Return to Beijing

September 19, 2011

View of one end of the Great Wall from the other, surrounding the plaza. This is the more publicized area of the wonder, but there are many routes of access and various degrees of climbing difficulty for different sections. Even if you're on top of the wall, it's more like climbing than walking.

This period in Beijing was one of particular celebration, as it was likely the last time for several months that we’d be in a major city. I have more photos than stories from this period as a result. Before we hit the town, however, we had a discussion with the heads of CSETC concerning our experience in rural provinces. The primary focus of our caretakers has always been whether we liked our food, whether we liked our UNESCO trips, but now we wished to make it abundantly clear that pampering us now and then was of the least conceivable concern to us when our needs in our work environment weren’t being met. Perhaps the most constructive criticism was that many classes were drastically heterogeneous. Many students would be better served by a teacher who could still communicate with them in Chinese, and all would be served if we could provide an examination before the camps to group the students by skill level. Irene’s response was that the campuses we visited had claimed to have administered their own examination of this sort. We could recommend that CSETC assert its own standards, but the fact remained that many schools had their own ideas about what we were supposed to do. This related to the more general and more severe problems of miscommunication. Never during our summer camps had we known what to expect; many time we thought we knew a few things, but would promptly encounter sweeping changes, even changes of location, with the responsibility put upon us to adapt rather than for administrators to hold to their word. Most aggravating for us is that we would always be warned of such changes and decisions at the last possible moment if at all. Even with our travel days this was the case. Nobody had a plan, and nobody seemed to know who was in control, only that it was not themselves and it was not us. In this case, Irene’s response was most blunt: such was the Chinese way. This much would seem to be correct. You need look no further than the broad strokes of the present relocation debacle/crisis ( In this way, our conference for evaluating the summer program and fielding suggestions was intrinsically insincere. Our resolutions were that we, as foreign teachers, should compile our most effective lesson plans and tips drawn from our recent experience for future exchange teachers. We also suggested that perhaps, just perhaps, CSETC was not ready to expand this program to a larger scale if they were still working out the kinks in the present model. We were the first group of teachers ever to be sent outside of Beijing by the program, and they have been planning to increase the number of teachers and campuses tenfold in the coming years.

This being addressed, we received our paychecks. It is hard to draw the line between proper indignation and ingratitude in our situation, especially since we are almost wholly dependent upon the program. With this in mind, we set out on three days of leisure before our permanent postings. After climbing the Great Wall everyone went shopping for anything they’d want later that probably wouldn’t be available. Cooper and I went to a multilingual book store to see what we could find. It was a very eclectic selection with no particular organization other than a general clumping among different publishers, with some books hidden behind others. It was interesting to see what was popular here: they had Auster and Murakami but not Calvino, Herodotus but not Aristotle, Dead Souls but not Crime & Punishment. Disproportionately well-stocked were Verne, Doyle, and Austen, as usual, but also D.H. Lawrence. We had our eyes on the best value, many books being absurdly priced even by American standards. Cooper decided on a collection of Hemingway and Huckleberry Finn. I grabbed Cymbeline, Pericles, The Two Noble Kinsmen, a little Northrop Frye, Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author, and a new student’s annotated edition of Ulysses since I can see myself getting back on that horse in the seclusion of Jiangxi over four months. This all came to RMB 105 — less than $20.

There was one thing I’d been meaning to do that was perhaps out of the ordinary for a laowai mucking about in Beijing. Since talking with the Beijing tour guide at that hostel back in Qufu I’d been sold on making a trip to 798, a series of warehouses and factories built jointly by Chinese and East Germans, allegedly the birthplace of China’s nuclear program, that had been converted into art studios after the reforms of Deng Xiaoping – the country’s equivalent of SoHo. With little knowledge of what to expect other than a tendency towards post-modernism, I ran the idea by Cooper and we set off with Mary to find it. There was no public transportation to the site, but if we took a subway and then a bus we could get there. Even though it turns out all its main venues are closed exclusively on Mondays(?!) we passed up a visit to the Temple of Heaven just to look around a little more. I can only imagine how awesome it must be when it’s in full swing. Photos below insofar as I could take them without getting caught.

Other than this, when we retreated to the expat bar called the Stumble-In (cheap martinis, a pool table, and an amazing chicken burger if you’re ever in the area) we ran into a man named Dan who’d been representing the government of New Zealand in Beijing for thirteen years. For perspective, he had made no progress in learning written Chinese in all that time. He also wished to impress upon us the peculiarity of the American perspective. He claimed New Zealand continued to consider itself a loyal friend of the States, but that the single greatest error of the Bush administration was its damage to our international relations. Not even in our international actions but in the way we approached them we had squandered all our political capital, the good faith of the international community. This was something no successive administration could hope to simply repair, however admirably they might serve. He also weighed in that China was much more savvy a nation than we might think, drawing on a long history that we as a country could not fathom. Then again, he would go on to say that history meant nothing without the object of current events. Also, he was thoroughly inebriated, and might approach these judgments differently at a different time. There remains the fact that China had had a cultural revolution, and wished to consider itself born again a new country.

From what we’d seen of Chinese development there was no ancient insight overtly illuminating the country’s path. As Cooper had pointed out later, the country appeared to be attempting with its white collar workforce what it had done with its blue collar workforce. China did not appear to be expanding so much as it was perpetuating. If you simply look at the average street in China, throwing language by the wayside, its foremost ambition is to be a second West, a Chinese West. In rural China you can find entire sides of blocks filled with identical stores, and I mean identical wares, identical interior design, identical glum expression on the clerk, without competition, without prosperity. It’s not just the mom-and-pops everywhere you go, but that after about a mile, you begin to see the exact same restaurants, clothing lines, and markets. You might say the American dream has been bought hook line and sinker here, but that would be the contemporary American dream, one of vicariousness over invention. There is an ongoing sacrifice of one culture to another, of the countryside to the city. There are so many programs on the televisions here where I have to stop and realize that the average viewer relates to little to none of it, not just the excess and glamour but the styles, the situations, the culture, the appearance of everything.  Here you can see an entire class waiting in each of their own personal mounds of secondhand products staked on a secondhand dream that they don’t seem to buy themselves. Its websites, its clothing, its branding, its shows, its vehicles, are more often than not a Western product outright stolen and rebranded. QQ is CQQ, BaiDu is Google with a different logo, and many times they do not even bother to re-brand, as with fake Apple stores, fake BMWs, etc. They even reflect our failing school system. Students may have classes from 7:00-22:00 every day of the week, but they are merely being taught the test day after day, regurgitating, copying copied copies of copies. But in these disquieting notions I presume too much about the ambitions and dreams of people I am only just becoming acquainted with in a country that is as diverse as it is physically enormous. I presume too much to call so many things American. There’s no inherent dignity in the markets of any country, in being the origin of a product. That is not where a country’s dignity comes from. A country’s dignity comes or goes, as for any individual, with its struggles, and China’s struggles are much different from our own. Improvisation is its own struggle. If you turn your eye from the average street to a place like 798, or to the theater, the cinema, the literature, there is resolute difference, a resolute creation, which is an immensely comforting thing to a person planning on exalting art for a living.

There are two attitudes I’ve seen in my students when it comes to America and China. Some students, like many Chinese entrepreneurs, wish to leave for America. Others wish to beat America at its own game here at home. Although America influences their imaginations heavily, a national pride prevails. As Sun Tzu advised, one must know the opponent. Where there can be no certainty, neither can there be any confusion. This is how life ultimately dictates culture, not vice versa. If we perceive a culture being stretched or confused what we are really looking at is a culture which is altogether new.

A mountain outside the Great Wall.

This area of the wall was absolutely packed, but it in no way hindered the spectacle. If anything, it gave further perspective.

A steeper area.

This little kid was a real trooper.

A few of the teachers rest on a staircase.

Another view of the stairs.

A view of the mountains halfway up this area of the Wall. When we got higher the smog began to further obscure the view.

A view of the CCTV building outside of 798.

On our way in.

A faithful replica, with folding rearviews and complete interior. Cooper reveled in the pop art.

Cooper scaling the wall of a studio.

Brought nostalgia for the Picasso in the Cities.

Each of the wolves in this storm was about the size of my body.

The first open gallery we found.

"Twins" by Wang Lin

"Go", probably my favorite of Lin's.

"Missing No. 12" by Zhao Hongchen

This uncredited landscape was one of my absolute favorites of the day. The detail was every bit as spectacular as the whole.

Symbolizing "the heroic spirit of the Korean people of the "Chollima era" that, racing against the century, made a leaping-forward progress...under the wise leadership of Comrade Kim Il Sung." 8/


Cooper and Mary aided in a performance piece of sorts, "You and Me" by Zhang Zhaohui.

"CCTV Under Fall Moon"

One of the events we had to miss.

Often it was the scale of the outdoor sculpture that made it so arresting, that and the way it intruded on every corner.

I was particularly happy with this photo because it was so busy.

Inside an open studio. The floor was a fishtank.

This was a more open gallery, so it was hard to discretely photograph.

"Son" and "Girlfriend"

The tree was entirely covered in yarn, with a lovely distorted erhu playing over a concealed speaker in the branches.

"Bystander" by Zhang Yingnuan, one of many artists who tended to balance portraiture with design and architecture.

"My 1989 No. 6" by Liu Qiming

Unfortunately, I had failed to take a picture of a woman taking a picture of this.

"Flash Memory No. 1" by collaborative Unmask



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