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Reflections on a Wandering Life.....

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Lee Kuan Yew 1923-2015 

This time it's true. Lee Kuan Yew, the founding father of Singapore died yesterday morning.

I was in third or fourth grade at the boarding school in northern Japan when I read in my Weekly Reader that Singapore and teamed up with Malaya and a couple other insignificant areas to form the new country of "Malaysia." The year was 1963. At the time I didn't think much about it--I just thought the new name sounded better than "Malaya." I was puzzled when Singapore pulled out of the deal a couple years later. But when I read Lee Kuan Yew's autobiography years ago, he told the story differently. He says in his book that he cried when the decision was made to push Singapore out. It has been some twelve years now since I read his memoirs, so I can't remember just how he put it, but at the time I thought it must be political posturing. That departure turned out to be the best thing that could have happened to Singapore. They were not under the British and they were also not chained to Malaysia. Can you imagine Singapore today being saddled with Malaysia's woes? I don't know--maybe at the time he just couldn't see the future and feared that this would doom Singapore to being returned to colonial status or something.

During the Cold War years of the sixties, we always used to hear talk of "Communist infiltrators" trying to take over the world. Lee Kuan Yew turned the whole idea on its head. He infiltrated the Communist party of Singapore, used it to take over the country, and then eliminated the Communist Party. The CIA became nervous about his association with the Communists and talked to the British. The British either knew what Lee Kuan Yew was up to, or they just knew him better than the Americans did. Lee Kuan Yew was educated in Britain, and if I'm not mistaken, he practiced law there for a few years. Anyway, the Brits trusted him and told the CIA not to worry. But the CIA wouldn't leave it alone and stupidly tried to infiltrate the Singapore police. They got caught, and then offered Lee Kuan Yew a $3 million bribe to hush it up. He refused. When he recounted this story several years later, the CIA denied it. That was also stupid--given a choice between Lee Kuan Yew and the CIA, anyone with half a brain would believe Lee Kuan Yew. Here's his statement:

The Americans should know the character of the men they are dealing with in Singapore and not get themselves further dragged into calumny. They are not dealing with Ngo Dinh Diem or Syngman Rhee. You do not buy and sell this Government.
Lee Kuan Yew has not been without critics. He was compassionate, but he was also an autocratic leader. They used to call him "Hitler with a heart." He outlawed chewing gum, and there is lots of back and forth on how much dissent is really tolerated in Singapore. But he was always easy-going with religious people. He would say, "Pray to whatever God you believe in." Singapore has some of the largest churches in the world. It's interesting that China seems to see Singapore as a model for how they want to operate--a tight ship run by a benevolent dictator. But if that is their thinking, they have a long ways to go. Singapore is a much more open society than China. By a long shot. There is no GFW in Singapore, and as far as I know, you can buy foreign newspapers on Singapore without restriction. But I guess I would have to say that Singapore is not a happy place for trouble makers or protesters. And there have been some cases of foreign migrant workers being abused by corrupt employers. But it must also be said that Lee Kuan Yew built Singapore into a place where educated professionals from just about any background or culture who are willing to work and mind their own business can find a way to fit in. You don't meet professional anywhere who don't like Singapore, or at least value the experience of having worked there. To see what Lee Kuan Yew did for Singapore, you really need to look at a map and see just how insignificant that little portion of the beach is from a natural perspective. That it should become a major international city-state is something that no one could have guessed just by looking at what the people of Singapore had to work with.

Lee Kuan Yew will go down in history as an extraordinary leader in a time of great change as the belated remnants of the nineteenth century colonial period moved toward independent statehood. Vietnam is an example of one that had much more rugged and tragic transition.

Monday, March 23, 2015

First Bloom 2015 

I actually think I missed the first bloom on the mountain this year, because I was really busy last week.It would be quite a late spring if that were not the case. Generally, I expect to see at least one little flower on the mountain by the middle of March. And I took this from across the lake, so it isn't a very good view of the flowers, but they are there. Behind them is the old Qing Dynasty training tower used for teaching soldiers how to scale walls. Interesting, since the Qing Dynasty was started when the government minister opened the gate and let them in, not because they were able to scale the Great Wall. The Fragrant Hills area was mainly the resort of Qian Long, from the Qing Dynasty, which is the most recent dynasty, so it is relatively new when viewed from the perspective of China's history as a whole. Still, that old tower has been standing there since a quarter of a century before the Declaration of Independence was signed, so that is a few winters back.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Interesting. Yesterday, CCTV English did a full report on the nightly news regarding the death of Lee Kuan Yew, the founding father of Singapore. This evening, they announced that the report had been a hoax. This has to be very embarrassing for CCTV, because it underscores the fact that much of their news comes from scanning other media rather than individual "shoe leather" reporting. But, to be fair, they are not alone. More and more young media wonks are basing their reports on stuff they have gathered from surfing the Internet rather than walking the streets and getting the information themselves. The Asia Wall Street Journal has been banned from the Bridge Cafe in Wudaokou now--the government won't allow them to display it, because they don't control it, but before Xi Jinping came to power and the Wall Street Journal was available, I used to read reports from time to time that were ridiculously ignorant. It was quite obvious from reading them that the writers thereof were sitting in New York and surfing the Internet. They sure didn't know much about China.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Farina 

Believe it or not, I bought a box of Cream of Wheat in Wudaokou the other day. Hard to believe. I might as well be living in America.You can see that I tried to tear the box open from the top. Shows how long it has been. I haven't had Cream of Wheat for a lifetime. I am pretty open minded about what I eat, but I tend to be pretty picky about breakfast. German muesli is readily available here in Beijing, but a little expensive. Fortunately, Australian oatmeal is quite reasonable, so most of the time I eat oatmeal. But now there is a new market in Wudaokou that has shredded wheat and a few other American cereals. Most American breakfast cereal is highly processed, so I haven't missed it. But shredded wheat is just that, and cream of wheat is also pretty much pure wheat grain, although not the whole grain. I also get an Australian cereal called "Weet-Bix." I have never quite gotten used to the standard Chinese "rice water" breakfast porridge, but there are some traditional breakfast eats that I do like. One of them is called "Xiaomai," which is basically cooked whole wheat wrapped in a dumpling. It is hard to believe that a bowl of Cream of Wheat and Xiaomai dumpling dipped in vinegar are actually two different forms of the same thing, but they pretty much are. So even though I missed having a bowl of farina once in awhile, if I had Cream of Wheat every morning and I could never stop at the jiaozi shop in my village and have a plate of Xiaomai and a bowl of egg drop soup I'd probably miss that too.

Sunday, March 01, 2015

Jessup 

Just found out the other day that the CYU team has been invited to Washington D.C. for an exhibition match.

The Jessup International Moot Court competition is held every year and involves almost 700 law schools worldwide. Last Fall, Professor Murase from Tokyo, had asked another American professor and myself to help coach the CYU team. Professor Murase has written a text on International law, and it has just been translated into Chinese by a member of the CYU faculty, so he had volunteered to help get develop the CYU team.

At the China competition in February, I felt that the CYU team did exceptionally well. But there were two matches where the opposing team was split--one contestant was exceptionally good and the other was quite below par. The judges apparently decided to base the score on the performance of the best player, so in those matches, the other team took the win. The result was that the CYU team came in 17th out of 40 teams nationwide. That is still a remarkable performance for such a small law school. In the past, no one has really expected the CYU team to accomplish much of anything. But I still feel they did much better than they were given credit for.

Anyway, Professor Murase and Dr. Chen from CYU have managed to arrange for the CYU team to do an exhibition match in Washington at the international competition, and the college has agreed to pay for their transportation, so this way they will get the opportunity I feel they really deserve to show what they can do.

This year's moot court case involves two fictitious countries and deals with the issue of secession. It is obviously based on the recent secession and annexation of Crimea. The final competition in Washington D.C. is actually held before the judges of the International Court of Justice. But here in Beijing the judges were international legal people who are working in Beijing in some legal capacity, or have been involved in previous Jessup competitions. Some of them are really quite good.

Thursday, August 07, 2014

Dali 

Just got to Dali. I took the long, twelve-hour bus ride from Daocheng down to Zhongdian (which is now called Shangri La ) a week ago today. I had checked out several hostels on the youth hostel website, but one of them that I had passed up was recommended to me quite highly by one of the young travelers in Daocheng, so I decided to go there. The reason I had passed it up is because there was absolutely no detail information on the English version of the website (which is the one I use). Everything was blank. In fact, the place was run by a very nice Naxi lady. I told her that she should put in some information on the English site. She told me that they come from the countryside and none of them speak English. It was evident that they didn't know that much about hosteling, but they had actually built a very nice (albeit a bit rustic) hostel from what looked like it had been an old school or something. They had resources. When I called from the bus station, instead of telling me which bus to catch, she sent someone in an SUV to pick me up. If they ever get around to putting in some information on the English site, they are going to be very popular, becuase they are just about the nicest people you could hope to meet. They'll have to get some university student volunteers or something, because none of them speak English. But they were very friendly and accomodating. And they have a breakfast menu which includes a set group of items designed for Chinese people. I carry my own oatmeal, so I just ordered some special high country barley bread and a couple eggs. I only stayed there one night, because I wanted to get down to Lijiang for the weekend. She had some friends going down to Lijiang the next day, so I asked her what the bus fair was and offered to pay them that much. She quoted me a price of 70 kuai, and I didn't argue. When the two guys came to pick me up, they helped me carry my stuff to the car. The guy who was carrying my bag said, "Your bag is very heavy. I'm going to have to charge you 100." I put an end to that nonsense in a big hurry, and we were on our way."

Lijiang is known for the old city. There is nothing else there. The old city is on the United Nations register of historic places. But it's so touristed now. Really frustrating. But the youth hostel was very nice--a good place to work and study. I was there almost a week, because I wanted to take a side trip to Lugo Lake. I had a problem with reservations because there were lots of people there, and the hostel told me that their reservation system malfunctioned and they had more reservations than beds. On top of that, every day had intermittent torrential rains. I was beginning to get the picture. Fortunately, yesterday I met a guy who grew up in that area. He told me that the best time to go there was in the spring or fall. I had read something to that effect in the Lonely Planet. But he told me that the hiking trails were not very safe in the summer. I was glad for the info. I will be back. But not in the heat of the tourist season.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Daocheng 

My last evening in Daocheng. I left Chengdu Friday, and got to Kanding after a grueling 12 hour bus trip. Some of the road wasn't that bad, but some of it was very, very bad. Some of the worst roads I have seen in my life. I remember those roads well from my childhood in Japan. But what added to the problem was the kind of traffic on those roads. Big trucks carrying heavy loads.

When I got to Kanding, I called the Dongba hostel. They told me to turn left out of the bus stop and start walking. That didn't seem very helpful. But I was able to ask people as I was walking and I found the place. When I got there, they told me that they did not have any beds. That after I had called them several times and been told that they had plenty of beds. In fact, I had called them that morning from the bus to verify again that I was coming. The proprietor told me she would go out in the street with me and try to scrounge up something. I was not impressed. It was clear to me how they operated. They pretend to take reservations, but they do not honor them. They operate on first come, first served basis, which is their right. But the problem is, they don't tell you that honestly. They let you think you have a reservation, but if someone else comes first, they give your bed to them and then when you come they offer to help you find something. I really don't like to operate that way. Fortunately, there is a YHA hostel in Kanding, I had originally planned to go there, but the other one was recommended to me by some Chinese folks in Chengdu. Anyway, I went the Konka Hostel. They told me they did not have any dorm beds, but that I could sleep in a tent. I wasn't enthusiastic about squeezing into a small tend, but I also didn't want to sleep in the street. So I told them to show me the tent. To my surprise, it was a huge tent with ten beds in it. That would not be comfortable in Chengdu or Beijing because no air conditioning. But in the mountains, it is quite pleasant, because the air is cool at night.

I stayed in Kanding for two nights and left early Sunday morning for Daocheng. Another grueling, twelve-hour road trip. When we finally to Daocheng, I called the Yading YHA hostel, and they told me to wait for them. After a few minutes a couple of young people from the hostel showed up and led me to where it was. One of them insisted on carrying my heavy backpack. When I got there, I met some young people who wanted to go to an onsen. They had been asking everyone who came, because the deal was that if they had at least four people, the hot springs place would provide free pickup. I was exhausted. I really didn't feel like doing it. But I knew that if I did, I would come back and sleep like a baby. I'm really glad I went with them. Twenty-five RMB per person--thirty if you want a private hot tub. I paid the extra 5 kuai and got a private room. It wasn't quite like Japan. There was no washing area. I'm not sure what people here do. Do they just wash right in the tub? Or do they treat it like a swimming pool instead of a bath? I don't know. But in Japan it would be a mortal sin to wash right in the hot water, so I couldn't bring myself to do it. That's OK. I'm philosophical about that. I can take a shower any time. After we got out, they served us yak butter tea, which for me was exactly what the doctor ordered. A little salty, and very nourishing.

Yesterday, I rented an e-bike and took one of the volunteers from the youth hostel for a ride through the beautiful Tibetan countryside around Daocheng (although Daocheng is officially in Sichuan Province). Fortunately, the Tibetan kids we talked to spoke Mandarin, so we were able to communicate with them. But when one of their mothers came up, she just waved and said, "Bu dong. (I don't understand)."

Friday, July 25, 2014

Western Sichuan Province -- The Tibetan Plateau 

Heading up into the mountains out of Chengdu. I flew to Chengdu from Beijing last Saturday. When I got the Dreams Travel youth hostel they told me that there had been torrential rains in the mountains, so I decided to delay my trip for a few days. It's very cold in the mountains. When it gets cold and wet and rainy, it can be quite unpleasant. Monday evening, I had dinner with Leander and his girlfriend. He goes by Joel now and his company is growing. Leander was one of the students who stayed in Beijing during Spring Festival when I first came to China ten years ago. Leander and his classmates were in the IC design class at the Software College. Most of them are now doing IC design, but Leander started his own company. A the next day, one of my English majors from the past school year sent me a message. He was on his way to Chengdu and he had seen my post on WeChat (everyone in China has WeChat). So he and his classmate took me to a local hotpot restaurant. You really need to do this when you come to Chengdu. The next day I had dinner with Mary and her classmate. Mary is a young traveler I met last summer in Manzhouli. She had seen my posts on WeChat and told me she was studying in Chengdu. I meet a lot of people in my travels, so I was not sure who she was, but I told her to meet me and we would have dinner. She brought her classmate along, and we wandered through the classic streets in Chengdu looking for street food. Turned out to be a rainy evening, but we made it work. We managed to find a shelter just big enough to protect us from the downpour, and I was eating the little bit of street food I had managed to buy. I was fine. I told them I didn't need to eat that much. I have been eating quite well this week, and it doesn't hurt to eat a little lightly after all of that. But Mary was worried about me so she went out into the rain and bought a biscuit for me so that I would not go hungry.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Code Monkeys and Network Junkies 

I got together with Jacky and Zhou Tao to talk about my phone problem. In the course of our conversation, I started talking with Zhou Tao about the question I often put to my students in Arizona when I was trying to help them decide which direction to go professionally. At UAT, the software engineering department tended to be bipolar. Students focussed on Network Engineering, or Software Engineering. So I would ask students, "What are you, a code monkey or a network junkie?" I would ask them to place themselves along a spectrum, and in the process, explain the difference, both in terms of courses required, and the work involved. Some students identified clearly with one or the other. I had networking students who hated programming. And I had programming students who were completely clueless and uninterested in network infrastructure. But I also had students who tended to move easily between the two areas.

Jacky was so fascinated with our discussion that he pulled out his iPad and copied my sketch of the spectrum and then had me sign it. Zhou Tao is a computer science major, and seems quite able to function in either world. But some software people tend to be more intensely focussed on one particular skill area. And some simply don't know. I remember once talking to one of my networking students in Arizona who was very unhappy. I asked him a few questions and found out he had a Masters degree in material science. I asked him why he wasn't doing that. He told me that field wasn't very open at the moment. Then I asked him a few questions about the skills he already had, and found out he was a VB programmer. I said, "I don't think you belong at this university." He was surprised. I said, "Why don't you do application development?" He wasn't too sure about the field, so I explained to him that database application developers are involved with developing the front end of database. After talking for a few minutes, he said he would give it some thought. He went out and found a job nearby almost immediately and dropped out of school. I am not one to encourage students to drop out of school, but in his case, school was a waste of money. He already had marketable skills and he obviously didn't need the sheepskin. I used to run into him once in awhile after that. Every time he saw me he said, "You changed my life!" I didn't change his life. He changed his life. I just helped him to discover where he fit on the spectrum.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Fake Phones 

Yesterday I went to Zhongguancun to get some more information re: the new phone I need to buy. My Huawei phone died for some reason a couple weeks ago just before I left the States to come back to China.

I had talked with a shop about a phone I was interested in, but I was puzzled because the price they were quoting me was quite significantly lower than what had been quoted by every other place I talked to. I went back to see them yesterday. They quoted a price of 3500 for the Galaxy Note III. I went to the shop of Eason's friend and he said there was no way a legitimate one could be purchased for that price. He said it must be fake. I went back downstairs, but I did not want to talk to the two guys running the shop I had been to before, because I was becoming more and more convinced that they were trying to cheat me. To avoid dealing with them, I turned and went down the escalator into the basement. I thought to go to the other end of the market and find another way up and out. When I stepped off the escalator in the basement, I noticed another cell phone shop. I looked briefly at the phones on display, and the proprietor asked me, "Can I help you with something?" I really hadn't planned to stop and talk, but I have been in Beijing for ten years, and this was the first time a merchant in the electronics market had addressed me in English. I was so taken aback that I couldn't help wondering what in the world he was doing here. I said, "Well, actually, I've been looking at the Galaxy Note III." What he said next blew me away.

"Do you want the fake one or the real one?" He was serious.

I said, There's a fake one?

"Yes." He showed it to me.

I said, "But it says "Samsung."

"Yes, I know, but it's fake. I'll show you how to tell."

Turns out the fake one sells for 1900 RMB. That was the price he quoted me. But later, he told me that most shop owners buy it for 1500 and sell for anything from that to 2000. That means that if the guys on the first floor were trying to sell me a fake one, they would be making a handsome profit.

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