Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Tis the Season to be Freezing...

Fa-la-la-la-la *shiver*, *shiver*, hypothermia!

I never really understood the use of longjohns when I lived in America. Although such things must have been pretty normal once-upon-a-time in the States, many a short-sleeved maniac can survive the ten minute intervals of exposure they might face in winter. Warmth is all around the average American consumer... whether at work, in their car, at home, sitting in Starbucks, or shopping at Wal-Mart.

Yes, the season where I wake from slumber to watch freezing clouds form above my mouth has come once again. These past few days have been particularly brutal, despite the fact that no snow has yet fallen. Ice covering the ponds at school is a bad sign of frigid things coming my way, however. And Nanjing is much colder than Chongqing ever was.

Longjohns, however, make a day spent in a cold workplace and then back to a cold apartment much more liveable. I can only imagine my wait for the bus without this essential gear and shudder. Normal jeans or khakis might as well be cobwebs when it comes to keeping that merry rapist, Jack Frost, away from the skin of your bare arse.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

A Surreal Job of Judgment

Earlier this week I was asked to judge an English competition at the college where I teach. The role was not one of importance, so much as one of entertainment. Three out of about twenty teachers and school administrators, the English-speaking foreigner's opinion of the essays and songs (all in English) did not really count for much.

The first essay was by far the best and most interesting, both in terms of the imagery used and the creativity applied to an otherwise mundane topic, 'My Town, Today'. This boy had obviously memorized his essay, but never asked for a second opinion on his pronunciation. The words he spoke were unintelligible, but spoken with confidence nonetheless. Reading the copy of his essay (which we were given), he spoke of his small town in the Jiangsu countryside. As a boy, he and his brother would fish in a beautiful pond. A paradise. Now, however, chemical factories and other noisome aspects of development had arrived in his small town. "White [fish] maws gaped at the surface of the pond" which had turned putrid black in color. No one fished there anymore, and few boys even chose the area around the pond as a place to play. "Paradise Lost", the author claimed. He then produced a balanced view of the benefits of development (more jobs for the rather poor populace) versus his nostalgia for the green days of his youth, and his hope that China would no longer allow such ecological blight to mar its economic growth. He praised the Central Government for drawing attention to China's pollution problems. Perhaps he even meant that praise, although I'd imagine that having written the only vaguely negative essay of the whole bunch that we heard, some praise thrown--like a bone for a dog--to the government is probably de rigeur. Certainly it seems that the central government here in China is more concerned about these sorts of problems than local government is.

The event proceeded with myriad more essays about people's hometowns: sunny, relentlessly positive accounts detailing (sometimes in too much clinical detail) the triumphs of various local industries, and peppered with various common slogans. A bit boring for us judges, really. To top it off, the only other essay subject allowed was related to '30 years of reform' as instigated by Deng Xiaoping. Now, I respect the man and what he accomplished; I respect that even the crackdown of 1989 was probably sanctioned by Deng Xiaoping out of a love for his country rather than a love of the CCP's monopoly on power. Mao, by comparison, was completely motivated by self-interest. But I'm not confident that these students really even understand what Deng Xiaoping accomplished. Perhaps they're just not allowed to go into more interesting comment on the process by which an aggressively communist county became hyper-actively capitalist. But even if they could, would they be capable of it? Critical thinking is actively discouraged in Chinese schools, one would not be surprised to learn, to the point of total atrophy.

Over the evening, we heard a lot of those same vague slogans such as 'Socialism with Chinese Characteristics' that allowed Deng Xiaoping to steer the country around some of the vehement 'Maoist' communist apparatchiks. Since the judges were allowed to ask one question after each essay was given, I was sorely tempted to ask the students to define 'Chinese Characteristics'. I had pity, however. These young apostles of Mammon, the children of relatively well-to-do Chinese families, have been cloistered from reality since childhood: spoiled by their parents and grandparents like 'little emperors', entranced by the fake virtual worlds presented in computer games and TV, and relegated to spending most of their time studying for ubiquitous tests. Furthermore, students here have never been exposed to uncensored explanations of modern Chinese history, such that they've lost all interest in history because it is all presented in such a false, cardboard fashion. So could we determine what did interest these students, by the content of their essays? Yes.

Money; consumption; pride in the return of their country to a powerful place on the world stage. These are the prime interests of China's youth, at least as far as I could determine that night. Some even supposed that China has become a 'world power' in 2008. I think this may be a bit presumptuous, but the title is probably only waiting another twenty years or so. In any case, few of them were willing to let any cynicism into their appraisal of the world they inhabit (at least at this event). I asked two of the readers: "Having explained the many ways in which your hometown had improved over your lifetime, could you tell us about any problems you see there which still need to be fixed?" Their response, in both cases, was more than cautious. If one listened to these students, the worst problems China faces is that people in crowded buses seldom move aside to let pregnant women and the elderly have a seat. Hmm.

Just off the top of my head, I can think of one very simple problem far greater than the one named above, but less controversial than the ones often named in Western expose stories about China. When I asked my students in an exam what their favorite hobby was, most of them answered, "Sleeping".

Yes, 'sleeping' is one of the most popular hobbies among China's youth. My god, a more boring answer to that question could probably not be devised! Are these the people who will be important cogs in a vast, dynamic, and increasingly important country? When given the freedom of a little time, time with which an infinite array of activities or thoughts could fill, their best response is to lower their eyelids and depart once again from reality!

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Observations in December

This morning in the entrance of the tunnel that passes beneath Xuanwu Lake, the tunnel the bus takes from my apartment to the college where I work, the bus came to a sudden halt. I peered, like my Chinese colleagues, out the window to see.

In the entrance to the tunnel lay a small, white dog. His fur was blindingly white like newly fallen snow. It looked soft like cotton bursting from its pod. A halo of crimson gore spread out around its head and neck. The back legs and tail still struggled frantically for life, but somehow I doubt it has much chance. So much blood and guts could not be anything but fatal, I think.

I wonder, sometimes, about the idea of progress. Societal progress, economic progress, political progress, scientific progress, etc. Is there really such a thing as progress? We have an idea that humanity has undergone a long road up. Stone begets bronze, bronze begets iron, iron begets steel. Stronger, more flexible substances are born from our ancestors. Our genes, we feel, are much the same. Survival of the fittest... without regard for the fact that often the most sadistic, inhuman of humans are the ones who successfully conceive the most children. In exempla: most of us living today contain the royal blood of hundreds of various dynasties ranging throughout the epochs of human existence. This is because royals most commonly used their 'noblesse oblige' to rape and pollinate their serving wenches, and really anyone else they wished to. And what characteristics allowed such people their positions? A demonstrated capability for ruthlessness. Thus, we bear within ourselves a rather un-progressive genetic trait for selfish, cruel striving.

Economic progress is equally deceiving. What is the basis for increased money supply to fill the hordes of the wealthy and the pittances of the wage-earners? The basis must be the energy supplies (mostly mineral), construction supplies (mostly mineral), and food supplies (again, derived from the forbearance of the earth. Even many supplies of water (used in industry, and not just the creation of various commercial beverages) are 'fossil' reserves that cannot be replenished within hundreds or even thousands of years. So where is our economic progress? In reality, any growth is only a growth in our ability to siphon off a vast bank account prepared eons before any of our species walked the earth. Unless some sci-fi miracle occurs--capability to fabricate any kind of matter or energy from any other kind of matter or energy--I don't really see 'growth'. I just see a hastening to the endgame.

I don't point this out to be pessimistic or negative. I just think that people should admit whose hide their pay check or stock investments is coming out of. In the end, our species will have to find ways of either bending matter and energy completely to our will, or harvesting additional bank accounts (planets, star systems) in order to keep this system going. Will we become spontaneous creators, or gradual destroyers? I have no idea. The seeds of both possible mutations are contained in contemporary society.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Strange Bedfellows: IMDB and the CCP

I was surfing through IMDB just now and an oddly mis-worded advertisement caught my eye. "Mysterious Tibet Dalai". With a Chinese web address, no less! I was immediately suspicious. The only people in the world who refer to the Dalai Lama disrespectfully simply as 'Dalai' are his PRC Chinese critics. Is the Chinese government now so desperate to sway world opinion on this issue that they're taking out propaganda advertisements on popular Western websites? Perhaps hounding President Sarkozy of France over this issue didn't have the effect they were looking for?

Yep. A quick look over the website linked by the short advert reveals a hybrid attempt at (pragmatic) luring more tourists to Tibet and (less pragmatic) propagandizing on the Chinese government's 'official line' on Tibet and the Dalai Lama, and various other issues (Tibetan Antelope) geared to put a good spin on China's occupation of Tibet. Perhaps they don't realize that this would be considered in very bad taste (discussing tourism and politics in the same breath) among the very audience they want to cultivate here for both purposes of pilfering fat tourist wallets and inseminate with imperial Chinese ideology. Ugh. Makes me feel dirty even spending a few minutes on such a website.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Hollow Skyline

I've always wondered what the earth would like to do with the skyscraper thickets we build--if it had its way. Today's mega-flora of glass and steel begs the question, 'Where are the mega-fauna to go with?'

We've consumed the earth's surface with a lunatic building spree. Nature has not quite caught up yet. The pigeons, rats, cockroaches, and doppelgangers have already moved in. They aren't picky sorts, willing to pick through scraps and garbage heaps to make the best of things. The coyotes and hawks are moving in, though. We built this jungle with the idea that we, humans, would be its apex predator. King of the concrete hill. Perhaps that was true, and will be true for a while longer. The arrival of zombie dogs in our habitat should perhaps be viewed as a harbinger of things to come, however. (Do a google search of the term if the link doesn't work for you and you don't believe me.) We may not remain at the top of the pyramid much longer.

Rogue biologists may soon seek to re-inject biodiversity into our cities. If they don't do it, the earth itself has a few evolutionary tricks up its sleeves. And I do look forward to it.

I look forward to the days when Parking-spotted beasts wait patiently on the macadam to devour the unwary Intrepid, when feral sidewalk gnomes harvest the flesh of muggers, and a variety of flying beasties hunt snatch the occasional CEO from his penthouse balcony. I think of balances restored, and humanity returned to its natural place as just one of many diverse dangerous creatures to walk the earth.

The Loss and Redemption of Seeing

I close my eyes to see, and taking my seeing slow. My little homage to the poet Roethke, but seriously though... I woke up yesterday and realized that I had let my habit of seeing go.

Why should this be? After so many years as a curious person and an artist, so long unafraid to stare back, bare eyeball-to-eyeball at others to see their secret selves. Even when I didn't find the courage or convenience to talk, I observed and noted the details, the pinpricks where devils dance. But now, I find that I have been flinching back from my most immediate environment in a helpless effort to inure myself to it, and thus I have been closing my eyes, shielding them and losing what might have been noticed otherwise. I have surrendered myself to interior pursuits and analysis, rather than careful observation of the facts beneath my nose. Perhaps that's one reason why I feel less compunction about writing my findings down in the blog these days. I'm adding thoughts and analysis to the observations I've already made about China, I'm unsure if I've covered a particular observation or analysis too many times before, and my eyes have become jaded so that they offer less fresh perspective on what they are seeing. I also grow tired of extending my attentions outwards from this frail fleshly redoubt, because I am more vulnerable when I do that.

China, in this way, works like a ceaselessly pounding wave on the shore, a tireless hammer for the nail that stubbornly sticks up from the smoothness of the wood. I think I know much more about the power of conformity than I ever did in America--because in America there is at least some cachet to being non-conformist. Here, it just makes you even more of an oddity worthy of being a caged zoo exhibit. Certainly foreigners often get treated in this sense, like pandas in a cage: sometimes to be petted with intrepid fingers as the little girl gets her picture taken with a cute creature, and other times to be pelted with unwanted food and shouts. As an artist I want to capture and communicate the beauty and humanity in Chinese society; as a human, I just want to build a Great Wall around me to protect me from the alien masses and shouted 'halloos' that sound more like taunts. There is a constant burden inherent in the lifestyle I have chosen, and unconsciously I have bowed beneath the weight, I have coped. The blame is not with the gormless masses who have few true entertainments in their bitter lives, but with the incremental changes that their stares have wrought in me. I have allowed this.

When I pull out my sketchbook, it is like a drawbridge let down for the horde to cross, for crowds to gather around--blocking my sunlight, my line of sight to the subject matter, and disrupting my concentration. Most importantly, that almost telekinetic connection between the subject, mediated by the eyes and communicated through fingers, wood, and graphite to the page... is burnt away like a skim of frost on a pond that is seconds away from being nuked. This is frustrating, and one eventually learns that it rarely pays to let the naked eye extend itself beyond its protective lid; much the opposite, I end up shuffling too and from the safety of my apartment and job with sense and self withdrawn deep inside.

To become invisible, one must also become sightless. A blind worm in the tunnels of the mad might escape the notice of the moles, with their bright teeth and long, sharp claws. In fact, I'm sure I don't really escape notice, not really; but when I can pretend that I am blending in, as I walk quickly past the catcalls with unhearing ears, and sighless eyes, then I can move quickly to the more comfortable interior worlds of internet or reading or writing.

On a more hopeful note, the seeing... well, I'm trying to encourage good habits to return. Yesterday: I walk down through a quiet neighborhood where the old men play Chinese-style chess with large round chits that look like the wooden joints used in Tinker Toys. A verdant park begins where the street ends, and I continue on in. The old city wall of Nanjing paces me to my left, an offshoot canal from the Changjiang (Yangtze) on my right. There are few people in the park with me, not the crowds I'm always used to seeing in China. A jogger. Some old ladies chatting together. An older gentleman rollerskates in swoops and spirals around a stone plaza, playing 'Auld Lang Syne' quite well on his violin. He gives me a most conspiratorial smile. Probably one of those rehabilitated intellectual types. The sun strikes the pitted stones of the city wall, and saplings (sassafras or sycamore) burst forth from crannies between the bricks. One section of the wall has been lowered (or just not rebuilt) so that an avenue can bridge it.

Behind the wall, more park. A mock rocket ship, and a not-so-mock gunship and MIG fighter jet are placed in the park for kids to gawk at and play on. A group of college students stands on the grass in a circle with hiking gear in a pile beside them. I climb up the hill, through the weeds, and then onto the wall itself. I'm hoping to walk back up the wall, and hopefully find a path on the other end of it that can let me down to the street so that I don't have to double back several times in order to go home. The wall, however, ends at a precipice from which I can see my apartment building rearing up about a mile away.

I look down the side of the wall. No good, no safe ways to climb down the wall, although if I had ever practiced climbing it would probably be a piece of cake. There are shacks and muddy paths down there where migrant workers are illegally squatting. I climb down a path through the woods behind the wall. Where does it go? An tiny orchard. A nanosized farm with a bevy of black chickens that scuttle away from me. The farm is squeezed between the woods, a blank cement wall, and a sheer drop down to the running track of a highschool. The school kids are out running and I expect them to see me (so strange to find a laowai pop out of nowhere on the ledge above our running track!) but none of them do. Some things are so strange and unexpected that we just don't notice them at all. Especially when we've been accustomed to the value of not seeing.

Friday, November 7, 2008

News Flash: Batman Fought in Turkiye

I knew this, of course. When I was in Ankara for my study abroad, we picked out the oddly named city in Eastern Turkiye... Batman. In Turkish pronunciation, the city is actually called something like 'Buttmun'. One of a few oil-producing locations in Turkiye, apparently the resulting boom hasn't done very well for it. High crime (Gotham, anyone?) and virgin suicides there have led the mayor to try and pick fights far outside his territory in an effort to distract his constituents from dismal prospects at home. Apparently his plan is to sue the director, a Mr. Nolan, of the latest Batman movie. He claims that the beloved superhero is a copyright infringement on the name of the centuries old city. Nevermind that the current name of 'Batman' is actually just a shortening of an older, longer name.

His main complaint regarding DC Comics ownership of copyright for the Batman name is that Turks originating from the city are not allowed to name their businesses using the name of their home town. Example: a Turkish restauranteer in the German city of Wesel had named two restaurants after his home town (Batman Bar and Shish Kebap Grill, perhaps?) and was visited by employees of the production company for the new Batman movies and told he must change the name of his restaurants.

Hmm... sounds like a job for Joker.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The Consensus

Wow. What can there be to say about this election now that our president-elect, Barack Obama, has not already said? The struggle to bring our hopes to fruition, the need for humility from victors, the need for consensus solutions to common problems, can--after eight long years of nothing good this way coming--at last begin. That's my synopsis.

But you know, as amazing as this historic election was--and Jesse Jackson was not the only one with misty eyes as Obama made his victory speech--there was something else I learned last night that struck me even more, really dumbfounded me with gratitude and awe.

Matt, my friend from college days of yore, a longtime moderate conservative and Republican who voted for Bush in 2004, admitted to me that he had voted for Obama this time around, and two other college friends I had always considered moderate-to-moderate conservative had done so as well. He wanted me to know that Obama had support among young Republicans.

Mein Gott!

Now, I knew that for some time my friend had been becoming more and more centrist. I think living amid the natural beauty of Washington state helped him to realize an interest in the preservation of America's natural wonders. But I also recalled (and in the post somewhere below) that we had liked both McCain and Obama, some years past. I had figured he'd support McCain as the bipartisan change-maker from the side of the political aisle he felt more comfortable with. Boy was I wrong, and for a number of reasons.

The first reason is that even moderate Republicans and conservatives had become displeased with Bush's imperial presidency, expansion of government, and excessive kowtowing to business lobbies. Matt was not a happy camper, last we had spoken about Bush some two years ago, because of Bush's habit of adding his own opinions onto the ending of legislation crossing his desk--a clear attempt to unilaterally alter legislation he didn't like, and break the checks and balances our forefather's had intended to safeguard our democracy from would-be Caesars. No, despite having voted for Bush in 2004, there were clearly some second thoughts appearing in thoughtful voters' minds by late 2005, including that of my friend.

The second reason was entirely McCain's own fault. Despite beginning the election (notably the primaries) as a solid maverick, independent spirit, and bipartisan consensus maker, he betrayed his own principles in a huge way during the general election by moving to abjectly appease the rightwing conservative fringe that had never approved of him. Conservative culture warriors who still didn't really like him gave McCain the nod, and we all got to see something that not even the communist Vietnamese had managed: a once proud veteran, broken.

This choice defied strategic common sense (move right/left in primaries, move to the center for the general election), not boding well for McCain's performance under pressure. Many have noted that he really didn't seem to be himself for the past four or five months, and only seemed to wake up again when it came time to deliver his concession speech. Picking a pitbull for wannabe VP was just the last straw, and things went worse from there.

Perhaps my friend was concerned that the ill-mannered *cough* female dog *cough* would chew up the linens in the Lincoln bedroom or shit all over the Oval Office rug. Or perhaps it was just the internal illogic of choosing a particularly divisive VP ("pro-American parts of America") when McCain was claiming he would bring a new bipartisan spirit in his leadership. This was the last straw, and my formerly Republican friend donated money to the Obama campaign the very next week after McCain made his VP pick.

Lastly, McCain really didn't stand too much chance with a candidate like Obama. For young people such as ourselves, Obama knows how to speak as one of us--a smart and confident, but also very approachable, very accessible guy. For African Americans, minorities, and even many in the white plurality, Obama also represents a reconciliation of our greatest humanitarian tragedy. He doesn't stand, like other activists have, with an accusatory finger; he stands with self-confidence and offers his partnership with all Americans on equal and respectful terms. Unlike Kerry or Bush, he's not a blue blood. I think the conservative pundits didn't quite understand that making 'liberal elite' labels stick would not be so easy when it came to a guy who worked his way up the ladder like any other hard-working American, and spoke clear, logical English.

In any case, I really think the most important component of the election was not the Democratic return to power, but the mandate for bi-partisan progress that is the basis for such enthusiasm from people who wouldn't have been receptive to it if we were all running around like beheaded chickens in the imposed "culture wars".

I'd like to finish with some of my friend's own words on Obama: "Obama stayed himself. It means a lot to me. Obama always spoke clearly to me, like a normal guy. He stood by his morals, and you know what he stands for. It's the little stuff. People who don't watch as closely don't see it. He's the real deal. The next great president.

I have never liked a candidate more. He is the first person in my lifetime that has moved me big time, as a major public figure."

So there you have it. Matt has spelled out one of the essential reasons I have supported Obama's campaign since the primaries, even against all that the Clintons stood for. Because it is important that our president be capable of inspiring all Americans, not just half of them. I believe Barack Obama will do just that.

Happy Voting! Don't let the Zombies bite!

I will be watching anxiously from China, probably hopping from website to website in attempt to find live streaming coverage of the election that isn't either blocked by (A) the Chinese censors or (B) my lack of desire to install exotic web media players (damn you CNN!).

You know, for me, this both is and isn't a life or death election. Unlike Bush, who probably will not be topped any time soon as worst president in American history, McCain I never particularly had a problem with. Once, some years ago, a moderate Republican friend of mine and I made a pact in which we would support McCain and Obama over more divisive partisan figures. In the event of McCain vs. Obama, we would feel free to support our own party's bipartisan consensus-maker.

The agreement wasn't really set in stone; it was more like something to think about. We were trying to imagine an America beyond the culture wars which have so visibly torn the country's sense of unity asunder. And in those days I felt some fondness for any Republican willing to buck the more hardline elements in his party on issues such as immigration, global warming, and campaign finance. That isn't an easy stance to take, by any means when you have such imperialistic bedfellows.

Unfortunately, McCain (the real one) disappeared sometime after the primaries finished this year. Replaced--or perhaps lobotomized--with a clone who blandly repeated the hardline Republican line, and gave up all or most of his once brave stands. If elected, McCain would not (as is so often repeated) be the oldest first term president, but rather the first undead president to ever be elected. I say this because for all intents and purposes, the real McCain who used to fight the good fight (or more importantly, not fight--when compromise and consensus could be reached) is dead and gone, already food for the voracious attack worms the Republican party keeps on hand for dealing with would-be mavericks.

And all this even before the dreaded Palin VP pick. So many pundits and people ask, 'What was McCain thinking?' And I would respond that he clearly wasn't thinking, and probably wasn't capable of thinking, because zombies do not think.

*Whew* I'm glad I got that off my chest.

In any case, I will surely mourn the death of the once-maverick, McCain. The Republicans could use more of that sort. But this is not a time for mourning, I suspect and hope. This is not a dawn of the dead, so to speak. If predictions hold true, I think I will wake up tomorrow morning to good news and a golden, hopeful dawn for America.

And there really are no excuses for not voting. I spent $20 mailing in my absentee ballot to Michigan, and those stateside can accomplish the same thing for free. Happy voting!

Monday, November 3, 2008

Lessons from Horror

Oh, a sad little blog this is these days. My thoughts I mostly save and spill out for the edification of my college students... and the blog gets less than full attention. Well, once again I will renew my onslaught on the myriad worms that eat away at each day, and find time to spill here. Where the ground is as stony as a man's heart.

This last month was my own personal version of fright month with my students. We watch a film in class at the end of every week, and this October had four Fridays (not including the first Friday of the month, because that fell during a national Chinese holiday) including the last: All Hallows Eve. I'm a firm believer that the horror genre is overlooked for its insight into human minds, hearts, and morals. Fitting with one of the tasks I assigned to my students (find the 'moral of the story'), horror stories are perhaps the most moralistic of all stories, beginning with the sort of frightening yarns woven by mothers and fathers throughout time in order to get their children to behave: 'You stop that right now, or the boogieman, with his threadbare eyes and unzipped mouth, will find you... and gobble you up!'.

For good measure, I began with a film that scared my students (and myself) shitless: Dead Silence. A long dead witch-like woman who tears out the tongues on those who scream and turns them into ventriloquist dolls... yeah, this one stayed in some nightmares for some time after. The film also, since it made such an impression, provided my class with some common ground, as if we had all faced this supernatural threat together: the subject of Mary Shaw continues to crop up in all sorts of conversations we have in class. One girl told me that after watching this film, she saw everyone around her--in class, in line at the restaurants, in the dorms--as a human doll, carved up and hollowed out... manipulated by hidden strings.

The next week I ratcheted down the tension with a detour into funny horror: Shaun of the Dead. We discussed the fact that indeed many of my game-addled, sleep-deprived students have a quick similarity to zombies (but could probably do with more of a hunger for brains, given their lack of academic motivation). They loved the fact that Shaun still plays video games with his zombiefied best mate at the end of the film. Games beat all other pastimes or concerns, in the end, eh?

The third week, I decided to introduce my students to that master of horror, the venerable Stephen King, with his oldest (and arguably one of his most famous) stories: Carrie. It helps that I actually have a girl in my class named Carrie. She probably didn't appreciate the comparison, however, given that Carrie is batshit crazy by the end of the movie, however. I think this story, like many Stephen King stories, makes a good (and frightening) point, that really horror is never more than a step or two away from our normal lives. A numblingly mundane activity, such as high school girls practicing cruelty on one of their number, is only a mind-power away from tragedy. As your mother always told you, 'If you kids don't stop that now, someone's going to get hurt'. Watching this movie three quick times in succession also gave me an appreciation for some of the artistic choices of the filmmaker. While my students were ga-ga over the unashamed nudity in the opening credits, I most enjoyed the scenes with Carrie's mother. Early in the movie, she is framed beneath a heavy, wooden arch, and she crouches there like some fundamentalist hag... full of menace for her piteous daughter. Later, when her daughter comes home from her tragic prom, the mother is there waiting behind a doorway... few of my students even noticed, but those who did were quite scared by what they saw. The funky, crazed crucifix-con-Jesus was another nice touch.

Finally, for this last Friday, Halloween, I saved one of the scariest Stephen King stories of all time (in my humble opinion). Pet Sematary is a story about Eden, I think. A story about the childlike innocence that we all possess. A story about the unintended consequences of resurrection, particularly when it takes place in a high and lonely Micmac indian burial ground haunted by a wendigo. A story once again about something that any of us--if we were in the doomed protagonist's shoes--would probably carry to conclusion. One reason why Romeo and Juliet strikes a chord with all of us (when Hamlet might not always do), is because the underlying stupidity of tragedy, of that tragedy, is one which any of our love-addled minds might succumb to. Pet Sematary is the same: at heart this tragedy is about the extremely stupid decisions we make when the loss of love is the question of the day. Lewis, all my students agree, was a completely stupid guy. He just doesn't learn! He buries the family cat up in that haunted soil, and the cat comes back with a stench beneath his fur and a new meanness of spirit. Then, when his son gets hit by a truck coming hell-for-leather down the road in front of their yard... well, I think we all see where this is headed. The little boy comes back, but he's not quite bought and paid for yet, and his towheaded curls cover a mind that has been warped and rotted by whatever terrible grinning things haunt the highlands. When, predictably, Lewis's wife dies, what do you think he does? That edenic power of life and death is a rather addictive one... even if it carries with it a nasty kick.

I think all of us who have loved and lost pets would agree that given the chance, we might well bring those beloved creatures back... and nevermind the consequences. So damn, but we're scared when we see what the consequences could be! Because at heart we're all guilty of the desire to play god if given half a chance.

'The soil of a man's heart is stonier, Lewis--like the soil up in the old Micmac burying ground. A man grows what he can, and he tends to it'. -- Judd Crandall, Pet Sematary

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

V is for Victory

In the bitter blizzard tides of November, there is soon to come a reckoning for those forces that have, through eight long years, waged a war upon the integrity, reputation, and economic competitiveness of America. More important still, these lengthening wintry nights are a time for so-called ‘culture warriors’ to shiver in their burrows and lairs, as the mandate for a united, bi-partisan consensus rules that scare tactics and divisiveness are overdue to wither and flee from the country. And not only the likes of Bill O’Reilly should fear that outcome, but also Russia, Iran, Venezuela, and China probably would have preferred us to continue on our way down the path to a broken, incompetent government and land. But this is not for us.
This is not a time to be speaking of ‘pro-American’ parts of the country—assuming, illogically, that the rest of America is anti-itself. This is not a time to be planting falsehoods that renew ethnic tensions. Neither should this be a time for gloating on the left. Victory dividends for either side must be spent on healing a country thrown into a downward spiral by the past eight years of incompetent leadership. Our halls of power must also be taken from the hands of partisan flamers and given back into the hands of statesmen who are willing to work out bipartisan compromise that can get the country moving forward again. I’m tired of seeing totalitarians the world over rubbing their hands with glee and telling us ‘I told you so’, in their belief that democracy is a weak and self-destroying form of government. It must be proved this November, once again, that American leadership has an inherent strength in its ability to adapt and change, to learn from and avoid repeating the mistakes of the past.
In an odd coincidence, this year two great and historical events will coincide. As it happens, the morning of my birthday (November 5th) in Beijing time overlaps with the evening of Election Day (November 4th). All and sundry had considered what gifts to bestow upon this miraculous annual day of reincarnation (I will be reincarnated as a 26-year-old). However, I seriously doubt that there could be any greater gift that the masses of Americans—poor and huddled around their TVs, waiting for the latest reports of financial and economic collapse—could give this particular battered traveler of the outer planes of English teaching, than to vote for a change that can benefit America and the rest of the world besides. Really. Go vote!
And do be sure to register with people or organizations that you trust, and to take your absentee ballots to a proper postbox. The ‘culture warriors’ have been waging war on the basic methods of our democracy, and they do not know what an honorable fight is. Do not give them a chance to deprive you of your vote!
If V is for the Victory that America so requires, then O is for the Opportunity to put partisan and racial strife behind us.
Go Obama!

Monday, October 20, 2008

Academe Exiled: A Rant

I waited by the curb below my apartment, early this morning (6:40 AM), for a bus to the university where I work. The forty-minute long ride into the boonies beyond the city proper left me plenty of time to ponder the reasons my diploma factory (and other academic institutes) have been exiled to the sticks.

Our bus passed through the tunnel below Xuanwu lake, and along the parkway north of Zijin Mountain where Sun Yat-sen lies buried, then past industrial developments, suburban gated communities, a few remnant country villages, fields, and at last we arrived on the edge of the fairly new 'University City' the Nanjing government had planned out. Unfortunately, my college is on the far side of the whole caboodle.

Many Chinese cities are developing these academic enclaves. Mid-grade institutions that were once located in the Urban area proper are cashing in on their valuable properties and relocating to cheap converted farmland. For the luckier headmasters, there may even be enough money left over after this transaction to buy themselves a nice BMW. More reputable institutions are expanding their universities (which, being built a hundred years or so ago, were often located in the middle of inconveniently expensive/otherwise spoken for downtown land and were often not terribly large to begin with) with new campuses in these educational ghettos.

Every student I've asked about this phenomenon speaks of these places with dread. Every student I've talked to wishes fervently to be able to study in one of the downtown campuses of a university that still possesses such. In Chongqing, the 'university city' was located in empty farmland on the other side of one of the mountain-ridges, giving the place a particularly remote feel. This one isn't much better, however. And the students, unlike most of the teachers and staff, are stuck there. Transport options are not convenient, and certainly do no accomodate late-night hijinks in the tea houses and clubs, witholding one of the ancient and essential rights of all college students.

After at last arriving in the misty fields, barren plazas, and white-washed lecture halls (the facades seem to be cracking already, despite this place being no more than a few years old), I look over my lesson plans and decide to apply an activity I had considered for a while now. We will have a little discussion and debate on this issue of sending students to the boonies.

My students, of course, are more than willing to ascribe every sort of insanity to the school's headmaster. They also, however, are very aware of the potential benefits of having moved to the middle of nowhere. I'm sure they've been lectured on all these very same points in numerous speeches and school events. To begin: The air is fresher; the environment is greener; the government intends to improve the economic situation of this particular patch of nowhere by dumping thousands of hungry, stir-crazy students here; there is less noise; there is less traffic, and less (bus) traffic issues in the city center if all the students have been effectively removed from it; so many students in one area might create a sort of critical mass for studiousness (alternatively, it might just create a critical mass of computer gaming dens); and of course that the land is cheap, offering the chance for an otherwise undeserving school to expand its premises. I added, in the silence of my own mind, that in the event of future Tiananmen-like student protests, the students here are easily cut off from the city proper and controllable. The CCP being very security-conscious, I'm sure that this fact did not escape their interest.

For cons: Oddly enough, my students (having already said in pros that the air is fresher) say that the air is in fact not fresher here, due to nearby industrial developments; shopping, eating at nicer restaurants than those available in the student ghetto, bus/train station, local attractions, are all not easily reached by public transit (the zone is also essentially cut off from the city proper every night when the buses stop running); utter and interminable boredom. No wonder 9/10ths of my students spend all their free time (and a good part of their class time) immersing themselves in rampant escapist fantasies... particularly, World of Warcraft. As if that game weren't addictive enough, its gameworld is at least a hundred times better than facing life in such a drab and boring locale as this.

Discussing the matter with other teachers, one of them had a really good point: Chinese students are not terribly grounded in reality to begin with. Starting life as an only child--often spoiled senseless by parents and grandparent's whose retirement plans rest on the success and happiness of the child--the Chinese student then graduates to the relentless grind that is the primary, and secondary school system.

The systematic and constant tests leave little room for a life, an active imagination, or hobbies. Most Chinese students spend their summers bored to tears because they never really developed an inner or outer life beyond school in the rest of their time, and even summers are not safe from homework projects that are due at the start of the school year. Can this be described as a real life wherein real skills and interests are discovered? Compound that by the excessive gaming that many indulge in, and these kids don't spend any time at all observing the real world. All time is spent cloistered in one fantasy/nightmare or another. Then, at the time when children all around the world are seen to be growing up, and would be packed off to fend (more or less) for themselves at college, these less fortunate Chinese students get sent to live in a bubble world built on loam.

No, real life only catches up with them when they suddenly must face the prospect of looking for a job. At this point absolute despair sets in, because those who have no useful connections (guanxi) will have few decent job prospects indeed. Connections to the proper people--even if you're a lazy, useless sort of rich slob--could easily result in a doubling or quadrupling of the average post-college wage a student could expect. Those who have no connections might expect a wage of about 1,000 RMB or less each month (equivalent, roughly, to $145) which is not so much to live on in the eastern, more developed cities of China.

Many of our students suddenly seem to leap from oblivious ebullience into black despair in their final years of college, even when they are among the most talented and hard-working individuals in the entire school. They've obviously not been prepared to face their futures with confidence, despite enjoying a luxury that relatively few in China have the priviledge of.

I suppose it could be a stretch to argue that the difference of location between an urban campus and a rural one could make much difference in a system that is so dramatically skewed to favor the few. I do think, though, that officials and headmasters may be overlooking the psychological impact of such dramatic isolation on the aspirations and confidence of youth. After all, the majority of Chinese graduates from these institutes are probably not looking at a career ensconced in ivory towers, but rather an uphill fight through a quite rough-and-tumble job market. Employers (and I used to be one in this job market) are also liable to become frustrated with this crop of potential employees who have no idea what the world beyond their college ghetto is.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Bi-Monthly Pictures

This is the sort of thing that I do when my students don't show up for class, or disappear during the mid-class break. As I may have mentioned, they're not terribly motivated students. In an ironic twist of fate, they enjoy playing games (such as World of Warcraft) late into the night, and thus are too tuckered out to attend my class most days.

The misty view along the top of the old city wall of Nanjing. Both the towers of the Jiming Temple, and the under-construction Greenland Place (7th tallest building in the world, when completed, aproximately the same height as the Empire State Building) can be seen.

A view of Nanjing from my apartment window at different times of day. Again, the Greenland Place tower can be seen quite clearly. Zijin Shan (Purple-Gold Mountain) can be seen behind the skyscrapers along the left.

During the mid-autumn festival, perhaps billions, of mooncakes are consumed by Chinese whilst they contemplate the full moon--or if the moon happens to be shrouded by a thick layer of smog, whilst they contemplate Korean melodramas on TV. I found this lovely bit of Chinglish mooncake advertising while shopping in Carrefour.

Moody weather over the Bund (the old financial district of Shanghai, when it was an international concession), as well as over Pudong which is the new financial district of Shanghai built over the past ten years on what used to be empty cabbage fields (below).

The two buildings above, (shorter) Jinmao Building and (taller) Shanghai World Financial Center, are currently the world's second and fifth tallest buildings.

Cherry's relatives in Hangzhou had caught a baby soft shell turtle. The Chinese call these creatures "wangba". You can also call someone a "wangba" when what you really mean is that he's an asshole. I'm really not sure why Chinese dislike being likened to such cute, strange creatures, but they don't seem to mind eating them.

Mmmm... tasty!

(No, I didn't actually eat the poor little fellow.)

Prayer-sticks burning, taking their carcinogenic hopes up... up... and hopefully through the thickening ozone.

Apparently some temple-goers have been saying prayers to this long extinct tiger who once may have inhabited a cave on the cliffside behind the temple. Are tigers in the habit of answering prayers, except ones that go: "Please eat me, oh striped master of the jungles!"?

Lovely temple, though.

Hangzhou: Another Vacation

October 1st marks the PRC's National Day--equivalent to the 4th of July for Americans. Unlike Americans, however, Chinese get an entire week off. If I recall correctly, we get one day.

For our week of freedom, to relax the tensions of work and life, Cherry and I took a couple days in the midst of the week to visit Hangzhou. Hangzhou is an ancient city, a very wealthy city filled with 'Chuppies' by the handful. According to its advertisements the last couple years (and changed this year), Hangzhou is "the most beautiful city in China".

I beg to differ.

Hangzhou is not a bad city, don't get me wrong. It's certainly not an ugly city. Numerous parks, upscale establishments, ritzy condo high-rises, and 'California-styled' suburbs riddle the city proper. The air, compared to other cities of similar size, is fairly fresh. Perhaps that's because Hanzhou's main money makers tend to be software and animation--relatively pollutant-free industrial activities. But Hangzhou is not Shangri-la, is not that gem of the orient Hongkong, and in terms of beauty doesn't even stack up against Kangding--a town nestled in the Kham Tibetan highlands, and perhaps 1/100th the size of Hangzhou--because wealth and culture aside, it's just not a showcase of anything special.

West Lake (which we largely avoided, due to the millions of tourists descending upon it during the vacation week) is Hangzhou's main and pretty much only tourist draw. The lake isn't really very large (especially to someone coming from the Great Lakes region of the US), and is surrounded by mountains. But I have visited at least three or four lakes just in China that beat it for beauty, one of which is in the mountains directly above the aforementioned Kangding. And why? Because the mountains aren't terribly high, and the shore is awfully over-developed. Nature, not man, is the source of divine artistry, but the locals don't seem to have learned that lesson.

Looking through the Lonely Planet guide, aside from the lake there really isn't much else listed for Hangzhou. Which doesn't mean there aren't some hidden gems--there should be, a city that size--but does mean that Hanzhou is really a second-tier Chinese city as far as beauty and fascination go. The new advertisement for Hangzhou, by the way, says, "Come to Hangzhou, discover the mysteries of China" which is a pretty weak line, by my reckoning. China's mysteries aren't readily found in any of the major cities; in my experience, you have to walk about a hundred miles off the beaten track to see any of those, and preferably deep into the wild mountains, deserts, and jungles of the western 2/3rds of the country. I'm sorry, Hangzhou, but wealth, industriousness, and first-world living style doesn't necessarily translate into a truly Chinese sense of either beauty or mystery. If clean streets and proper parks were my cup of tea, I'd take my vacation in Paris or Vienna or somesuch.

Now all that said, our vacation in Hangzhou was actually quite pleasant. We weren't looking for major tourist draws, mystery, outstanding beauty, or any of that shtick. We were visiting some of Cherry's relatives in the countryside outside the city proper. Delicious homecooked meals of river crabs and other crustaceans were duly enjoyed. We visited a small factory (located in a tiny village-let among the rice fields) owned by Cherry's cousin. The point of the factory, apparently, was to create little cylindrical, hollow, plastic doohickies spooled with copper wire on the outside and containing a roll of unnamed metallic alloy on the inside. The cousin claimed that this new alloy was more environmentally friendly than competitive types, which is an interesting claim even if it isn't true, because it is somewhat unexpected that environmental sensitivity would be trickling this far down the business chain. But I guess that just shows how rapidly environmental qualifications are being coopted by big business as an essential product quality--now that the writing is on the ozone.

Biking among the rice paddies brought back pleasant memories. Stealing cotton pods split open in the heat from the farmer's fields; visiting a local food fair which was offering Turkish-style doner (meat from an upright revolving spit); climbing up to a functioning (as opposed to touristic) Buddhist monastery/temple on the ridge behind our hosts' house; and playing with our hosts' baby. There was quite a bit of fun to be had, and little of it was conventional tourist fare.

Thursday, September 18, 2008


We visited Shanghai last weekend, as the Mid-Autumn Festival gave us a useful 4-day weekend. Cherry hadn't been there for about seventeen years, so I imagine the city she has vague, childhood memories of is almost entirely gone.

With the exception of the Bund, with its nineteenth century banks and hotels, the city has been reinventing itself yearly, even monthly since the mid-1990's. Pudong has sprouted shining stalagmites in the new financial heart of the city across the river from the neogothic and art nouveau edifices in the Bund. Pudong was cabbage fields when Cherry last visited this city.

We visited a Turkish restaurants--so that I could get my fix--and ascended the Pearl of the Orient tower to get views, as high-flying scavenger birds might, of the spiny caracass below. We enjoyed breakfast with Uighurs in a beautiful old neighborhood north of Suzhou Creek that has mostly disappeared beneath the hubris and shadows cast by glass-encased towers. I felt very sad to see some of these unique streetcorners vanishing beneath cement and marble facade.

Facade is, in fact, the best way to consider Shanghai. This is a city that sells and buys everything, but half of that everything is a fake. That includes the shining towers that project above the underlying swamp, mist, and miasma. Statistics say that at least 60% of the business real-estate in Shanghai is empty, tenantless. So beautiful and (hopefully) structurally sound, these skyscrapers may be, but they are still mostly false-fronts for a wild west business environment that snares the unwary and the gullible. I imagine--in my more hopeful moments--that this will eventually change, that the real-estate market will eventually slow to more realistically model demand, and that the skyscrapers will fill up with busy little amoebas in suits. I imagine that real-estate owners may also take more pride in the upkeep of their buildings then. Currently it seems that new locations are projects pop up so quickly that landlords have little incentive to take care of their previous acquisitions. Even simple things, like dusting off their glassy hides, just doesn't seem to happen. More worryingly, interior fixtures rapidly crumble because corners were cut and cheap furnishings furnished. Quality has been sacrificed for speed and quantity.

That said, there is also plenty of quality to be found in Shanghai as well. Substance and false-fronts seem to coexist here. Dining with Cherry's relations in a high-class restaurant in the oddly named 'Super Brand Mall' in Pudong, we enjoyed subtle dishes (a nice change of pace from the blaring spice and oil of Chongqing/Sichuan cuisine) and a night view straight across the river to the Bund and the city center beyond. The expat element is also worth mentioning, as Shanghai is one of the few genuinely cosmopolitan cities I've encountered in China. And Shanghai, unlike many others, is very comfortable in its role as a portal between China and the outside world. This is not just a sycophancy upon world trends, an addictive dependancy, or a parasitic seller of cheap goods. Shanghai gives the impression that it will soon (if not already) become a setter of trends, rather than a follower. Shanghai has been given an almost unique opportunity by its history as an international concession where no one sovereign ruled. In more than one way, this is a place where cultures blend, and one of China's very few spots where cultures melt together into something new, rather than assimilate. This is New York in China.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Speaking of Massacres...

We visited the Nanjing Massacre Memorial (the actual name is much longer, much more unwieldy) last weekend. This had been my second visit, the last being in spring of 2006.

The spot was chosen carefully--the museum lies atop a mass burial site used by Japanese troops to dispose of some grisly Chinese remains. I remembered that part of the memorial quite well: there just aren't so many places in the world where you can come face to face with a moldering pile of massacred skeletons. Literally inches between the skin of your nose and a rictus smile of polished bone.

The new setup seems well-designed, reminiscent of Yad Vashem or the Vietnam War Memorial. The enclosure is a barren sea of gravel, baking under the sun. That alone would make most visitors begin to feel uncomfortable (which might be the point). If that didn't get the point across, the entry point through a jagged, cleaved boulder, or the burnt remnants of dead trees standing vigil near the excavated skeletons would probably do the trick. A massive statue dismembered into two parts, (another part I remembered well from my last visit) a hand clawing up from beneath the gravel, and a despairing woman's face certainly make one wonder whether a race of giants was also subject to Japanese torments. Also, some aspects--like the aforementioned trees and boulder, or a large bell--actually seem more mysterious than germane.

The walk to the entrance has been transformed, with a serene stream passing beneath horrific statues depicting: a raped woman holding her dead baby son; an old man reaching out in a physically-impossible bent postures with zombie-like hands clawing at the distance, a dead baby frozen to its dead mother's chest by a mixture of blood, milk, and tears; a teacher holding the falling body of his ghostly wife, etc. Captions explain, somewhat poetically, each episode of the horrors contained within the museum.

A bell tolls for the dead, as one enters the museum proper. Walls are duly inscribed with the names, some substituted with nicknames when the proper name is not known (Xiao Mao-mao, translated as little fur-fur, for example, is a suitable Chinese endearment for a baby boy). A drop of water falls into a pool every seven seconds (I think) to demonstrate the rate of loss of life during the period of Japanese occupation of Nanjing. A total of around 300,000 dead is claimed, some 16,000 of which are completely verifiable according to research recently compiled and released by the Chinese government.

The museum has an amazing collection, and does a very good job of taking its visitors through the immediate prelude to war, onslaught of Japanese aggression in and around Nanjing and Shanghai, the battle to capture Nanjing, a variety of Japanese war propaganda (much of it thoughtfully provided by the Japanese themselves, particularly the Sino-Japanese Peace Society), the occupation, the various horrors of that occupation--including special sections devoted to rape, pillage, arson, Chinese shot, Chinese burned, Chinese drowned, Chinese sliced by samurai swords, and a wax reenactment of a typical Chinese home with about ten various members of the family lying dead in various positions within--the foreign residents who set up an international safety zone for protecting Chinese refuges, the puppet regime, and the post-war attempts at truth and reconciliation on the matter of the Nanjing massacre*.

(*Note: some people refer to this as 'the Rape of Nanking' which seems like a typical news headline manner of description, and although rape is a terrible thing in itself, the name perhaps doesn't address the many other atrocities that occurred.)

Then--and at this point the museum was closing, so the security guards were not-too-subtly prodding the remaining visitors along--the museum recounts the entire history of Japanese aggression in China during WWII. That will be interesting to explore at another point in time (the museum is now free of charge, so I doubtlessly will visit again at some point), but didn't seem like a very good museum design choice, considering that most visitors are probably physically and emotionally exhausted by the time they get to that portion of the museum.

Overall a memorial well suited to truth and reconciliation. There was even a brief wall at the end of the museum detailing recent peaceful relations between the PRC and Japan.

This sort of museum--intentionally--puts one in a reflective mood. But my reflections may be somewhat controversial to many, including Japanese, Americans, Chinese, Turks, and Kurds. The question it puts in my mind is the unfolding, equal-opportunity nature of atrocity. Every human may find his or herself capable of atrocity. Situations change over the centuries, and an aggrieved people will suddenly find themselves in an opportune position to exact retribution, to ethnically 'cleanse' lands they feel are rightfully theirs, to right wrongs with further wrongs, or just to set aside the burden of compassionate humanity and indulge in an atavistic surge of rage, greed, or lust. Lest readers assume that I'm pointing fingers here, lets start with the US. We certainly have had our moments, in gifting small-pox blankets upon the natives of our beautiful land, in incinerating two Japanese cities (surely including vast numbers of civilians) rather than sacrificing committed soldiers, in the numerically smaller tragedies and travesties of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo.

So the Japanese have memorials in Hiroshima and Nagasaki to commemorate the wrong done to them. The Chinese have this memorial to commemorate the wrong done to them. Perhaps the stateless Tibetans, Tatars, and Uighurs have meager memorials to the injustices done to them, lost among the sands of remote deserts or amongst the prayer flags strewn atop the Himalayan peaks. The Jews have Yad Vashem, yet they continue the madness of allowing criminal settlers to occupy Palestinian land and their security establishment to partition Palestinian villages and olive groves. The Armenians point their fingers at the Turks, and the Turks point their fingers at the Armenians. The Kurds helped to cleanse Armenians from eastern Anatolia, but their own identity has been until recently criminalized in those same parts. As my Kurdish friend Dino once stated to me, "The Turks like to kill. I don't know why." But in Iraq, the Kurds are also busy cleansing Turkomen and Yazidi from Kirkuk. Modern day Christians like to feel aggrieved in remembrance of 9/11 terrorist plots. Modern day Muslims still feel aggrieved by the rape and pillage they experienced at Christian hands during the crusades.

These are but a few examples, and I can already imagine the haranguing I might receive from Turkish, Kurdish, and Chinese friends for even stating this comparison. There is a basic hypocrisy inherent in our inability to recognize the genocidal impulse as a basic human impulse shared by all races, religions, creeds, and nationalities of man. Certainly every nation or ethnicity that has found itself in a position of strength has abused that position with any number of atrocities, merely a macrocosm to the corruption power accomplishes as well with individual people. Can there be such a thing as a great nation or great people, whose shining city was not built upon a hill of broken bones and angry ghosts? I've always felt that this is exactly the reason why modern day horror stories always make a strong tie between guilt and fright. The shambling form of Samara, faceless behind her long black tresses, confronts us with the knowledge that all of us were born through the forgotten acts of treachery and atrocity of our ancestors. History may have been written by those of us who survived off the flesh of our fellows during the hard times, the lean times, but the guilt of it cannot be shaken. We all own this.

The second question engendered in my mind by the unsymmetrical halls of Nanjing's memorial: why should atrocity be controversial? Certainly it is horrible, and should be protested, should be ended and never again revisited by the humanity. But I wonder sometimes, why we put such special emphasis on the various genocides and massacres of the World War era. There is nothing particularly special about them, when ranked against the entire human history of civilizations.

Why should there not, for example, be memorials to the numerous cities sacked, raped, and burned to the ground... multiple times, no less... by such luminaries as Julius Caesar, Timurlane, Attila the Hun, Alexander the Great, et al. Is this just the fading effect that history has on our memories? If you go back far enough, even the currently peaceable Tibetans were playing polo with the severed heads of their enemies. Rape and pillage are mentioned numberless times in the histories of all world civilizations, and genocide crops up fairly often as well, but why do these atrocities bear special mention when Hitler, Stalin, or various Japanese generals are at the head of the dirty deed rather than some forgotten Babylonian, Hittite, or Qin dynasty general?

Do we really have such a high opinion of 'modern man' that we would assume ourselves incapable of the basest human traits? Have we, by inventing light bulbs and Morse code and calculators that fit in one's pocket, somehow gone through some miraculous mutation that puts us above the obscenities seemingly hard-coded into our behavior? I think this is an utterly unrealistic lesson to derive from human history. Razed to the ground, raped into submission, enslaved generation upon generation, tortured or flayed or crucified when submission could not be had by any other means. These are descriptions of average towns and cities throughout the last 7,000 + years of human history that happened to get in the way of bored military men and spoiled god-kings. Atrocity, in this sense, is a banality. Taboo, but nonetheless a common thing.

Our modernity--our time in space, technological progress, and social development--no more than our religion, credo, nationality, or ethnicity, does not put us past the nightmares we are all capable of inflicting on the world. I don't question the need to memorialize horrors of modern times, or the need to put a stop to the horrors that are ongoing. I do think our denial of the universal nature of abomination is just as dangerous as would be forgetting the facts and origins of abomination. Not only is it petty and self-serving to trivialize the tragedies experienced by our rivals and enemies, but it is an extremely dangerous habit in such an overpopulated and overly weaponized world.

The memorial of our worst tragedies must also be a reminder of our worst capabilities, lest it become little more than a score-sheet from which to foster the atrocities of tomorrow.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Nanjing Ninjutsu

Nanjing vs. Chongqing

I've moved from Chongqing to Nanjing for the coming year; I will be teaching at the Nanjing College of Information Technology, starting Friday. I figure a little background on my environs would be useful in understanding and imagining the stories I will tell.

Chongqing city proper has about 7 million denizens, Nanjing has about 6 million although it comprises a much smaller land area. Nanjing is a cleaner, greener city that has 22 universities and colleges, and numerous parks including a large lake near the middle of the city, the most complete ancient city walls remaining in China, and Zijin Mountain where famed first president of China, Sun Yat-sen lies buried.

Ancient Nanjing

One of my friends who lived here in Nanjing for a time told me this story:

When the first emperor to unite all of China, Chin Shi Huang, of the Chin Dynasty, had completed his conquests and lay tired on his throne in the ancient city of Chang'an (now called Xi'an), he asked that the greatest geomancer (Feng Shui expert) be brought before him to consult. The emperor wished to know the best location in China to establish the seat of the empire, and if there were any locations that might by their energy forces provide a rival to his throne.

The geomancer told the emperor that there was one place with such good feng shui that it could not help but to produce a rival to the emperor's throne: Nanjing.

The emperor, perplexed, asked if there was anything to be done about this possible threat. The geomancer, backed by the emperor's forces, built a canal to drain away the good feng shui of Nanjing. Thus, while several dynasties, including the Southern Song Dynasty, the early Ming Dynasty, and the Nationalist government (before retreating to Chongqing in WWII, and before retreating to Taiwan after the Chinese Civil War) have made Nanjing their capital, few have lasted there for very long.

Modern Times

Today's Nanjing is a city of government (seat of Jiangsu Province), a city of gardens, and a city of students. With twenty-two universities, young people abound in the streets and exotic cuisine is available for the many foreign teachers and students who come to live here for a time. Some of the older universities (Nanjing U., Nanjing Normal U., SouthEast U.) will be exactly a hundred years old next year.

One key difference between Nanjing and Chongqing which we noticed almost immediately is that the air here seems fresher. That could be partly because the rather flatter landscape allows the winds to blow away smog at a faster rate than in the narrow, hilly river valleys that comprise Chongqing. Another reason is that this is a much greener city, with gardens and campuses seemingly around every corner. Walking along a tree-lined boulevard, I could actually smell some of the summer smells which I had grown accustomed to in rural Michigan. Speaking of the trees, giant sycamores overhang the main boulevards of the city. Some say these trees have been here since the days when Qing emperors may have passed by in the midst of their vast retinues.

One of the more famous attrocities of world history has made Nanjing (or its older spelling in English, Nanking) rather famous. The so-called 'Rape of Nanking' during the early years of World War II saw much of the city razed, at least 300,000 Chinese massacred, and plenty of rapes and maiming committed by the Japanese soldiers. This episode in the city's history has certainly been branded into the minds of Chinese school children, and is one of the reasons why most Chinese express hatred of Japan (despite the fact that Japanese cartoons and cuisine are often quite popular). The Nanjing Massacre Museum, which I have previously visited, lays open a mass grave so that tourists can view the tragedy firsthand. Even if other parts of China seem to have made their peace with the Japanese (notably Dalian, Qingdao, or Shanghai), I doubt that the Nanjingren will forget their historic emnity any time soon.

Living Situation

We will be very comfortable in our new life here in Nanjing, I'm sure. Our first evening we had some quite passable lasagna and pasta with roasted pine nuts. The next evening we dined at a putative Xinjiang (Turkic Muslim westernmost province in China) restaurant. I know there must be a Subway restaurant or two in the city, because I saw a girl walking down the street with a sub wrapped in the familiar logo-printed paper of that sandwich chain. I'm quite excited for that, and excited as well to see what other gems of international cuisine might turn up. The local supermarket giants (even the Chinese ones) seem well stocked with proper pickles, dijon mustard, tortilla chips, cheese, bacon, and even American hotdogs. For lunch today I roasted up some of those.

I should also be able to access plenty of English-language reading material. The ultra-modern central public library which I drooled over the last time I visited this city, a couple years ago, is now open, and I made a point of getting my very own library card. I'm allowed to take one book out at a time, and take a book for up to a month before fines start to set in. The English-language section isn't huge (and is mostly comprised of nonfiction), but I did spot a few gems, including that book about gnomes which spawned the 'David the Gnome' children's tv show which I watched when I was a child. The book isn't as suited for children as the tv show was, however, with a rather more European attitude on nudity being expressed in the drawings of the illustrator. For that matter, could it be that the version of that book which the public library in Berrien Springs stocked had been censored? I don't at all recall this section on Rusalki.... They do have lovely bodies, though!

Our apartment is at the northwestern edge of the city, an hour's walk from Nanjing University's campus, maybe a fifteen minute walk to the banks of the Changjiang (Yangtze River), and right next to a large forested park. Right across the street from us, there is a giant tower with a rotating restaurant clinging like a treefrog at the top of it (you know the sort). We probably won't be having much difficulty finding our way home from other parts of the city.
Across the other street (our hi-rise apartment complex is on a corner) one section of Nanjing's ancient city wall begins. It comforts me to think that in ancient days my abode would be situated right about where I am, and I might have more or less the same view of the city that a tower guardsman might have had.

Here's another view from the window of our apartment, looking south across a park towards the bright center of the city:
The apartment itself is much smaller than my apartment in Chonging, but that is expected in a more expensive city and a one-bedroom apartment. The bedroom duals as a living room, the kitchen (which is not much of a kitchen at that, with no permanent stove and very limited counter space) duals as an entryway, and the bathroom is small enough to have one hand in the shower, one hand in the sink, and one's butt on the toilet.

Working Situation

My college is located on in a 'university city' district out beyond the city proper, in what I'm sure was farmland not many years ago. This is a common trend in Chinese cities, what with city officials eager to sell off valuable urban campuses to developers, as well as develop research hubs on cheaply obtained (against the protests of farmers?) land in the countryside. Chongqing had set up something similar, and I'm sure that students here (just as there) dreaded being sent off to such modernist "learning" concentration camps. The architecture is uniformly modernist, with vast empty, sun-drenched squares, lawns no one is allowed to walk upon, and overall only a slight improvement on the socialist architecture of Soviet times. Form is addressed in ways that doubtlessly looked good on the drawing board, but less so with rust stains forming down the sides of the white-and-blue buildings, and a distinct lack of comfortable places for students or faculty to hang out. In reality, all the faculty and staff live in the city proper and arrive on campus via an hour-long shuttle ride. Only the students are required to live in such bland surroundings.

As to the students, I'm sure I'll know more about that on my first working day--this Friday. The director of the BCIT program informed me, in a wry aside, that my students are a bit rowdy and not terribly bright or studious. I suppose thats why they ended up in this educational ghetto, and not on the gladed campus of Nanjing University.

These things aside, I'm sure life in Nanjing this year will be pleasant. Once again I will re-iterate my welcome for any of you who might like to see China this year and come visit. I hope this invitation will not continue to fall on deaf ears, as China really is worth seeing and certainly won't be getting any cheaper than it is. Now's the time to see this vast land!

Friday, August 29, 2008

Comparisons in Political Slander

I was just reading an article in which Fox News (who else?) was exploring the tie between a designer used for something or other by Britney Spears, and now as set designer for Obama.

... Oh, what trite bullshit!

Honestly, the Republicans must be pretty hard up for Obama criticism, if this is the best that they can do. What, are we in high school, making fun of each other's homecoming parade floats? The tie to a designer used by Britney is really a stretch. People who have the funds to do so (which Obama does, and McCain doesn't) will make use of the best designers and consultants... period.

I didn't mind McCain, and once had some respect for the old codger who stood up to his party on a number of issues... until he sold himself out to his party's right wing extremists. Now he's just making himself look silly with the "celebrity" line of attack. Republicans often tout Reagan as their greatest president (at least of the Republican party in its modern sense), but the man was quite literally a celebrity of the Hollywood variety. The only presidents lacking 'celebrity appeal' (such as Bush the Elder or Gore) were somewhat less than successful in their search for executive powers.

Speaking of Gore, you certainly can't accuse Republicans of consistency. They accused that learned candidate of being too boring and lacking in charisma, but now they're essentially accusing Obama of the opposite, being too exciting and too charismatic.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Moving to Nanjing!

As of our last conversation, it seemed that I would be joining a magazine just opening in Chongqing. Unfortunately I won't be taking up that job offer, for a variety of reasons including under-investment and reluctance by those people in charge to pay a fair wage (they wanted me to manage the magazine's new branches in both Chongqing and Chengdu--a city four hours away by train from here--for about half what I'd been making as an English training school manager). In any case, I managed to get about three months experience with that business, as well as a digital copy of our proposed first magazine issue mostly comprised of my own photography and articles. I should be able to use that in my portfolio of work experience, I imagine, and leverage a similar sort of job later on.

In lieu, then, of staying in Chongqing to work on this magazine, I've taken a job as an English instructor at the Nanjing College of Information Technology. I've always wanted to try my hand at teaching college students, and now I'll get a chance to see how I like it. I recall that one of my classmates in high school insisted that I carried with me the ambiance of an English professor... well, I guess I now am one, sort of.

Nanjing is a lovely city. Maybe some of you read my descriptions of it two years ago in my older blog. Shortly after I arrived in China for the first time I visited that city of long history, grand universities, and beauteous gardens. I thought then, and still think now, that I'd enjoy living there for a time. I'll be sending another update along soon, as well as more detailed information about Nanjing.

Friday, August 22, 2008

A Politically Correct Massacre

As a writer, I feel quite comfortable with the vagaries of language--all the little assumptions (often incorrect) that slowly grow up around the words, some ancient, some young, which we use in everyday parlance. We will probably always seek advantage in our choice of words: as economists tend to do when they label subsidies they support as 'incentives', and subsidies they don't support as 'behavior distorting'. We also often feel a need to be sensitive in how we vent steam from our mouths.

But there is also a need to examine when sensitivity gives way to senseless timidity.

Namely, there are times when genocide should be called genocide, and not 'ethnic cleansing'. I mean, is there not something sick in our apparent zest to equate historical horrors such as the Holocaust with ablution and cleanliness? The word was clearly developed by the very mass murderers we like to abhor in international headlines, so then what use is there in adopting their terminology (and thus their thought process and explanation for such acts).

Being politically a liberal progressive, I always viewed 'political correctness' with sympathy. But lately, as I look at the words picked up and promulgated by news reports and disseminated and ingested by the populace, I really have to look askance on our constant need to sanitize language.

Never mind the fact that as a writer, I also see no reason why words rich that are voluptuous in their accretion of powerful meaning should be replaced with the vapid, clean products of political testing for least amount of offensive potential. Words can and sometimes should have the vim to break bones, and we shouldn't rob them of that.

Why, for recent example, should we pretend that the Caucasus is an apparently spic-and-span place according to our depiction of cleansing there (the ethnic or racial variety) that has a noble history going back to Roman times. The ancient denizens of that land, then called Alans, Khazars, Circassians, etc, and now called Ingushetians, Chechens, Georgians, Ossetians, et al, have been trying to wipe each other from the face of the planet in between the more economically rewarding activity of raiding the Silk Road caravans. Should we assume that the planet will be a more hygienic place with this inflamed quilt of ethnicities 'wiped' clear?

It is bad enough that the Ossetian and Georgian grand ma-ma's are busy these days burying the festering remains of sons and husbands in their unfinished basements to avoid the roving bands of 'cleansers' outside. It is worse to suggest that the gathering clouds of flies and ancient recriminations are somehow clean.

Quote of the day: "If you speak of cultural melting pots to the Caucasians, they'll melt you!"

(The quote is attributable to S. Hakan Kirimli, Ph.D., professor of a class on the history of the Caucasus at Bilkent University in Ankara,Turkey; Justin, please correct me if I mangled that quote in any way.)

Sunday, August 10, 2008

A Guide to the Opening Ceremony

-I thought the presentations on Chinese culture were wonderfully done. Allusions to the Communist Party were kept to a minimum, and past/future achievements of science, culture, and artistry were brought to the fore. Particularly, I enjoyed the performance of the Confucian disciples, dressed in grey robes and adorned with feathered tee-pee headdresses. The corresponding demonstration of a printing press showed the evolution of the Chinese character 'He', which means something like 'peace'. Granted, the whole proceedings, including a lavish display of fireworks, was underwritten by the governing CCP, so I suppose they can afford to minimize self-congratulation along with the many controversial episodes of Chinese history tied to their rule.

-'Da Shan', a popular foreigner who speaks fluent Mandarin, works for the government-owned media conglomerate, CCTV, and adorns various advertising campaigns, joined his fellow Canadian Olympians as they marched into the stadium. I suppose that this means the tongue contortions necessary to speak proper Chinese counts as an Olympic sport?

-I was surprised to see the Taiwan delegation show up. I wonder what manner of diplomatic fast talk resulted in the rather odd title bestowed on them, "Chinese Taipei" (Taipei is the main city), or their interesting banner?

-Speaking of delegations, I think some applause is in order for the delegations from Iraq (who narrowly avoided being kept from attending), Afghanistan, Sudan, and Palestine. I read that the Palestinian athletes had little or no resources, and little access to even sub-par training centers, so their arrival (along with delegations from those other war-torn nations) is a minor miracle. Ditto on the Sudanese.

-I'm sure, on the other hand, that the Chinese won't know what to make of the Georgians. It appears that this warlike Caucasian republic has initiated a small war with the Russians and their proxies, the breakaway republic of South Ossetia... during the Olympics!

-Fireworks in the shape of footprints, quite inventive. I suppose we'll all be looking over our shoulders in trepidation at the invisible giant this is supposed to represent. I also rather liked the initial fireworks, which created a shape and color much like the Chinese national flower, the peony.

-The American Olympians were headed by an athlete originally from Darfur. Thus far none of the Chinese I've talked to have picked up on this subtle slight, although one of my students did ask who the guy was.

-The many delegations of the nations of the earth marched into the stadium, demonstrating one pragmatic fact as they did: The Olympics is about money and prestige. Authoritarian countries, and overly-wealthy ones continue to dominate, at least in terms of numbers of athletes they send. How else to explain the imbalance between the rather small delegations fielded by India and Indonesia (second and fourth most populous countries in the world, I believe) when compared to large delegations by tiny, wealthy European countries such as the Netherlands? And although China and India are comparable in economic status, economic growth, and population, China's delegation could far surpass India's only because China's government is accountable to no one--thus able to afford intensive cradle-to-retirement athletic programs designed to increase its number of competitors in the sports that offer the highest number of gold medals--whereas India government is almost over-accountable and certainly too fractured and indecisive to support such efforts. Rich democracies such as America have ample private and (relatively small, when comparing percentage of GDP and tax revenues) public funds for this athletic prestige project, and poor democracies can barely support a token delegation.

-I wanted to eat a Chinese dish called xihongshi chaojidan (fried tomatoes and eggs) in honor of the controversial design choices for the costumes of the Chinese delegation, but had to settle for some nice homemade pasta instead. The red, at least, was still represented, if not the bright gold.

-A note on China's flagbearer and accompaniment: Yao Ming is an NBA giant. I'm not really a fan, as his basketball skills seem to come from the 'Shaq' school of thought. The little boy is perhaps more notable. He was apparently somehow involved in rescuing people in the recent Sichuan earthquakes.

-My students were unanimous in their criticism of the Olympic theme song, 'You and Me' (Chinese: Wo he Ni, lit: I and You). They thought that it was too slow and too soft to make a proper Olympic song. I have to agree--although I admit to having a bias against saccharine pop music duets which this seems to take its style from. The song was not rousing at all and would probably put a caffeinated chimp to sleep.

-All in all the event as pulled off well. I think we can attribute the talents of Chinese director, Zhang Yimou (Raise the Red Lantern; Hero; House of Flying Daggers). His zest for bright, almost surreal coloring was certainly evident. We can also attribute the apparently bottomless pockets of the CCP. I doubt that any following Olympics host will dare appropriate as much money as they have to put on such a 'coming-out' party. I also doubt that any Olympic host will have such broad powers to shut down local traffic, factories, bars, clubs, street food vendors, etc. Although I'm not there myself (and happily so), I can well imagine that Beijing is currently enduring a kind of half-life, or undeath, until the Olympics are safely completed.

I'm also cautiously optimistic that there won't be a major incident of whatever kind during the midst of the Olympics. But in China, you never know. Despite rigid state control, chaos is still just a breath away.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Rain Washes Away All Sins

Tonight, on the eve of the long-awaited Beijing 2008 Olympics, grand thunderstorms blanket the uplifted teeth of the city, and rain washes down their soot-stained flanks. Here in Chongqing we are far to the south and west of Beijing, center of tomorrow's festivities, and I am thankful for that. The hoopla that city will undergo for the next few weeks is their fun and their sorrow. I can enjoy it vicariously through the TV, the new articles I read, and the enjoyment or frustrations of my students.

I look out over the darkened city, silvery gusts of rain descending like curtains along the street below my window. People, like beetles, scurry before its wrath. I wonder if this is a natural storm, or if the scientists have seeded the clouds over China with silver iodide to cause this sudden downpour. The officials of the CCP had threatened to do as much, funded experimentation recently into such technologies for weather modification, just in case nature decided to rebuke their attempts at a "most perfect" Olympics. A rainstorm over a Chinese city has the decidedly wonderful affect of clearing the skies over the cityscape of pollution for several days. I've seen this often, here in Chongqing. The day after a thunderstorm usually showing unusually blue, clear skies. Then day after day the smog gradually returns to rule its dominion.

Recent reports of humid, smoggy days settling in over Beijing may well have prompted such actions.

Will a fresh, new day dawn over Beijing tomorrow? Or will darker events ensue. Stay tuned....

Monday, August 4, 2008

A Note to the Announcers...

...of various American news agencies. I think it's high time that professionals such as yourselves learned the proper way to say the name of the city where the Olympics will be held this month.

It is no more correct to pronounce Beijing with a soft, French, J than it is to pronounce Michigan with a hard, British, CH.

Now, follow me: the first part, 'Bei' is said with a tone that first falls and then rises like the sharp curve of a V; the second part, 'Jing' uses a hard J and is spoken with a high, flat, unchanging tone.

Now then. I do hope that saves us all a bit of embarrassment. The American public famously only learns the proper pronunciation of foreign place names after our troops have invaded those same places, and I think we'd all prefer this geographical education to happen without the accompaniment of bomb blasts and bullet ricochets.