Archive for September, 2008

Why no backlash?

It’s been remarked by some of our readers that there hasn’t been so much of a public backlash against the milk companies for their tainted products. This pretty much seems the case to us, as far as we can tell in our daily life. One possible reason is that Chinese citizens do not share the same rights as we are used to in the States. They cannot make public demonstrations, or publish unapproved editorials in newspapers. Any motion toward public protest must first be approved by the authorities, which is a severe limit on what the public response can achieve.

Culturally speaking, Chinese also have a very indirect tradition of expressing their opinions and viewpoints. We feel very different in this regard, especially when trying to have straightforward conversation with our new friends. There is so much back and forth that seems unnecessary to us, but it is the Chinese way. The process is given much more precedence than the result, whereas we just want to get to the point! This is a classic cultural difference, which we don’t think is wrong by any means, just very new to us. This also helps us to understand the public response to the milk problem.

The other reason that comes to mind that there is little public backlash is that Chinese typically trust their government to do the right thing. This is a one party system- there will only be one response to any given problem, and in a way that seems to make it the correct response. Again, there’s not so much room for public debate in China. People may air grievances in approved ways, but the solutions to their problems seems to come from the top down.

There will likely be plenty of investigation of the causes behind the tainted milk distribution, and some heavy-handed punishment. But for the majority of the billion citizens here, life goes on as usual.


More on the Tainted Milk

The number of sick children has risen to over 53,000 here in China, as a result of melamine added to milk (amongst other things – animal skin and urine being common additives to boost the protein content). The New York Times has reported that there have been massive dairy recalls all over China. Yet, when Liz went to the supermarket today, she saw aisles full of dairy products marked down for sale. Friends have reported seeing similar sales on dairy products at other supermarkets. Remarkably Liz saw plenty of people, including a mother with an 18 month old, eagerly buying the unusually underpriced products. We are not yet able to read the newspapers in Chinese, but it makes us wonder how publicized the tainted milk scandal has been and if people are taking it seriously! People also drink plenty of boiled tap water here without a thought, when the levels of toxic substances – like mercury and lead, which can not be removed by boiling – are unacceptably high.

Our Ayi has told us that mothers stop nursing their babies here by “at least 8 months old, because otherwise that’s all they ever want.” This is not surprising, since women typically only have one child and most women work in environments that we can’t imagine would be friendly to a mother who needs time to pump breastmilk! If a woman is going to have a second child (which can be done for a sum of money paid to the local authorities), she can be legally fired from her job on that basis alone. So it’s not a surprise, in the midst of this environment, that few women breastfeed beyond a certain age. Unfortunately, the alternative – feeding their babies Chinese formula – can have deadly consequences.

Money and money-making, as anywhere else in the world, are very very important here. Sometimes, it seems more important to make money than to worry about many thousands of children becoming very sick. We are hopeful that the government does more than sack a few higher-ups to make positive change in the dairy industry and in all their manufacturing sectors. Before we left for China, we read a statistic that 15% of products on any given grocery-store shelf in China are contaminated in some way. We don’t have a hard time believing this, and we consume with a great deal of care.

We hope that some kind of justice is done here for the many children and families suffering as a consequence of the tainted milk.

The dictionary according to the censors

We found an English dictionary here in town at an imported books store. JM was excited to have a volume with definitions of words like “stochasticity,” meaning it is a pretty good quality volume. It’s a normal Webster’s Collegiate dictionary, printed in America and shipped over here to China.

On arrival at home we were surprised to find some entries.. missing! Someone got to our dictionary first, and was able to remove some of the more ‘sensitive’ information from the listings. If you look over at our picture site, you will see what we mean.

We’re constantly reminded about the difference in freedom of information here. When chatting with some Chinese students about friends of ours who started their own locally circulated newspaper, they were astounded that our friend could do so on his own initiative. The point became clear when our newspaper translation class teacher told us how every single publication in China must be registered with the regional publication bureau to have an official status, or else it’s illegal, i.e.- it is potentially subversive to the national order.

We don’t ever think about the Bill of Rights until part of it seems missing in our life. This reminds us again how we can’t take it for granted what privileges we have in comparison to many others.

Tainted Milk

We came to China knowing that food quality posed a large issue. If you’ve followed the news recently you’ve seen that Chinese milk products have been pulled from the shelves, again showing that melamine (a fertilizer chemical) has been added to them by some of the dairy farmers. This has caused some infant deaths from tainted formula, and has sent thousands of other babies to the hospitals.

We only recently started letting Leo drink some milk in addition to nursing, but we only let him drink highly pasteurized organic milk from Australia. Our prudence has seemed to pay off for now. But we know that over the long run we’re all being exposed to some toxins that we’d rather not be, and we’re trying to make good choices about how best to avoid them.

You just can’t trust government regulations here to the same degree as back in the States. We really hope that China will take some initiative to correct these widespread problems, rather than just arrest and execute a few people. The scare factor is high with the latter, but it doesn’t deter people who have little scruples (or knowledge in some cases) about what harm they are doing.

Those messy people

Today in our spoken Chinese course we studied vocabulary describing rooms and their appearance (furniture pieces, messy/clean, different room names, etc.). Volunteers went to the front of the room and gave a description of their own living quarters.

One rather plump classmate described her room and its contents, making the admission that her room stays fairly messy. As she walked back to her chair our teacher stated out loud what to her seemed obvious inference:

“Fat people often have messy rooms, don’t they? Because fat people eat and drink a lot of things, they are always leaving some things here, some things there. It’s easy for them to be messy.”

Our classmate did not catch the drift of this straight-faced comment, fortunately, but some of us who did just looked at each other aghast with amazement. Did she really just say that??

Standards of politeness and frankness vary everywhere. We will think again before making a seemingly innocuous admission in front of our classmates!

Lesson of the day

Today’s lesson learned:

Don’t threaten to go over a middle man’s head when the middle man has already paid off the man over his head.

And on a side note:

Don’t allow a middle man to negotiate for you if he earns more based on how little he negotiates for you.

We’ll be sure to keep these points in mind for all of our future business arrangements. Right now, however, we’re chalking it all up to a ‘learning experience.’ Chinese business has some distinct differences from how we’re used to things. Enough said!

August pictures

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September 2008
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