Sunday, December 27, 2009

Happy Christmas.

I hope you have a very warm and festive time with your loved ones; that the Christmas tree glimmers and gleams enchantingly, that only the best carols are sung and that the Queen’s speech, which I will no doubt miss, touches the right spot in the wake of the Turkey; well, if you're British. All the best as well for the next decade.

Oddly, I’ve found it easy to forget that it’s not just a year that is passing. According to ‘Time’, the decade now ending was a ‘decade from hell’. This magazine speaks publically, as it must. Whether your own decade was hellish or not, I hope the next falls upon you sweetly as manna from Heaven, or if that’s not your thing, as ambrosia from Elysium.

Most likely, life will pretty much ‘go on as always’, of course, but what kind of a wish would that be?

This year has seen me continuing to live in Ningbo, China. This ‘small’ Chinese city of 2.2 million people has a far longer, more distinguished history than the much more famous Shanghai three hours to the north. I say ‘more famous’, but I wonder, is Ningbo famous at all? I have yet to find anyone outside China who has heard of it. Maybe this is because they take ‘The Rough Guide to China’ as their source of information, a book that doesn’t even mention it in its index!Whether I think Ningbo deserves its reputation for obscurity can depend on my mood. As expats frequently frustratedly sigh: there is ‘not much to do in Ningbo’. What exactly one is expected ‘to do’ in a Chinese city is rarely spelt out. When it is, it usually amounts to doing the kinds of thing you might routinely do back home (or in Shanghai, alternatively); such as going to international restaurants, clubs, and live music events. To that extent, Ningbo is certainly not all that it could be; for excitement and fun I too appreciate Shanghai and the nearby Suzhou far more. As regards its performance according to cultural and historical criteria, there’s more to discover and find in Ningbo than might immediately be thought. Nevertheless, the ever spreading office blocks and skyscrapers have worked wonders in demolishing Ningbo’s ancient architectural history. Such a philistinism began under Mao's Marxism in the 1960s, when on ideological grounds traditional culture was considered bourgeois, unacceptably reactionary. Now, the destruction proceeds under 'capitalism', with no need to be justified on grounds other than that traditional buildings get in the way of more efficient ways of making money.

What do I 'do' here? I continue to teach English for Academic Purposes at this Chinese outpost of Nottingham University. I can’t help thinking: might it have helped if my students had first learnt to write grammatically decent clauses, let alone sentences, before embarking on the seas we must steer them through; seas of structuring paragraphs and the relationships between paragraphs according to the model of Western style essays. Teaching them the combative joys of ‘critical thinking’, the cut and thrust of dialectic, might also be easier if a general spirit of docility and conformity to received patterns of reflection had not taken such a hold. This unwillingness to think critically is part cultural, the legacy of a communitarian culture rooted in a Confucian regard for ones ‘place in the world’; part political, the product of a Communist party’s zeal to perpetuate its tenure in power.

This is by no means to imply, however, that the Chinese are lacking in charm. By no means. Ironically, it is perhaps the very repression of the individual that prevents those forces in the west that have disintegrated our sense of a common culture, and promoted our atomized society – fragmented now into a myriad of dissociated factions - from gaining a similar foothold. The family remains strong, as do roots. Chinese people belong, and not just to their friends and family. Selfishness and disregard for the common good do not seem cancerous. To me the people smile, seem happy and are kind, helpful to the stranger. No man is an island, but the Chinese man is less of an Island than the European or the American. But everything at a price, and it is indeed sad the Chinese do not more openly think for themselves, and celebrate diversity. Who knows, this might even help their economy (and that they do care about!); defend it from a potential shock, if foreign exports dry up, foreign direct investment is exhausted and China must rely more on domestic consumption and home grown entrepreneurship. Such seem to be Will Hutton's musings in any case (in his 'The Writing on the Wall: China and the West in the 21st century).

This year I’ve seen some other countries too. The tender charms of Thailand visited me in January, the more robust, Hispanic ones of the Philippines in May. Each land boasts impressive coastlines, natural beauty and sunshine, but strangely, the Philippines, unlike Thailand , isn’t a prime destination for tourists. I presume this is because the Government in Manila hasn’t developed the infrastructure for tourism as much. Perhaps the memory of Marcos and the widespread corruption also don't help. Culturally, it's a curious cluster of islands. Right bang in the heart of East Asia, but with a Latinate feel that makes you feel you're in South America. Hundreds of years of Spanish colonisation have had their effect. And if you like to speak English to locals on your travels, The Phillipines is definitely your place. Thank Uncle Sam for that, for colonising it for 50 years.

As it happens I'm back in The Phillipines right now, where I'm visiting a friend I met in Kuwait who recently married a Filipino. I might see Mount Mayon explode, though that is in the hands of Gaia.

The summer, after a brief stop over in Kuwait, saw me back in blighty, a country that shines in blessedness when the snows are absent and when you're a tourist with a car. I drove around the South, from the tip of Cornwall, to Bristol, to Portsmouth, to Eastern Kent, to my home village of Kettlebaston (it's on Wikipedia!), to King's Lynn and as far north as Derby. At last I learnt to appreciate The National Trust, but wondered: Stately Homes turned into museums are ghostly mausoleums. Can't an alternative prize for the National Lottery be to swan around a mansion for a month, waited upon by butlers and servants, living the life of Sebastian.

At least it would bring the houses back to life. And then to Slovakia, where the roots still clutch, where many friends were visited and memories stirred. Croatia saw me licked by the sun on an obscure island north of Dubrovnik, and in Bavaria I finally got to see Luwig II's castle, the template for Walt Disney's and the home of the King of Vulgaria (think 'Chitty Chitty Bang Bang'), as well as the Fuhrer's favourite retreat, in Berchtesgarten, now a wreck, bommed in the 50s to deter Neo-Nazis.

Oh, and I went to South Korea. I saw a solitary North Korean guard, rather slight and slim of stature gazing at me from across the border at Panmunjon. We were under strict instructions to neither point, wave nor smile at him; apparently, lest his regime use such gestures as propaganda tools; evidence, I presume, of the provocativeness or just general weirdness of foreigners. I suppose the North Koreans might also think that to point is to wield a gun. But I thought only Children think that.