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

Apologies all for the lack of material here- I have been sick for most of the past week and am only now feeling close to normal. More regular posting will resume this week- promise!…

Chinese Men, Western Women

Posted on March 23rd, by matt_schiavenza in Daily Life. 9 comments

Anecdotal evidence suggests that relationships between Western men and Chinese women are far more common than relationships between Chinese men and Western women. Assuming that this conjecture is in fact true, what are the possible reasons why? Here are a few guesses, culled from beer-time conversations over the years. .

1. Most foreign men find Chinese women attractive, sometimes exclusively so. Most foreign women, by contrast, find Chinese men unattractive. As one Scottish girl once said to me, “Chinese women are slender, petite, and feminine. Unfortunately, so are Chinese men”.

2. Many Chinese women admit to having an attraction or even an preference to Western men. Few Chinese men will admit to having an attraction to Western females, or at least I’ve never met one.

3. Single Western men living in China far outnumber single Western women.

4. Many Western men who come to China for business earn a very high salary and thus can offer a more affluent lifestyle to a Chinese woman. Traditional gender roles makes it less likely that a Chinese man will be attracted to a Western woman with a high salary.

5. Given the importance of male offspring in Chinese culture, Chinese men often have a great sense of familial duty, making it more difficult for them to consider moving overseas.

6. Chinese men seldom approach strange women in bars, clubs, or cafes perhaps due to a fear of rejection (and losing “face”). This of course is an obstacle when trying to meet women. Western men are far likelier to chat up a Chinese girl due to cultural customs that encourage such behavior.

These are just ideas- I don’t necessarily endorse any of them. This is mostly a composite of things I hear from both Chinese guys and Western girls. Any thoughts?…

Where Are All the Doves?

Posted on March 20th, by matt_schiavenza in US Politics, World Affairs. 4 comments

As the fifth anniversary of the Iraq War passes, the American press has shifted into full-reflection mode. Slate magazine’s coverage is typical: round up a group of disaffected war hawks and extract mea culpas from each.

Most of the apologies can be summarized in one sentence: I didn’t expect the Bush team to fuck it all up so badly. In other words, the merits of the invasion were sound but the execution was what caused the current fiasco.

Some hawks remain unrepentant and point to the recent “surge” as evidence that the war will be won, after all. Others aren’t so sure. Yet what bothers me about all this hemming and hawing is this: precious few who opposed the war from the start have been given a platform. You would think that, having been proved largely correct about the war, these pundits and politicians who presciently believed Iraq would be a bad idea would have seen their stature elevated. This has largely not been the case.

Of course, the occupation has been a disaster. I suppose one can say (and several do) that had their been sufficient troops to maintain security, sufficient funds to keep essential services functioning after the war, sufficient wisdom that disbanding the army and the police force and purging the entire Baath Party was a terrible idea, then the war would have worked. There is logic to this point of view. Most Iraqis truly welcomed Saddam’s removal from power and would largely have been supportive of the war effort had their lives not been ruined by the bungled occupation.

But these options never, ever existed. There wasn’t a vigorous debate within the government about how to proceed after the US military inevitably defeated the Iraqi one. The war and the occupation that we got was the same one that was sold to the American public in the fall of 2002. Sobering thoughts about the need for a huge military force were pooh-poohed. Dissent doves were labeled as unpatriotic and sufferers of “Bush Derangement Syndrome”. There was never a possibility that the war was going to work. People who were paying attention knew this, but they were sidelined. And now, after five years, they remain outside the realm of official debate.

The Iraq War was not a good plan that failed due to poor execution. It was a bad plan that was exacerbated by poor execution. Why this opinion remains somewhat taboo in the American media mystifies and depresses me.…

Some Scattered Thoughts on T1Bet

Posted on March 20th, by matt_schiavenza in China and World. 6 comments

As the uprising in T1bet has attracted international attention (and some condemnation), I’ve been struck by the similarities and differences between the T1betans and the other major disaffected Chinese ethnic minority, the Uighurs.

Both groups occupy “autonomous regions” on the western fringe of China, though the Beijing government’s definition of “autonomous” might not jive with what you learned in school. Both regions did not join the Chinese empire until fairly recently and have been among the few ethnic groups within the country to periodically oppose Beijing rule. In both the TAR and Xinjiang, the federal government has encouraged settlement by the Han majority, who mainly separate themselves from the locals and do not bother learning either the Uighur or the T1Betan languages. In both cases, the Chinese government has made heavy investments in infrastructure intended to modernize what Beijing believed to be “backward” regions. Rebellions by restless locals are repressed without mercy. All claims to separateness are dismissed by Beijing. The T1Betans and Uighurs largely remain resentful of Chinese rule.

When the Uighur population of Xinjiang revolts, the international community yawns. The average Westerner doesn’t even know what a Uighur is, much less that they are ethnically Turkic, speak an Altaic language related to Turkish, tend to resemble Mediterraneans in appearance far more than Chinese, and practice Islam. The Uighurs like to refer to their territory as “East Turkestan” and claim kinship with the peoples of the neighboring ex-Soviet Central Asian states. While their claims to sovereignty may be just as valid as T1Bet’s, nobody will be organizing “Free Xinjiang” concerts or writing high-brow columns in major newspapers about their plight. Their cause is largely ignored, and that suits Beijing just fine.

T1Bet, on the other hand, has long been a cause celebre among Hollywood actors, musicians, and high-profile activists around the world. What accounts for the difference? I can think of three main reasons:

1. T1Bet has a charismatic, high-profile leader: the Dala1 Lama. Ensconced in India, where he has lived in exile since 1959, the DL travels the world lobbying various luminaries for support. He also has (wisely) adopted the mantle of non-violence, lending a Gandhi-like air to his causes. He, more then anyone, propagates the image of T1Bet as a land of peaceful Buddhist types who wouldn’t harm a fly, much less smash up Han-owned businesses in Lhasa.

The Uighur population lacks any such figure, whether in Xinjiang or in exile.

2.T1Bet’s unique geographical features have lent a mystical air to the region for centuries. The image of T1Bet as a mountainous Buddhist paradise where the becalmed locals are free to seek enlightenment has attracted scores of Westerners who, ignorant of the actual situation, feel naturally sympathetic to their cause. In the same way quite a few Americans lionize the long extinct Amerindian culture, the rest of the world feels similarly disposed to the T1betan one.

Xinjiang mainly consists of parched desert, oil deposits, and various other features that don’t scream out “place of enlightenment and mysticism”.

3. It has to be said, but the fact that Uighurs are Muslim and that several of them have been rounded up in anti-terrorism operations does not necessarily attract much sympathy in this “War on Terrorism” epoch. Their rather dusky Middle Eastern features don’t exactly help, either.

As for my thoughts toward the present situation in the TAR, I’ve got little to add that would shed additional light, and those with far more historical knowledge than I are adequately covering the matter. As always, we’ll see how everything turns out.

UPDATE: The original post erroneously stated that Uighur is an Indo-European language when rather, as Chris points out, it is an Altaic one. …

A Ballgame in China

Posted on March 16th, by matt_schiavenza in Sports. No Comments

Last month I wondered whether baseball, my favorite sport, had a future in China. While it’s still too early to tell, the Los Angeles Dodgers (jerks) battled the San Diego Padres in two exhibition games played in the nation’s capital. Jeremiah has an entertaining roundup for those interested.

Much to my dismay, no prominent Dodgers appeared to suffer season-ending injuries during the games. (Yes, I know that’s harsh but it’s about all we Giants fans have to look forward to this season).…

Bush Further Off the Reservation

Posted on March 16th, by matt_schiavenza in World Affairs. 2 comments

Like ice cream, idiotic quotes by George W. Bush come in many flavors. Some are notable simply for their sheer malaprop quality, while others reveal a detachment from the real world so complete that you wonder whether the man has a single sentient thought circulating in his head, a frightening notion considering that he remains, you know, the President of the United States.

Bush’s latest has to do with the war in Afghanistan, begun six and a half years ago and still mired in stalemate. From Slate’s Fred Kaplan:

Speaking by videoconference with U.S. military and civilian personnel in Afghanistan about the challenges posed by war, corruption, and the poppy trade, the president unleashed this comment:

I must say, I’m a little envious. If I were slightly younger and not employed here, I think it would be a fantastic experience to be on the front lines of helping this young democracy succeed. It must be exciting for you €¦ in some ways romantic, in some ways, you know, confronting danger. You’re really making history, and thanks.

Go ahead, dear reader, pour yourself a stiff one before trudging on.

Someone with such a jaunty vision of war€”concocted from who knows what brew of Rudyard Kipling, John Wayne, and sheer fantasy€”has no business leading young men and women into real-life battle, no business serving as the armed forces’ commander in chief.

It only compounds the insult to reflect that Bush, when he was younger and not employed anywhere, passed up his chance for a romantic fling with danger in the jungles of Southeast Asia.

The whole article is spot-on, but the last paragraph of this excerpt truly nails how despicable our president truly is.

I remember during the halcyon days of 2002-2004 when right-wing politicians and pundits attacked the Democrats for being “unserious” about the war, if for no other reason than the then-minority party occasionally criticized its execution. What could be less serious than Bush’s comment above? I wonder if he imagines fighting a war as being like a frat-house party with machine guns and tanks.…

Violence in Tibet

Posted on March 15th, by matt_schiavenza in Chinese Internal Affairs. 10 comments

The Western media reports today that protests by Buddhist monks in Tibet have turned violent, with at least two reported dead and many more injured. The Chinese sent soldiers into Lhasa, Tibet’s capital, and met resistance from many of the local ethnic Tibetans. The New York Times reports:

Violence erupted Friday morning in a busy market area of the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, as Buddhist monks and other ethnic Tibetans brawled with Chinese security forces in clashes that brought unconfirmed reports of multiple deaths. Witnesses say angry Tibetan crowds burned shops, cars, military vehicles and at least one tourist bus.
The chaotic scene was the latest, and most violent, confrontation in a series of protests that began on Monday and now represent a major challenge to the ruling Communist Party as it prepares to play host to the Olympic Games in August. By Saturday morning, Chinese armored vehicles were reportedly patrolling the center of the city.

Beijing is facing the most serious and prolonged demonstrations in Tibet since the late 1980s, when it suppressed a rebellion there with lethal force that left scores, and possibly hundreds, of ethnic Tibetans dead. The leadership is clearly alarmed that a wave of negative publicity could disrupt its elaborate plans for the Olympics and its hopes that the games will showcase its rising influence and prosperity rather than domestic turmoil.

The Dalai Lama, the exiled spiritual leader of Tibet, and his supporters around the world, have embraced the protesters in Lhasa. Thousands of Buddhists in neighboring India and Nepal took to the streets Friday in solidarity. Concerned that the protests might spread elsewhere in China, the authorities appeared to be moving the military police into other regions with large Tibetan populations.

The Guardian adds:

About a dozen monks were reportedly detained on Monday, when several hundred from the Sera and Drepung monasteries took to the streets to mark the 49th anniversary of a failed uprising against Beijing. Similar protests took place in the Ganden and Lutsang monasteries in Qinghai (known in Tibetan as Amdo) where hundreds of monks reportedly chanted slogans calling for their exiled leader, the Dalai Lama, to return.

The upsurge in activism comes amid growing frustration with the lack of progress in talks between representatives of the Dalai Lama and Beijing.

I also scanned Xinhua, China’s official news agency, for their comment and came across this brief comment:


According to authorities in the Tibet Autonomous Region, recently a small minority in Lhasa are proceeding to hit, smash, rob, burn, sabotage, and otherwise throw society into disorder, threatening the safety, property, and lives of the masses. There is enough evidence to show that this has all been organized by the Dalai Lama clique, who with premeditation and careful plotting fomented the violent indignation and severe denunciation by the ethnic Tibetans. The department concerned within Tibet is now adopting effective measures to deal with the situation appropriately. We all have the ability to safeguard the stability of the Tibetan society, as well as the life, safety, and property of all ethnic groups within the region. The small minority that destroys the harmonious security of Tibet do not enjoy popular support and are doomed to failure.

(very rough translation by yours truly. Will my band of brilliant commenters please correct any mistakes? If someone provides a better translation I’ll post it on the main page.)

As the Olympics approach, China understands that any heavy-handed response to internal dissent will attract condemnation from the international community, while at the same time the government knows it cannot let the already fragile situation in Tibet spiral out of control. These types of stories, I bet, will proliferate in the upcoming months.

Here’s the official translation of the Xinhua piece published in China Daily:

The government of the Tibet Autonomous Region said on Friday there was enough evidence to prove the recent sabotage in Lhasa was “organized, premeditated, and masterminded” by the Dalai Lama clique. The incident, which included beatings, looting, and arson, disrupted the public order and jeopardized lives and property, an official said. The sabotage has aroused the indignation of, and is strongly condemned by, the people of all ethnic groups in Tibet, he said.

Tang Wei Blacklisted

Posted on March 10th, by matt_schiavenza in China Culture, Film. 11 comments

Ang Lee’s “Lust, Caution”, which I wrote about here, was censored in China due to its explicit sexual content. Many Chinese (and foreigners) nonetheless managed to watch the complete version thanks to the ubiquity of pirated DVD copies. Such is life in China (and everywhere else)- where direct government control ends, the free (black?) market takes over.

Despite its graphic sex scenes, “Lust, Caution” seemed to present a more-or-less politically acceptable viewpoint on recent Chinese history, and as such was widely shown (though censored) throughout the nation’s cinemas. An effective compromise appeared to be reached.

Yet according to the Hollywood Reporter, actress Tang Wei (who played the lead female part, Wong Chia Chi) has been blacklisted in the Chinese media due to her participation in the film. Her star turn had led to endorsement deals from advertisers, but now these will be revoked. She and others involved in the production of “Lust, Caution” will also be shut out of any film awards ceremonies. It is unclear what prompted authorities to wait until now (months after the film’s international release) to implement such a crack-down.

For Tang Wei, this news must be most unfortunate. Unlike several of her co-stars, she was not an internationally known actor prior to the film’s release. In fact, for the 28-year old, “Lust, Caution” was her first major role. The blacklist reeks of sexism, too. Her counterpart, Tony Leung, arguably revealed just as much of his body but has thus far avoided any heavy-handed response from Chinese authorities. He apparently is lucky enough to be a major star as well as a Hong Kong native (rather than Wei who hails from the mainland).

The Chinese government has long been sensitive to artistic expressions viewed as insufficiently patriotic. Yet “Lust, Caution” was written by a Chinese, directed by a Chinese, and acted in by Chinese. This was no hit job by vindictive foreigners, and in fact the “heroic” characters of the film were Chinese patriots resisting the Japanese occupation and its Chinese Quislings. That the film attracted political controversy at all remains somewhat mystifying.

But what’s odder yet is the timing. Why did China wait until now, when anyone who wanted to see the film already has? Furthermore, the prevalence of DVDs and internet downloads means that no one really can be stopped from having a look- if anything, blacklisting Tang Wei will only increase “Lust, Caution”s publicity.

It’s hard to see what the government hoped to achieve from this hubbub. The end result, sadly, will be destroying the career of an exceptionally talented and brave young actress.

(Hollywood Reporter link via ESWN. More coverage from Danwei)…

Perhaps Vocabulary Is Important After All

Posted on March 8th, by matt_schiavenza in Language. 1 Comment

I spent my first two years in China teaching high school English in a particular course dedicated to preparing students for the IELTS exam. The purpose of the exam was to allow my students to go to English-language universities abroad, something several of my past students managed to accomplish.

Teaching IELTS (or any test prep course) is different from teaching “general English”, which the vast majority of foreign teachers in China do. While we were of course concerned with helping our students improve their overall competency in the language, a large part of our job was teaching them exam strategy, such as ways to obtain correct answers in situations when they did not know much of the vocabulary.

For our students, taking a course based on strategy rather than pure language learning was a new experience. Rather than going over grammar or vocabulary, we emphasized the acquisition of skills such as scanning, skimming, context, and paraphrasing. I often had to remind my students not to worry too much about vocabulary, and that seemingly impossible questions could be answered should they apply the correct strategy.

My more diligent students quickly got on board and began applying the strategy, enthusiastically doing the exercises I prepared for them in class. The weaker students mostly went through the motions, as they didn’t care how they did on the exam anyway. After all, not every student who passes IELTS has the means and opportunity to study abroad, and most of my students understood this fact.

One girl, Sarah, was an exception. She was extremely motivated to learn English and worked hard, but strongly disagreed with both our program’s philosophy and my teaching methods in particular. Often, while the others were gamely doing whatever exercise I assigned them, she would sit with her dictionary and rigorously write down new word after new word. When I asked her why she wasn’t engaged with the class, she replied that none of my skill-based lessons would do any good if she simply couldn’t read or understand the content. I repeatedly insisted that test-taking skills were very important, and that vocabulary was an overrated aspect to the exam, but she refused to budge. At the time, I wrote her off as a student too stubborn for her own good and concentrated on others who were more willing to cooperate.

Two years later, I find myself enrolled in an HSK* prep course at my Chinese language school- essentially the Chinese version of the class I used to teach. My teacher, like I once did, goes to great lengths to teach us test-taking skills while telling us not to worry too much about vocabulary. Just yesterday, we took a practice exam that lasted nearly three hours. Most of the content was extremely difficult for an intermediate student like myself. And while I tried applying the strategies that my teacher taught me, I found that certain passages were just impenetrable simply because I didn’t know enough vocabulary.

Suddenly, I found myself sympathizing with Sarah, my old student, a girl I often criticized for her refusal to go along with the program. And while I’m a 26 year old adult rather than a 17 year old high school student, I could sense the exact same frustration that she felt. If I could only read more, I thought throughout the test, then this wouldn’t be nearly as difficult.

I still believe that it would be a mistake for a test-prep course to focus too much on vocabulary. In the end, learning a language depends on how much individual effort you put in, and vocabulary cannot be imparted from one mind to another. Teaching test-taking skills is a far better use of class time, and I’m pleased that this wisdom translates across cultures.

But I doubt I’ll ever patronize a student obsessed over vocabulary again.

*HSK, by the way, is a Chinese language exam intended for students who wish to apply their Chinese skills in either an academic or professional setting. It is similar but not identical to English-language exams such as IELTS or TOEFL.…

Just Another Lost Laowai

Posted on March 5th, by matt_schiavenza in Self-Promotion. 1 Comment

Recently I’ve been given the opportunity to contribute blog posts to Lost Laowai, an excellent site that serves as a guide for expats in China, both present and future. The site combines a blog with a language guide, forum, job bulletin, and several other resources that are invaluable for one looking for more information.

My posts will mainly be dedicated to learning Chinese and teaching English, and so quite a few will be similar (but not identical) to posts I’ve written here. The blog has several other interesting contributors so bookmark it fast!

My debut post, concerning three fallacies that students of Chinese ought to avoid, is now up. Have a look!…