It’s New Year’s afternoon, 2017, Beijing. I’m actually watching KRON’s live broadcast of New Year’s Eve in San Francisco. Midnight there is about 15 minutes away, as I type this. Below is what I wrote about an hour ago. The first photo is how much worse the air is since I wrote the below missive. The second photo is what I’m referring to below.
The office is closed today. Air pollution is the worst I’ve seen since coming here. The Air Quality Index is at a staggering 506 which is beyond the “hazardous” range which is 301-500. The scale of air quality maxes out at 500. Once it’s over 500, there aren’t any levels, it’s simply “Beyond Index.” There is no level beyond “hazardous” but there should be. Allow me to coin a new term: “Trumpatious:(adj) When something or someone goes to eleven” (See:”This is Spinal Tap” for the definition of “eleven.“) Ex: “Today’s AQI is utterly trumpatious.”
There’s no standardized adjective to describe readings over 500. The website I use to follow the AQI no longer reads: “hazardous.” Whoever posted it, obviously has a wry sense of humor. It now shows: “Flee to Bali” (See photos below.) “Pretty, pretty, pretty, pretty bad” to paraphrase Larry David. I was contemplating going to the National Museum today, with a friend from work but the most I think I’ll do is go work out. The gym is below street level and I assume the air being pumped in is purified to some degree. Still, I have to walk to the gym and therefore, I will wear a facemask for only the second time since I arrived in China.
I’m not gripping, mind you. Bad air and annoying traffic are about the only two things I can complain about, these days. Which reminds me- 2016. It seems to me that most people in America didn’t think it was a particularly kind year. Most people, it seems, are happy that 2016 is being shown the door. John Oliver’s “paean” to 2016, in his last episode of the year, pretty much says it all. Still, that was seven weeks ago and, obviously, a lot of awful things have happened since. Watch Larry David and other notables, give 2016 the proper “send-off.”
Having said all of that, I must say that 2016 was good to me. After all, I’m loving my new life in China (air and traffic aside) and full of optimism for 2017, too. That’s saying alot coming from moi. If you know me well, you know I’ve never been nominated for any “Most Optimistic” awards, ever. Yet, here I am, happily looking forward to what the next year will bring. Of course, 2015 was my nightmare year due to Ellen’s sudden death. My whole world came crashing down in April of that year but at least I was able to pull myself together and make the most drastic of changes: to say goodbye to my life as I had known it, my entire life, at the risk of stating the obvious redundancy.
When I accepted English First’s job offer in August, 2015, I actually didn’t believe I would really go to China. Certainly, something or someone would come along and put me on another track. Or, the daunting process of clearing the many hurdles associated with obtaining a work-visa from the Chinese government would place some unmovable obstacle in my path. Bad EKG results, alone, would have done that.
It goes without saying but I’ll say it anyway; nothing changed my trajectory. I’m here. I just love this country and the people here. Whenever I’m out and about, I still marvel at the fact that I live here. And the more I observe, the more I conclude that while everything is different, so much is familiar.
Take last night for example. I went out after work on New Year’s Eve with some collegues. We had dinner, and lots of drinks at a place down the street from work that I didn’t know about. The name of the restaurant is “Commune” (see photos) It’s a bar, restaurant and liquor store all mashed together. We ordered drinks, of course, but also bought a bottle of vodka from the restaurant’s store to augment the drinks. I’m always surprised that things like that are acceptable, but I always get the same response: “This is China.” So that was different, but the menu was “pub-grub,” pizza, burgers, pasta, fried chicken, etc. The music blasting, was all-American, with a few rock and roll versions of X-mas songs thrown in for good measure. Even the silly table decoration was a 1950’s style ad for Schlitz beer (see photo.) Were it not for the fact that most everything is written in Mandarin, I could have been in any restaurant in San Francisco or Marin.
Everyday, I’m reminded of how familiar everything seems to be from a “birds-eye perspective.” It only becomes different at a granular level, when details matter. And on that level, it’s only the language that is the difference. China has, for the most part, adopted the Western way of life which is why everything seems so familiar to me. I just started reading Niall Ferguson’s tome: “Civilization: The West and the Rest” in which he poses the question of how and why the so-called “West” has dominated the world since the 1500’s. He contrasts at length about how China was on a trajectory for global domination with its superior culture and technology compared to Europe, ten centuries ago. But a funny thing happened on the way to global dominion; it abruptly turned inward and allowed for the rise on the West with its “six killer Apps”—competition, science, the rule of law, modern medicine, consumerism, and the work ethic. Non western countries that adopt these Apps in turn, become successful which is why China is on the verge of becoming a superpower and why it does seems so familiar to me. It’s a great read; I highly recommend it.
The adjustment to life here has been remarkably easy for me. I suspect that my age has something to do with it. I’m not restless with youthful adventure nor do I suffer from “the grass is greener” somewhere else, syndrome. It takes a lifetime of experience to gain some perspective that allows for certain equanimity in coming to terms with one’s station at any given time. If I could, I would live out the rest of my days in China. I doubt I’ll be able to but certainly, I don’t see any good reason to return to America.
From what I see, Americans seem to be tearing apart each other on a scale that I’ve never seen before and it was pretty bad when I left nine months ago. People I have spoken with are sounding as if a malaise has settled in. The outlook appears grim, at least for people who view themselves as “progressive”. It seems as if America is on the verge of another civil war, this time, without armed conflict. And the storm clouds have only begun to gather. I feel very safe, observing the coming American maelstrom from my “perch” here in Beijing. Given my nature of being a “political animal” riding out the Trump years in China (if allowed) will be a good thing for my mental health and general well being.
I really did pick a good time to leave. For once, my notoriously bad timing actually failed this time (can I say: “My bad timing had bad timing”?) Things really do appear to be “falling apart” in the America. The centrifugal forces of political polarity are being ramped up “to eleven” and I wonder if the fifty states will still be “united” when all is said and done. “Calexit,” anyone? “Yes,” for me, please! If Californians actually did vote to exit the Union in 2019, irony meters everywhere will explode when the southern states (who are, after all, dependent on the the tax reallocations from “blue” states to “red” states) scream, “California has no right to sucession.” By the way, you don’t hear too much about Texas wanting to leave, now that Trump will be president. If California actually did leave the Union, I would definitely return, to help build a more perfect disunion. “Load and lock,” as Ben Stiller famously erred, in “Tropic Thunder.”
In the meantime, I’m getting on with my new life and overall, enjoying each day. I’m confident that for me, anyway, 2017 will be a great year. Best of luck, America, you’re going to need a lot of it in 2017 and beyond.