For many years, when it came to travel, I leaned almost exclusively to the West. I was drawn to Europe by its cities, its countryside, its cathedrals, its art. Oh, I did visit other places - Hong Kong, Thailand and Singapore among them. All were fascinating, but none did anything to alter my preference for the West over the East.
Then, in fall 2002, I went to China. A deadline made me do it. The Chinese government was about to open the Three Gorges dam, inundating the spectacular Yangtze River terrain I'd read so much about. I had to get there before it was lost. And I was smitten not just by China's wondrous landscapes and ancient treasures but also by cosmopolitan Shanghai, a city with a high-rise culture that would make any New Yorker feel at home, and by Beijing, which retains its grandeur despite rapid modernization.
I knew I would return soon, and in less than two years, I did. In June, I went back to Beijing and traveled south to see the marvelous karsts and graceful green rice paddies surrounding Guilin and west to see the ancient Mogao Buddhist caves and the light gold dunes of the Gobi Desert.
But those tourist spots are hardly the only draw. People-watching in China is spectacular. Whether by walking through the parks and streets, or looking through a surprising peephole opened by the state-run news media, you can see unfamiliar and intriguing scenes everywhere.
Late one afternoon, in Beihai Park, Beijing's Central Park, I watched as several middle-age men, armed with six-foot brushes and buckets of water, practiced calligraphy on the pavement. One offered me his brush, and I discovered just how hard the revered craft truly is, especially on that scale.
At a backstreet market, a young couple sat outside their tiny store, eating lunch and feeding their gurgling baby with sips of what certainly looked like beer from a bottle. At busy intersections, people stopped to linger and pore over newspapers encased in large glass cases.
Morning tai chi exercises, outdoors and in groups, are a ubiquitous sight So is the way Chinese young and old so easily fold their bodies into a squat as if sitting like that were as comfortable as relaxing in an overstuffed chair. I watched while one man in Guilin carefully placed his newspaper on a park bench, then squatted before it, reading for a good long time in a position that would have crippled most Westerners.
But one pair of tourist eyes can witness only so much in a country as large and populous as China. By happenstance, I have discovered a marvelous window on the Chinese - The China Daily, the state-owned English-language newspaper.
Specifically, it is Page Four, which is a sort of anti-Page Six. Instead of chronicling the carousing and canoodling of the rich and famous, Page Four relates the mini-dramas of everyday people in today's China, stories of individuals partly freed from Communist repression and adapting fast to the 21st century.
On a typical day, Page Four offers about two dozen tales, collected from newspapers all over China.
The new China is very much in evidence. In one recent entry, a 77-year-old new investor in the north, unaccustomed to the fact that stocks can fall in value as well as rise, fainted one Monday morning after discovering that his portfolio had depreciated over the weekend. Unconscious, he was sent to the hospital, where he needed emergency surgery of an unspecified kind, the paper said.
Days later, Page Four carried an item about other elderly people who had also fainted on learning about stock declines, leading one official to suggest that the elderly should be prohibited from trading in stocks.
Several other dispatches published within two weeks last June focused on disagreements between husbands and wives, boyfriends and girlfriends during the European soccer championships.
According to Page Four, a man in Guangzhou, absorbed in watching a soccer gameduring the middle of the night, angered his girlfriend with his shouts and screams at exciting moments in the game. She got up and smashed the picture tube to smithereens with his remote control.
In western China, another soccer fan got himself into trouble when he dreamed he had won four million yuan ($481,000) betting on the sport. Elated, he fell out of bed, bumped his head, promptly fainted and was rushed to the hospital, where he spent four days recovering.
The Internet has spawned many tales. On Page Four, tales of the Internet suggest that it's something of an addiction, or worse. For example, a teenager's mother, thinking him missing, discovered him at an Internet cafe, where he had been playing video games for more than 10 hours. After he ignored her entreaties to leave, she took him to a doctor, who diagnosed "eruptive deafness." And another man was sued for divorce because of liaisons he had set up on the Internet.
Page Four has stories about bad drivers, including one who, distracted by an attractive woman, crashed through a flowerbed; about oddities (a farmer who regularly drinks machine oil, supposedly to no ill effect, and a man who laughed so hard that he dislocated his chin); about Westerners (a pair who arrived from France to teach in China but could not speak enough Chinese to make it out of a provincial bus station).
As I chuckled while reading these stories one morning over breakfast at my Beijing hotel, I discovered that I wasn't the only one who took a bit of a guilty pleasure in Page Four. "Don't you love it?" said an American who lives half the year in China, half in New York, grinning. Other English-speaking residents, he confirmed, also relish Page Four the way people in the United States savor some light reading.
But these stories (one is lead to believe) are not made up. And some are sad, even distressing. Yet they do shed light on modern China, and some show how human nature is the same everywhere.
And, thanks to the Internet, you can see for yourself. Go to www.chinadaily.com.cn and click e-papers, click on China Daily, on home news, look for "home scene" on the lower left and click on a geographic area. The last time I checked, Page Four was still going strong.