Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The 60th anniversary of the People's Republic of China

Yesterday was the sixtieth anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China, a momentous occasion here in Beijing. The first of october, China's national day, is a holiday every year, but this year it is a particularly big affair, because it is the sixtieth one. The city has been gearing up for the occasion for weeks, with phrases like 欢度国庆 (happy national day) and the number 60 visible everywhere, as well as lots of Chinese flags.

The day was marked by a huge parade in Tiananmen square. Of course, it was near impossible for ordinary people such as me to even get anywhere near the square (the subway stations nearby had not been in use since the previous afternoon), so I have watched the event on television, just like most Chinese people.

In the few days before the event the air was particularly heavy and polluted in Beijing and the visibility was highly reduced, but on the previous evening some rain (which apparently was artifically induced by the authorities) managed to clear the air in time for the parade. Watching the lovely blue sky, I wish the authorities would do this to the weather more often!

The parade was truly impressive, with countless numbers of people in Tiananmen waving placards of different coulours so as to form different shapes or Chinese characters, and lenghty parades of different army units, groups of students, representatives of ethnic minorities and what not. Chairman Hu Jintao was of course the star of the occasion, going round in a car to review the troups and giving a little speech. The former chairman Jiang Zemin was standing close behind him on the podium, which was in front of the forbidden city. I was pleased to find that I could understand bits of the speech and the commentaries on television. Words like "renmin" (the people), "fazhan" (development) and "Xin Zhongguo" (the New China) kept cropping up.

Watching the military parade and the smiling crowds, I felt caught between my European left-wing suspicion and dislike of great military parades and my understanding of the fact that most Chinese feel genuinly enthusiastic about the occasion and are not at all cynical about it. I am sure that most of the students of my university who were not selected to take part in the parade would have felt absolutely honoured to be able to do so. I am also aware that the military parade is not perceived as a show of aggresiveness directed towards other countries, but simply as a display of China's might. Plus, the revolution whose anniversary is being celebrated was a genuinly progressive affair which brought change and improvement to most Chinese, whatever happened later.

Watching the images of the event on television, I realized that I could finally read and understand the Chinese sentences on the two big red placards which sit on either side of Mao's portrait infront of the forbidden city. One sentence reads 中国人民共和国万岁("long live the People's Republic of China", or literally "ten thousand years for the People's Republic of China") and the other one reads 世界人民大团结万岁 (long live the unity of the world's peoples).

In the evening a big show was held in the square, with lots of singing and dancing and fireworks. Watching it on television, what I found particularly impressive were the people waving coloured placards and flags to create different shapes in the center of the square. The impression of moving images which they managed to create from above was simply astonishing, and must have taken months of non-stop practice. I have never seen anything quite like it. Then again, the Chinese are always good at coreography and at putting on a show.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Stay in Vietnam

(The photo is of my roommate from Beijing in a bar in his hometown near Hanoi)
My stay in Vietnam lasted about a week. I spent most of it in or around Hanoi. Before going there, the main thing I knew about Hanoi was that it is absolutely packed with motorbikes, and this is the first thing which strikes most visitors. My expectations were not disappointed. Indeed, most of the inhabitants seem to be equipped with a scooter, which they use to carry around virtually anything. What I didn't expect is that most of them do actually wear helmets, because it is now mandatory to do so and fines are given to those who don't comply. My Vietnamese roommate from Beijing came to pick me up at the train station with his own little motorbike. With an experience which comes from years of practice, my roommate (who is about 1.60 ms. tall) stuck my large suitcase on the front of his motorbike, me on the back, and sped off trough the bustling streets of the capital, dodging other motorbikes in every direction. After taking me on a tour-de-force through Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum (which is no less magnificent and displays no less reverence than Mao's one), the museum of Ho chi Minh and a few other famous sites, my friend (whose name is Hien) took me to his home, which is in a small town outside Hanoi. The little town immediately struck me as the "real" Vietnam, lacking the touristy atmosphere of central Hanoi. Although the country is obviously quite poor, I did not see any desperate poverty of the kind one finds in the shantytowns of India or Latin America.

Vietnam's culture is traditionally very influenced by China's, setting it apart from neighbouring countries like Laos or Thailand, which have been more influenced by India. The influence is very obvious in the temples of Hanoi, which display the Chinese characters which Vietnamese used to be written in. However, I found that the country's atmosphere is still relatively different from China's. The economy is far less developed (although in Hanoi nice cars and fancy shops are now in evidence, and I didn't visit Ho Chi Minh city, which is supposed to be bigger and more developed), the pace of life seems more laid back, and the people are also significantly shorter than the Chinese, especially the Chinese from the north. My roommate from Beijing seemed much less short among his own kind! Another thing which struck me was the large number of government propaganda posters along the streets, displaying a typical "Soviet block" kind of style, which has now fallen out of fashion in China.

After staying a night in my flatmate's town and a few days in Hanoi, I visited Halong bay with an organized tour. (I usually abhor organized tours, but in this case it seemed the simplest option, given my lack of time and total ignorance of Vietnamese). Halong bay is the most famous natural wonder of Vietnam, a bay with thousands of little islands in different shapes and sizes. I spent a night on a boat in the bay with a small group of other tourists. The bay was indeed beautiful, although it was also absolutely packed with foreign tourists, and we never spent a moment without various other boat loads of tourists in sight. I also tried my hand at kayaking for the first (and perhaps last) time in my life. The guide's English was characteristically incomprehensible. Although a higher proportion of people seem to know a bit of English in Vietnam than in China (or at least in Hanoi than in Beijing), they seem to have even more difficulty than the Chinese in pronouncing English words and sounds, and it is often a real challenge to understand what they are trying to say. Or perhaps I have just got used to the Chinese accent.

On my last day in Hanoi I went out with some local Esperanto-speakers. The ones I met were very young and surprisingly fluent in Esperanto. One of them, a 21 year old university student originally from the Vietnamese countryside, had only studied the language for six months but spoke it extraordinarily well and clearly, especially given the Vietnamese's seeming inability to speak and pronounce foreign languages. Another proof of the relative ease of Esperanto, I suppose.
In the photos below you can see, in order of appearance, a street from my roommate's hometown, government propaganda posters in Hanoi, a woman with a traditional hat in central Hanoi, and a view of Halong Bay from my ship's deck: