by Robert Demko
In June of this year I spent the month journeying in China and Tibet with two separate groups, the first designed to see the sights of eastern China and the second intent on helping schools, villages and clinics in eastern Tibet with financial and physical aid. When I asked Kizzen about submitting something to The Eagle she advised me to keep it short, to the point and personal. So here goes my series of verbal snap shots.
A tenth floor hotel room window. An endless flow of traffic beneath me on a modern eight lane interstate and beyond ranks of concrete buildings stretch away into the glowing orange brown smog. Where am I? LA? Berlin? Ah yes, Beijing! The wailing behind me on the TV is a Chinese opera with something that looks like a flag waving. Another channel—a situation comedy with a laugh track, a nature channel, an incomprehensible talk show. I eat a chicken sandwich from room service and hope to sleep away my jet lag.
Next day. Tour bus. I meet my traveling companions. To my surprise the ten of them are all Chinese expatriots from Brooklyn, NY here to show their kids the old country. One of the girls is a movie editor who has the awesome responsibility of making Meryl Streep look twenty years younger. Leaving the tour bus for the Forbidden City I am immediately lost. Did I mention that I am legally blind? Hitch a ride on the back of a motor bike and wait for the group to find me in the pouring rain. Despite this, grounds packed. Curving tiled roofs, stone and pine gardens. Birds. Dragon statues. Wet, ancient paths and multicolored umbrellas bobbing like living mushrooms. Vast courtyards imitate a Hollywood movie set.
Tianeman Square, metal detectors, patted down before entering, the fear of events twenty years ago in their polite movements. Imagine hordes of teenagers camping out under a makeshift statue of liberty, all absorbed into the new Chinese middle class leaving only the picture of a man standing before a tank as a memory. The square aligned to the four directions the remnant of a different age now huge and silent.
The Temple of Heavenly Peace, once the scene of pageants, now a wondrous architectural show place. And the Summer Palace where the dragon empress once held court during the heat, now the realm of families and couples on Sunday picnic. Silver lake surrounding hills. Red lacquered pavilions, curved and floating bridges. Lily pads. A lone flute whispers from beneath a willow tree.
Next day the Great Wall, symbol of China’s age old fear of foreigners, two hours north on a new four lane highway. My vow to climb its beaten, uneven crowning stairs to its top parapet some 1200 feet above in honor of my 62 birthday in a few days. Shared a dumpling lunch with a Chinese family halfway. An Australian bloke took my picture at the top. Jumped up and down like Rocky on the steps of the Philadelphia museum.
Andy, our guide, keeps asking me whether he should defect to America or Canada as well as telling me of his anti-government feelings. Is he a plant attempting to find our how I feel about China? Very likely, as most guides are government trained and his father is a high communist official. I tell him to shut up or he will get us both arrested. By the way most Chinese children receive a Western nick name in elementary school. So many Lucys, Allens and Andys running around, an attempt to move away from ancient Lis and Wongs? To most, history means little besides the imperatives of daily life. One more Beijing image. The Olympic village. The swimming center. Several thousand Chinese surround me in the stands of this futuristic building. Doing what? Watching the blue water. No one swims. No one dives. Hour after hour. Waiting. Gazing out with pride at a memory.
Wonderful traveling group. The elders though, speaking little English after 17 years in Brooklyn, treat me like a brother and their daughters gab on in a typical American fashion, all of them discretely watching me lest I wander into the merciless Beijing traffic.
Fly to Xian, the ancient capital, end of the Silk Road and home of 8,000 recently excavated terracota warriors. Xian is a ‘medium’ sized city of only twelve million as compared to the 32 million of Beijing with its rank upon rank of modernistic skyscrapers lacking here. Traffic snakes through the ancient doors of the remaining wall which once completely encircled the city. Now it is an industrial center with only remnants of its past glory. A bell and drum tower which once tolled the time, a small part of a once dominant Buddhist Temple with an eight story pagoda, the mound tomb of the barbaric Emperor Chin who became the first to unite China 2,000 years ago, and the terracota figures.
Their story: Chin was about to massacre his army and have them buried with him at his own death until a more thoughtful minister talked him into creating the larger-than-life-sized figures which are much more fun than a pile of grizzly bones. Thank God for clearer heads, as they truly took my breath away. Row after row, archers, generals, charioteers, horses, officers and foot men replicated in exact detail and arranged in the pits in which they were found. A particular figure, the only one with a faint, ironic smile kept off to the side. Him, I would like to share a beer with. So lifelike I could imagine myself marching with them all that time ago.
I could go on and on about the glorious southern lakes and gardens of Wu See where the leaders keep houses, the gondolas and canals of Hang chou and Feng chou formed by thousands of workers diverting a river over centuries, huge Shanghai with the colonial center on the Bundt. But this thing is starting to sound very touristy, a Kizzen no no.
Yet for now I am on a tour, something the government likes, better to keep us under their invisible thumb. But a few more thoughts and images before I head off to Tibet and the true purpose of my trip. A tranquil shrine honoring a general who lived a thousand years ago. Never losing a battle, he was loved by the people. One day the emperor called him to Xian and demanded that he and his family commit suicide as the general had become more popular than his illustrious leader. How could he say no to such a command? Loyalty and the good of the country. And a woman I ask whether she is happy with only one child as is required by law. She hesitates and turns her head. Now I am, she whispers.
And a few questions. The Chinese government has attempted to divert their people’s attention from their lack of personal freedom by giving them economic success. An SUV in every garage. Indeed one man admitted that he must have an SUV or lose face. Keeping up with the Jones’s? Is this any different from a Bush administration that commands us to just go shopping in the face of questions about the Iraqi war? The vision of hundreds of millions of gas guzzlers fouling the air around the world haunts me.
Many Chinese still burn incense and pray at temples that are sometimes private and sometimes government owned. In vast modern societies how do we remember our heritage? I love the Chinese people, so much like ourselves in their desires and feelings. Perhaps they are more conservative, more private in the way they show these feelings, a conservatism born in a closed, insulated society only now beginning to open. How do they feel about their government?
The Chinese have seen so many ups and downs in their ancient history, and this is bound to continue. In their rush to modernize will they destroy not only their own culture, but that of Mongolia and Tibet? More on this as I travel on to that ravaged country.