Look Ma … mountains! The view from my Beijing hotel window last week.
Last week on a business trip to Beijing, I woke up in my hotel room at my usual early hour, well before sunrise; a time normally reserved for military invasions, heart attacks and urgent cries from your four year-old that her tummy hurts, followed by the inevitable purge that makes her tummy stop hurting. I was sitting at my computer, doing emails when the sky outside started to lighten and faint outlines of buildings started to appear. However, as I glanced outside occasionally, I started to notice a strange sight outside my west-facing window … very tall, lumpy formations off in the distance, like a giant teenager had just run into his giant house and had dumped his giant jacket and backpack on the ground for his giant mom to give him a giant lecture about picking up after himself (it turns out that size has no influence on behaviors of teenagers. Who knew?). But what was slowly being revealed to me was not the result of a careless teenager of excessive side – it was mountains. Mountains of mountains, standing proudly in the morning mist, evoking the paintings of Tang Dynasty poets playing chess in the shadows cast by the rising sun.
And then it struck me … I haven’t seen the mountains outside of Beijing since I was actually IN those mountains with a client last year on a trek to the Great Wall. Normally, the mountains around Beijing are but a rumor and memory to those living IN Beijing because the excessive pollution makes seeing the building across the street a challenge, let alone the mountains 30 kilometers away. To say that Beijing is polluted is like saying that Edward Snowden can’t keep a secret – its impossible to emphasize enough the sheer truth of the statement. Right around the time of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the Chinese government started making a big deal about how many “blue sky days” there were because of the pollution control measures implemented to protect athletes and spectators alike. By most measures, pollution control at the time was a moderate success (though the authorities’ definitions of a “blue” sky seems rather color-blind at times).
There are scientists who have a poor enough social life so as to specialize in pollution (“Hi, I’m Bob, I study scum. What do you do? Hello? Hello??”) and they say that the main cause of the Beijing pollution is the exhaust of a squillion cars pushed by breezes from the ocean far to the southwest piling up against those picturesque mountains to the north. A steaming bowl of particulate matter. Every Beijing resident and their parakeet owns a car and insists on driving it into the city to work every day. The authorities tried to put controls in place a few years ago limiting cars on the road based on their license plates, odd numbered ones on certain days and evens on others. Instead of looking for alternatives in carpools or public transportation, the enterprising Beijingers with more money than sense simply purchased another car with the opposite plate so they had options on all days. A couple of pairs of shoes, I understand. Two coats? Ok. But two BMWs??
One day last year, Beijing registered an air quality index of over 800, a figure normally assigned to forest fires and coal mines. There was a color to the sky that doesn’t have a Pantone number but if a trained medical professional saw it on a scan of a human body, they would recommend that the owner of that body seek immediate medical attention. Take a deep breath and you’d chip a tooth. So to suddenly have a day so clear that one could see the mountains was a major shock to the system, as if you’d been living your life with a toothache and then, after a visit to the dentist, it didn’t hurt. You realized what awful circumstances you’d been living under in the first place
Now here in Shanghai we can’t boast that we have it much better. There are many a day when I look out my 25th floor apartment window and struggle to see more than a ten or twelve blocks away. But in Beijing, it’s a whole ‘nuther world … you’d struggle to see the ground from the 25th floor on some days. I ask my Beijing friends and colleagues if they mind it and I get the same response from hard-core Minnesotans when asked about the winter weather – a resigned shrug and a what-are-you-gonna-do-about-it sigh.
But secretly, I think the Beijingers like the fact that they can put up with the smog, like it’s some sign of moral superiority that they can breathe in tiny particles of grit that permanently damage their lungs. It something in the way that they try to take a deep breath without wincing and their eyes watering. They’ll change their tune in 20 years when the traffic will be twenty times worse when in addition to the cars, every pedestrian will be pushed around in an iron lung.
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Like many expats in the dog days of Shanghai’s late summer, my thoughts turn to home. In the old days, summer was when expat’s practiced the annual migration known as “home leave.” Years ago, that journey had but one aim: to replenish life’s necessities: chocolate, coffee, deodorant and a decent haircut. In recent years, however, local supplies of the foregoing – at least in Shanghai – are sufficient to keep one fat, wired, handsome and smelling good for several lifetimes.
But now, thoughts of home carry a more existential weight, a centering point for one’s identity. I hail from the state of Minnesota in the US, an unassuming little bump on the upper edge of the Midwest, like rough-and-tumble Chicago was too threatening so we ran into the warm embrace of Canada. My state gave birth to Bob Dylan, Prince and Pamela Anderson, but most Minnesotans are neither as talented nor as good looking as these celebrities. That said, many members of our Lutheran choirs do sing in accents similar to Bobby Z, which may be why we are often mistaken for a Sarah Palin tribute band. However, we are far too polite to correct the error.
A large percentage of the Minnesotan population are genetically-related to Scandinavians. However, I have been to Sweden and Norway and it seems to me that the best-looking ones were prevented from emigrating. I’m not saying that Minnesotans are bad-looking, just that there is a reason radio broadcasting is a preferred career choice for many of us.
Often, when I tell someone I am from Minnesota, they smile and say, “Hey, I once knew a guy from Minnesota”, but they can never remember his name. They do remember, though, that he was “really nice”. I suppose there are worse things to be remembered for.
In many ways, Minnesota is everything that China is not. The skies are blue, the people are pale and the native food lacks anything that might be misconstrued as “taste”. Humans, cars and mosquitoes in Minnesota are all bigger than they are here, though I don’t doubt they would be annihilated were they transported to Shanghai. You see, Minnesotan culture moves a lot slower; in general, we prefer to husband our strength for emergencies. What emergencies, you might well ask. Well, we’re not quite sure, but our risk-averse upbringing tells us to be cautious so, as emergencies are few in our placid land, stored energy largely goes to waste…or more often, to “waist”.
Still, there is one Minnesota tradition that shares much with China: The Minnesota State Fair. Like China, Minnesota’s agricultural history has shaped much of our personality and practices, and the Minnesota State Fair is our harvest celebration. Think of it as the Mid-Autumn Festival for the beige-food crowd, or spending a Saturday on the Nanjing Lu walking street but with more livestock and people in seed caps.
For foodies interested in things like flavor, Minnesota epicurean traditions can leave one feeling a bit empty – our most famous native cuisine, called a “Hot Dish”, describes only the temperature of the container and says nothing about the food. And for good reason – how much can anyone really do with a can of cream of mushroom soup, ground beef, a bag of tater tots and an oven set to 350 degrees?
However, come State Fair time, Minnesotans go wild with their food choices, turning into participants in some strange TV programming mash-up of Cooking with Julia Childs and Fear Factor. With reckless abandon we eat Tom Thumb Mini-Donuts (which we feel OK eating by the bucket-full because they are, well, mini and are therefor less fattening, per donut); Pronto Pups (which we are basically sure contain no actual pup parts); Sno Cones (a paper cup filled with chipped ice drenched in colored sugar water for which the consumer is charged $3, thus representing a 99.7% gross margin to the seller); and Foot Long Hot Dogs (where, true story, a number of years ago some snotty-nosed kid from Edina just out law school took a ruler to and forced the seller to rename them “ALMOST A Foot Long Hot Dogs”).
But most importantly, the Minnesota State Fair can provide opportunities for flights of existential fantasy resulting in revelations of the same sort that Confucian and Daoist masters experienced when observing life in China’s countryside. In short, spending time at the State Fair can show one The Way. So in humble homage to the Analects, I here present 10 Life Lessons Learned at the Minnesota State Fair:
1. The word “craft” can be broadly interpreted: “Seed Art”, anyone?
2. It is a mystery why Deep Fried Candy Bar on a Stick is not universally loved. I’ll break it down for you…it’s a candy bar, and it is deep-fried, and it is on a stick. What’s not to love?!? I’ve had Chinese Deep Fried Sparrow on a Stick and it simply cannot compare.
3. Cows smell better than pigs. I don’t know why this is, but if the pigs do not already know this, don’t tell them. I think they are quite sensitive.
4. Grown men do not fell bad about spending thirty bucks on multiple chances to break a plate with a baseball and win a two dollar teddy bear for their date. In fact, they feel pretty good. If we are not already worried about men ruling the world, we should be.
5. For most city people, sheep are exotic, endlessly fascinating creatures. The sheep, however, do not seem to return the interest.
6. Young children should be encouraged to tour the thrill rides and games of chance on the Midway so that, by the time they reach an employable age, they do not consider “Carny” a viable employment option. It’s never to early to start, parents.
7. Unlike disco, bell bottoms and the Bee Gees, the Mullet hair style has not improved with time. Please spread the word because too few people know this.
8. There is a “Best Udder” category in the cattle competition; however, the cows do not seem to find this sexist.
9. Artisans are still selling macramé plant hangers and decoupage picture frames. Those who cannot figure out how to make money in China should be ashamed.
10. Putting food on a stick (see number 2) does not necessarily make it taste better; however, you can charge more for it.
Lastly, I should note the presence of an inordinate number of Minnesotans in China, most of whom seem to be trying to escape Minnesota’s high tax rates, the deep-freeze of winter and mosquito infestations of summer, and enjoy China’s raw jour de vive. You can identify these lost souls easily – they are always the first person to say “excuse me” in embarrassing social situations and are forever missing subways because they allow others to board before they do. If you do happen to meet one of us you will likely find that, though we really are nice, if we had to be honest with ourselves, we can be quite dull. So I will leave you with a final culture tip – if you do attempt to engage a Minnesotan in conversation and the dialogue begins to drag, interject a “So what’s this I hear about a Minnesota State Fair…?” Then stand back and wait for the Master to speak.
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