June 19 , 2000


An Ultra-Mini JOHO

You didn't think I'd go to China and fail to inflict a report on you? There's another issue on the way, though, with articles on what JOHO's actually supposed to be about, whatever that is, plus your mail and links and a bogus contest and all the rest of what makes JOHO so, well, bloated.


dividing line

China Shards

Four hours and counting

I've been in Beijing four hours, so I figure that makes me an expert. According to Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point (as opposed to The Point of Tipping, the book travelers actually need), in an article in the New Yorker, we make up our minds about people in the first fifteen seconds. So I'm actually giving Beijing more than a fair shot.

In fact, let's increase the stakes by comparing Beijing to Hong Kong, a city I spent a day touring (while spending three and a half days sitting inside meeting rooms with no view).

Hong Kong is a buy-or-bye culture. Every encounter is a contest. Oh, sure, it's beautiful, a thin strip of gleaming skyscrapers gripping the edge of land against a green mountainscape. But even the beauty seems derivative of Las Vegas, an example of what greed builds when its allowance is too big.

Here's what I've done in Beijing so far: Checked into the hotel, walked from my hotel down a main shopping street in 100-degree heat, trekked through Tianamen Square ("99 football fields large" says Fodor's, using the international standard measurement), stumbled on an Internet Cafe, spent an hour checking my mail (slow connection) and an hour and a half drinking beer with two Brits and a Yank half my age, swapping presumptions about one another, while they tried to pick up the pretty cafe attendants by practicing the Chinese they've learned in three weeks. I followed this up with a meal of corn and pine nuts in a randomly chosen restaurant where my pronunciation of "I am a vegetarian" in Mandarin was apparently so bad that they called over half the restaurant staff to gawk.

Here's how I feel about Beijing: I'm in love. If I had another couple of lives, I'd be tempted to spend one here. (Damn! I knew I should have gone for the three-pack!) It's a city living its life, unconcerned about the likes of me. What lovely indifference! And what lovely children, playing with goofy parents. It is a city all out of scale for individuals but perfectly scaled to humans in units of a thousand.

Beijing scales.

My Baggage

It helps to know what I carry to Beijing.

In the 50s, I was taught by Life Magazine that the Red Chinese were robots with little regard for individual human life. Then came the Cultural Revolution in which red-book-totin' fanatics enforced political correctness at the point of a gun. Then we got a new regime that represses dissent, murders peaceful students, and keeps its people in the dark because if they knew the truth, they'd revolt.

The above is a steamy mix of truth and lie. In fact, thanks to my being raised in red diapers to appreciate the working class from a comfortable middle class distance, I always found China more interesting than the media would allow. My father was a lawyer protecting the rights of unions. My mother was the original guitar-playin', hootenanny-hostin' soldier in the folk song army (her idols: Pete Seegar and before him Paul Robeson), back in the 50s before folk songs were hip. I was born to be predisposed toward revolutionary societies.

So, I went with some understanding of what life was like before the revolution in 1949 and with a willingness to believe that there may be situations in which free speech is not the highest value and in which economic democracy may be more urgent than political democracy.

There's no need to write puffily self-righteous email to me about why the massacre at Tianamen was terrible, about how tyrannical the Chinese have been about Tibet, about the inhumaneness of the one-child rule, about their horrendous ecological record, about the working conditions that kill workers. I know. But can't we just be tourists for a little while?

* * *

On the plane to Beijing from Hong Kong, they give me a copy of the China Daily, a thin tabloid written in the stilted language of a newspaper with a social purpose. Yet there are at least seven articles that mention the Internet, including the lead article that rebuts a rumor on the Web that China's navy is engaged in aggressive actions, not mere war games.

* * *

Air China has coach, business and first class seats. The irony is thick enough to put on pancakes.

* * *

Occupying Landmarks

The old folks gather in the shade of the Summer Palace to play tile games. Some men lazily fish in an imperial park while parents help their children fly kites. They well know that their ancestors were slaves to the whims that built these parks. It is revenge without the bitterness of vengeance.

* * *


My tour guide, Michael, is wondering why Yahoo mail has been so slow. I assure him that the problem very likely isn't with Yahoo. The next day at the Internet cafe, I find him a couple of sites that have a trace route facility so he can at least see where the hang-up is. But, they're probably too big for him to download or keep on his hard disk, and one of them costs $30, i.e., a ton of money.

Michael is a licensed guide — licensed by the government. He says things like: "Our leaders now encourage us to buy our own homes. It is more expensive for the young because they will make more than their parents. And the old ones have spent their lives building socialism, so they pay less." He seems sincere. I find it affecting.

Michael's name is Zou-min. "Michael" is just easier for us to pronounce.

* * *

Michael was Steve Case's tour guide shortly before the merger with Time-Warner. He said that Mr. Case wasn't very talkative but Ms. Case was quite friendly. I say that I hope they left a big tip, but Michael discretely doesn't answer.

* * *

In the streets: pedestrians, cabs, cars, buses, motorcycles, scooters, three-wheeler cycles, bikes, bikes, more pedestrians, more bikes. The rule of the road is simple: Momentum wins.

* * *

Meatless in Beijing

For a country that is overwhelmingly Buddhist at least nominally, I am surprised to find almost no vegetarian food. Yes, I'm a vegetarian, and for the most obnoxious of reasons: Because I believe that our children will be as confused about how we could have eaten animals as we are about how our predecessors could have held slaves (although slavery is the greater evil). The first restaurant I go to, Tianshi, is as trendy as a California health food dive. The second is a typical restaurant for Beijing inhabitants — minimal decor, thrice-used table cloths. It's called Gong De Lin and it's just south of Tianamen (158 Tian An Men Ave.). Its English menu says that its three floors are "ideal places for deriving nutrition as well as cultivating your morality." The dishes imitate meat and include items such as "stir-fried crab spawn," "croaker in sweet and sour sauce," and "roasted hedgehog hydnum on heat iron board." I have the chicken shreds in sweet and sour sauce and caramel cashews that have to be dipped in cold water to be eaten without blistering your gums.

As I leave the Tianshi restaurant, they hand me a business card and point at a line at the bottom: their email address.

* * *

In the hotel room I watch a BBC World show. I miss the title but it should be called "That Media Twit Panel." They are jingoistically discussing why Europeans suck. One says, to prove that even the Europeans know that they suck, "English is the lingua franca" of the European Community. Hmm, a Latin phrase about French being used to prove the superiority of English. Twits.

* * *

I'm traveling alone because one by one my family decided that the trip was ill-timed. As a result, I'm video taping everything. At first I thought this was out of guilt. After four days, I realize that if I had someone to reminisce with, I wouldn't need my camcorder.

* * *

In a back alley that wends for a mile, a tourist-free zone, I am reminded that markets aren't only conversations, they're street fairs.

And some vendors are engaging in the most basic of marketing campaigns: banging wood together to attract attention.

* * *

The Great Wall

I didn't realize the Great Wall is an athletic event. I got dumped there with 2 hours to "look around" which means climbing an insanely vertical set of steps, in bright sun, with no shade and — duh — no water.

The Wall is not subtle. It seems impossible to have been built by hand. It is impossibly old. And as it crests the fang-like hills, its artifice brings out the rhythm of the natural landscape.

* * *

A thought while sweating on the Great Wall:

Going up, we are all the same.
Going down, we are each different.

* * *

In the China Daily, June 12, the government explains why it's introducing the use of credit cards at gas stations:

"Card holders will be able to refuel and pay in different places, and enjoy better, faster and safer services after the card system is completed, said Li Yizhong, chairman of the CPCC [China Petroleum and Chemical] board."

It's not only corporations that have forgotten how to sound human. Totalitarian governments never remembered. And for the same reasons: the love of control.

* * *

At home

Where do I feel most at home in China?

Not in the hotel. It's very Western and very expensive. The bellhops wear white uniforms with dopey hats. The restaurants are purposefully foreign to Beijing: Italian, German, Cantonese. And they're expensive. Although I might pay US$20 for a lunch in the US, I feel ripped off paying that here.

Not on the streets. So many people, so many lives, such lovely indifference to me as a visitor. Yet it's easy to make contact. Reply to a vendor with a miserable attempt at "No thank you" in Chinese and you get a smile and a slap on the back. But I am a very much stranger here, in a city that is nevertheless hospitable to strangers.

Not in the local restaurants. Trying to say in Chinese that I'm a vegetarian brings home how foreign the language is. And the food brings foreignness to a biological level.

Not at the Great Wall where I am one of the very few Westerners, and am alienated not only by culture but by time and geography. The section of the Wall I climbed was built 600 years ago to keep out people like me. And the sight of the Wall climbing and dipping, brimming the dragon-teeth hills it follows, is awe-inspiring. Awe always exists in incommensurability — of time, of space, of beauty. It is the deepest sense of not being at home.

So, where do I feel most at home? At the Qian Yi Internet Cafe at the southeastern corner of Tianamen Square, on the third floor of The Old Railway Station shopping mall. (Look for the McDonald's, which apparently serves as a local landmark for giving directions.) Ten computers, four of them clustered around a table with a large fake tree in the center. US$2.50 an hour for a connection as spotty as that in the hotel where they charge five times as much. Local beer for 80 cents a can. Foreigners, mainly of the backpacking variety, checking their email. Two attendants, Han Rui and Liu Yuan, helpful, excellent English, and, by the way, quite beautiful. I come here every day after beating my feet into submission on Beijing's streets. (The streets come in two varieties: long and twisty.) I sit for an hour in front of a computer and outside a beer.

Why do I feel so at home here? Yes, in part it's because English isn't much of an issue here. Yes, in part it's because I'm getting messages from my children. Yes, in part it's because there are other foreigners here. But it's the Internet that's brought us together. We seem to share not only an interest, and an attitude, but a silent bond.

This is not at all to say that feeling at home is a peak experience for me in Beijing. If I wanted to feel at home, I would have stayed at home. But the Web now serves as a permanent, always-on home for the world.

* * *

Leaving the Internet Cafe for the last time, going down the escalator, a soap bubble breaks against my left eyeglass lens. I look up. A Chinese boy is standing next to his father, blowing bubbles down the shaft. He looks down. He smiles my son's smile.


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