Friday, March 30, 2012

Random Observations 3/30

  • While I’ve been working out fairly consistently here (both running and Insanity), even on days I don’t work out, I’m definitely more active than I would be at home. Whether it’s walking the boys to the bus stop in the morning (~1.5 miles round trip), from the bus stop in the afternoon (~1 mile round trip) or to the grocery store (~1.0 miles roundtrip), we’re really pounding the pavement. This doesn’t include any outings we may go on either; on the weekend, we’re usually putting in at least 3 miles or so exploring, and on some week days, Doug and I can put in more miles than the typical daily routine when we’re out and about. Definitely a bonus of an urban, non-car based lifestyle.
  • Staying hydrated, on the other hand, has not been going so well. It’s not that I haven’t been aware of the need to drink water (I am, and I do drink lots when I’m at the apartment), it’s just that I’m often worried about the state of the bathrooms I’ll be able to find when I’m out of the house. Now, I’m used to squat toilets at this point, and I always carry tissue, but even so, the state of some of the public bathrooms can only be described as truly horrid. On more than one occasion, I’ve had to run home, just to find a usable restroom.
  • While out and about, I’ve also been noticing more split pants. We saw them when it was cooler here, but now that it’s warming up, there’s not a protective layer (i.e. diaper) underneath. It’s really strange to look over and see little kids privates all over the place. This is particularly noticeable on the subway, where most of these kids are sitting on their parents’ laps, everything hanging out in plain sight. Very jarring.
  • One other thing of note when we’re out: the dogs. Many people believe that dog eating is common in China. While that may be true in some places, it is certainly not the case here. In fact, people here are just as crazy about their dogs as pets as they are in the U.S. Many of the dogs sport outfits fancier than what I typically wear. I’m trying to get some pictures to illustrate, but as far as I can tell, dog appears to be off the menu in Shanghai.
  • There will probably be radio silence for a few days as we head off to see the sights in Beijing tomorrow.  Yes, we did manage to procure train tickets; hopefully, they're for the trains we want.  I'm sure we'll have tons to report when we get back.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

We fought China, and China won

We’ve learned pretty well by now that there are peaks and valleys to living abroad, and we’ve really learned to manage them as they come (particularly the valleys), but this weekend brought a pretty deep valley, and all I can say is that China really kicked my ass.

It all started out on Friday, when we went to withdraw our weekly budget plus some additional money for our train tickets to Beijing. Doug and I both have accounts with Bank of America, which has a relationship with the China Construction Bank (which is a large, reputable bank here). This means we can withdraw money from our BoA accounts at CCB ATMs, free of transaction fees. We’ve done this several times, and all was going well on Friday. The machine made the whirring noise that signaled it was preparing to output cash, when…nothing. No money came out. The machine informed us there was an error, then quickly printed out a receipt (with only partial information) that makes it look like I received $4000RMB. A quick check online confirmed that the “withdrawal” had indeed cleared my BoA account. Great. I can dispute the transaction with BoA, but it would be quicker to resolve this with CCB – which I need to try to do this week. Can’t say I’m looking forward to that at all, but it needs to be done as we’re talking over $600 here.

Despite this ill omen to start the week, the weather this weekend was lovely, so we decided to meet up after Berkley’s soccer game at the Shanghai Zoo. Let’s just say that after this visit, I’m convinced that Chinese zookeeper must be one of the hardest jobs in the world. There was no respect for the animals at this zoo. People pounded the glass and made noises at the animals (trying to scare them) over and over. But the worst part of it was the fact that people were constantly throwing things into the exhibits. The turtles and alligators were covered in coins (people were throwing them ON the animals), there was trash in all of the exhibits (if I thought the girl in Xi’an was bad, Doug witnessed a kid throw first his straw and then his cup into the hyena exhibit – and his mother didn’t say a word), and there was food EVERYWHERE. Quin and I saw someone throw a popcorn ball to/at a Sun Bear; this only momentarily distracted the bear from catching what appeared to be bread in his mouth, on the fly. Pretty much all of the animals appear to have been conditioned to the fact that visitors would be throwing food; some of them were even picky about what they ate. I can’t imagine how hard it is to keep these animals healthy when people are constantly throwing them crap all day long. Totally depressing.

On Monday, we decided to use the money we were able to withdraw from Doug’s account to get our train tickets to Beijing. Just a few months ago, the China rail system instituted an online system that allows you to buy tickets 10 days in advance, but it only accepts Chinese credit cards. So, we made the trek out to the train station, to find that you can only purchase tickets 3 days in advance in person. Sigh. We’re going to try to find a ticket agent this afternoon, but I don’t know if they use the 3 day system or the 10 day system. Right now, we’re stuck in some sort of limbo – hoping that the soft sleeper tickets on our return don’t sell out before we figure this whole situation out.

After the unsuccessful trip to the train station, we stopped on the way back to FedEx our ballots back to the U.S. Due to tight turnaround, we weren’t really confident that the ballots would be home on time if we used regular mail (which we still haven’t figured out), so we thought this would be our best option. Of course, there are no FedEx outlets nearby us, and the DHL website is entirely in Chinese. So, we trekked, and we trekked, and we trekked. In the middle of nowhere, we trudged around and back and forth, trying to find this stupid FedEx office. When we finally did, we found out that it would cost us about $50 to send the ballots home. Now, as a political scientist, I know how important it is to vote, but I also know that the odds of our votes actually mattering in the outcome are slim to none, so $50 seemed to be a bit too steep a price to vote. So, at that point we threw in the towel; we left the FedEx office and returned home, with two ballots and no train tickets in hand.

The bottom line, this weekend, we fought China, and China won. Don’t worry – we’ll be back up and fighting again soon as we STILL have to procure train tickets and figure out how to regular mail our ballots (they’ll surely be late, but I have to at least try!). Hopefully, this time around though, the odds will be ever in our favor.

Berkley's Personal Statement

Berkley’s portfolio came home with him this weekend. At the beginning was his personal statement. It was too awesome not to share, so here it is (with spelling, punctuation and grammar intact):

I am Berkley. I am currently travelling the world. I like to read, play soccer and play ball hockey. I usually read chapter books. Long ones. Think of all the possibilitys! I like to dance. Hip-hop style is what I do. I want to make a dance team someday. I like to shoot high, but “What goes up must come down.” Who said that? I did. My family members are currently, 40, 43, and 9. At 7 I’m the youngest person in the family. My brother and I like to build Legos. I only get sets for custome pieces. My brother gets sets to build them. I think I am a risk-taker because I have goals. Like, back flip into water (off a building). I’m a risk taker because when I can do something new (like the school talent show), I do it.

Friday, March 23, 2012

China of the Present and China of the Past

One of my students, who actually hails from Turkey, told me he heard that if you want to see modern China, visit Shanghai; if you want to see China of 500 years ago, visit Beijing; and if you want to see China of 1,000 years ago, visit Xi’an. I’m not sure if that’s true or not, but in comparing Shanghai to Xi’an, it’s clear how vastly different the two cities are. Quin remarked upon arriving in Xi'an that Chinese cities (at least the one’s he has visited) have really distinct feels to them. I don’t know if the different feel of these two cities is due to differences in the ethnic mix of the people who live there (the influence of the Western and Muslim minorities in Xi’an was very evident) or to the different histories of the cities (Xi'an was the ancient capital of China, while Shanghai didn't really emerge as a major city until the last hundred years or so), but in particular, two things really stood out to me.

First, Xi’an is dirtier than Shanghai. Now, as my father pointed out to me, we Americans didn’t really become all that clean until recently; throwing trash on the ground and dumping pollutants into waterways wasn’t uncommon 40 or 50 years ago in the U.S. And, yes – some of the dirtiness in Xi’an was due to this. As an example, while I was waiting for Doug and the boys, I saw a little girl who must have been 2 or 3 years old throw her (mostly) empty drink carton down in the middle of the sidewalk; her mother didn’t even spare it a glance as it splattered all over and they walked on. Years ago (and even to this day), you’d see stuff like this in the U.S. Still, the people in Xi’an really take it to a whole different level. The key indicator of this, I think, is the vomit. It’s EVERYWHERE. On the streets, in the middle of the sidewalks, even on the tourist bus we took to see the Terra Cotta Army (about 5 bucks each way – for the whole family for a 50 minute ride!). Luckily, Quin saw it (or kind of stepped in it) before all the seats were taken on the bus; the poor American tourists who boarded after us (the only other Westerners on the bus) were not so lucky. Earlier, Doug took the boys to use a public restroom; upon return, the boys reported with equal parts glee and disgust on the “wall of vomit.” Apparently, there were dozens of piles of it along a wall that was tucked from view. Now, I don’t know why there’s all this vomit everywhere (Doug is convinced it’s the street food, but I’m not so sure), but this, along with the overflowing trash, the kids peeing and pooping out of their split pants all over the street and so on, just lent the place a general air of dirtiness. While Shanghai is not as neat as most major cities in the U.S., it’s not that far off from what it would be like in some parts of Chicago or New York. This is due in part to the cleanliness campaigns conducted by the government in advance of the 2010 World Expo that was held here. These campaigns seem to have stuck, making Shanghai much more bearable for a long term stay.

And this cleanliness ties in to the second major difference that struck me, which is that Shanghai is much more international than Xi’an. Now, don’t get me wrong – you can still find Starbucks, Dunkin’ Donuts, Pizza Hut and the like in Xi’an, but our friends told us that there’s only one Western grocery store in the whole city. And in that Western grocery store, they can’t get some things that we can get at our local Carrefour, like Kraft Mac and Cheese or Goldfish. The Western restaurants (really meaning anything that’s not Chinese) are not nearly as abundant in Xi’an and well, they’re nothing like we have at home. As Doug said, he knows how Chinese visitors to the U.S. must feel when they visit an Americanized Chinese restaurant – close, but no cigar.  In contrast, in Shanghai, we can get any kind of cuisine that's just about as good as what we can get in the U.S.

As a result, my general impression of the two cities is that while I think Xi’an is a much more interesting place to visit, Shanghai is a much easier place to live. In fact, if someone asked me for advice for where to visit in China, I would definitely say you have to visit Xi’an, but I’m not sure I’d put Shanghai on the must see list. To me, it seems Shanghai is most interesting in how un-China like it is in some respects. Is this the future of China as my student suggested? I don’t know, but we’ll have another chance to see how accurate his statement is and to compare Chinese cities when we leave for a 4 day trip to Beijing next weekend.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Jongwah, the Middle Nation

I’ve written before about the complexity of language in China, but it might interest people to know that the complexity involves the name “China” itself.  This term was actually a western invention that was derived from the Qin Dynasty (Q makes a Ch sound in the pinyin system), which was in place from 221 to 207 BC.

The Chinese refer to their county as 中国. This is written in pinyin as “zhōng guó,” and is pronounced roughly like “jong wah.”  Translated it means “middle empire,” “middle nation,” “middle country” or “middle kingdom.”  (Even the official name, the People’s Republic of China, uses 中国 for the China part).

The term, of course, is loaded.  It arose to imply that China is the center of civilization, the middle of the world around which the barbarians live.  Indeed, the Chinese sense of centrality is a very important part of the culture here and is critical to understanding its history.

Though it risks reductionism, it is at least partly helpful to understand the last several centuries of Chinese history as a reality check about their middleness followed by an attempt to reassert it.  When the great Western powers began to assert themselves commercially in the 1700s and 1800s, they found the Chinese regime highly resistant to foreign trade and fairly snobbish about the value of all that Western stuff anyway.  For their part, the West wasn’t willing to validate the cultural superiority of the Chinese.  When Lord Macartney visited China in 1794, he famously refused to kowtow to the Emperor, literally or figuratively.

In the 19th Century, these Western powers provided a swift lesson regarding just how advanced their cultures really were, at least in terms of aggressive trading practices and powerful navies.  They satisfied their demand for Chinese tea by introducing opium into China (to keep trade balanced) and pried open a number of ports by force.

Other elements of our culture—like artery-clogging food and billion-dollar movies—would seep in later.

These cultural encroachments stung—and they continue to sting.  Just recently here in Shanghai, a pizza restaurant was blasted by local Chinese for advertising its location in the “French Concession,” a term that’s still widely used but which dredges up bad memories of foreign imperialism.

Many of the current attempts at superlatives—the fastest train, the tallest building, the best Olympics, the greatest expo—can be viewed as the Chinese trying to reestablish the prestige of the Middle Nation.

Frankly, I think it’s time the rest of the world allow them that sense of prestige.  One need only spend a few minutes looking at incredible Chinese artifacts, some 5000 years old or even older, to understand the legacy and power of Chinese culture.

Wine Vessel, 13th Century BC (Shanghai Museum)

Maybe we can start by reassessing what we call this place.  Instead of “China,” how about “Middle Nation?”  We can go with “the MN,” for short, sort of like “the UK.”  Or, how about something that uses the actual sounds of the term?  After all, we don’t refer to “Puerto Rico” as “Rich Port.”   

How about “Zhongguo” or, even better, “Jongwah?”

In fact, you can help me spread this around.  Next time you need to say “China,” say “Jongwah” instead.  Soon, we’ll be talking about how Nixon went to Jongwah…