Friday, November 10, 2006

China, the Anti-Italy

November 10, 2006

I know you've all been waiting to hear about my trip to China. Thank you for your patience. The truth is, it's taken me these several weeks to get over my culture shock and recover my strength. Unfortunately, the day I left Madison I came down with a bacterial infection that eventually landed me in Peoples' Hospital #3 in Chongqing (where we received speedy, efficient, and courteous service) and caused us to cancel our cruise on the Yangstse River and come home several days early. Then, on the flight home I came down with a terrible cold. So, between the jetlag, the culture shock, and the miseries, it was altogether a rough trip.

China is bursting with energy, an economic juggernaut that nobody can stop. In Beijing, there are three streams of traffic: cars and buses, people on bicycles, and people peddling carts. Just by looking at the street you can see three different economic levels of society taking shape before your very eyes. Three hundred new cars enter that stream every day. The traffic is wild, drivers are incredibly skilled, and no westerner can understand why there aren't more accidents. We were in a taxi cab, stalled in the middle of the worst late Friday afternoon traffic jam I have ever been in, when the driver, in total exasperation, did a jack-knife maneuver and crossed three lanes of traffic to deposit us in front of our hotel. There is a tremendous city-wide effort to clean up and modernize in order to prepare for The Olympics. Whole neighborhoods are being razed and new construction is ongoing everywhere which only adds to the grit, the grayness, and the commotion. In China, you cease thinking about global warming as an idea, and begin to understand it as a huge universal problem that we simply must tackle head-on if we are all going to survive.

Another thing: I left an omnivore and came home a vegetarian. This is a humbling and surprising consequence of my travels since I have been famous, both on air and off, for my derision and scorn for "greenies." But visiting the so-called "wet markets" in Beijing and Xian, which seemed to me like huge death chambers where everything is trapped and doomed: live crabs, and eels, and turtles, and frogs, and fish, all crammed in as tightly as pencils in a box, all trying desperately to claw and haul their way out of their tanks, made me hyper-aware for the first time in my life of what eating really is. These were huge markets that made me ask myself, how long can humans go on heedlessly consuming on this scale before the oceans and the rivers and the lakes are all depleted? And do I really need to kill in order to stay alive? So that's why in coming home I'm so grateful to have discovered Deborah Madison's beautiful cookbooks.

More later. As you can see, China was a profound and disurbing experience.

Have any of you ever been there? Do these impressions seem off-base to you? I'd love to hear your responses.