China Once, China Twice, China Gone! Part 1,2 & 3 [Travelogue]
January 12, 2008
[Foreword by Dotty: This is written by Darkness. He just wrote and wrote. I edited it. It's long, so take it one bit at a time - it's best read that way because that was how it was written, in little bites along the way - happy Reading. Dotty]
Day 1,2 & 3 – [Part 1]
Foreigners doing business with today’s Chinese must often overcome a maze of cultural, political, and bureaucratic barriers that range from the irritating to the bizarre. I am in Beijing now, and after 4 days of endless dinners and waiting, I am leaving.
I have done extremely well considering in the last few days, I had a meeting with someone who wore pajamas, who tried to kill me and later claimed to be my long lost relative. Through it all I never even flinched once.
I travel everywhere by motorbike. I’ve memorized every single route and know it by heart – if I get lost, that’s not a problem. Beijing is spread out like a giant North, East, South and West map – just keep the sun to your right if you want to head South and the other way if you want to go North – the rest, you can more or less make up as you go along.
Here, the perpetual dust plays havocs on the bikes. I don’t need bent mechanics telling me I need a new bike. I improvise with my Swiss knife, if my bike sounds funny, I just ride slower.
Somehow I feel more is expected from me in China than any country, I have ever visited. Not just simple adaptation, something else. What is it? Acceptance. Yes, acceptance of a way of life that’s completely alien to me even as a Chinese – why do people keep forcing me to drink here? I just gulped down two bottles of paint stripper to give you face! And you people are still not satisfied? Fuck you lah! Why do they keep wasting food here? What’s all this talk about guansi? No, I don’t want to go to the whore house after dinner, I just want to go back and read my book!
You get the drift. If you don’t, don’t sweat it, just go with the flow, because this is all coming out in one steady 10 minute stream. I ain’t even going to spell check it.
Oh its tradition, silly me! But it’s not the good variety. Here in china ‘tradition’ the tag phrase is just a scapegoat, what I call a coat hanger word. You will find “tradition” all over the place, especially this time of the year; dragons, bats, pelicans, rats, cranes, elephants and recently, I even saw a turtle with claws, it’s everywhere spilling out at every corner. You will find ’tradition’ in China more than any other place in this planet, but it all adds up to a big zero here. Usually when people think about ‘tradition,’ they can at least conjure up a few good things to say about their culture, but not here. Here tradition and culture have an equal measure of good and bad currency. Here culture has no higher elevation resembling wisdom or lore. It’s foremost the way things have always been done, and many a time nothing else. Somewhere there’s probably a good reason, but it’s all gone, lost or forgotten and just like a dirt trail everyone is just following it for fuck sake.
This creates a surreal attitude where you just know that the local Chinese are perhaps one of the most well off people on this planet, you can tell by the cars they drive, the size of the diamonds they wear and number skyscrapers fingering the skyline, but they’re also one of the most bankrupt people, I have ever come across on this planet. I have seen Bedouins who own half a goat and who are infinitely richer than these people.
Day 4 – [Part 2]
The China that is today, isn’t nearly the ancient and unique traditions that we usually expect it to be or read about in the Nat Geo – yes, like everything else in this dust basin, it’s permeated with crushing greyness that squeezes out everything that’s good leaving very little else except the mindless pursuit of the capitalist dream. I am sure there must be a higher meaning somewhere, if you care to dig it out, but I just can’t be bothered.
The China that I know isn’t about old and new, capitalism vs communism etc. Framing that sort of dichotomy sells magazines, keeps foreign press bureau’s humming but it barely peels the lid of what’s really amiss in China - like the first McDonalds outlet that juts out in the Northeast corner of Changan and Wangfujing, it looks benign enough, till you stop and take a closer look, then you realize how it must have been when it first hit this part of town some thirty odd years ago. It must have packed as much punch as a 10 megatonne cultural meteorite. Ever since then it’s thrown up enough dust to blot out the sun blinding the whole of China - they struggled then. They’re still struggling; to find that mythical line that once radiated from this one epicenter where old and new once collided, vaporised and congealed into one giant incomprehensible glob. Somewhere down the line you just know they’ve given up prodding it. Nothing can be more depressing than witnessing a nation this big struggling to remember their wispy past, to try to find unity in some distant memory, and failing so tragically.
No where is this search for national identity more evident than in Beijing with it’s pheltora of experimental architecture. It really boggles the mind and when one surveys the skyline. One can’t help but lament, “they will never find it in glass and stainless steel.”
I guess if you’re forgiving like me, you can’t blame them from trying to find higher raison in bird’s nest stadiums, stainless steel eggs, watercubes and 5 storey high TV’s. After all, what did you really expect? They’re like one of those stowaways that clings to a under carriage of a Boeing 747 called change. They didn’t even have the slightest clue where they were going. Maybe only a hope and a prayer. And in a country where they can lay down rail tracks faster than a bullet train – they never stood a chance in finding a higher meaning. Here in this new road to prosperity everything moves at the speed of light. There’s no time to think, no time to even to tease out that happy line that even allows for such a thing as serendipity. Everything is just one incredible blur. On the surface, change has never been so highly choreographed, not on this mega Stalinist scale as Beijing prepares for the Olympic games; she is completely transformed and even that’s an understatement; once symmetrical Siheyuans kneaded into miles and miles of spaghetti fly-overs. Even the hutongs have been given the URA taxidermy working over. These days, they even look haute couture, hardly the place old women sit down split peas and trade gossip.
But when one takes a closer look. Not from lobby of a 5 star hotel, but from the 5 foot way when one’s munching on a Jiao-bing* with street kids scampering around (*sidetrack; incidentally, this happens be our fav food. We eat it 5 times a day! Best thing about it is, you could stick into the manifold of a bike to warm it up, if it gets cold) it hits you! The truth. Communism isn’t just a political system – that’s just not possible in a country of 1.2 billion people - for it to even pivot it needs to be something much more than an ideology or philosophy – it’s a ‘way of life’ here. The only one the people have ever known. You don’t need to be a political scientist to figure out communism in China is just one big puppet or getai show between the classical good and evil sling out. The story’s trite; toss a child into the abyss of extremity and then rescue her from the jaws of death throw in a few Panda bears for good measure. The communist narrative has always presented both the protaginist and, vicariously, the reader with only one problem; China is fucked; everyone wants a piece of her; it’s her against the big bad world! The narrative isn’t about surmounting the problem as much as it tries to skilfully elide it by sending a surge of sentimental warmth into the crowd. That way anyone watching the puppet show can even pretend that they, too have confronted evil or sorrow and made it through to the otherside. Yeah, it’s fucked up, but we pulled through! And somewhere in this narrative of selfless sacrifice, blood and sinew, the individual has grown through his or her experience, and that’s all that really matters. History and tragedy forster personal growth and what doesn’t kill you will eventually make you stronger – long live the great patriotic struggle!
You know what? That’s a crock of state inspired shit! Don’t doubt for one moment, it sells tickets. Unfortunately, it’s false to all human experience to find ‘growth’ or ‘development’ in tragedy. In fact, the dull truth as Dotty once shared with me, is that pain is tautological; the only thing suffering teaches us is that we are capable of suffering.
No where does this truth bear out clearer than in China; here …”whole masses of people who are going here and there, never ever knowing exactly what they gave up, or even why they have certain quarks and philosophies foreigners find so quaint. Truth is if you asked me, the Chinese don’t really believe in the capitalistic future or philosophy despite the prevailing mood of prosperity. They’re to entrenched in the whole idea of impermanence. You can tell, like any emerging class of the nouvelle riche they’re struggling too hard to accumulate it, in the way a drowning man clings to a flotsam just to stay afloat – it’s at every turn and no where else is this feeling as climatic as in China – I believe that’s because most of them still don’t quiet believe they’re living in this era – they’re still think, it’s a dream and reality is waiting for them when they awake.” Jerry Kwang (Singaporean Working In Beijing Since 2003 / Conversation With Darkness)
Day 5 – Part 3
You see the local Chinese as a whole rarely stick things out for the long haul this applies to everything from business, politics, relationships to something as simple as waving a cab – it’s always about the short term narrative – how much? – lets makan him, he’s a dumb foreigner.
You can’t blame them, historically they have had too many snakes on the plane - someone is always trying to bag someone in China. If it’s not blood sucking landlords, marauding warlords, Japanese invaders even the local Party auntie has a hachet hidden somewhere. Here a man learns to value nothing except his own mortality. He can betray everything he believes in, in the span of time it takes to empty his bowels. Here they learn to make do - the Chinese are the biggest consumers of duct tape, superglue and rubber bands only because they have mastered the Tao of living in ever decreasing circles. In order to have faith in a better tomorrow - they don’t make peace with their pain as much as slice themselves in half and try to fashion a mini ‘me’ existence. Here women stay with drunk husbands because things could get worse if they try to dream for something better – they make do with illicit afternoon shows in the matinee to dull the pain. University students dream no end of migrating to “Shang Tao” – America. It’s the ultimate ‘having to make do’ society – less goes a very long way here. Cab drivers, bell hops, police, reporters, bartenders, ladies of the night only have one thing in their mind – to make as much money as possible in the shortest possible time to break out from the cancophy of endless noise and movement. As for the bureaucrats they do the same, albeit with white gloves, dentures and false promises. Here, the nakedness of China’s desire to change the world has a mass appeal, “the promise of a better tomorrow,” but it’s simultaneously simple, disingenuous and tragically mindless.
Capitalism will never assume primacy in China. And even if it has that capacity, it can never ever acquire the patina of sophistication that it has in the West. Here capitalism just goes through the pseudo bullshit communist system like a meat grinder and comes out completely different like Frankenstein - I cannot describe it - it’s definitely leaner, faster and deadlier, but there’s hardly a trace of humanity in it.
I really don’t see how far down the line a country can go down that road – maybe 10 years max. After that, there are no guarantees.
Look there is no way make this go down happy, so I am not even going to try; I am a business man, I like a fair and square deal; I like to give one and I also like it to come around now and then. But with the Chinese, they’re just have this inexplicable gift for being one of the most manipulative, two-faced and conniving people on this planet. They’re not interested in business, they just want to stretch me out on a pelt rack and see how far I can go to make a coat or some funny hat - that means it’s time to say adios, bye-bye, sayonara, chia chen.
I am trying very hard not to be bitter, but I am tired – tired of the games they play, tired because a man can only take so much shit.
I realize capitalism as a school of thought has never really had time to work itself properly into the collective psyche. People tell me China is still in a state of transition, I don’t believe that for one minute; this is as good as it gets – it doesn’t get any better than this – this, I am afraid is the final version.
Windmills of the minds, a hundred things coming in and going out.
Here in Beijing nothing ever stays the same – the winds roll in and out continuously bringing sands from afar. For a very long time the Chinese have lived with this cruel wind. It’s a bitter reminder, you may try to change the world, but if you can’t change it, you might as well just join them. And who am I really to judge them? No one I guess, except perhaps the man who sees it all from the eye of the storm in the tea cup called China.
They’re not interested in my invention here – they think I am a light weight, they have never ever heard about the brotherhood – puiih! that’s cut and dried – bounced off me like a shell on slope armor. The sun looks happy, it’s a new day, the boys are smiling, moral is high and my bike is purring and just begging me to split her in half – Puih! (Damn it’s dusty here) I am just getting older by the minute, I am off to the South.
The Brotherhood Press 2008