The Who’s Who of Recessions

Posted on February 27th, by matt_schiavenza in Uncategorized. 1 Comment

Seldom does an item in the newspaper arouse my disgust, and even more seldom does my disgust take the form of economic populism. But these are strange times, indeed.

The Washington Post today has a prominently placed article describing how those in the financial industry have rebounded from redundancy by…traveling the world. Have these financiers sworn off the footloose and fancy-free boom years by traveling in frugal fashion? Hardly. Their “suffering” from the recession amounts to a year-long vacation in places such as Brazil, the Alps, and Australia. To no one’s surprise, these unemployed finance workers are finding redundancy to be somewhat more pleasant than they expected.

Obviously, you have to hand it to these people who can obviously afford to spend their out-of-work hiatus in leisure. They aren’t throwing themselves off of rooftops, after all.

But what annoys me about this article is the soft-peddling of the recession, something that will wreak havoc on individuals and families with less disposable income. I’m sure everyone would like a year to discover themselves or hike tall mountains, but most people have more pressing matters to attend to; such as food, clothing, and shelter.…

Human Rights, Continued

Posted on February 25th, by matt_schiavenza in China Culture. No Comments

This article- about increased acceptance for homosexuality in Beijing- says far more about the state of “human rights” in China than this editorial by the Washington Post.…

Madame Diplomat

Posted on February 23rd, by matt_schiavenza in Uncategorized. 2 comments

I admit that I was skeptical when President Obama chose Hillary Clinton to be his Secretary of State, but so far I’ve been quite impressed with the work of the former senator and first lady.

First, her decision to base her first foreign trip in East Asia acknowledged the importance of US relations with the region in the 21st century; my only surprise was that she did not include India on her itinerary.

Second, her candor has been refreshing. Why shouldn’t Clinton discuss a possible succession crisis in North Korea? What harm does it do anyone to acknowledge that the current economic sanctions imposed on Burma have accomplished little?

Secretary Clinton concludes her trip to East Asia in the region’s future hegemon, China. This snippet from today’s Washington Post piece jumped out at me:

Before her meetings in Beijing, for instance, Clinton said she would raise human rights issues with Chinese officials. “But we pretty much know what they’re going to say,” she said.

Clinton’s comments have stirred outrage in the human rights community, where she was once viewed as a hero for having confronted the Chinese government, in 1995, over its record. Activists say that without public, sustained international pressure on human rights issues, nothing will change in China.

Notice how the term “activists” dangles there, unexplained. Which activists are these? I realize that there are a lot of people who rage against human rights abuses in China, but it would be helpful if the Post journalist were to identify an individual or group.

I bring this omission up because I disagree completely with the “activist” point of view. Sustained international pressure will have the opposite effect on China; Beijing doesn’t like being told what to do by concerned foreigners. Domestic pressure, on the other hand, would work; but countries like the US would be wise to sidestep the human rights issue altogether. This is especially true in the aftermath of the Bush years, robbing America of its high horse on any human rights issue.

As for matters concerning the environment and international economy, Sino-American diplomacy does have a role to play. I commend Clinton for having the wisdom to keep bilateral talks focused on areas in which the US and China have the most to gain from cooperation.…

Justice in Cambodia?

Posted on February 18th, by matt_schiavenza in Uncategorized. No Comments

Good news- the architect of Cambodia’s S-21 prison, Kaing Guek Eav aka “Duch”, is finally on trial for his part in one of the most appalling acts of state-sponsored mass murder in history. After the fall of the Khmer Rouge, Duch had reinvented himself as a Christian missionary. There, an Irish journalist found him and “outed” him, so to speak. Now, the man personally responsible for overseeing the torture chambers of the Khmer Rouge may finally pay for his heinous crimes.

Thirty years after the movement’s conclusion, Cambodia remains desperately poor and corrupt; a country without much industry and with a worthless currency. Yet perhaps the trial of Duch–along with similar trials for other high-ranking Khmer Rouge officials–can provide further closure for the citizens of Cambodia. If anyone ever deserved good news, it is them.

For those of you living in or near Hong Kong, a new art exhibition concerning the S-21 prison has opened at the Chancery Lane galleries in SoHo and Chai Wan. …

The Tragedy of North Korea

Posted on February 13th, by matt_schiavenza in Uncategorized. 2 comments

National Geographic has a haunting article- complete with several photographs- describing the plight of North Korean refugees who risk their lives crossing across China and Laos into Thailand, where they can safely apply for asylum. The latter two countries have a policy of repatriating fleeing North Koreans, where they face certain imprisonment and the possibility of death on the charge of treason.

In this case, the refugees traveled by train from Beijing to Kunming before trekking across the Lao border by foot, an arduous process. The three tracked by the author successfully arrive in South Korea, where they encounter enormous difficulties finding decent work and assimilating into society. All are optimistic, though.

What to do about North Korea? The answer: economic engagement. A war would be catastrophic given the North’s possession of nuclear weapons. Collapse could cause a major refugee problem and economic disaster for both South Korea and China.

The only real solution to the North Korean problem is to prod the hermit kingdom into enacting China-style economic reforms. This process will take years, but will ultimately bear more fruit than continued isolation matched with idle threats of “regime change”.

While we’re waiting- read the story. Amazing.…

Metric System

Posted on February 13th, by matt_schiavenza in Daily Life, Navel Gazing. 4 comments

I’ve spent five and a half years of my life living in countries that use the metric system, which isn’t such a remarkable accomplishment when you consider that the United States is the only country left in the world that doesn’t. I have a lot of strong opinions about why I find our continued use of the imperial system to be absurd, but that’s for another post.

Learning a system of measurement, like learning a foreign language, occurs in stages. First, of course, there’s the learning process- for example, that an inch is comprised of 2.54 centimeters. This stage is straightforward and even most Americans I’d guess are at least familiar with how to do basic conversions between the imperial and metric systems.

When I moved to Italy and then China, I was still in the “conversion” stage. When someone said, “Oh, it’s 34 degrees today”, I mentally converted this figure to a more familiar 95 degrees Fahrenheit. When people said “meters”, I converted to feet. And so on.

Then comes a second stage, in which you no longer need to convert but have in fact internalized both systems. For example, when someone says meters I can visualize the distance, and when someone says feet I feel equally comfortable.

The third stage, of course, is when you become so familiar with a new system that you’re forced to convert back to the old one. For an American, this would mean that when someone says “feet”, you have to think in meters and translate back.

In my experience, these stages describe my use of different types of measurements; in other words, my assimilation of different aspects of the metric system occurred at different speeds. Some, in fact, haven’t occurred yet at all.

For height and weight, I’m still in the primary stage. I know what 5 ft. 10 “looks like”, and when someone says they’re 176 centimeters tall, I mentally calculate that figure back into feet and inches. Ditto with weight; I still think in pounds rather than kilograms or the ludicrous Anglo “stones”.

For distance, I’m in the secondary stage. When I’m cycling, I know all to well what “20 kilometers left” means. Yet when people say, “San Francisco is about 400 miles north of Los Angeles”, I don’t need to convert that into km.

In temperature I’m firmly in the third stage. Perhaps this is because I have a little Firefox widget in the bottom right corner of the screen telling me what Kunming’s temperature in centigrade is each day (22 degrees and sunny today, for those who want to know). Perhaps because every time I listen to the radio in China (usually in cabs) I take in a weather report. Perhaps because for some reason I’ve always been curious about the weather. Who knows?

I’ve lost the ability to conceptualize Fahrenheit. This occasionally results in a situation in which I’m talking to another American who mentions, “Oh, in Vietnam it was really hot- about 90 degrees” and I have to pretend I know exactly what that means. Whenever I go home, I change the temperature gauge in the car to Centigrade. This makes me highly suspect I realize, but being from San Francisco I’m no longer fazed by accusations of unpatriotism.

Go metric!…

Dog Days

Posted on February 6th, by matt_schiavenza in Daily Life, Me. 3 comments

Quite a lot of people in my bulding have dogs, and very few of them bother keeping their dogs on a leash. I love dogs, but this concerns me.

First, sometime last year a small dog attempted to bite me on the street, missing by a milimeter or so.

Second, a big dog the other day jumped me in the elevator, while his owner struggled feebly to retain him.

Normally, I’d be a good sport about this, but having read this report (via China Rises) about the explosion of rabies in China, I’m in a less understanding mood.

Also, I don’t really see why owners don’t see the benefit in leashing their dogs. From personal observation it seems that people with dogs here spend a disproportionate amount of time running after and yelling at the poor beasts.

Maybe it’s just me and the prevalence of leashes in China is no greater or less than anywhere else. Has anyone else noticed this phenomenon?…

Michael Phelps and the Misery of the Drug War

Posted on February 6th, by matt_schiavenza in Uncategorized. 3 comments

So American Olympic swimming hero Michael Phelps was photographed taking a bong rip at a party somewhere in South Carolina. Despite his immediate and apparently sincere apology, Phelps has been suspended by the US Swimming Federation for three months and has lost endorsement contracts, including one by the cereal company Kellogg, whose income, Gawker irreverently points out, derives in no small part from late-night consumption by habitual marijuana smokers.

Two points to make about this.

Of course, it’s ridiculous that anyone finds Phelps’ conduct objectionable. 23-year-old guys often go to parties and consume alcohol and pot. It wasn’t like he was dealing crack in the inner city, or defrauded people in a giant ponzi scheme. Actually, it’s kinda cool that a mega-star like Phelps is able to go to a normal party and hang out with his non-amphibious peers.

However, now that the story is out in the open, it puts the prosector in a difficult position. Smoking marijuana is a crime, and while most reasonable people agree that it shouldn’t be, letting Phelps off easy because he’s a celebrity sends an even worse message than busting him in the first place.

Most of the victims of the War on Drugs aren’t Olympic stars but rather anonymous minorities living in the grimmer parts of America’s inner cities. If smoking marijuana is a serious enough offense to merit fines and imprisonment, it should be so for everyone regardless of race, wealth, or fame.

I write this, of course, as a person for whom going to a party and taking bong rips was not at all an unusual activity at that age. But if any good can come of it, I hope more people finally digest the lunacy of the War on Drugs. I’m not holding my breath, though, as the present Vice President burnishes his drug warrior credentials at every opportunity.…

Shoe Throwing Protocol

Posted on February 4th, by matt_schiavenza in Uncategorized. 3 comments

Here’s a note for all would-be shoe throwers, now that the activity has appeared to catch on.

1. When the man whose policies directly caused misery and damage to your country, toss away.

2. When you’re a Euro-trash student blathering nonsense at a man whose name you probably don’t remember and certainly can’t pronounce, keep ‘em on.

Just for future notice, ya know.…

Back in Town

Posted on February 4th, by matt_schiavenza in Uncategorized. 1 Comment

I can say without much exaggeration that the bike trip I recently took was among the best of all the trips I’ve taken in China. The pleasures of traveling by bicycle in Yunnan are many:

- the diversity within the province is amazing. Within a 60k stretch in the Red River Valley, we encountered groups of Yao, Miao, and Dai minorities as well as the still-dominant Han. Many of these minority people were dressed in traditional costumes, often idling up the road towing a horse behind them.

- within one province, and often within the same prefecture, there are breathtaking changes in altitude. In one four-hour stretch, we cycled from Gejiu (个旧) to a small town called Huangcaoba (黄草坝), a distance of about 60 kilometers across, and a staggering 1,800 meters down. Dropping nearly 6,000 feet in an afternoon was exhilerating. Of course, in Yunnan, 1,800 meters ain’t nothing. Up in the north, such heights are commonly exceeded. But realizing that I was suddenly at sea level and could breathe more easily was a weirdly cool experience.

- the altitude changes are accompanied, of course, by changes in altitude and vegetation. At 11am last Thursday morning, we were cruising at about 1,800 meters in a chilly mountain fog, wearing all of our clothes. By 4pm that afternoon, we were at sea level in t-shirts and shorts, cursing the blast of humidity hitting our faces as we cycled down the hill and being offered pineapples and bananas by the locals. Most definitions of Southeast Asia don’t include Yunnan, but geographically the region begins as you scale down the province’s plateau and are in view of the Red River that marks the border between China and Vietnam. Many of the ethnic groups straddle both sides of the border, most notably the Miao/Hmong.

-even though we surely paid laowai prices and were traveling during Spring Festival, the trip was comparatively inexpensive. Plus, given all the cycling we did, pretty healthy. The people were kind, gracious, and helpful. One boy came sprinting after us when he realized the directions he had just given us were incorrect.

-Once in Kunming, you can drink a Beer Lao, eat lasagna, and top it off with a gelato without feeling guilty.

A caveat: photos are pitifully few, I’m afraid. I just am not the world’s most prolific photographer, and the urgency of finishing the day’s trip before darkness meant that our breaks were usually fairly short. I’ll post what I can later.…