I still can’t say it. Everyone here thinks I was in Taiwan.
All month I am lecture-touring around China. This week it was Taiyuan, way up north in Shanxi. Shanxi is one of the cradles of Chinese civilization. Indeed, the museum tags I saw simply announced that civilization in general originated in Shanxi, but that’s because the Chinese are like New Yorkers in their center-of-the-universe-assumptions. Hence the “Middle Kingdom” moniker. And fair enough: that museum was tres impressive. Many of the earliest artifacts had designs that reminded me of Northwest Coast Indian art, which makes sense if you buy the Bering Strait land bridge hypothesis.
Taiyun is a famously polluted city in the heart of coal country, although my guide told me proudly that the pollution had been reduced since they “dug an artificial river” through the center of town. This guide was a remarkable person. Like many women in China, her story is wrenching: she was the sixth daughter in an impoverished rural family that wanted only sons. Their status in the village was humiliating because of their girls. She grew up without enough food–simultaneously hating boys and wishing to be one. She turned out to be uncannily smart and became the first girl from her village to finish college, but her hands are still covered in scars from farm work and she has stress-based panic attacks. I think many intelligent women in China are whiplashed as they try to navigate between tradition (which rigidly devalues women, but also offers them a defined place in society) and modernity (which offers opportunities but also a sense of dislocation).
I dined with a variety of officials, including one fellow who extolled the virtues of Joseph Stalin and the Taliban. I nodded politely, of course, and concentrated on my longevity noodles–which were, I might add, the most delicious noodles EVER. Fresh handmade deep green noodles with garlic and grassy herbs . . . yum! I thought I might lose weight in China, but au contraire. Anyway, I’m glad that the cult of Stalin in on the wane throughout China as a new generation emerges.
Next week is Xi’an, the week after that Chongqing, and then Dalian. All are about 3 hours away by plane, and all will involve nonstop banquets and the formal bestowal of plaques, certificates, and/or pens (i.e opportunities for me to make weird American social blunders). But still: hey hooray. Interesting times, and not in the sense connoted by the old Chinese curse.