Friday, October 21, 2011

Sports Day!

Sports Day was an interesting series of games and athletic events. I got my breakfast at 7am (xiaobing, tian de; a deep fried pastry with a bit of sugar) so as to catch the Opening Ceremony of the Sports Event. The Chinese National anthem was played with a small color guard, and after a quick speech by an administrator, the games could begin. I watched for an hour or so in the morning and again in the afternoon. I was most intrigued by what might be described as ‘4 people, 10 legs’. Each team has to move in unison, collectively lifting a rope to pull up the rail and swing forward with the proper leg, while maintaining balance. Obviously, the team that works together collectively the best will win ('Zuo!You!' - Left! Right!). Interestingly, since there were no foreign teams, the only observation I have is that female teams tended to better than mal teams. A feminist might suggest the cooperative nature of the female gender may play a part, and that would seem evident. Unfortunately, though it was mandatory for both grad students and undergrads, few of my own MA students competed. One explained to me that undergrads are younger and have more ‘jingsheng’, spirit/health (which I silently accepted despite the fact that virtually all grad students go straight from undergrad and are between 22-24 years of age), and the second more compelling reason was that undergrads want to beat the grad students, and implicitly the grad students don’t take it as serious, nor do they want to lose, then of course, better to not compete. They later explained that teachers (i.e. me) could have participated. Maybe next semester!

We had an interesting discussion about Occupy Wall Street with another sociology professor from Fordham and a Syracuse University Occupy Campus student (both by phone from New York).[] In the end, I am/was rather skeptical of the social or political importance of the protests, but the Chinese media is certainly enjoying the unrest elsewhere. Most of the media (especially the English language media I can read, but all sorts it seems) are concerned about the national morals after the latest incident where Samaritans chose to be bad (not sure of the biblical story, or even if its biblical, if there can be a bad Samaritan, maybe they were all good). A young girl in Guangdong (Yue Yue was her name), child of some street vendors, was hit by a van and then run over by a truck and then ignored by 18 others (according to surveillance cameras, which have become ubiquitous) as she lie bleeding in the alley until a street woman that collects recycled cans and bottles moved her to the side. Legislation has been introduced to criminalize not coming to the aid of an injured person (worked on the Seinfeld 4 in the final episode), though public opinion (on the internet particularly) is divided on whether the street lady was simply a publicity hound (seems unlikely, though she has received a lot of criticism for the motives of her good deed), and the character of the broader population in being so callous. Attention is now turning to the parents lack of oversight, which then goes to the question of the challenges in Chinese society as a migrant laborer working endless hours and with no time to even watch their (perhaps) only child. It is certainly a tragedy, and very sad, though the girl has thus far survived (i guess she has not after checking today's news).

Otherwise, I continue to meet grad students and professionals from far flung places, particularly some interesting students from Central Asia (Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan in particular) and Mongolia, but also Tanzania, Trinidad and Tobago, Bahamas, Seychelles, and so forth. China is launching its own soft power campaign to build a better understanding of China’s ‘peaceful rise’ to those who had yet to hear. It is something unique about my university, with visiting diplomats and officials passing through for short or medium term visits. Soon, I will embark on my series of lectures at other universities on topics like US-China relations, US foreign policy, and the US presidential campaign. First up are some universities here in town, at Central University of Finance and Economics, Beijing University of Chemical Technology, and Beijing Institute of Technology, before my first outside lecture in the south at Wuhan University.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Occupy Wall Street

China's government is very excited by these global protests against Western capitalism, though nervous that they could spread to 'socialism with Chinese characteristics', i.e. state capitalism, in an even more unequal society than American has become. So, I was invited to participate in a discussion on China Radio International about the global protests. Of course, I had already left the country when the movement began in NYC, and so I can only observe from a far, though I don't see much different than the anti-globalization protests of the 1990s. Anyway, for those interested, here is the link to the discussion with the hosts, myself, a professor of Sociology at Fordham, and a participant in the Occupy university group. Tomorrow I am participating in a talk on the East-West Center based in Honolulu that I used to be affiliated with while a PhD student at the University of Hawai'i. And the university hosts its sports event day tomorrow (and thus cancelled my class and scheduled midterm), so I am hoping to take some good photos of a tug-of-war ('jia you!', that is the Chinese rallying cry, 'add fuel,' give it all you got), which we American teachers participated in when I taught English in Yunnan province. We beat one group of students, before losing to a second group of students, and if I recall correctly, the Chinese teachers beat us too. I mostly recall my hands were raw if not bloody after 1-2 hours of pulling a ragged rope, and that the Chinese teams were much more unified (with their chants of 'yi, er, SAN!', 1, 2, 3, and on 3 they pulled in unison), we Americans (including several West Point cadets) just tried to use our own individual strength and will, but miserably failed. (though we did win the basketball match (narrowly) against the PE teachers in a very physical and heated match, that led to some female teachers saying that we should not have competed so hard and risk an insult by winning, but I assume we all appreciated the spirit of the competition. So, I can go cheer on my students in their day-long mandatory day of sports.

Friday, October 7, 2011

End of October 1st Holiday

We have had two Fulbright gatherings in the past week; once at an eclectic hotpot restaurant and the other at a Western pizza joint. Both were quite good. The Chinese hotpot allows you to prepare your own sauce (um, sesame paste + chili oil), and then drop in your favorite meats, veggies, and fungi into the boiling cauldron (most are probably familiar with hotpot). This one, which is immensely popular, also offers free manicures, snack trays, and a performance of 'Dancing Noodles', where a waiter slowly whirls (i.e. makes) noodles before your very eyes, with each spin probably doubling the length of the noodles. As he does his breakdancing routine, he even inserts some martial arts techniques and traditional Chinese art forms where the noodle flies across the room as if suspended in air nearly reaching a patron's face as if out of a Hong Kong film (or Tarantino's Kill Bill). Fulbrighter James McGrath alertly captured some of the dancing from an up close vantage point and I am sharing his video here. Next time we'll have to set up a tripod from the other side of the room.

We also made it to Kro's Nest, a pizza venture run by a former student of the University of Hawaii that I knew some years ago from our regular Saturday morning pickup basketball games. Unfortunately, Olav was not working/managing the night that we stopped by, but we got to meet lots of interesting people somehow tied together by a connection to Fulbright. The pizzas were enormous, and a single slice seemed to be almost a pizza in itself. My first Western food in China, which I usually avoid for several reasons, mostly because of the variety and joy of Chinese cuisines (which come in so many regional forms, even a simple dish of tudouzi, shredded potatoes, I've experienced in endless varieties, most recently crispy like shoestring french fries, that was supposedly a Hunan style). Next week a few of us will try for a Hubei restaurant (Nine Headed Bird, and perhaps check out the massage parlor by the blind next door).

Meanwhile, classes resume next week after the 'Golden Week' holiday to celebrate New China's founding on 1 October 1949. So I spent yesterday reading excerpts of Machiavelli, Hobbes, Aristotle, Locke, Rousseau, and Marx that I have assigned to my class but had not read for several years. I rather enjoyed it, and glad that they fit together as I envisioned when I placed them in my syllabus this summer. In my last lecture, I tried to link some of their ideas on the 'state of nature', the 'social contract', a 'good' society, and the role of government to Chinese philosophers like Kongzi, Mengzi, and Xunzi, and connect their philosophies to the Western tradition (the class agreed that Mengzi approximates liberalism for instance; Xunzi was more conservative). It should make for a fun read when they submit their papers in a couple of weeks.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Driving in China

After hundred of times driving in China, I finally succumbed to the experience of a collision. Well, sort of. Returning from IKEA, I was leisurely driving straight on a rather quiet street, passing a bicyclist at around 15mph (25kmph or so). As I passed him he swerved rather dramatically leftward and thudded into the side of the car. Before continuing, I must say I have a lot of experience driving both in China and the US, and am very acculturated to the driving customs in China and have never had a single incident despite sometimes driving on sidewalks, down the wrong way on a busy street, over lane divides on the freeway (ring roads). I have mastered the merge between pedestrians, bicycles, tricycles, donkeys, rickshaws, public buses, private automobiles, taxis, and all other form of transportation. So, I want to make clear my skill, before describing the incident that has brought me down. As I approached on a reasonably wide street, with a white picket fence divider to my left, and cars parallel parked to the right, a motorized wheelbarrow scooted in front of me, while an elderly man on a bicycle slowly pedaled to his right. I followed behind the wheelbarrow scooter and even particularly gave the gentleman (or so I thought) a wide berth, even though in China one usually drives within six inches of the neighboring vehicle (literally, no exaggeration). Just as I was passing the cyclist, as the wheelbarrow machine had sped up and ahead, the bicycle ride swerved rather dramatically leftward and bumped the side of my car and fell. I instantly stopped, within five feet of the impact and within 1-2 seconds. We were concerned for his well-being and since I speak little Chinese, luckily Xiaodan jumped out to see how he was and help him up. I was driving so close to the left-side fence that I could not get out. Once it seemed confirmed that he was ok, but refused to get off the ground, and Xiaodan started to scold him, I figured we were going to be extorted and perhaps if I didn’t get out of the car, it might save some money (he later complained that I was arrogant since I didn’t emerge until much later).
He complained that we had hit him (he tapped the side of our car, scratching it a bit), and said as a 71 year old man that he had a heart condition and would have to go to the hospital. About ten onlookers came by and started to yell at him, motioning how much space there was between my car and the parked cars, and how he was on the side of the car not in front, so we could not have hit him. One gentleman who looked to be around 50 suggested we pay him 500 yuan (about $80) to settle the issue and move on, but he refused that amount, apparently hoping for something closer to 1-2,000 yuan since we were driving a car we could afford it. We discussed paying the 500, but I suggested 100 yuan since it was completely his fault, particularly by the rules of the road in China, where you simply can never swerve into another vehicle. We all move in unison, as one has said, like a school of fish, when a disruption, occurs we collectively avoid the intrusion, safely returning together to our former flow. You must never swerve for no reason. So, he repeated his contentions that we hit him, that his head was damaged, and would need a hospital. But he had nary a scratch, and his bike had not even one spoke bent. In fact, his basket of groceries, including about ten tomatoes still sat perfectly unaffected. Only a head of cabbage had trickled away.
So, as he refused to budge, cars honked, the crowd gathered, the foreign driver stared ahead blankly, the sympathy quickly draining away toward the humble old bike rider who now was only greedily considering what possible payday could result from such a fortuitous accident. I even wondered if he had carefully glanced to see a foreign driver and made his decision to hurl the bike, albeit gingerly, toward the slow moving Honda Fit. Likely, he was simply a poor bicycle rider. Xiaodan in the end called the police to come, as he now finally standing, continued to plead his case to the onlookers, who universally derided him and again chastised him for his story. A calm, middle-aged gentleman wearing a red tunic said he would not pay more than 100 yuan in this case, and the debates continued. Finally, after about an hour, a police car slowly emerged. Our chief concern was that I am not a licensed driver in China, which is illegal. In fact, I figured we would be paying at least 500 yuan if not to the ‘victim’ to the underpaid police officer. He asked for my license, and I produced my Arizona drivers license (good for 37 years in libertarian Arizona, a good deal for the $15 or so that it cost over a decade ago). He did not care about my license, though he took a digital photo of the crime scene with his smart phone, and supposedly recorded the various testimonials. He also appeared to agree that I was not at fault, and asked if the victim wanted to go to the hospital due to his complaints, and he thus admitted he was now fine. And if the victim did not want to simply ride his perfectly fine bike away, the cop asked after replacing the cabbage, what did he want? “well, not sure” was the seeming answer. The cop said to ask us what he wanted, and he replied to ask if this public servant could do the bidding for him. The police officer responded, no, you should ask yourself. But he could not be so direct as to ask for the money, but would not drop the case. So, the police officer pulled Xiaodan over beside his car, and said, “give him 200 yuan, and lets just end it here.” A meager apology on our behalf and 200 yuan was exchanged, and he grudgingly accepted the deal, though continued to plead his case to the cop as we were then allowed to leave. The officer offering these clear instructions to the victim that this was the end, there would be no follow up, so hospital bills, no lawsuit; that he had recorded the proceedings, and this was the final end. With that, my license was returned, and we departed to the north 3rd ring road for our journey home as the broad Western sun set in the gloaming of the Western Hills.
The consensus was that we got off cheap, the bill could have easily been over a thousand. Of course, I am troubled by the lack of integrity, the lack of character. I am naturally very sympathetic, and if my fault, would gladly settle a reasonable amount. I have been hit several times by cars, in my own car, on a bicycle, and even intentionally as a pedestrian in Washington DC, and walked away, as I was not injured. I have just spent several long discussions about the sad state of affairs in China when an elderly man slowly suffocated while choking after collapsing to the ground with a seizure in Wuhan and no one intervened to assist, fearing a lawsuit. That came on the heels of a high profile case where a supposed good Samaritan was sued in court and lost for coming to the aid of an older woman who was hit by a car I think, and claimed that her rescuer was the culprit. Opinion polls have suggested that a majority would follow suit and not lend a helping hand. I still am inclined to help, particularly if I witness the incident first hand, but I am very wary. Possibly, I may not intervene. I hope to be a witness to tell the truth, and make sure a just outcome results. Of course, I only know enough to say something that involves food or travel, not much help as an expert eyewitness.
And of course, this man may be recounting the crazy foreigner driving unlicensed in China and couldn’t even read a street sign that nearly killed him, à la Rashomon (Kurosawa). Well, some other stuff happened during the early stages of National Week holiday, but this was the most immediately impactful to stimulate a blog entry.