How come American Airlines wants $5 for a box of nasty formaldafoods during a 4-hour flight to Mexico when Air India and Indian airlines will feed me hot food during an 1 ½ hour flight (or three hot meals during a 7-hour flight) and give out Johnny Walker Red like it was orange juice? Remind me which is the wealthier country, because from a consumer point of view, it ain’t us.
I guess we are wealthier because you add up each individual’s wealth and divide by the population. That must be it, because by any cultural collective standards, we’re in the poorhouse. I am not into typical complaining about culture in terms of Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan and Tom Cruise and Starbucks and McDonalds and Wal-Mart. They have all of those things in Beijing and Sao Paolo and Kyiv and Paris and Lagos – that isn’t what makes us different. It doesn’t even make us bad. But we have become mean and cheap in a way most of the world doesn’t dare.
I don’t think it is even economics, unless it is the economics of lawyering, which makes the USA one giant whipped-cream-covered superdelicious tort just waiting to be violated by gang lawsuits. In India they train 40 engineers for every lawyer, and in the US this ratio is reversed and one economy is growing and the other is stagnating and it doesn’t take a business degree to figure this out. Continue Reading
This is of course the Small Wild Goose Pagoda in Xi’an, which was much bigger than I thought it would be. They have a new museum which is really quite excellent, featuring that staple of Chinese urban museums, the absolutely massive model – in this case of Tang era Xi’an,a city of a million with streets 600 feet wide. We are more than halfway through the trip, and traveling with the Art Institute as a Study Leader allows me to not worry about all of the details we have when we bring students here. As a consequence, I enjoyed Beijing a lot more (we even ran into one of the Gao Brothers in the 798 Arts District and he took us on a tour of his private studio – he is making giant colorful statues of a infantilized Mao with breasts) and even Lijiang’s relentless tourism seemed less disturbing. Or maybe it is just familiarity, which is not breeding contempt. but you spend time in a country regularly over a few years and the strangeness leaves. Those clamoring limbless beggars and insistent merchants and bright lights and local vehicles and smells and foods all become an everyday you have lived before and much of it recedes into the rear of the picture plane. There is something lost in the decline of the exotic experience, and what is lost is clearly an innocence, but then again I wouldn’t be a study leader here if I was still an innocent. What was odd was my reaction to the terra cotta soldiers in Xi’an which may have reflected my mood. It was great, but not overwhelming somehow after years and years of anticipation, and like the new Xi’an museum it was actually first class by any world standards. I guess that is the most amazing thing about the new China – it isn’t third world anymore – there is plenty of feudalism and human misery in the rear of the picture plane but the place as a whole is confidently surging into its inevitable leadership role, Pundits like to complain about the growing gap between rich and poor and the strides yet to be made in human and civil rights but this is a place that has witnessed a thousand percent increase in both rights and prosperity in the last 15 years. We have no idea at all what that feels like. Continue Reading
Traffic and pouring rain made the half hour trip through Kunming take over an hour. By the time the taxi got to the airport it was less than an hour before our flight and the driver had to navigate a flooded parking lot with water bubbling up from the sewers. Two days earlier we were caught on a mountain pass between Weishan and Dali, trapped behind a van stuck in two feet of red mud. Muslim women pushed the van out but by then there were a hundred cars and trucks lined up and we were an hour late to Dali. Welcome to the rainy season in Yunnan, the high-elevation tropical southwest of China. This is part of my job.
We made the plane and there is a woman on a stretcher right behind me where three rows of seats used to be. Last night we sat in an ex-pat bar in Kunming drinking Laotian beer with Angel, our Burmese-Chinese interpreter and her friends. It had been a day of losing things – first Jonathan left his camera in a tuk-tuk in Weishan, which the honest driver brought back, then he left his backpack in a Dali restaurant and also got it back. In the morning Andrew couldn’t find his wedding band (he found it) and in the evening Jerry misplaced an umbrella (also found). Normal travel stuff, lost items and rain delays. Continue Reading
Since the 2016 Olympics the tourists have been flocking to Chicago. Eighty percent from China and India, where the currency rates make an American tour affordable. More and more of the middle class are enjoying a journey to the other side of the world, with the hopes of finding an exotic locale, rich and authentic local experiences, the romance of century-old architecture and native peoples with colorful local dress, customs and food….
The Chicagoans under their Dear Leader Daley have festooned the downtown with modern artworks and massive landscaping programs to show off the late-19th century architecture for which the city is famous. This does not disappoint, as much of it was refurbished in the 1990-2005 period. The “Loop,” still circled by a quaint collection of elevated railroads, remains the best – and most scenic – way to travel around the inner city. Continue Reading
The problem and beauty of China is that nothing stays the same. This is why it is the middle kingdom, the sensibility and experience of all humanity.
We are just back from a 3-week preservation trip to China. We go to Weishan, one of the few communities there with a true commitment to preservation. It is in far southwest Yunnan province, in the Mekong Delta, and it shares many cultural groups with southeast Asian nations like Thailand, Laos and Burma. It is a beautiful place, but also very real and everyday. The food is better than anywhere. They have 50 kinds of mushrooms. We ate three meals a day and each meal was 10-12 dishes and it took the better part of a week before we saw a dish repeated. Nothing the same, but always good. We had enough clout to get two formal dinners with Mayor Zhang of Weishan, which consists of a lot of toasting with rice wine and gifts and the best food. Continue Reading
What rant shall I leave you with as I head to China? How about the past and the future….
Twenty years ago, I spent the better part of a year backpacking around South Asia. My goal was India, and I had this idea that I could see the past – steam locomotives, teeming early Industrial metropoli, a populace caught between agrarianism and urbanism like Chicago in 1880.
Today, of course, we go to China to see the future, skyscrapers flashing bright video skins and a billion people taking capitalism to the next step.
I am going there on an historic preservation student study trip, so I guess we are looking to the past. We go to Weishan, an old Southern Silk Road town in Yunnan province 75 clicks south of Dali. Founding city of the T’ang era Nanzhao state some 1300 years ago. Weibaoshan (mountain) hosts 22 Tao and Buddhist temples. Almost no Westerners go there – it barely registers on Google. Weishan is also one of the few places in China practicing historic preservation – most of Beijing and Shanghai are developing so fast they make 1880s Chicago look like a backwater. Everything is new and everything old is being plowed under. Continue Reading