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by Laura G. Brown, guest contributor [September 2, 2009]




[]  I spent five weeks in China this summer, touring Beijing and Shanghai and staying a month in Xiaoshan, where I taught English to 8th graders. It was the first time I'd spent any length of time in a Communist country. I kept a sharp eye on my passport, down to finding a secret hiding place in my hotel room.

I was careful not to bring up Falun Gong or the plight of Muslim Uighurs. Uighurs had rioted in Urumqi on July 5, the day I arrived. Chinese officials immediately blocked Facebook, Twitter, and other websites. This lasted for the duration of our visit. Luckily, a computer whiz in our group bypassed the censors and accessed some of those sites.

My first impression of the Xiaoshan Middle School campus was a shocker: In the teachers conference room, a huge poster bore photos of Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Lenin, Stalin, and Mao. I felt revulsion over this rogue's gallery of evildoers presented as heroes to Chinese schoolchildren. What other misinformation are they getting?

They don't know much about the U.S. My students did not know the city of Los Angeles, or even Hollywood. They had never heard of our July 4th holiday.

China could make even an anarchist believe in traffic laws. In every Chinese city, there's the cacophony of car horns, day and night. The greatest offenders are the blue-and-gray government cabs. Their horns aren't defensive, but a warning: "I'm moving over! You better move over, too."

Thrill-seekers will love the crosswalks with no crossing lights. At first, it's terrifying. But you get inured to buses heading straight for you, and ambulances at the curb taking away people. Chinese take more traffic risks than do Americans. No car seats for babies or kids. People pile four on a motorcycle, no helmets.

At a bus terminal, I found a queue of about 200 people. So my Chinese guide found me an illegal cab. I was told to sit inside, and to say it was our private vehicle if asked. The driver walked up and down, shouting for more passengers. He packed in six more besides me -- some on the back "bench," which was 1) made of wood, and 2) not fastened down.

Did someone say safety belt? I laugh at your safety belt!

The door beside me was thin and battered, and wouldn't fasten properly. I locked it, hoping for the best. We got to Xiaoshan in one piece, with the driver dodging traffic and honking furiously, and the bench sliding.

I saw some small scale government graft. During summer vacation weeks, travelers throng outside the Beijing Railway Station in a huge courtyard that rivals Tiananmen Square, then push their way inside, loaded with luggage. A flowing river of people, elbows in your sides and wheels rolling over your feet.

I had no idea how we'd reach our train in this melee. Then I spotted our tour guide, talking to a uniformed official. Our other guide said: "He pays him 30 yuan. We get on now."





Sure enough, the train official raised a flag for those who'd bribed him. We all trooped off to our train, getting on before anyone else.

A brief item on page 2 of the August 8-9 China Times: "Airport Boss Executed." Seems that someone with a knack for large scale graft had received the Chinese penalty for stealing: death. The government didn't waste time. Mr. Li, the airport embezzler, was convicted in February.

Prostitutes are plentiful on the streets. Their cards were left by the door in our Xiaoshan hotel. You can find "happy" massage salons in every hotel. I discovered this because the prices looked good for a massage, so I asked. Even in the fancy International Hotel in Hangzhou, I'm told it's men only.

If you have a sex partner, you get a free condom with your toothbrush and shampoo, as we did in our Shanghai hotel. The Communist attitude toward sex seems to be: It's something people do, so allow for it.

The West should take notice.

China is careening toward capitalism, contrasting the ancient and modern. In Beijing, donkey carts and bicycles, carrying loads of scrap metal and cardboard, weave through traffic. Merchants carry their wares in yoke baskets. Laundry hangs out to dry over Guess and Nike stores. Hammers and pickaxes do masonry work. Bamboo scaffolding supports emerging high-rises. Cranes are everywhere.

China pollutes on a grand scale. According to The New York Times, it surpasses the U.S. as the leading producer of garbage. Its toxic incinerators threaten the Pacific Coast. I saw dull, brown skies every day during the month I stayed in the industrial city of Xiaoshan.

China represses human rights. It engages in censorship, jailing of political opponents, and frequent use of the death penalty. They are slowly changing in some of these areas, particularly those that affect them economically. But they're no Western democracy.

Finally, China is a beautiful country with friendly people. I ask for sugar in my rice porridge? A bowl of sugar appears every day from then on. I want to swim in a local hotel pool? My school translator arranges a cab, takes me there, and arranges all the details, since I can't speak Chinese. At school, he helps me use the Chinese internet. He makes copies for me. I found this kind hospitality, time and again.

It's enough to make you want to return to China. 



Laura G. Brown is a teacher and writer living in San Gabriel, CA.

She is a veteran candidate for State Assembly on the Libertarian Party of California.

Her email: lauragbrown at sbcglobal dot net


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