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.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

What's ripe in the Middle Kingdom

A few items of interest in China news over the last few days. The AFP reports that a study commissioned by a variety of American businesses found that the States may make a ton of money off China - despite the trade deficit, the study projects something like a 67 billion dollar surplus over the next ten years, mostly from service industry business. A nice division of guys make the plastic Christmas trees, we'll handle making good Applebee's gotta love capitalism...

In other news, Joe Kahn from the Times writes about the Chinese blasting one of their own weather satellites out of space with a ballistic missle, much to the consternation of...well, just about everyone. One thing intriguing in the story: a paragraph which raises questions over whether this was authorized by Hu Jintao, the Chinese leader, or an independent action by the military. Hmmm...speculation? Intrepid, I-got-an-inside-man reporting? Capitalist bourgesie trying to foster internal divisions in the great and harmonious Chinese nation? You be the judge...

Elsewhere: China re-affirms the one-child policy, despite the growing gender imbalance in society. Hmmm...apparently no one told my restaurant-owner friend on Nan'ao island, with his six lovely children. And the G threatens "legal action" against anyone (mostly bloggers) making fun of the Fuwa, the mascots of the Beijing Olympics, which have been the target of great ridicule here. What's worse about this news is that the G's statements seem aimed at stopping the spread of the growing and hilarious Internet trend of parody of "approved culture" ...guys, go buy a sense of humor.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Joys and Sorrows of Bitter Melon

I was in Tuopu with Suyi, a couple of other graduating seniors and Professor Hu. We were sitting outside along a little street packed with shops and restaurants, eating hot pot and enjoying the end of the semester. We'd finished and were sitting back contentedly, when Suyi suggested I try some kushui. I had no idea what it was.

“It's a drink that's very good for your health," she said, and laughed. She was one of the brightest students I'd taught thus far, after a year in China. Her mind was always moving, on to the next slightly ironic observation; she struck me as rare among Chinese students in that way. I concurred to trying the kushui, and took a big swig of the teak-brown liquid the waitress brought. I nodded and looked at Suyi who was looking at me with a broadening grin as the drink went down.

Nothing special at first. A mildly unpleasant tea-ish taste. But after the drink went down, it really hit. Gradually, not fast but at a rate that startled, your entire mouth and throat were overcome with an incredible dryness. Then the poisonous taste worked its way in, as if you had just chugged the Grim Reaper's regurgitated mouthwash. I gagged and choked; tears appeared in my eyes. I tried to speak but I couldn't. Suyi and the rest burst into laughter. Thus began my introduction to the word, ku, 苦,bitter, and my interest in that unseemly fruit, the bitter melon.

The Chinese kugua, 苦瓜,bitter melon seems unique to China, but it's not: light research on bitter melon turns up its other monikers (balsam pear, balsam apple, bitter gourd) and the fact that it's used widely in tropical places. Brazil, India, Thailand, and many other nations where the Equator runs, have a long history using bitter melon. Its medicinal properties have been widely researched and investigated; Raintree Nutrition, a company dedicated to sustainable imports from the Amazon, has exhaustive explanations and research on a wide variety of plants, bitter melon among them. Traditionally in Amazon regions, according to Raintree, the gourd has been used for everything from a natural insulin-like effect on diabetes, to a topical treatment for leprosy. More recently, a chemical analog of bitter melon proteins, MAP-30, was shown to have some possibility of inhibiting HIV. Despite these positive attributes, bitter melon and its relatives, such as kushui, bitter water, still taste like death on your plate, or in your glass.

The Chinese character ku seems to reflect this in its uses in the language. Besides kugua, there are a variety of words that utilize the character ku. None of them is very positive. A common one is kunan 苦难,which I'd translate as “great difficulty” and which my dictionary defines as “suffering; misery; distress.” Then there are the rarer and somewhat more poetic combinations; kuzhong, 苦衷,“difficulties which one is reluctant to bring to the notice of others,” kuchai, 苦差,“a hard and unprofitable job,” and my favorite, kuhai, 苦海, "a sea of distress; abyss of misery.”

Still, there is something funny about bitter melon itself; it's a funny-looking thing at the least, long, pale-green, wrinkled and bumpy. And cooked the right way, with the right combination of flavors and spices, it can be pretty good. It's not logical, but somehow the word “bittersweet” occurs to me when I think of bitter melon. This journal aspires to capturing that bittersweet nature of things, the humor, the sorrow, the absurdity, and the outrage, and the strangeness of living in a place as foreign as China still remains to me.

For I am still a fan of the fruit itself, despite it's awful taste; I think it's the underdog of the melon world. If all the fruits, vegetables, and gourds got together and had a big kickball game, bitter melon would be the kid standing there at the end, looking at his shoes, picked last; but then when he got up to the plate, he'd boot the ball over the outfielders' heads, and round the bases toward home, perhaps with a kuxiao, 苦笑, “a wry smile,” on his face.

Wages and Migrant Labor

A few more stories on the minimum wage issue, including the main news item that I'd mentioned:

It's incredible the number of migrant laborers in this country: somewhere in the neighborhood of 150 million. That's half the population of the United States. The situation of these laborers is similar to that of undocumented workers in the U.S. - low wages, few rights. Chinese migrant laborers, for those unfamiliar with the system, also have document troubles. The Chinese system puts heavy weight on the hukou, or registered permanent residence identity cards, that legally bind laborers to their home provinces. Migrant laborers coming from poor inland provinces to places like Guangdong, a wealthier province, are in a very murky area legally, adding to their woes. (For example, children of migrant laborers often cannot get into local schools since they have no legal status.)

The Peking Duck, a long-standing China blog, has an interesting entry on migrant labor and workplace rights: