September 2007


This is National Week in China, marking the 58th birthday of the People’s Republic. On October 1st, 1949 Mao declared the founding of the most recent incarnation of this country, although if he were alive today I don’t know that he’d recognize it.

The Chinese have a week holiday, during which millions travel and go sightseeing. Many of the students at the campus where we live have gone home to be with their families. We welcome the time off, and have been relaxing and studying. Towards the middle of the week we’ll take a bus seven hours to Kangding, where Tibet begins at its eastern extreme, site of Daxue Shan, the Great Snowy Mountains.

On Friday we attended a Gala Dinner, presented by the Chengdu Provincial Government to mark National Day. It was held in a fancy hotel, and featured a buffet and the requisite speeches, delivered in Chinese, then translated into English for the many Westerners in attendance. Most of the Consular Generals from various countries were there, including those from Pakistan, Korea, Germany, and the US. The invitation, which we were handed by the head of the Foreign Studies Department of Sichuan Normal University on our way in, suggested “Lounge Suit or National Dress” as appropriate attire. The dinner was held in a large banquet hall, with a ring of chairs around the outside, and the food in the middle.

After the speeches, the Chinese national anthem was played while everyone stood, and a toast was made to the People’s Republic. While people ate and mingled, a group of musicians played traditional Chinese music. We had a late lunch, and weren’t that hungry. I finally went and got a plate of food. On my way back to my seat, I encountered the US Consular General, who I had met the previous week at a dinner held in Lara and several Fulbright Scholars’ honor. He introduced me to an Asian gentleman in a grey suit as “one of our citizens, who is an acupuncturist and is here studying Chinese medicine.” He then introduced the gentleman as the Consular General of Korea. I didn’t ask which one. The Korean Consular General – turns out he was from North Korea – was fairly incredulous that any non-Chinese would or could possibly practice acupuncture and Chinese medicine. I assured him that no, in fact, acupuncture was increasingly popular in the US, and also in France and England. That there are thousands of practitioners, and many schools. No, he repeated, How can this be? Non-Chinese practicing acupuncture? I assured him again, explaining its popularity. This back and forth went on for a while. Finally, I pointed to my newly acquired plate of food, and excused myself to go eat.

Almost an hour exactly after it began, an announcement was made, Thank you for attending the National Day commemoration, Good Night. And that was it. It was over.

Tomorrow we’re going with a couple of friends to the main square in the center of the city, site of the Mao statue, McDonalds, and Starbucks, to check out the National Day celebration. I’m expecting some sort of military parade. Should be interesting.

The Chicago Cubs are making a run for the playoffs. This would be the first time they’ve made it since 2003, the year they came within 5 outs of going to the World Series. In case you don’t know, the Cubs last went to the World Series in 1945 against Detroit. That was just after WW II. They last won in 1908. Yes, that’s right, almost 100 years ago.

I grew up in Chicago and my Dad raised me a Cubs fan. I’m hardwired into the Cubs, they are in my blood, part of the family. The way they play affects my mood. I relate to the players and coaches like they’re cousins and uncles.

Before we left the States, we joked that I had to leave the country to get the Cubs into the World Series. I had mixed feelings about this, but felt the sacrifice was worth it, and hell, if the Cubs do go to the World Series you can believe I will try and be there.

Being a Cubs fan, or baseball fan generally, in China is like really being into Rugby and living in Chicago. Sure, you might find some people who share your passion, usually fellow expats. And sure, you might be able to catch a game from back home at certain establishments from time to time. But who likes to eat breakfast during a Rugby match?

It’s kind of living a sports exile. China does have baseball and baseball players, they even have a league of sorts, and they will send a team to the Beijing Olympics next summer. They’re getting help from both Japan and the US in developing Chinese baseball. Although basketball has really caught on, when Lara and I played catch between the running track and ping pong tables, people kept stopping to watch. Baseball in China is very exotic.

This weekend the Cubs are playing their last home stand, against the Pittsburg Pirates. Usually I’d try to get back to Chicago this time of year, to take in some games at Wrigley with family and friends, before the 6 Months Of Darkness until the beginning of the next season.

The Cubs are not on TV in China. In Portland, we get WGN, so at least half of Cubs games were right there to see. In China, I can track night games in real time the next morning here on line. Because of the time difference, a night game in the States, say with a 7:05PM Central Time start, will begin here the next morning at 8:05AM. So I can get up in the morning, have a cup of coffee, and watch how the Cubs are doing live the previous night back home. ESPN.com has a feature called Game Cast, which has the box score, balls and strikes, current hitter, stats, and a little graphic of a diamond showing runners and a batter showing where the pitches are. It’s good enough considering the circumstances and, like listening to a game on the radio, requires a good deal of imagination.

Day games, say the traditional 1:20PM Day Game at Wrigley, begins here at 2:20AM. So when I get up in the morning I can check the Chicago papers on line to see how the team did while we were sleeping.

Division Series Playoff tickets go on sale this weekend. The Cubs and Milwaukee Brewers are neck and neck in the Central Division. Currently, Chicago is 1 and a half games ahead of the Brewers. There’s a week of baseball left, and anything can happen.

Of course if the Cubs make the playoffs they aren’t necessarily going to make it all the way to the World Series. But it would put them closer to that possibility than they have been in several years. Stay tuned. Go Cubs!

We’ve been getting around town, at first, via taxi, then by bus. It costs about $2.00 to take a taxi anywhere we need or want to go. The bus is even less, about a quarter a ride. This is fairly cheap by US standards. But in making decisions about transportation, like anything else, there are political and social factors to think about as well.

In Portland, our primary mode of transportation is the bicycle. Riding a bike keeps you in shape, and doesn’t contribute to global warming. It’s interesting that two of the US’ main health epidemics, spewing Greenhouse gases into the environment, and obesity, could in part be solved through increased utilization of bikes.

While individual acts based on principle are essential, they alone will not solve the ecological crisis we are in. For that we will need to change society.

So here we are in China, where the bicycle once was the dominant mode of personal transport. This society is certainly changing, but it’s going in the totally wrong direction. China is becoming a car dominated culture.

We have not given in to this rising tendency however. No, fear not, we just bought two new bikes, Flying Pigeons in fact, kind of a Chinese Shwinn in that they are everywhere, in all makes and varieties. They cost us 350 Yuan2, or $46.00 each. They are single speed, the kind of bike that you can backwards peddle on freely without affecting your velocity. They come with a little bell we can ring to tell other cyclists or scooter riders we are coming up behind them.

In 2002 there were 143 bikes to every 100 Chinese households. In 2003 China produced one third of the world’s total number of bicycles, 78 million. But all that is changing, as the government encourages private car ownership by the emergent middle-class, and bike riding is increasingly relegated to the poor. Having a car is a status symbol.

Riding a bike in Chengdu changes one’s perspective on the city entirely. No longer are you either huddled up and cramped with fifty other people on a slow moving bus, or alternately, being carried along by a seemingly maniacal taxi driver with a horn fetish who takes his and those in his care’s lives in his hands with every ill advised swerve and turn.

On a bike you move at your own pace, breathing the air, seeing the people and shops and homes along the way. Although it’s increasingly being taken over by the automobile, Chengdu is still better designed for bicyclists than any American city.

The bike lanes have physical dividers from the rest of traffic, usually a median with trees, flowers, and a small fence. In addition to bikes, you also have the ubiquitous scooter, and electric bikes to share the lane with, as well as the occasional taxi and people strolling, or standing waiting for a bus, or getting on or off a bus, or driving a rickshaw. There are myriad possibilities of what you’ll encounter along the way.

When approaching intersections, you leave the relative safety of the bike lane and have to watch out for the endless parade of cars turning right, as they have the right-of-way. And, you have to watch out for the on-coming cars making left-hand turns, which appear legal either at the beginning, middle, or end of a Green light. The traffic lights all have a separate Green for bikes, and you have to jog right a little to cross main streets on the designated lane (again while watching for turning cars, trucks, and buses).

It seems that Chinese drivers have a kind of sixth-sense. They know how to cut-the-gap just ahead of colliding, all with a serene, nonplussed look on their faces.

Despite drivers’ antics, I have yet to see any instances of road rage, or even someone being upset about being cut off. The rule for driving, as far as I’ve been able to ascertain, is every-person-for-themselves-but-be-cool. You can cut in front of someone and make that left hand turn during a Green, but be prepared for someone else to pull the same thing on you.

At the same time, as crazy as the car traffic is, life in the bike lane is truly life in the slow lane. Everyone, even the scooters and electric bikes, rides so slow. Incredibly slowly, like 3 – 5 mph slow.

The other day I was able to ride to one of our favorite parts of town, where there is an English language lending library, a small French cafe, some good restaurants and a vibrant youth culture around Sichuan University. It took only 25 minutes to ride there. This made the city seem much less daunting and more manageable – I can ride my bike there and back!

Now we ride to the grocery store, to the bookstore, to the cafe, everywhere. It gives us more of a sense of autonomy and freedom. We’re more in control when we don’t have to rely on bus schedules or flagging down a cab.

China once relied primarily on bikes for transportation. Today this nation is at a crossroads, having recently become the number one emitter of Greenhouse gases in the world. Pollution from China is turning up over the West Coast of the United States.

Ecology is beginning to get some consideration here, in part due to preparations for half a million foreign visitors for the Olympics next year, and in part in response to the reality of a severely degraded natural world.

To what degree ecological thinking begins to guide policy and everyday decisions in this country of 1.2 billion will determine to a great degree the fate of human life on earth.

*Generally when Mandarin Chinese is translated into the Romanized pin yin system for Western readers, the tone marks are not included. This is very unfortunate, because without the tone marks not only do you not know how to pronounce the word, but you don’t know what it means. Words can be spelled the same, but which of the four tone marks will determine its meaning and how it’s said. Many books containing “Chinese” words in the West are in fact almost completely useless due to this omission.To help remedy this, whenever I use Mandarin words here, I will indicate which tone it is immediately after the word.

Last week I was asked to help edit a translation of a proposal for a Garden of Chinese Herbs at the new campus of Chengdu University of Traditional Chinese Medicine. This is the University where I will be interning and studying, so of course I was glad to help out.

On Friday Lara and I took the bus to their campus. I was told the work would take about two hours, then we would all have dinner together. When we arrived our contact, Angel, said there was a driver who would be taking us and her associate, Tracy, to their new campus where I would do the editing. The drive was to take about fifty minutes.

Angel and Tracy of course are not their actual names. English speaking Chinese here often take American names, perhaps thinking we couldn’t possibly pronounce their real names.

The new campus is huge, with a tremendous archway entrance featuring a colossal Yin Yang symbol, and Ginkgo leave cutouts along the outer fence surrounding the campus. It is very modern and well layed out. The campus dorms probably house thousands of students.

Upon our arrival we were escorted into a TV studio and I was asked to read the English translation so they could record it. They said the English translation would be used for fundraising for the garden. The translation however was very poor, and much of it did not make sense: “Herbs aroma emitting in woods: Gazed into the distance, the spiral trail winds through the chain of hills and woods where aroma of the flourishing herbs flying over.”

I told them I would need a couple of days to work with the translation to rewrite it and get it to be clear and understandable. That in order to make recording me reading it a worthwhile project, the English would need to be improved. After lots of conversations involving half a dozen people, and a phone call, I was told the University President was expecting the recording the next morning and there was no time to further clarify the translation. It was to be used as a voiceover on a video. It had to be done now.

Fortunately Lara was with me, so we started working on making it more intelligible. After a little while I started reading the 18 page proposal, while Lara edited the pages just ahead of me. It all worked out well, but some of what I had to read was very comical. For instance, the conclusion: “World rise and fall, everyone has a share of responsibility! Inheriting Tradition, advocating innovation, stressing on the characteristics, strengthening superiority, serving society are the beliefs of CDUTCM people; Persisting in scientifically developing, constructing harmonious society are our responsibility; let us join hands to make our contributions and achievements for the realization of the Four Leap Cross of Sichuan Province!” Only once did we have to stop because I started cracking up. Some of the things I read were so ridiculous.

The garden project itself is really incredible. They basically want to have an herbal farm, where they can cultivate and distribute Chinese herbs on a large scale. It’s a worthy project, I just don’t know how much the English version of the fundraising proposal is going to help. This is what I tried to explain to them. They may want me to work on the translation and re-record it. We shall see.

Tomorrow Lara and I meet our new Tai Ji Chuan instructor at Chengdu University.

You have a chance to see Chengdu, China for yourselves this Tuesday and Friday mornings, the 11th and 14th of September. You will have to set your recorders, unless you get up mighty early. This is also presuming that they’ll have some aerial shots, and actually show Chengdu, and not just the games.

On Tuesday morning at 5AM Eastern Time, 4AM Central, and 2AM West Coast, the US team will face North Korea. And at 8AM ET, Nigeria and Sweden square off. That’s six hours of early morning FIFA women’s World Cup soccer live from Chengdu for ya. Both games will be broadcast on ESPN2.

And on Friday the 14th, the US will face Sweden at 5AM ET, on ESPN and then North Korea plays Nigeria at 8AM on ESPN2.

Tuesday’s game times here are 5PM and 8PM, as we are 12 hours ahead of the East Coast, and we plan to be at the games. Look for us in the crowd shots! And tune in and see where we live.

We will have been in China two weeks from tomorrow, although it feels much longer than that. After posting a lot of photos, I think the time is right to attempt to sum things up in words. Here we go.

Things on the street move with a hectic frenzy. Traffic is crazy, with cars driving in on-coming lanes, vehicles turning right through throngs of pedestrians trying to cross the street. Unlike the States, pedestrians don’t have the right-of-way. Cars, trucks, buses, bikes, mopeds, all zigzagging and weaving around and through each other at intersections. It’s a kind of chaos in which drivers know the rules enough to avoid multi-car pile-ups. People use their horns to communicate their location, as opposed to yell at someone.

In 2000 there were 650,000 cars in this city of 11 million. In 2005 this number grew to 1.3 million. In 2006 General Motors reported a 40% increase in car sales in Chengdu. Bikes, which used to be one of the primary modes of transport, are increasingly sidelined. I estimate they make up about 10% of transportation. It’s still very awesome to see so many bikes on the street, and bikes and scooters have their own lanes, usually along the street, with a divider between them and cars, and sometimes on the sidewalk.

Scooters are very popular here, as are electric bikes, which move very slow and seemed designed for lazy bicyclists.

Critical Mass?

Parked Bikes

The city is huge, roughly equivalent to NYC in size. A lot of people take the bus. Buses here, as well as cabs, are powered by Natural Gas, which burns cleaner than gasoline. It costs less than two yuan to take the bus (about 7.5 yuan make a dollar).

A New York Times article concerning China’s economy and environment made the analogy of China being like a teenager with emphysema who insists on smoking. This place is very polluted. Chengdu is in a valley, so there’s not much air circulation anyway, but add to the stagnancy of the air tons of industrial pollution and vehicle exhaust and you have a deadly brew. Only 1% of people living in China’s 67 or so major cities have air that meets EU standards of acceptability. And that’s what the capitalist West says is ok to take into your lungs. Add to this the burgeoning middle class and the clamoring after consumer goods, especially cars, in a country of 1.2 billion, and one can see big trouble ahead.

Waiting to Cross

At first we felt pretty isolated here. It’s difficult to describe the feeling of not being able to understand anything you hear or see written for days on end. How are we to navigate through a city of 11 million like this? Lara asked me one morning if I thought there was a need for acupuncturists in Italy. Why China, why not Germany? Any place other than this. I have to admit I kind of hated it for awhile. I couldn’t understand anything, and the possibility of communicating seemed impossible. Plus it’s so dirty, you can’t see the sky, and the whole city at first resembled 14th Street in Manhattan.

The first week or so was hard, but after struggling through with our limited knowledge of the language and with the aid of various reference materials, we started to make some headway. We’ve started learning the words for things, and can now communicate on a very basic level. We still feel like little kids, barely able to talk, but at the same time we know we can get better at it. The administrators at the university are setting up a Mandarin class for us and the other foreign teachers, which begins this Monday. I’m looking forward to starting that.

As we take the bus around the city more and more, I’m starting to really like Chengdu. It feels more provincial than Beijing, yet it has everything a big city can offer. In addition, there are a lot of parks, teahouses, and greenery, and we’re figuring out how to get around. We’ve been walking a lot.

I still haven’t figured out the economy of the emergent middle class, i.e where their money comes from, what kind of work they do, what their pay is like. But it’s a sizable number of people. Billboards and stores are everywhere. All the visible signs are of consumption, not production. I’m not sure where the factories are. Intel has a new one here, as does Volkswagen.

It seems a lot of people work in firms in central Chengdu. There’s also a large section of the economy made up of small shop owners. But it’s amazing they stay in business, with either very slow sales, or immense competition. Near a Sports Stadium in central Chengdu there are shop after shop selling sporting goods, gym shoes, etc. One after the other, all the same store basically. With no one in any of them, except those who work there, sometimes asleep.

We have recently connected with the local ex-pat (expatriat) community, via a little French cafe and a monthly English language magazine (www.Chengduu.com).

It took us a week to find them, and it was such a relief. We felt less isolated being able to talk to people about life in Chengdu, getting advise on where to go and people to talk to about things like local gyms and people who study Chinese medicine, etc.

The cafe is awesome, with Friday night DJs and Sunday evening cinema. It’s a gathering place for creative types, artists, musicians, teachers, and writers and has a decent mix of Chinese, Europeans, and Americans. We have also made friends with two people, a couple, a man from New Zealand and a women from the US, who are here teaching English and live in our building.

It’s pretty funny, but many local people we talk to get a kick out of our interest in martial arts. It’s as though anything that existed in China pre-Revolution is gone. The world began in 1949, or perhaps after the trial of the Gang of Four, and now it’s all the New China, which largely consists of producing goods for the world, and for a select section of the urban population, becoming either rich, or middle-class.

At the same time, in our long walks around town, I have started to see little Chinese medicine shops, with herbs and treatment areas. In addition, Lara and I visited the Chengdu University for Traditional Chinese Medicine, and I talked with them about options for study. They expressed their desire for me to become part of their community, and suggested several possibilities, including joining a translators group, participating in a group that meets to talk about various topics in Chinese medicine, and maybe even teaching a class. We also discussed practicing Tai Ji Chuan, my interning with a Chinese Doctor, and attending lectures and events. The person we talked to knew my mentor, Dr. Liu, who used to teach there and comes back to visit periodically.

So this place is starting to make sense, and we’re settling in. Lara started teaching class yesterday, and was enthused to see people’s personalities and ideas, which can only come through a shared language. Today at lunch we joked around with the owner in Mandarin, although this came at the end of a tasty and cheap lunch during which we were the center of attention for about a dozen people. The Chinese are very stoic, and prefer generally to look at us out of the corners of their eyes. But sometimes they just plain stare. We wave and say Ni Hao! or Hello! and they laugh and smile.

I have added a page, on the right hand column under Pages. It’s called Signs. If you click on it, it will take you to a separate page where I am posting pictures of signs in China.

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