Friday, February 25, 2011

Frenchman Sighting

I seem to be graced with one Frenchman sighting per stay in Asia. In Taipei, it was a guy buying a baguette in Wellcome, the successful western-esque grocery store; I asked him whether he was French, in French, based on the baguette and a vague hunch.

Today I only asked my interlocutor his nationality as a formality. He came up to the 7-11 counter next to me wearing a leather jacket, a bright red scarf, and a Che Guevara hat. His left hand held a wine bottle; his right, a pre-made salad. And sticking out of his backpack was the classic telltale sign: a real, honest-to-goodness baguette. I’m not even sure where one finds those in China, where it’s known as a 法棍, which translates literally into “French stick.”

In a medium-heavy accent, he confirmed my suspicions about his nationality as we had a brief conversation in English before I headed out the door with my purchase in hand.

The only thing that could have made him more stereotypical would have been been a cigarette – though I suppose he would have needed a third hand for that.

And that’s today in observations.

Thursday, February 24, 2011


Ever since getting back from Inner Mongolia, I’ve been dealing nearly incessantly with a host of problems – everything from visas and residence registration (here) to taxes and the FAFSA (there). Thus I have been, and may continue to be, a little bit irregular about my blog posts, and perhaps a bit light on content as well. In that vein, here are two short lists for your enjoyment:

I. Cutest things about the Chinese:
   1. The precision of their eating and sleeping habits. If I walk down the street just north of my apartment in the afternoon, cars will be whizzing by in either direction; walking down the same area at about 10:30, you can see lights going out as people get ready for bed; at 1 AM, nary a soul (in a vehicle or on foot) is in sight. If I want to eat at my favorite nearby restaurant and arrive 6:15, I will get one of the last tables or maybe not be seated; if I come at 5:30, I can nab a booth on the side all to myself and expect my order to arrive within two minutes.
   2. Little Chinese kids. Admittedly, little kids all over the world are cute, but there’s something special about the round-cheeked, red-faced, over-bundled Chinese toddler. I also absolutely love it when little kids call me “uncle,” an appellation commonly used to address a significantly older semi-stranger.

II. Things I have done that the Chinese find most difficult to understand and accept:
   1. Gotten my stamp carved wrong. I thought (and still think) that it’s super cool to have a traditional-looking name stamp with my Chinese name in both simplified and traditional characters. Unfortunately, the few times it’s been viewed by the Chinese, it has only elicited head-shaking and criticism: Your name printed twice, on the same stamp?! “That’s not how it’s done!” I’ve stopped showing it to anyone on this side of the world.
   2. Prepared instant noodles in a bowl without a lid. This one really blew their minds. Thinking to save money and more importantly some space in my pack, on the train to Xinjiang I brought instant noodles in bag packaging (instead of the more convenient bowl-and-fork product) and poured them my own metal bowl before adding hot water. I hadn’t brought anything to cover it with (doing so seems to be meant to keep the flavor and also allow the whole thing to cook better by keeping the steam inside), and a few of the admonishments I got contained a strange mixture of confusion and panic. As I walked back the aisle back to my seat, I pictured the  muttering silently to themselves, “Forgive him, Father, he knows not what he does. He is, after all, a foreigner.”


Saturday, February 19, 2011

What I Do For an Hour Each Day

Bonust post: I just sent the following e-mail to a few friends, and then decided it might be of interest to a few of the readers of my blog as well.


The following is a list of the English-language China-related links that have slowly become my daily reading. Not in any order. Enjoy.

1. ChinaSMACK: a fast must-read. Chinese internet phenomena, usually translated from the most popular forum posts, with selected netizen comments (original and in translation)
2.  A China beat reporter’s blog. I’ve actually been considering eliminating Evan, but he doesn’t post every day and when he does it’s sometimes quite good, so I keep him on the list.
3. China Talking Points: more in-depth looks at issues, updated a few to a handful of times per month. Good multimedia!
4. Victor Mair at The Language Log, which incidentally is all-around awesome for anyone interested in linguistics. Mair is an accomplished translator and linguist, and it’s interesting to see what he chooses to pick apart, although I tend to skim over the gory details.
5. China News Watch: hard news on China, with such a bent for negative stories (scandals, corruption, etc) that I’m not sure how it hasn’t been blocked yet.
6. The China Beat: more long-form, very thoughtful, and an excellent source for ‘further reading’ suggestions if you have the time for that nonsense.
(-----this is the break between the sites accessible in China [above] and the sites blocked in China [below]-----)
7. China Digital Times (CDT): an awesome aggregator for ‘hard news’ about China, with some grab-bag blog entries, scholarly articles, and opinion pieces mixed in.
8. DanWei: A daily selection of a few big stories in Chinese news, including daily translation of the headlines of a given Chinese newspaper. DanWei isn’t as comprehensive as CDT, but its stories tend to be more in-depth and thoughtful, and it has more culture pieces.
9. China Financial Markets: economic analysis of current trends and predictions for the future. Seems brilliant, but then again Micro and Macro were my two worst classes at Yale and I don’t understand everything he’s saying. Not sure why it’s blocked in China... unless Hu Jintao did poorly in college Economics too?

--. Last but not least: to make sure you're still reading quality reporting and not just blogs/aggregators, add a “China” section with your favorite news sources (BBC, NYT, etc) in your Google News feed and you’re all set!

Sites that others tend to recommend (EastSouthWestNorth, Peking Duck, ChinaGeeks, etc) are not without value, but in my opinion they’re not high-quality or unique enough to make the list.

I’ve also just started reading a few older articles by this guy when I have the chance – – after stumbling upon and being incredibly impressed by his 2002 article about Chinese restrictions on the internet (

Friday, February 18, 2011

To Mongolia and Back Again: Erenhot/Erlian --> Zamyn Uud Visa Run

I have a double-entry 30-day Chinese visa, and the first 30 days were due to run out on either the 13th or the 14th – I’m not quite sure how they tally – so this weekend I ran off to the closest and cheapest place I could find to get my second entry stamp into the country: the border with Mongolia.

I woke up at 5 AM on Saturday morning to make sure I would make it to the train station on time. It was my first ride in a sleeper car, which for only thirteen hours (most of them daytime) seemed fairly luxurious to me but was the only option available. Only two of the beds in the four-person compartment were filled. Opposite me was some sort of small-time official from Erenhot, my destination on the Chinese side of the border; he asked me a lot of questions, didn’t tell me much about himself, and kindly shared his oranges and meatballs. I made the first official use of the mini-knockoff-iPad-type-thing that we won during the debate, and to be honest I was surprised: I got a full 5 hours worth of Taiwanese movies in before the thing ran out of battery. (Allow me to recommend 《爸,你好嗎?》 – not gonna lie, I cried twice – and 《最遙遠的距離》 , which I have yet to finish but looks very promising so far.)

As I was getting off the train in the bitter cold of the Erlian night, I had the blinding good fortune of running into a fellow American, who was not only there on visa business but had also done the same run just last month. We found a cheap guesthouse, where we rented a 3-bed room for a total of 30 RMB. The owners invited us down to the back room for drinks, and at one point asked me to put in a plug for their place: across from and to the right of the train station, the sign says 客珠旅房; there’s no shower but it’s great in every other respect, and the staff gave me the only 21st birthday toast I’ll ever get.

We had found out the night before that there were no tickets left for the train to Beijing, which would have left the next night and been a cheap and convenient transport option. So, a little reluctantly, we got up early the next day to make sure we could buy tickets for the afternoon sleeper bus to Beijing and cross the border with enough time to get back before it took off without us. Erlian is a small, compact town of about 15,000, with few main roads and only a handful of shops open in the morning. It was frigid in morning and evening, so before long I was forced to throw on an extra pair of socks and a second, borrowed, pair of gloves. After a short while, tickets in hand and breakfast in stomach, we started looking for the signature rusting jeeps and Mongolian drivers who would, for a fee, take us across the border and back.

These days, opening bargaining price is 80 RMB each way. My new friend Dennis had paid significantly more last time, but he was also one of those uncertain and slightly dependent types who brings two suitcases on a weekend trip, and I had read multiple accounts online stating that it could be done for 50, so the latter was my goal. We arrived a bit early at the intersection of two streets where the jeeps tend to congregate; it wasn’t quite 8:30 yet, so most of the drivers (all of whom, it seems, are Mongolian) were still on the other side of the border. As we were warming up by a space heater in a grocery store, one of the Jeep drivers – a mustached, well-muscled, oily-haired Mongolian – pulled up and came in to chat with the owner. I asked him how much in Chinese, of which it seemed he only knew “China,” “Mongolia,” “money,” and numbers; he told us 80; I countered with 40; he replied by sticking his middle finger in my face and informing me, “Fuck!”

He was a pretty intimidating guy, but there was something so ridiculous about the whole thing that I couldn’t help laughing, and as he walked out of the store I decided I had a good feeling about him. Sure enough, in a few minutes he came back, telling us to hurry and come with him; to be sure we had an understanding, I asked, “40?” and he countered with 80 again. I moved up to 50; he walked out. We did this once or twice more and finally brought him down to 100 each round-trip – and, on my insistence, shook on it. We sat in what used to be the backseats of his not-quite-broken-down Jeep, the Mongolian driver and his Chinese copilot in front, fueled up, picked up some luggage at a storage facility (another way for drivers to make money on these border runs), and headed north to the border.

Our driver asked us for the money before we had even crossed the first barrier (only vehicles are allowed past, and probably only registered ones – hence the need to find someone to drive us across the border instead of just walking across ourselves), and I grudgingly let Dennis give him the first 100. I wasn’t entirely convinced that he wouldn’t kick us out of the Jeep and just drive off once he had our money – especially since he tried telling us “80” once again before I reminded him that we already had a deal at 50 – but Dennis said that this was where he had paid last month and it shouldn’t be a problem, so I let it go.

First we passed through the Chinese border station, a large oblong building with barely any sign of life, where we had to wait at least twenty minutes for staff to get to their posts and place outgoing stamps on our passports. Our driver was waiting for us at the exit – he seemed to be exempt from all border formalities – and we found that we had picked up two more crew members as well, Mongolians waiting for a ride north across the border.

At that point, my fears were confirmed: as we were about to get back into the Jeep, our Mongolian driver turned around and demanded that we pay 30 more – to make it a round 80, of course. We got in the Jeep anyway; he continued demanding his 80, and opened the door but stopped short of grabbing Dennis and throwing him out. (I was squished between Dennis and the two Mongolians, who apparently had paid 60 each to cross.) It was a bit tense, but I told Dennis to close his door, yelled at the driver for a few minutes (through the Chinese guy, who seemed reasonably trustworthy) about his reputation, being an honorable person, and the like; and although he seemed mostly serious when he shook his fist at us, I laughed and motioned that I wanted it to be Dennis and me versus him, and that seemed to diffuse the situation. He started the engine, motioned that he would beat us up when we got to Mongolia, and headed north to the Mongolian side of the border.

Everything went smoothly after that, despite most of the Mongolian officials being unable to speak either English or Chinese. The beating became more of a joke over the five-minute drive to the Mongolian border town of Zamyn Uud, as did the number “80,” which our driver once again demanded of us when he returned from running errands to take us back across the border. We had waited 30 minutes for him in Zamyn Uud, a town that can be walked end to end in about ten minutes, while he went and did a few errands. On the way back, our fellow passengers were a Mongolian woman and the driver’s brother, a friendly young web developer who spoke a bit of English. The driver, whose name we learned was Turuu, apparently liked us so much that he drove us right up to the bus station.

After lunch and a bit of reading I was feeling bored, so I went to find an internet bar to check my e-mail. Internet bars, like karaoke joints, are omnipresent in China, and Erlian was no exception. The first place I visited required an ID card (is this, as I suspect, to discourage people from saying the wrong thing from the anonymity of an easy-to-access public computer?), but the second bar, a block away, was more lax about the rules, and I was able to get one computer-hour for 3 RMB ($.45). It was the third time I had been inside an internet bar, and the first time I had gone to use a computer. This was also the largest concentration of people I ever saw in Erlian.

Internet bars in China are a phenomenon that benefits from the combination of limited access of Chinese students to computers (most don’t have their own), the strict expectations of parents as regards their children’s studying habits (even if you have the infrastructure, you probably won’t dare play video games at home), and the peculiar fascination that East Asian teenagers seem to have with video games. (I generalize… but you don’t often find ads for MMORPGs in the New York subway.) Your basic internet bar consists of a semi-dark room, often underground, with banks of computers preloaded with all of the popular and semi-popular games you can imagine. Add comfortable chairs, headsets, good processing speed and a fast internet connection, and you have yourself a gaming arena, where bored young people (about 2/3 of them male) come to do battle each other or faceless online nemeses. They mainly play strategy games, first-person shooters, and MMORPGs, most of which seem to be mods or copies of well-known games like Starcraft and Counterstrike. In Erlian, there was a smoking section and a non-, as well as a bar that didn’t seem to be in use during the day.

My hour up and my ears ringing with curse words and internet slang that I had previously only ever seen online, I headed back to meet up with Dennis. A decidedly uncomfortable bus ride later (I swear those beds were thinner than the ones we had in Xinjiang), I took a taxi from the station back to my apartment at 5:30 AM on Monday morning – Valentine’s day, which I could now celebrate knowing that I had secured 30 more days in China.

Allow me to end with some facts and figures, all of which are more exact than you might think.

Time: 48 hours
-       Getting there: 14 hours
-       Sleeping: 8 hours
-       Across the border and back: 3 hours
-       Eating, waiting, bargaining, killing time: 9 hours
-       Return trip: 14 hours

Budget: 1000 RMB ($150)
-       Visa for my 40 minutes in Mongolia: 505
-       Transportation there and back: 350
-       Crossing the border 2x: 105
-       One night in a guesthouse: 15
-       Food and miscellanea: 25

Getting flicked off and cursed at by your sketchy soon-to-be-buddy chauffer: priceless.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011


Quick note to self: I'm still four posts behind. (Winter Break; Mongolian Visa Run; Valentine's Day; Independent Study Progress.) I'll catch up soon.

In e-mails to yours truly, once in a while a friend from home will say something along the lines of, "I bet you've changed a lot." Other variations include, "I wonder how different you'll be when you get back?" or even, "You're not writing enough in your blog about how you've changed as a person."

For a while now, I've been wondering how exactly you people got it into your heads that a year abroad is unquestionably a life-changing and character-molding experience for everyone. The changes that I have observed in myself are small, and largely superficial, and probably come through at least to some extent in my writing - certainly nothing to justify your buying into this myth of reincarnation-by-study-abroad.

Then, this afternoon, I had an hour in which I was hyper-aware that something about the way I see life has changed in a fundamental way.

I could encapsulate the change pretty easily (and accurately) by saying, "I feel that I've matured," but let me put it in a more meaningful way: What I discovered today was that I am now seeing things in a broader, more long-term perspective. I have discovered that choices in my life that once seemed isolated are in fact pieces of a larger construct, and thus both comparatively insignificant and at the same time crucial and defining.

I think it was Joseph Campbell who wrote that a certain class of people today grow up years and years later than we used to: we graduate from high school at 18, and then go on to college; we will be at least 22 before we graduate, and then there are those who will go on to get Master's degrees, or even Ph.Ds. In today's world, a student can be 30 years old before he emerges gingerly from the world of academia - if he emerges at all - blinking and stumbling as he find himself no longer under the protection of the ivory tower, left to fend for himself and choose his own road.

It's not just that school gives us dorms and cafeteria lunches, or a semi-structured daily schedule; besides that, there also exists a definite narrowing of the path of life. Yale may be many-faceted pregnant with opportunity, and her students may travel the world on every sort of mission imaginable before they graduate - but in the end they will, for the most part, return to take classes, read books, take tests, participate in student groups, and ultimately get a diploma before they move on to (for some) a more uncertain stage of life. For these four (or five) years, this is The Big Picture, The Path; finding another is, judging from the graduation rate, almost unthinkable.

Maybe more than ever, I want to stick to this part of the plan. I want to go back to Yale and learn, and discuss, and participate; and I want to graduate with a degree that will become an arrow in my quiver to be used in the journey ahead. But I suddenly understand, viscerally, that this path is just one of many, and more importantly, that it is just one small stretch of the longer road of my life. Sooner or later, I will be making decisions that are equally if not more important - like where I want to live, what type of work I want to do, and who I want to date. Each of these decisions will be made from an infinite number of possible, presented at one time or another by happenstance; each will be reversible at any time I choose, provided I am willing to pay the price; and yet, to succeed in the long term, I will have to consider the long term, and invest my energies accordingly.

But how is this different from my perspective last spring? After all, the above few paragraphs are fairly simple ideas, ideas which I could have read and agreed with as early as several years ago. Many of my friends and classmates would probably scorn them as simple. I myself, if asked a year ago, would have felt that I completely understood. So I think the difference lies not in my intellectual recognition of the above truisms, but rather in my gut reaction to them: instead of lamenting the inevitability of some aspects of the way forward and fearing others, I suddenly feel an enormous sense of possibility and acceptance.

Today I walked down the road next to where I live and - I dramatize not - it was as if I was on a completely new street. I saw the little shops opened by the workers who came from the countryside to try their luck in the capital and I thought, "Why are you here? What made you borrow hundreds of thousands in cash from relatives and bring your wife and child to come open a bakery here in Beijing? Was it an idea? a whim? the recommendation of a friend of a friend of a friend of your second cousin who knew a place that the owner was looking to sell?" And each time I think about my own life, I become more convinced that as long as I consider carefully, work hard, and do what seems right, choosing out of the myriad grab bag of decisions proffered by life (and my fortunate background) will give me no cause for regret. Who says I can't get married tomorrow, settle down as a translator in Saudi Arabia, and still live a happy life? You're wrong. For the moment I choose not to [sorry Mike/Max/Phil; no wives or children just yet], but I make that choice with the awareness that it is a choice - one of many - and that if the right opportunity comes along I won't be afraid to grasp it, even if it entails unfamiliar territory and a long-term commitment.

It's tough to say what brought about this change. Part of it must be put down to coming into contact on a daily basis with two aspects of the Chinese that I have never completely understood - the small-time entrepreneurial spirit with which the migrant workers flock to the cities, and the starry-eyed faith with which many young people marry their first love. Another part is surely due to the complete freedom that I have for these eight months: discounting the possibility that I might have quit school, I have literally never had this much time to myself in my entire life. I am renting my own apartment, making my own money, applying to a position I have created for myself in a far-flung and undeveloped region of the world... if nothing else, it's exhilarating. Maybe I'm feeling influenced by a good friend of mine, who is looking for jobs in a new profession - maybe even as a hostess -  in the relatively likely event that she doesn't test into graduate school. As for what set off this reaction this afternoon as opposed to any other day, I'll leave you to decide: all I did was read some (English) blog updates and news items about China, take a call from a Chinese company that operates in Zambia, and watch three episodes of a Chinese drama about young people finding work and love in Beijing.

Well, it's 4 AM and I still have to work a little bit on getting employed this summer before I go to bed. My persistence has yielded three tentative offers from Chinese firms in Zambia: one manager already has excellent English and still needs approval from the company headquarters, another wants me to work in a hotel, and a third I can only semi-understand when we speak on the phone... But offers are offers; I'm delighted; and I can now get on with the business of applying to fund this adventure with other people's money.

Until Thursday,

Thursday, February 10, 2011

A True Fable

This post will be short, because I’ve spent way too much time this week on visa and summer issues and very little on important things like studying and getting listening exposure.

Back in May, when I got a Light Fellowship check for $30,000 (all of which has since been used or returned), I was sure that the thing to do was to convert it all into RMB, immediately. The RMB, I reasoned, was bound to gain in value against the USD, given that that 1) it has long been kept under market value by the Chinese government, 2) the U.S. is continually pushing for China to revalue the RMB, and 3) China’s leaders themselves had both adopted and openly stated a policy of revaluing, though at a much, much slower pace than the U.S. wants.

At the time, I eventually abandoned the idea. I would have to open a Chinese bank account (either that or take out massive amounts of cash and store them in a secure briefcase), which I figured would be difficult and time-consuming, and not worth the small gain I would probably make on exchange rate fluctuation.

Between May 2010 and February 2011, the RMB gained ~4% in value against the USD. Very roughly adjusting for when I paid my program bills and returned the remaining portion of the fellowship, I could have made a comfortable $700 by now.

Not bad for opening a bank account.

In other news, I just got the following news text from Xinhua:
“Fujian’s Longyan City Inspection Corps Administrator Jiang __ , after joining the corps via introduction, never once made a report – nor, over the course of 9 years, did he ever spend one day at work – but his pay was still issued as usual. Netizens have dubbed him ‘China’s Most Badass Civil Servant.’”

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Going to Zambia

Tonight I made a breakthrough that will put me much closer to realizing my Africa dream: I found, on the Chinese version of (prepare yourself) the Economic and Commercial Counsellor's Office of the Embassy of the People's Republic of China in the Republic of Zambia (breathe), a list of Chinese-run businesses operating in Zambia, sorted by industry and with cell phone contact numbers for each company. Of the two managers I was able to reach tonight, one seemed very positive and intrigued by my proposition; I've just sent him my resume (English and Chinese) and an undoubtedly error-ridden "cover letter" by e-mail (Chinese), and I'll be continuing the search tomorrow as time permits. Right now it's 3:45 AM and I'm at the point of incoherency, so excuse any errors in the post below.

A little background:

I was sitting in the Manila last month facing the prospect of applying for one of the classic Yale summer getaways - an internship in Beijing, a volunteer position in Yunnan Province, and the like - and feeling downhearted about the fact that my main hope for this summer, an internship at the American Institute in Taiwan (the U.S.'s unofficial embassy there), had fallen through unexpectedly. I had really been counting on that internship to offer me a glimpse of the world of foreign affairs, particularly as they are conducted in East Asia, but more than that, I wasn't really finding any of the Yale opportunities interesting in a way that related to what I'm going to loosely call my "career interests." The summer after my junior year, 2012, is already booked (I'll be less tight-lipped about that plan a year from now), so this is looking like my last chance to gain some job experience before graduation - experience which will help me get a job when the time comes, but which more importantly will help me decide what I want to do.

I sat down and made a list of worthwhile jobs - translation, media, and/or something to do with international relations. (I should note here that I am becoming less and less certain about what that last phrase actually entails, and less and less convinced I have what it takes to get involved in that sphere.) I then added a few mo re conditions of my own: 1) I wanted a job that would require the practical use of Chinese, at least some of the time; and 2) I wanted to do something slightly crazy that I probably wouldn't have a chance to do after graduating and getting a real job.

Then I just drew arrows from all of those conditions to another part of the paper, wrote "AFRICA" in big letters, and circled it.

For those who don't know me very well, this is generally my problem-solving style: I'm not so strong on the split-second answer, nor will logic get me very far when the going gets really tough; I'm more about methodically laying out the situation and making sure conditions are just right for the Big Idea (TM) to take hold.

My thought is that I can experience for myself, and even be part of, a massive global event that's occurring right now - the thickening and tightening of the bonds between China and Africa. This trend is obvious in the available statistics - billions of dollars offered in loans by China's Export-Import Bank to mine copper, drill for oil, build railway track and hydropower dams - but it also has a human component, the main perspective adopted by Howard French, an insanely impressive journalist and author of this fantastic article about China in Africa, in his upcoming book on the subject. Chinese with guts - from farmers to ice cream shop owners to mine managers to big-time banking execs to the ever-present dirt-cheap trinket-hawkers - are moving to Africa to work and do business, many of them funded at least indirectly by government-backed loans.

If this isn't "global affairs," I don't know what is.

On the practical side, I expect to be able to make myself an attractive job applicant and a useful intern. As of now I have absolutely no way of confirming my thoughts on this, but I imagine that given the size (mostly small- to mid-) and newness (mostly past 5 years) of Chinese operations in Africa, they're probably even more lacking in (quasi-)bilingual native English speakers than they are in China itself. And good communication is key to good PR, an aspect of Chinese business that really needs a boost lately given the resentment building against Chinese firms due to cases of shamelessly low bids on extractive mining rights, mistreatment and even murder of African workers, and other incidents that have made the China factor a hot-button political issue in some African countries.

I originally chose Zambia through the very unscientific process of looking at a 2006 map of Chinese investment in Africa, picking the countries with the highest levels of investment, weeding out the very dangerous ones (namely, Nigeria and Sudan), and doing a little basic research into the remainder. Fortunately, Zambia has also withstood my more recent and open-minded selection scheme, another "weeding-out" process that has gone like this:
1. Exclude countries in which English is not an official language.
2. Exclude countries that are unreasonably dangerous (based on State Department information and the insurance group Medex's "threat rating").
3. Exclude countries that are too developed, or that I don't like. (Not gonna lie... I don't want to go to a softie island country like the Seychelles or Mauritius, which have HDI - Human Development Index - ratings of "high." And I don't like South Africa because I hear it's really industrialized.)
4. Exclude countries in which the main language of commerce is not English. (Based on Wikipedia descriptions and/or a bit of quick Googling.)

The countries that still make the cut are: Ghana, the Gambia, Swaziland, Zambia, Tanzania, Namibia, Malawi, and Botswana. I have set the last four aside as a sort of "B Team" because it seems that English, while an official language, is less often used than the local language.

Zambia in particular has the following going for it:
1. Chinese levels of investment are especially high (the highest by far of the countries that make my cut), and Zambian ties to China are especially strong (China is Zambia's biggest export destination and third largest source of imports). Much of the work being done by Chinese companies is in infrastructure-building, which is what I'm most keen to see unfold; and in mining, which would definitely be interesting.
2. Chinese PR problems are particularly terrible in Zambia - strikes, low wages, complaints about poor working and safety conditions, the shooting of a mine worker, a lack of direct aid, and an upcoming election are all factors here.
3. Pretty decent climate - unlike Ghana and the Gambia, which are situated in Equatorial Africa - and also seemingly very safe (for Africa).

So... that's the plan! And if Li Ming from the China Irrigation and Hydroelectric Power Construction Group somehow fast-tracks my proposal and e-mails me a scanned copy of an official-looking invitation within seven days, I just might be able to apply for a Yale fellowship to fund all of this. It's a long shot, but hey - who knows?

I'll keep you posted.

Thursday, February 3, 2011


Originally meant to write a real blog post, but got engrossed in my own blog's page visit statistics.

Fun facts:

1. October had the most visits, followed closely by July.
2. Most people who are referred to my blog (by a link on another site) find it through Yale's Light Fellowship site.
3. Others find it by searching for "steppe" on Google Images Japan and coming across one of the photos I took in Inner Mongolia. (I tried and failed to replicate this search result. They must have been looking pretty closely for just the right steppe photo.)
4. Most common search keyword that has led to the discovery of my blog: various formulations of "strove with gods" (19). "Taiwantown" comes in a far second with 2 hits.
5. Page visits are mostly from the U.S. (2,600+ views, over 60% of the total), with (in order) Chile, Mexico, France, and Switzerland breaking 100 views each. I don't know anyone in Chile or Switzerland.
6. My visitors are mostly Mac users browsing with Safari. Public service announcement: Download Firefox!

In an attempt to regularize my life, the blog will now be updated on Tuesdays and Thursdays - my evening, your morning.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The Chinese invented gunpowder. I stand reminded.

(Note: This post replaces temporarily a recounting of my adventures in Taiwan and my brief stay in Manila, which would have finally gotten me caught up. All in good time.)

As I write this, I'm hunkering down in my little room thinking it may have been more appropriate to rent a former air raid shelter, an option I encountered by accident when I was looking for apartments a few weeks ago. Outside, things have been exploding on and off for days now - people setting off massive, massive amounts of fireworks to celebrate the end (tonight) of the Year of the Tiger and the beginning (tomorrow) of the Year of the Rabbit. I imagine that today must be the peak of the fireworking: since I woke up it's been as if I'm in All Quiet on the Western Front, in one of those scenes where they're close to the battlefield but not quite in the thick of the fighting and you can hear the sound of constant gunfire and bombing in the background. I honestly don't think that any given lull has lasted longer than 30 seconds. And I'm not talking about bottle rockets here: these are the kind of fireworks we'd see on the town green every Fourth of July back home.

I was out on my balcony taking photos earlier, but I retreated inside after a stray jet of sparks flew into the level below me. Open space around the residential apartment community I live in seems pretty popular for the setting of fireworks, but it can't compete with the middle of the street, where there always seem to be a few people laying out rows of odd-shaped boxes and lighting them on fire one by one. This would be a great time (for thieves, not for me) to steal a car - alarms have been going off all day and night.

I'm also planning my escape route from the building: Beijing hasn't seen a drop of precipitation in over three months, and if there weren't so few trees here I'd fully expect half the city to be burned down within the week. (As it is, I'm betting on 10%.) The city government has teams of firefighters on call in each of 30 separate districts and has put a ban on fireworks in the Central Business District... and since nothing in eyesight has burst into flame as of yet, I suppose I'll sleep soundly tonight.

Right now I'm watching the CCTV New Year's program, which started at 8:00 and is supposedly watched by nearly every family in China. There's been a lot of comedy (a lot of which I actually laughed at! My Chinese must be improving.), plenty of dancing and singing, some gymnastics, a magic show, a good amount of star power, and a bit of political propaganda slipped in - notably phrases like "Chinese Taiwan" and "our Taiwan brothers" (I'm going to go a bit hard-line here and say, Way to betray your country, 林志玲.)

There has also been some propaganda of another short. A few minutes ago, CCTV trotted out 大山 (Da Shan), a Canadian guy who's incredibly famous for the simple reason that he's white and born abroad but over several years has learned to speak Chinese perfectly. With him were 4-5 exchange students who had either studied at or been sponsored by one of China's many Confucius Institutes, established around the world to promote study of the Chinese language and of Chinese culture. Just now they also showcased the half-dozen winners of the national morality awards - though, arguably, some of those who should have won are currently in jail.

All of this goes to make it a ridiculous and therefore hilarious program: I mean, they just finished off a skit about marriage and house-buying by playing "Waka Waka"/"It's Time for Africa," the Shakira song from the World Cup.

Photos and more commentary to come over the next few days. For now, I'm going to go try and take the last shower of the Year of the Tiger.