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.


Disturbing Signs of Anti-Japaneseism

Yesterday a cab driver asked me if I thought China and Japan would go to war. Then today I saw this sign outside a real-estate agency in Wudaokou, the local hub of international students:

I was taken aback by the cab driver’s question because though I was aware of China and Japan’s territorial dispute over the East China Sea islands, I hadn’t realized the seriousness and scale of public discontent it had brewed up throughout China. That is until today.

At first when I read the bright yellow sign, I laughed and took a picture thinking My instagram followers will get a kick out of this ridiculous sign.  I had noticed that the Japanese flag was crossed out, and it had bothered me initially, but I didn’t think too much of it. A few hours later, however, as I kept thinking about the flag it increasingly bothered me to the point where I felt angry. It should’ve occurred to me the moment I saw the sign that the crude image of a bleeding Japanese flag could offend a Japanese passer-by. There were, after all, many Japanese students at the surrounding universities, including mine.

With the surge of my own discontent, I marched out of the cafe where I was “doing work” and walked determinedly back to the real-estate agency. I went straight up to the sign with paper and tape in hand and covered up the threatening image.

One of the real-estate agents hanging-out outside (I’ve never seen them working) asked me what I was doing, so I said innocently that I was covering up the bloody flag because it made me uncomfortable. The next thing he asked was if I was Japanese — I had expected this question. Then another employee, a young woman around my age, accused me of vandalizing their property and that that was disrespectful. To this I rebutted it was disrespectful to display such a threatening image in a neighborhood where many Japanese students roamed the streets. These Japanese students came to China to study, to study our language, our culture, and possibly one day to improve Sino-Japanese ties. Regretfully I didn’t say this out loud because I couldn’t think fast enough, especially not in Chinese. Besides, before I could say anything further another employee came at me exclaiming, “Was the Rape of Nanking not disrespectful?!?” Of course it was; it was disgusting and devastating and plain old wrong. But it happened in 1937, and I’m not saying it should be forgotten or forgiven — definitely not — but if we hold onto these bitter grudges we will never move forward.

What the first employee said next was extremely disturbing. When I asked him why they had drawn blood on the flag, he told me it was because the Japanese should be killed, roughly in those words. And he dramatically ripped the paper off to re-expose the bleeding flag. A very strong sinking feeling, similar to nausea, grew in the pit of my stomach. Finally, I left the situation (which captured the attention of a few nosy passerby’s) and went back to the cafe feeling totally defeated and unsettled.

I’ve never been good at defending my arguments, but I know inherently that what I did was right, or at least okay, even if I failed at it. Looking back on what happened, however, I don’t think I handled the situation effectively. It might’ve been more diplomatic if I had asked the real-estate agents who had made the sign if I could cover up the disturbing image explaining that it made me uncomfortable, rather than march right up to it and arguably “vandalize” their property. I think they would’ve at least considered my argument if I had respected their opinion first (even if it was ill-conceived).

I don’t have strong opinions on who should control the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, but I don’t think they are worth going to war for. And although I don’t think tensions will actually escalate to that level, the cab driver’s question alarmed me and brought to light the intensity of current unrest — everyone is talking about the dispute and protests broke out in various cities in China, including Beijing, this weekend. I am all for free speech (I grew up in Brookline, Massachusetts), but when it infringes on the livelihood of people around you — making people scared to admit their nationality, making them scared to even come out of their dorm rooms — shouldn’t there be some kind of (non-violent) intervention? Of course not to the scale of attacking the embassy and killing the ambassador…but something.

My uncle, a former historian, is not a fan of the Japanese. He individually protests by boycotting Japanese products, but he would never resort to disrespectful slurs or violence to express his dislike.

Yes, the Chinese are very patriotic (how can they not be? Patriotism is instilled, internalized, forced into the Chinese people) and their protests against the Japanese is a form of nationalistic pride, but throwing eggs and rocks at the Japanese embassy, blowing up Japanese cars, pulling the flag out of the ambassador’s car and making petty little signs do not make you look good in the international eye and it certainly isn’t a mature response to the dispute.

My own little dispute with the real-estate agents today was a slap in the face. It woke me up to how real the tensions are between the Chinese and Japanese. I came home and caught up on all the news about the East China Sea islands as well as the South China Sea islands territorial disputes, and tried to form my own opinion on who should own the islands. But I just can’t help thinking how ridiculous it is for people to hate one another because of pride and power and possession. On the other hand, it also showed me how unified the Chinese can be during times like these. If only people could aim these collective efforts towards something more domestically beneficial, like protesting against political corruption, or improving urban and rural sanitation, or building safer infrastructure, instead of worrying about piles of floating rocks in the ocean that the ordinary citizen will never be privileged enough to step foot onto anyway.

**I’m curious to know what you would’ve done if you had seen the sign above. Should I have just let it be (in the end it remained anyway…)? Did I try to cover up someone else’s right to free speech (even though there isn’t free speech in China) by attempting to cover up their drawing? Should I protest Century 21 (the real-estate agency)?? What are your opinions on the territorial disputes? And what the heck is this world coming to (with political unrest all over the world)????????


Southern Hospitality Widespread in Guizhou Province

The people of Guizhou province are the friendliest, most hospitable and generous individuals I have ever met in China. This observation is even clearer now that I’m back in Beijing, where everyone snarls at one another. Could be southern hospitality like in the States, though I wonder if I’d ever feel comfortable enough to ask a stranger to use their toilet in Texas…Probably not.

I was hiking down a hill toward a small village in Langdong when typical bouts of stomachache set in — bathroom emergency. The first house my friend, Yoyo, and I came across we asked to use the bathroom. Not only did the grandfather agree to let me let my bowels loose in his home (excuse the graphics!),  he also provided generous amounts of toilet paper!! This, being in a place where public bathrooms still charge tourists and everyone carries toilet paper on them at all times (except me because I always forget)!  I was so grateful I didn’t even mind the snorting hog in the next pen.

On my way out, the grandfather invited me and Yoyo to stay for breakfast with him and his grandson. We courteously refused — we wanted to witness the process of making handmade tofu at another home in the village — but we sat for a little while.

    

I was invited to “sit a while” by numerous neighborly strangers throughout Guizhou. I experienced a similar kind of welcomeness in Morocco where I was constantly invited to have tea and stay for free  in peoples’ homes. Sometimes yes, the hosts had intentions of making money. But in one of China’s poorest provinces, how could I not buy the handmade batik (wax art on cloth) that the nice lady overcharged my American companion for and then for which she offered me a “local” price? Especially after she voluntarily showed us around her ancient stone village?

Though Guizhou is home to many ethnic minority groups, I spent most of my time in Qiandongnan Prefecture where Miao villages are predominant. We saw people, most noticeably women because of their dress, from other minority groups such as Dong and Gejia, but most were Miao (Hmong).

When I told a Beijinger that I spent time in Miao villages, she remarked that Miao women are very beautiful. It’s true. Miao people have different features from Han (the majority–I’m Han). They have big, deep-set eyes and creased eyelids (now available via a simple surgical procedure), and their skin is darker from the powerful southern sun. Their costumes vary from region to region, as well as by age. In Huangping, for example, older women wear plain, bun-shaped hats while younger women wear more colorful ones. Old women just wrap towels around their heads, and instead of flowery garments, they wear undecorated royal blue robes. In Kaili, Leishan, Langde and Xijiang, women wear their hair in buns on the top of their heads, often supported by black yarn to resemble more hair. They decorate their hair with fake flowers and colorful pins and a special comb, but with different details from village to village.

Huangping

 Leishan

Photo credit: Judy Manton

Langde

(2nd photo credit: Judy Manton)

And how ’bout this fine gentleman sporting a Soviet winter hat in the middle of summer?

Stone Village, Anshun

Whole elaborate outfits are only worn for festivals. Women spend lots of time and money — often thousands and thousands of Yuan — embroidering, sewing, pleating and decorating these garments by hand. A small piece of hand-embroidery is worth hundreds, even thousands, of Yuan because it is so meticulous.

The silver they wear around their necks, on their heads and in their ears weigh a lot. But silver is believed to cast away evil spirits, so people always wear it, most often as a bracelet. Naturally, I bought one for myself.  I like to think that the silver not only protects me from evil, but also connects me to Guizhou.

It’s a relief to know that there are still people in China who are kind, un-abrasive, patient, and honest. I’ve been in Beijing for 3 days now and already feel anger and frustration in the pit of my stomach because people here can be so cold, which is ironic because it’s steaming outside.


Emily, The Awkward Turtle 2: Never Set Emily Up With A Boy

An interesting thing happened the other night. Someone tried to set me up with a Taiwanese man. A girly one.

I went out to dinner with Dingding, her boyfriend and a couple of new folks, Frank and May (not real names). Frank and May are having an affair; May married with a child, and Frank, a coworker. May explained to me that she wasn’t cheating on her husband because she was having an “affair.” That confused me because I thought having an affair was cheating. And so, I asked el internet. (I’ll get back to my Taiwanese encounter as soon as I figure this out.)

Wikipedia: 

An “emotional affair” can be defined as follows:

“A relationship between a person and someone other than (their) spouse (or lover) that has an impact on the level of intimacy, emotional distance and overall dynamic balance in the marriage. The role of an affair is to create emotional distance in the marriage.”[1]

In this view, neither sexual intercourse nor physical affection is necessary to impact the committed relationship(s) of those involved in the affair. It is held that an emotional affair can injure a committed relationship more than a one night stand or other casual sexual encounters.

Oprah:

Are you wondering whether you are having an emotional affair?

  • Do you avoid telling your partner how much time you spend or talk with the other person?
  • Do you tell this person more about your day than your partner? Do you even tell him about your marital dissatisfaction?
  • Do you “ready your appearance” to see him?
  • Is there a sexual attraction (spoken or unspoken) between you?
  • Would you feel guilty if your partner saw you together?

If you answer yes to two or more of these questions, get out of there. You are cheating!


Okay. So according to Wiki and Oprah and several other internet sources, an emotional affair is worse than infidelity, which is physical cheating. I don’t know how many yes’s May has to Oprah’s questions, but she defines her relationship with Frank as an affair and regardless of what Oprah and Wiki say, I’ll just take her word for it that she’s not cheating. She just has feelings for a man who is not her husband.

I miss feelings. I miss having crushes on people like I’m in middle school. I don’t like people setting me up with others unless they’re actually really cool and attractive. Sound shallow? Well, there are certain things people should be picky about. A potential mate is one of them.

As I was saying at the beginning of this post, I was at dinner with Dingding and friends (at this DELICIOUS, 1.5 hour wait, tiny mom-and-pop Sichuan cuisine shop). I was the 5th wheel, but I didn’t mind. Not having a partner means I get to have full portions to myself. F*$! sharing. I’m an only child with a big appetite.

We are all chatting having a grand ol’ time until May decides to set me up with one of her friends. John, the Taiwanese fella, lives nearby, so she calls him up and he comes on over. Black button up shirt, black slacks, a shoulder bag. Meh, not my style, but not terrible. He says hello cheerily to all the others and looks at me like he knows what May was stewing. I give him an awkward, overly friendly wave, he sits down and begins chatting away with Frank and May. Fine with me! Then May nudges me and asks me why I’m not talking to John, who’s sitting just a few seats away, putting me in a very awkward situation. Well because he’s sitting there waving his hands and fingers all over town like a valley girl, not looking at me ever, WHICH I AM FINE WITH, and to be honest, he’s not very interesting. Did I forget to mention that I’m not into Asians? “Oh, he’s really nice. I’m just really awkward.”

(These are some of the photos that came up under image search “awkward”:

Can someone please explain why there are so many animals involved with “awkward”?) 

So May, a friend I might have to cross off my list, starts talking about me to John, saying things like, “Emily is from America,” and “She’s going to Taiwan in July.” Of course I’m not going to Taiwan in July, but okay, to humor everyone else at the table. This is what I chime in, “Taiwanese food is so good!” to which he responds, “Mmhm.” We were a match made in heaven.

Then as all new friendships progress, everyone exchanges Weibo (Chinese twitter) information. As John is busy doing so, I violently, but hopefully not too conspicuously, shake my head at Dingding as to say, NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO to her sudden interest in this “set up”. I’m a little shocked that she thinks John and I would make a good couple. My friends back home (in America) would NEVER set me up with a John, and for that, I love them so so so so much.

We finally leave the restaurant and thank God — if there is one — that John is not coming to the bar with us. As we bid him farewell, forever from me, John begs May, “Please don’t say anything yet! Please please please, not while I’m still here!” I think he was just as disinterested in me as I was in him. Phew. Although also a little bit insulting. People always wants what they can’t have, but in this case, I still don’t want him.

As we head over to the bar, May asks why I’m not interested in John. But before I can answer, she explains to me how many Taiwanese men are quite girly. The way John spoke, the way he flicked his wrists when speaking, just part of his Taiwanese nature. I’m sure this isn’t true of all Taiwanese men (HELLOOO? Jeremy Lin!), but John, he’s just….not for me.

I’m itching for some companionship, but being set up is not the way to do it. It/I was too awkward and uncomfortable. I prefer doing it my own way, whatever that way is, even if it takes a million years and a lot of mistakes. At least I can learn from my mistakes. But do I?


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


Babytalk: A Phenomenon!

Does every couple develop a dialect/accent/language/voice of their own? Particularly babytalk? Is it necessary for lovers to speak to one another in babytalk in order for the other to understand? Do they think it disguises what they’re saying from others around them even though it’s a universal language?

I haven’t been in a relationship in a while and I can’t remember if my ex and I had a secret language. Yes, sometimes I spoke to him in a higher, goo-goo-ga-ga-ly pitch asking things like, “Do you really love me? Do you REAAAAAAAALLLLLLY love me? How much? THIS much? Okay okay, I wuv you tooo!” I’m exaggerating, but it seems like all couples have a special way of communicating such insecurities. But must we talk like babies to do so??

I have a friend who-shall-not-be-named who shares a special dialect of English/Irish/babytalk with her boyfriend that is mostly used, from my observations, when talking about their feelings. If their conversation transitions into something more serious, like about work and school, they use regular English. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a very cute accent they share, but I’m still curious as to why their voices digress to infant-hood when wishing each other good night?

Another friend who-shall-not-be-named seems to have permanently engaged babytalk. Her boyfriend has adapted to this language very well, and I dare say 75% of their conversations (at least around me) are spoken in this obnoxious pitch. To get in on the dialogue, I had to adjust the level of my own voice to match theirs. If this offers any explanation to the phenomenon, they are Chinese, and from what I’ve seen on Chinese television, babytalk is commonly used by young women.


In fact, the baby is so darn cute these days that adult women not only emulate them in speech, but also in habit. At a restaurant several weeks ago, my cousins and I were appalled to see a 20-something Chinese woman suck on a baby bottle!!!!! Filled with milk!! In public!!! All the while she was taking photos of herself with puckered lips and too much hair in her face. The woman sitting across from her, presumably her mother, was unmoved. My cousins and I, on the other hand, oh we were moved. We were moved by the way she couldn’t actually suck the milk out of the nipple so she unscrewed the top and sipped from the rim. She’s an adult after all! 

It just occurred to me that my friends who have been in really long relationships – the married type and the soon-to-be married type – including my parents and my friends’ parents, do not break out in special languages/accents/dialects/babytalk with their partners. I wonder if it’s because they grow out of it, just like babies do? Or maybe because they master keeping it an actual secret? Or because couples who have been together for so long no longer need to express their feelings through absurd voices?

Like I said, I have not been in a relationship in a while and can’t remember what it’s like communicating with a lover. But I hope when the next boyfriend rolls along, we won’t confess our love for each other like overgrown babies. At least not in front of other people.


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.

____________________________

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.