Chinese High Schools

Last night at dinner I met a Beijing high school student. He wants to finish high school in America. “Was that your idea or your parents?” I asked.

“Both,” he said.

“What’s the reason?” I said

“Chinese high school is too stressful,” he said. “The test [tests?] is too hard.”

He left the dinner early to study for the TOEFL.

Do They Eat Dogs? (Continued)

In answer to the question “Don’t they eat dogs?” a blogger living in Taiwan stated flatly: “No. They don’t eat dogs.” Now, from a Beijing University student named Xiong Lilin, here is a definitive answer about Mainland China:

Yes, we do. But not every Chinese person eats dog and never for everyday meals. In some provinces, there are restaurants that serve dog meat in the winter. A few people will have one or two meals every year during the coldest days. Eating dog meat can make people warm and prevent colds. Although these kind of restaurants exist, they are disappearing. In fact, mutton has the same function as dog meat. In my home town, Chengdu, many people eat mutton on DONGZHI, the day winter begins according to the Chinese traditional calendar.

More In this New Yorker article, published today, Michael Savage, the radio host, contemplates eating dog. Xiong Lilin later wrote: “Yesterday, my roommate asked me what kind of dog we eat. She seems to think that we eat pet dogs. In fact, we do not eat pet dogs, the dogs we eat are raised specially for eating and belong to different kinds from the pet ones.”

Poorly Made in China

The subtitle of Paul Midler’s book is “An Insider’s Account of the Tactics Behind China’s Production Game.” Midler is an American who helps American and European companies get stuff made in China. The book is about how, in a dozen ways, Chinese manufacturers manage to make manufacturing deals more profitable to them at the expense of their customer — and, often, the ultimate consumer. Most of the book is about what happens to an unnamed American company that imports “telephone numbers” of beauty products. One problem is “quality fade.” The product slowly gets worse until the importer objects. For example, at one point the fragrance put in liquid soap was changed. Instead of different fragrances for products with different labels, almond was used in every case. So a product labeled Aloe Vera smelled of almond. (I discovered I couldn’t trust flaxseed oil made in China.)

A friend of mine became a vegetarian after working at Burger King. Midler had a similar conversion:

I found myself losing faith in all sorts of products manufactured in China. I was soon careful to purchase health and beauty products that were not made by local [i.e., Chinese] companies, but by large, multinational corporations — but then I realized the body wash I had been using, while it was made by a reputable global company, was actually manufactured in a plant located in South China. . . . I knew these production managers well. . . . They believed that what a customer didn’t know couldn’t hurt him.

I found myself using less body wash, eventually relying on only hot water for my showers. When no one seemed to notice the difference, I stopped using the wash altogether. And then I stopped using soap, as well. . . . Why take any chances?

The attitude of cheat your customer as much as possible isn’t a great long-term strategy, as Chinese manufacturers are learning — the situation used to be even worse. A friend of mine analyzes the situation like this: For a long time Chinese were taught Confucianism. When the Communists took over, that changed to The state is God. Now that system of morality is gone, but nothing’s replaced it. In Systems of Survival, Jane Jacobs wrote about two systems of morality, a “guardian syndrome” and a “commercial syndrome.” The commercial syndrome, appropriate for trading, placed great weight on honesty. (The guardian syndrome, in contrast, placed great weight on loyalty.) Behind Jacobs’s classification was the implication that these syndromes had evolved because they worked better than other possibilities.

Poorly Made in China was easy to read. It has those two essential elements: it’s a series of stories, long and short; and the author feels strongly about his topic.

Learning To Read Chinese

I have tried a dozen-odd ways of learning Chinese. Few of them have worked very well . . . except one: the book Learning Chinese Characters (2007) by Alison Matthews and Laurence Matthews. The subtitle is “a revolutionary new way to learn and remember the 800 most basic Chinese characters” and I agree, if revolutionary means “a lot better than other methods”. The method is simple:

  1. Break combination characters — almost all Chinese characters are combinations of a few hundred simpler characters — into components.
  2. The simplest components, not divisible into others, are associated with a picture that conveys the meaning. Someone pitching a baseball, for example, when outlined makes the character for nine.
  3. Devise a brief story, a little picture, to help you remember that the components together mean what they mean. For example, the characters for white and ladle put together in one character mean of. The story is something like: “Look at that white ladle. It’s the special ladle of Chef Thomas. The book is full of drawings to help visualize the stories.

I enjoy reading it. Partly for the feeling of accomplishment — I can tell I am actually learning the characters much faster than before — and partly because the combinations are intriguing.

The book I have says “Volume One” so I eagerly await later volumes to read more of what these two writers, who are not identified, have to say. I never saw it in Beijing; I came across it in a Barnes & Noble or Borders.

Ancient Non-Nutritional Wisdom: Morning Dance

From the latest episode of The Amazing Race:

[PHIL:] In this detour, teams have to choose between two ways that the people of Guilin [China] express themselves artistically. The choice: choreography or calligraphy. In choreography, teams must  join in a popular exercise in Guilin: dancing. They’ll make their way to the central island, join a group of locals performing their morning dance routine, and learn the dance.

Emphasis added. The dancing, done in pairs, provides plenty of morning face-to-face contact, just what I think everyone needs for good mood regulation.

On the Tsinghua campus, I saw morning groups practicing aikido, which doesn’t provide as much face-to-face contact. The Guilin dancing is perfect. Also good is that it’s done outside. The sunlight will give the light-sensitive circadian oscillator a big push. Faces push a face-sensitive circadian oscillator.

There is one region of China whose residents are known for being laid back and happy. I wonder: Is it Guilin?

China and Electric Cars

According to the New York Times,

Chinese leaders have adopted a plan aimed at turning the country into one of the leading producers of hybrid and all-electric vehicles within three years, and making it the world leader in electric cars and buses after that.

Since I live in Beijing, I am glad to hear this. The story omits an important detail. Every day in Beijing, dozens of electric bikes zoom by me as I ride my non-electric bike. There are 30 or 40 models available, average price about $300. This means when battery makers make car batteries, they will build on a wealth of experience derived from making millions of bike batteries. This isn’t China with cheap labor, as Americans usually imagine the situation; this is China with more experienced labor. It isn’t obvious that American car makers can ever catch up.

The article continues:

Electric vehicles may do little to clear [China’s] smog-darkened sky . . . . China gets three-fourths of its electricity from coal, which produces more soot and more greenhouse gases than other fuels. A report by McKinsey & Company last autumn estimated that replacing a gasoline-powered car with a similar-size electric car in China would reduce greenhouse emissions by only 19 percent. It would reduce urban pollution, however, by shifting the source of smog from car exhaust pipes to power plants, which are often located outside cities.

Please. It is far easier to clean the output of a few hundred power plants than a few hundred million cars.

The United States Department of Energy has its own $25 billion program to develop electric-powered cars and improve battery technology, and will receive another $2 billion for battery development as part of the economic stimulus program enacted by Congress.

I think it’s too late. If the $25 billion were used for rebates to encourage electric car buying, as the Chinese government is doing, that might work, but there aren’t any decent American-made electric cars to be bought.

In related news, Tsinghua University (above all an engineering school) undergraduates who come to America for graduate school now account for more American-trained Ph.D.’s than any American school. In case you think that American engineers are better trained than Chinese ones.

Plagiarism in Chinese Academia

I was glad to read this article in the Christian Science Monitor about an attempt to reduce plagiarism among Chinese professors.

The latest fraud to rock Chinese academia centers on He Haibo, an associate professor of pharmacology at the prestigious Zhejiang University. [Not very prestigious, since I haven’t heard of it.] He now admits to copying or making up material he submitted in eight papers to international journals and has been fired, along with the head of his research institute. The affair has drawn particular attention because a world-renowned expert in traditional Chinese medicine, Li Lianda, lent his name as coauthor to one of the fraudulent papers. His tenure will not be renewed when his contract expires soon, the president of Zhejiang University has said.

The Beijing Sport University, one of three sport universities in the world, is near my university. It has a Ph.D. program. To get a Ph.D. you must submit three books! As one of their graduate students told me, no way you can do that without plagiarism. He had noticed that a book by one of his professors was simply a copy of another book.

This paragraph, however, amused me:

Stearns [a Yale professor who taught at Beijing University] says that he and his colleagues at Yale “do not believe letters of recommendation from Chinese professors, for we know that many of them are written by the students themselves,” and merely signed by their teachers.

He thinks letters from Berkeley are different? My system for writing letters of recommendation was more nuanced, after I learned that students had great trouble writing these letters. I met with the student and we wrote it together. This had two great advantages: 1. It showed the student in the best possible (i.e., truthful) light. 2. It was easy. Trying to write a good letter by myself was tough.

Thanks to Sheila Buff.

Beijing Shopping (stuff easy to get in Beijing but not Berkeley)

Jane Jacobs said that one measure of a healthy economy is the choice it provides. A healthy economy provides abundantly at affordable prices; an unhealthy economy does not. Another sign of economic health, she said, is innovation: A healthy economy includes a constant stream of new products — nothing lasts forever. People in Norway are far richer than people in China right now, but what will Norwegians do when the oil runs out?

In contrast, my Beijing shopping revealed that Chinese entrepreneurs have been able to develop products that the rest of the world will want to buy.

1. Electric bikes. They’re everywhere in Beijing. They cost $200-$400 and a few cents per mile, far cheaper than gas. I would have brought one back to Berkeley but inability to fix it stopped me.

2. Keyboard covers for laptops. Transparent silicone plastic. Easy to clean. How did I live without one? These are a new product in Beijing, actually, but they are very cheap, about $1. I can find them for sale on the internet for about $15.

3. Cordless floor sweepers. They use a rotating brush to clean the floor instead of a air pump, as a vacuum cleaner does. That they are cordless makes them very easy to use. In Beijing they are obvious and attractive; I bought two and brought one back to Berkeley. In America I’d never seen them for sale but after I knew they existed I managed to find an unattractive one in Berkeley hidden deep in a hardware store. The price (about $50) was roughly the same in Beijing and Berkeley, except the Beijing models are much nicer.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that all three products are “environmental” broadly conceived. Beijing air is dirtier than Berkeley air; my keyboard cover and my floors get dirty a lot faster in Beijing than in Berkeley. I think they are a sign of hugely-important things to come — China inventing and selling the products we need for a cleaner world. It’s been called the next industrial revolution; a better name would be the second half of the industrial revolution in which we clean up the mess left by the first half. As Jane Jacobs often said, the problem is not too many people, the problem is the undone work.

How to Learn English

Pearl Alexander teaches English in Japan. She blogged:

The typically unintelligible and extra-syllable-laden speaking tests delivered to me by the students had a lone girl who stood out with nearly perfect pronunciation, however quite imperfect grammar.

I was completely astonished.  Was she taking extra classes outside of school?  If so, why wasn’t she delivering the typically rhetorical machine-gun speech like most of the juku students?

We got to the last question on her test: “What do you like to do in your free time?” She answered: “I often listen to music. I like Avril.”

At Tsinghua University, I had a similar experience. One of a dozen art students giving presentations had much better English than the rest. Did you live in America? I asked him. No, he just watched a lot of English TV and movies. Tsinghua students watch a lot of Friends, not to mention Prison Break and Heroes.

I found a Chinese movie to watch (Together With You) but in one player there is no sound and in another the English subtitles don’t appear! I listen to a lot of Chinese on my mp3 player but it is pretty boring. I should try to find some Chinese songs I like and get translations.

The Museum of Tap Water (part 2)

As I noted earlier, Beijing has a museum devoted to tap water — apparently the only one in the world. Another translation of its name is the Beijing Water Supply Museum. It was incredibly hard to find. None of a dozen people in the neighborhood knew where it was. It is on the grounds of the government company that supplies tap water. While I was there, there was only one other visitor, an American. Like me, he’d noticed it on Google Maps.

I loved it. One of the exhibits was called “10-Day Imperial Approval”. Permission to start the water company (around 1910) was requested from the Emperor. Approval came in a lightning-fast ten days from the Emperor’s mother on yellow paper. Only the Emperor, his father, and his mother were allowed to use yellow in decorative ways. The penalty for breaking this rule was death. In the early days of the water company, slips of paper gave you permission to collect your water in a bucket. A photo of an early president of the company (thin, young, shaved head, high-collar traditional shirt) made him look more like a dashing criminal than a captain of industry.

For anti-terrorist reasons, there was nothing about how the water was processed.

Museums are usually devoted to the rare, beautiful, and intricate, which why a museum of tap water sounds like a joke. When Paul Goldberger, the New Yorker‘s architecture critic, devotes his best-buildings-of-the-year list to nine show-off buildings and an art exhibit — none of them advancing the art of making the houses and workplaces where we spend most of our lives — I am glad to see agreement that something is missing.

The other visitor was in Beijing to visit his sister, a high school exchange student, living with a family that speaks no English, who had checked the wrong box on her visa application and was unable to come home for Christmas. She was having a great time and now wanted to apply to a college with a Flagship Program — you go to the American school for two years and then a Chinese school for the last two years. What a sea change! Americans treat another country as equal. Americans grasp that someone else might have something to teach us. At Berkeley a few years ago, the psychology department had a day-long get-together to discuss various issues. About a meeting about one of them, I suggested that we look at how other departments had handled it; maybe we could learn from them. Bad idea, I was told, they’re supposed to copy us.

A Chinese Dinner Party

Last week I went to a dinner party at a restaurant held by a non-Tsinghua professor. It was nice of him to invite me. I’d been to two similar dinner parties before and this one was so much more pleasant because the grad student sitting next to me translated what everyone was saying. Which was stuff about cigarettes, Beijing is now more expensive than Hong Kong, rumors of ranking battles, buying a house, driving drunk (you are amazed how you park and drive while drunk), for example.
Do I have delicate Western sensibilities? Everyone was served an extremely strong drink called bai jio, which is about 50% alcohol. Not everyone had to drink it, except the three graduate students. Being the youngest, each of them had to go around the table toasting each of the rest of the guests. After each toast they had to do “bottoms up” — drink the whole tablespoon-sized glass. That’s 11 bottoms-ups (or 9 since your fellow sufferers would allow you to cheat)! I couldn’t toss down one glass of the stuff, and I’m a fan of soju (20% alcohol). It is horribly strong. I drank one glass the whole evening and it was too much. The graduate students jockeyed for who would go last — they hated it. Why does this happen? I asked my translator. “We’re entertainment,” she said.

I suggested she replace the bai jio, which is colorless, with water. Amazingly this was a new idea. She did it (furtively) and the deception worked. Still, she was very happy when the dinner ended before she had finished all her toasts. Did you tell the other students? I asked. Not till later, she said. Too important. Next time, she said, she’d bring a water bottle and a can of Coke to allow for drinks with other colors.

The bai jio tradition gives a sad twist to a letter on Chinese human rights just published in The New York Review of Books. The letter is signed by “hundreds of Chinese intellectuals” — many of them professors, no doubt. It contains the following:

We see the powerless in our society—the vulnerable groups, the people who have been suppressed and monitored, who have suffered cruelty and even torture, and who have had no adequate avenues for their protests, no courts to hear their pleas—becoming more militant . . .

Or more devious.

My Theory of Human Evolution (fixing bike pumps)

The father of one of my Chinese tutors used to work at a coal mine (in an administrative position) but after his wife went away to care for her sick mother he wanted a job without night shifts to better care for his two children. He decided to make a business of fixing bicycle tire pumps. People who fixed bicycles were common but hardly anyone fixed the pumps.

Was it hard to start such a business? No. There was a tradition in his small town of persons walking through neighborhoods announcing what they had to sell. Like ice cream trucks. Coal, fruit, baked goods, and other things were/are sold that way. (He preferred to buy his coal directly from the mine.) At first, he used his unaided voice, later he got an electric megaphone, now he has a recording.

I believe human language began like this. Language began and grew because it  facilitated trade. Facilitating trade facilitated occupational specialization, the essential difference between humans and other animals. Words — single words, repeated many times — were the first advertising, the original Craig’s List.  Again and again, you said the word of what you wanted or what you had to offer.

Max Planck Institute Promotes Brothel

From The Independent:

There were red faces on the editorial board of one of Germany’s top scientific institutions, the Max Planck Institute, after it ran the text of a handbill for a Macau strip club on the front page of its latest journal. Editors had hoped to find an elegant Chinese poem to grace the cover of a special issue, focusing on China, of the MaxPlanckForschung journal, but instead of poetry they ran a text effectively proclaiming “Hot Housewives in action!” on the front of the third-quarter edition. Their “enchanting and coquettish performance” was highly recommended.

This is puzzling: Poems are in books, not on flyers. No way was this xeroxed from a book. Even I can see that. This will be their best-selling issue — maybe it was a mistake on purpose.

The Last Days of Old Beijing

I’m enjoying The Last Days of Old Beijing: Life in the Vanishing Backstreets of a City Transformed by Michael Meyer, one of a few fun books I brought to China. (The others are Traffic by Tom Vanderbilt and The Corpse Walker by Liao Yiwu.) It’s about living in a downtown hutong. What pleases me most is how good his Chinese must be (I want reassurance I can learn it) but I also like strange stuff like this:

[Watching TV in a friend’s apartment, Spring Festival 2006.] The annual variety show paused from its singing and acrobatic performances to announce that China would send a pair of pandas to Taiwan as a measure of friendship. The program’s five hundred million viewers could pick the animals’ names by choosing from a list and sending a text message via cell phone.

“Who says we can’t vote?” [his friend] laughed. . .

We ate and watched television until Unity and Wholeness were announced as winners of the name-the-panda election. (Taiwan’s government would initially refuse the animals.)

What were the other candidate names, I wonder.

Bike Culture in Beijing

The Tsinghua campus is really big so everyone has a bike but bikes are very prevalent elsewhere as well. In several ways the surroundings have been shaped by this:

  • Bike mechanics scattered around campus. There are about seven of them. Fix your bike instantly. Also sell spare parts — locks, seats, baskets, and so on.
  • Huge bike lanes. On the road from the subway to where I live, the three lane road is divided into one shoulder lane, one lane for bikes, and one lane for cars. The appearance is that the bike lane is twice as wide as the car lane. The effect of these huge bike lanes isn’t trivial: I feel safe.
  • Bikes parked everywhere. At big stores, parking attendants charge 5 cents/bike. Payable when you leave.
  • Discarded bikes. Near the subway station is a pile of 20-odd bikes. About once a year discarded bikes are removed from the Tsinghua campus.

Making a Living in China

Several buildings are being built on the Tsinghua campus. At least one woman makes a living as a prostitute among the construction workers. She is known as Qikuaiban, which means seven and half yuan (about $1). The name came about when she offered her services to a worker, he said, “All I have is seven and a half yuan,” and she accepted that payment.

Happiness in China: Who wants to be a construction worker?