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.