July 31, 2008

My Cloudy Country

Filed under: east-west — Kim @ 9:35 am

When folks ask me where I’m from, I just tell them it’s a small cloudy country.

uk cloud

But while Britain is certainly cloudy, Chinese still tell me that London is a foggy city, even though it hasn’t been so since the sixties. It seems a fair few people’s perceptions of other countries are 50 years out-of-whack.

July 23, 2008

“Every woman adores a Fascist”

Filed under: China,culture,politics — Kim @ 10:52 am

is a line from a famous and provocative poem by Psychopoet Sylvia Plath. The poem’s name is “Daddy” and it equates her daddy, her husband, and male authority figures in general with Nazis and with vampires who suck the life force out of their female victims. Sylvia Plath committed suicide three months after she had written this poem.

But since a lot of the poem is actually attacking “daddy”, is the famous line better interpreted as being ironic? Maybe…but there is also a well documented type of trauma that results from physical as well as psychological abuse from husbands and fathers due to the strong and irrational feelings of love the victims foster for the perpetrators.

And the line, and the ones that follow it, and the connotations of the type of trauma described above, all made me think of Mao.

Every woman adores a Fascist,
The boot in the face, the brute
Brute heart of a brute like you.

When I think about Mao, one of the things that baffles me about his ongoing popularity amongst the CHINESE is that this was the guy who was responsible for the unnecessary death and suffering and humiliation of millions and millions of CHINESE. He didn’t inflict much suffering on other countries, it was his own nation of CHINA who bore the brunt of Mao’s murderous madness. And CHINESE culture didn’t fare too well under Mao either. Let’s face it, his reign was an almost unmitigated disaster for CHINA and it was only after he died, and after Deng XiaoPing managed to get rid of Mao’s legacy, that CHINA could start to thrive and prosper again.

So why would any proud CHINESE who loves CHINA have any fond feelings (let alone love) for a man who wrecked the country they love and killed the compatriots they love?

Well, I guess one reason is because whatever else Mao wanted, he certainly wanted a great and powerful China. He wanted China to be a world power, of course, and everything he did, every sacrifice he made, was in the name of that cause. You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs, or without starving millions of your countrymen, or without starting a cultural revolution that closes all the universities, or without…etc etc.

And I suppose another reason is because younger Chinese don’t know what villainy Mao got up to because it’s all been airbrushed out and all that’s left are portraits of a chubby uncle with a ruddy friendly face and a big smile. “Our founding Father who fought off the Japanese and established a new free China! Hurray for Mao! And hurray for the CCP!”

And these reasons make sense to me, and I find they help explain his popularity. But those lines of Sylvia Plath’s also come to mind and they unsettle me and suggest a darker, more troubling, but also – it must be said – slightly less convincing reason.

How many of those who have been brutalized by a strong male authority figure really do end up trying to pardon him and find love in his actions? It’s kind of pre-modern “old testament” stuff, I guess, though probably quite a common psychic tic amongst females in strict Islamic cultures.

But it doesn’t really ring true. In much the same way as the Plath quote isn’t really trying to be “true” either, it’s trying to grab our attention by shockingly overstating the case.

And in China I don’t see such a big gender split. It’s definitely a sexist country in many ways, but not a profoundly sexist one. Women don’t have much power in the public realm here, but at least they don’t get overtly discriminated against, and at least there are some female business leaders and politicians. And the situation is getting better because Chinese women are not prepared to put up with it so much anymore.

But what the lines also point to is a love of power. A big fascist daddy is a power figure, and a lot of Chinese do seem very hung up on power. “I like the US because it is a strong country”. “One day China will be number 1” are comments I have heard more than once. And I suspect that some of the Chinese love for Mao is a love for and fascination with power. And the fact that he massively abused that power seems neither here nor there!

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not getting all idealistic here. We will never be able to extract power from the equation…it’s part of the psychic air we breath, as the following quote from the French philosophe Foucault nicely captures

“The strategic adversary is fascism… the fascism in us all, in our heads and in our everyday behaviour, the fascism that causes us to love power, to desire the very thing that dominates and exploits us.”

But fascism is power manifested in a particularly nasty and mean spirited way, and it needs to be rebelled against. And Plath’s poem has a strong, sassy, and liberating ending to it…

And the villagers never liked you.
They are dancing and stamping on you.
They always knew it was you.
Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through.

The day the Chinese are through with that bastard Mao will usher in better times. Dancing and stamping on the old waxwork in Tiananmen would be cool. And the day that citizens all around the world can get through with power worship in general will be a very happy day. May it happen soon. World peace, dudes.

July 11, 2008

A Short History of Nearly Everything

Filed under: China,culture,east-west — Kim @ 3:41 pm

Good title? I think so and I thoroughly enjoyed the book, which is a popular science work by the travel writer Bill Bryson. As the title suggests, it’s a book about life, the universe and everything…from the Big Bang to the ascendancy of Homo sapiens.

As the man himself says, “This is a book about how we went from there being nothing at all to there being something, and then how a little of that something turned into us, and also what happened in between and since.” It has potted histories of cosmology, astronomy, paleontology, geology, chemistry, physics, and more, and some greatly entertaining snippets about the great and the good of the scientific community. How about this one from the life of Charles Darwin? Apparently after coming back from his famous voyage on the Beagle, Darwin opted to let his notes and observations (later to become The Origin of Species) sit in a draw for almost ten years instead of publishing them, as he knew they were bound to cause a storm. What did he do during those years?

Darwin fathered ten children and devoted nearly eight years to writing an exhaustive opus on barnacles (‘I hate a barnacle as no man ever did before,’ he sighed, understandably, upon the work’s conclusion).

Bill Bryson is a funny man, and a deservedly popular writer. “A Brief History of Almost Everything” is a bit of a departure from his normal genre of travel writing, but it works very well and deserves all the hyperbole on the blurb, and I couldn’t put it down. Well, actually I could. I put it down when I finished it. I’m not still clutching it in my clammy mitts, you understand? But when I had finished it and had thought a bit about it and was about to allow it to slip from the front of my focus to let my back brain masticate on it in a more leisurely fashion…something struck me. It’s a well known affliction for the long term expat: almost everything you read or hear or experience that is non-Chinese sooner or later gets put through the “and what does this say about China?” processor.

And I realised that Old Billy Boy’s Big Boffins Book has almost nothing about China in it. No Chinese names, no Chinese scientists mentioned, and not even any mention of compasses or paper or gunpowder! And no Indians or Indonesians or Thais or Japanese come to that.

The story in this history is of a succession of clever westerners wrestling with all the problems and questions that beset the curious, and triumphantly solving almost all of them. As befits the subject matter, Bryson is more concerned with what gets solved than with who solves it, but he does have a knack for the bringing to life the personalities behind the science too…and in his account they are all westerners.

There are a couple of references to China, but they are rather unflattering ones. There’s a brief mention that as China is now opening up, western scientists are at last able to travel unimpeded and do some proper research on dinosaur remains. Here’s the other one:

In China, a gifted Canadian amateur named Davidson Black began to poke around at a place called Dragon Bone Hill, which was locally famous as a hunting ground for old bones. Unfortunately, rather than preserving the bones for study, the Chinese ground them up to make medicines. We can only guess how many priceless Homo erectus bones ended up as a sort of Chinese equivalent of Beecham’s powder. The site had been much denuded by the time Black arrived, but he found a single fossilized molar and on the basis of that alone quite brilliantly announced the discovery of Sinanthropus pekinensis, which quickly became known as Peking Man. (page 527)

Well, if I were a Chinese nationalist reading that, I might be forgiven for sniffing out some condescension. A not completely unfair paraphrase of the above passage might run as follows:

The silly old Chinese were buggering everything up with their blundering half-baked beliefs, but luckily a proper western scientist got there in the nick of time and made a great discovery for the benefit of the enlightened scientific community…which doesn’t include Chinese by the way!

Anyways, it’s not so much what Bryson may or may not be implying about China, it’s the omissions that are more serious, I think. As the recent piece over at Frog in a Well shows all too well, China contributed a lot to scientific understanding over the years, and although this didn’t translate into a modern scientific/industrial revolution it is a big gap if you claim to be writing a history of nearly everything. Though to be fair, he did say nearly everything!

There was a time when the Chinese were considered to be scientific trailblazers and here is a nice quote from a review of a recent book about the life of Joseph Needham “The Man Who Loved China” , a book that is getting a fair bit of attention in the English language Chinese blogosphere these days.

“Four thousand years ago, when we couldn’t even read, the Chinese knew all the absolutely useful things we boast about today,” wrote French philosophe Voltaire in 1764. But if today in the West we widely acknowledge those words to be true, that’s largely due to an Englishman.

That “largely due to an Englishman” sounds a bit smug, doesn’t it? And did he have to mention that Voltaire is French, it’s kind of superfluous.

Well, anyhoo, Needham was he of the notorious “Needham question”, namely “Why didn’t the Chinese beat Europeans to the Scientific Revolution?” especially since they led the field for so long. My guess is that the answer lies in an unwillingness to learn from other nations and too much thought-policing by strict authorities. But the Chinese are a competitive bunch these days, and hungry for scientific knowledge and international prestige, and you gotta wonder if they’ll start being innovative and trailblazing once again. One thing is for sure, the first Chinese to win a Nobel for science is going to be a MEGASTAR.

But that kind of nationalistic fretting and pettiness really should be beside the point. Science, among other things, should help us to overcome our nationalistic blinkers and celebrate the achievements of Homo sapiens and not just Caucasian man, or Sinanthropus pekinensis. When I was reading “A Short History” I forgot that I was living in China and the “what does this mean for China” question only occurred to me after I’d put the book down. And that is as it should be, basically. Although it’s interesting to compare cultures and to look at science from different angles, nationality is insignificant whenever we start to consider the big picture.

July 5, 2008

My Kiddy Cooking Weekends

Filed under: baby,China,food,teaching — Kim @ 5:08 pm

“I love babies, but I couldn’t eat a whole one”, said someone once. Some grumpy old man I guess, but I couldn’t find out who, even on Godgle. In any case, it used to be my attitude more or less, and until very very recently I found it very hard to imagine myself as a Daddy or much less as a (shock horror!) kindergarten teacher.

Having been an English teacher for donkey’s years, I used to get asked from time to time to teach children and my answer always used to be, “I don’t do kids”. But about 5 months ago when I went with my wife and 1 year-old baby to a nearby swanky kindergarten to inquire about prices and lessons etc, I was again offered a job and on very good terms. I only had to teach weekend mornings for a couple of hours and my baby daughter could go to the kindergarten for free anytime she wanted, and on top of this they’d pay me a hundred an hour. I told them I had never taught kids before (and only just resisted saying that I never want to) but they shrugged this off and said I should just try it out…so I did. This kindergarten is a franchise of a well known Australian brand, “Kindyroo!”, and they teach all their “lessons” in English, with a Chinese translator. All the foreign instructors apart from me are Filipinos, and the Chinese management was keen to have “a white face” at their school, to appeal to the daft and rather racist idea that a proper “外教 waijiao/ foreign teacher” shouldn’t be asian looking. Ho hum, good for me I guess.

The lessons turned out to be surprisingly easy and enjoyable. I have only ever had to teach the “cooking class” and so on weekend mornings I help the little darlings to make tacos or cookies or cupcakes or burgers or whatever. It’s a “language and culture” cooking class, so we introduce them to western food and teach them some polite phrases “Yes please, thank you very much, it’s yummy etc” and run through the list of ingredients in English and get them to repeat. And I usually get to sample the fares, so what a great job! And the kids are lucky because I don’t actually do any of the cooking, we have a proper chef who does it. Lessons would be deserted and the school would be forced to close were I the chef.

The age range is 2-6, and they pay 190RMB ($26) each for this particular class, which makes it rather pricey. As I said before, the school is very nicely designed and decorated, and the staff are well trained and good at their job. Apart from me that is, I’m just some big-nosed joker who turns up and tries not to scare anyone… and as I have to do a bit of singing and dancing every lesson, that’s not an easy task.

And I have found that teaching kids in short spells is not too bad, but it’s tiring and I wouldn’t want to do much more of it than I do now. It takes a sunnier temperament than mine to “keep up with the kids” and although they are mostly deeply cute and well behaved I just couldn’t hack it as a full time job. Most of the staff at Kindyroo are there because they love kids and while most of them are also well-adjusted adults, there are a few who have “the look”. This “look” is a kind of glaze to their features that radiates the unfazeable radiant cheerfulness of the terminally baby-besotted. (And, sorry, but it is an exclusively female trait.) Maybe these types start to revert to normal if you take them far away enough from kids but as I’ve never met them outside of work, I wouldn’t really know.”The look” is not so obviously a bad thing of course, but it reminds me of the “Stepford Wives” or “Brave New World” a little too much for my comfort.

Maybe the most positive thing to come out of all this is that I am able to be unabashedly warm and fuzzy in my feelings and reports about Chinese kiddies. We have all read in some papers, I think, that because of the one-child policy China is bringing up a nation of rottenly spoilt “little Emperors”…but my findings are quite to the contrary. This is an expensive school we are talking about and the well-heeled mummies are clad in designer clothes and accompanied by nannies and so there is a fair bit of potential for pampered little brats. But they are not; they are charming and well behaved and lovable and…ayah, I am becoming a big soppy baby softy.

Oh yes, and the best way is to boil gently for half a day or so, depending on weight. I found that roasting and frying leaves the meat a bit too tough. Add salt according to taste. Yummy!

Two good reasons to be a university teacher

Filed under: teaching — Kim @ 7:07 am

July and August