Saturday, July 25, 2009

Beijing, Again

My vacation begins, although I'm still quite some way from Mongolia. I took the high speed train to Beijing, last night. Turns out the subway line out to the South Train Station isn't finished yet, so I walked all the way to Tian'anmen Square from the station. Luckily I had a similarly luckless Brit traveler to keep me company on the cross-town hike.
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

Last One Out of China, Please Switch Off the Sun.

Yesterday morning, it did feel like the sun was switched off for a brief moment in time. Probably you may know from the news coverage of it, that the century's longest solar eclipse covered a fair portion of Asia that day, running between the Indian coast, over the Himalayas, through China, and off into the Pacific Ocean. The upper edge of the 'totality' (area where the sun is completely covered) passed perhaps ten miles south of Nanjing, so I was able to witness the effects, if not at their greatest power.

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

Facebook Blocked In China

This message brought to you via Gmail (recently blocked, currently unblocked), sent to Blogger (blocked for both viewing and posting in China, but not able to block email-posting capability), and then automatically re-posted by my Facebook account.

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

The Lecture Circuit

These days I find myself a university lecturer in demand. Granted these are usually one-off deals, a sort of special treat or indeed a promotion for educational services. As with most things here in China--as most other places--it all comes down to money.

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.