Thursday, January 27, 2011

Shenzhen Antics, and a Translation

Having spent almost a week in Shenzhen, I can’t say I did much. I spent the first few days immersed in some well-deserved and much-needed moss-gathering: I hung around the hostel, wrote a few letters and a lot of e-mails, took care of some outstanding pieces of business (Light Fellowship requirements, etc), updated the blog (as you know by now), read a bit, and wandered the neighborhood in which the hostel is situated. There’s actually a lot to do in the city proper, if you want to go to an amusement park or a flower garden or the beach - however, my last few days were marked by a lack of enough money to enter the first, interest to visit the second, or sunlight to merit the third. Still, I’m happy with my visit, and there were a few memorable moments. But first, let me enlighten you with the highlights of my Wikipedia and museum learning:

Shenzhen has, depending on who you ask, either thousands or only thirty-one years of history. The area itself has been inhabited since the late Neolithic, as some recent archaeological digs attest. For most of its history, it was a collection of small seaside settlements that relied mostly on aquaculture (as it turns out, this is actually a word, and it means exactly what you’d think it might), as well as the trade derived thereof (we’ll call that “aquacommerce”)… probably with a healthy mix of aquasports and aquaparties when folks needed to relax. People from the Shenzhen area had some measure of control over traffic up the Pearl River to Canton (Guangzhou/广州), farmed the same camphor that gave Hong Kong ("fragrant harbor") its name, revolted against foreign influence, formed into workers' groups and went on general strike against the Nationalist government's policies, and did the sorts of things that a lot of other towns did but which one would find in the museum of a city that wants very much to prove that it has a history.

See, Shenzhen-as-city is incredibly young, entirely a product of the Opening & Reform. When the government began designating Special Economic Zones, to be open to investment and receive government aid (mostly in the form of soldiers/engineers, it seems; the central government itself had very little money at the time), Shenzhen was one of the first to be chosen. It was seen as an "experiment," later a "miracle," and finally a "model": in 30 years, a cluster of fishing villages has grown up into a financial-business-tech-etc center of 4,000,000 people. Although the county-turned-city seems to be promoting culture (I was living next to a group of modern art studios built out of a former industrial complex), like Hong Kong it is scoffed at by many educated Chinese as a "cultural desert." To be honest, I did get the feeling that I was living in a plasticized wonderland, and Shenzhen is notable for its hyper-commercialization, high standard & cost of living (comparable to Canton and Shanghai), and few cultural offerings.

Things I amused myself with instead:

1. Being impressed by really cool architecture.
Planetarium and Children's Museum

2. Taking cute photos.


3. Fiddling with my camera's exposure and taking artsy photos. (Yes, I know you can do this with fancy cameras and/or Photoshop, too.) My two favorites:
 The two-part building in the background houses government departments; the bridge-like covering seems entirely aesthetic. 


4. Exploring, and parkour-ing a tad. Whether it's because of the architecture or the lay of the land, a lot of the buildings in Shenzhen are both terraced and open, with one level blending into the other to the point that I got thoroughly confused more than once. (Also, because the climate is so warm, you'll find trees and flowers even on the roof... which makes things even more mind-boggling, not to mention pretty.) At any rate, I had a blast wandering (sometimes in circles), and found a nice place to practice a bit of climbing and jumping. I'll come clean: I hurt myself in the process and in the end I got so many strange and concerned looks that I settled for a small moral victory and then desisted.
Made for parkour

This is a roof of a multi-floor bookstore... and also the same level from which the shot of the city government offices (see above) was taken. I don't understand it either.

5. Getting involved in altercations with the police. As I was passing the government offices on my way back to the hostel, I noticed a ruckus at the main gate of what seemed like the equivalent of Shenzhen's city hall. It seemed that a crowd of people (~40) wanted to enter the building, and were being blocked by a dozen or so policemen. The group, which seemed to be made up mostly of working-class men led by a female organizer (lawyer?), eventually moved back and settled down on the lawn just outside the building. I was told that they were there en masse to sue their employer, who they said had treated them badly. I wasn't clear on the situation or the regulations for entering City Hall, and frankly it wasn't any of my business, but as I was walking past I saw something that made me really, really angry: One of the policemen was using a video camera to record the group of petitioners.

It was clear that he wasn't doing it to have a record of the incident in case something went wrong and there was a police brutality lawsuit, an argument which only seems plausible in a liberal democracy. No, he was very methodically panning across the faces of the crowd, and he turned the camera off when he had finished. It's a tactic of intimidation that I've seen in videos before but never in real life, and the message it carries is very simple: "We have you on tape now. We know who you are."

Within liberal-democracy paradigm, this means absolutely nothing. But in China, it's a loaded statement. Here, you can be beaten to death for opposing the City Management, sentenced to forced labor for "subversive" Twitter comments on sensitive issues, or "disappeared" for trying to visit the wrong person; a debate teammate was just down the hall when one of the Tibetan students on campus here was dragged out of her room by police, probably for protesting the announcement that all core classes in Tibet will be taught in Mandarin by 2015.

Foreigners are a relatively privileged class in China: unless we're particularly troublesome, we generally don't have to worry about police kicking down our doors or arresting us on trumped-up charges, or beating us if we start saying and doing things we're not supposed to say and do. But your average Chinese citizen don't have that protection, unless he is already in the public eye, has connections, or is part of the government himself - and sometimes even that isn't enough.

This time, I slightly outstayed the "foreigners' welcome." It may have been the photo I took, but it was probably just the fact that my hanging around on the sidewalk was starting to make the police nervous. At any rate, after ten minutes or so I was approached by two policemen. One asked my nationality, wanted to know what I was doing there, and demanded that I delete the photo I had taken. (I said I had already deleted it, and they couldn't find it so they let it drop. Actually, I had slipped my memory card into my pocket ten minutes before, when they angrily yelled over to me that I wasn't allowed to take photos there.) The other policeman was the camcorder wielder, and made sure he got a good shot of my face.

 "Don't even think about taking that photo. Yeah, I'm talking to you." Oops.

I admit that, ever so slightly, it made me nervous - how many foreign Spanish passport holders could there be in Shenzhen at one time? (I considered lying about my nationality, but police have the right to check ID and I didn't want to give anyone real grounds to investigate me.) Fortunately, their threats and requests that I leave having worked their magic, I soon departed, and nothing seems to have come of it: after all, I'm back in Beijing.

But more on Beijing later. For now, I bring you an EJRT Production, a translation that I worked on this afternoon instead of doing other things that are probably more important. As you may have heard, coinciding with Hu Jintao's visit to America came the unveiling of a brief ad for China in New York's Times Square. It's the short version of a new 17-minute Chinese PR video, which will soon be showing in Chinese embassies. As I was watching the latter, I noticed some small discrepancies between the English audio and the Chinese subtitles (or vice versa), so I decided to re-translate from Chinese the portion about politics and law, as well as a section from the very end, and compare it to the English that they provide. It turns out that besides the obvious errors - with such a high production value you'd think they could have done a better job - a lot of the discrepancies are simply stylistic. That said, there are a few points of departure that I'm sure are intentional, and I've highlighted them below. I've also included the Chinese text at the end. For reference, this is the section beginning at 11:20 of the video. If you're not interested in these details, or in how I translate things (I wouldn't be either), feel free to skip to the end for the punch line.


I. In English (directed at the Western world):

Expanding Democracy with Stable Authority

Heroes of China have always struggled during complex stages of development to build democracy. It is not hard to imagine how hard this has been. Today around 900 million people around the Chinese countryside enjoy village voting rights. The world applauds such training for democracy; after all, before flourishing nationally, free elections must begin at the village level.

The National People’s Congress remains China’s supreme legislative body. Since the late 1970s, far fairer and more transparent “margin elections” have been used to elect NPC delegates. Here, the most important decisions in the country are made.

‘We can really feel we are the master of the country.’
‘People of our country feel happy because the development of our country is moving fast.’

This is China’s period of greatest change. A proper legal framework is starting to replace the habit of personal relationships as the principal weapon and defense for people’s interests.

‘Civilization of legal already exits in everyone’s daily life.’
‘The development of construction of democracy and legal system is improving everyday.’
‘Consciousness of law is increasing in China, and people know how to protect their right by law gradually.’

“I wish China will be more beautiful”
“China, More prosperity”
“China, More wonderful”
“China, Move on”

II. In Chinese (directed at Chinese viewers); retranslated into English by yours truly

Democracy, With Authority

In this complicated state of social development, sparing no effort to construct democracy has been the ideal of countless generations of great, aspiring people. That this process is arduous, winding, and even circuitous is not hard to imagine. Today, in the 900,000,000-person countryside, China has already realized elections of village leaders. The international community has noted that this is the beginning of a sort of “democratic training.” It is from Chinese society’s vastest, lowest level that democratic elections must be tried.

The body wielding the greatest power in China is the National People’s Congress. Here, decisions are made on China’s most important issues. Starting in the 1970s, procedures to determine whether qualifications are met have gradually brought about elections with discrepancies [note: as in, non-unanimous? More than one candidate?] that are fairer and carry more competitive meaning. In China, this is the greatest authoritative power, and no one is above it.

“We really do feel that we are the country’s masters.”
“Truly, our China has developed especially fast. We the people feel incredibly happy.”

This is an era of massive change for China. The ideology of rule of law has begun to replace the longtime way of ‘getting on in the world’ that people are used to; it has played the part of both weapon and shield, and had a deep impact on the people.

“Civility and the rule of law have already penetrated every aspect of ordinary people’s lives.”
“Right now, we are making rapid progress in building democratic rule of law.”
“The legal consciousness of the Chinese is getting stronger and stronger; we are gradually understanding how to use the law to protect our own rights.”

“In the future, I hope our homeland will be even more beautiful.”
“More and more powerful”
“More and more wonderful”
“Go China!”  

III. For reference: the original Chinese








 4. The Punch Line
 The bolded sections (discrepancies), side by side:

1. Expanding Democracy with Stable Authority (theirs)
Democracy, With Authority (mine)

Sounds nicer in their translation, doesn't it?

2. after all, before flourishing nationally, free elections must begin at the village level. (theirs)
It is from Chinese society’s vastest, lowest level that democratic elections must be tried. (mine)
National-level democracy sounds like a pretty set goal in their English version; the Chinese sounds more, shall we say, tentative.

3. personal relationships (theirs)
the longtime way of ‘getting on in the world’ (mine)

The latter sounds to me more euphemistic, less charged with blame.

 4. “China, More prosperity” (theirs)
  “More and more powerful” (mine)

I'm sure that this last discrepancy was no error. After all, part of the reason for this whole PR campaign - especially the Times Square ad - is no doubt to project a friendly face after a year of diplomatic knuckle-cracking by the Chinese government.

Will this ad help rehabilitate China's image, or work toward evening China's score in the soft power department? As I get ready to take the bus downtown and see the second (or is it the third?) Narnia with a friend, I can't help feel that in this respect, China still has a long way to go.


Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Reasons Why My New Apartment Is Fantastic

I arrived in Beijing on Sunday morning and holed up in a hostel for a while; three days later, I am already established in my very own room, my rent contract and temporary residency permit in hand. This is mostly thanks to Xiao Qin, a friend from Minzu (the university) to whom I just happen to have taught a few informal English classes and who just happens to be one of the very few university students left on campus. (Winter break started last week; the New Year is on Feb. 2.) She went with me to a residential area, called the numbers listed on ads hung from tenants' balconies, looked at 10 or so rooms with me, bargained landowners to the ground, gave me renting advice, made sure the contract was accurate and complete, and set up the visit to the police station for my registration. Not only that, but Xiao Qin has also found a pretty well-qualified graduate student to tutor me for more hours than I had expected my budget to cover. Basically, she's an angel, but on to the apartment and the title of this post:

  1. Size: A bed, two small desks, and a bit of space to put things. Smaller than most (all?) Yale dorms, but just big enough for my needs without having to pay extra for space I won't use.
  2. Has a balcony (good for hanging clothes), which I only share with one other person.
  3. Faces south. This is going to be key during the winter... and I'll be out of here in early June, so I'm not worried about getting cooked alive.
  4. Mattress, sheet, blanket, small table, desk, and super-ghetto TV all included.
  5. Water filter/boiler and washing machine just down the hall.
  6. Rent: ~$160/mo, including water, electricity, and high-speed internet. (Holy guacamole, I can even connect to Yale's VPN and watch YouTube! I thought I'd never see the day in this country.)
  7. Fourth floor, reasonably clean, and 24-hour hot water for the shower. (I've been in this country long enough to appreciate this.)
  8. Chinese flatmates! Probably most of them students or young professionals. I won't be meeting them all very soon - as I mentioned, it's winter vacation and the new year is coming up, so a lot of folks have gone home.
  9. The landlord is middle-aged and abrasive but seems honest, and lives with his wife and granddaughter just a few units away.
  10. I've saved the best for last: location. Absolutely incomparable. A few walking distances for your reading pleasure: 5 minutes from the bus station, 8 minutes from the gates of Minzu and my friends there (mostly Minzu students, but also Yale's very own Joy), 2 minutes from the supermarket, 2-6 minutes from a ton of good restaurants, 3 minutes from a vegetable/fruit/nuts/etc market, 10 minutes from where I'll hopefully be working on the weekends, 15 minutes from a good friend's house, 15 minutes (well, two bus stops; it's cold outside!) from the largest library in China.

The place isn't without its flaws (notably: no kitchen, shared bathroom, thin walls), but all in all I'm feeling pretty victorious. Also, I expect that I'll sleep easier knowing that all of the forms are out of the way. I will have to renew my visa and my resident permit twice each over the next few months, but now that I have my foot in the door I don't expect to be rejected.

Now for a celebratory feast.


Thursday, January 13, 2011

Laiwu No. 1 Middle School

During the winter of my senior year of high school, 2007-2008, my school joined the Connecticut-Shandong School Partnership [.pdf description] and became one of a growing number of national high schools building sister school relationships in China. Our partner was what we would call the "high school" of Laiwu No. 1 Middle School (莱芜第一中学) (the Chinese use "middle school" to designate grades 6-12) in Shandong (山东) Province, which is on the east coast of China and is probably most famous back home (if at all) for Tsingtao (青岛) beer and maybe SEZ-fueled development in Tsingtao and Yantai.

At the time, I was allowed some limited contact with the visiting administrators; this was mostly the doing of my wonderful history teacher, as our school administration was afraid that, being a particularly troublesome member of the new and independent student press, I would embarrass them. (Even given my extremely limited knowledge of China at the time, the ironic parallel with press freedom in that country were not lost on me.)
Administrators of the two schools exchanging gifts, January 2008.

Three years later, mid-November 2010, I found myself exiting the train station in Jinan (济南), an hour away from Laiwu City by car. I was hoping that I would recognize Mr. Zhang, a school official who had probably left Laiwu at 4:30 AM so that he would be on time to greet me. Zhang was a senior teacher when he visited my school in 2007, and we both vaguely recalled my interview of him that winter; by 2010, he had become a high-ranking Director in the school administration, commanding his own office and the deference of most of teachers I was to meet. For the trip to Jinan and back, at least, he also commanded one of the school's five cars and a driver, and after a breakfast in which I embarrassed myself thoroughly (you try using chopsticks to eat what I can best describe as a floppy baguette), we cruised down the highway toward Laiwu.

I, like Zhang, had moved up in the world, at least in their eyes: I was now a student at Yale University, and the equivalent of nine semesters of Chinese study had had some definite results. Equally important, I was the first student representative of my high school to visit Laiwu: student exchange is all well and good, but public schools can't be expected raise budgets during economic downturns, so after the initial visit of teachers and administrators in Spring of 2008 (which I dearly hope was privately funded), Laiwu had not seen much action on the part of its sister school. They very much wanted to treat my arrival as an exchange symbolic of the sister school relationship, so there I was, a de facto representative of the high school I do not expect to visit ever again. And, judging from students' 2008 questions, to the Chinese delegation, of which I recall one being about abusing animals and one about eating monkey brains, it's a good thing the role fell to me.

My first impression of the school was that it was big. I shouldn't be surprised: Laiwu is a boarding school, and the number of students living on campus, 5,440 as of last year, is greater than the total Yale undergraduate population and around four times that of my own high school. I was led on a tour by Lily, an English teacher and a very dear woman with twin daughters, both attending Laiwu No. 1. I remembered Lily from a few years ago: the principal does not speak English, so she had served as translator during the Laiwu representatives' 2007 and 2008 visits to Connecticut.
Lily standing at the entrance to the Laiwu campus

The functional areas of campus, newly constructed in 2005, were more compact than I expected; the architecture, very utilitarian.
Model of Laiwu No. 1 Middle School

The facilities that I toured included:
  • The administrative building: Large, as were the offices within. No public-school cubicles for this administration; each of the top administration's offices boasted hot water and a plush couch, must-haves for entertaining visitors. Frankly, though it may well be important to them as an indication of status, much of the space seemed empty and wasted - and, in November, it was cold.
  • The cafeteria: Two floors, with seating very reminiscent of my old high school. I can't speak to the quality of the food, as they weren't serving when I stopped by, but they did boast one feature that my secondary-ed alma mater could certainly have used: an anonymous comment box. (And that was put up even before this happened.)
  • Student dorms: Shockingly ascetic. The model student's dorm, pictured from a few angles below, consists of the following amenities: six well-made metal-frame bunk-beds; one bank of small metal lockers, presumably for valuables; various small posters and slogans; and one small outer room for the hanging of clothes and storing of supplies. No access to computers except through the media labs on campus.

    4 of the room's six beds. The poster with green and blue text reads: "First Ph.D., Then Profits." 

    View from the only window. The Chinese wash and dry their clothes by hand.

    One-half of the six roommates' personal effects, mostly stored in milk boxes. Study materials not included.

    Students return home once every two weeks.

  • The science facilities. Laiwu No. 1 puts a lot of resources toward the sciences, which two-thirds of students choose to focus on before they start to spend their entire final (third) year preparing for one or the other (science or humanities) of Shandong's versions of the national college entrance exams (高考).  In brief, the chemistry facilities I saw would put my old high school to shame, and the experiments being done on a regular basis seem comparatively frequent (once per two weeks), hands-on, and advanced.
    Proving something about electricity that I don't know how to say in Chinese... and probably not in English, either.

Upon my request, I was allowed to audit two different classes; explaining that I knew little about science and certainly wouldn't understand it being taught in another language, I secured a position at the back of a class on Chinese (language and literature) and one on history. Because of the fairly impromptu nature of both my visit and my classroom audits, I was able to take a brief but honest look at two average classes of a well-funded and well-performing school with fairly typical student demographics, located in what is said to be the leading province in terms of education. (Among others, innovations practiced at Laiwu include a uniform curriculum for all first-year students and a choice of "leaning" toward sciences or humanities in the second year, instead of a split into two cadres immediately upon matriculation.)

A cursory glance around the classroom showed, first of all, that class sizes were somewhat larger than those that I was used to; roughly 40 students seemed the norm in humanities classes, with over 100 per lab. Also, Chinese students generally do not move from class to class: they sit at the same desk for literature as they do for history, and for math. Their books and other study materials are stored on the desks themselves and in lockers at the back of the room. When they come back to class for planned study/homework sessions after classes end (which they must do, for hours every afternoon and evening), they will sit at the same desks and use the same materials. Teachers move between classes to teach - a very efficient move from a logistical perspective, which probably also instills the virtue of patience and the pain of infinite boredom on the students themselves. Besides teaching their subjects, instructors, who live on campus, also take responsibility for their classrooms - think "homeroom teachers" with many more duties - and will, for example, put in many more hours than usual every three years to support the students as they engage in directed preparation for the national exam.
Chinese Language and Literature

Upon actually listening to classes being taught, one thing I noticed is that, true to stereotypes, there is a lot of rote learning going on in the Chinese education system. The group activities that filled my high school years - sometimes with bad memories - are conspicuously absent, except in the rudimentary form of "sharing" activities. (E.g., 'Take five minutes to share your favorite book or article with the classmates sitting near you.) Material seems much more limited in depth and breadth than I am used to; for example, first-semester second-year history runs something like 170 pages, many of them complete with photos and sidebars. At the same time, students are asked to grasp it much more firmly than we ever were: material is reinforced with recitations of poetry (by memory, with appropriate intonation) and in-class readings of textbook passages, and as mentioned above, the entire third year of high school is spent reviewing and preparing for the national test. I think this explains a phenomenon that I noticed more than once during debate preparation, that is, one of the graduate students would bring up a relevant theory or quotation, and most if not all of the other students in the room would be able to recall it. This sort of high school background, I'd hypothesize, gives Chinese young people (at least, those of roughly the same age) a kind of limited common vocabulary of both proper nouns and ideas, which they will often draw from (and largely agree on) later in life.

My high school memories are already cloudy - possibly because I spent the last year or so no more than half-awake in any given class, something I now profoundly regret. But from what I can conjure up, I would say that teachers in both schools spend roughly the same amount of time speaking per class; on the whole, the Chinese lectures seem to be much dryer.

One of the main differences between the two systems lies in that the time that in my high school was spent on exercises, discussion, and group activities is in Laiwu No. 1 put toward a kind of "consider and report" task. Several times per class, the professor will lay a question before the entire class for consideration. She (or he) will wait for two to three minutes, as students silently scribble notes. When time is up, invariably there are few or no volunteers, so every student must be prepared to stand and give what I can only describe as a brief dictation or oral report to the teacher. The report is meant to be serious and thoughtful; this classroom model, and the six "report halls" on campus, seem to reflect an institutional emphasis on formal, prepared public speaking.

The teacher will sometimes ask fellow students to pronounce judgment on a student's report, but will always give it final approval or negation herself. The teacher's response has a very final feel to it, and while I can't tell you what exactly about the literature instructor's tone made her pronouncement of "我不大认同" ("I don't really approve/agree") seem so much more doctrinal and accepted than similar comments that in middle and high school got me into numerous arguments with my own teachers, the difference was palpable in the classroom dynamic. The content of students' speeches, too, was at times extremely doctrinal: as I listened, I heard phrases like "This reflects the spirit of the Chinese race," and "My favorite article is, 'Why Taiwan Yearns to Return to the Motherland's Embrace.'" The surprising part to me was not so much that these sorts of words were spoken - I long ago became used to the fiery nationalism that exists among many youth, even among cynics, and I felt it was possible that a student or two chose nationalist expression as a way to "show off" in front of me - but rather that the teachers and students treated such responses as acceptable, correct, and very normal. There was no talk of the "foreign devils" (洋鬼子) like you will hear every time a video of a drunk foreigner doing something embarrassing is posted online, and I guess I should have expected that nationalism doesn't come from the media alone, but all the same I was a bit taken aback.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, one of my great victories on the trip to Laiwu was the receipt, also upon request, of a copy of the history textbook being used by the students in the class I audited. I hope to have it translated into English by the end of the first two months of my time in Beijing.

Outside of the classroom, the second obvious difference between students at the two schools is that Laiwu No. 1 has a school uniform. (The first, of course, is that Laiwu is 100% Chinese.) Uniforms are useful in that one can immediately identify a student's grade by the color of his or her uniform; and although I come from a school where we would have risen up in revolt had uniforms been suggested, I must admit when Laiwu No. 1 students get together for mid-day exercises, the effect is impressive.
Do the boys and girls run in separate groups because they're told to or because they're afraid of cooties?

It seems to me that uniforms naturally build unity and serve as a reminder of the group, and may be a very small part of the special sort of collectivism which I am now willing to admit does exist in China. (More on that in a much later blog post.) That sense of the collective is both reinforced and used in other initiatives throughout campus: for example, the bulletin boards listing the top students in each class and the students most respectful to teachers, or the public rating system and perks allowed to the residents of model dormitories.

"Make the Standard, a Habit."

Laiwu is located in the inner part of the province, and many of the students come from the countryside, where roughly 60% of China's population still lives. Unlike suburban America, in China "the countryside" does not tend to mean, "We had enough money to get out of the city, or if we do farm then we own vast tracts of land." The countryside is rural, and rural tends to mean poor and undeveloped; as a rule, Chinese farmers own very little land or capital. Their families rarely have the money or impetus to travel any great distance, and the odds of foreigners (who congregate in places like Beijing and Shanghai) arriving in any given village during any given 10-year time span are pretty low.

This is all by way of explaining that when Lily asked me to make a speech in one of the report halls, I found myself facing more than 600 very curious and excited students, many of whom had never before seen a Westerner their age, and nearly all of whom were overawed at the fact that I hail from the type of school continually pushed by every one of their role models as the standard of success. (That Lily played up my Chinese ability didn't hurt either.) During the speech, which I was told to give in simple English, I fulfilled my second and third role of the day: the fact of the speech itself served as a big advertisement for the importance of studying English, and (on the administration's not-so-subtle prompting) a good portion of the speech's content was devoted to playing up the work I did inside and outside of class prior to being accepted to Yale. The latter message was the most important to the teachers and administrators, and they would have loved it if I had been willing to say outright, "High school is hard in America too!" (I wasn't. Because, comparatively, it's not.) The article about my visit retroactively titles my speech "The Road to Yale University," and states (emphasis mine) that I "described to students his (my) high school campus study life, personal ideals, and story of striving... Provided students with great encouragement and impetus. Using his own personal experience, he told students: As a student, whether in America or in China, if one wants academic success and seeks to realize one's ideals, one must work hard and shed sweat, blood and tears before one realizes one's dreams. It's the same in America as it is in China: 'Meat pies don't fall from the sky.'"

Now doesn't the fact that the word in our corresponding idiom is "money" just sounds crass and consumerist in comparison? Give me meat pies!

When I had concluded my report, I answered student questions, many of them embarrassing. I have never studied English as a second language, and most of my suggestions about how you can study it better involve time and access to the internet; and no, to my enduring shame, I have not memorized any classic Chinese poems... but I'll sing you a song!
I think this was the jackass who wanted me to recite a poem.

Then came one of the strangest 20 minutes of my life, during which 90% of the students left to go to class, while the other 10% stayed behind to mob me and beg for my autograph. It was very much a feeling of undeserved fame, and at first I tried to beg off, but there was no hope for it and I figured out that Lily was just saying no to try and spare me - so in the end I took out my pen, insisted that the principle of single-file line-making be respected to a reasonable extent, and got to work signing notebooks and slips of paper. I felt like a massive fake, but I won't lie - I can't suppress the murmurings of glee that come with knowing that my name is on notebooks, textbooks, and little papers as gifts to friends.

By the time Lily invited me to see her apartment in the evening, where she lives with her husband and the two aforementioned daughters, I felt we had gotten to be on more friendly terms, but I felt very much like "the visiting foreigner" to everyone else. The teachers and staff were very good about it, though: they generally treated me as not as celebrity or a curiosity, but instead as an honored guest. And honored I was. They put me up in the best hotel in the province, took me out to a fantastic dinner of hotpot, and were infinitely accommodating of my requests and my very tight schedule.
Lily, in her kitchen
Breakfast at the best hotel in Laiwu City
Hotpot fixings. 好吃!

My entire stay lasted 28 hours - a brief but unique respite from a rarely relenting regimen of vocabulary and debate, and a reminder that my efforts have not been entirely in vain.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

"That's what governments are for: get in a man's way."

The good news: A minor incident in Shenzhen (you'll read about that... three blog posts from now. I'm still catching up.) did not result in my passport being blacklisted by the Chinese government. And my stay in Taiwan (four posts from now) was wonderful and rewarding.

The bad news: For whatever reason - it's possible that my recent multiple entries into China, combined with my application for a double-entry 90-day visa, set off some flags - the consular authorities in Manila decided to limit my visa to 30 days. This happens to be precisely the sort of short-term visa I had come to the Philippines to avoid, canceling my flight to Hong Kong and rebooking a more expensive route to Manila and then Shanghai.

They did give me a double-entry, which is useful, and means that I can leave the country after 29 days and return five minutes later to secure another 30 days of use. What makes this annoying is that there are no borders less than a 12-hour train ride from Beijing (or 5 days walking); what makes it slightly nerve-wracking is that after two months I will be facing the problem of securing a visa for the next leg of my stay, from March through May. Fortunately, I know someone who knows someone, who, for a fee...

And if that doesn't work out, I can always go to Ulaanbaatar and get a new visa there.

It's all rather indefinite, and above all expensive - which, despite my modest cash reserves, might mean the early demise of my new grand plan for a summer internship in Zambia. But we'll see. For now, 前进,前进,前进!(That's the "marchons" of the Chinese national anthem.) I'm pretty sure things will work themselves out.

("Conveyed, my humble best wishes.")