Posted by: sean | June 7, 2008

The World Moves Sideways

Unless you have been hiding under a Tercel, you are aware of China’s growing presence on the world stage. If you are particularly informed, you might have heard that by mid-century we will all be playing lots of Mah Jong, speaking Mandarin, and writing poor English subtitles for Bollywood films. 不是!you may say, but you’re wrong. While these are all true, it’s hard for the average person to feel Chinese economic, political, and social encroachment in their daily lives…unless you live in Liberia.

The Chinese are everywhere here. Take this picture of downtown Monrovia for instance:

Case. Point.

In all seriousness, a lot of political commentators have noted that Africa is the ‘frontline’ in the growing battle for markets and global influence between the United States and China. In Liberia, this is particularly true. The destruction of civil war has led the Liberian government to adopt a sort of …how can I say it? It’s like the government’s standing at the front door and letting anyone who wants to come in, come in – the door is always ajar for those who would bring aid. There’s got to be a better, snappier description of this – let’s just call it a Door Ajar And You Can Come In And Invest In Our Market Policy. Anyway, as a result of this policy, the Chinese are building most of the roads and making most of the physical investments, while the US Embassy here is the second largest in the world (no prizes for guessing where the biggest one is…). The Americans pour in money; the Chinese pour in more money. The Door Ajar And You Can Come In And Invest In Our Market Policy is working very well for Liberia.

On Tuesday night, I had dinner with two friends at Golden Beach, a restaurant with tables on the beach, but not so much gold. With palm trees on either side of me, sand beneath my feet, waves lapping the beach in front of me, I sat back in my chair and took a sip of my cold beer. Good company. Nothing wrong with this picture. Looking up at the sky, the clouds disappeared to reveal a night sky filled with stars; I felt very aware that I was on the edge of both a wide ocean and a sprawling continent. It was one of those moments where you become conscious of your smallness in the overall scheme of things and feel the weight of the fact that you are somehow managing to cling to a hurtling ball of rock as it spins through endless space.

I’m still not sure if what followed next destroyed this feeling or heightened it.

A group of six or seven Chinese ran down toward the beach, the Leader holding a big white bucket, the group in frantic discussion. Although I don’t speak Mandarin (yet), I believe that I intuit the language fairly well, and thus can offer to you a reconstruction of what they said:

Chinaman 1: “Beach!!!!”

Chinaman 2: “Beach!!!!”

Chinawoman 1: “Look!!! The Beach!!!!”

Chinawoman 2: “Oh my god!!!! The Beach!!!!”

Chinaman 3: “What’s that water? Ooooooh SNAP – It’s the beach!!!!!”

Chinawoman 3: “Whhhhhhhhhhhhhaaaaaaaaaaaa! Beach!!!!!!!!!”

They rushed to the water, joyous at their newfound discovery. While I was intuiting Mandarin, my friends had locked on the Chinese’s choice of outfits: the men were dressed in t-shirts and shorts while the women wore sequin dresses of various hues. Though the women were as, if not more, amazed by the fact that the beach served as interlocutor between Land and Ocean, it seemed as though each of them were in the midst of a horrible date.

“So, Deng, what have you got planned for tonight – where will we eat?”

“Li, don’t worry about a thing, I’ve got it all planned out: we will run screaming towards the beach.”

“Ooook, Deng, but wouldn’t you rather go out to dinner or a club, I mean, I aaaam wearing a sequin dress.”

“Li, trust me, running screaming towards the beach is better than any restaurant or club.”

The spectacle only got more surreal as the men whipped off their shirts and the Leader produced a large broom. The Leader then rushed into the surf and began whacking the waves with his broom. We were clearly in for a treat. What could this action mean? Had the ocean claimed the life of the Leader’s younger brother, prompting him to seek revenge by beating the ocean senseless with a broom? No. They were ‘hunting’ crab.

Hunting crab is a deft art. Without traps, it’s all about timing, cunning, and your wits. Or, alternatively, it’s about whacking the waves with a broom in the off chance that you daze a crab.

While the Leader beat the ocean mercilessly, others in the group ran up and down the beach chasing crabs washed up by the waves. This method was particularly futile given that the Chinese were flabby and slow and the crabs were quick and in the possession of sand holes, down which they could escape at the first sign of approaching Chinese. It was Whack-a-Mole on a giant scale. Let me be the first to say that there is no funnier sight than a person diving repeatedly into the sand to tackle a crab, missing, then getting up and rushing off to tackle another crab…and missing.

The ‘hunt’ continued for around thirty minutes.

In the light of China’s nascent hegemony, what does this crabcapade mean for humanity? As funny as the spectacle was, the Chinese did catch crab, albeit at a hilarious pace. Regardless, the Chinese are clearly out-crabbing everyone else at an alarming rate. We have to be smart about how we teach our students to chase crab before all our crab-chasing jobs move to China, where crab chasers are more qualified and have bigger brooms.

America’s lack of competitiveness on the crabbing front is woefully apparent in Liberia. While the Leader brandished his broom in the waves, there was not one American crabber chasing crustaceans up and down the beach. You could ask why I didn’t try to compete with the Chinese…I don’t have the training, you might as well have asked me to build you a semiconductor or sit at a call center and troubleshoot your problems with your new Dell. No, we need long-term solutions to compete with Chinese crabbers and we need an end to huge government subsidies for craberies, to hell with economically downtrodden, bitter crab towns – they have to adapt. 不是!you may say, but you’re wrong.


  1. I like how you continually capitalized Leader throughout your discussion of Chinese crabbing techniques. I’m stealing part of this and putting it out there to increase the amount of hits your ‘blog’ gets.

    Also, i hate the term ‘blog’. People need to choose if its a noun or a verb, but i’m tired of it being both. The only alternative left is for me to use it as an adjective, such as “You look blogingly good in that outfit”

  2. So you think this whole internet thing is going to catch on or do you think it’s just a fad and I would be wasting cash buying a computer? Palm trees and beaches are not what I envisioned as roughing it in LIBERIA. Your tales are too funny.Be safe.

  3. What? Are you saying that our warrior patriot Ross, he of the ‘diving into West Point bed’ fame, does not have the ‘crab-brooming’ skills to compete with the Chinese? What is our mighty military machine doing with it’s trillions? Surely there must be an elite ‘broom squad’ that is currently involved in ‘sweeping maneuvers’ that can be sent to Liberia via helicopter to reclaim our honor and true standing amongst powers. Ross….to your copter man! Be a Leader!

  4. Don’t think the reference to Deng Xiaoping went unnoticed.

    I went to a Versace techno pool party this afternoon. I need a vacation. Oy.

  5. Glad to see my Chinese contribution made it into the blog. 非常好

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