Whistle whilst you work, Tibetan-style.

Some time ago I mentioned my own visit to Tibet and some of the wonderful things I saw there.  Most of these things were not tourist sites or anything extraordinary, but were the wonderous moments of every day life.  Two of them happened to me at the Potala Palace, but that was inconsequential to the events themselves. I will share them with you as they came to mind when I was looking over some of my old pictures for good images to decorate my new (adult) room with.  Somehow, looking at serious photos makes you appreciate your delight in the simple (and perhaps not serious) sides of life more.

The first was my favorite pit toilet of all time which was basically in a cave.  Potala is built on a rather large hill, and evidently some of the caves below are still largely open to sunlight.  Hence, this particular trough of a toilet was open to the sun from below.  It was a little scary, but the crack was really too narrow to fall through.  Still, the image of urine arching downwards into multiple rays of sunshine has stayed with me.  Not to be vulgar, but as a woman I rarely get to watch my urine arch anywhere.

The second (of which I have recently rediscovered video records) was a song-and-dance group of the unintentional kind.  While we were walking around the Palace, I could hear music drifting outside – beautiful, top-of-the-lungs filling and joyous music.  It didn’t really sounds like monks chanting, and there were female voices included as well (I had yet to see any nuns at Potala).  So I thought it was some sort of special performance.  After all, the voices were singing in unison and on key – anyone who’s ever been to a Chinese church knows that carrying a tune is not a skill the majority of the population possesses.  However, when we eventually wound around to the ‘performers’, they were in reality the roof repair crew.  I’ll give you a little electronic sampling of thier stylings:

It’s only about 5 seconds long, because I was afraid to embarass them by taking a picture while they worked.  Below is a bit more, with a woman pouring the plaster.  Sorry about the sideways image.

I don’t know why they were beating the plaster into the existing roof, or why they felt the need to sing.  Still, it was a moment of joy and goodness in a potentially bland and sometimes opressive world.  Despite everything, we still grow.  We still sing.  We still dance, in step with a neighbor or two, under the sun.

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Welcome to Thing Mart

I am writing this only because Corina challenged me.

As a part of the research interns are doing in my office, a number of up-and-coming international companies are being analyzed.  One of them, a Chinese department store dubbed ‘Wu Mart’ seems a little familiar.  Its slogan?  ‘Every day low price; every way high quality.’  Even its classic sans-serif lettering seems strangely familiar:

As far as I can tell, the characters (Wu Mei) mean ‘Beautiful Stuff’.  So it’s not exactly an exactly Walmart knockoff.  I don’t think the Chinese or anyone else considers the Walmart stuff beautiful.  But it is cheap.  So why is Walmart not as successful as the burgeoning Wumart?

Probably it has something to do with quality.  Probably also it has something to do with the flexibility of the smaller Wumart to adapt to the local market.  Department store giants like Walmart and Carrefour aren’t willing to do so.  But another part has to do with nation-building and pride.  Just as we like to buy American to support local business, the Chinese are proud of their growing industries.  They want to buy Chinese.  They want to support a local commercial venture that regards a part of its mission as ‘establishing an everlasting retail chain that Chinese people love patronizing, and that mingles with their daily lives’.  With that kind of personal and national appeal, there’s no reason Wumart wouldn’t grow, if they continue to provide a quality product.

At the end of the day however, I am torn.  China may be learning from the West too fast.  While I support the growth of the economy and the rise of the standard of living, I worry about the commercialization of China’s values.  I’m not sure nation-building should be accomplished in support of a department store.  I’m worried that reasonable pride and a national feeling are clouding the potential for needless spending.  Economic growth should not necessarily be reflected as an increase in commercialism.  I hope that the growth of Wumart continues to be a growth of pride, one of buying what you need from a company that supports your values.

CNN: the next terrorist.

The Summer Olympics of 2008 have brought up several questions that are dear to my heart.  They are questions of freedom of speech and the press, the questions of human rights, the questions of religion, government, and international relations.  Best illustrating these questions is the recent hackers’ attack and website slowdown of CNN and other international news sources reporting on the unrest in Tibet.

The first question that comes to me from the article referenced above is the angry of bloggers in China against the press of other countries.  What reports or articles in particular are viewed as unfair or biased, and for what reasons?  Are these accusations valid?

To answer these questions, I turned to the web.  This article tells a bit of the story – Jack Cafferty, a CNN commentator made some comments about China that were degrading and inaccurate.  Many Chinese people were angry at these comments and CNN as a consequence of these comments.  Nancy Pelosi was also criticized, though the article remained unclear on the details why.  I also accessed this page, translated by google, for more detail of the reasons behind the protests.  However, the translation was not accurate enough to give me much information.  I did watch the Youtube video posted on the page, which does show a bit of the riots in Tibet earlier this year.  It does little to show what actually happened, however.  It is not clear if protests began peacefully, if Han Chinese were a part of the early protests, if police acted as they should have.  The only things that can be truly determined are that things escalated, that people were killed or injured, that property was damaged on both sides, and that both Tibetans and Han Chinese are very righteously angry.

The second question is to the rights of the Chinese themselves.  Do they, as individual bloggers have the right to question the international press?  Should the Chinese government be reigning them in?  Do they have the right, or motivation, to question measures by the government in Tibet?  Do they have the access to judge?  Do foreign reporters have the experience to tell us the truth, to report honestly, if they do not know the history of the region?  Can they understand the anger of the people in Tibet or in China who feel so strongly about this issue?  Are they better, or worse, at interpreting the situation?  I am not sure of the answers to any of these questions, and I do not think they will be able to be answered for some time, if ever.  Perhaps with hindsight we will be able to clearly say who is right, or who is wrong.  Or maybe we will simply have to say that both sides have their faults, and hope that a peaceful agreement can be arranged.

I leave you with a final comment from another blogger on the danger of being caught in the middle, especially with such anger on both sides.  With such hatred, how can those sensible amongst us find our way?

The Adventures of Podunk Jo – Adventure 3: Jo rides again!

Back in Nine Rivers, Jo was having just a little bit of trouble adapting to her new living situation.  While she appreciated the company and uses of her new friends, Retardo and Sam, living with both of them was a bit of a struggle.  It wasn’t that she minded getting cozy with new friends, despite their peculiar quirks.  It was more to do with the size of her apartment.  With just her and Tigger, it had been very cozy – with all four of them, a more apt description would be cramped.   Still, Podunk Jo was determined to get planning on the next terms’ lessons, despite inconveniences.  Despite her best attempts however, just a few short days before the start of the term, there was a knock on the door that could not be ignored.

When the tapping started, Jo was prepared to let Tigger or one of the others answer – she was in the groove of planning and not about to stop.  When it continued insistently, however, she wandered out towards the front door to see what was the problem.

Out in the hall was a tableau of worried looks.  Tigger, Retardo, and Sam were all watching the door, half in fear and half in curiosity.   Podunk, confused as to the situation, nevertheless moved to open the door.  Sam silently ran to stop her, shaking her hands and head in quiet irritation.

Retardo tiptoed over to Jo.  ‘Whoever’s knocking is VERY DANGEROUS.  Sam doesn’t want them to know anyone is home.’ She placed a gentle hand on Podunk Jo’s arm, whispering, ‘Let’s just all go back into the living room and wait till they go away.’

‘This is ridiculous,’ said Jo loudly.  ‘I will not be made to cower in my own home.  Especially by buffoonery.’  She strode quickly around Sam, whose head was low to her chest.  Sam did not appreciate being called ridiculous, and went of to mope in solitude in the living room.  Tigger pattered after her thoughtfully.

Jo unlocked the door cautiously, nervously looking over her shoulder at Retardo before doing so.  It could be a criminal, or a proselytizer, or a spy.  There, on the doorstep, was Crest Colgate.

“Would you like to go to Mongolia?” he asked.

****

Over a nice cup of tea inside, the two of them chatted.

“Sorry I so rudely abandoned you in Beijing,” Crest apologized.  “I really did need to leave.  My HR skills were urgently needed, you see.  One of our tour managers was quite ill, and the Alaskans were finding it difficult to hire a replacement. ”

“Of course.  You had an obligation.  Thank you for the note.  Though I am a bit surprised at how you were able to find me here in Nine Rivers.”

‘It wasn’t really that hard.  Very few foreigners have such lush hair, or such a memorable companion.’  Crest smiled down at Tigger, who was shyly hiding behind a biscuit tin at the other end of the coffee table.

“Ah.  And what’s all this about Mongolia?”

‘I need a companion for a new business trip.  I am putting together an educational package on Mongolia to include various skills training – horseback riding, sheep shearing, hatha weaving.  Naturally I thought of the most beautiful teacher in the Middle Kingdom to assist me in my research.’  He flashed her a dazzlingly brilliant smile.

“Well, I appreciate the offer, but unfortunately my teaching obligations begin in just a few short days.  I couldn’t possibly come with you.”

‘Oh no, it’s all been taken care of.  I spoke to your waiban – one of the Chinese teachers can cover your classes for the first few weeks.’  Jo could just barely make out Tigger doing a mini-jig on the thought of riding a horse.

“Still, these students are expecting a foreign teacher.  It’s not fair to pawn them off on someone else.”

Crest patted her hand gently.  “I admire your commitment.  Never mind this week – we’ll just have to put off our trip until the holiday.”

****

Later, both Sam and Retardo came down hard on Jo.

‘You actually agreed to go?  After Sam’s warning and without even checking with us?!?’ Retardo ranted.

“Well, it was my decision, after all…”

‘And I suppose we’re supposed to just sit here and worry about your return?’

“I don’t trust that man,” Sam added quietly.  “You shouldn’t be alone with him.  He’s obviously too charismatic for you.”

Jo remembered his brilliant whites.  ‘He does have a nice smile.  But really, I made the decision on my own.  Also, Tigger wants very badly to go horseback riding.’

Sam sighed and Retardo threw up her hands.  ‘So take him riding, already!  There’s no need to go to Mongolia.’

But Jo had given her word, and she stood firm in that.   Just a couple months after term start, she and Tigger started packing up for their trip.  Sam and Retardo kept up loud protestations of the wrongness of the trip, to no avail.  Truly, their last protests were more of a half-hearted act.  They had already come to terms with the situation, and were preparing to take more drastic action.

Next Chapter: Stowaways.

Rediscovering Amity.

Amity is defined as ‘friendship’ or ‘peaceful harmony’ or “mutual understanding and a peaceful relationship, esp. between nations; peace; accord.”  But what does this type of friendship mean?  Is peaceful harmony the simple respect of leaving one another alone, or is there something more to it?  Does amity require the type of friendship that implies helping out with the hard times, as well as celebrating the good?  Does it require a deeper kind of agreement, or at least understanding, on issues of faith, morals, politics, or education?

Amity is also the name of the foundation I worked with during my time as an English teacher in China (which I was surprised to discover blogging on WordPress, just like me).  The organization is Christian in a country that is largely not, a country that actively prosecutes outside proselytizing.  It is also one of the longer running voluntary nonprofits in the country, which is a part of what originally led me to join the organization for a time.  Ultimately though I would say my experiences there were more to my advantage than theirs.

China gave me many opportunities.  The free time to write.  The forced need to interact with a culture different than mine, in a different language setting.  The experience of teaching.   The time to reflect a little on what I wanted to do with my life.  The feel-good of doing good for others.  And for that, I am and will continue to be grateful.
It’s something I can always pull out and look at and say ‘hey, I was a part of something great,” no matter what the rest of my life may or may not amount to.

1421, 1606, and Wrack

Few may know the significance of these dates and their relation to ocean spume.  I myself was not really aware of them until coming across this article about a map.  Of course, when I saw the headline, I went, ‘oooohh, map!’, because the designs of the cartographers of old fascinate and delight me.  But the idea that the Chinese were first in yet another arena made me chuckle.  Who would I be today if the Americas had turned out Oriental, instead of Occidental?

The description of the map itself reminded me of one of my favorite novels, Wrack, by James Bradley.  In the vein of Eco, it chronicles the story of a modern archaeologist, a dying man, and the age of Australia’s discovery.  I like it, both for the cadence of the words and the winding of the narrative in upon itself.  Since the Chinese map also included Australia, it invokes the question now of whether the Chinese had explored that continent as well before Europeans came to the region.

The book itself leaves many questions unanswered about the true European discoverers of the island-continent, many of those questions sparked by the existence of European maps reflecting an accurate representation of Australian coastline before the supposed date of discovery.  It’s the same sort of questions that will have to be asked regarding the Chinese map if its authenticity is proven.  After all, does the existence of map imply discovery?  How accurate must a map be to ‘prove’ that someone has visited a particular coastline?  If you have any interest, these two sites give some general outlining information for the 1606 date of discovery for Australia.  Personally I prefer the questionable spin that Bradley puts on the whole situation.

Authorities reveal rice shortages in China.

All right, for the moment these shortages have not been realized, but if you weren’t aware China is currently experiencing some of the worst snowstorms and winter weather it has had in decades.  I don’t care if you believe in global warming or not, there is something seriously wrong with our weather patterns and this is yet another extreme example of it.  For those of you who don’t like geography, let me explain.  Yes, China is big, and yes, most of the northern cities are always subject to snow in the winter.  But a much greater portion of China is in the tropical and subtropical region.  Large cities in the south like Hong Kong and Guangzhou actually like below the Tropic of Cancer.  The only area in the US below that line are parts of Hawaii.  So the fact that winter storms and related power losses are crippling the entire country is astounding.

The government is working to secure money for farmers who are losing their rice crop to the unseasonable weather.  Rice grows mostly in the south, where it’s warmer and wetter, and typically at this time of year it rains lightly almost every day.  Evidently that precipitation has become much heavier than usual, and is freezing rather than raining down warmly.  It’s gotten so bad that the Prime Minister (and we’re talking high Communist official here, not Bill Clinton) issued a public apology.   If the weather continues, there’s fear that they will lose major portions of this year’s rice crop.

The storms couldn’t have come at a worse time, either.   In just a few days it will be time for Spring Festival, the Chinese holiday that combines Christmas, Thanksgiving, and New Year’s all into one week of fun, family, and food.  It is the worst possible time to travel in China, because everyone is going home.  The train system only allows purchase of tickets 3 days in advance (unless you have connections), which means that lines are long and crowded, with police everywhere trying to keep people from cutting.  Tempers are high, patience is low, and even when you have tickets, getting on the train is ridiculous.  Spring Festival is a time to spend that extra money for a soft sleeper if you can get one, because the standing room is going to be packed as tight as humanly possible.  Even if you get a seat, people are going to be standing over you, and maybe sitting underneath or on top of you.

Add all this to power outages and train service being completely down in the weeks leading up to Spring Festival, and you have billions of unhappy people.  Literally.

The Adventures of Podunk Jo – Adventure 2: Vacationing?

After various awards ceremonies and and endless stream of banquets, Jo was finally able to return to Nine Rivers for the last little bit of her vacation time. True, what with all the lesson planning she needed to get done before the start of term, it wouldn’t be much of a vacation. Still, it was home. She looked forward to spending some quality time with Tigger again, away from the crowds, from the fame. The only thing she was worried about was how to delicately say goodbye to Retardo.

She had tried, on several occasions, to indicate that perhaps the girl would be happier with her own space, her own life. Or perhaps back wherever she’d come from-back learning more Chinese medicine, maybe.  But Retardo always claimed that she was happiest with Tigger. Podunk didn’t want to share her reservations about Retardo with him either — he seemed so genuinely fond of her.

At last, it was time for Jo to go. She packed up her bags, but delayed speaking to Retardo until she was about to head for the train. Finally, she could avoid it no longer.

“Retardo,” Podunk Jo began, “it’s time for us to go. We need to return to Nine Rivers to get ready for the start of the school term.”

“Nine Rivers? Really? What are we waiting for? I can’t wait to see your hometown!” She and Tigger proceeded to link arms and do a little jig.

“Er…it’s not really our hometown…” How could Jo say she didn’t want Retardo to come now, after all the excitement?

“Yeah right. Next you’ll be telling me you’re from London and he’s from the Hundred Acre Woods.”

***

On the way to the train station, Podunk Jo and Retardo happened to pass a very strange street performer. This person (obviously a foreigner, despite her dark hair) was doing around a strange burning bush. At some points, she seemed to fan the flame, or at least gesture towards it: at others, she sidestepped or scurried away, as if in fear. Jo gave her a double take, and then a wide berth. Retardo, of course, was enthralled. She mimicked a few of the dance moves, and then had a glimmer of recognition. She began frantically digging in her bag. Tigger and Jo looked at Retardo with wide eyes, then at each other. They shook thier heads resignedly almost in unison.

Don’t worry, I’ll save you!” Retardo finally cried, holding her water bottle aloft. She rushed over and splashed out all the water on the wildly waving figure.

The girl stopped, wiped off her dripping face, and sighed. Tigger, ever-resourceful, provided a hankie.

“Why did you soak that poor girl?” Jo finally asked. “It wasn’t a very nice thing to do!”

Retardo looked at Jo with amazement. “Didn’t you see her gesturing? She was giving the International Gesture for ‘urgent – add water’.”

Jo was amazed that there was such a thing as an international gesture for urgent or add water, but she kept the thought to herself. “Do you think maybe she wanted you to add water to the burning plant over there?”

“The plant? Don’t be silly. She was probably overheated from repeated gesturing.”

The odd girl had been examining them closely. “So you both speak English? I should’ve known. ” She held out a hand. “My name is Samantha Anti-Danger Smith, but you can call me Sam.”

Jo nodded shook her hand briskly, and introduced everyone all around. “Anti-Danger is an odd sort of middle name. Any story behind it?”

“I’d better show you.” She put out a finger, and stretched it out to touch one leaf of the still-burning plant. Instantly, all the flames were extinguished. Podunk wondered why she hadn’t just done that in the first place.

“Right, well, we must be off to the train station…”

“Why don’t you come with us!” Retardo exclaimed. “We’re off to Nine Rivers for vacation. We could take you around and show you all the sights.”

Sam’s eyebrows raised. “That sounds nice. I’d be happy to.”

Inwardly, Jo groaned. This supposed vacation was turning into a bleeding circus.

I want to go to China!

So, in an unceasing search to find myself cheap airline tickets for May of 08, I have been visiting one of my favorite sites, Kayak. To those of you unfamiliar with this wonderful tool, I want you to think back to the early days of online discount airfare. The common TV viewer was bombarded with ads for priceline, travelocity, orbitz, and other related sites. And while most of them were pretty good at finding you the best price, there were drawbacks.  There were always associated fees that didn’t register until you actually purchased the tickets.  Plus a certain ticket price was never locked in, and thus that low price could be lost as tickets are sold out from moment to moment.  In addition, the multiple day features were often unwieldy to use.

Kayak trumps and avoids all of that.  Fees are included in the prices they list, and even international travel allows  options to search prices for a range of dates.  In addition, kayak will automatically search other discount travel sites for the same travel times, so you get multiple searches in different windows just by entering it once.  Other features make it much more operable as well.  The chart tab allows you to view the rates of a 31 day range of departure dates, listing both the average lowest fare found, and the absolute best fare found.  That way I can find the best travel time not only within a week’s time, but also across a span of weeks.  Sliders and checkboxes along the left also allow specific airlines to be included and a specific and narrow departure or arrival time to be searched for.

Not that there aren’t drawbacks.  Kayak doesn’t directly sell the tickets, so a sell-out of a certain price is still possible.  In addition, some airlines don’t ally kayak to list their flights, most notably Southwest and JetBlue.  But to me and my pocketbook, that’s a small price to pay – if I’m going somewhere southwest, I can always search their site directly.  Same goes for jet blue.  In fact, it’s almost worth all the pandas in China.

Ultimately, however, even Kayak was not able to find me a fare to the southern portion of China in May.  I am hastily searching for other times now, possibly in early March.  Be advised – I may be coming to an airport near you!

A second China book

I decided to leave this as a second post since the last one was getting a little long and separating these two will allow me to use my categories a little more.

My second most favorite collection of books from this era of my life were not even written by a single author. I guess you could refer to them as a ‘collection of authors’, but that typically implies that each of them contributed to each of the various works, which is not the case. Yes, it’s true, I am speaking of the Baen Free Library.  Those of you who are unfamiliar with this lovely little development in publishing and also happen to enjoy science fiction should now take a happy-little-dance moment.

The basic idea behind this whole thing is that Jim Baen decided that as a publisher, instead of a) getting locked into an ever-spiraling cycle of more complex ebook protection from ‘those pirates’ and b) setting up his own division or company to sell books electronically, he would use what was available and get a little extra publicity for his authors.  So, any author with Baen can volunteer to have their published books offered free online.  A little publicity for the author, and generally traditionalists are willing to cough up money for the book once they know they like it.  Writers are encouraged to give the first book in a series, but basically anything goes.  And if you happen to be really cheap or in China, it works very well for keeping you stocked in quick reads.  While I haven’t yet bought anything from Baen for myself as a result of the free library, my dad is now overflowing with Baen books, most of them hardbacks.  Though there is a question of whether or not he was already hooked before the free library went up….

Now, I must admit that most of what’s available probably will never be called ‘literature’.  Most of it is pretty heavily based on plotlines and can leave some things to be desired as far as poetic language go.   But if you’re looking for a free classic, there’s always Gutenburg. Though I haven’t stayed up in front of my computer screen for awhile just to read a novel, I feel a sense of relief, knowing the free library is there for me to peruse again the next time I’m at leisure.  Ahhh.  Say it with me.

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