The Spring City Comes Through

Posted on January 30th, by matt_schiavenza in Daily Life. No Comments

One winter day several years ago, I remember sitting in my San Diego house watching television reports of massive snowstorms blanketing the Midwest and East Coast. The usual images were there: cars skidding across the ice, unlucky souls huddling around ignited garbage bins, and people bundled up in what appeared to be their entire wardrobe. Meanwhile, my roommate and I were getting ready to go to the beach- it was a beautiful, warm day after all.

Kunming isn’t quite as nice, but seeing reports of the entire country battling bad weather on their way to buy Spring Festival train tickets, I’m reminded why I live here. Beijing might have history, Shanghai might have excitement, Shenzhen might have opportunity, but Kunming has got the weather, damn it. And that’s more than good enough.…

Will the US Election Affect China Policy?

Posted on January 30th, by matt_schiavenza in China and the US, China and World. 2 comments

John McCain’s victory in the Florida primary makes his eventual nomination likely, which is bad news for this Democrat. McCain is clearly the most electable Republican left in the race, and coupled with a Democratic nomination of Hillary Clinton, the Arizona Senator would give the Elephant Team a fair to good shot at retaining the White House this November.

What would a McCain presidency look like? Ignoring his positions on social and economic matters (areas in which the president has less influence anyway), what would a McCain foreign policy look like? In particular, how would a President McCain conduct American policy toward China?

For the most part, very little will change. President Bush’s policy toward China has been relatively uncontroversial, and in fact most observers feel he handled the one Sino-American crisis of his presidency (the 2001 air collision over Hainan Island) fairly well. Bush also has solicited Beijing’s help in prodding North Korea toward disarmament, though without success so far. Mostly, American policy toward China has been consistent since the re-establishment of diplomatic ties in the 1970s. McCain probably won’t deviate very much, and for good reason.

What troubles me about McCain is his extreme militarism. I would worry that he would respond to a Cross-Straits crisis with calls to action, and it seems that his solution to every global crisis is to send American troops along. The adoring media gave him credit for calling for Rumsfeld’s resignation, but many fail to recall that McCain’s objection was that there were too few, not too many, troops. In McCain’s view, militarism and imperialism are virtues that Americans are honored to have. Few in China would agree.

On the other hand, McCain doesn’t seem to jive with the neo-conservative* notion that the US is obliged to spread “freedom” by force. He seems to be more of a realist than Bush, and backing off on democracy promotion as an official policy would do wonders for America’s image in the developing world. One task the next American president will face is repairing the nation’s “soft power”, a necessary skill in an era when the Chinese conducts a charm offensive throughout Africa and other poor regions.

Fortunately, China is a stable country and the odds of a hot war over Taiwan are slim. Financial ties between the two countries are such that neither side wants a falling out, and China is decades away from attaining the same degree of global supremacy that America now possesses. I would be surprised if US-China relations were to suffer much no matter who is elected president.

All the same, I’d still say that a President Clinton or President Obama would serve America’s interests abroad far better than their Republican counterparts, if only marginally in the case of China.

*Speaking of neo-conservatism, one silver lining in McCain’s victory tonight is the imminent withdrawal of Rudy Giuliani, the erstwhile Republican front-runner whose aggressive foreign policy would have made Bush seem like a piker. Nonetheless, Giuliani will apparently endorse McCain and I’d expect most of his supporters will transfer their affections to the Senator.…

Oracle Bones

Posted on January 28th, by matt_schiavenza in Books. 4 comments

I just finished reading Oracle Bones by Peter Hessler, and my goodness: what a phenomenal book it is. Unlike Hessler’s first work (the wonderful River Town), which functioned mostly as a memoir of his two years spent teaching in a small city, Oracle Bones casts a far wider net into Chinese society. Now working as a journalist in Beijing, Hessler puts a human face on several themes prevailing in contemporary China: the mass migration of peasants from west to east, the destruction of the hutong dwellings in Beijing, the national excitement over the Olympics, the plight of ethnic minorities, and the rise of the Overnight City of Shenzhen. Intertwined with these vignettes is Hessler’s investigation into the origins of the Chinese language itself, as well as the various challenges Chinese archaeologists have faced over the years in trying to document their nation’s long history.

Hessler’s book is apolitical. He doesn’t pontificate, make sweeping predictions, or offer prescriptions for what he perceives might ail his adopted homeland. Instead, he mostly watches, listens, and sympathizes, using these observational skills to present an extraordinary clear picture of today’s China. A must-read.…

China Insights From Ross Perot

Posted on January 28th, by matt_schiavenza in Language. No Comments

Buried at the end of this amusing article about Ross Perot, the man most responsible for Bill Clinton’s election in 1992, came this nugget about China:

He attributes the success of China to the fact that even uneducated Chinese must learn 3,000 characters early in life, compared to the 26 letters in the English alphabet. “Their hand-eye productivity is incredible because of drawing the symbols,” Perot says

Take that, Chairman Mao!

(link via Hit & Run)…

Beijing To Kunming

Posted on January 26th, by matt_schiavenza in Daily Life. 1 Comment

’tis nice to be back in Kunming. Nevertheless, I must grudgingly admit that Beijing is slowly beginning to grow on me. Alan was once again a generous and gracious host and Chris an excellent sight-seeing and cafeing companion. We walked along one of the few parts of the old Ming Dynasty walls still intact in the city. We also traipsed around in search of a temple Chris wanted to see; alas it was closed. At no point did we pass a popular tourist site: as Chris says, “the boring parts of Beijing are actually the most interesting”

Indeed, I enjoyed getting a glimpse of how the residents of one of the world’s largest cities go about their daily lives. Riding the subway, in any city, provides a valuable cross-section of life, and Beijing is no exception. There were poor young men offering to sing for money, cherubic young children with rosy cheeks, teenagers with defiant piercings and hairstyles, and businessmen in fancy suits trying not to let the confines of the subway rumple their appearance. People were jabbering away, just as they do on subways in San Francisco and Paris and Tokyo. On Beijing’s sparkling new Line 5, classical music filled the station as passengers disembarked from the train.

Beijing is cleaner than most cities in China. Beijingers drive better and spit on the ground less; they also queue. But the usual intimacy of Chinese cities doesn’t really exist in Beijing with the exception of the rapidly disappearing hutong areas. The roads are so wide and the buildings so tall that few of its neighborhoods are really walkable; the car is now king. The ring roads reminded me of the freeways in Los Angeles- everyone knows they’re congested and slow, and everyone uses them anyway. Surface streets don’t suffice in a municipal area the size of Belgium.

The wind in Beijing cuts both ways: it clears the pollution, but slices through you like a sharp knife, so on one of the city’s rare “blue sky days” it was too cold to walk for very long. I read in a newspaper that traffic will be reduced by half for the Olympics, which everyone knows amounts to ordering cars off the road. Part of me wants to be come back in September

The flight to Kunming was unpleasant: turbulent and uncomfortable. We arrived an hour behind schedule with no apparent explanation despite boarding on time. When I arrived it felt warm and humid, but the taxi driver complained of the cold. Relativity!

Now I’m sitting in my pajamas, blogging and drinking coffee, and it’s as if I never left.…

The Laowai Rant Blogs

Posted on January 23rd, by matt_schiavenza in Blogs. 7 comments

The English language China blogosphere is remarkably rich- and for proof just look at my blogroll. These blogs range from media analysis to thoughtful observations to personal diaries to unraveling the mysteries of the Chinese language. An hour or so spent reading these blogs would be an hour spent immersed in the many facets of what it is like living as a foreigner in this massive, mystifying country.

The “Laowai rant blog” is one particular species that tends to be very popular. And hell, it’s easy to see why: most people love a good rant. There are many aspects of Chinese life that nag, annoy, and outrage us, and it’s only natural for someone to want to air it in public. In fact, I’d say it’s healthy- a blog that only described China in flowering terms would get old pretty fast.

In my three plus years in China, there have been two big laowai rant blogs. The first was called Talk Talk China, and the second Sinocidal. Oddly, both lasted for a relatively short period of time and then expired. Both were pretty much the same, although in my opinion Talk Talk China was more consistently funny. And both were enormously popular, eliciting hundreds of comments to even relatively mundane posts.

Via Chris, Sinocidal appears to be active again. Chris is not impressed, to say the least:

I thought Sinocidal had stopped posting€¦

I thought wrong. They have continued the inevitable slide from “occasionally funny venting session” to “rarely funny and almost never useful vent if you’re a cynical expat unhappily stuck in China” to “stupid, boring and pathetic racist drivel”. Not that that slide takes particularly long€¦ Anyways, such sites can kinda serve their purpose and are actually kinda useful in their early, frustrated and venting expat stages, but it really doesn’t take too long before they sink into the “I’m a superior Westerner stuck in inferior China” bullshit. I’m sitting here wishing I’d never clicked on that link I should’ve (and very early on intended to) delete from my bookmarks.

Interesting. I must confess that I don’t necessarily agree with Chris about Sinocidal, and to be fair most of their material is harmless satire. But they do have the unfortunate tendency to wallow in outrageous bigotry, and I’m always distressed by the legions of commenters piling on like bullies in a schoolyard fight. It amazes me how the anonymity of the Internet tends to bring out the worst of human nature.

I’m reminded of an American I know in Kunming. He’s about my age, is married to a lovely Chinese girl, and speaks Chinese very well. He’s also an expert ranter. Very few social occasions go by without one of his rants, which most other laowai find hysterically funny. He’ll take the floor and speak rapidly, peppering his sentences with bad language and politically incorrent observations. Any attempt to challenge him elicits a rude retort. Even people who don’t agree with him tend to admire him for telling the so-called truth, as if his baldly racist and bigoted remarks required any amount of courage.

Political correctness has become so entrenched in our society that loud bigots are now considered a refreshing change of pace. But there’s a difference between being politically incorrect and being an ignorant blowhard. The “slide” from one to the other is all too easy, as Chris points out. Why is it that nuanced opinions seem mealy-mouthed and unconvincing, while simplistic, hateful speech is branded as “honesty”? An idiot with a loud megaphone is still an idiot.

PS- Although I must say that the Sinocidal “Open letter to Air China” is still one of the funniest things I’ve ever read on the internet. Can we all agree to direct our venom toward Air China? …

Airplane Tidbits

Posted on January 23rd, by matt_schiavenza in Travel. 2 comments

If, you, like me, are not afraid of flying you might agree that the worst part of long flights is the boredom. The San Francisco to Beijing flight takes 12 hours, for example. I like reading magazines, but not for 12 hours. I like watching movies, but not for 12 hours. I like listening to music, but not for 12 hours. In fact, even if I were to divide my time evenly between these three activities, I’d still find myself crushed with boredom.

So on this most recent flight I made a point to jot down as many observations as I could, just to stave off the boredom. Here are some:

-I love the maps and statistics they show you, and I even find it thrilling to know that on the San Francisco to Beijing flight the plane crosses the Bering Strait. But one stat annoys me: the outside temperature. Does anyone, save the odd mountaineer, care how cold it is at 35,000 feet? Wouldn’t it be more interesting to know what the temperature is in Alaska in January? Why can’t airplanes give you that information, but instead tell you that it’s 70 below high above the clouds?

-Five or so years ago I was sitting in the last row on a cross-country flight, New York to San Francisco. Just before take-off, the stewardess approached the guy sitting directly in front of me. “Sir, are you traveling alone?”
“Would you object if we moved you to first class?”

Before she finished her sentence he had already grabbed his bag and practically skipped up the aisle, triumphantly flinging open the curtain and taking his seat amongst the privileged passengers. I sulked and stewed- for the whole flight.

This, the stewardess approached me and asked me if I could move, as they wanted to put a family of four all in the same row. I asked, cheekily, if I could be moved to first class. She giggled in the Chinese way that means “you’re not as cute as you think you are” and said, “No”. Another effort to sit in first class foiled.

– I sat in front of two Chinese grandparents and a little boy, maybe three or four years old. The boy was predictably restless and noisy, much to the consternation of the cabin. The grandmother attempted to put him to sleep, but her method was questionable: she repeatedly shouted “sleep!” “sleep!” to the boy. How soothing!

-Jerry Seinfeld famously asked why all airplane bathrooms have used razor blade dispensers. I consciously looked for one this time, and couldn’t find it. Did the airlines get embarrassed and remove them? Although pace Seinfeld people sometimes do shave on the plane, they always use an electric razor. I’d love it, though, if someone were to slowly shave in the bathroom while a line of people waited impatiently to pee.

– Everyone hates airplane food, and I’m no exception. But for some reason I love eating on the airplane. I devour every meal, no matter how disgusting, with the fervor of a condemned man. I love the whole ritual, actually: the stewardess offering pork or beef, the tinfoil wrapping, the little bread rolls neatly contained in plastic and the miniscule stick of butter. On this last flight, I even asked the stewardess when the next meal was coming and became quite excited when she said “a minute or two”. It amazes me how I relish every bite of a terrible meal. Boredom does have its virtues, I suppose.

– Here’s a suggestion: why not junk all the seats in coach and just install sofas and coffee tables? It’d create a convivial atmosphere, not like the prison-style set up we use today. Just turn the flight into a 12 hour cocktail party- now that wouldn’t get boring! …

Chinglish Vs. Bad Tattoos

Posted on January 22nd, by matt_schiavenza in Language. No Comments

During dinner with some old high school friends the other night, one who had recently visited China suggested that I start a business correcting all of the flawed English seen throughout the country. This was my cue, of course, to say that I believe Chinglish (English with Chinese characteristics) has its own intrinsic humor value and shouldn’t be eliminated. I then entertained the party with a few of my favorite examples of the genre.

Then, someone mentioned something I hadn’t thought of. He said, “Chinglish isn’t nearly as bad as people who get bad Chinese tattoos here”. Whih, of course, is true- Chinese people must get a kick out of foreigners getting unfortunate Chinese characters permanently inked on their body. There’s even a website, called Hanzi Smatter, which tracks these linguistic unforced errors for us. Here’s one from a librarians back, which reads “to pay for love”. Somehow I doubt this is what she intended when she walked into the parlor that day:

Chinglish on clothes and even on advertisements at least have the benefit of being temporary. Bad Chinese tattoos? Not so much. Ouch.…

Back to China

Posted on January 21st, by matt_schiavenza in Me. No Comments

In about three and a half hours I will be boarding a plane bound for Beijing and another long adventure in the Middle Kingdom. For once, I won’t be moving: I’ll be back in Kunming, to my apartment, my school, and my friends. More to come after touching down in Beijing.…

On Authority

Posted on January 16th, by matt_schiavenza in China and the US. 2 comments

On the drive back from Los Angeles, somewhere along the 101 freeway between Santa Barbara and Pismo Beach, I was pulled over by a police officer for the first time in years. Like everyone else, I had slowed down when I caught sight of the cop in the lane next to me. I drove next to him for awhile, holding at 70 miles per hour, until I finally sped up a little and passed him. Almost immediately, I saw his lights flicker behind me and pulled over to the side of the road.

I couldn’t figure out why he stopped me, but guessed I was speeding earlier and he was just now getting me for it.

He walked over and I rolled down the window. “Was it your plan to annoy me? Because you certainly did a good job,” he said.

“No, officer, I wasn’t trying to annoy you. I was trying to avoid getting a ticket,” I replied.

He then explained that he was driving slowly enough so that I could pass, but instead I lingered in his blind spot, which annoyed him. He didn’t seem to realize that I might have been reluctant to pass him for fear of getting a speeding ticket, especially as we were cruising at 70 mph (speed limit, by the way, is 65).

He looked at me, and I said as sweetly as I could: “I’m sorry for driving poorly, officer”. He smiled and said, “See ya” and walked away. I drove off.

As relieved as I was that I didn’t get a ticket, I still felt a twinge of shame for not confronting the police officer about the unnecessary and stressful incident. As I drove on, I thought up lines I could have used, such as “Aren’t there drivers actually breaking traffic laws for you to go after?” or “Wow, it must be boring out here in the middle of nowhere”. Both lines would have undoubtedly triggered a ticket (at least) but a small part of me wished I had used them anyway.

Later, it dawned on me that in all of my encounters with police officers or other authority figures I’ve been meek and completely cooperative, even in situations that were completely unfair like the one I encountered driving home. Yet in China, whenever I’ve had a problem with an authority, I’ve often resorted to loud defiance rather than sweet obedience.

Why is this? Is it an insidious form of Orientalism, in which I subconsciously see the Chinese as being weak and effeminate and easy to dominate? Is it because I’m aware that in China I could pass off any unpleasant situation as a miscommunication? Is it that I innately have more respect for the police in the U.S., even when they do idiotic things like hassle innocent drivers? Perhaps I know that the Chinese characteristically do not react with violence and anger to provocations by foreigners. In any case, I still find my divergent reactions puzzling.

I’d dearly like to find out, for ideally I’d like to be consistent in my reactions to authority figures no matter which country I am in. If anything, I should be even more meek in China because it isn’t my home country and I would have less legal recourse in the event that something goes seriously wrong. In addition, I’ve generally been treated well by the Chinese authorities and have no reason to bear a grudge against them. Yet I still can’t figure it out.

Has anyone else gone through something similar? Comment away.…