Bicycle, Bicycle

Posted on January 27th, by matt_schiavenza in Uncategorized. No Comments

With all the shops closed and most of my friends out of town, there’s little use kicking around Kunming during the holiday. I’ll be setting off on a bike trip this afternoon that will take me to Hekou, a city on the China/Vietnam border. I’ll be back Saturday night and photos and trip descriptions will follow.…

Thoughts on T!bet

Posted on January 26th, by matt_schiavenza in Uncategorized. 2 comments

- The same people who agitate for “Free T!bet” in the West- oblivious to the Dalai Lama’s renunciation of any claim to independence- wouldn’t last for longer than a week if they actually, you know, had to live there.

-T!bet is beautiful. The people are nice, and simple, and devout, and charmingly rugged. They’re also desperately poor, uneducated, and highly superstitious. Living conditions are harsh and life on the world’s rooftop isn’t easy- to say the least.

– For some reason, a lot of self-professed atheists romanticize Lamaist Buddhism, yet rage against religious extremism anywhere else. As an atheist myself, I do have more sympathy for Eastern religions than for Abrahamic ones, but Tibetan Buddhism adheres to the divinity of a man, who, when T!bet once governed itself, ruled in an absolute fashion and did virtually nothing to improve the material welfare of his people.

– China regarded itself as a victim of Western imperialism, a perfectly legitimate claim given Chinese history between 1840 and 1950. Yet somehow the notion that China’s actions in T!bet were essentially imperialistic is completely taboo in this country. What’s good for the goose, evidently, isn’t good for the gander.

– There’s really no reason for anyone to raise a stink about T!bet because Han migration to the TAR will eventually render the question of T!betan sovereignty moot. …

China’s PR Self-Sabotage

Posted on January 25th, by matt_schiavenza in Uncategorized. No Comments

A few months ago James Fallows wrote a piece for The Atlantic claiming that China’s ham-handed efforts to repress dissent typically backfired in the form of bad PR. I too have always thought that China is a far more open and vibrant country than is portrayed in the media, which to a certain extent is subject to bias.

Yet the Chinese government too sometimes acts in ways that are indicative of its more totalitarian past. Case in point- Chinese television coverage of Barack Obama’s inaugural speech.

CCTV provides a simultaneous interpreter for the occasion, and all was going along swimmingly until the new president reminded Americans that previous generations overcame the twin scourges of fascism and communism.

Suddenly, the interpreter- who translated the phrase correctly as far as I could tell- faded out and the live broadcast of the speech was interrupted by a rather startled news anchor, who asked an analyst a lame question about American economic “difficulties”.

I agree with Jeff- had the broadcast just continued, nothing would have happened. I doubt millions of Chinese schoolchildren would have asked their parents pertinent questions of why communism- still the official creed of the PRC- would be something Americans celebrate defeating. The entire remark would have gone unnoticed. In effect, interrupting the speech made something out of nothing and reinforced the stereotype that China is a zero-tolerance zone.…


Posted on January 25th, by matt_schiavenza in Music. No Comments

There’s few things I love more than completely arbitrary rankings intended to spur argument. Someone, bless his cotton socks, has ranked Beatles songs- all 185 of them- from best to worst. This is like crack for me.

The list itself isn’t too bad, though the reviewer seems to like McCartney-penned ballads a bit more than I do. I do believe that “Revolution” is ranked too low. Perhaps the song is significant to me in some way because it is the only Beatles song containing a reference to China, but the lyrics are wise and timeless. …

Rip Off

Posted on January 23rd, by matt_schiavenza in Daily Life. 1 Comment

I have a cleaning lady who is professional, reliable, and sweet. The other day, though, she got on my nerves by gleefully pointing out how I got ripped off when buying furniture at the second-hand market.

At the second-hand market, of course, all prices are negotiable. I’m not a terrible negotiator, but eventually my patience runs thin and I acquiesce to a price higher than what I probably could have gotten away with. I think of the extra money as purchasing “hassle-free” time.

Of course, my cleaning lady boasted of how she could have gotten the same items for roughly half of what I paid. She muttered 太贵了,太贵了 (“too expensive”) every time I told her how much I paid. Eventually, I started lying and telling her I paid half of what I actually paid, just so she wouldn’t chide me.

Some foreigners are very sensitive about being ripped off and make every effort to get the lowest price. I take a different approach- if the price seems reasonable to me, I’m happy to pay it. Four plus years in China have given me a pretty good idea of how much things cost. Plus, I find shopping to be stressful and unpleasant so I’m usually willing to pay a bit extra to get the hell out of there.

So I’d like to define rip-off a little differently. Bought a vodka tonic that didn’t have vodka? Rip-off. Been driven around in circles by Shanghai cabbies?* Rip-off. Paying 300 kuai for a service that a local could have gotten for 175? No worries.

*Both of these things have happened to me. …


Posted on January 23rd, by matt_schiavenza in Daily Life. 1 Comment

The other morning I was awoken by a rooster crowing. At first I suspected that it was a cell-phone alarm clock, but the crows were too irregular for that to be the case. Awhile later, while sitting on my balcony, I realized that there was an actual rooster living in one of the apartments beneath me.

I imagine it would take a certain amount of pluck to place a farm animal in this most urban a setting. Yet on second thought it really isn’t all that surprising. Quite a few of the residents in my new apartment complex are elderly. Quite a few elderly people in Yunnan come from the countryside.

These people, I suspect, had children who chose to live in the city. When these children started to make money, they invested in a nice, modern apartment for their parents. This is a very common Chinese custom.

In fact, many Chinese people I know find the Western practice of placing elderly people in retirement homes to be barbaric, regardless of whether a home might be the most suitable place for them for health reasons.

Americans of my vintage undoubtedly recall a 1980s era television program called The Voyage of the Mimi. This series featured a group of people on a boat out at sea. One of the people grew up in the inner city, and in order to fall asleep, he had to listen to an audio cassette of city noises.

Perhaps a rooster crowing is the inverse effect. In any case, it sure beats the usual morning din of construction cranes, honking horns, and blaring music through the dread Chinese loudspeakers.…

Move, Inauguration, and New Year

Posted on January 23rd, by matt_schiavenza in Uncategorized. No Comments

Apologies, apologies- I’ve been shamefully neglectful of this blog in the past two weeks. My primary excuse has been moving- last week I moved into a new apartment after two years of living on the 8th floor of an old-fashioned walk-up near the university. My new place, located next to the northern train station, is on the 26th floor and boasts a view of the entire Kunming skyline. It also faces south, maximizing winter sunshine which, in southerly Kunming, is warm and pleasant. I am looking forward to weekend mornings with a book and cup of coffee while sitting on the balcony. Much of my free time has been spent buying furniture for the new place, though a sofa is still conspicuously absent.

My secondary excuse for not blogging is food poisoning, which I contracted last week after eating an unfortunate salad at the Prague Cafe. I spent the better part of three days lying in bed, too sick to do much of anything but think. Afterwards, I could work and go out and do things but still felt fatigued and listless; an awful feeling. Just today do I feel like my old self again, ten days after eating the salad of doom.

That aside, here I am. What better way to resume blogging, then, but via self-promotion? For those of you living in or near Kunming, an article I wrote on cycling through the valleys of central Yunnan has been published by Yunnan Magazine, with photographs by Jeff. Jeff also has an interesting piece in the front of the magazine on the origins of Kunming art, something that I suspect few of the beer-swilling local laowai know much about at all. There are several other cool bits in there as well, including articles on mountain climbing. Once again, I’m reminded what an amazingly diverse and interesting province Yunnan is and how lucky I am to live here. When (if?) my piece goes online, I’ll link to it of course.

Speaking of cycling, I’ll be off again over the next few days on a new trip, this time headed toward the warm Vietnamese border area. Traveling during holiday times in China is always a zoo as everyone in the country makes a mad dash for home. Traveling abroad is a good option but not cheap; I nearly gagged when I saw the price of flights to Laos. A bike trip is simply the best way to go about it; get out of the city, get some exercise, avoid the crowds, spend little money, and still feel like you’ve had a holiday. Perfect.

The year of the ox commences shortly; I’ll be on a friend’s balcony watching the fireworks show, which should really go off at around midnight on Monday the 25th. For those of you who will celebrate your 12th birthday this year-or a multiple thereof- this is your year.

Finally, what more can be said of the inauguration? I give you words, then, rather than constructed phrases. Relief, hope, exhileration, anxiety, excitement, historic, cool. His job won’t be easy, though. …

You Know You’ve Lived in Kunming Too Long When…

Posted on January 11th, by matt_schiavenza in Daily Life. 4 comments

1. You bring beers to business meetings- in the middle of the afternoon.
2. You complain when you have to pay more than 8 yuan for a Tsingtao at a bar
3. You think the notion of working more than 20 hours per week is crazy
4. You have heated discussions about which cafe serves the best cappucino
5. You refuse to eat anywhere that doesn’t allow smoking
6. You develop a strong dislike of virtually every other city in China
7. Everyone knows you….in Dali. And Lijiang.
8. Your Chinese atrophies
9. You lose the ability to relate to people who don’t live in Kunming.
10. You begin sentences with, “Back when I lived in the real world…”…

Out of the Music Loop

Posted on January 9th, by matt_schiavenza in Music, Navel Gazing. 7 comments

Every time I go back to the US, about once a year or so, I realize how much further I’m out of the loop. One way is in money; a lot of my old friends are doing well financially. About a year ago, I went to dinner with three friends from high school, two of whom were attorneys and one a fairly well-paid software developer. When the bill came, the per-person amount left me near-speechless while the others said, “Oh, that’s pretty reasonable!”

A second way is in gadgets, a particularly acute issue when you come from the doorstep of Silicon Valley. People can talk for hours about their latest smart phone or little computer toy, and allIcan do is nod and smile.

Neither of these bother me all that much. But what does get to me is my total ignorance of modern popular music. Recently, my friend Dan posted his Top Ten albums of 2008. I scanned through and identified exactly four of the artists (Billy Bragg, The Roots, Nas, and of course R.E.M). I was aware of none of these albums, and not a single one of these songs.

For some reason, this depresses me. I used to be a huge modern music fan. I remember being able to turn on a local rock radio station and identify every song that came on within the first two or three notes. I once had a subscription to Rolling Stone. I watched MTV. I went to as many concerts as I could afford.

I was even the sort of guy who alphabetized his CDs, something I did painstakingly every time I bought a new one. I completely identified with the John Cusack character in High Fidelity. I became obsessed with musical minutiate, mostly gleaned from reading liner notes of the CDs I bought.

And now I pretty much know nothing about what’s happening now. Someone asked me who my favorite current band was, and all I could think of was The White Stripes, who have been around for at least a decade.

I have an Italian friend in Kunming who sometimes DJs at a bar called Halfway House. One night, he started playing songs from my time. Smashing Pumpkins, Pearl Jam, Garbage, Beck, Red Hot Chili Peppers, etc. I got up and danced around like an idiot; it was fun. At one point, when he played something I didn’t recognize, I shouted, “Dude, play some ’90s!”

Later I realized that I’ve become that guy. You know, the guy who thinks all the music released since he was 21 years old is garbage, and when he goes out all he wants to hear are the classics. The problem is, I’m not really old enough to be that guy. I’m the same age as Dan, who apparently still can speak authoritatively about music released in the past year. Is it possible to be that guy when you’re not even 30?

I’m still current with books and movies. But music…nah. And this, friends, is what living in a place as removed as China will do to you after awhile.…

Blogging and Formal Writing

Posted on January 8th, by matt_schiavenza in Navel Gazing. 1 Comment

Since graduating from college in 2004, the vast majority of writing that I’ve done–excluding e-mails–has been in this and other blogs. Overall, I’ve probably written enough words to fill a couple of books, an amazing fact when considering that I’ve seldom spent more than a half-hour composing any individual entry.

In August of last year, I began work for a consulting company in which my primary capacity is as a writer. While some of this writing is journalistic, most involves factual data analysis for industry reports.

Lately I began wondering whether blogging has made me a better writer, a worse writer, or hasn’t changed the quality of my writing at all. The principle virtue of blogging is the sheer habit of writing and the truism that any writer needs to get bad writing “out of his system”, to quote Norman Mailer. Truly, when I read things I wrote three or four years ago, I cringe.

Then again, in blogging the stakes are low. If I publish bad information, I might be gently corrected in the comments or by e-mail. Worst case, I’ll lose readers; not something I encourage, mind you, but hardly a career-threatening fate.

In professional writing, false or misleading information can result in failure, condemnation, job termination, or even incarceration (in the case of plagiarism).

When writing my blog, I conduct very little research because I don’t have to. Most of what I write is opinion commentary. In professional writing, research is absolutely crucial. A failure to research something properly can render paragraphs of good prose utterly meaningless.

In my job, I’ve had to re-learn research skills that I hadn’t used since college. There have been some trying moments, but in general I’m getting a little better. Overall, though, blogging has been good, if for no other reason that I no longer sit and stare at the computer screen when called upon to write something.…