Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Some People and Things in Beijing

A policeman takes a rest in Ritan Park- The Temple of the Sun.

An older gentleman, also in Ritan, flies a kite that looked like a bluebird soaring over the city.

Artist at work in Ritan Park.

A better look at the work in progress.

A group of "pensioners" singing and playing the erhu in Ritan Park.

The erhu is a two-stringed bowed musical instrument, more specifically a spike fiddle, which may also be called a "southern fiddle"

Some stonemasons at work repairing a sidewalk.

This looks like it was put here at about the time that Hasbro came out with its first CHIPS model.

Soldiers marching on Saturday morning around noon in front of the new National Museum of China, which was an impregnable fortress and must be left for next time.


Men cleaning a building.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Aye, Way, Way Out of Control

One of the readers here asked me about Ai WeiWei. Truth be told, he is much more famous outside of China where people read the Time-100. Most people here are unaware of the controversy.

It is true that China has, over the last few months, increased its arrests and indictments of people who use their pen and/or tongue to inspire dissent or reform. 

It is true that the recent decision to cancel the Documentary Film Festival is also an outgrowth of the chilling on what we, in the United States, see as the freedom of assembly and, more generally, freedom of speech. China is at a crossroads and there are those who think that some in the Party are not smart enough to see the graffiti on the wall, but I trust that they collectively know some further opening and reform is needed so that Chinese people can thrive in the kind of creative environment which leading world powers must maintain if they wish to rise to the top. Ambition, not morality will cause the forces on the National Communist Party's leadership to eventually (and I think soon) re-think the way that they restrict communications and the transfer of information. You are already beginning to see micro-blogs from certain ministries.

In my opinion,  Huntsman was right to speak out. There are large protests in Hong Kong about this and even a few reports that WeiWei is being tortured to get a confession. Who knows?

I suppose comparisons are odious, especially when made between a military person charged with defending the country and an artist whose raison d'etre is to challenge the system. Nevertheless, I cannot help but ask, "What is happening to Bradley Manning?"

In this season of Easter, maybe the best thing to say is, "He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her."

Monday, April 25, 2011

Three Cups of Bitter Truth

There are, in the body politic, economic and social, many and grave evils, and there is urgent necessity for the sternest war upon them. There should be relentless exposure of and attack upon every evil man whether politician or business man, every evil practice, whether in politics, in business, or in social life. I hail as a benefactor every writer or speaker, every man who, on the platform, or in book, magazine, or newspaper, with merciless severity makes such attack, provided always that he in his turn remembers that the attack is of use only if it is absolutely truthful. 
-Theodore Roosevelt


I distributed to a large number of my mentors and former board members a stinging, brutal treatise of muckraking by famed author Jon Krakauer. It is called Three Cups of Deceit.  It deals with a just-as-famous author and humanitarian, Greg Mortenson, who was the author of Three Cups of Tea. I have been thinking a lot about this indictment over the last week, because, quite coincidentally, I am totally absorbed in the gripping Mortenson memoir-cum-novel.

The hot water for this beautiful cup of tea was dispensed from a copper spout no less than a meter in length at a restaurant on my street, Longli Lu. The taste, if you can believe it, matched the exquisite beauty. 2011 (c) Alexander Lee  
One obvious response to this falderal is to say that Gandhi beat his wife and Martin Luther King, Jr., plagiarized, but, like these men, Mortenson has done some great work, even if it is not all that he claims and even if it is more symbolic than real at times.

A second obvious response is to say that Krakauer has done a great service by exposing the duplicity of and mismanagement by the Central Asia Institute's raison d'être, Greg himself; however, any such observation is quickly tempered by the obvious conclusion that Krakauer let his information bake for a long time and the rage that could lead somebody to undertake a project such as Three Cups of Deceit is palpable and rather concerning.

This is certainly more than Lloyd Bentsen exclaiming, "Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy, I knew Jack Kennedy, Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy." It is not an ad hominem attack, but one that takes Teddy's charge--"[remember] that the attack is of use only if it is absolutely truthful"--and metes it out less with a rake and more with a sledgehammer. 

For me, TR's admonition is missing an important extra caveat. The truthful attack upon a person's character and flaws is not useful inasmuch as it serves only to discredit a scoundrel, it must also lead to societal soul-searching and reform. It is not, for instance, sufficient to say that Mortenson should never manage another nonprofit unless he gets adequate training and demonstrates contrition on par with the gravity of his errors. We must also ask: How do we avoid creating more monsters like Mortenson? What is broken with the way that we run nonprofits? Why do people, who succumb to some of the temptations that Greg has, buckle? What inexorable pressure is there upon those of us who are considered prophetic or pioneering to keep upping the ante?

Some of these questions certainly arose for people who watched The Social Network (2010). Did the twins with the original idea (an arguable point itself, which I hope my reader will concede for sake of this discussion) deserve the credit for Facebook or was it the masterful nerd who executed their idea to the tune of several billion dollars?

I would really be interested in hearing some of your thoughts on this unfolding human drama. I am less interested in the question of loyalties or, whom do you sympathize/empathize with most?  I am much more interested in the questions of reform that this story begs us to consider.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Traffic in China

One of our blog's readers asked about traffic. She asked whether I have read Peter Hessler's book, Country Driving. I have not, but I did read River Town, where he also talks extensively about the driving habits of the Chinese. The horn is still an essential part of driving here and does, as my reader indicates, seem to be hooked, if not literally, to the gear shift.

Your fellow reader asked, "Do they still have those terra cotta police statues along highways?" Not in Changchun. I have not seen any in Beijing, either, which is the last place you would expect them anyway. On the other hand, I heard about somebody in Beijing who is making as much in a week as I make in a month by filming traffic infractions for the authorities and submitting the video footage so that the offenders get nabbed. It reminds me of the old story about the fellow in America who was sent a photograph of his license plate and a ticket so, in turn, he sent the police a photograph of a check. They sent him a photograph of handcuffs.

The big traffic story in China right now is about a driver who stabbed to death a bicyclist whom he hit accidentally with his car. One of China's top forensic psychologists claims that the boy who did this was maybe abused at home--pushed too hard, perhaps, by his Tiger Mom. There is no question that this one psychotic outburst has taken on out-sized importance, but it is largely because of class issues that are underscored by this story.

The rule of law is something that top officials claim to want and the outcome of this sad tale will certainly show if there is a double-standard. Last week, I asked one of my colleagues, "How do you like the new 'rule of law' pedetrian barriers on Tongzhi Jie." It was a bitter, sarcastic question. For my first week, I was terrified of crossing the street when the light was green and tried to stick to the cross-walks and major intersections where pedestrians congregate. Now, though, I have come to enjoy the freedom of crossing when and where I want to. That came to an end last week when the City of Changchun through up two-foot tall fences down the dividing lines of the major thoroughfare in my neighborhood--Tongzhi Jie (or Comrade Street). It is forcing people to the cross-walks and it is only a matter of time before the old men posing as policemen start speaking to those of us (shhh!) who still dart out and hurdle the barriers, impatient for the interminable light to change. (The traffic lights, by the way, count down to zero in green and then count down to zero in red before the cars are given a green light again. That is the one area where the Chinese traffic control seems more advanced than most American urban areas.)

A Chinese person asked me where I found out the rumor that a cab driver who hits a Westerner in a car is likely to back-up and "finish the job" because it is cheaper to pay for a funeral than medical bills. She said that a Chinese person was obviously too loose with her tongue, "That is the only way a lao wai (informal word for foreigner) could know about this." I have not checked this on snopes.com, but I suspect that this is the sort of thing that has happened a couple times and is the stuff of urban legend. I have absolutely no intention of testing the theory, regardless of how cavalier I may sound about crossing the street.

I have heard horror stories about people getting hit and thrown into the air, but have not personally witnessed any pedestrians being hit.  I wrote earlier about a very peasant-like fellow who kicked a crate into the road nonchalantly and when he leaned over to pick it up nearly got decapitated by a very surprised and subsequently very angry taxi driver. The idiot just smiled and laughed in much the same way I chuckled after being nearly hit by lightning in 1996. It was the "I am so lucky to be alive that Somebody must be smiling upon me" kind of laugh. I feel this way to a lesser degree almost every time I make it safely to the other side of a street.

There was a story (worth reading!) not too long ago about a man who was driving two bumper-cars down the road. He did not get a reprimand because there was nothing technically illegal! You see huge trucks--much, much longer than the 56' that we are accustomed to seeing in the US. You see lots of things that would barely qualify as vehicles loaded to the gills with fifty foot lengths of rebar dashing across intersections without so much as a bandana waving from the back. You see cyclists with circus-tent high, wobbly loads of recycled cardboard. There are plenty of cars and even more motorcycles and motorized bike carts that disregard one-way streets and dart up the side. I have yet to see a head-on collision as a result!

I really don't know much about car rental processes, because I do not plan to drive EVER AGAIN. Driver's tests are improving and so are drunk driving laws. My experience with maps is limited to Changchun and Beijing where, in the former, you can obtain a lovely, easy-to-use English-language map at the Shangri-la Hotel. In Beijing, good maps are sold for 5RMB as soon as you get off the train or even on the subway. It is a world class subway system--due in part to the Olympics being there a couple years ago.

On the good news front, clunkers are getting kicked to the curb. License plates ending with 3 have to be off the road on the 3, 13, and 23; those ending in 4, on the 4th, 14th, and 23. Sucks if you get a 1, because then it is 31, 1, 11 and 21 from what I understand.

If you Google "China and traffic," you get mostly stories about the freaky 10-day, 60-mile traffic jam that took place last year.

At last, let me mention that in many places, sidewalks are the provenance of cars not pedestrians. They are parked so tightly against the buildings in some places and so close next to each other that you are forced to make your way past them by veering out on to the street.

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.