Out of the Well: A Frogs-Eye-View of China and the World

Random Jottings on China, History, Culture, and Life as seen by an American student in Beijing.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Folks I think are cool

I wanted to take a few minutes (stolen from homework I should be doing) to recognize some people and things I think are rather cool.

First off, Abigail Washburn, Bela Fleck, Ben Solee, and a fantastic fiddler whose name escapes me, for the fantastic show on Saturday night at BeiDa (Beijing University).
Abigail Washburn is a banjo player / song writer from Chicago who plays “neo-traditional folk” arrangements of her own as well as traditional bluegrass and folk songs. What really makes her interesting is that she speaks Chinese, has written a couple of songs in Chinese, and was about a week from attending Beijing University as a Law Student up until a week before she signed her record contract. I would imagine that she is often compared to Alison Krauss, and while I think this is a valid comparison, I would argue that Washburn’s music is a little more interesting. While Krauss sings lovely renditions of traditional American songs, Washburn blends bluegrass, African-American spirituals, blues, and Chinese folk music to make something that feels more alive, more current.
The audience at BeiDa on Saturday was more than half Lao Wai (read: gringos, like myself), but that did not stop Ms. Washburn from speaking only in Chinese for the first half hour. This instantly won the hearts of the Chinese in the audience. I found it pleasing as well for two reasons. First I like to watch people who have not made any effort at learning Chinese squirm, secondly, her vocabulary and mine seem to be similar, so I could understand her pretty well. When she finally started speaking English there was scattered applause in the audience.
It was nice to have a cultural exchange that focused on traditional American culture. It seems too often that in the China-U.S. cultural exchange we take the role of the “modern,” with economic, technological, and organizational skills to offer, while China takes the “traditional” role offering us their rich cultural history in exchange. It was nice that the students at BeiDa had a chance to see that we have a traditional culture. It was nice to be reminded of this myself. Thanks folks!

The next cool person on the list: Norwegian-Roommate-Chris for his good showing on the GMAT yesterday. This man found time during the last three weeks to study for the GMAT, despite his incredible workload and lovely young girlfriend. He didn’t do that bad either. Drink a toast to him!

While I am in the neighborhood I would like to recognize American-Roommate-Jed for the following joke. “What is the Chinese Pirate’s favorite number? Errrrr!” (er [pronounced like the letter ‘R’] = 2)

Next up is the WuDaoKou coffee shop “Space for Imagination” for offering me the opportunity to drink a Belgian beer without going downtown. While in the states Duvel is not my favorite Belgian, it sure does in a pinch. They also serve Woodpecker Hard Apple Cider, which feels appropriate for the season. Thanks!

Finally special thanks go out to the president of a prestigious American university who recently visited China. He was presented with four tickets to the Chinese National Circus acrobatics show, and when he was to busy to go, his daughter gave them to a friend of mine who took me to see this ridiculous show. If you come to china you must go see some acrobats. Thank you, sir!

That’s it for now. I have some posts fermenting in my mind right now. Perhaps a Beijing Beer guide (for those of us who don’t like to go to the San Li Tung Bar Street), a Cheng Fu Road Restaurant Guide, and some pictures of the acrobats.

Take it easy!

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

The Faires and the Developer

Some times the world is just too fantastic for words.




Take that modern world.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Follow up

I am unsatisfied with the end of the last post. Perhaps there is no way to understand exactly what happened in history. Let me suggest that more important than achieving the Truth, is caring about the Truth. Someone who cares will be excited when they come across a piece of evidence that challenges their assumptions and beliefs about the past. We must strive toward a complex view of the past.

Chinese Soap Operas, Japanese Comic Books, History, the Truth, and the Bastards who will Always Try to Hide it from You.

If you have been watching the last few episodes of the hit Soap Opera on CCTV-1, (the name escapes me, I will add it in later), you will have no trouble understanding why the Chinese still hate the Japanese. The soap opera, which had its 44th and final episode tonight, is ending with the occupation of Beijing (actually they called it Beiping in the republican period) by the Japanese army. At nine o’clock on Saturday night millions of Chinese families gathered around the TV to watch a pretty young Chinese woman slit her own throat with a hatchet to avoid being rapped by Japanese soldiers. If this was your night time programming you might want to take the streets in protest, as the Chinese did this summer, when you learn that Japan no longer needs to tell there kids about these horrible things in school.

I usually look at these sort of portrayals of the Japanese with mixed feelings. On onee hand they are unproductive, even hatemongering images that do not need to be broadcast on primetime. At the same time these things did actually happen. In fact many, many Chinese women met much worse fates than the pretty actress on the show, when they were forced into sexual slavery as comfort women for the Japanese. Does historical accuracy mean that it not intentionally provocative to show this sort of thing on state run TV?

I had thought that Japan, due to its open society, was immune from this sort of xenophobia. Well it would seem that, at least according to a recent New York Times article, I was wrong. Beyond mentions of Japanese atrocities being eliminated from text books (more on this in a second), Japanese comic books have now become a site of anti-Chinese and even anti-Korean sentiment.

It seems that there are currently two very popular comics in Japan one each dedicated to portraying the faults of the Koreans and Chinese respectively. To quote the article by Norimitsu Onishi, “… ‘Introduction to China,’ which portrays the Chinese as a depraved people obsessed with cannibalism, a woman of Japanese origin says: ‘Take the China of today, its principles, thought, literature, art, science, institutions. There's nothing attractive.’ ” These comic books, and their soon to be released follow-ups, make the claims that South Korean prosperity is due to Japanese colonialism, 10 percent of the Chinese GDP was based on prostitution, and that the “Rape of Nanjing [Nan-King to the Wade-Giles inclined] was fabricated by the Chinese government. Considering the popularity of Comics in Japan (the anti-Korean and Chinese books sold 360,000 and 180,000 respectively) this would be tantamount to a television program in Germany that denied the holocaust. (I don’t make the comparison lightly, the holocaust was indeed on a much greater scale, but 100,000-300,000 Chinese died in Nanjing, and horrible medical experiments were preformed on Chinese prisoners in Manchuria.)

This is why I am a historian, or historian in training if you will. The bastards, even in a free state, will always lie about history if it is their own interest. These books, in contrast to the Chinese soap opera, are not produced by the state, but they are in line with the policies of the government in regards to the teaching of history. To one again quote the NYT article, “As nationalists and revisionists have come to dominate the public debate in Japan, figures advocating an honest view of history are being silenced, said Yutaka Yoshida, a historian at Hitotsubashi University here. Mr. Yoshida said the growing movement to deny history, like the Rape of Nanjing, was a sort of "religion" for an increasingly insecure nation.”

I am not saying the Chinese are above selective teaching in their schools, they most certainly are not, but at least they teach that Mao was thirty percent wrong. Nor do the bastards only reside in Asia. In every country in the world people push their own versions of history to promote their own version of what is right in the present. In the States (the united ones that is) I have heard Thomas Jefferson invoked by liberals as a “non-orthodox” Christian who denied the divinity of Christ and advocated a strict separation of Church and state. I have also heard him described as a “devout” Christian who mandated the teaching of the bible when he was in charge of D.C. schools. The likelyhood is that both sides are lying, or more specifically untruthfully simplifying history to their own ends. To hell with truth in the name of what they think is right.

This is why we have to teach our children history. I have never subscribed to the “those who fail to understand history are doomed to repeat it” branch of thinking. It seems to me we are probably doomed to repeat it anyway. They need to know how to approach the past so as to know how to deal with the present. When we teach our children history it needs go beyond names and dates [although as a history dork I find names and dates sort of sexy]. We need to teach them how to spot a story that is just to good, or too simple to be true. So that when they are fully fledged citizens, and the bastards try to tell them why they should be angry, or self-righteous, or swallow some particular party line, they know when to cry bullshit.

The Truth is the only thing that matters when talking about history, even when it does not fit a noble policy of the present. If history does not fit their argument, our leaders should find better reasons for us to agree with them.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

KFC Commercial

I am not a fantastic monitor of the Chinese media, so I don't really know how much they think about the Avian flu. It does seem to be a big enough deal that Kentucky Fried Chicken has released new commercials to deal with any anti-poultry backlash.

The commercial starts with the generic close ups of delicious glistening chicken pieces and wings which in America would no doubt be accompanied by an incredibly annoying voice describing of the foods many delicious qualities. The new Chinese commercial features a soft calming voice and the slogan "anquan... weisheng... meiwei" (safe... sanitary... delicious...)

This lovely reassurance is followed by footage of a factory with dozens of people in bright white clothes, face masks and gloves performing some sort clean butchering process via a conveyor belt. Now I am psyched that their factories are clean, but I am struck by the fact that this image might not play so well in the states. I mean we all know that fast food, and most other food is factory processed, but I can't imagine a US ad company wanting to remind us of it.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

A post I wrote instead of studying for tomorrows test

I still have not died of Avian Flu or a terrorist attack (see last post), so I guess I should make an effort to write in this thing more often. Mostly I have a test tomorrow, so I wrote this to avoid studying.

So the deal is that I really like the Chinese language. I like studying it, I like speaking it (although I often feel like an idiot when I do) and I like its history and idiosyncrasies. There are however a few things that just drive me nuts. Here are a couple of them.

In English if we don’t greet each other with “Hello” or “Hi” we might ask the somewhat rhetorical question “How are you doing?” or “How have you been?” It is understood that this very general question could or could not be answered. In Chinese there is no word for hello (due to English influence the word Nihao, literally “you good,” has been added), so native English speakers of Chinese often greet each other with “Ni zenmeyang?” which basically means “How are you doing?” This drives our teachers crazy. Apparently no Chinese person would ever say this as a greeting, it is much to general. The Chinese are a specific people, so they do not have one set question they ask each other in greeting but instead a infinite number of questions that are not expected to be answered.

Here are a few, imagine these questions being used by a relative stranger instead of Hello.

Have you eaten? (Chibao le ma?) – This is confusing as you often wonder if they are asking you to dinner or lunch. They are most certainly not.

How are your parents? (Ni de fumu zenmeyang?) – This person has never met my parents. For all they know I might be an orphan.

Where are you going? (Qu nar?) – Often said in passing without stopping.

How’s business? (Shengyi zenmeyang?) – this one makes sense. I have no real argument with it.

The second thing that bugs me is that sometimes two similar things will be described with the same word and the same character. As far as I can tell, and I have tried to find and answer to this, there is no way to differentiate in spoken or written Chinese between a goat and a sheep (both Yang). I think I eat sheep just about three times a week, but who knows? Maybe I eat goat. There seems to be a similar problem with the word for both elevator and escalator (dianti). I will admit I am less researched on this example. As far as I know, to be specific you have to say something like “The Yang with the white fluffy wool.” or “The dianti you get inside to ride.”

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Fear and Fun: Two sides of the Beijing Coin

This week provided two big things to worry about. Number one was a posting on the US Embassy's web page that warned that there was evidence that terrorists may try to bomb five star hotels in Beijing this week trying to target Americans. While I am not myself a frequent patron of five star hotels I have just recently discovered "Grandma's Kitchen" a lovely restaurant which serves not only the best damn Hamburger I have had this side of the pacific, but also delicious, mouthwatering apple pie. You can even get Dr. Pepper or A&W root beer. To quote an Irish girl at the table next to us "I thought I was doing well with the Chinese food, you know? That I didn't miss any of this stuff. Now I know I am an Irish girl through an through." This discovery was an emotional experience for everyone involved. The only problem, Grandma's Kitchen is located downtown near all of the Five Star Hotels. To complicate maters further a day later the Chinese Police said that there was no such threat, that it was a hoax. I am left with the choice of believing my government (which has a track record of lying to me) or the Chinese government (ditto). I think either way I am going to Grandma's for Thanksgiving, at least by then President Bush will be back in the states and we will be less of a target.

While I was lackadaisically rolling the possibility of horrible fiery death around in my cranium I received news of a even more horrible possibility for my imminent death Qin Liugan (the dreaded Avian Flu). It is not to say that there is anything new about the avian flu. In fact for some weeks the only thing separating me from the hordes of recently culled birds was about as much land as separates Boston and northern Maine. What really gave me the creeping horrors was an email I got from our program director encouraging us to stock up on water and non perishables in case we get quarantined in our apartments. Try that one on for size, quarantined. We were also instructed to keep our belonging organized such that we could pack anything we wanted to keep into suitcases in case we had to be evacuated. Evacuated. Quarantined. These words connote relative seriousness in my mind.

So that is what we have done. Yesterday American-Roommate-Jed and I went to the grocery store for Water, Oatmeal, Raman, and canned fruit. I also got myself a nifty diaper-like face masks (see picture below) to ward off both the smog and the possibility that the air itself could be poisoned with birdborn illness.

So how does one deal with this sort of horror in their daily lives? I did what any red-blooded American would do. I ate a fantastic meat based meal and then got drunk. I accomplished this last night with the help of American-Former-Reedie-Friend-Jenn, and one of my Chinese teachers, Li Laoshi (laoshi is her title, it means teacher). Li Laoshi first took us to a fantastic restaurant where I was presented with a bare Sheep femur with delicious meet at either end. From my limited experiences with animal anatomy I believe I was eating sheep ankle and knee, and do you know what, I loved it. As we were avoiding eating things with wings we also ordered a whole rabbit, which was placed so that I got to look into his cute little face. (Pictures forthcoming).

With our bellies full of animal protein and greenbeans, Increasingly-Fantastic-Teacher-Li Laoshi took us to a little bar that was astonishingly close to my house. For 35 kuai for me, and 25 kuai for them (their double X chromosomes entitling them to a discount) we were allowed to drink as much as we wanted from a list of about 14 choices. For twenty kuai an hour we were also given a little room in which we could sing Karaoke. This may in fact be my new favorite place. At around two thirty in the AM I returned with my fears forgotten, at least for the moment.

I will try to write this blog more frequently, that is unless I am done in by a bomb, the flu, or massive liver failure.