Reflections on a Wandering Life.....

Wednesday, September 25, 2013


Went to Think in China last night. The professor began his lecture by saying that China is a socialist country. During the question and answer period, I queried him about this. I told him that socialism is a word that has a meaning. That meaning is "public ownership of the means of production."

He said, "When I say socialist, I mean a country that is led by the communist party. So if the party's approach to socialism changes, we simply change the definition."

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So what he seemed to be saying was that socialism was whatever the Party said it was. There is a lot of truth to this. In China, it is not politically correct to spout Marxist philosophy. But it is also not politically correct to publicly admit that we no longer believe what Marx taught. Whatever system is adopted in China, we MUST call it socialism.

A few minutes later, the professor said, "China is a socialist country and America is a capitalist country." What does he mean by that? If I take what he said at face value, I would have to conclude that he was saying, "China is led by the Communist Party and the U.S. is not led by the Communist Party. But that's a meaningless statement. It sounds like what he was actually doing was sliding into the traditional statement that China is a socialist country as opposed to America, which is a capitalist country. That doesn't work. To juxtapose China's system vis-a-vis America's system implies an objective standard against which to measure both of them. But he had just got done saying that there was no objective definition. Socialism is whatever the Party says it is. You can't have it both ways. But in China, they seem determined to have it both ways, and this creates confusion. This morning, I opened up the China Daily and saw the following headline:

"Let the market play its own role"
Under that was the subtitle:
"State Council's latest move reduces intervention and facilitates business"
Does that sound like Marxism to you? You see, this is the problem with the way this whole issue is being implemented in China. The good professor says that socialism means leadership by the Communist Party. But if you say that, then sliding into old statements about China being socialist as compared to America being capitalist is not really honest. In fact, China is moving away from socialism, and America is moving toward socialism. But don't tell anybody.

Saturday, August 24, 2013


Finally got a brainstorm. I have had a terrible time trying to get a sleeper ticket back to Beijing. Getting a train ticket is not that hard, but I am just not interested in sitting for almost 40 hours in a crowed train car. It's just too much. But I found a cheap flight ticket to Harbin. It is quite easy to get a ticket on the high speed Japanese train from Harbin to Beijing. Fortunately, Harbin has a new youth hostel near the old Russian Street. The old Russian street is the street with all the old businesses from the period when the Russian Jews came to Harbin and built this tiny village into a prosperous city. I won't go into too much detail, because I dealt with it at length during my visit here during Spring Festival in January and February of 2009. But just let me say that if you ever have a chance to spend a few days in Harbin, you should not only visit the old Russian street. You should also visit the "new" synagogue (the term "new" is relative--both synagogues are almost a hundred years old) and see the hundreds and hundreds of pictures from that amazing slice of history. The story of the Harbin Jews is a partial sequel to the film "Fiddler on the Roof." That film is a novel, of course, but it is quite true to the period. The end of the movie shows them leaving their little Russian village to go to America. In actual fact, many of the Russian Jews who were harassed by the Czar did not go to America. They went to China. Harbin China. At one time, the mayor of Harbin was from Moscow. Harbin never actually became a part of Russia, because it was in China. But in a sense, it really was part of Russia. Maybe you could say a Russian island in China. Or a Russian Hong Kong.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Hailaer Hostel 

The youth hostel in Hailaer is interesting. Hailaer is a city. So the youth hostel is really an urban youth hostel, and the city of Hailaer is not a particularly impressive place. But the hostel is situated out in the country, so the hostel itself is a nice place to stay if you need to stop over in Hailaer. That might be the case if you are going up to Enhe or something. But if you are headed up toward Manzhouli, I would recommend taking a train or plane there directly, due to the corruption in the taxi system at the Hailaer airport, and the fact that...well, there just isn't that much to do in Hailaer. But again, the hostel itself is a really nice place, and in the countryside outside of Hailaer. Whenever I am in town and heading out in a taxi, the taxi driver will look at me quizzically when I tell him where I want to go. He will say something like, "Is someone meeting you there? There's nothing out there." That's the whole idea. :)

Tuesday, August 20, 2013


Yesterday I climbed the hill across from the youth hostel and found a bunch of fake tanks. But when I got back the folks at the youth hostel insisted that three of them were real. So I went back up today and found the rest of them. Apparantly they are from the Sino-Japanese War. I'm guessing that the dummy tanks were put there to fake out the enemy pilots flying overhead.

Click for slideshow.
During that part of the Sino-Japanese War, it would have been the KMT (Chiang Kai-shek's army) that held this part of China, which is referred to in the west as "Manchuria." Remember, the Sino-Japanese War and the Civil War between the Nationalists (KMT) under Chiang Kai-shek and the Communists were taking place at the same time. The KMT and the Communists alternately fought the Japanese (sometimes together) and also fought each other.

Manchuria literally means "Home of the Manchu." The Manchus were from what is now referred to as Northeast China. That includes the three provinces in the northeast (Heilongjiang, Jilin, and Liaoning). But it also includes the northeast corner of Inner Mongolia, which is designated by the People's Republic as "Hulunbuir" a city (actually a district) in the extreme northeast of Inner Mongolia. The native people of Inner Mongolia are Mongols, not Manchus. But Hulunbuir borders the Manchu area, so it is often included in what is called "Manchuria."

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Hailaer Church 

When I was up in the village before I went to Manzhouli, I met a couple ladies who told me there was a family church in the village that they went to. But they didn't exactly invite me. They also told me there were some Russian Orthodox family churches. As I mentioned earlier (see July 27th), when I arrived in Manzhouli, I visited a large church there, only to find that it was a fake church. So by the time I got here to Hailaer, I had all but despaired of finding a church on this summer trip. Before I got ot Hailaer, I did a search on Youtube and found a video of a church in Hailaer. I took a snapshot of the video, put it on my Android phone and showed it to the taxi driver this morning. He took me right to the place. I had assumed that this was a Three-self church, but the pastor insisted that it was not. So I really don't know exactly how it gets to be here, because it is pretty big for a family church, especially in the countryside. House churches used to have to meet in secret, but now the government pretty much looks the other way unless the fellowship is pretty big. But "pretty big" is interpretive. It depends on so many things--what part of China, whether it is an urban or rural community, the number of Christians in the surrounding community (indicating the level of demand), and so on.

Saturday, August 17, 2013


Yesterday I left Manzhouli.

I am in Hailaer now. I went to the train station this morning to try to get a ticket. Plenty of tickets, but no sleeper tickets. I had the same problem in Manzhouli. I think I finally figured out what the problem is. They open ticket sales 20 days early for online purchase. But the ticket window purchase is opened 18 days in advance. That means that online purchasers have two days to buy up all the sleeper tickets. There is no way they would sell all the sleeper tickets in two days under normal circumstances. But in the peak travel season, there is lots of competition for those tickets.

   Click to enlarge.





Yesterday morning, I got up and went to KFC for breakfast and study. As I was studying, a tourist came to me and showed me some pictures he had taken of me. It's a bit disconcerting to know that people are taking pictures of you at any moment, but that is life in China for a foreigner. Anyway, they seemed like nice folks. Most people think I am one of the many Russians who come across the border every day to buy cheap Chinese goods. But for me, Manzhouli is just a place to get away from the heat. There is nothing that sensational about Manzhouli, but it's a nice place to get away from the summer heat of Beijing. I do miss the mountains. Hulunbuir is rolling prairie. But the weather is perfect. Summers are really nice here.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

No water. This is really crazy. I guess it happens every once in awhile here in Manzouli. They tell me it's because of the big rain two days ago. Doesn't make sense. You'd think with all that rain they would have plenty of water. Apparently the rain overwhelms their system or something. I first noticed it last night when I stopped by KFC to do my Chinese homework. The restrooms were blocked off. When I got to the youth hostel they told me the water was off. This morning early to my surprise I noticed there was a little trickle of water, so I was able to take a shower. A cold shower. But it's summertime, so no worries. But an hour later, there was no water. They tell me it will take three days to get it on again. I guess I will take this one day at a time. It's getting time to go back to Beijing pretty soon.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Thumbing through Russia 

I met Feng Fan at the youth hostel. He is planning to hitch-hike through Russia and end up in South Africa. I think he's crazy. But I was crazy once too. After I graduated from high school, I put my clothes and a sleeping bag in John's old army duffle bag and had Mel take me out to the Market Street exit in Salem, Oregon, where we lived at the time. I stuck my thumb out and kept sticking my thumb out until I got to Dallas, Texas. From there I proceeded to Tennessee, then Florida, then back toward Oregon. So I'm not sure if I would have the nerve to do what Feng Fan is doing. But I sure do understand that urge to see what's over the next hill. And that youthful optimism. I was a boy scout, so I wanted to be prepared. I even made a small cook stove from some old vegetable cans, which I never used. But what if I had come to the end of a day, and had to be dropped off in a rainstorm or something? Or what if it had started raining when i was sleeping outside in my sleeping bag? I was taking a lot of chances--hoping for things to turn out right. There were few youth hostels in those days, and I didn't have money for hotels. So I made the decision to hitchhike. It was a crazy decision, perhaps, but it has influenced, at least to some extent, nearly every decision I have made since that time regarding my life direction. There's something about making a decision like that--even an apparently crazy decision--that emboldens you to do it again and again throughout your life once you have seen the benefit that can come from one step of faith. Feng Fan is planning to use couch surfing part of the time. He seems to be quite enthusiastic and in good health, so I think his chances for success are quite good. But I did tell him to skip South Africa. Keep the wind at your back, Feng Fan.

Wednesday, August 07, 2013

I walked into a restaurant the other day, and sat down to order something. The waitress started speaking to me in Russian. I said to her (in Mandarin). "I'm sorry, I don't speak Russian." She panicked. She started looking around for someone to help her. Her response was a bit annoying, but it also struck me funny. She was obviously worried because, since I didn't speak Russian, I must be an English speaker, and she didn't speak English. But there was no reason for her to worry. After all, when I told her I didn't speak Russian, I wasn't speaking English. I was speaking Chinese. In fact, I had not spoken a word of English. I said to her slowly in Mandarin, "Do you speak Chinese?" She breathed a sigh of relief. In fact, she was Mongolian. Chinese was not her first language. I heard her telling her coworkers, "He speaks Chinese better than I do." That, of course, was nonsense. Mongolians go to school in Mongolian (unless they live in a totally Han community). The go to school in Mongolian throughout their elementary, middle school, and high school years, and if they want to, throughout their college years. But they all study Mandarin one hour a day. In today's Inner Mongolia, where many shopkeepers are Chinese, that is going to make you basically a native speaker. It depends on the individual, of course. I have met Mongolians who seemed much more attached to English than Mandarin, but they are the exception. Most Mongolians speak Mongolian and Mandarin. Their level of Mandarin proficiency really depends on the extent to which they themselves want to be integrated into Chinese society. If they prefer to study in a Mongolian university and live a Mongolian life, they can do that. But if they are good students, and they want to go to a top university in Beijing, they will obviously become quite good at Mandarin. But it struck me that this young lady, whose Chinese is obviously very good, has grown up in an environment where her Mandarin is always seen as "substandard," since it is not as native as that of her Han neighbors. So she thinks her Chinese is not very good, when in fact, she is basically a native speaker.

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Manzhouli Coffee 

Finally found someone who speaks English in this town. A young lady has opened a small coffee bar not too far from the youth hostel. I just happened to walk by it the other day. She doesn't have a lot of experience with coffee--her mocha tastes like a regular cup of coffee--but it's a nice little place, with the added benefit of a screaming fast wireless system. I can watch McLaughlin Group on YouTube through my VPN without it breaking up. Because of this coffee bar, I found out there are actually English speaking people in this town. There's some kind of language school in this town, I guess, because the English teachers come to this coffee bar, since the "matron" of the place speaks pretty good English. She seems to be in her early twenties--I don't think she's been in business very long. But she's very friendly and determined to make a go of this thing, and I think she just might, because it's small, so her overhead is probably not that large, and she has a dedicated group of patrons who really seriously do not have any other place to go if they don't speak Mandarin. This town would not be the easiest for someone whose only language is English. Her English is quite good, which is extremely rare in Manzhouli.

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