From News

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.

Trouble in paradise

One of the best — and most horrific — travel experiences I’ve been lucky enough to have in China was a trip to Jiuzhaigou, a nature preserve in Sichuan Province. I’ll never forget Jiuzhaigou’s stunning beauty, crystal blue waters and stunning alpine scenery. I’ll never forget being there with 20 thousand other people. I’ll never forget the tour bus stops at stores that sold things like yak bone carvings, yak meat, costume jewelry, honey and tea.

And I’ll never forget our tour guide, to whom someone mistakenly gave a microphone that she would use precisely as I was about to fall asleep. She woke us every morning before 6 a.m. She took us to restaurants that served only pickled vegetables and fatty pork. Oh, and did I mention the yak bone carving store?

We stopped at so many souvenir stores on the way to and from Jiuzhaigou that I lost count. After the first few I started to pretend I was asleep on the bus so I didn’t have to go in and pretend to look at stuff I wasn’t going to buy anyway. Little did I know that I was taking my life into my hands by ignoring my tour guide’s only source of income.

According to a recent China Daily article about a disturbing attack by a tour guide — who stabbed 20 people — most tour guides in China aren’t paid. Instead they earn a living by taking their clients to overpriced souvenir stands that will pay the guide a commission from every purchase made by a person in their tour group.

Xu Minchao, 25, was leading 40 tourists through Lijiang, a World Heritage-listed tourist destination in mountainous Yunnan province, on Sunday when he suddenly ran into a souvenir shop and demanded a knife, Xinhua said. “Not realizing the man was ready to kill, a girl in the shop gave him one and was stabbed immediately in the arm,” Xinhua said.

The China Daily and the ever-entertaining Xinhua News Agency also mentioned the guide’s “troubled” background.

Police were also investigating whether the attack was linked to an unhappy childhood, Xinhua said. “Xu … broke down in tears when talking about his parent’s divorce and how it overshadowed his childhood, according to local police,” it said.

When I got back from Jiuzhaigou I had already made up my mind never to take another tour in China again. This story, not surprisingly, only cemented my bias against the Chinese tour group and its souvenir stops. I imagine that for the unlucky 20 tourists Lijiang, a nice little town also surrounded by stunning scenery, will forever be inextricably linked to a commission-hungry, knife-wielding tour guide who lost it over his childhood and, possibly, a yak bone carving.

Staying ahead of the curve

In October I decided it was time to take the GRE and apply to graduate school. I am mercifully in the decision making portion of a long test and application process that ate up much of my time during the fall semester. I thought registering for the GRE would be easy; after all, the university students I taught in Hangzhou in 2004 were all taking the GRE to try to get into graduate schools in the United States. It couldn’t be that difficult to register for the test in China.

But, as things sometimes are when you live in Asia, it was quite difficult. First I registered for the test in Hong Kong because the Nanjing registration deadline had already passed. I soon found out that I could only take part of the test in Hong Kong, the essay portion, and would have to wait until May to take the rest of the test. That was just too late. By May graduate schools would have already decided on their incoming class. So I did the next best thing I could think of: I registered for the test in Manila, where I could take the full GRE in one four- to five-hour sitting. I could have gone to Bangkok to take it, but figured I could wrap in a long weekend with friends in the Philippines.

Why is it so much easier to take the GRE in Manila or Bangkok than in China? Cheating. And it’s not just cheating on the GRE — it’s every test you can think of. According to a brief in the New York Times about SAT scores being cancelled in South Korea (apparently China isn’t the only country that keeps ETS test writers up late), in the early 90s around 10,000 TOEFL test scores were cancelled in China because of cheating.

For those of you who teach or have taught in China, this comes as no surprise. I often devised complicated methods for preventing cheating during midterm and final exams. In my writing classes I learned (the hard way) to take in-class writing samples from my students to make spotting plagiarism a little easier.

I’m not quite sure why the Philippines isn’t also blacklisted by testing services. Last year the Philippines’ nursing board exam was leaked. Forty-two thousand potential nurses had taken the test, and around 17 thousand passed. Some thought candidates should retake the test; others did not think it was necessary. But perhaps the Educational Testing Service, the gatekeeper of the GRE and SAT, among many other tests, had not had many problems in the Philippines. Or if they did, perhaps it’s a question of volume: I would guess that the number of Chinese students taking ETS tests far outnumber Filipino students.

Still — like the DVDs that make their way to a Chinese pirating company well before it leaves theaters — copies of standardized tests always manage to make their way to Asia, and no doubt other enterprising students around the world. Cheating students definitely keep ETS test writers employed. In an attempt to stay ahead of the curve, they’re probably writing multiple tests each month, and, not surprisingly, being beaten at their own game by the students they’re supposed to test.