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Archive for December, 2007


Monday, December 31st, 2007

There is on-going needless bloodshed tonight.

Kenya, Dec 29-31 2007 has seen violence and chaos break out in Nairobi after fraudulent elections.  I have several friends who still live in Kibera slum (1 million residents in a 2km square area), the heart of the violence, in addition to Maryknollers (Americans) doing mission work there.  Nearly 100 people have already died (as of Dec 31 2007) (over 300 have died as of Jan 5), and the tribal violence continues.

See article on the International Herald Tribune: 

Moreover, while most of us are also aware of Sudan’s Darfur region, Somalia has become worse than Darfur and grossly deglected by international bodies due in part to Darfur’s high attention in the last 6 months.  Yet Somalia continues to live in chaos, violence, and fear due to anarchy since the mid 1990s, which again sparked up in the last couple months, creating a living hell for all people there.  Minneapolis - St. Paul has many Somalian immigrants who have come from that violent hell who can undoubtedly would appreciate all the outreach, support, and friendship-building availiable. 

Please keep Kenyans, Somalians, Sudanese, and Middle Easterners from Saudi Arabia to Iraq to Afghanistan to Pakistan in your prayers and pray for PEACE around the world, that all people around the world may see the light and say to their leaders who propagate extremism, intolerance, hate, and war of all kinds due to power and economic insentives (”The Military Industrial Complex,” as coined by former pres. Eisenhower): “ENOUGH IS ENOUGH! NEVER AGAIN WILL WE KILL ANOTHER!




Monday, December 31st, 2007

Things have been slowing recently. We wind down the last of the wicked mountains with their fake peaks, and gaping caves that gawk at us from a distance.  We trickle down the last thumb of China’s Southeast like the spittle that painfully combs the sparse grass hairs and tickles the muddy river belly of this border town Ping Xiang. 

I can smell Vietnam. Its right there: 18km away. It smells like rice mixed with mud. We will have to cross the Mekong, which fondles the banks of the Tibetan Plateau China’s Yunnan province, Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, dribbling rice and fruits like a no-good man pollinates his offspring. It will be brown a lazy spittle in dammed areas a rushing gorge near the delta. Brown is not a color of shock. It’s one that dulls, like the oversized blazers and the Mao hats of old men who play Mazhong (Chinese chess) in parks. Peasants who blend into the mountains. Planters who blend into the fields. 

We honker down and wait for it to come. We are not scared, but anxious. Crawling back and forth through the street lights filtering through steaming vats of dumplings and noodles, sallowing the viscous night with their fat yellow clouds. Tapping our feet, looking up into the sky, reading a chapter, looking for food, tapping our feet, restless in this halfway city with its half Vietnamese, half Chinese signs. We have nothing else to do but wait to leave.

I have guesthouse, restaurant, net bar radars and their Chinese characters zoom into my focal vision like a movie trailer. These are the only characters I can read so I notice them even if I don’t want to go online, even if I’m not hungry. This keeps my senses tuned to the present. These big gaping signs signify safety, and I look for them like they are Bahamian flags, a safety zone in war times. I tap my feet. I rub my freezing hands together like a New York vagrant over a 50 gallon drum fire. I shiver, waiting.

People are tapping the water pipes with laughter. Vulgar, drunken yells slam against the dusty hotel window like a drunk friend who doesn’t realize how late it is. We smell excitement. Our street is shaped like a tourist attraction with red tents, outdoor seating, and delicacies like skewered rat for gullible travelers to experience. I like to experience so I pressure my friends to go streetstall hopping. We sample a few, and have a beer acting like decadent expats in a lost generation, ortravelers just passing though, the only real attention this town seems to get from foreigners, unless your Vietnamese and you own a store.

Because of our visas and the holidays, we’ve been taking three day breaks every three days.  We have no more weddings to attend or friends to meet. We have no other purpose but to get to Vietnam, and it is 18km away. Aahhh! This is more like a vacation. My mind is vacating. My memories are slowing down. I am getting fatter and slower. Every so often I get a rush, and my group members and I play the “What night was that?” game. This stream is petering out.

Soon we will be looking at China in retrospect. Soon I will be comparing every other country to China and not Japan. Soon I will be looking for concrete architecture cropped by clay roofs and hollowed by courtyards, bright red wooden gates that smell of paint instead of age. I may no longer think of simple wooden temples with ferocious guardian statues and tatami mats and paper sliding doors, colossal gates that smell of cedar.

My imagery will be replaced by more recent contact. I will look for signs of China: its smells, its language, its sounds.  Soon I will miss it. Perhaps even the frantic honking of buses and the guttural growl of coal-carrying dumb trucks breathing their exhaust onto my legs like a teenage boy kissing a petrified ear will seem faraway and romantic. Like sound blown through a conch shell. Faraway pink sand.

I speak in the future tense because I do not know what is ahead.  Perhaps this is dangerous to do because I am making self-fulfilling prophecies that might kill the surprise. This is not living in the moment. This is waiting for tomorrow, like a fiance waits for a soldier.

In some ways, our trip is only beginning now.  All five of us having lived in China for a significant period of time before cycling through it, (my four months being the shortest period), we’ve traveled through the populous, Han-predominant East, knowing for the most part what to expect, knowing enough Chinese to interact with the locals, to tell them hello, to ask them their occupation, to get a little drunk with them.

We’ve seen indicators that might prove or refute premature suspicions we might have mustered up beforehand: 1. it is much cheaper to travel and easier to bargain in the countryside, 2. people are much nicer and will invite you into their home without knowing you, 3. it really helps to speak the language to gain people’s trust and make deeper connections, 4. many Chinese love foreigners and most in the countryside have not been exposed to them, 5. Most Chinese people have no idea where The Caribbean is.  

China is present tense. It is now, smashed against our faces in its graphic market scenes of hanging meat and dripping blood. It is raucous internet bars with individual speakers at every computer blaring individual versions of the same techno bass beat. It is cigarette smoke poking dirty fingers up our nostrils as we try to look undisturbed.  It is moody restaurant bosses pushing whole chickens on us, or otherwise ignoring us when we want to ask for the bill. It is rowdy hotel ladies who, shouting while smiling, confuse our senses, making us think they are angry with us when they really just want to help.

China is uncomfortable. It is always happening. It is loud with big signs, piercing music, shouting people, shouting buses. We cannot stop this life from happening. We cannot keep the children from creeping up behind us as we eat. We cannot keep curious people from grabbing and trying to open letters we want to mail home.

China is up close and personal. People interrupt, squeeze between, slap us amicably on the shoulders, breathe on our necks as we sit and they hover, run up alongside our bikes as we ride next to fields.

China breaks us out of our comfort zone kicking and screaming.

It is 1110pm December 31, 2007 the last fifty minutes before the new year and we waitshell-shocked and exhausted like night watchmen like the MC at a New Years celebration staring at the clock waiting for the jump the ball to dropfor people to go crazy. I hold my breath for the next adventure when we will not have the safety net of language and background to settle us in comfortably. Perhaps, we will not have the innocence of non-traveled eyes, and the muck of experience will muddy the surprise of that to come.  Perhaps, our expectations of what will happen will turn out to be completely wrong.

Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps. We still have to get through tonight’s scheduled street performance on the cold river front with the dribbling water petering out beneath the concrete arched bridge. I hope the audience behaves. But you never really know in China. Or anywhere for that matterI hope the border cops are nice  

We aren’t anything special

Saturday, December 29th, 2007

People in China and the U.S. often tell me how incredible and great and awe-inspiring this trip is. That’s actually not what I want to hear. If they wanted to say that I was incredible or awe-inspiring, then I wouldn’t mind, and they would be correct. But this trip is not that incredible. One of the reasons we’re doing this trip, in fact, is to convince people that biking is not difficult, and that it represents a viable and often preferable method of transportation, especially compared to driving. We’ve met numerous other bike tourists along the way, many of whom are doing longer and more difficult trips than we. So read away and run out of excuses not to bike.

We ride 18 speed bikes designed long rides. We have biker shorts, comfortable handle bars, and tons of other crap. Along the way, we’ve run into several other groups of bikers along the way. Old Chinese men form the largest population of bicycle tourists in China. Some travel in groups, some individually. They do both longer and shorter trips. However, all of them travel fast and light with little regard for how sweet their gear is.

One group we met north of Shanghai. The several older men rode older single speed bikes. They had no luggage to speak of. Indeed, we might have mistaken them for commuters were it not for a couple who wore shirts emblazoned with the name of their bike club. They were biking to Beijing from Shanghai to help celebrate the Olympics. We almost joined them at their accommodation for the night, but it proved slightly too expensive for us. We biked off into the night with them assuring us that if they, native Chinese, couldn’t find a cheaper place, surely us foreigners would not be able to. But we did.

The group of bikers with whom FBR has had the longest relationship has certainly been the Koreans, Kwangsub and Suji. We met them at the end of a long, hard day of biking on a busy road. We’re both about the same age and share similar world-views, as became quickly apparent when we stopped and talked to each other on the side of the road. We biked together for the rest of the day, when we wound up at the Zhuzhou campus of South Central Forestry University, Adam’s and mine old stomping ground. The Koreans proved to be very tolerant and easy going. We decided to camp, and I led everyone down a bumpy dirt road in the dark, to where I thought there would be a site. It turned out to be a damp rice paddy. “Everything is OK,” said Kwangsub, in what would become a mantra for the easy-going Koreans, “Whatever you want is OK, don’t worry about us.” We found a dry spot in the paddy, and it seemed all right.

Kwangsub and Suji by their sweet tandem

The Koreans are biking from northeast China to southeast Asia, north to Tibet, through India and then on to Europe. They eventually might make it to the Americas during a trip which will last over three years. We excitedly discussed our reasons for biking over our first dinner. Kwangsub pointed out how biking binds you to the land more closely than other forms of transport: “If I use motorcycle I sometimes won’t get the feel. But if everyday I eat some rice [here looking pointedly at all of us] I can get the feel on my bike.” He went on to point out additional advantages of using bicycles: “It is my own power, it is a challenge.” We couldn’t agree more. Especially the part about eating rice. We biked with the Koreans for another week. They speak English well and their added perspectives proved invaluable when it came to processing our experiences.

Mr. Wang Yajun has already cruised around China for three years. He’s used up three bikes and a couple roles of film to ride from his home in Heilongjiang, far in the northeast of China, to Tibet and most other provinces in China. He bikes 100 km a day, although he once logged 230km coming down from Qinghai to Lanzhou. Mr. Wang is a widower. As he told me very earnestly, his wife was unable to bear children. Now that he has no attachments to his home, he bikes around, gathering experiences and for his health.

Mr. Wang on the sax

Mr. Wang with his map

He also bikes in support of the Olympics coming to China. For this long voyage he has merely two handmade saddle bags slung across the back of his bike. Inside he has a saxophone, a banner with his name and mission on it, and some pictures of him in various locations of note around China. He also has a book with city government seals stamped in it, to verify where he has gone. Mr. Wang says he would like to bike outside of China, “but I’m too old now,” he claims, “so I’ll just bike on the mainland.”

We once stumbled upon two Germans in a small restaurant on a street crowded with other restaurants. It turns out they were also biking to Hanoi. Because they didn’t have much vacation time by European standards (four weeks) they were traveling quickly. But we eagerly listened to their stories of decades of previous bike trips.

Coming out of Confucious’ home town in pouring rain we were passed by a computer programmer also on his way to Shanghai. He worked with the Olympic committee and was also biking in support of the Beijing Olympics. He carried one very small bag. In Zhejiang province members of a local bike club approached us. Soon they were escorting us to a great campsite. They biked with us the next day, passing us off to bike club in the next town like a multi-wheeled baton.

We ran into another group of bikers in northern Guangdong. They were all retired workers from a wire factory, biking to improve their health. They biked at an aerobic pace, stopping only for short cigarette breaks. “You bike really fast,” I told Mr. Zhang, next to whom I was biking. “But you have so much stuff,” he replied, eyeing the piles of bags on my front and rear racks, and the trailer I was pulling. We biked with them for 40 km until they arrived at their home town. It was the final day of their bike trip. We said goodbye and wished each other well.

As we approach Southeast Asia, where roads are fewer, the weather warmer, and the tourists more numerous, we anticipate seeing more bikers.  Maybe they’ll have more stuff than us, maybe less.  They might go faster or slower.  Regardless of languages we have in common or biking philosophies, we know we’ll be happy to see each other, and eager to share experiences.  Such is the club you can join by hopping on a bike.

We are now waiting on the China-Vietnam border until Jan 1 2008

Saturday, December 29th, 2007

We are now in 中国广西凭祥市 Pingxiang City, Guangxi prov, China waiting for 3 days before our Vietnamese visas become valid on Jan 1st.  Pingxiang is in fact 18km from the actual border crossing, though is much bigger than that town, 友谊关 Youyiguan. 

We wish all of you Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukah, Happy New Year, etc! 

We miss you dearly during this holiday season but hold you close in our hearts. 

Thank you so much for your interest in and support of our bicycle tour for increased global understanding and an end to Global Warming / The Climate Crisis!

我们现在在中国越南的国界等进去越南。我们可以1月1日进去。我们都很好,可是有点悲哀出去中国。我们已经想我们中国朋友,上三个月认识了那么都很有好很客气的新的朋友。谢谢中国那么欢迎我们更好了解你! 我们出去中国后希望你还会想来看我们网站。


Is there a just way to make US$1 million?

Saturday, December 29th, 2007

My dad recently asked me what I thought about while biking 4-5hrs a day, 6 days a week. My response? The automatic answer: “Oh, I don’t know, not much.” Sometimes I do zone out as I pass by fields, farmers, villages, markets, fields, farmers, villages, repeat. But I quickly realized, actually, I think about a lot, usually in recurring themes, as I try to synthesize new and recent experiences from this bicycle expedition with my past life experience and knowledge. I think about so much that at first it was difficult for me to grab any of the slippery ideas swimming past in the rushing stream of my mind. Here it goes for today though…

As we move west in Guangxi province, China, I’ve noticed the standard of living get simpler and simpler (or lower) – especially after Guangdong province, China’s economic powerhouse. Now that we’re within 100km of the Vietnam-China Friendship Highway border crossing at 凭祥Pingxiang City, market towns are more spread out with sugar cane fields more expansive. Today’s 60km ride on a sheng dao (provincial highway) brought us through 2 or 3 towns, whereas we would usually hit one every 10-15km in other provinces. The small villages we pass now are increasingly composed of mud-brick houses with old Chinese-style slate roofs and make-shift scrap wood doors. The boxy multi-story concrete buildings that define modern Chinese architecture are fewer and fewer. These villages are “old school,” homes to the old lifestyle that is nearly the same as it was 200 years ago. The old way is changing quickly in rural China, but is not in danger of extinction…yet.

Today’s sheng dao was surprisingly empty, with thankfully very few honking trucks and long distance busses that usually deafen us on the bigger roads. The asphalt surface is brand new, would-be steep hills have been broken down and reformed into gentle slopes. The mountains we went through before Shangsi town (our Christmas town) gave way to rolling hills of sugarcane, and despite that crop, looked quite similar to spans of corn fields in Minnesota between Minneapolis and Rochester. On one of our breaks about 30km west of Shangsi, two women – a middle aged daughter and her mother – growing sugarcane offered us each a whole 1.5m long stalk for free, slicing off the tough skin with a hooked machete. It didn’t seem to matter to them that we already had two long stalks our Shangsi guesthouse boss had given Drew, which he was eager to stop carrying. At one point, Jim was holding four stalks. “Have some more tangzi!” they told us several times. Women chi bao le! (We’re full!)”

Down the road, we came across several young farmers driving water buffalo carts loaded with freshly cut sugarcane. We stopped and asked them a bit about sugarcane farming. They were surprisingly light-hearted, clowning around with us and their buffalo, though steadily unloading their carts onto the side of the road. Just before turning back to get another load, one of the young men said about their work, “Xinku. XINKU! 辛苦 (exhausting and difficult!)” We watched them laboriously and clumsily turn their buffalo carts around, at one point temporarily blocking the road as a truck came flying around the corner, and slowly head back down the rocky field road.

Sugarcane farmers
Further down the road, parked in front of the first and only fanguan (restaurant) we saw, were three luxury cars - a BMW, SUV, and Volkswagen - all very new, and ridiculously out of place in this little town of 500-700 residents. The sight of the BMW made me want to smash its wind shield or better, take a rock and scrape it along its side, digging into its perfect paint finish (no offense Bavarian Motor Works). I was as surprised as you at my thoughts. Why in the world did I have such a strong reaction?! Sure, I’m on a bicycle tour, and most people when on bikes hate cars (and vice-versa), but still. In the US I frequently see BMWs and probably more SUVs than cars, and it usually doesn’t bother me so much. So what’s different? It got me thinking as I was restraining myself.


There were several factors at work in my mind.

First, last fall I happened across an auto show in Chaoyang Park,Beijing. At the BMW booth, I couldn’t help but notice that a standard nothing-fancy sedan was over 1.5 million Yuan (US$192,000.). Granted,as far as I know, China has a 100% car tax, but I was quite sure I didn’t know anyone in the US who would pay even US$150,000 for a BMW. Heck, why not buy a house with land for that price? In Beijing though, I saw plenty of BMWs. In fact many were fancier and bigger than that one at the car show, as the one we saw today in nowhere Guangxi. Last year I heard a statistic that China now has more millionaires (in US$) than the US, a symptom of the increasing income gap that seriously threatens China’s “harmonious society campaign.

Second, I had just talked with the sugarcane farmers who used ox carts, were working hard, had very little material wealth, and directly vocalized the difficulty and dissatisfaction with their lives to us.

Third, I am familiar with the problem of unqualified and undeserving Chinese coming into wealth and power (which certainly happens through out the world in different ways too) which makes witnessing the income gap more bothersome. After working in two Chinese universities and talking with foreign teachers at those and other Chinese universities, I understand that although in the minority, there are a reasonable number of young Chinese who receive the privilege to study at a university simply because their families have excess wealth and/or good connections with people in positions of power (
关系guanxi). I taught such a class of students for 1 month during my first year in Jilin, China. They were by far the worst students I’ve ever taught. Out of a class of 15 students, the most I had show up were 10 on the first day, and by our 4th class, only 1 student showed up 15 min late until I told the department about the situation and requested the class canceled. I’d never met such students who lacked respect for a teacher and seemed to not care at all about their education or their futures. Moreover, their English levels were quite poor for the college level (except for one), the lowest of all my classes at that point. Yet, at that University, it was those students and those students only who had the opportunity to study abroad in the US at the sister college – an opportunity my regular hard-working English Department students dreamed of having but in reality had no possibility of attaining during their undergraduate studies at that school. The head of the special department of these special students agreed to cancel the class and was well aware of the problems students in this program created. I learned I wasn’t the first (or the last) teacher to find such problems with these students. After asking the senior foreign teacher about the situation, I learned that most of these students had comparatively low test scores, but came from wealthy families and so were allowed to study there. Not only were they basically guaranteed a BA degree unless they REALLY messed up, but they didn’t have to worry and stress out about finding a job like nearly all other Chinese students. Their families also had contacts that would land them high paying jobs after their graduation. I then understood their lack of interest and effort in my class and was dismayed by the injustice created by misplaced wealth and power, similar to the “Old Boys Club” and getting “Grandfathered” into American universities one’s rich father or grandfather had attended in the past. Americans have since taken a stand against similar situations, but from what I can tell, it is still strong in the growing upper class of


Fourth and finally, I recalled a thought one of my friends had shared with me during one of my visits home in the last 2 years: “I doubt if there is any just way to make US$1,000,000.” Is there a truly just way for an individual to make US$1,000,000? This is a huge question begging reflection, questioning the justice of the whole global capitalist economy. The 5 of us had a vigorous discussion over lunch as we sat beside the BMW in the poor town where we spent US$8.00 for a large lunch for us all.

Analyzing global economic justice is enough for more than one PhD dissertation, but a few main ideas surrounding the injustice are as follows:

1) Perhaps the most important factor for Europe’s and the US’s advanced state of development is from its superior fire power in the colonial days (1500s-1900s) when each country used violent force, thievery, and slavery to boost its own wealth. Thus, the current global economy has grown directly out of the last 500 years of colonialism. During this time, powerful nations at first stole raw materials and labor from less powerful nations resulting in driving the 1850s Industrial Revolution beyond its otherwise natural capacity and thus cementing their comparative advantage in the world economy (i.e. in the case of Spain and Portugal stealing gold and other valuable resources in Latin America while destroying whole civilizations including the Incas, Mayans, Aztecs, and other ethnic groups with a total of 60 million people dieing in Latin America alone as a result of direct war violence or through disease from Europeans in the 1500s-1700s, and the African slave trade, which greatly contributed to building the US’s young economy). Later, the European colonial powers cheaply bought raw materials from the same poorer countries and expensively sold finished goods with forced and Europe-favored trade agreements, which still existed into the mid 1900s in countries until violent or peaceful revolution changed this situation – the latter exemplified by India in 1947, under Gandhi’s leadership, or the former in Kenya’s revolution for independence ending in 1963. Europe and more indirectly the US, have never stopped benefiting from this historical economic pillaging and associated advantage. Furthermore, in the last 50 years, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank have been accused of using loans and aid money to lure and bully developing countries to enact economic policies that are favorable to the European and North American countries controlling those international institutions.

2) If there were no poor people living in comparatively terrible conditions desperate and eager for work paying even the lowest wages, the current global economy would literally collapse. This is what has made China the world’s economic center and why every large American company has flocked here to manufacture its products – it is so profitable because everything is cheap (and security for investments high) in China but prices remain high back home – buy low sell high. This is why everything bought in the US and Europe is increasingly, if not Made In China, is made in Latin America or South East Asia. Check your shoes and clothes tags. The whole system stands on the shoulders of the poor and inherently depends on there being many uneducated poor people willing to work repetitive, tiring, and mind-numbing jobs.

3) It takes money to make money. After an individual, family, corporation, or national government has X amount of money it becomes easier to make much more money through investments and even for individuals to stop working (early retirement) – i.e. living off the interest of a US$1 million CD, mutual fund, or other investment – more realistically, a combination of all of these and more. Certainly, after acquiring X amount of money, one never must return to physical labor as a means to make a living. On the other hand, a poor investment could lead to loss, but connections and good credit make it easy enough for the well-off to recover from bankruptcy.

4) Inheritance of large amounts of wealth leads to misplaced power in individuals not based on intellectual ability, informed and logical decision making ability, morality, or responsibility.

5) Just living in the US and making US salaries where it might be possible to save a million bucks over a life time for retirement is called in for analysis. This is because our economy is based on 1 & 2 (the requirement of the current system to have poor people in other countries competing with each other to work comparatively undesirable jobs) and most retirement funds are based on investing in large corporations through stocks and mutual funds, who’s board of directors are likely exploiting their advantageous geo-economic position, or perhaps forgetting loyalty to employees to cut jobs to raise stock prices in order to make millionaires out of themselves and other stock holders before retiring.

During our conversation, I recalled a Kenyan book I’d read after living there in 2003. It strongly criticizes the current world economy which is largely based on taking advantage of the poor and low wages (as mentioned above), and vividly illustrates this in the Kenyan experience: Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s famous book, Devil on the Cross. Ngugi first wrote the book on toilet paper while imprisoned in 1977 due to his involvement in communal theaters performing plays dealing with political corruption in post-colonial Kenya, and upon release the book cast him into continuing exile. It deals, in part, with the process of rich European and North American business leaders going to developing nations, finding locals to be puppets in their new branchs, and in turn making them rich by local standards and teaching them the whole questionable business of making money off the labor of the poor. I’d highly recommend it both as in insight into the above issues, and as an insight into the challenges of African development. 

Speaking of Kenya, Dec 29-31 2007 has seen violence and chaos break out in Nairobi after fraudulent elections.  I have several friends who still live in Kibera slum, the heart of the violence, in addition to Maryknollers (Americans) doing mission work there.  Nearly 100 people have already died (as of Dec 31 2007), and the tribal violence continues. Please keep Kenyans, Somolians, Sudanese, and Middle Easterners from Saudi Arabia to Iraq to Afghanistan to Pakistan in your prayers and pray for PEACE around the world, that all people around the world may see the light and say to their leaders who propagate hate and war through economic insentives (”The Military Industrial Complex,” coined by former pres. Eisenhower): “ENOUGH IS ENOUGH! NEVER AGAIN!”

I also remembered a short story one of my St. John’s advisors assigned, The Ones Who Leave Omelas by URSULA LE GUIN. This story is also quite provocative in its metaphorical depiction of the world’s economic and material inequality (though in some ways a bit further removed from reality) and responses to it. You can find the text on-line here here however,
this html is missing the last paragraph, which I’ll put at the bottom of this post if you’re interested).

Another book written about an alternative, more just world system I read in my class, “Justice in the 21st Century,” at St. John’s that I’d recommend is Edward Bellamy’s book, Looking Backward 2000-1887, written in 1887 about a better future. It is utopian, and an interesting contrast to the anti-utopian book, 1984, written by George Orwell in 1949 in response to WWII and rising communism. 1984 is one of my favorite pieces of fiction.

Don’t get me wrong, my purpose is not to make you feel terrible and guilty about your material life, whatever it may be. I do, however, believe these issues are worthy of meditation and reflection, as they are directly connected to one’s daily activities and long term goals. I also believe that you have thought about these things before. It is likely that these or similar thoughts caused some level of discomfort, a feeling of helplessness, perhaps a feeling of thankfulness, and then were dismissed. I don’t have a comprehensive solution (like Bellamy), and no, I don’t think communism as it has so far manifested itself is a reasonable response either. But before I share varied responses from some of us here at Fueled By Rice, I’d like to open all of these issues up to your thoughts and responses:

1) Imagining yourself in our position, having seen the sugarcane farmers and then the BMW, SUV, and Volkswagen in front of the small restaurant in a small town, what are your thoughts and reactions to the obvious income gap in China?

2) Is there a just way to make US$1 million?

3) What makes one way, method, or path to US$1 million more just than another? Are there some characteristics that you can name?

I welcome you to share your thoughts, through the “# comments” feature of this blog, where you can post your ideas directly on this website.

Thanks for thinking!

**LAST PARAGRAPH OF**THE ONES WHO LEAVE OMELAS (missing from the version on the link above)

At times one of the adolescent girls or boys who go to see the child does not go home to weep or rage, does not, in fact, go home at all. Sometimes also a man or woman much older falls silent for a day or two, and then leaves home. These people go out into the street, and walk down the street alone. They keep walking, and walk straight out of the city of Omelas, through the beautiful gates. They keep walking across the farmlands of Omelas. Each one goes alone, youth or girl, man or woman. Night falls; the traveler must pass down village streets, between the houses with yellow-lit windows, and on out into the darkness of the fields. Each alone, they go west or north, towards the mountains. They go on. They leave Omelas, they walk ahead into the darkness, and they do not come back. The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness. I cannot describe it at all. It is possible that it does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas. (from The Norton Anthology of Short Fiction )

Twas the night…

Saturday, December 29th, 2007

…before Christmas

And all through our small town

I could hear people stirring

But we were winding down

My teammates were nestled all snug in their beds

Where the occasional mosquito danced above their heads

I was nearly through watching The Lord of the Rings

The copy’d been stolen, but I was used to these things

When out on the street there arose such a clatter

Nakia woke up to ask… “What is that?!”

I could hear Jim laughing through his closed door

As we tried to make sense of this deafening roar

It seems the Chinese to celebrate Christ’s birth

Light of firecrackers at midnight for all they are worth

Adam started filming and Pete got up too

It was no use for them to try to sleep through

Each time we thought the fireworks were done

Another strand was lit to continue the fun

Finally they quit, and we all went to bed

After previewing clips from Adam’s infrared

I guess if you’re American, Bahamian, or Chinese

You can say “Merry Christmas!” however you please

I can’t get away

Friday, December 21st, 2007

I can’t go anywhere in China (outside of Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong) without running into people who want to talk to me. This has been a blessing and a curse. Naturally, some are more serious and want to spend more time with me than others. Many just yell “Hello!” or “Hello?” at me in their loudest, highest pitch speak-to-the-foreigner voice, or ask about my height, “Whoa!!! You must be about 2 meters tall! How tall are you?”  I’m in fact 1.98 meters tall (that’s 6ft 7in for those Americans who haven’t yet converted to the much easier and more logical Metric system) so I spend a lot of time saying this in Chinese, “Yi mi jiu ba” “1 meter 98.” This is certainly my #1 conversation starter with strangers in China. Americans also occasionally comment on my height, but nearly all of them will catch themselves either at the beginning or just after saying, “I’m sorry, I’m sure you get this all the time,” which is fitting because many Chinese have been telling me recently, “Americans are very polite, aren’t they?”

Perhaps this comes as a surprise. New Yorkers certainly don’t have that reputation, and even Minneapolis rush hour drivers would become embarrassed if they heard this while driving. However, I think the Chinese are on to something. I’ve begun to think that in general, Americans - though a far cry from the refined Japanese who are often mistaken to be basically the same as the Chinese in Western minds - are more polite than Chinese. Heck, even in Mandarin, after someone says “thank you” (”xie xie,” pronounced similarly to “she-a she-a”), the frequent response for “you’re welcome” translates into “don’t be polite” (”bu yong keqi”). Moreover, many of my Chinese student friends would tell me in English after I’d say “please” or “thank you to them, “We’re friends Peter, don’t be polite.” You see, to the Chinese, using these niceties that my mid-western Minnesota-nice parents raised me on puts a distance between people, a distance that has no business in a close friendship. I understand this, but I still say “Please” and “Thank you” a lot, even when receiving my change after buying anything although meeting awkward laughs of the check-out women.

But where the Chinese beat out America is in plain everyday hospitality (not everyone had the privilege of being influenced by St. Benedict =)).  In fact recently, I can’t get away from Chinese hospitality.

Li Chan Long was more serious in wanting to talk with me, though my fatigue at first didn’t allow me to fully appreciate him.  I was in a larger market town, Gaozhou 高州 western Guang Dong 广东 province China, Dec 14 2007, in the middle of a photo shoot on our rest day.  I was on a bridge, squatting down trying not to be obvious, hiding behind my camera, observing and snapping as people passed by.  My technique failed to keep young Chan Long from noticing me.  He stopped right by me, drawing more attention.  I ignored him until he spoke to me.  I answered a few of the regular, basic questions without stopping taking pictures, where are you from, what are you doing, etc.  He was impecibly patient.  He waited for 10 min until I was satisfied with some shots.  It was 2pm and I hadn’t eaten lunch.  He offered to take me to a cheap place across the bridge.  He’d already eaten, so he just sat at the table while I ate fried noodles (chao mian in Mandarin, chow mein in Cantonese).  We chatted.  He was growing on me.  I forgot how tired I was and how I’d rather have a break from talking to new people, and gave the Chinese conversation what ever energy I could muster.  He is a middle school student, and repeatedly said he was very happy to meet me because he’d never met a foreigner before, though his face rarely broke into a smile.

During our lunch conversation, he invited me to his home to meet some of his family.  His parents were out, but two of his sisters and one of their children were home.  His home was near the restaurant, and quite humble.  It was in the old courtyard style, one story, but not well kept.  It laid in the shadow of a newer highrise apartment building.  We drank tea, took a few photos together, and chatted.

“America is much better than here,” Chan Long said.  

“Although some things like the standard of living and general material wealth is higher in the US, the US also has its problems,” I told him. 

He, like most Chinese I talk to, was surprised to learn that there are poor people and even people without homes who sleep on the streets in the US. 

“I guess every country has homeless people,” Chan Long said. 

“Just about,” I said.

We continued to talk about the desparity and inequality of opportunity between American school districts based on different economic levels and property taxes of their residents, racial and economic conflicts, how money is king and the US government is becoming more and more controlled by big bussiness (and vice versa) which can sometimes hurt normal people, how many Americans have the money but not the vacation time to travel abroad, and as a result of the latter two, increasingly have a negative and fearful world view due to mistakenly projecting the violence and chaos of a few countries like Iraq, Afghanistan, and Somolia onto the whole world outside the US and Europe (there are in fact 194 countries in the world, with a generous majority free of major violent conflict). 

I had planned to meet with my fellow fueled-by-ricer’s, so I excused myself.  Chan Long insisted on walking me back to the dormitory we were staying at across the river.

A day later, one of the owners and cook at a small town restaurant took kindly to us during lunch, and invited us to stay at his home for free.  Again, I was tired after a morning of biking 50km and eating a big lunch, but when he aproached me smiling after we’d finished our meal, I found the energy to engage him in conversation.  He soon was inviting us to stay at his home for the evening. 

“But there are 5 of us.  We’ll be too much trouble for you,” I told him.

He insisted. “No problem.  You’re welcome to stay at my house.  I have alot of space.” 

He had recently built a large house, with his parents and several other family and friends living there.  An extra unfurnished room and lightly used living room were open to us.  It was a bit out of town, but it was a beautiful space to roll out some sleeping bags.  We arrived around 3pm, and after escorting us to his house and showing us around, he left again on personal business, telling us that we could come and go as we pleased, there was no need to lock the door because he had nothing worth stealing and the area was safe - very generous and trusting of him.  We met his wife and two children later, who befriended Adam.

The following day, (Dec 17th) we ate a late breakfast after riding 20km.  I went ahead as Jim stopped by the post office, and others were looking for more fruit and baozi but I wanted something of substance.  I found a typical breakfast noodle restaurant stall and asked what they had and how much a bowl of wide noodles (hefan) was.  The boss took great interest in me, and chatted with me while his wife prepared the noodles.  Drew also ordered some hefan after getting baozi (stuffed steamed buns) next door. 

When it came time to pay, the boss said, “My treat.  You don’t need to pay.”

“No really, I’m embarraced, we’ll pay,” I pleaded with him.

“No no no, don’t worry about it.  It’s free.”

That evening, in a small market town, Nalin 那林, Guangxi province 广西, I was walking around alone and again found a bridge to take some photos.  Passing children on their way home from school noticed me, laughing and talking loudly about the foreigner.  After 5 min or so, I got up to leave, and a man came out of a small restuarant and told me there was someone who wanted to buy me dinner.

“Oh, but I already have other pla…” I began to say.

“Come, come.  Here he is,” the man lead to me to another man sitting at a table.

He was a math teacher at the local middle school, and insisted on buying me something to eat.  He suggested a dish with meat and a soup.  I took his suggestion, though he told me I could order what I wanted from the owner’s shelves of vegetables and meat beside us.  It was a shorter dinner, but we had a pleasant chat for about a half hour.  He’d nearly finished his own dinner by the time I started.

The same night, 2 hours later, I was walking back to our hotel after some exploration, and I stopped at a food stall with out door seating to see what they had.  A man sitting down, got up and came over to greet me.  He then invited me to join him in eating shaokao (Chinese BBQ meat)  I reluctantly agreed, embarraced by all the hospitality I’d been experiencing lately.  He also wasn’t local, but had been temporarily living in Nalin for 3 years playing a role in the construction of a new and very nice concrete county road (that seemed much more like a provincial highway).  He was very eager to chat with me.  Apparently I was the first foreigner he’d met who could speak Chinese.  He said he’d seen foreign teachers in his home city of Yulin 玉林 (80km away) before, but had never spoken with them.


A free breakfast, free dinners, and places to stay.  This certainly doesn’t happen every day, but much more frequent than I’ve ever experienced from strangers in the US.  In fact, I can’t recall ever having had the pleasure of being treated by a stranger in the US.  Unfortunately, I’ve realized that I’ve also never treated a stranger, let alone a foreign stranger, to dine. 

During my 3 years in China, during which time I’ve received a warm and enthusiastic welcome from people nearly everywhere I go (one of the guys at this internet cafe actually just bought Jim and I milk drinks!), I’ve often reflected on the sometimes drastic difference in the treatment of foreigners between the US and China.  During my early months in China, Jilin City in 2004, I was just learning Chinese and could barely get anything out.  To many people though, it didn’t seem to matter.  I’d say, “Ni hao,” (hello) and many would say, “Wow, your Chinese is so good!”  On the other hand, if someone in the US speaks less than perfect English, or with a heavy accent, the reception is often not so warm, sometimes even cold. 

Why is it that some Americans look down on foreigners or recent immigrants?  Is not nearly every American the offspring of an immigrant?  Is not the fact that the USA is a country of bold and courageous immigrants one of the key defining features of America’s identity and strength?

When it comes time to pay the bill, Chinese culture is never to split the bill.  One person pays for everyone, be that 2 people, or 10.  Not only that, but it is an honor (or “gives face”) to pay.  Whoever invites the others is expected to pay, but other times it’s not so clear who should pay.  This often results in friendly banter and fighting, sometimes involving physically pushing people away from the boss, to pay.  If one protests the other paying, the common response is, “Next time.”  It expresses that they want there to be a “next time,” that the relationship is sure to continue and grow.

When was the last time you took a foreign stranger out to eat or into your home?  The thought alone really pushes the average American’s comfort zone.  But for many Chinese, it’s as natural as using chop sticks.

Technicolor Dreams

Monday, December 17th, 2007

It is early morning, and this town is very vocal. All night long.  Truckers and other all night workers stop here and look for food at the all night food stalls with the chairs outside. Drew and I got caught by some women selling expensive green mango seasoned in salt, sugar, and red peppers. They told us to take up a seat in the all night out benches and chairs.

But it was the beginning of all night, and the children were still awake and rampant. Already, when we arrived at our lu guan at around 3pm, fat boys with husky shoulders and skinny ones with ripening bass gushed out of the white tiled industrial apartment opposite, looking into our open windows and shouting, “Hello,” in unabashed, take-the-moment-by-its-beard-hairs, Chinese style.

 This was clairvoyant.

When they started to follow Drew and I down the road from the market, it did not surprise us to hear the pitter patter of little feet tapping the unpaved road like the beginning of rain, the beginning of night and all those passing through until the warning of purple dawn floats furtively around the mountain to expose those who didn’t make it to bed on time. The children know of this banshee, this screaming Blood Wedding moon in cahoots with old lady death. They still have their occult sixth sense, the umbilical chord to the black earth, the mystery we lose once we’ve seen too many moons.

Perhaps, this is why we seek them out in the little rambling towns that roll around the hills and the cascading rice fields and dribbling creeks. They hold that Tantric Tibetanesque secret to the community. They answer questions without any adult psychosomatic premeditation. They are raw. They catch us at clandestine campsites, always on the heels of the last one of us to roll our bike up the path.

Sometimes, they come with treats: things that dropped from the trailer, a soccer ball,oranges, things lying on the ground. Children are closer to the ground. They see things like ball bearings and old snail shells, things we miss as we look out and onward into the air, sliding glimpses at booted ladies in garments too flashy, too grown up for little plastic towns replicating themselves after big plastic cities.  Children are waist high, and we meet glimpses in the middle, bracing our eyes against brazen pimply teenagers with bleached hair on motorcycles, yelping with their nasily basses, “Hello.”  We don’t like this obnoxious hello that is not really a “hello” that is a joke. It is too adult for us. It is jarring.

Sometimes, they come with dolls or ribbons they want to give us. We have no space to carry them, but somehow, we find room. Any gift from a child is a merit of honor, of understanding.

Emily Dickinson had a keen interest in children in her cloistered life. She found innocence in them that she could not find in surrounding adults. In their laughter, she heard truth.  Poetry milk.

We play soccer and Frisbee with the little people at our clandestine campsites, juicing them for connection, for imagery, for memorabilia. We become a part of their childhood experience, shaping their little memories. Perhaps, when they’re older, we will be the great blue-eyed dreadlocked 2 meter tall foreign giants that came for a week and played with them. In the small memory of child, everything seems bigger.  A day is a week could be years. Like the memory of the universe. The era of human life is the blink of an eye.  

They are the dark before dawn we seek. They are the memories of youth, before we realized that we could manipulate situations to go in our interest. They are illusion before disillusion. They are all night magic. Dreams in Technicolor before postmodern cynicism, a mainly Western concept that makes us hesitant to suspend our disbelief.

 We see them darting behind the bushes, racing along beside us as we ride between towns. Dirt smeared babies playing in the middle of the road, emerging from a field of water buffaloes. Little ones dragged behind older siblings to catch up to the spectacle. Hen gou de wai guo ren. Really tall foriegners. Feijo ren wa! African wow!

I think of the scar between my eyes that was carved there by a piece of broken glass bottle i fell on when i was four and dragged behind my 7 year old sister. We were running, panting, splashing through mud puddles to get to a friend’s house and back before my mother returned from work, expecting to find us clean and calm, watching TV or reading a book.

We hunt children. And they hunt us.

I am weary of them and their wide eyes. Their innocence attributing a certain acute evil. Their truth, darkness, as if they know something I don’t. As if they don’t know enough of what not to do, how not hurt people.

In Milan Kundera’s ”The Book of Laughter and Forgetting,” they lived on an island where they made the rules. They had childlike curiosity that wouldn’t let up so that when a lady protagonist took refuge on the island. These malevolent angels probed her body for answers, feeling her breasts, caressing her hair, curious in the adult female body like artists studying a nude, studying the curves and crevices, the shadowed sex that bears children, the back that steadies the load, like God pregnant with Earth. Freeing her body from its ties to love, of soul.

Yesterday, they surrounded Drew and I as Drew gave an impromptu English lesson, and I, giddy from beer, shone a flashlight into his transparent blue-grays to demonstrate how pupils dilate. They clobbered us with a wind whipped by 100 heads leaning forward at once, the child-like thrilled adults hiding their nosiness behind the brazen bunch pouring out their souls to listen. After realizing that we had to get out or they would never leave, we excused ourselves saying that we’d return to our lu guan.

This did not matter. They followed and followed us still. An army of little waste high people scrambling up the stairs to our third floor room. They scampered right past the lu guan boss, and up past the internet bar undeterred by our gentle foreign polite suggestion that they shouldn’t come up. They flowed like unabashed, unmanaged children do, into our rooms, sliding up and around bikes, onto and behind beds, fondling our things with their little slippery child hands, filling spaces like Chinese traffic, frantic honking busses that do not wait, but honk to warn you that it is coming up right beside you.

If there is a space to be filled, they will fill it. These are the laws of nature. The ebb and flow of quotidian life like a people without a government, or a government spread so thin that its little propaganda signs do not matter, its warnings unadherred to, its construction signs moved out of the way so that a biker can get through.

These are night laws.  And they make us giddy for sleep. When the truckers have free roam over the earth and the night cooks laugh crooked laughs full of metal teeth, and all night, on my way back from trips to the bathroom, I can lean my head out of my shoddy hotel window and see the orange mood light from the midnight stalls forming perfect disco smoke through the hot pot and noodle steam.

And I feel safe. And can crawl back into Technicolor child land.

Visiting a Middle School

Monday, December 17th, 2007

You never know what to expect, but you can always expect it to happen.

Just about a week ago we were sitting around the lunch table in various moods (as often happens after a full morning of riding) and I wasn’t feeling particularly like putting myself out there in terms of talking to Chinese with my limited vocabulary. The half-finished discussion lingered on the table next to the mostly-finished dishes that now had a few strands swimming in liquid flavour. We were trying to figure out what we should do for the evening; do we stay here, or move on? This is a common discussion, but it invariably involves opinions, which, as anyone from Minnesota understands, are incredibly uncomfortable and risky things. Some had been aired, and there was a pensive silence mingling with the sedative effect of a full stomach and tired legs.

“Hello, where are you from?” asked an eager voice approaching from my left. I must confess, I wasn’t thrilled. Trying to juggle people’s opinions at nap time usually leaves little room in my personal space for sudden violations, and inwardly I groaned while forcing a smile.

Eddy turned out to be pleasant enough as he pulled up a chair. He was an English teacher, and spoke well, which made conversation much easier. Besides that, he was pretty relaxed.

“Are you teaching today?” I asked.


“When do you teach?”

“Two Thirty.”

I looked up at the clock on the wall. Two Twenty-Seven. Hmmm. He made no signs of moving, but once again proffered his offer to have us visit the middle school where he taught. Well, a decision was in order and we decided we would stay here and try to call Eddie when we were settled into a place. Okay. He started off on his motorcycle, and about thirty seconds later followed a parade of students returning from their afternoon siesta break.

Even though we were tired, Nakia, Peter, and I felt fairly “chippier” after putting down our bags and showering off the road dust, so we moved down the street in good spirits. I also have to say Eddy’s smile and easy going nature was warming me up to this uncertain possibility of “visiting” a school. (As anyone who has gone to a school in China knows, it’s rarely just a visit. Peter Hessler in Rivertown tells about his experience at a college in central China where he and his fellow teacher walked into a formal gathering while preparing to go out for a run. Before they knew it they were both on stage next to the most important members present in their running shorts, wondering about the speeches they were expected to make.) Just in case, we brought along the instruments.

When we walked by the windows to Eddy’s class a loud murmur passed through the students. I was first, followed by Nakia, and then Peter. When Peter passed (6′ 7″ tall) the murmur rose to a roar of “WOAH!” For a few moments we smiled awkwardly at these attentive and excited students, and then introduced ourselves. They were excellent hosts, and gave us much encouragement through “ooh’s” and “aaah’s”. Our rendition of “Helplessly Hoping” got such a warm applause it almost equalled the amazed response that Peter once again elicited upon standing up.

Through it all Eddy guided and smiled from the sidelines. Then he led us out to the courtyard to answer questions and sign autographs for what must have been hundreds of 7th-9th grade students. They were very polite if not embarrassed, and incredibly curious. One of the other English teachers explained that we were the very first foreigners to visit this school, so it was an honor to have us. I was embarrassed and humbled. “The honor’s mine,” I thought, as I tried to sign as many autographs as fast as I could only because I was a foreigner.

After leaving Peter in a clump of students like a tree growing out of a shrubbery patch, still signing autographs, Eddy invited us to come out later for some “local specialties.” We agreed, and were treated to a night of snails, special pork ribs, sweet potatoes, greens, shrimp, and sizzling steak slices. Some of the other department came out as well, including Eddy’s wife Jenny. All spoke excellent English and the conversation was a nice break from my usual simple explanations.

I was glad Eddy had interrupted us at lunch the day before, and as I shook his hand good night, I felt like I really did hope to see him again. Who knows. I remembered my poor humor on the day I met him, and how close I was to refusing his offer to visit the school. I was tired, after all. The thing is, this stuff happens more often than not, if we’re ready to put ourselves out for it. Sometimes it is tiring, but always seems to be rewarding.

Anonymously, from Guangdong

Thursday, December 13th, 2007

The young woman wore the neat, conservative dress of a Chinese high school teacher. We spoke in English because teaching English was, in fact, her profession. Without much prompting, she told me “The BBC and the VOA [Voice of America] say that China has no freedom. But now things are getting better step by step. Now people can say what they want to say and go to many places around the world.” I agree with this statement, but not completely. Nor, apparently, does the young woman, who asked that I not associate her real name with the information she gave me. Certainly China’s civil rights situation has improved from the bad old days of the cultural revolution, but the government remains intolerant enough of what it doesn’t like to give the wise pause when having their names associated with public opinions.

Let’s call my friend Sally. She spoke English with cheerful confidence, and surely the school for which she taught, a high school in a relatively small town in a rural area of Guangdong, should have valued her services. However, she felt undervalued as a teacher. “China is an equal society,” Sally attempted to explain, “but I make 1000 yuan [about 130 USD] every month, but teachers in Shenzhen [the booming border town next to Hong Kong] make at least 6000 yuan [780 USD].” Teaching at a rural school in China often means lower pay, fewer benefits, and mediocre facilities. Sally plans to move to a different school in a bigger city where she can make more money. But due to Chinese laws, she will first have to work at the school near her hometown for a number of years before receiving a permit to work in a different location.

Cities have always been the focus of China’s economic reform. Consequently, urban areas have quickly modernized in the past thirty years, while rural areas often received only a few fringe benefits of China’s prosperity. It is unsurprising then that many people in China’s countryside want to move to the city, where the infrastructure, pay, and social systems are all superior to their countryside counterparts. As Sally told me, the government is now trying to make life for farmers easier. Children from farmer families no longer must pay tuition, and can receive additional financial help if they are really poor. Increasing agricultural prices have also helped the farmers. However, the fact remains that many people, Sally included, want nothing more than to move to a bigger city.

Sally also told me about the double books some factories use. They record hours employees are supposed to work in one to show government labor inspectors, and then keep another one to reflect the actual and illegal overtime the employees work for themselves. In complex issues like globalization and international politics, it is easy to swing between two extremes of looking at the situation. Sally often seemed to contradict herself because, while she wanted me to be aware of the problems China is experiencing, she also realizes the tendency of Westerners to focus on the negative aspects of a country. Hence her attempts to moderate all of the criticisms she leveled against it. I can’t blame her. The media often focuses on the abstract figures and concepts behind a country’s development. Perhaps it would do us all a bit of good to simply focus on the people affected by that development, and save the energy we often spend ruminating in simply getting to know the people our opinion would involve.