The Wild East

Hello Reader, it has been a bit longer than I'd have liked, but things here are busy in many new and exciting ways.

It's typical of me to bite off more than I can chew, because without those looming pangs of guilt, I'd just be procrastinating anyhow. I do think that some people give procrastinators a bad rap because they are only familiar with the lazy side of them. In truth, they can be powerfully industrious, simply motivated to do something other than that which they loathe most. In my case, I've been reading and discussing (still in English, hah) much about China's past and future, volunteering some time to an up-and-coming international education project, and getting more serious about co-founding a start-up. Even yesterday, I learned that Google went ahead and made my life more complex by releasing a demo video of their amazing Wave software. Now I'll have to look into that as well...

Time to string together some other thoughts I've been toying with recently...

The thesis would have to be the following line, adapted from "The Sunscreen Song," a.k.a. "Everybody's Free (To Wear Sunscreen)," a.k.a. "Advice, Like Youth, Probably Just Wasted On The Young" - don't worry, it's all explained here.

So what was that thesis again? Oh, yea:
"Live in China once, but leave before it makes you hard. Live in Japan once, but leave before it makes you soft."

As a co-worker commented to me on China, "it's like living in the Wild West" - it's a great comparison. No, there are no cowboys wandering the admittedly dusty streets at high noon, but the atmosphere of anything-goes is still prevalent. You don't have six-shooters turning the saloon into swiss cheese, but only because China outlaws the personal posession of handguns.

I was told a joke:
Scientists from France, Russia, and China wanted to see how the alcohol consumed in their native countries affected laboratory mice trained to navigate a maze. First, the French scientist gave some fine red wine to his mouse, and it slowly crept around the maze before curling into a ball and falling asleep at a dead-end. Unimpressed, the Russian scientist fed his mouse some top-shelf vodka and set it loose into the maze. After staggering this way and that, the mouse ran head-first into one of the walls and - legs splayed - passed out cold. The Chinese scientist laughed heartily at this and eagerly poured some strong-smelling baijiu for his pet to drink. The Chinese mouse sat in silence for a moment then jumped up - producing a knife - and yelled, "Where's that fucking cat!? I'll slit his throat!"

It's funny because it's true.

One night after work, I went with another teacher to a beer garden on the top floor of a mall (you can't walk a block without ignoring yet another invitation to drink beer). It seemed like any other visit to a beer garden: lots of people, very loud, some on a date, others with drinking buddies, a few in a heated argument... China is such a lively place, so many people with such freely expressed passion. We weren't surprised by the two beet-red guys who stood up to exchange heated words - it happens so often you just tune it out, like the honking or panhandling. It was surprising to see them get to the point of swinging some fists, and one of them took a few blows square to the face before they broke it up. Soon after, they'd both dissappeared from sight, so it was out-of-mind as well.

A few minutes later, the one with the freshly-tenderized face was back in view, and he was oddly pacing about the place with his hands behind his back. He approached the "information desk" and shouted a few questions in their directions, pointing wildly. I suppose they couldn't provide him with any satisfactory reply, because he began yelling and pointing an accusatory finger directly at them. At about this time, it becomes obvious to everyone what our frantic friend is carrying with him - a white cloth with the silver glimmer of a knife blade pointing out from one end. My guess is after his quick confrontation, he ran downstairs to one of the stores and bought the blade - I can't otherwise imagine how he reappeared so quickly. As for me, I'm sitting in my chair, silently observing this entire exchange along with a hundred other pairs of concerned eyes, wondering when the rent-a-cops or even the real police are going to show up. I ask my friend, and he calmly informs me that nobody is going to come because, well, it's just not the way things work here.

I'm a bit surprised by this remark, because it would seem that if one were genuinely interested in achieving a "harmonious society," one would be interested in reducing the number of knife-wielding drunks with murderous intent staggering about public places. The reality of the situation is that this guy might be affiliated with an organized crime group, so by calling in the police, a citizen might be placing themself and their family at risk. How? If the cops came by, threw the guy into prison, and he were connected, he could be out the very next day - but instead of hunting down the person who caused him to lose face in a beer garden, he'd be more interested in hunting down the person who called in the cops and caused him to lose face to his gang. If you called, your phone number (and thus name and address) would be trivial to attain because - surprise, surprise - there are some corrupt cops working with the criminal gangs.

Now, I'm not sure to what extent this all happens, and it'd be a disservice for me to fuel any more misconceptions about China, but it certainly is plausible. Don't pretend that your police, politicians, or other public servants are uncorruptible, either - it's simply a question of "what percent?" There's never any shortage of news here about corrupt officials doing universally reviled shit to ordinary people, but so far I'm convinced that the only big difference between China and the U.S. is that China simply isn't as adept at covering it up or spinning it to death. I recently read a Western criticism of Xinhua, the official news agency of the Communist Party, for its bias... Well no shit. But here's the key difference: at least they aren't pretending. The lead-up to the Iraq invasion in 2003 demonstrated the disparagingly similar effectiveness of America's not-quite-state-run media.

To quote Stephen Colbert's legendary oral evisceration of Bush and his administration at the 2006 White House Correspondent's Dinner (full transcript):
The greatest thing about this man is he's steady. You know where he stands. He believes the same thing Wednesday that he believed on Monday, no matter what happened Tuesday. Events can change; this man's beliefs never will. As excited as I am to be here with the president, I am appalled to be surrounded by the liberal media that is destroying America, with the exception of Fox News. Fox News gives you both sides of every story: the president's side, and the vice president's side.

But the rest of you, what are you thinking, reporting on NSA wiretapping or secret prisons in eastern Europe? Those things are secret for a very important reason: they're super-depressing. And if that's your goal, well, misery accomplished. Over the last five years you people were so good -- over tax cuts, WMD intelligence, the effect of global warming. We Americans didn't want to know, and you had the courtesy not to try to find out. Those were good times, as far as we knew.

But, listen, let's review the rules. Here's how it works: the president makes decisions. He's the decider. The press secretary announces those decisions, and you people of the press type those decisions down. Make, announce, type. Just put 'em through a spell check and go home. Get to know your family again. Make love to your wife. Write that novel you got kicking around in your head. You know, the one about the intrepid Washington reporter with the courage to stand up to the administration. You know - fiction!

To continue my simile, though, China's still much more rugged of a country. With the lax rules, you can only rely on yourself. Much like Japan, there's a culture of personal responsibility, and even something did happen to you that would warrant a legitimate lawsuit, you'll still probably be wishing you'd been more careful. A quick example: glass. There is glass everywhere. Keep your eyes open, or you might step on it, be hit by it, or accidentally digest it as was the case when I last went out to a fancy-looking restaurant that served me a freshly chipped saucer complete with its accompanying shard. As if the damage to my internals from pollution wasn't working quickly enough...

I'll have to leave this off here for the time being. I will publish this as a "part 1" so you'll have something to read this week.

Until next time, take care.


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