Sunday, June 15, 2008

New Movies

After lunch today I picked up a couple of new DVD's from our DVD shop. The movies at the shop are a bit more expensive and seem slightly more legitimate than those sold by the street vendors. The boxes have artwork that almost looks like a movie you might get in Wal-Mart or Best Buy until you pick it up for closer inspection.

Today I bought Kung Fu Panda (功夫熊猫) and the newest Indiana Jones movie for about $2 each.

The Kung Fu Panda box actually had relatively few grammatical mistakes, though it is apparently rated "R" for drug content and strong language.

The Indiana Jones box was much more amusing. The description of Indy's newest adventure on the back of the box is as follows...

After a lot of bewildered and pursued and killed after the Qianglintanyu, Indiana Ouyu Mingjiaomate Williams, a young man, like to wear a leather jacket, the standard form of motorized Afei small party. When he knew the identity of Indiana, on their own and ask him to Peru to the ancient cemetery of forest, looking for a name of "skull" Shen Qi, said it was left behind by aliens, have control of the power of mind. There is another talk for people is also thought to be the "skull," they are female agents to the Soviet Union Yiruinosi Pake led by an elite unit, Nvliu although Yi Ruina Jie, it is an extremely cold blooded people, hair-do know how she is meticulous, how stringent, or else how can the KGB when the leader of this add to the confusion of the battle, there are evil archaeologist Mike, and the Indiana Jiuai Maliangrui Winwood.... "skull" end up in the hands of who is likely the impact on the overall situation of the Cold War, but also including the fate of the two countries.

If anyone can decipher that, you'll have to let me know what it means.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Dragon Boat Festival and Guilin

This Sunday is Dragon Boat Festival according to the Chinese lunar calendar. The holiday always falls on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month. Though it will be a Sunday this year, we will also have Monday off from school.

Being given time off from classes and soon to leave China, Janet and I decided we must travel somewhere new and decided to take an overnight train to Guilin, about eight hours to our north. Guilin is famous throughout China for its karst topography where limestone peaks scenically rise up around the Li River. The scene is described by many classical Chinese poets and even pictured on the back of the 20 Yuan bill. I'm looking forward to leaving tonight!

As to Dragon Boat Festival, I had my students describe the holiday in class and it is a celebration of a famous Chinese poet named Qu Yuan. He served in an imperial court during the Warring States Period in China, nearly 2300 years ago. According to legend, the ruler at the time was treating the people poorly and many were dying from famine and war with neighboring kingdoms. Qu Yuan couldn't bear to see the people suffering and pleaded with the Emperor to make changes. When the Emperor ignored him, Qu Yuan jumped from a cliff into a river to kill himself.

The peasants, seeing Qu Yuan drowning in the river, rushed to their boats and tried to race out to save him. Along the way, they threw zongzi (glutinous rice dumplings) into the river so that the fish might eat the dumplings and not the poet. Unfortunately, the people were too late to save Qu Yuan from drowning.

Today, Dragon Boat Festival commemorates Qu Yuan's death. Here in Zhanjiang there will be a large boat racing competition and the people will eat zongzi to celebrate the day. I'm hoping there will be a boat race in Guilin to watch, but if not, there should at least be plenty of rice dumplings to eat.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Plastic Bags

On Sunday, June 1, China began its new restrictions on plastic bags. Some of the flimsiest bags have been banned completely while other plastic bags will no longer be issued for free. Under the new restrictions, stores must charge at least the cost of the bag to the customer.

In a nation of over 1.3 billion people who use around 3 billion plastic bags each day, the plastic bag pollution (commonly referred to here as "white pollution") is really an issue. The government hopes the new restrictions will encourage people to reuse their bags and/or bring their own cloth bags to the stores with them.

On Sunday, I happened to go into our local Trust-Mart and noticed the new plastic bags now have a bar code printed on them and the cashiers ask if you want your groceries bagged and then scan your bags just like any other item you purchase. The bags cost three jiao (about 4 cents) each.

Having seen plenty of bags rolling down our street like tumbleweeds and visiting a few nearby villages where there is not trash pickup and large mounds of bags litter the outskirts of the village, I think the new bag restrictions are a good idea. I also like the idea of charging for the bags rather than banning them outright (a more capitalist solution rather than an authoritarian one). However, I think the small charge may not be significant enough to cause a real reduction in usage. In Ireland, they charge around 33 cents per bag and have seen the usage reduced by over 90%. While that is probably a bit too steep a price for here, I think one yuan (around 15 cents) per bag might be a good amount. Of course, I'm sure the government will have people keeping statistics and making tweaks to the amount as needed.

Many students seem to know that littering is bad but somehow the campus always seems to end up with trash all over the place. I for one will not miss the plastic bags floating around the school grounds in the breeze.

Monday, June 02, 2008

On Fruits


Sunday I had two new fruits to try. I started with the Rambutan, which I had seen in large quantities while in Thailand but did not try there. The name comes from the Malay word rambut, which means "hairs." It seems a fitting name as the outside of the fruit is covered with stringy hairs. It is a pretty strange looking fruit.

To open, I sliced in half the fruit in half with a knife and you can see the interior of the fruit from the picture in the top right. Each fruit has one large seed inside and you can squeeze the outside to "pop" it out. Don't eat the seed uncooked, it is mildly poisonous according to Wikipedia.

The flesh of the fruit is a milky, but largely transparent, white color and has a consistency that made me think of jello. The fruit itself had a fairly mild but sweet taste. An enjoyable tropical treat for a hot day (which we have had plenty of lately - the heat index is usually in the high 90s during the daytime).


Dragonfruit, known locally as 火龙果 (fire dragon fruit), is the fruit of a number of species of cacti and native to Mexico and Central and South America according to Wikipedia. The fruit has also developed a big following here in Asia and is grown in many countries as well as locally here in southern China.

The fruit has an interesting color, sort of a mixture of red and purple tones and a soft, fleshy skin. When cut open, the fruit flesh is white with numerous black seeds. Despite its unique colors and look, the fruit actually has a very mild and somewhat bland taste.

At many of the restaurants here you will often get a plate of mixed fruit delivered to the table for dessert and dragonfruit is usually among them.

Lychee vs. Litchi

Though not a new fruit to many people, I wanted to share something a Chinese friend recently told me about the spelling of the fruit. I've seen it spelled both ways and wondered why. Apparently it comes from the difference in the name of the fruit in Cantonese versus Mandarin. Lychee being the romanized spelling of the Cantonese name and Litchi, the Mandarin version. Either spelling seems to be acceptable in English.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Dollar Alert

I posted on the decline of the dollar abroad a little while back and wanted to follow up on that. Today the dollar passed a historic mark as it fell under 7 RMB to the dollar for the very first time. One dollar is now worth approximately 6.996 RMB and the Yuan is expected to continue to gain on the dollar.

I recall seeing in the papers a month or two ago the White House unveiling plans for the fiscal year 2009 budget. The budget called for 3.1 trillion dollars of spending but did not anticipate taking in that much money in revenue (though if you are I were to forcibly collect "revenue" from our neighbors, it would almost certainly be called by a different name...). This staggering amount does not include the emergency spending bills that will continue to be passed to fund the ongoing war in Iraq. I remember a story of President Kennedy who set his budget at $99 billion because he refused to be the first president to pass the $100 billion mark. In just over four decades, the budget has increased thirtyfold.

What does this have to do with my post on the dollar? Simple, there are only two ways for a government to spend more money than it has at a given time, inflation and debt. Currently, China has bought up a large amount of our debt, which gives them some influence over our economy and politics (if they threaten to stop buying debt, we would have to find someone else willing to do so to sustain our current spending levels) and also means my generation and the next will be paying this off in the future with increased taxes. Inflation, a hidden tax, is the government printing extra dollar bills to make up for the shortfall in the budget. These extra dollars decrease the value of existing dollars and prices rise (inflation) at home and the dollar gets weaker abroad.

The good news, I'm up to nearly $572 a month. Unfortunately, prices here are only in RMB and China is also having troubles of its own with inflation...

Censors Staying Busy

Janet and I were watching TV earlier tonight, which we rarely do, and were reminded that free speech is still a foreign concept here. We pick up two English language channels, both broadcasting from Hong Kong, where there are fewer restrictions on what may be said.

Watching the 7:30 news (who knows why 7:30 here?), we caught a segment of the Olympic torch being carried through the streets of San Francisco. One commenter mentioned the Olympics as a celebration of athleticism and that he was excited to see the torch. A second spectator said, "human rights" and our TV immediately cut to commercial. About ten seconds later, the commercial abruptly ended and we were back to watching the torch make its way through San Francisco.

We were both still laughing when just a moment later the news anchor introduced the next story as being about the Dalai Lama and we went to commercial again until we had been safely prevented from seeing the story. Maybe there was a reason I don't often watch TV...

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

The Flame Fiasco

The 2008 Beijing Olympics are supposed to be a coming out party for China and a great source of nationalism. With just a few months left until the games, things seem to be quickly falling apart. What was supposed to proudly launch China into the worldwide spotlight is now becoming a public relations nightmare.

In response to recent crackdowns in Tibet, the Olympic torch was met in London and Paris by large protests. Today, the torch is set to run through San Francisco and will certainly be met with another wave of protestors. Fearing the worst, the city has tried to keep the exact route a secret and made provisions to change mid-route if needed. What should be a celebration of athleticism and unity is now being shrouded in secrecy and marked by protest along with cheers.

Many years ago, I remember seeing the Olympic torch pass by on its way to Atlanta for the 1996 Olympic games. I don't recall to many details other than seeing a guy run by with torch in hand, but I don't remember there being a large security detail or anything but enthusiastic spectators.

In fairness, there were many cheering people greeting the torch in both London and Paris and there seemed to be a number of Chinese flags waving in the background from the pictures I've seen. However, the fact that others in the crowd are willing to be arrested to try and steal or extinguish the torch seems to highlight the fact that not all is well.

Our local source of news, the People's Daily, mentioned minor disruptions along the torch routes and blamed it on very " a small number of "Tibet independence" secessionists and a handful of so-called human rights-minded NGO activists (harsh words there)."

Tonight, for the first time since the Tibetan unrest, a student briefly mentioned the incidents. I've been thankful not to hear about it from them actually as I find the local propaganda somewhat infuriating. She mentioned that many people had been killed in Tibet and I played ignorant, stating simply, "that's terrible, why would people do something like that?" She asked me if I was familiar with the "Dalai Clique" and I said, "yes." "They want to separate from China," she explained. Again, a simple "why?" was my response. "I don't know," she said, confused. I then mentioned something about America wanting to separate from Great Britain many years ago and how people on both sides died during the struggle. After that, I figured it was time to change subjects.

Being here is tough in many ways, but one of the things that bothers me most is the blatant propaganda spewed out by the news and the fact that people seem to buy it. If you ask, people will tell you that they don't always believe the news they hear. In reality, it seems they accept a good bit of it. I always try to encourage my students to question the news and authority, a strange concept, no doubt. The newspapers here only show certain pictures and tell certain stories, but at the same time, the news at home often adds it own twists as well.

Long before the recent Tibetan unrest, Janet and I discussed how major news outlets at home (the Times, CNN, etc.) would often spin stories to make China look bad. Following the coverage of the riots in Tibet, it was discovered that some sources cropped pictures they published in order to perhaps generate more sympathy for the Tibetans, which seemed to be the slant of the stories. A Chinese website was created to protest the "western media bias" and seemed to have some merit to its points. The website seems to be currently blocked here, but you may be able to view it at - (if so, avoid the infuriating message board filled with angry Chinese and a few sycophant westerners). Here, the opposite occurs and some pictures and videos (You Tube) are blocked so that only stories that portray rioters in violent and negative terms are run.

To me, neither side seems to be completely right. I expect things may get a bit uglier before they get better. Come August, all eyes will be on Beijing as athletes and reporters descend on the city by the thousands. Those who want to get a message out, will certainly try to seize the opportunity. I personally think some of the talk that is floating around of boycotting the opening ceremony is dangerous and wrong. As I mentioned, the Olympics are a huge source of national pride and the government has done a good job of promoting this feeling and personalizing any questions aimed its way. Any slight will almost certainly be taken as a huge insult by the rank and file Chinese (the media and government will be sure to fuel the fire) and would be a diplomatic mistake. At the same time, the Chinese need to start trying to answer the "why" question and consider why people are protesting. It is erroneous and simple-minded to just blame "separatists" and not really consider why it is they want to separate if conditions are so good...

Let's hope that the Olympics can help to bring us all a bit closer together while also forcing participant countries to take a good, long look at the rights of their own citizens.