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Archive for June, 2008

The street in this photo has been there for a thousand years, or so the locals tell me.

It used to be part of the city’s main commercial district, back when Yangzhou was one of the richest and most important cities in China. In those days, the salt merchants (who seem to be roughly equivalent to today’s oil tycoon) would come here to buy or trade or do whatever absurdly wealthy people might have done at the time.

Surprisingly little has changed over those thousand years. People still live on this street, and the city’s main commercial district is now just a few blocks away.

Of course, a few things have changed since the end of the Qing Dynasty. One block over from where this picture was taken, there is a giant electronics mall selling all of the newest computers, digital cameras, and assorted tech gadgets. There are so many gadgets for sale there that the place fills two four-story buildings, each plastered with giant advertisements for the various brand-name products you can find inside.

The ancient street has become something of a tourist attraction these days, particularly around the childhood home of former Chinese president Jiang Zemin, who grew up in a little Chinese-style townhouse on this street.

But it’s pretty amazing that there are still people living on a street that is somewhere around five times older than the entire history of the United States. And that in all of that time, the economic center of Yangzhou has shifted less than five blocks.

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Joan, a middle-aged colleague at Yangzhou Tech, still remembers it.

It was 1995, when she and some 20 other teachers took a trip to Beijing on an educational tour organized by her college. It was her first trip to Beijing, and doubtless the first for many of her colleagues.

She was in Tiananmen Square, where just six years earlier her government had opened fire on unarmed student protesters, when she saw it.

Her first KFC.

Sitting in the foreign teacher’s office for her speaking exam at the end of an oral English course for faculty, Joan recalls the meal 13 years later.

“It was in 1995,” she tells me. “I was in Tiananmen Square, and I was introduced to KFC for the first time.”

She remembers it the way one remembers an important moment in one’s life. The way I might remember my first night market in Thailand or the first time I walked into a little restaurant in China and clumsily attempted an order.

Thirteen years from now, I might tell someone about the time I walked into a little place in Ban Phe and ended up with a whole fish floating in a bowl of clear broth. Or my first plate of eel at the airport in Tokyo. Or the time I tried pig brains at a hot-pot place in Yangzhou.

But to Joan, who would think nothing of pig brains or eel or a bowl of fish soup, an overpriced plate of fried chicken was the most exotic meal she could ask for.

This all seems very silly to an American, of course. But put yourself in Joan’s position.

For the past 35 years, you have eaten nothing but Chinese food. You’ve read about this place on the other side of the world, watched a number of foreign films about it, and basically built it up in your mind as the most exciting and wonderful place in the world. A place where everyone is rich and attractive, the women sleep with everyone they meet (a lot of people in China and Thailand believe this about American girls, probably because of the movies), and all of the important decisions in the world are made.

Now imagine that you have the opportunity, for the first time in your life, to taste the food that people eat in this place. A meal from a real American restaurant!

For anyone old enough to remember a China without the Western fast-food chain, which can now be found in all the major cities here, that is what it felt like to walk into a KFC for the first time.

Even today, the American fast-food chain holds a position of honor in the Chinese restaurant scene. A meal at McDonald’s or KFC will cost you more than 20 yuan, which makes it one of the pricier dining options in a city like Yangzhou, where the equivalent Chinese dish won’t cost you more than 7-10 yuan. A Pizza Hut qualifies as high-end dining in China, with meals going for more than 50 yuan. When one enters a Pizza Hut here, one may be surprised to find a sign that reads, “Please wait to be seated.” And sure enough, a hostess will appear to seat your party.

You will always find a McDonald’s, KFC or Pizza Hut at the trendiest and swankiest locales in any Chinese city. In Yangzhou, for example, the choice location in town would have to be the area around the traffic circle at the head of Wenchang Road, which marks the center of the city’s downtown commercial district. Sure enough, occupying two of the most visible addresses in town, just opposite the famed circle, are a Pizza Hut and a KFC.

And though a meal will cost you three times the price of a Chinese equivalent, you won’t find an empty McDonald’s in China. I’ve walked past quite a few in Yangzhou, Nanjing, and Shanghai now and I haven’t found one that wasn’t full.

It’s really something in a country where people will argue over a two-dollar cab ride. It’s still hard to believe, as an American, but Joan offers three reasons why she continues to hold the food at KFC in such high regard.

“First, it’s standard,” she tells me. “Second, it’s clean. And third, it’s delicious!”

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The Chinese government is doing what it can to clean things up before the Olympics.

That doesn’t mean anyone is cracking down on spitting, or small children urinating in public, on the streets of Yangzhou (though they are going after spitting and line-jumping in Beijing). And it doesn’t mean the canals near our school are any less green and filmy lately.

But the government is definitely trying. One very good law went into effect this month and one very silly law will go into effect next month, in an 11th hour push to clean the streets and lift the Beijing smog in time for the Games.

Here in Yangzhou, a nationwide restriction on plastic bags has been in place since June 1. In an effort to cut down on the tremendous amount of pollution caused by plastic bags, stores are no longer permitted to give customers a free plastic bag to carry their purchases home. You can still get a plastic bag at the register, but you now have to pay for it.

Though I am generally opposed to anything that forces me to say more words in Chinese before I can leave a store with whatever I was trying to purchase, the new plastic bag rule is really a pretty good idea. In a country with more than a billion people, particularly one that has decided to make rampant private consumerism one of the new, cherished values of the Communist Party, there are quite a few plastic bags floating around. And since plastic, miracle product that it is, could probably survive a nuclear attack, it’s probably a good idea to try to limit the number of plastic bags that become Chinese garbage each day.

The new plastic bag law will have little effect among rich, fancy foreigners like myself. I’ve been to the supermarket twice now since the restriction went into effect and both times happily paid the 1 yuan or so fee to purchase plastic bags for my groceries.

But it could be taken far more seriously by the Chinese. To give you an idea of what 1 yuan or so means to someone who was raised on the yuan, I was scolded by my friend Shen Miao Miao (who I’d met about 20 minutes prior in the supermarket that afternoon) when I emptied one of my two grocery bags into my backpack and decided to throw away the plastic grocery bag I had just purchased.

Thinking I must not be aware that plastic grocery bags now cost 1 yuan or so, she explained (through a mix of sign language and carefully chosen words from her Chinese-English dictionary) that plastic bags are no longer free and that I shouldn’t throw out the bag I had just purchased because it is far too valuable to be treated as garbage. Not wanting to take the time to explain that I was, in fact, aware of the new law and worried that I might come off as obnoxiously extravagant for throwing away something I had purchased no more than 30 seconds ago, I put the 1-yuan-or-so bag in my backpack and threw it out when I got home.

All of this is my long-winded way of explaining that though the Chinese may not be rich enough yet to care much about the environment, they are still poor enough to treat a 1-yuan-or-so plastic bag as something more valuable than garbage. Which means the government’s free-plastic-bag ban really could impact the number of plastic bags ordinary citizens are willing to throw away each day, which just might be very good news for the environment.

The government’s ban on driving in Beijing
, however, is as silly as it sounds. Starting July 20, the citizens of Beijing will only be permitted to drive their cars on certain days of the week, based on their license-plate number. (Even-numbered plates and odd-numbered plates will split the days of the week, with each banned from the streets on alternate days)

This extraordinary inconvenience is intended to improve Beijing’s legendary smog, which is reportedly so bad that the reigning world record holder in the marathon has equated running the race in Beijing to an act of suicide.

It is true that desperate times call for desperate measures. But however desperate the smog situation may be, it is foolish to believe the air quality of one of the world’s largest cities can be meaningfully improved by banning half of the city’s cars from the streets each day for two months.

And to give you a better idea of just how large the inconvenience will be for the people of Beijing, I’d like you to imagine what the people of Los Angeles would do if the US federal government tried to ban half of the city’s cars from the streets for two months to improve the city’s air quality?

How about two hours?

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I am always curious about what people here think of America.

I’ve had this image in my mind of a group of Chinese college students sitting around a table after a few drinks and talking about what the Americans might be up to. Having recently graduated from a university in America, I know American college students have been known to talk about China after a few drinks. And I know those conversations (at least the ones I took part in) generally involve some very paranoid speculation about how soon China will take over economic control of the universe, how terrible this might be for us, and whether or not all of this will somehow lead to World War Three.

So, naturally, I wanted to know if these same conversations are going on over here about us. After all, we have spent the last few years fighting simultaneous wars in multiple foreign countries. And we’ve somehow managed to do it without a draft and (even more incredibly) while actually cutting taxes.

One can only imagine how dangerous we must seem to the rest of the world, especially if they care to speculate about what we might be capable of if we instituted a draft and took the (extraordinary?) step of actually cutting domestic spending and raising taxes to support the war effort.

If China – which presumably scares us because we think they might want to spread their Communist ideology and which has paradoxically begun to terrify us by making large sums of money through capitalism – makes us this uncomfortable, the Chinese should be asking themselves whether the Americans plan to attack on Tuesday.

As it turns out, my local friend Luis tells me, America’s habit of invading foreign countries is a topic of conversation among at least one group of Chinese college students. But unlike their American counterparts, they don’t seem all that concerned about it.

“We like to talk about current events, you know?” Luis tells me. “So we say, ‘who will America attack next?’ But it’s just a joke.”

Luis, who is 21 and goes to a technical college near Yangzhou Tech, is a big fan of America. Everybody in Yangzhou seems to be.

They love our movies, they are huge fans of our basketball league (Luis’ best friend chose “Steve Nash” as his English nickname), and just about everybody I’ve talked to seems to think America is one of the best places in the world to live. I’ve even had a number of people ask me about our election and tell me they hope Obama will win (I haven’t met any McCain fans yet, or even anyone who has heard of McCain, but I did have a student tell me she had been supporting Hillary in the primary).

Luis and his friends have a number of amusing misconceptions about us, of course. He was surprised to hear I don’t own a gun (“But most people in America have one, right?”) and he appears to think the average American soldier looks a lot like Rambo (the Rambo movies are really big here, apparently).

Most of what the people here believe about Americans comes from the movies or the news, so their view of us is a bit distorted. But it seems a lot closer than our view of the Chinese.

If Luis had been in Madison this time last year to hear some of the things I used to say about China when we’d all had enough drinks to think we knew something about politics, he’d have had a hell of a laugh.

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I was looking through some old photos from my semester in Chaiyaphum, and I came across one that just had to go up on the blog. And I realized that I have never properly addressed the subject of ladyboys.

The well-dressed individuals in this photo are ladyboys.

They may be dressed better than most of the girls in the auditorium that day, and they definitely have more makeup on, but they are boys. They are students from a high school a few blocks from the school I used to teach in, and they are two of the many ladyboys you are bound to run into if you ever visit Chaiyaphum, Thailand.

Ladyboys are men who dress like women. Some stick to basic make-up (like the gentlemen on the left in the blue shirt), and others go all-out with make-up, wigs, and party dresses (like our friends above). Still others have surgical procedures to make it official.

It’s not unlike the transgender community in America, really. The difference is, in Thailand, it’s really not that uncommon for a boy to decide to be a ladyboy.

Every school has at least a few, including the primary schools. I may have been the only teacher in Chaiyaphum without a ladyboy in my class, which probably had something to do with the fact that all of my students were girls.

There are enough ladyboys in the schools of Thailand that English teachers have developed classroom strategies based on their ladyboy students. At our week-long training session in Bangkok before my fellow TEFLers and I were dispatched to schools in various corners of Thailand, someone from the human resources department of our new employer, the Media Kids placement agency, gave us a surprisingly useful piece of advice.

“Use your ladyboys,” she said.

She then went on to explain why ladyboys tend to be an English teacher’s favorite students.

Not unlike Chinese students, most Thai students are shy. They aren’t very confident speaking in English, and they get very embarrassed when you ask them to stand up in front of 45 classmates and say something in English.

Ladyboys are not shy.

They are confident enough to put on copious amounts of eye makeup, dress like a woman, and spend the rest of their day walking, talking, and acting like a woman. They don’t do all of this to avoid attracting attention. So when their teacher decides to turn the attention of the entire class on just one student, a ladyboy feels right at home.

So if you ever find yourself teaching an English class in Thailand, just look for the student who has way too much eye-shadow on and seems unusually proud of the fact that she’s a girl. Chances are, she isn’t.

And she’s the one you want to call on first.

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