Thursday, December 31, 2009
In our ger, we learned how to play a traditional Mongolian game. The game is played with the vertebrae of goats or sheep. Each vertebra represents one of four common Mongolian herd animals, depending on how it falls on the ground. Each base (the side that stacks on top of another vertebra to make up a spinal cord) has a convex and a concave side. Each side (perpendicular to the fatter 'base') also has a concave and a convex side. Concave base = camel, convex base = horse, concave side = goat, convex side = sheep. So when we throw the vertebrae on the ground, we have camels, horses, goats, and sheep. The person who cast the die, so to speak, gets to flick one bone at a time, trying to make it touch another vertebra of its type. Only one hand can be used to flick, and you can not touch any of the other vertebra as you do so (either you or the vertebra you flick). If successful, grab one of the pair that touched, with the non-flicking hand. The strategy is in choosing which of the pair seems easiest to use to flick yet another vertebra of like kind. When only three vertebra total are left on a throw-down, and if all come up the same or different (no like types or all the same type), all players are allowed to grab for as many of the remaining vertebra as they can grab.
Most of that afternoon, we skirted a great dune sea. The dune sea's edge looms above the flat hardpan like pancake batter spilled upon a stove. Its edge is luminous with reflected light; a phantasm creeping over scoured gravel. By early evening we arrive at a ger camp near the base of the dunes. Between the camp and the dunes lies a wet place, a true oasis. Hummocks of grass and brush contrast so green against the face of the dune. A rivulet of water snakes between these verdigris humps. Camels, with humps of their own, and horses wander freely in this sheltered place. Why is it that such an oasis exists just within the shadow of sandy annihilation, when there is a whole dessicated plain beyond it begging for its water?
As the sun sets, we plan our ascent of the dune face. The face is quite sheer in most places, but dimples and rumpled edges (like an unruly blanket remaining as a child departs bed for school) seem ripe for our ascension. Zoola, however, tempts us with a delicious Mongolian supper: goat fried with peppers and onions on a bed of rice. Our ascent, then, takes a nasty turn as our full stomachs and the strain of climbing upon a curtain of sand bring nausea. The moon rises, full, above the knife edge where the face of the dune meets the sky. We plan to try once more tomorrow, and we descend.
On the threshold of our ger, a little goat lays his head. Not a grown goat--just a kid, really--the creature is obviously sick, dying. My companions named him Jesus.
Jesus is dead. Thus spake Nietzsche, as if he could see how the Mongolian nomad lady grabbed that little goat by the horns, pulled him up from our doorstop, and tossed him into the shade in a dusty corner of the encampment. Hours later, he breathed no more.
In the late morning we went camel-riding below the dunes. Truly evil beasts, they are, as texts since the dawn of time have attested. If not for their unique adaptations to desert life which in turn make possible human habitation of the deserts, they would have long since been hunted into extinction for their tough meat, and in retaliation for their bad manners. We decided to name our camels after prominent dictators. I named mine Mugabe. The name helped add to my delight in whipping him with a ragged rubber goad, onwards across the burning sands.
I spent most of the day sketching in my ger, waiting for the heat to pass.
As evening fell, we climbed the great dune's face once again. I left my shoes at the base, as they tended to fill with sand and hinder my attempted ascent. Sometimes soft enough for feet to sink into, sometimes a hard crust, hard enough that feet skid and skitter towards the knife's edge of a wrinkle in the dune face, and the abyss beyond. I felt such terror, I never could have imagined, from climbing at the edge of such sandy cliffs. When the ground beneath your feet is so uncertain, and the gulf of air beyond is so certain, it must be sheer hubris to tread in such a place. I often scrambled on all fours, discovering that this provided a more secure feeling (four pods planted in the sand) and on steep ascents, more stability. I developed a rhythm, climbing the 60 degree incline like a steam-powered greater ape. Thirty meters, we ascended like that. And Bina, my Danish companion on that stretch, was about to give up. She had a fear of heights which to her credit she had sought to defy in climbing this monstrous sand mountain. But I suggested that we must be at least 1/3rd to 1/2 the way up of the sheer part of the face. Not a time to give up! So she steamed ahead of me at that point, and we learned that in fact we had been about 90% of the way up that sheer face. Distances can be deceiving when measuring an angle of sand against the night sky.
So at last I straddled the dune's peak, a knife's edge that stretched away for kilometers. On one side, hardtack gravel in complete darkness. On the other side, twilight still smoldered above a dune sea doing battle with itself--its crests and troughs much lower than this vanguard. And then, descent. The depths of the sand gave off a deep drumming sound, a thrumming that vibrated the entire dune face, as we pushed the sand ahead of us in our long slide into the gloom. The sand speaks. Eerie.
Wednesday, December 30, 2009
We woke to discover that a jerboa had drowned in the goat's trough during the night. Silly kangaroo-hamster.
Had I written that the lands we passed through the previous day were desolate? The Gobi soon taught me the definition of that word. Jouncing over ground that became steadily drier, the grasses of the steppe around us turned yellow and brittle as the morning hours passed. Then the grasses became mere tufts, like the feathers of a leprous vulture's pate. Then the beds of gravel that had once peeked between grass tresses became entirely predominant.
We rolled into Mandalgov, the capital of Middle Gobi sum (province) sometime mid-morning. The sun had already become an angry, white tyrant by that point. Only 14,000 unfortunate souls lived in that collection of sand-worn shacks and gers, the desert sands blowing in from all sides. No proper roads could be seen there (as I recall), only patches of bald wasteland left undeveloped between the cowering dwelling-places. Was this the setting of a spaghetti-western or post-apocalyptic civilization? The shy youngsters who played football in its streets didn't seem to mind their surrounds, however. Eden is not needed for a youngster's happiness, I suspect.
Our shock-absorbers, unfortunately, were not so forgiving of the surrounds. We found ourselves waiting at a mechanic's garage for an hour or so, while "new" shock absorbers were cobbled together out of spare parts and welded into some semblance of utility next to us. I attempted a few conversations in Mongolian with the ladies who were crushing piles of plastic Sprite bottles into bales for recycling, practicing such basic pleasantries as 'What's your name?', 'Where are you from?', and 'Are your livestock doing well?' A quick look at the dessicated hillsides would seem to suggest "no".
I also passed the time asking Zolaa about the relationship between Mongolia and China. The short answer is "bad". The Mongolians have a bit of a chip on their shoulder when it comes to the Chinese. The long history of rampage and conquest that goes both ways between these two ancient cultures underpins the dislike, but modern justifications exist as well. Illegal Chinese immigrants are a problem in Mongolia, and Chinese businessmen are distrusted--building contractors came in for particular scorn from the Mongolians I talked to. More recently, a Chinese businessman shot a Mongolian. A country-wide purge of Chinese expats (legal or otherwise) followed. I was left wondering whether getting a tourist visa for Kiera would be a problem.
Beyond the grim oasis that is Mandalgov, our van passed deeper into the wasteland. Little tufts of onion-grass sprouted from kitty-litter gravel. Among them could be found small lizards, so lazy in the heat of the sun that I could easily catch them and hold them in the palm of my hand. Bulbous beetles trailed wet ovipositors through the gravel, sheathed in exoskeletons as verdant in green as the wasteland was not. Our stop for a lunch of sandwiches revealed that even the vast litter box was filled with life.
The Gobi is not kind to intruders. Once again that day, our van failed us. The radiator overheated, and we were forced to stop at the top of a dune, the van turned crossways into the wind in an attempt to maximize its cooling. I could only think how horrid it would be, to be stranded here in the midst of nothing. There was, after all, not even a proper highway with the eventual certainty of other caravans passing along our particular path in the desert. There was well and truly nothing... to all horizons.
Of course our van did eventually start up, and we did eventually come to another small town carved from the sand and grit. A herd of camels groaned and moaned. A small shop sold us aloe juice, Turkish cookies, and pickles. That night the pickles were positively devoured by myself and the American girl, Stephanie.
Around noon we reached Dalanzagad, another major outpost in the midst of the Gobi. We ate sushi for lunch, at least a thousand miles from the nearest ocean, in the midst of a waterless hardpan. Is this irony? Perhaps only by Alanis's definition, but in fact our small rolls of seaweed, rice, and veggies only represented a miraculous and strange juxtaposition.
The land over which we bounced, jounced, and skidded became increasingly rumpled and wrinkled as the day wore on. Perhaps in the midst of summer there was no obvious culprit for the rapid multiplication of ravines we passed over, but I could imagine that this sere desert is carved and torn whenever water does pass down over its bald hills. The distant crags--and crags these are, the very definition of, with ravenous raptors perched upon their clefts and spires--are our destination for this today. We seek the place known ominously as "The Vulture's Mouth".
The Vultures Mouth is a gorge set in a range of crags, set in the middle of the Gobi desert. This gorge is so deep that even in the midst of summer, shards of ice still sleep unmelted in the depths of its gullet. This gorge is so treacherous that the Argali sheep, ibex, and antelope that graze on its upper slopes routinely fall to their deaths upon the jagged rocks within, a daily feast for vultures and other carrion eaters. Hence the name.
We also quickly discovered that the gorge is a most hospitable home for a legion of pikas--cute little rodents somewhere between a hamster and a rabbit in both size and appearance. The pikas chirp merrily as the vultures circle above. Evergreen shrubs scent the air with hints of allspice (perhaps it was?). We do indeed come upon both remnant ice and an antelope fallen to its death. We are somewhat disappointed that the only wild ungulate we come across is the dead one, its stomach busted upon a rock. There is no better place in which to see that the Gobi's cruelty and generosity are one and the same.
Sunday, November 29, 2009
The phrase, 'screaming bloody murder' has new meaning to me now. 3 AM or so, at my chosen guesthouse in Ulaanbaatar. A 60-year-old American man comes back to the hostel, pounding on the door and screaming 'Wake up! Police! Wake Up! I'm an American citizen! You can't do this to me!" and proceeding to lay a variety of threats on Mongolia and this hostel in particular. The fellow even claimed to know the American ambassador... I was half-asleep and already I had no sympathy for the imperious brat (actually an old man). The story later came out that he felt he'd been cheated by his taxi driver--and may even have cheated the taxi driver himself. An insane response--particularly towards the hostel, which was doing everything it could to calm him and respond to his panic in a reasonable way... while also trying to get him a bit quieter so that the rest of us could sleep.
The next morning (morning proper, that is, with a risen sun and no psychotic old coots giving Americans a bad name) we met our driver, a quiet older fellow named Ganba, and our guide, a spunky young woman named Zolaa (pronounced a bit like Szoot-luh). With little ado (and only a short stopover at a net cafe) we were off on our way to the southern wastelands.
The road into the Gobi turned out not to be any proper road at all. While the Mongolians have a few two-lane highways that extend from the capital, Ulaanbaatar, these peter out rapidly. Then the real fun begins, as a multitude of dirt tracks expand across the open steppe. These tracks are left behind by SUVS, old pickup trucks, cars, horses, various herd beasts, and motorcycles. There seem to be no rules or limits on where the tracks may range, although the rainy season (late July through September) bogs down quite a few modern caravans in the depths of sudden quagmires.
Much like Montana, the landscape seemed fixed just a short step below the sky. Great burls of cloud let down rain, greening the wild grasslands as they passed by. Rocky spines intruded on our periphery. Herds of sheep, goats, and horses scattered about in search of food; great eagles stood watch, talons digging into the turf as they eyed their fleecy prey. Stately cranes stalked the grasslands too. I was hoping for more cryptozoological sightings. I had read in a local (English-language) paper that a British expedition was then using explosives in the southern Gobi to search for a creature known as the "Mongolian Death Worm". This death worm could shoot lightning from its anus and spit toxin from its mouth. It was also apparently attracted to seismic disturbances, hence the use of explosives as a sort of mating call to find it. Certainly this creature must make any must-see list (just below the slightly less rare, but rather more beautiful, snow leopard) of Mongolian creatures to sight... from a safe distance.
The lands grew more arid as we go (the opposite of the effect we observed coming up from Beijing), the grasses more yellowed. The passing rainstorms brought out vivid greens amid the yellow, though; rainfall set the dust ablaze with ruddy color. Wind-scarred rocks crept like gnarled goblins around the desolate remains of ruinous monasteries. The sun was low in the sky as we came to one such, a place known as Ikh Gazrin Chuluu. A Buddhist monastery was once sited there, before the Mongolian communists slaughtered the monks and toppled its stones. The remnants stand in a sheltered ravine carved from the bulbous surrounding ridges. The only trees to be found for miles are hidden away within the cleft, one reason this place is said to be a nexus of unseen powers, perhaps a locus on some Mongolian ley line. The ruins were peaceful, anyway, and one could see why monks would choose to meditate amongst the desolate beauty surrounding it.
Stone piles (called ovoo, a tactile form of prayer) trapped small offerings of food and money. Passing pilgrims bound the trunks of the lithe aspens with blue and gold scarves. The former monastery had not been forgotten by the locals. More eerily, cairns were scattered upon the ridge above--reminding me of 'Pet Sematary'. Do gruesome semblances of once-living dogs, children, and yaks prowl the steppe there at night? We didn't stay to find out.
A little girl--her hair shaven so short we first took her to be a little boy--greeted us as we ended the first day of our journey. The Mongolians consider it lucky to keep the hair short until about the age of four. We were welcomed into the gers of a nomad family. They shared their fresh yoghurt--so sour it could make a lemon cry for mercy--and a bit of soup with us as we sat with them around an iron stove. As we got to know one another, they showed us a bit of Mongolian humor as well: they told us they would give each of us a Mongolian name. The girls were given nice enough names, 'Adimii', 'Chitske', and 'Tuya', with meanings like 'apple' or 'sunshine'. Then the old men took a good look at me. Zolaa almost fell over laughing as she translated their naming of me: "We think you look like a Russian! So we want to give you a Russian name: Lenin or Putin."
That night, a man, recently rechristened "Putin" by a band of Mongolian nomads, dreamed sweet dreams of spreading tyranny and mayhem across Eurasia.
Sunday, November 22, 2009
(1) No new news. The spotlight was on China, certainly, but there was nothing particularly noteworthy about what either Obama or China had to say publicly. There should have been some serious discussion between the US President and the various Chinese powers that be, as many a news piece hinted, but should I waste several minutes on an article that can do no better than hint at what should have been said? For the most part these articles accomplished the same thing usually accomplished for the US public: they provided some back story on China (for those who don't know anything about Chinese history), provided the laundry list of disagreements between the two countries, and provided the laundry list of contemporary problems the two countries should try to cooperate on. So while I appreciate that I'm probably not the target audience (i.e. I'm overly familiar with the basic 'China narrative), I also felt a bit of a letdown that 'spotlight' opportunity was mostly put to such generic use.
(2) The eternally undervalued Yuan. The Economist harps on the subject pretty much every week, and this week every major (non-Chinese) newspaper seemed to have an article on the subject. I'm in complete agreement: the Chinese artificial devaluation of the Yuan is akin to cheating the rest of the world, and China shouldn't be doing it. But... frankly I'd say it's time to stop whining, and start hitting China with harsh penalties until it actually does float its currency. Everyone treats 'tariff' like a dirty word these days, but sometimes a big, scary stick is needed to incentivize good behavior. Such a move won't really save basic manufacturing jobs in places like America (because there's always someplace where labor is going to be cheaper), but it would lead to a fairer apportionment of outsourcing to countries (SE Asian, S American, African) that need the export income and jobs more than China apparently does.
(3) The 'town hall' meeting. Obama's attempt to talk with the youth of China and answer some of their questions was a necessary and important gesture. For some time now, the Chinese (and youth in particular) have been upset that their voice isn't heard or their feelings understood enough on the international stage. While hearing and understanding are not the same as heeding or following (and some here might not understand that difference), it is a fair point to make. The CCP often misrepresents China, both by representing most-faithfully its own party interests before the country's and through its bad reputation abroad which often overshadows broader aspects of Chinese culture and opinion. This was an excellent chance to break through the wall of that still separates most of the Chinese public from the world; it also was a good example of Obama's pledge to at least listen to the world's reactions to US policy.
For that very reason, the event was threatening to the CCP--the very substance contrasts sharply with their opaque, 'imperial mandate' style of governance. Of course the newspapers abroad all pretended to gasp at the impertinence of the CCP for (a) stalling on whether or not to allow the meeting at all, (b) limiting Chinese domestic media coverage and access to it, and (c) vetting the audience and planting more than a few non-student CCP members. Well, come on. The CCP has no reputation for honesty or sincerity. As the Chinese would say, these guys are 'pianzi' (cheaters). I wouldn't have been surprised to heard that every person in that room was a vacuum-packed zombie cadre of the CCP, but they don't really have to strain themselves that far. The CCP recruits members heavily from the elite universities (much as US politicians heavily represent Harvard, Yale, Stanford, and a few other leading institutions), so finding 500 junior party members to attend Obama's speech should have been a breeze. And for all we know, that teacher supplanted a student simply because she wanted to see the US president and had the guanxi (influence) to do so. Recap: a positive event, despite its 'fixing'.
(4) And finally, we have all the sad laments about the decline of American power and the rise of Chinese power, particularly the loss of confidence among Americans due to the recession. Well, I don't know about those of you whom are still back home in the States, but the narrative strikes me as an unnecessary pity party. The Chinese right now are like a rubber band that has been pulled back for the past several hundred years, storing potential energy the entire time. Incompetent rule by a succession of imperial dynasties, warlords with pretensions to imperial power, and imperial communists has acted as a stopper on that potential, much as does the finger that pulls and holds the rubber band. All Deng Xiao Ping had to do (and I do respect him for doing this) was remove the restraint on China's natural potential, and... BAZINGA!
That's great for the Chinese--and for the world, if the Chinese can keep a lid on their imperial pretensions and chauvinism--but I don't buy the story that this rise (or return) has to come at American expense. Human progress is not a zero-sum game, even as it isn't assured. And while Chinese industry has been adept at profiting from shanzhai (fake) interpretations of American innovations, Americans should never forget where those innovations came from, and the conditions that made them possible.
Saturday, November 14, 2009
What I was left with, however, was a burning desire to see the zombie apocalypse in China. Hollywood being so Ameri-centric (and everyone knows its Cali-centric, since it's often cheaper and more convenient to shoot there), no one--with the exception of one or two sections in the novel, World War Z--has taken on the setting. If you thought Zombie America was bad, think about how things would play out in a country with more than four times the population, living in much denser communities. Although (in this case) the authoritarian government's massive army would count in China's favor, you do have to deduct the fact that very few private citizens own a gun or other proper anti-zombie weapon. Most Chinese (i.e. everyone except the spoiled middle-class youth) also haven't even heard of Bruce Campbell, so it does make one wonder what instinctive defenses would come to their minds as they watched a rabid corpse run their way... probably they'd get gobbled up, but there's plenty of room for innovation away from the hackneyed (but satisfying ) chainsaw.
The other point in favor of a movie about the Chinese version of the zombie apocalypse is the usual comparisons made (by such movies) between modern society and zombies. This sort of parody-rhyme on real life has become popular in zombie fiction--perhaps since 'Dawn of the Dead' and its comparison to mindless consumerism--and surely could be used symbolically to good effect. Granted, the western perception of the Chinese as a culture of brain-washed conformists is definitely overplayed. Every society has its share of brain-washing (think TV advertisement and Fox News) as well as conformist sheep to be herded by political, idealist, or religious symbols. My experience of China (perhaps not that of others) suggests to me that the relatively enhanced conformity of the education and political systems just brings into greater contrast (and sometimes greater extremity) those people in society who exhibit a strong character of some sort... and of course it's easy to miss the sometimes subtle signs of the individual amid such a vast, insular population when you are new to it and don't know the language. In any case, there are interesting themes to be played with... if done with the right understanding and subtleties.
In some sense (and I've said this before), Z-Day is a state that has--from time to time--already existed in China. The competition for survival can be brutal, particularly in the times of anarchy or famine which occur cyclically in China. The environment already seems to mirror a world of zombies--the wild animals stay hidden from ravenous humans, or end up eaten.
Hmm... maybe I need to write this script?
Saturday, November 7, 2009
So anyway, thanks for your wishes! My own birthday wish I shouldn't tell--as tradition dictates--but I think you can guess. I hope everyone else had a good 'Guy Fawkes Day' as well, and the various terrorists, hobgoblins, and 'culture warriors' burned merrily upon their respective bonfires.
Saturday, October 31, 2009
Wednesday, October 14, 2009
Sunday, October 11, 2009
It seems to me, this problem could arise from two conditions: (1) Pressure on Chinese news agencies to maintain quotas for reporting good vs bad news, and (2) state run agencies' (such as Xinhua) tendency to suffer from nepotistic hiring practices. The result: Xinhua ends up with a surplus of untalented hacks looking for positive, whimsical stories with which to entertain the masses. The result is that national news agencies in China often contain a lot of tabloid journalism. I've seen plenty such stories in the news papers here--my girlfriend likes to point out odd stories to me sometimes--although this one takes the cake for being the most bizarre example. I suppose the fact that the reported subject matter is foreign gave the reporter the feeling he/she could take more license in the fabrication of the story.
Local or specialist papers (the Local, for example) can probably sympathize with the search for entertaining, oddball subject matter to report... but they're still more accountable for the accuracy of the stories they print, and less accountable for making sure their stories do not reflect on negative trends/events or negative perceptions of their home governments.
*Read the comments section of the article itself for more specific details (as well as list of Chinese newspapers that printed this article).
Wednesday, September 30, 2009
Early in the morning, I rode out of Beijing on K23, the train line direct to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. The train seemed almost deserted: maybe twenty westerners, half as many Chinese and Mongolians, and a bevy of sullen train attendants. The few passengers all seemed excited, however. The train compartments were decorated with heavy woolen rugs and blankets in patterns redolent of Mongolia or Siberia. The fan bolted above the window could have easily been soviet issue, as it clanked to life. I shared my room with a young 20-something Brit couple: Dave was a wind-power engineer who had been working in Beijing (and sometimes inspecting turbines in Inner Mongolia province... in the dead of winter); Susan had been teaching school kids in Ningxia province (another desolate part of northwestern China). She sported a mischievous sense of humor and a miraculous ability to figure out how the various 'Soviet-era' fixtures and mechanisms of the train could be made to work. Sean, an Australian programmer/surfer dude, settled in by himself in the compartment next door. Not counting our one train attendant, the rest of our train car was empty. The attendants, occasionally marching past our door, were stolid in physiology and brusque in manner. It almost seemed as if they weren't happy to be returning to Mongolia... or perhaps they just had hangovers.
Initially, the train passes through dry, wrinkled mountain ranges--possibly under but somehow past the Great Wall without our noticing it. Narrow valleys house brick villages as well as the occasional factory steaming in the morning light. Rivers rush onwards towards Beiing and the North China plain where they will soon be entrapped in reservoirs, sucked dry for irrigation, and polluted with runoff. But here in the mountains, the river still runs in unfettered enthusiasm.
The landscape rises higher and drier. Inner Mongolia spreads out beyond the wall once meant to keep it out. The province, after centuries of fighting back and forth over its border, finally fell to permanent Chinese control and cultivation in the Qing dynasty. By now its Mongols are a minority, their culture submerged in the same bathroom-tiled homogeneity to be found anywhere in China. This shaving sliced from the Mongolian heartland contributes to the general enmity Mongolians hold against China. More on that later. The land becomes more inhospitable by the hour. Isolated sheep ranches, coal mines, wind power turbines, dot the horizon. Desert sands appear as dusk falls.
We reached the Chinese-Mongolian border at midnight. The visa process and inspection was painless, although we were all subjected to an instant temperature reading from a laser thermometer beamed at our foreheads--an ode to the swine flu in its carmine gaze. The train was refitted with new bogies because Russia and Mongolia have a different standard than the rest of the world (an attempt to slow down any attempted invasions). Passengers were confined to the customs control house during the process. As we waited, a British fellow who sold insurance in Ulaanbaatar and Beijing told me about his first run up to UB (expat nickname for Ulaanbaatar). At the border, the engine exploded into flames and had to be decoupled and allowed to burn to the ground in isolation. Such a wonderful anecdote to have swimming in my mind, as we got back onto the train and tried to fall back asleep--now in the empty vastness of the Mongolian Gobi.
I woke up mid-morning, bright sunlight reflecting off the desert sands of the northern Gobi--we'd crossed most of that desert in the night. Breakfast proved that bogies hadn't been the only thing to have changed in our train car: a Mongolian dining car had replaced the bland Chinese one, complete with a sullen Mongolian attendant drinking vodka (and carefully pasting the seal back onto the bottle after she was done sipping) in the corner. The car itself was ornate, with dense wooden carvings, bows, horsehead fiddles, and other Mongolian knickknacks for decoration. The land became greener, bit by bit, as we ate.
Around 2 PM we came over a mountain ridge, and into UB itself. The transition was startling, as most of Mongolia is a grassy wilderness undeveloped by outside standards in which nomads still live more or less as they have for thousands of years (with the addition of satellite and motorcycles, however). Even up to the edge of Ulaanbaatar (population 1 million out of the 3 million or so people living in the whole country), there is nothing but grass and grazing livestock until one breaches the city's central valley. Tents or 'gers' were the most common domicile to be seen in UB's suburbs. Wooden fences cross-hatched the hillsides, each defining a family yard in which sat a pure-white ger. We had arrived at the heart of Mongolia, a city exemplifying nomadic Mongolia's modernized future as well as its Soviet near-past. Our hostel, The Golden Gobi, was located in a residential quad next to the 'State Department Store', one of UB's main malls and a remnant of that former Soviet-satellite era. The Golden Gobi, a typical backpacker hostel benefits from a sense of the traditional hospitality of a Mongolian family. It is family run, and the first thing you do after coming in the door and removing your shoes and backpack, is to sit down and enjoy a nice cup of tea. Whether or not one stays in this hostel (or in one of the many others that have sprouted up in UB in recent years), it was quickly apparent to us that the Golden Gobi was a sort of nexus for traveler activity, with many backpackers just stopping by to band together and share costs (guides and transport are fairly necessary to traverse Mongolia's desert wastelands, frigid peaks, and grassy steppes if one doesn't have months of spare time) on their travel plans. I was fairly quick to arrange a trip into the Gobi and up through central Mongolia. My companions were two Danish girls, Bina and Louisa, as well as an American, Stephanie. I became a millionaire (after exchanging Chinese Yuan into Mongolian Togrog), checked up on Facebook (no Chinese censorship!), guarded my day pack and money zealously (Susan had her wallet snatched right out of her backpack by a pickpocket), and finished with an evening out on the town with companions once and future. Despite the misadventure of being assaulted by a dwarf beggar and the realization that a Tuesday night in UB is not prime time for nightlife, a good time was had by all.
Monday, September 28, 2009
The latest campaign may have begun this past spring, around the time that my college posted on its bulletin board full of edifying/horrifying pictures chock-full of dead and dying car accident victims similar to what I'd seen before. The other foreign teachers expressed disgust at the goriness of those pictures, but of course the intended audience was our wealthy, irresponsible batch of students: many of mine spent this summer practicing for their driver's license and I shudder at the thought. The image of one of those kids behind the wheel makes me more sympathetic to the government's methodology.
By late summer, the campaign must have been in full swing. In the little Miao (Hmong) minority village of Xijiang, set amid the mountainous countryside of Guizhou, Kiera and I watched a film version of the same. Drunk drivers were interviewed, traffic police were shown giving breathalizer tests, and further corpses were shown strewn outside the wreckage of their cars. This must have been diverting edutainment, because a decent selection of the townsfolk turned up to watch as the bloody images were shone (and shown) through the fabric of a white sheet strung up across the town's main road.
The fear of the local drivers pervades those of us who have lived here a while, but what has brought this problem to the surface at this moment? Certainly accidents are happening everywhere in China, all the time. Actually, I saw a taxi run into and tip over a woman on an electric moped earlier today. A co-worker tells a story of two little girls he saw killed on the streets of Suzhou, little, orphaned slippers lying askew in the middle of the intersection ahead of him. The richer cities are paradoxically suffer worse from deadly drivers, it seems. Suzhou and Hangzhou, both rich cities full of so-called 'Chuppies' or Chinese yuppies, seem to have some of the worst accidents reported in the news. Perhaps this is because wealth in China so often removes any sense of accountability (guanxi, or connections, is all you need to escape consequences in most cases); also because rich individuals have money to buy driver's licenses rather than go through the testing process. I have Chinese friends who have done just that--thankfully, the couple I'm thinking of don't yet have a car. The driver's licensing department here in Nanjing even provided a cheating service to a foreign co-worker of mine who was trying to get his Chinese driver's license. They provided, for around 400 yuan (approx. $60), a "translator" who just went through, question by question, and told him which answers to circle. Yes, Nanjing is a very foreigner-friendly city... but it's drivers aren't. I've seen enough flipped or smashed cars along its roads to be leery in extreme of ever driving here.
So Hangzhou was the scene of the latest furor--and what I imagine began this campaign for better driving. A rich kid drag-racing through the city killed a pedestrian. Another recent accident saw a Porsche kill a young girl, also in Hangzhou. This article (http://www.chinahush.com/2009/08/08/car-smashing-elder-and-chinas-road-kills/#more-2119): talks about an elderly gentleman who threw stones at a succession of cars running a red light. I'd be lying if I said I hadn't considering doing the exact same thing. Clearly public opinion is coming to a head on the issue. Thus the crackdown. The problem with crackdowns, however, is that they often seem to end with little substantial, permanent change. A few show trials and many propaganda speeches later, the political elite move on to crackdown topics of personal interest to them and the nomenclatura to use their influence to continue their bad habits--whether whoring, gambling, driving drunk, or pirating foreign products. I hope, for the sakes of all who live in the grasp of China's grid, that this time is different: drivers less deadly, less of the dead.
Wednesday, September 23, 2009
The organizers know that any successful birthday, like its confectionary, is a mix of ingredients. Our first ingredient is the sauce of delayed gratification: students at Chinese universities have been ordered to remain studying until the very day before the celebrations, and not to get an early start traveling back home to their families for the national holiday. Certainly the Party has been burned by student idealism and discontent; the Party will chance no repeat of that old Tiananmen classic, 'Student versus Tank'. Next fold in the solidity of government strictures against hospitality: In Beijing, residents are being told to not invite friends or family to stay during what has long been one of three main Chinese holiday periods. Furthermore, the residents have also been told to seal their windows and stay off of balconies facing the parade route. Apparently, the festivities are primarily meant for the vetted participants and for the cameras, not for the common people of Beijing.
Add a bitter note of ethnic strife: the Party is taking no chances in Tibet, where foreign visitors are under yet further strictures (the few allowed in: NYTimes reports that China has now barred any further applications for foreigners to visit Tibet during the next three weeks); the government also reports having foiled a bomb plot in Xinjiang/East Turkestan, the restive Turkic territory in western China. Racial tensions are not going to disappear any time soon, and what better time for one to show displeasure with cultural assimilation than at the birthday bash of their oppressors?
And let us finish this concoction with a lascivious frosting... but not to be eaten until later, lest it distract from those glorious, oppressive flavors: as my family observed*, pink-light districts across China have been shuttered at least for the duration of the celebrations. Yes, that's right. Whores have been given an impromptu holiday in which they can celebrate the liberation of their country from bourgeosie depravity and exploitation. Doubtlessly, they'll be hard at work again in their parlors after the official vigilance has passed by again.
The flavors evoked by this mix of recent actions takes us back through the sixty years that the CCP has ruled China. While it is not fair to say that nothing has changed in their management of the country, it does make clear that heavy-handed control has never gone out of style. Subtlety, like the fresh flavors of a Cantonese dim sum delight, has never overtaken firey bombast and overkill--as exemplified by the mouth-destroying explosions of Sichuan pepper--in popularity with China's movers and shakers. The country has grown richer, more cosmopolitan, and yes, almost a parody of bourgeosie affectations, but the strategy and methodology of China's rulers hasn't really changed much in the more than 2,000 years of their imperial dominion. So, forget about a mere 60 years of communist dominion, let us give factual wishes for a chronologically greater episodic subjugation:
Happy 2,370th birthday, emperors of China past and present! May your actions bear strange and difficult fruit.
(*Yes, my sister was interested in seeing, in passing, the 'pink light' beauty parlors that infest China's cities. However, in neighorhoods of Xingyi and Chongqing once chock full of such places, almost every store front was shuttered. Other symbols of the pampered bourgeosie were not given repreive, however: our bus passed by a truck full of caged dogs bound for the restaurant.)
Sunday, August 9, 2009
And now that my crown has been resuscitated...
Let the Wild Rumpus begin!
Saturday, July 25, 2009
Got up around 6 AM. Wandered over to Tian'anmen. The surveilance cameras (at least three installed on each and every lamppost on the square) were somehow more noticeable this time. Also, they've newly installed luggage detectors/security points heading onto the square itself (at least I don't remember such a security presence last time I was here). I had to go through two (actually they tricked us on the first under-road passage, because it led to a section of the square that was cordioned off for no good reason) to get to the square proper. But no metal detectors, so I guess if terrorists want to blow themselves up with explosives strapped on, they could probably still find a way. Granted, the terrorists had better look more like western tourists than musliims if they want to get through--I imagine the process is more thorough.
Grabbed my tickets to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia from the CITS head office; next on my itinerary: the Summer Palace.
The Summer Palace is the country home (now enveloped by the city) for the hot summer months when Beijing becomes an unbearable furnace. I don't blame those emperors. The Forbidden City is nice and imposing and all, but it's kindof desolate and charmless. I imagine it wouldn't be a treat when baking in the July heat. Thus, the Summer Palace, a place of meandering pathways, temple-crested hilltops, and very uncomfortable-looking thrones carved out of Birch roots (one of them was, apparently). The place would indeed have been a bastion of peace and harmony for the richest, most powerful man in China--plus his harem of concubines--but the estimated tourist intake on the day I visited was 40,000 people. Mein gott, the fresh air was nice, but sandwiched in with that many people, the charm of the place is lost very quickly indeed.
The Palace was burned down at least twice (both by coalitions of European troups rampaging/retaliating against the Manchu throne during (a) the Opium Wars and (b) the Boxer Rebellion. The Palace was rebuilt both times, one of those times by misappropriated funds that were supposed to be allocated for building China a modern navy. Oh well, Empress Cixi did build herself a marble boat, however, so perhaps that counts as an addition to the Chinese navy? In any case, it didn't help much in protecting the palace when it got burned down the second time.
So now I'm absolutely exhaused and wondering whether or not I feel up to hiking a section of the Great Wall, tomorrow. It is both sad and true that this is the fourth time I've visited Beijing, but I've still never been out to the Great Wall. I'm always either on my way to somewhere, or felt completely tired with major Chinese tourist attractions when I came through there, albeit a somewhat weak excuse when talking about a putatative world wonder. I guess we'll see how I'm feeling tomorrow. I don't want to use up all my energy reserves before I reach Mongolia, after all!
Signing out in Beijing,
Thursday, July 23, 2009
Unfortunately, the skies were shrouded as I awoke yesterday morning, and a serious thunderstorm approached the city at the same time as the eclipse neared completion in Eastern China. The doors on the upper deck of my 25-story apartment building were locked, just in case the weather had permitted us to watch the event. I leaned out my window as winds whipped over the trees, and the city began to darken as if dusk approached. Street lights sprang on; the city skyline, including its almost completed super-skyscraper, Greenland Plaza, lit up within as myriad office workers were forced to turn on the overhead lights. For a period of about five minutes, the skies approximated the darkness of about 7 or 8 PM, just short of true night. The ominous cloud hanging over the park just across the street became ever more sinister in appearance. Then, suddenly, it was like a giant hand had begun to turn up the 'dimmer'. Moment by moment, the day had returned, if still under storm clouds. Several minutes passed, and the city lights turned off, whether automated or by the irritated hands of coffee-crazed interns. And the heavens let loose a monsoonal downpour that drenched the streets in inches of rainwater. I'm not sure if the eclipse had any bearing on the weather, but it certainly made the moment more dramatic.
Friday, July 10, 2009
A few weeks ago the CCP blocked Google (including all its apps) for about 24 hours. Now, because of the current crackdown on Uighurs--and ongoing race riots--in China's far western territory of Xinjiang (also known as East Turkestan), access to Facebook is denied throughout China. Thanks to some lovely proxy-servers, I can still *see* Facebook (including messages and wall posts), but my current proxy setup doesn't allow me to respond or actually interact with my Facebook account. Messages are piling up, including those from American Uighur friends hoping I had any helpful news concerning their friends and family currently endangered here in China. My appologies that I functionally can't respond to you if I didn't already have your contact information. Feel free to send me a facebook message with email address if you wish, but I should also say that Nanjing is about the opposite end of China from Xinjiang/East Turkestan, so I really don't know anything about what's going on there that hasn't already been posted on Facebook groups and reported by western news media such as the New York Times, et al.. To others, my appologies that I can't respond or write notes on your photos or any other form of Facebook interaction. So until I come up with a better solution to this digital interference from China' communist party, I guess I'll see you on the flip side.
Do pray (or keep best wishes in mind) for the innocents, both Uighur and Han, who are now suffering. This is a terrible ongoing tragedy in a part of the world normally unoticed and unthought of by the rest of the world.
Tuesday, July 7, 2009
Two days ago I was picked up from the front of my condo in Nanjing by a van, with driver and "translator" (in reality a high school student who had much trouble following my English, so I tried to trouble him as little as possible... he soon dozed off in the back of the van). We drove four hours north across the broad, flat rice-paddies, wooded levees, and canals that make up much of Jiangsu province. I found that I missed such long, uneventful drives. I used to do a lot of my best rumination while being chauffeured between Ann Arbor and East Lansing (past similarly bland, agrarian scenery).
We arrived in Huai'an, the birthplace of one of China's best known political monoliths: a man who played Robin to Chairman Mao's Batman (The Penguin might be a more fitting comparison for Mao, but nevermind), that suave foreign policy mouthpiece and PR guru. None other than Zhou Enlai. The town actually reminded me a lot of Lianyungang, which is to say that it was a small city (by Chinese standards) with few tall buildings, not particularly photogenic, centered on a round-about with a very similar tacky sculpture (vaguely global, this one, whereas LYG's is more like a winged abstraction if I remember right). A trip to the town's museum had been mentioned to me, so I asked if there was anything commemorating Zhou Enlai. Apparently not. Either that, or they didn't want to take me there to see the associated CCP triumphalist memorabilia, I guess.
We arrived at a high school that looked about to--literally--go to seed. I wouldn't have been surprised to see a tree trunk bursting through the blackboard of one of its classrooms, and I definitely wouldn't want to be teaching there in an earthquake. I was told that that was where I would deliver my lecture, to be entitled: 'Tips for Better English-language Study Habits'. Good enough. My translator scooted off into the advancing, humid gloom and was replaced with a young lady (20-something) with a face most unfortunately blistered with acne. She announced in awkward English that she'd be my translator at the lecture. She and the 'big boss', an indecisive 30-something fellow with a baby face, were duly alarmed to find that I hadn't written down my lecture notes yet--I had been told that it wouldn't really matter too much what I lectured about, so had assumed that a general lecture on my background and country would do... the specific topic 'English study habits' was imparted to me at the last minute, as is custom here in China: Wouldn't do to let foreign spies find out what the exact lecture topic would be ahead of time, after all! I think their alarm was mostly due to the fact that this young woman would have to translate my lecture, and she clearly wasn't up to the job. Even trying to explain to her the very basics of what I would discuss and some possible audience activities to follow was horribly painful on both of us. As far as my biographical information goes, she'd never heard of Turkey, Los Angeles (I used both the English and Chinese name as well as common acronym, but still no go), nor the University of Michigan. She spent about an hour or two quailing and balking at the idea of translating audience questions from Chinese to English as well as my answers in English back into Chinese. I assured her that I had done these sorts of lectures before, and not only would it be necessary to do this sort of translation in order to encourage more than one or two questions from the audience, but that it would be a horrible waste for some of these people to not be able to ask their questions in a manner comfortable and understandable to them, since, for most, their English would be rudimentary and their chances of meeting another foreigner any time soon would be vanishingly small. Eventually--Didacticus, non-existent patron god of teachers, be praised!--it was arranged that an English professor from a local university would be my lecture translator instead.
Dinner was atypically indecisive--I usually let the Chinese order since they know what the local specialities are better than I do--as the boss dithered. The food was good, however. Aromatic, spicy crawfish; salted, sliced duck breast; shrimp on a bed of some sort of aqueous tubular vegetable. Just the sort of food that Jiangsu rightfully boasts of.
After a night bedeviled by mosquitoes, I gave my lecture to a crowded hall--at least 100 children as well as some parents--at around 9 AM. As always before standing in front of a new batch of students, I felt nervous. The great shyness and lack of curiousity with which they avoided filling out the time I had alloted for Q&A didn't help. However, my translator (a friendly fellow with excellent English going by the English name of Joe) and I soldiered on. I started by disappointing their hopes of 'shortcuts', as practice really is the only way to perfect language skills, but continued by giving my best tips for making practice a more fun and self-tailored experience, making best use of books, tv-clips, movies, music, English-Corner, chance encounters with foreigners on the street (key point: be brave, feel free to approach and introduce yourself, but politely make certain that the foreigner really has time and inclination to talk rather than more important things to be about), as well as a few pronunciation exercises that could be practiced at home and modified according to preference for British pronunciation or American pronunciation. The lecture was a success, I think. At least in terms of its raw commercial purpose, eighty students immediately signed up for the program my lecture was in effect a promotional activity for. Both parents and students seemed to appreciate my forthwright appraisal of study methods and how to better them, in any case. One girl asked me what my advise for her was, she said she had absolutely no interest in learning English. I told her that since a certain capability with English was a prerequisite for attending a decent college in China as well as graduating from college, she'd best emulate Bill Gates (drop out and start her own business) or just resign herself to making the best of the unwelcome situation that exists. A lesson that could easily apply to us foreign expats who live in China as well, I suppose.
Saturday, June 27, 2009
China's internet censorship is always news (if not exactly front page news) in the West. Far rarer, I think, is that censorship looms prominent in Chinese public discourse. Usually the regime is content to engineer things behind the scenes: implementing the so-called 'Great Firewall of China' in order to block or slow access to foreign websites covering topics it is frightened of; making backroom deals with major Chinese websites as well as local versions of major foreign web companies--such as Google--to encourage and enforce 'self-censorship'. Most of the Chinese public probably doesn't consider the topic in depth either, because (a) most of this occurs behind the scenes, (b) they've adapted to this sort of stifled environment, (c) many Chinese have been so bored-to-tears by communist rhetoric that they view all forms of political discussion as equally boring, and besides which (d) nationalist, pro-Han Chinese arguments reduce sympathy for such things as democratization (a Western import, not that they turn up their noses at BMWs, Gucci bags, or indeed, communist doctrine, Western imports all) and ethnic minority cultural protection.
The CCP's latest public relations blunder has changed all that: both bringing censorship directly into common discourse here in China as well as stirring vocal public resentment at such intrusion. I'm talking about the recent requirement for all computers in China to be sold with 'Green Dam' censorship software (onstensibly to combat access to porn, but also to extend control and oversight of other topics the regime doesn't want Chinese to see/discuss). Most foreign news readers have already read the coverage there. Of particular interest to me is that Chinese netizens have begun to fight back: hacking the Green Dam website, making death threats to the company, etc. Since the government has often fanned nationalist flames among its young netizens when such flames happened to benefit the government line or distract from its deficiencies (namely when death threats were being made to foreign media company offices in China, during the run-up to the Olympics), it is interesting to see the flames turn in the other direction. Death threats either way shouldn't be condoned, but raising the ire of Chinese hackers should probably be given more consideration by self-important bureaucrats in Beijing before they mandate such ill-conceived measures.
The end result? China's netizens are quite capable of pooling resources and hacking talent when it comes to subverting such an obvious method of censorship, particularly when the prize is pornographic goodies (which quite a few of the boys at least would be interested in), rather than forbidden political topics (which many Chinese youth profess disinterest in). I'm sure we haven't heard the last of hack attacks on this company, or other mass methods to subvert the software (when present in net bars, for example, where uninstalling or reformatting are not options). Perhaps those who oppose the CCP can even use software to compromise government computers, if the security loopholes are as bad as has been reported.
Even more importantly, the CCP has made censorship a solid, rather than abstract concern for millions of young Chinese by: (a) directly interfering with the internal software of their computers (a very personal, beloved piece of technology) rather than relying on less visible/personal forms of censorship; and (b) by making this a fight against porn (which many Chinese might find interesting, even somewhat educational given that sexual health education is skipped in the Chinese curriculum) rather than political abstractions that many Chinese youth find boring or have little sympathy for.
By solidifying the concept of censorship and what it means to the average Chinese netizen, people's resistance (if I might borrow a phrase :-D ) to it will also solidify, as indeed it has in regard to this 'Green Dam' incident.
Thursday, June 18, 2009
So it goes.
In other news, I'll be done testing my students soon, and then my summer can truly begin. It seems I'll be doing a bit of work here and there--providing lectures for top business and government officials at nearby Hohai University, or for younger students on the opening day of an English summer camp in Huai'an. I also may be tutoring a Chinese student who is planning on attending a boarding school in England next fall. End of July I'm thinking of heading up to explore the crystaline lakes, feathery steppes, cragged mountains, and vast deserts of Mongolia (Outer Mongolia as the acquisitive Chinese reckon it). End of August should see the arrival of my mother, father, and sister for a guided tour (myself the guide) of Shanghai as well as various parts of southwestern China.
A good summer it should be.
sycamore-shaded streets of Nanjing. Joy! Just today I biked down to the
Phoenix Bookmall to buy a LP guide to Mongolia--summer trip plans are
wafting my way--and then on down past the construction site of what will be
the world's 3rd tallest building (for a brief time after completion), and on
up Beijing Street past an ancient bell tower. A new sense of freedom has
been gained thanks to my bike--which I will be naming Heilong, or 'Black
Dragon'. I had wanted to buy a green bik
Friday, May 29, 2009
Long suppressed as a national holiday by the government in mainland China, Duan Wu Jie or 'The Dragonboat Festival' was once again restored to national holiday status last year when the government decided to reconsider their approach to national holidays--previously, there had been only 3 major holidays (National Day, Labor Day, and Chinese New Years) which had annually swamped tourist capacity.
Duan Wu Jie (held yesterday) dates back to an ancient Chinese poet/mandarin who was exiled due to political intrigues and later drowned himself when his nation-state was captured by the stronger nation-state of Qin (which went on to form the first major imperial dynasty of a united China, as well as lend its name to the country as "China"). This poet fellow was well regarded by the locals, who searched for his body in the lake where he drowned, and supposedly threw food into the water so that the fish wouldn't chew up the poet's body too badly before it could be recovered. From this we can see the possible origin of a special food item specially prepared by Chinese families for the festival: 'Zongzi', a tetrahedron of sticky rice and sweets or meat wrapped in a tight binding of bamboo leaves and string. If the fish disliked the stuff as much as I do, I doubt it kept them from dining on the revered poet's flesh. The racing of dragonboats could also possibly date back to this desperate search for the poet's corpse.
As for myself, I get a three day weekend which is much appreciated. Later today I will be using Skype's new video-chat capability to chat with New Yorker first graders taught by a friend of a friend.
Sunday, May 17, 2009
Saturday, April 25, 2009
(Note: another example of a submission to www.borgger.com. This one uses the Creative Commons Non-Commercial copyright, the idea being that if someone saw this and wanted to use my idea in a non-commercial way to benefit all English teachers abroad, they should just give credit to me, but if they wanted to profit--web-advertisement from pageviews on such an application as the one I mention--they would have to pay to buy the commercial rights. I guess we shall see if this is how things work in practice, but the system Borgger has at least encourages people to write down and share their "in-the-shower" epiphanies, hopefully with a result of added-value to society as a whole.)
A trend, of which I am a part, is for native English speakers to teach their language abroad. Demand for these services have increased dramatically in the past few years, particularly in regard to the recent, massive expansion of China's economy. This type of job opportunity is only likely to become more popular as economies in the West shrink and China's economy pulls along with (relatively) good prospects for growth, leaving college graduates with a choice between dead job markets at home and a large demand abroad--particularly in view of the fact that many English training schools in Asia have incredibly low (actual) requirements for the qualifications of the presumptive teachers.
One problem this creates--particularly with schools with "lowered expectations" of their teachers--is that many of these places are hell holes. Many a TESL/TEFL forum is crammed with teachers complaining that they were subjected to: nasty, dilapidated living quarters; racist treatment; fights with the managers/owners over salary or contractual obligations not being met; lack of teaching support; being lied to about any manner of expected conditions at the work location; Triads/toughs their boss hires; and the list goes on. Now as much as I would like to say that lecherous, 50-yr-old paedophiles lacking a college degree who end up in teaching in China (or other places) because they're running away from (a) creditors, (b) alimony payments or (d) the feds deserve what is coming to them. Of course at least half of all the ESL teachers in Asia hopefully don't fit the aforementioned mold, myself included.
That said, what would be most useful to this increasingly relevant band of didactic economic refugees that doesn't seem to have been provided in any of the major ESL websites? A map that corresponds with the addresses of schools that have gained a bad reputation among teachers, and correspondingly should be blacklisted. This map could be cross-referenced with details about major locations that teachers find themselves living/working in and separate reviews pertaining to life in those places. I think this would be exceedingly useful, especially for the first-timers who often, out of no fault of their own, end up in crappy schools in crappy locations.
Example: me. My first six months in China was spent in a town I often described as a pock mark on the ass end of nowhere, yet the city was also too large to be considered nice for purposes of 'quaintness' or 'fresh air' of which it had neither. I also spent a goodly portion of the six months fighting with a boss/owner about the specifics of my contract. All this because when I was choosing where to go, the best that my google search could come up with was the company's own description of [said hell hole] as a seaside city with fresh air, mountains, beaches, and waterfalls.
Now wouldn't a cross-listed map of recommendations and blackmarks have been useful! Now there are surely fresh-eyed teachers still being snookered into going to that place in dire need of a WARNING sign. On the other hand, hoboes newly-minted by the global downturn and looking for a good place in the middle of nowhere to hole up and avoid their creditors could consider a 'reversed' strategy when looking for schools with low expectations for teaching ability and low interest from other foreign teachers with better credentials (hence greater demand for the services of said bum).
Surely this wouldn't be too difficult to put together, especially with the tools Googlemaps provides, no?
(note: these are an example from my recent problem/solution collaborations listed on www.borgger.com; the original material for these thoughts is culled from my discussions in the Facebook forum: "Students for a Peaceful, Unified, and Democratic China")
As a teacher living and working in China (PRC), there are three T's that are considered verboten subject matter when teaching the children: Tibet, Taiwan, Tiananmen Square (i.e. democratic reform). Although these are certainly not the only areas of sensitivity to the Chinese people of the mainland, these are matters of primary concern to the CCP (Chinese Communist Party). Taiwan is also a dicey geopolitical problem for the entire region, as well as the US due to its obligations. Here are my own thoughts regarding how this issue may eventually be resolved. Feel free to add to/debate their efficacy!
(1) No politician--except Cincinnatus--in the history of politics has entirely willingly given up his acquired power. It cannot be expected that either the democratically-elected politicians of the RoC (Republic of China) in Taiwan or the authoritarian oligarchs of the PRC (People's Republic of China) would be willing to give up their political domains or share those domains without a pretty major upset of the status quo, most likely one of catastrophic proportions.
(2) The status quo is a foreign policy fiction which states the existence of a single nation called China, despite the foreign policy reality that there are two governments sharing that nation and even giving slightly differing names for that nation--the two governments being the democratic government of the RoC which controls 'Taiwan province' as well as some islands off the coast of/belonging to Fujian province, and the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) which controls all of mainland China, several autonomous ethnic regions, the Special Administrative Regions of Hong Kong and Macau.
3) Current thought in the CCP/PRC favors the extension of the SAR (Special Administration Region) status to Taiwan and its RoC. It already maintains this as a sort of polite fiction that can often be seen in the setup of its special airport concourses lumping flights into the SARs and Taiwan together. This form of SAR would allow for 'one country, two systems' of government, as seen with Macau and Hong Kong, the latter more than the former defending a quasi-democratic form of colonial government that (supposedly) allows for only limited interference in its internal governance by Beijing amd (supposedly) allows for ultimate transition to full democracy--although this transition has already been postponed several times by Beijing in order to preserve a status quo where pro-Beijing representatives in the legislative council enjoy advantage. Given the degree of actual interference by Beijing in Hong Kong's internal matters, and given that the RoC government (with its pretences to be the legitimate government of all China) cannot be equated with the colonial governments of the two SAR city-states,I find it unlikely that the people or politicians of the RoC/Taiwan would find SAR status an acceptable compromise.
3) This brings us back to the apparent necessity of a catastrophe within the overall territory of China in order to change the status quo between the two governments of China/two Chinas.
A lot could be debated about where/how/what potential catastrophe could upset the current status quo in a way that would aid a peaceable transition from two governments occupying that nation to some manner of unity. Various prognosticators envision natural disaster, man-made disaster, or revolution stemming from CCP mismanagement of China.
While no one can really know the future, I don't see these as events to be hoped for, not least because of the damage to China itself and danger to the lives of the Chinese people. I also don't find the last option all that likely, especially as long as the army is firmly loyal to CCP policy. For one thing, the current generation of Chinese youth is notable for its self-indulgent (xiao huang di, or 'little emperor syndrome') behavior, and thus it is unlikely to see much growth in attitudes for change among the middle class--at least enough so to truly endanger the CCP's privileged position in mainland Chinese society. Of course the CCP itself seems to be playing with fire when it encourages Chinese youth in recent displays of hyper-nationalistic attitudes; it cannot be certain how long such passionately patriotic youth will put up with leadership from aging CCP dinosaurs with whom they have little in common.
Other posible vectors for internal societal change could come from the increasing discontent of the country's rural majority, or its increasing numbers of urban migrant workers who are not fairly too well in the current global economic downturn. It remains to be seen whether any effective leadership or capability to strike at the country's leadership could emerge from such a quarter. Historically, China has often managed to do just this.
In any case, as said previously, such violent ends to the current status quo are probably not anyone's first preference.
4)The needed change, therefore, seems most likely to come from within the CCP itself. The current arrangement of the Party, after all, has almost nothing to do with Communist ideology, and everything to do with the powerful maintaining their position at the center of a vastly self-enriching web of guanxi (personal favors; corruption). So what argument could possibly persuade such people to put their position and access to personal wealth in the hands of popular mandate? The only situation would be one where political insiders are contesting rival factions for access to China's official and unofficial taxes.
It is apparent now that there are at least two main factions, possibly more, and certainly several minor factions as well, all contesting for power within the insular CCP (note, recent reprisals against Jiang Zemin's 'Shanghai faction'). It is possible that the contest could eventually spill outside the bounds of the party, and one or both factions would need to resort to having their power claim validated by popular or military mandate.
IF such happened, it might also be possible to see an alliance between one or more former CCP factions with RoC (and HK) political parties. Taiwanese politicians are unlikely to rejoin the mainland unless they can both retain benefits of their current position, and acquire a piece of the national pie. As for the mainlander party, whoever can successfully negotiate the reunification of Mainland and Taiwan would have won a great prize indeed, enough to fuel a popular (democratic) mandate. The mainland military might not appreciate being bipassed to achieve that goal, however, and it is hard to determine exactly what role they might play in all of this.
Finally, I don't imagine that this will come to pass in the immediate future. It could take fifty years or more, quite easily, for the opportune moment to arrive. Even in the current economic crisis, China does not seem to be one of the worst hit, and the current regime can probably manage to squeak past, even if discontent among the migrant workers recently unemployed increases.
Patience is the key ingredient. Democracy in substance rather than words is still pretty new even in Taiwan, after all.
Feel free to give it a look-see! My username is "llothe" as it usually is.
Friday, March 6, 2009
A few students gave me something more interesting... more substantive, if that word can apply to ghosts.
--Apparently the university where I teach (and the whole 'university city' that the city government has had built from what was recently rice fields) is built on one of the many mass graves scattered around Nanjing, where the Japanese buried their victims during World War II (and the famed 'Rape of Nanking' which left aproximately 300,000 citizens of the city dead). As a result, several buildings intended as lecture halls or dormitories have repeatedly collapsed. The Feng Shui masters claim that the spirits of the restless dead in the soil beneath are the culprits. Also, there are supposedly elevators that open and close for ghosts, but I think I'll believe that when I see it.
As if I didn't have enough reasons to disparage the relocation of this university, the place is haunted too!
--One girl told me a story about her family. Apparently her grandmother had three sons, but the last one was not wanted by the family (something must have been wrong with the child, because normally Chinese families are ecstatic to have sons). Her grandparents took the baby boy to a river and drowned it there.
Some years later, they had a baby girl, my student's mother. Now, recently the grandmother had died, and the family contracted the services of a man who could 'call back the dead from paradise' because they wanted to talk to the ghost of the grandmother. But instead of the grandmother, the psychic was contacted by the ghost of the little boy that they had drowned so many years ago. The little boy shouted at them, and particularly at my student's mother, "because she took his place, and lived the life that should have been his". Then the ghost of the boy told them that he had killed his mother (the grandmother), had cursed her in some fashion, and this is why the old lady had recently died.
--One last grisly story, not about ghosts: ten years ago in Nanjing, there was a female student who left her university one night and three days later hadn't returned. The morning of the third day, her fellow students saw a picture of her head (decapitated, apparently) in the newspaper. The police were soliciting information as to whom she was. The students went to the police and learned that only the head and arm had been found. The arm was found in a pile of trash, cut up cleanly into precise little pieces, as only a butcher or doctor could have done; the arm was found by a poor woman who didn't recognize the white little pieces of meat as human, and thanking her luck for discovering such good, unspoiled meat, took the remains home to eat. To her horror, as she washed the meat, she discovered the tip of a human finger among the pieces. The police questioned the butchers of Nanjing, but no clear suspect was ever found.
The story has the sounds of urban legend to me, although my students (Nanjing locals, both of them) assured me that this indeed happened ten years ago. I wonder, though, if a newspaper here in China would really publish a picture of a decapitated head in order to ID a body.
Saturday, February 28, 2009
My flight left Shanghai at half past midnight, the peril of using a budget airline (Cebu Pacific). Taiwan and the restive Pacific ocean passed below us. I never have much luck sleeping on flights, and this time was no different. I only achieved oblivion for about half an hour out of the four hours in flight. Coming down over the Philippines' largest island, Luzon, just before dawn, we were greeted with rampaging lines of fire burning semi-circles from the darkness. Were these lava flows descending from volcanic heights, or merely farmers burning their fallow rice fields? I couldn't determine which. It seems unlikely that our flight path would descend over active volcanoes, however.
The first shock of arrival in Manila, was a generalized feeling of freedom. There must be some hidden tension involved when a citizen of the democratic world lives in an authoritarian country for some time, witnessing in his daily life some acts of repression, censorship, and various small intrusions of the state into the private lives of even its more privileged citizens and guests. In the Philippines, whatever flaws it has (government corruption and interference from the Catholic church should be mentioned), at least I could be free to make use of wikipedia, the BBC, various blogs, and other websites that I find to be routinely blocked in China; I would also find myself able to see the law-enforcement in a more benign light.
The second shock was the degree to which English permeates this country whose national language is not English but Filipino (Tagalog). Advertisements are usually printed in English, with maybe a few words of Filipino added mainly for emphasis; daily conversation, news reports even are sprinkled with English words, particularly technical words, words referring to artifacts of modernity, and catchphrases. In fact, most Filipinos are remarkably fluent in English, even those who can't express themselves well (but can at least understand what they hear). Coming from a country where even serious students of English have great difficulties understanding what they hear or expressing themselves in rudimentary terms, this was a vast difference. Several things account for this difference: (1) The Philippines were essentially a US territory for many years, between the Spanish-American War and the end of World War II; (2) English is an official language of the Philippines, and continues to be (supposed to be) the main language used for teaching students of all ages; (3) the Philippines has been a remarkably open country for quite some time, so welcoming tourists and travelers and catering to them is one of the most important industries.
The third shock was the number of foreign food restaurants, even in poor neighborhoods and remote towns. Perhaps the tourists or Spanish/American colonization account for this, but it seems that the Filipinos aren't in the habit of turning up their noses at any potentially delicious cuisine (unlike, say, the French or the Chongqingers), and thus happily incorporate many different culinary traditions into their country.
The last shock I will mention is naturally the vast difference between leaving the Siberian chill in Shanghai for the tropical heat of Manila and my final destination of the day, Cebu. The Filipinos, however, were all bundled up that day. This winter had been unseasonably cool, with quite a few rainstorms sweeping across the islands. For me, however, this unseasonable cold felt a bit like the middle of May... utter temperature perfection!
* * *
In Cebu city, on the island of the same name, I arrived exhausted. I had been awake since about 1pm of the previous day... the time was now about 11AM. But unfortunately for me, my day was not yet done. After checking into an overly expensive hotel (still confused about the conversion rate), I decided to take a quick trip down to the local visa bureau to get my visa extended. That couldn't take very long, right?
Wrong, of course. I waited there for about four or five hours, in total. I waited in a room stuffed with nuns and what seemed to be an AARP convention. Hordes of balding, fat, ancient, white men shuffled about the room with bronzed Filipina beauties on their arms. Each time I thought the travesty could not be topped, in would walk a yet older, balder, fatter man with an even more teenaged-looking girl. I felt a strong urge to hie myself to the jungles, and escape from this beastly scene. Of course as I've said before, such relationships do have the benefit of being, probably, a more equitable and sustainable form of wealth transference than making the national government of the Philippines apply to the IMF for loans.
I finished my day with a trip to the Ayala Mall (where the affluent locals, and myself, were able to buy cans of A&W Rootbeer) in order to exchange my Chinese RMB for Philipine Pesos, and then booking a cheaper place to stay (literally the custodial storeroom of a pension) for the next few days during the famous Sinulog Festival.
More on the festival, Cebu, and sacred dolls in my next post. I end here with the peaceful image of myself slumbering at last in an air-conditioned 'double' room, vastly surplus to my usual needs.
Tuesday, February 10, 2009
I'm also quite sad to have missed a multitude of chances for snorkeling and scuba... but my attempt at snorkeling in Mocambique some years ago proved beyond doubt that I'll need either contacts or eye surgery before I can make a real and satisfying go at that. The "Blue Hole" dive, wherein one descends into the open maw of an underwater volcano, as well as the numerous WWII wrecks, and an unmatched diversity of corals makes this one of the great regrets I'll leave behind me here.
I will miss the calamansi (a kind of lime) drink, as well as the delicious local cuisine that I've had a chance to try at numerous family-run 'toro-toro' (point-point) establishments. And in the grim Chinese winter, with the soot of a thousand factories clogging my throat each morning and the small racist indignities that go along with life there, I shall most particularly miss the fresh, clean sea breezes and the correspondingly light-hearted and breezy Filipino ethos. The tension of haggling and forcing one's way past hawkers is severely depleted when they all seem to be smiling and drunk on the eternal sun of the tropics.
Today I've been racking up a few expenses in the resort locale (I'm staying in quite humble and cheap accomodations, however) of Tagaytay, just an hour or so south of Metro Manila's incalculable chaos. The city is one long strip mall that runs along a crater ridge... the outermost crater of a vast, flooded volcano, actually. The restaurants here are stilted out over the edge of the crater's jungle-clad wall so as best to view Lake Taal (the flooded volcano) with its islands, including an island volcano that has another small lake nestled within its crater. Lake within volcano, within lake, within crater... a beautiful location, too well touristed for my tastes, but a suitable place to enjoy grilled lapu-lapu (grouper) and a cold calamansi juice as I simultaneously bemoan and rejoice my return to China.
Dusk is coming, but there is a full, silvery moon coming with it.
Some of those young Filipinas have aged as well, of course. It's not unlikely to meet a 40 yr-old Filipina lady with a 75 yr-old German. I suppose it does say something for her managerial abilities that she has managed to hold on to him for the past 20 years!
And then I came to the realization that one must give the Filipina her due. It is not so much that she is prey for the lecherous old Westerners, but that they are her prey. The average girl here has two options for bettering her life: (1) finding a job abroad, or (2) finding a hubby abroad. She takes this responsibility seriously, and every tourist is her potential fillet mignon. Amongst the legions of gold-diggers in this world, at least the union of lecher and young Asian has the potential to take the wealth of the west and transfer it directly among poor families as the elderly fellows move out here and allow their wives to start businesses that will in turn help pay for retirement. Net-cafes, small beach resorts, and shops selling local delicacies are the result. As recent history has shown, a shop selling buko pies is probably a more worthy place to put money than Wall Street is.