Monday, February 20, 2006

Because it was on special...

So many of you over the last few months have asked "why China?" -- so, I'll start there. I wish I had a more poetic explanation, but the truth is I went to China because it was on special.

It happened like this: Sometime in early December, I checked my email before going to bed as I usually do. had sent its weekly hot Top 20 deals, and there in big bold letters was the headline: 9 Days in China for $999 - air/accommodations included. Well, I had to investigate it, because I knew that roundtrip airfare alone was typically $1500 or more. And perhaps even more importantly, I had had a couple of glasses of Shiraz with my dinner, and booking a trip to China suddenly seemed like a very reasonable thing to do. I soon discovered that it was only $53 more to depart from DFW Airport and a couple hundred more to sign up for single occupancy accommodations. Then I saw the clencher: the tour extended over my 35th birthday, from Jan 16-24 (my birthday being Jan 20). Clearly, this three-city tour in China was destined to be my birthday present, and Visa - in part - would graciously serve as my sponsor.

But first - I had to do some due diligence: I called my friend Hon Chan, who grew up on that side of the planet, and asked, "What's China like in January?" He said it's FRICKIN COLD, but still well worth my time; just dress appropriately. OK then. Due diligence done! With a mad adrenalin rush, I hopped back on my computer, entered the requested personal information on the travel agency site and clicked "Confirm Reservation."

And that, my friends, is how I came to the conclusion that China was the appropriate setting to celebrate my 35th birthday.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Oh, the irony

It was a 12.5 hour flight from Chicago to Beijing. I decided to use the time to do some reading and expand my knowledge base about China beyond, say, Kung Pao Chicken and the whole Communism thing. Imagine my surprise when I came across this passage in my pocket-size Culture Smart! China: "Birthdays as such are not usually celebrated in China. ... There is a birthday for 'everyone' on the seventh day of the Chinese New Year."

If I had the wherewithall to command the captain to "turn around this Airbus right now, Mister!" perhaps I would have. But, alas, I was merely a sardine sitting in coach. No one would take me seriously. I had to make the best of it - cake or no cake. I was slightly relieved to read a few paragraphs later that there is one Chinese tradition surrounding birthdays -- you must eat noodles, each one slurped whole - no biting them in half - as noodles represent long life. Cool. Noodles it would be.

Another quick tidbit I learned on the flight over: The Chinese often address each other by their surnames plus either xiao or lao in front of it. Xiao means little or young; lao means old. The cutoff point for being referred to as xiao? You guessed it: 35.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

What I know, generally speaking

On this tour, I visited Beijing, Xi’an and Shanghai, but before I go into what transpired in each city, I’d like to just share with you what I learned/observed about China in general.

HUGE DISCLAIMER: All statements in this post – and in any other post on this blog – are the opinion of Katie Ford or merely recollections of conversations or excerpts from her well-worn travel journal. In no way are the contents of this post – nor any other post on this blog – to be taken as the truth or final word on anything. Katie Ford does not vouch for the complete accuracy of said posts and begs for forgiveness in advance if any inaccuracies are discovered. She particularly seeks the forgiveness of the Communist Party, as she would like to visit China again one day and would like to avoid any traveler snafus like, say, life imprisonment.

OK, so I was talking about China. China reminds me a lot of myself when I was a teenager: generally confused about identity, growing rapidly, full of promise and energy, unpredictable, and caught between a past that wasn’t perfect but at least familiar and a future full of unknowns.

To understand where China is headed, you have to know where it’s been. For 4,000 years, this country was the obedient child of a long steady stream of all-powerful dynasties with emperors who suffered terribly from delusions of grandeur. With the fall of the last dynasty in 1911 rose roughly three decades of other countries (i.e., Japan, Germany, Russia and a smidge of Britain) struggling to control parts of China. What territory they left alone was fought over by your common variety warlords, whose favorite pastimes included overthrowing governments, assassinating political leaders and long walks in the rain. By the 1930s, the two contenders were the Nationalist and Communist parties. And, as we all know, the Communists scored in the fourth quarter to win the game. In 1949, under the leadership of Chairman Mao Zedong, China became the People’s Republic of China. And then there was the Korean War and Chairman Mao’s “Great Leap Forward,” a socioeconomic campaign to position China as a world leader but actually ended up breaking the backs of millions of Chinese peasants who either starved or were literally worked to death.

For brevity’s sake, let’s fast forward a bit because I’m getting tired of all the fighting: Mao died in 1976. The People’s Republic went through a few more leaders, some Modernization movements, some Reform movements – and then, bada bing, bada boom: You’ve got your modern-day China. Good-bye oppressed, war-torn child of yesterday. Hello, General Motors, Gucci knock-offs and all-night karaoke bars.

It’s a jarring gear switch that has the entire country jockeying for pole position in an ever-increasing free market and open society. This is the China I visited – a land filled with reminders of the past and signs of the future. In Xi’an, I walked through the arches of an ancient bell tower only to gaze upon the “golden arches” on the other side. What’s out? Chairman Mao. What’s in? The Colonel.

I will say this: If you have any hankering to visit China and witness all its ancient history, book your plane ticket now. The landscape of this country is changing at lightning speed.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Raise your flag, and I will follow…

My tour through China was not unlike an educational field trip for adults. There is simply so much to learn, see and do in this huge country, and we had the luxury of navigating China’s cities with someone who could easily connect the dots for us in a very short period of time. Sure, there’s a stigma associated with organized tours – who loves wearing name tags in public? “Hi, I’m foreign!” – but I think this was the best route for a first-timer in China (and, for the record, I totally didn’t wear my name tag). To me, it was more like I was hanging out with a group of friends – one of whom was born and raised in Beijing and liked being the center of attention. “Brian” was full of jokes and often gave us personal insight to his life in China (well, unless we asked about politics or religion – read more about that below).

Here are some things I learned along the way. Again, pardon any inaccuracies. I’m digging into my memory and deciphering my cryptic handwriting in my journal to write this.

There are 3.1 billion people in China. Eighty percent are either agnostic or atheist. The remaining 20 percent are Confucianist, Buddhist, Taoist, Muslim, Catholic or Protestant (in that order). Prior to Chairman Mao’s “Cultural Revolution” in the 1970s – which, in my opinion, should have been called Mao’s “Wipe Out Culture, Dignity and Hope Revolution” – most Chinese were practicing Buddhists. But believing in a Higher Power or being spiritual was just kinda silly to the Communist Party, which focused on serious things like hard work, dress codes and economic equality among all men (read: We all get to be poor now!).

These days, things are better. The official party line on religion is you’re free to believe whatever you like – but only as long as what you believe does not in any way, shape or form undermine the principles of the Communist Party. Interpret that as you please.

Walking the line seems to be a reoccurring motif in modern-day China. At least in its larger cities, China is beginning to resemble something closer to a free market and free society, yet it’s peppered with exceptions that remind the Chinese who is in charge. College graduates now have the freedom to choose their career paths. Yet, not too many make it to college. I think only 10 percent on average can pass the widely dreaded state-mandated entrance exam. People can live wherever they like – i.e., farmers can move to the city, and city folk can move out to the countryside – but they’ll forever carry an ID card that reflects where they were born, and their families will forever pay extra taxes because of the move.

Love and Marriage
In the cities, it’s very common to marry whomever you like. Arranged marriages are “oh so last decade” to cosmopolitan folks, yet it’s still very common for families to pick the spouses in rural areas. The legal age to marry is 23 for boys and 21 for girls. If you wait longer, the government financially rewards you (either with tax breaks or a payoff; I can’t remember). You see, the thinking is – getting married equals getting pregnant, and getting pregnant contributes to the population problem.

Speaking of which, in the cities, there is a “one child” policy. All couples are allowed to have one child. After that, you better not forget to take your pill! If you have more than one child, prepare to be heavily taxed and don’t expect any public assistance to school, feed or medically care for that child. It doesn’t exist as far as the government is concerned.

In major cities, affluent “dido” families are all the rage (Double Income Dog Only). To its credit, the Government’s strategy for population control is working – the country’s growth rate was 2.5 percent in 2004, yet only 0.9 percent in 2005. For rural families, it’s a bit different. You’re allowed to have up to three children – one to bale hay, another to milk cows and another to break horses. It’s all about growing your workforce. I’m being a little facetious here, but you get my point, I’m sure.

China has literally thousands of printed publications and TV channels, yet the official newspapers and news stations are state-owned and heavily censored to follow the Communist party lines. Ask a Chinese person to comment on current politics in their homeland, such as “the three Ts” (Tibet, Taiwan and the Tiananmen Square Massacre), and a typical answer will be a shy, quick reiteration of what “the paper” said. No further comment. By the way – did you know that the Chinese government finally convinced Google to block these very topics from its search engine capabilities on the Chinese site? Yep. It’s true.

Real Estate
The Chinese can buy property but they will never own the land beneath it. That’s government property – no if, ands or buts. Makes it a lot easier when the Government decides to tear things down and do something else. Of course, the Government gives residents in those targeted neighborhoods money to relocate, but more often than not, the sum isn’t enough to cover expenses, and families end up struggling to get back on their feet and build another nest.

Just as recent as 15 years ago, China had an iron rice bowl policy, which basically meant that no matter how hard you worked, no matter how many hours you put into your job, no matter how productive you were – you received daily wages equivalent to a bowl of rice. Well, today, China is very different. Foreign businesses have invested extensively and the Chinese are capitalizing heavily on the industrial boom — at least some are, anyway. There is a huge gap between the haves and the have-nots. About 80 million Chinese belong to the “new money” class. Brian liked to call them the “fat cats.” They don’t have to live in box-like high rise apartments with their entire families. They get to live in big houses in Western-style subdivisions that sit outside the downtown area. In Beijing and Shanghai, in particular, the average salary is five times higher than the country’s average.

It’s interesting to note that there are three types of income in China – white income, gray income and black income. White income includes the reported salaries and wages – in other words, the money that people report for taxes. A typical salary for a government employee is about 1,000 to 2,000 yuan a month — roughly US $125 to $250 a month). Note to self: Cancel interview with the People’s Republic Department of Public Communications.

Then there is the never taxed and never reported grey income (my personal favorite). Grey income is, um, how shall I put it? Blatant bribery, perhaps? Well, not entirely. Grey income encompasses tips for good service, but more often than not, it entails bribes for preferential treatment. Never at a loss for dramatic flair, the Chinese usually deliver these bribes in red envelopes. It’s a widely expected and accepted practice. Red envelopes are viewed kinda like bonuses – except your clients and customers are issuing them, not your boss. For instance, need a teacher to dote over your only child to ensure his or her academic success? Toss the apple. Try a red envelope. The crazy part is that the Government taxes anywhere from 5 percent to 45 percent of a person’s income, depending on their tax bracket – but a typical person’s reported income only accounts for maybe 25 percent of what they’re actually taking in once you count the red envelopes.

Then, lastly, there is black income – the fruits of black market activity. This is the official income of China’s criminal element. You’ll find some of the most profitable gangs operating around China’s historical icons, hocking postcards, knock-offs and cheap souvenirs to people like me. (For the record, I never bought from the street vendors. Sure, the prices were fantastic, but I didn’t want to support that element.)

What else did I learn? Oh, tap water in China is not drinkable (for foreigners, anyway), but certain cities are changing that. For instance, Beijing has a plan in place to implement a purification system for its municipal water service by 2010.

Oh, and the Chinese alphabet… You think we had it bad learning 26 letters. Ha! Try a language that encompasses 91,000 characters. Now, granted, no one is expected to know all 91,000, but – on average – a child by fourth grade must learn 2,000 to 3,000 and college graduates typically leave their universities knowing 8,000 to 10,000.

At age 35, I can say that I know two characters (and I’m not referring to my ex-husband or Leslie, Austin’s infamous transvestite). The first character stands for victory and is pronounced “Kai”; the second stands for flute and is pronounced “dee.”

Might explain why my clarinet career didn’t make it past the sixth grade.