Chinese people absolutely adore sappy, sweet, sad love songs and movies and if you ask any Chinese person for their favorite movie you’ll almost always get the same response: “Titanic“. Yes, the big cheesy American film. One of my Chinese kung fu brothers has watched this movie more times than he can count.
But the image of two young lovers leaning into the wind isn’t what stuck with me about my experience. Walking through China I felt like I was climbing on board the Titanic as the nose was plunging into the dark ocean. Every person I talked to was running past me, trying desperately to find a way off the boat. There I was, strolling around with my head up and an inflatable life boat under my arm asking, “hey, where’s this great band I’ve heard about”?
I asked about wéi qí (Go) playing. Some people had heard about it, but almost no one knew how to play. Traditional music? Maybe I could try the big theater in town. Kung Fu? I am training with an absolute treasure of China. Master Lǚ has incredible skills earned over a lifetime of intense practice and he’s one of the only heirs to a fascinating branch of Kung Fu. These skills can only be passed down orally and through direct instruction. The small group of people I train with, the people who will carry this knowledge to the next generation if it is to survive at all, are almost all foreigners: American, Canadian, French and Japanese students. His old Chinese students, from a time when his school was huge, are running businesses now. No one in China has any time to mess around with anything that doesn’t make money. They are running for the lifeboats.
It disappointed me greatly, but I can’t blame the Chinese people. Their lives have been wrecked by revolution, violence and starvation for decades. Now that they have a chance to get out, the air is thick with poison and the food and water are equally questionable. Money is the life boat that can literally save the lives of their family and they will stop at nothing to get it.
But pollution and poisonous food aren’t the only reasons people want to escape. Even more so is the sense that there is a complete lack of fairness. No matter how hard you work, if you don’t have the right connections it means nothing. The people I talked to felt that in Germany, Canada or the US they would have a fair chance to earn a living through hard work without having to be related to someone in power. They felt like the laws would be fair. They felt like things that weren’t working could be fixed because they could gather with people and make change.
I grew up in a place where I’ve been taught to believe that if I don’t like something I can work to change it. That ideas is deeply, deeply ingrained in me. It’s still difficult for me to think about being completely paralyzed, as many feel they are in China. I’m not talking about petitioning a Senator to make big change, I’m talking about feeling like a street is dangerous and should have a stop sign, and knowing that I can get the community together to get that fixed. Or that I can get a group together and get some land to start a small community garden. If you can’t talk to the people in power (or they don’t have to listen) and you can’t form or gather in groups, there is nothing you can do that won’t get you shot or imprisoned.
In the end, I don’t think China will sink. Many will die in the icy water. The fortunate few will escape to western countries and live out the last days of prosperity there before those places sink. Ultimately China, like the US before it, will slowly make efforts to clean up the disastrous mess they’ve made while building the empire. In a couple of generations, the children or grandchildren of the people who escaped will be looking for a way to get back on board. If I’m still alive I’ll be happy to teach them all of the culture, kung fu, and wéiqí I’ve been saving for when they are ready.