Monday, November 21, 2011

November Rain

Well, its been a long time since sports day. I've given several lectures around Beijing, at Beijing University of Chemical Technology, Beijing Institute of Technology and tonight at Central University of Finance and Economics. Despite the names, these are comprehensive universities. I also served as a judge for an English dubbing competition where students from various universities "dub" the lines from famous movies. The event was held in a large auditorium at Beijing Foreign Studies University, with a large movie screen. Students competed in three parts, after a prepared dub (though they had memorized all the lines), they had to ad-lib a silent film (Charlie Chaplin movie), and then lastly had to re-interpret a Chinese movie and create new lines in English. The winning group was quite impressive, though they were all excellent; it was alot of fun, and my first foray as Simon Cowell. It did feel a bit like American Idol, I've never sat in the front row as a judge before; and I felt bad to give my vote for all to see and see expressions of dejection and sadness on the non-winning side. Of course, I didn't make comments, just the raising of a pink hand-clapper to show my vote. We did each have to ask each group a question about dubbing or movies. I asked if the students thought that in an era of Dolby surround sound, 3D movies like Avatar and Shrek, and state of the art technology, could a silent film like Charlie Chaplin's ever be popular again. The students apparently had prepared an answer to whatever question we may ask, so they didn't really engage it, and they are film buffs and dubbing experts, not social critics or observers of cultural change, but I think everyone agreed that the Chaplin clip was rip-roaringly funny, truly (I'd never actually seen a Chaplin silent film before).

Otherwise, I've made a couple more appearances on the China Radio program, often speaking a bit far from my expertise, Iran's nuclear program being the farthest stretch. Especially with a professor from Teheran who was a government mouthpiece who was clearly an expert in what Iran is 'not' doing, or never did, or suffered from; and as the American panelist I suppose I should have taken a harder line than 'it would be better if Israel did not have nuclear weapons,' and said Israel should start their countdown, so the discussion was a bit one-sided. Oh well.

I also took an overnight train to Wuhan to lecture at Wuhan University, my first lecture outside Beijing. I've decided when i lecture on US-China relations to mention the 1989 student protests, at least minimally. Those protests are known as the June 4th incident officially in China, and that is how I refer to them. I don't wish to be provocative, I simply say since that event, Westerners and many in the US have been critical of China's human rights record. I don't think it was a popular topic, but I decided i will weather the storm, especially since I don't make any criticism myself (please note that if the government is tracking my record). I inquired with my host professor about what the other faculty thought of my talk generally, and he said "Chinese people don't like when foreigners criticize them." I'm not 100% sure if that referred to me, or was just an interesting thing to learn about 'Chinese people'. I thought I was rather mild, though I was sweating through the stony silence as most of the audience gazed downward when that line on my powerpoint popped up. In the question period, most questions are about the Dalai Lama, another sore subject that I broach; not many, in fact, maybe none about Taiwan. We'll see how President Obama's overly aggressive stance against China from the past week plays out in my lectures now; I think it may be good politically, but represents a too confrontational attitude toward China in a time of general US weakness. But that is to wait and see.

My sister visited for a few days which was a nice reacquaintance with American culture and thinking; I get English speaking, but that still reveals Chinese thinking and attitudes, so it was very good to see her for many reasons. Unfortunately, the government's start date when heat comes on in Beijing came after she left, but I didn't adequately prepare by opening the windows, so the super dry and very warm heat dried me out and left me with a sore throat and I've now been fighting this illness for nearly two weeks, including losing my voice several times. By keeping the windows open, the temperature is tolerable, but the pollution filters in to coat my nose and throat. Still recovering, but with some small bottles (xiao ping) of Chinese medicine, some sort of bamboo extract, I am nearly back to 100%.

And finally, I'm back to the automobile that I had foresworn. On Sunday, we parked on a relatively quiet road in the city. Some spots are free, some you pay. Of those you pay, some you pay when you arrive, others you pay when some street person rushes over as you unlock your car to leave and presents you a bill for the parking. This case was the latter. In my experience, parking is generally a few yuan; the airport is higher, something like 6 yuan per hour, prime time places in central Beijing may be 5-10 yuan per hour. This area (Chegongzzhuang) is not prime time real estate, well, pretty nice condos, but ample parking. The grinning man aged in his late 50s sidled over as we got in the car and presented a ticket. 'duo'r qian?' we asked in Beijinghua, 'how much?' 'san shi wu' (thirty-five) was the response. I thought this preposterous since in my past experiences for this amount of time (2.5 hours), I usually pay a handful of ones, maybe 4-5 tops. Chinese yuan is almost equivalent to a dollar in local terms, or perhaps half the value. In other words, this was charging a minimum equivalent of $17 for parking on a public street, and was clearly a rip-off, evidenced by his long-held smirk as he contemplated the 80% or so extra take for himself. We got in the car, closed the door, started the engine as he casually waited, grinning throughout. And then we said, 'let's go!' and I dropped the car into drive and hit the gas and took off; startled he punched the back window of the car to try to stop us (nothing broke, but he delivered a pretty strong thud to the paneling with his fist). He chased us on foot, and jumped on his bicycle like the Lone Ranger mounting Silver and here he came. I was on a side street and desperately needed to get on to the main road to make my escape, and was determined not to let him catch me, for I wasn't sure the repercussions of our flight from his parking tab. I've seen others refuse to pay and be caught at the stoplight where a major brouhaha ensues. I dared not try for the first outlet into traffic because any manner of vehicle can clog the intersection and we'd be done for. So i hurried to the end of the road, watching carefully for any bicycle that might swerve into me, and darted out into traffic like a true Beijing taxi driver forcing others to stop in my wake, and laughed to look in the rearview mirror and see the man pull up on Silver's reigns and realize that this time, one got away. I'd like to think he will reflect on his greedy designs on the foreigner driving the white Honda Fit, and consider if he'd just asked for the real price he'd probably have gotten it. Actually, I snuck back over the next night to try to find the parking sign to see the real price, and then all of the sudden saw him trying to gain payment from a van driver who seemed to be pretending not to notice, or perhaps saying he wasn't leaving for awhile. I was afraid he'd recognize me, so I watched him from behind some bushes and scanning for the parking sign. None appears to exist, I will continue the investigation.

Otherwise, midterm exams are complete, pretty good overall, many Bs, some Cs, a few As, and 1 D. But I guess below a B is unacceptable to most students, several have apparently dropped the class. Now we're facing the term paper, and the idea of analytical comparative case studies seems rather foreign, so this could be a struggle as well. But I'm determined to impart analytical and critical thinking skills, at least to those who tough it out.