I last updated this blog at the beginning of October, reporting on the wedding of my Chinese teacher, Rose. Here’s what’s happened since then.
Beijing Around the middle of October, I visited Beijing for the first time, for work meetings and then for leisure, walking and cycling across the entire breadth of this amazing city. Beijing and Shanghai are very different — at the risk of over-sharpening the distinction, Beijing still has all the history and culture and political edge that Shanghai has traded in for commerce and wealth.
Most surprising is the sheer amount of life to be found in Beijing’s public parks, with the burghers of Beijing displaying not a whit of self-consciousness as they pursue self-organized group activities. In one spot, an ad hoc orchestra accompanies older people practicing traditional dance, with a large crowd spectating. Elsewhere, under a gazebo, It sounds like this (mp3 file)enthusiasts for traditional music gather for a jam session with their traditional instruments. Others seem to revert to more childish pleasures, jumping around to music as they wave about a stick with a long colored piece of fabric attached. The open-air tap-dancing class, meanwhile, is a popular aerobics workout for middle-aged women. My favorite distraction is the old man writing Chinese characters with water on pavement stones. Freshly enamored with these characters myself, I strike up a conversation with him, and he hands me his brush. As I write my clumsy characters he tries to guess them before I finish, or else corrects me. A crowd starts gathering around us.
Beijing’s more conventional tourist destinations are truly majestic in scale. The Forbidden City and the axis of temples and towers to the north of it can justly claim priority on any globetrotter’s to-do list. More surprising was the sense I got, from visiting the 798 Art Zone and some of the more popular artsy student hangouts, that pushing against political boundaries, even if it never amounts more than a heavy lean, is alive and well in Beijing in ways that I have not seen in Shanghai. After the disappointment of spending June 4, 2009, in a city that ardently shopped its way through the 20th anniversary of the violent end to the Tiananmen Square protests, I see more independence of spirit in Beijing’s youth, and that is entirely a good thing. I can’t wait for them to grow up and start taking over their world.
Most interesting right now is documenting that ever-shifting boundary between old and new Shanghai, which can be quite stark at times. Waking up at an ungodly hour and heading for the neighborhood of Hongkou turned in this panorama at sunrise:
Most of the people in this photo had been setting up shop since first light.
Vietnam The main event this month was a long weekend in Ho Chi Minh City, aka Saigon, to meet up with my old friend Joakim. This town’s vibe is one of incredible dynamism and industriousness, made audible by the around 5 million motorcycles in this city of 9 million. Everybody is on the move.
Saigon was the backdrop to a lot of the modern history Joakim and I studied in grad school, so the War Remnants Museum and the Reunification Palace were obvious destinations, and we also spent the day visiting the famed tunnels of Củ Chi, from where the Vietcong planned the Tết Offensive. The Vietnamese clearly value and take pride in their hard-fought independence from colonial rule. One surprise to me was learning that the Vietnamese consider their war with the US to have been one of independence, not ideology, just as had been the case with the insurrections against the French and the Chinese. If only Lyndon B Johnson had known this early on; the 20th century might have looked very different.
We made sure to stay at the Hotel Continental, a fading jewel from colonial times where Graham Greene wrote The Quiet American. I finished that book in one of the cafés it mentions.
On the day I spent on my own, I engaged in a whole day’s worth of urban trekking, staking out markets that tourists do not usually end up in:
Belgium The highlight of December, as with every year, was the visit home for Christmas. This year there was a brand-new nephew to welcome — Felix. And he really is contented.
I also decided to quit alcohol and coffee (and cola) for a year, until next Christmas eve, in part to remind my body who’s boss. So far, this has resulted in consuming a lot more tea and chocolate — it is far harder to give up caffeine than alcohol, I’ve learned. One definite perk: Even the most expensive restaurants are surprisingly affordable, once there is no alcohol involved.
Switzerland My resolve was immediately tested but not broken when I spent New Year’s skiing with Joakim and Eurof and their families in Switzerland. Their kids are real smart: On the first day I taught one how to write Chinese numbers; the next day, she taught all the others. My new mission: Convincing all my friends’ offspring at an early age that learning Chinese is fun. They’ll thank me in 20 years. (My four-year old niece Amélie was similarly smitten by Chinese characters.)
Because Switzerland had recently taken a turn towards intolerance by banning the building of new minarets, I was compelled to perform a small act of defiance — the building of an illegal snow minaret, inspired by the Ibn Tulun mosque in Cairo. For all I know it is still there.
This month saw the work tempo quicken as Shanghai Expo 2010 approached. I went to Beijing again to meet with the embassy and colleagues from the Swedish Institute to plan our events in May. Back in Shanghai, more meetings.
Cairo and Beirut During the Chinese New Year when nothing much happens in China for a week or two, I headed back to Cairo and Beirut, this time for a work-related study trip. Now that we’re almost done implementing a Chinese-language online nation-branding strategy for Sweden, it’s time to start looking at the Arabic-language web.
Cairo involved several hectic days of back-to-back meetings with very interesting people, punctured by forays into epochal Cairo traffic.
In Beirut, too, we were given some great insights, albeit in lighter traffic. And there was time to meet old friends Tom and Makram.
I then spent a few more days in Cairo on vacation, to catch up with friends there at a more leisurely pace. It is remarkable how easily the old routines return. As I walked around my old neighborhood, the man who used to iron my shirts at his street-side stall greeted me as if I had just returned from a long holiday, and offered me tea. Fortunately, I had spent my flight from Shanghai refreshing my basic Arabic, so our talk wasn’t all sign language.
Matjaž, a photographer friend, had just gotten his panoramic photography gear, so we decided to go on a mini-expedition to test it. Our destination was the monasteries of St. Paul and St. Anthony, in the desert near the Red Sea a few hours driving southeast of Cairo. These are among the first Christian monasteries to be founded. Here’s the panorama we ended up taking, in the cave church of Saint Paul.
This month and the next are all about getting Sweden’s two China-facing websites shipshape, launching and then marketing them to Chinese audiences, including visitors to the Swedish pavilion at Shanghai Expo. I’ll be around for the start of Expo, but soon after will leave the reins to others, as the development work is done then.
What will I do this summer? I plan to learn intensive Chinese in Beijing for a few months, so that I can push beyond the language’s steep learning curve. Then, I want to travel, perhaps to Tibet or Xinjiang. And there are all these small web projects I’ve wanted to work on this past year, but not had the time for. I also wouldn’t mind teaching myself how to program for the iPhone and iPad… If any of these plans work out, I’ll be most content.