American Griswold In China

An American Griswold In China, Day 18: America, F&#@ Yeah!

by: David Sirota

Wed Jul 22, 2009 at 08:00

NOTE: This is the seventh (and final) post in an OpenLeft series entitled "An American Griswold In China" - a sequence of firsthand dispatches about my recent trip to China. These were written as my trip unfolded, but had to be posted now (a week after I returned home) in order to avoid any potential Chinese government censorship/sanctions for publishing while in China. We were guided around the country by my longtime friend Mike Levy, who was a Peace Corps volunteer in China and who has a forthcoming book about his experiences entitled "Kosher Dogmeat." These reports describe what we saw through the eyes of a progressive and just an average American. - D

DAY 18: There's No Place Like Home

We're finally  in New York after 15 hours of travel. The journey back included a few interesting notes.

First, I had to spend the trans-Pacific flight next to an old Chinese man who kept getting up and massaging his own ass in my face. Evidently, this is an accepted way for Chinese people to stretch and massage themselves in public. Not cool.

Second, when we went through U.S. customs at the pre-clearance facility in the Toronto Airport, the uniformed guard was eager to find out if we had to deal with the riots in China. Of course, we had no idea what he was talking about (just like we've heard almost nothing about the pro-democracy strife in Iran), reminding us once again that while parts of China look and feel modernized and Western, it still is an old fashioned police state.

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An American Griswold In China, Day 11-13: Dodging Loogeys and Bulldozer Blades

by: David Sirota

Mon Jul 20, 2009 at 09:00

NOTE: This is the fifth in an OpenLeft series entitled "An American Griswold In China" - a sequence of firsthand dispatches about my recent trip to China. These were written as my trip unfolded, but had to be posted now (a week after I returned home) in order to avoid any potential Chinese government censorship/sanctions for publishing while in China. My wife, Emily, and I were guided around the country by my longtime friend Mike Levy, who was a Peace Corps volunteer in China and who has a forthcoming book about his experiences entitled "Kosher Dogmeat." These reports describe what we saw through the eyes of a progressive and just an average American Clark W. Griswold. You can browse the entire photo and video catalogue from our trip here.

To see the full series in sequence as it is released, go here.  

DAY 11: A Nation of Loogey Hockers

We're now in Beijing, having hopped a three-hour, cross-country flight yesterday afternoon. Our first full day in the Chinese capital began with breakfast at the Dongfang Hotel, which is directly south of Tiananmen Square. It is a 12-floor building located directly south of Tiananmen Square across a big new east-west thoroughfare that splits it off from a neighborhood of hutongs (old alleyways). The hotel has been taken over by a huge American teen tour, and therefore we are probably moving hotels.

We met Mike for the number 5 bus, which took us to the southeast corner of Tiananmen Square. Here's a 17-second video clip of a 360 degree view of the square:

The open expanse of the square has, unfortunately, been obstructed, cut into thirds by Mao's tomb (a huge columned mausoleum where the dictator's fat rotting body is daily taken out of a freezer and put on display for visitors) and by the Monument to the People's Heroes (an obelisk deliberately flipping a communist party bird at the front gate of the Forbidden City's imperial countenance). What once was a square that Mao hoped could hold a billion people is now more like the statue-marked National Mall. That's on purpose - after the 1979 and 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, the Communist Party had an architectural interest in making it harder for people to organize into big crowds.

Of course, before heading over to Tiananmen, Mike reminded us that many (and maybe most) Chinese citizens know little to nothing about the Tiananmen uprisings - the 1989 one which experts estimate resulted in roughly 3,000 government murders of dissidents (the Chinese government insists - rather ludicrously - that only about 150 people died, which most objective analysts say is a lie). That may sound unbelievable to American ears - how, you ask, could any Chinese citizen not know what happened at Tiananmen, their own 9/11? Sadly, the better question is how could they?

The Chinese government strictly controls and censors the media and education system in China (thus, for instance, we heard almost nothing about the ongoing riots in China while we were there), meaning that if you are a Chinese citizen and didn't witness the massacre or talk in-person (and thus, in secret) to someone who witnessed it, you probably didn't hear much about it - and if you did hear anything, what heard was likely the official propaganda from the government: namely, that there weren't hundreds of thousands of protestors asking for democracy, but instead just a handful of evil terrorists who started killing Chinese soldiers and were subsequently fought off by the brave Communist Party.

Appreciating the privilege (and really is a privilege of our freedom) of knowing the real history, we walked into the square, past armed security guards who check Chinese people's bags before they are allowed in. They didn't check our bags, probably because we're Western foreigners and - unlike courageous domestic dissidents - pose no potential political threat to the Communist Party.

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An American Griswold In China, Day 8-10: Pizza Hut and Towel Burn

by: David Sirota

Fri Jul 17, 2009 at 09:00

NOTE: This is the fourth in an OpenLeft series entitled "An American Griswold In China" - a sequence of firsthand dispatches about my recent trip to China. These were written as my trip unfolded, but had to be posted now (a week after I returned home) in order to avoid any potential Chinese government censorship/sanctions for publishing while in China. My wife, Emily, and I were guided around the country by my longtime friend Mike Levy, who was a Peace Corps volunteer in China and who has a forthcoming book about his experiences entitled "Kosher Dogmeat." These reports describe what we saw through the eyes of a progressive and just an average American Clark W. Griswold. You can browse the entire photo and video catalogue from our trip here.

To see the full series in sequence as it is released, go here.

DAY 8: Guiyang Never Looked So Good

We headed into downtown Anshun (the small town west of Guiyang where we stayed last night) to a three-story factory that produces batiks - ie. tapestries colored through paint and wax. Mike, Emily and I each bought one.

We then met up with Dustin, and went for lunch in the sixth-floor walkup apartment of his fellow English teacher, Dr. Fu (not his real name). He has lived in Anshun his whole life, and has been teaching for years at Anshun Teachers College. Dustin wanted us to meet him because Dr. Fu is known at the school for his, shall we say, unorthodox views - well, at least by (official) Chinese standards.

Dr. Fu, who is in his late 40s and therefore lived through the Cultural Revolution (which took place in the late 1960s and 1970s), is known here for trying to promote far more critical thinking among his students than is the norm here. A magnificent English speaker (with a slight British accent because his original teacher was from the UK), he is frustrated by an education system and by students that he thinks teaches kids here to be automatons - perhaps adept at technical skills, but not at creative/critical thinking. Additionally, when discussing Dustin's interactions with students, he seemed particularly exasperated at students who don't properly respect their teachers - likely, a deep-rooted backlash to the Cultural Revolution's encouragement of students to challenge (read: bludgeon, incarcerate, and sometimes kill) their "intellectual" teachers.

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An American Griswold In China, Day 6 & 7: Fish Heads and No Running Water

by: David Sirota

Thu Jul 16, 2009 at 09:00

NOTE: This is the third in an OpenLeft series entitled "An American Griswold In China" - a sequence of firsthand dispatches about my recent trip to China. These were written as my trip unfolded, but had to be posted now (a week after I returned home) in order to avoid any potential Chinese government censorship/sanctions for publishing while in China. My wife, Emily, and I were guided around the country by my longtime friend Mike Levy, who was a Peace Corps volunteer in China and who has a forthcoming book about his experiences entitled "Kosher Dogmeat." These reports describe what we saw through the eyes of a progressive and just an average American Clark W. Griswold. You can browse the entire photo and video catalogue from our trip here.

To see the full series in sequence as it is released, go here.  

DAY 6: Beyond Thunderdome

We are staying with Jessica and Todd in their Peace Corps apartment in downtown Guiyang, and we slept exceptionally late this morning - for us, that meant about 8:30am, which suggests our body clocks may finally be adjusting to the 12-hour time change. We spent the first part of our day on a leisurely walk to Guiyang's underground market.

It's like a big subway station without any train (this city has no subway, btw), but with a Reading Terminal Market chock full of antique vendors. Here you can buy old busts of Mao, ancient coins, 40-year-old Chinese military medals and paper money that the Chinese nationalists ("Taiwanese" in the parlance of our times) once issued.

Adjacent to the underground market is a small network of alleyways with all sorts of street food. Earlier in the morning, Mike ate some of said street food, but I refrained after watching the cook first wipe his hand on a soggy gray-brown rag, then finger the food and scoop it onto the pancake Mike had ordered. I've coined my own Chinese proverb since being here: Better to be hungry than sick. I've discovered this wisdom from taking in the sanitary - or, better put, unsanitary - conditions of this city and this culture.

Todd's story of dysentery sounds shockingly rare - he got it from accidentally eating feces from the rat that was living under his sink - but I'm betting it's not that rare. "Hygeine" and "sanitation" seem to be relative terms here.  

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An American Griswold In China, Days 4 & 5: Chinese for "Worcester, Massachusetts"

by: David Sirota

Wed Jul 15, 2009 at 07:00

NOTE: This is the second in an OpenLeft series entitled "An American Griswold In China" - a sequence of firsthand dispatches about my recent trip to China. These were written as my trip unfolded, but had to be posted now (a week after I returned home) in order to avoid any potential Chinese government censorship/sanctions for publishing while in China. My wife, Emily, and I were guided around the country by my longtime friend Mike Levy, who was a Peace Corps volunteer in China and who has a forthcoming book about his experiences entitled "Kosher Dogmeat." These reports describe what we saw through the eyes of a progressive and just an average American Clark W. Griswold. You can browse the entire photo and video catalogue from our trip here.

To see the full series in sequence as it is released, go here.

DAY 4: From a Different Planet to a Different Dimension

I am writing to you from Guiyang (pronounced Gway-yong) in the province of Guizhou (pronounced Gway-joe) in southwest mainland China. We are halfway through our first full day here. If Hong Kong was a warp to a different planet, our trip to mainland China has been a journey through a wormhole to another dimension.

We spent our last morning in Hong Kong visiting the Western district, which is famous for selling Chinese antiques and medicine. It was pouring rain, which was (oddly) a relief, because the rain cooled off the temperature, and the moisture on our bodies kept us even cooler.

Before heading to the airport we went (once again, like fat Griswold-ian tourists) to the American embassy known as the IFC mall, and ate at a totally Westernized salad place and then stuffed our faces at the City Super (yes, the second visit to the Whole Foods-ish place during our Hong Kong visit). We figured this was going to be our last Western-infused meal and experience for a while...and we were, indeed, correct.

The plane ride to Guiyang was absolutely fine. I acknowledge that I was nervous that we would be flying Lao Che Airlines' mountainside-bound twin-prop, sans inflatable boat raft. Alas, however, the Hong Kong Express plane was a very modern Boeing, much like one you might fly from, say, Indiana to Denver - the only difference was that the three loud-talking drunk businessmen next to us were speaking mandarin and not 'merican.

That familiar commuter airplane experience, however, was the last culturally recognizable experience we've had since landing.

The first thing we saw coming up the jetbridge was a stoic and silently snarling Chinese soldier - the first military presence we've seen, as there was almost no police or military presence in Hong Kong (though there were an incredible number of cameras there).

Getting through passport/immigration control was easy - the only bump was when I was pulled out of line to have my bag checked. The officer specifically asked to see the books I was bringing with me - which made me (understandably, I think) a bit nervous, because the books I have with me are very political (book research stuff). He thumbed through the books, looked a bit perplexed, and then let me through, thankfully with my tomes.

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An American Griswold In China, Days 1-3: The Gateway to the Mainland

by: David Sirota

Tue Jul 14, 2009 at 05:00

NOTE: This is the first in an OpenLeft series entitled "An American Griswold In China" - a sequence of firsthand dispatches about my recent trip to China. These were written as my trip unfolded, but had to be posted now (a week after I returned home) in order to avoid any potential Chinese government censorship/sanctions for publishing while in China.  You can browse the entire photo and video catalogue from our trip here, and see the full series as it is released here.

As some background on our journey, my wife Emily and I visited both coastal and the less-well-traveled interior regions of China for about three weeks in June and July. We were guided around the country by my longtime friend Mike Levy, who was a Peace Corps volunteer in China and who has a forthcoming book about his experiences entitled "Kosher Dogmeat." These reports describe what we saw through the eyes of a progressive and just an average American Clark W. Griswold.

I don't purport to be any kind of China "expert" - three weeks in the Middle Kingdom does not make a sinologist. Nonetheless, I hope you read these reports to both to get a sense of the travel and tourist sights/sounds/tastes China offers, and to hear about the political and cultural topography we experienced. - D

DAYS 1 & 2: Gateway to the Mainland

Our trip begins in Hong Kong, the gateway to the Chinese mainland. We landed here on Friday, 6/19, at around 1pm and were downtown by around 3:30pm. The subway system, as Mike promised, is extremely efficient. Indeed, everything here is extremely efficient - there simply is no waiting for buses, taxis or subways. It kinda makes you wonder - if they can be this efficient in China, why can't we be so efficient in America's big cities?

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