Archive for May, 2008


Time Zoned Out

So far, the trip to Xinjiang has gone well, mostly. The train ride was entirely too long, to be sure. We left at 6:45pm on Saturday, and arrived at 10am on Monday in Urumqi. This was in a fairly cramped sleeper car. I had hoped that spending so long on the train, that we’d have time to get a lot of reading and such done. But we were limited in some respects, such as there being no electrical outlet for the laptop, and thus, with my dead battery, no means of doing any electronic writing or anything while on the train.

The hardest thing to get used to in Urumqi is the time change. Now, this might not seem like a big deal. Given several days to get used to a two hour time change seems like it should be a simple matter. The problem is, there is a split between what’s called “local time” and what’s called “official time.” The entire nation of China is officially on Beijing time, so it makes some sense just to keep our watches on that time. Official time is recognized at banks, museums, trains, and so forth. But the unofficial local time is two hours behind. So restaurants, hostels, pubs, and so forth are all on that time. So whenever one plans anything, one must always be sure whether the people one is planning with are using one time or the other. So sleeping and seeking out meals can be tricky, because in effect, one is always living in two time zones at once. It makes it difficult to understand why the entire nation is kept on a single time zone. Can the advantages of doing things that way really be that great? If everything were kept exclusively on official time, we’d have to deal with very late sunrises and very late sunsets. Pretty much most countries of this size have multiple time zones to deal with this, and I don’t see any evidence that they have major problems as a result. Russia, I believe, has 11 time zones, and somehow they manage.

Thus far, we’ve had some great Uyghur food, a how-the-hell-did-this-get-here authentic Caribbean & Central American restaurant, and just tonight, a great Kazakh restaurant. Yes, this means that I had a dish that involved horse meat. I didn’t exactly have the same revulsion to that that one might have, say, to dog or cat meat. Eating horse didn’t seem wrong in the same way, just … odd. But I can report that it was quite tasty, and that Kazakh people may be onto something about this as a food source. Still, given the choice, I think I’d still have to prefer lamb or beef. The Kazakhs also enjoy a kind of beer made, in part, from fermented mare’s milk. I’m a little wary of trying that here, but I may have to, just to see what it’s like.
There is some bad news to report. Allison started having what began as a mild migraine headache, but what escalated to a massive attack making her feel nauseated by the time we were finished with the meal. We decided to postpone a meeting at the local expat hangout, a bar creatively named “Fubar,” until tomorrow night. We tried it already last night, and had some local wine. The only decent grapes grown in China, that is, grapes suitable for wine, are grown here in Xinjiang, and I can report that the wine was excellent. With any luck, Allison will feel better by the time the ibuprofen kicks in, and certainly by the time we wake up tomorrow.
We’ll be here until 8pm official time on Saturday, so we should be back in Beijing by Monday morning. We’ve already seen the Urumqi city museum and the “Little Mountain,” as well as the local night market.

Tomorrow, we’ll visit the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region Museum, which should have much more impressive stuff, like the Tarim mummies and Silk Road artifacts. Friday, we’ll visit the famous Tianshi Lake, or “Heavenly Lake,” where we’ll hopefully be able to have lunch with Kazakh herds people in their yurts. (If that doesn’t work out, we’ll instead take a day trip to the much-older city of Turfan.) And then, there’s the Da Bazaar, where we should be able to purchase anything from local arts and crafts, food, and tourist-trap merchandise.


Slow Train to the Silk Road

Tomorrow at 6pm, Allison and I will be boarding a train from Beijing to Ürümqi, in an area the Chinese call Xinjiang (literally, “New Frontier”) Uyghur Autonomous Region, but which the native Turkic Uyghurs have called “East Turkestan” for much longer. (Of course, while in China, one would be advised to not use the term “East Turkestan” – it’s liable to get you thrown in jail.)

Although Uyghur language, cultural and politics aren’t Allison’s current project, she’s strongly considering studying just that as she begins work on her PhD. The local culture is one she’s long been interested in, and I confess that I too have been interested in this as well. She was shocked when, one and a half years ago, on our very first date, I had already heard of the Uyghurs and knew something about them already. There will be lots to see – stuff related to the Silk Road, beautiful lakes, marketplaces, and of course, great Uyghur food. I don’t know that this makes too big of a difference, but the city has the unique distinction of being the geographically most inland city in the world, that is, the city farthest from any ocean. We’re excited about this trip.

Of course, the train trip… well, will be an experience. We leave at 6:45pm tomorrow (Sunday). The train arrives in Ürümqi in the morning. On Tuesday. Yes, on Tuesday. That means it’s a 36 hour train ride, perhaps longer. And back. Well, lots of time for disseratation reading, I suppose. Since the battery on my laptop died, I can only hope that this train has places to plug laptops in.

I’ll try to post as soon as I can – not only about this trip, but also about the trip we took to the Forbidden City a few days ago, with tons of photos.


A Husbandly Kind of Fellow

In the last two weeks or so, I’ve been able to actually obtain more work than I’ve had my entire time in Beijing so far. Figures this would happen once I’ve figured out that I cannot stay past June 9th or so. For example, I’ve been doing a gig involving recording English scripts for a multimedia company that wants to put out products teaching English and Chinese … and teaching about traditional Chinese medicine, in particular about breathing exercises, massage techniques, something called “moxibustion,” “cupping,” and acupuncture. (You wouldn’t believe how difficult I found it not to laugh when the script had me saying things about the body’s flow of Chi energy, or how the common cold can be cured by “cupping,” where vacuums are created in cups sealed to the body which suck the cold out.)

One of the other gigs is with an agency that does one-on-one English instruction and tutoring. I’m sort of ticked off at them for the moment, because they scheduled me to meet with two different students separately – at the same time! And now they want me to work with the students to resolve the schedule conflict myself, as if I were responsible for scheduling these two people myself. That situation seems to have worked itself out, but just today, they introduced me to a boy of three years and nine months, and asked if I could start teaching him English this very afternoon, just as I had finished with my other student and I had planned to go and meet Allison for lunch. He likes me, they said, but he’s shy. What do these people think about my schedule that would let them think that I have time to kill, such that I can drop my plans at the tip of a hat and teach such a young child English?

My theory is that with the changes to the visa rules that have meant that I have to leave the country on June 9th, there is a growing labor shortage in the Beijing English-teaching community. This is why work is suddenly growing so plentiful here suddenly. But Allison tells me that there could be deeper cultural issues at play here, where traditionally Chinese employers are not accustomed to thinking as a person’s spare time as their own. If they aren’t working, the thinking goes, they are always available. This is also why, after explicitly telling the above agency again and again that Wednesday is the worst day of the week to assign me work, and that in the evenings especially, I’m not available, they’ve nonetheless signed me up to work with a student Wednesday evening. Perhaps I should have just flat refused, but against my better judgment, I accepted, thinking that I could perhaps work with the student to change our regular meeting times.

Last week, Allison and I had to move heaven and earth just to get to their office from the Chaoyang District. (Again, Wednesday is the worst day of the week they could’ve assigned me work.) Making matters worse, there had been a massive unforecasted rainstorm come in that day, which in Beijing, makes getting a taxi next to impossible. We were soaked after spending over 30 minutes trying to flag one down. Then, traffic between Chaoyang and the office was wretched, such that we were quite late to our appointment. I kept the office appraised of the situation, so they understood what had happened. While I met with my student, Allison got to chatting with the women who worked there, and uncovered one of the strangest observations about myself that I’ve ever heard.

The ladies who work there are very sweet, and a few seem to me to be flirting in a very obvious kind of way with me. Seeing me there with my fiancée, perhaps, will damper that kind of thing. While I was meeting with my student, they took the opportunity to chat things up with Allison, and she discovered something interesting. It seems that they like me because I seem, to them, “husbandly,” or at least, that’s the closest Allison can render the expression in English. That is, they noticed that I was doting on Allison, and respectful toward her, and in general they’ve gotten the impression that I’m attentive and giving toward her. They also seem to think my physical characteristics – slightly chubby cheeks, for example – suggest that I’m much more of the “cute” type than, say, the ruggedly tall, dark, and mysteriously handsome type.

So since then, Allison has taken to refer to me husbandly at every opportunity, and I’m mostly okay with it, though I’m guessing that it’s a mixed blessing. On one hand, it suggests that I’m the safe, nice guy that many women would’ve wanted to end up with in the long term, but it also confirms what I’ve long known, that I’m seriously not even remotely the ladykiller playboy or gigolo type who could just “love ’em and leave ’em.” I’m reminded of those studies they did where they showed that most women like a particular kind of guy for most of the month, but then during those days of the month when they are most fertile, suddenly show a shifted preference for guys with more “masculine” features – heavier brows, hairier features, bulkier muscles, that kind of thing. So I’m not going to be that kind of guy, I suppose.

None of this is to suggest that I’d prefer to be different than the kind of person I am, either physically or psychologically, but I think what comes down to is that there’s something about realizing that you are a certain type of person, and that even if some day I wanted to be something else, I just couldn’t do it. At the risk of sounding like I’ve been reading too much Jean-Paul Sartre lately, there’s a sense of personal freedom lost there with that realization. Sure, I don’t want to be a playboy, but it may be reassuring to people to think that if they wanted to be something else, they could merely by an act of sheer will. To put it in Existentialist lingo, it’s like I’ve been living with authenticity, in full understanding of my transcendental freedom to be anything, but having been hit with the Female Gaze, or the look of the Other, I’ve suddenly had my freedom reduced, leaving me in Bad Faith. Good thing that while I find Existentialism interesting, enough so that I’ve sort of specialized in it and have even taught it, at the end of the day, I’m not an Existentialist, and far from experiencing any angst or anguish,* this whole incident just amused me more than anything else. And perhaps suggested that I should exercise more regularly so that my cheeks don’t look so chubby, or “husbandly.”

* Before any stickler members of the Philosophy Police rush in to get on my case, yes, I know that Sartre says that you experience anguish over contemplating your freedom, and it’s easier to slide into the bad faith of denying your transcendental freedom, so if anything, being labeled should have been comforting, even if deceptively so. To those who want to get on my case for that, I say, give me some slack: this is just a blog entry.


They don’t give you any choice ’cause they think that it’s treason

Here are some of things being said on the English radio station in Beijing:

“I feel that the government is like a mother, who has too many children to take care of.”
“This is a real step in right direction, for the transparency of the media.”
“Now the world sees how tough the Chinese can be.”
“This makes me so proud to be Chinese.”

I don’t know if this is the way that the Chinese-language media, but I’m assuming it is. (The second quotation was from the British guy on the station, and quite surprising, given that it tacitly acknowledges that the Chinese government hasn’t tolerated much transparency in the media in the past.)

About the post-Earthquake media here: There is a tone, bordering on the distasteful, of self-congratulatory praise at every turn. Every so often, there are people quoting rescue workers and even international diplomats heaping reams of praise on the Chinese government, and even in a few cases, the Communist Party itself. There hasn’t been any shortage of praise heaped on Premier Wen Jiabao, or President Hu Jintao, either, because they apparently visited the devastated area and met with victims and rescue workers. I keep remembering President Bush in similar circumstances, in particular his visits to New Orleans after Katrina or his visits to New York after 9/11. He received some praise and some criticism for his visits, and I think for my part, I disagree with those who said that he wasn’t showing enough sensitivity by waiting so long to come.

To my thinking, politicians should stay away from such areas. Politicians often only want to go to disaster areas to “share their pain” (a term that was actually used in praise of Hu Jintao in local media), and thus make themselves look good. But in reality, a politician visiting a disaster area is a distraction at best, and hampers rescue workers who now have to scramble to make all sorts of preparations in terms of security to make the visit possible. For all I know, Wen and Hu deserve all the praise in the world for their efforts, but this shouldn’t include the actual visits. And it should go without saying that the self-congratulatory “The-Chinese-Government-Is-Doing-Such-A-Good-Job!” stuff really needs to be toned down.

I thank you guys for opening up the media a tad here, letting international journalists there, and especially for at least acknowledging aid from the US, Japan, Russia, the UK, and others, but please, let your audience make its own judgments about the efficacy of rescue workers and the Chinese government. And while you’re at it, you might at least acknowledge the aid and condolences offered by the Taiwanese government and the Dalai Lama’s Tibetan Government-in-Exile. I appreciate that they haven’t been demonized lately, since the earthquake kind of pushed them out of the headlines. But at least acknowledging their generosity might be, well, generous of you.


Foot in Mouth Disease

I met with the student that I’m tutoring again on Friday. After a delicious meal of lamb dumplings, Allison and I sat down with her to work on her English for the typical two hour session. The tutoring session went well, and I discovered what the probable source of her comments about the Dalai Lama and the Tibetans might have been.

I had thought it might’ve come from whatever she was picking up in the media or from her school. But it turns out that the source was likely much, much closer to home. Her dad, as I mentioned, is a doctor who specializes on kidney problems. Her grandfather was a medic in the People’s Liberation Army, and had participated in both World War II and the Chinese Civil War, culminating in the triumph of Mao Zedong’s seizure of control of the mainland. Knowing this, I already knew I had to tread carefully, even on top of whatever care I’d have to show with typical propaganda she may have received. But it’s unlikely her grandfather has influenced whatever she thinks of the Tibetans, because he only recently moved in with the family, and he’s getting to an age (he’s in his late 80’s) where he’s more of a cute old man than a fiery ideologue of any kind. And as I mentioned before, he apparently didn’t have much of a problem with the KMT, but really hated Chiang Kai-Shek, and this was the main reason he joined the Communists.

No, if she received any kind of distorted view of the Tibetan situation, she probably received it from her mother. Her mother is not only a Communist Party member, she actually has a career working for them as an administrator of some kind. She’s been gone the last month or two, doing work for them. I knew she had been away for her work, but it wasn’t until Friday that I discovered that specifically, she was in … Tibet. It seems that much of her work in the Party is specifically on Tibetan issues, and the riots were what led to her needing to go on an extended work trip.

So, did I say too much? It’s possible, and I know that if I had known that, I would’ve said far less about Tibet and the Dalai Lama than I did. But with any luck, it was still neutral enough to avoid me getting in trouble. Mainly, I just maintained that the Dalai Lama was probably not responsible for the riots, since he advocates non-violence. He doesn’t support independence, and opposes efforts to disrupt the Olympics, since, he says, neither stance helps the Tibetans. Rather, I told her, from what I had read, it sounded like the violent incidents (distinguishing those from the non-violent protests that comprised most of the activities of that week) were instigated by the more youthful members of the Tibetan exile movement, who function independently of the Dalai Lama, and explicitly reject many of this teachings. That, and the typical opportunists who pop up whenever there’s a situation of instability. People should just start talking to one another to work out their differences peacefully. Above all, that’s what I suggested. I suggested the teapot analogy – that if you increase fire to a teapot, without providing a place for the steam to escape, eventually the teapot explodes. So if people can start talking, instead of making group-based assumptions about one another, the steam might have a place to vent out.

That was probably the most potentially subversive thing I said, I suppose. On its face, it’s an innocent suggestion, but in practical terms, I was basically saying that the Chinese government should back off and allow freedom of speech and religion, but I couched it in terms of social stability being served. After all, I pointed out, the Puerto Ricans can openly advocate independence or whatever they want, and they don’t riot in the US.

Her mom is due to return from Tibet soon, and I’d be surprised if my student didn’t discuss the matter with her mom further. I only hope this doesn’t get me in too much trouble. I’d like to enjoy the awesome meals at her house for the few weeks I’m still here in China, and Allison has offered to continue tutoring her for free, as long as they agree to speak Chinese exclusively during mealtime, so she can get her language practice too.


Earthquakes Of A Different Kind

Today, Allison and I saw one of the strangest things we’ve seen in China during our entire trip.

Here’s the scene. Allison and I at a SPR Coffee Shop (a Chinese-based Starbuck’s knock-off), where, after a delicious lunch of Mongolian food, we’re plotting our schedule for the next week or two, culminating in a possible trip to Xinjiang. And at about 2:30, we hear this loud noise outside, like a car horn, soon joined by other car horns and by what I can only assume was an air-raid siren. The woman working at the coffee shop walks over to a control panel near us (more of a light-switch-looking thing), and flips off the music. Everyone in the shop, except for Allison and I, drops what they were doing, and stands at attention, and gazes intently outside. Outside, people have likewise stopped in their tracks, and seem to be staring out onto the street, or perhaps at the Chinese flag flown at half mast across the street. Traffic has stopped. Entirely. This is on a busy street, I might add, a major street passing the East Gate of Renmin (People’s) University. But no cars, no bikes, and no pedestrians are moving, save for one guy who looked like he might’ve been a reporter snapping photos, and a single bike guy moving toward the end.

What on Earth?, I mouthed to Allison. We both stopped what we were doing too. It sort of dawned on both of us at the same time that 2:30pm was probably about the time that the earthquake hit Sichuan province exactly one week previous. This, we realized, was some sort of national moment of silence, lasting a total of three minutes. I had just read of three days of mourning declared by the PRC government, but I had no idea that this was going to be called. I imagine it must’ve been in local media, but I hadn’t heard or read any in the last 24 hours or so. I had only read in the western media something about the three days mourning, but hadn’t really read any more deeply than that before then.

I later read of 1.3 billion Chinese doing this across the nation, as a means of paying tribute to the dead. The English-language radio station DJ made a comment that made me uneasy about this whole thing, and perhaps unwittingly crystallized what may have been bothering me about it. “Just think,” she said, “1.3 billion Chinese, all thinking the exact same thing! Very inspiring.”

Not exactly the term I’d use. “Creepy” comes to mind. Still, I appreciate that this is cool in one way. This is the first time, I read, that a national day of mourning has been called for the death of people who weren’t politicians of some kind. The last time three days of mourning were declared was for the death of Deng Xiaopeng. I don’t believe anyone else was ever given that kind of send-off, apart from Mao, who, if anything, was probably given an even bigger national mourning. In some ways, perhaps the optimistic libertarian in me can read this as yet another step away from the official religion declared by Mao: state worship. I would’ve naturally preferred people just did their own thing to show their condolences to the people of Sichuan. After 9/11, there were impromptu gatherings, displays of the American flag, and the like, and these struck me as more genuine.

If people got something from this form of remembrance, far be it for me to take that from them. But it just looked, and felt, creepy. It reminded me of that scene in Fight Club where you see several groups across the city and the country chanting to themselves, in tandem: “His name was Robert Paulson.” I admit that I thought of the earthquake victims with a sense of sorrow at that moment. The loud noises created by the air raid sirens and car horns were supposed to symbolize a collective expression of wailing. But I mainly experienced a sense of creeped-out unease, and I don’t think that was the intention.


Chinglish or Subversive Political Statement? Or Both? You Decide.

I’ve been collecting quite a large set of Chinglish photos, which I hope to start uploading in full soon. But for now, I thought it’d be cool if I could at least get one of my favorites.

Now, as I mentioned before, my building has a lot of businesses set up here in addition to numerous residences like my own. On my own floor, there was a business that seems to sell mattresses or some sort of bedding product, and they had this banner thing advertising for them. Unremarkable at first glance…

But look closer…

Now, it’s quite possible that the brand is called “Set Free,” and it’s based in Taiwan. Nonetheless, either this is unintentional Chinglish of the most dangerous sort, or it’s a not-so-subtle political statement. Either way, I thought it was damn cool, and if it was intentional, it shows remarkable chutzpah. Though for what it’s worth, this was up for about a month after I moved in, and it mysteriously vanished. I don’t know that the company’s office is even here anymore. I wonder what happened to them?