Wednesday, March 30, 2011


Note: This post will likely only be relevant to certain Yale classmates.

It’s now been a year since Cameron killed himself, and it’s an event that’s on my mind often enough that I would be remiss should I not bring it up here sooner or later.

I was never close to Cameron. We were at ICLP in Taiwan together two years ago, and at the time he struck me as both self-consciously rich (he was the only one not there on a Light Fellowship) and standoffish. But there are two reasons why I identify so closely with Cameron – or, if not with Cameron, at least with his death.

The first (bad jokes about the effects of my company aside) was a one-time coincidence: I had lunch with him on the day he died. I had missed my alarm in the morning and therefore also missed my Chinese class, so I went to the later class; afterward, Rewon, Jack, Cameron and I headed to Commons. What has always struck me most in retrospect – besides the fact that nothing out of the ordinary could be detected in his demeanor, something remarked upon by everyone who knew him – was that he pointed out his younger sister to us as she passed by in the crowded aisle between tables. A few hours later, he was on the train to New York (at least I imagine that’s how he got there); that night, he jumped from the 86th floor of the Empire State Building. The next morning, we were notified about his death by e-mail; I can’t explain this very well, but given the lunch of the day before, I simultaneously completely believed the news and also found it entirely indigestible.

Yale students are pretty wired: I think most of us knew by the time our first class rolled around. But in case our Chinese teacher already knew (she didn’t) and had chosen not to dwell on it during class, no one said anything out loud, and we had the only relatively normal Chinese class of the day.

The second reason for my identifying with Cameron’s death is that, in a few ways that are important to me, he was me – or at least, he was what I wanted to be. He was an East Asian Studies major, a year ahead of me, with an interest in China and international relations; we were at ICLP together, though he was in a faster-paced class; when he came back from PKU in the spring he took the same level of Chinese as me, and was one of the best in our year. We were in the East Asian Capitalism seminar together; we shopped either Game Theory or Modern China together, I can’t remember which; and when we were both shopping Jessica Weiss’s course on China and the world, I remember being impressed when I noticed him listening to the BBC Mandarin news podcast, a feat that I had attempted around the same time and mostly given up on by then. We were acquaintances – if friends, then barely – but from the admittedly poor vantage point of where our lives intersected, he seemed just where I wanted to be.

So I think about him sometimes. Usually it’s nothing in particular: he just comes to mind, unbidden, a few times a month. If I’m not already feeling pensive or melancholy then it will have much the same effect on me as any conundrum that I have long since given up on as insoluble – though I find this particular failure to comprehend more disturbing than others. He’ll come to mind; I’ll remember; and then I won’t think anything more about it. Once in a long while – like now, going through old e-mails and news reports, and remembering – the whole ineffable sadness of it all will make me cry.

But such is life, and we all move on. “Out, Out – ,” Robert Frost’s poem about a boy who bleeds to death after accidentally severing his own hand with a buzz saw, ends with these lines:
No one believed. They listened to his heart.
Little – less – nothing! – and that ended it.
No more to build on there. And they, since they
Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs.

- - - - - - - -

The night after Cameron died, those of us who had spent summer 2009 together at ICLP held our first full reunion – minus Cameron. A get-together had been planned countless times over the past months, but, as will happen at Yale, everyone had been too unwilling to compromise on his or her own prior schedules and the whole thing had invariably fallen apart over and over again. The last e-mail on our failed dinner-planning thread is from Cameron, who had been CC’d in when he got back from Beijing in January:

“thanks for bringing me into the fold.  are you guys really having this much trouble just scheduling a dinner?”


Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Is China a Collectivist Society?

Something I hear a lot back in the States: "East Asians tend to be collectivists; Westerners, individualists." (Or, when we want to be more critical, we will dispense with the euphemism of individualism and directly disparage ourselves as "selfish.") The same sort of view has come up among Chinese acquaintances here as well - though I've only heard it a few times unattached to an expression of wonderment at how young American children (adults?) are when they leave home to travel the world and start their own lives.

So is it true in China's case? Based on my experience so far, I'm going to have to respond with what I know is an entirely dissatisfying answer: yes, and no.

Now let's get into the evidence.

First, there are the red herrings. For example: 'When they go out to eat, Chinese diners won't each order their own meal, but will instead order a bunch of different dishes and share everything.' For my part, I see this as having more to do with American germaphobia than anything else: we're used to the peace of mind that comes from having everything sterilized, or at least believing that it is. After all, I don't know any American who's come to China and, after trying it and not coming down with some debilitating illness the next day, hasn't fallen in love with the Chinese way of eating - which shows that, at least on the food front, Americans don't have particularly individualistic tendencies. Another oft-cited example by those who have spent a little time here is that the Chinese are incredibly 好客 - fond of guests, or hospitable. But to be honest, from everything I've seen with my own eyes and heard from those with much more experience than I, people the world over are hospitable at heart. I've been treated like royalty in little old Laiwu City, and I plan to spend some time with some of the tens of thousands of Americans who have opened their homes to travelers visa Couchsurfing; one day, I hope to host some weary sojourners myself, and while that's not everyone's wish, I think it's a general tendency that spans geographic and cultural gaps.

I have, though, seen a few things that support conventional wisdom that the Chinese are collectivist. The most striking of these came up as we prepared for debate last semester. The powers that be wanted alternates from my language program, so I was asked to get in touch with two of my ACC classmates (who were in Xi'An at the time) and ask them to come to practice with us. Realizing that everyone was busy and they might well not want to attend when they learned how much of a commitment it was, I said I would ask them but added what I thought would be a pretty acceptable caveat to take the pressure off of them: I said I didn't know whether they would be willing to practice with us, given the long hours and the fact that they might end up spending the entire time as alternates. Everyone seemed a little surprised, and then I got the explanation: Chinese students, I was told, would have no qualm whatsoever about helping the team from the background.

Despite what seemed like earnest agreement all around, I could dismiss it as a bunch of people being theoretical and taking the high road... but that would mean completely ignoring the roughly 100-150 hours put in over five weeks by each of almost a dozen graduate students, none of whom got so much as a prize when the dust finally settled. I'll be honest: I suspected they were receiving some kind of compensation, either monetary or in the form of a GPA boost. But I asked a few of them, after we had gotten more familiar, why they were doing this, and the answer I got was roughly, "Our teacher asked for volunteers, and we know that if we do well this will be a big deal for the university." In contrast, consider my own reasons for competing: a prize, recognition for my work, meeting people, and above all, Chinese language practice. At the risk of being seen as projecting my rampant selfishness on my American brethren, I'm going to say that I see in this a very visible manifestation of the divide between Eastern collectivism and Western individualism.

So it might seem contradictory or at least ironic that, of all the complaints I've heard from Westerners who have lived for a significant period of time in China, the most common (and most convincing) is that the average Chinese doesn't give a damn about anyone outside his/her family. To put the best spin on this attitude, allow me to describe it as sort of an extreme version of the "Malcolm Reynolds approach" - putting your "crew," whoever that may consist of, first, while everyone else comes second and last. Notice that I'm not talking about individualism here, per se, but rather about selfishness - which, in my mind, is much more accurate than individualism as an antonym for collectivism.

That mentality manifests itself in a lot of ways. In September, I met someone interesting in the youth hostel in Kashgar, a lawyer from Texas whose self-possession and soft-spoken earnestness won my immediate respect. He's been in China for years but is taking a last tour around the country and then leaving indefinitely, simply because he doesn't want to live in a society where, as he sees it, people have so little respect for others. He talked about a time when he wasn't able to sleep well for a month because someone was doing some illegal building next door - in the middle of the night, to avoid scrutiny. The lawyer, after arguing with the builders for a while, ended up calling the police, who eventually came by one night and told everyone to scram; the workers were back the next day and nothing changed.

In the world of politics, I have heard the "family first, everyone else last" mantra used as a way of understanding the rampant corruption in Chinese politics. As for the business world, an Englishman I met in a Beijing hostel echoed a view I've heard in various forms over the past year: "Why are there so many family businesses? Because if you're not related to your business partner then you're going to get screwed as soon as you turn your back on him."

And in terms of everyday life, the subway is often held up as a prime example of what many foreigners call Chinese selfishness: the omnipresent "first get off, then get on" propaganda doesn't stop people waiting on the platform from cramming into the subway cars before everyone who wants to disembark has a chance to step out. It's incredibly inefficient, not to mention disorderly and slightly harrowing; furthermore, one rarely snags a seat by leaping into the car, and only once have I ever seen a car so full that stragglers were forced to wait for the next one. Among people who just can't bring themselves to like China, the selfish senselessness of the subway scene has become a pretty common metaphor for what it is they like the least.

There are other, more sinister manifestations of the consequences of the average person not giving a damn about anyone he doesn't know personally. What happens, for instance, when the providers of major food products look for ways to cut costs, at all costs? You get the main reason why I would not my child to grow up in this country: an unending series of food safety scandals. A big one was the infamous "poison milk powder" scandal of 2008, in which the harmful chemical melamine was added to fake protein content in milk formula and ultimately harmed hundreds of thousands of Chinese infants. In class last semester, we watched an investigative report about a 2005 scandal in which major producers of soy products made the final product more attractive by coloring it with industrial chemicals, which are cheaper than food-safe dyes. More recently, a 2010 Greenpeace investigation discovered illegal genetic modification of rice, and unrelated research done just last month has brought to light heavy metal poisoning in rice paddies, much of which still makes it to the market anyhow. Last week, the use of a banned substance was once again found in farmers trying to artificially get leaner pork out of their pigs. (I should note that products of the same type, known as beta agonists, are legal in the United States and about 20 other countries.) Not to be left out, noodles too were added to the list of dubious staples in a "rotten rice noodle" revelation that caused yet another a food scare this past December. And those are just the ones we know about: I'm just waiting for it to be discovered eggplants, too, are unsafe, at which point nothing I eat on a regular basis here will be scandal-free.

However: It can be argued that none of the above examples actually show a particularly selfish streak on the part of the Chinese. The subway scenario can be blamed on population pressure (a reason often given by the Chinese for almost any societal problem) and a ; corruption, on a governmental structure that allows it; bad business practices, on corruption/poor safety inspection infrastructure/lack of legal repercussions.

I can grudgingly grant the latter - that, were American governance as weak in some areas as in it is in China, we may well be seeing similar business problems as people fight tooth and nail for their own interests in a competitive market. (Imagine, for instance, an American company that finds the opportunity to operate where governance is more lax...) But the subway? While it is a Nash equilibrium, it's also not a best-case scenario for anyone - and I'm told that in Tokyo, where it's pretty darn crowded, doesn't have this kind of problem.

There's no good way to sum this up: make of these observations, new items, comparisons and inferences what you will. There's some quote about how the longer you live in China the less certain you are that you understand it; I can't remember it off the top of my head and anyway I think it's both pessimistic and obnoxious, but that it even comes to mind means that I will consider the title question of this blog post unresolved until further notice.

Feel very free to discuss.


Monday, March 21, 2011

Today's Good News

I just found out today that Michael and Cat - my older brother and his girlfriend, respectively - will be visiting Beijing for six days in May! I'm at least as excited as you can imagine, and I've already begun thinking about what I'll be taking them to see, eat, and do. Those of you who follow their blog might also find this a good opportunity for a new glimpse of Beijing -- I know I must be notorious by now for my resistance to taking photos and familiarity-bred failure to highlight the things that would interest people who have never been here.

In other good news:
  • I'm starting what seems to be an excellent new consulting/English editing gig tomorrow
  • I'm pretty much completely back on track in terms of my daily Grand Plan (TM) v4.0; I even exercised today for the first time in almost six months!
  • The weather, recently polluted and cold, seems to be taking a turn for the better.
  • I'm halfway through two blog posts, both of which I think all of you will like. Look for the first on Wednesday and the second this coming weekend.
  • I just discovered that Old Bike, this Western-style cafe that gets a lot of ACC patronage every semester, has terrible service and mediocre desserts but also the best foosball table I've ever seen outside of my own basement back home. 
  • I just bought 14 small mangoes for less than $1 USD.

Be happy,

Wednesday, March 9, 2011


 The time is ripe, and my fortune has turned.

Medical Update: I went to see the doctor again today to have my post-surgery bandages removed and get an ultrasound done (everything's fine). I'm still in a little pain and, as things heal, a rather maddening itching, but there is good news:
  • I can "start sports again" next week. I should not that I will not be doing so - partly because I don't play any sports and partly because I don't really believe I'll be that shipshape so quickly - but I think it means I will soon be able to move about much more comfortably.
  • I should be completely 100% my old self (but better!) in "2-3 months."
  • I can start taking regular showers again this coming Wednesday. FYI my last shower was 9 days ago, last Monday night. Hey, what can I say? Doctor's orders.
Update on the Man: I've gotten my visa application in, and I should theoretically have a 90-day visa in hand by the end of next week. I have also re-registered my residence at the police station, without the late registration fines I had feared, and gotten the forms I'll need to go back and re-register for a third time myself as soon as I get my new visa.

Money Update: I have, to my chagrin, become part of the horribly ineffective English-teaching machinery in Beijing. I have a job teaching a 10-year-old girl about a 2-minute walk from where I live (2 hrs/wk; first class didn't go terribly well); a TOEFL class lined up about a 45-minute subway ride away (I don't know anything about TOEFL. I'm learning.); a potential SAT Writing class at the latter location, to begin when SAT fever takes hold in April (I fancy it will be easy and I may even be quite good at it); and the recording job that I relied/waited on for too long has finally come through with the first hour of work for me tomorrow. With preparation and/or commute times taken into account, I'm working at roughly $15 (100 RMB) per hour, which is significantly lower than I had imagined but still pretty damn good. My goal is to ensure that I have enough money in my bank account by the end of my time here to buy plane tickets to Zambia and then back to the U.S. (to be safe, around $2,000 USD, including a visa); that way, if it turns out that I don't get any of the Yale scholarships I applied for (I should find out within the month), I can still go and work for a hotel there that has offered to give me free food and lodging, plus a stipend. I think I should be able to manage that with about 10 hours of work per week over the next three months, plus some half-forgotten temporary expenditures (airplane tickets to be redeemed, an apartment deposit to be collected) that will be returning to my eager hands before I go.

Entertainment Update: I'm finally going to the library tomorrow, accompanied by the wonderful Joy Sun, to borrow Anna Karenina and East of Eden: I've meant to make a little bit of English-reading time each day but until now I just haven't gotten around to the complex task of borrowing books from the National Library. (FYI: Worst large city library I've ever been to, and I try to see as many as I can.) Also, I'm (re-re-re-)watching Season 1+ of "The West Wing," acquired in full (and very solid quality) on the street. I have nothing but respect and awe for whoever translated seven seasons of witty, political, specialized, reference-laden dialogue into the Chinese subtitles at the bottom of the screen.

There are still things to be worried about - namely, that my passport/visa/500USD are in the hands of a sketchy company, and that I still need a lot of information from my parents before I can fill out financial aid forms (hear that, Dad?) - but I'm feeling much better about my prospects in general.

And then, of course, there is my Chinese learning, which lately, while it hasn't completely fallen by the wayside (I still do about 5-6 hours of study-type learning, five days a week), hasn't lived up to all that I had intended it to be when I planned this semester. One of my consolations is that the medical issues and financial aid mess are issues that could have just as easily set me back on my studies in Taipei - and I'm still convinced I'm 5x as motivated here as I would be over there. Although I'll have to I'll be dropping one day of tutoring per week starting this coming week so that I have time to work and review what I've learned, I'll also be doing my best to slip back into "intensive mode" this Sunday to get the most out of each one of my 4.5 weekly study days.

Consider yourself: updated.

Friday, March 4, 2011


The Chinese have a saying: "Misfortune does not travel alone."

Last week, in the middle of a low-level but persistent cold that I'm still getting over, saw the beginning of a procedural marathon: filing federal taxes, filing state taxes, applying for new scholarships, re-applying for old scholarships, filling out the FAFSA, filling out the PROFILE, applying for Yale Financial Aid, getting refunds for plane tickets, applying for jobs, registering my residence with the police, and getting my new 3-month, $500 (ouch) visa squared away.

This past Tuesday, as if to remind me that things can indeed get worse, I had to go to the emergency room. In the name of delicacy and decency, I'll spare you the specifics - the long and short of it is that after spending the most painful half-hour of my life in a cab, getting IV-ed and anesthetized and cut on in the nick of time, and then lying in a hospital bed for two days, I'm now back home and back to work. Albeit gingerly, on an antibiotics regimen, and with my head semi-exploding due to a particularly nasty Cold #2 that I picked while at the hospital. I've postponed my job interviews (neither seemed particularly promising anyway), temporarily canceled meetings with my tutor, and am hoping to get roughly back on track by Monday.

I hope to be updating again next week with some good news.