As always I am grateful to my traveling companion Phyllis Rakita Marx for editorial help and for sharing in the happiness of pursuit and to Shengfa Hu, Xuefeng Zhang, Jun Jun Liu, Rudy Fu, Victor Shaw and Larry Nichols for their help and insights.
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By Gary T. Marx
Come fly with me,
I left a clean-shaven, saddle shoe'd fraternity boy, conspicuously consuming America's material abundance. I returned bearded and sandaled on the cusp of adulthood, inconspicuously consuming European history, culture and geography. I began seeking only the symbolism of a trip to Europe and ended engulfed in its substance. Instead of a finishing school, Europe was a starting school.
This essay has two tenuously linked parts. The first reflects on some aspects of sociology and travel and is a justificatory prelude to a personal report of a China trip which follows. 1
Travel has always been a dominant element in my interior life. The origins of this are multiple, layered and interwoven. The spirit of discovery and exploration associated with western civilization since the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, scholarship and social inquiry, the new worlds of American society and the western United States,2 geographic and social mobility and coming of age in the hedonistic, experience-seeking 1960s are the culprits. These are abetted by insatiable curiousity, a need for new challenges and what used to be widely known among my people as schpilchus or restlessness.3
Travel was both a means for obtaining, and an end for displaying, status, education and style. It was a secular pilgrimage in search of knowledge and experience. While far from the upper class "grand tour" or explorer's travel of a century ago, neither was it the middle class commercialized mass tourism that accelerated in the latter part of the 20th century. Nor was it a sacred pilgrimage in pursuit of an other-worldly kingdom of the kind my great-grandfather made at the turn of the century (1900 not 2000!), when he moved from Detroit to Jerusalem in order to be buried near the Mount of Olives. But it shared something with each of these.
During that carefree summer I was badly bitten by the travel bug, although I resisted the budding provincial's temptation to become Euro-philic and America-phobic. Yet it was as if a fog had lifted and I learned a new way of seeing, acquiring knowledge, enjoying life and being in the world. With hardly a look back in either anger or nostalgia, I simply flew away from the insular, smug, homogeneous, material status world of an adolescence, so bounded and defined by growing up in Hollywood in the 1950s.
T.S. Elliot writes in the Four Quartets, "in my beginning is my end." This lovely elastic social assertion is accurate -whether because of continuity, or in my case, in departing from the Southern California entrepreneurial ethos, rebellion against one's beginnings and the certainty of success as a businessman in the well hewn family path of toy manufacturing.
The expansive world of travel paralleled the mental expansion/explosion I was to experience that fall as a new Berkeley graduate student. The will to travel fit well with the methodological imperative of scientific sociology to get empirical and comparative and the legitimization of participant observation as a method. As John Le Carre said, "a desk is a dangerous place from which to view the world."
Travel was also a powerful motivator. Fantasies and promises for additional travel once some goal was obtained (a successful first year of graduate study, completion of Ph.D. requirements except for the thesis) made it easier to study and defer gratification. After several years of graduate study when we decided to go around the world before the concrete of family and work had set, several of my professors advised not "wasting" a year traveling. However Neil Smelser who introduced me to social theory and comparative studies was very supportive. Professor Smelser (whose autobiographical reflections appear in The American Sociologist, Winter 2000), was affiliated with the Institute of International Studies. He had lived in England while researching his influential Social Change in the Industrial Revolution and previously had cycled in Europe, sleeping under bridges and in fields.
Smelser had managed to combine and even leverage, travel and other personal interests with a very successful career. A balanced life and risk taking need not stand in the way of occupational success. That was good news for one ambivalently drawn into the deep waters of adulthood which could become so stagnant from professional specialization and removal from the very social reality we claimed to be experts in. Any residual guilt or doubts I might have secretly harbored about the indolent, narcissistic pursuit of pleasure, the search for personal meaning and putting a career at risk was put to rest by supportive mentors and a view of travel as serious research, whatever else it might also happen to be.4
In The Sheltering Sky expatriate writer Paul Bowles (1990) makes a distinction between a tourist and a traveler: "the difference is partly one of time....Whereas the tourist generally hurries back home at the end of a few weeks or months, the traveler, belonging no more to one place than to the next, moves slowly, over periods of years, from one part of the earth to another. Indeed, he would have found it difficult to tell, among the many places he had lived, precisely where it was he had felt most at home."5 Here he captures not only the dreary chords of modern alienation, but also Mannheim's (1985) methodological directive for intellectuals to be free-floating and detached in order to see more clearly.6
In 1960s trips to Europe, Mexico and Guatemala and the year spent traveling around the world, my desire and fantasy, if not my reality, was to be a traveler. The longer I was away the stronger that feeling. It reached its apogee when furthest from home, or at the point when it was time to return. I did not want to be a, "if it's Monday it must be Morocco" kind of tourist. I even disguised the cover of our copy of Europe on Five Dollars a Day with paper cut from a brown bag.
I recall standing on that double Bosphorous bridge in Istanbul feeling the eastward pull of Asia to "where the flying fishes play", in 1961 in Guatemala City the southward draw to Tierra del Fuego and in 1964 after travel by land across the Baluchistan desert through Iran to Pakistan, the Northward pull to Afghanistan, Mongolia and Siberia.
I assumed, as Winona Judd was later to sing, that "when I reach the place I am going I will surely know my way." As with Ken Kesey's bus odyssey my destination was simply further. Home was a starting place rather than a terminus. It was not getting there, but what happened en route that mattered. The means became the end.7 The itinerant Gulliver was a better model than the home seekers Odysseus and Dorothy. I wanted to flow into the vast expanding space offered by oceans, deserts and skies. Wisdom, deliverance, fun and adventure (and also, although I didn't realize it at the time, escape from the rigors of approaching adulthood) always seemed to be just around the next bend, over the next mountain or across the next border.8 But each time I ambivalently overcame the urge to go further and dutifully returned to graduate study.
Of course there are travel experiences I could easily have missed:
With time my attitudes toward travel changed. I came to see the wisdom of Professor Erving Goffman who encouraged travel, whether to exotic lands or domestic cultures, but who stressed that you couldn't pull it off indefinitely. After about age 30 you would be seen as a rather pathetic adventurer, rather than as a sower of desirable oats. Humans, unlike orchids, need grounded roots, communities and, within broad boundaries, to behave age appropriately.
After extensive travel through the mid-1960s, there were five long sedentary years. My next major trip was not until 1970. By then the ground rules and I had changed. I had a research grant that permitted a year in France. Circumstances and honesty required giving up pretensions of being a traveler. With a career, family, pets and a mortgage it was no longer responsible to live a life "without consequences",11 whatever its' continuing hold on the youthful imagination. I learned to be more comfortable as a tourist and even saw some advantages in being a sociological tourist. 12 I came to appreciate Frank Sinatra's singing, "it's oh so nice to go travelin', but it's oh so nice to come home." Rather than the limits on continuous travel, the problem now seemed never leaving or staying away too long. Roots became as attractive as wings.
None-the-less the heightened analytical awareness that sociological training brought has meant some emotional distancing from common social categories of place and organization. Deep in my cultural or genetic code is a warning to always have one's bags packed, to travel light, to hedge one's bets and whether out of principle or security to always be ready to walk. I have never experienced the sense of a fixed and unchanging place as "home" the way many persons do. The places I have lived long enough to feel familiar with, whether Los Angeles, Berkeley, Mexico City, a kibbutz near Haifa, Cambridge, Santa Barbara, Paris, London, Palo Alto, Albany, Bellagio, Leuven, Boulder, Vienna, Beijing, Washington DC or Bainbridge Island are, to paraphrase Woody Guthrie (see note 2), just vases in a larger parlor. Like any boundary, vases of course both protect and separate and that is their virtue and failing.
Sociologists and Travel
Sociology and travel can be approached in various ways. First there is the professional field researcher whose goal is to experience a different culture in order to write about it. This is travel as work and expenses are even tax deductible. It's a tough job but it must be done, especially in the South of France or Polynesia. This involves certified and sometimes certifiable experts who at least until recently, were warranted by their advanced degrees and specialized training. In writing for their peers they need not offer disclaimers and humility the way amateurs like myself must (re the comments on China which follow).
A second aspect, more in the missionary tradition, involves the "moveable lectern" of teaching, imparting some of what one knows. One may be exhibitionist and voyeur simultaneously, both giving and taking. This may be viewed as cultural imperialism or a contribution to economic and social development or both. One positive form of giving back offered by linguists and archaeologists can be to help local people recover elements of their language and history.
A third approach involves studies of tourism and the tourist "experience". 13 The rise of mass travel for pleasure is an aspect of modernism. The major proponent of such work is the travel industry. An opposite non-cheer leading tradition focuses on the construction of tourism.
A related aspect focuses on the preconditions for the rise of travel and tourism and broader issues of political economy. For example modern travel depends on cultural ideas validating the travel experience, on the leisure and affluence necessary to participate, relatively safe and affordable mass transportation and means for accommodating travelers. Questions can also be asked about the multiple and conflicting influences of tourism on the host countries.
A fourth aspect involves sociology of knowledge studies of the accounts of travelers. Paul Hollander (1998) for example analyzes the appreciative writings of visitors to the USSR, China and Cuba. The goal here is not primarily to learn what the societies are really like, but how they are perceived and how observations are associated with the social situation of the observer and of how political tourist visits are orchestrated.Sociology is not what it used to be. But in spite of the single-track technicians (whether of theory or method), the hucksters who pursue research funding rather than knowledge and the sanctimonious ideologues with deficient socialization to norms of scholarship and civility, there are still some attractive aspects to being a sociologist. One is that our tool kit is always with us. Work and life may merge. When they do this may make for compulsion but not alienation. Life can be viewed as a kind of field work. Travel wonderfully illustrates this. For most people a vacation is just a vacation. But for the inquiring sociologist it can be much more.
This brings us to a fifth aspect of sociology and travel involving the accounts of the non-specialist observer, who never-the-less portages the perspective of his or her discipline. E.A. Ross with his visits to China, Russia and South America was an early and unparalleled practitioner [McMahon 1999; Nichols 1997). Peter Rose offers a contemporary example. 14
To be sure, such accounts are often quick studies and must be approached critically. While not lacking in seriousness they can afford to be less academic. Such personal accounts differ from the claims one expects from more systematic experts who, as subsidized perennial lingers ignoring
Hemingway's advice to never visit the same place twice, know the language, history and culture and make a career out of their visits.
Yet deeper analysis and assessment may come out of such initial observations. Fresh and naïve eyes may identify anomalies and questions missed by the expert. Indeed the double outsiderness (from both the culture in question and the professional culture of specialists) of the write and run sociologist may offer an edge.
In delivering what Schultz (1945) terms "the magic fruit of strangeness", travel can be doubly informative and revealing. It can cause one to question what is locally unquestionable, whether at the place visited, or the place returned to. This applies to locals as well as to academic experts. 15
Even given the amateur quality of such offerings the social scientist brings a different perspective from the travel observations of the literary or journalistic flaneur. On the average we are more concerned with the validity of our generalizations, have greater awareness of our own biases, have sharper analytic, disaggregative and comparative abilities and may have knawing background questions involving explanation and the search for universals in human society. I think the discipline would be well served if graduate methods instruction treated travel as a method.
But even given a disciplinary shadow, for the average reader such accounts may be more accessible than the scholarly tomes skewered by Mark Twain (1996) who offers the following disclaimer in Innocents Abroad, "this book is a record of a pleasure trip. If it were a record of a solemn scientific expedition, it would have about it that gravity, that profundity, and that impressive incomprehensibility, which are so proper to works of that kind..."
Regardless of who makes them, travel observations themselves are a kind of data, sometimes revealing as much or more about the observer as the observed. Such observations also say something about the culture and times of the observer. They are a comment on his or her "otherness". I am grateful to Chinese colleagues, not only for correcting misperceptions but for what their comments revealed about the lenses through which an American academic saw them.
China: Yesterday, Today
A distinguished scholar known for his chutzpah and academic pomposity made a three day visit to Japan. On his return he proudly announced to his colleagues that he was writing a book about the trip. Even given his formidable reputation, his colleagues were surprised because he was not a specialist on Japan and had never been there before. When reminded of this and of his short visit, he smiled and said yes, but calling the book Japan: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow would take care of that.
This section is sub-titled in that humorous spirit. However I don't plan to write a book. 16 I am not a specialist on China, nor on any of the social categories China might be seen to represent.
Indeed the term "China" covers such internally varied phenomena (between Southern and Northern regions, urban and rural areas, social strata and more than 50 recognized ethnic and linguistic minority groups (although the overwhelming majority are Han), that we must be suspicious even of the broad generalizations of real experts.
I gave an intensive course for graduate sociology students at Nankai University in Tienjan, a city of 12 million that is 1000 years older than Rome, was a lecturer at various universities in Beijing, a participant in an international anti-corruption conference, a visitor to major tourist sites and best of all, a participant in numerous informal discussions with colleagues and students.
I was only in the North of China and in two of the three largest cities --Tienjan and Beijing. I did not visit Shanghai or the South, Mongolia, Manchuria, or Tibet, nor any rural areas where 80% of the population lives.
In spite of my professional tendencies, I am very hesitant to go beyond offering personal impressions to making stronger empirical or theoretical statements about China. I offer these remarks as a kind of fast food tourism expressed by a social observer who has striven to be honest and reflective about what he saw, felt and was told and nothing more.
Of course what one sees, feels and is told can be important data. Whatever else, it can be revealing about the self and organizational presentations of the observed and about how the observer frames it all. While as noted the outside amateur may have some advantages, these observations are offered tentatively and in a spirit of humility. I am sure only that as Mark Twain (1996) observed, "...I have written at least honestly, whether wisely or not."
After a life time of largely do-it-yourself travel on modest academic budgets, it was great to be treated as an honored guest, in a very foreign land, who did not have to worry about maps, train or bus schedules, hotel reservations, meals, changing money or being cheated by the locals. It was surprising and pleasurable to walk into a lecture hall with 100 people and to have them clap loudly as you make your appearance, before you are even introduced (never mind that they don't really know who you are and that this is a ritualized honor).
While I missed some of the freedom and local color we had when traveling the world as uninvited guests decades before, there were definite advantages to being invited. One gets a much better sense of the life when taken in as a worker with a well-defined purpose, rather than gliding on the commercially packaged, teflon-buffered path of the tourist.
My interest in travel was not matched my most of those I met. They had traveled very little, basically from their hometown to Beijing or Tienjan. Travel was simply something one did to get from one place to another. This partly represented lack of money. But it also reflected a different worldview. Travel was not seen as an end in it itself. One colleague said he thought when he was very old and had stopped working that he might visit other parts of China. The desire (or at least the possibility of) seeing China the way Americans want and are able to see the United States was uncommon.
The Bible's admonition to "see the world and what it is" stands in contrast to the Chinese Sage Lao Tzu (Wu 1989) who several thousand years ago wrote:
Sociology in China and Nankai University
While there is ambivalence and a halting and uneven move toward opening China to the world and the reverse, the following handmade sign alongside a polluted canal near Nankai university seemed more appropriate than the 1981 quotation:
The vindication and revival of sociology occurred after a 1979 speech in which Deng Xiaoping stated, "We have ignored the study of political science, law, sociology, and world politics for past many years. Now we need to re-start." 18 The China Sociology Society was established in 1979. Older sociological leaders such as Fei Xiao-tong served as organizers and trainers aided by those from then "safer" disciplines such as philosophy. A small number of American and Japanese sociologists were invited to lecture. The first graduate sociology program was established at Nankai University in 1981 and had five adjunct professors from other fields (between 1952 and 1982 no academic degrees were given in sociology). Sociology departments were also created at Peking and other key universities such as Zhongshan, Remin and Fudan. Later departments were created throughout the provinces, as scholars to fill new positions were trained at the initial centers.
There are three broad groups of sociologists in China. 19 The first group -about 1000 government sociologists are all Party members. They are the ultimate Mandarins doing research on applied questions defined by government. Their focus on policy relevant research reflects Mao's observation that "an arrow has no use unless it hits its target." One issue of course is who defines the target. They are viewed as bureaucrats who joined the party because of their political aspirations. They daily go to work in an office.
Most have MAs and some have Ph.D. Their work appears in journals and reports that are circulated to party members and findings become more broadly known. There are other publications which are restricted.
A second group are the scholars associated with Sociology institutes in the social science academies in Beijing and the provinces. As in France, they primarily do research, but also teach graduate students. They have greater resources, freedom of inquiry and influence on government policy than university professors. They have access to senior government leaders and may function as a kind of government think tank.
Much of their time is spent away from the office. At the several major social science academies recruitment is national, but at most of the local academies the majority of members are from the same region.
The third group of sociologists teach in universities. They, like institute sociologists, have greater prestige than government sociologists. Almost all of the full professors I met had Ph.D. degrees. These had been received in descending order from China, Russia and Japan. Those with Chinese Ph.D.s were most likely to be in philosophy --the only place those with sociological interests could go when sociology was banned. Some of the assistant and associate professors have Ph.D.s, but a master's degree is sufficient to teach in a university. That may change as the number of Ph.D.s increases. Most professors share an office, do not hold regular office hours and spend little time on the campus, working at home. However with the availability of computers at the university this is changing. Universities appear to be very in-bred and to favor hiring their own students although I did not encounter the "pestilent nepotism" that sociologist E.A. Ross (1911) complained of after his visit of almost a century ago.
I did not meet anyone with a Ph.D. from the U.S. or Europe. More than 40 sociologists who started at Nankai University have studied abroad and did not return. This deficit is hardly compensated for by the modest sum that must be returned to the government for their education when they leave.
Those I spoke with were understanding of the migration, since there were few jobs and the material and professional life of a professor (other than for a limited number of super-stars in the sciences who are given a car, apartment, and bonuses) is very different than in most developed countries.
Science was generally viewed benignly and optimistically as a western cultural import whose positive aspects were stressed to aide in its adoption. The sociology of science rather than debunking as is often the case in the United States, sought ways to make science more efficient in order to help the country move forward. Economic development and social planning rather than social problems were central research themes.
Most of those I met seemed to share the uncritical optimism of E.A. Ross who after his visit to China wrote in 1911, "...nowadays world processes are telescoped and history is made at aviation speed. The exciting part of the transformation of China will take place in our time. In forty years there will be telephones and moving-picture shows and appendicitis and sanitation and baseball nines and bachelor maids [bachelor maids?] in every one of the thirteen hundred hsein districts of the Empire. The renaissance of a quarter of the human family is occurring before our eyes and we have only to sit in the parquet and watch the stage." 20 While language and politeness may be factors, I was surprised not to encounter a bit more humor and irony around the less attractive aspect of modernization as we now know it 90 years later.
Most Chinese regardless of educational level are unfamiliar with sociology as a specific field of study. One of my students reported that when he says he is studying sociology, others invariably ask, "what is sociology?"
However sociologists as learned professionals have higher status than in the United States. The Confucian expression "excellent scholar should be government official", no doubt leads many persons to assume that scholars will become government officials. Fei Xiao-tong, a central figure in the founding of modern Chinese sociology, is a national leader who held a position equivalent to Vice Premier. Many sociologists hold high-ranking positions in local and national government. Probably to a greater extent than in the United States students study social science fields in the hope of entering government.
The degree of opposition between sociology departments and university administrators seen in many places in the U.S. was not evident. Many sociologists, coming from backgrounds in philosophy view themselves as conservative and some are university administrators beholden to the orders of the Chinese Central Government. The critical orientation of Western intellectuals toward government and established institutions was not prevalent. Chinese tradition does not value public dissension and conflict to the extent that the West does. This is a factor in presenting a public face of harmony.
Still there are limitations on independent research with respect to both funding and publishing. This reflects the government's view that sociology, anthropology and political science are still potentially dangerous because they are so westernized. Some Chinese sociologists counter this by saying that sociology is a conservative discipline because its goal is to help maintain social stability.
A letter inviting me to speak on one campus recommended (requested, required?) "the topic you will speak to should be theoretical rather than critical." Perhaps reflecting some ambivalence the letter writer added, "No matter it is good or bad, this was and still is the request of the university." The Communist Party is in agreement with John Adams who observed, "learned academies, not under the immediate inspection and control of government...are incompatible with social order."
The more critical stance of social analysts in the United States is likely related to the historical conditions that gave rise to sociology as reformist field concerned with the social problems of industrial society, the freedom to criticize with minimal costs, the tradition of individualism, well developed sociologies of stratification and knowledge which draw attention to legitimations, ideological obfuscations and the tendency of power to perpetuate itself, and status factors involving the lesser degree of honor and possibilities for co-optation.
Each region has a master plan which specifies broad areas which are to be studied. As in many countries, the research the government supports is very applied. There did not seem to be much contact or cooperative ventures between the government sociologists and the somewhat more independent university based sociologists. Modest funds can be obtained for survey and related research deemed appropriate by the government. But there is nothing like the reasonably unfettered sources of support available to U.S. sociologists through NSF and the foundations. Professors may not formally publish articles without government permission.
However on the campus --such as within the classroom and in informal discussions among students and professors there was openness and a willingness to ask questions and make critical comments. As a guest I only offered my opinions about internal matters when asked. I did not bring up issues such as the Cultural Revolution or Tiananmen Square. But often after a period of discussion these would come up. I never heard anyone say anything in defense of these.
Some felt the students made a strategic error in not dispersing once it became widely known or suspected that the troops were coming. Others said that Mao did indeed make a mistake with the revitalization he sought through the Cultural Revolution,--that it had gotten out of hand and gone too far, but that in the beginning his motives were good. They also said this error must be viewed within the context of his entire career which "involved 70 good things and 30 bad things" and that it was a minor detour within the sweep of thousands of years of Chinese history. That philosophical perspective does not deny the horrible suffering the cultural revolution caused. Rather it reflects a belief about where contemporary energy ought to be allocated --on building the future rather than on continually fighting the battles of the past. Forgetting can be therapeutic, as well as a cowardly betrayal.
There was a strong desire to help the country grow economically and the hope that as a result more democratic political change would come as well. There was also fear of provoking a more repressive response and the desire not to do anything that would curtail the modest gains that were being made. I sensed the ghost of 1989 behind much of this. There were few illusions about how far the government might go if it felt its back was to the wall.
Yet there was also a modest optimism and the sense that things have moved too far now with respect to economic liberalization, foreign contacts and global interdependence to set the clock back. Comparisons to the short Mao 100 flowers period of liberalization which was suddenly followed by severe repression were rejected. The people simply would not stand for that and the various regional centers had grown too powerful. Many felt that when the older generation finally retired (if it ever did) that positive change would accelerate.
Yet for most of those I talked with politics was not a burning issue. Patience and a desire for upward mobility partly explain why. There was some disassociation between daily lives and the more removed politics, at least in the face presented to this stranger. As one computer scientist put it, "I want to do good academic work in my field, I don't care much about politics." That approach is no doubt more characteristic of natural scientists than of humanists and social scientists.
As with the "me" generation of the 1970s that followed the idealism of the 1960s in the U.S., the vast majority of Chinese university students were concerned with getting ahead and quickly. One recent business school graduate I got to know was earning $100 a month working for a state industry. His plan was to move to a private foreign joint venture company in a few years and then to earn $1000 a month (as some of his friends already were). Of his parents who both worked at the university he said, "their generation was concerned with moral and political issues. I want to do business and make money." Before the turn to a market economy university students wanted to leave China for education. Now far fewer do. They want to stay home and become financially successful.
I got to know this student because I saw his shadow outside the classroom door, as he listened to my lecture on a Saturday. My first thought was of cloak and dagger espionage, but that quickly gave way to an image from a Talmudic tale in which a poverty stricken student eager to learn, but lacking access, also pressed his ear to the door. This student had come to the campus to use the library and had happened upon the class. I then invited him in. He was surprised that I had done so and indicated a Chinese professor would have been unlikely to respond the same way.
I did not feel the heavy-handed sense of repression to the same degree that we felt in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union in the 1960s, 21 nor the degree of opposition between the rulers and the people or the police and the people. The political police seemed to be significantly smaller than in Eastern Europe, although within the tightly controlled work units there are functional equivalents (see for example V. Shaw 1996).
It is easy to automatically assume a Western model of totalitarianism, but that may not be appropriate in a relatively more homogeneous context with very different traditions regarding community, the individual, tradition and authority. Many features of the control system are centuries old going back to the rigid authoritarian ideas of the "legal scholars". (Fu 1996)
To obtain a permit to leave a city or village and enter a new one a person must have their record certified by an official of their work unit. Among other things this must indicate that the individual was not active as a political dissident. I sensed that the laundering of records for a good cause was a thriving social practice. One of the great ironies of bureaucracy is that official certification usually unlocks doors without requiring independent verification. Systems that objectively look terribly controlling can be softened given official discretion and the fact that records are social fabrications (sometimes in more than one sense).
Several persons commented on the greater ease of obtaining books from abroad now. Cost rather than censorship was seen to be the main obstacle but there are still many things restricted to "internal circulation". A decade ago, a colleague who went abroad reported that the software he brought back was confiscated. He did not think that could happen in the current climate. If a book was confiscated today this was likely the action of some "uneducated customs person" and not official policy. Still books such as 1984 and Brave New World are almost unknown and D.H. Lawrence and until recently D.H. Lawrence was not available.. Elites however have much greater access to restricted or inaccessible material. The Wall Street Journal can be purchased in major cities and CNN can be seen in some of the leading hotels.
Teaching and the Campus
Confucian theory advises, "honor and learn from your teachers and elders and do not question them." After the rebellious youth-obsessed culture of the United States, encountering persons who revered rather than disdained their elders, was refreshing. The university seemed very traditional. Classes in general were run in a hierarchical, non-participatory fashion, not withstanding the egalitarian communist ideology. The extreme deference shown by my students gave new meaning to the Chinese term "kow tow". Students went out of their way to offer gratitude when I was just doing my job ("thank you for spending your precious time on my paper" and "sorry to take much of your valuable time"). When I praised them for a job well done they said they did not deserve the praise.
Yet the students were also refreshingly direct in telling me what they thought I should do --for example to wear a tie to a lecture on another campus and to my birthday party and to ask one of their female teachers to dance, "since she loves to dance".
The campus in Tienjan is a reasonably self-contained work unit and is like a small village, walled off from the surrounding city. Students and campus support workers live within the compound. Students have little need to leave it unless they have an outside job, which few did. They may choose to leave only once a month, if then. The students seemed set apart and not very familiar with the broader cultural and economic offerings of their surrounding city relative to their American counterparts. This may reflect the idea that they are there to study, a lack of disposable income, the greater comfort and ease of life within their walled compound and perhaps lesser interest.
When I asked about the campus being walled off and the relatively privileged position of university students, I was told that socialism does not mean sociability or being sociable.
In their thinking many students were given to sweeping generalizations based on tradition and intuition rather than to qualified empirical or inductive statements. The power of tradition and respect for authority and a "that's just the way it is" attitude are factors here. An example of the lack of critical thinking: At Nankai University taxi drivers must deposit their driver's licenses at a guard booth before entering the campus. I asked one of the best students why. His response was "it's the rule." I said I understood it was the rule and my question was about the rule. He said Chinese generally don't ask such questions. He later profusely thanked me for offering him a new way to see the world. In a sense I had given professional license to ask about everything. There of course can be severe costs to doing this beyond the fairly protected confines of the university.
When I asked questions such as, "how do you feel about that?" and otherwise tried to elicit personal opinions answers were vague or not forthcoming more often than I would have liked. To some this may have seemed like an ill-mannered crossing of borders by an outsider (although in the tourist role one is granted various exceptions much as children and other incompetents are). It may have also represented a naturally self-protective response in a politically repressive environment and a lack of confidence that I could be trusted not to repeat what was said.
One experienced China visitor told me that many persons would assume that I was some kind of American patriot (or the functional equivalent of a spy) or else my government would never have permitted me to make this trip and that I would be expected to file a report when I returned. But beyond this, relative to those in the West, there is a desire to hide inner feelings or at least only to reveal them to close associates (who are often family members). I was told that persons would also be uncomfortable talking about the future, but did not find that.
Undergraduates, unlike graduate students, can not be married and are made to leave school if they marry. All students live in dormitories with four roommates. There is a central bath house where for 3 mao (about 4 cents) persons may shower. There is no limit on the time in the shower, but the continual line behind them means showers are usually short.
About half of my students were married and their spouses were often thousands of miles away. I asked why they had chosen to leave their partners and was told for the opportunity of getting the degree. They did not go to a closer school because there was none or chose Nankai because it was believed to have the best graduate program in the country.
Spouses did not accompany them because they could not get a permit to leave the city they were in, nor get a permit to live in Tienjan. There was only minimal fellowship money for the very best students. Most students had worked for several years as teachers or journalists to save the money for graduate school. Some also needed to wait to get in.
The entrance to the dorms is watched over by a porter. The dorm phone rings in the porter's office. He then calls the intended recipient over a two-way intercom in the student's room. The student then uses the phone in the porter's office. Students were not worried about being overheard in their rooms since the intercom was very static filled. Foreigner visitors may not enter the dorms, nor may men enter the women's dorm. Women may enter the men's dorms. during certain hours. But if a friendly relationship has been established with the porter through treating him with respect and giving small gifts, enforcement (at least of the rule about foreign guests) may be lax.
I began my lectures by saying that a part of contact with "foreign devils and barbarians with big noses who smell bad" is to listen not only to the content of a lecture, but to its style and form. They seem confused by what I intended to be self-deprecating humor drawing on traditional stereotypes of Westerners. The frequent failure of humor cross culturally gives ultimate meaning to the expression "it loses a lot in the translation."
I stressed that I wanted the class to be interactive. I encouraged them to interrupt me, to question what I said and to let me know if they disagreed or did not follow my argument. I said I was interested to know what they thought. I said that in the classroom in the United States we value intellectual disagreements and discussion and believe that out of a public clash of ideas better answers would appear. I said I would be honored if they asked me questions about the topic, or about the United States more generally. I said I would feel I had failed if no one asked any questions. Here I was drawing on intuition, and a pop-Chinese sociology about what would be needed to get them involved in the class. I had been told that they are uncomfortable with public controversy and that if a teacher makes critical comments about a student's work (even if done in a supportive way) the student loses face. Fear of that, along with respect for teachers and age, was one reason why most of their classes did not involve discussion.
I...spoke...very...slowly. I did not use big words. I tried to find descriptive ways to make my points and I used several concrete examples for each point and I frequently repeated my exact words or said the same thing in different ways.
There is a parallel to the way a professor might lecture to students in junior high school. I often asked rhetorical questions which I then tried to answer. Using everyday language and speaking simply forces one to be clear about the point being made.
The difficulty of teaching is compounded when the topic is current, changing and culturally specific such as "American society" and when students do not share many aspects of your frame of reference and the taken for granted background assumptions which are so essential to full communication and the ability to read within and between the lines. This is far less of an issue for those teaching physics or biology or math cross-culturally.
Several colleagues who had taught in China reported that they had over-prepared and that it was necessary to start with very basic material from American sociology. I should have heeded their advice as well as a Biblical passage in Matthew 10:19, "it will be given to you at that hour what to say." In general students seemed more interested in knowing about American society than American sociology as a discipline. The specific content I communicated was probably less important than the communication of ways of thinking and approaching problems.
I sought indirect and diplomatic ways to make socially critical points about the absence of personal liberty and government accountability. I used examples of problems from the former USSR and the United States to make a point. Parables from literature and distant history were also useful. This was a code language which the more astute picked up on and smiled at in private conversations. I did not want to show disrespect by speaking critically of my hosts and had just enough paranoia about spies in the classroom to be somewhat guarded.
To judge from the fact that they often laughed at the appropriate times and asked good questions, the English comprehension of college educated persons under 30 was in general very good. Differences between the American and English accents created some problems. For example my American pronunciation of "understanding" was missed by some until I wrote it on the board. Their spoken English was not as good and only a few would try. At Nankai there is a garden where students come who want to practice English. Yet several students proudly told me they never went there because they did not want to develop the habit of speaking "Chinglish" which they feared would come from speaking to other Chinese students.
A chalk board or small note pad to write words, or simply spelling the words out was often vital. My efforts to speak even a little Chinese were appreciated but generally ineffective. However in my presentation at the anti-corruption conference, my opening sentence in Chinese was greeted with a hearty round of smiles and applause. But I could not fake it the way one often can with Latin- and Germanic-based European languages. The tones and non-phonetic writing made that impossible.
I had a very difficult time having people understand what I wanted in saying that I liked "Szechuan" hot and spicy food. The hiss from my "szech" was simply incomprehensible. That was frustrating because I thought I was pronouncing it just as I had heard it. I had the written English form correct, but I couldn't go from that to the right sound. A sound is not just a sound and we hear differentially depending on cultural conditioning.
A single syllable in Chinese can be pronounced in one of four tones, each with a different meaning and represented by a different character; and I had great difficulty hearing the tonal distinctions. Unless one has the four tones it is difficult to automatically know how to convert the symbol to a Chinese sound (a rough English equivalent is knowing when the word read is pronounced reed and when red). This also may explain why it sometimes took a long time and lots of back and forth conversation among my hosts re simple questions or requests on my part. I could almost see their minds running through various logical possibilities and then the smile of recognition as they settled upon the right sound and meaning. They wanted to be sure they understood each other and what the English sound converted to.
While admiring the beauty of calligraphy I had never thought about the fact that it can not be mechanically pronounced (absent additional symbols). Chinese writing refers to words not to sounds. One must learn the meaning of the symbol and then how it is pronounced. Contrary to the belief of children that it is natural that a dog would be called a dog because it was a dog, there is no logical link between the sound and the symbol. In Chinese about 1/3 of the time there is some link between the written symbol and the object.
With a phonetic alphabet we give up beauty, for the efficiency of knowing how to pronounce the word. Sounds are more abstracted human inventions than the picture of a dog. Japan took over Chinese characters in the seventh century. While Chinese and Japanese can make considerable sense out of each other's newspapers, they can not understand each other's spoken language
Chinese dictionaries use a branching strategy to break the image into logical and sequential parts. There was something wonderfully satisfying about seeing the Chinese symbol for a tree to be a stick figure tree and the symbol for resting to be a stick figure person leaning against the tree. My favorite image is "chuan" the word for river is represented by a squiggly line.
I felt a comradeship and continuity with the vision of those who created a universal symbol whose meaning endured over thousands of years and across cultures, not unlike the feeling one has in viewing stick figures on cave paintings or ancient pottery. Such feelings are not found with the distanced symbols of contemporary alphabets with their arbitrary combinations of images and sounds. This also relates to cognitive processes and ways of knowing based on visual vs. more abstracted representations.
The jolt of travel insight and taken-for-granted assumptions reaches its epitome when we fail. That was wonderfully illustrated in the difficulty I had in trying to explain the basketball game of "out" or "horse". In this game the shooter must make the same shot as the previous shooter. If the ball doesn't go in the hoop, he then receives the first letter and with each failure receives another letter until "out" or "horse" has been spelled and the game is lost. But since the Chinese word for horse (ma) is a symbol that slightly resembles a horse and is not spelled out by sound, the game just didn't convert, although an innovation basing it on sentences might have worked.
In English we invent new words. The Japanese are more likely to just use the English word. However the Chinese like the French are more likely to create new meanings by combining groups of old words or by giving new meaning to old words. For example engine is Fa Dong Ji (starting moving machine). Telephone is Dian Hua Ji (electric conversation machine) and television is Dian Shi Ji (electric watching machine).
If re-use is not possible or is too long, they seek Chinese characters that have a sound similar to the foreign word. For example microphone (Mai Ke Feng) represents a grouping of heretofore meaningless Chinese characters. My Chinese name given to me with great solemnity and dignity by a colleague who spent considerable timing researching it is Ma Kai Rui which is phonetically close to my English name, but whose literal meaning is horse, open, wisdom. This was accompanied by a carved soap stone stamp with which to write the name. Karl Marx with exactly the same last name is translated Ma Ke Si. I was unable to learn about Groucho's spelling.
The language is rich in classical expressions that have been telegraphed into a few words such as "in the melon patch" or "under the plum tree." These refer to longer morality tales. For example under the plum tree refers to the importance of avoiding suspicion and tells of a person suspected of stealing plums when he took his hat off under a plum tree and lingered. This gives the language an elegance, poetic beauty and generational continuity that ours lacks. 22
The instructional environment that the American is accustomed to was lacking. The chalk invariably broke with the first stroke and several times I knocked over the portable black board. After much effort they managed to locate an overhead projector, but it did not project well.
The main class room building at Nankai is a tall forbidding cinder block structure donated by the Russians to replace a building destroyed during the war. It was reminiscent of the unwelcoming architecture of the Russian-built parts of Humboldt University in east Berlin. The architecture is unimaginative and Stalinesque-predictable. But it was reasonably functional apart from dampness, poor lighting and a quirky and sluggish elevator.
The elevator stopped at 5 pm and on weekends. On several week days it was simply shut down for no apparent reason. While the elevator was automated, there was an attendant to push the floor buttons. I was told this was to keep students from using it and also to provide work.
Under the tutelage of Russian advisors in the 1950s a separate science and technology university was split off from the main university as was the fashion in the USSR at the time. At this time sociology departments were closed down. It was claimed that there was no need for sociology since Marxism offered a complete science of society.
More recently this separation was taken even further with the building of a wall to separate Tien Jan Science and Technical university from Nankai university. The official reason given was for traffic control. But many students believed this was to further separate the more critical social science and humanities disciplines from those in science and engineering.
Class rooms, the airport, and private rooms were poorly lit. There is a limit on the amount of electricity (governed by fuses that will give out if too much is drawn). The limit is a fraction of what we take for granted and in a flat permits a small refrigerator, radio and television and some 40 watt bulbs. Reading at night was particularly difficult.
Each day in class a pot of tea was provided for me and a student was detailed to bring in a cushion to put on my chair. This seemed unduly solicitous. Having spent a life time sitting on wooden chairs, the cushion was hardly necessary. Having just had breakfast, I did not need the tea. My egalitarian impulses were also offended. I felt uncomfortable with my tea and cushion when my students didn't have these. I wanted to ask them where is your tea and cushion? But of course these were not literally about my comfort or needs, but were symbols and rituals which permitted demonstrating respect for one's teacher. I drank far more coke, tea etc. than I normally would have because hosts, students, and waiters were constantly filling my glass whenever it was empty.
The students were very solicitous. I had to remind myself that something might be getting lost in the translation and that much of it was not to be taken literally and was merely a way of showing deference. There were frequent suggestions that I sit down, that perhaps I needed to go back to rest in my room, that I wear an additional jacket outside, that a nearby destination might be too far for me too walk, and that I take care of my health and not exert myself. My students were most surprised that I both wanted to and could play basketball with them without keeling over.
Each campus and each department (as I think is true of work units in general) has an administration and also a communist party organization and representatives. I found it difficult to understand how these two sources of power related, although sometimes they overlapped. There are 53 million party members in a country of 1.2 billion. Most of the professors I met were not in the party. They said it only made a different now if one wanted to work in the government. Being in the party was seen as equivalent to the requirement of joining a union for some jobs.
In spite of the enduring status symbols of professorial deference, the ideology of equality means that professors in general receive only slightly more compensation than other workers on the campus, such as those in maintenance and food preparation. The latter resist raising the salary of professors. In 1995 a full professor received about the average national salary, although there are other subsidies. There is very little money for the purchase of books, travel to foreign meetings or photo-copying. I paid for copying the material my students read. The students took this as an act of extreme generosity and to my embarrassment given the trivial (to me) sum I had spent, frequently commented on it. Some foreign teachers brought books to give to the students.
Most of my discussions with colleagues involved my asking questions. I was not very successful at getting them to ask me questions. I am not sure if that was because of my guest status, politeness about asking a stranger questions, my greater interest, or the discussion being on my language turf. There was little of what might be called spirited discussion or argument.
I did not encounter the hostile questions that some colleagues report in which one is taken to be a representative of one's country and is asked why the U.S. is so anti-Chinese with respect to support for Taiwan and Tibet? Or why does the U.S. attack China for human rights violations when it has such minority problems? Nor was I asked the question "can blacks vote?" asked of a colleague on an earlier visit. The harsher propagandistic images of the United States seem to have receded.
There was enormous admiration for the material progress of the U.S., but also a sense of a society that had morally lost its way. The questions I was most frequently asked about the United States involved crime, race relations, homosexuality, pornography and a perceived desertion/indifference to the elderly and the extended family. Several times I was asked "what is the American dream?" A child asked "do you have a bathroom in your house?" A student, on seeing a picture of a colleague's modest U.S. suburban professorial home with a garage asked, "how many people live in the garage?"
Chinese society seemed very puritanical and intolerant of the most modest deviations. Officials seemed to hold a contagion model of wrong doing in which minor infractions or temptations would lead to more severe forms of "hooliganism" unless stopped.
In noting with envy the widespread use of computers in the U.S., a number of persons were none-the-less concerned that with the widespread introduction of computers in China would also come what they saw as the severe dangers of pornography and children playing video games. 23
During the International Women's Conference taxi drivers were reportedly given blankets in anticipation of radical lesbians taking off their clothes as a public protest. In working out in an overheated hotel gym, I took my shirt off and was immediately pounced upon by a monitor who demanded that I put the shirt back on.
A student told me a story about several friends who spent two weeks in jail because a fellow student reported that he had watched a pornographic video with them. The informer had been arrested for a minor property infraction and confessed. He was then asked if had committed other infractions and confessed to the video episode. The women in my class would not drink beer in the meals we shared. My question, "don't you like beer?" was ignored. Later a student told me, "it is not polite for girls to drink beer in public. Attitudes toward homosexuality were very negative. 24
All of my students had access to short wave radios and listened to the Voice of America and the BBC before coming to class. With a healthy skepticism they told me that the truth was probably somewhere in between what their own government told them and what they heard on foreign radio.
Yet if they were in touch with world events as brought to them by these foreign sources (e.g., the O.J. Simpson trial), they were generally unaware of the most basic elements of American popular culture we take for granted (films and film stars, popular musicians, novels) that would likely be known elsewhere in Asia. An exception was the National Basketball Association (e.g., Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls) whose games were shown once a week on television. Young people on and off campus wore t-shirts with the logos of American professional sports teams or imprinted with words such as "playgirl", "boys with balls" and "I love you". In 1990 Peking University banned certain t-shirts such as one that read, "I am tired, I am angry".
For a visitor to enter Peking University (I never learned why its name was not changed to Beijing University) one needed to register that was not the case at the other universities I visited. At Tshingua University in Beijing (the leading science and technology school) a prominent statue of Mao was taken down, but the one at Peking is still standing. There are cameras aimed at the area where students gathered to hear speeches in 1989 on the campus.
There is a distinctive look, feel and smell to the third world hotel rooms likely to be occupied by persons of academic means. Regardless of the familiar outer form, there are constant reminders that one is not in a developed country. This may partly reflect difficulties of maintenance and the quality of building materials. The electronic abundance of the room may be balanced by the telltale can of roach spray prominently displayed on a coffee table, or the small green container of rodent poison in a corner.
In external appearances the comfortable one-bedroom apartment I had in the "Foreign Expert's Guest Quarters" at Nankai University was interchangeable with (and perhaps even better equipped than) guest quarters on U.S. campuses. It had a kitchen, phone, TV, air-conditioner, heating and bathroom. It also had mice, roaches and a black substance that sometimes came out of the tap in lieu of water. Water pressure varied and hot water was not always available (because of excess demand or being turned off at night). The ever-present thermos of boiled water protected one from bacteria (the tap water was non-potable), but did nothing for the mercury in the water. Some visitors brushed their teeth with Sprite instead of water and some brought their own chop sticks.
There was a sleek looking direct dial phone in the room whose functioning did not equal its appearance. It sometimes went dead in the middle of a conversation. Another visitor's phone rang every time any call came into the building. This was finally repaired but at a cost of her phone never ringing. She also was unable to receive her mail for several weeks because it had both her campus residence and work addresses on it and neither place would accept it.
The accommodations were more than comfortable and I would gladly stay there again. In thinking about the insects and small rodents who sometimes visited, I tried to differentiate my emotional response from any practical harm they might do. The latter seemed insignificant (and perhaps are less harmful than the chemicals we use to get rid of them).
Food: They Eat Monkeys
Like magnets, depending on how they are turned, China both attracts and repels. Food is an obvious example.
My first meal in Beijing was at the impressive restaurant of a hallowed government agency with national leaders of science and technology. I was excited to be in China and to be treated as an honored foreign guest. On entering the restaurant my eye was immediately drawn to an entire wall of terraria and aquaria with varieties of fish, shellfish, frogs, turtles, snakes and other creatures I could not identify. Since this was a science and technology center, I thought it might be an environmental display (not really, it is more honest to say that I hoped that's what it was). In taking note of my attentiveness, my ever alert and gracious hosts were quick to ask me to pick out which ones I wanted to eat. I graciously demurred. One of my hosts reported that the Chinese are omnivorous and have no emotional inhibitions about eating animals whether "wild, domestic or endangered".
It is jokingly said that some Chinese will eat anything with four legs but the table. As far as I know I did not eat any owls, eagles, anteaters, river rats, dogs or cats. Nor did I sample "fresh snake in drinking two and eating three", 25 "sauté fresh bullfrog", or "homely style braised sea slugs".
Nor did I eat monkey (a question often asked on my return home). With one exception, no one I met reported eating monkey and that was in a far away region. There is a mushroom called monkey brain and that (and films such as Mondo Cani and Indiana Jones)
were believed to give rise to mistaken Western beliefs about the prevalence of this practice. I did eat chicken feet, fried crispy pigeon, bat, eel, steamed turtle and blood clot soup, as well as "fried green stuff with oyster sauce" and "beef with black fungus".
I generally tried to adopt what could be called the "two monkeys and a drunk theory of cuisine" --don't look, don't ask, and make sure you wash it down with plenty of beer. For every dish that was different and pleasing, there seemed to be one that was challenging. A part of the travel ethic is to be non-judgmental (and as my sons used to say), to suck it up. In this context that advice had a literal meaning, particularly when encountering unfamiliar chunks of food in opaque liquids. 26
Breakfast in the foreign guest quarters was familiar. I tried a white cereal-like gruel that was tasteless and some hard baked goods, but generally preferred a fried egg and bread. At Nankai "toast" was listed on the menu and I faithfully ordered it only to receive a piece of white bread (the toaster had been broken for as long as any one could remember and there was no incentive to either fix it, or to change "toast" on the menu). The bread came with some jam on the plate. Trying to use the chopsticks to apply the jam was one of the trip's greatest challenges. I finally gave up and simply smeared the bread on top of the jam and quickly flipped the bread over.
Most restaurant menus do not have translations. One is forced to rely on the kindness of locals, memorize a few basic Chinese signs to point to, or point at what others are eating and hope for the best. In many places with English menus the same item on the Chinese menu costs much less. This seems fair to the restaurateur but not to the visitor, even so the cost of food was so modest by Western standards that it hardly matters.
My hosts found it worthy of note that I used chopsticks and that we have several woks in our kitchen. However in spite of my best efforts, by the end of a meal the territory around my bowl (no plates) looked like a Grateful Dead T-shirt, given the generous droppings that fell from my chopsticks. I felt uncultured and clumsy in noting the dazzling whiteness of my host's tablecloth space at the end of each meal. This was all the more amazing because many persons ate with gusto and ferocious slurping sounds and spit undesirable chunks back into their bowls. Bringing the rice bowl up to one's mouth offered some protection against spills. I also experienced some conflict between my sense of hygiene and their graciousness. It is traditional for the host to serve the guest with his chopsticks both before and after he has eaten with them.
"It's not over `til
the fish comes"
A number of times I found myself praying for the meal to end. Meals take much longer than in the U.S. and fast food restaurants such as the world's largest MacDonalds near Tianmen Square are popular. At the frequent banquets, the courses come endlessly. Our habit of serving the rice and other food together was not followed (it comes at the end). The final course is fish (and sometimes soup served almost simultaneously).
My birthday coincided with the Chinese National Day, so it was only natural to have a joint birthday banquet. One of my best memories is of huge wedges of a very good layer cake overflowing small rice bowls and being deftly lifted to their mouths with chopsticks. I used my fingers. It felt strange to suddenly be back in U.S. and be given a knife and fork after living without them.
There were no sidewalk cafes to sit in and watch the world pass by. People were busy and in addition it is not very pleasant to sit outside amidst the heavily polluted air, dust and noise. A British colleague said Beijing reminded him of London in the 1940s with its coal dust air.
There was sometimes the disoriented feeling one gets when traveling in a new and alien place. Things happen quickly, you are not sure what is going on, or who various people are who enter the room. Others know them and forget that you don't and don't introduce you. It is also more difficult to recognize subtle facial differences and facial expressions across cultures. The smile is a good example, even in cultures that are close such as the U.S. and France. But across wider cultural gaps the problems are more pronounced.
Particularly at night after a long day and if you have had something to drink, the body screams out for rest, yet the face must not show this and must remain attentive to difficult to understand English. 27 Usually I was the only native speaking english person at dinner. Quite naturally persons revert to their native tongue. I welcomed that as it gave me a chance to tune out, yet it also reminded me of the film Last Year at Marienbad in which vaguely understandable actions occur accompanied by an incomprehensible language. The constant excited chatter was tiring. When a translation was offered while someone was talking for my benefit, I was never sure who to look at --the translator or the speaker and that was fatiguing. 28
I was also often uncertain about whether I should address persons by their family name or their second name and even which was which. Their practice of putting the family name first suggests the greater importance placed on family as against individual identity. I was confused because in deference to me some persons would switch to the western way and put their family name last. Given the unfamiliarity of most names I was often uncertain when this was being done.
Phantoms of the Night
It is often quicker to go by bike than car in Beijing. One evening stands out. It was after the world's longest day and a wine-enhanced banquet at Peking University when I thought the fish would never come. I rode my bike back to the hotel near the Summer Palace in a drizzly, foggy, coal dust shrouded night. There were no lights or reflectors on the bike, the road was filled with every variety of honking, speeding motorized and human powered vehicle seemingly indifferent to the possibility of running you down if you were in their way.
Going straight was ok since there were lots of other bikes and I could go slowly and there was a real or de facto bike lane (adjacent to some of the freeways there are even crowded clover leafs just for bicycles). But having to turn left at a major intersection at a traffic circle meant getting in the left lane, where the cars and trucks were --some of whom wanted to make U-turns, and also having to face the vehicles coming from the other direction into the space I needed to cross to turn left. To the befuddlement of my Chinese friend, I was super-cautious and waited what seemed like an eternity for a momentary break in the traffic and then ran the bike left and floated to the right. This contrasted with the elation I felt at 7 am that morning riding to the university in a stream of bikes.
The bikes have a ghost-like phantom of the night quality, they silently streak by from behind or cross in front of you, deftly swerving at the last minute to avoid hitting you, or each other. Bikers, like drivers of cars abhor an open space. It must be filled or someone else will take it. Drivers permit almost no space between themselves and the car in front. They change lanes at will regardless of the speed of the car they cut in front of. Horns are continually honking by cars in the left lane as a warning to the car in front of them to move over which it will do, regardless of what it moves in front of. The rules of the road are whoever gets in a space first has the right-of-way, so cars are expected to stop when a bike crosses in front of them.
Bikers and pedestrians have what I thought was an unreasonable trust that the speeding car they cut in front of will stop. One of my students, noting my discomfort in a taxi and in trying to cross the street, was amused and assured me that he could cross the street with his eyes closed and cars and bikes would avoid hitting him. I would have felt better about this had I not seen several bike accidents involving riders who presumably had their eyes open.
Yet it was also fun to be able to jay walk at will and I did test bikes a few times by simply walking in front of them rather than stopping at the curb to wait for them to pass. With no show of emotion they simply slowed down.
Alertness was also required in walking on crowded streets. The norms with respect to public spitting are not what I was accustomed to. The air pollution was frightful as a result of natural conditions, coal burning and cars without catalytic converters. On most days the sun was blocked out by the pollution. I was there in what historically is known as "golden autumn"; grey autumn would be more accurate. The dust in the air requires greater clearing of the throat. One continually hears males preparing to spit. Beyond minding where you walk, attention was required to not be hit, particularly by persons on bikes.
Another emblazoned traffic memory is the ride from the airport to Tienjan. The new road to Beijing is a modern divided road that would do any capital city proud. Beijing with its sprawl, clusters of modern buildings, freeways and traffic jams was reminiscent of Los Angeles, at least at night. From Beijing to Tienjan the toll road was also divided and filled with traffic, even at 1 am. There was no safety belt in the back seat of the Russian built car and the driver was competent, but that didn't eliminate the night terrors. As we left Beijing my host apologized and said he wanted to talk to the driver for the rest of the trip in order to help him stay awake. As we sped along in the left lane I saw ghostly shapes ahead through the dark and polluted haze. We were gaining on what looked like an enormous moving black board. At what seemed like the last possible moment, our driver swerved into the right lane to overtake a lumbering truck without lights that was in the left lane. That was the pattern for another hour. While there are laws about rear lights on vehicles and slower vehicles being on the right, it is apparently difficult to enforce and a majority of the trucks we passed did not have such lights, nor did any of the bicycle-powered vehicles sharing the same road. This is a small cross-cultural detail. If you are a driver who anticipates that the vehicles you pass won't have taillights or if you have a sense of fatalism, you are prepared. But if you are a foreign passenger unaccustomed to this, you try to become fatalistic, deep breathe and replay the momentous moments of your life.
The traffic scene is a metaphor for some aspects of the society. It seemed disorderly, improvisational, and nerve jangling in the extreme to the outsider and clearly in need of technical and civil amelioration. But it had its own internal logic, which made sense to the participants. For them it must have seemed to be a kind of controlled chaos --going through red lights, bikes riding on divided roads (sometimes in a direction opposite to the traffic), bikes cutting in front of cars going at a much greater speed and pedestrians doing this to bikes, blaring horns that sounded as if they were stuck but weren't.
China is the world's greatest outdoor museum. Just walking is the best tourist experience (though try not to have to cross the street). As in many developing countries much life takes place on the streets not in architecturally shielded spaces. Street workers provide services in outdoor sidewalk offices --whether they be barbers, dentists, ear cleaners, bike and shoe repairers, persons with scales hoping to weigh you, astrologers, scribes, and vendors of every imaginable kind. Human inventiveness is rampant from stool seats made from inner tubes to a line of bricks used as nets for a make shift ping pong table to opening a coke bottle using a spoon.
It is not necessary to carry water since there are always stands selling bottled drinks. Rest room stops however require some planning. Many quite acceptable restaurants do not have bathrooms. To have a toilet they need to pay an expensive fee to hook into the city sewage system. There are public pay toilets but they are places to be visited only in emergencies, if then. The fact that one must pay even a modest amount serves as a disincentive for people with little money. 29
However informative walking is, the population density takes some getting used to. There is great cultural variation with respect to the size of the personal space zone individuals feel comfortable with. Urban China is at one extreme.
This was vividly brought home to me during a visit to an immense "water park" near the campus of Tien Jan. It was a combination theme park, carnival, garden, zoo, museum, theater, arcade and outdoor market. I was the only non-Chinese among many thousands of people walking on a wide-road about 10 abreast that led to a narrow bridge to an island. It was as if we were part of a large protest demonstration surging forward. The road gradually narrowed, we came almost to a standstill as persons were squeezed to three abreast and very slowly made their way to the bridge. The bridge seemed to recede even as we crawled toward it. For a moment I felt like a Chagal figure. Helped by a smattering of knowledge about Chinese ghosts and dragons, I imagined I was standing above the crowd panoramically looking down on myself, but also looking up and seeing persons close to me, some of whom had passed away, all the while wondering what I was doing there and savoring the fugue-like state. Yet I was also worried about being trampled, about losing my wallet, about breathing germs or getting skin diseases, and about falling into the horribly polluted water. I was scarcely able to enjoy the beauty of the park, at least at that moment. This was not as bad as being pushed onto the subway at rush hour in Paris or Tokyo, but it was a distinct experience that I am glad I have behind me.
On numerous occasions when I indicated I could not understand how China could be simultaneously capitalist and socialist I was told, "we don't understand it either". Questions were sometimes met with brief quotations. Such as Deng's observation that, "whether it is a black cat or a white cat, if it catches mice it is a good cat." With respect to lack of clarity over means, I was referred to Deng's statement, "we are crossing the river by feeling our way over the stones." The tolerance of many of those I met for enigmas was greater than mine and however clever; explanation by slogan was not deeply satisfying.
Encountering surprises and things I could not understand and feeling how very different it was to be in China than in other places I had traveled, I thought of China (to expand on Churchill), as an enigma wrapped in a paradox viewed from a speeding train in a mist. 30 As time went on that view was strengthened and the more I learned the less I knew.
The failure to obtain knowledge by working at it is consistent with Chinese Taoism, even if the principle of travel is not. Was the lack of clarity because of smoke and mirrors, my own limited powers of understanding and prior knowledge, a world in great flux and contradiction? Did it represent the fabled (in the sense of fable not fabulous) and presumed inscrutability of the region, very self-conscious efforts to put forward the best possible personal and organizational faces 31 to visitors and a desire to please in which words and deeds were not always consistent? Did it reflect the extreme variability of the country and lack of consensus, and a society more rife with, and accepting of, Zen-like cultural contradictions than the Westerner is accustomed to?
While I am now more mindful of the Buddhist admonition I first saw in a Zen garden decades ago, "learn to be contented", I clearly was still an energetic Western seeker, contradictorily seeking (and thus perhaps never to find) understanding in the East.
As a reductionist, generalizing sociologist I couldn't resist the temptation to look for the essences of Chinese society, apart from any basic third world characteristics. I sought to discover how tiny strips of behavior might be connected to BIG cultural values (while remaining alert to the possibility of a connection existing only in my mind or being unrepresentative or a limiting case). Alas a member of the generalizing classes can do no other.
Among the major values or cultural themes I think saw 1) the importance of the family 2) the importance of community but relatively more narrowly defined by family, kin and locale than the more inclusive civic sense of the West and an indifference and sometimes even callousness to those beyond the "community" 3) the significance of informal networks and personal relationships for getting things done -as reflected in the term "guanxi " 4) respect for the aged 5) the importance of tradition 6) relative passivity (a generalization of sage Lao Tsu's advice to the ruler "do nothing") and a non-questioning approach 7) the importance of saving8) respect for learning 9) a sense that a glorious civilization has been humiliated in recent centuries and needs to energetically gain its rightful place in the world. Running through this is a respect for hierarchy and order and, in spite of the egalitarian ideology, pronounced elitism and great regional and individual inequality.
These themes may of course be contradictory (as with respect for learning and for tradition, unless what one learned was the traditions). The persistence of Confucian values was interesting since the Communists downgraded this and the Cultural Revolution directly attacked it. Few of the students I met knew much about Confucianism, although there is increased interest in learning about it and using it as a moral framework to order the new market economy. However its impact remained strong even if persons could not discuss it in detail.
This was the best travel experience I have ever had. Among reasons for this 1) I was able to contribute to students and professors who were eager and even hungry to learn 2) the fit between my professional and personal concern with issues of liberty and order and their interests in reforming a repressive system without creating an anarchic one 32 3) the hospitality and graciousness of multiple hosts 4) the rapid changes and collisions and collusions of modern and traditional, capitalist and communist and eastern and western worlds 5) the chance to experience some of the richness and beauty of a 3500 year old civilization (or perhaps 8,000 years depending on how one counts) 33 and 6) the occasional fascinating reminders of Kipling's observation re the difficulty of East and West meeting.
But most of all it was just fun! When asked at the age of 50 why he wanted to undertake a trip to the uncharted Amazon Teddy Roosevelt said, "it's my last chance to be a boy."
The meaning of travel changes with age. I can't imagine successfully entering responsible adulthood, absent the indulgent and playful rites of passage of my youthful travel. Later with more mature travel as work in France, England, Belgium, Austria and Spain my vision, scholarship and collegial networks were greatly enhanced. 34
Now as an emeritus professor without the demands of full time teaching and parenting, life's cyclical pattern offers the chance for a return to the more carefree travels of youth, with some additional supportive factors. One's financial situation makes more comfortable travel possible. The usual reasons for deferring gratification are gone. The clock is ticking and the Last Chance Cafe approaches. You have less to lose and are in a position to take greater risks, if now guided by greater wisdom and experience.
With retirement it becomes possible to move closer to Paul Bowles' definition of a traveler and a functional type of marginality. Somewhat homeless perhaps, but not heartless, staying fresh by keeping on the move. Life can be enriched by occupying multiple and changing physical and cultural worlds, --like mercury or a boxer constantly in motion and never able to be pinned down. 35
The "on the road" ethos is a metaphor for much more than physical travel. New environments require and extend attention. That check draws against the inflationary introspective account, with its' risk of solipsistic and self-elegiac bankruptcy that may hit those over 50 particularly hard. Looking outward means not looking inward (although to never look inward is to commit the sin of the unexamined life).
As one grows older and there is a tendency for beliefs to harden and for energy to diminish, a very conscious effort must be made to break out of familiar, taken for granted worlds. Travel as a mature scholar also offers the advantage of filtering travel observations through a lifetime of experience. Perhaps the old need to travel even more than the young. Perhaps wisdom is more likely to emerge. If not at least one will not be bored and the ardor can be nourished, at least temporarily.
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In a similar vein John Updike (1998) in Beck is Back has a local observer remark about the short stay of a visiting writer, “A day or a week…Henry Beck will go back and write a best selling book about us. Everybody does.”
I will however include observations about China in comparative work on new information technologies. Learning about this specialized area was a major reason for making the trip. A comparative conceptual framework is offered in Marx 1995.
As in the U.S., there are professors who use the university primarily as a base from which to run their own businesses. I respectfully declined the invitation of one colleague whose stationery lists him (under the name of his corporation) as “General Manager and Professor” when he said, “I hope you become my senior consultant and help me develop my international market.”
The contemporary reader is struck by Ross’ uncritical view of industrialization as the panacea for China’s problems. Of course it is easy with a century of hindsight to be ambivalent about some aspects of modernization and westernization and to question Ross’ sweeping generalizations and inattention to variation and his ease with then fashionable sweeping racial language and (e.g., “special race vitality” and “the lower races”). However he consistently undermines this language by explaining what he sees by reference to historical circumstances, political economy and the power of culture rather than biology. Ross sounds very contemporary in his indignation over the status of women, widespread opium use, the depletion of natural resources and the related overpopulation and the absence of a civic sense transcending local and particularistic identities.
A century later what struck this visitor was the relative improvement in the status of women, a great diminution in opium addiction, a population that will decline as a result of the one-child policy and the degree of industrialization and national integration. Among the most pressing issues I saw were the absence of political liberty and the full institutionalization of law, pollution, rural poverty and great inequality, the need for greater autonomy for non-Chinese national groups, the problems of both over-bureaucratization and of minimally restrained entrepreneurship, the need for a set of beliefs to guide the society, given the weakening of communist ideology and the vagaries and contradictions of globalization.
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