November 2007

For the last four days straight the sun has come out.  This is truly unusual, as in over three months we’ve only seen the sun about five times.  In addition to the sun, yesterday I saw blue sky.  I’m not lying.  You never see the sky here. Usually one can see a couple of blocks, then things recede into the smog.  There’s a constant haze which envelopes Chengdu, so it’s disappearance is notable.

It’s amazing the affect weather has on one’s spirits.  When it gets nice, it’s like a weight lifting off your shoulders.  Things don’t seem as bad.  A sense of optimism returns.  A fundamental happiness is revealed beneath the hard exterior.  It’s like cleaning a dirty window.  Not only has the sun been out, but it’s been in the 60s.

We’ve taken full advantage of this unexpected turn of events, doing tai ji in the outdoor sports complex, alongside students playing basketball and practicing choreographed dance moves; walking through the many gardens on campus, which are still lush this time of year; and talking to members of the Tibetan students association, who set up a display on a plaza and were eager to talk.

Suddenly it’s May in late November, and everything is alright.


Here we are in the belly of the emerging beast, witnessing a whole new set of problems inside a potential future superpower, while looking from a new perspective at the now familiar problems of the old superpower. It feels good to get some distance on the harsh political realities of life in the contemporary U.S. I don’t know what continues to astound me more, the blatant transgressions of those in power, or people’s complacency. Americans have come to accept actions that in an early period would have brought down governments. America is a country which appears to have run out of ideas.

So here I am in China. This is a big place. I only have a very tenuous grip on the language, and only a few Chinese friends to talk to. But after three months, I can convey some basic impressions of what’s going on here. It seems that the biggest issues are the ongoing ecological crisis, the exploitation of people’s labor, and the lack of democracy.

China is an economic powerhouse, with a capitalist economy which is growing at about 11% annually. As has been clear from our experience in the West, capitalist growth destroys ecological health. This is happening here big time. Rivers are dying, lakes are dying, people are dying of lung cancer and other diseases related to the poisoning of the environment.

The air quality in the cities is atrocious. There is a constant haze here and in Beijing, the two major cities we’ve visited. In Chengdu, there is a natural inversion layer, but this simply traps all the auto and industrial exhaust. It’s truly appalling how overwhelming the pollution is. Beijing doesn’t have this sort of inversion layer, but it suffers from extreme levels of smog. More and more Chinese consumers are buying cars, which only adds to the problem. The explosion of private car ownership is about five years old in Chengdu. Traffic is bad and only getting worse. Car drivers think that they own the roads, and that pedestrians, bicyclists, scooter rides, and electric bikes are all secondary and in the way. They just drive right through crowds and groups of non-motorized drivers. I’m amazed we haven’t seen more accidents.

China’s CO2 output is a major contributor to global warming, and we have a worldwide ecological crisis driven in part by the Chinese economic machine. Per capita, the U.S. puts more than twenty times as much CO2 into the atmosphere as China, but China, with so many more people, is in the process of overcoming the U.S. in total emissions of Greenhouse gases. The people of the world have to choose between continued economic growth and a future.

There is currently a huge migration of Chinese people from the countryside into the cities, estimated to number 100 million in the next decade. It’s similar to the period of the enclosures, when the common land in England was privatized, forcing peasants off the land, and into the cities, where they were forced to work in the factories. This period marked the birth of capitalism in England, and is being replicated here. The cities are huge. Chengdu, where we live, has 11 million people. That’s New York, plus three Portlands.

The question for China is how can it develop in an ecological fashion and address widespread poverty, while avoiding the mistaken path of the capitalist West. There is an assumption that in order to eliminate poverty, the environment and people’s health have to be sacrificed in the name of economic growth. This is a form of madness, perpetuated by Western economists and business interests. Unless China can promote democracy and ecological sustainability, along with the rest of the world, there’s little hope of a future that resembles anything other than a dystopian nightmare. The results of global warming are everywhere we turn, and will only get worse unless we fundamentally change society. The ecological crisis is a social crisis.

Gross levels of consumption in the U.S. drive production in China. Almost everything one buys in the U.S. is made in China. The ecological disaster here, which affects the entire planet through climate change, is not only the problem of the Chinese. It’s to a large degree Western Capital which motivates Chinese production. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to speak in terms of problems confined by the borders of nation-states. What goes on in China is affected by, and in turn affects, the West. Consumption habits in the U.S. affect production in China. And those habits are conditioned by corporate advertising, driven by a base profit motive. The tentacles of capitalism are reaching – as depicted in old Chinese Communist propaganda posters – into the furthest corners of the globe.

Within the borders of China, there is a problem, namely the lack of empowerment of anyone other than those with Capital. If one has money, and wants to make more money, one has all the freedom one wants. New buildings and shopping centers are being constructed here everyday. Billboards and advertising are everywhere. Money rules Chengdu, more than the Communist Party.

If you don’t have money, you have the freedom to choose who you want to work for, often at long hours for low pay. It’s ironic, but the Anarchists had to struggle in Chicago at the turn of the last century to achieve an eight-hour work day, while here in an ostensibly Communist country, people typically work twelve hour days, at least. Factory shifts sometimes run as long as twenty hours. However, not everyone has work. The less fortunate lay out pieces of cloth on the street, displaying their wares: a few vegetables, DVDs, socks, watches, whatever. Spontaneous street markets pop up all over.

Incongruously, China has the stark contradiction of a ruling Communist Party overseeing free market capitalism of the most base and exploitative form. It’s really the worst of both worlds: an authoritarian State, and a ruthless capitalist market.

Walking around Chengdu, one might have no idea this is a Communist country. The only thing communistic that we’ve encountered since being here were the free carts for our luggage at the airport. Since then, nothing. You even have to pay to use a public toilet.

The market has run amok. Most of Chengdu resembles 14th Street in Manhattan, meaning lots of shops selling lots of junk. There is a push to turn the Chinese more into consumers, beyond their current role primarily as producers. As this continues, more and more junk is consumed, more waste is created, and the worse things get.

How members of the Central Committee reconcile this from a Marxist point of view, I don’t know. I’d be interested to find out. Which position paper justified this and how? It all started with former Chinese leader Deng XiaoPing, who first promoted capitalist development in the late 1970s, and it’s gotten to the point where To Get Rich is Glorious is now a Communist Party slogan. The red flag and Communist imagery are kept merely to hold the whole thing together. It’s the glue without which this country might come apart like the Soviet Union did.

Before arriving we read about the level of social unrest, of demonstrations and riots going on everyday, but as of yet China seems to be living up to its rulers’ emphasis on the importance of “social harmony.” The most popular political t-shirt is of Che Guevara. You see him on young people’s shirts, and on bags and magazine covers. Next to that we’ve seen maybe three or four circle-A shirts, and one F*ck Police, Ireland Rules jacket – we’re not sure that jacket wearer realized the import of the message he was displaying all over town. Otherwise there are no signs of political opinion anywhere. No one here has bumper stickers or political buttons. The only people handing out flyers are those advertising stores’ promotions. You never see anyone tabling, much less holding a rally or protest.

Surveillance Camera
A surveillance camera in Kanding.

China is leading the world in employing surveillance technology, supplied by Western companies. They have cameras everywhere, and employ tens of thousands for monitoring and censoring the internet, including this site. They even have a new technology utilizing cameras and computers which monitor peoples’ movements which, when detecting signs indicating people gathering for a possible protest action, notifies local police to be dispatched. We saw plenty of cameras and police in Kanding, where there is a large Tibetan population.

Lara and I have talked about China being the future of the planet: heavily populated, filled with lots of stuff, most of which doesn’t work, dead rivers and no sky, dirty air, congested streets, ugly buildings, inhabited by people living a drab and largely meaningless existence ruled by the market. I tend to be generally optimistic about the future, but being in China is really testing that. Often one can put ones’ hope for the future in young peoples’ hands. Here, most young people have an energy similar to that of those in American shopping malls. The main orientation seems to be toward fashion and consumption. There’s a real infantilization of people here: lots of cheesy cartoons on the TVs on the public buses, lots of school kid fashion and “cute” things everywhere; little mouse ears on all the children; cartoon characters on products and in advertising. Mickey Mouse is very popular. You get the idea. It may be that this will run its course, and people will realize they’ve been had. Perhaps at some point the spirit of ’89 will return, and people here will want more from life than Starbucks and McDonalds. Only time, and what people do with it, will tell.


I recently passed through a Dark Night of the Soul, in which I wanted nothing more than to get the hell out of here.  Lara assures me this is a normal part of culture shock, that there are whole theories of how this happens, that it’s one stage in the process of adapting to a new culture.  She told me how when she and her good friend Audrey were in Morocco, when they each reached the three month mark, they both wanted to buy tickets home.  I’ve reached that mark.

Now don’t get me wrong, there’s lots of good, positive things about living in China, foremost among them the fact I get so much time alone with Lara Lee.  There are some very cool things here, including spicy Sichuan cuisine, the bicycling infrastructure, some great Chinese friends, older temples and monasteries, the Chinese Medicine Hospitals, the lush vegetation, and an awesome group of expats.

Despite these things, I was feeling so unhappy, we actually discussed the possibility of going home.  Lara was very good about it, saying that it was intolerable that I was so miserable, and we had to figure something out, and if that meant leaving earlier than planned, so be it. I was thinking, well, we can make it through this semester, have a month to travel, then head back in late February, early March. I can hold out that long, no problem.  Just don’t ask me to stay another eight months, no way, I can’t possibly do that.  Another month or two, sure, no problem, but close to a year, you have to be kidding me.  I’m feeling antsy about getting my practice going again, about finding a house in Portland, about having kids.  I miss my friends and family and I want to get on with things.

This came at the end of the month in which I was without my hand, setting me back in practicing characters and studying, and preventing me from riding my bike and going to the gym.  It was the culmination of weeks of thinking of going home almost every day.  It became obsessive.  When China was upset with the US for honoring the Dalai Lama I thought to myself, maybe this is it, an escalating crisis between the US and China, resulting in all the Americans being expelled.  Not only would this be our ticket out, it would also be fairly exciting to be in the middle of an international incident.  They’d probably give us 48 hours or something to get our things together.

Another time I was in the shower, and there was a knock at the door, and I heard Lara speaking with someone, and the discussion sounded animated and somewhat strident, and in my mind I’m thinking, that’s it, they found out something about us they don’t like, something about our political beliefs or opinions, and they don’t want us here anymore, especially mixing it up with young people every day:  we’ve been asked to leave.  But no, no such luck.

This feeling didn’t happen when I spent five months in India, so I find it quite confusing. While I feel somewhat reassured that my feelings are predictable and to be expected, I’ve identified several reasons for my angst.

One of the main factors is my inability to communicate with the society I’m living in.  A big part of being human is being part of a group of people with whom one shares ones’ life, and not to be able to communicate leads to an extreme form of alienation.  Being surrounded by millions upon millions of people with whom I can only speak on a most basic level if at all, plus not being able to read signs, newspapers, and very few printed words, is very isolating.  We are studying Mandarin, but it’s been rough going.  So far, I’m picking it up slowly, and this is quite frustrating. I find it a very difficult language to understand and speak.

I found the people of India to be very warm, open, and compassionate.  The Chinese are anything but. It’s hard to get to know them, to find out what they really think, who they are.  Perhaps from years of living in an authoritarian political system (or is it totalitarian Ms. Kirkpatrick?), they’ve learned not to have opinions, or strong views, or if they do, to keep them to themselves. They are very reserved and, for the most part, seem cold and distant.

Another aspect of my funk is being so far from everyone I love and care about, not being with my family and friends, not being able to see anyone.  On a more basic level, when living in another country, all one’s usual supports are removed.  I rely heavily on the news, one might say to an obsessive level.  I can’t get a daily newspaper that I can read, I can’t listen to KBOO or NPR, put on Democracy Now! or CNN. And then there’s the comforts of life in the West, which we take for granted: the ability to go see a movie, or watch the World Series, or a Bears game.  And it’s very difficult to get cardiovascular exercise.  Theses are all simple things which we miss when they are gone.

Finally I’ve been frustrated in fulfilling my reasons for coming to China in the first place.  I’ve found that Chengdu University for Traditional Chinese Medicine is very difficult to work with.  I attended one two week seminar, and several other talks, and have been to their teaching hospital for Lara’s treatments on many occasions, but my attempts to arrange more in-depth study have so far proven fruitless.  It’s next to impossible to get information on study opportunities there.  In talking to several other foreign students, it’s the same experience for all of them.  Mostly it seems the University is interested in making money.  The real money for them is from the groups which come to study for a month, not in individuals like myself and several others who come for extended periods. An Israeli friend told me that the head of the foreign affairs office actually told him that she would rather he come and study for four months and then leave, than stay the full year which he planned on.  Another friend, who had arranged private tutoring with an instructor, had the arrangement terminated by the University when they found out about it.

They don’t like to share information. We had that crazy experience with the proposal for their Herb Garden when we first arrived, when I was asked to edit something only to find out they actually wanted to record me reading an 18 page text.  Three weeks ago they tried to pressure me into giving six hours of talks to over 100 students who were training to be interpreters.  This was with one week’s notice, and with hardly any information on what they wanted me to do, who it was for, and what the objectives were.  They just wanted me to say yes without having hardly any information on what I was saying yes to.

I was in the middle of thinking through what I could possibly do for them with such short notice when the heater exploded in my hand, making preparing six hours of lectures a near impossibility.  Even the news of this didn’t stop the head of the foreign affairs office however, and she continued to flatter me and use every persuasive tactic she could think of  to convince me to agree, saying how sure she was my hand would be healed in time.  That’s not really the point, I thought.

Despite all this, in the days since it all came to a head, I have found a new peace in being here.  I’ve found that it’s only in exploring the depths, in really experiencing a bad day, or a bad period, can we transform that messy emotional stuff into something else.  I thought about the very real possibility of bugging out, going back to Portland. I had to get to the stage where I could express my feelings, and talk it through.  In looking at the possibility of leaving I was able to truly assess my options, no longer feeling trapped.  If I want, I can leave.

Being here with Lara makes all the difference in the world.  If it wasn’t for her, I’d be on a plane tomorrow.  I don’t really like China, and I have a difficult time being here.  Despite this feeling, there are plenty of awesome things about China, and I’m taking advantage of being here and making the best of it.

I’ve come to recognize that leaving now would be giving up too soon.  Everyone who’s been here a while advises patience, that things take time, that you have to ask again and again and again, in several different ways.  It seems to be part of a cultural process.  One needs to bring things up over and over, approaching topics from several angels, until they’re addressed.

Sure enough, recently things have begun to change.  I’ve been asked to teach three classes of conversational English to University Freshman next semester.  Without dwelling on my lack of teaching credentials, I’m looking forward to this opportunity.  It’ll be good to interact with a group of students on a sustained basis, plus teaching will bring in some extra funds, which in turn will allow me to hopefully spend more time working in the hospital than I had expected.  Originally we could only afford my interning at the teaching hospital for one month, but now I’m working on setting up clinical work for the last four months that we’re here.  I’m starting now to arrange this and I’m hoping to begin when we return from the semester break, when we’re planning to visit Thailand and India.  So I feel better, more at ease,  more accepting of our circumstances, making the best of being here.

Lara and I were having hot pot the other day, and I thought about all of you, and how this excellent dining experience was not available in the West.  Lately I’ve been thinking that someday I will be back in Portland, looking back on my time in China, putting myself in that future place, thinking about all the things in my life right now that I’ll miss.

Someone, or some committee, or work unit, or automatic process within the Chinese State Apparatus, has determined that this Blog should not be seen in China.  As of two weeks ago, although I can access the WordPress site just fine, I can no longer access my own Blog.  This means, of course, that not only the 1.3 billion inhabitants of China can not see it, but neither can yours truly.  This is turn makes maintaining this Blog that much more of an adventure.  It takes on the dimensions of  a Spy Novel, or Espionage thriller.  Well, not really, but it makes it more interesting to think so.  Frankly, I have no idea why this has happened and, although I wear this censorship like a badge of honor, the actual reasons for it are probably fairly mundane, routine really.  Which is how State repression works most of the time.

So this explains the delay in postings this month.  Fortunately, a comrade in an undisclosed location has stepped in to help, so this Blog will in fact continue, despite the feeble attempts of the Chinese government to stop it.  I actually do not think they are trying to stop me from expressing myself. Rather, they want to make it more difficult, more of a hassle, which is what huge State bureaucracies thrive on, right?  It’s a hassle to do anything in this country, so why should maintaining a Blog be any different?

This censorship actually turns me in a new, more free direction.  Dialectically, the Chinese should have seen this coming.  Now that I no longer have to worry about being censored, because I already am, I can speak more openly about what I think and what I see.  I have nothing to lose now.  Stay posted.