From China

Not the Beijing of the Olympics

Now that Flickr is finally unblocked in China, I’ve posted a bunch of photos I took on a walk with my friend Marco (visiting from Shanghai en route to Italy) from our hotel to the Dandelion School. Every day the students and I take the bus to school because the walk is long, the weather is hot and the sidewalk-less road is dusty. People were curious but friendly as I walked around like a tourist with my camera. The walk is not what I would call pleasant, but it was a fascinating tour through a predominantly migrant neighborhood. This is where the people that build Beijing’s skyscrapers and sweep its streets live.

Dandelion School on NPR

The first day the DukeEngage students and I arrived at the Dandelion School we were put to work with a team of dentists who were volunteering their time to examine the mouths of 600 students. At lunch we were fed the same food Dandelion students eat every day: stir fried vegetables, a tiny bit of meat thrown in, and nutrient enhanced rice. The school doctor told us not to be scared of the yellow-orange pellets mixed in with the otherwise normal looking rice — that’s the added vitamins. I eat the rice every day now, and hardly notice the little pellets in my food.

NPR broadcast a story about the nutrition program at the Dandelion School about a week and a half ago. (It’s amazing that I work at the school, but found the NPR story a week and a half after it was broadcast!) I’m not sure how much the added nutrients actually increase standardized test scores — that could also be due to the school’s better teacher recruitment and retention in the last one or two years — but I’m sure it’s helping out the students who arrive at the school malnourished or the students who, like the story points out, ate a steady diet of instant noodles.

Art at the Dandelion School

One of my favorite things about the Dandelion School is that it’s covered in murals and mosaics designed by students. Without the artwork, the school would be a drab collection of cement buildings surrounding a cement courtyard.

This week, artist Lily Yeh was at the school continuing her work with the Dandelion students on tile and mirror mosaics in a narrow path that leads to the library and more classrooms at the back of the school. She has helped the students transform the school into a work of art and has worked with them to write about their journeys through China and about their hometowns.

The students work on the mosaic in groups of 10 or so, and then rotate with their classmates. When I walk to the library, I dodge 13-year-olds smashing mirror and tile on the ground to attach to the wall. (The boys enjoy smashing the mirrors so much that I’ve started to wear closed-toe shoes to protect my feet from flying glass.)

More photos soon…

Anhui in Photos

Since I’ve waited a month to post something on my trip to rural Anhui, I’m going to stick to posting photos for now. I’ve tried a couple of times to write about the crazy, unexpected, exciting and down right funny things that happened on that trip, but every time I sit down to write I don’t have enough time to do it any justice.

Xikou, Anhui — the base of operations for a weekend in the sticks — your average, dusty, small town in China, population 20,000.

Xikou

Xikou is famous for its green tea, which was being sold by the pile in a market right underneath the window of the room I slept in. I can say with authority that the market opens at around 3 a.m. with lots of honking, yelling and bell ringing.

Xikou

One afternoon I started wandering around the old part of Xikou (what self-respecting Chinese town doesn’t have a new “developing” portion with buildings decorated in fake Greek-like columns?). It reminded me somewhat of the old west — and I love the hand-painted signs on every building.

Xikou

After a stop at the opening ceremony for Xikou’s “Tea Culture” Festival, we stopped by the local school to meet up with our host’s family. My camera was spotted by a large group of drum-beating girls, who were very excited to have their pictures taken.

Our host, Xiao Wei, introduced us to his family, who let us stay in their homes for the weekend and were all around wonderful hosts. Behind the two kids is Lao Yezi, Xiao Wei’s father.

I traveled to Xikou with my friend Eliot, fellow Nanjing resident and NYU alum. While we were in Xikou, some of the English teachers asked us to speak to their classes. Apparently their town doesn’t get many foreigners passing through. The kids were nervous, but there was one hillarious kid up front who kept blurting out random English phrases like, “I’m 40 years old!”

English Class

English Class

On our second day in Anhui, Xiao Wei and his friends took us out into the wilderness to climb a mountain. Because I’ve been in China for a while I was expecting stairs and lots of tourists. But I was pleasantly surprised by our rough drive over a river bed to the base of the mountain. I knew that without a road it was pretty much guaranteed that hoards of tourists and their bull horn equipped tour guides would be no where in sight.

The climb was pretty rough, but we took breaks on the way.

At the top of the mountain was a magnificent view…

and a monastery.

Temple

We spent the night in the monastery and woke up early for a sunrise that never materialized because of fog.

We talked to this old monk who told us the story of the monastery’s fate. He told us that the temple, which was once made of iron, was dismantled during the Great Leap Forward. Xiao Wei promised to help the monk by writing a letter to the government asking for compensation for the iron.

We started our trek early and got back to Xikou in time for one last lunch with Xiao Wei’s family and friends.

Happy Labor Day!

Reuters reported yesterday that 0.1 percent of children in Shanghai — or one in 1,000 surveyed — want to grow up to be “common workers.” The story notes that while being a common worker used to be the ideal of the communist movement, values in China have changed since Deng Xiaoping proclaimed that “to be rich is glorious.”

Newly rich Chinese are expected to spend the holiday, a time to celebrate the international labor movement, opening their wallets in far-flung destinations, reaping the rewards of higher paying jobs in the professions and financial sector.

My question is: Who is that one kid in 1,000 who wants to be a common laborer? And by “common laborer” I mean the guys using pick axes to dig a hole to the sewer line in my neighborhood, the mine workers who disappear in coal mine collapses on a regular basis, the construction workers climbing up scaffolding 15 stories high without ropes, sometimes without shoes.

There’s absolutely no sense in wanting to be a common worker in China. People do it out of necessity, not desire. I can’t even imagine the children of common workers wanting to grow up to be common workers.

So that one child, does he really want to be a common worker? I imagine his parents are making him spend the holiday memorizing Marx while his friends are lounging on a beach in Hainan.

So you want a new mom?

Continuing its trek through absurdity, the China Daily reports that a teenage girl in Dalian has been paying a classmate’s aunt to pose as her mother at school meetings. Why? Because her mom lacked fashion sense.

Although Pingping attends school regularly, Wang never attended any of the parents’ meetings because her daughter never told her about them. It was only when Wang called the school did she realize she had missed many meetings. Bewildered, Wang asked her daughter about what was going on, but Pingping’s answer astonished her. “You made me lose face,” she replied. “I have been asking a classmate’s aunt to take part in it for me, 50 yuan (US$6.4) each time.”

Apparently being embarrassed by your parents when you’re a teenager is universal. The story continues with a long, hilarious account of the ongoing mother-daughter troubles between Wang and Pingping, and attempts to place the “conflict” in some sort of social context:

The generation gap in China has become so dramatic that parents who fail to catch up with the rest of the society could be abandoned by their children.

That statement left me as bewildered as the mom with no fashion sense. Note to Chinese moms and dads: You better wake up and smell the Calvin Klein, otherwise you won’t have an offspring to take care of you in your retirement years!

Torch ignites controversy

I can’t help it — that headline was irresistible. Now that I don’t write stuff like that for a living, I have to do it somewhere, so please forgive me.

I enjoyed a brief flurry of stories about the Beijing Olympics torch last week. After Beijing announced that the torch relay would include a climb up Mt. Everest, there was a little commotion caused by some Free Tibet protesters at base camp. It would have been little more than a blip on the news radar if it weren’t for the fact that the activists, all American, were arrested.

But I found the wrangling over Taipei’s position in the torch relay much more interesting. In the ongoing struggle between the PRC and Taiwan to project opposite images of inclusion/independence, Taipei will be the last stop on the international route/first domestic stop on the torch relay, or that’s the plan so far. Officials in Taipei are said to have refused to be part of the domestic leg of the torch relay, but agreed to be a part of it if the torch entered from another country and exited to Hong Kong. Apparently that was international enough for Taiwan to accept and domestic enough for Beijing to accept.

That is, until Tsai Chen-wei, the head of Taiwan’s Olympic Committee, decided that even that was unacceptable.

“This route is a domestic route that constitutes an attempt to downgrade our sovereignty,” Tsai said. Tsai’s comments contradicted an April 13 statement by another Taiwanese Olympic official, who said the island could accept a spot on the torch route that involved Hong Kong.

As a side note, not surprisingly the Chinese press includes Taipei on all its maps of the domestic relay.

Now while I see the concerns on both sides, the torch route is nothing more than a public relations battle, of which I believe Beijing has already won. Taipei’s back and forth — yes we accept, no we don’t — isn’t helping their image or their credibility. To an international audience, the argument over placement in a torch relay can seem silly and irrelevant.

The 2008 Olympics has the potential to be a PR coup not only for Beijing, but also for Taiwan, human rights activists, the “Free Tibet-ers,” big business — and any individual or organization that has a stake in China. I, personally, am interested to see how the spin plays itself out over the next year.

Much has been written on the Everest protest in the blogsphere. Here are a few posts worth reading:
* Protests at the Roof of the World, Bad History and a new P.R. strategy for the P.R.C. from Jottings from the Granite Studio.
* An amusing post that makes its point well: Free Advice for the Free Tibet Crowd from Mutant Palm
* And an account from one of the Mt. Everest protesters himself in The Columbian.

When life imitates textbook

rnGreat Wall
My view of the Great Wall on a trip to Badaling in March.

While I was reading a wonderful book called Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife by Mary Roach (also the author of the equally fascinating Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers), I experienced what one scientist who studies the afterlife described to Roach as a “dazzle shot.”

You see, this scientist, Gary Schwartz — a psych professor at the University of Arizona and the founder of a lab that does research on mediums, including Alison DuBois, the inspiration for the American TV series, Medium — has asked dead people a lot of questions. And since Gary Schwartz is not himself a medium, he uses mediums to ask relatively mundane questions about the afterlife. Do you eat? Can you see me when I’m in the shower? He’s also conducted studies that asked people to rate a medium’s accuracy in describing a loved one. They had four rating options: hit, miss, questionable, or “dazzle shot” — in other words, so accurate it was spooky.

Although my experience with the “dazzle shot” did not involve dead people, or the afterlife or mediums for that matter, I still think “dazzle shot” is the perfect phrase to describe the accuracy with which my Chinese textbook portrayed my very own life one morning not so long ago.

As usual, at 7:40 a.m. I walked downstairs to the bike parking area in front of my building. I tried to unlock my bike, but couldn’t. I stood there and scratched my head for a second. Wait. That’s not my bike. It’s silver like my bike, but not mine. I have a different basket. I stood there gaping at the five or six bikes locked up in front of me. I didn’t want to believe my bike wasn’t there, so I just kept staring. When I realized how incredibly late to class I was going to be if I didn’t immediately head for the bus stop, I snapped out of it. I had just bought that bike two weeks before. I seethed on the bus on the way to class — it was the second time this year I had had a bike stolen.

I arrived 20 minutes late to class, opened my textbook to the day’s lesson and started reading the text with the class. Halfway through I realized that the character Da Shan (hopefully no relation to the Canadian Da Shan of CCTV9) was living my life. In the text he explains to his friend that he’s been having a lot of bad luck lately.

Here’s a rough translation of the part of the text that would have made me check “hit” on a Gary Schwartz medium survey:

Da Shan: Someone “rode away” on the bike I just bought, and until now he hasn’t returned it.
Ai De Hua: And you’re still waiting for him to return it? (Read this with a sarcastic tone and the whole text makes much more sense).

And here is where the “dazzle shot” comes in:

Da Shan: Last week I went to the Great Wall with a friend. When
we left the weather was so beautiful. As soon as we arrived, it started to rain really hard. We hadn’t brought an umbrella and were completely soaked.

The week before that fateful lesson I had in fact been in Beijing and attempted to visit the Great Wall. And while I succeeded in making it to the well-touristed Badaling portion of the wall, I felt like the trip was such a failure that I should immediately start planning another trip to Beijing just so I could actually see the Great Wall the next time I visited. The weather, as it was on Da Shan’s trip, was terrible, except even worse. It was snowing. And just like Da Shan, it wasn’t snowing in Beijing when I left in the morning. It was a little overcast and grey, but I did not expect snow. The fog was so thick I could barely see 50 feet in front of me, so although I was standing on the Great Wall, I did not actually get to see the Great Wall.

All of this of course means nothing. My textbook is about as psychic as the gold fish that swim around in a tiny bowl in my living room. It just shows the obvious: that bikes are stolen often enough in China to warrant a chapter in my textbook (the same textbook that had a chapter devoted to diarrhea and food poisoning). But just for a moment, before the “dazzle shot” wore off, I imagined Gary Schwartz starting a new study that measured language textbooks’ psychic ability.

Great Wall Painting
Maybe I’ll be lucky enough to see something more like this on my next trip to the Great Wall.