It has been a long time since I last wrote. The largest reason is because the last month has been end of semester hell, which only just finished when I sent off a report on Saturday. Actually it wasn’t hell until one of my students cheated on an exam which caused me to go into a rather self-indulgent bout AKA a mid-teaching crisis. Similar to a mid-life crisis I guess except that it was limited to questions of what on earth the point of teaching is instead of what the point of my existence is. I am quite happy with there being no answer or even no point to the latter, but the idea that teaching is a futile endeavour rather upset me. Plus the paperwork involved in the whole cheating episode delayed me by two days, which was enough to add pressure that had not been there before because I was actually super organised this semester. And that is when hell began.
When hell was over, I realised I had just a day and a half to get ready to go trapsing over China and say goodbye to somebody I would rather not say goodbye to. This also caused me to chuck a bit of a hissy fit. I have nothing to say in my defence. Goodbyes are rotten. I have been a part of too many and they do not get any less offensive as time goes on.
Then on Monday (which I guess was yesterday) I went and caught a hideously early train to Beijing and then a flight to Manzhouli, which is in Inner Mongolia. Manzhouli has kind of freaked me out with is exhuberantly coloured buildings which I suppose are Russian-inspired. Manzhouli is on the border near both Mongolia and Russia. This particular city is packed with Russians shopping. For what? Anything cheap and Chinese. And Chinese tourists who are shopping in between trips to the nearby grasslands. Manzhouli is really clean with a great big blue sky, except when it is raining (like it is now, which is unbelievable given how sunny it was a couple of hours ago). But I am not sure if I like it. At the moment I am hovering on a ‘maybe’ rating. The people are nice enough. The food is a bit too meaty for my liking. The point is it is freaking me out. Tomorrow I am heading off to lots of interesting places like the border, grasslands and a big fat lake. Then I will be off to Hailaer. I have (of course) been writing about the whole expedition for all that it has only been less than two days long. The Manzhouli post is here.
Before hell started I had also done tonnes of reading. I finally finished that book Red Dust, by Ma Jian. A couple of things he said about greed and selfishness stemming from the propensity to value money over all else has been bothering me a lot. It’s certainly hard to think about anything else when you are in poverty and there are few pressures that weigh a person down more than money. It doesn’t stab you in the guts, but it drags on your shoulders day after day. I’ve had my fair share of student poverty (the girls in my house used to pool their leftover change, i.e., our savings, the day before Ausstudy was paid to see if we had enough for a can of soup and a loaf of bread) which in the years since has actually scared me from taking any risks workwise, but this is nothing to what most of China has seen in the last few decades. What bothers me is that the younger generation of the kind of people who have already seen a great raise in their living standards have not suffered, yet a lot of them still value money more than other things and are very selfish, not considering the needs of others and not really thinking much further ahead than the gratification of their most immediate goal. I think this is dangerous and I can see the beginnings of this kind of mentality in Ma Jian’s book. It was a good book. But not really very cheerful reading material.
After Ma Jian, I read Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone, which was more than I could handle, as I knew it would be when I bought it over a year ago. I am so lucky to have been born into the life I have. I have not seen war, I have seen very little of the ugliness human beings are capable of. I have never been put in a situation where I had to do something I could never accept. I’ve done things I’m not proud of and I’ve experienced things that have really hurt me, but one thing I have always been thankful of is that, of the pieces of shitty luck that have fallen down upon me from the sky along with the good, there has never been anything more than what I could cope with. Ishmael Beah was a child soldier in Sierra Leone. It is an ugly, but humbling experience to be allowed into his memories.
The last, but for me the hardest of three difficult reads was Jill Joliffe’s Balibo. I was a member of Friends of East Timor when I was a university student. I protested Ali Alitas’ visit to Perth. I wrote letters, signed petitions, got others to sign petitions and shed a lot of tears. When East Timor finally won back its independence after a lot of blood was shed, I was in Canada. I still remember crying in front of the TV in Vancouver when Australian peace keepers were sent. Finally doing something constructive, after years of silence, complicity and carving up of East Timor’s resources. The journalists’ deaths at Balibo are something that I have cared about for more than a decade. To read this book gave me some closure, but made my heart bleed first. If it has been something I have cared about, then for people like Jill Joliffe it has been the quest of a lifetime.
Now, I am reading Shantaram, by Gregory David Roberts, which is not my usual fare, but I like a lot. The blurb is right. It’s very gritty.
I also read a post by Custer on ChinaGeeks. It is the first time I have been so very tempted to actually comment. From earlier posts I have probably made my attitude to comments by netizens abundantly clear, but I was tempted. The post was about the riots in Urumqi last year. I arrived in Xinjiang 6 days after the riots, heard the rumours on the ground, talked to people about what they saw, read what other people wrote about their experiences, read news reports by both Chinese and Western media, read stuff written by Amnesty and to be blunt I agree 100% with what Custer said. I wanted to comment to show support but given the discussion turned into a rather unconstructive and nasty mudslinging match, I am glad I did not. His initial post is here. A note about Amnesty. I devoted a lot of years to Amnesty as a volunteer. I respect the organisation and agree with their mandate. However, reading their report on the riots was the first time I have felt disappointed with them. I think they neglected to mention some of the same things that the guy from the Washington Post neglected to mention. I realise there are a lot of gaps in the information we have available to us and these gaps are due entirely to the reaction of the government. If people blame the whole mess on them now, they have nobody to blame but themselves. There are pieces but no way to put all of them together and there are hours missing between the peaceful protest and murder on the streets, but I agree with Custer: whatever happened does not condone slaughtering civilians in the streets. Nothing condones that, no matter who is responsible for it. Why are so many people so eager to overlook those deaths? If the army had killed those people, I’d bet an arm an a leg the same journalists, commentators and human rights groups would be all over it. Cynical? Yep. And very uncomfortable. It is not often that I stand on this particular side of the fence.
That’s all for now. Hopefully my next post will be gush about how absolutely gorgeous Inner Mongolia is. Until then, ciao.