Tag Archives: China

The Country That Isn’t

7 Jul

We just celebrated “Hong Kong SAR Establishment Day” here in HK. (Really rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it?) It’s a holiday to celebrate the handover of HK as a British colony back to China… with a few caveats. This is less like Australia Day or Independence Day, and more like a cause for protests. I like to think of it as “We’ll take the day off, but don’t expect us to be happy about why”.  And so, the day was basically used as a pro-democracy rally — Beijing’s favorite type of rally. Over 500 protestors were arrested and it’s caused a bit of a to-do. I’ve found that CPG Grey actually has a pretty good explanation of Hong Kong and China.

Sichuan Earthquake 2013

22 Apr

My old hometown of Chengdu was rattled badly on Saturday with a 6.9 magnitude earthquake. The epicenter was to the west in Ya’an, which sustained the worst damage. They’re reporting over 200 deaths, 12,000 injuries, and an estimated 100,000 people have been left homeless.

 chengdu earthquake mapMap via GoChengdoo


This is the same province that was hit by the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake that killed nearly 70,000 people, many of them schoolchildren. The reduction in the mortality rate this time around has been credited to an aggressive earthquake safety program enacted by the government.

Chengdu: A Retrospective

15 Jun

I leave Chengdu tomorrow. My bags are (mostly) packed, my train ticket bought, and I leave with a smile on my face and a song in my heart.

It’s been a long year here. I don’t think it’s any big secret that I was rather disappointed and depressed during my time here. While I met a lot of really cool people and learned a lot of new things, it never quite balanced out the miserable weather and Kafka-esque graduate program.

The scholarship that brought me here was a really nice opportunity, but it didn’t quite pan out the way I had hoped. Instead of this being the first year of a masters, I spent a whole lot of time knitting. My classes were a joke, and it’s hard to motivate yourself to learn another insane language when you feel no real pressure to. My progress in Chinese stalled out and then plummeted. The only real bright spots were hanging out with an awesome group of kids, forays out of Chengdu proper, and watching a ton of DVDs.

I am grateful, in my own little way, that I got to come back over to China. This year off gave me the perspective necessary to realize that, no, I really don’t want to go to grad school right now. I really don’t want to continue living in China. And I really don’t want to continue with Chinese.

It sucks, since that’s what I got my degree in, but hey. Now I know and I can move on and do something different.

Life is all about the journey, right? You gotta take the good with the bad. This year wasn’t ideal, sure, but that’s life. And hey – I got to see baby pandas, Sydney, Jiuzhaigou, Bangkok, Leshan, and a whole bunch more of China than this time last year. So it wasn’t all terrible.

I don’t want to leave this on a downer note, so here are some random highlights from my last year here in Chengdu.



So long, Chengdu.



The Great Firewall

25 May

Yesterday, my VPN died an ignoble and inglorious death. Thankfully, after a bit of computer necromancy, I managed to resurrect it today. But for one whole day, I had to deal with the Chinese internet, and boy, was that a pain.

For one thing, I had forgotten how much the Great Firewall censors.

For those in the audience who aren’t computer geeks, a VPN (or virtual private network) is what allows me to surf the net without those petty restrictions the CCP thinks should be available to the general public. Basically, I have a little program on my laptop that, courtesy of the University of Florida, makes my internet connection believe it’s sitting in Library West. Technically, it’s meant for accessing library resources off-campus. In practice, it means I can get to the sites I want, without paying money for another VPN service.*

Yesterday, I was reminded quite abruptly of what the Great Firewall believes is inappropriate. Facebook, Youtube, tumblr. No dice. Blogger, IMDB, Livejournal. Gone. THIS SITE ITSELF. No access to WordPress at all – so almost no blog update. Half of those random links you go to? Gone. It was infuriating. And the sites you could access? Incredibly slow load times. Like, I think we had a dial-up modem in the 90s that was faster.

On the other hand, Baidu and Tudou were practically lightning speed, even for videos. Well played, Great Firewall. Well played.



For more on this topic, you should read James Fallows’s report on the Great Firewall, found here. It’s an oldie but a goodie.


*To my credit, I have used it to access library resources while not on campus. How do you think I did any research at all here? Baidu? Don’t make me laugh.

China Post

30 Mar

Or, why I never got that box/letter/postcard you sent: an essay in three pictures.


This is actually how post gets delivered to a majority of the students living on campus. Hell if I know how it works. But every Monday, a dude will unload his motorbike full of boxes at the corner of the ping pong tables and hang around. Sometimes there’s someone to keep an eye on things, but mostly the boxes are left there for anyone to paw through them.


Explains a lot about why that box never arrived, doesn’t it?

Christmas Abroad

21 Dec

Shockingly, China doesn’t really celebrate Christmas. I’ve been told that Chengdu only started Christmas about five years ago, which kind of a funny thought. It seems someone decided that they needed to get on the end of the year economy-boost gravy train too and started marketing Christmas here. Their best efforts means there a few half-hearted fake trees here and there.

So far, the best display of crass merchantilism is just outside of the Shangri-la Hotel/ Lan Kwai Fong shopping district. No pictures, sorry, but it involves a giant snowman and wrapped gifts ranged in height from three to six feet. There’s nothing quite like being shorter than a gift, which begs the question of what exactly is in there, anyways? Chunxi Lu gets an honorable mention as well, what with being the luxury shopping district downtown. I haven’t passed through Tianfu Square to see if they’ve put a Santa hat on the giant Mao statue, but I’m guessing that’s a big no. Mostly though, there are little fake Christmas trees in random businesses. It’s not beginning to feel a lot like Christmas at all.

Personally, I’ve decorated Cicero, my not-yet-dead cactus with an ornament and have a small stocking next to it. All courtesy of Michelle, who is awesome and need more recognition of being as such. There’s a package of gifts from home, which miraculously made it to my room yesterday after a long adventure in the Chinese postal system. (Thanks, Mom!)

This is my third Christmas abroad and frankly, I don’t recommend it. Maybe if you were in a country that celebrated Christmas or with family, but China? Not so much. I’m not religious at all, but even I get nostalgic for midnight Mass. I’m going to be hanging out with my friends here, which will be nice, but it’s not home. Mostly I’m just pissy because I don’t feel like I’m doing anything important here. If my advisor had been clear about this break in classes instead of trying to get me to “volunteer” at her daughter’s school, I would have been on a flight to NY rather than bum around in Chengdu. I’ve talked to other people about this: something about Chengdu makes the people here fundamentally opposed to concrete schedules. Maybe it’s the “relaxed living style” they love so much.

Bah humbug.

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the ATM

7 Dec

I had a run-in with the financial industry this past week. It was both amusing and frustrating at the same time, so I thought it would be best to share with you all as well, to highlight how life actually works here in Chengdu for ex-pats.

Long story short, after purchasing some desperately needed clothing, I found myself scrambling for cash even though I had a perfectly valid credit card, an equally legit debit card, and a pile of emergency USD. I hate it when that happens. Hong Kong might be the financial heart of Asia, but Chengdu certainly hasn’t caught on to the wonders of digital transactions.

So, I went to the bank and exchanged some of my dollars for yuan. This was about as difficult as you would expect. Unlike a Travelex in the airport, the bank is willing to take those dollar bills off your hands, but it is not a convenient experience. I was turned away from the bank on campus because a) it was a weekend, b) I didn’t have a passport, and c) that was handled by the main bank outside of campus on the First Ring Road anyways. I grumbled and on Monday, I headed to the ICBC just out of North Gate.

ICBC, or the Industrial Bank of China, is a big one. Think Bank of America big. In order to deal with the flow of customers, very few of whom could be trusted to queue properly, ICBC installed little tickers where you would select which kind of teller you needed and take a number. Sort of like a high-tech version of grabbing a number at a deli counter. I grabbed a number. I eyed the window. It said exchange on it and there were faded versions of the dollar sign, rmb, yen, and euro. I sat for about a half hour, passing the time by writing postcards, and when my number was called I headed on over.

The bank teller on the far side of the window was not impressed. “You need to go to that counter. I don’t do currency exchanges.” She waved me on. The electronic marquee above the window called out the next number.

I went back to the touch-screen machine and eyed it thoughtfully. Somewhere, somehow, I would be able to press the right combo of options and get what I wanted.

It was at this point when I was approached by another female banker. She asked me if I needed any help. I nodded and smiled with glee – I didn’t have to deal with the unforgiving machine, which had already dispensed several slips of paper that I had stuffed in my bag as failures. I explained that I wanted to change money.

She led my to the “Fill In Counter” and handed me a form, mercifully in English. I can do it in Chinese, but I prefer not to fill out official paperwork in a foreign language if I can help it. (Yes, this is English-language privilege running rampant and I do not care.) I was thankful I had my passport this time, as my NY drivers license isn’t really a valid form of ID out here. They photocopied it and sent me to another desk.

I sat and watched as the third banker started to painfully input my passport information into the computer. “There’s a surcharge.” She said. I nodded. “Sure. Whatever.”

She continued to imput the information. And then the fun part. My paper work was stamped half a dozen times in various places, initialed at least twice, and then I had to sign. But I still didn’t have my money. Oh no. This banker handed me yet another slip of paper. I started at it balefully, but thanked her and went to queue again.

At this fourth and final window, I had to hand my passport and paperwork over again, but this time she asked for the dollars as well. Yes! I thought. We were near the home stretch. The teller, another young twenty-something woman, ran each and every dollar through a special machine, probably to verify they weren’t clever counterfeits. Since I’m not in the business of laundering money, it went through. Then, after several more enthusiastic thumps of the stamps (including a special managerial chop that was used), I was handed a pile of paperwork to sign before my money was handed over.

I thanked her profusely and left, giddy in the knowledge that I was no longer poor. Of course, that was when I received the text from my editing job that the payment from last month had finally gone through. Gah. All that aggravation, for nothing.

In conclusion, change your damn money at the airport.

Oh, China.

18 Nov

It’s weird, living in China. Everyone here knows that China has a repressive government, “disappears” people (including Nobel laureates!), and takes a dim view towards dissent, but all of this just sits in the back of your mind. Life is short and busy and there are interesting things going on, like that lecture on eco-anthropology, a (semi) break-through in how the Tibetan language works, those two thousand words you need to write for NaNo today, and Ladies’ Night at Mooney’s Pub. The Internet may be censored by the Great Firewall, but you have that handy VPN that lets you access Facebook, YouTube, and the New York Times. You don’t watch Chinese TV, having sacrificed the precious single Western outlet in your room in favor of keeping the laptop running. There’s a local newspaper and everyone’s favorite English language propaganda machine. China Daily, but that’s two kuai you could spend on a bus fare or ji dan bing in the morning.

 And then something breaks through this inclusive little bubble you have going for yourself and you go, “Oh, right. China.”

 This happens about once a week, more or less.

 The moment of clarity this week was brought to me by the Telegraph via a friend’s Facebook newsfeed: a man set himself on fire in Tiananmen Square on October 21, in protest of corruption. Mr. Wang survived the attempt, as Tiananmen literally has the most surveillance and guards in all of China, what with the officers and plainclothes detectives constantly prowling the Square, and he was put out within a minute. (Ow, by the way.)

This is a story. The bigger story was that, despite a great deal of pictures and video taken by bystanders, it did not hit the web in any meaningful fashion. Nothing on Sina Weibo (Chinese twitter), nothing on Wangwang (Facebook) or QQ. The Beijing Police Security Bureau (PSB) did confirm that the self-immolation occurred, but not on the six o’clock news. It’s like China’s PSB looked at 1984 and thought, “Wow, that’s a great idea, we should do that!”  So-called “net nannies” delete sensitive topics from forums and websites or the companies do the censoring themselves.  (See James Fallows here for more information.)

Oh right,” I said to myself, “This is China.” Like Alice, one must learn to believe six impossible things before breakfast. There’s a cognitive dissonance here, where I can have thoroughly critical conversations about the US Drug War policy with other foreigners and yet feel the need to remain silent when asked about Tibet with other members of my department. It came as some shock to the younger grad students the other day that I would not be joining them on any research trips to Tibet because I would need a special visa. What also went unsaid was the fact that my presence would hinder my advisor’s research – if I went along, so too would an official minder. No one really wants to talk frankly when there is a member of the official security apparatus keeping an eye on the whole interview.

(Note: I will make an effort to travel to Tibet on my own come spring – I refuse to leave China again without having visited Lhasa.)

 China is like every other place in the world – it has its ups and its downs. The positives outweigh the negatives most of the time. I’ve met cool people, seen amazing things, and grown as a person. But I can never really let myself forget the negatives and that my little blue passport is what keeps me safe. It is dishonest to myself and to the experience of modern China to do so otherwise.

You can find out more on Mr. Wang and the Orwellian-minded Tiananmen Square incident here and here.


EDIT: I have since found out from my parents back in the States that this was a thing… about a month ago. Jeez. Sometimes I feel like I’m still living back in the 19th century, where mail takes a month and a half to get to you and the news is all old and out of date by the time it reaches to you. Which is probably a feature and not a bug.

First Standard Publishing

11 Nov

Hi. My name is Jane, and I’m a sub-par English Editor.

I’m sorry, Internet.

Way back when, I was offered an editing job by a very nice British girl who was heading back home. She said it was easy, you occasionally got to read interesting things, and the money was decent. All of these things were true, I found.

However, I also found that the turnover was quick, deadlines short, the work was sometimes headache inducing, and my grasp of grammar and the English language would be slowly worn away, like a rock is worn down by water.

I’m back to my old ways. Today I handed in about 5000 words on the rules and regulations on getting a platinum credit card here in China for the Societe Generale. Yeah. It’s not really out of the ordinary: I’ve edited books on architecture, a press release on tennis, papers, short stories, consumer complaint forms, and more.

Well, I say edited

I used to be the kind of editor who would spend half an hour on a paragraph, making sure everything flowed and was perfectly true to the meaning of the Chinese original copy. That lasted about two short assignments. When I was handed the book – a 160 page Word Document with a two week schedule – I broke about two days from the deadline with over two-thirds left to edit. They weren’t paying me nearly enough to justify this sort of work, I rationalized to myself as I used SpellCheck and the Grammar function to catch the major offenders. If they wanted great work, they’d give me more time. I was only one step in the editing process, I consoled myself. I began to only go after the serious grammatical errors. If it sounded weird, well, it wasn’t my problem if they had a shit translator. (Or used Google Translate.) I was just supposed to make sure there weren’t any major faux pas in the work.

When people look at Chinglish and think to themselves, why on earth hadn’t the company hire an editor, the answer is well, sometimes that they did. I’m really sorry, Internet, I am.

But they’re still not paying me enough to fix everything.