Burning eyes peer into an inverted bowl of polluted soup to follow a swooping, swirling red rollercoaster that shoots through sour skies. A towering artificial display resembling Mont Saint-Michel provides an appropriate backdrop to this curious display of human entertainment.
I am surrounded by an army of jittery Chinese teens cooled by misting machines, all talking, texting and bobbing to a Chinese dance mash-up of Avril Lavine’s “Complicated”.
This is Happy Valley. This is Beijing.
Backing up a few steps. Work brought me to China’s second largest city (first prize? Shanghai, 23 million) to chaperone 50, yes 50, high school students on their way to a 6-week Chinese language immersion program. My responsibilities ended after dropping the students off with our staff in China, where I was then free to explore Beijing for a week before returning home.
During my four days with these students, I was fully inspired by their ardent commitment towards sharing a common language to bridge cultural cleavages. Their ambition compelled me to investigate further the purpose and importance of language, and this deconstruction traveled with me as I was enveloped by 20 million Beijing residents for an entire week.
Language is at the Core.
Language is inherently social. It is developed and used to relate, participate and reciprocate with our world. To understand and be understood by human and non-human forms alike.
My mind flickers with flames dancing along a sandstone wall as a small group of our early ancestors work together to stay warm and prepare food. Such a simple interchange requires a surprisingly complex form of communication to find harmony in tasks, while also satiating some primordial panging within. And to this, I would argue that language stems from an imperative to share our selves. It is through this deeper communicative confluence that we can reach higher planes of understanding and lay a foundation for respect, empathy and compassion, all critical ingredients towards amicable relations amongst people and place.
When translated to ecological responsibility, you see clearly that a relationship must too be formed, nourished and sustained with our natural surroundings through some common communicative thread. The perception of language as exclusively human is grossly short-sided and may be one of the most detrimental misconceptions of our modern era. Once you speak and, more importantly, listen to wild places, you begin to absorb its lessons, align your genome with its order (or disorder) and engage in a level of “intersubjective reciprocity” with your surroundings, so eloquently described by David Abram in the Spell of the Sensuous.
After fulfilling my duties with the students, I was invited by three Chinese AFS volunteers to stay with them in Beijing for a few days and tour the city. My 2007 travels in Southern China didn’t have such luck with Chinese guides, so I was thankful. They didn’t really speak any English, except for Harry (“You know Neek, like Harry Potter!”) who was thus designated as my roommate.
Meeting at the middle of this linguistic bridge, our finest conversations filled the room during morning time, along with the aroma of green tea brewed bitter and strong. I was able to ask about many things: his family life and hometown, the ways Chinese perceive dreams, urbanization, food, what environmental degradation means to a resident in a bursting-at-the-seams country of 1.5 billion people. You know, usual topics. We shared much more about eachother’s backgrounds and viewpoints than we ever could have if there was no language to connect us with.
Amidst our plans to visit Beijing’s major attractions, my new friends were especially set on China’s largest and most impressive amusement park mentioned earlier, Happy Valley. Rollercoasters. Haunted houses. 3D Magic Shows. My Chinese friends we’re loving it, and I’ll admit it, I had a blast.
A New Language.
It was also in this particular moment that I hurt for humanity. I found myself claustrophobically cornered by some fake world and beyond that, endless miles of traffic, unprecedented pollution and 20 million swirling souls all fighting their individual battles. And as my week in Beijing progressed, I began tuning into the alarming frequencies and darker consequences brought on by language, popular culture and our global economy.
My time with these Chinese university students made me realize how well they were learning a new language, one foreign to their parents: the hoarsely homogenous tongue of Western consumptive habits. They loved McDonalds. KFC was a regular stop (The Colonel’s eyes are slanted in China, I swear). Harry used a Starbuck’s tourist map of Downtown Beijing to navigate the city (worry not, all 70+ Starbucks outlet locations in Beijing were marked on the map).
It’s not the latte I’m concerned with, but the double-shot illusion of class that comes along with the purchase of this exported lifestyle. Language exchange plays a significant role here because some common ground was reached for such establishments to make it across the world and into the mouths and minds of the Chinese. And, as wonderful as foreign language acquisition can be, such linguistic assets have also been used since antiquity to exploit, manipulate, coerce and brainwash others. Western corporate colonialism? Sure.
In all, I really enjoyed the time with my new Chinese “brothers.” They were downright hilarious. In our Chinese hotel room, for example, a Rubix cube sat on the desk with a simple challenge: Conquer the cube and a free cup of coffee awaits you at the front desk. Without hesitation, the youngest one, Liang, pulls out his laptop, watches a quick video tutorial on how to take apart a rubix cube and put it together again with matching sides. In less than 30 minutes, we were all sipping on free hot beverages. Well-played.
Our last afternoon was spent in a private luxury karaoke room, KTV, where I found out that Katy Perry was alive and well in China. After a strong delivery of Mumford and Sons’ The Cave, my unamused Chinese contingency encouraged me to sing something more familiar: Michael Jackson. The Eagles. And yes, Katy Perry. (I wonder how you say “Trifecta” in Chinese…)
So, this is what is continuing to being exported even to China (and to the rest of the world): The language of the quick, the easy and the cheap. It’s a monoculture of consumption not showing up at the funeral of local traditions and customs. It’s the rainforest ecology of our collusive mental environment being whittled down in both variety and diversity.
As more humans begin to walk by the same restaurants, eat the same cheaply-made food, support the same multinationals, wear the same clothes, lust for the same features, crave the same cars and listen to the same music, we lose something vital to our existence. Diversity. Variation. Craftsmanship. Meaningful work that meets us all at the divine intersection of our individual “genius” and unique passions. (See the works of James Hillman).
This cultural homogenization is a precarious route led by a corporate elite, guided by their fantasy map of unlimited growth and profit, only to the severe detriment of our welfare as a species (and all species). For example, to feed the growing demand in China (and the world) for coffee, Chinese tea farmers are now beginning to ditch tea production to chase profits found in the unregulated coffee trade. To me, something greater is lost here: age-old rituals woven tightly into the land, generations of stories, art, heritage and identity surrounding the world’s oldest tea culture. Inevitably, this ancient language and identity will begin to wither like tea leaves left out to rot in the oppressive Chinese heat.
Nonetheless, we (not excluding myself) are a species that is certainly following the piper.
After parting ways with my Chinese friends, I stayed in a hostel near Tiananmen Square for the remaining three days. My roommates were an incredible young French couple, fresh and full of ideas.
We spent my last days together exploring some of Beijing’s sights, while talking for hours about politics and the “Chinese Condition” over beers in a crowded hutong alleyway spewing people, dogs and car horns. Brice was a crazed history buff (his favorite souvenir was an authentic communist party military outfit and, yes, we got a fashion show.) An avid traveler and intelligent social critic, I enjoyed him and his lovely girlfriend Lauriane very much.
With 20+ hours of air travel back to Portland, my personal crescendo of language analysis climaxed when I discovered that, aside from the basic survival Chinese I acquired, the only Chinese word that stuck in my mind was RED FLAG, pronounced, “Hong Chee-su.” While I’m not sure why I even learned this word to begin with, after my week in Beijing I can say with 100% certainty, red flags in my assessment of the human condition were popping up everywhere.
Van, getting up close and personal.
Tiananmen Square + Smog
Factory 798 Art District
Factory 798 Art District
The Birdsnest, Olympic Stadium
Surveillance on the Wall.
Last Evening in Beijing, with the French.