Friday, December 28, 2007

When Your Mom Comes to China...

Good lord, it's been a drought these past few months for the one-and-a-half Melon readers out there. Apologies, adoring public. It hasn't been for lack of things happening: Gatherings of war reporters, film festivals, and, most recently, a visit from Mom. The last was the most terrifying. Try as I could after she told me she was coming, I just could not imagine my mother in China. After her visit, however, I wondered how she'd ever avoided a life like mine -- a traveling one. She's a natural.

I went to meet her in Beijing. It was a dodgy plan from the get-go. She was flying in from D.C., I was flying in from Shantou. We'd meet in the Beijing airport. Of course, my plane was an hour late. My mom, having never been to Asia, never been to China, was alone, dealing with international arrivals at the Beijing airport all by herself when she landed. I was in filial hell as I ran from Terminal 1 to Terminal 2 in the airport.

Just before I switched on my phone, however, I had an epiphany: She'd probably have about ten friends by now. This was the woman who could coerce complete strangers into doing her bidding. Sure enough, as I gasped for air and glanced at my phone, calling up one message, two messages, three messages from the cyber-abyss, I knew she was fine. In almost perfect English, the first message read, "Hello, your Mom is in Starbuck's looking for you. She is the very anxious." Then the phone began to ring -- "Hi are you John? Your mother is in Starbucks..."

We saw the sights of Beijing over a couple of days. The Forbidden City and the Wall. After four years in China, I've become jaded, so seeing everything with fresh eyes was a godsend. We stayed in a place that I'd recommend to anyone, especially those bringing parents to China: Mao'er Hutong Bed and Breakfast. Delightful. For about 60 U.S. dollars a night, I set Mom up in Room A (only four rooms in the B&B, as it really is an old siheyuan, a four-walled courtyard home), which looked like it was a set straight out of "The Last Emperor" -- canopy bed, a Qing era divan, an entire living room, bed room and bath. Mao'er Hutong is also in a great location. A minute or so to the right is Nanluoguxiang, the Beijing hutong street that has become full of trendy bars and restaurants. A minute or so the other way, Houhai, a well-known Beijing lake and nightlife spot.

Probably the best thing about having Mom here was how it brought out the absolute best in Chinese culture: extreme devotion to and respect for parents and elders. Everywhere we went, when people realized I was with my mom, that this was her first trip to China, all the stops were pulled out. I'm friends with a Beijing taxi driver named Pi Hong Jie. Pi Shifu, Master Pi, is an all-around solid guy, one of the best guys I've met here, and somewhat bizarrely, has a perfect command of about 50 English words he learned in a class called "English for Taxi Drivers." It was incredibly fun to ride in the back of the taxi and pretend to be asleep and listen to his conversations with Mom. Every time we got in or out of the car, he was opening the door for her, holding her arm to make sure she was alright.

Pi Shifu undercharged us by at least 100 kuai and took us to the Wall at Mutianyu. It was a perfect day. The sky looked like fresh blue watercolor paint on the page. The brown dragon spine of the wall drifted over the mountains. There were patches of snow amidst the brown. It was a little scary to have my mom up there -- in her heart she's 35, not 66, but her balance shows her real age. Truth be told, I told her for years not to come to China; what if something happened to her here? I would never forgive myself.

Then, at a certain point earlier this year, we'd been talking about it on the phone.

"John, let me tell you something. I'm 66, I don't have so many adventures left in me. The time we have with the people we love is limited, " she'd said. I'd finally gotten it, and several months later there we were, from the suburbs of Tampa Florida, standing together on the Great Wall.

We came down from the wall and I could see Mom was awfully tired. Pi Shifu helped her into the car. There was an old lady hanging about, and I was hovering, protective, thinking she was planning on harassing Mom like many of the touts and sellers. When I looked closer, though, I realized she was just a local villager and very, very curious. The old woman was pure peasant -- tiny, carrying some kind of sack, face like a prune. She looked 85 but could have been my Mom's age. I sat in the back seat as the car warmed up. The old lady was standing in the parking lot a few feet from the taxi, just staring intently at Mom in the front seat. Mom was equally fascinated with her. The old lady broke into a huge grin as my Mom smiled at her and waved. The lady waved back. My Mom waved back. My Mom smiled. The old lady smiled. The lady waved back again. The car wasn't going anywhere -- it had to warm up. My Mom and the old peasant lady from Mutianyu just sat there for what seemed like ages smiling and waving at each other, until finally we drove away.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Scam Artistry

Yesterday I had the students brainstorm things they had seen, read, or heard around campus that were newsworthy. They then had to evaluate the credibility of the information (credibility being a recent vocabulary word they were still trying to get right in their mouths) and try to decide what the truth of the matter might be.

The stories ranged from the banal to the bizarre. The English Speech Competition will be held tonight in the Great Hall. A student film competition is being held, in which students create independent films that are then judged by a Hong Kong film director. A student in Dormitory D, according to his friends who posted a notice online, is obsessed with fecal matter, and has spread it all over his dorm walls.

The last one -- while stomach churning -- was sort of what I was looking for. If you wanted to find out if this was really true or not, what would you do? Silence.

"Follow the smell," one smart guy said. We all laughed. But no seriously, I said, what would you do. After much pulling and tugging they came out with it -- go to the dorms, look around, try to find the guy, try to talk to him, try to talk to other people...

I was about to put the activity to bed when one last student raised her hand.

"I want to tell a story of a freshman girl who was cheated 3000 kuai," she said.

One of my pet language peeves has become "cheat." The word is commonly used in Chinese, but the English translation, while not technically wrong, comes out odd a lot of the time. To their delight, I taught the students phrases like "She got scammed," and "scam artist" and "he ripped me off."

The student continued with a woeful and seemingly apocryphal tale I had heard before -- the young girl was approached by two "students" who had lost their money and their teacher. The girl helped them, and they were so grateful, they managed to get in touch with the "teacher." They all met up, but then the tale became more even more pitiful. They needed money for "research..."

It might have been the one time in my life I've held my tongue and was grateful that I did so. I was dying to interrupt with "How could this girl be so stupid?"-- but I managed not to. It was clear that the story was going to go on and on, so at a certain point I stopped the girl, and opened up the story to students' questions.

"Where did you read this news?" asked another student.

The girl who'd told the story mumbled something none of us could hear, and I asked her to repeat it.

"I know this news because the poor girl was me," she said, to audible gasps.

A story is just a story until it happens to someone you know. Suddenly, the kids were paying attention. My head was bursting with questions, but I left them to the students, who were suddenly like reporters at a press conference.

After a few minutes, the girl was getting so battered with questions that I intervened. I tried to put things in perspective -- I could feel class sentiment congealing into the kind that walks past a guy bleeding out on the road. I told them that it was good to try to help people, but you have to judge things carefully, and if you feel things are getting strange, you can always walk away.

I told them a story of a winter night in Beijing. A woman around my age came up to me on the street and asked if I could buy her food. She had the dress and appearance of a migrant laborer. Normally I wouldn't have stopped, but something in her demeanor demanded it. I told her I was going to the store and could buy her something there. In the store, she asked me if she could buy something -- I couldn't quite understand her question in Chinese, but thought I had caught something referred to medecine or hygiene. She came to the counter with a package of dinner rolls, several packets of instant noodles, and a package of maxi-pads. Jesus, I thought, there's no way she's a scam artist if this is what she's buying.

Out on the street, she began to launch into another sad tale of how she needed to get home, to another province...

"I'm sorry," I said. "I have helped you all I can." I turned my back and headed toward my building -- with a guilty feeling that she was probably telling the truth.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Little Brother

( Xiao di, little brother, is a common term of address in Chinese for a younger man in south China.)

Little Brother sits at the barbecue grill with black smoke streaming into his face. We walk up with calls of, “Ni hao, ni hao.” He responds with the only English he knows, “OH MY GOD, OH MY GOD.” He finds amazing versatility in the phrase. With a variety of tones and inflections, he uses it to respond to everything from greetings to requests for more beer.

It is a raspy old man's voice for someone who looks about 12. In fact, Xiao Di is 17, but you'd never know it. He's got a crew cut and huge ears that are rotated forward, bat-like. One of his ears has a growth on it, an extra ledge that somehow grew out at right angles to his earlobe. He's not tall but looks tall. Thin in a way that looks like a pole grew bones, arms and legs, and started walking around. He is a natural actor and looks -- if it's possible to imagine this -- like a cross between a Chinese James Dean and a slightly affable and less-tortured Gollum.

Xiao Di is cook, bartender and waiter at a local barbecue stall outside the wall of the East Gate of the university. It's hard, given how long I've been here, to see the East Gate as it really is.

When I see it as it would appear to the foreign eye, it looks more like a refugee camp then a dining location. Dirty dogs tend to lie about under a scrubby tree. Broken concrete and gravel cover an empty lot that narrows into a dusty road. At night, stalls and food carts dot the dusty lot. There are a handful of restaurants along the road. In those ramshackle restaurants they make some of the best food I've ever eaten.

The barbecue stall that Xiao Di mans has Christmas-tree type lights strung up under the sky, and plastic, fake-wooden folding tables and chairs. On a white push cart sit items for grilling. Above the food whirs a fan with bits of plastic taped to its blades, spinning quietly to keep the flies away.

Chinese barbecue is not American barbecue. Everything is on a stick, and the portions are small. Beefballs, chicken legs, eggplant, tofu, -all are skewered and dipped in honey or pepper sauce. Xiao Di brings them out as they come up, grinning so wide his ears seem like they are moving out several inches from his head.

“Your – tofu,” he says, in a Chinese that is so non-standard and idiosyncratic that it seems like a private language. He rasps out the words and grins psychotically, rolls his eyes, and lopes off to bring beer.

One night he comes up and starts rubbing a friend's shoulders.

“One more beer?” he asks. He knows his job and is a good salesman.

“Not tonight,” my buddy answers.

“OH MY GOD, OH MY GOD,” Xiao Di says quietly, shaking his head in disapproval.

He then harangues my friend for a good ten minutes about how he is losing face because we are all drinking more, that if he were a real man, he'd have another beer.

One night he has a coughing fit and falls out of his seat at the barbecue. Another night he chases the boys working at a nearby restaurant. Another, he gets in a fight with the people he works for at the stall. For a couple of weeks in the winter, he appears in a dirty yellow suit jacket two sizes too big for him. We tell him how all the girls will be crazy over him. On another night, he's wildly throwing a butcher knife at the large rats that haunt the bushes behind the barbecue stalls.

Tonight I go down alone to the East Gate. I'm about to start my third year at the Chinese university. Few students and teachers are back yet, and the seats around the barbecue stalls are mostly empty.

For the first time, I sit down and have a real conversation with Xiao Di.

He is wearing a red sleeveless t-shirt with 23 on the back and a montage of hoop dreams on the front. He loves basketball. He plays in a nearby town and wants to know if I want to play there sometime. He has been smoking since age eight. He says contradictory things about whether he goes to school or not. He says he doesn't like working here -- in fact, has switched the stall he works at because they treated him badly at the other one. He wants to get a factory job.

In a country that encourages if does not require each family one child, he has four brothers and sisters. One brother looks just like him, he says. His sister is in Guangzhou. When I ask about his parents, he looks down and mumbles something that I don't understand. I don't press. If Xiao Di isn't an actual orphan, there is something about him that radiates isolation.

We talk. I eat, and he smokes. I have an English book. He picks it up and says he doesn't understand. I tell him he needs to study more. He tells me how much he would love to have a mobile phone. I tell him if he had one, he could call his girlfriend. He grunts and chuckles, says something in his private language, and begins rubbing his head.

After an hour or so, I pay and head home into the warm Chinese summer night. I glance back. Xiao Di is hunched over the barbecue, puffing the white smoke of his cigarette into the black smoke of the grill.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

That Worldview

When you have been in China as long as I have, you sometimes get lulled into a sense of normalcy; you forget that you are living in a place that is really, really different. Then there's that back-of-the-hand-across-the-face moment that cause the chopsticks to go flying out of your hands, or the spittle out of your so pridefully-non-spitting mouth.
I had a couple of these wake-up-and-smell-the-lead-paint moments recently in class. (Luckily I was able to mitigate my reaction to a: "Well, other people might see it differently...")

I asked the students in a Toefl preparation class to brainstorm what makes a good speaker of a foreign language. What, for example, would a good foreign speaker of Chinese sound like? What qualities would you look for?

They are a bright group, and we're spot on with their answers, mentioning everything from fluency to intonation and predicting the speaker's intentions. The only thing I could think to add was appropriateness, of knowing when to say the right thing and what the right thing to say was.
"Or," as I put it, "Knowing when not to say something."

I gave the example of telling people they were fat. This was a common thing a few years ago, though it seems to be on the decline now. Students would come up to foreign teachers and simply tell them that they were too fat.
"You just can't call someone fat in America," I told the class. "Especially if it's a woman, and especially if it's true."

I went on to explain that personal appearance in general was fairly off limits, unless it was positive or you were extremely close to the person. The kids in the class nodded -- they seemed to have already figured it out. They were sophisticated enough to have gotten it without my needing to tell them -- or so I thought.

After I gave my little admonishing lecture, one of the better students raised her hands and asked in all seriousness: "But can we call someone chubby?"

* * * *

With the freshmen, these things are a little more expected; they haven't had much contact with foreigners, most of them. They are sort of blank slates. Their general knowledge is limited. They are just starting out on their studies of journalism. I've found that what gets taught at the end of many journalism courses -- ethics, responsibility, core values -- has to get taught right up front here with the youngest students, and has to be repeated over and over.

The students had an assignment to research a case in which the journalistic value system broke down, or to find a story that was missing a core value. They then had to present it to the class. I walked around to different groups, and caught a story that seemed interesting: one of the few boys in class was telling his classmates about a story he'd read about Tibet.

"So what's the problem with this story?" I asked.

"I think it is an example of bias," he said. The student went on to explain how all the sources in the story were right in line with the government's view on the Dalai Lama and Tibet. We had talked about bias, balance, propaganda, accuracy and fairness in a story we'd read the previous week. The story had been about the U.N. rejection of a Taiwan move to discuss independence -- it had been filled with difficult words like "inalienable" and "secession," but the students had done well and I was proud of them.

"Great," I said. "When we come back from the break, you can present this story to us."

Lone, the student, began the presentation, and I helped him by writing "Dalai Lama" on the board.

"Do you know who the Dalai Lama is?" he asked the class, most of whom shook their heads. "He is a secessionist who wants to break Tibet from China."

Sunday, October 14, 2007

A Summer in the Local News Business

Ever wonder how journalism works in China? I am not sure if this story is representative, but it certainly touches on some interesting problems. Emma is a student of mine from a nearby city.

A Summer in the Local News Business
By: Emma Lu

This summer holiday, I interned for the Guangzhou Daily's Shantou office. I went to Chaonan, Jieyang and downtown Shantou with Ruan Xiaoguang, a journalist from Guangzhou Daily. We went to Chaonan to report on a boy who drowned in a sandpit filled with water; we were invited to Hualixi Village to cover an event with little newsworthiness but met with lots of strange things; and we went to Jieyang to investigate an underwear collecting activity. Yes, you heard correctly, underwear!

The event that we first covered was a boy who drowned in a sandpit filled with water days before in Chaonan, a district of Shantou.
When we got to the boy's home, his parents and his aunt talked with us about the details of the drowning. That day the boy went to the sand beach to play with his friend and his little sister. A factory was using sand from a beach for construction, and they had left a few sandpits full of seawater. The boy was catching fish in the sandpit but he was so careless that he fell into the water. He tried to stay afloat because he couldn't swim. His little sister also jumped into the water and tried to pull him up. However, he drowned in the end and his sister also nearly drowned. An old fisherman was called by the boy's friend and came to pull up his sister.
When I was talking with the parents, I could see their spirits were broken. They didn't cry because they had cried so much. I couldn't recognize what they said in Chaoshan dialect although I am a Chaozhou native. The dialect of Chaonan is very different from other places in the Chaoshan area. So we had to talk in Mandarin.

After the talk, we went to that sand beach. We could see several sandpits lying on the beach, each of which was at about 60 square meters. As the boy's father had told us, the water in them was over 2 meters in depth. Nor far away was the sand processing factory, busy with many trucks going back and forth to take the sand out of the village. Some villagers told us that several factories had collected sand on this beach for about 15 years, had destroyed the wood near the beach, and had left many dangerous sandpits on the beach. As the factories did nothing to keep people away from the sandpits, there had been about 8 persons who had died in these kinds of sandpits. None of the factories had sent any compensation to the drowned persons’ families.

Why did the government allow the factories to exploit sand in their village and bring such serious safety problems? When we asked the party secretary of the village, he refused to say anything about it, and even more he denied that there were sand processing factories existing in their village. It didn't match with what we had seen on the beach.

The boy's parents wanted to sue the sand factory and the government. But they also knew it was very difficult because the factory and the government were very powerful and rich. "We still want to try, for the sake of the safety of other people," said the boy's aunt.

My second report was to cover the renovation of an old temple in Hualixi in Chaonan. Hualixi was a village in which the business of selling plastic flowers had boomed in recent years. We were invited by the village officials to cover the temple renovation. They sent a local journalist to take us there.

When we got there, the party secretary and some other officials were very kind to us. But they could hardly tell us the history of the temple which was very important to our report, and even more they could hardly speak Mandarin, a basic requirement for an official.

When the Hualixi secretary drove his car to take us to the temple, I discovered that the car had a steering wheel on the right side. Most cars on the mainland have a left-handed steering wheel. About ten years ago, many people wanted to buy foreign cars because of the high quality and the Chinese government added 100% to 80% taxes on the imported cars to limit the increasing number. But in recent years the tax rate had been gradually decreased to about 25%. But some people still tried to buy these kinds of cars without paying tax. It seemed ironic to me that the party secretary drove such a car to work.

To my most surprise, in the end the secretary gave us 800 Yuan and said that he didn't really want us to report on the temple's renovation, but wanted to get to know us and develop a friendship with us. Speaking frankly, they wanted us to do more good reports on their achievements and not to cover any bad news of their village in the future. 800 Yuan was not a little amount! We were surprised and tried to refuse but the secretary still pushed the money at us.

When the local journalist took us back, he told me that a journalist should learn how to keep good relationships with government officials and rich businessmen -- and only by relying on this could a journalist earn more money. I was very sad to hear his words. I really hoped not to work with this kind of journalist in the future.

My third interview destination was Jieyang, a city neighboring Shantou. We had been told that a series of underwear shops belonging to one company were taking back people's used underwear.
This story really interested us and we wondered what the used underwear could be used for. We went into the shop and looked around. We could see a poster saying used underclothes could be exchanged for 15 Yuan, used underwear for 5 Yuan and used bed gowns for 25 Yuan. It meant that you could buy the new underclothes and underwear in the shop at a discount if you brought in your used things, a good bargain for buyers. But why were they willing to pay money to collect these things? When we asked the shop keepers, however, they went quiet and said they didn't know.

When we pretended to want to buy the used underwear that they had collected, the shop keeper called the manager and with her permission, we gave her call. She said that their purpose for collecting used underclothes and bed gowns was just for investigative research, such as knowing how long a person wore their underclothes and which brand was the most popular. Finally the used things would be burnt up. However, the price they paid for the used things was very high and this made us doubt their answer.

We asked a manager of an underclothes factory in Chaonan, a district of Shantou, about this. The manager said that he had never heard of paying money for collecting used underwear. In his opinion, it was impossible to renew used underwear because it cost too much and it would be a deal without benefits.

Our curiosity was increasing and we worried there were some bad motivations for this deal. Would the used things be sent to some other regions and resold? Or would they be sold to some people who had a hobby of touching these dirty things?

Few people went to change their used underclothes or underwear for new ones. We interviewed some people, to get their reaction to the underwear exchange. Some people said underwear was a private thing and they didn't want to give it to others. Some people said they were worrying about strange uses of used underwear and they didn't want to get involved with this kind of deal.

The parents of the boy who drowned in the sandpit would try their best to sue the government and the factory -- but it would be hard to win. The used underwear collecting just confused me. But the thing that bothered me most was hearing that as a journalist, you have to develop relationships with officials.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Ultranationalism at the Local Watering Hole

Nightlife down here on the southern frontier is pretty limited, and recently the crowd out at night seems even more homogeneous than normal. It used to be that you could walk into the one decent bar downtown, Sunglow, and come across a handful of Shantou's foreign community. The three or four times I've been down there in the last couple of months, however, there's been nary a foreign face to be seen.

Where have they all gone? Perhaps they were dissuaded from entering by the big freestanding posterboard that's now up in the bar's entrance. The sign lists all the kinds of people that are not permitted to enter the bar.

They include: Anyone who supports a militaristic Japan. Anyone who supports Taiwan independence. On a note that might find more common consensus, international terrorists and drug users and dealers are also banned.

Perhaps this was all pomp and circumstance in honor of National Day; unfortunately, the owner of the bar, a friend of mine, was not around for comment. Large posters of Mao were hung around the bar. They made interesting counterpoint to the two young ladies singing Latin and English jazz up on stage.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

MyShantou website

My apologies for the long absence to the one or two Melon readers that might be out there. I've been concentrating my attention on writing and trying to get writers for, a website all about our fair southern city here. (

There's something attractive about the website, despite the fact that it runs on a system which can't even handle correct punctuation. I guess it's the fact that it has a genuine audience: the small foreign community here constitutes one part, and the Chinese English-speaking community here, (a bigger group than I would have expected) constitutes another. But the biggest group, as far as I can gather, is the expatriate Chinese who have roots here in the Chaoshan area and are now spread across the globe from Malaysia to Canada.

I've been confronted with ultimate Chinese dilemma in becoming involved in writing and recruiting writers for the site: How much of the content should reflect positively on the city, and how much negatively? In the States there would be no question -- publish what you want. But it's just different here. A student of mine, for example, has written a great piece on interning at a local newspaper over the summer. Along the way, she came face to face with official corruption and buffoonery. It's a great story, and I have no doubt about it's authenticity. But publishing it on the site might result in the site getting shut down. Hmmmm...if a tree falls in the forest, and officials deny that there was ever a tree, does it make a sound?

Friday, September 28, 2007

Attacked by Giant Spiders!

Okay, now that I have got your attention with the overly sensational headline, let me rephrase that. The hills behind the university are fairly scenic, and criss-crossed with trails nice for hiking. I have walked in them many times over the last three or four years. On no occassion however, have I ever seen what I did a few weeks ago: Dozens and dozens of very large spiders with enormous (three to four-foot) webs. While they are not attacking, it is no exaggeration to say the hills are literally overrun with spiders.

The nature of the beast? It was tough to find out. But after some searching around, I have come to the conclusion that the spider is something called Nephila maculata, The Golden Orb Web spider, also referred to as the Golden Silk Orb weaver, and the Giant Wood spider.
I grew up in Florida with all kinds of creatures — snakes, alligators, plenty of insects — out and about regularly, so I feel pretty well-adjusted around critters. This spider, however, is kind of creepy. It is huge — I am 5′11″ 180 pounds, and these spiders were bigger than my spread out hand. And lightning fast, I discovered when I got too close with the camera.

There is a pretty good webpage here that provides an overview of what this spider is all about.

Among other things, it details the use of the spider's silk in countries around Asia — the spider is found everywhere from Japan to the south Pacific.The spider's silk, apparently, is incredibly strong — while I find this is a bit dubious, the page at one point compares it to Kevlar. One webpage I read said that in Japanese the spider is referred to as the “femme fatale” spider. Apt perhaps, as the big ones that we saw were mostly female, the male being nearly a fifth the size.

What is most interesting to me is how these spiders absolutely came to dominate this little habitat of the hills behind the school in just a couple of years. On our hike, my friends and I saw literally dozens of these things over the course of a mile or two. No birds to prey upon them? Actually, if I were any bird other than a condor, I would keep right on flying if I came face to face with one of these things.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Travels in Zhejiang

Before returning to Shantou, I had the good fortune to do a bit of traveling in and around Hangzhou -- definitely one of China's nicer cities.

The trip began bizarrely, by meeting a young woman on the airplane who turned out to be the wife of a high school classmate of mine. Said classmate's mother was something of an arch-enemy in high school; she was born-again, and I was punk rock, a stormy marriage from the start. Still, it was kind of nice to step off the plane and see a high-school mom from the suburbs of Florida there in old Shanghai.

After a brief soujourn to the Bund and LuXun's former residence, it was on to Hangzhou. Set right on the lake across from the Chinese Academy of the Arts, the International Youth Hostel there was like a little bit of Thailand further north; cool music in the cafe, and an international crowd. Okay, no great beaches so maybe my analogy is a stretch. But nice.

One night I'm in a bar that's touting a hip hop night, and my girl and I are dancing to some old school rap. Suddenly, the music goes quiet. These two young guys get up on stage and start having a rap duel in Chinese. One guy fits his favorite English word, "motherfucker" into each sentence about twenty times, to the roaring approval of the crowd. I feel I'm in some post-modern video about young China.

The highlight of the trip: Hiking the mountains outside the city. You take a taxi not more than thirty minutes and you are in a truly rural area. Couldn't a lot more of China have this kind of urban planning?

The worst moment: I'm in the Hangzhou bus station, enroute to Wuzhen. This guy is standing next to me at the urinal trough. He literally leans over, and stares at my junk. I glare at him and offer some choice angry words. But it deters him not. Incredible. Later on, I try out a solution to this kind of behavior that seems to work: "Hey, are you gay? That's cool. But I'm not. Please stop." When I say this to a boatman who's started stroking my arm, he jumps back about three feet. It's rare that you can produce exactly the desired effect in someone's behavior with a sentence.

Wuzhen, one of the so-called water towns, is a bit of a disappointment. I barely have a sense of smell, but the stench overpowers even me. Still, I have some nice chats with the old folks in the streets, though their Putonghua is barely comprehensible.

At dusk, on the eastern side of Wuzhen, the water taxis in the canal form a broken line heading for the sinking sun, and if you ignore the blatantly artificial nature of the place and the scent on the wind, it is beautiful.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Toys R Us

Shantou, specifically a little satellite community of Shantou called Chenghai, is filled with toy factories. A fact that, until recently, seemed of little importance or merit. With the ongoing Chinese product scandals, however, it's taken on a certain relevance. Especially since there are 3,000 toy manufacturers in this district and that "at least 70 percent of the products are exported to more than 100 countries and regions," according to a People's Daily Online story.

On a side note,, summarizes news from various provinces and seems to provide news on smaller and medium-sized cities, Shantou among them.

Friday, August 31, 2007

China in Middle America

I spend the summers in northern Michigan, about as far spritually and physically from Shantou China as you could get. It's a land of working class folk, mixed with high rollers from big cities like Chicago, who have disposable income for second homes on the lake. There's a host of folk about, enjoying that fleeting summer up there, mostly gregarious folk. I love to watch their reactions when I tell them that I live in China.

Everybody's reaction, interestingly enough, is more or less the same.

"Oh, so you like Florida?" they say.

"Actually, I grew up in Florida, but I live abroad, " I say. "I live in China."

They all tilt their heads back, and look into the distance, and murmur: "China."

They go through some invisible Rolodex in their heads. And then they come up with a link, no matter how tenuous, from their own lives to China.

"You know, my cousin Ralph was in the Navy, and he had a friend who went to Hong Kong, and that guy, when he got out of the service, he just stayed in Hong Kong, and married a Chinese girl! How about that?"

" co-worker's brother started his own business, and I hear their production is in China."

" know, last year we went to Russia."

It's a curious reaction, because I've traveled a lot, and people's reactions in other places aren't like this. I wonder what it is about Americans that immediately lead them to try to make some personal connection with such a faraway place? Maybe it is exactly that: to make it seem less far away, less outside of the realm of things they know about.

A task that is probably beyond the reach of most people. I spent some time at the dentist's this summer. He was a jolly, round guy, razor-sharp smart and very personable, and we discussed China extensively. As I was leaving he said, "Well, good luck over there in the Middle East."

A verbal gaffe no doubt, but one indicative of how far away the rest of the world remains to middle America.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Coming to America

All the children are blonde. The air is that kind of northern crisp and clean that I associate with autumn. The sky is so blue it hurts your eyes. The water glows. All the homes here seem to have flags, and when they wave, it seems like the colors will bleed out and turn everything red, white, and blue.

I feel like I'm in a movie about America.

I came home about ten days ago -- to a house that my great-grandfather built. I've been coming here since I was two years old. When I was a child, I used to wonder if the summers were a dream that I had had. Michigan is so different from Florida, especially this small town, on the small lake that feeds Lake Michigan. Florida is transient, strip-malled, humid, a hybrid of Old South meets retired New Jersey meets Cuba. Michigan is small town, traditional, full of 200-year old buildings, a Scandinavian-immigrant haven. And in thirty years, it hasn't changed much. I can see why I thought it was a dream when I was young.

China might as well be the moon for all its relevance here. But I've been away so long, America feels somewhat foreign to me. Okay, "somewhat" is inaccurate. "Quite" might be closer to the truth.

It's good to get back in touch though. I go to the local dive bar, Tuttens, and meet a guy in his 80s, Art. He's a dyed-in-the-wool Republican. But he says to me, "This government? Horrible." He's been involved in the party conventions since 1966, he says. He was a champion of Jack Kemp in 1988. A woman in the grocery store told his wife that they were traitors for not supporting Bush senior at the time.

It's a Friday night, and the bar is filled with young people who all seem to know each other. Apparently, my fascination with this 80-year old man makes me more appealing. I start getting hassled by some young women.

"Hey, who are you?" says an obviously drunk girl to my left. "I've never seen you before."

I say my hellos and then turn back to Art. He winks at me and says, "Nothing like aggresive women."

We talk for a long time, and then he leaves me with a stunner: "Well, my girlfriend lives up the road, I have to pay her a visit."

Not long after, I walk up the hill behind the bar with the drunk women and lots of their friends -- someone is having a house party. They light a bonfire in the yard, and put a mini-trampoline next to it, running and jumping over the fire. They jump deliberately close to the fire, as someone snaps pictures. A bottle goes around. Music blasts from the house. The night clouds over.

All I can think about is how this would never happen in China, and how freedom often seems to have little to do with politics and much more to do with culture, and how freedom has something to do with a people-to-space ratio...and how much I miss it.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Slaves to Ostriching

The brick slave case is so horrible in so many different ways that it leaves one groping for adequate language and thought processes to deal with it all. What strikes me most, however, in the accounts I've been reading, is how the whole thing was allowed and de facto encouraged by local police and authorities. A common excuse that I've heard -- echoed by friends here and media -- is that the brick kilns are isolated and remote, therefore nobody knew what was going on. Bullshit. In a country of 1 billion, 400 million people, how isolated can you get? Especially when you are in places like Henan, the most populous province in China. Also, the fact that teenage kids were disappearing en masse from the streets is only un-suspicious to the most intellectually dormant.

What is more likely: the unfortunate and pervasive trend of willfully shutting out "bad news" in hopes that it will go away. It seems that the desire for social stability is so great that many people in positions of authority here will ostrich their way into what inevitably becomes even worse news.

The following excerpt from Nanfang Zhoumo, translated by Roland Soong of ESWN, displays the kind of aggressive intransigience that is so disturbing. It describes a mother of a missing child pleading with the police for help:

At the various public security bureaus in Gaoping city (Jincheng), Hongdong county (Linfen) and other places, Yang Aizhi knelt in front of the office of the director and cried until they got a letter that asked the local public security bureaus to cooperate. With the letters, they were able to rescue several dozen child laborers.

Why do you have to beg the PSB to do something yourself that they should be pro-actively doing themselves? Are they in collusion with brick kiln owners? Perhaps occassionally. But what is more likely is simply the unwillingness to disturb the status quo, even if that status quo is child slavery.

There is, perhaps, a twisted logic to it: I can imagine an idealistic young policeman at the PSB, getting a tip that something is amiss. Telling the captain he's going out to investigate, when he gets called into the office...Do you really want to get involved in this thing? Imagine the paperwork! And what if you piss off the wrong people? You know, the local or provincial leaders might not look too favorably on a cop who shakes out all this dirty laundry... The young cop reconsiders and retires to his desk, whatever the Chinese equivalent of a doughnut is, in hand.

If they were really serious about rooting this kind of thing out here, they'd not only go after factory owners; they'd look for a PSB which had documented complaints about kidnapping and child slavery, and prosecute the PSB's leadership as well. As long as those who are supposed to uphold the law are not held accountable for doing so, the kind of willful, criminal blindness that undermines so many efforts here at progress will always win.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Jobs Available: Young Brick Makers Wanted

Are you aged 6 to 16 and tired of those pesky parents and those droning teachers? Are you looking for a change of pace, and work that is challenging and builds character? Then we have a job for you!

The Tonggong Brick Factory seeks 1000 new workers due to, er, unforeseen staff reductions, for the exciting job of making bricks 23 hours out of every 24-hour day. Located in the scenic loess plateaus of Henan and Shanxi, our factories are your home away from home.

Your teachers and parents urge education, but that is SO feudal; we know where the real revolution lies, right? In making money! As we get rich off your brick making, you'll be treated to an experience that will teach you the value of hard work. One that may theoretically allow you to get rich yourself one day, after years of psychological help.

Aside from the totally un-remunerated nature of the work, benefits at our factory also include:

- Half a bowl of delicious straw-and-grass gruel a day
- free kung fu sparring and beatdowns from older factory bosses
- free weight reduction program (see straw gruel)
- free tanning salon effect from the hellfire-hot kilns
- a chance for friendly visits from local police and officials

If you are interested in this job, please simply linger in your neighborhood park unaccompanied and look for a shady character in a van. Or find us on the World Wide Web at

If Only I Didn't Know Now What I Didn't Know Then

Things I wish had known before coming to China...hmmm...

I wish I'd figured out that when I started studying Chinese, I was in a place where three languages were spoken, the least popular of which was the language I was attempting to study - Putonghua, Mandarin Chinese. A bit like going to a border town in Texas to learn the Queen's English...

And I wish I'd known that perfect pronunciation in the local dialect, Chaoshanhua, is achieved by pinching one's nose and forcefully shouting, all the while channeling the sounds that a Muscovy duck in ecstasy might make.

I wish I'd known that those Saturday afternoon Kung Fu movies, with the rapid-fire dubbed English, were not anomalies of translation: Everything in China is dubbed. The same strange movements of the mouth are present even here, with their own language, where the spoken word seems to come anywhere but from the actors' lips.

I wish I'd known the difference between what is publicly said and privately done is a difference of Great Wall-ish proportions.

I wish I'd known how much better Chinese food in China is than Chinese food in the States was. And how colorful the names could be: "Go Down in the Road Countryside, It is Made Up of Coriander and Pig Hand," "Pig Elbow that An Ancient Poet Liked Very Much," and "Fuck Black Pepper Bowl of (random Chinese character)."

I wish I'd known how two years can turn into four, and more, and how you could spend a life getting sucked into, "If I just stay a little longer, I'll figure it all out..."

I wish I'd known what now looked like, how hard it would be to leave the strangeness, the time you've put in, the luminously beautiful girl you speak to through the computer screen...

I wish I could not know it all again.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

A Million Kuai

I'm waiting in China Merchant's bank, and two kids in front of me are taking out a million Renminbi.

Yes, you read correctly, a million kuai. That, with the new mark of the RMB against the dollar, is roughly $US 130,890.05. Enough to buy a nice house in the town I went to college, the next ten years on an island in Laos, or about a dozen United-Colors-of-Benetton orphans for Angelina Jolie.

And yes, you read correctly: kids. They look to be about 19. They could be brother and sister. They're big, shuffly types, with droopy faces. The guy keeps looking over at where we're sitting and grinning sheepishly. Behind the plate glass, six or seven bank employees are running hundred kuai notes through counterfeit detectors, then binding them up. Bundles of ten thousand are stacked up on several counters, like books of an over-worked librarian.

Based on where we are, there's a certain logic to big money transactions happening here. We work in Dongfang Guangchang, a big mall with office buildings attached to it in the center of the city. Big business is everywhere. We're in a building that's mostly occupied by Ernst & Young. On the first floor is a Lamborghini showroom, or some such ridiculously luxurious car like it. But just down the road the other way is the Forbidden City, and Tiananmen Square.

It's day two in the bank, and I'm sitting with my colleague who's there to help with the arcane paperwork. The day before I'd waited for an hour or so, only to be told I couldn't pay a fee because I didn't have my passport. (I need this to pay a fee!?) We're both sitting dumbfounded, watching the million kuai materialize in front of our eyes. My colleague tells me that he overhears the kid saying they could buy a better car if they could get three million.

"Okay, this is what we do, " I say to my co-worker. "We follow them out, and then we hit 'em and steal the money."

He looks befuddled for a moment. Then he gets it. I secretly wish I weren't joking.

We talk about what we'd do with the money. We both agree: buy a house. Something about a man reaching a certain age and he wants property. For 19-year old Chinese kids with a million kuai to take out of the bank, it's a car I guess. What kind of car are they buying? I wonder...Well what would Jesus drive? Or the Chairman? I have a momentary vision of the Chairman driving a convertible Corvette or Porsche or Lamborghini, the wind whisping through the remaining strands of hair, he replete with bling and sunglasses, girls in the car laughing...

I snap back to reality as the kids finish and begin loading the bundles of money into several backpacks. The guy shoots one more grin our way, and heads out. I watch them go wistfully. But we're up. Finally, after four months of delay, I may be able to buy eleven photographs for a book I'm writing - for 1500 kuai.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Beijing Baseball

My friend's writing a piece on the CBL, the China Baseball League, and the Beijing team, the Tigers. We've been going to the games, and I've been trying to shoot a bit. It's good to actually get out of the office and do something that approaches reporting again.

Baseball on the mainland is in its infancy. The fans are sparse, and the games are free of charge. The field is so far out in the suburbs that the last ten minutes or so of the drive out there is dominated by farmers' fields. The whole thing has kind of an overlooked feel about it.

Still, a scout from the MLB was at the last never know when the mainland Ichiro will materialize, I guess.

Look for more baseball photos coming soon on the Melon's photo link. For more on the Beijing Tigers, check out

Legends on Legends

I'm aware that what follows is gushingly positive, so if that's not your thing, be forewarned.

A couple of weeks ago back in Shantou, I was fortunate enough to attend a lecture of epic proportions: Peter Arnett, the new addition to the J-school faculty, speaking about the life, times, and untimely death of his good friend David Halberstam.

(Halberstam, for those who don't know, was a journalist who wrote nonfiction books, the most famous of which was probably The Best and the Brightest, an account of how the Kennedy and then Johnson administrations got mired in Vietnam. Halberstam was killed in April. Though in his 70s, he was still writing, and was getting a ride to an interview from a Berkeley student. The car was broadsided; Halberstam was in the passenger seat, and was killed instantly.)

Arnett's presence in Shantou is both extremely lucky and oddly appropriate, considering the ravenous appetite for all things China among journalists and media types in the States. Not to toot our own horn, but it's fascinating to me how this small university in a strange isolated corner of southern China is attracting more and more heavy hitters from the journalism world. I guess it's a case of the right program at the right time in the right country.

Two things struck me about the lecture: One, how having a figure of such experience provides living, speaking history to the listener and two, how one of Arnett's strongest memories of Halberstam was quite personal.

"In Saigon, in 1962..." How many working journalists today can begin sentences like that? Things that most of us read in books or have only seen in movies are the man's memories, his working experience. To be able to hear those stories is simply incredible.

While he covered Halberstam's work extensively in the lecture, one anecdote stood out: Halberstam personally rescued Arnett from a beating by Diem's security forces. They'd been at some kind of protest or rally, and the increasing hostility that the police had had toward journalists bubbled over. They attacked Arnett. Halberstam, a large man with a large presence, waded into the fray and pulled Arnett out.

At the time, they were young guys, hungry for stories and passionate about covering a war. But, Arnett said, one of his strongest memories of Halberstam would always be that -- not how accomplished he was, but how Halberstam took a risk for him.

Even legends need a helping hand sometimes.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Strange Fruit

Lately I've enjoyed getting my 12 cents worth of news from the China Daily, the English-language state-run paper. It's interesting to see what gets covered with a fair degree of accuracy and balance (generally speaking, international news that has utterly nothing to do with China) and what doesn't get covered (anything dealing with China's sensitive issues or Chinese politics).

And it's not to say that it's all good news - the paper does deal with the country's problems, to some degree, albeit in a very careful, roundabout way. If the story in most newspapers is "Killer Dog Food Linked to China" the China Daily might report that the government is investigating consumer product safety.

One of the sections that's particularly appealing is called China Scene, odd news from regional newspapers around the country. Many papers around the world have similar sections, and in the States they're often filled with the bizarre things that people do when amped up on crack, or overly enthusiastic about their Second Amendment rights. The entries in China Daily are of a similarly odd nature - but with Chinese characteristics.

Some favorites from the Wednesday May 23rd edition: From the Nanjing Morning Post, a report that a high school in Jiangsu province has made a rule that male and female students must maintain a distance of 44cm from each other. The last sentence of the little blurb: "A foreign anthropologist once pointed out that 44cm is the minimum safe distance between people of the opposite sex, unless the two are lovers or married." Huh? Safe for what? For not falling into an automatic carnal frenzy? I can see the hall monitors now, running around with yard sticks in their hands...

From the Yangtze Evening News, a hospital, also in Jiangsu, turns down a request from doctors to be provided with helmets and truncheons to protect themselves from patients' attacks...gotta love those medical bills.

In another entry, a crowd berates a man as he watches his wife try to drown herself; he's repeatedly asked her to jump in the river, and finally she does. "A young man eventually jumped into the river and saved the woman, surnamed Li." Emphasis on "eventually" is my own...

And then there are the Lei Feng stories, the stories that are of the feel-good, urban-legend variety, that, while in some cases probably true, seem to be there in order to give the reader the sense that the world really is an okay place. In one, a girl blown off the sixth floor of a building is saved by opening her umbrella as she falls; she escapes with minor injuries. In another, white-collar workers give up their weekends to spend time with the elderly. In another, a man puts an ad in a local paper to praise the good virtue of a bus driver, who returned his bag containing 2000 RMB.

Whether these stories are true or not is not even what interests me most...I just wonder about the editorial process of how they make it onto the page. Do people fight over the inclusion of the wondrous, life-saving umbrella anecdote?

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Yale Delegation Visits Local Dive Bar

A delegation of Yale University students met with president Hu Jintao on Friday, in a visit to promote greater understanding of China. (Story here.)This correspondent, however, met many of the same members of the delegation at a local dive bar, opportunely named Pure Girl.

Engaging in that age-old undergraduate tradition of shots and imbibing copious amounts of beer, the delegation nevertheless conducted themselves in a relatively respectable manner. The owners of Pure Girl appeared overwhelmed, as it was semi-officially the only time anyone has ever been into the bar. (Nearby Pure Girl 2 and 3 were mostly empty.)

Later on the same weekend, a delegation of 30 or so students from Leeds University went on a twenty bar pub crawl. One of the delegation pronounced the Wudaokou bar Propaganda, "the best place to meet chicks."

Hmmm...what immediately struck this correspondent was the degree to which social pursuits differ at Chinese universities. For better or for worse, the sole occupation of most Chinese students is studying, and drinking and cavorting are saved for special occasions, such as graduation, or marriage.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

What's Ripe in the Middle Kingdom

What's Ripe in the Middle Kingdom? Danwei itself is the news, with CNN reporting favorably on Sexy Beijing, Danwei's take off on Sex and the City. The article describes the website as "well positioned to capitalize on China's Internet boom." Agreed. It's only a matter of time before Sexy Beijing goes mainstream.

Elsewhere, Image Thief has a deeply-considered and thoroughly examined look at the coming Olympics, and how it may represent to China what the 1936 Olympics represented to Nazi Germany. (Important to note that he's not comparing the two states, only the similarity the Olympics have in projecting a certain, well, image.) Jesse Owens, he notes, more or less ruined the agenda for Nazi Germany, and China may also be vulnerable to having its script re-written by unforeseen events.

Josie Liu reports on the first investigation into child abuse on the mainland. Li Dong's book follows six girls' cases in the northeast of China.

Jonathan Ansfield turns a rather hilarious anecdote of a successful middle-aged Chinese man with a fawning female entourage into a sober look at the role of women, gender inequality, and the results of the one-child policy. In a society where men are increasingly outnumbering women , it seems having a bevy of beauties is right up there with slapping around that fat wad of 100 RMB notes, as a status symbol goes.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Land Grab

The number of incidents of mass protest in China in the last few years is often quoted as being in the hundreds of thousands. (So much for the image of the docile and subservient Confucian horde.) One of the main reasons for protests is land seizures, in which local government simply announces villagers have to move, as the new knitting factory goes up. Locals are often compensated, but remuneration often falls short of the true value of the property.

Here in Guangdong province the problem seems to be acute. The economy is booming, and development is everywhere. Driving from the university into downtown yesterday evening revealed an enormous factory complex being built on what I last remember as fishponds and stilt houses.

What must be China's most hard-working blog, EastSouthWestNorth, picks up on a recent story originally reported by Ming Pao newspaper in Hong Kong about a protest in the city of Gurao, near Shantou. (Read the story here.)

Scrolling down to the bottom of the page reveals some striking images of scenes more reminiscent of French inner cities than of suburban Guangdong.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Dissent Within the Ranks

A recent Reuters story that I read in the SCMP (South China Morning Post, Hong Kong's premier English-language daily) provided a fascinating peek behind the Wizard-of-Oz curtain that the G maintains here in the Middle Kingdom. Xie Tao, 85, a veteran party official wrote an essay criticizing the current political system and advocating a kind of middle path democratic socialism as practiced by Scandinavian countries, the article said. It also said that an internal crackdown was occuring to put down the official's ideas.

The same story also taken up by the Guardian, here.

What's fascinating to me about this is the degree of secrecy that permeates everything. At the highest levels of government, it's perhaps to be taken as a matter of course; all governments and businesses, I think, strive for a certain kind of opacity, an obfuscation to cast themselves in the best possible light. Easy to do when things are murky and the folks want to believe.

But even here at a what is supposed to be a progressive university, events that are perceived as "bad news" or disruptive to social harmony disappear from the public eye and public discussion almost immediately. What follows is the best possible hearsay as I can gather it, as there is no official information: Over the May day holiday, a freshmen physics student apparently drowned when he slipped off a rock and into the reservoir. He couldn't swim and called for help, but by the time someone got there, it was over.

Usually topics of interest appear on BBS, the school's online discussion forum. But there was only one comment related to this student's death -- about how tragic was. And much speculation among the students that other comments had been deleted.

As long as nobody talks about the bad stuff, I guess the theory goes, it doesn't really exist.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Protests, a Gunshot, and Love in Macau

What the world sees from afar through the eyes of the media is fascinating, especially when you are in a place at a time when something happens. A ferry goes down in Thailand, and everyone from all over the world starts frantically sms-ing you whether you are alright; even though you are on the island where the ferry went down, a few miles from the accident, you are getting the news via satellite and a fellow traveller...the news source being Sweden.

On Labor Day, May 1st, a rare protest in Macau turned violent when a policeman fired warning shots to dispel a crowd demonstrating against illegal and cheaply-paid mainland labor. This in turn enraged and drew more protestors to the demonstration, while a nearby motorcyclist was hit in the neck with a "metal object," as it was described in a local paper. While the metal object has now been declared to be a bullet, no one has said with absolute certainty that it came from the policeman's gun. It's good to be careful, I guess, but I think it's fair to say that in all likelihood it was a stray warning shot. (Many of the original stories that day do not pick up the wounded driver. Read an IHT story here.)

Even though you could probably spit from one end of Macau to the other, I couldn't have been less aware of this event; I was much more focused on my friend's wedding ceremony, at which I had to give a keynote speech.

It turned out to be a great day. The wedding was on Hac Sa, the black sand beach on Coloane, the far island of Macau, and by far the least populated part of the former colony. My friend and his wife looked resplendent and very much in love, he in a kilt and she barefoot in a cream-colored dress. A bag-piper backed up a long procession to the beach. The local people were stunned and enthralled by the bag-piper. I got through my speech without to many gaffs. The couple drank champagne there, with their friends and family, and we all took photos on the beach.

Somewhere a few miles away, the protest was occuring. Later on, when I joked with my girlfriend about how the Macanese were going to come after her, she seemed at least half-afraid for her safety.

"I'm just kidding -- they want mainlanders like you here. Here to spend your money, a tourist. It's the da gong ren (migrant workers) they don't want, " I said.

There seemed genuine confusion there: Macau was getting rich, why were they protesting?

Perhaps for many young, university-educated people from mainland China, capitalism is new enough that they they are not comprehensively aware of how divisive it can be.

But my Labor Day was what it should have been: a rest from work, and an appreciation of greater things.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

A Lucky Portuguese Cannonball

A lucky cannon shot hit the Dutch invasion's munition ship, in the early 1600s; the Dutch thought the Portuguese had some mad weaponry, and fled. Thereby leaving this strange little enclave of Portuguese, Cantonese, African and Las Vegan culture on a peninsula and a few islands in the south of China -- Macau is far enough from Beijing, and certainly different enough, to feel like a foreign country.

A brief entry today, just to let the Melon's readers know this correspondent's location. More stories to follow, I'm sure: gambling, a beautiful wedding, Russian exotic dancers, guitar-wielding trios, and wine...and rain...

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Rare Tea and the Global Village

Fei Fei stood up in class four years ago, after I'd been here only about a week. She was tiny, with close-cropped hair and a high voice. But from the very beginning, there was evidence of iron in there somewhere.

"Hello, my English name is Bob. You can call me Bob. I know Bob is a boy's name, but I don't care," she said.

Bob it was. Somehow Fei Fei seems more appropriate now though: My students are no longer students, experimenting with names, growing up, at the very beginning of learning a craft. While still very young, they've gotten somewhere now, accomplished things. Evidence of this in the case of Fei Fei is a recent trip she made to Fujian province to work as a photographer for a good friend of mine. The assignment was to photograph tea-leaf picking in a remote mountain area. (See Rare Tea Company.)

More amazing to me about this job she did is the connection created between two people from two incredibly different parts of the world, two incredibly different parts of my life. My good friend Milo is the operator-owner of Rare Tea; I met her years ago on the upper West Side of New York City, where, Breakfast-at-Tiffanys-like, she took the city by storm with her verve and elegant British accent.

I would've imagined thosuands of degrees of separation between Milo and Fei Fei instead of more or less none. What strikes me about this is how fundamentally good it is: While much is made of technological connection worldwide, that connection can also be made personal. And that is good, really good. In a time when negativity dominates what we hear and see, it is important to remember that's only a small part of the story.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Southern Comfort

Out the window there’s nothing but the green drooping shadow of the hills that surround the college – no neon signs, screeching horns, or artillery-style fireworks. Most mornings, there’s just the sound of birds twittering in among the green. This morning the kindergarten behind the building is blasting happy music. Even at its insane volume, there’s something comforting about it: the fact that its main purpose is to entertain four-year olds seems to give it a pass on the annoyance chart.

It’s good to be back at my Chinese laojia, my hometown: Shantou University, just outside the city of Shantou, which lies near the top of the southernmost Chinese province, Guangdong.

As a city and a place, it’s an unusual one. It’s one of China’s five special economic zones, the cities opened up in the 1970s to foreign-style trade and investment. But it’s never been anything but dead last among the five cities: local corruption abounds. Another obstacle to development is language: the people here speak what essentially is the Basque language of China. Even Chinese people who are not familiar with the region don’t recognize Chaoshanhua as a Chinese dialect, thinking that its speakers must be from some other Asian country. There’s a kind of sleepy slowness to the city, the area, and the university itself. The kind that make you think that rapid development might just never catch on here.

There have been encouraging signs, however. A few days ago, a massive event for development was held at the Shantou port. The Same Song tour, featuring mainly Hong Kong and Taiwanese stars of the highest level, got packed in with the event, and Shantou was suddenly beamed into millions of Chinese homes. The concert was followed a day later by a fireworks show that reportedly cost in the millions of US dollars.

And the university is making the kind of progress that makes you believe in big quick evolutionary jumps. For much of the time I was here – three years in all – little seemed to happen. Now, in the space of six months, we have facilities heretofore unimaginable: a Mac lab, 40 new computers, an entire expanded wing.

But the best kind of progress comes in the form of human development. Even though I’ve only been gone for five or six months, running into the students I taught sort of makes me feel like Gene Simmons at a Kiss reunion concert; I am that adored rock star. I can understand the best moments of what it might be like to be a parent at these times. One guy, a senior I’d had since he was freshmen, simply came up to me and wrapped his arms around me in the most natural of bear hugs; the only thing odd about it was that it’s not something people really do here. “We’re lucky to have had you for so long,” he said.

In this humid southern climate that reminds me so much of my other home, Florida, on the far side of the world, there creeps in the inevitable sense of change,of it being time to go. I may end up back here for one more school year, but that will surely be my last. And then I’ll drive out the school gates for the last time, four or five years from the day I drove in, and my green-draped southern Chinese university will fold itself up in my mind into the hazy dream-like quality of memory.

Photo by Liang Qing

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Night Train

It's a sea of people. Black-haired heads bob. A shuffling mass. We move a step every ten seconds. Literally. Enormous and oddly-configured luggage bumps along and pushes against us, and I push back; my rucksack is nearly as big a person. When we finally make it through the narrow iron guantlet where human swell bottlenecks and the guards take the ticket, I tell her: "Well, however bad it is, it'll be better than that." She just smiles that sweet smile.

Hard sleeper, Beijing to Guangzhou, six bunks, 21 hours, and four provinces. The distance of New York to Florida for 450 kuai, about 50 US dollars.

It's an auspicious beginning. We've got the bottom bunks, best seats in the room. The room is clean. Our neighbors arrive as the train readies to pull out; it's hard to tell how many there are, as they seem to occupy the surrounding rooms as well. It seems to be a thirty-something daughter, and several aged, stooped men. There's also an older woman, who's every statement is at the pitch and tone of someone who's undergoing real-time robbery. They all wear the matching red baseball caps of a package tour.

We're lying on our bunks and smile and say hello and nod as they arrive. One of the older men goes for his bunk, the middle one across from me. Two metal footholds jut out from the wall, and the old man hoists himself up on one, then extends the other foot across slowly to the other, so that he's spread-eagled in front of the open door...and then he freezes. I'm watching with alarm. He remains there for what seems an interminable length of time as his wife and daughter shout at him. He creaks his way back down.

I make eye contact with the daughter. "It doesn't seem very convenient. Maybe I can switch with him?" I say. Nearly as soon as I say it, I realize I'll probably regret it, and Moon, my girlfriend, starts to raise a note of protest. But the family is already profusely grateful and I'm already moving. The old man settles down into an unrelaxed-looking crunch on the clean matress.

They are from Hunan province, on their way home. They speak a Hunanese dialect that for all itents and purposes is a new and undiscovered language; every time they say something, I mouth to Moon whether she understands and she shakes her head. When they switch to Mandarin, it isn't much better; the influence of their first tongue on the lingua franca of this nation is so great that it's nearly unintelligible. Nearly everything they say, I have to get a translation into standard Chinese from Moon.

I learn something fascinating from their bad Chinese; one of the old men is grilling me later on, and keeps saying "Bay-Ging" "Bay-Ging". Even though it's wrong, I get it immediately: Beijing. And I find out the origin of the old Westernized spelling: Peking.

It's a sleepless night. The second old man, who has the black flat-top haircut of an old school Chinese leader, snores mightly. The old woman begins a discussion with the husband on the bottom bunk, who is sharing the bunk with the daughter. The discussion goes on and off intermittently from 5 am, at ear-shattering volume. Every time they start to speak, I go "Shhhhshshhhhh!" It has no effect. Sometime well after dawn, I drift off.

Groggy awakenings to the thrum of the cars on the rails. The Hunanese family is shouting over a breakfast of peanuts and fruit. As soon as I leave the bunk, it apparently means I'm ready for conversation. My salary in Beijing? My job? Am I Chinese citizen? I'm confused by this one - I've already told the old man that I'm American. Yes, but you've been here so long. Will you live here yi beizi, your whole life? Of course, I say, looking at Moon, my girlfriend is Chinese. Moon scoffs. I extricate myself from the interrogation and head for the toilet. It's too early for these questions.

Around mid-morning the family disembarks at Chenzhou. They are profusely grateful and charming. We exchange warm goodbyes. The car becomes silent as more and more people leave. Out the window, rolling landscapes of old brick and mud houses unfold, shrouded in low-lying clouds and wet air. Strange pinnacle-shaped mountains dot the views. We sit by the window and watch for a while, then eat instant noodles and fall asleep again.

The train arrives in Guangzhou at three pm. Suddenly we are thrust into the madding crowd again. Thousands of people are following an underground corridor for connections. We finally come up into a massive city square. It starts to rain, a wet hot rain. I have far too much to carry and Moon and I get irritated with each other. We make it into the bus station, nearly soaked. The bus is leaving immediately. We rush for the right door, and a bored middle-aged female guard calls us back to x-ray our luggage. We throw it through the machine, and finally find the right bus.

Moments later, we're on it and it pulls out nearly as soon as we sit down. We still have seven hours to go.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Anatomy of an Inaccuracy III

Poor Wayne Chiang...he is at least one of the people of Chinese descent misidentified as the Virginia Tech killer. In Wayne's own words, he does indeed meet some of the criteria of the descriptions of the killer that were circulating the day of the massacre: he's Asian, he recently broke up with his girlfriend, he's got a connection to Virginia Tech, and he's a gun collector. Considering these things, it's no wonder that he was a person of interest to the police. What's disturbing is how media reports seemed to lead to his immediate public conviction.

Amazingly, even after Wayne did interviews on national television to correct the mistaken information, he's still being misidentified; Wayne's photograph is included in a Canadian Television report's montage of the Korean killer's media package photos. Amongst the now all-too-familiar images of Cho's gun poses, two images of Wayne appear. The first image is of him carrying dozens of rifles slung over his shoulder; the second is a shot looking up at him as he aims what appears to be a machine gun down into the left-hand corner of the frame. (Go to and search for Wayne Chiang. The CTV report is currently the third one on the page.)

As the comments on You Tube suggest, it appears that CTV finds it difficult to accurately identify Asians. But even more importantly, shouldn't they have double-checked the source of those images?

One thing that still befuddles me about the case: Wayne Chiang is obviously not the mysterious individual of Chinese nationality mentioned in the original Sun-Times story. That person was identified as a foreign student who'd obtained a student visa out of Shanghai and came to the States last August. Who is that mystery subject? Hmmmm...the Melon will try to find out...

In semi-related developments, an old friend of Korean background who immigrated to the States expresses great shame and fear of reprisal over the Blacksburg tragedy. She's lived in NYC for nearly ten years now, and despite my assurances that retribution isn't likely to happen there and that one individual's actions couldn't possible reflect on a whole ethnicity, she feels both.

Also: I was quoted in a prominent Chinese newspaper, Southern Weekend, in a story entitled "From Anxiety to Breathing a Sigh of Relief," about Chinese relief that the killer was not Chinese nor of Chinese ethnicity. Bizarrely, the article said that I had lived in Virginia -- I've never lived in Virginia and never said that I had. Luckily, the quote is accurate though.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Anatomy of an Inaccuracy II

This is issue is discussed more comprehensively than I could ever do it here,
under the title, "Ill-Informed Columnist Scares the Hell out of China."

Anatomy of an Inaccuracy

By now most everyone knows that the shooter in the Virginia case was not Chinese, but Korean. South Korean, to be specific. In fact, in my view: Mostly American really, since he was raised in the States from the time he was a boy.

What interests me most about this is the reporting -- including the Melon's -- yesterday of the possible Chinese mainland and student-visa status of the shooter. That reporting was clearly inaccurate. But how did it happen? And is it acceptable for a newspaper -- or a blog for that matter -- to report "maybes?"

This will take some time and probably several posts, but I'll try to detail here the source and the process of the inaccurate information being published.

The first reference to the possible Chinese and visiting-student identity of the shooter appeared in the Sun Times article of yesterday. Interestingly enough, because of the nature of the web, there's no record of that article on the site now; unlike the days of the famous "Dewey Defeats Truman" headline, there's no physical evidence that the report was there. In fact, can it even be called erroneous, since the newspaper framed the story in terms of "may have been?" Hmmm...don't know, but it certainly doesn't look good.

The following lines in a Sun Times story today seem to address yesterday's story:

The initial investigation had led law enforcement authorities to a preliminary suspect who was a Chinese national, accompanied by details and a description. The man was placed on the suspect list before fingerprints could be verified. The list in turn was distributed to law enforcement officials via a national network in place to check on possible terrorism in the United States.

Cho was identified following an analysis of fingerprints and ballistics.

A Chinese colleague's daughter who works for Ming Bao, a Chinese paper published in the States, also seemed convinced of the shooter's Chinese identity yesterday, via emails on this topic exchanged among colleagues.

Monday, April 16, 2007

From the Barrel of a Gun

A famous leader here in China once said, "Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun."

While this has nothing to do with political power, it has everything to do with guns...The Chicago Sun Times is reporting that the shooter in the Virginia Tech university massacre "may have been" a mainland Chinese recently arrived in the States on a student visa.

If this turns out to be true, it's going to be a nightmare for all of us here in China, and for all the Chinese in the States...

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

What's in a Name?

An interesting controversy on the ever-cutting-edge Danwei site. On the lighter side of what they do, a recent episode of their take-off on Sex and the City, Sexy Beijing, deals with the English names that Chinese people select for themselves. It stirred up some debate about whether the episode constituted "media imperialism"...hmmmm...let me check my dictionary...

And look for Sexy Beijing: What's in a Name?

Spring in Beijing

Suddenly it is not bitterly cold anymore. Central heat all around the city went off on March 15th, and, despite a week of scary weather, the sun has gotten stronger, slowly, day by day. A week ago, the first suggestions of leaves began to appear on skeletal trees. The local bars and restaurants have began dusting off their patios and decks. A few windy days have drifted through, but so far the sandstorms that plague the city in this month have remained at bay.

And the powers that be have seen fit to let those bastions of subversive thought – electronic diaries on the web – run free again. Let the flowers bloom!

Sunday, March 11, 2007


Check out photos section for Thailand photos

Night Draws Near

I recently spent a month in paradise. As penance for such luxury, I read Night Draws Near, by Anthony Shadid of the Washington Post. The book describes the first few years of the Iraq war, from the fall of Baghdad to the first elections. Sitting there on a southern Thai island, looking at gem-colored water filled with light, reading about unspeakable horror and colossal failure...
I don't know what's sicker, to read such a book or to not read it.

Shadid, a Lebanese-American and a fluent Arabic speaker, looks at the war mainly through anecdotes of ordinary Baghdad citizens. The book is as eloquent as it is harrowing, and reaffirms a growing belief I have that literary journalism is much more effective in creating a full picture of what's going on than day-to-day print journalism or television reporting. Daily news stories are just little pieces of awfulness that seemingly have little connection to each other. But when a strong reporter and writer like Shadid weaves them all together through personal narrative, they become a tapestry of tragedy. And one that makes sense.

Reading the book, I came away with two things: How so many problems could have been avoided through even basic understanding of Iraqi Arab culture, and how many bad decisions seem to have been made by the variety of decision-makers in Iraq.

As to the first, one of the most chilling anecdotes that Shadid relates is that of an Iraqi informer working for the U.S. in a small village in the Sunni triangle. As the man, hooded, is walking through a group of prisoners pointing out insurgents, several prisoners recognize him from a deformed hand and start shouting his name. The informer is protected by the U.S. troops for a time. But eventually he's hunted down and killed by his older brother...and his father. They kill him because the other clans of the town basically tell them that their entire clan will be wiped out if they don't. The honor culture and honor killings of the village culture trump everything else.

Hmm...and these people are supposed to transform overnight from this kind of thinking into model Middle Eastern Republicans and Democrats? Hmm...

As to the second: One thing stands out above the rest. Executive Order Number Two. Issued by Paul Bremer, who headed the Coalition Provisional Authority. The order dissolved the Iraqi Army. Which, in Bremer's defense, there must have been a reason for. But according to Shadid, the Iraqi Army was an institution that pre-dated Saddam Hussein and one he didn't trust at all (hence the creation of the Republican Guard, the Special Republican Guard, and the Fedayeen). It was also an institution which had credibility with the people because of its massive sacrifices in the Iran-Iraq war. The army, Shadid insinuates, could have been used to keep the peace, would have been respected by the people, and would have kept Americans out of harms way on the streets. Instead, the several-hundred thousand strong army was dissolved, putting all those men with guns and knowledge of how to make war out onto the streets, with a whole lot of guns and nothing to do...(My only criticism here is that the writer doesn't get - or try to get - an interview with Bremer as to why he issued the order; there must have been a reason that seemed like a good one at the time.)

While the first few chapters are filled with so much repeating bloodshed that it is hard to bear, the book then becomes much more intriguing (but no less tragic) as ordinary Iraqis go through the upheavals of the early years of the war.

The book is an absolute must for anyone interested in the topic, but certainly not one to read if you're feeling bummed out about things.

A few links with reviews and/or info:

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Beating the Great Firewall

Man! It feels great to beat the Great Firewall of China, even if it takes blood, sweat and tears to do it. (I have this legitimate excuse for not posting in so long...)

Some enterprising journalist should do an investigation into how the Internet police in China actually operate. I get the feeling that there are probably few deliberate spies out there keeping a physical eye on what you are doing; it's more like a software or a worm that they send out to cripple with intolerably slow speeds and mysteriously vanishing pages...

More to come on this, but for now, I want to see if this post actually makes it up on the web.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Thank God - or Buddha - for Thailand

Thank God - or Buddha - for Thailand.

I couldn't imagine a better antidote to Beijing than this place. Koh Pha Ngan, the small island in the Gulf of Thailand famous for the Full Moon Party, continues to draw more people. Neither sun nor rain nor coup d'etat will deter the farangs, as the Thai refer to foreigners, from flocking here.

Heading out tomorrow for three days to a remote island national park, Ang Thong, for trekking, snorkeling, and generally shedding the vestiges of civilization.

But already, after just a week, experiences here have produced many a notable anecdote-in-the-making...more to come soon...

Wednesday, January 31, 2007


It was bar number four. She was tired, and had a quizzical look on her face, "Did you ever think -why are we here right now- in this place? Is it fun?" I was impressed she was having this thought at 24. Ten years older, here I was in a cramped, smoky space in the small hours of the morning. I looked around at the drunken, dancing crowd. A Radiohead song set to a techno beat was unexpectedly brilliant. But fun or not, it was too late. Especially for the rapidly-approaching-middle age crowd.

We came down the stairs into the nightime cold. The street, an alley behind Sanlitun's main bar street, was the hub of passable nightlife in Beijing. It was filled with the drunken, the begging and the drug-dealing. We found ourselves in front of a vendor's cart and peeked over. The cook slapped a battered mixture against a sizzling grill. Jian bing guozi, something between a fajita, a crepe and an omlette. How much for one? she asked. One point five yuan, came the answer. Between 17 and 18 U.S. cents. Okay, two, she said.

I looked at her as we waited. She'd been here for two weeks now, and her presence was like a candle in the darkness. If all went well, we'd leave the following week for a month in Thailand. But then I'd come back alone to Number 2 Village of Happiness, with it's stagnant elevator and scarred and filthy walls, and spend another four months in the dark, waiting...

A man with a cane and an enormous grin approached us at a bracing hobble. The grin revealed just one tooth. In near perfect English he said, "How are you?" and said something in garbled Chinese. She teased him: "Oh my God, your English is so good, where did you learn?" But it was all he knew. He repeated his garbled message and pointed. "He wants bing, not money?" I asked. Actually, I knew I knew what he wanted, but couldn't believe it; I'd never seen a beggar here actually want anything other than cold hard cash.

When it comes to begging, I fall to the right of Rush Limbaugh jacked up on pain killers. I am a total Nazi. If you are walking and talking, you can do something other than beg, even if it is put on some kind of performance to try and earn money. The last time I gave money to a beggar in China was in 2003, when a homeless female child begged her way into a few kuai. As I took out the money and handed it over, out of nowhere a swarm of 10 to 15 beggars swarmed and pulled and prodded and wouldn't let me leave. It was the last time I ever took out my wallet.

But the old man wasn't interested in money. He wanted food. It was different. Let's order another one I said. Yeah, okay, she said. The first one was ready; in a little plastice bag, folded over and over again, heavy in its own grease. I handed it over. He tucked in immediately, but somehow the big grin was still obvious as he shuffled off.

I thought over where we'd been. We'd started the night at Bed, our constant hangout, with its traditional Chinese beds on which you sat and drank, always reminding me of a slightly more cavelike and dark Roman banquet. On to the Stone Boat, a tiny little place in Ritan park, by the lake. It'd been packed, which I thought was great, but the Chinese students I'd invited, professionals working in the city, hung awkwardly in the corner and left early. The rest of us, five or so, decided upon venturing into the infamous Maggie's on our way out, where middle-aged foreign men engaged in "cultural exchange" with local and Mongolian women half their age, as one of the local magazines put it.

Maggie's was worse than I'd imagined. Prostitutes dripped off high-backed chairs, alone or in groups of three. Bloated white men in their 50s stumbled around, looking to put their hands somewhere. On the dance floor, what looked like a group of American college freshmen in matching t-shirts whooped it up. We didn't stay long.

We'd made one more stop, at a new club called China Doll, with huge paneled pictures of Chinese models, semi-nude in flowing poses underwater. Now out on the street and waiting for a three am snack, I rubbed my hand over my face and wondered when I would stop having nights like this.

Just as the next bing was coming ready, an elderly woman with a clearly mentally disabled and partially blind son appeared. She said she wanted something to eat. One more, we said to the man cooking. She thanked us and handed the food to her son.

A few minutes later ours come ready. But the price has changed- now 2.5, not 1.5 kuai. She looks ready to argue, and I say forget it babe, it doesn't matter. There must be something in the air tonight, I never let things go this easily. We dodge the waiting taxis and young drunks, scarfing the smoking bing as we walk. I'm glad I've not made a fuss over the extra money; altogether four people were fed. It cost one-and-a-quarter U.S. dollars.

As we leave, the old, one-toothed old man hobbles back toward us. Great, I think, this is where he hits us up for more. But instead he grins at us, and rubs his stomach, and says with the uniquely Chinese repetition of three: thanks, thanks, thanks.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Global Voices Online

Just discovered an incredible website - I'm sure I'm behind on this one. Global Voices Online links to blogs worldwide and provides current events updates, from mostly non-mainstream media, about what's going on on this old blue marble.

Of particular interest to me is the focus on "bridge bloggers," those blogging in a non-native language, usually English. Hoping some of our journalism students here can use blogging as an outlet for their writing - it sure cuts out the middle man.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Foreign Policy Discomfort and Saddam Hussein, Chinese Hero

In one hand, he held a machine gun which blazed at an American Blackhawk helicopter overhead. With the other, he reached for a grenade at his waist. His eyes were piercing, and there was a cigar clutched coolly in his lips. Despite the fact that his head was about two sizes too big for his body, Saddam Hussein had never looked as good as he did painted on the front of that bar in the southern Chinese town of Yangshuo.

I gaped in disbelief and shot photo after photo. As opposed as I was to the invasion of Iraq, I couldn't begin to comprehend the near deification of the man that I was seeing here. It was a moment in late 2003 when anger over the invasion was still fresh. I sensed there was also anger and fear among the Chinese populace at how easily the man seemed to have been deposed and the U.S. I said, that was 2003...

But anger or none, how could you admire the man? At that time, I'd only been in China about four months. Now I understand much better the way of thinking here, and it doesn't to me: not that I approve, just that I really feel I understand why many Chinese admired Hussein.

To digress and hopefully return and reconnect to the main point, let me say this: As a foreigner living in China, you get treated really well. Despite the extent to which foreigners complain – myself included – in reality, there is a certain status that comes with being a foreigner here that still mystifies me. People are curious and want to know about you. For the most part, they are courteous and kind. They tend to be interested in your perceptions of their country. I never feel quite at home here, but there’s a lot about China that makes expatriate life fairly comfortable.

One place, however, that I've noticed that the historic...enmity? No, that's too strong a word...but something close to enmity... Anyway, one place where the differences between East and West, between China and the U.S. come uncomfortably to light is in discussions of foreign policy. In these discussions, it's always clear to me the downright hostility many people have to the U.S. It's weird, because I'm also hostile to the current U.S. foreign policy, and yet I always find myself on the defensive, and trying to explain it. Perhaps it's because I feel most people here fail to understand the ideas that motivate the U.S. And the ideas are important; they’re the core of what the United States is, even the bad ones...

I teach a class for professional Chinese journalists and business people. It meets at the offices of Xin Zhou Kan, New Weekly Magazine. The office is on the 39th floor, a great loft-style open space with couches. Every week, we sit against the backdrop of a giant window, where we look out on the construction cranes, Beijing's unofficial city emblem, and discuss the issues of the day.

The week after the execution of Hussein, Sandy, our bright young news editor, gave a presentation on his death, and the larger issue of Iraq. It was a tough presentation to give, involving a lot of vocabulary that wasn't even English: “Sunni” and “Shiite” and so on. Sandy was extremely knowledgeable about the issue; part of her job at the paper was to scan the foreign wires and translate news into Chinese.

In general among the class there was great sympathy for Hussein. The manner and recording of his execution was abhorrent, they said, which I agreed with. When I mentioned that there was evidence that the American government had petitioned the Iraqi to not execute Hussein, no one believed me.

“I think the trial was a farce from the United States,” Sandy said, and once the word “farce" was explained, the rest of the students nodded in agreement. “And they could stop the execution if they wanted to.”

One of the more interesting moments in the presentation came when Sandy arrived at the fact that Hussein was on trial for reprisals against separatist Kurds and Shiites.

“But if Tibet or Taiwan tried to declare independence, what would China do?” she asked. The implication, later said openly in the discussion, was that Hussein was only doing what a leader trying to maintain his country's integrity had to do. To many Chinese, Hussein's iron-fisted rule prevented chaos, fractiousness, sectarianism and civil war, and therefore was a good thing. China, from the Opium Wars until the moment Mao stood up on the ramparts of the Forbidden City and declared the People's Republic, had been exactly in that situation of utter chaos and infighting. Anything that unified was preferable.

We went from there to a discussion of Taiwan, back to Iraq, and the horrifically growing number of dead Iraqis. Sandy ended her presentation with her view that Hussein had done good things for Iraq - building up infrastructure, creating education and health care systems. At a certain point, we all just looked down at our tea cups and fiddled with the handles. There wasn't a lot left to say.

“I understand what you're saying Sandy,” I said. “I agree with some of it, and disagree with some of it. But one important thing to realize is: A Western person, I think, could never look at it like that. To Americans, to Westerners, a leader can't be someone who builds roads and schools, and gasses and executes whole villages and towns of people. The Western mind just can't accept that.”

The students looked at me and nodded, but it was a look I knew well; it meant I understand your words, but not what you mean. And there we were, back at the place where East and West would never meet.