The Souvenir

Yesterday was an eventful one. It was a nasty, rainy day from the start, and the weather kept me feeling like I should continue to awkwardly smash at the snooze button for a few hours beyond normal. I think I was expecting to somehow awaken magically refreshed, but it turned out to be a fruitless - if not masochistic - endeavor.

Gah, it shits me to second-guess my spelling these days. The majority of books we work from use British English, which I'm beginning to hate at a level more irrational than most people. It's not out of some form of cultural superiority or bitterness for having formerly been a colony of theirs (I mean, hey, who hasn't?). I'm more annoyed at how the words are needlessly longer (eg. "color" vs. "colour") and more complex (eg. "They have a ball." vs. "They have got a ball."). It's childish, of course, but what do you expect? I work around children all day.

And not just any kids, but some genuinely spoiled little bastards - the youngest (~5 years old) having had no prior experience in a classroom environment. Even with my worst class, it's arguably easy to maintain classroom control by stuffing the misbehaving kids in chairs and corners, but doing so is effectively removing them from the learning environment. The worst I've had to do is pick up, carry sideways, and deposit outside a kid who, in-between bouts of running around, wanted nothing more than to do a handstand with his feet on the wall. The TA at the time felt this was too harsh, but I'll be damned if she's going to be tied up dealing exclusively with that one kid (with loud and distracting Chinese threats, no less) while I need her help in managing the other 13 in the class. Likewise, official policy be damned: if I had to "warn" them about what I was going to do each time, it means they would just get one more chance to misbehave before the problem could be solved, and at the expense of the other students' learning and my personal sanity.

Those who know me may vouch for how little of that I had to start with.

As for the kid I kicked out, I told the TA to "make sure he knows why he's out there." What she reported to me after class was enlightening. The boy's mother had come out from the lobby to see what the deal was. Not only is she paying the school for her kid to be sidelined, but there's the issue of her losing face among the other parents with students in the room. So the mom asked the boy what was going on, and he apparently kicked into puppy-dog-eye mode, complete with comments such as, "Well, Mom, I'm trying really hard..." to which she replied something like, "That's fine, go and do your best." Give me a break.

It's not that he's some master charlatan, but the parents are just blinded by how vehemently they want to believe that their child is Heaven's gift to the Earth. For many reasons, especially economic conditions and the One Child Policy, parents that have a child can count on it being their last. Yet due to the strong cultural emphasis on family, it's a child that they're going to invest as much as they can into (including English lessons at a private school) and fight tooth and nail for. Not only for the sake of the child's personal success, but because once the parents grow older, they will have to count on the child to take care of them as well. Thus, no matter how much of a jackass the kid is, many parents are in this cloud of denial about their little angel. One of the other problem kids in that class was saying to his mother things like, "Shut up, I hate you."

Of course, she just chuckled and gave him some snacks.

It's hard enough attempting to just teach younger kids with the attention span of a fly. I certainly don't want to have to rear them as well, but I'm not going to shy away from the task; someone has to. If anything, that little incident has convinced me to be more of a hard-ass. You can still have fun and retain authority. I don't think children - even that young - will respect you if you just try to be everyone's friend and never call them on their shit. As an aside, while child abuse is still legal here, I certainly wouldn't endorse it. That said, I do grin at the idea of adding a new entry for "recommended number of beatings" on the progress reports. One of the other teachers actually keeps a "blacklist." Ha! I can't imagine the things our teachers must have thought or said about us...

So I think I was originally describing a rainy day. Sorry, it's just how my brain works... if indeed that is the verb to use.

While it got off to a dreary start, I did happen upon something quite fortuitous while fording the rivers that temporarily appear around my neighborhood whenever it rains hard. The pavement isn't level and certainly not designed with drainage in mind, so my morning journey involves a healthy dose of island-hopping.

With my eyes scanning the ground for the usual puddles and pit-traps, I caught sight of a soggy 20 RMB banknote sitting on the sidewalk. "O Fortuna," I wept aloud to the clouds through my gift-bin umbrella of minimal body coverage! It was as though in one divine act, my months of near-constant toil and intoxication were finally acknowledged. I skipped like a little girl all the way to work (well, more than normal).

After all, 20 RMB can buy, like, 10 beers.

I hung my little Mao out to dry and pampered him with all the fixings of an under-budgeted office environment. A paper clip, or even one of those black alligator-clip thingies that is fun to play with but hurts like a bitch if you try attaching it to a chunk of flesh too small to adequately distribute the immense pressure you didn't think it was capable of due to its misleadingly small size, may have been involved. I'm not sure - it all happened so fast and I was high on life at the time. When it was time to head out from the home base for an off-site gig, I grabbed the bill so it could cover my return trip by cab, as all I had was an 100 ...Mao.

I might not have mentioned before, but The Chairman's calm and reassuring visage - the same exact picture - graces all of the bills: 1, 5, 10, 20, 50, 100. The colors of each are different, but this continues to mess with my head because I'm much better at picking out differences of pattern rather than color. Yes, there's other imagery on the bills, but if Mao's looking at you, you'd best be looking back. That's all I'm saying... it's distracting as hell. The currency isn't actually called "Mao," (it's usually called "RMB," "renminbi," "yuan," or "quai") but it might as well be. Is China's government trying to say "Mao was so mind-blowingly awesome, he should be on everything" or were the flattering portraits of the other famed people in China's long history too few and far between?

Armed with my new twenty, I did my class, hopped in a taxi, got back to the office, shed a tear of joy and paid the man. After he handed me the change, he started up in a heated voice using non-taxi protocol language. It took a minute for me to figure out he was saying that he wouldn't take the 20, and he held it over another that he had and sure enough, mine was a counterfeit. My world came crashing down around me, but due to its sturdy frame, the taxi cab shrugged off the blows and I was able to successfully change my 100 and pay the driver.

I knew it was too good to be true! I'm convinced that in China, even if there was an enormous turd of unrivaled, fibrous strength, someone would bear the stench and pry the last bits of corn from it before it had a chance to cool. Things are scavenged or outright stolen at lightning speed, and people are never in short supply, so what are the chances that I'd find an unmolested item of pure value in a public place? Zero, historically speaking.

Oh China, you are too much fun.

Putting the "hospital" in hospitality

This will be a quickie since I need to get off of the Internet and back into China.

Today's been one distraction after another, mainly because of Iran. I'm happy to see technology such as Twitter empowering the demonstrators. It isn't as good as it could be for them, however, because Twitter isn't designed to protect their anonymity, and it's a centralized service that can be easily blocked (if you're the Iranian government) or unplugged (if the same thing were to happen in the US). What would be better is an anonymous P2P network run by the protesters, themselves. Of course, if you are on-the-go, it's much more difficult to have this kind of luxury, and a cell phone is what most people are likely to have and know how to use ahead of time. Perhaps in the coming generations, as our hand-held devices become more ubiquitous and capable, it will be possible to shoot a video with your cell phone/PDA and share it without the service provider or government being able to identify you as the source. Currently, we see videos of police brutality on YouTube from onlookers, but those people likely forget that if it were in a more abusive country, the cops might be able to easily trace the upload and dole out some extra brutality later...

And now, not to trivialize any of the above, I have a few quick and off-the-cuff thoughts from living in China:
  • Fermented mango snacks - blah! What was I thinking? "Hey, those fermented paw-paw slices were good, why not give these a shot?" is what I thought. Damn these are nasty due to their odd texture and sub-par flavor.
  • On the other hand, I've eaten almost every part of every common animal by now, whether I know it or not. The best I had so far was the dry, smoked slices of kidney from... some animal I forgot.
  • It's a shame that most of the time the options for drinking are limited to either light beer (at least the Snow brand has some flavor) or fucking baijiu. To date, I have tasted one brand of baijiu that wasn't just like paint thinner. It was more of a paint thinner with an aromatic, pleasantly mild and sweet aftertaste. Certainly, "an acquired taste."
  • Water isn't an option most of the time, and it would be a crapshoot anyhow. If you got plain tap water, I guarantee you'd be shooting crap, actually.
  • Regarding alcohol, hangovers are particularly nasty in Harbin because the sun is up at like 4 in the morning, and with it come the people who ride their giant tricycles around, banging on buckets. You think I'm kidding, but I have yet to determine what the hell they are doing - my best guess is they want to feel and act like a scooter with an audible horn. Many of them also appear to salvage scrap metal or other dirty, smelly, diseased things from the heaps of trash lying about.
  • My diet of mainly meat and alcohol will take off whatever additional longevity I gained while eating well in Japan. I try to find good vegetable dishes when I can, but then the hospitable Chinese inevitably invite me to eat and drink with them, which is hard to turn down. The Harbiners are fierce drinkers, let me say. Keeping pace is a challenge.
  • I need to wash my hands more often; it's too bad soap (much like toilet paper) is non-existant in public facilities. Maybe someone would steal it? The consequence of this is that you carry TP with you or... get caught up shit creek without a paddle.
  • On that note: the toilets are apparently not designed for flushing toilet paper. I'm no sanitary engineer, but it would seem to me like you'd have to go out of your way to make a toilet that couldn't do both. So your used TP goes into a little trash bin in the corner of the toilet stall.
Just some observations I had. Looking back, many of them seem negative, but that's not really the case... just "different."

Time for dinner! A friend has asked me to join him for... a beer, and some BBQ.

Here we go again. At least I don't smoke.

"Libera Me"

When I was preparing to come to China, I wasn't sure if it would be the police state that the West makes it out to be. Erring on the side of caution, I did what any reasonable WASP would: hide my Bible with the dirty underwear in my suitcase and encrypt the bestiality porn on my laptop. Similarly, after arriving, one of the first things we were told about teaching was to stay away from material involving the three T's: Taiwan, Tibet, and Tiananmen.

In any country, there are sensitive topics that one doesn't casually bring up with just anybody. The difference here in China is that the government takes a noticeably active role in controlling what can be said regarding the topics it has the most interest in. The most frustrating part of this for me is the government's attempt to censor the Internet, accomplished through what is known as "The Great Firewall of China." The irony is that in spite of its grandiose name, any kid could get around it - the techniques are no different than defeating the mandatory filtering software in use at a school library. The important difference to consider, though, is that the crabby old librarians back home don't have thousands of agents at their disposal nor the power to incarcerate you as a political prisoner. I'm sure they secretly would if they could, though.. anything to teach those young whipper-snappers a lesson.

If you hate using computers in the first place, this system just makes it all the more a pain in the ass. Sadly, much of the web that I find useful and interesting is blocked. Things like Google's cache feature, blogs on Wordpress or... Blogger, Wikipedia, Wikileaks, various Western newspapers, and a mix of much more (incomplete list). It's blatantly obvious when you try to go to a forbidden site as well, because to the browser, it looks as though the site is "down" and not responding to requests. Google must have an inumpressive reputation here, because it seems like their engineers can't seem to grasp the concept of stability.

Web companies based in China have to play by the government's rules as well and block access to or remove certain information. As mentioned in an article linked in the previous post, Baidu (a popular Chinese search engine) filters out keywords related to taboo topics. The Chinese extension of Google has to do the same, no doubt. Here's another incomplete list (2 years old is forever in Internet time, but banned words aren't likely to change).

As far as censorship goes, it's easy to pick on China because of how vast and blatant their system is. However, similar programs are already in place all around the world, and the trend will likely continue. It's too simple for a government (or the service providers) not to. You may have heard this quote attributed to Nazi war criminal Herman Goring: "Naturally the common people don't want war; neither in Russia, nor in England, nor in America, nor in Germany. That is understood. But after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine policy, and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is to tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country."

It is trivial to adapt this to meet the needs of Internet censors. "Tell them horrible things on the Internet are going to harm your children and denounce the opposition as deviants or would-be molestors." That's it - easy as pie. Once the technology is in place to blacklist "offensive" sites, it's only a matter of time before other content makes the list, but you wouldn't know what's on the list anyhow. If you think this would never happen in a modern liberal democracy that valued Freedom of Speech, look no further than Australia or Germany.

"That's all fine and dandy, but what's the point?" you ask. Calm down, already. If you have the attention span of a 5-year-old, I suggest TV news instead. One week ago marked the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre (June 4, 1989). How fortuitous of me to be here for such a memorable event! Except, that's the point - it's not memorable; it was spun to death and then discarded into the memory hole. A large portion of this generation of Chinese are completely ignorant of the circumstances leading up to the protests or the bloody aftermath. Amusingly enough, while I was at work that day, one of my Chinese TAs was complaining about the situation with health care and insurance in the country. I told her she had a valid point, and there were probably many other young people like her who felt the same way. I suggested they take their grievances to Beijing and organize a demonstration on "this auspicious day."

She didn't get the joke...

At least the other Westerner in the room laughed.

Again, though, it's easy to pick on China. For those in the West, the media from that day proved unforgettably powerful. For me, "The Unknown Rebel" is one of the most powerful photographs I've had the pleasure of studying on my wall while savoring a good drink. (It's too bad some people insist on calling him "Tank Man" - a significantly less suave name...) Even if the next generation of Westerners didn't care about modern China's development, chances are good they've seen pictures from or articles about that day - it's simply too good an opportunity to push propaganda.

Of course, those same American kids might not have a clue about another infamous anniversary only one month earlier. This date marks the Kent State Massacre (May 4, 1970), where - similarly - student protesters were shot and killed by government soldiers. Both of these events are red stains on the history books that don't get the attention they deserve. In fact, it's quite funny to me how hasty a country is to criticize another over convenient omissions in secondary education history texts, when they obviously haven't looked at their own. I try not to generalize much, but I can guarantee all such books are wrought with half-truths, exaggerations, omissions, and outright lies. It can be hard enough for two people to agree on what to order for dinner, let alone what occurred in a faraway country in a completely different language and time. Have you ever played the "telephone game?" Attempting to pass a relatively simple yet detailed message from one person to the next is bound to introduce errors, and those playing don't even have an incentive to distort the truth. Objectivity in history is a wet dream at best; all one can hope to do is read as many well-researched accounts as possible and try to piece together what might have happened.

With regard to Tiananmen, one could argue that the government's censorship campaign has been a frighteningly effective success, as so many people remain unaware of it. However, I don't believe this to be the case. Personally, I know that if something is supposed to be a secret, it means that it's actually interesting and promises a challenge and reward. It's the driving force behind many hackers - exploration and forbidden knowledge - and also the curious reason for the Streisand Effect. My hunch, based on personal observations while dedicating vast quantities of time to the study of Internet culture, is that the people with the will to know already know. The rest simply don't give a shit. I only wish I knew the true percentages of people who felt one way or the other. Unlike my experiences in the US, the people here don't walk around on lookout for some unsuspecting sod with his mouth slightly agape just so they can vomit their political ideology down his throat. I'm told that behind closed doors, the Chinese can be just as political as anyone else, but my Mandarin has a long way to go before I can chat about China's long history, let alone what I did yesterday.

This is quite alright, as I am merely a spectator. I have faith that China's cyber-dissidents - its Unknown Rebels - will continue to arm themselves with the knowledge and fighting spirit that has been the mainstay of their culture since long before the digital age. And likewise, dear reader, I hope that your thirst for knowledge is never quenched. Complacency is the death of intellect.

I leave you to ponder the efficacy of censorship in the age when information can travel at the speed of light to all corners of the Earth, and where one copy of a publication can instantly and effortlessly be duplicated into millions. Here is another poignant quote from another infamous member of a one-party State:

“If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State.”
- Joseph Goebbels

At least I have squid on a stick

Last week was the Dragon Boat Festival, which was good fun. There was a boat race, food stalls, colorful wristlets and anklets, and the usual drunken revelry that accompanies any special calendar date. I woke up early, and by 5:00AM, I was at the St. Sophia Church to meet some friends from work who would accompany me to the festivities. Before you ask, it's not really a church anymore, but a museum housing a miniature model of the city. I'm told that each time a new building project takes place, they must also provide a model to the museum.

The morning crowd at the cathedral was light, but still impressive. Many were the tired party animals sobering up from the night before. There were other animals as well: uncollared dogs running about and playing ball or perhaps some ancient Chinese variant that modern ball is derived from. Some dogs here are collared, but the majority I've seen haven't been. The pets seem well-to-do, and there aren't canine corpses littering the street, so it seems to work alright. Maybe all the dogs that couldn't handle the freedom already got street-sweeped once, and this is the generation smart enough to make it past natural selection.

The night before, I was told that the main pedestrian road (with all the beer gardens) was packed shoulder-to-shoulder, and there seemed to be evidence of this from the periodic mountains of garbage on our walk to the Flood Monument for the boat race. Some people get pissy when you say "China is dirty." That's probably because dirty is an ambiguous word but one that's always negative. My white-to-brown tranny socks are testament to the fact that Harbin is dirty. Yes, every morning coming out from my apartment, there's a lot of generic filth... and snot... and broken glass. I'm quite fond of watching it slowly change - who knows what tomorrow will bring, spike-traps? Still, you can't say the government isn't trying. There are people sporting the reflective-orange and walking about the middle of the road armed with nothing more than a broom and dust-pan. Indeed, these people are literally street-sweepers.

Stay in school, kids - English may be hard, but consider the alternatives.

Of course, even the most vigilant sweeping wouldn't be able to compete with the awesome bit of culture-slap I had when we finally made it to Stalin Park (the Flood Monument is in the center, the park lines the river). My companions and I were walking about the crowd after seeing enough of the race. Amidst this bustling group of people, there was a young girl - she could have been in my 5-7 year-old class, for all I know - fidgeting about and getting some advice from her parents. Without warning, she drops her pants, squats forward, and proceedes to power-wash the sidewalk. Thank St. Sophia it wasn't my dirty shoes that caught it. Crowd's reaction: casually walk around encroaching puddle of urine, unflinching. My reaction: we're in the one place in Harbin with grass, trees, and (unsurprisingly) dirt all around us, and your daughter is pissing on the sidewalk that a thousand people are using right this instant.

Anyhow, there are pictures (of the festival, not the tinkling tyke) to put up, but I've got work tomorrow and it's already quite late. If you want to learn some more about China, consider reading about Tiananmen as it is both timely and relevant to my next topic.

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