Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Might of Many

I remember reading a short story in high school about the fire ants of Brazil, entitled Leningen Versus the Ants. While the narrative itself revolves around the battle between the brains of man and the might of nature, I will never forget a scene in which an army of ants attacks a stag, stripping the meat from the bones in under six minutes. What a feat! Multiple cultures, including America’s Judeo-Christian culture, reference ants as the quintessential picture of industry and teamwork; a single ant is easy to kill but a colony of ants can move a mountain—literally!

A few days ago, I was reminded that China possessed this might of many in the latent power of a billion people. I was sitting outside reading a book when I noticed groups of students carrying chairs down the road. After 30 minutes of group after group of young men and women with their chairs, my curiosity was piqued until I put two and two together. That evening was the opening ceremony for the new freshman class—over four thousand students. The students I was currently watching were providing the seating for the evening. Yes, that’s right. Groups of students were moving all the chairs from all the classrooms from all over campus to the new indoor arena on the outermost edge of campus for the ceremony. My mind flashed back (as perhaps yours is now) to the 2008 Olympic Opening Ceremony. At that ceremony, the world was witness to China’s most powerful and most volatile resource—its people. Hundreds of thousands of individual Chinese men and women created masterpieces of performances during the Opening Ceremony, awing the world with their precision in moving as a single body: not a person out of place even though hundreds of individuals were in each performance. With the might of so many under the reigns of astute, perhaps severe, leadership, it is no wonder that China has found itself the topic of political and economic discussions the world around.

Oftentimes, I feel we in America have lost our appreciation for this value of teamwork and have forgotten that individuals are not stronger than the group. Places like Egypt, Libya, and certainly China still feel the intense pressure of the multitude, and as in the case of Egypt, the might of many people has been the catalyst for great change while in places like China, the political leaders tremble at the thought of domestic rioting. Susan Shirk, a former Deputy Secretary of State responsible for China, wrote a book titled China: A Fragile Superpower: How China's Internal Politics Could Derail its Peaceful Rise. Within its pages, Susan Shirk details the immense respect, to the point of fear, which Chinese leaders have for the power of the people. With so many people to keep content, China must continually walk a thin line of balance between squeezing the people with regulations and providing a sustainable way of life. This balance dates far back into Chinese history as demonstrated in an ancient Chinese four-character idiom: “Nei lua, wai huan”: When there is turmoil within, the barbarians without will inflict disaster. China’s first priority is and always has been domestic stability, and at the moment, China appears to have firm footing. Therefore, the real question is what the might of many—1,331,460,000 to be exact—can accomplish if pointed in a single direction. And all I can think of is a full-grown stag reduced to shiny white bones in six minutes.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

On Your Toes

In my last entry, I lightly touched on the changing face of China from a very global or academic perspective. Today I want to bring the ever-shifting face of China into sharp relief through the microscopic lens of the foreign teachers’ cafeteria. When I first arrived, our cafeteria consisted of a large rectangle room with four large square columns stationed at the corners of an imaginary square on the floor in the middle of the room. Huge round tables occupied one side of the room, with a long table for serving food along the wall. The other side of the room remained bare. The lighting was so completely conventional that I cannot recall the fixtures. This arrangement was completely satisfactory until the returning teachers began to arrive for the official start of the school year: there were not enough chairs to sit even 50% of us. And unlike school cafeterias in the States, here food is put out at noon and runs out about twenty-five minutes later—so to stagger waves of people to fit the number seats meant the last wave got rice and whatever two dishes were the least popular. Fortunately, about four days later six more tables appeared (literally) on the other side of the room.

So that was that, I thought. But no, about two days later those six tables again disappeared. Twenty-fours after this discouraging disappearance, I walk in for lunch and discover several new developments: first, lining every inch of free wall are shiny champagne-colored couches with decorative floral pillows more befitting a karaoke bar than a cafeteria; second, on each side of the cafeteria are suspended golden and crystal chandeliers; third, between the columns in the middle of the room (following three sides of the imaginary square) are metal, very professional-appearing buffet bars; fourth, on the side of the room that was still bereft of our much-needed tables were two new windows in the wall through which cooks could directly serve us. (Now whether these windows had always been there, but simply bricked up or whether they were newly cut, I doubt I will ever discover.) So many of us teachers sat with plates on our laps on our new impressive but impractical furniture. I thought *Wow! They certainly like to keep us on our toes here!* And the fun still was not done. A few dinners later our cafeteria became a literal maze of tables: the vanishing tables reappeared along with quite a few small square tables, making maneuvering around chairs, tables, and people with plates of food quite a spectacle. Now our story is coming to a close (or maybe I should simply say, it is catching up with the present for who knows what may happen tomorrow). The following day, all the round tables disappeared, and the couches and square tables became logical booths or open tables, resulting in an authentic “restaurant” feel.

While photos would have greatly enriched this narrative, I hope you can picture the fun of the foreign teachers’ cafeteria. While hilarious, this progression is by no means an isolated event in China. In fact buildings pop up so fast, that it is common to suddenly discover an oft-used back road or footpath is now a construction zone, if not already the skeleton of a building. Or ask a local child what a specific building is only to realize that they know as little as a visitor because that building is almost brand new (while looking years old). When I lived in Dalian, the expats had a saying for such a time as this: “oinc (the sound a pig makes)”—only in China.