My alarm clock buzzes me into the waking world. I reach to the bedside table, ready to swipe it away and retreat to a more comfortable place, when something catches in my mind. My alarm doesn’t buzz, it rings. And my phone doesn’t ring, it buzzes. I open my eyes fully and see it’s a call from my boss, Mr. Dai. I pick up, and my morning veers into the new and unknown.
Between tense directions aimed at the van driver, Mr. Dai informs us that we are late for a conference aimed at bringing more outside talent into Xiangxi Prefecture. A half-hour later, Dan and I are slinking into the only two seats left in a room of 40-odd local politicians and school leaders.
It takes me a few moments to realize that sitting next to me, opposite the triumvirate of leaders heading the meeting, are the only people of European descent that I have seen in at least a month. There are four of them, three in their late twenties and one older fellow, and the foreignness of their appearance makes me feel a little more at home.
In the first hour, a charismatic but official looking man presents what I can only assume is the plan. Everyone listens and dutifully takes notes. The next two hours are filled with speechifying and Guanxi building, of which I understand very little, and the meeting is brought to a happy conclusion with a toast-fueled banquet.
A lot of things are like this here. I don’t understand much of the main thrust of the activity, but I sure do learn a bunch about how we do things here.
Not a bad way to spend a morning, I suppose.
Hot pot. Oooh hot pot. Assemble a selection of vegetables, mushrooms, and meats, and bring a pot of spicy broth to boil in the center of your dining table. Alternate throwing your ingredients in and picking out and devouring them, for two hours or until you are unable to swallow any more food. There are very few reasons not to love this pinnacle of Hunan cuisine. Unfortunately, I’ve found one.
There was a moment, a single moment, when my relationship with hot pot could have been saved. A moment when I looked down at the proffered needle mushrooms (pictured bottom left) and thought: that raw chicken went in awfully recently...
But the moment passed, and I returned home still smelling of fat and spice. As the night wore on my stomach felt fuller and not emptier, and I felt colder and colder. The illness didn’t last long, but ever since the scent of those steaming metal pots has made my head spin.
I’m not going to talk too much about the elections, because there isn’t much that hasn’t been said by people who know what they’re doing.
The big story that most everyone was telling was how the republicans won it all. That’s a pretty narrow view of things, though. The fact is, everyone who won an election last week owes a debt of gratitude to the money that got them there. And the #1 agenda item coming out of the elections? Keystone XL.
Here’s the thing that has somehow dropped out of our public conversation: corrupting public officials is not a fundamental human right. Wealthy people shouldn’t have quantifiably more speech than poorer people. And corporations shouldn’t have the lion’s share of free speech.
Even if you make the argument that putting limits on campaign donations restricts personal freedom, you still have to face reality: the current system just doesn’t play. Our leaders don’t govern, they politic. Our laws and policy match the will of the people only coincidentally, or if there happens to be no special interest at work.
Our democracy has hit a wall. We desperately need fundamental reform, and partisan politics run counter to that goal. So the conversation shouldn’t be democrats vs. republicans. It should be about getting things done and moving forward.
Want to add your voice to the movement for reform? Check out mayday.us.
And to heal some of the wounds left by divisive politics, one of the most beautiful pieces of music I have ever heard (no recording I’ve come across has done it justice, but this is the closest I’ve heard):