Posted by: nickgerlich | August 25, 2007

The Road Ahead

(presented as a pre-blog to my Fall 2007 students) 

Summer has afforded me a little time to catch up on my reading (what else would an academic do, anyway?). One of the best reads of this summer is China Road: A Journey Into The Future Of A Rising Power, by Rob Gifford.

China RoadGifford is a British correspondent for NPR who lived in China for 6 years, but also studied there 20 years ago in his collegiate days. The essence of the book is that Gifford goes from end to end on China”s Route 312, their version of America’s fabled Route 66. Route 312 is nearly 3000 miles long, and runs from Shanghai to the Kazakh border.

As Gifford says early on, traveling Route 312 is more Steinbeck than Kerouac. While he traveled east-to-west, the modern-day Okies are headed in the other direction, with rural peasants migrating to the factories (and jobs) along the east coast.

China Road is an Asian Planes, Trains, & Automobiles redux, only this time it is Buses, Taxis, and Semis…all the while with Vanity Fair’s “Hitchin” A Ride” running in the background. His six-week journey found him blending in with the locals at every bend in the road. Perhaps the most striking conversation he had was with a doctor on a bus headed for Jinchang. The woman was in charge of family planning in that county. Her job is to enforce the one-child policy, literally going door-to-door checking up on women.

“And what happens if you find that there are women who are pregnant who shouldn’t be pregnant?”

“We try to persuade them to have an abortion.”

“And if they don’t agree?”

“We have to force them. You know, zhong guo ren tai duo le. There are too many Chinese people.”

Those of us with Chinese daughters and/or have been to China know this story all too well. But it still struck me for its lack of respect for humanity. This is simply a job for one female doctor and her two nurse assistants, calling on women as if they were Avon ladies providing beauty consultations.

And that’s the kind of reportage you will find throughout the book. Gifford is able to dig much deeper than most westerners simply because he is fluent in Mandarin. (And he obliges readers by providing pronunciation guides of place- and people names.) His prose is far more than just “come along on my road trip;” no, it”s a tasty blend of history, politics, and culture that has left me with a far greater understanding of China…and why in 5000 years of history it has failed to dominate the world. Burdened by tradition to the extent that it bogged down progress, China is a nation of innovators slapped with handcuffs. Gifford wonders aloud several times if the current economic boom will last, and if China will blow it, imploding once again as it has done many times throughout history.

Gifford has me thinking. Dreaming. Scheming. I want to go back to China. I want to explore it. I want to see it. Feel it. Taste it. The first time I went was to pick up our second adopted daughter, and much of what we did was regimented by the adoption process at hand. But next time I want to sever the ties that bind, and take my family on an adventure into the unknown.

If anything, Gifford’s road trip is a lot like the way I present my courses. We’re off together on our own version of Route 312, a place you may have seen once or twice before (if you are a returning student of mine), but I guarantee you will see new things regardless. The only difference is that, whereas Gifford”s trip was linear, ours is a spiral. We’ll loop around, but when we have come full circle, we”ll be at a higher point than when we started.

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