Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Pearl of the Orient (and of My Vacation) - Part III

I spent four days and change in Shanghai, and I got through most of my mental detox there.  (I can hear your fear already – if she wrote this much about only four days, how much worse will it get?  Well, I never claimed to be a concise writer, as those of you who've had to proof my papers can well attest.)  By the time I moved on from the city, I was already feeling more like myself than I had in a long time – I wasn't visually tracking every person who could be following me or observing every car and cyclist for suspicious behavior, and I wasn't obsessing over what emails I'd gotten from my DoD contacts while I was gone or which of my problem cases had cleared.  There's one vignette about my detox that's worth sharing, though.  

A few hours before I left for Beijing, we were walking around the city in a group, talking about the things that a group of expats will often discuss – the products we miss most from America, crazy things that foreigners do, the bureaucratic hassle of residing in a foreign country, and the like.  Someone asked me what I missed most about the US.  I thought for a few moments and replied, “People.”  They initially thought I meant that I just missed American culture, but then I clarified that I miss seeing groups of people in public, wearing distinctive clothing, talking and laughing loudly, and doing interesting things.  I miss people watching.  I miss seeing the distinctions between individual strangers, whether it's ethnic, cultural, economic, or merely physical.  Saudi Arabia is visually boring – no public spaces, no vegetation, blank walls around all residential buildings, no variation in clothing color, no audible conversations or visible emotions, no way to distinguish among any of the individuals in a group at the mall or grocery store.  My eyes must have been popping like a country bumpkin's when I first got to Shanghai (well, the description's not too far from the mark, I suppose).  Just so you know, a response like that is virtually guaranteed to kill a casual conversation with awkwardness.  Should you ever find yourself in a similar situation, I would suggest lying and saying that Chipotle's burritos are what you miss most about the US.

Next up - Beijing!

Monday, January 26, 2009

The Pearl of the Orient (and of My Vacation) - Part II

People from all over China flock there to find work, perhaps as many as a thousand new immigrants a day (!).  I tend to believe that number, if only because of the sheer variety of restaurants I saw and the many accents our cab drivers had – distinct enough that even I, who only knows four words in Chinese, could tell the differences.  I got to try Xinjiang food when I was there; it was the only time in my trip where I was more of an expert on the food we were eating than my hosts.  It warmed my heart to see familiar Central Asian food in the middle of Shanghai!  My friend, knowing that I was spending almost all of my China time in Shanghai, took me to a restaurant with a different regional specialty every day, which was as fascinating as it was delicious.  At other times we just grabbed a snack off of one of the portable grills which seems to pop up at dusk on every street corner, selling skewers of grilled meat, vegetables, or tofu in whatever style the entrepreneur was most comfortable cooking.  Really, culinary tourism is the only way to go when you travel, and I maintain that calories consumed as part of a cultural experience do not count.

Becky had another friend visiting her at the same time, a friend from college who is currently working on a PhD in art history, specializing in cityscapes and urban visual language.  I spent a day wandering the city with Fredo while Becky was at work, and discussing our observations of the city through the lens of his studies was as refreshing as it was eye-opening.  My coworkers in Riyadh are all very intelligent, but we simply do not have time for the kind of academic, meandering conversations I enjoyed with many of my college friends – when you work fifteen hours a day doing paperwork, your brain gets a little fried, and the last thing you want to do is talk to the same people you see all day long about more serious things.  I realized after Shanghai and Taiwan how starved I've been for that kind of intellectual stimulation.  

Fredo, who'd been in China for a few weeks before I got there and who'd travelled to several other cities during his stay, pointed out the differences I would notice between Shanghai and Beijing (more on that later).  In Shanghai, like many cities in China, there is a rapid push to modernize the city.  The city is planning on adding two entire subway lines in 18 months – work zones for them are everywhere, shouldering aside the plebes who might complain about lost homes and detour-choked streets.  The construction schedule for these lines is ruthlessly efficient.  Shanghai has the world's only commercially operating maglev train, connecting the main international airport to the city's subway system.  Is it necessary?  Probably not; it's not so far to Pudong Airport that a regular commuter train couldn't do the job just as well.  However, it's an exciting bit of prestige for a city that seems to crave recognition as modern.  The financial district's skyline, along the river that bisects the city, is breathtaking – if you can see it clearly through all of the smog.  People's Park, in the center of the city, is home to a phenomenal museum showcasing archaeological and cultural treasures of China dating back centuries, such as the development of bronze tools and art across millennia, or the changing uses of jade in Chinese culture since the year 2000 BCE.  To complement this history, there is a museum next door dedicated to the future of Shanghai – an urban planning museum laying out the goals and potential results of the current modernization projects.  The park itself is ringed by pointy towers of office buildings, covered in the logos of big electronics firms and international banks, but these  compete for attention with the cranes that can be seen in every direction, building more towers even as the construction economy in the US skids to a halt.  

Many of the ongoing projects we saw in Shanghai are unimaginable in the US, either as a matter of course (is any US city expanding its subway system?) or just right now, during the economic crisis.  Yet Shanghai builds on, and damn the consequences of pollution, crowding, illegal immigration, and land expropriation.  Fredo came up with a phrase that I think describes Shanghai perfectly – “The future is right here.  It's dirty and a little scary.”  It would be interesting to return in ten years to see if there's anything left I recognize.  

Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Pearl of the Orient (and of My Vacation) - Part I

Written at 6 PM Tokyo time, 22 January 2009

I arrived in Shanghai in the early afternoon on 2 January, to stay with my friend Becky, who graduated the same year I did from ASMS. She's been living in China for the past two years, improving her Chinese and teaching English. Out of all the big cities I visited during my trip, Shanghai is my favorite, probably because it managed to feel comfortably familiar while at the same time offering lots of new experiences – it was a good way to ease out of my Riyadh mindset and to start myself on the road to remembering who I am. 

A caveat: for all of the places I'll be describing to you, my impressions are based on the briefest of visits in combination with the historical and cultural context I gleaned from my hosts, all of whom have lived in these cities for at least a year and have impressive commands of the local languages. I don't pretend that I'm an authority, but I do think that my observations aren't far off base. 

Shanghai has been one of the traditional entry points for foreign traders into China, and as such it has a much more international character than one of its two rivals, Beijing. (I didn't visit its other competitor, Hong Kong, so I can't evaluate how they compare.) It's bigger than Beijing, and it is a major financial hub, drawing expats by the thousands from all around the world to work in a very lucrative market. The street scene feels very westernized, and I don't just mean the endless blocks of Western clothing stores and the locals wearing the latest fashions from New York, Los Angeles, and Europe. The cityscape itself feels Western – the skyscrapers look like anything you could see in the big cities of the US or Europe, the old buildings that survived revolutions and wars were built by European powers a hundred years ago or more, and the subway feels like the New York system to me (efficiency barely covering a seedy underbelly). Open spaces are green and filled with parents strolling with their children, old men flying kites, and students flirting with each other after classes end.

However, just when I would get used to the sights, something jarring would happen to remind me that I was in the People's Republic of China. As Becky said, you can go for days thinking that you're in the first world, and then you come across something that reminds you that you're still in the developing world, such as the smell of raw sewage being carried away from an apartment building in a bucket strapped to a bicycle because there's no building connection to public sanitation systems. Other jarring things included the large exhibition hall built as a gift from the Russian government in the mid-1990s (one wonders if the money might have been of more use at home) that looks for all the world like something the Soviet Union would build, down to the shiny red star on top – although perhaps the USSR wouldn't have built it next to a huge mall. One evening when my host was busy, I wandered through Shanghai's heart, a pedestrians-only street that seems to be the place to shop, to eat ice cream and to drink bone-achingly sweet tea, to see and to be seen until the early hours of the morning. There were still holiday decorations up on this street, and let me tell you, there is little that compares to seeing a huge, fake Christmas tree flanked by a set of PRC flags.

One of the most amusing things to me about Shanghai is that it is so brazenly a consumerist, capitalist city. I have a photo of a sign for People's Square, the large park in the center of town, flanked by Christmas trees and signs advertising end-of-the-season sales on clothing at the mall across the street. Obviously, there's only one show in town with real power, and it's not Adam Smith's invisible hand. As I write this, I recall reading a story about China censoring parts of Obama's inauguration speech, editing out the part about Americans of prior generations fighting fascism and communism with our ideals. However, the ideals of communism seem to be getting only lip service in the glitzy, fast-paced Shanghai that I experienced. 

To be continued in a few days...

Friday, January 23, 2009

What I Did During My January Vacation

Written at 3 PM Tokyo time, 22 January

Right now, I am sitting in Tokyo's Haneda Airport, waiting for the first flight of my two-day journey back to Riyadh. I've had an amazing vacation that's left me physically drained but mentally rejuvenated. I've tried to stay upbeat in my writing here, but over the past few months some of you may have caught on to just how demoralized and exhausted I'd become after four months at Embassy Riyadh (perhaps the weepy phone calls at odd hours of the night clued you in). I finally understand why in a yearlong tour we get two lengthy vacations outside the Kingdom. Getting away from Saudi Arabia and from work has enabled me to regain my mental balance, to let go temporarily of my constant paranoia about security threats, and to reevaluate what I need to do to keep myself happy and healthy. (An aside: is it paranoia if there are legitimate threats?) I have no doubt that as soon as I return to the office, the countdown to my second R&R will begin, and the stress will begin accumulating again. However, I've made some resolutions and thought through a lot of problems I've been facing, and I think that things will be better than they were. What's even better is that over a five-day period I talked through all of my problems and complaints about my job with a friend, and in the end not only was he still determined to take the Foreign Service entrance exam, he made me feel proud again of what I'm doing and excited about what I will do with my job once I leave Saudi. In short, I feel like me again, for the first time in six months or more. I have a lot to record, both in terms of the sights I've seen and the realizations I've reached so far in 2009. (It feels like I've been gone for much longer than three weeks!) As I can't seem to access the wireless in this airport, I will write up as much as I can now and post stuff intermittently once I can do so. I look forward to sharing my thoughts, memories, and photos with you. Some of my photos will probably go up on Facebook sooner than they go here. However, more background on them will be given here, with fewer snarky comments – Facebook isn't really conducive to intelligent discourse!  

Thursday, January 01, 2009

On the Road Again...

I'm leaving home in two hours for the airport to catch my flight out of the Kingdom.  I'm taking my laptop with me, but I'm not sure how frequently I'll be able to check in here.  At any rate, the next time I write, I'll be out of Saudi Arabia!