Saturday, 21 February 2009

What The Hell Am I Doing Back Here?

For the last month I have been back-packing from Kuala Lumpur up through Malaysia and Thailand and into Bangkok.

It has been a time of sunshine, laughter, crazy adventures and clean toilets. And it was terribly difficult to come back.

No matter where I went in Malaysia and Thailand -from meanest village to bustling city or town, through bus stations and make-shift eateries - one thing was constant: the toilets were clean, airy, hygienic and odour-free. If you've never been out of a First world country you might be thinking "Well, duh!". But if you live in, or have been to, China you will probably be thinking "Oh, heaven!"

Because the one thing that all foreigners, whether loving China or disliking it, will agree with, is that the lavatories here are, frankly, disgusting. And I use the word not in a hyperbolic sense, but in every aspect of its actual meaning: they engender disgust. I have an almost cast-iron constitution and have spent my life in some of the most primitive corners of the world. But China is the only country in the world where, having entered a public toilet I raced outside and violently, wrenchingly, and at great length vomited.

I have witnessed a visiting Academic - a tough cookie and well-respected for her pragmatic, no-nonsense stand upon important issues - crouching, sobbing with humiliation in a Chinese lavatory. I have known a fellow-teacher who became agoraphobic: she was so worried about having to use a toilet outside her own apartment that she refused to venture from it. I have met backpackers who took the next plane out of the country after visiting a Chinese public lavatory and I myself have rung in sick when my tummy has had the slightest grumble, because the knowledge that I might have to use one of the toilets in the University teaching bloc is not to be borne.

Before I came here I read forums which moaned about Chinese toilets but did not go into graphic detail. In my innocence I imagined their only gripe was the absence of toilet paper: easily overcome by every resident in China carrying round small packets of tissues in their pocket or bag. The first habit one picks up. I then thought that the concern was centred solely around the issue of "squattie potties" as they are dubbed by expatriates. I was blase about that. China is not the only country to favour this form of lav. and my experience with squats was pretty extensive.

So I was actually as unprepared as any other foreigner for the reality of Chinese toilets. As long as one lives here it is impossible to equate the the sight of some dainty, doll-like creature click-clacking her way along a corridor with the knowledge of her destination. How can she bear it?

While not actually vomiting, I once stood in a line at a public toilet at a busy and modern shopping mall, absolutely desperate for relief, but dry-heaving with my hand-creamed hands in front of my nose, trying vainly to block out the sickening stench. Yet from smart urban office-staff, to elderly shoppers, everyone else stood there nattering unconcernedly, and, while I picked my way, gagging, into the cubicle, they sailed in with no obvious distaste for the inch-deep human waste that covered the cubicle floors, the discarded, unwrapped sanitary napkins around which blue-bottles and flies hovered hungrily nor the overflowing, open baskets of used toilet paper steaming in the summer temperatures.

When I have gone on holidays to Australia or England and delighted in the perfumed, Muzaked wastes of the sterile, hushed, ladies lavs. I have come back telling myself it is elitist to compare these to the insanitary conditions of a third-world country. But this time, this time I just got mad.

If villages that were no more than clearings in a jungle, or busy coach stations with hundreds of bladders a minute being continuously relieved could boast pristine, sanitary lavs, with plentiful water not just for flushing but for washing ones bits afterwards, why on earth was I returning to such conditions? I would look at Malaysian and Thai women, so dainty and feminine, and know that they were dainty and feminine in all aspects.

Using water to douche oneself is so much more civilized than the Western habit of sopping up excess with bits of paper, that I actually felt disgusted at a conversation overheard in a Malaysian Tea plantation: A busload of Aussie tourist had just pulled up and a gaggle of women invaded the amenities. I had, as usual, lingered a little in thoughtful delight at the spotless floors, the shining fixtures and the luxury of being able truly to "freshen up" in my cubicle before coming to wash my hands with plentiful hot water and a sweet-smelling soap that perfumed the entire area. No need ever for the sanitised wipes I always carried at home in China - where a single cold tap is considered all that's necessary for washing.

Yet I heard the group of women who had beaten their companions to it greeting the new arrivals with "Another bloody Asian toilet!" "Oh no! " the others groaned. ""Yeah, gotta crouch down like a bloody plantation worker...and there's no toilet paper!" "What! These people are the living end!" replied one of the new arrivals. "Ah don't worry love, I came prepared" someone grimly announced and started tearing sheets from a huge roll which she doled out to everyone else.

I slunk away trying to disassociate myself from these women and hoped that the nearby staff - all of whom spoke excellent English - did not group me in with these "dirty foreigners" who preferred using pieces of paper to utilising the douches attached to each lav. I also prayed that the next country they visited was China.

The longer I stayed in Malaysia and Thailand the more the thought of returning to Chinese loo's was getting me down. I was also dreading walking down streets where fellow-pedestrians hawked enormous globules of spit around so that walking down any street becomes a hazard - not from pick-pockets or rapists, but from the possibly of of slipping in one of these enormous oysters as I once did in a busy, indoor market. The sound of a tiny Chinese girl, with fluffy pink scirts, and diamante jewellery fetching one of these up from, apparently, the depths of her being to let fly (sometimes on ones shoes)still has the power to amaze me.

Then, I started to think, there was the fact that everywhere one went people did not just stare...they turned around to do so; they held up their kids for an uninterrupted gawk; they got out their cell-phones and recorded one for posterity; the stood right next to one and did a slow, unsmiling inventory from the toes of one's shoes to the topmost hair on one's crown.

Which of course led me to dread returning to the daily battle to catch a bus: fighting and clawing with tens of other determined passengers, being elbowed out of the way, having ones feet trodden on and, sometimes, going down in the crowd unnoticed while people scramble blindly past.

Or the way one was dismissed with shooing motions like an uppity farmyard chook if someone didn't want to answer, or let one into their cab, or didn't know the answer to a question or just couldn't be bothered talking. AAArgh.

Even when I had actually run out of money I stayed on in Bangkok, lazing by the hostel pool, walking through the pavements crowds, taking free bus rides and dreading, absolutely dreading, having to leave the sunshine and the smiles, the cleanliness and the flowers, and come on home.

I've now been back a week and in have just come back from downtown. I stood back and let the fight go on without me to get a bus and so, despite having arrived at the bus stop in good time, had to stand, with someones bottom fitting snugly into the curve of my own and my boobs squashed up against a strangers back. Until, of course, the bus broke down and we were all abandoned without a word of apology or alternative arrangements, on the side of the highway.

But then a passing business man stopped and gave me a lift. Oh, all right: he stopped to give the three pretty young students ahead of me a lift and, as they slid, giggling, into the back seat I insinuated myself firmly into the front. No-one minded. And no-one said "Put on your seat belt, or I'll get a huge fine". Neither did anyone even flinch as he overtook a truck on the wrong side, or sailed down the bicycle lane, or stopped on a busy corner to let us off. As I hurried down a nearby lane a woman coming towards me beamed all over her face and said "Hello!"

Then I walked across the square, where teenagers linked arms with their grandparents, and a little boy accosted me and asked me what my name was. His mother didn't rush him off indignantly reminding him of stranger danger but sat, smiling proudly from a far bench, as her little one talked to the foreigner.

When I finally arrived at the place from which I was to conduct a class, no-one muttered darkly about me being dozy or unorganised when they reminded me it was the wrong day. They all giggled and laughed and asked me how my holiday had been, and told me how good I looked, and admired my new handbag and asked me how much I had paid for it and how much had been asked and congratulated me for getting a bargain.

In the coffee lounge no-one minded that I took a comfortable chair from the other side of the room and plonked it down in front of the plate-glass window which I gazed through, entranced, as though it were a giant t.v. screen. A young father and his tiny daughter thought it was a good idea and did exactly the same thing. When I had finished my coffee I knew I was free to sit there from then until the place closed, and even have a little snooze if I felt like it, without feeling the need to buy more bloating cups of anything in order to establish my right to do so.

I reflected on my weeks new classes, packed with old students who had signed on for another semester with me, and how they had welcomed me, and asked questions, and the incredible difference in them from the first classes I had ever had with them. They had lost their paralysing shyness, they had learned to joke and even dispute with me; their English was so improved from those first, faltering sentences of just a semester ago that it was difficult to believe they were the same people.

We discussed topics they wouldn't even have understood when I first met them; they argued with each other; they gave answers that did not match my thoughts on things; they didn't giggle and turn red when I made them all change places and sit with people of different gender.

So, sitting there in that coffee shop, watching old men hawk onto the pavement and same-sex couples go by hand in hand who would laugh at the idea of that looking gay, I suddenly knew why I had come back.

Bugger the toilets: I have a map in my head now of all the five star hotels downtown where I can go if I'm caught short, and I'll continue to ring in sick if I have a tummy-rumble. Bugger the hawking and spitting - my students think its revolting every bit as much as I do. Now I know what ha kept me coming back and signing on.
China is like nowhere else on earth: its anarchic and traditional at the same time. Its a place where one has enormous freedoms and none at all. Its a place at a frantic, hectic speed where whole busloads full of passengers calmly go to sleep on a twenty minute bus ride. It's unthinkably large population are worldly-wise and naive, cunning and trusting, excessively polite and (to our way of thinking only) incredibly rude. China is the epitome of Yin and Yang.
The older generation are slowly instigating change, but the youngsters are lapping it up. They can admit to themselves and, often, to me, that there are some things that need to change while their elders, still caught in a different system's mores, are sometimes more slow to acknowledge it. There's so much they need to learn and so much they can teach me.
I think I keep coming back to China because it's exciting being part of a new culture that is being forged. And hey, somewhere in the future, maybe that will include doing something about the toilets!

A Five Thousand Year Old Culture

The oft-repeated claim by Chinese people – from State Representatives to students to agricultural workers that “Our culture goes back 5,000 years” has become so familiar that it has reached cliché standard.

It is unfortunate that this claim has come to provide a cause of deep misunderstanding which in fact could be described as resentment by many non-Chinese – especially those living and working in China.

The emergence of humankind from separate cave or familial groups to settlements, which evolved into towns, signals the beginning of society as we would recognize it. With the establishment of settlements came first agriculture and then trade which brought about larger, homogeneous groups called towns. The nature of towns necessitated the evolution of laws, rulers and societal divisions and so provided a common marker for what we loosely term the beginnings of civilization.

As with the beginnings of any other period of human evolution such as The Neolithic, The Neanderthal, the Iron and Bronze Ages, this phenomenon began at approximately the same time in separate places around the world. Roughly speaking the world phenomenon of “civilization” began around 5,000 years ago.

In the area between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers the great civilizations of Mesopotamia and the Middle East began to emerge. In Egypt, what was to become the Dynastic period saw its genesis. Amongst the collection of islands and rough hills of Europe, what was later to become the Greek civilization had its beginnings and in Africa Zimbabwe and other great cultures began to form. Asia of course, was no exception and along with the beginnings of the ancient Indian States, the beginnings of the Dynastic period of Chinese history indeed began also.

However, this, as stated above, was a global and not a regional phenomenon. The habit of Chinese citizens to claim exclusive provenance to this phenomenon is an ongoing thorn in the side of those from other cultures.

What Chinese people mean when they make this claim, of course, is that unlike America or Australia for example, a continuous civilization began in their country and continued in an unbroken line till the present day. There was no ousting of original inhabitants or tacking on of alien ways – China has always been the home of the Chinese.

This cultural one-upmanship is all part and parcel of the Chinese myopia which regards America as “The West” and takes no cognizance of the melting pot of cultures, races and civilizations from which the world outside of China claims its heritage. Taken at face value however, even in regard to America this statement is fatuous: America being a migrant country whose polyglot population traces their ancestry to such varied countries as Northern Europe, Britain, The Continent, Asia and Africa, it could be considered safe to say that every human being in the world today is the product of a 5,000 year old culture. Thousands of second, third and fourth generation Americans, who have never set foot outside the land of their birth, indeed identify themselves as Irish-American, Afro-American, Italian, Greek or Scottish-American as a reminder of the cultural heritage to which they lay claim. While Australia tends – ostensibly at least – to celebrate its multicultural nature and all its inhabitants consider themselves purely Australian, the uncomfortable fact remains that the true Australian culture - which far surpasses any Asian or European culture to a Dream Time 40,000 years ago applies only to the Aboriginal population – and no-one can quite make up their minds as to what defines modern Australian “culture” (indeed there are those who staunchly believe it is a chimera) nor when it can be said to have become uniquely Australian and not a British offshoot.

From a Chinese perspective however, the claim to being the oldest civilization on earth (for this indeed is the belief of almost all Chinese people) is also meant to underline the fact that cultures such of those of Japan and Korea all developed from the mother-root of China. A fact completely unknown and mainly disregarded by many Western people.

The attitude of the Chinese people to Japan – if not to Korea - comes as a surprise to many Westerners. It is difficult to assess when this attitude came about. The Chinese ascribe it to the actions of the Japanese leading up to and during World War 2. Feeding into this is the fact that memorials and monuments, books and movies continue to appear right up to the present highlighting the atrocities of Japanese invaders and fanning the racism which breaks out regularly in cities and Universities across China.

While there is no doubt that atrocities occur in wars and horror is inflicted upon the innocent, there is no country in the world which could not produce their own bogey-men from ancient conflicts, and the fact that modern Chinese students, whose own parents, let alone themselves, were not even born at the time of the Japanese invasion, continue in some places to burn with self-righteous hatred towards Japanese students, is staggering.

It is tempting therefore to consider that, notwithstanding the attempts of Chinese and Japanese leaders to establish more cordial relations, to the ordinary Chinese there is something which dates from a later time which causes resentment: something which was born out of the move to Opening and Expansion thirty years ago.

At that time the parents of the working population would have been those who had lived through the events such as the well-publicised Rape of Nanjing, the bombing of Shanghai and the other theatres of war. Locked away from the outside world in the main, China’s trade relations with the Japanese go back for centuries. For most of that time Japan was also a country which eschewed Western contact and, like China, had a mainly agricultural or fishing population, feudal society and traditional values.

China was the benign Mother-land from which Japan, the small collection of islands in which the Western world had little influence, had evolved. It is easy to see, therefore, how shocked and betrayed China felt when modern tools of war were used against her by this wayward child to whom, after all, she had given birth. Once repelled however, Japan, along with the rest of the world, retreated from the consciousness of most of the Chinese population whose day to day existence was taken up with the constant battle against poverty and hunger which came with the Great Famines, and subsequently with the building up of both agriculture and industry which followed.

Following upon the rhetoric of the Mao years China had every reason to be pleased with the progress it had made at the time of Opening and Expansion. Country-wide efforts had resulted in the land once again yielding crops and foodstuffs, factories pounded day and night and the common citizens, looking back over a turbulent twentieth century, had every reason to believe that opening its doors finally to the West would result in greater prosperity and increased living standards as a precursor to the twenty first century. Which, indeed, is what has happened.

Except that Japan, that unruly child of Chinese culture, had got there first.

The country which, at the beginning of the century, was firmly part of the Asian third world block had, by the 1970’s outstripped the rest of Asia and was leading both it and – which must have been a bitter pill to China – the West itself in many fields. Japanese cities and towns, once collections of fragile and vulnerable wooden houses, now sported sky-scrapers and modern transport systems. Japanese companies such as Sony, Sanyo, Mitsubishi and more, were trading on world exchanges and had become household names. Japanese exports reached to every corner of the world and Tokyo, once nothing more that a disregarded Asian village, was now a city listed amongst such destinations as London, Rome and Paris to which the tourists flocked, upon whose streets stylish workers thronged and in whose nightclubs the rich and famous from everywhere partied.

The country which had taken its style of dressing, of reading, speaking and writing, of eating, of music, of familial construct and of education from China and who had turned upon China with little notice from the West was now part of the West. While China was only beginning its long climb to the outside world Japan had not just entered but dominated it in many ways. The reward for turning aggressor during the 30’s and 40’s was, it appeared, superiority in trade and recognition by America, England and Europe.

Regardless of trade agreements, peace treaties and Government propaganda, to the average person in China it would seem that all of this is a far more likely reason for the average Chinese to harbour animosity. It also seems like a far more likely reason for the reiteration on almost every platform from the sports field to the School podium, of the mantra of the 5,000 year old culture. China, this mantra inculcates, is the oldest, the longest, the most superior: Japan and other Asian countries owe their very existence to her and, as for brash, domineering America? Well what could a country whose existence came about as a conglomerate of outcasts from other places a mere 4 centuries ago have to teach anyone about culture?

Seen in this context, and taken with the consideration of Face which permeates every facet of Chinese life, the attitudes of the Average Joe (or Chan) in China become, to me at least, much more understandable. It becomes a question of National pride – not the bitter and vengeful claim to perpetual victim status to which a lot of foreigners ascribe the anti-Japanese sentiment which is ubiquitous throughout China.

I do not take such a dim view of what appears to others as racist bigotry. If claiming hurt feelings was not yet another way in which to lose Face, I would describe the way a lot of Chinese feel towards the Japanese as hurt feelings. The way a parent feels when a good child turns against them. The cute little country which set off on its own voyage of discovery with lots of goodies packed by Mum turned against her after a while of being on their own. To compound it they got involved in a high-powered career and didn’t give their poor old Mum back in her council house even a fleeting thought.

It is for this reason that I think and hope that, in time, this feeling will dissipate. As China starts to forge a modern identity past glories will not be such an issue. Like the Greeks, Italians, Egyptians and all the other countries of the world which reached their apogee in ancient times the memories of a lost culture will always contribute to a sense of national pride. Just as the people of the Middle East can claim a sophisticated code of laws and governance while those in Northern Europe were solving their problems by whacking each other over the their unwashed heads with iron clubs; or the Egyptian elite were bathing daily and dousing their bodies with precious perfumes while the Celts were getting sewn into their clothes for the entire winter, China can justly claim a time when indeed the Western peoples were hairy, evil-smelling barbarians in their animal pelts and rough woven clothes in comparison to the Chinese elite.

In the scant thirty years since China opened her doors a lot has been achieved. A new middle class has been formed; manufacturing and industry have taken over from hand-ploughs and ancient tractors; education is available to millions of people whose parents only dreamed of such a concept; modern medicine has taken the place of superstition and huge highways have linked modern cities in a country where once men, women and children stumbled on foot across muddy tracts or were blocked by mountains.

China, like other emerging countries in the twenty first century, is still in the birth pangs of her new, International identity. There is no-one alive to-day who remembers the days of Dynastic glory: the past for older Chinese citizens is a period as far removed from those times as to-days China is from the days of Chairman Mao. Chinese identity and modern culture will be forged by the young people, the students of today.

I have every reason to believe that these young men and women are fully capable of creating a new dynamic in China, and a modern Chinese culture that does not need to search the past for its identity, nor to cultivate resentment against any other nation. All my confidence and love reside with these young people who, I firmly believe, will realise that revisiting the sins of the fathers upon the children of to-day is not the way to the harmonious future they all crave.