Chinese Health Care: The Hyppocritic Oath

Within days of my arrival in China a year ago, I had the chance to see inside a local Harbin hospital with my fellow new arrivals. This trip was part of "standard procedure" for getting a work visa, which isn't actually all that standard because I arrived on a tourist visa, and once inside the country, one isn't supposed to be able to switch visas willy-nilly. However, that's exactly what we were doing, so early on it was apparent that guanxi (关系) - one's personal connections - was indeed the powerful force we'd heard it described as... though we didn't fully understand it just then.

Having lived in China for a little over a year, I feel like I understand now. Enough so that I can confidently state that
guanxi is not as easy to define as people would like. When looking around for a good page to link to, it became apparent that the articles I found touch upon various aspects of it, but fail to grasp the Big Picture. To define guanxi simply as "networking" doesn't address its power; to define it as an "old-boys' network" betrays that it can be used by common folk in their daily lives; to define it as "corruption" is to focus only on one negative result of it. That said, the best attempt to describe guanxi I've found is the following:

Guanxi translated means "relationships." This understanding, in as far as it goes, is common to all humanity and is not cultural specific. In China, guanxi is a system of interpersonal relationships that has long historical and cultural roots. Guanxi is understood and utilized by virtually every Chinese person alive today in greater or lesser measure. The basic underpinnings of the guanxi system are the twin understandings that, one, all things are relative and, two, that people are the deciders of all things. This worldview, as opposed to the concept of the rule of law, is a fundamental distinction between how Chinese and Westerners perceive the world and the appropriate starting place to understand guanxi. China has never been a nation of laws. All of the Western philosophical understandings that define the relationships between individuals and the individual and the society are not present in Chinese society except in the form of shallow, recent transplants. The deeper current still predominates and perhaps always will. (From

One concrete example I can offer you is the following story from my Chinese tutor. His mother's brother was in a nasty car crash and after being taken to the hospital, the doctor told them his leg would need to be amputated. Nobody wanted to believe this, as it would leave him unable to continue his work, and deformities are considered a much more shameful thing here (you almost never see people in wheelchairs, for instance - and Harbin has zero infrastructure to support them). The family couldn't accept this fate and my tutor's father (a doctor, himself) called up the director of the hospital his brother-in-law was at. After this exchange, the director then phoned the leading specialist there to take charge and perform the necessary operations to try and save the leg, in spite of the low chance of success. Luckily, the procedure turned out well and my tutor's uncle was able to keep his leg, which wouldn't have been the case if not for the use of guanxi.

For managing a herd of foreigners, it was much more convenient for our school to have us arrive on tourist visas, and then once we were past the scrutiny of entry and customs, utilize its guanxi with local officials handling business visas to make the change without much hassle. It's important to note that the visas are valid and were acquired through the official pipeline that anyone else's would be, but think of our approach like yet another common definition of guanxi: "going through the back door."

At this hospital, then, we were undergoing a standard health check. At the time of our arrival in May 2009, the “Swine Flu” (later renamed to H1N1) hysteria was at its most rampant, so many people were wearing face masks and posters appeared on bathroom walls everywhere encouraging the thorough washing of hands with warm water and soap. (Never mind that the bathrooms these were posted in offered neither.) In fact, my flight into Beijing was exceptional: after landing, the doors were kept closed and we weren't allowed to get up right away, and when they finally did open, a camera man and reporter barged in and began asking questions of the flight staff and some passengers. Perhaps luckily, they didn't come my way - I'm not sure if the Chinese would find the same humor in an absurd hacking and coughing routine.

Why not? The government was criticized for reacting slowly to the spread of SARS, so this time around they were trying their damnedest to prevent another outbreak. Since H1N1 was widely regarded as a problem caused by foreigners (and what isn't these days?), we were all under embarrassingly obvious extra scrutiny - even long after customs and immigration. I give credit to Beijing airport for making things less invasive and time-consuming. All arrivals walk through a section of the airport that is lined with heat-sensing cameras for the purpose of identifying any traveller with a fever for further screening. Unfortunately at the time, once symptoms were detected, the only tests that could positively identify H1N1 required waiting a week in quarantine for the results!

Naturally, then, our later screening at the hospital in Harbin also involved measuring our temperatures. Also mandatory was blood-work for detecting HIV (if positive, you're deported). Everything else was optional, and thus quickly passed upon. You'd understand if you saw the inside of the place. The place was dirty and dusty, some trash not bothered to be placed in a bin, some of it medical waste (eg. blood-stained cotton held in the arm after having blood drawn). There were some chairs lining the hallway near the main doctor's office, some of which had little spots on the wall behind them where presumably a patient with a head injury was leaning. Just as I noticed the giant no-smoking banner above the entrance to our wing, a doctor appeared from around the corner to take his cigarette, drop it to the floor, and stamp it out.

This is all typically “dirty” stuff that you'd come to expect in a coal-powered, rubble-lined, industrial city such as Harbin, but the icing on the cake for me was watching the nurse take blood. I volunteered to go first because I wasn't sure if they'd be re-using the needle or not. I watched carefully as she used an alcohol swab to clean the site on my arm, and then it dawned upon me that she wasn't wearing any gloves. “Shiiiiiiit,” I was thinking, but it's simply bad timing to start an argument after someone's already stabbed into you. She got her vials and I got my complimentary ball of cotton. I just hoped I didn't wind up getting anything else from her...

Everybody poops, you know.


The last part of our visit was the mandatory check for H1N1 symptoms as recently directed by the government. This was done with a mercury thermometer to the armpit. Apparently they only had one in our hospital, so we had to take turns. As it turns out, our party contained one lass with a fever, a common symptom of.. well, almost anything - including H1N1. She was soon separated from our group and our interpreter informed us that Patient Zero would be asked to wait in another room to administer further tests.


An hour later, the situation hadn't changed except for the location of our friend. And instead of a room in our hall, she'd been relocated to the “quarantine” section of the hospital. I called her cell phone to ask where exactly that was. She replied that it was some old, dusty wing that had fallen into disuse. Further, she was by herself, with no staff (and more worryingly, our interpreter) nearby. Needless to say, she was in a bit of a panic, and I tried my best to reassure her. Soon after my phone call ended, the rest of us foreigners were asked by a nurse to move into a different room, thankfully nearby and with plenty of medical devices to inspect and play with.


Another two hours later, little had changed except for our blood pressures. Left to our own thoughts, we tried to account for all of the different scenarios that might play out. I was on the phone with a number of people during this time, trying to collect as much information for our strategizing as possible. If weeks-long quarantine was their prerogative, we wouldn't be going without a fight. (Note to self: upon arrival in a new country, add embassy phone number to contacts list.) To our surprise, the nurses came in to equip us with medical masks (occasionally worn by Chinese who are sick as a courtesy to others, or by those who fear contracting something) before leading us out the door and down the hall back to the entrance. And who was waiting there for us but Patient Zero herself! She was pretty shaken up, and for good reason as I later learned that all of her interactions for the past hours were with non-English speakers wearing hazmat suits.

I now wonder if those suits had been washed in-between deployments...

Now that we were all back together, the “crazy” part of the story can be heard. Yes, prior to this spectacular ending, the rest of it makes quite a lot of sense. When I had last talked to my boss, he said we'd all be taking separate taxis home. What was presented to us at the hospital entrance was an ambulance - lights flashing - doctors and nurses running about the lobby, and a swarm of onlookers outside. I didn't realize the Chinese national past-time of rubber-necking until much later into my stay, but damn. The answer to the rhetorical question “don't you have anything better to do?” is clearly a “no!” (Unemployment statistics would back up this observation.) Many of the people in Harbin react to any foreigner-spotting by staring or shouting out a “hallo” and then immediately cracking up amongst themselves. Well, here were five of us all raising hell at a hospital in the middle of the day on a busy corner. It was practically a media event. We reluctantly climbed into the back of the ambulance - thinking anywhere was better than there - only to spot our chauffeurs were equipped with hazmats as well.

Shit. This is not what we were told would happen.

The ambulance took off for who-knows-where at ludicrous speed. At this point, all I could do was look out the side window and smile - not that anyone would be able to tell because of the surgical mask. As we wove through traffic, we were stopped at a light for about a minute as a bus-full of passengers stared on in horror at what they must've thought was a plaguemobile. We waved back. After a while, we came to a familiar, large T-shaped intersection that I recognized from walking to one of our schools. The drivers were suddenly arguing and making animated gestures in the front, and after some less-than-legal maneuvering, we were stopped on the area of sidewalk nearest the crossroads. At this point, all of us were looking at one another, silently thinking the same thing: “they can't be letting us out here.”

The back doors swung open to reveal one of our hermetically-sealed escorts. Indeed, he motioned for us to get out.


I sure as hell wasn't going to refuse the offer. Sticking around any longer with Bubble Boy would only increase the chances of yet another phone call informing him of yet another change of plans, this time with me winding up in the confines of a hospital room instead of my apartment.


I'd had plenty of time to think in the back of the meat-wagon. As soon as my turn came up, I darted out of the back and ran a 100-meter dash to the first corner. As I turned, I pulled off the face mask and switched to a calm stride so as not to alarm anyone else who didn't just watch an ambulance-full of foreigners taking part in a scene straight out of a survival-horror movie. I kept on walking calmly away and periodically checking my tail for... I don't know what. Something strange, I guess... as if things could have become any stranger at that point. I finally sat down somewhere and bought an ice-cream. Strawberry, fuck yea.

Were it not for our employers and their guanxi to help bargain the situation, it could've been medical experiments for the lot of us.


Unfortunately, the obvious consequence of the power of guanxi in situations such as these also necessitates having it. For instance, there are plenty of hospitals and doctors in Harbin, but for the typical workers here, access to them is prohibitively expensive. Median monthly wages are about 1-2,000 RMB, yet health care is privatized and the majority of workers don't have insurance or benefits. The occasions I was sick enough to visit a doctor this past year resulted in hundreds of RMB in visitation and prescription fees, and for very basic issues. This is why many Chinese here absolutely hoard money. Savings rates of more than 70% (of their monthly wages going to a bank) aren't uncommon! Thus, if you fall victim to a severe illness or accident, having a doctor in your guanxi network can literally mean the difference between life and death.


Otherwise, you'd better have plenty of cash on hand.


And why is that? This may be a good time to respectfully remind readers that China is a Communist country in history only. Yes, it's currently governed by the Communist Party of China, but like other political groups with a monopoly on power, their stated ideals are merely a lavishly deceptive decoration. The father of Communism in modern China, Chairman Mao, worked hard to vilify and justify the destruction of the “capitalist bourgeoisie” such as academics, entrepreneurs, and competing politicians. Mao was a brilliant leader, tactician, and all-around-revolutionary, but once the dust settled on the battlefields and it was time to attend to his new empire, he couldn't grow the economy ...or even enough crops... to keep it from collapsing back into chaos. And after reading enough about Mao, it seems like that was his idea of a good time - endless revolution.


A short story long: don't read the detached and objective historical accounts of Mao's failed policies such as The Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. To really understand why China is the way it is today, you must know what the political climate was like then, how neighbors, friends, and families were forced to turn against one another, how they were whimsically persecuted because of ideological minutiae, how millions were murdered or starved. Look deeper, past the statistics and into the stories to understand how the phoenix of modern China arose from the ashes Mao left behind. The best book I can currently recommend for this is an engaging account from then until now titled, “Chinese Lessons.”


Today, however, China's modern economic system is referred to as “socialism with Chinese characteristics” - a phrase vague enough to be meaningless and thus politically perfect for side-stepping Mao's anti-capitalist propaganda. Coined by none other than Deng Xiaoping, the head-of-state responsible for China's economic awakening. With Deng's eminent quote, “to get rich is glorious,” you don't need to be much of a scholar to detect the about-face in the Communist Party's entire philosophy.


This explains a few of my encounters with the health care system. The most recent time I got a throat infection, I walked with a native-Chinese teaching assistant to the nearest hospital to get checked. We had to pay cash up-front to take a number, then we waited to be called to fill out the patient information and be directed to the appropriate wing and doctor. We journeyed to the “mouth, ears, eyes, & nose” section, found the doctor's office, popped in, and placed our papers next on the stack of other patients and began the next wait in the hall outside. As mentioned, this is all normal - there is no expectation of privacy, as the door has always been left open and people often stand in the very same room to jockey for the next position in line or just because they're curious about what's lodged up the next guy's nose.


In my particular scenario, I sat down with the doctor and she took a look by holding some gauze to pull my tongue out (thankfully, this doctor was wearing gloves), and saw the same horror that led me to go there in the first place. She made some disparaging sounds and remarked to my escort that it was “really bad.” I asked her what it was and she replied that I'd need to stay in the hospital for 5 days. This wasn't exactly the kind of response I'd expected. They could perform a complete tonsilectomy and I wouldn't need to stay for 5 days - but I asked again if she knew what it was. She couldn't say; they'd have to do some tests while I stayed with them. What bullshit, I thought - a throat swab takes minutes. Maybe she wanted to grow some cultures while I waited in a hospital bed, but instead I had the feeling that I'd wake up the next day with a bill for a missing appendix. When I insisted on the information she had under that hair-net that justified a 5-day internment, this now-debatable doctor quickly became indignant. Whether she was a mail-order-degree quack or a genuinely skilled doctor who wanted some extra cash, there was no way I was going to entertain that bullshit any longer. At that moment, I understood with absolute clarity why one of my mentors here (who is fluent, married to a Chinese wife, and takes his kid to the hospitals here) said that it took a Herculean amount of self-restraint “NOT to punch the doctor in the fucking face” when dealing with this kind of ignorance ...or outright scamming.

Ah, but perhaps the next foreigner won't be so lucky and will cave in to the fear-tactics and pay for the 5-day deluxe stay. Oh, yes, what a fat commission that would bring in! Indeed, “to get rich is glorious!”


The assistant and I talked on our way back from the hospital and she mentioned that there was a better one we could go to later that week. I wasn't particularly convinced by the word “better,” but I asked anyway. Her mother was staying at this other hospital after some minor surgery. We got to talking about the state of health care in China and America and I mentioned something I'd heard about surgery here: is it true that prior to the operation, one should give the surgeon a “gift?” Why, yes, as a matter of fact. It's quite common. I asked what she gave. “An envelope with 1,000 yuan.” In other words, almost her entire month's salary. I don't know how much others spend or what can happen to those who don't, so I probably shouldn't make any judgements with so little information, right?


Yet, the one recurring thing I do know about Chinese health care, it seems, is that “to get rich is glorious!”


In the end, I solved my problem by talking to my manager ..who knows a guy ..who knows a gal ..who knows everybody. The next day, we were walking into a doctor's private office without taking a number, shaking hands, and talking about throat infections as the best of old buddies would. I was given a mild dosage of penicillin, and after a few days when a previously-unknown allergic reaction covered my body in red spots and caused my face to swell so that my inner lips were painfully split, we met again to discuss trying another anti-biotic. It was alright, though. There were some cute nurses who adored the novelty of a polka-dotted foreigner answering their questions in Chinese. I wouldn't have minded staying under their care for 5 days! The last set of doctors to inspect my (now two) conditions were at the top of their game. The assistant assured me of this because she'd overheard some of the earlier phone call between those nurses and none other than the hospital's director.


So, I followed all of their suggestions, took all of the pills, and made a full recovery within a week. Oh, guanxi, you card!


Trump, that is.

Killing with Kindness

Last night was warm with a constant, calm breeze and just perfect for walking about. A few friends and I got together for a late supper out on the street. All the tables we passed were hopelessly surrounded by merry Harbiners enjoying the belated retreat of winter. We finally arrived near the end of the sidewalk (it really just stops in the middle of the road - some of the bricks were removed to accommodate a construction project, but the locals continued swiping bricks after it was finished, so now it's a little desert crossing). We sat on 3 different types of chairs and ordered some beer, our table rocked as the waitress placed them, upsetting its crooked leg. Ah, back in China.

I'm glad I've been here for about a year. It's a good unit of time for exploring a new country and culture. You get to experience everything on the typical calendar cycle exactly once, you must endure all four seasons when they arrive, you can go to as many birthday parties as you have friends. My year has been enlightening in all kinds of ways, some of which I try to explain here, others that are more subtle and you only realize once removed from this environment. I guess a not-so-subtle example would be returning to the United States and witnessing how fat the average American is compared to the average Chinese.

My group finished devouring our skewered meats and headed towards the night market - a collection of impromptu clothes stands and food stalls with a side of random junk that makes it fun to explore periodically. It's a sweaty, crowded scene there as an assortment of stenches assault the senses: durians from one direction, smelly tofu from another. Not an ideal date spot. Neighboring this sprawling fire-hazard is a park large enough to host an array of sculptures, pagodas, playground equipment, kiddie carnival rides, a mound of rocks and small caves, a lake with an island kindergarden, enough concrete to host multiple sport courts, and still have room left over for grass and trees. We wound up kicking around a Jianzi - a kind of hackey-sack with feathers - for an hour or so with some occasional Chinese strangers brave enough to join in.

Our coordination was visibly suffering, perhaps due to an earlier encounter. Before entering this park, we'd stopped at yet another restaurant - occupying its one table. With us outside was another guy ordering some kabobs to go, who dropped some change on the ground. My ears are apparently well-trained to hear such a sound, and I eyed a few coins rolling around. The guy picked up and carried on with the transaction, but I later told him "Brother, under the stone." My statement wasn't cryptic to be elegant or mysterious, my Chinese just sucks that bad. He looked and didn't see, so I pulled out my phone, fired up the flashlight, and illuminated the shadow that his last coin was hiding under. He picked up the wu mao (half of a yuan) and seemed quite pleased by the scene. I was happy to help bring his image of foreigners up a notch. He broke the silent smiling by suddenly and loudly proclaiming my friends and I were to be rewarded with a round of baijiu, on him. Normally, I suppose this would be a call for celebration, except baijiu is airplane-fuel poison. I choked back my instinctive urge to vomit.

Sure enough, we were brought out 3 glasses of the vile brew, full to the top, probably 4 ounces worth. Of course, it was the cheapest they had. Don't get me wrong, I was quite honored by his gesture, and he gave us a lot of face, but we were going to lose it unless we swallowed down all of the shit. We might lose face anyway by reflexively puking it back up, too. After exchanging nervous glances for what seemed like minutes, we finally took the plunge and tipped back our glasses, downing the liquid and trying not to hit any precious taste buds in the process. Gross gross gross. My friend quickly suckled the red tea chaser he'd ordered in anticipation, my other friend kept making noises like he'd been resuscitated from a near-drowning accident, I wondered if I should continue helping strangers in the future.

Literally, we were being killed with kindness.

Not wanting our misguided benefactor to come back to toast any more, we quickly paid and ran to the safety of the cool darkness in the park. The jianzi was refreshing, as was our lazy walk home that toured us around half of the city for no other reason than it was 3AM and still wonderful weather outside. The full moon journey ended when we passed by my apartment block, and I passed out on my bed.

Sweet dreams!

"I wanna take you to a gay bar"

Well, it's April 12th and after the freezing Arctic forces began to wane this week, spring has officially arrived. It came, it saw, it spontaneously combusted... because today it is snowing again. Hard.

Oh well, it didn't impede my plans of loafing around the apartment all day, recovering from a night out drinking. It was my friend's last hurrah before leaving to start a new life in a new city. Naturally, she wanted to celebrate by going to the always-interesting gay bar another teacher and I stumbled upon a little while back. How, you ask? By hailing a cab and asking to be taken to one. Cab drivers are the closest to omniscience among the people here, for better or worse.

It would be our third time visiting what I'd call a hole-in-the-wall if it weren't for the fact that most restaurants and bars in Harbin would match the description."Gay bar" isn't even the term I'd use, but the Chinese aren't going to be empathetic to any other words relating to the subtleties of the spectrum, nor would I be able to communicate them in any capacity in Chinese. Come to think of it, my English probably isn't adequate, either. That Wikipedia page reads like the kind of acronym soup you'd see on a programmer's CV, and unfortunately I doubt it will make any more casual readers (read: "vanilla") sympathetic to the groups adopting the nomenclature, especially since it confusingly mixes both sexual preference and gender identity together.

Away from the abstract and back to the physical nature of this bar, then: it might not be a gay bar because nobody is advertising their sexual preferences. The first time, there was a big group of drunken men sitting close with arms on one another and close whispers, but hey, the place is loud and that's how most men are here. Men will walk around outside holding hands or leaning on one another like girls would. And why not? Why shouldn't we unashamedly express our closeness to the people we care for? Why must Americans (for example) instead pretend that touch is naughty? We all need it. As humans, it's hard-wired into our bodies.

I think it's a Puritan spectre that continues to haunt us, mainly because our society keeps deliberately telling us ghost stories that our hyperactive imagination takes too far. We tell children not to even talk to people they don't know - stranger danger! Well, I don't know about your kids, but I'm a third of the way through my life and I still don't know most of those other folks out there. That puts them in a shitty position to get help when needed if they're not allowed to ask the people right in front of them! Oh, but they're probably child rapists and murderers, I forgot. Ones that spend all day cruising the mall, ogling kids, just waiting for them to get lost, hoping they come over to ask for help, all so they can nefariously guide them... straight into the rapemobile. What a silly worry. Yet, we still drill into children: "Don't talk to strangers!" No wonder there's social anxiety on such a grand scale these days.

These statistics should dispell the stranger myth:
"Most children are abused by someone they know and trust, although boys are more likely than girls to be abused outside of the family.2,5 A study in three states found 96 percent of reported rape survivors under age 12 knew the attacker. Four percent of the offenders were strangers, 20 percent were fathers 16 percent were relatives and 50 percent were acquaintances or friends.24"

Thus, revising "Don't talk to strangers!" to "Don't talk to Dad!" would be five times as effective in preventing child molestation. By the way, the majority of unapologetic child rapists I know of work in churches yet are ironcially the ones pushing the Puritanical bullshit that is suffocating our society's ability to healthily express affection.

It's this Puritan-warped worldview that interprets two female friends walking down the street holding hands to be a lascivious lesbian sin-fest. God forbid those deviants be allowed near a school to fag up our kids! It's therefore a breath of fresh air over here to see men, women, and children of all ages hugging, hanging off one another, and holding arms and hands without fear of derision.

So I can't tell you if the patrons of this "gay bar" were actually gay. Here's what I do know: there was a stage, and  performers dressed in exotic fashions would step up and sing a few numbers each. All of them dressed in what one would consider female clothing, and all had uniquely feminine features such as breasts. Some, however, had the amazing ability to sing both parts of a duet: the woman's and the man's. And the presenter himself made comment that many of those onstage had undergone surgery - illustrated with a chopping motion across his pelvis. So now you have all of the information that we did. Regardless of which sex they preferred to be identified as, which parts they were (currently) equipped with, and who they preferred to love, they all shared one inspiring trait: they were amazing singers and dancers, unafraid of breaking out of the mold they were born into, especially in a society that largely wouldn't understand their explanation if they offered one.

Good for them!

"Good men must die, but death cannot kill their names."

I re-worked this essay for use in a lesson on evaluating information that I contributed to the University of the People a while back. The lesson contents haven't been openly published, but I feel this is one of the most beautiful works to have ever come from Searchlores, and will post it here so a wider audience might be able to appreciate its insights. While I may have never met the site's curator (known to me only by his pseudonym, "fravia+"), his works have contributed greatly to my development not only in the realm of technology, but as a person in general.

It's been almost a year since his passing, but the community of crackers, reversers, and seekers that gravitated around him thrives on. To them, I would apologize if any aspect of this adaptation seems to betray the spirit of the original.

Sielaff's Lessons

adapted from fravia+'s original version at


We sat there waiting and rather tense. January - quite cold in Berlin, but, after all, that was the reason we were there: Sielaff was still teaching.


And he did come - with his classical quarter-of-an-hour “academic delay.” He came in, leaning to one side, because he carried a dozen books under his left arm, and then he sat down without even looking at us and let all of his books fall onto the teacher's desk.


Mind you, this was the most cherished post-university course for historians of the early middle ages in Europe in those days, so you can imagine how silent and attentive we (students from all over Europe) were...


He still did not look at us. “These books,” he began, “deal all, more or less, with the same subject: the history of Denmark in the middle ages. Now, please try not to focus too much on the subject. Actually, the subject could be completely different - it would not matter in the least. The point is that you should learn how to EVALUATE all kinds of books BEFORE buying or reading them.”


Sielaff looked sharply at his audience. “I imagine,” he said, “you already know that most of the books and data around us are next to useless, don't you?”


I don't know about the others, but this took me by surprise. I had always thought, innocently enough, that anything that was published must have had some sort of “value.”


“This book,” Sielaff began, taking the first book from his pile, “is titled, quite appropriately for today's example: 'History of Denmark in the Middle Ages.'” He paused and looked at us. “Unfortunately, the Author, as stated by himself in the introduction, does not know Danish at all, therefore...” - he suddenly threw the book to a far corner of the teaching desk in disgust.



Obvious, but very often underestimated


“This book, on the other hand,” he continued, picking another book from his pile, “which is titled 'Denmark Between 500 and 1200,' has been written by an Author that actually does know Danish. Unfortunately, the same Author wrote - before this book - a book titled 'Cactuses and Other Desert Plants' and - should that not be enough for you - he wrote, a short time after having published the book I am holding right now in my hand, another book titled 'Aquarium Techniques for Home and Profit.'”


The book flew to the far corner on the desk, where it hit the previous one.



Obvious, but very often underestimated


“I am sure you are beginning to understand now...” he said, “but let's continue, because there is MUCH more to understand and reverse. Here is another book, 'Denmark in the Middle Ages'” - and he lifted a third book from his pile - “that has been written by someone who definitely knows Danish, who only worked on Danish history of the middle ages, and who happens to be a recognized authority in such matters.” He paused, and then threw the book, disgusted, to the “reject” side of his desk. “I know you won't like what I will say, but it is quite important anyhow: the Author wrote this book when he was only THIRTY years old!” In fact, we were all still approaching thirty ourselves. With the students speechless, he continued: “You won't enjoy hearing it right now, but believe me, if you want to be really sure someone knows anything about what he's writing about - especially in complex sciences like early medieval history - you wait until he is AT LEAST fifty years old, and even in that case you should take GREAT care; most of the so-called 'experts' are often enough just releasing hot air. This has nothing to do with Danish history specifically, of course... it happens everywhere.”



Obvious, but very often underestimated


“You see,” continued Sielaff, “the fact that the previous Author worked a lot on a single subject may be relevant for the books he wrote / will have written at the END of his career. But this does not guarantee anything at all about the books he may have written at the beginning. And now we come to this article, 'About Medieval Denmark' which was written by an expert on Danish medieval history when he was fifty. The article appeared in November, 1982, in a university monthly collection...”


Silence followed; we were trying to guess. “Ahem, I repeat: it appeared in November in a monthly...” More silence - we didn't know what to say. “OK, if you don't know it yet, then you better learn it right now. Monthly publications are tricky - especially university ones. They actually HAVE to publish their 12 issues year after year in order to survive and get public money for the following years. Yet, the quality varies considerably, and though it may be relatively easy to find some sound and interesting material for the first, say, five or six months, you'll have to scratch the bottom of the barrel to be able to fill and publish all 12 issues. Therefore, my dear students, everything published 'from September onwards' should be regarded with suspicion. Mind you - it doesn't MEAN that the stuff is useless, it is only LESS PROBABLE that you'll have some outstanding work there.”



You should always take into account the economic factors behind anything


“And now we are approaching the heart of today's session.” Sielaff yawned. “Here you have another book: 'History of Denmark Through the Middle Ages.'” He raised a hand holding a thick book from his pile. “This was written by a recognized expert of Danish history, towards the end of his life, building on many essays he wrote before on the same subject. It was published by the most renowned Danish editor, and was translated into German, English and French.” Sielaff paused. “It has no footnotes, only endnotes.”


Sielaff coughed, smiling sadly. “This basically means that you should 'believe' the historical reconstruction of the Author, instead of having the possibility - and the ease - to verify his writings AT EVERY STEP.”


“So even the 'formatting' of your target resource is important as well, and please note that most of the time this formatting will NOT be casual.”


He threw the book away in disgust.



Some Authors only refer to secondary sources, if ever. Others will bend backwards to avoid giving readers direct access to a primary source that could be interpreted differently.


“Today's introduction is almost finished. I guess you may enjoy this book.”


Sielaff held in his hands the last book of the pile. “Titled 'A Short History of Denmark in the Middle Ages,' this book was written by a recognized expert on the matter, 60 years old at the time of writing, has footnotes, uses the sources correctly... as far as I can judge, everything seems 'in order.' It has all the characteristics of a sound book.” Sielaff opened the book and sniffed among the pages. “It even smells good.”


Sielaff's head jerked back. “Yet, you should NOT trust its assertions - not in the least! Check the sources yourselves, confute the 'truths' and the 'discoveries' of this Author... think about the possible alternative interpretations." Sielaff hands waved in the air. “They're only WORDS! Never forget it: books, knowledge... just a cobweb of words; behind them, often enough, nothing. A cobweb of theories, that's 'science.' It's up to you to dispel it.”


Sielaff's eyes pierced the audience. “A critical mind - that's your only weapon inside the dark forests of bogus knowledge you will have to cross again and again. Your critical mind... never, ever allow it to get dull.”


Sielaff put the book down, closed it gently, and left.



A critical mind - that's your only weapon inside the dark forests of bogus knowledge. Never, ever allow it to get dull.


Boom, Goes The Dynamite!

The shockwave of bombs exploding all around.. thick smoke filling the air.. the streets covered in broken glass, rubble, and the color red..

Is this a warzone?

No. Well, not yet, anyway. It's just the growl of the Year of the Tiger in China.

It's been 2010 for more than a month now, if you're into that "Gregorian Calendar" thing. The Chinese use it too, of course - it's convenient for organizing international events such as "Talk Like a Pirate Day." But when it comes to celebrating traditional events, one needs a traditional calendar. What better than a system that's been tried and true for about 3,000 years?

The year of the Ox will come to a close on Feb 13, 2010, and it will be the Tiger's turn to.. be lucky, I suppose. Luck is a big concern around here, it would seem. Vendors line the streets with red and gold scrolls written to bring happiness, safety, and prosperity. They seem to be working already - if anyone's prospering, it's certainly these merchants!

Others sell red lanterns, red clothing, and I'm sure if you had a special request, there would be some red paint nearby. It looks and feels eerily similar to Happy Happy Valley in Earthbound/Mother 2, for anyone who'd get that reference. Red is the color of choice not because of Communist sentiment, but because of time-honored tradition stemming from mythology (the story of the monster Nian). It's amazing just how much humans follow tradition for tradition's sake, and I'd probably smile at it if it weren't holding us back in other arenas such as science, medicine, and human rights.

Here's a different perspective to challenge your idea of what "tradition" can mean: The Monkeys and the Bananas.

As for China, luckily beatings aren't the seasonal theme. Blowing shit up is.

If the color red wasn't enough to frighten away the hungry Nian, making loud noises certainly gets the job done. Not only do Chinese fireworks put to absolute shame the sparklers and snakes permitted in the pussified US states I've lived in, they conveniently double as car-alarm-testers and provide jobs for window manufacturers everywhere.

A friend of mine is dating a Chinese girl who works part-time selling fireworks. He was given a sack of what appeared to be your average fountain sparklers, but upon closer-oh-god-run-away-further inspection, turned out to be projectile fireworks with enough bang to force Chinese bystanders into "duck and cover" positions and appropriately expletive remarks. The most interesting thing about all of these antics is that nobody really gives a damn if you loudly dynamite the middle of a public road so long as you're not damaging anything. Freedoms taken for granted elsewhere, I imagine.

I won't be staying in Harbin for the festivities, but I will by flying to Beijing tomorrow to see the standard fare: Tiananmen, Forbidden City, Great Wall (the non-restored Simatai section). After a few days in a hostel there, I'll make the jump to Xiamen, a good-looking coastal city near Taiwan. I've got a friend who will take me to her parents' place for some authentic New Year feasting.

Take care!


On Monday night, I went with some foreign teachers to the Harbin Ice and Snow Festival. Night is the time to go because the buildings are lit up in vibrant combinations of colors. The sheer size of these icy constructions is awe-inspiring, and only rivaled by the absolutely frigid temperatures. Within half an hour, my toes were so numb that I caved in and visited a refreshment tent to verify my lower digits would still function.

It should have been called the rape tent, because that's what happened there. To justify my seat, I was compelled into purchasing a warm beverage: a small cup of instant coffee for 20 RMB (elsewhere, this would buy a decent dinner for two). My sphincter still quivers at the memory.

I was able to check that my toes were still attached, though, and after doing so, I took off my gloves to pull them over my socks and the proceeded to forcefully stuff it all back into my now-quite-cramped boots. It worked, and I was still able to keep my hands warm by drawing them deep into my coat sleeves.

While I did take some pictures, these ones are bound to be hundreds of times better and require significantly less work on my part as well. Please have a look at what's in my cold, cold backyard here:

Censor? I barely know her!

"Oh my God! Google is threatening to pull out of China!"
If you haven't heard, see

I know I'm late to the party on this one, but after reading article after article discussing this news, nobody has really attempted to connect the dots. Sure, there has already been a raucous online circlejerk about how great Google is to stand up to the Chinese government on human rights. Cries of "Do no evil!" erupted in unison as forums were flooded with fanboy fluid. (If wading around in these oubursts, it is advised to use a virus scanner to prevent contracting an STI.)

In 2006, when Google first ventured into the Chinese market, they knew exactly what they were getting themselves into, and by announcing that they would comply with Chinese law and censor their search results, they were duly criticized by netizens for violating their own inspiring - and successful - "Do no evil" policy. Why is it that four years later a sudden change of heart accompanied by an equally surprising ultimatum to the Chinese government (let us provide uncensored results, or we leave) is heralded as anything but disingenuous?

Google came here looking to tap into the 340-million-and-growing group of Chinese with Internet access. It's the same reason why anyone would want to set up shop here: there are a billion people and trillions of RMB flying around between them, waiting to be netted. By either measure, it's simply the largest market in the world. Naturally, there are a multitude of companies competing for their slice of this gigantic (and likely corn-flavored, with traces of melamine) pie. One such competitor is Baidu, the Chinese-owned web giant with more than 60% of the search engine market. In contrast, Google enjoys about 30% market share, which - one should note - is still a ton of people.

So what would force an innovative and financially secure web titan to make such a drastic threat? A hint: certainly not the plight of a few human rights activists that happen to use GMail. To Google's credit, they at least strive to defend their users' privacy, whereas Yahoo has been eager to snitch to the Chinese authorities, resulting in the imprisonment of at least three citizens. As for Microsoft, they were certainly quick to criticize Google's announcement, citing the same complicit "we're just abiding by the law" sentiment. Opportunistic philanthropist Bill Gates dismissed China's web censorship as "very limited" and "easy to go around" (which might have been the case in 2008 when the Great Firewall was temporarily switched off to show visiting Westerners that China isn't the Big Bad Censor that foreign media "unfairly" paints it as). Sitting here in China 2010, I can affirm that to an average user, the GFW is in fact "very comprehensive" and "tenaciously annoying to circumvent." But why rock the boat when Microsoft has it's new search engine ready to fill Google's void, right? (It's too bad "Bing" was doomed here before it ever began: the name [bìng, 病] means "disease.") Again though, these aren't new questions at all - prior to entering China, Google would have had time to digest this prescient piece from 2005 on the moral dilemma technology firms face in the PRC.

One of many good quotes from that above article: "Rather than accept everything the Chinese authorities says, the big players could find a common position saying they will stick to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and their own values," said Julien Pain, head of the Internet Freedom desk for Reporters Without Borders.

The only moral thing Google has done is realized and admitted it was being.. amoral. But that's a good first step!

Now, to the heart of the issue: China. You can think of China as a foxy young girl who knows she's smokin' hot. She's happy to hang out at the club and lure people over to buy her drinks, and even though she'd chat and humor him a bit just to keep him talking and buying drinks, she'd never dream of putting out. Instead, once her suitor had fulfilled his usefulness or she became bored, she'd feign indignation, throw a fit, and then freeze him out. Yes, in spite of her charm and confidence in her looks, there's something bothering her on the inside: even though others compliment her beauty and tell her she's special, she looks over to the VIP table and her gut sinks. Why don't those other people accept her? That's all she wants!

Those racists.

So, who are these frustrated chumps who get taken advantage of? Pretty much anybody wishing to do business with China. Let's look at Microsoft, since we're talking about technology. In case you haven't heard, Microsoft has this computer operating system, "Windows." Microsoft sees China at the bar dressed in a slick silk dress, her mysterious dark eyes drawing him in. He freezes for a bit in that awkward nerd-receiving-attention-from-a-woman way, nervously checks his watch, and tells himself "get your shit together Microsoft, you can do this!" He walks over and introduces himself. Isn't he going to buy her a drink first? Oh, haha, yea.. that's protocol, right? How silly of him. He tells her about the binary clock he built, the Star Trek convention he organized, she smiles and nods, he orders more drinks. Finally, he mentions this "Windows" thing and she perks up. All of these people pay that much money for Windows? Yeah, pretty cool, right? Oh, you're SO smart! She leans in and touches his arm with her hand. He has to excuse himself to the restroom for a moment and fix his erection. After coming back out, China seems a little doubtful. "But I worry, is this Windows thing secure?" Of course! Look, I'll show you! (Please sleep with me, I don't want to die a virgin!) Wow, too cool, Microsoft! You're like my best friend ever! Got to go now, see you later. *wink* By the way, you don't mind if I show this to some of my friends, right?

There are a few interesting results from this little story that relate to the main topic (Google and China, in case you've forgotten - I know I almost did after that steamy fan-fiction):
  1. For many years, many Chinese business models have relied on the above "sucker" method. Foreign companies attracted by China's dirt-cheap labor costs and lax regulations line up to take advantage of outsourcing their manufacturing work to maximize profits. Within a short time, the same companies notice profits are falling because the market is flooded with cheap imitations of their product. Even if you cease to do business with that manufacturer, the damage is irreversible - nothing will stop the copies and the Chinese goverment (although having attended conventions, signed treaties, and legislated laws to declare copyright and protect intellectual property) won't let you sue the Chinese-owned company for damages. Frankly, my dear, they don't give a damn. Neither do the Chinese citizens (and many others around the world) who enjoy the same dirt-cheap prices on goods such as electronics, movies, and uppity brand-name handbags. This is exactly why Microsoft won't see a red cent from the Chinese for their software: why pay a premium for the legitimate version when the copy does the exact same thing for cheaper?

    Simply, there is a culture of copying here. From fake brands to diplomas, it's prevalent and thus accepted. The idea of the "Chinese knock-off" is similarly widespread in Western societies, but I don't know how many people are aware of this extending to the Web. Did you look at that Baidu link? Their webpage design looks awfully familiar. But this is it: the Chinese excel at taking something built by Westerners - already tried and true - and Chinafying (Chinkify, if you need a pejorative) it for their local tastes and market. Examples aplenty here: As an outsider, it is nearly impossible to compete with these "blessed from above" businesses since they are run by Chinese nationals and thus bring money into the country while being much easier to control.

  2. "Hacked By Chinese!" Many attacks on computer networks are said to originate from China, and accordingly, the Western media often points fingers this way. I don't deny the hacking claims, but remember that when you're counting hacking attempts, executions, or any other statistic, one in five people on this planet reside in China. By counting raw numbers, there is an extreme bias that should be corrected with the words "per capita." It's no small minority: what's good for China is good for roughly 20% of the people alive today.

    Regarding the computer hacking, though: the Chinese military (The People's Liberation Army, or PLA) is certainly invested in recruiting and developing a talented cyber-army. Coupled with its past expertise at reverse-engineering electronics, software is a natural second talent to hone. Especially considering that the PLA's main rival, the United States, is heavily reliant on technology to conduct combat (minimizing American casualties and incidentially taking collateral damage to new levels), a Chinese upper hand in the electronic warfare theatre would be potentially crippling. It's easily the one place to invest time and money because instead of expensive missiles or gear, all you need is a computer and one ambassador skilled in denial.

    Of course, while there is "civilian" hacking everywhere in the world, they can't always take the blame. As if the scale of the coordinated attacks on Google and (allegedly) 30+ other technology companies wasn't questionable, one of the motives - information on Chinese dissidents - leaves little doubt that the government would be quite interested in the spoils from these attacks. This wouldn't be the first wide-scale attempt at infiltrating and monitoring dissidents - see an earlier operation named GhostNet which targeted offices of the exiled Dalai Lama as well as other foreign embassies.

    The other primary objective of these attacks was source code - the programming that instructs computers what to compute. It's the same thing that the Chinese asked for from Microsoft: the source code to Windows; and given what little has surfaced in regard to the actual attacks, that access to the Windows source code could possibly be why the hackers were able to break in with a never-before-seen vulnerability. Really, though, the "how" isn't of much concern to the rest of the world, but the "why" certainly is. If any government - whether via its military, contractors, or plain old nationalists - is breaking into your company for the purpose of stealing its intellectual crown jewels.. if the very country you operate in and rely on to enforce the rules is actively sabotaging you.. it's time to get the fuck out.
It's no different from the industrial espionage that plagued the manufacturers prior. How can any company, even as intelligent, resourceful, and admired as Google is, fight off the 800-pound Panda in the room? Simple: it can't. If there were one quote most fitting for these times (here and abroad) I offer you this from the Greek statesman Solon:

"Laws are like spiders' webs: if some light or powerless thing falls into them, it is caught, but a bigger one can break through and get away."

From an outsiders perspective, there appear to have been many intentional attempts to disrupt Google's services, of course to the benefit of mainland competitors. First, some of them are blocked outright, such as YouTube and Blogger. Second, others are crippled - the Image Search is near-useless because thumbnails often don't appear; the caching feature was also blocked because it could be used to view blocked pages; and further, Google was told to remove its Auto-suggest feature (which shows what others are commonly searching for) because it was pointing to pornography. The search engine was attacked by the state-run CCTV network: Humorously, it was quickly discovered that the interviewee, Gao Ye, who condemned Internet pornography in the broadcast after his schoolmate was apparently traumatized by it, was not actually a student, but a shill employed by CCTV. Lastly, the Web Search and GMail both have been subject to the whimsical nature of the censors, both having disappeared without warning during my time here.

So, backed into a corner, Google did the only thing it could do: slap China in her most sensitive spot, the face, and walk away. In China and other Asian cultures, the concept of "losing face" is a troubling one. Essentially, face is lost when there is discord between the conduct of two parties due to perceived status. In a word, "honor" or "respect." Since that's all a bit abstract, the easiest way to remember the idea is: if you're putting someone in a stressful or awkward situation, they're losing face. It doesn't have to be as awkward as publishing bachelor party photos on the Internet - it could be as innocuous as someone offering you a business card with two hands and you accepting it with one. Or perhaps more obviously, informing the entire world that operating your business in China is not even worth the trouble.

Poor girl, shunned from that VIP table again.

By posturing its decision as a dilemma for the PRC to make the final call on, Google can gain face by appearing to stand up against censorship and the oppression of political dissidents. There is not a chance in hell that the Party would allow Google to operate uncensored - both of them know that. It would undermine everything: the state-run media, by allowing alternative viewpoints to enter mainstream discussion; the Golden Shield Project and Great Firewall, by contradicting its need to protect netizens from potentially "harmful" information; it would provide these users a place to publish their unfiltered thoughts and not have them torn down minutes later; and it would expose documentation of decades of violent suppression. It would be so radical, the disruption is unthinkable.

Here's the subtle bit of strategy that I haven't seen anyone else pick up on. When the PRC announced its home-made Green Dam Youth Escort Web-filtering software would be mandatory on new PCs "to build a green, healthy, and harmonious online environment, and to avoid the effects on and the poisoning of our youth's minds by harmful information on the Internet," there was significant and unusual pressure from Chinese netizens and the international community condemning the plan - so much that the decree was dropped, and the software is now voluntary. Although the software promised to protect children from pornography by detecting inappropriate words and even skin-tones in pictures, analysis of the software later revealed that 15% of the blocked content was pornography-related, while the other 85% was political.

The savvy online generation knows full-well of China's attempts to control the flow of information, which is why they mocked the Green Dam Youth Escort by personifying the software as a little girl wearing the word "morals" on her sleeve and carrying a paintbrush to cover up anything objectionable. The act of the government blocking a site or censoring a blog or forum post is common, and colloquially referred to as "harmonizing" it - a play on the idea that neutralizing disruptive information will meet Hu Jintao's vision of a Harmonious Society. Once the slang "harmonize" was barred from use on some forums, a homophone appeared: "river crab." This idea is further abstracted by some as simply "aquatic product." All of it is evidence to the same enduring idea that Big Brother is watching closely over all discourse. And with enough pressure, the PRC didn't want to lose face by looking more like the Thought Police. They backed down!

Google could be aiming for this kind of sympathetic response to pressure the government. They have plenty of international support from human rights organizations, corporations with similar interests in China, and many democratic trade partners, not to mention their loyal users inside of China. Again, there won't be any sweeping reform of censorship, but perhaps Google can hope to strike some sort of deal to stay here. Is it so wise to rush back into such an abusive relationship? I don't know. What possible kind of agreement could be enforced so that Google doesn't end up making the same mistake twice?

If it is all just for show and Google packs up tomorrow, there will be an ominous hole - a constant reminder to Chinese netizens and foreign companies alike that maybe something isn't quite right about China if a smart, capable, and respected company runs away repenting: "Do no evil! Do no evil!"

Ho Ho Ho (3位/400元)

Happy holidays!

No, really. This time should be happy, not stressful. That's why I took a trip to the bathhouse with some friends. After showering, soaking, playing under the waterfalls, getting a scrubdown, showering again, soaking some more, simply sitting and talking, getting a foot massage (passed on the pedicure), then napping in a warm, dark room.... I awoke this morning oh so content.

Easily the least stressful Christmas so far, but that doesn't mean it's the best, of course. I miss my dear friends and family, and am living in a much colder environment than ever before, but it's nice to be immersed in an alternate culture that doesn't drown you with hyper-consumerism. Here, there's still plenty of consumerism tied to cultural events as well as more superstition than I care for, but there has bever been this sense of urgency for gift-giving. Most celebrations simply involve going to a shared hot-pot dinner, perhaps KTV (karaoke) afterward. Christmas - like Thanksgiving and Halloween before it - will pass casually except for whatever the expat crowd organizes for themselves.

This calm is welcome after years of America's Black Friday madness (how many people got trampled to death this year, I wonder...), constant "Christmas classic" songs on the radio or in every public building with a speaker system, and worrying that a well-intentioned donation to charity will end up being used to oppress minorities. I'd rather just sit around the fireplace, look through a photo-album (Remember those? Much more interesting than tuning the TV to A Christmas Story for the 26th year straight..), and knock back a few gin and tonics while chatting with my family. I sure have a few stories to tell now!

Of course, being the godless commie bastards that we are over here in Red China, I'll be working during Christmas break. Egads! But let's look again at my schedule:
Mon - No class
Tue - 1 class, start at 5:30 PM
Wed - 2 classes, 12:30 PM
Thu - 1 class, 5:10 PM
Fri - 1 class, 5:30 PM
Sat - 4 classes, 8:00 AM
Sun - 3 classes, 10:30 AM

That's every week. Plenty of free time and still paid a princely sum!

Enjoy yourselves and take care!

Meals: Thanksgiving Table-talk

It's snowy and cold here in Harbin, about -15 Celsius (4 degrees Fahrenheit). The temperature isn't so bad, but the wind can be a real demon, especially at night. Most people have switched over to longer, heavier coats packed with feathers or a comparable synthetic. Traffic is a lot more annoying during the morning rush-hour (when I take a bus to my Chinese class) than it used to be. The weather is partly to blame, of course, but so is the traffic light at the end of my road that stays green for 5 seconds max. Everyone here "drives" a manual shift, so if you're not anticipating the signal change, you'll be holding up an angry line of honking cars. Luckily, the other drivers are thoughtfully honking before the light turns green, in case anyone might forget what it is exactly everyone is sitting in their car for.

Normally, I wouldn't have to deal with this weather very much, but now I'm commuting to a private language school to study Chinese. Even the 10 minute walk to my work is becoming more of an exercise in balance, now that the smooth, tiled sidewalks are covered in snow and ice. It's nice to see snow, though.

Chinese snowmen so far have been disappointing. In their defense, there isn't a lot of snow to work with yet (and most of it is concrete underneath). They're designed a bit differently, with conic bases and the familiar spherical head - a bit like a chess pawn (or Sorry piece, if that's your "parlour" preference). To confirm this, I asked both my adult and teenage classes: it's by design. When I drew the "Western" interpretation of a snowman with 3 body segments - all spheres - I was asked: "What's the bottom one supposed to be?" I had always assumed the oOO design to be representative of (from left to right) a head, a torso, and legs; that's how I explained it. Obviously, they aren't sculpted to the detail of a David but the Chinese version o< just looks like some poor bastard stuffed into a volcano. Luckily, I've been informed that for a snowball fight, the Chinese throw proper balls - not little cones. Somehow, "snowcone fight!" doesn't send the adrenaline surging, sounding instead like a depressing waste of syrup and shaved ice.

As for Chinese, it's been getting easier. It turns out that regimented studying is the way to go for me since it takes a herculean amount of motivation to self-study with the same results. Not that the results could be passably equal. Even if one of my frustrations about the class is too little speaking-time, at least I'm inundated with listening to it for a solid 2-3 hours each weekday. Learning-by-osmosis is real, especially with language, and I make an effort now in classes to stack the slower kids near the faster ones in hopes that something might spark. It couldn't hurt, right?

My individual progress is satisfying. Every time I chat up a taxi driver, I exhaust my slowly-expanding list of topics. The feedback is comical, though. If you can say only your hellos and goodbyes, the near-universal response is "Your Chinese is good! How many years have you lived here?" I guess I should be glad they're at least encouraging me instead of parting with "Sorry, buddy, you suck a fat one."

Speaking of eating dick, I did. And in public, no less.

No worries, it wasn't in the confines of an anonymous restroom gloryhole, but at a cheap local restaurant.. equally filthy, perhaps. Ok, I confess: it is a bit of a hole-in-the-wall. It wasn't like we waltzed in just hankerin' for a bull schlong, though - it took a bit of time (and a number of beers) to reach that tipping point. We'd exhausted our familiar menu options and asked our Chinese friend to pick something unique from the menu - something we'd never tried before. Naturally, she came across this gem on the menu and, with a smile on her face, asked us if we had the balls to try it. Never one to turn down a hearty helping of meat, I hoped to oblige, but wondered if it'd be any good. After a bit of prodding, we got her to ask the waiter "How's the penis here?"

"Good eating," he assured us. I was sold. After all, if they offer it in a restaurant, somebody must like it, right? I can't imagine they'd keep beef poles stacked in the freezer for any other purpose.

As we sat and waited for our order, our minds began to wander...
What would it look like? Would it be served diced and breaded on a small saucer, or raw on a plate longer than my forearm with nothing but a side of dipping sauce?

How much meat were we even talking about, here? It was priced at 20 RMB, which is considerably more expensive than the sliced potatoes, fish halves, and chicken hearts we were used to. The beers around here run you 2 RMB - was it going to provide us 10 beers with of happiness? (Disclaimer: this is a bad metric to use, because almost nothing can match a decabeer's worth of satisfaction.) Still, I was worried we'd bitten off more than we could chew. Even with three hungry mouths seated around the table... have you seen a bull's equipment?

As we were lost in thought, our stomachs hadn't forgotten that it was taking a while to prepare. "Where's the wang?" they seemed to quip. We worried that they didn't have it "in stock," but some poor server was hunting around out back with a cleaver and bucket. Would this fetcher of phallus attempt to "excite" the poor beast first, in an attempt to get more bang for his buck? Maybe instead the waitstaff had to peruse the cellar for a pickled prick left over from last season? Alas, I must admit my ignorance in these matters.

At least we were happy that what was coming for us would be unique. Our foreign friend also piped in, "You know what they say: '吃什么, 补什么' (chi shenme, bu shenme)!" I guess I didn't know what they say. She explained, "you improve (or patch up) what you eat." With one simple sentence, I suddenly understood many observations of Chinese culture that had previously baffled me. Lack constitution? Chew some chicken hearts. Need some smarts? Munch on a monkey brain. I guessed that since men (as evidenced by spam e-mail) seem continually worried about the size of their trouser snakes, it wouldn't be uncommon to order one here. I suppose a reason I never noticed it before could be that it's slightly embarassing to do so. Maybe these bashful guys just call in the order and take it to go. But, most likely, it's just not a favorite meal option - I haven't exactly seen these things hanging around the frozen foods section of my local grocer.

Of course, that's one interpretation. The Western version of this idiom - "you are what you eat" - hits a little too close to home for me.

Our dish did eventually arrive, and to our surprise, with little fanfare. The plate hit the glass tabletop with the same hasty clank awarded to any other dish. Atop it were four chunks of apparent meat, the top of each had been sliced up a bit to allow it to expand outwards while cooking. Picture it like a Bloomin' Onion, but with a cattle's love truncheon. It even smelled spicy.

I was taken aback to find the Harbin-standard peppers and spices dotting our dish, as they're already abused enough on standard skewer-items. It's as though there are only two flavors for "commoner" food: hot or not, where "not" has a 30% representation at best. But we were all a bit too peckish to care at this point. Already salivating, I gripped it firmly between my wooden fingers and thrust the meat into my mouth... and bit.

And chewed.
And chewed.
And glanced back and forth between the others in an attempt to find agreement: "this is a workout, huh?"
Most of it had been spongy and easy to bite through, but holy cow, the bottom was something else!

I'd never masticated a member that hard in my life.

I wish I could tell you that screams of pleasure erupted from our tastebuds, but the chemistry just wasn't there. Maybe we'd gone too fast? Maybe we were just nervous? It was our first time, after all.

Now, I'm no connoisseur of cock, but ours simply proved too difficult to chew, uncomfortable to swallow beyond that (gag reflex), and whatever natural flavor it had was compromised by the blase seasoning. Hell, it could've been the most delectable knob ever, but you never would've been able to sense it through that thick, artificial barrier. In all honesty, this overdose could have been completely intentional as they scrounged around the kitchen for whatever "mystery meat" could be pawned off to us unsuspecting patrons. All objections aside, I can still truthfully state that it was the best penis I've ever tasted.

The worst part about those spices, though? The day after. I know you don't want to read the details of my intimacy with the toilet, so I'll just summarize, short and sweet: of the cornucopia of things that have come out of my ass all these years, nothing has burned more than that weiner.

Now what must I eat to "patch" that hole?

Hallo! Ween!


The best part about teaching is you get to learn as well. That's "get to" and not "have to" - you could do absolutely nothing but read from the books and repeatedly enunciate word pronunciations, but you wouldn't be a teacher, you'd be a parrot. I've been living for 10 months straight on my personal condensation of Paul Graham's enlightened advice: "add value." It's a great little philosophy that can be applied anywhere, anytime. It's also a great way to ensure that your job isn't replaced by a machine (or more embarassingly, software alone).

Any job that affords you the time to do personal research is a keeper. My adult classes necessitate plenty of web searching and reading, and often from a variety of sources (which is ideal when learning about any topic) since I'm trying to find content for the right level of reader. I've noticed that having software (or failing that, university English students) to take source articles and reduce the vocabulary and grammar to an ability-appropriate level could be quite lucrative. How many times I've had to manually strain out the obvious artifacts of thesaurus abuse from news articles...

I got to learn a bit about Halloween this month, and the history of the holiday is far too interesting to talk about with the little time I've set aside for this post. Dressing up as evil creatures to blend in with the real ones: brilliant!

As for the Chinese here in Harbin, Halloween isn't exactly "visible" like it would be in a Western country. They've imported Valentine's Day and Christmas (the presents - not the Christ), so why not the candy-consumerism of Halloween? Off the top of my head and with no prior research, I'd say it could be that firstly most of the Chinese don't really have houses and neighborhoods to plunder. Of course, I live in a city, but the suburbs aren't the statistically wealthier and more educated product of White Flight that they are in the States. In fact, they're the exact opposite.

The school once sponsored a trip to a place nicknamed "Crazy Lake" that was indeed true to its name - there was only a vast field... no lake. It doesn't get much crazier than that. On the bumpy bus ride there, I had plenty of time to observe the literally dirt-poor living conditions of the country mice. It's been noted in a few of the news articles I've read about China's modernization that the magnitude of the flight from rural areas to the cities is staggering. Here is a page with additional reasonable-generalizations-with-a-grain-of-salt factoids about urban life. Can't disagree about the architecture... how the hell Asia managed to have such stunning ancient structures and absolute shit-ugly modern ones is baffling.

Baffled is what I am. And perhaps you, too - if you remembered that I was supposed to be talking about Halloween. Well, the point is... I wouldn't want to be trekking around anywhere in China at night, even if candy was the prize. It's just that dangerous. Not as in crime - no way. All of the reasonable civil safeties you take for granted vanish instantly here. I always walk with my head down not because of low self-esteem but for fear of disappearing into a fresh ditch or pile of glass shards. You'd think a sudden chasm would be indicated with an orange cone or at least a line of tape, but the idea seems to be: there's a hole there, can't you see? And that's fine. I like to live dangerously. But remember since China is one perpetual construction project, new booby-traps appear daily.

When I asked my older classes about trick-or-treating, they confirmed that they wouldn't feel safe just going up to strangers for anything, let alone edibles. It's understandable. There isn't much of that stranger-to-stranger communication. "If you don't know someone, why would you talk to them?" "Well... how else do you get to know them?" is a reasonable response, but it's still considered rude by many to do so. That doesn't stop me from trying to ask for directions, though.

Kids being kids, we all (yes, I'm included) enjoy an excuse to dress up with a costume and play pranks on one another, so I'm sure Halloween will find its way to the hearts of the more Western-influenced China as this generation grows up. Regardless of the spirit of it, in the end it's all about business opportunities here, and anyone can see that there's a lucrative market waiting to be tapped. When it does happen, I hope they remember my Oscar-worthy re-enactment of monsters and make other foreigners proud of their zombie phonics...

Happy Halloween!

A Day in the Life of a Beastie Boy

Since I've been blatantly pre-occupied with it, I'd like to give you a glimpse into my humble lifestyle here. Humble by Western standards, of course - quite glamorous to the Chinese, in contrast. It's curious, too, because one of the standard questions I get from the locals besides the "where are you from" and "what do you do" is "how much money do you make." I don't mind telling if I'm never going to see them again, and perhaps that's why they ask as well. I could probably get away with saying any number, but I don't want to meet anyone again later in a dark alley (there are lots)! Either way, the response is almost the same: a mixture of wonderment and contempt, often followed with a doubtful "is it enough?" Yes. Yes it is. I save away approximately 80% of my income each month, simply because I'm a low-maintenance kind of guy. Food? Check. Internet connection? Check. That figure could be as much as 95% if I cut back on the fancy dinners and alcohol consumption that make for a decent social life.

While most people here save because they don't know when a costly medical disaster might strike (health care is surprisingly similar to the US, as far as what the patient has to deal with), I look at it as a long-term investment. The entire world seems to know that China's currency is undervalued, and when international pressure finally forces the government to.. do whatever it is you do when your currency is undervalued.. it may just be the best case of "your money working for you" that I've experienced. Compared to the cratered mutual funds back in the US, anything would be better - a kick to the junk, perhaps.

And so, I present you with a normal day in the humble life of a breathtakingly beautiful, stunningly rich, and well-endowed man... casually living in China:

I'm awake, likely at the computer. This moment blurs in with the rest of those long hours seated in front of a screen in a dim light, but alas, it's a new day, so we had to start here. Am I studying Chinese with Anki? Listening to music and idly browsing? Getting my ass kicked by GNU Go? All are very real possibilities, but don't really "feel" like China. Sorry! That's because I'm not a tourist; I live here. That perspective affects a lot of things.

Perhaps more telling of Harbin are the numerous beer cans stacked about. I'm not eating steamed dumplings because they wouldn't be fresh, but I've got some sunflower-seed brittle from the bakery across the street that helps with my fiber needs (and when squatting toilets are all you have, you want your stool to be solid). I might be snacking and drinking a little, likely thinking "I should head to bed soon."

A few hours later, "I should head to bed soon" finally battles its way through the warzone that is my cerebral cortex. I climb into a toasty-warm bed thanks to the plastic sack of hot water I left in it earlier. This stupidly simple device is a game-changer because it actually makes me want to go to bed. With the temperature falling a bit more every day, I predict it will soon be upgraded to life-saver status. I'm wearing oh-so-comfortable windpants and a ratty T-shirt that is in fact older than most of my students.

If it's a weekday - and statistically, this is likely - I can relax and enjoy waking up without the alarm on my pre-paid phone. The sun by now is way too annoying even for my closed eyes to ignore, in spite of having two layers of curtains blockading the window. Time to get up, slide my feet into my bargain-bartered fuzzy slippers (just look like you're about to walk away into the next store over), and face the day. Based on my class schedule, the day actually begins anywhere from 3-5PM and ends at around 8. This is a good thing.

From here, I can spend 30 minutes "getting ready" for the day. Living alone is great because it brings out the nudist in you. Showering? Great! I'm all ready. Let me just check my e-mail first. Oh, that's an interesting website. Great music! Where's a torrent? Oh, friends on Skype? Thank goodness it's not a video chat! What's the rush on the shower, I've got all morning!

If amidst all this mayhem, this crucial moment is remembered, I will call in to work and have lunch ordered on the house. Half of the time, I forget. I don't think it's a comment on my absent-mindedness as much as it is a comment on the quality of our menu options. We are allowed up to 10RMB and anything beyond is out-of-pocket. Rice is 1RMB, a pile of sauced veggies is 5, and the meat dishes that aren't just meat-flavored breading are 10+. I quickly learned not to question the logic in pricing, and later, not to question the variance in the actual dishes. Sometimes you get thick chunks of quality meat slathered in delectable sauces, and other times, you're lucky if there's any real meat attached to the cubes of fat littering your half-cooked vegetables. I suspect the latter only happens because with delivery, the customers are not within easy reach of the so-called chefs. I've seen people here in fights for lesser slights than skimping on ingredients.

After the order is placed, I get my stuff in order and head out the door within half an hour, lest lunch arrive and sit until cold.

I step out from my bomb shelter, inspect the tiles out front to see if they've sunk any lower, and head towards the market area. I'm way too late for there to be a market anymore - that's getting old by 9AM. I will likely encounter a number of things: junk-collectors banging on buckets with tubes of plastic to get someone's attention, as though they weren't already riding a giant metal tricycle; cabbages and leeks bunched together on the ground, in window-sills, balconies, or anywhere else the sun might shine (apparently being dried out prior to in-house storage during the winter); phlegm, one of many, many things that makes me question why anyone would want to set their vegetables on the ground; vomit, usually obvious from lively color and accompanying rice or noodle fragments; and Chinese people curiously (sometimes cautiously) eyeing and possibly commenting on me. The most amusing way to handle this situation in any situation is to feign ignorance and continue listening, then mid-whisper, laugh heartily. This always catches them off-guard with mixed reactions, unless they've read the previous sentence, which is unlikely, as I just finished typing it. Be sure they're indeed talking about you, or you'll just look like a madman - good reactions, either way.

I'm at the school eating and studying some Chinese from the same book that I received upon arrival months ago. Look, I'm not that bad - I've done a lot of self-study. The book is what's supplementary! At 2:30, I might be meeting my Chinese friend to do some studying from said book. If not, I've likely got a Chinese lesson scheduled with a teaching assistant at 3:30, so there's some Chinese studying going on one way or another.

The language is dead easy if you're good at remembering arbitrary sounds and glyphs that have no connection to your native language. Luckily, I've studied Japanese before, so the glyphs are only sort of arbitrary. 书 (Chinese, pronounced "shu", meaning "book") and 本 (Japanese, pronounced "hon", meaning "book") are practically identical, right? Well, how about 写 (Chinese, pronounced "xie", meaning "to write") and 書 (Japanese, pronounced "ka", meaning "to write")? But hold on! 写 is the simplified Chinese version of the traditional character 書, so they're both.. kind of talking about book- or writing-related activities! Ha ha, how simple it is after all!

Ok, ok.. so it is a little challenging: I understand why half of the long-term teachers here have given up on it (the speaking, nevermind the characters!) already. Honestly though, it has little to do with the difficulty of the foreign language and everything to do with your environment. Surround yourself with English-speakers and.. surprise! You're complacent. Don't underestimate the value of one's sanity, however. Working here, I can assure you that it's a precious commodity.

I study Chinese and simultaneously contemplate suicide, then it's time to get ready for class.

I spend 30 minutes hastily-yet-effectively preparing a lesson plan for the coming 2 hours of class time. This may seem reckless, and it is, but it always works. Some days are better than others, but there are diminishing returns for time invested into planning and 1 hour is about the most I could invest. It wouldn't even be an hour's worth - it would be the same 30 minutes of productivity interspersed with random musings about who knows what - more pedophilia jokes? Better to keep the pressure on and work well than to further alienate the teachers who can't handle a good dead baby visual. For the record, there is no HR department nor workplace ethics laws (eg. sexual harassement) for them to spring up from. This is also a good thing (unless you're being sexually harassed, which I'm not) because otherwise we'd be swimming in pink slips, or worse: horribly, horribly bored.

Class. This is worthy of its own post.. or book. In short, if everyone can learn something new, practice using it, run around a bit and have a laugh - without brutally injuring anyone - I consider it a success. Most classes are successful.

I'm back in the apartment being productive. This could be any number of things: studying Chinese, working on web applications, updating the blogg...  Yes, so I guess some of those things hold my attention more than others. Sometimes it's a later dinner or a movie, but most often it's a period of intense introspection. As the winter nears, I expect this to increase to near-hermit levels. Only time will tell. At least then I won't have an excuse to not update this page, even if I won't be doing anything worth updating for. I suppose I do have a backlog of stories...

Anyhow, I must adjourn here. Tomorrow isn't one of the lazy weekdays I've just described to you above, but a 10-hour trip through the deepest circles of hell and back. I will teach four 2-hour classes back-to-back with minimal time for breaks, beginning at 8:00AM and ending whenever the screaming stops. It's hard to recall all of the details, as I just wake up in a haze on the cold, wooden floor of my apartment, covered in blood.

If you've seen Event Horizon ("Where we're going, we won't need eyes"), you'll know what I mean.

Sweet dreams!

A Fragile Superpower

Ah, I found this link among my bazillion open Firefox tabs when I was researching Sino-Japanese relations. Rather than my "paper tiger" analogy below, it may be better to call China a "fragile superpower." The explanation provided fits exactly with my previous thoughts on China's current issues.

It's a long read, yes, but it pretty much sums up all the recent history one might care to know, complimented by an insider's view.

¡Viva la Revolución!

Happy 60th Birthday, China!

October 1st marks China's National Day - celebrating the end of the Chinese Civil War. In short, "following the Chinese Civil War (國共内戰) and the victory of Mao Zedong's (毛澤東) Communist forces over the Kuomintang (KMT,國民黨, hanyu pinyin: Guomindang, GMD) forces of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek (蔣中正, hanyu pinyin: Jiang Jieshi), who fled to Taiwan, Mao declared the founding of the People's Republic of China on October 1, 1949."

This explains why the celebrations in Beijing weren't your typical affair. I imagine when you hear the word "parade," you think of a home-town event with police cars, fire trucks, a few floats assembled by local students, some sequin-adorned nubiles sitting in fancy cars, and a smattering of uncharismatic folks you've never heard of who perhaps got a seat because of political or business connections. Some of these people might be throwing candy at the spectators sitting along the sidewalk, and thank goodness only the most nimble children scrape it up, because their would-be competitors are already too fat to get there first. You might see some people on horseback, which is exciting because it's about the only time you see horses in general. These sturdy steeds might also leave some presents on the road, and thus introduce to children their first painful dilemma: "how close does candy have to be to the horse-shit before I don't want it anymore?"

Parents or school officials will usually advise "don't take candy from strangers," unless, hypocritically, it happens on a massive scale. These people are also likely the same well-to-do, god-fearing types who would never dream of murdering another civilian, unless, hypocritically, they supported the invasion of Iraq.

After all, the death of one person is a tragedy; the death of hundreds of thousands is merely a statistic. Right?

China's big event on October first was a military parade. This wasn't done to energize the people for an invasion, of course (many people I've talked to are proud to remind me that China has never started a conflict with other nations, which is somewhat true - the PLA was aggressive in a few border disputes). There is a history of the PRC having military parades, described below from Wikipedia:

"The People's Republic of China was founded on 1 October 1949. Since then, celebrations of varying scales occur on National Day each year. Military parades were held every year between 1949 and 1959, and were presided over by Chairman Mao Zedong. In September 1960, the Chinese leadership decided that in order to save funds and "be frugal", large-scale ceremonies for National Day will only be held every ten years, with a smaller-scale ceremony every five years. Because of the chaos caused by the Cultural Revolution, however, large-scale celebrations did not take place for 24 years. Since then, the most prominent National Day celebrations have taken place in 1984 and 1999, at the 35th and 50th Anniversaries, respectively. During these celebrations, then-paramount leader Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin reviewed military parades of the People's Liberation Army. 2009 will be the first and last time Hu Jintao oversees this task."

The entire article is worth a quick glance.

For pictures related to the event, see The Boston Globe's always-amazing photo sets below:

A few friends and I who decided not to do any traveling during the congested Golden Week went to a cafe to relax and watch the show. While Hu's speech was populist fanfare that would be typical of any short speech at a big event ("China is great," "Look at all these great things we've done," etc.), at least one positive aspect is the pragmatic Chinese don't pretend to thank a divine being for all of their blessings - as if they were just dropped in their lap from Heaven above. However, they instead pimp the idea of the Communist Party as a nearly-divine entity ("Remember all those great things? That was us!"), as if communism were at all responsible for the country's economic success. They're communist in name only, but many mainstream Western media outlets still pull the "red card" on China - but hey, who am I to say they're disingenuous? Misinformed populism sells, and judging by the circus you call "healthcare reform" in the US, business is fucking booming.

Remember now, children, the government-sponsored killing of people in other countries is a Good Thing, and the government-sponsored helping of people in our country is a Bad Thing.

Again, my experience here has been that while the "freedom-of-the-press" mainstream media in the US and the "state-controlled-propaganda" mainstream media in the PRC are different in their structure, they are ultimately the same thing: tools of those in power used to maintain the status quo or mislead the masses to their benefit. This is by no means an elaborate conspiracy theory, but a casual observation. If you're interested in the details, see the book "Manufacturing Consent." As a recent example, it's amazing to me that the ghost of McCarthy can still be summoned to scare people away from something that would directly improve their lives (socialized medicine) because, well, communism is the devil, and socialism is kinda related to it, and uh, the Nazis were socialists, and they had death squads... What the fuck?

But back to "Red China," the precision marching of the soldiers made for a great show. The discipline required to synchronize the motions so closely must have been quite painful. And while I suspect some will view this entire event as some "threat" to freedom/democracy/your-preferred-Pavlovian-power-word-here, it's really nothing more than an elaborate fashion show. China may have a 3-million-strong standing army, nuclear weapons, space program, and General Tso's Chicken, but they'd be nothing short of mentally retarded to provoke the U.S. into conflict. If they wanted to do so, Taiwan's sitting right over there - help yourselves. Instead, after Deng Xiaoping's economic reforms, transition to capitalism, and reliance on foreign nations, China has similarly become a paper tiger. I anticipate the Communist Party will be too busy justifying its own continued, solitary existence to the Chinese people (as the level of internal corruption is absolutely staggering). To give you an idea: doctors, teachers, and police are considered among the least trusted professions. Why, you wonder? Bribery. Want the teacher to pay attention to your child and field him questions and correct his homework? You might want to consider a "gift" for the teacher. Want your surgeon to concentrate well when your mother is under the knife? You might be inclined to show your "appreciation" prior to the scheduled surgery.

As for cops, well, I'd be careful with cops anywhere. In China, though, laws are a lot like "guidelines," and open to interpretation depending on who you know or how much money you have. It really has been an eye-opening experience here, I must say. Additionally, the Blue Code of Silence seems to be common everywhere, as far as I can tell.

As for the parade, some of the Chinese in our group at the cafe were singing along with the various nationally recognized songs. The civilian parade carried portaits of influential Chinese leaders: Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, and lastly... Hu Jintao. Even I recognized it as something odd, but the Chinese in our party were noticably pissed off that Hu would have the audacity to include himself among the list of luminaries. To put it in perspective, it would be like a Macy's Day Parade with portraits of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and... Obama. Even if you like the guy, it doesn't fit - especially while he's still in power.

In summary, the parade made for a great show and was a lot of fun for everyone to watch, but it assumes away certain problems that do and will continue to haunt the Communist Party and the country in general. Oh well, are the Chinese better off now than they were 60 years ago? Sure, who isn't? Are they better off now than they were last year? Perhaps not. And ultimately, that's what people care about - not the feel-good mythology of their country, but knowing that yes, the government does give a shit about the welfare of their citizens right now.

In all honesty, whether you're living in (free/democratic/modern) America or (authoritarian/communist/industrial) China, the answer to such a question might be elusive... if not outright depressing.

This too shall post

Back to talking about China, then.

The weather is slowly growing colder, but it's still nothing serious. In fact, my apartment somehow manages to defy the cold and the monstrous mosquitoes that everyone else complains about. I've seen their handiwork, too - they're not to be taken lightly. One friend got a bite on his arm and it swelled up looking just like a third nipple. One student had a largely swollen ear that we thought was the onset of some serious disease, but no - it was just another bite. I'm not sure why they cause such a reaction, but damn I'm happy I haven't had them buzzing around my head while in bed at night.

In general, I'm quite happy with my apartment. It's not some sardine tin; I feel a bit guilty about the spaciousness at times, considering I'm usually in one or two rooms - often neglecting the kitchen and second bedroom (or "study," as I like to think of it). Renting is the way to go in Harbin; buying an apartment (let alone a house) is prohibitively expensive for most people, myself included. Even after months of living here, it's still pretty bare-bones. I've got some minimal decor left-over from the previous occupant, and maybe a few practical changes on my part, but it's almost the same as I found it. The idea was, well, I wouldn't be staying here that long anyhow. This still appears to be the case, but I'm still on a variety of fences regarding what to do next, so it's something I'll have to report back later on.

In the meantime, I can briefly describe some of the events I've been privy to (in no particular order):

Firstly, there was a boat trip. I received an email asking me to join my co-workers in a day off, cruising a boat up and down the Songhua River, having lunch on an island, and drinking merrily all the while. It's hard to turn down that offer for another day of walking around or sitting in front of the laptop. Most of the teachers and TAs attended as well (TAs: free food, teachers: free beer), and it was a pleasant little excursion. Nobody fell in, which is always a plus - especially since I later heard a tale from a new teacher about his former company having an outing at sea, the boat capsizing, and the majority of them drowning. Is that a chapter in your company's disaster recovery manual?

Also, a few teachers and TAs went to KTV, the Chinese take on karaoke. It's nearly identical to Japan's - private rooms rented by the hour, food and drink available for purchase (at a premium), tambourines awaiting you in the room. The biggest difference for me was the dissatisfying selection of English songs. Of course it's China, but damn... oh well, as long as you're with friends, it tends to be fun.

A different group went to a dance club called "D+" as well. The interior was shockingly elegant ("A+" material, actually), but the table charge was shocking to match. The idea is that there is a minimum amount that your party has to pay, up front, in order to sit at a table. When we went, it was 300 or 400 yuan (about 40-50 per person). To put that in perspective, you could buy a standard-size can of beer for about 1 yuan. Still, it wasn't disappointing: they had a spacious joint complete with periodic shows from in-house dancers. The most annoying part about the club experience here (as opposed to how annoying clubs can be in general) was without doubt the music. My friend has a theory that all the venues in this region simply play the same mix CD and the "DJs" standing about are frauds, doing little more than periodically bursting out on the microphone at key points in the songs for maximum annoyance. Having visited a few bars and clubs, I can't challenge this observation, though I sincerely hope he's wrong.

I was in a party of people that went bowling as well. Nothing unusual to report, except that the maximum shoe size was woefully inadequate for me. Well, maybe that isn't unusual after all. Believe it or not, the Chinese tend to swim, dance, bowl, sing, and otherwise function like many other humans on this planet. The intent of this blog was to inform about my activities here, but I'll spare you these less-than-profound observations.

The majority of insight I've had into the culture here has come from a few sources: foreign teachers who've been here a while, natives with a good command of English, and personal observations/research. Regarding the personal stuff, during my day off this week I'll be diving deeper into the history of Chinese-Japanese conflicts, war atrocities, and modern propaganda in hopes of understanding better the animosity that exists between the two even today - in spite of being major trade partners and only a stone-throw away. I've downloaded some pseudo-documentaries related to Unit 731 - the Japanese attempt at human experimentation that was in-vogue during WW2 - and have been reviewing more reputable materials on it as well. Since Unit 731 was located in Harbin, I can see why the anti-Japanese sentiment here still runs strong. Then again, the U.S. dropped two atomic bombs on largely civilian targets in Japan during those years, and we're practically best friends now (Germany's neighbors, too, seem to get on all right these days). My hunch is that the proud Han Chinese forever "lost face" by Japan's occupation, and - like the guys who think they're defending their "honor" by leaving a fist-fight only to come back with a knife - refuse to let it go. Yet, it's also convenient for the government to continually remind the people of this in order to drum up nationalistic support using us-vs-them rhetoric. Come to think of it, the second notion isn't too dissimilar from other tactics employed beginning about 8 years ago today in the United States...

On Tuesday, I intend to visit the remains of the notorious Unit 731 personally; I'll probably wait a bit to sort things in my head before detailing it, however. In the meantime, perhaps you or others will find some solace in these four simple words: "This too shall pass."

Since I haven't yet penned my treatise on nationalism, I hope the following advice is succinct enough:

Political charlatans will continue to harp on about these contentious affairs in order to divide and conquer people of all nations, but remember that the next time one of them climbs onstage, wraps a flag around his dick, and violently jerks off, you don't have to stand there swallowing it up like the crowd of blind, hungry birds all around you.

On A Pale Blue Dot

Greetings, reader. It's a hot and lazy Tuesday afternoon - a perfect time to spend an hour writing while sipping on a tall can of STOUTBEER. If only the after-taste was better, I'd drink them more often. Wait- perhaps it's a blessing in disguise...

Teaching has been tolerable for the last month, but my patience is slowly-but-surely waning with regards to my school. After passing an exam of advanced English grammar, some basic Chinese and other organizational topics, I was given the choice of extra monthly income or reduced hours. Since I live like a king already here (with a salary worth 4x the median), I asked for the free time - essentially one less class. I'm now contractually obligated to 20 hours of teaching per week, which doesn't sound like much, but when factoring in all the preparations, drives to-and-fro, and miscellaneous downtime - it adds up to a significant (and unfortunately fragmented) chunk of time. Yet, I've been teaching overtime nearly half the time. I suppose it's cheaper to pay out overtime than to have an extra teacher or two around, but to me it seems quite disingenuous, especially since we have only one guaranteed free day per week.

It's fine, though. I can work and study for 6 months straight, then head out on yet another journey. I've entertained the thought of acquiring a motorcycle with my ample savings and riding to Europe or India, keeping my own "Motorcycle Diaries." I (with a hearty helping of thousands of nutritious opinions every day - thanks, Internet!) have convinced myself that it makes more sense to do all of this traveling while younger instead of older, as I'd be more fit for it and the things I experience will challenge and change my naive self. If I waited until I was older, maybe these opinions would be less malleable and I'd find myself instead always defending my own ways and disregarding the others.

I find it humorous and disappointing that the status quo for most people seems to be the opposite: work hard while young, then retire and enjoy yourself then. What if I get hit by a bus when I'm 40? I'd feel pretty stupid for not having seen the world (let alone the bus) first. I imagine the readers who are already invested into this lifestyle are fishing for arguments to challenege my reasoning - I can understand, don't worry. You've got your life and I've got mine; all that matters is that we can find happiness, right? My path certainly isn't yours, or you'd be sitting half-naked in a chair in a dusty apartment in China, finishing off a black beer of questionable quality.

If you ever want to rediscover a sense of wonderment in yourself on a lonely night, I suggest downloading Google Earth and exploring all the remote islands and desert wastelands you can spot. (Even outside of the realm of adventure, it's an immensely useful tool.) If that isn't enough to humble your mind, you can graduate to this musing.

As always, there's more to say, but now isn't the time.
I wish you luck in life and love.

...well, just as long as you don't know the same girl I do ;)

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