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.