The End

Ten years ago, armed with a generous free baggage allowance, I packed everything I thought I would need over the next 12 months into two large suitcases. I was on my way to China.

It was two weeks before Christmas, but temperatures were still mild in North Carolina for the late fall. I had just celebrated my mom’s 56th birthday, said goodbye to friends, and was spending one final night with my boyfriend. We broke up. It wasn’t that sad. By the time I had made it across the country to see my sister on a layover, I was already looking forward.

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Cabbage season

It’s 2018. Beijing is gentrifying like crazy and becoming more and more developed every day. And yet, I ran into this obstacle on my way to work today.

The Chinese cabbage (da bai cai, or napa cabbage) is such a staple in China that its name translates literally to “big white vegetable.” I love that even now, in this day and age and in the middle of the city, I can still run into a wall of cabbage on the sidewalk, built overnight by some farmer from the suburb. I don’t know how much longer these scenes will exist in Beijing.

The sharing economy, China-style

Bike sharing has seemingly become an overnight sensation, and I can no longer remember a time this city was without them. The popularity of Ofo and Mobike has inspired countless copycats to enter the market, each branding themselves with a different color. Not only do their bikes offer extremely cheap convenience (just RMB 1 for up to 60 minutes!), they unleash people’s creativity to be assholes (what’s the worst place you can park?). The end result is the takeover of the city’s streets and sidewalks by share bikes, not to mention a growing environmental disaster.

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The Beijing subway is the worst subway in the world

The Beijing subway (or Beijing ditie) is the worst subway system in the world. A lot of people (usually tourists and newcomers) are shocked when I point out this fact, mistaking its many shiny, new train cars and stations for great public transportation. However, when I remind them of how long it takes to transfer between lines and the distances required to just get to a station, they start to reconsider. Indeed, the Beijing subway is the exact opposite of what urban public transport should be, and that is efficient.

Don’t believe me? Consider Dongzhimen station.

Dongzhimen: a case in bad urban planning.

Dongzhimen used to be a major gateway into the walled-city of Beijing; it is now a major transit hub sitting at the northeast corner of the Second Ring Road. Dongzhimen Bridge refers to the overpass where Dongzhimen Street—a six-lane thoroughfare running east-west, with additional two-lane (plus parking!) side roads—crosses over the Second Ring Road, which itself is six lanes wide with side roads and side roads for its side roads. And don’t forget the bike lanes that can double as extra car lanes if needed! Naturally, the interchange between these two streets is a convoluted mess, made worse by the millions of awful drivers populating the city.

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Lizzy and Izzy

Lizzy & Izzy

Early last summer I caught a gecko darting across my bedroom floor. I named her Lizzy and released her back into the wild. She still came back nearly every night, hanging out on our window, until winter came. I was happy and relieved when the weather started to warm up and she returned. Now she sometimes comes with her kid, Izzy, like she did the other night. After I took this picture, though, they got chased off by an even bigger gecko (Godzilla?). So goes the life of a gecko in Beijing…

China has saved the pandas!

Fat PandaThe giant panda is no longer an endangered species. The International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species downgraded (upgraded?) the status of the much-adored creatures to “vulnerable” on Sunday, citing a 17% increase of pandas in the wild from 2004 to 2014. That’s actually fewer than 300 more pandas in a 10-year span, but I guess it’s progress for an animal that’s too lazy to live.

Anyway, hats off to all those wild pandas that participated in the census. And congratulations to China, which stopped mowing down the bamboo forests to make this happen!


On racism

Racism exists.

A woman from Texas started speaking to me the other night. She started by wedging herself in between the wall and me and asking me if the bar we were at had any dessert. I pointed her to the food page of the English menu, copies of which we both had, and told her it doesn’t look like there was any. Disappointed, she started telling me how excited she was to be leaving in five days. I said it was a shame she didn’t have a better time in Beijing. We chatted a bit more, and then she said it.

“Your English is really good.”

There was a moment of confusion, as I questioned myself whether I had heard her properly. “Sorry?” I asked her, giving her the benefit of the doubt.

“Your English – it’s really good.”

“Oh, thanks, well, I’m American, so I would hope it is.”

And that’s all I said to her about that. She then asked where I was from and I went through the whole spiel. We talked a bit about the US, my time in Beijing, her time in Beijing, why she didn’t like it.

She seemed not the least bit embarrassed. She definitely didn’t apologize. Here I was, speaking to her in fluent English, using my standard American (slightly southern) accent, and she can’t even figure out that I must be American. I mean, I don’t know for sure why she didn’t pick up on that, but I think it’s because I’m not white.

What does it take? If an American accent and normal American conversational skills are not enough, would geographical knowledge of the US help? Like, when she said she was from Texas, I knew where it was and how hot it gets there.

And you know what? This wasn’t even the first time it’s happened to me.

A lot of people are racist. You probably are too in some way. I know I’ve caught myself a few times. Racism manifests itself in surprising forms. Our biases come out unexpectedly: during conversations, while we’re out walking, in the choices we make. Our collective understanding of racism is still incomplete and imperfect, while we struggle, both individually and as a society, to know what it’s like to be part of or not part of a racial minority and how racism can affect all of us.

For a long time, I was blissfully unaware of the covert racism that had affected me my whole life. The first couple of times when a white person remarked on my excellent English, I said something similar to what I told the Texan. Indeed, I was taken aback at first, but then I just laughed it off and attributed it to that individual’s own stupidity. Then I thought of all the wittier replies I could’ve said, such as: “OMG, I was just thinking that about your English too!” or “Would you say I speak as well as a native?” or “Yeah, I think it’s better than yours.”

But it’s more than stupidity. When your brain is too stupid to realize that someone who walks like an American and talks like an American is probably an American – you’ve clearly got a mental block preventing you from drawing the obvious conclusion. I’ve come to realize that that mental block is racism. Somewhere deep down, these people still link “American” with “white,” even though non-white people make up 25% of the US population and will soon make up a majority.

This particular example of racism was quite minor, and the level of personal offense caused was pretty low. However, given that it’s such a simple thing, surely it would be pretty easy for the offender to be less offensive. I don’t blame anyone for assuming that I am Chinese, given how I’m ethnically Chinese and I’m in China (usually). But after we’ve already been talking for a while, surely – SURELY – you would change your assumption. You might not be ready to at first, which I could understand too. You might even ask me: “Hey, are you from the US?” And I’ll just be like, “Why, yes, North Carolina in fact!”

But while I’m not personally offended by it, I do feel deeply about it. I’m outraged that there are still white Americans who do not see non-white Americans as Americans, and I’m worried about the societal repercussions this kind of thinking can bring. I think it can be dangerous. I won’t go into how here because it’s not the point of this post and I think it is pretty obvious by just looking at the current racial problems in the US. Disturbingly, some people claim that racism is dead. But it’s actually alive and well.

Checking in with China

It’s been a while since I last blogged. What’s happening in China these days?

Bad stuff, it seems.

Critics of Western media coverage of China often complain that articles are overwhelmingly negative and rely on easily digested tropes that conform to foreign biases. But reports on China’s current political climate over the past few years no longer feel like tired, false narratives. Instead, they actually do reflect the depressing and growing concern that the situation is indeed getting worse each day. Orville Schell has a concise analysis of where things currently stand in the New York Review of Books this week, and it is quite ominous. Not to spoil it for you, but his concluding paragraph is:

Whatever may come, China is undergoing a retrograde change that will require every person, business, and country dealing with it to make a radical reassessment of its willingness to seek convergence with the rest of the world.

Orville Schell

Yikes! But why now? The government has always disappeared human rights activists and intellectuals who challenge the party, raided churches and religious groups, and kept a close eye on foreign journalists. Expats and the Chinese themselves have always had to make their peace (or not) with this aspect of the regime, and those who did, did so because they honestly believed that China was gradually turning into a place where the government would no longer feel the need to do those things. When Xi Jinping assumed leadership in late 2012, there was great optimism that he would be able to get party members in line to push forward with badly needed economic reforms (i.e. liberalization/modernization). But instead, over the past few years, the frequency and scope of such activities seem to have increased significantly and are no longer contained to the small fringe groups—they have spilled over into mainstream society with media and Internet crackdowns, and there is no sign of their limits under Xi’s reign. That peace many of us have made has been disrupted, and we are no longer sure if China is progressing. Schell writes:

The notion that the “Mao Zedong Thought” that had dominated the Cultural Revolution would ever make a comeback in China had long seemed as unlikely as it was unwelcome. But now that China is sliding ineluctably backward into a political climate more reminiscent of Mao Zedong in the 1970s than Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s, more and more educated Chinese are making allusions to such frightening periods of Chinese history as the Cultural Revolution and the Ming dynasty.

Orville Schell

A couple of months ago, on my way to work, I was listening in on some old people as they fell into conversation on the bus. One of them started ranting about the Chinese Dream (Zhongguo meng), telling the others that they can forget about whatever the government was saying today because it could be saying something else tomorrow. He referred to the ’60s and ’70s, speaking quite forcefully and loudly. He had captured the attention of the entire bus, with people’s reactions ranging from stoic passivity to amused chuckling.

Such signs of dissent are always exciting. Last month was a particularly great time of rebellion. This month, hardly a word. There’s a cycle to it; it bubbles over and then dies down, always simmering. Still, it is comforting to know that there are people willing to speak out. Not that it is putting pressure on Xi to stop testing the people’s limits, but at least there are limits somewhere.

White Christmas, Red Alerts

It’s another white Christmas in Beijing, probably the whitest one we’ve had. Usually you can see the towers of the Central Business District in the picture above, but not today! City authorities have issued an orange alert – only the second-highest rating on the smog chart – so it’s not so newsworthy in the eyes of foreign media. And yet, the AQI is “beyond index,” which means it’s beyond hazardous, and almost 40% of the day’s flights had already been canceled by 11 a.m. due to the smog.

So why is it a code orange instead of a code red, as it was over the past weekend and first couple of days this week? Beijing’s smog alert system is a bit faulty, that’s why. Despite having had a great year of air, the end of the year has so far been terrible. It was embarrassing when Boyfriend’s brother came to visit last month for a long weekend, and the AQI never dipped below 300 and routinely went beyond index. People widely mocked the government for failing to issue a red alert. It worked! A week later, another bout of smog triggered Beijing’s first-ever red alert. Foreign media had a field day with it, more proof of China’s dirty, dirty, failing ways and giant problems. My boss even told everyone to work from home.

Still, I enjoyed this Baidu Maps notification: "Visibility of 500 meters, it will be hard to see Santa today!"
Still, I enjoyed this Baidu Maps notification: “Visibility of 500 meters, it will be hard to see Santa today!”

And yet, in reality, the air wasn’t that bad, relatively speaking. The AQI for the most part stayed below 300, closer to 200, and even dipped below 200 at times. The AQI in Beijing is usually somewhere in the 100s, so the air was pretty bad, but the cold wintery weather probably made it worse. It was a bit worse during the second red alert, but again, the AQI was nowhere near beyond index, as it is today and as it was during that first bad spell of smog that triggered all the red alerts in the first place.

Before these two red alerts, red alerts were seen as a somewhat mystical creature. By the government’s own system, red alerts are to be issued 24 hours in advance when there is an AQI forecast of 200+ for three or more days. During a code red, heavily polluting factories and construction sites are shut down, cars are taken off the road under the alternating plate system, and schools are forced to skip classes.

An orange alert is issued when the AQI will be 200+ for 2-3 days, and only the heavily polluting factories are closed. And therein lies the problem with Beijing’s smog alert system. The two most severe alert levels only take into account how long the smog is forecasted to linger, albeit at a pretty low level of 200. But I would argue that a day like today, with reported visibility of less than 500 meters, certainly merits a red alert as well, until the AQI falls below 200 again.

State Planning 101: China’s latest soft power grab

Somehow, China’s state media thought this video would be a good way to make the country seem cool and hip:

It’s been described as psychedelic, groovy and Schoolhouse Rock-ish.

The title of the song is, and I have no idea why no one is mentioning it because it perfectly encapsulates the WTF-ery of the song, “Balabala 13.5.”

Now, I know China is making huge efforts to increase its soft power, mostly by trying to appear modern and culturally relevant, despite the whole antagonistic, authoritarian thing it’s got going on. But if it has to resort to manufacturing soft power, it’s clearly doing something wrong. This isn’t even the first video state media have put out, but it is the one causing me the most secondhand embarrassment.

By nightfall of the day of its release, my Chinese friends on Wechat were already sharing articles proclaiming its success overseas, without any apparent awareness of the derision the video was met with.

China, man. Sometimes it’s better to toil away quietly toward your goal than to go viral for the wrong reasons.