Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Things I'll Miss

After my last night in my small, hard bed in Shanghai (one of the things I will not miss), I’m starting to reflect on this past year as I finish packing up. There will be more of this in the weeks to come (I’m sure we’ll have a few things to say about reverse culture shock) as we get settled back into our lives in the U.S. But over the past month or so, I’ve had a running mental list of things I will and will not miss about our time here in Shanghai. Since I usually think of these things when I’m away from my computer (and alas – no smartphone here, another thing I will not miss), I haven’t been able to record all of them, but I thought I’d give you a sampling.

First, some things I’ll miss:
  • The sights (to list two just from a few days ago: a man doing work on an electrical wire while on a ladder (not touching the ground) held up by a man and a wire and a truck piled with Styrofoam - almost as high as said electrical wire – passing by that same spot that evening). Every day, I walk out of the house with the feeling that I could see just about anything.
  • Access to any kind of food I want, right out or at my front door. Shanghai is an amazingly cosmopolitan city. We can very easily go to a restaurant that serves almost any kind of food, and if we don’t feel like going out, we can use Sherpa’s to deliver it to our door.
  • Not having to drive home after eating out. It’s nice not to have to designate a driver when we go out to eat. That means both Doug and I can have a beer – together.
Now, for some things I won’t miss
  • The sights (to list two just from the same day as above: a baby pooping into a shopping bag just outside the grocery store – but still in the mall, and a discarded chicken foot on the floor of the metro)
  • Walking to the grocery store and then having to carry home groceries, particularly when it’s hotter than 80 degrees outside. Hot, humid, and sticky. And because you can only carry so many groceries, you’re faced with doing it all over again the next day.
  • Hanging laundry on a line in our apartment. Oh, how I long for a dryer.
  • The smells. Oh God – the smells. While many people talk about the wonderful fragrances of countries like Thailand and Vietnam, I don’t think China is often on that list. Because really – it very often smells nasty here.
  • The sidewalks. While the sidewalks are much more orderly in Shanghai than they are in other places (here, they’re mostly used for actual walking, except when there’s traffic, then all bets are off), they are also almost always very dirty, despite the fact that there are armies of cleaners out trying to work on that. We have a rule here - no stepping in water with no obvious source. It’s a rule that’s invoked pretty much daily.
  • The pushing, the shoving, and the general lack of order. The daily discourtesy really wears you down.
Right now, you can see that the list of things I won’t miss is generally longer than the list of things I will miss. I think that’s because we’re all just ready to be home at this point (although Berkley was crying this morning – sad to be leaving his friends from school). I know when we get home, the bad things will fade from memory, and we’ll mostly be left thinking about the good things. Most of all, I think what I’ll miss is the sense of possibility – that on any given day, we could see or do crazy things. Or that very easily, we could travel to a strange, foreign land to learn about a new people and culture. Obviously, we don’t plan to stop traveling now that our time here is done, but adventures will be a bit harder to come by now and will probably require a lot more planning. For now, I’ll take the sense of normalcy that awaits us back home, but you can be sure that it probably won’t be long before we’re planning our next family adventure.

We Came, We Saw…We Were Completely Lame

By the time we rolled into Kuala Lumpur on Friday night, I was totally knackered. I’ve come to the realization that two full weeks of traveling (as opposed to vacation) is my limit. After that, I just want to unpack and cook a normal meal. So after three nights in Hanoi, followed by two night in Halong Bay, then two more nights in Hanoi (with a bout of food poisoning thrown in for good measure), then 5 nights in Siem Reap, I was done. And for good reason. We’ve already blogged about our time up through the first two days in Siem Reap; after that, it didn’t get much more chill. We tried to have a day to lay low on Wednesday, but the hotel pool wasn’t all that big (so not conducive to laying around all day). As a result, we spent part of the morning and afternoon exploring the town.

On Thursday, we headed out of Siem Reap to visit Phnom Kulen and Beng Melea. The former was probably not worth it; 45 minutes each way on a rutted dirt road through jungle to see a large Buddha and waterfall.  They were interesting, but it was a LONG and bumpy ride.

The latter was definitely worth it; we loved seeing the Cambodian countryside, and the boys thoroughly enjoyed Beng Melea, a temple that is almost completely collapsed, allowing for lots of scampering and climbing.

The old entrance - now impassible

Playing Indiana Jones

On Friday, we picked up a few more souvenirs, then caught our flight to KL. Not a bad flight, but we probably could have done without the two plus hour taxi ride from hell (massive traffic). We had expected to get to our hotel around 7:00, allowing for dinner and some swimming, but didn’t get in until after 8:00. Now, we were really looking forward to eating out in KL as it’s known as being really serious about food. But at 8:00 p.m., we were all hangry, so we settled on a nearby restaurant, which served passable Italian – not exactly what we were looking for.

Saturday was to be our big day touring the city, but when we got up, none of us really felt up to it. Now, I should say we weren’t completely lame. We still managed to visit the Islamic Arts Museum and the National Mosque
 Chilling at the arts museum
 The boys and me in front of the mosque - just to prove that I was there
check out a local neighborhood (was supposed to be Little India, but the concierge gave us the wrong directions –what is up with that?)

have excellent laksa at a food court (really – the food in food courts in Asia is excellent), check out the Petronas Towers, and then let the boys have some fun at the nearby park, which had a playground and splash pool. 
The boys in front of the twin towers

More chilling - this time in a splash pool
 By dinner time though, that was it – I was cooked.

A store in the mall, a.k.a what I was thinking on Saturday evening
So, I started talking Doug down. First, he wanted to cab out to Little India. Then, he was focused on a good Malaysian restaurant within walking distance. Finally, he held out for the Japanese restaurant in the hotel. But what he got was dinner by the pool. And I dearly love him for that – making that sacrifice for the good of the family. So not really the authentic Malaysian experience – Western food by the pool at a 5 star hotel (they’re really cheap in KL, and probably part of the reason why I didn’t want to leave – I just need to be somewhere nice for a change). As we ate, we all admitted we were totally lame. But sometimes, you just have to know what’s good for you and throw in the towel.  
And how bad can it be when the view from your hotel room looks like this?

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Innovation in China

I recently reread our post about Tokyo, and was reminded that we promised to blog later about our thoughts and impressions.  That never happened, as we arrived in China and our attention diverted to that new adventure.  So let me fulfill that promise by mentioning one strong impression we had of Japan: it's beautiful.

I don't refer to the natural beauty of the landscape, though Mount Fuji in the distance was pretty.  What I'm talking about is cultural beauty.  The Japanese have such a keen eye for graceful design, clean and cool aesthetics, punchy fashion and compelling architecture.  And this beauty is everywhere, in menus and simple streets signs to contemporary art, sushi and majestic shrines.  It seems like nothing is built or created in Japan, no matter how insignificant, without making it look beautiful.  Even sake barrels are works of art.

The Chinese are fond of pointing out the debts that Japanese culture owes to China.  Chinese culture is ancient and has influenced many Asian nations, Japan included.  Today, though, it's the Chinese who are doing the copying.

The Chinese economy roars, but few new ideas for goods or services arise in China.  The Chinese are good at executing others' ideas, but not very good at generating their own.  Often they literally copy others' ideas—knockoff goods and pirated movies are ubiquitous.

In Yungshuo, we ate at a restaurant called Submarine.  In every detail it was a perfect ripoff of Subway.  They had the same bread in that unique Subway shape, the exact same selection of topics (in the same little plastic containers), the same wrapping technique—even the signage looked like Subway.  And the subs were really good, if not very original.

The Communist Party has been talking about how they want China to produce the next Steve Jobs.  Even in their aspirations for innovation they want to copy someone.

Homegrown arts and fashion also seem moribund.  Trendy people here dress like Americans or Japanese.  There are no contemporary indigenous fashions that draw on uniquely Chinese traditions.  I've been looking in vain for some kind of clothing to bring home that has a Chinese aesthetic and is also something that hip, trendy people actually wear here.  Shanghai Tang seems on the mark, but I think only rich foreigners actually shop there.  I heard all their designers are foreign.

China has such a rich history of art and architecture, a plethora of religious and philosophical traditions and a billion people.  It should be the global center of innovation.  Why isn’t it?

One major reason is the suppression of free expression.  Compelling art and a creative culture thrive on dissent and social criticism.  In China, the Party trumpets the importance of “harmony” in society.  Voices out of step with the party line are silenced—or, as they say here, harmonized.  This leaves the creative arts and innovative fields seeming bland and pedestrian. 

Our trip to the state-run contemporary art museum revealed some nice looking, but very dull works.  Some bordered on banal.  We came to learn the original staff members put forward a true exhibition when the museum opened; they were duly fired and replaced with more, uh, harmonious curators.

Connected to the censorship of speech problem are two other censorship issues.  First, history is censored, so many Chinese don’t fully understand some of the darker patches of their recent history—and bad history is often fertile soil for art and culture.   Second, the internet is censored, especially the kinds of provocative sites that might spur creative innovation.  The Great Firewall of China may dampen the subversive influence of foreigners, but it also stifles the connection to the major streams of global culture and progress.

In addition to the problems stemming from censorship, China’s moribund level of innovation also results from its educational system.  Unfortunately, the stereotype of Chinese students engaging in rote memorization is largely true.  Another Fulbright family who were living in Xian sent their two teenage boys and 9-year old daughter to a local Chinese school for the semester, as the kids were already fluent in Mandarin.  The boys told us about an assignment the teacher gave them involving a short story.  The assignment: memorize it.  Seriously.  There were no comprehension questions, essays about perspective or themes, personal reflections.  The class memorized it and recited it word for word.

Shocking as this sounds, it’s actually not bad preparation for the event that looms enormously large over every Chinese student: the Gaokao exam.  Taken at the end of secondary school, the exam determines your life outcome by single-handedly deciding your college matriculation.  The exam essentially tests your recall of knowledge and information.  Muscular memorization skills are key.  And once they get to college, students skate through, aware that their job prospects reflect where they went to college, not what they learned or how they performed there.

In contrast, the US system puts weight on other factors than test scores, such as high school performance, extra-curricular activities and personal statements (and the more elite the school, the more important these become).  In general, American education focuses more on creative and critical thinking, and other cognitive skills.  Our universities, by and large, provide a liberal education that enlarges and refines the mind, not simply vocational or professional training.   It’s a facet of our higher ed system I strongly believe in, hence my work in general education, an important component of liberal education in the US. 

I think the US has such a dynamic innovation economy, and cultural expressions that capture the imagination of the world, in large part because we fully embrace liberal education.  (It’s left to another post to address the American fascination with standardized testing, which seems to aspire toward the Chinese system.)  Liberal education doesn’t exist in China.  I can count on one hand the number of Chinese universities with general education programs.

So, is it possible for China to emerge as an innovative powerhouse?  It’s within the government’s power to make the changes that will encourage creative arts and economies.  Loosen the censorship reigns and reform the educational system.

But these steps would undermine the party’s power.  People who are trained to think critically and creatively, who have access to all the ideas of theirs and others’ cultures and who can express themselves freely about all of those ideas—these kinds of people don’t suffer authoritarianism easily.  They’re difficult to keep harmonized.

I believe this tension will become critical when the Chinese economy reaches the point where their spectacular levels of growth will demand innovation and not just mimicry.  What then?  The party has a deal with the public: we will deliver sharply rising living standards as long as you tolerate a closed political process.  At some point, this deal will no longer be tenable.  They’ll have to open the political process to deliver on the economy.

This is my greatest hope for China.  And I’ll be the first in line to buy the coolest new thing out of Shanghai.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Mr. Ratha

If yesterday I was in awe of the sights of Cambodia, today, I am in awe of its people. The people we have met here have been gracious, smiling, friendly, and so deservedly proud of their heritage. But the recent history of this country is devastating – they are just emerging from over 25 years of civil strife. As a result, the country is much poorer than many of its neighbors. From what we were told, the per capita income in Cambodia is just $900 per year, as compared to $7,000 per year in neighboring Thailand. Some people are so poor that they cannot afford bicycles to transport their children to schools, which are few and far between here. Yet, I cannot help but admire the people of Cambodia, and that admiration for this country and the people who live here today turned in to a full blown love affair when our driver Mr. Ratha (we arranged for him to take us around the park again today – a decision we were so glad we made) told us his life story today at lunch (for the record, I am a firm believer that good actions will ultimately be repaid in kind, and I think that having the opportunity to hear Mr. Ratha’s story was more than worth the money we paid to buy him lunch today).  This story was so amazing that I have to share it with you all, with the caveat since this is reconstructed from our conversation at lunch, I'm not sure about the order of everything although I am sure that all of the things I mention here did in fact happen to him.
Ratha and the boys

Ratha was born southwest of the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh in 1973, making him just two years younger than me. He was one of eight children, but three of his brothers were killed by the Khmer Rouge when Pol Pot came to power. Ratha says he doesn’t remember much of the Pol Pot years (which is a good thing), but obviously those events and the general history of Cambodia greatly influenced his life. He does remember much fighting going on in and around his village while growing up. He told us it was not uncommon for them to have to hide during the night under their home, and there were many times when they had to evacuate the village for a week, two weeks, a month, even two months. Ratha noted it was very difficult for children to receive an education in those times, so he did not start primary school until he was 13 years old.

His father became worried about Ratha (for obvious reasons); apparently, it was not uncommon for teenage boys to rebel against their fathers, who were often conscripted into the government forces, by joining the Khmer Rouge, leading to fathers fighting against their sons. As a result, Ratha’s father arranged to have him enrolled as a novice monk. He spent eight years studying in the monastery, becoming the only one of his siblings to complete high school. Despite the fact that he was in a monastery, he still was not clear of the danger of conscription, as government forces often conscripted novice monks, knowing they had probably come to the monastery to escape this fate. Ratha says he was spared because his father knew someone.

After Ratha decided to leave the monastery (somewhere in the 1990s), he became a political activist, pushing for democracy for Cambodia (and believe me – this wasn’t a scam as he told us this before we told him we were political science professors. What are the odds that two political science professors would randomly draw a former political activist as a tuk-tuk driver? Sometimes the universe works in mysterious ways). He was politically active for close to a decade, to great danger to himself. At one point, he was missing, in government custody, for a week. His family held a funeral for him, knowing that few people escaped from the clutches of government custody. Somehow, he was freed – whether he escaped or the government released him is not clear. He found sanctuary in a Catholic Church, where he stayed for two months, despite the fact that he was a wanted man, with his picture in newspapers and TV. The church arranged for him to go to a refugee camp in Thailand, where he stayed for a month in 1997. Feeling homesick, he decided not to stay, even though he would have been granted asylum, so he returned to Cambodia on his own. He was also an activist, again pushing democracy, in the early 2000s, but as before, many of his fellow activists disappeared or were killed. Seeing little progress from all of his efforts and realizing the great danger to himself, he decided to abandon his activism.

To me, it is very saddening to see someone who was so politically engaged give up, but that it not to say I don’t understand his decision. The writing was on the wall so to speak; if he wanted any hope of a life (not just a good life, but a LIFE), it was a decision he had to make. Furthermore, how long can one go on at great danger with no sign of progress? Even now, Ratha says despite the fact that the country is at peace, he believes that progress towards true democracy has, in fact, been negative.

Now, Ratha has a wife and two sons, ages 6 and 3. He told us it was a deliberate decision to stop at two; his sister, who never completed high school, has six kids, and none of his nieces and nephews have completed high school either. He and his wife, who is a kindergarten teacher despite having only completed junior high herself (such is the shortage of teachers here that they’ll take almost anyone, regardless of their level of education – apparently the pay is so dismal that no one wants the job and those that have taken the job have to resort to corruption to make ends meet, extra money for subjects such as chemistry or physics) want more for their children – definitely high school and maybe even university, if they can afford it. Ratha has also taught himself several languages. Despite conversing with us in fluent English, he is actually a German tour guide. He speaks French and Sanskrit as well, having served as a teacher of the latter language for a period. He is taking some sort of classes (one of which is a political science class, which he noted is very difficult to teach here); we’re not entirely clear whether he is seeking a college degree or not.

Clearly, Ratha is an intelligent and motivated man. Some, in reading his story, might take away the lesson that smarts and hard work will get you ahead. But what it made me think of is the profound privilege I was born into. How lucky I am to have been born in the United States, into an upper middle class family with all of the benefits that entails. Today, listening to Ratha’s story brought tears to my eyes and at the same time a desire to do something more. At the end of the day (probably our last in a tuk tuk), we gave Ratha a 100% tip and our contact information. Small gestures, to be sure, but I also left with the feeling that I am not done with Cambodia nor is it done with me.