Thursday, July 29, 2010

NPR - Religion and One Child Policy in China

My beloved National Public Radio has run a couple of excellent stories over the past few weeks. I was only able to catch bits and pieces of them as they happened live on the radio. But I found time today to catch up on the both of the series - New Believers: A Religious Revolution in China and China's One Child Policy.

The first series - New Believers - was in five parts. The following clips ran Monday through Friday on the program, All Things Considered:

In The Land Of Mao, A Rising Tide Of Christianity
China’s Divided Catholics Seek Reconciliation
Female Imams Blaze Trail Amid China's Muslims
Beijing Finds Common Cause With Chinese Buddhists
China's Leaders Harness Folk Religion For Their Aims
All of these contain either audio slide shows or photos, so be sure to check those out along with the audio.

This is a worthwhile series. It covers a lot of the bases that should be covered in a China religion discussion. In particular, I found the story on the female imams of Henan Province informative. I was not aware that China had such a unique sect of Islam. There are no female imams outside of China.

The second series - China's One Child Policy - was also a week-long series. It ran on the program, Marketplace by American Public Media:

How China's one-child policy came to be
One-child workers: A generation of 'little emperors'
China's only children carry family hope
In China: More kids or more stuff?
Chinese labor pool on the decline
Back Story
Also be sure to check out the "Cast of Characters" at the bottom of the page. It profiles some of the 老百姓 - normal Chinese people - covered in the stories.

These programs too were all very good. I want to highlight one section from the third one, "China's only children carry family hope," that particularly resonated with me:

Scott Tong: For sixth grader Fang Jin Xue, the day starts at seven, sharp, with a...

Fang Rong: Baobei kuai dian!

Hurry up! From her mom. The 12 year-old grunts a word of compliance. And then pulls on her clothes: Green hoodie sweatshirt, black cotton pants and pink eyeglasses. The morning hustle feels like my house on a school day -- but this is a Saturday.

Fang Jin Xue explains why: Tutoring class, every weekend.

Fang Jin Xue: First, two classes of English. Then one science, one writing, one Chinese. Then two math classes. It goes late, so we eat dinner at the school.

Mom Fang Rong nukes some sesame porridge. They wolf it down. And scamper down seven flights of stairs -- no elevator here. It's hectic, mom says. Every family is racing to get its one child ahead.

Fang Rong: Competition is fierce, so we all feel we have to do something, right or wrong. If parents don't put kids in tutoring classes, they panic.

Fang Rong, the mom, is a factory quality control worker, making $7,000 a year, about the median income in urban China. Dad works at a factory too. Together, they spend 10 percent of their income on their daughter's schooling. Surveys suggest other families shell out as much as 50 percent.

It makes for a thriving education market, says Tom Doctoroff at the marketing firm J. Walter Thompson.

Tom Doctoroff: Anything that helps a kid become smarter, and able to compete in an increasingly dog-eat-dog landscape is a priority for the parents. Whether it's English lessons or piano lessons, parents are gonna spend money and time in making sure their kids are equipped to rise.

Read/listen to the entire story

I saw this kind of stuff first-hand. In fact, a huge chunk of my time in China was spent working at a private English training school first as a teacher and then later as a manager.

The school I worked for, which was one of many that the American-owned company operated throughout China, was a weekend "training schools" like the one described in this program. Chinese children would attend a two hour session of classes at the "school" every weekend for 24 weeks (two weekends off every six months). The parents would pay about an average of $200 for a semester of classes.

The classes' costs were based upon how much time was spent with the foreign teacher. If a foreign teacher taught the entire two hour block, it cost $200 a semester. If a foreign teacher only taught thirty minutes of the class, then the classes would be about half that price.

I'm not real crazy about the kind of English training schools that I'm describing. I don't want to say these kinds of training schools are completely worthless. They aren't. I saw some incredibly talented students take great advantage of their weekend English classes. But, in general, the teachers were poorly trained, the books terribly-designed, and the students nearly impossible to control. I would probably not recommend the school, or any like it, to a Chinese family wanting the best for their kid.

The school, started by Americans in the late 1990s, is a huge success financially though. That's just it, the school cares more about making money than the kids learning anything. Because of their $uccess (and the $uccess that other competing schools are finding), these sorts of cash cows schools are going deeper and deeper into the heart of China and millions upon millions more children are going to have the opportunity to attend them. They aren't going away any time soon.

My disillusionment for these kinds of schools surely results from me having worked in one for a while. But it also has to do with the fact that Chinese children have no lives outside of studying. I really wish Chinese kids were given the opportunity to act like kids.

So many of the children I saw on the weekends at my school were worn down. They were being forced by their parents to attend English class, math class, Chinese class, piano, etc. etc. On top of that, they were drowning from homework from their Monday through Friday school, which they usually attended in the morning from 7AMish until noon, in the afternoon from 2:30 to 5:30, and then in the evening from 7:30 until 9:00 five days a week (and sometimes either on Saturday morning or Sunday evening).

I would sometimes tell older Chinese kids about the way I grew up in America. I went to school from 8:30AM until 3:10PM. I played on soccer, basketball, and baseball teams outside of school. I did stuff outside - went swimming, made snowballs, etc. I aimlessly rode my bike. I watched too much TV. I was basically an average, generation-Y, suburban kid. That sounds like heaven to the Chinese children of today.

There are a lot of reasons why Chinese kids face such pressure. More than I can quantify. But there are two things that I feel contribute.

I'm convinced a large part of what I and the NPR story are describing has to do with China's civil society, or lack thereof. China is just barren in so many ways in this area. I'm sure that as China improves, its civil society will improve. But at the moment, during this time of massive change for every person in China, things like community groups, organizations, or even, gulp, religious infrastructure just haven't fully developed. Contemporary China, in many ways, is just too Darwinian and every-man-an-island. This will change. But it will take time.

I'm also confident that the one child policy has a lot to do with the heavy burdens placed on Chinese children. Nearly every young child in China is the hope, joy, and treasure for its parents. It's all or nothing.

Given where China is today, one can understand why Chinese children face the pressures they do and Chinese parents smother their children.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Studying via

Until recently, I'd never used the internet to study Chinese. I've seen the light now, though.

In the past, I was all about Supermemo and other memory techniques for "burning" Chinese into my brain. Supermemo is very effective and I think that it's helped me a lot get to the intermediate-ish level of Chinese that I'm at. But Supermemo used as a primary method of learning a language lacks a lot. Focusing on vocabulary and reading instead of listening and speaking eventually caught up with me. I was to a point where I knew hundreds upon hundreds of characters but could have only the most basic of conversations.

Frustrated, I focused more on one-on-one classes and eventually really expanded myself with my Chinese. I got to a very conversational level of Chinese. Not incredibly proficient, but I could do a wide array of things with the language. Focusing on listening and speaking helped me tons.

Things were going great and I was making serious strides and then... Qian and I moved away from China to America. I stopped studying for several weeks after the move. Eventually, I got reinvigorated with Supermemo and studied pretty well for a while. I wasn't able to continue an any one-on-one classes though. And without the listening and speaking practice, the studying of characters tapered off after several weeks. I stopped Supermemo months ago.

People reading this who know my living situation must surely be thinking, "Mark, have lessons with your Chinese wife for God's sake!" Yes, Qian is Chinese. And add on to that that she is a Chinese teacher of all things! But it's not that simple. Qian and I talk some, but we've never been able to have a productive teacher/student relationship. I can't explain why, but it doesn't work. In lieu of formal classes, she and I have made efforts to move our conversations over to Chinese, but it, too, has had limited success. Again, I can't explain why. It just hasn't worked.

In more recent months, watching Chinese TV shows has been a good way for me to keep up a steady exposure to Chinese language. But watching TV with Qian is not necessarily a great way for me to learn anything. It's good for listening practice, but if I have any trouble she just explains things to me and I hardly ever write anything down or stop to focus on a certain grammar point. And I have plenty of trouble trying to watch a Chinese TV with my Chinese level.

I've been at a a crossroads in recent months. I still have desire to learn Chinese, but have been frustrated with studying via textbook/Supermemo, watching Chinese TV, and annoying Qian about speaking Chinese. All the while, I've certainly been forgetting a lot of what I'd learned over the past few years by not using any of it in the US of A.

Everything changed for the better for me recently, though. I found

After listening to another excellent Sinica podcast hosted by a few weeks ago, I actually checked out the rest of the site. I found a vast library of podcasts/language lessons for learning Chinese. The lessons ranged from absolute beginner to a level that I'm sure I'll never ever achieve. I was captivated by the high-quality and free content given to anyone who cares to download it.

The best thing about popupchinese is that the lessons are hilarious and twisted on top of being relevant. The host of most of the podcasts, Brendan, has a unique sense of humor. The lessons are consistently full of win. Some of my favorite lessons recent lessons are as follows:
- A father telling his daughter that her childhood has been a sham and that her mother and brother are not her biological family members.
- A father cooking his son's pet rabbit.
- And an honest cabbie telling a foreigner how terrible his Chinese is.
The Popup lessons, both the dialogs and the explanations by the teachers, Brendan and Echo, are entertaining and the language in them is very useful. So basically the opposite of using the conventional textbooks that have guided my first couple years of studying Chinese.

I'm finding the elementary lessons to be great review and the intermediate lessons full of new information. I have a notebook for new grammar structures, vocab, etc. and am trying to listen for a few minutes a day.

I recommend anyone interested in learning Chinese to go check out the site. The lessons start at the most basic of basic. You can listen to any of the lessons for free. If you really like the site, you can sign up for membership at really quite reasonable rates. I haven't decided whether I'm going to sign up for membership. Seeing that I haven't given them a dime yet and I really like what they're doing, I figured the least I could do is to try direct some traffic their way from my little blog.

We'll see whether I can continue on with Popup Chinese. For the moment, at least, it is helping me immensely in my life-long challenge that is learning Chinese more proficiently.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Wal-Mart in China Photos

Last year, I posted several of the best photos that I took at a Walmart in Xi'an. The photos were from right after the first Walmart opened in the fall of 2007. Being from middle-America (Wal-Mart Country), I wanted to share what a Chinese Wal-Mart experience is like.

My friend, Timo, recently sent me a link of someone else's Wal-Mart in China photos. They're way better than mine.

Here are some of my favorites:

All sixteen photos from this site can be seen here.

These are some pretty wild photos. The Wal-Marts in Xi'an didn't have crocodiles, turtles, or pig faces. Or at least I don't remember seeing them. My guess is that this Wal-Mart is in southern China.

The Wal-Mart website says that it has 180 stores in over 90 cities. Wal-Mart is obviously doing pretty well in China. They're very clean and the quality of the things in the store is relatively high. They're something of an upscale market.

I'm a little embarrased to admit it, but I really enjoyed shopping at Wal-Mart in Xi'an. I was able to get things like Doritos, grapefruit, and several other western items that I missed. Since being back in the US, Qian and I have only been to Wal-Mart a couple times. We don't enjoy American ones nearly as much.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Chinese cities you've never heard of, but should know - Part 4

This installment of "Chinese cities you've never heard of, but should know" isn't actually about a city. It's about Huaxi Village, a village one hundred miles north of Shanghai in Jiangsu Province.

Huaxi Village touts itself as the "Number 1 Village in China." Here is an article from the Guardian on why the village feels so proud:
China's road to riches could not be more boldly signposted than it is in Huaxi, officially the country's wealthiest village. Take the municipal government's stretch limousine across Textile Bridge, pass the smokestacks of the steelworks, speed alongside row after row of symmetrical pale-blue houses, skirt the 15-story pagoda hotel and then alight for a walk down the red-carpeted corridor of capital.

This concrete-covered passageway is a monument to the giddy material progress made by the commune since China's policymakers began mixing their ideological drinks 26 years ago.

None went as far as Huaxi in combining the strict political control of the ruling Communist party with the get-rich-quick economics of the market - and the results are being hailed as a model for the nation to follow.

To demonstrate how good that cocktail is supposed to make the locals feel, "Huaxi Road" is decorated with smiling pictures of every family in the village.

Each household's assets are listed in detail: size of the family, value of their property, average level of education, number of members of the Communist party, as well as how many cars, mobile phones, televisions, washing machines, computers, air-conditioning units, motorbikes, cameras, fridges and stereo systems they own.

At first sight, the figures seem to justify Huaxi's boast to be the "number one village in China". Since 1995, when Huaxi became the first commune in China to list shares on a stock exchange, local businesses, mostly in textiles and steel, have taken off. Their spectacular expansion has made even the national average growth rate of 9% a year seem laggardly. In 2003, the village reported the combined turnover of its companies at 10bn renminbi (about £640m). Last year, it hit 26bn - and by 2008 it is expected to double again.

This has turned residents - all still officially registered as peasants - into wealthy industrialists. Elsewhere in the country, the annual average disposable income of urban dwellers only recently passed $1,000 (about £530). In the countryside, the figure is two thirds lower. But Huaxi's residents get a yearly salary of $1,500, a bonus of $10,000 and dividends of $25,000.

Twenty years ago, most were farmers living in small, one-storey houses, who struggled to save the money to buy a bicycle. Now, they are shareholders with an average living space of more than 450 square metres and at least one family car.

Read On

This article is dated. It is from 2005. Five years is a long time anywhere. But it's a really long time in contemporary China. One important thing has occurred since this story was written; Huaxi Village has embarked upon building two of the tallest skyscrapers in the world.

From The Wall Street Journal:

In China, bigger is almost always better, even in small towns, and Huaxi, a formerly rural village in the eastern part of the country, is no exception.

Huaxi has long been heralded as a symbol of China’s successful transition from communism to capitalism. It calls itself “the No. 1 village in China” and boasts of being the country’s wealthiest village, with an annual per capita income of 80,000 yuan (about $12,000), according to Xinhua. Now, it appears that Huaxi has a new ambition: to become the “tallest village,” not just in China, but in the world.

Officials in the town are currently building a 74-story, 1,100 foot tower to house up to 2,000 residents, at a cost of 2.5 billion yuan ($370 million), the Guangzhou Daily reports (in Chinese here). Planned amenities include five clubhouses and “sky gardens,” 24-hour concierge services, 35 elevators and a revolving restaurant at the top of what’s slated to be the 15th-tallest building in the world. The tower, named “New Village in the Sky,” will be completed in June, but marks only the starting point of the village’s dreams. Next year, construction will commence on an even taller building, the 1,800-foot Huaxi Dragon Plaza (And for this plaza, the total investment will be around 6 billion yuan, and the government is to divide the total 6 billion yuan into 600 shares, with each share 10 million yuan).

Local party secretary Wu Xie’en, told the Guangzhou Daily that he hopes that the skyscrapers of Huaxi will become a major tourist attraction. He also cites a more pressing motive for building upwards: conservation of land resources. Huaxi’s rich residents have long favored sprawling mansions — up to 5,000 square feet in size, huge by Chinese standards– to house several generations under one roof, cutting into the supply of land available for industry and agriculture.

Read the entire article
The excellent blog,, translated a Chinese news report from earlier this year on the first skyscraper that is already being built. Here is a clip of that article:
Designed in accord with a 5-star hotel standard, with a construction area of 200,000 square meters, it can accommodate more than 2000 residents, with a dining capacity of 3000, and having the largest 360 degree revolving restaurant in Asia. Inside the building contain 35 elevators, with speeds of 10 meter per second, the fastest in the world, in addition to having the world’s most advanced monitoring and fire safety equipment.”

You must be having a hard time imagining that a “socialist new village” is building this soon-to-be completed luxury tower. In Jiangyin Huaxi village, this building with height ranked number 8 in China, and number 15 in the world will be completed in June of this year.


The tower has five sky gardens with five levels in accordance with the Five Elements of Gold, Wood, Water, Fire, and Earth as each level’s theme. Inside contain 35 elevators, with speeds of faster than 10 meters per second, among the top in the world. The form of the tower will be the shape of a “Three-footed tripod”, the center will top out with a 50-meter sphere, as if it is a dazzling pearl.

The tower is also named “The new village in the sky” with a special meaning attached. Wi Xie’en said, “People’s impressions of rural villages were always low-rise buildings, now we must make a breakthrough, even rural villages can break this old impression and create a village in the sky.”

After investigation, this tower originally was planned to cost RMB 1.5 billion, but from the looks of the current situation, after renovations and decorations, it will cost at least RMB 2.5 billion to complete.

Read the entire translation
I have no idea what to say about this hamlet on steroids.

The development going on in Huaxi Village is a good rorschach test for what one thinks of China's break-neck economy. Some will say that such seemingly wasteful and misallocated use of energy and resources will be the undoing of China ("Dubai times 1,000") while others will surely see it as China forging ahead (hooray for Technocracy!).

I don't even want to bother weighing in on these kinds of economic matters any more. I've been bearish in the past on China's development and my natural instinct is to think that this Huaxi experiment is insane. But China's sustained economic development has impressed me. I'm just going to go with "a little from column A and a little from column B" on Huaxi for now.

Regardless of what one thinks of what is going on Huaxi Village, there's no doubt that this little dot on the map deserves to be on a list of places that could only exist in the present-day Middle Kingdom.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Out of Mao's Shadow

I just finished a haunting book - Out of Mao's Shadow: The Struggle for the Soul of a New China by Philip P. Pan. It is an intense read. Out of all the books on China I've read over the past few months, it might be the most important one that I've picked up. It, along with Wild Grass by Ian Johnson, are certainly the most intense.

Pan was the Washington Post's Beijing bureau chief from 2000 until 2007. His book chronicles the lives of a handful of Chinese people who refuse to submit to the ways of "the Party." A wide range of people fighting the system are featured: a fearless documentary-maker, a truth-seeking journalist, and lawyers trying to develop a rule of law to name a few. The bravery of these people willfully standing up to the government in a fight for justice is inspiring.

Reading this book puts the economic development and all of the positive things we hear about China's rise in perspective. Yes, the masses' lives in China are for the most part improving. But there are a lot of problems. There are millions upon millions of people who are not gaining the benefits that others are.

Out of Mao's Shadow shows through many examples that a large numher of China's problems are the results of poor governance from the CCP. The brutality shown in the book is shocking. I feel like I keep up with China news and politics, but I was stunned time and time again by what I read. The horrors that some government officials have inflicted upon their own people within the past decade are staggering.

One of the chapters that struck me most was the one about the SARS epidemic in 2003 and the subsequent cover-up. The charade that was put on in the face of a serious health crisis was awful. Pan documents the doctors and journalists who put their own reputation on the line to do the work that the government wouldn't: protect the Chinese people from a serious outbreak.

There is a passage I want to highlight from the SARS chapter on pages 202 and 203:
The day after the medical experts visited Heyuan, the local paper published the world's first story about SARS under a headline that read "Epidemic Is Only a Rumor." Officals later acknowledged that their primary concern was the provincial economy. The weeklong Spring Festival holiday was scheduled to begin on February 1, and local businesses were counting on people to spend money. "The most important vacation in the life of Chinese people, the Spring Festival, was coming. We didn't want to spoil everyone's happy time," Feng Shaomin, director of foreign affairs for the Guangdong health department, told my colleague John Pomfret. "You can imagine how people would have reacted if we had told them about the disease. They wouldn't eat out, nor would they go shopping or get together with family members and friends. If we had done it earlier, it would definitely have caused chaos."

But if party officials didn't want to tell the public about the disease before the Spring Festival, they were even less eager to do so after the holiday. On February 10, the Guangdong government announced that three hundred people had been diagnosed with "atypical pneumonia" and five patients had died, but officials assured the world the disease was under control. It was a lie, but all provincial newspapers were ordered to publish it. With the National People's Congress only weeks away, no one wanted to be blamed for spoiling the picture-perfect ceremonies installing Hu Jintao with headlines about a fast-spreading illness of unknown origin. Even after the congress, the cover-up continued. Now officials were worried about the impact on tourism during the next national holiday, the May Day vacation. It seemed like a bad joke: When the best time for the party to break bad news to the public? Never.
Last year, I wrote about the tendency for China's government to put off bad news for the sake of "saving face." Pan's passage here talks about this same phenomenon. I saw this tendency many times while I was in China. There are constant buildups to specific dates or events where the party wants everything to go right.

In recent months, I've seen arguments that the Chinese political model - authoritarian capitalism - is the wave of the future because of its speed and willingness to tackle problems. Many seem to think that democracy's slow pace is being eclipsed by China's lightning-quick autocratic government. Thomas Friedman is one of those who's argued such a premise. Here's a passage from an article he wrote last year:
Watching both the health care and climate/energy debates in Congress, it is hard not to draw the following conclusion: There is only one thing worse than one-party autocracy, and that is one-party democracy, which is what we have in America today.

One-party autocracy certainly has its drawbacks. But when it is led by a reasonably enlightened group of people, as China is today, it can also have great advantages. That one party can just impose the politically difficult but critically important policies needed to move a society forward in the 21st century. It is not an accident that China is committed to overtaking us in electric cars, solar power, energy efficiency, batteries, nuclear power and wind power. China’s leaders understand that in a world of exploding populations and rising emerging-market middle classes, demand for clean power and energy efficiency is going to soar. Beijing wants to make sure that it owns that industry and is ordering the policies to do that, including boosting gasoline prices, from the top down.

Our one-party democracy is worse.

Read On
The United States is an election year. Democrats are going to struggle to retain control in the House and Senate. There is a lot of politicking going on. There probably won't be any meaningful legislation put through in the coming months. America is certainly suffering from inaction in the face of potential catastrophic climate disasters. One could also say that we are not properly handling our economic/housing crises very effectually either.

And yes, China is doing a good job of developing its green industries. But to think that its "reasonably enlightened leaders" are immune to inaction for the sake of politics is just wrong. The leaders of China consistently ignore problems for the sake of saving face or not wanting to stir up trouble before a particular event or anniversary.

I can't fathom using the word "enlightened" to describe China's leadership after reading Out of Mao's Shadow as Friedman did. I've consistently written that China is a confusing place. I still stand by that. There is a lot of good going on in the country. But the bad that is occurring is impossible to ignore. It simply can't be explained away by a high GDP, lots of skyscrapers, or the millions who are getting rich.

I keep endorsing books here on my blog. I'm enjoying all of them. If you are to just pick up one though, I think this might be the one to read. You will now look at China the same after reading Out of Mao's Shadow.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

It All Began With the Netherlands

After the United States and China, the country I've spent the largest chunck of my life in is the Netherlands. When I was twenty years-old and in the first semester of my junior year at Saint Louis University, I spent four months studying abroad and living in Maastricht, the Netherlands.

Today was a very happy day for me. For those that have tuned out of the World Cup, the Netherlands had a gutsy, impassioned semifinal victory over Uruguay, 3 - 2.

The Netherlands has a very special place in my heart.

Maastricht, the town where I lived in while studying abroad, is a town of about 120,000 people on the southern tip of the Netherlands. It is just a short bike ride from the border of Belgium. Maastricht is one of the oldest cities in the Netherlands with a history that dates back to the Roman Empire. In more recent history, it is where the Maastricht Treaty was signed in 1992. The Maastricht Treaty is the agreement that, for better or worse, created the Euro as a currency.

Partly due to its long history, Maastricht is largely a resort tourist town these days. The architecture is ancient (one neat fact about my life is that I've lived in two cities that have city walls: Maastricht and Xi'an). Most of the narrow streets are made of cobblestone. It is the hilliest place in the Netherlands. The Maas River running through the middle provides outdoor activities as well as vibrant night time scenes. And there are more than 300 pubs and 25 coffee shops (the, uh, Dutch kind) in the small hamlet.

Maastricht is, in my mind, one of the most beautiful places on Earth. It is an absolutely mind-blowing place for a twenty year-old college kid from middle America to live for a few months.

As weird as it sounds, my time in Maastricht is the one of the main reasons why I ended up going to and living in China for so long. Before studying in the Netherlands, I'd never been very international-thinking at all. Maybe it's because I am from land-locked Kansas. Maybe it was my fear of foreign languages (I never did well in Spanish). I don't know. But up until that point in my life, I never had an inkling that I'd want to spend a significant part of my life outside of the United States. That all changed after spending time in another culture and "seeing the world."

Life in Maastricht was like nothing I'd ever experienced before. On top all the gushing things I've said about Maastricht itself as a city, the town is in a perfect base of operations for seeing the rest of Europe. In my cushy study abroad program, we had three day weekends EVERY WEEKEND. It was ridiculous. In the middle of the semester, we had a ten day vacation as well. During all of my time off, I was able to visit something like twenty countries including Italy, Germany, Spain, the Czech Republic, the Balkans, and many more. My eyes were opened to so many new things.

While in the Netherlands, one of my best friends, Mikey, talked about teaching English in Japan after graduating from college. The more time I spent abroad, the more the idea started to resonate with me. I'd heard my mom mention a couple years before that Asia really needed native English teachers from western countries to go abroad to teach. When I heard her say that, I'd never considered doing such a thing. I didn't understand how a person could live in such a foreign place without being able to speak the language (at the time, I also, foolishly, thought Asian languages were impossible to learn). Going around Europe and living in a country that spoke another tongue changed my attitudes towards going abroad to Asia after graduating from college.

A year after studying abroad in the Netherlands during my senior year of college, I applied to teach English in Japan through the JET Program. The program was surprisingly competitive to get into. I made the first round of cuts, went to an interview at the Japanese consulate in Chicago, and was then wait-listed to the program. It turned out that I never was called and never had the chance to go to Japan through JET (just think, you could be reading "Mark's Japan Blog").

After some scrambling and looking at places like Taiwan and Chile, I ended up going to Kansas City's sister-city in China, Xi'an to satiate my itch to get outside of the United States. The next three and a half years of my life after that were spent in the Middle Kingdom. And today, even in America, China dominates my life.

So, that's my personal story with the Netherlands and how it changed my life. Well, almost all of it.

Even before studying abroad, I was a huge Netherlands football fan. It was largely based on their bright orange jersey. In 1998, I even splurged and bought the authentic, expensive-as-all-hell Nike Netherlands jersey:

It wasn't all about the jersey though. In addition to the sweet threads, that '98 Dutch team was a blast to watch. I still remember Patrick Kluivert, Edgar Davids, Edwin van der Sar, and others. That team, which made the semifinals and lost to Brazil, was a great team to support.

Ever since the '94 World Cup in America, I've been addicted to the World Cup. I've stayed up late or woken up early many times to watch games. (This year I've been blessed with an incredibly cool manager at work who has kids who played soccer and have been allowed to have the games on while we work on a computer that nobody uses. I've literally seen just about every minute of every single game of this Cup in Africa. It's been bliss.) Every year, the Netherlands has been my number two team after America (except for 2002 when the Dutch didn't qualify).

In 2006 while watching the Cup backpacking in southwest China with my South African friend, Joseph, I was particularly struck by one player - Dirk Kuyt. His energy and hustle stood out to me. His appearance also stands out too; a tall bleach-blonde Dutchman sprinting around is hard to miss:

After that 2006 World Cup, I got into the English Premier League via my friends from England while living in China. I figured out after a while that Kuyt plays for Liverpool. After seeing him on Liverpool, I embraced Liverpool as my team in the English Premier League.

Kuyt is still my favorite footballer in the world. I've told many an Englishman and people abroad that my Dirk Kuyt is my favorite player and he's the reason why I like Liverpool. They usually laugh at me and say that he's goofy and unskilled. Well, he's playing awesome this World Cup and his team is playing in the final! So haters be damned!

Sunday is going to be a great day. I can't wait to watch the Netherlands win the World Cup. The team and this run means a lot to me. Not only has it reminded me of my great times in the Netherlands and made my proud of my Dutch "heritage," but the Dutch have put on a wonderful display of football for the world.