There is a joke running around American expat circles in Beijing and Shanghai: When you first arrive in China, you blog. When you're here six months, you write an article for a major US publication. When you're here one year, you publish a book and then go on TV as this year's bestselling "China expert."
And although I promised many that I would blog about China when I first moved here in August 2008, I just couldn't. I wanted to avoid being that joke and when I was ready to say something, it had better damn well feel like I knew what I’m talking about.
So, after living in China for over 2-1/2 years, I am posting three long-form articles to RedRoom.com:
1. Of A Firestorm in Lhasa: The March 2008 Incident - while living in Lhasa, Tibet in the summer of 2010, an attempt to construct a blow-by-blow account of the Lhasa riots of March 2008, a PR campaign turning violently awry, and its under-reported bloody aftermath.
2. This Ain't Your Mother's China - a personal account of my day in Beijing witnessing China's 60th Anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China (October 1, 2009).
3. Lost in Transliteration - a reverse narrative impressionistic piece covering the Beijing Paralympics (September 11, 2008) backwards in time to the Opening Ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics (August 8, 2008).
Now back to what stopped me from blogging…a realization from my first day in my new home, Shanghai, as I stepped out for a stroll to acquaint myself with my neighborhood. An incredibly simple act became incredibly complicated and dangerous.
The mere act of crossing a Shanghai intersection, Tianshan Street and Gubei Street for example, scares the shit out of anyone new to China. Each street has competing traffic signals – even a separate one for bicycle lanes protected by metal railings, clearly demarcated left and right turn and forward lanes as well as straight-ahead lanes, and even traffic cops.
But they are all “suggestions” for as you gingerly step into the cross-walk – with the light in your favor– swarms of cars, buses, motor scooters, bicycles, men, women, and children roll through each to converge on Y-O-U! It’s like three avalanches converging into one spot – buses and cars are the boulder stream, motor scooters and bikes are the rock stream, and pedestrians are the pebble stream.
Crossing the street has somehow morphed into your personal execution by one-thousand vehicular swipes and bumps, the doubt that can't help but extrude into your head sounds like this, "I’m trying to be open to China's miraculous modernization, but exactly how civilized are folks who drive like this? Does this country even know what it’s up to?"
Yet, nothing happens – every bus hits no one, every bicycle and motorcycle twists and turns onto their merry way, and every pedestrian reaches the other side. There is no grinding crunch of metal, no one screams in road rage, and there is no blood on the streets.
In other words, it all works out in a way that is completely baffling to us.
And in some way, during that first few days here, I came to understand China is not understandable in my instinctual, American exceptionalist sensibility, that if I started blogging, my opinions would be distorted, seen through American lenses, and thus not helpful.
So I needed to relearn how to cross the street, primarily Tianshan and Gubei intersection, I first needed to learn how China works with all its careening contradictions:
- extreme wealth and yet rural poverty;
- emerging individual liberties and yet selective censorship and spot-repression;
- a representative government and yet one-party rule;
- ultra-powerful oligopolies and yet street vendors who flee when the cops arrive,
- growing women's equality and yet entrenched male chauvinism,
- the world’s worse pollution and yet exploding green technology companies,
and even more contradictions abound.
May this submission of three long-form pieces from over 2-1/2 years of living full-time in China - first in Shanghai for 5 months, in Lhasa for a summer, and now in Beijing as my home for the past two+ years – be useful to my readers.
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