Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Tony Gwynn, and a writer's work

If you follow me on Facebook or Twitter, you've probably noticed that I posted a lot of articles and photos about Tony Gwynn, one of the greatest hitters in baseball, after his untimely passing.

Tony formed a great friendship with Ted Williams, who considered Gwynn the best hitter since, well, Ted Williams

Tony Gwynn was Mr. Padre, the face of a franchise that often -- well, mostly -- has underperformed. On a team with a history of mediocrity, he was excellence personified. He was also Mr. San Diego. For a city that hasn't always had a strong identity, other than, "We're not LA!" he was the perfect hero. Hard-working, loyal -- he stayed in San Diego for his entire career, though he could have made much more money elsewhere, and he could have been a lot more famous, too, if he'd taken the big bucks and gone to a big market like New York or Boston or Los Angeles.

He loved San Diego, and San Diego loved him back.

And get this. He was a genuinely good guy, too. Great family man. Wonderful to fans. Had a laugh, a gleeful cackle, and a smile that lit up the room. If anyone had a negative word to say about Tony Gwynn, I haven't read it yet. Instead, after his death, tributes poured in from all around the country. I'll just link to one, "I was Tony Gwynn's bat boy." It will give you an idea of the rest.

Tony's statue at Petco Park

It was a crazy thing, being in San Diego when Tony Gwynn died. He was too young, too nice, too good a person. I don't know how many sports figures there are these days whose passing would be felt by as many and as deeply, who was so linked to a particular city, a place that doesn't have many heroes. As a lifelong Padres fan (which is another term for "masochist"), I was, like many San Diegans, mourning a man I didn't know, and you know, I generally don't get all that involved in the lives of celebrities that I don't know. 

Of course, I had to go to the memorial. Decked out in my Tony Gwynn retro jersey, wearing my new Tony Gwynn 394 Pale Ale T-shirt (yes, he collaborated on a signature beer with Alesmith Brewing Company. And it's delicious).

It was really a lovely event. There were a lot of emotional moments, but one of them came when former Padres shortstop Damian Jackson talked about how he didn't have a father growing up, how Tony would have been a great father to have. 

Yeah, that kind of guy.

The memorial at Petco Park

One of the things most remarked upon was Tony Gwynn's incredible work ethic. He was a pioneer in using video tapes to study hitting, a practice that is now universally used in baseball. He showed up earlier, practiced longer, than just about anyone. He analyzed hitting constantly, down to the smallest minutia. He rarely struck out. He was all about putting the bat on the ball, hitting that 5.5 hole.

He wasn't a great fielder at first, so he worked his ass off to become one and won five Golden Gloves. 

He worked very, very hard, and this is something that was greatly celebrated here. It fits in with that hazy San Diego civic culture: Work hard, don't be flashy, get the job done. 

Somewhere around the 100th iteration of Tony Gwynn's work ethic, I realized that there was an element of wishful thinking involved. Basically, if you work hard, you too will achieve and be rewarded. While that's not UN-true, it's not the entire picture, either. He had incredible natural gifts. He had a loving and supportive family. 

Plenty of people could work just as hard as Tony Gwynn and not achieve what he achieved. 

Why am I going on about a beloved baseball player on a blog dedicated to fictional mayhem set in foreign countries?

One of the things I kept thinking about was how Tony Gwynn's career resonated with me as a novelist. 

Baseball can be a real grind. It's a long season, and baseball players play a lot of games. It requires stamina, discipline and the sheer, dogged stubbornness to show up and play whether you feel like it or not. 

Writing novels feels a bit like that at times. 

Novels are…long. Writing one takes sustained effort over a long period of time. You research. You struggle through the first draft, and then you rewrite. And revise. And rewrite and revise some more. You deal with editor's notes. You revise and rewrite. You do your line edit. Your copy edit. Your page proofs. You try to craft the thing as best as you can, down to each single sentence. 

And like most things, you get better with practice. You work hard, and it's reflected in the work. 

But so is your individual talent. Your voice. That spark and gift that you can't explain and you can't always will into being. 

Respect your own gifts by working hard and treating people well. And by being loyal to the thing that drives you to create in the first place. 

You don't cheapen your Muse by selling out and becoming a damn Yankee, or a stinkin' Dodger.

Lisa…every other Wednesday…

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

A visit to "Chinawood"

Whenever I come to China, I try to go somewhere I’ve never been. On this trip, I decided to visit Hengdian World Studios. I worked on a film studio lot in Los Angeles for many years; how could I resist a visit to the largest filming facility in China, which, as I understood it, is also a tourist attraction a la Universal Studios.

This trip happened kind of quickly and I didn’t have much time to research it or even really think much about where I was going and what I would do. I’d read an article about Hengdian that purported to explain how to get there and what to do, and for whatever reason, I just took it on faith that the information was correct.

So, I took a high-speed train from Shanghai to a place called Yiwu that I knew nothing about. From Yiwu I was supposed to look for Bus K850 and for 1.5 yuan take that to someplace called Jiangdong, where supposedly there were shuttles to Hengdian for 10 kuai. I didn’t know what time the buses ran or stopped running. I was mildly anxious about this, but not enough to do anything about it. I just got off the train in Yiwu and wandered over to the right, where the bus station was.

(this was on the way back, but you get the idea)

The bus: a typical Chinese public bus. I asked the attendant if it went to Jiangdong and if from Jiangdong I could get to Hengdian. She nodded and said “yes,” rather curtly, so I got on the bus. I was naturally the only laowai on the thing.

Which was standing room only. The bus jerked and moved and stopped and went, all of us who were unfortunate enough to be standing hanging on to the plastic strap handles and swaying with every turn and halt. I do not necessarily recommend traveling this way.

Yiwu, as it turns out, is a pretty big city. We passed a row of luxury car dealerships as we headed into town. Lexus and Infiniti. I’d never even heard of Yiwu, but at least a few people there must be making enough money to buy them.

The drive took a long time. We seemed to go out of the city, and then into another one, but when I asked the woman next to me where we were, it was still Yiwu.

Finally we came to Jiangdong, which was the end of the line with a lot of other city buses, still in Yiwu. A smaller white bus was parked there. I figured it was probably the shuttle to Hengdian, and as I stood there, considering, a guy asked me if I was going to Hengdian and said that this was indeed the right bus.

I sat by an open window, thinking, it would be nice to sit for this leg of the journey.

Unfortunately, just as I got comfortable, someone came on the bus and made an announcement in dialect that I couldn’t understand, but the upshot of which was, everybody had to get off this bus and get onto another one.

That bus, naturally, was already full. I grabbed the absolute last seat on it, climbing over someone’s suitcase to claim it, next to a young woman who was sitting sideways in the seat because her luggage was piled around her. More people boarded, filling the aisle. It was a 12 yuan ride, as it turned out. I asked the ticket collector how long it was to Hengdian. “Yige xiaoshi,” she told me. An hour. And “Nide Hanyu ting bucuo.” Your Chinese is not bad. This is a compliment. “Not really,” I told her. “I have a long way to go.” I would demonstrate how far later in the evening.

“Are you going to Hengdian?” my seatmate asked me. I said that I was. “I heard it’s fun,” she said.

What is not fun: sitting with your seatmates’ kneecap pushed into your thigh, a water bottle in the front seat pocket poking into your knee, your backpack and bag perched on your lap, being jammed into your kidneys by the collapsing seat of the person in front of you.

According to the article I read, “Hengdian is so small that you can easily find hotels of all kinds and many restaurants.” Also, supposedly, there are Hengdian Studios electric cars and rickshaws to take you where you need to go. Well, not so much. It’s more like a medium-sized town, and when the bus stopped in its center and we all got out, I realized that I had no idea where my hotel was and no idea how to get there. I didn’t see any of these magical electric cars and/or rickshaws.

What I did see was a “modi,” one of those motorized trike vehicles with a tin covering, where you can ride on a wood bench inside. They are of course extremely underpowered and pretty dangerous. Oh well. The driver looked at the address of my hotel and told me it was “very far” and would therefore cost me 30K to get there. I wasn’t sure that I believed her. “Very far” in small Hengdian? But after a halfhearted attempt to find other options, I gave up. Odds were I probably wasn’t going to die in a crash taking one of these things just this once.

Not only are you riding inside of a giant tin can, you are riding on one that is being hammered on, where every bump in the road is a major jolt, and who knew, she was telling the truth when she told me it was “very far,” or “very far” in terms of Hengdian. We bounced along, down rough roads that appeared to be taking us out of town. This can’t be right, I thought. This is supposed to be a four-start hotel with “excellent” ratings on CTrip, and we are heading out into the countryside. Then, down a road lined with…furniture factories. Yeah. Long, warehouse-like buildings advertising mahogany and rosewood furniture.

Then, suddenly: my hotel. An apparition in marble and gilt in the middle of a row of furniture factories.

The name of it was the Hengdian Honton Boutique Hotel. “Honton” is not a word in my Chinese dictionary, but looking at the actual characters, the name has something to do with “rosewood.”  As close as I can figure out this hotel caters to businessmen coming to make deals on furniture. It does not cater much to foreign tourists, and I quickly reached the limits of my Chinese understanding when trying to communicate with the desk clerk, who spoke very quickly and with a heavy local accent. But eventually I made my way to my very nice room, and then, to dinner.

The restaurant was a series of private banquet rooms, and I sat alone in one at the end of the dinner service and drank a Cheerday Beer. I really needed a Cheerday Beer by that point.

After the adventure of getting to Hengdian, the actual studio visit was almost an anticlimax. Not that it wasn’t interesting. I visited the Qing/Ming Dynasty filming base, the one with the giant full-sized replica of the Forbidden City that Zhang Yimou used in his films HERO and CURSE OF THE GOLDEN FLOWER. 

After that I wandered around the streets of old Hong Kong.

Filming was mostly done without sound, so tourists clustered around the production sets in close proximity to the filming. 

Other tourist activities included dressing up in costumes for photos and performances in your own movie skits, a blue screen demonstration, horse and archery shows, comedy performances.

When it was time for me to head back to Yiwu, the Hengdian tourist taxis again eluded me, and I ended up in yet another modi back to the part of town where the shuttle buses waited. Hopped on that. 
“Oh, you’re back!” It was the same ticket taker as yesterday. “Did you have fun?”
“Yes. A lot of fun.” And I really did. Because sometimes half the fun really is just managing to get there.

Sunday, June 01, 2014

Dog Years...

I'm pretty sure some novels are written in dog years.

I'm wiped out. I feel kind of like that guy up there, except not as perky. But I am similarly exultant.

A couple days ago I sent off the draft of my latest book to my editor. The draft was…a bit…tardy. Okay, I was late. This has never happened to me before. But every once in a while, you run up against the reality that, although writing books for publication is a job, embedded in a for-profit (we hope) business, creating a novel is still an artistic process, and sometimes you just can't create on demand.

This was a funny realization for me to come to, because I've prided myself on delivering on time, turning in a clean draft, being a pro. But one of the interesting things about being a novelist is that every book is different. You learn how to write the book you're writing by writing it. Some of that knowledge transfers from book to book. Other knowledge is unique to the book you're writing. Nothing you've learned before applies to some particular aspect of the problem set you're trying to solve, so you just fight your way through it until you figure it out. You hope.

That's the scary part about being a writer. It's a constant dance on the cliff's edge of failure. While this is not as consequential as failure in jobs where peoples' lives are at stake, or where a wrong policy decision screws up lives a few generations into the future, it feels really important when you're the person whose creative ass is on the line. When you fail at writing, it feels personal. You're mining so many aspects of your personality and experiences to provide material for your work. And there are times when that process is is the last thing you want to be doing.

But then, there is craft. Craft is the great salvation of writers. Craft allows you to take all the messy, painful, complicated stuff, the material you're working with, and shape it into something separate from yourself. Something apart, and with enough distance that you can look at it more clearly, as an artwork, or as a product, however you prefer to frame it. By either label, it's a creative projection of your will, and the only thing getting in the way of shaping it like you want, having the kind of control to create meaning and order that you don't necessarily have in your own life, is you, the author.

You're the creator of your own success or the cause of your own failure. External circumstances can make the process easier or harder—or sometimes, impossible. But there's no one who can get that book out of you but you.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

The seeds of an idea...

 Writers will tell you that one of the questions we get asked the most often is some variation of: "Where do you get your ideas?" My inspirations tend to be character, place and an issue or two that I find particularly compelling. Here's a little of what went into the second of my Ellie McEnroe novels, set in today's China. 

Scenic Yangshuo. How could I not be inspired?
Yangshuo hostel. Like I said, scenic

I was sitting in my hotel room in a converted farmhouse in beautiful Yangshuo, China, web-surfing, when I came across the story that would inspire my third novel, Hour Of The Rat. An American suspected of “eco-terrorism” had been arrested in Dali, in southwest China, for having some thirty pounds of marijuana buried in the back yard of the house he was renting. I found this strange and compelling on many levels. You’re a fugitive wanted by the FBI, you flee to China, of all places, and you get involved with massive quantities of pot?

 Dali, a favored hangout of Chinese and foreign hipsters

Dali is also very scenic! 

At the same time, I wanted to deal with environmental issues in China. It’s no exaggeration to say that China’s natural environment is in crisis, devastated by decades of exploitation and neglect, the recent siege of off-the-chart air pollution in Beijing being just one small example. These problems are so severe that they threaten to undermine both the health of Chinese citizens and China’s “economic miracle”—the astounding 30 years of growth that have propelled China from poverty to the second largest economy in the world. Moreover, they are a source of social unrest. From poor farmers demonstrating against polluting factories that have contaminated their cropland to middle and upper class urban professionals who would like to have breathable air in their cities, Chinese people have protested about environmental problems, on the streets and on social media. The government has taken a somewhat more relaxed view of such protests than it has of others that are more overtly political, but that tolerance only goes so far because environmental issues provoke an increasingly large percentage of China’s “mass incidents,” and they have the potential to bring disparate groups of China’s citizens together.
Protesting a chemical factory

It’s easy to dismiss China’s problems as things that don’t have much affect on us in the US, or at least to keep them at a distance because they aren’t connected to us. But there are consequences and connections if you look.

In plotting this book, I needed that American connection, and I thought that a fugitive “eco-terrorist” might do the trick. But what was he protesting?

I decided to use GMOs – genetically modified organisms. These products, pioneered by American companies like Monsanto and DuPont, are created by a process where unrelated genetic material is inserted into a plant or even an animal to create something with desirable properties that you’d never find in nature. Most commonly they’re designed to resist herbicides, such as Monsanto’s Roundup Ready soybeans, or engineered to produce their own pesticide, such as Bt corn.  More than 90% of the soybeans grown in the US are GM, as is 88% of corn and 90% of sugarbeets. As a result, GMOs are in nearly all the processed food we eat—if it doesn’t say “organic,” odds are it’s GM.

Many of the claims made for GMOs– that they produce higher yields, and that they reduce the use of pesticides and herbicides, for example – have been called into question and even refuted. A recent United Nations study pointed to sustainable agriculture as a better way to feed the hungry, promote economic growth and protect the environment. In the case of pesticides and herbicides, their use has created pesticide-resistant pests and herbicide-resistant “Superweeds” – leading to more pesticides and herbicides and plants designed to resist ever more lethal doses of them.

More to the point for writers of conspiracy-minded thrillers, the largest producer of GMOs, Monsanto, has a public reputation only slightly better than Al Qaeda. The company is routinely accused of bullying farmers, suing them unjustly in the States and driving them to suicide in India, and if you Google “Monsanto” and “revolving door,” you’ll find pages dedicated to proving that Monsanto exercises undue influence over the federal regulatory process due to former employees moving over to government positions.

It’s a fact that past Monsanto employees working for the FDA have made positive decisions involving Monsanto products, which in one case prompted calls by members of Congress for a federal investigation. It’s a fact as well that because these products are considered “substantially equivalent” to their natural counterparts by the FDA, they are allowed on the market with a minimum of review, and there has never been a study of their affect on humans.

Even the State Department pushes GM food, lobbying to promote the products, writing trade laws in their favor and preventing labeling laws in other countries. GMOs are not labeled in the US—and corporate agriculture spent millions of dollars to defeat a proposed labeling law in California in November 2012.

Chinese industry is rushing headlong into developing GMO products, both in collaboration with Western companies and on its own, and the Chinese adoption of these products is seen by some biotech champions as a “tipping point” —as China goes, so does the rest of the world. As it stands, China is the world’s largest grower of GMO cotton, and because it imports such a large percentage of its soybeans from the US, where some 90% of soybeans are GMO, these products have already penetrated the Chinese market. Yet the Chinese government has not yet approved of the mass cultivation of GMO food crops, and there is considerable suspicion on the part of Chinese consumers about GMOs – especially when it comes to that Chinese staple, rice.

Rice is so central to Chinese culture that when you ask someone if they’ve eaten yet, “Chi fanle meiyou?” you’re literally asking if they’ve eaten some form of rice. This is also a common way to say, “how are you?” because food is a really big deal in China.

Leftist nationalists in China are suspicious of GMOs in part because of their perceived “foreignness,” and in the case of rice, you are messing with China’s cultural patrimony. But the development of domestic varieties hasn’t calmed consumers’ fears.

When it comes to environmental and food safety, China may have regulations on the books, but the regulatory system itself is underfunded, and regulations are under-enforced and all too frequently ignored. The scandals in China’s food supply are legion. Hardly a day passes without a story about the use of illegal pesticides, hormones and antibiotics, “sewer oil,” adulterated baby milk powder, glow-in-the-dark pigsrat meat masquerading as muttonchickens fed minerals to increase their weightfake eggs and walnuts,  tofu mixed with detergent, not to mention the recent sixteen thousand dead pigs floating down the Huangpu River and into Shanghai’s drinking water supply. With those kinds of systemic problems, mistrust of new, unfamiliar and potentially under-tested genetically modified staples is more than understandable – it’s sensible.

None of which stopped me from eating fish on a  stick in Dali

Which makes what I found with a bit of Googling not all that surprising, but still pretty alarming.

Since about 2005 and again in 2010, unapproved varieties of GM rice have made their way into the food chain, in China. Greenpeace China found GM rice in Hunan, Hubei, Fujian and Guangdong Provinces, on farmlands and in stores. Farmers were offered the seeds at a discount, and in some cases, for free.

 Guizhou Province countryside. Guizhou also is a setting in HotR

A lot of the farming in Guizhou is still done like this

What’s not clear is where, precisely, this rice came from. According to an investigation by the Chinese journal, Economic Observer, the university that had official approval to produce GM rice denied the rice was theirs, yet it held a thirty percent share in one of the three companies found to be selling the seeds – and of those three companies, one of them didn’t even officially exist—it was not registered with the necessary provincial authorities. The rush to move these seeds illegally into the food chain, the journal speculated, had to do with the university’s “safety” permit from the government to produce them—it expires in 2014. It’s the old, “better to beg forgiveness than to ask for permission” approach.
Guizhou village

Further complicating the picture is that genetic material associated with foreign products was found in some of this rice. It seems to be a case of patent infringement, which is not uncommon in China—yet it’s also in foreign companies’ best interest that these products are defacto accepted in the market—all the easier for them to make the argument for their own. And there are also cases where foreign entities are involved with Chinese counterparts, and one side or the other evades regulation and accountability.

For example, in 2012, Tufts University, the USDA and a Chinese university were implicated in an unapproved study involving Chinese children fed “golden rice”— genetically modified rice that is enriched with beta carotene. While the idea behind this rice – preventing Vitamin A deficiency – may be a good one, conducting an experiment on Hunan village kids without their parents’ full informed consent, was not. The lines of responsibility are difficult to determine in this case. So far, three Chinese officials have been sacked, and Tufts is conducting an internal review.

So, in China you have GMO research taking place in an environment with a poor food safety record and an opaque decision-making structure that makes review and accountability difficult. In the US, you have a GMO industry dominated by several large players who have poured millions of dollars into the political system to have the regulatory system written in their favor.

Industry spokespeople tell us that any worries about the safety of these products are unwarranted, even “anti-science.” It is true that there is not a lot of data, precisely because they were released onto the marketplace without any rigorous studies of their effects on humans. But let’s put aside the evidence we do have, that GMOs may not be as nutritious as their natural counterparts, that they may cause allergic reactions in some people, that they may promote tumors and kidney and liver damage in rats. Let’s also put aside any concerns we have about a GM salmon that grows more rapidly and is extremely aggressive getting loose into the wild population, or questions about how an unapproved, experimental GM wheat showed up in farmers’ fields in Oregon. Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that GMOs may be as safe and nutritious as their natural counterparts.

We’ve all heard about the dangers of monoculture in food supplies, the Irish potato famine being just one example of a catastrophic crop failure due in part to a lack of genetic diversity. What does it say about our food system that three large companies, two of which are American, control half of the world’s proprietary seed market, and that one of those alone, Monsanto, over one quarter of it? That five huge biotech companies have bought up more than two hundred other seed companies, greatly reducing the number of seeds offered, making commercial access to a greater diversity of crops more difficult for farmers? That the average price of planting an acre of soybeans has risen 325% in less than ten years? Do we really want that kind of “monoculture” controlling what we eat?

By the way, my original inspiration, that American eco-terrorist busted in Dali. What I knew about him from the article I’d read in Yangshuo was that he’d been accused of acts of arson in the Pacific Northwest, including one that destroyed a horticultural center at the University of Washington. There were no details about the motives behind the attacks. It wasn’t until I’d nearly finished writing the first draft of HOUR OF THE RAT that I looked deeper into the case and found out what those were.

He and his group were protesting GMOs.

Lisa…every other Wednesday...

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Great Wall

(originally published March 5 at Murder is Everywhere) 

I had planned to write about the Winter Olympics in Sochi. Then the Ukraine crisis and invasion of the Crimea happened. I still wanted to write about the Olympics but struggled with how to put that all in context.

Then something happened that I really don't want to write about, but feel that I must: The Kunming train station killings.

If you have somehow missed this dreadful story, between 8 and 10 armed attackers (accounts vary) dressed in black and wielding long knives descended on the Kunming train station and began to indiscriminately attack people waiting to buy tickets, killing 29 and wounding more than 130. Four attackers, three men and one woman, were shot dead by police and one was captured (a woman).  The attackers were immediately identified as Uighurs, a Turkic people who primarily live in China's northwestern Xinjiang Province.

It is a shocking, horrible thing (This is a good roundup of eye-witness accounts and a range of Chinese viewpoints on the attacks). I've been to Kunming a few times. I've been to that train station. Kunming's nickname among Chinese is (or used to be, the first time I visited in 1980) "The city where it's always spring"— a place known for its good weather, a pleasant city that's becoming a regional powerhouse, in one of China's poorer but most beautiful provinces, diverse in terms of its landscape and its people. Imagining that kind of violence there is hard. Particularly violence committed by Uighurs, whose homeland is very far away.

But there has been a history of conflict between China's Uighurs and the Chinese state. It has mostly been confined to Xinjiang Province. The most significant incident in recent years were the riots and subsequent crackdown that began in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, in July 2009. The inciting incident was a demonstration to protest the deaths of two Uighur migrant workers in far away Shaoguan, a demonstration that turned violent (whether the demonstrators or the police provoked the violence is up for debate). The resulting casualties were mostly Han Chinese, attacked by Uighur mobs, but this too is a matter of some debate: Uighur advocacy groups claim that the Uighur arrest and death toll was greatly undercounted, and it is true that the Chinese government's reporting on these matters is, shall we say, far from transparent.

Why the violence?

One of the things I found upsetting in the aftermath of the Kunming train attacks were the knee-jerk comments by Americans and other westerners that this was another manifestation of global Islamic jihad, with plenty of cracks about "the religion of peace" thrown in. Yes, a majority of Uighurs are Muslims. Most are moderate Sunnis. Yes, there are Islamist organizations in Xinjiang, and yes, odds are the attackers were Islamic extremists (though we don't know this for certain). And I want to say very clearly: there is no excuse or rationalization for this horrific act of terrorism. It is criminal, it is inhuman, and the only causes it advances are hatred and fear. But reducing the conflict between Uighurs and the Chinese state to "Islamo-nazis!" is dangerous and just wrong.

Questions of who "owns" Xinjiang, the legitimacy of Uighurs' claims, and so on are complicated, at times murky, and far from my area of expertise. What I can say is that this an ethnic conflict that is multi-faceted, where religion is just one factor, where the larger issues are self-determination, cultural suppression and economic justice.

On a very basic level, Uighurs look very different than the Han, who make up some 92% of China's population. They are visibly "Other."

All of this has been greatly exacerbated by recent Han migration into Xinjiang. For the last couple of decades, the Chinese government has been encouraging this migration, to the extent that the Uighurs are now a minority in areas where they used to be the majority. This has caused a considerable amount of resentment, especially among the majority of Uighurs who are not fluent Han speakers and who are not doing as well overall economically as the recent Han migrants and who do not hold the majority of government positions and political power (that, again, would be the Han).

There is a lot to be said about Chinese government policy toward Uighurs and "ethnic minorities" (the Chinese government's terminology) but rather than me trying to badly paraphrase it, I'll offer some links to articles written by experts.

Check out this piece by Evan Osnos written for the New Yorker: "After the Kunming Massacre: The Dangers of China's Ethnic Divide."  For background, see James Palmer's "The Strangers." For a more personal response, read long-time Xinjiang resident Josh's "5 Questions about Xinjiang and the Kunming Terror Attack." 

And for an example of how the Chinese state's policies persecute exactly the sort of people who might serve to help bridge this divide, see this BBC article about China Uighur scholar Ilham Tohti, who has been arrested on separatism charges.

I also recommend this short film about Uighur life in China's cities, which is often marked by alienation and prejudice. See this post, "Dispatches From Xinjiang: Battle' And Uyghur Life In Chinese Cities' for background.

ETA: Here is a NYT piece, "Opposing Narratives in Piecing Together Kunming Attackers' Motives" with some new information and good background.

A few words about my own brief experiences in Xinjiang. I visited there in February 2009, just a few months before the riots. I was astounded by the place. The landscape was beautiful (I made it up to Yili, not far from the Kazak border). The mix of cultures, fascinating. The people I met, from many ethnic backgrounds, some of the warmest and most welcoming folks I've ever encountered. There was an epic drinking and dancing night that…well…some other time.

It's a place that I long to return to.

But there were hints of trouble if you looked for them. Here's an experience I had that might explain what some of the conflict is about, from a post I wrote in March after my return to the US. For background, I was visiting a friend who taught at the university in Yining. I called the post "Ethnic Dances":


The students - and the teachers - here don't encounter a lot of Western foreigners, so my coming was seen as an opportunity to meet a real, live American and get some English practice with a native speaker. I'd done this kind of thing thirty years ago, but this was one of the only places I'd been to in China recently where I was really a rarity, a novelty.

I loved the students. They were enthusiastic, sweet, a little shy but not so shy that it stopped them from asking questions, excited to have a foreign guest and to share their culture with me.

I went to their "English Corner." They'd arranged a presentation with me, all about Xinjiang, about the local foods and customs, and the particular cultures of Xinjiang's "ethnic minorities."

This was a mixed group of students. Most were Han, but there were Kazaks and Uighurs as well. Now, everyone seemed happy and excited to participate. But...the MCs, the kids doing the explanations and introductions, were Han. "And now this Kazak girl will show us the Kazak dancing!" The Kazak girl did, with a big smile. A Uighur couple did a traditional dance, acting out the roles, having fun with it. All the performers were really good - I learned later that they were either enrolled in the arts school at the University or were at members of the dance club or the music club. Then, a young Kazak man played a song on the dombra, the Central Asian lute. He was dressed head to toe in black, his hair spiked like an early 80s punk, his collar turned up. He played with fierce concentration. No pro-forma smiles here. When he finished, he made a little, abrupt bow, stone-faced, and left shortly after. Elvis has left the building, I thought.

It was just a little strange, hearing these Han kids talk excitedly about the quaint local customs, introducing the "ethnic minorities" to perform in front of me.

There was one particular Uighur girl there, outgoing, a live wire, wearing a sweater with some slogan spelled out in sequins, I forget what it was. Regardless, she sparkled. After an explanation from the MCs about several aspects of Uighur culture, she stood up and explained things from the perspective of an actual Uighur. "This is why we make the chuanr on iron and not wood." "This is why we eat this dish with our hands." She laughed a lot, seemed to be close to many of the other, Han students. But she was not shy or apologetic about explaining her own culture in front of them.

When it came time for questions, she stood right up. Her first question I couldn't exactly understand. It had something to do with how young Europeans were portrayed in films and television that she'd seen. The gist of her question was, were they really as sexually active as they appeared? Did they kiss and do such things on busses, in public?

Perhaps, I said, it's true that Europeans are more sexually active at a younger age than most Chinese, but I am not an expert. Perhaps they are more demonstrative in public as well. But different European countries have different cultural norms in this area. And of course, films and television tend to exaggerate.

Her second question: "Is it always true that the more powerful people in a country will always cover up the less powerful? Will the less powerful always lose their culture? How do you solve this problem?"

I paraphrase, but this was the gist.

The other kids in the class reacted, but I wouldn't say they overreacted. No one passed out in astonishment; I didn't get the sense that anyone was running out to inform the local Party representative (though who knows, really?). Still, I was impressed by her fearlessness. There's no more loaded an issue in China than anything smacking of "splittism."

As a member of the majority culture in my own country, what could I say? Well, that, to start. I'm in the Han position, you know?

And: "It's a very difficult problem. And it's really up to you and your children, how much you can preserve your culture, what's really important to you." I couldn't say, "too bad the Chinese government doesn't support an official bilingual policy, so if you have to learn Mandarin to advance in education and government and business, maybe the Han should have to learn Uighur or Kazak too." I don't know, maybe I could have said that, but I didn't think of it then. The whole issue of whether Xinjiang was "Chinese" or whether it should be something else, East Turkistan, maybe, well, I wasn't going to get into that.

What I did think of to say was this: "You know, it goes both ways. In America, African Americans are a minority, but African Americans' contributions to culture are so significant that African American culture really is a huge part of American culture - all Americans' culture." I talked about Chinese people in California - "that cultural influence is a part of our larger culture as well. Maybe here in Xinjiang, it's a little similar. Maybe Han people are also influenced by Uighur culture and by Kazak culture - maybe you are creating a new culture, that is a blend of all the people here."


It was the best I could do at the time: Sadly optimistic, uninformed and naive, especially now, when that cultural gulf seems wider than ever.

Lisa…every other Wednesday...

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Taxi Stories

(originally published on Murder Is Everywhere)

When I go to China, I can always count on a couple of good taxi driver stories. Okay, I realize that taxi driver stories are kind of a cliche, but hey, Thomas Friedman has made a pundit fortune on them, so why not me?

Here's my first of the trip...

Story #1. BEIJING.

I needed to take a cab to get to the Beijing South Railway Station for a high-speed train to Shanghai. It's a long drive at best, in the far south of the city. Traffic across Beijing is generally pretty horrible (why I almost always opt for a subway), but I was leaving about noon for a 2:30 train, and I figured that time of day, it wouldn't be bad.


"Do you mind if I go a different way?" the cab driver asked me, meaning, not the typical direct route. "It's longer, but we'll get there faster."

Fine by me, I told him. You know better than I do.

I put him to be in his early forties, short, buzzed hair with only a little gray, tanned skin just starting to weather. We got to talking.

"You know what the problem with new Beijingers is?"

"You mean, waidiren?" People not born in Beijing. Migrants.

"Yes, waidiren. They aren't friendly. They don't really care about Beijing."

By this, I assumed that he had been born in Beijing, but I asked him anyway.

Yes, he was a Beijinger, he told me. Born and raised there. I've always enjoyed talking to Beijingers, because I was first in Beijing so long ago that I have some understanding of how drastically the city has changed. So we tend to have some things in common in spite of our differences, a memory of the city that the great majority of Chinese don't share.

We talked about a lot of things, some of them pretty typical: Are you married? Do you have children?

No, I told him.

"But why?" he asked me. "It's good to be married. My laobanr—" —basically, my old lady, my wife—"she is my best friend."

I gave him the usual answer. Life circumstances. You never know how things will work out. And so on. We talked more about family, about children, about age. About China versus America. The usual stuff.

"You know what the one of China's biggest problems is?" he said at one point. "Too many people."

This too is something that I've heard from a lot of taxi drivers. And no wonder. They're out there every day, trying to make a living driving through congested, smog-choked cities, where traffic laws tend to be more traffic suggestions, where there are just too many people in too many cars, and they aren't paid very much to do it.

You'll hear a lot of complaints from foreigners about Chinese taxi drivers, how they aren't friendly, how they'll rip you off, and I've had some of those experiences, but I've had more positive interactions than negative. This driver really knew his stuff. Suddenly we swooped onto a ramp that curved to the right, and there it was: the Beijing South Railway Station.

 "Bucuo!" I told him, impressed. "Really fast."

He grinned back. A guy who liked doing a good job.

Greetings from Beijing….

(originally published on Murder Is Everywhere)

I just got to Beijing last night after a long plane ride next to an adorable toddler…who unfortunately spent about half the flight wailing inconsolably. I'm on a train to Shanghai tomorrow, so my posting window is narrow and my energy is low—this will of necessity be short.

The Beijing air today was "very unhealthy" according to my handy iPhone app. Yeah, there's an app for that. "Protection is recommended." I did buy a mask before I left the US, but I haven't worn it yet. I'm saving it for "Hazardous" air, which is occurring with alarming frequency these days.

In spite of the bad air, I took a long walk around Gulou/Houhai, up Andingmen and then over to Yonghegong. These are the neighborhoods where I usually stay when I come here. They are some of the last old hutong neighborhoods in Beijing, and every time I come, I wonder what old landmark will be gone this time.

The city planners (I use that term loosely) here deemed most of these old neighborhoods unsightly, impractical, unprofitable—not modern enough for China's capital. Most have been replaced by anonymous high-rises and malls. In some, the old buildings were replaced with brand new "historic reproductions" -- not actual siheyuan (courtyard buildings) but an incredible simulation! Inevitably the new versions house trendy upscale stores, Starbucks and the like. It's true that a lot of the hutong areas were rundown slums and probably not practical to refurbish, but they were also living, breathing neighborhoods.

The Gulou area in particular has a lot of character. Gulou itself, the Drum Tower, is one of my favorite landmarks in all of Beijing, and the area around the Drum Tower and the Bell Tower is full of life: Small shops, bars, restaurants, markets, boutique hotels in old siheyuan. Locals come out after the tourist crowds have gone and walk their dogs in the plaza separating the Drum Tower and the Bell Tower. Old men gather around chessboards, sitting on small stools, and play games I can't identify. Hawkers ride their bike carts around, calling out their services.

(yes, there are hipsters, too. This is near Yonghegong, the Lama Temple. Click to embiggen)

For the last few years, the "planners" have wanted to "improve" Gulou. For a while the idea was to knock most of the hutongs down, rebuild them and add a shopping center and a "Time Museum." That got shut down, but some new plan is in the works. I don't know what it is. I'm not sure who does know.  Whole areas have been flattened, surrounded by steel construction fences, battered blue panels that travel from demolition site to demolition site. Some of it is for a new subway line. The rest of it? Time will tell I guess. Right now the plaza between the Drum Tower and the Bell Tower is fenced off. The locals sit on their stools next to the battered blue panels, playing their card and board games.

My favorite coffee shop is still there, at least. Last year, the fuwuyuan told me, her eyes tearing, that they would be gone in five months. A different worker was there today. She said they had at least five months, because construction there "is very complicated." Maybe they will get to stay. She doesn't know. It's not up to them.

Meanwhile, I'm trying to figure out who this guy is…