Tuesday, March 29, 2011

A Tribute to Alice

"Are you content?" asked Alice.

"Most of the time, but not always," I said.

"When are you not content and what makes you not content?" asked Alice, who runs a small tea house a few yards away from the Far East International Youth Hostel.

I answered with a short list of things which we need not explore in this space. Conscious that I "should" be elsewhere voraciously consuming the ancient history of this magnificent, crowded city at places like The Temple of Heaven, the Great Wall ("you have to see the Great Wall!" sayeth the World), and the Beijing Opera, I was nevertheless content to sit and drink five or six different kinds of tea with Alice and her various guests. On Saturday afternoon, another Alex was there--a Chinese recruiter for PWC.

"PWC?" I asked.

"Price Waterhouse Coopers," Alex said. We exchanged contact information. I handed out business cards like candy in Beijing and, especially, on the train, where there were likely to be people interested in learning English, who live in Changchun and have money for private lessons.

You can get everything you need at Alice's tea house...

Alice's husband, who is a "very honest man," stands like a terra cotta warrior in a very funny moment shared by me and two community college students from California who are here on the first ever Chinese program offered by a community college.

My Chinese Name is Li Zhe

This weekend I went to Beijing by train. It took about 9.5 hours on the night train and I set out around 10PM from Changchun in a whirling blizzard that wrapped the train station in a thin veil of snow.

I spent the day on Friday at North Park and then inside of the Forbidden City. I bought some artwork (two scrolls) and had a stamp with my Chinese name inscribed in traditional characters. The seal has the characters for my real surname (Lee) and the Chinese name that my colleagues gave to me (Zhe). The handle is a double dragon. Li Zhe is a play on words. Some students gave me the name Li Changchun, because I already have a Chinese surname and because I live in Changchun. There is a very well-known Communist Party bigwig named Li Changchun so that name really would not do. Zhe, which means double lucky and smart, is the character for Jilin Province, where Changchun is located, repeated twice. It is a good name.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Happy Beginnings

Yesterday, I went for my fourth massage. It was a foot massage. I have had a two hour massage and a one hour massage and a ninety minute hot stone massage previously. This is the kind of mindless nonsense that people post to Facebook and expect people to care about so I will try to say something more profound about the experience and why I have been so self-indulgent.

To the descendants of Pilgrims and Puritans at home, still trying to build a City on a Hill, I want to give my assurance that there have been no "happy endings." While such diddling is widely available, I am told, it holds no appeal for me. On the other hand, there are few things more enjoyable than having your ears massaged (they do this strange flicking thing, actually inserting their fingers into your ears, completing the exercise with a suction caused by lightly boxing your lobes) and there is little more satisfaction to be had in life than when your shoulders are reduced to rubble by the sharp elbows of the masseuse or masseur.

This is something I could ill-afford in America, but it is preventative medicine and I will keep on with it for a few weeks until some of the residual knots of my American existence (I was a Democrat in New Hampshire) work themselves out. Right now my neck is sore and my feet hurt, but I am sure this will all disappear with time. Day before yesterday, I left my phone on the seat of a cab and had to chase him down by foot to retrieve it. I am pretty fast for an old man, but my hip is still somewhat stiff today.

I will be looking into acupuncture and regular yoga practice, too. It is not uncommon to see people doing taichi in the parks here.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Firewater & Smallpox Bar coming to a town near you...

If I really wanted to make light of past atrocities, I might open a Firewater & Smallpox Bar in Minneapolis or a Hitler Youth-themed kindergarten in Munich. Fortunately, some capitalists in China are already a few steps ahead of my dark and creative inner-marketing genius. David B. says that there are a proliferation of restaurants like the one we visited in every city in China.

On my day off, I called David B. and Andy. We wended our way down Longli Lu and across Remin Da Jie on to Yue Yang Jie where there is a restaurant that is supposed to bring one back to the throes of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). For those of you who did not pay attention in social studies or who never got exposed to this lovely chapter in Chinese history, I recommend the BBC's informative site. The waiters and waitresses here are dressed as Red Guards and the food is reasonably affordable. There are parrots and other talking birds for ambiance. On your way out, for three quai, you can choose between matchboxes with an image of Mao or, strangely, Chiang Kai-shek.

My friend Andy remarked that it felt like a Rainforest Cafe inside--kitschy and malapropos. Our experience was disrupted by two young waitresses arguing in loud voices behind us. I sort of wondered if this was for effect, but it seemed quite heated.

I ordered soup that appeared from the pictures in the menu to have blood sausage in it and then a second dish of bee pupae, which were the bee's knees. Really! "Battered and deep fried, the smallness  anything besides make you revolted. If the pupae and the heaviness of the frying process pretty much renders these things tasteless except for the saltiness and crispiness of the batter." (8 Bizarre Chinese Foods and How to Eat Them)

David had not even ordered before my food arrived, the order punched in on a hand-held, phone-like pad. The Great Swimmer looks over David's shoulder.
The bird worked intently through the evening to get through the metal sheath and furiously lick the iron pipe beneath for its ferrous fix.
Changbaishan Hotel

A few nights prior, Jason and "E" joined me at one of the top three (read, most expensive) eating establishments in the city. For 400+ RMB, which is about $70 US, I had goose leg accompanied by a colorful salad, preceded by sea cucumber soup. I passed up the opportunity to eat some of the other local specialties:
Many people come to sample the more exotic dishes that Changchun produces, which contain such ingredients as deer antler, bear's paw and snow toad, and the city specialty of deer's tail. If you are really not into these "exotic" foods, you can try potent Ginseng Chicken cooked with Maotai wine, a local dish that uses the famous Chinese liquor. (Changchun Restaurants)

The elegant carving of a goose from a white radish was one of the charming accompaniments to the meal. The salad contained the black shelf fungus for which Chang Baishan is well-known.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Changchun Steps Up

On Fridays, I teach eight classes of roughly sixty students at one of the top high schools in China. In fact, one student from this school last year got a full ride to MIT.

Last week they watched Ronald Reagan in a GE advertisement from 1957 and the trailer to Drying for Freedom. This week, I plan to discuss nuclear power, earthquakes, and whether (and why!) China should help Japan.

I am very pleased and proud that the city where I live and the province, as well, are among the first local governments in China to rise to the occasion.
Local governments in northeast China's Jilin Province on Monday pledged to donate money to the Japanese areas hit hardest by last week's destructive earthquake as rescue work continues.

The provincial government of Jilin will donate 100,000 U.S. dollars to the prefectural government of Miyagi while the municipal government of Changchun, capital of Jilin, will donate 500,000 yuan (76,900 U.S. dollars) to the municipal government of Sendai, local officials said. (Local Governments in NE China Donate to Japan's quake-hit region)
Extent of Manchuria
When I discussed the Japan tragedy with two of my favorite people here, I was disappointed by the glee that they seemed to express. The Manchurian Invasion and the Rape of Nanking (the highest rated comment on this YouTube video right now is one that says, "Enjoy the earthquake and the tsunami, you descendants of murders and rapists!") are still fresh in the memory here.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Nature is a Whore...

Sell the kids for food
Weather changes moods
Spring is here again
Reproductive glands...

We can have some more
Nature is a whore
Bruises on the fruit
Tender age in bloom.
-Nirvana's Kurt Cobain, In Bloom

Man's hubris is nowhere more on display than in the construction of nuclear power plants and hydroelectric dams. Earthquakes are unpredictable and probably impossible to predict. When you see the devastation, which has only just begun, brought on by the 8.9 magnitude [seismologists have revised this upward to a 9.0] earthquake in Japan, it is critical to ask some big questions. One question that I have been asking for several years is whether dams trigger earthquakes. There is some evidence to suggest that this is the case. By far the most destructive dam collapses since 1860 (and we can assume in human history) were in 1975, here in China. More than 230,000 people died when the Baniqao, Shimantan, and 60 other dams burst.

Regardless of whether dams trigger earthquakes, it is important to keep in mind that earthquakes cause dams to break and can cause nuclear plants to seriously malfunction. Japan has already had to flood the Fukushima Daini reactor to avoid a meltdown and may need to flood a second one, Daiichi. Breaking news is that a third reactor has now failed.

I am okay. One person wrote to me and asked if there was any affect here. Not yet.

Hopefully, there will be a positive outcome here in China--some navel gazing and some naval assistance that could usher in a new era of interdependence for these historic enemies. I have written previously about the threats posed by the Three Gorges dam on the Yanghtze Jiang (or Long River).
Fan Xiao, chief engineer of the Sichuan Geology and Mineral Bureau, told the South China Morning Post that landslides are inevitable because elevated water levels significantly increasing the internal moisture of surrounding banks, making them soft, loose and unpredictable.

"It's like dipping a piece of bread in milk. The deeper you go, the more difficult it is to hold on," Fan said.

The unprecedented mass of water also increases the risk of earthquakes, he said.

Yang Yong, a Sichuan-based geologist, clarifies Fan's warning:, "When the dam reaches 574 feet (the capacity mark achieved Tuesday), it will push the region's geological instability to the fringe of catastrophe."

Three Gorges' revealed its shortcomings when floodwaters raced into the dam's 400-mile-long reservoir in July, prompting a government official to admit that the dam's flood-control capacity "is not unlimited." (see Three Gorges Dam is Full; Earthquake Risks Increased)
I hope that such information will also be heeded by Hydro-Quebec and my friends at home. While the Canadian shield is much more geologically stable than Northeast Japan when a butterfly flaps its wings...

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

People's Square in Changchun

People's Square (人民广场; Rénmín Guǎngchǎng). In the Chaoyang District around the cross streets of Xi'an Lu (西安路), Renmin Dajie (人民大街), and Changchun Dajie (长春大街). It is one of the focal points of Changchun. It is close to Baishan Park (白山公园), and a mini "Culture Square" of sorts. The site commemorates the Russian soldiers, and specifically Russian pilots that died to liberate Changchun during the Second World War.

On Monday, my day off, I went there and shot some pictures with Andy Vihstadt. Also bought a Bluetooth, which only works for the phone, not listening to music or Rosetta Stone audio.

I am learning a lot about Changchun and plan to try some local special foods tonight...but don't let me spoil the surprise. I am considering doing a Skype conference call so that you, my readers, can ask questions and give me some feedback on the blog posts. Would you participate? Take the pollon the blog homepage in the right-hand column.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Aliens Chinese School

"No man should travel until he has learned the language of the country he visits. Otherwise he voluntarily makes himself a great baby-so helpless and so ridiculous." —Ralph Waldo Emerson

The day has come for me to begin. I am a great baby and so ridiculous, but I would rather lean on the words of Christ than the less-celebrated, just-as-cranky Transcendentalist of Concord, MA, the late Ralph Waldo Emerson. It is said that children learn languages better and faster, but the verdict is out on this. I have spent hours with my nose in Rod Ellis' compendium, The Study of Second Language Acquisition, and only know that I can tarry no longer. Today, on my official day off, I am setting out into the fetid, icy streets; climbing the stairs above McDonalds on Tongzhi Jie; and enrolling in classes with Aliens. Aliens? Yes. That is the name of the school and you can learn more about it here:

Matthew 18:2-3:
"He called a little child and had him stand among them. And he said: "I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven."
 Ralph Waldo Emerson in Self-Reliance:
It is for want of self-culture that the superstition of Travelling, whose idols are Italy, England, Egypt, retains its fascination for all educated Americans. They who made England, Italy, or Greece venerable in the imagination did so by sticking fast where they were, like an axis of the earth. In manly hours, we feel that duty is our place. The soul is no traveller; the wise man stays at home, and when his necessities, his duties, on any occasion call him from his house, or into foreign lands, he is at home still, and shall make men sensible by the expression of his countenance, that he goes the missionary of wisdom and virtue, and visits cities and men like a sovereign, and not like an interloper or a valet.

I have no churlish objection to the circumnavigation of the globe, for the purposes of art, of study, and benevolence, so that the man is first domesticated, or does not go abroad with the hope of finding somewhat greater than he knows. He who travels to be amused, or to get somewhat which he does not carry, travels away from himself, and grows old even in youth among old things. In Thebes, in Palmyra, his will and mind have become old and dilapidated as they. He carries ruins to ruins.

Travelling is a fool's paradise. Our first journeys discover to us the indifference of places. At home I dream that at Naples, at Rome, I can be intoxicated with beauty, and lose my sadness. I pack my trunk, embrace my friends, embark on the sea, and at last wake up in Naples, and there beside me is the stern fact, the sad self, unrelenting, identical, that I fled from. I seek the Vatican, and the palaces. I affect to be intoxicated with sights and suggestions, but I am not intoxicated. My giant goes with me wherever I go.

3. But the rage of travelling is a symptom of a deeper unsoundness affecting the whole intellectual action. The intellect is vagabond, and our system of education fosters restlessness. Our minds travel when our bodies are forced to stay at home. We imitate; and what is imitation but the travelling of the mind?

Walmart: Buy Local?

The blogger, Alexander Lee, standing in the plaza of Changchun's Walmart beneath the Spring Festival Coke display that came down the next day. Photo credit: Andrew Vihstadt.
The signage in Asia-- a topic of a previous post-- is constantly amusing to all native English speakers. Photo credit: Andrew Vihstadt.
Those of you who know me well or have some familiarity with my work history, know that, in 2005, I put in some serious time with the WakeUp Walmart campaign of the United Food & Commercial Workers (UFCW), when Robert Greenwald's movie, Walmart: The High Cost of Low Prices, ushered in the era of grassroots documentary film debuts.

Before I left for China, I joked that I could join the "buy local" movement by purchasing things at Walmart when I arrived here. Last week, I did just that. Though I did not spend much, I wandered the aisles in awe.

One evening, I met my new friend, Bettina, for supper and our meeting place was here in the shadow of this monstrosity.
Do you like fresh fish? How about a turtle? If not, head to the produce section for some dragon fruit or to the eggs section, where each chicken's egg has an individual sticker affixed, but you can also find century eggs and quail eggs by the dozen.

Drying for Freedom is coming soon

As my friends at White Lantern put the finishing touches on Drying for Freedom, I hope that it meets the same success that the Walmart movie did. I have watched a new iteration and think that people will enjoy the footage, which includes interviews with luminaries like Rajendra K. Pachauri, Ph.D. and yours truly (ha!). Stay tuned...

I Think We Can: High-speed Rail

The soul is no traveler; the wise man stays at home, and when his necessities, his duties, on any occasion call him from his house, or into foreign lands, he is at home still, and shall make men sensible by the expression of his countenance, that he goes the missionary of wisdom and virtue, and visits cities and men like a sovereign, and not like an interloper or a valet.             -Ralph Waldo Emerson

I think we can. I think we can. This seems to be the refrain from the Communist Party of China (CPC) and  its leaders, despite the increasing infamy of the sacked railway minister, Liu Zhijun, and a widening scandal that includes Zhang Shuguang. I am entirely on the side of the central planners and visionaries, even if a couple of bureaucratic scoundrels have come dangerously close to de-railing the continuation of this dream.

How we go about moving people about in modern and modernizing nations is central to the economic and ecological future of the world. Those in the United States, who are watching President Obama fumble through the roll-out of his Eisenhowerian vision, would do well to pay attention to what is happening here.

Heeding the optimistic predictions of Rob McCulloch, a national high-speed network would cut oil use by 125 million barrels a year (or 1.6% of total consumption) in the United States, where an estimated 7.665 billion barrels are currently consumed each year. This seems a drop in the bucket, as many newspapers have editorialized, and certainly opens the environmental movement up to accusations of being downright silly; however, much as is the case with tumble dryers, in China, the automobile--despite all the incessant honking and confusing mass of buses and three-wheeled contraptions dodging mopeds and motorcycles and taxis--has not achieved the ubiquitous adoption that we have seen in the United States. Here, there is hope. The proverbial ship has not left the harbor. Necessity is the mother of invention so it is no wonder that China leads the world in developing fast trains.

Workers at the China National Convention Center prepare to transport a locomotive of the domestically developed "Harmony" bullet train to the square outside the center in Beijing, March 5, 2011. The locomotive will be part of a technological achievement exhibition that opens today. [Photo/Xinhua]
Since we are as yet too unwise to heed Lao Tzu's admonition, it is sagacious to set about advancing the proposition that China must do better than mimic the habits of Americans and the economy of North America, rooted, as it is, in the continued pestilence of the personal transportation vehicle which runs on inevitably depleting stores of fossil fuel.

The Scandal and The New Minister

On my first full day in the People's Republic of China , Saturday, February 12, the discipline watchdog of the CPC announced that Liu was under investigation for "severe violation of discipline." The details are cloudy and only available in Chinese, but involve a Shanxi business magnate named Ding Yuxin (formerly, Ding Shumiao) of Boyou Investment Management Group Ltd., a company whose portfolio has benefited greatly from the explosion of high-speed rail construction in China.

The new rail minister is Sheng Guangzu. He supported the creation of China Netcom Group Corporation (Hong Kong) Limited, the world's primary source of e-mail spam and host of spamvertised websites for products such as pills, porn and poker. Research in Norway in 2008 identified as "by far the world's worst ISP" and noted that they did not respond to incident reports. A quarter interest in China Netcom belongs to the Ministry of Railways, whose connection to the Netcom's success is not insignificant. "A veritable army" of construction workers, subcontracted through the Ministry of Railways, dug and assembled the network - much of it along existing railway lines. How Sheng Guangzhu will carry out his new duties remains to be seen, but it is safe to say that the eyes of the world are watching.

The Hope of the CPPCC

The CPPCC is a fascinating and large body, whose official website still displays copyright dates of 2004-2005. It was originally chaired by Mao himself and is, in many respects, the controlling force of China's future. The National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference typically holds a yearly meeting at the same time as plenary sessions of the National People's Congress (NPC). Both CPPCC and NPC plenary sessions are often called The Two Meetings, making important national level political decisions.

On the subject of high speed rail, the announcement that came Saturday morning, March 5, from the CPPCC is worth reading in full:
China will reinforce its networks of expressways and high-speed railways during the 2010-2015 period to facilitate the nation's economic growth, the draft 12th Five-Year Plan unveiled Saturday.

By the end of 2015, total length of the high-speed railway network will reach 45,000 kilometers, covering almost all cities with a population of more than 500,000.

The construction of a railway linking Tibet autonomous region and Sichuan province in Southwest China will be considered, said the document.

The total length of expressways will reach 83,000 km, covering cities with a population of more than 200,000.

Megacities including Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou will have complete urban light rail networks by 2015.

A new airport will be constructed in Beijing. A number of airports will also be built or expanded across the country.
It is worth noting that the Bank of China will continue to give loans for railway projects and banks will not tighten the money supply for future construction of the country's express passenger transport railway network, probably as a result of the CPPCC's proclamations. Nevertheless, regulators--with an abandon that should be the envy of Wall Street's investigators and watch-dogs--are studying all railway loans. It will be interesting to watch as this drama unfolds.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

I read the news today, oh boy...

...about a lucky mom who made the grave. The extravagance of this ceremony demonstrates the importance that the Chinese ascribe to their mothers, Tiger and otherwise.

It also demonstrates that the divisions of have and have not are on full display in the major newspapers here. There seems to be a commonly held misunderstanding in America that the Chinese want to be perceived as a classless society. This has not been true probably ever and certainly not since the establishment of special economic zones, such as Shenzen.

"I read the news today, oh boy, 'bout an unlucky man who made the grave..."

Also in the news today was a sad story of a Chinese man gone berserk.  "A vengeful man was shot dead by police after he killed a pedestrian and injured 12 others in the street Thursday morning..." One of my students yesterday asked me if it was safe to live in Boston or Cambridge, where he wants to attend MIT or Harvard. I told him that if he stayed in the right neighborhoods and did not get involved with drugs, he should be all right. In fact, I was taken aback by his question which he claimed stemmed from having seen gun shops on a visit to "our fair city."

The Next Great Reform and Opening?

If you believe as I do that the moral arc of justice is long, but it bends towards justice then yesterdays news that a high-ranking party official has begun a microblog is a positive step. Many of my fellow ex-patriots scoffed and did not believe that participating was a safe or prudent move. They believe it will be heavily censored, but I am more optimistic. For sure, it is a place to share his perspective and the aspirational statements of poor farmers (one man's propaganda is another man's hopeful words):
"Recently, a woman of a minority ethnic group wrote to me, saying 'over the past year, we local residents have gradually felt the warmth of unity and love. We can hum songs when we get off work, buy vegetable, do cooking...because lots of happy things are taking place around us'." 
Nevertheless, I take Zhang Chunxian at his word, "I hope, through my micro blog, that suggestions and proposals will be given to me on improving Xinjiang's development and Xinjiang people's livelihoods."

Official China and, more specifically, the NPC and CPPCC, know that they need to deal with internal strife if they want to avoid strife and if they want the world to take them seriously. Another blogging development was the announcement that Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region has requested its public security organs above county level to launch official microblogs, in an attempt to strengthen communication with the public.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

A Glimpse of my Teaching Schedule

In New England, we say, "If you don't like the weather, wait five minutes." In Changchun, they say, "If you don't like your schedule, wait a day." Put differently, I have been here for three weeks and school resumed last week. I still don't know what my schedule will be precisely, but am beginning to have a sense.

The one assignment that I am reasonably sure I will be doing long-term is a special contract that the school has with adult learners at TRW Fawer Automobile Safety Systems (Changchun) Co. Ltd., Manufacturing Facility, Braking & Suspension. There are three classes. I teach the mid-level on Tuesday and Thursday from 4:30 to 6 PM and then on Friday, I follow-up on Catherine's elementary lessons with the beginners at the same time of day. Catherine is a native Chinese speaker and also the Director of Operations for Perfect English. Her English is excellent.

Many Chinese people call me "Alex-aw", but I worked on pronunciation with them today and yesterday so that there are now at least 558 students (62 kids in nine classes) in Changchun who can say it it properly and they now might be able to point to New Hampshire on my hopelessly scribbled map of America. A few of them heard about maple syrup and the Presidential Primary. Tomorrow I will have eight sections of Grade 2 (equivalent of 10th graders, I believe) so another 496 will wander the streets of Changchun.

One student spent three years living in Weston, MA, which is not far from where I grew up. Nobody else in his class had been to America. There were a handful of students who could speak a third language, but not one had a sibling, despite the loosening of rules around the one child policy.  (It looks like there may be a further loosening, as well.) I had them guess what I used to do and how old I was. They were either remarkably clairvoyant or lucky. I don't know whether I like that I look 37 and act like a lawyer!

[Those of you who know me well will note that I am 36, but in old China (one kid told me today, "just the old people do that") the way your years were counted was quite different. You were one years old when you were born and then you turned two at the turning of the Gregorian (not Lunar) new year. Talk about confusing math for a lawyer!]

I plan to spend part of my day-off on Saturday with some students that I met today. They are involved with Model UN and are working on Kyoto Protocol and climate negotiations. They were very earnest and, unlike the litigious US, I can share my email and/or QQ # (the Chinese equivalent of AOL) with impunity here.