Thursday, August 28, 2008

相信科学, 反对迷信 Believe Science, Oppose Superstition.

Racing back across the countryside to Beijing from the China-Brazil soccer game in the Chinese version of the Bullet Train, I happened upon this bit of propaganda on a once-whitewashed, now-dilapidated wall: Believe Science, Oppose Superstition. It was the first time I'd encountered this particular brand of governmental encouragement. And upon initial reflection, it made sense that I hadn't seen it before. The majority of my time in China has been spent in cities -- among the quarter of the Chinese population that is not only relatively or actually wealthy, but also “has culture,” which, interestingly enough, means they have rejected much of theirs.

I didn't think much of it until a few weeks later, when a new tutor/friend of mine recited that maxim almost verbatim. She's a graduate student in Chinese History. She also happens to have grown up not far from said-wall. My conversations with her have been quite a case study in what Believe Science, Oppose Superstition both permits and does not permit.


When I found out that Zhang Mei Jing was getting her Master's in History, I couldn't believe my luck. One of the reasons I've come here is to study Mencius, arguably the greatest Confucian scholar after the school's namesake himself. Most Chinese know as much about him as Americans do John Dewey, but she knew quite a bit. It was an auspicious beginning.

Saturday, August 16, 2008


China can be a rough place for people who like disagreement. I'm not talking about the macro-level that everyone's familiar with. Rather, it's the daily pursuit of harmony on the individual, micro-level that most interests me.

My first experience with this was when I was teaching persuasive essays to my English Composition students at Hangzhou Teacher's College. I had hammered the students on the basics of the essay, stealing catchy mottoes and lesson plans from my days teaching high school kids in Jacksonville: “Say what you're going to say, say it, say what you said.” It seemed simple, I wanted them to introduce a contrary position, support it, and then add a nuanced conclusion.

It wasn't working, my kids' essays were underwhelming, few of the essays even had thesis statements, the very thing I'd stressed the most while teaching them. Worried that I was missing something, I asked one of my best students about it. She mentioned that this was not the way they had learned to write persuasive essays, in English or Chinese.

“We were taught to write in a way that would allow everyone to agree with what we were saying, even if they didn't. Stating a contrary position upfront is going to turn off half of the readers right away. We don't say the theme of our essay until the conclusion, once everyone's had a chance to hear things they can agree with.”

Tuesday, August 12, 2008


“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun,
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.”

Frost, “Mending Wall”

While private ownership is relatively new to modern China, privacy is not. I doubt there is a country with more walls than China. There are few more tangible reminders of the insularity of Chinese politics, history, culture, relationships, psyche than the ubiquitous cement walls that divide and subdivide each city block and therefore, divide people. Chain link fences these are not. They are, bare minimum, seven to ten feet of solid concrete or steel bars, crowned with broken glass, metal spikes, or barbed wire (if you’re lucky). Cheever could never have written The Swimmer here, or, if he had, his swimmer would have had to carry a grappling hook with him from backyard to backyard rather than cocktails (sorry for the obscure reference, blame The Onion and its recent hilarious article on Cheever).

If it seems that I’m reaching for a topic on what is only my second post, I can explain. I live in a small, two-building apartment complex that occupies a tiny niche on the east side of a China-sized city block. The complex has two entrances: the east gate and the west gate. Sounds simple enough, but there’s a catch. The west gate is open twenty-four hours. The east gate is not. It’s a five-minute walk from the subway to the east gate, but since the north and south sides of our wall are sandwiched between other buildings, you can’t just walk around the apartment complex to the other side. To get to the west gate, you have to walk over a mile to the west side of the block and then sneak back through the middle of the block like it’s the Death Star. I’ve actually taken a taxi twice from the east gate to the west gate. When the driver asks me where I’m going, I point out the car window at my apartment, curse politely, and then say, “There.”

"You Don't Eat Green Vegetables for Breakfast? That's Why You're Fat."

As odd as it is that I might be paying more to board with a pair of retired pensioners than to have my own apartment, it is quickly proving itself to be a great investment.

This morning, while stalled for a writing topic, I decided to make myself breakfast. It was the first breakfast I had made after coming home with my haul from the grocery store yesterday, and it had that wonderful, healthy sense of infinite choice you have with stocked cupboards: I could eat any combination of juices, yogurt, breads, cheeses, etc, that I had dutifully stocked away either in the fridge or on one of my (four!) wardrobe shelves. I cut off two healthy portions of fresh French bread purchased from a surprisingly good European bakery down the street, warmed them up, slathered them with generous portions of peanut butter (delicious excess that flouts the meager, butter-type rations we were allotted in our youth), and then covered that deliciousness with a layer of sliced bananas. I then poured myself a glass of (drinkable) yogurt and relished my mature choices: eat your heart out, Total, this was a complete breakfast on a bun.

My roommates-emeritus broke my reverie. “Aunt Li” opened the door a crack and peered in, almost afraid of what was happening in her kitchen.

“You’re cooking breakfast?” She said with a half-smile, amused. She used that sentence as a password, pulling herself into the kitchen.The Chinese word for “cooking” that she used can be translated in a number of ways: making, cooking, preparing. On behalf of myself and of Western culture, I wanted to clear up the ambiguity.

“Well, not making breakfast, just putting together something simple. I usually eat a simple, but wholesome (I was sure to include) breakfast in the morning. This isn’t real cooking.”

“Uncle Shen” followed, boxers and t-shirt, in her wake. Shen is a serious man who makes you think he’s always about to smile – he was smiling now. He has a sort of isosceles triangle-shaped head dotted with tufts of white hair that would typecast him for a Chinese Mad-Hatter. His wife picked up a cucumber with her left hand and a ku gua (a quick google search told me it’s a balsam pear) with her right and continued to lay into my sandwich.

“You don’t eat green vegetables for breakfast?” She said, voice rising, cucumber shaking in disapproval at me like a long, floppy index finger, “You’re going to get fat.”

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