Posted in essay

Thoughts on China

In December, 2018, I quit my job and left China. I had been living and working in the Middle Kingdom on-and-off for more than eight years, and I was deeply unhappy. Of course, it hadn’t been all bad for all that time, but as the years went by, certain things bugged me more and more.

In China, it is socially acceptable to push and shove other people, to scream at the top of your lungs in a crowded place, to watch movies on the train at full volume with no headphones on, to spit on the ground just about anywhere, to point and stare and shout at people who look different, to urinate or defecate in public, to torture animals, to throw trash anywhere without a thought to the consequences, to drive like a maniac and blare your horn in residential areas in the middle of the night or light fireworks outside someone’s window at 5am… In short, it sometimes feels like no one in China ever even considers the feelings of people around them.

Chinese kid pooping at airport
Public pooping?! It’s fine in China.

When I first arrived in China, this was all exciting and fascinating. It is sort of liberating to live in a place where anything goes, and where almost everything people do and think and say is the polar opposite of what I – as a western person – was accustomed to. In this totalitarian regime, there were of course a million and one laws, but essentially the only real rule was: “Whatever you can get away with is right; whatever you get caught doing is wrong.” It was like the Wild West, except it was about as Far East as you could get.

I left China in 2013 to move to Cambodia and I missed it. Until then China had still been exciting, not to mention a veritable gold mine. Working there, I could make a small fortune doing stupidly easy jobs. Sometimes I taught at private schools, where really very little teaching was ever done because in the Chinese education system all you need to do is memorize long lists of data and learn how to praise the government. No one ever learns to think. I sometimes did “white monkey jobs” like officiating weddings, pretending to be a famous Russian pianist, or act in ridiculous TV commercials. It was fun, it was weird, and it made me some good money.

When I returned in late 2014, I moved to a city that was the laughing stock of the most backwards province in the country. It was a place where several mayors had gone to prison for corruption, where one of the biggest theme parks in Asia lay empty because it had never actually been opened, where a whole second city had been built to the south of the first one, but stayed empty because the buildings all collapsed before anyone could move in. It was a city where despite annual floods, the government never bothers to install drains, where a big sign at the entrance to the city said “NO PUBLIC DEFECATION!” but no one paid any attention because that is their proud heritage, and where homemade tractors plied the streets, spewing vast clouds of black dirt into the sky. It is famous for massive car pile ups, mine collapses, organized crime, and some of the worst air pollution on earth.

No pooping sign in China
“No public pooping,” say the government. “But it’s our god-given right!” say the people.

At first, I loved it. It was even more fucked up than the rest of China, which is in itself the most fucked up country on earth. I explored the city and its surrounding countryside (although Chinese countryside is more densely populated than British cities, so don’t go imagining any rolling green fields) extensively during those first months. People stared and pointed and shouted, “LAOWAI!!!” (meaning, “foreigner”) as loudly as they could because that’s just what Chinese people do when they see a foreigner.

I loved it.

My job was also wonderful. I had total freedom to design a curriculum for my one hundred eager students on a pleasant university campus at the edge of the city. My apartment was small but comfortable and my salary kept going up every few months because I was getting such great feedback from anyone who came to watch my class. I found a little gym nearby and got healthy, eventually training up to run a marathon in the next big city to the south, Hefei. In my holidays, which were substantial, I spent months exploring the globe from Africa to India and even North Korea. It was bliss, in most respects.

As time went by, my feelings towards China soured. What was once charmingly bizarre soon became irritating; what used to make me laugh now brought me half to tears. I grew sick of the poisonous air, the poisonous water, and the poisonous people. Going to the supermarket meant having my whole life picked over by each and every person in the building. I could not go anywhere without being pointed at, stared at, and rudely talked about, and when once that had just been an odd quirk of the locals, now it boiled my blood. My daily walk to school became a test of my tolerance for abuse, as I heard again and again the old refrain, “LAOWAI!!!” Without exaggerating, it was unlikely that I would go a few seconds without hearing someone loudly expectorate or some idiot beep his car horn for no reason. I grew to resent the ignorance and cruelty of the people around me. Every day I would see something sickening or enraging: an old lady balancing a baby on the front of her ebike as she rode through traffic on the wrong side of the road; dog carcasses hanging in the streets; human excrement everywhere; old ladies handling raw meat in the supermarkets and then chucking it back…

Laowai

And then there was the government.

The Chinese government is among the most insidious of all organizations. I’m sure to any educated, non-Chinese readers, it is hardly worth even mentioning the obvious atrocities: the genocide and cultural destruction of Tibet and Xinjiang, the innumerable human rights violations, the total suppression of free speech, the Tiananmen Square massacre, organ harvesting, and so on. Yet in China the government is revered by almost everyone and their power is utterly unchecked. Their propaganda and censorship are so astonishingly effective that a billion and a half braindead zombies just wait to be told what to think, and will not tolerate any criticism of their dear leader, Xi Jinping.

I loathed being unable to say certain obvious and undeniable truths, to be able to use the internet freely, to have books sent to me from abroad. I hated being monitored on cameras all day, and having my communications watched by Big Brother. It was unimaginably oppressive. But then, if you are an intelligent person who is not Chinese, there is hardly any point in saying this. This is known to all the world except for the blissfully ignorant citizens of the PRC.

Needless to say, all of that ground me down and the country which I once loved and in which I felt at home soon became a prison. I was desperate to leave, and so, in December, 2018, I did.

*

On my various excursions outside of China in the past few years, I have had to witness the tragic Chinafication (or is that Sinofication?) of the world. Back in 2008, when I first visited China, the various powerful nations of the world could openly criticize China’s government for its human rights abuses, but now China is the second wealthiest country on the earth and no one is willing to say a damn thing, lest they feel China’s wrath. Once upon a time, the strong could stand up to China’s bullying of its neighbors or complain about its monstrous actions at home, but now Europe is falling apart, Britain is sliding into mediocrity, and the American President can pretty much be bought off with a few business concessions to his family.

China’s influence has spread, despite having no culture of its own anymore. While the likes of Japan and South Korea have their own domestic cultural creations to send out into the world, China has nothing. Under absolute censorship, where only government propaganda is allowed, there can be no culture. Yet China doesn’t need its version of K-pop or manga, or for that matter its own Hollywood or Bollywood. China has a rich, unscrupulous government with a billion and a half zombies to do its bidding. It has been rapidly eating up the globe, and no one can do a damn thing about it.

Across Africa and Asia, China has freely given away money and then seized land and even ports as compensation for debts unpaid. It sends hordes of its own brainwashed people into these places to Chinafy the local area. The Chinese build vast hotels and casinos – not with local workers, of course – through coercion of local officials, and wipe out local businesses by driving up prices. In Sihanoukville, Cambodia, the Chinese have taken over, pushing out all other foreign business people first, and then making the locals homeless. They bring absolutely nothing to a country except destruction and poverty. Soon half the world will be modeled on China’s ugly, grey urban landscape, where nature has been vanquished and every street and building looks identical.

This is probably starting to sound a lot like colonialism, right? The Chinese are like the Spanish in the fifteen and sixteen centuries, and the British in the eighteenth and nineteenth. It’s reminiscent, too, of US globalization in the twentieth century, where McDonalds and blue jeans were foisted upon every nation of the world, eroding many of the charming distinctions that existed between different cultures. Except this is much, much worse. The Chinese have more power and more people. They have fewer morals are intent on annihilating the environment wherever they go, decimating wildlife, ruining coral reefs, and ensuring that nothing natural remains. They have done a spectacular job of making China into one vast grey nightmare over the past few decades, and now they have their eyes on the world.

China’s neighbours must be quaking in their boots as the CCP look around and lay claim to every bit of land and sea within a thousand miles (or more) of their own rightful shores. They took Tibet and Xinjiang, and they will bully their way into ownership of every last speck of land in the South China Sea. They’ve eroded Hong Kong’s independence, and it won’t be long before missiles fly over the Straits and tanks land on the shores of Taiwan. And who will stop them? Who will stand up for Taiwan?

There is no one.

The world is changing, and not for the better. As Spengler foretold, the West is falling, and while that is not necessarily a bad thing, it will be replaced in a position of power by a truly evil entity. There will be not checks or balances, no national discussion, not even the semblance of democratic process… The forces of good in this world will be powerless, and the worst actors in each corner of the globe will be emboldened by China’s rise. We may even see the West fall not just in terms of power, but into Chinese-style systems of oppression, as they attempt to return to the top of the pile.

We have entered the Chinese Century, and it looks bleak.

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Posted in Photography

Best Photos of 2018

Last year, in late December, I made a list of my favourite photos I had taken over the year. It was an enjoyable experience to look back, and I encountered many photos I’d actually forgotten about. In this age of social media, it’s easy to put a good photo online and then just never think about it again, but it’s nice to look back and relive old memories.

My year started off in India, where I spent several months travelling. I had a new camera (Nikon D5600) and I used it to capture all sorts of photos, with mixed results. Of the thousands that I took, some really stood out. Here are a few, with some explanation:

Colourful houses at Mamallapuram

This colourful street is in Mallallapuram, on the east coast of India. I shot this simple photo and someone later told me it was like a scene out of a Wes Anderson movie.

Indian gang

It was difficult to choose this photo because there were so many I took in one afternoon at a small park. For some reason, people kept lining up to ask me to take their photo. I didn’t understand it at the time, but later a boy told me about a rumour that there was a Scottish photojournalist taking pictures for a newspaper.

Gandhi Statue

I didn’t particularly enjoy my time in Puducherry, but I liked the way this shot turned out. The statue is of Mahatma Gandhi.

Pilgrims at Indian Temple

This is possibly my favourite photo of the year. In fact, I used it on the cover of a book I wrote about India. It’s called Crossing India the Hard Way.

Old Man at Brihadishwara Temple

One of my favourite places in India was Thanjavur, where I visited the incredible Brihadisvara temple. I arrived just before sundown, but was struggling with my new camera and all the photos I shot that evening were blurry. I went back the following morning and got lots of great photos, including this one of an old man. There are loads more here.

Indian ladies praying

This photo of women praying was also shot at Thanjavur.

Wild Boar crossing path

During my time in the middle of India, I saw many incredible sights at the hill stations and national parks, including a lot of wildlife. However, upon reflection, none of the photos were particularly outstanding. I did, though, quite like this picture of two wild boar crossing a path in the early morning light.

Fishermen in front of giant cargo ship

When I arrived on the western coast of India, at Kochi, or Fort Cochin, I visited the beach. I was shocked to see this massive tanker travelling past the beach, almost within throwing distance. I have no idea how it could come so close without getting grounded.

Close-up of black kite

My final stop in India was Varkala, where I stayed for about a week. There were hundreds of huge birds constantly flying around the clifftops, and I spent countless hours trying to shoot photos of them. This was one of my favourites. My camera has poor zoom lens, so you can imagine how close this bird flew.

My selfie with the stars

Also at Varkala, I shot this photo (an “advanced selfie”, I suppose) of me and the nightsky. As you can probably tell from the shape of the trees, it was shot on a GoPro.

Colorful bee-eater

This is one of my absolute favourite photos of the year – perhaps joint first. It is now the background pic on my computer screen. Shot in Sri Lanka, this was just one of many incredible animals I was privileged to have seen this year. I also saw a leopard, but the resulting pictures weren’t particularly good.

Lizard in tea field

I saw this cool lizard in a tea field near .

Monk in Kandy

I liked this picture because the colour of monk’s robe stands out. It perhaps could have been edited better, though.

Rainy street leading to the mountainsThis was one of many photos I took at Zhaji, in southeastern Anhui province, China.

Boats at sunset

This shot of long-tail boats on a beach near Krabi, Thailand, was shot on my iPhone.

Me looking out over Ao Nang

Another “advanced selfie” taken after a long hike in Thailand.

Tree in sunlight

I think this photo of tree bark was taken in Thailand.

Beautiful carving

I used to live in Cambodia long ago, and this summer I returned. I was saddened to find the country overrun by Chinese people, but there was still plenty of beauty left comparatively undisturbed.

My favourite picture

This photo of ruins at Angkor Wat is now the background to my iPhone. It is another of my favourites of 2018.

Bangkok sunset

After visiting Cambodia, I returned to Bangkok and shot this photo of sunset over the city from my hotel. It may look heavily edited, but it in fact isn’t. The light was simply sublime.

A handsome beach dog

The island of Koh Phangan made for an enjoyable holiday, but I didn’t actually do much photography whilst there. I did, however, see this rather majestic-looking dog.

Vera swimming in waterfall

In nearby Koh Samui, I shot this photo of my (now ex-) girlfriend. We found this isolated waterfall and spent a few pleasant hours swimming in the cool jungle waters.

Me look at the view

Oh look, another selfie. 🙂 What can I say? I like hiking and am determined to overcome my fear of heights. Contrary to what it may seem, I’m still terrified and every time I shoot this sort of photo my knees turn to jelly.

DSW_2858

I spent four and a half years in Huainan, Anhui province. It was not a particularly photogenic place, but every now and then an opportunity would present itself. I took several photos of sunsets over the city or the nearby hills, including this one.

DSW_2926

At the beginning of December, I quit my job in China and returned to Scotland. This was the first photo I took, while walking in the fields around Balmullo. It was icy cold, but after months of breathing toxic air in China, I was happy to take in that fresh Scottish air. I have spent time exploring the local area, but this first photo reminds me of that feeling of being back home, and having escaped the dank, grey hellscape of eastern China.

Posted in Photography

Sunset over Huainan

It is now autumn in Huainan, and this is the most tolerable of all seasons here. Winter is brutally cold, summer oppressively hot, and spring usually lasts for about a day and a half. Autumn, in contrast, is wonderful. The weather is cool, the air comparatively clean, and it is even a little colourful as the trees turn yellow and orange, and strange autumnal flowers bloom.

I took the opportunity to shoot some photos in the Quanshan and Shungengshan region – a stretch of hills that divide Old Huainan from the new Shannan area to the south.

With my iPhone, I took this panorama of the city as the sun fell:

IMG_2894

Posted in Photography

Back in China… again

This morning I was teaching a lesson when a piercing noise began not far from my class. It quickly rose in volume to the extent that it hurt my ears, and I could see from my students that it pained them, too. I have been in Asia long enough not to panic at incredibly loud, sudden noises, but as the sound got louder and louder, I began to feel rather uncomfortable. Not only was it interrupting my classes, but I wondered if it was also damaging my hearing. My eyes began to water. Could this be some sort of sonic attack? Were we at war? Of course not. No one seemed particularly surprised. Life went on as normal outside my classroom window, except that people were covering their ears as they continued walking about.

Many hours later, I learned that this siren marked the anniversary of the beginning of the Japanese invasion. Apparently it happens every year, so I suppose I must have forgotten that, or maybe it just wasn’t so loud last year. It’s easily done. After all, teaching in China – or in fact just living here – involves a great amount of tolerance for idiotic bullshit like eardrum-destroying sirens. In fact, every day I feel as though I’m subjected to a sonic assault. If it is not a siren, it is surely fireworks or someone drilling into a wall.

China is a place where nothing really happens for a good reason. There is a phrase here – “meiyouweishenme.” It literally means “there is no why”. More idiomatically, it means “just because.” It is a good answer for anything that goes on in China.

“Why are you walking down the middle of a busy road with your child in a stroller?”

“Meiyouweishenme.”

“Why are you lighting fireworks outside my window at 5am?”

“Meiyouweishenme.”

“Why are you encouraging your child to take a shit in the middle of this supermarket?”

“Meiyouweishenme.”

“Why is that large butcher’s knife lying in the middle of a playground?”

IMG_2770
A knife drying in a kids’ play park.

“Meiyouweishenme.”

And so on.

So, the hell with it: This is China. The Chinese will do as they have always done, which is to act in a way that is utterly baffling to the rest of the world. They will commemorate the Japanese invasion by inflicting more pain and suffering on their own people. Anyone who tries to find reason in this will be driven mad, for there really is none. It’s just China as it always has been and always will be.

*

I got back to this odd place three weeks ago. When I left in early July, I wasn’t even sure whether I would come back at all. Part of me was so sick of it that I thought I might just wander off into the world and find somewhere new. Could there really be a place as terrible as Chinese Tier 3 city? Surely not, although perhaps certain warzones or malarial swamps might come close. And, no I think about it, Cleveland was pretty unbearable. But the last thing I saw before setting off for Thailand was a woman holding her baby out to defecate on the floor of Hefei International Airport…

IMG_1879
There is nowhere in China you can go to escape the scourge of public defecation… even the international airports.

…ahe first thing I saw when I arrived back in Hefei was a man lying over two “courtesy seats” that are reserved for disabled people, the elderly, or pregnant women.

IMG_2758
I suppose in China, it is extremely polite to remove your shoes before taking up two courtesy seats. 

I think you could safely hashtag these #onlyinchina. Hell, you could probably study these pictures in a Chinese culture class, as they are utterly representative of the good citizens of the Middle Kingdom, for whom no act is too selfish to commit.

Coming back, then, was a sort of resignation: an admission that I will do literally anything for a paycheque. After all, what is more demeaning than living among a billion and a half chronic public defecators?

Well, whatever. I am back, and like I said last year: “This is my last year.”

And, as I say every year: “This time I mean it.”

When you live someplace, you have to find ways to cope with the unfortunate elements, no matter how overwhelming they seem to be. You can find a hobby, throw yourself into your work, or maybe take up meditating. Different people cope in different ways.

I chose to get out into the countryside on pleasant evenings once the sun began to go down, and practice photography. This forced me to look for something beautiful in an otherwise grey and smoggy landscape:

In addition to that, I hit the gym four days a week and spend most of the rest of my time working. It keeps me sane until the next time I escape…

Posted in Photography, travel

Koh Samui

After a relaxing two weeks in Koh Phangan, I encountered a bit of a problem. My Thai visa was about to expire. This shouldn’t have come as a surprise to me, but it did. You see, when British citizens travel to Thailand we are given 30 day visas on arrival. However, this does not apply when you travel overland from a neighbouring country… like, say, Cambodia.

Vera and I looked at our options. We loved Koh Phangan and didn’t really want to leave, but I could either extend my visa or we both had to leave the country and go elsewhere. It would have been nice to visit Malaysia, Indonesia, Laos, or Cambodia… but travelling with a Chinese passport is rather difficult, and indeed expensive. It would also have taken time that we just didn’t have, given my own visa situation.

Looking at our options, the cheapest thing to do was to head from Koh Phangan to Koh Samui, where there is an immigration office in the town of Maenam. Vera’s visa was set to expire not long after mine, and we could extend both there, squeezing as much time out of our summer holiday as possible.

Soon, we hopped in a taxi to Haad Rin, at the southeastern end of Koh Phangan, and from there took the Haad Rin Queen ferry over to a place aptly called Big Buddha, on the northeastern end of Koh Samui. The journey took just 45 minutes and cost only 200 baht each.

Koh Samui was immediately very different from Koh Phangan – or, for that matter, from nearby Koh Tao. It is a lot bigger and much busier. Several planes zipped in low over our boat as we approached the harbour, and there was heavy traffic right outside the pier. We quickly felt regret at having left behind peaceful little Koh Phangan.

I had expected the immigration office to prove a tedious challenge, but in fact it was very simple. We filled in a set of quite basic forms, had our passports photocopied, and handed over a large amount of cash. I wasn’t too happy about the money, but it was cheaper than flying to another country. From various online sources, I got the impression that this might have taken up a whole day, but altogether it took less than an hour.

We found a little hotel five minutes’ walk uphill from the immigration office, on a quiet little dusty road. It was beautiful, if a tad expensive compared to what we were used to in Koh Phangan. “Oh well, we can stay one night and go somewhere cheaper,” we said.

In fact, the hotel was so comfortable, with such lovely staff and a nice 24-hour swimming pool, that we stayed a full week! The location wasn’t great (aside from the convenient proximity to the immigration office), but it certainly was quiet compared with most of the island.

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The oddly named, but very pleasant, Wazzah resort on Koh Samui.

At the hotel, we rented a little motorbike and set out to explore the island. First we headed counterclockwise to the town of Nathon, and inwards to the mountainous interior, where we found a stunning waterfall in the jungle. We had the place to ourselves for an hour, and spent that time swimming in the cool waters.

Next, we ventured clockwise through Chaweng to Lamai, in the southeast. Chaweng looked pretty awful – a big, busy tourist trap. However, Lamai was a little nicer, and we had a delicious meal at a Jamaican restaurant. Yes, that’s right – a Jamaican restaurant in Thailand. The food was very expensive by Southeast Asian standards, but still only totaled about $20 for an incredible meal with drinks. Not too bad, all things considered.

IMG_2677
A storm moves quickly in from Lamai beach.

Our other ventures around the island took us up and over the middle, exploring dangerous little mountain roads on the trusty scooter. Some roads were so astoundingly steep that I was left genuinely baffled that the bike’s breaks managed to hold out, and on more than a few occasions it looked like the engine was going to die when hauling us both up rocky roads. We ran up hundreds of miles just zipping around, and found some more beautiful waterfalls and spectacular views out over the Gulf of Thailand.

Vera’s favourite part of the holiday, though, was the walking markets. In both Koh Phangan and Koh Samui, we found ourselves spending our evenings eating at street food stalls where you could get food for two for just US$3, and it was fantastic! She became somewhat of a curry snob after consuming several dozen massaman curries. Our regular market was by the pier at Nathon, but the best was in China Town, where I had a wonderful mango cocktail for about $2, and a whole pizza for just $3. Bargain! (As an odd sidenote: China Town contains two Austrian restaurants, a Swiss restaurant, a Swedish restaurant, several French and Italians restaurants, and a host of others… but not a single Chinese one.)

 

Time flew by and soon it was time to leave Thailand. I had spent damn near an entire summer there – exploring Phuket, Krabi, Ao Nang, Chumporn, Koh Phangan, and Koh Samui. All I am familiar with Thailand, these were all places I hadn’t really gotten to know until now, and I’m glad I did.

Our last day was spent on a series of ferries and buses headed back to Bangkok, and the next morning, at 3am, we were going to the airport to board a direct flight (thank god) to China.

Posted in Photography

Recent Photos

Since my last update, about a trip to Zhaji, I haven’t done much of interest. This semester has been brutal. I teach far more than in previous semesters, and my work now require me to give constant assessments that require hours of tedious marking. In addition, I got a slipped disc that put me out of action for three long weeks, by the end of which the short Anhui springtime had been replaced by the crushing heat of summer. As I write, it is about 38 degrees Celsius outside. A few days after my slipped disc healed enough for me to resume semi-normal activities, I slipped and fell and damaged my right ankle, further impeding my ability to do anything.

In short: it’s been a crappy few months.

Still, I have managed to hobble outside and escape the confines of my house and classroom. By large, Huainan is a pretty ugly place, but I did manage to visit a tiny park with some pleasant flowers:

A few days ago, we also managed to climb a small hill near our house and take a few photos:

IMG_1688 (1)

It is getting harder and harder to upload photos to WordPress, so if you want to follow my travels and other silly photos, follow my Instagram account, which is somewhere at the bottom of this page.

 

Posted in essay

The Absurdity of “Cultural Appropriation”

Yesterday I watched a series of presentations by young Chinese businesspeople. Their task was to find a product or service from China, then choose a target market abroad, and figure out how to break into that market. It was an exercise in culture, as much as anything. Their assigned reading included various essays on the failures of businesses attempting to enter the Chinese market and vice versa. My job was to pick apart their presentations and find flaws in their plans, and then challenge them to defend or change their presentation.

Most of the groups picked various Chinese foods that have not yet penetrated international markets, but two of them looked at Chinese clothing. In particular, they decided to pick the qipao, and market it to consumers in the United Kingdom. One of the groups intended to hybridize the qipao with Victorian-style clothing, which I think is just a horrible idea that profoundly misunderstands modern British tastes, whereas the other thought they could simply sell the qipao as it is to British women.

Qipao_woman
A woman wearing a Qipao (Source: Wikipedia)

My question to them went a little like this:

“I think that most people in the UK and other Western countries would agree that the qipao is a beautiful and elegant item of clothing, and maybe fifty or a hundred years ago they would love to wear it. But these days people would be afraid of receiving criticism for cultural appropriation. How do you intend to get past this obstacle?”

The students were unfamiliar with the concept of cultural appropriation. In fact, if you try to explain this issue to just about anyone here in China – or, for that matter, much of Asia – they look at you as if you were insane. And I would tend to agree. To me, the whole concept is indeed insane.

The Chinese, like the Japanese and Koreans, mostly wear Western-style clothes. Their idols are American pop stars, movie stars, and basketball players, and, each year, their diets are comprised of more and more Western-style food. Their cultures are utterly permeated with American and European influences. It is hardly surprising, then, that people from this part of the world dream of the day that Westerners walk about in Asian clothing, listen to Asian music, watch Asian movies, and eat Asian foods. The idea that this could somehow be offensive to them is absurd.

The issue of cultural appropriation was widely discussed a few weeks ago after an American girl wore a qipao to her prom, and incurred the wrath of America’s liberal trolls, who said she was offending the Chinese. Meanwhile, in China, people agreed that she had done nothing wrong.

qipao
Keziah Daum in a qipao

My girlfriend has asked me about this before. Last year, she was looking for a dress to bring to Scotland, and she suggested I buy something Chinese for myself. She thought it would be nice if we both wore Chinese-style clothes when we visited. I tried to explain that British people would think I was stealing from her culture and being offensive to Chinese people.

“But it’s my idea! I’m Chinese and I want you to wear Chinese clothes!”

“You don’t understand,” I said. “It doesn’t matter what you want. There are a bunch of people who think they know best, and they decide what’s right and wrong, and they’ve decided that this is offensive to you.”

We “argue” about it sometimes, although I’m entirely on her side. I am merely trying to explain what cultural appropriation is. I have no interest in defending it. I can certainly understand why it’s wrong for kids to wear offensive Halloween costumes, and that there’s a difference between respecting someone’s culture and mocking someone’s culture, but it seems that too many PC folks cannot understand these nuances.

When pressed, these critics will argue that cultural appropriation is a matter of power. The argument goes that Western countries have pushed their culture on the rest of the world for so long that it is impossible for them to steal from us. However, when Westerners take an element of another culture and incorporate it into their own, it is a form of theft. This is reasonable, except that is usually a form of respect to see something worthwhile in another culture, not to mention a natural part of intercultural exchange throughout human history. Surely it would be far worse to dismiss that other culture entirely, saying, “I’d never wear Chinese clothes! I have more class than they do!” As for the power dynamic, as my girlfriend pointed out, surely by now China has far more power and wealth than, say, Scotland, and yet no one would complain about a Chinese man playing the bagpipes.

In Asia, despite the sudden influx of Western fashion, people remain fiercely proud of their traditions, even when they don’t engage with them much themselves. A Chinese person who has never done kung-fu or played the er-hu will nonetheless tell you of the subtle sophistication of these cultural artifacts and, whenever a picture of a white person engaging with either makes it onto social media, they are not offended. On the contrary, people are filled with pride that something from their part of the world has made an impact on someone from another part of the world.

If you ask them about it, they’ll say, “Well, we have x from your country; why shouldn’t you have y from ours?” And that is exactly the point. It is precisely why cultural appropriation is a deeply ignorant concept, even if it is, in some cases, well-meaning.

To be honest, I have no interest in wearing Chinese clothes when I go back to Scotland. It’s just not my style. However, I have been in Asia for more than ten years now, and in that time I have travelled through dozens of countries. I attempt to see and experience the culture in each place I visit, and it always makes me sick to look at the limited perspectives of the people who get riled up on social media about cultural sensitivity. These folks are mostly from the US, and their entire worldview is shaped by American society and politics. They attempt to apply their morality on the globe, whilst at the same time decrying ethno- or geocentrism. The things that they say make no real sense from a global perspective. Their hearts are, mostly, in the right place, but their heads are firmly lodged inside their own rectums. They make me embarrassed to call myself liberal.

Posted in travel

Weekend Trip to Zhaji

I’ve been living in China on and off for almost eight years and sometimes I forget that it can be a beautiful place. Between the pollution, the people, and the government, there’s a lot here that’s just plain awful. The cities are vast and unpleasant, and the countryside is being swallowed up at an alarming speed. Even when you take the train from one city to the next, all you see are mountains being torn down, forests devastated, and rivers that run grey with filth.

Where I live is especially bad. The air is thick with coal dust and the people utterly uncivilized in the truest sense of the word. Most of northern and central Anhui province is like this, unfortunately, and as the giant metropolis of Hefei grows and grows, it simply swallows up more of what was once pleasant land, and turns it into what Chinese people desire most – bland, grey swathes of land covered in huge buildings.

If this all sounds unpleasant, then imagine travelling on a national holiday, when hundreds of millions of people (I’m not exaggerating) take to the roads and rails in pursuit of somewhere to take a selfie. Venturing outside at these times is just foolish, although I have done it on several occasions (Jiuhuashan, Dali, Meilixueshan). Lacking the capacity for creative thought, the Chinese all go more or less to the same places, but even if you find somewhere with fewer of them, you still have to contend with the small matter of getting there on jam-packed roads and train stations crammed with screaming, spitting, shitting morons.

Thankfully, we accidentally purchases tickets for business class and were delighted to find a small cabin with four luxurious reclining seats. It was utterly silent in there, in stark contrast to the rest of the train. What a wonderful beginning to a journey:

Vera Enjoying a Business Class Seat from Hefei

We arrived in a small town called Jingxian, and from there took a local bus for an hour and a half up into the mountains to Zhaji. On the way, we saw some incredible birds and I regretted having not brought a longer lens. In packing my camera equipment, I had assumed Zhaji would be as utterly devoid of wildlife as everywhere else in eastern China. Boy, was I wrong. There were eagles and huge colourful birds with long tails. Yet I was never able to shoot any of them with the camera stuff I’d brought.

Oh well, c’est la vie.

Zhaji proved to be scenic enough to get some good photos:

Zhaji is unlike other historic towns in China in several ways. The first and most important is that it’s not at all well-known. Others, like Sanhe, are swarmed with idiot tourists year-round. People move there just to sell souvenirs, and all the buildings are renovated to make it more tourist-friendly. The result is that it becomes very fake and rather gaudy. The beauty of old China was that it revered subtlety – something utterly lost on modern Chinese, who prefer things loud and obvious. Zhaji, by contrast, retains the pleasant charm of old dynasties, and the fact that it has been largely left to fall apart keeps it looking as authentic as it is. The people there seem like good, honest folk who go about normal lives in spite of the small number of tourists that visit, rather than the greedy snakes who inhabit other tourist spots. As a result, Zhaji is a relaxing, pleasant place to visit with no scams or related pitfalls.

Old woman washing clothes
All the woman in Zhaji wash clothes in the stream that runs through town.

We didn’t have much time but we made the most of it, even exploring the town and its surrounding areas at night:

On our second day, we took a taxi further into the mountains to a place called Peach Blossom Lake (Taohuatan) and went rafting on a river there. The national park (or regional forest park, whichever it was) was pretty small and pleasant, with not too many tourists due to its remote location. In fact, aside from rafting it’s best-known for a Li Bai poem. We walked around for a while and admired the surprisingly clean water before renting a raft and drifting peacefully down the river over the course of about an hour.

IMG_1471It was so nice, it felt like being in another country!

After a brief trip, we had to leave little Zhaji and head back through the miserable transport system to Huainan. Unfortunately, I’d made a mistake in buying the train tickets and it took a complicated series of buses and taxis to get home over 14 long hours… Back just in time for a few hours’ sleep before work.

Oh well, at least I have the memories and photos to remind me it’s not all bad here.

And hey, China will always be funny because it’s so damn weird. After all, where else in the world do they teach children fire safety like this:

Chinese fire safety for children

Posted in travel

10 Years

Ten years ago today, I landed at Incheon airport. It was my first time in Asia and I had no idea what to expect. I knew nobody on this whole continent, but I had found a job online that promised me a somewhat decent salary, something that was impossible for me back in Scotland.

I spent a little less than three years in South Korea. Unfortunately, the job was pretty awful. I actually disliked the country for a lot of the time I was there, although now I look back with a more mature perspective and realize that it wasn’t so bad. In fact, there was a lot of beauty there and I had some amazing experiences.

In Korea, I spent most of my time working but on weekends I’d head out into the mountains to hike. That was the best thing about the country – it was all mountains. After a year or so, I bought a motorbike and I ventured further off to the coasts. It’s not a particularly large country, and by the time I left in 2010, I’d seen most of it.

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In 2010, I left South Korea. On the way out of the country, my plane crashed. Thankfully, no one was badly hurt, and after a few days I continued on a journey that took me across the United States, through Europe, to Taiwan, Malaysia, and finally China. The twists and turns that brought me here, to China, were bizarre at best and culminated in me receiving an anonymous phone call to a hotel room in Kuala Lumpur asking, “Can you come to China tomorrow morning?”

China has been my home on and off since 2010, when I first arrived in a relatively unknown city called Hefei. At that time, the president was Hu Jintao, and he was pumping money into Hefei and the surrounding areas. Since then, the city has changed unrecognizably. It is massive, and has often been cited as the fast-growing urban area on earth. In 2010 I was living in the countryside outside the city, and had to take a bus for thirty-five minutes to reach the center. Nowadays the city has spread for miles beyond where I lived, and the center has changed to a completely new location. There’s an international airport, theme parks, and a host of giant hotels, train stations, malls, and whatnot. Most towns change less in a hundred years than Hefei has in eight.

After a few years in China, I took off for Cambodia, where I ran a bar/restaurant/hotel for a year. This was about 2013, and by that time I’d spent a lot of time exploring Southeast Asia, and felt like it would be a great place to live. It was, but in 2014, I returned to China, to a smaller city near Hefei, and resumed teaching. I have remained there ever since.

China is crazy. It’s the weirdest place in the universe. Going anywhere and doing anything can be exhausting and unpleasant. I remember when I invited a friend over here many years ago and he said: “Even the simplest things here are just… different. You want to go buy a carrot and it becomes this huge adventure. Nothing works like you’d expect it to.”

But I guess it’s alright because I’m still here. It certainly gives me opportunities I would have had back home. The same was true of Korea. Since arriving in Asia ten years ago, I’ve visited about thirty countries and had an impossible number of experiences that just would never have happened had I not ventured east. I’ve run marathons in North Korea, hiked Mount Fuji, swum with dozens of sharks, gotten close to blue whales off Sri Lanka, and so much more. What an incredible ten years it has been – full of extreme ups and downs – but never, never boring.

David with Mount Fuji and Ice Cream

Posted in update

Back in China

All good things must come to an end, and so after a month wandering India and ten days in Sri Lanka, I returned home to China. China is the land of filth and bad manners, but it is not all bad. There is a level of weirdness here that you just don’t find anywhere else on earth.

Take, for example, the outdoor pop-up dental practices:


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Open-air dental surgery

Before you ask, yes that the big filthy puddle on the left is an open sewer. The local elderly will at the same time use it as a toilet and a place to wash clothes, dishes, or just about anything else.

And, of course, is there anything funnier than Chinese attempts at translation? No, there isn’t:

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Rape Festival

(For the record, the Chinese says “oil seed rape festival,” which is still a bit odd.)

Every day brings a new weirdness, even after all these years. Some of it is just exasperating and some is easier to laugh at. Some, like this homemade bench-press set-up is actually quite impressive.

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If Rocky had been Chinese, he would have trained here.

I have been far busier with work than in previous semesters and so have done relatively little of note, but last week I found a spare few hours to go see the cherry blossoms herald the arrival of spring.