Archive for the ‘Life and Culture’ Category

In Which the Narrator Catches a Bike Thief Red-Handed

May 8, 2012

One does not have to have lived in Beijing for very long to count bicycle thieves among the true scourges of your existence. While I have been lucky in my 2+ years of living here, I can think of countless stories from friends who have walked outside one morning or afternoon to find their bike, or at least a wheel or a seat, mysteriously gone. Cousin Katie lost two bikes last summer in the space of a month, locks and all. Bike theft in Beijing is so rampant that it is treated not so much as a preventable crime but rather with the same fatalism as the traffic or the smog. I have been told that actually trying to protect your bike with locks is futile (though my US-made Kryptonite lock has held up so far), but rather that the best protection you can offer is to discourage thieves by using dirt and scratches to make your bike look older, thereby making the next bike over more attractive by comparison.

Last week, I came face to face with a manifestation of this invisible, omnipresent force. I was

caught red-handed

walking out of the Teach For China office when, as I prepared to unlock my own bike, heard a soft sawing sound from just up the block. Looking up, I saw a man hunched over the bike several yards from mine, bent over the back wheel and, yes, sawing vigorously. He was making no effort to conceal it: people continued to cross the street nearby, no more than a few yards from the in-progress robbery. I flirted briefly with the notion of doing something heroic, of calling him out somehow, but wasn’t entirely sure what I would do or on whose authority I could confront him. So I opted instead to just stare in disbelief.

That was enough to get his attention at least. After a furtive look upward, he returned to his sawing. Pulling out my phone to take a picture, though, was enough to scare him off. He backed away from the bike and silently walked past me to the end of the block, throwing another guilty look over his

the lock was no match

shoulder before he turned the corner. I went over to take this photo of the lock on the bike once he was out of view: in just about a minute he had already sawed most of the way through the lock.

I got on my bike to leave again, turning the same corner to find him idling there. As soon as he saw me approaching he began ambling back to his victim. The brazenness was too much for me to resist; I circled around again to find him back at the same bike, and pulling out my camera to take another picture was enough to scare him off again. At that point, though, my heroic urge to defend the bike lost out against the realization that I was already late for something. I’ll never know if I had harassed him enough to scare him off or if he returned for a third time to claim his prize.

the villain makes his escape

Certainly this awkward confrontation was no more than confirmation of what we already knew. Even in broad daylight, with plenty of witnesses, your bike is not safe. I highly recommend the investment in a real Kryptonite lock.

New Years Pt. 3: Religion For Sale

February 22, 2012

I’m far too behind schedule to get away with still blogging about Chinese New

Incense for sale on the way to the temple

Year, but the rest of my New Year’s Eve was pretty fascinating too. We last left our heroes shortly before midnight, having just set off probably several thousand RMB worth of fireworks while at a questionable level of sobriety. Leaving a wasteland of smoking and discarded packages strewn across the pavement (this is China, after all), we set off for a temple, where it is tradition to burn incense and make a prayer for good fortune at the start of the New Year.

The main road up to the temple was lined with stalls selling incense of all sizes,

Lining up to burn incense

from small conventional sticks to massive columns at least six feet high. Our hosts bought a half dozen three-packs of large, four-foot sticks of incense, which we lugged up the road with us to the temple. Reaching the temple and climbing a set of stone steps up to the first main altar, we found it already packed with people lugging bundles of incense. I had seen people make offerings of incense before at Chinese temples. Given a less crowded day at a temple, people will generally take the time to light the sticks and hold them up as they bow three times before placing the incense at the altar to burn or placing them to burn in a nearby small stone tower housing a fire. But this evening, crushed by the growing throng of “worshippers,” people showed little interest in attaching even the most basic sense of ritual to the act. One by one, people approached the pyre and unceremoniously lobbed their package of (expensive) incense into the flame. The environmentalist inside me winced as I watched plastic packaging, unremoved, curl up in the flames. Many people tossed in entire plastic shopping bags of incense. By the time we had arrived, the stone tower held a massive, roaring fire and belched thick clouds of black smoke into the air.

Burning incense

This type of folk religion was, of course, forbidden for much of the last century in China, and has only re-emerged as a consequence of opening up in the last two decades. I find the role that it plays in contemporary society puzzling. From what I can tell, many families do still pay respects to ancestors, and give offerings during visits home and on important holidays. However, out of everyone I’ve spoken to, no one seems to attend rituals like the midnight New Years prayer out of any real religious feeling. Most go just because it’s the thing to do, or, as a cousin told me that evening, to 感受气氛—just to take in the atmosphere, and enjoy the novelty of it.

The pervasive commercialism seems to have become inseparable from the ritual itself. I remembered seeing the same thing when I visited Wutaishan 五台山, a famous Buddhist pilgrimage site, with 博哥 a couple of years ago. The amount of incense and other Buddhist paraphernalia for sale, which rose exponentially in price the closer one got to the actual holy sites, was staggering. It must have cost several hundred RMB just for each member of the family to toss in a sizeable ream of incense as part of the New Year’s prayer. The temple in Yiyang, 博哥’s dad informed us later, had held an auction for the right to be the person to give the first auspicious offering in the temple right after the stroke of midnight. The winner had spent 40,000 RMB (6,330 USD) for the privelege.

The worshipers thronging around me had spent quite a bit on their bundles of incense, too. And yet, though people line up to throw their money at these rituals, they often take no time to savor the actual ritual of it. They just the incense in the fire and move on, as if the simple act of having purchased the incense is all the spiritual credit you need.

We climbed another level of the temple, reaching its highest point shortly

We were waiting by another incense pyre just as the fireworks began to go off

before midnight. As the official start of the New Year approached, I realized that we had deliberately set off our fireworks prematurely. Most families waited until midnight, and before long, the air was filled with rumbling and cracking from all directions. Looking out over the edge of the temple platform, I saw that the entire skyline was ablaze, looking (and sounding) as if the town was experiencing an air raid. It was an incredible sight, and I tried to get photos of fireworks going off all along the river, but smoke from the incense fires below blocked a lot of them out.

A couple of the aunts were determined to make the rounds to all of the different

View of the street below

altars. Families who must have been waiting to set off their fireworks continued to stream in, and by the time we started the climb down, the temple was absolutely teeming with people. Rather than go straight to bed, we returned to the second relative’s home for a family tradition of eating 夜宵, a late-night meal (the Chinese equivalent of post-partying drunk food). Here we finally got the famous Chunjie dumplings, though I learned that the tradition of eating dumplings on Chunjie is in general a tradition confined to northeastern China. However, because several relatives had worked in Shenyang, Liaoning province for several years, they had brought the tradition back with them. Another meal of course brought more beers. Though this now marked their third attempt of the day to get us drunk, we held on as best as our endurance would let us, before we all staggered back home and crashed around 3am.

New Years in the Middle of Nowhere pt. 2: Drunken Fireworks

February 4, 2012

My experience in Yiyang, Hunan included just a few brief respites from constant eating and drinking. After a massive dinner on New Year’s eve, and after chatting through several hours of the 春节晚会 (the New Year’s variety show which is sort of the Chinese equivalent to Dick Clark’s New Years Rockin’ Eve), we went outside for the part of the evening that I’ve been looking forward to the most: fireworks. 博哥 knew how excited I was for this part, and I think I had his father prepare a particularly large haul for this year. Leaving the apartment, I helped haul a load of boxes out to the pedestrian street, which at this point was mostly deserted. These were filled with a massive assortment of fireworks of all shapes and sizes, including many of a size that I’m sure require some sort of professional license to use in the US.


(The video starts getting good about 15-20 seconds in)

The last time I was in China over Chunjie I remembered reading stories of fireworks-related burns and injuries—I’m sure, with the combination of professional-grade fireworks and heavy drinking that there are dozens of accidents a year. So I was a little nervous when Bo’s father lit a cigarette and thrust it into my hand. “Just touch the cigarette there and then run this way,” he said. As I walked up to the first case of fireworks, my boots slid a little on the pavement, which was smooth and slick with half-melted snow. I lit the fuse, though, hopping frantically over the slippery pavement as I heard it sizzle behind me. Looking up into the sky I was rewarded with explosions of the size that you’d only see at Fourth of July in the US.

While the show was amazing, it did little to quell my concerns about the irresponsibility of making such large explosives so widely available to drunk people. One uncle lit a box of big rockets and then, as the rockets began to shoot into the air, shuffled immediately to another box a few feet away so that he could set both off simultaneously. While the first few rockets launched into the air without a hitch, the third rocket only lofted a lazy ten feet into the air, exploding just above his head as he was crouching to light the second box. Another big rocket lit soon after gave off sparks but never got off the ground, instead exploding in a shower of green sparks just ten feet away from us. No one was injured, but it did make me wonder how often one comes across a defective firework. The big expensive fireworks were soon expended, leaving an assortment of sparklers, roman candles, and other novelties. My favorite among these, which they called a “butterfly,” consisted of a small rocket with a set of small cardboard wings. Once lit, a stream of sparks causes it to spin rapidly, such that it lifts into the air like a flying saucer, making an unearthly buzzing sound before exploding with a crack.

When we finished, a wasteland of smoking and discarded cardboard packages lay before us. This being China, after all, we of course simply left them behind us and took off for the last activity of the evening. The residents of Yiyang have a tradition of visiting a local temple to burn incense and make a prayer for the new year. More about that next week.

New Years in Middle of Nowhere, Hunan pt. 1

January 26, 2012

Cousin Katie and I spent Spring Festival 春节this year with 博哥’s family in Hunan. While this was the second Chunjie I’d spent in Asia, I

Picturesque Yi Yang

had spent the holiday during my year at Beida travelling outside China, and was thus excited for my first chance to have an authentic Chinese New Year experience. We flew into Changsha Hunan, early on Saturday morning, and 博哥’s mom (who I’ll call 李妈妈 for the purposes of the blog) and dad (李爸爸) met us at the airport for the drive to Yiyang 益阳, where 李妈妈’s family is from. Yiyang,a tiny (by Chinese standards) city of about half a million people, lies about an hour and a half northwest of Changsha. It’s got the rather drab uniform look of most middling Chinese cities: most of the buildings share a similar beige color and few are over eight stories high. We stayed in an apartment just off of the wide shop-lined pedestrian street (perhaps modeled after Shanghai’s Nanjing East Street) that is also a mainstay of all mid-level Chinese cities. It snowed most of the afternoon and evening of our first day there, such that the whole city was blanketed in snow by the second day. Covered in snow, the city resembled a less picturesque version of the homely town where the blockbuster Pepsi commercial I wrote about earlier this month is set.

We arrived in Yiyang mid-day on Saturday, in time for a massive meal with several aunts, uncles, and cousins, including a mid-sized bottle of baijiu split between the five men (including me) at the table. Unsurprisingly, non-stop eating and drinking were the dominant theme of the entire trip to Hunan, to the point of exhaustion. Every lunch and dinner became a big production,

All the meals were this awesome. Only thing missing from this photo is the boozeHanging out around the fire after a meal. It was too cold to do much else

with plenty of relatives crowded around a table piled high with food. The homemade food was, also unsurprisingly, amazing, although I was surprised that this Hunan crowd ate very little spicy food. Most meals consisted of a couple of large stews which boiled throughout the meal in electric kettles, flanked by an assortment of stir-fried dishes. As the meals wore on and the stir-fried dishes cooled, the remainders were dumped into the boiling electric pots, presumably to re-heat them and to soak up the flavor of the stew. Several family members live on farms, giving us ample access to amazing home-raised free-range chicken, and incredibly fresh home-grown vegetables, including some I’d never seen before.

Even this amazing food took a back seat to the single-mindedness with which a Chinese family at New Years pursues its alcohol. The level of drinking was

View from on top of a temple on a hill overlooking the city

exhausting. It felt like an act of physical exertion to drink heavily over a big lunch and then, just in time for the buzz from lunch to wear off, to start all over again. Luckily, this family was willing to spare us from drinking baijiu most of the time, leaving us to choose between beer and wine. The downside of drinking one of these, though, is that an appropriate toast often requires draining a full 5 ounce glass—whether it was full of beer or wine. According to custom, one is expected to toast everyone at the table, as well as be toasted back by the other drinkers. On several occasions, thus resulted in me finishing off more than a full bottle of wine to myself, to say nothing of the beer. A couple of times, 李爸爸 brought bottles of wine with him to toast us with when we went to visit other relatives. However, as the wine was mostly for our benefit (had it been up to them, they would have drunk just baijiu), few people had an opener handy. We watched instead as an uncle, showing remarkable ingenuity, drove an ordinary screw through the cork and used that as leverage to remove it.

While Chunjie festivities often last a whole week, the official start of the new

Burning "money" for ancestors to use in the afterlife

year was Sunday night. We gathered in an aunt’s apartment for the meal, but before we could eat, the family had to make a New Year’s offering to their ancestors. We gathered in the small apartment’s dining room, where several Mao posters overlook a round wooden table. We watched as Grandma laid out two plates of meat and a full stewed chicken in a bowl on the table, as well as a couple of plastic cups of rice, and two glasses each of water and baijiu. She placed a sprig of green onion over each of the dishes of meat, and lit a couple of sticks of incense. Each member of the family took turns bowing over the table, following which she burned a small handful of rough yellow paper, which I’d seen before to represent money. The little dish

Also from a temple overlooking the city. The low buildings in the background are a cement factory.

of incense was transferred to a small altar inset in the dining room wall.

I’ve decided to split this into a couple of entries since it’s too long for one blog post, but stay tuned next week for drunken fireworks.

Why is Inter-cultural Dating Hard? Watch a Chinese Romantic Comedy

January 8, 2012

I’m not quite sure when I decided to turn this blog into media/cultural commentary, but the inspiration’s been striking me recently so I might as well go with it. I went to see the new Taiwanese romantic comedy “那些年, 我们一起追的女孩” with a friend this weekend. The title literally translates to something like “The Girl We All Pursued All Those Years,” which, admittedly, doesn’t translate well. However, I think it’s a far sight better than “You Are the Apple of My Eye,” the bland English title they decided to go with instead. The movie was already out in Hong Kong when I was there for a Teach For China trip in October, and has only recently made it to the Mainland–as I discovered recently, the version I saw here had already been thoroughly scrubbed of the racy bits.

Censorship-induced indignation aside, the movie is quite funny, and, in my opinion, raises some really interesting questions about contemporary views of romance, relationships, and innocence among young Chinese. I’m going to attempt to breeze through crucial plot elements as quickly as possible to get to the interesting part.

The central story, of high school first love–is an archetype in the popular Chinese youth imagination that a friend (博哥, for loyal readers) emailed me in a tizzy at how simply streaming the trailer from the US made him overflow with nostalgia for his lost youth. The movie follows Ke Jingteng 柯景腾 (called “Keteng), his gang of high school chums, and Shen Jiayi 沈佳宜 the pretty, studious girl that they all simultaneously have crushes on. Near the beginning of the movie, Jiayi forgets her textbook in class and Keteng, a notoriously terrible student, takes the rap for her, stoically accepting her punishment. Their friendship blossoms from this act of chivalry, with Jiayi diligently tutoring Keteng in an attempt to overcome his lack of interest in school. Jiayi spends all of high school thwarting would-be male suitors, and though Keteng is the last of his friends to declare his love for her, on their graduation day, she is unresponsive to him as well.

Added bonus to the movie: A look at some of the weird corporal punishment systems at work in Taiwanese high schools

When the friends graduate high school and go off to separate colleges, Keteng and Jiayi remain close friends, but romantically never make it beyond one awkward date, which of course begins with him asking her if it’s a date.  As the two of them walk balancing along a railroad track, their pseudo-romantic history hangs heavy in the air. “I’m afraid for you to date me,” Jiayi says, “because I’m afraid that I couldn’t live up to the girl in your imagination. I make mistakes sometimes, I have bad breath in the morning and I bicker with my sister. I’m quite ordinary.” Later that afternoon, when the topic of their courtship comes up again, Keteng declares, “Well I never officially asked you out.” Jiayi replies, “would you like to know my answer if you did?” “Don’t tell me,” Keteng retorts, “I haven’t asked you, so you can’t reject me yet.”

Keteng’s immaturity is a consistent theme of the movie, beginning with his poor

"I have morning breath"

grades and frequent disciplinary problems in high school. Emotional frustration spurs him to act out–in a rather unexpected plot twist, he organizes a Fight Club-esque boxing competition in the basement of his college dorm, and when Jiayi catches wind, she is furious with him. They fight, and as he storms off, she calls him 幼稚, “childish,” her chosen flirtatious insult for him while in high school, now a serious judgement of character. After the fight, they don’t speak for two years. They are seniors in college when a big earthquake hits Taibei, where Jiayi is studying. Keteng calls her frantic with worry and, when he finds that she is safe, the conversation turns to their romantic past. He casually asks why they never ended up together, to which she responds, “The most beautiful part of a relationship is the very beginning. Once you’re really together, a lot of the real feeling disappears. So I thought, why not let you chase me a little longer?” They fall back out of touch again, but Keteng seems to have finally overcome some of his 幼稚-ness. He starts working on a novel (granted, not always the most mature of career choices), applying himself for the first time in his life. The next time he hears from Jiayi, though, it is to tell him that she is getting married to someone else. In the last scene, he flashes through their relationship, imagining that if he had overcome his immaturity earlier, he could have made up during their big fight and they might actually have been together. In the end, though, all he can do is wish her well in her new life.

I would argue that the crux of the movie can be summed up in Jiayi’s statement–that the most beautiful part of a relationship is the very beginning, before you get to know a person and learn that they’re not as perfect as you would imagine. The first half of the movie hovers in this phase, packed to the brim with adorable high school-crush cliches. However, as the protagonists grow older, neither is willing to part with this idealized vision. Keteng refuses to risk outright rejection, and Jiayi is too scared to expose her own personal flaws to him. This is where I would argue the movie diverges from the majority of American romantic comedies. In an American romcom, the protagonists would confront one another’s flaws and learn how to love one another, warts and all. In this movie, the protagonists learn from their mistakes too late. As such, their relationship remains in the realm of Chinese high-school folklore, a pure archetype unsullied by the unpleasant details of a real adult relationship.

I’ve written in this blog before about some of the ways in which notions of relationships here can vary greatly from in the US. In my conversations with friends here I’ve become aware of a very different hierarchy of value with respect to different stages of a relationship. A lot of weight is often placed on the courtship phase–in the archetype at least, the boy becomes a close friend as he pursues the girl before finally biaobai 表白-ing, or dramatically expressing his love. Many people disagree with the American notion that one should date, and cross several bases, before feeling certain about one’s emotions. I found the movie fascinating because it deals with, and to some degree challenges, these notions. At the very least it draws a clear link between these romantic ideals and emotional maturity more generally.

The Spirit of Spring Festival, Brought to You By Pepsi®

January 4, 2012

The TV’s in some of the subway lines in Beijing are now playing an epic, 10-minute long Spring Festival 春节 (Chinese New Year)-themed Pepsi commercial. The commercial, which features a star-studded cast of Chinese celebrities and is directed by the award-winning director Zhang Guoli 张国立, tells the story of one Chinese family and how Pepsico products brought them together for the holidays (description below):

The clip opens on the family’s father, who is a security guard at a small-town train station, closing up after the last train on Spring Festival and finding a lone stranger waiting on the bench outside. Not willing to leave the stranger alone on the holiday, he brings the man back to stay with him for the evening and eat dumplings together, a traditional Spring Festival food. Through phone conversations with each of his three grown children, we learn that all three have blown off their father for the holiday. The older daughter, a high-powered publisher, is swamped with work; the younger daughter, a free-spirit photographer, has made plans to travel with friends; and the son, a pop singer, has a career-making gig booked. “Papa understands 爸爸理解,” the father says, hanging up the phone, before the camera cuts to him gazing forlornly at a table full of Pepsi products (Pepsi, Tropicana orange juice, and Lays chips), presumably which had been bought to consume over the holiday. “This is how we’ll spend the holiday this year 新年就这么过吧,” he says, to which the stranger replies, “Not necessarily 那不一定.”

The father goes to sleep, following which the commercial cuts to a montage of the stranger encountering each of the children the next day. He hands each of them one of the three featured Pepsi products (Pepsi, Tropicana, Lays), which for each of them triggers a flashback to a childhood memory when they consumed their chosen product with their father. These are interspersed with shots of the father walking his bike throughout his town, handing out the Pepsi products to neighbors as New Year’s gifts–his children aren’t coming home, so he has no need of them anyway. The stranger runs into him at the end of his rounds, saying, “This is a time for family members to be together, 这是家人团结的时刻,” before leaving. Cut to the father forlornly eating hot pot alone at home, when the two daughters burst through the door, home for the holidays after all. A noise brings the three of them outside, where they find the son has brought his whole tour bus, backup dancers and all, to the small town. The commercial ends with the son giving a concert to the whole village, as the father continues to happily distribute Pepsi products. Amid the fireworks, the text appears: “Bring Happiness Home 把乐事回家.” Added bonus: The names of all three Pepsi products featured,  Pepsi Cola 百事可乐, Tropicana 纯果乐, and Lays 乐事, all have the character 乐, “happiness,” in their names.

Certainly holiday-themed commercials are nothing new in the United States, but the idea of a high-production commercial, in which the Chinese equivalent of the Ghost of Christmas Past helps the protagonists recapture the spirit of the holidays through the distribution of soft drinks and snack foods, strikes me as something slightly more exaggerated than would generally go over with an American audience. I would argue that American advertisers face a greater challenge in marketing to a postmodern, corporate-suspicious audience. The goal with high-budget American advertising is to create something clever or gimmicky, often unrelated to the product itself, something that will stay in viewer’s minds despite the fact that it’s advertising and that it’s associated with a product. With Chinese commercials like this, however, the message can be much more direct and straightforward: our product will bring you holiday cheer.

Certainly, as this recent New York Times article about choosing brand names describes, Western multinationals face a unique challenge in crafting a brand identity that will resonate in China. It’s something that I’ve found myself thinking a lot about in this job: as we look for American corporations who would consider including Teach For China as part of their CSR initiatives, I find myself reading a lot of corporate annual reports. With some of them, you can really get a sense of what kind of a claim the company is hoping to stake in China. For many, China plays only a single part in a larger global strategy. On the other hand, with KFC now clobbering McDonalds in China, Yum! Brands has made China their singular focus, and is even selling of A&W and Long John Silvers in order to focus on efforts here. As a KFC commercial now playing in some movie theaters says: “Our figure is in China 我们的未来在中国”

Which still leaves me with the task of trying to get money out of them…

Christmas with Chinese Characteristics

December 26, 2011

This weekend actually marked the second Christmas that I’ve spent in

Christmas decorations outside a mall

China. As a result, I wasn’t terribly surprised when decorations and Christmas trees started appearing in storefronts and outside malls in late November. The level of holiday kitsch which accumulates in Beijing is actually quite impressive-though I’m convinced that there must be one factory supplying every glass storefront int he city with the same identical cardboard cutout Santa Claus face. Indeed, as if Chinese malls weren’t already nearly identical to their American counterparts, they dutifully pipe in the same corny mix of holiday tunes throughout the month of December.

It was hard for me not to chuckle when I woke up on the 25th and read about the Pope’s lament that Christmas in the Western world was succumbing to the glitter of commercialism. In China, the holiday has, impressively, skipped the phase where it held any spiritual meaning and gone right to the commercialism. I’m inclined to agree with the analysis of a Chinese friend, who argues that Christmas in China is in most part just one of many manifestations of a growing urban class with disposable income. Indeed, Christmas in China is just one of a number of new holidays that have received more attention and presented more merchandising opportunities in the last few years (“Single’s Day,” which makes for a much less somber 11/11 than does Armistice Day, is another). I had dinner in a mall on Christmas Eve which was crawling with shoppers vying to take advantage of special sales coinciding with the holiday. The surrounding streets had a decidedly festive air, with street vendors hawking Christmas-themed toys and balloons everywhere.

Mixed in with the raw capitalism, though, is some rather interesting cultural ingenuity. There is the new

Wrapped apples for sale on Christmas

Chinese tradition of eating an apple on Christmas, which arises, like many Chinese traditions, out of a linguistic homophone. The Chinese translation for Christmas Eve —pinganye 平安夜, or “peaceful night”–shares a homphone with the word for apple, pingguo 苹果. Among the balloon and toy vendors on Christmas eve were people selling apples wrapped in colorful tissue paper and cellophane–and at a shockingly hiked price of 7-8 RMB each. Christmas also provides yet another excuse for Chinese young people to engage in one of their favorite pastimes–forwarding cute holiday text messages and emails to all of their friends. On any holiday, Chinese or Western–even Thanksgiving–one can expect to receive corny poems and other holiday greetings forwarded along throughout the day. Unlike in the US, chain forwarding in China is not simply the purview of the idle and elderly.

Out of all of the homegrown Chinese Christmas traditions I’ve heard of though, the most interesting one was reported to me by a Teach For China Fellow currently teaching in Yunnan. In the city of Dali, a popular tourist destination in Yunnan, street vendors appear in the early afternoon to sell masks and cans of Silly String. Once darkness falls, the city erupts into a free-for-all war of brightly-colored foam, and the masks provide much-needed protection.

I know that, as far as cultural observations in a blog by an American about China go, these are pretty

The Chinese word for Santa Claus 圣诞老人 literally means, "Christmas Old Man"

ordinary. At the same time, though, I think there’s a more profound lesson in a comment made by one of my companions at Christmas Eve dinner (hot pot, what else). She referred to the eating of apples as the bentuhua 本土化, or localization, of Christmas. At Teach For China we talk about “bentuhua” a lot–we know that, in order to gain the confidence and collaboration from principals, government, and Chinese donors, it will be essential to run an organization that adequately addresses the unique realities of the communities and the culture that we’re working in. The same goes for any nonprofit or business in China–you can only have a real impact, or turn a profit, if you can adapt your model to the local context.

Seeing as it’s been another three months since I’ve managed to write a blog, I can safely conclude that gainful employment is bad for my blogging career. I could say that I’m making a New Years resolution to work on that, but no promises.

Weird Parks

September 13, 2011

A friend of mine working in Beijing for an urban planning think tank once said to me that for anyone in the urban planning industry, China is the only place in the world right now worth working. Every once in a while a news story comes out which hammers this point home–the replica of Manhattan currently being built southeast of Beijing is one of the best examples. I can certainly say that owning a bicycle has allowed me to confront this city’s enigmatic urban landscape in a new way. Navigating the city at ground level, I inevitably come across something surprising, even travelling to a location that I had previously visited many times before by taxi or subway. This weekend, I made the rather dubious decision to bike to 798, the famous art district off in the distant wilderness northeast of the Fourth Ring Road, to represent Teach For China at a social entrepreneurship event. On the way I was struck once again by the variety of, and sometimes nearly incomprehensible, ways in which architects and urban planners in this city have decided to make use of public space.

I was riding back from the art district along Xiaoyun Lu 霄云路, a major northeast/southwest thoroughfare, when, reaching a corner, I stumbled across a deserted stone square lined with uneven, broken stone structures, looking for all the world like a crumbling Roman amphitheater–or at least a theme park replica of one. The stone paving, slick with the low drizzle that had been coming down all day, was covered with bas reliefs of ancient Chinese characters.  

The park opened out from the nearest street corner, where I saw the main entrance was marked by a massive stone tablet declaring the name of the park: 石林广场, “Stone Forest Square.”

Just a few blocks southwest of Stone Forest Square, I came across a public space done up as its polar opposite. I did a double take when I first came across the sculpture of the woman driving a chariot in the picture below. Crossing the street, I saw that the chariot was the centerpiece of a whole park laid

Stone Forest Square

out in an imitative European style, complete with carefully groomed hedges and a row of Arc du Triomphe miniatures. These made the archetypal red Chinese lanterns hanging from the interspersed streetlights–perhaps hung in honor of this weekend’s Mid-Autumn Festival–even more incongruous. The park marked the entrance to a swanky new apartment complex. While a lot of new, expensive Chinese apartment complexes are saddled with grandiose names, often of American or European places (I have a coworker who lives in a “Palm Springs”), this complex had received the sleek, modern title “No. 8 Xiaoyun.”

Winged Victory on a chariot in front of No. 8 Xiaoyun

European-style park, Arc du Triomphes included

The contrast of these two parks–one done in an imitative ancient Chinese style, one a gaudy European replica–just a few blocks from each other, was incredibly striking. It was one of the best reminders I’ve seen in a while of the strangely egalitarian way in which Chinese culture seems to navigate a whole range of cultural influences–since the full range of external cultural influences flooded into the country simultaneously  several decades, a whole range of cultural tropes are drawn upon equally and with no sense of hierarchy between them. Not as grandiose as a replica Manhattan, sure, but still a stark reminder that no one uses their public space quite like the Chinese do.

Yup, rural China is still out there

August 15, 2011

It’s hard to believe I’m already nearing the three- month mark for my return to Beiijing.

Near a Teach For China placement school. I admit I didn't take it, but pretty nonetheless...

Work at Teach For China has been pretty exciting thus far; the work is really fast-paced, the office full of smart and motivated people rushing around in an attempt to get too much done in too little time. My first grant proposal, written frantically in my first week of work, unfortunately failed; the Canadian Embassy’s charitable fund decided this year to focus on women’s empowerment. However, the mild disappointment at this has been almost completely lost in the flurry of other new and exciting work. The Development team’s fall fundraising campaign is starting in earnest next week, and I’ve recently been anointed manager of Teach For China’s social media campaign. I blame this new gig primarily for my lapse in maintaining regular blog updates; tweeting is considerably more time-consuming than I ever would have guessed, and it’s hard to convince myself to sit and type at a co outer in my free time when I already do it from 9-6 Monday to Friday. In the absence of regular updates here, I instead make a shameless plug for the Teach For China WordPress, which I’ve now been updating with regular stories from teachers’ (called Fellows) lives in Yunnan. I’ve been gathering really great stories from their lives in the boonies, with great pictures to boot.

Though I’ve settled for now back in the big city, I was inspired to write this post the other day by a sudden reminder of my time in Sichuan. Devoted readers will remember Qiu Yukun, my friend in the rabbit-raising business who during my time in Sichuan tried to rope me into scheme of starting a restaurant in his hometown. He continued to try to sell me on this idea right up until I left Sichuan; and I, unsure of how to deal with the situation, continued to give him noncommittal responses right up until when I returned to the US. When I returned to Beijing this time, I sent him a text, but by then he had already switched phone numbers, and I feared I had lost touch with him for good. Then last week I happened to sign into QQ (the Chinese instant messenger) and to catch him online.

It really was quite a stroke of luck that I managed to run into him; Yukun rarely used QQ, and I hadn’t signed into the Chinese chat program since leaving Sichuan over half a year ago. Yukun was ecstatic to find me. When I met him last year he was already married, but I was shocked to hear that, in the time since I had left, his wife had given birth to a son. In the two years since graduating college, most of my friends have started some kind of graduate school, and only a tiny handful have gotten married; in the last couple of months, I’ve been so proud of myself for crossing such major milestones to adulthood like renting an apartment, and having a kitchen with actual pots and dishes. Speaking to Yukun was a jarring reminder of how, in a place like Yilong, Sichuan, real adulthood comes along a lot more quickly.

We exchanged phone numbers again, and since then, he’s called and texted repeatedly, but mostly during work hours and I, guiltily, sent only apologetic text messages in response. Today I happened to be already out the door of the office as his call came through. “Finally, you answered!” he exclaimed, but our exchange of pleasantries was followed by an awkward pause in which neither of us new quite what to say to each other. “When are you coming back to Sichuan?” he asked, and I struggled to find a diplomatic answer. I would, of course, love to go back, but as a real person with a real job now I only get a limited number of vacation days a year, and will inevitably spend many of those visiting family in the US. Yukun seemed equally uncertain of when he would have a chance to return to Beijing—he previously worked here has a migrant worker for several years, but now he has a family and a farm to take care of. “You should hurry back, I can introduce you to a nice girl to marry here too!” he insisted, and rattled off the appealing traits that I must surely be looking for in a future wife. “I know some very pretty ones, very tall, and with light skin!”

The conversation had the same anxious air that I remembered from conversations with him and some of my other friends in Yilong. I’m still the only foreigner he knows, and must still represent his only window into the larger world outside of rural northern Sichuan. As I’ve written about before, Yukun was one of several friends in Yilong who, throughout my time there, was constantly approaching me with new schemes of how we could go into business together. He seemed certain that I was the secret to getting rich quick—either as a source of American investment capital for his restaurant scheme, or simply as a front man who would attract business simply by virtue of being white. Somehow, as a foreigner, I represented an elusive alternative to the rather dismal choice that most young people in rural China face: stay at home and farm for menial gain; or live the hard but comparatively lucrative life of a migrant worker.

Unfortunately, the chances of my becoming the financial backer for his restaurant are pretty slim. I thus attempted to deflect his invitation politely, not wanting to get his hopes up. “I really want to come back to Yilong, I’m just not sure when I will have time,” I urged. Though I really meant it, the words sounded hollow, even to me. I suddenly remembered the attitude he and some of my other friends had taken on the day I left. I had insisted then that I would certainly come back, but many had seemed skeptical; foreigners had always passed through periodically, to teach English, or volunteer with Wokai or another international charity, but then they returned to their own lives. I realized that, just as Yukun was desperate to maintain a link to the outside world through me, so I, a suburban Midwesterner, want desperately to maintain some connection to his world, which I gained access to for a short period of time but even now remain intensely curious about.

I hope you can maintain a friendship on that.

Dissidence

June 22, 2011

I was walking back from lunch near the Teach For China office with some colleagues the other day when I was surprised to come across a line of protest graffiti scrawled across the barrier outside a nearby construction site. In my estimation, news coverage of protests and acts of dissent, at least in Western news, seems to be on the rise. It would be hard to read only the New York Times coverage of China and not believe that the country is going to crumble under grassroots protests any day. However, public acts of dissent are still quite rare in Beijing, and I can’t remember ever coming across such a public one as this graffiti. Most of what I could read on the walk back was protesting the results of overconstruction and pollution in Beijing:

楼距太近侵害我们采光权利隐私 | “Constructing buildings too close together invades our natural right to privacy!"

 

..卫生工程污染环境危害我们的健康!| "Pollution from sanitation projects threaten our health!"

Environmental woes are one of the main driving forces behind the rising frequency of protests in China, and while protests in rural areas are usually dealt with swiftly and harshly, the government has actually by necessity become, in some instances, more responsive to the demands of middle class and urban Chinese. Elizabeth Economy’s statement at this Congressional hearing in DC this spring gives a good summary of the recent trends.

The big Chinese dissident news of the day, though, is of course that Ai Weiwei, the increasingly world-famous artist-turned-activist, was finally released after three months of detention. The New York Times argues that this is a rare instance in which the Chinese government actually caved to international pressure.