Monday, December 31, 2007

Made in China

Historically-speaking, China was known for its luxury goods: silk brocade, 'China' porcelain, scrolls of distinctive art and calligraphy, jade, and rare spices. A few hundred years ago, China's wares were so hotly sought after in the European markets, and commanded such high prices, that the British had to resort to peddling opium (yesterday's equivalent to Heroin or Crack) in order to turn the tables on a trade deficit as threatening then as it is today. China, it seems, has always been able to manufacture goods that the rest of the world is powerless to resist.

American consumers have been shocked to learn that their cheap, China-made bounty (available at the nearest Walmart) could be tainted, poisonous, or ill-designed. In a worst case scenario, the paint of that car toy your toddler is currently chewing upon, the shrimp you bought at the supermarket to feed him, and the toothpaste you'll insist that he use to brush with later this evening could all be quite toxic. Well, gee, what a surprise that the shoddy, bargain-basement wares from a country known for its corruption and lack of concern over the poisoning of its own environment might happen to be... less than good. There are many other 'externalized' prices one pays for finding the cheapest monetary bargain, after all; this is a fact as ancient as the diseased meat pies sold by street vendors the world over.

But despite the hopes and prayers of unionist laborers in low-value manufactury across America and Europe, this fiasco is not likely to spell an end to the export of jobs and import of cheap goods that have defined the modern (post 1970's) trade relationship between China and the West. In order to chart a pragmatic course into a future likely defined by symbiotic (but often problematic) business relations between East and West, we should encourage a more varied perspective of such problems as arise. God forbid that there should ever again be protectionism and isolationism of the sort that had Qing Emperors razing their own coastline to prevent trade and interaction between aspiring Chinese merchants and the foreign devils. That strategy led to their own economic disempowerment, bankruptcy, and eventually to bits of the Chinese motherland (Hong Kong, Macau, Shanghai, Qinghai, and Qingdao) being indefinitely 'leased' to outside powers.

That said, here I can provide a sampling of perspectives from the antipode of this particular disaster of globalisation:

The Chinese government's view (predictably) is that these pumped-up consumer fears are but unfair governmental orchestrations from its trade partners. Projection, anyone? Admittedly, with the growing angst among developed countries about their growing trade deficits with China, the theory at least has some plausibility. One could imagine that many flaws in Chinese exports previously overlooked by pro-business (sometimes pro-appeasement for reasons of other policy goals) governments have suddenly been un-overlooked. Ulterior motive or no, this still represents a victory for Western consumers. The Chinese government's next (predictable) step was to impound various imports from abroad (notably the US), claiming that they didn't meet China's rigorous standards of quality. Oh boy... another case, I suspect, of what 'what once was overlooked, shall not be any longer'. Fair enough. I have little reason to doubt that Tyson Foods (among others) would have no qualms about shipping meat products not fit for American table to China, and throwing scraps to various Chinese bureaucrats for the privilege of doing so. That leads us to China's third step in its mad dance to avoid losing too much face--the firing and execution of its former food and drug regulator, a Mr. Zheng.

Yes, this plan makes sense: When all else fails and you have a world-wide rebuke ballooning in your face, (1) deny everything, (2) make conspiracy theories (3) blame your detractors of hypocrisy, and (3) execute one scapegoat carefully chosen from a government faction that has fallen from favor.

The Chinese consumer has an often overlooked viewpoint on the issue. They (the people of the PRC) are well aware that whatever the case may be, a victory for the American consumer does not necessarily represent a victory of them. It was already common practice for most Chinese companies to export and sell their best quality merch (as it turns out, not quality enough) abroad, usually through a foreign trade company to give the products a more trustworthy face. Watered-down, less-durable, unsafe, often faked products, even cheaper to produce are reserved for a domestic market that faces less inspection, easy work-arounds (bribeable officials), and a populace that is not only generally uneducated about its rights as consumers (typically any 'rights' pertaining to the common people would be viewed as a threat by Beijing and awareness of such quashed accordingly), but just doesn't have much choice in the matter. Even as a burgeoning middle-class has ascended from the impoverished Mao-era masses, the majority have been left at the base of the escalator. That majority can't afford to buy expensive imports as the middle class does (so much for the hopes of every American entrepreneur to sell shoes to the 2.8 billion feet in China). The result: 'Made in China' is the only affordable option for most people. Without viable competition, value to the consumer is likely absent. Where would the Chinese go to find goods more affordable than what is already made in the workshops of Guangdong and Zhejiang?

Some Chinese like to shift blame to their historical enemies, the Japanese, noting that the Japanese sell their lowest quality and unsafest goods to China, reserving their best merch for the American or European markets. I can imagine that this idea incenses the middle class (who can affort to splurge money on real, rather than faked, Japanese cars and electronics). But the Japanese can hardly be blamed for taking advantage of an opportunity blatantly left open to them by the government, and which scores of Chinese entrepreneurs (for each foreign one) have already taken advantage of. The vaunted 'hand of the market' may auto-correct, but only when transparency, a surfeit of product information, standards easily parsed, and viable competition allow consumers to vote with their feet. As one who has suffered for the failure of cheap DVD-players, battery chargers, and even a basic metal spoon--all bought in the Chinese domestic market--I believe that it is the Chinese consumer more than the American, Brazilian, or Danish one whom will suffer most.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

A Christmas Nightmare

Where are the warm holiday feelings I want to feel this time of year? In Chongqing, perhaps they have been smothered by an ever-present, cold blanket of smog. Beneath it, though there isn't snow, the locals party through the night.

But Christmas partying in China is not what it is back home.

No presents did I see, no carols except the ones meant to lure customers into shops; they brought no cheer to me. At the door of Pizza Hut, waitresses were smiling in a row. All had crimson stocking caps, but no sign of Santa with his sleigh. The last time that I saw him here, his cherubic face adorned the illustration of a naked dancing girl. Older Chinese just shake their heads at strange foreign customs that have no relation to Confucius or Marx. The younger ones have a different idea: to them, Christmas is just another sort of Halloween. A time to party hard.

While Christmas day was fairly quiet--we re-watched Home Alone--the night before and night 'of' were something altogether strange. Straying from my tower preserve, this is what I say: The peasants were on the march! With inflatable spiked clubs in hand. Was this the revolution? Were they off to slay The Man? Had Communist despots' doom come down, or could they be driving foreigners from the land?

Little children with the impish smiles scampered all about. They wore glow-in-the-dark devil's horns in their hair and sprayed silly string up in the air. In the square, thousands thronged and held mock battles with those inflated mallets and clubs--US stars and stripes, or Snoopy emblazoned upon their tips as they smashed into crazed Chinese teenage heads. Oh how fun, you might say, if only it were just a daydream and not your entire Christmas day.

Whap-whap-whap-whap, the sound of so many people having Christmas fights sounded like a full sail pummeled by the wind. A sad little kid dragged a spent and wilted caveman club through the crowd. I felt a bit like I imagined the kid to feel.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

A Trial by Trial Software

I think I can see the light at the end of the tunnel... or could that be the unblinking eye of my new desktop computer. This modest computer--HP Pavilion fare for the plebs, its video card is less than special and its built-in speakers fail to work, but with a rather nice 19' flat-screen--is sufficient for my current purposes, including blogging.

I must have realized that buying a computer in a foreign land that speaks a foreign tongue would not be as easy as just walking into a Best Buy, socking 'Steve' in the eye, and walking out with a nice desktop.

First there was the matter of choosing whether to buy a DIY computer (which can be either a Frankenstein's monster of perfection, or a perfect horror) of various parts bought separately, or to buy an off-the-shelf pleb product. I went with the pleb product because DIY computers can be notoriously high-maintenance, especially with the various Chinese knock-off parts floating about. There's also a lot more room to be cheated, whereas at the Gomei store (China's answer to Best Buy) it's pretty much sticker price or nothing. No bargaining involved (although I did try).

Many expletives and disappointments (over the lack of real speakers and low-quality video cards available) later, we walked out of the Gomei with our present configuration. That was only the beginning of the ordeal.

For the next two days, I wrestled with the machine (Monkey vs. Robot, so to speak). The machine came preinstalled with Linux rather than Windows, because in China a legit copy of Windows costs almost as much as a new computer. Ridiculous. I for one, would be more than willing to buy a legit copy of Windows (most American consumers never have to, since it's preloaded on their machines), but for a reasonable price. When I expressed my interest in buying a legit copy of 'English-language' Windows, though, the salespeople at Gomei all but laughed in my face. Does such a thing even exist in China?

Microsoft, I have one thing to say to you: You are missing the boat. When Google or some other company releases for free the same services you are charging an arm and a leg for, all the developing world--and a decent slice of the developed--will be right there waiting for it. Microsoft may well become a diminished brand in the future if something doesn't change. Piracy will always be your master as long as you attempt to hold onto inflated prices meant for the American market. Maybe China won't be making you much money, but currently your profits don't really have to come from there--America, EU, etc provide more than plenty of those. As the Yuan currency becomes more valuable, so will your Chinese profits. But certainly there won't be much of those if 90% of China is using pirated products.

In any case, I was for one evening stuck in limbo as I attempted to overwrite Linux Red Hat with my pirated copy of Windows. Surpassing that challenge, I was then stuck without proper drivers because Gomei doesn't provide them with the computer (but rather sends them out with an employee). Here I am waiting, still, for sound card drivers that will work. The ones they tried previously couldn't be used because I don't have Service Pack 1 on this pirated bit of Windows.

Oh, the automaton-ity!

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Russian Autocrats and American Hand-wringing

I wonder how my perspective would change if I were once again viewing the world through an American lens, rather than the expatriate sort. Strangely I worry much less about geopolitical threats than the domestic sort these days. In China, it is the trends in domestic affairs that are much more likely to land one in trouble.

A stateside friend messaged me recently to comment on the increasingly fearful rhetoric surrounding Russia. Russia? Hadn't that particular big bad bear lapsed into a vodka-soaked coma in the Yeltsin era? Has Putin really been so successful in his shadow-puppetry that Russia is now again considered a worry meriting distraction from the big bad panda and big bad camel?

I suppose it depends yet again on your perspective. To the Neocon persuasion, there can never be enough bogeymen with which to distract the American taxpayers. Some trends aren't looking so good for them. Al Qaeda seems to have been fairly quiet of late. In Venezuela, the populist Chavez ran his 21st century socialism into the shoals of unpopularity in a recent referendum. In Cuba, tourists and land-developers alike slaver over our dear old foe Castro's death bed. In China, the Olympics bring an odd assortment of cuddly anime-mascots and government clampdowns; problems too internal to much concern the average American. Most recently, our own spy-masters have downgraded the carefully prepped Iranian nuclear threat, and it seems that even irksome Kim Jong Il is succumbing to the warm fuzzy feelings that globalism brings. Blast you, Axis of Evil, you've foiled us once again! You were supposed to be a eternal threat (at bargain rates for today's discerning politician)!

By golly, this leaves us with the imminent possibility that the American public could forget all about foreign threats to the homeland, and focus instead on rather more inconvenient threats such as lack of health care, the social security crisis, and global climate change!

So whence should our newest threat, custom-designed to hand presidency and relevance back to the mis-fortuned Republican party, come? Now, how about Russia? Americans may have allowed themselves a daydream that the evil empire was finished, but how much convincing could it take to make them decide that the empire was preparing to strike back?

First, the opinions. As all Americans know, Russia is a naturally bellicose place. Its frozen tundras and steppes historically supported such blood-thirsty nomads as the Goths and Huns who overran the Roman Empire, and the great Mongolian hordes of Tamurlane and Chinggis Khan. A vast empire of frost and desert, empty steppe and shrinking inland seas, one shouldn't wonder that its inhabitants would feel a little bit peeved and looking for something to take it out on. Even the surrounding dictatorships of the 'near abroad' that sprung up after the death of the Soviet Union aren't so close anymore, following the recent 'color revolutions'. These grim facts of life wouldn't be helped much by a legendary state of constant intoxication.

Now, the facts. A cyber-skirmish was recently waged by unknown hackers (who could well have originated in the KGB) on the small Baltic state, Estonia. Russia aggressively taken state control over various portions of the Russian economy--notably the energy sector--and subsequently used energy cut-offs and rate hikes to threaten most of its neighbors. Even a very cosy relationship between the dictator of Belorus and the 'motherland' wasn't enough to stave off the bludgeon. In the economic arena, Putin has gone on a witch-hunt of all and any Russian tycoons not supportive of his regime as well as re-establishing political control over 'strategic' business assets (which may very well be the real reason the Western powers that be are crying foul).

So yes, Russia is not a very friendly actor on the geopolitical stage. She certainly has the capability to threaten any number of her smaller and weaker (and for the most part not-entirely democratic) neighbors. She may even boast a threat or two against the West. But I suspect that other growing economic powers that have thus far sat bemusedly at the sidelines of the current Russian/Western spats (namely China, India) would probably step in to help contain Russia if it ever looked like there was a serious possibility it would throw the lucrative Western markets into chaos. For this reason, Russia will probably continue to pick on the little guys--internal threats to the KGB's mandate, and Baltic and Caucasian states it deems naughtily wayward--and limit itself to the mere suggestion of threats against the bigger, wealthier ones to the west.

Perhaps Putin envies the growing eminence of the Chinese and merely wants to show that he (and the Russian Empire) still have cojones.

A City of Freezing Fog

Warming my frozen paws at the glimmering heater in my office, I look down on a city not merely enshrouded, but entombed, in fog. I'm starting to see why the Japanese bombers in WWII had so much difficulty razing Chongqing to the ground.

Their efforts were useless, of course. Some fifty plus years later, developers are razing the remnants of the old city without any help whatsoever from hostile foreign powers. I say no help from outside, because to my knowledge Chongqing is a sort of redoubt against foreign investment. I believe that FDI more often pours into the southern SEZs (Special Economic Zones) such as Shenzhen and Xiamen and Shanghai, and those in turn spawn filthy rich Chinese industrialists who invest their loot into the less developed 'wild western' provinces, such as Chongqing. In turn, Chongqingers invest in countryside villas and the tourist traps of tomorrow out in the countryside. Trickle-down (ie, pissing) economics at its finest.

There is a greater problem (for me) resulting from the trickle-down effect. Because relatively few foreigners (albeit numbers increasing) come to invest and inhabit Chongqing, Chongqing has relatively little use for the horde of foreign restaurants one can expect to find in more cosmopolitan cities such as Shanghai, Beijing, or Guangzhou. Instead, Chongqing natives proudly take their few investor guests to try the fiery delights of hotpot, rather than coddle foreign stomachs with foreign fare. Chinese investors from Shanghai-on-the-sweet-tooth may be interested, but I imagine the average foreign investor would be put off. And woe is me, who desires a more reasonable and varied palatte: If spicy food is the norm, why not at least have the choice of Indian curries or Mexican chillies? If cuisine drenched in fattening oil is the norm, where is my respite of fresh salad or creamy soups?

I've had many chances to chat with the owners of our local Singaporean and Belgian restaurants, as well as the lonely foreign food shop, outpost against a wilderness of red hot chile peppers. They also lament that while there is almost no competition in their areas of cuisine, they are also vanguards trying to hack their way into an unwelcoming market. Cry not, my flamsa frit friends; do not pine for the sultry internationalist city of Singapore, o' purveyor of beef rendang and samosa! For we fight a noble crusade against the unholy hotpot, and we shall prevail!


But I let my stomach run away with me. I should remember the lesson of the Japanese. No foreign invasion could change Chongqing against its iron stomach and its stubborn will; but the passage of time may allow those same Chongqingers to evolve that desired change by their own decision. Shanghai may have always been a whore for the West, decorated in the best oriental pearls as she may be. Chongqing is more like a lady of fiery and passionate emotions, to be won with great patience and bravery, rather than a simple influx of cash.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

The Land of Root Beer and S'more

Week before last, my Chinese co-manager and I made the four hour journey from the fog-shrouded riverbanks of Chongqing, to the fog-engulfed basin wherein lies Chengdu.

We had been summoned by our masters, She-Ra and He-Man (actually Nancy Shen, Executive VP of my division, and Craig Nisbet, a Canadian of some repute) to the Aston English Southern Regional Conference 2007. Whoo-eee!

Actually, I was excited, but not for the conference. Chengdu is a notoriously foreigner-friendly city. A tourist hub for mountainous Sichuan province, as well as a waypoint for those moving t0-from China and SE Asia, Chengdu also has a few large, famous universities with many foreign teachers and exchange students. Thus, the area immediately around the school where our conference was held had a foreign food store containing manifold varieties of cheese, mexican/italian/american/australian/et al. ingredients, marshmallows, graham crackers, A&W root beer and cream soda, and Cinnamon Toast Crunch amongst other cereals. Also: Subway (I bought three footlongs in four days), Indian restaurants, pizza parlours, and a famous Tex-mex joint--serving up vast burritos and pies that melt in your mouth--can all be found within a three or four block radius.

Not to complain about Chongqing (a Belgian restaurant recently opened up down the street from our school), but the locals are just too proud of their spicy traditional foods--including hotpot--that sear the tongue and inflame the nether regions. Talking to a few local owners/managers of foreign food restaurants, it seems this makes the Chongqing market much more difficult to break into. I say damn you hotpot, to the oil-doused, over-spiced netherworld from whence you came!

On a related note, a few of my co-workers and I are considering the merits of opening up our own DQ and/or Subway in Chongqing. Jon and I found a three-year-old article about the joys and despairs of opening Subway franchises in Beijing. One foreign customer kissed the floor as he entered a Subway, there. I know that it's an oasis amid the oil-slathered, roach-infested chao mian places, but I wouldn't exactly recommend going that far.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Another Experiment

I've noticed that when I drink water fresh from the tank, it tastes just fine, but leave it out for even half a day and it begins to taste like the calcified scum in a half-century-old pipe. My hypothesis is that the airborne particulate matter (ie, pollution) that is so much greater in China than most other countries must be gently drowning in--and defiling--my otherwise pure cup of water. I've decided to leave a cup of water out today with a paper across the top. We'll see how it tastes, later this evening.

The True Price of Inflation (and Other Experiments)

Today at the Carrefour supermarket beneath my living-center one person was trampled to death and several others were injured. The direct cause of this tragedy was a sale that Carrefour had announced for cooking oil (which the Chinese drown their food in)--perhaps some 15 Yuan ($2 US) off the normal price. Given the massive inflation that China has been suffering lately--inflation partly due to the Chinese government's stubborn refusal to revaluate the Yuan currency more fairly in foreign exchange--many people may have figured that this might be the cheapest oil price they would be seeing... perhaps, ever. So the harpies descended upon Carrefour where their combined reckless spendthrift crushed several of their number into shelving units and the white-tiled floor. Such factors--thrift, competition, and rudeness--combined with the sheer population density in China can quickly turn otherwise merely reprehensible situations into dangerous ones.

Situations of such desparation wrought from relatively little reason do seem to be yet more proof of the moral decay present in China. I find it hard to imagine (especially not having been at the scene of the disaster, myself) whether it was the older generations or younger ones who caused the problem, or both, but perhaps there's less difference than one might think. Between those who lived through--and participated in--Mao's cultural revolution and their more materialistic descendants, there lies a common thread: the devaluation of the human being.

In Mao's time, the Chinese people were mere pawns in a grander scheme of deification, the results being a horrifying period in which millions were starved, tortured, forced to torture, and generally set against eachother. While a sucessful strategy for Mao, this resulted in a profound numbing of the Chinese people to politics, aesthetics, and humanitarian concerns, while encouraging natural competitive impulses to their extremes.

Since Deng Xiao Ping's capitalist reformation of the PRC, many economic, societal, and even environmental reforms have taken place, but even as materialism replaces political idolatry, there hasn't been anything to fill the vaccuum created by the displacement of traditional and religious moral systems by communist theories (which have also disappeared almost without trace from the hearts and minds of the people). The competitive disregard for others stoked in Mao's time has not been replaced by 'Harmony' but rather engorged and fueled by an economic boom-time in which the fittest, most ruthless, most connected sorts get to feed themselves to bursting, and the rest are left to fight for scraps or starve.

If there is redemption for China, it may rest in the enduring connections of family. People stay close to their relatives and friends (if only for survival and guanxi). But family is in turn sustained by cooking oil. And thus people get trampled in the supermarket aisles.

Edit: The story is now today's second most popular on, and has spread to other news agencies. Three dead, thirty-one injured, seven critically injured. My Carrefour is now closed until further notice. Apparently it was a tenth anniversary sale (I guess I now know how old my living center is) which had people lining up at 4 AM with a thirst for rapeseed distillate.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Advent of Mortality

Yes, folks, it's that time of year again. The advent of a certain itinerant wanderer, a rogue Michigander, and possible reincarnation of the original terrorist, Guy Fawkes.

A quarter of a century old, and an expatriate living in an ancient land reinventing itself at the speed of fiberoptics. I guess I couldn't have hoped for a better place to be, when I was a decade or two younger and wondering where I would be and what I would be doing at this unfathomably old age. The young Bruce, with his notorious monkey-smile, lives on. Today is an unseasonably warm and sunny day in Chongqing and I'm off to enjoy it.

Charitable donations in celebration of this advent are accepted. All proceeds go to the 'Die, College Loans, Die! Fund'. Address: 264 East 35th Street, San Bernardino, CA 92404.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Zombies in Mao Suits

(although today's more fashionable young Chinese zombies are actually wearing 'A Bathing Ape' t-shirts or Abbercrombie).

I often do try to imagine what a zombie apocalypse would be like in such a crowded country as China. And then I realize... the zombie apocalypse has already arrived and gone in the Middle Kingdom: the era of Mao contained hordes of shambling undead (or not-quite-living). They wore the same bland clothes; they ate undifferentiated food from the same commune caffeterias; they moaned the same brain-dead propaganda; they had no special goal, except to multiply and engulf the world. True, they didn't hunger for brains, but what is tofu if not a lower cholesterol, vegetarian substitute for that cranial nectar that zombies so dearly love to munch upon?

Today, although freer, China still sometimes seems beholden to the zombie gods of conformity. If one ever boards a train in the greater train stations of Beijing or Zhengzhou, you can see for yourself the masses shamble (there really is no better word for that slow, steadily rocking march forward) through the ticket gate. Opinions held (particularly of the political variety) have all the intellectual weight of "brains! brains! we need more brains... to eat." Clothing worn, although far more colorful and strange than the more conservative zombies would care to imagine, is still fairly conformist within its new boundaries.

So here I am, without a chainsaw, a shotgun, or even a trusty axe. I'll just have to hope that I can verbally reason with these plaintive cries for neurological sustenance.

Friday, October 26, 2007

State of the (Bodily) Union

If anyone was curious, my blood type is A+, blood pressure currently squirting through my veins at 110/60, weight is 77kg (169 lbs.), and I contain no known quarantinable diseases. Yes, I'm quite healthy, and now I have verified proof of that fact. This is due to the poking and prodding I recently endured at the hands of Chinese doctors in order to get my 'foreign experts' license (diploma?). X-rays, urine samples, blood tests, sonigrams, and EKG were all procured. I feel like this exam probably gave me 0.1% additional chance of cancer later in life, just due to invasiveness of the measurements. A sonigram? Did they expect to find me pregnant, a la a stupid Arnold Schwarzenegger movie? Or perhaps, an alien lifeform incubating somewhere between my stomach and my pancreas, ready to pop out and infest the countryside?

In any case, no alien lifeforms, and no other excuse to deport me. Excellent.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Fashion Trends

(NB:Bear with my descriptions, I'm no fashionisto either.)

Styles of dress in China easily identify various socio-economic classes. The poorest people in China live in the countryside. Other than Tibetans, and the women of a few other minorities, China's peasants don't usually wear traditional dress. Today, plastic flip-flops, army surplus jackets, and bland t-shirts are the norm. Hair worn up in a pink towel may sometimes be substituted for a traditional headdress. The next rung up the ladder (barely up the ladder, and on a precarious and dangerously overstrained rung at that) are migrant labor that have recently come to the city. Their attire is about the same as their cousins in the countryside, because they probably shop at the same second-hand clothing markets.

Soon after arriving in the big city, however, the lower class tends (oddly) to dress in a full business suit, usually black or charcoal grey. True, the suit jacket is almost always too large, the slacks stained. The shiny black shoes of the would-be social-climber must be the main source of income for all those street shoe polishers. Seeing immediately identifiable over-dressed plebs, I can only liken them to the (perhaps cleaner, but not better dressed) Communist Party dinosaurs that often found hawking a loogie at all the finer resorts and tourist traps of China. I suppose that mimicry is the truest form of flattery, as they say.

The middle class, by contrast, can be more accurately described as a fashion zoo: all the strangest clothing ideas that Chinese fashion designers can shove out the door are displayed each day on the average urban teenager or blue-collar folk. Polka dots and candy stripes, crimes against the English language printed proudly across the front and back of T-shirts and on the seats of pants, absurb copyright infringements (Mickey and Spiderman conspire to switch identities), clothy tentacles that apparently serve no practical purpose, kitsche and glitter taken to new vainglorious dimensions. You get the idea. China's domestic clothing industry relies on this daring (or tasteless) demographic.

The upper class (that is the young pampered spawn of dinosaurs as well as the new industrialists) are by far the best dressers. I'm no great judge of such matters, in fact, but Asian friends in college always used to joke that the easiest way to tell a Chinese from a Korean or a Japanese was the tasteless manner of dress. I would suggest to them now, that they might have difficulty telling the difference with this new, cosmopolitan uppercrust gradually moving radpidly away from its nouveau riche baby years, much less the more distant, mao-suited past.

Monday, October 22, 2007


The idea of controversy itself may be controversial in a country such as China. The powers that be certainly don't like it, are threatened by it, do everything they can to dampen such an explosive human tendency. Perhaps that's why the Chinese, outsiders to US politics, often have a difficult time understanding the divisive nature of our national postures and policies, the myriad of opinions which swarm out of every dialogue concerning every conceivable issue.

Take gun control, a subject that often comes up in my more advanced English classes. Listening in on the class, you might often hear such opinions as: "Americans love guns", or "Americans are more violent than other [nationalities]". Iraq is another example. I always have to explain that for most controversial issues (including gun control), there tends to be a near 50/50 split in public opinion as well as the representative government. But how to really explain that to people used to keeping mum on political issues and funneling their most vituperative energies towards bargaining?

"But why would the government allow people to keep guns?" My students ask. I explain the frontier (and separationist) mentality behind the constitutional ammendments, as well as the difficulty in changing them. An ultimate crackdown on guns could theoretically lead to a crackdown on free speech, or a blow to the wall between church and state. The 'happy' middle ground between freedoms and protections can be very difficult to maintain.

It is true, however, that I actually do feel safer here in China than I did in the US. I've only witnessed one riot in the year+ that I've resided in China. Guns do make acts of violence perhaps easier to contemplate, cleaner to execute. As the refrain goes, 'guns don't kill...' but they certainly facilitate the act. But violence is a fundamental human drive, and even in a country with near-absolute gun control (organized criminals or Hei Se Hui do manage to obtain weapons from corrupt PLA connections), dispossessed peasants, minorities, and migrant workers have increasingly often managed acts of attrocity without the use of the metal cylinder--in an incident last June, an intruder walking into a primary school and throwing six children off of a balcony, killing a nine-year-old girl.

I have the suspicion that as China continues to open up, its markets irrevocably interconnect with the outside world, and the perspectives contained within it--if not its government--democratize, this country will soon be no stranger to controversy. The sharp divides in lifestyle between affluent urbanites and their rural kin are no joke, as migrant workers are encouraged by the government to flood into the cities (precursor to a massive corporate agricultural land grab?) where they eat the evening restaurant refuse, shoulder burdens for pocket change, and beg or steal. The government has done a good job of exporting electricity and satellite tv into even the most destitute and remote corners of the Chinese empire (for purposes of propaganda and the general stupifying effect that TV can have), but an unintended consequence may be that more and more people become aware of just how many material fantasies they are missing out on in the post-communist era.

I do find it annoying when Chinese like to poke fun about the diverse controversies and volatilities the American life contains, but I suspect that they are soon to learn about these problems more personally. Perhaps that future contains some lessons that Americans and Chinese alike could learn from.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Spies and Spectres

Kids scream like banshees in my lower-level classes, and my thoughts turn to one of my favorite holidays, Halloween (which is only surpassed in my morbid heart by the celebration of Guy Fawkes's execution). I have to plan a Halloween promotional event for the end of the month, and the size limitations of this school somewhat frustrate me. We do have some 230 students. Trick-or-treat may be doable. Haunted Teacher's Lounge may also be doable--with me under a black sheet and bloody mouth as the resident spectre there. Apple-bobbing? No, too un-hygienic. Ghost stories? Let's save that for class. Sugary sweets should be the show-pony of this particular event. They always were when I was growing up, taste for the macabre or not.

Yesterday I dropped by one of our competitors, a local English training school chain. I was spending a pleasant autumn afternoon in suburban Chongqing and thought, 'why amuse myself by being a spy?' They may have been a little suspicious. But oh, the humanity!--I was so jealous. This school I spied upon had great facilities: TVs in every classroom, designer desks that perform an S-curve on their way from floor to ceiling, suited curriculum consultants. An uncomfortable interview in which I tried to get as much information as I could about the teaching contracts offered (extremely, boringly standard) while my girlfriend attempted to pry other details out of the desk staff. I suppose our act could be improved (they seemed a bit suspicious), but this was a fun exercise. Perhaps I have a future in acting? The BBC, with its penchant for odd-looking character actors with bulbous noses and crotchety croakings ought to appreciate me, I would think.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Adventures in Kham Tibet (part 2)

or, "The Yaks Among Us" (September 30 - October 3rd)

From Kangding, the bus ride over the high pass (elevation: 4200 m) into the alpine prairies around Tagong was no less jolting than I remembered. Certainly the new paved road made things worse and only taunted us as I routinely slammed my hat into the ceiling. Herds of shaggy yaks and black mountain-pigs graze the slopes between islands of shrubbery--spinach green, coagulated-blood red, watery gold--and occasionally raise near-sighted eyes to greet the arrival of this dilapidated beast we ride in. The Tibetan architecture has changed radically in the last 1000 meters of elevation, fortress-boxes now composed almost entirely of rocks mortared with mud, precious timber used mainly for interior supports and decoration. The top level is often open at the sides and only ceilinged three-quarters, more of a barn for drying barley or straw (yaks' winter diet?).
Tagong is slightly more touristy, more "found" by small tourist crowds than it was last year. Granted, I come during a 'Golden Week', that apex of the Chinese tourism calendar. There are at least three or four more hostels/hotels in town than before, and one Chongqing-style lowlander restaurant. Oh, for shame, but we do eat there with other waiguoren we had met on the bus (one Israeli, one Chinese-Australian, one Canadian).

The Tibetan family whose home I stayed at last time remember me, and are eager to welcome us back into the fold. Mmm, home-cooked meals! Ayi (auntie, a polite honorific) also gives us a discount, especially important given that during Golden Week, prices for everything usually double in China.

Sketching yaks on the prairies outside town--the yaks grudgingly ignore our efforts at immortalizing their hairy brows--turns into a conversation with some young Tibetan boys who share sunflower seeds with us. Among the piles of yak shit, wildflowers mirror the sky with such incredible shades of blue.
The skies over Chongqing are never clear, and between the foggy weather and light pollution, few stars can be seen in its night sky. Like I remember my father once doing for me, in the deserts of Death Valley, we walk into the black of nigh outside of town to marvel at the clarity with which thousands of cold stars might glare down upon us.

The next day we catch up with some nomadic yak-herders, out in the hills beyond town. Here you can see them attempting to untie a rope from a rather uncooperative yak. More obedient yaks were already geared up and decked out with sacks of this and that. Also, a young yak calf appeared to be hog-tied to his mother's back.

In the couple days it takes us to wend our way back down the windy mountains to civilization, my mind is still occupying that peaceful place. I knew of a peaceful place in an otherwise chaotic and stressful country, and I'm glad to have found that place again. Getting to play tour guide was a bonus. I just wonder how long those hills can remain peaceful. But these days, the lonely stupas still rise between the grassland and the lowering skies, like the prayers they represent. Tibetan scripture is carved into the hills, into pieces of slate, written across prayer-flags whipping back and forth in the ever-present wind and on the temples' prayer-wheels (moved only by the hands of the penitent).

Chengdu (above) during Golden week, compared to Tagong (below).

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Adventures in Kham Tibet (part 1)

(September 27th - September 29th)

China's National Day holiday is one of but three opportunities for the laboring masses of this overpopulated country to take a week (or two) off--to cavort about the main tourist attractions of China (or just its raucous train stations, garish tourist-traps, and smoky mahjong dens). So at least 120 million Chinese took advantage of the opportunity, this year. My girlfriend and I were among them.

(No, I'm not going to disclose more details on that little tidbit. Strange for an avid blogger like myself to say, but I value some last vestige of my privacy. Let us move along.)

From Chongqing's foggy, tortuous hills to the flatlands of Chengdu by train, and then up from the Sichuan Basin into the misty, bamboo-encrusted foothills of the Himalayas we traveled. Having made the same journey last year, I can honestly say that the 8 hour bus ride from Chengdu to Kangding is much easier with company (reading being impossible on those twisting roads).

The proclaimed 'home of Panda'--we didn't see any--is a wild, beautiful, and not terribly hospitable territory for human habitation. The Khambas (an isotope of Tibetan) dig small plots from nearly vertical land in order to grow their crops of corn and barley. At this altitude yak herding is not yet prevalent. Wooden houses (somewhat in the style of barns) attest to the deep forests which used to successfully claw their way of up the cliffs.

Below Kangding the river gorge has been tamed with several very new, very modern-looking hydropower stations/dams. In places, water has been diverted for kilometers through subterranean canals carved through the mountainside, only to spew foaming from the cliff--and generate some electricity?--later on down the canyon.

Kangding is known throughout China as the source of the 'Kangding Love Song'. Supposedly the song depicts the love of a shepherd (goatherd? yakherd?) for a wild, mountain girl who is very good at keeping house and baking whatever the Tibetan equivalent of pies might be (yak stew?). I really enjoy this song, in fact, and performed it for all the parents and students at our Aston School graduation ceremony this last August, to wild applause.

"Pao ma liu liu di shan shang; yi duo liu liu di yun yo! Duan duan liu liu di zhao zai; Kangding liu liu di cheng yo! Yue liaaang, wa-aaan, wa-aaaaaaaaaaan. Kangding liu liu di cheng yo!"

I have to say, Tibetan food rather sucks. Being a people who live at high altitude, at the very edge of sustainable habitability, they just don't have a lot of food options to work with. There's yak meat (cold cut, boiled in stew, or stuffed in dumplings), yak butter (used in tea, mostly), yak cheese (not really what I had been praying for), barley flour (folded into yak butter tea to make a doughy staple of the Tibetan diet, called 'tsampa), and yak yoghurt (extremely sour, use with sugar and extreme caution). These days other vegetables and fruits can be had (at expense) shipped up from the lowlands, and are not really a traditional part of the Tibetan diet. Some of the Kangding local cuisine (a fusion of Tibetan and lowlander Chinese styles) was quite interesting, however. My amor and I dined upon--I kid you not--walnut twigs and blossoms soaked in oil and spice, as well as a local version of 'twice-cooked pork' which was twice as tasty as the lowlander version.

We spent a day in Kangding, avoiding temple guard dogs at the local Buddhist temple and finding a nice place for sketching, up on an isolated patch of untilled farmland behind the temple.

Okay, I couldnt' resist throwing the kittens in. The monks of that particular monastery (an ancient monastery dating back at least to Qing Dynasty times, according to the painting of the Qianlong Emperor bringing gold and leopard pelts up the mountain to their 'holy monkishnesses') were kind enough to keep a whole herd of cats and dogs about the premises.
In any case, I'll finish presenting my holiday account in the second part. "The Yaks Among Us", wherein we continue on to the Tagong alpine prairies.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

My Blog is Dead, Long Live My Blog!

Well, it seems that I'm back from the void. The abyss which had gobbled up numerous--now hypothetical and quantum probable--blog postings over the past few months consisted of the best efforts of a very busy work schedule, the censorship apparatus of the Chinese government, and the website redesign efforts of Live Journal.

I am sorry, both for the loss of my own writing pleasure, and the general lack of communication lately. I do hope you'll bookmark this new blog, and we can now recommence that telepathic relationship of writer and reader.

The latest news from your correspondent in that 'Chicago of China', Chongqing, is that he has signed a further one-year contract with Chongqing Aston English School, to be Foreign Manager til the end of August 2008. While I had never planned to remain in China through the Olympic fiasco, I suppose it is a chaotic and interesting time to live here, and there should be much to report on. I'm also acquiring a lot of valuable experience as "The Man" or "The Boss", a role I had never imagined myself in, and am loathe to give it up just yet, just as I begin to figure things out.

The next posting should encompass my last and most recent week of travels (Sept. 27th--Oct. 3rd). In that week, I returned to Kangding and Tagong in the region known as Kham Tibet, some sixteen bus and train hours from Chongqing.

Viva la blog!