Spotted in a Beijing hutong, I think there are multiple layers of symbolism about China embedded in this shot.
Earlier this month I got to spend two weeks back in Beijing, my former “home town.” My primary reason for the trip was to spend time with a friend undergoing cancer treatment, but I was also able to get out and about to connect with local friends as well.
Here are six random observations noted during my time there:
Note: This is an edited version of a post that was originally published at ChinaSource on February 25.
Forty-three years ago this week, President Richard Nixon made his historic visit to China. It was 1972, and I was a junior high student at Karachi American School in Karachi, Pakistan. I remember our social studies teacher taking us to the US Consulate where we were able to watch news reports of the visit (some live, some taped). Even as a young teenager I knew it was a momentous occasion.
Of course no one knew at the time (probably not even Nixon himself) how much things would change, not simply in regards to US-China relations, but within China itself over the next 40 years. And I certainly never imagined that I would spend a good portion of my adult life living there!
What we also didn’t know at the time was that Pakistan had played an important role in the trip. The year before, Henry Kissinger had feigned an illness during a visit to the country, and while the world thought he was resting in his hotel, he snuck onto a plane and flew to China to lay the groundwork for the trip.
Since Chairman Mao was still alive at that time (barely), the changes wouldn’t come right away. Following his death in 1976, and the rise to power of Deng Xiao-ping, however, China would set out to re-invent itself. It’s doubtful that they could have done that without a re-engagement with the world; and the Nixon visit and the subsequent re-establishment of diplomatic relations with the United States was the first step in that re-engagement.
The website All Day has posted a collection of photos of Nixon’s visit. This one is my favorite. Wouldn’t you love to know what the President was thinking as he stared intently at his chopsticks? (“Oh no, not kung pao chicken again!”)
If you’re interested in reading more about this historic week and the changes that followed, I’d recommend the following excellent books:
Nixon and Mao: The Week That Changed the World, Margaret Macmillan.
On China, by Henry Kissinger
I recently stumbled across this short video of things you see people doing in a park in Beijing. Parks in Beijing (and any other cities in China) are where retirees go to hang out. They sing, dance, play cards, and, apparently smoke. A lot!
Seeing all the smoking brought to mind a conversation I had with a tour bus driver in Beijing last year as we were standing around waiting for the group I was leading to board the bus. I had told him that I lived in Beijing for 15 years and he asked me to comment on all the changes I’d seen. Since it was a particularly smoggy day, I mentioned the pollution.
That set him off on a rant about how bad the pollution was and how the government wasn’t doing anything about it and how it was making people sick….all the while puffing away on a cigarette!
“Wait a minute,” I said to him…”you’re standing there fussing about air pollution while smoking a cigarette??”
He chuckled sheepishly.
I have long thought that in a country where upwards of 70% of the male population smokes, the uproar over the smog seems a bit misplaced!
Wednesday was the eve of the Chinese New Year, the night that ushers in 15 straight days of shooting off fireworks. In the run-up to the holiday this year, I spotted a poster in a Beijing neighborhood reminding people that fireworks are a source of pollution.
It says (roughly) “How much healthy air is taken away when you set off fireworks?”
The characters in red say “When setting off fireworks, be legal, be civilized, be safe.” “Don’t set them off; set off fewer of them; protect to the environment.”
I missed out on the fun because I left Beijing late last week. Never mind; I can always watch this video taken from my apartment in in 2010 to be reminded of what I missed.
Happy Year of the Goat!! Or sheep. Or ram! Whatever.
I was captivated by these bright blue doors in an otherwise drab neighborhood. As I took the picture two veiled women strolled by. It was only later that I noticed one of them was carrying a big knife!
I would not be able to take this photo today since the government has initiated an anti-terror campaign in Xinjiang whose measures include banning Muslim women from wearing veils.
You can read more about it in this excellent piece on the China File website: Why China is Banning Islamic Veils and Why It Won’t Work.
Most neighborhoods in Beijing now have gleaming supermarkets or big box stores such as Walmart or Carrefour, but there are still a few of these old-style markets scattered around town. I’m in Beijing for two weeks, and as it happens, am staying across the street from one. Stepping into this market is like stepping into China, circa 1992. I love it!