A tragedy in South Asia, 1947: Part 1 of reflections on Indian Summer

I am endlessly fascinated by India. I fueled the flames in college while earning my minor in Asian studies, and my last semester in school, having finished already with my senior thesis, I relaxed by taking a double dose of India: South Asian politics and Modern India history classes, right alongside each other. It was pure heaven.

It's funny to have such a relationship with a place I've never been; nor am I of Indian descent. It's the color, the diversity, the charm, the immensely compelling history of the vast subcontinent. There is such massive human joy and suffering, simultaneously living in South Asia (which comprises India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka roughly, for the purposes of my discussion here).  I've written about it before, and in fact I have a journal that I kept for my Modern India class that is full of my musings about all things culture, history, religion, people, language, war, peace, hate, love, and the enigma that is India.

This background with the region is probably why I plowed through Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire by Alex Von Tunzelmann. First, the author conquered my number one complaint about history books: most historians aren't great writers. They let all their grammar and style seams show in an effort to ensure the accuracy and professionalism of their historical argument. I am not saying that you should neglect your accuracy in order to write a more compelling story--they are of equal import. But so much history is somehow sapped of its drama and it-s page-turning nature by bad storytellers wearing their scholarly caps. Von Tunzelmann has written a seriously great story, maintaining the intrigue and mystery and human nature that are all there in the pages and documents that recount the last days of the British Empire, as it voluntarily gave up India in 1947.

Americans, not having been much a part of the British Raj and the whole mess of stuff that was happening in India, don't know veyr much in general about this era of the Indian subcontinent's past. Considering Pakistan is one of the most significant countries on our foreign policy plate today, we absolutely should be more aware of the history of this young nation. It is the country that almost wasn't, arguably probably should not have been, and the partitioning that did occur in 1947, as the British prepared to leave the region, wrecked havoc on millions of lives.

I always remember my South Asian politics professor, who shared her family's experience during partition: her parents were from Lahore (which is in modern-day Pakistan) and they were married and left for their honeymoon in Kashmir around the middle of August in 1947 -- exactly when India and Pakistan were to become two new, separate nations from one another. The problem was that British and Indian officials waited as long as they could to publish the new, rather arbitrary and constantly-argued borders between the countries, because they knew there would be violence and havoc. So Prof. Bhasin's parents, suddenly found their hometown across the border, in Pakistan, while they were now in India. They couldn't return; thousands of people were being murdered and hundreds of thousands were crossing the border from one to the other, and returning at the time would have meant almost certain death, rape, robbery, or all three. They never returned, and now live in Mumbai.

Partition was first proposed by those Muslim politicians and leaders in Hindu-majority India who felt they would never be properly represented as a religious minority; there are several historical arguments about how serious a proposition this even was; by the mid 1940s, many people, including the British Viceroy of India, Dickie Mountbatten, agreed that this plan, if it were executed, would unquestionably bring violence and further calcify the divide between Hindus and Muslims in the region--especially those who decided to stay in their present homes, even if it meant they were now a Hindu living in Muslim-majority Pakistan, for example.

The extent of the violence that did occur could never have been predicted. It is hard to read the history of it and not curse at the decisions of all those politicians and officials--British and Indian and eventual-Pakistani--simply writing up the whole thing in your mind as one giant mistake. It is a curious thought to imagine what would have been different today for the region and for the allies of those nations, had partition never occurred. (Also, I should note, it created a third country, Bangladesh, which started out in 1947 as East Pakistan, and became its own independent nation in 1971. Any quick look at a map of South Asia will tell you what occurred: West Pakistan was able to disenfranchise its whole eastern companion, while using its resources. Von Tunzelmann explores the historical evidence that this little piece of land was basically set up to fail on its own, with its geography and infrastructure, and indeed it struggles greatly.)

I have already made this a little bit more of a history lesson than I intended. I just get so into the details of this massive drama, that was going on while we in the UNited States had little worry other than when European nations might have the money to pay back their enormous debts. We were buying homes and building cul de sacs, and gassing up our Fords. While people in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh were fleeing their homes for their lives, becoming refugees based on their religious differences (many of which the British had calcified by creating such categories when they arrived, and utilizing divide and rule techniques, but that's another blog post). Von Tunzelmann wrote this stunning, terrifying and beautiful passage about the tragedy of partition, and I found it worth sharing. It brought me to tears:

 In Stalin's famous words, one death is a tragedy; one million deaths is a statistic. In this case, it is not even a particularly good statistic. The very incomprehensibility of what a million violent and horrible deaths might mean, and the impossibility of producing an appropriate response, is perhaps the reason that the events following partition have yielded such a great and moving body of fictional literature and such an inadequate and flimsy factual history. What does it matter to the readers of history today whether there were two hundred thousand deaths, or a million, or two million? On that scale, is it possible to feel proportional revulsion, to be five times more upset at a million deaths than at two hundred thousand? Few can grasp the awfulness of how it might feel to have their fathers barricaded in their houses and burned alive, their mothers beaten and thrown off speeding trains, their daughters torn away, raped and branded, their sons held down in full view, screaming and pleading, while a mob armed with rough knives hacked off their hands and feet. All these things happened, and many more like them; not just once but perhaps a million times. It is not possible to feel sufficient emotion to appreciate this monstrous savagery and suffering. That is the true horror of the events of the Punjab in 1947: one of the vilest episodes in the whole of human history, a devastating illustration of the worst excesses to which human beings can succumb. The death toll is just a number.

This paragraph could be about many atrocities, civil wars and holy wars in human history. It is about what happened in 1947 in the wake of the partition of India, East and West Pakistan, but it captures something larger about history and tragedy as a whole. It is impossible for us to produce appropriate responses to these events. And as I've said before, I cannot imagine experiencing it.

A new Chernobyl

Photographer David Guttenfelder recently won a World Press Photo Award for his work, for National Geographic, on the deserted town of Namie, Japan--which lies within a 12-mile radius of the site of last year's nuclear catastrophe at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. His photographs were some of the most stark and significant images I had seen all year in the magazine--a publication whose lifeblood is excellent photography. Certainly his work, risking his health amid the radiation-affected areas he traversed to collect these images to share with us, deserves such accolades. It also reminds me, yet again, why I love the magazine and the organization, and why I only hurt myself when I let my subscription relapse. (Yes, I'm experiencing withdrawal symptoms today. I haven't had a new issue in almost three months.)

My favorite image of his entire series (there are many more images) is the one of the makeshift rooms in refugee sites like the Big Palette convention center, taken from above. Every time I look at it, I consider each item, the composition of each tiny space, and marvel at how little we need, and what things we keep, replace, buy, borrow, use, throw away. What things would be in my space if I was a refugee? How much of this would be things I was even able to take with me? I am humbled once again by how much those affected by the March 11 earthquake and subsequent trauma have endured and how gracefully they have handled immense tragedy and loss. We do grow so attached to places, to spaces. 

I have provided the original captions for these photos as they appear in the print issue.

 

[Update}: I just watched this extraordinary documentary from the BBC, on the 3/11 events told from the perspective of children who were/are the victims.

BBC report

If the Chinese middle class permits

Bill Saporito's October 31 Time article said it best: "Consider the cosmic irony: wobbly Western economies are depending on the Chinese Communist Party to save their capitalist bacon. Likewise, the Chinese government's grand scheme to rebalance its economy hinges on Western-style materialism." "Shop 'til you drop" probably isn't what Mao Zedong had in mind during the years he was in power, as Saporito points out in his piece on the Chinese middle class, a spending class that precariously faces what could wind up saving the global economy--or busting it even further.

What China is planning is a shift away from export-based industry to a consumer-spending based system, but it will not be easy and there are plenty of potential hiccups involved in fundamentally shifting an economy of 1.7 billion people. But the middle class of that country, which they are projecting to be 70 percent of the population by 2020, could be the saviors of the global economic structure; they have immense capacity for spending, a huge group like that.

The American century, the twentieth, is over. It's been over for awhile, and there's no stopping the growth of India and China now. It will be interesting to see what does happen in the Chinese economy, in the next fifty to one hundred years. Right now, we cannot predict which way it will go, but the result will be felt greatly worldwide, whichever way it swings. Spending too much time focused so exclusively on the United States means Americans, I think, are not thinking quite so realistically about the end of our own era. Not that we're going away, it's just not going to be our job to be Mister #1 anymore; that's not a bad thing. China, if it takes over that spot, certainly has plenty of its own issues--inherent in its government system--that its leaders will need to sort out, not least of which includes their rough human rights record.

Companies have known for years that the developing world was an important place for them to seek new markets for their goods. Couple that with a recession across the West and other developed nations, and you see a kind of exodus now, towards those booming, growing, expansive markets--the new consumers who have their eyes on fancy goods. Gap, the American jeans company, is closing twenty percent of its U.S. stores and tripling the number it has in China.

Saporito's most memorable bit:

If successful, the shift to consumer spending will take a good chunk of the weight of the global economy off the shoulders of American consumers and make China a gotta-be-there market for everything from video games to surgical tools to potato chips. "This generation, these strivers, they will be the saviors of the global economy," says Tim Minges, chairman of the greater China region for PepsiCo, which is pouring billions into China in anticipation of that growth. "I really do think the Chinese middle class will be like the U.S. baby boomers."

I, for one, am putting my faith in this Chinese middle class, as the new version of the U.S.'s baby boomers, to save us all.

"I want to say, this machine isn't just history." The garment industry in history, and in our lives today

If you ever complain about the price of your jeans, I want you to find a sewing machine and try to hem a pair. Granted, the industrial size and strength of the machines they use to produce them on a large scale is much greater than my personal machine, but I hemmed a pair last night and have vehemently given up the practice henceforth. I pulled out my denim-strength machine needles, the kind you buy specifically for denim, and broke two of them on the first leg. I found my pace halfway through, and managed to finish them on the third needle, but I was livid. I have been sewing all my life, and have been learning in earnest for the last three years, and I do not break needles. I decided that if I were to produce a pair of jeans, start to finish, I would charge the prospective buyer $2,000, at least. Obviously, I should not go into the jean-making-or-selling business. But it was a stark reminder that there are plenty of women--and also men and children--whose days are defined by pumping out pair after pair to sell to hungry consumers around the world for amazingly low prices, considering the labor. I cannot tell you how many times, during my years in mall retail sales associateship, I heard parents complain about the cost of jeans. They were especially mad when the jeans  were bleach-washed and "destroyed" (lots of holes and patches, in other words), as they could not believe they were paying more money for something that has been ripped up. As someone who has sat at home and pulled denim threads out of jeans until my fingers bled to get the same look in DIY form, I often held back from pointing out the obvious to them: someone has put many hours of their life into creating this pair of runway-ready jeans for you or your teenager. If you want, buy the regular pair for a whole $20 less, and take them home and try to do it yourself.

There are no new revelations to be had in what I am saying. Sweatshops and the low wages of garment industry workers have been well-publicized over the last twenty years or so, and I do not pretend to have some answer. As long as people need clothes to wear, there will be this problem in the world. But the important thing to remember is that it was not so long ago when the women of the United States were the ones subjected to the long hours, low pay, and back-breaking conditions. It is part of the phenomena of developing nations, that a generation will work very hard in factories to provide better lives for their children, the whole theory being that they can eventually move up a notch in the world. One of the most important lessons about places like Lowell, Massachusetts, which was defined by its industrial factories and garment producers in the nineteenth century, is that those conditions, the ones we thank our grandparents for improving for us--have not disappeared. They have simply relocated. Another group of people carries the burden today, producing clothing for the masses.

Earlier this semester, we read The Lowell Experiment in one of my classes, in which ethnographer Cathy Stanton examines the relationship between historians, a post-industrial city, and the National Park that the city is today. Lowell is still a real, inhabited city, but it is also a historical subject, and a place in the American industrial past that serves as a ground for social scientists to really examine many aspects of the course of American history over the last couple hundred years. What Stanton does the best is remind us that historians do not exist in a vacuum, but are, just by going to a place and trying to learn about it, affecting the results they will find. The relationship a historian has to her subject cannot be entirely removed from the results she will present to her peers and community.

And the other key thing Stanton brings home is that Lowell's history cannot exist one its own, either. People who visit the city-slash-national-park have to be confronted with the notion that these factories, just because they are no longer booming here, does not mean they are gone, that we have cured the world of the plight of the factory worker. She points out one poignant moment on a tour she was on, when the tour guide strayed from his script for a moment and did what Stanton had concluded had not been happening in this place: he connected past and present. His statement:

I want to say, this machine isn't just history. When we built this historical park we had to travel around the world to buy looms. Looms like this are operating as we speak somewhere around the world. It's kind of neat to think about that. And there's no right or wrong answer, there's no easy answer to it, but we can go to Wal-Mart or A.J. Wright or any store, really, and buy really cheap clothing. And what's the alternative? Paying a lot for your clothes? We all work, we all try and and pay the best we can for our cloth. But the reason we can get cheap cloth is because someone around the world is working on these looms, and looms not unlike what we have today. A few years ago, Kathy Lee Gifford was in trouble for using child labor on machines just like this. So it's just something to think about.

One other thing I like to sort of think about is the word "labor." It means "to suffer" in Latin. And when you think about the suffering that goes into making cloth, back in history and even to the present day, it's just something to think about. We wear the clothes, sometimes we don't think especially how hard the person who built or made the clothes worked to produce that. And all that labor, all the suffering that went into building this city, and the results, both good and bad. Just think about that a little bit. And I'll be talking about more of the positive consequences on the way back. But on a hot, sticky day, with this loud machine and the lint flying in the air, it's pretty easy to picture how miserable it would be to work there. (p. 61)

Stanton says it was a stunning moment, where suddenly each person on the tour was confronted with "the phantom figure of the Malaysian or Pakistani mill girl who was laboring--suffering--so that we could buy a t-shirt for a small fraction of what it would have cost to produce in a developed country."

The tour guide was obviously taking a risk, and chose his words wisely, speaking softly around the issue but offering no illusions about what he was referencing. And, the author reported, the other people on the tour, while a bit shaken, seemed to be able to handle it. "This is precisely the goal of progressive public history," she says, "to seize such small opportunities and compound them into larger visions of the process we are all a part of."

I was reminded of all of this not because I hemmed a pair of jeans--although that brought the message of labor and frustration home personally--I was reminded, really, by the remembrance, recently, of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City, which 100 years ago went up in flames on a Saturday morning in March, killing more than 100 workers, mostly women and children, due to a shoddy fire escape and other unsafe conditions for its workers. Supervisors would lock their workers into the factory's floors, on the eighth, ninth, and tenth floors of the ten-story building, and so when the fire erupted, many people were left to jump out the windows--usually to their death. In 1911, in an industry of extremes that was subject to the whims of the fashion trends, work of this nature was often relegated to new immigrants seeking to improve their lives. Their average work weeks were 84 hours. These were the victims of the fire, one of the worst workplace disasters in American history. The tragedy of that day, which you can explore in a podcast and recreation of the morning here, reminds us again that such circumstances have not gone away--they have only gone beyond our national borders. It is a kind of labor many of us can only imagine.

It has not entirely left the United States, nor Lowell. Immigrants still hold those jobs, today.

The World's Jason Margolis did a news story on the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory and its galvanization of the garment industry. (I heard it on Jeb Sharp's How We Got Here history podcast.) He reports exactly the thing that the Lowell tour guide was imparting on his listening visitors, but in more specific way, and with direct connection to the conditions that existed in the Shirtwaist Factory in 1911.

“Effectively what we have done is exported our sweatshops and exported our factory fires,” said Robert Ross at Clark University in Worcester, Mass. And it’s as if the 1911 conditions had been lifted up by an evil hand and dropped into Bangladesh.”

According to the Bangladeshi government’s Fire Service and Civil Defense Department, 414 garment workers were killed in at least 213 factory fires between the years 2006 and 2009. Last year, 191 people were killed in Bangladesh in a reported 20 incidents, according to Ross’ research. Last December, a fire killed at least 25 people in a garment factory there.

“And the pattern is disturbingly uniform,” said Ross. “The shops are often in high rise buildings, just like the Triangle. The pattern is that an electrical fire starts, and then without adequate, or any fire escapes, without sprinkler systems, the workers surge to get out. And in factory after factory, the newspapers report locked gates and locked doors. It’s a horrific duplication of what we earlier experienced.”

Even while we may not have answers about these issues, it is important that we be aware, as we put on our clothes each morning, that simply because the factory is farther away does not mean the work has improved any in the last one hundred years. After my frustrating night last night, my hat goes off to all of them, in every factory corner of the world. I hope we can begin to change out outlooks and our consumer mindsets, or at least improve our awareness as a whole, so that we can move towards improvements in the lives of all garment industry workers, not just the ones in the United States.

Trying to understand a boiling water reactor schematic diagram, to begin to understand Japan's situation

If you're like me, i.e. NOT a nuclear physicist, all the coverage of the quickly-deteriorating nuclear situation in Fukushima has gone a bit over your head. Not that you're not a compassionate, intelligent person, but man, can those experts on the radio and television talk fast and loose with terms like "partial-meltdown"--which it turns out has no actual definition and is a terrible way to describe anything, especially because it's probably way milder than an actual meltdown would and could be. Not to mention the other terms that scientists use that I can't even recall. Words I don't use a lot.

So what is the deal, and what are the dangers, and what do all the diagnoses really add up to? Those are all really hard for anyone to say right now. But more importantly for my understanding, how does it all work in the first place? How does it function under regular circumstances? I have looked at a few helpful diagrams of nuclear electricity plants, and how they function, which basically looks very confusing even in simple-colored-coded-drawing form. Every one I've seen has been a bit overwhelming.

There have also been at least three (by my count according to news via NPR and  Twitter news reports from a couple sources) explosions, which no one has really explained--at least that I had come across. Hydrogen was involved, but it's been awhile since I studied anything along the lines of nuclear chemistry, or regular chemistry, and all I could remember was that you could potentially have an enormous explosion from hydrogen too. But since no one was saying this, there had to be more to it than I knew or could comprehend.

POPSCI's article "How Nuclear Reactors Work, and How They Fail" (by Dan Nosowitz) gets all my kudos, for basically explaining in an approachable and even conversational way how the reactors work, whether they have an "off switch" (they do! it's just not your momma's off-switch), why and how they do all these double- and triple-back ups for power and cooling, and what a "dreaded meltdown" means--in real terms, like damage and that irksome "partial meltdown" that has been used by Japanese officials to describe the situation thus far.

Definitely read it; it's the most helpful ten minutes I've spent thus far learning about a situation that has lots of people all over the world curious, cautious, and downright worried about the whole issue of nuclear energy. I am a more informed citizen of the world now. But, no, no plans to work further on my nuclear physics.

In case you did not click on the link yet, here's a taste. Full disclosure: a nuclear meltdown sounds horrifying, even in raw chemical talk. This is the scariest bit of the article. The rest is far milder.

What people mean when they say "meltdown" can refer to several different things, all likely coming after a hydrogen explosion. A "full meltdown" has a more generally accepted definition than, say, a "partial meltdown." A full meltdown is a worst-case scenario: The zirconium alloy fuel rods and the fuel itself, along with whatever machinery is left in the nuclear core, will melt into a lava-like material known as corium. Corium is deeply nasty stuff, capable of burning right through the concrete containment vessel thanks to its prodigious heat and chemical force, and when all that supercharged nuclear matter gets together, it can actually restart the fission process, except at a totally uncontrollable rate. A breach of the containment vessel could lead to the release of all the awful radioactive junk the containment vessel was built to contain in the first place, which could lead to your basic Chernobyl-style destruction.

Shaolin Temple in the spotlight, and its role in one of the best days of my life

This morning I was reading my copy of the current National Geographic, and the standout piece was the story and photographs of the Shaolin Temple, which stands in the midst of the Song Mountains in Henan Province, China. The temple is serving as both an important component of a resurgence of popularity of kung fu and martial arts in the nation, but it is also hell-bent on branding itself and marketing much of the cultural and historic value that it has, becoming just as much of a tourist money-maker as a place to send your young Chinese son if he's got an attitude problem. Dengfeng, the city nearby, is the modern-day kung fu capital of China, with more than 50,000 boys enrolled in at least 60 different schools in the area (source: Nat Geo article). I got a hint of this enormous population of young men when I visited the Shaolin Temple in May of 2007: just as we were returning to our bus, an unfathomable line of boys in red track suits began marching down the wide road into the complex, and they just kept coming, and coming, and... I was so overwhelmed by the sheer number of people (all teenage boys, too), I tried to take a picture. They all turned out horrible, but I was tickled to find those same red track jackets on the boys featured in the article, which has at least one photo that begins to suggest the huge population of boys living in this region and learning the art of kung fu--which was discouraged during the Mao years, considered an old-fashioned relic of times gone by.

That day was ridiculously hot; in retrospect, looking at my pictures of the Temple and the mountains and scenery, I wistfully forget this detail, preferring to wax nostalgic about the beauty of everything around me. This day traveling among the Song Mountains, between them on winding roads in a gigantic bus, remains one of the best days in my life. That is no overstatement. I was breathless the whole day over the beauty of the mountains, and I could not figure out why. As dusk approached, I realized internally that I had never actually been around mountains of any true enormity. These geographic giants gracing the backdrop of everything we did was an entirely foreign context for me.

As night approached, we attended a show vaguely titled Zen Music Show, which does absolutely no justice for the stunning music and dance that was performed, again in the shadows of the mountains--in fact, using them as part of the story of man and his long relationship to the land, to music, to sounds of nature as being music, and to his own body as a form of art. Again, none of my photos do this night justice at all. But I was in tears over the blessing of such an amazing experience, which I knew would never be recreated in exactly the same way. I floated through the day, and the night was so amazing as to feel surreal. Not to sound crazy or too-far-on-edge, but natural high" might be the most accurate description of this day and subsequent evening.

Add to this the dinner we'd feasted on before the show: a traditional fare of what a monk would eat in a Buddhist monastery, eaten in a monastery that glimmered with fresh flowers, vines, and twinkle lights in its charming courtyard. I honestly do not care if the whole thing was a tourist establishment, because it did not feel this way, and the food was some of the very best I had in China. With meat out of the picture (traditional monks are vegetarian), all the sudden spices and vegetables were the delicious focus, and it was as if the two composed a symphony of flavors together, shining, instead of serving as sideline components to dinner. The vegetables were incredible, cooked perfectly. Nuts, rice, and other key dishes in the monk's mix were also extraordinary. I realize this might have been compounded by my already-blissful feelings on the day, but even while eating the meal and when considered against every other night I ordered food in two months in China, it remains on a very short list of stand-out meals.

The actual Shaolin Temple itself was a bit of a sham: it is proclaimed as ancient and historic. They sort of add on as a parenthetical detail the fact that the actual temple and all extra buildings on the campus were built in the 1980s, as part of the budget for a kung fu movie (kid you not). The one before that had been destroyed during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), when all things deemed "traditional" were slated as insignificant for the new and communist China, and were seen as potential threats that might cause citizens to revert back to old fashioned ways and challenge the larger system. This included arts and religion, and many educators and practitioners of these things were beaten or killed for their interests. (There's a book on the memories of many who have been silent, but who lived through much of this, here.) And the Shaolin Temple that the Red Guard burned then was built in the early twentieth century.

I have lessoned my outrage over time regarding this part of the Temple, as sometimes history happens and we just have to do the best we can with the tumultuous times we witness. Buildings get destroyed, and if they matter enough to the people around it at the time, they are rebuilt. But I had real issues with the way it was portrayed, as the "real thing." The grounds and cemetery are the real thing, where generations of the kung fu masters have their final resting place. That is significant. I remember feeling a bit betrayed when they informed us that this temple was circa 1980s, about as old as me, right at the end of the whole spiel.

One small speck on my day though. All these memories were coming back to me this morning, and I took some time to reflect again on the way I felt that day, and reminded myself again that experiences like that have been vastly influential in my life as a whole. Bites of life like that are what give it so much meaning. And, I was so utterly thankful to be there, drinking in this country, this language, this landscape, so unlike my own.

The charm of Indian English, filled with literary gems

"And what would your good name be, sir?" asked the greeter, with the Dickensian formality that only India has preserved.

So begins writer Benjamin MacIntyre's visit to the Jaipur Literature Festival (read it all here), an event that's been held the last six years to relish in and appreciate the colorful wordplay, rhyming, and dose of formality that characterizes Indian English, and makes it its own distinct entity from the its British source. A few examples:

Unconstrained by received pronunciation, Indian-English delights in wordplay and internal rhyming, eliding words, inventing new ones, but also retaining the elaborate, grammatically correct constructions of an earlier age. A hair-washing is a "headbath"; when a politician scrambles from one place to another, he is "airdashing"; sexual harassment is "eve-teasing."

Couples without children are "issueless", and when a meeting is brought forward, it is "preponed", the opposite of postponed.

The Indian love of English words is on daily display in the crime reporting of Indian newspapers, where "sleuths nab evildoers" or "miscreants abscond" after committing "dastardly deeds."

Spring a year ago, I got to spend a whole semester thinking a lot about India, Pakistan, and larger South Asia, and grew to appreciate the charming quirks and vast diversity of the area even more than I had before. (There's at least one blog about that, here.) The whole concept of a taxi wallah or a chai wallah is stunningly sensible: "wallah" means "someone who does this" or "a person from here," so you might call me an Atlanta wallah. Saves a lot of syllables, and characteristically delightful Indian English. Last spring, it made my job as a mall sales associate a little easier, being instead a retail wallah.


Modern-day "Peril"? Chinese language in American classrooms, and that long-standing friend-or-enemy dilemma

China has the second-largest economy in the world, a fact that looms ominously over the shoulder of El Numero Uno: the United States. And when you are as connected economically as China and the U.S., it behooves each side to attempt friendliness; it also means it would be nearly impossible for either side to start a conflict with the other, as the economies are so dependent on one another that any such move could bring collapse to both.

And perhaps the most important lesson for the United States to learn, the one it struggles with most, is coming to honest terms with the fact that China is not a democracy. It functions as a fast-paced consumer economy, and does allow more economic freedoms today (like job choice and sometimes location of residency, for example), without really having changed its governmental system at all; much has been written on this unique breed of national existence, this "socialism with Chinese characteristics," and so the basic system remains today--with obvious cracks and some severe humanitarian issues on its plate. America has trouble with this sometimes, this issue of engaging as an ally a country with fundamental differences from its own governmental policies.

Neither condoning nor condemning China's policies, though, it must at least be admitted that China cannot be ignored. Without condoning their humanitarian infractions, myself and many Americans have been able to learn about the Chinese people's language, culture, history, food, and customary idiosyncrasies; each American who speaks Mandarin Chinese is contributing positively to the larger relationship between these two economic powers, to the extent that it is hard for me to understand the neglect this language currently sees in U.S. schools. In urban areas, more is inherently available to students; but in smaller towns, like the one where I went to high school, French and Spanish are the only options, and only through the required level "two." (Let's not get into that larger discussion on our monolinguist nation.) Meanwhile there are 264 million children in China under the age of fourteen, going through school right now, and I'll give you one guess what language they're also learning. It just seems so very clear that we're putting our own children at a disadvantage for their lifetime and their job choices, if they are unable to compete with the bilingual Chinese children who can communicate in both directions in the business and politics of the twenty-first century.

Photo by Mustafah Abdulaziz for Education Week; link to story: http://bit.ly/dz96t1So the Chinese government has "stretched its linguistics muscles" this year by committing millions of dollars to U.S. schools to build Mandarin language programs in more K-12 schools. In a time of near economic crisis, and definite panic at least, in many schools across the country, this should be a welcome supply of funding, to get kids involved in their global world, and to infuse their studies with a new diversion--beyond their math, science, and social studies regulars. A connection with an Asian culture gives kids a much wider perspective on lifestyles around the world, connects them to a new level with Chinese-Americans in their communities, and, quite simply, gives them a "cool" language to study. Decoding Chinese characters is a thrilling revelation, for anyone who's studied the language.

But naturally, given the menacing vision of China as an economic bully (granted, the fixed Chinese currency is a festering thorn in the side of economic negotiations and discussion), and given its less than stellar past of censorship, political freedom, and dissemination of information, there are bound to be cries of cultural infiltration: these Chinese will infect the minds of our kids! It's Yellow Peril for a new age.

In a recent article from Education Week, this issue was explored. Some see it as accepting resources from a country who will provide language, with a heavy dose of propaganda on the side.

That dust-up caught the notice of Chester E. Finn Jr., a former education official in the Reagan administration and the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington think tank. He argues that public schools should not accept aid from the Chinese government.

“This is not an ally. This is the country on the planet from which the United States faces the largest and most worrisome long-term threats,” he said. “And for its government to be funding our schools to teach its language, I think, is an alarming and menacing development. And that our schools are welcoming this development strikes me as outrageous.”

Countering this, some educators see its value for the future or global relations, as well as for the schoolkids.

“It’s a great opportunity,” William C. Harrison, who chairs the North Carolina state board of education, said of his state’s program, to which China is expected to supply more than $5 million in direct aid and “in kind” services. “The best way to become globally competitive is to develop an understanding of those with whom you compete, being able to communicate with them, and being able to collaborate with them.”

He added: “We’re looking at the number-two economy in the world with prospects to be number one. ... I think it’s in our best interest to develop positive relationships.”

The key lies somewhere in the balance of being economic allies while respecting differences; we don't have the best reputation with that. Shortsightedness now will have a crippling effect on our country's standing in the future, and the people leading it then will be the ones in school now, learning minimal Spanish and French. Our world will look mighty different then; can we find those areas of change now, and adapt?


UPDATE 12/9/2010: Here is another article on America's trials and tribulations in building a Chinese language program in K-12 schools. From Newsweek: "America's Chinese Problem"

Beijing's vanishing charm: for a buck, for better living conditions, and for a hefty price

It's a bit mysterious to me how my fascination with China began; this far into it, I cant quite retrace the steps back to the beginning. But one of the first books I read about the country was journalist Ian Johnson's Wild Grass: Three Portraits of Change in Modern China, in which he deftly researches three different cases of citizens holding their own against a government that says a lot of things it does not follow through on. Johnson's reputation as a reporter and skill with Mandarin Chinese gave him a great launching point for these tales, and the people who spoke to him no doubt wanted to have their stories heard by others, outside their native land--where they'd been received coolly. One section focuses on a peasant lawyer's confrontation of government corruption and its exploitation of over-taxed farmers; another highlights the controversy surrounding Falun Gong, the physical and spiritual practice that was banned and some of its practitioners unduly prosecuted.


The third story captures the overwhelming changes residents of the Old City of Beijing faced as their leaders began razing their artery-like system of winding neighborhoods, or hutong, which are simultaneously a relic of Chinese culture and character and a fast-decaying, dilapidated part of the modernizing city. He emphasizes the evicted hutong residents' situation, as most are not paid appropriately for their loss, cannot afford bigger, newer apartments--nor the commute hours into the city--and will be unable to replace the strong community that has surrounded many of them for their entire lives.

This third one sprung up in my mind as I arrived in Beijing with a study abroad group in May 2007, and I even got to see one of these tight-knit and close-quartered communities myself, with part of what I'm sure was a choreographed tour for tourists. This didn't matter so much to me, as the hutong was the most charming thing I saw in the capital city, and I even made their rapid disappearance the subject of a paper for one of my classes while I was there. (Here's a post from my first encounter with the hutong.)

Unfortunately, the story has only gotten worse since Johnson's reporting, and since my visit three years ago. Government and business developers see the single-level, "dangerous" housing as an obstacle in the way of economic growth in the city, as things can be built upwards and sold as commercial space for much higher prices than any residential buildings could garner. What acres do becomes private homes will land in the price range of millionaires, out of reach to the hundreds of thousands of men and women who grew up on that same ground.

I happened again upon this subject recently, as Amazon.com had a highly-rated memoir The Last Days of Old Beijing by Michael Meyer, in its bargain bin, and I needed something to accompany me on my summer travels. Meyer lived in Dazhalan, one of the hutong, and worked as a teacher at Coal Lane Elementary, and his neighbors, students, and anecdotes make for a lively portrait of this community that sits at the intersection of its city's past and future. It is deemed a "historic" area, and is labeled as one of the twenty-five protected parts of Old Beijing; but as he and his neighbors witness, this does not mean their homes and businesses are safe from The Hand, as he calls it-- the mysterious force that comes in the night and paints the large, white character on your door, that one that means it's slated for immanent demolition. There's not much the residents can do to stop the momentum, and posted advertisements remind each day of the benefit residents will bring to their city by taking their compensation and moving to the 'burbs--the sooner, the better for all parties.

"Historic" in the eyes of the commercial and governmental developers means razing the dilapidated building that has been neglected for half a century and replacing it with an "authentic" facsimile, with upturned eaves painted classic Chinese colors: reds, golds, greens. Qianmen, a fabled shopping district in the center of the city that has been replaced with a swanky doppelganger, is mourned by urban planning professor Yao Yuan in a July 20 article in the New York Times. "The renovation of Qianmen wasn't about preserving history, but about creating a fake Hollywood version of it," he said.

This inclination to the reproduction was already firmly in place when I visited, specifically at the Shaolin Temple--famous for its kung fu masters--where we learned (subtly, this was not widely advertised information) that while the temple was on the location of the original, the one we were visiting was built in the 1980s. That news deflates the excitement a bit. So, it's slightly older than me? Such reproduction was also obvious in Shanghai, an entire city which aims to please the tourist and attempts to blend its western and eastern influences into something unique. A bustling old-style system of alleyways and tiny stores was less charming with its fresh paint coats, air conditioning, and Haagen-Dazs shop.

I'm not here to pass judgment or even complain, really, because some of those modern amenities made my visit more comfortable, and surely improves the living conditions and salaries of many of China's urban dwellers. But as many others have asked before me, at what cost are these things forming? Is a newly-built shopping center doing the people of Beijing much more good than its previous shopping center? Is it really a part of the city's history that could not have been preserved more carefully from the start? Many of these areas, deemed "dangerous" by the government, were named as such in the late '80s and early '90s, which means they were slated for demolition or at least known to be in need of renovation and preservation for nearly two decades by now.

Many of these areas did not survive to see the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. I hope there are people in charge who will listen more carefully to the preservationists and historians both domestically and internationally who have been offering their advice on the ever-vanishing character of the city, and I hope what little is left of the city's pre-modern composition can survive. I hope this for the sake of outsiders who visit, but more so for the sake of its own people.

Snapshot Yangzhou: home

To end my series on Yangzhou, it is only right to leave you with my favorite image: a hut, full of character, perched on the side of a mountain, overlooking the valley and farms below. Above this humble and beautiful home was a temple that we visited, which was also stunning on the breezy, calm day we were there. If you look closely, you'll see the man tending to his crop (in the lower right-hand area of the photograph); I didn't even notice him until someone else pointed him out.

This is my favorite image that I collected that summer, and when I took the picture, I didn't even really notice the absolutely stunning hut. It is the star of this scene, which became clear to me once I looked back through all my pictures. But when I was standing there in the breeze, the mist that billowed down around the mountain and engulfed the fields and forests was what made me take the picture; it was ephemeral.

When I got back, and stumbled across this hut among the thousands of other images I had, I was taken aback at the yellow roof. I was also reminded of a joke my Dad had long told his wife and children, when the world got overwhelming: he'd say he was going to give it all up, and move to a hut on the side of a mountain, in China. I printed this image big--2' by 3'--and framed it, and gave it to my Dad as his "hut on the side of a mountain, in China," for a Christmas or birthday soon after. Now it resides on the wall opposite my parents' bed, reminding them of the goal for a simpler life.

(Sorry for the delay in this post-- I've been on vacation and attended a very important wedding, etc.--much needed rest.)

Snapshot Yangzhou: future vision

On the outskirts of the bustling city lies some of the newest additions to the area, a modern development area that includes the enormous mall here, as well as the giant new museum that I was standing in when I took the picture. Surrounded by high rises, the mall contains at least six floors begging to be shopped, with ribbons and streamers and lots of busy displays and professional salesmen roaming the atrium at the bottom floor. There is a Dairy Queen, the only one I ever saw in China, and a Starbucks (fairly rare outside of Beijing and Shanghai), and lots of stores selling home goods, like dishes and bedding and child's play room equipment. The only problem was, the sales people far outnumbered the shoppers; it was a largely deserted mall on the two occasions I visited it. It was obviously a huge investment for the city, or the government, or whoever built it. And they built it for a time in the future, most likely, hoping that within a  few years the population of Yangzhou would find their pocketbooks able to handle consumer spending À la the western model.

I don't imagine the global economic situation has helped this mall in the years since I last saw it. Notice the many cranes gracing the skyline on both sides of the shopping mall, the ubiquitous sign of expansion and change throughout my time in the country. Every city has this crane skyline. I can only imagine what this mall and this same city will look like ten years from the time of this snapshot, for better or worse. I'll try to go back in 2017.

Snapshot Yangzhou: dorm room

We stayed in the international student dorms during our time in Yangzhou, and for a small monthly fee (around 5 dollars), a man would come by and hook up the internet for your computer. This was a huge relief after the horrors of the Zhengzhou computer labs with their limited hours, terribly slow and/or mostly broken computers, and other international students who wanted to play computer games endlessly. We didn't mind at all paying for two connections, which I'm pretty sure the building staff thought was an extreme luxury.

My desk is on the right, closer to the door. Collections of pantry food, schoolbooks, and schoolwork graced my shelves. The TV was as good as worthless unless you had an ear for Chinese or wanted to try to keep up with the lightning-fast dialogue for a bit of practice; I never even scratched the surface of comprehension when faced with a TV. Needless to say, it remained off.

Our beds were slightly improved from the slabs of wood with medium-thick cushioning that we'd had in Zhengzhou: we had mattresses, at least, but they felt as stiff as box springs. (I would be very surprised if they were not actually box springs.) We had two big wardrobes where we hung and stored all of our clothing and other possessions (not many). We'd keep our room cold, and after a long day of classes and trekking to site visits, it did become a haven of sorts, the way any room does if you live in it long enough.

Snapshot Yangzhou: eating up

A big steaming pot of freshly-made noodles with mushrooms and cabbage; add some cayenne pepper flakes and a soy-type sauce and you've got a delicious, satisfying dinner. That whole pot would cost me 8 yuan, about $1.14. Plus a few yuan for a cold water. YUM.

Our group ate regularly with various groups of our Chinese friends, including the boys' sports buddies and a girl who was studying abroad from California (so she sounded completely American). Food is always ordered for many, you order lots of dishes, and then it's served on the spinning lazy Susan in the center of the table, so everyone has access. It's a good way to try a lot of dishes and it's also so affordable to split. This restaurant was down a back alley, and filled with Christmas/Santa Claus memorabilia, but it was extra delicious-- and also very close to the store we liked that sold ice cold soy milk.

Snapshot Yangzhou: shortcut

It was Team China versus Team USA one hot day, and we were the sideline cheerleaders. They had kept this rivalry up for a number of sports: basketball, table tennis, and most certainly, soccer. We, the girls, were not the most cheery crowd, but we tried to be present when we had the time. Out of nowhere, this guy came across the soccer field, mid-game, on his bicycle, and we thought surely something important had happened, and he was either coming to tell us or the guys, or perhaps just trying to get somewhere quickly. None of the above. He pedaled lazily all the way across the field, right through the game, stopping to talk to no one and continuing on through the campus leisurely. It was moments like this that I appreciated and marveled most at the Chinese way of sharing space; who were we to say this green patch was entirely ours, anyway? It's kind of exhilarating and a bit frightening too, to live within a cultural sense of community space that is unheard of in my own country. No one cared at all, and the game was not affected.

Snapshot Yangzhou: beautiful vandalism

I saw it on the Great Wall, I saw it on dusty temple walls, and I saw it in the concrete surrounding any oft-visited site throughout China; but the graffiti on the members of this lush bamboo garden won the prize. It was a dewy, inviting, and enchanting garden--and it never takes too long to spot the evidence of visitors bygone.

It's the same human proclivity for wanting to claim and object in nature, or to prove our presence in a space, but I was surprised and charmed by it in Chinese characters, almost like they were somehow more respectable than the English "I wuz here" scratched into a bathroom stall (for the record, I did not, to my recollection, find Chinese phrases scribbled in bathrooms). And that's probably all the Chinese is saying too, but it has more innate beauty, for sure.

Snapshot Yangzhou: crazy rickshaw driver

It was a regular afternoon, and Stacey and I were either sweaty or exhausted or (probably) both, and we decided to spring for the 3-yuan (42-cent) rickshaw ride back to campus. He was confused, rightly so, by our feeble Chinese language skills, and we had tried to tell him we wanted to go to Yangzhou University, but were less successful in communicating which entrance. I don't remember all the details, but I recall that he was stubbornly determined to get us as close to campus as possible as soon as he could--which in this case meant that we rode the length of the campus (it's behind the trees on the left, in the photo) right at the edge, on the wrong side of the road.

Now, Chinese roadways are already overwhelming to an American used to driving with ample road laws and safety measures, and the concept of a right-of-way. Chinese roads function under the general rule that if you think you can make, go for it--and do it fast. This applies both to number of lanes as well as intersections and stoplights. I actually found it exhilarating and pretty easy to navigate; and if I was in doubt, I just tagged along with a group of Chinese people when they crossed the street. And since there were enormous lanes for pedestrians and bicycles running on the edges of the actual roads (think of sidewalks but equally as wide as the whole road), there was plenty of space for everyone to share the road. More than a few times, I saw actual cars driving in those pedestrian/bike lanes, and no one seemed to mind.

But this particular day, we were rendered pretty nervous when our driver did not simply turn and then adjust his lane. Nope, he rode on the wrong side of the road for about two miles, heeding no car, bus, truck, or motorcycle that stood in his way. Cars swerved past us and we sat embarrassed and half-laughing as we flew past them. Eventually, we made it to campus and gratefully wished our driver farewell, no worse for the wear but laughing all the way to our dorm.

Snapshot Yangzhou: Shouxi Lake and its gardens

The very first day that the whole group was together, we spent a disgustingly humid day at Shouxi Lake that almost made us forget the sticky heat. Little enclaves were built in random spots, with wide-open window frames and benches and tables; old Chinese men were playing checkers and women could be spotted chatting in a shady corner. Bamboo grew alongside the water and the paths wound unendingly around the lake and its greenery and gardens. Right up there with temples, gardens were a common destination for us visitors, and if I ever mentioned visiting any of them to a Chinese friend, they would beam with pride at their nation's beautiful entities and the care the collective people took to preserve them.

Suzhou, a city we spent several days in near the end of our trip (after leaving Yangzhou), is famous for its gardens. Chinese tourists come from all over in trains, planes, and even cars to revel in their world-renowned beauty. This was something I never knew until I went, but every Chinese person I heard speak of gardens had either seen or desired to visit Suzhou's. Having seen several of those as well, I think this one in Yangzhou rivals them; and it has a personality all its own.

Snapshot Yangzhou: art students' retreat

As part of our "cultural education," we spent weekday afternoons on little excursions to museums, paper-making studios, calligraphy lessons, table tennis games, and tai chi sessions--to name a few. One of my favorites was our trek to one of the Yangzhou University art buildings, and this studio in particular. I got the impression it was shared by about a dozen students at once, and projects at every level of completion were laid on tables, hung on walls, or propped somewhere between. Art was a combination of contemporary images and portraiture, like the girl above, and traditional skilled Chinese landscapes and scenes, like the one in the background behind her, mounted on the wall. The art students were some of the most calming and friendly people I encountered; and I loved that they bashed the stereotype of the Asian science and mathematics student.

On this afternoon, we each paired up with an art student and learned some techniques in traditional Chinese painting--which involves much more methodical, patient strokes than anything I'd ever attempted. Accordingly, my buddy was extremely patient with me, and after several botched scenes, he backtracked and we began painting a bunch of grapes, something I was able to grasp more quickly than sweeping landscapes or trees or stallions. I proudly carried the rolled up paper containing my creations home with me, and brought them carry-on all the way home to the U.S., where I only recently rediscovered them and decided to display my grape bunch. My artistic friend also gave me one of his own paintings, which I also intend to finally mount and display in my home. His is a traditional scene, containing huge, large scale scenery, man nearly unrepresented in this homage to nature that is itself an homage to ancient Chinese art.

Snapshot Yangzhou: under construction

Walking down the street right outside the north campus entrance felt a little bit third-world, a little bit plain dangerous. But it was just construction-- in this case, widening of the road. The way it was so exposed shocked me nearly every time I walked it. And unlike in the United States, plenty of vehicles and pedestrians other than automobiles take the road, making it precarious indeed for the bicyclist or rickshaw driver riding along. The over-sized mounds of dirt piled higher than the road and taller than most people grew out of the valleys at each side of the road. Farther down from this spot, tents had been erected for the migrant workers who would stay to complete this project and then move on to the next.

What was truly breathtaking though was the utter speed with which this road was widened. The construction workers must have taken turns with their shifts, working around the clock, because in the four weeks I was there, they completed nearly half a mile--to my eyes. And they were working on both sides. In America, I am always puzzled driving by highway and roadwork projects, for they seem to lack both a plan and a deadline of any sort. Widening can take months, and bigger things, many years to complete. Now, I know we can chalk some of this up to the concessions road workers have to make to keep traffic flowing, so they must keep lanes open and work in the night when fewer people are on the road. But countless forms and numbers of vehicles and people passed through this each day, behaving as though this was absolutely normal and just another part of life--which, really, it is just that. And amongst this continuation of daily life, Yangzhou was expanding at lightning speed.