Strange Stones

Strange Stones

One challenge for a foreign correspondent is to figure out how much of yourself to include: If a story is too self-centered, it becomes a tourist’s diary. These days, the general trend is to reduce the writer’s presence, often to the point of invisibility. This is the standard approach of newspapers, and it’s described as a way of maintaining focus and impartiality. But it can make the subject feel even more distant and foreign. When I wrote about people, I wanted to describe the ways we interacted, the things we shared and the things that separated us. Chinese sometimes responded to me in certain ways because I was a waiguoren, and it seemed important to let the reader know this. Mostly, though, I wanted to convey how things actually felt—the experience of living in a Beijing hutong, or driving on Chinese roads, or moving to a small town in rural Colorado. The joy of nonfiction is searching for balance between storytelling and reporting, finding a way to be both loquacious and observant.

Peter Hessler, Strange Stones: Dispatches from East and West (P.S.). Kindle Edition. loc. 104-10. Accessed: 12/13/2013

The Chinese claim that folks in Guangdong will eat anything. Besides rat, a customer at the Highest Ranking Wild Flavor Restaurant can order turtledove, fox, cat, python, and an assortment of strange-looking local animals whose names do not translate well into English. All of them are kept live in pens at the back of the restaurant, and they are killed only when ordered by a customer. Choosing among them is complicated, and it involves more than exoticism. You do not eat cat simply for the thrill of eating cat. You eat cat because cats have a lively jingshen, or spirit, and thus by eating the animal you will improve your spirits. You eat snake to become stronger. You eat deer penis to improve virility. And you eat rat to improve your—well, to be honest, I never knew that there was a reason for rat-eating until I got to Luogang, where every Zhong was quick to explain the benefits of the local specialty. “It keeps you from going bald,” said Zhong Shaocong, the daughter of the owner of the Highest Ranking Wild Flavor Restaurant. “If you have white hair and eat rat regularly, it will turn black,” said Zhong Qingjiang, who owns the New Eight Sceneries Wild Flavor Food City. “And if you’re going bald and you eat rat every day your hair will stop falling out. A lot of the parents around here feed rat to a small child who doesn’t have much hair, and the hair grows better.”

Peter Hessler, Strange Stones: Dispatches from East and West (P.S.). Kindle Edition. loc. 130-40. Accessed: 12/13/2013

Earlier this morning, I met a farmer who told me that my brown hair might turn black if I ate enough rat. Then he thought for a moment and said that he wasn’t certain if eating rat has the same effect on foreigners that it does on the Chinese—it might do something entirely different to me. The possibility seemed to interest him a great deal.

Peter Hessler, Strange Stones: Dispatches from East and West (P.S.). Kindle Edition. loc. 177-79. Accessed: 12/13/2013

“A lot of foreigners come to our China to write about human rights,” he says. “That’s true.” He looks at me hard. “Have you come here to write about human rights?” “Have I asked you any questions about human rights?” “No.” “Well, then, it would be hard for me to write a story about human rights.” He thinks about this for a while, but he still looks unsatisfied. “I’m writing a story about Luogang’s rat restaurants,” I say. “It’s nothing sensitive.” “You should have registered with the government,” he says again. And I can see that if we keep talking he will repeat this phrase over and over, because this is one of those conversations that has been doomed by paranoia. It’s a sad truth in China: even a perfectly good rat meal can be contaminated by politics.

Peter Hessler, Strange Stones: Dispatches from East and West (P.S.). Kindle Edition. loc. 193-201. Accessed: 12/13/2013

The owner’s cousin says, “Next time you should try the Longfu Soup, because it contains tiger, dragon, and phoenix.” “What do you mean by ‘tiger, dragon, and phoenix’?” I ask warily. I don’t want to make another trip to the shed. “It’s not real tigers, dragons, and phoenixes,” he says. “They’re represented by other animals—cat for the tiger, snake for the dragon, and chicken for the phoenix. When you mix them together, there are all kinds of health benefits.” He smiles and says, “They taste good,

Peter Hessler, Strange Stones: Dispatches from East and West (P.S.). Kindle Edition. loc. 234-38. Accessed: 12/13/2013

Beijing had once been home to more than a thousand temples and monasteries, but nearly all of them were disbanded and converted to other uses by the Communists. In Ju’er, the monks were kicked out of a lamasery called Yuan Tong Temple, and dozens of families moved in, including Wang Zhaoxin’s parents. Meanwhile, other members of the proletariat were encouraged to occupy the homes of the wealthy. Previously, such private hutong residences had been arranged around spacious open-air courtyards, but during the 1950s and 1960s most of these became crowded with shanties and makeshift structures. The former compound of a single clan might become home to two dozen families, and the city’s population swelled with new arrivals. Over the next twenty years, the Communists tore down most of Beijing’s monumental gates, as well as its impressive city wall, which in some places was forty feet high. In 1966, when Wang Zhaoxin was a six-year-old elementary-school student, he participated in a volunteer children’s work brigade that helped demolish a section of the Ming dynasty city wall not far from Ju’er. In 1969, during the Cultural Revolution, the nearby Anding Gate was torn down to make room for a subway station. By the time Mao died, in 1976, roughly a fifth of old Beijing had been destroyed.

Peter Hessler, Strange Stones: Dispatches from East and West (P.S.). Kindle Edition. loc. 318-26. Accessed: 12/13/2013

When I asked Old Yang about the confusion, he shrugged and said that I once mentioned that my grandmother is of Italian descent. I had no memory of the conversation, but I picked up a valuable hutong lesson: never underestimate how much the bike repairman knows.

Peter Hessler, Strange Stones: Dispatches from East and West (P.S.). Kindle Edition. loc. 429-31. Accessed: 12/13/2013

There isn’t a scholar at any university in the world who specializes in the Great Wall. In China, historians typically focus on political institutions, while archaeologists excavate tombs. The Great Wall fits into neither tradition, and even within a more discretely defined topic—say, the Ming wall—there’s very little scholarship. The fortifications have been poorly preserved, and in the past many sections of low-lying wall were plundered for building materials, especially during the Cultural Revolution. In the 1980s, a Harvard PhD student named Arthur Waldron became interested in the relationship between Chinese and nomadic groups. “So I went to the library and thought I would find a big book in Chinese or maybe Japanese that would have everything about the Great Wall,” he told me recently. “But I didn’t. I thought that was strange. I began to compile a bibliography, and after a while I said, ‘This does not add up to the image that we have.’”

Peter Hessler, Strange Stones: Dispatches from East and West (P.S.). Kindle Edition. loc. 582-88. Accessed: 12/14/2013

Spindler said that the typical Chinese defense relied on crude cannons, arrows, spears, and even rocks. “There were regulations about how many stones you were supposed to have, and how you were supposed to bring them to the second floor of the tower if there was an attack,” he said. Later, he pointed out a circle of loose stones that had been arranged carefully atop the wall. Four and a half centuries later, they were still waiting for the next attack.

Peter Hessler, Strange Stones: Dispatches from East and West (P.S.). Kindle Edition. loc. 659-62. Accessed: 12/14/2013

He hated any symbolic use of the Great Wall, especially for something as complex as Chinese culture. For Chinese, the wall usually represents national glory, whereas foreigners often see it as evidence of xenophobia. But Spindler felt that neither interpretation was useful. “It’s just one manifestation of what China has done,” he said. “It’s just a way they defended themselves.”

Peter Hessler, Strange Stones: Dispatches from East and West (P.S.). Kindle Edition. loc. 778-81. Accessed: 12/14/2013

There wasn’t much talk in Beidaihe about the succession. A couple of times, I had a conversation with an educated person who mentioned Hu Jintao, the current vice president. Most experts believed that Hu was the most likely candidate to succeed Jiang Zemin if the older man actually retired. But it was rare to hear anybody in Beidaihe say much about it. The subject didn’t make them nervous or wary; they simply felt that it wasn’t their business, and they didn’t expect that a change in the leadership would affect their lives. When they did talk about it, they tended to do so metaphorically, as if this made the issue more relevant. Sergei compared the transfer of national power to what happens in a family. “Say the father gets old and puts the eldest son in charge,” he said. “It’s not right for the younger sons to resist him. Unless he makes some major mistake, he should remain in charge.” Sergei had been a low-level cadre—he’d served for three years in the People’s Party Congress in the western city of Urumqi—and he said that China should learn from the mistakes that Russia had made during perestroika. “Gorbachev was too much in a hurry,” he said. “They should have reformed the economy first and gone slower with the politics.”

Peter Hessler, Strange Stones: Dispatches from East and West (P.S.). Kindle Edition. loc. 1299-1308. Accessed: 12/15/2013

Hu Jintao was a cipher—in the Communist Party, it was a tradition for up-and-coming leaders to maintain a low profile. Hu was fifty-nine years old, and he had spent much of his career in the Chinese hinterlands. He never granted interviews. His most significant political experience had been in Tibet, where he had been appointed to Communist Party secretary, the top position, in 1988. That had been a sensitive moment—the region had been suffering from ethnic unrest, and the previous leadership had just been purged. One of Hu’s first significant acts was to give the eulogy at the funeral of the Panchen Lama, the most important Tibetan holy man after the Dalai Lama. Some Tibetans believed that the Chinese government had arranged for the Panchen Lama to be murdered, and tensions were so high that nothing was going to be solved with a eulogy. Hu quoted Deng Xiaoping’s praise of the Panchen Lama as a staunch patriot of China. Within a month, after dozens of Tibetans died in violent clashes with the police, Tibet was placed under martial law, which lasted for two years. During this time, Hu was neither particularly cruel nor particularly skillful. He simply followed Beijing’s orders and rode out the storm.

Peter Hessler, Strange Stones: Dispatches from East and West (P.S.). Kindle Edition. loc. 1349-57. Accessed: 12/15/2013

In the same way, Jiang Zemin was best known for surviving difficult times. In 1989, when he was the party secretary of Shanghai, he was able to keep the city mostly peaceful during the Tiananmen Square protests and subsequent crackdown. As president of the nation, he weathered the Asian financial crisis. But Jiang had little charisma and he never captured the popular imagination; unlike previous leaders, he was neither a war hero nor a former peasant. He seemed to share much of his power with others in the Politburo. Jiang wore heavy, old-fashioned glasses, and sometimes he made awkward efforts to deliberately echo the words of his more revered predecessors, Mao and Deng. His contribution to the nation’s ideology was a twenty-thousand-word speech about development that became known as “Three Represents.” Millions of Chinese studied this document in their schools and work units, but very few of them could tell you anything meaningful about it. Much of the speech was an exercise in tautology: “All relations of production and superstructures, regardless of their nature, develop with the development of productive forces. . . . As for how things will develop specifically in the future, the answer to this question should come from practice in the future.” The language of the speech became clear only when it defined a negative: “We must resolutely resist the impact of Western political models such as the multiparty system or separation of powers among the executive, legislative, and judicial branches.”

Peter Hessler, Strange Stones: Dispatches from East and West (P.S.). Kindle Edition. loc. 1357-68. Accessed: 12/15/2013

Eventually, such worries inspired the government to erect the fence around the city. It was a distinctly Chinese solution: just as the Great Wall had been built to keep foreigners at bay, so the Shenzhen fence was intended to keep capitalist reforms under control. Chinese citizens entering the city proper had to go through customs, where they showed a border pass and an ID that required approval from their home province. But the completion of the fence in 1984 had unintended consequences. Labor-intensive factories inside the Special Economic Zone began moving to the other side of the fence to take advantage of cheaper rents and less rigorous law enforcement. Eventually, Shenzhen became divided into two worlds, which were described by residents as guannei and guanwai—”within the customs” and “outside the customs.” Satellite towns sprang up beyond the fence, most of them squalid and unplanned. In this sprawl of cheaply constructed factories and worker dormitories, wages were lower, and workers tended to rely heavily on overtime bonuses. Six-day workweeks were standard, as opposed to five-day weeks in Shenzhen proper. There were a lot more labor accidents and dormitory fires on the other side of the fence.

Peter Hessler, Strange Stones: Dispatches from East and West (P.S.). Kindle Edition. loc. 1494-1502. Accessed: 12/16/2013

The dormitory where Emily lived was on the top two floors of a six-story building. There were six workers to a dorm room. It was a “three-in-one” factory—production, warehousing, and living quarters were combined into one structure. This arrangement was illegal in China, and the workers knew it, just as they knew that some of the production material stored on the first floor was extremely flammable. They also knew that the building had bad wiring, because an electrician had come to make a repair and commented to Emily, in an offhand way, that the place could go up in flames. Afterward, she mapped out an escape route for herself. If a fire broke out at night, she would run to the dormitory’s sixth-floor balcony and jump across to the roof of the building next door. That was the extent of her plan—she had no interest in complaining to the government about the violations, and neither did the other workers. All of them were far from home, and they knew that such conditions were common in the plants outside the fence.

Peter Hessler, Strange Stones: Dispatches from East and West (P.S.). Kindle Edition. loc. 1537-44. Accessed: 12/16/2013

“When I say ‘you,’ I mean society,” Miao Yong told me when I asked about her book’s title. “I’m saying that my life is controlled by me; it’s not something for other people to take charge of.” She explained that materialism was a key force in the novel. “Everything has to do with money; it’s the first thing for everybody. In Shenzhen, it’s always a question of exchange—you can exchange love for money, sex for money, emotion for money.”

Peter Hessler, Strange Stones: Dispatches from East and West (P.S.). Kindle Edition. loc. 1680-83. Accessed: 12/16/2013

We had been talking about how migrants handled the new personal freedoms in Shenzhen, and Emily said that she admired the way that people learned to help themselves. She had often made this comment in the past, but now she added that sometimes the isolation also frightened her—all these people living on their own. “In original society,” she said, “people lived in groups. Eventually, these groups broke down into families, and now they’re breaking down again, into so many different people. Finally, it will be just one single person.” A few days earlier, she had remarked that the changes in Shenzhen—the independence of young people, the shift from control by the Communist Party to control by the factory bosses—had come too abruptly. “If you could have some kind of perfect socialism, that would be the best,” she said. “But it’s impossible. That was just a beautiful ideal.”

Peter Hessler, Strange Stones: Dispatches from East and West (P.S.). Kindle Edition. loc. 1762-68. Accessed: 12/16/2013

Now, sitting on the hillside, I asked her if she wanted to leave Shenzhen. She shook her head quickly. I asked how she thought the new pressures of the city would change the people who lived here. “The result is that people will have more ability,” she said. “And they’ll have more creativity. Afterward, there will be more different ideas. It won’t be a matter of everybody having the same opinion.” I asked, “How do you think this will change China?” She fell silent. In the distance, most of the dormitory lights had flickered out. I had no idea how I would have answered the question myself, although I liked to think that once people learned to take care of themselves, the system would change naturally. Still, I had seen Shenzhen’s fragmentation—the walled city, the locked factories, the people on their own, far from home—and I wondered how all of it could ever be brought together into something coherent. I looked at Emily and realized that the question wasn’t important to her. Since coming to Shenzhen, she had found a job, left it, and found another job. She had fallen in love and broken curfew. She had sent a death threat to a factory owner, and she had stood up to her boss. She was twenty-four years old. She was doing fine.

Peter Hessler, Strange Stones: Dispatches from East and West (P.S.). Kindle Edition. loc. 1768-78. Accessed: 12/16/2013

In the new cities I rarely hear criticism of the dam. Even in rural areas, where people have received far fewer benefits, complaints tend to be mild and personal. Generally, people feel that they haven’t received sufficient resettlement allowances, which they blame on the corruption of local Communist Party cadres. But those who complain almost never question the basic idea of the dam. When I asked Huang Zongming what he hoped his children would do after they became adults, he said he didn’t care, as long as they used their education and didn’t fish. He told me that the dam was good because it would bring more electricity to the nation. In Wushan a cabbie told me that his hometown had leapfrogged a half century. “If it weren’t for the dam, it would take another fifty years for us to reach this stage,” he said. But later in the same conversation he told me that the city wouldn’t last another half century, because of landslides. The new Wushan, which has a densely concentrated downtown population of fifty thousand, is a vertical city: high buildings on steep hillsides that have never been heavily settled.

Peter Hessler, Strange Stones: Dispatches from East and West (P.S.). Kindle Edition. loc. 1953-61. Accessed: 12/17/2013

During my years along the Yangtze, I had always been impressed by the resourcefulness of the people, who responded quickly to any change in their surroundings. They took the revolution of the market economy in stride; if a product was in demand, shops immediately stocked it. You could find people doing business anywhere, even at both extremes of the resettlement process. That was one thing that connected both the dying villages and the brand-new cities: somebody always found a way to sell what was needed, whether it was bathroom fittings or instant noodles. But there was almost no long-term planning. If the river rose, they moved up the hillside; farmers waited until the water reached their fields before harvesting. When people spoke of the future, they meant tomorrow.

Peter Hessler, Strange Stones: Dispatches from East and West (P.S.). Kindle Edition. loc. 1963-69. Accessed: 12/17/2013

In 2011, when an earthquake and tsunami caused a partial meltdown in two nuclear reactors in Japan, there was no public epidemic, because residents were evacuated and food was monitored for contamination. Despite the fact that the Japanese reactors had been poorly managed and maintained, they released only a sixth of the radiation of Chernobyl—the containment facilities helped prevent a disaster. There’s been no evidence that the Japanese public was exposed to dangerous levels of radiation, and of the four thousand people who worked on the plants in the wake of the disaster, only one hundred and three were found to have received an exposure of more than 0.1 sieverts. At that level, scientists would predict a 1 percent increase over the normal cancer rate. It’s a relatively small effect, especially in the context of a tsunami that killed more than twenty thousand—but the nuclear meltdown is all that most people remember.

Peter Hessler, Strange Stones: Dispatches from East and West (P.S.). Kindle Edition. loc. 2236-42. Accessed: 12/17/2013

Boice told me that the biggest health problems from high-profile accidents are often psychological. A twenty-year study showed no consistent evidence that the low amounts of radioactivity released in the Three Mile Island accident have had a significant impact on mortality in communities around the reactor. But people suffered from high rates of stress and increased alcohol consumption. Places near Chernobyl have high rates of alcoholism, tobacco use, and depression. After the Ukrainian accident, European countries as distant as Greece reported a significant spike in elective abortions, owing to a fear of birth defects. Because of Chernobyl, a number of European nations scaled back dramatically on nuclear power, and Italy closed down all its reactors. Twenty years later, Italy purchases electricity from France, which is 80 percent nuclear, and which ranks twenty-fourth out of twenty-seven European Union countries in terms of absolute greenhouse gas emissions.

Peter Hessler, Strange Stones: Dispatches from East and West (P.S.). Kindle Edition. loc. 2242-49. Accessed: 12/17/2013

A year ahead of me, an older man had joined up after retiring from the U.S. Coast Guard. Everybody called him the Captain, and he was a devoted fan of Rush Limbaugh; at training sessions he wore a Ronald Reagan T-shirt, which stood out on the Chinese college campus where he lived. At one point, a Peace Corps official said, “Maybe you should change your shirt.” The Captain replied, “Maybe you should reread your Constitution.” (This was in the city of Chengdu.) One day, while teaching a class of young Chinese, the Captain drew a line down the heart of the blackboard and wrote “Adam Smith” on one side and “Karl Marx” on the other. “OK, class, short lesson today,” he announced. “This works; this doesn’t.” In the end, the Peace Corps expelled him for breaking a cabby’s side-view mirror during an argument on a Chengdu street. (This altercation happened to occur on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a nice detail that probably escaped the Chinese security file.)

Peter Hessler, Strange Stones: Dispatches from East and West (P.S.). Kindle Edition. loc. 2392-98. Accessed: 12/17/2013

The experience changed you, but not necessarily in the way you’d expect. It was a bad job for hard-core idealists, most of whom ended up frustrated and unhappy. Pragmatists survived, and the smart ones set small daily goals: learning a new Chinese phrase or teaching a poem to a class of eager students. Long-term plans tended to be abandoned. Flexibility was important, and so was a sense of humor. There had been nothing funny about the Peace Corps brochures, and the typical American view of the developing world was deadly serious—there were countries to be saved and countries to be feared. That was true of the Communists, too; their propaganda didn’t have an ounce of humor. But the Chinese people themselves could be surprisingly lighthearted. They laughed at many things, including me: my nose, the way I dressed, the way I spoke their language. It was a terrible place for somebody stiffly proud to be American. Sometimes I thought of the Peace Corps as a reverse refugee organization, displacing all of us lost Midwesterners, and it was probably the only government entity that taught Americans to abandon key national characteristics. Pride, ambition, impatience, the instinct to control, the desire to accumulate, the missionary impulse—all of it slipped away.

Peter Hessler, Strange Stones: Dispatches from East and West (P.S.). Kindle Edition. loc. 2405-14. Accessed: 12/17/2013

In Kunming, a friend had told him that a local shop was selling Johnson & Johnson lenses for half the usual price—a great deal, so Goettig stocked up. It turned out that the contacts were counterfeit. That became a new rule: when in Kunming, don’t buy contact lenses on sale. China was full of lessons; we were still learning every day. Don’t hike off trail in Xinjiang. Don’t shop for Strange Stones in a bad part of Hebei. Don’t hang out with people who light flares under stalled trucks.

Peter Hessler, Strange Stones: Dispatches from East and West (P.S.). Kindle Edition. loc. 2565-69. Accessed: 12/17/2013

They told me that at first they had worked for a man who hired children to sell pornography because they were too young to be sent to jail. He paid each child three hundred yuan a month, about thirty-six dollars. But the boys said that after a while they had gone freelance. Initially I had trouble believing this—it seemed impossible that children so young would be capable of handling an illegal business on their own. But during the month that I spent in Shenzhen, I visited them on a regular basis, and I never saw any sign of adult supervision. Eventually I came to believe that most of the things they told me were true. They claimed that twice they had been arrested and deported from the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone, but both times they had returned by climbing the chain-link fence that surrounded the city. They rented an apartment and cooked for themselves. They slept in one bed. They bought pornographic disks for four yuan and sold them for ten, or a little more than a dollar. They pooled their money and earned enough for each boy to send at least three hundred yuan per month to his family.

Peter Hessler, Strange Stones: Dispatches from East and West (P.S.). Kindle Edition. loc. 2933-41. Accessed: 12/17/2013

“That might work in America, but it wouldn’t work here,” Mr. Wang continued. “People in China would return the car empty.” “Then you charge them a lot extra to refill it,” I said. “Make it a standard rule. Charge extra if people don’t obey and they’ll learn to follow it.” “Chinese people would never do that!” “I’m sure they would,” I said. “You don’t understand Chinese people!” Mr. Wang said, laughing, and the other men nodded. As a foreigner, I often heard that statement, and it had a way of ending discussion. The Chinese people had invented the compass, silk, paper, gunpowder, the seismoscope; they had sailed to Africa in the fifteenth century; they had built the Great Wall; over the past decade they had expanded their economy at a rate never before seen in the developing world. They could return a rental car with exactly three-eighths of a tank of gas, but filling it was apparently beyond the realm of possibility. We had a couple more conversations about this, but finally I dropped the subject. It was impossible to argue with somebody as friendly as Mr. Wang.

Peter Hessler, Strange Stones: Dispatches from East and West (P.S.). Kindle Edition. loc. 3023-32. Accessed: 12/17/2013

Mr. Liu looked confused; the more I expanded on this topic, the blanker his expression became. At last, I abandoned the front end—I offered to pay for the bumper. “Mei wenti!” Mr. Wang said, smiling. “No problem! We have insurance! You just need to write an accident report. Do you have your chop?” I told Mr. Wang that my chop—an official stamp registered to one’s work unit, in my case, The New Yorker—was at home. “No problem! Just bring it next time.” He opened a drawer and pulled out a stack of papers; each was blank except for a red stamp. Mr. Wang rifled through the pile, selected a paper, and laid it in front of me. The chop read: “U.S.-China Tractor Association.” “What’s this?” I said. “It doesn’t matter,” he said. “They had an accident, but they didn’t have their chop, so they used somebody else’s. Then they brought this page to replace it. Now you can write your report on their page, and next time bring a piece of paper with your chop, so the next person can use it. Understand?” I didn’t—he had to explain this arrangement three times. Finally it dawned on me that the wrecked bumper, which had never been my fault, and in a sense wasn’t Wei Ziqi’s fault, either, because of the unexpected front end, would now be blamed on the U.S.-China Tractor Association. “But you shouldn’t say it happened in the countryside,” Mr. Wang said. “That’s too complicated. Just say you had an accident in our parking lot.”

Peter Hessler, Strange Stones: Dispatches from East and West (P.S.). Kindle Edition. loc. 3036-48. Accessed: 12/17/2013

Lots of answers involved honking. In Chinese automobiles, the horn is essentially neurological—it channels the driver’s reflexes. People honk constantly, and at first all horns sound the same, but over time you learn to distinguish variations and interpret them correctly. In this sense, it’s as complicated as the language. Spoken Chinese is tonal, which means that a single syllable can have different meanings depending on whether it is flat, rising, falling and rising, or falling sharply. Similarly, a Chinese horn is capable of at least ten distinct meanings. A solid hooooonnnnkkkkk is intended to attract attention. A double sound—hooooonnnnkkkkk, hooooonnnnkkkkk—indicates irritation. There’s a particularly long hooooooooonnnnnnnnnkkkkkk which means that the driver is stuck in traffic, has exhausted curb-sneaking options, and would like everybody else on the road to disappear. A responding hooooooooooooonnnnnnnnnnnnnnkkkkkkkkkkkk proves that they aren’t going anywhere. There’s a stuttering, staggering honk honk hnk hnk hnk hnk hnk hnk that represents pure panic. There’s the afterthought honk—the one that rookie drivers make if they are too slow to hit the button before a situation resolves itself. And there’s a short, simple honk that says, “Nothing actually happened, but my hands are still on the wheel, and this horn continues to serve as an extension of my nervous system.”

Peter Hessler, Strange Stones: Dispatches from East and West (P.S.). Kindle Edition. loc. 3095-3104. Accessed: 12/17/2013

Mr. Wang inspected the Jetta and noted cheerfully that the plastic cover for the right signal light had been smashed. He asked what I had hit. “A dog,” I said. “Gou mei wenti?” he said. “The dog didn’t have a problem, did it?” “The dog had a problem,” I said. “It died.” Mr. Wang’s smile got bigger. “Did you eat it?” I couldn’t tell if he was joking—he was a dog-owner himself, and I had seen him playing with his pet in the office. “It wasn’t that kind of dog,” I said. “It was one of those tiny little dogs.” “Well, sometimes if a driver hits a big dog, he just throws it in the trunk, takes it home, and cooks it,” he said. He charged us twelve dollars for a new signal-light cover—it was too minor for the insurance, and there was no need to call in the U.S.-China Tractor Association.

Peter Hessler, Strange Stones: Dispatches from East and West (P.S.). Kindle Edition. loc. 3126-34. Accessed: 12/17/2013

Every Chinese applicant for a license must enroll in a certified course, at his own expense, and he must spend at least fifty-eight hours in training. This suggests a high degree of standardization, but much depends on the instructor, who is called a jiaolian, or “coach.” Often, coaches have developed their own theories and regimens, like the martial-arts masters of old. Wei Ziqi’s coach disdained front-end vehicles, and he also forced his students to begin every maneuver in second gear. It was more challenging, he said; first gear would only make them lazy. Another woman I know had a coach who forbade the use of turn signals, because they distracted other drivers. When Leslie decided to learn to drive stick, she hired a private instructor in Beijing. I had doubts about whether this would be effective, but I knew who the most obvious alternative coach would be, so I held my tongue. On Leslie’s first lesson, the coach introduced himself, sat in the passenger seat, and adjusted the rearview mirror so that it faced him. “How am I going to see what’s behind me?” Leslie asked. “I’ll tell you what’s behind you,” the coach said. “You don’t need to worry about that.” He was like the martial-arts guru who blindfolds his pupil: trust is the first step toward

Peter Hessler, Strange Stones: Dispatches from East and West (P.S.). Kindle Edition. loc. 3134-44. Accessed: 12/17/2013

The students spent ten days on the parking range, and during that time they performed exactly three movements: a ninety-degree turn into a parking spot, the same maneuver in reverse, and parallel parking. Every day, for as many as six hours, they practiced these turns over and over. Like any good martial arts master, Coach Tang was strict. “What are you doing?” he yelled, when one student brushed against a pole. “You must have forgotten your brain today!” “Don’t hold the gearshift loosely like that!” he shouted at another man. “If you do, your father will curse you!” Sometimes he slapped a student’s hand. There was a strict rule against head turns—even in reverse, you were supposed to rely on mirrors only. The next step was the driving range, where the skill set became more demanding. Drivers were required to stop within twenty-five centimeters of a painted line, and they followed an obstacle course of tight turns. The final skill was the “single-plank bridge”—a concrete riser, a foot high and only slightly wider than a tire. Students had to aim the car perfectly, so that two wheels perched atop the riser—first the left tires, then the right. If a single wheel slipped, they failed the exam. The students spent most of their ten days practicing the single-plank bridge, and I asked a coach why it was so important. “Because it’s very difficult,” he said. “Right, I understand that,” I said. “But when is it useful on the road?” “Well, if you’re crossing a bridge with a hole, and there’s only one place where the tires can go, then it’s important to be able to do this.” The Chinese have fantastic driving imaginations—the written exam was full of situations like this. They seemed ridiculously unlikely, but the level of detail was such that I suspected it must have happened to somebody, somewhere: 279. If your car breaks down atop the tracks of a railroad crossing, you should a) abandon it there. b) find some way to move it immediately. c) leave it there temporarily until you can get somebody to repair it.

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In China, repetition is the cornerstone of education, and virtually every new skill is approached in this manner. It’s one reason the Chinese have been far more successful at building assembly-line factories than at innovation.

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In the summer of 2002, Chinese authorities refused Wang’s request, but he stayed in the United States anyway. Dallas did not offer him a contract, reportedly in part because they did not want to ruin the good relationship that they had developed with the Chinese. In October, Wang signed a three-year, $6 million contract with the Los Angeles Clippers. After that, Clippers games were banned from Chinese television (NBA broadcasts often draw more than ten million viewers in China). The ban turned Wang into a marketing liability—one NBA general manager told me that teams were wary of signing him in the future.

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Wang, whose military passport had expired, reportedly received a U.S. green card. Over the summer, he tried to negotiate a return to China, asking for a new civilian passport and a guarantee that he could come back to the NBA after the Asian Championship. The chain of communication had grown so complicated that Wang relied heavily on a Chinese sportswriter named Su Qun to contact PLA leaders and basketball officials. “I know that as a journalist I should stay out of this,” Su, who writes for Beijing’s Titan Sports Daily, told me. “But I happen to be close to Wang. We have to save him, like saving Private Ryan.” Wang, who declined my request for an interview, did not return to China. I spoke about him with Li Yuanwei, the secretary-general of the Chinese Basketball Association. “Wang has placed too much emphasis on his personal benefit,” Li told me. “I assured him that there is no risk. The PLA also assured him. But he doesn’t believe us, and he keeps demanding conditions that are not necessary. It’s very sad.”

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Wang’s problems formed a troubling backdrop to Yao Ming’s move to the NBA. Before leaving China, Yao promised to fulfill his national-team commitments during the off-season, and he reportedly agreed to pay the Chinese Basketball Association 5 to 8 percent of his NBA salary for his entire career. He also paid the Shanghai Sharks, his CBA team, a buyout that was estimated to be between $8 million and $15 million, depending on his endorsements and the length of his career. Yao’s four-year contract with the Rockets was worth $17.8 million dollars, and after one season his endorsement income was already higher than his salary.

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But even Yao’s sponsorship potential was threatened by the irregularities of China’s sports industry. In May, Coca-Cola issued a special can decorated with the images of three national-team players, including Yao, who already had a contract with Pepsi. The basketball association had sold Yao’s image to Coca-Cola without the athlete’s permission, taking advantage of an obscure sports-commission regulation that grants the state the right to all “intangible assets” of a national-team player. The regulation appeared to be in direct conflict with Chinese civil law. Yao filed suit against Coca-Cola in Shanghai, demanding a public apology and one yuan—about twelve cents. The Chinese press interpreted the lawsuit as a direct challenge to the nation’s traditional control of athletes. When I spoke with Li Yuanwei, of the basketball association, he emphasized that Coca-Cola was an important source of funding, and he hoped that the company and Yao would reach an agreement out of court. Li told me that Americans have difficulty understanding the duties of an athlete in China, where the state provides support from childhood. I asked if the same logic could be applied to a public school student who attends Peking University, starts a business, and becomes a millionaire. “It’s not the same,” Li said. “Being an athlete is a kind of mission. They have an enormous impact on the ideas of the common people and children. That’s their responsibility.”

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“In China, the goal has always been to glorify the country,” Yao said. “I’m not opposed to that. But I personally don’t believe that that should be the entire purpose of athletics. I also have personal reasons for playing. We shouldn’t entirely get rid of the nationalism, but I do think that the meaning of sport needs to change. I want people in China to know that part of why I play basketball is simply personal. In the eyes of Americans, if I fail, then I fail. It’s just me. But for the Chinese, if I fail, then that means that thousands of other people fail along with me. They feel as if I’m representing them.”

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When I visited the GM China offices in Shanghai, Timothy P. Stratford, the company’s general counsel, handed me two photographs. In the first picture, two cars were parked side by side: the green one was the QQ, and the black one was the Matiz, the South Korean original. In the second picture, the doors had been switched: green on black, black on green. “You would never find two competitors’ cars where the doors could be swapped,” Stratford explained. “It means that not only do they copy the door but everything else that is necessary to form the opening for the door. A door opening is kind of like a fingerprint for a car.” Chery executives hadn’t made many public statements about the case, apart from saying that they had received Chinese patents for the QQ (a point that would be moot if designs had been obtained illegally). When I spoke with Lin Zhang, the general manager for Chery’s International Division, he emphasized that the QQ was already on the market when he joined the company. But he denied that there had been any wrongdoing, and said that it was natural for a young company like Chery to legally develop something similar to a car that had been successful elsewhere. “That’s how you get started, at a primitive level, and then you move to another level,” he said. “It’s like when you start drawing. You don’t begin by drawing a beautiful picture of your own—you imitate another picture. It’s in the nature of any industry. It’s how Sony and Hyundai and Toyota got started. They all started with something. And it’s something they abandon quickly.”

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“Americans prefer brighter pictures,” Hu told me. “They like scenes to be lighter. Russians like bright colors, too. Koreans like them to be more subdued, and Germans like things that are grayer. The French are like that, too.” Chen flipped to HF-3075: a snow-covered house with glowing lights. “Chinese people like this kind of picture,” she said. “Ugly! And they like this one.” HF-3068: palm trees on a beach. “It’s stupid, something a child would like. Chinese people have no taste. French people have the best taste, followed by Russians, and then the other Europeans. Americans are after that. We’ll do a painting and the European customer won’t buy it, and then we’ll show it to a Chinese person, and he’ll say, ‘Great!’ ”

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Once, I met a demolition-crew worker who had a homemade tattoo on his left arm that said “KENT.” He told me he’d done it himself as a kid, after noticing that American movie gangsters have tattoos. I asked why he’d chosen that particular word, and he said, “It’s from the cigarette brand in your country.” Another time, I interviewed a young factory boss who wore a diamond earring in the shape of the letter K. His girlfriend had the O: whenever they were together, and the letters lined up, everything was all right.

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Once, not long after we met, I asked her how she first became interested in oil painting. “Because I was a terrible student,” she said. “I had bad grades, and I couldn’t get into high school. It’s easier to get accepted to an art school than to a technical school, so that’s what I did.” “Did you like to draw when you were little?” “No.” “But you had natural talent, right?” “Absolutely none at all!” she said, laughing. “When I started, I couldn’t even hold a brush!” “Did you study well?” “No. I was the worst in the class.” “But did you enjoy it?” “No. I didn’t like it one bit.” Her responses were typical of migrants from the countryside, where there’s a strong tradition of humility as well as pragmatism. In the factory town, people usually described themselves as ignorant and inept, even when they seemed quite skilled. That was another reason that Chen took so little interest in the scenes she painted: it wasn’t her place to speculate, and she scoffed at anything that might seem pretentious.

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The Lishui experience seemed to contradict one of the supposed benefits of globalization: the notion that economic exchanges naturally lead to greater understanding. But Lishui also contradicted the critics who believe that globalized links are disorienting and damaging to the workers at the far end of the chain. The more time I spent in the city, the more I was impressed with how comfortable people were with their jobs. They didn’t worry about who consumed their products, and very little of their self-worth seemed to be tied up in these trades. There were no illusions of control—in a place like Lishui, which combined remoteness with the immediacy of world-market demands, people accepted an element of irrationality. If a job disappeared or an opportunity dried up, workers didn’t waste time wondering why, and they moved on. Their humility helped, because they never perceived themselves as being the center of the world. When Chen Meizi had chosen her specialty, she didn’t expect to find a job that matched her abilities; she expected to find new abilities that matched the available jobs. The fact that her vocation was completely removed from her personality and her past was no more disorienting than the scenes she painted—if anything, it simplified things. She couldn’t tell the difference between a foreign factory and a farm, but it didn’t matter. The mirror’s reflection allowed her to focus on details; she never lost herself in the larger scene.

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The flow of information was a mystery to me. Few people had much formal education, and assembly-line workers rarely had time to use the Internet. They didn’t follow the news; they had no interest in politics. They were the least patriotic people I ever met in China—they saw no connection between the affairs of state and their own lives. They accepted the fact that nobody else cared about them; in a small city like Lishui, there weren’t any NGOs or prominent organizations that served workers. They depended strictly on themselves, and their range of contacts seemed narrow, but somehow it wasn’t a closed world. Ideas arrived from the outside, and people acted decisively on what seemed to be the vaguest rumor or the most trivial story. That was key: information might be limited, but people were mobile and they had confidence that their choices mattered. It gave them a kind of agency, although from a foreigner’s perspective it contributed to the strangeness of the place. I was accustomed to the opposite—a world where people preferred to be stable, and where they felt most comfortable if they had large amounts of data at their disposal, as well as the luxury of time to make a decision.

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“Wow, that must have been nice,” I said. “What did your uncle do?” “That was Uncle Sam.” People in China never talked like that. They weren’t storytellers—they didn’t like to be the center of attention, and they took little pleasure in narrative. They rarely lingered on interesting details. It wasn’t an issue of wanting to be quiet; in fact, most Chinese could talk your ear off about things like food and money and weather, and they loved to ask foreigners questions. But they avoided personal topics, and as a writer I learned that it could take months before an interview subject opened up. Probably it was natural in a culture where people live in such close contact, and where everything revolves around the family or some other group.

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At times, the lack of curiosity depressed me. I remembered all those questions in China, where even uneducated people wanted to hear something about the outside world, and I wondered why Americans weren’t the same. But it was also true that many Chinese had impressed me as virtually uninterested in themselves and their communities. They weren’t reflective—they preferred not to think hard about their own lives. That was one of the main contrasts with Americans, who constantly created stories about themselves and the places where they lived. In a small town, people asked very little of an outsider—really, all you had to do was listen.

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