Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Montage of Contradictions

Living in China is like seeing a montage of contradictions - every, single, day.

In my department, there is this professor who has gone out of China, worked overseas for over 2 decades, seen the world and come back, deciding that he'd like to devote the rest of his career to improving academic infrastructure in high education. Then, there is this admin lady, who - also out of her close to 2 decades of living in Shanghai - has never been to a stylish bar, a Western cafe, any non-Chinese restaurants in town. She has not even heard of this thing called "Fedex". But day after day, this professor works side by side with the admin lady. The admin lady helps the professor get through the mundanes of bureaucratic work, clearing all the hurdles on the thousands of paperwork road map. The professor, as a token of appreciation in return, treats the lady out to a nice meal from time to time, urging her to for sure order a cup of hot red dates tea, and reassuring her that a cup of 22-RMB tea really isn't all that expensive because in this fast growing city, there are tea houses that charge a cup of hot dates tea for 220 RMB.

Then in the neighborhood that I am temporarily crashing in now, there are many beautiful, brand new apartment complexes that form the glittering skyline of the night, while rows after rows of (I think) migrant workers' houses form the street line of the day. Inside my gated apartment complex, flowers are blooming, trees and bushes trimmed, even the lights lining next to every garden path are well-lit and well-maintained. Yet outside the gated yard, food, fruit, pet wastes and of course human spits scatter around every street corner; food stalls, eatery stands, mom and pop stores selling all sorts of daily supplies cramp up to form a fascinating scene of noise, motions, and odors on route to the subway station. Interestingly, nothing beats the fascination of finding a kid who pees in the lobby of my beautiful (and 高级) apartment complex - under the encouragement of the parent, of course - or breathing in unbearable cigarette smell in the elevator that never goes away despite how hard that old electric fan installed inside blows.

Yesterday on the way home, I had another moment of fascination. On the sidewalk next to a cart of pirated DVD's, there stood a cart of pirated books. As I shouldered my way through the surrounding crowd (yes and gosh, I am doing this already), trying to take a peak at the latest pirated titles, I was shocked to find titles that normally only boring academics like me would be interested in -- Mao: The Untold Story and 《失落的一代:中国的上山下乡运动》, just to name a few. Next to them, I also found biographies on Chiang Kai-shek, Chiang Ching-kuo, Hu Yaobang, Zhao Ziyang, and certainly the popular 《大江大海》by Lung Ying-tai, many of which are published in Hong Kong or Taiwan yet banned in China.

"Do you have another copy of 《失落的一代》?" I asked, for I was concerned about the damaged cover. "No lady, this one goes fast, don't you know? I got a few copies yesterday and this is the only one left today!" "No more coming in tomorrow?" "Hard to say, lady. But why don't you read this one on Mao instead? This has been the long-standing best-seller!"

As if she really has read through them all and can even tell the difference, I was just about to murmur. "Every time I go get new stuff, the factory would only get me 10 copies of them!" she suddenly added, as if she had read my mind.

Today, at a stylish Western salad/sandwich shop, I found this group of white-collar office workers crowding around a small coffee table, apparently trying to take an important business phone call on skype. "What did you say? Can't hear you!" one of the men yelled. "Fuwuyuan, turn down the music! It's too loud for us to hear!" I heard this very soon after. The fuwuyuan nicely obliged, even going as far as shutting the glassy front door to ensure a better sound quality. Then went a full hour of skype business talk right there, with practically every detail of the business deal clearly and unavoidably heard by every other Mandarin speaker in the room, including myself.

At last, on the way home tonight, as the cab glided through some of the hottest districts of bars and night clubs in town, I suddenly came across this strange, neon sign that flashes the following words:

"听党指挥,服务人民,英勇善战" (= listen to the party, serve the people, and be brave on the battlefield)

Ok, I get the "listen to the party" and "serve the people" part. But "be brave on the battlefield"? What war or battle are we talking about? And what day and age are we living in?

I stretched my neck trying to see through the dirty cab window what sort of governmental bureau or office would set up such a huge propaganda sign on the rooftop:

"浙江xx商业银行" (Zhejiang Commercial Bank) - I'm pretty sure that was what I caught.

Is there something that I'm missing here?

Or is it just China, with all of its contradictions - sometimes humorous, sometimes provocative, and sometimes intensely philosophical - that I haven't fully figured out?

梅ちゃん at 1:31:00 AM



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