Sons For A Day

Sunrays curl up on my blanket. The alarm didn’t go off yet. I merely squint, so I don’t lose the dream that’s still running somewhere in my head, muted, far away; what was it about?

“GOODE MONIN!!!”, a woman yells. Without a knock, she stormed the room and then quickly went back into the kitchen.

This is not a dream. This is breakfast time. Now! I’m a kid again.

“My son is biking across China, like you. Do you need a place to stay? What do you eat?”, the woman asked us the evening before. She has a little barbecue stand and doesn’t speak English, so she called the principal of Middle School Nr.1. Who called the school’s English teacher at his home. Who interrupted his Sunday violin practice so that we could finally understand what this barbecue-wielding woman wants to tell us.

“She wants you to stay at her house!”

The English teacher and the woman lead us to her apartment. They show us our room and where to turn on the gas for the hot water, tell us the wi-fi password, and make us talk on the phone to her son in Beijing. Then the teacher goes back to his violin and the woman goes back to her barbecue.

The place is ours and, like kids on a treasure hunt, we inspect the apartment.


One hour later, the husband comes home. He puts a bag of sunflower seeds on the sofa table. Have some! Then he watches TV like we were sitting in his living room every day.

He is a taxi driver, self-employed like his wife. Four years ago, their son moved to Beijing, almost 2000 kilometers away, to study. Their daughter moved away too.

There are two big empty rooms now.


We ask them about their lives. They ask: “Do you want a midnight snack? Do you eat spicy? Do you like our stinky tofu?”

Currently, dozens of millions of children in China grow up without their parents because they migrated to bigger cities or richer provinces in search for work. And there are also dozens of millions of parents who stay behind when their kids move on to lives that were not possible for their parents.

The family is the smallest and most important cell of the fabric that builds a society. Thus, in the West, its integrity is politically supported and any kind of migration is seen as a sign of crisis – now that a broke autocrat can’t just sell you as a slave anymore and war is a far away memory.


You may take your time to study abroad. You may have to find work abroad. But “when will you come back?” will always be the question following you, no matter how vainly asked. Family and home come first; then come the rest.

But in China, “the country is first, then comes the family”, as a mother tells her appalled son in the documentary High Tech Low Life.

Officially, the family’s integrity is also held dear, but in reality, migration still is an instrument of politics.

Chinese have always been on the move. Throughout millennia, young people were sent to far away patches of the realm because this emperor or that dictator wanted them to cultivate one province or protect another from bad-ass tribes, or build communes and industrialize the country. To stop being decadent and learn from the peasants or to stop being peasants and become city dwellers.

Fifty years ago, during the Cultural Revolution, you had to move because supposedly, fatally, you were rich. Now you have to move to get rich. A few years ago they told you to have only one kid. Now you’re supposed to have more than one.

In many cases, people are still literally forced to move as local police, party officials and real estate guys, who often build informal networks, subcontract gangs to throw people out of their houses so that they can build big “western style” high-rise complexes instead.

And so, they move.

“Don’t you want to stay some more?”, the mother asks after breakfast, “I don’t go to work if you stay.”

Thanks, we have to keep going. But we leave with pockets full of sweets ?

Everywhere in the world the conflict between generations is boiling up, but it’s difficult to imagine a more awkward situation than the one in China.

Here lives a generation that has seen its relatives and friends die of hunger or bullets, together with another generation that is staring into smartphones all day and is expressing their problems through memes and links.

The elders don’t understand why the youngsters are so whimsical, why they want more, or why they risk the paradise they already have. The youngsters don’t understand how fragile peace is and how feeble prosperity is.

Here, a generation that has seen its kin dying of hunger or because of bullets coexists with a generation that stares into smartphones and expresses its problems through memes or links.

The elders don’t understand why the youth dissents, why do they want more, why do they risk the paradise they already have? The youth don’t understand how fragile peace is and how feeble prosperity is.

The human mind is always on search for balance. When needed, it can find happiness in a grain of rice or tragedy in the death of a League of Legends character.

It’s absurd to apply the same patterns to people who have had fundamentally different experiences.

How can people make such an obvious mistake?

Well, the thing is it’s much easier to see the contradictions in others, while your ego stands haughtily like Brâncuși’s endless column.

I make the same mistake with the residents of Casa Jurnalistului – I expect them to act as if they have already experienced adventures of which they’ve barely even read; and maybe I don’t notice things that they could be better at than we’ve ever been.

That’s the education dilemma – it works well in a steady environment, but it seems to disintegrate in a hyperdynamic world, where experience can’t predict the future anymore, but merely tame it a little bit, so one can put a saddle on it, ride it and whip it.

The Chinese, for example, are still teaching Marxist history, which explains everything through class struggle. But classes have changed in the meantime: communist bureaucracy and its businessmen friends now occupy the same roles the imperial dynasty and its nobility used to, and we know what happened to them.

It’s as if we’re planting the seeds for our own destruction. And maybe it’s better this way.


Look, look at the pictures I took!
Five minutes ago, this little Chinese girl snatched my camera, and since then she learned how to turn it on, take snapshots, record, to playback what she did and delete what she doesn’t like. She took wonderful shots of the entire home, her toys, her parents… She basically did our job already.
You should take her on your residency program at Casa Jurnalistului, Christian tells me.

But meanwhile she gets bored of the camera and takes my my phone. She unlocks it with the code she was quick to seize in earlier, then she walks on Google Earth for minutes on end, moving mountains and rivers with her fingers, until she gets to the other side of the world.

Then she gets bored again, turns on the smart TV and navigates through all the movies you can imagine, pirated directly by the cable company, until she happens on some cartoons for learning English.

Any child is curious, but she is a magician, and the parents encourage her to explore, to ask, even to question.

Her parents are open-minded too, I mean they’re letting us sleep over tonight – which happens very rarely in a country where theoretically you have to register to the police every accommodation.

But they are connected by invisible wires to their parents, otherwise they would have moved to the city long ago. Their idol is also Mao.

The door gets slammed open, and grandma enters the room shouting. We cower down. They’re arguing. It’s about us.

The old folks are outraged that our hosts took foreigners into their house. They ask for our passports, take photos of us, and start quarreling again. “That’s how old people are..”

Their generation lived through the Cultural Revolution, when you could get shot for merely a foreign word; to have imperialists under your roof was unimaginable.

Children today learn to make their way through a world without borders, but with passwords.

Sometimes it seems like there’s nothing new in the world, but right now I feel like more things have changed during the last two generations than in the last two millennia.


The Things We Want

We stopped to have some noodle soup at a petite young woman’s eatery and, as it grew dark, her husband, who had the afternoon off because a machine malfunctioned at work, invited us to spend the night at their place.

It was a bit awkward being in their house, for it felt like sitting in the departure hall of a tidy train station in the countryside. It was cold, so we were all wearing our jackets. There was no furniture in the huge living room but a TV set and two sofas. There were grills protecting the windows and no carpet on the tiles; the only decoration was an unframed wedding photo on the wall, as is the custom for houses in rural China.

They both wore pink when they got married and, although that must have been six or seven years ago, they still look the same. The passage of time doesn’t show on their faces. But there’s this hunch appearing on the woman when she lifts things and the man has the slow stride of someone who is used to carrying heavy things.

By now we had run out of small-talk topics and were sitting on the sofas, doodling on our phones, which increased the feeling of waiting even more.

So I think it wasn’t just me who was happy when the door opened and their daughter flamboyantly entered the house, wearing huge sunglasses despite the darkness outside and waving her hands to a graceful salute in every direction.


She is about six years old and immediately seizes our cameras. She learns how to handle them in no time and, with the same eagerness, she conquers our other pieces of equipment. (The photos in the slide show at the end are taken by her.)

So we joke around with the kid for a while and, in the meantime, our hosts deal with some paperwork; their youngest daughter, who’s about three years old, is watching The Mickey Mouse Club on a smartphone.

The peace is interrupted by the grandmother. She enters the house like a lieutenant and takes her son into another room. We can hear her shouting and, when they come back, he asks for our passports. His mother gazes at them like a pissed customs officer and takes photos.

There was some more yelling exchanged between the grandmother and her daughter-in-law, who at some point kicked her husband in the shins and ran away crying, but it might have not been about us.

“The old mother is a bit anxious”, our host explains after lieutenant granny left, slamming the door on her way out.

He is a 31 year-old, self-employed construction worker. He tries to play it cool, but he surely feels embarrassed about his mother putting him down. But he also looks sad about the whole incident, about making her angry, about us witnessing the scene.

He would move away from the village to a bigger city, he said earlier, if it weren’t for his parents.


Our host is my age, has his own business, a house, two kids, and a little fish farm on the side. He’s aware of his possibilities. The big city, with better wages, schools and shopping malls is close by.

We’re watching The Godfather, part III on his flatscreen, video on demand, in English, with Chinese subtitles. We talk about copyright and being in the army and Mao Zedong, whom he admires. The photo girl is doing her homework, filling sheets of paper with 5’s and 9’s. Then she grabs my camera and embarks on another photo tour.

This girl probably won’t be satisfied with a life spent in the waiting room when all that she wants is just around the corner.


Mao Forgive Us

Mao’s greatest enemy is dancing on his grave.

We arrived in Shaoshan, the Chairman’s hometown, and found it to be a site of rampant capitalism.

The village thrives from selling its illustrious son.

Hundreds of overpriced hotels for the millions of yearly visitors, private museums with fake artefacts, supermarkets with Mao statues, Mao badges, Mao costumes, Mao toy guns, Mao chocolate, Mao booze…


When Mao died, China was probably the most rigid socialist society in the world. Now it’s more capitalist than the West, by some measure. Inequality is higher and social protection is barely being put into place; money is the only thing protecting you, and making money is a patriotic duty.

Imperialist devils have encroached the country. People watch American movies and wish upon American lifestyles, all this while American companies are profiting from the cheap labor.

I’m writing this from a McDonald’s in a huge, flashy mall near Mao’s village, while eating a cheap pie filled with mango, which was once the proletariat’s holy fruit.


Mao encouraged class struggle against the feudal social order, but his party ended up functioning a lot as if it were just another imperial dynasty, with rich businessmen taking the place of landlords and noblemen, and the Chairman himself acting as an Emperor.

Mao tried to erase Chinese traditions, destroyed countless monuments, tore down libraries and tried to uproot Confucianism because he thought it was holding them back.

Now they’re all coming back with a vengeance, including gambling and playing cards everywhere, which were seen as superstitions and could get you a good beating.


“Chairman Mao instructed us not to have a religion”, a villager told me. But people are worshiping Mao himself, praying to his statues and hanging his portraits on walls like the Orthodox Christians have icons of Jesus. “Mao is our spirit.”

Neo-Maoism is on the rise in China, much like other nationalist movements worldwide, born from a void of meaning in the modern life.


Its members are either older people who idealize their youth, when they were poor, but equal and pure at heart, or youngsters who grew up in the confusing world of smartphones and don’t really know what actually happened during that time. How kids their age were encouraged by Mao to massacre their teachers, so they started roaming the country as “Red Guards”, killing everyone who looked like a capitalist; or how tens of millions died of starvation while China remained a net exporter of grain, because Mao really wanted to pay his debts to the Soviets.


But he united the Chinese people in love and fear after a century of confusion. Free from the terror that they fondly remember, they rebuilt their country and retook their ancient status as a world superpower.

But what would Mao say about all this?


Why do we love tyrants?

Under Mao Zedong’s gentle gaze 50 million people died, but people remember him as a saint.

Millions of Chinese visit his home village every year and stop to pray in front of a golden statue. They worship the objects he touched. They keep his portrait high on the walls of their houses.

They all trembled with fear in front of him, and that brought them together. And after years and years, you don’t even remember if it was because of fear, or because of the Holy Spirit of Communism.

Forgive us, Mao, for turning into capitalists!


De ce iubim tiranii?

Sub privirea blajină a lui Mao Zedong au murit 50 de milioane de oameni, dar lumea și-l amintește…

Posted by Casa Jurnalistului on Saturday, November 12, 2016

Chinese State Television says Trump is ”a madman”. The news broadcasts show immigrants scared by the wave of hate, and poor white dope fiends who are voting for the madman. The chaos across the ocean is presented as proof that voting is a useless headache that tears the nation apart.

The Chinese aren’t happy that the Americans want to increase import duties. But that’s OK – Premier Li just came back from Moscow yesterday where he made a commercial alliance with the Russians.

The news anchors use an official tone, but they have a bit of a smile on their faces. The Chinese got over the Wall dilemma 500 years ago.

Communism is a religion, some have said, but I thought it was just a metaphor until I saw how people worship and pray to Mao’s statue in his home village.

They don’t just take a moment of silence, they also yammer away their griefs, eyes closed and palms put together, then bow in front of the golden colossus and leave with watery eyes.

After the prayer, a group of pilgrims goes round the statue, just as we do when we go round the church with the Easter light.

A man who came from afar tells me, in strong belief: ”Mao Zedong is the spiritual master of the people. His spirit lives in us. He does not only belong to China, he belongs to the whole world!”

He asks where I’m from. I spell it out: Lou-ma-ni-a. The man is startled with joy:

”Aha! You too, led by Nicolae Ceausescu, are part of the socialist establishment!”

I clench my teeth and a shiver grasps at me…


The Happy Funeral

Why is everyone so joyful?!

We ran into a Buddhist funeral and we’re totally confused.

Everyone is smiling, including the widower, who’s telling jokes and laughing out loud, with a white paper crown on his head. People are playing Mahjong and card games. The youngsters want to take selfies with us, showing the victory sign. The animals are sizzling in pots for tonight’s feast.

We didn’t even believe it was a funeral until we saw the deceased in a refrigerated coffin, adorned with Christmas-like lights, paper figures and a decorated tree. 

When a new guest arrives, an old man hits the gong, another one uses a remote control to switch on a machine that sounds like crackers, a guy blows the trumpet and three men dressed in white gowns kneel near the shrine and start praying. Then they go back to playing.

What about some crying? We elegantly ask through the translation app.

The crying part comes the day after tomorrow when they incinerate grandma. Until then, they have to scare off the demons.


They are these evil spirits that are lurking by when you’re going through hard times and, if they see you crushed, they bushwhack you and you’re never gonna get rid of them. Also, your deceased won’t reincarnate properly. But if you laugh, bet, drink, eat and shoot fireworks, the demons get scared and go haunt other people, and all of your relatives, either alive, dead or unborn, will have fate on their side.

So here’s to dropping dead!

De ce sunt toți așa veseli?!

Am nimerit la o înmormântare budistă și parcă nu mai știm pe ce lume suntem.

Toată lumea…

Posted by Casa Jurnalistului on Friday, November 4, 2016