Monday, June 18, 2007


Yesterday, I was outside late at night. Some lights were reflecting off the water of the pool. It reminded me of the pool in 重庆 (Chong2qing4). I would go swimming at night, so that people wouldn't stare as much. The neon signs would reflect off the water surface in neverending color patterns, and standing on the side of the pool, you could see the river and 解放碑 (Jie4fang1bei1) and all the lights of the city. Here, there are no neon signs, no river and few lights. I felt like I was somewhere else.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Old-fashioned vs. Exotic

I took a 太极拳 (Tai4ji2quan2) class in 重庆 (Chong2qing4) sort of to have something to do over the summer. It was nice to get to know some of my traditions. I liked it, even though it's not really something someone my age "should" be doing. I can't help but want to be one of those old ladies that meets her friends every morning to do 太极拳 (Tai4ji2quan2) together. Unfortunately, I forgot bits of the form, and signed up for a 太极拳 (Tai4ji2quan2) class here.

The other day, I had planned to run some errands in the grocery store after class. I didn't think about that I'd be wearing my 太极拳 (Tai4ji2quan2) clothes - very old-fashioned indeed. As I'm walking through the supermarket, trying to be quick, feeling like everyone's looking at me thinking, "What's a modern young woman doing in those clothes? And she's a Westerner to boot, shouldn't she be a little more with it?", I realized that the clothes don't look old-fashioned here - they must look exotic.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

The New American Century and Fascism

Listening to Pandora at work, a song called New American Century by KMFDM came on. The lyrics caught my attention. In context of what I've been reading (and re-reading) this seems right on the money. There are strong directions in American politics that could endanger not only democracy and freedom in America, but given America's importance in the global economy and proto-community, could have reverberations worldwide. Already now, some issues that should stay America's internal struggles and problems get transmitted elsewhere - like faith-based abstinence-only education in countries that desperately need condoms (As America itself, one might note.) and a stubborn insistence in face of facts to the contrary that global warming doesn't exist. America may be taking a sharp swing toward the unreasonable, and they are often not aware of the mirrors they could see themselves in to get a reality check. If you're really dominionist, you can always dismiss the mirrors as insufficiently something or other, insufficiently Christian or insufficiently American or why not both. While we're making things up, might as well run with it.

The more I think about whether this is a real threat or not, and what would be ethically justified and/or required to resist it, I am starting to (once again) realize the magnitude of my blind spot for societies where faith plays a key role. I re-read Sam Harris's The End of Faith again. Perhaps the way in which Sweden (and the other Nordic countries) is (are) the most secular is in that evidence is always key. You are politically free to believe the Sun orbits the Earth, but society will see no virtue in your faith. Faith for the sake of faith is not seen as a virtue. Strong convictions without logic or facts is seen as a vice. I feel this way, of course, but when I think about my feelings on the matter, I feel an imagined community behind me. Just like you just can't say that gender roles are a good idea, you can't expect people to respect your opinions if you can't argue for them logically and with facts as support. Feel free to believe whatever you like about God in your free time, but reality trumps faith as soon as you try to do anything at all. If you accept that if you stick your fingers in an electrical outlet, you will get an electric shock, and this is real, then you have to leave religion for those moments when you're feeling contemplative, perhaps after a few glasses of wine. Of course, this is not globally how people feel about it. After the recent discussion with my mother about spirituality and how I can be an atheist, she a Christian and agree on spiritual, moral and ethical matters through our feelings and experiences with nature, I'm wondering if religious dogma historically never gained the hold they did in southern Europe up north, because people have engaged almost by default in another kind of spirituality that is more rational and also spiritually satisfying. I'm sure not everyone feels this way (I imagine many Chinese may not, based on their behavior in Swedish forests), so perhaps it's culturally symptomatic that I feel at once small and powerful alone in a vast forest. Listening to the sounds of the forest and feeling the harmony (or, if the forest is hurting, its plight) is for me greatly conducive to losing my sense of self, which Harris lays out as a main goal of spiritual practice. Why should I listen to dogma when I can go into the forest?

Anyone who made claims like my mother-in-law - that she believes that the Bible is literally true and that science is true - would be quietly avoided or quietly derided in gossip. In fact, I heard of such a person in Sweden once. It was delivered as dirty gossip, and it didn't occur to me that it could be seen any other way. Being deeply and professedly irrational is a dirty secret you don't want your co-workers to know. Something you might confess to a very trusted friend. But not here! Here, in fact, making a big show of your irrationality is encouraged. We are not perfectly rational - in fact, we may mostly be irrational - but that is no excuse to cling to dogma that fly in the face of evidence. Sam Harris points out in his book that many liberals - myself included - do not appreciate the gravity of the threat that truly believing religious dogma presents. Reading that section, I laughed out loud, because I saw myself on the page. Looking around in the US, it is difficult enough for me to imagine life when you really believe that the Bible is the literal Word of God. I just... dismiss it as ridiculous in several ways, unrelated to my concept of theology or religion per se. Ideas in the Koran are equally unrelated to life for me. Prior to moving to the US as an adult, I had never encountered another person who acted as if they did. I have been encased in a bubble of reality, it seems. The religious people I met in Europe had, as Harris points out, discarded large parts of past dogma and texts as unreasonable. Trying to imagine really believing them is for me an exercise where my heart screams with injustice and my head feels about as comfortable as trying to imagine that invisible pink elefants have decreed that I must have six cups of coffee a day or I will suffer for all eternity. It's very distressing, in fact, and to get rid of the cognitive dissonance I just leave the thought be.

The New American Century is a very, very scary project. Such megalomania that is untouched by reality or facts or critical thinking is one of the scariest things I can think of politically. Maybe it's because I feel I share Europe's burden to make sure fascism never, ever returns, but I have to do something. If this is all going to hell, I want my conscience to be clear. We could still either stop this or make sure it won't happen. But how?

Friday, June 08, 2007

June 4th Massacre Ad

Reuters reports that an ad saluting the mothers of the June 4 天安门广场 (Tian1an1men2 Guang3chang3, Tiananmen Square) massacre got published in the Chengdu Evening News! The person who placed it also tried other newspapers, and the clerks who handled the requests didn't know what June 4 referred to. The other clerks called a supervisor. This clerk called the customer, and got told it was a mining accident, and it went through! I would love to have a copy, to see it myself.

I remember Li, one of my father's business partners, telling me about what happened. She was there as a student, and spent the next two weeks in the countryside hiding. It's amazing when you think about it, how much the world has changed since then. Now she's an overseas Chinese. She changed her citizenship, so now she has what she was fighting for then. But many millions don't.

I also remember speaking with a good friend of mine, whose name I will not type out on the vauge chance that I could get them in trouble. We were speaking about the massacre (good friend with open heart indeed, as you can see), and I mentioned the iconic picture seen all around the world except China itself, of the lone man standing in front of the tank holding up his hand in a 'stop' sign. My friend looked confused, and I realized they hadn't seen it, they hadn't seen any pictures or footage of something that happened 30 minutes from their home.

But the grip of the Party will corrode, sooner or later. There were good reasons to be so suspicious of foreigners. My friend now knows that there is footage that was seen worldwide, they know there are pictures, and they know from my face and my words that everyone abroad knows. They know there is such a thing as "the" picture from 天安门广场 (Tian1an1men2 Guang3chang3, Tiananmen Square). I don't know how far that knowledge might spread, but some young people do know. I told one myself. Looking around on campus, there are a lot of overseas Chinese here. Some of them will see the footage, and some of them will go back. The knowledge and memory will be preserved here, until China is ready.

The authorities are still very jumpy about gatherings on 天安门广场 (Tian1an1men2 Guang3chang3, Tiananmen Square), especially after the Falun Gong incidents. A police van followed me around when I was rollerblading on the square once, but that was in June. I'm not sure how someone rollerblading might be a threat, but it's apparently not out of the question.

It's so unfair. I wish my friend had the same freedoms and opportunities as I do. They deserve better. They are not a cog in a machine, they are a person. They are not some cretin that has to beg for a visa or a potential sacrifice for the glory of some leader or party or country. They are a person with their own personal sorrows and joys, their special smile, and their own hopes and wishes. I wish they could look at anything they like, discuss anything they like and had more chances for a better life than they do. There is no reason why they couldn't, and they shouldn't have to leave their country to get it. I hope we will meet again when China is completely open and rich and look back and say "Wow, things changed since we first met. Remember?"