Here’s a post leading into the holiday weekend. The holiday in question is 清明节 (qingmingjie, ching-ming g.a. as in the names of the letters), or Tomb-Sweeping day, and it’s exactly what it sounds like, tending to the graves of your ancestors.
Rewinding back a week though, I went bowling! Just an activity organized by the foreign students office, so for 17 RMB (~$2.50) I got shoes and two games. On top of that, just for going I got two free games, and then for being the second highest scoring guy I got another three and a towel. Sweet! Seems like they do it every weekend so might make a habit of that. In the process I managed to get a double and reach 100 on the second game. Not too shabby for the first time in a while. I should mention that it wasn’t hard to be the second highest scoring guy, as out of like 25 students there were only six guys (the three highest scoring girls got prizes too). Anyway, it was fun and I met some new people!
Things are starting to pick up here as I start taking on responsibilities. I fortunately have no obligation to do homework for my classes, otherwise I’d be quite lost. And I wouldn’t have time for my own reading. It’s going well incidentally, I finished the most recent issue of my department’s journal and my research question got the green light from my advisor along with a bit of advice. So I’m feeling good while kind of feeling my way blindly, but I’m in no rush. As they say, we often overestimate what we can do in a day and underestimate what we can get accomplished over a long period of time. My advisor’s super chill too. After asking him some questions that day we just shot the shit for about a half hour, real down to earth, really accomplished guy.
I did have a slightly embarrasing moment in class when I was called on to read out and translate a section of a Russian text on Sino-Mongolian relations that I hadn’t had time to prep. Made it through the reading, but my Russian is nowhere near good enough to read that at first glance. Somewhat embarassing, but I think the prof and my classmates were understanding. Going forward though, one of my goals is to actually prep the work for that class since it’ll be a huge boost to my Russian.
I’ve also agreed to fill in for an absentee translator and write the English abstracts for the above-mentioned journal after being asked by one of my professors who edits it. I can’t get paid, but I like the work enough to do it for free, and I get my name in an academic publication! So that’s pretty cool! On top of that, counselor training is progressing (I’m somewhat hampered by their slow grading speed. They’ve got a lot of people to manage though), and I’m trying to find a way to work learning the R programming language into my week. I’m doing it on a suggestion from Tenzin, as it’s really good for data analysis, makes me more employable, and I honestly miss the coding experience I had when I took Java in undergrad.
With the addition of the English corner and talks on campus, it’s a lot of new stuff in a short time, and I can’t help getting that “busy” feeling. No, not that I’m completely stressed out and over-scheduled every second of the day like some over you out there reading this, I actually still have a large amount of free time, but having a wide range of small responsibilities is still something I’m getting my brain used to, and it’s a transition process. I’m been fighting quite hard to not use responsibilities or thoughts of what I “should” be doing to distract me from living life here, which this article quite helpfully reminded me of.
So I’m taking things slow while life allows me to, but still doing work as well. That means just chilling with Chinese people (again, that’s the other half of my job description) and not tripping if I fall behind on some things. Slightly related to the topic of mindset, this article is also a fantastic read.
As for the meat of this post, the same prof that asked me to read in Russian posed a couple interesting questions to the class. Namely, “why doesn’t China have slums?” and “why was China able to get through the 2008 crisis unscathed?”. Now, I initially viewed these as somewhat leading question with some pretty big assumptions. I’ve personally seen some places in China that I might be tempted to use the word slum to describe, and poverty is still a huge problem. But she went on to explain that by “slums” she meant the kind in India (her words) where people are living in sheet metal houses under the thumb of organized crime.
She said the main reason was that land is not private in China. I may have mentioned before the economic miracle that is migrant workers. Basically China’s factories and many other generally shitty jobs are filled by workers from rural areas of poorer provinces, who make enough money and have driven the country’s mach-speed rise over the past thirty years. They don’t live in great conditions and send money home to their parents and the children who are being raised by the grandparents. These kids are referred to as “left-behind” children as they see their parents maybe once a year, and have much higher rates of depression and suicide than the rest of the country. 😦 There’s actually a lot of parallels between urban China’s relationship with migrant workers and the U.S.’s relationship with South American immigrants in terms of the roles they fill in society. While migrant workers aren’t the victims of racism, they’re still discriminated against for being darker-skinned, “uneducated” etc. China saves its vitrolic racism for Africans apparently, more on that here.
What’s different is that the vast majority of these migrant workers are all from farming families that were assigned land back in the day, and are not allowed to sell it. This is the key point right here. Not being able to sell the land kind of traps these families there, as they can’t get residency in any of the cities they move to because they’re tied to that land. Residency, hukou, is based off your birthplace and means you can only access schools and other social services in your birth city, unless you get a formal job in a new city and you change your hukou. Migrant workers not being entirely formal workers though makes this hard, which is why they can’t take kids with them. Until recently too, children born out of wedlock couldn’t get hukou, so they were essentially nonpersons which is pretty fucked up. They’re working on changing both the hukou system and the land ownership thing.
However, for the time being, it means that whenever the economy hits a downturn, these migrant workers can go back to the farm to eke out an existence there and avoid becoming a burden on the city/state and/or being trapped in slums. Kind of crazy when you think about it.
In my prof’s words, India’s lack of such a system allowed corporations and rich people to buy up all the land either legitimately or illegitimately and drive poor people to the cities for work where they remain stuck. I imagine the Dustbowl was somewhat similar, at least from what I gleaned reading the Grapes of Wrath. So while these people have limited upward mobility, they have a pretty solid bottom they can’t fall past. Is it a good/moral tradeoff? You tell me. It certainly gives China some advantages though.
That’s honestly been the most educational part of these classes, hers in particular. All this nationalistic discussion “China’s great because x,y,z,” feels a bit uncomfortable at first, but it’s *so*illuminating into the Chinese psyche and I’m getting a lot out of it. It’s kind of why I was sent here in the first place, to learn about China and explain it to Americans. How am I doing? As a picture break, here’s the building where I have most of my classes. This is probably one of the better pictures I’ve taken, and it kind of just gave itself to me.
This brings me to the talk I went to on Friday afternoon, given by professor Wu Dahui from Tsinghua university on Sino-Russian-American relations. He covered a lot of info over 2.5 hours, but a lot of what he said backed up what I had already seen/was thinking. One point was that despite the fact that China will soon eclipse the U.S. as the world’s biggest economy, it still refers to itself as a developing nation, with it’s per-capita GDP sitting at about halfway up the list. It claims it can’t take on the responsibilities of a world power because it still has to pull so many people out of poverty. Professor Wu half-refuted it with a quote from Donald Rumsfeld which basically goes, “Pit a group of five 7-foot brothers against fifty six-foot brothers, whose going to win?” On the global stage, percapita GDP doesn’t mean jack, it’s all about gross GDP. Wu didn’t go as far as saying China was wrong to do this though, he just kinda left it in the air. More time was spent on how the U.S. and Russia won’t magically become best friends, a bit on the THAAD system (again, he brought up the validity of the South Korean position, but stopped short of giving his own opinion), and some bits on Taiwan which were a bit frightening/warmongering. It feels great to start getting the Chinese perspective on a lot of these issues though, and I look forward to more of it.
Lastly, some other cool highlights. Let’s welcome another new cat to the cafe! It’s name is Meow, cute as hell and super friendly.
I also happened upon two guys riding trials bikes outside, which has to be one of the *last* things I would have expected to find Chinese people being into, they even had matching “Harbin Trials Bikes” jerseys! Here’s a video if you’re unclear on what the sport is.
And I got new owls! When I went to England in like 2003 I bought three owls at a flea market in what I believe was Shrewsbury. They’ve accompanied me ever since, and then my first time in China I bought a quartz one (far left in the photo) at the Shanghai museum as a souvenier. Something there clicked I guess, and I’ve started collecting since. In the photo, the squat brown one on the far right is hand-carved teak and hails from Hong Kong, it was joined by the black petrified wood one next to it from Bagan in Myanmar. This time I went and bought two in Taiwan, the white one third from the right, and the tiny glass one on the left side. Now that I think about it, I missed getting one in Austria. Next time?