Communism and Ovary Maintenance: Travels In China

My father spends quite a bit of time on the road, and sends us periodic updates from his travels. He travels to China about once a year, to work on a clinical trial they're doing on preventing antibiotic-induced deafness, so he's quite the experienced traveler there. I've asked him to guest-author an entry or two on his recent (November 2003) trip to China, so here's the first one!

The first surprise that greets me in China: I can actually communicate via e-mail! Last year, the Chinese authorities in their unfathomable wisdom, had blocked all internet access to the University of Michigan, keeping me incommunicado for most of my travel. Why the U of M was taken off the list of subversive institutions, and why it had landed there in the first place, I cannot even guess. It's one of those facts of life that you learn to accept traveling in this country.

I am sitting at the computer in the modern apartment of my travel companion's brother - he is really not her brother, but her cousin, but those distinctions are a bit murky in Chinese families - after an extensive lunch at a very nice restaurant.

Modern and stylish, new apartment buildings.

At this point I should probably interject some information on my trip and on the identity of my travel companion. I have had longstanding contacts with Chinese universities that I have nurtured on a regular basis for the last ten years or so, and my Chinese colleague and cultural consultant (CCCC for short) is my regular companion and guide on these travels.

Lunch was followed by extensive discussions with CCCC's uncle, who is definitely not her uncle. Seven years ago when we first met, he was a staunch communist of the old school. He remains a staunch communist, wholeheartedly embracing all changes and the capitalistic trimmings of the post-Dengjao Ping era.

If you are wondering how someone can be both communist and capitalist, then you are not Chinese. After all, it is still Communism - it's just a slightly different kind of Communism. And after many futile attempts trying to elicit admissions from my colleagues that their brazen pursuit of wealth really constitutes capitalism, I am resigned to accepting this philosophy. The logic is simple and convincing: "We are a Communist country." Period.

Just like fifty years ago: supplies for the winter.

China has intrigued the world for centuries and still today, it is a country difficult to comprehend or describe. Much of today's thinking (about human rights for example) is still rooted in Confucianism, modified by Buddhism and, more recently, by Communism. You'll see this when you try to argue Western values.

Individual rights, civil liberties?

"So you have your freedoms, the right to bear arms and the highest murder rate in the world. Why is this superior?"


"Tell me why the invasion of Iraq is a lesson in democracy."

Human rights, habeas corpus?

"What's the difference? You have Guantanamo Bay".

Try to point out that a society where an upper 5% of the population control 95% of the money and rest live in poverty should be ripe for a Communist revolution.


"But we are a Communist country."


How was my impression of Beijing this time? As always: a city with progress written all over, and construction unabated and unabashed. Since my last visit a year ago entire street blocks have vanished, taking with them the small restaurants with the dirty tables and authentic foods, the sidewalk bicycle repair businesses and the street vendors. Modern office buildings and department stores are shooting up, and Starbucks and McDonald's seem more popular than ever. Not that the old neighborhoods are all gone yet, but the handwriting is on the wall. And that's the only handwriting anywhere, since graffiti is virtually absent and the modern parts of the city are impeccably clean.


Second by second, the city is counting down to the Olympic Games. Literally. I was wondering what this gigantic number was, greeting me as I entered the city on the airport expressway, but a quick calculation left no doubt. The subway is being modernized and expanded, roads are being built at an enormous pace and bilingual signs are sprouting everywhere.

Street sweepers everywhere. Even the highways are being kept clean with broom and shovel.

It even seems that the English translations are getting better. I found little that I could add to my collection of curiosities (see sidebar) - in fact, nothing from the official signs. But then, Beijing had never been a major contributor to this collection. I was, however, baffled by a label on a bottle in the barber shop where I got my - by now traditional - Beijing hair cut: "Aroma Umbilical Paste Treatment - Ovary Maintain Unit." Smack among the shampoos, hair colorings and beauty aids. I tried to get an explanation but CCCC was under the flying scissors of our master cutter, and by the time we left I had forgotten to ask. This will haunt me for the rest of my life. Or until my return to Beijing - if, see above, that little barber shop will still exist.

Haircut with head and shoulder massage. A luxury for less than a couple of dollars.



12. December 2003


Impressions of China: Language

Despite my frequent travels to China, I have been successfully prevented from learning even the basics of the Chinese language. Wherever I went I was in the caring hands (better: in the chains) of former or aspiring-to-be fellows of my laboratory. Therefore, I do appreciate the efforts all over China to accommodate foreign visitors and provide English translations. Not that it is impossible to negotiate that country: the few times I have escaped my hosts (believe me, an escape from Alcatraz prison pales in comparison to an escape from a Chinese host!) I got along fine, reaching my destinations, grabbing a lunch or procuring a bottle of Tsingtao beer. But a sign in English can prevent an embarrassing encounter in the ladies' toilet or the unintentional order of fresh monkey brain. Having said this, here are a couple of signs that caught my fancy.

1. This sign creates the image in me of a gentle people that have elevated bull fighting to a rather humane level.

2. Likewise, this charming attempt shows concern for animals but also reflects on the complexity of languages and the character of people that need such an admonition.

3. This one is for sociologists to research. I did not have the time to contemplate the subtleties of Chinese gender identification since I had urgent business to conduct.

4. This highway sign near Xi'an will certainly make you slow down. Not so much for its message but for the time it will take you to figure it out (if you ever will):


5. The notice in the toilet of the train from Wuhan to Changsha seems to reflect a very intimate relationship with the iron horses:


6. Food labels in restaurants sometimes make you think (and think twice) before you buy:


7. I was somewhat bewildered by the sign in the lobby of my hotel, the guest house of the PLA Hospital, in Beijing:


8. Aren't you wondering what might be going on at other airports after reading this message in Shenyang:


9. It should be interesting to get a haircut here:


where a tall bottle among the shampoos and lotions caught my eye:


10. And finally, Skull & Bones seems to pale against this club in Wuhan:



Collected during several visits


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