Thursday, June 23, 2016

The Theft of Benevolence

Ma Lei has been seeping preciously little, of late. Her belly is just too big for her ever to become comfortable, as the big watermelon has grown to become a contender for first prize at the county fair. (Roman is already over 8 lbs., three weeks before his due date. I'm terrible with these sorts of details, but people tend to gasp when I tell them that fact.)
So around 9:00 this morning, I was very much relieved to hear her snoozing gently. I tried to avoid making a peep, as anything I do in this teeny-weeny apartment inevitably wakes her up.
Then came a quiet yet insistent knock at our door. It came once, and we ignored it. It came again. Then a third time. 
By this time, Ma Lei was out of bed and at the door.
"Who is it?" She asked. 
"It's me!" came the quiet, mysterious response, in an old woman's voice she didn't recognize.
"Do I know you?"
"I know your cousin," the woman said. "I've come selling blankets for your baby. Let me in so I can show you."

If this sounds like the intro to a Disney movie, it's not!
We have a little screened door-within-a-door, a foot and a half high and a foot wide, to allow air flow on days when it's not quite hot enough for the air conditioner. Ma Lei opened that little door to see two fifty-something women — but no blankets, no other inventory, and no flyers or other sales materials. Only their giant, Cheshire grins and another request for her to invite them in.
Ma Lei freaked out and yelled at the women to get the hell out of here. "I don't know you, and I'm not buying anything from you old crones!"

(Still sounding like the intro to a Disney movie. Still not.)

For one thing, Disney movies never involve social media, unless you count the seagulls in Finding Nemo.

Ma Lei immediately got on various social media groups for our neighborhood, and after confirming briefly that these women had been pestering various neighbors, she was quickly on the phone with the police.

I was quite shocked by all this fervor. Granted, these women interrupted her precious sleep, but why call the cops on them? Perhaps I've seen too many Disney movies in which cruelty toward the door-to-door crone turns out badly.

Well, it turns out there is a reason for Ma Lei's reaction, which a middle-class, Disney-fed American would never understand.

There is a scam in China, in which people come to your door with some reasonable pretense to get you to open up. Once you do, they have two ploys available to them. 

In one, they simply case you out, quietly inventorying your place for things they can later return and steal. 

In the other, they won't bother with such formalities, getting straight to work: they knock you out with chloroform or some other drug, then take your stuff immediately. An old man in Ma Lei's home village got robbed that way, losing something close to $200. (In a Chinese peasant farming community, $200 is a massive loss. That might be a year's worth of his savings.)

The two scams work together. The thieves may be the same ones: if they see that there are two people at home, they'll opt for Plan A, but if it's just a lone housewife, they might go for Plan B. This is what Ma Lei explained to me.

I was still skeptical, and Ma Lei could see it on me. So she walked me out into the hall, where someone had stroked a little red hash mark next to our door. I was still uncomprehending as Ma Lei dashed inside to grab a wet rag, then set about aggressively washing it off. When she had finished, she explained a bit more.

The mark would have been put there by someone who observed us and identified us as — literally — "marks." I.e., easy and/or lucrative victims. Foreigner = rich and naive, in the Chinese criminal mind. (In this case, much more the latter than the former.) About to have a baby = vulnerable. Even a Chinese woman might go soft and let her guard down during those last few weeks before birth. The combination is salivatory, if you're a Chinese criminal.

If only the foreigner is home, he'll be happy to show you in. "Oh yes," he'll answer your question, "we bought that TV just last year. It cost about $400. Why yes, that is my laptop. I take it with me to campus every day. ... No, it doesn't bother me to carry it with me, because I also have my other computer that's always in my apartment. That one is safe from theft or accident." And so on, and so on. Foreigners are stupid!

If only the Chinese wife is home, she won't be so stupid. She might tell you when her baby is due and what she needs to buy, but in the meantime you can case out the place. Already, she's given you too much information, but not as much as her running-at-the-mouth foreign husband.

And of course if neither one is home, you can do your business right away. Hence the rather quiet rapping at our door: the neighbors wouldn't hear it.

There's no way to know what their scam was, but the evidence is clear that this was a scam. 

  • We'd been marked out (by whom, we'll never know). 
  • The women knew that we had a baby coming, yet they had no good way to know: they didn't know Ma Lei.
  • They refused to identify themselves by name. 
  • And they weren't carrying anything to indicate that they were actually selling something. Yeah, I'm convinced that this was some kind of scam.

"Welcome to China! The nice hat-check lady will be happy to take your coat, your umbrella, and your American benevolence toward your fellow human beings. Better give it to her, and get a ticket so you can get it back when you leave China. Otherwise, someone's liable to steal it for good."

Thursday, May 26, 2016

For the past several years, I've been developing a Business Ethics class for my students here at my university. Now that I'm leaving this university for another job, I hate to see all that work go to waste. The vast majority of Business Ethics classes are, not to put too fine a point on it, useless for Chinese students (if not for others, as well). Since they were unable to find anyone with an actual ethics background, the department roped in a Finance guy from outside the university to teach the class. I'm sure he'll do his best, but I know what it's like teaching a subject that's so far outside your wheelhouse. Disaster is guaranteed, even with the best of intentions.
I've been working to convert all my course materials into a detailed handbook, so that he can follow my outline and use my readings and PowerPoint slides. I've been assured that my materials will be used only with my © intact, though I'm not sure how carefully that will be policed. (However, there is method to my madness: by incentivizing them to stick with my course outline I maximize the chance that in a year or two when I publish the course as a textbook, it will be a natural fit for them to adopt it. :-) )
Going back through these course materials has been a great pleasure. It's one thing to go through a course one week at a time, but it's been a couple of years since I've really taken a view of it from 30,000 feet to take in the whole. Of course there are a thousand ways I can improve it (and am doing so in my Course Notes), but still I'm pretty proud of the results.
Key concepts for teaching Business Ethics to Chinese students:
1. Absolutely no theoretical/philosophical discussion, except as directly induced from concretes. No section on Utilitarianism or Kantianism or Aristotle. I tried that my first year, and there are no words for the level of failure. 351 people hated life that week: 350 of them being my students and the last one being their errant professor. I rejiggered that introduction to ethical theory five different times for five different classes, and it went "THUD" every time.
2. Keep all controversies within their context. That whole section on Affirmative Action and race relations in our Western textbook is completely useless here.
3. Include a balance of Chinese and foreign case studies. However, every negative case study about China must be balanced by one from outside China. Don't do anything to convey the notion that you, the foreigner, are here in China to tell them what's wrong with their country.
4. Include one or two important controversies. A section on sexual harassment is extremely important, because the female students haven't any idea how rampant it is, and the male students haven't any idea how wrong it is. The row of guys sitting in the back of the room will try to smirk their way through that lesson, because of the one-child policy: they don't have a sister.
If you happen to be teaching in a year when anti-Japanese hatred is on the flare, get in their faces on that one. I have a great lesson plan for that, but this year it was mostly a waste because my students didn't take the anti-Japanese bait.
5. Limit controversy. In an 18-week semester, 2 or 3 controversial topics is about as much as you can hit them with. More than that, and they'll turn on you. It's not their fault, either, it's yours: too much controversy, in this culture, is seen as another foreign invasion.
6. Learn the lesson of The Meno. Socrates argued (more or less) that virtue cannot be taught, and he was (more or less) right. Ethics is a matter of choice, and it's for the individual to make in his or her own mind. So what can a Business Ethics class teach?
  • The real-world importance of ethics. Case studies of companies that have failed because they lost their morals.
  • That business is not inherently unethical — in fact, ethics is good business practice.
  • How and why people with good intentions fail at ethical behavior.
  • Practical guidance: how to create an organization with incentives to ethical behavior, and disincentives to unethical behavior.
For Chinese students, in my opinion that's about it. If you can do that, then you have given them a good framework for thinking about ethics in business. You've given them a warning about the consequences of unethicality. You've given them a heads-up on what leads people astray, and how to avoid those mistakes that magnify over time. You've given them management Best Practices.

They will go home knowing that they got something really great from your class.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

The most welcome news I've heard in months came yesterday, as Ma Lei was explaining to her family how she's planning not to follow the Chinese postpartum tradition.
For those who don't know, the Chinese "medical" "wisdom" includes one practice regarding childbirth that tops almost everything else in its repulsiveness. Traditionally, a new mother was not supposed to rise from her bed for an entire month. Getting out of bed might introduce "cold air" into her body, which is regarded by Chinese "medicine" as a main source of disease.
Most importantly, she was not to bathe. Bathing might make the mother too humid, or something like that.
Thank God, Ma Lei's doctor knows at least somewhat better than that. She explained to Ma Lei and other patients that obeying this custom means exposing the newborn baby to all manners of infectious agents which the baby isn't prepared to combat. (She didn't mention that it's just vile and repulsive to everyone forced to deal with the new mother during that month, which would have been my line of attack.)
So I was very glad that Ma Lei accepted the doctor's advice, and admonished her family not to expect her to follow their traditions in that regard.
But then in the same breath, Ma Lei informed us that she doesn't plan to wash her hair for that entire month. The reason for this is that, once she's washed her hair, she needs to blow it dry. But that might introduce air into her bones, and new mothers' bones are already "loose."
I didn't even fight that battle. I didn't bother to say that there's a reason we have skin, whose sole purpose is to keep "air" and other things out. If she wants to go a month without washing her scraggly hair, I'm okay with that. Just so she doesn't think she needs to spend the entire month in bed without a single shower.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

How framing the question makes all the difference: US-Chinese relations

Someone on Quora posted a question which I felt compelled to answer at length. I thought the question itself rather bad, but answering it brought out some interesting aspects of the relationship between the US and China. Perhaps most importantly, it illustrated the way in which a poorly-framed question can almost automatically elicit shallow answers, in a form of begging the question.
Here was the question: 

And my answer:
The question is a rather oversimplified one, because neither the US nor China thinks of itself in those purely competitive terms. 
First of all, the phrase "as powerful as..." is extremely vague. "Powerful" can refer to military power, or economic prowess, or cultural influence over average people around the world, or diplomatic influence, and probably lots of other elements. Nor is it a simple equation in any one of those spheres: the US may have more military power overall than Vietnam, but who won the war there?
Secondly, the US and China are not enemies. We are adversaries, but that's not the same thing. 
During the Cold War, it was very important for the US and the USSR to compete with each other directly for power in every possible sphere. But the US and China are not existential threats to each other, and so they do not have to think of each other in those terms.
There is something common to both the US and China — a mixture of naïveté and maturity — that makes this kind of "who is more powerful" comparison rather alien to both national characters.
Both the US and China see themselves in rather insular terms. China is "The Middle Kingdom." The US is "A City on a Hill" and "The Land of the Free." Each is self-absorbed. Each tends to ignore the perspectives of the rest of the world. Each thinks its own position is self-evidently correct, and wonders why anyone could possibly disagree. This is their naiveté.
Note that this is very different from the way many other countries see themselves. Other countries may fight passionately, and sometimes militarily, but they don't see themselves as bathed in righteousness the way Americans and Chinese do. If you put one of their statesmen under some sort of truth serum and asked him, "If you were suddenly wearing the uniform of the other side, what would you do," they would tell you "I would fight just as vehemently for them." If you asked the same question of an American or a Chinese leader, they would literally be unable to answer the question. They cannot see that there is another side to any issue, even when there is.
Both the US and China primarily care about whatever it is that they see as being in their interest. They don't fundamentally care who is more "powerful." They care about getting their own way, about pursuing their own interests around the world, but that's different.
And here's where their naiveté becomes maturity: neither one of them is particularly absorbed in that schoolyard bullying about who could beat up whom. Unlike some other countries (Russia?), neither America nor China sees "power" as an end in itself. They're focused on their interests, and of course one has to have the means to pursue one's interests. But if America's interests — or what it believes are its interests — are not threatened by China, America doesn't care who is "more powerful." It's mostly the same for the Chinese.
(Caveat: the Chinese are somewhat more focused on "power," because of their cultural emphasis on "face" — and because of the past century and a half of humiliating powerlessness. But still, the Chinese are far more focused on achieving their specific interests, than on having more "power" than any particular country.)
The question of "power" really only arises because of the often very deep disagreements about what is in our interests. China is a dictatorship, while the US still (mostly) believes in basic rights. China believes its territorial claims are automatically valid, while the US has doubts. China is afraid that America's allies will form a kind of sea wall around it, cutting off maritime routes. China is a mercantilist country that seeks to protect domestic enterprises from overseas competition, while the US is still (mostly) committed to (mostly-)free trade. These disagreements give rise to conflicts, which make the issue of "my dad could beat up your dad" more relevant than it would have to be, given the basic cultures of the two countries.
Of course, there are elements within each country that are indeed focused on the one-on-one comparison. There are the nationalist citizens who seek to gain reflected glory from their country's power. And of course there are national-security professionals whose job it is to prepare for worst-case conflicts. The latter class in each country should, as the saying goes, "hope for the best, but prepare for the worst."
But in terms of the average person or the government in America — which is what this question asked about — they don't fundamentally care if China is "more powerful" than the United States. 
Nor, fundamentally, do the Chinese. They want to ensure that their lives are improving, first and foremost. They want to ensure that they never again endure the kind of national humiliation that they've endured in the past. But do they fundamentally care if America is "more powerful" than China? As long as America keeps its nose out of what they see as their own business, they really don't.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Two elevators out

When I first moved to China, I met someone who was considering buying an apartment in a brand new high rise building with a beautiful view over the bay. She was disappointed, she said, because the only apartment she could afford was on the 30th floor, rather than the one on the 3rd floor which she’d wanted to buy.

I was flabbergasted at this. You’ve got a 30th floor apartment with a fantastic view over the water, and you’re disappointed that it’s not on the third floor where the view isn’t nearly as good? What are you thinking of? Her answer was: “What happens when the elevators break down?”

And again, I did a double-take. You’re buying a brand new luxury apartment. What is this “elevators break down” of which you speak?

Now I understand. This is China.

Granted, my apartment is not a luxury apartment, but it’s run by the kith and kin of people who run the luxury ones. None of them are to be trusted.

Tonight we were going out with the dogs, and the second elevator in our building, the one that has been working double-time while the other one was on a ten-week sabbatical, was not working. The light was blinking on the sixth floor. I knew that this did not bode well.

I told my wife, who as of tomorrow will be seven months pregnant, that she shouldn’t go down 15 floors with me, because we’re going to end up walking back up again. 

No worries, she said, in effect. Surely it’ll be fixed by the time we come home. I argued with her. But she wanted to walk, so she walked. Mama rules.

Normal people really don’t want to walk up or down a staircase anywhere in China. It’s disgusting.

China is a filthy place, in general. Everyone in China is a generation or two off a farm where they fertilized their fields by spreading their own “night soil” over them every morning, and that “night soil” was collected from the hole in the ground into which every family member spent their effluence. 

It shouldn’t be a surprise, and it’s really no fault of their own if they haven’t fully absorbed foreign standards of public hygiene. They didn’t have the luxury until quite recently, and the concept still hasn’t spread.

Even people who take good care of their interior space, once they walk out into the hallway will hawk and spit, drop their trash wherever they feel like it, and let their dogs pee. 

(On our way down, tonight, I actually had to correct a dog right in front of us who was lifting his leg every half a floor. His twenty-something owners sort of laughed, but they stopped letting him do it once I shouted loudly enough. It took two sharp corrections — and I’m not sure if I was correcting the dog, or the owners.) 

No one ever mops the floors or cleans the walls. 

Men whose wives won’t allow them to smoke inside the apartment, routinely smoke in stairwells. 

The stairwell is vile. It’s barely above a cesspit.

You really don’t want to climb down, and you especially don’t want to climb back up again,. Fifteen floors of a dark, dank, stinky stairway. I didn’t want my wife to do it, especially not with Roman in there.

So as we were standing out there in the hallway, before we'd made the decision to climb downstairs, Ma Lei said “You go home. I’ll walk the dogs.”

Are you kidding me? There was no way on earth I was going to let her risk having to carry those two heavy little creatures along with her pregnant belly up fifteen floors of filth. 

I wanted to send her back home, but that was a battle I couldn’t win. Mama wants to walk, Mama walks. The four of us walked downstairs together.

It was in fact a beautiful evening, and we had a lovely walk around the complex. When we’d finished one lap, we sat for a while on a nice little bench in front of our apartment building. Then we walked again for a little while.

When we returned to our building, “surely” the elevator had not been fixed. It was still blinking “6,” so we went back out and sat again for a while. 

It was actually very romantic, perhaps the more so because we were both looking at a giant climb ahead of us.

At some point, Ma Lei remembered that there’s a security office with cameras all over the complex (a thing she reminds me of every time I go to smack her butt or otherwise toy with her on the elevators). So she went in and knocked on the door, to see what the elevator cams had to say.

As Chinese always do when they are on the defensive, the security guy sounded aggressive, or borderline hostile. When you hear a Chinese low-level employee talk, it almost always sounds as though he’s fighting with someone. He wasn’t talking about anything that was actually his fault, but he was surely heading off anyone else blaming him for it. I believe they call it “deflecting.”

We knew it wasn't his fault. Ma Lei even said "I know it's not your fault," more than once. Yet he railed on about how it wasn't his fault. It must suck to be someone whose culture presupposes his guilt long before there's any evidence of it.

The message was that yes, the elevator is out of order. No, it’s not going to be fixed tonight. It will surely be fixed by tomorrow morning. 

In my American opinion, he could have conveyed the same message in a way that didn’t sound as though it were Ma Lei’s personal fault that the elevator was not working. But perhaps in China he’s just too used to people blaming him for what’s not his fault, so he’s got to deflect the blame.

Anyway, we’d gotten the message. We gave up and climbed the damned stairs.

On the fourth floor of our building, someone has abandoned a nasty old yellow-and-chrome couch that looks like a prop from the set if someone had made a Jetsons movie in the seventies. Ma Lei stopped for a break there, and the two dogs had probably reached the max of their climbing ability, so I scooped them up and trudged them up the other 11 floors while she rested. To my marginal credit, it was only when I reached the 13th floor that I lost my breath a little and had to take a quick break.

Ma Lei isn’t in terrible shape, herself, and sat there for not too many minutes.

She saw two twenty-something young men who’d bought a large mattress, struggling to haul it to the 10th floor. That would suck way worse than carrying two doglets or one fetus.

What motivated her to get moving was when she heard someone climbing the stairs below her, cursing even worse than I do at the incompetence of our building management, and threatening even worse horrors than my threat of hiring a lawyer. (Mine is toothless, anyway, since there is no functioning court system in this country.)

Ma Lei thought this woman must be talking to a friend on her cell phone, but no. Just as I am prone to do, she was cursing into space at the evils of Chinese management. It happened to be our pudgy, forty-something next-door neighbor, so Ma Lei got up and kept company with her on their way up the stairs.

We’ve been told that the long-errant elevator is going to be working within two days, and tonight we were told that its healthier brother will be back on the job tomorrow morning. I hope it’s true.

It just occurred to Ma Lei a moment ago, tomorrow morning is going to be interesting. It’s a Sunday, but there are plenty of people who have to go to work. Without a single elevator working, they’re going to be climbing down the stairs like ants down a tree trunk.


Thursday, April 7, 2016

Resolutely smoking on the elevator

Smoking is very normal in China. Incredibly normal. For a country that aspires to be among the world leaders in every category, they're killing off their people with cigarettes produced by State-Owned Enterprises. There's no Obamacare, but there is government ownership of tobacco companies... can you see some poorly aligned interests here? Puff away on your government-sponsored cigarettes, but when you're dying of lung cancer, we've got actual bouncers in the hospital to throw your butt out onto the street when you can't pay your bill.

There have been some feeble attempts to cut down on smoking in public places, along the lines of foreign countries. In Beijing, for example, smoking in a restaurant is generally not allowed. Likewise, everywhere you go in China there are "no smoking" signs (in English and in Chinese) in such places as bathrooms, restaurants, and elevators. Outside Beijing, they are flagrantly ignored except when I'm around.

Our apartment building has seen a significant drop-off in smoking in the elevators since I moved in. I suspect it's the "waiguo" effect: people are on their best behavior when they know there's a foreigner in their midst who might — for example — blog about their behavior on Facebook and other foreign media.

Today, though, I saw something I'd never seen before, and wouldn't have believed possible.

You must understand, before reading the rest of this posting, that in China parenthood is a paramount value — perhaps THE paramount value. A woman who is not yet married is regarded as being in stasis. A young couple, as yet childless, is regarded as a target. "When are you having your baby?" Everyone, with or without any actual relationship to the couple, considers it her right to pry on their status. "When's the baby coming?"

A pregnant woman is like a saint. They'll give up their seat on the bus, they'll make room, they'll do whatever is necessary to accommodate Saint Mama. And if a married woman is NOT yet pregnant, she is regarded as a pariah. It is her duty to get pregnant immediately, and to take passionate care of that baby. That is her one and only job, as a woman.

So this morning, we got on the elevator to go walk the dogs, and on the fourteenth floor this young punk, twenty-something, thin, stylishly dressed and with a girly hairdo, got on the elevator puffing aggressively on a fag.

Ma Lei politely asked him "I'm sorry, I'm pregnant. Would you mind putting out your cigarette?" He made no response whatsoever, and in fact puffed once more.

I told her "I don't think he heard you," so she said it again: "I'm pregnant, is it okay for you to put out your cigarette?"

This time he actually responded: "No, it's not."


Now I had to get involved. I pointed at the "No Smoking" sign and asked him: "Can you read Chinese? I'm foreign, and I know what that sign says." He made no response.

I asked him: "Are you a moron?" No response.

I asked him: "Are you Japanese?" Still no response.

So I finally just decided to give a lecture, because that's what I do. I'm a teacher, right? I told him: If you think other countries don't like China, you are the reason for it, you little chicken-egg.

One of Ma Lei's online friends told her not to worry about this kid, because he's clearly beneath a dog. Dogs understand human speech, but this little ben-dan (dumb egg) clearly does not.

I still can't get it out of my head, though. The nerve of this little twenty-something chopstick ignoring the law, ignoring a polite request, and ignoring his entire cultural history, is impossible for me to ignore.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Abortion choice

An online acquaintance of Ma Lei's told her one of the most horrible stories I've ever heard. She sprung this on me at dinner in a wonton soup restaurant on the ground floor of our apartment building, and it was all I could do to maintain my composure. I didn't entirely succeed.

Ma Lei was somewhat surprised by my emotiveness — but sometimes, the Chinese can be just stunningly blind to emotions.

The story came from another woman who has had to go to the fertility clinic for her pregnancy, so she and her husband hadn't just easily gotten hooked up with a little one: they'd worked hard for it, as Ma Lei and I can testify.

The woman is 6+ months pregnant, and she went in for her ultrasound test. The result was a nightmare.

Her son had a massive cleft palate — way more than any Chinese hospital is prepared to deal with.

I speak as a cleft-palate sufferer for whom my deformity has never amounted to much of an issue. 

But this woman's child was clearly seen to be missing not just some bone structure, but the entire left half of his nose and all the upper-palate structure that should have underlain it.

In America, perhaps this wouldn't have been such a horror story. American surgeons do incredible things.

My own dear, late Janusz Bardach — Soviet Gulag survivor and later University of Iowa surgeon — pioneered one of the many surgical techniques that allowed my upper lip to look relatively normal. And that was just one of the first among a long line of surgical developments in American treatment of midline cranial-development defects.

If you ask me, when I'm looking in my own mirror, I emerged from my own cleft palate and harelip as a stunningly handsome lady-charmer. :-) Apparently, my wife doesn't entirely disagree, since she's a very beautiful woman who somehow or other decided I was good enough. In my opinion, if I'm handsome enough to snag a woman that beautiful, I'm handsome enough.

I did suffer through a handful of relatively mild operations, years of braces, and a single experience when a bully rode his bike past me and said "Hey! Flat-nose!"

However, my first girlfriend's parents warned her that if she married me, our children would be "monsters." 

But other than that girlfriend, no one has ever held my mouth against me — and indeed, I credit much of my articulateness to the speech therapy I went through as a young cleft patient.

But China isn't America. It's not even the America of 1969, when my treatments began, and it's certainly not the America of today.

Even in America today, this baby's reconstruction would be on the extreme end of the current technology. It would be expensive and experimental, and it would require months of work. And then the results would be bad.

In China, it would probably be impossible. to fix a cleft this extreme. There are no hospitals doing this far-end work. (I almost said "cutting edge.") Even to get something done in China, anything at all, would be $20K or more — which they just don't have.

Now, suppose that they somehow managed to get the best work done for this child that's available in China. He will have a clearly deformed face, half a nose, and a gaping hole where the left-hand side of his nose should be.

How will he be treated in school?

Chinese teachers aren't schooled in sensitivity. They won't hesitate to tease him, abuse him, use him as a negative exemplar for other students. "You got that one wrong? You're almost as stupid as the kid with no nose." HAHA! Everyone laughs.

Suppose that the parents somehow or other manage to bring him up with a reasonable education, via private tutors who don't tease him mercilessly. Suppose he gets a good university degree in China. Now will he get a good job?

No. In China, a pretty face is part of one's qualifications for a good job, and an ugly face is grounds for denial from a good job. If you're SUPER-ugly, deformed of visage, then everyone you might have to work with will be made extremely uncomfortable. Hence, no one will want to hire you.

And in country in which there's already an imbalance between male and female, do you suppose that such a boy would ever get married and bring his parents a grandchild? Not on your life.

Ma Lei told me straight-up — with tears in my eyes, not so much in hers — that kid could never have a happy life in China. "It's not America," she said. "China is —" and then I think she said a word that means "hostile," or perhaps "inhospitable," but I don't exactly know. It definitely wasn't an endorsement of China.

Meanwhile, the woman made the very rational decision to have a late-term abortion. She made an appointment to go in the next morning and have her baby given a long needle that would put him painlessly to sleep. I cannot in any way, on any level, argue against her decision. I believe she made the exact right one, given the horrible circumstances of her life here in China.

But that whole night, the baby in her belly was acting the way any baby in his mother's belly will do. He swam around, he punched her, he kicked. He had no idea that his mother had decided to end his life.

Can you, for just one moment, imagine what it must have felt like for that woman to have had her fetus playing his fetile games inside her belly, feeling the connection with him that she must necessarily have felt — yet knowing that 10 hours later, she was going to nod her head to the doctor to inject the giant needle that would terminate his life?

Ma Lei's online acquaintances universally condemned the poor woman, as if she weren't already suffering enough. 

Ma Lei stamped her online foot — which I have the feeling bears a lot of weight, because Ma Lei is the kind of woman who makes people take notice of her opinions — and told them to shut the hell up. The others probably fell in line, because in my experience it's only a very few hearty souls who can withstand the wrath of Ma Lei. And in this case, it's not as though that woman had made a light and transient decision.

I appreciate, so deeply, the fact that Ma Lei stood up for this woman. I can't say one way or the other about this woman's decision. In a better China, I would say she should have the baby and let him duke it out with his detractors. But there isn't a better China, there's only this China, in which it's acceptable for teachers to