Thursday, March 29, 2012

Interviews and Conclusion

Says Gary: “That is what the education system does to the students.” From what I gather of his words, it seems the children are allowed to play, imagine and pretend clean on up to the time they get in school. After that they are required to abandon all thoughts of fantasy and apply themselves strictly to practicum and academia.

Says Tony: “See? That is why I don’t like the schools in China, why the schools in America are better!” It seems that Tony also believes the education system is at fault.

Says Tristan, a last-year college graduate recently entered into the job market, on the subject of role play: “Most students have never experienced flying. A plane crash scenario is unrealistic for them. Give them something they are familiar with.” Tristan also could not fathom role playing exercises and imagination games. And, he seems to have completely overlooked the ‘what if’ aspect of role play. What if I were on a plane? What if it crashes? What if I am lost in a jungle?

It seems people who are Chinese are inept at playing ‘what if’.

Seeing as two of my three interviews so far concluded that the education system is to blame for students’ lack of imagination, I interviewed the one person in the education system who I believe would give me an uncensored opinion on the matter.

Sam says: “What they dislike is just what they lack in: creativity.” According to Sam, creativity is stifled at an early age to make way for the reality of daily life and the rigors of education. Neither parents nor educators encourage innovation or creativity, unless emulating an existing art form or object can be called creative. No new dances, no new visions, no new tropes, themes, or designs. In fact, the entire society bears down on these formerly imaginative minds and forces all vestiges of vision and creativity out. According to Sam, that is why most foreign teachers prefer to work with elementary grade children. Apparently, they still have a shred or two of imagination to cultivate.

Please bear in mind that I did not interview anyone who is officially knowledgeable on the subject, say, a psychologist. Nor did I pursue this line of inquiry with anyone higher in the education system than Sam. Also, my interview subjects are limited by language barriers. I could only interview those who have higher than average English language skills because my knowledge of Chinese is not broad enough to embark on such a conversation in that language.

I am getting a picture though, and it is not pretty.

The centuries old way of life: because tradition is good or because no one has imagined a better way? Traditional building methods: because it works or because nothing new has come to anyone’s mind? The masses, the millions who hold their head down and shoulder their life’s burden: because they accept that is their lot in life or because they cannot envision anything better for themselves? Those inscrutable miens: because they wish to hide their feelings or because they have no thought or idea or feeling about a situation? Or do they simply lack the ability to express themselves? And, speaking of expression: nobody breaks into a spontaneous dance when they hear music: are they too shy, or have they never been taught to appreciate music to the point that it fills their being with joy?

Even the remarkable fact that, in the two years and hundreds of students I have taught here, not a SINGLE person in any of my classes is left handed takes on a new meaning. If a young child shows to have more left-handed tendencies, his parents and later the teachers will ‘correct’ that tendency to make the child right-handed. I believe that forcing the children to be ‘right hand/left brain dominant’ serves to encourage their analytical propensities at the cost of the more ‘left hand/right brained’ imaginative and visual capability is a manifestation of this society’s need to exorcise creativity.

I am reminded of the eerie video of the song by Pink Floyd, from The Wall concept album: We Don’t Need No Education, in which the students, dressed alike and wearing identical, waxen, expressionless faces march lockstep along a platform into a vat that boils them down and crushes them into a paste, to be squirted onto a conveyor belt for further shaping.

There is an anime called Kino’s Journey, a story of a traveler who goes from country to country to learn about their customs. The episode titled The Land of No Imagination talks about a young girl who tells Kino that, on a child’s 13th birthday he or she is taken to the hospital for The Operation that will turn him or her into a pragmatic, practical grownup. When grown up, one accepts their lot in life, debates the most efficient way to deal with a situation, accepts all things, lives emotionally bereft but perennially cheerful… like a robot. After talking with Kino this little girl wonders if having the operation is indeed the best way to do things, whereupon her parents declare her damaged and try to kill her. Kino jumps in front of her, taking the fatal knife wound. While the population debates the irrationality of Kino’s action, the little girl flees her country to commence her life’s journey, becoming Kino.

There is no official operation that kids here undergo. Simply by training and indoctrination their childhood is removed at an early age, making way for sensible, practical, tradition-abiding adults.

The Chinese of today live a torn life, caught between tradition and emulation. Much of what a modern Chinese does or believes to be societally advanced, such as acquiring status, eating out, sitting in a café and chatting with friends is emulation of what they’ve seen of western life in movies. Shopping till dropping, Starbucks and newfangled gadgets are all concepts that have been presented to them, not a lifestyle they have evolved to or innovated for themselves. Once a Chinese person comes home (to his/her apartment or to his/her village), the old traditions – cooking, cleaning, living prevail. Many references to such are peppered throughout this blog.

In my opinion, of all the human rights violations justly or unjustly ascribed to China, depriving a people of imagination, creativity and feeling is the cruelest torture a human spirit can endure.

Is there hope? Fortunately, yes. It seems that, while America is embracing China’s Drill and Kill method of learning, or, as some call it: teaching the test, meaning that curriculum is targeted to meet the No Child Left Behind standardization test, China is racing toward America’s former ‘problem-based’ learning approach that allows for visualization and creativity. While this does not mean a significant change for students who are university age, it certainly means that new generations of students will receive the benefit of more imaginative, progressive teaching methods.

Is there hope for the kids in my classes? If I continue to demonstrate that learning can be fun, teaching can be creative and a person is allowed to dream, maybe that occasional Tony, or the infrequent Gary who has bucked the system and followed his own path, or another Tristan, who is defying the current societal model with all his might will catch a spark, and carry that flame into the next generation. And, if these three fine men continue to be as charismatic and full of life as they are now, maybe they can lead their generation by example. I hope so.

In the meantime, I have rooms full of… : “When I watch a movie, it does not affect me. I know it is just a movie.” “Well, what about when you read a book?” “I do not like to read.” “Well, what if you’re on a plane, and it crashes and you are the only survivor?” “I don’t know.” “Well, what if you wake up and find yourself in a strange country where you don’t understand the language and everybody looks different?” “I don’t know”.

My friends, this has been a ponderous topic for me and, I’m sure for you as well. It has literally occupied all of my free time in research, observation and interviews. Sharing this with you has been cathartic. I can now lay this burden down and accept my new challenge: influence my students to a new way of thinking. Maybe even the teachers to a new way of teaching. Why not dream big, if I’m going to dream at all?

I’m ready to write about light-hearted observations and doings again. Something to make you smile and wish you were here with me to see and experience the things that I do. But, I realize that, the longer I live here the more apt I am to see deeper subjects, like this and want to share them with you. This one has been a doozy! I hope you were enthralled and appalled, as I was. And I hope you carry hope in your heart for this people who do not seem to have the ability to hope for themselves.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Where Does Imagination Come From?

Like a dog worrying a bone I am on this topic, this shocking lack of imagination and creativity on my students’ part. How strange then, that my son in law Garrett, with whom I was video chatting would voice the irony of most toys in America being made in China by people who are Chinese, seemingly devoid of imagination. The irony was underscored by the fact that Gabriel was, at that very moment playing ‘Marine’, an imaginary game in which he launched himself over a retaining wall (the back of the couch) to capture enemy spies. The ‘spies’ were also a figment of his imagination; he was playing by himself.

Where does imagination come from? What makes one child or one people more imaginative than the next?

Scientists reveal that imagination is generated in (or from) the pineal gland, what is known as ‘the mind’s eye’ or ‘the third eye’. This pea-sized gland, shaped like a pine cone (thus its name) sits behind and above the pituitary gland, smack in the center of the brain. It is attached to the brain’s third ventricle.

For a long time the scientific community believed this gland was a ‘leftover’ from evolution, sort of like the appendix. They could find no function for it and believed it served no actual purpose. Although a part of the endocrine system, it produces no hormones and consumes virtually no energy. It is activated by light and helps control the body’s various biorhythms. It works in direct harmony with your hypothalamus gland, your body’s director of thirst, hunger, temperature and circadian rhythms. It also controls the body’s aging process. However, lab tests show adults can function perfectly well with their pineal gland removed.

The existence of the pineal body has been known for at least two thousand years, as revealed in Galen of Pergamon’s writings, quoting studies of earlier Greek anatomists who were impressed with the single structure of the pineal and its location. He concluded it served as a valve to regulate the flow of thought in and out of the ‘storage bins’ in the lateral ventricles of the brain. The French mathematician Rene Descartes embellished on this notion, postulating the pineal housed the seat of the rational soul. There may be a measure of truth to that, seeing as the pineal is directly linked to the eyes and the eyes are said to be the window of the soul.

I don’t want to get too ponderous and too deeply into a subject I’m not qualified to discuss after just a few hours of reading, even though I thrill to the chase of knowledge. I only need to point out what is relevant to my thesis, right? Here is a relevant point: the pineal gland works hand in hand with the pituitary – the growth regulator gland. It also works as a neural pathway in problem solving.

Back to my students now.

For those of you who have been following this blog since its inception, you might intuit that I sometimes have trouble reaching my students. I deplore their lack of true understanding of the English language, even though they are quite adept at translating it. Nuance escapes them. When given a text to read, my kids can gather a meaning of sorts by translating it but generally do not understand the overall meaning of the text.

Now that I have been confronted with their lack of imagination and creativity I understand why. Imagination is essential for narrative comprehension, allowing us to vividly render the surroundings and situations being presented. However, when presented with a non-fiction document they can assimilate and comprehend it very well.

What does this mean for my kids’ EQ? There is a connection between empathy and creativity, as revealed in the study conducted by Mar, Oatley and Peterson in 2009. My students marvel that I can cry seemingly on demand. When I watch a movie, tell a story, read a book or relate an event, there go the waterworks! From what I’ve observed of my friends and students who are Chinese, they cry readily at real life situations but shed nary a tear at anything fiction. They are more sympathetic than empathetic.

All of the particularities I’ve observed in the nearly 2 years I’ve lived here suddenly take on a chilling dimension. When my students reply by rote that they will work hard to remedy a situation, that they will be diligent and work hard to become better, that they fall ‘in love’ with the first or second love prospect they meet (or are introduced to), that they follow a scripted path through life… is that what they feel or what they’ve been trained to think?

Is all of this because they cannot imagine anything different? Is Tony one of the few who somehow retained a shred of imagination, who sees himself doing something other than holding his head down and doing what he is supposed to do?

The next step in this… venture? Investigation? Of mine is to interview people to find out why they believe this lack of imagination and creativity exists. Their answers will be the subject of my next entry.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Chinese Children Don’t Play!

My friends, I’ve really been remiss on blogging. Not for lack of material, trust me, but for expounding on this one issue that has apparently commandeered all of my creative brainpower, to the exclusion of all else, including blogging.

The thought/concept/idea came to me about a month ago, when Tony confessed he felt he was being pushed into tradition, when all he wants to do is cast off tradition and follow his dream. And it is not a big dream: he wants a career wherein he can make use of English, instead of conforming to society and finding a career within his field of study, Industrial Engineering. At best he would like to be an English teacher. If allowed to go wild on his dreaming he longs to travel abroad to make use of his excellent command of the English language.

With a bit of polish and some practice, and a bit more vocabulary Tony could speak English as well as you and I. Me, being the type of person whose approach to everything is ‘Why Not’?, wonders why this child feels he cannot pursue such an innocuous career as teaching.

We had a long conversation about it. While he does maintain it is possible to find work that would make use of his English skills he contends that, once he casts his resume out into the world and prospective employers see he holds an engineering degree, no one will care that he speaks English. No, he cannot change his major. It was determined by his College Entrance exam. On paper, he shows great aptitude for engineering, thus he is training as an engineer.

That system is not unconventional. Europe uses the same system, as does the Vocational Education system in America.

Spending time with Tony is always a pleasure and neither one of us noticed that 6 hours had elapsed since the beginning of that conversation. Everything he said led me to 5 more questions, and more questions after that. Thankfully, this poor child never gets tired of answering my questions. But he set the wheels in motion, so I decided to conduct an experiment.

I devised a series of scenarios for my classes in which the students role play. The situations ranged from plane crash survivors to a kidnapped young girl who was returned to her parents. We had factory workers who were protesting low wages, an elderly couple celebrating their 75th wedding anniversary, foreign teachers falling in love (NOT a nod to me and Victor!), scientists who discover the fountain of youth… and reporters to cover it all. Each student was assigned a role. They were instructed to bring props to class, wear special clothing, or anything that might make their role play more fun and creative. They had one week to prepare.

For my part, I had a blast creating these scenarios and devising the lesson plan. I thought how awesome it would be for my kids to cut loose and play, all while practicing English. I imagined them making use of wigs, toys and other props I would bring. I had a bag full of things for them to adapt to their individual character. I was counting on their imagination to dress up their role play.

I got the shock of my life. Well, maybe not that dramatic, but I will say I was completely flummoxed. The kids loved playing with all the props I brought to class: trying on the wigs, hugging the Spongebob stuffed toy, skipping rope, playing with the wind up police car. They passed the Listerine bottle around and tried on the ring I brought. Come time to actually role play though, they stood stock still, used none of the props provided and recited their lines as they no doubt had rehearsed all week. They brought no props, wore no special clothing and didn’t even inject much in the way of humor into their dialog.

Honestly: I cannot tell you what I make of that. I went so far as to demonstrate that a badminton racket could be a guitar, a jump rope handle could be a microphone, two handles from a different game could be drumsticks (one scenario was of a famous rock band on tour), the bottle of Listerine could be water for the ‘fountain of youth’ role play.

Two or three groups of students did their role play. Before the next group started I asked them why they don’t ham things up with the props they were obviously dying to get their hands on and play with. They said they were too shy.

Too shy? No, I don’t think they are too shy. I think they are pragmatic to a fault, completely unable to merge the concepts of playing and learning. And, more than that, they are completely devoid of imagination. When presented with a badminton racket, all they see is a device used to bat a shuttlecock around. A bottle of Listerine is not magical fountain water. A jump rope handle could never double as a microphone. A deck of cards could never be money. And no one wore the wigs during their presentation, even the boys that took on girls’ roles. They had no problems trying them on while not presenting, though. They even took pictures of themselves with them on.

By no means am I saying that all people who are Chinese are devoid of imagination. The Chinese invented most of what we have today: pencils, paper, the directional compass, printing, gunpowder, rockets, boats, chain-driven engines, crossbows, paddle wheels and paper money, just to compile a very short list. That requires a measure of vision, doesn’t it? If you’re interested in more things invented by the Chinese, please research it. You will be amazed at what all has come out of this land.

But on the other hand… necessity is the mother of invention. How much vision does it take to invent fundamental things? What does it take to create something that, till now has never existed?

But to envision possibilities in something that already has a function? There’s a challenge! How many of you wore a sweater on your head and pretended it was long hair, or a bridal veil? How many of you pretended a stick was a gun or a cane? How many of you spent countless hours of your youth in fantasy games? It seems such games are nonexistent in China, and the Chinese mind is incapable of conceiving such things.

But wait! Some of the best movies I’ve ever seen are Chinese movies. Some of the most beautiful songs I’ve heard are sung by people who are Chinese. Some of the oldest stories were written by authors who are Chinese. In case you are not familiar with any of these particulars, what about the opening ceremony for the 2008 Olympic games in Beijing? Surely that required vision, imagination and creativity, right?

And then I got to thinking: one of the reasons I love Chinese cinema is because those movies tell real stories. Stories of life, actual conflicts that go on every day. They are superbly acted but mostly deal with either something that has actually happened (history), something that already exists or something that is currently happening.

Thinking further: I find traditional Chinese music to be discordant, atonal, unsyncopated and arrhythmic. I cannot stand to listen to Beijing Opera, for example. To hear a sample of it, simply do a search for ‘traditional Chinese music’ or ‘Beijing Opera music’ and take a listen for yourselves. One reason I do like music from contemporary artists who are Chinese is that they have magnificent, soaring voices. But they sing about things that already exist: love for their homeland, love for their family or longing for a better life. There are no imaginary scenarios in Chinese song. There is no Chinese equivalent to Frank Zappa.

What about stories? Same as with movies: they are about real situations, with a little mysticism thrown in. What about art? China has turned out some exquisite art through the centuries. But, now that I think about it, China’s most distinctive art is ‘Shan Shui’ – mountains and water, two elements of fung shui. There is not much in the way of imaginative painting; even their likeness of the Buddha statues comes from the Indian visions and projections of that deity.

I have to pursue this topic. I will interview some of my students and friends, and will report on this again. Aren’t you curious about this people, who appear to be completely devoid of imagination?

Friday, March 9, 2012

Excommunicated Cheeseburgers

My daughter, lovely young woman that she is, is writing a new blog. If you’ve been following my blog since its inception nearly 2 years ago – EGAD! That long? – you will know that she is in the process of reinventing herself (See Inspirational Text Message, posted October 2010). She is battling one of the most difficult issues facing over half of America today: weight loss. She has already dropped a significant amount of weight and is not resting on her laurels yet. Congratulations, Dear Jenn! As we say in Chinese: Jia You – keep going!

In a nod to Lent and to make the weight loss challenge more interesting and fun, she has decided to give up her favorite food, cheeseburgers, for an entire month. Her new blog, titled The Cheeseburger Chronicles details her struggles in resisting what she considers ambrosia.

Of all the foods available in America, cheeseburgers are not what I miss the most. Pizza is. So much so that, about once a month I treat myself to a meal at Pizza Hut right here in China. The pizza is authentically American in taste and texture, and served exactly the same way. Naturally I can’t afford to indulge too often. Not only are foreign restaurants like Pizza Hut expensive in China, but who would want to maintain a diet of pizza?

Hey… THAT’s not a bad idea!

No, I probably wouldn’t want pizza every day. But I wanted one today. I haven’t had one in a while. There is a restaurant in Wuhan called Gianni’s that makes an excellent, wood oven pizza, New York style. I haven’t had such a pizza in about a year because Gianni’s is off the beaten path and a bit out of the way. Today I decided I would head there and make a day of it. Enjoy a nice pizza, and then find a cozy tea house to sit for a few hours and read my book.

Because it had been so long since I’d been to Gianni’s, and I’d only been one time before, I did not remember everything they had on their menu. I just remember their delicious pizzas. Imagine my surprise when I saw the very first pizza on the list was a cheeseburger pizza!

Between reading the menu and waiting for the server to come take my order, all sorts of delicious thoughts ran through my head: I should tell Jenn about how I tortured her from half the world away by ordering, of all things, a CHEESEBURGER pizza. And then I decided, since she is a faithful reader of my blog, to write about it myself and let her wail and exclaim and maybe lament in her blog about the unfairness of it all.

When my pizza arrived it was everything anyone could want from a pizza: gooey cheese, fresh, crisp, well seasoned toppings and of course that wood fired oven crust. It looked spectacular and smelled divine. Tasted heavenly! The only thing was the texture: under all that cheese the crust was a bit limp and, after nibbling off the toppings, very bland.

I have to say: Pizza Hut gets the nod for excellent crust, in my book. But Gianni’s by far outdoes them in toppings.

What will Jennifer do or say to me about my stealing her cheeseburger thunder? Or maybe, would she accuse me of taunting her with cheeseburgers?

No such thing, my daughter! I just thought that, seeing as you excommunicated cheeseburgers for a month, maybe it wouldn’t hurt if I had one.

Even if it is in pizza form.

Getting My Exercise

With this lingering winter and, in spite of my earlier proclamation that I have heat in my apartment, I now have to confess that I am tired of winter, tired of being cold, tired of cleaning mud off my shoes, tired of rain and tired of teaching in my parka.

It is a good thing I’m getting my exercise. I walk a lot, I climb stairs to get to my classrooms, I do my stretches, just to keep my muscles and joints limber… all in wait for the day that I will not have to dress in layers or huddle in a jacket while relaxing in my home. Seriously: this small bit of exercise does keep my mood sunny and upbeat, helps keep me energized even though I feel mostly like just laying around and reading or writing, and helps me feel good in spite of the never ending leaden skies above.

I am sure that each and every one of you has agonized over my fitness activities. Now that I have put your fears to rest, I can go on with the rest of the post, which has nothing to do with calisthenics, aerobics or heart rates, resting or stressed.

No, I’d like to report an exercise in folly.

I was trying to mail my passport to Beijing. As you might remember from the ‘Beijing’ post a few weeks back, my passport is set to expire this year – in about 6 weeks, to be exact. I have to get it renewed or get kicked out of the country. Nobody wants to get kicked out of a country, do they? Least of all me, and least of all from this country. They tend to be brutal when evicting people, at least so I’ve heard.

As promised, the consulate in Beijing sent me an email stating that my new passport is ready. The email instructed me to mail my old passport to #55 An Jia Lu, in Changyang District of Beijing. I’m thinking: its no big deal! I’ve been to the post office before and I’ve mailed things before. All I have to do is ask for the appropriate envelope or box, fill out the label, pay my fees and off it goes. Sam contends he should go with me to write things in Chinese.

“But Sam… the email the consulate sent gave me the address in Pinyin. They did not include a Chinese version of the address.”

“I should probably still go with you” he says. That was about 3 weeks ago.

I wait and wait for him to go with me. Knowing that poor Sam is busier this semester than he’s been since I’ve known him, after two weeks I decide to wait no longer and take matters into my own hands. I’m getting a bit worried about the timeline, you see. Not only is my passport dangerously close to expiring at this point but, once I obtain the new passport, Sam is going to have to take it to various government agencies to get my visa and other official paperwork renewed.

Besides, Gary and I are making travel plans. His business is currently at an ebb; it is the ideal time for him to travel. Springtime is coming – surely, after all this rain and cold we will have a spring, will we not? Springtime is a mighty fine time to travel. But I can’t do it if I don’t have a passport.

So, with all this in mind I head to the post office. No problems dealing with the window clerk; she is a very nice woman. I inform her (in Chinese) that I have one letter for Beijing and one headed to America. I need two Express Mail envelopes, please. She hands me two labels to fill out, specifying which one is meant for the Beijing envoy and which one will go international.

So far, so good.

I fill both of them out, carefully copying the address the Consulate gave me: 55 An Jia Lu, Beijing China (remember: they only sent me a Pinyin version of the address). And I write my return address, complete with phone number, also in Pinyin. Then I go back to the clerk with my completed forms. She scans them and then…

Asks if there is someone she could talk to on my behalf. Is there someone I could call, maybe a student or a teacher, who could come help me?

Why do I need help?

Well, it seems that, especially for the letter destined for Beijing, everything must be written in Chinese. And, while this clerk and I were conducting business with no interpreters whatsoever up to this point, apparently she felt that I was now in over my head and I needed help. I tried to call Sam, who I knew was busy teaching. Next I called Lancy, one of my students who has already graduated but is staying on campus, preparing her thesis due next month.

At the postal clerk’s request, this dear girl comes running. Literally. All the way from the library, at the back of campus, near my apartment complex (the post office is clear at the other end of campus and then at the end of The Street, fronting the main road). Within a few minutes, there is Lancy, breathless and sweating.

This poor girl doesn’t know what to do either. The address given by the consulate – An Jia Lu, could have many meanings. There are approximately 9 characters that represent An, 17 that represent Jia and 13 that represent Lu. Which An? Which Jia? Which Lu?

As you might remember from the recently posted ‘Why? Why and again… Why?’ entry, everything from street signs to directional signs, instructional signs and even safety and regulatory signs are written both in Pinyin and in Chinese characters, as well as in English. All over the post office, and even on the very counter this clerk was assisting me from there was a sign written both in Chinese and in English. One would think that, with Pinyin and English being so prevalent all over the place, that an address written in Pinyin would be easy to decipher.

And, one would think that the American consulate in Beijing, China, that employs several people who are Chinese, would not only know better than to give the address just in Pinyin, but parlay it into Chinese characters if it was going to pose such difficulty negotiating the post office.

Nevertheless, here we are, Lancy and I, she still beading sweat from her run across campus and me fuming, trying to figure out which An, which Jia and which Lu characters to convert the Pinyin to. Several forays into Google via her SmartPhone later, we deduced that the proper ‘An’ must be the character that represents ‘peace’, the proper ‘Jia’ must be the one that stands for ‘home’ and the correct ‘Lu’ surely must be the character that corresponds to ‘Road’.

Now Lancy must write everything on the mailing label in Chinese. She scratches out my neatly penned Pinyin, refigures and verifies everything twice before declaring we are finally ready to turn the poor, abused mailing label over to the postal clerk.

Said clerk declares it is now too messy and we must rewrite everything. She charges me an extra 1.5Yuan for a new mailing form. Now frustrated beyond belief, I stride away from the counter and back to the mailing prep area where Lancy already sits, rewriting everything.

Finally, after an hour and twenty minutes spent at the post office, the clerk accepts my label for mailing.

Remember that, at the beginning of this rant I told you that the postal clerk and I had no problems making ourselves understood. Furthermore, when Lancy showed up, she and I discoursed in Chinese, only reverting to English when we absolutely had to, such as when using phrases like ‘American Services Center Division’ (part of the consular designation in the address they sent me).

Now comes the ultimate irony:

The postal clerk and an old woman who had been sitting nearby, apparently visiting with said clerk, bantered back and forth on how great it is that I can speak Chinese! And how I can manage my affairs so well for being a foreigner! If I could manage so well, why, OH WHY did I have to call someone to help me? And, if everything in China is written either in Pinyin or in English as well as Chinese, why, OH WHY did we have to rewrite everything? Twice! At my expense!

I nearly gave myself whiplash shaking my head, trying to get these redundant thoughts out of it.

After this long exercise in frustration and that last bit of neck exercise, I decided to take a nice bus ride. At least on a bus, no one suggests I call for help.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Why? Why? And Again… Why???

It seems the longer I live in China the more mysteries and riddles I uncover. Why do the Chinese landscape a construction area before the building is done? Why do the Chinese build everything in concrete, only to tear it down 10 or twenty years later? Why do the Chinese wear jammies out in public?

Why do the Chinese, who are so distrustful of their water supply that they must boil their drinking water (or buy bottled water), then proceed to wash their food, dishes and cooking utensils in that same water that they do not feel is safe to drink?

I have no answers for these mysteries, much as I’ve tried to find any. And now, I have more things to ask ‘Why’ about.

In China, from the most rural town to the largest megalopolis, every street sign I have seen is written both in Chinese and in Pinyin (see picture). If you’ll remember, pinyin is the Romanization of the Chinese language – how that character is pronounced. You wonder: why do I ask ‘why’ about that? It is because every single person who is Chinese, no matter what their ethnicity, reads and interprets Chinese characters to mean the same thing. means ‘vehicle’ to somebody in Beijing as well as somebody from the smallest tribe. They may not pronounce it the same because of their varying dialects but each character represents the same concept across all regions and all ethnicities.

Remember, there are 58 ethnicities in China. That is a lot of different languages for one country.

If every single person who is Chinese understands what each character represents, why do they need the Romanization of the road’s name on a road sign?

A little bit of history: during the late 1940’s early ‘50’s, China underwent a massive reform. Mao Ze Dong decreed that everyone should adopt the Common Language (Mandarin Chinese, as we know it today) in addition to their tribal or ethnic dialect. Children in schools were taught in Putonghua – literally translated ‘common language’, and they were taught how to write it in characters and in Pinyin.

Today, knowledge of Pinyin is essential because that is the system used to type in Chinese. Although various applications are available, they operate essentially the same way: you type the sound that the character makes – the pinyin of the character, and a menu pops up for you to select the proper character from. If it is a compound word or phrase, such as ‘train station’, you would type in the pinyin huo che zhan (fire car station, literally translated). The popup menu would reveal the characters for that designation. You hit the space bar and voila: you have just typed ‘train station’ in Chinese.

Being as the Chinese language has some 5,000 characters and only about 350 distinctly different sounds, learning Pinyin is not as great a chore as it seems. Learning the 4 tones that enrich those sounds and give them specific meaning is a different story. Fortunately, when typing Pinyin, you don’t have to place a tone indicator on any part of the word. The popup menu will only recognize the typed in sound and you, the writer, must select the proper representative character.

As you can imagine, street signs written in Pinyin is a great help to us foreigners. For those who can’t read characters, they can still orient themselves with those street signs that are also written in Pinyin. And, this dual writing of street names actually helps me, and probably other foreigners learn more characters. It doesn’t explain why Pinyin is included on the street signs in remote regions where foreigners never go though.

And that leads me to another question. Why is there so much English in China?

As I alluded to in the Langlang Madness post (see January 2011), directional signs, traffic signs and instructional signs are all written both in Chinese and in English. Traveling down the highway on a long distance bus I see the characters 出口 – chu kou (pronounced ‘chew k-oh’), meaning ‘exit’, as in a freeway exit ramp. Directly below the characters is the word EXIT, and the Pinyin to where that exit leads. This place is decidedly foreigner-friendly!

But that doesn’t explain why, even in the smallest of Podunk towns, such signs are also in English. Foreigners never go there! Train stations out in the middle of nowhere also bear signs in English: Platform 1, Platform 2, ect., as well as caution signs and station exit signs.

Even on the train there are instructional signs in English: WC for bathroom, ‘Hot Water’ over the hot water dispenser… signs on how to set the brake, height gauges for determining whether a child should be charged a child’s fare or an adult fare, emergency system equipment, even! Why are these signs written in English?

In all my travels I’ve yet to encounter another foreigner on the train, or in a train station. Even one as large as Beijing, where there is a sizable foreigner population. When I travel on the train I cause such a stir because… well, because foreigners usually don’t ride the trains.

In a burst of inspiration I asked one of the train conductors if he sees many foreigners ride his train. He replied to the negative. Again I asserted if he EVER saw many foreigners on any train he’s ever worked on. Again he demurred. So: it seems my observations are not egocentric. In fact, very few foreigners ride trains. Yet there is verbiage on how to break a window, how to operate emergency equipment and how to set the brake, as well as where to smoke and where to put out cigarettes, where to get hot water and where to use the bathroom… all in English.

Why Pinyin on the road signs? Why English all over the country and on the trains?

I asked Sam. I asked Gary. I asked all of my Chinese friends. No one had an answer to these two questions. I searched online. I came up with a lot of interesting information that I will go back and read later, but nothing that addresses these mysteries. As a challenge, I posed the questions to my students, with the guarantee that the student who comes up with the right answer – or any answer that makes sense would earn dinner with me.

That sounds egocentric too, until you realize that the kids would LOVE the opportunity for one on one time with their foreign teacher!

And I’m still waiting to learn why…

While waiting, let me show you to what extreme the Chinese go to be ‘foreigner friendly’. At the bus station in the remote town of Shi Shou, a locale with no street lights and only one main road, I waited for my coach. There was not much English in that station. Just enough to indicate the ticket window and how to find the restrooms.

And this one, glaring example of the lengths the Chinese are going to make themselves understood to foreigners. Over each of the boarding doors was a large sign: 1 over door one, 2 over door two and so on. Below the Arabic numerals on each sign was the English word: ‘ONE’, ‘TWO’, and so on. You can see it for yourself: I’ve attached the picture.

I would say that that is going overboard to make foreigners feel welcome. Wouldn’t you?

Now, this last ‘Why?’ question: Why don’t Chinese people trust anyone?

While in Beijing, Sam got a little tired running around town, sightseeing and riding buses. He decided to nap on the bus but, before nodding off, he asked me to please wake him when we got to Wangfujing (a large shopping area). When the recorded announcement proclaimed Wangfujing to be the next stop I woke Sam up. Such a pity; he looked rather funny with his little head bobbing and his glasses askew.

He sat up after I nudged him awake. He turned to the person on his other side and asked her: “Is Wangfujing coming up?”

What did he think: that I would lie to him? Cheat him out of a few minutes sleep? Why would he have to confirm that Wangfujing is indeed the next stop?

Many times I’ve witnessed a person who is Chinese confirm, over and over again that previously given information is indeed correct. A lot of times my students will ask several passersby how to get to a destination. I can overlook that because most of my students are not indigenous to Wuhan. However, when Sam asks first one person and then the next, and five meters later stops someone else to ask the same directions and get the same information… you can see why I puzzle over this.

And this: Man wants to go to the train station. He looks at the bus itinerary, posted both at the bus station and on the side of the bus. Once he confirms, on both postings that bus # such and such does, in fact, go by the train station he will board that bus. But before paying his fare he will ask the bus driver: “Do you go to the train station?”

Was the posted information not indicative of that? Is there some major conspiracy designed to send prospective train passengers hither and yon, anywhere but the train station? Could all those signs be wrong? And… has this man not ridden that bus line before? How about all the bus passengers who have suitcases? Would that not be indicative of a bus headed to a train station?

I perpetually marvel at those who, for apparent lack of trust in their reading abilities, the printed word and the voice of experience feel compelled to reassure themselves, over and over again that they are in fact headed in the right direction.

Or, maybe they’ve been misled before. All I can do is ask: Why do they do that???

Crime and Punishment

For those of you that guessed I would write about the traditional, country style wedding mentioned in The Village People entry, you are right. I will write about that, eventually.

For those of you who believe that that experience would be the subject of the next blog, as intimated in the Shi Shou entry, you are not correct.

No, my friends, this topic is much more interesting – to me, anyway. And maybe to you, too. It deals with crime, specifically violent crime and subsequent cover ups in China

I have often stated throughout this blog that I feel safer living in China than I ever did in America. My sheer size, as opposed to the average Chinese, serves as a crime deterrent. I honestly don’t believe any Chinese man or woman would accost or assault me, simply because I am so much bigger than they are. Another deterrent is my ‘foreign-ness’. Generally, unless a foreigner comports him/herself badly, he/she is treated with respect and reverence, and approached with something akin to awe.

There are some foreigners who, by bent of bad behavior, end up on the nasty side of Chinese temper. Usually, those are younger men and/or women, just here for a flash, not truly appreciative of the culture and the social mores of this country in general or the city they live in. Those types of foreigners tend to get beat up. If the police get involved, they tend to be ejected from the country. I believe that, in Nanjing many natives are sick of foreigners and their antics. That is why I was treated less than cordially while there.

Back to the main thought: I have often reported on my feelings of safety while living here. I do feel much safer here than I did while living Stateside, where reports of shootings, stabbings, rapes and theft dominate the news. Here, virtually no one gets shot, to be stabbed the perpetrator has to get close to their victim – not something someone much smaller than me would be likely to undertake. Same thing with rape. Theft is a different story and I am careful with my belongings, but again, being a smiling, inoffensive foreigner who, by the way, is bigger than most of their countrymen, I believe that most Chinese would thieve somebody their own size. So, I feel I have legitimate reason for feeling safe here.

While researching Shi Shou prior to actually going there, I was surprised to find information about the incident I mentioned in the blog entry by the same title. Actually, I was surprised that there was even a Wikipedia entry regarding Shi Shou at all, it being such a small village. Imagine my surprise when I read the details of what took place there, just 3 years ago.

One could say that the government is the largest syndicated crime operation in China. Normally it does not focus on individuals, such as the Shi Shou incident indicates. Usually it deals more in graft, black market, labor scams, extortion and money laundering. Violence only comes in at the point where someone would blow the whistle on these covert activities. While Xinhua News, the largest news agency in China actively reports on crackdowns regarding these goings-on, in fact every level of government, and a lot of government officials are on the take.

In a conversation with my friend Gary, who is a business owner, he asserted that, twice a year he must pay a ‘tax’ to a government inspector. The sum can range anywhere from 1,500Yuan to over 5,000Yuan, depending on how successful the business has been that half-year. When it is time to pay the ‘taxes’, the ‘inspector’ comes to his office, looks over the business’ books and demands his ‘tax’. Gary knows perfectly well that it has nothing to do with paying taxes and everything to do with that government official lining his pockets.

Every other citizen I’ve spoken with knows that this system of graft is alive and well in every nook and cranny of the country. Sam’s parents have to pay a similar ‘tax’ in Xi Shui, for example. In the smaller townships the government officials are much more blatant about collecting their bounty. A lot of my students have reported similar incursions into their family’s business by a civic minded government official, seeking his share of protection money against the larger governmental entities.

Just like every citizen knows such goings-on are commonplace, they also know that turning a blind eye, not reporting the perpetrator and not making waves is the best way to stay safe. That is why the incident at Shi Shou made such a splash.

The young man, Tu Yuangao, knew the hotel he worked at was a money laundering facility. He intended to blow the whistle on the activities at his workplace and, most speculate, was murdered to guarantee his silence. He was found dead outside the hotel’s gate. The police assured the parents that they had found a suicide note by the body, stating that Tu was ‘pessimistic and hated the world’. The police offered the boy’s parents 35,000Yuan in exchange for immediate cremation of their son’s body.

The father refused. The police attempted to remove the body by force. The entire town rallied around the hotel, blocking the police’s way. Tu’s parents demanded an investigation into their son’s death. The police refused. More people came in support of the parents. A riot erupted. At one time it was alleged that there were some 70,000 people who turned out in support of the parents.

Armed police in full riot gear were deployed. Internet and outside communications to the village were cut off. Street lights were turned out. Still the citizens did not disperse, choosing instead to bombard the police with bottles, bricks and any other projectile they could get their hands on.

The standoff lasted 2 days, culminating in the police beating their way into the hotel and removing the body by force. Several hundred protesters were arrested. The hotel, owned by a local government official, was burned. More than 200 people were injured in the clash.

An autopsy performed on Tu’s body allegedly revealed that Tu had committed suicide. His body was cremated at 4AM, two days after the rioting started. The local government promised Tu’s family 80,000Yuan compensation money, 30K of which was to come from the hotel, 35K from the Shi Shou government and 15K from the local township government.

My friends, I was shocked at reading about this incident. I was even more shocked at reading there are several other instances of violence and death due to government corruption: the Weng’an riot of 2008 caused by a young girl that had been raped and murdered by a government official, the Shenzhen anti-police riot of 2008 and the 2011 Anshun incident, just to mention a few. If you’re wildly interested, simply do a google search for these incidents and you can read all about them.

I guess, like every other person living in China, I know to keep my head down and not cross the law or any government official. That is just common sense. On a personal level I still believe I am safer here, when dealing with ye average citizen than I am in the States (or anywhere else in the world). And, as previously reported in a post titled “The Honor System” (posted December 2010), the honor system does prevail at my level of existence.

Now for something a little more… dangerous.

The first time I saw the notice of the murderer I was in Nanjing. Having a not so great command of the language I couldn’t read the notice posted on the city’s bulletin boards and bus stops but I understood that this guy had done something terrible and was being sought by the police. This notification had about 2/3 of a page of text and, at the bottom, 3 surveillance camera pictures of him.

I saw the same notices in Wuhan, Beijing and at every long distance bus terminal I frequented during my many travels over Winter Break. Meeting up with Sam for the first time, on our way to Beijing I saw the notice again and asked him what it was all about.

Apparently, this fellow somehow got his hands on a gun and shot 8 people in the course of robbing them, in 8 different cities. The police have no idea how to find him or even how he got his hands on a gun.

As you may know, Chinese citizens are not allowed to own guns.

The country is in an uproar. People are living in fear and locking their doors. They are wary of strangers. They really don’t know how to act or how to protect themselves in the face of this unknown, never before experienced threat.

I wanted to tell you about rapes too, but I’m running a bit long on this post. To see a fine example of this type of situation that does in fact go on in China, please watch a movie titled Blind Mountain. I’m not going to comment on it one way or another, other than to tell you that yes, that is something that goes on here. And yes, that is how it would play out.

As always, feel free to comment. Or, you can let me know your thoughts via email at