Around the World in 120 Days

Seeing Mao

Monday, 06 May 2013 04:19 PM Written by

bj missy 4

A sea of tourists stampeded through the pedestrian tunnel running towards the stairs leading up to the square; it was the survival of the fittest. With our adrenaline pumping, we maneuvered our way through the swarm of matching neon orange hats, staggering tourist flagpoles, microphones, and children on leashes.   The three American girls (Liza, Abby and I) were on a mission to view the preserved body of the late Chairman Mao at Tiananmen Square. 

Exiting the congested tunnel, we could not escape the rush around us. Groups of tourists were scurrying in clumps back and forth as intimidating, bilingual police officers directed the crowds in every direction. Thrown into the mix, we started following a group in matching tee shirts to cross the street to Tiananmen. But the group in tee shirts led us to a fence; clearly they had no idea where they were going either. Taking matters into our own hands, we raced down the sidewalk, zigzagging through slow-walking pedestrians and others struggling to keep their balance in their platform heels.  

Once more we tried to cross the street. Just as we were about to step out into the cross walk, a loud threatening voice began to yell, “Wú jiāochā!!” [No Crossing!] I jumped back in fear, practically falling onto those behind me. How was it impossible to cross a street? I held my breath, staring at the police officer as he marched past us towards two young laughing Chinese teenagers. The two had also tried to cross the street. We moved to the next crosswalk to do this legally.    

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I stood in the middle of Tiananmen Square staring up at the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong and the crowd that surrounded me. I was weirdly excited to see the corpse of the great Chinese leader. There must have been at least a thousand people zigzagged around the memorial standing in line, flowers in hand, waiting for their brief encounter.  

As we walked towards the mausoleum, a woman in front stopped in her tracks, turned around, and took a photo of us. Throughout our wait in line I could feel the stares. What were they thinking? We were unquestionably the minority of the group. Chinese men and women of all ages surrounded us holding the small bouquets of white flowers that they just purchased for 3 RMB.   

“They are definitely judging us for being here,” Liza whispered. We laughed as we marched up the stairs, when suddenly everything became silent.  “What is happening…?!” Liza questioned under her breath as we approached a slick stone statue of Mao surrounded by hundreds of bouquets of white flowers. “I wouldn’t be surprised if all of the flowers end up in the trash. How could they possibly keep all of them?” We painfully held in our nervous laughter as a woman behind the red velvet rope advised us to kindly shut up.  

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As we inched our way through the memorial, I looked at those around me. There were groups of teenagers, adults, and children all huddled together, completely silent. The eerie atmosphere made me self-conscious. Individuals were holding prayer beads as they silently whispered to themselves, seemingly in prayer, while others were focused on the godly statue of Mao at the center of the room. Those who crowded around me were most likely at the mausoleum to pay tribute to their previous leader; meanwhile, I was only there for the thrill of viewing a 30-year-old corpse. I curiously watched as groups, one after the other, would approach Mao’s statue each bowing three times before placing their delicate white flowers before him.  

I held my breath as I turned the corner into the viewing room. A large glass cube was placed at the center. Inside, two guards stood on either side of Mao.   A single bouquet of flowers stood behind him. My eyes darted toward Mao’s face, which was illuminated by an overhanging spotlight. His face appeared to be bright orange. I couldn’t tell if it was from the spot light or from the make-up. I leaned in towards the glass for a better view until I was hissed away by a security guard advising me to move on. By the time I looked back, I was already exiting the building.  

“Did you see the communist flag draped over the casket?!” 

“No, I was too busy trying to look for his mole!” 

“Sorry, but I wasn’t convinced that that was actually him.” I said, “It couldn’t be. I mean the amount of make-up—” 

Liza interrupted, “That was the most bizarre yet exhilarating experience of my life.”

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Xi'an

Monday, 06 May 2013 03:35 PM Written by

 

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The water launched hundreds of feet into the night sky, drizzling the tops of spectators’ heads on its way down, mustering up a crescendo of applause, waiting a few seconds before it shoots up again in a different design at the music’s cue. Artificial trees along the side of the fountain were ablaze with bright, red, glowing leaves, drawing eyes to the focal point of the plaza-- the Buddhist Dayan Pagoda in Xi’an.   

At around 8:30 PM, groups of Chinese families -- children with light-up toys, older girls with glowing, red devil horns, men with their phones on camera setting, vendors with posters, posters displaying professional photos taken in front of the massive fountain -- all gathered in the square. The young are easily visible -- holding hands, sharing cotton candy, taking pictures of themselves, giggling.  The teenage girls hang on to their boyfriends’ arms (the side that isn’t already carrying purses). The old also stage their presence in groups along the wide paths, freely moving along to bygone pop songs. Light posts decorated with ancient Chinese poems illuminate the wide pathways.  The energy seems fresh and special, the way people feel after witnessing fireworks in front of Cinderella’s Castle in Disney World’s Magic Kingdom.  

Buildings the size of department stores surround the plaza, buildings reminiscent of ancient Chinese architecture with its bilateral symmetry and easily recognizable triangular, sweeping roofs.   Regardless of the buildings’ timeless structure, the modern lighting built into the wooden beams, the identical walls in mint condition, and the neon Chinese characters revealed the construction’s young age. Foreign restaurants fill up the space below. Dairy Queen, KFC, McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, Papa John’s, Dunkin’ Donuts, Starbucks -- we weren’t the only Americans who made it to Xi’an. Chinese restaurants are pushed off to the side, behind Burger King and Subways. Street food is tucked even farther away from the Pagoda, down gray alleys, nestled between shabby residential properties.               

To the west of the 1,700 year-old pagoda, under another wide roof with flashing lights, behind a blinding jumbo-tron, large crowds congregated in another big building, their heads tilted back, jaws hanging down, fingers pointing to northwest China’s largest sky LED screen at 2,800 square meters. The scenery above changed from digitally produced scenes of the galaxy, the deep blue sea, and the tropical forest. The display was amazing, fascinating enough to severely captivate an organic food loving, yoga practicing, middle-aged Political Science professor. “This is just so cool!” he shouted, his fists in the air. 

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Xi’an is one of the oldest cities in China.   Today it is one of China’s great contemporary metropolises.   And it is a tourist stop.   Millions of curious visitors flock to Xi’an each year to witness the world’s eighth wonder, the two thousand year old Terracotta Warriors and Horses. Less than forty years ago, in 1974, a group of local farmers discovered clay earthenware instead of an underground well, leading to the excavation of an entire two thousand year old life-size terracotta army. Along with the 7,000 soldiers, hundreds of bronze horses, chariots, and weapons from the Qin Dynasty (211-206 BCE) were unearthed. The clay army replica belongs to China’s first emperor, Emperor Qin Shi Huang. At just thirteen years old, the young emperor began an eleven-year long and 16,300 square meter large project to prepare his mausoleum.  

A UNESCO Heritage Site as of 1987, the park is divided into three pits, each marking a different excavation site and date of discovery. Ancient terracotta warriors can be found standing or kneeling; some are headless and some are armless. Others are severed in half or completely shattered into fragments of clay. Fully intact or broken, no two soldiers are the same. Each soldier has his own facial expression, hairstyle, clothing, physical features, and disposition, attracting visitors from all over the world.  

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In world history books, Xi’an is described as one of the “Four Ancient Capitals of the World,” boasting an impressive history that dates as far back as 11th Century BCE. Those who understand China’s extensive past know that the country’s unification under the Qin Dynasty was planned and executed from Xianying, China’s first capital, located in northern Chang’an (the city’s original name). Yet Xi’an is only third after Beijing and Shanghai as a popular tourist city in China.  

The Bell Tower, built in 1348 during the Yuan Dynasty, currently sits in the very heart of the city, surrounded by a four-lane, major roundabout on which cars continue to precede without caution. The almost seven hundred year-old building is constantly surrounded by the young -- relatively young people, relatively young buildings in the form of fourteen story, Western design hotels, and relatively young innovations such as cars and neon lights.  

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To the south of the Bell Tower, tourists climb Xi’an’s Great Wall, constructed in 194 BCE, and rent bikes for 100 minutes to pedal along the 14 kilometer perimeter. Older folks ride the open shuttles, passing by annoyed bikers who underestimated the bumpy, brick floor full of unavoidable potholes. Ancient ramparts, each several kilometers apart, decorate the time-honored wall. Children, adults, and teenagers alike enjoy the view from above: a far-reaching sea of tiled, triangular, gray roofs; tall buildings that look as though the exterior walls have been plastered with funky wallpaper; man-made rivers and roads under construction; KFCs and McDonalds.  

Back in front of the Dayan pagoda, I visit with John, a South Korean native who, after 11 years in China, considers himself to be Chinese.   And he perfectly captures the essence of Xi’an today: “See--to the left you see ancient China because of the old Pagoda, but to the right you can see modern China.  That mall with the big screen, it is only a year old!”

 

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Breathing in Beijing

Monday, 29 April 2013 07:32 AM Written by

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                I find myself shivering as I pull back the blankets and begin to climb out of bed, cringing as my feet touch the cold, hard tile floor. It's a chilly morning in Beijing. Immediately, I'm reminded that the heat isn't on despite the cold temperature outside. The government turned off central heating throughout the city two days before to cut back on the city's energy use. In an effort to warm my room and let some light in, I drag myself over to the window and peel back the curtains, squinting my eyes as white light filters in. It's a strange thing to see mountains out your window one day and none the next. In their place, a thick blanket of smog hangs in the air, coating the city in fluffy clouds of fumes. 

               Beijing, like most cities in China, has struggled with debilitating pollution for the past several decades. The gritty, burning air that envelops the city's streets has been known to limit visibility to no more than 500 meters at times, about the width of the city's most famous landmark, Tiananmen Square. 

               bj liza air 2Air pollution in China is measured by the State's Environment Protection Agency, known as SEPA, in terms of the parts per million concentrations of five atmospheric pollutants: sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, suspended particulates, carbon monoxide, and ozone. An Air Pollution Index is assigned to each city every day. Target scores are between zero and 100, which indicate no risk to public health, but can reach maximums in the upper hundreds. During rush hour in China's major cities, pollution levels around 500 parts per million are regularly recorded. 

               “Just to put this into perspective,” said Dominic Meagher, “25 parts per million is considered unacceptable in most countries; we're up in the several hundreds, here.” Meagher, a doctoral student of economics in Beijing, has focused his research on energy usage and development in China. “After joining the World Trade Organization, the country was forced to take environmental concerns off its list of priorities in order to compete,” he said, “but now look at what has happened.” 

               Recently, China's staggering energy demand has put usage issues at the top of the central government's priority list along with pressure from international forces, such as the United Nations. In the country's most recent five year plan, the only numerical targets established were to increase GDP and lower energy consumption. The 12 year plan sets strict targets to lower green house gas emissions. 

               “It has become a huge issue,” said Meagher. “The government is very concerned about energy security.” China itself does not have the capacity to supply all of its own energy at the moment, relying domestically on coal mining and shale gas that is yet to be fully developed as well as oil imports. In an unprecedented move, the government has made staggeringly large investments in alternative sources of energy, such as solar, wind, and hydropower. 

               Under the direction of the central government, five of the country's largest cities have recently launched a pilot program that will encourage reductions in energy consumption while also allowing a form of cap and trade sharing among the municipalities. This program will last five years and is intended to incorporate a larger portion of China's population in the future to promote drastic reductions in pollution and green house gas emissions. 

               “This is the first time China is trying something like this. It really puts the power in the hands of the people through a market-based system. The government normally follows a command and control type of method,” said Meagher, his eyes visibly widening. “Let's see if it works.” As I look outside my window every morning, however, it's hard to tell if these changes will come soon enough. 

               The exhaust from the morning's rush hour leaves Beijing looking as though an impending rain storm has crept into the area. Commuters shuffle down busy sidewalks, briefcases in hand and backpacks slung over their shoulders, pushing their way through the endless bustle of other pedestrians, cars, bikes, and buses. Many retreat underground into the subway stations, hiding from the thick air, where a constant flow of quick-moving trains usher people all around the city. Street vendors lug suitcases and burlap sacks filled with cheap knick-knacks along the subway platforms, shoving themselves and their goods into filled trains; school children play on their phones as they make their early morning trek from home; young professionals grip the railings of the rocking train, looking at the ground with tired eyes.  

               Just a few meters above, millions of cars pile up in the city's overcrowded streets, each one adding their own contribution of pollutants to the stinking air. However, northern China's dependency on coal as a source of energy is the true source of the air problem in Beijing. Billowing out from the tall stacks of the power plants surrounding the city, ash and other chemicals fill the air. The city's location in between three mountains creates a sort of bubble, limiting the air flow and trapping in all the pollution until strong winds force it to dissipate elsewhere.  

               China's environmental concerns reach far beyond air pollution and green house gas emissions. The tap water is undrinkable, cases of contamination in food have created controversies across the country, heavy metals have been detected in the soil of many farms, and trash from the bustling cities clogs the impoverished rural areas that make up most of China's land area.  

               According to Meagher, the government is well aware of the issues that it faces. “This is where China's two priorities come into conflict—the point where development continues in the present and remains sustainable for the future.”

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The Great Firewall

Friday, 19 April 2013 03:25 AM Written by

bj sarah 4

We had the opportunity to spend the afternoon with a leading Beijing internet executive (who asked to remain anonymous). He came to speak with us about internet censorship in China—or, as it is commonly called, “The Great Firewall.”

“The Great Firewall” is a metaphor, he said, developed by Western journalists and it combines a clever reference to China’s #1 tourist attraction with a more sinister reference to the Berlin Wall and Cold War containment.   And this, our speaker said, is not quite accurate. In fact, ninety-seven percent of all internet searches in China are directed to Chinese websites.   They are not directed outside the country.   “The people of China aren’t standing in virtual bread lines,” he pointed out. To the contrary, there is a vibrant internet culture in China, and it’s made in China.   And this culture includes political and social criticism.     Many in China are insulted by the idea that their internet is deemed backwards or repressive. He continued to joke, “The only consequence of Twitter being blocked, is now millions of people won’t know what I ate for lunch.”

Internet censorship had been a topic of discussion before we arrived in China—not so much as a political issue but as the prospect of saying goodbye to Facebook, Twitter, and easy interactions with friends at home. We had heard that these social networks, along with Google and Gmail, were blocked in China.   And we had also learned that we could purchase a “VPN” (or Virtual Private Network) which would give us access to all our favorite sites. The VPNs are easy to download and on average cost about ninety USD to subscribe to (a subscription which must be renewed annually). While these sites are accessible to the Chinese, they are still not widely used. Out of the five hundred and sixty four million Internet users in China only a small fraction (about one and half percent) use a VPN.

bj sarah 3As an alternative to the Western Facebook or Twitter, the Chinese longing for a social media venue can use Sina Weibo. It is a micro-blog, and is considered a kind of hybrid of all social media sites. A user of Weibo has the ability to post paragraphs as well as share pictures with friends all in one convenient spot. Our speaker described Weibo as more innovative than any of its western competitors; just another example of how the internet culture in China is thriving independent of outside influence.

But the issue cannot just be chalked up to whether the Chinese people should or shouldn’t have access to tweets about lunch. It is no accident that the Chinese government fears Twitter and Facebook. In recent years, social media sites have become more important as a venue for social change. This was seen at the beginning of 2009, with the movement that came to be called “The Arab Spring.”  In the summer of 2009, the Green Movement swept Iran after a dispute over the presidential elections. For the first time, a protest movement was run through social media and a new venue for social change was born. Twitter turned green and statuses were posted on Facebook in support of the protesters gathering in the streets of Tehran. The internet was used to plan and to organize the protest, allowing the movement to grow quickly and to gain global attention. This went on for a few weeks until Facebook and Twitter were banned by the Iranian government.

Former President Bill Clinton had predicted that this kind of movement was inevitable with the invention of the internet. With so much information at the fingertips of all people, how could it not lead to revolution or demands for more democratic forms of government? Clinton, along with others, had not accounted for censorship. To many the idea of censorship of the internet was not feasible, like trying to nail jello to the wall. Now, in 2013, the Chinese government has perfected its jello-nailing ability. This is the metaphor our speaker used to admit that there is at least some truth to the “Great Firewall” narrative.   Today in China, he said, “There is a lot of jello on the walls.”

While it may be important not to overstate the power of the Internet in social movements, it is also important not to understate them. Those who can get the Chinese versions of Facebook, Twitter and Google are blocked from free speech because these sites are under government scrutiny, even when they are not actively censored.  Google left China in 2010 because it was unwilling to continue to submit to government oversight.   While the Chinese have Weibo, the site is still monitored. If the company sees that any of their users have posted something that challenges the limits set by government regulation, including, for example, the desire to organize (it could even be a flash mob), the company is obligated to delete that post within the hour. This creates a culture of fear around the “free speech” of the internet and puts power in the hands of those who control the information. This will hinder people from being able to build any kind of mass movement that could lead to social change.

It seems paradoxical that the government would censor social media but not block VPNs. Why block Facebook, but allow it to be accessed for ninety dollars a year? The whole process is more calculated than simply trying to keep Chinese online culture Chinese. There is an intentional balance between censoring everything and letting a few things trickle through the web via VPN.   When asked about the lack of censorship of VPN websites, Evan Osnos, a New Yorker correspondent working in Beijing said, “You don’t want to push people into a corner.…you want to make them feel like they have the potential to get this information if they can afford it.”

Our speaker was concerned to correct our misperceptions but also to speak frankly about the conditions surrounding social networks in China.   Right now, he said, Chinese “netizens” feel they are getting what they need from the internet.   At the end of his talk, however, he echoed Osnos and noted the tension between government censorship, self-censorship, and the potential freedom of communication provided by the internet.   He looked around the room as if for hidden cameras, “This comfort keeps people from rising up…but I’m interested to see what will happen in the next couple of years.”

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English in China

Friday, 19 April 2013 03:13 AM Written by

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The familiar sound of playground chaos filled the air at the Longhai School, a school for children of migrant workers in Daxing District, Beijing. The kids playing in the schoolyard were out of control, excited to see Americans who had come to observe.   “Hello! Hi! How are you?”  

Students wore blue and red uniforms and ranged from kindergarten to ninth grade. After recess, children in a fifth grade classroom practiced reciting English words and phrases. They asked the group of visiting American students, “What is your favorite season? What do you do on the weekends? What is your name?” They wore wide smiles and waited patiently for each of the visitors to answer. 

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According to national surveys, there are more people learning English in China than there are people living in the United States. Schools across China, primarily in big cities, have added English to their curricula in an effort to promote internationalism.  But why English? 

Beginning in the sixteenth century, Great Britain was the wealthiest and most politically powerful nation in Europe. This power advantage led to widespread, British colonialism. During Britain’s Imperial Century alone, about ten million square miles of territory and about four hundred million people were added to the British Empire. Despite the eventual independence of many territories, British cultural influences, and in many cases, the English language, stuck.  India is a prime example.    

China’s first encounters with English occurred during trade conflicts in the 17th century. The most intense dispute occurred later, during the Opium Wars in the 19th century, when the British arrived on the coast of China and forced the Chinese to engage in opium trade, even after the Daoguang Emperor had attempted to outlaw the drug. The war resulted in the British dictating terms of settlement, which included forcing the Chinese to continue taking part in the opium deals, as well as the British claiming territory in Hong Kong.   While English was crucial for trade and negotiation, it never became an official language.  

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Now, however, English has become the language of 21st century global capitalism. By the twentieth century, the United States, which has the highest number of native English speakers in the world (also as a result of British colonialism), became one of the most developed nations in terms of economic, political, and military success. Inspired by the economic success of the US, many developing countries, including China, began studying American innovations and economic policies—which, first and foremost, involved understanding the English language. 

In Beijing, English was brought to public spaces in anticipation of the 2008 Olympics, and these changes have continued to prove useful for tourism and international business.   Every ATM has an English option. On subways, announcements that prepare passengers for upcoming stops are made in Mandarin, then in English. In busy areas, restaurants have English translations underneath each menu item. Some of the written translations are broken and flawed, but the main ingredients always manage to get across to the customer. These restaurant owners aren’t the only ones who embrace English as a way of maximizing profit. 

The Silk Market is Beijing’s most popular shopping center for international tourists. Over fifteen hundred vendors sell counterfeit, designer brand clothing and accessories for prices that reflect the bargaining skills of shoppers. Vendor success is attributed not only to the popularity of their products, but also to their ability to swoon customers. When catering to English speaking customers, vendors will claim, “This is a very special price, just for you,” or, “That looks great on you! Very nice.” When customers offer to pay lower prices, certain English phrases are especially helpful. “Are you kidding me? That is way too cheap for this sweater. I need to make money.”  

Beijing nightlife is conducted, at least in part, in English. Nightclubs are crowded, loud, and full of young Chinese people dancing to remixed versions of American pop-songs. At Karaoke joints, locals belt lyrics to songs by Rihanna, Katy Perry, Britney Spears, the Backstreet boys, and the Black Eyed Peas. The Chinese are not shy about getting onstage and singing directly into the microphone, and they certainly aren’t afraid of English lyrics; they even have some of them memorized. It’s obvious that they hear English pop songs just as often as Americans do. 

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Zhang Lijia is an international journalist from Nanjing.   We had the pleasure of a long, afternoon meeting with her on campus, where she told us her story and answered questions about her career as a journalist and a writer.   In 1980, her mother pulled her out of school to work in a factory, assembling missiles.    With dreams of becoming a journalist, Zhang devoted herself to learning English. “I listened to English songs, read English books, and practiced speaking English all day at the factory. People thought I was crazy. They called me a toad who longed to eat swan’s meat.”  

Zhang’s first step toward journalism involved translating documentaries for an English TV station. Soon after, she became an assistant to foreign journalists. She left the job, after growing frustrated with the process of correcting other peoples’ writing, to become a freelance journalist. Today, Zhang does all of her writing in English.  She is unwilling to put up with the censorship she would face with Chinese publishers.   In 2008, she published a memoir, Socialism is Great.   She is completing a novel, Lotus, based on the experience of her grandmother who had been sold into prostitution.  

Every year, the number of children enrolled in private language schools in China increases. Families pay top Yuan in exchange for the guarantee that their sons and daughters will be fluent in English by the time they are ten years old. ABC news, in a study on the effects of English in China, claims that by 2015 all schools will begin teaching English in kindergarten. 

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Here in Beijing, members of the PittMAP group have become itinerant English teachers.   Every Friday night, Renmin University in Beijing hosts “the English corner,” where students and members of the community gather to practice speaking English. Nearly one hundred people huddle around on a cold night in an open quad, eager to pose questions like “What is your name? Where are you from? Do you study here?” My presence sparked excitement from those who wanted to meet an American and to test their progress. Everyone wanted to learn English for a different reason. Some had hopes of transferring to American universities. Some would have to know a thousand English phrases in order to be hired as state employees. Some just wanted to add the language to their skill sets. 

When I asked whether or not they think it’s fair that English is being forced upon young children in primary schools, they looked confused. One young man, who called himself Sawyer, replied, “It’s just like any other subject in school. You know, like math, science, history.” That’s when Cassie appeared--a young Chinese girl, no more than four feet tall, wearing pigtails and a puffy pink coat. “Hi! How are you?”  

Blindfolded, I would have mistaken her for an American. “I’ve been learning English since I was two,” she announced.   And how old are you now? “Seven,” she said as she skipped away into the crowd.    

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