Sunday, September 19, 2004

Beijing/Bangkok

... and a layover in Hong Kong, of course. I've begun to develop quite a relationship with this airport -- one that's substantially furthered by the incredible vistas available to the traveller via the large, floor-to-dome-shaped-ceiling windows: Lusciously green, volcanic hills, the boat-studded ocean, a colorful line-up of planes to exotic locations, and above it all the beautiful, towering cloudscapes.

I am indeed back in the land of the blogging after a three-day respite in Tianjin. The time there was instructive and restful -- while I didn't necessarily sleep more or get out and about less, for the first time this month I was able to let down my guard a bit more. For the lone female traveller, a simple matter like sitting at a sidewalk cafe without burying one's nose in a book while keeping one's surroundings well within one's peripheral vision is an impossible feat. Being a mostly confident and astute traveller, I was nevertheless amazed how much easier a relaxed stroll, walk through an open market, or meal at a local foodstand were in the company of another person (... or two, or three ...) Tianjin itself -- future home to the Olympic volleyball and pingpong competitions -- is a port-city, roughly 1.5 hours South of Beijing proper. Given that environmental regulations in China amount to a policy of quick and dirty, ex-post-facto cover-ups of the destruction decades of neglect have wreaked, Tianjin's actual coastline is apparently more akin to a sewer than even such unlovely sites as the L.A. Harbor. The skies of blue -- which I got to enjoy after all on Sunday! -- tend to be veiled in hues of dusty gray: My lungs, used to years of smoggy So. Cal abuse didn't rebel at the scent of Beijing but were distinctly bothered by Tianjin's airquality.

A few hours out of Beijing and at a minor distance from some of the major tourist attractions, the strangle-hold of the Chinese government is both less and more overt: On the one hand, the number of armed guards decreases somewhat as one moves farther down the radius from Tiananment Square. On the other hand, the lower number of "honored guests" from the West allows for a less polished facade: Police presence in residential areas is more notice-able, laws that prevent Chinese nationals from setting foot onto the grounds of Christian international schools or church fellowships are presented less apologetically. The locals have developed a somewhat schizophrenic relationship with Westerners. On the one hand, Caucasians are readily approached for English conversation and treated with vague awe and reverence (... when visiting the "English corner" at a local cafe, an evening dedicated to Westerners giving locals the opportunity to practise their -- largely quite good -- English skills, my "comrade" was complimented not just on her intelligence and sense of humor, but on her movie-star good-looks and general beauty. I had to agree :) On the other, Westerns tend to be regarded as tourists, uninitiated into the business world of local markets and uncomfortable with customs that prescribe ritual haggling and bargaining -- customs that are ignored at one's own peril and a merchant's profit. More seriously, especially for older Chinese citizens there's a modicum of tension and ambivalence simmer just below the surface: Sentiments fueled by the powerful anti-American propaganda in the ... um ... selective newsmedia presentation, and the self-incrimination Hollywood and the ready availability of American movies heaps upon the U.S.

Christian faith in China deserves an entirely separate treatment and entry -- and perhaps a more sensitively circulated one. If you're interested in reading observations and reflections on the subject, drop me an e-mail or comment and I'll be happy to bring you into the loop. Last but not least, though, for everyone who's been waiting with baited breath for updates on Becki's whereabouts and how-abouts --- she's exhorted me to commend her as doing well to all her friends in the U.S. Foreign teachers in China, in all material respects live in the lap of luxury: Apartment, housekeeping, spending money and assorted conveniences are well provided for. What is missing at times are the higher echelons of Maslov's hierarchy of needs: Encouragement, affirmation, support, communication, mentoring -- in short, community. The Asian mentality that it isn't the squeaky wheel that gets greased but the square peg that's hammered down has infiltrated organizations sending teachers abroad as well. Conformity and composure are treated as virtues, and challenges ought to be limited to the precedented and the easily fixable. Be ye therefore exhorted to send your support and encouragement! Nevertheless a very good time was had by all with enlightening conversation, hysterical laughter, Chinese massages (by blind masseurs!) and, according to local custom, much, much excellent food.

And that's the news for now. When next you hear from me, I'll be on Thai soil, perhaps even in the process of cavorting on Thomas Merton's stomping grounds -- or is it morbid to visit the death-by-electrocution-through-faulty-fan site of this great man?

Incidentally, what do y'all think about Maria going to China for a year?

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