China Times

04 Jan 2011 ::

Here I sit in the surreal world of Beijing International, sipping my first – and probably the last – Chinese latte. Its 2 am our time, and my rapidly diminishing grasp of reality is compounded by 1950s Christmas songs badly sung in some incomprehensible Chinese dialect. Luckily I passed the scrutiny of the fever control scanner, only to be hurried on to the moving escalator accompanied by exhortations to “Mine Yah Stip”. There was some glimmer of familiarity with this bastardized Chinglish instruction – deep in my reptilian brain. Where had I heard this before? And then it came to me – I had the same feeling of impending collectivism in Hong Kong – now another branch of this great empire. As I was jostled among other weary travelers, another note of incongruity addled-paddled my now scrambled mental process. An official was pointing a webcam on a stick at us all… the ever-present surveillance culture writ large. Thank you George W for making our every fart sound suspicious. There’s a new twist each time I venture forth into the not-so-glamorous world of international travel. For the privilege of boarding a plane, each one of us is subjected to such unnerving and dehumanizing scrutiny that I assume that I must be guilty of something. The new gel/plastiques sniffer of laptops no doubt is the result of some devious terrorist conspiracy for world domination. I begin to suspect that cattle are probably treated with more respect.

Although the pervasiveness of global culture seems to have invaded every nook and cranny of the known world, the Chinese have a unique twist on wi-fi. Yes, it is available here at the airport, but only on the condition that you surrender your passport – big yellow brother intends to keep close track of your every tweet. I decided to forgo the “free” service, with thoughts of being marched off into some oriental gulag for incorrect thoughts. God help me if any of those annoying porn pop-ups were to invade my screen.

However the Chinese do everything on a grandiose scale – in every direction there are cranes sprouting like preying mantis atop hundreds – probably thousands – of new hi-rises. And I reflect that all around me is evidence of this adolescent energy – for China is really a very youthful capitalist culture – I think I must be the most aged traveler – youth seems to be on the move here. The weird thing is that for a country of a billion plus, their largest airport is virtually empty. It may have something to do with European airports – and flights there – having ground to a standstill. Every time I spot one of the omnipresent TVs, pictures abound of snow-bound planes and not-so-frequent flyers.

I heard somewhere that this country is planting millions of tress to combat their sprawling industrial pollution. More on a grand scale – a declaration by the central government that is doubtless being implemented by vast hordes of nascent tree-planters. Nothing like my Canadian counter-cultural experience of yesteryear … these guys command and the populace jump, pronto. However, their environmental gusto is belied by a notice I spied in the washroom: “Use Less Paper” – right next to a dispenser of guess what: paper towel, that was definitely being used quite liberally. Not quite worth the paper it was writ on, one might conclude.