Sunday, August 31, 2008

Obama's VP

I've been a fan of Obama from the beginning. From his humble beginnings in my home state of Illinois. I find that he is honest and true to his word. He once came to a factory nearby my hometown when it was closing. We're talking rural Illinois here, WAY far from Chicago and the "politically important" people. And he listened. This was especially touching because Illinoisians living outside of Chicago often feel ignored. Dad and Mom lived in the state capitol, Springfield, for a few years after I moved away. Dad complained that our governor (whose name no one can pronounce) did not stay in the city for the night as he was supposed to on certain meeting days, but flew his private jet back to Chicago immediately at voters' expense.
Obama wants to do things differently, and he preaches about change, which our country most desperately needs. He does not support this expensive, disgusting war. He does not believe that global warming is a conspiracy theory or propaganda against America's capitalist economy. Thank God.

I was hoping Obama would choose Bill Richardson. But I also knew that two minorities running together would be too much for many Americans to accept. Sad.

Biden, I'm not sure about. I don't know him like I know Obama. By appearances, he seems to be what some angrily say is "old washington." Sure, he's older, and he's been around for 30-some years. But "lack of experience" was a weakness for Obama in the primaries. He's white. No one will accuse him of being Muslim. He hasn't committed adultery (that we know of). He's from Pennsylvania, a swing state.

I think Biden seems to be a smart choice, and I trust Obama's faith in him. Now let's get them elected so we can finally have faith in our country again.

Back Home in Pittsburgh

That's right. I said "home." It really is starting to feel that way.
After a week of jet lag in Columbus, hanging out with Brandon, checking in with work, I moved to my new apartment in Pittsburgh and was once again thrown into the flurry of a new school year. Preparing to teach Freshman Comp (the materials for which I did not receive over the summer by some administrative mistake), unpacking and setting up the new place, buying books for the classes I'm taking, preparing for the upcoming retreat, preparing to start the Fuel and Fuddle reading series, trying to find a moment to write. I almost cracked on Tuesday. Literally. I then decided that with the extra load of classes and other things going on this semester I simply do not have time to worry about the following fairly-usual concerns:

Reading every possible book that could in some way be related to my manuscript
Money spent on food
Money spent on entertainment
Responding to e-mails immediately
Responding to phone calls immediately
Stressing about doing the absolute best in my classes--I'll just have to do what I can
Stressing about writing the absolute best manuscript by April
Working out 3 times/week--it will probably end up being once or twice
Thinking about everything that's on my plate right now (just ignore it, or as Brandon says, "Don't look down.")

So far this has helped me not over-stress the past week. Stress is such a natural part of how I deal with things that I feel a little fake, like something is missing. But it's also kind of nice. Perhaps this can be a small improvement that will outlast the semester.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Home from China...A Few Things I Will Miss and Several I will Not

It's good to be home. I'm so glad we were able to go to Beijing, but I became infected with some sort of stomach virus or parasite soon after we arrived and suffered silently (I'm sure Brandon would say otherwise) until getting home. Which brings me to something I will not miss about China: Let me just say that using the hole-in-the-floor toilets when you have traveler's diarrhea or possibly giardiasis is NOT fun. Extremely uncomfortable. See picture. No wonder the Chinese have such amazing Achilles tendons.

I will miss the 3-RMB breakfast Rachel and I would buy on the way to school. It consisted of purple sticky rice surrounding spinach (possibly), orange-powder vegetable, some other unknowns, and crunchy toast-chip things.

I will miss dan bin--the spicy egg dish Rachel and I would buy for lunch sometimes at the University.

I will not miss cafeteria lunches. Or the fatty pork delicacy.

I will not miss the constant staring.

I will not miss the lack of toilet paper in the bathrooms. Or often the lack of soap. Basically, I dislike everything about bathrooms in China.

I will miss nightly chats on AOL with Brandon. Yeah, yeah, we can call each other or even SEE each other here, but I liked the live writing. Felt like old times (we used to chat online freshman year of college when I had a crush on him...8 years ago).

I will miss Rachel.

I will miss cooking lessons with Huang Biao.

I will miss the everyday adventure of China. I think being constantly challenged by living in a foreign country is refreshing. A great way to reset perspective.

But I will not miss the stress that goes along with that.

I will not miss the language barrier, or hearing the word in Chinese that is equivalent to our "um" in conversation. It sounds very much like a racial slur. THE racial slur. The N* word. Believe it.

I will not miss the lack of diversity.

I will miss riding the metro. Why don't more U.S. cities have those?

I will not miss the scorching heat.

I will miss the kids. Possibly even being the teacher.

The Great Wall

Our goal for our last day in Beijing was this: see the Great Wall. Seems simple, right? Nothing's simple in China!

We checked out of our hotel (this also proved much more difficult than necessary. I love the little shrug that Brandon does when someone is speaking to him in a language he doesn't understand.) Then we took the metro to the northernmost stop, where one of the front-desk people at our hotel had told us to go to catch a cab for the GW. We haul our luggage on the metro, make the transfer, and think we've almost reached our goal. Not so. Cabbies refused, or told us they would charge exorbitant prices and wouldn't drop us at the railway station to catch our train back to Shanghai.

We then went to the English "helpers," and one guy told us we needed to take the metro to the westernmost stop and get a cab from there. His name is Wang Peng. He accompanied us (and carried my bag--I love chivalry!) Then he escorted us out to find a cab and negotiated the price we wanted to pay. This took him a while. At first we were about to jump in a random woman's shoddy-looking car when an actual bonafide cabbie offered to take us. We were ready for the adventure, but felt more comfortable taking the cab. We got in and reached the wall in 40 minutes, ahead of schedule. Things were going to smoothly, so we knew something would happen. We get to the gate and guess what? Tourists were not allowed in. Because the opening ceremonies were later that evening? Who knows. So the cabbie drove on for another 10 KM to take us to another section. We then ran, literally RAN, up the mountain to reach the wall. It was stunning. Huge. Absolutely amazing. We had just enough time to stare in awe for about 50 seconds, take a few pictures, and run back. Time was ticking by this point.

After leaving the Great Wall I felt the negative side of China's disregard for labels/brand ownership/copyright. I was able to get several things for very cheap that shouldn't have been very cheap if they were genuine: Coach purse, two ipod shuffles, Brandon's Prada sunglasses, Gucci sunglasses. I also got a fake memory card, which screwed up about 10% of my pictures. Not cool. I had an awesome shot of B and me near the Great Wall that didn't turn out.

We rushed home, and then discovered that our cabbie wanted us to pay him an EXTRA 200 RMB! For having to drive 10 extra KM, and for some highway tolls. What! Ridiculous. See picture of Wang Peng fighting with him on our behalf: What a great kid. I want to tell someone about how much he helped us.

Still, we ended up having to give the greedy cabbie 100 more than originally agreed upon (which I guess is only 14 bucks, but still) b/c we had to get on the metro to catch our train. This was annoying, and we were flat broke with no money to buy dinner. And because China has not jumped on the credit-card bandwagon (so inconvenient!), we had no way to get food. We didn't want to exchange a bunch of money when we were on our way out anyway. Luckily Brandon found an ATM that miraculously accepted his bank card and we withdrew the 100 RMB that the cabbie had taken from us.

Violence in Beijing

As Brandon and I were waiting for our connecting flight in Minneapolis, squabbling at each other after traveling for 26 hours, we were alerted to the news blaring from the televisions. Two Americans, in-laws of the men's volleyball coach, were stabbed by a Chinese man who subsequently killed himself.

Guess the games won't go off without a hitch. I'm surprised the media seems to have moved past it so quickly, and already it's no longer headlining the news.

The security in Beijing was already so high that it was difficult to be a tourist there. Now it must be even more inhibiting.

Preparation for Olympics

Here are a few things we discovered Beijing was doing in preparation for hosting the 2008 Summer Olympics:

• Holding classes—or showing promotional videos (we aren’t sure which)—on the correct way to stand in line. How to
Queue. Silly, but after a month in Shanghai, I can see that it’s needed.
• Classes or promotional videos on Not Spitting. Still saw plenty of men hawking blobs on the street or sidewalk, but
perhaps it’s better than it was before.
• To reduce traffic, only allowing half the cars to be on the road each day. Every other day cars with odd license plate
numbers can drive, then on the other days the evens can drive. This rule does not apply to cabs.
• Many people had to change their work hours so they wouldn’t interfere with Olympics traffic, or so they could go to the
games and cheer for China. We met a high-school boy on the train to Beijing who said he is required to go to the games,
that everyone in his high school is required to go. What a chore.
• Providing English “helpers” at every metro stop. (more on this later—Brandon and I definitely took advantage of this)
• Removing dog from all menus. This, I think, is silly. So what if they eat dog? They shouldn’t change their ways just
because they know Western people find it disgusting. I'm pretty sure people in India find our meat-eating habits disgusting.
• Of course, all the efforts to reduce pollution/smog. Many factories are closed. (not the one Brandon’s boss is thinking of
working with, luckily) Despite this, we didn't see the sun or blue sky once while we were there. And still there were people wearing surgical masks as a way to deal with it (this was actually taken in Shanghai, but you can find people wearing these all over China.)
• I read an article in National Geographic about how officials were inducing rain and clouds months before the Olympics in
order to control the weather.

They are really trying. I hope the world appreciates their efforts. Thanks, China.

Whose Propaganda?

This post had to wait until I got home, as it surely would have been blocked by that lovely Chinese censoring.

On the sleeper train from Shanghai to Beijing, Rachel, Brandon, and I shared a car with a Chinese man. He was sweet and bubbly professor, and he bought us all dinner and beer. (Love that old-fashioned sense of male chivalry!) He conversed with Rachel in Chinese for the most part, but he talked to all of us some about China in general. Definitely a patriot, as most people in China are I suspect. (Doesn't seem to be a lot of dissent. Plus with all that Olympics/World Expo hope pulsing everywhere, it's a time to be proud of China.)

Then we began to talk about some sensitive issues, which made me nervous, but he cheerily enlightened us with his opinions. He told us it wasn't that surprising to him that Rachel and I had seen a woman with bound feet at Yuan Garden. They haven't died out yet, though the woman was probably very old. In fact, his mother's sister has bound feet. He said that the bound feet was an "attractive/fashionable" look during the Ting and Ming Dynasties. We danced around the reason WHY the look was so "popular." I didn't want to go there.

He agrees with China's one-child policy. It doesn't matter really, he says, because he only wants one child anyway.

But then the light conversation took a turn, though I think it was unnoticeable to him. He said a few things that utterly shocked us. First, he said the events that we have learned occurred at Tiananmen Square (not clear about whether he was referring to the protests in 2001 or in 1989--probably 1989) actually NEVER HAPPENED. He saiyou "Tianamen Square is not what you know." He said that some English actress had been visiting Beijing and upon returning home had decided to spread lies throughout the West. He said that our media is biased and doesn't give us the whole truth. How ironic for him to be saying that, as chances are the news he gets is state-controlled.
Rachel was more than a little disgusted. She said she didn't need to be fed the same-old Communist propaganda and delusions that she'd heard a hundred times. I was floored. It was clear he truly believed what he was telling us. He truly thought that nothing had happened, that the rest of the world had conspired against China.

How common is this kind of brainwashing?


No Melanin, Please

A few days later, I found more evidence to continue the quandary touched upon in my last post. I was absently watching ads on the television in a cab. Absently, that is, until I saw the latest L'Oreal product offering and how it was endorsed. First of all, the sub-brand is called "White Perfect", and the products are "re-lighting creams." Once again, whiteness seems to be a virtue in China, and apparently L'Oreal knows it. The choice of words in the ad offended me, and I thought it would not fly in America, nor would this blatant promotion of White is Better. At least I hope not.

It makes me think of more primitive times in our U.S. history when Blacks would try to bleach their skin, which was happening about the same time hair relaxing became a huge industry. Of course they felt they had to do it. Their existence in this country began in shackles that were directly related to the color of their skin. Their livelihood and their quality of life depended on being as "white" as possible. It's sickening to think about that kind of self-hatred today. But the remnants of that destruction are not gone yet in America. I'm sure in Asia people don't even realize that attitude could be interpreted this way. I saw a total of 7 black people the entire time I was in China. I wonder how much THEY get stared at on the metro.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Whiteness as a Virtue in China

Here sunscreen is not called “sunscreen” but “whitening cream.” The marketing people must have thought, “it will sell better if we remind people it will keep them white, or even mislead them into thinking it will actually lighten their skin.” It’s along the same lines as the full-coverage cape-like shirts and the Darth Vader-esque sun visors that cover the entire face of a woman riding a motorbike. (see picture) And the pretty parasols everyone carries? At first I was impressed. I appreciated this delicate attention to skin protection, and I think they must have much lower rates of skin cancer, but then I began to realize it had to do with whiteness as a virtue. Skin color associations with class—if your skin is dark, you are probably poor and have to work manual labor out in the sun. It’s better to be as “white” as possible and therefore privileged. I know that it’s just ignorance, that it’s not overt racism, that they don’t realize how this might appear to someone who has darker skin himself or comes from a country where there are people with naturally dark skin. But at the same time it makes me cringe a little. Add that to the gaping and staring we get everywhere as objects of exoticism, and I can’t help but value the diversity of home. I’m glad I come from a country where there are many different colors and races and cultures, and it’s not unusual or blog-worthy to see a Chinese person or an African person or a Brazilian person riding the subway.

My Jealousy: Hope in China

I have to confess: I'm a little jealous of China right now. There is so much excitement and optimism here. After visiting the urban planning museum and seeing how much they're changing and architecturally uplifting Shanghai as a city in preparation for the World Expo in 2010, I see bright things in the future for China. It's true that there are propaganda-esque slogans spattered throughout the museum, but it's also true that there is construction at almost every turn, many newly successful businesses, a willingness to be bilingual with Chinese and English, and a changeability that I've not encountered before. The country is only going to continue to modernize, and already its on the cusp of moving from developing to fully developed. And with the Olympics coming up in Beijing and something like 95% of Chinese people believing that China will win the entire games, the hope here is absolutely electric.

It feels quite different than home, where our dollar is plummeting, our president has a historically low approval rating, we're stuck in an unpopular war, the housing and credit markets have crashed, oil prices continue to skyrocket, and global warming is threatening our sanity (or mine, at least). There is a sliver of hope, I think, and for me that's the prospect of Obama taking the presidency this fall. I honestly do not know how I'll live in my country if McCain is elected president. But even if Obama does pull it off, he's got his work cut out for him.

So yeah, I'm happy for the people of China. But I can't help being a little envious too.

Brandon in China, and closings

Brandon's here! It's so great to see him after not seeing him for 45 days. He arrived Thursday night, and we took an airport bus from Pudong International back to our hotel in the northern part of the city. Immediately he got a taste of the insanity of China crowds. They crammed about 55 people too many on the bus, and we were all squished together in the aisles with barely enough room to breathe. Brandon was shoved down the steps toward the door and inhaled an old man's stale breath the entire ride, so I think he would have preferred not to be breathing as well. A guy from Iraq was standing by me. After asking me where I was from, he said, "Ah, yes. There are many American soldiers in Iraq right now." At which point I cringed and said, "I'm sorry." He said it's okay because it's "coming up," whatever that means. He then said that he loves Obama, like everyone else I've met here. Obama truly has international appeal, and I wish that the world had a vote, not just Americans. Our president and our economy affect the world in such a large way, it would only make sense for the world to vote for the next American president. Anyway, this Iraqi guy was a jolly, round-bellied chap who confessed that he didn't like Chinese food and preferred the American fast-food joints to anything else. (Hence the pouch belly.) Turned out he was staying at the same hotel as we were, so we shared a cab back from the football stadium.

On our day off on Friday, we went to Pudong. The best part was going up in the Jin Mao tower. The rest of the area was pretty lame. Plus it was one of those deathly hot days, and we came home exhausted in the middle of the day to nap and escape the scorch. I didn't want the day to be a waste for Brandon's sake, so he and I ventured out to Xitiandi Lu after dark to meander along the road I call "the Short North of Shanghai."

Next day Rach and I had to teach, then we went down to Nanjing Rd. and the Bund with Brandon. Stopped to observe a group of people dancing on the corner (see picture). Love that. Wish people at home did that more. The old guy in the red shirt was hilarious.
Poor Brandon was dragging by the end of the night. I thought I was going to have to carry him home. But he laid his head on my back and fell asleep on the busride home, and that was fine with me. (I was on his lap b/c it was so crowded.) The bus stopped for about a half hour because some guy lost his wallet. Where, we don't know. Did he suspect someone on the bus stole it? No. But the authorities will go ahead and inconvenience half of Shanghai so that we can all be uselessly concerned. "It's custom in China," some guy tells Rachel.

Today Rach and I had to teach again, and Brandon went down to the Old China city on his own. It's nice that I can just let him go on his own and know that there's little chance he'll get lost b/c he's so good with directions/maps/knowing where he is at all times. In class I taught the kids about Halloween, a holiday not celebrated in China. I blabbed about the history of the holiday (did you know it originated in Ireland?), then let the kids go "trick or treating" with me. I gave them pencils and candy as they recited "trick or treat, smell my feet, give me something good to eat." It was fun, and once again I owe my mother for being right. All the teaching ideas she gave me before I left have been so useful. I guess she really knows what she's talking about! :)

Tomorrow is the last day of teaching. I'll be glad to be done, to have a break, to rest, but I'm sad to leave the kids and to leave the friends we've met here (Huang Biao, Parker, Rosco). It's been quite an experience. Not sure I would have jumped in so readily if I'd known what I was in for, but I'm definitely glad I came so it's better I didn't.

And then...August 5th, we're taking the sleeper train to Beijing. Can't wait!