Friday, December 18, 2009

Cat people

There's a Cat Lady in the Beijing compound where I was staying. Old, round, bundled up in layers of quilted, padded clothing, hunched over a wheeled cart she fills with kibble and canned food for her charges, the outside cats who live on the grounds. Apparently they have different food preferences, and she is very concerned with making sure that each gets what it wants. She has her own tribe of cats too, indoor cats, "four or five," she told one of my hosts, as if she weren't sure.

I had a chance to talk to her briefly, as she made her rounds. I stayed at a distance but still frightened the orange and white kitty she was feeding, though she told me that he ran off when she tried to give him medicine for his ear: "he has a hole in his ear," she explained. "The first time I gave him medicine, he wasn't afraid, but the second time, he was." I wish I could have understood everything that she told me, but I did get that much.

I saw one of the cats she feeds as I was leaving for the airport today, sitting in a box against the wall, a little shelter against the bitter cold of the last few days. He is a big orange cat, regal, wonderful coat, and if anything, slightly overfed, and he sat there with his eyes half-closed looking content with his box and his world.

I like that there are cat ladies in Beijing. I like that this elderly woman gives care and attention to these cats and receives affection and satisfaction in return. Pets were considered a "bourgeois" habit in the past, and though you can always make arguments about the morality of caring for pets in a country where millions live on the razor's edge of poverty, to me, it's a sign of humanity allowing to shine.

My favorite Beijing bar is a little place on a hutong off Gulou Dong Dajie, owned by a Mongolian. He recently took in two kittens -- I saw them in July when they were tiny, and again in November, at the beginning of my trip -- two adolescent females with the run of the bar, climbing on the laps of patrons and up and down the tree in the small courtyard. The owner lavishes considerable attention on these kittens. They have their food (good quality) and their litter and if you ask him about them, his eyes go all soft. Apparently this is a change from his former persona: "He used to be a conquerer of the steppes!" a friend told me. I always thought he seemed friendly enough, but apparently he was somewhat of a hard-ass. No more.

My last night in Beijing, I stopped in at the bar to meet that friend for a drink. The kittens were not there. The owner had taken them in to get spayed the day before. We asked after them. The owner explained: "They are at home. They need to xiuxi" - to rest.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

A souvenir in questionable taste...

I mean, okay, the Red Guard, that's one thing. But the victim of a struggle session? That's a little dark even for me...

Friday, December 11, 2009

The privatization of everything...

To anyone paying close attention during the criminal clusterfcuk that was the Bush Administration's conduct of the Iraq War, this will come as no surprise. There was plenty of evidence for private contractors' (AKA mercenaries) participation in interrogations such as those that took place in Abu Ghraib. Still, here's another emerging piece of evidence illustrating how deep and how pervasive the corruption was...and I use the past tense here advisedly. From the NYT:
Private security guards from Blackwater Worldwide participated in some of the C.I.A.’s most sensitive activities — clandestine raids with agency officers against people suspected of being insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan and the transporting of detainees, according to former company employees and intelligence officials.

The raids against suspects occurred on an almost nightly basis during the height of the Iraqi insurgency from 2004 to 2006, with Blackwater personnel playing central roles in what company insiders called “snatch and grab” operations, the former employees and current and former intelligence officers said.

Several former Blackwater guards said that their involvement in the operations became so routine that the lines supposedly dividing the Central Intelligence Agency, the military and Blackwater became blurred. Instead of simply providing security for C.I.A. officers, they say, Blackwater personnel at times became partners in missions to capture or kill militants in Iraq and Afghanistan, a practice that raises questions about the use of guns for hire on the battlefield.
Yeah, it sure does raise some questions. Here's one the article doesn't ask: why did the United States government empower a private firm owned by a right-wing Christian militarist, involving it in the most sensitive clandestine missions and not incidentally enriching its coffers by lord knows how many millions of dollars?

Will we ever know? Not if the Obama Administration persists in its enabling by continuing Bush-era policies and protecting Bush administration officials from prosecution*, and continues to insist that we "look forward," forget about the past, nothing to see here...

*and my posted link is by a pundit trying to give Obama the benefit of the doubt...

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

What a country...

I'm back in Beijing, where I plan to take Chinese classes (already signed up, had my first session today) and do all the writing I'm supposed to be doing (er...yeah. That). Yesterday I had the great good fortune to meet author and long-time Beijing resident Catherine Sampson -- I highly recommend her most recent novel, The Slaughter Pavilion , an insightful look at modern China and a great mystery too!

We met for coffee at one of Beijing's best known foreign language bookstores. I'm used to finding officially censored materials in Chinese shops -- I find a lot of that in DVD stores. But I honestly was not expecting to find this displayed prominently by the cash-wrap.

Some things I don't even try to understand any more...

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

If it's Tuesday, it must be Yangshuo...

I'm staying in a small village outside of Yangshuo, on the advice of guidebooks warning that Yangshuo proper, with its "West Street" filled with bars, backpackers and banana pancakes (apparently backpackers and banana pancakes go together like, I dunno, white on rice) was hardly the peaceful retreat that I craved after the urban overload that is Shanghai (even if I did spend most of the time lounging on my friend's couch). This village is awesome. It features several inns, including one with a rooftop Italian restaurant and a full wine list, and a cluster of "farmer's restaurants," dishing out the famed local specialty, "beer fish." And what could be wrong with beer fish? Nothing, I tell you. I had some, and it was delicious.

Apparently it was primarily these farmer's restaurants that transformed this village from a poor backwater to a prosperous little place whose residents are busily competing to see who can build their house the highest (I'm told that no one even occupies the upper floors; it's all for show). The restaurants attract busloads of Chinese tourists, every day. The food is cheap and good and they've cut some deals with the tour operators.

Chinese tourism is a pretty recent phenomena, and it feels that way, reminding me a bit of post-war American tourism, with its packaged tours, busses and guides waving flags to lead their charges to the next historic location ("We're walking, we're walking, we're walking..."). It can be a little depressing at times, seeing these large groups go here and there, wearing identical baseball caps, pausing in front of the designated scenic site to pose for photos, then onto the next in obligatory fashion, not seeming to take in much about the actual site at all.

Other times, I watch the tour groups, and I feel completely charmed by them. A lot of these domestic tourists are older, and I think, if you'd asked them thirty years ago if they ever thought they'd be touring their own country in air-conditioned busses, posing for photos with their loved ones, enjoying the scenery, they would have considered the notion highly unlikely, if not completely absurd.

And more and more I see Chinese travelers who take a more independent approach. Around Yangshuo, the favored form of tourist transportation is bicycle. This is a great area to bike. The traffic is light on the main road, and the side roads take you through some of the most staggeringly beautiful, unearthly landscapes I have ever seen. There's a silence here that's rare in China, when you are out on your bike, just the birds, the flowing water, the wind pushing against the trees and the earth. I see a lot of younger Chinese travelers, mostly in pairs, sometimes in small groups, on rented bikes, exploring the countryside. What a different experience this is from following around a guide reciting her memorized spiel through a distorted bullhorn.

Chinese tourists, stop uniting! You have nothing to lose but your chains...