Miles from Home

China Commentary– Youthful Musings on the Environment, Culture & Development

Archive for September 2007

Mid-Autumn Festival of Laughs

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1.  I catch sight of two middle-aged gentlemen on my ride home from school.  They are moseying down the street at leisurely zombie-like speed.  And, as they do, these particular Chinese are rocking their pajamas.  This is as common as smokers with a cough.  However, they are wearing matching pajamas.  Two sets of top and bottom, striped sleepwear, capped off with a traditional pair of filthy flip-flops.  Now, to put the cherry on top, one of them is wearing a fancy tweed blazer.  Class, oh yes, class.

2.   My buddy and I ended up in some overpriced dump of an Italian “cafe” last night.  This was fine, for my friend is Italian, and the litany of profane remarks he had for every essence of this psuedo-Italian restaurant kept me in stitches.  As we are leaving this upscale rip-off center I catch sight of an older Chinese couple sitting a ways from us.  The man is clipping his lady’s fingernails at the table, flinging pieces of chalkboard-scratchers all over the place!

3 .  Parents holding children to pee in public is very common, but having your daughter pee in a plastic bag on the subway???

4.  NON-CHINESE RELATED:  How the hell did my bedeviled alma-mater actually upset the No.3 team in the nation?  Oh good golly, Colorado 27- Oklahoma 24!

5.  NON-CHINESE OR AMERICAN:  After watching the US women claim 3rd place in the FIFA cup tonight, I had the great pleasure of staying to watch Germany vs. Brazil.  German fans had gone gung-ho for Norway during the previous match.  So I had it out for ’em.  Unfortunately, I was left unsatisfied.  The Germans were outplayed for almost the entire match.  The exception came in the first 10 minutes of the second half, when Germany really cranked it up and scored its first goal.  The headed in their second (and final) goal off a late corner to ice it.    This is what I took away from the game:  if I ever wear a women’s soccer jersey, it will be Marta’s.  The Brazilian star is phenomenal.  Although she bricked a penalty kick tonight, she utterly dominated the game.  She made defenders look foolish, dancing and hustling her way through one-on-three or one-on-four situations.  So incredible, in fact, that she kept me mesmerized and hopeful through the entire 90+ minute game, that perhaps she could actually pull off the miraculous comeback.  Man, it never ceases to amaze me when you see people doing what it seems like they were always meant to do.


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September 30, 2007 at 3:33 pm

Our Role, Our Responsibility, Our Indignancy

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My uncle recently asked my opinion on a suitable metaphor for the development of China.  He is teaching a humanities class to high school students and wants to introduce a bit of Chinese tradition into the curriculum.

I lacked any amazing ideas.  The expanse and current trajectory of Chinese history afford an innumerable measure of words.  The Chinese never fail to mention their 5,000 years of existence.  It is a type of self-recognition, a stabilization of tumultuous times in the not-too-distant past.  It seems every corner of Asia, most recently Thailand and Myanmar, suffer neoteric setbacks of the human condition.  Usually, and painfully, of a massive order.

So I have been thinking of the additions and defining points of contemporary Chinese humanity.  After all, humanities classes, the study of the distinctly undefined by natural science, are an exercise in determining contributions to life itself.  How is life changing in China?

The Sept/Oct issue Foreign Affairs features an article by Elizabeth Economy titled “The Great Leap Backward?”  Economy, a terrific name for an FP writer, does an extremely apt job of describing how the economic development of China will be crippled by its wanton disregard for its own environment.  She also insists that the answers must come through a bottom-up approach, in which the citizens themselves must recognize the need for change rather than await the outcomes of an undulant authoritarian government.  In short, Chinese must go green.

The one weakness of her article rests in her intractable Western identity.  She insists the West, mainly the U.S., must help China recognize its inefficiencies and remedy them.  Like the good doctor on a house call.  ‘Hey, China, heard you had a bit of a cough from all the smog.  Take three of these and call me in the morning.’

The fact of the matter is that America is well aware of the looming Chinese environmental crisis, and I am hesitant to assume it wishes to alleviate the ailment.  After all, as large MNCs and government agencies well know, this condition is not a product of China; it is a byproduct of American enterprise.  We have manipulated China, from its farms to its factories, into our personal economic playground.  We can kick dirt in the sandbox at recess, but when that afternoon bell rings we head home.  We leave it to some poor chump to come shovel it all back in, to clean up our mess.

Knowingly, wittingly, we have dumped (outsourced) our worst polluting industries to China, i.e. CFC-producing manufacturers after the 1990 effort to save the ozone layer.  Continuously, and mercilessly, we have demanded products from China at whatever the cost.   Occasionally someone makes a fuss over child labor, but how often do we hear concerns over the environmental living conditions of all people in a place where 750,000 die every year from airborne pollutants?

We made China this way.  Now we are demanding it amend this part of its history, without taking any responsibility for it.  But, hey, that is what Americans do.  That is what we are good at.  “Why do they hate us?” Right?  “Why can’t China clean up its environmental mess?” Right?

It reminded me of another recent article I read.  Here, in this piece by Howard Bryant, we see a very poignant depiction of the American psyche.  One where history is ignored.  One where reaction belies repentance and repercussions beget animosity.  One where we tie the notions of justice, reality, and equality around the eyes of a women and make her pose like AbuGhraib.

Written by Miles

September 26, 2007 at 6:37 am

Sense of Purpose

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Two weeks of diligent studies.  I mean, hardcore, hours and hours.  Character after character, studying.  Trying to catch up in a class full of American-born-Chinese (ABCs) demands this.  And I demand it of myself.

It has been frustrating, humbling– mostly humbling.  Being the top student has always come naturally.  And now, I face an uncanny nemesis.  I find myself genuinely frustrated, questioning myself when I do not know an answer, like some fault, like I recently discovered the chink in my armor.  I knew I was confident, yes, cocky, but now… well, now, I am the one with the blank look and the drooping chin.  And it drives me, luckily.  It infuriates me.  I work harder, longer.

There is a sense of urgency.  Urgency.  I find myself more and more infatuated with this phenomena.  Perhaps it is my atheism, the belief that I am not going to get another chance at this whole “life” thing.  Accomplishments need accomplishing.  Sometimes, especially on Friday nights as I teeter on the precipice of debauchery, I devalue my aims.  What have I done since college?  There is a possibility I will be 26, homeless and career-less with my life packed tightly in a dufflebag.  What does this accomplish?  And then, I just breathe.  Take it in.  Let it out.  Doubt is inescapable.  I balance it with urgency, the motive to pick up tools and tinker with the wreckage.

Written by Miles

September 21, 2007 at 12:07 pm

Wipha 来了

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I woke up this morning unaware.  My nose has been buried in books, and Chinese tv isn’t much of a draw for procrastination purposes.  So, it was up and off to class as usual.  Outside was cool and a light rain was falling on the courtyard below.  Days before, under similar conditions, I had attempted walking to class.  What a drag.  By the time I got there I was sweating and wet up to the knee.  This morning would be different; like they say, when in Rome…

I grabbed my rinkydink turquoise umbrella, hopped on my squeaky half-new/half-broken bicycle and weathered the storm.  Squeaking with each peddle turn, I focused on not running over a civilian or being run over myself by hectic Chinese traffic– all while maintaining a turtleshell’s worth of rain protection with my offhand.  That’s right, Mary Poppins style.  I see Chinese do it all the time, I thought to myself.  And then I thought about some of the other things I see Chinese people do all the time… yikes.

Typhoon Wipha is expected to smash Shanghai’s coast between tonight and tomorrow morning. The drizzle of morning rain has increased steadily all day.  Around 3 o’clock this afternoon the skies were dark enough for me to wonder whether the sun had finally burnt out. It’s better now. A bit clearer, but that won’t last.

Certain areas of the world have different names for natural disasters. This will be my first “hurricane” in Western terms. I survived about a dozen minor earthquakes in Taiwan. Yet, I never had a typhoon hit while living there. Three have crossed over the tiny subtropical island in the one month since I departed.

Cross-strait charter flights also began today, connecting Taiwan and China for the coming Moon (Mid-Autumn) Festival. It’s rather symbolic that Wipha is spinning dead-center in the middle of the strait between Shanghai and Taipei. Only 24 flights offered by 12 airlines will fly from now to October 5. The local news agencies have cameramen at the airport shooting footage of people boarding these flights. The passengers are walking down a narrow hallway, with bored faces, looking completely and utterly normal. And yet, the weirdness of it all speaks to the differences– the hype, the simplicity of cooperation, the stubbornness of governments, notions of identity, bureaucracy, this incessant storm battering these communities.

Written by Miles

September 18, 2007 at 9:29 am

Updated Chimp

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You drop the kid on the island. Miraculously, within months, survival instincts force him to adapt. First water, shelter, food. Then he starts climbing Maslow’s hierarchy. He meets locals, and he adapts; he picks up the language. When his family finds him years later he is re-educated, completely re-programmed. At least that’s how it goes in the movies.

In real life? Well, we shall see. I decided, upon the urging or my peers, to up my Mandarin level into an intermediate class regardless of the fact that I have never once had an actual Mandarin lesson. Never.

I wanted to challenge myself. I want, I should say. I came to China because living an anglophone life Taiwan proved disingenuous to my stated goals (on a side note, friends do affect you– Kizha, thanks for the goal orientation). So now I have to ante up and produce, like a first round draft pick. I’m trying to be the ROY not the Oden.

Each day I scribble like a madman on my ultra high-tech Mandarin translating palm device. If I fail to prepare, I fail to understand class. There is zero room for error. Imagine jumping into a trig class straight from pre-algebra. That’s it. That’s me. I went from being the smartest kid in my class at B level, to the moron with the dropped jaw in C. I’ll remedy that. My ego is too big not to.

Other than school, I find myself happily stumbling upon little gems of true Chinese culture. Culture eludes definition; now I understand Mr. Skvorc’s difficulty in explaining it to us in 10th grade. Honestly, what is it? Is it the music and the poor imitations of pop global culture? Is it the archaic remnants of outdated historic traditions? Or is it that melting point of transition, those moments stuck in the cracks of time? How is it that I wanted to be a foreign news correspondent under the impression I could land somewhere and report? I see now one of the greatest weaknesses of international news: hypothesis versus conclusion.

To keep you guessing, I give you my favorite Japanese TV show! It runs on Taiwanese cable with Chinese subtitles. I have never known what the actual purpose is, but it just makes me feel happy. Pan and James!

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September 14, 2007 at 10:03 am

“End the Delays– Deploy the Peacekeepers”

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The crisis in Darfur has reached a very critical stage. We need to stop the political bickering and deploy the approved UN peacekeepers! Please check out the Save Darfur Coalition! With a few simple clicks you can sign a petition and a letter will be delivered on your behalf to President Bush. The UN General Assembly meets September 18. The Coalition is half way to reaching its goal of 100,000 letters urging the US government to strongly support and demand action from the UN General Assembly when it meets. “Help us flood the White House with messages today!”

Written by Miles

September 6, 2007 at 8:20 am

The Dues

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Eight hours.   Eight.   Standing.  Standing in a hallway from 7:30am until 3:30pm to have someone draw my blood and take a chest x-ray.  Eight.  Eight hours.

Then it was off to the Shanghai Exit-Entry Bureau.  A 30 minute cab ride away and another hour in line.  Another hour of my life, all to procure a few more precious days of waiting in line at the mercy of bureaucracy.

It was expected.  Some of it.  The waiting, the sweaty rooms where the AC just doesn’t seem to reach.  The ugly girls who think they are cute enough to cut everyone in line– and still somehow get away with it.  The people who no matter when you come always seem to be next to you– like the loud, rich, fat girl blabbing about how she had a nanny in Portugal and how she hasn’t eaten all day (as if it were a crime).

I expected that stuff.  The wait.  Ok, I was prepared a bit.  Registration took four hours, maybe even six, in South Africa at UCT.  But that was it.  One hellacious day, and goodbye.  Not so in China, my friend, not so.

For all the bickering about the US I do on this page, one thing we do got right is our gosh darn bureaucracy!  I ran out of empty pages in my passport six months back– in Cambodia.  Logically, it was a bit of a panic.  The immigration control allowed me into the country on the condition that I find the US embassy and add pages to my little book of life.

Cambodia is desperately poor.  Phnom Penh is a shell of what it once was, meaning a bombshell (no idea how that came to mean a sexy woman).  In this case, it means what you would see after a level 5 hurricane smashed a city that had been abandoned after an atomic bomb, somehow sparing the mansions and temples, and then repopulated in low-level housing.  Trash, faded walls, hollowed out buildings, crumbling sidewalks, men on motorcycle whizzing around harassing you for a few dollars– that kind of bombshell.

And in the midst of this, there she was.  The she was.  Like a shiny new Pentagon in the heart of the city.  The Unites States Embassy.

I walked in, immediately.  No line.  Opened right on time.  A security guard cleared me, and I proceeded to the inquiry hall.  Inside the compound were lush gardens, marble foyers– so nice in fact, that I recently read there is a waiting list for Cambodian newlyweds to have their wedding photos taken here.  I was given a number, and promptly called after just a few minutes of sitting on a comfortable chair watching CNN International on a flat screen above me.  When I told the women my situation, she smiled, gave me one form, took my passport, and told me to wait ten minutes.  Five minutes later, I hear my name and grab my passport.  Free of charge.

My story is rather utopian.  I recall one man in there having a helluva time with some receptionist, bemoaning how he had brought all the documents three times and each time someone told him something new.  And, yes, the grandeur of this embassy is in such stark contrast to Cambodia itself that one cannot help but feel a bit pretentious upon arrival.

Yet, for that one glorious moment, for those 25 minutes, I was back in America, back in a place where you have a chance they might just do things the right way.

Written by Miles

September 6, 2007 at 2:02 am