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08 October

《Country Driving》札记

Country Driving
A Chinese Road Trip
by Peter Hessler


A block of streets had been cordoned off expressly for the purpose of testing new drivers. It felt like a neighborhood waiting for life to begin: there weren’t any other cars, or bicycles, or people; not a single shop or makeshift stand lined the sidewalk. No tricycles loaded down with goods, no flatbed carts puttering behind two-stroke engines, no cabs darting like fish for a fare. Nobody was turning without signaling; nobody was stepping off a curb without looking. I had never seen such a peaceful street in Beijing, and in the years that followed I sometimes wished I had had time to savor it.


In China, much of life involves skirting regulations, and one of the basic truths is that forgiveness comes easier than permission.


In China, you can’t just go to a parking lot with your father and learn how to drive.  Anyway, there aren’t many parking lots yet, and most fathers don’t have licenses.


Foreigners in Beijing often said to me: I can’t believe you’re driving in this country.  To which I responded: I can’t believe you get into cabs and buses driven by graduates of Chinese driving courses.


The parking lot at the Mausoleum of Genghis Khan was full of black Santana with tinted windows. My heart always sank at such a sight–it was like watching a flock of crows settle into a quiet forest. In rural China, black Santana are cadre cars, and if they show up en masse at a tourist destination it usually means that a junket is in full swing.


I pitched my tent in the shadow of the fort (指玉门关外的河仓城). A small stream ran in the distance, surrounded by marshland, like a thin ribbon of green tied taut across this parched landscape.  The sky was restless–fugitive clouds scattering across a dome of blue. At midnight the gusting wind shook me awake. It hummed across the Gobi, and whistled through the ruins, and I lay there listening to the same song that stirred soldiers in the days of the Han.


……early education……is truly the foundation–everything begins in place like Shayu Elementary School. The classroom reflects the way people behave in the streets, the way village governments function, even the way the Communist Party structures its power. Sometimes it depressed me, but I had to admit that the education was extremely functional. Wei Jia wasn’t necessarily learning the skills that I valued, but there was no question that he was being prepared for Chinese society.


All told there are more than four hundred different types of Chinese cigarettes, each with a distinct identity and meaning. Around Beijing, peasants smoke Red Plum Blossom whites. Red Pagoda Mountain can be found in the pockets of average city folk. Middle-class entrepreneurs like Zhongnanhai Lights. Businessmen with a flair for the foreign sport State Express 555. A nouveau riche tosses Chunghwa like it’s rice. Panda are the rarest beast of all. That was Deng Xiaoping’s favorite brand, and government quotas make them hard to find; a single pack costs more than twelve dollars. If you carry Panda, you’re probably just being pretentious.


In 2000, the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention commissioned a study that showed that the health-related costs of smoking outweigh the revenue benefits. But that’s not the key calculus: all that matters is who pays what. Until now, there has been no nationwide health insurance, so the government has collected its cigarette profits without paying for the damage. Each year, over one milion Chinese people die from smoking-related illness, and that figure is expected to double by the year 2025.


I was well aware of Edgar Snow, whose history is a cautionary tale to any Missouri native who writes about China.  Back in the 1930s, Snow had been a favorite of Mao and Zhou Enlai’s, and eventually the American came to swallow much of their propaganda whole. During the Great Leap Forward, when tens of millions of Chinese starved to death, Edgar Snow toured the nation and reported that rumors of a famine were untrue.


Highly touching description of the departure between mother and daughter, both in anger towards each other.


……I had moved back to the United States, where I became accustomed to new road routines. In traffic I learned to drive slower, and the right shoulder no longer presented an option for passing. I kept my hands away from the horn. At intersections, when a light turned green, I had to suppress an instinct to immediately cut left across oncoming traffic, the way you do in China. I no longer worried about three-wheeled tractors, or long-distance buses, or black Audi A6s. I took my car to a garage where the mechanics don’t smoke. Once, in Denver, a woman dented my back bumper, and we exchanged phone numbers instead of cash. Twice I was pulled over by the Colorado cops. Both times they let me off with warnings, telling me to drive a little slower and enjoy my day.


I wish that I could thank Dr. Gurucharri in person. But I would like his wife and daughters to know that even in the midst of his own battle with cancer, he took the time to think about a sick child in China.

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