Memorial Day

Posted on May 27th, by matt_schiavenza in Daily Life. No Comments

I just want to wish my American readers a Happy Memorial Day. I hope you’re out there enjoying barbequed hot dogs by the swimming pool.…

Some US Politics Thoughts

Posted on May 27th, by matt_schiavenza in US Politics. No Comments

I began supporting Barack Obama back when he was still an underdog to Hillary Clinton in the primaries, so of course I’m delighted that he appears to have captured the nomination. As a Democrat, I’m further delighted that the congressional Republicans are losing once-safe seats in places like Mississippi, Louisiana, and suburban Illinois. This bodes well for November, as most analysis I read predicts increased Democratic majorities in both the House and Senate. Large majorities combined with a Democratic president could mean a lot of interesting legislative changes.

Some questions remain though before we coronate Obama as the 44th President. Can he win over Clinton supporters who vow never to vote for him? Will he receive Hillary’s full endorsement even if he refuses to include her on the ticket? Will he be a victim of the Bradley Effect: in which voters vote against him on racial grounds despite refusing to admit it? Can he define McCain as a representative of Bushism rather than a repudiation of it? Will he chip away at McCain’s considerable advantage in media relations by making his campaign more accessible to reporters? Will he resist the “balanced ticket” myth by choosing a running mate who reinforces his strengths rather than counterbalances them?

Friends from foreign countries find America’s endless presidential campaigns mystifying, but the next few months will be very telling. …

Throwing a Bone

Posted on May 27th, by matt_schiavenza in Useful Links. 1 Comment

-Over the past week and a half one of my good friends from college, Jascha Pohl, has been traveling with me in Yunnan a bit before he heads off for some much-needed tropical time in Vietnam. Jascha has been blogging about his trip at his (semi) eponymous site Jascha Pohl Sucks (an inside joke from college, perhaps subconsciously borrowed from the 90s band Primus). Well worth a read.

-For those of you who read Chinese, have a look at my friend Tracy’s (陈雪) blog. Tracy recently completed her Masters in Anthropology at Yunnan University and as part of her thesis research interviewed yours truly and several other Kunming laowai. She’s an insightful writer and always has something interesting to say, particularly lately when discussing the earthquake.

– While on the subject of academia, congratulations to John “Sinosplice” Pasden who this past weekend successfully defended his masters thesis in applied linguistics. John’s site remains a great resource for those interested in learning more about the Chinese language.

– Finally, congratulations to Chris Waugh for his great HSK result. I still haven’t gotten my results back yet, but I hope that I’ll be able to post them here with pride (if you hear nothing, then assume it’s back to the drawing board :)

His/Her T-Shirts

Posted on May 25th, by matt_schiavenza in Uncategorized. 3 comments

While at the rest stop halfway between Dali and Kunming, I found couple wearing t-shirts I could hardly believe. His said: “Falling in love: she is my girlfriend” Hers said: “Falling in love: he is my boyfriend”. All in English. Feeling cheeky, I asked the two for a photo. Evidence here (maybe difficult to make out).

I’ve noticed quite a few young couples in China wearing identical clothing in solidarity, but never before had I seen it spelled out so clearly. What puzzles me is this: why is it in English? I can’t imagine that anyone from any English-speaking country would be caught dead wearing something like this. Perhaps there are Chinese versions of the t-shirt, but I haven’t noticed.

I then thought up an idea. Why not have t-shirts for all sorts of romantic situations? Here are some suggestions:

1. Infidelity: She is my mistress, he is my boss.
2. Going Through the Motions: We hardly speak anymore, but we still sleep together.
3. Convenience: She is my trophy wife, he is rich.

Should this nice-looking young couple break up, will one of them request the other’s t-shirt? Hey, why not re-use it on the next partner! Or what if they get separated in a crowded bus? I doubt very much he’d like to stand next to a beefy man with an arrow pointing “she is my girlfriend” straight toward him. Far worse than the old “I’m with stupid” craze.…

The Lovely Dali

Posted on May 25th, by matt_schiavenza in Travel. No Comments

I just got back from a now-annual pilgrimage to Dali, my favorite of Yunnan’s many tourist towns. In bad weather, Dali is pleasant and relaxing. In good weather, which Jascha and I were lucky enough to have last week, Dali is spectacular.

Taking advantage of the ample sunshine, we had an unusually active two days. On Thursday, we took a cable car halfway up Dali’s western mountain and hiked 10k to a Buddhist temple, nestled in a pine forest. As we neared the end of our walk, we found a friendly cafe that offered lattes and carrot cake. We sat down without hesitation.

The cafe was run by a woman who spoke near-flawless English with an Australian accent. She chatted with us and another pair of travelers as we sat and looked at the stunning view over Erhai Lake. She had grown up in a small Bai village a mile or so away from the cafe, distant from the Australia she would later call home for several years. I remarked how pleasant it must have been to grow up in such a beautiful place.

“Actually, when I was small we were poor and worked very hard. It was only later that we realized how lovely Dali was. In the past it was just another poor village.”

Dali has been on the tourist map for a number of years, and in the summer its streets are thronged with Chinese package tourists wearing identical hats and following a colorfully-dressed native guide. In May, there are fewer tourists, and thus a clearer picture of local life emerges: for the first time, I noticed that the vast majority of people there were living their lives, seemingly unconcerned about the two Californians wandering about.

Dali is but one of many towns situated in the valley between the mountain and the lake, and during our hike we had an impressive aerial view of the region’s layout. On the second day, we decided to explore these other towns by bike.

Jascha and I had pinpointed a town on the map where the main road converged with the lakeshore, and both Lonely Planet and our tour guide estimated it was sixteen kilometers from Dali’s old town. In the end, we rode and rode and never found the town, instead ending up at a “pleasure boat” dock some twenty-five kilometers away. While there, we munched on cold udon-like noodles and Dove chocolate bars, needing energy for what turned out to be a rather grueling journey back. My legs and bottom still has not forgive me for the 50k of cycling.

On previous visits I had enjoyed Bad Monkey, a chilled-out bar that always had an interesting crowed and good music. On this occasion, most of the patrons were bombed out on booze and grass, and one drunk Chinese woman made a rather awkward pass at Jascha. The other foreigners didn’t look lively or entertained, but rather stared blankly into space while the music blasted on around us. I found it difficult to believe Bad Monkey was the venue I chose to watch Italy defeat France in the 2006 World Cup final.

Quite a few foreigners in Kunming go to Dali to zone out, and hey- I’m hardly in position to deny them their pleasure. But for a city commonly viewed as a refuge from gritty China, Dali has an enormous amount to offer. Even if our bodies need ample time to recuperate.…


Posted on May 25th, by matt_schiavenza in Chinese Internal Affairs, Current Events. 1 Comment

The Chinese government’s response to the earthquake has been nothing short of remarkable, especially given the country’s recent history in dealing with major crises. The transparency and efficacy with which Beijing helped coordinate relief efforts and reassured a grieving nation has truly impressed me. Not long ago, China had a reputation for bungling its disaster responses, from the Tangshan quake to the Yangtzi floods to SARS. Given the scale of the current disaster, I must salute the Communist Party leadership for a job well done.

One interesting development in particular has been the rise of Wen Jiabao, China’s avuncular premier. With President Hu unavailable, Wen was dispatched to Sichuan and proved himself an inspirational figure, calling for China’s children to persevere in the aftermath of tragedy. Like leaders in other authoritarian regimes, China’s top officials are at turns ubiquitious and invisible. Hu and Wen appear regularly in Chinese news broadcasts and on banners, but are still unelected and unaccountable. Seeing Wen walking amongst his people, providing assistance and leadership, struck me as a new development in Chinese politics. The victims of the quake were not Potemkin villagers, carefully arranged to elicit maximum political benefit. These are real Chinese citizens being attended to by their leaders, and I hope the Chinese leadership will deal with future crises accordingly.

Then again, the enormous amount of corruption in the Chinese system cannot be ignored. The New York Times reports that villagers affected by the quake are wondering why so many schools collapsed while government buildings remained upright. If children are the future, shouldn’t great effort be extended to protecting their physical safety? To their credit, certain Chinese officials have admitted that construction on schools has been shoddy at times, but that is small comfort to the parents whose children were trapped by fallen buildings. …

A Moment of Silence

Posted on May 20th, by matt_schiavenza in Current Events. 2 comments

Urban China hums with noise, to an extent that even New Yorkers find staggering. There are car horns, loudspeaker announcements, musing blaring from shops, and sidewalk vendors on every block in every city. Then, of course, there are people…lots and lots of people. People jabbering into phones, spitting, shouting, laughing, and jostling for position. Even Kunming, a city with a reputation for sleepiness, bustles with constant activity.

I’ve spent the past few days hosting a college friend of mine who lives in Austin, Texas, and unsurprisingly he has also noticed the beehive atmosphere here in town. Yesterday, we walked through the downtown area and through the once-majestic Bird and Flower Market before reaching The Hump, a youth hostel cum bar located in Jinbi Square. As the sky brightened, we thought we’d reward ourselves with an afternoon beer after a few hours on foot.

As we approached the square, we noticed hundreds of middle-school aged students lined in single file, wearing identical blue track suits. There were unusually large crowds gathered as well, and I heard a man with a loudspeaker discuss what people were to do at 2:28pm.

Then I remembered- that time marked the one-week anniversary of the Sichuan earthquake, and the Chinese government had planned a nationwide moment of remembrance. I realized that in every city and town across this massive nation, people would be out in solidarity- more than a billion souls in all.

My friend and I rushed to the hostel and climbed onto the roof where we ordered our beers and a plate of fries. As we sat and waited, we heard a sudden blast of horn noise emanating from the street below. Everyone on the roof approached the ledge. We looked out over downtown Kunming, and saw people standing at their windows in apartment buildings. Everyone at street stood perfectly still. For two or three minutes, absolutely nothing happened and only the car horns and bomb sirens filled the void.

And then, just as suddenly, it was over. Traffic resumed, the sirens were turned off, and people went back to their lives. A couple of hours later, we turned on CCTV1 and saw footage of the exact same scene repeated in all of the nation’s major cities, including the capital, where at Tiananmen Square the Politburo members bowed their heads in respect to the earthquake victims.

I was, to say the least, extremely impressed by the display of national unity shown yesterday. A fifth of the world’s population stood still and reflected for three full minutes, a gesture as appropriate and lovely as it was amazing.…

The Earthquake and the Media

Posted on May 14th, by matt_schiavenza in Current Events, Media. 1 Comment

I spoke with a Chinese friend yesterday who is frustrated with how slowly the Chinese media reported information about the earthquake, especially in comparison with foreign news agencies like Reuters and AP. To me, though, the Chinese media has acquitted itself rather well this time. Articles I’ve scanned in national dailies (Xinhua, etc.) and Kunming local papers seem comprehensive and clear enough. It’s difficult imagining how coverage could be improved given the nature of the disaster.

Meanwhile, Chris and Brendan are discussing a rather sloppy AP article that clumsily tries to politicize the earthquake. Their back-and-forth is well worth reading, and in a way I think both are right: it’s appropriate to inject political analysis into disaster coverage, so long as said political analysis isn’t asinine. Which, unfortunately, is often the case with Western reporting on China.

Beijing’s relative openness in regards to earthquake coverage isn’t surprising for three reasons:

1. China was widely criticized for its attempt to cover up the extent of the SARS virus in 2002
2. China has been hit with a lot of bad publicity for its heavy-handed approach to Tibet.
3. Burma, one of China’s client states, is currently under intense criticism for its bungling and duplicity in response to the cyclone.

Motives aside, Beijing’s response to the earthquake has been impressive. Reporters should recall that a mere three years ago a natural disaster struck New Orleans, a major city in one of the world’s wealthiest developed countries. And yet the government response was slow, clumsy, and deeply incompetent, leading to horrifying situations such as bodies lying dead in the water for three days without being claimed and buried.

Monday’s earthquake struck a rural part of a largely rural country with poor infrastructure. A little perspective is needed when analyzing the efficacy of Chinese government relief operations.…

Earthquake in Sichuan

Posted on May 12th, by matt_schiavenza in Current Events. 2 comments

An earthquake measuring 7.8 on the Richter scale struck western China two hours ago, sending tremors felt across the country and in Thailand and Vietnam. Here in Kunming, I felt…nothing. I only found out when a friend working in an office building downtown called to say that she had been evacuated, but that no damage had occurred.

The quake was epicentered in rural Sichuan province, about ninety miles from the provincial capital of Chengdu. John, a Chengdu resident who blogs at Green Bamboo, hasn’t updated his blog yet.

The earthquake is now the lead story in Xinhua, but few details have emerged as to the extent of the damage or number of victims. Fortunately, the quake’s epicenter appears to be in a rural area with light population density so one hopes that will limit the number of injured and dead.

Earthquakes are endemic to southwest China. In 1996, a major quake in northern Yunnan destroyed hundreds of thousands of buildings in historic Lijiang, killing 200 people.

China’s most devastating recent earthquake occurred in 1976, a tumultuous year in Chinese history in which both Zhou Enlai and Mao Zedong died. Centered in Tangshan, Hebei Province and registering 7.8 on the Richter scale, the quake killed more than a quarter of a million people, an estimate some say is vastly understated.

According to this Wikipedia page, the deadliest earthquake in Chinese history occurred in 16th century Shaanxi Province, killing close to a million.

Being a native of California, I’ve been through my share of earthquakes, most notably the big Loma Prieta one that rocked the Bay Area in 1989. One would think that I’d have been attuned to today’s, but nope- felt nothing. My cat didn’t even stir leading me to believe that my building is rock-solid- a comforting thought.

UPDATE: Well, our hope for a limited number of victims has been vanquished- current estimates say that at least 10,000 people have lost their lives in the quake. Passport writes that the earthquake will test Beijing’s crisis management and transparency, and I would say that thus far the authorities have responded about as well as possible in a difficult situation.…

Different in China?

Posted on May 7th, by matt_schiavenza in Uncategorized. 3 comments

Via my Facebook feed, I came across an article in the International Herald Tribune by a Chinese-American women whose biracial children were occasionally stared at during a trip to China. From this small sample of anecdotal evidence, the author muses about, in succession, the ethnic homogeneity of Chinese society, the “lack of privacy” in such a crowded country, and the general Chinese affection for children. She then concludes with a few tried and true suggestions for parents whose young children are the unwilling objects of attention.

I can’t complain much about the theme of the article: taking personal experiences in a foreign country and making sweeping generalizations comprises the bulk of several blogs, including this one. But think about it- is there anything particularly strange about racial minorities being stared at? The author herself grants that a biracial relative attracted curious stares in cosmopolitan New York City. Why should Beijing be any different?

As a rather tall, broad-shouldered, and fair-skinned man, I’m not unfamiliar with being stared at in China. I imagine that mixed Chinese/white kids face a certain amount of grief from bigoted racial purity fanatics. But I don’t agree with the implication that somehow the idea that people of different races occasionally breed is especially mind-blowing to the Chinese. The proliferation of Chinese/foreigner relationships (the subject of a friend’s recent sociology thesis) should put such ideas to rest.…