First time on this blog? Beijing Traffic Lesson: Left Turn is probably a good place to start.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Regrets? I've had a few...

...but then again,
too few to mention.
So why did I
Ev'n bring it up?
Must love the sound
Of myself speaking!

We are officially in the 'wind down' period of my trip. Tomorrow is my last work day, which will involve packing up papers, doing an exit interview, turning in my security card, making sure my paperwork is in order, cleaning the computer I've been using of any passwords and then going out for dinner with some coworkers.

Today, however, wasn't nearly so action-packed. So I will devote today's blog to my few regrets: the blog posts I wanted to do but never quite got around to writing. At the same time, I want to make sure I capture these things, because they did make an impact on me, even if that impact was limited to "Ha ha! Lookee there!"

So here they are - The Lost Blogs:

Bellies of Beijing: When the weather gets warm, men in Beijing make their ultimate fashion statement: They hitch their t-shirts up under their armpits and go struttin' down the street as if saying "Look at me! I have a large, sweaty stomach, and I'm PROUD! See how it glistens? Drink it in, people!" And for the record, these are generally not the lean, muscular Jet Li types. Not that I am, of course, but I DO keep my shirt down.

Why It Didn't Get Written: It's a visual thing, and there was really never an opportunity to get the kind of pictures that would do the phenomenon justice. It usually would strike like lightning - I'd be walking along, minding my own business, then turn a corner and GOOD LORD! HAVE YOU NO SHAME, SIR? There it would be. Hard to discreetly get the camera out and snap a picture.

The Great Wall Street: I've done enough economy-related posts to mark myself as a geek, but the Chinese stock market really is something to behold. It's increased in value by 80% in the last 7 1/2 months, which is Chubble if I've ever seen it. But what's even more remarkable is that it's driven by individual investors, not the huge institutional buyers you find in other markets.

I wanted to capture a snapshot of that. You see, every morning when I get to work at 9:30, I am nearly run over by retirees - the women in cotton print dresses and slippers, then men in shorts, tank tops, black socks and flip-flops, and most of them EASILY over 60 - shoving their way into the elevator with me, sometimes even pushing the 'close door' button in my face to avoid missing precious seconds that could be spent playing the market in the brokerage on the third floor of my building.

I've poked my head out, and it looks like an off-track betting parlor, right down to the grimy plastic chairs, the electronic ticker that everyone stares at, the overflowing ashtrays and the cashiers behind the counter, buying and selling shares of whatever with the life savings of these survivors of the Great Leap Forward.

My Scottish friend smirked when I mentioned that. "One big difference," he said, "is the people at betting parlors have some idea what they're doing." And that's not condescension - even the government agrees that the markets suffer from too many people chasing fortunes without proper planning, but they don't know how to shut it off without bursting it. They keep putting out warning signals, and the market crashes for a few days or a few weeks, but then they put their flip-flops back on and head to the third floor to get on the money train.

Why It Didn't Get Written: Again, a visual story, and I was too sheepish to walk around taking pictures of people, especially if they happened to be losing money that day.

The Alcoholympics: The Beijing 2008 Olympic Games have three official beers plus an official wine ("Greatwall - the wine in a bottle that tastes like wine in a box!") Somehow that seems a bit excessive. I also liked that Greatwall's official title was 'Official Supplier' - as if the marathon stations would have water, Gatorade or a delightful dry Cabernet Sauvignon. I was thinking of maybe doing a taste test and review of all the official Olympic booze.

Why It Didn't Get Written: Well, for one thing, it seemed like kind of a one-note joke. And if there's one thing I INSIST upon, it's that my posts all have depth and poignancy. For another thing, publicly advertising that much drinking alone just seemed a little off.

The Olympic Green: On a more serious note, I really wanted to get onto the site of the Olympics and get some pictures of the buildings under construction close-up. My company has contacts high up with the Olympic hierarchy since several of our clients are major sponsors, and I was hoping that would help me get past the barricades.

Why It Didn't Get Written: There's only so many strings to pull, and only so much time, and it just didn't work out for me. But I will be watching the Games next year with great interest nonetheless.

What Has He Seen?: On a couple occasions, I saw people who just stopped me in my tracks for one reason or another. They tended to be old, with the kind of lined and care-worn faces that were made for arty black-and-white photography. The first one I remember clearly. He looked like he was about 90, and couldn't have weighed 100 pounds. He was pedalling an ancient bicycle slowly - I was walking, and he just barely got past me. Suddenly, like magic, the sidewalk was clear, and he started swerving back and forth, looping the bike from side to side, almost letting it tip before putting the handlebars hard the other way and swerving away. In short, he was having fun.

My first thought was, how charming and quaint! My second thought, and I have no idea where it came from, was, My God, what has that man seen in his life? Eighty years ago China was a chaotic republic. Seventy years ago the Japanese were bombing and burning cities and conquered much of the east coast. Sixty years ago was civil war. Fifty years ago it was the Great Leap Forward era of Mao's Stalinist dictatorship. Forty years ago was the Cultural Revolution, with its purges - tens of millions dead over those two decades. Thirty years ago China was opening to the west. Twenty years ago you had the democracy movement, and what came after. And in the past ten years it's basically become a capitalist consumer society at breakneck speed.

It just made me wonder, what has he lived through? What role did he play? What did he think when it was happening? I think that all the time when I see older people now. I wonder what they think of me, someone they probably were taught was the enemy a few decades ago, and now Beijing is crawling with laowai and their vices and their toys. Just makes you think.

Why It Didn't Get Written: Well, I guess it just did. But again, it would have been better if I could have gotten some arty black-and-white photos to go with it, and the opportunity never presented itself.

Playing Tourist: Summer Palace and Ming Tombs: Those were the two big tourist spots I never made it to. But if I had to trade, say, Gun Day in order to have people try to sell me postcards at those sites, I would take Gun Day every time.

Why It Didn't Get Written: Because I never went there. But Shannon did, so at least between the two of us we've got Beijing pretty well covered.

So there you have it: my list of regrets. But at least I can look back and say I experienced China... my way.

(Ba-dum BAM!)