Sunday, May 20, 2018

From ‘Long Way Round. Chasing Shadows across the World’ by Ewan McGregor & Charley Boorman

The first thing we noticed about the Czech Republic was that the road leading away from the [German] border was teeming with prostitutes….We passed on into the Czech Republic……..the landscape was the same as in Germany – wide plains dotted with small copses and woods – but it felt different. The road was rougher, narrower and more potholed. The villages we passed through were shabby. There as little advertising, a legacy from the country’s days as an Eastern Bloc satellite of the Soviet Union.

‘Slovaks work hard and want to make the country better,’ Csaba said, his wife translating. ‘But gypsies just play music and dance and want to do nothing,’………

Many people in the Ukraine spoke at length about the mafia but nobody would let us use this in the documentary. It was a potent indication of the hold the mafia had over Ukranians and their country, possibly greater than the fear instilled by the communist regime fifteen years earlier.

….the poverty we saw in the Ukranian countryside had given us a lot to contemplate…….

We’d been alerted to the behavior of the police in eastern Europe and central Asia. Every guidebook we’d read and every traveler we’d spoken to had warned us they were notoriously unpredictable.

…….Avon Skin So Soft, which an angler friend had told me was the best mosquito repellent…..

It didn’t seem to matter where you were in Mongolia; if anything went wrong somebody would soon turn up. Two old boys in the obligatory blue canvas baseball caps got out of the jeep. Like most Mongolians, the first thing they did was offer us a smoke.

It seemed that few transactions in Mongolia were complete without a vodka toast….

……..I’d come to love Mongolia…….I’d enjoyed meeting people along the road and I’d been blown away by the helpfulness of complete strangers……

……….Ulaanbaatar ………The city was a strange place, an ugly blot on Mongolia’s stunning landscape with a filthy power station near its centre expelling dirty smoke into the atmosphere and pumping hot water along city streets through massive asbestos-clad pipes. Since Mongolia shook off its Soviet satellite status in the 1990s and embraced independence, the number of street children had mushroomed. Unemployment had soared, welfare services declined and the gap between rich and poor widened as the country embraced free market economics.

….the most beautiful part of Mongolia. It had been like riding through the pages of National Geographic. Every time we blinked there would be a jaw-dropping sight to look at or think about. A land in which most of the people still rode horses and wore traditional clothes, it was timeless without being stuck in the past. Much of the rural population still lived in gers, but they’d have solar panels and satellite dishes. All the guys we met just wanted to be herdsmen, happy to spend their lives on horses, rounding up sheep and goats, while the girls all had ambitions to head for Ulaanbaatar to go to university.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

From ‘Spanish Lessons. Beginning a new life in Spain’ by Derek Lambert

…… recommended……In my experience , policemen anywhere in the world knew the best establishments in which to take on ballast.

The village [where they lived] was more a family than a community; crime hadn’t entered its portals (except for regular bank robberies in which money was handed over amicably); old people and children were cherished; bureaucracy existed to be outsmarted.

Paperwork was the scourge of Spain ………

………..he loved sports, invariably an asset in male company in Spain.

Emilio was getting into his stride now. “In Britain……
“What about your old people?”…… “What do you do with them? Stick them in nursing homes. We keep them with us and they die among their loved ones.”

He was tough and insular like many Basques. As far as I could ascertain they had every right to be: their homeland, set among misty green hills in the north on the border with France, was unique. They spoke euskera, or “eskara” according to their dialect, a language like no other; they were descendants of Europe’s aboriginal inhabitants, pre-dating migrants from Asia three thousand years ago; they were taller than their neighbors; as well as the ballgame pelota, they enjoyed esoteric sports such as woodcutting and stone-lifting; they ate and drank hugely; their reputation for chivalry to women, real or romanticized, pre-dated Women’s Lib by centuries.

Gypsies, many of them far removed from any Romany bloodline, had a rough ride in many parts of Spain. The purveyors of flamenco, which originated in Andalusia in the eighteenth century, were well respected, but outside that hand-clapping, guitar-strumming, heel-tapping brotherhood they were often treated with contempt.

……..the violent mood swings within Spain. An obvious tendency when you thought about it. Iberians, Celts, Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Vandals, Goths, Moors ….all their legacies cut off and trapped in the great sack of land that embraced Portugal, knotted at the neck by the Pyrenees.

Spaniards were compulsive gamblers – the national Christmas lottery, El Gordo (the Fat One), was the biggest in the world in terms of money invested – and wage packets were lost at poker, fortunes made on forecasting results of matches on the football pools.

…..horns ripping the artery on the inside of ….thigh, the wound that caused most deaths in the bullring.

…..Spain …….the national disregard for noise …………I once gobbled up my breakfast in a New York diner because the waitresses barking orders loudly, incessantly, into the kitchen were putting me off my sunny-side-up eggs; I discovered that they were all Spanish.

“……When you reach my age” – he must have been in his eighties – “you realize that all dissent is a waste.”

“Tomorrow?” He jerked back in his seat. ……. “Impossible!”
But we knew it wasn’t, because in the final reckoning a Spaniard always accepts any challenge in love, war, or gastronomy.

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

From ‘Foreign Babes in Beijing. Behind the Scenes of a New China’ by Rachel DeWoskin

….I had never heard the stereotype that Chinese are lazy. But the Chinese believe that Americans believe it.

Ticket girls hung out the bus doors, shouting, “Mai bu mai piao!” Want a ticket or not? There’s a nice symmetry in that question. Most Chinese grammar is set up this way; one has two choices when asked how are you. Nihao bu hao?” Are you good or not good? “Ni chi fan le mei you?” Have you eaten or not eaten? “You mei you qian?” Do you have or not have money? The answer must be either one or the other. ………. “Chi bao le mei you?” Are you full or not full?

She …….was deeply tanned, unusual for Chinese girls, for whom dark skin is a sign of farmwork……

……..Wangfujing, a central shopping district…… “Wangfujing will be renao,” she said. Renao, the Chinese word for “festive,” is composed of the words “hot” and “noisy”. Even the quietest tourist sites in Beijing, including the fragrant hills and remote-access sites to the Great Wall, blast music over loudspeakers into the wilderness. Deafening noise is more fun than quiet is.

There are two prices for things in China: one cheap price for Chinese and one expensive price for foreigners.”

……..I…..recklessly hugged Anna before climbing into the cab…..She stiffened ……… “Chinese girls don’t really hug so casually,” she said. “Its American, this hugging.” ……Chinese women held hands as they walked through the city and slow-danced in clubs, which I had almost never seen women do in America. Yet American women hugged freely and with abandon. The boundaries for intimacy were just altered.

He Jin, like most of the men I met in China, was an entrepreneur. I shouldn’t have been surprised; no one in the new China does only one thing. The Chinese system, ironically, doesn’t lend itself to institutional stability. China’s citizens still have danwei, or work units, but most now make their real livings by moonlighting in other jobs.

No matter where a person lives in China, he gets a residence card at birth, which documents his registered location, the most critical factor of affiliation in the huge Chinese population.

The loneliest I ever felt in China was around other Americans, because they inspired mistaken hope that we would know each other intimately, instinctively.

Foreigners were allowed to live only in “foreign-approved housing”……..All the journalists lived in one of three “journalist compounds” ……..where the Chinese government kept a close eye on their comings, goings, meetings.

Many of my colleagues [Chinese] still lived with their parents.

“You’re going to work.” (“Yes”)
Chinese small talk is not about weather; it relies on comfortable statements of obvious facts. When I got to the office, my colleagues shouted, “You’ve arrived,” as a way to welcome me.

……….first little girl, whom she referred to as a xiao xi, small happiness…….Xiao Gao said only boy babies were considered da xi, or big happiness.

Disregard for the one-child policy was widespread by 1994; couples hid children with relatives, paid fine, or found loopholes in the rules. Some rural families were exempted from the rule, since they needed children to carry on family farms. But in major urban centers like Beijing and Shanghai, the law was enforced with regularity; failure to comply resulted in heavy fines or job loss. ……….Daughters were considered an economic burden, not only because they would eventually leave the house to marry into someone else’s family, but also because of the cost of their weddings and dowries. Sons, on the other hand, carried on the family name, brought daughter-in-laws into the households, and made good on the investments involved in rearing. ……..There are records of the Chinese preference for male offspring dating from as early as 1600 B.C. part of China’s first written history, on “oracle bones.”

She thought I was careless and selfish [to be unmarried]. Being married and having children was about joining the fabric of society, becoming a member of a community larger than oneself, even if that community was made up of one’s in-laws. Being twenty-three and American was about the opposite: being carved out and individual, my small self at whatever cost.

It was even harder to carry on a conversation in Chinese over the phone than it was in person. Phone etiquette was different in China.

……….during the Cultural Revolution….. “no one married for love at that time. Marriage was a sacrifice for the state.”

…….in 1992. Chinese women were in a startlingly new context. Anna’s generation was the first in China to be independent financially and otherwise; Anna and her friends did not have to move directly from their parents’ houses into the houses of husbands or work units. They had choices their mothers had never had, worked for foreign companies, traveled, and had genuine, often intimate contact with the outside world. Family stability and service to the state took back-burner positions to selfhood. Feminism was tearing through Beijing in the years I spent there; young women were making money, renting apartments, learning English, traveling, going punk, having premarital sex, and speaking out. Even the government appeared to be encouraging women’s rights……. In 1989, China’s first all-woman rock band, Cobra, began to whip audiences and critics into a frenzy of delight and rage…….But in China, while tough heroines weren’t entirely unfamiliar, such personal expressions of their emotions, especially as the result of raw rock music, were new. Chinese heroines have had rebellious streaks for thousands of years……

……only 61 per cent of rural women had a choice in whom they married……..In April 1992, after winning its bid to host the 1995 International Women’s Conference, China’s National People’s Congress passed the country’s first law declaring men and women equal. The law focused primarily on unfair practices in the workplace, and committed China to ensuring equal protection to women as well as training and appointing women to high-level positions as cadres.

The overall divorce rate in China surged in the 1990s; by 1996 there was one divorce for every nine marriages, quadruple what the ratio had been ten years before. ……..the rules made marrying a foreigner an endless red-tape battle

…..this Chinese expression, ‘Chujia congqin, zaijia youshen: thd first time a woman marries, she follows her parents’ wishes, the second time, she follows her own’

“I think its uncaring,” she said, “the way American parents kick their kids out when the kids turn eighteen.” This stereotype was a favourite among the Foreign Babes in Beijing crew…….

They were disappointed that I wore mostly earth tones, black and white. “But foreigners wear loud and colorful garments,” they protested.

…….we reached “consensus,” we were so wilted from the haggling that we felt we had won a small victory. And that, of course, was Mr. Sun’s strategy. It was a common tactic in China; even the missionaries who traveled to China in the late Ming and early Qing Dynasties had had the same experience in Charlotte. They were so swamped with entertaining, meeting, and negotiating with the emperors that their lifetimes swept by without them converting anyone but themselves.

Its not rude in China to suggest that someone is pang or has pangqilai le, gotten a little fatter. Pang is a cute word, one that suggests a chubby prosperity. But “too” pang is rude……….Between 1988 and 1998, the percentage of obese children, or xiao pangzi, little fatties, ballooned from 2.7 percent to more than 8.65 percent of the population.

..handsome Chinese man with a Western girl at his side still attracted gleeful attention in 1995.

“Do you have a mistress?”………
“A disanzhe?” he asked……..
“You have a French mistress? What about your wife?”……….
“Why stay married?”
Wei le fangbian,” he said. For convenience. “Our families are happy. We go home together and we have nice dinner with our parents. They want us to be married. The government is happy, and we are happy. And we can do whatever we like.”
In Shenzhen…. “second wife village,” had blossomed. These neighbourhoods, also called “concubine villages,” flourished in the suburbs of Guangzhou and Shanghai as well. Their streets were lined with apartments in which the women kept by their married lovers primped, played mahjong…..Since Shenzhen is directly across from the Hong Kong border, businessmen who traveled frequently could keep their second wives close by and yet distant enough to help prevent chaotic discoveries or encounters…….Most of the married production and crew members brought girlfriends out to our dinner and karaoke nights. No married women brought boyfriends, not because they didn’t also cheat, but because it wasn’t socially acceptable…..

We kissed ……….for the first and only time……but the horrible awkwardness did not further inflame any kind of love. Instead, it ruined our friendship, just as illicit kisses ruin friendships everywhere.

………a taxi driver named Mr. Gao asked where I was from……….. “Oh!” he said……. “Americans are friendly and rich.”………. Driver Gao had been trained not only in English, but also in what to do if a foreign woman took her clothes off in his cab.
“Why would she do that?” I asked.
“Foreign women are kaifang, open-minded,” he said. “You know how they are.”

Chinese men were repressed by nature, she said, and there was nothing more fun than breaking them out of their patterns and social shells.

………..China’s first and most popular rock star, Cui Jian. He was considered the “Father of Chinese Rock,”…….. In May 1986, in a televised pop music competition, Cui Jian had performed what would turn out to be the biggest hit in Chinese history: “Nothing to My Name.” …….he wore army fatigues and a green Communist Party of China T-shirt, sang in a gravel voice and ground his hips. The appearance had an Elvis Presley effect; Cui’s rock sent shock waves across the country. By the following day, Chinese youth all over China were singing “Nothing to My Name”; by 1989 in Tiananmen Square, it had become their anthem.

……the Tang Dynasty analects for womanly behavior: “Don’t turn your head while walking. Don’t show your teeth while speaking. Don’t move your knees while sitting. Don’t sway your dress while standing. Don’t laugh out loud when happy. Don’t shout when angry.”

…………it was strange that Americans think its okay to tell people when they’re too thin, but not when they’re fat. Its as random as any Chinese custom.

“….For the Chinese, it’s not polite to display romantic things publicly.”

Laobaixing is the Chinese word for “commoners,” which means “a hundred surnames.” Originally, only the aristocracy had surnames, since a surname meant one could own property and pass it down a lineage. Because social organization was based on the family unit, the earliest cultural patriarchs extended their surnames to the masses, who shared. Its understood in China that Huangs are descendants of the Yellow Emperor (Huang Di) and Kongs are descendants of Confucius (Kongfuzi). ………Ultimately, whole villages were run by generations of Lis or Wangs, all laobaixing. Now the word is used to mean common folk.

…….in China. Microsoft had crisis after crisis……….the company had chosen its Chinese name by translating “micro” and “soft” directly into weiruan, “flaccid and little.”

Americans care more than any other people about their teeth – and their accents.

During the Cultural Revolution, ancestral shrines and rituals had been banished, but people had hidden photos and left our food nonetheless. Zhuo Jun’s parents had felt safe enough to put the photographs back on display only in the 1980s….

Chinese fetishization of food is different from the West’s. in China, most food has neither been processed nor wrapped neatly. Instead of the unrecognizable, plastic-wrapped breasts sold in American supermarkets, everyone buys whole, fat, feathery chickens. They want to see the fresh animal they’re about to eat. Raw shrimp with their antennae twitching decorate packages of flavored potato chips…..chicken-flavored chips flaunt feathery, hairy birds on their bags.

…….for real Beijingers, everything outside of Beijing is luohou, or backward.

The Chinese idea of self is rooted in a distinction between agrarian peoples and nomadic ones, people with mobility versus those without mobility……..And Chinese have historically always been sedentary; they built monuments and public works, walls, canals, and rice fields in which they controlled the water. Large-scale public works defined China, and Chinese people derived their ideas of self from their land, through which they were attached to villages, provinces, counties, and finally a country. They were surrounded by nomadic people, who got their addresses by moving, who built no monuments, and whose wealth was articulated in chattel, horses, goats, and herded animals. Ancient Chinese works are about this distinction……….There are people who wear leather versus those who wear silk; people fed by herded animals, who live on milk and cheese, and those fed by agriculture, who eat grain.

……….spicy Sichuan food. I had just read on the Chinese newswire Xinhua that people from Sichuan have a 68 percent higher risk of getting stomach ulcers………..Zhou Wen…..told me that the way to cool the heat down is to eat coagulated duck blood.

The funny thing was, I never met anyone, Beijinger or not, who did not seem like an outsider in Beijing……..Beijing’s elders wandered through the city’s sleek modern streets like aliens deposited from some other time period.

I asked Zhou Wen about what was possibly the most widely debated removal of Chinese art ever, Nationalist Party Leader Chiang Kai-Shek’s confiscation of the contents of China’s Palace Museum, which he took to Taiwan between 1949 and 1950, Chiang’s act was one of legitimization; as the leader of the Kuomintang, Chiang saw himself as the ruler of China, and therefore the keeper of its manuscripts, treasures, and art………Many of China’s relics were ruined during the Cultural Revolution, fifteen years after Chiang’s departure, when Chairman Mao and his wife Jiang Qing encouraged the destruction of artifacts in an effort to reignite revolutionary fervor by removing evidence of class lines. Western art dealers have been known to defend the “relocation” of Chinese art by suggesting the relics would otherwise have been wrecked.

The Chinese saying goes: “Dangjiuzhe mi, pangguanzhe qing.” …….The players of a chess game can get confused, whereas onlookers see things clearly.

Beauty contests were illegal in China during Mao’s reign.

Beijing was not a racially sensitive place; I heard outrageously racist things about Africans and African-Americans while I lived there. Many of the ugly stereotypes came from movies exported from the West…………..

By the end of the 1990s, Beijing was beginning to feel more like Hong Kong than Beijing…….Throngs of laowai arrived. Beijing became modern enough to be unrecognizable as the place I moved to in 1994. There were no more donkey carts. Street kiosks made way for sleek boutiques and cafes, where Chinese and foreigners lounged together……….The real estate market softened so much for foreigners that Beijing became inviting to wealthy executives, backpackers, and lost graduates alike.