Sunday, June 15, 2008

NPR's romance with Sichuan, finally over!

Last week it was one month after the "week long broad cast from Sichuan Province China" for NPR's Melissa Block and Robert Siegel... and they had them and Andrea Tzu their producer on last week one morning, reminiscing about their one week trip to Chengdu China. The first two days of their reporting, was pre-earth quake, and all they could do was wax poetically about how wonderful Sichuan province was. Another day of having to listen to Melissa Block Romanticize about how GREAT China was, and I would have canceled my membership, written a nasty-gram to ATC NPR, and probably had my head explode.

Yes, there was the devastating earth quake. Agreed, that is terrible. There was wide-spread loss of life, and massive destruction. Coverage of that is appropriate, and journalistically astute. That's not what got to me.

What got to me, what Melissa Block's (and to a lesser extent Robert Siegel's) white washing, romanticizing, propagandizing about
- crystal pure streams
- delicious hot pot dining experiences
- wonderful local cuisine
- the abundance of locals who spoke nearly perfect English
- the wonderful highway systems connecting the towns
...and a host of other things, that are so far away from the REALITY of Sichuan province, that it at first infuriated me to hear NPR go on and on about how awesome it was there, and then it just disgusted me, after the 2nd day. In 13 trips, totaling 6 months of my life spent in China, I saw the diametric opposite of what NPR idyllically experienced.

In the sheltered, obviously government minded time that NPR spent in the western province of Sichuan... where was the reporting on:
- the streams and rivers choked so black with pollution and garbage that the Little Calumet River, dug by the Army Corp of Engineers on the southern border of Hammond Indiana in my home town looked like a lush tropical garden of eden in comparison? The Chinese water was so nasty looking, and so fetid smelling, in the north, central, and southern areas of Sichuan province I visited, that WHENEVER I was at dinner and they served fish (which was damn near every meal) I asked directly "is that ocean fish, or river fish?" and the locals would proudly say "local river fish" I would politely decline, and tell them I was Buddhist. No mercury, PCBs, or arsenic for me, thank you.

- the public corpses (BEFORE the earth quake) of people who were killed in auto accidents, and left in the sun to swell on the side of the highway while the driver argued with a disheveled, untucked, green shirted cop? Or the old man who was begging outside the hotel restaurant we ate dinner at nearly every day next to the factory who died staring up at the sun, jaw agape, flies buzzing around him, hand extended, and when I asked... "is he dead?" my Chinese GE minders drew me by the arm into the hotel telling me "don't worry about it" and then called over the proprietor to make sure some removed the body before we finished lunch and I asked any more questions.

- the omnipresent stench of sewers, all around the city, in the business district, in the slums, in the industrial district (plopped down in the middle of slums), at the airport.. everywhere. After the earthquake, ok, yes, there'd be lots of cracked sewer tiles.. but before the earthquake, the city made the East Chicago water treatment plant smell like a perfumerie in comparison.

- the widespread air pollution. Air so thick, that you DID NOT KNOW your plane was about to land, until you heard the landing gear come down. The planes take off, and at about 500 ft altitude, you enter a thick gray smog that obscures all ground visibility. All flying is done on instruments, as visually, you can't see anything between 200ft and 35K feet. (I'll attach a photo of Soviet Made TU-157s that were grounded at the Chengdu Airport, due to being unsafe to fly after an unexplained crash killing 200 people, to help illustrate)

- truck drivers stopping to piss on their brakes along the highways. I thought I was imagining it, but then I kept seeing it, and smelling it. Guess there's no version of a Chinese "Snopes" over there, to dispel the myth that 300 mls of urine will help to cool off over-heated truck brakes.

- bribes at the toll stations. In between every town, there is a ubiquitous toll booth, on every high way. If you don't have the right traveling papers, you cannot go to the next town. If the booth inspector sees you have Westerns in your car, you get pulled over (as we pulled over, every time). And the driver gets talked to, sometimes pass ports are handed forward, always cash is handed from the driver to the inspector, who counts it, and then lets us pass. Melissa never mentioned this....

- corn and canola drying on the road, to be cracked by passing cars. Yes, it sounds nuts, because it IS nuts. Makes for a slippery surface, but the farmer doesn't have to actually mill his corn that way, he just lets passing cars do it for him. Yummy! In the "one month later" report, Robert Siegel DID mention this, anecdotally.

- 1944-Dresden-like smoke. Granted, the Dresden smoke was during the "burning season" when the Chinese take all their stalks and tailings and burn them, in the fields, to make charcoal, which they then spread over the fields for fertilizer... makes breathing a bad idea, and chokes the air and all living things with fine particulate. The worst place I saw this was in Xian, and the country side around that megapolis.

- "back of the line" pushing and shoving, at tourist attractions, buses, airport ticket counters, any ticket counters, baggage claim, boarding gates, airplane stairs (rolled up to the side of the plane)... you name it... Chinese have a very hard time waiting in line in Chengdu, Shanghai, Beijing, Shenzhen, Xian...). An earlier posting on silly signs alludes to this. No one from NPR mentioned anything about this. Maybe, from 2001 (when I was last there) to 2008 there has been a radical shift in "politeness" within China, but I highly doubt it.

- "hello!" relentlessly. Everyone who sees a Westerner in Chengdu, and wants to sell them something, beg from them, get their attention, scam them, says "Hello" in their best grade-school-English-class voice, incessantly, repeatedly, annoyingly. [I would frequently turn to them, and say "Ni Hau" (literally "you good" or colloquially "hi")] In the month-after piece, in the background you could hear a clip they played with a child saying "Hello!" to Melissa Block... she of course didn't acknowledge the kid.

- table upon table of pirated DVDs and CDs in street markets. Every large city has these. NPR's reporting didn't mention it. Maybe copywrite law enforcement have driven this under-ground now...

- orange vested old women street sweeping with bundles of branches. Taking a fag of branches, elderly women would manually "sweep" public streets, whether they needed them or not. These orange vested women also were used as the "eyes and ears" of the local government, and would report anyone who was not conforming rigidly to societal norms.

- throngs ignoring all traffic rules, every person for themselves, during rush hour. The orange vested women didn't sweep BUSY streets, oh no, that would be taking life in their own hands. They swept lesser traveled street. The heavily traveled ones, millions of pedestrians and bicyclists would JAM, CROWD, ignore all traffic laws, and make lemming-like attempts at crossing streets without the aid of traffic signals.

- poorly translated signs "keeping of the green", "autos no", "noise no please" (see previous posting)

- waitresses and waiters wearing surgical masks. During the bird flu pandemics, SOME of the wait staff would be wearing these, but not all. I would inquire when I saw them, and I'd be told "that's just for her protection, she thinks it will keep her from getting sick". Nobody bothered to tell them that viruses are sub-micron, and cloth masks will not stop a virus.

- first class hotel carpets that get so filthy daily, they have to be changed in elevators and lobbies. In the morning, the carpets looked pristine. By the evening, they'd be black. Didn't matter if it rained, if it didn't rain, regardless. The filth of the cities coated everything.

- "airport tax" that has to be paid, in cash (about $20), at the airport, before you can get a boarding pass. This little money making scam was like the toll booths, outside cities on the highways. Leaving by air? That'll be $40 internationally, and $20 domestically, thank you.

- hotel staff who try to break into your room, to physically wake you, instead of calling on the phone for a wake up call. At more than one hotel, I had hotel staff who actually used their pass key, and wanted to creep into your room, to personally wake you, instead of calling. I learned to use the door chain, and if necessary, prop up my luggage and a desk chair against the door, for privacy.

- garbage strewn along the road sides and used as erosion control (like blue Walmart bags, except they're red, Everywhere) In all of the rural areas, the red plastic bag was everywhere. Road sides, ditches, embankments, farm fields, most of them full. It was truly disgusting, and quite sad to see total disregard for the environment. Hell, even the road leading to the Chengdu Panda preserve was rife with red bag trash.... and Melissa did a joyful report from there!

- no birds, no squirrels, not even pigeons.. no wildlife, whatsoever, except a few breeding pandas. My buddy Gary who worked in Chengdu for many years said to me "I want to raise my daughter where she can see birds, there are no birds here". I never saw a bird when I was in Chengdu, or anywhere in Sichuan province.

- open trenches without running water, used as toilets (you squat over the trench). They flush the trench once a week (usually on a Tuesday), unless a GE VP is coming, then they flush it that morning (also, usually on a Tuesday).

- no toilet paper, unless you bring your own copy of the newspaper, you can use the sports section when you're done reading, Needless to say, I carried ALOT of tissues around with me, just in case I needed to use one of these wonderfully smelling, modern bathrooms, before getting back to my hotel each night.

- no sunlight - just a gray haze (I held a shiny manually polished part up to the sky and tried, in vain, to find the sun to reflect off of it to show the unwanted waviness of the polished surface, and the Chengdu factory manufacturing manager tells me "don't worry, here in Chengdu, no sunlight to see waviness, mei wenti [no problem]). truly, there was never a "blazing sun" in Chengdu. It was perpetually occluded by thick thick smog. They've brought 2 new coal fired power plants (without emissions controls) outside Chengdu since I was last there. I am sure the air quality is infinitely better now.

- the chicken foot, floating in the bowl of soup "you so lucky! getting the foot is always good luck!" (with claws still attached.. mmmmmm). No one rom NPR mentioned anything about the chicken foot soup - it's not chicken soup, it's CHICKEN FOOT soup. Common dish served in Chengdu. Staying there a week, they must have had it at least once.

- communal hepatitis hot pot ... where the Chinese host picks up food from the boiling pot, with chop sticks that had just been in their nightmarishly multicolored mouth (lacking teeth and supporting 16th century bridge work), put the extracted food on your plate, and tell you "you try it" ... no thanks, I don't care for Hepatitis type C [and the "food" is Ox throat, Ox stomach, Ox intestine, Ox "tail" (meaning "penis"), Ox Kidney (looks like a 1950s contoured rubber swimming bonnet), Ox {insert organ here} ... where the hell is the muscle part of the Ox??]

So... imagine my amazement, when NPR waxed on and on about how wonderful, pleasant, beautiful... etc Chengdu was in May 2008. The more Melissa Black opined the more I wanted to scream at the radio "where the hell were you!?!?! that is NOT Chengdu!" Maybe, if NPR made her go there 13 times, over 3 years, she'd form a different opinion, somewhat aligned with my experiences. Maybe I'm just evolving into a curmudgeon - Bu Xie Bu Que Chi - that's not impossible. =)

1 comment:

  1. Sounds like very weird reporting on behalf of NPR. Maybe they were on the good drugs.


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