Alienating our allies

As all fashionable bloggers know, The New York Times is nothing more than the mouthpiece of The Left, a bastion of outdated and one-sided liberal ideology. Nevertheless, columnist Thomas Friedman today manages to spell out precisely why Bush is having such a hard time recruiting European allies to help topple Saddam Hussein. This is definitely the quote of the day:

“Unfortunately, when it comes to enlisting allies, the Bush team is its own worst enemy. It has sneered at many issues the world cares about: the Kyoto accords, the World Court, arms control treaties. The Bush team had legitimate arguments on some of these issues, but the gratuitous way it dismissed them has fueled anti-Americanism. No, I have no illusions that if the Bush team had only embraced Kyoto the French wouldn’t still be trying to obstruct America in Iraq. The French are the French. But unfortunately, now the Germans are the French, the Koreans are the French, and many Brits are becoming French.”

Keep in mind that Friedman is strongly in favor of invading Iraq. Living abroad, I know that Friedman is onto something: across the board, most of the world sees Bush as rude, crude and arrogant. I so often hear him described as a “cowboy,” and I have to say that I have never heard him spoken of kindly in Hong Kong or China, by natives or expats. Bush chose to spit in everybody’s eye, and now he is facing the consequences. Whether he was right or wrong about the treaties is hardly relevant — it’s all about packaging. All he had to do was exercise a little bit of tact, put on just a thin veneer of humility and concern, and the world would be reacting to him quite differently today.

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48 hours

48 hours with no Internet. No email. No blogging. That’s because my building’s connection somehow broke down and still isn’t repaired. So I apologize for the 48 hours of silence. By odd coincidence I watched 40 Days and 40 Nights on Friday, a rapidly forgettable movie about the travails of an oversexed young man who for Lent makes a pact with himself to be celibate for — you guessed it — 40 days and 40 nights. Being without the Internet for 40 hours was upsetting enough, but 40 days, now that utterly unthinkable. How quickly we come to be dependent on our little gadgets and inventions….

I’m still a little under the weather, with a minor cold and a painful bout of tendonitis of the right shoulder. It got so bad yesterday that I went to the hospital where they took x-rays and told me I need to put my arm in a sling, which I’m supposed to be wearing all the time. Just one more little headache….

I’ll try to get back into form very soon. Please stand by.

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Shiny, happy people? Lead story

This was the lead headline on the front page of China Daily yesterday:

Industry Outlook Cheerful
Nearly all key industrial sectors to sustain robust, rapid growth

It’s good to know that things are going so swimmingly here in the People’s Republic. And it’s not as if most industries might grow fast and strong — they will, according to the cheerful subhead. No matter what.

China Daily is almost always cheerful. A couple of weeks ago a headline cheerfully chirped that a new survey shows, “Majority of Chinese People Are Happy.” That is so good to know. I mean, unhappy people are such a downer. Looking at a lot of the faces I see on the street, I have to wonder about the polling science the paper used, but maybe it’s just that a lot of the minority hangs out in this part of town.

The media. Always a fascinating subject here. Most of the TV channels are part of the CCTV network and again, it seems that everything they show us is cheerful and happy. I’ve noticed that news programs sometimes run little features on an event that “proves” how successful socialism has been here, and out of nowhere, uplifting, patriotic music will start to play stirringly in the background. On a news show.

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Gay hater opts out of presidential nomination

Update on the Bob Jones University alum nominated by our president to the AIDS commisson. Andrew Sullivan reports that the gay hater has resigned from the nomination process, and Ari Never-tell-a-lie Fleischer castigated him for referring to AIDS as a “gay plague.”

“The views that he holds are far, far removed from what the president believes,” Fleischer said. “The president has a total opposite view … The president’s view is that people with AIDS need to be treated with care, compassion.”

That may well be, but it has not been reflected by the company Bush has kept, right from the start of the 2000 campaign and the infamous courting of Bob Jones University. Notice that Ari, ever careful with every syllable, says that Bush advocates compassion for “people with AIDS,” not tolerance for gays.

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Andrew Sullivan’s Bizarre Blindspots Sigh.

Sigh. Andrew Sullivan still doesn’t get it. Today he asks, incredulously, “What on earth is a gay-hating, Bob Jones University alum doing on the presidential commission on AIDS?” Andrew, why on earth is a brilliant man like yourself at all surprised to see this? It is wholly consistent with Bush’s kowtowing to the religious right and should surprise no one, least of all you. Gay-hating, Bob Jones University types is what the administration is to a large extent about, but you don’t want to see that.

So there it is, a matter of fact: Bush has appointed “a gay-hating Bob Jones U. alum” to his commission on AIDS. A man who equates you and others like you with bestiality and sodomizing children. And Bush knows this. And still he apppoints him. To a commission on AIDS, no less. Can you now continue with your hero worship of the president? Does this give you no insight at all into why so many members of your community see Bush as, at best, a misguided and foolish man and, at worst, a truly dangerous one? I’ve said before that I’m just waiting for you to come around. Isn’t it time? Right now?

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Old posts gone

All of my archives have vanished from the site, again. I’m working on it.

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Waiting in Beijing

Just when I was beginning to believe the worst of Beijing’s weather had passed, the skies opened up tonight and let loose a torrent of wet, slippery snow, bringing the streets to a semi-standstill and causing general chaos. I had gone to a part of town I’m not very familiar with, a diplomatic compound, to audition for a classical music chorus, and when I stepped outside I knew I was in for it. Sure enough, I had to wait about 30 freezing minutes at the Scitech Plaza as mobs fought for the next taxi. Lines here are always an interesting experience, if by chance a line should form at all. Usually it’s just anarchy as tai-tais cut in front of you and push their way to the approaching cab. Finally I just resigned myself to the fact that if I didn’t adopt the same attitude, if I didn’t claw and fight and push, I’d never get home. These are the moments when I get kind of scared: Will I be the same person when I get home (to America)? Will I by osmosis pick up these Darwinistic tendencies to always struggle and survive, to get into that taxi at any cost? I’ve noticed how by necessity I have certainly become more aggressive since moving here and sometimes I have to check myself (not holding doors open for people, pushing to get a seat in the subway). Nice guys always finish last in Beijing. Chivalry offers no rewards, only puzzled looks. I know, we are different cultures with different mindsets, and what seems so natural for one might seem an utter mystery to the other. So I guess I should just adapt to my environment and claw and fight and push….

I’ve had some interesting conversations about this type of experience with my Chinese colleagues. No one is more critical of the Chinese than the Chinese, and this younger generation is acutely aware of what they see (I repeat, what they see) as a lack of sophistication among their parents’ generation. One of them told me the Cultural Revolution is to a large extent responsible, having deprived an entire generation of true education and culture. An older man works in my office cutting out stories from newspapers, and colleagues have come up to me to apologize when he clears his throat with a deep gutteral snort and then spits loudly into his wastebasket. I tell them it’s no problem, that I know people have their own habits — but these young people are definitely embarrased, and make it clear that they intend to exhibit a different set of social skills and habits than their predecessors, for better of for worse.

Chun Jie — Spring Festival, or Chinese New Year — starts in just 10 days. I couldn’t get a flight anywhere because I waited too long but am on waiting lists for flights to HK and Taiwan. As with so many other big cities, it’s important to get out of Beijing every once in a while. I just want to go somewhere warm, somewhere quiet and relaxing. Somewhere without snow. I never want to see snow again.

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The Death of Roy Kessler

Roy Kessler before he fell ill

October 24, 2001 marked the ten-year anniversary of the death of my best friend from college, Roy Kessler. This is the tribute I wrote in his memory last year:

My Best Friend

Nearly ten years ago my best friend Roy died at the age of 31. He was not only my friend at the time, he was also my employer. He had started a little software company in Arizona called PC Globe back in 1989. It was one of the first companies to make geography software, and its maps looked dazzling back then. Today, they look kind of silly, compared to the dramatic advances in software over the past decade. Roy started the company all by himself, and when I joined him to do the marketing, he was staying up until midnight shrink-wrapping the boxes himself with a hair dryer. Within six months, the company would make him a multi-millionaire.

Roy was a true entrepreneur. Ideas for new ventures were always popping into his head. I had met Roy back in 1976, when we were both students in Germany. He was a Princeton student at the time, getting extra credits for studying German in Munich. We became friends, and I was one of the few people he allowed to really get to know him. He was something of a genius, able to learn languages in just a few months – even Russian. He was 6 feet 4 inches tall, and definitely stood out in the crowd. Although he was slim, he was also a dedicated body builder and worked out at least once a day. His energy was limitless, and he was always in perfect health..

Something happened to Roy in the summer of 1991. He began to get tired, and he wasn’t himself. In July he had his wisdom teeth removed, and that week a big lump popped up on his neck. Roy told me he was frightened. “My doctor says that it’s either cancer, AIDS, or nothing at all.” Obviously, we were hoping it was the latter. But I was worried. Roy had a second home in Paris, and he was flying out there that same week. The night before, he came to my house for dinner, and afterward he collapsed on my couch. That was not like Roy. It took him about half an hour to get up, and he made some joke about his being tired lately, went to his car and drove home. It was the last time I would ever see Roy walk.

The next week at the office I got a frantic phone call from Roy’s lover in Paris, Francois, a flight attendant for Air France. Roy is very sick. He has cancer. He and I are flying back to Phoenix tomorrow, and you need to make plans for him to go directly to the hospital.

I was shocked, but I was not surprised. I tried to absorb it all: My best friend for 15 years had a life-threatening disease. A lot of terrible things happened in the days ahead. First, I learned that Roy had been diagnosed with lymphoma, and then I found out that the lymphoma had been caused by AIDS. There was no cocktail of drugs like we have today, no magical mixture of pills that can keep AIDS in check. And I soon learned that AIDS-related lymphoma was incurable and always resulted in death. Lets just say it was a very hard time for me, and I had to call Roys’ relatives and deal with many things that still haunt me today.

We celebrated his last birthday eight weeks before he died, on August 26. I wrote him a birthday letter, and it was one of the hardest things I ever did. I knew Roy would only be alive a few more weeks, and yet I also wanted to remind him that where there is life, there is hope. This is the letter (which ten years later seems embarrassingly sentimental) I wrote to Roy, my best friend, for his final birthday:

August 26, 1991

Dear Roy,

I am really sorry that amid all the haste and confusion and passion of the last few weeks I have failed to write you a note or letter. Please forgive me. (As a favor to you, I will try to keep this correspondence slightly less voluminous than usual, knowing how I can write on and on at lengths that are utterly horrifying to contemplate. That’s not fair to anyone, let alone a friend in the hospital.)

To say that life at PC Globe, Inc. is not the same without you doesn’t say nearly enough. Your presence is very sorely missed–your humour, your brilliance, your zaniness, your quirky individuality. The wish currently expressed here by everyone is unanimous — that you get your strength back and return, even if at first it can only be for a couple of days a week. That’s my wish, too.

Several times during the past few weeks you’ve referred to me as “my best friend,” which set me thinking, what is a “best friend”? (Pseudo-philosophers like me love to keep themselves absorbed with stuff like that.) I answered the question, at least to my own satisfaction: Being someone’s best friend means you don’t hesitate to do absolutely everything you possibly can for him. Being someone’s best friend means you’re responsible for that person. When your best friend is in trouble, nothing else matters, and your attention to him must be complete, flawless and immaculate. Being someone’s best friend is having had strong disagreements with him, even to the point where you want to throw something at him, and knowing that the disagreement means nothing. There is only the friendship; everything else is meaningless interference. I really feel that being your best friend is a high honour. (I hope my writing isn’t taking on the consistency of over-thickened corn syrup. I know I’m quite capable of that. I’ll try to be brief.)

Anyway, I wanted to wish you a happy birthday, and to remind you once more that you are missed by a simply amazing number of people.

Roy, I know what you’re experiencing is hard, and I wish I could put into words how much I admire your strength and your will. I’ve said it before, and I know lots of other people have also said it, but I want you to know I’ll always be there for you, always. Like E.T. says at the end of the movie, “I’ll be right here.”

I have always found the closing lines of Tennyson’s great poem, Ulysses, to be inspiring. I’ve thought about these words a lot recently:

And though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will,
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Thank you so much for not yielding, Roy, and for being such a great friend for so many years. And remember, you are beloved by many, many people; not just beloved–adored. Hang in there, Roy, and don’t forget that I’m with you.


Your best friend, Richard

On October 24, 1991, as I sat by his bed, Roy died, a bald, shrivelled sliver of the great man he had been only months before. Things weren’t always perfect between us. When a relationship changes from a friendship to a business partnership, it can be difficult to keep the friendship intact. Still, we did pretty well, and we always knew that nothing could erase the bond formed by 15 years of friendship. Roy’s passing was one of the saddest times of my life, and I think about him every day


A link from a superblogger!

Many thanks to Andrew Sullivan for linking my post on China’s gays to his site. It certainly made my day.

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The plight of China’s gays

I was just interrupted by an unusual phone call. I am going to take a gamble and write about it now, although I’ve never blogged about such personal subjects before. If only a couple of people see it, it will be worthwhile. I must by necessity live a secret life here in Beijing, where being gay, while no longer a crime per se, is certainly something one doesn’t announce to one’s colleagues. So I keep all aspects of the topic out of this diary and out of my worklife. I have entrusted one colleague of mine, a very mature and wonderful young lady, with the URL for this site. Amy, if you are reading this tonight, I am counting on you to honor my trust in you.

So the phone rang a short while ago. “I don’t know what to do. I don’t believe that I can ever be happy here. I can never tell my family about the man that I love, I always have to live a secret life.” So said my friend David, one of my first friends here, a 21-year-old student at a local university, his voice choking with emotion. David told me about a teacher he was in love with, an American whose father had just suffered a heart attack. He had to return at once to America and David, who has been looking for love for so many months, was utterly devastated. I hardly knew what to say as I heard his sobs, but I felt that I was hearing a cry of agony from all the gay men in China. “He was the only man I loved and now he’s leaving me. I know why he has to go, I know it’s his father and I would do the same thing. But still I feel so frightened and so alone, I have never felt so alone. I looked for this man for so long, and tomorrow he’ll be gone. Finding love in China is almost impossible, and I am frightened I will never find it again.”

In Hong Kong, I felt terrible for young men who felt they had to marry and have a child because it was so much a part of their culture — the very idea of coming out was anathema to their way of thinking, to their way of life. In China it is infinitely worse. At least in HK there is a gay community, a place to go and know you are not alone. In China this community is so much in its infancy, so small and so fragile that it can offer people like David little support. I urged David to recognize that life is often sad and unfair, but that there is enough joy and happiness to make it worthwhile. I told him that at the age of 21 it might be hard to realize that life goes on after the man you love goes away, but that it does. I told David that the key to his happiness would be his relationships; he had to reach out, to have a support system, friends he could go to like me.

I was sincere, but in my heart I wondered how easy that would be in China. It wasn’t the first time I had heard a young Chinese man gripped with extreme panic as he looked with hopelessness at the many obstacles that stood in his way to happiness. The time before was in Shanghai, where a very brilliant friend of mine was reduced to tears as he told me that all he could see in his future was pain, frustration and boundless loneliness. I put my arm around his shoulder and tried to give him encouraging words before I too broke down, a fountain of tears, because I couldn’t tell him that his fears were unfounded.

David was never a close friend of mine, but in this moment I felt he was my brother, and I wanted to reach out and shield him from his anguish. As soon as he said hello, I knew something was very wrong, and I got up from my computer and sat down on the couch. I knew he needed all of me. I know that I made a difference for him tonight, and our talk was long and serious. I know I couldn’t heal the problem, make it go away, but I know that I helped him just by giving him perspective. But what can I do to help ease the anguish of all these millions who, like David, see their lives as a kind of death sentence? China has, of course, by far the world’s largest gay population. How tragic that so many of these people go to bed each night and wake up each morning with an aching heart, knowing that even if they do as expected and marry and have their child, they have been sentenced, through no crime of their own, to live a life of unspeakable aloneness, bearing a sense of shame and self-hatred. Tonight I feel as though I have cried for every one of them, for every one.