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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