Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The China Diaries: #firstworldproblems

The best cities have always looked beautiful from an airplane. Modern cities gleam in a way that's positively mesmerizing. Rio isn't aesthetically modern, but you're greeted by a uniquely delicate sprawl of lights, not as overwhelming as New York or Chicago, as far as the eye can see, coming up from the houses of the favelas and the residential neighborhoods. But on my first flight to China, last September, I noticed that towns, places still large enough to have a "center" without actually being cities, look like scars opening in the Earth. Cities have a preamble in their suburbs, a gradual build-up that results in a stunning climax of civilization. Small towns are surrounded by pastures and forests, and the juxtaposition of these sudden black gashes of human life against the verdant green of nature isn't flattering. Xi'an is, technically, a decent-sized city, yet I have a hard time believing it would look at all attractive from a plane. Provided, of course, that the sky was clear enough on any given day for you to actually see it. For what wonderful qualities it possesses, and I'll grant you I'm not sure there are many, Xi'an is not a beautiful place. In some ways I feel it is the place nature will one day come to die.

For a boy who grew up in the backwoods of Connecticut, the complete and utter lack of foliage is overwhelming at times. You have to go fairly far out of your way to reach life around here, and I usually don't have the energy. Last week, however, I had a good excuse to get out to the country-side, and so it was with no small amount of glee that I joined my roommate and a friend of his to 丰裕口 (fengyukou), a mountain about an hour outside the city. Xi'an is surrounded, on all sides, by massive, gorgeous mountains, but the smog here is so bad that not only can you not make out any details of the mountains from within Xi'an proper, you cannot even see them. Until a freak day where there was no smog last October, I had no idea there were mountains at all. I've seen them four times in a year.

We took a taxi for an hour, paying about 15 U.S. dollars for the privilege. Sometimes, exchange rates are amazing things. It was my first time to the mountains, and they really were lovely. A fellow classmate during my CELTA course ended up with a job in Vietnam, and when I see his pictures, filled with the slightly-alien vegetation and mountainous terrain most of us think of when we imagine the Far East, I think "It must be nice to live in Asia." Turns out I've been living there the whole time. When we climbed out of the taxi, I turned to Mitchell and said, "My God, we're in China."

We strolled along the busy mountain road for ten minutes before coming to a spot that looked good. We hopped over the rail, under some barbed wire, and scaled down the side of the bank to the river. It was beautiful, isolated, quiet, and relaxing. Until about fifty minutes after we got there, when a Chinese man with a bullhorn started yelling at us, telling us we weren't supposed to be there. Apparently barbed wire means the same thing in Chinese as it does in English. He broke the spell of the mountain, and we started to head back down. All three of us were hungry, so we stopped in the first place we found that had refreshments.

Let me take a moment to describe, if I may, the place where we ate: I do not know what to call it. It had tables and a roof, but to call it a restaurant would have been charitable to say the least. The only food on hand was watermelon, which was agreeable enough. But what struck out, to me, was the bed. There are many businesses in China that function as the owner's home. You will often walk into a store and find a sleeping area in the back. But here, on the side of this secluded mountain, I caught a glimpse inside their open bedroom, and saw that this couple, both likely in their sixties, were sleeping on a board on four pillars of bricks. There was a single blanket on the board, and that was the whole of it. And these people had just sold us half a watermelon for what would buy you a Snickers bar in the U.S.

Mitchell and I sat down at the table and proceeded to eat as much of the watermelon as we could. We only wanted a quarter of a melon, but the two of us were made so uncomfortable by the poverty we were sitting in that we felt compelled to eat it all, to leave no bit wasted. Then we scurried away, our heads down, afraid to make eye contact with these people who have so much less than I've ever considered having, but probably aren't all that bothered by it. We grabbed a van back to Xi'an, returned to our flat, and sat there for an hour, not really moving or speaking.

It is a fact of life that you will be surrounded by people worse off and better off than you, unless you happen to be at the absolute extreme of either end of the spectrum. I, like most people reading this, was born towards the high end of the spectrum when it comes to living conditions. That I have a computer on which to write this, and that you have a computer and are able to read tells you that we are already ahead of 75% of the world's population, not counting then the rest of the material comforts. We are, truly, all privileged people for the way we've always lived our lives. And I'm not looking down on them. Both of them seemed perfectly content with life, sitting on the side of a mountain selling drinks and watermelon to travelers. This isn't about pity, this isn't about solving a problem. I'm not about to change my life violently. I'm not throwing away my earthly possessions, joining a monestary, and chanting for the rest of my life. I'm keeping on exactly as I have and will. But I will occasionally feel a little uneasy about it. For a few days, at any rate.

And I bet that mountain looks stunning from the air.

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