Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The Sophistication of Art

To show off my urbane sophistication, I took my parents and my 10-year old niece to 798, a post-modern (or modern?) art district transformed from a decommissioned military factory compound.

The three diligently studied the art work in gallery after gallery--a true miracle for my mother who spends all her time cleaning.

She points at a huge oil portrait, hanging on the wall, of a steely and desperate looking girl. "This looks so realistic," she says, her finger following the flow of her neck. "This vein here looks like about to burst open."

In the next gallery, my niece moves from one huge charcoal painting of a horse to another huge charcoal painting of another horse.

"Like it?" I ask her.

"Yeah," she proclaims with her usual 10-year-old enthusiasm. "But why the artist paints the same thing over and over?"

Because the painter uncle has to make money, the easier way?

After an overdose of galleries, we stroll among the pipes and boilers of the factory compound.

"Now this is nice," comments my father who has quietly studied the arts. "It reminds a little of our old danwei, work unit... Remember, the neighborhood you grew up in? It was a power plant so it also had pipes and boilers like this... Except the pipes would be hissing with steam..."

We walk some more, taking in the silence around us. Indeed it looks just like the neighborhood I grew up in, except it was... silent. Too many signs and posters for galleries. Too many young travelers with their eager heads stuck out in all directions. No workers, or children, or freight trains--filled with coal--whistling in the distance, or loud speakers blaring propaganda songs, or pipes hissing with steam.

Now it's no longer alive, life, once simple and vibrant, has become sophisticated art.

"I like this best," continues my father who walks a few steps behind us. "It brings back some memories... Old memories..."

Monday, August 18, 2008

Beautiful Games

The Games, are a beautiful thing. The audience cheered for a forceful US strike on the beach sand transported from Hainan, for the Slovenian who won the first-ever track-and-field gold for his country, and for the Russian woman who broke the world-record in 5000-meter steeplechase.

The jumpers led the crowd to clap for him before he set off. The audience ahh'ed when he failed.

Then there's the Irish lady who fell into the water in the steeplechase. The crowd cheered her on, as loudly as for the Jamaicans after they swept women's 100-meter dash.

The young did the wave they had just learned and clapped until their hands sore. The middle-aged laughed. The old guy sitting next to me, with his white hair under a white humble hat, kept perfectly still and straight for a good hour. Then, melting into the crowd, he smiled gently and mouthed a 加油 (Go! Go!).

My eyes went moist. The Games bring the best out of people. Perhaps the Chinese still don't know how to cheer like a sophisticated Western crowd (How to do the wave again? And can they learn some new way to cheer other than waving the little flags and yelling 加油?). Perhaps the government is bent on all kinds of schemes--dirty or not--to put on a perfect show. Perhaps some citizens have pursued nationalism to the point of xenophobia. But the China I saw at the Games--the old reluctant to show their emotions and the young screaming their hearts out--by so eagerly learning to embrace the Olympic spirit, is already part of the spirit.

Monday, August 11, 2008

To Villainize, or not

One day after I hoped that China not be villainized more than John Edwards, I found out a friend was taken away to make the Olympics more peaceful and harmonious.

It's a tricky business to love this place. For there are always many reasons not to.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

John Edwards the Villain

This morning an American friend called from San Francisco. We hadn't talked for a while so we chit-chatted about his job pushing ethnic studies in 9th grade, Obama, and the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics. He is a school teacher and a big-time Sinophile, having spent a year learning Chinese in Beijing and coming back almost every year during summer break.

Invariably, our conversation turned to America and China. He said that he felt increasing negative sentiment on China in the US. China is a growing threat. China has big problems in human rights and Tibet. China doesn’t deserve the Olympics. And China cheats--just look at those female Chinese gymnasts; they can't be not under-aged!

But the US cheats in other areas--Look at Bush and Iraq! Thus argued my friend.

One wrong doesn't justify another, said his friends.

It was impossible for him to discuss China with his American friends, he said. He doesn't understand the vehemence in their attitude, as if they all know China so well that their opinions are susceptible to no persuasion. When he explained the China he knew from personal experience is a lot more complex, his friends accused him of acting like a China expert, again.

"But that's exactly what I'm arguing against," his exasperation rushed over through the cross-Pacific phone connection, "that even after having lived in China and known so many Chinese, I don't dare to claim to know China. How can they be so sure of their convictions? They have never come to China. They don’t know a single Chinese. They just buy the stories fed to them by the media!”

I laughed. I said that so many people seem to know China nowadays. Even long-time expats in Beijing are handing out digests on how to approach and report on China for tourists and journalists visiting for the Games. Yet like my friend, I find China increasingly complex, and rich, and eluding easy characterization, especially after having lived in Hangzhou without any expat for the past few months.

People need a villain to stamp on, I suggested, just like they need a hero to worship; and China is the new big villain to quench this desire.

My pseudo-psychological analysis seemed satisfactory, but not to have alleviated my friend's worries. After hanging up the phone, I went online. The English-language reporting on the Opening Ceremony has been glowing (now it's the turn of the Chinese netizens to trash the event). For a while, the world appeared to have forgotten the issues of Tibet, Uighur and human rights, and accepted China's message of peace and harmony, just as I was entranced by the TV screen on the opening night and moved to tears on several occasions.

Then I read the detailed reporting on John Edwards's salacious affair and the millions of dollars bestowed on that woman and the recent contrite public apology on such a shameful act as well as the insistence of no knowledge on the millions of dollars having been lavished on that woman.

Even a poster boy of a man self-made through hard work and moral righteousness failed to the human weakness. And I believe Edwards is still doing as much as he can to control the damage--including lying.

So we all have a villain inside. Why villainize China so much?

Friday, August 08, 2008

My Mother is in Town for the Games

My parents arrived in town yesterday for the games. As soon as she put down her luggage, my mother started dusting, cleaning, laundering and having my dad hang a string in the kitchen to line dry the laundry. And she complained about her knee, about my niece being too loud, and about me not making enough money.

The same old mother despite my many tete-a-tete regarding the importance of leaving time for exercise, recreation and peace of mind, especially at her age.

It's a bit of a relief to step out and go about my usual work. Taking a cab about town, I saw cops everywhere, tourists having replaced the residents everywhere, and all the unfinished construction sites prettied up everywhere. Seven years in the making and it's happening in less than 24 hours? It felt surreal. For beneath all the heavy makeup, Beijing still looks the same--the haze hanging over the city ("Let's see how the government can manufacture a clear day tomorrow for the opening," chuckled the taxi driver), the strong desire to put on a face-enhancing extravaganza at all costs (A friend said it felt like the family is receiving important guests and all the poor relatives have to go into hiding, just like old days), and the visiting foreign reporters fishing for the same old China stories (Can we interview you to understand more of the underground church? asked a foreign reporter).

I dragged my parents out for a walk after dinner, much to my mother's displeasure (she still has tons of cleaning to do, even though our ayi just came for his weekly cleaning today). I took them to The Place Mall which is rumored to have the second largest LCD screen in the world. The huge screen was filled with Coca Cola logos due to an event there sponsored by the company. I kept on describing how wonderful the images on that screen were in other non-Olympic days.

I wanted to impress my mother, tacky tourist trap or not, to get her mind off cleaning. She had not wanted to come in the first place. I had pleaded with her. It's probably the last and only Olympics she would experience in person. I want her to be happy, however briefly, even though she appears bent on denying that to herself.

So I'm praying for a safe and good Olympics, for my mother and other Chinese who are like my mother. Just to be able to have fun for a brief period of time. It might be a silly party and people have all the reasons to scorn at this show-and-dance on top of the environmental and human rights problems. But I've learned (or forced) to be more patient, for Beijing has changed faster, much faster, than my mother.

And for my mother, I hope she can enjoy the silly party, even just a little bit.