Wednesday, December 29, 2010

A Nation of Wusses

The pace in which structures get built in China is staggering. Xi'an markedly changed in the three and a half years I lived there. I would often leave the city for a few days, come back, and be amazed to see a new building erected or road paved in the time I was gone.

This following viral video (h/t @elliotng) really captures what I'm talking about. The video is of a hotel in Changsha, the provincial capital of Hunan Province, being built in two days (literally):

This is an eye-opening video. It fits in nicely with a popular meme in the US right now: that the US is a "nation of wusses" and that China is "kicking our butts."

Last night, I hung out with Qian, my brother, and my roommate from college at our apartment. We watched the Sunday night NFL game of the week on a Tuesday night. The game in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania between the Eagles and Vikings had been pushed from Sunday night to Tuesday night because of snow.

Pennsylvania's governor, Ed Rendell, had a lot to say about the NFL delaying a football game because of bad weather:
"My biggest beef is that this is part of what's happened in this country," Rendell said in an interview on 97.5 radio in Philly. "I think we've become wussies. ... We've become a nation of wusses. The Chinese are kicking our butt in everything. If this was in China do you think the Chinese would have called off the game? People would have been marching down to the stadium, they would have walked and they would have been doing calculus on the way down."
This is a rather bombastic statement from Rendell. My old roommate from college, who lives in DC, commented that Rendell is notorious in political circles for bloviating and loves to hear the sound of his own voice.

I don't think Rendell's words are all that accurate.

Chinese people often get very worked up about weather. From my experiences of living in the middle of the US and the middle of China, Americans are not wusses when it comes to weather and braving the elements. While I get what Rendell was going for, he's off base.

First, domestic sports leagues are just not that popular and don't hold the same value in Chinese society as they do in the US. There is no comparison in China for something like an NFL night game in Philadelphia. And second, Chinese people would not pay boat loads of money to voluntarily sit in mind-numbingly hostile conditions to watch sports. I don't see any city in China packing 60,000+ people into a stadium to watch a sporting event in a blizzard.

All that said, the rapid development in China and the US' economic sluggishness scares a lot of Americans. The video above is a beautiful portrait of what the US is envious of China for. We pride ourselves on being hardworking and industrious. Seeing a different country beat us at our own game (and Communist China of all places) stirs up great emotion. I sense nostalgia for the way things were in the US post-WWII both in the media and in daily interaction with family and friends. I think Rendell is grasping for those "good old days" when the US was the economic engine of the world in his comments from the other day.

Things have changed. I don't see those heady industrialist days ever coming back to the US. That's a difficult pill for many Americans to swallow. But even if those days are gone forever, I don't think the US is done for as a country or an economic powerhouse. Although frustratingly sluggish, the US economy continues to churn. We went close to the brink, but did not collapse. We, as a nation, need to adjust our priorities, expectations, and, most importantly, education system. Wusses we are not, though.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Merry Christmas

The Christmas season is upon us. Qian, my parents and brother, and I saw a performance of "The Christmas Carol" at the Kansas City Repertory Theater last night. I have quite a Christmas buzz going on after seeing that. This is a truly special time of year.

My brother is back in town (and the US) for the first time in a year and a half. It's been great seeing him. I have several family events in the next few days. In addition to the more Christmas-y stuff, I'm going to Arrowhead Stadium on Sunday to cheer on the division leading Kansas City Chiefs vs. the Tennessee Titans.

I want to thank the readers who continue to frequent this blog. I'm going to try to keep it going even though I'm no longer in China. I'm still having a fun time and hope to continue blogging indefinitely.

This picture below - from our trip in July to Chicago - is what we would send if Qian and I were ones to send out Christmas cards:

Photo edited out

Merry Christmas to all.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Ant Tribes

It is a terrible time to be a fresh college graduate looking for a job. Even in China.

I'm going to highlight three pieces in the western media on "ant tribes" (蚁族), the term referring to the millions of college-educated young Chinese people looking for work, that I've seen in recent days.

First, an article from The New York Times:

Photo from Newsweek (see below)

BEIJING — Liu Yang, a coal miner’s daughter, arrived in the capital this past summer with a freshly printed diploma from Datong University, $140 in her wallet and an air of invincibility.

Her first taste of reality came later the same day, as she lugged her bags through a ramshackle neighborhood, not far from the Olympic Village, where tens of thousands of other young strivers cram four to a room.

Unable to find a bed and unimpressed by the rabbit warren of slapdash buildings, Ms. Liu scowled as the smell of trash wafted up around her. “Beijing isn’t like this in the movies,” she said.

Often the first from their families to finish even high school, ambitious graduates like Ms. Liu are part of an unprecedented wave of young people all around China who were supposed to move the country’s labor-dependent economy toward a white-collar future. In 1998, when Jiang Zemin, then the president, announced plans to bolster higher education, Chinese universities and colleges produced 830,000 graduates a year. Last May, that number was more than six million and rising.

It is a remarkable achievement, yet for a government fixated on stability such figures are also a cause for concern. The economy, despite its robust growth, does not generate enough good professional jobs to absorb the influx of highly educated young adults. And many of them bear the inflated expectations of their parents, who emptied their bank accounts to buy them the good life that a higher education is presumed to guarantee.

“College essentially provided them with nothing,” said Zhang Ming, a political scientist and vocal critic of China’s education system. “For many young graduates, it’s all about survival. If there was ever an economic crisis, they could be a source of instability."

Read the Entire Article
Here is a short video from the author of the article:

Several of my Chinese friends and colleagues from Xi'an had jobs similar to the ones described in this piece. Salaries of around 1,500RMB (or about $220) a month or less. Shared living quarters in "city villages" (城中村), cramped and inexpensive areas of cities with very low-rent units. Few prospects for upward mobility.

The job situation for college educated youths in China are, in many ways, just as bad as they are for young people in the US.

I'm pretty sure most Americans attribute employment problems to the sluggish US economy. But China's "ant tribes" suggest that the problem is not only because of slow growth. Even booming countries have this problem for young people right now.

This afternoon after work (I'm so thankful to not be part of the US' "ant tribe" right now), I heard a story on NPR about life inside of Foxconn's factory in Shenzhen:
Foxconn, the Taiwanese company that manufactures iPhones and iPads, was in the news this year as more than a dozen factory workers leaped to their deaths. NPR's Melissa Block talks with Bloomberg Businessweek reporter Frederik Balfour, who spent time at the Foxconn plant in Shenzhen, China, about what the company's response has been, and how effective it's been.
You can download the audio of this story here.

The story of suicides at Foxconn's factory in Shenzhen from earlier this year were a symbol of a larger problem in Chinese society. Young people living far away from their families, insanely long hours, and a low tolerance for mistakes are among the many pressures involved with factory life in China. It goes without saying, but the lives of those on the ground floor of the Chinese "economic miracle" are arduous in a way that is impossible for many western people to imagine.

And lastly, Newsweek has a photo gallery of ant tribes in Beijing. The photo above on the New York Times story is from this collection. The photos below are too. All of them are really well done:

It's not easy being a young person looking for work anywhere in the world right now. Expectations across the globe are as high as they've ever been. Young Chinese people want a piece of big city life and the riches millions are beginning to reap. They have an opportunity that their parents did not have. Unfortunately, it seems that higher education, the path most often prescribed to "get ahead," is not a guarantee of financial success, though.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

The Good Women of China

Leslie T. Chang writes about the lives of the young women working in factories in her book, Factory Girls. I thought some of the most interesting parts of that book were when Chang spoke with the host of a radio show in Dongguan that the young factory girls called into with their problems. It's not hard to imagine the issues women from farms in interior provinces have once they enter factory life in a coastal megalopolitan Chinese city.

When looking for more books to read on China recently on, I saw a book written by a radio host of a women's talk show from Nanjing - The Good Women of China: Hidden Voices by Xin Ran. Seeing how much I took from Chang's interviews with the host in her book, I gave Xin's book a chance.

Xin Ran was the host of the first call in radio show for women in China with her program in the early 1990s. She was wildly popular. Women from all over China, not just Nanjing and the surrounding Jiangsu Province, were drawn to her. Women of all ages and from all walks of life poured their hearts out to Xin both on her radio program and through mail.

Xin paints several vignettes in her book: a liberalized university student speaking openly of sexual promiscuity, a beggar, a lesbian, women who survived the Tangshan earthquake in 1976 (when their children didn't), women living in caves in a primitive village in northern Shaanxi Province, and women whose lives were shattered by the cultural revolution.

The women Xin described in The Good Women of China show a comprehensive picture of what it means to be a Chinese woman in contemporary society. They also portray the painful history Chinese women have endured for centuries.

There is one particular passage that I think shows the oppressive history Chinese women have gone through in particularly stark terms. This paragraph is from a discussion with a women who was able to get an education in the 1940s, a time when most women did not have such an opportunity on page 114:

These "Three Submissions and Four Virtues" that Chinese women were to live by show a lot about the value placed on women in traditional China. Although the "Three Submissions and Four Virtues" are not pertinent to life in China today, women in Chinese society still face uniquely difficult challenges.

Both Chinese people and foreigners have told me more than a couple times something along these lines:
"Mao and the communists weren't all bad. They changed China's backwards attitude towards women and made women equal to men. Women don't have their feet bound any more, after all."
I've always found that argument spurious. After reading Xin's book, I now find such arguments completely disingenuous off-base.

The second half of Xin's book highlights women and stories from the cultural revolution. I wasn't expecting Mao's cultural revolution to be a major part of the book since it was written in the 1990s. But it makes sense; there is no way that women in the 90s, or even now, could have broken free from everything Mao inflicted upon his own people decades ago. And seeing how taboo trying to reconcile or discuss that era is, there still has to be a lot of emotion teeming beneath the surface.

From pages 202 and 203:

Women in China have the highest suicide rate in the world. Baby boys are valued much more than baby girls; there are 126 boys for every 100 girls aged one to four in rural areas. Despite the great steps China is making and has made in recent decades, there are still deep scars both from contemporary and more ancient Chinese history. Xin Ran's book gives the reader a deeper understanding of the struggle Chinese women face.