Fuzhou At a Glance

Posted on August 30th, by matt_schiavenza in Personal. 2 comments

Hello there!  I’m typing from my office in Fuzhou, where school begins in a mere two days.  I’ve spent the last week setting up my apartment and getting a sense of my new city. Fuzhou is very lush, green, and hot- exactly what I expect from a subtropical city.  I feel like I live in a jungle, for there are trees everywhere and the accompanying critters.

Most conspicuous are the giant flying cockroaches, the size of beetles, that fly into my apartment when I leave the window open.  One little bastard flew out of my toilet article case, scaring me to death.  After letting out a scream, I regained my masculine dignity and smashed it with my shoe.

My apartment is nice but tiny- there’s only one sink so I have to brush my teeth in the kitchen.  I have a large bedroom that doubles as a living room, a dining area with a table, and a veranda with an old-fashioned washing machine.  The bathroom is dark- just a toilet and a shower nozzle, really.

The neighborhood is great- twisting alleyways and narrow roads leading up to my building.  I find little shops everywhere, selling everything from rice to scissors to beer.  The locals are quite friendly- lots of smiles rather than the penetrating stares you get in colder Chinese locations.  There’s a large river with tons of restaurants, and delicious food.  Fantastic.

I’ll provide a more thorough rundown later on of the job, which shall begin soon.  I’ll be teaching older kids this year, so I’ll let you know how different it is.

Until then- I’ll swat a couple of roaches for you!…

Alive and Well in the Middle Kingdom

Posted on August 21st, by matt_schiavenza in China. No Comments

I’m typing from a stale, dark internet cafe in the city of Changzhou, Jiangsu Province, China.  I’ll be here all week taking part in a work-related conference. 

I flew into Shanghai last night, and this morning boarded a train with my enormous collection of suitcases, backpacks, et al bound for here.  I sat next to an English speaking professor of journalism, for he graciously offered to assist me in placing my suitcase in an unobstructive place.

I opened my briefcase and showed him the collection of magazines I had bought at the airport: The New Yorker, The Economist, and finally Newsweek.  He recognized Peter Jennings’ image on the cover of Newsweek and reverently noted his passing from lung cancer.  I then handed him the magazine and he quietly peered through it, treating its pages like they were delicate parchment.

He then glanced furtively around the train and began speaking quietly in English. "I wish….I wish our media here was like yours in America.  I wish it were- free."  His last word was uttered in a near-whisper.  "Freedom" is forbidden speech here in China.  Just ask Microsoft, whose new blogging software prohibits use of the word in its Chinese edition. 

The professor must have been in his late fifties, and it was clear he had studied his craft quite thoroughly.  I could tell that the limitations of journalism here in China pained him.  Pure scholarship can only be a joy if you’ve access to a wide breadth of material.  In the People’s Republic, this acess remains sorely lacking.

After he disembarked, I thought ruefully how so many US conservatives complain about the bias inherent in our media.  If they only knew what real bias meant……

Off I Go

Posted on August 19th, by matt_schiavenza in Personal. 2 comments

In twelve hours, I will be boarding a flight at San Francisco International Airport destined for Tokyo.  By this time tomorrow evening, I will be back in China, snoozing in a Shanghai airport hotel for one night prior to my conference in nearby Changzhou.   I’ve spent the better part of this evening packing, and man- I’ve got a lot of stuff.  I swear I aspire to be minimalist.  But I’ve got a suitcase that weighs exactly 67 pounds, a heavy backpack, a computer case, a small camera purse, and a briefcase filled with books and documents.  We’re even planning to get to the airport early tomorrow in case there are problems with my cargo.

To answer everyone’s question- yes, I am excited as all hell to get back.  I’m also anxious, so I don’t plan on sleeping very well tonight.  I never do before a big trip.  Who knows, I may be blogging my anxiety in a few hours time. 

Now- you’ve probably noticed that the blog looks very different.  Since this is a new year, I feel it is auspicious to go with a new display.  Substantively, everything’s the same, just reordered.  I may play around with the links as there are new blogs to add and some that are either defunct or moribund to delete.  If everyone writes in and says that the new display sucks, I might change my mind.  But probably not.

Barring any late-night thoughts, this will be my last post until I get to China.  Wish me luck.…

Cindy Sheehan

Posted on August 16th, by matt_schiavenza in Politics. No Comments

I haven’t settled on an opinion of l’affaire Cindy Sheehan yet, not that I really am under any obligation to.  Most of the voices I hear on the left fully support the grieving mother and her quixotic attempt to meet with President Bush one more time.  I share the general consensus that Bush’s aloof manner in discussing War casualties is inappropriate at best and somewhat sickening.  That being said, there’s something about Sheehan that rankles me and makes me less than enthusiastic about her message.

When I was about twelve, a Bay Area girl of my age named Polly Klaas was kidnapped from her home by a psycopath and brutally murdered.  The story was a major media event in the Bay Area and then, I believe, nationally.  What stuck most in my mind, though, wasn’t the horror of the murder itself but from the media manipulation engineered by Polly’s father.  For weeks after the murder, and again after the trial and conviction of his daughter’s killer, this grieving father never met a television show he didn’t like.  He filled our screen with such self-important blather that I found myself negatively disposed to him. 

Yes, negatively disposed to a man who just lost his daughter in a senseless crime.  You can imagine how guilty I felt.  Somehow, though, I knew that in the back of his mind, Polly Klaas’ father understood that his misfortune insulated him from the criticisms we normally bestow upon public figures.  He had carte blanche to say what he wanted, but somehow we lacked the power to check and balance his behavior.

That attitude, I’m afraid, informs my approach to the Cindy Sheehan issue.    Her son chose to enlist and then re-enlist in a war she didn’t support.  He was an adult, capable of making his own choice.    It was Sheehan’s son’s responsibility to call bullshit on Bush’s claims for the war, as if the entire nation was under the impression that they were unquestionable.  Is it sad that he died?  Certainly. But one cannot argue that Casey Sheehan was captured in the middle of the night and forced to die in Iraq.

Now Sheehan’s message has been neatly co-opted by the basest elements of the anti-War left, and the grieving one herself seems more than comfortable shouting slogans that could have been scripted by Michael Moore.  (Moore, incidentally, provides a forum for Sheehan’s words on his website, as does Arianna Huffington).  Predictably, the hateful hacks on the right (such as the dreadful, vile, and disgusting Michelle Malkin) have begun attacking Sheehan to counter the left’s supportive message.  Sadly, what should have been one woman’s private way to deal with grief has become a media circus with all of the usual suspects weighing in.

I’ve never suffered a personal tragedy nearly as great as Cindy Sheehan’s loss of her son in war.  Therefore, I cannot say with certainty how I would react.  I would hope, though, that I’d have the grace to deal with my grief in private, like thousands of other parents of the Iraq War dead. 

The Sheehan situation is ugly, getting uglier, and will make everyone look bad in the end.…

Marin Headlands

Posted on August 16th, by matt_schiavenza in Travels. 1 Comment

I had a lovely day today hiking and driving around the Marin Headlands, a nature area overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge.  Mark, Tim, and I braved the cold, foggy weather and managed to snap some neato photos of the Bay and the Bridge.  I’ll post these as soon as I get a chance.

As we were walking, Mark asked whether we could think of any other city besides San Francisco that permits such a quick escape into the countryside.  Most urban areas consist of suburban sprawl in all directions.  Not "the city", our city.  And so- a fantastic experience like today’s hike can be a simple excursion rather than an elaborately planned trip.…

Is the Heartland Hopeless?

Posted on August 15th, by matt_schiavenza in Politics. No Comments

I finally read What’s the Matter With Kansas, Thomas Frank’s influential book that explained how conservatives recaptured the populist spirit in middle America.  Like many a coastal liberal, I’ve wondered why so many working class Americans support a political party that actively works against their interests.  Frank’s explanation, that "backlash" against the supposed liberal dominance of the US propels working class conservatives, struck me as correct.

So what can Democrats do to regain the heartland?  This question has produced volumes of analysis in the past five years, spiking after President Bush’s re-election was initially ascribed to "cultural values".  Every significant liberal pundit (and quite a few derisive conservatives) have tackled this question, offering a wide range of proposals that purportedly would cure all of the Democrats’ ills.

Frank believes that the Democrats lost the heartland with its shift to the right during the Clinton years.  With the distinction blurred between Republicans and Democrats on economic issues, working class voters had little choice but to align themselves with the party that best represents their social issues.   Therefore, Democrats ought to lurch back to the left on economic issues.  Sounds simple, no?

I’m quite unsure that Frank’s thesis is correct.  For one thing, the right-wing backlash didn’t begin under Clinton.  In fact, many Democrats switched over to vote for Republican Ronald Reagan in both 1980 and 1984.  Even earlier, President Lyndon Johnson predicted that the Democrats would lose the South for a generation when he signed the Civil Rights Act in 1965.  Richard Nixon first exploited the "backlash" in his 1968 campaign for President, calling on the "silent majority" of Ameriacans to reject effete liberalism and embrace his candidacy. 

Given that the "backlash" has been a problem for Democrats for over forty years, the party has tried economic liberalism in the past with disastrous results.  Liberals George McGovern and Walter Mondale were unceremoniously trounced by Nixon and Reagan, respectively.  Since LBJ, only Jimmy Carter and Clinton have won Presidential elections for the donkeys.  With such a dismal record, I should think blaming Clinton for the Democrats’ problem with working class voters is quite unfair.

There’s little reason to think lurching to the right on economic issues will help Democrats today.  Matt Yglesias relates an anecdote today that supports my pessimism.  A conservative expatriate he meets in Iceland says that while she loves her adopted country’s progressive economic policies, she worries that her children will suffer under its liberal social climate.  As a result, she longs to return home to the US.

Would, say, abandoning free trade and corporate donations help Democrats woo voters like this woman?  I’m very skeptical.  What to do, then?  If I knew, I’d be a well-paid consultant rather than a struggling English teacher.  It wouldn’t upset me to see the Democrats’ focus solely on cities, as one brave article suggested. 

Corporate malfeasance under Bush’s reign has been so great that the Democrats ought to exploit their relative egalitarianism at every turn.  Moving back to the left on economic issues would be both counterproductive as policy and useless as politics.…

Currently Watching….Current TV

Posted on August 15th, by matt_schiavenza in Television. No Comments

I’ve spent much of my TV time lately watching Current TV, a new television network known primarily by its heavy investment from former Vice President Al Gore. Current bills itself as the "television home page for the internet generation", which I assume means people like me (and you).

Current shows short documentary films submitted by viewers, a concept never before attempted on a television network.  At first glance, it isn’t hard to see why: a lot of the "pods" fall flat.  Some, though, justify Gore’s extreme faith in the channel.  An Iranian-American girl traveled to Tehran and filmed several of the city’s youth engaging in an ecstasy-party, an event surely not sanctioned by the nation’s strict mullahs.   The women drove to the event wearing headscarves and shapeless dresses, slyly discussing the upcoming party while furtively glancing at the police following their car. 

The party itself could have occurred in Brooklyn, San Francisco, or really anywhere else judging by the behavior and dress of the guests.  I was hoping that the filmmaker would focus more on this aspect, but she quickly segues to interviews with various young Iranis designed to learn their attitude on homosexuality.  Like young Chinese, several of these hip youngsters denied the existence of homosexuality at all in Iran.  Interesting, perhaps, but a bit dissonant from the theme of the first half of the piece.

Will it work?  I don’t know.  Maybe it’s just me, but a channel with occasionally interesting programming is welcome in today’s vast wasteland.…

On Conservative Backward Empiricism

Posted on August 13th, by matt_schiavenza in Ideas, Politics. No Comments

Writing for The New Republic’s &c blog, Ben Adler catches conservative pundit Peggy Noonan making an inaccurate link between gun ownership and low crime.  In his analysis, Adler writes:

This speaks to the way conservatives approach
evidence. Rather than looking at the statistics and basing policies on what they see,
they make assumptions and cling to beliefs and then look for statistics to support them
. This backwards
empiricism characterizes everything from supply-side economics to the Bush
administration’s selective use of intelligence to make the case for the Iraq war, and,
as Noonan has now so helpfully pointed out, apparently crime and gun control,

(emphasis mine)

This snippet is just another example of Paul Simon’s wisdom in his great song "The Boxer":

"A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest".

Rarely, though, is this maxim so explicity stated.  We can thank Noonan for that.…

Looking to Next Year

Posted on August 13th, by matt_schiavenza in Personal. 2 comments

In little over a week, I will be back in China.  Having this month-long holiday in California has been wonderful, but I’m ready to go back.  Vacations are temporary and interim by nature.  Some might say my job constitutes one’s idea of a vacation, and I’m sure that’s true.  But that’s beside the point.

As you might imagine, I’ve fielded numerous questions about what my intentions are post- China.  First of all, I’d like to point out that I don’t know exactly when my post-China career will begin.  A third year there is entirely possible.  That’s a decision I’ll have to make sometime around the start of 2006.

What I know for certain is that I will be teaching and living in China for at least one more year.  These are my intentions:

  • continue studying Chinese, both spoken and written, so that I may be able to read a newspaper and carry on an intelligent conversation by this time next year.
  • continue mastering the art of teaching, learning new techniques in the classroom, developing strategies in conveying the English language, and influencing my students’ minds in a positive manner.
  • travel more extensively within China, including Yunnan, Guilin, Guangzhou, and Xinjiang.
  • travel again in Southeast Asia during the Chinese month-long Spring Festival holiday.
  • giving more attention to my writing, seeing whether or not I should consider it as a future endeavor
  • thinking about what sorts of graduate school programs I may wish to engage in after my teaching adventure concludes
  • watch dozens of classic movies
  • make new friends
  • learn more about China, the Chinese people, and Chinese history and society.

More broadly, I feel that in several months’ time I’ll be faced with a critical decision that may shape my life for years to come.

I can see how easy it is to fall into ESL teaching as a career.  The advantages are enormous.  I can see the world, learn several languages, gain tremendous experience living in foreign countries, and meet many interesting people.

However, I don’t want to wake up at the age of forty faced with the age-old question: "What am I going to do when I grow up?"  In other words, am I wandering and escaping reality by teaching abroad, or am I forging a career that I can sustain for the rest of my life?  I’m hoping that this next year in Fuzhou will shed more light on my conundrum.…


Posted on August 12th, by matt_schiavenza in Personal. No Comments

I’m back at home after four blissful days spent at our old cabin in Arnold, Calaveras County.  I had the wonderful opportunity to spend time with my parents, aunt and uncle, two sisters, one brother-in-law, four nephews, and one step-niece. 

I swam in the lake, read my book, hiked to a waterfall in nearby Yosemite National Park, sipped wine in a jacuzzi, watched Spaceballs, and caught up with my family- some of whom I hadn’t seen in over a year.  Brilliant time.

Perhaps best of all, I was away from any source of news for the entire duration of my trip.  For someone like me, that’s a significant absence- and in this case, an appreciated one.

My dad and I drove back today, and I’ll be spending the rest of my holiday (about one week) here in the Bay Area. 

Better take advantage of my last days here!…