Saturday, January 19, 2008

Being There

You can read all the books and watch all the TV you want, but there are some views that can only be appreciated in the round, and some experiences can only be had in person. You just have to be there.

I didn't manage to hear the erhu played well (I heard it played, alright). I didn't get around to tasting snake either. But as far as my three themes for this trip are concerned, I can tick two of the boxes. I did learn a lot about my wife and daughters in these three weeks. They are quite an amazing band of fellow travellers. They are flexible, positive, patient and funny. We drive each other daft regularly, and there is a lot being asked of the kids in terms of endless walking, eating and uprooting. But they seem genuinely happy and at ease within the newly mobile family unit, and extremely adaptable to the new conditions. Letizia, who went along only reluctantly with my desire to see China, embraced the experience fully. I couldn't have asked for better company.

On the topic of 'Collapse' I've seen some things with my own eyes that previously I had only read about: on the Yangtze, in the countryside and in the cities. Diamond's 'Lurching Giant' is indeed a colossus. The scale of the country and the speed of its journey from poverty to prosperity is hard to take in. The Irish government, in their own little way, have been doing a fairly patchy job of managing growth for the benefit of the many, over the last two decades. And that has been with all the advantages (yes, they are advantages) of a free press, and independant judiciary and centuries of growing up as a part (albeit neglected or abused) of Britain's modern economy and society.

China is trying the same thing on a scale that is three orders of magnitude greater than Ireland's, with a political history of unbending autocracy for 3 millennia. I would put money on the wheels coming off within a decade or so, though I hope it will be a temporary setback.

This trip has changed the face of China for me. It was an iconic abstraction before, defined in terms of numbers, names and dates. Now it has a human face. It's not always pretty, but I can relate to it. I can see the young ambitious faces of people working in tourism, the kind smiling faces of grandparents looking at Nina and Sara, cheeky teenage grins and shouts of 'Laowei' from behind steaming pots on Xi'an streets, earnestly attentive taxi drivers trying to figure out where the hell this foreigner wants to go, unctuous salesmen and saleswomen of overpriced tat, the haughty countenances of young Shanghainese women on the Huaihai Lu, and the openly curious expressions of Chinese children.

Sting only wrote one decent lyric after the Police broke up (monkeys, typewriters etc.): "I hope the Russians love their children too". However closed the Chinese government remains to international scrutiny and censure, much less to democratic reforms, the Chinese people as a group are open and welcoming, curious and interested. Yes, they love their children too, and you, if you are reading this from outside this fascinating country, have to come and meet them.


Silvia said...

A pleasure to read your posts, what you say here is so right... we all tend to think the images Tv is showing ARE what we would be able to see if we were THERE, but I must admit...not being able to be there right now, I am liking a lot to be getting your, Letizia's and the girls point of view at the moment!

Anonymous said...

Great to hear everything is going well Brendan.

"I would put money on the wheels coming off within a decade or so.." I thought the exact same thing when I visited Lhasa in 1987 (leaving the day before the first Lhasa riots) figuring, incorrectly as it worked out that China would change and the party pushed from power. Another 10 years - I don't know. As long as the 'West' can take advantage of China's low wage workforce to feed its desire for consumer products, I don't think anything will change. Perhaps prosperty will bring participation, perhaps, after all the "No taxation without representation" movement led to some the 1776 war of independence.

Take care and travel safe.


Brendan Lawlor said...

Ah - I can breathe!! Outside the firewall, I can finally reply to comments.

John - you're right of course. All we can do is guess, and nobody can tell the future. I think I will couch any more predictions in nebulous and easily re-interpreted ways. China will cross water, and meet a dark stranger, for example.

Silvia. Thanks for this, and previous comments. As Letizia has mentioned, we really feel like we're being followed, when we get comments on our blogs.