Month: May 2018

The Good Place: A Night in Dubai

I am binge watching “The Good Place”. There are hundreds of movies and songs and shows on Emirates airlines. I had ignored this show, as with most sitcoms which are almost uniformly bad, but read a reference to its premise some time ago, and so, on an airplane, indulged it with a view. It is actually funny, and addictive. The premise is that one circle of hell is run by a sadistic social director who creates a sachirine resort and then schemes to put the damned into awkward social situations, and one comes to realize that he also can only be counted as among the damned himself.

With some effort I turned it off to write this follow-up to my China trip. Yes I did miss my plane, but was able to get on a flight the next morning at a modest (but significant to a measly Professor) penalty. I spent a night in the Shanghai airport, and the new schedule forced me to spend a night in Dubai, which also strikes me as some circle of hell, not far removed from the shopping development, The Domain, in Austin which I regard as the 7th circle.

The worst thing about sitcoms is that somewhere in the 1980s, all shows slid into bland middle-class prosperity that was always just a little cleaner, just a little wealthier, just a little more perfect than life can be…not so different from my own childhood which only afforded me glimpses of life’s complexities, and which “The Good Place” successfully mocks with reactionary irony. With a bit of attention to music and a few novels I was able to scratch together a sense of belonging in a bigger world, even though I never felt at home in it. Roseanne was the one exceptional show of that era, I would have been hard pressed to tell the difference between that and reality, which is a praise of the show and a criticism of myself. There were moments where actual maturity seemed possible, where a bit of courage and discipline might have launched me into a meaningful adulthood. Muddle-headed and indecisive, I got part of the way there and then, as so many in my social class do, landed in grad school.

But, now I found myself in Dubai. It was too hot, and I was too tired to bother much with its more egregious sites. I went to its humble historical museum, which is a museum version of a business student’s paper for an upper-division writing class. You give it a passing grade because basically all the required parts are there, but it is almost meaningless. So, my most significant interaction with Dubai was taking its two-line subway four times and walking, sweating, through two different neighborhoods. One was the neighborhood around the museum made up of a souk whose architecture was ersatz but whose small shops were fundamentally real in the sense that small time traders were actually selling scarves and trinkets to tourists.

I actually regret I didn’t spend more time looking for some gifts for people. My bags were too full already, I told myself. I am really a pretty narcissistic person, selfish and self-centered that is to say…as this essay reveals. I am very much in a mid-life crisis, of which I will spare you for now. And I’m sure I found the TV show “The Good Place” funny because that is exactly what it is about, and it is for someone like me with all its dated little references and clever mockery of the very world that all the other sitcom exist in: a little too neat, a little too clean, where life doesn’t actually require you to eat, shit, or have a job that actually requires work.

My second interaction with Dubai was the area just north of the museum, a fairly tawdry wholesale shopping district that was really just the real version of the ersatz souk along the canal, and then the neighborhood of my hotel. I’m a cheapskate, because I always try to live a little above, but not too far above my the modest means of life in the humanities. Having already spent $200 to reschedule my missed flight, I was determined to spend as little money as possible in Dubai. I found the cheapest hotel with a decent rating on Hotels.com (full disclosure, that is pretty much what I always do). It was fine hotel in the middle of a dusty and dilapidated neighborhood of chipping concrete, half-cleared construction zones, and cheap apartments for the southeast Asian workforce that notoriously provides the human infrastructure for Dubai’s oil-fueled good place.

Dubai’s pragmatic approach is well known, creating a multi-cultural environment where business can thrive: and their museum suggests that they believe it is this that has made them rich, and not oil. I’m sure it’s the oil, but I’m sure that this myth is important to managing its pretensions to a conservative Islamic orthodoxy that avoids the more ridiculous aspects of the Saudi model. It is not entirely an illusion.

It is a strange place, flying in and flying out, and seeing this city sitting, literally, literally in the desert which creeps up on all sides. It exists in a cinematic haze, and I didn’t even see the more dreamworld aspects of it, the endlessly advertised Atlantis Hotel and various spires that are pictured in subway posters and airline video screens. Somewhere in the museum a placard made note that there is a creek which runs through the city that was the reason for the original settlement, and that now water is pumped out of thousands of wells to supply the city. Although the airplane view reveals a few golf courses and miniature vegetable farms, and far-flung housing for oil company expatriates, who have a two-story houses and intensely green lawns, there is actually not all that much grass out there, and on a per capita basis the water usage is probably not bad. I know nothing about the water table, and so it is not an ethical judgment I seek to pass here, but just the observation of its Alice-in-Babylon existence.

Sand and scrub creep up upon the outskirts of the city, and broken sidewalks in the wholesale district reveal nothing but sand underneath. Perhaps, for this observation alone, I should have stopped and dug down, maybe it was just construction sand supporting the paving stones, but somehow I doubt it. The actual castle, the one that sits above the museum, which cleverly sits under it, is made of sand and coral and limestone. The rest is made of concrete and glass (which is to say sand…not to be too obvious), southeast Asian workers and Indian hotel managers, discreet, implacable, agnostic.

A week in China in the early 21st Century

The moat surrounding the old imperial palace of the Forbidden City.

I am on one of China’s famous bullet trains now, G139. It cruises along pretty smoothly at 220 mph, but this one stops frequently in smaller cities, so that means it takes a good hour-and-a-half longer than the G3, which makes the trip from Beijing to Shanghai in about four-and-a-half hours. I would have chosen the G3, which was scheduled to leave 15 minutes later, but I didn’t know how to ask which one arrived in Shanghai first. So the ticket girl humorlessly issued the ticket, putting me on the next train to Shanghai. I’m a little irked that she didn’t bother to recommend the train that would arrive first in Shanghai. I was stressed because I foolishly cut it a little close with a flight leaving at midnight from Shanghai. Both trains wound up delayed for two hours and once boarded I was unable to get off or switch trains. So I stewed and stressed about the possibility of changing my plane ticket, and several hours later I was told, helpfully, that we are scheduled to arrive in Shanghai at 10:00 p.m., two hours late on the slow train. Now I’m going to hope for the best and try to hustle across town on the subway but I doubt I’ll make my flight (update: I didn’t)

Bullet trains, ready for launch

As we approach Shanghai, another train passes us as we sit in a station, and I begin to become paranoid and suspicious, wondering if this is a version of the East African trick of waiting around not because of mechanical problems but because the vehicle is not yet full, and they need enough customers to reach a break-even point. Was the ticket girl offering tickets on relatively empty trains for a reason? It slowly fills up as it goes from town to town. I should have insisted on understanding arrival time. But, this is just all the conspiracy theory of the not-so-innocent abroad. Chinese cities are very safe, with cameras everywhere, but there are a number of quiet little hustles that happen here. Airport concierges who lead you to a $100 cab ride in a smoky Toyota when a metered cab would do it for half that. Rickshaw drivers who offer a deliberately misunderstood price and then demand $50 for a five minute ride that would cost $1.50 in a cab. I’m not opposed to tourists paying a little extra for local services, but being hustled is always painful, and so easy when you are a dumb American, especially when there is a sense that dumb Americans have thrown their prodigious weight for a long time, and now maybe it’s someone else’s turn.

An 1899 newspaper cartoon displayed at the National Museum

It is striking to be in someone else’s empire. Relatively few people in China speak English, which makes it a disconcerting experience for Americans and others who have come to expect that English is spoken everywhere. The Chinese are purposefully building a new world for themselves, and it can only turn eventually into an empire. Defense of material interests usually drives quests for control. We would all do well to learn Chinese and to give some thought to what we want to preserve of other cultures and sovereignties, taking lessons from the experience of the previously colonized. It will be a relatively agnostic empire, but once it establishes its sovereignty it will expect a pretty high degree of conformity. Such conformity is not merely an expectation of the government, but a way of life, a general culture that, with some exceptions, makes the government’s additional demands unremarkable.

The Orientalist’s Mirror: A foreign tourist meets domestic tourists

I was here for a conference reflecting on Edward Said’s book “Orientalism”. Suffice to say that the book is a tremendously erudite demonstration of Foucault’s power/knowledge thesis. More specifically he argues that a certain style of bookish expertise about the cultures of the Middle East took form in the 18th and 19th centuries that then served as a powerful “way of knowing” that cast “Oriental” cultures into a net of detailed knowledge wherein detail served not as a means of empathic understanding but as means of categorizing people in a way that served to rationalize colonialism. His thesis usefully made scholars question their assumptions and listen a little more carefully when they sought to understand and explain (in English inevitably) something about other cultures.

Is it Orientalist to note that a Chinese restaurant wants you to know it’s fish soup!

It was an important piece of work for both of the above reasons, but also because it contained a tone of moral outrage which became its most attractive aspect to many of his adherents. I find that aspect understandable for the Palestinian Christian author, if a little dubious as a scholar. But perhaps should not. I find it dubious because the scholarly and cultural processes that he maps out are merely an extraordinarily sophisticated version of what all empires do, and more broadly of mental processes that we all, almost by necessity, generate in order to make a quick sense of the world around us so that we can act in it. In the process we create stereotypes and categories. I’m sure that once upon a time our very survival depended on this ability, and in certain neighborhoods still does. But when I am subject to someone else’s occidentalism, I hope that I will share, and fight, for a version of Said’s outrage. Because otherwise it becomes one’s fate to be categorized by others, and that is a soul-destroying and a particularly terrifying form of powerlessness. Indeed, even now a Westerner (by some definition) finds himself subject to being categorized as an Orientalist merely by speaking in his or her own terms about another culture. The accusation of Orientalism becomes itself an Orientalist act. One realizes again that Foucault is right. If we can wrap our heads around the mind-boggling insights that lurk behind all of his high-IQ chatter as he tried to figure out and explain how these processes of knowledge/power work.

Tanzanian Scholar Conrad Masabo, taking up residence with (I’m told) 4,000 other Tanzanian students in China today.

The presentations at the conference were the usual mix of scholarly drabness, half-assed papers (never me, ahem), and then the enthusiastic grad students caught up in a sparkling new landscape of knowledge and joyfully feeling their way around. It was a pleasantly diverse group, and I hope to cross paths with them again.

Marx and Engels: Embraced into a history conceived as continuity that extends back 2,000 years

Out to drinks with my academic colleagues, I struck up a conversation with an attractive young couple out on a date. The guy spoke several languages and engaged a senior professor in an extensive conversation in French. He said that in his experience people elsewhere can be hard to understand and, with an ambiguous level of irony, he said Chinese people are easy to understand, everyone is just trying to get money. The academics, some of them, spoke of solidarity and other words that signaled the idea of banding together as a new world order takes shape. And it is. The Chinese government still considers itself socialist, and the powerful current president has established his imprint second only to Mao’s with a clunky ideological trajectory: “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era”. Functionally it looks like a capitalist society, but a conversation with a down-at-the-heels American businessman at my hotel revealed something different. He said that the problem with Chinese companies is that shareholder value is not the highest priority, that they often put the needs of workers before the needs of shareholders, and that the government intervenes in various ways to support, regulate, and punish companies. So the question arises, is China socialist with some surface capitalist markets or is it capitalism with a socialist cloak? Does it matter? Is the government seriously concerned with improving the material conditions of its citizens (especially its Han citizens)? Yes, I have little doubt that this is the case.

The Department of Resurrection at the Taoist Temple. There is a department for everything you can imagine: The populist religion for subjects of 2000-year-old bureaucratic government.

The awe-inspiring National Museum featured, without irony and among other temporary exhibits of 19th century painting and Buddhist sculpture, a big propagandistic exhibit on Karl Marx. What is more notable are the two main permanent exhibits: Ancient China and the Road to Rejuvenation. These two exhibits establish China as the most well-established nation-state on earth, unified under one bureaucratic government since 220 BC, with only a period of underdevelopment (relative to industrializing Europe) in the 19th century and a brief colonialist interlude. The instability of the early 20th century, cast in a 2000-year frame, appears as just another period of uncertainty between dynasties that last for centuries each.

By that measure, we can probably count the current age as the Maoist Dynasty. And that is pretty much how it appears in the National Museum. The Marx exhibit makes a counter-case that socialism was groundbreaking and changed everything that followed, but didn’t erase it. Two ancient statues of lions in a royal garden have a placard noting that they were buried by the museum staff during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s so that they would not be destroyed. Not unlike American regard of the civil war, a sense of tragedy and error is present in this history, which only reinforces its status as a grand nationalist pageant. By the logic of the nation-state, and the claim to a Maoist Dynasty, no country has a stronger claim to legitimacy. It is one episode in the 2000-year governance over this land that no other nation can match, and it is a large land indeed. On the flight from China to Dubai, more than half the journey is over Chinese-ruled territory.

Qin Dynasty figurines of soldiers, 2,000 years old

Advised before coming to sign up for the WeChat app, I got local number, and went about figuring out how to get it installed. I’m not sure if Chinese smart phones use Google’s Android operating system. I suspect they do. But otherwise all Google and Facebook online products are cut off in China. I was able to get around this a little by using my university’s VPN network, but even that made the phone unstable and it would sooner-or-later crash. So, it is not hard to break out of the “Great Firewall” that the Chinese government has constructed around the internet, but it is a hassle. So at some point, I think, most decide not to bother, and live, like US consumers, in bubbles of anodyne knowledge about sports and celebrities and make-up tips.

The SOHO Building Across from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs

In place of the Google services, China offers an extensive selection of its own online maps, dating apps, and social media, and everyone is pretty much always staring at their smartphones when not actually walking, talking, eating or working. The cities have surveillance cameras everywhere, and armies of pleasant young security guards in all public spaces scan you down with cheery lackadaisical diligence. They leave little doubt that, even though one might get some contraband past them without much difficulty, that one would certainly encounter a more serious and purposeful security guard who observes them invisibly. And the same is true of one’s online activities, where an attempt to call up Facebook over a VPN causes an invisible hand deep in its web to reach up and pull all the wires out of the circuit box.

The SOHO building from the outside: Am I just too far from home or is there a mammary theme here?

Shanghai and Beijing are both vast forests of high-rises, with a small selection of spectacular architectural statements in their downtown areas. Shanghai has preserved a district of colonial-era construction giving its main shopping district the visage of London’s older business districts, while Beijing has left a few older residential areas in place in its inner rings, where tight little streets and squat tile-roofed houses create a rare human-scaled neighborhood in a city otherwise built as if its residents were Transformers. Blocks are long, and an American who doesn’t know the language and is therefore reluctant to call the affordable cabs, wears out his feet pretty quickly by putting on miles of long-strided walking to get around. Both cities have brand new subway systems that whisk the masses quickly and cheaply around the city, so that with a bit of shoe leather, the foreigner can learn to get around pretty independently. Most of this was built in the last 20 years, together with the high-rise housing blocks, the high speed rails, the nuclear power plants, the airports, the museums, all of it clean, tasteful, and modernist…and when seen through a smoggy haze from a distance, seems a little dystopian.

A housing development in Shanghai

I went to Beijing to try to do some research about Tanzania-China relations in the Archive of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I had written them before coming, and never heard back, but did see that my letter was in a neat three-ring binder at the front desk. They took almost no notice of it, but fortunately there was a really smart University of Wisconsin grad student there, who was fluent in Chinese and had been plugging away for months transcribing the digitized documents made available to researchers. He instructed me to go get a danwei letter, a letter of affiliation with a local scholar. I was fortunate that a friend in Tanzania who had been a visiting scholar in China recently had put me in touch with an anthropologist at Minzu University. He had arranged for me to give a talk, and was very helpful on Monday afternoon in getting an official letter drafted that got me into the archive on Tuesday. I had read before coming that this archive had closed in 2012 and had re-opened in 2013 with only a fraction of the material available, now mostly diplomatic formalities. Indeed that was the case. Even when I tracked down a local grad student to help me translate for a couple days, that’s all I found, and it was minimally useful for all the trouble. But I got to enjoy Beijing.

Yes, I did give a presentation at Minzu University and it went well!

The first night I arrived in Beijing, I went out for a walk and wound up at a small noodle shop near my hotel in one of those old-fashioned residential neighborhoods. When I first went in it was full of locals slurping $4 bowls of soup. I ordered the only one that didn’t seem to have intestines as its main ingredient. By the time I looked up from my bowl the whole place was filled with white guys. I chatted with one group near me, an American teacher and a French student who spoke perfect American English, whose Chinese wife stared at her phone while the men chatted. The French guy took my WeChat contact and later sent me a couple links to English-language lists of events in Beijing. And for the next several nights I listened to jazz, classical, and Kazakh folk rock somewhere in the city. I loved the Dusk Dawn Club, a homey jazz bar, whose owner is a gregarious rebel with a passion for good music, and goes by the name 69, fully aware of its many meanings, which he notes includes Yin-and-Yang and 1969, the year of rebellion. 6 and 9 were tattooed on his knuckles and I saw a note in an article about an anniversary of the death of a prominent musician who went by the same moniker, or had an album named 69, and I suspected there is much more here than meets the eye.

A jazz quartet at the Dusk Dawn Club in Beijing, highly recommended