body produces. Bewilderingly dumb.

Therefore what’s the problem then? Idiots abound and always will. Who cares? We all do. Racism is rightly shunned in the West not because of some great moral enlightenment but out of self interest. It’s been a while since there’s been a link between nationality and ethnicity in western countries and multiculturalism is now a fact. As such racists are essentially people who make life difficult for the rest of us. We all have to get along somehow and we all piss someone off to some extent by being and doing, just as they annoy us. Juggling this is tricky enough without a bunch of tits trying to create more aggro based on complete bollocks that makes them feel better about themselves. Particularly since the logical conclusion of any racial conflict theories is at best civil war and at worst genocide. Hardly the aspirations of any society.

An easy metaphor for this is to picture society as a busy road in rush hour traffic. We are al trying to get somewhere and having to share the same tamac makes this difficult/. SO when we’re not flipping through radia channels in a futile quest to find a station that doenst play fecking Dido, we are maneuvering, braking nd accelarating, cursing others for hindering us yet doing the same thing to other drivers. The more shouts, insults, beeps and rude hand gestures abound, the more likely we are to start indulging in pointless tantrums ourselves. In this context a racist is a moron who adds to the chaos by deciding to pester and harass all blue cars. In extreme cases, one of these geniuses will ram a blue car, which is no skin of my red car driving nose except that traffic grinds to a halt and everyone gets screwed. It’s therefore in everyones’ interest that these wankers get put on the side of the road where they belong and they can grumble at blue cars all they want while going nowhere.

I am not a fan of censorship or legal action against anyone regardless of how vile their statements are. Personally, I am convinced of the effectiveness of ostracism, contempt and ridicule towards racists. Still, regardless of what method one prefers for dealing with these twats what matters is that racism is generally seen as a problem and something must be done about it. We fight racism in the West not because we are wonderfully good chaps but because we can’t afford not to. Necessity, not humanism, created Rock against Racism.

So in that view how does China fit in? Basically they have never had a great need to quell the inner tosser that resides in all of us. The local tourist boards love to harp on about their ethnic minorities but 2 months moving around the place have shown me is that China is fundamentally Han (google it if you care). The governments’ track record on minorities is not to brilliant so oppression is a state owned monopoly. In short they can spout all the crap they want as it doesn’t affect their society much and they don’t have race riots to act as wake up calls. The Us vs Them posit is so much bullshit here as it is elsewhere but here there actually is an Us and a Them. There are loads of Laowais faffing about China but none have citizenship (who the fuck would want that anyway? It’s pretty much like signing off most of your human rights).

Basically it pisses me off but I’m not going to be too haughty about it even if it does worry the shit out of me. The Chinese are going to be very powerful one day and it does not bode well for the future if they see other humans as inferior.

I might as well finish off with a brief rant on the rabid nationalism that is common here. Sometimes it’s funny like the claim from a graduate that all Roman architecture was copied from the Chinese or seeing a trendy pop group spin a ditty whose chorus includes the line “the Chinese people are upright and honest”. Still, it irritates just as much as British football chants or French claims to be the birthplace of human rights. Regardless of the accuracy of any praise of a nation’s track record, nationalism (and its more acceptable version called patriotism) is still a pathetic attempt to get kudos for something you played no part in.

No Greek man alive gave advice to Plato, no Italian can say he was a bricky on the Aqua Claudia, there isn’t a soul in Marrakech who came up with algebra and I, though I wish otherwise, did not spend a fine day in Waterloo pumping grapeshot into the part of the French Army that some short-arsed Corsican had forgotten to leave behind in Russia as ice sculptures just as I didn’t spend my 19th birthday wearily strapping myself into a battered Spitfire for the umpteenth time to send the Luftwaffe’s finest for a swim in the Channel.

A nation’s deeds and misdeeds can inspire and teach but to be proud or ashamed of these when you did not have a role in them is nothing more than the geographic equivalent of “my daddy’s stronger than yours”. In a weird way it pisses me off more than racism probably since I have never been with a racist crowd (being middle class has some perks) yet I have had to listen to people I like tell me they are proud of being X, Y or Z. The offshoot of this is that I have sometimes done nothing more than sigh or frown when I hear some horrible racial stereotype from an English speaking local but I have enjoyed pointing that being proud that the Chinese invented gunpowder amongst other things must have been of little comfort when a bunch of whities showed up who had taken their fabulous invention, decided to sod this firework malarkey and develop these wonderful “gun” things instead.

So, exeunt the “I am so bloody deep and thoughtful” bit and enter the weird stuff.

WTF: Dirty jackets, green men running and great donkeys in a joke of a city.

The complete nonsense above is a sample of things I have noticed in the past week that I thought quite cool. I’ll leave it to you to decide if it all reveals me for a bit of a yokel.

The dirty jacket refers to a mystery that I only solved 2 days ago. Many a time I have woken up feeling delicate and decided to nip down to the store for assorted hangover palliatives only to discover whilst dressing a dirty and dusty patch on my jacket at chest level. This was a regular occurrence and has prompted many an attempt to figure out what I had done last night that caused my chest to rub with dirt. The absence of injuries or any other stains made this even more cryptic. My mind was finally put at ease 2 days ago when I decided not to follow up an evening of bowling with a night on the lash and hailed a cab. I knew I was decent before leaving as the bowling alley is on the 4th floor of a hotel swanky enough to consider barring a laowai if he/she is too scruffy. When I got home the mysterious stain had once again materialized but this time I was sober enough to work out what happened. The answer to the riddle lies with the fact that I am one of the few people in China to bother putting the safety belt on if it is on offer. General neglect and disuse means that these little lifesavers accumulate vast amounts of crap just waiting for some idiot to give them a quick clean with his jacket and that’s where I fit in. Mystery solved.

The green men running is just an observation of a somewhat smart way of regulating pedestrian traffic. As in most of the world China has the standard red and green hieroglyphs to tell fragile humans that they can cross the road without having to dodge overladen buses with crap brakes. Once your time on the tarmac without being killed is drawing to end, the Chinese have rigged the green man’s legs to start flashing in sequence displaying an image of someone who is seriously legging it. This is an exhortation you would be wise to follow.

Donkeys. Like all Chinese cities, Changchun sometimes presents the weird site of a donkey drawn cart (used for collecting scrap and crap) amongst brand new cars and traffic. I am now very used to this 2-worlds-colliding imagery so it took a very neat convoy of 4 of these carts negotiating a roundabout to catch my eye. Only then did I notice that all the blokes were sitting in the back of the carts doing naff all. No tugging or even holding reins, no giddyap or translation thereof and not even that highly annoying clicking sound people with horses sometimes do. The donkeys were happily negotiating their own way through the lorries and cars and this whilst keeping formation. I an now seriously wanting to acquire one of these miracle asses as I suspect it might be a more reliable way to get around than taxi drivers having to listen to me mispronounce Culture Square.

Finally the joke that is Changchun. This is not a slur on this fine city but a play on words that locals find amusing. Changchun has a literal meaning like a lot of places in China. In this instance Long (Chang) Spring (Chun). This is taken as an accurate description outside of Manchuria and people elsewhere have told me that I would enjoy spring should I choose to live there. The joke is that the great Changchun springtime is not only shorter than promised, it is also inexistent. All residents know that Changchun is a 2 season burgh consisting of a seriously long and cold winter and a brief summer. The closest they have to Spring is now where everything is confused and you will often find yourself wrapped in a blanket indoors as the heat is turned off as winter “officially” ends or becoming a sweaty mess as you were foolish enough to believe that the thermals you needed yesterday would be appropriate today. How amusing.

That’s it for this post and it’s more than enough. It may be long, pompous and in serious need of editing but it was either doing this or prepping for my classes.

Take care,



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