Yunnan Magazine On Air

Posted on March 31st, by matt_schiavenza in Self-Promotion. 5 comments

Yunnan Magazine, a beautiful little magazine I have written for, is now online- check out an abstract of my article!

/shameless self-promotion…

The Recession in Shenzhen

Posted on March 27th, by matt_schiavenza in Chinese Internal Affairs, Current Events. 1 Comment

One of Andrew Sullivan’s correspondents today, an English teacher in Shenzhen, wrote the following about how the recession is playing out in China:

…it’s surprising how well China’s Maoist legacy acts as a safety net inside a capitalist economy. Shenzhen and cities like it, effectively, have half of their population living not as citizens, but as long-term temporary workers. Most of these workers who are getting downsized now will be returning to homes and farms in the countryside because they mostly were not allowed to sell. Most never made permanent residence because the archaic “hukou” household registration system ties delivery of government goods and services to those hometowns. If it works out well, they’ll be going back to a rent-free home with decent savings and severance to start their own projects, where their children have free education and increasingly subsidized health-care. As terrible as these policies looked during the boomtimes, they’re looking increasingly wise today.

Is this overly optimistic? My instinct says yes. Changing government policies have made the western provinces, where these “long-term temporary workers” come from, more attractive venues for launching a business. But opportunities are still far fewer there than in Guangdong, even with the steep drop in exports.

Any thoughts? …

The Birthday Dinner

Posted on March 26th, by matt_schiavenza in Daily Life, Me. No Comments

On Monday, my friend and I (who share a birthday) invited about 20 people to a Tibetan restaurant in Kunming for our birthday dinner. Neither of us had been before, but the place had been recommended by a couple of good friends and we thought we’d try something different.

The deal at the restaurant included both food and a “performance”, which we imagined would be a song and dance routine that would last less than an hour.

Soon after arriving, the performance started. Groups of “Tibetans”, many of whom I suspected were actually Han Chinese, emerged wearing traditional Tibetan costumes. One man wore a fur coat so thick that I’m sure a PETA member would have thrown paint on him had one been present.

Some of the performances were nice- I liked the percussion and dancing. The singers belted out “traditional” songs at such a high volume and register that I was surprised the neighborhood stray dogs didn’t storm the restaurant in unison. Conversation became reduced to people leaning next to each other and shouting. I started sweating from the noise, which I didn’t believe was physically possible before.

After about two hours of straight high-volume performance, our beleaguered guests began straggling out of the restaurant. I thought about complaining about the music being too loud, but the thought that I had reached an age where high volumes bothered me was too depressing to contemplate.

Finally, we agreed to move on to a little bar near the restaurant. The twenty or so performers subsequently stopped, and while we moved outside I saw a few of them in their street clothes. All of them were gracious and kind, wishing my friend and I a happy birthday.

The event, I thought, was pure China- dinner theater at maximum volume, audience participation, abundant food, and good humor throughout. I do believe everyone left in high spirits, which is the most a birthday boy can ask for.…

Tweet Me

Posted on March 23rd, by matt_schiavenza in Uncategorized. 1 Comment

As if you didn’t have enough of me already (did I remind you it’s my birthday?), I’ve set up a Twitter account now, under the creative name of “MattSchiavenza”.

If you’re a reader and have a twitter account, add me and I promise to “follow” you too. If you don’t have an account, go and get one because who can resist social networking? Plus Facebook kinda sucks now.…


Posted on March 23rd, by matt_schiavenza in Uncategorized. 1 Comment

A few days ago, Seth Gimlan, a high school classmate of mine, passed away. I never knew Seth well, but being classmates in a class of 140 or so tends to bond people together.

After graduation, I lost touch with all but a dozen or so people I knew from those days. Facebook, for all its flaws, brought everyone back together; I think around 60 or 70 of my classmates now are Facebook friends of mine.

Seth was one of them. I knew that he had been battling cancer, but from peeking at his profile, it was clear that he had a lot of optimism, spirit, and humor. He had found his niche in film making and had moved to LA.

Naturally, I was thus quite saddened to hear of his passing. He was 28, far too young to be cut down.

My thoughts go out to his family and friends.…

28 Things I’ve Learned

Posted on March 23rd, by matt_schiavenza in Me. 6 comments

Well, in celebration of his 28th birthday, your humble blogger shall delve in a moment of self-indulgence. Because I can.

1. All the little things people nag you about; flossing, doing the dishes, putting the cheese back in a plastic bag; are actually good advice.

2. Travel is good for the soul.

3. I don’t buy it when people complain about not having enough time. Everyone has the same number of hours- the challenge is in allocating them properly.

4. When studying Chinese, do not neglect characters, tones, or stroke order. Avoid learning them at your peril.

5. There are few more pleasant activities in life than listening to a baseball game on the radio on a long, hot summer’s day.

6. The comment sections on 95% of blogs are almost never worth reading (mine is an exception)

7. If you ever meet a journalist who talks your ear off, doesn’t ask you any questions, and doesn’t listen to your conversation; he isn’t good at his job.

8. Losing your temper is almost always counterproductive.

9. Buying cheap luggage is a serious mistake; I once had a lousy suitcase in Italy that I had to duct tape to such an extent that it looked like a cheap cliche. Another time, a lousy backpack I owned split open and my toiletries all fell out- there’s probably still five-year old toothpaste and deodorant at the Istanbul airport.

10. Most Luddites are just being lazy, stubborn, or both.

11. To love your country is to be able to recognize its shortcomings and flaws. Maybe that’s true of loving anyone and anything.

12. There really is no one like Bob Dylan. Even his albums that are more than forty years old sound fresh and new and interesting. “Tangled Up in Blue” is one of the best songs written about a relationship, ever.

13. China is strange, maddening, but absolutely wonderful.

14. Even if your a carnivore, as I am, it’s good to eat vegetarian meals sometimes.

15. When the revolution comes, the Golden State Warriors will finally be well managed.

16. California is governed by a bodybuilder turned actor, is completely dysfunctional, undertaxed, overly violent, and prone to populist madness- but I still think it’s the best place on earth.

17. Un giorno senza vino e un giorno senza il sole

18. Long-distance cycling: a sport for the gods. Especially in Yunnan.

19. Despite all the hand-wringing you read in the newspapers, Barack Obama is already a far, far better president than George W. Bush ever was.

20. Most of the critical decisions I’ve made in my life are made instantaneously, such as the decision to draft Josh Hamilton in the first round of this year’s fantasy baseball draft.

21. People often confuse complexity and difficulty. Raymond Carver’s short stories are all simple, straightforward, and short. But try, just try, to write one like his. It’s hard!

22. Atheism has its detractors, but it’s the only thing that’s ever made sense to me.

23. Reading The Economist makes you smart.

24. To put into context how good the Beatles were, they were responsible for over 30 songs that each would have made the careers of just about anyone else. And these songs were put together in six years by four men well under 30.

25. I was born and raised in North America and have now lived in Asia for nearly five years. Both are wonderful, but I think I was meant to be European.

26. Stupid ways to blow a lot of money: first class-air tickets, gambling, the lottery, smoking cigarettes.

27. There’s a recession on, but I still believe that now is the best time to be alive in the history of the world. Optimism lives on.

28. A brisk walk and a cup of tea improve any bad mood. And bicycling, by god, is the best thing to do for yourself at practically any time. Except when drunk, that is.…

Rick Steves

Posted on March 20th, by matt_schiavenza in Uncategorized. 3 comments

Salon publishes an interesting interview with Rick Steves, an American travel writer who recently returned from a trip to Iran.

I’ve never been a huge fan of Steves and typically regarded his followers as sheep, but in this interview he comes across as thoughtful and interesting. A lot of his observations seem naive on the surface but are typically ignored by the more jingoistic half of American society, a group of people who would do well to travel a little bit more.

Steves could use a lesson in history, though. Of Iran, he says:

I do want to make clear that Iran is not a free society. They traded away their freedom for a theocracy, out of fear. It’s just like Americans. We don’t want to torture people, we want to have civil liberties, we don’t want our government reading our mail. But when we have fear, we let fear trump our commitment to our civil liberties and decency. We allow torture, we allow the government to read our mail. It’s not because we’re bad, it’s because sometimes fear is more important than our core values. And Iran is afraid. They’ve given up democracy because they know a theocracy will stand strong against encroaching Western values.

Actually, Iran didn’t trade its freedom for theocracy. It traded a repressive klepto-state monarchy for a repressive backward theology. Iran hasn’t been “free” in a Western sense since the early 1950s, when the US and UK conspired to overthrow the democratically-elected prime minister, Mohammed Mossadeq in order to prevent him from nationalizing Iranian oil. The popularity of the mullahs in the waning years of the Shah’s rule had less to do with encroaching Western values and more to do with the Shah’s craven willingness to suck up to the West politically and his life of opulence in comparison to the crushing poverty experienced by the rest of the country.

In fact, Western cultural values are popular in Tehran and other big cities–something Steves points out when he mentions the discrepancy between the rural and urban populations of Iran– and in many ways the strict conservatism of the mullahs has backfired.

But I digress. Historical revisionism aside, Steves has his heart in the right place and the US would be a lot better off if more people shared his point of view about travel in foreign countries.…

Realism and China

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

The controversy over Chas Freeman, who recently withdrew after being appointed by President Obama as the chairman of the National Intelligence Council, has elicited a number of strong opinions in the blogosphere since his appointment was first announced in mid-February.

For those unaware of Freeman and this particular kerfuffle, a useful time line can be found here.

Essentially, objection to Freeman’s appointment rested on two principal issues. One, Freeman enjoyed a cozy relationship with the Saudi government as ex-ambassador and made several comments criticizing Israel. Two, Freeman defended the 1989 government crackdown of students in Beijing.

The journalist who has written most extensively in opposition to Freeman, as far as I can tell, is Jonathan Chait of The New Republic. Two journalists I read who have defended Freeman’s appointment are Andrew Sullivan and James Fallows of The Atlantic.

In what he hopes to be his final post about Freeman, Chait wrote this weekend about the diplomat’s reaction to 6/4. Within his blog post, Chait quotes an e-mail Freeman wrote discussing the ’89 crackdown. An excerpt:

…the truly unforgivable mistake of the Chinese authorities was the failure to intervene on a timely basis to nip the demonstrations in the bud, rather than — as would have been both wise and efficacious — to intervene with force when all other measures had failed to restore domestic tranquility to Beijing and other major urban centers in China. In this optic, the Politburo’s response to the mob scene at “Tian’anmen” stands as a monument to overly cautious behavior on the part of the leadership, not as an example of rash action.

For myself, I side on this — if not on numerous other issues — with Gen. Douglas MacArthur. I do not believe it is acceptable for any country to allow the heart of its national capital to be occupied by dissidents intent on disrupting the normal functions of government, however appealing to foreigners their propaganda may be.

In an earlier piece he wrote for The Washington Post, Chait produces a similar excerpt and notes that “This is the portrait of a mind so deep in the grip of realist ideology that it follows the premises straight through to their reductio ad absurdum” No attempt is made to analyze Freeman’s comments; Chait presents them as being so clearly objectionable that any refutation would be self-evident and unnecessary.

Chait does correctly identify Freeman as a realist, and realism does have a tendency to seem heartless to its detractors, just as neo-conservatism seems dangerously naive.

Yet he (Chait) fails to explain why Freeman’s particular point of view somehow falls beyond the boundary of reasonable disagreement and into “reductio ad absurdum”. I agree that a lot of people, myself included, hold a different opinion of the crackdown than does Freeman. But from my experience living in China, his point of view is hardly cold-blooded and reprehensible. In fact, I’d say a fair number of Chinese people, speaking frankly, would agree with him.

Secondly, I fail to understand why Freeman’s realist-inspired foreign policy opinions should somehow disqualify him from the post Obama chose for him. After all, a man in Freeman’s intended position would hardly be given carte-blanche authority to devise Sino-American policy. He would have reported to Dennis Blair, Obama’s Director of National Intelligence. He would have been beneath, among others, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, National Security Adviser James Jones, and of course, Vice President Joseph Biden and President Obama himself.

Presumably, within such a group, there would be some who would hold alternate interpretations of the crackdown than Freeman. In fact, I imagine Obama chose Freeman in an effort to avoid the sort of group-think that plagued the Bush Administration.

The failed appointment indicates, once again, that on certain issues the range of acceptable opinion remains extremely narrow, a disheartening thought.…

Back To Traditional Characters?

Posted on March 13th, by matt_schiavenza in Language. 5 comments

Allow me to direct your attention to an excellent Danwei post (via an equally interesting post by James Fallows) detailing a new proposal for China to revert to traditional characters, the writing system abandoned on the mainland in the 1950s.

To summarize: a representative named Pan Qinglin proposed junking simplified characters due to three reasons, two obvious and one that had never occurred to me before.

First, the simplification process occurred too hastily and wasn’t done properly, not surprising given that the man behind the change, then-Chairman Mao Zedong, didn’t favor deliberation in implementing his policy goals.

Secondly, reverting to traditional characters would be China on equal linguistic footing with Taiwan, a change that wouldn’t hurt cross-Straits relations. And as my boss today wryly pointed out, Hong Kong people would have one less reason to look down on their mainland cousins.

But it is the third reason that I find particularly interesting. Because the widespread use of computers and mobile phones in modern Chinese communication, one of the main rationales behind simplified characters – that they are easier to write- has effectively vanished.

Of course, this point shouldn’t be of any great surprise, but it still hadn’t occurred to me before. I, for one, can type an e-mail in Chinese without much difficulty but struggle to write a one-sentence note on paper for my cleaning lady*. Of the four major skills- reading, writing, speaking, and listening- my writing level lags far, far behind the others. Because I never need to write, why bother doing so? Nobody bothers learning penmanship back in the US anymore, do they?

Implementing traditional characters on the mainland wouldn’t be universally popular and probably wouldn’t happen due to logistical difficulties, anyway.

As someone who has invested ample time in learning simplified characters, I wouldn’t be thrilled to discover one day that they were obsolete. Nevertheless, I can certainly see why purists would applaud the change. As Fallows points out, a good analogy for character simplification would be if, for example, the English word “through” were officially changed to “thru”. Ugh.

One final note- I’ve never believed that simplified characters were any easier to learn, particularly for us foreigners. Learning the character system is what’s difficult; once that happens, learning more complex characters doesn’t require much additional effort. If learning simplified characters is like running a 14 mile race, traditional characters would be akin to making it to 16.…


Posted on March 12th, by matt_schiavenza in Film, Uncategorized. 1 Comment

Did anyone else find this film spectacularly bad? Because I did.

It seems to me that Oliver Stone lazily compiled a list of every soundbite from the Bush administration, cobbled them together in a simplistic narrative, and hoped for the best. The part of the film documenting Bush’s young adulthood worked a little better, but still was so cliched and lame that it was a wonder why Stone even bothered.

I do believe that in the coming years, someone will make a good film about the Bush years; after all, the era was rife with intrigue. Yet W wasn’t it. I’d like to give Stone the benefit of the doubt here and blame this film on its release during the actual Bush presidency, but I can’t; it’s just a lousy movie, and a waste of several good actors.…