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Dinosaurs and indoor pools – the lighter side of childhood in China

A few weeks ago I witnessed something that warmed the cockles of my typically icy heart.

In China, when one pictures a middle school student, they picture a small child diligently studying behind a great wall of books. Outside of the classroom they are spotted in their uniforms around 5pm being brought back from school for several more hours of homework. These few minutes on the bus in Nanjing were almost always filled with a few rounds of Fruit Ninja or Angry Birds on their smart phones. In rural China, the students were boarded, and so had no chance of furtive gaming between school and study.

In my two years at the hospital, I sat through dozens of chats between co-workers that focused on their children’s progress in school, but I never heard them discuss other aspects of their children’s lives with each other. Questions from them about life in America also focused on the scholarly instead of  the fun. This reinforces the stereotype that Asians are more studious than their American counterparts. For me this was confirmed a few weeks ago when I visited the Stanford campus and saw a handful of Chinese tour groups wandering the campus with their toddlers in tow (you can’t plan too far ahead).

For expats living in China, the conversation turns toward a concern over whether or not Chinese children ever actually get to enjoy their childhood. After all when a friend asked his students to recount their happiest memory, he was met with tales of passing tests, dog bites, and child abuse.

So when I saw two boys, about 12 years old, roaring and running about like dinosaurs, I couldn’t have been happier. It was wonderful to see them lost in their own world, completely ignoring the stares of working folks headed home.

It’s important to remember that even after years in China, there are large parts of people’s lives you have simply missed. So much happens within the home or behind the walls of their apartment compound and if you live in the wrong neighborhood you may miss it all.

It reminded me of a story one of my college students told me. He said that one night in the dormitory, when it was too hot to sleep, his roommates and him decided the only way to cool down was to go for a swim. The problem was they couldn’t leave their room. So they came up with a way of converting their tiny bathroom into a pool. All it took were a few towels stuffed into the squat toilet and under the door and their shower turned on full blast for about thirty minutes. Somehow all eight of them fit in there, and splashed away in their “pool.” The student, and his classmates hearing of it for the first time, giggled through the entire story, even though they had nearly destroyed their dorm room.

With what feels like an unending stream of depressing news about China’s human rights, food safety, and environment, it is easier to forget that more often than not it is a place of loving families and enduring friendships.

The China travel experience

A few days ago the New York Times posted a story entitled “Where Europe Trails Asia,” in which a weary traveler longs for the friendly customs line in China over the one in Germany (which, as we all know, has a global reputation for enthusiastic smiles). I thought I should offer my following experience in reply.

On my recent trip home I was reminded of all the fabulous tourist sites I had visited over the past five years – The Terracotta Soldiers, The Great Buddha at Leshan, Dali, Lijiang, and scores of others. However, as incredible as the sites are, I’m often left pondering how much better the trips would have been if just a little bit more thought had been put into the planning of the over all experience. Sadly, I’ve known a number of travelers who have become so irritated by the shortcomings that they fail to enjoy some of the best bits of China.

For example, the other week when I headed to Hangzhou aboard one of China’s zippy high-speed trains, we passed through the massive Nanjing South Station, which is a gleaming monolith of a railway hub, and disembarked in the grubby old Hangzhou station. This however wasn’t the problem, after spending just about two hours on the train there, it took nearly an hour of waiting in a packed, dim, hallway (that seemed more like some kind of gauntlet of sweltering death) just to catch a cab. Or that the old D-trains used to take 2 and half hours from Nanjing station to Shanghai station (both close to the city centers), while the new G-trains depart from more remote stations, and take roughly the same amount of time from downtown to downtown, but you spend only a little over an hour on the comfortable trains, and the rest of the time packed in subway cars. Not to mention the number of stairs involved in any train passage…

These minor inconveniences though could have been completely avoided with slightly more attention to the overall experience as opposed to thinking that only the sites and speedy long-distance transit would override the other challenges.

However, as for things that tourists complain of, the number one issue is scams that pray on tourists. It is just much more difficult to enjoy a vacation when you feel you are being taken advantage of. I recently had friends visiting from Norway, and when I asked about their visit to the Great Wall, their entire story revolved around a rotten bus driver and a scheming cab driver. While surely some of this could have been avoided with more planning, it seems unfortunate that these shady operators are allowed to dupe unwitting tourists at the “official” bus station as it tarnishes China’s reputation overseas.

Lastly, I want to share with you my final morning in China – I woke up in the PVG Da Zhong airport hotel and jumped in the shower only to find that there was no hot water (I’m assuming this was the result of having too many people showering at once). When I confronted the front desk about it (in Chinese) I was told that there was nothing that could be done (meibanfa), to which I suggested something could be done, a discount could be given. In response to this the manager (over the phone, since they didn’t want to talk with me in person) said that it was suspicious that I was the only person in the hotel with this problem. “So I am a liar?” I asked the now very flustered front staff person. “No,” she said, “But maybe you don’t know how to shower.” To which I struggled to reply somewhat calmly with , “I’ve been showering more than 25 years, I am familiar with the process.” At this point the staffer shrugged, and again offered the cop-out, “Meibanfa.” At this point, I was angry, realized nothing more was going to be done about the lacking service, and ran to catch my flight. It was a rough start to a very long day.

As I got to the terminal, I looked out the windows hoping to catch a glimpse of the ocean that lies just beyond the runways. Unfortunately, the pollution was so bad that I couldn’t even make out the edge of the runways.

Oh, how I will miss you “foggy” China.

Once we had all boarded the plane the American captain came on the intercom and said, “I’m sorry ladies and gentlemen, but we are going to be waiting here for a while for clearance for take off. The tower has told us to wait, but they didn’t give us any details about how long we’d be waiting, or why we are delayed. That’s just the way China does things. If we knew more, we’d tell you.” It sounded as though he had been through this a few times before.

Now, I have other days to look back fondly on, and this lousy day will soon fade from memory, but I worry that travelers who have less experience with the country may have their entire vacations/business trips tainted by China’s “excellent service.”

Family stories of the Rape of Nanking

My wife asked her students to collect stories from their grandparents from the Rape of Nanking. Many of the student’s families had fled the city, and other simply didn’t hand anything in. The following are four accounts of what happened in Jiangsu province during the war with Japan as remembered by witnesses of the tragedies.

I’m publishing this partially in response to Yoshikazu Kato’s comments made during his visit to Nanjing, in which he stated that he wasn’t certain of the facts of the event, and that further research should be done.

All I know about that period of history is from my grandma. At that time my grandma was very young, about 7 or 8 years old. One night when the whole family was sound asleep, without any warning, the Japanese soldiers rushed into the small village. These cruel soldiers set fires, shot innocent crowds and assaulted women.

My Grandma was hidden together with her elder sister under a straw mattress. She was very afraid, but she was told “No cry, no tears, no sound.” Through a small opening, my grandma witnessed these bloody Japanese stab her friends, kill her neighbors and steal their money. After the Japanese did all of these things, they moved the bodies together and set a fire to destroy the evidence.

In my hometown, Shigang, there used to be 12 temples, but the Japanese burned them and took everything valuable. So now we can only see 2 of them.

My neighbor was a soldier, and he told me why he joined the army. In the year 1939, the enemies came again and they fired off several rounds of artillery at our town. One of them landed near the house where his aunt lived. She was 53 years old and had lived alone. When she died, her belly was ruptured and her organs were outside. It was very tragic. In addition, he witnessed a Japanese soldier kill a pregnant woman and cut open her stomach after raping her. He was furious but he couldn’t do anything then. After that he decided to drive out the aggressors.

When I was a child I noticed a deep scar on my grandmother’s arm. I wondered how she got it, and so she told me this story.

When she was my age (~20), she worked with her two girlfriends in the field. After work they returned home. On their way back, a Japanese appeared with a gun. He shouted at them. Seeing this, my grandmother and her friends ran as fast as they could. Suddenly, my grandmother heard the report of a gun. She saw one of her friends fall down, and not get back up. Then she heard a second shot. Her other friend had been hit. The girl escaped the Japanese clutches, but later died at home. My grandmother was also shot, however she made it home and recovered slowly.

Although my grandma is alive, she lost her good friends forever. My grandmother is scarred not only physically but mentally.

My grandfather was an 8-year-old boy at that time, and saw his neighbor’s house collapse with his own eyes. As everybody knew, the city was not safe anymore, so his family and him escaped from the city to the rural area to seek shelter.

During the days in the country, grandfather witnessed a moving scene. The Japanese captured a man in a gray coat (it seemed like the clothes of a Chinese soldier) and believed him to be a Chinese soldier. Many people knew that he was a soldier, so they dare not help him. The moment before he was beheaded, a young country woman stepped out of the crowd and cried, “He is not a soldier but my husband. How could you kill him? Our son is still at home waiting for his father!” She hugged him tightly with tears. Then, the Japanese set him free.

The Japanese were still in the city and they always did theft and arson. In case of being raped, many girls went to the Nanking Safety Zone. So did grandpa’s sisters and female cousins. even in there, they still felt terrified, so these poor girls used coal to darken their faces and cut their hair. These “girls” are greatly thankful to these kind-hearted, civic-minded and conscientious foreigners to this day.

“I have to go to the post office today, so I made sure to take my blood pressure medication”

This morning I took a deep breath as I left my apartment (due in part to the insane pollution we’ve had in Nanjing the last few days, which Global Times reported was the equivalent of smoking 15 packs of cigarettes), and prepared myself for a trip to one of the worst places in China- the post office. Now bear in mind that I myself am the grandson of a post master general, and I worked for a few years in a shipping company so I generally respect the institution. I’m also well versed in shipping regulations and proper packing. But China Post is an unforgiving place, and so it was with great trepidation that I set out on my task this morning.

During my 5 years in China, I’ve moved 4 times, and each time I’ve nearly ended up in a fist fight with a postal worker. This is usually because of regulations that don’t seem to exist anywhere on paper, and change dramatically between postal workers. For instance, a friend was once told that CD’s could not be mailed because they were “cultural artifacts.” Another time I was told that my toaster oven could not be shipped during the summer because it would be damaged by the heat. Once my wife was told that she couldn’t mail tea to the States, while the man next to her sent off a bag of dried worms without a problem. In all of these cases the headache was solved with a second trip to the Post Office and talking with a different employee.

But those are just the arbitrary whims of individuals, the actual regulations are no less painful. For instance, every box is to be inspected by a postal worker before it can be shipped. At this point my wife and I simply brace ourselves for the fact that a good chunk of the things in the boxes will not actually be successfully sent for reasons we will never understand. Not only does the person rifle carelessly through your stuff, but they undo all of your careful packing.

To me it was a small comfort to learn that my co-workers shared my dislike of China Post, as one joked yesterday, “I have to go to the post office today, so I made sure to take my blood pressure medication this morning.”

Today though, my wife and I must have won some kind of karmic lottery. The woman who was assigned for sealing our packages asked, “Is there any food in here?” I said, “No,” and she taped all four of them right up. We were so excited that we practically skipped with the 45 pound packages to the next counter. The woman there glared at the packing slips for a few seconds, carefully weighing our fate, and decided that our packages could indeed be shipped.

It’s amazing that after being worn down by China Post for 5 years, that sending four boxes in just over an hour, without having to wait in a single line, is considered a major success. Even my Chinese co-workers agreed that this was a feat worth celebrating. With that my wife went to the Bank of China to press her luck.

Chinese graduates hate their low paying jobs, but are hopeful about the future

Yesterday I shared the answers my former students gave to a short survey I sent them. Today we’re going to look more closely at the data, and try to get a better understanding of the lives these recent graduates are facing.

As I am currently living in Nanjing, where salaries have been moving steadily upward for my friends graduating from one of China’s best universities, it was very interesting to see that the top salary among these 9 from Guangxi was only 2,500 RMB. The average was just 1,842 RMB, which is slightly below the national average for urban residents (1,998 RMB/month). Only 3 of the 9 students reported salaries above that average, two of those earned 2,000RMB/month.

The second surprise for me was how little they worked. I think we often get the idea that Chinese workers are not only overworked, but also underpaid. While none of these students made as much as a Foxconn assembly line worker, only one of them worked nearly as many hours. My friends in Nanjing earning higher salaries, worked far longer than these recent graduates. From the 8 students that reported their weekly hours, the average was 37 1/4 hours per week. There was a clear division between public school teachers (27 hours per week) and employees of private companies (43 hours per week).

This brings me to my third finding, low satisfaction and low levels of loyalty. 67% of the respondents reported that they were not satisfied with their work (compared to 33% in the U.S.), with most of them citing low pay as the reason for their dissatisfaction. As a consequence, 78% said they would try to find a new job in the next year. This should serve as a reminder to foreign companies operating in China, that even though people are willing to work for a low salary, a few thousand yuan per month does not buy employee loyalty. As Hillary stated clearly yesterday, if the company offers opportunities for promotions, she’d stay; otherwise she would take the skills she gained working there to their competitors.

It seems while teaching may be a very low paying job (1633RMB/month vs. 2166RMB/month), the hours worked per week make it one of the more relaxed options. Teaching also offered a better hourly wage (16.5RMB/hour vs. 12.9RMB/hour) than anyone earned in a private company. Unfortunately, none of the rural teachers reported being satisfied with their jobs, and all of them planned to find a new job within the next year. This shows that hourly wage doesn’t matter nearly as much as the possible monthly wage, and this is consistent with what I have heard from virtually every other Chinese friend. I think most of the teachers would be more satisfied working longer hours if it meant higher monthly wages (perhaps providing tutoring to struggling students?), and it might make staying in the rural schools that need them more attractive.

The final take-away from this short survey, is that in spite of low salaries and even lower rates of satisfaction, recent Chinese graduates are overwhelmingly hopeful about their future. Even David, whose quote to all of you was that, “Life Sucks,” reported that he was hopeful about his future. The only respondent who was not hopeful, had one of the lowest hourly wages earning just over 10RMB/hour ($1.65) as a primary school teacher. This is consistent with what I am seeing with my friends in Nanjing, even though many of them are not satisfied with their current jobs, they have been able to hop from company to company in search of something better.

“We can’t accept the fact that the trees will disappear” – the intangible costs of development

One of the first things that a person notices when they arrive in Nanjing, is that unlike other Chinese cities, many of the main streets are lined with mature trees. Some of these trees were planted over 60 years ago, and in some ways are the symbol of Nanjing.

The trees are so loved, that around this time last year, when the local gov’t planned the removal of 600 trees for subway stations, people protested and managed to get the officials to redraw their plans to limit the effect on the trees (Nanjing has 15 additional lines planned for the next 18 years). The protest was unique in that it was not related to health concerns as other environmental campaigns have been, but that people simply enjoyed the shade and beauty of the trees more than the convenience a metro would bring. The report quoted a man who said, “They are the pride of the city, we can’t accept the fact that they will disappear.”

But now with the Youth Olympic Games just two years away, the gov’t is feeling the need to modernize (or has an excuse to push through troublesome projects).

The first big step is to make sweeping changes to the infrastructure of the city. This past weekend a viaduct was demolished to make way for a future tunnel, that will supposedly be able to handle traffic better (To my knowledge, no study has been done comparing the cost of enforcing traffic laws to building bigger roads which accommodate crazy drivers). Three more viaducts will be demolished in the near future as well. As one man said to reporters from China Daily, the viaducts only served 16 of their potential 30 years and added, “It’s a huge waste of resources, and I feel sorry for the viaduct.” The report also points to gov’t subsidies promoting car ownership as a possible cause of the current traffic.

Then last night as I was on my way home, I saw the trees coming down. Normally, when I talk with cabbies, I solicit their opinions first and try to hide my own, but I didn’t manage that last night.

“Why are they doing this?” I asked the driver.

“To make space for a bigger road,” he said.

“But Nanjing is famous for its trees. This is a very sad thing.”

“Yes it is,” he said, “we should protect our trees.”

I got out and took a few pictures, and as I did I noticed a number of other locals shaking their heads as they walked past the scene. Some stopped to question whether or not it was really necessary, but it was clearly already too late to petition. Totally more than 50 trees were marked for removal.

While it did seem that some of the trees were being prepared for relocation, the last time the gov’t took such actions roughly 1/3 of the relocated trees died in the process.

When I showed these pictures to a co-worker this morning she shook her head. “Now it’s going to be even hotter this summer with no shade.” The other let out a pained moan, before adding, “What a pity, these trees are a symbol of Sun Zhongshan (Sun Yatsen’s mausoleum is located in the city).”

At the moment, most protests in China are related to land grabs and health concerns, but it looks like the near future will bring an increasing number of protests related to quality of life issues like the shade of old trees and the other intangible benefits of living in an ancient place.