Into the sea

Shanghai is a sycophantic monster, approaching you with the solicitations of transients and prostitutes rather than the battering and molestation with which a reprehensible number of, say, New Yorkers might menace you. But what aggressiveness there is fully comes out on the streets and highways. I’m convinced that 90% of the rebellious spirit in Chinese cities is expended disobeying traffic regulations. Maybe that’s why most protests happen in rural areas. I had been here less than 12 hours when the bus I was in, which was ferrying me and other teachers out to the university on the outskirts of the city, ran into an electric motor scooter. The scooterist thus revealed the utter falsity of the position of his fellow Hell’s Ecologically Conscious Angels, because while they give the impression of being in such a desperate hurry that they have to cross oncoming buses on the wrong side of the highway, the minute one of them goes down the rest apparently have hours to stand around staring and talking about it. Fortunately the scooterist didn’t appear to be too badly hurt; he was certainly more concerned about someone stealing the money out of the lock box on his scooter than whether his leg was broken. I suppose, though, knowing China, his prospects of getting treated for the latter probably depended on his continuing possession of the former.

Of course the driver was detained and we had to take another bus. I was glad to see that when we got back home he was there to greet us and talk to the Chinese-fluent passengers. Someone said that he needed witnesses. I said, “Yes, but not to testify to his actions in court, but rather to notice if he disappears or gets sent to a labor camp.” After that, our subsequent bus drivers became so cautious that they started taking us on detours through heavy industry zones and regularly getting passed by coal trucks. As if we needed any further reminders of the massive vendetta against the ozone layer that we are all inadvertently participating in. An argument broke out on the bus about whether China’s environmental practices are really that bad, which turned into a more general dispute about global warming. One girl claimed that since methane is such a big pollutant people should be rebuked for their beef-eating practices as well as for driving and trying to stay warm in the winter with coal-powered central heating. Her disputant responded that in that case we should criticize India as much as China because of its excessive love of cows. I proposed the non-violent compromise of banning farting, hopefully with some sort of equivalent of carbon credits. Nothing would be more entertaining than people buying and trading farting credits. I picture some sort of Potato Famine tableau of an obese, whey-faced family sitting under the dripping eaves of their home, with a flickering lamp on the table, then the father coming home to illuminate their faces with delight by telling them that he had finally accumulated enough credits to take them all to Taco Bell again.

I’ve only been in the city for four days, but we have next week free, and one of the other teachers is talking about going to Qinghai, the province that China formed by amputating the northeast half of Tibet. He claims that this is the best way to see Tibet without having to go through all the complicated visa procedures that you need to get into the officially designated region. On the other hand, Qinghai is also where most of China’s buried nuclear waste and prison camps are, as well as where it conducts its underground nuclear tests. The Lonely Planet guide to China informs prospective visitors that the only reason to go to Golmud, the second largest city, is if you’re a political prisoner or mining for uranium. We will see.

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