Of the roughly 7.5 billion people who now inhabit our planet, approximately 60 percent of them live in the countries of Asia. This vast continent is rich in history, cultures, resources, and wisdom. It is, moreover, an immense landscape of staggering ethnic and geographic diversity. Millions of people go about their lives in venerable, time-worn ways, while many others are busily engaged in transforming virtually every aspect of the physical and social landscape around them. Like every other continent, though, Asia has its share of turmoil, problems, failings, and challenges. In this issue, several area experts offer glimpses into the complex picture that is Asia. We hope that readers will find these essays both interesting and illuminating.
Certainly, I do not pretend to be an expert in any aspect of Asia, but I have now been twice to Taiwan, birthplace of my wife, including the trip in 2002 for our very successful ATWS conference. In May of 2016, I went to the Peoples Republic of China (PRC) for a second time, and I made yet a third trip in October of last year. Between my initial trip to the mainland and my latest was a hiatus of about seventeen years. The first trip occurred between June 16 and July 13 of 1999. During that trip I kept a journal, which I unearthed just before we left for our May sojourn. I carried it with me on my two trips to the PRC last year and added some thoughts and observations. What follows is a summary of my reflections from these three trips to the fascinating country that is still an enigma to most Americans, the PRC. (I would include myself in this category, so any views or opinions expressed are those of a layperson.) I will quote extensively from my 1999 journal entries since the details would otherwise be rather hazy in my mind. My interpolations, with observations and musings, will be marked off in brackets.
Shanghai, PRC. Wednesday, June 16, 1999 at 11:00 pm. To the four of us [including my wife, Shu-hui, daughter, Katrien, and son, Jan] it is 1 lam. We set out for China on Tuesday morning at about 5:30 am and we have just gotten into our hotel room, some 29 and a half hours later. Coming in from the airport in the dark and the rain, I was struck only by how reminiscent of American cities is Shanghai, but for the fact that signs and billboards are in Chinese. We plan to be here for only two nights, to recuperate, and then move on to Nanjing, probably by train. ["Jing" refers to a capital, a former capital in this case.]
Shanghai, Friday, June 18, 9:35 am. We are rested and getting ready for our day now, the first for me in China. It is gloomy and rainy, but ten floors below is a general busyness, the bustle of people and the constant honking of car horns.
Nanjing, Sunday, June 20. Yesterday we visited the site of the burial of the thirteen Ming Emperors. It is a beautiful area in the low-lying mountains around Nanjing. They are heavily wooded and very pretty. The place is filled with impressive monuments and buildings and temples dating back to the fourteenth century. Also located there is the burial place of Sun Yat-Sen. Nanjing is a prettier city than Shanghai and the people seem friendlier, though initially we had a very harrowing experience. We booked our travel by train and found out later that tourists seem not to travel by this method. We wondered why until we began our journey. First, it was almost impossible to get to the train station though it was only about two blocks away from the hotel. We almost missed our train.
Then when we arrived in Nanjing, we were dropped off across the tracks from the station with no apparent means to cross over the tracks with our heavy luggage. A crowd began to enclose us and stared in a menacing way. Shu went off for help while Katrien, Jan, and I were left to guard our luggage and ourselves. For a time I fully expected that people would begin grabbing at us or our belongings. Then Shu returned with a "red cap"--a train station official--who was able to extricate us. [This crowd was surely curious about us and made no attempt to disguise this fact; Westerners were not a common sight back then.]
During the train trip itself, however, it was interesting to see the countryside. On both sides lay almost a continuous series of rice paddies, with some gardens, aquaculture, homes, and towns. Construction, industry, and dump sites were mixed uneasily with these farms. In the rice paddies toiled farmers in their age-old ways, I suppose, bent over planting individual rice plants. I even saw a farmer plowing with a water buffalo.
We are now staying in a two bedroom guest apartment for Johns Hopkins students who are studying Chinese and China. Outside our window is a scene in stark contrast to that of the countryside described above. Immediately across the street is an active construction site, a gaping pit upon which another tall building will undoubtedly be erected. The sign of a Holiday Inn protrudes over another building. We are on a corner...