Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Open Forum

There are over 390 people who receive this blog in their Inbox. Some of you might have a vague interest in me and my personal journey, but I suspect that most of you want to know about China from the insider's perspective. Today, I am turning this over to you. Write your questions on the blog or send them to me. I am happy to blog about any topic that interests you.

Big in the news this week: a truck full of dogs headed for a slaughterhouse in my city was saved by animal rights' activists. You want to know about dogs in China? Tell me...

I am headed to Beijing again this weekend for a series of meetings. Excited to return to that amazing city again.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Some Reflections on Chinglish, Chinese and English

From my observations, Chinese people read and write adequately, but their listening and speaking skills develop more slowly as a result, in part, of their educational system and the tonal and syllabic characteristics of their own language.

Nearly every doctor, engineer, and middle and high school student that I teach is starved for more conversation and opportunities to practice spoken English. They frequently pronounce V like W; have a hard time with R (and forget about rolling an RRRRR, Enrique!). I tell every class that I am Alex and not Alex-tsa. The trailing ah- or tsa-sound gets added to many words by many speakers.

Yesterday, I made a rather surprising discovery. We use a lot of Chinese words in English. Here is a link to the Wikipedia article that lists them. The most fascinating part of the article, though, is not the word list itself, but the etymologist's suggestions about how these words migrated west. Rick Harbaugh's site also has a fascinating wealth of information about a modern language that is anything but new. He manages the site in his free time and delves into all sorts of great questions, like how Chinese words are created.

On a personal note, I am now committed to two lessons a week and several hours with Rosetta Stone.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Changbai Shan

Today I spoke with a man from France who will embark on a three-day adventure in the frightening fringe of China on the border with North Korea. He got in touch with me through couch-surfing. I agreed to be his emergency contact. He and two childhood friends will try to live off "nuts and berries" for three days in the area of Changbai Shan Mountain. I plan to go there with a Chinese colleague soon, but want to avoid any deadly encounters with the monster, the fauna, or the weather.

Lake Tianchi Monster is the name given to what is said to be a lake monster that lives in Heaven Lake (known as Cheonji in Korean) located in the peak of Baekdu Mountain.

Baekdu Mountain, also known as Changbai Mountain in China, is a volcanic mountain on the border between North Korea and China, located at 42°00′24″N 128°03′18″E. At 2,744 m (9,003 ft), it is the highest mountain of the Changbai mountain range to the north and Baekdudaegan mountain range to the south. It is also the highest mountain on the Korean peninsula and in Manchuria.

The Chinese name, Changbai Shan (長白山/长白山), means "ever-white mountain". The Manchu name, Golmin Šanggiyan Alin, means white mountain. The Korean name, Baekdu San (백두산, 白頭山; Baekdu-san), means "white-headed mountain". English-language volcanology resources sometimes refer to the mountain as Baitoushan from the Chinese pinyin rendering of the Korean Hanja 白頭山.

More than 50 mammal species and 300 bird species have been recorded on Changbaishan. Mammals include Far East leopard (Panthera pardus orientalis), lynx (Lynx lynx), brown bear (Ursus arctos), Sika deer (Cervus nippon), red deer (C. elaphus), goral (Nemorhaedus goral), wild boar (Sus scrofa), otter (Lutra lutra), and sable (Martes zibellina). Birds include rare species such as black stork (Ciconia nigra), Mandarin duck (Aix galericulata), and scaly-sided merganser (Mergus squamatus). On the northeastern border of this ecoregion there is a vital link in tiger and leopard habitat formed by Hunchun NNR in China and three border nature reserves in southern Primorsky Province in Russia (Kedrovaya Pad, Barsovy, and Borisovskoye Plateau). See Amur-Heilong and the Land of the Leopard

A large crater lake, called Heaven Lake (Korean:천지, Chinese:天池), is located within the caldera atop the mountain.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Sculpture as Mode of Peace and Understanding

The New York Times, which has two damning op-eds today that criticize China for increased crack-downs on dissidents, seems more interested in fanning the flames of discontent than in harmony. It is true that "harmonizing" can be employed as a cynical euphemism for the worst repression of free speech. It is also true that China is full of people, including government officials, who genuinely want it to be the first peaceful superpower in the world. We may want to provide it the breathing room to embrace its "better angels."

Maureen Dowd is fairly irresponsible in her critique of Bob Dylan's concert in Beijing, calling the People's Republic of China a "dictatorship." Nicholas Bequelin has instant credibility, because of his job title; however, his op-ed, which tries to read like a news piece at some points, also feeds over-simplified stereotypes of China. He speaks of "global values" repeatedly, which reeks of cultural imperialism and in whose pudding there is little proof. His job is to point fingers at nations and individuals who do not conform to one set of values.

Today, I am not going to attack these writers and The Old Grey Lady head-on, but want to offer one extraordinary example of international cooperation right here in my own city of Changchun. The following photos are mine from my second jaunt through the Changchun World Sculpture Park yesterday. I still have not come anywhere near to seeing the full complement of sculptures there. It is huge!

The first thing you see upon entering the gates (of heaven) is Rodin's The Thinker. (Many people do not know that this is part of a larger sculpture called The Gates of Hell.) It is an ironic choice. The park is very clearly a project of the same government being criticized by Dowd and Bequelin. Approved by the Ministry of Culture of China, Changchun Municipal People’s Government and the National Guiding Committee for Urban Sculpture Construction, it began to hold the annual Changchun International Sculpture Exhibition in 1997.

Changchun World Sculpture Park was built in 2003

As describes it:

The Changchun World Sculpture Park is a truly international artistic endeavor, displaying works from 130 countries by nearly 300 artists. Its emphasis is on peaceful friendship between nations and alongside beautiful Chinese, English and Japanese works stand more unusual pieces representing Maya, Eskimo and Maori cultures. Displaying works in diverse mediums from bronze, stone and plaster to water and glass, the Park successfully showcases a broad spectrum of artistic styles.

The majority of the sculptures are dotted artfully around a landscaped 90 hectare area, encompassing a large arced lake over which fountains and waterfalls play, shaded by huge sail-like canvasses and intermittently accompanied by classical music. Paths and terraces guide visitors around the Park and using these as a guide one can take in most of the major works.

Visitors who do not wish to brave the great outdoors will be glad to know that a sculpture gallery has opened within the park. A modernist structure of concrete and glass, it houses works grouped by theme, and has also been used to host the yearly International Symposium and Exhibition on sculpture.

This one is from Ethiopia, called "Womb."

One is constantly struck in this largest urban sculpture park in the world by its vicinity to smokestacks and the quotidian architecture of a growing, industrial city.

This one is Libyan.

This one is from the USA and entitled "Made in China."

The lake in the middle of the park is gorgeous and there are multiple venues for concerts and gatherings. Bob Dylan, when are you coming?

They were burning the grass, which I think is done to reduce pests.

No sense of scale here, but this is huge at 23.5 meters!

This photo is not at the park, but rather in my neighborhood. It is not atypical to see packs of a dozen police officers lollygagging along the byways and alleys with bicycles or sitting on newspapers as these old men are doing.
Here are some more examples of the beautiful work on display there. For even more, see the photos from, a website offering broad access to up-to-date news about China, with searchable texts of government position papers and a wealth of basic information about Chinese history, politics, economics and culture. The authorized government portal site to China, is published under the auspices of the State Council Information Office and the China International Publishing Group (CIPG) in Beijing.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Tomb-Sweeping Day and White Collars

One of the hard parts of being half way around the world (when it is 8AM there, it is 8PM here) is that I cannot be there for my friends. Jean, Arnie's auntie, died last week. An amazing woman whose life was transformed over the last year and half by living with her "favorite [and only] niece," she, nevertheless, was French at heart and her ashes will get spread in Cannes. I thought of her today, more than once...

Today is the Buddhist holiday, called Tomb-Sweeping Day or the Clear Bright Festival (Qingming in Chinese). Its observance was reinstated as a public holiday in mainland China in 2008, after having been previously suppressed by the ruling Communist Party in 1949. The auto company does not have classes, my doctors did not have class yesterday, and TOEFL instruction is suspended till mid-week. Perfect English was closed all day.

I met my Chinese friend, Fiona (that is her English name), at People's Square at 10 AM and we walked to Banruo Temple. It is the largest Buddhist temple in Changchun and one of the four major temples in Northeast China. For luck, people burn incense sticks and they pray, bowing thrice, to Buddha and the eighteen gilded statues of Buddhist saints.

There was a throng of people there so we left after a while and wandered back down Remin Dajie to the Indian restaurant, noting the Peony Park and a Children's Park along the way. She was impressed that I knew the word for China's national flower, but I reminded her that I live on Mudan Jie (or Peony Street).

Fiona is a "country girl" and likes the big crowds and crossing the street here about as much as I do. She was born in 1989, she tells me. I say, "Oh, an important year in Chinese history." She looks at me quizzically and I say, "Tienanmen Square." She says she knows what the English word "demonstration" means, but that she is not aware of what happened there in 1989. I decide not to educate her about this. Not my job or my business here.

She tells me about her childhood (both of her parents are rice farmers to the east of here near Chang Bai Shan). She and her brother biked to school every day after fixing themselves their meals, because mom and dad had already gone to the fields. She has a sibling because she is Man zu guo, an ethnic minority that we refer to as Manchurian. China has 54 ethnic minorities; this is the ethnicity of the last emperor, Pu Yi. Many of the Manchurians whom I have met are proud of this. Fiona is agnostic on this topic and, seemingly, on religion. She has no desire to throw money into the fire nor is she burning to participate in any of the other rituals at the temple.

Fiona is a university student and wants to study abroad. She has always liked school. America is the country she mentions when I ask her where she would like to go most. She says she likes American food and mentions hamburgers, steak, and Kentucky Fried Chicken. I laugh out loud and say that I am embarrassed. That KFC is to American food what the shitty General Gao's chicken you can find at every "Chinese" restaurant is to Chinese food.

She told me that once you get academic approval to study abroad, you must also obtain a certificate showing that you are able to meet the financial obligations of studying abroad. This will probably never be an option for her, barring a bleeding heart foreigner like myself, or some other piece of unusually good fortune. It breaks my heart. She is smart and ambitious--our language and cultural exchange came about when she approached me at a local expatriate bar with some friends and her English professor in tow. Her father wants her to be a teacher, but when I (the teacher) ask her what she wants to do, she says only, "I want the white collar."

Over lunch, we talk about books. She asks me what is my favorite and I tell her Dostoyevski's The Brothers Karamazov. She will look for it, she says, in Chinese translation. Then she helps me to find a barber where for twenty RMB I get shorn. We say good-bye and she boards the bus so she can finish reading The Scarlet Letter and writing a paper about it. I head for another friend's apartment and we go get Chinese hot pot, which is like fondue except that you have broth for boiling your greens and meat, instead of cheese to dip it in.

Altogether, it was a great way to spend the day.

Friday, April 1, 2011

The Problem of Libya

One Expatriate's View of the Situation

Let me say first that I love America. I shed tears when the 4Troops sang the National Anthem on the Mall of the Capitol on October 31 at a rally I was attending. While I have previously alluded to the fact that my patriotism is more akin to that of Wendell Berry than Joseph McCarthy, I committed myself to the poisonous vicissitudes of the New Hampshire Primary between 2004 and 2010 because I think the people we elect make a difference. Politics is not just about your daughter playing the piano or your son coming up from fishing in the brook; it's about the role of nation states in stopping violence and despots.

Second, let me say that she makes some pretty damn stupid decisions sometimes. Though I would rarely find cause to consult with Congressional leaders if they were men like John Boehner, I do think the President acted without duly adhering to our Constitutional requirements and over-stepped. At first, I thought it was another moment of meticulously orchestrated brilliance where he could allow himself to be the fall guy for a bad decision, sparing Gates and the rest of the team, including Congress, from the blame of taking us to war. Now, I am not so sure that was the plan.

Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi is a disturbed, sick man. Though not quite beyond a reasonable doubt, some blood from Lockerbie clearly and convincingly stains his resume. We do not yet know the full extent of his diabolical activities...but for the Watchman, we may never.

Nevertheless, men are capable of reform and other men should be capable of forgiveness. We cannot overlook the despotic ruler's past transgressions or let our guard down against future mischief from the bizarre, insular, radical revolutionary commander, who at age 68 seems to still have the piss & vinegar of his only true ally, Hugo Chavez (a dozen years his junior). On the other hand, I do not think we should prosecute a war because of what happened a distant moon ago.

Women, despite the rape that the propaganda machine has focused on this week, have fared better under the liberal, Libyan regime than under most of the neighboring nation-states, including some of America's allies.
From a purely amoral, utilitarian stand-point, the Senators who asked what the game plan is for succession demonstrated a keen understanding of the problem that the world will face if Libya is de-stabilized and the Colonel removed. I tend to find myself in strong agreement with Hu Jintao, the President of China, "[H]istory has time and again proved the use of military force is no answer to any problem, but, complicates the problem." Hu emphasized that the ultimate solution lies in "dialogue and other peaceful means."

The other utilitarian question that seems to arise from my senator, Hon. Jeanne Shaheen, and others is whether we have a strategic interest and whether we need to take a central role in the fighting, since NATO is sufficiently prepared to carry out this misadventure without our overt, direct leadership.

Secretary Hillary Clinton clearly drove the behind-the-scenes push for air strikes, because she understood the guanxi it would give America among is allies--notably, France. The United States government has been prosecuting its own oil wars for a decade with reticent support from these allies. This gives the US a chance to say, we will protect your strategic interests if you support protecting ours. France needs Libya's oil as badly as we need Iraq's and Kuwait's.

The bigger problem with the strategy we have adopted is whether it acts as a recruitment strategy for Al Qaeda or similar groups. The United States--no saint in regards to human rights violations itself--enters as policeman of the world, causing resentment and stirring up hatred with potential allies as large as China and Brazil. While setting sail for Libya was a big step for China, as noted in The Economist, its steadfast commitment to peaceful resolution of the conflict after this initial action is admirable and should garner notice for Hu Jintao from the same committee that gave Barack Obama and Liu Xiaobo a $1.5 million US dollar prize.

The Twilight Zone: Thugs Do Demolition

Just when you think, okay, I can adjust to this strange land. Things are not so different here. People are not so different around the world--we all want the same thing. Just when you think, nothing can surprise me...not even the sandstorm that darkened the skies yesterday, not even the car coming the wrong way up my one-way street. Just then, you read the news and, oh boy, you wonder where on Earth you are:
Liu Shuxiang, 50, was buried under the rubble of a collapsed building when dozens of excavators and several hundred gangsters holding sticks torn down 14 dormitory buildings of Changchun Film Studio on March 26 in Changchun, capital of Jilin Province...Some residents were dragged out of the buildings by the thugs, who didn't have enough time to remove Liu from her apartment. (Forced demolition death sparks an investigation)
This is the kind of story that the expression, "What the fuck?" was invented for. I mean, it says hundreds of gangsters holding sticks. FUBAR.

It also says, "Officers at the local police station told the newspaper they weren't aware of the incident or the victim."

In Beijing last weekend, walking toward the Temple of Heaven, I watched a car flip over and the bloodied teenager crawl out. I watched the whole thing (from screeching wheels to final resting place) with a suspended sense of disbelief and then plodded slowly down the sidewalk to the car to make sure he was okay. A crowd had gathered, but the police did not come...and did not come. Now, this was Beijing. You cannot walk a minute without seeing a police officer in a grey, a dark blue, or a light blue uniform (three layers of public safety officers to keep you safe); however, when somebody is actually in need of a doctor...