My Brief Brush with (non) Olympic Glory

I spent most of the decade of the 1990’s in the northeastern city of Changchun, where I was the director of a program for Americans who were studying Chinese. Our program was a joint venture with a university there, so I and the foreign students that I supervised all lived on a campus.

One fall day, the director of the university department that oversaw the foreigner students called me into his office to discuss the upcoming annual sports meet. Part of his job was to make sure that as many of his foreigners participated as possible. He had asked me to recruit students in my program to participate in various events.

After I gave him the list, he asked if I wanted to participate in any of the events. I assured him that I didn’t. I hadn’t been in a sports meet since grade school and that was fine with me.

He wasn’t convinced, and our conversation proceeded roughly as follows:

He: I think you should do something.

Me:  I have no interest in doing something. I will cheer my students from the sidelines.

He: How about shot put? Would you like to compete in that?  You are very strong. (translation: you are fat)

Me:  Shot put?  I’ve never put a shot in my life!  Of course I don’t want to enter that competition.

He: But I think you would be very good at it.

Me: I think I would drop the heavy ball and break my foot!

He: I don’t think that would happen.

Me: Well, I’m quite sure that I would break somebody’s foot, or accidentally put the shot behind me and kill someone. I am a clutz!

He: What’s a clutz?

Me: Never mind.  I’m not going to participate in the shot put competition.

At this point he grinned sheepishly and pulled out a small booklet – the official roster for the sports meet. He opened it to the page where it said SHOT PUT and pointed to my name. I guess the entertainment prospect of them watching a ‘traditionally-built” foreigner hurl a heavy ball across a field was too much to resist.

He:  You have to compete. I’ve already signed you up and your name is in the booklet.

The official translation of that statement is of course “if you don’t do this, I and the department will lose face and you wouldn’t do that to me, would you, because after all we have been friends now for 5 years?” Meanwhile I’m wondering why no one ever thinks about my face – the foreigner’s face.

Knowing that I had been check-mated, I glared at him and said “OK, I’ll do it.”

The day of the sports meet arrived and I dutifully took my place with the other shot putters, all of whom were tiny college girls who barely weighed as much as the balls they were intending to throw. As I looked them over I couldn’t help thinking that given the size difference between them and me, I could probably toss them across the field just as easily as I could the ball.

The competition got underway, and I think you know what happened.

I did NOT throw the ball behind me, and I did not drop it and break my foot.

I did, however, throw it way further than the other girls. I was the winner of the event.

And for that, I was awarded a bar of soap!


One Neighborhood, Two Perspectives

A few weeks ago as I was savoring the pictures in a great photo essay on The Atlantic website called Scenes from 21st Century China, my eyes lingered on photo #37 because the caption said it was a Beijing neighborhood. “I wonder if I can figure out where the photo is taken,” I said to myself.

Tall apartment towers? That could be anywhere.

Lots of pink and coral colors…..hmmm, that seems familiar.

And that one building to the left…it looks just like the building I live in .

And the one next to it….. THAT looks just like the building I see from my living room window!

WAIT A MINUTE!!  This is a picture of my neighborhood, most likely taken from the CCTV Tower.

I focused and spotted other familiar buildings that house my neighborhood haunts:  the supermarket; the foot massage; the tailor; my favorite restaurant, and of course our beloved  Ruyi Business Hotel.

If you’ve ever wondered what my neighborhood looks like, this is it!

Since this photo was most likely taken from a couple of miles away with a very powerful telephoto lens, space is compressed, giving the neighborhood an appearance of being much more densely crowded than it really is.

Here’s a picture of the hood from street level.

 One neighborhood, two perspectives.

The Smoke is Nothing New

A big story in the news in China this week was a yellow haze that enveloped the central city of Wuhan. A couple of netizens went online and suggested that it was the result of a chlorine leak, which stirred up the masses, which forced the government to declare that there was no leak; the cause of the smoke was farmers burning off old stalks in their fields.

Then they arrested the rumor-mongers.

Since then there has been much debate about the plausibility of the haze being the result of smoke, with netizens (Chinese and foreign) wondering why this would suddenly be a new phenomenon, given the fact that peasants burn their fields every year.

Well, it isn’t new.

In the early 2000’s Beijing even had the word “smoke” as a category for the weather forcast.  I wrote about it in a post to this blog in November of 2005:

Tonight as I was riding home on my bicycle, I noticed the air smelled of smoke.  When I got home I checked the Yahoo! weather for Beijing (I need to know how many layers of clothes to wear tomorrow), and, under “current conditions,” it said, simply, SMOKE.  This is the only city I know of where SMOKE is one of the possible descriptors used for the weather report.  It’s not uncommon to get SMOKE this time of year because all across the North China Plains, peasants are burning the fields after the harvest.  I’ve been in rural areas of Shandong this time of year where it was so thick you could barely see across the street.

But here’s a thought….in a society where 70% of the males smoke, does anyone really notice?

Cough, cough.

Nobody fussed. Nobody started rumors. We just donned our masks or stayed indoors.

Peasants burning their fields and whole cities being enveloped by the resulting smoke is nothing new in China.

What is new is an internet environment that allows millions to go online and fuss.

[Image Source: The Raw Story]

Sneaking a Piano into a Labor Camp

During the Cultural Revolution, Zhu Xiao-mei, a budding pianist at the Beijing Music Conservatory was sent (along with some of her classmates) to a labor camp near Zhangjiakou, a small city about 100 miles northwest of Beijing. She would remain there for five years.

Life in the camp was brutal, but security was lax enough that she was able to escape for a time and make arrangements to have her piano secretly sent to the labor camp. With her beloved piano nearby, she was able to sneak off to practice, developing skills and using the piano as her means of coping with and healing from the brutality she suffered.

When the Cultural Revolution ended, she was allowed to return to the Conservatory to continue here studies. It soon became clear to her that there were no avenues in China to pursue her music, so she left for Hong Kong. From there she went to the US, and finally to France, where today she is an accomplished concert pianist.

Zhu Xiao-mei tells her story in the book The Secret Piano: From Mao’s Labor Camps to Bach’s Goldberg Variations. 

I HIGHLY recommend it.

She has also just released a new CD called Bach: Goldberg Variations.












Literary Journey — The Early 1980’s

In 1984 I set off for China to teach English for a year.  Before I left, the organization that I was working for sent me a book to read. It was the first book about China that I remember reading.  Just as that one year in China has turned into a 28 year sojourn, so too that one book also turned out to be the start of my literary journey. Since then I have pretty much read every book about China that I can get my hands on.

In an effort to track that journey I put together a list of books that have been particularly helpful to me in my attempts to make sense of the Middle Kingdom. Over the course of this week I will post more information about the books and their significance in my journey.

Please note that this list obviously reflects my interests, which run in the direction of political and social history. I acknowledge the absence of great Chinese literary works.

Pre 1984  (before I went to China)

The Chinese: Portrait of a People, by John Fraser

The China described by this Canadian journalist was pretty much the China that I encountered in 1984.  China was drab beyond description; everything was grey – the buildings, the clothes, the sky. There was no visible commercial activity: no stores, no shops, no street sellers, no beauty parlors, no restaurants, and no cars. Because the work units still controlled nearly every aspect of an urban dwellers’ life and suspicion of foreigners ran deep, Chinese were not allowed to befriend foreigners. If Chinese I knew wanted to invite me to their homes, they first had to seek permission from their work unit. As you can imagine, it rarely happened.

1984 – 1986 (while working in Henan)

Son of the Revolution, by Liang Heng and Judith Shapiro

In 1984, China was only 8 years from the end of the Cultural Revolution, a ten year period of chaos that had enveloped the country from 1966 until the death of Mao in 1976. This book is a memoir of a young man who came of age in China during those tumultuous days. I remember reading this book in China and being astounded at the brutality that had taken place so recently. It helped me understand the significance of what China was emerging from, and gave me a glimpse into the suffering that my own students and their families had experienced.

Thunder Out of China, by Theodore White and Analee Jacoby

White was a correspondent for Time Magazine who covered war-time China in the 1940’s. What gripped me most about this book was his account of the famine in Henan Province in 1943-1944 in which 10 million people died in the very province where I was now living. His description of the streets of Zhengzhou were horrifying, and haunted me as I explored the city on my bike.

Stillwell and the American Experience in China, 1911-1945, by Barbara Tuchman

What I hadn’t known before reading this book was the extent of US military involvement in China prior to 1949.  This book tells that story, beginning with the arrival of General Stillwell in 1911. It is an eye-opening account of American attempts to influence the building of a new China following the collapse of imperial rule.

Shantung Compound, by Langdon Gilkey

When the Japanese took over northern China in the 1930's one of the things they did was round up the foreigners in the region and incarcerate them in a prison camp in Weixian, Shandong Province. Gilkey tells the story of life in the camp.  The Japanese essentially told them, "We'll man the walls, but you are responsible to organize yourselves into a functioning society," something that proved challenging for several thousand prisoners from different countries, social classes, and religions. This book would be suitable for use as a textbook for all of the following subjects: history, anthropology, sociology, psychology, and political science. For a long time, I faithfully read this book once a year.

Have you read any of these?

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.


Reading Assignment – Youth and Women in China

I'm starting a new (hopefully) regular feature on this blog — weekly reading assignments. I will highlight a few of the interesting articles or posts about China that I've run across in the course of the week.

I guess you could call me a compulsive educator. 

Oh well.  There are worse things to be called!

Peter Ford has an article in The Christian Science Monitor titled "China's younger generation: lifestyle counts as much as work."  He writes:

"Until 1994, Chinese college graduates were assigned a job by the government and expected to stay in it for the rest of their lives. Blue-collar kids, as often as not, took the jobs their mothers and fathers retired from.

Even the freedom to choose an employer, when it was introduced, did not encourage everyone to do so in a country accustomed to an "iron rice bowl" – cradle-to-grave security – from the state.

Today's entrants into the workforce, though, are much more demanding, and they can afford to be, says Tian Zhimin, who heads a boutique employment agency in Beijing. "As China's economy grows, enterprises need to hire more talent and more different kinds of talent," he says. "There are a lot of job opportunities.""

The Economist has an interesting article on women in China titled "The sky's the limit; but it's not exactly heaven." Here's a snippet:

"Women make up 49% of China’s population and 46% of its labour force, a higher proportion than in many Western countries. In large part that is because Mao Zedong, who famously said that “women hold up half the sky”, saw them as a resource and launched a campaign to get them to work outside the home. China is generally reckoned to be more open to women than other East Asian countries, with Taiwan somewhat behind, South Korea further back and Japan the worst. And its women expect to be taken seriously; as one Chinese female investment banker in Beijing puts it, “we do not come across as deferential”.

Young Chinese women have been moving away from the countryside in droves and piling into the electronics factories in the booming coastal belt, leading dreary lives but earning more money than their parents ever dreamed of. Others have been pouring into universities, at home and abroad, and graduating in almost the same numbers as men. And once they have negotiated China’s highly competitive education system, they want to get on a career ladder and start climbing."




Popcorn with Chinese Characteristics

I well remember the first time I encountered a street-side popcorn vendor in China.  It was way back in September of1984, during my first year as an English teacher in Zhengzhou, Henan Province. I had travelled by train north from Zhengzhou to the small town of Xinxiang to visit a friend who was teaching there, and to help her celebrate her first birthday in China. 

We were strolling down the street outside the gate of her university, when all of a sudden there was a huge explosion on the sidewalk just ahead of us.  We hit the ground.  When the smoke cleared and we realized that we hand't been hit by a roadside bomb, we saw the popcorn man with his big toothy grin offering popcorn to the two stupid foreign women cowering against the wall.

How could we resist?

Here's a video clip of how it's done.


Source:  Matador Network

Where were you the first time you encountered a Chinese pocorn man?