Sunday, August 1, 2010

Goodbye Chengdu, Goodbye China - Revised

Chengdu, China

It's a rare, beautiful sunny day with blue sky here so I'll make this as short as I can.

The Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yi Mou ("Raise the Red Lantern," "To Live," "The Hero") said, "Once you get to Chengdu, you just don't want to leave."

I share the feeling. At first glance, the city doesn't look like anything special but it grows on you. It has beautiful parks and lakes, an ancient history, some classic architecture, wonderful nearby mountains and towns, and that fabulous, fantastic cuisine.

I had dinner with a Chinese friend of mine that I knew from editing classes at San Francisco City College. He's now a documentary filmmaker who lived in Paris and is moving here from Beijing. The weather is ideal for film making; there is a strong artistic community and, of course, Li Bai and Du Fu, two of China's greatest classic poets once lived here. I say "of course" because the Chinese have a relationship to their history and culture that is almost incomprehensible to us. They have a sense of time that makes the 1,200 years separating us from Du Fu seem like nothing at all. Almost everyone knows his poetry or at least has heard of it.

China has been seduced by the west and Chengdu is no exception. There is a huge shopping area larger than downtown San Francisco that has every European or American store that you've ever heard of. You can spend 4 times as much money for a Starbuck's latte as you would for a traditional Chinese breakfast if you like - which is the optimal phrase - "If you like." The traditional China surrounds the new China. You can pick and choose. My favorite bit of Americana is the Dairy Queen. For a dollar US, I can get a double-scoop of vanilla that tastes just like the ice cream cone that I used to eat 50 years ago in Star Prarie, Wisconsin.

It's amazing how quickly I've adapted to the local traffic. What I thought crazy a month ago seems normal to me now. However, I'm no longer such a staunch fan of the local cab drivers. Their knowledge of the city still impresses me, but there are far too many drivers who drive me up the wall with their tailgating and stupidly dangerous maneuvers. The latest has been a couple of drivers who incorrectly claimed that their seat belts didn't work. One of them had a newspaper covering his left window to protect his face from the sun so that he had no peripheral vision on a side of the street where he repeatedly made lane changes. Naturally, he was constantly talking on his cell, meaning that his hands were rarely on the steering wheel of his standard transmission car. I guess our profession simply attracts many people with no concept of reality.

But this may just be bitching. On the whole, the drivers are very good. I've even learned a few tricks from them. For instance, taxi drivers in China often cut in front of slower drivers by making left turns on the wrong side of the street so they are facing the oncoming traffic. Then, they work there way over to the proper lane. Everyone knows what they are doing so the other drivers let them in.

I think the technique might be even more effective in San Francisco where no one would have any idea of what I was doing. The shock value alone should allow me to pass three or four cars. I just have to remember to try the stunt in my cab, not in my own car.
A political note.

Recently the U.S. has done two things that the Chinese have found insulting or threatening. First,  Hilary Clinton gave (I think) $10 million to a group called the Falon Gong in order to "help promote freedom in China." Second, the U.S. held war games in the China Sea in order to encourage China to keep North Korea in line.

The ignorance required to have made these moves is hard to comprehend.

The Falon Gong is an organization that believes that the world should be a theocracy ruled by a prince. Freedom is of no interest whatsoever to the followers of the cult. In any case, the Chinese intellectuals I talked to thought the group a ridiculous joke. Certainly not people worth insulting China over. It would have taken a Hilary assistant about an hour to find this out. He or she could pick up most of it simply by reading the Falon Gong web page.

North Korea is not a province of China and is run by a lunatic. What is China supposed to do? Invade North Korea for the USA?

I'll pass over the historical insult (the China Sea is where the European and American ships came to invade and colonize China for 200 years) but it's fresh in the minds of the Chinese. I'll just mention a military exercise I witnessed a few years ago in nowhere China.

I was having tea at an outside cafe when a platoon of soldiers came out into a nearby field for their evening exercises. At first, I couldn't believe what I saw. It was a whole platoon of gong fu experts, of Bruce Lees, going through their daily work-out. I'd never see anything to equal it - not even in movies - although I've since seen enough similar workouts in other parts of China to believe that this might be a normal part of being a soldier in China.

In short, the Chinese are not a people you want to fuck with and it's disconcerting to see that our "China experts" seem to be so ignorant of this extraordinary country. It's time to stop this absurd saber-rattling.

Finally, I couldn't help but notice that my travelling companion soon started controlling (or trying to) every aspect of my life. I drink too much beer, I drink too much coffee, I drink too much tea, I'm too fat, I should eat more vegetables etc etc etc in an endless litany.

Furthermore, I don't want to overgeneralize, but I looked around and it seemed like a lot of Chinese women were ordering Chinese men around. So I said to my friend,

"I thought Chinese women were supposed to be meek, humble and worship men."

When she stopped choking on her laughter, she finally said,

"Maybe back in the old days but ever since Mao liberated us, women are absolutely the boss."

"I thought liberation was supposed to result in equality."

"How can we be equal when man ruled woman for 5,000 years?

"You mean - you want your turn."

"Correct," she said and then told me what she claimed was a famous Chinese joke.

A bunch of men were sitting around a village square talking about how their wives were hen-pecking them.

"My wife won't let me drink," one of them said.

"My wife never stops complaining," said another.

"My wife beats me," said a third.

They sat and talked about what to do about this situation. Finally, they decided to find out how many men were NOT abused by their wives so they could learn from them.

"Everybody who is hen-pecked by his wife," one of them announced, "move to the left side of the square!"

Every man in the village walked over to the left side - except for Lao Wang. He just sat there calmly smoking a cigarette.

"What a man!" They exclaimed. "Surely, we can learn from him."

So they went over to hear his secret.

"My wife," Lao Wang told them, "tells me to never follow the crowd."

My friend just kept giggling and giggling while I walked alongside, licking my Dairy Queen.

Addendum: The Correct Version of the Story

My Traveling Companion read my story in my blog. She didn't like my version and told me to correct it. 

"The opening and the punch line  are weak," she told me."I don't know where you got the village? This isn't a countryside story."

Here, then, is the corrected story in her words.

Nowadays in Chinese society man has become weaker at home and women have become very powerful. Because of this phenomenon the men formed a group called the Henpecked Association. Everybody who belonged was afraid of his wife. The leader of the association said,

"This is not right. We've all become so weak. Let's find a way to correct this problem. Let's have a detailed discussion. Let's do this ... whoever is henpecked, whoever is afraid of his wife - go to the left side of the room ... and whoever is not afraid of his wife - go to the right side."

Everyone immediately moved to the left side of the room, including the leader, except for one man who walked to the right side.

The other men looked at him in awe as if he was a saint, as if he was a god. How could this man not be afraid of his wife?

"You brave man," the leader asked, "can you tell us your experience, can you tell us your trick for not being afraid of your wife?

Everybody was so interested that they leaned forward with admiration to hear his words. 

However, the man only uttered one sentence.

"My wife tells me, 'never even go near the crowd.'"

"I still think," I said, "'don't follow the crowd' is better."

"Don't argue with me,"


  1. The lady is a knockout. She must be in her forties. I can only assume you developed a relationship like a surrogate husband to chastised so much. Sounds like a good thing, she could have shut you out. Thanks for the introduction but returning to China is years down the road. You mentioned being ugly, I am black and no way did I receive the reception you did by the smiling faces in photos you took.

    I am a shuttle driver and left cabs because increasing gate fees and refusal to tip the dispatchers. Paid the price, left.

    As for your blog and photos, it speaks volumes to Americans like me who now have a deeper rich, respect for Chinese people. Man I wish I met you in Chengdu, my world would have radically turned around like the way you describe it all so eloquently.

    Daniel Shafer

  2. Hi Daniel,

    I'm also sorry that we didn't meet. I did notice a few black men. Maybe you were one of them.

    I can see where'd you have a different experience than I did. The Chinese have a thing about whiteness that goes back a couple of thousand years. Most of their ads have either white people in them or Chinese with very light skin. Beauty products geared to whitening skin are big sellers. Their attraction to whiteness is so pronounced that I've thought of doing an article on it.

    It very unusual because such a fetish usually means that group of people think that they are inferior to others, yet the Chinese think that they are intellectually and culturally superior to everyone. It sets up a very strange dynamic.

    My friend has indeed been a huge asset in my getting to know China. Aside from her knowledge of the food and the culture, she has friends and relatives everywhere. Because of her, I've met incredible people and seen places that most tourists would never go to. She also likes to travel to parts of China that she's never seen before and we've visited Mongolia and the Silk Road as well as the lakes that I've photographed this trip.

    Thanks for the kind words about the blog. What you say is very flattering. It's nice hear that I've communicated things to people.

    If you look at my blog posts from July or August in 2009, you can find articles about my own battles with the dispatchers. It a practice that needs to end and yesterday is too soon.


  3. A contributing factor for why the Chinese like white skin and abhor dark skin is that over centuries, the peasants worked the fields and were darkened by the sun. Those who are white are not thought of as peasants toiling in the fields, but as people of means, with good, inside jobs. People are respected who have very white skin, wear glasses, and are fat, as they all indicate that they have means.
    Joseph Fleischman

  4. Hi Joseph,

    Yes, what you say is very true.