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May 2009 Archives

May 4, 2009

The East is Red

My Chinese friends don’t seem to be able to tell the difference between blue-sky days and this-is-why-lung-cancer-is-the-number-one-killer-in-Beijing days, but I think we can all agree the sky should not be red like it was in a hutong near my home the other day.

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My camera’s night mode tends to bring out colors, but Beijing’s night sky on days of heavy pollution is clearly red with a naked eye, whereas stars are clearly visible on clear nights. The East certainly is red.

May 6, 2009

Baby Poet Sighted on a Public Bus in Rural China

I had to parse a wild scrum with my father to get a seat on a bus from the small town of Gongyi, Henan to Zhengzhou today, but the mob scene was soon pushed out of mind by the baby poet I found myself seated next to.

A 3- or 4-year-old boy in corduroy pants covering his diaper young enough to sit on his exhausted mother’s lap the entire two-hour ride passed the time by reciting ancient Chinese poetry he had memorized. And this is normal, just as this clip from Youku, the Chinese Youtube shows (although I cannot explain the nudity).

To get a sense of just how odd this really is, imagine sitting on a Greyhound from Gary, Indiana to Dayton, Ohio only to find the 3-year-old child sitting next to you reciting Beowulf:

Grendel this monster grim was called, march-riever mighty, in moorland living, in fen and fastness; fief of the giants the hapless wight a while had kept since the Creator his exile doomed.

Children across China, from city to country hut are, memorizing ancient poetry just like this young boy, while their American counterparts are watching Sesame Street. If you don’t believe it, ask your nearest Chinese friend to recite some poetry for you. Chances are they still remember some.

Of course, the kids have no idea what they’re saying. Many of the recitations are incomprehensible, since the kids cannot clearly pronounce the words spilling out of their mouths. Like much in the education system here, the emphasis is on task accomplishment rather than comprehension and digestion. However, the Chinese friends I’ve asked told me that memorizing them while their minds were young and flexible helped them understand and appreciate them when they were older and able to understand the complicated language of the thousand-year-old verses.

Just like Ku Hongming wrote in The Spirit of the Chinese People, poetry is a much more central part of Chinese society than it is in the West. Perhaps because of the musical tones of the Chinese language or the terse beauty of the language, my classmates to this day recite to me their favorite poetry, while their rare counterparts in the US are considered eccentric. The upside in China, of course, is that kids are free entertainment for long bus rides.

May 11, 2009

English: Worldwide Graffiti Language

English is already the language of the world’s business, airport traffic controllers, academic articles, and travel. But a recent trip to Laos convinced me that English is also the worldwide language of graffiti, as seen here in the capital Vientiane.

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Judging from the basic grammar mistake, the author of the graffiti above is clearly not a native English speaker. Yet the tagger still decided to use a language he or she was inproficient in rather than his or her native one to insult the police. Why?

Airlines have encouraged the use of English even between two speakers of the native language partly because it allows the pilots to take on new identities. Using a foreign language allows us to escape the limitations of our own culture’s conventions, which could be the appeal for those annoying high school classmates who were way too excited about the German club.

In the same way, cross-cultural psychology studies have shown that bilingual East Asians respond to questionnaires in more independent, individualistic ways when using English, as opposed to their native language. Employees of Chinese companies often refer to their fellow Chinese colleagues by their English names, which probably helps them drop some of the cumbersome aspects of interpersonal responsibilities that Chinese culture requires. Even deciding what to call someone else in China can be cumbersome, since the use of affectionate nicknames or official titles is preferred over given names. But what cute name is appropriate for the secretary? For the sales manager in the corner office?

From an office manager in Beijing to a disgruntled graffiti artist in Vientiane, English allows people to express feelings and ideas that they would be too timid to express otherwise. Hence, English gives the world room for anti-cop graffiti artists in Laos.

May 14, 2009

The Upside to an Economic Downturn

Upon my January return trip to Guangdong, the world’s factory floor, I surmised that the unusually clear skies could have been the upside to the worldwide economic downturn that has shuttered many of China’s factories. Now there seems to be evidence that this could be true:

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To get to the bottom of the question, I totaled pollution indices from the Ministry of Environmental Protection for 8 cities comparing the global financial crisis (which I chose somewhat arbitrarily as starting September 2008 through March 2009) against the figures from the year before. Except for a rise in air pollution in December, the numbers are all lower than they were last year.

Given the special air-clean up measures in Beijing around the Olympics that had nothing to do with the economic slowdown, I excluded Beijing from the calculations. Instead I focused mostly on southern cities: Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Shantou, Zhanjiang (all in Guangdong), Hangzhou, Shanghai, Chongqing, and Datong.

There are a number of complications. For one, clearing skies could be due to anything from tougher environmental enforcement to changing weather patterns. The government statistics may also be subject to fiddling, as a report by a former PiAer suggests. There’s also the possibility that a downturn could cause more pollution, if increased cost pressure on factories caused them to turn off costly emissions-scrubbers.

But it makes sense that a downturn could clear the skies, and I wouldn’t be the only to make such a claim. The China Daily reported that the downturn had cleaned China’s air and water. Another China Daily article reported:

Wu Changhua, greater China director of London-based Climate Group said last year saw fewer emissions as most of manufacturers reduced production in the wake of fewer orders.

Lest the China Daily be the final word on the matter, Charlie McElwee of the China Environmental Law blog wrote: “A portion of these gains are no doubt attributable to the economic downturn which kicked in in the 4th quarter of last year.”

If this analysis is correct, it means the crisis that’s making so many investors see red is also helping many over here finally see a little blue.

May 22, 2009

Is this picture offensive?

“All you foreigners always talk about is how poor and backward China is,” my friend Confucius complained to me in Guangzhou.

“Why can’t you talk about the good things? How the economy is changing?”

Confucius’s response is exactly what I heard from another Chinese friend when I took the picture below:

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I’m only one of a legion of foreigners in China who have taken this very type of picture. And though I’ve managed to take a dozen of these pictures, I still haven’t figured out whether this picture’s offensive like my Chinese friends say.

In the eyes of my Chinese friends, what’s going through my mind when I take this picture is: wow, look how poor China is!

There’s no denying that this picture is pointing at a phenomenon on the bottom of the economic ladder. Scrap collecting is undeniably a job taken by those on the bottom of the economic ladder. There’s probably a reason why my entire collection of scrap collector pictures are taken from behind.

Yet pointing at poor things shouldn’t necessarily be offensive. This man’s act is a feat of packing and cycling. Similarly, a man trucking a pile of gold down the road would cause me to take a picture, as do peasants holding conference calls on their cell phones in rural China, but not because they show how poor China is. That this billboard shows an amazing technological and social leap is why I took this picture in rural Jiangxi:

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I’ll leave the question unsettled; the status of my scrap collector album is on hold.

May 24, 2009

Business card-related attack in Beijing

The number of norms surrounding different social activities should be proof of how much importance the act carries in society. If so, business card culture is so important in China that it surpasses the oft-written-about everyone-must-cheers drinking culture in Chinese business.

Norms range from handing cards so that the words are oriented so that the receiver can read them without flipping the card to using both hands to extend the card. Yet the encumbrance of all of the rules doesn’t prevent people from sharing business cards; on the contrary, they’re mere reflections of how widespread the practice is in China.

An article in yesterday’s Beijing Youth Daily demonstrated exactly the sort of trouble an unprepared foreigner can get himself into when delving into all the norms surrounding China’s business card culture. The Commissioner of the Federal Acquisition Service James Williams, identified in the article only as Weilianmusi (威廉姆斯), was surrounded by attendees trying to get their hands on one of his business cards:


As soon as the speech ended, the Chinese business representatives locked themselves around Weilianmusi. Perhaps Weilianmusi didn’t anticipate he would be so popular as to run out of business cards very quickly. Only under the assistance of an employee was Weilianmusi able to extract himself from the crowd of card-seekers.

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The streets of Beijing don’t suffer from muggings and rarely from armed robbery, so I walk the streets—even in the middle of the night—without ever so much as a clip in my step or a look behind my shoulder. I just make sure to carry enough business cards.