Archive for the ‘Culture’ Category

Chinese Lessons

24 January 08

Today I have a book recommendation. “Chinese Lessons” by John Pomfret. Pomfret first came to China as a foreign student in the early 80s. Later, he returned as a journalist. “Chinese Lessons” presents the stories of his fellow classmates, among the first students to return to university post-Cultural Revolution. Through Pomfret’s writing, these classmates share their experiences living through the Cultural Revolution, their time in university and life in the new China.

If you are involved in the China expat blogosphere, undoubtedly you have heard of this book before. There is an excellent review here. I brought this book back to China with me last April. I read it. The DH read it. Our coworker read it. His Chinese wife read it. Now it is in the hands of a fellow expat friend. I hope it gets passed around to more friends. It really should be required reading of all expats in China. If you want to know what your neighbors & Chinese coworkers lived through, you’ve got to read it.

I decided to blog about this book after reading this article on NY Times about the first class of students allowed to take the university entrance exams in 1977. For those of you who don’t know, studies of all kinds were suspended during the brutal Cultural Revolution years. When universities opened in 1978, students of all ages flocked to their campuses. (Only if they scored well on the entrance exam – an exam still used to this day.) What happened to the so-called Class of ’77? Some of them are now the country’s leaders.

For Ms. An and a whole generation consigned to the countryside, it was the first chance to escape what seemed like a life sentence of tedium and hardship. A pent-up reservoir of talent and ambition was released as 5.7 million people took the two-day exam in November and December 1977, in what may have been the most competitive scholastic test in modern Chinese history.

The 4.7 percent of test-takers who won admission to universities — 273,000 people — became known as the class of ’77, widely regarded in China as the best and brightest of their time. By comparison, 58 percent of the nine million exam-takers in 2007 won admission to universities, as educational opportunities have greatly expanded.

Now, three decades later, the powerful combination of intellect and determination has taken many in this elite group to the top in politics, education, art and business. Last October, one successful applicant who had gone on to study law and economics at Peking University, Li Keqiang, was brought into the Chinese Communist Party’s decision-making Politburo Standing Committee, where he is being watched as a possible successor to President Hu Jintao or Prime Minister Wen Jiabao.

Among those who have assumed positions of power, aside from Mr. Li of the Politburo, are Zhou Qiang, the governor of Hunan Province; Wang Yi, party secretary of the Foreign Affairs Ministry and a former ambassador to Japan; and Jin Liqun, vice president of the Asian Development Bank.

Artistic talent to emerge from the class of ’77 includes the filmmakers Zhang Yimou (“Raise the Red Lantern”) and Chen Kaige (“Farewell My Concubine”), and the writer Chen Cun.

May they never forget the lessons of those lost years!

Dogs & Airplanes

11 December 07

The last few days here in Linyi have been rainy and gray. This is the kind of weather I expect in winter, so it is not altogether unwelcome. I’m just glad that our trip to Mt. Tai coincided with blue skies. Anyway, although the skies are overcast today, our students were able to fly. Flying here has been a little hit and miss over the last month. The closer we get to winter, the greater the chance for low visibility. Fall is the best time for flying, but the number of clear days are slowly dwindling.

There are other challenges here that limit flying, and I’ve been meaning to post about those. I had some setbacks because of my grad school classes, however, and couldn’t spend a lot of time writing blog posts. Today I will share something that maybe can’t be considered a challenge, but is something unexpected, nevertheless.

One of today’s flights was delayed slightly due to a “runway incursion.” Not that an aircraft was at risk of colliding with another aircraft or vehicle, but rather a dog had wandered too close to the runway. Wildlife are often a problem at big airports, especially birds. A bird strike can damage airplane surfaces and engines. At many airports, loud noises are used to scare birds away. At others, poison is used to deal with them. I’ve even heard of some airports that employ trained hawks to keep birds away. A friend of ours who flies in Africa sometimes has to deal with elephants and giraffe wandering onto the runway. I’m really not sure what the procedure is for a dog, but today we felt sure someone would just try to scare the poor thing away.

Instead, someone was dispatched to “take care” of the dog. With a shotgun.

I guess the moral to this story is dog may be man’s best friend, but man is not always dog’s best friend. Dogs and airplanes don’t mix at our local airport.

Wish Me Luck

7 December 07

While you are tucked safely into your beds this evening, I shall be climbing a 5,000 ft mountain.

Tai Shan 泰山, or Mount Tai, is one of the five famous mountains of China. It has been recognized by UNESCO as a world heritage site. It is located a few hours northwest of Linyi in Shandong Province. The route up the mountain is made up of almost 7000 steps and is dotted with small temples. Some info here, here and here.

We’ve been wanting to make this trip for a long time now, but for some reason we decided to wait until Winter. It should be close to 0℃ during the night, probably below the higher we get. We’ll climb at night so we can be at the summit for sunrise.

I guess I will know if this is a crazy idea or not in a few hours! See ya after the climb!

It’s Mid-Autumn!

26 September 07

I should’ve known something was up when all the bread disappeared from the supermarket and was replaced by mooncakes.

It’s that time again: Mid-Autumn Festival! This is the day that the Chinese traditionally celebrate the end of the harvest and admire the full moon. It also means that it is time to eat mooncakes.

Mooncakes are little round pastries that are given as gifts to family, friends and business acquaintances. I remember when we first arrived in Beijing, two years ago. Boxes of four mooncakes were on display everywhere – hotel lobbies, supermarkets, businesses. We thought it odd, but had no idea that in the month of September, mooncakes take over China. Mooncakes can vary in flavor from delicious to gag-worthy. Usually that depends on whether or not they are moist and sweet or dry and odd. They can be filled with paste made from lotus root, red bean or who knows what. Sometimes they have an egg yolk inside, to represent the moon, as can be seen above. The Washington Post has an interesting article on what those Beijing folk are doing with mooncakes. Green tea ice cream mooncakes? I looonnggg to be in Beijing!!


I had some mooncake last night at our company party, and it wasn’t bad. Yes, I did say company party. Did you read about our last company party? Well, this was more of the same: lots of food, lots of toasting, some puke and some passing out, but not too crazy as we were all home by 10PM. The highlight of the evening for me was when two of the company managers told me I am really fat. I know. Gotta love that tact. I wanted to tell them they were ugly, but since I don’t know how to say that in Chinese, and they don’t speak English, I just walked away. (Or waddled..)

The infamous mooncakes – with lotus paste & red bean paste

Our students at the party.

Nerd News

26 September 07

Excuse me, I’m about to have a huge nerd moment.

Have you ever felt like spending your free time doing some independent university study? Really!? Me too!

The wait is over! Check out MIT’s open courseware. MIT is offering courses for free. Of course, you have to do all the work, but they offer the syllabus, lecture notes, handouts, and some have video of lectures and readings. I’m working through the Chinese I course and looking at the Medical Anthropology course.

Oh Poo

13 September 07

I often talk about how I have a love-hate relationship with China. Some days I love it and some days I hate it. Today I am feeling particularly positive, probably because last night we had a delicious dinner with our friends D. & L. and relaxed at a newly opened bar.

So, even though I’m feeling good, I’ve got to get something off of my chest, and since this is my only real outlet, you’re going to have to read about it. (Or not. If you’re queasy, you might want to skip this one.)

I want to talk about poop, and sorry for being so crass, but that is the truth. See, there is close to zero privacy in China, which I can kind of understand in a country of one billion people. What I can’t understand is how it seems to be not only tolerated, but culturally acceptable to do your “business” wherever you darn well please.

Today on my bus ride home I accidentally caught sight of an ~eight year old boy squatting outside of a restaurant. He didn’t go around the side, or to a public bathroom, or even behind a bush. He went directly in front of the large windows of a restaurant, in full view of a very busy major road in the outskirts of Linyi.

Now, I’m no prude. After 5+ years working in a hospital there is no part of the human anatomy that I haven’t seen, and I’m accustomed to all sorts of nudity and bodily functions. Still, it is shocking to me the amount of “functions” I have been exposed to here.

Peeing on the side of the road seems to be quite common world-wide and it doesn’t really bother me. But when I see a little kid come running out of a small shop to the side of a busy street, where he proceeds to pull down his pants and make a deposit, meanwhile his mother cleans his backside and leaves the whole mess in the gutter…and they walk the 4 meters back to the shop to play, eat, wash their clothes and conduct their business, I am astounded. (Because there are public bathrooms and a huge empty field with grass and trees around the corner.)

I’ve seen toddlers copping squats in the supermarket on numerous occasions. Once, the mother shrieked and looked embarrassed, the other times, the mother looked on, disinterested. This was just pee, but still! The supermarket??!! Does no one else see the public health repercussions of this type of behavior? Hepatitis A is rampant in China – is it any wonder?

Admittedly, I come from a culture where there is a great deal of shame associated with body functions. But can’t there be a middle ground? A place where you don’t mind saying you have to use the toilet, (without resorting to the euphemism “use the restroom”), while still having the decency to do it in private?

Okay, crass rant over.

China’s Boomtowns

11 September 07

The June issue of National Geographic features a story on one booming industrial town on China’s Southeast coast. Be sure to read the field notes and look at the photos – it is all so true and familiar to me.

I especially like the part where the two bosses of the featured company decide to move their factory and don’t actually inform anyone until just before the actual move. That sort of last minute information sharing happens all the time!

The article is an interesting look into the boomtowns, the people who come from far and wide to populate them, and the efforts that are made to rise up the economic ladder.

The countryside around Linyi, where we live, is full of small factories. The top goods are plywood, garlic & small tools. (If I remember correctly.) We have a friend who is here supervising quality in oak furniture factories and we’ve met business people in diverse fields such as textiles, small engines, drywall and diamond mining.

Whether or not you think Chinese goods are safe, there is no doubt that the world keeps asking for more.

Link of the Week

13 August 07

I wanted to share an interesting website.

Saudi Aramco World

Saudi Aramco World is a magazine devoted to sharing the culture, history and geography of Arab and Muslim lands, through articles and photography. It is available online, as a downloadable PDF and, free, as a print subscription.

It is of great interest to anyone who wants to know more about the Middle East.

Freakonomics and Gangs

7 August 07

And one more post, before I get washed away with yet more rain… It has been raining here in Linyi for weeks now! Thunderstorms every other day!

I’d like to share a blog post that I think is fascinating, although it has nothing to do with China, or Asia, or travel, or any of the things I usually blog about. Heard of the book Freakonomics? I’ve heard of it, but haven’t read it. I have, however, read the blog associated with the book, and today there is an interesting post about gangs, of all things. Judging by the blog, the book is probably pretty interesting.

The Future for China

25 May 07

No doubt you’ve heard that China is exporting all sorts of exciting chemicals in normal household products and foods, in order to liven things up a bit. I mean, who wants regular old toothpaste when you can have toothpaste that shares ingredients with anti-freeze?! You can even get it in your cough syrup! Why feed your pets plain old purina when they could have enhanced kibble and melamine bits?!

America might be astonished, but I am not. Corruption can and will lead to all manner of truly horrendous things. Corruption is not isolated to China, but it seems to be more rampant here than anywhere else I have been. And it is not just American pet owners and Central American cough syrup purchasers who are suffering because of it. Corruption kills thousands, every day, right here in China.

From last year’s benzene spill in Northern China to the everyday chemical run-off and dumping, China’s rivers are ribbons of waste and foul. Save a few in the deep south, such as the Li River in Guangxi Province,  they are so toxic that fish no longer survive and there are entire cancer villages springing up along their shores. Go ahead and take the no-longer-scenic Three Gorges cruise. Just try not to look too closely at the gruel floating alongside your boat.

Illegal coal mines dot the Chinese interior. When they burn and explode, as they do almost daily, their owners grab the cash and flee the country, without even bothering to  notify the rescue crews because they fear getting caught. Illegal coal burning power plants pop up like corn shoots all across the industrial belt South of Beijing. They don’t even bother with emissions reducing scrubbers. So the surrounding land is permanently bathed in a brown, ashy cloud? The managers and owners have the local officials in their pockets, and they can all afford to escape to crystal clear skies whenever they want.

The victims, as always, are the peasants. Mao aimed to bring an end to the feudalism that ruled China for thousands of years, to serve the people. Now a new feudalism rules the land. The power of money and greed are the new values.

China faces a bigger battle than we can imagine. The foes? Unbelievable, pervasive corruption. So-called harmony fees (bribes) are a way of life. Local officials do whatever they can to enrich themselves at any cost. Environmental degradation. How can you prosper when you can’t even breathe or grow anything in toxic land? The widening gap between the rich and poor. Deng Xiaoping told the Chinese people to enrich themselves. But at what cost? The peasantry – the have-nots have seen the glittery audis, plush apartments, new nikes and alcohol fueled feasts of the haves and they are not happy. Morals and values. Rodney Dangerfield isn’t the only one – not even the elders get respect anymore. The Confucian backbone of China is weakening as the commercialized and consumer driven youth forget or ignore or don’t get taught the lessons of the past.

China faces a long march forward – but she’s survived in the past and I hope she can this time, too. I point out these problems because I want China to succeed. I want China to emerge from the  detritus of the past 60 years triumphant – and free. There are too many good people and too much history for it to be any other way.