Trip Start Jul 26, 2006
109Trip End Apr 01, 2008
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These last few weeks since I got back to Beijing have felt the most "researchy" of my trip thus far. I've interviewed leaders of Chinese Environmental Non-Governmental Organizations (or "ENGOs"), done a ton of reading, and interacted with numerous academics, scientists, and policy-makers from both the U.S. and China. It's been a rich experience, and I have to admit, as the air grows chilly and I begin making preparations for my upcoming return to Hong Kong, I'll be sad to leave Beijing. If I wasn't already looking at being away from home for such a long stretch I'd seriously consider coming back to Beijing to live for awhile, as my housemate tells me English teachers and translators can do quite well here, especially as the city prepares to host the 2008 Olympics
But a voicemail I received from my nephew a few days ago brought on my first real dose of homesickness thus far, and reminded me of what I have waiting for me back home:
"hi unca jay... hi i miss you... i luv you... i'm lookin' at the clouds... cumulus...cirrus...stratus... no, he's not talkin' to me... oh... i luv you, i miss you, i'll see you... have a monkey party for me... bye, i luv you."
When I haven't been engaged in academic pursuits, I've also managed to squeeze in a little touristing, and I'm growing quite enamored with Chinese culture. In an earlier post I talked about some initial cultural differences I'd noticed right away; as I've been here a bit longer I've begun to notice other things. I can only imagine how much I'm missing out on due to the language barrier though.
One observation is what a "pro-social" culture China has. It's hard to describe fully, but there just seems to be a tremendous sense of community and belonging here that I don't think I've ever seen in a city this size (probably around 14 million). I've been taking lots of long walks around the city in preparation for a *hopeful* trip to the Great Wall some time soon, and everywhere I go, in every square inch of open space where people might possibly congregate, there are massive crowds engaged in all sorts of group activities
China, or at least Beijing, also appears to be a very pro-calisthenics culture, especially amongst the elderly. Again, I tried to illustrate this point with some photos/videos. I've noticed very little obesity since I arrived here, and I recently learned that the Chinese have a life expectancy of 73 years, compared to 78 in the U.S. This near parity is striking, especially considering the differences in environmental health between our two countries and that China has only a GDP per-capita of $6,800, compared to $41,800 in the U.S. I think a significant part of that reality must be the emphasis on healthy living that I see here; perhaps all the biking as well. I've also noticed some interesting differences in terms of diet. I've had a quite difficult time being a vegetarian here, as it appears to be a quite strange concept to the Chinese. Meat is in nearly everything, although it generally seems to be merely one component of the meal rather than the centerpiece, as I'm used to back home. I've been doing some reading on China's overall consumption patterns, and one statistic I found interesting is that in 2004, the average Chinese consumed around 98 pounds of meat, compared to 276 pounds for the average American. What's more, while U.S. meat consumption is fairly evenly spread amongst beef, pork, and poultry, in China pork is king
And finally, one other cultural trait I've noticed, and especially in comparison to my experiences in India, is the relative "liberation" of Chinese women and the more relaxed norms around public displays of affection. Women here dress every bit as scantily as they do back home, yet I haven't seen a single example of men cat-calling or groping women like they frequently do in India. What I've read, and what appears to be legit based upon what I've observed, is that while China remains a deeply patriarchal society, where men are still considered the formal leaders and the woman's primary responsibility remains the family, this attitude is at least accompanied by a high level of respect for women. On the other hand, there's still no shortage of advertisements using women's bodies to sell consumer products, and prostitution also seems to be pretty prevalent, so like everything else here, it's complicated. In any event, I haven't learned any snazzy Mandarin pick-up lines just yet, so my observations remain purely third-person.
With the U.S.-China Science and Technology Forum behind me, I'll hopefully have a bit more free time in my last remaining weeks here in order to do some sight-seeing and get in a few more visits to the plethora of interesting NGOs and quasi-governmental organizations here working on science and sustainability issues. Some time in early November I'll be headed back down to HK, probably via a few day stop-over in Xi'an. We'll see...