Sunday, June 23, 2013

Cooking for Degrees: Air-conditioning in China

This week my girlfriend and I had to settle a disagreement by comparing Wikipedia's climate information about Xiamen and Chengdu. I thought Xiamen was probably hotter; she thought Chengdu. (I was right!) I also have an air-conditioner in my apartment, which many of my colleagues might envy, yet I refuse to turn it on. If I moved to Chengdu or Xiamen would my moralistic imposition of a "no AC" rule come to a halt, though? It is regularly 90-degrees Fahrenheit there and the humidity in both places leaves you wringing wet.

Today, a picture essay in China Daily shows 600 students in Wuhan sleeping on a gym floor to avoid the heat of their four-, six, and eight-person dormitory rooms.

Nearly 600 students sleep on the floor of an air-conditioned gymnasium to avoid the heat in their dormitories at Central China Normal University in Wuhan city, Hubei province, on June 21, 2013. [Photo/CFP]
Based on the large amounts of pink blankets, I assume that the girls, vastly outnumbered by boys in the general population of China, nevertheless occupied the much larger half of the gym. One must also assume that the black wall is a modesty screen--a prophylactic to hinder the mixing of the sexes. The caption of another photograph announces:
Nearly 600 students sleep on the floor of an air-conditioned gymnasium to avoid the heat in their dormitories at Central China Normal University in Wuhan city, Hubei province, on June 21, 2013. The university opened its gym to students as the heat wave lingered in the city. Besides the gym, all the university's air-conditioned venues, meeting rooms and halls are open to students, who are also provided with mats. The recent scorching weather in South China has triggered widespread complaints about the living conditions of university students, whose dormitories are not equipped with air conditioners. Some of them called for the university to install air conditioner in the dorms.
(Did the boys sleep in the classrooms and meeting halls, kicking the girls to the gym? That is one sociological question that preoccupies me as I gaze at this picture.)

Though I am loathe to take any advocacy position in China without first registering with the government, I want to come down solidly on the "Say No to AC" side of this argument. If you think that I am inhumane, please read Stan Cox's Losing Our Cool. (N.B. I have not read it, but have read the reviews and most of his articles on everything from "Handcuffing the Property Cops" to rationing.) We need to have this conversation and we cannot get it wrong. China and India--with millions more people living in Florida- and Arizona-like temperatures than the US--cannot get it wrong or we are doomed.

Hang Kei Ho, a graduate student  in UCL Geography was a runner-up in the annual UCL Graduate School Research  Images competition. His photograph, Air-conditioning in Hong Kong, showed patterns of air conditioning units in a Hong Kong high rise building.
Cox lays out the case succinctly in a WaPo piece from 2010 (now three years ago!). Did Obama and Xi Jinping discuss air-conditioning? I doubt it, but they ought to have made it a top priority. I am watching a building boom that seems oblivious to realities of this world. China cannot cave to its college kids on this point or humanity will pay the price.

Much of the research on thermal environments and student achievement is quite old. "Manning and Olsen (1964), in their study, concluded that air condition was considered to be the most critical factor in providing an optimum thermal environment for learning." While experts--perhaps funded by GE--have agreed since the 1960s that a cool environment breeds academic success, the discussion gets derailed when it becomes a battle between the "eco-nags" and the "comfort queens." In fact, we should be talking about re-design of our building stock and careful planning for future development that incorporates natural cooling...along with space for line-drying! We can re-examine our school year schedules and the length of the school day. There is much that can be done before we install the single biggest driver of peak electric power consumption. Necessitating more coal and nuclear plants spells certain disaster.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Chinese Immigrants: Yesterday and Today

Chinese immigrants first came to the U.S. in significant numbers more than a century and a half ago—mainly as low-skilled male laborers who mined, farmed, did laundry, ran restaurants, and built the railroads. They endured generations of officially sanctioned racial prejudice—including regulations that prohibited the immigration of Asian women; the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which barred all new immigration from China; and both the Immigration Act of 1917 and the National Origins Act of 1924, which extended the immigration ban to include virtually all of Asia. (Pew Social Trends)

While "Asian Americans are the highest-income, best-educated and fastest-growing racial group in the United States. They are more satisfied than the general public with their lives, finances and the direction of the country, and they place more value than other Americans do on marriage, parenthood, hard work and career success," those from China, Korea, and  Vietnam are less fortunate than most Americans. Those from Japan, India, and the Philippines have a lower share living in poverty than the average American.

"The Japanese are the only group that is majority U.S. born (73% of the total population and 68% of adults); all other subgroups [of Asians] are majority foreign born."

Today, the Chinese diaspora in the US includes 4.01 million Chinese or roughly a quarter of America's Asian population. Only half of Chinese Americans are affiliated with a religion. We can, therefore, conclude that more than 2 million people of Chinese extraction came to America during their lifetime. Why did they come? Why were more than 700,000 immigrants born in Mainland China and Hong Kong granted green cards between 2001 and 2010?
  • More than one in ten employment-based green cards went to Chinese immigrants in 2010.
  • Chinese nationals received more asylum grants than any other nationality in 2010.
  • The People's Republic of China was the third most common birthplace for lawful permanent residents in 2010.
  • In 2010, roughly 1 percent of all unauthorized immigrants in the United States were from China.
These statistics contradict a conversation that I had yesterday with a highly-educated Chinese citizen. He portrayed most Chinese immigrants as people from specific villages in Fujian Province and Canton (interestingly, he did not call it Guangzhou, which is its Chinese name) who sneak in the way that Alex Kotlowitz's story in a New York Times' sponsored teen magazine describes. He told me about how people in Northern China, where he is from, have more value on education and that these villagers cannot read. (This kind of snobbery is rampant in the Northeast of the United States and, as a bona fide Brahmin, I find it bemusing rather than offensive. If I was from Alabama or Sichuan, I might not.)

In fact, as a whole Chinese Americans are high educational achievers. Even in the 1980 and 1990 Census "levels of educational attainment among Chinese Americans were significantly higher than those of the general U.S. population." It is true that in 2010, 62.8 percent of Chinese immigrants age 5 and older were limited English proficient (LEP), meaning that they reported speaking English less than "very well." However, LEP is not always a measure of education, but of how well you speak and where you learned. In the case of many Asians, since it is a self-assessment, the numbers may also be skewed by a higher incidence of humility! There are plenty of educated people who don't speak good English...or, rather, speak English well.

Kotlowitz is a respected and, in my view, highly respectable social critic. He did a service in this article by calling attention to "child trafficking" and describing how some illegal immigrants cheat the system, but I think he would be disappointed if he knew that his article was being misconstrued as the typical Chinese immigrants' story. Chinese immigrants were less likely than immigrants overall in 2010 to obtain lawful permanent residence through family-based channels. Among those immigrants from Mainland China and Hong Kong who obtained lawful permanent residence in 2010, a bit more than half (54.2 percent) did so through family-based routes, compared to about two-thirds (66.3 percent) of immigrants overall. Perhaps, Eastern Europeans and Sub-Saharan Africans are better at hustling in the rest of their clan than Chinese, but there is little evidence to support my friends' conclusions from our wide-ranging QQ chat-session yesterday. His claim that the Chinese are successfully whisking their families to America is not belied by the evidence:
MY FRIEND: Most of the Chinese immigrants are in the US ...are from Canton or Fujian province: peasants..who barely just finish 9th grade..they a lot of money to get smuggled into the Chinatowns in the US and work in the restaurants...after they land, they fake their stories in order to get asylum green cards..or something through fake marriages once they get their greens..they bring their whole family. 
ME: on what do you base this "fact"? 
MY FRIEND: And you don't know .. I thought you did.. Every Chinese in America knows 
My friend further painted a picture of most Chinese immigrants getting into America through using the schemes proposed by the crooked lawyers in this article: Immigration Fraud Investigation leads to Bust by FBI on East Broadway. He quoted, "To perpetuate these schemes, the law firms made up stories of persecution that often followed one of three fact patterns: (a) forced abortions performed pursuant to China’s family planning policy; (b) persecution based on the client’s belief in Christianity; or (c) political or ideological persecution, typically for membership in China’s Democratic Party or against followers of Falun Gong." These lawyers, in addition to perpetrating fraud or encouraging clients to do so, prayed on the worst fears of Americans about China. That said, a handful of lawyers encouraging fraud does not legitimately constitute the immigration policy of the United States. Most Chinese people are not pretending to be part of the Local Church or Falun Gong, feigning an abortion or waving their China Democratic Party credentials to get residency in America.

That a young Chinese man who attended a prestigious college in Boston could hold these views, speaks as much to the failures of media as it does to the indoctrination, propaganda, and rumor-mongering of both world powers' governments and educational systems. 

Apple's Customer Service for Americans in China Rots

"I'd not even make cidah with these manure-laden Apples." 
                                                  -disgruntled New Englander  

It is a beautiful day, but I am just miserable enough to sit here writing this therapeutic post about Apple's corporate misbehavior.

In April, I purchased an Apple iPhone 4S in America for use in China because they told us we could get it fixed easily if something were to go wrong. After less than a month, the incoming and outgoing phone and text functions ceased to work, but we could still use the Internet using Wi-fi. We went to an Authorized Apple Reseller who told us to call Apple-China who, in turn, told us they could not help and then to China Mobile to replace the SIM Card for 30RMB. Finally, we called Apple in America because it still did not work.

Kyle, a very nice technician who calls you back when you enter your telephone number on the Apple site, emailed me the names of five places in Changchun where we could bring the phone to get it fixed. This morning we went to one of these locations and they refused to help us. I sat down on their couch and began to chat with Apple in America on a laptop that we had brought with us.

Fragments of my conversation with Apple-US's iPhone Chat Support team follow:

Junior Advisor Harry [9:39 a.m.]: Ah I see. With repairing, it is the technicians call on if they are able to accept the device for repair.

Customer [9:39 a.m.]: this is unacceptable

Junior Advisor [9:40 a.m.]: To get the iPhone fixed Alexander, you can send it to a friend or family member to have it repaired on your behalf in the U.S.

Customer [9:42 a.m.]: this is what the warranty looks like: you tell us unequivocally that we can take it to [any of] these five places, we waste half a day to come here and now it is the tech's call so I have to spend more money to send it to a relative and then have a relative send it back?

Junior Advisor [9:43 a.m.]: I am so sorry Alexander you have been going through this! I know you have spent a lot of time and money to get this resolved! I am on your side on this issue and want to make sure that we get the iPhone repaired the proper way!!

Customer [9:45 a.m.]: You are well trained, but I don't care whose side you are on. I hope you are on Apple's side. This is unacceptable. I will go home now and write a blog post about this experience and see what my friends think.

Junior Advisor [9:46 a.m.]: I understand and I would feel the same way about all that has happened Alexander! I want to make sure that I am here to help you get this iPhone repaired!

Customer [9:47 a.m.]: so what are you going to do to help me with that? Pay for the shipping?

Advisor [9:49 a.m.]: I definitely wish I could Alexander but...

[There is an inexplicable escalation a bit later to a less helpful, more firm, and more senior "advisor." I feel for a second that I am getting somewhere.]

Senior Advisor Kevin [9:57 a.m.]: The warranty that comes with the phone states that Apple may restrict service of your device to the country of original purchase.

Customer [9:57 a.m.]: I am fine if you want to fix it in America. How are you going to get it there?

Senior Advisor [9:58 a.m.]: That will be up to you. Apple is not responsible for any additional cost incurred with getting the repair set up.

Customer [10:00 a.m.]: In fact, service "may" be restricted to there, but clearly is not since you people told us to bring it to this location to get it serviced

Advisor [10:01 a.m.]: I wish there was some way that I could help you here, Alexander. But if a repair center in China says they cannot perform the service needed, they cannot do it. I'm sorry that you were told they could definitely perform the service for you.

Customer [10:02 a.m.]: I am sorry that your company told me that there would be no problem buying it in American and using it in China

Advisor [10:03 a.m.]: Using it in China and having the device serviced in China are two completely different things. I really am sorry, Alexander.

Customer [10:04 a.m.]: but what they really meant was "as long as it works fine (for less than a month!) you will love our product". If you need it to get fixed, you are out of luck

Customer [10:05 a.m.]: I will send you a copy of my blog post, if you would like. I am a lawyer and will have a great deal of fun researching your warranty and the other people who have experienced similar misleading conversations

Senior Advisor [10:06 a.m.]: If you are wanting to pursue legal action in any way, I cannot continue this chat and you will need to contact Apple's legal department as I am not a legal representative of Apple.

Customer [10:07 a.m.]: I have not threatened legal action. I have informed you of PR action. If you would like to refer me to Marketing, I would be happy to tell them what I think.

Senior Advisor [10:08 a.m.]: You can find all of our contact information at this page.

Customer [10:09 a.m.]: I am not looking to speak to Marketing. I have wasted enough time. Do you have anything helpful to suggest?

Senior Advisor [10:09 a.m.]: Do you have any friends or family members in the US that you could ship the phone to so it can be serviced and mailed back to you? 

At this point, I did not ask if he was the Assistant Deputy Undersecretary from the Department of Redundancy Department at 1 Infinite Loop; Cupertino, CA 95014, U.S.A., but it was clear they were not going to help. I explained to him that shipping the most expensive item that I have purchased in several years via China Post is tantamount to negligence. 

I felt a bit bad about telling Harry that I did not care whose side he was on, but I am not so easily subdued with disarming, albeit disingenuous assurances of loyalty to the customer. A small company would not treat its customers like this. For a multinational that herds serfs from the countryside into its Foxcomm factories to manufacture their product for them, we clearly do not matter.

As it turns out, I should have bought the phone here in China because Apple was forced to apologize for its sub-standard Apple 4 and 4S after-sales service and, more to the point, they changed their policy here so that, "Now, Apple will offer full replacements of iPhone 4 and 4S instead of major repairs, adding a one-year warranty starting from the date of replacement." 

I have now read the warranty carefully. In relevant part, it states, "Apple reserves the right to change the method by which Apple may provide warranty service to you, and your Apple Product’s eligibility to receive a particular method of service." In other words, they can behave in an arbitrary and capricious fashion because they reserved the right to do so? "Service will be limited to the options available in the country where service is requested." This would seem to indicate that we are eligible for a full replacement with a one-year warranty per the aforementioned Reuters article.

Later, the warranty continues: "You may be responsible for shipping and handling charges if the Apple Product cannot be serviced in the country it is in." Shipping it to a friend or relative instead of shipping it directly to Apple does not seem to be implied by this nor a logical request for a company that sells expensive products.

Interestingly, many people who bought their iPhone in Hong Kong are experiencing the same problem, if their telephone carrier is China Mobile. The new cooperation between Apple and China may not extend to its biggest telephone carrier, but that is entirely speculation.

At least Siri would have asked me if she would like her to find a solution by searching the web.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

The Great Leapfrog Forward

250 million people moving to the city

Yesterday, I took my bicycle--that ancient vestige of Chinese civilization--and pedaled far out Renmin Dajie (People's Avenue), which is the main thoroughfare of Changchun. After I passed a major traffic detour, because they are building a subway here and Weixing Guangchang (Satellite Square) needed to be closed for major earth-moving equipment, I got to an area with some tremendous new governmental buildings, easily identified by the Chinese government's ubiquitous seal. For instance, one of them is 40,000 sq meters, or more than 120,000 sq. feet. It won first place international from Albert Speer and Partners the German architect and urban planning firm. Speer, Jr. is son of Albert Speer (1905-1981), who was Adolf Hitler's chief architect before assuming the office of Minister of Armaments and War Production for the Third Reich during World War II. His grandfather, Albert Friedrich Speer, was also an architect. DW Staff (jp) (20 April 2004). "Architect Sheds Father's Legacy in China". Deutsche Welle. Retrieved 6 January 2012.

While these buildings are awesome in their scale and architectural design, it was the new park alongside that I discovered which I found most delightful. Then I pedaled out behind the building and discovered a new section of the city. A new red-and-white striped power plant chimney has sprouted among more than two dozen 17-story apartment buildings under construction. This is the pace of growth in China.

CAIDA Administrative Committee Changchun of 40,000 sq. m.
This morning in the Old Grey Lady there was a piece by Ian Johnson about the magnitude of China's social engineering experiment. The cutesy video about how many cities you would need to encompass to equal 250,000,000 people is also worth comprehending, though (if you will indulge me to fall into the role of film critic) a bit tedious to watch all the way through. The article states, "In theory, new urbanites mean vast new opportunities for construction companies, public transportation, utilities and appliance makers, and a break from the cycle of farmers consuming only what they produce." [my emphasis] This is terrifying, but I fail to see how this is "in theory"; the experiment has already commenced on a gargantuan, irreversible scale. Does Haier want to conspire with State Grid to make sure there is an AC unit in very window in addition to a chicken in every pot? You bet.

James' troubling response in the comments on the article is typical of many Chinese with whom I speak:
I couldn't imagine how accurate the report of NY times can be before I read this article.Well,I in fact have been in China for 19 years,and that's my age.I have see many things that those farmers have experienced. Personally speaking, China need to develop, there is no question about it ,but sometimes(maybe most times)the approach is not that appropriate, I mean ,too fast.Besides,I wanna say sth about the image of China,it seems that in many people's eyes,China is a typical tyranny country.but most times,people live in China don't need to involve with government officials. I mean you can have a peaceful life without others give you troubles.After all,everybody get his own business to do,who care so much about government?And the government also don't have so much time to tell you what you should do or not,.
The first part, where he allows himself to be a bit critical, I can accept. The second section, where he defends the "typical tyranny" is what concerns me. There is a more elegant proverb--four characters in length--that states the precept that "James" posits:  天高皇帝远 or "Heaven is high, but the Emperor is far away." This widely-held belief (in some circles) is today, in fact, a figment of the bourgeoisie's mythology. For most of the hundreds of thousands of farmers who are "still excluded from national pension plans, putting pressure on relatives to provide" the reality of the government's sins of omission are perhaps more real than their sins of commission, but this sort of apathetic response is the deepest form of cynical disengagement from the meaningful processes of change.

A caption on one of the 16 photos that accompanied the article said, matter-of-factly, "Rural workers gathered in Chongqing in search of jobs as chefs. The cooks say that when they can get a job, they earn $325 to $1,100 a month, a huge improvement over tilling the fields." From my ivory tower, getting paid about a $1000 USD/month myself as a mere knowledge worker, I wonder if an increase in wages is equal to an improvement in life. I will let readers draw their own conclusions. The other question, though, is how many of the men squatting on this curbside will actually get a job as a chef and is what they project to be their salary (a huge range, by the way) representative of most chef jobs? Does $1,100 USD in Shanghai get you as far as $325 in Changchun? The caption begs these questions.

In conclusion, I would agree with the article that what is happening certainly brings to mind the Great Leap Forward, but it has worrisome attributes that make it appear to be the Great Leapfrog Forward in that the leapers must crawl over other people's broken backs to get to the front of the line. And how do you win this game?

Friday, May 24, 2013

Durian: How Great Thou Stink!

Today, I just want to share a picture of a durian that my lovely girlfriend took. It was 58 yuan for this one--not a cheap price for a single piece of fruit.

This fruit is famous for its potent smell, but is so utterly tasty. Either you hate it or love it, but there is no denying it is the consistency of butter and nearly as rich, but much sweeter. In addition to mango, durian is a staple of the Hong Kong-style (Cantonese) dessert places that were mentioned in my last post. I have often wondered who has the job of collecting them for human consumption (learn more here). They grow high in trees and are absolutely deadly, especially when falling from a great height.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

More Popular than Fortune Cookies: Cantonese Desserts

I grew up in a household where my mother always coached us that we should begin reading any menu from the bottom up, because that way you could know what to save room for. In addition, my maternal clan prides itself on an affinity for chocolate. These confessions aside, my mother had a strict rule for her three children: If you did not have fruit for dessert at lunch time, you had to have it at dinnertime. My little sister, who will graduate from law school tomorrow and has always been re-writing the rules, would sometimes "fib" so that she could have ice cream or some non-fruit desert item. I remember vaguely some rather complex legal maneuvering to prove that fruit had been consumed at her primary school cafeteria. I am sure that the standard of proof was not "beyond a reasonable doubt", but what would you expect from a mother who professes a hatred of vegetables and a distaste for most anything that does not come from a dead animal or the dessert menu.

Glutinous rice balls in mango with a scoop
of mango sorbet, 28yuan in Changchun and
38 yuan in Beijing
There is a gorgeous little boutique that has opened up a block from where I work. It is a Cantonese dessert restaurant that satisfies the fruit requirement and also would lead most customers to want to begin with dessert. There is really no other choice.

Most American "Chinese restaurants" offer some riff of Cantonese or Sichuan food, two vastly different cuisines. In my limited experience, though, most of them are long on ginger ice cream and fortune cookies, but short on any other options for dessert. Well, in China, dessert is certainly a rarity, but not as uncommon as somebody who has heard of a fortune cookie. Aside from some bakeries and Western-style cake shops, I don't know of any other strictly dessert restaurants in our city.

Deborah (Jingjing), my girlfriend, and I first went to this Cantonese dessert restaurant a few months back just before they ripped out its innards for a high-class remodeling effort. When she told me that she had walked by and it was gone, I was disappointed. Today, I found that it was just having a face-lift. These places are, from my quick survey of the web, beginning to catch on elsewhere in China. Beijing Today ran a story over a year ago about three new places opening there:

"Cantonese desserts, especially sweet and iced ones like herb jelly teas, are hard to find in Beijing.
Following in the footsteps of Manji, a dessert chain that opened on the mainland, Hui Lau Shan, another well-known Hong Kong brand, opened three stores in Beijing last week. They have 100 desserts made from mixed fruits and homemade ingredients."

On your next trip to Changchun, I hope that you will check it out on Xikang Lu between Tongzhi Jie and Lixin Jie.

On Literature from (or of) China by its Nobel Laureates

First, I read Soul Mountain. Then, I read The Good Earth. Now, I am in the midst of Red Sorghum. The first is by Gao Xingjian (b. 1940). The second and, perhaps, the most famous was penned by Pearl Buck in 1931; it won a Pulitzer Prize for the Novel in 1932. This year's Nobel Prize for Literature went to Mo Yan (b. 1955). Each of these books are, arguably, the best known works of three Nobel Laureates for Literature. Mr. Gao is Chinese born and now a citizen of France. Ms. Buck was an American of European extraction, but raised in China by missionary parents. Mr. Yan is a citizen of the People's Republic of China and was born in Shandong, the province where Confucius lived so long ago.

To my way of thinking, Soul Mountain is the best of these three books. The New York Times review describes the richness and success of this inventive piece. "His 81 chapters are an often bewildering and considerably uneven congeries of forms: vignettes, travel writing, ethnographic jottings, daydreams, nightmares, recollections, conversations, lists of dynasties and archeological [sic] artifacts, erotic encounters, legends, current history, folklore, political, social and ecological commentary, philosophical epigrams, vivid poetical evocation and much else." It also took me the longest amount of time to read. Dense and esoteric, it needs to be chewed slowly.

For a pithy description of Buck, read the Foreign Affairs book review of Spurlings's biography, Pearl Buck in China: Journey to the Good Earth. That her book needs to be defended still as more than just the racist memoir of a missionary's daughter is sad. It is surely a great work, but our dissatisfaction with it now should be, and is, that it is a period piece with little remaining relevance to current day China.

For an accurate portrayal of the diseased language of Mo Yan, read Anna Sun's critique. She is an Assistant Professor of Sociology and Asian Studies at Kenyon College, who has been a McDowell Colony fellow in fiction.

Mo Yan bashing has become a popular sport and I am not eager to join the ranks. Ai Weiwei, the loudmouth artist-dissident who continues to suffer under house arrest in Beijing, went even further than Salman Rushdie, who stopped at calling Mr. Mo a "patsy." Mr. Ai said, “Giving the award to a writer like this is an insult to humanity and to literature. It’s shameful for the committee to have made this selection which does not live up to the previous quality of literature in the award.”

I would say that Mo Yan is not a patsy; he is an apparatchik and employee of the PLA Cultural Affairs Department. It is impractical or even silly to want him to be different than he is.

While a bit more subtle than the boosterism, propagandizing, and censorship facially apparent in My Husband Puyi: Last Emperor of China, the book that I am in the middle of is not subtle or graceful. His "hallucinatory realism", which is how literary critics brand his non-chronological storytelling, has none of the artfulness of Gao Xingjian's meandering novel. Still, it is a worthwhile read. Why? Because it is a riveting, action-packed, made for the movies drama.