Seeing red

Trip Start Jun 14, 2012
Trip End Jul 02, 2012

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Flag of China  ,
Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Today began just like yesterday, with a
faculty member out on the front bench watching the crowd go by. This
time, however, our talk included an assignment for the day. I was to
look around at the world we've dove into, and reflect on what
communism is to us and if we see it as we wander Beijing. As we
discussed this concept, we stopped and noticed that the residents
passing by our bench seemed...ever so slightly friendlier. Some
smiled, the ones that had stared the previous day seemed more polite
and reserved. The most we could do was shrug and guess that the
neighborhood gossips had already informed everyone about the black
woman and the white boy on the bench.

Barely an hour later, I was on the bench and watching a crew collect money from the bank next door. A small crew in blue-tinged camouflage marched out of the van, one holding a thin riot stick, the other holding the first firearm I'd seen in China. I should typically be able to tell you what kind, I have absolutely no life, but after an entire day of thinking it over I still have no idea. It was some type of exceptionally small rifle with a wire folding stock, with an empty rail along the top, no sights, and a ragged green strap dangling off of it. A Ruger 10-22 is about that size with a similar receiver, but that's something you'd use on paper targets or a psychotic squirrel armed with a tiny knife. Carrying a gun like that to guard an armored car is about as sensible as mowing your lawn with nail clippers. It looked like half the parts had fallen off and the the young-looking soldier (He was in bright blue camouflage...was he law enforcement, military, paramilitary, or a contractor?) was holding it like you'd hold a shovel by the barrel, upside-down, with the muzzle freely pointing at passing pedestrians and traffic. To anyone with firearms experience, this is one of the most insane gun safety infractions a person can think of. If I carried a rifle like this on a hunting trip, my friends would hit the deck and attempt to have my guns legally removed from my possession. If I did this in a crowded city regardless of what uniform I was wearing, I'd be doing jail time for reckless endangerment or a form of assault. I'm now incredibly curious if these Boy Scout looking soldiers have any actual training with firearms, and if the Chinese public has any awareness of how a firearm functions outside of what they see in the movies. He seemed to be holding it like a stick somebody made him carry...Was it not loaded? Not operable? A somewhat realistic toy they'd spray painted black? 
Leave it to an American to judge an entire nation by a single firearm. 
According to our schedule, we'd be
visiting a primary school to work with children throughout ages found
in American grade schools. A few minutes into the bus ride, however,
a faculty member referred to the destination as a 'migrant school'.
In the back seat of the bus, my eyes went from half-asleep to wide
open. The people around me noticed and asked what was going on, so I
slowly tried to explain what a migrant school was as we drove out
from the bustling city into the rural outskirts.

To most Americans, the words 'migrant
worker' brings forth the image of undocumented immigrants from Mexico
who move from job to job and live in makeshift communities while they
work for remarkably low wages. In China, it refers to people from
impoverished rural areas who travel and camp outside major cities to
look for any work available. China is currently reeling with over one
hundred million migrant workers moving from the boondocks to the
nearest major city, leading to the clash of migrant workers pushing
out local laborers. For reference, one in ten Chinese citizens are
migrant workers. While America is trying to tackle this issue through
increased defense of the border, this is a case of Chinese versus
Chinese without any clear remedy. Since businesses quickly embraced
migrant labor, exploitation of migrants became a practice that no
agency or organization can directly investigate or charge.
Occasionally, migrant groups organize and protest...which the
government responds to with violence because giving migrants equal
rights would hinder the economy.

Something...isn't right about this. No,
not the part where they abuse innocent people. There's something wrong with the
vocabulary of this country.

Remember that question about Communism
on the bench? All sociology majors are up to their necks in Marx for
the first few classes, most have read the Communist Manifesto and
other similar works. We know more about Communism than baseball, as
our disappointed fathers will all attest. If I sat Karl Marx down
with a tall vodka and told him that the world's largest Communist
government was brutally oppressing laborers in order to protect the
financial superiority of the elites, he'd rip his beard off and
strangle me with it. Most people have been taught that actual
Communism has never existed at any point in history, what we're
actually dealing with is socialism wherein the people are regulated
by elites and not themselves. Socialists attempt to divide and
distribute wealth and resources equally throughout their people,
typically falling victim to basic greed and ending a few million
lives while they play golf inside their immense palaces while riding albino tigers. Leadership
issues aside, socialists by nature strive for equality of all workers
and defend the well-being of the common man even if it means that
everyone suffers equally. 

...Hey, uh...China? I know we just met,
and this is crazy...but you're not a communist country. You're run by
elites which disqualifies you to play for the Communists, and you
value profits more than human beings. That's eerily similar to the
evil stereotype of capitalism that Western countries keep getting
pegged with. I've gone from living in the most outspoken capitalist
country on the planet, which actually has socialist practices and
establishments, to the capitol city of communism where money is
worshiped and poverty is a convenient source of labor. I have
absolutely no clue what is going on anymore. Who were the guys in
Rocky 4, again?

Well, their bumper stickers say they're
Communists. Let's just call them Communists. Whatever they are, they
really don't want you to drive past the Beijing limits and look out
the window.

Migrant communities are essentially the
same communities you'd find in third-world countries, just with more salvaged junk from the immense city visible on the horizon. As the neon and metal of
Beijing faded, you start seeing shacks and huts made out of recycled
wood, scrap metal, or in some cases whatever large debris could be
found. Piles of garbage and waste on every corner, worn people
wandering by in ragged clothing, no signs of police activity or even
electricity. Some one on the bus had their window open, which confirmed the lack
of sewage systems quickly. Wandering around Beijing, the architecture reminds
me of Chicago in many ways. Looking out at these slums which were
barely a half hour out on the highway, I couldn't help but compare it
to what I'd seen in Western Africa. With the reactions we'd gathered in the
middle of the city, I didn't want to dwell on what might happen if we
walked through the dilapidated street market outside of the migrant
school. Middle class Chinese tourists tend to walk a few feet behind
us like ducks as they explicitly examine our hair and features
through their cameras, I couldn't imagine what would happen if we
took a stroll through the poorest area possible.

The school was located in a gated
compound in the heart of the slum, we had to roll through a
marketplace littered with ancient appliances and scrap metal before
the staff members closed the gate behind us. By the time we stepped
off the bus, the locals were crowding the gate and calling out for
others to come look. We quickly stepped out of sight and wandered
between the classroom buildings, hearing young voices chanting from
virtually every doorway and window. The Chinese education system operates through sheer
repetition. The teacher states a word, the children chant it into
their memory to remember it for the test. The children occasionally
looked out the window at us, but these classrooms were incredibly
strict and they were sure to hide their reactions. Soon enough our
hosts appeared and very urgently shepherded us into a conference
room. A staff member spoke to us through our translator, welcoming us
to the school and thanking us for coming out. Apparently, there's
only one other college from America that occasionally visits for service work. They're
called 'Yale'. Never heard of them.

We were then hit with the brick wall of
the situation. We were told to not leave the room, and not to let
anyone see us. According to the staff member hosting us, there had
been a mix-up in scheduling this visit, and the government had not
been told that we would be visiting this school. We were assured it
was just a formality, but they then warned that the community may
report us to the government instantly if we're seen by the wrong
people. What would the consequences be? They wouldn't say. Would we
be questioned for trespassing at a school without permission, or
would the school be charged for allowing foreign visitors? They
wouldn't say. So, there we were in an apocalyptic slum in a strange
country across the world, knowing that the government may swoop in at
any time. How about you, how was your day?
Despite being confined to the room, we all made the most of the visit. We met with a panel of English teachers, former students who now campaign for public education, and finally a small group of local children were brought in for us to interview and play with a bit. This school makes a distinct effort at preparing these children for the workplace, but Chinese education is highly tracked. Depending on exam performance, a student from the slums could very well qualify for the top colleges and find funding. More realistically, trade schools are a goal for this demographic. The opportunities are there, but poverty still defines academic performance in most cases. We later had lunch with former students and volunteers from this school, fighting the language barrier to discuss how public education struggles in China because of the class differences. 

On our way out, I looked out into the slums and a man sitting on a burned out washing machine in a stained green shirt with a spotless CPC armband pinned to the sleeve. This bold red armband is the equivalent of some one wearing a political campaign button or a fraternity lapel pin, Chinese citizens who have become certified members of the Communist Party have the option to wear it for official meetings, formal occasions, or on an everyday basis if they're particularly fiery about their beliefs. We were told that local residents would inform the government of our presence to try to win favors and preference...This gentleman in the red armband had something to prove and would probably run to an official the second we turned the corner. He was the Communist equivalent of the neighborhood watch, this could be his moment of glory. The CPC sees this makeshift village as a disposable resource, yet this man in the middle of it all wears his red armband as a badge of superiority. Mankind never ceases to intrigue me. 

After a long ride back into the city, our translator suggested that we try something a bit different for dinner. Fu Street. When asked what it was, there was just that smile that seems to say 'You're about to be very freaked out' in every language. We took off down Golden Street, then simply turned right into an alleyway. Past the decorative archway was one of the most crowded, colorful, and simply chaotic markets I've ever seen. The crowd was shoulder to shoulder, every wall was a stand hawking food or souvenirs, all with music and various dialects blaring. Our caravan attracted the word 'Hello' from the sellers who knew a few English phrases, the rest tried forcing things into our hands with yellowed smiles. Absolutely overwhelming yet amazing. About ten feet into this carnival like market, I looked to the side and was faced with one of the strangest things I've ever seen. This very popular stand offered exotic animals for eating, all laid out so you can reach out and grab one. Options included the ever-favorite scorpion, starfish, seahorses, roaches, silk worms, centipedes, tarantulas, and lizards about the size of my hand. Did I mention that everything I just listed was impaled on a stick for convenient eating? Very handy, that way you don't have to get lizard innards or tarantula hairs all over your hands. 

What would have been really convenient, though, is if the animals were dead. Since they were most popular, the stand had about fifty scorpions on sticks fanned out, all twitching and clawing the air to try and escape. I may suggest that my roommate's boyfriend try writing a song about this, it seems to be his kind of inspiration. The seahorses and starfish seemed to have bit the dust. I assumed the tarantulas were long dead until I saw one of the arms twitch defiantly. The lizards were mercifully killed, but had their bellies cut and stretched to the side like some kind of reptilian flying squirrel. 

There's an old Chinese saying. Chinese people eat everything with four legs except for furniture, and everything with two legs except for people. If the Chinese don't eat it, it's completely inedible. 

Opting out of the street food, we headed to an underground food court with various food sellers lined up. While they boasted a very modern swipe-card pay system, the leaking ceiling, poor ventilation, and rusted picnic tables offered a local charm that American health inspectors just can't seem to appreciate. Most of us were unable to eat, we just couldn't manage it. It could have been the traveling, the heat, the stress, the noise and chaos, the undead tarantula, or even jet lag. What really killed it for me personally, is that while I appreciate Chinese food and absolutely love the real thing out here, but eating it three times a day becomes an exercise in tolerance. I make myself eat enough to stay moving, but no matter how many new dishes we try my body is saying it all tastes the same and is getting tired of it. 

Of all the days to be asked to consider communism...A questionable assault rifle, a look into concealed poverty, and dodging suspicious government officials. What else am I in for?

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