Happy International Women’s Day!

I know you all have this day circled on your calendars every year, but I wanted to remind you all, just in case…

As far as I’m concerned, International Women’s Day should not be an occasion for giving women flowers and chocolates, or offering to do the household chores one day out of the year, or – as happened to me today – being offered half a day off work along with other female employees in China.

What it should be about is remembering that, even if you live in a society or class of basic gender equality and freedom, there are women across the world who do not: women who live in poverty because their gender means that they are not free to work, women who are made to bear too many children because they are forbidden from controlling their fertility, women who live under oppressive fundamentalisms, women who labor every day on land that their gender ensures they may never own.

Today should be a day for education and activism, a today for remembering that the systemic mistreatment of women not only harms women themselves, but reinforces paradigms of what constitutes acceptable, gendered behavior that harm everyone.

Here are a few examples of simple things you can do to honor International Women’s Day:

  • Remember that proposed legislation that would harm women does not have to be enacted. Send a message to your congressperson urging them to impose no new restrictions on abortion in the US.
  • Create a little feminist guerrilla art – just to remind everyone that you’re paying attention!
  • Watch the film The Stoning of Soraya M; learn more about how religious fundamentalisms disproportionately harm women here.
  • Attend an event celebrating International Women’s Day near you.
  • Donate some money to an organization working to end gender injustice. I’m sure your Googling skills and judgment are up to the task of finding something appropriate for your interests!
  • Be kinder to your female body today. Stop criticizing and punishing it for being too old/fat/dark/wrinkled/freckled/saggy/ethnic. Who knows – you just might like it.

How will you be celebrating this day, Dear Reader?

Image courtesy of gaelx

People’s Republic of Tear-That-Down

Our apartment is generally a quiet place. On any given night, you may hear water rushing through the pipes in the wall next to our bed. You may hear the mysterious plik-plik sound of our upstairs neighbor methodically dropping thumb tacks onto her floor from a great height (or so it seems).

You may also hear, without warning, a thunderous cacophony of dynamited concrete, metal and glass – the unmistakable sound of another building collapsing as our neighborhood is destroyed-and-rebuilt around us.

There is a pun among foreigners that China should be called 拆那 (pronounced “chai-na”), which literally means “tear that down”, given the rate at which its cities and towns are being ripped apart and redeveloped. Before coming to China, I thought this must be a hyped-up story: no place could possibly be changing its face so quickly. But I am not exaggerating when I tell you that, in the seven months that I have lived here, several square-block areas just around our apartment have been torn down, had scaffolding go up, had welding and cement-pouring occur all day and night, and then been magically unveiled as a shiny new shopping center or karaoke palace or what have you.

One Wednesday night in September I walked past an anonymous 3-story construction site near my apartment. That Friday night when I passed by again it was a brightly lit Dairy Queen with a line of people out the door. As if it had always been there.

Today I followed my usual path down a little street near our place on the way to work and realized that all of the shops lining it – places selling clothes, cheap needlepoint artwork, odds and ends – had been closed for a week. This means that within the next couple of months the blocks surrounding it will be leveled. No community meetings are held to discuss it (the very idea makes me laugh out loud!). No signs go up explaining this in advance, except for this one:

The spray-painted character next to this man is “chai”, meaning that this structure is soon to be torn down. The sign of the chai is all over Kunming; a dizzying array of foreboding graffiti promising imminent destruction.

The chai photos above were taken in mid-December. This is what that area looks like now:

Photo courtesy of RP

While this process is going on all over Kunming (and all over China), it is particularly noticeable in our neighborhood because, as I think I have mentioned, we live in what might be called “Downtown Kunming”; an area of office buildings and an increasing number of fancy shops and malls selling goods at prices that no one around here can possibly afford.

The government’s plan for this neighborhood is perfectly clear: this area is to resemble the downtowns of other cities in The New Asia; a shopping mecca, a place for tourists filled with Western or Western-style goods, a shiny facade of cheerful economic growth, a place where you cannot possibly say that the Chinese government is ill-intentioned. This isn’t a place that executes more people than the rest of the world combined! This is a place where you can eat KFC while surfing the internet wirelessly and buying Louis Vuitton!

It was not always this way in Kunming. My understanding is that 10 years ago this neighborhood looked much like the rest of Kunming, with a mix of small shops, restaurants, small apartment buildings and tangled residential warrens left over from a still earlier era of urban development.

The process of converting this from an average neighborhood to a glittering palace of Chinese-style capitalism that Kunming is desperately hoping will be mistaken for Hong Kong has been swift, although the writing (or the chai, as it were) has been on the wall for years. When RP and I were in Kunming three and a half years ago, the old Muslim quarter of the city was already being torn down. It is now erased, snuffed out by the foot print of half-empty shopping malls, save for a few Hui restaurants, a couple of Muslim bakeries, and a leftover Hui population who look distinctly out of place wandering among the Disney stores and Calvin Klein outlets (an impression that I’m pretty sure is intentional).

The last vestige of this earlier era in our neighborhood, the Bird and Flower Market, is now in its final days. An area that was once home to average Kunming residents, with a lively full-time market, was allowed to crumble into uninhabitability so that the government could swoop in and say that the shopping malls they are now building on top of it were really the only humane thing to do. The population of the area was relocated to parts of the city unknown, and the shops bricked over and replaced with sanitary food chains.

A soon-to-be-replaced building

The malls that have opened in this area in the past few months are like a caricature of Chinese-iness in a Western city; a Baby Gap or a Crate and Barrel below, but look at the Oriental pagoda-like accents on the floors above! It’s still China if it’s an American burger joint that serves spring rolls too!

I will leave you to look through the photos of this destruction below, but there are a few things to bear in mind while you look at them: first, what is my giant problem this development?! Surely it is the right of Chinese cities to develop as they see fit – fair enough. But there is nothing magical or inevitable about such reimagining of neighborhoods; these are massive redevelopment projects dictated by the government to sanitize these neighborhoods and get money out of what they have deemed to be the city’s prime real estate. This means, in the most classic fashion, turning this from a place where average people lived, worked and purchased goods into a place for the monied, and (hope against hope!) for foreigners to come see what a clean and friendly place China is.

On that note, another issue I have with this: the kind of development that this and all Chinese urban development entails is one from which the only conclusion to be drawn is that China does not have its own sense of an indigenous modernity. That is to say, the process of making things look modern in China is a process of making them look Western: Western design, Western goods, endless rip-offs of Western ideas. And in case you should think this is a new story in China, let me tell you that this is exactly the same process that was beginning to happen in China before the founding of the Republic in 1949 began the process of turning China, yet again, inwards.

It is this feeling that China has no memory that is played out again and again as it redevelops its neighborhoods and cities. Although Chinese people love to parrot the old canard about its 5,000 years of glorious unbroken history, you will be hard pressed to find this history in evidence in most of the country, and certainly in a city like this one. I firmly believe that, before the government realized that the Great Wall could be a foreign tourist attraction, they would have bulldozed it if they’d had the resources.

Walking around Kunming, you can see in progress the work of erasing the memory of the city bit by bit – a memory that itself goes back only perhaps a couple of decades when the last round of erasure occurred. And here’s the rub: this process will be effective because what is being created is not ugly, only inoffensive. What’s more, the open, carefully curated spaces where Westerners and early adopters can drink cappuccino and look out at the cityscape are, admittedly, attractive and familiar – and so confidently complete in their design that the memory of what was in their place only weeks or months before simply disappears. As if the city that existed before your current glass of imported red wine were being revealed as only a myth.

RP and I have a morbid 50 RMB bet going on the block of apartments across from us: he’s betting it will be torn down before we’re married this coming summer; I think it’s got some fight in it yet. Anyone want in?

Click photo below to view full album. I will add pictures to this album in the near future, so check back for more.

Photo courtesy of RP

Working in the Oasis

Yesterday, December 2, was World AIDS Day.

When I left my apartment at 7:30pm tonight, I thought I was going to a little celebratory activity in belated honor of the day, hosted by a local NGO that works with gay men (or, in development parlance, MSM – “men who have sex with men”). Our condom sales coordinator at the office had tossed a few hundred flavored condoms at me earlier in the day, and my boss told me to go check it out since we may be starting programs with MSM in the future.

I was tired and a little cranky and not especially looking forward to handing out business cards with one hand and banana flavored condoms with the other. I’ll go for 45 minutes max, I told myself.

Four and a half hours later, I am now back in my apartment. I should have known this wasn’t going to be the evening I anticipated when I entered the hotel at the appointed hour only to have a six-foot drag queen in a crystal-encrusted blue ball gown skitter across the lobby towards me and hustle me into an elevator, “So you don’t miss the opening number!”

What followed was three and a half packed hours of full-blown Chinese extravaganza…only hosted by all gay men. There were melodramatic modern dances ironically echoing the militaristic performances of the Cultural Revolution, classic Peking opera numbers, scores of glittering drag queens up and down the aisles of the grand auditorium decked out with banners and posters promoting HIV testing and condom use.

There were skits depicting how to make healthy choices in tough situations, a set by a rock band of gay teenagers, and a somewhat unintentionally tragic interview with a young man who had recently tested HIV positive, but was so scared to show his face – even in a room full of activists and allies – that the whole interview was conducted behind a bamboo screen.

The audience of hundreds cheered, no one judged, and presenters talked sincerely about equality among all people. Plus they gave out some raffle prizes of rice cookers and kitchen knives – because this is China, and nobody’s told them it’s not the 1950s anymore.

I sometimes forget what the work I’m involved with here is really about. My organization mostly does HIV prevention work in Kunming, and we mostly work with injecting drug users (IDUs) because until recently that was the most prevalent transmission mode of HIV in China. And I have to admit: working with IDUs, even when you’re not doing the direct work, can get a little depressing. They have as much right to be free of HIV as anybody, but addicts are sick in body and mind. They relapse often and there is as much despair as there is hope.

Tonight I remembered that what we are doing here is really about social justice, and that I am in a rare environment in what is still a very conservative society. When those men I met tonight went home, almost all of them left their “gay” identity in the auditorium, out of necessity. Almost nobody in China gets to work in a place where staff talk about marginalized people like they are human beings, where people don’t think anything of having condoms and sachets of lubricant stacked on their desks, where gay staff members are out of the closet.

I get to live in a progressive little pocket of this country where, for all of its problems, people are striving to make something good and just. And tonight was thrilling.

Not ready to go home directly after the celebration was over, a wandered for a while in Kunming’s empty back streets in the cold, clear night. I followed a yowling cat in and out of a few dark corners before heading home.

World AIDS Day 2009: "We are together with you"