Archive for July, 2008

Hello Air India!

I’m boarding as we speak: NYC to Delhi direct. This rocks. Cue theme song.

First stop is business; then we’ll be traveling to Varanasi, Khajuraho, Agra (Taj!), Jaipur, Jodhpur, and Udaipur. Sadly, we won’t get to Bombay (monsoon much?). That’s a shame since I absolutely loved Maximum City. Next time!

I’m expecting beautiful stuff, particularly since some of my favorite photobloggers live in India (Trivial Matters, Daily Sunrise). And, of course, we’re looking forward to seeing the big sites. But I have to admit my favorite part of any trip like this is the little things: backstreets — seeing how people really live — is what makes it for me. See you in August!

The Elephant in China’s Room

All hail Chairman Yingying! I love this shot for its juxtaposition of opposites: fun and serious, warm fuzzy and hardcore military. He’s cute, but that cuddly Fuwa is huge, overshadowing everything and everyone. He’s the elephant in the room.

In a lot of ways, China’s public image seems to sport a teflon jacket. Even with the Sichuan schools, even with the food recalls, even with the human rights violations. There’s just something about China’s meteoric rise that makes us forgive (when we shouldn’t). It’s a beautiful place, with a fabulous PR corps. It makes a great story.

And when I talk to thoughtful Chinese about the situation there, they almost always speak with genuine optimism. A recent On The Media interview captured it well:

I know a lot of what we are saying sounds very brainwashed and nationalistic, but actually we know very well what we are talking about. And we know there is something with China that’s not so good. But you should also know that if you compared today China with 50 years ago, it’s already much, much, much better. So give China more time and we have a better China for everybody. Student in Shanghai

But can we afford to wait?

The Resource Rush
What we’re seeing in China is growth on a scale the planet has never seen. And coping with that means Herculean measures. One of those measures is grabbing resources wherever (and however) they can. Specifically, this means places where there’s no audit trail — where China’s “big black hole of data” is met with similar, creating accountability deficit disorder. Enter Fast Company’s deeply important report China in Africa, which provides a peek into the singularity, revealing all kinds of double-dealing, non-living wages, seriously dangerous working conditions, environmental annihilation, and zero oversight. The author puts it this way: “While blood diamonds might be better known, there is also blood copper, blood gold, blood coltan, and blood cobalt.” Resources for the most ruthless.

The All Seeing Eye
A second Herculean effort is happening internally where, in order to manage the insane growth, China (with the help of US contractors) is installing a surveillance apparatus second to none. It’s a story of face tracking lampshades every 10 yards all wired to a central database that knows your every move and your every consort. The party line? It’s designed to manage public assembly and track known criminals under the guise of “if you’re not doing anything bad, you’ve got nothing to worry about.” Orwell, anyone? (And, oh yeah, that same technology is starting to show up on US soil.)

The Upside
Of course, there are good things happening in China, too. Take, for example, environmental cleanup innovations that are being developed out of necessity. Most developing nations wait until they’re rich to begin to clean up but, because of scale and impact, China has decided it can’t wait. This is meaningful.

A friend once told me that to truly understand China, we must love her people. The problem as he saw it is that so many in the west can’t separate the 1.3 billion from the tiny fraction that run the place. His gaze didn’t leave mine for a while — he meant this in a deep way; a way I, as a Westerner, am still not entirely sure I understand. But I think part of it is this: just as China is cleaning up environmentally out of necessity, it also needs to give her people a voice out of necessity. That’s the only way China can truly lead the world. And that’s the only way China can repay the countries from which it has taken so much.

Of course, I say this as a citizen of a crumbling democracy whose leaders have exploited (and continue to exploit) Africa in awful ways. My point is that I believe China can find a better way. The sparks are there. Let’s hope they light.

photo via, chart via fastcompany

Saigon Night and the Sea of Motorbikes

Christmas in Saigon is amazing, but not for the reasons you’d expect. Honestly, I thought the holidays there would be a non-event — a nice escape from the endless Christmas carols and Santa suits back home. Tropical climate, 85% Buddhist, no worries, right?

Or not. Vietnam does Christmas, and they do it huge. But the details are deeply different. Take, for example, the massive throngs of motorbikes that consume the night streets. It’s hard to convey just how surreal the scene is — a never ending, ever moving sea of bikers stretching as far as the eye can see. All celebrating, in all directions. Stunning.

And, while it appears to be a holiday tradition here, this year was different again. Because, in a country where the second leading cause of death is motorcycle accident, they just added a law that requires helmets. Glimmering domes for miles, each with their own style. I’ve never seen that level of compliance to any new law in the states. Wonder what that says.

Just when we thought we’d seen it all, a group of kids showed up on bicycles, too young for the motored sort. The click-clack of those human-powered bikes provided a lovely organic counterpart to the endless rumble of their motorized brethren. Then they were gone — swept up into the energy of the night. Beautiful stuff.

Surprisingly, New Year’s was tame by comparison. But, then, the real New Year is Tet, isn’t it. I can’t imagine. And I can’t wait to see it.

See more of our Christmas Nights in Saigon on Flickr. We last wrote about Vietnam in Hanoi’s Hidden Graffiti.

E-mail It