I wasn’t thinking about writing about 9/11 in this space. It’s not really a China-focused issue — Chinese people died on 9/11 but the country hasn’t participated in Afghanistan or Iraq — and the personal connection it has for me is a very tenuous one. The reason I am writing about 9/11 is because I just finished reading Chris Adrian’s Promise Breaker.
Adrian is a pediatrician and a Divinity student who frequently writes about the events of 9/11. Promise Breaker combines all of those parts of Adrian’s personality into one great piece — it’s about a child who is possessed by the souls of the dead from 9/11 and the child is treated by a pediatric psychologist in the story.
When I read the piece it brought me back to that day. I was a 22-year-old, fourth-year journalism student at Carleton University and I was having my first class in community newspaper journalism (the paper is called Centretown News). I remember the class had just started and one of our teaching assistants came in and said a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. Our professor jokingly asked him if he was on drugs and the class began. It wasn’t until we took a break that we realized the TA wasn’t joking and we spent about an hour watching the towers — and effectively the world as we knew it at that time — come down.
By that time, I’d been chosen Editor of the paper for the first three issues. And all that I remember from the rest of that day — besides talking about it with everyone — was sitting in our newsroom with my professor and trying to map out the first issue with the news editor and deciding how we were going to deal with this. The personal significance of this day to me isn’t the fact that I was there when 9/11 happened but the fact that it was the first time I had to make a decision not to cover something.
We decided not to do a 9/11 issue because well it wasn’t in our scope. The paper came out every two weeks and even though people would still feel the impact the news impact would be gone. It was also outside our scope. We knew that people who died in the towers or on the planes or in the Pentagon may have been from downtown Ottawa, but we knew the major papers would have covered them by the time we published. As we were talking about this, CBC Radio was on in the background and it was repeating the events of the day over and over from so many different angles. As a journalism student, I understood why we were doing this. It was logically, we’d lose out to the majors who could get all the up-to-the-minute news out there and the public would frankly be sick of it by the time we published, but I felt disgusted anyway. These were human beings — some of whom were sure to be Canadian and we needed to acknowledge that.
9/11 faded into the background after that. It would come up a few times again in my life. I remember the sense of disgust mixed with understanding that I felt when I heard that some Chinese were happy that the towers fell. They saw it as revenge for the 1999 NATO bombing of the Chinese embassy in Serbia. I can understand their anger, but for them to wish death on another people is never justified in my eyes.
9/11 appeared again this year and really struck home. I keep hearing it referenced to Iraq — a war I find unjustified and one I’m happy that Canada and China did not choose to participate in — and also in talk of a possible war with Iran. That day is starting to appear in fiction too. Don DeLillo’s Falling Man (I’m taking this with me on my Spring Festival vacation) and John Updike’s Terrorist. It’s with this that it really became evident to me that 9/11 and its aftermath are defining events for my generation. For my grandparents it was World War II, for my parents it was Vietnam but for me it’s 9/11.
There’s one more personal connection to 9/11 that I forgot to mention. I was living off campus that year in my first apartment. It was a bachelor. It was small but it was home and a place I was really proud of — it was mine. That apartment’s number was 911. I remember when I moved in, someone made a comment that oh I must be safe there. But now I associate that number with the world coming crashing down.
Here’s some articles I’ve enjoyed from the last week that I think are worth Sharing:
Enjoy your Sunday.
It snowed yesterday here in Shanghai for the first time in about three years. I still see snow on the roof tops and some of the cars, but there isn’t as much as three years ago when I lived around East China Normal University (I’m a former student there) and I saw students building snowmen. The reason the headline to this post says “the first time ever” is that if you listen/read/watch state media here they seem to say that whatever major weather event is happening that season, it’s the biggest typhoon/highest temperature/coldest temperature/most snow that the Shanghai has seen in 10 years. This might seem like a cynical view, but hey I’m from Canada 2cm of snow on the ground doesn’t seem like a lot to me. Yes it’s beautiful and cleans up the dirtier parts of the city for a day or two, but it’s not worth it for the state media to talk about it like it’s a crisis. People seem to get a long just fine here (on a more serious note, temperatures just as cold as Shanghai are being experienced in Guangzhou and Shenzhen but without the snow — I don’t think Southern China is not prepared for snow).
In fact, they seem to treat it like rain, which I find the funniest thing. Watching people walk along in umbrellas during snowfalls is something I find strange, but then again people here think I am strange for abandoning the umbrella and just putting on my toque (knit cap to non-Canadians), scarf and gloves and walking through it. They keep thinking I’ll catch a cold.
For a great photo from Xujiahui Park, take a look at Shanghai Scrap.
Update: I spoke to Winnie this evening. She went home to Guangzhou yesterday for the Spring Festival holiday (I’ll be joining her on Saturday). China is undergoing a major cold snap right now and that means more snow in a lot of areas. That snow is blocking the railways which means a lot of the migrant workers in Guangzhou are stuck in the city and can’t get home. So the city is extremely crowded. It’s also quite cold for this time of year as well. Hopefully things will improve weatherwise by the time I arrive.
Update II: According to CNN International there are 100,000 train passengers stuck in Guangzhou. It looks like there will be more snow in Shanghai today (CNN is quoting 25mm) but it should be done by the weekend.
Josh at Cup of Cha has a great piece on the anger of the common Chinese man especially the fist fights and beatings that you can sometimes see in the streets. This is usually accompanied by a large crowd who don’t do anything but simply watch.
For a foreigner, this usually means stay away. You don’t want to get caught in the middle as everyone will automatically forget what they’re doing and as the Chinese unfortunate sense of strong nationalism kicks in turn against you.
As you’d expect a great conversation has been started in the comment section. Including a post by a guy called nichtich trying to explain why Chinese people react the way they do:
“OK, I’m Chinese, and I’ll try to explain that.
Fist fighting on streets is not about honor or anger so to speak. I think the sence of power is more relevent here. As you already noticed, fist fights rarely come when two men fight each other evenly. It’s more like a group of men beating one or a man beat women/elderly or even a group of girls beat another girl. Why is that? It shows power. It means “I’m without honor, I don’t play fair”, which is more scary.
Common Chinese people, or the “laobaixing”, don’t have the tradition to stand up for one another. When they see some thugs beat someother man, they will watch it, and learns who’s the thug that you should avoid and what to do to avoid get caught by any thug, but not rise up against the thug.
Whether it’s unique to chinese or not, i don’t know. But I think it’s more or less common in country with dictatorship ruling. It’s all about power. Not only goverment have more power than people, some people have more than others. And on the lowest level of the power ladder, it needs constant demostrating to assure others your position.”
I can say that after getting caught in one of these fights last summer — where my physical safety wasn’t harmed — I’m not so much afraid for my safety as I am for my dignity and now that I look back on my encounter maybe being scammed out of money.
This afternoon on the way back from lunch, Winnie and I stopped at the DVD store. There we came across a copy of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Cina: Chung Kuo (China: the Middle Kingdom). The film is a documentary that Antonioni shot in Beijing, Henan, Suzhou, Nanjing and Shanghai during a five-week trip and later aired on Italian TV as an almost four-hour documentary. Antonioni didn’t sneak into the country, he was invited by the Chinese government. No one really knew what was going on inside the country at that time so this film can very much bee seen as the film equivalent of Edgar Snow’s Red Star Over China.
The fact that Snow and Antonioni were both invited by the Communists to see life inside China is were the similarities end however. Antonioni, while he praises the simplicity and collectivism of Chinese life at that time, does indicate through voiceovers that there is some repression in the country. He also mentions two or three times through out the film that the Chinese government minders asked him not to film something, but since Antonioni’s team already had their camera on they filmed it anyway.
What comes out in the end is this great picture of China that most foreigners — including expats like myself who live here — have hardly ever seen. Beijing and Shanghai without the skyscrapers and the traffic. In fact when they show Pudong all you see is a shipyard and an oil refinery the rest is all fields.
It is amazing what is still the same as well. Many of the activities that the children play in school and the songs they sing haven’t changed in 30 years. Neither have the lives of the rural people in many of the villages in Henan and the rest of central China. That is probably the saddest thing about the documentary. You could change the calendar to 2008 and the scenes in Henan would still look the same. China’s opening up has made a lot of improvements, but for rural people a lot of these improvements have come because they are able to leave their villages and work in the cities — even though the government has tried to make structural improvements there, corruption has arguably prevented those reforms from having their full effect.
But that is an argument that is an argument that can be fleshed out during another post. If you’ve got four-hours to kill and are a fan of China’s history, go out and purchase Antonioni’s Cina, you won’t be disappointed. It is an eye-opener.
Well at least a small star…I’m going to be featured as a commentator on the issue of “lurking” on blogs on the latest episode of the CBC Radio program, Spark. You can download the podcast here.
Virtual communities have been on my mind a lot lately. I’ve been spend a lot of time participating on the blog and wiki of the CBC Radio show, Spark, a show about how people use technology. I’ve also spent a lot of time reading Global Neighborhood’s series on virtual communities. And it’s made me realize a few things.
I’ve always seen IM tools, social networks and even this blog as communication tools. Tools to get my point of view out there and as a way for the people back home to get in touch with me. As an expat — even in a vibrant place like Shanghai — you can still feel isolated on the odd occasion even though you have a ton of friends. There are only a little over 4,000 Canadians in the city after all, so the chances of you meeting up with another Canadian outside of going to a Canadian China Business Council or a Canadian Consulate of Shanghai event are pretty unlikely.
But after this week of really playing around with these tools to talk to people other than my family or my Facebook contacts, I’ve really been able to see myself participating more with in a community. And there are benefits to that which are greater than meeting new people. I’ve gotten ideas from people that I have been able to apply to my work and was asked to record a comment for CBC’s Spark, which I did this morning. And the best part is that I have been able to thanks people for their help and their ideas and talk back to them. It’s fun and I feel like a richer person for doing so.
I also see a lot of future benefits both for companies who want to communicate and hear from their customers (one of the major marketing uses of Web 2.0 tools right now) but also I see applications for this stuff in diplomacy and government services — the sharing of ideas and information faster so that it leads to great efficiency and a better quality of service.
Most important to me though, is that I just find this fun. I have a learning fetish and will read pretty much anything that I can get my hands on. I’ll also speak to people about it too. And virtual communities give me a great way to do that.