The Chinese are Coming!

During my first year in China (1984) I was an English teacher at a small teachers college in Zhengzhou, Henan Province. My students were middle school English teachers in smaller cities around the province. Many had previously been Russian teachers, but were now being re-trained as English teachers. For most of them, I was the first foreigner they had ever seen.

As is common practice in an EFL classroom, I tried to come up with activities to get the students to practice; to actually use the language (not something they were used to). Of course, asking questions that require some thought is a good technique.

I remember asking my first class of students “if you could go anywhere in the world, where would choose, and why?” and being greeted with absolutely blank stares. To me it was a rather simple question, but for them the possibility of traveling to another country was so far out of the realm of possibility, and thus the realm of what they could imagine, that they couldn’t even answer the question. I might as well have been asking them what planet they would like to visit and why.

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Not so anymore. According to an article on the travel website Skift, there were over 100 million Chinese tourists traveling abroad last year, and by 2019, that number is expected to nearly double:

Here are the numbers: 174 million Chinese tourists are tipped to spend $264 billion by 2019 compared with the 109 million who spent $164 billion in 2014, according to a new analysis by Bank of America Merrill Lynch. To put that in perspective, there were just 10 million Chinese outbound tourists in 2000.

How much is $264 billion” It’s about the size of Finland’s economy and bigger than Greece’s.

I have seen this first hand since moving back to the States from China 2 years ago. I have had the opportunity to travel quite a bit around the United States and Canada. Every single place that I have been I have heard Chinese being spoken. And I’m not just talking about the famous and oft-visited places such as Las Vegas, Pike’s Peak, Disney World, or Chicago’s Miracle Mile. I have run into Chinese tourists in some pretty out-of-the-way places, from sand dunes in Utah to ferries in Southeast Alaska.

And now, a half-dozen of my friends in Beijing have 10-year tourist visas to the US.

One of my favorite Chinese phrases is relie haunying (热烈欢迎), which literally translated is “warmly welcome.”

Here’s to hoping that’s what Chinese visitors to the US will experience!

Photo: CRI English

Eye of an Eagle

I have a new favorite day trip out of the Twin Cities — the National Eagle Center in Wabasha, MN. Here’s how they describe themselves:

The National Eagle Center is a world-class interpretive center located on the banks of the Mississippi River in Wabasha, MN. We are home to five rescued eagles, four bald eagles and one golden eagle. During a visit to the National Eagle Center, you can experience these magnificent creatures up close.

The Upper Mississippi River Valley is home to hundreds of bald eagles. Many choose to build their nests in the tall trees along the river valley. Hundreds more bald eagles arrive here in the winter months, as the Mississippi River remains open around Wabasha year round.

The Center houses a small museum chock full of information about eagles. In addition they are the custodians of 5 rescued bald eagles (“Eagle Ambassadors”), which can be viewed “up close and personal.” Here are a few of my photos:

national eagle center

national eagle center

national eagle center

You can read about each of the eagles here. They are magnificent!

So if you haven’t been there already, get thee to the National Eagle Center in Wabasha! It’s just 2 hours from the Twin Cities.

A Book for St. Patrick’s Day

If you haven’t done so already, today would be a great day to start reading How the Irish Saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland’s Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe, by Thomas Cahill.

How the Irish Saved Civilization Publisher: Anchor; Anchor Books ed edition

 Here’s the blurb from Amazon:

The perfect St. Patrick’s Day gift, and a book in the best tradition of popular history — the untold story of Ireland’s role in maintaining Western culture while the Dark Ages settled on Europe.

Every year millions of Americans celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, but they may not be aware of how great an influence St. Patrick was on the subsequent history of civilization. Not only did he bring Christianity to Ireland, he instilled a sense of literacy and learning that would create the conditions that allowed Ireland to become “the isle of saints and scholars” — and thus preserve Western culture while Europe was being overrun by barbarians.

In this entertaining and compelling narrative, Thomas Cahill tells the story of how Europe evolved from the classical age of Rome to the medieval era. Without Ireland, the transition could not have taken place. Not only did Irish monks and scribes maintain the very record of Western civilization — copying manuscripts of Greek and Latin writers, both pagan and Christian, while libraries and learning on the continent were forever lost — they brought their uniquely Irish world-view to the task.

As Cahill delightfully illustrates, so much of the liveliness we associate with medieval culture has its roots in Ireland. When the seeds of culture were replanted on the European continent, it was from Ireland that they were germinated.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

The Power of a Tweet

In a follow up to yesterday’s post about the disappearing pollution documentary in China, it’s interesting to note that it was a US Embassy Twitter feed that jump-started the conversation and concern about the growing problem of air pollution in China.

cctv in smog

 

A recent article in Wired tells the story in a post titled How the US Embassy Tweeted to Clear Beijing’s Air. Here’s a short excerpt:

WHEN THE US Embassy in Beijing started tweeting data from an air-quality monitor, no one could have anticipated its far-reaching consequences: It triggered profound change in China’s environmental policy, advanced air-quality science in some of the world’s most polluted cities, and prompted similar efforts in neighboring countries.

As the former Regional Strategic Advisor for USAID-Asia, I have seen first-hand that doing international development is incredibly difficult. Billions of dollars are spent annually with at best mixed results and, even with the best intentions, the money often fails to move the needle. That is why I was so inspired by the story of the US embassy’s low-cost, high-impact development project. They tapped into the transformative power of democratized data, and without even intending to, managed to achieve actual change.

Here’s how it happened.

In 2008, everyone knew Beijing was polluted, but we didn’t know how much. That year, the US Embassy in Beijing installed a rooftop air-quality monitor that cost the team about as much as a nice car. The device began automatically tweeting out data every hour to inform US citizens of the pollution’s severity (@beijingair).

For the first time in China, publicly available data focused on one of the most dangerous types of air pollutants, PM2.5—airborne fine particles less than 2.5 microns in diameter or about the thickness of a spider web’s thread. These tiny particles are small enough to penetrate your lungs and even enter your blood stream, causing serious cardiovascular and respiratory ailments. In fact, experts have recently shown that air pollution is responsible for more deaths worldwide annually than malaria and HIV combined.

In 2010, it became official: Beijing’s air quality was deemed “crazy bad” by the Embassy when the pollution exceeded the bounds of the EPA’s air quality index. This inadvertently undiplomatic tweet reached a growing audience via third-party apps that circumvented China’s twitter firewall. People were attracted by the reliability of the Embassy’s data, which helped them make daily decisions—whether it was safe to let their children play outside, for example.

This data often painted a bleaker picture than did the Chinese official pronouncements. Beijing residents, dissatisfied with the crudeness of China’s air quality monitoring efforts, put pressure on Chinese officials to acknowledge the scale of the problem and start taking proactive measures to tackle it.

I was living in Beijing at the time and followed this Twitter feed right away (although there were many days I wished I hadn’t). We knew the smog was bad (we could see it and taste it), but now we knew just how bad!

I remember the day a tweet declared the pollution in Beijing to be “crazy bad,” and the subsequent temper tantrum thrown by the Chinese government. As the article notes, they demanded the embassy stop monitoring and publishing the air quality measurements, to no avail. They even threatened to do monitor and publish information on the air quality in Washington in retaliation, to which the embassy responded, in effect, “go ahead, make my day.”

With the publication of this data, the jig was up for the Chinese government. No longer could they tell the people that the murky air was just fog.

It wasn’t long after all this that Twitter was blocked in China.

 

Now You See It; Now You Don’t

A week and a half ago as a dress and a couple of llamas were melting the Internet in the US, Chinese netizens were gripped by an online documentary. The film, titled Under the Dome, is a hard-hitting look at the effects of pollution in China. It was posted on February 28, and within 48 hours had been viewed by 100 million people. Yes, you read that right, ONE HUNDRED MILLION!

By March 6, that number had reached 200 million!

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Here’s how the BBC describes the film:

Renowned investigative journalist Chai Jing has been widely praised for using her own money – more than 1 million RMB ($159,000: £103,422) – to fund the film, called Under the Dome. She first started the documentary when her infant daughter developed a benign tumour in the womb, which Ms. Chai blames on air pollution.

Standing in front of an audience in a simple white shirt and jeans, Ms. Chai speaks plainly throughout the 103-minute video, which features a year-long investigation of China’s noxious pollution problem.

At times, the documentary is deeply personal. Near the start of the documentary, Ms. Chai interviews a six-year-old living in the coal-mining province of Shanxi, one of the most polluted places on earth.

“Have you ever seen stars?” Ms. Chai asks. “No,” replies the girl.

“Have you ever seen a blue sky?” “I have seen a sky that’s a little bit blue,” the girl tells her.

“But have you ever seen white clouds?” “No,” the girl sighs.

Given the fact that the documentary is quite critical of the government’s lack of attention to the problem, many were surprised by the fact that it was online at all, especially at such a sensitive time leading up to the National People’s Congress. Perhaps that’s one reason it went viral so fast – people knew deep down that the government censors would eventually step in; everyone was trying to see it (and perhaps download it) before it was taken down.

Well, that finally happened on March 6. With the authorities apparantly feeling that 200 million viewers were a significantly greater threat to social stability than 100 million, the order went out for its removal from the Internet. Social media sites were told to disable sharing of the video and by Friday night it was gone from China’s major video sites, Youku and Tudou. Now you see it; now you don’t!

Fortunately, however, the video is available on YouTube, and English subtitles have been added. You can watch it in its entirety here (if you dare).

For an excellent discussion on the significance of this documentary and what it might mean for China’s future efforts at tackling the problem of air pollution, I highly recommend checking out a discussion piece at China File: Why Has This Environmental Documentary Gone Viral in China?:

In a country where media is tightly controlled, it is surprising, if not unprecedented, to see the unimpeded release of a self-funded investigative documentary about one of the most sensitive topics challenging China’s growth, especially when the film is critical of more than a few government agencies and is circulating so widely just ahead of the annual convening of China’s main legislative body. Following below are contributor reactions to what has been described at China’s “Inconvenient Truth.”

You can read it all here.

Photo: Upworthy

Friday Photo: Flying the Flag

Three years ago today Noel Piper and I boarded a ferry in Yichang for a 36-hour run up the Yangtze River to Chongqing. It was Day 3 of our “Esther Expedition.” This photo was taken off the bow (that would be stern) of the ferry as we passed through one of the cities along the river.

flying the flag

 

To read more about the ferry voyage, you can check out these past posts:

A Tale of Two Tickets — the Ferry

A Three-star Tourist Boat