Archive for November, 2008

One-Child Revisions?

China instituted a one-child policy in 1979. The current generation of Chinese families rarely boasts a multiple-child family. The fine for having a second child is exorbitant, approximating an average person’s salary for a whole year by some accounts. For the small rich minority, the fine is no problem, but the majority of China’s 1.3 billion residents are restricted by this and other measures from having multiple children.

One of our textbooks has an essay devoted to this topic, or more exactly, devoted to discussing the benefits of this system. Children now are better cared for by their parents without competition from siblings. There is more food for them to eat, and more resources can be devoted to their education.

Obviously in the wake of the massive famine in the 60’s, the current order seems to be an improvement. But is it the result of the new population measures? Is it even a direct result of the Reform and Opening movement that is so often heralded as the new beginning for China? Or have other global forces been more direct agents for China’s growth and prosperity rather than national policy?

Our teacher today even expressed her own doubts about the one-child policy. If there are 4 grandparents, 2 parents, and one baby, there is a tremendous burden placed on the two working parents to support a family of 7, and afterwards on the child itself. Economic policy also exacerbates the challenges. The mandatory retirement age here is 50 for blue-collar women, 55 for other female workers, and 60 for men. Saving like crazy for a 20 to 30 (or 40!) year retirement is a huge concern. No wonder people pick through garbage cans with methodical patience in their spare time, dredging up pennies by finding a piece of cardboard here, a plastic bottle there.

Our teacher also said there is talk of reforming the policy (only talk, no actual measures as far as she knew). Perhaps doctoral degree holders should be permitted a second child, so the rationale goes, since they can provide a learned environment within which to raise another child. One wonders if this will really solve any problems, or just create resentment among the classes?

At least there seems to be some willingness to address the social challenges at hand, and perhaps revise the restrictive policy if the need can be proven pressing enough. Now is a time of unprecedented change in China- surprising and swift change is undoubtedly in the cards, if they choose to play them so.


Happy Thanksgiving!

We want to send our best wishes home to all of you friends and family. We are grateful for all the support you’ve been to us over the past 9 months- we know we wouldn’t be here now without your help!

Thanksgiving passed without ado here in Nanjing. We woke up, went to morning and afternoon classes, and Liz even went out for an hour in the evening to teach an English class! A few of our Chinese friends had heard of the holiday, but it came and went without any outward trappings. Certainly no football games to watch! We’ll have a small celebration of our own on Saturday when we can relax a bit. Our good friend sent us a no-bake pumpkin-pie recipe. If anyone has a no-bake Turkey recipe, that would also come in handy.

We miss you all back home. We are giving thanks for you and for all of our blessings!

Please leave a message

Back home we each had a cell phone in addition to our work numbers. No need for a land line anymore since we could be reached directly, and voicemail worked great for whenever we couldn’t answer a call. JM even tested a program that turned his voicemails into emails, receiving them in his inbox just minutes after a missed call.

They don’t have that here. The land of 1.3 billion people, with probably half as many cell phones, notoriously lacks phone message services. It took us awhile before we realized it, but after a few months of ringing up friends, colleagues, and even businesses, we began to realize that when they didn’t answer, they really weren’t going to answer. We thought it strange that the phone company took the liberty of interrupting calls with a recorded message: “The person you dialed cannot be reached right now. Please try again later.”

This inexplicable fact took some getting used to. No leaving messages about important business that couldn’t wait. No making plans with friends by leaving messages with options on their voicemail and then getting a call back from them later. Now when we want to connect with someone, we have no choice but to persistently call back until we reach them.

People here are typically more available, however. Without voicemail, people do seem to take more initiative at answering phone calls. It even seems to introduce a personal element in daily interaction- less playing phone tag back and forth, and actual communication with another human being.

Unless, of course, we send text messages! These have seemed to supercede the place of voicemail by and large- a written communication that you hope will be received by the person you want to reach, but are still unsure of the timeframe of a response, if there will be any.

Just another way we didn’t anticipate life would change drastically on this side of the globe.

In case of illness..

One of the areas of ongoing cultural differences we encounter here is healthcare. Aside from differences in Western and Chinese medicine, we receive all kinds of advice from well-intentioned friends, teachers and acquaintances.

“You should wear slippers inside your house, or else you’ll get sick.”

“When you get a cold you should drink boiled water. This will make you get better.”

“You’re sick and you haven’t gone to the hospital? Why haven’t you gone yet?”

“Has your baby been to the doctor to get an injection for his fever yet?” (Note- we’ve never determined what exactly the contents of this ‘injection’ really are)

“You need to wear at least three pairs of pants in cold weather. I do, and I don’t even need to turn on my heater.”

We’ve been out with a cold the last week, as have a large number of our classmates. Thankfully the stores here sell some brands of Western medicine, so we’ve been able to get along without too much inconvenience. We’ll keep smiling and nodding at the advice coming our way- some of it we’ll take, the rest we’ll think twice about (especially when it comes to injections!).

What did he say?

We have a foreign friend who does business in China who we met in class last term. He often has meetings with Chinese contacts over dinner, a very traditional way of doing business here. The fact that for personal reasons he doesn’t drink alcohol or eat pork sometimes makes for interesting cross-cultural interactions.

A few days ago, he met with about five clients at a restaurant, but allowed his interpreter to do all of the food ordering. Having said very little up to this point, he appeared to the clients to be unable to speak Chinese. When his food preferences became obvious, the clients started talking among themselves:

“This guy doesn’t eat any pork?”
“No, and he doesn’t drink alcohol either.”
“Really? Wow- his life really isn’t very interesting!”

Our good-natured friend decided to pipe up at this point in his defense: “Because I don’t eat pork or drink, you think my life doesn’t have any interest?”

Jaws dropped, followed by swift apologies and assurances that that wasn’t what was meant. He took the comment in stride, but from that moment the negotiations went a lot more smoothly for him!

Taxi Cab Politics

In a taxi ride home recently, I (JM) chatted with the driver about the usual things- how long had I been here, isn’t Chinese difficult, and so on. Surprisingly, the cabbie came out with:
“America is my favorite country.”
“Really? Why is that?”
“Americans understand human rights. Our country doesn’t. If someone here says you’re wrong about something, then you’re simply wrong. No one can argue.”
“Well, the two countries are different. America’s government likes to protect human rights.”
“If we didn’t have America, the world wouldn’t even know what human rights were.”
At this point, I was a little surprised at his strong opinions, especially in critique of his own country. Most people are overwhelmingly in favor of all that the government here has accomplished in recent years while developing the country. I pointed out the huge advancements China had undertaken in the last few decades.
“Yes, now we have food to eat. But the government is still the same. It won’t ever change. We won’t ever have the freedoms that Americans have. I think they have it the best.”
It really gave me pause to hear this from him. Where did his ideas come from? Did he have any firsthand experience that conditioned his negative opinions? And was it as hopeless to change the current order as he made it out to be?
I don’t have nearly as much perspective on his own country’s problems. I do hope, however, that the future will bring some resolution to long-standing challenges that the Chinese confront with their wealth distribution, huge population, and cultural differences with the law-loving West. Human rights aren’t an absolute, but there will likely be more and more demand for some form of them by the populace here as they continue opening up to the rest of the world beyond.

The Unlabeled Life

Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living. I (JM) think that there is an exception- the life in China of unexamined nutrition labels is entirely liberating. Every food product in the States had nutrition information that I would at least glance over before eating, but since arrival here, I haven’t once been able to decipher the Chinese coding on food items that must say things like ‘mono-unsaturated,’ ‘thiamine,’ or quite possibly ‘melamine'(!). I have to say that life without the pressure of doing a quick mathematical calculation before every bite (‘Is that more than one-third’s worth of fat?’) has brought a new level of peace that I imagine can be likened to some kind of Nirvana, aloof from the care of this worldly weight of calories.

In fact, many things here don’t even have food labels. If I asked the Chow-mein cook how much oil was in my fried noodles, he would probably stare at me blankly, or else say ‘As much as I put in.’ Sometimes there’s a lot, more often a whole lot. Oil is used liberally on every dish except for steamed rice (but thankfully there’s the fried version). All of the oil, sugar, MSG and saturated fat notwithstanding, the average citizen here is not less healthy than Americans, but appears to be the opposite. Is it the mobile lifestyle, the substitution of tea for coffee, the lack of significant dairy consumption, or just genetics? It’s hard to say. People are in fact rather large consumers of food, but still avoid avoid becoming.. rather ‘large’ consumers of food.

So, no real need for food labels. It’s a lucky quirk of the system that no matter what you are eating, your chances of gaining weight are significantly reduced. Vitamins? Just eat your veggies. Protein? Tofu can be made into almost anything. Sodium? Better worry more about the effects of smoking and second-hand smoke before heart attacks.

It’s been nine months of the nutrition-label-free life, and I have to say that now having arrived, I don’t plan on going back!

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November 2008
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