8/17/2009

BFU Organic Garden Project

In Beijing, as in most big cities around the world, there is a not much awareness about how our food is grown. But a group of students at Beijing Forestry University are on the forefront of change. In 2006, the group formed as a volunteer organization to offer computer education to peasant laborers in Beijing. Now however, they want to create an example of how students can transform our food systems.

In 2008, they broke ground on a small plot of land underneath their dormitories. Over the winter, students started seedlings in their dorm sunrooms. In the spring of 2009, they planted seeds on 130 square metres of what is now called Aoxiang (Soaring) Garden. It is the first university student-run garden to be based on principles of organic gardening. They also have a blog, which if you can read Chinese, is available here.

One of the student leaders, Wu Yunlong, is now interning with Future Generations, and working with myself and Raya, to create a handbook and podcast series on campus organic gardens. Today, I went down to the university to see the garden for the first time and begin filming. The garden is very impressive. They are growing, potatoes, corn, eggplant (or aubergines), a half a dozen kinds of beans, peanuts, pumpkins, watermelons, carrots, cucumbers, and Chinese cabbage (or rape), and I hope I haven't forgotten too many! There is a huge composting pit, and they've developed an informal program to get their hands on the byproducts of soy milk, that makes a fantastic composting addition, they excitedly tell me. Though they are students and in the first year of gardening, a great deal of planning has gone into the garden. Many of the students are from rural areas. There are elements of crop rotation, intercropping with plants that repel pests and this is just the beginning. Yunlong and I chew at a small corn, it's already ripe and the kernels are sweet, but it is small. This year, the plants won't be so big, but as the quality of the soil is built up...

After filming for a short while, Yunlong took me down into the basement of the dormitories, where the students of occupied a few dusty storage rooms and turned them into an office, kitchen and auditorium even. We sat down in the small office and chatted while some of the students cook up some vegetables. Fearing that I was imposing, I insisted that I wasn't hungry (which I was, it smelt delicious) but Yunlong laughed at my misunderstanding and told me that the garden still doesn't produce enough food for a real meal, they're still only producing enough for a group taste-testing session right now.

On the wall hangs a giant painting of Mao Zedong. Yunlong explains, "We may not agree with everything, but for this kind of project, Mao has influenced each of us in our ideas about volunteerism and agriculture." He shows me their seed collection and we discuss GMO seeds. He brings out a Taiwan translation of Bill Mollison's "Introduction to Permaculture" that another NGO had given them recently and we flip through it together, discussing permaculture and how annoying traditional Chinese characters are. It obvious that these students are starting small, but dreaming big.

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2/27/2009

Is Fast Food Really Becoming Unpopular in China?

via Shanghaiist and Mark's China Blog. The L.A. Times has recently written an article that claims that "in China, appetite slows for Western food." While a little part of me really wants them to be right about this, they aren't. Their thesis:

In the U.S., fast-food chains often thrive in tough times. But not so in China, where Western quick-service food isn't the cheapest stuff in town and, in target markets like Shanghai, there's too much competition. Plus, a growing number of consumers see it as unhealthful.
Their point makes a lot sense, but is ultimately laden with Western assumptions about fast food that don't really hold any water in China. More and more franchises are opening every day across China, and new chains are coming over every year (the recent arrival of Dunkin Donuts for example, soon to be followed by Kristy Kreme).

Go into a KFC or a MacDonalds here and look around. Who are the customers? What are they doing? It's a completely different customer base then the West, and the way in which people consume fast food in China is striking different, that attempting to even connect the U.S. brands with their China incarnations can take you for a loop.

The first time I ever ate fast food in China was in Jinan, Shandong Province in 2007. I was studying at Shandong University and myself and my Chinese-Canadian friend had finally hit that point where we needed to get our Western food fix. Jinan's a pretty provincial place (compared to Shanghai anyway) so we just went straight for the fast food. Imagine my surprise, (coming from "ew-fast food" hipster West Coast Canada) to see that the KFC we had just entered was not only completely packed, but packed entirely with 16-25 year old... couples... on dates. We went to a Macdonalds the next week. The same thing. At all hours of the day, packed, at least relative to other restaurants, and packed with young people on dates or hanging out, excitedly chatting with their friends. There's a rule that we could add about the conception of fast food patrons in China: they are never alone.

We want to imagine the fast food chains always under the cultural representations that they hold in the West. In Victoria, a Quebec poutine or a German shintzel restaurant isn't going to provide either a healthy or a cheap option for going out on a date or just hanging out with for fun. But it will provide something interesting, new and very delicious. That's what fast food restaurants are outside of the West.

There's plenty of Chinese "shanzhai" knock-offs of fast food too. Mark in Xi'an, who I found out about the story from, could take a trip to Xi'an's famous WuYi eatery where there are stalls selling big pieces of "knock-off" breaded fried chicken for several kuai. Or in Shanghai, one might want to venture to Kendeji (as opposed to KFC's brand, Kendeqi) for their shanzhai'd KFC menu... they serve Chinese food too. Others are popping up, and transforming Western fast food into something actually quite cheap priced next to the original brands. But Western meat-heavy fast food is going to always remain priced above high-carbs/veg/poor-cuts-of-meat Chinese food, there's no economical way of changing that. By virtue of that fact alone, I suspect the "novelty" of Western food has as little chance of wearing off here in China as the "novelty" of Chinese food does in America.

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2/18/2009

China bans Westerners from Tibet... again.

Great, hopefully this is finished before it ruins my plans in the area (not the TAR, but Sichuan and Yunnan) two summers in a row. But really, this kind of backwards policy just hurts those of us who want to find a middle ground for China's Tibet policy. I thought the lesson from last year was clear: you can't stop Western papers from writing a story. Either you let them report the facts firsthand or they'll take them secondhand, and it ain't going to be you. Correct or incorrect. Sigh.

Well, hopefully Deqin and Zhongdian will be open this July when I take my parents up to Yunnan.

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2/17/2009

Translation: Interview with Lai Changxing

In this week's edition of the Southern Weekly, Vancouver-based Chinese Canadian writer and journalist Guo Ding (丁果) steps in as the second guest writer in the paper's Lai series with an exclusive interview with Lai Changxing. Guo Ding is host of a popular talk show on Vancouver's Cantonese/Mandarin/Punjabi tv station Channel M that is watched by many in Vancouver's large Chinese community (ethnic Chinese made up 29% of Vancouver residents in the last census). I've translated the article below the cut. In the photo below from the online edition in the original Chinese, Guo Ding (left) interviews Lai Changxing (right).The Lai Changxing Interview: One-on-One with the Lucky Smuggler
Special Guest Writer: Guo Ding
It seems absurd that Lai Changxing has somehow managed to survive, but due to Canada's inflexible enforcement of the rules, at present, he has done just that. Lai Changxing's gangster bravura defies any description.

Once again astonishing the media of the world, Lai Changxing has recieved a temporary work permit in Canada.

Because people are left guessing, after 9 years of lawsuits, this is a signal from the rare smuggler who has been troubling the two great countries of Canada and China since the moment he fled China years ago.

I find myself once again opposite to Lai Changxing. This interview takes place over the course of several hours as we move through several venues. The backdrop is the furor recently set off by his recieval of work permit. Now for the first time, the world over is dicussing the issue of Lai Changxing. He still wears his signature cap and still lays out his old web of flattery on me. Ah, it's Guo Ding, it's been so long since we've had a discussion. In fact, since he absconded to Canada 9 years ago, I've had to track down "the great survivor" for an interview many times as he pops in and out of the media's attention.

Once before in the past, I wrote this paragraph in an article about him:

"Lai Changxing, the suspected ringleader of a smuggling ring, and I sit seperated only by a glass table. On the table are he has poured two cups of green tea.

As he pours the tea, I imagine that at this moment overseas he is famous near and far. By the auction today of the contents of his famous "Red Mansion" (translators note: the Red Mansion, alludes to the great ancient Chinese novel "Dreams of the Red Chambers", where Lai kept concubines for government officials, read more in the journalist Oliver August's non-fiction Inside the Red Mansion: On the Trail of China's Most Wanted Man), people have gathered round to see how he entertained his guests. Where to is that man who is now politely pouring me a cup of tea? No matter, now he causes me to look back in time, to that Lai Chanxing who first made his living sorting garbage, if not for the exacerbation of current trends, how could he have made such a tremendous rise and fall? Personality dicates success or failure, but character decides the overall picture. A chaotic world gives rise to ambitious mavericks. But in today's time of the rise of the rule of law, if these mavericks don't follow the right way, they will be reduced to nothing more than "theives". History has decided that Lai Changxing would be such a person."


Today, I find myself again facing him.

A friend of Lai Changxing's, a big shot and a bit of a wizard in investment circles, once said to me: Lai Changxing may not have read many books, but his intelligence is great. This kind of introduction in the criminal underworld has a sort of logic to it. It seems absurd that Lai Changxing would somehow manage to survive, but due to Canada's inflexible enforcement of their rules, at present, he has done just that. Lai Changxing's gangster bravura defies any description. Therefore as he tells it, this is a case of "political correctness".

Obviously, last time was different, the rumor of a pressing extradition was hanging over him. A temporary work permit gives Lai Changxing the appearance of relaxed feeling of "oh good", something that is clear to see from both his look and his manner of speech.

A little while before now, he happened to meet with mainland singer Dong Wenhua, making a comeback after ten years in seclusion, a meeting which has had the media furiously speculating. In answer to potential questions about this, he volunteered that "You're seen once with Dong Wenhua and of course people are going to make a great deal of that. The truth is, that's as far as it goes."

He says, "Look at me, I don't have any culture, how could I have some sort of relationship with Dong Wenhua?" Lai pauses for a second, "look beneath the words, the position from both sides is to distance ourselves, how could we have a deep relationship? But I'll acknoledge that Dong Wenhua and I are friends. We've known each other for four or five years, we're mutal friends, with no bad intentions. There's not much else to say. One time I hosted an business opening event and asked her to perform. Afterwards I offered to pay, but she refused. That is a friends help. She once even told me that if I ever ran into financial difficulties, she could help."

He added, "I feel that public opinion towards Dong Wenhua is unfair. Outside opinion has turned to dirty gossip. We are nothing but good friends concerned at each others well being. If not for the recent change in my standing with the government, she would not have been brought into the public eye. She has always been involved in only good affairs. I wish her only happiness and hope that the people will stop giving her trouble.

Lai Changxing is truly uncultured. But he knows far better then most cultured people how to deal with the media. He knows how to talk to reporters. He knows how to get himself on the front page and whitewash his public image.

This is not intelligence, but is the instincts of a maverick in a dangerous situation. He has a remarkable intinctive response, perhaps the reason for his rise to power.

He says, "I don't have any money, do you believe me?" There are times in the course of the interview where he seems to contradict this, but I don't argue. I'll leave that to the reader to decide.

If he were to say, "I recently ate sweet potato soup and salted fish" I would believe him. But this is not the same man who painstakingly maintained the story of his "peasant character" before his rise to power. Nor is this the man who would eat sandwiches with Sir Li Kashing (translator's note, HK businessman, the richest ethnic Chinese person in the world). But he is still the same man famous for his stubborn characteristics. Lai Changxing refused to be "eaten" (by the Chinese legal system) and now he's providing for his family's many mouthes, cooking without end and entertaining any who will come to talk with him. To use the words of one of his friends, "a starving camel is bigger than a horse. Many people will sponge off his generosity, his company will wear away the boredom, and there is nothing criminal about that."

Lai Changxing is unable to refuse to disclose these sorts of things to the media. He constantly says, I am free now, I want to be a simple farmer. A headline comes out in the media. Just so, he gains the sympathy of the honest people of Canada. As Canada is this sort of country, to speak of judicial independence then the direction of public opinion is quite important. The courts follow in step with the masses.

Lai Changxing is a gambler. He doesn't give up easily. He won't be repatriated to China like Yu Zhandong (the manager of the Kaiping, Guangdong Bank of China, who embezzled 480 million dollars and escaped to the US in October 2001. In 2005, he was arrested and sent back to China where he was sentanced to 12 years in prison, where he is still held).

He can say that for his continued existance, it was hard work every step of the way. This perhaps is what his lawyer has taught him. No one suspected that Lai Changxing's could make it to this point, except for his money. But China has not been able to get past his formidable lawyer, David Mateas, known in Canadian legal circles as perhaps one of Canada's number one human rights lawyers, recently decorated by the Governor General, receiving the highest honor a Canadian resident can be granted -- the Order of Canada.

The meaning of this, to put in context for Chinese residents, is that Da Shan (translators note, Mark Roswell, the most prominent white face in the Chinese langauge) also received the same medal last year. Mateas being awarded this medal naturally demonstratesthat Lai Changxing was able to gain some favorable influence.

The "Yuanhua Case" (translator's note: Yuanhua was the name of Lai's organization) has already reached the point of "put the lid on the coffin, then they'll be judged" in mainland China. But the main culprit, Lai Changxing, has gained a certain media noriety for reaching "criminal heaven" in Canada. I once described Lai Changxing's choice to go into exile: "this a country of vast size, America's neighbour, a member of the G7, a prosperous country and also a warm and peaceful country. At the time of America's war of independence, it conservatively chose to take in the Loyalists, and later the slaves who fled to freedom in Canada. Because of this history, the instinct is to sympathize with exiles and often it is hard to seperate them in their sympathies.

Also keep in mind it's great size, abundant resources and few people, and their rather hard to refuse "generosity". Sometimes, tradition is just incompatible with the modern day, forming a break in the internal logic.

Lai Changxing says, he wants to make money and pay taxes. This is also something he says for Canadians to hear, says for the Canadian media to hear. Obey the law and pay taxes, in Canada, that is the definition of a good citizen. And Lai Changxing's lifetime legacy is to be both a smuggler and a tax evader, how could this not be open to ridicule? In a time of globalization, Lai Changxing convinced the world that taxes are good, this is not easy. If China drops the charges against Lai, will he simply pay his overdue taxes? Is he able to?

As far as I know, today's Conservative Party government wants to extradite Lai and Gao Shan (translators note: another fugitive, a former bank manager) and rid Canada of the label of a place where criminals are sheltered from the law. In 2006, there was one repatriation that met with sucess. Lai Changxing told me that he hadn't heard until afterwards and on hearing said he felt as if they end had finally arrived and he felt fear and a wave of shame and embarassment for letting himself be put in such a narrow straits. Because of this, even with the work permit in hand, this should not be taken as Lai Changxing's final verdict. The masses might now be filled with moral indignation at Canada's failure to repatriate Lai, but please wait until the true end of the legal process before speaking of it.

Regardless, interviewing Lai Changxing, I've come to a deeper understanding of the China-Canada relationship. This affair shouldn't affect the political and economic ties we share, and even more, set out a foundation with which we can expand our friendship, for example, tourism agreements. Deal with it quickly, otherwise our bilateral relationship will suffer some setbacks. The history of Canada in China has had Norman Bethune and Da Shan, why should we look so unkindly on them for Lai Changxing?

No matter when all is said and one, because in dealing with this case, the Chinese government knows that in theses legal proceedings, in the West, especially in Canada are based around evidentiary hearings, a kind of rigid and circutious legal process that in the Lai case, Lai Changxing was able to benefit, but they are also something the Chinese judicial process might benefit from as well.

And Canada is able to know, that China with it's vast population, can imitate Canada's legal process, there can be less fears of economic crisis and bankrupticies.

Lai Changxin still needs to wait. It was from a humanitarian ideology that he was granted a work permit, be happy a little for just that, there is no need for the anger. The death penaly charge is past and he be able to feed himself. Never mind Lai Changxing, we can wait to see what fate has in store for him. He can take a breath. Do some work to distract himself with, go where he wants. That concludes the interview. I say to Lai: look out for yourself.

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More Lai Changxing news...

If you're interested in more news about Lai Changxing's misadventures, I suggest you head on over to the English language Chinese online hub in Canada, Chinese in Vancouver where you can find two articles detailing the latest news about Lai Changxing. A few days ago, we found out that Lai Changxing has apparently already gotten a "high pay job offer" and just recently a (false) rumour spread around the net that he had died in a car accident. They also have another post that details the rather numbingly simplistic policy that the Canadian government holds towards China.

-breaking- Southern Weekly has also followed up in this week's edition with a cover story exclusive interview with Lai Changxing! I'll be translating that tomorrow and posting it on this blog. stay tuned. If you can read Chinese and can't handle the wait, the link to the interview is here.

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2/16/2009

Wikipedia as basis for new Chinese dictionary?

A very, very interesting post over at Random Stuff that Matters about the author's experimentation with hacking Wikipedia into an awesomely powerful Chinese dictionary. I myself use Wikipedia extensively as a Chinese study aid, though my technical know-how is so limited, I could not even imagine how I could make use of this stuff. But this is an exciting direction for developing Chinese tools, first because it's in expanding dictionaries to include the vast store of technical terms, people and pop culture shit that just doesn't exist in any dictionary on the market and secondly, because in the spirit of Wikipedia it's being shared and open-sourced by creative minds like Stian of RSTM.

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2/15/2009

Translation: Is Canada Double Dealing in the Lai Changxing Case?

From the pages of this week's Southern Weekly comes an article that summarizes the Lai Changxing case I mentioned last week. To gain perspective on the case and practice my Chinese, I have translated it here, however poorly, for future reference. According to the article, the Chinese-Canadian author, Vincent Yang L.L.M. PhD, is a professor at Shantou University and a senior researcher at the Canadian International Centre for Criminal Law Reform and Criminal Justice Policy at the University of British Columbia. He has been called upon several times in the proceedings of the Lai Changxing case as an expert witness. The article is quite lengthy, so I have hidden it behind a cut. Click "Read more right here" to read the rest of the article. In an accompanying cartoon, Lai Changxing reads the classifieds.
From Deportation Order to Work Permit
Is Canada Double-Dealing in the Lai Changxing Case?
Special Guest: Professor Yang Cheng

As Canadians see it, there is no reason why someone accused of crimes overseas should starve to death on the street. Give them a work permit so that they can provide for themselves and lessen the burden on the Canadian taxpayer.

If they only had Lai's "repatriation and risk assessment" in mind, the decision of which has so far been unable to persuade the courts that Lai faces no risk on return. Instead, it was primarily Lai's long time already spent in Canada that turned the decision in his favor.

After nearly 10 years in Canada, the suspected head of a smuggling ring based out of Xiamen, Lai Changxing, received a work permit. An uproar followed.

Lai Changxing is neither an immigrant to Canada, a refugee, nor does possess any extraordinary talents. He is a longtime internationally pursued criminal whom the Canadian government has previously brought deportation charges against as a foreign criminal. Why has Canada granted this kind of unwanted foreigner a work permit? Does this signify that just because of the long time time Lai Changxing has already spent in Canada he can continue to stay? Lai's case is lodged in which sticking point?

Why was the Canadian government unable to carry out the extradition?

The Canadian government granted Lai a work visa complying with the "Immigration and Refugee Act." According to article 206, foreigners who have already entered Canada and if they are unable to support themselves due to lack of work, there are two circumstances in which they may receive a work permit. One: if they have already applied for refugee status but the government has not yet ruled on their application. Two: if they have been denied refugee status but the government for whatever reason has been unable to carry out the deportation proceedings.

Obviously, the government's reason for granting Lai Changxing the work permit at this time was the second circumstance. Then why was it they were unable to carry out the deportation?

When Lai was arrested in 1999, the Canadian government sought his deportation and extradition. Since 2001, Lai has been in court against the Canadian government, which despite meeting with failure time after time, has managed to put his deportation proceedings on hold for a sufficient amount of time.

In 2006, the Canadian Supreme Court returned their ruling on the suit, ruling against Lai's appeal for "political refugee" status. When the decision reached the hands of the Ministry of Citizenship and Immigration, it should have followed with the restarting of the deportation procedures. According to the regulations of the Canadian Immigration and Refugee Protection Law, the Ministry of Citizenship and Immigration which had previously dealt with Lai Changxing's deportation should assign an analyst to carry out a "repatriation and risk assessment" on him. Only after the assessment had confirmed that he would not face the risk of execution or torture in China could the extradition proceed.

In March 2006, the Ministry of Citizenship and Immigration's assessment was concluded. They found that Lai Changxing would not face these risks after returning to China. Just at this juncture, Lai's lawyer (translator's note, David Matas, the noted human rights advocate) filed an injunction to again halt the extradition, criticizing the Ministry of Citizenship and Immigration's assessment as unfair. That put into motion a "judicial reconsideration".

Then, in 2007, the highest Canadian Federal Court adjudicated that the Ministry of Citizenship and Immigration could not properly say that Lai would not face torture or execution in China. From the result of this decision, the court placed in doubt not just the ruling of the immigration board, but of all the other Federal Courts' decisions on Lai's case.

In the the practice of the common law system of Canada, the independence of the judiciary from the government administration is of the utmost importance. At this point, the Canadian Ministry of Citizenship and Immigration considered whether to appeal the decision, but ultimately decided to drop the matter, instead relaunching the "repatriation and risk assessment" process. However, to this day, if anyone has been working on, or completed this assessment, it has yet to be announced. Because of this, the government is incapable of carrying out extradition procedures against Lai and he has been able to continue living in Canada to this day.

The background of the judicial logic of this "work permit"

Since Lai Changxing has received his work permit he has expressed to the media his desire to "work hard and pay his debt to Canada." This claim seems rather absurd, but it inadvertently draws attention to the "legislative intention" of Canadian law.

Many netizens have spoken out saying that this cases shows that Canadian law should be altered so that it does not allow international fugitives to received work permits. But in reality, the Canadian legal system's design and function has the perspective that considers "criminals are also people." The way Canadians see it, a crime committed in a foreign country shouldn't consign a person to die of starvation on the streets of Canada. If the case of this person is delayed too long and they have no source of income, then they can be considered for a work permit. In this way, they can provide for themselves and lessen the economic burden on the Canadian taxpayer.

Canada set up this kind of legal system on the basis of the consideration of humane principles and the domestic welfare. In this situation, there is no alternative. Of course, any legal system can be abused. This kind of system can be abused and Canada must examine the particular circumstances of every case. From the reality of how the system operates from circumstance to circumstance, it can be seen what the government should do. If they discover that the fugitive criminal has scads of money to live on, then they cannot grant him a work permit. From this logic, we can deduce that since the Canadian government has granted Lai Changxing a work permit, they must believe that his quality of life has already entered into appropriate economic hardship that access to work is necessary.

In China, Lai Changxing is truly believed to be amongst the richest of criminals. But the amount of wealth that he brought with him to Canada was actually extremely limited and those funds were frozen by the government. His family has now lived in Canada for around a decade, during which he has retained a lawyer at great expense.

In the media's reporting, Lai Changxing has been shown to life a life of wealth and comfort in Canada, coming and going to all sorts of high class establishments. Because of this, not many people believe that he really faces economy hardship in Canada. They are querying whether the Canadian government really investigated Lai Changxing's assets.

But in reality, if there's not much efficacious "international help", whether for the Canadian or Chinese government that can determine his assets if they are hidden in a 3rd country or a hidden offshore bank account. If Lai Changxing has money not in Canada but elsewhere, it is going to be truly difficult for the Canadian government to investigate it. And even if they do, they don't have a clue where to look. Even if they did have a clue, likely they would find the third party unwilling to cooperate. I fear there is nothing that can be done.

Because of all of this, regardless of what the law says, in reality China, Canada and other countries need to work together to investigate Lai Changxing's assets.

Legally speaking, while Lai will receive a work permit, it does not mean that the Canadian government has granted refugee status or in any way intends to change their plans to deport him in the future.

But since there still exist such vast differences between the legal systems and cultures of the two countries, the bilateral process of extraditing a criminal faces many obstacles. In 1994, a treaty was signed for judicial aid, but to this day there is no extradition treaty between China and Canada. For the Ministry of Immigration, this poses layer upon layer difficulties.

Practically speaking, there is only one reason why Lai Changxing has been able to remain in Canada. It is that Canadian courts and officials lack understanding of and confidence in the Chinese legal system.

In August 2008, Canada extradited fraudster Deng Xinzhi back to China to face charges. This case was swiftly dealt with by Canadian authorities, because there was no possibility that he might face the death penalty in China. Moreover, Lai Changxing could very well face the death penalty for the charge of smuggling. Even if China has offered a solemn promise that he will not face execution, his lawyer can appeal to the notions that China can still not be trusted.

At the same time, we have no sign that there is much understanding of China from the Canadian bureaucrats assessing Lai Changxing's repatriation risks. It really isn't easy. The Western media often concentrates on the defects of the criminal system in China, leading Canadian officials to naturally be prejudiced against the Chinese legal system and it will be hard for change to be forthcoming in the short-term.

This time, Lai Changxing was able to recieve a work permit because he appeared to suffer money problems and primarily because his case had been delayed so long in Canada. From these reasons, it is reasonable to query the government's decision. For example, since the overturn of his pre-extradition risk assessment, the regulations would call for that assessment to be redone, something that should have been completed with six months. If to this day, this assessment has not been completed, or has practically been abandoned, how can it be said clearly that Lai faces risks after extradition to China? It seems that Lai Changxing has suceeded in staying in Canada. The government has spent countless resources and over eight years with difficulty reaching a series of rulings all in the cause of attempting to carrying out an ineffective law.

Lai Changxing's case is a true headache for the Canadian government. If after ten years of this case going back and forth, over and over again, the result is that Lai Changxing gets to live legally in Canada, how are ordinary folk to sort all this out?

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2/14/2009

Back in the Swing of Things...

I admit, the Chinese language related blogging has been slow lately... the reason is, I really haven't studied very much Chinese the last few weeks. As it is, I don't really like the structure of university Chinese classes, but that's the vehicle by which I can afford to incorporate spending this time in China into my university degree. So after purposefully choosing a much too hard class for myself last semester and basically coming to the point of almost hating studying Chinese by exam period, I'm vowing to take an easy class and put the onus for learning Chinese on myself. It's good to take a break though at times like that, so I feel better now that the stress has left. Expect the translation and Chinese learning posts to gear up from now on.

Though I'm a little unfaithful at times, I'm a big believer in the "All Japanese Chinese All the Time" model. So I have a big host of media at my disposal and I thought I'd list them mostly for my own benefit.

  1. Chinese blogs and forums (see the links on the right).
  2. Podcasts: Chinesepod, 反波, and 静雅思听。
  3. My 三国演义 project: the CCTV series paired with the novel. I'm also reading An Introduction to Literary Chinese to help me understand the grammer.
  4. Novels: I'm pecking at 徐三观卖血记。
  5. Various dubbed Western films.
  6. Exploring the magical land of Youku.
  7. Edit: I forgot about 南方周末(I read the paper, but here's a link to the online version)!I'm trying to read it, at least on a superficial level, since it's like the closest thing I've found in Chinese to the Saturday issue of the Globe and Mail.
轉寫主義者asked how I can use Wenlin. Wenlin may not look pretty, but it's functionality is far beyond what any of the web based apps can offer (with the possible exception of nciku, a service I am really enjoying and have replaced the old faithful, perakun with). The way to really get bang for your buck with Wenlin is to rely on it's powerful "component" and "radical" search function. Simply CTRL+click on a character to break it down into different components (emphasis: components, not just radicals). A very simple but powerful tool. Once you master this tool, it will become the fastest way to find out a character you don't know.

I use Wenlin for two different things. One is for taking notes in class, while watching a film, or reading a book. I get a quick translation with no loading times and all of my searches are saved together. The second is for annotation of complicated documents, though I find that I have been relying on nciku more and more as my vocabularly grows. Still for more technical documents, especially legal related documents, I'll still use Wenlin for it's speed and radical search functions.

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2/11/2009

Another Canada-China Diplomacy Failure

A new article in the Tyee from everyone's favorite Canadian law professor, Michael Geist, outlines the failure of Canadian diplomacy in a recent US trade dispute with China. In a nutshell, the US connived us into co-signing a trade complaint about China's customs policies, but then the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade was unable to find that Canada was actually negatively impacted. And we can see more of Canada's often incomprehensible political dispute with China this week in the granting of a work permit to one of the most wanted criminals in China.

It really makes me wonder. When will Canada find a sensical China policy?

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2/10/2009

Misreading Cultural Codes

Just finished reading a very interesting older article on JSTOR (cited below) about foreign teachers working at a Chinese university in the 1980s. It details how problems with the staff of their dormitory led to a strike and analyzes the cultural misunderstandings on both sides. I have to say that as a student in Shanghai more than 20 years later, I deeply sympathize with many of the problems faced by the teachers. I haven't faced any serious problems from our own staff, but I've witnessed some and heard of many others. I guess this post should be taken by the potential student or teacher who plans of living on campus or in any building where the management and not you have control of who comes in and out, buyer beware.

The key issue in the dispute was the incessant paternalism that the foreigners faced from staff, which began with the dormitory management's use of their control over the building to express their discomfort with racial mixing (harassing the Chinese wife of one of the teachers, and limiting/monitoring Chinese visitors) and ending with university administrators refusing to believe the claims the of foreigners over the dormitory staff and threatening the teachers with dismissal after teachers went on a one day strike (btw, striking was and is illegal in the PRC). Finally, the president of the university stepped in to reassure the teachers, but without addressing any of the problems they had faced initially.

How did they come to this situation? Frankly, situations like this are inevitable for Americans in China, though to a much lesser and more benign degree today. I'm sure every foreigner who comes to China can recount a situation where they've been placed in a very frustrating situation and treated in a paternalistic fashion. Paternalism is interesting to talk about in this context, especially since in anthropology we're normally talking about the American expats as acting paternalistic, not the other way around. One explanation is to tie this behavior to Confucianism; connect a lack of a conception of privacy and the Confucian conception of "righteousness" the responsibility to intervene in the affairs of others.

The central problem in the paper that enraged the foreigners was the social and moral classification of foreigners and Chinese visitors to the foreign dormitory, and the abuse they experienced. I have to say that while I have witnessed nothing of the degree that the subjects of the 1986 article faced, I'd say these problems are rampant in the university housing for foreigners. Blatant racism towards African and Middle-Easterners and stereotyping of Westerners as wild, dangerous party-goers. And of course the worst is reserved first for ethnic or mixed Chinese who are trying to explore their heritage here in China, and lastly for native Chinese who are making friends or lovers with foreigners.

I don't mean to gripe. In different circumstances I might praise these exact same qualities within the "Chinese worldview". But for people who come from the most tolerant of cultures, to experience the discomforting webs of ethnic tensions present in everyday China is quite enough, to have it thrust at us in our supposed places of refuge is too much.

Anonymous, Deborah Pellow (1986) An American Teachers' Strike in China: Misreading Cultural Codes. Anthropology Today, Vol. 2, No. 4, pp. 3-5 http://www.jstor.org/stable/3032709

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2/06/2009

China Evening Post Royally Pisses Off Shanghainese Readers

Well, the Shanghai Evening Post (新民晚报)has gotten themselves into some hot water. In an essay, published yesterday(English), the paper saluted the "heroes" who had come to Shanghai to make a living, while drawing some quite discriminatory contrasts between "Old" and "New" Shanghainese.
The errant essayist was even careless enough to bold the most xenophobic part of the whole article to further enrage Shanghainese. Translation from the great Roland Soong:

In Pudong, especially in Lujiazui, everybody speaks Putonghua. To speak the Shanghai dialect is a sign of being uncivilized, like being a native American Indian.
Shanghainese quickly forced an apology out of the newspaper, and placed a poll on the bottom of the page which quickly garnered tens of thousands of responses, almost all vehemently against the article. I've translated the questions, answers and results as of 16 hours after the article was published.
Is speaking dialects uncivilized?
1. Yes, everyone should speak Putonghua. 2024
2. No, speaking dialects is in itself civilized. 19158
3. Don't look at isolated events, look at the bigger picture. 1988
4. I couldn't say. 26
What is your impression of this article?
1. Everything that was discussed is objectively true. 3995
2. It's discriminatory towards Shanghainese. 18647
3. I couldn't say. 409
How do you feel about the Shanghainese response?
1. It's an understandable, simply natural response. 19955
2. It's an extreme response, in itself "uncivilized." 3066
3. I couldn't say. 82
Well, there is more to be said. And it's that we should observe some of the diads dyads at work in how "New Shanghainese" construct their notion of the "Old Shanghainese". I don't want to be to harsh on "New Shanghainese" so I'll only pick the most obvious ones in this article. Let's map them out!
New Shanghainese vs Old Shanghainese
Family not Shanghainese vs Ancestors Shanghainese
Putonghua vs Shanghainese (can speak Putonghua but won't, grr)
Civilized vs Uncivilized
Pudong, clean, shiny, yay! vs Puxi, dirty, old yuck!
Compare to the Japanese vs Compare to the French
Commercial Grade Housing Deeds vs Shanghai Household Registration
And beyond that stereotypes get wilder and wilder. I'll sum it up for you, Shanghainese women, who BTW are the "cream of the nation" and know their worth (definitely a golddigger insinuation in there), are going for the best bet which is a racial and education hierarchy we're all familiar with: foreigners on the top, then overseas Chinese, then successful New Shanghainese elites. Kind of a final f*** you to Shanghainese men in the end, who end up at the bottom of the essayists pyramid.

Yeah, folk are darn pissed about this article. The author has already been human flesh searched!!! And there are many unkind words being said. Folks are unhappy with the term "New Shanghainese" (how can you call yourself Shanghainese when you can't speak Shanghainese and consider some other place to be your "real home."?). A fairly comprehensive board on Tianya discusses the post, though I don't doubt there are others out there.

Edit: Shanghaiist also carries the story, stating that "a retired national leader" complained about it. Please let that have been Jiang Zemin!

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2/02/2009

Narrowed My Focus?

I've finally settled on one main theme in the online discussions I've been reading that I want to focus on... especially because of it's "real-life" connection here in Shanghai. Specifically, I've narrowed down my examination of how people are expressing themselves online in China, to how people are expressing themselves in what I'd call "the Great Shanghainese Debate".

"Let's all speak Putonghua!" In the photo above, taken on the campus of ECNU this Fall, an art class project encourages university students to speak Mandarin (rather than other Chinese dialects) and also is branded with the slogans and logos of this latest round of monolingualization campaigns tied to the upcoming 2010 World Expo.
There is nothing more familiar or divisive to Canadians than struggles over prominent dialects, French being the most important in Canada. In Canada, the climax of our struggle over language rights was la charte de la langue française was seen by French speakers as a necessary step to preserve Quebecois langauge and culture. On the flipside, Anglophones looked upon the change in status of Quebec to French official language province in a country they saw as being Anglophone (incorrect as they may be) as proof of the dissent and rebelliousness of our belle provence. The issue became one wherein the preservation of the French language somehow "interfered" in the "rights" of English speakers living inside and outside Quebec vs. the devastating effects of English economic dominance on the French culture and language in Canada.

In China, the language issues are far more complex, and likewise, far less openly discussed. Here is a map from the University of Texas that gives us some notion of the size and scope of the linguistic differences in China. I would note that while Sichuan Mandarin and Beijing Mandarin are only barely intelligible to each other, "Southern dialects" like Shanghainese Wu and Hong Kong Cantonese are even further apart, with such distinctive features as more tones (Cantonese with it's ear-mind-coordination-shattering nine versus Mandarins paltry four. And since these linguistic groups could be easily misunderstood, it's important to not that this is a map of native languages. We can consider Beijing Mandarin, Zhongyuan Mandarin and Taiwanese Mandarin to form an ubiquitous lingua franca in the media landscape of spoken Chinese. Less media saturated dialects, for example Henan or Sichuan Mandarin, feature seperate pronunciations and idioms, but are more or less comprehendable to "Standard" Mandarin speakers.

My interest rests with the everyday conflicts between Mandarin as lingua franca and the local Wu dialect of Shanghainese. Not just some little ethnic language either, as we should keep in mind that Wu native speakers number in the area of 80 million, on par with native speakers of such a major world language as French. I'll follow up with examples in a similar format to my previous post on human rights.

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1/30/2009

In translation: "Human Rights"

There is a lot that is worth saying about the situation of rights in China, but what is perhaps a fascinating and telling example of the public discourse of rights in China is writing the words "人权" (Chinese for "human rights") into a google search the results on both the uncensored international dotcom version of google and the China national google.cn both yield this result as the number one result. The website above is an article from Xinhuanet.com, the online version of one of the staterun news organization Xinhua. The opening sentance, which google displays for us, I'll translate as:

"So-called human rights: as is indicated within the preconditions of any society that according to the essence and basic dignity of every person they are or should be accorded some fundamental human rights. So-called human rights: it's full breadth of meaning covering the freedom of all people and right to equally survive and develop, or...." and it continues after the jump "from human existence and development emerges a need for the right to be free and equal."
My roommate and I have turned the beginning of the article into a bit of a joke ever since I first googled 人权 long ago. Anytime one of us brings up the topic of human rights in English or Chinese, the other jumps in to say "you mean 'so-called human rights'...". Good times.

But while there is something slightly sinister about the top Chinese language result for human rights on a google search starting with the words "so-called" it does say a lot about how this concept fits into a certain (government/media) Chinese mindset. It's something that we Westerners have to remember is that while we consider human rights to be a wholly universal idea, it is still seen in many part of the world as being quite foreign in origin. The discussion on the Xinhua page is not so bad of others I've seen, but it does go on to connect the birth of ideas of human rights to Marx and the Communist party, who enshrined the notion of human rights within the 1949 Constitution (perhaps the only modern constitution that allows the executive branches of government to overrule the constitution, thus making it pretty useless in many situations). The document continues though to grant credit (without references though) to Chinese international human rights agreement (the UN however, is unmentioned), the experiences of modern Chinese history, and the way in which culture and contemporary political situations inform upon rights discourses. It then lists human rights, a list that is too long and too much work to summarize, but I can make some salient observations:
  1. The concept of "human rights" are foreign in origin
  2. But they are becoming increasingly universal
  3. And we need to find our own Chinese concept of rights
  4. History and rights are intimately linked.
  5. The result is a "socialist human rights perspective with Chinese characteristics"
  6. Rights are not just something that nation-states must apply to their citizens, but should govern the relations between various nation states which leads us to...
Sovereignty, that cornerstone of Chinese foreign policy, comes from their idea of human rights. Sovereignty is an keystone of Chinese human rights ideas. It's part of that idea that rights emerge from historical context, and in China, that context is the domination of China by foreign powers, particularly Japan. It's the same "human rights" principle that Chinese diplomats use when they justify Chinese companies selling weapons to Mugabe. Sovereignty needs to be recognized as the ascendant principle in Chinese human rights discourses. And we also need to recognize that when Chinese leaders use the words human rights on TV, they mean something wholly different from what we expect.

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Armchair Anthropology: Is it so bad?

I was reading a very excellent post at a new favorite, which I can't believe I didn't find before, Ethnography.com. Great website anyway. The question the topic was posing was whether library research or travelling to a place, China given as the example, was the best way to learn about a culture? The post talks about an eyewitness fallacy and I have to say, I completely agree.

Malinoski's call for us to get up out of our armchairs and into the villages might have been very appropriate when anthropologists were concerned with small isolated villages, but when we're talking about interconnected nation-states, globalization, multiculutralism... an eye-witness-only approach simply isn't the way to go. Actually, the question was phrased a very specific way, as it was by the initial critic, Eric Jones: "can you learn more about Chinese culture by living in China or by reading everything you can find in the British Library?" My answer is an overwhelming "British Library!" Eyewitness experience as a world traveler is going to advance your understanding and grant you new perspectives, but I won't trust knowledge claims from an eyewitness anthropologists any more than I would a journalist or a blogger.

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1/23/2009

Minorities and Social Conservatism

Obama's inauguration speaks to how far we've come from racism and intolerance to minorities holding the highest office... well, in the world. But in this recent comment in the Economist's Democracy in America blog, directed at the topic of the intolerance that atheists face in America, I actually picked up more on the social conservatism of black Americans. The economist writers encapsulated the entire issue in this sentance:

"A group with such vivid and recent memories of persecution should, in a better world, have more sympathy for (if not always agreement with) other minorities just trying to rub along the best they can in America."
While the issue of the disadvantaged state of atheists in America is something of mild interest, I think the more important question that comes out of here is one I'd like to pose to anyone who's interested in taking it up.

"How can we (liberals) deal with the social conservatism present in the essential stakeholders in the liberal project: minorities?"

I can only give one, kinda corny, kinda longwinded answer to the question. When we think of social conservatism in minority communities in Canada, images of fundamentalist Muslims calling for Sharia come to mind. But I immediately shoot back with a reminder that it was liberal Muslim groups such as the Muslim Canadian Congress that led the charge to ban Sharia in Canada against the more conservative Council on American Islamic Relations Canada (CAIRCan). But we can all look forward to the great Deepa Mahta's upcoming film about conservative Indian family. But if we were to table up all the arranged marriages in the Indo-Canadian community, what percentage would it be? And we have our favorite cult polygamists up for trial in the news lately, latest news flash; they're defense will be using Canada's gay marriage laws and lots of readings from the Charter. Well, I don't have anything positive to say about them. God strike me down before I read any more.

Multiculturalism has been a tricky issue for Canadians to figure out. And let's face it, as much as we embrace the notion, it's not the same as embracing all the cultures around us. I feel very fortunate to have been exposed to so much of Canada's cultural mosaic, but I still feel very ignorant about many of the minorities living around me.

My particular focus has for a long time been on China, and by extension (or perhaps, orginally!) ethnic Chinese living around me in Canada. In third year, I took a methods class for ethnography which centered around a semester long ethnography. I decided to take my tape recorder and notebook down to Chinatown to investigate the social relations in the Chinese community. At the time, I was very focused in these division in the Chinese community. I'd give this story as an example of how I see multiculturalism functioning positively.

One of my informants, an elderly Chinese-Canadian woman, who grew up when Chinese-Canadians were still subjected to institutionalized racism, told me about the changes that she had witnessed in Chinese-Canadian community over her eighty-odd years. She talked proudly of the hard fought accomplishments of Chinese Canadians of her generation who were the first to go to university and went to work for the government and CBC. The "old" Chinese Canadians, especially the 太山人 became firmly invested in the liberal project in Canada. The next two major waves of Chinese immigration, the Taiwanese and the Hong Kongers (sorry to the smaller waves that I'm leaving out), benefited from the foundation the "old" Chinese had laid. And then all these groups kind of went their own seperate ways at first, a little unsure what to do with that other alien, but also vaguely familiar culture.

But at last, it was the old Chinese, and later the "newest" Chinese, the mainlanders who started to bring the Chinese immigrant community together. It was the "old" Chinese in the 1970s and 1980s who, finally "comfortable in their own skins" (pardon the expression) were able to work up the courage to turn to their Hong Kong cousins and Taiwanese neighbors and ask them to help them rediscover their roots. This sudden (and to crackers like myself looking inwards into a supposedly homogeneous Chinese community, obvious) coming together of new communities based on a common culture, also amounted to a promotion of the Canadian multicultural ethic, in what unbeknown to other Canadians is itself a multicultural society.

This is a rather long-winded explanation for why Chinese-Canadians have been able to contribute so much to our liberal society, regardless of which wave of immigration they came from, and also an example to liberals in other minorities and Canadian as a whole about how we should embrace our more social conservative new arrivals and seek to change their minds as they seek to change ours.

That is in answer to the original comment about ethnic minorities in America Canada having apathy or participation in the persecution of other minorities based on race, religion or sexuality. Let's see more of you homos hanging with Imams, more pastors paintballing it over with Punjabis, and to sum it up before I alliterate myself into even more disaster, "get together and feel alright." This inauguration still has me feeling all jittery, but let's not spoil the moment, it's time for some change in this world of ours.

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1/21/2009

Studying China Tip 1: Taxi Drivers

I rarely take taxis. For someone who's ancestors were uniformly Catholic, I have a very Protestant stinginess about taxis. I especially rarely take taxis by myself. In Canada, I typically walk across the length of Victoria, over the course of three hours even if the only other option is to take a taxi. But I have always had a great affection for cabbies as a profession. More relevantly, I think it's important for everyone who lives in China to talk to cabbies as much as possible to find out the pulse on the street, and also pick up some fun new vocabulary and ways of speaking.

I was reminded about that again today, when my cabbie expressed his apathy towards Chinese New Year and then chastised me for using such an (already!) old fashioned word as 对象 (partner) when the conversation about family jumped into the more fun conversation of relationships. He's not the first person to correct me on the latter part, but my excuse is I'm just so conditioned by (modern feminist) English to find gender neutral words for things... meh. The first part, the expressing apathy, even discontent towards Chinese New Year, is just very refreshing, in that was the first Chinese person I've ever known, of many many Chinese people, who've straight out said, I'm not excited about Chinese New Year and I don't like it either. In my limited experience, taxi drivers here shoot from the hip. It's nice, since no fault of their own, most other ordinary Chinese folk have a hard time striking up a conversation with a foreigner. Cabbies have no such qualms.

In the case of two most liberal conversations that I've had with PRC citizens, both naturally were taxi drivers. The first was chain-smoking, cellphone gripping, girly pop music listening, bit of a creeper who opened up to me actually (it's amazing how people have 2 reactions with foreigners, completely open or completely closed) and told me about his bitter disappointment in his inability to find a girl in his native town (Xi'an), saying some choice things about Xi'an girls which aren't fit for translation and then went on to add that he was thinking of moving down to Hunan. "Why?" Asked I. Because of the big (he lets go of the wheel entirely to gesture) titties. He smiles lightly and turns up the radio to blast more Avril Lavigne through the speakers.

The second was a different kind of liberal, probably the kind you thought of first. I apologize. I asked a cabbie in Chengdu what he thought of the government response to the earthquake, and he expressed the most anti-government sentiments I've ever heard here... he called the leaders of the country fakes and when I noted that this was even far harsher then anything I've heard overseas Chinese say, this caused another tirade about how the overseas Chinese had just ran away once they had enough wealth instead of helping the people that allowed them to gain that wealth in the first place. Now I don't agree with what he said, but isn't it nice to hear people openly criticizing the government every now and then? Reminds you how much it's missed.

For the followers of social trends, anthropologists especially, a lot of modern thinkers are very invested in this idea of "the anthropology of space and place" and I think it boils down not to an intellectual discussion of theories of subjectivity and symbolism. No, it's down to the thought that we have when we walk into a space that so many others have inhabited: a train station, the white house, parliament... "what if these walls could talk." The beauty of cabbies is that they will.

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1/20/2009

How do I study Chinese 2: Dubbing

I love movies. Maybe it's because I grew up without TV, and my family watched first VHS and later DVDs religiously... all the great classics, modern Hollywood, and films from abroad. Learners of Chinese and any language for that matter know that exposing yourself to as much media from that language is one of the most important ways to study. Of course... not all film industries are created equal. And once you've gotten through the greatest hits collection of Chinese films you're going to be hit by a terrible realization: Chinese movies and TV shows are awful. Not just the kind of silly B film status that some Taiwanese TV shows can claim, but just pure unmitigated awfulness. Most foreigners who watch Chinese TV too long in hopes of garnering their language learning from the telly, start talking about wanting to claw their eyes out and various more productive solutions for the lack of half decent Chinese media.

My solution is to simply not watch Chinese movies and TV, except for the few exceptions that I can know in advance are actually good. For everything else, there's dubbing. Nobody likes dubbing. I don't like dubbing. But if you're going to study Chinese in the long term and watch films, you're going to have to learn to appreciate it, warts and all. Head down to your favorite DVD shop and look for the videos that include “国语配音”. Start with the movies that you've seen more than once and wouldn't mind seeing again. With the native Chinese films, that list is going to be pretty short. But with the whole world dubbed in Chinese the list is going to grow remarkably. I started out with Laurence of Arabia, Star Wars and Cowboy Bebop. Now I have quite a vast collection.

This is not just vegging out in front of the TV, you need to be actively learning. When watching a dubbed over film, you can pick a variety of watching styles. My favorite format is to simply turn on the movie with Chinese dubbing and no subtitles. Kevin, my roomate however, prefers to have traditional subtitles underneath. Do not watch the film with English subtitles! You make think that you can ignore them, but you'll just be cheating yourself! If your Chinese comprehension isn't very high/you can't remember the movie or have never seen it before, there are two other approaches to take. One is to pause the film whenever you don't understand and briefly turn on the English subtitles. Another is to keep your laptop or notebook handy and scribble out notes as you're watching. You can look them up later, or if you have the wonderful little program WenLin, you can get the answer immedietely.

For viewers of all levels, the preeminent language learning blog All Japanese All The Time, recommends writing down the vocab and phrases that you actually want to know how to say and subsequently adding them to whatever memorization system that you are using. I highly recommend that blog to learners of all languages.

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1/19/2009

How do I Study Chinese 1: Cramming Chinese

If I want to feel good about the title of this blog, I might as well write a few posts outlining my philosophy for studying Chinese. I am one of many Chinese students that feel that the traditional 19th Century classroom approach to studying Chinese and the accompanying toolbox of "worksheets" and "memorization tables" are hopelessly outdated. I'm going to spend some time outlining the many mainstream and non-mainstream approaches to learning that I subscribe to, but first, since we're all procrastinators at heart, I wanted to talk about my own self-created approach to exam-cram-studying Chinese characters and words.

I call it the fold method. You need but two things: a diary sized notebook and a pen or pencil (though pens make for good teachers, they keep us honest about our mistakes).

  1. Identify the characters you need to learn and write them in two spaced out columns, one for characters and one for the English translation. If you feel you need pinyin, write the pinyin in the English column. Make sure to a lot at a time (min 40 new or forgotten words) Ok! You're ready to begin! First give your vocab a once over aloud.
  2. Recognition. Fold over the page from the right so that you cover the English translation/pinyin. Go through the list trying to remember the word in question. If you can't remember it, skip it until you're done the page. Feel comfortable with recognizing the characters? On to step number 3.
  3. Memorization. Fold the inset of the previous page in your notebook just over the characters, keeping the English/pinyin column exposed. On the back of that page (left side), try and write the characters from the English translation. Again, skip the characters you don't know.
  4. Correction. It's very important not to learn to write characters the wrong way. Check each word and character against the right hand page. If it's wrong, rewrite it correctly on the left, if you didn't know it, write it out twice.
  5. Fold over or rip out the left side's answers and repeat the process until you feel comfortable with the vocabulary.

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1/13/2009

Discussion: Anonymity Online

About two weeks ago, I outlined my research plan and discussed the different forms of "autobiographical writing" online. I ended the post writing that "tomorrow" I'll discuss the other key concept I'm examining: anonymity. As it were, this terrible thing called final exams rolled around... first it was giving final exams to the poor elementary kids I teach taught English to this past semester, now it's the poor university age kid (me) who needs to survive his own week of exams. But, amidst the horror, there 'ought to be room to procrastinate constructively and copy down the outline I've already handwritten explaining my understanding of this topic. EDIT: and now that failed too... it's been another couple of days... -insert awkward laughter-

Well, the last time I talked about my research with my framing question about "autobiography and anonymity online in China", I discussed the term "autobiography". In this post, I'll discuss the term "anonymity." First of all, what is a good definition of anonymity? Well, anonymity is the state of being anonymous. From the Greek anonmos, a = without; nonmos = name, lacking name. Anonymous as I'm thinking about it here is usually defined along the lines of "having an unknown or withheld authorship or agency". Authorship is an interesting issue, particularly due to Foucault's essay "What is an Author?" which while very hard to follow (this summary might be useful) leads us into some rather relevant questions about the meaning of authorship. What is the relationship between a text and the author? To be horrifyingly simplistic, we could say that Foucault sees that in the how we consider literature, we can consider the role of the author is to act as a conduit for the representation of certain ideas that exist within their society. Foucault also posits, the rather memorable thought about the "death of the author", a lens for which us to think of the author as more than just an individual. I would think that the "death of the author" is not that dissimilar to a state of anonymity, of course, Foucault is asking us to imagine the great authors as though they were anonymous, on the internet, our authors are not "the greats" but they are conveniently already anonymous, giving us the ability to skip right to considering them for the picture of society which they can give us.

I would state a fact I don't care to verify with numbers: a minority of well-known online writers are anonymous, but a majority of online writers are anonymous. I would also note that all well-known online writers are bloggers. For most successful bloggers, the blogging medium acts as a self-promotion device. The ordinary online writer however, uses blogs and forums alike to "vent information" onto the internet. Anonymity for the ordinary the person means the freedom to be honest in expressing opinions and feelings.

BUT (I write in big scary letters and circle a few times in my notes) what happens when the readers choose to intrude on your anonymity. And that is a, if not the, central issue on the Chinese online world right now. China had a very predicatable 2008. The normal disasters, protests, counterprotests and finally the long expected and fully scripted Olympics... but no one expected the emergence of the Human Flesh Searches. The Human Flesh Searches have hunted down the good, the bad, the ugly and the beautiful in mass pursuits that not only highlight how much of our personal information can be garnered through the internet, but also how tenuous the anonymity we cling to really is.

Why do Human Flesh Searchers seek to unmask the identity of the authors or subjects of their targeted searches? Skepticism, anger and/or a call to action cause readers to wish they knew the author's identity. Identity is context, which in turn lends verifiability to any knowledge claim. Is the internet a contextless space? At times, it may seem so spontaneous, but I firmly believe that the internet is a part of the physical world, as much as a book or a table might be, as such blog posts and comments on forums and blogs alike do not simply spontaneously "pop" into existance. They come from somewhere, and there is a certain hunger that us ordinary folks feel to know who is communicating that opinion to us, or who that is holding that placard.

Human Flesh Searches come out of this hunger for context that is quite understandable, but a very fundamental fear that observers of this phenonma have is how they have so often transformed into Witch Hunts, which we can clichely compare to the Cultural Revolution, which I'd prefer not to go into. Rather let's focus our attention on this oh so important notion of real world repurcussions for online action. Certainly, this Human Flesh Search phenonma is going to forever complicate the way in which we think about anonymity in China.

Who are we writing to when we write online? I know the readers of this blog must number in the handful, dozens maybe. Though perhaps I could account for future readers, but even that seems a little self-indulgent. For the most part, I am writing for myself. Of course, my identity is out in the open. In my earlier post I discussed diary writing versus online writing as two distinct forms of autobiographical writing. An anonymous author of a blog or forum post about their own life is writing a diary in the sense that the act of writing does not unmask them in connection with the story they are writing about. It is still private for them. But simultaneously many people are free to read it and come to their own conclusions about the work, just as takes place with any published work. Now whereto is the author?

If he were alive today, I expect that Foucault would have a very big smile on his face.

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1/12/2009

A Moment of Perspective

I was just looking at this map of Africa, with other areas of the world shown for comparison and it got me thinking that while Westerners like to think that we know a lot about the world our "knowledge" is heavily skewed by perspective. Like the economic disparities that Immanuel Wallerstein outlined within his notion of the "core-periphery", there is also an awareness gap that exists between the core and the periphery, the developed and undeveloped nations, which leads the citizens of both to have wholly unrealistic ideas about the lives of the alien Other.

But in this globalized world, we often hold the attitude that the global citizen on the path to success. But I think we should qualify that belief and say that, the global citizen who finds his home in the first world, naturally benefits from the power of perspective. The perspective, and experience can bring political, economic and social benefits back home in the first world, or allow them to leverage their first world credentials in the developing world. For the global citizens who consider the periphery, the developing world, to be their first home, there is a mounting frustration with the way in which certain kinds of "global employees" or "global citizens" have leveraged themselves into positions where they can be gatekeepers for knowledge. There are no worse culprits than journalists (though there are many other ways in which Westerners can be bad overseas citizens). And I truly have great problems dealing with the continued state of international journalism in the media.

First, is a journalist an investigator of knowledge or a gatekeeper? It seems that journalists back in the heyday of early 20th Century journalism had the attitude of investigators and tradition of well-researched and vigorously fact-checked journalism developed. Sadly, modern journalism, perhaps reached it's height in the Watergate scandal. For afterward, the media establishment began to become targeted by political and economic means of "changing the tone". In the past couple decades, that has meant a real weakening of the journalistic institutions, and perhaps no place has been as damaged as international reporting.

International reporting is a intellectually challenging field in the first place. A journalist is sent to a foreign country, in which even if they speak the native language, they do not speak it as a native; they lack connections; they find their access limited by handlers, censorship and translators; and their bosses demand an exciting, yet simple to read story. Of course, for a foreigner to read about the goings-on of another country without reading about the history and culture of that place, the meaning can be completely changed.

We in the West have always loved stories about the Oriental Others. Especially those that fit in with our preconceived notions of what life on the Periphery must be like: brutal, impoverished, but of course, with a hint of exotic beauty. Looking at a map of Africa with comparable sizes to other countries prompted me to think about this, because we have been conditioned by the media to think of Africa, not as a continent, but as an singular location in our imagination, a country more like, "Africa" with scare quotes, that fits so neatly into our Orientalist stereotypes and makes such fantastic television. Are you surprised to see how big it is as far continents go? I admit, I was even in a little put back, and I would consider myself fairly aware of what goes on in Africa, having spent some time in Kenya myself.

I also have to consider my own current adopted country, China, where Western media bias, is not just a problem for us understanding China as it is, but now a serious issue that is bouncing back onto us as media-savvy, bilingual young Chinese have realized how our media is reporting on China. And they are not happy. The notion that Chinese people know less about what's happening in their country then we do, is one so quickly bandied about in the West, that I almost think that many Westerners actually buy into this attitude. It all came to a head this year during the riots in Tibet, when Western media, reporting on the issue made several critical false knowledge claims without evidence (that if they were reporting on municipal politics would libelous, but they can get away with for international reporting, yet another fundamental flaw with international reporting).

The most graphic of these, was a video, that made it's way onto CNN and Spiegel, in particular, and was also snapspotted onto the frontpages of many prestigious newspapers. The video showed Nepalese policemen cracking down on Tibetan protesters in a riot in support of their brothers in Tibet, that likewise turned violent, when emotional protesters attacked the Nepalese policemen, telling them they were protesting illegally. Lacking actual footage from inside Tibet, Western media outlets instead showed the video of Nepal, without telling their viewers that it was not actually Tibet. This and other media miscalculations were caught noticed by media savvy young Chinese, who enraged, promoted this around the internet. They founded a website called "Anti-CNN.com" which they promoted as a watchdog against Western misinformation about China. I remember viewing it when it was a very shabbily put together HTML set of links and embedded Youtube videos. Today, I looked at it again while writing this post and was surprised to see how it has morphed into a sleek, sophisticated website. Ironically now, Chinese people are now to believe our media is just as manipulated as we think there own is. Maybe they're right.

For me, 2008 was a tragic year for Western-Chinese relations. But it was also a year of growing up. In 2008, Chinese people realized that Westerners think the worst of them. There is an air of defensiveness that now pervades every conversation about politics had between Westerners and Chinese in this country, as opposed to the openness I felt being here in 2007. Before, there was no real awareness of how China was talked about in the West. With sites like Anti-CNN all that changed, for better or worse. Now if I wish to discuss a social problem in China (and there are many) I feel the gaze of my Chinese friends asking, "so you want to confirm your baser suspicions?"

On the other hand, Westerners realized that Chinese people are neither anti-government, nor pro-Tibet. Chinese people are nationalistic, proud of their country and of great surprise to all of us, unwilling to blame the high echelons of the party for the corruption and gangsterism of the local political elites.

This last one is very important for me, because I see it as being largely representative of the very different political culture that exists here. The New York Times recently ran an article that reported on how activists had been jailed in a mental hospital in Shandong for trying to go to Jinan, where I lived last year, to report on corruption of their local level officials. Now, while there was a certain level of collusion in this case between provincial and local level officials, the nature of this kind of jailing of complaintants, is actually a "encouraged" act (encouraged that if complaintants succeed in registering complaints in provincial capitals or Beijing, it leads to punishments for the officials who allowed them to "rock the boat" not just the actual wrongdoers), that is heavily tied to the notion of devolution of power and decentralization within the traditional Chinese state. Yet this isn't a some new wierd concept (though your image of China, compliments of the media, might be a little different) but in fact, the organization of the Chinese state has been based around a decentralized, self-regulating local rule, with a strong authoritarian state at the top which serves to protect the nation (ironically, quite similar to what Hobbes might have had a wet dream about and written a fanciful book of political philosophy called Leviathan). This organization has been around since the Tang Dynasty (1000 C.E.), and modern post-Reform and Opening capitalist government has repaired what few dents Mao and his buddies had made into this system. So long story short, the idea of local leaders sending mercenaries to lock up complaining farmers who try and make their way to Beijing may seem exotic and strange to a Western reader, but here's something to chew on: this is a practice that has persisted for one thousand years.

Perspective.

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1/08/2009

Gap Years: Just for the Rich?

I'm responding to the article: "New High-School Elective: Put Off College" December 30th. Now I have a few choice words. So this is taking the form of an open letter below.

It's sad that such elitist and establishment-based examples are how the Wall Street Journal choose to discuss something as simple and potentially democratic as the notion of a "gap year". First of all, what is a gap year? What is the point of it? This article doesn't seem to know. Is it a language program? Is it volunteering? It is being overseas? Is it character building? Is it down-time from high school? Or should it be action-packed with no downtime at all?

I say waste, because I firmly disagree with the notion that taking a year off in which a young adult can gain valuable experience about the world, and more importantly, themselves, is something that the middle class (and the day when these families can be described as middle-class will be happy day for America) can simply not afford. My own gap year, would normally fit into the top tier price-wise, valued at about $10,000 or more, was completely subsidized by the Government of Canada. Such financial aid options are widely available to Americans seniors in various forms. I've since traveled and volunteered quite a bit through the world, and I've learned that gap years, if properly conceived, are neither so expensive nor difficult to research in the slightest. The notion of hiring a consultant to accomplish something that can be done with google in an instant, smacks of a lazy elitism I find quite discouraging. The claim, for example, that there are "more than 100 programs in China" to sort through is simply untrue. There are perhaps half a dozen organized programs of this type in the entire country, unless of course you are a speaker of another European language, such as Italian, French or German, in which case a handful of other programs would be available.

Private schools and consultants are exacting an unnecessary price from uninformed rich parents. While a part of me applauds their entrepreneurship, the image they paint of gap years makes it seem as if the price tag would be a daunting price for others. I write this letter with much love and affection for my friends who are C.I.E.E. students currently completing an entire year here at ECNU in Shanghai. They are brilliant, exciting and hard-working young students with bright futures ahead of them. I suspect their soon-to-be-colleagues are going to be very similar. But $12 000/5 months or $20 000 is not something an ordinary American family can afford, and less-fortunate families that want to send their kids abroad should know... they can.

I come from a lower middle class family. But I have volunteered in Africa for my own gap year and gone to China twice on academic scholarship during my undergraduate degree, which I'm fortunate enough to benefit from the resources of Canada's top universities. The cost to myself and family for all three of those overseas programs was together less than $6000, almost exclusively the cost of airfare. All three programs were subsidized by either the Canadian or the Chinese government. But It is possible to pay substantially less for the programs that these students and their parents desire without even a dime of scholarship money.

(I'm a Chinese Govt. scholarship recipient at the school she will be attending, with friends inher program, so I must admit some insider knowledge) The program which Ms. Kivel selected in the end, C.I.E.E. is the first result on any search engine when the keywords "Gap Year Program China" are typed in. Or perhaps, because C.I.E.E. is one of the oldest, and most established exchange program providers in America. That's how her $2000 consultant found her $12,000 Gap Year program. The university she will attend charges less then $1400/semester and Shanghai has made host family services that will provide free housing (no commission) for English speakers to live with them. Additional classes and tutoring available to CIEE students should have a market value of more than $1000. Avg cost of housing in Shanghai for foreign students is $150/mth otherwise. Avg. living cost (for a foreign lifestyle) $300/mth. Avg. English teacher salary is $20-30/hr. Volunteer jobs are plentiful and again require no commission, just a phone call. A plane ticket to China 2-ways from a West Coast city costs $1000-1200, East Coast is $2000+. Look! I've just cut the cost of a six month program in Shanghai down to $6,300 (and that's living QUITE comfortably in terms of access to ALL the comforts of home and having lots of fun activities and doing lots of shopping in the cheap goods heaven that is China! Of course, you lose a lot of the hand-holding and extra perks of a program as well laid out as C.I.E.E.. For some parents, five thousand, ten thousand more dollars doesn't make a big dent in their minds, but for most teens, they simply wouldn't have the opportunity otherwise.

So in short, high school seniors and parents, if you have an interest in taking a gap year, or sending your child on one, but fear that you can't dole out the money of the rich and fabulous...

Do not fear.

Here are some steps to take yourself through to creating your perfect GAP year.

  1. Do you want to take a gap year? Maybe you don't. It can be an incredible adventure for some, but for others it can be a depressing time away from friends and family. Think first whether you're really interested in living abroad or simply in the romanticism of traveling abroad. There is a immeasurable difference between going to an all-inclusive resort in Acupaulco and volunteering in Barrio in even the same city. Some people crave a cross-cultural experience. If you don't, a gap year simply isn't for you.
  2. What do you want out of your gap year? Spiritual development? Maybe you should go the religious route. Want to become fluent in a language? Find a university or a homestay program. As a professional language student and part-time language teacher, I'll even suggest a third (very cheap) option. If I had to do it all again, I would go to live in a country and teach the language to myself through a combination of exposure to all forms of media, immersion, a modular educational approach, and plenty of private tutoring. Want to save the world? Think first about what skills you actually bring to the table. If you have skills that actually are useful, find out where they're needed. If you don't, there are many humanitarian projects that will take on volunteers and teach you those skills and let you help people in need... for a donation, of course. I felt depressed after my time volunteering in Africa because I felt that I didn't really contribute to the community where I lived in a meaningful enough way. I realized afterward that the point of going, was not for me to help them develop, but for the to help me develop! You having real skills that the community doesn't is what separates humanitarian volunteerism for educational volunteerism.
  3. Okay, you know what you want? Now where do you want to go? Think of a place you've always wanted to go. Sky's the limit. But keep in mind, you have to want to live there. Not visit but live. If you can't rough it out, developed countries are for you. If you crave the wild side, maybe the developing world will fit your personality. But be careful what you wish for. I've had many a gun pointed at my head, and had many close calls with dangerous political and health situations. Don't put yourself into a dangerous situation.This is where private agencies and programs come in handy, but if you're going the cheap route, that just means the research falls to you. Contact the American, British or Canadian consulate or embassy in the country you're interested in. The State Department's website also includes travel adisories on all countries. The CIA World Factbook and wikipedia are also good places to flesh out your interests.
  4. You know where you want to go, you know what you want to do. Don't worry, it could be multiple places. Now, open up Google and begin searching away, using as many keywords as possible. There are many websites that have databases of volunteering/educational programs and placements. One great example, for the environmental/agriculturally-inclined is WWOOF, the World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms. For a small membership fee, you can have access to thousands of placements in various foreign countries on all inhabited continents. Generally WWOOF volunteers get free room and board, and education about agriculture in return for part-time farm labor.
  5. Select a few top choices, send some inquires, figure out your plan. How much will it cost? Look for scholarships. Make your own scholarships. You might have made a doubletake there, but I am quite serious. In your community. you will have many charitable organizations and foundations. If you have financial need, and can explain the benefits of the program you want to embark on (teaching you a valuable skill, delivering humanitarian aid, etc) you can probably find a group. My small town municipality actually gave me $500 when I went to volunteer in Africa. All it took was a letter and a two minute speech before the town council. Other fraternal organizations helped me make up the remaining cost in donations. I had a bottle drive. Get a paper route. It's shameful that the article I'm address didn't even think to mention Rotary International's international study abroad program (one of the biggest charities in the world), the original gap year program that sends high school seniors to... well... kind of re-do their senior year in a foreign country. Sounds like high school all over again, but it's really not. It certainly isn't a lot different than these programs in the previous article. Oh and did I mention? The Chinese government offers hundreds if not thousands of placements every single year for the Chinese Scholarship Council (CSC) award that gives full scholarships to high school graduates, university students, graduate students, researchers and others to study Chinese or even do full university programs in China. In fact, in the past, the CSC has complained about the lack of applicants!
  6. Buy your airplane tickets, arrange your visa (if necessary) and away you go. These days there are plenty of budget airlines and it's pretty easy to find cheap seats on the internet. We don't need to use a travel agent to plan our holidays anymore, why would we need a "gap year consultant" at any time?
There you have an affordable gap year that if planned correctly costs no more than a year of community college. Minimal cost, maximum benefit. I previously gave the example of a six-month program in China. A program to a Latin American nation could cost a tiny fraction of that because the reduction in airfare and other cost of living differences. African and European programs are more expensive then Latin American and Asian programs for the reasons of popularity, cost, A gap year doesn't need a luxury of the rich. It can be a resume, and character builder that all Americans can afford.

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