Central Asia

When I first bought my copy of Lonely Planet China, I was immediately taken in by its pictures of the province of Xinjiang. Part Taklamakan desert, part towering snowcapped peaks standing at over 7000 meters, the landscape and the people of this province are incredibly diverse and unique. So after a year of dreaming, and several months of planning that added and subtracted areas to visit (in fact, if we were to go to all the places we had talked about, it would have been a two month trip!)we finally settled on a week and a half exploring the province and a quick detour into Kyrgyzstan, a small, unimposing ex-Soviet country that borders Xinjiang.

As I said before, Xinjiang is one of China's largest provinces; in fact, it almost stands as a country of its own. First, the population is not majority Han Chinese, but is largely composed of a Turkic ethnic group called Uigher (pronounced Wee-ger). Uighers not only have their own language (of Turkic origin) but also their own distinct culture (largely derived from being so central to Silk Road history) and religion (they are Muslims). Due to this quite distinct culture and lifestyle, they have never really integrated with the Chinese, who they see as invaders in a territory that rightfully should be their own country. And while they are often not mentioned in Western newspapers (Americans care about Tibetan Buddhists, not Uigher Muslims), they are quite central to Chinese policy because of the few separatist groups that have popped up (Beijing has convinced many Americans that they are jihadists, which means that the US has given China its support with the Uigher problem). But China is not about to let Xinjiang go, considering its wide territory and strategic position as a gateway to the rest of Central Asia (Xinjiang borders Russia, Mongolia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan).

This isn't necessarily a travel blog, or an itinerary. They are more disconnected thoughts about my impression of these places, interspersed with strange stories, observations, or anecdotes. I hope you enjoy this sort of inner monologue-esque discussion of my trip to central Asia.

First stop: Bishkek and Lake Issy-kol, Kyrgystan.

We flew into Bishkek very early in the morning; because of the time difference, even after spending 30 minutes while officials at the airport found a very clearly hungover official to issue us visas on arrival, we left the airport before 10 with a driver who had picked us up; fortunately, I had studied the Cyrillic alphabet on the plane, because when they picked us up they had our names written on a paper not in English, but Cyrillic. We had many places we wanted to go, so we immediately went to a travel agency and arranged a car to the town of Karakol, around the giant Lake Issy kol.

Issy kol is the world's second largest alpine lake, and flying over it from China it essentially looked like an ocean. It took us nearly 3 hours to drive around it, but before we even got to the lake, we drove along the border of Kazakhstan. Our driver pointed to the left side of the road, and said "over river, Kasakhstan." We found it pretty neat we were so close, so when we passed by the border crossing we walked up and took pictures in front of it (see below). We then pushed our luck even further and asked the guards if we could walk across the bridge. They did not understand us, so they just pointed to my camera and said "Foto, nyet" (too little too late...) Then we made the signal of walking, and pointed to the bridge. The guard smiled, but then crossed his arms and once again, "Nyet." Nevertheless, we got a great taste of Kazakhstan just driving by, with giant green rolling hills covered in red poppies and cattle. However, the Kazakh landscape did not compare to Kyrgyzstan on the other side, with vived green pastures pressed up right next to towering, snow capped peaks of the Tian Shan range.

We continued on to lake Issy kol, and around lunch time we stopped at our driver's mother's house for bread and tea. She made us delicious milk tea and gave us bread with homemade apricot jam (which came to be a staple on our trip). We also stopped by the lake to take pictures. It was gigantic, and bright blue, a blue not even matched by the waters of the clearest beaches and oceans. It could have passed for an ocean were it not for the now capped mountains barely visible on the other shore.

Next Stop: Karakol and Altyn Arashan

In the afternoon, we arrived in Karakol. We had already arranged a homestay when we booked our driver that morning, and we couldn't have picked better. Jamilya, a charming plump old woman, greeted us at the driveway and led us into her house that could have passed for a Vermont bread and breakfast. Each room had a theme color, and we were placed in the lime green room. She then led us down to the kitchen, where she made us tea and, once again, bread with apricot jam (the best jam we had the whole trip).

The next morning, we wanted to go to some of the beautiful valleys near Karakol, and we thought that the best spot to aim for would be Altyn Arashan. On a tip from friends, we headed to Yak Tours, run by the eccentric Ukrainian Valentin. He drove us up to Altyn Arashan, a valley at nearly 3000 meters where he ran a satelite location, in his "50 year old jeep in a constant state of repair" (states Lonely Planet). When we arrived, we were able to see just how beautiful Kyrgyzstan was (see below). The valleys were green and lush, surrounded by towering snow covered mountains. To me, this was the whole reason for coming here; hang out with sheep hearders in spectacular scenery.

While we were here, we went horseback riding, we soaked in natural hotsprings, and we had a vodka shashlyk party with Valentin. It truly felt like we were on top of the earth, a place completely untouched by the modern world. We also took some time to have a picnic in another nearby valley; the colors seemed so incredibly vivid (especially as compared to Shanghai, where everything has a gray tint).

Next stop: Back to Bishkek

We didn't have a lot of time in the capitol, but from an afternoon or so wandering the streets of Kyrgyzstan's extremely small capital (we walked almost the whole city in an afternoon), we learned a lot of things about this former soviet states. One of the things that struck us about Bishkek especially was the multi-ethnic feel of the city. For the first time in months, we didn't stick out. It also seemed, from our discussions with people, that everyone was able to freely choose an identity with which to associate: Kyrgyz, Russian, Ukranian, regardless of birthplace or passport. While this is probably not true for the entirety of the former USSR (certainly Kyrgyzstan is currently one of the most stable of the central Asian countries) it is such a different feel than the ethnic tensions we found in Xinjiang.

Nevertheless, this was still a very poor part of the world. The modern conveniences we so desparately need were not common here; for instance, indoor plumbing and good quality roads. We pointed out that if this were China, their major arteries (like the road from Bishkek to Karakol) would have been fixed within a day. Things are certainly moving slow in China, which we enjoyed.

It almost felt as if the country had not changed since 1991. The national museum is still a shrine to Lenin (see above), and Soviet style tanks, toilet paper, foodgoods, etc., are still common. It will be fascinating to see what happens to this part of the world as the world becomes more globalized and connected (however, it seems that of all these countries, the world is much more focused on Uzbekistan).

Next stop: Kashgar China

The moment we arrived in Kashgar, we were completely confused as to how we could still be in China. No longer were we the strange people with different colored hair standing out against a sea of Han. Gone were the garish Chinese lights, and the Ming Dynasty architecture were replaced by carpet shops. Fried dumplings replaced with rice stuffed intestines, and Chinese tea replaced with sour mare's milk. Instead of buying silk scarves, we looked at silk carpets. And gone were the chic high heels of Shanghai; they were replaced by head scarves and colorful full length dresses.

A great example of the strange new culture we had happened upon was the Sunday Livestock market, where men came (yes, only men) from all over the city to sell their sheep (all tied up in a row) cows, donkeys and horses. Standing in this field bustling with people and animals and men yelled at each other to settle a price while kicking a donkey in the butt to make sure it had good reflexes was quite a sight to see.

We spent a day wandering the old town, observing every day life. It felt more central Asian than Kyrgyzstan by far, with carpet salesmen, and winding brick allyways that looked straight out of Kite Runner (actually, I think parts of Kite Runner were actually filmed here). We also learned a lot about the plight of the Uigher people. The walls were stamped with constant reminders of religious restrictions (such as going to Mecca). And while there were no Han people in sight, the explanations of all the tourist sights included insidious statements about racial harmony and anti-religious extremism (obviously spurred on by the recent spurts of violence from separatist groups).

We also learned, right before we arrived, that the Chinese government is planning on tearing down old town to "save it." Essentially, the government argues that because the foundation underneath Kashgar is quite unstable (many of the houses are up on platforms, and it is hollow underneath), they need to tear it all down and rebuild it for safety reasons, in case there is an earthquake. They plan to rebuild the old town in a traditional Islamic style, thus maintaining its original ambiance.

A few interesting things about this current decision. The earthquake argument is understandable to some, and confusing to others. It seems to me that the reason for giving this justification for tearing down the old town would sit well with many Chinese and the international community because of the recent disaster in Sichuan. The Uighers of old town, however, while probably not surprised, find this justification confusing or humorous (according to the Uighers around the old town I talked to). They have lived there for over 1000 years, and the old town has survived many earthquakes and has never fallen down. According to one woman I spoke with, she explained that they saw it as a tragedy to their history that they could do nothing about, and they all strongly feel that they were not given accurate justification for why their homes were taken away from them. They also, at least those I talked to, saw this as a direct attack on their culture, a way for the Chinese to further demonstrate their power over the region in light of growing tension and animosity.

But destroying things in the name of progress is certainly not new for China. It was a common practice of the 1960s and 1970s, of course, but the Beijing Olympics and the coming Shanghai Expo saw similar situations: peoples’ houses torn down with little compensation. Many of Beijing’s old hutongs are still inscribed with the kiss of death, the character “chai.” But this destruction in the name of progress differs from these other situations in its direct relation to cultural autonomy and ethnic tensions. Furthermore, if the Id Kah mosque is any indication of how the new Kashgar Old Town will look, it is likely that it will turn into a Lijiang-type tourist old town with little resemblance to anything except another stop for Chinese shoppers and photographers.

As far as this relates to ethnic tension, the Uighers I spoke with about this situation feel relatively hopeless. But it will be interesting to find out how this will affect a city that already feels more Central Asian than Central Asia itself. Perhaps it will spur on new problems, or it will exacerbate the failure an already dying cause.

Next stop: Pakistan

Disclaimer: For people worried about 1.) my personal safety; 2.) Fulbright rules, we actually only stepped our foot into the border; we more just wanted to see the highway. Please relax and continue reading.

Probably the highlight of our trip to Xinjiang (aside from donkey-buying) was a road trip up to the border of Pakistan on the Karakorum highway. Built 40 years ago, this was meant to be the "friendship highway" between the 2 nations. It passes through the immense Karakorum mountain ranges, passing by deserts, rivers, and towering snow mountains at nearly 7200 meters above sea level. The border itself is on the Khunjerab pass at a harrowing 5000 meters.

Somehow or another, between a violent 24 hour flu that passed among our group, a car that would only start if we got out and pushed it, and a midnight joyride that ended in a dead donkey, we made it to the border and back. The views were astounding, and we were able to witness many of China's fringe groups living in what felt like the end of the earth. We visited some Kyrgyz goat herders and a young Tajik girl with her mother. All of their houses use solar panels, and they are actually given a lot by the state. Not that they would ever forget; propaganda is heavily stamped on every flat surface, sometimes interspersed with China Mobile advertisements.

What was amazing to me is that our driver, who was Han Chinese from Xi'an, seemed to really treat all of the peoples of the silk road with respect and admiration; except for the Uighers. He often made derogatory comments about them, and telling us why they had such a bad stereotype among the Han of Xinjiang (that they are often in jail, they often steal, they get into violent fights, etc.) Similarly, when we had other conversations with Uighers, they (in very low voices) expressed their problems with the Han Chinese. Whatever else we may have discovered, it is clear that probably more than anywhere else in China (except perhaps Tibet) tensions here are incredibly high.

We spent, well, no time in Pakistan. I think the only story we have about Pakistan is the road; it was a fantastically renovated, smooth, safe highway up to the border; in fact, the border was made clear by the line between the renovated and non-renovated road. Also, the direction of traffic switched from right to left (apparently Pakistani's drive on the left side of the road too).

On our last night, we spent the night at Karakol lake with some friends of our driver's, the personal home of a Kyrgyz family. We were finally tucked in under mountains of blankets when at 1 in the morning, we were raided by local police who demanded that we stay in a state approved hotel. Apparently what caught the attention of the police was our driver, who on a midnight cigarette run, hit a donkey and killed it (see below the post-donkey car).

While the situation certainly scared us at the time and made us laugh afterward, what it indicated to me was the amazing amount of control the government in China had in keeping tabs on everyone. I never gave much thought to showing my passport at internet cafes and hotels, but looking back, I realized that the government really does know where I am almost all of the time. I don't live permanently in China, so this will (hopefully) never affect me, but it is disconcerting to think about. It is easy in China, I think, to forget that we live in a single party Communist state, until you begin to realize these small symbols of complete control all around (for more on this, look at the government's new Green Dam project for new computers).

These thoughts, however, all came post-trip. All we could think about after our adventure was the beautiful landscape. See below.

Final stop: Turpan

This was probably the more relaxing and definitely most touristy part of our trip. We only took a day to see the major sights around Turpan, including the Emin minaret (China's largest) the Flaming mountains, Turoq (a cute Uigher village) and some Han dynasty ruins that looked like Utah. While it felt somewhat anti-climactic, the scenery was really beautiful. It was also unbelievably hot; this should not have been surprising considering it is actually China's hottest spot, with record temperatures of 47 degrees farenheit.

This trip was an enormous learning experience for me. I never really knew anything about post-soviet central Asia (or Soviet central Asia, for that matter). And I believe my trip to Xinjiang opened up to me a part of China people very rarely see, a part of China I never really knew anything about. China is a growing, impressive power, but there are underlying problems and tensions. My guess is that eventually, these will slowly be snuffed out rather than escalate into a full scale struggle, but who knows? And while it is sad to see essentially the death of a culture, this situation is certainly not exclusive to China (I think our Native Americans serve as an appropriate, albeit anachronistic, comparison). All that being said, I hope that the knowledge of these peoples, and how they have influenced history, won't be lost as they face the modern world.

And as a side note, I would highly recommend all or any of this trip to travelers with even a slight sense of adventure. The scenery is among the most beautiful I have ever seen in my life, and for sure in China, and the culture is incredibly unique, even in central Asia.


Better City, Better Life

Recently, I had the fortune of guest writing a piece for the blog China Beat, a high profile blog about all things China (anyone who has the time to read my blog, by the way, should also take time to read theirs). Since I am really excited about the topic I wrote about, I decided to reproduce the blog here:

Shanghai has had a history of personality cults that permeate the visual landscape of the city. However, today, Mao’s presence, ubiquitous only 40 years ago, has all but faded —though you can still find some reminders that he was once omnipresent, such as the big statue of the Chairman that continues to stand on the East China Normal University and the kitsch items for sale at Shanghai souvenir stalls (though these are aimed largely at foreigners). Even the pervasive symbols of American consumerism Colonel Sanders’ and Ronald McDonald’s are not as common as they once were—though each of them have some statues as well, standing (the Colonel) or sitting (the clown) near the entrances to venues selling buckets of chicken and Big Macs, respectively. Today, the latest personality to overcome Shanghai's visual landscape is quite different, a symbol of neither Communist Revolution nor capitalist consumer culture. His name is Haibao.

Haibao, a bright blue wave with a face, is in constant public view. His animated likeness looks out at you from TV screen advertisments in subways, his picture looms down on you from the walls of construction zones, his statue is an even more popular photo subject at the Yu Gardens than the Ming architecture, and he is even often seen dancing on a giant LCD screen that moves slowly up and down the Huangpu River on a barge.

His cult of personality displaces all others, including those of the Olympic Friendlies (not so last year) and Barbie (whose pink allure is celebrated in the city now that it is home to the world’s first megastore devoted to the doll), and he brings with him a simple message: the World Expo is coming to Shanghai, and with it a new chance for Shanghai to become internationally recognized as China's most progressive and global city. The important word in that last statement, the one that draws the distinction between the message of the Expo and of the Olympics (mega-events that have been linked in various ways, including similar roles for countdown clocks and promotional videos featuring Jackie Chan), is the word “city,” not “country,” and this distinction illustrates a lot of underlying issues regarding Shanghai's own self understanding.

The slogans for both events, the Olympics and the Expo, illuminate this distinction. Whereas the Olympic slogan reads “One world, one dream,” connecting China to a world of nations, the Expo slogan reads “Better city, better life,” putting Shanghai on the map of globalized cities, not countries. Creating this type of identity for Shanghai is not difficult either, as Shanghai historically has always seen itself as connected, yet separate, from the rest of China, a gateway through which China connects with the rest of the modern world.

This is similarly emphasized in academic discourse. It is no accident that many books about China’s search for modernization are almost entirely concerned with Shanghai and present the city’s modern history as unique (though other treaty-ports sometimes get a look in as well). Leo Ou-fan Lee and Yeh Wen-hsin, along with countless others, have demonstrated that Shanghai was the birthplace of the modern Chinese nation because of its unique cultural connection with the outside world at the beginning of the twentieth century.

I did my senior thesis research about the magazine Ling Long, a Shanghai women's magazine from the 1930s. The layout and message of this magazine very clearly demonstrated the way that modern people, specifically modern women, should look and act. These modern Shanghaiers lived a unique lifestyle of "East meets West," a lifestyle that could be lived in Shanghai but no other Chinese metropolis. At the same time, Shanghai’s city landscape and unique institutions gave way to this lifestyle, and also fed the belief among Shanghai people that they were the leaders of the modern world in China, and even in Asia as a whole.

The current campaigns for the Expo play upon this Shanghainese notion that it is the center of Chinese urban modernity. One particular advertisement that seems to run on constant replay on twenty meter high screens on the sides of skyscrapers depicts Haibao’s journey through China. He first stops in Yunnan where he is greeted by the Miao people, in traditional costume (the Miao costume includes a very large and distinct white and red headress), who offer him local gifts. He then moves onto Xinjiang, where Uigher girls in flowing country dresses offer him grapes (a regional specialty) and play traditional Uigher instruments around him as he smiles and dances. Then, suddenly, we see a man in a light cotton button up shirt and slacks and a girl in a Western sundress, and they run along a road lined with modern skyscrapers and they take pictures of Haibao with their digital cameras.

The distinction between the “traditional” and “modern” is accentuated by the fact that our modern Shanghairen (Shanghainese) actually watch the “traditional” scenes on a TV screen on a skyscraper (where, in real life, this whole advertisement is played), making the "traditional" elements seem like a movie, not the real and modern Chinese world (in Shanghai). This advertisement sends a clear message: Shanghai is the end of the natural progression from traditional to modern, and therefore the logical place for the world Expo—the contemporary counterpart to the World’s Fairs of old, the first of which were held in London and Paris when those cities represented state-of-the-art modernity.

Furthermore, while also making the dichotomy between a traditional lifestyle and a “modern” lifestyle, the advertisement also implies that all of China’s elements, its diversity, celebrates Shanghai’s greatness. The advertisement actually ends not in Shanghai, but in Hong Kong, as Hong Kong people wave and welcome Haibao. While this could be interpreted in many different ways, what it seems to symbolize in this context is Hong Kong recognizing Shanghai as the new urban center of China, just as all of China’s different minorities recognize it as well. In a sense, there are many forces at play here: the dichotomy of tradition and modernity, the stark contrast between China’s minorities and Shanghai’s urban elite, and even competition among China’s urban centers. But as all of these places and peoples greet Haibao, they are in fact greeting Shanghai’s coming of age. China is essentially centered around Shanghai.

However, Expo public advertisements don't just glorify Shanghai’s place in the modern world, they also strive to present Shanghai as a place where good behavior is on display. For example, on the subway one day I ran across a person dressed up as Haibao, and he was surrounded by people in vests that read “Make this city better, be a loveable Shanghaier.” Along with being cute and loveable, however, the most common adjective connected with expected “Expo” behavior is wenming I have been in Shanghai now for nine months, and within those nine months more and more small signs, specifically in very public places, have popped up, telling people how they should be behaving. For example, most escalators now read “stand on the right, walk on the left, use the escalators in a wenming way.” Or, “Don't spit on buses, be more wenming.”

Wenming is difficult to define. Most dictionaries say it means “civilized,” but this definition carries as many problematic connotations in Chinese as it does in English. Leo Lee, in his book Shanghai Modern, traces the development of this word in modern Chinese. The term was originally borrowed from the Japanese, who used the same characters (pronounced differently of course) in the late nineteenth century to define behavior that was specifically “modern” and “Western,” thus maintaining the same connotations as “civilized” in English. This was picked up by China at the beginning of the twentieth century with similar effect.. The Nationalist government in the 1930s emphasized wenming behavior; it was often used in publications promoting the New Life Movement put forth by Chiang Kai-shek, a movement which encouraged people to be more hygienic and well mannered in terms of clothes, food, behavior, and deportment.. If we look at textbooks affiliated with the drive to improve weisheng (hygiene or health)—another complex term, whose links to visions of urban modernity are the subject of an important recent book by Ruth Rogaski we see them using similar language: calling on readers to raise the level of China’s weisheng by being wenming in the way they use the bathroom, stand in line, and so on.

According to Lee, this word shifted in connotation after 1949 to mean “manners” rather than “Western defined behavior.” However, it seems to me that in today’s usage, the meaning still carries this kind of “civilized” meaning. The term tells people not to do things that are considered uncouth or uncivilized by the international community, and by “international community” the reference remains Europe and North America (with Japan or Singapore getting an occasional look-in as perhaps honorary members of the Western modernity club) In this sense, the Expo is connected with making the lives of Shanghai people better, (hence the “better life”) which is inextricably tied with a population that maintains “modern” and “civilized” behavior.

Other public advertisements emphasize Shanghai’s “coming of age” as it becomes a modern part of the Western world in 2010. At Hongqiao airport, for example, a large mural depicts Shanghai (represented by the Oriental Pearl Tower) as it is connected with the rest of the world. Representations from outside China include the Eiffel Tower, Big Ben, the Coliseum, and the Empire State Building. A friend from Hong Kong with whom I was traveling bitterly commented, “So I guess Africa and South America don't count?”

While this may seem a somewhat simplistic way to read these advertisements, representation of the third world are almost always absent in images of the “global community” (and you’ll look in vane in such visual representations for any sign of India, which constitutes ¼ of the global community). And a final illustration of this phenomenon brings us back to one place you see Haibao, which is on the interactive TV screens located in many Shanghai taxis. While riding in these cabs, people can watch sponsored advertisements (including ones for the new Barbie Store) or play “Expo” games, ranging from a Dance-Dance-Revolution-like one featuring a gyrating Haibao to trivia quizzes that test (and thereby try to increase?) your knowledge of the “world,” via answering questions like “What utensils are used to eat pizza?” and “What type of wine is served with fish and spaghetti?” I’ve only seen one non-Western country even mentioned in these games, and it was Japan, and it only figured in one of the many trivia games on offer in the taxis. The message that this sends is that modernity the West, and Shanghai is ready to become a major player in the modern global community. And this will happen with the Expo, the ultimate symbol of Shanghai’s crossover.

With the Expo less than a year away, Shanghai has a lot of preparation still ahead of it (the most pressing of which are the massive building planned in Pudong). But philosophically, Shanghai has been waiting for this opportunity to regain its status as the center of gravity for China’s modernity for decades. To Shanghai people, this has always been Shanghai’s legacy, and current advertisements feed this sentiment by both naming Shanghai as China’s most modern city and tying it to the Western world, creating, in a sense, a two-dimensional modern identity, both national and international. And while these messages include a certain amount of nationalistic fervor, the real star of the show is not China, but China’s most modern city, its gateway to the rest of the world.

Joint Conference with Nanjing-Hopkins center: Sino-US cooperation and the environment

Recently, Fulbright and the Hopkins-Nanjing center for American studies held a conference celebrating 30 years since the opening of Sino-US relations. The topics discussed varied widely: from security issues, America's ability to equip a growing China, Sino-American cultural exchange, and (one of my favorite topics) Chinese online nationalism and its influence on Sino-US relations.

But by far, the topic that included the most discussion and exchange of ideas, was the issue of environment and our current energy crisis as it relates to Sino-US relations. The discussion on the environment began with a presentation by a young Chinese girl who essentially argued that while we all need to worry about climate control and the energy, all the finger pointing at China is unfair and unfounded. Her main points included: first, per capita, China has cummulatively contributed less towards climate change and environmental problems than most developed countries. Furthermore, China is a developing country, and Western countries, already enjoying high development, should allow China to catch up. Another argument included the fact that in many ways, the West essentially started this problem as they were developing over the past century.

After her presentation, many others began discussion about this point, claiming that finger pointing was not conducive to an international resolution to solve our problems. Then an elderly professor loudly claimed that we could sit here and talk about cooperation and the importance of balancing environmental concerns with China's development, but all of that wouldn't matter in 30 years when Shanghai and Beijing were both under water. His blunt pronouncement spurred a very lively disucssion about steps that need to be taken to solve our crisis, and what roles the US and China should take in the solution. Another professor supported this opinion, and said, in a more leveled tone, that much of the apologist attitudes meant to counter the finger pointing in essence drive discussion into just discussion with no action. In other words, this problem needs to be moved to the front burner.

I'm no scientist. I admit that I know very little about the problems associated with climate change, especially the environmental science behind the problems. But in Tom Friedman's book Hot Flat and Crowded, he quoted a few Montana farmers that claimed they didn't need any statistics or Ph.D. scientists to tell them climate change is happening; they see it around them every day. Similarly, I don't need anyone to tell me the damage China is doing to their air; just flying in and out of China gives a very clear picture of the pollution hazing over the country. Another participant at the conference echoed similar sentiments; she said that when Chinese people tell her that pollution in China is not serious, she only has to site her degrading health as proof of the problematic air she breathes (having been sick more times this year than in the last 4 years combined, I can empathize).

That being said, it does seem that the more we, or China, apologize or make excuses about China's current environmental practices, the more that talks disintegrate into inaction. Cultural sensitivity is important, as is accomodating China's need for development, but that does not excuse lazy/subpar practices. China has a surplus of money to invest in cleaner air and efficiency, and as evidenced by the Beijing Olympics, when China wants to get things done, it certainly gets things done. The problem is convincing China to not take shortcuts that would spur quick economic development while neglecting the environment (i.e. poor quality cars, overuse of air conditioner by neglecting central heating, subsidized gasoline, etc.)

At the same token, Americans need to start setting and example. It is frustrating to the average Chinese (and the environmentally conscious American) to see our wateful and ignorant habits while we tell the Chinese to be more conscious. At the same time, the Chinese can't live like Americans for 20 years before they begin to turn around their policy.

So the conclusion that we came to at the conference (which I agree with) it is more than cooperation at this point. We need to put aside finger pointing and excuses, and we need to worry less about economic growth (we don't all need 3 story houses with 15 TVs) and more about being environmentally conscious. This isn't meant to understate the gravity of economic hardship, especially among poorer people in both countries, but we need to begin to think of greener practices as a long term investment and not just focus on quick fixes.


Flat Pinyin

I am currently reading Thomas Friedman's Hot Flat and Crowded. Among many of his arguments, one of them is that the world is flat. By this, he means that, internationally, people's livlihood internationally are beginning to level out, and the playing field for international competition is much more equalized than it ever has been before. This phenomenon is occurring because more and more people are connected through technology, allowing more flowing ideas, more opportunity, and more global competition. Basically, historically, one needed to have the right birthrite to be wealthy and prosperous (or be insanely lucky). These days, with a basic level of comfort and the right technology, the American dream is becoming more of an international reality, and more and more people are hopping up to a global middle class.

A friend of mine and I recently were talking about pinyin, or the romanized version of Chinese. Today, more and more Chinese people are becoming literate; but these days, literate in Chinese characters is not enough, as literacy in pinyin and the Roman alphabet are becoming more and more necessary in today's world. She pointed out to me that nearly everyone in China owns a cell phone (which is true) and that nearly everyone sends text messages. In order to send text messages, one needs to use pinyin, thus necessitating the use of a romanized alphabet just to connect in the Chinese world.

What does this have to do with the flattening of the world? The harsh truth is that, in a global context, in order to compete globally, a basic knowledge of English is required, as English is a highly imperialistic language. (And China knows this. As a small side note, the Chinese government actually wants to outlaw some of China's minority language, such as Uigher, because its use of Romanized alphabet actually makes it easier for minorities to learn English than Han Chinese). And the ability to pronounce words written in a Roman script puts someone on a much higher global playing field than one who cannot. And these days in China, everything from seeing a movie at the theater to going shopping at a department store assumes that people can use a Roman script (for instance, subtitles for English movies often include English words that cannot translate well).

Proponents of pinyin in the 1950s had argued this, claiming that pinyin would essentially help Chinese to be competitive in an increasingly global world. And while characters aren't going anywhere anytime soon, most Chinese who want competitive jobs need to be fluent in the Roman alphabet, not only to communicate but also to effectively use technology.

So even if you don't agree with Friedman's other arguments, this small phenomenon shows how technology is starting to flatten the world.


Funny, Interesting, and totally unrelated

As I was flipping through the People’s Daily from the 1950s recently, something completely unrelated to my research caught my attention (as often happens...): political cartoons regarding foreign policy. The first one that caught my attention actually regarded American domestic politics: As the cartoon shows below, one man wears a sandwich board, and on the front his advertisement reads "Please choose the Republican party" and on his back the advertisement reads "Please choose the Democratic party." The caption below reads "2 advertisements, 1 boss."

This cartoon literally made me laugh out loud in the archives (drawing more attention to myself than usual) not only because the cartoon is quite funny, but also because it is incredibly perceptive, even though it may not mean to be. I believe the People's Daily was trying to point out that our "free" society was really ruled by one overarching archaic institution, but in fact also makes the point that our parties' platforms are incredibly similar. And when we compare our political climate to the rest of the world, that was true and still is to this day.

If I look at all of these cartoons, all of them show a certain awareness about what was going on around the world. While the People's Daily certainly had an agenda, the points that they make about the West's actions don't seem as biased as they seem astute. I find this refreshing, perhaps because a lot of what I find in the Chinese news today is much less clever in its portrayal of the West's actions around the world.

I’ve reproduced a few of my favorites below. About half of them are from 1956, where the main international news was Israel and the Suez Canal crisis. The other half are from 1966, where the main news was Vietnam.

This cartoon, from November 9th, 1955, the signs all over Japan read things such as "Japanese people cannot do _____here" such as live, work, drive, etc.

This cartoon, entitled "Passing the torch" was from November 6th, 1956. The torch reads "invasion" and as the small British man steals it, he heads towards "Egypt." While obviously the comparison to Hitler is a bit much, I find it interesting that China smartly picked up the hypocrisy in our actions. However, related to the Suez canal crisis, I find the following cartoon even more interesting:

In this cartoon, (November 1st, 1956) the strange looking man with the British flag hat is meant to represent France and England, and they spur on a bull labeled Israel as they cross the fence into Egypt. I really like the way the causality is represented here.

I find a lot of relevance in this cartoon and the next one to today's problems. In this cartoon, labeled "charity" shows an American man with a barrel labaled "Money from Arab/US Oil companies." He rides a carpet labeled "Special Saudi/American relationship" and throws a little money towards we can assume the Arab world, and it is labeled "charity fee." Even in the 1950s, China was aware of America's relationship with the Arab world and our use of policy to maintain a privaledged position in obtaining oil.

In this cartoon, the barrel reads oil, and America steals the foundation holding England up (with an evil grin). I admit I don't know a lot about the American/British/Saudi relationship at this time, but nonetheless, it is a creative cartoon.

In this cartoon, from February 10, 1966, the small support about to break underneath the bridge reads "America's domestic problems" and the tank reads "America invading Vietnam." To me, this could be read in 2 ways: As America becomes more embroiled in Vietnam, the domestic situation will inevitably crumble; OR that America used its domestic woes to support a war in Vietnam. Both are interesting arguments.

This cartoon I find quite funny. The captain, sitting and looking disheveled, looks at the other soldier, daydreaming about his girlfriend, and scolds him, telling him to focus. At the same time, however, he dreams of returning home to America. I find it fascinating that China picked up on the loss of morale in our troops as early as 1966 (or perhaps they assumed it, and it just happened to be true).

This cartoon is from February 19, 1966. The sickly looking horse is labeled as "South Vietnam." I showed this cartoon to a few friends, and one of them (not an American) looked at me and said "well...that's what you guys did." And essentially, he's right.