The China Train

To sum up what I’ve learned in less than two semesters of grad school in China; Studying development in a (developing) country where censorship, hypocrisy and saving-face are embedded in daily life is like falling asleep on the 1 train from Manhattan headed to Brooklyn, only to find out when you wake up that you’re back in Times Square because in fact, the 1 train doesn’t go to Brooklyn at all — the 2 and 3 do, but they’re on the all red line. Basically, the ride was a big fat waste of time and in the end, you end up where you started but angrier.

Here’s the thing about studying development in China; it’s paradoxical. “Chinese Development”, synonymous with economic growth, means only one thing: increase of wealth. But who does the wealth belong to? Let’s sweep that question under the table…

I’m currently taking a Research Design & Thesis Writing course in which the professor warned us against choosing “sensitive” topics to research. “Sensitive” here means anything negatively related to the government. Don’t even think about bringing up the terms “democracy” and “revolution” in a dinner conversation with Chinese officials (unless you’re praising the Cultural Revolution). They’ll eat you alive and feed your bones to the dogs, and then eat them too.

My professor’s specific example of a “sensitive” topic was the Diaoyudao/Senkaku Islands dispute. She is not incorrect to say that finding objective information on the conflict would be difficult in China, and I agree that presenting such a thesis topic to a panel of Chinese professors (many of whom are party members) may arouse uneasiness, but discouraging a group of progressive graduate students of international development from researching issues that are”too sensitive” is both infuriating and laughable.

Tsinghua University is a top-ranking institution and my department is even partnered with the likes of Harvard Kennedy School — impressive, no? — but now that I’m within the institution, it is disgusting how much propaganda and image-building I see the administration feed to its students and the public. Everything looks so good on paper. Our course syllabi look awesome and our professors are famous and award-winning! But as soon as they power on those PPTs (powerpoints) and start lecturing, it’s all China Dream China Dream China Dream. Whose China Dream? Who does the China Dream serve and how? Is the China Dream realizable? These are questions that we scrape the surface of, but no real answer is ever given.

China has come a long, long way since its Opening Up, but its development path is headed in the wrong direction. And just like that 1 train, the China-train might get to the end of the line and turn right on back to Tiananmen Square.


Grad School? China? Hmm?

In March, I made a spontaneous and skeptical decision to apply to grad school in Beijing. When I told my friends in America and my Chinese students my plan, both groups asked, “Why on earth would you go to grad school in China??!” Here’s what I told them after convincing myself these were legitimate and good reasons:

1) 10 months in China wasn’t long enough; there was more to accomplish! And if I’m going to stay longer, then I’d like to make friends, and if I’m lucky, also find that twinkle in my eye. It has been long enough.

2) A Master’s degree in International Development is relevant to my career goals.

3) Tsinghua University is the Harvard of China.

4) I can live in the dorms and have some privacy from my nosy parents.

So…in August, without great expectations, I moved into my dorm room single, filled it with plants and ikea goods, and stayed up ’til 3 in the morn’ because the bed is so hard.  Aside from an uncomfortable bed, controlled hot-water hours (very inconvenient, especially on weekends!), and mediocre dining hall food, living on campus is actually quite nice. The paths are lined with trees and there are plenty of sports fields (being built). There are also sculptures dotted around campus and even a famous water-lily pond, a hotspot for tourists.

Tsinghua University

Three weeks in and I’ve met dozens of people from all over the world, and for the first time in my life, the number of my Asian friends to non-Asian is greater. I’m surrounded by them! In my program of 17 people, we represent 10 different countries: America, Canada, the Philippines, Vietnam, Singapore, Peru, Ethiopia, Italy, England, and South Korea. The school of Public Policy, which I’m in, also has a Master’s program geared towards government officials from various African countries, Armenia, Uzbekistan, Grenada, Cambodia, Laos, Kazakhstan, and Pakistan, among many others. They’re a generally older crowd, and the fact that I am sharing a dormitory with these accomplished, government officials and leaders is somewhat laughable.

Judging from the first week of classes my professors are not stimulating enough. I want to be challenged, pushed, treated like a knowledgeable adult with lots of potential (I can pretend). But like I said, I didn’t enroll with high expectations. The International Development program is a relatively new one (to all of China, actually), so administrators and professors are still building it up. Unfortunately this means I’m one of the guinea pigs, but with a title of “Tsinghua University Graduate” it still puts me ahead of the game, at least in this country.

Tsinghua and Peking University are China’s Harvard and Yale, respectively (I think…does Harvard have a better reputation than Yale?), and getting into one of these top schools is the dream of every Chinese family. If you are admitted into one of these universities, you and your family will be forever celebrated in your hometown because it is such a great and near impossible feat that you’ll make your entire hometown, or even province, proud. When my family found out, I got text messages left and right and a personal phone call from my grandma in Chongqing congratulating me. Of course I didn’t tell her how unjustly easy it was for me, an international student, to apply (30 minutes to fill out the application including the personal statement, 2 emails to professors for recommendation letters, and an online request for my transcripts and graduation certificates to be mailed to Tsinghua). Chinese students, on the other hand, go through a grueling application and testing process. Might I add, they don’t have air conditioning or hot water in their dormitories (they have special shower areas); we do (international students live separately from Chinese students).

The choice to attend Tsinghua binds the next 2 years of my life–I’ll be 26 when I graduate, ah!–but I’m happy to be here. It’s a new experience and it feels great to be sharing it with a group of new friends (who are all brilliant by the way).

Okay. Now that I’m a student again, I must set a curfew that requires me to get into bed by a reasonable hour (it’s already 1 am). Then, it’ll take another 2 hours to fall asleep after tossing and turning on a slab of concrete. By the end of my 2 years, if I don’t learn anything valuable from school, at least I know I’ll have an iron back.

 

 


Getting there is half the fun!

Remember the 11-day traffic jam in China 2 years ago?  I wasn’t there — thank goodness — but I felt an ounce of fear last night that something similar would happen to me on my way from the airport in Guiyang to Huangping, where I am comfortably air-conditioned now. After 2 hours of racing (I’m talkin’ The Fast and the Furious) through the windy mountainous roads, we came to a halt. For the next 2 hours. By the time we were rolling again, it was already 8:30 pm and would be another 2 hours before dinner. Oh, what’s a 4-hour delay??

(Indiscreetly peeing roadside.)

We were dropped off at the side of a highway (the first time was at a fork in the road), walked through a toll booth with our luggage, only to be picked up by another manic driver who would fly us to dinner, and eventually to our hotel. We were going 60 on roads that would’ve been marked 20 in the US.

One of our drivers (the one who was going to drop us off at the fork in the road). He was all drive, no talk (except when he got a phonecall, which was quite often).

I am safe and sound in Huangping county now, where it’s humid and grey and surrounded by green hills. The majority of the population here are Miao, people from one of the largest ethnic minorities of China.

The locals are very friendly and don’t stare rudely (as they do in Beijing) at the American teacher in our group, a 70-something lady from Jersey who has been teaching English in various countries for over 32 years. But she happens to love Guizhou–its terrain, the Miao and Dong people–so here she is again to train local/rural English teachers on developing their own teaching methods, and I am here to assist.

Nothing spectacular has happened yet, but getting here was certainly half the fun–if you’re into adrenaline rushes from near-death fright.

**If you want to see beautiful photography of Guizhou, check out John Fanai’s site.**


to be a kid again

If Peter Pan showed up at my window and asked me to join him in Neverland, I would fly away in a heartbeat. I’m only 23, but I can feel that as time ticks away, so do bits and pieces of things I treasured most in my childhood, like my imagination.

When I was little, the rooms of my dream house were connected by tunnels and slides. I built forts out of sofa cushions and blankets and it never felt small. One year the Tooth Fairy left me a purple crystal with my tooth in it, and other years she left me money under my pillow. But now that I’m an “adult” who “knows better,” I won’t expect an allowance under my pillow when my teeth begin to fall out, because that’s Life, as much as I wish it wasn’t.

The other day I noticed a little girl, maybe 2-3 years old, who stood wide-eyed before paper butterflies that hung from the ceiling at a mall entrance, marveling at the slight flapping of their wings from the breeze of the swinging doors. I had walked by this display earlier and thought how cheesy the decorations were, but watching the girl in fascination over the fake flowers and butterflies, I realized how much I miss seeing beauty in the ordinary. For a second I tried to envision what the girl saw–a thousand rainbow butterflies floating above a colorful meadow, sparkling with reflections of the sun. In that moment, I too could see the beauty of the cheap  display at the mall entrance. But a moment later, I walked out the swinging door and yelled at a driver for running a red light.

One of the reasons I love kids so much is that I am fascinated by them. They find beauty in ordinary things; they can make things come alive; they find life in obscure places and aren’t afraid to approach them; they don’t complicate things unnecessarily; they don’t discriminate; and they are fearless. Life can be taken at face value when you’re young and untainted. And when Life gets hard, kids can escape to worlds conjured up in their own minds, whereas adults hide their pain behind beer and pill bottles. It’s a shame we have to grow up.

Before I got into my first relationship, I remember wanting to feel heartache. I thought it was part of growing up, of  being human, and I wanted to experience it. Of course it hurt a lot when it actually happened, and rather than having spent hours upon hours analyzing what went wrong, I wish I could’ve just escaped to Neverland, or to an island where the Wild Things live. Reality would have been much easier to cope with.

After my parents’ divorce, I was glad to be far away from them so I wouldn’t have to deal with it. Unfortunately, like Dementors, Life seeped its way across the ocean to interfere with my usual cheerfulness. During that time I often wished to be a kid again, where living in blissful ignorance innocence veiled any and all miseries.

No one should have to grow up “too fast” but when they do, it’s nearly always a painful process. My family members often tell me how 单纯 (danchun), “simple, naive” I am, a fact that I think is ascribed to my Americanized upbringing. My cousin, on the other hand, grew up in China with divorced parents — still a taboo at the time — and a mother who didn’t act like one. While her parents carried on with their own misery or when her mother was absent, my cousin had to fend for herself. Besides what she dealt with at home, she saw ugliness outside too. She learned about Life and all its hardships at a young age when kids I grew up with in Brookline, Massachusetts were playing tag and painting pictures at daycare. Now at  22 years old, my cousin looks, acts and thinks far beyond her age, and definitely far beyond me. The painful part of all of this besides a lost childhood? She wants to be close to her mother.

Perhaps this is a generalization, but from my observations and conversations with adults and children alike, I’ve concluded this: Chinese kids grow up too fast. By the time they’re teenagers, imagination is drilled out of them. One of my biggest difficulties when teaching is getting my students to be creative. They are not yet adults, and they are playful, but their minds have been molded to fit exam bubbles. And this is just the result of the education system; Life, as it was for my cousin, is the other predator.

I started volunteering at a migrant worker community center on the outskirts of Beijing a couple weeks ago. Just being around the kids there is uplifting and even refreshing. They remind me how even the simplest things, like throwing a hackeysack in the air by yourself, can be fun. And getting dirt on your clothes, hands and face is no big deal (as long as you wash up with soap before sticking anything in your mouth). My responsibilities at the center are lacking, but just spending time with the kids is worth the 1 hour 45 minute commute.

As you can probably tell I’m reminiscent of childhood (but I wouldn’t go so far as to start acting like a baby). I like to believe that some of my imagination is still intact and that the rooms of my future house will be accessible by slides. Also, perhaps as subconscious resistance to growing up completely, I find the most enjoyment in stories/plots with child protagonists. Stories like The Little Prince, Where The Wild Things Are, Harry Potter, and Millions take me back to the best days of my life and remind me how precious it is to be a kid. Yes, they are all written by adults, but by adults whom I admire very much for their ability to tell stories from the point of view of size 2 shoes, a wolf suit, and a crown.

Maybe it’s the fact that I’m living at home again, or the fact that babies are everywhere in China, or the fact that Life throws negativities once in a while that has stirred me to think about my childhood so much lately. I also recently read Dave Eggers’ The Wild Things. More likely, though, it is a combination of all these factors. I can’t remember when my first time saying “I wish I were a kid again” was, but it has since become a commonly used phrase in my life. I know it’s never going to happen, but maybe if I wish for it at my next birthday and blow out all the candles, it will come true.

Meanwhile, I’m just “drafting through Fairyland…”

I thought I should mention, as I was writing this post, “The Circle Game” by Joni Mitchell came on, brilliantly summing up everything I just babbled about and gently bringing me back to earth. The world works in funny ways, even for adults, doesn’t it?

Yesterday a child came out to wonder
Caught a dragonfly inside a jar
Fearful when the sky was full of thunder
And tearful at the falling of a star

Then the child moved ten times round the seasons
Skated over ten clear frozen streams
Words like when you’re older must appease him
And promises of someday make his dreams

And the seasons they go round and round
And the painted ponies go up and down
We’re captive on the carousel of time
We can’t return we can only look
Behind from where we came
And go round and round and round
In the circle game *

Sixteen springs and sixteen summers gone now
Cartwheels turn to car wheels thru the town
And they tell him take your time it won’t be long now
Till you drag your feet to slow the circles down

And the seasons they go round and round
And the painted ponies go up and down
We’re captive on the carousel of time
We can’t return we can only look
Behind from where we came
And go round and round and round
In the circle game

So the years spin by and now the boy is twenty
Though his dreams have lost some grandeur coming true
There’ll be new dreams maybe better dreams and plenty
Before the last revolving year is through

And the seasons they go round and round
And the painted ponies go up and down
We’re captive on the carousel of time
We can’t return we can only look
Behind from where we came
And go round and round and round
In the circle game

– Joni Mitchell


“Tag. You’re it!” translates to “I like you!”

Back in my little school days, the game of Tag was super fun and flirtatious. In the same way people tease each other when they like each other, the person who is “it” in Tag always chases the person he/she has a crush on. So, when boys chased after me, it was obvious they had the hots for me, the chubby Asian girl in bright yellow jumpers. Duh. In my tween years, I even had dreams of boys chasing me, totally a sign of their lust for moi.

Well, 10 years later, I was “tagged” again, and it wasn’t a dream! I was tagged by a guy who licks moose. He calls himself Mooselicker. You can tell by his name he is very special and obviously digs me. Or at least my blog. Either way, I am extremely flattered though not surprised because my yellow jumpers have always done me wonders. (My 2nd grade student teacher called me “Sunshine” because of those jumpers. There’s a photo of me wearing them holding a huge turkey leg at Disneyland. Glad I don’t have that photo to show you…)

So, like any game, there are rules. Here are the rules to this “adult” game of Tag:

Rules

1. You must post the rules.
2. Answer the questions the tagger set for you in their post and then create eleven new questions to ask the people you’ve tagged.
3. Tag eleven people and link to them on your post.
4. Let them know you’ve tagged them!

Just like filling out an OkCupid profile, I answer Mooselicker’s questions below:

1. When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up? What did you think you would become?

Romanticizing between being a Spice Girl and a pediatrician, I knew either way I was going to be a people-pleaser. I was going to save the world whether it be with my booty shakin’ or with a stethoscope. Well, neither has happened but I’m still saving the world in my own little ways.

2. Who is your biggest celebrity crush?

I don’t have a “biggest” celebrity crush–there are tons–but my biggest fictional crush is Lloyd Dobler from Say Anything. What a heartthrob, and a nice one.

That should be ME in his arms!

Oh right, then there’s James Franco. Guilty pleasure!

3. Angels, Bigfoots, or Aliens; which one do you think is most likely to exist?

Angels. They live at Victoria’s Secret and come out on Halloween.

4. What is something that everybody seems to enjoy that you hate?

KTV. Everyone’s favorite pastime in China is karaoke. Bleh, I can only do it ever so often.

5. If you opened your front door and I was there, what would you say? What would you really be thinking?

I would say, “Hi! You are the first Jehovah’s Witness that has ever come to my door!” to which you might reply, “No, no, no, I’m not from Kingdom Hall. I’m Mooselicker!” Then, I’d exclaim, “OH MY GOODNESS, I AM SO SORRY!!!”, throw my head back, laugh, give you a huge squeeze and invite you inside for tea and chocolates.

6. What is your favorite movie and why? 

The First Wives Club, because 1) I love everyone in it, 2) it never gets old, 3) it’s cute and hilarious, 4) it subtly empowers women, and 5) I love when Bette, Diane and Goldie sing at the end.

7. There has to be something that you believe you’re the best at, what is it?

Connecting with people. Maybe it’s my smile, or my unusual perkiness, or my enthusiasm when meeting someone new that makes it easy for me to connect with people, and then sell them things. I excel at jobs that involve serving others because I just flash them a smile, nod my head, and tell them how delicious everything is, and they believe me! An ex-coworker hated me for it. She said I was too nice. She is the only person (to my knowledge) that has ever hated me. Whatevs, I know she was just jealous of my likable qualities. If I was making commission at that bakery, I would’ve kicked her ass then wipe it with my 100 dollar billz.

8. Who is the ugliest person you know and why are they so ugly?

Hmmm. I’m having trouble with this one because I try to see the best of everybody. Even if someone is ugly on the outside, I can usually find something beautiful hidden beneath, and vice versa.

9. Is love unconditional?

Yes, until it isn’t. I’m a “hopeless romantic” that loved someone unconditionally for all their terrible qualities that shall not be named, until one day (2 years later, way too long) it finally went away. That is how my affair with unconditional love ended, and boy was it a relief! As for family, yes, love is unconditional.

Reminds me of the time my ex told me not to be jealous if he hooked up with other girls since he was going on tour with his band. Too bad he got kicked out of the band.

10. Lots of people have addictions. What is yours?

Food.

11. What is the nicest compliment you have ever received? What is something that you would like to be complimented more about you?

At the end of my year as a tutor in a 1st grade class, all the students made me handmade thank you cards. Of course they all brought tears to my eyes, but one card especially melted my heart. Johnny, the little rebel who never wanted my help, very unexpectedly wrote “I love you, Ms. He!” and said something along the lines of “I will miss you so much!” and drew me a picture. It wasn’t a direct compliment, but it showed that he actually did like me and that was enough to make me happy for the rest of my life.

If there’s anything I would want to be complimented more on, it would be from my students telling me what a wonderful teacher I am. One day…

Ain't that the truth!

Whew. It took me all day to answer those questions, but now that I have, I’m “it!” That means I get to tag 11 others! And yes, if I tag you, it does mean I have a crush on you (and/or your blog).

These are the folks I’m passing the torch on to (I know some of you have already been tagged recently, so I understand if you  choose not to go through with this again!):

howtodateboys

A Single Year

Your Daily Dose

Currie Rose: Based on a True Story

Traveling Tastebuds

The Sandy Tongue

Tamar Dart

Pigeon Heart

lolweltschmerz

Wandering American

Shards of China

Occulto Antonio (I added one more)

These are my 11 questions for you:

1) What is your favorite childhood memory?

2) If there is one thing you could change about yourself, what would it be and why?

3) What is your favorite pastime, besides blogging of course?

4) Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

5) Do you like where you currently live? Why or why not?

6) What is your biggest life goal?

7) What are 3 things you always carry with you?

8) What is the one place you really want to visit?

9) Do you think the world is going to end in 2012?

10) What is your most embarrassing experience you are willing to share with the world?

11) What is your comfort food?

Well alright then, get out onto the field and start running folks-of-the-blogosphere! You are “it!”


Family Portraits (and a Petition)

While I was having fun with my new iPhone, I came across the Hubba Hubba app that so accurately captured the finest features of my family. My mom, a.k.a. Goody Two-Shoes, thinks Daddy-O looks like Saddam Hussein, but I think she’s crazy because Daddy-O’s got a heart of gold. “Sweet Mama” (that’s me) doesn’t quite fit my image, but that’s because it takes time to grow into the title and I’m still young! By the way, don’t be fooled by Goody Two-Shoes’ name folks. Once she finds out I posted that photo  online for the world to see, she’s going to pick that feather from her hat and shove it up who-knows-where! No, no, I was just joshin’. She wouldn’t do that. I’m an only child! Anyway, that’s my family in a nutshell!

Another thing now that I have your attention (hopefully), while I’m here downloading useless (but fun) apps on my iphone, tens of thousands of other Chinese people are suffering from exposure to toxic chemicals, losing their hands, and even attempting suicide from the horrible working conditions of Apple, Inc. factories. Like most people I’m sure, I was totally unaware of this fact, and to be honest, the thought to ask where my iPhone and Mac laptop came from didn’t even occur to me.  While the American version of the iPhone might say “Designed by Apple in California, Assembled in China” on the back, my Chinese version somehow forgot the “Assembled in China” part. Oops. How clever! The Chinese 1% doesn’t want anything Made in China. They want Made in America/Italy/France/Japan/Anywhere-but-China, and Steve Jobs and gang knew just this!

Now, I’m not asking anybody to discard their iPhones and iPads–I’m certainly not. What I’m suggesting, and it’s not a lot for you to do, is to click here and sign the petition to “Apple: to protect workers making iPhones in Chinese factories”. As you may have seen in the news, Foxconn, one of Apple’s main suppliers has already increased their workers’ salaries (probably to the salary it should’ve been in the first place) showing some success in the case. Apple is obviously not the only corporation that exploits its workers. However, with Apple being one of the most powerful industries in the world, it should do more–and quickly–to demand safe working and living conditions and fair wages.

I was taxed up-the-butt for this darned ol’ thing. That extra cash should go straight to the pockets of the overworked factory laborers, not California.

The Petition: https://www.change.org/petitions/apple-ceo-tim-cook-protect-workers-making-iphones-in-chinese-factories


The No Good Do-Gooder

I have long been confused by what doing “good” means. Is it giving food to someone who doesn’t have any? Is it donating your clothes to Goodwill? How about donating thousands of dollars to charity? Or flying to Africa to build wells? Aren’t all of these things good???????? From what I learned in college, the answer is Yes and No. That got me nowhere except to a greater state of confusion.

I was on the subway today, a smelly one. The stench was oozing from a teenage boy who was sleeping soundly in his seat. He had dirt on his clothes and it covered his face, neck and unwashed hair. He wore his raggedy old shoes on the wrong feet, and his sweatpants were covered with short white animal hairs. His face was red and eyes puffy as if he had cried, or was just exhausted. He had no belongings with him. At first I too was bothered by the smell like those around me with their fingers rammed up their nostrils. But then I noticed his boyish features and began to feel intense sadness for him.

Homeless people are everywhere, I know. But this boy sat right in front of me, sleeping, not noticing my rude, but heartfelt staring. I was carrying a bag of pastries and asked my dad if I should leave one for the boy. My dad said there was no need. But right before we got off the train, I left a pastry on the seat anyway. When I told my dad who hadn’t noticed, he said it wasn’t the right way to “do good.”

When I lived in NYC, I worked for a bakery that wasted a lot of food, like any food business. Sometimes I took whole cakes with me and left them on benches at Union Square or Washington Square Park where I knew a lot of homeless hung around. Sometimes I left things on the subway, hoping a hungry person would snag up the free goods. Then one day my friend made an excellent point that homeless people shouldn’t eat things like cake and cookies because it could cause long-term health problems that they can’t afford to cure. Instead, I should leave them apples and bread.

Well that got me in a bind. There I was with bags of free food and the worry that people are hungry, plus the awareness that cash isn’t always spent in the “right” places. So what was I to do with the food and my dilemma? Did I want to be the cause of someone’s diabetes, obesity and cavities? On the other hand, did I want to waste perfectly good dessert when there were starving children in Africa? 

On my way to the train, my dad and I passed a man selling a boxful of chicks. My initial reaction was ANIMAL CRUELTY! Then I thought, This farmer is just trying to make a living. And then, How cute would it be to have little yellow chickens running around my room? I could be their saviour.  My dad, being the more rational adult, pulled me away before I could whip out a few bucks that would ruin the lives of the little fur-balls forever. They might be suffering in the tiny living quarters, but they would also suffer from my neglect. These chickens are living beings, I can’t mess with that. Meanwhile, there’s the potentially hungry farmer I could’ve made a purchase from so he had some daily earnings (but he has all those chickens…) What is a gal to do in this situation? I did nothing except take this picture.

Compassion and generosity are qualities I’m proud to claim, but naive and impulsive tag along. I admit I tend to romanticize things. I’m happy I have a “good” heart and optimism, but my friends and family are right when they say I am naive. The world seem a lot simpler to me than it really is. This obstructs my ability to think holistically and do effectively, and instead leads me to act impulsively. It would be awesome if I could solve all the world’s problems. But I can’t. Nobody can. I’ve given up on that dream already, but I still believe one person can make a difference, and that making a difference to one person is still “good”.

But how? Was leaving a pastry for someone who might not even eat it or is too afraid to take it what I should’ve done to “help out” this kid? Is handing out dollar bills to homeless children who might work for abusive bosses going to benefit them or hurt them in the long-run? Here’s the question of the century: is it better to do something than nothing at all? These are the daily conundrums I have to deal with in my head. You should see what big ideas I’ve got stored upstairs. Anyway, that’s why I’ve decided to go to grad school. Maybe Professor Wong or Doctor Chan can tell me if I should’ve left a cupcake or an apple, or nothing at all.


“The Classical Music Revolution of China”

I just read an editorial piece in the New York Times about classical music and it’s place among the Occupy Wall Street movement that got me thinking about my own family. “From the Medici family and Ludwig of Bavaria to Andrew Carnegie and David H. Koch, classical music, like other performing arts, has long depended on the 1 percent,” writes Anthony Tommasini. This is not so far off in China either, at least not nowadays.

The arts are an important component to China’s cultural inheritance. Mao himself was a poet and a lover of music — granted, the only music allowed during his regime were “Red Songs” with lyrics from his own poetry, but it was music nonetheless. Classical music was not introduced to China until the late 1970s under Deng Xiaoping’s leadership. A professor from the Central Conservatory of Music had written Deng a letter requesting permission to enroll students after a 10-year dry spell during the Cultural Revolution–a timely request as Deng was set on modernizing China, opening doors to western influence, and consequently classical music. Permission granted,  17,285 people lined up for the college entrance examination. Narrowed down to 105 total enrollments, my mom was one of 20 singers from all of China to join the ranks. This was the first wave of a new revolution — what I call the “Classical Music Revolution of China.”

My dad followed my mom’s footsteps shortly after, and post graduation, followed her to the United States where she pursued her career in opera, and had me. Growing up,  classical music and the arts in general, surrounded me. (I am writing this post while my mom’s student is roaring Italian lyrics downstairs.) Our family friends were literally all involved in the arts, and while I dabbled in it, I did not end up a musician–a great mystery and shame to many.

My mom as CioCio Sun in Madame Butterfly.

In the west, my mom could study music with American and European teachers, while in the east, the field was still developing. I remember as a child touring around the States watching her perform in Madame Butterfly, La Boheme and Carmen, among others. She also traveled all over the world, singing operas in various European languages. Her career flourished in the west, where opera was an occasion for dressing up and showing off wealth and culture. In the wake of rising tuitions and increasing economic disparity, this is one of Occupy Wall Street’s arguments; performing arts are elitist.

There is no doubt that classical music has historically been limited to the upper class, but as Tommasini points out in his article, there is today an abundance of free and affordable performing arts events throughout New York City.  Similarly in China, attending a performance at the National Center for the Performing Arts is not a cheap ordeal. But there are events scattered throughout Beijing that are accessible to those who are curious or interested. The school my mom works for (the high school attached to the Central Conservatory of Music), for example, often puts on free performances for the public. Too bad the turnouts remain to be low.

Many of my mom’s students come from the wealthiest of families — sons and daughters of leaders in the coal industry, an army surgeon, TV/movie stars, political figures, and various successful businesspeople. This is a major difference between music students today and music students from my parents’ generation. My parents were extremely poor when they began schooling, as were all families during that time, but again, classical music was just a budding interest then. Now that the west has full-blown influence over Chinese society and culture (much to Hu Jingtao’s dismay), classical music has become a popular career path. However, only those who can afford the education can find a place in that field, unless you are blessed with a voice that penetrates the heart and soul of the judges at your audition.

I completely agree with Occupy Wall Street protestors that “the main issue regarding performing arts institutions is not inaccessibility but insularity,” because as I said, you have to have the funds to pursue this career. I have questioned my parents’ morality for working for government-run and arguably profit-oriented schools, but after having witnessed their frustrations, the dead ends, and watching my mom teach tirelessly, my mind changed. My parents’ passion for music and grounded dedication to their students are reason enough for my admiration (besides being their only child of course). And from personal encounters with these students, they’re not so bad. Sure, some are snobby teenagers with brand name clothing and a private apartment, but where in the world are there not such people? They are like any other child striving to achieve their dreams as musicians–just like hip hop artists, baseball players, doctors and lawyers–who happen to come from the 1% (most who work their butts off to support their child’s dreams).

There are  many things I find wrong with Chinese society (as you may have determined from my previous posts), but one thing I have come to appreciate during my time here is the cultural fervor. Don’t get me wrong, I am aware that many Chinese artists are suppressed, exiled, jailed, because I am lucky to have an outlet to both eastern and western news, but just knowing that they exist excites me because I sense the kindling of a counterrevolution. And knowing that my parents are part of this movement — whether they see it as that or not — makes me very proud to be their daughter.

Life is definitely different now that my parents are classical-music-big-shots as opposed to lower- to middle- class immigrants, but I will never consider our family elitist. We are just a loving bunch of teachers committed to passing on what we know to whoever will listen.


My First Crime: Teachings of the Tiananmen Square Massacre

I have been teaching Luke, a Chinese high school student, spoken English. He comes from Zhejiang, an eastern coastal province, and traveled by train to Beijing, the only other Chinese city besides Shanghai he has ever visited, to study English. He’s an awesome kid who yawns a lot, but he is very enthusiastic and diligent about his studies. Luke’s regular school schedule in Zhejiang would be unimaginable to anyone outside China; 6 days a week, 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. with two breaks in between for meals. Personally, knowing what I know and seeing what I’ve seen, life would be utterly unbearable forced to stay within school walls for more than half the day, everyday. For Luke, though, it is a nice thing to be around his friends all day.

For our English classes, I have been selecting newspaper articles from the New York Times and BBC for him to summarize, but more importantly, for him to learn about the world outside his home. To my surprise, I, a foreigner, was also teaching him about his own country. I have had him read articles about India’s missing children, Arizona’s immigration law, orangutang habitats, former NBA player Stephen Marbury now playing for the Beijing Ducks, and most recently about the Chinese government’s attempt to censor the nation’s microblogs against “rumors,” aka any utterances against the government.

Somehow Tiananmen Square came up in one of our heated debates (I like to play devil’s advocate with Luke–he hates it). I mentioned the Tiananmen Square Massacre, after defining what “massacre” was, but Luke had no idea what I was talking about; he vaguely knew about the protests, but he didn’t know people were killed, tanked. My jaw literally dropped below my knees, and so I began my rant about dictatorship, censorship, Communism, and the Chinese education system that intensely suppresses the smallest ounce of information that suggests anything negative about the government. This he knew; many Chinese students I have met know that information is missing from their lessons but they also know that any questioning of or disagreement with a teacher is pretty much forbidden, unless you’re a masochist.

I forgot to mention that my 22 year old cousin also had no idea about the Tiananmen Square Massacre. Can you picture my jaw literally scraping along concrete as we were walking in the street talking openly in Chinese about this national incident hidden from Chinese youth?

After sharing with Luke what I knew about the Tiananmen Square Massacre, the only crime I’ve probably ever committed, I then asked Luke if he had heard of Liu Xiaobo, the 2010 Chinese Nobel Peace Prize winner (crime #2). This time unsurprisingly, he said “no.” So, I went on spilling the rotten beans about his home country. Thankfully Luke was very eager to learn more–he likes anything “tragic”–and pressed me on to continue my disenchantments of China. Don’t worry, after our lesson I wiped all the new vocabulary–dictator, censorship, freedom of speech, Communism, massacre–off the board.

A few days later, I had dinner with a Chinese friend I met in my first year at Ithaca College, in the States. I brought up my shock and horror of China’s ability to manipulate and suppress news, simultaneously wondering how that is even possible in the digital age where information is accessible to everyone–except China obviously, although sites like Wikipedia, BBC  and NYTimes are still available. So then how can people still be so oblivious to horrific crimes that occur in their own country?

Well, my friend said plainly, if there is no interest, no suggestion that would lead one to search for such events, why would anybody go out of their way to find the information?

That made complete sense to me. If nobody ever told, or hinted, to Luke that violent crimes occurred in 1989, what are the chances of him googling “Tiananmen Square Massacre” or Liu Xiaobo on his own? None! You can’t find what you’re not looking for.

I have been in China exactly 4 months and my mind has already been blown to pieces by numerous and various forces. As I am still unaccustomed to many Chinese ways and have much more to learn about how this country works, I will take advantage of this “ignorance” as defense  in case any scary Red Guards chase after me and continue my rants about what I think my students deserve to know. Information is meant to be known; it can’t be hidden forever. I have much to uncover, much to learn, as do my students, and the Chinese government. It’s just a matter of (jail)time, exiles, and many disappearances.

I’m writing all of this in the wake of Kim Jong-il’s death. Oy.

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Well-known Chinese Human Rights Activists/Dissidents (that I, and you probably already, know of):

Chen Guangcheng – blind civil rights activist who defended women’s rights against forced sterilization and abortion

Gao Zhisheng – a defendant of Falun Gong practitioners (of which there are many now living in New York City and I think Russia)

Ai Weiwei – an influential artist highly critical of the Chinese government

Liu Xiaobo – a writer and Nobel Peace Prize winner who helped draft Charter 08, calling for political and legal reforms

My list is a short one, but it’s a hopeful one.


Help A Sister Out!

Hello Friends From All Over the World!

My friend Hannah, who I mentioned in a previous post, is in Guatemala with the Peace Corps making a real difference that most people, including myself, merely think about doing but don’t for whatever convenient reason. If you are one of these people, well here is your chance to do something–help 16 year old Any continue her education by visiting Hannah’s blog and making a monetary contribution!

Any Cordova Caal

It is a common question–how can I, an individual, make a difference? Well, besides what Hannah is doing–devoting 2 years of her life to helping develop a remote village in Guatemala (they just built a “bottle school!!”)–I also offer the example of “Africa’s Beautiful Bag Lady” which I found equally inspiring:  http://animprobablelife.com/2011/11/26/lori-robinson-bag-project-africa/

Whether you make a contribution or not, I hope you do at least take a peek at Hannah’s blog because not only is she excellent writer, she is truly passionate about her work. Oh Hannah, you are my role model!

Maybe after reading all of these blogs that I come across everyday of individuals who are doing amazing things around the world, I will finally get off my bum and do what I’ve always dreamed of doing–building schools.