60 is the new 16

I was standing at a bus stop recently when a lady got in line behind me. She put down her bags and began twisting her arms from side to side.

With the grace of a gymnast, she raised one of her legs onto a metal railing at least three feet high. With her leg still propped up, she bent toward her foot, her chin nearly touching her ankle.

Did I mention she looked like she was in her 60s? Continue reading

A capital idea? Hardly!

For most of my life, China has been a bit of a mystery.

In primary school, I learned about European royalty, the plight of the Native Americans and the wisdom of Abraham Lincoln. In high school, I had an animated history teacher who worked himself into such a frenzy during lectures that his stories became more like theater. I could close my eyes and, with his vivid descriptions, picture a stumpy Napoleon riding horseback into the teeth of a thousand bullets.

Sadly, Asian history was boiled down to just a few major events: a country that bombed us (Japan, at Pearl Harbor) and a country we bombed the hell out of a couple of decades later to stop the spread of communism (Vietnam). In college, I bought a book about a World War II mission to rescue US and British POWs, including some survivors of the Bataan Death March, from a Japanese camp in the Philippines.

So it wasn’t until I moved to China in 2010 that I began to understand the country’s history. I didn’t even know that Beijing was not always the national capital. In April, I traveled to Nanjing, the seat of power from 1368 to 1420 during the Ming Dynasty and again in the early 20th century, before the Communists “liberated” China in 1949.

The Jinghai Temple.

A ceiling inside the Jinghai Temple.

The Linggu Pagoda was built in 1929 to honor soldiers who died in a war between the Chinese Nationalists (Kuomintang) and local warlords.

To third Ming emperor Yongle, who moved the capital to Beijing in 1420, I’ve got to ask: Dude, what were you thinking? Beijing doesn’t get much precipitation, so it can be brutally dry. It’s prone to sandstorms in spring, which leave a red film over everything unfortunate enough to be left outdoors. The winters are long and, when the winds whip down from Siberia, bone-chillingly cold. And unlike many major cities in the world, it isn’t located near any large body of water. Continue reading

In China, a 75-year-old war wound is still bleeding

When I was a boy, I liked to argue with adults about history. I’d ask questions that are impossible to answer, like whether the United States would have become a superpower if the South had won the Civil War, or whether we’d all be speaking a different language if the Allied forces hadn’t defeated Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany.

I formed my own opinions too, mostly based on facts I learned at school. One of the more heated debates I had was with my grandfather, a Korean War veteran. I told him I thought the U.S. was wrong to drop atomic bombs on Japan during World War II.

He said the bombing was necessary to end the war, and that I didn’t understand how brutal the Japanese soldiers were. But what about all the innocent people in Nagasaki and Hiroshima killed by the bombs, I asked. What did they do to deserve to die?

It was the only way to end the war, he repeated. Continue reading