China, Part Two

I expected Tiananmen Square to be flooded with nationalist iconography. Unless selfie sticks are the new symbol of the People's Republic of China, it wasn't. The square was flooded with tourists — most of them Chinese — taking pictures of themselves, and taking pictures of each other, and taking pictures of each other taking pictures of themselves, and only occasionally taking pictures of the visage of Mao on the Tiananmen Gate. The most visible flags were the miniature ones a few of the Chinese tourists brandished. These were not treated with any great reverence; I saw an elderly woman swat her husband with one.

Mao's presence was most powerfully felt through the long line to view his body at the Chairman Mao Memorial Hall — "longer than the line for the Matterhorn," as my son put it. Our guide — a thirtyish man of impeccable English and clear affinity for Western culture — said that Mao's resting place is a very popular destination for the Chinese. His parents' generation view Mao "like a god," he said solemnly, while his view Mao as a great leader and national father. Many rural Chinese come to pay their respects to him, like a pilgrimage. Elaina — whose timing and sense of protocol will make her a diplomat in the fourth Trump administration — chose this moment to whip out her guidebook and aggressively display a picture of Mao's body to the group, visibly discomfiting our guide. It's like that, living with her.

I did see a young man wearing the red-starred hat of the People's Liberation Army. But he was wearing it with a Converse t-shirt, so any communist message was somewhat diminished. It occurred to me that we're likely to interpret national symbols worn by other people more seriously than we interpret our own. When someone wears an American flag t-shirt, you don't assume that he's a strong supporter of free speech or due process, or that he supported the Gulf War, or that he has particular views about the War on Terror. It's a cultural symbol as well as a national one. We don't assume that the twerps wearing Che t-shirts on American college campuses support jailing homosexuals or executing dissidents without trail — excepting the twerps at Oberlin, maybe. But we seem to assume that people in other countries wear symbols out of a specific and deliberate support for the policies associated with them. It's not necessarily so.

If nationalist symbols were relatively restrained, signs of the security state were everywhere. The immense square had posts every 50 yards or so, and those posts are covered in cameras.


Their likely purpose isn't to ferret out terrorism, but to allow an instant response to unlawful demonstrations — which is to say, demonstrations.

The square had more fenced-off areas and more soldiers than I remember from 2007. Our guide, too, admitted it had changed — as a boy he flew kites there with his parents, something that wouldn't happen now. But despite the omnipresent cameras, it wasn't a grim place. The tourists were more excited than reverent. A Chinese toddler in split pants rode his grandfather's shoulders, shrieking with laughter, little hands scrabbling at the craggy face for purchase. Stylish girls took selfies in front of soldiers, and frivolously-haired boys ogled the girls. I had heard that the soldiers don't like their pictures being taken, but this was not in evidence. Frankly I found it difficult to be too intimidated by them; they were so uniformly skinny, like a pre-super-serum Steve Rogers. Even the cops were skinny, which is simply unsettling to an American used to meatier law enforcement. The rest of China, though, was well on its way towards American proportions — I was often not the largest guy in the room, and big bellies, bared to the heat by hiked-up t-shirts in that unselfconscious Chinese way, were common.

Next we walked to the adjacent Forbidden City, traditional home of the emperor. The City is gigantic, a feat by any measure, but there's a sameness to it — one huge plaza after another, one large traditional rectangular building after another, all in nearly identical style: plain red walls and incredibly intricate roofs and rooflines.


The colorful rooflines helped conceal the omnipresent cameras:


The most interesting part of the City was probably the realpolitik reflected in its design — 180 acres in service of one dude and his crew and his stuff. The front buildings are devoted to the operation of the vast state; the rear buildings (including an area closed off to everyone but the emperor, women, and eunuchs) were for living. Our guides — perhaps because "politically correct" means something serious and potentially deadline in China, not just linguistic squeamishness — were not discomfited in explaining eunuchs to the nine-to-twelve-year-old-girls in our group. They explained the riot of symbolism spread around the place. There are dragons facing in, to remind the emperor not to spend too much time away, and to return to help lead the state, and dragons facing out, to remind emperors to get out once in a while and not forget the people. Apparently this was an issue; at least one emperor didn't leave the grounds for 20 years. Maybe stop sending in concubines? Just thinking out loud here.

Next up, hutongs and Chinese housing policy.

China, Part One

Blue. That was my first impression of the landscape as our plane made its approach to the improbably gigantic Bejing Capital International Airport, which shortly before the 2008 Olympics turned a bucolic suburb into one of the busiest places in the world. Blue roofs. You don't see a lot of blue roofs in America, but there, splashed across the countryside, they were — baby, cerulean, baboon-ass, and every other shade you can imagine. They caught the eye from factories and warehouses and shacks and from the clusters of apartment towers, identical and symmetrical and eerily neat, islands in a sea of green. I've seen a half-dozen explanations online — that they categorize industrial buildings, that they hint at a resurgence of faith, that they are remnants of central-planned design, and so forth. I've yet to find anything authoritative; maybe some clever reader knows.

Green — that was the next thing. Flying into Los Angeles I'm used to a concrete-colored Gibsonesque sprawl farther than I can see, but Beijing — for all of its 13 million people — is still surrounded by vast swaths of green, the exurbs dotting it instead of dominating it.

Clean came next. We were last in Beijing in 2007, when we picked up our daughter Elaina. Then the city was struggling to prepare for the 2008 Olympics, and ramshackle scaffolding and heaps of construction equipment were everywhere. It was not memorably clean. But 2016 Beijing — at least the parts we've seen so far — is unsettlingly clean, Disney-clean, clean in a way that invites dark speculation into how such cleanliness is maintained. It's difficult to spot trash. I don't know if this is a result of a vast infrastructure devoted to picking it up, or cultural distaste for dropping it, or both. Even the cars seemed clean and neat. I couldn't put my finger on what seemed off about the roads until I realized how few old or beat-up or filthy cars seemed to be on Beijing's main streets. There were hardly any beaters to be seen.

The buildings that were encrusted with scaffolding in 2007 are now long-built or repaired. Certainly Beijing still has rows of boxy apartment buildings, identically grim, and its fair share of brutalist concrete. But it also has pleasant modern-looking apartment blocks and shining new office buildings with juts and curves and swoops and whimsical skybridges. Ancient and modern and beautiful and ugly rub shoulders. For all the stereotypes about communist architecture I saw very little as dystopian as FBI headquarters or downtown LA's criminal courthouse.

Speaking of communism and dystopian government, it wasn't much in evidence, at least in the parts of Beijing we've seen so far. We saw numerous Russian flags along the highway from the airport, raised to salute a visiting Vladimir Putin, but the Chinese flag wasn't omnipresent. To the contrary, it was rarer by an order of magnitude than the American flag in a typical American city. Nor did I see overt propaganda of the sort that still lingered in 2007 — the closest was a huge sign with the English translation CONGRATULATIONS TO POSTAL SERVICE ON SUCCESSFUL INTRODUCTION OF NEW INVESTORS, which is somewhat less than communist in content. Armed soldiers ("Look, they have machine guns," said my mother-in-law. "Those aren't . . . never mind.") guarded some edifices along the main boulevard, but unobtrusively. People wandered about and started at their phones and ate and drank and lived like they do anywhere else. The most prominent sign that we were someplace politically different was the fact that we had to use a VPN to visit Facebook or Twitter.

And the traffic! In 2007, the fabled Beijing traffic lived up to every stereotype. Cars hurled themselves like berserkers at our tour bus's fenders, and weaved about like a chase in a Michael Bay movie. Now? Well, I would hesitate to drive myself, but it was comparatively placid, not much worse than someplace like Boston. I saw a family serenely bike between the lanes, parents masked and baby sandwiched impassively between them.

In short, what seemed most alien about Beijing was how it failed to live up to expectations or stereotypes. It seemed thoroughly westernized, with only glimpses of its former life — a trio of old men fishing in the river as SUVs whizzed across a bridge over their heads, a glimpse of hutongs, an occasional conical hat. I'm looking forward to seeing more of the city this week, and to visiting other cities over the next two weeks to see how they compare.

Today, Sunday, was our first full day. It was hot, and the air quality was quickly searing my lungs, producing an ache that reminded me of growing up in Los Angeles in the 1970s and early 80s. So we visited the aquarium at the zoo, which was indoors and sufficiently diverting for the kids, and for me.

Let's play "fish or garage metal band?"

Let's play "fish or garage metal band?"

This sign brought to you by the Society for Having Absolutely No Idea How Kids Work

This sign brought to you by the Society for Having Absolutely No Idea How Kids Work

Honestly I can't keep up with all the HBO shows these days

Honestly I can't keep up with all the HBO shows these days

Later I took my son Evan and daughter Elaina to the hotel pool. Nominally Elaina — who has completed four years in a Mandarin immersion program — is our translator. Practically she's mostly waiting, quivering in anticipation, to translate Thrice-Peppered Squid Taint In Mungbean Oil as "sweet and sour chicken." I quickly discovered she did not know the word for "towel" and was disinclined to get there through description. Nor was it a word that the hotel believed pool employees needed to know in English. I was left to wander from pool attendant to pool attendant, patomiming. We do not have whatever it is you wish to rub or wrap yourself with, American, their expressions said in a very courteous and non-judgmental way. I found the towels eventually, and returned to the pool to soak away the travel and the heat, clad in the required black bathing cap, which makes me look like a condemned manatee.

More to come.

Mayday, Mayday…we are under attack

This is Free Trader Beowulf, calling anyone…Mayday, Mayday…we are under attack…main drive is gone…turret number one not responding…Mayday…losing cabin pressure fast…calling anyone…please help…This is Free Trader Beowulf…Mayday….

Got home late tonight and found a package on the front porch.



1, 2, 3


Notes From Sedona

I have returned, without major incident, from my undisclosed vacation venue, which I can now reveal as Sedona, Arizona. I decided not to identify it contemporaneously to avoid being pursued there as an Illuminati CIA agent and possibly shot. Don't ask.

A few thoughts:

[Read more…]


Signpost: The First Baptist Church of Soul City.  Something tells me these Baptists do not condemn dancing.  And a hundred miles to the east:

The Higher Plain Cowboy Church, Bladenboro North Carolina.  They're Baptists as well, albeit with bigger hats, and cowgirls. Readers ask what sort of camera I use to take these photos, and where they can get one.  I used a Droid X, which coincidentally happens to be on special this week.

Seoul: Day Five

Look: traveling with children is just different. First of all, if you've got children to travel with, you've got substantially less energy, both because you've reached a certain age and because the kids sap what's left right out of you. Second, you can't do hardcore marathon sightseeing. Or, at least, you can't do it an enjoy it. The kids will melt down and instead of looking at the tapestries or the mountains or the palaces or whatever cultural thing you're planning on doing, you'll be mediating squabbles and drying tears and plugging your ears to stop the whining.

The key is to stop feeling guilty that you aren't putting in 12 hard hours of sightseeing every day. You might get six. Live with it. Learn to love using the kids as an excuse to lounge around the rest of the time.

This is especially true as a trip wears on, and the novelty wears off, and the kids start getting less enthused about walking places and looking at things, and the adults get more tired of being confined in a relatively small foreign country with them. By the morning of day five, the kids (who had plenty of sleep) were grumpy and out-of-sorts. Evan was manic and emotionally labile. Think Nathan Lane in The Birdcage. Abby was flinty and proud and utterly unwilling to put up with anyone's shit whatsoever. Think Clint Eastwood, circa Sudden Impact. Elaina was extraordinarily whiny and clingy and generally insufferable. Think Mark Hamill for the first 3/4 of Star Wars. And the adults — well, let's just say that the go-team-go esprit de corps erodes, and sooner or later there is a certain amount of bickering. Think Katherine Hepburn and Peter O'Toole in The Lion in Winter.

The combination was dangerous.

And oh, by the way — it was raining. Hard.

There were only so many things we could do. No one wanted to walk to tourist attractions in the rain, and then stand about in the rain outside of them. (Seoul's many palaces have iron rings high in the eaves, and other sets on the plaza; servants used these to string up ropes to hold overhangs to keep royalty dry. Not any more.) A museum? With the kids in this frame of mind? Don't be ridiculous. Unless it's the Lorazepam museum and it's free sample day, we're not that dumb.

So: of to the COEX Mall.

All right, all right. It's not as bad as you think. They have a pretty cool aquarium there, which was the main attraction. It's supposed to be the best aquarium in Korea. The kids were very entertained. But, like so many other things here, it was . . . different.

First of all, Korean aquatic displays are governed by a rather kitschy sensibility.

"At least we're not the fish swimming in a Coke machine; that's just degrading."

Many fish were displayed in sinks, traffic lights, phone booths, and other odd containers, with badly-translated clever captions along the lines of 'It's fish! And they're in the sink!" Many other fish and reptiles and insects were in terrariums with ceramic figurines, sort of the Korean equivalent of the little treasure chest and diver at the bottom of your five-year-old's goldfish bowl. The kids were, of course, uncritically delighted.

Another oddity: when I go to an aquarium, I expect fish, mammals that everyone thinks of as practically fish, and maybe if they go wild some amphibians. I don't expect a bunny rabbit.

A vicious streak a mile wide.

Yes, that's a bunny incorporated into an aquatic display. I was quite frankly concerned that the bunny was the recently-introduced main course for some aquatic creature I had not yet spied. But no, it was just chillin' in there. Soon afterward, we encountered hedgehogs and prairie dogs. Because why not?

Yes, we're a pile of prairie dogs. But you go back to looking at the flounder; I'm sure they're cute too.

Finally: like Lotte World, the safety measures were rather rudimentary. Many tanks and terrariums and cage-like things had open tops. In America, the tanks would quickly be filled with horrible, dangerous, dirty, fish-killing things. In Korea, everyone seems to obey the signs, which imply that any fish, no matter how benign-looking — yes, even Nemo — is a potential killer, so keep your hands to yourself. This is harmonious with our general child-rearing strategy, so we approved.

Those grouper are stone killers, man.

Eventually, the kids started to melt down. Can you blame them? They had to ride in a taxi and look at fish for like forty-five minutes. So we found the exit. Elaina had time to commune with a playful penguin:

Where's my fish, you heartless child? DAMN YOU TO HELL FOR TEASING ME.

And then we braved COEX mall to find lunch. What I can say about it? it's a mall. It's big. It's loud. It's crowded. The food smells are different, and you can't read most of the signs, but otherwise I could be on the way to The Gap. After consultation, we ate at T.G.I. Friday's. Yes, I know that's even worse than eating at Outback. Don't you judge me.

After lunch we found a bookstore reputed to have a great English-language section. On the way to the bookstore, my son Evan discovered his connection to Korea — his "I belong amongst these people" moment — his epiphany of homecoming.

He found a glitzy, beautiful Nintendo promotional pavilion that let you — encouraged you — to play Mario Kart on the Wii. For free. While your parents shopped. I thought he was going to cry tears of joy.

He promptly took first in three kart races and retired, satisfied that he had shown these marketers-for-a-Japanese-company-in-Korea what's what about American video game mastery.

Another cab trip through awful Seoul traffic in the rain, another early night, another informal dinner of leftovers and travel food.

Tomorrow: look, how many palaces do you people have?