Election Season

I believe it’s fair to say that the Presidential elections we undergo every four years in America have a significant impact on the daily life of the average American.

I’m talking the process of candidates campaigning and then participating in an election, not the results of the election. Clearly, who gets elected is going to have some impact on the lives of every American, as the initiatives they promote, ideology they push, and issues they proscribe can have long-felt and lasting effects. Our country’s leaders impact every American, no doubt, but the process of picking them impacts Americans as well.

Think about it: for the past year (or longer?! Mitt Romney announced his candidacy on June 2, 2011) you’ve been bombarded with campaign slogans, attack ads, and political arguments from almost every media source known to man. You can’t even step out on your own front lawn without seeing the campaign signs your neighbor stuck up. You find yourself turning against friends and family as they promote (or argue against) candidates and issues you disagree with, both online and in the real world. I have literally seen friendships fall apart because of political disagreements (and I’m sure other people have seen this as well).

So, yeah. The Presidential elections affect your life. We can all be glad it’s over now.

Meanwhile in China, the country is gearing up for an event of even greater magnitude than the US Presidential election: The 18th Party Congress, an event that happens once every five years and sets the tone for the policies the Party and government will adopt in the coming five years. And this Party Congress is particularly significant as it’s also the beginning of a leadership change, which happens about once a decade in the PRC. (For a really incredible overview of the political structure of the PRC and the upcoming leadership transition, check out this primer by Patrick Chovanec, a professor at Tsinghua University)

This is big, right? I mean, it only happens once ever ten years! That’s, like, two-point-five times as often as an American Presidential election!

An ad for the 18th Party Congress

“The success of Scientific Development is glorious – Welcome the Party’s 18th victorious convening – Happily welcome the 18th Party Congress!”

Well, not so much. Yes, it’s important, but my feeling is that it has very little impact on the daily life of the average Chinese. You can still see signs announcing and “welcoming” the upcoming Party Congress, just like the campaign signs in the United States. There are even ads on TV welcoming the Party Congress (although they’re all short, boring, and probably less common than political ads in America – and certainly less negative).

Apart from that, however, life goes on. No one talks about politics, or gets in political arguments, or loses friendships as a result. In fact, the only complaining about how annoying the leadership transition you’ll hear will likely come from we foreigners, who have more difficulty using the internet than usual. That’s about it, though.

I’m not saying that China’s system is better than America’s. Rather (as many others have pointed out much more eloquently before me), it emphasizes harmony over freedom. It’s possible that’s a reflection of the society the system is built around. It’s also possible that it’s merely a reflection of the desires of those who built the system. Most likely, however, it’s a bit of both.

Cruising Through Nanjing

 

 

On Friday morning ten Davidson students set out on a whirlwind tour of Nanjing.  The trip was organized by The School of Social Development and Public Policy of Fudan University, the school that is sponsoring the Davidson College group and a few others during their study in Shanghai.  We were told to meet at the main gate of Fudan University at 7am to catch the bus at 7:30.  Thanks to a concerned call from Chai Lu at 6:50 wondering where we were, after both of our alarms failed to go off Friday morning, Ali and I managed to make it to the bus stop by 7:27!  Despite racing to get to the bus on time, the busses were late and we did not leave campus until well past 8.  Once all 62 of us were in the buses and on the road, however, we were told that we had a 3 and a half hour bus ride to Nanjing, so just sit back, relax and enjoy the ride.

 

Upon reaching Nanjing we had lunch, yet another banquet style set-up with about ten preordered dishes and a lazy-Susan in the middle.  While all the Davidson kids complain endlessly about the banquet style meals we have to take part in, I was actually thankful to Fuji for making us endure them as we knew what most of the food was and the proper etiquette for operating a lazy-Susan.  Our other SSDPP classmates, however, were much more hesitant of the Chinese food and did not fully comprehend the notion that you had to make sure that no one else was trying to serve themselves when you decided to spin the lazy-Susan.  We did manage to avoid any spills, but there were some “exciting” moments in the midst.

 

Our first real stop on the Nanjing trip was the XuanWu Lake Park.  As we reached the gate to the park and gathered for the mandatory group picture we were swarmed by a group of Chinese tourists all dressed in black suits, most wielding professional looking cameras, who all believed that the large group of foreign tourists was the “real” attraction.  Our two groups then got in to what I can only describe as a “photo war,” with their group furiously taking pictures of us and our side taking pictures of them taking pictures of us.  The whole thing was simultaneously mildly unsettling and hilariously funny.  After we finally assembled for our official group photo we were released into the park to wander and explore.  In the park we again ran into Chinese people who unabashedly stared at us.  We had all dealt with similar situations before, however, in previous encounters when the people realized we had caught them staring they looked away, but here they just kept staring.  We were all joking about it and Ali finally said, “They can stare all they want but I am going to acknowledge them, wave and say hi and hopefully they will respond.”  Others even joked that they were going to start charging 5元 for a picture.  The park itself was pretty with a nice lake and pleasant architecture, but the thick mix of fog and smog really put a damper on its beauty.

From the park we went to the Nanjing Massacre Museum.  For those unaware of the history of the Nanjing Massacre, it is in loose terms the Chinese version of the Holocaust.   When the Japanese invaded China they took Nanjing as a stronghold and slaughtered 300,000 people in a matter of months.  The Japanese troops pillaged, raped, and murdered the people of Nanjing, this horrific event is often referred to as the Rape of Nanjing.  Needles to say, this was a tough museum to walk through, but a good thing to experience and acknowledge none the less.  Unfortunately we only had an hour in the museum and had to move quickly; but I am glad that we had the chance to think about that facet of Nanjing history and, therefore, how Nanjing fits more into the overall history of China.  It also shed more light on the complicated relationship between China and Japan.  It was definitely a place I would like to visit again and explore more.

“Ah, close your eyes, rest in peace!  You innocent soul!  You poor boy” – A monk fleeing on his way

“They rob and rape, they set fire and bury people alive… They even kill my three-month-old little grandson”

“Frigidity and horror have frozen this crying baby!  Poor thing not knowing mum has been killed, blood, milk and tears have frozen, never melting”

From the museum we went to yet another banquet style dinner and then on to a river cruise on the QinHuai River.  There was not really that much to see from the boat but we had a great time on the cruise.  Chai Lu, Benito, DJ, and I were all sitting together and we played word games and joked around the entire ride.  It was a very relaxing way to end a long day.  The next morning we went to the Presidential Palace and Sun-Yat Sen’s mausoleum.  The palace was not all that exciting but the mausoleum was definitely more than I was expecting.  Sun-Yat Sen requested to be buried in the side of a mountain, so his followers obliged.  They built a mausoleum in the side of the mountain atop 329 steps to represent the 329 million people in China at the time of his death.  The views from both the bottom and the top of the steps were impressive.  Most of our group of 62 made the trek up the steps and were rewarded with a spectacular view of the gate at the base of the mountain and the surrounding mountains.

Overall it was a good trip.  We did not spend that much time at each place, but we covered many important Nanjing landmarks in less then 36 hours.  For a city that was once the capital of China, I feel that we did it justice.  If we can do this much stuff in two days I wonder how many new things we will be able to explore and discover during our week long trip to Beijing.  The China adventure continues.

A Peace of Taiwan in My Sole

The last night of our four-day trip to Taipei, I wanted to be bold!

From my understanding, many massage parlors function as a dual enterprise. While you can indeed receive a massage, if not careful, you could find yourself receiving something a little more than a basic package. Granted, these “special” deals might be strictly reserved for my male counterparts since scantily dressed women have never inquired whether I’d like a “sexy massage.”

Regardless of this knowledge, I was determined to satisfy my urge to get a foot massage.  Four days in a row, I abused my soles with the long excursions across Taipei. At the end of every journey, I nosily peeped through the glass, quickly assessing the legitimacy of the establishment, simultaneously wishing I was the one lounging in a plush green chair with my feet up. My desire to relieve this physical stress continued to brew. It was imperative that I addressed this issue. After all, what’s wrong with spoiling yourself a little?

After careful consideration, and days of being teased by the constant allure, I had to fulfill my curiosity. So I embarked on a journey to an unknown territory…

Bright and inviting, I strolled in Sunday evening and was greeted with a friendly smile from the owner. She kindly escorted me to an area where I would prepare for my foot massage by soaking my feet in a pail of skin-softening bath salts. Now on the other side of the glass, it was evident that this parlor was not the shady ones I had heard and read about. The establishment was bright and clean. Within moments, my mind was at ease. No shady business here.

The parlor was also distinct in its use of Chinese and Japanese texts. While soaking my feet, the co-owner greeted me as well. Noticing the immense influence of Japanese, I asked him if this was Japanese owned business. Once confirming my assumptions, I attempted to speak a little Japanese. After almost five years of not speaking the language, it was definitely a struggle. It ended up being an interesting compilation of Japanese and Chinese.  But nonetheless, we were able to communicate.

After five minutes of soak time and a little conversation, it was time for the real deal. It was finally my time to enjoy the plush green chair and what would hopefully be a pleasurable, lawful experience.

And it was. In fact, it was the best 40 minutes my soles had ever experienced! For only NTD 500 (or about USD 17), my precious feetsy’s and I were pampered like a princess. Not only was I provided a delicious cup of tea with, I also enjoyed a delightful exchange with my masseuse! Although he was an elderly gentleman, he was quite lively and very enthused. Curious to know about my studies and whereabouts, we discussed several topics, periodically interrupting the conversation to explain the complex reflexology as he applied pressure to certain areas. Overall, the experience surpassed my expectations.

In retrospect, my initial concerns were unwarranted. Taiwan is not China. Taipei is not Shanghai. The quality of life differs, as well as how they conduct business. Clearly, I had nothing to worry about. The masseuse’s performance yielded a sense of tranquility exclusively available in Taiwan. I left feeling like a new woman, ready to take on the commotion of Shanghai. Twenty bucks well spent.

Family Matters

One thing I’ve learned during my few months in China is how important family can be.  Of course my family has always been there for me and I’ve met countless relatives over banquet dinners.  But growing up, I always attended these banquets with my parents.  Normally we’d have thirty people at two tables and an endless stream of fancy dishes.  I’d do my best to be polite and eat what was put in front of me.  Unfortunately, my inability to speak Chinese made these dinners uncomfortable.  I would sit and not my head when people talked to me, doing my best to appear as polite as possible.  In my head I wanted to have the meal, be polite, and go home.

But during this trip, I haven’t had my parents with me during these meals.  My first meal alone with relatives was here in Shanghai.  During the mid-autumn festival, I got to have lunch with my paternal grandfather’s younger brother’s family.  At this meal none of my relatives could speak English.  While our conversations were limited to my limited vocabulary, I definitely was able to make a connection with them that I had not made before.  Some of the meal we spent making simple small talk.  Other times we simply sat and ate the delicious food.  And yet throughout the entire meal I felt a sense of connection with all of them.  I had only met them a few times before but they treated me as if they had known me for years.  It felt good to be included with them.

My next family meal came in Taiwan.  My mom emailed me a week before our trip letting me know that I had relatives in Taipei and that I should arrange a meal with them.  Before the meeting, I had no idea who these relatives were.  I simply knew that I was related to them some how and that I needed to go to eat with them.  I went to purchase a few small gifts before the dinner.  Immediately after meeting them, I felt welcome and comfortable.  After some light discussion (they spoke English!) I found out that my grandpa’s father and this great-uncle’s father were brothers.  My great-uncle, great-aunt, their three kids, and one grandkid were all present.  While this may seem like a very distant relationship, they treated me as if I was a part of their family.  My great uncle told me stories about the three years he spent living with my grandpa while they were younger.  Hearing these stories touched me and helped give me a different view of my grandpa.  To this great-uncle my grandfather was not an elderly figure who took care of him like he was to me.  To my great-uncle, he was a friend and brotherly figure.  While I knew that my grandfather was an amazing man, it was very special to hear such personal stories of how he had changed another person’s life.  My great-aunt even began to cry a little bit as she remembered my grandfather’s visits to Taipei and Kending.

I think these experiences have definitely helped me to appreciate my family even more than I did before.  One of the biggest reasons I want to become fluent in Chinese is so that I can connect with more of my relatives.  I want to be able to hear more of their stories and learn more about my family history.  I’m definitely fortunate to have so many amazing family members all over China and am excited to get to know some of them better during my time here.

Taipei: Blending the Urban and Rural

Taiwan is a truly remarkable place. After traveling there for a few days, I see it almost as a novelty in the Asian world, an effectively free country that appears to have done a lot of things right in terms of fostering a positive environmental and political discourse. So often I feel that scholars focus on the negative effects of the industrializing countries of Asia in terms of reckless pollution and political suppression, but in Taiwan these issues seem to be more muted. The city of Taipei, in which my peers and I spent the entirety of our stay, is almost seamlessly incorporated into the surrounding environment characterized by dense forest and rolling mountains. There are no skyscrapers besides the lone Taipei 101, which serves as almost a comical structure amidst the otherwise mid-ride urban building developments. As one of the local people said to me, “I think it is ugly. It makes no sense! We spent way too much money on that.” Nonetheless, the city of Taipei seems to dissolve into the mountains surrounding it, as one can see from any one of the gorgeous views seen at the top of one of the peaks surrounding the city, or the top of Taipei 101. These images made me think about American perceptions of what cities should be and how people are assumed to live in such environments.

I feel that in the United States urban areas are simply considered the opposite of rural ones. One can live in the city or the countryside. The compromise, which has become a popular American phenomenon, is the existence of suburbs that combine the conveniences of a city and the comforts of a less populated environment. But what I saw in Taipei was the mergence of the urban and rural, apartment buildings built right up to the tree line of huge mountains, for example. Or riding on a metro that suddenly went from traveling underground to a raised track overlooking a forest canopy. A local Taiwanese woman I spoke with said she lives 20 minutes outside of her downtown office, in a small, quiet apartment in the mountains. This account represented a unique harmony between what I previously assumed to be contesting lifestyles. I can certainly see how Taipei can be an exceptionally livable city, one in which people aren’t necessarily faced with the decision between inhabiting a peaceful environment and one that reaps the benefits of industrialization. Though there are various economic challenges faces the city and the country of Taiwan, from what I can see that Taipei has struck the balance between modernization and preservation of the ever-vital natural environment.

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