An article in yesterday’s New York Times expressed surprise at China’s use of an unsophisticated piece of technology in the search for the missing Malaysian airliner. After six months living here, I’m not the least bit surprised by the never ending contradictions that seem to be modern China. They have an aircraft carrier, but a piece of sonar equipment that looks like it came from Radio Shack. They have a magnetic levitation train that hits a peak speed of 403 Kmh (250 mph), but deliveries are still made by three-wheeled bicycle carts from another generation. And they are constructing the second tallest building in the world, but still lash together bamboo for scaffolding. China, going forward but stubbornly holding on to the past.
Like everything else in China, if you have to address a problem throw people at it. Here 12 workers hand pick weeds from a lawn in the green area along Century Blvd., in the Lujiazui Financial District.
After 102 consecutive days of taking and posting a photograph the streak comes to an end. We arrived home last night after a week in Beijing and today’s gray, wet day was a perfect excuse to stay in the house, finish watching the last three episodes of this season’s House of Cards (dang, Frank Underwood!), take a nap and begin laying out our suitcases for next Sunday’s trip to the United States–a week in Seattle, nine nights in NYC, and a month in Boise with Hannah, Mike (lucky guy!) and soon-to-be granddaughter Mia Sharp.
This picture was taken this past week, in Beijing. In the mostly monotone environs of the hutongs–the walls, the roofs and the sky all covered in an ashen gray– this wall jumped out. And the inscription–“Wherever my parents go, that is my home.” really struck a cord with me, given the huge numbers of families that are split apart by the urbanization that is modern day China.
Walking in Shanghai is an extreme sport: constantly looking down to avoid stepping in the numerous lung oysters hocked up and unashamedly deposited on the sidewalk, watching out for the random and frequent topographic changes—steps, ledges and ramps that pop up in the weirdest places and indicate that engineers have little input in construction decisions; dodging the multitude of bikes and scooters that travel the sidewalk, and crossing streets where drivers reign supreme and apparently have never been instructed to yield, or stop.
China has a tradition bound, hierarchical view of the world, reinforced by generations of Emperor to peasant history and it covers all aspects of society; your employment is judged by society, at the apex, Communist Party officials occupying the coveted top spot (think Emperors), followed by business leaders of government owned industries (banking, energy), wealthy business executives (real estate usually), and on down until you get to the street sweepers and public toilet attendants. Everyone is acutely aware of their position—and yours, too.
This hierarchical mindset also plays out on the city’s streets too, with bigger equaling better and therefore getting the right-of-way at all times. Buses operate with impunity, ignoring traffic lights and pedestrians alike; luxury vehicles, of which there are many, are next in importance (and arrogance) often racing around stopped traffic to get to the front of the line. Taxi drivers don’t even slow down to make a right on red and will often pass traffic by driving in oncoming lanes; scooters and bicycles regularly drive against traffic, or, if traffic gets too crowded, they just ride on the sidewalks. In all this mess, it is left to the pedestrian to get the hell out f the way. As low person on this Darwinian ladder, crossing the street –even in a crosswalk with the green signal in your favor– requires dodging cars, bikes and buses that drive as if you aren’t there, and every Chinese person that I’ve seen so far plays by these rules, yielding to vehicles and ceding the right of way.
I’m not Chinese. I have a New Yorker’s aggressive attitude combined with a Seattleite’s militant belief in the supremacy of the Walk / Don’t Walk sign. Crosswalks are sacrosanct.
Last week, walking to the bank in the Lujiazui district, I was preparing to cross a wide boulevard, in the crosswalk and with the walk sign when two Chinese women ahead of me stopped; they saw a white, Buick mini-van racing through the red light, turning without slowing, . I never broke stride, stepped off the curb, eyes firmly fixed on the driver’s side of the windshield. Three steps into the crosswalk the nose of the minivan dove toward the stripes painted on the pavement as the driver stood on the brakes. Unusual behavior for a Chinese driver, normally they will just swerve around you without stopping. I kept walking, looking at the driver and pointing at the walk sign. And then I noticed, the driver was not Chinese, he was a westerner. We locked eyes and he raised both hands in surrender; as I continued past he lowered the passenger window and apologized. I smiled and waved, grateful that his western driving standards overcame his bad Chinese driving habits. As I glanced back at the intersection I noticed 8 people stood riveted on the curb despite the green walk signal in their favor; they were waiting for the driver to continue. Instead he waved them across and waited patiently.
Order was restored to my universe, if only for a moment.
I wandered from the crowds in Tienanmen to the Soloist Coffee shop in a nearby hutong for a mug of the best coffee in Beijing. Afterwards, I zigged and zagged through the hutong, working my way south, avoiding the main commercial strip, when I happened upon this empty, old building. The metal doors had a small, square opening on the left; I walked up the steps and peered in.
Here is what I saw: