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.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

"Hiking" in Half Moon Lake Park

Yesterday morning, I took a taxi to the German beer hall, called Drei Kronen Brauhaus 1308 or Three Crowns. There, I met three very fun German women, one of whom I met on CouchSurfing. Their names were Désirée Krips, Lesly, and Bettina. All three of these women are teachers and the first two work at a German kindergarten. We all laughed together all day.

The restaurant was quite amusing. Everything from the food to the frescoes was just a little off and entirely out-of-place. Among the clientele for breakfast on a Saturday were large, Aryan men in long, leather pants who work for VW, Audi, or any of the other German car and parts manufacturers. They come to China with their spouses and children for a year or three. Their children are the kindergarten students of Désirée and Lesly. There were also Chinese women with adopted German names, like our waitress, Ericka. She was dressed like Heidi. It was quite a spectacle, akin, perhaps, to seeing me in a Korean king's garb.

We sat upstairs at Drei Kronen 1308 at a solid oak table.
Breakfast consisted of meat, cheese, English tea, rolls, fruit salad (which included dragon fruit), and scrambled eggs. We lingered for an hour or so and convinced Bettina to join us for the "hike," which she told us would entail returning to her apartment to retrieve a shawl. Desiree and Lesly found that quite amusing, correcting her that in winter such a thing is usually referred to as a "scarf." We took a quick cab into the carefully guarded high-rise apartment complex where Bettina's employer has provided her an apartment about one and half times as large as my own. It was very clean, well-equipped, sunny and beautiful. She had a study, two bedrooms with large beds, a living room with a large Barcalounger and a big brown Barcalounger couch to match. She had a utility room, a lovely bathroom replete with tub, and a porch. It was the sort of place no teacher in Europe or America could ever contemplate renting, but was provided to her as a perk for teaching here. Like my space, it still lacked a certain coziness, we both agreed later, but was very comfortable.
Lesly, Bettina, and Desiree at the Light Rail station nor far from the brauhaus.
The return trip on the Light Rail after we had been "hiking."
We left Bettina's apartment and headed for two or more hours of walking around the dammed reservoir at Half Moon Lake Park. We took the Light Rail to get there, which requires the purchase of a plastic card that you use to get in and out of the gate. It swallows the card as you leave. The cards have been used so much that they are worn white and the text, even if I could read it, and design have been obliterated by the thousands of hands through whose fingers they have passed.

It was cold yesterday and I was glad of my long underwear tops and bottoms, my ugly neck warmer, parka, and Sorrels. It was thirty quai to get inside the gate. We walked along a path and up some steep stairs, arriving at the top of the dam.

The Modern Explorer.
Three Frauleins and a Reservoir with several feet of ice.
There were men along the side of the reservoir digging a trench so that the ice would have room to expand without cracking the walls and levies. The women in the red jackets proved to be brisk walkers and scoffed at my calling this a hike. Lesly and I flagged down the bus at the end and we all piled in, taking it back to the gate.  We caught the Light Rail back to town and then a cab to my apartment.

I had to be back at school by 4 PM to sign my contract. We taxied to my place and played a game of Quiddler before I showed them to Xikang Lu, where Desiree (a complete Korea-phile) knew of a Korean coffeehouse. I high-tailed it to Ella's office and then re-grouped with them in a half hour. Jason came and joined us. We lingered for a bit as the snow started to come down and then went to see Ravi at New Dehli Indian Food. It was delicious and we lingered some more in a raised floor seat with cushions and pillows for three or four hours. Ravi is one of the most inspirational men I have ever encountered--a philosopher king who opens and closes restaurants all over the world. More on Ravi and his great new restaurant in a subsequent post. More than one of us was tempted to follow his path.
The walk way along the top of the dam.

Desiree and I in a camera duel; she with the high tower in the background

Friday, February 25, 2011

Signs That in Asia, I am

One of the things that any native English-speaking person will notice in Asia is an abundance of funny signs. The first sign I saw, when I deplaned in Changchun, pointed people to the Qnarantine Room. It is not uncommon to pass a girl on the street with a shirt that says something akin to "Sweet Honey of Yours."

Here is one example that is less than a block from my house:

Photographs: From Movie School of thought Naturalism

Here are two from Korea which are very representative of the genre. The first shows that Seoul (65% Christian) has some quite divinely inspired capitalists.

Bongzi & Bongzi...That's the Place made by Jesus
Especially considering that the words a, an, and the, frequently omitted by Asian speakers, are called articles, this is my grand prize winner.
BARBARA: a fine article. Talk about the objectification of women...or their shoes.
Finally, I bought a beautiful Korean liquor bottle that sits on my widow sill here. It is actually Traditional Koeran Liquuor, which, I hear, teetotalling Moslems abhor.