Digital Dave's Ruminations

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

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Sunday, June 6, 2004

Greetings from the People’s Republic of China

June 6th, 2004 Beijing, P.R.C.

Greetings from Beijing. It’s wonderful to be back here in China two years after my first visit to this amazing country. I feel an unexpected and very comfortable sense of familiarity; this place feels like mine!

It took a full twenty-four hours to get here, from the time I left my house in Berkeley to the time we checked into our hotel in Beijing. Included in our travels was a stop in Narita, Japan, near Tokyo. I had hoped to get a sense of what Japan is like from our three-hour layover at Narita, but, alas, the scenery outside the airport terminal windows was more reminiscent of suburban Houston than of Tokyo. Just as I was despairing of the lack of Japanese ambience, however, a platoon of sumo wrestlers in full ceremonial regalia seated themselves in the terminal (see attached pictures). You want ambience, Dave? Here’s the ultimate! We also were treated to another surprise: while flying over Japan on our way from Narita to Beijing, we flew right over Mt. Fuji (see attached pictures). So we did end up feeling like we got a reasonable ‘taste’ of Japan. We’re hoping to be able to stay a few days in Japan on our way home in August so we can get more than a taste. My initial observations of Japan, a fleeting first-impression from three hours in an airport, is that it’s a very *clean* place: you could eat off the floor of the lavatory (and unlike back in the Bay Area, no one was actually doing that).

The moment we stepped off the plane in Beijing, we instantly recognized the Chinese smell. Not a good smell, not a bad smell, just a very distinctive smell that immediately triggered familiarity. Japan didn’t have it. China *definitely* had it. It reminded me that there’s so much more than visual imagery that defines a place. I wish there was a way to capture the sounds and scents with each photograph we take. I guess the camcorder will cover the aural aspect when we get around to figuring out how to operate it.

We are staying at the Peace Hotel at the Wangfujing, the same place we stayed for much of our last visit to Beijing. We’re five or six blocks away from the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square (which, incidentally, my Uncle Bill reminded me on the phone, was the site of historic tragedy fifteen years ago to the day that we arrived here). Things have certainly changed around here since then. In fact, I’d say things have changed dramatically even since our last visit just two years ago. Whereas when we were last here, Beijing seemed like a city in evolution, it now seems to have evolved:

Socially, Western fashions and advertising are ubiquitous. Some people are wearing things that would have been considered dangerously risqué two years ago, at least around here. We’ve even observed some teens wearing t-shirts emblazoned with American heavy-metal band insignias; this just blocks away from the seat of the central Chinese communist government. There’s generally a sense of “permissiveness” in the air that we definitely didn’t feel here the last time.

Economically, Beijing is rockin’. The sheer volume of consumer goods available here (including high-end, big-ticket items such as expensive cameras, TVs, and even cars (we saw a Roll-Royce dealership) is mind-boggling. And people are lined-up buying them. There is a book store nearby that has seven floors (it prominently features a Chinese translation of “The da Vinci Code”) and in addition to vast numbers of books (so much for censorship?), the store carries a plethora of consumer-electronics (much of which I’ve never seen in America) and even a selection of ten-thousand dollar pianos. The place was so packed that we could barely move in it! Everyone has a cell-phone here and the selection of different models is twenty times what’s available in the U.S. The populace here certainly has money to spend.

This is not to say that there is no stratification here; we’vetraveled through some parts of town that are clearly not as prosperous as others. However, we still haven’t seen anything that would pass for a real slum in the U.S. Some of the hutongs (old 19th-century neighborhoods characterized by winding alleys around a central courtyard that are rapidly being torn down and replaced with modern high-rises) and even some of the mid-20th century-built districts may be in somewhat of a state of disrepair and resemble tenements, but I don’t see any abject poverty, save for the occasional beggar on the street (which, by the way, we saw virtually none of the last time we were here). It will be interesting to see if the rural provinces of China have evolved economically to anywhere near where the big cities apparently have.

We’ll have that opportunity on June 11th, when we travel to Anyang, Henan Province, where Katrinka will begin compiling sample and data for her research. We met on Friday with Jiang Bo, a professor at the Chinese Archaeology Institute, who received us with a warm welcome (and requested that Katrinka give a presentation to his students when she’s finished with her research at Anyang!) Jiang Bo has made our arrangements for travel to and accommodations in Anyang and we’re looking forward to going there. In the meantime, we have several days to experience and enjoy Beijing. We’re going to try to get to the Beijing Zoo to see pandas! We’ve already been to the Beijing Dirt Market, sort of a flea market for Chinese antiques. Photos will be forthcoming.

Just being here, walking around this vast and still rapidly growing city, is a phenomenal experience. It’s exhilarating in a way that not much else in life is. I am so lucky to have this opportunity to be here (and lucky that Katrinka brought me with her in spite of my natural inclination to trigger International Incidents, intentionally or otherwise…)

Finally, I have to say that my inpressions of this culture from my last visit have been subsantially reinforced: These people are warm and playful and sincere in a a way that is refreshing and inspiring! I really, truly love it here.

Will be in touch again soon.

- Dave