An end of the year report, and a thank you

An end of the year report, and a thank you
ZHENGZHOU, HENAN — We are about an hour from the start of 2018 here, and I’m taking a few minutes to recap the year before I get ready for the ball to drop (figuratively speaking). First of all, someone donated $30 in Bitcoin to the website today, anonymously as I have no idea who sent it. Whoever it is, many, many thanks! Here’s a quick recap of 2017, which has been one helluva year, for many reasons. In January and February, I spent a month touring Japan. Two weeks of that was spent with my son, and we had a ball! If I could afford it, I could spend a month just in Tokyo and never run out of things to do, see or eat! March through June were business as usual, teaching Business English students at Jishou University. It was year nine for me, and I fully intended to stay another year at least. But, reality beat that idea down. Unbeknownst to me and (apparently) my foreign affairs officers, Hunan province had lowered the maximum working age for foreign teachers from 64 to 60, meaning that I was unable to remain in Hunan as a teacher. Worse yet, as ...

Man from Hunan farming village gets doctorate, speaks at Harvard commencement

Man from Hunan farming village gets doctorate, speaks at Harvard commencement
JISHOU, HUNAN — A man from a small village near Changsha has become the first Chinese person to address a Harvard commencement ceremony. Hé Jiāng 何江 is the older son of a farming couple in Ningxiang county. Though the family barely had two coins to rub together, Hé did very well at school and his college entrance examination (gāokǎo 高考) scores gained him admission to the University of Science and Technology in Hefei, Anhui province. On May 26, he graduated with a doctorate in molecular and cellular biology from Harvard, and was selected to be the graduate school speaker at the graduation ceremony. In his speech (text in Chinese and English), Hé said he is concerned that modern medicine is unevenly distributed, so that poor people, like his own family and their neighbors, don’t have access to adequate care. He related a dramatic incident from his childhood, when his mother wrapped his hand in cloth soaked in liquor and set the cloth on fire after he was bit by a spider.    You see, the part of China I grew up in was a rural village, and at that time pre-industrial. When I was born, my village had no cars, ...

PLA dispatches local singing star Song Zuying 宋祖英 to Spratly Islands for show

PLA dispatches local singing star Song Zuying 宋祖英 to Spratly Islands for show
JISHOU, HUNAN — The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has sent local singing star Sòng Zǔyīng 宋祖英 to the disputed Spratly Islands to perform for military personnel stationed there, the BBC reports. Song, 49, is from Guzhang County, Hunan, about an hour’s drive from Jishou. Song belongs to the Miao minority group (also known as Hmong) and often performs wearing Miao clothing and silver bridal jewelry and headgear (see photo). China has been developing one of the Spratly Islands, which lie in the South China Sea near the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam. Jurisdiction of the islands has been a source of friction between China and its smaller neighbors, who are not very keen on China’s incursion into international waters so close to their shores. For its part, China claims its development of the islands, which includes an airstrip and a naval dock, is for civilian use only. Beijing claims a large swatch of the South China Sea belongs to China, basing that assertion on centuries-old documents. The UN, however, recognizes the nearby countries as having jurisdiction. Song is a non-combatant member of the PLA with the rank of rear admiral. She’s performed Chinese and Miao songs around the world, and sang ...

BBC photo-essay captures the changes in my area of China

BBC photo-essay captures the changes in my area of China
JISHOU, HUNAN — The BBC Magazine today has an excellent photo-essay describing how the urbanization of China has affected one family profoundly. Although the farming village in question is not in Hunan, it’s not very far from where I live, about 350 km as the crow flies. (See map, above. I’ve circled major cities and the Three Gorges Dam to help in reading this Bing.com map.) Much of what BBC reporter Carrie Gracie says has happened to the family of Xiao Zhang has happened to countless families all across China. I teach some of their children here at Jishou University, students who in many cases are the first in their village to attend university, whose grandparents are barely literate, and whose parents left the village to work in the big cities. To cope with the hundreds of millions of rural people flooding into the big cities to find work, China’s has undertaken huge modernization projects — wiping out entire rural villages and building small cities on top of them. From one perspective, it’s a terrible loss of an age-old way of life. The villagers really did not have much choice in the matter, as previous BBC reports detailed. But from ...

Heavy rains threaten homes, crops across Hunan

JISHOU, HUNAN — Fenghuang has been hit the hardest, maybe, but heavy rains are affecting all of Hunan. Xinhua reports more than 500 homes have been washed away by flood waters, and more than 1.15 million people are affected by flooding. Many rivers and Dongting Lake in northeast Hunan are at least 1 meter (3 feet) above flood stage. In Fenghuang, local officials shut off power at 8 this morning as a safety precaution and four hours earlier, public safety officers were moving people out of threatened areas. Close to 110,000 residents and tourists have been evacuated to higher ground, as water levels of the Tuo River have exceeded 1.5 meters (4.5 feet) over normal. The wooden Fengyu Bridge, which was built in 2008, has been washed away by the Tuo flood waters and the stone Hong Bridge has sustained heavy water damage. Both are popular tourist attractions. This page shows Fengyu Bridge in the process of being washed out, as well as other photos tweeted from Fenghuang today. Across Hunan, officials the rains have ruined close to 54,100 hectares of farmland and will result in economic losses of 940 million yuan ($150 million). We’re expecting at least two more ...

Dedication: man teaches solo in same rural Hunan school for 38 years

JISHOU, HUNAN — When he retires in four years, teacher Zeng Xiangwei 曾祥伟 will have spent 42 years as the only schoolteacher in rural Dao County, Yongzhou City, Hunan. He has also repaired and cleaned the school, tended the nearby rice fields, and fixed the village’s satellite TV installations. QQ News (Chinese) and Shanghaiist.com (English) have photo-features about teacher Zeng, who has to retire at age 60. He hopes the county can find a replacement who can teach the village kids English and computer skills. It will be a challenge to attract suitable candidates; the remote school is 35 km from the nearest county road. Most of the children are “left behind” kids, and members of the Yao minority group. Their parents have left the village to work as migrant workers in factories and big cities, so the kids depend on grandparents and other relatives — and Zeng — to care for them. He hopes the county can build a new school, with a library, computers and an Internet connection, so that the village kids have a brighter future.

Finally, a quiet, normal weekend in Hunan 1

Finally, a quiet, normal weekend in Hunan
JISHOU, HUNAN — It’s the weekend and I finally have time to blog. So here goes … October 1 is China’s National Holiday, rather like the Fourth of July. We got a week-long vacation, which I spent traveling to nearby places in Hunan. Officially, the National Holiday is only five days long, but universities typically move weekday classes to the following weekend to extend the holiday. The downside of this reshuffling is needing to teach for seven days straight after a seven-day holiday. That post-vacation marathon coincided with the beginning of classes for the freshmen, so I had 32 classes from the 8th until yesterday the 14th. Needless to say, I was a little drained by the time I finished teaching at noon yesterday. Next week, I’ll have a more manageable 22 classes in a week, a schedule I only need to keep until the new foreign teacher arrives in a few weeks. My only plan for the holiday was to visit a friend in Yueyang 岳阳, several hours away by bus or train, and just north of the provincial capital, Changsha 长沙. A couple of days before the holiday started, I dropped by another friend’s shop in Jishou to ...

Chinese authorities pull the plug on Hunan TV talent shows

JISHOU, HUNAN — One of the most popular TV shows on Hunan Satellite TV (HSTV) have been a succession of American Idol-style talent shows collectively called “Super Girl” and “Super Boy” competitions. But no longer: the national media regulatory agency has told HSTV to cease production of the shows, claiming the network exceeded the time limit imposed for such shows. “We received notification from the administration that we cannot make selective TV trials with mass involvement of individuals in the year 2012”, Li Hao, deputy editor-in-chief and spokesman of the channel, diplomatically told the China Daily. In other words, viewers can no longer call in and vote for their favorite performers. That might be too democratic. “Hunan Satellite Television will obey the State regulator’s decision and will not hold similar talent shows next year. Instead, the channel will air programs that promote moral ethics and public safety and provide practical information for housework,” Li said. In other words, we were told to produce the same old, mind-numbingly boring crap that China Central TV (CCTV) broadcasts already, in between patriotic movies about the Revolution and the Japanese Occupation. Hunan TV has a reputation in China of being more “edgy” and contemporary ...

My new perspective on bus plunge stories 2

LONGSHAN, HUNAN — No, I was not in a bus plunge accident, but I was in a bus, on a mountain road, in the rain last week. The experience was oddly enough one of the highlights of the last three weeks. A time-honored half-inch filler in many newspapers has traditionally been the proverbial “bus plunge” story, which goes something like, GENERICA, HOONOHSISTAN — Nearly 100 people died last week when their overloaded bus skidded off a snowy mountain road and into a ravine 100 feet below. Rescuers were unable to reach the scene until weather conditions improved yesterday. Despite the morbid subject matter, among newspaper people, bus plunge stories are somewhat of a running joke, since they are basically boilerplate copy. You just change the date, the number of casualties and the location and leave everything else basically the same. For years, I half wondered if the Associated Press was pulling our legs and just making these stories up. Some intern was sitting at a desk somewhere manufacturing half-inch bus plunge stories for release at random times. Of course, such accidents really do happen, and they’re no joke. All this was running through my mind as my bus ambled from ...

Students in (actually, not in) hot water 4

JISHOU, HUNAN — On Sunday we had a small student uprising, over hot water, or the lack of it. The student dorms here do not have water heaters providing hot water from the taps, so students usually use hot water pots or immersion heaters to get some hot water for drinking, washing, etc. Otherwise, they have to go downstairs to hot water dispensers outside the dorms, drop in some coins and fill their oversized Thermos jugs. Considering some dorms have eight floors, you can see why having an electric teapot might be desirable. Unfortunately, the wiring in some dorms is perhaps a little dodgy and at least 30 years old (I bet), so early Sunday morning there was an electrical fire in one of the women’s dorms. No big deal — no one was hurt and there was little damage — but the university responded with a typically quick bureaucratic response. Ban all electric heaters. No teapots. No immersion coils. No hotplates. Nada. This announcement came later that evening, and the students did not take to it kindly. In fact, they took to the campus, yelling, blowing whistles, banging metal lids together, around 11 pm, demanding the uni reverse its ...

A Chinese wedding celebration: getting there is half the fun 3

HUANGJIAKOU, HUBEI — Last weekend, I went on a trip with a friend to see her friend get married. Since I haven’t written anything lately about what I’ve been doing, now’s a good time to tell you what I’ve been up since classes ended July 3. Elektra (her English name) recently graduated from the Jishou Teachers College. Last summer, she worked in Guangzhou with a young man just three years older than she. He was getting married this month, and so invited Elektra to the wedding in Hubei. She knew I was planning on visiting Hubei this summer, and mentioned her trip there. I asked if I could go along. The couple was cool with the idea, so Elektra and I left last Thursday for Hubei. Quick geography lesson: Hubei 湖北 is the province immediately north of Hunan 湖南. They get their names from proximity to Dongting Lake 洞庭湖, near the city of Yueyang 岳阳. “Hu” 湖 means “lake. “Bei” 北 is “north,” and “nan” 南 is “south.” Jishou is in the western part of Hunan, but we were going to the eastern part of Hubei, near Wuhan, the provincial capital. In China, as in Wyoming, where I used to ...

New friends, spectacular scenery and delicious food = great holiday 1

ZHANGJIAJIE, HUNAN — If there is one tie that can bind Chinese and Americans together, it’s our innate friendliness, although I think the Chinese might even outdo us Americans sometimes. This weekend was the May Day holiday, which I and a friend spent in Zhangjiajie at the home of our mutual friend. The three of us had a good time touring some beautiful country, but the scenery was not the only thing impressive about the trip. It was the people we met. Weeks ago, Nora had invited Ailsa and me to spent the weekend at Nora’s home. With no classes on Friday, we decided to leave campus on the 9 pm train on Thursday. The train was predictably crowded with northbound holiday travelers, and we had no seats. [The Chinese rail system will sell you tickets even after all seats have been booked. China Railways figures you’ll either make do standing or whangle a way to sit down.] We walked toward the rear of the train until we could go no further. There were no seats, but by chance we ended up next to a group traveling together to Zhengzhou. They were feeling pretty mellow after downing some baijiu (aka ...
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