Christina Zastrow

The Long Way Home


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The Psychology of victory at all costs

Not that long ago, I walked the streets of Ho Chi Minh City, and I witnessed for myself the history of evil there. The side effects of poison on the people of Vietnam, sprayed there by my own country in an attempt to win a doomed ideological war, were difficult to witness and they made me ashamed of my country’s history.

I was reminded this week that it isn’t that man seeks out evil, but rather that man seeks out victory, and for some, the price others pay is never too high as long as the goals are met.

So, what reminded me that the blind eye of victory at any cost penetrates history? A trip to Harbin, China where I spent an afternoon in the Japanese Germ Warfare Museum, the remains of Unit 731.

For historical context, it was the middle of the twentieth century, a time otherwise known as “WWII is on it’s way any minute now, oh, wait, yup…Germany just invaded Poland”. Japan was determined to defeat her foes, and to do so, she took up the study of biological warfare. Unit 731 was set up in Harbin to detain (mostly) Chinese POWs, infect them with various germ agents, and…decide how best to weaponize things like cholera and the plague.

Thousands of people died after being infected with various biological agents. If they didn’t die of disease, they died of hypothermia from experiments to help the Japanese learn the best ways to bring people back from the brink of hypothermia death. Unit 731 was the Japanese version of Dr. Mengele.

The exhibit was disturbing, the remains of the buildings, haunting in ways photos simply can’t demonstrate. The take-away, for me at least, was the need to go further, to understand the psychology of how people can tie another human being to a makeshift cross, shield their vital organs so death isn’t immediate, and experiment with exactly how to build a bomb that spreads disease.

 

The problem is, the psychology that leads to this is something we see more and more in recent days. Mengele saw the Jews as less than human, and therefore he could experiment on them at will. It was, after all, all for the good of Germany. Japan could other the Chinese, Mongolian, and other non-Japanese victims because they were also “othered.” They existed as a threat, in a time when there were multiple threats and it was felt that Japan needed every advantage.

Any time we “other” a group of people, not even to say that they are less than human, simply to say that they are different, we create an environment in which we’re one step closer to saying “victory at any cost.” We need to remember, at the core of us, we are all human. We all deserve dignity and respect. No one deserves to be mistreated because their skin is different, or their God, or their mental state, or…whatever thing we decide to pick out as “other” next. None of that is at our root. At our root is blood and bone and human spirit.

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Why is there always water?

In Beijing there is this weird little quick that I have wondered about since I first got here and I was so excited to finally have it explained this week.

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Literally every garbage can in a subway station has a water bottle or a plastic cup of water sitting on top of the can. Sometimes there is a plastic flower inside the cup, but the water is always a part of the equation. It was so confusing to me.

I don’t really know if other countries do this. In Chicago I ride the train from suburb to city, but had very rarely ridden any other form of public transit, so maybe the whole world already knows what this cup is for. But it blew my mind to find out this week, it’s in case there’s a fire in the garbage.

Like…this is a country where peopple smoke…everywhere. No. Literally everywhere. I can’t think of a single place I’ve been where I didn’t see people smoking or see a designated place for people to smoke (ie in the library you have to go to a designated spot). People smoke on the street. In the clubs. In restaurants. Everywhere. So as a precaution, they have water available in case a lit cigarette gets tossed in a trash can and a fire flares up.

Beijing is brilliant.

And…semi-related. People here smoke everywhere. So imagine my shock the other night, when I was sitting at a friend’s apartment, watching them pass a joint around the couch, and then when that was gone, get up and go out to the balcony to smoke a cigarette. Cause the don’t smoke in the house cause “that’s nasty.”

What?

 

 


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Back in the PRC

I’ve been back in China for a few days now. Long enough to register my location with the local police (required of all foreigners every time we leave PRC and return) and decide I had three days of vacation left. Apparently, spending vacation time in Beijing is not really a thing I do now, since I spend all my regular days off exploring this city. My roommate and I were sitting around on Saturday evening, both exhausted from recent travel (I spent ten days in America, she ran down to Hong Kong to achieve her exit and then sojourned on a mountain for five days), and realized we should use our time more wisely. We booked a train Sunday morning to head to Hebei Province and see the Shanhaiguan section of the Great Wall, which is one end of the wall (I know, who thinks of the Great Wall of China as having an end????), and also the only place where the wall runs into the sea.

I’ve only seen the ocean (the Pacific to be precise), so I was pretty excited to spend some time in at the Bohai Sea. And it was beautiful. Freezing, you know, since I was at about 32°N in early February, but beautiful. And I finally am feeling like I’ve actually seen the People’s Republic of China. Spending as much time in Beijing as I have, I definitely feel like I know the flow and the spirit of the capital, but the provinces are mostly a mystery to me.

In Xi’an (Shaanxi Province) I was prepared for no one to speak English and to struggle to get around, but I found the Ancient Capital to be very western/English friendly. That was not the case in Shanhaiguan (Hebei Province). Very few people spoke English, English menus (yingyu caidan), which are everywhere in Beijing, were completely unheard of, and even our accented Chinese didn’t help as much as we would have liked. It’s definitely time to buckle down on those Chinese lessons and see if I can’t lose the American/Beijing accent before I travel to Chengdu in the fall!

In any case, it was a pretty great trip and I’m quite pleased to be living a life where that’s something I can do – decide I want to see more of the world, and be on a train the next day, seeing more of the world. It’s something that is difficult in America just because we are so isolated from the rest of the world, if I want to go somewhere outside North America, I have to cross an ocean, which makes the flight a lot more expensive. So, as I consider more and more if I’m returning to America in six months, I’m trying to utilize my current ability to explore the reaches of Asia and if I return, return with an understanding of the world that I didn’t have before.


					
		
	


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An interesting revelation I had this week

I’ve been spending a lot of time trying to figure out what’s next. My contract in China is up in nine months and depending on what I decide to do, I need to be taking steps towards those goals fairly soon. So I wrote out all of the things that I’m debating and then just started brainstorming everything about those things that I could think of and I realized a few things.

First, I truly have no idea what I want. As a society, we ask people to decide the paths of their lives when they are very young. Especially if they are going to want a “white collar” future, they need to pick a field and a college before they are eighteen years old. And, perhaps because we set ourselves in stone with those early decisions or perhaps because we are a stubborn species, very few of us veer much from those early courses. Yet, somehow I have wound up on a path that meandered wildly from the one I thought I was following. Most people that I speak to say that their lives have gone in an orderly line, perhaps with a few gentle curves, but very rarely does anyone say that their lives make no real sense as a series of connected events. And yet mine does not.

It is a great opportunity to redecide my fate at thirty-four, to look at where my life has been and try to change my path. Very few people get to make those decisions as adults without impacting other people, and I know that I’m lucky to have that chance. But…the impulsiveness of youth is well suited for making those decisions. You see the thing you want and you just reach out for it. Now…life has worn away at that. I’m afraid to grab out for what I want because I could be wrong, especially in light of the series of events that brought me here I worry about being wrong again.

Second, is more personal. I look at my choices and two of them involve my comfort zones. I could stay in China for another year or return to my home town where most of the people I love are. Both of those involve staying within some kind of comfort zone, so if I pick one of those things, I have to evaluate if I’m just choosing the comfortable thing to avoid the scary choices.

If I go back to Chicago…well, there are some personal reasons for that, people that I love, and people that I call friends there. But I shook up my life for someone I loved once before and he left me on my butt, homeless, unemployed, broken… And I won’t let that happen again, but I want to be careful to make my decisions based on what I want and not to be making them because of someone I love again, love, at least in my experience, can’t keep people together and if I decide to return to Chicago, I don’t want to look around me a year later, with the people I love gone, and see that I made a terrible mistake.

If I stay in China…those people I love will stop waiting for me at some point. Long distance is too hard when there’s no end point in view. I love it here, but do I love it enough to give up the dreams I’ve fed myself of life with my loved ones? Which of course takes me right back to thinking about Chicago and if the possibility of life with my loved ones, knowing that it could all come crashing down on me again, is a strong enough draw to return to a place that stopped being “home” many years ago.

Can I make Chicago home, again?

It reminds me of a saying, you can’t go home again. It’s true. When you leave, even when you simply leave behind childhood and look around as an adult, it will never be the same as it was. You can go back to the place, but not to the feeling and the way you saw it when you were young.


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Lesson One

One of the major things I was coming to China to learn was to step outside my comfort zone and let myself experience life to the fullest instead of clinging to the sidelines, watching others have the experiences.

Making the decision, planning my trip, getting on the plane last week, these were all small steps in the right direction, but I think the first night that I can call a real lesson in this was the fifth night I was here.

Several of us went out, wandering the Olympic Park, taking pictures and playing tourist. The music of a nearby dance had filled my soul and I could feel China pulling at me, refusing to let me retreat. It got steadily later and everyone else went back to the hotel, but I knew I wouldn’t sleep and I wanted to find whatever was pulling at me, so I decided to stay out.

For awhile it was just another night wandering the park. I took pictures of the Olympic torch, the rings, other mementos of the games four years ago. The sun set, the sky lit up with neon lights and the music grabbed me even harder, pulling me away from the tourist spots to a wide street, clear of everything but foot traffic where a group of Chinese dancers gyrated to the beats of a drummer, all of them flinging scarves and fans around in these graceful movements that stopped me in my tracks.

I watched for long minutes, slowly moving my own hips in time with the music and somehow caught the attention of the elderly man leading the dance. He put his fan and scarf in my own hands and encouraged me to dance, free and light, waving his props, laughing into the night, forgetting I had ever had such a thing as an inhibition. I grinned, dancing with children and the elderly man, nodding and waving as watchers took my pictures and laughed along with me.

It was the clearest moment of joy I’d ever had.

When it was over, I headed back to the hotel, only to find out that the secured section of the park I had to walk through was closed and I had to find a new way back to my hotel. Alone. In the middle of the night. In Beijing. Without a single kui (dollar) in my pocket.

I’d planned for this. I knew roughly how to get back as long as I kept some idea of where the Olympic Tower was in mind. And so I started walking along. First along a small road, then a more major one, then suddenly the road I was on disappeared and I had no choice but to walk along Fifth Ring St, which is basically the Beijing express way.

It was a little scary, walking there, unsure if my plan to get home would actually work, knowing I didn’t have a good backup plan or anyone but myself to rely on. But I had no one else to rely on, and so I kept to what I thought was right and didn’t talk myself out of it.

Two hours after I left the dance at the Olympic Park my hotel was in sight. My feet burned, my hips hurt, and it was solidly time to sleep. But I had managed to break out of my shell, even if it lasted less than an hour, and I had a chance to trust myself and learned that I am capable of this.

Lesson one, China. Thank you.