Monday, November 23, 2015

6 Years On

This past weekend Aya and I celebrated our 6th anniversary and this year it was her year to choose where we would stay or what we would do. She chose wisely and we spent a night in the Kerry Hotel in downtown Beijing. The Kerry is a nice place and Aya got us an executive room. This means a “free” happy hour and small buffet as well as access the the Executive Lounge with a nice view, media, tea cookies, etc. We planned to go for afternoon tea, have a workout/use the pool, get a massage, have some dinner at the hotel and get stinking drunk. Unfortunately, the air in Beijing was apocalyptic when we arrived. Though the hotel must have some sort of filtration system, the air inside was still an “unhealthy” 180aqi.
Long story short, we ended up spending most of our time in our hotel room with the air filter the hotel could provide, playing board games and munching on the snacks the hotel provided. Much to the Kerry’s credit, Aya had told them it was our anniversary and the hotel provided a bottle of wine, nuts, and a nice cake to mark the occasion.

The luxuries of life at our finger tips, but just out of reach, it made me think about how much those things didn’t matter. I had a really great time just spending a night with Aya, playing board games, drinking some scotch, and hitting the hay early. The best things in life are (nearly) free. I can’t believe 6 years have gone by, they have gone so fast. We talked about each year that we have been together and where we were for each anniversary. It took a little doing to figure out all the details. Each year as we do this the minor things will be forgotten, I’m sure. That’s ok. The important things, they don’t get forgotten.

Sunday, September 06, 2015

Celebrating 70 Years since the End of the Japanese War of Aggression

Sitting at the gate to the airport expressway I chatted with my usual driver, Mark. Mark grew up near Beijing, but not in it. He was in the PLA for a number of years as was his father for 20 years. Mark is now mostly a driver, has a wife and kids, aspires to have his own business for running tours both in Chinese and English. We were sitting at the gate for near to 30 minutes. This is what happens when someone important comes to Beijing, the whole highway gets closed off to ordinary people so that the important person can have a smooth drive to the city center (which it otherwise would definitely not be). We talked about who it might be that was coming in, would it be Putin? In just a couple days time the parade celebrating the 70th anniversary of the end of the War of Japanese Aggression (WWII to the rest of the world) would be full on. The city had been practicing for weeks and Mark spent some of the time while we waited showing me footage captured on his phone of tanks and trucks passing intersections near where he lives downtown. The images were had to see as they were blocks away from where he was standing, guards were posted to keep people at a distance. The rest of the time we talked about the war, our families, and a bit about China. Mark said that to end the war in China it took America, Russia, and China in that order. Sounds about right to me. He also said that had not China been so large, the Japanese probably would have taken the country. Seems about right too. 
As we sat there at the gate, chatting, I kept looking at Mark and wondering how he couldn't be frustrated in the least that we spent 30 minutes not moving. I had hired him to pick me up, I had an errand I needed a car for, but his deal is that he charges by the hour and not when stuff like this happens. He was sitting there with me for free. Yet his face was calm, he didn't complain at all. I am often struck by this feature of Chinese people. First, that they remain calm in situations where many other nationalities would be blowing a gasket. Second, that they remain calm when their government does something that is clearly at their expense. 

The parade to commemorate the end of the war cost a lot of money to put on. Even more so, it cost people because of weeks of closed roads, closed business, travel restrictions, and even restrictions on residents in some places to stay in their homes. All of this so a parade could be put on that would be seen by a select few in person, while the rest of Beijing was standing at intersections watching the tanks roll by a few blocks away. I watched the parade on tv like the rest of Beijing, though I could see jets and helicopters buzzing downtown from my window. Whenever something flew over downtown I would check my tv to see what it was.
While I fully appreciate that China wants to celebrate the end of the war, I wonder if having a military parade with tanks and jets is the best way to celebrate a 70 peace. A few days later I went with a friend to the National History museum. They had an exhibit on the 70th anniversary of the war. It was a tasteful display with a number of interesting pieces of war time propaganda and photographs of Chinese troops.   

Many western leaders did not attend the ceremony and while the reasons are complex I did see a few statements about it being a military parade. Most notably Russia and S. Korea did attend, but Japan and the US along with other nations did not. It is understandable why Japan wouldn't want to attend. Many in Japan have felt the tension with China and Korea as both countries have ramped up nationalistic fervor in the past decade or two just as most Japanese have lost interest in apologizing for the war. I can't blame the Japanese of today for no longer wanting to apologize for a war they had no part in, but there have been a number of provocations as well on Japan's side, especially from their now prime minister, such as visiting the Yasakuni Shrine (a topic worthy of another blog) Interestingly, it was the emperor who said on this anniversary that Japan was remorseful, while prime minister Abe basically said nothing. Aya and I have had a few discussions about this and concluded that Japan should be remorseful, but isn't obligated to be anymore. Am I liable for the sins of my grandfather? I would say not, but confronted with them I would express remorse. 

Sitting at that highway gate with Mark I told him that one of my grandfathers had fought against Germany, then had his daughter marry a German and his grandson a Japanese. The other grandfather fought in Korea (against the Chinese no doubt). I said I was sorry if that was the case, but the world was different then. Mark said, "it doesn't matter, things change". Seems about right. 

NEH Rethinking the Gilded Age and Progressive Era

This summer I had the pleasure of attending the Rethinking the Gilded Age and Progressive Era set up by the NEH, Robert Johnston (among others), and the University of Illinois Chicago. It was a wonderful experience and I can't wait to apply for a third NEH program in the future. My first was Chinese Film and Society two years ago and that too was a great program. 

As with my first institute I learned many things both from the leaders of the program and the other teachers who were there. We took a number of tours around Chicago labor movement sites from the Pullman Factory grounds to Haymarket Square and the stockyards in S. Chicago. Though too many to list, we had a number of great speakers and readings which lead on to some very interesting discussions about the labor movement and progressive era in US history and which for me made a great connection to the second gilded age that we live in today. I have actually formed a lesson that I will try in the spring of this year in which I posit the place and responsibilities of community, employer, employee, and consumer to each other. It should be a fun lesson as China now has many factory cities which I can use as examples of the extremes employers go to both in their paternalism and in their desire to see a happy workforce as well as the fact that Chinese labor is not allowed to organize (without permission). 
I will be looking for the new postings for the summer of 2016, which should be coming some time around December of 2015. 

Thursday, August 06, 2015

Summer in America

Although technically my summer here in America is not over yet, it has pretty much wrapped up. The first week I spent at my mother's house, hanging out with my brother in the evenings and trying to sort through the mess of things my brother and I had created for our mom by living in her house and leaving our old stuff there. A monumental task. When Aya's parents arrived I was excited to show them around and to have my wife with me, but like most things when you are in the driver seat, there can be moments of stress. All in all, it was a great time and Aya's dad got to mow a lawn, a true American Experience.
After that I went to Seattle to train for Global Online Academy, which I am super excited to begin. I can finally apply some of the things I learned in getting my master's degree and the timing is good too as some of those things are beginning to become out of date so I will get to refresh them. In regards to that, I have been considering getting a Phd too, but that isn't pressing and so I probably won't start it for another couple of years. Now that will be a process!
Then saw my father's for a few days where he lived. It was great to spend alone time with him, fishing and making beer, but just generally hanging out. I don't know if its my dad getting older or just time passing by, but he seems to be more and more comfortable with my life of coming and going each time I see him. This is something that I have noticed this time. I think everyone I know back in the US is now quite used to me coming and going. My mom didn't even cry this time (yes mom, I noticed!) and though my dad got choked up saying goodbye it wasn't as much as before. Seeing some old friends was great and when it was time to go the hugs broke out, but they weren't they deep long hugs as we did before. Everyone knows, this is the new normal and I will see them again next summer.
So now, here in Chicago, after 4 weeks of studying at UIC on the Gilded Age and Progressive Era it almost seems anti-climactic to be going back to Beijing at the end of the week. I will be excited to be getting closer to seeing my wife and excited to start the new school year again, but that feeling of ripping myself from this US life is no longer there. When arriving in the US, my grandfather was not there to greet me. That was awfully strange feeling. My family's cottage, though still in the family, is now changing hands and form and a lot of the childhood memories I had there will be assigned to a place that no longer exists. I am more there than here in many ways.
Especially in talking to teachers in both Seattle and Chicago, but also in seeing family and friends, I have realized that I don't really know how American lives are lived anymore and intimately as I once did. Things have changed enough since I have really lived here that I can't precisely say I know. At the same time, being someone transient doesn't give me grounding somewhere else either. I feel like I am floating outside of the sphere and its liberating, but also makes me a bit anxious.

Thursday, June 04, 2015

Beijing Living 101: Traffic (Jam)

The traffic here in Beijing has always intrigued me. The first time I came I experienced traffic, but mostly from the back of a bike. That was more than 10 years ago and the bicycle kingdom was just shifting over to the automobile kingdom. Now that I have lived here for almost a year I can tell you, I want the bike traffic back again. Beijing has terrible traffic congestion, and commuting trips rank the longest in all of China
Personally, I usually take a bus to work. This is a private bus that makes a few stops before mine. After my stop, there are no more until we reach my workplace. During the APEC blue sky days when half of all cars were restricted from the roads to ensure a pleasant atmosphere for visiting leaders, my commute had a record 21minutes one way. Usually it take 35-40 minutes each way and there have been times it has taken more than 1hr. Of course, as an America my home country went through the growing pains of the automobile boom almost 50 years ago. Just about every city has kept up well with the increase of cars since then. Beijing, on the other hand, has had only 5 years to accomadate a rise in the number of autos in the capital from 5 to 6 million. For reference that is about twice as fast as the most notorious place for traffic jams in the US, Los Angeles. 

While a large degree of the traffic congestion is caused by lack of infrastructure, there is also a huge amount caused by bad or selfish driving. Many of the times that I have been stuck on the staff bus to work for more than one hour is because of a situation where a bus or block of cars has cut off an entire 3-4 lanes after running a red light. To explain a bit further, see picture. This picture is in Chongqing, I believe, but I have seen this many times in Beijing too. As a light turns from green to red a number of cars, or buses, decide to run the first couple of seconds of the red light, I suppose thinking that traffic in front of them will only take a few seconds to move and they can get out of the intersection before causing a blockage, but then they don't. So the opposing lanes also get blocked. 

I can't say I blame the drivers who do this. Traffic here is one big game of, "oh no you don't!" and road rage is actually incredibly low when considering all the nonsense, but it does happen. Any leniency towards another driver is quickly pounced on. The only way to drive is to act as if you own every lane, pedestrians don't matter, and your time is more important than anyone else's. Forget about blinker, swerve into another lane regardless of what or who is there, and yes, the breakdown lane is the one made just for you so you can pass all the rest of us stuck in the jam. It is a wonder to me that so many people have gotten, and retained, their licenses. Then again, even though I see the occasional police officer, I have never seen a policeman issue a ticket or pull someone over. Never. Actually, the police here are incredibly patient with traffic and drivers as can be seen in this incredible video. Certainly this driver would have been shot in the US. The cops are trying to help a broken down car, but this driver just can't wait. 

Crossing an intersection, by bike or on foot, is a whole new game. I have often seen a light turn from green to green left turn arrow and 30 people move halfway across the street, clogging the left turn lane. There is no green light to walk, but people do, and again it gets to the point the horns start honking and traffic slows down, just because people can't wait. This blog post from a few years ago sums it up nicely. 
Personally, I just follow the rules and the lights as much as possible. Sure, everyone an their mother is using the crosswalk on red, going through intersections without looking ahead of them, and cutting off each other left and right, but I want to live. Some people aren't so lucky

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Sandstorm in Beijing

The other day in Beijing there was a big sandstorm that blew in. This is not so unusual to happen in Beijing, it does happen from time to time, but its my first one. I didn't realize it was coming. That day was a pleasant day, temps were high, and me and a few of the guys decided to go out for beers at a patio bar. I knew there was a northerly wind coming around 5pm. Usually that means that the AQI gets low, in other words we get a blast of fresh northern air. I was looking forward to that, but at 5pm it was like someone flicked a light switch. The sky darkened and we headed inside. On the way home I put on my mask and kept my head down. When I got home I checked the AQI on my phone. Its usually somewhere in the 50-150 range indicating good to a bit unhealthy air. It was 895! That norther wind kept blowing all night and by the time morning came the sky was blue as ever, AQI 65. This is the sky in Beijing. 

Monday, April 13, 2015

Beijing Living 101: Ikea

One of the oddest things here in Beijing and a perennial source of amusement among the new expats is the behavior of people at Ikea. This recently was in the news again as Ikea decided to ban people from loitering on their beds and furniture. I immediately saw the futility in this when I heard of it and it seems that since then Ikea has stated that they will not be banning people from doing this. Probably a good choice since it is likely impossible to enforce. 
One thing China has is a lot of people, one trip to Ikea on a Saturday and you will feel like you have seen and touched all of them. The only way to actually have a pleasant shopping experience and maybe to try out a couch or bed, is to get there right when the place opens. Any later and you won’t be able to get through the store without being pressed by the sweaty masses and certainly won’t be able to try out any piece of furniture you might like to buy. For me personally this has just been frustrating as a couple of times I actually wanted to test out some couches and had to ask people who were napping to get up, which they didn’t like very much. . Once, rather stupidly, I went to Ikea during Chinese New Year thinking that certainly there would not be very many people there as it's the time of year that everyone goes home to spend family time, like Christmas in the West. No, all of Beijing was at Ikea spending family time on the couches and beds, not in their homes. 
There are many reasons why this is, but the main one can be easily seen by who  it is that is doing the sleeping/lounging on the furniture. Since Beijing is a packed city and China is a developing country, many people don’t have very nice furniture at home. Secondly, the availability of an outlet for people to have a social outing with their family that is in any way comfortable is slim if you are making an average salary or less. Third, Ikea has it all. From comfy couches to cheap eat and drinks, and even air conditioning. Why go anywhere else?

The only times I dare go now is immediately at opening, if I go at all. The idea of Ikea trips makes a ripple of stress go through me. Its best to plan ahead and get in and out quickly. Though management has good intentions to, you know, actually sell stuff to customers who want to buy it, that is unlikely to detour anyone from doing what they please. This is China, after all. 

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Oslob Whale Shark Watching

I distinctly remember being a young boy and reading a book about the animals of the earth. In one section there was a picture of a whale shark. I remember thinking of how massive that might be, in comparison both to whales and other sharks, but mostly to anything I knew at the time. Put next to a picture of a bus, 40 feet long, this gentle giant is a filter feeder. There was no danger of the whale shark attacking me, very little of it accidentally running into me. There was, however, a few times when they became very close to us and we tried to avoid it, but did touch them a few times. I have my wife to thank for this encounter. It didn't even cross my mind to check, but she found this and made sure we went.
Of course, I was thrilled with the idea. Since that young age I had been thinking about the whale sharks, even more after visiting Churaumi Aquarium in Okinawa almost 8 years ago, then again this past year. We took a private car from Mactan island to Oslob in Cebu. It was a 3-4 hour drive each way and about 1 hour at the site. We opted to leave early at 5am, but there was an option for 4am departure. We thought it best to get there early and try to beat whatever crowd there may be. It was a good choice as we could see upon leaving around 1030am that there were more people gathered waiting to go out.
Arriving in Oslob we came to a small center along the beach which had a couple of bathrooms and changing stalls, a 20 meter beach front flanked by a couple of small cafes, and a concrete sheltered platform where a briefing was given. We had a bit of mango and sticky rice with a cocoa drink, then put our extra belonging in the car. We got on a small rowing boat with 3 guides and one other tourist, very personal which I enjoyed. There were about 4-5 crafts like out during the given time, about 25 people in all who were there to see the whale sharks. The boats rowed out to an area about 50 meters off shore where the water was approximately 10-15 meters deep. Once we strapped on our masks and made sure we were ready to get in, we jumped. A few of the boats had shrimp/plankton to attract the whale sharks and this is how so many were concentrated in a relatively small area. There were 3-4 whale sharks there, the largest maybe 30 feet long and the smallest maybe 15. For 30 minutes we bobbed in the sea taking what time we could to dive down and get close to the whale sharks.
It was surreal to be close to such a large and ancient living thing. Of course in zoos and aquariums we had seen such creatures, but the closest we had gotten to something in the wild must have been when we were across the river from a rhino in Chitwan National Park, Nepal. Of course, I wasn't quite as worried about this animal suddenly charging us. More so I was worried that we would disturb them!

After our 30 minutes in the ocean we jumped back into the boat and headed for shore. We then dried off a bit and headed for Tumalog Falls. What a nice refreshing dip that was. The falls were so beautiful and after the sea the fresh water felt great on my skin. We then had a bit of lunch by a seaside restaurant and headed back in the car.

For those thinking about this as an option for something to do in Cebu, I can't give it enough recommendation. Its one of the most interesting things I have ever experienced. The price of the tour, with driver both ways, lunch, and guide were well worth it. Also, instead of using our own water proof camera we opted to pay the extra 8 dollars or so to have the company rent us a camera. This meant that one of the guides took pictures of us then helped us to transfer to our USB card. Totally worth it as we were too busy catching our breath or enjoying the experience to get shots and 30 minutes goes by fast when you are so enthralled. 

Friday, February 20, 2015

Making the Most of the Chinese New Year

The Lunar New Year fireworks here in Beijing were as expected; loud, continuous, and terrible for air quality. All day long on the 19th we could hear fireworks being lit, but it wasn’t until the evening that they really started to pick up. From our apartment we could see numerous locations shooting them off all night. Just outside our apartment someone decided that the middle of a 4 lane street would be a good place for large star bursts and stopped traffic for a few minutes. As midnight approached the intensity increased right up to 12. After that, I don’t know what happened as I went to bed. Unfortunately the air quality went from pm 2.5 at about 70 which is good, to over 400 by midnight, which is the most hazardous level and almost off the charts.
Today, the city has been largely quiet and slowly the air quality has gotten better, but it still looks pretty smoky out there and we can still hear a faint pop-pop. Since it was so quiet I thought I would ride Aya’s ebike over to Ikea to check out their damaged goods. I assumed not many people would be there as most people are spending the day with family. Of course, I was wrong. Ikea was packed, mostly with people gobbling 1 dollar sausages from the snack stand or sleeping full out on sofas and beds. A few people were actually shopping.
The place is so absurd at times, its hard not to ask "why?" The longer I am in China and Beijing the more I am getting back into being curious about the Chinese and China’s history. Before my work ended last week I decided I would check out a few sites around the city as not so many people would be there and so made plans as well as checking out some books about China from the library. That turned out to be a good idea. I went to the Drum Tower and the Bell Tower as well as the Llama Temple and Tiananmen at dusk for the flag lowering and the next day to the National Museum. Besides being sites around the city, they also provided a slice of Beijing life. At the drum tower only bits of one of the original 12 drums remain, likely the rest were destroyed during some revolution. There are so many in the past 100 years its hard to say when. At Tainanmen the soldiers and crowd were silent except for the couple right next to me who argued loudly the entire ceremony. At the national museum I had my ebike battery in my backpack so it wouldn’t get stolen. When I went through security the female guard asked me what it was. While I understood her question, I didn’t know the word for it nor how she couldn’t know what it was. Everyone and their mother has some sort of ebike in Beijing, they are everywhere. Thankfully the guy behind me saved me and told her what it was, denji? Not really sure, but it sounded like the Japanese denchi, which means battery so I am guessing they are similar.
I’ve also been watching classic Chinese movies each night like, To Live and Red Sorghum. Both of which I like and have watched before, but Zhang Yimou (the director) will be visiting my school next week, so I thought I would brush up on my viewing. I also have watched a few documentaries to fill in the non-fiction gaps such as the three part PBS series 'A Century of Revolution' and one on Tiananmen square 89'.  During the afternoons I had been reading up a bit from I Chose China, Last Days of Old Beijing, Postcards from Tomorrow Square, and Factory Girls. Last Days of Old Beijing has been the most interesting because its written by a foreigner living in the hutongs south of Tiananmen and I can relate most closely with his curiosity and viewpoints as he laments the economic progress of China razing its cultural history.  I actually saw a character 拆 Chai on a wall on the way to Ikea today! The city is still tearing itself apart.
So far I have enjoyed my break quite a bit. Though this place often makes me scratch my head, its never boring and I don’t think it will be for some time.  Now, one more thing to do before getting back to work on Monday, do my Chinese homework for my lesson on Tuesday!