The Parking God and the Parking Demon

Two of the video clips that have gone viral in China this month are of drivers parking their cars. One man in Fujian Province is exceptionally good and has come to be known as the “Parking God of Fujian Province” because of his skill in maneuvering his car into an insanely tiny space.

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I love the way he just exits and re-enters the parking space just to show off!

And if that man in Fujian is the “Parking God,” then perhaps this driver in Jiangsu, who obviously has absolutely no idea how to get his car out of the parking space, should get the title “Parking Demon.” 15 times he hits the other cars!!

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It reminds me of the time years ago when I was out with a friend who had just gotten her license. We got into a situation that required a 3-point turn and she didn’t have a clue how to do it. “I don’t know how to go backwards,” she told me. She eventually made me get behind the wheel and execute the maneuver.

You can read more about the “Parking God” at That’s Magazine.

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Happy Birthday, Alaska Highway

On this day 50 years ago, the Alaska Highway was officially opened to military traffic, only 8 months after work began. Here’s how Wired reports on the anniversary:

Until the early 1940s, Alaska was a neglected U.S. territory. The Klondike gold rush of the 1880s and ’90s was a distant memory, and oil had not yet been discovered. There were a bunch of trees and rivers and snow, but nothing really worth exploiting, so the vast wilderness was pretty much left to the bears and the hardy few who lived on the frontier.

Although proposals had existed since the 1920s for building a highway through western Canada into Alaska, the Canadian government wasn’t very keen, and the plans were shelved.

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, coupled with their military incursions into the Aleutian Islands, changed things in an instant. Suddenly, Alaska became a potential Japanese invasion route to Canada and the Lower 48, so both governments agreed that the road would now be built.

Military necessity dictated the route. It was a far cry from the original highway-commission blueprints and their more topographically friendly, meandering roadways. The Alaska Highway — like the Burma Road for moving Allied supplies from northern Burma to China — would take little account of mountains, wilderness, water or elevation.

The U.S. Army assumed control of the project, and the Corps of Engineers — augmented by thousands of civilian contractors — began construction through the northern wilderness. By any measuring stick, it was grueling, backbreaking work.

In the end, the 1,500-mile highway, stretching from Dawson Creek in British Columbia to Fairbanks, Alaska, was completed in an astounding eight months. In many places, it was a “highway” in name only, instead resembling a glorified footpath with stretches of unpaved road, murderous switchbacks and no guard rails or shoulders. Vehicles had a tough time negotiating the road, and traffic didn’t really pick up until 1943.

After the war, major improvements were made to the highway, and it opened to general traffic in 1947 when wartime travel restrictions were lifted.

To commemorate the anniversary, here are some photos our drive up the Alaska Highway in 2013. Happy Birthday, Alaska Highway, and thanks for the memories!

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Mile Zero in Dawson Creek, B.C.

After leaving Dawson Creek, one of the first historical sites along the highway is a memorial to soldiers who lost their lives in a ferry disaster on Charlie Lake.

Charlie Lake, BC

Memorial to Ferry Disaster on Charlie Lake, BC

One of the most famous sites along the Alaska Highway is the Sign Post Forest in Watson Lake (Mile Post 635), home to  more than 100,000 signs. I’m guessing that the homesick soldier who started it in 1942 never imagined what it would grow into!

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Sign Post Forest, Watson Lake, Yukon

And a few shots along the highway….

Alaska Highway

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Is the Curse of Kenny G About to be Lifted?

In my early days of blogging, back in 2005, I wrote a post titled The Curse of Kenny G, in which I went on a bit of a rant about the popularity of Kenny G in China.

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Here’s what I said:

A great mystery here in the Middle Kingdom is the Chinese love affair with Kenny G, the bushy-haired soprano sax player, who anchors the “smooth jazz” genre of music. Kenny G music blaring out of stores, or wafting through hotel lobbies is as ubiquitous here as chopsticks and dumplings (OK, so I exaggerate, but only slightly). Once upon a time, I hate to admit, I liked Kenny G. music. But that was before I moved to China, where his music is impossible to escape from. For those of you who’ve never heard Kenny G (oh, how I envy you), it’s romantic, it’s soft, its’ sweet….and music that is sweet is irresistable here.

Ok, so what’s set off this little anti-Kenny G tirade this evening? This afternoon, a friend and I went off to visit the newly-restored section of Beijing’s old city wall, which runs east from Chongwenmen. It has been turned into a lovely park, and the old watch tower has been restored and now houses a museum. This particular section of the city wall was built during the Ming Dynasty, in the early 1400′s. The place just oozes history, and we went on top of the wall to soak it all up. Unfortunately, someone had decided that it’s necessary to pipe music all along the wall and through the park, and even more unfortunately, this afternoon that music was Kenny G music!! Augh! Is there no Ming Dynasty music available? Not a spot in the park was out of range of the music. I tell you, it’s a curse!! The curse of Kenny G!

I wonder how it gets broken!

Today, 9 years later, I think that curse is about to be broken. It seems that Kenny G was in Hong Kong yesterday and turned up at one of the protest sites to express his support. As you can imagine, it did not sit well with the Powers That Be in Beijing. Here’s how The Guardian reported it:

Most governments aren’t too bothered by what jazz saxophonist Kenny G does between concerts, but when he turned up at pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, Chinese authorities were furious.

On Wednesday he tweeted a picture of himself making a victory sign in front of a poster reading: “Democracy of Hong Kong” and wrote: “In Hong Kong at the sight [sic] of the demonstration. I wish everyone a peaceful and positive conclusion to this situation.”

Within hours, the foreign ministry in Beijing had issued a frosty condemnation.

“Kenny G’s musical works are widely popular in China, but China’s position on the illegal Occupy Central activities in Hong Kong is very clear,” ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told a daily news briefing.

“We hope that foreign governments and individuals speak and act cautiously and not support the Occupy Central and other illegal activities in any form,” she added.

Dan Levin, writing in The New York Times, highlights the popularity of Kenny G in China:

In one of the more inexplicable mysteries of Chinese culture, his 1989 saxophone ballad “Going Home” has for decades oozed from speakers across Chinese public spaces at closing time, triggering rapid exits by the masses. The song has no lyrics, yet somehow, when it is played in a mall, Chinese shoppers know what to do. They go home.[…] But an opposing theory that surfaced last week on Twitter said that Beijing might send Kenny G to Hong Kong to play “Going Home,” and that the protesters, who have occupied sections of Hong Kong’s business districts for weeks, would finally disperse.

You can read a fuller exploration of the popularity of this song in Dan’s May 2014 article China Says Goodbye in the Key of G: Kenny G. Be sure to watch the video clip as well.

I’m guessing that Kenny G’s music will henceforth be a lot less ubiquitous.

In other words, it’s entirely possible the curse is about to be lifted.

 

{Photo by Ryan Wise, via Flickr (creative commons license)}

A Conversation with Peter Hessler

One of my favorite China writers, Peter Hessler, recently sat down with a reporter for Xinhua, China’s official news agency, to talk about his books, as well as the joys and challenges of writing about China.

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Hessler’s books are all worth a read:

Rivertown (2001)

River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze (P.S.)

Oracle Bones (2006)

Oracle Bones: A Journey Through Time in China

Country Driving (2010)

Country Driving: A Chinese Road Trip

Strange Stones (2013)

Strange Stones: Dispatches from East and West

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Only One “Why?” Question Per Day, Please!

A month or so ago I was having a lovely outdoor dinner with group of friends, one of whom was a high school kid from Beijing studying at a school here in the Twin Cities and living with an American host family.

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As we were sitting around the picnic table, frantically grabbing for brats, corn on the cob, and slathering butter on french bread, the Chinese kid piped up. “Here’s a question for you — why do you put butter on bread?”

It stopped us dead in our tracks; I am pretty sure that not a single person at the table (except for the other Chinese person) had ever in their entire lives given a thought to that question.

“Why do you put butter on bread?” he asked again.

“Well, because that’s what we do. And besides, it’s delicious!”

After we sat there with our brains on pause and our jaws agape, I attempted an answer that I thought a Chinese person might understand.

“Because that’s what our European ancestors have been doing for thousands of years. Butter belongs on bread. That’s just the way it is!”

That seemed to work for him.

When I do training/orientation programs for people going to China, I often spend time talking about both the duty and danger of asking the question “why?”

If the “why” question is being asked as a genuine attempt to understand something, then it’s a good question — a necessary question actually.

However, for outsiders trying to live well where we don’t belong, it can quickly become a cover for whining and venting, because the underlying assumption is that since it is not the way it’s done back home, then it’s stupid. In this case, the “why?” question is not helpful and may actually get in the way of understanding.

I always urge my trainees to limit themselves to one why question per day.

Things that insiders NEVER think about may seem confusing to outsiders — even something as ‘mundane’ as putting butter on bread.

So, if you’re living cross-culturally, it’s probably good to limit yourself to one “why?” question per day.

{Photo by Ralf Brotbraken, via Flickr. (Creative Commons)}

 

Insiders and Outsiders are Different

When I first went to China many years ago, one of the things that I and my American colleagues found most annoying about living there was the difference in price between what we paid for things and what our Chinese friends had to pay. For us, a train ticket was 400 yuan; for our Chinese friends it was 200. Why? Because there was a “foreign price” and a “Chinese price.”  End of discussion, thank you very much.

Since there are not many things that upset an American faster than feeling like he/she is being ripped off, this two-tiered pricing structure was a constant irritant.

Mutianyu Great Wall

In the mid-1990’s, while studying Chinese, I stumbled across a Chinese expression that was a ‘key’ to helping me understand what was going on. I was working through a textbook called Speaking of Chinese Culture that taught about key Chinese cultural rules and values. One chapter was on this Chinese concept called nei wai you bie (内外有别), which means “insiders and outsiders are different.”

I asked my tutor how this notion played itself out in every day life, and she said, “Well, it’s why you have to pay more for the entrance ticket to the park than I do.”

“You mean, they’re not doing it merely to cheat me?” I asked.

“No,” she replied. “Why should you, as an outsider be treated the same as an insider?”

Lights, bells, and whistles went off in my head, exploding in a cacophony of comprehension. Suddenly, so many other things that I had seen and experienced began to make sense.

A few years later, I was studying with a professor in Beijing who added to my understanding by explaining to me that the clearest example of the concept was The Great Wall. (Hmm…that’s not what the tourist posters say.)

In the Chinese worldview, there are two kinds of people in the world: Chinese and foreigners. Unlike the English usage of the word “foreigner,” which is a relative term, in Chinese it is absolute. Like the terms Jews and Gentiles, they are mutually exclusive. A Chinese cannot be a foreigner and a foreigner cannot be a Chinese.

A few months ago, I had the opportunity to teach an orientation session for a group of Chinese high school students visiting Minnesota for 2 weeks. I started off with a little “worldview disruption” activity. I asked them a question, “shenme shi waiguoren?” (“什么是外国人?”) What is a foriegner?

Even though I could tell by the looks on some of their faces that they suspected it was a trick question, 3000+ years of education and cultural conditioning led them to shout with one accord “You are!”

“Wrong,” I said. “For the next two weeks, YOU are!”

They laughed, firm in their belief that I had gone stark-raving mad.

I also saw this illustrated vividly in Beijing many years ago when I attended a talk given by Israel Epstein, a then 89-year-old White Russian Jew who had come to China as a 5-year old to escape the pogroms in Russia. He had stayed on in China, becoming a Chinese citizen, and becoming active in the revolution that brought the Communists to power. He even became a member of the Chinese Communist Party.

I went to the talk with some Chinese friends, and afterwards pressed them on this point. “In your eyes,” I asked, “is he a Chinese or a foreigner?” They all agreed that, notwithstanding his 80+ of living in China, and his Chinese citizenship, he was still a foreigner.”

Traditional Chinese culture does not hold that “all men are created equal.” Instead, it is not only acceptable, but also proper, for different kinds of people to be treated differently. This is the way the world is ordered. A two-tierd price structure is not a problem to be solved; rather it is the way it should be.

Interestingly enough, China did away with the official price discrepancies in the late 1990′s in order to meet WTO requirements, but unofficially it still remains in place. A foreigner will often pay more for vegetables in the market than his/her Chinese housekeeper.

Sometimes this concept cuts the foreigner’s way, however, since the strong sense of hospitality in Chinese culture dictates that guests be treated with utmost honor and respect. While we may be foreigners, we are also waibin (foreign guests), and are therefore entitled to certain privileges and opportunities that are not afforded to locals. Sometimes we’ll be escorted to the front of lines; sometimes ushered into the pews at the front of a church or assembly even as Chinese are being moved out. It may go against my western notion of fair play, but in China, it’s what you do for a foreign guest. It’s just being polite.

Living well where you don’t belong means graciously living as an outsider, with all the accompanying frustrations and undeserved privileges.

 

Pittman Hall

Last night I had the privilege of joining my mother and other members of our family at the annual Honoree Dinner at the University of Northwestern-St. Paul (formerly Northwestern College), in Roseville, MN. We were there because the university has recently seen fit to honor my father by naming two residence halls after him: Pittman Hall North and Pittman Hall South.

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At the dinner, they presented my mom with a framed copy of the plaque that now hangs in the entry of each of the buildings.

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Here’s what it says:

Dr. Samuel “Sam” Pittman served as chair of the Bible and Missions Department from 1973 to 1991 and as professor of cross-cultural ministries until his retirement in 1998. He came to Northwestern after 17 years of missionary service in Pakistan with his wife Grace, and their two daughters, Janet and Joann. Pittman was a godly, humble man who loved Christ supremely, loved his students, and was always available to them. The Pittmans regularly opened their home to students and served as mentors for many students who went on to serve Christ at home and abroad. Pittman was known for his wonderful sense of humor; he was never guilty of taking himself too seriously, but he did take his teaching very seriously. He holds a place in Northwestern’s history books as never missing a class due to illness in his 25-year teaching career. Pittman always challenged his students to think for themselves, and to do things with their lives that would make a difference.

Even though my dad would just roll his eyes and say “that’s silly,” we are grateful to the university (which he loved dearly) for bestowing this honor on him.

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An Insane Collection

I was recently talking with a Chinese friend in Minnesota who had just returned from a road trip to New York and Washington with her husband. “Tell me something interesting you have observed in your travels around the US this year,” I said to her.

“Every little town has a museum,” she told me. “In China,” she said, “only the government runs museums and they are mostly about ancient history. But here, there’s a museum about everything.”

I thought it was a brilliant observation.

Shortly after that conversation, I ran across this short film at China File about a man in Sichuan who runs a bunch of small museums near Chengdu. These museums house millions of items he has collected over the years, many of which represent events and eras the government would rather people forget about. The title of the film is “Collecting Insanity.” From the introduction:

Every country has a past it likes to celebrate and another it would rather forget. In China, where history still falls under the tight control of government-run museums and officially approved textbooks, the omissions appear especially stark. An unusual museum dedicated largely to what is absent in China’s self-presentation is the subject of Joshua Frank’s short film “Collecting Insanity.” Frank tours the Jianchuan Museum Cluster, of Fan Jianchuan, an ex-official and real estate magnate, in the town of Anren, near Chengdu. The group of exhibits, named after Fan himself, display their owner’s collection of millions of historical artifacts, gathered over a lifetime of obsessive accumulation. Fan’s museum displays objects from various historical events, including the officially memorialized Sino-Japanese War and the far more taboo fallout of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.

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