Modern Technology Applied to Business As Usual

A friend who lived in China a few years ago posted a frightening article to Facebook from The Atlantic, entitled “China’s Dystopian Tech Could Be Contagious.” Frightening, yes, but not unexpected.  The article details a “social credit” system fueled by information easily obtained from multiple high-tech sources, particularly the smartphone.

From the article: “Known by the anodyne name ‘social credit,’ this system is designed to reach into every corner of existence both online and off. It monitors each individual’s consumer behavior, conduct on social networks, and real-world infractions like speeding tickets or quarrels with neighbors. Then it integrates them into a single, algorithmically determined ‘sincerity’ score.”

It’s the high-tech, 21st century extension of the gatekeepers Gauss and I passed each day in 1981 who watched everyone who entered the university grounds, the Foreign Affairs officers who opened our mail, and the “concierge” at our apartment building who made sure all our visitors signed in when they visited us.

The Party has adopted the technology of Silicon Valley and put their own stamp on it. Don’t be surprised if the next move is to export it to willing governments in the West.

Read the full article here:


An essay I wrote and accompanying photos of Xi’an have been chosen for inclusion in a book about Chinese cities called Concrete to be published this spring by The Shanghai Literary Review. They’ve launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund publication. Click here to get a preview of the book (link includes a photo of Gauss’s from Xian, attributed to me). Don’t feel obligated to contribute, but if you’d like to, you’ll get a copy of the book and a couple of their journals as well.


How Alike We Have Become

One of the things that limited my first stay in China to one academic year was the intrusiveness of surveillance. In 1981, gatekeepers monitored who entered our neighborhood and who socialized with us. At one point our visitors were required to sign in at the front door to our apartment building. The surveillance had a chilling effect. Our social lives dwindled to nothing for awhile, or we spoke furtively after class to students, agreeing to meet at a neutral location blocks away from campus.

In the last three decades, China has become economically more like us: capitalist, wealthy, consumerist. And we have become more like them: especially since September 11, 2001, government surveillance, usually through monitoring of phone records and emails, has been employed to enhance our “security.” But what’s old is new again.

A recent Splinter News article details the Trump Administration’s Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement (VOICE) hotline, with a stated mission to “provide proactive, timely, adequate, and professional services to victims of crimes committed by removable aliens.”  However, the line is used to rat on neighbors and even family members by nosy folks with grievances to settle. Read the full article here:

The Trump administration’s VOICE hotline

Cold War Americans feared that China and its oppressive regime threatened the American way of life. And in China back in 1981, Gauss’s and my movements and contacts were closely watched, often because authorities didn’t want their society “polluted” by Western culture. Everyone’s fears have come true; we are now much more alike than we could have imagined.

Can China’s Boom Travel the Silk Road?

©Matt O'Brien/The Washington Post

©Matt O’Brien/The Washington Post

Lanzhou is Xi’an’s dustier and more remote cousin to the west on the Silk Road.

This article from the Washington Post’s Wonkblog describes the challenges China faces in bringing the country’s economic miracles to the hinterland—and sustaining that growth throughout the country. Author Matt O’Brien discusses the role that insecurity plays in hindering that growth.

In the early 1980s, people were reluctant to innovate, fearing a policy change that might open anyone with ambition to criticism or worse.

In 2005, ambition was no longer a dirty word. China had become the wild west of capitalist expansion. But along with American-style development came American-style insecurity: fear of losing a job, fear of becoming bankrupted by illness, fear of not having enough to live on in one’s old age.

Read the full story here:

Sunnier Days Ahead?

SunnyDayIn Xian

If you look above and just to the right of the squarish building in the distance, you’ll see a faint orange dot. This was the sun on a “clear” (i.e., no clouds) day, struggling to shine through Xi’an’s prodigious smog.

I loved returning to Xi’an in 2005 but after two months there, I was desperate to go someplace where I could breathe a big lungful of clean air. When I flew home I had to change planes and terminals in LA. After the 14 hour transpacific flight I decided to stretch my legs and walk instead of taking the tram. I stepped outside the building and looked up to see blue sky, paused, and breathed deeply. Aaahhh! Then it occurred to me: I was in Los Angeles. Compared to China, the air seemed pristine.

It’s not like the Chinese were oblivious to their terrible air quality. Everyone talked about it, and when I told my friends that our industrial cities used to be that way but no longer were (think Pittsburgh in the 1950s) they all asked how the U.S. had accomplished this.

Even at the end of 2005 I saw efforts by the Chinese to change the situation. Xi’an’s taxis could run on either standard petrol or much cleaner natural gas. You could drive right into a conventional gas station without a wait, but there was always a line of taxis at least a quarter mile long waiting to fuel up with natural gas.

There may be a lot of things we don’t like about Chinese government, but they are efficient at enacting change when they want to. Within five years of my leaving Xi’an, they had built a subway system in the city. And I’m sure there was a subsidy for those taxis to use natural gas.

This article from the Sierra Club magazine gives us reason to be at least a bit optimistic.

Xi’an Food–The Secret is Out!

"Pants Belt Noodle"—a Xi'an specialty. Often served in the leftover broth from Spicy Fish Head. Sounds weird, tastes amazing!

“Pants Belt Noodle”—a Xi’an specialty. Often served in the leftover broth from Spicy Fish Head. Sounds weird, tastes amazing!

A radical change between my two experiences in Xi’an was in food. In 1981 there were few restaurants and even for home cooks, the selection of ingredients was limited. When I returned in 2005, residents of the ancient city seemed to be making up for the culinary experiences they had been deprived of during the hard times of the late 20th century. Their exuberant cuisine could be sampled on the streets or in exclusive restaurants where willowy silk-clad waitresses brought dishes garnished with orchids.

Meats, vegetables, and tofu ready to be skewered and grilled at a sidewalk eatery

Meats, vegetables, and tofu ready to be skewered and grilled at a sidewalk eatery

One of our most memorable meals in 1982 happened when our student, Aaron Li, took us for yang ro pao mo—Xi’an lamb stew—at the one restaurant in town that served it. Now you can find restaurants all over town that serve the dish, as well as other local specialties: spicy noodles, “Xi’an hamburger,” dumplings, and soups seasoned with fiery red peppers and tongue-numbing Chinese peppercorns. The food is addictive and I try to replicate it at home when I can.

Xi’an cuisine has been in the U.S. for a few years, courtesy of Jason Wang, who started a little chain of restaurants in New York called Xi’an Famous Foods.

I eat there whenever I go to New York—the noodles are to die for but the Yang ro pao mo falls short of the true Xi’an experience. It’s definitely worth a visit. And just this week Jason Wang appeared on the public radio show The Splendid Table.

Fish Head Soup (yü tou)

Devo in the People’s Republic

DEVO in concert 1978. © Malcolm Riviera, Creative Commons license.

DEVO in concert 1978. © Malcolm Riviera, Creative Commons license.

The passing of Devo guitarist Bob Casale made me oddly nostalgic for Gauss’s and my time in China in 1981-82. The discord between China’s efforts to emulate the Western world and Devo’s assertion that humans were de-evolving resonated with us. New Wave music was the soundtrack of our time there.

In the spring of 1982 a small group of us expat teachers discovered the rooftop bar of the newly opened Xi’an Hotel, and most evenings we had it to ourselves. The employees happily let us put our tapes into the boom box, supplanting the Lawrence Welk-styled “Chinese light music” that usually played.

We drank Tsingtao and Snowflake beer and danced like robots or jumped up and down like pogo sticks to the sound of Devo and The Cars. Pogoing to Girl You Want in the isolation of the hotel bar was the closest we could get to thumbing our noses at conformist Chinese society and our hovering minders.

The young bartenders didn’t really get the spare, discordant music but were nonetheless fascinated by the display. Christmas lights—the universal decoration for bars in the new foreigners-only hotels—twinkled all around as we flailed in the humid June air.

Want a Devo nostalgia trip? Videos from Rolling Stone here!

Badass Grannies

Starting the trek just a couple of blocks from the train station. The elderly woman with bound feet is there to make the pilgrimage to the top.

Starting the trek just a couple of blocks from the train station. The elderly woman with bound feet is there to make the pilgrimage to the top.

I was surprised when a friend posted a link to Facebook profiling Hua Shan, a peak a few hours from Xi’an, reputed to have some of the world’s most dangerous trails.

Gauss and I climbed Hua Shan back in April of 1982, before the days of gondolas and tea houses. The peak was a popular destination for college students, but most of the other visitors were practicing Taoists and Buddhists who made the pilgrimage to the sacred mountain annually or every few years. Sometimes the trip is a once-in-a-lifetime journey to be made when one has tied up the loose ends of one’s earthly existence: paid off debts, resolved disputes, and made peace with one’s shortcomings. An important part of the pilgrimage is persevering in the face of the hardships of the journey. A steep, rocky mountain with an elevation of 2200 meters (about 7200 feet) Hua Shan has the reputation of being wild and fierce. The path to the top is about ten miles long, and once one reaches the summit, there are many side paths and passages leading to holy spots. Follow this link to see the trails highlighted in the Viralnova story.

Our 1982 hike began a couple of blocks uphill from the train station, where the dirt road turned into a wide, rock-strewn hiking trail. It was not the narrow, winding footpath I’d grown accustomed to when backpacking in American wilderness areas. Instead, it was a packed-earth boulevard interrupted in places by flights of stairs cut into rocky faces. As we gained altitude, shrubs flourished between the boulders, and the landscape became greener, but there were no trees to lend shade. Haze began to envelop the mountain. Although it compromised the view, we were relieved to be out of the hot sun.

Every now and again we’d come upon a makeshift refreshment stand: a couple of sticks jammed between the rocks holding up a sheet of clear plastic. Underneath it sat a case of warm qi shui (soda pop) in fluorescent green and orange, or perhaps a teakettle over a tiny fire. For a dime one could buy a drink or a piece of pan-fried flat bread. We’d tried qi shui on other occasions; the flavor was alarmingly sweet and vaguely reminiscent of bubble gum. I passed it by, knowing that it wouldn’t be thirst-quenching.

This footpath was the only way to reach the mountaintop, so the stands had to be stocked by young men carrying shoulder poles heavily laden with jugs of water or packets of food, hardware, or building supplies. Periodically one of these fabulously-conditioned guys would sprint uphill past us, clad in baggy shorts and a singlet, wearing the simplest of canvas shoes that reminded me of dime-store “tennies” from my childhood.

Trailside refreshment stand, Hua Shan. Photo © 1982, Patti Isaacs.

Trailside refreshment stand, Hua Shan. Photo © 1982, Patti Isaacs.

After nearly a year of bronchitis from breathing coal smoke, I was in poor shape, and I huffed and puffed as I slowly made my way up the trail. I was especially humiliated when a toothless little old man—he proudly told us he was 83, and that he made this trek often—strode past us carrying his belongings on his back in a bundle of black cloth.

After five or six hours of hiking, we approached a small monastery clinging to the side of the mountain. It looked like a Chinese painting come to life: straight brick walls and curved tile roofs stood in sharp contrast to the jagged, fog-shrouded rock faces. A couple of wind-deformed evergreens offset the buff-color of the brick and rock. An artist striving for the perfect composition couldn’t have done better.

Monastery/Guest House halfway up Hua Sha. Photo © 1982, Patti Isaacs.

Monastery/Guest House halfway up Hua Sha. Photo © 1982, Patti Isaacs.

The monks who lived there maintained some simple guest rooms and dining facilities, and it was our destination for the day. We walked into the small courtyard wedged between the building and the trail. It was the gathering spot for a bunch of old guys who seemed to know each other. Among them, now smoking a pipe in the shade provided by two precious trees, was the sprightly octogenarian who’d blown past us a couple of hours earlier.

Picturesque and primitive, the place had no electricity or running water. Doors lain atop sawhorses served as beds in the dormitory-style rooms. Each had a sand-filled pillow and a couple of quilts, one beneath to serve as padding and another for warmth.  The toilet facilities, not for the faint of heart, consisted of a rickety platform cantilevered out over the cliff, with a couple of holes cut in the floor. When squatting down, one could catch sight of hikers on the trail hundreds of feet below—mercifully, off to the side. One simply let loose, and damn the consequences.

Old country women with bound feet make the pilgrimage to the top of Hua Shan. Photo © 1982, Patti Isaacs.

Old country women with bound feet make the pilgrimage to the top of Hua Shan. Photo © 1982, Patti Isaacs.

The next morning we set off again, this time among country women in their 70s and 80s making their pilgrimages: wizened ladies, often with bound feet, who dressed in black cotton padded jackets and carried their supplies in tiny cloth bundles. Modern adventure travelers speak in awe about the treacherous trails, but they’ve got nothing on the Badass Grannies who made the trip step by mincing step on feet that, from the side, had the size and shape of small horses’ hooves, shod in simple black cotton shoes with stitched fabric soles. They hobbled along aided by canes, a feat that I found amazing, considering the elevation and the difficulty of the terrain.

As we climbed higher, and the air grew thinner, I had to stop often and gasp for air. At one point, perhaps 6500 feet up, as the trail crossed a saddle between two peaks, it became a two-foot wide staircase that went down four stories and back up five. Some of the steps were only four or five inches deep, but the height of each step varied, some as much as eight or ten inches. There was little room to pass. I walked down with the rest of our group, but as we started up the other side, I reached my pulmonary limits. I would take one step and then stop and gasp for air for a few seconds, take another step and gasp, step and gasp until I arrived, heart pounding, at the second peak. It was hard to imagine that just a couple of years earlier, I’d hiked for a week in the Cascade Mountains of Washington with a forty pound pack and thought nothing of it.

Summit of Hua Shan, 1982. Photo © Patti Isaacs.

Summit of Hua Shan, 1982. Photo © Patti Isaacs.

As evening began to fall, we came to our destination for the day, another temple and inn near the top of the mountain. The place was built around a courtyard, with two stories of rooms on one side and the shrine on the other. A group of young guys had lugged a boom box up the mountain, and they propped it in the center of the yard. Gauss and I cringed as it began to spew forth saccharine Asian pop music for the evening’s entertainment. Chinese batteries, thankfully, were short lived, and within half an hour the bubble-gum music lost its bounce, the polkas lost their perk. The warbling vocals sounded increasingly like a chorus of tired old men, and before long the thing quit altogether.

With the canned music gone, and no electricity, the place took on a medieval feel. I experienced the magic of being transported back in time. As the light faded, the yellow glow of oil lamps and candles shone from the windows and hung from the balconies. Periodically a weary traveler would pass through the archway into the courtyard, drop her bundle to the ground, and sigh, relieved to be safely at her destination.

I was impressed by the stamina of the elderly pilgrims. They quietly padded into the temples, opening their bundles to remove perhaps a little food, some candles, fake paper money as a ritual sacrifice, or a couple sticks of incense. They kowtowed and burned the incense and money at the altar, their faces briefly illuminated as the paper money flared in their hands.

Temple and guest house at the top of Hua Shan. Photo ©1982, Patti Isaacs.

Temple and guest house at the top of Hua Shan. Photo ©1982, Patti Isaacs.

The atmosphere was festive, friendly, and intimate. The air filled with the singsong voices of elderly women greeting each other and trading stories. Young men hung over the balcony railing, smoking and teasing their friends below. Off in the distance, someone sang a song on a pentatonic scale a capella.

Coal smoke, the clattering of dishes, and the metallic sound of spatulas clanging against woks drifted up from the kitchen as the cooks prepared meals for the late arrivals. In a halo of lantern light, steaming bowls of food were passed around, and diners squatted on the packed earth to eat. Laughter and singing punctuated the human symphony, the sound muffled by fog that had settled over the peak for the night.

I sat on the balcony outside our dormitory-style room, writing in my diary by the dim light of an oil lamp. Word got around that there were foreigners present, and soon a crowd gathered around, fascinated with watching me penning words using the Roman alphabet.

The population pressure and environmental degradation that plagued all of China came into sharp focus at Hua Shan. We were told that it was considered good luck to watch a sunrise or sunset from a mountain peak. We gathered at the peak as the sun dropped lower and lower in the sky. Just as it was beginning to turn orange, a gray cloud of smog swallowed it up, and that was that. No bands of pink or purple, just—out—as if someone had flipped a switch. Sunrise was similar, the sun abruptly poking out from a sludgy haze, even 75 miles from the city.

An artist paints a familiar summit building at sunset. Photo © 1982 Patti Isaacs.

An artist paints a familiar summit building at sunset. Photo © 1982 Patti Isaacs.

Before daybreak, Gauss took a flashlight and ventured from the inn to another peak, which he reported was as crowded as Xi’an’s central market. More visitors had arrived during the early morning hours, joining the throngs of young people who’d stayed up all night. Their boom boxes were well-supplied with batteries so that the music blasted nonstop. They celebrated the arrival of the new day by throwing bottles over the cliff and listening to them smash on the rocks below. While we never witnessed any friction between the two groups, I wondered what the elderly pilgrims thought about the hordes of giggling schoolgirls and swaggering young men, and the boisterous behavior they exhibited at the holy site.

On our third day on the mountain, we managed to get away from the biggest crowds. Scattered around Hua Shan are numerous small grottoes and shrines, and many of these are accessible only by navigating inches-wide ledges cut into cliff faces, or climbing ancient ladders made of metal rods driven into the rock. Neither Chris nor I feared heights, so we set out to explore a couple of these hard-to-reach spots.

Chris Irving (foreground) and Patti Isaacs pause on a ledge on Hua Shan before walking around the corner to a hidden grotto. Photo © 1982 by Gauss Rescigno.

Chris Irving (foreground) and Patti Isaacs pause on a ledge on Hua Shan before walking around the corner to a hidden grotto. Photo © 1982 by Gauss Rescigno.

We began by baby-stepping our way around a bulge in a rock face on a twelve-inch ledge. The only “safety device” was a chain anchored with metal spikes driven into the rock every foot or two. We estimated the dropoff on the other side to be about 1500 feet. At the end of the ledge was the entrance to a small grotto carved out of the solid rock, perhaps fifteen feet in diameter. Somebody had been tending the shrines inside: incense burned, and fruit was piled before a small altar.

The ledge Chris and I followed out to a hidden grotto. Photo © 1982, Patti Isaacs.

The ledge Chris and I followed out to a hidden grotto. Photo © 1982, Patti Isaacs.

It’s sometimes hard to convince Americans that overpopulation could really be a problem. If you live in the rolling forests of West Virginia, or the High Plains of the American West where you can drive for forty minutes between towns, it’s difficult to picture what overpopulation looks like, or imagine that it could ever happen here. Americans should be required to see what we saw in China: The single-file line of people going up and down Hua Shan as far as the eye can see.

For 80 yuan one can now ride a cable car most of the way up Hua Shan. The arduous climb can be bypassed, and along with it, the humility and discipline that were central to the spiritual journey up the mountain. Capitalism may accomplish the destruction of Hua Shan more completely than the Red Guards of the Cultural Revolution ever could.

Tea House at the top of one of Hua Shan's Peaks. Look closely at the cables strung next to the steps. They are filled with metal locks. Young couples in love make the trip to the top, fasten a lock to a cable, and then throw the keys into the abyss as a symbol of their unbreakable bond. Photo ©2005 Alex Li Genbao.

Tea House at the top of one of Hua Shan’s Peaks. Look closely at the cables strung next to the steps. They are filled with metal locks. Young couples in love make the trip to the top, fasten a lock to a cable, and then throw the keys into the abyss as a symbol of their unbreakable bond. Photo ©2005 Alex Li Genbao.

China 100 at the University of Minnesota

Gauss at the Great Wall, Spring Festival, 1982

Gauss at the Great Wall, Spring Festival, 1982

My husband, Gauss Rescigno, gets the credit for beginning our Chinese adventure. Back in 1979, he assisted the first visiting scholars from the People’s Republic who came to the University of Minnesota.

On January 31, 2014 the university’s China Center—where Gauss served as interim administrator in 1983—is sponsoring a Chinese New Year celebration that also commemorates the 100th anniversary of the first Chinese students to attend the U of M. We will be there and hope to see some familiar and new faces.

For more on the University’s history with Chinese students, follow this link to the China Center’s page: