Saturday, May 28, 2011

China Diary I: Gin Over Siberia

I now embark upon my most ambitious blog project to date, namely to convey my impressions from my recent trip to China. I'm not going to simply provide a minute-by-minute narrative, because those are about as boring as your neighbor's slide show of their trip to Branson. This will be more along the lines of observations and discussions based on various topics, with the locations and activities as backdrop. The old notion that “travel is broadening” has, in my opinion, about as much validity as the notion that one becomes better educated by learning another language. Most of the “language nerds” I knew in college were no different from the rest of the herd, except that they happened to be moderately proficient in another language. In other words, learning another language didn't necessarily make them any better educated than they would have been had they stuck with their mother tongue. You can, in short, be as stupid or wise as you want to be in any language. And likewise, travel is only “broadening” if one has what it takes to be broadened – first and foremost, a desire to not just accumulate superficial experiences and impressions, but to fit them into a broader schema. I can point to any number of people who have “traveled the world”, but their outlook is every bit as cramped and provincial as it would have been if they'd stayed home in... Branson, Missouri, let's say. And some of the wisest people I know have barely been out of the county in which they were born. So there are no guarantees in this business.

It's also worth pointing out that Americans have a built-in handicap when it comes to visiting other places, since we have been brought up on a diet of not only cultural superiority (nothing unusual there – in fact, it's pretty much universal) but also on the notion of what I'll call cultural manifest destiny – the notion that it's our bounden duty to spread the blessings of “the American way of life” and of “democracy”, etc. wherever we go – by persuasion or force, it matters little. So no sooner are we across any given border than we start judging the place where we find ourselves in relation to how well it lives up to our own standards – how much, in other words, it looks, feels, and smells like the U.S. And yeah, I know, there is always the lure of the new, different, and exotic – this is what keeps travel agencies in business. But when you get right down to it, what do your average travelers talk about and obsess about more than anything else? Right – it's the extent to which the place they're visiting is not like the U.S., and what it would take to make it that way (“just a few simple changes” is the most common phrase), and what's wrong with these people, anyway? Why can't they throw off all those queer old habits and “superstitions” and outmoded customs... and why can't they speak English better... and why can't they bathe more often? Yes, this is what it finally boils down to more often than not, once we find ourselves in the trenches. So our understandable racial/ethnic/cultural pride (“understandable” because it's a universal trait, and not to be despised) quickly morphs into a sort of imperialism, and we come home congratulating ourselves that we've “been somewhere”... but at the same time wondering why those people can't get their act together. Where is their ambition (talking abut the “Third World” now)? Where is their “get up and go”? (Kind of like Henry Higgins asking, "Why can't a woman be more like a man?") We seldom pause to consider that, with their typical history of war, strife, revolution, famine, plague, and oppression, it's a miracle they've even accomplished as much as they have. We have lived remarkably sheltered lives in this country, historically speaking – at least since the Civil War. We have the privilege of fighting all of our wars on someone else's territory... we have been free of famine (if not entirely of hunger)... our “revolutions” are all of the “soft” variety, and well within the form... we've managed to conquer most plagues (except those resulting from overindulgence)... and what we view as oppression or political strife would make most people in the world laugh. And yet, that is what our perspective is based on, and we see the rest of the world, whether directly or first-hand, from that perspective. And I do not exempt myself from this description! I just hope that I can occasionally rise up from provincialism sufficiently to provide some insight.

But before we get down to business, let's first talk for a moment about... well, remember that old advertising phrase, “getting there is half the fun”? Whoever coined it could certainly not have anticipated the many charms of air travel in our time. Air travel is, to put it bluntly, a pain in the ass, and as far as I can tell it's not going to get any better in the foreseeable future. And no, it's not just about the tender ministrations of the TSA, which seems to add to the number of clothes one has to remove to get through security with each succeeding trip. After all, we got ourselves into this mess, and so have no one to blame but us. And it's not about our chaotic airports, which require a degree of long-suffering and stamina formerly expected only of basic trainees. And it's not even about planes per se, with their endlessly recycled bone-dry air, token meals, and bland announcements that cause me to glaze over about two minutes into the flight. It's just... well, if only it weren't for the old movies, that present travel as such a romantic, free-spirited, breezy thing. Boarding an ocean liner in New York harbor, with piles of steamer trunks, streamers, brass bands, and thousands of people waving handkerchiefs – now that actually looked like fun! Or – boarding an airliner in the old days, with other well-dressed people (who would never have dreamed of taking their own fast food on board – ew, how tacky!), pert stewardesses in pill-box hats (instead of the mixed-gender, haggard workhorses we encounter now), meals actually cooked on board, etc. And don't get me started on trains in the old days! Even the family car trip with stops at Howard Johnson's, cabin courts, and Rock City... OK, I'm a sentimental old geezer, I admit it. But haven't you ever stopped to think of all we've lost? In the “land of the free” travel has turned into something that is, more often than not, oppressive. But if you want to go anywhere, you have to put up with it. It's kind of sad, really.

And another thing (channeling Andy Rooney now) – have you noticed that air travel represents the very last vestiges of the old class system? First of all, we have that endless list of privileged categories of travelers that is reeled off at boarding time. “We will now board members of our exclusive executive gold star elite brahmin caste.” That sort of thing. Who are these people? And the insult doesn't end there. Have you ever noticed that, if you're in “economy class” -- known in the old days as “steerage” -- you have to run, or walk, the gauntlet between rows of the privileged in order to get to your seat? And don't those privileged ones give you the stink-eye, like, “what are you doing on my airplane, you unworthy peasant?” Don't tell me you haven't noticed this! It happens every time. This procedure is set up on purpose to yield the maximum class resentment, I'm convinced. If there's ever a proletarian revolution in this country it will begin on a commercial airliner; I just know it.

But there's something worse – or slightly better, depending on one's class sensitivities. That's when you get on a plane that features what Air Canada calls “Executive First Suites”. These are not just the wide, plush, all-enclosing bucket seats of first and/or business class, oh no! These are cocoons – islands of isolation and tranquility in a sea of squalor. It's as if a whole bunch of small but luxurious travel trailers had been brought in and fitted to the floor of the cabin. And you know, frankly, if I were traveling on someone else's dollar (which most of them surely are), and had to fly a “polar route” once or twice a month, I guess I'd be interested in having my own private cocoon as well. But still, it's a blatant slap in the face to the average, hard-working stiff, having to walk past these cabanas on the way to one's own modest, cramped seat next to crying babies and people stuffing their faces with Big Macs. The only saving grace is that, unlike the first/business class people, who seem to be insecure about their class status, the cocoon dwellers never raise their eyes to the ranks of the unwashed. No, they have already been wafted away on clouds of comfort and luxury, not to touch down again until they reach their destination. They are already sipping their first “free” drink... already tuned in to the Wall Street Journal on line... and so forth. The only thing they are required to share with the hoi polloi is the same over-processed air. So in that sense, they are actually easier to live with than the “upper middle class” in the airline class structure, the same way that people with yachts are typically friendlier than people with “power boats” -- they are secure in their elite status, and don't feel a need to rub it in.

But let's look on the bright side for a moment. Finally the huge craft is fully loaded, all the usual announcements are ignored, and the massive machine rumbles down the runway and is airborne! And... and by the way, whatever happened to those second-floor cocktail lounges on jumbo jets? Those were sweet. But I digress. So something that is, objectively, way too big to ever get off the ground is, in fact, off the ground, and no power on earth is going to get you off of it for 12 hours. That's when panic sets in. Well, not really – but don't you wonder what real claustrophobics do in that situation? I guess they make other arrangements. I don't even think the cocoons would help; they'd probably make things worse.

And now it's a matter of looking down at the world, and the whole figure-ground relationship changes. Now the plane is the immediate reality, and the rest of the world becomes somewhat of an abstraction. We look “down”, but we might as well be looking at a large coffee-table book; our senses really can't take it in – not as it is. We weren't designed that way. We have to keep convincing ourselves that that's the world out there, and we're up here in a large metal container, etc. But it's tough. I had the privilege of looking directly down on Mt. McKinley, in all of its brilliant white, arctic splendor – but was it really Mt. McKinley, or some sort of elaborate stage set, like in “The Truman Show”? Then we had a rousing game of gin rummy while flying over the Bering Strait and eastern Siberia... but was that vast land of ice and snow I saw out the window for real, or someone's idea of “installation art”? All I know is that the world didn't start to get real – really real – again until we crossed over Manchuria and started our slow descent into Beijing.

(to be continued)

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