Friday, September 23, 2011

This Time For Africa

One sea change we have noticed on the streets of Beijing over the past several years is the dramatic increase in the number of people from Africa who are living and working in China's capital city.

During our year-long residence in Beijing, from 2008 to 2009, it was unusual for us to see a person of color. The expat community in Beijing mainly consisted of (besides people from other Asian countries like South Korea) Europeans, Australians, Canadians, and of course...Russians! (Note the lack of emphasis on Americans. Sure, there are plenty of Americans in China, but anecdotally it seems that we are not as present in everyday life as people from these other countries. At least not as present as we ought to be, in my view. Get over there, people!)

This lack of color began to fade when we returned to Beijing during the summer of 2009. On occasion, we bumped into Africans in the vicinity of our apartment, crossing the tian qiao over Zhongguancun Lu, shopping in the marketplace underneath Tianzuo Guoji. We also noticed groups of Africans walking across the campus of the agricultural university adjacent to our high-rise building. These groups were reminiscent of the class of visiting African government officials I had been asked to teach the year before during my posting at Peking University. (I really enjoyed my guest American teaching research African civil servants!)

Our on-the-ground observations are, of course, one small window into what is a much larger story. As China continues it economic and political emergence around the world, it is increasingly looking to Africa as a place for natural resources such as oil. In one effort to foster closer ties, Chinese universities are increasingly opening their doors to African students. Chinese workers are in turn traveling to Africa to work on things like infrastructure projects.

In fact, the father of Julie's closest Chinese friend in Beijing is any day now going to be getting on a plane, flying to Africa, and working over there for a couple of months. This is a man, it is important to note, who has probably never flown before. I can't imagine he has ever been out of the country. His wife lives in a public toilet facility that it is her job to keep clean. Every fall, the children have to return home to their village, far, far away (fourteen hours by train), to attend school, going half the year or more without seeing their mother. I imagine for a migrant family like this that is so torn apart, the wages of a project in Africa must be well worth the additional separation. So off to Africa Pan Ting's father will go. One small cog in a much larger wheel that is turning faster and faster, right in front of our very eyes...


Thursday, September 22, 2011

Our Marillion Playlist

During a recent road trip, we spent a few minutes in the car building a playlist of indispensable Marillion songs. Each one of us got to choose five songs (on our own, without hearing about the others' choices) that we would pick if these were the only Marillion songs we could listen to (a desert island kind of thing). With thirty years of music to choose from, talk about some tough decision making!

Here's what we came up with...

King of Sunset Town
Man of a Thousand Faces
This the the 21st Century
Invisible Man

The Space
This Strange Engine
Map of the World

Sugar Mice
Ocean Cloud
Don't Hurt Yourself

The Space
Afraid of Sunlight
Man of a Thousand Faces
Map of the World
Invisible Man

Our resulting playlist consists of the fourteen songs that were listed by at least one of us. A couple of observations...

"Easter " was listed by all of us except for Z. Not surprising that "Easter" got the most votes, as it is generally considered one of the high water marks in Marillion history.

None of us listed "The Great Escape." That's another one that is widely acclaimed to be one of the all-time greats. And it certainly is on the short list of favorites for all of us. Maybe we were all just expecting everyone else to put it on their lists...

"Map of the World" definitely resonates with this family, given our dual lives in Beijing and Washington, DC.

Speaking of Beijing, the accompanying picture was taken last summer at the very place about which the lyrics (from "King of Sunset Town") on Julie and Z's shirt were written..."A pretty sight it seemed to be, An avenue of eternal peace."


Wednesday, September 21, 2011

I Don't Think American Regulators Would Go For This!

What you are looking at is a man, way up on a ladder, working on a road sign, in the middle of the street, with no protective barrier. And, as far as I could tell, not wearing a harness.


PS: And just for good measure, the second picture is a woman we observed, maybe five stories up, washing her apartment careful up there!

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Nine Dragon Screen

On our last day in Datong, we decided to explore the inside of the new city wall. Nine Dragon Screen is one of the main attractions in that area.

After hopping into a cab and buying our 10 kuai tickets, we went to the tiny alcove reserved for one of the three famous Chinese nine dragon screens. It is the largest of the three (the other two are located in Beijing, at Beihai Park and the Forbidden City, respectively) and is surrounded by a small, shallow pond, winding paths, steles, and, of course, a gift shop.

The wall is bigger and more vibrant than the other two major nine dragon screens. It lacks color in only a few spots, and the size of the dragons is impressive. There are several old steles that have been pushed off to the side.

I found the gift shop to be very strange. I had no idea what product could be sold at such a small place. It turned out that they sold jewelry, paper cutouts, teapots, postcards, and atlases. It may have been the weirdest gift shop I have ever been to.

All in all, the Nine Dragon Screen was impressive and its setting quaint.


Monday, September 19, 2011

Old Datong, New Datong

Datong is the second largest city in Shanxi Province, a place (as we've talked about before) that has historically been dominated by coal and is relatively impoverished when compared to coastal Chinese hubs of development. Recently, the city has been trying to diversify and reinvent itself as a domestic Chinese tourist destination. As part of the area known as the cradle of Chinese civilization (the Yellow River basin traces its human history back thousands of years), Datong comes well-equipped with legitimate ancient sites, as made clear by the grottoes and hanging monastery that we have been talking about.

But Datong needs more to attract the sustained attention domestic tourism industry. It needs a place where trinkets can be bought and sold. It needs a place that looks old, but is actually newly built. This, of course, is a formula that has worked well in many other places around China. (See, as prime examples, Beijing's Qianmen and Yuyuan Garden in Shanghai.)

And so Datong is in the midst of rebuilding its city wall. You see, centuries ago, in the Ming Dynasty, Datong was encircled by a 30-foot-high wall with guard towers, not unlike Beijing, Xi'an, and other ancient cities. Go back to Datong in two years, as a cab driver informed us, and the new city wall will be complete and open for business. And inside will be pedestrian streets, new temple complexes, you name it.

Yes, welcome back to 1611!