Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Resting, at Last!

People have an image of the leisurely life of a university professor, but that's at least outdated (if it ever was accurate). There are some periods of leisure, to be sure, but the year is punctuated with waves of work (marking papers, meeting writing deadlines, etc.).

The academic semester ends with three or four weeks of howling tornadoes of work. The stress of marking papers builds to a crescendo over the weeks, with the Wagnerian peak of stress coming at the very end, when one has to certify that every detail on one's grade reports is correct.

That morning, one wakes up (or doesn't, having worked through the night) in time to pore over all the numbers one last time, prints everything out, looks over them one last time to make sure there are no typos, then signs one's name literally 60 different places to certify each number. Lastly, one gathers the whole mess of paperwork along with one's giant stack of exams — 300 of them, in my case — for the long march down the hall to the registry office.

If you're like me, by this point your eyes are wide awake but you can't see much; your head is drooping and there's a throb behind your temples; your hands are shaking from exhaustion and caffeine. You finally reach the office, where a staff-member who is probably just as overworked and stressed as you are checks that you've done everything right. (In my case, there are usually a few signatures missed or put in the wrong place.) Then you're done, and you go home to...

... nothing. No work at all. There's nothing to do, but your stressed-out brain can't quite believe it.

So the rest of that day you're in an agitated stupor, shell-shocked, not quite what to do with yourself. If you have a favorite movie, now is a good time to watch it. Don't bother renting a new one to watch, because you won't remember a thing from it anyway. Yesterday was that day, for me.

Today is the first real day of rest after fall semester finally ended. I believe the stress hormones have finally been flushed from my bloodstream, and now I can lean back, relax a little bit, and get started reading up for next semester's classes. There's a lot of work to do during the next six weeks, but I can do it on my own time and wherever I want.

(Old grad student joke: You know you're a grad student when you catch yourself saying "I'm so glad the semester's over so I can finally get some work done! The thing is, that doesn't end after grad school.)

By sheer coincidence, this morning we received a belated shipment from Taobao: three bottles of a really good Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon Ma Lei bought for a song (about $6 apiece). We've been expecting it for days, but the motorcycle-delivery guy was stopped by snow and ice.

His timing couldn't have been better. If they'd come while I was still marking papers I probably would've blasted through all three in as many days, without really tasting a drop. Now I can actually enjoy!

I used Amazon and iTunes Christmas gift cards (thanks, Mom!) to download several books to help my teaching, as well as some good music to listen to while reading.

I also bought one pure pleasure read (Qiu Xiaolong's murder mystery Death of a Red Heroine, set in early 1990s Shanghai). I've already started reading it with my first glass of wine.

It starts with a great "hook" — literally. A riverboat captain plays hooky with his old high school friend whom he hasn't seen in 20 years, to go fishing in a secluded river not yet polluted by the march of factories. They have tremendous success until, just when they're ready to go home, they find the body of a murdered woman. Now the day is ruined: the lovely fish they've caught will have died by the time they wait for the police, make their statements, and fill out the necessary reports. The captain will also have to admit on the reports that he was fishing with his buddy when he should have been moving cargo. Nonetheless, he picks up the phone and calls the police.

That's as far as I've read so far.

I've vowed to savor this wine, so I'll hold myself to two glasses a day. Likewise, the mystery story: I'll read it only while I'm drinking my two glasses. That way I have more incentive to draw out the pleasure of the wine, while at the same time forcing myself to savor the story over more than just a day or two.

Class prep will give me plenty of real work to do this break. Next semester I'm teaching four different classes, three of which will require significant prep work. Two I've never taught before, and one I'm teaching from a very different syllabus than in the past.

I've also vowed to start on my research agenda, which should be fun but a lot of work. I also want to do some more writing on my books about China (both fiction and non-fiction). Also important to me is to start back on my Chinese-language studies. I made a lot of progress last summer, then lost most of it when the teaching year began. I hope I'll be quick to recover the vocabulary and sentence structures I've forgotten in the past 20 weeks.

Crucial, too, is what I am not doing: for the first time since I came to China, I have declined all holiday teaching jobs. I'll probably still tutor my three students, but beyond that I'll do nothing but my own work.

And I can't wait!

Monday, December 16, 2013

Ma Lei and the Taxi Driver

Ma Lei was taking a taxi home from the grocery store the other day. In front of her cab was a car driven, very slowly, by a woman. Ma Lei's driver was very annoyed.

"Stupid woman driver!" He said to her. "Women all have pig-brains!" He continued in that vein for some time, insisting that every woman alive is a complete and unmitigated idiot.

China is a place where political correctness has never hit, and sometimes that can be quite refreshing. One doesn't have to tiptoe around people's sensitivities, use only the exact right word ("differently-abled"), or worry that a woman will take offense at being called "Miss Jones" rather than "Ms. Jones" In this instance, though, Ma Lei was not amused.

"Really?" She asked. "All women have pig-brains?"


"How about your mother?" 

No answer.

"How about your sisters?" 

Still no answer.

"How about your daughter? All pig-brains?"

Here, he could have gotten a bit offended if he'd taken her remark out of context as an insult to his own daughter. (I know that wouldn't make logical sense, since she was just using the logic of his own comment against him, but it wouldn't be uncommon for someone to respond in a knee-jerk, illogical way to a remark like that.) 

Somehow, though, her manner was such that rather than getting his dander up he was starting to chuckle out loud.

Like a good martial artist, she pressed her advantage: "And Cixi?" (Former Empress Dowager of China. She's widely despised by the contemporary Chinese as an evil, manipulative genius, but certainly not an idiot.)

"How about Queen Elizabeth? Pig-brain?"

"And Hu Jintao's wife? Pig-brain too?"

Ma Lei has this way of cutting people down to size, but in a manner that is more good-natured than harsh. I've seen it many times. By this time, the driver was red-faced from laughter rather than from anger.

I wish I had her skill of significantly upbraiding people, slicing their whole worldview to ribbons in ruthlessly logical form — yet somehow making their day in the process. I'd be a much more persuasive philosopher and occasional cultural activist, if I did! 

Alas, all I can do is enjoy her rapier wit and, once in a while, report it to the world that needs to know of her awesomeness.

Sub-Prime Comprehension

Interesting cultural details come up when I give my students exams. I had a question about sub-prime mortgages on my biz ethics exam, and the majority of students lost a lot of points.

Why? They defined a sub-prime loan as a loan to "the poors" (i.e., poor people), or to "people who cannot pay it back." In some cases, their description of a sub-prime loan made it sound as if the banks were seeking out bums on the street to give loans to. The answer I was looking for was simply that a sub-prime loan was one given to a person with a relatively low credit rating, but fewer than 1 in 10 got that right.

The reasons for this failure to comprehend were very interesting.

First of all, the American system of credit is quite alien to China. Most people have never heard of a "credit rating" (though a banking insider has told me that they have them). So when you say someone has a "low credit rating," that has no real meaning to my students. Understandably, they unwittingly translate that to "not enough money to pay." Never mind that America has plenty of people who could pay their debts, but choose not to.

Herein lies the second alien concept. China doesn't have much of a credit economy. Almost no one carries a credit card. Even a bill for services is essentially unheard-of in my part of China. The hospital is cash-only, and you pay *before* you get treated. You get loans for two things in this country: a condo, and a car. And the idea that someone would intentionally default on either of those is utterly incomprehensible to most Chinese people.

A car is an enormous status symbol, often possessed as much for bragging rights as for transportation. So if one month you're driving a fancy car, and the next month it's gone, repossessed, you suffer tremendous embarrassment. You would only do that if you suddenly found yourself poor.

A condo is an even more ironclad obligation. In America we call owning your house a key part of the "American Dream." Here it's not a dream, it's a necessity.

As I've mentioned before, social custom dictates that a young man literally cannot get married unless he owns his own condo. No woman worth her salt will think of marrying him. And so, to have a condo and default on the payments is worse than a shame. It would be tantamount to divorce, bankruptcy, and social suicide. No one would do it unless it was absolutely, 100% unavoidable.

With that background, you can see how my students equated sub-prime mortgages that didn't get paid back, with wildly reckless "loans" to bums on the street. Even if they understood the idea of a credit score, the idea that someone with even a modest amount of money would have a low credit rating would enter a Chinese mind like a square peg into a round hole.

If you wonder about the future of the Chinese economy, and especially the housing bubble that many people think exists in this country, one part of the answer lies in my students' inability to understand sub-prime mortgages.

Housing prices will always be sustainably higher relative to personal income in China than they are in the West, because there is so much cultural pressure toward home-ownership. A debt crisis such as hit America in 2008 would happen here only if people's incomes fell dramatically, such that they literally could not pay back their loans. I do think it's possible, or even likely, that this will happen, but it will not happen lightly.

Given that my students seemed to think a sub-prime loan was a loan to someone who literally had no chance of paying it back, my Western mind immediately asked why they wouldn't have asked a question about this seemingly absurd idea. Why would a bank loan money to people it knows can't pay it back?

To be fair, some of my students knew about banks immediately selling the debt upstream, but this really only pushes the question back a step: why would anyone buy obviously bad debt from the banks? I guess in China it wouldn't be unheard-of for a bank to simply lie to upstream purchasers, falsify the loan paperwork, and leave someone else holding their counterfeit loans.

But even more fundamentally, in China one gets accustomed to economic transactions that seem preposterous on their face. It's always someone paying someone else off by accepting a bad deal, or someone moving money from A to B to make B look momentarily better than it really is. It's a political kickback, or stock manipulation, or personal enrichment at the expense of one's company, or whatever. Usually someone — usually the government — sweeps in with some money to prevent the situation from exploding, and the banks and companies stumble forward another day until the next crisis arises or the next bribe is needed. The system has been held together this long, only because of a combination of how universally-accepted it is, and how incredibly crafty the Chinese are at drafting these complicated deals.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Another blog-reader

Today we interviewed a candidate for an Oral English teaching position. (We're still in need for spring semester — qualified candidates please apply!!!)

She gave her teaching demonstration, and we asked her plenty of questions about her background and experience. All well and good. Then at the end, as she was getting ready to leave the room, she asked "Are you, by any chance, Professor-in-Dalian?" I confessed that indeed, I am.

"I love your blog! Oh my god, it's great! It's so funny!" She practically gushed. After her good-byes, she asked me to please "keep up the good work."

When I write the blog, I imagine my friends, FB friends, family members, and perhaps one or two random stragglers happening across it. I'm always surprised to find that I'm slightly famous.

It occurred to me to ask her how she found out about the blog. (It turns out: via a posting on a discussion group she's a member of). Hi, members of that discussion group, whichever one it is! Thanks for the plug!

It didn't occur to me to ask her how she knew it was I. Maybe I've posted a picture or two of myself — such as the one with the garlic hat on my head, from WAY back when — but there haven't been many.

Oh well. I guess I should now expect the paparazzi to be watching wherever I go and whatever I do.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

I've been meaning to post this for a couple of days now. China has made a very minor, qualified step back from one especially brutal form of repression, while maintaining much of the reality of the system in quieter, less-well-known forms.

As with most "reforms" in China, there are two entirely opposite possibilities, and the proof will be in the pudding. One is that this is simply a face-saving move to avoid public criticism, but it literally means nothing. The second is that this is a face-saving way to slowly back away from the system, one baby-step at a time. What's so maddening about China is that it's essentially impossible to know which it is, until long after the fact.

Indeed, the reality may be indeterminate at this point. Chinese officials value "flexibility," the ability to change policies instantly without admitting that they're doing so. If things are going well and there's relative stability within the country, perhaps they'll continue to back away from the policy. If they sense a "need" for the old repression, they'll quietly reinstate it under new names — all the while, never repudiating their original policy of closing down the labor camps.

The proof will be in the pudding, and the pudding bakes VERY slowly. Or, if you prefer this metaphor, China is like a giant Schroedinger's Catbox: the reality of today's event will only be determined later, long after the fact.

Incidentally, one of the dissidents says that the ending of the labor camps is vitiated by the fact that it's not accompanied by an official apology or clearing the records of those who were caught up in it. This shows an astounding lack of understanding of her own country, imo. The Chinese government almost never does such a thing. Rather, they simply quietly and behind-the-scenes restore


Monday, November 18, 2013

Trip to Beijing — Overview

We just got back from Beijing after three wonderful days of vacation with Ma Lei and her folks. I had so much fun watching them! They were like kids, especially Ma Lei's mother. Everywhere we went, she kept saying "Take my picture! Take my picture!" It was as though she couldn't quite believe she was in these famous places, so she wanted a photo as proof. (This is very common among Chinese tourists: foreigners think the Chinese care more about getting a picture of themselves someplace than they do about actually BEING in that place.)

The trip to Beijing was, as far as I know, their first time inside an airport, let alone actually flying. Heck, Ma Lei thinks it was their first time fastening a seat belt. (I had to do Mother's for her on the way to Beijing, because she didn't know how.)

On the way to Beijing it was dark, so they couldn't see much out the windows, but coming into Dalian this morning they had a crystal-clear view. I was reminded of how exciting and strange it was, seeing things from the sky the first few times I flew.

We went to the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square, and we even stood in line to go see the body of Chairman Mao. (More on that later, of course.) We went to Olympic Park for a bit of more recent Chinese history, and for the first time I sprung for a ticket to go inside one of the venues, the Water Cube. (It was supposed to cost 30 rmb a head, a little less than $5, but we got had by a scalper — again, more later!) We saw the beautiful lake district of north-central Beijing, as well as the fascinating ancient hutong (twisty alleyway) where we were staying.

We did not get to go see the Great Wall, because both days when we could have gone, the wind was too gusty for the cable car up to the top. Ma Lei's mom has a bum leg, so climbing up the stairs is out of the question for her. In fact, she got so tired with all the walking that, every night before she went to bed she said "tomorrow you can go, and I will stay in the hotel." But then, every morning when we were getting ready to go, she couldn't resist.

We ate Beijing-style noodles, which are "meh." Okay, if you like a lot of white-colored starch with a little meat and a hint of green veggies thrown in along the side. We had donkey-meat soup, twice. (It sounds awful to the American ear, but actually it's out-of-this-world good!)

And on our last night, we went to a fancy Peking Duck restaurant that was surely the most expensive meal Ma Lei's parents have ever had. (It came to almost $15 a head, which is really enormously expensive by Chinese standards. And by way of comparison, all taxes are included in the ticket price, and you don't tip — so $15 a head means $15 a head.) The food was phenomenal, and the atmosphere was beautiful.

Last night, I finally got to get a little bit of what *I* love about Beijing: the internationalism of the place.

Ma Lei's parents wanted to buy some packaged Peking Duck to give to some friends and family-members, but the three of them were too exhausted to make the trip down to the district where it's easiest to find it. (They sell it shrink-wrapped in plastic bags, which I find rather gross. Duck-in-a-bag.)

I volunteered to make the trip, partly because I was the only one with any energy left, and partly because it was an excuse to go down to Wangfujing, where there are a couple of mediocre foreign bookstores. Mediocre, indeed, but I quickly spent more than a hundred bucks. Plus found four or five good scholarly books that were over fifty bucks apiece, so rather than buy them in the store perhaps I can find them used on the 'net.

On my way back to our hotel, I stopped at a pub for a good cocktail (very hard to find in Dalian), then I went to one restaurant for a Thai spring roll and another, Spanish-run restaurant for some magnificent hummus and an absinthe cocktail. After all that, I still got home by 10:00.

I'm going to be working overtime for the next ten days to make up for four days away, but I will post more details when I can.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Flying Rubes

It's my contention that we foreigners need to take a huge step back from our condescending attitudes about China, even when there's good reason for those attitudes.

"Oh lord, it's hard to be humble," went the old song lyric, and it's true in China when you come from a culture that produced the automobile — as well as proper traffic control —  the airplane, the computer, the internet, and the handkerchief. (To my friends who think the handkerchief is old-school, just wait till you come to China and see the old men hawk up giant-sized lugies and splat them onto the sidewalk right in front of where you're walking, and ask whether the handkerchief is a technological improvement.) Indeed, it's hard to be humble, when the Chinese frequently act like such third-world rubes.

To me, though, the message of these experiences is how quickly China has advanced. They've gone from Medieval to Modern in half my lifespan, and that should be admired — even as I reserve the right to laugh a little bit at the Medieval remnants that persist.

A couple days ago, Ma Lei's mother gave her a phone call, worried about our upcoming trip to Beijing. They've never flown before, so they don't know how it works, and Mother was concerned that our schedule was too tight. "Are you sure we'll get there early enough to get a seat?" she asked, "And should I bring a little stool in case we have to sit down the aisle?"

You see, on a Chinese long-distance bus or train, there are regulations that say you can't stand in the aisle or sit without a proper seat, but those regulations exist only on paper. Everyone taking a long-distance bus in China (2 hours or more) will either bring along a small fold-out seat or expect the bus operator to have them. A plane is really just a bus with wings, so why not hedge our bets by bringing along little stools?

One of Ma Lei's online friends told her a story, which I don't know the provenance of. It was told to Ma Lei as if it were something that her friend had personally observed, but it could be something she got online. Anyway, I pass it on without swearing that it's the fact...

An old farm-woman got ready to take her first flight. Like someone preparing for his first bullet-train experience, she wanted to get a seat with a view. She saw that there were seats to the right, as she got onto the plane, but then there were these seats off to the left that had the best possible view. So she turned left and plopped down in the captain's seat.

As the story was told to Ma Lei, and then to me, the pilot came in and told the woman she had to leave. But being an elderly Chinese, and expecting people to give up their seats for her, she refused. Who are you, little man, to insist that I give up this super-comfortable chair with the great view out the front window?

Again, I can't swear it's all true. But as told to me the pilot whopped her a few good ones on the head, then she realized she was in the wrong place. She finally got up and allowed herself to be guided back to her proper seat.

I hope that story isn't actually true, but it could be. It's not impossible that a Chinese nongcunren — a rube — would be so ignorant of the norms of air travel. After all, the standards that apply to their train travel are completely different from the way one has to behave when flying. It's fine to laugh at her, but let's not forget what fish out of water we would be if we had to survive in Chinese farm country for a while.

In a way, hats off to China. They've got a population which is still majority-underclass, yet they're developing an infrastructure of modernity. The mere fact that my wife's family — brutalized during the Mao era — impoverished and reduced to subsistence farming — with close cousins who died of starvation while I was a well-fed boy in America — could now be flying to Beijing... That's pretty cool.