There are a few cities, (Dunkirk, Dresden, and Hiroshima come to mind) that seem to exist only as living memorials for past atrocities. Given this trend, it might be a blessing that the Nanjing Massacre is the most overlooked genocide in human history. Nanjing deserves far more than a footnote in a textbook about Japanese war crimes. As I came to see, its claim to be the "Rome of the East" has not been diminished, even by this horrendous legacy.

During my day and a half in Nanjing last weekend, I saw some truly incredible sights, Zhongshan, the mountain overlooking the city that houses the mausoleum of Sun Yat-Sen, the founder of Chinese nationalism, a tacky, touristy Confucian temple, and then a real, awe-inspiring Confucian temple. My visit to Nanjing is perhaps the only time in my life that I have felt truly conspicuous. At the mausoleum, giggling Chinese schoolgirls eyed me with fascination, as if I were Shaquille O'Neal. For reasons unclear to me, I saw very few foreign tourists in Nanjing. As such, the city had an interesting feel to it, as if it were reserved for only the Chinese themselves.

But enough about mausoleums and Confucian temples, however fascinating and aesthetically pleasing they may be. The Nanjing Massacre was the elephant in the room, and I believe it would have been criminal to not have confronted it in some way during my stay. On the final day, I payed a visit to the Nanjing Massacre Museum and Memorial. I found the museum extraordinarily informative, if not a little skewed on the propaganda spectrum. You can't find subtlety very often in a one-party state, but more on that later.

As I mentioned above, the Nanjing Massacre, or "Rape of Nanking," has been ignored by all but the most thorough scholars of human cruelty. Denial of its occurrence is the defining feature of Japanese ultra-nationalism, and high-profile Japanese politicians routinely pander to that viewpoint. The Japanese government has issued no formal apology to the people of Nanjing (or China, for that matter), save for a statement by the prime minister fifteen years ago that cited no specific crimes, and was not accompanied by a written apology, much less reparations. With this history in mind, I approached the Nanjing Massacre memorial with a much different attitude than I might have with a clear mind.

I should perhaps have viewed the over-the-top, almost pornographic displays of human remains, the fake requiem music, the grotesque sculptures, the indignantly worded captions, as manipulative. However, I couldn't take issue with it. In this one instance, I commend the repressive Chinese Communist Party for not mincing words,  nor injecting nuance into an arena where it deserves no place. 

To get an idea of what I mean, imagine that the multitude of Holocaust museums, books, authors, and newspaper articles (rightly deemed an "industry" by Norman Finkelstein), had to be distilled to a single site in Warsaw. Would we not expect this single Holocaust memorial to try to get as much bang for its buck, so to speak? Let's draw the analogy further, and imagine a world in which Angela Merkel is a neo-Nazi. I think it's only now that we have an idea of the challenges that China faces in bringing this genocide to light.

Is it Time to Retire "Ugly American?"

Everyone is familiar with the "Ugly American" caricature, the obese, uninformed, provincial-minded, arrogant, simpleton. So, one might expect that in Shanghai, with its abundance of both European and American exchange students, the Americans would be easy to pick out. The Europeans, conventional wisdom might say, are all cultural-adept, and internationalist. Right? Wrong...

My two months in Shanghai, have led me to believe that at least as far as China is concerned, the opposite might very well be true. The European exchange students in Shanghai are largely grad students, studying international business, or something along those lines. Many, if not most of them don't study Chinese, and furthermore, have made no pretense of trying to learn the language. Perhaps they view Shanghai as just another fun city on a map, Paris or Rome East, rather than China with a capital C. Bear in mind that I haven't met a ton of European students, and that I reserve the right to be completely wrong about all of this.

Of course, us American exchange students are hardly the model for cultural immersion. We're over-coddled, and have created a little bubble of our own that we're afraid of leaving. However, in a few crucial ways, I am pleasantly surprised to see American students score relatively well on the "ugly meter." Most important, a significant number of Americans are of Chinese descent. These students serve as a bridge, linguistically and culturally, to the local population. Most of the Chinese-American students in my program speak at least a dialect of Chinese. Furthermore, Asian-Americans in Shanghai are treated on appearance as Chinese locals, and are at least not immediately given any special privileges. The American students here are mostly undergraduates, and I have yet to meet an American abroad who does not possess at least minimal language skills. What you have, therefore, is a younger, and more diverse range of people, who have chosen China over other destinations for a specific reason, however opportunistic that may be.

It takes a certain type of arrogance, I believe, to live in a country without at least attempting to learn its vernacular. Perhaps Europeans view China in 19th Century terms. Though I  know I am supposed to be in awe of how sophisticated and social the European lifestyle is, I also believe that it is slightly pathetic to simply replicate it halfway around the world. Ugly is as ugly does, regardless of whether one frequents KFC or L'Affair Magnifique.

Go West, Yunnan

Doing my part to contribute to the five year plan
Apologies to all my loyal followers (real and delusional) for my three-week lapse. However, for the last eight days I have a valid excuse for not being productive, as I have ventured into the depths of Eurasia to the Yunnan Province. Like Marco Polo, I have returned, bearing silk, spices, and tea...

We first flew into Kunming (a moderately sized city of 7 million), and spent the night there. The next day we took a bus ride to Dali (spare me the Picasso jokes), a gorgeous old city on a lake. To get to Dali we had to pass through the "Dinosaur Valley" by bus, and we stopped for lunch in a new town built by the government in the old style, for the express purpose of bringing tourism.

The main sight in Dali are the Three Pagodas, built in the ninth century. I've always had a secret obsession with pagodas, and their geometric beauty, so I was not disappointed. The following day we had another long drive to Shaxi, a small town. On the way, we stopped in a Bai (minority group) village to do some farming, and later a local food market. In Shaxi our group came across a riverside bonfire with a couple of nomadic Spaniards, and oddly enough, a Communist official, who was very proud of the fact. I was delighted to meet a figure of such stature. "Wo you hen duo wenti" (I have many questions for you), I told him. The Communist gave me a displeased look, as if to say, don't go there. Shortly after, he left the bonfire, never to return. 

After a night in Shaxi, we traveled to Tiger Leaping Gorge, home to the most remarkable mountain scenery I have ever seen. The drive there was certainly not for the faint of heart. The hike the following day proved to be worth the anxiety-ridden bus ride. I won't attempt to describe the landscape, because it would simply be inadequate.

Next after Tiger Leaping Gorge, I saw the Buddhist rock carvings, and a Naxi (another minority) village along the way. The group spent the next two nights in the city of Lijiang, which has an amazing Old Town. Lijiang has an interesting backstory. In 1997 it was almost destroyed by an earthquake. Ironically the earthquake brought attention to Lijiang, which had previously been a backwater, and led to it being declared a Unesco heritage site.

We then flew from Lijiang to the far Southern city of Xishuangbanna, on the Mekong River, and just a hop skip and a jump from both the Laotian and Burmese borders. We were in Xishuangbanna just long enough to drop off our luggage and get back on the bus. After a memorable bus ride and hike, we spent the night at a Dai (minority group) village just 20 miles from Burma. (I briefly making a run for the border, and starting a guerilla campaign against the Junta, but ultimately decided against it.) In the Dai village we all stayed with host families. At my family's house, a very noisy water buffalo kept me up for half of the night.

The following day we took an arduous hike through tea plantations, back to a road where a bus took us back to Xishuangbanna. After a night in Xishuangbanna, we returned safe and sound to Shanghai.

What amazed me most about Yunnan was the variety it offered. I saw classic Chinese architecture in Dali, minority villages, a gorge that makes the Grand Canyon look like a gutter, and a city (Xishuangbanna) that looked more Thai than Chinese. I don't believe that I'm exaggerating when I say that there are few regions in the world (let alone provinces) that compare.

Yunnan is an amazing place, with a range of sights and cultural experiences that didn't need to be faked. I was struck, however (as I was visiting the Midwest), by the over-the-top sentimentalized attempts at multi-culturallism. It was almost as if the minority groups present were pictures at an exhibition, or museum pieces to be gawked at. I think it hints at a certain type of cynicism, best evidenced by Tibet, where the monasteries are left open to appeal to tourists, and to give Chinese expansionism a smiley face. Many of the sights I visited were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, and many of the minorities showcased were recently persecuted. Count me as a little suspicious by this sudden devotion to cultural plurality.

I feel awful ending my summary of the trip on such a cynical note. Yunnan is simply breathtaking, and I had a great time. It would be wrong to not take note of the above phenomenon, just as it would for a Chinese tourist to visit the Crazy Horse monument and marvel at America's reverence for Indian culture. 

The Year of (Not) Living Dangerously

Yes I did go to an illegal demonstration; on a couple of instances I was even lightly shoved by a police officer, as he attempted to give the proceedings some semblance of order.  I must confess that after going, I probably know less about the shadowy Chinese Democracy movement than I did before. However,  I did see Chinese authoritarianism in practice for the first time, and was able to grasp how bland and humorless it truly is.

I arrived at the site of the protest (a Starbucks across the street from People's Square) early in the afternoon. There were several hundred people present, surrounded by some dozens of burly police officers. No one carried signs, no slogans were chanted, no one marched toward a specific destination, there was no act of civil was like no political demonstration I have ever witnessed. In fact, it was impossible to tell the protesters from the observers, from the bystanders. No one (understandably, of course) was willing to step up and announce their grievances. I shouldn't say nobody, actually. I did witness one arrest. The unfortunate man was placed in the back of a police wagon with blacked out windows (I kid you not), as hundreds of people rushed to the scene to see what the commotion was about.

There were a fair number of foreigners, mainly journalists with video cameras. Every few minutes the police officers would arbitrarily instigate a crackdown by closing in the journalists, and threatening to seize their equipment. In one instance, a European whose nationality I don't know, had his camera confiscated, and was forced to produce his passport. The police also seemed to be photographing the journalists, most likely to determine their identity, so that they could be placed on some counterrevolutionary blacklist. The white man's burden is getting ever harder to fulfill.

It is hard to overstate how stoic and professional the police officers were. Like I said, Chinese authoritarianism is bland, earnest, and self-conscious. These were not mercenaries, or other such goons, but normal police officers, who likely believe wholeheartedly that they are defending the social order from dangerous Western decadence. Herding protesters in front of a Starbucks is simply part of the job description. Their faces didn't register emotion, and there was a strange sense of paternalism in their actions. They pushed us around in the same way a parent drags a reluctant child to the dentist.

Symbolism was important. It is not as if China's political system would have collapsed had the police perimeter been breached, but the police felt the need to create a wide open space on the sidewalk to give passersby the illusion of normality. After a couple of hours of this cat and mouse game, realizing there would be no satisfactory culmination, I decided to leave. 

Nonetheless, I will be back in front of that Starbucks next Sunday. Part of it is self-indulgence. I want to feel like I  am part of something rebellious and clandestine. I also want to never take my first amendment rights for granted. But most important, I believe that the protester's demands are ones that any reasonable person can support unconditionally. I don't know if those present were demonstrating against the the thousands of executions carried out every year, the imprisonment and torture of human rights activists, or any other of the nineteen million other reasons to oppose the Chinese government. I do know, however, that whatever reason they chose, it was almost certainly a good one. While fully aware that these are issues that the Chinese people will have to sort out for themselves, I still believe that my sheepish support for their cause is worth one afternoon a week.

And what an afternoon it was. Here's to a wonderful year ahead of (not) living dangerously!!

*Here's an article on the protests

Chairman Mao and Chinese "Kitsch"

Mao Zedong adorns every piece of paper money in Mainland China. At my school, Fudan University, a simply massive statue (50 ft. plus?) of the Chairman stands guard at the entrance. All that is to be expected. Regardless of your stance on Mao (I’m not a fan), he certainly was a prolific nation-builder, and every country has an irrational obsession with the individual, however brutal, who brought about a new political order.

What I was not prepared for, however, was the entire industry of souvenirs that has developed around Mao’s likeness, and the Cultural Revolution. One can buy a propaganda poster of Mao stamping out the reactionary elements, a Mao cigarette case, a watch with Mao’s face in it, a Red Guard uniform, and of course, the little red book. These are just a few of the literally hundreds of items available for purchase at any street market or tourist site.

Having read about the Cultural Revolution, and the toll it inflicted on so many millions of people, I am shocked at how flippantly its imagery is used. The phenomenon is particularly strange when one considers that the 50 or 60 something Chinese merchants who sell these goods lived through those traumatic events. It isn’t easy to buy a “White’s Only” sign in the American South, even though it’s an iconic and culturally significant image. The Chinese people are either the most ironic people in the world, or they’ve truly come to turns with that period in their history.

If I remember correctly, Kundera defined “Kitsch” as the ability to pretend that everything isn’t awful, or the “absolute denial of shit.” I think that that concept best explains the Chinese fixation on Mao. Cultural amnesia can be therapeutic for a nation, especially if those traumatized never had a chance to absolve themselves of their guilt and fear. After a quick show-trial of the Gang of Four, China pushed headlong into a new era, with the same people in charge, without an opportunity for self-reflection and memorial. The brain-washed, former teenaged Red Guards, and their “Reeducated” intellectual counterparts, were left to live the rest of their lives, fully aware of what they had seen and done.

For the Chinese people, it has proven much easier to show reverence for the ghosts of their past, and half-heartedly mock them, than to actually confront them. It is this warped set of values that will keep me from buying my own copy of the little red book, however nice it looks on the coffee table.

The Quiet American: My Reeducation in Shanghai

Hello everyone.  I've never actually written a blog, so if I come across as long-winded and self-indulgent, then I have achieved my goal.

Many who are reading this blog might be confused by the title. Let me assure everyone that unlike Graham Greene's original Quiet American, Alden Pyle, I am not an agent of American imperialism, nor do I "dabble" in plastics. That being said, I believe Pyle and I have a great deal in common.

Men of Pyle's background in the 1950s joined the foreign was a bit like studying abroad. Young people of my generation study abroad during college. It is simply what is done and what is expected. Pyle and I are both representative of our respective generations. Pyle believed he could remake Asia, I believe Asia can remake me. I think that my goal is more realistic, and ultimately less dangerous. There is very little chance that Michael Caine coordinates with the Communists to assassinate me. But enough with the BS...

I've been in Shanghai for ten days, during which time I've come to fall in love with the place. Shanghai is really about ten different cities packed into one. My neighborhood, a few miles north of downtown, near Fudan University, is actually a fairly typical Chinese residential area. If you venture into the former French Concession, or the Bund, however, there are streets that look more like London or Paris than China. Across the river from those areas is Pudong, the ultra-modern sector which as been built exclusively in the last two decades. Think New York multiplied by three, and you'll begin to get an idea of what I mean.

 I'll get into my actual experiences here in my next post, but for now I'd like to bring up the aspect of China that confuses me the most, the political situation. I am always aware that I am living in a country with an authoritarian political system, and a government that repeatedly oppresses its own people. If I were not even minimally educated about China, however, I could almost fool myself into believing that that isn't the case.

China, or at least Shanghai, is a bit of a libertarian paradise. Traffic laws are simply ignored (crossing the street is a near death ordeal, as it involves dodging dozens of rickshaws, bikes, mopeds, and taxis). Prostitution is rampant. People smoke literally everywhere, to the point that I've gotten used to being greeted by a cloud of smoke upon entering a building. Clubs in Shanghai bear the stamp of '20s style decadence; newly rich Chinese people mingle with middle aged ex-pats to create a truly strange mixture of East and West. So, what gives?

The best answer I can give is that China is a country where the little rules are broken with impunity, but the big rules are enforced with a heavy hand. Its a a vague answer, I know, and an unsatisfying one, but its the best I can come up with so far. It may be the only explanation I ever come up with. The contradictions present in China are too great for this Quiet American to reconcile.