Friday, October 31, 2008

On the Island

The last day of trip to Fujian province was spent in Xiamen. Jia pointed out that there were a few nice tourist spots to venture through while we made our way to the city. It's a very pleasant city with European architecture that reminds me of Malacca--and some sections are being completely rebuilt in the same style, which is a rarity in any city. Unfortunately, the sites we headed for were overcrowded with National Day tourists--the Buddhist temple was packed with noisey people throwing garbage everywhere.
We decided to escape the crowds and take a ferry to Gulangyu, an island that is officially part Xiamen. The island was also packed with noisey tourists. After our time in the quiet fields and Hakka villages, we weren't ready to see such swarms of people. We were highly disappointed.
Wherever we went, we chose the streets that didn't appear to have more than a dozen people. We were ocassionaly successful, but it was too much effort.
Gulangyu is a beautiful island with winding roads and European-style mansions. There are quite a few museums and parks, but there is an entrance fee for all of them--so, we skipped them. It certainly seemed like a place I'd enjoy at any time that isn't a national holiday in China.
For anyone interested in staying on Gulangyu, I would recommend it. There are a few guesthouses and small hotels scattered around the island. Unlike in the countryside, the restaurants on Gulangyu have menus.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Blackballing Windows

As a follow-up on the outrage in China over Microsoft's anti-piracy campaign that blacked-out screens across China, comes today's Shenzhen Daily article.

It seems that some in the government are not content with threats of criminal cases labeling Microsoft's actions hacking. The lawyer who first suggested the criminal charges has now petitioned the State Administration for Industry and Commerce to impose a US$1 billion fine against the company. And the government agency in charge of copyrights in China believes that Microsoft should consider the price of its product when considering actions against the public that uses pirated software.

Both of these actions are ridiculous. Microsoft's actions only cause a minor inconvenience to users who are using illegal copies of the software. Why should they not punish the users? The users knowingly purchase pirated copies and, therefore, are responsible. And condemning the actions is also in rather poor judgment considering China's track record in dealing with international intellectual property cases.

I agree that Microsoft products are expensive. I have never had to purchase any because it has always come with my computer. China doesn't seem to realize that it's not just in China that Microsoft products are extremely pricey. On the Microsoft Web site, the basic home version of Windows Vista costs $99.95 to download (more if you want a copy in your hand). Not only that, but just a few weeks ago, the company had a promotion in China to sell its products at significantly discounted prices--a copy of Home Office had its price slashed from 699RMB to 199.

China also fails to realize that most illegal copies of Microsoft products are being used in Internet cafes and businesses. Home computers are very expensive, especially when considering the standard of living. This means that the people who own personal computers have quite a lot of money to spend to real software.

Monday, October 27, 2008

A Real Difference

I've often had students ask about the differences between the US and China. I usually tell them, the more I look at the differences, the more I realize how similar everything is...and that's not always a good thing. Well, last night I found a real difference.

Mr. W. took us out to a hot pot restaurant for lamb hot pot. I was worried because the sign on the door advertised dog and cat. It was a decent meal, though most of the lamb was skin, fat, and bone. At the end of the meal we decided to take the remaining broth and meat home--there was a significant amount left over. My mother-in-law wasn't satisfied with the quality of the take-away containers (I still don't know why), and asked if they had anything else. This was met with the usual response of meiyou. Mr. W. jokingly said that we'd take the pot home. Turns out, we did. For a little extra on the bill, they gave us the pot and added a lid.

I found this amazing. I doubt any restaurant in the US would ever do something like this, even if offered the full cost of the pot. Sometimes service in China far surpasses that of the US (and you don't have to tip here either).

On the topic of service, there was a fat loudmouth at a table near us who was absolutely rude to the staff (and rather obnoxious upon seeing a foreigner in the restaurant). He called for the waitress and when she didn't immediately come running to the table he shouted, "What's the matter? Are you deaf?" And then proceeded to use a crude profanity that involved the waitress' mother. I hope the staff spit in his food; he deserved much worse.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Tale of Two Temples

A wonderful site that we discovered on our journey through Penang was a street with adjacent Buddhist temples--one Thai, the other Burmese. Considering the long history of war between the two nations, I found it intriguing that these temples' gates would be directly opposite one another.

Dharmikarama Burmese Temple was our first stop, only because the taxi dropped us off on that side of the street. There are two main temples--the first had a long hallway with paintings depicting the story of Buddha, translated into English, and the second had a large standing Buddha. There were a few Burmese monks who blessed the visitors and tied braided yellow stings around their wrists.
The grounds around the temple contained more statues of Buddhist deities, such as Geruda, Naga, and Panca-Rupa. There was a set of bowls that rotated in the center of a fountain for visitors to throw coins in--each bowl was for a different prayer (fortune, health, happiness, etc.), my father and Jia both hit a few bowls.

Across the street was Wat Chaiyamangalarm. This temple had beautiful painted ironwork for the gate (also surrounding the Buddha inside). We didn't walk around much of the grounds because we were rather tired (and our next stop was Thailand and its temples). We entered the main temple, which had its guardians around the door. Inside was a reclining Buddha, much like the one in Wat Pho, only much smaller. Underneath the Buddha was a shrine for the remains of monks.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Frivolous Litigation

It's been a while since China launched a pointless international lawsuit. The last one was against Jack Cafferty and CNN. This time it's against Microsoft Corp.

It seems that Microsoft has decided to take the law into its own hands to fight piracy in China. For those who are unaware, there are millions of illegal copies of Windows and Microsoft programs throughout China (I think the previous teacher at my university installed a bootlegged copy of Windows on the office computer). The new weapon in this fight against piracy is the automatic update--that little process Windows uses to ensure your programs run without too many bugs. This update checks the copy of Windows for the authentication code, and, if none is found, will change the personal settings--for the most part simply changing the background to black.

A Chinese lawyer wants to charge Microsoft for hacking into people's computers and violating privacy--a criminal offense in China. He claims that it's OK to go after the manufacturers of pirated software, but not the users. Of courses, millions of computer users across China also have their panties in a bunch over the loss of customizable functions in Windows. Even with the loss of some functions, Microsoft has not completely inhibited the use of the illegal products.

The question that arises is whether or not knowledge of using an illegal copy is considered complicity in the crime of piracy.

With an ongoing economic crisis and looming business closures throughout the country, one has to wonder what effect this will have on foreign technology companies' investments in China.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Spousal Education

During my time in grad school, teachers and visiting writers preached about the value of learning a second or third language. They often joked about a line spoken by a few writers in the past, "The best way to learn a language is in bed."

After more than a year of marriage, and two prior years together, I can assure you that this theory does not work. Jia is a great Chinese teacher--her students say so--but I haven't learned much from her. She has tried to teach me Chinese, I just couldn't retain it (unless it was humorous, pointless, or slightly crude). However, there have been a few times I've asked questions and remembered what Jia told me. Still, it's rare that I learn anything from my wife.

Now it's her turn. Jia wants to improve her English. Her spoken English is fairly good; it's the writing and reading skills that need work. I've given her a few books to review at home, but I haven't even attempted to give her any sort of lessons. I figure it works the same way for her as it does for me.

I've met plenty of people who have lived in China longer than I have and have the same problem with learning Chinese. They also seem to have similar problems with spouses. I have to wonder, is it possible to learn from a spouse?

Monday, October 20, 2008

Country Living

One of the great things about taking a trip to the countryside, besides relaxing in nature, is watching the way of life. For the Hakka people in Fujian, it's not much different from years past. Many in the tourist-friendly villages now have satellite dishes, TVs, and other modern amenities, but they still have a lot of traditional ways, especially when it comes to farming.

Many of the tulou in Fujian had older tools and machinery around--some of it was for the tourists' benefit, but others were still in use. Unfortunately, the ones I took pictures of were not being used at the time, so I'm not entirely sure what they're for. I would guess most of their tools would be used for rice, as it takes up more than half their farm land.
I thought this shot was interesting because of the generations all together preparing the tea leaves.

Since most of the Hakka diets consist of rice, vegetables, eggs, and chicken, there is little meat in their food. Only some villages have land that can support water buffalo or other anmials--many of the villages are on mountainsides. At the first village we entered, there was a man on a motorcycle delivering pork to the families. He cut the meat on a wood board on the back of the motorcycle and weighed it with a rather old measuring tool. With the customers surrounding him, this was the best picture I could get.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Learning Curve Part II

After the miserable difficulties of early last week, I managed to end the week on a high note.

I had to teach two MS classes Friday because one was rescheduled from the previous day that I spent in Guangzhou at the US Consulate. Teaching the same lesson twice for an hour and a half each can be frustrating, but these two groups of students made it bearable.

In the second class, I had a few students whose English abilities are far superior to the vast majority at the university. Not only that, but these students actually read newspapers and understand the topics that I provide for discussion (this week was the economic crisis). This was much better than other classes that tell me they don't read any news, in English or Chinese.

The highlight of the classes on Friday was the fact that students asked questions. Some of them weren't embarrassed to admit that they didn't understand something. And, I was more than happy to simplify the points I was trying to make in the lesson.

Now I just need to hope that my other nine classes will do the same.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Assembling Food at IKEA

I've never been to IKEA or even bought any of their products. Until I went to Guangzhou with Jia.

Jia was in Guangzhou two days before me, and kept calling and saying how great IKEA was. I figured I'd check it out since I had some time to kill.

I'm not about to buy any furniture, seeing as my apartment (and every one I've rented in China) is already furnished. But, they had food. IKEA sold real coffee at a significantly lower price than Jusco (almost the same price as the big tub of Maxwell House I've been buying in Shekou). Not only that, they had blocks of cheese and smoked salmon at reasonable prices. I'm hoping the store in Shenzhen has the same stuff.

Jia also got a membership card (it was free), which entitles us to free coffee at the cafeteria. Note to IKEA: I plan on drinking a lot of free coffee in your stores. I don't plan on buying much else.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Learning Curve

Students are amazing creatures. Over the past year I've had some interesting encounters with mine--including a PhD candidate who originally thought the class was worthless because his English was good enough, but stayed in class because he found it useful (and his English ability was impressive). But, for every student that impresses me, there will be some that disappoint.

I only failed two students last year--one didn't show up to the last few classes or the final exam and the other just didn't do the work. The latter is in my class again this year. Thus far, he has slept during most of the class and neglected to hand in the first assignment (second assignment is due Friday). And at the beginning of the year he asked why he failed--I can think of a few reasons.

Then there is the case of the elitist students. Three PhD students who have not done much of anything in class except talk in Chinese. One of them left class to take a phone call for half an hour. I was going to make a sweeping statement about how it's rude to speak during a teacher's lecture, but they decided to talk through that. And so, I singled them out, thus making them lose face in front of their classmates. I went back to my office to look over assignments and found the three students whose assignments are of very poor quality--they didn't follow simple instructions.

A note to inconsiderate students: If you're going to be rude, you better have the ability to impress the instructor with your work. Otherwise, you'll probably fail.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Inner Circle

Fujian tulouSome of the tulou in Fujian have unique architectural characteristics. This was one of the last ones we visited on our trip, and probably the most impressive. At the center is a family shrine, surrounded by concentric circles of rooms (mostly for storage and livestock). There are various paths to go between the concentric circles, but only one path that leads directly to the outer structure--it was almost like a maze to walk through. I would not suggest this one for anyone who is claustrophobic.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Soiled Relationship

This is not a good week for Sino-US relations.

It began with the US signing a $6.4 billion arms sale agreement with Taiwan, which is never a pleasant topic in China. Even with pledges from the US to adhere to the "One China Policy," and whatever other propaganda slogans the Chinese government makes trade partners agree to in some manner, it still makes deals with Taiwan every so often (dating back to the 1970s, I believe). My opinion is that this deal doesn't even make a dent in the $700 billion the government just blew on the economy. I think we need to ask Taiwan for more money on this deal.

And today, a US judge ordered the release of 17 Chinese Muslims from Guantanamo. The 17 Guantanamo detainees are Uyghers from Xinjiang. China claims that they are from the East Turkestan Islamic Movement--an organization that wants Xinjiang to be independent from China. The court ruled that they are not enemy combatants and should be released--possibly into the US. China wants these 17 Uyghers repatriated so that it can imprison them upon return. These detainees claimed that they were in Afghanistan to escape persecution in China, and are now seeking political asylum in the US (not all that uncommon for some Uyhgurs). However, there's also a possibility that the US will seek asylum for them in other countries rather than repatriate them. I have no opinion on this issue, because I don't have all the information.

Just have to wonder what restrictions will arise for Americans and American businesses in China in the coming weeks.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

To Roost in Shenzhen

The countryside must've followed me back to Shenzhen. This morning I heard an unfamiliar sound just about the time my alarm went off. From the 16th floor of my building, with windows closed, I heard the rooster. It sounded like it came from the floor above me.

After my shower, I heard the rooster at it again. Shortly thereafter, I heard the sound of someone strangling it. Guess they had to prepare breakfast.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Into the Tulou

We stayed in a cheap hotel in Shuyang (书洋), which wasn't the best decision, but we didn't know before heading out. We should've stayed in a guesthouse or converted tulou in Taxia (塔下) village. Taxia is probably the largest village in the area and is quite picturesque (it looked like at least one restaurant even had a menu). Overlooking the village is the Zhang ancestral temple, which is surrounded by dragon poles built to honor successful family members and provide aspirations for the younger generations.
I probably could've spent a couple days in Taxia, staring at the architecture and the mountains, but we had the day planned for visiting all the sites. There are quite a few tulou that tourist stop at for one reason or other--the largest, the oldest, slightly different architecture, etc. There were a few that were definitely worth stopping in, like the oldest at Yuchang.
Of course, after visiting so many tulou in Fujian in a day, it's easy to get tired. It's a good idea to take some time and wander off on the paths through the villages that aren't inhabited by tourists and watch the residents harvest rice and tea crops. And occasionally, a few water buffalo will stroll nearby.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

What's in a Menu?

The greatest difficulty Jia and I had on our trip to Fujian province was the food. We can always find food to eat, but it wasn't quite so easy in the countryside. None of the restaurants we tried had a menu. We were both dumbfounded--they expected us to go to the cooler, pick out what we wanted and tell them how to cook it. Now, we're not experts on Hakka (ke jia) food, so we couldn't just tell the staff what dishes we wanted. We ended up with some fairly bland dishes on those days.

At the first restaurant we stopped in, Jia looked in the cooler and hastily made the decision to leave. "It's all wild animals," she said. Apparently the animals in the cooler were cut up in any way, and sat atop all the vegetables. I'm just glad I didn't have a look.

Looking back, we should have consulted Mr. W about food as he is Guangdong Hakka and enjoys the food. Had we been prepared, we might have enjoyed eating a bit more. Instead we suffered.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Fujian Field Notes

The Fujian countryside is one of the best destinations of my three years in China (others include Jiuzhaigou and Xinjiang). I knew I'd be impressed by the unique Hakka architecture of the region, but I still wasn't prepared for what I saw.

Though it was a bit hazy during the morning of our journey, the air was certainly cleaner than almost anywhere I've visited in China. The Hakka tulou (土楼 earth houses) were more prominent in the scenery than I had expected--I thought there were just a few of these. These structures made of rock, mud, and wood were amazing to see from outside and inside. Best of all, the people were friendly and, even in the more touristy areas, not pushy when it came to selling souvenirs.

We avoided most of the crowds at the tulou as we departed early in the morning in a private car through the mountain roads. We weren't so lucky when we got back to Xiamen, where the streets were packed with noisy tourists for the Golden Week.My only regret was that I didn't change my camera settings and ended up with the stupid time stamp (with the wrong date) on all my photos. On some of them, I can crop out the date.