Thursday, July 31, 2008

Confessions of an Ex-pat

Dear America,

It is now the afternoon after the exam of what has been the hardest week thus far. One hopes that next week will be better, but a warning yesterday from our professors (after grumblings by students that we in one day had 250 new words to learn) that life would not get baetter, and quick look at Monday's assignments, indicate the last two full weeks of class will be particularly exciting, work-wise.

They also will be exciting Beijing-wise. Preparations for the Olympics are moving into full swing, with projects being completed at record speed. In the subways and underpasses metal detectors and bag scanners manned by police are popping up where portrait artists and fake receipt sellers used to hawk their wares. Restaurants and small businesses are closing left and right, with signs saying they've gone to their hometown, and they'll be back in a month.

The sky, a sight rarely seen, has poked its blue face down on us slightly more often than is average in Beijing, but news reports continue to announce the pollution is still abvoe required levels and simultaneously quote staunch Chinese officials swearing that there will not be a pollution problem come D-day (or some careers will end... perhaps in a very permanent way). Already only half of privately own cars can drive on any given day, and there is talk of reducing private traffic to 10% of normal as a last-ditch effort to save the Olympics (stop and think about reducing 90% of all private traffic in, say, Phildaelphia or even better, New York or Los Angeles).

The last article we had to read (the one with 250 new words) was written a year ago about the Beijing Olympics, the preparations for it, as well as for the Olympic park after the games are over, and put me into something of a depression -- not only because the article was difficult, but also because of the content. The Chinese government has taken up the Olympics as a banner to show of fthe country to the world, a sort of "world premiere" for China, to dazzle and awe its foreign guests. To this end it has built a massive park, reduced price the all-you-can-eat catered meals of the athletes to $1 per meal, scoured its city clean of riffraff and peddlers, and tried to contain the rowdier elements of its population. It has enlisted a massive army of 10,000 "welcome hosts" whose primarily qualification is that they are beautiful and graceful young women to assist in the games, as well as tens of thousands of more people to volunteer. China has spent billions of dollars on this event, and it's doing it for the West and the world.

Unfortunately, it has all backfired.

As a Westerner in China, I personally, and the other Americans I know here, all find the Olympics a massive inconvenience. I can no longer find a cheap breakfast or a dozen other things on the street corner, because they all were run out of town. I have to worry that one day the guards at the gate of my college will not let me back in because I never carry my student ID and I might be a terrorist. Reading western news, I also get the impression that westerners care much less about the ugly metal mesh "bird's nest" stadium and much more about Chinese human rights activists being arrested without cause, athletes forced to sign promises they will not criticize the government or do other offensive things during their stay, the persistent pollution, and other problems of the middle kingdom. To westerners, the fancy welcome smacks of two-facedness when reporters are restricted from all but officially-sanctioned areas. China's bid for the Olypmics was accepted with the stipulation that it had to improve its human rights record, but to all appearances, it has simply used Olympic preparation to make its human rights abuses even worse. While the Party is practically salivating at the idea that they will astound rest of the world at its civilization, technological advancement, and athletic prowess, instead the only lasting impression is that though the dictatorship can (mostly) pull off a good show, the strain of it reveals the oppression, paranoia, and insecurity of the country's leadership.

The impression one gets from foreign media (to say nothing of China's state media) is that the Chinese entire population is devoting all their hopes and aspirations to the Olympics and to their success, for love of the Games. This is not a blatant lie, as very many of the Chinese people are genuinely excited about the Olympics and the fact that Beijing is hosting it. But simultaneously, large numbers of Chinese citizens are tired of seven years of government whipped-up Olympic fervor. And, in voices never heard, some complain that the money invested in this big charade to impress the world could be much better spent at home, helping the Chinese commoners.

And so I'm depressed. I fear that even if nothing drastic happens during the Games, the whole event will fail: the West will not have any better impression of China, and quite possibly a worse one. The leaders, critically misunderstanding the way the West thinks, will be angry at the West for not being impressed and happy. (Nevermind that part of this anger is legitimate, since the West doesn't understand China either; but that's their problem; our problem). And the Chinese people will once again have been betrayed by their leaders, both in promises and in results. I hope it doesn't happen, but I'm afraid it will.

The title of this post, however, was Confessions. Some might point out that up to now I have only written accusations and fears with a few facts sprinkled in, and so to the confessions.

Confession 1. I ended up buying one of those $0.17 flowers. Despite using this flower as a launching point for a discussion on the spiralling morality of Chinese society, the flower itself was pretty, and I intended on giving it to one of the office workers who had helped me out a bunch. The right moment never came, however, and I left the flower bloom in my room. I later bought three more and also put them in my room.

Confession 2. This particular confession I am loathe to reveal, as I know that even if no one else is reading this blog, my parents are. nevertheless, honest reporting requires me to admit that here in China, among the tastiest dishes I have savoured include things such as tomato and egg fried together, and a whole plate of eggplant. I defend this behavior, and my seemingly hypocritical refusal to eat eggplant (and reluctance to eat tomatoes) to the vast difference in style between the Chinese and American way. Many of my classmates here are also in full agreement that American and Chinese eggplant are worlds and worlds apart. Nevertheless, fears of repercussions once I return to the motherland make this confession particularly difficult.

Confession 3. I almost certianly will not go to see the Olympics in person. Good intentions did not overcome unwillingness to cut class and fight "in line" with Chinese people for 7 hours for the chance to get a ticket.

Confession 4. Yet again I have had to tell a girl that despite her feelings for me, it just wasn't going to work out. Why this seems to always happen in China and not, say, the rest of the year when I'm in America, is something of a mystery. Maybe this is why I keep coming back here.

Confession 5. While Chinese food is truly a delight to eat and variagated in ways that frequent purveyors of American Chinese restuarants will never imagine possible, I have begun to miss western food, particularly a freshly baked multiple meat pizza, ozzing with cheese and, I might even venture to say, goodness.

If I think of more confessions, I will keep you posted.

In more personal news, my attempts to make American breakfast succeeded beautifully. It was the weekend, I was wornout from yet another punishing week, and I needed some sort of succeed to cheer me up. After an almost fatal setback very similar to my failure several weeks ago (the cooking aparati were locked with no key available) put my mood in the black, I managed to gather everything. After a few mis-starts with the oil-and-wok instead of the butter-and-frying pan combination, I managed to create a beautiful plate of fried "bacon" (if you squint at it), scrambled eggs with cheese -- real cheddar! -- and a mound of pancakes. I was terribly proud and went around finding as many people as I could to show them my creation, especially Chinese people... to show them what a real breakfast looks like. Spurred by my glorious victory, I intend on expanding operations and trying some more ambitious culinary operations tomorrow.

This past weekend I also indulged in the luxury of revisiting the Beijing Zoo. Originally planning a medium-sized group of myself two of my Swarthmroe classmates, and my two pharmacy friends, the group expanded as One of my pharmacy friends (whom I dubbed Anna) brought along her younger sister (whom I had dubbed Allison) and brother; I, in the meantime, ended up agreeing to let three other ACC students to join us on our expedition. The size of the group ended up being not a problem, and we had a grand time meandering around the zoo and chatting. About half of us continued on to have dinner, and then we ACC students stopped at Wangfujing (the famous shopping street of my past) to meander a bit and see if we could buy some "Traditional Chiense clothes" for two of my classmates, since ACC was hosting a party with Traditional Chinese culture as the theme. We returned back to the school nearly eight hours after having left, thoroughly tired, but for my part, quite satisfied. I even went up and watched the party for a few minutes before falling into a much-needed sleep.

It's scary to think that in a few weeks I'll be back in the US, speaking English, preparing for the new semester and looking for some sort of job after I graduate. For the time being however, I'm busy enough learning a wee bit of Chinese.

And that, folks, is all for now.


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