Thursday, October 2, 2008

Concrete. Milk. Space.

School's finally started and life is supposed to have returned to normal. That, of course, depends upon normal's definition.

The migrant workers' bicycle carts, overloaded with their cheap consumer and industrial detritus (see picture above for what detritus looks like), have returned en masse, but the skies are still blue. DVDs are back on the streets, but people are still lining up for the subways...well, sort of. More than the omnipresent TV screens playing and replaying Chinese gold medal performances on public transportation, inside bathroom mirrors(!), and on high rises, it is these things -- the breathable air and the hesitant, nascent civility of Beijingers -- that remind one of the Olympics' lingering, fragile grip on the city. I won't consider normalcy to have fully returned until I'm throwing elbows on the bus platform under a gray sky.

But if normal is to mean “lack of the extraordinary,” I doubt China will ever qualify. This past week, while watching China learn how to walk in space, I opened up the refrigerator to find that Aunt Li and Uncle Shen had filled every available nook of our refrigerator with “safe” yogurt. My guess is that their horde reflex, honed in China's less fecund, more tumultuous decades, has been triggered by the milk scare. This reflex is still extant in Depression-era Americans too. My grandma went into horde mode the months before Y2K. I predict that the day the DOW drops below 9,000 she'll already have a small A&P cache stored in the recesses of her apartment. Apart from the small problem of hording perishable goods, my adopted aunt and uncle here might understand a thing or two. Pretty soon we all might just be buying Chinese milk with American securities.

At least the ex-pats here can provide the axis of normalcy China so desperately needs. This past week, with Chinese astronauts hovering above us, scouring the globe for visions of the Great Wall from space, my new ex-pat classmates and I descended upon an all-you-can-eat (sushi) and drink (anything but Saki) for $8. Six hundred Cathy rolls later, we headed to San Li Tun, Beijing's confused answer to NYC's Meat Packing District, where you pay a 1000% markup on normal beer prices in order to enjoy the tacky lasciviousness and M80-decibel-level to which the fictional Westerners of the Chinese imagination are accustomed.

Our champagne bottles had sparklers attached to them. Beautiful, uncomfortable Chinese waitresses wore dresses no one's mom would ever allow and no one's best friend would ever recommend. I couldn't help but think they wear them thinking the opposite. While there, a friend told me that you can fly into space now for a mere $21,000; leave earth for a while for a few months' work. I couldn't help but think that right then I was escaping both the Eastern and Western worlds for a mere $10 bottle of beer: my own space walk.

We landed back in the Eastern half of the globe abruptly. Right outside the door of the club was a dump truck; next to the dump trunk were three guys with shovels and a huge pile of concrete rubble, almost certainly broken to bits by sledge-hammer-wielding migrant workers earlier that day. Or rather, yesterday, as it was 3:30 in the morning. It's not uncommon to see buildings or even entire cities (cf. the Three Gorges Dam project) being demolished by hand, bricks being removed one at a time from demolished buildings to be used in new ones. It's a remarkable conservation of building materials that would simply be ground up in the U.S. And it costs virtually nothing, labor aside...ok, so it costs nothing. But what are the alternatives? More machines means an efficiency that would lead to incredible unemployment.

Clear of thought as I was at that time, I decided to shovel with them. Below is a recreation of the thought process that led to this decision (concomitant emotions in parenthesis).

[There are anywhere between 100-300 million “peasant workers” hitting roads with sledgehammers, “living in” at factories, and pedaling truckloads of goods and garbage around cities. (Guilt). I don't know how many of these are concrete rubble shovelers who work the night shift, probably the population of Chicago. (Helplessness). So every morning in Chicago, when the city wakes up, three million people in China are heading out into the dark to shovel concrete for an entire night into a truck to get paid the cost of one freaking toll on Illinois' crappy roads. (Antipathy for the Cubs and any Chicagoan with a summer home in Wisconsin). They do this every day, with maybe two days off a year. (More Guilt). My friend Kevin lives in Chicago. He's an English doctoral student and spends most of his time making snarky comments on people's Facebook pictures. (Amusement). There's a Chinese Kevin here somewhere who shovels thirty-pound shovelfuls of rock for entire nights instead of deconstructing freshmen English majors' conceptions of gender and race. (Bizarro Guilt). I'm going to be the Chinese Kevin for the night. (Mild intoxication/patronization).]

I grabbed one of the guy's shovels, and told him to rest. We smoked cigarettes (universal guy bonding here) while we worked, sang folk songs, and started shoveling races.

We talked while we worked. They came from Hebei, the province that surrounds Beijing. They had to work for another six months or so before they could work during the day. I told them what I always tell migrant workers I talk with: my grandfather was a farmer, I know I'll never be as tough or hardworking as he was. I respect them just like I respected him. When he was a child every man carried cigarettes in his work shirt pocket and gave them to other men just like they do in China. That's about it, I've never known what else to say.

In two hours, we loaded an entire dump truck's worth of concrete. We hugged goodbye. I spent their combined day's wages on a cab ride home. I woke up with scabbed forearms, sore hamstrings, blistered hands, and guilt.

Anyone who lives in China must continually navigate the Scylla and Charybdis of guilt and callousness, of class insulation and patronization. China makes you conscious of the moral tightrope we're all on, anywhere. Before China, I never really “felt” Aristotle's idea that virtue is a balance between extremes rather than a simple right or wrong. The “examined life” that leads to a mild, albeit self-satisfied, “white guilt” in the States can easily become despondent inaction and paralyzed hopelessness here in China. The awareness that I and my fellow do-gooders thrive on in the States can be devastating here because of the massive scope of the inequality and your corresponding lack of agency.

But, on the other side of spectrum, a “healthy,” suburban acceptance of inequality (i.e. callousness) can easily reach Nero-style indifference. “Numbness,” is how a Chinese friend describes it; she's witnessed a lot of it, as she spends most of her time with those who “eat fragrant foods and drink spicy drinks.” (As tasty as that sounds, this is not a positive idiom.)

But it's not simply society's upper crust that must fear numbness. A well-known cliché propagated by Chinese and non-Chinese alike is that “human life isn't worth as much in China.”
The truth, or at least validity, of this statement can be derived from study of Chinese history, where China's most impressive public works are also tombs to thousands of laborers who were rolled over in the pursuit higher state interests, whether political, economic, or monomaniacal. For more modern examples, one need only look at the Pickett's-Charge-a-day strategy China employed in the Korean War or even the shockingly callous statements of Zhang Yi Mou's regarding working his Opening Ceremony dancers past the point of exhaustion. ( [my favorite sentence is where coffee breaks and human rights are mentioned with equal distaste in the same sentence.])

But the ironic laugh of some of my best Chinese friends and respected acquaintances has provided all the evidence I need of this cliché's validity: whether it was the secretary at my NGO coolly joking that a university student at her school who jumped from the third floor didn't really want to die or she would have picked a higher building, my current professor jibing that thousands of people die every year in coal mines but “we don't really care about them right now” or the way one of my other profs chuckled after he told me that “[w]e have a saying written on the walls in every courthouse, if you confess, the punishment will be lighter. Well, we found that actually, anyone who confesses usually ends up with a worse punishment, ha ha ha.”

I believe that anyone who spends much time in China will find it riddled with a ubiquitous, ironic, and sometimes embarrassed, tittering. While the laugh itself may seem quite fragile, it's a powerful defense against engaging with harsh realities that plague this big country and its millions of people. Behind that laughter, bulwarking it, are a slew of truisms (成语, 俗语) that span millenia. Chengyu and suyu are famous quotations and lines of poetry that are the foundation of Chinese language and, arguably, Chinese morality. They are the bane of any Chinese student's existence, and also the bane of any Westerner trying to pursue lines of thought to their endpoints. Once spoken with conviction, a well-placed chengyu can end a debate with its powerful generality. Their power is in their simplicity and the religious fervor with which they are believed: it is the religion of the Really Old Farmer's Almanac.

For example, whenever I belabor educated, well-off Chinese friends of mine with the toll their society is taking on my conscience, they invariably end up using Mao's famous response to Western criticism of communist China's inconsistencies, “The whole world is a contradiction” (世界就是矛盾). Ha ha ha. End of conversation.

But easy as it is to assume they're dodging tough questions, I believe their laughter here is a catharsis for the cognitive dissonance wrought on us all by the myriad contradictions of modern China. Most of my Chinese friends know that things aren't ideal, and many sympathize with suffering taking place across their country. The idea that Western conceptions of life and rights don't translate over here is bunk. If it were true, there would be no reason to laugh: anyone who stolidly held that human life was meaningless wouldn't need to laugh, because they wouldn't care. From that perspective, an embarrassed giggle is not callous at all, and certainly a more rational, less patronizing testament to solidarity with the poor and suffering than my blistered hands.

Somehow space, milk and concrete come together over here. Somehow an ironic laugh helps one navigate landmines of guilt and numbness that mark the territory between skyscaper owner and and builder. It's a survival skill that's been far more effective than my years of tortured, moralistic pondering. In the end, I, too, have to shrug my shoulders and agree with the Chairman, the world is a contradiction.

There's a real elegance to those Chinese who live in a world of astronauts and abject poverty and keep their humanity, communitarian version though it may be. (Humanity with Chinese Characteristics?). I'm not going to criticize the tittering and clichés until I can provide my Chinese brethren with a better way to walk the tightrope. To do otherwise smacks too much of Tonya Harding, sideswiping a grace you can't replicate.


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