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Archive for May, 2008

The first thing I noticed was the hats.

It was 12:30 p.m. and the torch would not be here until 3:00. But there were already thousands of people at the head of Wenchang Road, staking their claim to a small piece of sidewalk and preparing to welcome the Olympic Torch to their city.

They carried flags of all sizes, from the cheap miniature you might get in an ice-cream sundae to the full-sized one you might find wrapped around the body of a sprinter as he circles the track for a victory lap.

There were grown men in “I love China” T-shirts with Chinese-flag stickers on both cheeks. Others wore red headbands with Chinese characters in gold lettering.

And almost everyone had the same hat on.

It turns out, the hats were for volunteers. There were thousands of them, and their job was to wave their flags and lead various chants. (One of my colleagues tells me the chants translate roughly into, “Come on, Olympics!” and “Come on, Beijing!” and “Welcome to Yangzhou!”)

Whoever organized them really didn’t need to. By 1:30 p.m., the volunteers were dwarfed by the number of ordinary citizens who were on hand, dressed every bit as ridiculously and waving their own very large flags.

It was the kind of enthusiasm normally reserved for a college football game or a political rally, which in a way is what it was. If the torch relay had been a political event in London and Paris and San Francisco, the Yangzhou leg of the relay was a rally of a different sort. A pep rally for the Party, if you will.

There was pageantry aplenty, including a pair of trucks filled with Beijing ’08 cheerleaders.

But mostly, it was a few sweaty hours of people who love their country hoping to catch a glimpse of the Olympic Torch (and maybe get a shot of it on their camera-phones).

And after two-and-a-half hours in the sun, far too many photo ops with excited locals, and 17 yuan spent on a Torch Relay T-shirt and two miniature flags, I caught my own brief glimpse of the torch. And though I had to crop out the hands, flags, and camera-phones of my fellow torch-gawkers, I even got a shot of it on my camera.

I’d heard a few days ago that one of the students from our school would be participating in the torch relay. It turns out, he played a pretty major role in the event. He’s the guy standing to the left of the torchbearer (he’s the one who isn’t wearing a hat).

After a dramatic salute (above) in the center of the traffic circle at the head of Wenchang Road, the flame was transferred to a new torchbearer. All of this happened about 20 feet, and many dozens of people, from where I was standing.

I posed for a number of pictures with locals who wanted a photo with a foreigner, but this is my favorite. (How often do you get a picture with a guy in a “I heart China” shirt and a Chinese flag cape?)

The scarf draped around my neck was handed to me by a random passerby a few minutes after I arrived at the traffic circle. I don’t read Chinese, but the many people I asked for translations tell me it is a tribute to the victims of the earthquake in Sichuan Province.

There wasn’t a separatist in sight at the head of Wenchang Road, but there were plenty of police officers. The police presence wasn’t any worse than you would expect to find at an event of this size, though.

A grown man with Chinese-flag stickers on both cheeks.

Another one.

One of the two large trucks carrying Beijing ’08 cheerleaders.

There was a huge crowd in front of KFC more than two hours before the torch arrived. One of two air-conditioned restaurants with a view of the traffic circle, the KFC was absolutely packed by 12:30 p.m.

A headband, stickers, and a giant flag gives this guy the torch relay trifecta.

And we close with laowai looking silly. This is me and Alice, the other foreign teacher at our school. Somebody handed me the big flag for the photo, but the small flags we bought from a guy on the street for 2 yuan.

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You don’t get many chances to lead with a 3-foot statue doing rhythmic gymnastics in downtown Yangzhou.

I’ll be doing quite a bit of writing over the next few years, but I’m willing to bet this is the only time I’ll get to mention a rhythmic gymnastics-themed statue blowing kisses to a crowd of Chinese camera-phones in the middle of a crowded business district.

The reason the traffic on Wenchang Road was forced to dodge dozens of small children posing for their parents’ camera-phones is the arrival of the Olympic Torch in Yangzhou. The torch will be carried through the city tomorrow, including what should be a pretty dramatic stop at the traffic circle in the center of the downtown shopping district.

To prepare for the torch’s arrival there, the city has outfitted the traffic circle with statues of the Beijing ’08 mascots competing in their favorite Olympic events. The more obvious events are strangely missing, in favor of some of the less celebrated contests. The non-revenue events, if you will.

You won’t find swimming or basketball at the head of Wenchang Road, but pole vault, shooting, and weightlifting are all represented, along with ping-pong, karate, and, of course, rhythmic gymnastics.

There are five mascots for the Beijing Olympics, one for each of the Olympic rings. Their names, Beibei, Jingjing, Huanhuan, Yingying, and Nini, combine to form the phrase “Bei Jing Huan Ying Ni,” which means “Welcome to Beijing.”

Jinjing the Panda represents the harmonious bond between man and nature, which makes it a bit strange to see him holding a handgun.

Proving once again that he is by far the manliest of the mascots, Jingjing drew shooting and weightlifting. We’re still waiting for the results of his drug test.

That’s me with Yingying the Tibetan Antelope, who is representing the host’s national sport. I’d speculate that they chose Yingying for the ping-pong statue as a subtle olive branch to the troublesome Autonomous Region, but I think that’s reading a bit too much into it. That’s a real ping-pong paddle, though. Got to love the authenticity there.

Don’t mess with Huanhuan, the Olympic Torch. He knows karate.

Here’s Yingying the Tibetan Antelope on the pole vault. (That’s a sentence I never thought I’d write.)

According to the official bios, Yingying is strong in the track and field events.

This badminton player is Nini the Swallow. Her bio says she’s strong in gymnastics, so she’s stretching a bit here.

And finally, we come to Beibei the Fish. Not surprisingly, she’s strong in the water sports, but she somehow beat out Nini in the rhythmic gymnastics qualifying.

I’m not ready to call her the George Mason of the Yangzhou Torch Relay, but maybe she’s a Davidson.

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Leave it to me to find the press freedom angle in the genuine tragedy that is unfolding in Sichuan Province.

More than 50,000 people may have died since the magnitude 7.9 earthquake there, and the stories and images that continue to emerge are overwhelming. The story of a collapsed school and the teachers who told their students to stay in the building, thinking it was the safest place they could be, is the one that will stay with me, along with the image of a woman carrying her child down a road with an extraordinary cloud of dust behind her. (there are some incredible photos from the AP, here)

But it is a different set of photographs and an interview with an unnamed official from the “press and publication department” of the city of Chongqing that has me turning once again to a subject I’m sure the Chinese government wishes we would all stop writing about.

But as someone with a framed copy of a Danish editorial cartoon that once caused violent protests in numerous countries and a few dozen angry letters addressed to a student newspaper in Madison, Wisconsin, I find myself drawn to these stories.

The cartoon is a reprint of a depiction of the prophet Muhammad with a bomb under his turban. It was originally printed in a Danish newspaper called Jyllands-Posten, along with 11 other cartoons of Muhammad. When the cartoons were subsequently reprinted in other newspapers, a large number of Muslims across the globe chose to voice their displeasure by taking to the streets and burning some buildings to the ground. (There’s a great recap of all of this, here)

This, of course, forced just about every newspaper editor in the world to decide whether he, too, should reprint the offending images alongside his paper’s coverage of what had suddenly become a major international news story.

The reason the cartoon now sits in a frame in my bedroom in Bethesda, Maryland is because I was the managing editor of one of the papers that decided to print it. Dozens of angry letters and one campus forum later, The Badger Herald stands by the decision. And the cartoon, which sits above an editorial explaining our decision, will now hang on one of the walls of my apartment in whatever city I might decide to live in when I get back to the States and start writing for newspapers again.

Which brings me to the reason I’m now writing about “rectification” and “propaganda discipline” when I really should be writing about the tragic events in Sichuan Province and the heroic response of the Chinese government.

When a hurricane left a major American city flooded, our government’s response was to send a few helicopters in to drop packages of food into the water, and to argue with the state’s governor about whether her request for federal aid had been properly submitted. But when an earthquake hit Sichuan Province, the Chinese government dispatched more than 100,000 soldiers and rescue workers to the area, according to the state-run Xinhua news service, and is ready to spend $160 million on relief efforts.

So why am I writing about press freedom at a time when the Chinese government is truly worthy of praise?

Because a magazine editor at New Travel Weekly made the bizarre decision to run a racy earthquake-themed photo spread and the Chinese government decided to shut the publication down.

And because the reporting of all this introduced me to two very interesting phrases, both of which were used by the Chongqing “press and publication department” to explain why the magazine had to be shut down.

Here’s the department’s explanation in a report from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation:

The department said the magazine “seriously violated propaganda discipline and went against social morals” and the report constituted an “extremely evil social influence.”

“If the outcome of the rectification is satisfactory, it is possible to reopen the magazine,” an employee of the press and publication department with the family name Cai said.

“After all, only part of the staff made the decision to print that shoot. It wouldn’t be fair to just close it for good.”

The first phrase is “rectification,” which appears to translate roughly to clean house and find new editors who will print things the government approves of, at which point the offending publication can resume printing until further rectification becomes necessary.

This would explain why the editors of New Travel Weekly have been promptly fired and the unnamed official from the press and publication department believes the magazine may be able to resume publication following its “rectification.”

The second phrase is the one that really jumps out to us Westerners, especially those of us who majored in journalism. When we see the word “propaganda,” we tend to think of things like Nazi Germany and the old Soviet Union and all of the villainous regimes that people insist on comparing to the current Chinese government.

That’s why it’s so jarring when the press and publication department of Chongqing uses a phrase like “propaganda discipline” to explain why it shut down a magazine over a racy photo spread.

I don’t know if that is an official term or an unfortunate translation, and I won’t speculate here. What I do know is the Chinese government really needs to consider rectifying its stance on press freedom. That is, clean house and find new officials who will recognize that it is better to let citizens read about their government than it is to continue the sort of repressive practices you’d prefer they didn’t read about.

In a very real way, the Chinese government has made life exponentially better for a very large number of its citizens over the last three decades. And over the past two weeks, the government has shown its extraordinary capability to come to the aid of its people in times of great need.

But as long as the government continues to shut down magazines, imprison bloggers, and employ scores of internet monitors to block and unblock websites, we will all keep writing about things like “rectification” and “propaganda discipline” when we should be giving China the praise it deserves.

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The list, of course, is growing.

I’ve already mentioned that college professors sleep in bunk beds here, and that every now and then they might have to miss a class or two to “learn the knowledge of the Communist Party of China.”

But I haven’t told you about the singing.

Singing is a really big deal here. If you spend enough time with locals, sooner or later one of them is bound to ask if she can sing a song for you. She will probably expect you to sing something in return, at which point you will have to explain that singing songs to people you’ve just met is one of the many things that just wouldn’t happen in America.

Which brings me to last Wednesday’s faculty-wide singing contest. I found out about the contest when one of my colleagues explained why he was the only person to show up to my class on Tuesday. The 37 other teachers who were supposed to be working on their conversational English that day were getting ready for Wednesday’s performances.

So the next afternoon I went to the school auditorium to see what all the fuss was about. And for the next hour and a half, I watched faculty from each department in our school deliver spirited and well-rehearsed performances of Chinese nationalist songs.

Every group had costumes and at least some minor choreography, and every group was under the direction of a faculty conductor. One group even had props, in the form of miniature Chinese flags to be waved dramatically at the song’s climax (my resident interpreter explained that the song in question was about waving the “red flag,” meaning the flag of China).

One of my colleagues from the course I do for the faculty served as my interpreter for the event. She was in one of the first groups to perform, so she spent the rest of the contest telling me what each song was about. Invariably, the songs were about China and the pride one should feel about living there.

There was one exception to the nationalist theme, though my interpreter told me the song is very popular in China. It was “Edelweiss,” from The Sound of Music, translated into Chinese. According to my interpreter, “everyone in China knows this song.”

American films are very popular in China, actually. They have weekly showings of Hollywood movies at Yangzhou University, so the students and members of the community can practice their English, and all the movie theaters have current Hollywood films, either dubbed in Chinese or with Chinese subtitles.

The locals are genuinely surprised to learn that I have never heard of any of the Chinese movie stars and pop singers they ask me about, since they know so much about American stars. Just another example of how much more interest the rest of the world has in us, than we have in the rest of the world.

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I got a few colorful excuses in Thailand from students who missed my class.

The school-sponsored “Buddhism camp,” which included an overnight stay at a temple, was probably my favorite. It was definitely not the only time I heard that up to half of my class was “at the temple” for the day, or preparing a dance or song for one of Chaiyaphum’s many festivals (we were averaging at least two festivals a month while I was there).

But none of the excuses from the girls at Satrichaiyaphum High matched the one I received this afternoon. It’s a text message from one of the teachers in the English conversation course I’m doing for some of my colleagues here at Yangzhou Tech.

sorry mike, i will absent our class today because of learning the knowledge of the Communist Party of China, i am so sorry.

Oddly enough, we talked politics a bit in class today. My colleagues seemed interested in the American presidential election, though I had to explain the primary system to them and help them out a bit with the pronunciation of “Obama.”

They even laughed when I mentioned George W.’s approval rating. I guess some things are universal.

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If you work in construction, they need you in Yangzhou.

I don’t think there is a place in this city where a crane is not visible. If you can only see one from where you are standing, you’ve found a pretty rare spot.

Almost always, it seems, the cranes are at the site of another new block of apartments. There are many dozens of apartment buildings in Yangzhou, many of them were built in the last three years, and many more are being built as I type this sentence.

They are building so many new apartments because they don’t build houses in Yangzhou. Houses aren’t efficient enough. They are an extravagance reserved for countries with fewer than 1.3 billion citizens.

Houses are so rare in Chinese cities that the locals here have trouble understanding how I could have grown up in a house that was in a city. To the Chinese, houses are only for the countryside, where there is actually enough land to build an entire building for just one family to live in.

It is incredible to think about how much of this city is brand new. I am typing this from an apartment on a college campus that is only a year old. Another college on our street is still half-finished.

They are building a giant apartment building across the street and a block down the road they are building another one. There is a large plot of cleared land between them, which will soon be the site of another major building project.

The main commercial street downtown, which leads to the most crowded and happening part of town, is only ten years old. That means the entire downtown shopping scene, and its multiple shopping centers and dozens of fashionable shops and restaurants, is less than ten years old.

They have since built an even newer street, leading to an even newer part of town. Everything on that street, which my local guide refers to as “the new city,” is less than three years old.

This type of growth is astonishing to someone who until a few weeks ago thought Bethesda, Maryland was growing pretty fast. I even assumed that America in general was growing pretty fast.

Living in China has a way of putting these things in perspective.

In an American city, you tend to notice when there is a major construction project in your neighborhood. If there is a 10-story building being built, it’s pretty safe to assume it’s the only construction site on that block. In Yangzhou, there’s a pretty good chance it isn’t.

But even with all of this growth, there are small things here and there that remind you that this is still China. You can still find very old men riding very old bicycles on even the newest of the city’s brand-new streets. Some of them drag large carriages behind their bicycles, hauling logs or farming equipment down a four- or six-lane road that wasn’t there in 1997.

Our brand-new school, just one year old, has strict limits on electricity in the dorms. Students can’t even use electric fans in their rooms, much less air conditioning.

And every day there is a steady stream of students carrying hot water from the water room back to their dorm rooms in a thermos. Even in a year-old technical college, there is no hot water in the brand new student dorms.

And lest you think the professors are living a modern life of luxury, most of them sleep in bunk-beds in shared dorm rooms. These are college professors with advanced degrees. If they lived in America, they might be turning down offers from the University of Wisconsin because the school doesn’t offer domestic partner benefits.

Here, the less senior faculty sleeps four to a room.

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Turtles

There are many things I love about the supermarket here in Yangzhou.

They sell pig hooves in the meats section. There are black chickens in the poultry aisle. MSG takes up nearly an entire aisle, and you can get rice in giant plastic sacks the way you might buy mulch or lawn fertilizer back home.

But my favorite part of the store is the large area in the center of the produce department, which can best be described as a small aquarium. Next to the weighing station, where I bring my bell peppers and granny smith apples to be stamped with a price tag, are a number of clear-plastic tanks that house a pretty comprehensive display of live sea creatures.

There are fish of various sizes and colors, a wide selection of critters you might expect to find on a snorkeling trip, a few things I’m pretty sure I had never seen before, and some turtles.

Yes, turtles.

In the supermarket.

There is a saying about the Chinese that claims they will eat anything that walks on the earth, swims in the sea, or flies in the sky. Evidently, they aren’t opposed to amphibious creatures, either.

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