The Year in Review- Excursions

Posted on December 31st, by matt_schiavenza in Year In Review 2009. 1 Comment

2009 was my third full year in Kunming and easily the best. One reason was the traveling I was able to do during the year, both within Yunnan Province and far beyond.

In October 2008 I discovered that the best way to avoid the Chinese travel-season crunch is to throw your bike on a bus, get off somewhere in the countryside, and ride away. In 2009 I added two new trips to my resume. In late January, I cycled from Jianshui to Hekou, a city on the Yunnan/Vietnam border. On day two of the ride, we left Gejiu in the morning and descended a spectacular 1,800 meters over the next four hours, eventually reaching sea level in the Red River Valley.  I’ve never before been able to experience such a drastic change in vegetation and climate within one single bike ride.

For the October holiday this year I headed off in the opposite direction- toward the Burmese border at Ruili. Beginning in Baoshan, we cycled up the towering Gaoligong mountain range and settled into Tengchong, a volcanic hot-spot that experienced heavy fighting during the Second World War. After researching an article that would eventually be published in the most recent edition of Yunnan Magazine, we then cycled into the border town. Though Ruili is now far tamer than its reputation suggests, I found the city lively and interesting, full of great indoor food markets and even avocados, a sight for sore eyes for this Californian.

Aside from my two-wheeled adventures I was fortunate enough in 2009 to travel back to the US twice, the second time to attend the wedding of a close friend. The wedding provided a wonderful study in contrasts with that of another friend, which I attended in May down in a small village in the far south of Yunnan.

As for travels in other parts of China, 2009 was a bit lacking. I went to Shenzhen for a business conference in March and spent a luxurious day in Hong Kong, but otherwise my China travel during the year remained firmly south of the clouds. Not that I mind, of course- I consider myself very blessed to have spent nearly three years in one of the world’s most beautiful places.

My inveterate nature compels me to be on the move, so I’m certain 2010 will have its fair share of excursions, which I hope to faithfully document on this blog.

Thank you for reading!…

The Year in Review- Books and Web

Posted on December 29th, by matt_schiavenza in Year In Review 2009. 1 Comment

My next series of posts will be an attempt to wrap things up, and since the variety of topics covered in this blog reflect my own idiosyncratic style I’ve decided to split up these reviews into categories. I hope you enjoy them.

In our first installment I’ve presented my choices for the best books and websites of the year. Caveat lector: if I didn’t read it or surf it, it isn’t on this list. What’s more, not all of these items were new in 2009- just new to me.


1. The Great War for Civilization: The Conquest of the Middle East by Robert Fisk.

Earlier in the decade, when neoconservative self-congratulation reached its apex and critics of Bush’s foreign policy were routinely labeled traitors, the surname of this great journalist was transformed into a pejorative verb; to fisk someone meant to lambaste a piece of writing, line by line, usually in blog-form.

Here Fisk shows why the neo-conservatives, as they were about everything else, were deadly wrong. In a monumental tome exceeding 1,300 pages, Fisk recounts a history of the world’s most volatile region beginning in the mid 1970s- the date of his appointment as a reporter there for The Times of London- to the present day.

Fisk tells of each event in mind-searing, moving detail: the Iranian revolution of 1979, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Iran-Iraq War, the enduring Israeli occupation of Palestine, the two Iraq War, the Algerian civil war, and the 2001 US invasion of Afghanistan.

The Middle East, once the cradle of civilization, has endured violence, tragedy, and tyranny on an almost unimaginable scale. Fisk imbues this history with a bravery and honesty so often absent in current reportage in our newspapers, magazines, and television programs.

2. The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolano

Meet the visceral realists Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima- one Chilean and the other Mexican, together they form the heart of a poetry movement that will redefine Latin American literature- or will it? The Savage Detectives tells the story of the two poets through the people that have known them, in both diary and oral history format. Belano and Lima eventually leave Mexico and travel the world, working as night watchmen in Spanish camping grounds or squatting in Tel Aviv apartments, living a literary life without the attendant glory.

Belano (the author) writes with passion and skill about a literary movement, real or imagined, as it evolves through the last three decades of the 20th century. I confess that prior to reading The Savage Detectives I thought discussions of Latin literature concerned only Marquez and Borges. How wrong was I.

3. The Post-American World by Fareed Zakaria

Less than twenty years ago, as the Soviet Union collapsed and the United States claimed victory in the Cold War, many scholars predicted that an era of pax America was upon us. The events of September 11th a decade later threw a bucket of cold water on that idea, and the War of Terror has illustrated just how limited America’s ability to meet its goals in global affairs.

What will be the big idea of our current century? Fareed Zakaria posits that American global hegemony will be challenged by what he terms ‘the rise of the rest’. Countries such as China, India, and Brazil will see their influence and power grow alongside their economies, and will provide a counterbalance to American ideas of global leadership.

Zakaria, whose foreign affairs columns in Newsweek magazine have been favorites of mine for years, writes persuasively that these changes are not only inevitable but also, most likely, positive- not to mention of far more international significance than our current battle against terrorism appears to be.

4. Out of Mao’s Shadow by Philip Pan

The subjects Pan covers in his book- the Hundred Flowers Movement, the Cultural Revolution, official corruption, land speculation, and the news media- are well-trodden ground to anyone with an interest in modern Chinese history. Yet Pan’s approach to his subjects are what set Out of Mao’s Shadow apart from the dozens of other books published by Western journalists based in China.

Pan profiles Chinese determined to preserve the memory of people, places and events scrubbed clean by party-sanctioned history books. His subjects are mainly ordinary people driven by extreme circumstance to secure a measure of justice, often in the face of great personal danger.

Pan doesn’t have an editorial opinion in his pages. He hasn’t staked a claim as a Sinoskeptic or a Sinophile, merely as a very good reporter able to see the human face of the world’s most remarkable economic growth story.…


Posted on December 21st, by matt_schiavenza in Me. 2 comments

Between filling out grad school applications, hosting a good friend as part of his round-the-world tour, and preparing to move to a new apartment I haven’t had much time to contribute to this space. 对不起!

Christmas is four days away, and for the second year in a row I’ll be spending it here in China. Although in a perfect world I’d be able to visit my family in California the combination of work responsibilities, financial restraints, and other logistical hurdles  prevent that from happening this year.

Nonetheless my friends in Kunming do a fine job acting in loco familias. The city’s foreign population is large enough that we’re able to obtain a pre-cooked turkey from a cafe, something that I imagine might arouse the envy of my fellow laowai in other parts of China. I myself am fairly suibian about the contents of Christmas dinner- growing up as a Noritalerican infused me with disparate culinary influences- but my British and Australian friends seem to think Christmas won’t be Christmas without the bird. And who am I to complain? Turkey is good. Maybe next year we can engineer a Turducken.

China remains an officially atheist country yet has embraced the commercial side of Christmas, something that would make  advertising executives proud around the world. Christmas decorations have appeared everywhere in town and you can’t walk into a supermarket without hearing a constant stream of English-language Christmas music. Proportionally few Chinese worship Christ or are even aware of what conventional Christmas traditions are, yet culturally they appear very comfortable with the crass commercialism that characterizes the holiday.

Mind you I’m not complaining. As a non-Christian myself I see Christmas as a pagan festival celebrating the end of the year, the presence of family, and other such sentimental milestones. That the Chinese have appropriated the holiday is a positive, not a negative, development.

To my readers I’d like to wish a 圣诞节快乐, a Merry Christmas, and other holiday greetings.…

Random Fun

Posted on December 12th, by matt_schiavenza in Uncategorized. 3 comments

According to this quiz I just took- from the addictive here are the 10 most-searched items on Wikipedia from January to October 2009:

1. Michael Jackson (musician)
2. Barack Obama (politician)
3. Eminem (musician)
4. Lil Wayne (musician)
5. Adolf Hitler (er, politician?)
6. Rihanna (musician)
7. Abraham Lincoln (politician)
8. Lady Gaga (musician)
9. Megan Fox (actress)
10. Martin Luther King (activist)

Odd bedfellows, no?

Further down I don’t know whether it’s good or bad that the porn star Sasha Gray is slotted between Josef Stalin and Prince. And ranked no. 200? Tiger Woods. Something tells me that’s going to change……

China Mythbusting

Posted on December 10th, by matt_schiavenza in China and World, Chinese Internal Affairs. 4 comments

James Fallows points to a recent survey by Pew in which a shocking percentage of Americans believe that China is more of an economic superpower than the US. This is of course completely false, as Fallows goes on to explain and then illustrate with a photograph of dormitory conditions at Chinese universities.

I’ve discussed previously that rural China is as valid- if not more so- a representation of the country as the major urban centers in the east. Why then does this misconception persist?

  • China’s massive population skews numbers. In gross terms, China’s economy is the third largest in the world, ranking between Japan and Germany. In terms of growth per capita, though, China is by any measure a poor country. This Wikipedia page lists GDP per capita figures in terms of purchasing power parity (PPP). Countries ranked near China include Angola, Armenia, and Namibia. Nobody in America thinks of these countries as economic superpowers, do they? And yet in one sense China’s economic position is more similar to them than it is to America, Japan, or Germany. There are a lot of wealthy people in China, but that’s because there are a lot of people, period.

Woman in Black: A Chinese Internet Tale

Posted on December 4th, by matt_schiavenza in China Culture, Chinese Internal Affairs, Current Events. 1 Comment

On November 16 US President Barack Obama held an American-style town hall meeting with a group of university students in Shanghai. During the event, the camera panned toward a pretty female student dressed stylishly in black who was seated near the president.

Naturally, the identity of this  girl elicited the attention of the Chinese internet community, who immediately commenced a ‘human flesh search’. Before long, the ‘Obama girl’ was identified as an MBA candidate named Wang Zifei at Shanghai’s Jiaotong University. Like many of her peers she kept a blog in which he discussed her life and posted photographs of herself.

Following an intense period of attention and scrutiny Wang addressed the matter on her blog, stating that she made no special effort to attract attention during Obama’s speech and that her celebrity- now international- was entirely accidental. To underscore her humble nature she highlighted a photograph of herself playing with a kangaroo. Just another pretty young Chinese woman lifted to fame, it seemed.

Or does it? Now ESWN presents information that Ms. Wang’s sudden celebrity was in fact carefully premeditated. Apparently her boyfriend- a businessman- paid 100,000 RMB to a Beijing-based internet public relations firm to ensure her placement near Obama in order to jumpstart Wang’s entertainment career. (link via Shanghaiist)

I’m still unconvinced. The dress Wang wore was flattering but in no way revealing or inappropriate for the occasion. She removed her coat slowly, yes, but she did not look at the camera or make any movements that could possibly be interpreted as seductive. Her denial struck me as more plausible than this incident, for example. It just seems unlikely to me that a public relations firm could have pulled that off.

We’ll see how this plays out, I suppose. In the meantime I find it fascinating how quickly determined netizens uncovered her identity and how, if the ESWN-highlighted story is true, how savvy people are these days with using the internet as a self-promotion vehicle.…