October 2005

What a weekend! I just performed Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana at the Forbidden City Concert Hall with the . It was an amazing experience. Judging by the audience’s reaction, we were well received - a standing ovation!

The IFC is one of the best things I’ve come across in Beijing to enhance my quality of life. Although we are all volunteers, it really is a professional level choir and the music we perform is both beautiful and challenging. For more information, check out the , which I designed and maintain.

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Living in a non-English-speaking country, the word “hello” can take on a whole new meaning. During my stay in , from the mid 80’s to early 90’s, I was often amazed at the different ways this simple greeting could be uttered. Young children who had never seen a blue-eyed gaijin would usually be bursting with excitement. I was more than happy to stop and chat with them if they were bold enough to run up. Often as not, small groups of children would wave enthusiastically and were content with a smile and a wave in return. There were, however, many degrees of haaro.

Black clad wannabes with tightly permed hair who liked to congregate in front of train stations and ogle women, harass passersby and otherwise tax their brains coming up with creative ways to annoy people and thereby warrant the attention they so desperately need, would somehow manage to convey both condescension and challenge in the simple word “hello.” Teenagers would likewise usually take more of a smartass approach and attempt to characterize the dumb foreigner with an exaggerated, “Haaaarooooooooooo.” In either case, you could always judge by the quality of the laughter how many points they were scoring with their companions for their efforts. On rare occasions, I actually managed to hear some very seductive hellos, as well.

Well, that is certainly not the case in China. After two and half years, I’ve gone numb from the aural bombardment that constantly assails me. A walk down the street around any market designed to attract foreign tourists can be taxing.

“Hello, DVD!!” I ignore the first volley without breaking stride.

“HeLLO!!! DVD!!!!” Still ignoring.

“HELLO!!! DVD!!! SEX!!!” This is usually a last ditch effort thrown at my receding back.

Of course, to the uninitiated, it is harder to ignore. Any attention whatsoever will have them in your face, harassing you until either buy something or yell at them with enough vigor to actually make them go away. Although they are usually peddling pirated DVDs, it’s not uncommon to hear, “Hello, socks!” or “Hello, polo shirts.” I actually heard a new one yesterday, “Hello, books!”

For a while, after I’d been here for six months or so, I used to reply to them, in an exasperated voice, “My name is.. NOT .. DVD!!” As this seemed to have no effect but to cause them to chase me further, I settled into my current tactic of just ignoring them.

If you value peace and quiet and hate being approached by strangers, you will definitely be in for a long a period of adjustment if you visit China. A trip to any market place will bring a steady stream of shouts from the hawkers as they compete for your business the only way they know how… yelling more loudly than the next guy. Same goes for the Internet. Visit a Chinese site and witness the spectacle of 100 animated banners flashing brightly in an attempt to outshine the rest.

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Today, the people of are celebrating the establishment of their government and declaration of a separation with the mainland. Many people in the US growing up during the years were taught that Taiwan was the good China and the mainland was the bad China. Having lived in both, they are, to me, simply both China. There’s nothing much separating them save ideology, which, of course, can be very divisive.

When I lived in Taipei in 1995, folks were celebrating newfound freedom after the curfew that had been in place since took all he could get his hands on, (which a visit to any museum in Taipei will show was considerable, a good thing as much was spared the destruction they would have faced during the cultural revolution) fled the mainland and landed there in 1949, had finally been dropped. Though the tight grip of the government of mainland China is widely known, few seem to realize that things weren’t exactly “free” in Taiwan. In many ways, life was not too different from their mainland cousins. It just feels better for some people to support an independent Taiwan, without really paying too much to the history and views of most Chinese people. Of course, few countries, not the US for one, actually recognize the Republic of China as an independent country.

To be sure, as a result of early tenuous alliances with major world powers, Taiwain benefited economically and received some small assurances that forced re-unification with the mainland would at least be postponed. While advocates for independence grew more confident and more outspoken, others took a different approach. Looking back over the years of foreign investment in China, you’ll find Taiwan topping the list for many years running. Despite difficulties in traveling directly to the mainland, shrewd investors have poured money earned from Taiwan’s head start, so to speak, back into the mainland. And, why not? Most of them have family on the mainland and eagerly await re-unification.

The fact is, to most Chinese people, Taiwan IS a renegade province of China. Sure, many Taiwanese people disagree, but imagine if Hawaii decided to secede from the US. Do you think the US government would just say, “OK, go ahead”? Now, imagine they found someone with lots of weapons, or at least a new super weapon the US didn’t have, who was looking for a base close to the US and made a deal with them first. I realize this is far from a perfect analogy. Let’s face it. Who is the US really afraid of? But, imagine there was someone powerful enough that the US government decided it would just have bide its time until a reasonable solution could be worked out. History might lead one to believe that the solution would be to develop a bigger and better version of whatever threat was looming over them and then come back and say, “OK, Hawaii, you’ve had your fun. Now, c’mon home to Daddy.” That is, therefore, exactly what a lot of outsiders, and, of course, Taiwanese people, are afraid of. I believe cooler heads will prevail.

Taiwan of 1995 reminds me of of 2003, and of 2000, as far as the level of development and quality of life is concerned. Although there are certainly political reasons for opposing the current regime in the PRC, I believe the primary reluctance to reunite has been economically based. The fact is, many Taiwanese are looking to Shanghai as a place they’d like to visit or even live. Families are tired of this separation. As China’s economy grows to the point where it can easily swallow Taiwan, at that point, I’d say re-unification is a no-brainer. As far as the political situation is concerned, just look to Hong Kong. While those who fled to Canada before the 1997 changeover might assure themselves they averted disaster, and many no doubt have managed to safeguard their way of life, there are plenty who stayed who find life in the current Hong Kong quite alright.

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