Digital Dave's Ruminations

This is the place...

...where Digital Dave occasionally shares his thoughts on China, Photography, and other various and random subject-matter.

My three most recent posts will always appear on this page (unless you've arrived here via a direct link to a specific article). Use the archive links on the right sidebar to access previous posts. Most images on this blog can be clicked-on to view them in a larger size.

Sunday, August 8, 2004

Greetings from Tokyo, Japan - home of the ten-dollar cup of coffee

Neither Katrinka nor I have ever been to Japan before. After two months in one of the world’s last great bastions of good ol’ fashioned Communism, it is refreshing to be in Asia’s Old Guard of Capitalism. Man, this place is civilized!

But before I regale you with my observations of Tokyo, I have some final thoughts on China:

Beijing changes so quickly that anything I can tell you about it is only valid for a couple of months or so. Really, the pace of change there is phenomenal. Beijing is truly a world-class city now, and it’s just going to keep on growing. It looks like Katrinka and I will be returning to China in November and I hope we will be able to find our way around Beijing; it will surely be an altogether different city when we come back. Anyang, I expect, will be largely the same, though hopefully it won’t still smell like poop!

Some of my favorite things about China:

1. Beijing Cab Drivers. They are just as opinionated as New York taxi drivers, though substantially more friendly. So much of what we know of Beijing is courtesy of the city’s cabbies. They really take pride in their city and enjoy sharing it with visitors. They especially appreciate the opportunity to learn a little bit of English (which they have been required to learn the basics of in time for the ’08 Beijing Olympics. Fat chance…) Most of all, they love that they can banter with us in their native Chinese, a rarity for them with foreign visitors. Their thick Beijing dialect of Mandarin has made it a bit challenging for us, however. They have a bizarre tendency to replace the trailing-end of words with an ‘R’, so that ‘Wangfujing’, for example, becomes ‘Wangfujar’. We’ve just played along with it and it works. It’s the equivalent of visiting Dallas and talking to the locals in a thick Texas drawl. We came to so appreciate our cab drivers that when we went to visit Zhoukodian, the site of the famous Peking Man caves, we brought our cab driver along with us. He had taken many fares to the site over the years but had never seen it himself. He was pretty blown away by it!

2. The Mountains. China’s mountains are incredibly beautiful and very distinctive. The craggy limestone peaks to the north and west of Beijing look imposing in the distance (on the rare day that they can be seen from the city). Once up in the mountains, the cool air, moss covered rocks, precipitous cliffs, and forested canyons are exhilarating. It’s like being right in the middle of one of those classic Chinese watercolor paintings. Now picture the Great Wall winding along the mountain peaks like a rollercoaster and you can imagine how breathtaking it all is. Henan Province’s mountains at Hongqiqu are equally impressive; their enormous granite rock-faces are reminiscent of California’s Sierra Nevada range but the temples and pagodas on top of them are not! I completely understand why mountains have been held sacred throughout Chinese history.

3. The Culture. The Chinese have found a way to successfully integrate the colorful customs and aesthetics of their long and ancient history into a modern and progressive society. Notwithstanding the factories and pollution left over from the People’s Republic of China’s early attempts at modernization and industrialization in the ‘50s and ‘60s, everything in china is built with ‘Feng Shui’ in mind and is very pleasing to the eye. I can’t imagine a more photogenic country (as my 10,000 photos from this trip attest). Sociologically, the Chinese people have proven themselves adept at rolling with all of the dramatic changes foisted upon them without getting run over. They’ve experienced one revolution after another throughout their history and have managed to keep their sense of humor and charm. This latest bloodless revolution has certainly been a positive one for the Chinese and it is long overdue. It’s gratifying to see them finally attaining a standard of living and status akin to the rest of the industrialized world without losing their fundamental sense of identity and culture. And it is pleasing that they’ve finally begun to embrace us Barbarians from the West!

Some of my least favorite things about China:

1. The Food. Unfortunately, the cuisine in China has been a major disappointment. I had high hopes for a memorable culinary adventure, given China’s famous regional cuisines. But while we certainly had some dishes that were unique and distinctive, such as certain types of very tasty fresh-water fish that are available only in China, most of what we ate was bland and oily at best and noxious and inedible at worst. Northern China is not known for its expansive variety of cuisine like Southern China is; still I had hoped for a far better overall culinary experience. Thankfully, our hotel in Beijing was owned and operated by the French, who know a thing or two about food. The steaks and French pastries served in the hotel’s restaurant was the best food we ate in China.

2. The Traffic. Amazingly, in just two years since we last visited China, automobile traffic has reached a critical mass. It used to be that the only vehicles we’d see on the road - besides the zillions of bicycles, scooters, and all the other funky pedal-powered contraptions - were taxis and the occasional big black Audi sedan with tinted windows (mostly driven by Communist Party higher-ups, rumor has it). Now that cars have become affordable to many average working-class citizens, Chinese cities are experiencing for the first time traffic jams and rush-hours. In Beijing alone, 430,000 new cars were sold last year. I shudder to think of what China’s (and the world’s) pollution problems will be like if all of a sudden 1.3 billion people have automobiles at their disposal.

Now that we’re here in Tokyo, China seems a world away. As a child, I was always fascinated by the aesthetic differences between China and Japan, to the extent that I could tell them apart. Now I’ve had the opportunity to see both cultures closely juxtaposed and the differences are profound.

Japan is, first and foremost, clean. Not only by comparison to China, either. Tokyo is probably the cleanest city I’ve ever been to - anywhere. You can eat off the sidewalks. In China, one uses bathrooms (if you can call them that) at one’s own peril. In Tokyo, my toilet is digital. Honest to God, it’s got a built-in control panel with a Graphical User Interface. I’m kind of afraid to use it without consulting the instruction manual…

The modern architecture here is not nearly as bold and innovative as in China, but it’s in keeping with the classic Japanese aesthetic of simplicity and elegance, and it’s very pleasing. Like Beijing, Tokyo has a vast and imposing mountain range (anchored by Mt. Fuji) to its west, but unlike Beijing, it has a river running through it and a harbor and bay to its south which gives the city a whole different ambiance.

Ueno & Shinjuku

There are millions of people here in Japan, as compared with billions in China. Tokyo is bustling and crowded. But whereas Chinese cities are the epitome of barely-controlled chaos, Tokyo is refined and ORDERLY. Cars actually stop at traffic lights. There are no weird diesel-powered, three-wheeled, awning-covered, hybrid rickshaws barreling down the sidewalk and one need not worry here about getting run over in a crosswalk by a donkey-pulled wagon hauling five peasants, a baby and a cat on top of a nine-foot tall stack of rotting watermelons driven on the wrong side of the road by a shirtless, ninety-year-old man whipping the donkey with one hand and chatting on a cell-phone with the other.

Japan is a train culture, with an mind-bogglingly extensive network of railway, subway, and light-rail mass transit. Consequently, Tokyo is delightfully free of traffic snarls on it roads and it’s really fun to ride the trains and people watch, as opposed to having to be cooped up in a taxi to get anywhere of practical distance in China.

The Japanese people are cultured, impeccably dressed, and very, very reverent. They are also extremely friendly; perhaps not as playful and flirtatious as the Chinese, but good-humored nevertheless. There is a calmness and serenity about them that contrasts sharply with the intensity of the Chinese. There is very little crime in both China and Japan. In China, it is because you can be summarily executed for, well, for just about anything. In Japan, the crime rates are extraordinarily low because, culturally, it is not acceptable. China is, of course, a very secular country; the Communists erased centuries of Taoist and Buddhist religion in their country by basically banning its public practice. But the Japanese have a very strong Buddhist belief system that carries over into everyday life, even among those that aren’t necessarily practicing Buddhists. It’s as much a lifestyle as it is a religion.

Kamakura Buddha

I would describe the Japanese aesthetic as elegant simplicity, as opposed to the Chinese’s gaudiness. Some of the ancient temples and shrines in both countries are virtually indistinguishable from one another, but otherwise the differences are stark: Whereas Chinese iconography tends toward bright reds and shimmering golds, brick and metals, dramatically sweeping curves and arches, and bold, highly-detailed embellishments; the Japanese style is defined by wood and rice paper, straight perpendicular lines, minimal embellishments, and earth-tones.

And suffice it to say that the Japanese cuisine that we’ve experienced here thus far has been a treat for the taste-buds. I know this will sound like a total cliché, but we had no idea what sushi was really supposed to taste like until we ate it here - the fish was the freshest and tastiest we’ve ever had. And the fruit here is in a class of its own. I don’t know how they do it.

Tokyo is an impressive city both in scale and appearance, and Japan’s countryside, with quaint little towns and ancient shrines and temples nestled between the mountains and beaches, is fairy-tale beautiful. But ultimately, Japan is a country not significantly unlike most other modern, industrialized nations in the sense that it has for all practical purposes assimilated with the rest of the world…it just happens to be dressed in Eastern accoutrements. In Japan I definitely know I’m visiting an exciting and beautiful foreign country with a lovely and charming culture. But China is so utterly exotic and totally different from anywhere else in the world, so singular in its style and unique in its ways, that it feels like I’m visiting another planet. That, of course, is what makes it so compelling. I can’t wait to go back!

- Dave

Monday, August 2, 2004


Greetings once again from the People’s Republic of China. Apologies for the long stretch between dispatches, but we’ve hardly had a moment to spare over the course of the last six weeks. We’re back in Beijing now after spending just over a month in the city of Anyang, where Katrinka worked on her archaeological research project. It’s been an adventure, to say the least!

Anyang is located in northern Henan, China’s most densely populated province, with ninety million people living in an area approximately the size of Oregon. Henan is also one of China’s poorest provinces and eighty percent of its citizens live in rural villages and on farms. Anyang is one of Henan Province’s “small” cities, with a population of a meager 5.2 million. Probably a million or so live in the central city (which to my eyes appears to be not much larger geographically than Berkeley) and the rest live on the outskirts and periphery of town.

At first glance, Anyang looks just like most other Chinese cities. There’s a central downtown area that is undergoing the archetypal refurbishment (scaffolding and cranes are everywhere) and sports a number of post-modern high-rises and brand-new shopping plazas. There’s a Ming-era (1300-1600 AD) city wall, bell tower and drum tower, typical of many cities in China, and there’s a Ming temple with a five-story pagoda (purportedly the first in China in which each successive level is wider than the one below it so that the pagoda tapers inward from top to bottom) in the very center of town.

Central Anyang

The outer sections of the city, wrapped around Anyang’s downtown, are characterized by 1950s through 1970s dorm-like 4- and 5- story residential boxes and broad dusty streets lined with cubby-hole stores selling everything from bicycles and fly-swatters to cigarettes and bottled-water. There are street vendors selling mostly fruit (especially watermelons), but also some of just about everything else you could imagine. Like Beijing, the streets are filled with people and vehicles of all sorts (are donkeys considered vehicles?) but it doesn’t feel in the least bit crowded, just … populated.

Upon closer inspection, however, one begins to see fundamental distinctions between Anyang and Beijing. In the same sense that New York City or Los Angeles isn’t really a complete and true reflection of America, Beijing does not tell a visitor the whole story of China. In fact, many Chinese would argue that Beijing is really an anomaly, both in terms of having undergone such an enormous face-lift over the past decade and because of the fact that Beijing is now teetering on the edge of actually being a cosmopolitan and even fashionable city (at least cosmetically).

Anyang, on the other hand, is the “real deal”, clearly far more reflective of current Chinese culture and society as Anyang is far more similar to the “average” Chinese city than is Beijing and the other Chinese megalopolises, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Hong Kong. Katrinka & I had a sneak peek at Anyang when we visited for three days a couple of years ago, but a month’s stay this time has opened up the books.

The first significant thing that one notices rather quickly is that Anyang is fundamentally dirty. Most cities in China are not clean; Beijing is somewhat of an exception (though it is not by any stretch of the imagination sanitary), but Anyang is downright filthy. The streets and sidewalks are coated with a fine layer of dust which turns to mud after it rains. Black soot clings to the white brick walls of Anyang’s buildings; even heavy rains don’t seem to be able to wash it away. The hotel that we stayed at in Anyang, The Ancai, is barely two years old, yet it is already showing signs of accumulated grime. There are dead bugs lying overturned in the hotel’s hallways and apparently one of the Ancai’s restaurants has a pet rat, because as the critter zipped about from table to table one morning at breakfast, the staff giggled and “shushed” us as we looked on in shock and disbelief. We were also treated to the experience of the Ancai’s resident bats dive-bombing us in front of the hotel in the evenings; evidently they mistook us for giant mosquitoes. The Ancai is a four-star hotel, by the way, if that gives you a sense of perspective on what lesser accommodations in Anyang might be like in terms of cleanliness.

Coal-fired power plant

The air pollution in Anyang is epidemic; it’s rare that one can actually see the orb of the sun through the grey haze lingering over the city. The particulate matter in the air is compliments primarily of the steel mill, coal-fueled power plants (which serve Anyang, as well as other parts of China), and hundreds of factories that lurk on the edge of town. The dominant feature of Anyang’s skyline, besides the downtown high-rises and gothic radio masts, are the dozens of skyscraping smokestacks and monolithic cooling towers gathered like sentinels on the northern and western edges of the city. One evening, after a storm had quickly blown through town and cleared the air to some degree, we actually saw the sun appear through the dispersing clouds as it descended towards the western horizon. For a few fleeting moments, it seemed we’d witness a beautiful Anyang sunset. But then suddenly, as the sun dipped behind the billowing black, brown, and white smoke emanating from all the stacks, the sky abruptly darkened and took on a diffuse, eerie brownish-orange glow that looked almost apocalyptic. I’ll never forget it. It was at once stark and beautiful.

Anyang Sunset

Because one of the archaeological excavations that Katrinka worked at is adjacent to the entrance of the steel mill, we had several opportunities to observe up close the consequences of the pollution caused by the antiquated factory. The streets and villages surrounding the mill were literally covered in dark black soot and the air was thick with a strange smoky mist. Convoys of enormous diesel trucks carrying coal, as well as hundreds of smaller diesel tractors, paraded through the mill’s front gates, adding to the noxious mix. The whole scene looked like Dickensian London at the height of the Industrial Revolution. We could taste the pollution in our throats. In fact, one late afternoon as we were leaving the archaeological excavation, we saw a mill worker staggering out the gate grasping his throat and choking profusely. He doubled over and vomited as four of his co-workers rushed over to assist him. It was all quite surreal.

Steel mill archaeological excavation site

The lack of cleanliness is China is largely a function of the country’s overarching pollution, but much of it is culturally endemic. It became clear to us quite quickly that the standards of cleanliness in China are far lower than one would hope for a country at this relatively advanced stage of its development. Public spitting, while now officially discouraged by the government, is still commonplace. I watched as a well-dressed businessman sitting in the Ancai hotel lobby noisily and quite ceremoniously clammed right on the carpet; no one else in the lobby so much as flinched, though the girl at the coffee bar seemed amused by the expression on my face. Food is eaten here only after careful consideration by the eater. The best food-preparation facilities at Anyang’s finer restaurants were of dubious standards; you can well imagine what the little hole-in-the-wall restaurants, food stalls and street vendors were like. Even the restaurants in our four-star hotel saw nothing wrong with re-using table settings. And food-service workers have apparently not been indoctrinated into the habit of washing their hands after using the bathroom (we have all-too-much empirical evidence of this) and even when they do, one still has to take into account the fact that most of China’s produce is grown on local countryside cooperatives where cleanliness standards are non-existent and the crops are fertilized with human feces, among God-knows-what-else.

The realities of village life came into focus one afternoon when we visited an old archaeological site way out in the countryside. The site is located at a small brick-making facility in the middle of a vast cornfield near an old village. Upon arriving at the village, parking at the side of the dirt road next to the cornfield, and opening the doors to the Jeep, we were immediately overwhelmed by the unmistakable smell of raw sewage. As we quickly slammed the doors shut and proceeded a few meters further up the road to escape the oppressive stench, our driver explained that we had just inadvertently parked at the spot where the collected sewage from the village residents (there’s no plumbing) is deposited and stored for use as crop fertilizer. When we returned a few hours later, the jeep was covered from front to rear and top to bottom with flies.

After hiking a half-mile or so through neck-high corn from the village road to the brick factory, we began our search for ancient pottery sherds in the outcroppings left behind after the fields were dug up to provide clay for the brick making process. I was quite pleased with myself after finding a number of sherds that I was able to distinguish as being of Shang dynasty origin (Katrinka’s area of study), as opposed to one of the many other dynastic sherd samples that abound in these fields, I looked down and saw what I recognized to be a bone sticking partially out of the ground. I unearthed it and ran excitedly over to Katrinka and our guide, Professor Tang Jigen, and asked them what kind of animal they thought the bone might belong to. Was it from a Shang dynasty sacrificial pit? Tang Jigen immediately disabused me of the notion that I found an animal bone as he informed me that what I held in my hand was a human femur. Wow! Did I hit the jackpot? Did I find evidence of a Shang tomb? No, Jigen explained, what I had found was the leg bone of a local villager who was probably buried rather recently. Not only do the countryside farmers fertilize their crops with their own excrement, they also bury their dead in the corn- and wheat-fields. In a nutshell, China’s produce is grown in a combination of cesspools and cemeteries. Can you say, “Hepatitis”?

I hurriedly (but gently) replaced the bone in the ground EXACTLY where I found it, hoping that its former owner didn’t miss it while it was gone for a few minutes, and decided that I’d done quite enough archaeology for one day.

While it was a bit unnerving to find the human bone, it should have come as little surprise because many of these Henan province villages and farms have been in use for over 4000 years. The particular village we were visiting is known to have been in constant use at least since Shang dynasty citizens lived there in 1700 B.C. That’s why we were there in the first place; each successive Chinese civilization was built on top of the previous one, leaving a multitude of well-preserved artifacts buried in the loess soil that is characteristic of China’s Northern Plain.

Loess soil is a type of earth defined by accumulated sediment blown in from elsewhere, in this case Inner Mongolia’s Gobi Dessert. The loess has a very pliable, clay-like characteristic that makes it a natural preservative of ancient Shang cities and also a wonderful substance with which to build the cave dwellings of central Henan province wherein some several million folks currently reside! (Along with local custom of crop-burning and the aforementioned exhaust from countless factories and coal-fueled power plants, the windblown loess is also a major contributor to the region’s unimaginable pollution.)

The city of modern-day Anyang is literally built on top of Yinxu (pronounced “Yin-shoe”), the former capital city of the Shang dynasty that was buried for millennia under the loess soil. It was here, between approximately 1700 B.C. and 1050 B.C. that the Shang kings, queens, and elites held court over a populace of lesser elites, commoners, and peasantry before being ultimately conquered by the Zhou (pronounced Joe”) dynasty that followed. Katrinka is in fact hoping to flesh out the emergence of social stratification in this early civilization by determining through the process of residue analysis and other procedures what the various Shang social classes ate (including the distinct possibility that they ate each other).

As there were Shang villages and burial grounds that radiated out from the central Yinxu site for miles into the modern-day countryside, anytime a new development of some kind is proposed in the Anyang area, a ‘salvage excavation’ is performed so that any archaeological artifacts can be removed before the construction begins (“Cultural Heritage” is again in vogue after many years of the government ignoring and rewriting China’s history, particularly during Mao’s Cultural Revolution). There were two such ‘salvage sites’ underway when we arrived in Anyang and it was a very lucky time for us to be there. One site, known as 220-KV for the old power plant next door, revealed several Shang house-foundations, a number of ash pits (basically communal garbage pits) containing fabulous pottery samples, and some tombs that held various human and animal sacrificial victims along with beautiful bronze vessels. The Shang buried their dead with various accoutrements for the afterlife; the higher one was in the social hierarchy, the more stuff they got buried with. One of the fellows whose tomb was unearthed at 220-KV must have been pretty important because he was entombed with no fewer than four sacrificial horses, an absolute rarity in the Shang dynasty.

The other salvage site currently under excavation, known as Dasikongcun (pronounced “Da-see-kung-soon”) for the adjacent village of the same name, was even more impressive. Here, in addition to several tombs (including a rare un-looted specimen), and a network of terracotta pipes (use uncertain), three totally intact chariots were found, complete with a full compliment of sacrificial drivers and horses. (Some of the human sacrificial victims, incidentally, were thought to have been of “foreign” origin; captured warriors from rival states and kingdoms, etc. Others were apparently willing participants, fulfilling their duty to follow their lords and masters into the afterlife). It was astounding to watch as workers at Dasikongcun gingerly dug around a big square block of loess earth in a deep pit, barely exposing the hub of one of the chariot’s wheels. A week later, that big square block in the ground had metamorphosed into a fully unveiled chariot.

More impressive, the excavators at both sites are local villagers who are so adept at their work that many of them can tell what manner of artifact lies beneath the earth simply by how the ground feels. This is a useful thing to know, as exemplified by the unusual incident of a buried horse skeleton being sliced in half right through it’s skull by excavators who didn’t realize it was there. Most of the local villagers are descended from ancestors who lived in the villages hundreds and even thousands of years ago; they all seem to know where to dig and what to dig for around Anyang.

Neither the 220-KV excavation, nor the Dasikungcun dig, would even exist if it wasn’t for the fact that developments were planned at both sites: an upgraded power plant at 220-KV and a new textile facility to replace an old cotton factory at Dasikongcun. One of the perils, however, of salvage excavations such as these, is that there are often competing interests that are trying to rush along the process. In the particular instance of Dasikongcun, a construction company was in a hurry to get started on their project. A grand total of only 53 Shang-era chariots have been unearthed over the course of a hundred years of Chinese archaeology and the three dug up at Dasikongcun were numbers 51 through 53. They were the first discovered in a long time. Number 53 was lost, however, when a construction crew waiting to build the new textile factory jumped the gun and snuck into the excavation late one night to do some preliminary work and accidentally crushed the chariot. Now that so many industries in China have been privatized, time is money and it’s commonplace to see construction crews working around the clock. If it had been a government construction crew, the accident never would have happened because government workers in China are like union workers in America: they don’t work one minute longer than they’re supposed to. Needless to say, there were a lot of enraged archaeologists and threatened lawsuits flying around the field station the day after the chariot was lost. Another incident, in keeping with the mythos of cursed archaeological digs, occurred at 220-KV several days later when a worker fell into a 29-meter deep tomb and ended up hospitalized in critical condition. Thankfully, he stabilized after a few days and his prognosis is good. It’s unbelievable that he didn’t end up paralyzed.

Part of the process of doing business in China, archaeological or otherwise, involves “guangxi” (pronounced “gwong-she”), a Chinese word that loosely translates to “networking”. It is important in Chinese culture to socialize with the people that you’re doing business or working with. Thus, Katrinka and I were feted with many a traditional Chinese banquet or dinner over the course of our stay in Anyang.

These banquets generally take place in a restaurant or hotel, often in a private room. Everyone is seated at a big round table with a rotating server on top. The host, who always sits at the seat of honor opposite the entrance to the room, orders a number of dishes for everyone in attendance. Depending on how many people are seated at the table, various meat, fish, and vegetable dishes will be served. When they arrive, the dishes are placed on the table’s rotating server, which the host spins around so the guests can help themselves to the food. Everyone just digs into the same dishes with their chopsticks; at big banquets you have to be quick with the sticks or else a dish you like might spin right past you before you have a chance to grab something off the plate.

One nevertheless must be careful in choosing the dishes from which one eats, as Katrinka learned one night at dinner when she ladled a spoonful of soup out of a bowl, brought the spoon to her lips, and halted just in the nick of time when she realized it contained a foot (of unknown origins, I might add). At another dinner, a dish was brought out and we were told it was gou rou (“go-roe”), but I mis-heard it as giu rou, which means ‘pork’ (and is pronounced, ironically, “jew-roe”). I dug in, thinking that it was a little tough, but not altogether bad. Katrinka, I noticed, was looking at me with an expression of disbelief and disgust. What’s the problem? This giu rou is pretty good! As Katrinka clarified for me that I was eating gou rou, not giu roe, I excused myself from the table and headed for the lavatory, wondering what breed of dog it was that I just ate.

Guests are expected to eat as much or as little of a given dish as they like, no one is offended if you take a pass on the donkey meat on a bed of jellyfish. However it is de rigueur to participate in the prolific toasts proposed by the meal’s host. This is unfortunate, as the beverage of choice at Chinese banquets is the notorious “Baijiu” (pronounced “buy-joe”), a clear liquor known as “liquid lobotomy” that tastes like licorice combined with gasoline and shoe polish. Baijiu contains a minimum of 52% alcohol, the better varieties up to 67%. It is customarily served in a little miniature shot glass, but some hosts, particularly those who like to see innocent Westerners become incomprehensible in a matter of half an hour or so, insist on serving it in wine glasses. Baijiu is NOT to be sipped; it is to be slammed like a shot after each toast is made. Typically, four or five toasts are proposed before any food is served; as the evening wears on and more baijiu is consumed, more and more toasts are proposed. By the end of the banquet, just about anything is reasonable to toast to: Today is Wednesday! Drink up! Where baijiu is concerned, hosts do not take “no” for an answer. On the occasions where we tried to politely decline, our hosts spouted off on long soliloquies in barely intelligible colloquial Chinese, with the few understandable fragments of their speeches containing words like “communist party” and “or else!” This, combined with the glowering looks on their faces and their feigned incredulity that we would dare even consider insulting them by not partaking, convinced us that participating in the baijiu ritual was in our best interest. Bear in mind, please, that our hosts were mostly prestigious international archaeologists and renowned professors of anthropology (though in some cases they were local city of Anyang dignitaries and even a CCTV documentary producer) and each and every one of them put down enough baijiu themselves to induce coma in “ordinary” drinkers. Most of them handled it with aplomb, though a few of them became embarrassingly, staggeringly drunk. Katrinka and I tended to handle it surprisingly well, given our novice baijiu status; I will spare you the gruesome details of the occasion in which I most decidedly did not handle it well (mainly because I don’t remember them…what I do know I was told the next day by a very sympathetic and clearly amused hotel staff.)

Drinking seems to be deeply ingrained in the Anyang culture; not surprising considering that the Shang dynasty’s Queen Fu Hao was entombed with enough wine and drinking vessels to last for several after-lifetimes. Rarely a night went by that we did not witness someone staggering drunk through the hotel lobby, helped along by friends. Invariably, someone would come up to me at my table in the lobby where I was working on my laptop and, with an ear to ear smile on their face, drunkenly try to talk to me in Chinese about where I’m from and what I’m doing in Anyang, while unknowingly flicking their cigarette ashes in my coffee. Another not-uncommon sight was a taxi parked in front of the hotel with a pair of legs flailing out the window while two or three doormen attempted to push them in. Muffled female cries of “Bu! Bu! Bu!” (“No! No! No!”) could be heard emanating from the cab.

Nevertheless, Anyang’s citizens’ enthusiasm for baijiu, as well as pijiu (beer) and hongjiu (wine), has not mitigated their fundamental character. I simply can’t over emphasize how lovely everyone has been to us (even the inebriated folks). The Chinese are a supremely gentle people and their genuine friendliness is contagious. If people in almost any other country were as nice as the Chinese are, it would almost certainly arouse suspicion. But here, the friendliness is so obviously sincere and genuine that it’s almost impossible to ignore. It’s not just toward us, either; they are incredibly affectionate with one another.

For me, the most fun aspect of interacting with the Chinese is enjoying and sharing their playfulness and sense of humor. Even across the language divide, it has been easy to share a laugh with most people. Those moments of mutual understanding have comprised my fondest memories of this trip. I know my spoken Chinese has improved because I can now elicit laughter because of what I said right, as opposed to what I said wrong! Still, one must be careful of what one says in China. One facet of Chinese culture is that if you tell someone that you like something that they have, they will sometimes give it to you. At breakfast one morning in the Ancai Hotel, Katrinka and I noticed that a waitress had a little pink plastic cat attached to the key chain on her belt. It was one of those little trinkets that come with some brands of baijiu. Katrinka told her how cute it was and the waitress gave it to her. The next morning at breakfast, Katrinka again thanked the waitress and told her how much she loves cats. The waitress told us that she had another cat that she wanted to give to us and she would bring it the following day. The next afternoon there was a knock on our hotel room door, and standing there with a broad grin on her face was the waitress with a cardboard box inside of which was a real live tiny white kitten named Mi Mi. I had to pretend to be allergic in order to worm out of this one.

Unlike the citizens of China’s largest cities, the residents of Anyang have not had much, if any, contact with foreigners. One has to bear in mind that whereas an American could visit most of the world’s countries and easily blend in, a Westerner in China stands out like a neon sign. China is not a multi-cultural state – its 1.3 billion people are virtually all Chinese – so when a foreigner of any ethnicity other than Chinese shows up in a city like Anyang, it’s a major spectacle. Katrinka and I could hardly walk 10 feet down the street without attracting a crowd, or at the very least, eliciting calls of “hello!” People in Anyang are quite curious about foreigners and are particularly interested in Americans. Overwhelmingly, the two competing impressions that the Chinese seem to have about America are, 1) America is a very beautiful place, and 2) America is a very dangerous place. I can’t necessarily argue with either point. China is certainly every bit as enchantingly beautiful as America, but not nearly as dangerous in terms of street crime. It’s really incongruous to me that Katrinka could safely walk the streets of Anyang or Beijing alone at night, but would be taking a serious risk doing the same in Berkeley, one of the most educated cities in the wealthiest nation in the world.

It was this curiosity of foreigners that precipitated one of our more interesting adventures in Anyang. I spent one Saturday just walking up and down Zhongzhou Road taking photographs of street life (little kids and the elderly always prove to be the most intriguing subjects). I sat down on a park bench in a plaza where several hundred people were whiling away the afternoon and quickly became the center of attention. Twenty or so people, including eight or ten school-aged children, gathered around and began interrogating me about America. They tried gallantly to converse in English, which is a favored endeavor among the Chinese. They’re particularly interested in distinguishing between American English and British English pronunciation. Soon enough, one guy insinuated himself to the front of the crowd and began speaking to me in semi-cohesive English. He claimed to be a schoolteacher and since he appeared to be associated with the schoolchildren gathered around, I had no reason to think otherwise. Then he dropped the bomb: He asked me if I would be interested in teaching English for a few hours one day to local middle-school children, and offered to pay me. I told him that I’d love to do it, it would be fun, and he certainly didn’t have to pay me. I told him about Katrinka, that she and I were here to do Archaeology, and that I was sure Katrinka would love to join me in teaching English at the middle-school. I gave him my hotel room number, not really thinking that he’d actually call (if he did, I figured, I could always have some fun by teaching the kids grammatically incorrect English, just to mess with their heads!)

Sure enough, a couple of days later he showed up at the hotel with an ENTOURAGE, and Katrinka and I met with them in the lobby. It quickly became clear that the guy, Chen was his name, wasn’t actually a schoolteacher, but in fact worked for some local Anyang company that wanted to sponsor the English lessons for the Anyang kids. His boss had come along with him as part of his entourage and though she didn’t speak a word of English, she made it clear via Shen’s translation that she was extremely excited about our agreeing to teach the kids and hoped we could do it as soon as possible.

Obviously, something was fishy about this thing, but Katrinka and I nevertheless conveyed that we would try to schedule something as soon as time permitted. We were very busy with Katrinka’s archaeology, however, and couldn’t commit to a specific date until we had a better picture of what Katrinka’s work would entail. We told them we’d be in touch within a few days.

Well, the entourage showed up at the hotel every subsequent evening for a week, trying to pin us down to a date that we’d teach the class. Our schedule was still packed from morning to night with Katrinka’s work and that was our priority. We just couldn’t commit to a date yet. Shen’s boss became increasingly arrogant and demanding, claiming that they’d had signs made for the event and that the kids were anticipating it with much enthusiasm. They pointed out that the students would be leaving for summer vacation in a couple of days, so we just had to do it soon or else we’d send the kids home disappointed. Not wanting to offend them, we said we’d see what we could do.

By this point we were so suspicious of these people’s motives that we were about to tell them to get lost. At the very moment Katrinka and I were about to walk away in frustration, one of the Archaeologists working in Anyang for the summer field season walked into the hotel lobby with his students from Canada’s University of British Columbia in tow. They had been out for dinner and had been drinking (guess what?) lots of baijiu and so Professor Jing Zhichun was in a pliant mood. We thought, great, here’s an opportunity to have Jing help us get out of our awkward situation, but before we could get a word in edgewise, the boss-lady was all over him, blathering away in Chinese. Jing smelled a rat, too, but figured it would be worth a roll of the dice for us to go to the middle school and teach the class. Jing would come along with us and bring a handful of his students as it would potentially be a good experience for them, too. If we got to the school and it turned out to be a total scam, we’d make a break for it. Katrinka and I were happy that at least we weren’t going to have to deal with this ordeal by ourselves!

The following afternoon, we all taxied over to the middle-school, which was located on the edge of town near all the factories and power plants. It was located in the middle of what was obviously a very poor village, but when we pulled through the front gates we were greeted by a welcoming committee of well-dressed students and teachers. Upon disembarking the taxis, we saw the first sign of trouble, literally. A huge red banner with white Chinese lettering was strung across a wall. There was a smaller one underneath it. We asked Jing to translate and he told us what the larger sign said:

“Number 25 Middle School Welcomes Dr. David I. Greenberg (from America) and Miss Katrinka Reinhart (from Russia) To Our School.”

(As to where they came up with idea that Katrinka is from Russia, we can only guess. As far as where they came up with the idea that I’m a doctor, I don’t know and I don’t care. Just because my doctorate has been conferred by a middle school in no way diminishes its value, thank you very much. Henceforth, I should like to be addressed as Dr. Greenberg.)

In spite of our better judgment, we proceeded on into the classroom and surveyed the scene: 100 or so kids packed into the tiny room, a dozen teachers, and…a TV camera. Professor Jing had by this time figured out what was really going on, but he felt we couldn’t just walk out and disappoint all the children. So, after a ceremonious introduction, I dutifully climbed up to the podium, sweat pouring off my brow, and faced the wide-eyed kids (thinking to myself that my English is really nothing to write home about and, man, everyone’s gonna really regret this!)

Just then, Shen handed me a book that was opened to a page filled with a list of various English words, such as ‘green’, ‘mountain’, and ‘lake’, with the different vowel sounds underlined for emphasis. On the opposite page was another list of different words with the varying consonants underlined. All I had to do, Shen whispered in my ear, was recite the words out loud so that the kids could hear them pronounced properly by a native English speaker, and pause after each word so the kids could recite them back.

“Goat”, I said meekly, addressing the smiling schoolchildren.

“GOAT!!!,” replied the kids in unison, almost knocking me over backwards.

“Barge,” I recited.

“BAAAAAARGE!,” came back the reply. I was getting the idea.

“GIRRRRL!,” I said.

“GIRRRRL!!!,” the kids responded. I was having fun now!



And so on, and so on, until I had worked my way through the list. Upon finishing, Shen asked me to say something in Chinese to the kids, so I said the only thing I could think of at that moment:

“Wo bu shuo Zhong Guo hua.” It means, “I don’t speak Chinese.”

Now, Shen invited Katrinka up to the podium. Professor Jing, sitting with his U.B.C. students in the back of the classroom, looked at Katrinka and shook his head; he wanted us to get the hell out of there. But the lights were on, the camera was rolling, and the kids were all looking with anticipation at Katrinka, so up to the podium she came and read through the same list of words that I did. She made it a point to have a little fun with it; when she arrived at the word ‘hello’, she pronounced it the way someone with an exaggerated German or Yiddish accent would say it. We could barely keep from laughing out loud when the roomful of Chinese kids retorted with a deep and throaty,


Now that we were done with our English pronunciation lesson, Shen and company asked us to come along with them so that they could take some film footage of us by the red signs outside, then we’d come back in and teach another lesson. No way. We were getting out of there at all costs. As Professor Jing distracted the boss-lady by yelling at her in Chinese (as the camera continued to roll, by the way) the rest of us made a break for it. Shen and his cohorts literally chased us out the front gates of the school, through the village, and all the way out to the main road where we were able to flag down a couple of taxis and make our escape.

Now Jing had his chance to explain what the scam was all about. Shen and his boss were operating a company that is putting out a book of English lessons that they’re trying to sell to the Anyang schools. They figured the book would have a great deal more credibility if it was endorsed by some authentic American English speakers. Our adventure at the middle school was their attempt at filming an info-mercial for the book!

Jing phoned Shen the following day and threatened him and his company with a lawsuit if they went ahead and broadcast their info-mercial, which was clearly made in covert and dishonorable fashion. Tang Jigen, the director of the Anyang Archaeological Field Station, had a good friend at the local Anyang CCTV station, whom he called in an attempt to pre-empt the broadcast. A few days later, as Katrinka and I were working away at the field station, some workers came up to us laughing, explaining that they saw us on TV, along with Professor Jing, and that we looked pretty darn silly. Foolish, even. Turns out that the book people pulled an end-run and went to the Anyang County TV station after being told by the city station that they wouldn’t broadcast the info-mercial.

In spite of it all, the experience was fun and a lesson learned for us all. Plus, we got to take an inside look at a rural Chinese middle school. But what, I was curious to know, did that smaller red sign underneath the big one at the middle school say?

The sign, Jing explained, was his big clue to what the scam was all about. It was an advertisement for the English book! So if you’re ever in the Anyang area and you’re looking for a good book of English lessons for Chinese people, I highly recommend - and with God as my witness, this is the actual title - “Dave’s New Concepts of English.” Let the buyer beware…

Alright…enough of my rambling. Hopefully you have a pretty good sense of what our experience in the heartland of China has been like at this point (those of you that actually read this far, anyway. Maybe I’ll send out a spot quiz…) I’ll leave you with one more little tidbit that should complete the picture of Anyang for you all.

The Ancai Hotel pipes music throughout the building. It can be heard in the hallways, lobby, restaurants, and even in the rooms if you flip a switch on. The problem is, they play the same four tunes, all day long, every single day. That, in and of itself, would be maddening enough. But, inexplicably, one of the four tunes is the theme from “The Godfather,” of all things. I don’t think the hotel management has even the slightest idea what the song is! Now, imagine spending a solid month in one of the most Chinese of Chinese cities while being constantly bombarded with this most incongruous music. Try as I may, I simply can’t wrap my brain around the idea of Don Vito Corleone hangin’ out in China. It just doesn’t work…

- Dave