Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Mighty China: The Return

Almost two years to the day after I left China to return to living in the United States, I got on a plane and went back once again, this time with a great friend. Right back to the cities I have spent so much time in, that I know so well: Hong Kong and Shenzhen. This time, the visit also included a stop in Sichuan Province, where I had never been before, and therein, a brief flirtation with the grand Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau.

Thus, the following post is not a play-by-play history of our trip, but rather reflections on the major themes of each destination. In all, it was a great joy to be on the road and carefree once again in what has become one of my favorite world regions, and something of my home-away-from-home.

Hong Kong: The Great Pearl of the Orient

Eternally vibrant, the great modern jewel of Asia rarely disappoints. It has its rough edges, like damp alleys where bamboo scaffolding prop up partitions of crumbling sixties apartment complexes as large cockroach scavenge in the rain-soaked garbage, but Hong Kong always amazes me for its modern feats of sheer audacious engineering. The city is literally built on the steep slopes of a subtropical island that was not long ago covered in the lush green foliage of rain forest. Its ultra-modern subway connects seamlessly to its many razor-sharp skyscrapers and massive shopping malls filled with high-end brands. Outdoor walkways connect most of these malls, and can even take you halfway up Hong Kong island's peak in escalators. I returned to that peak again with my friend for this trip, and wondered to myself how many times now I had been up there, snapping photos of that eternal skyline like a giddy tourist, time and again.

Indeed, it won't surprise you to hear the city is damn expensive, especially compared to the Mainland in terms of the cost of food and lodgings. All that opulence and public amenity does come at a price, like it does in all the great metropolises of the world. But that was always something that struck me particularly about Hong Kong, this visit more than ever: how uppity it truly is. The designer brand malls (though there are plenty of great street markets, like the Night Market at Mong Kok) and fancy restaurants, wine bars, and bistros seem to be taking over. My friend and I walked past the fancy storefronts and wine bars, around the area of Lan Kwai Fong, and felt very out of place in our grungy, backpacker appearance. I don't know how anyone who wasn't a rich, western banker clad in Marks and Spencer apparel wouldn't feel the same. So we drank a couple beers that cost about 70 Hong Kong Dollars a piece (that's 10 USD a beer!) and then left, seeking a place to hang that was a bit more down to earth. Alas, despite trying the well-known expat bar named Carnegie's in the seedy Wan Chai district, we could not find one. Though we liked the tone in Carnegie's much better, at the stroke of 11pm it quickly degraded into a nightclub-type atmosphere with rainbow strobe lights and strange people dancing on the bar top. That may not seem so bad as I write it, but good ole Midwestern boy types like myself and my friend just wanted something a little more down to earth.

In my own style of making the self-effacing caveat, it should be noted that these observations come from a guy who prides himself as seeing the value in the 'salt-of-the-earth' type things, and who would rather spend his time working with the downtrodden as a social worker, than working to make rich people richer as an investment banker or something. So if all the highbrow life of Hong Kong appeals to you, by all means, there's nothing wrong with it. Hell, I can appreciate the joy of browsing in a Marks and Spencer as much as they next guy. And perhaps Hong Kong has historically been this way. But to argue it's not just me, I'm quite certain Lan Kwai Fong has appeared a little less fancy and more universally appealing in the past (and cheaper, I might add). But things seemed to have changed. Now, I really felt out of place there. But as I say, all that opulence comes at a price. And I'll always love Hong Kong. I just have the luxury of not having to live there.

Shenzhen: The Pearl of the Southern Mainland

Ah, Shenzhen. My home for almost 1.5 years and Southern China's shining economic powerhouse. Not a typical destination for those less familiar with China, and known more as a gateway to the Mainland via Hong Kong.

As I have written in posts before, many are critical of Shenzhen, saying that it lacks culture, feels plastic, and is purely a city that works its people, with a colorful shell of an exterior hiding a much less refined, third world type of existence. And they're not entirely wrong. Shenzhen is a largely new city, and as I have confirmed with various Shenzheners themselves, was sprung from ideas rooted in jealous pride: it is no doubt the Mainland's attempt to rival Hong Kong. The Mainland Chinese were clearly making a statement with Shenzhen, saying you think you know commerce and engineering with your western influence? We can do it, too. Perhaps that is reminiscent of a culture driven by the concept of face, in which so long as outward appearance is preserved as virtuous, the inner details can be spared. I believe that is not a bad metaphor for all of modern China, and Shenzhen may be the best example.

But I, for one, will always defend Shenzhen's charm (See: this old post or this GoNomad article). Though it is no doubt a mega metropolis, it feels less cramped and stuffy than Hong Kong. It's cheaper to live in and visit than Hong Kong (at least in terms of eating, sleeping, and drinking) and still doesn't seem to be a huge drop off in terms of amenities or living standard: Shenzhen has an ultra-modern subway, nice buses, plenty of great restaurants, bars, nightclubs, lush parks, modern malls, a massive, super-modern airport, and some of the tallest, most advanced skyscrapers in Asia. But if you so choose, you can escape all that, diving into
many of the less refined parts of town, like a slew of street food stands, or a traditional seafood market in what feels like a slum (I won't be so bold as to say that Shenzhen has slums the way some developing countries, like India, have slums, but it surely has its poorer areas). Shenzhen does not have all the world-class hotels, hospitals, schools, designer stores, or overall developed standard that Hong Kong has, no. After all, for all its progress, China is still a developing country where many people are still quite poor. But as my friend and I dove into an epic seafood meal on Shenzhen's Le Yuan Lu, accompanied by one of my best Chinese comrades, surrounded by the light and sound and passersby of the busy Shenzhen street, I didn't care. I was breathing in the sea air, the smell of fried fish, and the cigarette smoke of laughing diners around us. What more could you want in a visit to China? Yep, I'll always have a soft spot for Shenzhen.

Sichuan: Southwestern China's Promised Land

Sichuan was the final major destination of our trip and its apex; it would be the deepest we would travel into the Mainland herself. After reaching our hostel in Jiu Zhai Gou, we retraced our steps exactly, back through Chengdu, Shenzhen to Hong Kong, and Hong Kong to the West.

We hit Chengdu via Shenzhen after a long-delayed flight (typical in China - although our return flight to SZ was right on time like clockwork). As I mentioned, I had never been to Sichuan, a pretty marquee place in China as Sinophiles would know, but I had been to southwestern China before with a visit to Yunnan. So therefore, in my naivety, I expected Chengdu to be a place not unlike Kunming: a major city, yes, but a smaller feel to it than the massive Chinese megacities, clean air, less traffic, views of surrounding mountains, and a sense that you were on the Chinese frontier.

Chengdu was sadly not this at all. It was another sprawling, smoggy, densely populated, loud, and trafficy Chinese megacity. Not that I don't think these cities have their charm, as I have been explaining with Shenzhen. But Chengdu did not seem as dynamic and tidy. It had the worst smog I think I've ever experienced with the exception of maybe Shanghai, it had no views of surrounding mountains, and it did not feel like a frontier city in the slightest. Instead, I felt right in the thick of modern Chinese urbanism. Perhaps I should have done more homework on the place.

But of course, the visit was not overall a bad experience. Once established in our fun little hostel, we paid
our respects to the famous Chairman statue, hung out in some beautiful parks drinking tea among relaxed Chinese retirees, ate some deliciously spicy hotpot (on my birthday!), stopped briefly at the largest building in the world, and yes, saw the famous "panda base" home to close to 100 great pandas. We also bumped into an old chum of mine who works in Chengdu with the US Foreign Service who treated us to some homespun hospitality and showed us around on Chengdu's riverside bar strip. While hanging out there, I got slapped in the mouth by a monkey. But that's a story for another time.

But the coup de grace, the real reason we ventured to Sichuan, was not to hang in smoggy Chengdu, but to visit Jiu Zhai Gou national park (literally "Nine Villages Valley"). Stunning pictures of Jiu Zhai Gou (like the one above by yours truly) have begun circulating widely, and though relatively unknown a few years ago, the park has become a major travel destination in China. And why not? Tucked in a remote, mountainous destination on the edge of the Tibetan Plateau, the place has a striking natural beauty to rival any natural park or preserve in the world. It was seeking this beauty that drove us halfway around the globe and deep into the exotic Min mountain range. It took 11 hours on a winding bus just to get to Jiu Zhai Gou from Chengdu (though it took a lesser 8 hours on the way back down). We had come all this way, and were expecting a place of great beauty, serenity, and peace.

In fact, Jiu Zhai Gou, is also very Chinese. It is not at a loss for beauty, no, the pictures do not lie, and one feels among a great natural wealth when there: within an ancient forest, gazing at sapphire blue alpine lakes, and wondering if the distant white-capped peaks are the start of the Himalayas themselves. But it is also not at a loss for people, either, Chinese tourists to be more specific. All the paths and boardwalks, which one is forbidden to venture from, were crawling with tourists, snapping their photos with their iPhones and iPads. Despite our best attempts to avoid them, they were everywhere, even in the park's most elevated and remote parts. And a busing system that takes visitors around the park was a vicious adventure itself: boarding was a free-for-all mosh the likes of a Cannibal Corpse concert. But we just joined in and had fun with it, bowling our way through the people who tended to be smaller than us. Although I would have liked to feel a little more solitary and serene without as many people in place like Jiu Zhai Gou, what are you gonna do? It is the most populous country on earth, and at least people seem to value the beauty of the park. (Actually, our second day there we hiked up from the main entrance instead of taking the buses, and this kept us nice and solitary for several hours on our own, so it should be noted.)

In retrospect, I still know I viewed a pretty special place in Jiu Zhai Gou. How many people alive get to visit a place like that? (Though the number is growing, as one can plainly see.) But if there is a moral to the story here, I would say that it's this: I hoped that our trip to Jiu Zhai Gou would feel more wild, have more of a mythical quality, and really feel 'off the beaten path', a la a Peter Mattiessen journey or something. And although we felt like outsiders the further we delved into China, the ceaseless tourists and developing attractions around the park did not seem to say we were that far from civilization or off the beaten path at all. Alas, the commercialized world is becoming too interconnected for that; everywhere on the planet is well documented, explored, and achievable, and word of a new attraction with commercial potential spreads like wildfire. And with technological innovation so ubiquitous, people from nearly all walks of life around the world will learn about and visit the destinations that become notorious, permanently changing these destinations in the process. Not that this is overall a bad thing, nor do I wish to go back to what once was. It's a fantastic thing that more people can visit the great destinations in the world; natural beauty like Jiu Zhai Gou should be cherished by all. I'm just making the point that with each wave of development in civilization some delicate things are lost, a point that has been made time and again by nature and travel writers before me.

But hell, I got to visit China for 16 days with one of my best friends. And what a joyous trip it was, one whose memory I will cherish till the day I die. 

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

On Virility and Art (and Commerce)

First, let me say that it is a new year, and, well, happy New Year 2014! This is the first post of the new year. If you can believe it, the Gier Spot actually turns five this year! Considering I only have about ten posts, that means I only average two posts per year... and I kid. But every year I aspire to post more. We'll see if it finally happens this time around.

Also, in case you're wondering, I did complete the Paleo Challenge! I went 30 whole days without eating grains, soy products, dairy, legumes, processed sugars, or drinking any alcohol. All told I lost about 18 pounds. Not bad for 30 days of dieting.

But, let's get to the main idea. A post on Virility and Art and Commerce:

I recently attended a special holiday concert at my institution of higher learning, Loyola University Chicago, featuring the jazz band, wind ensemble, and several choirs. It was called JOYOLA (thus the pun) and it was a festive affair. I enjoyed it very much.

A few weeks prior, I attended another cultural event at Loyola, this time a student production of William Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, Or What You Will. It was definitely student theater, but I also enjoyed it very much. As you may be able to tell, I try to attend little events of art and culture like this as much as I can. I think they're worth it. In fact, I believe they make work worth it. What's the point of living and working so hard if you can't be merry and enjoy the fun part of life, the arts?

But that's actually another point for another time. What brings me to my point is that in attending these events, I gazed around the rooms to study the audiences. I'm horribly inquisitive and easily distracted, though incessantly observant, and I don't tend to forget things. The audiences in both cases were dominated by women, often aging women. Men were definitely a minority at each function. In fact, at the Shakespeare play, women were such the majority that I struggled to find in the room another male about my age, though there were some. (I of course don't have any exact figures from these events, you'll just have to take my word for it. But I assure you I'm not exaggerating.)

OK, la-di-frickin'-da! So there were more women at these cultural events than men. That probably won't surprise anyone and makes hardly an original point. The Fine Arts have had feminine connotations for hundreds of years. As Billy Elliot was taught, "Lads do football, or boxing, or wrestling. Not friggin' ballet". Luckily the crux of that movie is that they can and should do ballet, no matter what your average, mildly abusive, working-class British male gargles at you when you're a kid.

But I just worry things are getting worse, that we're going the wrong direction in a time when we should be becoming more accepting. The United States has become a tremendously polarized place in our time, that's no secret. We're set apart by politics, social class, race, ethnicity, and gender. The growing income gap and speedy increases in ethnic diversity are the two most salient drivers of this polarization, in my opinion. But without a doubt gender dynamics are being affected and things are changing between how men and women relate. And I'm actually more worried about men. And it goes beyond their lack of passion for the fine arts, as I'll explain.

Women no doubt have their issues, too. They face immense pressure within our media-driven culture to look good, and are constantly judged by their appearance, even though many of them are brilliant and talented and making great strides in a variety of fields. But though it still continues to struggle for ground, women have a movement to call their own. They have made great progress over the last century and a half, and advocate well for themselves. Now they are about as likely if not more likely to be employed than men. In relation, men are struggling to define themselves; they appear stuck in an antiquated mold, clinging to a set of values and careers and an outlook they believe appropriate, and are unable to venture into the appreciation of anything outside their strict perceptions, such as any form of art that is isn't mass produced and male-centered, as just one example.

An older photo, actually from early January 2013, but appropriate because it's taken in front of an American cultural hub. 
Perhaps it's only logical to struggle against it: men have dominated in social power for likely the entirety of human history, but for once they feel their dominance may be slipping, and don't want things to change. They're happy to stay where they have been for pretty much all of time: right on top (that's not a sexual innuendo, but it's cool with me if the thought crossed your mind).

Indeed, there is a crisis of masculinity upon us. And it can be observed in young boys, adolescents, and adult men. Boys and male teens struggle to show emotion or even recognize their true feelings. Our society has feminized this expression. (By the way, where is a great place to express yourself if not the arts?) Perhaps it's one reason why many teen boys designated with an anger disorder are actually depressed; they just don't know how to show it. And men seem unable to mold their identity to the changing world. They refuse to venture away from profit-driven careers that fit the antiquated male archetype, like business, sales, and finance, even though those aren't the fields which are in demand any longer or expected to grow in the coming decades. Men are, perhaps now more than ever, hung up on status: one must have the highest paying job, the best car, the nicest clothes, and most physically attractive girlfriend or wife. Perhaps we see it as the only way to express our dominance anymore. We have to prove our worth to ourselves and to others.

And, men seem to have no time to appreciate the arts. That is, after all, the main example I cite in this post that leads me to how and why are men are struggling. They likely see art as a feminine pursuit, like attending the opera, symphony, theater, or museum. This observation has been made before, of course, and perhaps I'm over generalizing. But I just want to know, why does it have to be a weird for a male to like classical music or jazz? Why is strange to find a young guy who digs opera? Why go to see an arty film and you'll find a vast majority of women in the audience? I just have to wonder.

OK, so I'm probably talking about a few different things here. Gender, yes. But also many of the fine arts, like opera and symphony, don't have many followers among younger generations in America of either gender, and their leaders are fearful that there will not be a sufficient following to sustain them in the not too distant future as their patrons die off. Also, many of these art forms do take some education to be able to appreciate. They tend to be much less accessible to the common person than the pop music and film and TV shows that are constantly dumped on us by the mass media. Even I may struggle to appreciate some opera, which I've been told one must be educated on how to understand, but once you've learned its basics, you'll be addicted.

And again, if my sentiment doesn't seem that original, it is not. There are many who have dealt with the issue of a crisis in masculinity since the very start of the 21st Century. Films such as American Beauty, Fight Club, and American Psycho all address it, and all came out within the window of about one year. Even American Psycho's antihero, Patrick Bateman, is a devout music lover and is chastised for it in the film (although this certainly doesn't warrant the retributive violence against women he commits, or thinks he commits, in the film/book). It has also been addressed in recent documentaries and books, such as The Mask You Live In, a documentary film by Jennifer Siebel Newsome, and a recent book by Hanna Rosin called The End of Men: And the Rise of Women.

Thus, the point has been made, but things still continue on the same path. How do we change them? One way struck me after a good male friend said something highly poignant on the subject to me on the phone today. That is, men are often afraid to pursue fields that are seen as typically un-masculine and "chick jobs" because they are afraid of what other people, particularly men, and especially their fathers, will think. I mean just look at Gay Focker and his relationship with his soon to be father-in-law when he found out he was a murse; men of previous generations often do not see these new career paths as appropriate jobs for men and what they intended for their sons and grandsons, even though they are becoming the more viable options for employment as the economy changes. And they also probably don't teacher their sons to appreciate the arts if they don't appreciate them themselves. Even my father hasn't seemed to quite come around to the fact that I'm becoming a social worker, though he has been supportive at times (though I'm very lucky he has taught me a lot about music, and he and my mother a lot about appreciating movies and other art forms).

The point is, changing our perception of masculinity and men's relationship to art will take a vast shift in the meanings and symbols of many of the most fundamental systems in our society (i.e. the family). It will not happen over night, but if women can make progress on how society views them, why not men? Why not, something of a men's movement? Perhaps calling it a 'men's movement' is too combative, and would only serve to widen the gap and animosity between the sexes. At least that's my idiosyncratic take. Whatever we call it, it will take the work of counselors, mental health professionals, thinkers, philosophers, authors, public figures, and parents. I'd like to be something of all of those in my life, so maybe that's what qualifies me to write this post.

Anyway, these are just thoughts that have been recurrent to me as I try to live my life as a culture buff. Remember, it all started with just taking in some Shakespeare. If I can just change the perceptions of the very few who actually read this by sharing my thoughts, it'll be worth it. Because hey, there's nothing wrong with being a guy who likes taking in a little Shakespeare. And no one should think otherwise.