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Thursday, July 28, 2005

The other half, China-style

10:30 PM and despite an hour and a half nap this afternoon, I feel my eyes heavy beyond control, fighting hallucination and collapse. The heat and the remnants of jet lag refuse to let go of me. I will go to bed soon, and hope tomorrow I will be my normal self.

Despite the weariness, today has been an interesting day. It started with a trip to a factory where they make foam for bras (I got to touch a lot of bra padding today--"for American women," one of the ladies said about the large-sized boobs), sofas and recliners (and they had some nice ones there), and shoes. I was given a mini-tour while my host and his friend ironed out the details for our coming trip to Jiuzhaigou (which is a series of Tibetan villages in a stunning and overcrowded mountain tourist area, from what I understand) and Emeishan, which is one of the four main Buddhist mountains in China (I think that's the scoop, at any rate).

After that, we had a nice lunch and drove around a bit. Traffic here is just ridiculous, cars driving the wrong way down the streets and highways, weaving in and around each other, ignoring the lane markers painted on the nice new roads. And there are a lot of new roads here. In fact, everything seems new. ShunDe is one of the richest areas in China, and there are a number of villa-like homes and apartments that would attest to this fact. There is also a huge city hall and an accompanying restaurant/entertainment facility that bears a stunning resemblance (from afar) to the Duomo in Florence. I felt a bit like we were driving through movie sets, what with the row after row of low, long factory buildings and people sitting or rushing to and fro moving what would be props from place to place. This illusion was shattered, though, upon seeing a woman carrying some sort of animal corpse on the back of her bike (I just saw flapping legs hanging down by the back wheel--could have been pig or dog or some other creature).

Despite all the new construction going up or recently finished, and all the nice houses and apartments, there is plenty of poverty in evidence. In the wetlands around small rivers and ponds are ranshackle wooden houses and women out in knee deep water searching for things to eat. There are any number of people sitting out in front of buildings doing nothing much of anything, wearing dirty clothes and worn pants, or men riding bikes and pushing carts that bear loads taller than they, and you can only think that the money they are being paid for such labor is a pittance.

We drove by my hosts' old factory today as well, a rundown looking building in an area full of decrepit buildings. Seeing that made for a sort of nutshell encapsulation, a side by side, of some of the great success stories that have occurred in this country in the past decade. On the other hand, it was also a reminder of just how many more people have not found much of anything.

We visited a temple in the late afternoon, and then had foot massages. Despite the pain, a much needed trip. Then we went to a grocery story--a proper store inside a happening mall. Imagine my surprise, then, upon seeing turtles, shells removed but still alive, waiting to be sold for dinner (we passed, despite a hard sell from one of the clerks). There were also toads for sale, and any number of bloody fish and pig parts (though those were not so unexpected).

Following the store, we had another excellent meal. One of my hosts says that ShunDe has the best food he has eaten in China. I can't say that this is true or not, but thus far I can vouch for the fact that it is very, very good. Now I look forward to a trip for dim sum in the morning.

There is a saying that keeps coming to mind today: "So this is how the other half lives." I think this is a pretty silly saying, because it implies that half the people around us are filthy rich, and on top of that, it makes it seem like middle class life is such an awful thing. The saying comes to mind being exposed to these factories. The workers are treated just fine, mind you, but just trying to put myself in their shoes, working x number of hours a day in a hot room, doing whatever job, living far away from home...I actually am hoping to help out a bit tomorrow and do some packing, but I was told this may be more of a distraction than a help.

So, that's that for now. The final bell rang about an hour ago, so all the work is done here. I am sure, though, that not far away others still toil. And I know that a few miles away, work continues on a road or on a new building as this area races forward into the future. It seems there should be not time to be tired.

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