Reflections on a Wandering Life.....
Tuesday, August 11, 2015
Interesting story. I think many Americans would be inclined to shrug their shoulders and say, "That's China." True, but also not true. It's true because it actually happened. But it's not true because that's only one part of China. I'll tell you another story to illustrate what I mean. I have stayed at the Foreign Experts Building on the campus of Northwest Normal University in Lanzhou several times. One time I was coming into Lanzhou, so I called Holly at the Foreign Experts Building and told her I would be coming. She welcomed me. When I got there, the place was packed to the gills. There was some kind of conference or something, and there was absolutely no room. Holly told me not to worry. She was very busy (of course), but she left someone else in charge of the place and insisted on walking me over to the International Students' dormitory where she had arranged for me to have a room. She told me to come the next day and they would have a place for me. That was a pretty important favor, because I didn't have anywhere else to stay. Kunming has lots of youth hostels, but Lanzhou doesn't have any.
You see, the first story is true--I didn't make it up. That's China. But the second story is also true, and that's also China. And I have had many more experiences like the second story than like the first. Many more. A couple days ago, I was at a bus stop trying to figure out which bus to take. I was frustrated, because in Beijing they have an arrow showing which way the bus is going, so you can easily see whether you are going the right direction, or if you need to cross the street and take a bus in the other direction. In Kunming, no arrows. There was a young lady standing there, and I asked her if she knew which way I should be going to get to the stop I was headed for. She asked me for my ultimate destination and then told me that there was no bus going there from this stop. She insisted on walking me to another bus stop where I could get a connection. She showed me a short-cut along the railroad tracks for about 150 meters. She walked boldly down the middle of the tracks, stepping gingerly from one tie to the next and I walked along the side. As we were walking, she continued to lecture me about how the bus system worked. When we got to the bus stop, she explained how the sign indicates which direction the bus is going, using characters instead of an arrow. It was all very simple, and as soon as she pointed out the characters to me (开往), I saw it, but I would not have noticed it without her help. A bus stopped. As soon as the door opened, she stepped forward abruptly and gave me a brief lecture on the ticketing system. She explained how to tell what the fair was (they have regular busses and air conditioned busses) and the different ways of paying, and she made the driver wait until she was through with her lesson. When she had assured herself that I was situated, she told me she had to go and she left. Just like that. That's unusual? No, that's China. I have had so many experiences like this in the years I have been traveling in China.
There's another thing about a blog post like this that can be very misleading. This blog is written in English, so I have related these conversations as if they took place in English. In fact, none of them did. None of the encounters I have told you about would have been possible if I had not taken the trouble to learn a little Putonghua. I don't know...the last young lady who showed me the bus system looked to be in her twenties--it's possible she spoke a little English. I didn't ask her, because I did not want to give any idea that English language proficiency was a prerequisite for being able to help me. That would have been self-defeating. As a general rule, if young people feel comfortable with English, they will answer you in English even if you start the conversation in Chinese. She did not, so it's a pretty safe bet she perhaps did not feel comfortable with English, although most young people have better language ability than they give themselves credit for. But basically, if you want to travel by yourself in Western China, you need to learn Chinese. I was lucky, because when I first came to Beijing I lived very near Wudaokou, which has many small language schools for studying Mandarin. There are expensive ones, but also cheap ones. It was 12 kuai an hour when I signed up for two hours a day during the first year I was in China. In 2009-2010 I did it again, and the price had gone up to 30 kuai for an hour-and-a-half. That's cheap. That's China. I don't take classes anymore, because I'm too busy and I don't live near the language schools now. But I developed a twenty-minute listening and reading exercise that I go through every day. I also have some other study projects--chiefly the one I set up with friends from church to study the Japanese and Chinese Bibles. I try to work away at that a few nights a week. But I do the listening exercises every day. The reason I am so picky about listening is because even if your grasp of a given language is not strong, it's amazing what you can get by with if you basically understand what people are saying to you. And speaking naturally follows listening. Young people in China are very self-conscious about their speaking ability. They always tell me that they can read and understand better than they can speak. So what often happens is that they neglect listening and focus on speaking. They want to get their speaking level up to their listening level. Big mistake. Your listening ability will always be greater than your speaking ability. The most affective approach is to forget about speaking and focus on listening. If you get your listening comprehension up, your speaking ability will be right behind. Young people always want to focus on speaking. That may be a good short-term approach, but it is not a good long-term approach.
But I digress. I got off on that language tangent because language is the chief reason some foreigners have a negative view of China. Foreigners who never learn Chinese and spend all their time in Beijing do avoid some unpleasant experiences. But they also miss out on a lot of extraordinary human kindness such as I have received from ordinary people all over this country. That's China.
Monday, August 03, 2015
This is pretty good stuff, you guys. Probably a good thing I don't live in this town. Dali has a lot of expat hangouts. In that respect, Dali is a lot easier to live with than Lijiang. This one is called "Hello Dali." It's run by an American lady who grew up in China. The main problem with Dali this year is that there was some Chinese movie in the past year that featured Dali. So swarms of tourists are flooding through Old Town. Most of them do not stop. They come riding through in trams and look around--just doing the tourist thing so they can say they've been here. But there are plenty of others, too. If you know the town well enough, you can find the places on side streets that do not have too many tourists. But it really does get tiring trying to avoid them. Dali is scenic, but a bit overwhelming because of all the tourists. Not like Lijiang, but getting that way. The other problem with Dali, is that the government has all but completely taken over the key tourist areas. Er Hai Lake used to be a place where you could get a ride on a little village boat or something. No more. And there is no real individual hiking on the mountain. You have to follow a tourist path, and it is not cheap. I met a mountain man from England who told me about a different route so I may try it sometime. But this place does not really lend itself to "hiking up in the hills" the way I like to do. Still, it is pretty, and the air is beautiful.
Wednesday, July 22, 2015
Kunming. Same elevation as Denver, same latitude as Honolulu. That unusual combination makes for cool, mild summers. Last year I flew to Chengdu and waited a few days until the rain stopped in the mountains before I headed up to the Tibetan Plateau. I eventually worked my way down to Kunming, and then returned to Beijing from there. This year I flew directly to Kunming instead of Chengdu. Chengdu is actually closer to the Tibetan Plateau, but the problem with Chengdu is that it is a very hot city, so it's not really a reprieve from Beijing. The advantage of flying to Kunming is that you are in cool country as soon as you get off the plane.
As I landed in Kunming, I was reminded of the first time I visited this city fourteen years ago. It was my first trip ot China. We did a project up in the mountains on the first bend of the Yangtze River. The difference between flying into that little frontier airport fourteen years ago, and the monstrosity they have now is almost impossible to describe. China has a lot of money, and they are pouring it into infrastructure.
Monday, May 11, 2015
Click for larger image.
During the time that I lived in America, I was an elementary teacher for a number of years. In my profession, there was complete equality between men and women with respect to individual incomes. We were paid according to a matrix negotiated by collective bargaining. An individual man and an individual woman with exactly the same education and exactly the same years of experience had exactly the same salary. Yet even back then there was considerable discussion about how to address the disparity between men and women with respect to average incomes. Women often spend several years out of the work force during their childbearing years, and this affects the averages for all women. One idea being discussed was to give women credit on the matrix for the years they spent at home raising their children. But do you know who objected to that most strongly? Not men. No, it was the women who had stayed in the work force and paid for daycare all those years.
So, to the question: What should be done to narrow the gap between average salaries for men and women?
Answer: Nothing. It's an unworthy goal. The reason it's an unworthy goal is because the only way to accomplish it would be to force women to be in the work force for exactly the same number of years as men. But would anyone want to live in such a world? The other day I was listening to Elizabeth Elliot on BBN Radio talking about her mother. I found myself asking, "Is there still room in today's world for this kind of mother?" If the answer to that question is still "yes," then we have to accept the fact that average incomes for men are going to be higher than those for women. You see, the ideal society is not a society where all women are forced into the work place away from their children. The ideal society is a society where a woman who wants to work can have any job she wants and can expect to be paid exactly the same as any man who has the same education and experience as she does, but also where a woman who prefers to stay home with her children is free to do so. There is no way that average incomes for men and women would be the same in such a world. The math just isn't there. So the problem with the gender gap is not that it is too wide, but that it is too narrow. In an ideal society the gap would be considerably wider, since I'm sure we can all agree that if every woman who would prefer to stay home with her children could afford to do so, there would be even fewer women in the work force than there are now, and thus, women would have fewer average years of experience than men.
But what about turning it around? How about a world where men and women took turns staying home with the children? Would this work? I think it could perhaps be done to a larger extent than it is now, but men will never stay home as much as women. Unweaned children are not easy to care for. Once they are weaned, it is easy. But there is that period of time before they're weaned when it is really tough. It's hard to explain the frustration of holding my precious little one, and she is crying her little heart out and sucking on my shirt pocket and I don't know how to tell her that I'm really not trying to starve her to death, I just don't have anything to give. As I said, once they are weaned it's a whole different ball game. Weaned kids are easy to please. Perhaps I am saying this partly as a matter of comparison--I was an elementary school teacher, so I took care of kids for a living, and it's easier to take care of your own kids than to take care of someone else's. Anyway, I fully understand that not everyone is into working with kids, I'm just saying that I think anyone who has will tell you that it is much easier to care for young children after they get to the point where you can feed them manually, or they can feed themselves. But before they are weaned, it's really frustrating.
China and America are basically the same--both parents work. Japan is different. In Japan, women are expected to leave the work force at about 25 years of age and get married. A women over 25 who applies for a job is almost viewed with suspicion. I was talking with a woman from Beijing who is married to a Japanese man. She said she went to apply for a job once, and the boss asked her, "Does your husband allow you to work?" No boss in America would ask a question like that if he valued his life. In China, it probably would not occur to him to ask. So China and the US are basically the same in that regard, but with one important difference: In China, there is a built-in cultural expectation that grandparents should care for their grandchildren. This is starting to change now, but I still see a lot of children with their grandmothers. So women usually can expect that the little one will be raised by the grandmother (usually the father's mother). I have tested this assumption many times.
Every year I ask students, "How many of you want to get a job when you graduate?" In a class of 25 students, usually about 20 of them will be women. When I was teaching database in the Software College at Beihang University it was the opposite, but I am teaching at an arts school now. At first they don't get what I am driving at, but then I ask, "How many of you would prefer to marry a rich man so that you don't have to work?" No takers.
I try to sweeten the pot a little. "How about if he buys a car for you?" Nope.
"How about if he hires a maid so that you don't have to do any housework?" Maybe.
"His mother will be your servant." That might get a hand or two.
In the main, though, women expect (and want) to have a career. I'm sure part of the reason is that I teach college freshmen. They are focussed on school right now, so the idea of throwing it all away after all they went through to get here is not going to be appealing. I suspect the answers would be different if I asked the same question down the road a few years.
This year, I tried a completely different approach. I said, "If you had a really good job, how would you feel if your husband stayed home and cared for the children, and then you could support him?" They spat that one out without chewing it.
"If he is my husband, then of course he should provide for our family! He's a man!" Another young lady stood to her feet. "I cannot accept this. I do not want to marry a small white face!"
When young ladies in China talk about their own careers, they sound like feminists. But they're not, really. They expect men to be men. I was asking the question seriously, because I had read about a couple here in Beijing who chose to try that approach. She had a very good job and made a lot more money that he did, so they decided that he would be a house-husband and stay home with the children. She said it was hard for her to come home from work after a long day and see the children all running to their dad to talk about what they had done in school or something. He was the mom. Come to think of it, if I remember correctly, this was a Chinese American couple who had come back to China to work. Perhaps this would not be accepted in ordinary Chinese culture. Would I do this myself? Well, I would not want to do it for a lifetime, but I think for two or three years I could accept it. Kids only have one childhood, and if you have to make a few sacrifices to make it a secure one, I think you should be willing to do that. But I think we can all agree that in most societies, the predominant stay-at-home parent will be the mother. For how long? It's hard to nail it down to an exact time period, but we'll say eighteen months. Most children would be able to be weaned by eighteen months. So multiply eighteen months by the number of children and you have the minimum amount of time that a mother would need to be out of the work force to provide for unweaned children. But that's just the minimum. Many women will elect to stay home until their children are in school. But even after they start school, some mothers will feel that it is better to be more or less available. How many grade school kids do you know who wouldn't rather come home to a mother if they had a choice between that and an empty house?
Even good kids get themselves into trouble when they lack supervision. I remember years ago, I was walking across an open field in North Dakota and I saw a neighbor kid standing by a pole. It was in the dead of winter--maybe 10 below zero. I couldn't figure out what she was doing there. But I could hear her crying. As I came near, I saw what had happened. Walking by the pole she just couldn't resist the temptation to stick out her tongue and touch the pole with it. Of course, her tongue immediately froze to the pole and she was a prisoner. I said, "Hold still." I took my fingernail and scraped her tongue away from the pole. She lost a little skin off the tip of her tongue, but other than that she was none the worse for wear. Kids need parents.
Some people seem to have the idea that professional women are not capable of being stay-at-home moms. But that's not necessarily true. Perhaps we can agree that they have a harder time making that decision, but once they have made it, they are often very competent homemakers. They are educated, intelligent, often well organized and often have well-developed people-management skills. So if they can figure it out financially, not a few of them will be inclined to extend that eighteen months a few years. In fact, many professional women who originally intended to return to the work force after a few years, end up becoming entrapraneurs in order to give themselves greater flexibility. So they will experiment with a variety of options and spend many more years out of the work force than they originally intended. Is this a bad thing? Maybe in some cases, but I would think that most women who have done it would tell you that the benefits gained were well worth the cost of putting family first. But that cost does include spending significantly less time (on the average) in the work force than men, and thus, having a significantly lower salary.
Of course we believe that a man and woman who do the same job should be paid the same. But to advocate a society where average salaries for men and women are exactly the same is to long for a world too horrible to contemplate. May it never be.
Friday, April 03, 2015
Click picture for larger image.
Went to Think in China again last night. The Italian guy has lived in China for twenty years as a journalist. His point was to emphasize the greatness of change in China as compared to the west. He said that in the West we still dress pretty much like our grandparents. But In China, people a couple generations back would not look anything like they do today. Considering the issue of China's authoritarian system, he used an interesting analogy from the traditional method of cooking Chinese dumplings. He said you add cold water as the water is boiling to bring the temperature back down. So China tends to restrict certain activity to moderate it. If they didn't want the water to heat up at all, they would just turn off the burner. There is considerable merit to this notion. So during the Q and A section, when I asked about the actions of the party last summer in tearing down crosses in the city of Wenzhou, he tended to minimize it. He is partly right. But he was not very well informed. He said the government did not destroy any churches, and that is not true. Still, his point is well taken and worthy of consideration. The powers that be are not foolish enough to think that they can wipe out Christianity. They used to think so, that's for sure. But they have left that thinking behind. They do try to moderate Christianity in ways that seem bizarre to a westerner. In the United States you wouldn't see the leader of a community ripping crosses off churches just because he thought they were unsightly. But the repression clearly does not represent a determination to eliminate Christianity. They haven't turned off the burner. They just added a little cold water.
The Chinese professor I have heard before. He was much more philosophical about issues like pollution than I am. He said that there is a trade off when a country is in a state of development. He kept comparing China to India. That is a little worrying. If the best you can say is that you're a little bit better than India, things are not going well. But when I talked to him afterward, I mentioned the recent pollution video, and he did say, as seems evident, that is some debate now in the government, with some supporting the recent video by the CCTV broadcaster, and others opposed to it.
Although both of these guys tend to emphasize how much freer China is today than in the past, they were both quite artful in their statements about anything related to the Party. They know what country they are in. Still they did make some interesting points, and it must be admitted that the Party does allow more of this kind of discussion, especially if it takes place in a venue that is perceived to be dominated by foreigners rather than local Chinese people.
Tuesday, March 31, 2015
American young people have a more complicated college life. It's pretty hard to get buy without a car in the States. And many students have part time jobs that take up their time. But after they graduate, American young people have fewer social expectations on them than Chinese young people. There is less inclination for parents to push their children to get married as soon as possible. And when they go get married, they are pretty much free to buy a house when they feel the opportunity is right.
But that having been said, everybody has some stress in their life, and we all have to learn how to deal with it. So I asked my students to tell me what they do to cope with stress. Here are some examples:
Talk with friends.
Talk with my parents.
Eat and sleep.
Talk with my friend and cry.
Watch horror movies and scream.
Singing loud and dancing with passion.
Take a shower.
Read a book.
Listen to music.
Eat some chocolate.
Buy something online even if it's useless.
Tuesday, March 24, 2015
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
Thursday, March 19, 2015
Monday, March 16, 2015