China via Japan pt. 5: Good walls make good neighbors?

Walking around China one thing seems to stand out as much as any other: There are walls everywhere… Walls around houses, walls around schools, walls around cities, and what do you know: A great big long ass wall across the country.

Robert frost once said in a poem: Good fences make good neighbors and I suspect he was talking about boundaries but it is a poem so I guess you can make it mean whatever you want it to mean.

Back in Brooklyn, I lived in Brownstone country. The houses were right on top of one another and the only thing separating your backyard from your neighbor’s was a fence. If you’re out in the backyard you can see and be seen by everyone. You can exchange greetings and admire one another’s gardens if that’s your thing or throw rocks at your neighbor’s dog that won’t shut up his barking all night. The point is that though there is a line (and unless you want to risk being mistaken for a prowler- no one dares cross it without the expressed permission of the owner) there is also a shared sense of co-habitation.

A fence says “hello neighbor!” or “Looks like rain, eh?” A wall says, “Mind your goddamn business!” or “If I wanted you to know anything about me I would have gotten a fence instead.”

America is mostly a fence culture, I’d venture to say, though I’ve only seen a relatively small part of Her. I just know it in my heart because when I see a wall I have an emotional response. I immediately feel there is something being hidden, something of extreme value being protected, and, in the case of the rare neighbor who actually builds a wall around his backyard, suspicion. Even a feeling of elitism creeps in when a wall is involved. They must think their shit smells like cherry blossoms?

Japan also appears to be a fence culture. In every neighborhood I’ve resided in the only thing separating neighbors has been a bamboo fence or a gate which can be seen through. I haven’t experienced much neighborliness from my neighbors for obvious reasons but I see the Oba-sans chatting it up often enough.

So, a lifetime of fences left me ill-prepared for a wall culture.

Another thing about the walls in China. I was warned about them by some of my Japanese friends, who admittedly had never been to China, but nevertheless had some helpful tips for me about what I should expect upon my arrival there.

Here’s one conversation I remember distinctly:

Student: You’re going to China, ne?

Me: Yep. can’t wait.

Student: Be careful! It’s a very poor country.

Me: That’s ok. I’m not afraid of poor people.

Student: I mean really poor!

Me: I was poor, too. Plus, I grew up in a more dangerous place than I think China will ever be. Poverty does not scare me, dayo.

Student: I see.

Me: Besides, China is up and coming. Soon they’ll be a truly developed nation. I mean, didn’t you see the Olympic Opening ceremony? Wasn’t it the best you’ve ever seen? I think they are serious about raising their country up. Don’t you think?

Student: I think they are not going to rise up soon. They are just putting on a good face. They hide their poor conditions behind walls.

Me: Behind walls?

Student: Yes. Don’t you know? The Chinese want to hide their poor from all the visitors during the Olympics so they built walls…but if you look behind the walls you will see the real China.

Me: Really? Ok. thanks for the tip. I will do just that.

And you know what? I did. From the Forbidden City I caught a ride with a rickshaw driver and he took me behind these walls that my student had described and I indeed saw the terrible conditions the poor in China live in.


This is my Rickshaw driver and behind that wall is the Beijing that Olympic visitors saw...doesn't look so new does it?












I took these pictures on the move in a rickshaw so sorry for the quality…we were on a meter, so to speak, and I wanted to see as much as I could. And while some of you might be reaching into your pocketbooks and wallets to write checks and send cash to the nearest Chinese charity, I can tell you that what I saw behind the wall, from my perspective, was a mixture of well-to-do and destitution not unlike that which can be found in almost any part of the US (only this was Chinese style, of course.) So you can send that check to President Obama if you’re feeling charitable. (-:

I think many of my Japanese friends, if they dared to journey to China, would only find confirmation of the rumors they’ve heard of what lurks behind the walls of Beijing. I mean, compared to the parts of Japan that I’ve come to know, the conditions are cause for alarm. But, to a New Yorker, who spent most of his life walking the streets of Brooklyn NY, I was far from alarmed. What I saw was similar to what I saw not only back home but even when I spent three weeks in Haiti (another notoriously impoverished country). I saw a people who have made the best of the world they live in with a great deal of pride and dignity. I saw a community of survivors and strivers, not a bunch of savages running around slitting each others throats for their next meal, which is the impression you’re left if you speak to some Japanese people, or even some people from other countries, about China or any of the impoverished countries and communities of the world. I saw a people worthy of respect and admiration, not a people to be pitied…pity, I might add, is one of those tragic condescending emotions that result from a sense of superiority.

But, I digress. Back to those walls…

The Chinese have never really had any good neighbors, have they? Throughout their history they’ve found themselves the target of barbarians hordes (their thinking), constantly under siege from every direction, not least of all those ambitious land-grabbing Japanese, so their wall mentality is not exactly inexplicable or without cause. Walls have meant security for millenniums in China. No wonder they love them.

I think if Robert Frost became mandatory reading in Chinese schools they would not focus so much on the part of the poem where he talks about good fences…he also says in the same poem:

Before I built a wall I’d ask to know

What I was walling in or walling out,

And to whom I was like to give offense.

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall…


PS: Oh, ok, I guess I’m obliged to show a picture of the Great Wall- though I must admit it was a little anticlimactic and a little crowded…

great wall

…ok maybe more than a little crowded (-;


USA, representin’ to the fullest! Beat up hand and all (-;


11 Responses to “China via Japan pt. 5: Good walls make good neighbors?”

  1. 1 sayjapanese
    August 20, 2009 at 5:03 am

    It’s all relative, London may seem really clean to someone from a poorer country and okay to me, but if a japanese person walked past my house with someone’s dixy fried chicken bone on the walkway or the neighbour’s rag cloth like shirt on their front fence they would think life must be pretty tough for us. To me it’s unattractive but not a sign of poverty……….it’s more a sign of their culture (I think their Central Africans). 🙂

  2. August 20, 2009 at 10:54 pm

    I don’t know man, some of those pics didn’t look too far removed from ghetto Tokyo…

    Loved the pics though. And what happened to your hand?!

  3. August 20, 2009 at 11:39 pm

    Thanks SayJ, yep it’s all perspective ne.

    Thanks for the shout JT! I’ve never seen the ghetto in Tokyo…where is it?

  4. 4 Kazaclysm
    August 21, 2009 at 8:42 am

    ‘sup Loco?

    I gotta say mate, some of those pics reminded me of the Yokohama ghetto, the Matsukage-cho/Ougi-cho area near Ishikawa-cho station. As for Tokes, I think Shin-Okubo and parts of Ikebukuro might fit the bill.

  5. 5 hobofat
    August 21, 2009 at 2:36 pm

    China may have its walls, but what is the first thing that 100% of Japanese people do when they get home: lock their doors.

  6. 6 Zach
    August 22, 2009 at 3:55 pm

    Great pictures! I don’t really see any signs of poverty though. Looks more like history and character to me. I’d take that over strip malls of suburban America any day.

  7. August 23, 2009 at 1:56 am

    Did the surveillance cameras come with the original construction of the wall of China? lol?

  8. 8 Kuerten
    August 23, 2009 at 2:28 am

    The wall culture is not only in China, here in America too, in Mexico, a fence is a invitation so people can come and take your things, having a wall and protections for your windows is a must here.

  9. 9 gao
    August 23, 2009 at 2:29 am

    walls… signs of group privacy and security. The Chinese culture doesn’t buy the open-garden style. It is just the convention.

  10. 10 Boo
    September 1, 2009 at 3:11 am

    Hi Loco

    I chanced across your website and I was hooked with the first post I read.

    The dislocation you talk about in your posts about coming to Japan is something I understand a bit – I found even moving to another English speaking country can send you a bit loco. I think the lack of meaningful interaction, combined with leaving your support network of friends and family and the disorientation of a city where you need a map to get to work, drives you into yourself and you have to draw on all of your reserves to get through each day. I hadn’t realised before I left just how much I relied on my sense of belonging or how much of my character it made up.

    Most cities in the north of England are cities of walls. The front door may open directly onto the street but at the back is a wall that reaches half way up the house – often with broken glass embedded in the cement on the top (I come from one of the not-quite-nice areas)Lanes separate the houses at the back and are where rubbish and old furniture are dumped.

    The back areas of cities are far more interesting than the prettified bits visitors get to see – many places are like that girl who would be really pretty if she didn’t wear soooo much make up:)

    Anyway, what I meant to say before I wrote an essay was – great site, keep up the good work:)


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