Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Monastery, SUV. Cell phone ads.

Songzalin monastery, Zhongdian

(the Songzalin monastery in Zhongdian, now given the name of Shangri-la to attract more tourists, including us...)

Cell phone advertisements, Songzalin monastery, Zhongdian

And a couple of Tibetan women with umbrellas and a government sponsored souvenir shop that we didn't go into...

Songzalin monastery, Zhongdian


The real highlight of this monastery, which I didn't photograph because it was prohibited, (and because, duh, it was a worship service) was a small temple full of monks, chanting a prayer ceremony as we walked around the perimeter of the sanctuary. The monks were as old as possibly 90 and as young as six. The younger kids were in the back, and they were quite interested in looking at Xander, and he at them, both smiling and giggling at each other. (Zekey, sadly, was back in the hotel resting after a bit of altitude sickness) It was a strange experience to see kids my son's age with shaved heads and wearing heavy scarlet robes, toying with their small prayer wheels the way American first graders fiddle with their pencils when they're bored. And watching Xander gaze in rapt attention at the whole scene. A strong realization that we are all essentially interchangeable...

Monday, August 30, 2010

Glimpses of People, Yunnan

Daughter of the clothing store owner, Yuanyang

The daughter of the clothing store owner, Yuanyang area.

Model railroading in decline

Brooklyn artist Peter Feigenbaum turns buildings from old train sets into 80s era ghettos. Can't get the image to load here, so you'll have to click and see for yourself.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Presenting the next Indiana Jones

Presenting the next Indiana Jones

Presenting the next Indiana Jones Presenting the next Indiana Jones

Ain't no law saying that Indiana can't be a girl's name, is there? Think Ysa will be up for it in twenty years, give or take a few...

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Glimpses of People, Yunnan

Watering station, en route from Yuanyang to Jianshui, Yunnan

Watering station, en route from Yuanyang to Jianshui

Friday, August 27, 2010

Glimpses of People, Yunnan

Jianshui Bus Station, Yunnan

A snack vendor at the bus station, Jianshui

Thursday, August 26, 2010


I bought these shorts on sale in a store just outside of the gate of our university sometime last September, and I must have had them for nine months before I noticed the fine print on the fabric. I won't dare to speculate on the motives of the designer, but I hope they're benign...


Glimpses of People, Yunnan

Hani women at the marketplace, Yuanyang, Yunnan

Hani women at the vegetable market, Yuanyang

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The last (and best) word on the oil spill

Construction, Pixian County, Sichuan

From my "I should get around to posting something on this" pile: as the title promises, the best thing written on last spring's BP oil spill, from the great folks at Worldchanging. As the goop from the spill slowly sinks down to the bottom of the Gulf and out of public visibility, it's important to remember that the spill is a symptom, not the cause, of some major problems that we have to solve. This quote does a pretty good job of summing it up:

"The key word here is systems. Unless we understand the problems we face as systemic problems, we don't really understand them at all and can't do much about them. Unless we understand that we need to redesign and rebuild the systems that support modern life on a massive scale, very quickly, we're essentially missing the point, and guaranteeing that the destruction of the planet's biosphere will continue."

Glimpses of People, Yunnan

Shootin' the breeze (glimpsed out of the bus window, Yuanyang - Jianshui)

Shooting the breeze at the gas station, glimpsed out of the bus window (and excellently captured in pixels by Jane) en route from Yuanyang to Jianshui

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Symbols and you

This may come as a bit of recycled news for all you NPR listeners who are reading this (Hi Mom!), but ran into this story about symbols and evolution. What's the main feature of humans? Not our ability to walk upright, but the ability to think using symbolic thought. (Note to self: maybe a good discussion starter for a language class down the road?)


Monday, August 23, 2010

Notebook number three

Notebooks Three

Am on my third Chinese notebook now - well, second and a half if you count all the pages that have been ripped out for scratch paper, used for kids' drawing paper as a last-ditch attempt to maintain sanity in restaurants, etc.. My Chinese is... well, depends on how you look at it. On one hand, I know about 800 characters or so, and can buy bus tickets like nobody's business. On the other hand, if I keep up at this rate, in a year I can look forward to being able to read a few stories from Ysa's four-year old kindergarten book...

Yes, Chinese is Just That Danged Hard. (An excellent article, by the way, for anyone even remotely curious about the language.)

Fortunately, my notebooks save the day. The cover of notebook #1 states that "This is the most comfortable notebook you have ever run into." Notebook #2 goes even further:
Our finest quality paper
ensure the smooth surface that
is a pleasure to write on.
This is the most comfortable notebook
you have ever run into.
You will feel like writing
with it all the time.
Or Notebook #3:
M & G Notebooks contain
the best paper motivating writing enjoyment.
Them's mighty big shoes to fill. Guess I'd better get studying right away...

Sunday, August 22, 2010

On the outside looking in

Rice terraces from the bus window, Yuanyang en route to Jianshui

Scattered through the upcoming posts in the next couple of weeks will be a few random pictures of our time traveling in Yunnan this summer. I wrote several posts about our time in Shanghai - mainly because it came first, but also because it was easier to write about. Shanghai was a Big City. A very different and very big big city to be sure, but still, a place with subways and trains and malls and stuff. I know about those.

Rice terraces and rural Tibetan villages and yaks and water buffaloes? Um, I know I grew up in a small town and all, but I have to admit that I'm more than a bit out of my league in these areas. So, those of you reading this blog who know a thing or two about rice terraces? You'll have to forgive my ignorance and cut me a bit of slack here.

Also, I've gotta say it, cultural tourism is a step or two weirder than traveling to see national parks, museums, or historic sites. Chief reason being that this is somebody's home that we're talking about here. How would you feel if a busload of tourists disembarked at your workplace and started taking photos of your office furniture?

And it's not just a workplace that we're essentially breezing through, but a very hard and grueling workplace. Those rice paddies that are glowing so picturesquely green in the sunrise? That's no computer-generated special effect, that's individual feet wading through muck every day, and individual backs bending down to plant the seedlings by hand, one at a time. And a life that has continued this way for hundreds, if not thousands of years. We gasp in amazement at our first water buffalo glimpsed out of the bus window, and I can't help but wonder if the guy working behind said buffalo would really prefer to be driving a tractor instead.

Enormous disparities to deal with, then - economic, cultural, and linguistic. It's one thing to be in a train compartment in Europe somewhere with a second-grade teacher from Stockholm and accountant from Basel (each of whom will probably speak better English than you); it's quite another to be on a falling-apart bus in the mountains of China with an en entire extended family of subsistence farmers that have probably never traveled further than the next county seat, and whose total combined annual income is less than some American families pay for the subwoofer unit in their in-home entertainment systems. Even being in China, it's easy to drift around taking my privilege for granted.


But still, we travel. Because in spite of all the strangeness and difference out there, we're all curious. They stare at us, and we stare at them, and if we're lucky, a smile breaks out. The desire to understand and connect with other people - awkward as it is, and as many times as it fails, it's still what makes us human.

Is there a megacity in your future?

Cutting rebar for highway construction, Hongguang

Another link from Foreign Policy magazine - this one a quick slide show giving a good glance at coming urban trends in both China and India. Some quick bits:
  • For the next twenty years, China will be adding new urban space at the rate of one New York City every two years.
  • China will be adding 400 million people (more than the current population of the US) to its cities by the year 2030.
  • The urbanization will be fueled mainly by coal - China is on track to double its CO2 emissions in the coming two decades.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Chicago on the Yangtze...?

From the "dang, Chinese cities are growing fast" genre of news reports comes this interesting article from Foreign Policy on the nearby (six hours' drive, four by newly built express train) city of Chongqing. We haven't been there as of yet, but the accompanying photo essay shows pictures that look fairly familiar.
"In theory, all development has to be guided by plans. But cities across China are operating without plans being approved -- plans don't have that constraining effect. 'City planner' is an aspirational title; mainly it involves approving plans that are already in the process of being built."

Friday, August 20, 2010

Switching to autopilot

Two Rocks Converse
(Cartoon from Tom Gauld, who I just found out about this week...)

We're off for a week-long conference in Chengdu, sponsored by our organization. I may able to spend my daily five minutes or so pointing out a photo or two, but as we're going to be away from home and back behind the Great Firewall, I'm not counting on it. I do have a few posts lined up in the queue, so things won't be totally dead around here.

After that, I'm off for a four-day language safari to points unknown, and then it's back to work! (Classes start September 6) If posts are a bit thin after that, you'll know the reason why...

Thursday, August 19, 2010

A little too close to home

Hongkou, evening mist rising

I was going to devote a whole "reading a bit too much into the way different cultures do things" post on the subject of whitewater rafting in China, but events are getting in the way.

First, a bit about the place, which is a small resort area called Hongkou, up in a mountain valley a few hours' drive to the northeast of us. We went there last October on a tip from a friend, and liked it so much that we went back with Jane's folks there this summer. We had a very relaxing couple of days there. Sitting by a rushing river, drinking tea and chatting while watching the kids wade and throw rocks, a great dinner (salmon! in China!) at the hotel restaurant, that kind of thing...

IMG_4935 Our friend Tony, Hongkou

IMG_4964 IMG_4953

Such a good time, in fact, that we were thinking about going back there for a day trip last week with our friends Tony and Louie, and Wang Tong, our Chinese tutor and friend, as a kind of language class field trip. Turned out Louie had a couple of appointments on Friday, so we went into Chengdu for lunch at an amazing vegetarian restaurant instead.

And a good thing, too. Turns out that the whole river valley was hit by flash floods and mudslides that Friday and Saturday - not as bad as the massive flooding to the far north of us in Gansu province that made world headlines, but enough to kill 13 people and affect about 500,000 in the general area. No knowing how our favorite resort fared, since specific details in English are hard to come by from the Chinese press.

This was the same region that was hit hard by the 2008 earthquake. (The hotel we were staying at, for example, had to be rebuilt, and had just reopened its rooms last March.) So, while I'm feeling quite thankful that we weren't up there getting stranded by a washed out road or possibly worse, I'm also thinking of all of the people who were affected in ways much more seriously that my fortunate self can imagine.

Valiant rafters, Hongkou

Now back for a sec to whitewater rafting in China vs. whitewater rafting in the States. Notice anything missing in the photo above? Paddles, perhaps? That's because for about 10 km upriver, the rocks have been moved from the center of the river to the edges, creating a carefully managed chute that rafters float down. If you're in a big boat, two guides pilot you downstream, but if you're in a two person raft, you're literally up the creek without a paddle. Employees of the rafting company are strategically stationed along the course with long bamboo poles to nudge wayward boats back into the main current, and at the end, you cascade down a 6-foot waterfall into a small holding pond where the river glides you to a concrete landing and you can safely get out of your boat.

See how this gets to be a temptingly metaphor for cultural difference? I mean, can you imagine American vacationers readily surrendering individual control of their rafts to a faceless company? Oh wait, there's Disney World, isn't there... And multinational media, industrialized agriculture, petrochemical corporations and so on and so on. Guess we ain't so different after all.

Which leads us back to disasters. I am certainly no expert on Chinese hydroelectric projects and infrastructure development in western Sichuan Province, but I wouldn't be surprised in the least if this latest round of flooding and landslides wasn't exacerbated in some way by forces other than simply the weather. And then, hello, can we talk about the weather? Anyone out there (who's not a scientist employed by a petroleum-industry think tank) still think that human activity isn't significantly changing our environment for the worse? I don't know about you, but I'm going to make myself a paddle and start rowing...

It's all in the details

Temple window, EmeiShan, Sichuan

Temple detail, Emeishan, Sichuan

These from the oldest temple on Mt. Emei, one of China's four holy Buddhist peaks.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

How to have a happy birthday in China


Since I am now officially in the Prime of my Life, (meaning that I had a birthday yesterday and my age is now only divisible by one and itself...) I feel qualified to give you, my appreciative audience, a few tips about how to have a happy birthday in China.

First, some background info: Jane and I finished up with our language training last Friday, and we had the great idea to cap it off with four days' each of individual field study. Meaning, "Hey, let's take our remaining tutoring allowance and go somewhere WITHOUT KIDS and practice our newly-learned Chinese with people!" "Okay, can I go first?" "No, I wanna!" "No, me...!"

Making a long story short, it was decided that Jane would go off somewhere this week, and, since I have more teaching experience (Lesson planning? Isn't that what you do in the five minutes that you spend walking to class in the morning?), I would take my time in the week between our end-of-summer teacher training conference and the first week of classes, so that Jane could have time to get her syllabus ready.

Oh, except there was my birthday, which I would be spending alone with the kids. Fortunately, I'm not a big birthday celebrator. Really and truly, August birthdays tend to do that to one. August, that big blank collection of Slow News Days on the calendar. If you were born in August, everybody (including you) is on vacation on your birthday. I had a five-year streak of birthdays where I spent either the night before or the night after sleeping in a tent or in a car eating Pop Tarts, capped off one year by a birthday evening spent in my VW Rabbit outside a truck stop west of Fargo, North Dakota waiting for the muffler repair shop to open the next morning.

But back to China. I was all prepared to have a quiet birthday at home with the kids, maybe watching Toy Story 2 and popping open our preciously guarded box of real Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, but somehow, word got out. First was an invitation from Zekey's best friend's parents (who are quickly becoming our friends) for a birthday dinner. Then came a call from the foreign affairs department, followed by the director of said department dropping off a massive birthday cake, of which more later.

And dinner was excellent! Another expat friend realized at one point that if Chinese people must be horribly disappointed when they visit Americans - everybody here always pulls out all the stops when it comes to hospitality. A small apartment, but pleasantly boisterous (if mostly only vaguely understood) conversation, giggling kids, ten or twelve different dishes all piled onto the table and everyone reaching with expertly extended chopsticks... Ahhh!

I could continue with the play-by-play, but I think I will instead close with a few facts about birthdays in China, should you be fortunate enough to experience one...

Birthday fact number one: If you're the guest of honor at a birthday dinner in China, everyone can "jing" you. This means that they give you a private one-to-one toast, and you both drink your glasses dry. Then the next person comes up, and you drink another glass.

Birthday fact number two: I'm really glad we were all drinking beer instead of baijiu (the local white lightning in these parts), and I'm reeeallly reeeeallly glad I didn't have twenty people show up to this dinner.

Birthday fact number three: Was that "jing"? Or maybe "jie". Which tone were they using? "Qing"? No that means invite. "Jiang...?" Is this a real Chinese tradition...?

Birthday fact number four: After birthday toasts, glancing at the television and seeing a cartoon wolf turn into a part sea turtle and dive underwater after a snorkeling sheep with what looks the scary trees from the Wizard of Oz in the background is not surprising in the least.

Birthday fact number five: Ditto the game show in which contestants have to jump from a revolving platform onto a series of giant inflatable mushrooms. In a swimming pool. In front of a building that looks a bit like a Motel 6...

Birthday fact number six: If you leave a birthday cake on the floor in a Chinese apartment for any length of time, it will attract a visitor or two. Or twenty.

Birthday fact number seven: Nothing sobers you up quite like opening a cake box lid to see a birthday cake swarming with ants. Okay, "swarming with" in this case means about twenty. But still... Fortunately, everyone else will take this in stride, and kids love to play "pick the ant off the frosting".

Birthday fact number eight: Any remaining tipsiness is quickly dispelled by the fact that you've got to escort your three sugar-crazed happy hyper kids back home across a dark campus an hour past their bedtime. Ah, the double-edged sword of spongy Chinese birthday cakes - great at winding up the kids, but worth it ounce for ounce in its ability to soak up excess alcohol...

Monday, August 16, 2010

The car is the camera

Sometimes it's nice to be in a car and think of the windshield as your viewfinder. Instead of boring ordinary scenery going by, presto! The world is turned into pictures! I had a chance to do this on our trip when I got to ride shotgun in a mianbaoche ("bread loaf car" - slang for a small minivan) from Kunming's airport to its long distance bus station. (Kunming is the capital of Yunnan, the province to the south of us.) Here are a few samples of Kunming street life - more can be found on Flickr.

Kunming Taxiwindow (music)

Kunming Taxiwindow
Was taking a picture of the stripey character-filled signs in the BG, but the smoking dude makes it for me.

Kunming Taxiwindow
Dang, a half second earlier and the arrow would've been pointing straight at that guy's head...

Kunming Taxiwindow
Jane: "Okay, you can stop taking pictures now. It's just a regular Chinese city."

Kunming Taxiwindow (big bus station)
Jane: "No, really, Dave. We're at the bus station. Stop taking pictures..."

Switching your residency

Read a very well-written honest article recently by the author Christopher Hitchens, on his diagnosis with cancer and subsequent chemotherapy. He talks about the onset of his symptoms as a kind of forced migration to a new country:
"I had the time to wonder why they needed so many boots and helmets and so much heavy backup equipment, but now that I view the scene in retrospect I see it as a very gentle and firm deportation, taking me from the country of the well across the stark frontier that marks off the land of malady. Within a few hours, having had to do quite a lot of emergency work on my heart and my lungs, the physicians at this sad border post had shown me a few other postcards from the interior and told me that my immediate next stop would have to be with an oncologist."
Sometimes we choose our country of residency, sometimes it chooses us. Lately, I've been fascinated, inspired, and even overwhelmed by the courage and creativity people show in dealing with the place in which they find themselves.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Hey, dudes, what's the deal...?


Waiter, we distinctly ordered Okeos brand sandwich cookies, and you gave us these! What are you trying to pull here?

Friday, August 13, 2010

More proof


...of our family's continued existence, should you need it. After touring around Shanghai, we brought my in-laws back to Sweet Home Chengdu, to show them where we live and to take in some of the local sights. We did two short road trips, one south to Mt. Emei, and one north to Hongkou and the Dujiangyan irrigation project.

I think we managed to get in all the elements of a Sichuan road trip in. Let's see... temples? Check. Hiking up long stone stairways? Check. Spicy food? Check. Bumpy reckless bus rides? Check. Scary monkeys? Ummm, check. Maybe save that for another post, chief. Okay, relaxing in tea houses? Seeing friends? Check, and check. (Oh, did I mention food...?)

IMG_4654 IMG_4758 IMG_4800

IMG_4705 IMG_4793 Dubious Z, Emeishan

IMG_4835 IMG_4903 IMG_4967

Just another day in the employee cafeteria

Swallow Cave, near Jianshui, Yunnan

Taken in a very interesting cave we visited in Yunnan that had a thing for very brightly colored lights...

Uniformity and Change

Chinese paving tile types

Don't think anybody will be surprised by this one, but in many aspects, Chinese society is much more uniform than the United States. Or is it? I've been looking down on China lately - specifically, looking down at paving tiles. Sidewalks, instead of being largely concrete slabs like they are in America, are put together by hand, cobblestone-style. In my (admittedly limited) travels through China, I've noticed that most of these paving tiles are quite similar. I spent all of fifteen minutes on a trip to Chengdu and on a walk around our campus doing this informal survey:

IMG_7005 Chinese paving tile types

Chinese paving tile types Chinese paving tile types

Chinese paving tile types Chinese paving tile types

Chinese paving tile types Chinese paving tile types

Chinese paving tile types Chinese paving tile types Chinese paving tile types Chinese paving tile types

According to my (highly unscientific) calculations (also known as ignorant seat-of-the pants guesswork), over eighty percent of the paving tiles in this country fall into the above 15 or so types. (Note: missing from the survey above is the ever-popular Rectangular Squiggle, so that makes 16 types.) Not being one to let a good cheesy metaphor go to waste, I'd like to make the following observations:

1) Are public structures (think: parking meters, fire hydrants, etc.) this uniform in America? Really, I have no clue. In other words, are Chinese structures really that uniform, compared to things that I saw every day in the States but never noticed? Or am I only noticing this because they are unfamiliar to me? Perhaps a case of observations following expectations...?

2) Missing from these pictures is, of course, the all-important element of sound. Chief among these are the Rattle (caused by vehicles of all types driving over a series of cracked or broken tiles) and the Splut (a squishy unsettling sound caused by stepping onto a loose tile with stagnant muddy water underneath, often accompanied by a slimy splash onto your ankle).

3) The astute observer will notice that uniformity of structure does not imply uniformity of appearance. In other words, a lot can happen to a sidewalk in China, and formerly identical tiles soon become quite different from their neighbors. I leave it to the audience to draw their own conclusions...