Best Reads, 2011

In no particular order other than how they came to mind, my 'best reads' of 2011:

Snowflower and the Secret Fan, by Lisa See — A great novel about the relationship between two "sworn sisters" in mid-19th century China. You can read a previous post about the book here. Note: resist ALL temptations to see the movie with the same name. Except for the name, they have virtually nothing to do with one another.  There are no words to describe how awful the movie is.

Nothing to Envy, by Barbara Demick– A riveting and depressing look at life inside North Korea, as told to the author by those who have escaped.

Country Driving: A Journey Through China, from Farm to Factory, by Peter Hessler — Truth be told, anything written by Peter Hessler is worth your time. In this book, he writes about China's emerging 'car culture' by telling three stories: of a drive across China following as close to the Great Wall as possible; of the changes that a road brings to the lives of villagers outside Beijing; and of the highways linking the factory towns of eastern China.

Midnight in Peking, by Paul French.  Set in pre-war Peking, this is about the investigation of the brutal murder of a young British girl in 1937. It reads like a novel, but it's all true! You can read a previous post about the book here.  This book is scheduled for release in the US on April 24, 2012.

God is Red: The Secret History of How Christianity Survived and Flourished in Communist China, by Liao Yiwu. Author Liao, who himself is not a believer, intereviewed Christians all over China to try to understand the growth of Christianity in his homeland. The stories are amazing.

City of Tranquil Light, by Bo Caldwell. Caldwell tells the story of a young missionary couple in China in the early decades of the twentieth century in two voices: the husband's recounting of their life lookiing back, and the letters of the wife written as the events unfold. I also recommend Caldwell's book The Distant Land of My Father.

The Secret History of the Mongol Queens: How the Daughters of Genghis Khan Rescued his Empire, by Jack Weatherford. I was inspired to read this following my trip to Mongolia last fall. It did not disappoint. I think the title speaks for itself.

Tent Life in Siberia, by George Kennan.  This is my all-time favorite travel book, about a group of entrepid adventurers who are dropped off along the frozen shores of the Kamchatka Penninsula of Russia in the mid-1800's, with instructions to find a route across Siberia for a telegraph line. They hire some local guides and dog-sledding teams, and off they go. I notice that it is currently FREE in Kindle format on Amazon.  If you've got a Kindle, download it right now!

 Happy Reading!

Reading Assignment — Urban Migration

Imagine, if you will, every single person in the United States packing up everything and moving — not just to a different house, but to a different city or state.  Pretty hard to imagine, right?

But that’s exactly what’s happening in China today, as urbanization continues at an unprecedented pace.

David Pierson, of The Los Angeles Times, describes what this means for China in an article titled “China Grapples with Mass Migration from Villages to the City:”

It’s been called the largest migration in human history: An estimated 320 million Chinese will leave small villages and rural counties to start new lives in cities over the next decade and a half.

It’s the equivalent of everyone in the United States packing their belongings and changing addresses.

Urbanization is the linchpin to China’s development. It raises standards of living and encourages residents to become consumers.

But as Tom Miller describes in his upcoming book, “Urban Billion” (Zed Books), the process thus far has been messy and uneven.

Pollution is choking Chinese cities. Breakneck growth has sapped urban areas of their character. Millions of new city dwellers work at low-wage jobs and don’t have access to social services.

“Simply moving a farmer into a flat does not make him an economically significant consumer,” writes Miller, the Beijing-based managing editor of the China Economic Quarterly. “On the contrary, if policymakers do not extend social welfare to migrants and fail to integrate them into the urban economy, greater urbanization could merely create a gargantuan urban underclass.”

From what I can see this urban underclass already exists.

As they say, read the whole thing.


A Second Glance

In 1997 my sister and her family traveled to China to spend Christmas with me in Changchun. While they were in town, we visited a miiddle school.  This was of particular interest to my three nieces, who were all still in middle school and high school at the time.  The following essay about that visit was written by one of my nieces  3 years later for an assignment in her Freshman Composition class in college. She has graciously given me permission to post it here:

As my family and I made our first steps through the classroom door, about thirty pairs of dark, glistening eyes followed our movement as we walked to the front of the room. I had never felt so out of place and awkward, so blaringly white. I was far from home in the unfamiliar city of Changchun, China, on a family vacation visiting my aunt who works as a teacher. She had arranged for us to visit a junior high school to talk to the students and answer their questions. I don’t remember what I expected when I walked into that classroom–probably nothing. But I didn’t leave the classroom that day without learning something that would stay with me forever.

My platinum ponytail and red Polo jacket stood out against the dozens of navy and white uniforms and heads of jet-black hair. The students’ faces came to life as they saw us enter. A surge of nervous giggles and hushed exclamations rippled throughout the room, stirring and awakening the calm that had been present moments earlier.

“It’s cold in here,” my sister whispered, cupping her hand so that her words wouldn’t get lost in the space around us. “And a little drab,” she added. I scanned the room, drinking in the surroundings. I was enclosed by monotone grayness: the walls, the floor, the desks were all gray. Cracks and crinkles that plagued the bare walls looked like the aging skin of an old man.

I thought back to the rooms at my middle school in Miinnesota where barely a fraction of the wall peeked out behind brightly colored posters and decorations. Glossy, laminated clippings of “Peanuts” cartoons loosely related to fractions were proudly displayed on the walls of the math room. Gigantic posters hung from the walls, printed with words such as “Attitude is Everything!” in loud, rainbow-colored bubble letters. Maps of the world peppered the walls of classrooms and paintings of Monet and Picasso covered the halls. Videos narrated by grinning teens in braces taught us to respect our peers. A step into the classroom was like walking into a mental playground; we were bombarded with stimuli to strech and challeng our budding minds.

The atmosphere of the classroom in Changchun, China, paled in comparison to the place I was used to. I almost pitied them. However, when I walked into that classroom, I was unaware of how much I would discover that looks can be deceiving.

The room quited to a hush as my dad, mom, and two sisters tiptoed to the five rigid wooden chairs that were set poised and elevated at the front of the room. The squeaks of our chairs broke the silence, which was so thick it seemed like a substance. I was now facing the class, looking straight into those thirty pairs of shining eyes, attached to thirty little bodies, which were straining to keep an explosive amount of curious energy from escaping. I was just as curioius as they were. I wondered what they were itching to ask; I wondered what I was going to say.

As soon as my aunt said a few brief words to them in their own language, thirty arms shot up in the air and started wiggling. It was question-and-answer time. I could hardly contain my grin as the students’ enthusiasm filled every corner of the room. My aunt called on a tiny girl with shy eyes. When she asked the girl if she wanted to practice her English she blushed and nodded.

“W-what…music…do…you…listen?” she asked, painstakingly crafting the words through a thick accent. She put everything she had into forming that sentence, and she beamed when we understood and responded.

Next, my aunt called on a boy wearing a starch-pressed shirt towards the back of the room who wanted to know about Wall Street. The question marks written all over the faces of my mom and sisters matched my own. Luckily my dad scraped up an answer while my aunt translated for the students.

I lost track of the minutes as time rolled by. My aunt told the students my sisters and I sing together, so they begged us to sing something in front of the class. We were apprehensive at first, but we worked up the nerve to sing our old stand-bys, “‘Amazing Grace” and “My Girl.” As layers of harmonies and melodies filled the room, the students’ faces shone like bright stars. I was startled by their thunderous applause. We asked them if they had anything to share — a song or poem to recite. I was sure no one would volunteer. I thought again of my school back home and imagined the reaction of myself and my peers if given a chance to share a song or poem with the class. There would be scoffing, shoulders hunching, and eyes heavy with apathy.

“Yeah, right! Get up in front of everybody and look stupid?” we would say. We have learned from an early age how painful it is to be slapped in the face by the harsh snickering of peers. Risks are not to be taken, and no one wants to be singled out. Despite everything we have been fed, even after all the sayings, the posters, and the videos, we simply do not care. But far away, in this junior high classroom in China, I stood face to face with a passion I had never witnessed before.

I had thought no one would volunteer to share with the class.  I was wrong. Two volunteers. Five. Eight. Fifteen! Arms from all over the room began to rise. Some shot up boldly, while others inched out from their comfortable homes beneath the desks.

One boy’s performance left an impression on me I will never forget. His plump cheeks seemed to swallow his eyes, which were barely visible behind his thick, smudged glasses. A few sprayed sprouts of hair floated away from the rest of his head. But as he rose to speak, he seemed to grab ahold of all the space in the room. His words came out as forceful bullets, his full, booming voice resonating off the blank walls. He spoke with such passionate fervor that every person in the room was frozen in his spell, unable to look away. I didn’t understand the language, and it wasn’t until later that I found out he was reciting a political poem about Hong Kong’s recent return to Chinese sovereignty.

When he was finished, he slowly and silently eased his way back into his chair. I peeked at the other students, bracing myself for the giggling and pointing I was sure I would find. I dreaded the humiliation he would have to face. However, to my shock, there was none. Instead I saw nods of approval, supporting smiles, and words of praise for the young boy.

As I peered out into the faces of the students, I saw something foreign to me. It wasn’t in their complexion. It wasn’t in the almond shape of their eyes or the black color of their hair. These students were filled with more curiousity, life, and encouragement for one another than I have ever seen before. I was ashamed of the lifelessness and disrespect that I took part in. The surroundings of this Chinese classroom may have been gray, but it was the spirit of the students that splashed the room with a prism of color. They didn’t need pretty pictures, sings, or sayings. The light that gleamed in their eyes and the passion they carried with them did not come from a poster on the wall.  It came from within.

I don’t think you’ll be suprised that my niece got an A for that essay.  She went on to major in ESL in college, and has since taught in Mexico, Guatemala and South Korea, and is currently working on an MA in TESOL. Who knows….maybe she’ll teach students like this in China someday.



Upcoming Talk: My Literary Journey to Being a Sinophile

According to, a Sinophile is “a person who admires or has a strong liking for China, the Chinese, or their culture.” After 25+ years in China, I guess I qualify.

In addition to my own experiences, which I write about on this blog, books have played a major part in helping me understand China.

On January 12, 2012, I will be giving a talk at the Ramsey County Library in Roseville, MN. The title of the talk is “My Literary Journey to Being a Sinophile: Books that have Shaped My Understanding of and Love for China.

I’ll talk about books that have been influential in my “China life” at various times, including my current list of “must reads.”

So, if you’re in the Twin Cities and are interested in reading a book or two about China, but don’t know which book or where to begin, then this talk is for you.

Here are the details:

Date: Thursday, January 12, 2012

Time:  7:00PM

Location:  Ramsey County Library Community Room, 2180 N. Hamline Ave., Roseville

Hope to see some of my Minnesota readers there.


Reading Assignment — Soccer, Scrap, and Street Vending

People in China love soccer (football), but even more they love to hate their soccer teams and players. In an article titled Why China fails at football, The Economist explores the abysmal state of Chinese soccer and why there seems to be little hope for improvement.

In a country so proud of its global stature, football is a painful national joke. Perhaps because Chinese fans love the sport madly and want desperately for their nation to succeed at it, football is the common reference point by which people understand and measure failure. When, in 2008, milk powder from the Chinese company Sanlu was found to have been tainted with melamine, causing a national scandal, the joke was: “Sanlu milk, the exclusive milk of the Chinese national football team!”

Everyone is free to take aim, and publicly. When China was dispatched 2-0 by Belgium in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing (pictured above), a presenter on national CCTV said: “The Chinese football team decided to get out quickly, so as not to affect the people’s mood while they watch the Olympics.” Chinese fans chanted for the ouster of the head of China’s Football Association, Xie Yalong. The authorities sacked Mr Xie shortly after the games.

All this hints at something rather unique and powerful about the place of football in Chinese society. It is, like all organised sport in China, ultimately the domain of the government; so, according to the Communist Party’s normal methods, senior football officials should be provided at least some protection from scrutiny. In general the secretive state machinery of sport is shielded from public inspection, as it manufactures medal-winning Olympic athletes in dozens of disciplines. Chinese football, though, is so flagrantly and undeniably terrible and corrupt that all potshots are allowed: at officials, referees, owners and players—even, implicitly, at the heart of the communist system itself.

Adam Minter, who blogs at Shanghai Scrap has written a fascinating article for The Atlantic about where your discarded Christmas lights go to die (or shall we say be recycled). It’s titled The Chinese Town that Turns Your Old Christmas Lights into Slippers.

A single strand of burnt-out Christmas lights weighs almost nothing in the hand. But a bale of burnt-out Christmas tree lights the size of a love seat? That weighs around 2200 pounds, according to Raymond Li, the general manager of Yong Chang Processing, a scrap metal processor in the southern Chinese town of Shijiao. He would know: on a recent Saturday morning I stood between him and three such bales, or 6600 pounds of Christmas tree lights that Americans had tossed into recycling bins, dropped off at the Salvation Army, or sold to a roving junk man. He had bought that 6600 pounds for my benefit, to show me how his company’s Christmas tree light recycling system works.

The huge volume was nothing unusual for Shijiao, the world capitol for recycling the old, unwanted Christmas tree lights that Americans throw away every year. Yong Chang recycles around 2.2 million pounds and Li estimates that Shijiao, located about an hour’s drive from Guangzhou, is home to at least nine other factories that import and process similar volumes. Combined, the factories here process in excess of 20 million pounds annually.

Have you ever wondered what it’s like to be a street vendor in China? Tricia Wang, a blogger/anthropologist recently spent a few days living and working as a migrant street vendor, offers a glimpse of the brutal life of a migrant worker in urban China:

This has been my schedule for the last 3 days:

4am     wake up and prepare bikes, put battery in
5am     head to market to buy fresh food for lunch
8am     return home, clean and wash vegetables
10am   cook food, load up bicycles, eat breakfast/lunch
11am   bike to the construction site and sell food
2pm     bike back to home, unload bicycles, clean pots & bowls, put stools & stuff back inside home
3pm     head to market to buy fresh food
5pm     return from market, wash vegetables, cook food
6pm     bike to construction site, sell food
8pm     bike back to home, unload car, clean bowls and pots
9pm     eat dinner
10pm   go to sleep


Discuss among yourselves.

(Photo source: The Economist)




Run for the Border

It seemed like a fun idea at the time — to climb the sand dune over there…..the one on the other side of the short barbed wire fence, the fence that looked like it was merely surrounding a pasture to keep the cows in. Fortunately the two People’s Liberation Army soldiers who had attached themselves to our merry (but clueless) band intervened just as Max and Mr. S each had one leg on the other side of the fence.


“DON’T CLIMB OVER THE FENCE!” they both shouted excitedly.  ‘THAT’S RUSSIA!”


Faster than they could say “where’s my vodka?” Max and Mr. S scurried back to the sand dune where the rest of us were — the one that was in China — where we all got a thorough, yet friendly and lighthearted scolding.


We were at one of the most interesting geographic spots on the globe — Fengshan, in Jilin Province — a place where the borders of Russia, China, and North Korea converge. Obviously we were in China.  The Chinese road from the city of Hunchun to the border is along a narrow strip of land that is China.  To the north (on the other side of the barbed wire fence) is Russia. Across the Tumen River that parallels the road to the south is North Korea.


We had heard that this area had been developed into a tourist spot, so on a holiday weekend in October of 1997 we decided to make a run for the border….to get a glimpse of all 3 countries. 7 of us from our language program set out by overnight train from Changchun to Yanji, where the train line ended . From there we weren’t sure how we’d get to Fengshan, but we were confident in our ability to improvise.


Our first order of business when we got off the train in Yanji was to ask around for information on how to get there. I don’t think it ever occurred to us how strange it might be for a group of Americans to wander around asking everyone we saw how to get to the North Korean border.  Most people looked at us like we were nuts, but one young man seemed eager to help us. That’s because he was the owner of a van, something he quickly surmised we were in need of. He told us that Fengshan was beyond the town of Hunchun (about 100 miles away).  He was from Hunchun, and he’d be happy to drive us there since there was no train service.  We negotiated a price, piled in and off we went.


Halfway between Yanji and Hunchun we stopped in the Chinese city of Tumen, which sits across the Tumen River from a dilapidated North Korean town. We wandered around town, took a few photos, then continued on our way to Hunchun. We had no idea where to stay, but our friendly driver took us to the local “approved hotel for foreigners.”


When we rolled into Hunchun for the night , however, we were still only partway to our destination — Fengshan. Now what?  I asked at the front desk and they told me they’d never heard of it. The van driver, who was lingering around for the entertainment value of watching 7 bungling foreigners chimed in and said he’d go ask some of his friends.  He came back about an hour later saying that he’d gotten information and would be happy to drive us out there the  next morning.  We negotiated a time and price and settled into our rooms above the Karaoke Bar.


The next morning the driver dutifully showed up with his wife and child in tow.  It was a public holiday in China, so they decided to make a family trip out of it. We all climbed in and set off across beautiful hills covered with fall colors.


About ten miles from our destination, we came upon an army checkpoint with a big sign announcing that we were entering the border region.  Uh-oh.  An armed PLA soldier appeared on the road and ordered the van to stop.  He stuck his head in our van, saw 7 foreigners and the driver, his wife, and kid and barked “Where’s the tour guide?”  I quickly raised my hand. “I am the tour guide!” This elicited a confused look from the soldier since the internal logic of that statement was impossible to process.  Tour guides are  Chinese. Foreigners are tourists (and potential spies).  Therefore, this Foreigner CANNOT be the tour guide. The soldier looked at the driver as if to say “I’m holding YOU responsible for this situation” but he just smiled and said “She really is the tour guide. Her Chinese is good, though, so it’s OK.” He then told the soldier how we were just foreign students out for a holiday weekend.


We all held our breaths, fearing that, having come so close to our destination, we would now be turned back. The soldier turned to us all and asked for our passports.  GULP!  Passports?  None of us had our passports with us. In those days we all had green Foreign Residence Permits that we carried with us at all times. This functioned as our passport when travelling. Fortunately we all had those along with us, and that seemed to be fine with the soldier.  He took them all and headed into the guard house.


After a few minutes, the soldier returned with our passports and told us we could proceed. Whew! As he walked away, two young soldiers ran over and hopped into the van with us.  They told us that they had the day off and wanted to go to Fengshan tos, so they were just hitching a ride with us. I had a sneaky suspicion that they were being sent along to make sure we stayed out of trouble, but they insisted it was just a fun outing for them on their day off. We happily adopted them into our group.


We drove the remaining ten miles to  the Fengshan Scenic Spot, took some pictures of Russia and North Korea, read President Jiang’s inscription carved into a rock, then headed back.


It was while we were heading back towards the army checkpoint that we had the little incident at the sand dune. Coming up the highway we’d noticed some big sand dunes on the north side of the road. Max suggested it would be fun to stop and climb to the top of one. So we did. This seemed to make the soldiers a bit nervous, but they let us climb anyway.


Well, they let us climb until Max and Mr. S. spotted the bigger dune about 50 yards away and started climbing the small fence to get to it, at which point the they ordered us all back into the van.


As we bounced along the road back to their post, I asked them “you were really sent to keep an eye on us and make sure we didn’t cause an international incident, weren’t you?”  This time they admitted to us that yes, that had in fact been their mission.


Mission Accomplished.







The North Korean town across the Tumen River from Tumen, Jilin, China.








The meadow and trees in the foreground are in China. The road and building to the left are in Russia. North Korea is on the other side of the river.  The train bridge links Russia and North Korea. The river empties into the Yellow Sea, about 5 miles further up the river.


Some Thoughts on “Ping An Ye” (Silent Night)

Note: This is an essay I wrote in 2001.  

“Silent Night” is probably the most loved of all Christmas carols in China, at least among those who know Christmas carols.  In this society, “sweet” music tends to be favored by the masses and “Silent Night” is definitely in the “sweet” music category.

In Chinese, it is called Ping An Ye (Peaceful and Calm Night). Somehow, in the past few years, Christmas Eve has come to be known as “The Silent Night.” Ping An Ye.

I first heard Christmas Eve itself referred to as the Silent Night back in 1997 when my sister and her family were spending Christmas with me in Changchun.  At that time, Christmas was just beginning to seep into the consciousness of urban Chinese.  A few stores sold trees, there were Santas here and there, but that was about it. I had taken my three teenage nieces to a local beauty parlor for a hair wash/massage — one of the cultural experiences on the list for them.

So there we were, on Christmas Eve in China’s Northeast, getting our hair washed.  The girls loved it, and the workers in the beauty parlor were thrilled to have three gorgeous foreign girls to ‘work on.’ We chatted about lots of things, then one worker suddenly said, “Hey it’s the Silent Night! What do you usually do in America on the Silent Night?” We explained to them that it was normally a quiet night (ping-an, in fact), a time when family and friends are home together. I assured them that going out to get our hair washed was definitely not an American Christmas Eve custom.

Fast forward to 2001….much has changed in China since that Christmas in1997. Where once Christmas was barely heard of, it has now become a grand consumer festival. The evidence is everywhere.  Enough Santas to sink a ship. Sitting in MacDonald’s listening to The Chipmunks sing “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” Christmas Carols — religious and secular — blaring from all the shops.  Sheng Dan Jie — The Holy Birth Festival — is in. It’s hip.  It’s cool. And it’s culmination is Christmas Eve — Ping An Ye — the Silent Night.

Only Christmas in urban China has become a party night — a night to go  out to eat, to shop, to be with your ‘significant other.’ Even Schlotzky’s Deli had a special romantic meal for two, complete with goblets of wine. St. Nicholas meets St. Valentine.

I was out with a colleage on Christmas Eve, trying to get to a church service. As we sat in a traffic jam, my friend told me of a conversation she’d had with a student the week before. They were discussing Chritmas and its rising popularity in China.  Like us, the student was puzzled. “Why is China doing this,” he wondered. “We have our own festivals and holidays.” Admittedly, since we were stuck in the mother of all traffic jams on the 2nd Ring Road, we shared that sentiment.

One thing we were sure of, however, was that in modern China, Christmas Eve is anything but ping an.

Previous posts related to Christmas in China:

Santa on a Scooter

No China, No Christmas

The Silent Night

Christmas Trees in Shanghai

Christmas in China

Do you have a “Christmas in China” story?

(photo source:

Chinese and North Korea

With the news today of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il's death, many are looking to China and wondering how it will react.  Officially China is North Korea's closest ally ("as close as lips and teeth" was how The Chairman used to describe the relationship), but unofficially it's the unpredictable neighbor who's insane enough to blow up the neighborhood.

Every Chinese person — from taxi drivers to close friends — that I have talked to about North Korea has said essentially the same thing to me: "North Korea? They're crazy….just like we were during the Cultural Revolution."

I've never been entirely sure how to respond to that statement.

When North Korea was acting up last summer, shelling a South Korean island, I asked my taxi-driver friend about it:

Me: China is the only country in the world that has any leverage. Why don't your leaders do something about this guy?

He:  Because every time Chairman Kim comes to town he tells our leaders that at least one of his missles is pointed at Beijing and if they don't support them, he'll fire it.

It was the first analysis of China's dealings with North Korea I'd ever heard that truly made sense.