This blog is becoming a bit of a hybrid of what’s going on in Asia and how Trump and his cronies are working to destroy the U.S. as we know it.  The latter part of that last sentence may be a bit of hyperbole, though after some of the speeches at the CPAC conference, including Bannon’s, I wonder how much of that sentiment is really hyperbole. Yet that is a thought for another time or perhaps it will just continue to unfold in the messy way it has since Trump won the election.

Yesterday, Trump rolled back Obama era protections for transgender students that allowed them to use the bathroom of their choice.  Putting aside the legality of such a move given that the original decision was supported by Title IX, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, Trumps move raises two interesting points.  One, it’s a policy decision that re-opens the culture wars that the Republican Party and many voters were hoping to move beyond.  Two, it’s a relatively low-stakes policy move on the part of the Trump administration consistent with his seeming “do-little” approach to governing since taking office a month ago.

During the last presidential election, cultural issues related to gender and sexuality seemed to take a backseat to economic and national security issues.  The 2016 election was certainly a far cry from 2004 when it seemed that cultural issues were guiding both the left and right.  Think about what Trump campaigned on – jobs and national security, with which I am including immigration.  While I am sure there are many conservatives who are applauding this move, it’s interesting how muted the support has been from members of Congress who seem to want to avoid the controversy that engulfed North Carolina on a national level.  While polls show the American public pretty evenly split on bathroom access, if Americans were asked where they prioritize this issue relative to jobs, health care, the economy, national security, or even Russia, I am sure that this issue would be a rather low priority in terms of on what Americans want their politicians to focus.  Congratulations President Trump on firing another shot in the culture wars and taking the heat off of your ability to actually get things done that voters care about.

So the second point is that we now have one of Trump’s first major policy dictating who should be using which bathrooms in our nation’s schools.  The move does not seem like it’s going to do much to bring jobs back to the Rust Belt or Coal Country or help protect our borders, yet this is one of the matters on which he is expending his political capital.  It’s actually quite Trumpian in its simple logic.  He knows full well that repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act or bringing back manufacturing and mining jobs are herculean, if not impossible tasks.  He also has the attention span of a gnat and such policy prescriptions would never fit on a single page, so he turns to something that is both easy to understand and execute on, while satisfying conservatives that he remains true to their principals.  I don’t know what’s worse in a Trump administration, barely governing or barreling full steam ahead and running into all sorts of potential roadblocks.  I’d argue the latter because at least then there is a chance of failure, which would hopefully set us up for something better than what we are currently getting.  This barely governing approach that involves throwing some red meat policy moves to his supporters could turn into a war of attrition where the opposition in all its forms simply grows tired and gives up before turning back the tide on what could be the end of America as we know it.

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My apologies for being offline the the past three weeks, but I was back in the States for Chinese New Year to see family and friends, as well as take care of some work over there and just returned to Asia this past Monday where I’ve been busy working and setting up my new home in Hong Kong.  So it’s fitting that I am sitting at my beloved Starbucks in the Garden City Mall in Shenzhen about an hour or so before I am due to move out of my room here and bring all of my worldly possessions to Hong Kong, meaning all four suitcases-worth.

Heading home for any extended period of time and then returning to China means that I have some room to process all that’s happened during the time I’ve been here, as well as answer questions from family and friends about what they might have seen or heard about China in the news.  The two topics dominating any conversations I had about China were either the stock market and economy or the continued crackdown on political and civil liberties, including the ongoing case of the missing Hong Kong booksellers.

Having some space from China, I still feel that this is a country heading in the wrong direction at the moment.  It’s not that it can’t or won’t turn itself around, but almost daily there is another news headline that makes me shake my head and wonder what’s really going on here.  The latest was President Xi’s visit to the country’s major news and media organizations in China explicitly telling them to act as a mouthpiece for the party.  This new policy is another attempt to exert greater control over another aspect of Chinese society that has the potential to create social instability.  However, like many previous moves, this one smacks of insecurity and coming at a time when there are questions around China’s ability to manage its economy, it’s clear this is another attempt to mask potential problems that may exist in the system.  If these problems somehow were brought to light, there is a real fear that people would not be happy and social unrest could erupt.  Definitely not a move of a leader in control of his country.

Beyond that, I have been thinking more about Hong Kong, Shenzhen, and other cities that see themselves as other in the context of Greater China.  Hong Kong is probably the most salient example of this trend in light of protests over the years against certain actions taken or policies put forth by the mainland.  The largest of recent memory being the Umbrella Revolution in the fall of 2014 triggered by Beijing shifting the goalposts on universal suffrage for Hong Kong’s Chief Executive.  The alleged kidnapping of the booksellers has only added accelerated this feeling of “other-ness” that seems to run deep among Hong Kongers.  However, more interesting and something that only really hit me this morning as I was being driven around Shenzhen in an area known as the Hi-Tech Park where some of Chinas biggest tech companies have their offices including Tencent, ZTE, and DJI. I saw all these twenty-something tech workers running to work and the scene could have just as easily been one from Silicon Valley.  Shenzhen is a city trying to build its future on technology and finance as it firmly sheds its industrial past.  More interesting is the fact that very few people in Shenzhen are actually from Shenzhen, so the city does not have to hew closely to a long-established culture.  Many people (mainly foreigners visiting or living here, including myself at times) bemoan the lack of a deep-rooted culture.  But my riding partner that morning who has lived here for quite some time even though she is not from here framed this lack of a deep-rooted culture in a positive way that I had not considered before.  She claimed that this lack of culture meant that the city was building something new from the ground up, which made Shenzhen much more open than any other Chinese city that is hemmed in by its past.  You can see it in all the new skyscrapers, shiny shopping malls, and tech companies pushing the Chinese innovation storyline.  But I had not thought about it in terms of what it means for a city and its outlook, as well as its place in the national narrative.  The conversation was sparked by my question about whether Shenzhen was different than other parts of China and upon receiving an emphatic “yes”, I followed up and was presented with this theory.  If Shenzhen can perhaps be added to the “other” category because of its short history, lack of a strong local culture, and welcoming people from all over China with easy access to Hong Kong, I wonder what this means for the future of the city and more importantly, China as perhaps other cities begin to see themselves as different than the rest of the country, which would be a rather backhanded way of unravelling the social cohesion that President Xi working so hard to maintain.  Something to be explored further in another post, but wanted to get it out there because it’s something I feel like I am going to be thinking about for quite some time.  But now I must finish packing and make my way back to Hong Kong.

Greetings from Chengdu!  Being the good Jew I am, I decided to head to Chengdu Christmas morning for a long weekend of eating spicy Sichuan food and seeing some pandas.

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Giant panda climbing the IFS Chengdu, yet another luxury shopping mall in China

Okay, not exactly that panda, though the city makes good use of its panda connection by plastering the creatures all over the city.  Upon landing in the airport, many of the information signs were framed by pandas and that theme has been a constant since that point.

It’s my first time here and a city I have wanted to visit for a very long time. The original motivation was my love of Sichuan food (川菜), but lately everything I have been reading about China mentions the relatively newfound prosperity of its inland cities, which would include Chengdu and Chongqing.  Having only been here for 24 hours, I attest that Chengdu definitely appears to be on the up-and-up.  The IFS above is home to Prada, Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Zegna, two Starbucks, Muji, Uniqlo, a bookstore where I could buy new English books, a huge Western supermarket that is part of a Hong Kong chain, the requisite ice skating rink, and even a bowling alley.  The inside is your typical white marble, soaring ceilings, and the cleanest floors I have ever seen, probably due to the ever-present crew mopping and sweeping as you’re moving around the mall.  However, IFS is just one of many luxury malls in this area of Chengdu, which also includes the retail-filled pedestrian streets of Chunxi Lu (春熙路) and Imperial Examination Alley (正科甲港), an Isetan department store, a number of other Western luxury brands, and numerous Chinese brands.

I guess it makes sense given that Chengdu has become one of the richest cities in China.  The Milken Institute released a study this fall of the best performing cities in China and chengdu came out number one, beating Shanghai, Shenzhen, and Beijing.  Putting aside studies and government statistics touting GDP growth and per capita incomes, just the feeling I get walking around the city is that it’s one of growth and possibility.  Now one may argue that most of China feels like this and many places do, even in spite of the recent slowdown of the economy, but having spent the past month and a half in Shenzhen, I can sense a different energy here. Shenzhen is right next to Hong Kong and was created to rival its neighbor to the south and serve as a laboratory for economic liberalization on the mainland, so its people are used to being favored and there is also relatively seamless mobility between Shenzhen and Hong Kong, obviating the need to replicate a lot of the shopping in HK north of the border.  I mean, one would think that Shenzhen would have had it’s own Kiehl’s store before Chengdu, but you can only find it at the Shenzhen airport in duty free.  Chengdu has one in the Isetan by the IFC.  Not that Kiehl’s is a barometer for economic development, but the fact that a company like that went to Chengdu after Shanghai and Beijing says something about the city and its place in China’s economic hierarchy.

Chengdu is an inland city and only part of a central government push within the last ten years or so to promote growth inland away from the coasts.  With that promotion, an economic tiger was released as the city promoted its lower labor costs to attract global manufacturers in the aerospace and electronics sectors, including Foxconn, which produces Apple’s iPhone.  Anyway, not to devolve into a boring economics lesson, but the takeaway is that Chengdu has a buzz that is not always as readily apparent in some of China’s larger, more established Tier One cities.

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View of central Chengdu from my hotel

Of course this still being China, I marvel at how well the central government has been able to wall off the country from the rest of the world.  I’ve written a lot about the mystery behind Chinese people becoming more global as they travel the world, but seemingly bringing nothing back from the travels except luxury goods and souvenirs. Forgetting that when you fly domestically in China, you’re not allowed to turn on any electronics, I was left watching some bizarre Korean movie on my flight from Shenzhen to Chengdu.  When I arrived, I thought I would either be given or be able to buy a Financial Times or Economist at the Ritz Carlton or find another hotel with a gift shop at which I could buy one of these publications to read on the way back to Shenzhen, but to no avail.  Even the Page One, where I eventually found English books, had a magazine section with only Monocle and In Style in English, neither of which I was particularly interested in buying.  Putting the availability of Western media aside, I am sitting here in a Starbucks (where else?) in another new luxury mall called The ONE and it’s one of Starbuck’s new Reserve locations with pour-overs and siphoned coffee.  The place is packed with young and old, alike, and many on iPhones or Macs enjoying coffee, pastries, and quiche.  At this particular moment I feel like I could be anywhere.

Yet, with all of that said, there is something about Chengdu that reminds me of the China I knew 15 years ago.  Perhaps it’s the layout of the city with back alleys still filled with little stores and food stalls or the mix of old and new buildings that co-exist side-by-side, though I have the feeling that won’t be the case five years from now since so many look like they’re being readied to be torn down for new construction.  I guess Chengdu is a city that while growing rapidly, still retains elements of what it was.  It has long had the reputation of being one of China’s most laid-back cities and for a city of nearly 8 million people, still moves at a remarkably more languid pace than Shenzhen.  Maybe it’s part of a next wave of growth where people won’t be in such a hurry as they modernize and seek to retain some of what makes a particular place unique?  Or perhaps it’s as simple as the fact that unlike Shenzhen or even some of the other Tier One cities like Shanghai or Guangzhou, Chengdu is a city filled with people who are actually from here or the surrounding areas, which would go a long way to preserving those qualities that make the city special.

As I was leaving my hotel this morning, I was chatting with one of the members of the concierge staff, Roland, asking him for restaurant recommendations while I was here.  He told me that he had just transferred from Beijing two months ago because his wife was pregnant and they wanted to escape the pollution,, traffic, and mayhem of Beijing.  I asked him how he liked Chengdu so far and he remarked that it was more laid-back than Beijing.  He attributed this to the fact that home prices were so much lower than Beijing, so people didn’t have to work so hard, thus they had more time to relax and enjoy life.  Probably the most interesting reason of all for why Chengdu feels so different, yet one that not only makes the most sense, but is very telling as to what is potentially being lost as the country rushes to modernize. As an American, I know all about a country that does not seem to have enough time for leisure as our workweeks get longer and longer and people fear taking holiday because they may fall behind at work.  Let’s just hope that Chengdu doesn’t go the way of the rest of the country and lose what makes it special.

Winding Down in Linyi

June 28, 2012

As a follow up to my last post, which was rather heavy, I thought I would use my second-to-last night in Linyi to write about more upbeat things and share some pictures of the university and Linyi that were taken this afternoon on a jaunt down to People’s Square and Calligraphy Square (书法广场).

We just had our last dinner together, me and the other two professors.  Lu is leaving tomorrow afternoon for Beijing and then Lanzhou to see her family and reunite with her son before heading back to the States.  John is going to be around for another three-week session, so I will probably see him at some point before I take off.  I have to say that it was really nice having company these past three weeks, such a different experience than it was two years ago.  The company made the time go by much more quickly and made the experience less isolating than it was last time.  Notwithstanding the 9/11 comment, they were both really supportive and interesting to talk to about China, especially given that they both grew up and went to school here before leaving for the States to pursue other opportunities.

At dinner tonight we were talking about our students and the state of education in China.  As I may have already written, the English level of my students is so poor is because English language study is being de-emphasized by the university and simultaneously the standards have been lowered for my program over the last three years.  The reason for these changes is that the last party secretary at the school was kind of a risk-taker and aggressive in his approach to building ties with foreign universities, in no small part due to the fact that he was an academic.  The current party secretary is a career politician and very conservative in how he spends money and expands programs, all done to prevent rocking the boat with the higher-ups.  As I discovered when I was teaching in Guangzhou, there are two parallel administrative structures at all Chinese universities.  On one side is the typical university administration with the president at the top and on the other side is a party structure with the party secretary at the top.  At most universities there is usually some kind of tussle at the top for supremacy.  At the better known schools like Fudan, Tsinghua, and Beijing University, the president has a chance to trump the party secretary because these schools are China’s higher education beacons to the world.  At more regional schools like Linyi University, the party secretary usually calls the shots, which is clearly the case here.  The result of this power struggle is that the students lose because they have less opportunities available to them as their school leaders choose to play it safe.

Unfortunately these kids educations are compromised long before they get to college.  It’s apparently quite common for students in Chinese schools to enroll in weekend tutoring because they are not learning enough in school during the week.  The kicker is that these students enrolled in weekend classes that are taught by the same teachers who are not teaching them during the week and for the privilege to receive additional tutoring from their ineffective teachers, they pay upwards of 500 renminbi (approximately $70) per month, which is a lot of money for families already struggling to get by.  The extra kicker is that it is the bad teacher who suggests the student enroll in this side tutoring and if the parents do not enroll their kid, the teacher will make the student’s classroom life even worse.  On top of all of this, if a parents wants their child to sit in a better seat in school, they have to slip a “tip” to the teacher to make it happen.  This whole scheme is corruption at the most basic level affecting one of the most important parts of society – educating the next generation.  If this goes on in the classroom, imagine the corruption that takes place at every other level of society.

So as promised, here are some pictures of the university campus.

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View of main library from my classroom

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View across the Beng River (祊河) towards the new part of Linyi

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Linyi Public Library by People’s Square

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Belles Shopping Plaza, Linyi’s newest mall


Statue of Wang Xizhi (王羲之)
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New high-rises going up overlooking Calligraphy Square

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Arch at Calligraphy Square honoring Wang Xizhi (王羲之)

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 Now it’s almost time for bed and my last day of class, which means it’s time for the final exam.

I’m back in Linyi after a three day weekend in Shanghai and determined to finish what I started over five hours ago over a coffee at a Wagas in Shanghai and then tried to finish in the airport, but to no avail when my flight actually left ten minutes early.

When I exited the airport in Linyi, there was a row of taxis just sitting there with the engines off and the drivers gathered in a circle talking.  Unlike taxis at airports in the States, these guys were just waiting to screw around with me.  I went to the first taxi in the queue and he offered to take me to my hotel for 80 renminbi.  I knew the trip to the airport last Thursday was only 45 renminbi, so there was no way I was going to pay nearly double for the same trip.  I went down the line and asked if they would use the meter and they said they would, but then would quote me an exorbitant price.  Frustration setting in, I found a cabbie who was honest and willing to take me to my hotel with a meter running.  The cost to get back?  30 renminbi.

I am beginning my final week of teaching tomorrow and it’s not even a full week because Thursday is going to be wrap-up/review and Friday I am giving my final.  Then it’s off to Hong Kong Saturday.  But that’s next weekend, so I am going to focus on sucking up as much of Linyi as possible in the remaining days.

Shanghai was great for a quick weekend getaway.  My time in the city felt so disconnected from the previous two weeks in Linyi and even different than the few days I spent in Beijing at the start of my trip.  Having already seen two of China’s “showcase” cities, I am going to end my time away in Hong Kong, arguably the third such “showcase” city.  What’s interesting is that two of the three have strong historical foreign influences (Shanghai and Hong Kong) and today remain meccas for expats looking to set up shop in Asia, so whenever I am in places like Shanghai or Hong Kong, I am always wondering how Chinese these cities really are.  Having not been back in Hong Kong for nearly two years, I am going to reserve judgment on that locale, but will most certainly weigh in once I am there.

Before I launch into my Shanghai thoughts, I must say I am amazed at how prevalent wifi is in China.  Two years ago Starbucks, hotels, and a few trendy cafes would have offered it.  But now it’s everywhere.  Hotels offer for free, most restaurants and cafes have networks set up, and even in the lobby of my hotel in Linyi, I can get free wifi.  One thing that’s interesting, but not surprising is the arbitrariness of having to register to use the network.  The government has made a big deal about stepping up its efforts to police the internet and monitor its users.  The previous incarnation of this overbearing policy was the crackdown on internet bars, which now seem like a quaint part of the not-so-distant past with the advent of smartphones and the ability to get online wherever and whenever you want.  In public places like airports, Starbucks, and hotels you either need to register with your mobile phone number (airports and Starbucks) or click through policies in a browser window and agree to abide by certain policies (hotels).  However, many cafes and restaurants dispense with identifying who is using their network, which is in violation of the law and makes it impossible to trace back users of those networks.  Just a little musing on the whimsical nature of law enforcement in China, much akin to how mobile phone providers are supposed to take a copy of your ID when buying a sim card, but yet someone like me can wind up with four sim cards and not once having had to show my idea to procure them.

With that said, I have a lot of thoughts running through my head about Shanghai, China, the future of this country, and being a rock star expat and not all of them will make down on this page because I am still processing. I made it clear the other day that I am more of a half-assed expat flying in and out of Chnia, but walking through Xintiandi earlier this afternoon with Amy, we stumbled upon a bunch of white guys screaming on stage as they played their instruments.
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These guys were screaming so loudly that it was impossible to tell if they were singing in Chinese or  English. They also were not very good, yet drew quite a large crowd. If these guys were playing in Sydney, London, or New York, they would have been a nuisance. But in Shanghai expats and locals were bopping along with little kids dancing and everyone enjoying the ruckus.  Shanghai has that feeling of a city where anything is possible. People leaving behind their lives back home to start over. I noticed this in Beijing, too, but Shanghai is a far more comfortable city to live in than even Beijing.  Beijing is more comfortable with being Chinese and could be seen as more provincial when compared to Shanghai, which is open to the world and can come across as seeking to be anything but Chinese. These white guys rocking out in Xintandi, the expats we saw out at the bars and clubs last night, the 外国人 (white guy in Chinese – waiguo ren) with the local girlfriend, or the European or American with a business idea, there are so many people who have converged on this city to try and make their dreams come true.  Such a convergence gives the city a surreal feel because the energy is really unlike anywhere else, even New York with its constant influx of people trying to make it there.

Shanghai feels like it is still on the expressway of development and in the four years since I was last here, new buildings and fads have popped up creating new wants and desires.  I’m sure in four more years, there will be more new buildings and fads, but is this change deeper than just new buildings?  I’m not sure.  The changes I saw this visit are for the most part on the surface, including this massive construction site just south of Nanjing Xi Lu being developed by the same people who did Sanlitun in Beijing.  Seeing a site like this one makes me wonder not only who is going to make use of this planned mix-use development, but what it all means for a city and country that seems to be preoccupied with the next best, brightest, and biggest thing.
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But the deeper question that hangs over all of this development is whether all of this development will be accompanied by something longer-lasting such as a change in mindset.
Last night’s dinner was a fairly international crowd. Five out of six were American, with some of Korean and Chinese/Taiwanese descent, as well as a native Korean and myself. All but two were or are lawyers and four currently live in Shanghai with Amy and myself coming from Tokyo and New York, respectively. With the scene set, I can now discuss one part of the conversation that stuck with me.  I was talking about my students and how they were struggling with the objective theory of contracts and the reasonable person standard that is so common in American law because it leaves room for case by case analysis.  Such analysis creates a gray area, as opposed to the black and white answers I find my students are more comfortable with.  One of my dining companions was talking about providing legal advice to his Chinese clients and how even when he raises the the possibility that something may not go as planned when drafting an agreement, his clients merely respond that it will get done the way they want it to get done because that is how it is going to get done.  There is no room for the possibility of contingencies and caveats, which require thinking hypothetically and creatively about a problem.  The other people at the table generally agreed with the assessment that in China it can be hard to get people to think about this gray area when posed with questions or problems.  It’s like when I ask my students a question and they start to give the wrong answer and I encourage them to explain the logic behind their answer, even if it’s wrong.  I can see that they do not want to continue down this path if they think the answer is wrong and quickly back down rather than try to make a case for their answer.  When I have given short answer questions on tests, my students ask what would be be the right answer and I tell them that there is no right answer.  I swear that you can see the wheels turning in their head as they try to comprehend this reply.  I then try to explain that their grade will depend on their reasoning, not if the answer is right or wrong.  It’s a mindf&$k for them and I know it does not register when I explain.  I am not saying that no one in China thinks this way because that would be an absolute statement and there is no such thing as an absolute when it comes to matters like this one.  However, I will say that such thinking is endemic to Chinese society because it is the way the education system is designed and perpetuated in the workplace, village, and other social settings.  Thinking outside of the box would be anathema to the government’s attempt to control the flow of information and the thoughts formed from such information. I think back to all of my encounters with students and the difficulty they tend to have with critical thinking. It’s what I also hear from U.S. law firms with whom I speak when they are recruiting in Asia – the holy grail when hiring Chinese lawyers is someone raised in China who received their law degree in the States, or even better their undergrad and law degrees in the States. The rationale is that such people are more able to seamlessly go back and forth between Chinese and western clients because they can easily switch their mindset.
Shanghai gives off the impression that it wants to be anything but Chinese with an outlook towards the rest of the world instead of inward towards the rest of China, but is this orientation enough to change what lies beneath – a way of thinking that does not readily tackle problems flexibly and critically?  There is certainly going to be some more unpacking of my action-packed weekend in Shanghai, but now I must get prepare for the week ahead and catch up on my sleep after staying out too late the previous night and dabbling in the city’s rock star expat scene.

Half-Assed Expat

June 22, 2012

Made it to Shanghai in one piece. The actual flight from Linyi to Shanghai is less than an hour, so really easy to get here. In some ways it feels like being released out into civilization. It has been four years since I was last here and the city is even more refined and polished than it was the last time I was here.

This is what I woke up to when I walked into my hotel bathroom this morning.

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The city is definitely China’s best foot forward on the world stage with the potential to rival any other great world city. I don’t think I can use enough superlatives to describe the city. Suffice it to say it’s definitely the center of creativity, commerce, and class in China. Part of it definitely has something to do with the sheer number of expats here.

I’m sitting in a cafe called Sunflour on Anfu Road (安福路) that could be in London, Sydney, or San Francisco and it’s filled with a mix of expats and locals. The menu is salads, sandwiches, and lots of fresh baked goods. I’m listening to two foreign girls talk about their trips to Urumqi and marathons in Thailand, as well as their plans for the night. I forgot how everyone of a certain set knows each other when you live overseas. It was the same thing when I lived in Hong Kong, so it’s nice to know there is some continuity to this whole lifestyle.

But Shanghai is unreal. I’m not sure if it is what the rest of China aspires to, especially given the central governments own bias against Shanghai due to it’s long history of foreign influence. Just to recap – when China was forcibly opened up by the Europeans and Americans in the mid 1800s, Shanghai was carved up among the French, Germans, Americans, and British. The city developed a reputation as the Paris of the East and as a den of sin and iniquity. When the Communists came to power, they sought to stamp out all traces of the old Shanghai. When China opened up on its own terms in the 90s, Jiang Zemin and Zhu Rongji, who were the president and premier, respectively, hailed from Shanghai and strongly promoted the city’s development. When Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabo came to power in the 2000s, the so called “Shanghai Faction” fell out of favor and the leaders in Beijing sought to promote harmony, not the decadence a city like Shanghai represents. That’s not to say that Shanghai stopped developing and changing, but the city did not receive the same support from Beijing. Having spent time in places like Linyi, I don’t think Shanghai is what these cities want to be. Whether that’s because of government influence or the fact that many Chinese people have at most spent a few days here, I don’t think this is the way forward for the rest of China.

There is something very comfortable and familiar about the city. It’s what happens when the iPhone class infiltrates a place and starts to remake it in its image. The nationality of the iPhone owner does not matter. It’s a mindset. Without being too glib, the iPhone class likes cute boutiques, gourmet coffee, trendy restaurants and bars, and whatever else may be on trend at that moment. These predilections begin to influence the communities in which they live and dictate the patterns of development. I could really be anywhere in the world right now, which is both comforting and unsettling at the same time. When I am in places like Shanghai, I am reminded of being 22 and an expat banker in Hong Kong. Listening to these foreigners who have made their home in Shanghai, it strikes me as part escapist (whether escaping an identity and life or a dire economic climate back home) and this desire to sound worldly. It’s easy to sound worldly when you’re jetting off to Shanghai for the weekend or running a marathon in Thailand. I’m guilty of this, too to some degree, but I’m kind of a half-assed expat. I like to flit into countries like China for a few weeks or a city like London for a long weekend and then flit right back home.

Okay, enough musing for one afternoon. It’s almost time to move on from this cafe and find a place to get my hair cut and then move hotels and meet my friend, Amy.

Linyi to Qufu and Back

June 16, 2012

Today was one of those days where everything good, bad, and somewhere in the middle about China were all packed into a 12-hour period.  The day began in the lobby of my hotel, the Linyi Hotel (临沂宾馆).  I met Lu, one of the other professors from the University of New Haven, to head over to the bus station to get on the road to Qufu (曲阜).  Qufu is Confucius’ birthplace and about 135 kilometers or 84 miles from Linyi, but somehow became nearly a four hour bus ride.  I’ve taken my share of buses in China, but our driver was as crazy, if not crazier than the craziest bus driver I’ve seen.  This guy would barrel down on old ladies riding motor bikes leaning on his horn to the point where it looked like he was going to put his hard through the steering wheel.  There were a few near-death moments where he barely slowed down in time to miss hitting a big rig pulling into traffic on a two lane road.  The other detail that is crucial to this entire day is that it was about 100 degrees today.  The bus was supposed to be air conditioned, but the only time the driver turned the A/C on was when we were pulling into a bus station, which was about only 20 minutes of the 3.5 hour ride.  Finally we arrive at the Qufu bus station.

Qufu is a city of about 60,000 people, but tourists cause the population to swell because it’s Confucius’  hometown.  What this means is that you can visit his temple (孔庙), the family mansion (孔府), and cemetery (孔林) all within a two mile radius.  While many other cities in China have Confucian temples, this is the original and biggest of those temples.  The three sites are together known as san kong (三孔) or the Three Confucian sites.  We intended to first go to the temple, but our taxi driver from the bus station took us first to the Confucian Research Institute, which was a quasi-museum devoted to Confucius.  In addition to laying claim to some sites where he lectured his disciples, it also stood out for me as one of the few places in China where we were practically the only people there.

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Confucian Research Institute

There was nobody here, which led me to believe that our cab driver had hoodwinked us into coming here and spending 40 yuan (approximately $6.50) to look at a few statues and pieces of jade.  To boot, before driving away, the taxi driver got out of his car and squeezed my arm telling Lu that I was so strong.

We spent a total of maybe 20 minutes here before making the move to get to the main attractions.  Given that Qufu is geared to tourists, there were hawkers and all other sorts of people looking to make a quick buck off unsuspecting tourists.  I had made up my mind that I was going to stick to taxis that used meters to minimize being ripped off, but as we left the Institute we realized that taxis were not as readily available and a persistent old man with a bicycle hitched up to a two-seater convinced us to ride with him.  I normally do not take such a form of transportation because it’s dangerous, but I am also uncomfortable with someone pedaling me somewhere and using their energy because I am too lazy to walk. I know that he was being paid for the trip, but I was still not comfortable with this arrangement.  Anyway, we’re being pedaled along and Lu tells him we want to see the temple.  He tells us he is going to take us on a little tour of the walled part of Qufu, so we happily go along for the ride.  After 15 minutes or so, we realize that we’re heading straight for the cemetery, which we wanted to do last.  Lu tells him we want to go to the temple and he begins arguing with her telling us we should go there first because it’s the only place to buy a combined ticket that would get us into all three sites.  That was a blatant lie, which at this point made Lu angry and she insisted he take us to the temple.  He stopped the bike and told us to get out.  Lu stood her ground and he hopped back on his bike, grumbling as he took us to the temple.  We hopped off and ran away hoping he would not follow us.

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A Chinese tour group


Confucius’ Tomb


At this point, we encountered the tour groups for which China is so famous.  Groups of people of all ages wearing matching hats, a guide carrying a big flag and wearing an obnoxiously loud microphone that sounds strangely enough like police screaming into a bullhorn for crowds to disperse.  There were groups from Zhuhai, Beijing, Qingdao, Hangzhou, and many other parts of China.  We joined them in the queue and entered the temple.  It was pretty with some intricate carvings, but the 100 degree heat made it less enjoyable than it would have been at 75-80 degrees.  The more interesting thing was to think that this site has been a temple for over 2000 years.  The temple grounds were also reminiscent of the Forbidden City, which may be because the temple received a major renovation/rebuild during Ming dynasty and shortly after the Forbidden City was built.

After the temple, we moved on the Kong family house, which is located a short walk away from the temple.  Once again, I could not get over the history here.  Confucius’ direct descendants lived here for nearly 900 years until fleeing during WWII, first to Chongqing and then to Taiwan and some on to the U.S.  The Kong family line is now in its 80th generation.  The mansion also had some cool detailing, indicated by this picture of what looked like little horses on the roof of one of the pavilions.  ImageAfter wandering around the pavilions and gardens, we stopped for some lunch to sample the Kong cuisine (孔采), which was no different than dishes you could get at any standard Chinese restaurant, but cost 100-150% more.

Finally we made our way to the cemetery.  At this point it was around 5pm and we decided to take the train back because it was only an hour and 45 minutes from Qufu to Linyi, but the train left at 6:41pm and we had to be there about 45 minutes early to buy a ticket.  So we arrive at the cemetery which is massive because it houses anyone with the surname Kong who wants to be buried there.  Word has it that there are over 100,000 people buried there, including Confucius and one of Mao’s daughters who married a descendant of Confucius. At the gate of the cemetery, you can pay 20 yuan (approximately $3.30) to ride in an electric cart around the grounds.  In China style, we jetted around the grounds and stopped only to see Confucius’ tomb, which was actually a very efficient way to cover a lot of ground.  Lu and I ran to see the tomb, snapped some pictures, and made our way back to the cart.

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After hailing a cab, we were on our way to the train station.  All of the cabbies were pretty friendly and Lu would chat them up while they asked me what country I was from.  Throughout the day, people would come up to Lu and yell “Daliu” (大溜), which means guide because they all thought she was showing me around Qufu.  It’s kind of oddly racist if you think about it.  There was no way a Chinese woman could be sightseeing with a white guy.  It must be that she is my tour guide. Anyway, we get to the train station to find out that there are no seats available on the train.  On the bright side, the ticket was only 14 yuan (approximately $2.00).  The train station, though, left a lot to be desired.  It was definitely not a pretty place.  We were in the “common” train station.  There is also a high-speed train station in Qufu, which I am sure is a lot nicer.

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Once we get on the train, we find two fold-down benches near the window.  I was just happy to be sitting, but it was slightly annoying because anyone walking down the aisle was guaranteed to bump into you.  Thank goodness the ride was only an hour and 45 minutes.  Of course there was no A/C, but at this point I had sweat through my shirt at least three times and all I could think about was getting back to the hotel and taking a hot shower.

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We eventually made it back to Linyi and there was this odd feeling, but not totally unsurprising because I’ve written about it before, but I felt like I was home.  And it’s not like I am staying in Linyi for all that long, but it felt comfortable and good to be back here.  I’ve written about this moment before and anyone who has traveled and spent a chunk of time in a place knows what I am talking about.  My hotel room at the Linyi Hotel feels like a small piece of home right now, down to the one cup coffee filter I have to make my morning cup of coffee and wifi network that I set up with my Airport Express.  I have more to write about including giving my first quiz and some additional thoughts on the idea of the media being controlled and controlling prompted by a comment on my last post, but it’s now getting late, so until tomorrow . . .