Go East, young woman, and grow up with the world

(Originally published in the Greenwich Citizen)

This June was not the best time to graduate from college. Employers hired 43,000 fewer recent graduates than they had in 2008. Michael Jackson died. And as if the world weren’t already coming to pieces, the World Health Organization declared that swine flu was a global pandemic.

Given the circumstances, I leapt at a summer job opportunity in China, a country about which I know very little. I somehow escaped high school without a course on world history: the closest GHS came was freshman year’s ‘World Themes,’ which defined the ‘world’ as the US and Europe. I hardly improved on the record in college, where I focused on comparative government but, yet again, left out China.

Contrary to appearances, I have not been living under a brick, and I was eager to learn more about the country that houses one out of every five living people on this planet. I backpacked around China for ten days last summer with a Chinese-American friend, but the Olympics were in full swing and the entire country was on its best behavior. Factories were shut down to improve air quality, private cars were taken off the road, and guides in white and blue outfits hovered at every corner, eager to direct hapless foreigners to their destinations. I enjoyed myself, but I wanted to see what China was like outside of the big tourist-friendly cities. The job opportunity, teaching English in the heart of Guangdong province, seemed like it would do the trick. Guangdong is the powerhouse of China’s industrial south, adjacent to Hong Kong. Guidebooks describe it as ‘charmless,’ ‘uninteresting,’ and, my favorite, ‘a wasteland.’ I packed my bags.

Just before I flew over, a dispute at a factory in Guangdong sparked riots in Xinjiang, a province in northwestern China that is predominantly Muslim. Around 180 people were killed and 700 injured in some of the worst ethnic violence China has seen in recent years. I’d had a hunch China in the summer of 2009 was going to be very different from my experience in 2008. Now I was certain it would be.

The border crossing from Hong Kong confirmed my suspicions. The cheerful blue-and-white-clad welcomers were replaced with rifle-toting officials who surrounded my bus and pointed what looked like pistols at the forehead of every passenger. They were checking our temperatures – the ‘pistols’ were thermometers – in an effort to make sure that no one with a fever entered the country. Swine flu hysteria was just beginning to hit China.

I never bought in to all the fuss surrounding swine flu: yes, it’s new, and yes, it is highly contagious, but in the end it is a relatively minor illness that tends to pass after a few days and only seriously endangers people already in fragile health. Administrators at my college didn’t share my nonchalance: they banned handshakes and hugs throughout graduation week. But students, professors, and families alike laughed at the heavy-handedness of the policy and universally ignored the ban.

The reaction has not been so light-hearted in China. In a country of 1.3 billion people where 43% of the population lives in extremely crowded cities, it hardly seems worth the effort to try and contain a virus so contagious and relatively innocuous. However, memories of the 2002 SARS epidemic are fresh in China, and many feel that the government did too little too late to adequately address that health scare. The Communist party is taking no risks this time around. Strict quarantine has been imposed on people exhibiting flu-like symptoms. The detention of foreigners, mostly from the US and Great Britain, has kept consulates busy, though in this case at least the Chinese government has the upper hand: it was the American Center for Disease Control which generated so much of the hype around swine flu in the first place.

On July 27th, another counter-flu initiative was sent from the hallowed halls of the Communist Party: all schools, summer camps, and conferences were to be terminated immediately. The logic, if it can be called that, behind the initiative was that children’s parents could take care of them better than summer camp administrators. The reality was that millions of sick people flooded into the national transportation system. But at least they were on their way to becoming their family’s problem instead of the state’s.

Jacky Chen, my oldest student.

The ban shut down my school, of course, so I’m now out of a job in an unfamiliar, flu-crazy country. Let the fun begin.

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Drinkin’ Beer, Smokin’ Buds

Most people who travel to China take at least a few pictures of what is fondly known as ‘Chingrish’: the bizarre language spewed from online translating software onto tourist-oriented dinner menus and street signs. More often than not, there are enough imaginary words and misplaced adjectives to make Shakespeare blush. ‘DANGREE!’ admonishes a sign next to a cliff. ‘Meatish delight of the baby’, the (cannibalistic?) dinner menu offers. ‘Let pregnant people shit on you,’ instructs a sign on the bus. I could go on.
It’s one thing to try and communicate a message that relates to public safety, and quite another to clothe your body in slogans you don’t understand. But supply meets demand, and lord is there demand for clothes with English catchphrases. From the inane to the inappropriate, here are some highlights from the past week (the second might be my favorite of all time):
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Flesh-eating fishes and the Overnight City, part II

I’ve received some concerned emails about the title of my last blog post. I’m happy to reassure you that I was not making any cryptic metaphors. I took a bath with some flesh-eating fishes last weekend. The sensation of having live animals eating the dead skin off your feet and arms is not something you get to experience every day. The only troubling thing, really, was how ineffective they are. I expected to leave the pool feeling raw and rejuvenated. I should have just bought a pumice stone.
I’m not usually the spa type, but it’s hard to turn down a 90-minute massage when it only costs five dollars. I’m continuously blown away by how cheap labor is in China. Economist Judith Banister estimates that the average factory laborer in China earns 64 cents an hour, compared to $21.11 in the US. But if microeconomics doesn’t interest you, here’s another example. I got a very good haircut my first weekend for 38 RMB, which is about $5.50. A fellow teacher got a thirty minute massage, wash and blow dry for 15RMB, or about $2.20. The off-brand shampoo I bought from the clearance aisle at Walmart (yes, China has had Wal-mart since 1997) cost 42 RMB/$6.15. In other words, China has so many people that skilled labor costs less than common chemicals. On clearance.
In 1979, in an effort to combat overpopulation, the Chinese government declared that couples (with some exceptions) could have no more than one child. Many called it barbaric, but almost everyone who has witnessed the overpopulation of China first-hand calls it necessary. Some parts of the policy, most prominently allegations of forced abortions, can be seen as a violation of fundamental human rights. Because couples who can only have one child prefer sons, who traditionally take care of their parents in old age, there are many reports of female infanticide. And there are chilling implications for the future. An aging population means one grandchild could feasibly be expected to support two parents and four grandparents in old age. Multiply by a quarter of the world’s population, and the stress on the European health care system right now looks as easy to solve as the crossword puzzle in Seventeen Magazine.
My friend Robert pointed out another danger: ‘We’re looking at a rising generation that is almost 75% male. That means at least half the Chinese population will not get a chance to marry – might not even lose their virginity. How excited are you for the world’s most populous nation to be led by a bunch of men with no yin to their yang?’
There are other things keeping me up at night, I told him. But it’s something to consider.
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Flesh-eating fishes and the Overnight City, part I

Guanxi (see last post) came in handy again this weekend: the lawyer for the school happens to be the lawyer at a nearby resort, and so some fellow teachers and I found ourselves installed in lakeside bungalows with a free ticket to the spa. It was even better than the 80 cent DVDs.
The resort was on the outskirts of Shenzhen, a coastal city adjacent to Hong Kong. In 1980, the Chinese government declared Shenzhen a ‘special economic zone’: a hopeful utopia where western-style market capitalism could blend with Chinese social (and socialist) values, generating prosperity ‘capable of satisfying the needs of any person or business,’ to quote a tourist guide I picked up.
Like any well-thought out act of social engineering, Shenzhen comes with a creation myth. I will attempt to paraphrase from a variety of disagreeing sources.

From the first days of population in the 12th/15th century until the 1970s, the city was a poor and backwards/idyllic and wholesome fishing village. Evil British/admirable-mostly-Chinese Hong Kong pressured/inspired Deng Xiaoping to grant ‘Special Economic’ status in 1980 in an attempt to resurrect China from the economic disasters wrought by the visionary/bat-crazy Mao Zedong. A windfall of hasty/miraculous foreign investment resulted in unprecedented growth: Shenzhen, colloquially known as the ‘Overnight City’, has been the fastest-growing urban area in China for the last thirty years.

That the city’s success revolutionized China’s economic system is undisputed. Whether or not that is a good thing is the subject of heated debate.

The drive from Dongguan to Shenzhen carves through the the hills of the Pearl River Delta on China’s southwestern coast. I’ve driven through the Pallisades in New Jersey and the Delaware water gap every summer of my life and always thought of hills as rolling. Here, they rise and fall like mini-mountains, or a choppy sea frozen mid-swell. Many are grooved with terraced rice fields, reminding me for the hundredth time of how long people have been living in China. Some look like they hadn’t been cultivated for centuries, but still bear the marks of human hands: trees grow in obedient rows, mountain streams turn at abrupt and useful places. I’ve never seen such compelling evidence that humans can control the natural world.
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Sunshine after an eclipse

The Chinese word for eclipse translates roughly to ‘Moon eats sun’. The entire school had the morning off to watch the twenty-minute event, which was only visible on this side of the world (a cool animation of the trajectory can be found here). We stared at the disappearing sun through thick layers of colored cellophane, which I’m pretty sure is completely insufficient for avoiding retinal damage.

This didn’t seem to be an issue. In general, care for the future seems to be in short supply here. From toilet paper to computers, everything is expendable. Toilet ‘paper’ is plastic-based, which means it can’t be flushed or recycled, but is carted off in loads of foul-smelling garbage. Electronics are routinely fried by power surges, but they are replaced instead of repaired. Merchants sell fake or faulty goods – admittedly at rock-bottom prices – because the chance of any one consumer coming back to a store repeatedly is small: there is such a multiplicity of goods, and people are so often on the move, that courting consumer confidence hardly seems worth the effort.

But I’m not telling the full story. Of course some people settle, and these people build up tremendously important networks. Anyone who has tried to do business in China will tell you about the importance of guanxi, connections. I’d always thought of China as an almost obsessively meritocratic culture – test after test, heirarchy into heirarchy. I’ve been surprised to hear people say that top government positions, business contracts, and even University admissions are not earned, but traded.
The supervisor at my school has close guanxi with a DVD seller at the local mall, where she took the English teachers last weekend. The DVDs, which were retailing for around $3, were reduced to 80 cents when she was standing next to the cashier.

I took advantage of the discount to buy Sunshine, the mostly overlooked movie Danny Boyle made between 28 Days Later and Slumdog Millionaire. Boyle manages to take an absurd premise (team of scientist/astronauts on a mission to reignite the sun) with predictable plot development (they go crazy under the pressure), throw in a sort of undead monster (he’s good at this – see 28 Days Later), and turn it into one of the most compelling films since Apocolypse Now, which happens to feature an absurd premise (soldiers sent into the jungle to kill a renegade officer), predictable plot development (they go crazy under the pressure), and a half-dead monster-human (Brando, how little we knew ye).

I first saw Apocolypse Now in London. When I returned the movie to a rental place on Earl’s Court Road, the wiry-haired clerk looked at the jacket and laughed.
‘That’s my movie,’ she said.
‘What do you mean, your movie?’
‘I was the music producer on Apocolypse Now. I chose all the music.’
I was impressed. ‘How was that? I mean – what was it like?’
The clerk smiled and waved her hand, as if wafting away the ghost of ganja past. ‘It was great. We all just sat around, smoked a lot of spliffs, and listened to a lot of groovy music.’
I wanted to ask her why she was now a clerk in a movie rental place in London, but thought it might be rude. It does make me feel perversely better about being a soon-to-be-unemployed Harvard grad. One more week of teaching! If I can just figure out a way to teach a class of lower-intermediate English level kids about sustainability…
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What’s in a name?

Jacky Chen, Edward, Kevin, and Bob

A new student arrived last Wednesday. She is from Inner Mongolia. This sets her apart from the majority of students, who are either scholarship students from Dongguan or scions of the newly wealthy in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Guangzhou. At nearly six feet, she is the tallest person I have seen in China. She is sixteen and cannot weigh more than a hundred pounds.

The girl from Mongolia is the only one of my students who did not arrive in class with an English name. Apparently, choosing your American alter ego is the first step in English classes here. I feel guilty making the girl do the same: it feels like cultural imperialism. I said as much to my supervisor and she laughed at me. She asked if I am bothered by the dominance of western classical music in the opera houses in Beijing. That’s different, I told her. Have you ever tried to listen to Chinese opera? Watching a chorus of monkeys being electrocuted would be a more pleasant way to spend an evening. Chinese names, on the other hand, are beautiful and it seems odd to make my young students assume an alternate identity before I teach them.
The girls in my class have chosen names, and manners, straight out of the1950s: bookish Sophie, quiet Michelle, shy Diana, cute Yvonne. Then there’s Kinki. Kinki is nine years old and I have no idea how to tell her that she has a stripper name. I play through the situation in my head: I tell her that Kinki is a very unusual name in America and it might be good to change it. Bewildered, she asks why. I try to explain, and she looks at me like I have just told her Santa Claus touches children in inappropriate places.
My supervisor assures me that I am not the first to have to confront a student over his or her name. Last year, a boy named himself Chair, and steadfastly refused to change it. Two years ago, Icemen (not Iceman) arrived on campus and cried when his teacher changed his name to Henry. The woman who is teaching the sixth level of English let her students pick American names and somehow ended up with a boy named Cha-cha-cha. I didn’t want to take any chances with the girl from Mongolia, so I printed out the top fifty girl’s names in the US right now (FYI, there are going to be a lot of Avas and Makaylas graduating from college in twenty-odd years). In a display of remarkably good taste, she chose Lauren.
I stood next to Lauren as we watched the solar eclipse that arced over Asia this morning. It’s hard to get her to speak more than a few words at a time: she is painfully shy, like many tall girls. On her other side was Jacky Chen, who at seventeen is my oldest student. He is talkative in class, but tongue-tied around Lauren. So much is different over here, but the awkwardness of teenage romance seems to be universal.
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Oh, Modernity!

Another day, another typhoon. The concept of surge protectors hasn’t caught on in this corner of southern China. At the first rumble of thunder, there is a flurry of activity: everyone runs to unplug the computers, air conditioners, anything that might be fried by an errant bolt of lightning. This isn’t helpful, however, when the entire school is run on two circuits attached to faulty lightning rods. Yesterday’s typhoon succeeded in frying the entire system.
Teaching children English is never easy. It is especially difficult when the classroom is over one hundred degrees. The slightest movement exhausts you. Thinking makes you sweat. Everything seems to pulse, as if the heat has melted teacher, student, desks, fields, and walls into one big organism.
It’s not that I haven’t been hot places before. I worked in Madrid last summer, where the temperature seldom dipped below a hundred degrees, and I once visited Cairo, where it topped out around one hundred fifteen. But both places were dry. A pair of sunglasses and the hint of a breeze kept the days bearable, even pleasant.
Without power, there is no way to sanitize tap water, which must be boiled before it is safe to drink. Food can’t be cooked or refrigerated, and we’re told not to use running water while the electricians are at work.
The electricians, by the way, are six men who look like they have sprung straight to life out of an eighteenth century woodcut. Clothed in ancient overalls and wide-brimmed hats shaped like the bottom of an onion, they arrive before we have finished breakfast. They dig a hole in the ground to expose a set of thick wires, then squat on their heels and stare at it. When I pass by after morning classes, the only thing that seems to have changed is that they are eating a lunch the school provide. It is late evening before the lights flicker on and the air conditioners sputter back to life.
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Feed the artists

Back to Detroit: the July/August Atlantic featured a modest article entitled ‘Fifteen ways to Fix the World’. One that seems so ridiculous it might actually make sense is to turn Detroit into the capital of the newly proposed high-speed rail network. The factories which spewed GM’s mechanical jalopies could be reconfigured for train production, and no doubt Michigan’s many skilled engineers would like to stay in their homes if jobs will come back. With twelve percent of energy consumption in the US coming from new building projects, refitting existing structures makes as much sense getting vaccinated before going abroad. (I really hope I don’t get Dengue fever. I’ve had enough plague this summer.)
Other ideas from the article:

  • License kids to drink before they turn 21, provided they have gone through a course in alcohol awareness: ‘Clearly, state laws mandating a minimum drinking age of 21 haven’t eliminated drinking by young adults – they’ve simply driven it underground, where life and health are at greater risk.’
  • Amp up federal arts funding: ‘For every $30,000 or so spent on the arts, one more person gets a job, compared with about $1 million if you’re building a road or a hospital.’ This clearly isn’t sustainable in the extreme, but maybe there’s a happy medium?
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It ain’t easy being Steven Chu

Small explanatory detail: I am teaching English for the summer at a small school in southern China.
At the school’s opening ceremony today, the head teacher opened with the following anecdote:

A very prominent Chinese scientist graduated with a PhD from UCBerkeley and his two younger siblings graduated with PhDs from Harvard. The Berkeley grad went on to win a Nobel Prize. He called his mom to tell her the good news and she said ‘So? You still didn’t graduate from Harvard.’ He went on to be named Secretary of Energy by President Obama. The mother: ‘So? You still didn’t graduate from Harvard.’ He was then invited to speak at the 2009 Harvard commencement, which means he was granted an honorary degree, and finally his mother was proud of him.

I think the Chinese have a skewed sense of the importance of a Harvard education.
The head teacher then turned to my fellow teachers and me with ‘a very interesting question.’ He said he knew a man who was eighty years old and was still so spry that he could leap up onto his roof whenever it needed to be repaired. He also slept only half an hour every night – but when he slept, you could light him on fire and he wouldn’t notice. Finally, he was a man, but he had two breasts that, if you squeezed them, would produce milk.
‘How do you explain that?’
I think the Chinese have a skewed sense of the breadth of a Harvard education.
He spoke in Chinese, which his daughter then translated to English. I know absolutely no Chinese, so his speech mostly sounded like a fundamentalist church on Pentecost. Occasionally, though, words would stick out: ‘Obama,’ ‘Harvard,’ ‘New York’. He also kept on saying something that sounded like ‘niggah’: ‘how-chi-kun-wey-niggah-qin-woah-niggah-wot’. I’m going to have to find someone to translate that word for me.
Update: Apparently ‘niggah’ in Chinese is the equivalent of saying ‘um’ or ‘er’ in English.
Facebook, youtube, myspace, twitter, etc, are not always blocked, but have since the beginning of the recent Uighur-related unrest in Western China. More on that – and less of me being a presumptuous news critic – soon.
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The Detroit-Kabul connection

I’m beginning to settle into the school where I’ll be teaching for the next month. It feels very remote, so naturally my first instinct is to get online. I find I can open very few of the pages that result from my search for ‘Uighur uprising.’ Facebook and Blogspot have been completely blocked (as have YouTube and Myspace). For the foreseeable future, then, I’m going to be exploiting friends’ good will to post these thoughts.
But more on China later. In a trend I foresee continuing, I want to backtrack a few days and an ocean.
On Tuesday, I drove from northern Michigan to Detroit with Jon, a friend of my brother’s who spent four months teaching accounting at Kabul University. (He too kept a blog, and I’m hoping I manage to keep this one as interesting as his).

Like any delusional idealist who studied post-conflict development in college, I’ve thought it might be interesting to look for work in Afghanistan. I heartily agree with the new philosophy governing (at least in theory) the latest troop surge. The language (Dari, a dialect of Farsi) is nowhere near as intimidating as Arabic. Three other friends who have worked there as civilians rave about the beauty and dynamism of the country. And, cheesy as it seems, I like to think that I could help build things there, and that I could put my education to good use.

I pestered Jon with questions for most of the four hour drive to Detroit. The news isn’t good. 

Kabul is, unsurprisingly, a disaster after thirty-odd years of intense conflict, starting with the Soviet invasion in 1979. Bombed-out buildings, no underground sewage, the kind of poverty that makes you ashamed to be human and not devoting all your efforts to changing things… To top it off, plants not far outside the city process sewage by burning it, giving the air high fecal content. I never thought I would hear about something that made the smog in China sound appealing.
Towards the end of our drive, we passed a gigantic factory on the outskirts of Detroit. Rivers of rust trickled down the side of the building as if it were the victim of a drive-by shooting. With the sun catching the edges of glass in the broken windows, it looked somehow splendid in all its catastrophe.
‘That,’ said Jon, ‘that is what Kabul looks like.’

I guess the news isn’t good in Detroit either.

Still, I think I might like Kabul. Feces notwishtanding.
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Gillian in China, the second time

I flew into Hong Kong under a typhoon warning. I expected drama when I arrived, but the air was perfectly still. The white birches lining the hallway seemed somehow sepulchral. There is nothing so terrifying as the calm before the storm.
It didn’t help my feeling of unease when, at the border, a Chinese official wearing a mask pointed something that looked very much like a pistol at my head. Apparently, he was measuring my temperature in an effort to make sure that no one with swine flu made it into the country.
The typhoon never materialized.
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Poetry of San Francisco

Graffiti on the front steps of a townhouse on Haight St: ‘Pig tested, Big Brother approved.’

Man to woman on street: ‘Do you have 25 cents? No? Thanks anyway diablo motherf***ing satanic fingernail-ripping b****.’

Original composition, inspired by my friend Sarah’s predilection for haikus (for example, see June 26 post in Euroclass09):

San Francisco sucks
Everyone is so happy
They hog good karma

Man at bus stop: ‘Are you homeless?’
Me: ‘No, but thanks for asking.’

I really should buy some new clothes. Fortunately, thrifty chic is the norm in China. I take off in a few hours.

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3, 2, 1…

Truly, northern Michigan in summer is one of the most beautiful places in the world (not my leg).

The crystal-clear lakes bring to mind a less pleasant beach experience I had last summer, which I described the last time I updated this blog:

‘Qingdao is an old German colony with one of the most unappealing beaches I have ever seen: brown, rocky and weed-strewn, tidepools that smell more like cesspools, and a horizon dominated by ill-conceived modern architecture. After two days, I headed back to Beijing. On my way out of the city, I marveled at its size: it seems like there are enough skyscrapers to house all the jobs in the world. And yet there are cranes everywhere – dormant while the city struts its stuff for the Olympics, but ready to roar back into action. Celtic tigers and lions notwithstanding, it is hard to imagine a future not dominated by the Chinese dragon.’ (23 Aug. 2008)

I’ll be back in China next Friday. Can’t wait to see how things have changed.

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