Wednesday, September 28, 2011

On blogging, kiwi berries, and cabbages

Far from the madding crowd's ignoble strife
Their sober wishes never learn'd to stray;
Along the cool sequester'd vale of life
They kept the noiseless tenor of their way.

This activity--sitting down to write a few words that intrigue readers half way around the world and trying to say something original and relevant while sharing my own photographs--is inherently self-indulgent. One of my occasional readers brought this to my attention with his usual tact. As I contemplate spending another two years here, I am not sure if I can continue apace with my updates, because I am busier and I want to keep my nose clean.

Lord knows, there is much to write about with the Dalai Lama unable to attend Tutu's 80th birthday, with the brother of Liu Xiaobo visiting him in jail, the "yuan bill" being debated in the US Senate, the gift of arms from my country to Taiwan, etc. One cannot open a newspaper without being mired in stories about these things.

Fantastic as it may have been, I had a higher hope that this could be a forum for educating Americans about our biggest adversary and strongest ally. The Middle Kingdom remains a fascinating place to live at this point in human history. This blog is not particularly revelatory for those who already live or work here for part of the year, but I hope it offers a glimpse of life half a world away. Waking Green Dragon had about 400 readers when I left and that number has not grown exponentially. I need your help in spreading the word.

On a lighter note, a couple of my friends have taken to teasing me about my obsession with the new fruit varieties that appear each week at the fruit stands here. Some fruit is sold by vendors on the street with a yoke and two baskets. From one of these women, I bought kiwi berries and, from her second basket, black currants. Yum.

Finally, I would like to offer a couple pictures of my buildings courtyard at this time of year, which are filled with drying leeks and Chinese cabbage. The usual detritus of a city that only recently installed trash cans and recycling bins swirls around in the courtyard as well. Yesterday morning, I encountered one of the hundreds of orange-vested, broom-carrying street sweepers scraping dust and plastic wrappers and all manner of dirty litter up to the edge of one person's pile of leeks. All of these will be eaten in soups throughout the winter after being meticulously cleaned by Chinese housewives. Most people here have much bigger things to worry about than a South African birthday party. I do not mean to belittle the issue, but such debates are far from the consciousness of the madding crowd here.

Getting ready...for what?

Yesterday, in the hallway of the third best high school in China, where I teach middle school and high school students once a week, I stopped to look at some pictures of the middle school kids at basic training. Everyday, during their half hour break at 9:10 AM, the students at this school and virtually every other school in China, as far as I know, parade out into the quadrangle for marching exercises. This is just the light duty, though. At a couple different points during their academic career, these students have to play dress-ups and actually spend a couple weeks in basic training.

A friend of mine, who has had to participate in these exercises of late (two weeks, I think), is ready for them to be over. She knows how to make her blanket into a tofu, though, which is the vernacular for making a bedroll. They make her stand for hours at a time, too. I wonder what these long-haired intellectuals and top science students are thinking about while they drill. Do they romanticize battle scenes where they get to impale Japanese invaders or American imperialists? Or do they think the whole exercise is a ridiculous gesture? My girlfriend, who had to go through this herself when she was in college, said that they are taught that everybody is responsible if China faces a threat. What is the threat? Isn't militarism itself the threat?

Daily mid-morning exercises at Shi Da Fu Zhong, Changchun, China.

You can see at least one cadet in purple and one in sky blue. This is a block from my house at Changchun Technical Institute. The sign on the building in the upper right-hand corner is for a locally famous hot pot restaurant.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Of Huns and Hans

On Saturday, I took a three hour bus trip, which ended up being 4.5 hours, to Jinshanling--a section of the Great Wall of China in Hebei Province. I went to the Summer Palace on Friday. More on that in a subsequent post. I want, first, to share the experience of visiting a place that was built starting in 1570 AD during the Ming Dynasty.

It really was remarkable. On the tour bus were Swiss, Austrians, and Germans, as well as an expatriate from Switzerland who was married to a woman from Lichtenstein. They live in South Africa and run an inn. There were also some Yanks and Brits, Flemish folk and Russians. We all enjoyed it immensely.

The remarkable "crooked house" construction at some points, which has stood the test of time, impressed me. Look closely at the upper reaches of the railing in this first picture and you will see that the bricks were not stacked atop each other, but rather leaned on top of each other. Each stone had to be carried up the mountain, which is why our funny little tour director said they call it the longest cemetery in the world. I saw no bones, but it required no imagination to muster the scene of poor men and donkeys hauling up stones for the protection of the empire from...the Mongolian invaders.

Though I am a bit reticent to complain, the annoying part of visiting this "wild" section of the wall was the large number of unemployed Mongolian farmers with backpacks full of T-shirts and Red Bull and bottled water for sale. They would follow you like fleas for ten minutes until you shewed them away, at which point they spent a minute trying to get you to buy a book or postcard as a memento. The going rate for a pint of water is about one yuan; these farmers were asking ten at some spots along the way.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Boy George, Why I am Not Going to Australia, etc.

Some of you who read my earlier post may have misinterpreted what I said. I am staying in China and not going to Australia. So why mention Australia at all? Because in the previously referenced Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, he says that he is moving to Australia because it is far, far away. I am not moving to Australia, because I don't want to be far, far away. With Skype and the Internet, I can stay in touch and we can remain virtually close.  "It is just not the same." I agree, but I will make a sojourn back to America in January or February 2012 and hope to see many of my faithful readers then.

I am staying involved with the Stop the Northern Pass! campaign and I am excited to see that Lynch is not going to be in a position to negotiate more bad deals for New Hampshire, like ripping up our forests and damaging our tourism industry by making the Granite State a highway for electrons bound to Massachusetts and Connecticut. Let's hope Gov. Pete Shumlin of Vermont (ahh, poor Vermont!) wakes up and realizes that getting hydro from the Maritimes is no better. The only way we are going to end our dependence on electricity is to halt the endless growth model and materialism that D. H. Lawrence decries in Lady Chatterley's Lover--the book I finished reading last week. (There is quite a bit more excitement in that book, by the way, if you have not read it.) We need to learn to say no, instead of, "Please, suh, can I have some more." (Yes, I know that is Dickens.)

I am staying here to accept a challenge more considerable than staying warm in the infamous Manchurian wintertime. (In other words, I am not staying here for a girl, as some have asked.) I will manage a new entity called The Culture Club. The late Jack Murray, who was the founder of Perfect English and its headmaster when I arrived here in February, endowed it with this name and so we will move forward thus, bowing, of course, to Boy George and the Second British invasion. A large number of important decisions have been made without my input, because I hemmed and hawed for months about whether to step up to the plate--two years seems, and seemed, a considerable commitment. One such decision was to inscribe on the marquee above our door the words Culture Club (even though we are THE Culture Club) in almost the same font that Coca-Cola uses. It is a sight to behold!

The purpose of The Culture Club is to provide a fun and entertaining environment to practice English with other non-native speakers while preparing our members and students with the necessary skills to travel abroad. In other words, I am going to show chop-stick users how to use the sinister fork. My mother's diligent training will finally pay off. If I am successful, hundreds, maybe thousands of Chinese people will know that the blade of the knife is supposed to face towards you when you set it down to the right of your plate.

In all seriousness, I will be working with a visiting student (Phillips Exeter Academy Class of 2011) and my colleagues at Perfect English Training School to develop programming and curriculum that will engage our existing clientele and new members. When the World Series rolls around (and the Red Sox are beating the Yankees), we will turn on the boob-tube, do reading-for-comprehension with Casey at the Bat, and practice listening with Abbot & Costello's Who's On First? Come Yuletide, we will teach carols and old standards. You get the idea.

For instance, it is terrifying for some Chinese to arrive in a foreign country and not know that you actually have to drive on the correct side of the road and stop for pedestrians in the crosswalk so we will familiarize people with America's car culture. To date, I have taught a couple dozen people how to play International Chess and Texas Hold 'em, as well as led a few discussions. It has been a lot of fun and will only get bigger and better.

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]