Politics & Policy

Between the Middle Kingdom and the Land of Snows, Part V

What I owe China, One Fine Day, and the tastiest baked goods in Lhasa.

Editor’s Note: This is the Part V of a five-part series relating the author’s travels in China and Tibet. For Parts I, II, III, and IV, go here, here, here, and here.

‐ The Chinese can be an astoundingly friendly and generous people. I have already written of the work crews who offered me rides on their trucks and drinks in their tents. This is but one example of many. I have asked strangers for directions and had them reverse course to walk me to my destination. I have been invited into homes purely because I was passing by. I was once adopted for a weekend in Suzhou by a young banker and his friends, after one of them saw me at the train station. They found me a hotel, drove me to every site I wanted to see over the next two days, and bought all my meals (at expensive restaurants). I could tell a hundred stories.

Such experiences are among the great joys of traveling in China. Of course, they only complicate my feelings toward the Middle Kingdom: for while almost every Chinese person I have met has given me powerful reasons to like him, I recoil from the chauvinism of the Chinese taken collectively. Perhaps this contradiction between the people and the persons shows that their chauvinism is broad but shallow, my own biases too, and both tend to dissolve upon contact with human beings.

Whatever the reason, I have certainly received a kindly welcome. Much kindlier, I suspect, than the average Chinese person receives here.

‐ There is of course a caveat. In my observation, the Chinese feel a special esteem for whites who can speak their language. (I can think of no good reason for this, but it is so.) Whites who cannot speak Chinese are ignored; Asians (especially those of Chinese ethnicity) who cannot speak Chinese are thought to be retarded; and blacks, whether they can speak Chinese or not, may as well be extraterrestrials.

‐ I once played a game of darts in a Nanking expat bar with a Nigerian colonel named Biggie. (I swear that’s what he called himself. As for the name’s spelling, I do not speak Biggie’s native tongue, and admit to improvising after a fashion to amuse you.) Colonel Biggie was participating in a military exchange with the Chinese army (a shady prospect if ever there was one). And Colonel Biggie’ s favorite topic was Chinese racism. He damned them up and down, left and right, around and around and around again, and that was all before breakfast.

Myself, I suspect the Chinese are not quite so awful. I have never seen a black person treated rudely in China. It is clear to me, though, that the Chinese see blacks as a kind of circus attraction — probably because they see blacks so little. I myself have been a circus attraction in isolated Chinese villages. It happens, and there are worse fates.

‐ Most Chinese I meet feel a sincere admiration of America. Sometimes this admiration focuses on the liberalism and openness of American society as compared with Chinese. More often it is simple respect for, tinged with envy of, American power and wealth.

On this trip, my favorite expression of such admiration comes while I dine at a hot-pot restaurant in Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu Province. (A hot pot is a cauldron of broth placed over a burner on your table. Once it is good and boiling, you use it to cook raw meats and vegetables.) The owner of this restaurant is a man of 27 who has, fairly recently, been released from military service. He sits with us, recommends his specialty (sliced goose meat — delicious), and explains that he likes to receive foreign diners.

“I especially like Americans,” he says.

I smile.

“No, really,” he insists. “You Americans are higher quality than we Chinese are.”

‐ I am ashamed to say that China does not always bring out my winningest conduct. The white, Mandarin-speaking foreigner feels almost invincible among the Chinese, so obvious is the double standard he enjoys. This tends to inspire excessive boldness. One example will suffice. In downtown Nanking there is a pedestrian plaza where it is forbidden to ride bicycles. (The Chinese character on the posted signs cannot be used to describe walking one’s bike; it necessarily refers to riding.) A security guard once tried to prevent me from walking my bike through this plaza. I directed his attention to the sign and asked rather haughtily whether he could read it. Without answering, he said again that I had to leave my bike behind. I shrugged and exchanged glances with the two Americans accompanying me, who instantly understood my meaning. With a few quick gestures, we removed the guard from our path and deposited him safely at our side — and then we wended our merry way through his plaza.

I urge a mild restraint upon your condemnation by noting that we were gentle in our handling of the guard, who did not resist.

‐ Loathsome though China’s politics be, I find it impossible not to love a country that has shown me such a good time. Traveling in China — particularly in the rural west — allows you to witness some of the most outrageous things you will ever see. I have, in Yunnan Province, been received in a grass hut by a topless grandmother who smoked a corn-cob pipe and roasted me a squirrel for dinner. I have been called a “sturdy-livered hero” (a term of highest praise, I assure you) by a Chinese tourist in the mountains of Xinjiang whose marvelment was born of my willingness to sleep in a tent. I have watched two drunkards get arrested for disturbing the peace, turned to the young Chinese girl next to me, asked her what legal consequence the arrested men would face, heard her answer, “Surely, surely, the death penalty,” and wondered for a split second whether she meant it — before hearing her explode in laughter (her mother too) at this joke. The grandmother and the tourist and the little girl are Chinese nationalists all, yet for each I shall always feel a fondness appropriate to the fellow creators of those droll absurdities which grace one’s life.

‐ What I should most like to see in China, and for China, is a day of reckoning. I should like to see a day for the telling of truth.

I should like to see China’s leaders publicly reverse (or more) Deng’s assessment of Mao as having been 30 percent bad and 70 percent good. I should like to visit Id Kah Square in Kashgar and find a plaque which tells me not only when the city’s mosque was placed on China’s cultural registry, but when it was trashed by the Red Guards. I should like to see the ruins of Jyekundo Monastery rebuilt with government funds.

China’s political and economic journey since the death of Mao has been something approximating a miracle. And yet its latter-day mandarins perpetuate a ludicrous salvation myth about themselves in order to obscure their endless sins. It is this dishonesty — or, more precisely, this highly selective truth-telling — that most infuriates me every time I go to China. It infuriates me all the more because I love China. I do not know when a day for the telling of truth will come. But when it does, if it does, the Chinese Communist party will not long survive.

‐ I end with a confession. Or an outrage, or an absurdity, or a recommendation, or the Meaning of Life. Or none of the above. You may decide which.

Let us suppose you have baked brownies containing a special psychoactive herb. I tell you that it is possible to vacuum-seal these brownies in America, ship them via the U.S. Postal Service to your guesthouse in Lhasa, and find them waiting for you upon arrival. Pangs of conscience can be eased by including a few useful items in the package — sunblock, toothpaste, and soap, for instance — and labeling the customs form, “sunblock, toothpaste, soap, etc.” (Always beware an et cetera: There is usually a reason for it.)

The effect of that psychoactive herb will be greatly heightened at altitude, owing to the lack of oxygen in your blood. If, having eaten your brownie, you walk around the Jokhang Temple at sundown, after a rainstorm, when puddles are upon the stones and golden light is upon the puddles; and if the pilgrims in their hundreds are still about, chanting and spinning prayer wheels and prostrating themselves on the wet ground; and if you join them; and if you find yourself with some two or three in a small, dark chapel, where a few yak-butter candles and a stick of incense burn, and a young monk sits in a corner, chanting while he plays his cymbal and his drum; and if, just briefly, a toothless old woman with a weather-leathered face should smile at you —

You will, while this smile lasts, fear God.

So I hear, anyway.

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