Sunday, May 31, 2009

Beijing Nightlife

What is comfortable space is a relative term. My wife often reminds me to not stand so close to those I am taking with. The second day into my business trip to China, I found out that I don't really know what it is like to live in a city. Moving from Corvallis with a population of 50,000 to the seven-million resident D.C.-Baltimore-Northern Virginia metro area is a study of contrasts (see the blog: Far From Home), but throw Beijing into the mix, a megalopolis with its 15 million people - you just know that you must be half way around the world.

A group of us led by Bill set out for dinner in one of the hutong (衚衕) districts Beijing is know for. The Hutongs are alleys formed by lines of siheyuan - traditional courtyard residences. They make for interesting walking, looking, eating, and smelling. Hutongs are definitely hubs of activity where tourists want to go, but they are also the compounds where real people live, work, and play. Bill, has lived in Beijing for years, so knows his way around - though if you ask him, he will say that the longer you are in China, the less you realize you actually know. Regardless, Bill knew of a traditional restaurant - just two alleys down and right until we get there - so along we walked, all the way me feeling like a voyeur as my 6'4" cruising height could easily look into the small rooms that must be home. On the wall inside one easily viewed room from the alley was a National Basketball Association poster with towering stars posing, who if we were walking together, would have had the same perspective looking down on me as I did when passing by the locals. Even though these narrow streets and passages are for public access, I couldn't get over an uncomfortableness that I am sure I would have if some former neighbor brought his grand child and used the side gate to pass through my yard for a look at Georgetown East Elementary School just across my back fence - "Look Susy, that is where my polling place was when I voted for President Obama." Where private and public spaces end and begin in the hutong is probably a home's door. Perhaps the brightly painted designs along the eaves are a sign of the pride of ownership - differentiating a private space from the drab alley passage we just walked through to view this inner courtyard. Are there trespass laws in hutongs?

Thinking back, the layout of the restaurant we eventually arrived at probably took advantage of a cluster of what were at some earlier time a cluster of homes. Regardless, adding to the unfamiliar was the food, Chinese of course, but different than my favorite dishes at King Tin on Ninth Street in Corvallis. All the other patrons we saw there were internationals, but none Chinese. Adding to the mystery, was this another sign of Chinese economic development, an emergence on the world stage, with former dwellers now relocated to the many high-rise apartment buildings that lined the rings of beltways - real inner and outer loops, and more loops - and crisscrossing boulevards throughout this city that is the size of Rhode Island. After eating, we stepped back out into the night, where the alleys that were earlier illuminated by dusk, now were covered by a dark sky, and the street was only lit by the lamps inside shops, and tea houses, and bars that often blared the well-known songs of eras-past rock bands. It is funny, how sounds of something relatively new seem to blend in with places that are so exotic and old.

Another in our group wanted to find the restaurant district he remembered on an earlier trip, so off we walked off in another direction, into the night, me in tow, trusting my ten-year younger friend's sense of direction. After what have must have been a mile or so, the real nightlife of local Beijing - the real Chinatown - appeared: a plaza filled with couples dancing to music - recognizable melodies, but arranged in such as way that you were left wondering whether the recording artists had paid copyright royalties; men playing a board game that looked similar to checkers that was a kind of chess, but a scene I couldn't bring myself to photograph because the flash would, to me, seem intrusive - this was their living room; or the street corner where a man painted Chinese characters on the pavement with a water brush while other locals walked in circles around his canvas and commented. Lucky for me and my companion's reputation, we finally came on the brightly lit streets he remembered, lined by restaurant after restaurant with bins of crayfish and turtles and other specials-of-the-day by the front door; streets with young and old men and women talking; couples holding hands; shop hustlers inviting you in; parents with children, even an occasional small dog on leash - hardly a Western or African or Arab face to be seen - streets with traffic lights that had to be obeyed, because streams of cars and buses and bicycles passed through the intersections; strings of colored lanterns and lights that hung across the sidewalk and across the street; restaurants with tables inside, and restaurant tables on the sidewalks - all lit by the neon signs above that all seemed colored red or orange; bike vendors with fresh fruit in bins; and bike racks full of bicycles - all the same, but different because each had a different seat cover....and the smell of sewage....not sewage in the street gutters I was glad to discover, but the smell of public restrooms on every block... where else would so many people go while living on and above and along these streets?

It all goes to show what is comfortable for relatively all, may not be for those who normally stand close to you. Many people living closely together, with a few strange voyeurs passing through - hardly noticed under the night sky above, on the dusty streets below. And the next morning these same streets are swept by an armada of broom pushers, and the next night.... the cycle repeats itself - but not including this voyeur.... my legs are tired and my back is sore.'.. I am not as young as my companion and guide who pressed on from his memory of a scene past, to make these streets and lives at night my memories as well.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Long Ways from Home

It is funny how seeing something triggers a thought. A couple of weeks ago while I was commuting to work on Route 50, I saw an orange "O" like this on the back of a car in front of me. My first thought was an "O" for Oregon State. Re-calibrating for present geography, I made the correction that this was an "O" for the Baltimore Orioles baseball team, not the OSU Beavers. When I first started driving in the D.C. Metro area, I had to make similar adjustments when seeing freeway signs for "Washington" which meant District of Columbia, not State of Washington - as in the northern neighbor of Oregon that is at most 300 miles away when in the south of the state, not 3,000 as when in Annapolis on the Chesapeake Bay. The same was when I first saw LAX in Annapolis - why so many bumper stickers indicating Los Angeles International Airport? Oh! - lacrosse, the game that every kid here plays like Oregon kids play soccer.

As mentioned in a previous blog about the Washington Irving Biography (named for the General who the District, the State, and a county in Oregon are named as well), the eastern hardwoods are a novelty to me. The forests here in the mid-Atlantic region are unlike the western Oregon woods that are dominated by Douglas Fir with oaks mixed in which still have a pale green appearance in winter from the bearded lichens that hang from the limbs. Back here in Maryland while driving Route 50 every week, I see the progression of the four different seasons displayed in the stands of trees, with autumn's rich mosaic of red, orange, and yellow colors the annual crown. What turned out to be a surprise for me has been the phases of color changes in spring, with different species leafing at different times, and light-colored leaves darkening into deeper shades of green. All the time this is happening, the housing and business areas that are off the freeway and which don't change color with the seasons, become less and less visible and eventually are naturally camouflaged by the time June is here. However, six months later, with all leaves on the ground and none any longer floating in the air, the different shaped and colored stems stand in ranks but are alone, with branches indistinguishable among their crowns.

It is also funny how different people from the same family describe the winter trees here: my wife, longing for the evergreen woods of Oregon, uses stark to describe the woods during this time of the year; my son, the diplomat, prefers to describe their condition as barren. As for me, I speed back and forth from work where as many as ten lanes cut through woods, hoping my speed doesn't drop below 65 miles per hour so my 29 miles can be covered in 35 minutes - a sight far different and far distant from my Oregon commute at 25 mph, not even thinking much about the three miles of two lanes winding up hills and around bends, ending up in a parking lot full of cars bearing the other orange "O".

Monday, May 25, 2009

Local Food Sociology 101

Here is a fresh food market below the entrance to the Great Wall, about 45 minutes from Beijing. The variety of kinds of dried and fresh fruit, as well as nuts was impressive. Just as with the other vendors in the bizarre, the standard operating procedure is "Let's make a deal." There were also street vendors in Beijing who rode on mobile produce stands - selling their wares on street corners, outside restaurants or other stores. These street sales in China are no different than the ones I have seen elsewhere, like this one north of Visalia, California - on the road that runs between my parents' old farm and my hometown. I know this produce wasn't produced locally, because the middle of March is too early in Central California for local strawberries. Most likely these came off a truck from southern California, or even Mexico. So much for local food in this case, and I sure don't know where the Great Wall and Beijing produce came from - other than from a grocery store - and given that there are bananas, I am sure from some distant place.

All this brings me to some interesting information that was presented at the local and regional food research conference I attended last week. One of the plenary speakers, Clare Hinrichs, a well know rural sociologist at Pennsylvania State University, gave a presentation about the social dynamics of local food producers and consumers. One of the aspects of the increase in popularity for locally produced foods by consumers is a desire to know where the food came from, who produced it, and how it was produced. There are a range of opinions for why this is, but one often given reason is a desire by consumers to connect with the farmer who produced the food. This desire goes beyond "know your farmer" and extends a desire for relationships. This is interesting because some studies also show that not all farmers necessarily want a relationship - that they have enough to do just to farm, much less get to know who buys their products.

All-in-all, there is something going on with people who sense a need for connections with others, and things are not getting better for Americans. A paper that Clare cited was: "Social Isolation in America: Changes in Core Discussion Networks over Two Decades" by Miller McPherson, Lynn Smith-Lovin, and Matthew Barshers that appeared in the American Sociological Review, 2006, 71:353-375.

See the publication at:

A statistic that floored me was that 43% of the U.S. population now has only one or no confidant to discuss important matters - there has been a tripling of isolation in the last 20 years. Much of this loss has been due to a loss of connection in voluntary associations and neighborhoods. For some, a vision for building connections and reversing that trend is to have better ties between buyers of food and those who produce that food, with the reason given that food is so fundamental to life. It seems that regardless of the downward trend in the number of meaningful relationships that Americans have, somewhere imbedded in us is a desire to do better than that.

What is interesting to me is an observation Nobel Peace Prize recipient Mother Theresa made more than 20 years ago about Americans. In a 1986 documentary film I saw about her, she made the comment when visiting New York City that Americans are suffering a different kind of poverty than the people she ministers to - Americans suffer a poverty of loneliness. If this was apparent then - more than 20 years ago - how much more so now - 20 years later - with data and analyses to substantiate that claim - that folks desiring to see change must realize that people need more than food alone to live.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Washington Irving Biography

I finished reading Brian Jay Jones' biography of Washington Irving. I bought the book this past year on a whim, and was thoroughly delighted with nearly every line written. Irving was a rare person whose path crossed those of so many other famous Americans including George Washington, Dolly Madison, Martin Van Buren and six other Presidents, Edgar Allen Poe, John Astor, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, George Fenimore Cooper, George Bancroft, and ..... He was the first great American author (among the first political satirists, Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Rip Van Winkle, the definitive biographies of Christopher Columbus, George Washington, fictions and true tales of Europe, the American West...... He was instrumental in politics as an Assistant Secretary of the Navy, served as Ambassador to Spain, and helped with delicate negotiations between the U.S. and Britain over the final northern border for the Oregon Territory (49th parallel) which helped avoid another war.

This past week I participated in a conference in the Hudson Valley about local and regional food systems research. This is the land of Hiawatha, the Headless Horseman, and the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Being from the West, the hardwood forests of the East are a novelty, along with the shallow mountain soils that were scrubbed by glaciers. I had read all but the last 80 pages of the biography, so took it along in honor of the man and the place. My journey by rental car with GPS from Stewart Airport in New Windsor, to West Point, to the Hudson Valley Lodge in Kerhonkson, and back to the airport was much easier than the journey by carriage over rough roads in the early 1800's, but new to me now as it was to him in his time. There was no rolling thunder across the valleys and mountains while I was there, but one could imagine images of little bearded men being all about - perhaps bowling a few nine pins in anticipation of the next storm.

Taurusa Chatham School

This is Taurusa Chatham School which is located between the farm where I grew up in the Central Valley, Visalia, Ivanhoe, and Cutler, California. There were about 100 children in eight grades housed in four classrooms. The two classrooms for Grades One-Four were in a modern 50's fabricated structure (no longer on site), Fifth-Sixth were in an older wooden structure building, and Seventh-Eighth were in the original Taurusa School building complete with a bell tower. My dad had gone to Chatham school which was just south down the road from our farm, several miles away from the Taurusa site. Chatham and Taurusa combined sometime long before I was born, and no relics remain of the Chatham site, but a rose cutting taken from my folks' backyard, which now grows in our yard in Annapolis. The main floor of the original Taurusa building was the cafeteria and stage. The gate in front of the building was the passage from the school yard to the bus that took me to school and home each day.

Shown below is the remnant of the old structure that supported two swings. Lots of time during breaks was spent here. To the left of the swings was a small play-field, and next to the fence were the bleachers behind the kick ball backstop. We had to stop playing baseball here because the outfield was too short. I remember one of the older kids once taking a swing at a pitch, and the ball went through one of the windows on the north side of the First-Fourth classrooms - no more baseball after that.

When I was in fourth grade, we and the older grades were brought out to the bleachers and told that President Kennedy had been shot. I remember some of the older girls gasping. The only other remembrances of politics during that period were a kid who was one grade older than me supposedly having a bomb shelter in his back yard, the Johnson-Goldwater campaign a couple of years later, and Winston Churchill's death. But all-in-all, life was pretty simple then.

In first or second grade, I remember memorizing poems in Mrs. Williamson's First-Second combination class; one of these was "The Swing" by Robert Lewis Stevenson.

How do you like to go up in a swing,
Up in the air so blue?
Oh, I do think it the pleasantest thing
Ever a child can do!

Up in the air and over the wall,
Till I can see so wide,
River and trees and cattle and all
Over the countryside--

Till I look down on the garden green,
Down on the roof so brown--
Up in the air I go flying again,
Up in the air and down!

See reference for Chatham School by clicking here.
See reference for Taurusa School by clicking here, with more photographs here.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Beijing May Day 2009

May 1st is May Day - a holiday in China. I had figured I would work all five days I was to spend there, but with all government offices closed, I was able to travel with a colleague to see the Great Wall, do some shopping at the Beijing Pearl Market, and take in some other sights. On the way to a bookstore, I was able to walk on a large pedestrian mall and saw the one stereotypic sight I expected - lots of people. Beijing was otherwise typical of many big cities, but exotic in its own way - you know you are not in Kansas.

The shopping areas are a mixture of Chinese signs along with American brands, with a large jumbotron mounted on one department store which continuously ran the same series of advertisements - one of which featured Jackie Chan. One of the most interesting juxtapositions I saw was the image of the Chinese National Flag next to that of Howard Johnson's. And the only real oddity was the constant sound of background music, a kind of happy pop that was just loud enough to be heard above the rest of the street noise. It made me think back to a summer television series that ran in 1968 titled "The Prisoner" starring Patrick McGoohan - a secret agent who was taken away to an island where he was held captive with no way to escape, and not knowing what his captors wanted - all the while background music played as the rest of the inhabitants went about their normal business. The same kind of music was played at the Great Wall, and was most noticeable while riding the chair lift up from and back down to the entrance area below. But then, isn't that what Disneyland does when you take the cable ride through the Matterhorn or walk from Adventureland into Tomorrowland?