Tuesday, September 9, 2014

The end of the road

There have been a number of well-publicized cases in recent years of local governments grabbing land from farmers who didn't want to sell, then paying them ridiculously low prices for their land (if they paid at all). The government tried to hush these up at first, but eventually the protests became too big to hide any longer. In response to public outcry, the government (at least in my part of China) has recently been treating reluctant homeowners with kid gloves. Sometimes the results are tragic in their own right.

There is a new road that makes our trip to the farm much more convenient, shaving twenty minutes or more off the drive. However, in two places along the road you can see where holdouts have forced the government to build the road around their houses. Here's what we saw last weekend on our way home from the farm.

Here is the newly-constructed road. It's a big, beautiful boulevard about five kilometers long.

This picture is taken at one end of the new road, standing right where the lane was SUPPOSED to go.

This is the view 180 degrees behind the last picture. There is supposed to be a lane through this farmer's back yard, to connect with the road off in the distance.

Cars barreling down the road at 80 km an hour have to make a pretty sudden swerve around the farm house. You can see there's just one little tiny blue sign to indicate the sudden end of the road. There's no signage to warn you in advance, no red plastic cones or barrels — nothing.

Wait a moment. What's that on the side of the house?
I guess this guy didn't see the little blue sign in time! I'm guess that the black tarp over the truck's cab is not a good sign. It probably indicates that there's stuff inside there that you don't want to see. Given how few Chinese drivers wear seat belts, that's a fair guess.

You can just barely see it in this picture, but the truck smashed into the wall of the house pretty hard. There's a big cracked-up place right between the two windows.

I don't know how he got dug in so deep.

Here's the little cut-out where both directions of traffic share one and a half lanes. It's a little unnerving when those giant lorries come rumbling past in the other direction.

By the way, we went past the same spot again today. The truck has been removed, leaving no trace except a big smack on the side of the house.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

A failure of corporate communication

This post is completely off-topic, but I can't resist. I hope you won't mind too much.

In Walter Isaacson's biography of Steve Jobs, he recounts Jobs' having told him that the one industry he would most like to have worked in, if not computers, was the automotive industry. Today I watched the online video of the unveiling ceremony for Mazda's 25th-Anniversary MX-5 Miata (http://www.mazda.com/stories/craftmanship/mx-5/mx-5_25th/thanksday/ustream/), and I was struck by how very much Mazda needs the ghost of Steve Jobs.

For several years during grad school, I drove a cherry-red 1990 Miata. It was the best car I've ever owned, a sheer joy to drive. I miss that car like an old lover.

It's a common experience. The Miata inspires love in its customers like few products except those made by Apple. Like an iPhone, it's not bare-bones practical — its selling points are style and fun. The Miata makes you want to drive it, and any other car is disappointing. A new edition of the Miata is anticipated by its fan base with the same excitement as a new iPhone.

So it was that Mazda prepared an unveiling ceremony clearly inspired by Jobs' keynote speeches. Except that they did almost everything wrong.

First there was the introduction. The designer who did the presentation seemed almost to be downplaying the greatness of the achievement that was the first Miata. In a risky and daring business move, Mazda revived a category that had been dead for ten years. Roadsters were considered a low-volume, no-profit niche market, yet Mazda sold millions. They were the low-cost tail that wagged such giant dogs and Porsche and BMW. It was an act of scrappy corporate audacity on par with the first iPhone.

Mazda's presentation said some of those things, but in such a jumbled-up, understated way that the message had almost no impact.

There was a nice little video, reasonably well-done, at the end of which the car quickly rolled onstage. Too quickly: there was no build-up, no drama, no music. Just a few puffs of smoke from the sides. In fact, the sound was still on the video, so you couldn't even hear the car!

If you're not a Miata fan, you might not be horrified by this omission, but the sound of the Miata is one of its major selling-points. Mazda spent countless dollars and man-hours into carefully engineering a satisfying exhaust rumble in the first-edition Miata. It's one of those perfect, Steve Jobs-like details that make the Miata such a full-body joy to drive. So it's a dreadful failure of communication to have the new edition of the car roll onstage in silence.

Once the car was there, the designer went on to show off the new look. This is the part I had been looking forward to, because I'd already seen some great-looking photos here: http://www.mazda.com/stories/craftmanship/mx-5/mx-5_25th/movie_photo/

This car was designed to be aggressive, where the first-generation Miata was bubbly. It's been aptly described as looking like a Maserati. The front end is low and wide, like a race car on the track. It looks fast and hot. It makes all the testosterone in your blood sing like a tuning fork. One look, and I felt an irresistible compulsion to be the one behind the wheel.

In the entire 23-minute video, there was not one single shot of the car from the front.

The interior of the car looks to be yet another design masterpiece. It's a gorgeous steampunk union of pre-computer-era knobs and dials with slick high-tech chrome-on-black style. The short-throw shifter in the middle speaks of control, responsiveness, and twisty, wind-whipped mountain roads. The palm of my right hand longed to rock-solid snicker-snack Miata shifting. The calves of both legs felt chills anticipating lightning-fast clutching.

There was not one single shot of the interior. The designer hosting the unveiling ceremony spoke in adjective-rich prose about the beauty and attention to detail Mazda had invested in the interior of the car, but he did not show it. Not once.

The car got driven onto the stage, presumably to show that it did in fact have an engine, but otherwise it sat static throughout the demo. There wasn't a turnstile to show it from different angles, nor did it move around at all. There was no video of the new Miata, only the intro video showing older generations. Even the driver seemed awkwardly immobile. This aggressive-looking, nimble little car looked stuck in mud.

Half the unveiling was spent on a concert by Duran Duran. I suppose this is appropriate to the Miata's sales demographic, but if I were planning the event I'd have skewed a little younger. The whole point of a car like this is to make people feel just a little younger than we are. Perhaps Duran Duran was supposed to remind us of our youth, but to me it was just a reminder of aging. The band has lost a lot of the spring from their step. They had an almost perplexed look about them, as if they, too, we wondering why they were there.

None of their songs had any obvious connection to the car, which sat forgotten on the opposite side of the stage. Rather than take the opportunity to cut away to exciting footage of the new Miata zooming down the road, the producers stayed glued to the aging rockers for a dozen long minutes.

I haven't been so disappointed in the work of a highly-paid, supposedly professional communicator since — well, now that I think about it, the Isaacson biography of Steve Jobs. If you wanted to un-sell a car, Mazda just provided a great example of how to do it.

Monday, September 1, 2014

A hitchhiker in my class

Another first:

Last week was the first week of classes. In European Civilization class, I gave a general introduction to European Civilization (overall outline, breakdown into Ancient, Medieval, Renaissance, Industrial Revolution, and Contemporary periods, with a few very rough dates). Then I gave an introduction to some key themes of the course, by way of a lecture I call "Three Ideas That Made the West Great." The three ideas are Logic, Individualism, and Freedom. It's a very generalized introduction, the purpose of which is to get them thinking about some of the terms and themes that are going to come up throughout the semester.

At the end of class, I asked the students to write a simple self-introduction with their contact information, something about their background, reasons for taking the course, and a little bit about what they're interested in. Here is one of the responses I got. I'm quoting here in its entirety, with the very slightly rough Chinese grammar (not bad at all, by Chinese standards), so you get the flavor of the student's thinking.

So glad to participate in your class, sir. Actually I'm not your "true" student. I am a post-graduate majored in Labor Economics. I was looking for place to read books when you are preparing your class. [The class meets at 6:30PM, and it's common for students to use classrooms as study space in the evenings.] 
Anyway I feel happy, which you said is the most important thing for human being. Western civilization is great and Chinese culture is also special. I want to learn more from you, a foreigner, to see a world in your eyes, if it is allowed. [Allowed?! I'm THRILLED!] 
About the three ideas you talked about tonight, I can't agree more. Logic makes the world scientific and put the way to knowledge, so that we human can know better about everything around us. Individualism makes people live for themselves so that we can realize a harmony society, in which everybody is equal. Freedom is the vital factor to push a country moving on. We Chinese is waking up from the less free past. Though we have a long way to go, we still have lots of problems, we will not stop changing...
 In other words, this grad student was sitting in the classroom studying on his own, when our phalanx of 50 students piled into the room. He must have asked one of the students what class it was, and had enough interest in the topic to stick around for the first class. I guess our first night of class caught his interest enough that he wants to keep coming back.

This sort of thing almost never happens in the US, unless you're lucky enough to be at a superstar university like Chicago, where students are motivated by pure love of knowledge. Nor is it the norm here in China, where the vast majority of students are motivated by pure love of grades and credits. But I have had more auditors in my classes here in China than I ever did in the States.

Paradoxically, the Chinese focus on "hard sciences" gives my philosophy and culture classes a certain niche popularity. Students who are relentlessly hammered with business management classes sometimes long for something different, and there aren't very many offerings that can satisfy them.

I've had auditors before, but this is the first time my class has picked up a hitchhiker!

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Working at Ikea

In all those years shopping at Ikea, I never thought I'd be working there. No, I'm not wearing a blue shirt and driving a forklift, but I am working at Ikea now. Today I started a seven-week Business English class for ten or fifteen of their employees who already have pretty good English at the start.

 I can already tell it's going to be fun: unlike worker/students I've taught at some other companies, these guys are super-talkative. There are two class clowns who should keep things interesting.

The Chinese employees of the Development Zone have a definite sense of hierarchy of companies. The Scandinavian, German and American companies are regarded as the very best, with Ikea at the top. All these Western companies are known for relatively good pay (Germans and Scandinavians somewhat higher than Americans) and great office atmosphere.

Chinese companies suck, but no worse than Chinese companies in the rest of China.

Korean companies are known for low pay and bullying bosses. Japanese are regarded as the very worst. The pay is ⅓ lower than at a Chinese company, the bosses are extremely condescending and demanding, and the office atmosphere is authoritarian.

A student in class today said "Japanese boss tell me 'Do this, then do this, then do this.' Ikea boss tell me 'Solve this problem, up to you how.'" I could clearly see the results of that respectful atmosphere in the attitudes of these students.

Now that I'm living in the Development Zone, these kinds of classes should be plentiful. It's a shame I love teaching at the university, because I could probably make twice the money with a lot less stress and hassle just by chasing down jobs like this in the Development Zone

The Development Zone has this great combination of lots of foreign companies, but almost no foreign teachers. That means parents out here see the value of English for their kids, companies need to teach English to their workers, workers earn a hefty premium (sometimes 20% or more) for knowing English — and there's only little-ole' me and a few others to teach them! I like that particular mixture of supply and demand.

The only trouble is, I don't love teaching English as much as I love teaching content classes like Business Ethics, European Civ, The Moral Foundations of Capitalism, and Entrepreneurship. So I'm actually taking a relative pay cut, working longer and harder, for the privilege of teaching what I most love to teach. Teaching English is a blast, too, but it just doesn't exercise my capacity the way that teaching philosophy-related courses does.

So for the time being, I'll carry on working at the university while making my real money on the side at lovely little gigs like this.

New interview on Philosophy in Action radio

Philosopher Dr. Diana Hsieh recently interviewed me about "Love and Sex in China" on her live internet radio show, Philosophy in Action. You can listen to or download the podcast any time. You'll find the podcast on the episode's archive page, as well as below. About the Interview:
What are the traditional ideas about love and sex in Chinese culture? How did those ideas change in Mao's time? How do Chinese men and women approach romantic and sexual relationships today? Is homosexuality accepted? What is the place of mistresses and prostitutes? Moreover, Robert Garmong told us of the pitfalls of marrying a Chinese woman – and explained why he did exactly that anyway.
Listen or Download: Topics: Topics:
  • The teaser about Robert's marriage
  • Traditional ideas of love and sex
  • The changes under Mao
  • The one-child policy
  • The influence of western culture
  • Dating in China today
  • Sex education
  • STDs and abortion
  • Married life
  • Infidelity
  • Homosexuality
  • Robert's marriage
Links: For more about Philosophy in Action Radio, visit the Episodes on Tap and Podcast Archives.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Ma Lei on a tear!

Oh, my wife! That mouth of hers is going to get her in trouble someday. She's awesome!

This noontime, she was down buying some cold noodles for lunch. There were a couple of 50-something guys shooting the shit about an unfortunate young, 20-something woman who lives somewhere in our apartment complex. According to these guys, that woman is of a type I'd thought existed only in America: so morbidly obese as to be completely housebound. As they described her, she weighs about 400 pounds.

Of course, it’s totally normal for the Chinese to tell someone straight to her face that they think she’s fat. There's no sense of avoiding affront, at least not yet. Let this country pudge out for a generation or two, and I expect the norms to change radically. But for now, fat-shaming is pretty normal.

Once when I was teaching a class of kindergarten students, on the very first day I walked down the front row chatting with them. The first one looked up at me and said “you are very tall!” The second one said “Your hair is very curly.” The third one said “You are very fat.” Good student, good student, BAD student! 

Another anecdote: When I used to teach Oral English, I frequently had students play a game of Taboo. If you’ve not played that game, it’s a team-based game in which one person picks a word card off the top of a stack. The card will have one target word and five “taboo” words. Using only words, not gestures or pictures, the person who’s “It” has to lead his or her teammates to guess the target word without using any of the “taboo” words. 

First I had the students come up with vocabulary words to test, along with a list of five or six “taboo” words. Invariably, every class would have at least one card where the target word was “Fat,” and one taboo word was the name of a classmate of theirs, as in “Alice is very…” In some cases, among the taboo words would be MY name — suggesting that the Chinese clearly don’t get how offensive this kind of talk is to foreigners. If they knew how foreigners feel about being called fat, they’d never, ever call their own teacher fat! 

However, there’s a fine line to be walked, even in Chinese culture. As Ma Lei explained her feelings about this conversation, it's one thing to talk about how obese this woman was, but these guys were going way above and beyond. "How does she go to the toilet? She must crack the porcelain every time she sits down on it!" Ha, ha, ha!

Ma Lei lit into those two older guys. Translating loosely: "Is it any of your damned business how she goes to the toilet? Why do you care so much about her? Is she your girlfriend?” Whoof! HUGE insult to a China-guy.

The guy whom she'd addressed most directly tried to dismiss her by saying — translated literally — "shut up, woman. We're not talking about you."

Oh, poor him. He SO didn't know whom he was talking to! In all of China, you couldn't run into a more intransigent buzz-saw when she gets her dander up.

If you could take the soul of a feisty South-Side Chicago ghetto woman and pour it into the frame of a five-foot-nothing China-girl, that’s my wife. It is an explosive kind of beast.

The literal translation of her response is as follows, but it should really be read in a ghetto-sass accent: “Of course I know you ain't talking about me. You know how I KNOW you ain't talking about me? It’s because you're still alive. If you WERE talking about me, I'd have already beaten you to death.” That’s literally what she said: 打死你!(Hit-to-death you.)

Whereupon these two big bu-bu-bu-boom guys were stunned into silence, looking down at all five-foot-nothing of Ma Lei, going "What just happened?" They grabbed their cold noodles and got the hell out of there.

Man, I wish I'd been there to see it!

Then again, just minutes ago, Ma Lei was riding down on the elevator with the two little dogs. There was a youngish guy, perhaps 20-something, who was looking at her and plucking at his genitals. Not playing, but plucking — like plucking a harp, or picking weeds. 

(We foreigners almost never see how insane Chinese men are with regard to their spastic sexuality, but apparently it knows very few bounds.)

When he saw her looking, he just smiled and carried on plucking, as if he were encouraging something to grow.

Ma Lei turned to him, full-face, hands on her hips, and said “Okay, take off your pants and let me see.”

The guy flushed and put his hands behind his back. He didn’t make eye contact again.

I didn’t marry any submissive wet noodle, that’s for sure!

Saturday, July 12, 2014

A friend of mine who goes all the way back to my University of Chicago days recently asked, in her romantic sort of way, "how did you meet your Chinese wife?" The question seemed fairly simple, but the answer comes only in installments.

When I came to China, I had no expectation to meet a wife, though nearly everyone else I knew expected me to. 

I'd heard too many horror stories about marriages between American men and Chinese women, and too few success stories. None, actually. Not a single story of happy union of the kind, and plenty of stories of unhappy ones.

China is probably the only nation on earth with a stronger sense of so-called "exceptionalism" than the United States. It's right there in the name: Zhong Guo, which means "Middle Country" (though it's often translated "Middle Kingdom"). Another way of describing China, usually used in the context of the realm ruled by China's emperor, is "Everything Under Heaven.” Never mind a century and a half of ignominy at the hands of the yangguizi — literally, "Foreign Devils" — the Chinese still feel their own superiority to everyone else. 

Even people who would give anything to get out of China and go to America, still say "and when I get there, I will find a Chinese girl/man to marry." Their modern, internet mythology abounds with stories of evil foreigners, specifically evil foreign men who come here with bad intentions.

Add to that, the Chinese people are essentially binary: the good ones, I would trust with my life without question. The bad ones would steal the clothes off your back and leave you in the middle of the Gobi Desert. The trouble is, the bad ones vastly outnumber the good ones, and for sheer two-faced manipulativeness those wicked Chinese take second place to no other country I know.

And lastly, I have a certain premise about romantic partners, Garmong's Rule. It's perhaps a brutally cruel rule, but one to which I have never personally encountered an exception. It's definitely a relationship guideline for me, personally.

The rule is this: Any woman who is profoundly alienated from her family is almost certainly too full of conflicting desires, fears, and neediness to make a good romantic partner for me. 

I admit the possibility of exceptions, of course, as there always are with psychological phenomena. And other men may have a higher tolerance for the "issues" that arise in that situation, but it's not for me. I am too trusting a person to be with someone who doesn't trust me, and I've got no interest in entering the swirling eddy of comparisons to her abusive or absentee father — or her controlling mother — or her religious-fanatic aunts and uncles — or whomever she was raised with and hates. I'll support her in her struggles, I'll wish her all the best, but I'll back away from romantic involvement. I'd rather be her best friend than her boyfriend.

I suspect that the same problems arise when a woman is alienated from her culture. She may be right to be alienated — it may be a rotten culture, as China is in so many ways — but unfortunately for her and for any man who chooses to be with her, the penalty for being born in a rotten culture is almost always loose screws deep, deep down in the machinery. I don’t have the patience to spend enough time with a spanner such that I might help her solve all her problems, whereupon my great reward is that I get the same relationship I’d have gotten with an un-conflicted woman. “Issues” girls are clearly not for me.

As I've said, my theory is cruel. But to make of oneself an exception to that rule requires an independence so heroic as to be very nearly legendary. I’ve not yet met that woman.

The Chinese women I've met or heard about who've been specifically seeking foreign husbands, have typically fallen into a very small set of neatly-defined categories.

There are the gold-diggers who associate a white face and a paunchy belly with wealth. I’ve got the paunch and the white face, but I'm fairly safe from that category, because I have no wealth until I get around to inheriting it.

There are the green-card-diggers who see an American husband as a "bridge" — literally the word they use when talking among their Chinese friends — to get the hell out of this country. I can't blame them, but I don't care to let them walk to America across my back in stiletto heels to go find a younger/handsomer/wealthier man.

There are a few devoted Christian Chinese women who associate their religion with the West and so wish to find a foreign Christian who can take them away to a more Christian-friendly country. Of course, these tend to overlap with the two previous categories. Not being a Believer, I regard this type as thrice-over hideous, no matter how pretty they may be.

Then there are a minority of Chinese women who have fallen in love with American culture via TV shows and movies they've downloaded from the internet, and who genuinely respond to the freedom and independence of American people.

This last is the only category that I find plausible, but even those are bound to fall afoul of Garmong's Rule. If she's so enamored of the image of the dashing foreigner, she's very likely alienated from her own home environs. And in that case, whether or not she makes a good friend, she surely can't be a girlfriend. Besides which, I want to be loved as one specific person, not a representative of a category.

Oh, and I'm only attracted to women of intelligence and independent, feisty spirit. No limp noodles or subservient Asian stereotypes for me.

So, for me to have fallen in love with a Chinese woman was statistically all-but impossible. 

I would have to find someone who loves her family and her country, who is essentially well-adjusted, yet independent enough to judge her own country objectively. (Lovers of Ma Ze Dong NOT welcome.) She has to NOT be looking specifically for a foreigner, nor for money, nor for an exit from China. And she has to be a woman of extremely high intelligence and a degree of honesty and integrity that is extraordinarily rare in this largely unethical country.

To find what I wanted would be like threading a needle from ten feet away while Fruit Loops kept trying to intercept my thread. It was, of course, impossible. And yet, it happened.