Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Have caught my first cold here, and all five of my Mandarin teachers are unanimous: it must be the weather.

Like my parents, they believe that when it's cold outside, it's easier to catch a cold. If they told me to put on a sweater, they'd definitely be my relatives. They're not talking about lowered defenses or more people with germs crowding indoors. They say there is a Chinese saying that the body is more tired in the fall and spring when it has to adjust to cooler mornings and evenings and warmer afternoons. Winter and summer are easier because it's always hot or always cold.

The Bookworm, my local library / Wifi cafĂ©, was packed tonight for a reading by Jim McGregor, who launched his book tour in Beijing today. A former WSJ reporter and Dow Jones executive, his book is “One Billion Customers: Lessons From the Front Lines of Doing Business in China.” Like any good journalist, he saved for the book tour the parts he had to cut for reasons of taste. Like comparing guanxi to sex - it doesn't matter who's on top, make sure the other side isn't just pretending to be satisified, have layers of protection, do background checks, etc.

More interesting was his riff on how the Chinese are getting richer and richer but more and more psychologically confused. People are unsettled because they have no other mission in life other than to acquire wealth. They don't trust anything other than money and immediate family. There's not much introspection in Chinese culture, McGregor said. Feelings and emotions are bad for your health. Even Buddhism exorts you to leave feelings and desires behind.

China understands the US and the West much better than the other way around, McGregor said. China is modernizing, but not Westernizing. That worries a lot of people in Congress, where, according to McGregor, the sensible center is disappearing. On his trips back and forth to the US McGregor said he was hearing more and more from the extreme right and left.

But China also has a lot of responsibility for one of the biggest stumbling blocks to smooth relations: intellectual property issues, McGregor said. It's not just pirated CDs and DVDs (Bertolucci's The Last Emperor and the latest Coldplay album are $2.50 here; Hotel Rwanda and Ray (Charles) are just $1.25), it's fake airplane parts!

Meanwhile, have been meeting two conversation partners twice a week. One likes to talk about art and we went to another cluster of art galleries not far from Dashanzi. This time, everything seemed derivative to me.

Most of the artists had shaved or nearly bald heads. Most said confident, flirtatious things to my friend and me (how and why we should sign their guestbooks). Many hired underlings to paint or sculpt for them. There were images of Mao everywhere, including paintings juxtaposing Mao's sayings with American corporate phrases such as “You've Got Mail”(selling for $300). It seemed like one big clichĂ©, all geared to sell to foreigners.

The other conversation partner talked about one of her girlfriends, a former college classmate who is attractive, educated and employed but who can't leave a longtime boyfriend who refuses to marry her. The boyfriend is rich, hasn't worked for three years and dislikes her friends. But he never says no when she calls him up to go out. He belongs to a new class of Chinese who can afford US$850,000 two-bedroom apartments with goldleaf in the walls.

Speaking of which, there is a Beijing man who sometimes drives a yellow Hummer into my building's driveway. Not sure if it's true, but taxi drivers tell me there are only three or four Hummers in Beijing.