Friday, July 24, 2009

The Old World

The old Old World
The Great Wall (the actual wall, not the restaurant named for it) is impressively large, to be sure. But it is not particularly old. The partially restored wall seen today is the one that dates from the Ming Dynasty, not the far older original. In other words, it was built beginning in the seventeenth century. Standing structures in Europe date from a millennium or more earlier.

So it’s fair, I think—or at least interesting—to note that the Great Wall is a pretty crude affair, in terms of architecture and workmanship, in comparison with Roman ruins of nearly two thousand years earlier, let alone the contemporaneous structures throughout Europe, many of which have been continuously occupied since before the Great Wall was begun.

By the same token, the palaces and shrines we saw in China, impressive as they are, differ from European buildings of a similar age in more than their design aesthetic. They are in many ways less: less modern in function; less ambitious in design; less refined in execution. Oh, there is spectacular artistry to be sure. And some of the difference stems from a different philosophical worldview. But there is still something that says maybe the Chinese did invent paper, fireworks, and pasta; maybe their written history goes back further than Europe’s; but somewhere along the way—centuries before 1949—they began to follow a lower, slower road. Feudalism loosed its grip on Europe long before it did so in Asia. And you can see that just by looking at artifacts.

The new Old World
Today, though, China is in a headlong rush to its version of modernity. In Beijing, the sort-of-old hutongs continue to be demolished in favor of modern high-rises.

Having seen smatterings of what passes for a traditional lifestyle in the hutongs, I must conclude that this process, though painful, is necessary. It’s clear there is little place in modern Beijing for the poor. They are so ill-accommodated, so marginal in their existence in the old hovels (once proud homes of the middle class but now, in the wake of the Cultural Revolution, hardly livable at all) that it would be a service to them to move them into decent, subsidized housing and finish the demolition job that time and poverty have begun. Usually I’m on the side of preservationists, but not this time.

When China decided to embrace capitalism and build a modern city, they had two ways to go. They could have gone the cheap knock-off route (in the way that the Joseon Dynasty palaces in Korea were cheap knock-offs of the Ming palaces in China). But instead they chose to leapfrog the West with even more gratuitous excess. We stayed in a deluxe hotel room (at an affordable, discounted price) that could have been a movie set for Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. I’ve lived in smaller apartments. Much smaller apartments. Throughout the city there are architectural wonders beyond those built for the Olympics. Modern luxury apartments are spacious, air conditioned, comfortable, and beautifully landscaped. In fact the whole city is beautifully landscaped (amazing what you can do when you have dollars to burn and labor is cheap), with an expanding network of modern roads (many of which are, in the Chinese tradition, unnamed, and none of which have stop signs) that can almost accommodate the ever-increasing traffic congestion.

My Cold War–era social studies textbooks…
didn’t convey what China was. And televised Olympics coverage didn’t really convey what China is. Nor do I think that a week in one city gave me any sort of comprehensive overview. I saw what I saw. I know there’s much more I did not see.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Come to the supermarket in old Beijing

We ate like royalty in Japan, in Nagoya, Kyoto, and Tokyo. We were treated to “course meals”—banquets, really—seemingly endless processions of tiny, exquisite dishes that nonetheless tested the capacity of this wide-body American. The subtlety, variety, and artistry were wonders to behold. In comparison, even very good Japanese restaurants in the US now seem merely pedestrian. And in between course meals, the cheap meals from any of the ubiquitous convenience stores in Japan were pretty darn good.

In Seoul, street food was more uneven, and the best meal we had was in a Chinese restaurant. We enjoyed some good Korean meals as well, but I’m home not writing about them, so I guess they were nothing to write home about. The tastiest Korean meals we had were served to us by Korea-based Asiana Airlines.

And then there’s Beijing. Cole Porter’s lyrics still ring true. Food there is incredibly cheap (and so is most everything else, which is why we took taxis everywhere instead of exploring the subway). One night we went with a friend (fifteen years there, fluent in Chinese) to what is considered the best Peking [sic] Duck place in Beijing. Big, crowded (forty-five-minute wait), top-notch service, top-notch chef, inventive, elegant dishes (we had braised cabbage [baby bok choy] and chestnuts in a saffron sauce that was to die for as our side dish with the duck), and the bill came to about $50 for the three of us, which is considered a very expensive meal in Beijing. We walked into a McDonald’s just to see what they were selling, only to discover that the menu is virtually identical to the US and a Big Mac meal (sandwich, fries, soft drink) is about three bucks, regular price.

On the other hand, street food is scary—and not just in terms of health. We decided to brave street food in Beijing for lunch one day. Several of the stalls in Wangfujing street were offering skewers of various meats, grilled to order. Pick out your skewers and hand them to the proprietor, who will then cook them. The selections included fairly benign-looking (if unrefrigerated) beef, lamb (mutton, described euphemistically), chicken, and so forth. But there were several stalls with skewers featuring live scorpions writhing on skewers. There were also starfish (dead, I suppose), seahorses (certainly dead—endangered, too, but that’s of no concern in PRC), and silkworm larvae (apparently dead). Not to mention all manner of whole squid, eel, crab, and various unidentifiable kinds of seafood. Even dumplings were a crapshoot. The locals were lapping this stuff up, but if you didn’t grow up thinking of scorpions as food, watching people eat them won’t necessarily convince you to try, even if someone tells you they taste like lobster. We settled for meatballs and corn on the cob.

On our last day, our friend took us to the neighborhood wet market. This is a stall market, open every day, where vendors display all manner of mostly fresh foods (there was a general merchandise alcove and there were a few vendors with dried spices, medicinal herbs, teas, and the like). Some of the vegetables were unfamiliar, but a vegetable stall is a vegetable stall is a vegetable stall, worldwide. Even if it includes various types of fungus. Other stalls offered freshly hand-cut noodles; steamed buns; hot bread; poultry, pork, and beef (none of it still alive, although some of the poultry vendors left the heads on); and several kinds of fish and seafood. Most of the latter were swimming in tanks, although the majority of at least one species were, um, sleeping. Yeah, that’s it. Sleeping. Belly up. Nobody seemed to mind. The meat vendors displayed their wares on open counters. Some meat was in display cases; a quick touch convinced me that the cases provided light but not refrigeration. The meat looked good, though. Not to worry; you were going to cook it anyway, right?

Pravda, PRC-style

Three weeks in Asia. I’ll have more to say about that. But the reason the blog went dark for the last week is that I was in Beijing, where Blogger (among many blog-related sites) is currently blocked. I also got the distinct impression that email traffic takes a detour through Chinese filters. So I spent yesterday soaking my laptop in Clorox, as it were, in the hopes of removing any spyware that may have been installed.

The newspaper delivered to our hotel room was the English-language China Daily. While the paper comes closer than it once did to the ideal of an independent journalistic enterprise, a close reading brings to mind the Soviet-era Pravda. During the Cold War, it was said that ordinary Russians were adept at reading between the lines to divine the actual news (as opposed to what was printed in the paper).

China Daily, because it is printed in English, is not accessible to most Chinese. But for those who do read English, reading it between the lines might shed more light on current events than would otherwise be visible.

Sometimes you can convey more by what you don’t say than by what you do say.

Friday, July 03, 2009

The printing and publishing scene in Japan

I had dinner last night with an Internet acquaintance who is knowledgeable about the printing industry here in Japan, with its reputation for high quality and high prices. I though I’d share some items from our dinner conversation.
  • A few weeks ago, we decided to have some flyers printed in the US and shipped to Japan rather than pay three times as much to have them printed here. Yes, Japan also has companies specializing in cheap color sheets, but the conference organizers did not know how to access any of them, because most business here is still based on personal introductions.
  • Japanese printers are required by law to print their names in books they print (perhaps on other goods, too—I didn’t ask). Therefore, they take an active interest in the quality of the work and will turn down jobs they feel would represent them poorly. Alternatively, they will advise or assist customers with design and other technical aspects to make the job right. Errors are still the customer’s responsibility, as in the US, but the relationship is less hands-off than in the US, where printers typically refrain from criticizing the files submitted by customers (well, they criticize them amongst themselves, but they don’t generally complain to their customers).
  • Digital printing, particularly print-on-demand (POD), is not used for books here. The technology is available, but nobody is set up to do books with it. As a consequence, digital book orders go to the US for fulfillment. My accquaintance needs advance reading copies (ARCs) of a textbook he has written; and he’ll be ordering them from an American book manufacturer for export to Japan. He has seen samples from one American POD company and decided not to go with POD, as the quality would not pass muster with the school buyers he wants to approach. He was glad to learn that he could get short-run, high-quality digital printing in the US.
  • The maximum textbook allowance for any college course (total for all required texts) is about $45. A big, full-color biology text with mylar overlays, CD, and the works might run about $30. The same book in the US would fetch up to $150. Most textbooks in Japan are under $10. The schools tell the publishers what they’re willing to pay, and the publishers like it or lump it. What the publishers do in return is book all orders for the following school year in November and print the exact number of books ordered. You snooze, you lose.


It is our lot in life that as we age we become the people we mocked in our youth, a process the more painful for our awareness of it. The circumstances of my life were such that I did not do any significant travel outside the United States until the last few years, and now I find myself the stuff of cartoons—an out-of-shape, overweight, monoglot American in a flowered shirt and baggy shorts, staying in expensive American chain hotels, occasionally thinking, y’know, a tour bus doesn’t sound like all that bad an idea.

When we traveled in Europe a few months ago, I had a general sense of familiarity with Germanic and Romance languages. Not only did virtually everyone we encountered in Europe speak passable English (or better) but also we were able to read street signs and menus and pick up a few words—enough to get by comfortably. Now, though, we are in Asia. After planes and trains, with transit points in Seoul and Tokyo, we are in Nagoya. English instruction is not strong in Japan (nor is Japanese instruction strong in the US, so this should be understood as a judgment-free description, not a complaint). Staff in the hotel where we are staying do pretty well. Dealing with shop clerks or asking directions on the street, though, involves much pantomime and a great deal more smiling and bowing than actual information exchange. I cannot read street signs or menus. We have a phrase book, but we really have not progressed beyond good afternoon and thank you. I suddenly have the linguistic sophistication of a six-month-old. I find myself pointing a lot.