Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The Chinese invented gunpowder. I stand reminded.

(Note: This post replaces temporarily a recounting of my adventures in Taiwan and my brief stay in Manila, which would have finally gotten me caught up. All in good time.)

As I write this, I'm hunkering down in my little room thinking it may have been more appropriate to rent a former air raid shelter, an option I encountered by accident when I was looking for apartments a few weeks ago. Outside, things have been exploding on and off for days now - people setting off massive, massive amounts of fireworks to celebrate the end (tonight) of the Year of the Tiger and the beginning (tomorrow) of the Year of the Rabbit. I imagine that today must be the peak of the fireworking: since I woke up it's been as if I'm in All Quiet on the Western Front, in one of those scenes where they're close to the battlefield but not quite in the thick of the fighting and you can hear the sound of constant gunfire and bombing in the background. I honestly don't think that any given lull has lasted longer than 30 seconds. And I'm not talking about bottle rockets here: these are the kind of fireworks we'd see on the town green every Fourth of July back home.

I was out on my balcony taking photos earlier, but I retreated inside after a stray jet of sparks flew into the level below me. Open space around the residential apartment community I live in seems pretty popular for the setting of fireworks, but it can't compete with the middle of the street, where there always seem to be a few people laying out rows of odd-shaped boxes and lighting them on fire one by one. This would be a great time (for thieves, not for me) to steal a car - alarms have been going off all day and night.

I'm also planning my escape route from the building: Beijing hasn't seen a drop of precipitation in over three months, and if there weren't so few trees here I'd fully expect half the city to be burned down within the week. (As it is, I'm betting on 10%.) The city government has teams of firefighters on call in each of 30 separate districts and has put a ban on fireworks in the Central Business District... and since nothing in eyesight has burst into flame as of yet, I suppose I'll sleep soundly tonight.

Right now I'm watching the CCTV New Year's program, which started at 8:00 and is supposedly watched by nearly every family in China. There's been a lot of comedy (a lot of which I actually laughed at! My Chinese must be improving.), plenty of dancing and singing, some gymnastics, a magic show, a good amount of star power, and a bit of political propaganda slipped in - notably phrases like "Chinese Taiwan" and "our Taiwan brothers" (I'm going to go a bit hard-line here and say, Way to betray your country, 林志玲.)

There has also been some propaganda of another short. A few minutes ago, CCTV trotted out 大山 (Da Shan), a Canadian guy who's incredibly famous for the simple reason that he's white and born abroad but over several years has learned to speak Chinese perfectly. With him were 4-5 exchange students who had either studied at or been sponsored by one of China's many Confucius Institutes, established around the world to promote study of the Chinese language and of Chinese culture. Just now they also showcased the half-dozen winners of the national morality awards - though, arguably, some of those who should have won are currently in jail.

All of this goes to make it a ridiculous and therefore hilarious program: I mean, they just finished off a skit about marriage and house-buying by playing "Waka Waka"/"It's Time for Africa," the Shakira song from the World Cup.

Photos and more commentary to come over the next few days. For now, I'm going to go try and take the last shower of the Year of the Tiger.


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