Jonathan Brun

Wealth and Poverty

The problems that face the average Canadian, American, French or any western citizen are rarely life threatening or of great proportions. Long ago are the days when people were genuinely worried about their security, food, or their shelter being taken from them. There remains tremendous poverty in the western world, children who go to school hungry and face aggression and violence in their neighborhoods, homes and schools. While we cannot forget the less fortunate, we must cherish what we have built. By and large, we have developed as a society to such a point, that the thought of being drafted for war, waiting in bread lines or being sent to prison is a thought only entertained at the movies.

Society is approaching a point where nearly everyone was born in a post-WWII world. And while there have been wars since, non have demanded the sacrifices that were needed to defeat fascism. My generation’s main concerns are the cars they will own, jeans they will wear and the size of their homes. Complaints are so disproportionate with the situation it is difficult to comprehend. The past fifty years have been the best in human history. Never has such a period of decadence and stability been accessible to such a large percentage of the population.

We need to remind ourselves of this truth everyday. When we forget the lack of historical precedence, we lower ourselves to the level of materialism, superficiality and irrelevance. I do not propose that we give up our nice, safe cars, cottage homes or all-inclusive trips to Tijuana; only, that we understand that in our daily lives we are rarely in a situation that is either serious or worth fighting over. Of course we still get cancer, perish in accidents, lose family, go bankrupt and face serious issues; but on a general level, our society has a stability and level of wealth never before seen in the history on mankind.

We must cherish the family we have, the friends we know and avoid confrontation over who gets the front seat, the best table at the club, or the new toy. We, as a society, need to stop complaining about the small problems we may have and start solving the big ones. I will never propose complacency and I will be the first to tell you that our current consumption level and lifestyle is not sustainable.

It is therefore our responsibility to future generations to solve our real problems; degradation of the environment, human rights, and most importantly, education. We have the technology and the manpower to accomplish great things if only we did not spend the time we do dwelling on consumption, the noise of your next-door neighbor, the friend who said something stupid. Education on matters such as environment, homelessness, domestic violence, and other social issues should have a place along our children’s English, Math and History classes. It is not enough to teach the past, we must inform them of the necessary steps to conquer our future.

Developing countries such as China and India will never see the level of wealth that we enjoy in Canada. The simple mathematics of resources dictates that we cannot all have cottages, two cars, and unlimited drinking water. However, with proper technology and better social education, these western privileges will be accessible to many people. What I hope to confer from this brief piece is that we must take everything with a grain of salt. When you get upset of a friend’s intonation or language, a bad driver, or a impolite bank teller; take a breath and think not of a child starving in Africa, but rather of the security and wealth that our western society has. In our world, our problems are not of the most dangerous nature and in many cases, it is all just a game.

Published on February 26, 2006

Looking Back on My Middle Kingdom

I once read that if you stay in China for a week you can write a book; if you stay for a month, you can write an essay; if you stay for six months, you can write a paragraph; if you stay for a year you can write a sentence, and any longer, you can’t write anything at all.

I very much feel this is true, once you have stayed in China for a prolonged period you realize how complex it is. A quick glance, and you may think you have identified some key differences, but when you look closer you realize that it is not that simple.

I have wanted to go to China ever since I started reading about its emergence 5 years ago, while still in CEGEP. I knew I had to find a way to go so that I could experience the most possible with the smallest incurred cost. When I finally made it to China, I was asked by my friends if I had a “culture shock” when I arrived in China, the truth is I think I was well prepared mentally and my largest “culture shock” was actually when I got back to Montreal. I knew about the poverty and the injustice in China, but what amazed me was how kind and welcoming even the poorest of people could be when we sat down to talk with them. At the base, all humans have common desires; security, love, and comfort.

After seven months in China you realize how petty any problem you could have in Canada is. I have never worried about getting food, or escaping the police, or being confined to a life on a factory line. I genuinely feel that most people should travel to a third world country to truly see how the majority of the world lives.

I had the luxury of traveling all over China for work and for vacation. The country is vast and diverse and in many ways, cannot be grouped into one greater China. Many of the more remote areas are barely under the control of the central government and it is difficult to imagine a high level of devotion to the party. What this leads to, is an appreciation for what we have achieved in the western world, our complex institutions, respect for the law and our relative equality of living standards. Before leaving the developed world, you tend to take this for granted and assume that it is relatively simple to build such said institutions, when in fact, it is remains the greatest challenge any developing nation faces.
On a more personal level, I spent most of my free time with individuals who were significantly older than I. Most of my friends were 27 to 30 years of age, and without exaggerating, time spent with that age group will inevitably change the perspective of a 22 year old. Their life experiences, personal accomplishments, and responsibilities altered my view of what it takes to be successful. In China, I met more adventurous, more daring types of people than I met on my jobs in Timmins or Dunkerque (my previous two work terms). These people push you do more, move faster and work harder. I plan to go on more trips, experience more cultures and keep pushing hard.

It remains very difficult to quantify the effects that China had on me, but there is no doubt that it changed me for the better. I will likely return thanks to my positive experience and my base of Mandarin skills that I have acquired. Many things that I expected to find in China, I did not, and many that I did not expect, occurred.

Published on January 27, 2006

October Holiday Trip

This essay is a long time in the making. I am writing this more than three months after the event and I hope that I do not overlook anything.

Itinerary (2.5 Weeks):

Beijing –> Xi’an –> Kunming –> Dali -> Lijiang –> Tiger Leaping Gorge –> Chengdu –> Songpan –> Leshan –> Beijing
Photos from the trip (First batch)
Photos from the trip (Second batch)

One week prior to the National Holiday I traveled with my friend Jason to the ancient city of Xi’An. The city was the base of numerous Chinese dynasties and is rich in history. The most famous site is the terracotta warriors, and frankly, remains the main reason for going to Xi’an. The city itself is crawling with foreign tourists and is situated in the relatively wealthy province of Shaanxi. Surprisingly, the city is disgusting. It is one of the dirtiest large Chinese cities I visited and for such a historic place I could not believe the lack of effort put into maintaining it. Besides the warriors, the Muslim quarter and its unique mosque are of interest, along with the drum and bell towers and the ancient (though clearly restored) outer city wall. I do not want to commit the typical foreigner pattern of discrediting Chinese accomplishments but there is something to be said about the terracotta warriors. When I traveled to the Great wall, I was expecting to be impressed and when I arrived I was blown away.

Arguably, the terracotta warriors are the second most famous sight in China, considered by the Chinese to be the eighth wonder of the world. So, I visited the warriors expecting to be impressed and possibly blown away. The accomplishment of carving tens of thousands of unique (face only) soldiers is an impressive achievement, but there was something lacking. The feature that really dampened the grandeur of the site is the material used, clay. The amount of energy to carve something out of clay is infinitely smaller than carving the same thing out of granite, limestone, marble or any other stone. Now don’t take me for some aloof European (I am), but really, the warriors made nowhere near the mark on me that the Great Wall or the Buddha caves (Longmen Shiku) of Luoyang. They are impressive and need to be seen, but Xi’an should be visited solely for that, nothing more. Jason and I stayed three days and I assure you, it was too long. One more thing I learned in Xi’an is that buying a bottle of vodka between two people is a bad idea. First, it ties you down to a table and secondly it makes you way too drunk to dance or talk to girls. After that mistake (and the hangover the next day) we decided to never again do that. Sorry furry big boobs and all the other people at the club.

From Xi’an we traveled to Kunming in Yunnan province. An interesting city, brimming with minorities and a laid back feeling that is not found on the coasts or in the north. We spent a day visiting temples and hanging out in cafés. We were told that we were very goodlooking by three transvestites and that was as close as we came to any local women.

The following day we took the train to the backpacker haven of Dali, west of Kunming. Aboard the train, a Chinese man who was wearing a trench coat and large sunglasses approached me. Expecting to be handed a plan for a secret invasion of America through Alaska, he handed me a two page letter and in excellent English and asked me to read it. Seeing no red guards in the vicinity, I dove in. The letter outlined this man’s plight. As best I remember, he had gotten into a fight, along with a friend, with a group of men. The other men got the worst of it and despite the fact they started the confrontation and this sunglassed man was brought into the station for questioning. He claims he was beaten into offering a confession that he egged the other men on and started the fight. The beating of innocent people into confessing to a crime is common in China as the local authorities have a mandate to arrest someone for every crime, whether or not they find the guilty party. After spending a year or so in prison he was released.

After being released he was attacked by the same people he had fought with the previous year. He was stabbed along with his friend and his friend died. He was again beaten into offering a false confession and his family was harrased to ensure he complied. He was sent to prison again and he was tortured in prison repeatedly. He was eventually freed and some six months later I met this man on a train in the mountains of Yunnan province. The story seemed to be a little brief and may have overlooked import aspects that he may not wish to share. But, the important thing to recall is that this sort of beating of innocent people commonly happens in China and you can find many such stories on the internet and in major newspapers. He asked for help, but I had little to offer, and honestly, he sketched me out a bit. His glasses and trench coat may help him hide from the authorities, but I am not sure how much credibility it lends him. I suggested he try and get his story to western media or media in Hong Kong, but the truth is that stories like this are published all the time and while things may be improving slightly, they are still very bad for the average Chinese person who is in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Dali was a pleasant retreat from large polluted cities. The ancient Dali (there are two) is located near a lake, which itself has many authentic old Chinese towns that have not yet been turned into massive tourist traps. We made the error of staying in a hostel full of old Germans, but hey, you cannot have everything. We visited the nearby villages and would have liked to stay longer. I highly suggest staying there for three days (we stayed for two nights) and try to get a hotel with a more vibrant atmosphere.

After Dali, we went to Lijiang. Lijiang is an ancient (and typical) looking Chinese town in the mountains. It’s old center is very nice and could feel like a step back in time if it had not been completely transformed into tourist shops and generic bars, all of which sell the same things at the same inflated prices. It was more expensive to drink at the average bar in Lijiang than in an expensive club in Beijing or Shanghai. It is still worth visiting but beware that it is designed, run, and tailored for Chinese Tourists. Dali is much better.

We then took a taxi through treacherous mountain roads to get to Tiger Leaping Gorge. Coming from Canada, it takes a lot to impress me in terms of natural beauty. Tiger Leaping Gorge was as close as I got in China. It is a majestic place and the highlight is certainly the charm of the guesthouses along the hiking path. We took the high path through the hills and let me warn you, the section called the 28 bends will leave you with burnt legs. The trail was more difficult than I anticipated but I managed just fine. However, Jason, who was ridiculously unprepared had to have a 20 year old Chinese guy who was half his size, and about the same size as his bag, carry his bag up the trail. Nearly all the Chinese tourists take the low, paved road in large buses, you will find mostly foreigners hiking the high path and staying at the guesthouses. The mini-trek was very nice and it was comforting to know that my heart and lungs still worked despite all the partying and pollution of Beijing. Jason and I were sadly both somewhat sick with a cold we had been dragging since Dali and that slowed us down a bit, but the weather and scenery made up for our misery.

After Dali, we traveled back to Lijiang, which was packed to the rafters with people because it was now the national holiday in which the entire nation goes on vacation at the same time. What brilliant planning!! We caught our flight to Chengdu the same night and we left
Yunnan province for good.

In Chengdu we were supposed to meet up with Jason’s girlfriend, another couple, and two girls. The plan was that I would stay with the two girls and party it up, but they decided to not come and to not inform me of this. So in Chengdu I quickly visited the sites; the Panda breeding center, the old part of town and the teahouses.

I then took off solo for the mountain Tibetan town of Songpan. I was trying to find a location that would not be packed with Chinese tourists, and to a large extent I succeeded. The famous Juizaigou was certain to be rammed to the rafters and I wanted a slightly more authentic experience. Songpan was a charming little town that was 8 hours by bus north of Chengdu. It was sill enclosed by ancient walls and had impressive bridges and watchtowers. I embarked on a two day horse trek with some other foreigners and a few Chinese. The guides took care of everything and we had a solid time.

When we were arranging sleeping accommodations in the tents, one Chinese person said off the cuff, “Well, there are five of you and four of us.” To which my new Israeli friend promptly responded, “What are we? Two football teams?” It is difficult to explain the hilarity of this brief exchange, but let me try. I was the only lone traveler, everyone else was in independent couples. Meaning, the couples did not know each other prior to getting on the horses. Therefore, the assumption that somehow the Chinese people could not sleep in the same tents as the “laowai” was a bit much and the idea that we were two separate entities and not one group of travelers is a bit ridiculous. If you were traveling in your home country with your girlfriend, another couple of the same nationality, but one that you have never previously met, two other couples from a different country (each couple being from different origins and nations) and a single voyager from another nations; would you say, “well, there are five of you and four of us”? It is a curious habit of Chinese to group themselves together and to group all other non-chinese together. Perhaps it will pass with the opening and industrialization of the country, but it remains a bit condescending and in my opinion reflects poorly on Chinese people. It implies indirectly that you could never be “Chinese” or even at home in China because you are not Han. I hardly think that applies to a Han in Canada, France or any other western nation. Just some food for thought.

After Songpan, I traveled all the way back to Chengdu and to Leshan where there is the largest Buddha in the world. Sitting down, this Buddha is taller than a ten story building and is very impressive. Not too much to report, but the island where the statue is located also contains other interesting caves and carvings, but be sure to steer clear of the modern carvings that are reproductions and of no historical importance.

From Leshan I traveled to Chengdu where I caught a bird back to Beijing and thus ended my first long journey in China. It was an amazing trip and there are too many stories to tell here, and some that will not be told in public, but I suggest nearly all the places that I visited.

Published on December 30, 2005

Guangxi Trip Photos

Selected photos from my most recent Trip to Guanxi Province in Southern China. We visited Guilin, Longsheng, Yangshuo, Lipu, Liuzhou, Nanning.


Published on December 16, 2005

Photos II

Published on October 31, 2005