Friday, March 28, 2008


One day after I cursed the idiotic Olympics-induced paranoid that triggered the flight restriction to Beijing, I seethed again with anger at the security checkpoint at the Shanghai Hongqiao airport. I had traveled by train from Hangzhou to Shanghai in order to catch a flight back to Beijing, for ever. Now the guards were taking forever examining my toilettery bag, opening and sniffing at everything, the toothpast tube, the tiny cologne bottle, the hair gel jar, and even my dental floss pack.

"You have to check in this jar because it's over the size limit," I was told by this particularly fastidious female guard who held my hair gel jar with outstretched arms as if it was radioactive.

After they wrote down the details of that jar in a record book, I was escorted to the exit leading back to the check-in area. It felt like 911 all over again.

At the check-in counter, while the pretty attendant attached the baggage tag to my duffle bag, I asked in exasperation what had caused this...carefulness. The upcoming Olympics? The unrest in Tibet?

"Earlier this month some terrorists brought a bottle of gasoline onto a flight from Xinjiang to blow up the plane," The attendant smiled at me sweetly. "Ever since then it became really strict."

"Were they Ughigur?"

"Of course."

With the Ughigur terrorists and the Tibetan riot, the government's paranoid doesn't seem so idiotic after all.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The Tibetans

I'm so swamped with work in Hangzhou that I've been almost oblivious to the heated media war between China and the West over the reporting of the recent riot in Lhasa. Only through reading my friends' blogs did I realize that it's actually a BIG deal out there. (Of the few I read, Rebecca's post here I found most close to how I feel.)

Honestly though, I don't understand what the big deal is--don't we know already that media, Chinese or Western, tend to write stories to fit their editorial bias? That the Western media tend to find some particular "Chinese" angles in their reporting? And that our beloved country tends to gloss over, intentionally or unintentionally, the historical wrongs done to ethnic minorities?

My first memory of meeting Tibetans was during a train ride at the beginning of the 1990s. I was in college then and they were highschool students coming home to Sichuan from Beijing. They were chatty sunny-looking kids who genuinely appreciated the chance attending better schools in the big Han cities--there's an entire program of that sponsored by the government. They said that they did not want to go back to their hometowns after schooling. They were eager, like most other people in China, for big-city life ("cultural genocide" was obviously not in their consciousness).

My second encounter with anyone Tibetan was in the mid 1990s in Boston. I was hanging out at Harvard Square. My Chinese friends were excitedly waving little Chinese national flags, waiting for the then-President Jiang Zemin to show up visiting Harvard. Exile Tibetans and Taiwanese were staging protests. Someone pushed a flag into my hand. I wandered by a protest stage. A couple of young Tibetans jumped at me. They yelled--Stupid Chinese, Don't You Ever Show That Stupid Flag of Yours at My Face! I yelled back--This Is America!

For many years after I could not forgive the Tibetans. Perhaps because of that close encounter. Or perhaps because I had an ex who's a Tibetan Buddhist Scholar absolutely loving everything Tibetan. I considered that too--as Lisa Simpson once famously said-- alternative in a mainstream sort of way.

Anyway, after my ex's constant brainwash over a few years, I stopped arguing that there's no ethnic bias towards the Tibetans because Chinese suffered harsh fate as well in the Cultural Revolution. I stopped getting into a fit each time my ex criticized China over Tibetan issues even though I was still pissed.

In the Spring 2004, I ran back to China. In Gansu I visited Xiahe, a big Tibetan town. I met a great Tibetan guy there who took me to visit his wife and his new-born baby girl in the hospital, and then his uncle who's a lama at the Labrang Monastery. They made me sweet Tibetan cakes in the lama's residence.

For a few years afterwards I cherished that sweet memory of Tibetan cakes in Labrang. Like all new-agey Chinese, I woo'ed and ahh'ed at everything spiritually Tibetan.

Then in the Spring of 2006, I met this young armed police guard of Mongolian ethnicity who came from Tianshui, another big Tibetan autonomous region in the Gansu province. He told me rough stories of growing up in that rough outpost region where the only high school in town was divided into two halves--Han and Tibetan. He studied with the Han Chinese who were constantly bullied and robbed by the knife-carrying Tibetan students.

The two sides constantly fought in school yards and in dorm rooms. One night during a particular nasty fight, the biggest Tibetan bully stabbed a broken beer bottle into the waist of a Han friend of the Mongolian kid. The Han kid spent months in the hospital. His friends, including my young Mongolian guard, sought revenge and ambushed the Tibetan bully one night. They beat the shit of him, and then they ran out of town.

The Mongolian guard said that before then, he had excelled in school and he had a beautiful sweetheart in the same class. That incident changed his life--he labored at an airport in Lanzhou before being dragged home by his uncle. The family sent him to the armed police to get him out of trouble. There went his dream of attending university with his beautiful sweetheart.

He told me that his raison-d'etre was to go back and to kill that Tibetan bully one day. His life had been completely ruined in that fateful night, by a swift thrust of a beer bottle held in the hands of a Tibetan. At my repeated requests not to kill, he would reply that he had his Mongolian pride to keep.

The moral of my drawn-out story? That people are stupid and we are all messed up.

So once again, I don't understand how the media and the media consumers can get so worked up over something--the Tibetan-Han relationship--that defies the line between black and white. I find myself again blaming both sides, which ends up feeling like hopelessly defending both sides.

It's complex. So... Am I being too indecisive?

Then at 5pm this afternoon, we got a mass email from the company HR: "Due to the upcoming Olympics, CAAC has decreased the number of flights to Beijing in order to cut down on traffic to the Capital. Please book your flight 4-5 days in advance if you need to travel to Beijing for business."

Ok, here's something so idiotic that there's no defending for it--at least not in my rush to feel decisively opinionated at something.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

What if?

A friend of a friend who's a well-known British TV journalist and presenter has been commissioned by this foreign broadcaster to make two long and five short documentaries. He asked if my film partner and I would like to make one of the ten-minute short. We jumped at the opportunity.

We proposed to follow three university seniors of different social and economic background for a day and see how their class background affects their lifestyle and outlook of the future. It is simple, risk-free (both my partner and I hold Chinese passports), and easy to execute, compared to the TV journlist's ambitious plans to examine China's present cultural landscape, evolution of political structure, rise of Christianity, growing citizen unrest, and many other hot-button issues in his other six documentaries.

So we thought.

Three weeks later, the TV journalist has come back with more than half of his filming done. He has interviewed Christian pastors, citizen groups protesting to protect their rights, cold miners in Shanxi, and dissidents from all over. Local dissidents helped organized their interviews and his crew were dully followed and harrassed by the police. Going forward, he has lined up many big names in the Beijing social and cultural scenes for yet more interviews.

In the meantime, our little pre-production has generated only one and half candidates. The cooperative lower-middle-class kid is an intern at a friend's company. The poor farmer girl from Qinghai is seeking big-city experience before she graduates. But the girl's sister, who lives in Beijing with her cab-driver husband, repeatedly asked how she could trust us. She said God knows what you'll do with the footage, and what the heck is XXXXXX (the name of the broadcaster). She refused to let us film her apartment where the Qinghai girl stays.

Even more difficult is to find a rich kid graduating from college. Our facebook friends are either rich but too young, or solidly middle class. The only bona fide rich kid introduced to us by a friend is only a junior and has scary government connection.

So we settled on a upper-middle class kid introduced by a friend of a friend at an international consulting firm. The kid was extremely considerate and cooperative at first. When he realized that we are doing the documentary for a broadcaster and not for the consulting firm, he very carefully expressed his many concerns which basically summed up to a "no."

That left my partner and me desperate and flabbergasted. How is it possible that the TV journalist could access so many dissidents yet it seems impossible for us to find a straightforward rich kid who enjoys touting his/her wealth?

We had a long lunch with the upper-middle class kid. He said in his generation few care to discuss and comment on contemporary political issues. Most are focused on improving their lives, and they are careful not to leave any mark that could come back and bite them in the future.

"I know you two are nice," he said. "But how could I be sure that there won't be any risk associated with the footage. What if the broadcaster does something with it? What if it gets on the Internet? What if someone uses it against me? You never know right?"

It dawned on us then that unless one could “benefit” somehow from talking to the media--either to voice their grievances or to broadcast their views--few in China are willing to share their minds publicly. The endless What-ifs. There’s our political reality and also thousands of years of mandarin culture in which one verbal slip could send the entire family to the gallows during a political turmoil.

What if… What if we all realize the depressing inhumanity of worrying too much about too many what ifs?