Perspectives of China- Podcast

Posted on November 27th, by matt_schiavenza in China and the US, China and World, China Culture, Useful Links. 3 comments

I’ve spent part of this morning listening to a podcast lecture organized by Folger on the subject of foreign impressions of China. The three panelists are Rachel DeWoskin, author of Foreign Babes in Beijing and a former actress in the Chinese soap opera of the same name, Orville Schell, the distinguished China scholar and author of many books, and our man James Fallows.

The lecture is informal and funny; all three authors recount humorous stories of their experiences in the country as well as observations they’ve made. In particular, their account of how the world looks from the Chinese perspective is well worth listening to.

The link to the podcast is here.

(via China Digital Times)…

If a Twitterer Tweets a Tweet in a Forest….

Posted on November 26th, by matt_schiavenza in Current Events. 3 comments

The venerable China Daily has announced that our very own Yunnan Provincial Government has become the first in China to use Twitter, perhaps unaware of the irony that Twitter is tucked snugly behind the Great Firewall of China and is thus unavailable- without a proxy- to the general public.…

Happy Thanksgiving

Posted on November 26th, by matt_schiavenza in Me. No Comments

In honor of Thanksgiving Day I’d like to take the opportunity to thank each and every one of you for reading this blog, particularly those of you who have commented and e-mailed over the past year. It’s been a pleasure conversing with such an intelligent, well-informed audience. I hope you’ll continue sticking around!…

Chocolate Bars in China

Posted on November 25th, by matt_schiavenza in China and World. 4 comments

Our friend Daniel Gross continues his journey in China for Slate, this time traveling down the Yangtze River to report on progress of the Three Gorges Dam. For the most part this report avoids the inaccuracies that characterized his last one. But at the bottom of the article, in an aside, Gross wonders why he can’t find chocolate in China.

Shanghaiist says that if Gross wants chocolate, he had plenty of options- from the mundane to the sublime- right in their fair city. Actually, Gross doesn’t even have to go that far. Virtually every town in the country has a local shop (小卖部) or market (超市) that sells Dove chocolate bars, which to the taste buds of this chocolate-fan aren’t half bad.

Not to mention, most markets of a decent-size have chocolate ice cream bars and most towns and small cities have cake shops. I’ve eaten chocolate cake at birthday parties in which I was the only foreign guest.

In Kunming, even local shops sell Snickers and one or two places have Twix, Hersheys, and the like. Run-of-the-mill chocolate is available nearly everywhere, even in the countryside. While on bicycle trips chocolate bars function as energy food for mornings and early afternoons when fruit sold by the side of the road just won’t cut it.

In a way I sympathize with Gross; no doubt he hasn’t spent much time in China and his editors have asked him to make sweeping generalizations in line of what Slate’s readers expect. But simply asking a local where to find chocolate would have sufficed, no?…

Coffee and Toys and China

Posted on November 20th, by matt_schiavenza in China Culture. 8 comments

Slate’s Daniel Gross has made a couple of lazy and incorrect assumptions in his recent column about real estate in China:

In Shanghai, which is China’s New York, locals and expats are doing their best to foist American-style consumerism onto China’s rising masses€”with mixed results. Starbucks has opened several hundred stores, even though China has no coffee-drinking culture to speak of. As it spreads into China, Toys “R” Us is trying to convince higher-income Chinese parents that toys are a part of a childhood, not a distraction from preparation for the all-important national college entrance exams.

I’m guessing Gross looked at a per capita coffee consumption chart and concluded from China’s microscopic rate that there ‘was no coffee culture to speak of’. Most of my Chinese friends would beg to differ; a good many  of them drink coffee regularly and enjoy it; every Starbucks I’ve been to in China has been crowded, from Chengdu to Beijing to Qingdao to Shenzhen.

What’s more interesting is the extent that coffee culture differs in China from the West. Few shops serving coffee are open very early, and for the most part Chinese people seem to enjoy their coffee during the late afternoons and evenings. The culture of jamming cups of Joe down in order to satisfy a morning caffeine fix- a culture I wholeheartedly subscribe to- doesn’t really exist. But the popularity of coffee houses throughout the country attests to the rising growth of the number of coffee drinkers in China.

Gross writes as if Starbucks has embarked on a fool’s errand in opening a lot of stores in China, but my sense is that they’ve wisely targeted a growing market with the potential to become huge. Just today I noticed an advertisement for a new Starbucks being built in north Kunming. I wouldn’t be the slightest bit surprised to see people flock to it when it opens.

Also his rather condescending assertion that Chinese parents don’t understand that ‘toys are a part of childhood’ is so wildly off the mark I don’t even know where to begin. As I type I can hear a group of children in the garden chasing each other on these skateboard-like objects that have become all the rage. Every time I step into an elevator in my building I see children holding balls, stuffed animals, or little cars- all under the watchful eye of mom and dad.

By the time the typical Chinese child is ready to take his college-entrance examinations they are at least 17 years old- a bit past Toys’R’us’ target demographic. As someone who grew up with several Toys’R’Us in the vicinity I can confidentally assert that I didn’t step foot inside one past the age of 10 or so. Do that many teenagers elsewhere play with toys? I mean, other than Mom and Dad’s car of course.

My sense is that Gross took one trend- American retail brands expanding into China- and two stereotypes- the Chinese study hard! The Chinese drink tea!- and welded them together in order to craft an appropriate opening paragraph. Unfortunate his words ring very hollow to anyone who has actually spent time in this country.…

Send Obama to the Countryside

Posted on November 18th, by matt_schiavenza in Current Events, Politics. 12 comments

The big news in China these days is the ongoing visit of President Barack Obama, who met with students in Shanghai Monday and with President Hu Jintao in Beijing yesterday. Nothing earth-shattering is expected to happen during Obama’s visit and in all likelihood both sides will simply utter the same platitudes that have characterized recent Sino-American relations.

Unsurprisingly, Shanghai and Beijing were chosen as the only two stops on Obama’s agenda, and in my recollection not since President Clinton’s mid-90s visit to Xi’an has an American president deviated from these two cities on his China journey.

If I could influence Obama’s itinerary, I’d schedule him for at least a half-day in one of China’s innumerable rural villages. He wouldn’t even have to go very far. A short drive from Shanghai into rural Anhui Province would suffice.

In the villages Obama would see how the majority of Chinese people actually live. He could then understand what motivates these villagers, what hopes and dreams they have, or how they perceive the future. I suspect he would come away from such a meeting with a very different perspective on modern China than he has surely taken from meetings with government officials and elite students in Shanghai.

Obama too might be better prepared than most Presidents to empathize with the locals he would meet. Unlike his predecessor, Obama spent several years living outside of the United States. Indonesia in the late 1960s and early 1970s was characterized by a similar degree of income inequality and rural poverty that today defines China.

Americans have a tendency to view China as a major, competitive power and an equal adversary. China sees itself as an ordinary developing country keen to mind its own business. The truth lies somewhere in between.

But by restricting his visit to only the nation’s marquee cities I fear Obama might not have gained a very balanced portrait of what this country is really like. With a relationship as vital as the Sino-American one such a skewed perspective may ultimately prove disadvantageous and even dangerous.…

Rest in Peace

Posted on November 12th, by matt_schiavenza in Me. 4 comments

When I was in high school, our kindly headmaster used to speak often of our ‘community'; that was, the students, faculty, staff, and others for whom our school was a daily part of life.

My friends and I used to cynically poke fun at him for saying it; at that point in our lives we yearned to break free and make our own mark; not be bound by any community, real or imagined.

Yet through the last week in Kunming I’ve been twice reminded that while living abroad the concept of a community is real and vital indeed.

Earlier this week I learned that Jason Stefanuik, or ‘Jay Stef’ as he billed himself, was killed last month in an auto accident in Philadelphia. He was 33.

I knew Jay only slightly, but memorably. Long ago, Jay hired me to interview Kunming’s beloved punk band Smegmariot for a now-defunct website he had launched called The interview was one of the first pieces I ever wrote for anyone and I can still remember the satisfaction I felt seeing my name on Jay’s site. also included a section called ‘Out in Kunming’, in which Jay- who was openly gay- and others provided content detailing gay life in China. I remember thinking that it was extraordinary at the time, and I still do.

Jay was so soft-spoken you often had to lean in close to hear what he had to say. I’ll remember him as a kind soul, one who left us all far too soon.

While we were still mourning Jay more shocking news arrived yesterday. Arun Veembeer, another long-term resident of Kunming, was killed  after a fall while hiking in Dali. A native of India, Arun was 28- exactly my age.

Arun worked for the Hump Group, a company named after the ‘hump’ in the Himalayas so integral to supplying Allied and Chinese troops during World War II. From reading his obituary I learned that Arun himself had traveled along the Stilwell Road, a remarkable feat considering the topographical and political challenges that lay therein.

What I will remember most about Arun is his sense of humor- at least once every time I saw him he would say something so original and funny that I’d collapse into laughter. His dexterity with the English language stood out; it is no surprise to me that he was a writer.

Both Jay and Arun were among the broad tapestry of people who had chosen, for one reason or another, to base themselves in this sleepy regional capital of southwest China. I didn’t know them well enough to say, but I would bet that when the two of them were in high school- schools on opposite sides of the globe- they could never have imagined that they’d have ended up spending a chunk of their lives ‘south of the clouds’.

And yet while their time with us was brief, they touched many lives- many more than I’m sure even they could have even imagined.

Rest in peace.…

Armistice Day/Veterans Day

Posted on November 12th, by matt_schiavenza in Uncategorized. 2 comments

My grandmother, who is 93, used to refer to Vetarans Day as Armistice Day, its former name. Without any disrespect to our men and women of uniform- of which her late husband was one- I think it would be instructive to remember the origins of the holiday, which dates back to shortly after my grandmother was born. Here’s something from the American novelist Kurt Vonnegut, another member of that generation, that I would like to share:

I will come to a time in my backwards trip when November eleventh, accidentally my birthday, was a sacred day called Armistice Day. When I was a boy, and when Dwayne Hoover was a boy, all the people of all the nations which had fought in the First World War were silent during the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour of Armistice Day, which was the eleventh day of the eleventh month.
It was during that minute in nineteen hundred and eighteen, that millions upon millions of human beings stopped butchering one another. I have talked to old men who were on battlefields during that minute. They have told me in one way or another that the sudden silence was the Voice of God. So we still have among us some men who can remember when God spoke clearly to mankind.
Armistice Day has become Veterans’ Day. Armistice Day was sacred. Veterans’ Day is not.
So I will throw Veterans’ Day over my shoulder. Armistice Day I will keep. I don’t want to throw away any sacred things.
What else is sacred? Oh, Romeo and Juliet, for instance.

And all music is.


The Perils of Writing About China

Posted on November 8th, by matt_schiavenza in China and the US. 3 comments

Some months ago a young writer named Thomas Talhelm  single-handedly blamed Peter Hessler, the author of River Town, for ruining his China experience. Any time Talhelm felt like recording an observation, he realized that Hessler had written about it already; only better. Truly, he wondered, is there anything new left to say about China?

Hessler himself replied, apologizing and saying that his own experience in China was also ruined; this time by Mark Saltzman, the guy who wrote Iron & Silk. He then goes on to make a very wise point about the art of writing:

Fuling wasn’t an important place. Many foreigners spoke the language better than I did, and many people had a deeper knowledge of the culture. But I thought of myself as a writer, not a China expert. My training was more along those lines; before going to China I had worked as an ethnographer in southeastern Missouri, and I had thought a lot about the social sciences and theories of observation. In college I took a lot of courses in fiction and nonfiction writing. I had very few ideas about China, but I had strong ideas about voice, structure, set pieces, story structures. People often don’t realize how technical writing is. It’s a lot harder than learning Chinese or learning about China, that’s for sure. By the time I left Fuling, I had spent only two years engaged seriously with China, but thirteen years engaged seriously with writing. If the ratio had been the opposite thirteen years in China, and two years thinking about how to write that book would not have happened. I might have known a lot, but I wouldn’t have known how to express it, and how to structure it. In any case, that book is more about a learning process; it’s about how language, people, and culture came into focus for me. It’s not about “China” in the strictest sense.

Exactly. As a person who has been writing about China for five years, both as an amateur and professional, I believe Hessler’s point is spot on.

Writing is hard. Deceptively so. At first glance, River Town seems to be a fairly mundane rendition of one man’s life in a small Chinese town. Few of Hessler’s observations were that extraordinary and ring true with virtually anyone who has spent time in the country. Many of us have had experiences that were very similar to Hessler’s, in fact. Many of us have tried to write about it. But there’s only one River Town.

River Town brings to mind one of my theories about writing. To me, good writing comes in two main forms. First is the type in which the author’s talent simply leaps off the page, in which the prose is so dazzling there’s little a reader can do but admire it. Vladimir Nabokhov springs to mind. So does Marquez.

The second type of good writing is more subtle. This is writing that appears quotidian and average on the surface and gives the reader a distinct sense that he too could have written it. He probably could have. But he didn’t. A classic example is the  writer Bill Bryson, who has made a killing from writing travel books in an easy, conversational style. I am certain many people who have read Bryson have sat down and tried to match his feats. But they can’t. It may not seem like it, but Bryson’s damn good at what he does.

I’d place Peter Hessler into the second category. As ordinary as his observations might seem, as conventional his prose style might be, River Town is nonetheless an extremely well-written book. So is Oracle Bones, which Hessler wrote after River Town was published. I understand Hessler has just published a third book, and I am reasonably certain that it will be well written, too.

We’re lucky to have Hessler around, but there are countless ways in which others could, and will, describe China in the printed word. Without a doubt, this remains a beguiling country, one rich in possibility, and full of humor, tragedy, and joy.

Who knows, perhaps down the line someone will write a blog post lamenting how Thomas Talhelm- or even Matt Schiavenza- ruined their China experience. Stranger things have happened.…

2000s Nostalgia

Posted on November 7th, by matt_schiavenza in Uncategorized. No Comments

By my count there are six or so weeks to go until we close the book on the 2000s and embrace the 2010s, something I speculated upon in this recent post. For those of you already feeling nostalgic about the ‘aughts, here’s a blog dedicated to the various cultural ideas that defined the decade. This list is good if a little American-centric.

(via Andrew Sullivan)…