That was my favorite piece of trash-talking from last night’s USA-England World Cup match.

A drunk Englishman laid that one on me just before the opening kickoff, as we watched the match on a gigantic projector screen in what used to be the beer garden of a popular Irish pub but is now something approaching a minor league ballpark, complete with temporary stadium seating, concession stands serving international snacks, and a face-painting booth that will paint your country’s flag on your face if you forgot to do so at home before leaving for the bar. It’s called O’Malley’s, and if you happen to be in Shanghai during the World Cup you should really check it out.

As it turned out, BP did quite a bit more damage to the Gulf of Mexico than Rooney and company did to Team USA. But by the end of the night, one thing was proven beyond any doubt. There is simply no match for the Brits when it comes to soccer chants.


If you’re looking for examples of modern China, consider my friend Aviva.

She’s the one in the yellow sweater, and she is dancing on the bar in a place called Zapata’s, in Shanghai.

She’s 30 years old, which means she was born about the same time China decided to transform itself from a Mao Zedong-led Communist state into what it is today, an exploding market economy that is both faster-growing and less regulated than just about any other in the world.

The government that has decided not to regulate its exploding market economy still calls itself the Communist Party of China, but at this point it might as well be called the Party That Will Do Whatever Will Keep It In Power. And that, of course, means keeping up the kind of economic growth that makes a story like Aviva’s possible.

Aviva grew up in Inner Mongolia. These days, she’s a stock broker in Shanghai.

Only in America, right? I mean, only in Communist China.

Aviva has been in Shanghai for seven years now, and she spent two years in Guangzhou before that. Which means that at 21, an ambitious girl from Inner Mongolia finished school and moved to the big city to become, of all things, a stock broker.

Her heroes were the guys on Wall Street, half a world away in a country many Chinese idolize and are doing their very best to emulate. She still compares herself to them, sounding very much like an American business major with hopes of becoming the next Gordon Gekko.

“It’s not like the guys in Wall Street,” she says of her Shanghai finance job. “Those guys are really cool.”

Her English is nearly perfect, but she still studies as often as she can to improve it. Many of her clients are foreigners, and like just about every young professional you will meet in China, she wants to do business overseas.

The number of small private businesses that are springing up in still-technically-Communist China is pretty amazing, and almost all of them seem to be doing business overseas. It’s hardly a secret that Americans are buying up zillions of Chinese products, but Americans might be surprised by some of the Chinese entrepreneurs who are doing the selling.

A few weeks ago, I met a Chinese couple in a restaurant. They were both in their early 30s, and they were helping out a friend of mine who had just opened a new restaurant. It is not uncommon for friends or family to help out at a friend’s restaurant when they are short on staff, and I had always wondered how people were able to take the time off work in a city where a two-day weekend is a luxury.

In the case of this particular couple, it was because they own their own business. They sell fishing supplies online, and most of their customers are Americans. None of this was particularly noteworthy until I asked my new friend how many people worked for his company.

“Me and her,” he said, pointing to his wife.

The entire business consists of one man, his wife, and a website.

So how is business going for the couple from Yangzhou and their fishing website? The global financial crisis hasn’t helped things, of course, but they didn’t seem too worried about it, either. When I explained that many people in America are losing their jobs, he joked that they will have more time for fishing.

And as all of those newly unemployed Americans scan the internet for bargains, they may well end up buying their Christmas presents from a single couple running a tiny, online export business from somewhere in Communist China.

The Sports Meeting


The engineers were the big winners last weekend at Yangzhou Tech’s first annual inter-college Olympics.

The event, which my students described as “The Sports Meeting,” featured an extremely long list of sporting events spread out over two days. These ranged from traditional track and field events to the sort of contests you would expect to find at a family barbecue.

The competitors were all students at our school, with each department fielding a team. The engineering department finished first, and sported some very cool orange construction helmets for the Opening and Closing Ceremonies (apparently the helmets are a symbol for engineering, a student tells me).

Our department, which includes students majoring in English, French, accounting, and business management, finished sixth. But we still got two snazzy banners (below), which look exactly the same as the winner’s banner to someone who can’t read the words “sixth-place finisher” in Mandarin.


The bulk of the action was on the track, where there were a few competitive races sandwiched between things like the girls’ shot put, which involved about a dozen 90-pound girls in Yangzhou Tech track suits trying to toss a shot put as their friends cheered them on.

There were also a series of bizarre events, like a contest over who could ride a bicycle the slowest. The entire roster of events, which I foolishly attempted to leaf through to find the two I was meant to participate in, was roughly the size of a short screenplay. It was also written entirely in Chinese characters, which is why I ended up participating in just one event, which ended up being a race across the basketball court while balancing a ping-pong ball on a ping-pong paddle.

But the whole thing was taken quite seriously by most of the students, and it was quite a thing to watch.


I spent much of the weekend playing pick-up basketball games with students and some of the younger faculty. At one point, the school’s president came by, and we watched proudly as he attempted to make a short jump shot. He missed a half-dozen or so times before giving it up and moving on to something else, but the faculty was buzzing long after he left about how wonderful it was that the president was out playing basketball, just like everyone else.

It was like our very own presidential-candidate-serves-food-at-the-diner moment.


Here’s Shadow, one of my students, in her Yangzhou Tech track suit. Shadow was one of the competitors in the girls’ shot-put, and she also tried her hand in the long jump.


The faculty foot races were particularly comical. The guy on the left is actually one of my former students from my faculty English class last semester. Sadly, he lost to the very athletic bespectacled gentleman in lane three.


And since no event is complete without someone wearing a completely inappropriate T-shirt with something ridiculous written across the chest in English, we have a student in the long jump competition sporting a striped shirt that says “Dsquared Fucking” on it.

Hard to believe I was the only person there who thought it might not be the best idea to have the word “Fucking” prominently displayed on one’s shirt during an inter-college long jump competition, but no one seemed to think anything of it. I may have to do a unit on profanity at some point.


And here is the engineering department, rocking their helmets at the Closing Ceremony. The flag-bearer, by the way, has to be the tallest 19-year-old in Jiangsu Province.

1. He’s black.

2. His half-brother lives in Shenzhen. (This was major news in the national press here)

3. He just won the presidential election in America.

4. He beat Hillary Clinton.

Almost no one at the school has heard of John McCain, but there are quite a few students here who are still bummed out about Hillary losing in the primaries.

5. This means Bush isn’t the president of America anymore.

Most people are too polite to say it directly, but the students I’ve talked to seem pretty excited about this.

The students here seem pretty pleased that Obama was elected. One student, who knew I had planned to vote for Obama, came up to me the day after the election with a big smile and yelled, “Obama won the game!”

But there was some confusion about the historical significance of the Obama victory. There is general agreement among the students that Obama is black, and that it’s pretty rare for a black man to be elected president of the United States. But they aren’t quite sure if this is the first time it has happened.

One student asked me if Obama was, in fact, the first black man to be elected president in America. I told him he was, but the student wasn’t quite convinced.

“What about Lincoln?” he asked.

“No,” I said. “Lincoln was white.”


Yellow Mountain

HUANGSHAN – I’ve had some time off while my students practice their marching and chanting on the school’s football field during mandatory pre-college military training, so I decided to head to Anhui Province for a few days and climb a mountain.

I hopped on the overnight train in Nanjing, where my inability to speak Mandarin landed me in a hard-sleeper cabin instead of the soft-sleeper I enjoyed on the way to Beijing (learn how to say “soft-sleeper” in Mandarin, kids, it’s just a few kuai extra and you’ll actually get some sleep).

However many hours and almost no sleep later, it was 5:30 a.m. and I had reached a town called Tunxi. Fifty kuai got me to a much smaller town called Tankou, and forty more convinced the driver to take me from the hotel and restaurant he dropped us all off at, to the Bank of China in what some might call the center of town.

I had no real interest in visiting the Bank of China at 6:30 in the morning, especially after hearing that it didn’t open until 8:00, but Lonely Planet told me there was a place across the road called Mr. Hu’s Restaurant and that the owner, Mr. Hu, speaks English and is a good source of information.

Mr. Hu’s Restaurant, of course, was not across from the Bank of China, or at least not the Bank of China that I was driven to. But after just a few minutes of aimless wandering in the adorably small downtown business area of Tankou, a woman approached me speaking very good English and offering coffee and breakfast and hotel information.

She led me to a small restaurant with a sign above the door that read, “English service. Free Information.” An overpriced bowl of noodles and some pretty decent coffee later, she emerged from the kitchen with a map and an armload of Huangshan area travel guides. And in no time, I had a hotel reservation at 100 RMB/night and a route planned out for the next day’s climb.

(I would meet Mr. Hu the next day, actually, when he drove me to the bus station in Tankou, after first showing me the actual location of his restaurant and promising to give me information about the area if I decided to eat there).

Huangshan, or Yellow Mountain for those of you who speak even less Mandarin than I do, is a very touristy mountain to climb. There are paved stairs all the way to the top, and you can hike for hours at the top without ever reaching a trail that isn’t paved. There’s even a cable car to take you up there if you aren’t into climbing stairs for three and a half hours.

But China’s tallest staircase is still a hell of a walk. Especially if you’re carrying a load of food up to the hotels at the summit, like these guys were.

I passed dozens of these guys on the way up, and couldn’t help wondering why they couldn’t use the cable car to carry all that stuff to the summit.

Either way, the mountain was incredibly beautiful. I, of course, picked a day that was both rainy and remarkably foggy, which led to that wonderful moment when you get to the peak after three hours of climbing in the rain and see… fog. Lots and lots of fog. You can clearly tell that what you are looking at would be unspeakably beautiful on a clearer day. But all you see is fog. So you take a picture of it.

I took plenty of pictures, and some of them even came out. Here’s a few of the better ones:

You can almost tell there’s a mountain there, behind the fog.

At the top of the mountain, and at many points on the way up, couples have chained padlocks along the guardrails. The army of padlocks is evidence of just how many Chinese couples have made this climb.

The valley at the base of the mountain is also worth a visit.

So is the waterfall, even if it was more like a very large and impressive trickle during my early-Autumn visit.

There are some really great signs in the Huangshan area. During one stretch of the hike, there were repeated warnings of “Wet Floor.” A sign at the waterfall explains that a famous movie called “lie the tiger to hide the dragon” was filmed there (you might know it better as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). Another sign,  asking tourists not to walk down a certain stretch of path, reads, “Visitor Halt.”

But this one (above) is my favorite. Hanging from a metal chain that clearly marks off a certain area that tourists are not meant to cross, the sign asks visitors not to jump over that chain. Complete with a picture of a stick figure doing his best Liu Xiang impression, the sign reads, “Please do not jumps a hurdle.”

Military training

YANGZHOU – Sometimes, it really pays to work for a technical college.

Take this morning, for example. If I had been a regular American citizen passing through Yangzhou on holiday, perhaps on my way to Slim West Lake or maybe a bit of shopping on Wenchang Road, I might have been a bit confused (and perhaps, terrified) as I watched a few thousand soldiers march down the street in front of Yangzhou University in full combat fatigues at 10:00 on a Saturday morning.

It wouldn’t have helped that the driver of the bus I was riding was screaming at a traffic cop, and threatening to run him over, as the soldiers marched past. Or that the drivers of all of the other cars on the road were honking their horns, cursing, and generally acting like their lives might be in danger if they didn’t get off the road in the next 12 seconds.

To anyone who didn’t know what was going on, it must have looked like the city was under martial law. Or perhaps we were going to war.

But, having worked at Yangzhou Tech for the past few months, I was aware of the fact that all of the colleges and universities in town are holding military training exercises for all of their incoming freshmen this month.

I was also aware of the fact that people in Yangzhou, especially cab drivers and bus drivers, are just about always screaming, cursing and honking their horns, and generally giving the impression that something terrible will happen if they don’t reach their destination in the next 10-15 seconds.

So my only thought, as a few thousand soldiers crossed the street in front of me, was, “That would make a really great picture for the blog.”

The list of strange and interesting things that have led to my not having to teach my English class for a while, continues to grow.

In Thailand, my class was regularly canceled for Buddhist holidays, and to celebrate important moments in the lives of the royal family (including the King’s 80th birthday and the death of the King’s sister, which led to a 15-day national mourning period that was subsequently extended to 100 days in some cities).

Here in Yangzhou, my faculty course was occasionally called off for rain, the faculty-wide singing competition, and to allow my students to attend Communist Party training sessions.

This month, all of my freshmen classes are canceled so my students can take part in a month of mandatory military training.

Every student at our school, and I believe this is done at just about every school in China, has to participate in military training for the first month of their freshman year. The training includes marching, learning some basic military chants and songs, and some basic combat maneuvers (at our school, this appears to be limited to hand-to-hand combat, and it’s very basic).

Mostly, it’s a whole lot of marching, standing at attention, and responding to basic military orders.

At our school, most of the new recruits are girls (like in the States, the girls outnumber the boys on college campuses here). And most of them (above) are very thin and very tiny. This, my Australian colleague tells me, means that a few students will faint from standing too long in the heat.

The training is not too strenuous, but it is quite long. Training begins around 6:00 a.m. and I’ve seen the students finishing up as late as 5:00 p.m. in the evening. According to a local friend, the training is led by members of the actual Chinese military.

With the Olympics now in our rear-view mirror, it’s time to answer the $40 billion question.

Was it worth it?

China spent $43 billion on these Games, more than doubling the previous record of $15 billion for the 2004 Games in Athens. The government shut down hundreds of factories across northern China and pulled half of the cars off the streets of Beijing in a desperate effort to clear the skies. It ordered more than a million people from their homes to make way for the stadiums and Olympic Green area, shuttered hotels and restaurants that didn’t meet the standards it hoped to portray to its foreign guests, and rounded up an untold number of dissidents to make sure everyone was on message for the Games.

And that doesn’t include the money that was spent on training the athletes to make sure the PRC topped the medal count, or training the citizens of Beijing to make sure no one was rude, spit on the streets, or jumped in line during the Games.

It may be a bit of a stretch to say the entire Chinese economy was affected by the government’s many Olympics-related regulations. But between factory closings, new environmental regulations, and stricter visa policies aimed at preventing unwanted people from entering the country during the Games, a pretty wide range of Chinese businesses had a rough couple of months. Everything from the Beijing sports bar that added a 15% Olympics fee to each customers’ bill along with a note about how the new Olympics rules had raised the cost of shipping and transporting food and drinks to the restaurant, to a shoe company in Shenzhen (about as far as one can get from Beijing and still be in China) who saw prices rise for rubber, plastic, and leather due to Olympics-related factory closings.

And since nothing that could tarnish the Games could be left to chance, the government had to deal with the weather, too.

Fortunately, China had already established a Weather Modification Department with an annual budget of $60-90 million. The WMD has a full-time staff of 1,500 and a part-time brigade of 37,000 ready to deploy the department’s 7,113 anti-aircraft guns and 4,991 rocket launchers.

Their job was to figure out how to control the weather, so the government could do things like make it rain in specific areas when there was a drought (apparently, this is done by firing packets of silver iodide into the clouds using anti-aircraft guns and/or rocket launchers). But for the past seven years, their most important job was to make sure the skies were clear for the Opening Ceremony.

The Games had a pretty significant social impact, as well.

Thanks to months of Olympics-themed lessons (some of them administered by yours truly), Chinese school-children are now conversant in Olympic tradition and history, from the colors of the Olympic rings to the height, weight, and birthdays of past Chinese Olympians.

In a country where it is common to find infants urinating in the streets, even in major cities, ordinary people will tell you they are excited about the environmental benefits of the Olympics-inspired ban on free plastic shopping bags.

And the Games may have even inspired a few thousand more people to work on their English, from the elderly volunteers who started studying English when Beijing won the bid in 2001 so they could help give directions or answer questions for foreigners seven years later, to the manager at a McDonald’s in Hangzhou who playfully scolded a cashier in late July, “You must practice English, Olympic Games are coming!”

So, was it all worth it?

Don Lee of the Los Angeles Times thinks so. He explains that while lesser economies have struggled after shelling out more than they could afford to put on a dazzling Olympic show, the Chinese economy is likely to improve after the Olympics.

The oft-quoted cost of the Games should have little effect on the world’s most populous nation, says Lee, and the lifting of a litany of Olympics-inspired regulations should allow China’s economy to get back to normal, with normal being an absurdly impressive rate of growth.

Apparently, $43 billion is not a whole lot of money for one of the largest and fastest-growing economies in the world.

According to one economist in Shanghai, the record-setting Olympic price tag may have accounted for as little as 0.5 percent of China’s total national investment in the last five years.

There is universal agreement that the Games were a logistical and technological success.

There was a bit of scolding from the press for internet censorship, and the treatment of reporters, and the failure to allow any protesting. And there was even an uproar over the fact that the adorable little girl in the Opening Ceremony was (gasp!) lip-syncing. But on the whole, the reviews were off the charts.

Here’s the AP, The Washington Post, and a great run-down from The Post’s Beijing blog.

And here’s fellow Bethesda, Maryland resident Tom Friedman of the New York Times, on what the success of the Games tells us about China.

I know almost nothing about economics, but I had always assumed that the only thing that could prevent the Olympics from being a major success for China were very large protests handled very badly by the government.

This was everyone’s biggest concern heading into the Games. There was little doubt China would put on a spectacular display for the Opening and Closing Ceremonies, or that things would be run with anything less than military precision at all of the events in between. All of the venues would be stunning and the city would be shiny and clean (because anything that wasn’t would be removed by the government prior to the start of the Games).

The tremendous logistical and technological showcase would show the world that China had arrived. That the last great Communist regime had gotten pretty good at Capitalism. And that it has all of the infrastructure and resources you might need to do business.

When the world saw all of this, all of those businessmen who hadn’t already decided to consider doing business with China, might decide to consider doing business with China. And the world’s fourth-largest economy would continue to grow at Usain Bolt speed until it inevitably becomes the world’s largest.

The only thing that could prevent the Beijing Games from being an iconic moment in China’s rise to economic superpower status was a big, ugly scene that would make the world think all of the things it thought after Tiananmen Square. The kind of scene that would make all of those businessmen wonder whether they should consider doing business with China after all.

So the big question heading into these Olympics was how China would handle the protests. The “Free-Tibet!” people, the Uighur people, the people whose homes were knocked down so all the stadiums could be built, the people who want to be able to read Wikipedia and blog, the people who think better building practices and less corruption could have saved their children’s lives, all those American and British and French people who turned the torch relay into such a catastrophe. What if they all got together to form some kind of super-protest that couldn’t help but be broadcast by the international press to all corners of the television-watching globe?

But a funny thing happened. Nobody really protested anything. Not even in the three “protest parks” the government set up for the purpose.

The reason there were no major protests, even in the specially arranged “protest parks,” is that the government required written applications from all groups intending to protest, and then refused to accept any of the applications that were submitted.

But none of that really matters. Even the story of the two elderly women who attempted five times to apply to protest, were denied each time, and then were almost sent to labor camps for reeducation, doesn’t really matter.

All that matters, really, is that these Olympics were going to be a great moment in Chinese history, one that would continue and perhaps even speed China’s evolution into a global superpower, unless the government did something really horrible to a large group of people within sight of a television camera.

And that didn’t happen.

And I’m glad.