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Archive for the ‘China Dispatches’ Category

Democracy Sandwich

Greetings, unfeeling network of wires! It’s been a long time since you’ve last carried my voice. For all those of you out in the darkness reading this on RSS feeds or on web browsers, welcome; I’m going to try this again from the top, updating regularly.

There’s a bunch to write – the world has changed around me since I was in China. Now I’m ensconced in another People’s Republic: the self-proclaimed People’s Republic of Cambridge! I’m working hand-to-mouth, planning for the future, and laying long schemes that will come to fruition over the next few years. But for the moment, that’s not what I’ve come to mention.

A few friends of mine have remained in China as a rear-guard, working for various media outlets, or for non-profits, and have started a blog on American democracy – “We Are Sandwich,” which is a pun on the Chinese for “We are three people’s knowledge,” which is descriptive ‘coz there are three of them, you see. Except now there are four, as I added my $0.02 to the mix last election day, with a quick description of my experience voting – you know, that thing we all did last Tuesday?

Link, for those of you who understand Chinese: http://womenjiaosanminzhi.blog.163.com/blog/static/9599800220081055363146/

And a quick, inexpert translation for those of you who don’t:

This morning, a few minutes shy of seven o’clock, exhausted to death, I opened my eyes and got out of bed. Half dead, half alive, I put on my clothes, staggered downstairs, hit the streets; my girlfriend and I went to vote. In America every down has a few places you can go to vote, and everybody in the town belongs to one. My girlfriends’ and my poling place is close to the house, just 2 minutes’ walk away.

Our polling place opens at seven and stays open until eight at night, so we figured if we got there at seven the line shouldn’t be more than 5 minutes long, but when we got there we discovered that there were already many hundred people waiting! Their line circled the polling place many times; we had to wait for 40 minutes or so to vote.

On the surface this was a pretty frustrating situation, but as I waited in line I was overcome with a pleasant feeling. There were so many people in line, all waiting to participate in the election. No matter what policies or politicians they supported, no matter who they were voting for, they had come to this polling place to become a part of the democratic process. That’s what hit me.

The vote is the foundation of American government; without it, there is no America. If you took a time machine, like in Dr. Who, back to the past and asked the Founding Fathers if they wanted to found a democratic country, they probably wouldn’t agree with you; when they wrote the Constitution, the Founding Fathers thought that if a large country was too democratic, it would necessarily become chaotic. So, they created a “Representative Republic”: every two years, America would hold an election, selecting which politicians should represent the common people. This system obviously relies on the free franchise; if no one goes to vote, then the system loses its old democratic character.

In the last 20 years or so, American youth don’t seem to have paid much attention to voting. The youth vote never got close to fifty percent. This time around, a lot of political scientists have been saying that the youth vote will break old national records. So, seeing so many citizens waiting in line so early in the morning to vote made a huge impression on me.

After we voted, my girlfriend and I went to a coffee shop to buy breakfast, and then headed to work.

The Chinese readers seem to have appreciated the essay, so I’m going to be writing there again in the future. I’ll try to post translations from the Chinese in this space in the future.

Keep on rocking.

China Dispatch vol. 3 #7: I come from the Land of the Ice and Snow…

Science doesn’t have all the answers. Take cold, for example. If I’m remembering high school chemistry, then high school physics, then college chemistry and college physics right, “cold” (or “heat” for that matter) essentially refers to the amount of energy something has. If an object (using the term object loosely here, so it refers to places, people, drinks, etc.) is “hot” it’s more energetic, all those little molocules jumping around and bouncing off one another like animals in one of the dance numbers in The Lion King; if that same thing is cold there’s less energy, molocules, atoms, whatever moving more slowly, then more slowly still, until finally at absolute zero they freeze into lock-step. And then it’s possible, a friend of mine told me once, to get into *negative* temperatures, but I didn’t quite understand what he was talking about then — no doubt due to an obstinate and bullheaded refusal of mine to associate temperature with anything other than, well, *temperature*, hot and cold and all that, which may be old-fashioned but is nevertheless a reflex of mine — and I’m not going to attempt to explain it now.

(Though, parenthetically, if anyone does know or would like to take a second try at explaining to me what a negative temperature might be, I promise to be more flexible.)

Anyway! The point of all this babble is to say that the commonly-held impression of cold is wrong, as I know! Or, if not wrong, then at least incomplete. China, oddly enough for a country that burns like a somewhat congenial if polluted furnace from May to August,
has a way of showing one kinds of cold one didn’t quite think existed. There’s cold as in my house in southern Anhui province, wet and just above freezing, which wouldn’t be a problem save that there’s a shortage of indoor heating in Anhui, or at least indoor heating that doesn’t excoriate you and squeeze every ounce of moisture from your tortured flesh. So when the cold creeps in through layers of coat and sweater and long underwear and so forth, it doesn’t leave. Ever. Like the spiders on your ceiling and the field mice who creep around your window at night looking for ways to sneak in, it becomes a constant companion.

Cambodia/Thailand Special China Crossover Edition: “A Long Way From Home…”

This morning I woke at 4:30 AM in a white-walled motel room outside Phnom Penh International Airport to the angry, full-voiced chirp of a gecko on the wall; it scuttled for cover behind the curtains when I sat up. And now, I’m sitting back on Stephanie’s couch in Beijing, waiting for her to get off work (her crazy, backbreaking work, poor woman, she left New York and came to just about the only place on the planet where your time as a legal assistant is in even higher demand – save me from professions, if not from professional salaries!) so we can grab a bite to eat and maybe watch some of Rome before bed. It’s cold outside, though dry, the horrid ice-tentacles that have seized the southern half of the Chan’s Great Continent having spared the capital mostly. My students back in southern Anhui are seeing more snow than they have known since they were in grade school. There are no snow plows in Anhui, there are no salt trucks, there are no paved roads going out to most of their houses. They are sleeping eight to a concrete bunker of a room, waiting for the weather to let up – or so I hear.

And, as I said, this morning I awoke some eleven degrees and thirty-three minutes north of the equator to the chirp of a gecko and the cry of a bird in the palm tree outside my window and the burbling and coughing of an air conditioner that sounded more like the engine of a particularly tuburculotic old station wagon. Around midnight, awake for the second time due to the noise, I had tried to sleep without the AC, but then the heat and wet stickiness set in, and the scratchy sheets, and the bugs, and the complete lack of ventilation in the concrete motel room, and I gave in.


China Dispatch vol. 3 Cambodia Special Edition #3: You Have Gained a New Party Member!

I sit now in an internet cafe in the lobby of my guesthouse in Thailand, land of Muy Thai kickboxing, peanut sauce, and delicious iced tea – And fully legal and government-supported gender reassignment operations, my Lonely Planet guide informs me. No wonder the Chinese folks I know who come back from this country are always talking about “Taiguo renyao,” which is to say Thai Transsexuals. (Actually to be precise, and I know some of you care about precision in matters like these, it’s “Thai Transvestites,” but whatever the differing psychologies it seems likely to me that a culture with a history of accepting out-and-out transvestitism would have less problem with transsexuals than the norm… but anyway, here I am writing on the clock (1 hr 52 min remaining of my purchased internet time as I finish this parenthetical) and within one paragraph I’ve already got myself from an internet cafe to transsexualism. The point of all this was to establish that the title of this particular volume in the Dispatches is now somewhat erroneous, but I’m not going to change it for numbering reasons. Those of you who grew up playing Japanese video games will understand that this is somewhat similar to how Mario III showed up in the US without a Mario II, or how “Secret of Mana” the gameboy game was renamed as “Final Fantasy Adventures”… Anyway. We enter the wayback machine – Cambodia!

More scene-setting, which I neglected to do in the previous e-mail: Siem Reap, which means “Thailand (Siam, Siem) Defeated” in Khmer (the name for the people, the language, the adjective for everything connected with their culture) is a small but fast-growing tourist town about three hours away from the Thai border, which is kind of like if Augusta, Maine were named “Scourge of Canadians” or something. The roads are paved, mostly, and sand is everywhere. It’s the dry season – after rains, the vegetation regains something of its normal unearthly green but here there’s a good bit of droopy, dry tan in anything and everything, even though the real dry stretches begin to the north and west, where everything fades into dust and cows stand like Pharoh’s lean kine by the side of the road. But back to Siem Reap: close-gathered, low buildings, a few tall luxury hotels on the outskirts. More tourists – read, foreigners, farang in Thai and something I can’t even begin to pronounce in Khmer, waiguoren in Chinese (though here they really feel more like Gringos; there’s a Mexican feel to the country in a way) – than I’ve seen in a long time, wandering around and for the most part glancing at each other and away, even in a crowd. People are here to see temples, and Cambodia and Cambodians, not ungainly hordes of French or Cantonese, well-mannered as they may be.


China Dispatch vol. 3 Cambodia Special Edition #1: Keys to the Kingdom

My apologies once again for my prolonged absence. Rumors of my whatever have been greatly exaggerated. It’s hard to come up with
stuff to write consistently when one is in situ in the countryside in
China, but when one travels, the juices get flowing again and there
are things that need to go down on paper. And right now I’m sitting
in an internet cafe in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, where you take off your
shoes before you go into internet cafes. It’s about 27 degrees
outside (Celcius, you American schvine! About eighty degrees F.) , and
I’m hurrying this so I can get back and join Carl Dull, whom some of
you from my Sewanee days might know, for a bottle of beer and an
attempt to commandeer the guesthouse’s television so as to watch Six
String Samurai. This is the Kingdom of Cambodia.

We arrived around 8 or 9 last night, after what turned out to be
something like a seven hour plane flight, and got off the jet to feel
the air around us like a blanket. The visa issue was a non-issue;
US$20 and I got myself a shiny new Cambodian visa in my passport along
with all the China stamps. The people behind the visa counter were
small, and darker than Chinese. Some of the women had very wide
mouths, and everyone smiled a lot. They were joking, and seemed
relaxed and happy. One girl was off-duty, hanging out with her
friends and eating oranges.