Archive for April, 2008

Gourmet powder

That’s what they call MSG at the supermarket here in Yangzhou.

It dominates its aisle, and they sell it in very large bags.


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A few days ago, I woke up to news of the Olympic Torch’s smooth and tranquil journey through London, which will host the Games in 2012.

I learned that the weather had been a bit sub-par, but everything else had gone swimmingly. It had been a day the Chinese could be proud of, full of smiles, cheers, and international brotherhood.

I learned all of this from the NewsHour report on CCTV, the government-run news channel here in China.

A few hours later, I read this.

And this.

And I saw these.

The next morning, I woke up to news that a small band of “Tibetan separatists” had attempted to sabotage the Olympic Torch Relay in Paris. Fortunately, the authorities responded quickly and the relay continued. The actions of the separatists were swiftly condemned by the international community, and everyone involved will be brought to justice.

I knew something horrible must have happened if CCTV had a report like that, so I can’t say I was surprised to find this, this, and these, that afternoon.

CCTV audiences will not likely be informed that activists in San Francisco prepared for the arrival of the torch by scaling the Golden Gate Bridge to hang a banner that read “Free Tibet 08”, or that the local government there assembled a massive security force prior to the relay and readied itself to clash with demonstrators as the torch and its message of peace and brotherhood made its only stop in North America.

And they will not likely hear that Mayor Gavin Newsom was so fearful of rioting that he secretly changed the relay route to allow the torch to be smuggled through San Francisco before anyone found out what was going on. Newsom told Reuters the decision to hide the torch from the public and get it the hell out of town as quickly as possible was made in the interest of public safety.

In its own way, San Francisco may have become the low point in the increasingly absurd and ugly saga of the Beijing Torch Relay. After two rounds of spirited violence and general upheaval in Europe, the Olympic Torch was rushed through San Francisco like an escaping prisoner. The final stop on the torch’s brief American visit was meant to be a grand closing ceremony by the water. Instead, the AP reports, the “ceremony” was moved to the international airport, where the torch was perhaps viewed by a team of baggage-handlers before it was rushed onto a waiting airplane.

It has gotten so bad that the International Olympic Committee held a meeting to decide whether the rest of the international torch relay would be canceled entirely. But the IOC says the show must go on, so the Free Tibet Tour now moves to Buenos Aires.

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Yangzhou Tech

I’m here.

I am now a proud (and soon to be legal) resident of the People’s Republic of China. I just finished my first week of teaching at Yangzhou Polytechnic Institute, and I have successfully located a bank, a grocery store, and multiple pizza places. The search for the bar that is rumored to be fairly decent (apparently there’s only one) begins this weekend.

I’m still settling in and trying to come to terms with the fact that they actually have seasons here and that I seem to have caught the tail-end of winter (two weeks ago I was laying on a beach in Krabi), but it’s going as well as can be expected.

The fact that I showed up here with one pair of khakis, four long-sleeved shirts, and one fleece, means I have gotten to know the downtown shopping district rather well in the past week. It’s been a bit overwhelming after four months in Chaiyaphum, where the biggest shopping decision to be made was which floor of the Tesco should I start on? But I can tell you that KFC and Pizza Hut both taste better in China, the coffee is even worse than in Thailand (no small feat), and the only people who will admit to speaking any English here are elementary school kids who look like they go to private school.

The English in Yangzhou may actually be worse than it was in Chaiyaphum, but it could just be that people here aren’t quite as interested in where I’m going and where I come from. Either way, there’s been quite a bit of miming and pointing in the past week, and my Lonely Planet phrasebook gets plenty of use.

I’m not quite the celebrity I was in Chaiyaphum, where I couldn’t walk two blocks in any direction without someone yelling, “Where you go?”, but I definitely stick out in a crowd. Small children stare at me the way they might inspect a Panda bear at the zoo, and the only other white people I’ve come across so far are the other English teacher at our school and two guys having lunch at the Pizza Hut downtown.

It is definitely a different world here, from home and from Thailand. A few of the stranger things I’ve noticed in my first week-and-a-half in Yangzhou:

– The teachers live in dorm rooms on campus here. As a foreign teacher, I have a bedroom, living room and kitchen to myself, but the local teachers have roommates and shared kitchens. It’s two per room mostly, in dorm rooms not too much bigger than in an American college, but on the top floor of my building they have four teachers sharing each room!

– Public bus rides are an experience. It’s just 1 yuan no matter how far you go and the bus lines seem to go just about everywhere, but they will pack you in until the doors are blocked to the point that they can’t close. And even then, some drivers will drive with the doors open to let a few extra passengers stand in the doorway and hold on.

– Everything you’ve heard about comic English translations on products is probably true. My cooking oil advertises that it comes from corn “embryos” and the best coffee I’ve been able to find is called “Mr. Bond” and comes with the tagline, “I’m young, I’m coffee.”

– I’ll write a lot more about this as I get a better idea of what is actually true, but it’s hard to figure out what makes this a Communist country. It’s definitely a one-party state, and that party calls itself the Communist Party, but at least here in Yangzhou the economy appears to run more or less the way it did in Bethesda, Maryland. There are privately-owned businesses everywhere you look, many of them are housed in very tall, modern buildings, and there is advertising all over the place. I’ve spent much of the past week walking from one privately-owned shopping center or pedestrian mall to another, and the sign in front of the large construction site across the street from our school proclaims that the apartment building they are building there will be a “Wealth, Market Leader.”

Yangzhou is part of a designated ‘Special Economic Zone,’ which means it is an area where the government allows free-market capitalism. Presumably, the system is still Communism outside of these special zones, but if you take a look at the size of the ‘Special Economic Zones,’ which I believe are continuing to expand, it looks like it will only be a matter of time before this becomes a Special Economic Country.

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I finally have photos up from Angkor Wat, and I just discovered that I can caption them with Picasa. So from now on, all of you will have witty, informative captioning to keep you company as you scroll through my photo albums.

I know, I’m excited too.

Anyway, Angkor Wat was amazing (miles ahead of Ayutthaya). I spent three very warm days there with my parents and a local guide, and I managed to take even more pictures than I took in Ayutthaya (not all of them are up on the web, just my 199 favorites).

If you ever go to Angkor Wat, make sure you have a guide. The temples are very impressive on their own, but after a while they will all start to blend together unless you have a steady stream of fun facts from your guide to keep you going.

A few of my favorites:

– The large, grassy area we are standing in was once used as a stadium for elephant-fighting (like cock-fighting, I suppose, but with elephants);

– This carving shows two teams of people (the good people and the bad people) playing tug-of-war with a giant snake;

– These holes are bullet-holes from the Cambodian civil war…

After all, you wouldn’t want to leave Siem Reap without hearing the story of the husband who enlisted the help of an army of monkey soldiers to reclaim his wife, who was stolen from him by a wicked king.

That tale, as well as the famous game of snake tug-of-war, is carved on the temple walls. But without our trusty guide, I’d still be wondering if those were really monkeys carved in the middle of all those war scenes (in many of the wall carvings, the good guys are aided by monkey soldiers, who were about twice the size of human soldiers if the carvings are to scale).

And I would never have guessed that the lake near the entrance was built for the king as a swimming pool, and that the one in front of Angkor Wat was actually a giant moat to protect the temple.

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