Sunday, April 29, 2012

Shanghai History Museum

For over fourteen months, I have called China home. This week my mother, in her well-meaning way, resorted to the ad hominem to convince me that I should return home. She told me that I had turned my back on my country and my family.  Actually, I miss them a lot and see my work here as valuable. Every time that I teach somebody English in a world where Mandarin is the most prevalent native tongue, I help perpetuate the primacy of our language. Furthermore, I am teaching Western culture at The Culture Club and I represent the United States proudly.

That said, the intense pride of this people concerning their 5,000 years of history used to annoy me. Yesterday, though, I turned a corner. Instead of seeing this patriotism as the outgrowth of propaganda, I now realize that for millions of Chinese this feeling is well-founded because, in some important ways, theirs is a culture that is sophisticated and refined. Perhaps, it was Qibao Chow's Miniature Sculpture Museum that solidified this for me. This post is about my visit to the Shanghai History Museum. A subsequent post will discuss the Shanghai Propaganda Poster Museum and Qibao Ancient Town.


Shanghai History Museum

The Oriental Pearl Tower
Shanghai History Museum is in the basement of the Oriental Pearl. You will remember from last year's post over the May Day holiday that the Pearl is a landmark of the skyline here, for better or worse, that lies at a bend in the Huangpu River.

After landing at Pudong and a lengthy subway ride, my girlfriend and I went there first--do not pass Go, do not collect 1200RMB. We did not pay the preposterous prices to go up, but one flight down is a sort of Madame Tussaud meets Sturbridge Village. You could easily spend more time than we did, but even so it took us a couple hours to wind our way about on the two floors of the museum.

I would like to bring you on the tour with me.

Some Sage Advice from Bill McKibben

These are the answers to some questions that I recently posed to my friend Bill McKibben. Back in 1996, I wasted gallons of fossil fuel driving around a mountain in the Adirondacks trying to find Bill; his wife, Sue Halpern; and now grown-up daughter, Sophie. This family was one of three profiled in my honors thesis. Now Bill is a Scholar-in-Residence at my alma mater and an internationally-known leader in the fight to arrest anthropogenic climate change.

Alex: Charles Kupchan recently wrote in the New York Times, "The democratic, secular and free-market model that has become synonymous with the era of Western primacy is being challenged by state capitalism in China, Russia and the Persian Gulf sheikdoms. Political Islam is rising in step with democracy across the Middle East. And left-wing populism is taking hold from India to Brazil. Rather than following the West’s path of development and obediently accepting their place in the liberal international order, rising nations are fashioning their own versions of modernity and pushing back against the West’s ideological ambitions." Which style of government do you think has proven itself best equipped (in practice, not in theory) to address the serious threats posed by climate change? Why?

I think our only hope is people's movements rising up--so, the kind of governments where that can happen is preferred I suppose. As the Arab spring shows, it can happen almost anywhere

Alex: John Daly wrote a piece for where he discussed the state of fracking in China and outlined joint plans for technology transfer negotiated by Obama and Hu Jintao. What are the ethical and environmental ramifications of these developments?

Bill: A few years ago we might have said: not so bad, since burning natural gas is better than burning coal. Now we know more about fracking, and the evidence indicates not only that it does massive environmental damage close to home (the latest study indicates disposal of fracking water has been triggering earthquakes across the U.S.) but that enough unburned methane escapes into the atmosphere, negating the theoretical global warming benefits.

Alex: You have been a leader in the effort to slow the construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline. What do you say to those, like Joe Nocera of the New York Times, who argue that if the United States does not buy Alberta shale oil from the tar sands, it will be shipped to China, so we had best buy from a trusted ally and neighbor?

Well, it has to get to China first. They're trying to build a pipeline to the Pacific that would make that easy, but so far Canadians, especially First Nations peoples, are effectively blocking it. Even if we get very lucky, given five or ten years the Canadians will find a way to get those tar-sands out--which means in the next five or ten years we better do the work necessary to make sure that the world fears climate change enough to demand that carbon be kept in the ground. Because in global warming terms, of course, it makes no difference where it's burnt.

Alex: What are the major stumbling blocks between China and the US as they seek to forge a binding international agreement on climate?

I think the power of the fossil fuel lobby within each country that constrains actions by leaders

Alex: Have you been to China? If so, where did you go? What impressed and depressed you?

Several times. Depressed by: urban air pollution, desertification, water pollution. Impressed by: drive of the people to work, and by the rapid introduction of some new technologies (see below). (also impressed by the food)

You once wrote a book called Hope, Human and Wild. Are you aware of any really hopeful stories in China? Is there any transferable massive project or replicable local endeavor that you think sets an example for other nations?

I think the rapid adoption of solar thermal technology is a very good sign--it's the biggest source of renewable energy on earth, solar hot water in China. There are a number of cities where adoption rates approach 100%, and the total for the nation may be as high as 25%--compared with less than 1% in the U.S.  So, while China is emulating some of our bad habits (coal plants, cars) it is also creating some good habits we'd do well to copy.
If you could ask the average city dweller in China to do or not do one thing that would help the climate and help China develop in sustainable ways, what would it be? Please answer this question for rural residents, as well.

For urban dwellers: return China to a biking country. It's what the most avant garde cities on the planet (Copenhagen, Stockholm) are rapidly doing, and it would make life easier in every way.

For rural dwellers: well, I always thought my old friend Ren Xuping,  the rabbit king of Sichuan, was on to something.  Animal protein without grazing, on a scale easily accessible to women and children, with small capital investment and best of all helping not hurting China's huge soil erosion problem. It grew out of a Heifer project in the '80s, so I like the sense of international solidarity too.

Alex: I live in one of the largest high-speed train manufacturing areas in the world. Do you think President Obama, during a second term, would be able to make more progress on improving the transportation infrastructure of the United States? Do you think high-speed trains are the right technology to focus on?

I think trains period in the U.S.--we're not going to get super high speed trains except perhaps on a couple of corridors. But we can have fast enough trains.

Alex: Eating meat was rare for millions of Chinese country-side dwellers just a couple of decades ago. Now eating meat is a status symbol here. Feeding the world's growing population is likely to be a challenge with climate as a complicating factor. What do you think can be done to make farming and eating sustainably a priority of governments and their populations? Please answer this question in the context of the findings in this report Achieving food security in the face of climate change, referenced in this New York Times article.

Bill: I think if we're going to eat meat, we should do our best to copy culinary practices in China and elsewhere--i.e., treat it almost as a condiment, a flavoring, and hence use smaller amounts than the 'great honking slab' method of American cooks. And I'm glad to see practices like semi-vegetarianism spreading

Friday, April 27, 2012

Shanghai-Nanjing-Hangzhou, Here I Come

"Be born in Suzhou, live in Hangzhou, eat in Guangzhou, die in Liuzhou." (生在苏州, 活在杭州, 吃在广州, 死在柳州)
The meaning here lies in the fact that Suzhou was renowned for its beautiful and highly civilized and educated citizens, Hangzhou for its scenery, Guangzhou for its food, and Liuzhou (of Guangxi) for its nanmu wood coffins which supposedly halted the decay of the body.
"Heaven Above, Suzhou and Hangzhou below." (上有天堂,下有苏杭)
This phrase has a similar meaning to the English phrases "heaven on Earth" or "God's country".
In four hours I will leave my house for the airport. I will board a plane bound for Shanghai, which is where I went last year for the May holiday, as well. It is hard to believe that it has been a year.

A scaled model of the city with the Oriental Pearl at the bend in the river. This model is at the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Center.
This time, I will also board a train, but instead of going to Suzhou, as I did in 2011, I will go first to Nanjing and then to Hangzhou.

Nanjing ("Southern Capital," as opposed to the Northern Capital of Beijing) is storied. It is most associated, sadly, with the Rape of Nanjing, a massacre perpetrated by the Japanese in the beginning of the Second World War; however, for me, the excitement lies in the fact that it lies on the Yangtze River. [Initially, I had planned to go to Wuhan now and to see Three Gorges, but a variety of factors conspired against that idea.]

I have seen the movie called "The Flowers of War" (2011), but have not yet seen "Nanking, Nanking" (2009). Both of these movies chronicle the atrocities of 1937. The first ten minutes of the latter appear below.

Hangzhou is most famous for the West Lake. It was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2011, and was described as having "influenced garden design in the rest of China as well as Japan and Korea over the centuries and as reflecting "an idealized fusion between humans and nature."

As late as the latter part of the 16th and early 17th centuries, the city was an important center of Chinese Jewry, and may have been the original home of the better-known Kaifeng Jewish community.

There was formerly a Jewish synagogue in Ningbo, as well as one in Hangzhou, but no traces of them are now discoverable, and the only Jews known to exist in China are in Kaifeng.

In 1848 during the Qing dynasty, Hangzhou was described as the "stronghold" of Islam in China, the city containing several mosques with Arabic inscriptions. A Hui from Ningbo also told an Englishman that Hanzhou was the "Stronghold" of Islam in Zhejiang province, containing multiple mosques, compared to his small congregation of around 30 families in Ningbo for his Mosque.

I am also hoping to attend Mass on Saturday evening at Immaculate Conception Cathedral. The current cathedral in Hangzhou, dedicated to Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, was originally built in 1661 by the Italian Jesuit Martino Martini, and is still one of the oldest churches in China. Its original Romanesque form was designed with three naves, and two rows of columns separating them. The two side altars venerated statues of St. Peter and St. Paul while the central altar was for the worship of Christ. At the time of its completion it had been lavishly decorated and was said by many to be the most beautiful church in China. Of note were also the large frescoes painted all over the church, that as the Jesuit Charles Le Gobien notes in his "Histoire de l'édit de l'empereur de la Chine", were based on standard Western imagery (the conversion of St. Paul, the conversion of the emperor Constantine, etc.), but were painted by Chinese artists in the Chinese brush style.

The world's largest tidal bore races up the Qiantang River through Hangzhou reaching up to 40 ft (12 m) in height.

Hangzhou is also the terminus of the Grand Canal, which is the world's longest canal.

Stay tuned to find out what I really do on this luxurious six day vacation. Tomorrow night, I will be at the Rock & Wood Hostel.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Poetry Night: For Joy

My dearest friends know that I deeply admire the essayist, fiction writer, and American poet Wendel Berry. Tonight was poetry night at The Culture Club and I shared his To a Siberian Woodsman. I began to choke up during my reading of the last stanza, which was not particularly professional nor did it help my Chinese listeners to understand me. I also shared Wild Geese by Mary Oliver.

One of the students brought Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star to share. Her chosen English name is Sunshine, but she came to the wine-tasting event a week ago and Jack, who is a delightful tease, called her Moonshine. He had no idea what moonshine was, but it was a perfect teaching moment.

We also talked about Shakespeare--alliteration, iambic pentameter, rhythm, rhyme, and onomatopoeia. It was fun to walk them through all of this. I had them baa like a lamb and maa like a goat. Baba is papa and mama is mama in Chinese. I had them ribbit like a frog and roar like a lion, zippppp their zippers and then we did tongue-twisters. She sells seashells by the seashore. How much wood could a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?

The range of levels makes these classes a real challenge. How do you know if the the new student, who is sitting there smiling, is really enjoying herself or if she is dumbstruck by how little she understands of the conversation. There are a couple of boisterous boys who have started to come. They are younger than our stated minimum age, but add a fun dynamic sometimes. How will I know if some of the adults wish they would just go away? These are the small challenges of what I do here. (I am not going to write a blog post about the big challenges.)

Monday, April 16, 2012

Dear, Dear Congress

"Mr. Horton, who has already helped a few clients fill out Form 8938, said that for most individual filers, 'even if we’re talking about a modest set of accounts, it’s going to take a full Saturday to do,'" in For Americans Abroad, Taxes Just Got More Complicated

I am writing from the center of capitalism with Chinese characteristics, but not the home of Red (Ticker) Tape. Please read this article in the New York Times and ask yourself if this is the silly hyperbole of a liberal grey lady's irresponsible staff reporter.

If you think that Sen. Max Baucus is right and there are dozens of English teachers, soldiers, sailors, and foreign service members--albeit serving their culture and country--who are enriching themselves with off-shore bank accounts, you ought to provide me, in your sweet response penned by an unpaid intern or some LA who pays less taxes than Warren Buffet's secretary, with some evidence that it is so. Everybody I know is relatively poor.

I arrived here in February 2011 and now, ehere, it is the day after traditional US Tax Day 2012, except that April 15 is a Sunday and I file in special Massachusetts, where Monday is also holy for long distance runners and Minutemen. My forms are done, I am told. My father, with power of attorney, has put his John Hancock on them. My questions are unanswered, though.

Wither can I legally invest? Where do I belong? Am I a man without a country?

These are the facts (Will they lead to an international arrest warrant?): My things are stored in Claremont, NH; my CapitolOne account forwards to my twin sister in West Roxbury, MA; my Bank of America accounts, which I would love to shuck, have my parents address in Brookline, MA; my renewed license was sent to a friend in Concord, NH. I no longer maintain a post office box in Concord, NH, because it expired and mail all gets lost en route to me in China, anyway....which may be no fault of the US Postal Service. I owed New Hampshire something like $54, because my grandparents left me some money, but my "burden of taxation is softened by a $92,900 exclusion that allows many expatriates to avoid any U.S. liability."

Even to consolidate my many addresses into one domestic or foreign address seems an insurmountable task.

I would like to divest from Bank of America. The same oracle bone that prompted me to ask my father about investing in Google before it went public ("flash in the pan" he ill-advised and we laugh about it still...especially, again, on the eternal, sketchy eve of Facebook's public offering) and Matt Tabbai's ruthless pen have convinced me that I should distance myself from the summer soldiers and sunshine patriots of the constricting BoA. BUT I CANNOT!

These are additional facts: I called Vanguard and Fidelity, where I was advised that banking rules would not even allow them to re-direct me to their website for ideas. I cannot move the chump retirement change that I earned for fourteen months of service to the State of New Hampshire. I cannot move the checking account which has hardly enough in it to buy the car that Rep. Dennis Kucinich grew up in or a flight home.

The people that my honest family of quiet Brahmins pay to meticulously prepare our taxes are at a loss for what to do. It does not automatically make me a patriot that my ancestors sailed on the Mayflower, built the breastworks around Manhattan during the War for Independence, imported china from China (see footnote), and died on the field of battle in Korea's cold hills; however, I tell you that I am such a lover of my country. While I may have marched with Granny D and made company with some from the War Tax Resisters League, clapped for James Farmer, Jr. and Henry David Thoreau, and adored Dorothy Day, I am every bit as American as you...and I pay my taxes the way that Big Ben clocks the minutes near Greenwich.

Like millions of American boys, I have had delusion, spilled upon me by adoring old ladies in their simple, well-meaning adynatons, that "Someday you will be the President [implying when hell freezes and Congress is full of honest souls]." Your inability to do anything about anything is inspiration to run--far, far away to Siberia's southern shores. Here I find myself helpless.

America may be "alone among industrialized countries in taxing on the basis of nationality, rather than residence"; however, I feel homeless and abandoned. The expatriate community is weaker than the Puerto Rican electorate and the unfortunate Washingtonian denizens, who darken your doorways. Where do I turn for relief from this red tape?

Alexander Putnam Lee
Changchun, CHINA

[This material was added on April 20 as an update to this article.]

April 19, 2012

Dow Jones posts fake release for two hours; bank gets fake website blacklisted, briefly
Bank of America executives, investors, and opponents alike reacted with surprise to yesterday's news—posted for two hours on Dow Jones Newswire and elsewhere—that the mammoth financial institution, realizing it was heading for a taxpayer bailout, was asking Americans to start thinking about what they'll do with the bank once they own it, and to start advertising that vision too.

The news, of course, was a hoax. 

The fake website was quickly, but temporarily, blacklisted by Google as a potential "phishing scam," despite the site containing no forms, spyware, or other characteristics of a site engaging in phishing. Firefox and Google Chrome users who tried to load were warned that the site may be "dangerous," while some individuals with Gmail accounts reported that emails containing the URL were bounced back or not delivered. An investigation by Raw Story concluded that "It's likely that Bank of America reported the site to Google as a phishing scam." Shortly after the article's publication—and with the help of thousands of volunteers complaining to Google—the website was taken off the blacklist. 

Today's reports of slumping profits make the fake site all the more timely. "This site is a forum for people to imagine what they could do with this bank," said Jane O'Heely of the Yes Lab, one of the site's creators. "The ideas we've gotten already show we all know as much as bankers about how a bank ought to be run—and actually, a good deal more."
"A bank doesn't have to be something that charges you fees, invests your money in things you abhor, destroys poor communities with predatory lending, and then threatens to take down the global economy if you don't agree to bail it out," said Logan Price, who helped create "Thinking of alternatives to this nightmare is not rocket science."

The hoax was perpetrated by means of a fake press release; it was followed two hours later with a fake angry retort, so that no journalist would be fooled for very long. "We wanted to get people thinking about how they'd run banking differently, not to really fool anyone," noted O'Heely. "The whole fake release thing was just a way to publicize it and get people posting ideas and ads." 

"Any response by Bank of America would just help spread the word, and they seem to know that," added O'Heely. When Bank of America got Google to blacklist the website as "phishing" (which it was not), the Yes Lab mobilized 4000 volunteers to complain, which quickly worked to de-list the site and give this press release a small extra hook.
The website's centerpiece is an open call to American taxpayers to begin considering what they will do after a bailout, when they'll have a chance to become the company’s majority owners. The "bank" also asks the public to advertise their visions with a tool for generating web banners—images that could give Bank of America a very real "google problem" not unlike Chevron's. The site also includes a letter from CEO Brian Moynihan that admits to the bank's many failings—short-sighted investment decisions and the massive accumulation of le gal liabilities, causing plummeting share prices and inexorably pushing the company towards a public bailout. 

The website was a collaboration between the Yes Lab, Rainforest Action Network, and New Bottom Line. A number of folks within Occupy Wall Street's Alternative Banking working group also helped with the site. Like other Yes Lab websites, this one is hosted by May First / People Link

The website comes at a time of rampant distrust of big banks. Even top Federal Government regulators have recently called for the end of "too big to fail." As Harvey Rosenblum, the head of the Dallas Fed’s research department, recently wrote: "Many of the biggest banks have sputtered, their balance sheets still clogged with toxic assets accumulated in the boom years... creating a residue of distrust for the government, the banking system, the Fed and capitalism itself." 

"Most Americans, and even some regulators, see what's wrong with the state of our banking system," said Price. "We have a real opportunity to safely and proactively push this company towards managed bankruptcy and create smaller, more responsive financial institutions that help American communities rather than harm them."

eerratic cumming poetry

for a virgin 3 Gorges

the river’s frigid, swollen mound of water intrigues me
bending lower i tickle its glassy surface with my swollen lips
something awakens, like springtime, and its steady roar
seems, momentarily, but not momentary, to be moved

deep within something simenon stirs and think maybe its earth
or maybe maggie and milly and molly and may, but it is earlier
than all that, still, further upstream where vernal showers birth
all that comes after 
even the peaceful sunlight falls gently

then like some wet wolf, it shakes itself, loosening the stones
which once moored it to eternity with imperceptible grace
lower still, i sense there is a placidity that bends like styrene
beneath the weight of knowing all that hangs beyond and above

somewhere in the middle, like a monument to present fleeting
it places in grey intervals some energy that cannot be bent how
possibly my own moaning and mysterious tears now sleeting
offer such friendship and adventure, such dreams in one place

A Warning To My Readers

Do not think me gentle
because I speak in praise
of gentleness, or elegant
because I honor the grace
that keeps this world. I am
a man crude as any,
gross of speech, intolerant,
stubborn, angry, full
of fits and furies. That I
may have spoken well
at times, is not natural.
A wonder is what it is.

              -Wendell Berry

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Two Heavenly Days Off

I spent the whole day yesterday in my flat, partly to avoid the weather. I slept and watched a couple amazing movies--Part 6 of BBC's Wild China (final episode, sadly) and The Great Debaters. I studied a little and worked on recruiting and some work stuff.

I remember seeing James Farmer, Jr., when I was a student. He is the protagonist of The Great Debaters. This film, typically well-acted by Denzels Washington and Whitaker, made me weep. I would like to show portions of it to my class that is learning how to argue (aka critical thinking). I also cleaned house, did laundry (even the flannel bedsheets, mom and Theresa-Shannon!), and had a plumber come by to fix a problem with my plumbing (an endless saga in this apartment).

My friend and I cooked the most amazing dinner of fish, spicy duck neck and muer (wooden ear fungus) and potatoes with peppers.

Before we ate
After we ate

This morning I woke and went to Jingyuetan, Asia's largest urban forest park, which is right here in Changchun. I went with my friend C. Chen and two of her male, childhood friends. One of them is a professor of trombone and composer, who will travel to LA in a few months for some philharmonic event. We hiked and I even jogged. The weather was delightful. After the high winds of yesterday, which brought with them dust and fine sand from the Gobi Desert, the calm, warm (64 degrees Farenheit) weather of this Saturday was a welcome relief. I saw some pussy-willows on a well-drained hillside and chuckled, as I remembered George Bush Sr.'s bumbling Interior Secretary, Manuel Lujan, and his infamous blunder, "I take the position that there are certain kinds of vegetation that are common in wetlands -- you know, what do you call them? Pussy willows, or whatever the name is . . . (He probably means cattails.) That's one way you can tell, and then, if it's wet." [In 1999, when efforts to protect the endangered Mount Graham red squirrel held up construction of an Arizona observatory, Lujan confessed to reporters that he could not see what the fuss was about: "Nobody's told me the difference between a red squirrel, a black one or a brown one."] We did not see any squirrels.

The instruments hanging on the wall are called guqin. The man is playing a yangqin.

After an amazing lunch at a restaurant where the owner treated us to a yang qin concert and some 15 year-old baijiu (Chinese liquor) that tasted and looked like port, as well as a tea ceremony by his wife at an authentic tea table and some top-shelf pu'er, I headed back home for a two hour massage, where they convinced me that scraping and cupping would be good for me. What do you think?

After the massage, I met my friend Sun Lu and we learned a bit more about how to play weichi from a couple of guys at the fancy tea-house in my neighborhood. We drank tea for a while first and tried to teach ourselves, but it was happenstance that I took a look on the front-porch to satisfy my curiosity and found several clusters of older men playing the game. After watching one game, we had a nice dinner of bao zi and lamb with onions. As Lu got my weichi set from her backpack, both boxes opened and over a hundred little black and white stones spilled out on the sidewalk. We picked them all up, laughing the whole time, and now I am home lining up interviews with teacher candidates for tomorrow and beyond.

After a very lousy week, where I have been plowed under with work, 2AM phone calls, conflict, and a head cold, this was what I needed!