Friday, September 16, 2011

The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

I had one. Everybody has to have one every once in a while.

Everybody else I work with seemingly got very sick from the moon-cakes that the school gave us for Mid-autumn Festival. (This is a guess and not an accusation.) Let me count my blessings. Not me. No, instead I chipped a tooth on God knows what--a rock, a nut shell. I was among the two people in fifty who got a bad moon cake, according to the government's newspaper.

I have not had running-water for over a week and got this amusing update from the person charged by the school with monitoring the situation, "I called the guy, he is looking for the broken pipe, there are 16 places he needs to find, but now he has just found 11. So he is not sure how long it will take." The guy? I dunno, but there is a notice in Chinese at the front door to the apartment building with a phone number for the guy. I have an image of a small, rodent-like miner crawling around in the dirt underneath our  seven story building. I feel worse for the families who need to cook and for the dozens of elderly citizens who live in this complex--the ones who sit in the courtyard all day on uncomfortable-looking folding canvas stools, playing mahjong and drying eggplants and peppers on large gauge screens.

After a week, I finally extricated my rank, foul, pink laundry from the front-loading washer, which has been in there since the electricity went out. When the electricity came back on there was no water so I, the famous laundry guy, neglected to do a g--d-- thing about it. Live and learn. I had to drain the water out the emergency drainage valve before I opened the door. Now the bathroom smells like five day old wet laundry. It is all ruined and pink from the floral sheets that were supplied when I moved here in February. No matter how many times I wash them they still turn everything pink.

I am not going to Australia, though. I will spend two more years in China. You heard it here first. Tune in next time to find out why.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Happy September 11th!

Happy? No, of course not, but here in China--this year--it is sandwiched between Teacher's Day and Mid-Autumn Festival. In fact, for me it is already Monday, a national holiday....which I discuss at length in the second half of this post.

While I refuse to discuss Taiwan policy per se, Tibet politics, or Falun Gong (which originated here in Changchun), I did have a fascinating conversation yesterday about propaganda with one of my classes. It seems that a large number of Chinese, of all ages and walks of life, believe that the US government had adequate warning of the planned attacks in New York City on September 11, 2001 and decided to do nothing. These theorists see the orderly collapsing of the buildings in on themselves as evidence of a conspiracy, perhaps providing the US an excuse to go to war with Afghanistan. Why? Because of oil, one student claimed--conflating the strategic goals in Kuwait and Iraq.

The conversation then moved to the idea that Koreans are taught in school that Confucius was Korean. (The root of this tale seems to be that an ancestor of Confucius went to Korea and lived there so he can be said to have a Korean ancestor.)

It seems also to be a universally understood fact that the Koreans want to expropriate "intangible cultural heritage" by claiming the Dragon Boat Festival as theirs. The idea that two nations could have festivals comprising vastly different traditions, but the same name, was unthinkable.

There is a joke about Koreans that every schoolchild in China seems to know. I cited this as an example of subtle propaganda. The joke is that in the wake of the Japanese nuclear disaster, Korea sent a five-person rescue team with two rescue dogs. One of the dogs wandered off so, instead of helping, the team spent the day looking for the dog. The implication of the joke is that the dog was eaten. One of my students told me emphatically that because dog is a specialty dish in Korea it is just common-sense that the Koreans were the first people to eat dog. She was shocked when I revealed that there is evidence that people in certain parts of China people were eating dog 900 years prior to the Koreans.

Finally, it was said that Japanese textbooks assert sovereignty over the Pinnacle Islands (also called Senkaku Shotō by the Japanese and Diàoyútái Qúndǎo by the Chinese) and that this is a serious issue. While this is tangentially a Taiwan issue, what I found stunning was how a complex issue, involving interpretation of a post-WWII treaty, has been boiled down in the minds of most Chinese citizens to a supposedly brazen attempt at brainwashing Japanese children by means of "incorrect" geography textbooks.

More about Today's Moon Festival

Shops selling mooncakes before the festival often
display pictures of Chang'e floating to the moon.
Traditionally on this day, Chinese family members and friends will gather to admire the bright mid-autumn harvest moon, and eat moon cakes and pomelos under the moon together. They honor Chang'e by burning incense. Chang'e is the lady in the moon, who is much like the Western notion of a man in the moon. She is the Chinese goddess of the moon and plays a significant role in Chinese literature, including:

  •  a Chinese TV period drama titled Moon Fairy, starring Singapore actors Fann Wong and Christopher Lee.
  • Chang'e appears in Wu Cheng'en's novel Journey to the West and also TV adaptions of the novel. Her story slightly changed from her going to the Moon on her first try to going to the heavens, and would later be rewarded to live in the Moon after an incident which involved her and Zhu Bajie.
  • Mao Zedong mentions Chang'e in his most famous poem, Broken is the High Column, about his first wife Yang Kaihui, who perished at the hands of the Kuomintang warlord He Jian.
  • The legend of Lady Chang-O plays a prominent role in Amy Tan's children's book, The Moon Lady, retold from her more adult novel The Joy Luck Club.

Accompanying the celebration, there are additional cultural or regional customs, such as:
  • Erect the Mid-Autumn Festival.(树中秋,竖中秋,in China,树 and 竖 are homophones)Traditional people hang lanterns on a bamboo pole and put them on a high point, such as a roof, tree, terrace, etc. It is a custom in Guangzhou, Hong Kong, etc. In fact, they even float them into the air which is a fire hazard that has been banned in many modern cities (though not Changchun, I understand).

  • Collecting dandelion leaves and distributing them evenly among family members, according to Wikipedia, as well as wearing pomelo rinds on their heads, according to CCTV; and 

  • Fire Dragon Dances

The best part of the festival is the moon-cakes. Whole shops crop up for a week and vendors pepper the streets pedaling these sweet concoctions. I have eaten a half dozen different flavors. The most traditional is filled with red beans and pine nuts. I had a corn one and a strawberry one yesterday. Many people don't like them.

I am still on a search for one made with blue-cheese filling. There has got to be a market there!

I will spend the evening with my girlfriend and her family. I may spend a few hours watching them cook and prepare. I will go bearing a pomelo, some mooncakes, and sundry other fruits. It should be great fun.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

China's Military Build-up

Occasionally, I will re-post an article from the Old Grey Lady or some other reputable source. Today, I would like to share three articles. The first is by a Princeton professor--not Krugman or his colleague in the econ dept., Alan Kreuger, but a politics prof named Aaron Friedberg. It is entitled China's Challenge at Sea. It is short and insightful.  

The Atlantic's feature articles are never short, but almost always of stunning caliber. I would like to recommend the most recent installment by James Fallows, Arab Spring, Chinese Winter, which is as inciting as it is insightful. Finally, I would like to recommend a month old op-ed from the New York Times by Admiral Mike Mullen, entitled A Step Toward Trust with China.

It is easy to see how the Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff's remarks relate to the Princeton professors piece on naval strategy, but I think the Fallows piece is also related. Fallows mentions that the police and internal security budgets outstrip those of the military:
enforcement around the country has been left mainly to regular police, typically in their dark-blue uniforms; the much-feared “urban management” patrols known as chengguan, also in dark blue; large reserve armies of plainclothesmen; and many other less visible parts of the state’s internal-security apparatus, which now has a larger budget than China’s regular military does.[my emphasis]
As I wrote the first part of this, I was sitting in a teacher's room looking out at a quadrangle with three thousand students "doing exercises" to marshal music. This is the third best high school in China and the students are marching like soldiers during their twenty minutes of free time, but none of them know the name of this piece of music that they hear everyday. Natural curiosity is nearly non-existent among these over-tired students.

I woke the other morning to the sound of drilling students in the courtyard of Changchun Institute of Technology. Basic training is required of all 18 year-old males in China.

The following compulsory service options are available as of January 2006:
  • Enlisted military service (士兵役): 12 months of active duty enlisted military service in one of the four branches of the ROC Armed Forces.
  • Alternative service (替代役): 12 months of public safety or community service related work under the MOI, usually in the police, fire department, public clinics, local government offices, or as teachers in rural areas. Various billets are available only to draftees with related qualifications.
  • National defense service (國防役): Available to draftees with advanced degrees, particularly in the sciences and engineering, who upon selection, receive 3 months of officer training culminating in a commission as an officer in the reserves, followed by four years of employment in a government or academic research institution such as the Academia Sinica or Industrial Technology Research Institute.
If I ask my students here whether China is a super-power they invariably say that it will be, but is not yet because it hasn't the military prowess. That is changing quickly. Just this week, China announced that it plans to have three aircraft carriers at sea by 2030. England, France and Russia each have one. The United States has a dozen on active duty.

A miniature golden replica of China's first aircraft carrier is on display at the Military Museum of the Chinese People’s Revolution in Beijing, Sept 6, 2011. The carrier was bought from the Ukraine and is being refitted for scientific research and training purposes. The replica is made of pure gold, at a scale of 1 to 1680.[Photo/CFP]

Thursday, September 8, 2011

The birthday party at a favorite Muslim restaurant of mine was fun. There were probably forty people there and we ate 800RMB of pork-free food, but these Muslims know how to party so there was beer. Jason was grateful for that and I was grateful to Jason who organized the event (i.e. collected RSVPs).

There was a huge haul of fruit. We ate ten dragon fruits sliced up and many plums at the event and all of the good juice was slurped up, too, but I went home loaded to the gills with a durian, which I just tackled because my apartment was starting to smell; two star fruit, a melon; a pomelo, which I don't know how to tackle; grapes; a couple of pineapples; and four sapodillas.  I laid all of them out on my dining room table so that you could see.

I also was given a bracelet of some Buddhist creature with no anus, which is supposed to make me rich; a pretty set of chopsticks with a spoon; a couple of high-quality mooncakes; and a gorgeous calendar that I had contemplated buying at the Expo earlier in the day. You can see also some beautiful flowers that were sprinkled with gold dust, which I proceeded to sprinkle on one of the guests. A German friend brought me a children's Bible in Chinese and English and an artist friend of mine brought me a silk-screened shirt that her students made.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

"It's my birthday too, yeah"

Today is my twin sister's birthday. She will turn 37. I turned 38, because in China you are one when you are born. We spoke on Skype this morning and I joked that I was not just ten minutes older, because it will not be September 7th for another half hour on the East Coast.

In China, you are supposed to have one long-life noodle for your birthday so I abandoned plans for a fancy Western breakfast with my girlfriend and had noodles. We will share lunch together, too, and dinner with twenty to forty people at a Muslim restaurant. People will bring obscure fruit, red envelopes full of money (if they can't read the invitation, which asks them not to) and drink white liquor. It may end with a sojourn to KTV, or karaoke.

This afternoon, I will spend some time showing Shannon the wonders of Changchun. Who, you might ask? Shannon is a recent Phillips Exeter Academy graduate (my alma mater) who has taken four years of Chinese. She is a dear friend's daughter and will be here for six months to help me with my work. Yesterday, I took her to nearby South Lake Park and she was amazed by the acres of lotus leaves and blossoms.

Everybody stared at the two foreigners, which she did not find off-putting, but like her tour guide, rather endearing and amusing. "They are the most beautiful babies," she said. I objected strenuously and she looked puzzled. I then said that inter-racial ones are more beautiful.

I spent the morning reading a dirty book (Lady Chatterley's Lover by D.H. Lawrence) and drinking fancy coffee out of a pretty tea cup at TongRen Bookstore. Life is good.

Thanks for the birthday wishes on Facebook and QQ and by text. Hope you are enjoying the blog posts.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

The Fruits of My Education

My tutor came armed to the last class with a long list that he had--in his typical fashion--spent many hours compiling. Past lists have included the most popular Chinese last names, professions, common foods, nationalities. This list that he brought to the last class was simply "Fruits," though it included some nuts, too.

A more diligent teacher does not exist. Today, at the beginning of class, he presented me with a grapefruit wrapped up individually in pink paper with a bow, because he remembered that I once mentioned liking the juice. What a kind soul!

Anyway, this post is about fruit. The fruit stands which pepper the street corners of Changchun like bodegas in Spanish Harlem are loaded heavily with fruits that should be familiar to most North Americans, like bananas and apples, but also with a strange looking harvest that never ceases to amaze me. Every week something disappears and something new appears at the dozens of fruit stores that I pass on foot--a happy reminder that this economy is still somewhat dependent on local farmers, not agribusiness enterprises from California and Central America.

On the list of fruits that my teacher, Fan Xin (Kyle), brought me were a few that I had heard of, but could not pick out of a police line up. There were many that I had never heard of at all. Here is a sampling:
  • bennet
  • bergamot
  • betelnut
  • bilberry or whortleberry
  • bryony (a poisonous fruit used in Chinese medicine, which, like the HMS Bergamot, once upon a time gave its name to a ship of the line in the Royal Navy)
  • bullace
  • carambola or "starfruit"
  • damson
  • longan (aka "dragon eyes")
  • loquat (not cumquat, which was also on the list), also known as Japanese medlar
  • Newton pippin
  • pitaya (not to be confused with papaya or pawpaw) or "fire dragon fruit
  • quarenden, a dark red apple
  • rambutan
  • sapodilla plum
  • sorosis (which I thought was a skin disease!, but is actually a category of fruit that includes pineapple and mulberry)
  • tangor, which is a portmanteau of tangerine and orange
  • white shaddock

Initially, I had planned to tell you about each of these, but then I would be writing an encyclopedia. It is worth mentioning that some of these are not common in the stores that I pass and that many of them are exotic, from Europe, Southeast Asia, and South America.

Here are some images of the particularly spectacular:

"Fire Dragon Fruit" or 火龙果 (huo long guo)

Carambola or starfruit is really from Southeast Asia, but you can find it here

"Rambutan" is a non-climacteric fruit, which means it must ripen on the tree

Monday, August 29, 2011

America, I miss you

“We can joke about this on Monday morning, but until then it is a matter of life and death."
-Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York City (about Hurricane Irene)

Frank Bruni describes the problem in his New York Times Sunday Review piece, The Fall This Summer. When I left America in early February, unemployment was already high and the horsemen of the Apocalypse were trotting into view, but I told people I was going to China because I wanted to learn the language of a future superpower and see the "waking green dragon" rising like a phoenix.

Now, some six and a half months later just nine days from my thirty-eighth birthday,* I am afraid that the phoenixes have come home to roost. America has lost its way. My beloved New Hampshire has turned its state government into a cruel joke where cigarette taxes are reduced and money is taken away from clinics and lawyers for the poor.

My mother--and, at least as frequently, my father--and I misunderstand each other quite often. We vote for different parties; have different ideas about the role of government. We all love America deeply. My mother--of Pilgrim stock and descended from Revolutionary War officers--has an abiding pride in our democracy, but she said admitted to me last week that she has stopped reading the newspapers, that the culture and economy seem to be going down hill.

About a month ago I said to my father, if you don't solve your debt ceiling problem we are going to be in big trouble and a laughingstock of the world. "It is embarrassing."

He roared, "They are your Congressmen just as much as mine" objecting to my use of the second person plural. He was right, I was trying to distance myself from Obama and Jeanne Shaheen for whom I voted and from Charlie Bass and Kelly Ayotte for whom I did not vote. Michelle Bachman, Mitt Romney, and Rick Perry are not my cup of tea.

Even the one candidate whom I do like and whom I do think could restore America's glory, John Huntsman, embarrasses me. He left his post as Ambassador to China--our greatest partner and greatest threat--to challenge his boss for the Presidency. It speaks volumes to the colossal failures of the spineless, spoon full of Hope, Ivy Leaguer and pawn of BoA-Buffet-Wall Street who is supposed to be running our country from the windy shores of the Vineyard, but the Huntsman candidacy is also all so unseemly. How can I--a proud expatriate, but not an ex-patriot--explain, with my head held high, that the man who represents my Party, who last week dispatched his gaffey Vice-President to one-child (er, one-party) China, has a Judas in his ranks? In a country somewhat content with one party domination, should I extoll the virtues of the two party system and highlight Hunstman's decision to run as what makes our democracy great?

Frank Bruni implies the fundamental question with his quotation of PA Gov. Ed Rendell, which I will paraphrase as, "Where are my fucking choo-choos?" Have we failed to seriously address the jobs crisis? You bet. Our national imagination seems to have shriveled like a raisin. Burning Man is the best we can do. Have we failed to take the big steps down the new roads of the future? Are 63,000 jobs making batteries the future or have we walked away from 6.3 million jobs making a high-speed railroad and improving the efficiency of our building stock? I am afraid the answer might be yes. Furthermore, I agree vehemently with my old friend and fellow writer, Dean Baker, that President Obama has abandoned evidence-based economics to return the US to growth in favor of the politics of deficit-cutting.

Paul Krugman's name alone is bad for my father's blood pressure, but to me, who has not spent a day working in the mutual fund business, Krugmanmakes more sense than most. The Administration, according to my friend Arnie Arnesen, is struggling to get the Princeton Nobel Laureate's byline off the op-ed pages of the Old Grey Lady. Instead, they ought to be replacing the Larry Summers proteges with Krugman-ites and taking some of his advice. See Bernake's Perry Problem for a synopsis of what is so screwed up in America. I welcome your comments. I know it has been a while since my last post.

*Yes, I know how old  am. In China, you are one when you are born!)