Friday, September 6, 2013

Back in the P.R.C.

"Oh, show me round your snow peaked mountains way down south
Take me to your daddy's farm
Let me hear your [sanhu's] ringing out
Come and keep your comrade warm"
*
The trip home to China was easy and we are back in the cooler, early autumn weather that New England is experiencing simultaneously. The air is still bad here, but the food is good. We glided into Beijing about half-an-hour late and took a bus to Dongzhimen for just 16 RMB, a reminder of how lucky we are to be back in a country where public transportation abounds.

I normally write and gently editorialize about China on this blog, but having spent the last nineteen days fairly disconnected from the Internet and back in the USA, I want to offer a few reflections on my awesome country. While the following remarks are critical, I am now more than ever aware of how lucky we are to be citizens of such a great nation.

First, the rudeness of Americans to each other struck me. There is nothing in this post-911 world more absurd and also frustrating than air travel, but the rudeness of people ahead of us in line and even of some of the TSA employees was appalling. I have long held the controversial view that usually a certain kind of sociopathic personality is attracted to policing, but it seems nowhere more prevalent than in the men and women who spend their days monotonously waving partially undressed people through long, slow lines. It is all an exercise in futility. The Chinese national who was with me had a 187 mL of Sutter Home Chardonnay that went entirely undetected. Hard to make a Molotov cocktail from white wine, but what is all this expensive equipment for?

The other place that I noticed rudeness was in the way that people speak to each other (and about others) in the presence of strangers. The American Airlines' stewardesses, while I awaited the lavatory, were having an all-out bitch-fest about one of their fellow employees in plain earshot of waiting customers. I also was exposed to dozens of people to-ing and fro-ing who were using colorful language on the phone about fellow employees.

Second, we really are fat and doing very little about it! I exposed Deborah to a couple of American traditions squarely out of my normal daily regimen when I was state-side: a MacDonald's drive-thru for a quarter-pounder and a stop by Dunkin Donuts' for the #4 breakfast special. We even went to a Texas Roadhouse, where we had enough food for $20 to feed a small army. Those who know me well, know that I have struggled with whether wheat causes me joint pain and weight gain and that I have concluded dairy is the culprit in gastric explosions of Hiroshima proportions shortly after ingestion. I was surprised and pleased to find that many menus are conducive and helpful to the "lactard" and "glutard" (my attorney-sister's endearing terms for her brother), but these foods are still the major part of most Americans' daily caloric intake.

The Wall Street Journal yesterday had a huge article about yogurt and how a third of the supermarket real estate is now taken up with the richer Greek variety. New Hampshire's own dairy magnate features prominently in the article, claiming that customers "show up behind dairy cases and say, 'Where is my Mocha Latte, Apricot Mango or Cappuccino?'"

Third, American's disconnectedness from reality is stupefying. The "rush to war" before Iraq has been well-documented and discussed, but we are now involved in a similar rush to unleash on Assad's regime some well-meaning strike that preserves the international regime and shows that "we mean it" about weapons of mass destruction (chemical, biological, and nuclear).

Vietnam veteran and current Secretary of State John Kerry's testimony was carried on NPR, where he declared with brash confidence that the Obama Administration would get "a limited strike" resolution passed in short order. “Iran is hoping you look the other way,” Kerry told the committee. “Hezbollah [a Lebanese Shiite militia] is hoping that isolationism will prevail. North Korea is hoping that ambivalence carries the day.”

Nicholas Kristoff is in the New York Times with his regular column adeptly using his well-deserved credence as a spokesperson for human rights to push us towards war-making, but neither he nor Secretary Hagel nor General Dempsey have shown how more violence will beget a safer world. It is not possible for a human being to turn the other way given what Assad has done to his own people with the air force (let alone chemical weapons); however, doesn't the American public want and deserve a specific, cogent explanation for how the limited use of our brutal force can change things? I heard one NPR story which was talking about a woman who goes to war operating drones from an office building in metro D.C. eight hours a day and then goes home to a peaceful life for the rest of the day (short, perhaps, of bad traffic, where our rudeness is on full display). This is how we plan to keep the peace of the world?



* I have invented an instrument with three strings, because the Beatles' used the Russian instrument called a balalaika in their original song. The Chinese have several two-string instruments, such as the jinghu and erhu, but I am not aware of any three-string instruments. Er means two; san, three.