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.

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