Eating and Beaching

November 29, 2015

I’ve just returned to my room in Shenzhen after an action-packed weekend excursion courtesy of our Chinese partners.  The weekend began with a 9:10am meeting at school to board buses for what’s known as the Yantian Seafood Street (盐田区盐田海鲜食街) on the other side of Shenzhen. Just to give you a sense of how big Shenzhen is, the city is 50.6 miles across at its widest point.  Shekou, where our school is located, is on one side of the city and Yantian is way on the other end.  The “Seafood Street” is kind of what you’d imagine.  It’s a row of restaurants serving fresh seafood.

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Yantian Seafood Street (盐田区盐田海鲜食街)

All the restaurants generally serve the same things, but I guess the quality of the preparation depends on the chef.   We ate pretty well.

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Yantian Seafood Street (盐田区盐田海鲜食街)

It was one of those Chinese feasts where the dishes just kept coming and there was obviously a heavy emphasis on fresh seafood, including fish, snails, crab, crawfish, shrimp, and clams.

After lunch, we re-boarded the bus and were on our way to the Sheraton Beach Resort in Huizhou.  The whole reason for this trip was a big “thank you” to the teachers and staff for all of their hard work getting the school off the ground.  It was appropriately timed to coincide with what would normally be a long Thanksgiving weekend in the States.  I was just fortunate enough to be invited along since I am out here spending time at the school.  Anyway, back to the weekend.  So we pull up to this hotel after passing all of these new condos being built as vacation homes or investments for people in other cities.

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New condos on the way to the resort

The hotel is a Sheraton, but like most things in China, it’s almost, but not quite what you’d expect from a Sheraton.  The construction of the building is a bit shoddier than you’d expect in the U.S., the AC in my room didn’t quite work to the point where they had to bring a fan up, and the bed was just a tad harder than you’d expect in a hotel.  But with that said, the grounds were really nice, including the scented hot tubs that were dubbed “hot springs” with “restorative properties”.  The view from my oceanfront room was also almost, but not quite.

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Yantian Seafood Street (盐田区盐田海鲜食街)

As you can see, the view is pretty stunning, but then there’s a power plant off in the distance.  It’s just part of a Chinese resort.

We had another feast for dinner, including a lucky draw, which is a Chinese raffle where people were able to win iPod nanos, iPad minis, and an iPhone 6s.  Definitely some great prizes, but alas, I did not win.  The night ended with a dip in one of the restorative hot springs, the jasmine scented one to be exact.

This morning we woke up around 7am and made our way to . . . yes, another massive meal, this time the breakfast buffet.  Breakfast is one of my favorite meals and this buffet had both Western and Chinese options, including a congee and omelette station.  Congee is Chinese rice porridge that you can add meat and vegetables to, as well as various spices and sauces. I like it, but it’s a bit too heavy for morning, especially after a day of feasting.  Instead I opted for the omelette station and cereal with yogurt and fresh fruit.

After checking out, we piled back into the bus and went to check out a new development about 20 minutes away that looked like something out of Hawaii, but with a Chinese flair.

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View of the shoreline from the fishing boat

It was very pretty, but I am left wondering who is going to be living here.  It’s one of those planned Chinese communities where eventually the envision 70,000 people living in the area, but it’s about two hours from Shenzhen and an hour from Huizhou, a city of 500,000 people.  People were being bussed in on a continual basis, presumably to check out the renditions of the development and see model apartments.

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Part of the 3-D model of the planned community

I tried asking about who would be living here and the most I could get out of anyone was that many people would be buying these as investments and then renting them out like timeshares.  Apparently this part of the coast is thought of as a weekend destination for a lot of Shenzheners, but then one person from Shenzhen told that this locale was popular two years ago and many people had moved on to a lake about 40 minutes north of the city.  I am not sure what that means, but it still begs the question as to who will be populating this area.  Might I add that the land is owned by a large Shenzhen company, China Resources (or Haurun (华润)), which is also building a training university on the site.  This same person who told me the site was popular two years ago told me that because China Resources is well-connected to the government in Shenzhen, both parties stand to make a lot of money on this site.  However, these apartments are not being built for the common Chinese person, so even though housing prices are less here than in Shenzhen, the people who need relief from those high prices will not partake in this development.  It does not help that the high speed rail stop is a bit of a distance away and there are no other readily identifiable jobs nearby.  However, I digress.  We spent the afternoon here, including a jaunt out on a fishing boat in the bay and then another gut-busting lunch.

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Leaving the dock

Around 1:00pm, we piled back into the bus and made our way back to Shenzhen.  It took nearly 3.5 hours due to inexplicable Sunday afternoon traffic.  You hear about traffic being bad in China, but it’s not until you’re sitting in it on a packed bus that you really understand how bad it is.  It was not just our road, but as we passed other highways and city streets, they also appeared jam-packed.  It makes you think about global warming and how what we’ve done in the States is being acted out on a massive scale in China as Chinese people embrace the car much like we do as Americans, but there are nearly five times the number of Chinese people as there are Americans.  Just sit with that for a second.

So now I am back in Shenzhen and still taking stock of the weekend.  It was my first time along the Chinese coast and parts of it were quite beautiful, but part of that may be because they’re not completely built up, yet, so remain relatively unspoiled by large crowds.  It was also one of those weekends that would be easy to take from New York in the States, like going out to the Hamptons, up to Cape Cod, or down to the Jersey Shore, but in China, it required the planning by locals who know the ins and outs to make it a memorable experience.  While a whirlwind, I was impressed at how we were pretty much on time everywhere and also had a chance to experience a part of China that most Westerners don’t really get to see, even if it was on the more luxurious end of things.  But now it’s back to reality and another workweek.

 

 

Power to the People

July 3, 2012

Just a quick word before heading to bed.  After a wandering around Central in a suit for meetings with law firms and quick jaunt to Jordan across the harbour to see my tailor, Louis, I met up with friends to go to a 川菜 (Sichuan) private kitchen in Wanchai and then a Taiwanese dessert place in Causeway Bay for some shaved ice.  The good food aside, my first meeting this morning was in the building (and quite possibly the same floor) where Salomon Smith Barney’s offices used to be when I was an investment banking analyst.  Walking down the escalator and across the overpasses this morning towards the harbour was kind of trippy because I used to do the same walk over ten years ago.  The feeling wasn’t quite deja vu because I was fully present in the moment and could easily link it back to the past event, but it was one of those moments when you realize in some ways how far you’ve come and in others you are still very much the same person you were all that time ago. with just a touch more awareness.

As you all know, there were protests this weekend in Hong Kong against many things including the swearing in of the new Chief Executive, the environment, housing prices, human rights on the mainland, education, jobs, and practically any other social, political, or economic cause that you can think of.  When I asked Hong Kongers I know how they feel about things here, they express a lack of trust in C.Y. Leung, the new Chief Executive, but there is also a resignation that nothing is going to change anytime soon.  I don’t know if that resignation comes from the wisdom (or jadedness) of older age or from a very practical view that as long as China calls the shots from Beijing, change in this city is not going to come anytime soon.

I read an interesting op-ed piece in Monday’s South China Morning Post by Lau Nai-keung, who is a member of the Basic Law Committee of the NPC Standing Committee.  What this means is that Lau is on the committee that makes sure that the Basic Law is being follows. The Basic Law Hong Kong’s mini-constitution that enshrines its freedoms and way of life until 2047.  One could argue that Lau is a Beijing sympathiser and his op-ed piece is not the most clearly written, but it tries to lay out an argument that pro-democracy forces in Hong Kong are looking to use people power to both weaken the government’s hand and force Beijing to allow universal suffrage for the Chief Executive in 2017.  The piece also seems to argue that the pro-democracy forces are just waiting for China to collapse so that Hong Kong can go its own way as a truly autonomous city-state more akin to Singapore with real elections.  While it’s an interesting notion to think about Hong Kong as an independent city-state, I am not quite sure what Lau is arguing for except that if the pro-democracy forces keep pushing people power, then the chances that a national security law will be implemented as required under Article 23 of the Basic Law will be nil.  It sounds to me like Lau wants this law passed as one who has been ordained to uphold the Basic Law, warts and all.  It also sounds like he remembers quite well what happened when the Hong Kong government tried to pass a national security law in 2002 and sparked the largest protests to date on Handover Day in 2003 with upwards of 350,000 marching in protest of the law.  The man is afraid of what the people might demand and what Beijing may decide when pushed to the brink, but yet he does not offer any real solution to the problem except to almost blame pro-democracy forces of “peacefully subverting the system” as provided for in the Basic Law. 

I need to give this some more thought, but I have been thinking about it since it’s so timely and sometimes half a thought is better than none.

It’s my last morning in Linyi and I am packing up my hotel room at the Linyi Hotel (临沂宾馆).  

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Packing up my hotel room

Hard to believe that this morning represents the end of three-plus weeks on the mainland.  Now I am off to Hong Kong for a week to meet with some law firms and catch up with old friends.  Last night I went to my favorite Sichuan restaurant for a farewell meal of sorts.  麻辣传说 (Mala Chuanshuo) has been my go-to in Linyi and last night did not disappoint.  

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My favorite Sichuan restaurant in Linyi

What was odd about last night was that perhaps because it was a Friday and more crowded than normal, everyone around me kept watching me eat and as people would pass to and from their tables, they felt the need to pause at my table and give me and my food a longing stare.  I was doing nothing out of the ordinary.  Just enjoying my yuxiang rousi (鱼香肉丝), some cold cooked spinach with peanuts, and a cold tofu dish where the tofu is light and airy, soaking up the flavor of the chilis and vinegar.  I was also celebrating the end of class with a Qingdao beer.  Perhaps it was the sight of a foreigner in his baseball cap and three dishes of food in front of him that he ordered in Chinese that prompted the stares, but everyone who passed by felt the need to run their eyes over my personal space.  I’m not complaining.  I just thought it was funny, kind of like a special farewell.

Now I must leave you to finish packing and get to the airport for a day of travel – Linyi to Shanghai, then a three-hour layover and change of terminals before heading on to Hong Kong.  

I’ll be back from the other side.

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.

It’s Father’s Day back in the States and I already called to wish my dad a happy Father’s Day, but sadly I cannot be there with him to celebrate the day.  So I can do the second best thing and heed his wishes by posting some pictures of Linyi to give a sense of how sprawling this city is.

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Blue Sky in Linyi

That’s the view facing east from the bridge on Tongda Road (通达路) heading back from the gym last Friday.  The right side of the picture is the southern part of Linyi and heading in the direction of most of the commercial activity in the city.  The left side is north of the river and the new part of the city where the only real tenant is the city government and lots of new apartments.

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This view is facing west towards the university and where my hotel is.  As you can see, there are some cranes in the sky and lots of open space.  The university and bus station are the main anchors in this direction, but a lot of ground has been broken for new housing and in a few years there should also be some commercial development to support the population in this part of the city.  Right now though there is nothing to really talk to from the hotel except for the bus station across the street.

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This hole in the ground is on the north side of People’s Square (人民广成) and is part of a new shopping center that is called Osca.  I tried to make out the meaning of the name from the Chinese, but was unable to initially.  Right now there is not much in the way of development except for Linyi’s first Subway and a new Korean restaurant, but the mall is supposed to be the home of other foreign retailers from Hong Kong and further afield.  Of course there will also be a residential component to this development.  I guess this would be considered prime real estate in Linyi because People’s Square really is the center of town and on the weekends is filled with people. It’s also where you can find the city’s Pizza Hut, McDonald’s, Watsons, the soon-to-be-coming Tesco, and maybe the city’s first Starbucks (this last one is still wishful thinking at this point).  I think of People’s Square as downtown because there are also lots of office towers in the area.

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And the Osca mystery is solved – the complex is named after the Oscars, the awards ceremony in the States.  A bit random, but no more random than a local residential development named Chianti Mansion, like the wine.  Though I did not know the Oscars were such a part of the local culture.  But the Chinese word is Aosika (奥斯卡), so it’s not that far off in its Romanized form.  One other thing that I have been thinking about lately are the artist’s renderings of all of the new construction taking place.  That image above is the completed version of the previous picture.  The artist’s renderings always look so opulent and full of life with grand visions of wealth, happiness, and prosperity.  I know these renderings are supposed to be somewhat aspirational, but the Chinese renderings are off the charts in their optimism for the future.  All of the housing developments look absolutely amazing, to the point where I am staring at the dirt field in front of me and wondering how the developers plan to go from nothing to the most amazing and buzzy mixed-use development complex ever.  I saw a lot of this on the bus ride to Qufu in towns much smaller than Linyi, including Feixian, Sishui, and Pingyi.

So those are some recent pictures of Linyi.  I wish I had taken a picture of dinner tonight while we’re on the subject of pictures.  Lu and I went for Sichuan hot pot (火锅) and it was amazing.  I have not had good hot pot since I left GZ many years ago.  This time we went to Little Swan instead of Little Sheep, our GZ go-to.  Little Swan (小天鹅) is a Chongqing-based chain.  Yes, Chongqing is the same city where Bo Xilai, the disgraced party official was mayor.  This meal was perfection – spicy broth cooking a variety of meat and vegetables. as well as noodles and rice cakes.  I don’t think a picture would have done it justice.  I came back to the hotel and looked up the name of the chain and of course Sequoia Capital, a U.S. private equity firm has taken a stake in the company.  I guess the good news is that perhaps it’s only a matter of time until we get one in New York.  There is already a Little Sheep (小肥羊) in Flushing, Queens, so why not a Little Swan somewhere in Manhattan?

On that note, I leave you all to gear up for week two of class.  Happy Father’s Day, dad.  Until next time . . .

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Through the Haze

June 12, 2012

Upon opening my eyes this morning, I noticed a strange smell in my room.  It smelled like something was burning, but it had the slight tinge of incense.  Then I opened my curtains to my hotel room and was greeted with this sight.

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The view from my 12th floor hotel room looking south towards the bus station and the rest of Linyi was obscured by a thick haze.  I thought it might have been fog, but there is not that much humidity in this part of China and the temperature was not quite right for fog.  At breakfast I found out that the smoke had something to do with farmers lighting things on fire in the surrounding villages, but that’s all I was able to gather this morning.  Hopefully when I get to the university this afternoon, someone will be able to tell me what is going on.  As I write this post, it’s still incredibly hazy outside to the point where what was supposed to be a perfectly clear day looks anything but.

Yesterday was my first day of class and my students just finished their freshman year, so they are young.  I am reminded of my students in Zhuhai when I was teaching in Guangzhou.  They are shy, embarrassed to speak English because they have so few opportunities to practice, and snap pictures of me as I am teaching.  It was a bad sign when one of the class monitors came to meet me at my car and walk me to class, but could not answer basic questions about the classroom building and where the administrative offices were located.  How was this student going to follow a lecture about intentional torts and negligence if he could not answer such basic questions?  When I got to my classroom, the students all clapped as I entered.  While it was flattering, I was their teacher and not a performer, so I quickly silenced the clapping and set about getting ready for class.  Class itself was pretty uneventful.  I introduced the U.S. court system and different ways of solving disputes in the States, while trying to get my students to tell me how things worked in Chinese courts.  Sadly, they did not know much about the Chinese court system.  Then again, before law school I am not sure how much I could have really told you about the way the courts worked in the U.S.  One of my students’ fathers is a judge, so that is the class’ only connection the Chinese legal profession.  I asked my students how many of them wanted to work for companies and many hands went up.  When I asked if any wanted to be farmers, they started laughing.  As I was teaching, I worked hard to break the concepts down as much as possible without losing the meaning of the lecture.  It was less important that they know the specific names for the three levels of federal courts and remembered that there were three levels (District, Appellate, and Supreme Court) and that you had the right to appeal decisions at the lower level.  It was after class that my students opened up a bit.  I stayed around for an extra 20-30 minutes and was asked all sorts of questions including whether I played any sports or engaged in online gaming. Some students snapped pictures from afar on their camera phones, others twittered in the corner.  After the first break, I noticed that some of the kids did not come back to class.  In speaking to one of the other University of New Haven instructors this morning, I found out that they had instituted a fingerprinting system to take attendance before and after class.  However, no such system was evident yesterday afternoon.  Keeping track of attendance was also a problem last year, so perhaps I can get the administration to bring back this system for my class this year.

The campus itself has grown dramatically.  They are building a new stadium that looks like something that should be at a Big 10 school and no one could tell me what sports would be played there, but at least the building looks impressive.  The library is also nearly done and it is MASSIVE.

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In other typical China going-ons, I learned this morning that there is no class on Friday the 22nd because it’s a national holiday.  Did anyone tell me before I wrote up my syllabus?  No.  Did any of my students tell me when looking at my syllabus?  No.  But to be fair, they also may not have known.  Did the Linyi University administration tell me yesterday?  No.  I found out from Ms. Lu, one of the other UNH instructors and she also had been given no advance warning that there was a holiday on the horizon.  The moment took me back to my Zhongda days where entire class schedules would be rearranged without telling us.  We would only find out upon showing up to class at the time we thought we were meeting to be greeted with an empty classroom.

I joined a gym yesterday – the Yinzuo Gym, which is the same one I joined last time I was here.  Once again, I was in the middle of my workout when I looked up to find six pairs of eyes on me and a series of thumbs up, all for merely stretching after a run.  And I was reminded how good Chinese food is in China, which sounds like a Captain Obvious moment, but I went back to my Sichuan (川菜) restaurant on the river that I frequented quite often last time I was here and had a simple dinner of cold spinach dressed in sesame oil with peanuts and yu xiang rou si (鱼香鞣丝), which is basically shredded port, mushrooms, ginger, and a really tasty spicy sauce with a hint of sugar.  It never tastes in the States like it does here and it was like eating a perfectly balanced piece of heaven. Of course I had to ask for extra chili sauce on the side because it would not be right without it.

Now I must prepare for day two.  Still no sign of the haze abating, which just baffles me because I cannot think for the life of me what might be causing such reduced visibility.  Perhaps my students will be able to enlighten me.

I just finished lunch with my student assistant and the three class monitors.  The university has been providing me with lunch in the faculty dining room after class whenever I want it, which is quite tasty.   I thought it would be nice to invite the three monitors and Karen to join me as a thank you for their help during the class.  It was a chance to also spend time with Bob, Singer, and Victor outside the classroom and learn a little more about them since it’s hard to get to know anything about my students when there are 113 of them and I only have two plus weeks to teach the course. 

Before lunch, Karen and I were sitting in my office talking about family and being gay in China.  To be fair, I met up with the Brazilian professor last night and while he has been quite coy about his own sexuality, he told me that he had a conversation with Karen a few months ago about gay people in China and her thoughts on the subject.  She had apparently told him that she thought that there were no gay people in China and that she knows for sure that there are no gay people in her hometown of Jinan.  But her dad, who is a civil servant in the local government, told her that he worked with a lesbian and was surprisingly in the know about the gay bars of Jinan.  Such a revelation forced Karen to revise her view on no gay people in Jinan, let alone China. 

So with this knowledge, we began talking about how chummy some of the boys in my class scene and I asked her why they were so touchy with each other.   She quickly asserted that they were not “gays” and that there were no gay people in Chine.  She then followed up with her opinion that being gay is a “sickness” and “disgusting”.  I just looked on bemused and let her continue speaking.  She reiterated that no gay people live in China because Chinese culture requires people to get married and have children.  I asked her how that was logical, especially if being gay was not a choice, but a part of who you are when you are born.  I also asked her how she could assert that no Chinese people are gay when she does not know all 1.4 billion Chinese people.  It was at that point that she recanted and said that maybe there were Chinese people in he big cities, but none at the university because all the boys talk about finding “beautiful girlfriends”.  We continued speaking about the tension in Chinese culture of pleasing ones parents and being true to oneself and how difficult that is and I told her it’s just as difficult to come out to ones parents in the States because more often than not it feels like a disappointment to them when you tell them that you are gay.  However, above all else, I told her that I believe parents in the States want their children to be happy and if coming out is part of them being happy, then so be it.   From there the conversation morphed into one about pleasing parents and not making them upset.  Karen, as an only child, is very obedient and while she recognizes her own desires, she has a deep-set desire to make her parents happy.  Then it came out in the form of two secrets why she is so willing to sacrifice herself for her parents, beyond the normal Chinese cultural limitations – first when she was ten, she was nearly crippled when she was hit by a car while on her mom’s bicycle and then a year ago, she was diagnosed with a brain tumor that required a two-week trip to Shanghai for surgery costing RMB3 million (approximately US$450,000) without any sort of insurance.  She has been fortunate enough to survive not one, but two nearly life-threatening incidents and it’s because of the love and support of her parents, which as children of parents, we should all recognize and be grateful for, but it’s created such a hold on her life that she is not willing to upset her parents by voicing any of her desires.  Of course all parent-child relationships are such private affairs that I would never weigh in on anyone else’s relationship with their parents, so it’s hard for me to say much more than “whoa” after hearing that story.

What is interesting to me after that discussion is that Karen showed no interest in why I was asking about gay people in China or what it was like to be gay in the U.S., or the more extreme conclusion that perhaps I was gay.  I didn’t expect her to ask me that, though Chinese students have asked me more invasive questions in the past.  But it was her lack of curiosity combined with such forceful and harsh opinions on the topic.  She said it multiple times that being gay is a sickness that some people have and that she thought it was disgusting and immoral, but with those strong opinions was no desire to engage me on my thoughts on the matter.   Just very curious to me.  It’s also not like I came out to her, which I would have done if prompted, but I am still the professor and she is my student and there are three classes left, so that line must be maintained.

Lunch itself was very pleasant and it was nice to talk to the guys in my class.  They asked me why I was interested in China and I told them it was something I never grew bored with because it was always changing.  I then asked them if they thought the changes taking place here were happening to quickly or if they were scared of all of the changes.  I received mixed answers.  With a mischievous grin on his face, Singer said it was fun and exciting.  Bob was more thoughtful and said it was scary and that he wished sometimes things would move a little more slowly, which elicited strange looks from his tablemates.  It was at that point that I had to meet the driver to head back to the hotel, but it was the tip of why may have been an interesting conversation and makes me think about what the next generation thinks about the changes taking place and whether they think Chinese culture is immutable.  Of course to a Chinese history student, it’s clear the culture is changing with the massive economic and social changes of the last 30 years, but the strong ties to family have remained in place more than such upheaval could have potentially left them.  Karen made a comment about Chinese culture changing, but it being very slow and she is perhaps more right than others may think.  As always, it’s going to be interesting to see what happens with the next generation and whether openness and tolerance will become a part of the Chinese cultural fabric as the country continues to open up to outside influences.

Irrelevance

September 16, 2010

Linyi is the logistics center for all of northern China.  I had no idea that this was the case, but it explains the many Mercedes and BMWs I see in the streets and perhaps why they’re building so many new luxury buildings.  Yet, the city remains what my new Brazilian friend calls “a country city”.  It’s also a city where I can walk from my hotel to the gym across the bridge and make traffic slow down as people turn to look at me.  Today, a kid on a bike passed by saying hello and then came back with his notebook in hand and wanted me to write my name down in English.  As soon as I did, he hopped on his bike and rode away.

During that same walk home from the gym, I decided to count the cranes I could see on the skyline.  I came up with 45, but that did not count those hidden behind other buildings and those that I could not see through the haze.  Cranes might be a barometer for prosperity or the hope of prosperity. Cranes can also be a marker of irrational exuberance or a coming bubble if the number of cranes nearly equal the number of empty buildings.

After a fun lunch yesterday with my assistant Karen, whom one of my friends has taken to calling the “Young Commie or YC for short”, and a Brazilian professor, I met up with the Brazilian professor and his roommate, who is also from Brazil, for dinner this evening at Pizza Hut.  I know, I know.  Those of you who know me are probably wondering what I am doing in a Pizza Hut, but in China it’s an upmarket endeavor that is frequented by people who aspire to the upper classes of society and the Pizza Hut of Linyi was no different.  The Brazilians also do not care much for Chinese food, so this was a good compromise and provided a nice atmosphere for some good conversation.  After dinner, we went to McDonald’s for their soft-serve ice cream cones and a middle-aged Chinese woman approached us asking to take pictures of each one of us with her camera phone.  Oh China.

Between talking yesterday and today, I kept getting this feeling that America is becoming irrelevant in the new world order.  Apparently the university is trying to increase its ties with Latin America, both by building connections with institutions like the Universities of Sao Paolo and Buenos Aires and increasing their offerings of Spanish and Portuguese to their students.  Joe, the Brazilian professor, was telling me how many young Brazilians would rather get their PhDs in Europe than in the U.S. because of the onerous publishing requirements in American academia.  His friend Tom, who works in the department of Oriental languages at the University of Sao Paolo, was telling me that English is the fourth most popular language after French, Chinese, and Spanish (in that order).  Heck, I was hanging out with a Brazilian in China, all I needed was someone from Russia and India and I would have all of the BRICs represented.  Apparently, there are quite a few Russian and Indian students also here in Linyi studying Chinese.  America seems to be lost here.  The Brazilian innocently added insult to injury by informing me that Friends, Sex and the City, and Will and Grace were three of the most popular American television shows in Brazil, thus most Brazilians think Americans are lazy, superficial, and stupid.  After spending a week here and now hanging out with these Brazilians teaching and studying Chinese, I keep having this nagging feeling that unless America figures out how to play in a multi-polar world, it’s going to continue sliding towards irrelevance.

I’m off to Qingdao for the weekend to meet up with my friend Michael.  Excited about seeing the home of Qingdao beer and what is supposed to be one of the nicest cities in China.

September 14, 2010

There’s nothing like some good Sichuan (川菜) food to put one in a better mood.  One of the other professors at the university recommended this place down by the river that took some finding because it’s alongside the river and below street level, so all you can see from the road is the hint of a flat roof.  But it was worth the search.  One of the downsides to being alone in China is that it’s a shame to eat Chinese food by oneself.  I understand “family- style” in a completely different way because there are so many dishes I wanted to order, but I could only eat so much by myself.  As it is, I ordered a green vegetable (空心菜), some ma po tofu (麻婆豆腐), and cold rice noodles in a spicy sauce (凉粉) and downed most of alone, but there were so many other things that I was tempted by.  The restaurant was awesome; some of the best 川菜 I have had since my days in GZ where Celia and I would go to the place by the east gate of campus and where they knew our faces.  This place was called 麻辣专说, which appears to translate to “spicy specifically said” and it was definitely spicy, but I still had to ask for more hot sauce.

The restaurant was situated along the river, across from the ubiquitous neon-lit television tower that seems to be so common in those Chinese cities aspiring for a certain cache.  

The Chinese love their neon and towers all in one

Linyi’s riverfront is actually quite pretty with manicured gardens, large weeping willows, a winding bike/walking path, and plenty of benches to relax on.  However, the river is quite polluted and the air pollution is unlike anything I have experienced.  It’s even worse than GZ, which is known for having some of the worst pollution in the country.  But driving along the main drag that fronts the river was quite relaxing and it was one of the first times in China that I found myself remarking on the natural beauty of an urban setting. 

Today was also my second class, which was rather uneventful.  I gave a three-hour lecture on criminal law and cyber crimes.  My students have a lot of material to digest in a short period of time in a language that is not their own.  I give them a lot of credit, but it’s hard to feel like I am getting through to them when the time is so compressed and the material so dense.  I guess it’s also hard in a lecture of 113 students, which makes it nearly impossible to create an interactive classroom setting.  Quite the opposite of my seminars that I was able to teach at Zhongda last year.  As I may have mentioned in my last post, I have been assigned this assistant who is the head of the youth league for her grade at the business school, so it means she is well liked by the faculty and the party faithful on campus.  It also means that she gets to escort around the foreign visitors, which is kind of ironic because we have the most potential to influence her ideological bent.  She is very sweet, conscientious, and helpful, but also a major kiss ass.  She is also a great source of feedback for how the class is taking to my teaching.  I asked her today what I could do to get students to speak up if they have questions.  She told me that the students do not feel comfortable holding up the class for everyone else, which is why they do not ask questions.  Of course it reverts to the classic individual-society tension that seems to exist in all aspects of Chinese life.  Could you imagine an American student not asking a question because s/he did not want to inconvenience his or her classmates?  No, it’s a dog-eat-dog world in the American classroom because the individual is the only one who gets ahead, but Chinese students are thinking about the good of the entire class, so when I ask if anyone has any questions, I just get a bunch of blank stares. 

Part of the business school where I am teaching

The main library as seen from the business school

I also learned that Linyi Normal University is like many other “normal” universities located around China; these schools tend to prepare students to go into teaching in their respective fields.  So while Linyi has 16 or 17 different schools, including business, foreign languages, and the sciences, the emphasis is on preparing people to become instructors or

Dorms on foreign (left side) and Chinese (right side) students

professors.  Linyi Normal is the only university in Linyi with about 40,000 students and as explained to me, the reason cities like Qingdao have more universities is that they are more desirable places to live and academics are more inclined to come teach there.   With so many students, the campus is massive and has housing for all of the students.  In the picture on the left, the Chinese dorms are the pink buildings with no A/C and clothing hanging from the balconies, while the foreign dorms are beige with A/C and all other modern conveniences.  It’s always interesting to see that dichotomy in housing with the rationale given to me by certain Chinese students for such disparate treatment being that the foreign students pay more in tuition.  I guess it makes sense, but it would also make me somewhat resentful as a Chinese student to live right next-door to those buildings.  The campus is also very new, so the trees have barely taken root and it has lots of open space with many construction sites strewn about.  Though I must say that it does not feel as desolate as the Zhuhai campus did at SYSU, which was basically a bunch of buildings in the middle of nowhere and no thought was given to design or layout.   It will be interesting to see this campus in 20 years when the vegetation has grown in and the buildings are all complete.

Before I sign off, the mystery of the jew’s ear has been cleared up.  It is a type of fungus, so many thanks to my friends who wrote to reassure me that it was a legit fungus drink.