The Ten Things I WILL Miss About China

Posted on April 30th, by matt_schiavenza in China. 5 comments

As an optimist, I don’t want to end the day on a negative note.  So without further adieu, here are the ten things I will miss the most about this country.

  • The Kindness, Generosity, and Warmth of the People-  Despite its rapidly-growing prosperity, China remains a poor country.  Yet I have been subject to astounding generosity by even its poorest citizens.  I have been welcomed proudly into their homes, treated with enormous respect, and been fed wonderful meals on numerous occasions.
  • Pirated DVDs- As a movie buff, China has allowed me to build an enormous collection (nearly 300 strong) of films, most of which cost less than $1 to buy.  What’s more, these films are not only recent Hollywood blockbusters- I have bought foreign films, obscure films, independent films, and many other types at my local DVD shop.
  • The Cuisine- Chinese cuisine is tasty, filling, and richly variable.  Menus in even the smallest restaurant are pages long, and I have rarely been disappointed in the quality of the food.  The breadth of culinary options just within China alone is astounding, and I am fortunate to have been affluent enough to afford all of it.
  • The Stories-  Even after two years, strange and amazing things happen nearly every day in China.  Living here has taught me to expect the unexpected and to revel in the simplest pleasures.  I imagine I will be telling China stories for the rest of my life.
  • The Amazing Diversity- In the big cities, one can experience urban sophistication that would not be out of place in Tokyo, New York, or London.  Yet in just a short bus journey you become privy to real third-world conditions, peasant farmers living on less than $1 per day.  Not to sound too trite, but it really puts everything into perspective.
  • The Buzz- It’s difficult to understand without being here just how fast Chinese society is changing.  Young Chinese are now discovering just how many opportunities they have, and their general curiousity and thirst for life is absolutely infectious.
  • The Expats- Not to pat myself on the back, but it takes a special sort of person to willingly give up their life and move to China.  The foreigners I’ve met here have been among the most interesting people I’ve ever met in my life, coming from a remarkable variety of situations.   I’ll miss sitting with my friends over beers talking about our lives in this amazing, ridiculous country.
  • The Banquets- Imagine being treated to a large banquet by your school and watching the headmasters and department heads engage teachers, drivers, and even custodians into drinking competitions.  There is no shame in letting it all hang out at a celebration here, and that’s the way it should be.
  • The Women- I’m no lothario, and I do not intend this entry to relate any experiences I’ve had.  But Chinese women are fantastic- slim, beautiful hair, perfect skin, petite, and very sweet.  They’re also often tough, smart, and carry themselves with enormous dignity. (disclaimer: I love women just about anywhere but I think Western women can learn a thing or two from their East Asian counterparts). 
  • The Students-  I love my students, even the naughty ones who cause me much consternation.  How anyone in the world can say they hate children in general and teenagers in particular confounds me.   Chinese students work under conditions that would appall any Westerner.  School on Saturday.  Endless exams. Extremely dull lessons taught straight from the textbook.  Little to no multi-media.  Intense social pressure.  School meddling into personal affairs, i.e. preventing students from forming relationships.  And so on.  These conditions have led them to take delight into the smallest pleasures.  I enjoy watching my students interact in the few minutes before lessons begin.  They laugh, dance, sing, hold hands, gossip, and smile- always smiling.  Sure, they can be rude, disinterested, and downright impossible.  So can anyone else.  But when I think about the future, I think about my students.  And that is why I’m generally optimistic about China.

Top Ten Things I’ll Miss….and Won’t Miss…About China

Posted on April 30th, by matt_schiavenza in China. 1 Comment

I won’t actually be leaving for a couple of months, but as I’m at the computer now, I’d like to present the top ten things I’ll miss and the top ten things I won’t miss about living in China.  First, I give you the ten things I won’t miss (in no particular order).

  • The Spitting- More specifically, the hawking noise that precedes the spitting.  Every few minutes, sitting in my apartment, I can hear a man (or maybe even a woman) loudly announcing to the word that he has phlegm.  Yuck
  • Line Jumping- The idea of waiting patiently in a neat line remains foreign to the Chinese.  In shops, everyone crowds around the register thrusting their arm forward with a wad of cash.  To make matters worse, most shopkeepers do not seem to care which customer they were dealing with first.
  • The Noise- Construction in the middle of the night.  Loudspeakers everywhere.  Shops with stereos blasting inane pop music at maximum volume.  And the people!  Shouting at each other on the bus.  Having loud cell phone conversations at any time and in any place.  This is the noisiest country on earth.
  • The Bureaucracy- You know something is wrong with a country when a shopkeeper has to fill out several forms just to sell you a bottle of water.  In the US, it is common to hear complaints about the DMV.  Going to the immigration office, the bank, and even to put more money onto your Internet account make visits to the DMV seem pleasantly expedient in comparison.
  • The Ad Hoc Scheduling- Classes are canceled for no apparent reason.  Extra classes are added, then subtracted, at the last minute.  Nobody at the school knows when the school year is going to end.  Imagine that for a minute.  It is impossible to buy bus tickets in some cases more than three days in advance.  Information essential to a large group of people is hoarded by a selected cabal and then disseminated without any apparent rhyme or reason.
  • The Mao Cult-  Intellectually, I understand why most Chinese still revere their leader.  But if the Germans can recognize Hitler for who he really was, and the Russians can recognize Stalin for who he really was, then surely the Chinese should recognize Mao for being a villainous dictator who nearly destroyed their country.
  • The Chinese Communist Party- Anyone who assumes modern Communism is in any sense egalitarian ought to be smacked upside the head.  Party members drive fancy cars, get many executive privileges, and yet still deign to tell the people which movies they can watch, which websites they can visit, and even which people they can marry.  Sick.
  • The Anti-Japanese Hatred-  The horrific treatment of the Chinese by the Imperial Japanese Army during the 1930s and 1940s deserves to be recognized as one of the 20th century’s most brutal occupation.  That still does not excuse the visceral Chinese reaction to very minor offenses, such as the historical inaccuracy of a little-used textbook.
  • Rampant Materialism- As an American, it may strike some as a bit rich to complain about the Chinese being so materialistic.  Granted, having the income to afford luxury items is a relatively new phenomenon in this country.  But the the obsession with money in this country is a bit much.  Sample dialogue as told to me by my colleague:  "When are you happiest?" "When I make money."  "When are you unhappiest?" "When I lose money."
  • The Pollution-  Smog hangs in the sky, obscuring your view.  You blow your noise and discover with horror that your phlegm is jet black.  I used to laugh that people are opening "Oxygen Bars" in the West, but man- that would be very nice to have here.

Stay tuned for the "Ten Things I Will Miss About China" coming right up.…


Posted on April 30th, by matt_schiavenza in Personal. No Comments

It has been awhile since I’ve written a personal update in this space, but as I have some news, I feel now is an appropriate time to spread it.

I will officially not be teaching English in China in the next academic year.  Instead, I will be back in the Bay Area, moving on to bigger and better opportunities.

I actually made this decision a few months ago,  but it wasn’t yet official.  Last week, the company that I work for offered me a promotion and a raise.  I was tempted to change my mind and stay, but in the end, I decided to stick to my plan and come home.

I suppose an explanation is necessary.  I enjoy teaching very much, and I enjoy living in China.  I work for a great school, with great people, and also I have a good relationship with my company up in Beijing.  Part of me thinks I’m crazy for not accepting the promotion and staying here because, after all, I’m happy.

A stronger voice, though, tells me that it’s time to move on.  I’m only twenty-five, but I eventually would like to go to graduate school, sooner rather than later.  While I love teaching in China, I don’t intend to be a career ESL teacher and do not see how spending another year here will further my personal development.

I believe my time in China is far from over, however.  One of the reasons I came to China in the first place, and not, say, Japan or South Korea, was because I wanted to learn Chinese.  I have learned quite a bit and am now able to carry on simple conversations in the language, but having a full-time job prevents me from giving my Chinese studies the attention it deserves.

So, a strong possibility for me is returning to China in about a year to study full-time.  I have some roots in Fuzhou- familiary with the city, the climate, and a great network of friends.  Devoting myself to the study of Chinese would be both personally gratifying and professionally wise, as having fluency in the language may open many doors for me in the future.

I haven’t gathered enough information to make a decision yet, and that is one reason why I’m going home.  I will be back sometime in early September and plan to stay in the Bay Area until January or February of 2007.  Four months isn’t enough time to live on my own so I will be staying with my parents in San Carlos.  For those of you living in the Bay Area, I am very much looking forward to seeing you again.  For those living elsewhere, I hope that come holiday time we’ll have a chance to meet up.

What do I plan to do?  Probably some combination of ESL teaching/tutoring and doing extensive research into graduate programs.

In the meantime, I plan to enjoy my time in China to its fullest extent.  I will be teaching for somewhere between six and ten more weeks, and then I plan to do a bit of traveling in country before meeting my friend Andrew in Vietnam in late July. 

NBNL will stay active throughout this time, so stay tuned for any further updates.…

Anti-War Caricature

Posted on April 30th, by matt_schiavenza in Politics. No Comments

As conservative pundits go, Andrew Sullivan is among the most honest, articulate, and intelligent that I know of.  Sometimes, though, even Sully descends into lazy caricature of his ideological opponents.  Commenting on a new Foreign Affairs piece that documents the last days of Saddam Hussein’s horrific regime, Sullivan writes:

Those who sincerely marched against war in London in 2002 and 2003 were
unwittingly marching to keep in power a regime planning to bomb and
terrrorize them.

A fairly significant segment of the anti-war population sincerely believed that Iraq was a rather benign place that minded its own business and should be left completely alone.  Consider Michael Moore’s facile Fahrenheit 9/11 as documentary evidence of this position.  I suppose that there is a fairly strong correlation between those who held those view of Iraq and those who took to the streets and marched against the upcoming war.

However, there was also a significant segment of the anti-war movement that recognized the dangers of Saddam’s regime and still felt going to war at the time we did was a grave error.  This group believed that Saddam was a problem, and one we would eventually have to deal with, but in the context of the ongoing War on Terror, launching a pre-emptive war to remove his regime from power would create more problems than it would solve.

Sullivan no doubt was well aware of the reasonable arguments against the war, and yet he chose to support it anyway.  Fair enough.  Plenty of writers whose opinions I respect did the same:  Fareed Zakaria, George Packer, and Thomas Friedman spring immediately to mind.  Like Sullivan himself, these writers have richly documented the miserable failure of the war and have not minced words in their contempt of the Bush Administration’s execution of it.

But Sullivan’s words (quoted above) constitute a cheap and lazy dig at one particular segment of the population- done I suppose to produce a punchy ending to a blog post.  It goes without saying that there has been far worse slander against anti-war opinions written in the blogosphere, but since Sullivan is typically reasonable I feel even minor pot-shots like this are beneath him.…

In Praise of Mexico

Posted on April 30th, by matt_schiavenza in Current Affairs. 1 Comment

Lord knows, there already were plenty of reasons to praise Mexico:  Its warm climate.  Friendly people.  Good food. Beautiful scenery.  Great beaches. 

Now, there’s one more: Mexico has decriminalized possession of small amounts of pot, cocaine, heroin, ecstasy, and several other illicit drugs.

Many Americans have always regarded Mexico with benign condescension:  sure, America has its fair share of problems, but at least we aren’t a dysfunctional, backward country like our neighbors to the south!

Well, guess what pal:  in terms of drug policy, we’re the ones who are dysfunctional and backward.

Predictably, noble Drug Warriors are up in arms about this policy.  Good.  If I can think of one group of people I would love to see fade quietly into irrelevance, it would be those in support of the Drug War.  What’s bad news for them is, necessarily, good news for us.

An underreported side note:  thousands of San Diego area college students were heard softly weeping with joy.  …

Shinjo Retires….For Nude Modeling?

Posted on April 30th, by matt_schiavenza in Baseball. No Comments

It’s only April, but I think we’ve stumbled across the strangest baseball story of the season.  Former Major League (and Giants) outfielder Tsuyoshi Shinjo will retire from baseball to pursue a career as a nude model in his native Japan.

Who knew that there was such a demand for male nude models in Japan?  I could be wrong, but I doubt too many current major leaguers will soon follow in Shinjo’s direction.  If so, might I suggest another ex-Giant: Rod Beck.  As Rodney once said, "Nobody ever went on the DL with pulled fat"

Finally, I shall ask the question on everyone’s mind: will Shinjo at least be allowed to wear his wristbands?

Let’s Hope They Don’t Get The Message

Posted on April 25th, by matt_schiavenza in Baseball. 1 Comment

Baseball Musings has been harping on this all season, but it’s high time to wonder:  why on earth do opposing managers continue to intentionally walk Barry Bonds?

Even when Bonds was performing at Ruthian levels, the strategy hardly limited the Giants offense- they still finished second in the NL in runs in 2004 despite Bonds being intentionally walked a ridiculous 120 times.

But now Bonds isn’t performing so well.  Opposing pitchers- even the scatter-shot Jose Mesa- have been able to get him out.  You’d think the well-paid dugout minions would have noticed by now.

But they haven’t- and that, I suppose, will keep the Giants offense afloat for the time being.  …

The Tragedy of George W. Bush

Posted on April 24th, by matt_schiavenza in Foreign Affairs. No Comments

Excellent essay by the estimable Greg Djerejian, proprietor of the valuable foreign-policy blog Belgravia Dispatch.  It’s about 3,000 words long- but do read it all anyway.  …

Typepad Bleg

Posted on April 23rd, by matt_schiavenza in NBNL. No Comments

Here’s a question to all of my readers well-versed in operating Typepad.  How can I utilize the "extended entry" option?  I’d like my longer posts truncated by a "Read More" link, for I don’t want my main page cluttered with 2,000 word political musings.  If anyone knows, please e-mail me or leave a comment to this post.  Thanks.…

Al Gore in ’08, the Democratic Platform, and a Response to Dan Greenman

Posted on April 23rd, by matt_schiavenza in Politics. 1 Comment

First, a disclaimer: if you don’t read Dan Greenman’s blog, you should definitely start.  Dan’s commentary on the intersection of media and politics provides a valuable rejoinder to the facile right-wing whining of "liberal media bias". 

Today (or yesterday…I lose track of days being over here in China) Dan appears to endorse an Al Gore candidacy in the 2008 elections based on a platform dominated by environmental issues.  I too am a fan of Gore’s and would prefer him to just about all of the other named bandied about as candidates.  But while I agree with Dan on Gore, I must say I disagree with Dan’s analysis of the 2004 election and blueprint for going forward.

Dan writes:

What if
Gore runs for president in 2008 under the Reduce Greenhouse Gas
Emissions platform? He will still have to confront and debate war,
national security, social security, taxes, health care, immigration,
and a number of other issues. But his central issue would be global

Think about
John Kerry’s central issue. It seemed to be about national security,
and guess what? It was a big mistake because for a number of reasons he
never looked like a good enough alternative to Bush. One of those
reasons was that the media deemed Iraq and terrorism the most important
issues in the election. And while there were some clear differences
between the two candidates on these issues, the he said-she said
tendencies of the news media made it impossible for Kerry to shake his
wishy-washy “I was for the war before I was against it” image.

Dan is right to a certain extent.  The media does play a powerful role in informing public perception, but Dan’s assessment that the media somehow manufactured public interest in national security and terrorism puts the cart in front of the horse.  He appears to ignore the active manipulation of the media by the Bush administration, manipulation that propelled Bush to victory in 2004 despite only tepid popularity.

In most of American history, national security concerns have trumped domestic policy in election years.  Those of us whose first formative experience in observing politics came during the Clinton years witnessed an aberration from that maxim.  Clinton was elected in a rare moment when the US had appeared to vanquish all of its opponents and stood without any significant threats to its security.  The Cold War had ended, and the Soviet Union thus ceased to challenge the US as a global power.  In a moment of actual foreign policy tranquility, Clinton was able to defeat Bush pere by campaigning largely on domestic issues.

As they say, 9/11 changed all of that.  Once again, national security became paramount- and for good reason.  The US was attacked on its soil for the first time in sixty years.  The Bush administration reacted by invading Afghanistan and toppling Afghanistan, but the threat of al Qaeda was no less severe.  What’s more, by 2002, Bush had turned his attention to the so-called "Axis of Evil", and by the midterm elections that year the drumbeat of war was in full swing.

The Democratic leadership assumed that Bush’s supremacy in national security issues was so entrenched that to challenge him would be foolish.  As a result, Democratic Congressional and Senatorial candidates focused instead on domestic policies, playing to their supposed strength.

The results were catastrophic.  The Republicans widened their lead in the House, and recaptured the Senate.  Suddenly, they controlled all three branches of government and the Democrats had to go back to the drawing board in preparation of the 2004 Presidential election.

Despite Iraq’s deepening unpopularity, the Democrats still refused to engage the public on the issue, instead building Kerry’s candidacy around a combination of his heroism in the Vietnam War and the party’s natural advantage in domestic issues.  By the time the Swift Boat scoundrels undermined Kerry’s strength, it was too late for the nominee to reassert himself as a viable option on national security.

Karl Rove understood something that the Democrats did not.  By attacking Kerry at his strength, he could undermine the entire basis of his campaign.  It worked.  The Democrats, though, did not respond in kind.  Bush’s strength was the perception that he was strong on national security.  He often referred to himself as a "war-time President".   His manipulation of the "terror alert" symbols kept national security in the spotlight, and fed the impression that the country was in a perpetual crisis mode.

Many voters were uneasy about Bush and surely weren’t comfortable with his administration, but a constant refrain I heard in the summer of ’04 was "at least he’s strong on national security".  That was Bush’s ace in the hole- his trump card that enabled him to overcome weaknesses in so many other areas.

Kerry’s fortunes began to rise around October, when he relentlessly hammered Bush on national security.  In the first Presidential debate, which I watched in China, Kerry appeared serious and statemenlike while Bush came across confounded and overmatched.  That debate was the highlight of the Kerry campaign- but unfortunately it came too little, too late.

Eighteen months later, Bush’s popularity has continued to deteriorate.  Yet until recently, he still remained competitive in polls referring to whom the public trusts with national security.  That is the issue that props up the delicate house of cards constituting Bush’s entire presidency.  The Democrats must provide a clear alternative to his foreign policy, or else they may find themselves once again scratching their heads in 2008, wondering how they could lose yet another election.

Al Gore is uniquely situated among potential candidates to be credible on foreign policy.  He was a hawkish Democrat in the late 80s and early 90s and was among the few in Congress to support the Persian Gulf War.  Nowadays, he has recast himself as a long-time opponent of the current Iraq war, and he is not hamstrung by a confused stance like Kerry was. 

As Dan noted, Gore has a strong record in environmentalism and can certainly hold his own in domestic policy.   Poll after poll shows majorities supporting the Democratic position on abortion, the environment, Social Security, and a whole host of other domestic issues.  Whomever the Democrats choose, they musn’t repeat the mistake that they made in 2002 and 2004 lest confine themselves to permanent minority status.