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A View from the Altar / My itty bitty glimpse in to Chinese life
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My itty bitty glimpse in to Chinese life

Guangzhou not for sight-seers

To my untrained eye, if there is any one word that summarizes a visit to southern or central China, it’d be “shabby.”  The buildings are shabby.   The shops and streets are shabby.  The utility wiring would have to get a lot better to achieve a state of shabbiness.  Even the five-star hotels are a mite shabby — picture a not-so-new Motel 6 with a marble floor.  Our guide showed us newly constructed high rise apartments along the road to the Guangzhou airport. The Chinese mock them as “handshaking apartments” because they’re built so close together that people in different buildings can reach out the windows and shake hands with the neighbors. All over the city every other window has a line of clothing hung out to dry in the gray air. Guangzhou has a huge number of old buildings that appear abandoned but actually have people living in them.

Race

Fred Reed (no relation) wrote recently that the Chinese are “racially aware.”  We judged that to be about as prevalent in China as it is in America.  I’ve been in places where white Americans thought my Chinese daughter was inferior.  Okay… so now I’ve been in places where Chinese were contemptuous that one of “theirs” was being raised by low-down Caucasians.   Americans got quietly disinvited from one of the more enjoyable restaurants in the area.  Conclusion: people are sinners, and some of them are racial bigots, and you meet some of that anywhere you go.

But to give you the right sense of scale, the vast majority of Chinese were just as open, friendly, and welcoming to strangers just as you’d find people here in America.  We ate at a McDonald’s in Guangzhou and met a bunch of local kids there eating hamburgers.   We spoke no Mandarin, and they spoke no English.  After a while, one of the guys made a paper airplane from his cash register receipt and gave it to my daughter.  I returned the favor by creating a paper airplane using an American design (yes, they were different).  We took pictures, exchanged ignorant smiles and nods, and both sides wished we could have actually spoken.  Nice people.   Note to Director of National Intelligence James Clapper: I really didn’t perceive these folks as a threat to the United States masking malevolent intent by faking out my daughter.

The Chinese Church

Christianity seemed to us alive and well in China, but I must caution you that our travels were not nearly extensive enough to render any sort of authoritative opinion on how our brethren and sistren are faring over there.  The Christian family we met was cordial, delighted to meet us, and both husband and wife spoke openly in passable English about “when they started following Jesus,” which reflects a decidedly evangelical outlook.  They conducted themselves as Chinese, not as teenage misfits embracing a weird religion just to freak out their parents.  Like many in China, they ran a small shop containing tourist stuff and took in laundry from nearby hotels.   They assured us the quality of their laundry service was better than that of their competitors, which we found to be true — no smell of cigarette smoke.

Their shop openly sold Christian-themed merchandise such as Bibles in English and Mandarin, plaques bearing Bible verses, and whatnot. On the only Sunday morning where it would have been possible to visit with them in church, we were unfortunately obliged to accompany our guide on a tour of an art museum. We missed a great opportunity, and I will always regret that. But I am glad to have met them and was pleased to see they were not oppressed and showed no signs being afraid their faith would become discovered.

In other parts of China the condition of Christians may not be so happy.   I don’t have any personal knowledge of that, but if it’s true, this would only confirm what I said earlier about China not being a unified country.  In southern China, perhaps due to the Beijing establishment presence being not so heavy, the Christians seemed to be doing much better than what you’d expect from reading Western media accounts of religious persecution.

I should add that the Christians we met attended a state-approved church. If you try to operate your own start-up church, you risk getting cross-threaded with the authorities.  Our guide also told us that there was a much larger church in Guangzhou which only foreigners may attend.  Chinese are forbidden to go there, so the government does interfere with personal religious expression if it wants to.   So you may go to church, but you may not go to whichever church you please, and you may not just betake yourself to rounding up lost souls and start a church.  Here in America, that is entrepreneurial evangelism.  In China, it’s illegal.

It struck me odd that a foreigners-only church should be allowed to exist at all.   What the attendance restrictions needlessly put on display is the government’s lasting paranoia about citizens getting exposed to revolutionary ideas — not a terribly consistent position for a government that takes such pride in its founding revolution.  But, truth is, Mao and Jiang Qing are long dead and the revolution is long over.  The Communists are now just another entrenched ruling class with innumerable bureaucrats, a lust for power and money, and raw totalitarian instincts.  The revolutionaries don’t ever want another revolution.  And such people always see Christianity as a threat – compare America’s leftist establishment which is as suspicious of the church as the Communists are.   Our experience in southern China showed that the church is alive and well over there, and we should be thankful for that, but things could change for our brethren if the state began to feel threatened. And the threat need not originate with the church.  A Tunisia-style uprising over just about anything could trigger a heavy clamp-down.

Cultural friction spot

One aspect of Chinese culture really grates on Americans.  Random strangers frequently approach you in public and meddle with your kids, adjusting clothes, buttoning jackets, cinching up hats and hoods, and intently inspecting them.  Even on warm days when my son was sweaty, busybodies were still stepping in front of his stroller to tighten up his clothes or bunch up baby blankets around his feet.  Most of the American adoptive parents complained about this.   It’s an outrageous affront by Western standards, but the Chinese seem to feel it’s just another one of their great public services offered for no additional charge.  We tried to endure it with equanimity, but after two weeks in China, this meddlesome aspect of Chinese culture wore mighty thin.

Orphans could become Chinese domestic scandal

The general population is only recently becoming aware of the number of orphans in their country.  The one-child policy is dying away, but it lasted long enough that there are masses of abandoned children in state custody.  The orphans get picked up by the cops or left at the door of an orphanage, and then the Chinese government takes responsibility for them.  My understanding is that most kids don’t get homes, and they get turned out at the age of 16 to fend for themselves.

A lucky few kids get adopted, but the process is time-consuming and quite expensive.  Adopting a normal, healthy kid from China will take almost six years from initial paper work to homecoming.  If you’re willing to accept a child with a handicap or birth defect and if you aggressively push the process to the max, you can shorten the wait to a year or so.  But either way, it will cost you between $30,000 and $35,000.  You’ll see estimates on the internet saying the cost can come in under $20,000.  Do not believe them.  Our guide said he had only recently learned how expensive it is to adopt Chinese kids, and he was angry at his own government about it. “Why so much?” he asked.  “Why don’t they just give them away if people are willing to take them?”  It’d be great if public awareness of the “orphan industry” resulted in lower prices where more kids could be adopted.

Unemployment

A lot of Chinese seemed to be standing around not doing anything in particular.  China’s population is five times that of the United States, yet their gross domestic product is smaller than ours even during our recession and their boom.  To perform as badly as they do, you have to keep a lot of workers sidelined, which they seem to do.  It was perfectly normal see three or four people working behind the counter of a tiny Seven-Eleven store with only three aisles of merchandise.  A ferryboat fleet operated near the hotel on the Pearl River — no more than a mile from a bridge.  This is sheer government make-work, and it puts a drag on the economy.  You can go to a park at midday and find big numbers of people practicing Tai Chi or playing hackeysack.

After visiting there twice, I no longer see China as an economic juggernaut bearing down on America.  They’re big, yes, and many Chinese are working very hard, but I gained the impression that aggregate productivity is still very low.  I’d be very interested to know the percentage of Chinese on some form of the dole.  As a side note about employment, our guide knew Americans complain about great volumes of cheap, Chinese consumer goods flooding our markets.  To my surprise, he said that those goods are not available in China. Sure enough, we never did see anything like an American-style Wal-Mart even though the company has a couple hundred stores there.  While grocery stores had local Chinese merchandise, we didn’t see much of the Chinese-made stuff you normally see for sale in America.

Our guide explained that this is because Chinese businesses don’t trust one another.  If a foreign business is involved and has backing from a foreign bank, the Chinese know they’ll get paid for doing the work.  But if it’s a local Chinese businessman, things get dicey, so factory owners won’t take domestic contracts. That suggests two things to me.  First, China needs the Gospel so that basic honesty in business becomes a core principle of society.   Second, their government is failing at its basic duty of enforcing lawful contracts.

Art that is actually art

One of the most attractive features of Chinese culture is its art, because it really is art.  If they have any specimens of American-style “modern” art, we never saw it. No abstractions, no pictures submerged in pee, no collections of junkyard trash, no pictures of women with bleeding eyeballs and breasts coming out the side of their heads, no worthless statues made of twisted up metal.  When our guide told us he was taking us to the folk art museum in Guangzhou, I inwardly groaned, thinking of my upbringing in the American South.  In the South, anything with the adjective “folk” in front of it means tacky decorations done by hicks with no talent.  It is the artistic equivalent of home made pickles — no good.

Not so in China! The art work at their museum was fabulous, stunning, gorgeous, and every other adjective you can pile onto it.  We entered one room to look at some paintings and didn’t realize until we were told that the “paintings” were actually embroideries.   They were so detailed and the needlework was so exquisitely fine and subtly textured that we thought they were oil paintings; I kid you not.

Chinese sculptures and wall carvings also grabbed my attention.  The closer you get, the more carvings you actually see.  Every surface is a deeper level of texture and detail, and between those details are more details. We marveled at it and wondered how long it must have taken to create these works of art.

So-called artists slinging elephant turds onto canvas are an embarrassment to the West, and their Chinese counterparts are putting them to an utmost shame.  Even the twenty-something girl doing fingerpaintings of pandas and bamboo produced masterful, lifelike images that conveyed an uplifting sense of grace.  Shops sell splendid art works made of butterfly wings, some sculpted into vases and others made two-dimensional into paints, but all of them of astonishing beauty.

otherbrothersteve@gmail.com

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