Blue Skies and Clean Air

April 17, 2016

This past Thursday, I was fortunate enough to visit a Chinese school and spend some time with middle and high schoolers.  It’s been a few years since I was last in front of Chinese students when I was teaching at Linyi Normal University, so I was excited to get back into an academic setting and see what was going on with the next generation in China.  It was a quick trip to Jinan where I was tasked with presenting our U.S. schools to these students and their parents for study abroad opportunities.  I was then given maybe an hour or so to “interview” 20 or so students, which only allowed for come cursory conversations about why they wanted to study in the U.S. and their favorite and least favorite subjects.

What was interesting about the whole exercise was the motivation of these students to sit down with a random American guy and answer my questions all with the intent of wanting to study in the U.S. next year.  I needed a system that guaranteed some consistency, so I asked all of the students why they wanted to study in the U.S. and quite a few replied that they were drawn to the “blue skies” and “clean air” of the U.S.   Others extolled the quality of the teachers and freedom to do what they want in school, such as extracurricular activities.  Yet others told me that they saw a year in the U.S. as a way to help guarantee the ability to study there for college.

While it’s hard to make sweeping generalizations about what’s going on across a certain generation in a country as large as China, the numbers behind my day in Jinan support the proposition that more and more Chinese parents see educational opportunities outside of China as more advantageous for their children than staying within the Chinese system.  In 2014, over 450,000 Chinese students studied abroad, up from about 115,000 a decade ago, and that number is sure to continue to grow.  Spending the day in what is really a tier three city, but only tier two because it’s the capital of Shandong province, these kids took time out of their busy day to wait in line to meet with me and other school representatives with the hopes of spending a year or more overseas.

The Chinese government is also aware of this growth in students seeking to opt out of the Chinese educational system and is worried about Western values infecting their students. There has been a subtle shift in certain major cities like Beijing and Shanghai to discourage international education options.  In Beijing, the government has allegedly stopped approving international programs and in Shanghai, the government mandated that some programs to slash their fees closer to the level of ordinary schools, which would make it harder for them to operate.  Motivating the government is the desire to ensure that students remain patriotic, but it’s also a short-sighted attempt that goes against the wishes of large swaths of China’s upwardly mobile middle and middle-upper class that sees these programs as the extra push to get their children into a university overseas and out from underneath the constricted Chinese educational system.  Prevent enough of these parents from being able to send their children to such programs and you have another segment of the population with a grievance against the government, which is not something that they want to happen.  It’s a bit of a catch-22.  Keep students from these international programs to presumably preserve the Party and system, but run the risk that their parents raise bloody hell from being denied the opportunity to send their kids to such programs.  It’s not clear that Beijing can win and as I’ve learned about China, if you block one path, people will simply find another way to achieve the same ends.  And in the meantime, as long as there are enough kids who yearn for blue skies and more extracurricular activities, Beijing is going to have trouble preventing it’s kids finding a way to find such things.

Time For a Divorce?

March 20, 2016

I think back to the Umbrella Revolution protests here in Hong Kong in the Fall of 2014 and how they sparked by Beijing’s unwillingness to grant Hong Kong universal suffrage in the next Chief Executive election slated for 2017.  Since the protests ended, tensions have simmered in the city with occasional outbursts like the Mongkok riots over Chinese New Year and student-led protests at HKU because of the appointment of a new council chairman seen as being a panderer to Beijing.  I often get asked how the city has changed since I last lived here in 2002 and the biggest change aside from the common refrain that the city has become “more Chinese” is the emergence of a Hong Konger identity.  The problem as an expat is that you don’t necessarily feel this change when you’re wandering around SoHo and the Midlevels.  The only way to really tap into it is to read the local papers and even better, wander around some of Hong Kong’s universities.  For this change is not being led by those residents who are well established and living here with families, but by the younger generation that looks ahead and sees a future increasingly limited by China’s goal of total control over the city.  So it’s natural that the student-led magazine, Undergrad, at Hong Kong University (HKU) published a 60-page article the other week about its vision for Hong Kong’s future after 2047, the year the Basic Law and the “one country, two systems” framework expires.  What stood out the most in this vision was seeing Hong Kong as independent after 2047, probably the first time anything has been published in China sounding any sort of call for independence of a part of its territory.  As you can imagine, this sentiment did not go over well with either Beijing or the establishment here in Hong Kong, including its richest man Li Kai-Ching who basically pooh-poohed the idea that Hong Kong could ever go at it alone.  Yet, if you think about it, this call for independence is not as radical as it sounds.  Putting aside whether Hong Kong could be viable as an independent city-state, when you feel like your future is fairly bleak as your freedoms are under assault and your calls for greater self-determination go unheeded, calling for independence to safeguard your own freedoms ceases to be such a crazy idea.  It’s like getting a divorce when you’re in a bad relationship, which can be bad for any number of reasons.  You reach a point in that relationship where you know things are not going to change and it’s beginning to seem hopeless, so breaking away is the only thing that might shake things up.  The threat of breaking away could be the jolt that’s needed to engender change without actually breaking up or it might set off a struggle to actually break away from the partner who is doing most of the harm.  The students at HKU have their whole lives ahead of them.  Many of them were born around the time or after the handover.  They have watched their city decline in importance relative to the rest of China and the city’s collective voice get drowned out by the propaganda in Beijing, as well as the naysayers who make up the establishment in Hong Kong, most the tycoons and politicians who benefit from closer ties to Beijing.  It’s sad that those tycoons who made their fortunes because of Hong Kong being such a special place are now basically in Beijing’s pocket because there is more money to be made on the mainland than at home. I’m talking about you Mr. Li.  A proud Hong Konger you are definitely not.  As for the students at HKU and elsewhere in the city, they are reaching the point where they feel like they have nothing to lose by calling for more wide-ranging action, including independence.  Beijing seems to think that all it takes it a little more engagement by the local government with its youth to bring them into the fold, but what they’re not realizing is that if Beijing couldn’t tame Hong Kong when the mainland’s economy was booming and could use that growth as a carrot to demand fealty, what makes the central government think a slowing (and increasingly unsustainable) mainland economy with an ever shrinking civic space is going to be attractive to the next generation of Hong Kongers? Don’t be surprised if the calls for independence only grow louder in the coming years.

Intelligent vs. Smart

June 19, 2012

I’m almost at the halfway mark of my time teaching in Linyi and like most things in life the older you get, the time here is flying by.  I’m thinking back to a week and a half ago when I was battling jet lag in Beijing and calling my parents every hour on the hour from 3am until 8am China time because they were the only ones who could soothe my jet lag-induced angst.  Now I find myself re-integrated into Linyi life and constantly surprised at how familiar the city feels to me after only being back for a week and a half.  It’s still an isolating existence in a lot of ways because even when I am around people, I find myself speaking in either halting Chinese or slow and booming English.  But I will say that being back has been good for my Chinese and I find that the lessons I have been taking in New York have actually helped with my pronunciation because I am getting less blank stares upon first speaking whereas it used to take three or four tries before anyone understood me.  Of course I need to think about my tones beforehand because if I just start speaking, it has the potential to end up as a disaster.

I have some downtime because my classes were re-arranged from morning to afternoon, without any real advance warning as is the norm in China.  My writing may be a bit disjointed because there are a few strands of thought that I want to address and I am not sure if they are all interrelated, but I am going to try my best to bring it all together.

A good friend of mine, myBITblog, who has been living in Hong Kong for the past few years and an ardent and valued supporter of my writing, commented on my post last week “Fill in the Bubble” that the American media could be construed as just as controlled and controlling as the media in China and that Americans rarely look beyond the box given them.  I tend to agree with my friend that many Americans do not care to look beyond their own backyards, but I think the choice to be parochial is different than being programmed to be parochial.  Many Americans may not choose to look beyond their own worlds, but they have the option to do so.  If I do not want to read only the conservative op-ed pages of the Wall Street Journal or similarly liberal op-ed pages of the New York Times, I can go out and augment those views with a wide array of opinions across the spectrum.  We may have the opposite problem in America of too much choice to the point where we can pick a news source most closely aligned with our opinions and never venture too far beyond that, but I still argue that the breadth of choice is what is lacking for many people here in China.  That is not to say that there are not bloggers, authors, and others who operate at the fringe of public discourse who present alternative viewpoints, but most people either do not have access to these voices or worse, do not care to seek out these voices.  The New York Times this past weekend had an interesting article about how Chinese writers need to be more nimble to evade sensors, but I wonder how many people actually seek out these writers who are creatively dodging the paranoia of the government to express themselves.

I think back to my student Qi Zhichao who asked me about mercy killings, which required him to think beyond the given course materials.  At dinner with the other two professors from UNH we were talking about our students and state of university education in China.  We have been exposed to the same students during this summer session, so it was possible to canvass opinions on certain students that made an impact in our classes.  If you remember, I had a student two years ago, Karen, who met me at my car every morning, helped me with daily classroom tasks, and accompanied me to lunch.  She is graduating this year as one of the top students in her class and passed her civil service exam with flying colors, so she will be returning to her hometown of Jinan (also the capital of Shandong province where I am based) to work for the government.  Over dinner we all acknowledged that she was very smart, but I proffered that I did not think she was very intelligent.  The difference being that she can take a test like nobody’s business, but she did not think beyond what she was told to think about.  She did very well because she mastered all of the courses thrown her way and worked very hard, but she was not a thinker.  Now I am not saying that there is anything wrong with studying hard and getting good grades, but that does not make a person intelligent.  Perhaps it’s the bias of my liberal arts education, but there is more to be said for someone who thinks beyond what they are told and draws connections between topics to ultimately think for themselves.  Qi has displayed signs of going beyond just what he is told in class, but students like that are few and far between.  Smart does not always equal intelligent.  Perhaps there are more of them at the top schools like Beida and Tsinghua, but I think it’s a byproduct of an education geared to massive tests that determine the next step in your education that leaves little room for people to think outside of the box.  And it is for this reason that I think the media in China can get away with just following the party line without any real push back from the general population.  Sure there are magazines and other publications that offer alternative viewpoints, like Caixin, which occasionally publishes articles from economists whose ideas on the economy may be at odds with the government’s vision.  But the overall effect of the government’s near ultimate control over the media is that a population has been trained to not only care very little about thinking outside the box, but more importantly, not really having the choice to go outside if they so desire.

The education system is one of the main tools that the government has at its disposal to control future generations.  During the same conversation at dinner, we were talking about the poor oral English skills of our students and how they have very little opportunity to practice speaking English.  Apparently the university is looking to cut back on English instruction because they do not want to spend the money, but they have plenty of money to build a new stadium that would not be out of place at a Big Ten school and a golf course in the middle of campus.

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I also found out last night that the students in my class are part of a program where over the course of four years, they take all the classes that they would take at the University of New Haven in the Business program.  Most of the classes are offered in intensive bursts like my three-week U.S. Business Law class, but upon completion of all these courses, they are eligible to receive a B.A. from UNH in addition to the degree from Linyi University.  This arrangement is obviously very good for Linyi University because they can market this program to attract students from all over Shandong, as well as around the country with the lure of receiving a U.S. degree without having to go to the U.S.  The students in the program can also opt to go to UNH for their senior year, but for many students this decision is too expensive.  Now I think it’s a great program for these students, but if their English skills are not up to snuff, how much are they really learning during the course of their studies.  I am inclined to think that as part of this program, there should be a greater investment in teaching English to give the students the language skills to back up having received a B.A. from an American university and giving the graduates greater opportunities that come along with being truly bilingual.  My students complain all of the time that their English is not that good or worse, they barely say anything because they are embarrassed by their perceived poor English skills.  Linyi University should be investing in bringing more instructors to the school to teach the students oral English to solidly position their graduates for brighter futures, but instead the president of the university wants to cut back on this item in the budget and the result will be students whose English skills become even poorer.

Where am I going with all of this rambling?  There are definite problems in the Chinese education system (as there are in the American system), but I think what I am witnessing is a tension that plays itself out all across Chinese society – how to continue advancing as a society while maintaining control over that advancement.  The government has done an admirable job of growing the economy over the past 30 years and moving large numbers of people out of poverty.  However, as the government seeks to position China for the next 30 years, it’s trying to maintain it’s tight grip on people’s expression of ideas and thoughts while moving towards a knowledge-based economy.  Maybe they can do it, but there is something oxymoronic about building a knowledge-based economy when the knowledge is not freely developed and exchanged.

Fill in the Bubble

June 14, 2012

This year has been and will continue to be a big one for China.  It’s the year of Bo Xilai’s purging from the Party, a high-level purging not seen since the time of Tiananmen in 1989.  It’s also the year Chen Guangcheng, the blind lawyer fled to the U.S. to go to law school and nearly sparked a diplomatic meltdown in U.S. – China relations.  It’s also the year of the once-in-a-decade transfer of power at the top when Hu Jintao and Wei Jiabao step down to make way for new leaders.  Reading about all of these events in the States, you would think that the country was on edge and that the tension would be palpable upon arriving in the country.  Aside from a few more police than usual in Beijing, you would have no idea in cities like Linyi that the country has been “rocked'” by these events.  I don’t even know how much the people really care about Bo Xilai and Chen Guangcheng, both of whom have been mentioned in the Chinese press, albeit with a heavy pro-government slant.  What I feel and hear about are the more real concerns students have about finding jobs after graduation, being able to afford an apartment in which to raise a family, and why the streets are so crowded with traffic.  I am not saying that something is not afoot in China, but I think it’s going to be problems of the average person that will be one of the major catalysts for change in this country.

When I was in Beijing, I remarked on all of these foreign influences in the form of fashion and art that I saw around the city.  Come to Linyi and there are none of these influences.  What I find so remarkable is how the government so far has done an effective job of controlling the type of information that makes its way into the country.  Go into any bookstore or browse any newspaper stand and you will not find one foreign current events publication. If I wanted to buy a Financial Times or Economist, I would have to go into a bookstore in a foreign hotel or show my passport upon check-out at a store that actually sells such publications.  Chinese people cannot buy these publications lest they be influenced by the heretic ideas contained within.  It’s crazy because everything the people know about is carefully filtered by the central government, rendering a population somewhat neutered when it comes to thinking for themselves.  I encountered the effect of such neutering today in class when I asked my students to pretend they were judges trying to figure out if I intended to enter a contract.  I wanted them to tell me what factors they would look at to determine my intent.  They were scouring the copies of the Powerpoint they had for an answer and I told them that it was not in there.  It took ten minutes before one student told me he would want to see the actual contract.

This one student, Qi Zhichao (齐智超) is the one.  When I say “the one” I mean that whenever I have taught, there has been one student who reminds me of a character in a Kafka novel.  It is as if they are struggling against the limits of he world in which they live and feel a sense of alienation, though they may not necessarily describe it as such.  Figo, one of my students in Guangzhou to whom I gave a copy of Zhao Ziyang’s memoirs before I left, was the best example of such a lost soul.  He actually stumbled upon Kafka in the Zhongda library during one of the breaks.  Figo had questions and thoughts that were out of place with his peers and as a result he felt cut off from them because he recognized he thought about things differently.  I remember during one of my office hours where he railed against society’s preoccupation with the community over the individual.  Figo was definitely one of the ones.  Qi just finished his freshman year, grew up in Linyi, and stayed in Linyi for university.  Figo came from a village in Guangdong province to Guangzhou, one of the biggest and most open cities in the country to study at one of the best schools in the country.  Their circumstances are different, but there is something about Qi.  He is the one who answers most of my questions to the class, he asks questions about the material during breaks, and he stays after class to ask questions.  We were talking about the death penalty the other day and how some states have outlawed the practice.  During break he came up to ask me about euthanasia and whether it was murder.  Such a thought is very uncharacteristic for almost any student I have taught in China because he went above and beyond what we were discussing to connect the dots and bring in a concept that was nowhere to be found on the Powerpoints.  I’m not saying my other students are stupid, I am just saying that they are usually not very good at thinking for themselves.  While waiting for the driver to go back to the hotel after class, Qi came outside to chat with me.  He told me that he wanted to go Shanghai for college to get away from Linyi and experience life, but his gaokao (高考) score was not good enough.  The gaokao is the test at the end of high school that determines where you go to college.  It varies by province, but the test is 2.5-3 days long and covers seven or eight topics ranging from chemistry to history to English.  He seemed really sad about being stuck here and said he wants to leave Linyi after college, which is uncharacteristic for kids here.  I told him to keep working on his English and then he could go to Shanghai and find a job with a company that will value his language skills.  I also told him to keep thinking for himself because that skill combined with his language abilities will make him incredibly valuable to Western companies.  The conversation was cut short because the driver began honking his horn, but I sensed a curiosity that has been borne out by his classroom conduct.  Coincidentally or not zhichao (智超) means “to transcend knowledge”, which is definitely an appropriate name for this student.

For ever Qi there are thousands of students who live in a bubble.  China feels like a bubble most of the time.  If I did not have my internet connection and a VPN, I would be severely limited in what I knew about the outside world.   Most Chinese people are not searching the internet for the Financial Times or other Western publications if they are searching for news at all.  The government has really done an effective job at controlling what comes in to the country while simultaneously shaping what the people internalize and process when they are exposed to outside influences.  I think there used to be a belief that as more and more Chinese moved into the middle class and began traveling and studying abroad, they would return with ideas picked up on their travels.  So far that has not happened.  I have written a lot about this idea in this blog, but it’s not going to be change that is influenced by external forces.  The clamoring from change is going to come about as the social contract continues to fray, that is when the government is unable to continue giving the people increases in their standard of living in exchange for relative passivity.  The social contract will fray to such a point that people will want something different because what they have has ceased to work.  Will it be violent?  Not sure.  Will it be swift?  No.  It’s going to be a gradual process and if the Party is smart, it will try to evolve from within and open itself up to greater competition to help take the pressure off of it and its leaders.

On a lighter note, I was once again given thumbs up at the gym today by one of the trainers.  Except this time, I returned the thumbs because he was working out and I was curious as to how he’d take my gesture.  If you’re wondering, my thumbs were returned with even more thumbs.  At one point I was doing an exercise for my triceps and he came over to touch my triceps as I was working out.  He then proceeded to do the same exercise and stopped midway through because he said it was too hard.  Later on when I was stretching out, he came by to tell me that I taught him something new today and that he’d like to continue to learn from me.  I learned the words for bicep and tricep, ertouji (二头肌) and santouji (三头肌), which mean two-headed and three headed muscle, respectively.  Ah, Linyi continues to fascinate me.

Until tomorrow . . .

Surrounded

June 14, 2012

Living in a city like Linyi, I imagine it’s what most of China was like 20-30 years ago when the country was just beginning to really open up to foreigners.  As a foreigner here, I attract all sorts of curiosity.  Most of the attention comes in the form of random “hellos” or other types of greetings.  Whether it’s a “hello” from the old men in an SUV while  waiting on the side of the road for a cab or teenage girls asking “what can I do for you?” as they sashay out of the hotel in their short shorts and too much make-up, I am constantly being spoken to.  Not spoken with mind you, just spoken to as if I am some sort of curiosity whose only function is to smile and say “hello’ back.

My gym is a constant source of fascination.  If I go to work out later in the afternoon when people are starting to get off work, the small gym becomes quite crowded.  I was there lifting the other night and I tend to get lost in my workouts, so I do not always notice what is going on around me.  At one moment in my workout, I looked up and there was a group of seven guys standing around me and just watching as I was lifting weights.  I demurely put my head down and continued my workout, but upon completing my sets and putting my weights away, I had to turn around and inadvertently come face-to-face with them.  I was greeted with the requisite thumbs-up and “you are strong”.  One of the guys, who is a trainer at the gym just blurted out that I had “nice muscles”.  While flattering, none of these pleasantries did much to make me feel very comfortable, so I just plowed on with my workout.  As I was later stretching, another trainer named Sun Shuo (孙硕) came over to speak to me.  He spoke English and it was pretty good, so he would speak in English and I would respond in Chinese.  He told me I was very strong and looked “very good”.  At the end of our conversation, he told me that if I needed anything, he would be very happy to help me and held my hand for a tad too long as we shook goodbye.

This brings me to something that always vexes me in China.  Men are so much more tactile here, both with me and each other.  Unlike the guard in Beijing who was pretty clearly giving me a lingering stare, Sun’s lingering handshake and offer to help with anything was most likely a polite entreaty to a foreigner.  However, I noticed in class this morning that the guys who sit in the front row of my class are always touching each other and it’s not that playful fighting that good guy friends may do with one another.  Their hands on are on each others legs, they hold hands, they have their arms around each other.  Once again, it’s most likely nothing more than friendly behavior among friends who live in very close quarters for their four years of college, but for a brief moment when I am lecturing from the stage and look down to see one guy’s hand resting on another guy’s thigh, it gives me pause because that action is not something that you would see in an American classroom.

At the end of class, it’s always a gaggle of guys who gather around me to ask questions about class or life in America.  In yesterday’s class, we talked about identity theft and I told my students I had been a victim of such an act because Yale had been careless with my social security number and left it on a database that was searchable by Google.  Seven credit cards, an ID watch service, and a police report later, I finally nipped that problem in the bud.  But my students informed me that you cannot open a credit card online in China, only in person at a bank.  It’s a smart idea and has the double-edged effect of preventing someone from opening credit cards in your name, while also curbing the number of credit cards that one can open up.  The other extreme is the American system where with a few clicks online, I can have a new credit card with a $5000 credit limit.  My students also told me that college students are not allowed to have credit cards, which is definitely not the case on U.S. college campuses.

These guys always stay behind after class to talk, which is a great thing because it means that they are curious and want to talk.  I am all for encouraging them to practice their English, especially since it’s usually the girls who tend to speak English better, and thus are more confident in their skills.  It doesn’t matter whether I am in the classroom or at the gym, I seem to end up attracting a crowd, which is not the case in cities like Beijing, Shanghai, or even Guangzhou where foreigners are a dime a dozen or they just do not care about them.  In Linyi, it is still an oddity to see someone like me.  I realized that last night when I went to dinner with one of the other instructors.  We went to my favorite Sichuan (川菜) restaurant and she asked me if they knew me there.  They probably do, but at that moment I realized that they knew me, even if just for the fact that it’s rare to have someone like me running around Linyi.

Except when I am in my hotel room, it seems that no matter where I go in Linyi, I am surrounded.  It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but definitely something I am not used to experiencing.  Now it’s time to head to the gym.

I have my first morning class today after two days of starting class 2pm, so this post is going to be short because no matter where I am in the world I tend to treat morning as the time to cram in every possible task I can think of in as limited a time as possible.  It’s why I can get up at either 6am or 9am and I only still get to work at 11am.  Give me more time in the morning and I will find more things to do.

In yesterday’s class, my students and I were talking about torts.  I am fully aware that it is a little ridiculous that I am covering this topic with rising Chinese sophomores who can barely give understand me when I asked why the sky was so hazy yesterday in one class period when American law students get a whole semester to digest the topic.  But I digress.  I was talking to my students about negligence and the idea that the action needs to be foreseeable.  A bunch of the guys in my class are gamers and I know that they play Need for Speed, which is a racing game.  I came up with an example where a guy was playing need for speed and then went out driving his car as if he was still playing the video game and hit a child.  I asked the class if the parents of the child could sue the gaming company for negligence?  Most said no because the gaming company was in the business of making money and providing products that help people relax and have fun, which was kind of the right answer without stating that it was not foreseeable that someone playing Need for Speed would actually go out and imitate the game.  The example was based on a real case with a much more violent game where a teenager then went and shot people dead.

At the end of class, the guys who play games came up to me and asked me if I knew about Warlord, which is a much more violent game than Need for Speed.  Even in my gaming ignorance, I had heard of it.  My students then told me that the game is very bloody and violent, so the Chinese version has no blood.  I was not sure if there was a question in here, so I asked my students if they had played the real version and all of them pointed to this one guy and said that he goes “underground” to find the real game and play with Korean players.  They asked me if the game caused people to do violent things in America and I said no, that generally people get their violent tendencies from elsewhere and a video game would not be the sole cause of such outbursts. I asked them if the game was just as violent without the blood and they said yes.  I was trying to get them to see how arbitrary the law was in China without telling them such.  After some more back and forth, they told me that the Chinese government prevents blood from being shown because they think that it will make people violent.  However, they did not seem convinced.  Hearing this from my students is just another example of the government’s attempt to control the population and maintain a veneer of harmony in ways that do not always make sense, and actually make the government look ridiculous.  Removing blood from the video games, combined with the fact that PS3 from Sony cannot be sold in China for various reasons unknown to me, are just other attempts by a government desperate to solidify an increasingly shaky hold on its population.  Could gamers be the forefront of a revolution, inspired from the blood and violence of games like Warlord?

I am off to class, but more later.

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 arrived in Linyi last night after a flight that was surprisingly on time.  Speaking this morning with the other two University of New Haven instructors arrived a few weeks ago, they informed me that their flights from Beijing were also delayed.  Their experiences combined with mine Saturday night and from two years ago just leads me to believe that the Beijing-Linyi corridor is conducive to delays.

It’s strange being back.  I just returned from the supermarket down by Renmin Guangcheng (人民广成) or People’s Square in the center of Linyi, which is the commercial hub of the city.  As I was in the taxi getting there, I was speaking with the cab driver about different places in the city and he remarked that I knew a lot about the place and asked how long I had been here.  I told him that I arrived yesterday and prior to that had only stayed here for three weeks.  Jiangjie, the head of the international program at Linyi University (oh yes, the name of the school changed), who picked me up last night also remarked that I knew a lot about the place. I guess I got around last time I was here.  Anyway, as I was driving I noticed that half of the new construction going up when I was last here was still unfinished.  The unfinished construction combined with the half empty luxury apartment blocks brought home the point made in the media that China’s growth is slowing.  However, Linyi appears to continue marching forward in other important ways that were not evident two years ago.  The city has not one, but two Suning (苏宁) stores, which are like Best Buys in the States.  There are multiple new malls.  Down by People’s Square, there are now a Dairy Queen and Subway, which probably means that Starbucks is not too far behind.  There is also a Watsons, which is a Hong Kong-based drug store chain akin to Duane Reade or CVS in the States or Boot’s in the UK.  I was also able to buy imported milk in the supermarket, which was not possible last time I was here.  There is something comforting about these things because they remind me of home, but that is not my reason for noting these marks of progress.  Generally when foreign chains come to China, they target cities based on their designation by the central government in terms of tiers – first, second, third-tier and so on.  Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou have been designated first-tier cities and as a result these locales were usually first targeted by foreign chains because the designation usually corresponds with the city’s level of development.  As time went on, foreign chains began targeting second and third-tier cities and continue to move down the chain as they seek out new markets,  Linyi is probably a fifth or sixth-tier city, so it has taken longer for foreign chains to arrive.  When I was here last time, the only foreign chains were McDonald’s, KFC, and Pizza Hut.  The growing number is indicative of the city’s continued development.

So I did some shopping for basic provisions – milk, yogurt, soda water, beer, apples, and hand soap, among other things.  Then I wandered around the square before heading back to the hotel in a cab.  I have my first class this afternoon, so I am trying to prepare.  There is a chance that my students may be rising sophomores, which means they are going to be even more shy and less proficient in oral English than my students last year who were rising juniors.  I am wrestling with how to approach the class since the material is so dense and I want to make sure they get something out of these next three weeks.  I will have to go in this afternoon and take the lay of the land.  Oh yeah, I was driving past the other campus south of the river and noticed that rather than Linyi Normal University, the school is now simply called Linyi University.  “Normal” in a university name implied that the school was supposed to train teachers in various subjects, but as the number of people going after a university education grew in China, many “Normal” universities became full-blown universities teaching a wide variety of subjects.  When I was last hear, the university was in the middle of a massive build-out to add new departments, so I am assuming with the name change that the transformation is nearly complete.  That would also explain why the taxi driver kept referring to the school as Linyi Daxue (临沂大学) rather than Linyi Shifan Xueyuan (临沂师范学院).

I’m off to finish preparing for my first class, but will continue later.  I’ll leave you with some more fun China packaging from my supermarket excursion this morning.

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The Handsome Factor

September 20, 2010

Much has been made about the joys of crossing the countryside by train, but very few people seem to extol the virtues of taking a bus across a new country.  I was told by many people here to avoid taking the train the Qingdao because only “K” trains run between Linyi and Qingdao, which means that they are the lowest level of train and usually not as nice as the high-speed and newer “C” and “D” trains.  They also do not run as frequently between the two cities as the buses do, as many as two per hour.  So I opted for the bus.  It was pretty convenient.  The bus station here in Linyi is about five minutes by taxi and it’s relatively new and clean.  One of the things I have noticed about this city is that people are always sweeping, whether it’s the streets or the floors of the bus station.  Yet, I am hard-pressed to find hand soap in most of the public bathrooms.  But I digress.  The bus was extremely fast due to the massive road building that the Chinese government has undertaken over the past decade or so.  We took expressways most of the way from Linyi to Qingdao, which are lightly traveled because of the tolls.  Chinese drivers have been slow to taking to paid roads when the local roads are free, but it means that it’s easy to make good time.  The only traffic jam I encountered was when we arrived at the outskirts of Qingdao and the road that travels the perimeter of the bay was under massive construction because a bridge is being erected that cuts straight across the bay and will reduce travel times from points south heading into Qingdao.  But the bus was great because it felt like a more intimate way to see the countryside in a way that does not feel possible from a train.  The vegetation reminded me of the sides of 95 or the Garden State Parkway, which makes sense given that Shandong province is  roughly on the same line of latitude as the mid-Atlantic states.

As I raved in my last post, Qingdao was awesome.  Such a relaxing and pleasant place to spend a few days.  It also highlighted for me some of the contrasts between Linyi and Qingdao.  In China, there seems to be cities that are destinations and others that you return to or never leave.  Qingdao is definitely a city that people in Shandong province “trade up” to versus Linyi where people either are born here and never leave or return here after spending time elsewhere because this is where your family is.  I have asked a random cross-section of people here, my students excluded, if they are from Linyi and everyone I have spoken with has said yes.  Two days in Qingdao and I met people from Anhui province, Linyi, and other parts of Shandong province.  Guangzhou was the other end of the scale, a destination that you don’t just spend a period of time in, but a place that you may move your entire family to make a better life for everyone.  Beijing and Shanghai also fit into that category.  The point of this discussion is that people have asked me how a city of 10 million people (Linyi) that is the logistics center for all of northern China can seem so provincial.  I think part of it is that Linyi is not a destination city.  You live here because you are from here, but you do not move here and you do not bring your ideas and culture from other parts of China.  As a result, the city feels kind of stuck in its ways, but it’s fine for the residents because they can get everything they need here.  However, the wealthy young people driving around in Mercedes and BMWs will hop a flight to go to Beijing, Shanghai or Guangzhou if they want nightlife and the other trappings of destination cities.  An interesting phenomenon, but perfectly logical if you think about it.

So some much promised pictures of Qingdao

Former German Governor's residence, now the 青岛迎宾管 (Qingdao Ying Bingguan)

View of the bay from the old part of town

Catholic Church built by the Germans in 1934

The Tsingtao beer billboard outside the brewery

Michael and I enjoying our free beer at the brewery

Qindgao at night, down by the Olympic sailing complex

Just a sampling of the sites of Qingdao.  I am planning to head back there on Wednesday because I have three days off for mid-Autumn festival.  I’ll use the time to park myself in Starbucks, reminiscent of my days in GZ, and prepare my final exam and review materials for my students.  Be prepared for some more Starbucks-inspired blog entries from Qingdao later on this week.

At the hotel we stayed at in Qingdao, Hattie, the general manager, who happened to be from Linyi, remarked that her friend thought I was very handsome.  When we checked out, she proceeded to thrust her friend into my line of sight and introduced her as the one who thought I was handsome.  Needless to say, it was an awkward situation for all.  But the view that I am handsome ensured that I received personal attention when booking my room for this coming Wednesday and it also resulted in Michael and I being escorted from the hotel to a taxi to take us on our way.  While I consider myself fortunate that I’m decent looking enough to be considered handsome here in China, I find that this ‘handsome factor” goes a long way in making people treat you better.  I hear that my students also think I am “handsome and strong”, which I think gives me a little leeway and makes my students more apt to pay attention to what I am saying.  At this point, I will take whatever advantage I can get.  But the “handsome factor” can also be helpful when my Chinese fails me or my attempts to be extremely nice in English are not coming across as I want them to.  When that factor kicks in, it makes getting things done here just a little bit easier.

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.