Vacation Absurdity

In modern China, there are two national “long vacations” a year. On the academic calendar, it conveniently works out to one each semester. The length of each vacation is one week, nominally. In the Fall, it’s in celebration of the founding of the current government (国庆节), and takes place October 1st – 7th. In the Spring, it’s May 1st – 7th, beginning on May Day, the Communist “international working class holiday” (五一). This all seems well and good, but the thing is that these “week-long vacations” are something of a sham, and the Chinese don’t even realize it. (Apparently only the Western mind in its infinite wisdom can see through the treachery. Allow me to explain.)

To elucidate the issue I’ll use the ironic example of this past May Day. (It’s ironic because I, along with many other foreigners and Chinese, did not actually get a May vacation this year due to our friendly neighborhood virus SARS.) Below you will find a partial calendar containing the end of April and the begining of May, 2003. Normally, only weekends are off (these days are indicated in red).

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Now, since there is a “week-long” vacation every May (always beginning on the 1st), a Westerner would rationally expect the following (days off again indicated in red):

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Imagine the Westerner’s dismay, then, upon learning that in China, the above calendar can exist only in his fantasies. The actual calendar (copied from my school’s 2002-2003 academic calendar, in fact) looks like this:

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Inspect it carefully, now. You’ll notice that your Western God-given Sunday, April 27th and Saturday, May 10th rest days have been senselessly revoked. Must be a mistake, right? A misprint for sure. (Clearly, you’re new here.) So you go to a Chinese co-worker or boss-type and inquire about the mysterious missing weekend days. This person nonchalantly replies, “Oh yeah, we have to work those days. Because of the vacation.” Not comprehending such nonsense, you press for clarification. “Well, we have a week of vacation, so we have to make up for it,” the person explains. But that’s a weekend! you reply. We don’t work on weekends! “Yes, but we have a week of vacation, so we have to make it up,” the Chinese person calmly replies, and goes back to work. After having several more carbon copy conversations, the facts are clear. You do have to work that Saturday and Sunday. Somehow those two weekend days are crucial compensation for the 7 days “off.”

I’ve been in China almost three years now, and it wasn’t until this year that I finally understood it. That’s not to say I agree with it, mind you, but I understand it (in much the same way that we can understand the ancient Greeks’ logic behind explaining lightning as Zeus throwing down thunderbolts to smite the naughty). I should tell how my epiphany came about.

At the end of April, a SARS meeting was held at my school. We were informed that we would not get the customary May vacation this year due to SARS. We were also reassured that since we were losing the vacation, we would end the semester early so that we wouldn’t actually be working any extra. OK, so far so good. Well, in planning my forthcoming trip to Australia at the end of this semester, the school questioned my departure date. Wasn’t that a little too early? I had classes, finals, and grades to finish. I smugly reminded them that we got to end a week earlier this semester because we had missed out on our May vacation. The response? But we only end three days early because of that.

Three days early?! Oh yes, I could feel the anger rising. We were promised (by the school president, no less) that the vacation time would be made up at the end of the semester. The explanation that was to follow made no sense to me at the time, but I didn’t really care. I was going to end my semester a week early whether they liked it or not. A few days later I finally got it when my tutor explained it to me in a way that made sense.

It goes like this. The “week off” is not actually completely given. It’s partially a rearrangement of weekend days off. The Communist government, in its benevolence, is only actually giving three days off. (Come on, now, don’t be greedy! You didn’t see Mao taking it easy on the Long March, now, did you?)

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What about May 6th and 7th then?

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Well, that’s where the creative rearrangement of the “gift” of weekend days off comes in. Those days are pillaged from the surrounding weekends:

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Now you can see where the “three day” notion came from. But it still doesn’t really make any sense. There are still so many questions. For example…

Q. Since the school week is 5 days long, and there are different classes on each day on both teachers’ and students’ schedules, what classes are held on the weekend “make-up days”?

A. Well, since those work days were originally May 6th and 7th, you can follow the schedule for May 6th and 7th, respectively.

Q. OK, great. That means out of one week “off,” two days are made up. How about the rest?

A. Well, those are vacation days.

Q. So when are they made up?

A. They aren’t. They’re real vacation days.

Q. But what if I teach the same class on both Wednesday and Thursday? Then one is made up and the other isn’t?

A. Correct.

Q. But then that means one of my classes gets an extra class, and puts those students ahead of the students in the other class. How do I account for that discrepancy?

A. Well, just don’t teach anything important in the make-up class.

Q. I don’t teach unimportant things in class! That’s not my job! Why don’t we just cancel the weekend make-up classes, then, if it’s all going to be unimportant content anyway?

A. No, we can’t do that.

Q. Why not??

A. Because we have to make up the days we’re given for the vacation….

You get the idea. It’s pretty infuriating. I usually get out of the weekend classes anyhow. The really ironic part is that even though a “we must work hard” Communist work ethic reason is given for why vacation days need to be made up, the whole reason for the “week off” is purely capitalist. The week off is to encourage travel and spending, pumping big money into China’s tourism industry. That’s not a secret at all. The sad part is that the real workers — food servers, street sweepers, cab drivers, shopkeepers — get no vacation at all. They (or the business they represent) depend upon the revenue that they can earn during the vacation.

So there you have it. Vacation Absurdity. The October vacation works the same way as the May vacation.

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That’s China. (But my classes end a whole week early this semester. Just because I’ve been in China for three years doesn’t mean I’ve forgotten what a vacation really is!)

ZUCC Chinese Student Blog

A few weeks ago in class I explained to my students what a blog is, and what a powerful force blogs are becoming on the internet. I also tried to promote blogs as a means of reaching out to the world to further international understanding (and practice language skills at the same time). I wanted to start some group student blogs. I would help them set it up, and explain how everything works. I asked anyone interested to e-mail me. Well, the response was not overwhelming. I have 7 classes, and there were only 7 interested students (plus one of my former students). Still, that’s a good number for a group blog, so we forged ahead with the project. It’s been going for over a week now, and I think these 8 students are getting the hang of blogging pretty well already. Go check it out, and don’t be shy about leaving a comment!

ZUCC Blog

I don’t expect this group blog to last forever as is. Rather, it will be a continually evlolving platform for raising awareness of blogs (and their high accessibility) among my students. Furthermore, I expect the more enthusiastic new bloggers to eventually break away and form their own blogs, as some of my students have already done (Chinadoll and Mole). Hopefully there will always be new curious souls to replace those who leave the group blog.

她他

最近我在看Ziboy很精彩的照片的时候,偶然看了一下“miumiu”的blog。我一看到一个全是汉字的网页,一下子就想跑回去很舒服的英文网页(很懒吧!)。miumiu的网页也一样,但吸引我的是她网站的音乐!是我第一次听“徐若?u – 她他”, 感觉非常好。我一般不喜欢中国流行音乐,但它给我的悲惨感觉很经典。听了以后就想下载。下载了以后再听了几次。听了几次就想看歌词。歌词蛮动人,我很喜 欢。看了歌词以后我又去看miumiu的网站,听了更多音乐(我也喜欢Chara)。听完了以后我才去认真地看她的blog。

她他

他他 深深爱着她 他他 永远的吗 他他 送她玫瑰花和吉他 她她 也深爱着他 她她 不变的吗 她她 收到的玫瑰花已枯萎了(已枯萎了)

他和她 爱很美 浪漫就像玫瑰花 他和她 爱很难 很小心也不一定留得住它 他和她 有时候很可怕 静静地死去它不挣扎 不说话

他他 轻轻吻着她 他他 弹着吉他 他他 最爱摸她的长头发 她她 看着那个他 她爱听他弹吉他 她寂寞的小世界被他融化(慢慢融化)

他和她 爱的melody多到挤不下 他和她 人随时也可能没有明天 不要害怕 他和她 让灵魂自由 看见爱与被爱在打架 算了吧

他和她 爱很美 浪漫就像玫瑰花 他和她 爱很难 很小心也不一定留得住它 他和她 有时候很可怕 静静地死去它不挣扎 不说话 他他送她rose and guitar

我还想问一个很无聊关于语言学的问题。中国人第一次听这首歌,如果不看歌词的话会不会完全懂哪个“ta”是“她”和哪个“ta”是“他”?

Voluntary Brain Rot

Any regular reader of my site knows that the regular commenters of my site tend to go off topic quite frequently. This slightly annoys a part of me, but how can I can mad when the off-topic stuff is often good stuff? For example, in my last post, “Da Xiangchang” stated:

I’m not sure if this mass infantilization is uniquely American. I have seen nothing in China that would suggest the Chinese wouldn’t act the same way if they had the wealth and 24-hour-mass-media-saturated lifestyle Americans have.

I think that’s so true. Let me give an example. This semester (ours has another month to go) I’ve been doing a part time job teaching spoken English classes at night. Those classes have been indefinitely suspended due to SARS. The coordinator assured me, though, that after 3 weeks of no class, the classes would definitely resume this past Monday. So I showed up for class. Guess what? No students. Three showed up late, but only because one SMSed me and asked if there were classes. I told her yes. A trip in vain to the coordinator’s office and a few phone calls later, I learned what I pretty much already knew: classes were still suspended until further notice. Great.

Since we had all commuted a ways for the class, I suggested we just have some tea together and have an English/Chinese chat. They thought that was a good idea. All three of them had gone home to their respective hometowns in Zhejiang province just as the height of Hangzhou’s SARS hysteria had hit, and had recently returned to Hangzhou. I figured a good way to begin speaking English was with a fairly simple question: how had they spent their SARS vacation at home?

Their answers shocked me. They said they watched TV. Well, nothing surprising about that. But I pushed further: how many hours a day? The first student told me 12, and I was visibly startled. Every day? I asked for clarification, figuring she had misunderstood. Then she seemed a little embarrassed. No, that couldn’t be right. She did some recalculations, staring at that invisible but ever-so-helpful calculator on the ceiling, while her fingers helped keep track. No, the number was not 12, it should have been 18. Eighteen?!? I gaped. There are only 24 hours in a day! You’re telling me you spend 18 hours watching TV? That only leaves 6 hours for sleep, and no time for anything else! Yes, that’s correct, she verified. What else would she do? I suggested perhaps… reading? She laughed, thought a moment, and then confirmed — no, she hadn’t done any reading or studying.

One of the other students was less excessive, at only 10 hours a day. She also needed time to shop. The third student was down to an almost acceptably “normal” limit at 5 hours a day. But then she added that she spent about 10 hours a day online. Incredible.

I thought I spent a lot of time online, but the time I put in is nothing compared to these students’ “dedication.” The thing is, these students are not morons. They’re pretty smart, and seem fairly typical. I don’t want to suggest it, but I really think they might be somewhat representative about the current state of China’s youth. I do know that when I ask my students students in class what they plan to do in their vacation time, the most popular answer is “watch TV.” It’s frightening. The original “TV nation” is going to be beaten at its own game.

For many complicated reasons

For many complicated reasons that it’s best to leave him to explain, Wilson recently decided to go back to California and stay there for the rest of the year. He might come back in 2004. Who knows. He drove off today (Monday) at 9:30am in a taxi along with all the material possessions from China that he wanted to keep.

Even though he originally planned on staying only one year and he’s already finishing up his third semester, I didn’t think Wilson would really leave China. His presence has drastically changed my life here, and it’s hard to accept that that era is suddenly coming to an end. Reflecting upon this, I realize that Wilson’s presence clearly delineates the three parts of my stay in China:

1. The Self-Study Era (Pre-Wilson) (Aug 2000 – Feb 2002)

  • Lived with Siyuan off campus for most of it, taught full-time
  • My life was characterized by intense self-study of Chinese and Chinese practice
  • Rapid progress in Chinese
  • Not too much dating, partying, drinking, or associating with other foreigners
  • Very few foreign teachers at ZUCC; no real “community” to speak of

2. The Golden Era (Wilson) (Feb 2002 – May 2003)

  • Lived alone on campus, taught full-time
  • Chinese study experienced a slow-down, socializing increased
  • Progress in Chinese slowed
  • More dating, partying, drinking, socializing with foreigners
  • The foreign teacher community at ZUCC was really born and blossomed
  • SARS marked its end

3. The Formal Study Era (Post-Wilson) (May 2003 – June 2004?)

  • Expect to live alone on campus, teaching part-time
  • Will be studying Chinese full-time as a foreign student at Zhejiang University
  • I expect another boost in Chinese progress, vaulting well into “advanced Chinese”
  • Dating, partying, drinking, and socializing with foreigners will certainly continue, but I’ll be busier
  • The foreign teacher community will continue to rock on, but it will surely never be the same without Wilson’s socially catalytic presence

Certainly, Wilson’s effect on my life here was great, but it wasn’t strictly cause-effect. I didn’t study less or party more solely because Wilson was here; I put in a year and a half of hard study, and I was ready to coast for a little while on the fruits of my labor. This just happened to coincide with Wilson’s arrival. And it wasn’t that Wilson was the party animal — the sole reason the social scene picked up here. Sure, he’s a very social guy and added tremendously to the atmosphere, but when a group of friends gets along so well, the partying tends to follow naturally. Of course, Wilson was right in the middle of it, keeping it all flowing to the beat of his SF Deep House tracks.

I’m helping Wilson distribute to friends some of the stuff he couldn’t take with him. After he left, I went down to start clearing some of that stuff out. It was strange, seeing that place almost empty, when just a week ago it was oozing life and personality, exuding Wilson. It’s been more than two hours since the taxi drove off, but it hasn’t hit me that he’s gone. I expect it’ll sink in before the week is up.

ZUCC will not be the same. I guess I’d be more depressed if I weren’t sure if I’d ever see him again, but we’re meeting up in Brisbane, Australia next month. Besides, while it’s true that some people come and go in our lives, sometimes you just know when friends have become permanent.

SARS Media Correspondence

Recently I wrote a letter to many different media agencies using addresses I found online. (I won’t go into the spam-related ethical issues at this point…) The basic letter I sent out is below.

To Whom It May Concern:

I am a 25-year-old American citizen living in Hangzhou, China teaching English. I love China, and I love my life here. I find it very distressing, then, to see an abundance of hysteria- and hype-driven news stories on SARS. What I don’t understand is why the American media has not gone to one of the most authentic sources out there today – blogs. Yes, blogs (weblogs). There are many, many English-speaking foreigners living through the SARS crisis. What’s more, they are conscientiously WRITING ABOUT IT, and have been since day one. I sincerely hope that you consider adding this angle of the SARS story to your news reports.

My China blog, Sinosplice, is at: http://www.sinosplice.com

I also maintain a long list of China blogs, many of which write extensively about SARS: http://www.sinosplice.com/chinablogs.html

The American people deserve to know a firsthand account of the truth which goes beyond hysteria.

Thank you for understanding.

Sincerely,
John Pasden

I received disappointingly few replies (one reporter responded apparently solely to inform me that her son is teaching in China too), but the following reply was interesting:

Hi John,

I’m a reporter with [a News Service] in [city], California. We are an off-beat news wire and I read how you are a proponent of blogs to tell the true story behind SARS in China. I’d like to hear more about what you have seen and how you feel they would tell the true story.

What makes them superior than traditional media outlets? Is what is being reported inaccurate? Can you point out some mistakes the media has been making? Have you had any brushes with SARS yourself? Do other English speaking blog writers in China share your view? What are they saying about it?

Lastly, our service provides contact information to other reporters and editors who subscribe to our news service so that they may do their own interviews with our sources. If I write an article about this subject do you mind other reporters from around the world getting in touch with you?

Thank you for your help.

Regards,
[Reporter Guy]

My response:

[Reporter Guy],

I’ll try to answer your questions as simply and directly as possible.

I never said blogs were “superior” to traditional media outlets, but they’re certainly DIFFERENT. Sometimes the traditional media outlets sort of drop the ball, and so it’s important to remember that there are alternatives. But in some cases, what makes blogs different could possibly make them BETTER.

We’ve all been hearing for years that a killer virus could be on the horizon for which modern science has no cure. That’s unthinkable. It’s horrific. It’s SERIOUS news. Then along comes SARS. How convenient. It’s much easier to report on SARS from the “safer” side of the Pacific, and the majority of Western investigations that I’ve read which actually go into China don’t stay for long.

Yes, blogs are very subjective, but how subjective is going in to report with an almost predetermined conclusion? I think I trust the subjective viewpoint of someone who’s been living in China for some time, knows how things work, and at least knows what China was like BEFORE SARS.

Hangzhou has reported very few cases of SARS. I think there really have been very few SARS cases in Hangzhou, although the government has been taking the threat extremely seriously. To my knowledge, I have not had any “near brushes” with SARS itself, but the effects have certainly reached me. My school was on lockdown* for two weeks, and remains in a state of partial lockdown**. Two of my coworkers have been quarantined in their rooms for leaving Hangzhou to go to Dalian (7 day quarantine) and Hong Kong (14 day quarantine). Even though face mask sightings have become a rarity, the city has taken on a whole new edgy feel to it. The vibrant Chinese bustle has been stifled.

If any reporters want to get in touch with me, I’m happy to talk to them, but as I’ve said before, there are a lot of bloggers out there reporting SARS much more thoroughly than I ever care to. Their blogs are at: http://www.sinosplice.com/chinablogs.html

* “lockdown” meaning no one could enter leave or leave campus without special permission.
** “partial lockdown” meaning everyone can go out, but there is a strict curfew, and only those with proper ID can enter the school.

-John

P.S. I’m posting this correspondence to my blog. I’ll withhold your name and organization until you give me permission to include it.

I don’t want to say anything negative prematurely, but I get the distinct impression that reporters would much rather end the “story” on China blogs about SARS with a few quotes from me, not even reading any of the China blogs in my listing.

短信

也许有一些中国人觉得这种笑话不好,但我觉得非常好笑。是一个学中文的美国朋友发给我的。很有意思的是前五个完全可以翻成英语,都可以用英文打出来,但第六个很有中国特色!

(.)(.) 美丽的胸部 (.Y.) 完美的胸部 (+)(+) 隆过的胸部 (o)(o) 大头的胸部 (O)(o) 不对称的胸部 (.人.) 下垂的胸部

A Madman's Diary

Lu Xun

Recently I was given a really cool birthday present: Selected Stories of Lu Xun. It’s got the Chinese on the left side and the English on the right. I tend to read in English first and then go back and study the Chinese later. Lu Xun (鲁迅) is simply the most famous modern author in China. Lu Xun’s writings predate Communism by a bit, and reflect the great turbulence China was experiencing in the early 1900′s.

Anyway, the first short story in the book is A Madman’s Diary. It’s really a fascinating little piece of literature. I’ll confess, I’ve been out of the literary analysis loop for some time, and my understanding of Chinese culture and history still has a ways to go, so I didn’t fully get the story right away. It’s frustrating to have one’s intellect blunted by disuse. Still, I knew there was a lot to it. I had a talk with my tutor about the story, though. He’s a big fan of Lu Xun. So I understand and appreciate it a lot better now. [ literary analysis ]

The story deals with cannibalism. The madman narrator believes that the people of his town are plotting to kill and eat him. What’s interesting is that the story refers to the fact that China has a long history of incidents of cannibalism. Under feudalism, when hard times hit, the peasants got hit hardest. Famines were common. And, as the saying goes, desperate times call for desperate measures. One reference in the story I didn’t quite understand. It referred to the practice of “exchang[ing] sons to eat” (yi zi er shi — 易子而食). So I asked my tutor about it. I was completely shocked. In ancient China, when famine hit, there was a practice of two households exchanging a child, and then each household killing and eating that child. (You can’t eat your own child, right? That would be uncivilized.) It’s absolutely mind boggling to what extremes famine can drive human beings. My tutor told me there were also incidents of people being so hungry that they would eat mud and die from it.

It was just a little difficult to talk about this with my tutor. He answers my questions well (sometimes too well — and the guy talks fast with a really good vocabulary), and he’s committed to helping me learn more about Chinese culture. But the topic was cannibalism in Chinese history, and Chinese people have a tendency to be kind of sensitive about that which portrays China in a bad light.

I expressed total shock about the “exchange sons to eat” thing, and I think he was a little surprised. He told me he thought Western history contained incidents that are just as bad. I didn’t really doubt that, but I asked for an example. He thought for a few seconds and then brought up Roman gladiators. Not only were humans forced to battle beasts and each other in front of a live audience, but the audience actually got off on the carnage. Granted, that is pretty heinous. But the difference, I felt, was that in most cases of extreme human cruelty, the recipient is dehumanized in the eyes of the offender. It seems like that would be a little harder to do in an even exchange of children with a neighbor.

This conversation prompted me to do a bit of my own research. If cannibalism is a known part of Chinese history, I wondered just how well documented it is in English. I’m not very familiar with the scholarly resources of sinologists, so I just used Google. I found one page with information, but coming from a Japanese source it seems kind of suspect (notice that the information is even in a directory labeled “nanjing”). I also uncovered a plethora of other pages. I’m not going to list them here, because I can’t tell if those pages report the truth, or whether it’s simply some kind of sensationalist China-bashing. (If you want to see them, just do a Google search for “china cannibalism.”) I found one page debunking the claims of another page. Regardless, it’s all an information/misinformation mess, and I found very little referring to the historical incidents that I was looking for.

Yang Rui and Dialogue

Some people say there are no certainties in life, but those people would probably admit that there are certainly very high likelihoods. For example, if you turn on the TV in China, there is a very likelihood that you’ll be tuning in to crap. Still, raised on television as we are, foreigners in China will at times find themselves watching anyway. Whether we do it “to get a feel for the propaganda machine,” or out of some kind of sick masochistic pleasure, or simply because we’re starving for a little mindless TV action, we do watch broadcast TV from time to time. I very rarely watch TV in China (or in the U.S.), but for some reason I turned on the TV while I was eating lunch in my apartment today. I actually saw something rather interesting.

Yang Rui, anchor of CCTV's DIALOGUE

Yang Rui

The show that caught my attention was CCTV’s Dialogue. This show is infamous among expats in China because it’s so often so bad. The show is in English, and often it’s a number of Chinese people discussing some serious issue in English (which is kind of weird). There are also foreign guests at times, and if the topic is a controversial one in which the foreigner represents an opposing viewpoint, the host, Yang Rui, can be extremely smug and downright condescending.

What was interesting about today’s show was the guest, Jing Jun, a Chinese professor of sociology from Qinghua University. That he was educated in the United States was made clear by Jing Jun’s fluent English. (The same cannot be said for Yang Rui.) The topic was, of course, SARS. This time the angle was “the sociological implications of SARS.” What impressed me was the frankness with which Jing Jun discussed Beijing’s handling of SARS, even on CCTV, the national television station. Jing Jun stated in no uncertain terms that Beijing lied to the people and tried to cover up SARS cases in the beginning, and was only forced to come out with the truth when the lies became too apparent to the people. This is certainly no secret to anyone (the Chinese people not excluded), but I found it impressive that such a view would be expressed from such an obviously well-educated Qinghua University professor on the national television station. After Jing Jun expressed this opinion, Yang Rui quickly changed the topic. During the interview, Jing Jun also expressed the realistic view that SARS could be controlled, but was not going to go away anytime soon.

A lot of these Dialogue transcripts are available online. In doing a little research, I came across this transcript, an interview with a professor named Wu Qing on political participation in China. I found the transcript amusing, but also very interesting. It’s not long, so I recommend you read it in full, but but here are are two excerpts:

Y: We know that the people’s deputy ID card is a symbol of a deputy’s responsibility and power, have you ever used yours in a practical situation?

W: Yes, one example is that I used my card to stop a car that belonged to a high-ranking army officer. The car was driving into the bicycle lane at the time. Seeing that, I used my bicycle to stop the car because I felt I had the responsibility to protect ordinary citizens. So I produced my deputy ID card and said to the driver that he should stop and back out of the lane because the lane is for cyclists. And then this driver, a young man, got out of the car and swore at me, “Are you asking for trouble or what, old woman?” Later I filed a formal complaint in which I noted down the plate number of the car and described what had happened. About a month after that I got a phone call from an army officer, presumably the owner of the car. He said he wanted to come over to apologize and he did. And then two weeks later I got a call from that driver. He came over and pleaded with me to remove that line of his swearing from my complaint saying that otherwise he would have to leave the army and go back to where he came from. I told him, “Well, young man, I can’t do that, it’s not right for you to ask me to remove that line for that would mean I was slandering you.” But I did write a letter to that officer saying that I hope this young man would not be demoted from the army as a punishment. Young people sometimes make mistakes and they need a chance to correct their mistakes.

….

Y: Some people think American democracy is closest to what democracy really means. Do you agree? Do you think we should follow the American style of democracy?

W: I don’t really think so. Ten people might have ten different definitions of democracy. Each country has its own culture and history. We Chinese have our own idea of freedom and democracy, and Americans have theirs. Each has some problems. That’s why we always have to improve.

Japan Invades Again

I periodically do Google News searches for stories related to both China and Japan, since I’m interested in both countries. This week something interesting turned up which has some bearing on my own life. The topic is not extemely captivating — and it’s not life-threatening like SARS — but it’s relevant to China’s future. Japan is invading again. I’m talking about convenience stores, people.

For some time, Japan and the USA have had a tradition of small, brightly lit, immaculate, 24-hour convenience stores. China does not. Instead, there are just lots of tiny family-run shops everywhere. Usually, the storefront is also the family’s home’s front porch. When no one is buying, they’re typically in there watching TV. The stores are not 24 hours, but they’re often open late because the store stays open as long as the family is awake. Buying from these places is a more personal experience; there’s no big corporation involved, and you can feel it. Lately, however, this seems to be changing.

In the USA (as well as in quite a few places all over the world) it seems that 7 Eleven and Circle K reign supreme, but it is not so in Hangzhou. (I don’t know enough to speak for all of China. I think that maybe these American chain stores have a foothold in China’s biggest cities like Shanghai and Hong Kong.) The convenience stores that have begun to appear are ones like “C-Store,” a chain of indeterminate origin. This store has opened shop right on Zhoushan Dong Lu, outside ZUCC, on the north side of Hangzhou. Another similar 24-hour convenience store is opening this week right down the road from C-Store. These convenience stores are great because they’re 24 hours, they’re very clean, and they offer imported products that can sometimes be hard to find. At the C-store just down the road from ZUCC, we can now buy Corona beer and Japanese onigiri (rice ball wrapped in seaweed) — two products that are still impossible to find even at a lot of the larger grocery stores in Hangzhou.

FamilyMartI spoke of another Japanese invasion. Anyone who has spent any time in Japan will know these two convenience store chain giants: FamilyMart and Lawson. LawsonI have bought from both stores in Japan many times. My Japanese homestay brother Shingo used to work at FamilyMart. Their reach in Japan is pervasive. Now both companies have set their sights on China. [Story: FamilyMart. Story: Lawson.]

It’s going to start soon. Judging by the Chinese consumer reactions I’ve seen so far, I predict a victory for Japan this time.

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