Monday, October 14, 2013

Goodbye to China, hello to Miami

I had been meaning to write something about China since leaving in July. Two years of teaching at Tsinghua University had made me long for a return to working in Latin America, where I knew the language and understood the culture better.

Hiking to the Silver Pagodas north of Beijing
Over the years, international profs left their bikes behind.
Graduation, July 2013
Easy rider on mom's motorbike.

On my last Sunday in Beijing, Shi Anbin, the international relations dean of the Tsinghua University Journalism School, took me to lunch with his wife, Carrie, and daughter, Ray. It was at the first private restaurant to open in Beijing after the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) and it featured traditional Beijing dishes. Pork in various forms, noodles and a local fruit soda pop. Great stuff. Don't ask me the names.

Ray and Carrie, traditional Beijing dishes
Now I am based in Florida for several months, working on a consulting assignment for my old employer, American City Business Journals, aimed at capturing Hispanic readers.

Clearwater Beach. White sand from coral and seashells.
 What I notice now back in the States is that I need to wear a jacket indoors. The air conditioning in most places is like a refrigerator. Here in Florida, where you would think people would be used to the heat, people complain about temperatures in the 90s and avoid leaving the comfort of their cars and homes.

For some reason, I feel comfortable in this heat.  The sun, however, is something else. It has an intensity you don't feel on the hottest days in the north.

And people here are crazy drivers. A different kind of craziness from China and Mexico, where drivers improvise and ignore the rules. Here they are all incredibly impatient and get insanely angry if you occupy space in front of them. The craziness here takes the form oF road rage. Honk, honk, honk. "You're in my way, you jerk!"

What I will miss

China was a great adventure. We tend to think of it as one place, but the country has infinite variety in cultures and languages. The party line is that everyone speaks Mandarin, but that is not what I heard from my students, who came from all over China.

Officially, the government calls the local language differences dialects. But my students would say that the local speech of, say, Xi'an in central China, is incomprehensible to someone using the local speech of, say, Weihai on the east coast.

The language differences might be that great even from city to city and province to province. That sounds to me like different languages, similar to the difference between, say, French and Portugese. However, the written form of the language is understood everywhere. It is standardized. The words and sounds are different from place to place.

China has huge autonomous regions in the west and south -- we are most familiar with Tibet -- where the languages and cultures are completely different. It is analagous to, say, Kazakhstan, in the old Soviet Union.
Deep-fried eel balls with shrimp. What's not to like?

I liked the food and the style of eating. If someone invited you to lunch or dinner, they would order two or three dishes per person, all of which would be served on a lazy susan in the center of the table. Each guest would be expected to try everything.

Meat would be served in small bits with vegetables or noodles in various kinds of sauces. It is not at all the same as what you are served in Chinese restaurants here in the States. Pork is the favorite meat, but lots of dishes are built around chicken. Marinated donkey meat is considered a delicacy. I liked it.

The meat of chicken and duck feet is considered excellent eating. It is just fine by me. The only problem is dealing with the little bones. 

Hiking in a national park

 We did a fair amount of hiking north of Beijing in the various national parks and preserves. Just an hour or so of travel by bus from the center of the city of 20 million puts you into rural areas where villagers still do some things the traditional way, such as transport goods by donkey.

On my first visit to China 25 years ago, the country was decidedly Third World. Private automobile ownership was prohibited. Today, Beijing has 5 million cars and monumental traffic jams, despite having built a network of six- and eight-lane expressways and a vast subway system for the 2008 Olympics.

The contrast that you see every day -- 21st century technology in a country with 5,000 years of written history -- is something I will miss. 


Scenes from our neighborhood on the Tsinghua campus

A walk through 'intelligence valley'

In Beijing, the air is chewable

China is opening up slowly, by fits and starts

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