Saturday, June 2, 2012

The Dragon of Development

“I have to go home because my house will be destroyed,” answered my closest Chinese friend after I asked about her weekend plans. Effie, as she is known to her American friends, grew up in the rural area surrounding the provincial capital city of Zhengzhou. Effie is the eldest of two daughters. Her mother washes dishes three times a day for a nearby high school. Her father is a farmer during the planting and harvesting seasons and a construction worker during the off-season. Effie is the first of her family to ever attend university, a source of pride and joy to her parents but also a tremendous financial burden.

And now on top of the stress that burden, the Chinese Communist Party has decided that Effie’s village (and several more neighboring villages) would be an ideal location for a new housing and business development and have given all the families their one-month notice. Because Effie’s family and neighbors are being forced out of their lease before the expiration date (no one in China actually owns any private property but leases from the government in 50-70 year contracts), the government has graciously provided a moving stipend—covering about 25% of the actual costs of moving, not considering any emotional damages. When I heard about this unfair compensation, my first question to Effie was if the village people could band together and petition or protest such treatment. Effie said they could and in the beginning had tried a little, but the local officials had put a catch in the compensation deal: families had only two days to decide to accept the compensation as is or it would be reduced. Two days is very little time to organize any cohesive protest, especially when individual families had to weigh the possibility a little money versus no money. And so, guaranteed money won out and unjust practices triumphed.

Effie went on to tell me a story even more surprising that I believe but cannot confirm. A law student from the highly rated Zhengzhou University heard about the eviction edict and decided to put his education into practice. He visited the families and talked about what legal measures could be taken in such a situation. Effie mentioned how hope blossomed in the hearts of her family members. Being forced to move would not only be financially taxing, but Effie’s parents had built their house by hand and had lived in this village for many years. It was their home and life. The thought that they might be able to stay, or even that they might have a right to increased compensation, was beyond belief. And beyond belief is exactly what such hope is as a citizen of China. After not hearing anything for a few weeks, Effie’s family saw a small article in the newspaper about this student’s tragically fatal traffic accident—common enough in Zhengzhou but maybe, in this case, not so accidental. Who can truly say, but recent and historical incidents do cast a negative light.

So what is the ending to our story? Effie phoned a friend who she knew leased a couple of rooms, and while a man had called the day before to claim them, he had not yet put down a deposit. Thus, some lucky timing landed Effie’s family with a place to live and that at a “friend’s price.” I can only assume many other families were not so fortunate. And the moral of our story? The all-consuming dragon of Chinese development and progress will not hesitate to squash the little people of China on its journey to modernity. But in its headlong rush towards development, it might very well destroy the foundation of China’s strength and the spirit of its people.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Stalker Boy

I am being stalked. It is a most unpleasant (although you might find it humorous) experience. But maybe I should start at the beginning…

It began with an idiom. Quite an innocent enough looking idiom: my two cents. I make it a practice of teaching my students a new English idiom every week, so it was nothing new to teach them “my two cents.” I even had this wonderful idea of bringing into class some actual American pennies; it went over superbly. The next week, one of my students Nathan (not the brightest but not the bottom of the barrel either) asked me if he could have a penny. I thought, It’s only a penny, why not? So I gave him one and even told him to not worry about paying me the little that a penny is worth in Chinese RMB. Then, since it was the end of class, we headed out together. This is also not uncommon. I often find myself walking back to my building with students since many want to continue practicing English with me and are too shy to come to my office hours. Little did I know how this simple walk would evolve, or I might not have been so conversational. Later that evening, I got the first text message. It ran something along the lines of “Thanks for the penny.” But it spiraled out of control from there; I can’t begin to recount the plethora of messages I received from this one boy over the next two weeks. And most of the messages were, well, bizarre, especially considering this was not one of the students with whom I had any sort of out-of-class relationship. I will recount a few that were memorable.
* i so sad i think to die (Now, how does one respond to that through text?)
* i still want say i love you (This was after he cancelled a meeting with me because of a time conflict. I went on to reply that I was his teacher and this was inappropriate to say. Little did that rebuttal affect his profuseness.)
* you wake up at 10 you are a pig haha (This was sent after I replied the next day to a message from the night before. I wake up at 5:30, but I wasn’t about to waste my phone money explaining that.)
* you are teacher but still human being i have right to say i love you (This was after another message that he should not text me that he loves me.)
* i miss you can i visit you now (I responded that I was out. He went on.) you good teacher (I reply with thanks.) you misunderstand when we say something good in china we mean the opposite (This is not generally accurate, but does at times happen. I chose not to respond) i say wrong you are angry (I responded that my phone was out of money, which it almost was with all his texting I had needed to answer.)

My younger sister can testify to the fact that I am not big on texting. So I found this continued string of text messages that just would not stop coming increasingly frustrating, if a little humorous. Basically, I simply stopped replying unless the message absolutely required an answer. Nathan wanted to meet me, which was fine by me because I am his teacher, and office hours are a required part of my contract. We set a time for Friday at 2. That was today. Nathan came at 1. (The Chinese sense of time, scheduling, and dropping by is a topic for another day.) I told him to come back at 2 since I was in the middle of a project. At 2, I was waiting for him. 2:10 comes and goes. And so does 2:15. I send him a text message. He replies at 2:40 that he is in the middle of a game and cannot leave. I send him a message, asking him to please let me know if he cannot make a meeting so that I will not wait.

Now, I also want to clarify that this is not normal of most Chinese students. I have had many Chinese students visit me; they all seem to be able to arrive within 10 minutes of the set time. Additionally, I teach sophomore students so they have already had one whole year with a foreign teacher and are all aware of our respect for schedules and appointments. While slightly annoyed with the wasted forty minutes, I was actually more amused by his antics. If he was trying to win over my heart, he was certainly going about it the wrong way…

Well, I thought that was that for the day and put Nathan out of my mind. I was wrong. First, I must explain that I reserve evenings for myself to work or play. I do not meet students, with a few exceptions. So come 8:30 PM, I am in my apartment on campus rereading the Hobbit since the movie is coming out. I hear a knock at the door, but I ignore it because I do not feel like visiting whoever it is. I had no appointments scheduled and no one texted me, so whoever it was could come back during the day. The knocking continued. Five minutes. Ten minutes. If I went to the door now, it would be extremely awkward because whoever was there would know I had been sitting in my room the whole time. Then comes the calling. Yes, it is Nathan, and he is shouting my name through the door, saying he knows I am in here, which he can’t know because he can’t see into my room and I have no music playing. I sit on my bed with what must have been a dumbfounded look on my face. About twenty minutes into this whole incident, he goes silent. I wait ten more minutes then I walk into my front room in order to get my cell phone to make sure he did not send me a text that perhaps I missed. My goal is not to be insensitive while still maintaining my space. As I walk fairly quietly through my front room to my bag, Nathan begins talking through the door again saying he can hear me. I have no desire to talk to him now that I have ignored him for almost thirty minutes so I don’t answer the door and quietly go back to my bedroom to continue reading. At that moment, I had a distressful thought. My door is unlocked. Now, you must understand that our drinkable water is in coolers in the hallway so locking the door is very inconvenient for quick access to water. Furthermore, the building is for foreigners only so it is much like a college dorm where everyone knows everyone, and you only need to lock your door when you go out. I had a sinking feeling Nathan was going to open my door. I wait and about ten minutes later (so forty or so minutes since the first knock) I hear my door open and in walks Nathan. I am flabbergasted. This is beyond inconsiderate and improper even for Chinese standards, I herd Nathan out of my room, but he cements himself in my doorway. I feel horrible closing the door in his face (literally) so I tell him that I do not see students in the evening and that he needs to go. He doesn’t. To make this long story a little shorter, we then proceed to have a thirty-minute conversation standing in my doorway with him not looking at me and not answering me but also not letting go of the grip he has on my doorposts. I explain many things, most important of which is that I cannot be his girlfriend because it is against the rules and because I am not interested. He looks near to tears when I tell him I do not want a boyfriend. He asks me if he is lacking in qualities. I repeat that I do not want a boyfriend from any of my students. This repetition continues for most of the thirty minutes. Finally, after saying goodnight or goodbye about fifteen times, I get him to let go and go home. I close and lock my door. And hopefully, it is a door that will remain closed the rest of the semester. 

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Winds of Change

Change is in the air. Literally and figuratively. Spring has come and is quickly giving way to summer. The details of winter—the incessant cold, the wearing of thermal underwear, scarf, coat and blanket while sitting in my room, the typing with bluish fingers, or the constant companion of my cup of hot water—are quickly fading into the murky realm of memory. Many here have caught that timeless spring fever with already two announced engagements and several couplings. However, underneath these typical and pleasant changes blow winds of trouble and uncertainty.

These are the winds that derailed high-level Chinese politician Bo Xilai from his seemingly solid career track to success and power. For those of you who don’t know Bo Xilai from boloney, his interest to the world at large began in February with a news blip about the police chief of Chongqing (Bo’s municipality) supposedly spending the day at the US embassy. Then over the next two months came a rapid-fire succession reports and rumors, which so deepened the intrigue that a first-rate crime novel could have been written. First, he was relieved of his position, as well as his almost assured place beside the new president later this year. Next, rumor connected his family with the suspicious death of a British national. Then came the official update that Bo’s wife was under investigation for what now most considered to be a homicide cover-up. During the highest point of tension, the Chinese government even blacked-out Weibo, the Chinese mini-blogging site, because of rumor about uprisings and a coup d'├ętat in Beijing. To those students of history, it was very reminiscent of Tiananmen Square. I had a friend in Beijing at the time, and he confirms that there were military vehicles shutting down the government districts where he could actually hear gunshots. While this might not surprise some of you (as it did not surprise me), what is of great interest is the complete lack of concern exhibited by the majority of the population. As I discuss these events with some of my closer Chinese friends, I can’t help but notice the lackadaisical acceptance of what has occurred or is occurring. And it is not just a deficit in knowledge about events but a deficit in caring about events.

However, care they (and we) should. The sudden demise of Bo Xilai is a barometric warning of the change in political pressure and of the possibly approaching storm. At a time of Party-leadership transition—7 out of the 9 Central Politburo members are changing this year—both China and the world would hope to see stability and maintenance of the status quo. However, the falling out of Bo (and Bo’s friends) from the grace of the Party has created currents that leave the future both hard to predict and hard to prepare for. Perhaps some of this instability even contributed to the recent escape of Chen Guangcheng, a long-standing Chinese dissident, from house arrest and his temporary stay in the UN Embassy in Beijing. And while that situation has been resolved (to the relief of the United States government and the disappointment of human rights activists), the continuing atmosphere leaves one wondering what will happen next. Few, I think, would envy Hillary Clinton’s current responsibility at the annual meeting in Beijing of walking the tight rope of preserving trade relations and economic goodwill while simultaneously supporting America’s classic defense of human rights and democracy in the gusts of political upheaval.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder

I am walking down the main street of my little town, having just gone grocery shopping.  The day is one of those rare blue-sky days that Xinzheng experiences when a weather front causes the pollution layer to blow out one direction. The trees are splashes of color with their spring blossoms, and the air hangs heavy with their cloying scent. But as I walk and revel in the glorious morning, I feel something tug my attention away from my inner exaltation; I refocus on the busy world around me with the busses honking, the workers welding, the mopeds swerving and notice two men on bikes who are conspicuously keeping pace with my walking speed. I glance at them and get the routine English shout-out of “hello!” (This is not the customary “hey” you might give to an acquaintance back in the States, but the Ohh-look-it’s-a-foreigner-Let’s-say-the-only-English-word-we-know-and-see-if-she-says-it-too! kind of hello.) I respond with a smile and decide to return to my revelry of nature as they pick up speed. But before I can, I see these two men pull up onto the sidewalk about 50 feet ahead, and I know exactly what is about to happen. If you’ve ever been to China, perhaps you know too. I am about to have a photo shoot. You see, I am a celebrity (or sometimes a curiosity) here.

Let me tell you why. First, I am a foreigner. Period. Second, I have the idealized (and for the Chinese, unattainable) physical characteristics of white skin, blonde hair, wide eyes, and a high-bridged nose. While my appearance is in no way exceptional in America, in a country where every girl has the same color hair and eyes, the same squinty look we attribute to those of Asian descent, and the same dark skin tones, I stand out like white rose growing among hundreds of red roses. All beautiful but with an unavoidable contrast. So, I have become accustomed to the stares, the random requests for pictures on the side of the street, and the compliments that are so frequent that they have become quite meaningless. While at times highly inconvenient, my celebrity status has triggered some very fun situations.

Once I was buying toothpaste at the supermarket. I had squatted down to look at the different Crest options, and after deciding on one, I stood up and turned around to face a line of three customers and two workers who had all been watching me choose my toothpaste. Another time, I was in the train station, sitting on my suitcase and reading while I waited for my train to arrive. Gradually, Chinese men in their thirties to fifties started to gather about a foot and a half away. I ignored them until I had about 8 or 9 men standing around me in a close, silent semi-circle. I glance up, and they stare down. I say “Nihao.” Well, this causes quite a commotion. Now, they are all talking to each other about me as they gesture down to where I sit. The words “oddity” and “specimen” come to mind. A few weeks ago, I climbed a local mountain with some friends. At the top, we separated to look at different things. As I waited for them, a girl of about twelve walked up to me. I expected a request for a picture. Instead, she reaches up and feels my hair then turns and runs back to her friends. I had an urge to say, “Yes, it’s real.” Just last weekend, I visited a nearby city known for beautiful peonies. As I wander through the gardens with two Chinese friends, a news reporter approaches us and asks if he could take some pictures of me with the flowers to put in the newspaper. I am allowed to climb over the barrier and pose with the flowers. As soon as I am finished, I have a line of other Chinese ranging from teenagers to women in their forties who would also like a picture with me. I probably could fill a book with such stories! And while at times, I wish I did not stand out so, being thus admired definitely has its plusses. I know from my previous experience in China that upon stepping off the plane into the first American airport I will go through withdrawal, feeling inconsequentially small and sadly normal. So for the moment (especially since the pollution has set back in) I will revel in the amusement provided by being blonde in a world of black-haired beauties. 

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

A Boy Named Dream

The principal of my high school had this ritual of telling us girls that boys are bad and girls are good—BB and GG. Well, I have never truly considered boys bad, but they have always been these strange creatures that lace the atmosphere with awkwardness and cause me no end of internal unease. So I have avoided them for the most part. Simple enough. That is until I finished my first week of classes and discovered that I have fifty-one girls and a hundred and fifty-one boys. To make matters just a little more awkward most of my students are around 20 years old, making them only a few years younger than I am. Oh, and add to that, I have the adored and esteemed physical characteristics of blonde hair, big eyes, and a high-bridged nose that can attract a crowd in any public setting (but that story is for another time).

So I made myself as teachery as possible (and as girlfriend materialish as little as possible). Still in that first month, I must have received dozens of “Teacher, you are so beautiful”; “Teacher, you have amazing skin”; “Teacher, this”; and “Teacher, that.” But soon enough, my students became inured to my appearance, and I discovered how wonderful almost completely male classes can be—no chattering or giggling or whispering or passing notes or any of the other things that girls love to do. My boys (as I now fondly consider them) follow me with their eyes, talk when I tell them and cease to talk when I tell them. Oh, the glory of control! Plus, they can be simply hilarious with their antics and English stories.

So here is to my boys: a few snapshots of the best and the brightest.

Dream is a tall boy who is one of the bravest students: he was the first student to come visit me during office hours. While his English is not great, he is like the name he has chosen, for he is one of the most hard-working students in the class. I believe Dream will accomplish all his dreams.
Bruce, known as Monkey to his classmates, introduced himself to me as Bruce Lee. He also gives me Chinese movie recommendations and even bought me a gift that related to one of the movies he recommended. He is an amazing artist and invents some the most coherent and creative English stories during class.
Lancelot is definitely one of my favorites. When I asked him if he knew where his name was from, he gave me the story of Lancelot, Merlin, and Arthur. His English is outstanding. One day when I had them bring creative items to class to “sell” in a commercial, he brought a real apple into which he plugged some headphones, proposing that the apple was both a MP3 and breakfast. Most other students sold their pens with no special attributes.
Jeremy is my most unique student and the one I think will go furthest. His English is the best of all my 200+ students. But more spectacular, he is the only student in China I have ever met who possesses true critical thinking skills and recognizes the importance of such skills. In China, it is unheard of to criticize the government or the country—everyone loves China and seems to be blinded by that love (at least in public). When I was talking to Jeremy the other day, I mentioned Taiwan and Hong Kong as being part of China (for even though they essentially are not, it is safer to go with the official Communist line while in China), he jumped in and said, “Well, the government thinks they are part of China.” Woa! What insight into the true nature of his own country.

I could go on to mention my other interesting students, like Vampire or Dragon or Stone, but it will suffice to say that my students in China are a whole new experience, resulting in much laughter, bewilderment, exasperation, or amazement. 

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

A Different Sort of Standard

After spending a weekend with my sister in Beijing who is blogging as payment for all her trip expenses, I have been inspired to break from my more academic-feeling blogs and simply relate some of my experiences and feelings while here in China. I will start at the beginning (the very best place to start…).

Despite having lived in China previously, I realized on my first night back that a year and a half away from China was plenty of time to “forget” some of those less pleasant aspects of this land. I walk into my apartment building to discover that the elevator is broken, and I must walk up four flights of stairs with two 50-pound bags and my book-laden carry-on. I sigh and roll my eyes because I should have known. I lug up what I had thought was my fairly downsized material possessions, but doubt on this matter builds with every stair. Maybe I did bring one pair of shoes too many… Well, I successfully make it up to the fourth floor by three a.m., click open my door and enter.

At first sight, the room is clean and spare. Then I enter the bathroom. I lift the lid on my toilet, ready to sit down after having access only to squatty potties for the past several hours and behold, worms. Yes, worms. I suck in my breath as my eyes widen to make sure my mind is not playing tricks. But no, there really are a family of worms that look a lot like our ice worms in Alaska—black, thin, and about an inch long—swimming around in my toilet. Add to that, brown wavy mold is clinging as high as the water line, transforming my toilet into a miniature scum pond. How I wished at this moment that my R.N. mother had not taught me all the fun little details of bacteria. Ignorance would truly have been bliss. Next came the shower I had been looking forward to for the past 30+ hours but that did not turn out as expected either. I was one of the lucky teachers that did not have a water heater already in their rooms, meaning I am on public water, which is unreliable at best (and non-existent at worst). So no hot water at 3 a.m. but ok, I can deal with that. As I open the shower door, I glance down and am assaulted by the black mold ringing my shower floor. Oh, would my mother faint! It appeared that years of leaks had been caulked without ever trying to remove any mold so that caulk and mold were sealed together in wide strips. I breathe out and step in, thinking I can simply wear sandals and survive. That hope dwindles as the water level rises—my drain is clogged. Soon I am standing ankle-deep in moldy water. Ick. So much for washing away the grime of my travels. I opt for sleep and temporary forgetfulness.

Today, three months later, and I smirk at how “American” I was back then. I have become mostly inured to these lower sanitary standards in China—not even thinking about the mold any more, simply flushing down the worms when they show up every now and then, eating street food without caring that the people here rarely use soap, never use sanitizer, and probably don’t have refrigeration. Living in China is an exercise in disciplined thinking—if you think about where your food is coming from or what you are walking on (everyone hawks on the streets and young children frequently pee and poop on the sidewalk) then you might never leave your room. But if you can box up your American standards until a later date, then that public squatty potty in Beijing might even seem more welcome then some gas station stops along I-55.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Might of Many

I remember reading a short story in high school about the fire ants of Brazil, entitled Leningen Versus the Ants. While the narrative itself revolves around the battle between the brains of man and the might of nature, I will never forget a scene in which an army of ants attacks a stag, stripping the meat from the bones in under six minutes. What a feat! Multiple cultures, including America’s Judeo-Christian culture, reference ants as the quintessential picture of industry and teamwork; a single ant is easy to kill but a colony of ants can move a mountain—literally!

A few days ago, I was reminded that China possessed this might of many in the latent power of a billion people. I was sitting outside reading a book when I noticed groups of students carrying chairs down the road. After 30 minutes of group after group of young men and women with their chairs, my curiosity was piqued until I put two and two together. That evening was the opening ceremony for the new freshman class—over four thousand students. The students I was currently watching were providing the seating for the evening. Yes, that’s right. Groups of students were moving all the chairs from all the classrooms from all over campus to the new indoor arena on the outermost edge of campus for the ceremony. My mind flashed back (as perhaps yours is now) to the 2008 Olympic Opening Ceremony. At that ceremony, the world was witness to China’s most powerful and most volatile resource—its people. Hundreds of thousands of individual Chinese men and women created masterpieces of performances during the Opening Ceremony, awing the world with their precision in moving as a single body: not a person out of place even though hundreds of individuals were in each performance. With the might of so many under the reigns of astute, perhaps severe, leadership, it is no wonder that China has found itself the topic of political and economic discussions the world around.

Oftentimes, I feel we in America have lost our appreciation for this value of teamwork and have forgotten that individuals are not stronger than the group. Places like Egypt, Libya, and certainly China still feel the intense pressure of the multitude, and as in the case of Egypt, the might of many people has been the catalyst for great change while in places like China, the political leaders tremble at the thought of domestic rioting. Susan Shirk, a former Deputy Secretary of State responsible for China, wrote a book titled China: A Fragile Superpower: How China's Internal Politics Could Derail its Peaceful Rise. Within its pages, Susan Shirk details the immense respect, to the point of fear, which Chinese leaders have for the power of the people. With so many people to keep content, China must continually walk a thin line of balance between squeezing the people with regulations and providing a sustainable way of life. This balance dates far back into Chinese history as demonstrated in an ancient Chinese four-character idiom: “Nei lua, wai huan”: When there is turmoil within, the barbarians without will inflict disaster. China’s first priority is and always has been domestic stability, and at the moment, China appears to have firm footing. Therefore, the real question is what the might of many—1,331,460,000 to be exact—can accomplish if pointed in a single direction. And all I can think of is a full-grown stag reduced to shiny white bones in six minutes.