Archive for June, 2008


The Rise and Decline of an International Jetsetting Philosopher

Written Yesterday in the Dallas/Ft. Worth Airport:

So I was still in Beijing at the beginning of the month, until the 9th. I then came to Chicago, and stayed with my future in-laws for a few days, before returning to Madison for apartment hunting for a few days. Then, back to Chicago for a day or two, before coming to Houston to see family and friends for a week. As I type this, I’m at the airport in Houston, waiting for a flight that will take me to Dallas/Ft. Worth, before depositing me back in Chicago. I’ll crash there tonight, and then it’s back to Madison for a night or two. Then, it’s to the Madison airport, where I’ll catch a flight to Portland for Rand Camp, where I’ll be staying for a week. Only then when I return to Madison, hopefully to finally move into my new apartment. But of course, even that’s temporary. About a month later, I’ll be off for Washington DC, for yet another conference.

Mind you, I’m not complaining. Not really, anyway, because doing so much traveling is satisfying in its own way, as I like being able to see so many people and places in such a short time. I’m only saying that I’ll be very much looking forward to returning to Madison after the trip to Portland so that I can actually move in, and I can stop being, well, sort of homeless, and having to get my mail all forwarded to my parents’ address in Texas.

I’ll also look forward to a return to life without all the useless security theatre that makes traveling by air, which should be a pleasant experience, much more of a hassle, and even sort of depressing, considering that when you travel by air, you realize just how much arbitrary power has been seized by the federal government in the name of homeland security. The courts have found that the federal government doesn’t even have to show from what law or other act of Congress authorizes it demand that passengers carry government-issued ID cards, and since no such law was as far as anyone can tell, ever passed, at best it exists in a kind of legal twilight zone, a practice that looks all the world like it’s unconstitutional, but without a specific law or act that can be brought to the courts to be fought as unconstitutional.

Well. I still maintain that traveling is fun. Government mischief hasn’t changed that just yet. Nonetheless, I long for the semblance of regularity and settlement I’ll enjoy in July.


One World, One Dream, and Buh-Bye!

After arriving back from Xinjiang, I regret to report that on the surface, at least, it may not sound like I was up to anything exciting in Beijing. That is, I didn’t have time to visit the Great Wall, or the Tibetan Exhibit that had been set up in the wake of the Tibetan protests (China’s exhibition of cultural artifacts designed to prove that China really wasn’t committing cultural genocide against the Tibetans, and more importantly, that Tibet Was Always, And Always Shall Be, Part Of China). Nor did I get to see the Underground City. Primarily, the last week I had in China was spent doing more banal things – packing up my apartment, helping Allison move and set up to take over my apartment. I had the last meetings with several of the students I was tutoring, and the last meetings with my bosses to insure that I was actually paid before I left the country.

We did, mind you, try to make it to the Tibetan Exhibit, but were turned away at the gate when they explained that they were going to close before we’d really get much of a view of the exhibit. So you might say that my trip in China ended not with a bang, but with a whimper.

Though that’s sort of misleading. For one thing, happily, I did get to try Peking Duck, at long last. And it was quite different than I expected. I’m not sure what – perhaps that it was going to be fried a certain way, but certainly I didn’t expect that it was going to come with a special sauce, and to be wrapped up in special pancake/tortilla-type bread, and wrapped up with onions and cucumbers. Still, it was phenomenally good. And for another thing, I did do some of the things I enjoyed most about Beijing one last time – pub quiz, for example, where even though we were robbed of first place on the flimsiest of bases, we still came in 2nd and enjoyed a free round of cocktails.

And most importantly, I spent far more time with Allison than I had gotten to spend most of the trip. Since she was living with a host family, most of the time, I’d have to say good-bye to her around 6pm every day, but since this time, she was moving into my apartment, we actually got to enjoy dinner and evening activities, as well as breakfast, together. That was by far much more rewarding than the Great Wall ever could’ve been.

Now, you might feel sorry for me, thinking that I missed the chance of a lifetime to see the Great Wall. But there, you’d be working from a faulty premise. That is, that this is the only time in my life that I would every have the opportunity to visit China and see the Great Wall. Allison herself has had a lot of well-wishers, family and friends alike, who’ve said things like, “Oh, this is perfect for you! Go and enjoy this while you’re young. It’s the chance of a lifetime, before you get older and have to settle down.” To which I think Allison and I both say, “Hogwash!”

You see, Allison plans on studying China professionally in some capacity, probably as a political scientist but possibly as a historian or an anthropologist. This, therefore, is only the first of many trips she’ll be taking to China throughout her life. And as I see it, this means that I will have ample opportunity, in the coming years, to join her during her future trips, and see all of the things that I didn’t get to see this time around. In other words, as if Allison herself wasn’t motive enough, I now have other incentives to return to China in the future. And in the future, as now, since I will be working as a philosopher, assuming I can arrange a fellowship, I can continue my own scholarship virtually anywhere in the world. I got lots of research completed during this particular trip, and I would no doubt continue the same thing in any future stay. Now, I’m not anticipating that I will be living in China for 5 or 6 month stints as I did this time, but I imagine that as a husband to someone in China on a scholars’ visa of sorts, and thus, with a spousal visa of my own, I shouldn’t have as many visa difficulties next time as I did this time. I should be able to come and go far more easily. Which is good, because as happy as I am to visit China and spend time with Allison there, I hope to never have to live there! The pollution alone is reason enough, but I can tell you that learning to say controversial words like “Dalai Lama,” “Rebiya Kadeer,” “Tienanmen Square Massacre,” in Pig Latin and under my breath was freaky, and not something that anyone should ever have to do.

Speaking of which, I think I know the reason why I had such a flurry of job opportunities toward the end of my stay. It seems that I’m hardly the only one that China is more or less expelling. Foreigners left and right are finding themselves without valid visas, as the country is suddenly clamping down on foreigners staying in Beijing during the Olympics. At the last I’ve heard, China is apparently no longer awarding ANY new visas, at least, not if you’d like to visit during the Olympics. A Chinese embassy official, for example, was quoted as saying that foreigners just shouldn’t come during the Olympics: they should come some other time. Which doesn’t make a lot of sense to me, since I thought we wanted lots of foreigners to come and spend money – wasn’t that the whole point of bringing the Olympics to China? But the Chinese government seems worried that its stability may be put in jeopardy by its longer-term residents, which actually strikes me as the opposite of what’s true. If they don’t want protesters, they should emphasize people who have long-term commitments to stay there, who have an investment in behaving, as opposed to people who’s only goal is to draw attention to themselves as they get themselves deported. Ce la vie.

Regardless, I was told many times by the agencies I had been working for that they were suddenly facing major labor shortages as their English tutors and teachers were being deported en masse. Again, this should’ve been an obvious problem with the sudden restrictions on Chinese visas. I would’ve thought that the government would’ve wanted as many of its citizens, particularly those in the service industries, to polish their English skills as the Olympics came to the city, but perhaps its more worried that its English-speaking ex-pat population may be trying to subvert the population. Allison’s hypothesis, of course, is the most sensible and simple explanation: the government is run by a coterie of very, very paranoid people. The openness they’ve shown in the past decades is less a matter of them becoming more open-minded types, though there may be some of that, but more as a means to an end, as they build their “Harmonious Society” of “Market Socialism,” whatever that oxymoron of a slogan is supposed to mean. The end being, of course, more economic development and prosperity. All fine and good, highly respectable goals, but I suppose it all comes back to the human, all too human desire to have the honey without the sting.

I wish the government could be half as open-minded as the many Chinese people I met during my time there. I realize that Beijingers are not exactly representative of the whole nation, considering how many hundreds of millions of people still live as uneducated peasants in the countryside. But I think about all the cool people I met, like my landlord Mara, or her friend Sissi, or even my student Nicole, one year away from her college entrance exams. Some of my bosses – Shawn, for example, or Eaton (who gave me the recording job), or my co-worker Amy. These are some of the most sensible, intelligent and kindest people I’ve had the pleasure of knowing, and I cannot get over how much better the Chinese government would be if these people ran things. And who knows? They are all young, and if they are any indication, the rising generation may complete the job that the lost generation of Tienanmen began in earnest in 1989. One can hope.

Anyway, enough rambling. I’ll have more to post soon, about my return to the US and subsequent house-hunting expedition in Madison, to begin tomorrow (Saturday).


The Perfume Bandit of the Chinese Western Frontier

The trip to Ürümqi, Xinjiang was a study in extremes. We met people who were incredibly cool, and certainly had great experiences that we’ll take with us for a lifetime. But we also had very ugly experiences with certain individuals, such that we’re even planning on writing the Lonely Planet and Rough Guide people to warn them about certain attractions.

As I write this, we are a mere two hours form perhaps the ugliest incident in the whole trip to China thus far. The victim, in this case, was Allison. As we arrived at the train station in Ürümqi for our return voyage, we were asked by the guards there to put all of our bags on the conveyor belt for X-ray scanning. Nothing too odd about that: we do that all the time in airports, after all. My bags got through without a hitch, but it was soon obvious to me that they were giving Allison grief for some reason.

What reason? It seems that Allison’s bottle of perfume was considered… contraband. For what possible reason would perfume be contraband? Other than the Elizabeth Arden Green Tea-scented perfume being a relatively expensive Bourgeois luxury, what could possibly be the problem? Well, that’s unclear. An English-speaking Uyghur guardwoman approached Allison and I, since the guards apparently didn’t speak any English and they didn’t realize that Allison actually already speaks pretty fluent Mandarin. She asked Allison, in English, if she was aware that perfume is 18% alcohol, and thus highly flammable?

Confused, Allison answered that this was a high-quality perfume, very unlikely to be flammable. As if in response, the male Chinese guard who seemed to be in charge took the perfume, and with a lighter, lit the burst of perfume spray that came forward, as if this proved something uniquely dangerous about perfume that wouldn’t likewise be true to the bottles of whiskey, vodka, moutai, and other hard liquors available for sale in the gift shops and convenience stores in the train station. (We later saw hard liquor for sale on the train itself as well as other train stations along the way to Beijing.)

We tried to argue over this issue with the guards. The perfume was expensive (around $50, I later learned), and a gift from her parents, and it was clearly safe. In retrospect, of course, mentioning that the perfume was expensive may not have been the wisest move. We even asked the guard if we could have some sort of receipt, or official write-up documenting that they had seized this perfume from us? No, of course not, don’t be silly. This is a police state!

Afterward, we could only speculate about this seemingly arbitrary search and seizure. Allison was, naturally, infuriated, and said this was like theft. I demurred: No, it’s not like theft, it is theft!

I mentioned the high grade alcoholic beverages already available for purchase inside that were presumably far more flammable and dangerous. But the other oddity was this: has there been a ban on all perfume in Chinese train stations? None was enforced against us in Beijing on our way to Ürümqi. And really, when you think about it, a lot of personal toiletries have alcohol, including the aftershave in my toiletry bag. And there was clearly no such global ban on such products, in the way that there’s a sort of ban on toiletries of a certain size on American flights. (Incidentally, I think that ban is idiotic and unjustifiable too, but that’s another story.)

We’ve thought of two explanations that make the most sense, and best fit our experience. They might both be true, to some degree, actually.

One: We were racially profiled on account of being American, or perhaps on account of Allison having features that many mistake for Middle Eastern or even Uyghur in nature. The seizure of the perfume was itself a kind of ex post facto justification for the extensive search taken of Allison’s bags, a kind of “See? We were justified in giving your bags a thorough search, because you were carrying around something dangerous!”

Two: Having spotted the expensive bottle of perfume, the guard boss guy might’ve decided that this perfume would’ve been a nice present for his wife, girlfriend, mother, etc. The stuff about perfume being flammable and dangerous was, again, an ex post facto sort of explanation. Even in a police state, it seems, the guards felt it necessary to at least offer one, even if it was an obviously false one, a kind of fig leaf for their thuggery.

It’s funny. We were just reading that as a matter of official policy, Chinese government officials have been told to try to emphasize allowing foreigners to have a good time in China, over traditional concerns over spurring sedition, the idea being that the Chinese government wants foreigners to get a positive impression of the country. Clearly, that policy shift hasn’t quite made its way out to Xinjiang.

So at this point, we’re out a $50 bottle of perfume. No apparent recourse, though it might be an interesting experiment to see what happens if we file an official complaint in Beijing or write letters to appropriate figures. The student I tutor, Nicole, has a mother who’s apparently a full-time Communist Party official, so conceivably we have contacts in high places. We could always bring up the matter with her. And of course, we’ll warn all potential travelers to China that the biggest thieves and pickpockets to watch out for aren’t on the streets or the bazaars, but rather in the security forces. For all of the warnings our Han friends in Beijing gave us about how dangerous the Uyghurs were, that, in the words of one woman, Uyghurs “don’t believe that theft is immoral” and their children are all pickpockets, we didn’t encounter any indications of street crime in Xinjiang. It was actually the biggest gang of all, the one with the most guns, that we actually had to worry about. Don’t bring anything to China you won’t mind guards seizing from you!


Orwell’s Museum

This museum is one of the few sites to see in Ürümqi itself, a massively rebuilt, modern museum dedicated to all-things Xinjiang – its ethnic diversity, its ancient history from the Paleolithic to the Silk Road to “Revolutionary” times, and is pretty comprehensive. Comprehensive, that is, within the strict limits permitted by Chinese censorship and control of information. There were, for example, no references to the various independent Uyghur political entities that existed, such as the Uyghur Empire, and the characterization of historical events was such that one would think that Xinjiang was “always” part of China, as if before the Qing Dynasty, people were already eagerly anticipating their absorption into the Chinese Empire. The references to peaceful cooperation between ethnic groups working toward the greater glory of China was, at best, condescending, and at worst, Orwellian.

Interestingly enough, I was reading José Ortega y Gasset’s Revolt of the Masses on the train on my way back, and he made a point about this kind of thinking, albeit in reference to European nations. He writes:

As always happens, in this case a plain acceptance of facts gives us the key. What is it that is clearly seen when we study the evolution of any “modern nation,” France, Spain, Germany? Simply this: what at one period seemed to constitute nationality appears to be denied at a later date. First, the nation seems to be the tribe, and the no-nation the tribe beside it. Then the nation is made up of the two tribes, later it is a region, and later still a county, a duchy or a kingdom. Leon is a nation but Castile not; then it is Leon and Castile, but not Aragon. The presence of two principles is evident: one, variable and continually superseded- tribe, region, duchy, kingdom, with its language or dialect; the other, permanent, which leaps freely over all those boundaries and postulates as being in union precisely what the first considered as in radical opposition.

The philologues – this is my name for the people who today claim the title of “historians” – play a most delightful bit of foolery when, starting from what in our fleeting epoch, the last two or three centuries, the Western nations have been, they go on to suppose that Vercingetorix or the Cid Campeador was already struggling for a France to extend from Saint-Malo to Strasburg, or a Spain to reach from Finisterre to Gibraltar. These philologues – like the ingenuous playwright- almost always show their heroes starting out for the Thirty Years’ War. To explain to us how France and Spain were formed, they suppose that France and Spain pre-existed as unities in the depths of the French and Spanish soul. As if there were any French or any Spaniards before France and Spain came into being! As if the Frenchman and the Spaniard were not simply things that had to be hammered out in two thousand years of toil!

So while the gaps in its history were significant, the Xinjiang Museum is interesting if only for its omissions. What the Chinese government chose to leave out is at least as interesting, if not more so, than what it chose to allow. Just don’t use the resources of the Museum as your only or primary source of knowledge about the area.

Also worth seeing is its impressive collections of mummies, among them the Tarim Mummies, which include the now-infamous and controversial Loulan Beauty. Though given the controversy over whether the mummies conclusively illustrate that the Uyghur civilization was in Xinjiang longer than the Chinese, and whether it is, in fact, older than the Chinese civilization, it’s perhaps not surprising that directly next to the Loulan Beauty they have another mummy of a Chinese general. Though this seems to me to be a big mistake, if they want to emphasize their claim that the mummies contain a mixture of Turkic, European and Chinese genetic features, because while the Loulan Beauty dates from 2000 BC, the Chinese general positioned next her dates from AD 600.

In any event, a visit to this museum also illustrates that the Chinese government still holds a starkly condescending view of its non-Han minorities. One of the two major exhibits at the museum was of wax figures dressed in clothes “traditional” to the groups, with photos and artifacts of “traditional” homes, dances, lifestyles and so forth. It fit snuggly with what seems to be the major narrative that the government pushes about its ethnic minorities, particularly those in Xinjiang and Tibet, that they are unsophisticated, primitive peoples who benefit from the civilization brought in by ethnic Hans and the Chinese government in particular.

Imagine if there were a museum in the United States were non-white minorities were presented in just such a way, with African-Americans represented as banjo-playing cotton sharecroppers in the South wearing 19th century clothing, or Mexican-Americans represented as sombrero-wearing farm workers in California or the Rio Grande valley. Or Irish people shown as potato-farmers during the Potato Famine, with clothing consistent from that era. Or better still – Han Chinese people depicted as dressing in 19th century style, with long ponytails (queues) and silk robes, working on a farm in the countryside. That’s about what this is like – presented as fundamentally primitive, as if these people had never been educated or encountered anything resembling modernity. This is all, perhaps, what is to be expected in a museum in which these ethnic groups themselves had no part in planning or organizing. This is the Other as seen through Han eyes, presented to a mostly-Han audience. It’s a shame, because such a museum could conceivably be used to break down ethnic and cultural stereotypes, but instead it merely reinforces them.

Finally, there was one portion of the museum where none of the tags going with the displayed artifacts were in English. The rest of the museum presents things in Chinese, Uyghur, and English, but this portion was only in Chinese and Uyghur, so I had to rely on Allison to translate. This was the portion dedicated to Revolutionary History in Xinjiang, on the role that Chinese Communists played in the area from the 1930’s up through the triumph of Mao Zedong’s forces in 1949, up through the “positive” relations between the local peoples and the Beijing government in modern times. In what was effectively a shrine to Communist activity in the region, where even things like silverware, radios, newspapers, and so forth are preserved as artifacts of the era, should I be surprised that nothing there is translated into English? One oddity – a book given as a gift to a major Communist leader in Xinjiang, where the tag indicates it as a book written in Russian, but what is obvious to any English speaker as an American textbook on paleontology published in the ’00s. Curiouser and curiouser.

Well, more soon. Possibly the oddest experience of the entire trip – the encounter with the Perfume Bandit! The identity of the Perfume Bandit may shock you – unless, that is, you’ve ever been to China.


Publicity for the Fiancée

Actually, I just returned to the US two days ago. But I have a backlog of posts I’ve written for the blog that haven’t been, well, posted yet. So I should get those up over the next few days to week. Beginning with…

This is the coolest thing I’ve seen in a long time. It seems that the LaFollette School has taken notice of my fiancée, and published a cover story about her in the school newspaper, used a photo of her from the border of China and North Korea. I’ve provided the links here if you’d like to read all about her project.


101 Things To Do Before I Leave Beijing

Sweet serendipity! Just as I’m planning my return to the US, local expat rag That’s Beijing publishes a list of 101 things to do before leaving Beijing. It’s pretty funny, and what’s cool is that I’ve already done a lot of these things. I’ll do a few more before Monday. And fortunately, I’ve avoided all the things they listed in the 12 regrets about living in Beijing.


He Became a Goddness

This sign was near the front of the Taoist temple Allison and I saw at Heaven Lake. I’ve posted the Chinglish I saw on this trip on Flickr as a set, and I should soon get up the other serious photos as well.