China: land of contradictions

As we walked to lunch with faculty and a couple administrators the other day, we passed demonstrators holding a sit-in outside the Tsinghua administrative offices. Their placards told of how they wanted more money for the destruction of their homes, which was planned to make way for faculty housing. Our hosts, chagrined by the protest, nonetheless noted that this was an example of free speech. These people, it seemed, had a right to make their grievances known.

It seemed a lot like home. But, then at lunch, we got some friendly advice from a Party official who is a fellow academic. Be mindful of what we say in class, we were counseled. Chinese students, especially those from the countryside, give teachers enormous deference in this Confucian society. Moreover, with social media alive and well in China – through local knockoffs of Facebook and Twitter – anything we say may find an audience well beyond the classroom. Privately, say what you want. Publicly, be discreet. There’s a difference in China between the private and public realms.

We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto. But, what a perplexing country this is. On the one hand, it has embraced so much about the West. Just look at the soaring skylines in cities such as Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong. And consider the recurring 10 percent-plus annual growth rates that put the U.S. and the rest of the economically turbulent West to shame. The Chinese are setting the pace for the world.

School of Economics and Management

Their passion for capitalism is obvious. The school of economics and management here is a towering modern compound fronting on the strip of stunning buildings that adorn a stretch near the main gate. Inside one of the several buildings, portraits of Nobel Prize-winning economists make a long line in the lobby – seemingly, all are Americans, including New York Times columnist and Princeton economist Paul Krugman. By contrast, the university’s school of Marxism is tucked off in a less impressive quarter of campus, housed in a small, older building. I’ve heard Marxism is regarded as a matter of philosophy, nothing quite so practical as economics and management. Certainly, there’s no doubt who these folks want their students to look up to.

Merit is also prized here, whether in school or in government. To join the Communist Party, our colleague explained, one must be in the top of one’s class academically. The Party is for the elite, those who can lead the country, and getting through the application process is tough and time-consuming. Only about six percent of the 1.3 billion people in the country qualify for Party membership (a surprising share, even if that amounts to 80 million folks).

Indeed, the Party leadership is composed of practical men with impressive academic backgrounds. Some have graduated from Tsinghua, with degrees in subjects such as water engineering. The current president, Hu Jintao, is an alum. The children of some of these men now study at Western institutions such as Harvard. These are bright people who, it seems, take seriously the need to intelligently manage a country where vast numbers still live in poverty a world apart from privileged city-dwellers. They seem to want to spread the wealth and manage the growth of their country well.

And yet, there is a limit to how far western approaches go here. I bumped up against it the other day, when I wanted to shoot some photos at a central athletic field on campus. Large numbers of students paraded about the sprawling field in military uniforms. Military training, a student here told me, is required of all freshmen. Indeed, days earlier I saw similar troops of students marching around campus and singing songs of loyalty to the nation. It was reminiscent of years ago in the U.S., when students had to go through ROTC training on many campuses.

Struck me as interesting. But a fellow in a black athletic outfit thought otherwise. “Delete,” he told me politely — but firmly — as he appeared out of nowhere. This was arguably a public place, and certainly would have been considered so in the U.S. Further, he was not in uniform and didn’t say who he was. But I was in no position to argue. I am, after all, a guest in this country and must behave as one. I certainly don’t wish to offend my hosts, whose graciousness has gone above and beyond.

School of Marxism

Odd thing is, other military events on campus seem to be fair game. For instance, I was able days before to photograph a flag-raising ceremony conducted by young people in front of the main administration building. Chinese people were similarly taking photos. That, it seemed, was acceptable even as the larger parade was not.

So, every once in a while, I expect I’ll run into reminders that the rules are different here. As long as I am a guest, I will comply. Anything else would be ungracious, to say the least.

An American in Beijing

Each morning, I hop on my bike and trundle over to the journalism school at Tsinghua University. The ride takes me a bit over a mile through what may be the prettiest campus in the world. Streets lined with tall trees, dazzling colorful gardens, striking sculpture and stunning modern buildings that loom hard by hovel-like worker quarters and sleek dorms. Depending on the time, I may be joined by hundreds of other cyclists, mostly students rolling along silently to class. For an American, it’s an alternate universe.

Like much that I’ve experienced in my two weeks in China so far, my daily routine here is by turns delightful, intimidating and fascinating. When the sky is blue and the sun shines, little could be more intoxicating. When it’s smoggy and my chest feels heavy in the haze that sits just a few hundred feet away, it’s something else – LA in the fifties an LA native here told me. The tai chi practitioners doing their meditative ballet in a garden spot near a pagoda-like park building are hypnotic. So, too, is the guy playing a Chinese flute in the trees nearby. But spending 90 minutes in a bank trying to make a deposit is anything but charming – and neither is the bank guard striding up and down with a menacing baton (and this is at the center of campus!). And showers when the hot water goes out are, well, bracing.

Then there’s the food. So far, I’ve eaten fish that has stared back at me (mackerel, actually) while avoiding donkey meat and black fungus (a mushroom, I’m told), and I’ve downed lots of odd vegetables (who knew cabbage could be spiced so well that it’s actually good?) For an omnivore, this would be a delight. They put lots of everything in everything, and there have been a few things I’ve downed that I haven’t quite been sure of. For my picky tastes, it’s a challenge – though I have found much pizza, Progresso and Campbell’s soup and the sugariest cereals around at the grocery store. My teeth would not survive a year of this stuff.

It’s an adventure getting around this city of 17 million or so souls. The broad boulevards lined with towering glass-and-steel office buildings and condo complexes here do have red lights at the intersections, but they seem only advisory, especially to the hordes on bikes. It’s a wonder that there aren’t injured cyclists and furious motorists everywhere, since it’s a battle royal everywhere on the crowded roads. Yet somehow the natives are comfortable with it; everywhere, girls sit sidesaddle on specially built seats behind their pedaling boyfriends, How they stay on, looking quite contented, is a mystery to me.

Communicating with people has been surprisingly easy, though. Somehow, the shopkeepers know how much to charge me and I know how much to pay. I know now how to order hot black tea – “hong cha” – and I can understand when they say “here” or “to go.” Pointing works just fine for the pastries at Starbucks, a haunt of expats since it has free Internet and pricey tastes of home. I have even managed in the Subway sandwich shop to get tuna subs with the fixings I like. And moving about town on the real subway here – an ultramodern graffiti-free system – is easy, since it sports lots of English, including in the announcements of stops. The only problem is that the crowds would make a New Yorker feel claustrophobic. And the scents are, well, unusual.

Beijing is cosmopolitan in a way that no other place is, I think. It seems like a city eager to open itself to the world. Lots of expats. Lots of shops, including very pricey ones, that cater to them. Apple is huge here and Adidas has a big shop. There’s a high-rise mall loaded with such places. Grocery stores here stock goods familiar to westerners (though the Wal-Mart here is like no other I’ve seen, with shouting butchers and fishmongers hawking their wares, which are spread out on counters in the multistory store). A honcho with Wal-Mart China, a friendly former U.S. Foreign Service guy I’ve spent a little time with, told me the outfit is designed to serve the local markets and I did have to look elsewhere for food I wanted. Still, there is Pizza Hut (nearly fine dining here, with long queues to get in) and French bakeries.

I am looking forward to getting a better handle on this place, which can be overwhelming at times. My students – probably the most diligent and eager I have ever encountered – will teach me a lot about it. I am keen to see the journalism they produce. And I’m thrilled about the prospect of seeing more of this at-times magical place. Forbidden City, Ming Tombs, Summer Palace – all await me once the students go on a nine-day holiday in early October. Already, students are lining up for precious railroad tickets home. The trains will be jammed and, I hope, I may have the Beijing sights to myself and just a few zillion others.

Sunrise, sunset – Rebecca’s wedding

The setting could not have been more splendid. A Bluebird Colorado Day, as the locals call it. The Rockies rose in the background. Clouds scudded overhead. The sun was dazzling. And wildflowers abounded at the Breckenridge locale high in the mountains. We all were thrilled, charged with adrenaline and eager to get on with our first family wedding.

Yet, as we walked Becky, our eldest daughter, down the aisle toward her waiting groom, Donna and I both shook with excitement and nerves. We were giving our daughter away, entrusting her to the young man she chose to make a life with. Our lives forever were changing, and for all the happiness of the day, the change was tough. Even our superbly self-assured daughter quivered a bit. This was a big moment.

There was no physical handover at this Sept. 4 affair, no father-of-the-bride handshake. Instead, Ben took a few steps to escort Becky, his bride, to the chuppah just after Donna and I shuffled up under it. But in an all-too-real way I felt I was turning my child over to someone else. My pride and joy – the first of three sources of pride and joy – was stepping into a new life, one I would play little part in. It was as if she were getting on a plane and heading off, for a long time, to a place half a globe away.

In that simple switch from parents to groom the deal was sealed. Never again would this beautiful young woman be the same light-as-a-feather child I carried upstairs on my shoulder, singing, at bedtimes. She would never again be that gangly braces-wearing slip of a girl jogging around a school track with her lumbering dad. This brainy, delightful beauty would never again ask me for advice on college courses. Of course, those things disappeared years ago, gone too quickly, it seems now. But her wedding vows set them decisively in the past.

I know the cliché about not losing a daughter, but gaining a son. And I believe there is truth in that, especially since no one could be better for my daughter than Ben. Kind, attentive, indulgent of her; he’s a keeper. From the warm and respectful way he treats his parents, it’s clear he is every bit the pride and joy that Becky is. I’m looking forward to watching Ben and Becky grow together, to getting to know him even better over the years. Our family in that way has expanded, not shrunk.

But for all that, how can any father avoid feeling a bit of loss – a sense of one season following another, of the swiftly flying years? My firstborn has grown up too fast. She’s 27 already – how did that happen? Was I not paying attention? She’s been on her own since her senior year in high school, which she spent in Toronto while we moved to Chicago. She mastered the ways of New York City through college, put in a couple years on a job there as a management consultant, polished it all off by paying her own way through Stanford Law, and now toils at one of the top law firms in the world.

It’s been a heckuva a decade for her and she did it all under her own steam. I couldn’t burst more with pride about that. We all want our kids to make their own way in the world, to be confident and capable and to rely on themselves. They must do so, and we never were the kind of parents who hemmed our kids in, who discouraged them from chasing their dreams, from seeking their educations and fortunes in far-flung places around the country.

And yet, I miss the smart-as-a-whip little thing who used to win all the races she entered. I miss the high school girl who told readers of BUSINESS WEEK about the joys of her new home in Canada. I miss the college freshman who had the good sense to realize that university was more than just running around a track and who, as a result, had a wonderful undergrad time – off the track team she once pined to join.

All of that seemed to slip away anew as I let go of her light-as-a-feather arm and walked off to stand to the side at the chuppah. All that was shoved into history as Ben smashed the glass, that wonderful custom that with the powerful stamp of a foot marks a line between the end of one thing and the beginning of something new.

I will not be a hovering in-law in my son-in-law’s life. He and Becky now must create their own family, their own future as a couple. They must put distance between themselves and both sets of parents. That is the way of things.

But I hope they do make time, once in a while, for us. Unlike other families who all live in the same places, we are spread about the country. Donna and I are in Lincoln (Neb.); Ben’s parents, Craig and Monica, in Denver, while Ben and Becky for now live in New York. We will see one another a few times a year, at best, I expect.

Someday, perhaps, we can all live nearer to one another, maybe not far from those stunning mountains. But we will do so in a different way. Our joys will be different ones, ones we can’t easily imagine now. Even as I sigh for the passing of the old joys, I am eager to see the new ones. The wonderful Colorado mountain ceremony set the stage for much more to come. I can hardly wait.