News & opinion on Greater China and the even Greater Beyond: by Biff Cappuccino.

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Ch02 The Folks 2005-01-07

It was early in the morning and I was updating the blog. It's a great feeling, up early in the morning, like you're beating everyone else to the punch. While most of the city is still snoring, you're out and about, getting a head start, tilting the level playing field to a more favorable angle.

Traffic honked and bicycle bells rang down below as fellow go-getters got on the go. The air through to the verdant mountains was clear and the light stellar and chemically pure. The city awoke and sometime before noon it would give its throat a good clearing and the emerging fog would downsize the white carcinogenic sun into a pale lemon moon.

My wife Bunny was still snoozing under blankets, sprawled across the bed like Da Vinci’s Study of Proportions. She'd continue wallowing in her sleep, sleep-wallowing across the mattress for another couple of hours.

It was my habit to get up early and plunk down a few meandering thoughts on an issue of the day. It helped clear my mind, get my thinking processes in order. After an hour of writing I got up from the desk feeling like a million bucks. It was a great confidence builder, an aphrodisiac even. When I got to the bar, I knew what I thought and I knew how to say it. Keeping a blog gave me a headstart on the issues, an unfair advantage, and I cherished it.

At the moment I was banging out a screed on the morality play known as the Opium War. Time and time again, when somebody injected morals into an argument, the logic went screwy. Many writers opposed the Drug War in America and wanted narcotics legalized. After all, since the legalization of cigarettes (formerly banned in several states) few US chain-smokers have broken into homes to steal TV sets to fund their chronic addiction. But the same writers, when discussing imperialism, would raise the odious spectre of the Opium War, which of course legalized the import of drugs into China and helped cut the legs out from under China's Drug War. Surely what was good for the American goose was good for the Chinese gander? This multicultural sympathizing with the 19th-century Chinese seemed to have a subtext of 'we express solidarity with our oppressed Slope brothers.' Right or wrong, for better or worse, crude or otherwise, that was my argument.

I was haggling with myself as to just how to best phrase this. I was niggling with the wording, aiming for some sort of pithy, stick to your ribs, scenario or metaphor. Just as I was just taking a first loving suck of unsweetened creamy coffee, the phone rang. I nipped over and picked up the receiver. It was that rare pleasure, Mom, on the line. "Howdy-doody, Charlie."

"Hey, mom! So what's been going on?"

"Not much, just been fucking the dog."


"Ah, you know how it is. Just me and your old dad puttering around the property. Hard at her. He's fixing the steps, cutting up a cord of eight foot hardwood and chopping cedar kindling for the winter."


"Yeep. He's got a new Husqvarna and also one of them trick wood-splitting axes with the wedge built in the middle. He's real happy with her. Me, I's making tomato sauce plus cranberry and crabapple preserves. Been baking lots of bread lately and planting some of it in the freezer for the nippy winter nights. Smells some good in my kitchen I don’t mind telling you. Just trying to keep busy. That sort of stuff. Sose, anything exciting been happening over there in the Far Beyond?"

"Not much. Same old, same old. Umm... Actually, you know what though? I've been thinking about going to graduate school."

"Graduate school?" And the pace of her speech quickened, "You’re coming back here to Freddy Beach? Hitting the books again at the UNB?"

"That fresh-water college? I’d a learned more in a one-room schoolhouse. Not a chance."

"Well hold on, hold on now. Some school far off like the University of Toronto then? Or Simon Fraser out in BC. Just not one of them Frog schools on the St. Lawrence River I hope. I don't think they could suffer any of your 'Hanglish' as they call it up there in the Kaybeck City or Mon-Ray-Al."

"Nope. I was thinking of doing something more interesting. Something special. I'm thinking of going to the local school here. Szechuan U."

"Seshwan U.? Never heard of her."

"Well, I thought I'd have a sort of more authentic experience. You know. Going to grad school in China should be more interesting, culturally speaking. It ought to serve as a sort of window on how people think, particularly the intellectuals, the intelligentsia. I don't want to sound too uppity, but you know, that sort of thing."

"Well, why can't you just go to school in a real country?"

Thus began our obligatory round of skirmishing over the propriety and wisdom of my moving to China.

"Mom! China is a real country."

"What kind of real country has its people stowing away on boats and getting themselves suffocated and drowned in cargo containers in a mad rush to get out to the free world?"

"Well, that's just the desperate kind. Not everyone's desperate."

"Is that why you went to China? 'Cause you were desperate?"

"Well, mom, you know, I mean, Atlantic Canada is just so, so… It’s kind of small. Unpopulated. All those trees. Makes you lonely when you can drive a hundred miles without seeing more than a one-horse hamlet. China’s got less trees.”

Mom jumped in, “You mean it’s deforested!”

I marched on: “Yeah, but it’s replaced them with more people. There’s something reassuring, friendly about being in the company of…I don’t know…friendly, reassuring crowds.”

“That’s called overpopulation!”

“Mom! I’m serious. Civilization is everywhere here. Great food, inexpensive hotels, decked out corner stores, cheap taxis, sleeper buses... It’s like total convenience. Like the downtown of a city, a Chinatown or something, and it’s like spread right across the whole damn country. There’s something really cozy about immersion in crowds and crowds and crowds of people. Maybe security in numbers has something to do with it. It’s hard to understand maybe, but it really feels this way.”

She sucked her teeth. “Yeah, well I think you’re just making excuses sometimes.”

“Well not this time, okay? Back home in Newbeeland, there's snow in the woods until early June but then the flurries start falling again in late September. I can only take so much Winter Wonderland you know? And everyone's called Earl or Vernon or Mona or Donna. I just...I don't know. Dad has seen the world. Now it's my turn."

She snorted impatiently, "Well, Lordy if I'd known that's how you felt about it..."

"You did!"

"Well...” She recovered, “Alright then. Anyways! Couldn't you just go back to Free China for university?"

"Well, Taiwan is cool. But it's too small as well. And it's not the future. China is."

"But China's communist. And it's poor. Is that the future of the world? Being Red and desperate?"

"No, mom, of course not. But, China's getting unpoor and undesperate and unRed very quickly. Democracy's in the mail for sure."

"It's on the slow boat to China, from where I'm looking. Real slow by the sound of her. Maybe you don't get the real news over there in Red China, but the newspapers here in the Free World are saying that China is going to invade Taiwan. What do you think of that? That doesn't sound too democratic, invading another country, does it?"

"Well, democracy is kind of complicated, Mom. People still have to try to figure out what it means. What it means for themselves, I mean. It's sort of like freedom of speech back home. Everybody likes it in theory, but in practice, as soon as somebody has a harsh word written about them in the press, they want to file a lawsuit. You know, it's complicated."

"Democracy's complicated? It's about freedom. You getting soft? A little nutty maybe. I been reading up on this, Charlie. In a minute you're going to be saying democracy with Chinese characteristics aren't you? You sound like - what's your dad call it? - an apologist. An apologist for commies and China."

So this was how Dad was coming to see things, was it?

"Oh, Mom...C'mon. You know what I think of newspapers. They're written by journalists. There's some smart ones for sure, but as a class, they've got to be some of the most ignorant information workers around. They're usually submerged somewhere between school teachers and conspiracy buffs when it comes to their understanding of the world. They're information junkies: a huge grab-bag of second and third-hand information swirling between their ears but no organization, no rhyme or reason to it. They seldom understand economics, they never understand history, they're more of a slave to fashion than a high school student, and not one in a thousand can think for themselves or explain themselves intelligibly when you push 'em for answers."

"You're just envious. If you hadn't bombed out of university, maybe you'd be a reporter yourself. But no, you had to blow it."

"Well, mom, if that's how you want to look at it. I mean, if you've made up your mind, then I don't see that any of my explaining's going to make no difference."

She snorted, "Humph! It's too late for you now. Is that what you're thinking? You gone and given up on yourself? Don't look to me for sympathy. This is a hard-working family Charlie. We don't take well to quitters. You know, I think I can smell the sour grapes from all the way over here. Almost gone to vinegar maybe."

"Yeah, yeah, yeah. Look Mom, if communist China is going to invade Taiwan, then why hasn't it even constructed the landing craft to get its soldiers across the Taiwan Straits. What are they going to do? Jump in the ocean like Mickey Mao used to do all the time and start swimming for it? It's going to be a long slog because it's 90 mi. from the coast of China to Taiwan. And how are they going to coordinate their troops? Half of China's population doesn't even speak Chinese. Most of its troops are functionally illiterate and can't read the operations manuals to their own equipment. And most of the generals are actually four-star captains of industry. They're devoted to running their huge business empires, not to enhancing military readiness."

In a huffy voice, she said, "You don't know that. That's just what you think you know."

I paused and said, "I don't rightly know if that's a non sequitor or a tautology."

"How about you speak the Queen's English and leave the Latin for the Latins and the Frogs."

"Yeah, yeah. More importantly, mom, it's the reporters who don't know that. Even those that do, don't write it. The media has a professional interest in never letting the facts get in the way of a good story. Remember the media mantra: if it bleeds, it leads. Sensationalism, moral combats, fights between good and evil: these sell. Truth is boring because it often doesn't have a plot with sex or bad guys. How are you going to sell that on the front page? So truth is a dead letter in the media. Always has been. You have to go to libraries for the truth where you'll find bits and pieces of it scattered through dusty books adorned with bugs curled up in rigor mortis. Good books seldom get checked out because nobody wants to read them except cranks like me and dad."

"Well aren't you special."

"Well, I try to be mom. I've only got one chance on this ball of clay and then it's get called up to the Pearly Gates which I suspect might be almost as dull, day in and day out, as the perennially serene Newbeeland."

"Don't get smart with me, Charlie. None of your arty-farty blaspheming with me. I get enough of that from your dad. Remember, this is your mom you're talking to. I'm a sweety-pie."

I chuckled, "Alright. Sorry. You're right. That was a cheap shot."

In a rising sing-song voice she replied, "I won't argue with you on that one."

Having received her apology, her spirits rose and she launched into a story: "Oy! You know what? Them gravel-roader folks off the TransCanada we was always complaining about afore? Wouldn't you know it but they's still jacking deer these days. Uh-huh. Govment's going to catch them fellers sooner or later. Your dear old pa and me found a couple of deer heads just off the side of the creek road. We was driving by, just piss-cuttin' her, and even so the bejesus smell was something awful. Enough to make you puke your guts out. So we hauled up and took a looky-see around the edge of the swamp aways, and sure enough, in a clump of alders, there they was. A couple of right regular deer heads, right out of season. You know it's either that Whelan Howell or that there Vernon Brown, don't you? Those old boys is never up to good for long."

We laughed as I thought back to home, where the grand ambitions of the boosters and go-getters always had something to do with hunting and fishing.

I said, “Some things don't change, eh?”

“Well, some do, some don't. You remember that Doc Halliday that runs the clinic? He got to drinking after work one evening just last month and then decided to go out and get some exercise by going hunting. He was wearing a v-neck sweater over a white undershirt and when he was in the woods near his house someone tried to plant a bullet in him thinking that the white patch in his clothes was the back end of a white-tailed deer.”

“Jesus H.!”

“No need for taking the Lord's name in vein there Charles. Doc come out of her alright. He'd heard something, probably the other hunter, and was bringing his rifle up to take aim when his rifle was shot out of his own hands. He looked and saw blood spurting out from his right hand and got in a panic and ran for his jeepers life. He felt something hard sticking out between his thumb and fingers and clutched on to real good. He thought it hurt quite a bit, but he was determined to save as much of his fingers as he could for the surgery. When he got to his house, the first thing he done when got inside was call the ambulance. He looked at his hand real careful and realized he was holding part of the trigger guard. He realized he'd only took a scratch that opened up an artery. He must have heaved a huge sigh of relief. He could still be a doctor. So he bandaged his hand up but it was too late.”

“He still lost his finger?”

“No, silly. The ambulance fellers got there and saw all the blood on his doorstep that he left behind while he tried to get his keys out of his pocket and open the door with his wrong hand. When they got there they asked him if he was okay and could they come in? Well it would have been funny if he told them no. Then they saw all the blood on his living room floor. He said he cut his finger mowing the lawn.” She tittered, “Can you believe that? He could have done better than that. He's a doctor.” She waited for me to say something, but I didn't want to make a fool of myself by blurting out something foolish. So she kept going, “So anyways, they smelt the alcohol on him and took a look around and saw the banged up rifle still lying on his kitchen counter. Complete with his flashlight taped to it. They called the RCMP. That's all she wrote.”

“So they caught the person who shot him?”

“No silly. Boy you've forgotten how things work around here. You haven't been gone that long.”

“Umm… Okay.” But I couldn't think for the life of me what would have happened. “So what did the RCMP police do?”

“Well, they went and arrested him for jacking deer, of course. Flashlight's used for hunting at night. That's major illegal. And hunting out of season carries a stiff penalty anyway. Because he walked to the hunting ground, the government is allowed by law to confiscate his house. He should have got on a ten-speed or something. Even a tricycle would have done it. He'd still have a home to go to when he got out of the poke.” And she burst out laughing.

It all seemed so strange, so surreal. I'd never been a hunter and so I never knew the law. So, try as I might, I had a hard time persuading myself to feel amused. All I could work up were a few wheezes.

Mom could tell. She wasn't amused either now. "So, Charlie, you've been over in China for quite a long time. How much longer do you expect to stay?"

She knew the answer, "I don't know, mom. It depends. You know, I speak Chinese as well as I speak English. For all I know, I'll stay here forever. You know, speaking Chinese is the closest thing to a skill that I have."

"But don't you think you should come back to a real country at some point? I mean..."

I gasped, "Mom! How many times do I have to tell you, China is a real country. C'mon, I could have a future here. China's got a lot of great things going for it. For starters..."

“Okay, okay. I know, I know. I get the message loud and clear. You’re right stubborn. Just like your dad.” She sighed and continued: "Well, anyway, I was just calling to say that we wish you the best on your marriage and all." She paused, not quite sure how to put it. "So give it your best son. C'mon on to her! Give 'er! The whole world's in front of you now. China's a big place and you want to make your mark in it somehow? Make us proud son.” She took another breath, “So go and grab the brass ring son. Boys oh boys! Up and at her and keep the pedal to the metal and by the Jesus you can make her!"

All this well-meaning malarkey was to pump herself up and get over her sadness that her son, her one and only, was lost to a fine wife in the Orient. I wasn't going back.

Accepting defeat, she changed tack: "You're an international traveler and all, a bit of a big wig now, I guess."

"Oh, c'mon mom. I'm not conceited. You know that. Besides, some of the folks here in China are in an awful rush to remind me that I'm no more than a cooked barbarian."

“Chinamen calling you a barbarian? Well I’ll be. Good thing I’m not there or I’d give them a piece of my mind.”

“Well they’re not completely wrong you know. I’m a kind of international bumpkin, really. I mean, I got on a plane in the sticks of one second-tier country and ended up settling down in the boondocks of another.”

“Charlie Ferguson, are you out of your mother-scratching mind? Boys oh boys, you’re starting to sound real brainwashed you are. You need a rest from that place if that’s how you’re starting to talk.”

I cracked up, “Yeah but mom, when life changes, you change with it.”

“So you go with the flow and you don’t know who you are anymore? You lose your self-respect?”

“Who me? You don’t have to worry about me losing self-respect. That’s my problem. I have too much of it.”

“Hey, Charlie? Your dad just came in the door. He’s the lawyer, the legal eagle, he’ll sort you out. He’ll have you believing black is white and the other way round too in flat-out no time. Now you take care of yourself. And don’t get no ideas about communism, you here?”

She put her hand over the phone to muffle it but I could still make out her advising dad, “I think his brains are getting scrambled by all the noodles he’s eating in China. You got to do something about him. Fix what’s ailing him.”

I chewed on my cheek and scraped the un-ergonomic chassis of our boxy Seshwan phone around my ear, looking for a fresh place to rest it.

It was dad now and I could almost smell the fresh-bread odor of his breath: "Hey...Charles my lad. My number one son." I was the only son. "So your mother tells me your wife's family name is Chan.”

He was too proud to ask directly about my marriage. Somehow my getting hitched had upset the family power structure, making him wary. He turned to mom, appointing her paralegal and sending her out to perform field research and gather intelligence. “China being a matrilineal society, I gather that makes you Charlie Chan then." He hooted loudly, overloading the signal and making the line crackle. "Just don't get fat like Peter Ustinov and end your days selling cheap wine on television."

China’s not matrilineal, though it probably was ages ago. The real truth didn’t matter to dad anyway. He was always clowning with his knowledge of trivia. That must have been part of how he won my mother's heart. For some reason I'd grown up a bit more serious. Perhaps some rebellious streak; perhaps just growing up in his shadow.

"Now look son," he said, getting earnest, his Scottish accent getting thicker. "Now, we want you to do your best over there. Like you, I settled in a new country. I imagine that you're probably feeling a bit like a king, a Gulliver in a land of Asian Hobbits."

I interrupted, "You're thinking of the Cantonese, dad. The people around here in Szechuan are taller actually. Did you know that Mao Ze-dong was near 6 foot tall? People north of Shanghai on through Beijing are much taller than people in the south."

"Is that how you pronounce those names, eh?”

He was committing new terms to memory. I was arming him for battle.

While some mothers prepared their daughters for the world by introducing them to makeup, pouting, and fuck-me pumps, dad prepared me for the wicked, wicked world by encouraging me to collect trivia. It was a 'damnably useful hobby lad and no mistake'. He encouraged me to take a healthy interest in stamp collecting, though I preferred shoplifting even then. His favorite stamps were from fellow legal eagles working in China who sent him mail adorned with colorful squares of a balding Celestial with a Three Stooges coiffeur and a fat face: someone he called 'Mousy Tongue'. He was also a fan of Chinese food and 'Seshwan' chicken in particular.

These purposefully botched pronunciations were part of his armamentarium of trivia-based humor. He'd launch them into the air as bait and, while deadpanning, wait for your reaction. He was always on the lookout for this sort of thing, useful hobby trivia, his weapon of choice in the banter that was his preferred substitute for conversation.

When the Tiananmen democracy movement became big news back in 1989, he assimilated the new chattering-class name for the capital city, Beijing, christened 'Beishing' by CNN. This was about as accurate as the English pronunciation of Ypres, a town in France that they called 'Wipers'. But the English knew this was a mockery. That was the whole point. Sticking it to the Frogs. But dad went about socializing, busy-bodily correcting friends and associates who attempted unorthodox pronunciations of what those in the know called 'Beishing'. No wonder he was intimidated by me now. He thought I had the upper hand. More comedy.

Dad was still carrying on and I became aware that these banter-conversations had a sort of automated synch and a pleasing rhythm, putting so little drain on the brain that you could day-dream, as I was presently doing, and not miss a thing. He was saying, "So don't let living abroad get to your head. I know the temptations. Keep your feet on the ground or you're going to be in for a thump at the end of the day."

That was easy for him to say. He was a foreigner too, but from rural Scotland. He'd made his money overseas as a corporate lawyer: a hired gun and monkey-shining mouthpiece for multinationals. When he decided he wanted out of the concrete jungle and into dappling green scenery (and less demanding work), he settled down in Atlantic Canada, which was suffering a century of brain drain and offered an abundance of abandoned farmland on the cheap. As a mighty big fish in a small but glittering pond, he landed a cushy government job drafting constitutional law and in his spare-time he saved the occasional corporation from itself. He used his connections to set himself up in a Swiss chalet style A-frame overlooking fifty miles of a lushly forested man-made lake planted within a provincial park. That's where I was born. In a free-range zoo with all the animals. It sure was pretty. It still is.

But what really mattered was that he'd moved from one English-speaking country to another. He'd been savvy about his move: sizing up his international options and scrutinizing the locals in each locale, sussing their strengths and probing their weaknesses. Smart move. Me? More like smooth move Ex-Lax. Still, I was happy.

But, while I'd landed myself in a country where the locals jeered at me (usually politely, most often inadvertently), dad had been more quick-witted and cold-blooded and spotted the North American reverence for folks from the old English-speaking countries. As a Scot he spoke frankly, sharply, and machine-gun fashion, which intimidated the docile locals of rural Canada (i.e. people like me). He had a hyper-developed Celtic gift for the gab. He'd made a career of talking his way into and out of anything and everything.

Like me, he got married for a resident visa. Like me, he loved his wife. But without a visa, there would've been no marriage for either one of us. Even fat guys like me get laid overseas. But when you want to put down roots overseas, you got some hard choices and compromises to make in your sex life.

Dad was hesitating on the line now and I could feel him putting on his serious face, beetling his brows and bunching up his lips. Brogue was a way of getting people's attention: "Being Canadian, son, you have the advantage of growing up in a wealthier, democratic, information-driven culture. The locals revere you and this is an unfair advantage, as I'm sure ya ken." I didn't bother trying to correct him. "Of course it's a great competitive advantage. I wouldna ever give it up neither. But still, son, try to do the right thing. Keep your nose clean. The police and the jail's there are na too clean from what we read over on this side of the pond. They pogrom religious fanatics and line up organ donors on demand. Write an article with a wee bit aye truth in it, and you're trotted off to jail right quick likes. Ten years and no joke. So no funny business, OK?"

In his own way, dad was like the Chinese. Confident, chauvinistic, patronizing, overbearing and yet well-meaning. Both were perplexed when you had enough of being talked down to and told them to get stuffed.

Forty-five years of living in Canada and his favorite newspaper was still The Scotsman. If he'd been a member of the Chinese diaspora, he would have been a lifelong subscriber to The Chinaman. In public he'd got on the multiculturalist bandwagon with the rest of his white-collar colleagues, but at home he privately stuffed me and mom with cotton-mouth haggis, oxtail stew, and fish and chips. He got me buzzed as a minor on stout and manhandled me into watching educational films like Wicker Man. He frowned as he decried the traditional Scottish practice of burning male virgins alive in wicker cages constructed in the shapes of sacred animals. But he couldn't contain his excitement telling me of rumors the religion was still alive. On my sixteenth birthday he bought me a Delorian: the 1970's futuristic gull-wing car manufactured by the doomed Scottish industrialist. They'd made the damn things right there in Eastern Canada and now they were collector's items. For a while he confused my fat-prone inability to pick up chicks as evidence that I was gay. He had no problem with faggotry but as my father he wanted to get me off on the right foot. So he bought a pin-up poster of Sean Connery in full fur and put it on my bedroom wall.

He said, "So I'm serious. Keep it on the straight and narrow, my son"

Softly I said, “Aye, dad. Aye. Will do.” My weak attempt at Scotsmanship made him go silent. I could only hear his breathing on the line. I didn't push him for a response. He was responding. It was his Scottish equivalent to weeping; overwhelmed by that confused form of relief one feels when one is finally understood, one's message has finally been received, after all this time, by friendlies.

A tender moment. But of course the Scots aren't known for their crying. Unlike many Central Americans who can use a good jag once a day. Or Taiwanese (Free China) soaps, where every action written into the script seems hell-bent on inspiring a good flush of waterworks. The money-shot concept hit home real quick there. Get the damn tears flowing! And thus boo-hooing had to become the all-purpose screenwriter's tool expressing everything from sadness to belligerence. Crying was pulled kicking and screaming out of the closet, went public and got raves up and down East Asia. Taiwanese soaps flicker on the tube every night in Shinto, Confucian and Muslim homes all along the Pacific Rim.

Across the straits, here in China, it was the similar but different. Under communism in the old days, another emotion was ripped out of its appointed place, went solo and got all the choice roles. When I first traveled hereabouts in the late 1980's, the locals still couldn't say anything off message without being airplaned onto a stage with a dunce cap to give a public self-recrimination after which the crowd hurled everything from insults to furniture at the poor heretic. For forty years the grimace became the only reliably acceptable emotion nationwide and had to play the myriad roles of the traditional pantheon of emotions.

Overeducated foreigners, often mired in multiculturalism, their common-sense turned off, broke into giggles of half praise, half mockery: “The Chinese are so polite! They're always smiling. Such happy people!”

Too good to be true. Something didn't smell right in China.

In those days it was either grin, and bear it, or get frog-marched off to the labor camps; the smile had to be stretched to cover everything from desperate, suicidal pesticide-swallowing depression to something homelier, healthier, and common such as, “I beat you to death!” These feelings and much, much more via the same twin row of pearly whites.

Things were so curiously, intriguingly different. How could you explain it to outsiders who didn't speak the language? Reactions varied from disbelief to the suspicion you were fibbing. It was easier to say nothing or stick to some bland received wisdom, a few sonorous clich├ęs or respectable platitudes.

And so I met mom's platitudes with my platitudes and dad's better-late-than-never advice with more platitudes. And we called it a conversation.

Then again, I suppose it sort of was.

Dad got it back together. The moment was over, but so was the conversation. We said our goodbyes till next time. Whenever that would be.

Copyright Biff Cappuccino

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