A Carsten Moment

Posted on October 31st, by matt_schiavenza in Personal. 4 comments

Last year, one of my good friends in Lianyungang was a German guy named Carsten.  He speaks Chinese well, and was never afraid to confront Chinese people when they behaved badly to him in public.  He would often tersely tell them what they have done and they almost always sheepishly backed off.  I envied this skill, mostly because I tend to be quite laid-back and usually keep my mouth shut (and then complain about it later in private).

So I’m proud to say I had my first Carsten moment tonight.  I stepped into a little dive noodle house and ordered a beer and a plate of chow mein.  Minutes after I arrived, a gang of young Chinese guys (and a couple of girls) barged in and loudly occupied two tables.  They began taking chairs from my table, seeing that I was eating alone, and organizing themselves around two tables nearby.  They also began hollering at the waitress to bring them beers and other sorts of drinks, delaying her service to the other guests present.  They lit up cigarettes and chatted boorishly.

I at first decided to be calm about it, reminding myself that this is not my country and that getting really angry won’t accomplish anything. Also, this sort of behavior is sadly not all that unusual here.  Then, one guy spat on the floor.  Then, another guy did, this time just inches from my shoe.  That’s it, I decided, I’ve reached my limit.  I wasn’t going to put up with anything else.

Finally, one guy took the napkin dispenser off my table and brought it to his, dispensing napkins to all of his friends.  When the napkins ran out, he casually dropped it back on my table like it was nothing.

I was furious.  I stood up, loomed over him, and slammed the empty napkin dispenser right in front of him on his table.  I mustered up my best Chinese, and said something like:

"These napkins were mine, not yours.  If you wanted them, you had to ask me first!".  I gave them the death stare, and they all fell silent, looking at me ashamedly.  Finally, one guy said, "Sorry", and I returned to my seat, muttering a curse under my breath. 

They were subsequently quiet for the duration of my meal.  I cooly paid my bill (all of 8 kwai, or $1) and slowly walked out.  Somewhere, the theme to The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly was playing.

So there you have it- not quite as eloquent as Carsten, but a Carsten moment all the same.  If there’s any reason to learn a language, being able to express your righteous indignation at an unsuspecting local might be it.…

Silvio, Che Cosa!

Posted on October 30th, by matt_schiavenza in Current Affairs. No Comments

Blowhard Italian PM Silvio Berlusconi (famously referred to as "Sergio" by President Bush) says he warned the US about waging war in Iraq:

"I tried repeatedly to convince the American president not to go to
war," Berlusconi told an interviewer with the La7 television channel.
"I was never convinced that war was the best system to achieve
democracy in a country that had to emerge from a bloody dictatorship. I
maintained that military action should be avoided."

Hmm.  Perhaps Silvio doesn’t remember his enthusiastic endorsement of the war.  Or those twenty-six Italian soldiers killed in Nasiriyah.  Could Berlusconi have indulged in a bit too much grappa?

It looks like he’s jumping off Bush’s sinking ship.  Who’s next?  Blair?

(via Juan Cole)

Depo Out

Posted on October 30th, by matt_schiavenza in Baseball. 4 comments

Paul DePodesta, Dodgers GM, has been fired.  Sean is not happy about this.  I suspect Phil isn’t, either.  I am pleased, for I think the Dodgers have made a mistake, and when the Dodgers make mistakes, I am happy.

Yes, the Dodgers lost 91 games, second most since their arrival in LA.  Popular manager Jim Tracy was subsequently let go, mostly on account of his incompatibility with DePodesta.  It certainly seemed like Dodgers owner Frank McCourt was going to stick by his man, so for that reason I’m a little bit surprised.

Also- DePo was on the job for less than two years.  I certainly believe that he should have had more time to implement his philosophy.  DePo didn’t choose for Gagne to be injured, or for Drew to miss half the season.  Jeff Kent, his other major free agent signing, had an excellent season.  Yes, he and Bradley tuffled….but that alone doesn’t indicate a doomed ballclub.  Kent and Barry Bonds fought in the Giants dugout in 2002- the year they won the pennant.

Here’s a scenario- Theo Epstein quits in Boston.  New England native Brian Sabean takes the Red Sox job.  DePo slides up north to SF, turning the Bay Area into a double Moneyball market.  DePo leads the Giants to sustained success, made even sweeter due to his premature termination in LA.…

On Miers

Posted on October 29th, by matt_schiavenza in Current Affairs. 4 comments

So Harriet Miers has withdrawn……and the right breathes a huge sigh of relief.  The left, meanwhile, exults at yet another embarrassment for the Bush administration.  Certainly, the President has had better weeks: the 2,000th death in Iraq, the Scooter Libby indictment, and the Miers nomination have created what some pundits have called a "perfect storm".

Who will Bush nominate next?  I don’t know enough about the potential justices, but I would suspect Bush will choose someone much more along the lines of his first nominee, John Roberts.  A conservative is a given- we elected a conservative President, and he gets to pick who sits on the court. However, I think Bush will look for a candidate who both satisfies the die-hards in his base as well as enough Democrats to assure an easy confirmation.

Quite honestly, I’m pleased that Miers is out.  I don’t trust Born Again Christians.  I disliked how she had such a close, personal relationship with the President.  And even though I’m no expert on Constitutional Law, I didn’t like how she was chosen over vast numbers of better qualified lawyers.  She was the perfect combination of cronyism and incompetence, and was likely to have been a disastrous Judge.

So we’ll see.  Most people seem to be pleased with Roberts.  Ditto Ben Bernanke, the man Bush tapped to replace Alan Greenspan at the Fed.  Choosing someone along those lines would be fine by me.…

The Tiger And The Dragon

Posted on October 28th, by matt_schiavenza in China. No Comments

Here’s an excellent article in The Economist comparing the development of democratic India with authoritarian China.…

Gone Running

Posted on October 26th, by matt_schiavenza in Personal. 1 Comment

Yesterday, I decided to go jogging for the first time since arriving in Fuzhou.  Here are the hazards of the activity here in China:

1. The roads are mostly uneven so the chance of a twisted ankle is dangerously high
2. Very few Chinese jog in the streets, so by doing so you attract attention
3. You attract even more attention (and some ridicule) when passerbys realize that the person jogging happens to be a foreigner
4. The air pollution here in Fuzhou is so bad, you breathe like a heavy smoker running from the cops
5.  Car, bicycle, rickshaw, motorcycle, and pedestrian traffic is relentless and they won’t kindly yield to the healthy Californian streaking down the street.
6. There are a lot of people in China.  A lot.  You feel more like a punt returner than a jogger judging by the number of people you have to dodge.

So with these six factors in mind, Paul and I decided we’d better just head to the track at the local university.  And while it was crowded, polluted, somewhat dark, and very noisy, we succeeded in running eight laps.  We were quite pleased with our effort, and to celebrate headed off to the beer shop to gain back the calories we had just burned.…

Two Iraq Links

Posted on October 25th, by matt_schiavenza in Foreign Affairs. No Comments

Eric Martin has a bit of good news regarding Sunni participation in the fledgling political process.

Peter Galbraith and Juan Cole discuss whether partitioning Iraq would be a good solution or not.  I side with Cole on this issue, but Galbraith’s defense of partitionment is thought-provoking.…

More Mao

Posted on October 25th, by matt_schiavenza in Books. No Comments

The indispensable Arts & Letters Daily has a round-up of reviews of Mao: The Untold Story.  I briefly scanned all of them, and most come to similar conclusions to the review I cited a few days ago.

I do want to single out Nicholas Kristof’s review, in The New York Times, as being perhaps the most interesting of all the ones I read.  Kristof is an Op-Ed columnist for The Grey Lady, and has written extensively on China in the past.  Here is an excerpt of his extremely well-written piece:

Mao is not only a historical figure, of course, but is part of the
(tattered) web of legitimacy on which the People’s Republic rests. He
is part of the founding mythology of the Chinese government, the
Romulus and Remus of "People’s China," and that’s why his portrait
hangs in Tiananmen Square
. Even among ordinary Chinese, Mao retains a
hold on the popular imagination, and some peasants in different parts
of China have started traditional religious shrines honoring him.
That’s the ultimate honor for an atheist – he has become a god.
(emphasis mine)

Well put.  Kristof describes Mao as a relentless polemic that refuses to credit the Great Helmsman for anything accomplished during his reign.  When something good happened, Mao was lucky or helped by the Soviets.  When something bad happened, it was Mao’s fault.  Mao’s brutality is indefensible, but Kristof correctly questions Chang and Holliday’s scholarship.

For doing so, right-wing blogger Roger L. Simon attacks Kristof for coming to Mao’s defense.  Quoth Simon:

The Great Helmsman was a mass murderer beyond comprehension. To excuse
it in on any level is morally repellent and deeply dangerous to the
future of humanity.

I think I heard a clap of thunder after reading this sentence.  Why do conservatives have such a Manichean view of everything?  To oppose the Iraq war is to love Saddam Hussein.  To oppose tax cuts for the wealthy is to be a Marxist.  To say Mao promoted gender equality in China (which he did) is to excuse the death of tens of millions of people.  I could go on and on, but you get the idea.

Such an opinion also infantalizes the Chinese.  If Mao was nothing but a complete butcher, the people who revere him must be idiots, duped into believing the myths promoted by their government.  What nonsense.  I have met a man who lost three siblings to starvation during The Great Leap Forward.  I have met a doctor who was forced into internal exile during The Cultural Revolution.  The Chinese people are well aware of what happened in their country during Mao’s reign.

Understanding the Chinese relationship with Mao’s legacy is essential to understanding contemporary China as a whole.  The paragraph I flagged from Kristof’s piece best approximates my opinion of Mao’s enduring popularity.

Simon’s bloviations may earn him kudos from the right-wing echo chamber, but they do nothing to advance the debate. …

Most Infuriating Non-Sequitur Ever

Posted on October 23rd, by matt_schiavenza in China, Personal. 1 Comment

Last Thursday, I volunteered to participate in an "English Corner" event at our local teacher’s university.  I found myself immediately surrounded by about two dozen eager Chinese, most of whom were women.  I sat on the steps and began fielding their questions.

After the usual small talk, one guy asked me to explain sex education in the United States.  Interesting.  Later, he asked me another question:

"Do most Americans know about the Japanese occupation of China before World War II?"
"Probably not"
"Well, most Chinese learn about Pearl Harbor"
"And your government criticizes China.  Do you think that’s fair?"

I wisely demurred and told him that I wouldn’t get into a political discussion- but wow, what a bizarre connection!…

Another Mao Review

Posted on October 23rd, by matt_schiavenza in Books, China. No Comments

The New York Times has a slightly negative review of Jung Chang and Jon Holliday’s new Mao tome, Mao: The Unknown Story.  Echoing the previous review that I cited, critic Michiko Kakutani notes that the authors failed to provide a cultural context for Mao’s popularity.

I don’t want to comment on Mao before reading the book (which I plan to do anyway), but I do think historical factors are very important in understanding why Mao continues to be revered in China.

Prior to Mao’s ascension, China endured a century of humiliation, marked by foreign incursions (like The Opium Wars), a weak and feckless empire (the late Qing rulers), and hopeless corruption under the ruling Kuomintang after the Qing fell. 

Worst, Chiang Kai-Shek seemed more interested in fighting Mao than the invading the Japanese, then a fascist state intent on dominating all of East Asia.  Mao united all of the peasants as Communists and simply overwhelmed Chiang after World War Two ended.  When he declared the founding of the PRC in 1949, China was finally free of major foreign influence for the first time since the early 19th century.

Mao’s ruthless and disastrous rule of China has been well-documented, but you cannot deny how grateful the Chinese felt at the moment of their liberation.  To repudiate Mao, Khrushchev style, would deprive the Chinese state of its raison d’etre.   As a result, we’re left with Deng Xiaoping’s crafty "70-30" declaration: Mao was 70% good, and 30% bad.  Sure- it’s ridiculous and arbitrary, but it is also believed by every Chinese person I’ve ever spoken to about the subject.

Yes, Mao’s portrait looms over Tiananmen Square.  But we needen’t worry too much- Maoism is long gone in China.  China’s relationship with its founder is akin to a child of a rotten mother- yes, she was a horrible woman at times, but without her I wouldn’t have existed at all.…