Archive for August, 2008

What China does right

A friend asked us to give more detail about what we think are the areas in which China is a leader. Some of these come to mind as follows:

1) Perseverance – This is what comes to the fore of our mind when we think of Chinese people as a whole. They are brought up with an amazing capacity to do without, and to work hard at whatever task they do. Factory workers here in town work 7 days a week, very few holidays. The standard of life makes it worth it to them to come all the way from northern China to do this type of physical labor. You regularly see people along the street pouring themselves into the most menial of tasks, like shelling a bucket of about 1000 snails. The Chinese work ethic would be hard to beat by anyone’s standards.

2) Less consumerism – Face it, the Chinese economy is growing fast, and it is becoming a consumerist economy quickly. But there is still a strong strain of frugality in their culture. Chinese people are savers by tradition, not spenders. You can’t get them to spend extra electricity on running the refrigerator all day if it’s not absolutely necessary (making you wonder about eating leftovers sometimes!). So many comforts of daily life are forgone here, for instance, bed mattresses. Why spend money on a mattress when wood is just as supportive! People also eat less than Americans, which is no surprise. Some cases it’s a question of need, not want, but on the average people don’t consume as much food. Especially not as much meat.

3) Education – Six days a week is the norm, for some kids seven! The country is so populous that the education system is highly competitive, resulting in higher standards for all students. One high school student told us she heard that American colleges are like Chinese high school (in difficulty). We told her it’s not exactly like that, but that Chinese students are in fact able to take some higher level math and science classes than their peers from American schools. Their curriculum is indeed faster paced in these areas.

4) National spirit – As we’ve remarked before, China has a tremendous sense of patriotism. It’s more than just flag-waving. Right now everyone seems to share a sense that the rest of the world’s eyes are turned on them in a way that transcends the celebration of the Olympics. Their already strong sense of national pride shares a hope that the rest of the world will come to know the real China, real Chinese culture. There’s also a strong element of social solidarity involved here. This is a country with strong socialist roots, and the carryover into today’s world is the sense that everyone belongs alike, that there is something more fundamental connecting citizens to each other than family, class, or geography. The sense of first belonging to the country is very strong.

5) Financial capital – China, by reports we’ve heard, has more US money than the US! They have the largest bank of foreign reserves, which means they hold a lot of America’s debt. This is just a simple observation of status. It’s better to be the lender in most cases than the borrower. True, it’s a symbiotic relationship, but one side still owes a lot more back than it’s giving.

There are of course flipsides to these areas. For instance, the average wage level is kept very low, which ensures industry and manufacturing jobs stay here in the country. This isn’t necessarily a good setup, as it seems to keep the majority of the country’s citizens away from any chance of economic mobility. Someone asked if we thought China will be the next superpower. It doesn’t seem that a meteoric rise like the USA after World War II is in the cards, but more and more the world will doubtlessly be making room for this country that is just in the beginnings of flexing some clout.


A walk down our street

Please take a look over at our picture blog to take a little walking tour of our street here in Nanjing.

Up and running

Well, walking at least! Leo took his first steps today, just days shy of his first birthday! We noticed him standing on his own two feet beside the wall, and coaxed him into walking out to us in the center of the room. Five consecutive steps! A great start! We feel so lucky that both of us were there to see it happen.

It really hits home that one’s child’s accomplishments seem like one’s own. We couldn’t have expected these steps Leo took to be so joyful for us.

As we’ve heard, life as we know it will never be the same now. Let the games begin!

Half a year in..

It’s hard for us to believe we’ve been living in China for half a year now! We departed North America on February 15, six months ago, landing in Shanghai the next day. Wow! Already it’s been more of an adventure than we ever could have anticipated. Some things have definitely become easier, like communication. Others have become more challenging, such as negotiating cultural differences that we are just now becoming attuned to. JM has run into ‘losing face’ situations on more than one occasion, and it doesn’t get much easier to anticipate where these sorts of cultural sensitivities lie.

Staying on a healthy diet is another area we continue to be vigilant for. Besides the ever present selection of fried foods, we’re getting more keen on likely sources of food sickness. Twice down is enough for us.

Studying Chinese language so earnestly is starting to really show in subconscious ways. English pronunciation is unquestionably becoming more difficult. Today’s blunders: saying “Rake Placid” for “Lake Placid” and “bloshomming” for “blossoming.” We’re both making such silly mistakes in our English speech with such regularity that we can’t keep kidding ourselves that it’s just fatigue! We’ll have some reverse studying to do when we get back to the USA. Bring out your Dr. Seuss books for us!

China continues to enthrall us, and in this Olympic season we’re seeing more and more how patriotic the Chinese people are for their country and its ambitions. Speaking to a high school student about the Olympics, she remarked “China is not very good at swimming right now, but it will be soon.” There’s a fair amount of hubris in the air that China is on the verge of entering into a leading position for the 21st century world. For those of us on the ground here, we see the many areas in which there’s still a long way to go, but also the many areas in which they’ve undoubtedly taken the lead. It’s an exciting time to be here, and we’re very thankful to be given the opportunity to see it all firsthand.

We still miss everyone at home, and are always happy to hear from you. We’re looking forward to seeing where this next six months takes us.

Who’s your grandpa?

Leo’s nanny feeds him lunch every morning, which can be a bit of a juggling act since he’s become so aware of his surroundings that he wants to grab everything in sight. Sometimes he’ll only eat if he’s distracted by a toy while we coax food into his mouth.

The other day his nanny grabbed a little red book sitting on our table which was close at hand. It was our souvenir copy of Mao Tse-tung’s famous sayings, and has color pictures of Mao in the front of the book. She used the pictures to distract Leo while she fed him.

With Leo pointing at the pictures, she asked him “Who is that? That’s grandpa Mao! Mao ye-ye!”

I decided not to say anything. When in China.. right?

Heisted in Shanghai

Liz, Leo and I made our return trip to Nanjing after the music tour, taking a fast train the last two hours of the way from Shanghai.  It was our first time taking a train together in China, and we were new to the whole process at Shanghai railway station.

People were offering to carry our bags for exorbitant fees, which we declined thinking we could get to our platform without extra help.  People who saw our tickets began telling us, "You’d better hurry," which we though was strange with over a half hour to go till departure.

As we wandered through the terminal towards our train, we discovered it was a rather long way to our platform.  We stepped it up a bit, but were being passed by other travelers who were running at a good pace to make their own connections.  As we neared our boarding area, we saw the same groups of frantic people making their way into our own gate.  Were we really that late?  We still had 15 minutes to go.

What we discovered was that there was still a long ways to go from the ticket agent all the way to the platform.  We huffed it a good five minutes with all our bags to finally reach the stairs down to our train (no elevator of course).  Someone sitting on the stairs saw us, grabbed two of our bags and motioned for us to quickly follow.  We assumed the train was leaving right away, so we followed him down the stairs and looked for our car.  We were in car 1, but were only standing at car 13!  We all jogged down the platform to the first car, making it with a few minutes to go.

The man wouldn’t pass our suitcases into the train until we paid him for his trouble.  Note to self- no service is ever for free here!  I passed him 10 yuan, but he demanded 20.  Without much leverage for bargaining, I conceded to the rather high fee and took a 20 bill from my wallet.  He promptly snatched it from my hand and took off running!  He got away with 30 altogether, and I couldn’t chase him since the train was about to leave.

Feeling rather grumpy, we consoled ourselves by admitting that at least he didn’t steal the suitcases, and we really did appreciate his help getting to the train.  Plus we tried to feel charitable about supplying him with enough money to buy at least a few days’ worth of groceries.  Next time we won’t be so green when traveling, though, and will leave plenty of time for navigating a new place.

July Pictures

We’ve posted a few more pictures on Nanjing Polis – check them out here:

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August 2008
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