Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The People's Liberation Summer Camp

Last night, without much enthusiasm, I changed into shorts and a t-shirt and trudged down the stairs to hit the track. I don’t really enjoy exercise (shocker, I know), but I’m making yet another go of it this semester. Slow and steady, right? I’ve just been a bit heavy on the slow and a bit light on the steady.

Our track, like most, I imagine, is usually pretty sparsely attended in the evenings. There are a few students who run, more who stroll, and a generous smattering who lurk in dark corners making out with their girlfriends. From time to time I think of purchasing one of those battery-powered emergency floodlights and bringing it and a megaphone to the track at about 8:30 PM. You can get pretty close to those making-out couples before they notice you, and the comedic possibilities are endless. But I digress.

When I got to the track last night, it was completely overrun with students in groups of twenty, each girl wearing a full uniform and clutching a water bottle. At the head of each group was a young man in an army uniform – our students were still in the throes of freshmen military training.

It isn’t compulsory military service; at least, not in any recognizable sense. As far as I can tell, it seems to exist mostly to instill a vague sense of patriotism and discipline in the students. It only lasts for a week, and it consists primarily of three things: wearing bright blue camouflage uniforms, standing or sitting in ranks, and listening to speeches from real soldiers. There’s also a bit of marching and running, although the marching is a little shabby looking, since they only have a week to perfect their technique. In my mind, any productive military training would have to involve weapons of some kind, but I concede that the officers in charge might have a better idea of what constitutes ‘productive’ than I do.

Last night, the students were sitting in groups, watching their commanding officers make speeches, sing songs, and tell jokes. Two of the officers appeared to be putting on a skit of some kind, and another officer on the other side of the field was conducting vigorously while his group belted out what I took to be some martial chorus. Other officers (I say officers, but they were wearing camo and it was dark, so I’m not sure) practiced martial arts forms. It was intimidating at first, walking across a track full of soldiers, but a rigorous lack of discipline became apparent pretty quickly. One of the students waved me down.

“Hi, Dave!” she called. “I am Snoopy! Do you remember me?” She was attempting to master an advanced technique that involved marching in lockstep, turning her head ninety degrees, and saluting (presumably at a flag), but she and her allies kept getting about three goose-steps into the march and dissolve into giggles.

Other students broke ranks to wave or laugh. “Hello, I love you!” one girl shouted every time we passed her, to the laughter of her squadmates. Others were clapping and singing, and one girl was trudging across the field in her camo jacket and cap, neon green gym shorts, and flip-flops. Even the soldiers were less imposing than they had first appeared – one was away from the others, putting the moves on an older student, and another waved and said “Hi, hi! Hello!” as we crossed behind his group.

What looked rather ominous from a distance turned out, on closer inspection, to be rather benign. In fact, it was a lot like the Wilds, with more camouflage and communism. The only question I have now is this: where in the world are you supposed to hide if you’re wearing bright blue camo?


P.S. Forgive my lack of pictures ... something's not coming up on the site. I have a picture, and I'll post it as soon as I can, I promise!

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Mind of a Child

If you're a parent and/or a thoughtful person (in the sense that you think about things, not in the sense that you don't ask your impoverished grandmother to pick up your lunch tab for you), you may have wondered what babies think about.

I certainly do. Chloe emerged two months ago. She sleeps, eats, and ensures that her excretory system is in good working order. She waves her arms, clenches her fists, wiggles her fingers and toes, and kicks her feet vigorously. She looks at things around her (especially lights and other bright things). Sometimes she frowns; sometimes she smiles. Last week, I discovered that if I caught her eye (harder to do than it sounds) and grinned, she'd smile, too, and even laugh. Sometimes she cries, and occasionally she out-and-out screams.

And that makes me wonder. What's going on in her brain when she does all this? Does she think "I wonder what that light is for?" "I wonder why I can't get any milk out of Daddy's arm / the chair / the carpet / my hand?" Does she even realize that the hand is hers? Does she experience life like the sperm whale in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy?

I have a theory: that being born is kind of like being shown onto the deck of the U.S.S. Enterprise. "Here's your ship!" the attendant says, and then walks out, leaving you with no crew and no instruction manual. So you spend the next four or five years pushing buttons and pulling levers more or less at random, trying to figure out what to do in order to reverse the polarity on the deflector array or reprogram the warp nacelles or something. Occasionally you figure out that this sequence of buttons does this thing, and eventually, everything works so well that you can't remember not being able to do things (like we are as adults). But in the meantime, the captains of the vessels around you have a good laugh at your expense as you beam the mess hall into space, shoot yourself with your own phasers, and commit other various indignities.

The real kicker is that once Chloe's old enough to actually tell us what she's thinking, she won't be able to remember any of it. All we can do is hope that she gets control-savvy enough to manage the waste disposal sooner, rather than later.


Friday, August 14, 2009

Grandpa's Backyard

Lying back and crushing spikes of grass,
Blueness reaching out eternally on every side,
Except a thousand maple leaves above us
That keep us cool and shady;
Chloe and I, staring up at the sky.
She laughing,
I loving.


Thursday, August 6, 2009

The Life of the Party (on the Plane)

If I was still in sales or worked in marketing, I might begin my post today like this: Do you travel much? Do you ever wonder how you can ingratiate yourself with your fellow travelers? If so, I have some great news for you – a SURE-FIRE, 100% GUARANTEED method of making friends FAST! There are no tricks – no strings attached – no gimmicks – and you can master this method in TEN MINUTES! When you get off the plane, everyone around you will LOVE YOU!

Sorry about that. I get these little ads that pop up on Gmail or Facebook with some regularity that say things like “SECRETS YOUR DOCTOR WON’T TELL YOU!” as though he hates you and is out to get you. Invariably, the text under the ad has something like what I’ve written above. But seriously, this would work – so maybe you’re curious. The way to win friends and influence people on an airplane is to bring one little thing with you … (wait for it) … a baby.

Or, more precisely, a tiny, cute, (and most important) sleeping baby. There are three steps in the process of winning the hearts and minds of your fellow travelers:

First, get on the plane carrying a baby. This will immediately make you the center of attention, mostly consisting of sideways glances as you walk down the aisle and whispered prayers of “Please, not next to me, please please please not here …” This might not seem like a good thing, but it’s a crucial first step because it gets everyone focused on you. If you walked down the aisle by yourself, nobody would give you a second glance, and they probably wouldn’t be that impressed with you later on.

Now we’ve got everyone’s attention, and particularly that of the people who are sitting near you. They’ve probably flashed you a few tight-lipped smiles. The really blunt ones might be ignoring you, making faces out the window, or scanning the rest of the plane for empty seats. A few friendly people might be complimenting you on your baby, but even they are wondering just how colicky she is and how long it will be before she wakes up. This is where step two comes in: apologizing in advance and showing off the kid. You know everyone’s thinking of your child as a ticking time bomb of misery, so you may as well acknowledge it and clear the air. A wry grin, and a sincere “Sorry-for-my-child-disturbing-your-sleep-later-but-she’s-only-three-weeks-old” will ingratiate you with your fellow passengers. It establishes you as not being one of the Evil Parents who view the world as a stage for their children to shine on, since you’re acknowledging the inconvenience. Plus, she really is cute, so the non-hardened people will feel a little bit guilty for wishing you ill earlier. They’ll probably admire the baby and then settle back down into their chairs, assured in the knowledge that at least you didn’t bring the child maliciously in order to inconvenience them.

Step three is the tricky one: ensuring that the baby sleeps for the remainder of the flight. (I recommend putting in a request for a sleepy kid when she’s conceived.) It’s best if she wakes up once or twice, and even if she cries a little (say, less than thirty seconds). This will awaken fear in those who are around you, which will then be immediately assuaged and will further convince them that there’s nothing to worry about and that your kid really is very cute.

By the time the plane lands, the people who inwardly cursed you when you got on will be smiling and complimenting your infant as you shuffle around and wait for the first-class passengers to get off. Even the most unfriendly will grin at your baby as you walk out of the plane, and everyone in your vicinity will remark (silently or aloud) at how surprisingly good your baby was and how they were dreading the flight for nothing. Their whole day will be brighter, and all thanks to you and your child!

The only thing I haven’t gotten down is the marketing aspect of this plan. Maybe I could sell a realistic sleeping baby doll that frequent flyers could carry around with them in order to make friends. I’d buy one myself, but I’m all set with cute sleeping babies for right now.


Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Let me see! I want to see!

There’s some basic human impulse, deep within all of us, that makes us want to see what other people are seeing. Who among us could resist the temptation to look up, if we saw half a dozen other people staring at a point above our heads? Let’s call it the me-too response. For some reason, the human psyche is hard-wired to want to know what the interesting thing is that other people are looking at.

As you might know if you’ve spent much time traveling, basic human impulses like these are expressed differently in different cultures. And if we can call this impulse, as experienced by North Americans, the me-too response, then in China, it’s the me-four or me-eight response. Nothing draws a crowd like a crowd.

This afternoon, Des and I went to the local supermarket to pick up some groceries. The baby, dozing in her stylish sling, accompanied us. Chloe is adorable, especially in such fashionable gear, and so naturally she draws looks and comments wherever she goes. But today, we did something we haven’t done before: we stopped to let someone admire her. A pair of old ladies, trailed by a little girl, corralled us and insisted on doting on Chloe for a few moments, which we were happy to let them do. A few seconds later, a college student stopped and began to translate their questions and remarks. A housewife wandered over from the vegetable stand. A sunburned man peered over my shoulder and chuckled at Chloe’s little hands waving in the air. In less than thirty seconds, we were obstructing the aisle, and people were converging on us from every display within a hundred feet. We fled the scene while there were still escape routes open to us.

On Sunday, a friend and I were driving through one of the busier parts of Shanghai when traffic came to a complete standstill. We inched forward for five minutes until we came in view of perhaps fifty or sixty people standing in the center of the intersection blocking traffic. Old men in their pajamas, guys in suits, hardhatted workmen stripped to the waist with shovels over their shoulders, ladies holding shopping bags, and the like were crowding in, trying to get a glimpse of what was obviously an accident. There were so many people that, even as we drove by, I could hardly see what was happening. I spotted what I think was a guy sitting on the pavement, and possibly a policeman talking to him. The cops weren’t even trying to get people to leave.

Maybe this is just another way that gregarious, uninhibited societies like the Chinese express themselves, and things are the same in places like Brazil. Or maybe the traffic accident was a fluke, and my daughter has some kind of mysterious Pied Piper-like power over other people, even in her infancy. As long as I’m immune, I’m hoping for the latter.


Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Nine things I did not expect to happen when I became a father

* The hospital food to be delicious. I mean, seriously – whoever cooked those vegetables, can I get a recipe?
* My child to be cute. I’m well aware of massive bias that may be warping my perceptions, so take this one with a chunk of salt. But for what it’s worth, it’s not just that I think most newborns have a semi-human, vaguely Cro-Magnon appearance, it’s that I expected my daughter to look like that too. Take a look at the pictures and form your own judgments.
* Thirty-seven students and co-workers to come and visit us. I definitely didn’t expect people that I had never even met to come by just to see the baby. It was a lot of fun.
* Thirty-seven people to bring presents for the baby, from finger puppets to peaches to dresses to ceramic figurines to custom-made calendars to Italian language-learning toys.
* To be given six blocks of imported Extra-Sharp Cheddar because one of our friends knew that western people like cheese, and it would help Desiree recover quickly to eat her favorite food.
* To discover that the baby can be made to stop crying by tossing her up in the air. She doesn’t seem to like it, but she stops crying. Weird, huh?
* To feel compelled to take pictures of little Chloe in every conceivable position and activity. I think I’ve taken more pictures in the last two weeks than in the previous two years combined.
* To be deluged by traditional Chinese advice, mostly for Desiree (“You shouldn’t walk! You shouldn’t get out of bed! You should have stayed in the hospital for another two weeks! You should turn off the air conditioner! You should drink tea/ginger/weird stuff! You shouldn’t take any medicine! You should make your husband do all the cooking and cleaning!”), much of which seems to be ignored by the advice-givers. Well, except for the part about me doing all the cooking and cleaning.
* To derive so much enjoyment from a non-sentient, non-aware, mostly unconscious and basically non-interactive person. And I figure it can only get better from here.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The REAL Ghost Towns of the Yangtze (or maybe the Huangpu)

I don’t know much about economics. In my cart at Amazon.com there is a copy of Economics for Dummies. I added it a few months ago when Iceland went bankrupt. I spent a week reading articles online trying to figure out why and being stymied by byzantine paragraphs occupied with things like transnational investment funds. Occasionally, I see things (other than my Roth IRA statement) that seem to me to be connected in some way with the global finance crash, but I mention this deficiency of mine at the beginning of this article in order to caution you that there may actually be no link between my observations and the current (recent?) economic crisis. Draw your own conclusions.

Right now Desiree and I are staying at a friend’s house while we wait for the baby to arrive (she’s four days late as I type this). Our friend is employed by an important multinational corporation which has put him up in a nice duplex; the second-largest dwelling I have seen during my two and a half years in China (the largest was inhabited by a British employee of an even more important multinational corporation).

It, along with a few hundred similar duplexes, is part of a big community, fully equipped with a wall, two gates, a complement of uniformed guards, three or four playgrounds, a decorative canal filled with water lilies, and other such pleasant amenities. I was out strolling through these amenities tonight when I came to a small river dividing this property from the one next to it. Across the water was a cluster of low- and medium-rise apartment buildings, painted a muted blue. It reminded me vaguely of a prison.

I had been walking along the river for a minute or so when I suddenly realized what was so uninviting about those apartments: all the lights were off. In all the windows. Another moment’s inspection confirmed that there were no strings of clothes hanging out to dry (a completely ubiquitous feature of any Chinese apartment building), no curtains, no posters, and no vehicles in the parking lot. It was completely uninhabited.

I walked the length of the wall that abutted the river, and did some counting. There were eleven small buildings, each with forty-eight visible units, and six large buildings double the size of the small ones. That means that I could see eleven hundred apartments (give or take) – all empty.

It definitely wasn’t an old complex, nor an uncompleted one. The paint job looked as fresh as any paint job ever does here, and the runty little palm trees that had been installed as landscaping starters were still surrounded by slabs of turf that showed ugly seams of earth between them, like Frankenstein stitching along the ground. There was a bright and shiny and un-played-upon playground, and I could see the green glow of EXIT signs through the stairwell windows on every floor.

So that means that someone, or more likely, a lot of people, decided to build one thousand one hundred plus apartments, with all the accoutrements, without ever obtaining one single human being to live in them.

Now maybe that’s par for the course. I’m not a builder or an investor. But I do know two things that seem important to me. First, an empty building is not a happy building. Somebody built that thing with this kind of math in his head: (1100 apartments x (3000 yuan per month – regular expenses)) – overhead = Lots of money for MEEEEE!!! And now he’s having to do some less pleasant arithmetic. I used to see abandoned buildings in Greenville – the empty Future Shop and K-Mart on Laurens Road, or the perpetually failing restaurants on Wade Hampton, across the bridge from BJU. They never looked happy either.

Second, I’ve seen far more empty buildings here in Shanghai than I ever did in Greenville. The complex that I saw tonight is less than half of the size of a major community on the same road as our school. It was empty for two full years, and even now only appears to be about one-quarter full. I’ve probably seen ten more just like it, all new. If you’re counting new and old abandoned buildings, then I have no idea how many I’ve passed.

So what gives? Is it that Shanghainese builders were banking on an emerging market that never emerged? Did the crash in investments prevent a new wave of Chinese professionals from obtaining newer, better accommodations? Is this some weird Shanghai way of doing business, necessitated, perhaps, by local laws and permits? Are the apartment buildings actually being used by invisible space vampires, bent on world domination (beginning with the Pudong district)?

Unfortunately, I have no idea. I sent an inquiring message to the Oracle of Stephen the Guy Who Knows Something About Everything, but I never heard back. If anyone else has any keen insights, feel free to pass them along. Until then, I’m steering clear of those empty complexes. Just in case it’s the vampires.