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.