Thursday, June 28, 2007

The growth of Middle Earth

Everywhere we drive I see old buildings torn down and new buildings rising. Even in the poorest villages through which we have passed, this phenomenon occurs. I rarely see such things in my home state of Ohio. Thus do I wonder: is Ohio on its steady-state growth path, or is it merely stagnant? Furthermore, is China “leveling up” to the steady state, or is this what a country with so much labor and human capital, but so little physical capital looks like? And how could the Solow model, so simple in hindsight but so elusive before discovery, keep me awake at night?

My macroeconomics professors were correct to quote Lucas. Once you start thinking about growth, it is difficult to think about anything else.

Return of the King

Two days after the Chairman’s arrival, we take a two-hour drive to Victor’s village. Niu Yun arranges for us to visit the orphanage, but having done so, informs Andrea and Dave that the mayor of the town would like to greet Victor and his family when they arrive. The city would like welcome him, then the city fathers (and yes, they’re all men) would like to have lunch with the family. “It’s a village,” I think. “This must be a pretty big deal to a small village.”

Let me disavow you of any misconceptions. When Victor was adopted, his hometown had a mere 80,000 people living in it. Today over 400,000 individuals live there (and yes, you read that correctly). And yet it has the feel of a village. Only three years ago, the only road out to it was a two-lane coal road, not the highway we use to get there. Most of the buildings are low, and there are many of the traditional houses with enclosed courtyards. The streets are uneven and not often paved. And yet it will be as big as Cleveland in a few years. Wow.

When we arrive, a car awaits us at the off-ramp of the highway. It guides us into a town that is growing and prospering, but it is not wealthy. It seems to me that the wealthiest part of town is city hall, though many factories and high rises appear in the works. We are escorted to city hall, where fifteen people, including the mayor, deputy mayors, assorted associates, the dean and administrator of the orphanage, a television reporter and a newspaper reporter flock to us. This flocking phenomenon follows Victor everywhere this day. People touch him, hug him, lift him, pull him, and kiss him. “This is, like, too much!” declares Andrea amazedly at one point. It’s a big city, but it acts like a small town.

As this is Victor’s story, I shall herein keep my remarks to my own very small experience in it.

During lunch, we dine not only with the city officials, but also with the General Secretary of the District. Each official makes a toast to us with “fenjiu”, a locally produced liquor. Let me say that, as the one sitting closest to these officials and of drinking age, I am privy to many side toasts, on topics as diverse as the use of chopsticks to the ancestry of my beloved. I am informed that I like fenjiu more than the Russians or the Japanese, both of whom are big drinkers. We toast to that, too. I believe I engage in nine or ten toasts. Nine is the luckiest number in China; I probably have ten.

Dave makes an excellent toast when presenting each of the officials with a small token of our trip. Then I do something stupid: I, too, make a toast. I will write it here in English, though I attempted parts of it in Chinese:

“In college, my friends and I had a toast we made at every gathering. ‘To the continued wealth of the Republic.’ In thanks for the affection you have shown us, I say to you today, To the Continued Wealth of the People’s Republic!”

Or something like that. After ten toasts, everything everyone says is clever, right?

A new member of the Fellowship

Our first day in Taiyuan is dedicated to getting the last member of Andrea and Dave’s family. As we leave the hotel, Victor shows distress through acting out. It is his last day as the youngest, and as the only son. Does he worry he will be loved less? That he is less special now? Possibly, but he doesn’t want to talk about it.

Victor may not be happy, but the Heavens approve: we see blue sky and sun, or at least the forms of sky and sun one gets here in China. I take it as auspicious; later I learn that this weather is fairly common here. We have it most days in Taiyuan.

We drive to the wholly nondescript building that houses the government agency that handles adoptions. During the drive, Andrea and Dave talk about what Taiyuan was like during their last trip and ask our guide what it is like now. “A lot more cars,” Andrea observes.

“Yeah, a *lot* more,” Dave replies.

Niu Yun informs us that Taiyuan now has 2.5 million residents, a rather large city by Western standards. It’s a coal and steel town; the buildings look gritty and somewhat unimaginative. New buildings, however, rise up out of the ground everywhere we look. Dave once joked to me that the national bird of China is the crane. The construction crane. The crane, though, has a long history in China. It stands for longevity, and is the bird that carries your soul to heaven.

Perhaps the ancient Chinese were on to something. Or yet another thing, rather.

At any rate, despite being a large city, it has the remnants of a village everywhere. We can see old houses with courtyards being torn down; people still sell produce and meat from trucks. Andrea asks Niu Yun about development in this area; a curious question, I think, as our guide is neither trained in economics nor from this province. But as long as I have been her student, Andrea has always had an interest in the experience and insight of everyday people. She has also exhibited high expectations for others. These are two of many ways, I think, that I differ from my advisor. I would not ask this question, and were I to hear the answer, I would disregard it as irrelevant. Somehow she finds information where I hear noise.

We arrive after a fifteen or twenty minute drive. And from this moment forward, we leave my story, and we enter the Chairman’s. The Chairman is the newest member of Andrea and Dave’s family, and I lack the Chinese, and he the English, for me to get permission to tell his story. You can ask him in the future, but not today.

I will, however, explain the change in what I call him. He is a trifle demanding; we originally call him the Little Emperor, then the Little General. Napoleon is even up for consideration. After observing him with his brother, and watching how he is dressed a few days later, I dub him Chairman Mao. He’s little, he’s Chinese, he loves red.

And he seemingly has no respect for other people’s property.

Welcome the Chairman!

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Strider 3.0

If it’s Wednesday, it must be Taiyuan. Thus do we have a new guide, “Celene”. Niu Yun lives and works in Xi’an usually, but is the nearest guide to Taiyuan in Shanxi province. She is cute and demur and very proper; she alone of the guides so far does not complain when I address her formally. She does, however, ask that I call her by her given name. She studied English and French in college, but only remembers English.

I wish I could tell you more about her, but we spend most of our day her in Taiyuan in the hotel, just waiting for paperwork for Ma Ding. To the extent that I can tell you about that process, I shall. In the meantime, the rest of the family is downstairs having dinner, and I am not. Which means, for a whole hour, I am alone. Please excuse me; I have aloneness to ponder.


We leave Beijing for Taiyuan in a torrential downpour. Air traffic controllers delay the flight for one hour; we sit in the plane. I sit not only in the plane, but between Kina and Caitlin, both of whom are bored and restless. It is a very long short flight.

Taiyuan has only recently become an economic development zone. As a coal and steel town, it has some aspects that remind me of Cleveland. It looks industrial. Gritty, really. There is very little ornament. And yet there is some; here sits a double pagoda Buddhist temple of some interest. We shall see it on this trip; Dave and Andrea did not know of it in 2001.

We are in Taiyuan for two reasons: Victor was born here, and Charles “Zhuangzhuang” is here. The latter trumps the former for the moment, but we shall see Victor’s little village soon. We shall also meet Zhuangzhuang.

Some notes at this juncture: I have already met Zhuangzhuang. I shall call him Ma Ding, for reasons you may never learn. Though our meeting is interesting, though his story is fascinating, it is not mine to tell. I shall write it, but you may never read it.

Instead, let me tell you a little about Ma Ding, whom we met yesterday. He is a six-year-old firecracker. Andrea calls him “the little emperor,” as it is fairly clear he has never had to bow to anyone’s rule. Well, kid, that’s about to change. Everybody talks to him, but I believe I am the only one who can really understand anything he says. He has, I believe, picked up on this. He told me today in the car that we are now friends. I’m not sure what I did, but I’ll take it.

“Parenting,” as my friend Liana once wrote, “is hard!” Doubly so, I believe, when the kid was someone else’s, is now yours (or your friend’s), and you speak less of the language than he does. I am so tired by the end of every day with him, and there have only been two. He challenges his parents’ authority; he certainly does not bow to me unless I use both Chinese and force. You’re a little Chinese boy, Ma Ding. Have you read the works of Xiang Yu? I am tempted, but have so far refrained from anything beyond grabbing him.

This is not to say that I do not like him. I do. He is bright and clever and cute; he will make a fine addition to Andrea and Dave’s household. At one point we have a shouting match, and in Mandarin, he calls me “Mr. Fart.” The name sticks; I now refer to myself as Mr. Fart when I really need his attention. I think it’s funny. So does everyone else. Especially Ma Ding.

Elven archers everywhere!

On our last night in Beijing, we attend the acrobats. Let it suffice to say that we have the same reaction there as we did to the tea house in Chengdu: wow. It is a sight to behold, men stacking chairs three stories high, lifting themselves by a single arm atop the pile. Over a dozen women riding a single bicycle in a circle as they climb around upon each other. Boys who cannot be teenagers flinging themselves through hoops like arrows. It is amazing, and I, for one, am amazed. Most impressive is the theatricity of it all. The choice of music, lighting, and costumes is sometimes over the top, but it all works together to heighten the tension of even the simplest trick. It reminds me greatly of Cirque, but with fewer safety precautions and no singing.

I consider both omissions to be beneficial. Three cheers for Chinese acrobats!

Did Aragorn get a summer cottage in the Grey Havens?

The last remnants of Great Imperial Monuments consume our last full day in Beijing. We begin with the Summer Palace, the emperor’s refuge from April through October. It is a sight to behold, but is not nearly so, well, imperial as the Forbidden City. As we enter, it is clear that this is a place not at all devoted to projecting power, but solely to enjoying it.

The Summer Palace is a compound build around a manmade lake. The lake takes up most of the compound, and if I understand our guide Zhou correctly, most of the compound is the lake. I cannot imagine the countless number of slav—er, ‘workers’ who must have toiled away on that project alone.

And that project is not alone. A reasonable large hall (for state affairs) sits in the entrance way before the lake. And all around the lake stretches the compound.

The compound, for my money, has exactly two points of interest. The first is the Long Hall; the second is the Marble Boat.

The Long Hall is a several-hundred meter open-air hallway. That is not its significant attribute. Nor is its significant attribute that it runs along the manmade lake, though it does. No, the significant attribute is that on each of the several hundred crossbeams of the Long Hall’s ceiling, a different vista of China has been painted. Apparently, some emperor along the way wanted to keep an eye on the kingdom, but he didn’t want to have to travel there. Thus the pictures. Pretty handy if you have enough slav—er, artisans. Sorry. Artisans.

Despite my reaction to the imperialism of the production, I would like to emphasize two things. First, the vistas are truly beautiful; they are the product of immense talent. Second, I don’t know which emperor commissioned these paintings, but I like his style. I’ve always though of pictures and reading as a good substitute for travel, and now I see I’m in good company!

The Marble Boat is a monstrosity on the shoreline of the lake. It was, at some point, a traditionally-styled Chinese boat, but some emperor decided to emulate the West along the way and add a mishmash of European elements that make it look rather silly. The story on the boat is that an emperor decided he wanted a parallel to an old Chinese parable, the contents of which indicate that an emperor is as to his people as a boat is to water. The boat rides atop, above, beyond the water, yet agitated water may tip a boat.

This emperor did not want to be tipped, Zhou tells us. He had his boat built on the shore, and made of untippable marble. I find this hilarious and nearly double over laughing. “What?” Zhou asks.

Don’t you see? If this boat were to ride upon the water…

“It’d sink,” says Andrea.

Indeed. I wonder if the current government of the Middle Kingdom understands the parallel, too.

The wondrous items of Middle Earth

[I have lapsed in my posts a great deal; this applies to last Friday. All is now well in Middle Earth. Well, all is now well in regards to that which kept me from writing. As you shall see, all is not well with the adventurers…]

Our day of commerce in Beijing involves two basic goals: to purchase instruments for the children (a cello and a violin, and, if he wants one, a bass for Victor), and to visit the Pearl Market. Let it suffice to say that it is a banner day for capitalism. Mao, stick it in your ear.

We start with the instruments. Zhou has found a music shop that claims to have both violins and cellos of good quality. As Caitlin is not (and shall not be) bigger than a very petite sprite, she requires at largest a 7/8ths cello. Kina shall get a full-sized violin.

I shall not bore you with the particulars of shopping for instruments, especially not instruments whose precise function I do not understand. What I do understand is that the girls feel a little pressured to perform at these places, when all that is really needed is to hear the sound of the instruments. It is the instruments, and not the players, who need to perform here.

This place, this action, though, reveals what China teaches us. The girls seek to explain why they do not play perfectly. This instrument is too big; it is difficult after becoming accustomed to one instrument; we have not practiced in some time. “Stop making excuses, girls. That’s not what they do here,” says Andrea.

She’s right. Just that morning I watched as a two-year-old boy in split pants peed on the sidewalk. But as he did, he counted to five in English, said “hello” and “good-bye”, and responded to “how are you?” I contrast this with the ESL teacher I met at the hotel a few days earlier. We spoke in English; he indicated he was heading to South Korea. “So you speak Korean?” I asked. “Hell no! I’ve lived here six years and I don’t even speak Chinese.” The people of the Middle Kingdom learn what they must, and excuses are inexcusable.

The instruments work out pretty well; I keep myself out of things. It is generally rude, I think, to involve oneself in purchases when one is not footing the bill.

After the instruments, we head for the Pearl Market. It is not merely a pearl market; it is an emporium of everything under the sun. Pearls, antiques, jade, electronics, handbags, clothing. They have it all in spades. Some of it is even real. Joy!

I love places like this. These are the only places I like to bargain. Generally, I don’t like bargaining at all. It’s silly; we have a world of posted prices. There’s no need to talk about it. You tell me what you want for it; I’ll tell you if I want it.

But bargaining here is multidimensional. First, there is the bargaining over the stated price. “Hen gui!” Too expensive, says I. The shopkeeper enters a new number in her calculator. “Renmingbi,” she says, lest I think she’s quoted me a price in dollars. This is my least favorite form of bargaining; it’s too basic. Also, I usually don’t know what a given thing is worth, so I often lose.

The second form of bargaining is over volume. It is often in tandem with the first form of bargaining. I like volume discounts, but I prefer that they be pre-ordained. Except, of course, when the volume includes exotic weapons and ancient coins. Then I enjoy trading in and out this trinket for that and seeing how the price changes. A very valuable method for finding the supply curve, that.

The final form of bargaining, however, is my favorite. It’s very easy: do nothing. Just stand still. If you stand still in an antique shop long enough, staring without intent at nothing in particular, the shopkeeper inevitably opens some nook or reaches below some table and pulls out what you really want to see. And the less impressed you look, the cooler the stuff you get.

The coolest thing, the Thing That I Should Have Bought, was a 100-year-old Chinese sword (I expressed my disinterest, nay, my marked distaste for anything from Japan. That also helped.) made of Damascus steel. For the uninitiated, that means it was hand-hammered hundreds of times from a single sheet of metal. It has a marbled look to it as a result. It could cut through many things. Such as a person. In a car, for example. Or a person in a Toyota pickup truck wielding a hammer. Just sayin’.

The sword stays in Beijing. I buy a smaller artifact. I cannot buy that sword. The owner cannot bargain on it, which suggests that it is the genuine article. And were I to have it, the temptation to use it as the genuine article would be too great.

It is better that it stays behind anyway. It belongs in the hands of someone with even less impulse control than I. Someone who knows what it is good for, and who uses it accordingly. We need fewer hammer-wielding truck drivers, after all.