Since we have just (on January 8th) embarked on a sixteen hour sleeper train from a city where the midday temperature does not exceed zero (fahrenheit), perhaps this is a good time to compare our experience in China so far with Finland. The moments are parallel: In 2008 we had heard of an “Ice Castle” in Kemi, Finland, at the north end of the gulf that separates Finland and Sweden, near the arctic circle. One weekend in February, we hopped a train north. The Ice Castle was very cool, including a restaurant, bar, chapel (complete on that day with a wedding, and an exit for bride and groom in a reindeer sleigh), and a hotel where guests slept on slabs of ice covered with many many reindeer hides.
Person-sized ice sculptures stood in many rooms, and ice murals too, and outside there was a long ice slide for the kids, and a small stage for performances. The place is cool in the other sense as well, with indoor temperatures in the low 20s everywhere, even in the honeymoon suite. You had to keep moving to avoid freezing to death, which must have been a problem for the overnight guests (not that we saw any).
We took overnight trains in both directions, so we had a full day in Kemi in between. On our way to the castle, we enjoyed the outdoor market, including the stand selling Hawaiian shirts (covered with snow).
The Ice Castle and the icy gulf took a few hours, and then a long lunch a few hours more. But then the lunch place closed along with the rest of the town (pop.:20,000). We were fortunate to find the “Museum of Hairdressing,” possibly the only museum of its kind. Highlights included the Versailles beehive of Marie Antoinette, a little creepy on a (detached) mannequin head. Then it was 4 PM and getting dark, with the temperature in the ‘teens and the wind rising. We kept moving until the first restaurant opened and eventually our train left for home.
The city of Harbin, China, is noted for its annual ice festival, so with Kemi in mind we set out for another arctic adventure. But this is China. The outdoor temperature in Harbin, 600 miles north of Tianjin, hovered in the single digits and teens — below zero, as extreme as our coldest minutes in Finland (Rovaniemi, December 2002). Harbin is a quaint provincial town of ten million, as bustling and in-your-face as any Chinese city. Our destination was “Ice World,” which on the map was clearly just across the river from us. The river turned out to be at least a mile wide, frozen, desolate, wind-scoured, so we booked a horse drawn carriage, which meandered to the opposite shore. Ice World was nowhere to be seen, but fortunately a student of mine was with us and realized that the remaining distance would be fatal. We took a cab for the final four miles to the gate of Ice World, a gate like the main gate to an ancient city, cut through a massive city wall of huge blocks of solid ice. Behind it Ice World covers several hundred acres with free-standing structures, huge imposing castles and pagodas and coliseums and cathedrals. At sunset, the ice metropolis lights up from within, from colored fluorescents and LEDs embedded in every block. At a beautiful extreme, a gathering of four-storey pagodas, perfectly symmetrical, glowing blue. In the very center, a Disney castle flashing through the rainbow. Loud classical music played everywhere. There were no ice cafes, but instead frequent temporary box huts with lots of heat, and a KFC and cheesy restaurants. Thousands milled about, the -30 windchill notwithstanding.
So, discuss: The Finnish place was functional and interior; the ice was illuminated with white light or light Finnish blue, and the whole flowed with the clean lines and elegant unity of Nordic design. The Chinese counterpart was colossal, psychedelic, and spectacular. Each monumental structure had its own design, often a scaled copy of some other (famous) structure. These islands of light and cold were scattered across an immense public space. They had no insides; their only function was to dazzle. The regular logistics of life were exiled to ugly temporary structures … but with heat and (bad) coffee. Overall, then, neither place served any function at all: The Ice Castle was dysfunctional because it was so cold inside, and Ice World was dysfunctional because it never had any function to begin with. Both melt every spring, and are rebuilt every winter (and charge admission, very steep in the Chinese case). So both are transient art objects, the sand Mandelas of their cultures.
Now for the shaky overgeneralizations: Finnish culture, like the Ice Castle, is built around the individual lives of people. Society and its constructs intend to make it possible for you to do what you choose to do, but with an absolute minimum of intrusion on “personal space.” Finns famously live interior lives with lots of self-reflection, mostly ironic. Chinese culture aims to sustain society and culture at any cost, and to promote a triumphant image of five thousand years of “China!” Individual needs are met only as needed to keep the whole project moving. There is no personal space at all, and accordingly the interior life is not reflective. People act directly from their personal initiative, and presently there seems to be a kind of national multiple personality: One either conforms one’s self to the grand social project of eternal China, which is realized mainly within families and tight social networks. Or one cuts loose into a radical individualism, a Darwinian struggle for the very limited supply of brass rings. Everyone acknowledges that life is not easy no matter what; in particular, the trappings of wealth are achieved, if ever, only with immense ongoing stress.
In the middle, us. I went back to the family Finland blog, to find a passage I had written three years ago:
Sight and sound harmonize in Helsinki. Whenever I sit down to write about the place, I come back to that indescribable balance, or space, or equipoise. It defines the fundamental contrast with life in the old country, which is so relentlessly in your face: garish, jolting, clanging. In America, people and things clamor for your attention, they grab at you. In Finland, people and things jostle to get out of your way, to be unobtrusive. For an American who wants to fit in here, that poses the challenge to be a bit quieter, a bit less impulsive, and a lot more receptive to space and silence. ( http://clgreenberg.wordpress.com )
So different in China! In China we are the quiet, reserved ones . (Our family, that is. The kids report that the Americans they encounter are loud and obnoxious.) But quiet or loud, “society” and the folks around here really don’t care. Not that they’re indifferent to us, being hugely friendly and always helpful when help is needed. But in the social space of ordinary street life, typically other people flow by without regard to anyone else’s intentions. To polite Americans it can read as rudeness, but of course it isn’t. It’s just difference. Nothing harmonizes; instead you are buffeted with the cacaphony and wild disjunctions of modern/ancient sleek/dilapidated perfect/corrupt canny/clumsy….
In both cultures, but for opposite reasons, it’s easy to be foreign. Finns make space for everyone and the Chinese make no space for anyone. In either world the incompetent, illiterate, and aphasic foreigner can weave in and out with little obstacle, oblivious to disapproval. Mostly you can wander in a state of curiosity, taking the train to the next perplexing mystery, wondering.