Around March 21st I ventured out of the house to a popular Muslim eatery not far from me and only a minute’s walk from the Yellow River. This particular noodle restaurant has an impressive view of one of the prettier Mosques in Lanzhou. Despite my unease in crowded areas and the fact that virtually everyone pauses to look at me or listen to the words spoken by this “foreign ghost” I am relatively comfortable along the Silk Road. The people here are well grounded, happy and generously patient with me–I am one of the few white faces that they see venture into the back alleys of their wholly ethnic neighborhoods. I usually find laughter, song, and endless questions. But, this night seemed different.
The looks from Uyghers and Hans alike were disquieting: Either I was struck suddenly paranoid, unknowingly wearing some tribal gang tattoo or people had taken a sudden dislike to my ethnicity. On the short elevator ride to the reception area I was roughly bumped by two large and unapologetic men. As I have spent the last five years in Guangzhou, where etiquette means you don’t stare at the victim if a truck runs over your competition for a cab, I was only slightly ruffled until one of them asked, without looking at me and in terse local dialect if I understood Chinese. I answered in the affirmative and they pushed ahead heads down and mutering in discontented low tones about someone or something they did not like.
And I was still wonderfully ignorant and emotionally fine as I flagged down a taxi. But, once my cabbie looked in the rear view mirror he began sternly advising me against scuffing his seats, not once, but three times on my way home. I am not sure how I could have damaged them any more than they already were: I was guessing he had the transport contract for the local vet who did the lion’s share of cat declawing.
I am not sure I have ever been happier to arrive home and turn on the news. Surely even CCTV would tell me that the Japanese earthquake had spun the world off its axis and people were more disoriented than usual.
In fact, the Libyan assault had started that day. The French had swung first, but the Americans were clearly to blame on social networks. Uygher separatists were using the event to rally for dissent and revolution and CCTV, despite minimizing U.S. involvement in the conflict, was having little impact on the volume of less than rosy twittered epithets being propagated online. I had an Alexander Wallace-like epiphany: “Start telling people you’re Canadian, aye.”
Yesterday, with some trepidation, I returned to the restaurant. I was greeted like a prodigal son and ushered to a comfortable table where several waiters and waitresses dropped by to practice their English. And I wasn’t body checked into the elevator’s walls on my way out where I quickly was able to catch a ride with an ebullient Chinese Gabby Hayes.
The only negative event of the evening came when a young woman disturbed my deeply reverent communion with a bowl of white river lilies in peach sauce. She was hitting her husband with surprising force and making him literally and figuratively lose patriarchal face among the 60-70 patrons aggressively watching the altercation. Between swings she would stop briefly to vilify him and explain to the restaurant that he had left his newborn son unattended for more than an hour in favor of Five Treasures Tea with friends. And she called him a “lazy panda.”
I caught on that “lazy panda” was not a term of endearment after our tea fancier was frog-marched out of the restaurant and sent back to his enclosure somewhere in Lanzhou. His friends began to joke about the nickname he had earned earned since the birth of his child. It seems he is a lot like the furry masked creatures at Chengdu who don’t show much interest in propagation. It was then I guessed his wife to be a pretty creative zoologist when not involved in a live capture exercise or a domestic violence assault.
The political and cultural weather is better now. It’s quit snowing and people are glad to be out even among the strangers in their communities. And I learned a great deal during this last storm:
Behavioral contagion in the form of anger or violence is color or religiously sensitive, and does not remember names or faces from friendlier times.
No man should aspire to be cuddly like a panda.
I am a guest here and always will be. And it behooves me to watch for signs of inclement days ahead. Cabbies and waiters are emotional meterologists and can gauge the pressures that associated with the best and worst of everything moving in and out of town.
There is an old religious joke that talks about St. Peter leading a group of hard-shell Baptists on a tour of heaven. The whole time they were getting a sanctified tour they could not help but notice a high wall blocking any view to the right of the procession. Finally, one of the followers deigned to ask about what was on the far side of the obstruction. St. Peter answered by putting a forefinger to his lips and whispering, “Shhh. It’s the Catholics. We allow them to to think they’re alone.”
It’s been quite a week: wars, unprecedented elections, genocide aided by international good intentions not backed by action, uprisings, volcanoes, the earthquakes that bred the tsunami that continues to effect nuclear and economic meltdowns. And in the tamer, less catastrophic weeks that led up to the horrors in Libya, Bahrain, Sendai, and Fukushima there was the Jasmine Devolution and Groupon’s troubles baiting the China hook on their first Middle Kingdom fishing expedition.
Not unlike the Beijing Olympics ( how is that for a metaphorical jump?), the intense media coverage and social media soapbox attention given to global disasters brought out a raft of what Ted Turner (surely headed toward the console to start playing Nearer My God to Thee) would have deemed kooks or bozos. Everyone with an agenda or a buck to make on adversity had something to say: and most of it was reprehensible. They tried to outwardly extend the boundaries of their political and ideological heavens (or hells) devoid of humanitarian consideration for the suffering at hand.
Let’s look back to Groupon for a paragraph or two: The madmen who contrived the Superbowl ads probably spent more time discussing the thread counts on their suits than the cultural impact of their decision to air a commercial that a junior high school student in mainland China could have advised them was going to fly them through a shit storm for which a flak jacket and goggles would be mandatory. Groupon’s supporters cried “foul” and pointed to the fact that despite the vagueness of the ad ( Angry Birds should have given away a secret decoder link) they did indeed give money to imperiled Tibetans. It’s just that the Tibetans they support live in India in exile and are viewed by 1.2 million well instructed Chinese as separatists and a threat national stability. Add to it that for religious reasons most Tibetan Buddhists in exile, Tibet, greater China don’t eat fish because they are used to consume corpses in water burial rituals and you had acts perceived as cultural aggression in both sides of the political and geographical border. Offers of money don’t easily buy you out of those kind of fixes.
Pundits piled on that one and Old China Hands talked about the perils of Internet business in China and took odds that Groupon will fare worse here than my beloved Cubs might have of making the MLB playoffs. The jocular usual media suspects and good old boys, journalists and ex-journalists who interview, blog and record each other’s comments over drinks in Beijing, heckled Groupon nearly as much as they normally do anyone not afforded the sign or grip of their secret society. But, I digress…
Then soon after the Jasmine Devolution attracted more media than strolling activists (they’d been locked up or invited to tea (detained) in advance of their morning walks) for breakfast at KFC and McDonalds. Stephen Engle of Bloomberg was beaten, detained for hours and forced to file a police report while in dire need of medical care. It’s hard to imagine not one of the hundreds of cops and soldiers nearby was able to stop a broomstick battering of a journalist by a group of men wearing tactical communication type wireless ear pieces.
Social media fingers began pointing at the photographers themselves, there to do their jobs, as the cause of the ruckus and Engle was quickly crucified in absentia for crimes of omission and submission by reporters from time immaomoraiam. And if something had happened and they would have stayed in the comfort of home away from home someone would have been nailed for that one too.
My truck with the reporting of any of this, aside from the hate mongers who all seem to have heavenly authority to speak ex-cathedra on matters of morality, is the lack of attention to the human response cost in each of these tragedies.
A journalist running a running a stringer’s boiler room inn Shanghai once told me that I would never get published if I insisted on writing human interest stories with a positive slant. perhaps she was right. These last few weeks I have carefully watched reactions to my updates on Twitter and Facebook and tagged my Twitter upates and my pictures on Twitpic. Those pictures or posts containing disaster or devastation seach terms were rebroadcast/viewed, on a average, 40X more often than those with heroic or human interest markers.
Bing took update hits over a Twitter campaign encouraged by Brian Seachrest (American Idol) that asked people to retweet their commitment to pay the Red Cross a dollar for each tweet up to a maximum of $100,000. It was seen as a commercial ploy while Lady Gaga was lauded for for donating proceeds for a grisly bracelet she designed when the link for the bracelet took you to Gaga’s ad forested online store. As an aside: Though I don’t use Bing, I am now a fan because of the way they handled the crisis: They donated the $100,000 within minutes of criticism and apologized for what was obviously a poorly thought out and hastily run campaign.
To date I have seen no stories on the impact of Grooupon’s faux pax on Tibetans living inside or outside the borders of greater China. And I have not seen a story about any of the hundreds of workers, who signed on with Gaopeng in hopes of tenured employment with an up and coming new venture, and how this has affected their lives.
I have not read about Stephen Engle’s recovery, the outcome of Embassy calls for justice in his attack nor the impact on him, and other journalists, of the aggression and subsequent indifference to suffering he endured in Beijing.
I translated and re-broadcast (retweeted) several Japanese updates this week. One man, trapped under his house in northeast Japan put his address in a tweet. Another man talked about the charity and collective strength he felt after seeing several random acts of kindness. In one of his updates he asked people to “spread hope.” Others have called for a pre-morbid celebration and recognition of Fukushima’s 180 ( #Fukushima140)heroic workers who have surely sacrificed their lives in service to others. They are already enshrined in many hearts as are the ancient 47 leaderless samurai who embody, arguably, a kind of selfless courage and spirit known in Japan as Bushido. There is no argument about these men and others who have and will surely suffer for their kindness.
One beautiful and moving article this week that touched on the difficulties faced by the nearly 500,000 people searching for news of missing or displaced relatives. The piece was written by an LA Times reporter “on the ground” in Sendai. I felt it baited readers with a headline that made it sound like chaos had begun to reign in one most honor bound places on earth. In fact the Japanese have made themselves exemplars of dignity with their unselfishness and commitment to the common good. maybe the reporter or her editor felt and important story wouldn’t be read without first appealing to the apocalyptic side of us first. (It was better than the horsemen Beck and Limbaugh who ask you to follow them into foul and foreboding places stripped of any humanity where bright students like Alexander Watson get lost.
Many of the messages I read moved me to tears, many have inspired me, and others made me examine my place in the social web and where I want to be as a writer, friend, social median, volunteer and, more importantly, where I hope to be one day as a more self-actualized person who isn’t afraid he will write a story, or run a venture, only a few will come to know or appreciate.
Best of all: I have adopted a new #hashtag I will use without regard for its popularity: #SpreadHope…
China’s narrow definition of educational success abroad
Academic and aristocratic people live in such an uncommon atmosphere that common sense can rarely reach them.
“To get into ［ China’s #1 University] Tsinghua as an undergraduate, you have to score extremely well on a nationwide test,” Seth Roberts, a U.C. Berkeley professor emeritus of psychology. That is an understatement. A good score on the gaokao is the dream of nearly every college eligible student in China or rather it is the dream of every eligible Chinese student’s family. And subsequent sheepskins from brand name schools in China or abroad are what separate the social wheat from the chaff.
Roberts is part of a team to teach advanced psychology and happiness (somehow sad we have to study it to achieve it now) at Tsinghua University. It was formed this spring after knife attacks in kindergartens left 15 young children dead and turned the spotlight on mental health in China. Just walk through any major pedestrian area and, like the US, you’ll quickly spot many in need of help. Shenzhen, the industrial pride of south China has the highest rate of mental illness in China and the least number of rehabilitation beds per capita. All the assailants in the kindergarten attacks were alleged to suffer from psychological problems or grudges related to workplace or relationship problems. And following the “posioned Apple” problems at Foxconn, a computer and iPhone component manufacturing plant in southern China, where several workers committed suicide, the gap between China’s rich and poor, educated and better educated began to look harder to span.
One obstacle to happiness in China, Peng said, is the intense culture of competition: “When you have that many people all fighting to achieve the same narrowly defined goals, it becomes a zero-sum game,” he said. “That’s why we need to change the paradigm of what success means and come together for the greater good of Chinese society,” Peng added. “That’s why we need to talk about the science of happiness.”
Happiness is not a factor when Chinese parents think about the stiff competition facing their children. I had dinner with a magazine editor recently who filled his son’s days and nights with paid tutors in everything from Saxaphone to language test prep’ schools. His son plans to major in engineering though he told me once, with his head in his hands, that he really wanted to be an artist. The son showed me the sketch book that he has secreted away from his family for years. Despite being (not surprisingly) a bit dark, the sketches were extraordinary. He is one of dozens of students through the years that has opted to repay his parent’s financial assistance by fulfilling their dreams of being proud owners of an Ivy League graduate with a job at a well known company.
The last three years, at no charge, I have assisted 20 students in their quest to attend schools in America and Hong Kong. 100% of the students are enrolled in “top 30″ schools. “Top” is defined by parents as a recognizable name or a U.S. News and World Report ranked program. I have helped place students, with differing levels of aid, at Columbia, Carnegie, Colorado College, Penn State, Nebraska, Berkeley, Yale, and others. Many of them came to me as English majors looking to move into business or finance. Some of them had already employed the services of cram schools that extort up to $9,000 USD for recommendations (fake), Personal Statements and Resumes (also fake), and assistance in choosing a “Top 50″ school.
One student came to me bearing a random list of colleges, some excellent schools and some dubious at best, saying she had been told to choose up to eight specially and individually chosen colleges and universities for which the service would then prepare admissions documents needed for matriculation. I designed a test for these lists as it was clear that there was no real rhyme or reason to them. I asked the students to select only the top tier schools listed and return them to the service.
The intern/assistant at the college guidance center was making 1,500 RMB a month preparing fake documents and teaching ways to scam various admissions tests. She was only a college junior herself and when presented with the list of top schools by my student she paled and said, “You need to pick some easier schools. These may be too good for you.” I wondered why they would recommend those schools if the candidates were not qualified for them in the first place. No mention was ever made of the reasons for their decisons and the intern did not even know when queried what programs of study were available at the schools listed. Note: They only get their full fees if the student is admitted to a school. To ensure their financial futures they throw in “ringers” of two types:
1. Schools they know will admit anyone who can pay full tuition.
2. Schoos that pay the service referral fees of up to 20% of each year’s tuition.
The intern finally capitulated and then handed my charge her doctored personal statement and letters of recommendation. They were loaded with errors: Chinglish spelling and grammar mistakes. One of the letters was purportedly written by a famous Chinese native English Professor (who likely gets a fee for each letter bearing his name) who could not possibly have penned such drivel.
I corrected the personal statement (PS) and the letters and sent my student back to the intern with the new versions. I had also removed the glaring buzzwords like “self motivated”, “creative”, “democratic leader” that appeared with an annoying frequency throughout the documents they said were created using a secret formula. Kentucky Fried Admissions. The intern consulted with her boss, who had been told that an American Porfessor had edited their work. She chastised the student and vilified my efforts: “He has turned a rich cup of tea into a glass of water!” She also was verbally chastened for having a foreigner involved: “The American cannot possibly understand the Chinese mindset and will fail in getting you admitted.”
Near the same time I was amending the documents I also called admissions directors at the best schools on the list. We found later that the service had not prepared additional documents and essay questions needed to assure entrance into these more elite schools. The student, guided by me, submitted them on her own and said nothing to the sevice. And we added one more top school not on the service’s list and applied without telling them.
The student was admitted to every school to which I assisted in preparing materials. The service claimed responsibility for the success and is now sporting news of her admissions in a forged testimonial on their website. Of the dozens of students who successfully were placed by the service my student was the only one admitted to a U.S. News ranked college.
This is not a story about my acumen as an adviser, but a cautionary tale for Chinese parents desperate to advance their student’s careers. These cram scools and services only exist to make money, not to serve the real needs of the student. One such service, NASDAQ listed, is building nearly 100 new centers to fleece well-to-do parents out of their hard earned Yuan. Their happiness lies in a good quarterly report and a high placement rate regardless of the school’s real impact on the student’s well being or future quality of life.
Sea turtles (Those who return and contribute to China with their newfound skills) will be a catalyst for creativity,” predicts Henry Wang Huiyao of the Western Returned Scholars Association. Sea Weed drifts without purpose and has little to offer. Too many schools, now that education has industrialized, care little for the endowments success will bring and do not mind returning students home that they may never see again. Haio is a seagull and implies that one is free to come and go and represents students who have successfully integrated eastern and western thought so well that they can travel freely to and from a foreign country.
There are some good centers, good eastern-looking western institutions as well as some competent prep schools out there. They are few and far between.
In coming posts I will also examine the explosion of 2+2 and 1+3 degree mills that now prey on wealthy students who under-perform on Chinese entrance exams. They give a year’s worth of expensive preparation in cooperation with schools in the UK and US who have lowered their standards in an effort to raise their bottom lines along with false hopes for the wealthy parents who finance their operations.
There were “Nine Black Categories” during the Cultural Revolution: Landlords, rich farmers, anti-revolutionaries, bad influences (the catch-all available in any culture), right-wingers, traitors, spies, capitalist roaders and lastly, intellectuals—scholars have been last, or next to last in Chinese caste hierarchies since the Yuan dynasty where they were only slightly better regarded: They were ninth in the caste order and beggars ranked tenth. But, I digress…
Chinese revolutionaries might have hated Twitter and other social media even more than the PRC central government does now because in the often quoted words of W.B.Yeats: “The best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”
A card game, called Beat the Landlord, game grew out of this cultural conflict: Dou Di Zhu– (literally fight the landlord) and continues to be wildly popular on the Internet here with millions of players. The game allows two “bandits” to gang up on one “landlord” in an attempt to allow his partner player to divest himself cards and win. The landlord does not often fare well. I have grown weary of a few Internet landlords and short of beating on them I have just opted to delete them from view.
Social Media has been a digital gift from the heavens for me. I have been active on the web in one form or another since 1978. Social Media as I knew it then worked well because the conference moderators insisted we divest ourselves of titles and station and work on tasks that benefited the community as a whole.
I was playing Scrabble online with a social media “influencer” a year or so ago and we were both updating our experience as we battled. Suddenly he told me that he had to stop clogging his tweet stream with game details as he had lost followers during our contest. His reason for being on networks was clearly different than mine. I have used blogs and networks for years as a way to make and maintain friends. And as a result I have met In Real Life (IRL) dozens of people that were first introduced to me only as avatars, long lines of updates, shared pictures, music selections, videos or blog posts. It has been magical. And on my recent trip back to the States I revisited “old” Internet friends (some I had known for 7-10 years without ever meeting in the flesh) and I sought many I had not met, but for whom I had developed a special affinity. I found them to be even more gracious, kind and fun than their 140 character at a time persona allowed for online.
I use Twitter and Facebook in place of an RSS feed now and revel in new information about cultures, conflicts, charities and ways to improve my quality of life and that of others. I am pro revolution and pro profit as long as there is truth in the advertising…
But, of late I have noticed a disturbing trend. Sites like Quora, and Twitter have given credence to digital landlords, anti-revolutionary government and corporate eavesdroppers, rich corporations looking to speak to trends as opposed to consumers, link baiting spam laden roaders and those that inherited social wealth by association or early adoption who now look to dictate the set, setting and content of our conversations and want to make more money telling me how I can do it too. They act as landlords and exclude or attempt to evict those with differing views or too little to offer them as they extend their tweetreach or make their personal brands more recognizable. And many of them display far from exemplary conduct as they write the leases that we aspiring digerati will tacitly sign in order to get along with them hoping to be included or for fear of being vilified, or worse, cast into the darkness of less social cyberspace.
I once asked the author of several books and hundreds of articles to “retweet” (broadcast again) a status update of mine wherein I listed the URL of a U.S. sanctioned charity helping flood victims in China. I was told in seconds that under no circumstances would he jeopardize his social capital by assisting an unpopular cause. People were not happy with China. Lions 2, Chinese 0. “The best lack all conviction…”
Two gurus in Hong Kong refuse to add their name to any charitable cause not self organized because of its possible negative impact on their branding. One of them actually refuses to pay admission to Internet supported charity affairs because his presence alone has value. His has a lot of social capital, earned by gossiping about others and devaluating their currency, though I wonder how many friends he’d have if he socially sobered up and put principles before his own personality.
Another Internet luminary recently assaulted a well-followed China Twitter user and lambasted him, among many things, for using a pseudonym and for not being in what the communication constable construed to be viable social media circles and for artificially growing his Twitter following. What he did not know is: the monicker is his court appointed name and the man he citizen arrested (with not a little police brutality and great fanfare involved), or rather the criminal in question, has secretly helped fund out of his own pocket important TEDx and intercultural social events that would otherwise not have happened. I neither know, nor care, how he amassed a huge audience. Ironically, the cybercop in this episode of Social Media’s Most Wanted was concomitantly announcing to the world via his updates how proud he was that answers he offered on Quora were being voted to the top of listings. Now there is a real resume builder. This is the same man who incidentally told me, a former EOD trained Ordnance Officer in the Army, that I was wrong about what weapons were in use during my time in service when the closest he has ever come to the military is a Tom Clancy novel. This is a man who tirelessly works online to build his personal brand as an intellectual and contrary to most things. “…while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”
And last, but not least in my not nearly exhaustive (maybe exhausting) rant is the visit by two writers for a brand name commercial financial rag. Their boss called with a day’s notice and asked if I would host them on their first trip into South China. I have done this for many journalists and business people. The heavy lifting is usually done by bright and self effacing volunteers from the local community who translate and accompany them to parts of Guangzhou, as a favor, that newcomers might never otherwise see. “In your life, you meet people. Some you never think about again. Some, you wonder what happened to them. There are some that you wonder if they ever think about you. And then there are some you wish you never had to think about again. But you do.” These two were hosted for meals in a restaurant that stayed open just to be kind to them, given true visiting royalty status and then left only to write a blog post later that never mentioned the volunteers or kindness showed them, but instead only remarking about how filthy the air was in our city.The two poison ivy league graduates from well heeled families left several young students in Guangzhou wondering if our privileged company knew the difference between engagement and entitlement.
It is about conversation, not adulation. It is about earning relationships, not winning or displaying stinking badges. It is about dissolving boundaries, not drawing yourself into some inner circle. It is about traveling the hills and valleys of the bell curve, not cowering in the far end with only folks with similar statistics in some strange social equation. It is , for me, about trying (and sometimes succeeding in spite of myself) to do something good even if I have to panhandle…
There are no “Seven Keys to Internet Success.” There is one:
And while you are being authentic, if you can find the time to do a #randomactofkindness just do it. Turn a couple of #hashtags into ploughshares.
And I try to remember that there is usually are real people and dear friends at the other end of my updates. And I believe that if had to belong to one of social media’s black categories I’d likely shoot for scholarship or refine being a beggar…
“God, grant me the Senility to forget the people I never liked anyway, the good fortune to run into the ones I do, and the eyesight to tell the difference”
“There are quantities of human faces, but there are many more faces, for each person has several.”
Ranier Maria Rilke
I once substituted as lecturer for a Classics course in a Chinese Ivy League school. The beloved Harvard educated Chinese professor could not teach that term because of medical issues. I entered the classroom as an unknown entity. Students at the University were used to “Waijiao” (Foreign Teachers or literally Outside Teachers) with little or no experience being put into their classrooms more for the color of their skin or country of origin than for the their knowledge of the subject to be taught. After a brief run through the ambitious syllabus foisted on me I asked the class if there were any questions. One young man in the back of the room angrily asked: “What qualifies you to teach at this institution?” His question neither offended nor surprised me.
I knew a little of the history of this class and their previous foreign faculty members: one, in his sixties, had recently been asked to resign as a result of relational improprieties and another, also in his sixties, was dating three different young women at once (uknown to the others) while living with another on campus. Neither teacher had a degree in English nor much of a cultural grasp of China beyond a singular fondness for young Chinese girls. Sadly, this breed of foreign expert had been the norm at that school for many years.
I calmly explained that I had been at on time, before my travel to China, a “real teacher” with a real desire to see them come to love and understand literature as much as I had during my graduate education. I told them that my credentials, awards, and publishing credits more than qualified me for undergraduate lecturing. I stress that during my program I was taught by mentors and visiting lecturers in my program who had won every award from the National Book award to the TS Elliot Prize to the Nobel, to…But academic window dressing would only have meaning if by the end of the term they had come, to paraphrase Rilke, to enjoy literature more and more, and became more and more grateful, and somehow better and simpler in vision, and deeper their faith in life, and happier and greater in the way they lived and were able to appreciate the power of the written word as it has influenced millions over the decades.
Richard, the young man above, was the class antagonist the entire term: He became my favorite student by way of his challenges and lust for knowledge and academic integrity in his learning. He will graduate from Columbia this year and he still intellectually wrestles with me when I post something questionable on Facebook or other social networks where we remain connected.
Most new teachers in China will not have such good luck. They will not have vocal students (another post will discuss why they are silent and it is not for lack of opinion or ability) who will educate them about how they are perceived nor will they be lucky enough to teach top students much more than oral English idioms in a class better suited for elementary aged pupils.
You are a foreigner and many round eyes and white faces have preceded you. Some have done their job well, most have not.
It is your responsibility to acculturate, not theirs.
Learn your students Chinese names and something of their background.
Be patient with yourself and your students.*
Know that the students have already spoken, and likely written on school boards, about you. Ask them individually how to improve their learning experience. They will tell you though not always with the grace and tact you might like. Do not be surprised to be told, if you open yourself to feedback, that you are short, fat, old, wrinkled or speak too fast, slow, too much or too little to them.
Know that the Chinese staff knows little or nothing about you and may not bother to take much time to engage you: you are a transient in their life of endless meetings, regulations, low pay, long hours and mandated curriculum. They may think you less prepared culturally and academically than their Chinese colleagues.
There are three exercises I use in almost every class to bring each student, and consequently China, into better focus:
I take time away from regular studies to have each student write their name in Chinese on the board and describe each element and character in the name. I ask them to include the historical meaning of the name, who gave it to them and why. Att the same time I ask them not to use an English name in my class in order that I might learn their real names and the identities behind each one. This term, Purple Heart, Handsome Horse, Ms Poetry and Beautiful Phoenix are a few of the student names I will never ever forget–where I might not remember the faces or stories of Chloe, Vince or Sophie. And the stories behind the names have been worth a thousand Chinese culture classes as I have learned about Feng Shui from those whose names were chosen for luck by a soothsayer or master, enjoyed tales about entire villages with a common middle or last names, and shared in the hopes and dreams of parents who chose Chinese name characters hoping their meaning would influence the futures of their children by association or divine intervention.
I interview each student in many classes and ask them simple questions about the wishes, lies and dreams in their educational lives. I have come to know real people, not numbers, faces or acquired names. And the fear that once separated us has often dissolved and been replaced by lasting respect and I have been able to honor and stretch their boundaries. And they become as uncomfortable with the term Waijiao as I do because, while always an outsider, I am on the periphery with love and appreciation and a sincere desire to see them succeed: “I hold this to be the highest task for a bond between two people: that each protects the solitude of the other”
The first ten minutes of any class is devoted to school, local, regional and national news. This keeps me informed about things I would never otherwise know, helps with language acquisition, and tells me culturally what is important to them and why. Politics and religion are forbidden discussion topics, but feelings about sports, war, earthquakes, and even movies or television star scandals will inform about China you in ways you never dreamed possible. Students learn that I am not the America they condemn because of the reader-baiting bias of a CNN or other media source and I re-discover that they are not the perpetrators of the rules and ideologies by which the west defines China.
Becoming a teacher in China is more than lessons in language if you have respect, and most of all, patience:”… there is no measuring with time, a year doesn’t matter, and ten years are nothing. Being a [ teacher] means: not numbering and counting, but ripening like a tree, which doesn’t force its sap, and stands confidently in the storms of spring, not afraid that afterward summer may not come. It does come. But it comes only to those who are patient, who are there as if eternity lay before them, so unconcernedly silent and vast. I learn it every day of my life, learn it with pain I am grateful for: patience is everything!”
Below, find a few of dozens of letters of application sent to an Italian restaurant (Danny’s Bagel) here in Guangzhou. The names and schools have been altered so students won’t suffer any embarrassment. I should have started a collection a long time ago of the many others I have seen….
Typically only 1/10 will even show for an interview even after sending in a recommendation. Even with the dearth of good paying jobs with insurance and social security paid by an honest and caring employer like Danny. Most new graduates or senior students will think a restaurant job too menial and of little value for future appointments even with the tremendous skill set they can acquire while there. Some of the letters sent by no-shows for a full-time position. I am sure they went on to much better things, like CCTV announcer or QIDE （启德）/New Oriental （新东方）English language teacher:
Hello, happened to see your ad online. I am a college student at a prestigious college. I major in journalism and communication. Being with people could always excite me, I’ll find it fulfills life to be connected to society. So may I ask for a part-time in your Dannys BAgel at weekend?
If I were not admitted to your Bagel as a waitress then I would like to have meals there as a guest, haha.
I am very grad to make friends with you. I hope we can talk about some chinese and wesern cuisine. So we can study each other.”
“My name is XXXX, a student studying french in guangzhou. It’s a pleasure to have your email when searching the internet, don’t worry, i don’t have a scare attempt. I just want to make friend with some foreigners and to improve my english and french if its OK. i am looking forward to your reply.”
“Sorry for late reply. I have just finished my first job…. I have a bachelors in Russian. I like English very much…. I am a good girl I think.
One wrote a rambling three-page personal statement emphasizing her “sunny and careful and patient heart” and wrapped up with “suggestions” for the Danny, a 14-year veteran of business in China–I am still working on what she meant to suggest:
” Some companies especially cafes don’t want to hire short time waiter or waitress, because it will waste the training or other resources. But except for college students , where are young girls with terrific oral English? In other words, as far as I am concerned, hiring the right person may save the training time even can shorten the cycle of profits by so many orders. I think maybe I am not the best, but I am good enough.”
“so, I want to work in your restaurant on weekend. What is more, i am good at cooking chinese cuisine. Thanking you!” XXXX
This blog is packed with my deep love for Chinese students and my own long and hilarious struggle to assimilate and acculturate into their culture, while trying to abide by government imposed constraints….I am sure my letters would be much worse, but then I am not an Chinese major at a “pretigious school.”
The barriers erected by, or in front of, students provide the fodder for many a novice writer or newcomer to the Middle Kingdom. For those of us who have been here a bit, it is black humor meant to release a bit of reflexive aggression so it is not misdirected back to the students we are committed to serving….Neither I nor Danny ever make fun of the students, rather we marvel at their lack of preparedness for even a wait-staff position.
One of the many failings of virtually every College and University in China is their inability to give students a sense of direction or prepare them for the future. I wish I had one yuan for every senior who told me that he/she had no idea what they wanted to do upon graduation. I could retire if I had another Yuan for every student that desired to get a “good job at a good company”without knowing what they might like do once there.
Every year I write three versions of every graduate school recommendation letter to cover: the path they “think” they might like to take, the mandated route their parents demand–invariably business or finance at a “top 5o” brand name school–or some easier alternative study plan that will give them time to finally decide on one of the former….
Most of them know the rules of grammar–they can do calculus like we Americans do addition and subtraction–and they can read and speak with astonishing alacrity and competence. But their cultural, vocational and social education has not equipped them to enter an increasingly western etiquette driven job market without self study or mentoring by a patient teacher. I am hoping that the industrialization of education in China soon includes a module in vocational preparation–even if there is an extra charge.
In the 1970’s I was tasked by the military to teach medics the stages of grief written about and popularized by Elizabeth Kubler Ross. Disbelief, Anger, Denial and Acceptance are all part and parcel of loss and Ross gave us a viable way to understand emotions in confusing circumstances. Some counselors and friends through the years have used them as a way to help mourners and disease sufferers cope as they journey through tragedy. But, sometimes…
I am not ashamed to admit that I have been stuck in anger of late about many losses that have occurred around me and concerning the pain and difficulties of my own condition. No news or change of status has affected me more profoundly lately than that of “Coffee.”
Huang Cui Xiang, Coffee’s real name in print for the first time as I promised to protect her anonymity , was a saint long before she became ill–as you will read below.
I am reside emotionally and mentally in the hospital where I saw her battling heat, pain and worry: She was not fretting about her disease, she was concerned about her studies. She had spread her school books on her bed and took every free moment she was not debilitated by chemotherapy to read her lessons. She was determined to graduate on time with her class.
That was two years ago. She carried her books up and down long flights of stairs (no place in China is well equipped for anyone handicapped) and developed a strong walk and great endurance despite an ill-fitted and heavy artificial leg. She took extra classes, enrolled in an off-campus French language translators course donated by one of her school’s most caring foreign teachers, performed an internship at HSBC bank and did, as she intended, graduate with her peers.
The cancer fought back over the last two years and six months ago Coffee’s cancer resurfaced and she returned home to continue the fight. But in recent weeks the disease spread to her lungs and she was rendered unable to speak. She did text message several times.
Many people wanted to rescue her emotionally and, with good intentions, they would send her new cancer fighting recipes and words of wisdom and encouragement. Coffee, who was already resigned to the inevitable, simply replied, “It is too late for that.”
Her last communication, just days before I had planned to visit her at her home in Yingde, China was simply, “Goodbye.” She died last week. The message was Coffee’s last lesson for me– and one she had been trying to teach all along with a smile on her face and never a bad word to be said about anyone or anything: Take life on life’s terms and give your all to every moment of it in pursuit of something you cherish.
I know she is gone, and I accepted long ago Coffee might leave sooner than she should, but I am still angry. I am angry at myself for not doing more to help her, angry that I was not able to see her before she left and angry that I don’t feel the world is a better place because she was here– Coffee was forced out much too soon…
Coffee, rest in the same peace you knew even in adversity.
My first post after hearing of Coffee’s illness:
I went to the hospital a few weeks ago to visit one of five of my students afflicted with cancer this last year. And my heart hurts since returning.
A former student called me to ask if I remembered another classmate nicknamed “Coffee.” Of course I remembered the 1/500 treasure: A delightful girl with a fervor for learning, who had been a second year English major in the school where I taught. I try to remember most of my students, but Coffee was easy: She often emailed me with serious questions about cultural issues and after several meetings, at her request, we changed her English name to one, at the time, we thought better suited a Business English major. I later felt I was wrong and, unlike other students and associates that I address by their Chinese, I have never called Coffee by the new name I foisted on her.
And I remembered that pretty young Coffee came from a poor rural family and had an older brother and sister. It was this knowledge that especially dismayed me when I was told that she had been diagnosed with bone cancer. I knew instantly that not only would she suffer ostracism associated with being handicapped in China–It it is an enormous social burden that she would not be able to afford to lighten–but the costs would prevent treatment that could help minimize her disability in this difference-vigilant culture. Her father, aware of the same, took more than half a day to accede to the surgeons requests for a consent form to remove Coffee’s leg. He thought it might be better to let Coffee die rather than face shunning for a disability.
It takes no special education to know there is shame and hardship ahead for his daughter and family. Please don’t judge him harshly. He loves his daughter and has already invested his life’s savings to see her through three years of college. He is back at home while Coffee’s mother must pay a daily fee to maintain all an day and night vigil at the hospital. They live two hours and many, many years away from China’s third largest metropolis.
The hospital was without air conditioning and in desperate need of paint and renovation, but I knew that even this questionable house of healing was more than she could afford. I met her mother, a woman who has obviously labored hundreds of long days under the sun, and immediately knew that finances were going to the biggest single factor in Coffee’s treatment and recovery. And worse yet, the hospital’s worn facade was a metaphor for the growing disparity between rich and poor in China that has enmeshed Coffee and her family–and just at a time when they had hoped to improve their station in life through school. The rich are living, and living well, while the poor are dying for want of health care. Coffee was smiling and genuinely optimistic during our meeting. She could already navigate, on crutches, the area from her bed to the common television alcove down the bleak corridor. Her leg was removed only two weeks ago, but Coffee is far ahead of the healing curve. I am told that Coffee attended class up until two days before her scheduled surgery and today she shared, in confident and relaxed English, that she intends to go back to college next semester even if it is during her chemotherapy. I believe her. The school, with no handicapped accessibility, no air conditioning, overcrowded dorms and mind-numbing class schedules, is all she thinks about. She will finish college even if her post-graduate chances for good paying work have been diminished. If I could have bottled one-tenth of one-percent of the courage that issued from her today I could sell it and fund a cure for her disease. But, the best anyone has been able to do so far is take up a collection for her at school: Her classmates, no better off financially, have raised about $600 USD for her care. She is still several thousand short of what she will need for a manageable new leg alone. It is with great sadness that I announce another courageous soul will join the League of Extraordinary Chinese Women. I gave that title to a group of women who met during chemotherapy and have intuitively done health and healing in the face of HER2 breast cancer with bravery and even laughter: they watch sunrise together, meet for tea and inspiration and helped each other through hard times with meager resources, but hopeful hearts.
I just met with several students from area colleges at my apartment. They are all volunteers at some level for various causes in China. They are an amazing group: smart, kind and honest, as my mother would have said, to a fault. They accept China on China’s terms and do their best to ethically orient themselves toward success in a society where the rules are not always as clear as we in the west would want them to be…
Today, one student innocently shared information about university sanctioned illegal video and audio downloads and another showed me study materials stolen from America’s Educational Testing Service (ETS) that were reprinted, and repackaged without identifying marks and then sold to him by New Oriental (NYSE: EDU) staff. Let me digress a bit before I explain more to you of what I learned during one of my most enlightening lessons on IP theft, Chinese Education and academic cheating….
Before I could become an instructor at the US Army’s Academy of Health Sciences, then one of the most modern teaching facilities in the US, I had to take a series of courses designed to make me a better educator. I was required to pass six graduate hours of training in lesson plan preparation, test item construction and item analysis. These courses were meant to insure that all classes taught by me would be measured against overt behavioral objectives. It’s intent was that students would be fairly graded and measurably educated. And for the record: there was still great creative latitude available to instructors about how to present a course, but the structure imposed on us guaranteed each student a fair chance at a good score. We also had teams of graphic artists, an enviable TV production station with closed circuit capability and virtually unlimited other resources to assist us and our personal classroom styles–one of the few positive benefits of the Vietnam draft was a wildly diverse and talented military whose skills the Army sometimes put to good use….
All of this was incredibly costly. I remember helping preparing the Army’s Behavioral Science Study Guide by authoring the Learning Theory and Behavior Modification chapters. It took thirty faculty members several months to create a comprehensive guide to social work/psychology theory and procedures that was used for years around the world as a promotions test preparation tool. I know the expense of creating quality tests and their power and validity when used correctly.
Tests are everything in China. Literally. The annual college boards here are similar to our GRE, SAT, ACT, GMAT, LSAT and numerous standardized tests. But, the main difference is: in China your future generally rests on your academic acumen as measured by one test taken on one day of your life– It is not unlike the last year’s Olympics in some ways. Socially and financially the waiting time between re-tests in China, easier in the US, can be devastating here: A single point can mean you that IF you get admitted to a Chinese “Ivy League” school,you might still be relegated to a less prestigious major that the administration will order you to study–and no, you cannot transfer easily to any other department. Can you imagine a student at Harvard being told they MUST take linguistics as a course of study?
So, many students head for cram schools to get a leg up on the competition. New Oriental, which went public 2 years ago for 100 million USD, was sued by ETS a few years ago, but continues to flaunt copyright laws in most of its centers. In 2001, Xu Xiaoping, vice-president of New Oriental, acknowledged their “mistake” in connection with the ETS copyright issue and went on to say said that his school had contacted ETS several times to buy the publishing rights for authorized GRE materials, but that they had been repeatedly rejected–Imagine that. Xu noted that New Oriental would have become the largest buyer of ETS materials in China if ETS had made authorized GRE materials available to them. So, since N.O. can’t get materials–on N.O’s terms–from ETS, they just steal them.
One student told me about professional test thieves who make a great deal of money by signing up for ETS and IELTS exams and either memorize questions (long a practice of law and insurance board schools in the US) or just replace paper tests with pre-fab fakes and then sell the originals to New Oriental’s publishing consorts. The books have no author, publisher or copyright listed, but they are sold by staff at N.O. schools. N.O. then packs 200-250 students in a cram class, hires cheap and marginally qualified teachers or $150 a month interns to preside over classes so they can pockets millions of RMB a week in profit. I am occasionally glancing at stolen test prep materials as I write. I have given it a lot of thought and ask myself: What student of any nationality, anxious to further a career, could resist getting actual exam questions and study hints for any U.S. or Commonwealth test for only $3.50 USD?
Students from middle class families live in dorms with enforced curfews and those that are lucky enough to have TV may have to share one with up to 150 classmates. Libraries are not current and most school intranets prevent access to thousands of western sites. For many students, even those in International Business, their only view of the west, prior to graduation, comes courtesy of a heavily censored CCTV or those shows and books filched from bit torrent locations. I blame part of China’s student suicide epidemic on the dearth of stimulation at many campuses and the singular dominance of exam dedicated teaching. Even during the most grueling courses at the Army’s Academy of Health Sciences we taught “toward” the test, but promoted social activities and encouraged “real life” interactions and learning beyond classroom walls.
Then, there is N.O., a multimillion dollar, “publicly held” corporation openly preying on the desperation of students hoping to break ranks and better themselves despite China’s lock-step educational boot camps and profiteering cadres. Test prep is a several billion dollar a year industry here and there is no excuse for N.O. not paying its dues to the overseas organizations that are investing huge amounts of money in research, development and ongoing statistical analysis to level the academic playing field for foreigners and native learners alike. Cram schools are cheating ETS and others of profits and displacing deserving students who have studied according to the rules.
Research has long borne out the fact that such a model of learning: a punitive and obsessive approach to winning at any cost, creates only aberrant behavior. When we unnaturally force youth to adopt our national or political aspirations we should count the loss of their ability to enjoy normal developmental stages, once known as childhood, as a death and one as as final and unnatural as the corporeal loss of a son or daughter.
I was leaving a lecture last year when I heard what I thought was a rehearsal for a drama contest: a native English speaking teacher, one of the retinue of a British educational group preparing students for study abroad, was shrieking at a student some 100 meters away. Through the dementia I heard the words, “Test”, “Late” and Stupid” several times; then a door slammed shut in a violent rebuke of all I have ever held dear in teaching. A once reputable organization that recruited students for UK schools has lowered admission standards for high-paying International students and is a money making machine that pours cash from unprepared rich kids into British schools and leaves recruiters, students and weary teachers wealthier, albeit worse for the experience. And the teachers, worn frail by students feeling they are nothing more than a paycheck for schools/teachers keep a wheel of frustration turning.
Later in the same day one of my favorite students, a senior at one of China’s top schools, phoned me. After a long silence in which I am sure he was trying to properly conjugate his emotions he whispered that he had done poorly on his Graduate Record Exam and that everything he had trained for, all the lost days of adolescence spent in test preparation, had been incarcerated in a single test score. This is the same young man who told me about well-known teachers here in China who will sell a letter of recommendation and who showed me materials handed out by “tutors” at New Oriental the publicly held cram school that pays students to sign up for and then steal US and British standardized exams and republishes and sells the questions. Many of these “learners” are those being pushed by parents to spend graduate school abroad in, what is for the student, one of hell’s circles for the duration of a degree in a field they well may loathe.
The video below amused many, but now me and is a sad example of what teaching in the cram schools can devolve into when educational carpetbaggers from the US, UK and China prey on a one-child family’s aspirations by industrializing and monetizing their dreams:
“Test-prep classes at the New Oriental School can drag on for a long, long time. To spice things up a bit, teachers were encouraged to do wake-up performances. Things started mildly enough—joke telling, maybe a rousing song—but now, we have this rather risqué dance routine, performed by a TOEFL teacher at one of New Oriental”s Beijing campuses.” (HT to Kaiser Kuo)
Yesterday, one of my students from the past, an ebullient, artistic and wonderfully complicated young woman, emailed me for a recommendation to college in America. She has been a dutiful student at a Chinese “Ivy League” school, in a major chosen for her by the administration, only to answer the callings of a typically demanding academic mother and father. There was an uncharacteristically uncombed sound to her words, clues I may not have been meant to follow, but I did anyway. One of the gentlest spirits I have ever know and really a favorite student leaped into an uncertain eternity last year because school authorities in Macau stifled her cries for help, so I am not about to let even the most obscure hints of trouble go unchallenged.
This year twice as many “sea turtles” or Chinese student/expat returnees will fold up their foreign aspirations and come back to China in search of work because plans in light of a the west’s scuttled economy. Those that wash ashore, having been socially or financially promoted to a degree abroad, are known to their peers as “sea weed.” And their paper-bound skills, might be mistaken as useful by businesses desperate for middle managers that can help them fight this financial tsunami with newly forged swords of knowledge.
Schools like Macau University of Science and Technology, degree mills, with 2+2 and 3+1 programs ( do 2 or 3 years in China/Macau and then finish in the US or UK) have arrangements with institutions like Seton Hall and Central and Eastern Michigan in the U.S. have nothing to lose save their reputations by pocketing the money ill-prepared students pay them for what should be an honorary, not earned diploma. Many 2+2 programs are reputable and provide students an incredible international experience, but Chinese students need to be guided by career counselors not paid by the schools. They should seek out those who charge operating fees that ensure the student gets in the best school-one that matches the student’s needs.
It is time for some real prep’ schools for authentic scholars who will benefit a world economy and not a few wealthy opportunists.
Addendum: The students mentioned above and others who came to me for guidance, which I gave freely, are now happily tudying abroad at schools they are happy about: Arizona, Columbia, Rutgers, University of Nebraska, CUHK, Carnegie Mellon, UCLA Berkeley and others….
Note: This is one of the reasons IELTS China was started. Read more about it here (in Chinese): IELTS GUANGZHOU
A friend of mine asserted yesterday that Michael Arrington’s decision to end his courtship with Apple was in part due to a negative mindset created by recent attacks on his journalistic and personal integrity (Twittergate, LeWeb), the stalking and threats he says cost thousands of dollars to counter and the huge bulls-eye that every bombastic public figure, from Perez to Loic pins on every time they post an opinion. I thought it a bit too much info and a bit too personal a view from someone who has never met Arrington. I haven’t met him either, but, I digress….I am writing this post to agree, free of psychoanalysis, with Arrington, albeit for a few more reasons.
Most of us who have used Apple products since the days of Pong feel a special, though almost unnatural, attachment to our sleek, fashion conscious companions. But, of the four loves, romantic is the most fragile even though it has taken me months to decide to pack Apple’s bags. They are now filled with hundreds of adapters I can no longer match to the devices they were meant to support–and I’ll leave them on the curb for one of my Chinese neighbors who needs to replace some long, lost proprietary AC plug…. Yes, I have long wanted to break it off with the brand that, had I not allowed myself to be seduced by, could have spared me the dough for a new car or a down-payment on an apartment while leaving me plenty of cash for several Dell desk and laptops. Damn, it is like a relationship with a shoe crazed character in some sitcom, isn’t it?
All kidding aside (for now), my distrust of Apple after meeting an Asian Apple executive from Singapore who euphemistically asserted that Apple was “not a very CSR minded company,” but if I ever contacted him that he would “see to it personally” that three charities, for whom I serve as a board member. could buy from Apple at a discount as long as they did not publicize the good deed. I understand: A company like apple might well be inundated with requests from Slumdogs looking to better their lots and after all, that it what Foundation money is for: Allowing cash-strapped NGOs and NPOs to feel better that they supported the world economy by purchasing their MACs at full price. Apple’s Asian office has returned neither my phone calls nor emails.
Then, I met the guys at a local Guangzhou authorized repair center who fixed a cracked screen with a used one and charged me retail, at the same time they installed a bogus Parallels and Windows platform in my Macbook Pro–also at cost.
Then after buying my iPhone I found I was locked out of buying music on iTunes (and a podcast I wanted to hear by Stephen Fry) because I now reside in China– heaven knows we cannot get pirated music anywhere except iTunes here.I cannot even buy a ringtone, or add video capability to my dismal excuse for a camera, without “cracking” my phone or buying the new and financially improved model with features my friends have had for months on their bootleg versions…
Dropping the Google Voice development (Arrington’s chief beef) did not bother me, other than to signal that if Apple will bend to AT&T to save it a few bucks in VOIP losses they will certainly kiss the PRC’s asks for blocking and censorship demands in the Chinese market. I don’t need any more difficult a time accessing the net, thanks.
And now they have entered into the dark side of brand gaffe creations generally reserved for companies like Sony and have remained silent (the old maxim of the law was “Silence gives consent”) about important issues regarding the reported suicide of a worker at Foxconn, Apple’s manufacturing partner in China, who has been under investigation before for worker abuse. The worker claimed he was beaten by security personnel after he reported that a prototype of a new generation iPhone had disappeared. Apple showed incredible insensitivity and arrogance by letting Foxconn pay a paltry sum in compensation for his death, and worse yet, gave an Apple computer as part of their sad mea culpa deal.
I am done with Apple and headed to any company that looks to be more socially aware and less like a well- traveled mistress of conceit, repression and greed.
I hope this finds you well and not too overwhelmed by the hundreds of nominations folks have sent in for the #140conf –especially after your carb-laden drive back from IHOP today and what was surely a stimulating visit with one of my favorite online connections, @geogeller.
With Twitter censored/blocked/banned/muted here in the Middle Kingdom and my VPN suffering some neural disorder of late I apologize that I didn’t catch the call for attendees nor did I make the deadline for nominations. Here below the far side of the Great Firewall we have to make-do with state run papers, tunnel networks, and year old broadcasts from Hong Kong of American Idol’s Got Talent in Funny Home Videos to keep us acculturated until we return to the land of round doorknobs, boneless chicken and (insert envy here) IHOP.
I am writing in hopes that you were given leads for a few China-centric microbloggers. No, not the ones who live within arms reach of San Francisco and its technocentric, wash-my-back-and-I-will introduce-you-to-my-VC and his friend who lived once in Shanghai–the financial Haight-Ashbury of China where all the pretty people go to gamble on the Chinese version of the American Dream–who knows a lot of peeps. The real China Twitterati. And please don’t get me wrong: I cherish my association with many bright successful entrepreneurs and old China hands in Shanghai and SF, but, I digress….
Here is what I mean to ask of you:
A military medial supervisor of mine, years ago in Germany, was giving a lecture on psychopathology and said that the real definition of “crazy” was fighting someone twice your size. During my tenure in China, I have come to call such actions “bravery” and am glad that there are those crazy enough to wade in treacherous digital waters to lead others through China’s information Killing Fields…
Too often U.S. and world conferences ignore Asia and the folks who will make up–according to Forrester–almost 50% of the world’s Internet traffic. While @Loic lamented, at France’s LeWeb, America’s narcissism and self-centered deprecation of anything not engineered in Silicon Valley, there was little Asian representation at that event–and this after Loic had been an invited guest at Open Web Asia. And Blog World Expo has routinely ignored a demographic with more users now than America has citizens. Those wanting to Digg their way to China (sorry) simply don’t have the tools to do it nor a craftsman to show them how to use them if they did.
Apart from the human rights imperative that the government here has created with censorship and dis-information, there are hundreds of millions of Japanese, Chinese, Indians, Vietnamese and other APAC Netzens that would love to be part of the global conversation and could teach us all a great deal about business and cultural opportunities beyond our borders.
And while I seriously feel that there are extraordinary China savvy expats both here and abroad, I advocate for native voices who are part and parcel of the social networks here: Dr.@ganglu the founder of Open Web Asia; @Isaac the first blogger in China, Harvard Fellow and founder of CNBloggercon; @zola, China’s first guerella blogger and citizen reporter; and dozens of others…
Your last conference should be applauded if only for drawing Al Jazeera and the Israeli Consulate to the same event. Here’s hoping you continue setting global conference precedents at your next 140 character conference.
“Creativity is piercing the mundane to find the marvelous.”
I am glad to be back writing again after a long hiatus….This is not a regular fare for those of you who have read me in the past…It is simply a laundry list, a sorry set of excuses explaining my absence, and one way to personally reflect on “mundane” events from the last couple of months. I track below one “normal” day’s activities:
–Read RSS, Twitter, NY Times, Facebook updates with coffee–1.0 hours
Prepare lecture materials for the week on Culture, Writing, Social Media…–1.0 hours
Tweet and Re-Tweet interesting articles about China, Charity, Humor, Inspiration, Good Music and post pics from my i-Phone and relate drivel about what I am up to for the day (zzzzzzzz)….. –1.0 hours
Order in late lunch that I eat cold later while I am working–2 min.
Read and answer all @ and DM Tweets, Email, and FB messages sent my way; try to delete most of the 120 spam mails received overnight–1.0 hours
Speculate on the actual number of Viagara users who buy online–10 sec.
Online meetings with amazing charities to whom I donate time, web work and support–1.5-2.0 hrs
Training and consultation with digital interns in SEO, SEM, PR 2.0, online digital marketing; prepare business proposal for an expat business that will either not pay for, or steal and then outsource to a “good friend who is an SEO expert” –2.0 hrs
Clean my world-view glasses and remember all the good folks; chant “the future is all you can hope to control”–10 min.
Buy some clever domain name (Straight-eye-for-the queer-guy.com) that I will park with the 185 others I own and never use–5 min.
Catch-up on Skype with close friends and collegues–1.0 hours
Lecture on nothing I was prepared to speak about–2.0 hrs
Laugh and walk away when students or colleagues ask the meaning of “multitasking”–0 min
Business Planning, delegation of work with PA and team–1-hrs
Re-explain business planning to the interns who pretended they understood my colloquial English the first time thru–30 min.
Do a BBC Radio Interview on Censorship–45 min.
Wonder if that sound at the door is the Net Nanny–10 sec.
Write 3 letters of recommendation for students past and present–45 min.
Give pep talk to the students for whom I wrote recommendations and tell them it is not necessary to send applications to 65 U.S. colleges for safety–1 min.
Help brainstorm three separate creative projects (non-profit) with artist friends in Washington, SG and Shanghai on Skype and by telephone– 1 hr.
Do Guardian newspaper interview about China Internet/Social Media/Censorship–45 min.
Wonder if I have seen that car outside my house before–10 sec.
Hand code/write SEO/SEM work I am “donating” to a $1,000,000 online company that pays a friend instead of me (he is in danger of losing his house due to a layoff)–30 min.
Media Magazine Interview (sound bite) about Baidu/social media in China–20 min.
Drink 3-5 canned drinks (tea, fruit juice, diet Coke…)–Ongoing
Skim a poetry book while in the, um, library (do not visualize)–confidential 😉
Power nap/meditate–20 min.
Catch fast dinner at a local cafe; watch TED video on i-Phone enroute–45 min.
Openly stare at the 60 year old expat and his 25 year old Chinese mate without a rational thought in my head–seems like days
Watch a re-run and then the news (also a ongoing re-run) while surfing the web for new ideas–hard to do as I have had hearing loss since my twenties (THE MILITARY FRANK, THE MILITARY) and often need closed captions or subtitles (yep, really)–1.5 hrs
Try to reconstruct the plot line of the show I watched (’cause I was surfing at the time) and Google/Yahoo TV news stories that the Chinese censors tried to hide by cutting away to commercials–20 min.
Curse the Great Firewall, Twitter’s Fail whale and the sluggishness of my computer on VPN–Afraid to quantify
Make plans (hotel reservations or prep my spare room) for out of town first and second life guests who graciously drop by and rescue me from myself at least one day a week–10 min.
“The ancient commission of the writer has not changed. He is charged with exposing our many grievous faults and failures, with dredging up to the light our dark and dangerous dreams for the purpose of improvement.”
Rape, torture, and war crimes are the twisted common tongue spoken by those falsely entrusted with humanely executing and conjugating wars humanely–if such a a mournful ideal is even possible.
I spent a week up north recently, most of the time in bed ragged from battling a relentless fever, and would have recovered sooner if not for my long climbs out of exhaustion to explore China’s City of Ghosts, Nanjing. I had studied diligently for decades the massacre branded incident by revisionist Japanese historians. I had to see the unresolved grief of a nation now shaped into a memorial and on display so the world will not forget the Asian holocaust and the 20,000,000 lives surrendered in Korea, Burma, Taiwan, The Philippines, Thailand and the whole of the Pacific Rim enslaved by Japanese, greed, lust and an imperial megalomania.
The memorial hall, a coffin-like structure near the burial site of murdered Chinese (“Wan Ren Keng” or Pit of Ten Thousand Corpses) was built ostensibly to honor the memory the 20,000 women raped and some 300,000 citizens slaughtered in fewer than eight weeks of Japanese occupation. Some Japanese “negationists” dispute the number and others even label the talk of massacre a mere act of Chinese propaganda.
What is known, from diaries and collected records from such groups as the Red Swastika and ten other international aid groups, documented the burial of more than 150,000 remains in Nanjing. And I had expected the memorial to make heard the collective wail of a lost souls and a people humiliated beyond the darkest, most appalling horrors your imagination can conjure.
I braced myself going in for a repeat of the suffocating, intense pain I felt when visiting the concentration camp at Dachau, the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC or the Vietnam Memorial at Angel Fire New Mexico. These feelings never came. Maybe it was because I was unable to separate myself for any reflection from the constant ring of cellphones, or the it could have been the relentless manifestations of the number “300,000” that seemed there more as a rebuke than a eulogy, or perhaps it was the theme park feel of the exhibits, the horrific English translations at each station. Too, I nearly drowned in rhetoric about the glorious defeat and surrender of the Japanese to the Chinese forces. The sprinkling of mentions of the Allied sacrifices in support of China were disappointing and infuriating. There was a single picture and only a brief mention of fearless men, like Doolittle’s Raiders or the Flying Tigers, who were pivotal in Japan’s defeat. If China hopes to extract honesty and contrition out of Japan and an amendment of inaccurate history books it should clean the window displays at the memorial and allow a bit more transparency…
I was stuck by the tributes to some of the heroes who created a diplomatic safe zone that fended off the Japanese and saved some 200,000 lives at risk of their own:
When the Japanese invaded China in 1937 the world chose not to respond to reports of atrocities that were themselves biblical in magnitude. In one of the most perfect examples of repeated cosmic irony, John Rabe, a member of Germany’s Nazi party became the “Angel” or “Living Buddha of Nanjing” alongside its “goddess” an American Christian missionary by the name of Minnie Vautrin. After being rebuffed by their respective diplomatic liaisons they established the “safe zone” that saved people from being tortured, burned alive, buried alive, decapitated, bayoneted raped or shot for sport. They acted for God, or in God’s stead, as the behavioral contagion of evil spread throughout the occupying Japanese Army. Further sad irony is the later suicide of Vautrin, attributed to Post Traumatic Stress, and the death of an impoverished and sick Rabe. Rabe was arrested by his own party for his involvement in Nanjing, and then tried after the war for his earlier Nazi affiliation depleting his resources, devastating his health and forcing him to live in poverty.
Too, there was a small tribute to Iris Chang the author of the book The Rape of Nanking. She, to paraphrase Steinbeck, dredged into the light the horrors of Nanjing so thoroughly and unashamedly that the Japanese banned her book citing minor factual discrepancies with their own records. Chang’s death by suicide in 2004 is a lightning rod for controversy: despite psychological treatment for depression and three separate suicide notes, it was thought by many conspiracy theorists that Chang was murdered for endlessly embarrassing the Japanese such as she did by advocating congressional demands for Japanese apologies and confrontations on national TV with the Japanese ambassador. The documentary based on her book and released in 2007 was dedicated to Chang and can be viewed at the memorial.
From an earlier treatise on Nanjing:
Several years ago Rabbi Harold Kushner made popular a treatise on the Old Testament Book of Job. When Good Things Happen to Bad People took on the daunting task of explaining why God, in the allegorical text, might have subjected his dutiful servant Job to all manner of physical and emotional trauma while expecting him to be obedient and adoring. The book purportedly meant to give us comfort by explaining what laymen already had resigned themselves to knowing about Job: adversity just happens and we need to content ourselves with the knowledge that God has a greater plan to which we are not yet privy.
I never accepted Kushner’s easy out; so when tasked with teaching the Bible as Literature to Chinese students this year, I studied Job knowing the first question my young scholars would ask was identical to my own: why would man’s creator willingly torture a loving being, cast in his own image, for the sake of a cosmic bet with the devil? I found the answer in the actions of Job’s friends, not those of God as he was portrayed by the allegory’s author: Job’s friends willingly abandoned him. It was with that realization that Job became, for me, less of a lesson about obedience and worship and clearly a moral guide to my responsibilities to my fellow man.
If it is the duty of the artist to expose the truth to the light, it is the job of the historian to frame and disseminate the events that can re-shape our souls whether we think them to be temporal or divine.
Rabe and Vautrin did not leave the Jobs of Nanjing to suffer the mysteries of fate: They were courageous against uncertainty, raised rational voices amidst the absurdity of war, and thankfully were more committed than the closest of personal friends during a time of horror and anguish.
I read last year where 46% of people answering a poll on the social networking site Facebook said they had no desire to see the documentary Nanking. It is likely the emotional cost, not the price of a ticket keeping them away from the film. Some, like Job’s fair weather friends, do not feel the need for humanitarian counsel. It seems some things are slow to change, but that should not stop anyone, artist advocate or historian, from authenticating the past by giving voice to those are not heard even in the terrible silence of indifference. Carolyn Forche, in her award winning book, The Country Between Us writes: “There is nothing one man will not do to another.” Steinbeck was right: we have usurped the authority and have supposed ourselves to carry the omniscience once ascribed to God.
While I agree with Steinbeck, Kushner and I diverge: I don’t think God, in any any of the earthly renditions we have supposed for his form or character, plays cosmic dice at our expense. And while I know first-hand the pain man is capable of inflicting, I choose to include charity among the many intentional acts that we might choose to commit.
The memorial, in all of its 300,000 (300,000) square feet of glorious anguish is overdone, smacks of a governmental, not humanitarian, agenda. I say, go see it, but view it as much as a metaphor for China’s lingering national insecurities and continued shame over its inability to end the Japanese occupation alone.
May the digital temple bell that rings every ten seconds carry some semblance of the truth of man’s inhumanity to man beyond the boundaries of any heartless ideologies.
P.S. Special Thanks to my open minded, well informed and linguistically gifted guide and interpreter for the week Chen Chan and his teacher Betsy
A friend from Shanghai just returned from Yangshuo one of the most enchanted areas on the planet. He told me he had met Chun Li on New Years Eve and while impressed with her as a powerful, positive person he did not know her history until I sent him this link from months ago…..Time to re-post it then, I think:
Then I first heard of Zhao Chun Li, I didn’t know what the fuss was all about.I had been told that she had brittle bone disease (OI) and was working at the Yangshuo Mountain Retreat as the Front Desk Supervisor.I thought to myself, Yes, this is a great story about overcoming adversity.And spectacular that she’s capable of working in a business setting. But, I cynically considered optioning the story and selling it to Hallmark.
But as I learned more about this woman, born on Christmas Day, I soberly realized just how startlingly powerful her story really was.
Chun Li’s message lies in the details.That Chun Li (Spring Beauty in Chinese) knows how to speak and write in perfect Mandarin is was somewhat interesting.That she was not able to walk to school because of fragile, easily broken bones and later taught herself to read and write Chinese sparked interest.And that years later, having never left her small fishing village in Guanxi, China, she would teach herself English with a little help from Chris Barclay (the man who founded ALTEC and The China-U.S. Medical Foundation) starts to spin a gripping tale of courage.
China can be an unfriendly place for people with hadicaps: they often are not allowed to attend school and are often left out of the mainstream of society. Because of cultural differences, Barclay did met Chun Li while acting as an interpreter for President Clinton’s visit to her home town a few years back. Chun Li had been ordered to stay shut in so Clinton would get a idyllic picture of life in rural China: a vision free of medically challenged villagers. Clinton later learned of Chun Li’s confinement and sent her a letter and autographed picture which she proudly displays at the retreat.
Chun Li’s first journey outside her village was to Los Angeles: When Chun needed medical evaluation and surgery—the kind of evaluation that a Western hospital could provide—Chris Barclay stepped in and raised the funds to allow Chun Li to travel to Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles.Chun Li, braved the transcontinental journey, underwent surgery for a painful cataract, and returned to China.She is virtually self-sufficient: though she requires her mother’s help on a daily basis for some simple tasks, she supports herself with her income from working at the Yangshuo Mountain Retreat. She was the inspiration for the building of the retreat and a personal transformation by Barclay that he is chronicling in an upcoming book about Chun Li called Frog in the Well: The Tao of Possibility.
The Mountain Retreat at Yangshuo
With the spirit of Chun Li’s optimism and strength guiding him, Chris Barclay had a new vision—he knew he could help needy children, young men and women get treatment for their condition by setting up a charity to help collect and organize financial and educational support.In 2002, he created the China-US Medical Foundation, and to this date, the charity has helped dozens of children of glass get the medicine, medical diagnosis, and surgery they were denied at the time in China. None of this would be possible without the dedication of Barclay and the vigor of Chun Li.
In the end, I’ve realized Chun Li’s story isn’t meant to be a tearjerker.It’s a courage-jerker—drawing on the best in her and calling out strength in the people around her, summoning reserves that make a world a better place.Instead of walking away from Chun Li’s story with a feel-good, TV moment, I walked away with a story about how the power of optimism, as exemplified by our Spring Beauty, and the Tao of possibility that can forever change people’s lives.
Chun Li at the Mountain Retreat where visitors from around the world have come to love and admire her, not for her conquest of OI, but for her extraordinary wisdom and positive nature.
I was speaking to Zach, “monk in the Sycamore tree“, Xiao Shuang today about events of late in Iraq. Xiao Shuang and I disagree on many things related to soldiering, patriotism and heroism, but our mutual hunger for meaningful conversation only grows when we debate.
Zach believes that losing one’s life in war or service to a national imperative is akin to dying as a result of a drug overdose or any similar free will decision of dubious moral merit. As a veteran, son of a soldier lost to war wounds and diligent supporter of post-conflict care for the needs of soldiers after their premature introductions to death and human suffering–as if there were a good time for such things. I am emotionally unable to deny feelings of pride and admiration for warriors and even if I cannot reconcile for myself any reason or rightness for a battle in which they may have had a dubious ideology foisted upon them I support their sacrifices and bravery. Xiao Shuang provisionally acceded that it is OK for one to give up one’s life for a cause, but only a worthy one, and then only though non-violent resistance.
Xiao Shang, with a slight nod, acknowledged my feelings and left that dialogue for another time–no story is ever unfinished with us, thank goodness. He went on to query my feelings about the war in Iraq beginning with questioning whether or not I understood the cultural significance of shoes being thrown at President Bush in an Islamic country. I gave a didactic/pedagogical answer: In the Middle east the throwing of shoes is a symbol of contempt and a grave display of disrespect far weightier than the physical act appears to be (even showing someone the sole of your foot is an insult) even a culturally impaired observer. I shared with Xiao Shuang that I had recently polled Chinese business students about the leather clad curse thrown at my nation’s leader: I asked students if they thought that the act should be classified as an act of aggression or as an expression of anger that qualified for protection as freedom of speech. The responses caught me by surprise.
My students manufactured this scenario: They likened Bush to the Prime Minister of Japan during the occupations of Manchuria and Nanjing and made clear that the throwing of shoes in Iraq was neither freedom of expression nor a reasonable expression of anger. The former was too aggressive to qualify for protection as mere freedom of speech and the latter was not nearly an aggressive enough act in their angry estimation.
The most recent war in Iraq was likened to the war invented by the Japanese in order to justify an incursion into Manchuria to rob China of much needed natural resources. And they compared the spread of rhetoric and doublespeak about building democracy in the Middle East to the propaganda spoken by the Imperial Army’s mainland invasion leaders, those based on assertions that they were merely unifying Asia for the sake of Asia’s preservation against American influences. Visiting occupied soil, bombed and blood-stained on orders of the Bush administration, could only bring pain, anger and anguish on the citizenry and would be weakly represented by merely throwing shoes. They were openly pleased that the last chapter in Bush’s public record bore a size 10 seal of disapproval. They doubted pro-war voices that say the war won him the right to express himself through shoe tossing.
I will save debate for later by asking Xiao Shuang and maybe students, if my contract allows, what would have become of any of us had Allied Forces not interceded with force in the Pacific during WWII. I am guessing his answer will be rooted in a call for love and compassion and acceptance any current suffering as a fraction of many yet to come in lifetimes beyond this one as we progress toward “The Right Way”.
Zach digressed a bit and went on to explain that he had viewed actions of the west, directed toward China as a whole during the Olympics, as a metaphorical set of shoes; a symbol not only of contempt, but of aggression against the Chinese people. A pastor from California painted upscale hotel rooms to “give a voice to the voiceless” (Xiao, a Buddhist, says he does not want or need a second larynx donated by a vandal) during the Olympics; and Amnesty Australia put Olympic tourists in harm’s way by asking them to act on Amnesty’s behalf in protest of China’s Internet firewall. Xiao Shuang smiling, wondered out loud why Amnesty Australia has not concentrated on its own censorship issues. “To spoil and politicize for the average Chinese citizen, most of whom neither know nor are affected by China’s online controls, our time to celebrate and embrace the athletic heroes among us was a clearly a lack of sensitivity and understanding of our culture and the pride we felt for the Games.
To believe that those who are subject to censorship are simply suffering in silence or incapacitated by fear is nonsense. The Chinese people are not as docile or as compliant as the media would make them out to be. And we don’t need lectures on the virtues of western life as much as we need tools of empowerment, education, and community building. We also don’t need meaningless regime challenging exercises that only steel the resolve of those have not outgrown the need for power. They may raise funds for the groups involved but they only fuel ignorance and hatred. For the west to rally against situations they have not fully studied is like ranting at fire because it burns.”
Today China’s navy headed out to a sea beyond its territorial borders for the first time in 600 years to battle Somalian Pirates. Zach and I will not agree on this one. I am behind the EU and China in patrolling the waters to ensure the safety of their citizens and their property.
It will be interesting to hear the mediatative musings of Xiao Shuang as the rich and poor get poorer and the girth of hungry anger expands….
Returning in the plane from the AdTech conference in Shanghai I remarked to a colleague that I thought blogger, author and social media icon Shel Israel to be a wonderful writer. My associate replied with “As good as you?” I was struck dumb, unable to answer as I wasn’t sure whether it was meant to be a compliment or was a ping to test the depth of my self actualization. I didn’t answer immediately and instead set about reviewing in my mind the event I had just attended and tried to solidify my thinking on a number of issues raised while in Shanghai…
Robin Li was scheduled to be the keynote speaker for the annual gathering of media, advertising and PR decision makers who come to AdTech for education, networking and the renewal of ties. Li, who has canceled his appearance at the event before, reportedly called the night before the event and announced he would not be there. Rumor has it that he phoned again later and asked if he could send a second to deliver the opening address and AdTech brass demurred because the condition was added by Baidu that there be no question and answer session.
An official statement was released by AdTech later in the morning that indicated Li had called off his speech because of a sore throat and AdTech had opted to form a panel of experts on his proposed topic rather than accept a stand-in from Baidu.
What really prompted Li’s absence is less important than the absence itself: BAidu, a NASDAQ company, under fire for alledged complicity in search result suppression for money in the Sanlu Milk Crisis, puported willful acceptance of funds (15-20% of gross ad revenue) from unlicensed pharmaceutical companies, Intellectual Property battles in court regarding music download links thought by the recording industry to be illegal and constant criticism from search engine professionals and Internet publications regarding the manner in which Baidu marks (or fails to delineate) paid ads as different from organic results. The fact that Li was not available to answer in any fashion to charges levied against the company gives credence to those who, for whatever reason, look to diminish Baidu’s powerful presence in the world’s largest Internet market. Li had a chance to answer to allegations, allay fears, and rescue credibility and revenue, but did not. I would have been there had I needed an assistant to lip-synch my remarks. But, Baidu, like many Chinese companies has not always taken the management road best traveled and did not hike it at AdTech. I heard a PR industry old-hand remark that even if their PR company had the chutzpah to issue them sound advice/ultimatums they would likely not have listened. Even the hard hit Sarah Palin, stared down an army of spin doctors and managed to put a little lipstick on the face of some very ugly remarks. She did not win the nomination for VP of the United States, but she won a great many supporters by putting up a fight.
Later on at the conference I was a member of a powerhouse social media panel where I was fortunate to share the stage with Joe Chen, Ceo of Xiaonei, Jigsaw Media Partner P.T. Black, Magdelena Wszlaki the Regional VP of Agenda Corp and Jeff Lyndon a 26 Year old VP of Interzone Futeball and already a pioneer in China online gaming. One of the questions moderator Black asked of us was to answer to a P&G executive’s recent remarks indicating that he did not see the efficacy of social media over conventional advertising. All panelists were in agreement that to shunt conversation, conversation being itself the rightness and reason for social media, is to assume that consumers are less informed about their own needs than the corporation that is pitching them. Feedback and engagement are the mediums in which we will grow excellence, social responsibility and honorable brand loyalty. We are he worst judges of our own foibles and failures no matter how bright or seasoned a veteran of any professional war we might have fought in….
As for comparing myself to Shel Israel?: I am currently reading–and I am shamefully tardy in doing so–the book, Naked Conversations, that he and Robert Scoble penned. It is a must-read for anyone in Social Media. It is a brilliant treatise that truly stands, as stated by Chris Pirillio, as an unofficial sequel to the Cluetrain Manifesto. Shel’s genius as a writer lay in his ability to take a starched white-collar idea and transform it into a blue-collar working treatise that speaks to the needs of a diverse tribe of social medians. He is a better writer than I am and I am not less of one for acknowledging that fact. I am not afraid of conversation and while my competitive self likes winning I warmly applaud mentors and masters….
Baidu, or any company, would do well to join the party (not that one…) and join in on the many conversations, those that honor AND those that harangue, which can only make us better business people, more responsible netizens and decent global citizens.
Shanghai and Beijing have enviable expatriate communities; many long term residents of China from other countries live, and foster social connections across cultural boundaries. Unless you are an young, resilient, party animal or a consular type, Guangzhou, with a few exceptions, can feel uncomfortably transient and fragmented. That is why many have told me they hope for Web Wednesday to build on its first successful meeting of Chinese and Foreign Internet professionals.
That is all to say that a visit from an old friend, especially a gentle , deep-thinking one who always breaks up the unceasing rhythms of this hurried, harried immigrant workshop town for me. when he is around I happily feel cobwebs clearing on internal scaffolds of old dreams and aspirations.
He he is a Buddhist monk, 小双 (Xiao Shuang) who goes by the English name of Zachias. Zachias was the Tax Collector described in Christian literature as the man who climbed a sycamore tree in order to get a better view of Jesus Christ. 小双 actually chose his name after hearing a lecture of mine on Trappist/Benedictine monk and prolific writer Thomas Merton. I was talking about Merton’s last journey before his death. He traveled to Tibet to meet the Dalai Lama in his quest to discover the true waters of religious thought he believed flowed from mainsprings the east. Merton had given his lifer to solitude believing that the distractions of the secular prevented a clear view of the spiritual. But, at that point in his life he also thought that the notion of complete segregation as practiced in his monastery created an illusion of holiness. Holiness is something in the distance and one rises above the crowd to witness it, to be guided by it, not to achieve it.
Writer Edward Rice would later call Merton, in a book by the same name, The Man in the Sycamore Tree. Xiao Shuang aspires to be like Merton who is thought to have been a reincarnation of the Buddha by many Tibetan and Indian practitioners: He aspires to be a seeker of truth, not a symbol of reverence. And I aspire to adequately chronicle our talks of 25 years just as Rice did with his beloved friend Merton. In our two and a half decades of campanionship and cooperative learning we have never once argued. We have talked about everything from existential phenomenology to our mutual love for the Chicago Cubs.
Today we spoke of the Russian decision to commit troops to combat during the Olympics and actions of an American zealot in China for what has been called a “pseudo-guerrilla protest” on behalf of Tibetan Independence.
On both the conflict in Georgia and the missionary known as “iamgadfly” he quoted Merton:
“While non-violence is regarded as somehow sinister, vicious, and evil, violence has manifold acceptable forms in which it is not only tolerated, but approved by American society.”
He viewed, as do I, both acts as unacceptable and violent: Russia violated a long-held moratorium against violence during the games; imagadfly purportedly was “giving a voice to the voiceless” when he vandalized upscale hotel rooms in Beijing, covered the walls in pro-independence slogans.
Zachias holds that a few obscure slogans in a hotel room, even broadcast on Youtube, could do nothing more than raise some angry voices in a country that recently received hundreds of hours of approved television instruction in Tibetan culture following the recent riots. Ifimagadfly thought the Tibetans could not be heard before, he should imagine the din and roar resulting from his actions. Merton believed that the prayers issuing from his Abbey were powerful enough to effect world change. Zachias and I tend to believe, like CS Lewis, that prayer has more influence over the petitioner than the petitioned. At the risk of sounding opposed to human rights protests, we are both sure, and think Merton would agree, that delivering supplications to a deity as you commit a crime in a foreign country is unlikely to create a spiritual butterfly effect for Tibet.
Help us beta test the application and do some good in the process. The Library Project, The Ms Yue Cancer Fund, The Reading Tub and Sichuan Volunteer Teachers will all benefit.
Sign onto the application and invite your group members and friends. Please investigate all aspects of the application and send me feedback as soon as you can. The top 10 recruiters will get 10 free hours of social media campaign consultation for free.
Please watch the trailer and do what you can to help make this a phenomenal success!
Four years ago I befriended a Vietnam veteran who was clean and sober after years of Cocaine addiction. He was one of the hardest working and congenial men I’d met at the VA hospital. He was employed in a minimum wage rehab program where he pushed wheelchair bound patients to and from appointments.
He had his own apartment in a declining and dangerous section of Chicago and custody of twin boys. It was like a sad scene from a predictable Hollywood tragedy when two young gang members approached one of the twins at his home. One of the gang members shot the young man, an top African-American student with college ambitions, in the head. They had intended to murder the other sibling who was who was less inclined to social conformity.
When my friend went to the police with information on the possible killers he was turned away in an angry exchange that ended when the white policeman told him that he would lock him up. When asked for what reason the officer replied, “I don’t need a fucking reason, boy. Since 9-11 it has been one long year of the cop.” He was right: Law enforcement was, overnight, accorded special privileges and many did not do well with the responsibility and instead used it as a personal weapon in their own private wars. My buddy finally found someone who would take him seriously and the killer was jailed when a plea bargain let the accomplice go free in exchange for his testimony. The veteran, demoralized by the struggle and grieving, relapsed into depression and drug use.
The same is happening here in China. A friend came to me after being detained and beaten by local police. Local constables now have the right to ask for your passport and visa on the spot. Those that have not carried their papers up to now, have started…The police have used it as a way to intimidate local Africans (blacks have an especially tough time maintaining work and cultural relationships here due to rampant racism) and Muslims. Some area police are extracting protection monies from Africans and calling it an immigration fee assessment.
When my friend pulled out his cell phone to answer a text from his wife, wondering where he was so late at night, the police who had been manhandling his countryman, thought he was snapping pictures of the assault. That is when they gave him a dose of the same treatment. His countryman was detained past his scheduled departure out of the city and missed his plane back to Africa.
With sudden power arbitrarily given to street cops, the heat hanging in the 90s along with similar humidity levels, and increasing paranoia over possible security threats it is tense here.
Below is a Youtube video of a scuffle in Beijing that left police and reporters injured. People hoping to get the last remaining tickets for the games spent two days in the heat and in unruly, close-quarter lines that we who live here can barely tolerate for a short time on a good day.
Some are calling it infringement on freedom of the press and chastising Beijing for not making good on its promise to allow reporters unfettered access to stories in and around the Olympics. I tend to see it as a lack of preparation for the enormous crowds and throngs of media personnel. Defects in crowd and traffic management planning have paralyzed the city more than once in the last few weeks.
The games have already begun, but outside the stadium.
The original story here at the ever vigilant Shanghaiist:
What was not a shock to me, but might interest the folks who most read this blog (56% from the US) was the way they shared information after they secured what they were looking for online: where American young adults prefer to pass information person to person or via email, Chinese Netizens text message, or call each other. So, that’s what is going on in most classrooms in China: They are not sending the exam answers to their buddies, they are just doing SMS reviews of that new i-BOD or i-Fone at the local electronics speakeasy.
As seriousness aside, it is a shock to a first-time visitor to see how prevalent SMS texting is here. I pampered myself a few weeks go with a movie and a pizza. It costs about 20% more here (and 60% if adjusted for cost of living) for that combo than in the states–and we want them to quit buying 60 cent DVDs, but I digress. At Pizza Hut I guestimated that 2/3 of the people within view were either on the phone, sending a message or playing a game. And later, IN the theater, about 10% of the crowd there for Kung Fu Panda appeared to be glowing in the dark from ambient light coming off their cell phones.
What I found when i was teaching was that a rumor, truemor, or current event release could travel to every student residing at the far reaches of the campus faster than any Public Address system. Smart application designers are going to learn how to leverage that power in the very near future. I look toward mobile entrpreneurs to find ways to effectively deliver viral ads in the body of messages.
Me? I am still looking for a cheap James Bondian style pen that will jam non-emergency calls on the train, at restaurants and movie houses and broadcast parental style admonitions to the offending parties.
Tim Johnson over at China Rises is busy rifling through the 172* page Confucian journalists guide for the Beijing Olympic Games, but found time time to share some insights on the new pictographs selected for the venues:
These are much more imaginative than those from previous games and are meant to look like ancient Chinese characters of old used on oracle bones and modern day seals or “chops” as some call them. They are named “the beauty of seal characters” which should have been reviewed by the counter-chinglish squad, but I agree with Tim that they look great.
It is a marked improvement over the Fuwa that started out embroiled in controversy because of their similarity to the Japanese Kero Kero (ケロケロちゃいむ, Kero Kero Chime) from a manga written by Maguro Fujita. The characters from the 30-episode anime series on Japanese TV were supposed to be mascots at the Moscow Olympic games of 1980 before the boycott and subsequent employment of Misha the bear. I caught a look at an obscure, but useful, Chinese language learning website called Chinese Tools and saw a post comparing the Friendlies (Now Fuwa) to the Kero Kero…. The Fuwa (Chinese: 福娃; pinyin: Fúwá; literally “Good-luck dolls”) are the mascots of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. They were announced by the National Society of Chinese Classic Literature Studies on November 11, 2005, a thousand days before the opening of the games, but 25 years after the Moscow games.
I panned the Fuwa a few months back when government changed the name of the Beijing Mascots from Friendlies to Fuwa (gesundheit!) bringing good news to folks who bought commemorative coins with the old name inscribed. Why the name change was made so late and why the original announcement was kept so low key is still somewhat of a mystery. China Radio International (CRI) originally revealed the switch and listed the reasons why the name should be changed:
“Firstly, Friendly is somewhat an ambiguous name, which could refer both to friendly people and friendly matches,”(and everyone knows that none of that nonsense is consistent with the goals of the Olympic Games!) a Dr. Li from Lanzhou University was quoted as saying on the site. “Secondly, the term Friendlies has a similar pronunciation to ‘friendless’ and thirdly, the spelling of Friendlies could be spelt as ‘friend lies’.” Dr. Li also thinks Grape Nuts is a venereal disease.
Laura Fitch, a Canadian who works in China as news editor, welcomed the change, saying the name Friendlies sounded “a little bit childish” and “doesn’t really have a meaning.” Laura didn’t get out much in Ottawa, but am I still glad that this was an expat approved switch and that the whole world will now get to say the more sensibly adult Fuwa which sounds similar to the sound made by my Chinese roommate expectorating. Laura, who should have talked to fellow Canuck DaShan first, is working on changing the goofy little term for coach back to “agonistarch” which means “a person who trains combatants for games.” and Dr. Li is lobbying for the Chester in Chester Drawers to be changed to a Chinese given name and he also thinks that Car Pool Tunnel Syndrome could be more easily understood by city dwellers if we talked about taxis and underpasses. But, I digress….
* Everyone esle got a post-it-note. Johnson was given the Olympic tome after his trip to Tibet….