The China Chronicles, chapter 6 (2013)

–Back to Chapter 5

Happy New Year!
Dec. 31, 2012

JISHOU, HUNAN — It’s 2013. Have a good one, y’all.

Beware of floor
Jan. 4, 2013

Just a dusting of snow

Just a dusting of snow

JISHOU, HUNAN — Last night’s snowfall jogged my memory to blog about one of the most treacherous aspects of living in China — the floors and sidewalks.

What jogged my memory was slipping on the way to class. Boom! Down on one knee and one hand. (I’m OK, nothing injured but my pride.)

For purely aesthetic reasons, I suppose, in many places around Hunan — and probably elsewhere in China — the preferred flooring material is mirror-glazed ceramic tiles. Most of the buildings, including my flat, are floored with 2-foot-square tan tiles. The plaza around the main classroom building (where I wiped out this morning) is paved with hexagonal pavers bracketed by what appears to be marble rectangles. These are also as smooth as glass.

Now, tile floors are eminently practical, being durable and easy to clean. And shiny ceramic pavers surrounding impressive buildings are also pleasing to the eye. But, they are not the safest choice for wet or icy days.

I learned this early on during my first year, after I skated part way to class several times inside our building on the wet floor tiles. (Corridors in many classroom buildings here are open to the outside.) I had to switch to a different kind of shoe out of self-protection. Once prepared, I put the slippery floors out of mind.

Today’s tumble, however, reminded me that I had intended, once long ago, to blog about Chinese floors. (Such a mundane topic, I know.)

We had about 1 cm of snow overnight. Looking out my window (the view above left) I could tell it was slushy on the drive, so I put on my new hiking boots. As long as I stayed on rough concrete, I was A-OK. As I neared my classroom building, I watched as a woman was gingerly walking across the glazed pavers toward her tai chi class. Nothing registered in my still sleepy brain. I chose a path that as yet had no footprints toward my destination. The lack of footprints should have been yet another clue. But no. My left foot mounted the curb, came down on the hexagonal tiles, my right foot followed, and … down I went.

Duh. The floor is slippery, fool! Waffle stompers are not helpful on hard, icy surfaces.

Incidentally, for you travelers, most hotels in China are floored with mirror-glazed ceramic tile, especially in the bathrooms. The slippers they provide are NOT slip-proof. Take my word on this, as I have skated across bathroom floors, too. When the signage warns of slippery floors, believe it!

Sidewalks here are often covered with square tiles, usually white, with a row of textured yellow tiles to help the blind navigate. While not mirror glazed, these can also be slippery when wet.

So, welcome to China, but please watch your step!

Great Firewall of China getting smarter
Jan. 8, 2013

JISHOU, HUNAN — A few days ago, I was Skyping with my friend in Ukraine. Today, my neighbors told me Skype was down, and sure enough, when I tried it, Skype couldn’t connect.

Since the Internet isn’t reporting a worldwide Skype outage, it appears China’s net nannies are blocking Skype now. Why? Because they can.

Skype joins the ranks of Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, The New York Times and Bloomberg.com, among others. Some are blocked because of political reasons — The Times and Bloomberg have reported on the vast wealth of China’s new leaders, and YouTube is full of pro-Tibet and Falun Gong videos. Others are blocked to benefit their homegrown competitors — Facebook and Twitter could compete with China’s QQ and Sina Weibo.

China offers its own “flavor” of Skype, which is jimmied to allow China’s Internet watchdogs to spy on your conversations. My copy of Skype comes from the USA, so maybe the watchdogs are only blocking that flavor. I’ll be damned if I download the Chinese version, though.

China’s net nannies are getting smarter, as Philip Shishkin reports at i-policy.com.

My VPN provider, a major player in the market, explained in an e-mail that the disruption was due to a recent update of the Great Firewall, referred to as the GFW, which “now has the ability to learn, discover and block VPN protocols automatically.”

The next day, the Global Times, a Chinese newspaper, ran an article headlined, “Foreign-run VPNs illegal in China: govt.” In it, the man known as the founding father of the Great Firewall was quoted as saying that foreign VPN providers needed to register with the government. “I haven’t heard that any foreign companies have registered,” Fang Binxing, who is now president of Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications, told the newspaper.

When Fang gave a public lecture in 2011, a student threw a shoe and hit him. There is now a game called Angry Shoes, and the target is Fang’s head. Yeah, netizens here don’t like him very much.

VPNs are a way to “climb the Firewall,” as the local expression goes. China is supposedly requiring VPN providers to register with the government, like that’s going to happen. I haven’t used a paid VPN, but instead use a small program, Ultrasurf, that basically does the same thing. The developers release a new version every so often, and it usually works. Today, it was painfully slow opening up Facebook and Twitter, but there was no Skype joy at all.

Meanwhile, I am nearly done reading my pile of 180 final exams, and am looking forward to a nice long vacation in warmer climes in Guangdong. So, I may be missing from Facebook for a while. Please understand it ain’t my fault.

Happy Blog Anniversary!
Jan. 17, 2013

JISHOU, HUNAN –Seven years! Can you believe it? I’m not sure I do, considering how quickly those years went.

Seven years ago, I was a high school physics teacher with the lofty goal of combatting scientific ignorance and the less lofty goal of giving vent to my opinions. Now I also blog about my life in China, including teaching English as a Foreign Language and traveling around the Middle Kingdom, music, movies and anything else that pops into my head.

In other words, it’s a smörgåsbord of topics. (And boy, I could really go for some smoked salmon right about now.)

My WordPress dashboard reports I have made 931 posts, which have received 1,506 comments, in those seven years. That works out to roughly 11 posts and 18 comments a month — not exactly a super-busy blog, but good considering how busy I am sometimes. Some bloggers manage at least one post a day. Clearly, they are either more dedicated or less discriminating about sharing their thoughts than I am. Or maybe they re-post a lot.

WordPress continues to be my favorite application for this sort of thing. Thanks to it and my webhosts at PEHosting.com, I’ve had very little downtime, for a very modest outlay of cash. And WordPress plugins enable me to link my site to Facebook and Twitter, which otherwise are very inconvenient to access here in China.

Although it doesn’t directly connect to my blog, RebelMouse.com puts all those feeds to Facebook and Twitter in one place, effectively creating a visually appealing table of contents for this site.

So, aside from all this self-congratulation, what else is happening here? Since last Friday, I’ve been absolutely free of all teaching responsibilities. I was planning to travel as soon as I turned in my grades, but found that at that moment, I didn’t really want to go anywhere. So, it’s been a staycation since Friday. I’ve been catching up on my reading list, watching NCIS on iTunes from season 1, cooking, cleaning, hanging out with friends, pulling together my notes from my Western Culture classes*, and planning the rest of my vacation.

As you read this, I am on my way to Guangzhou, where I’ll spend a couple of days before continuing on to Jiangmen for a two-week teaching gig. It’s the same English program as last winter: low stress and good pay. It finishes just before the Chinese New Year Feb. 9-10. I haven’t yet figured out what I’m going to do then. Travel during the Chinese New Year is dicey, so I probably won’t go very far. We’ll see what happens.

Classes resume Feb. 25. So, I will still have almost two weeks free after the New Year, and money, too! Who knows what mischief I could get into? Maybe some of it will be bloggable.

———-
* I’m pulling together these notes with the idea of turning them into an e-book. That’s enough to keep me busy for weeks right there!

Photos: Why I don’t work in Beijing
Jan. 16, 2013

JISHOU, HUNAN — Air is supposed to be transparent, you know. Check this photo published at shangaiist.com today.

smog in Beijing

Smog in Beijing has reached record levels, “breaking” the US Embassy pollution-ometer.

A recent air quality report lists the 10 cities in the world with the highest air pollution levels; seven are in China.

While China has only 85 cars per capita, compared to 810 cars in the USA (wikipedia reference), most of those cars are clustered in China’s megacities like Beijing and Shanghai. Exacerbating the problem is the lack of pollution controls on Chinese cars and trucks, and comparably lax controls on industrial emissions.

The US Embassy in Beijing posts air quality reports on its website and tweets them, much to the consternation of the city and national governments, which deny pollution is that bad (visual evidence notwithstanding). The embassy’s “pollution-ometer” reading tops out at 500, but one day recently the level was 755!

As I wrote this, the air pollution index (API) in Beijing was 277, which EPA guidelines say is “very unhealthy.”

Now, I could be making two to three times the money I make now by moving to one of the big cities. After taking a look at these photos and reports, I think I’ll stay where I am for now.

Protesters in Guangzhou demand greater freedom of press in China
Jan. 18, 2013

JISHOU, HUNAN — Government censorship of the Guangzhou newspaper Southern Weekend prompted a walk-out and public protest by the newspaper’s staff, a rare event in China. Even more remarkable: the police didn’t shut it down.

Two journalists from The Economist’s China desk explain what’s going on in Guangzhou, and talk about civil rights matters in China. (The video will play automatically once you open the complete post. My efforts to stop autoplay failed.)


Greetings from sunny Jiangmen, Guangdong!
Feb. 1, 2013

JIANGMEN, GUANGDONG — I have finished seven days of teaching English to four groups of 8- to 11-year-olds here at WuYi University (五邑大学) — a real busman’s holiday. We visiting teachers now have two days off and then finish up with three more days of teaching.

I did the same gig last year, and by chance or by plan, have to teach the same units as last year. So, the task is not terribly onerous. In fact, it’s fun. These kids are more responsive than my university students in some ways.

Last year, the weather played tricks with me. I expected warm weather, but it was cool enough for me to run out and buy a wool coat. This year, it’s nice and warm and I had to buy a couple of warm weather shirts. It was nearly 80℉ today. (I know this will not cheer those you dealing with snow, sleet and/or tornadoes in the States. Sorry ’bout that.)

My regular university duties finished up Jan. 10. My initial plan was to set out on traveling right away, but I arose on Jan. 11 with an urge only for a staycation. So, I hung around Jishou for a week and set out the next weekend. Stayed one night in Changsha, meeting with a Chinese friend who has just moved to Canada, then took the high speed rail to Guangzhou. There I stayed at a friend’s house for a couple of nights, and came to Jiangmen on the 23rd. My Aussie friends were already here by then. They’ve done this gig now for several years and know Jiangmen almost as well as Brisbane.

Spring Festival begins in a week. After these classes end, three of us will head to Yangshuo 阳朔 in Guangxi province. I’ve been there before, but for too short a time to appreciate it. Should be interesting this time of year, and still warmer than Hunan. Details as they arrive.

Happy Year of the Snake!
Feb. 10, 2013

YANGSHUO, GUANGXI — This year I am spending the holiday in this picturesque town nestled in the karst ranges of Guangxi province. It’s my second visit and less rushed than the first.

My companions on this visit are two Australians from the Sunshine Coast, Judy and Susan. We were all teaching in Jiangmen until last Thursday. This is Susan’s ninth visit to Yangshuo 阳朔, so she’s our tour guide.

While not as toasty warm as Jiangmen, Yangshuo is still warmer than Jishou, which was getting sleet and snow a few days ago.

We’re staying in a small hotel near the bus station called Fawlty Towers, run by a Chinese family whose members include Basil and Manuel. (Google “Fawlty Towers” if you don’t get the allusions.) It’s snug and has free WiFi.

To get here, we took a sleeper bus from Jiangmen. These coaches fit about 30 passengers in reasonably comfortable berths for long journeys. Ours took about 10 hours overnight. We arrived around 6 am not completely rested but not brain dead either.

It being the Spring Festival, Yangshuo is much quieter than when I came last spring with a class trip. Many shops are closed and only a few eateries are open. That will change in a couple of days, once people have done their obligatory visits to relatives and friends. Hotel prices will also drop — thankfully. This room is costing $30 a night, twice the normal rate, but I can’t complain too much either way.

Yesterday we took a walk into the countryside. It’s a rare moment to be in China and be practically alone. We ran into a few local people carrying groceries home and a few foreigners — two young French couples and a pair of Aussie retirees — but pretty much we could enjoy the peace and quiet to ourselves. There were acres of orange and tangerine trees and a lot of new construction — probably vacation homes or hotels. How long that little stretch of road remains quietly bucolic remains to be seen.

Susan and Judy plan to stay here till the 17th, while I may travel onward to another place once I weigh costs. Possible destinations are Beihai on the southern coast and Hanoi, Vietnam, which is not far from here. I have until the 22nd, so I have time to travel still. I’d rather not waste it.

Not Hanoi, not Beihai, but Nikkor!
Feb. 19, 2013

These are the mountains on the Li River that are pictured on the back of the 20-yuan bill.

These are the mountains on the Li River that are pictured on the back of the 20-yuan bill.


YANGSHUO, GUANGXI — Well, in the end, I traded all intentions of traveling onward for a good deal on a used camera lens. In retrospect, I made the right decision.

At the end of my last post, I mentioned the possibility of going either to Hanoi or the oceanside city of Beihai, Guangxi, by bus. Some of those options weren’t as available as I had thought.

It is in fact possible to book transport from Yangshuo to Hanoi via Guilin and Nanning for about 550 RMB (about $88). The folks at Trippers Carpe Diem, located in ShiBanQiao Village outside Yangshuo, can make the arrangements, as well as arrange for a tourist visa into Vietnam. The only problem was the Vietnamese consulate in Nanning was closed for the Lunar New Year until the 17th, making a roundtrip to Hanoi by the 22nd a little dicey. So, that junket will need to wait till next time.

(This arrangement, by the way, only gets you to Hanoi. Hotels and meals are up to you once there.)

The other choice was Beihai, which offered warm and sunny weather. Hotel rates would drop after the 17th — the end of Spring Festival — making that jaunt fairly affordable, at least for a few days. But my accidental discovery of a really good Nikkor lens in an “antique” shop more or less killed that plan.

It was one of those decisions that had no really bad consequences. I wanted to go to Beihai mostly to be warm and see the ocean again. It was not a siren calling out to me. Likewise, I had a perfectly functional 18-50 mm kit lens with my Nikon D60, which I supplemented last summer with a 70-300 mm Tamron VR lens. The used lens in question is a Nikkor 24-85 mm, which could provide more flexibility than the 18-50 mm one. The shopkeeper let me shoot a few frames with the lens, and it seemed to perform flawlessly. It was on consignment, and the asking price was 1,000 RMB, or about half the lens’ original retail price.

(It was mounted on Nikon D200 body, which looked like it had been knocked around a bit. It had no battery or memory card, and the shopkeeper told me basically to forget it. Good advice.)

So, the choice was buy the lens or go to Beihai. I decided to sleep on it, since there was little chance this find would be gone anytime soon. Of course, if I had not also bought a new cellphone about two weeks earlier, I could have done both the lens and the trip, but that’s life.

In the end, the lens won the battle, and it was a good purchase, so I have no buyer’s remorse. Beihai can wait.

So, I settled on returning to Jishou at the end of Spring Festival. My last week of vacation would be very low cost (stay at home mostly) and I could try to assimilate the many things I did while I was away. Here’s a very brief rundown, so you won’t get too bored with details.

In Guangzhou: dinner with two of my former students, now working in foreign trade, and two nights with a friend who teaches high school English there. He and I also visited the old foreign concession of Guangzhou, which Westerners called Canton then, and we had dim sum with his family.

In Jiangmen: reacquainted myself with my Chinese and foreign friends there, made a new one (Dave, from Australia), taught four classes of lively and intelligent 8-11 year olds for ten days, ate a lot of good food, and visited an orphanage (about which I cannot say very much, as it seems our visit was rather “unofficial.”) I took a lot of photos there, which sadly I probably cannot share publicly, for reasons I will try to explain later.

In Zhongshan (about 45 minutes from Jiangmen): visited the childhood residence of Dr. Sun Yat-sen, the father of the first Chinese republic, and the memorial hall dedicated to his life and achievements. I learned a lot about him, as the museum thoughtfully has English translations everywhere. This courtesy is not very common in Chinese museums, I have found.

In Yangshuo: ate a lot of good food, walked around a lot, met up with six somewhat drunken Westerners (and one Malaysian) from Shanghai on holiday, met the English and German proprietors of a block of hotels and eateries, walked to the aforementioned ShiBanQiao Village — twice!, took a boat cruise upriver toward Yangdi Village, made a new friend on the boat, spent a very pleasant afternoon with this new friend two days later, visited an ancient village nearly that was destroyed during the Japanese occupation, and just generally enjoyed myself. (Also, I spent just about all of my Jiangmen teaching pay, but that was part of the plan.)

For my trip back, I had discovered there was an express bus from Guilin to Changsha — just six hours. For some odd reason, the coach was a sleeper, very strange for a short, daytime trip, but at least it made sleeping easier. I stayed a night in Changsha and had dinner with friends there, did some shopping the next day, and took the bus home to Jishou on Sunday. (Where it appears we will have sleet over the next couple of days. Now I miss Beihai very much!)

Panorama of Guangxi countryside
Feb. 20, 2013

Panorama of Guangxi countryside

Panorama of Guangxi countryside

YANGSHUO, GUANGXI — Though the weather was not so wonderful, I hope you can get a sense of how beautiful this scenery is here. Click on the image to embiggen it.

Just before I came to Yangshuo, I bought a new Android cellphone, a Chinese brand called XiaoMi. It comes with an 8MP camera (front and back) and this panoramic feature built-in. All for $225.

Lion dance
Feb. 20, 2013

This is only one of the lion dances I saw while in Yangshuo this Spring Festival. Taken with my cellphone on Feb. 10 and stabilized by YouTube’s magic elves today.

Orphans in China
Feb. 22, 2013

This girl lives in an orphanage I visited on holiday.

This girl lives in an orphanage I visited on holiday.

JISHOU, HUNAN — One of my activities while on holiday was to visit an orphanage, but I can’t really say where it was. It seems our visit was somewhat under the official radar, so we were asked to keep it somewhat hush-hush.

In the short time since the visit, I’ve learned that orphan care in China is a touchy subject, rife with a lot of misinformation, alleged corruption and baby-trafficking, and accusations of maltreatment of children under state or private care. There was a big scandal in 2005 involving several orphanages in Hunan, Hubei and Guangdong, among other places, which were adopting out children who were not really orphans in order to collect international adoption fees.

That said, the 30 or so children we met (and whom I photographed with permission) were all well-fed, well-clothed and obviously well-cared for. There were teenaged girls, like the one pictured at right, with no discernible medical conditions, boys of various ages with developmental issues, and toddlers, some with Down’s syndrome and others seemingly normal.

We brought art materials for them draw animals, and everyone, from toddler to a girl maybe 15 years old, joined in the activity. My friends tried to teach them an English song, and showed them photos of exotic animals. Meanwhile, I took lots of photos that sadly may never see the light of day.

My subject here would not smile for the camera, though I did catch her smiling later on. Covering half her face with her picture allows me to print the photo without blurring her features, but as a precaution I removed the background in case sharp eyes can identify the location. [I found her in a 2011 Chinese newspaper story about the same facility, by the way. That photog also caught her smiling and having fun, so maybe she’s just camera-shy.]

By all accounts, her facility is a showcase children’s welfare institution (CWI). It was built only a few years ago and could house hundreds of kids comfortably. We saw only a small subset of those residents — some of whom I saw in Chinese news articles, like my girl above — and we were not given a tour of the site.

Yong Fu (center) lives in the Xiangxi Welfare Home in Jishou

Yong Fu (center) lives in the Xiangxi Welfare Home in Jishou

I’ve also visited the CWI in Jishou, and had my photograph taken with the kids there, so I can print that news without qualms. Though the Jishou facility is quite small, with maybe 50 kids altogether, it’s also clean and well-managed. Xiao Fu, my little friend there (though she’s almost 16 and not so little anymore), is happy and well-cared for. She has cerebral palsy and is mostly confined to a wheelchair, but has the spirit, optimism and friendliness that can bring tears to your eyes were you to meet her.

Orphan care in China has generally had a bad press in the past, and deservedly so. With the onset of the one-child policy in 1979, there were reports of infanticide and abandonment of extra children, especially girls, in order to avoid the stiff legal penalties for having more than one child.

In the late 1990s, there were reports of “dying rooms” in several Chinese orphanages, where abandoned infants were left to languish, unfed and uncared for, until they died. International exposure of these horrible conditions prompted reforms of the child welfare system, and the “dying rooms” are apparently only a sad memory.

Then in 2005, there was a big scandal involving several southern China orphanages, who were giving up children for international adoption who were in fact not orphans at all. The roots of this scandal were two-fold: demographic and economic.

While there is still a bias toward having boys, there is no longer a great social stigma against having only daughters. Meanwhile, the standard of living for most Chinese has risen. So, the supply of healthy infants — boy or girl — being given up for adoption has gradually declined. Children in Chinese orphanages now are generally special needs kids. My own anecdotal evidence bears this out.

In fact, I can say confidently that the rumors of families abandoning daughters or giving them up for adoption are just that, rumors. It may have happened in the past, but rarely now.

In 2005 (and perhaps even now), foreigners who wished to adopt Chinese kids typically had to “donate” to the orphanage $2,000 to $3,000. In Chinese money, that is a princely sum. Multiplying it by the number of kids available to be adopted out could really help a CWI’s bottom line.

The Duan family, who were tried and convicted of baby trafficking in the 2005 scandal, created a pipeline for orphanages wanting babies for international adoption. They would visit poor families, offering money for infants and young children for the kids to be relinquished into their care; then they would sell the children to participating orphanages at a profit.

Many of these adopted kids had parents and families who were taking care of them. Investigations showed that the orphanages fabricated records to indicate the children were orphaned or abandoned and had no immediate fmailies to care for them.

The 2005 scandal prompted another set of reforms, but it remains to be seen how strictly the new guidelines are being followed. I have read reports that “relinquishment” is still a problem, whereby a poor couple relinquishes care of a child to an orphanage, or agrees to have the child educated in the orphanage, only to find later that the child was adopted out without their permission or knowledge.

I’m relaying this history to put my visits in some context, as I am far from an expert in such matters. It’s a complex subject, which can easily pull at one’s emotions. When I saw these kids, I wanted to know what their life stories were. How did they end up in the CWI? Are they happy? Has anyone ever wanted to adopt them? What will happen to them when they “age out” and enter society? Will anyone be there to help them out?

—————-
I read several articles for background before writing this post. If you want more information, here are the links.

New York Times article from 2011 about adopting families still wrestling with issues involving non-orphaned adoptees.

Article in the China Hush website about adoptees finding their birth parents in China.

A detailed academic anaylsis of the 2005 Hunan baby trafficking scandal (PDF format).

NPR Marketplace report on the 2005 scandal, including interviews with the Duan family.

Research-China.org This is the blog of an agency helping adoptees and adopting families find the birth families of adopted Chinese children. Several blogs focus on the checkered history of China’s adoption policies.

This last source highlighted the activities of a Canadian, Jim Garrow, who has written a book, Pink Pagodas, relating his self-described success in getting tens of thousands of Chinese girls adopted internationally. Garrow, however, seems somewhat flaky, given these two accounts at a Canadian news site and the Daily Kos. Amazon has his book ($8 for the Kindle version, which is way overpriced, IMO). Judging from Research-China’s critique of it, Garrow has a vivid imagination, and I’d rather spend my $8 elsewhere.

Another panorama of Jishou University
Feb. 25, 2013

Another panoramic view of Jishou University, this time looking east. Click to embiggen.

Another panoramic view of Jishou University, this time looking east. Click to embiggen.

JISHOU, HUNAN — This is not the same panorama I posted earlier, but maybe it’s more clear. I found it on the Jishou government website, dated December 2011. It’s new enough to show the new dorm just below my apartment building.

The road passing the campus is Renmin Lu 人民路 (People’s Road). Taking it to the left (north) leads to downtown Jishou, ending at the railway station. Taking it to the right (south) leads to the neighboring sister city of Qianzhou, the up-and-coming “new” Jishou. There are orange groves on the mountains above the campus, and nicely paved and well lit footpaths leading to them.

From this angle, you see that my building is just about level with the top of the Premier Building (Building 6, the main classroom building), 16 stories tall. That’s my climb at least twice a day, and doesn’t include the fourth-floor walkup to my flat! The Premier Building is named for Zhu Rongji 朱镕基 (1928 – ), a former premier of the People’s Republic of China and a native of Hunan province.

Most of the other white buildings clustered around the track and canteen are dormitories and faculty housing. One girls’ dorm sits left of the gym (foreground). To the right of the gym are an administration building and the school hospital.

The Jishou Sports Centre is not part of the university. It’s a municipal facility and sometimes hosts exhibition games by NBA players and CBA (China Basketball Association) players.

That’s the end of the tour today. Thanks for coming by!

Nothing ever really disappears from the Web, even censored Weibos
March 11, 2013

JISHOU, HUNAN — Chinese authorities routinely delete, censor or block material in the Internet deemed inappropriate. That includes posts by users of Sina Weibo, one of the big Twitter-like services in China.

But, nothing ever really disappears from the Web. Some clever netizens have found a way to “rescue” deleted Weibo posts. They repost them at freeweibo.com, and some of these end up on Blocked on Weibo at tumblr.com.

This post, showing a portrait of Mao wearing a facemask (in Beijing, where the air quality has recently been abysmal), got quickly axed.

This wry Weibo on Beijing’s air quality was censored.

Government officials have no sense of humor, it seems.

So, classes started last week … Thu, 14 Mar 2013 15:54:02 +0000

JISHOU, HUNAN — This term is shaping up to be a lot more relaxed than the last three have been.

First off, I have only 10 class sessions a week, on Mondays and Wednesdays. Those are for Oral English with the sophomores and Listening Comprehension with the freshmen. Then, a new feature (since I am expected to have at least 16 class sessions a week) is six periods of “office hours.” Having never really had office hours in the past, this is a new concept to me.

My initial impression was office hours similar to those at American universities. The professor sits in his office doing what-not, waiting for anxious students to appear. But no! Those office hours are expected to be tutorials, à la Oxbridge. So, for three of those hours I was asked to make a schedule for the students I will meet (freshman class 1) and devise some kind of exercise for them. The other three “office hours” will be devoted to meeting with a gaggle of non-English majors preparing for the English speaking contest. These have yet to be scheduled.

Since I didn’t teach the freshmen last term, I’m using the first session as a get-acquainted time, to learn something about them and suss out their speaking and listening skills. After I see all of them, which will take another week and a half, I will give them some kind of task to prepare for the next session.

Luckily for them, I won’t be here for most of April, so they’ll have plenty of time to get ready. My daughter is getting married April 13 and my college and the university has graciously given me three weeks leave. I don’t need to make up the classes, but I am not sure whether I’ll paid for the month of April. (Note to self: better ask ASAP!)

As has been pretty typical of my life here, my now-ample free time has quickly been filled with tutoring sessions, a visit to a primary school in Fenghuang, and several proofreading and editing tasks.

The most time-consuming task is an editing job. Several of the teachers in our college are working to translate a book on cultural anthropology written by a Jishou professor, with the aim of getting it published in the States. They’re doing it on speculation right now; if the first few chapters read well, we’ll get the job and therefore money for our efforts. I have to admit the editing is slow going, not because their translation is bad, but because the presentation is less than entrancing.

The author of course is Chinese, and academic prose here is quite different from American academic prose. Whereas American prose is fairly direct, following a (hopefully) logical and linear line of argumentation, the Chinese style is more indirect and much more repetitve, so I find myself reading the same statements over and over again in a spiraling fashion, taking a long time to get the main point.

Were I the editor-in-chief of this particular project, I’d suggest a complete overhaul of the structure to bring it in line with American prose style, but that’s the journalist in me. (Can books on cultural anthropology ever be light, tight and bright? Doubtful.) It would require a lot more work, and more expertise than I have at my command. I took one anthro course at university. Took it pass/fail for a distribution requirement, and naturally got an A. Damn.

To be fair, I’ve only read one chapter — the introduction — so far. The second chapter, a longer one, awaits my perusal beginning tomorrow. Perhaps it will get the meat of the matter more quickly.

Oh, the topic regards the interplay and inter-relationships between ethnic groups, especially when they are involved in joint commercial or economic activities. The introduction makes some interesting observations, so reading the book is not really all that bad, given enough patience and a ready supply of coffee or tea. I’ll manage just fine.

South African diplomat represents a little too much, recalled from Shanghai
March 21, 2013

Lassy Chiwayo and partner

Sorry, I have no nude photos of Mr Chiwayo or his partner

JISHOU, HUNAN — Chinese people already have a pretty poor opinion of Africans, and South Africa’s consul-general to China has not helped matters.

Lassy Chiwayo (at left, with his partner) was allegedly caught three months ago wandering naked near his home in Shanghai. Chiwayo also allegedly assaulted the South African ambassador to China, Bheki Langa, at a Beijing function.

So, according to news sources in China and South Africa, he’s been ordered home (some say deported, but it’s not clear) and relieved of his duties. The official word is that he’s experiencing medical problems that have caused his erratic behavior.

Chiwayo denies he’s done anything wrong, and insists he is still consul-general to China, although he is now in Pretoria.

And the only reason I am blogging this tidbit is that I get to mention China and South Africa, where I have both lived, in the same post.

Springtime in Jishou
March 23, 2013

JISHOU, HUNAN — Just some pretty pictures I took with my mobile phone while walking around this week.

Flowers planted in the middle of a campus roundabout.

Flowers planted in the middle of a campus roundabout.

Cherry blossoms 樱花 (ying hua)

Cherry blossoms 樱花 (ying hua)

Shrubbery in bloom in the literature college courtyard

Shrubbery in bloom in the literature college courtyard

Now, that’s planning ahead!
March 28, 2013

JISHOU, HUNAN — Well-to-do Chinese love to dote on their “little emperors and empresses,” but one Chinese mother has raised the bar by purchasing a $6.5 million Manhattan condo for her daughter to live in while she is in college.

Her daughter is two years old.

Apparently, this doting mother expects her darling to attend Columbia, NYU or Harvard, according to news reports. (Mom needs to brush up on American geography, I suspect.)

The property in question hasn’t even been built yet. According to CBS News, it’s the proposed One57 project, a rectangular glass-and-steel monolith overlooking Central Park south.

So, you think your trip to school was hard?
April 4, 2013

JISHOU, HUNAN — In Sangzi, Loudi, Hunan, which is a few hours from here by bus, children have to climb ladders up the side of a mountain to get to school. Watch this video, courtesy of The Guardian and Reuters.




Hunan is a mountainous province, so we’re used to climbing hills, but the last time I took a trip like that was visiting a park in Zhangjiajie. Those ladders were metal, had safety cages around them and the angle was less steep. These kids are negotiating 70-meter (229-foot) vertical drops in some places.

I can only imagine what they’ll tell their grandkids: “You think you have it rough? When I was a boy, I had to climb up ladders 300 meters to get to school — coming and going!”

I’m including a screencap from Google Maps to show where Sangzi lies in relation to Jishou. Jishou is on the left (west) and the red pin is Sangzi village. If you want the satellite view, enter “Sangzi, Loudi, Hunan, China” in Google Maps.

And no, I haven’t been there. Yet, anyway.

Sangzhi-map

American visitors, part 1
May 20, 2013

JISHOU, HUNAN — I haven’t done much blogging lately, despite having a lot to blog about, what with my daughter’s boffo wedding and some nice traveling afterward. I was just too busy, or too tired. Even this post is a bit of a cop-out, since it features a video.

Last week, a group of professors and students from Wayne State College (Nebraska) came for a visit, as part of a two-week tour of China. Among them were Max and Karen, who had taught her two years ago. The university invited the visitors to a demonstration of classical Chinese arts, and I took video of each performance. Depending on how good my connection to YouTube is, I intend to showcase what we saw here.

This first one is a performance of Miao drumming. The Miao are a minority group in this part of China. Then comes a bamboo dance, which is common around Asia. The performers are students from the Music and Dance College.

World’s tallest (sustainable) building to be built in Changsha
May 21, 2013

Artist's conception of the finished Sky City in Changsha

Artist’s conception of the finished Sky City in Changsha

JISHOU, HUNAN — From the Shanghaiist, developers have been given a go-ahead to build a 2,749-foot, 202-story building in Changsha, the provincial capital of Hunan.

It will then be just a wee bit taller than the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, making the Changsha project, Sky City, the world’s tallest building. Once it’s completed, China will have two skyscrapers (or four, if you include Hong Kong and Taiwan as most mainlanders might) among the top ten tallest buildings.

Changsha has no buildings that come even close to this height, so Sky City will certainly, um, stand out from the crowd. That part of Hunan is also relatively flat, so Sky City will be visible for miles around.

(Frankly, I am surprised Beijing is letting Changsha go ahead with this project. I’d have assumed the powers-that-be would prefer a showcase skyscraper like this one be in a major metropolis like Beijing, Shanghai, Chongqing or Guangzhou.)

More details are at Treehugger.com. The builder is Broad Sustainable Construction, a Chinese firm which specializes in prefab construction. BSC claims they will be able to finish Sky City in seventh months, and that the “vertical city” of 30,000 residents will more environmentally friendly than China’s usual urban sprawl.

Whether there will be that many occupants remains to be see. China is littered with vacant high-rises in almost every major city because housing costs are too high for most Chinese to afford.

Construction is expected to begin next month.

[UPDATE Jan. 21, 2015: This building project never saw fruition. It turned out the builders failed to get the necessary permits and, one supposes, failed to grease enough government palms to proceed with construction.]

China’s professors cautioned against taboo topics
May 23, 2013

JISHOU, HUNAN — Beijing’s new leadership has not wasted any time in keeping China’s academics on a short leash. There is now a list of seven forbidden topics for the classroom.

They include mistakes made by the Communist Party, freedom of the press and universal rights, according to the South China Morning Post of Hong Kong.(link)

I haven’t about it personally yet. It seems to be targeted at outspoken Chinese profs.

Long vacations: one reason teaching isn’t so bad
May 29, 2013

JISHOU, HUNAN — Non-teachers envy us our long vacations. So what if teachers often end up working through their vacations doing school stuff or summer jobs? At least those vacas are built into our employment package.

America, in general, does not guarantee workers vacation time, however. Among the developed countries of the world, the USA is the only one that does not require paid vacation by law. Take a look at this chart from The Washington Post.

That’s us, the really short guy on the right.

As The WaPo points out, in practice, American workers in the upper income brackets do get paid vacations and holidays as one of their benefits. It’s the poor slobs working minimum-wage jobs at Wal-Mart and fast food joints that get the short end of the stick.

Unless they work someplace besides the USA.

Graduation season means busy-ness
June 17, 2013

JISHOU, HUNAN — Before I begin another list of excuses why I haven’t blogged anything, here is some ear candy courtesy of Mother Nature. This song bird was perched outside my bathroom window early one morning, and I got him on tape (as it were).

So, aside from birdsong, what else has been happening here?

Well, there was the farewell dinner for the two graduating English education classes June 4, the graduation variety show (called a “party” in China) June 6, the dinner for the four graduating business English classes June 7, and their graduation ceremony June 8. (There was another activity just for our college, but I was teaching at the time.)

Following this spurt of activity, we had to teach our June 10 and June 11 classes (Monday and Tuesday) on the weekend, because of the Dragonboat Festival holiday June 12. This results from the peculiar Chinese habit of shuffling class schedules to permit one-day holidays that fall midweek to become three-day holidays.

Then, there were more farewell dinners and a blowout party — this time for Maddie and Daniel, the other Americans teaching here this year. They are on their way back to America by way of Turkey and Amsterdam. Though I had several days free from classes, all the goodbye-ing was still pretty exhausting. Now, I can relax and go back to work as usual. Ha.

Three weeks remain to this term. I give my last exams on July 3, giving me almost two full months to rest up for the next academic year.

China’s dreaded college entrance examination — the test from Hell
June 29, 2013

JISHOU, HUNAN — High school students in China suffered the annual college entrance exam (高考 gaokao) earlier this month. Unlike the SAT and ACT exams in the US, the gaokao is given only once a year and tests specific knowledge about content. In addition, it is basically the only criterion for admission to a university in China. Needless to say, these factors (and the country’s huge population) create a lot of stress.

The Telegraph carried a story from a small city in Hubei province, which is just north of Hunan. It seems one high school had had a surprisingly stellar record for several years in getting its students placed in China’s top universities. Provincial officials checked it out, and discovered widespread cheating on the exam that was condoned by the school’s staff.

So, this year the education office sent a small army of exam proctors (invigilators) from other parts of Hubei, who were ruthless in removing any possible method from students’ persons, including checking for cell phones hidden in students’ underwear.

Students were left in tears (since they hadn’t really prepared for the exam) and parents were irate. The school had to call the cops to put down a near riot outside the school gate.

“I picked up my son at midday [from his exam]. He started crying. I asked him what was up and he said a teacher had frisked his body and taken his mobile phone from his underwear. I was furious and I asked him if he could identify the teacher. I said we should go back and find him,” one of the protesting fathers, named as Mr Yin, said to the police later.

By late afternoon, the invigilators were trapped in a set of school offices, as groups of students pelted the windows with rocks. Outside, an angry mob of more than 2,000 people had gathered to vent its rage, smashing cars and chanting: “We want fairness. There is no fairness if you do not let us cheat.”

According to the protesters, cheating is endemic in China, so being forced to sit the exams without help put their children at a disadvantage.

Students prepare for the gaokao

Most Americans have no concept of how intense preparation for the gaokao is. High school students spend hour after hour in school with a stack of textbooks in front of them tediously trying to memorize every possible fact that could appear on the exam. There are practice exams and then more practice exams. They start school in the morning, and get home (or in their dormitory) around 10 at night. Some schools begin these drills a year or even two years before the examination.

There is no time for extracurricular activities, socializing, dating, sports, or even learning something interesting. It’s all about the gaokao.

And it’s a community enterprise. The bars in Jishou closed on gaokao weekend, so that the noise could not possibly disturb any students nearby. Hopefully, the students were not intending to study in the bars.

This page from last year gives a very good summary of the significance and effects of the exam.

While it is a national examination, there are variations in questions and schedule by province. In Hunan, the schedule was like this:

June 7
9-11:30 am Chinese literature and language
3-5 pm Mathematics (I’ll post some sample questions later on, but solid geometry is one topic tested)

June 8
9-11:30 am Comprehensive (students are divided into humanities track and science track, so there are two versions)
3-5 pm English

This year 373,000 Hunan students signed up for the university entrance exam. Nationally, there were 9.12 million students sitting the exam. Perhaps 75% will be admitted to a university, though it might not be the one they hoped for. Once they get their scores, they check which universities they might qualify to attend and submit a list of choices in order of preference to the schools. The universities then review the scores and decide who they will accept.

Jishou University is a middle-ranked school, and the average gaokao score last year was 558 points (out of 750 — for most of the provinces). Hunan University in Changsha, which is somewhat more prestigious, had an average of 621, and the averages at two top-tier schools, were 662 for Beijing University and (ominously) 666 for Qinghua U. There are different cutoffs for humanities and STEM students.

[There is no “fudge factor” here (unless your family has money or connections, that is). If the cutoff for a particular school is 500, and your score was 499, you’re out of luck. Some allowances are made for minority students, kids from rural areas, or students with special talents, however.]

Interestingly, many Australian universities are now accepting gaokao scores, to woo Chinese applicants. The University of New South Wales (PDF) in Sydney for example, requires scores at least 80% of the highest possible score. For most of the provincial gaokao variations, that means at least 600 for most majors.

To give you a taste of this year’s gaokao in Hunan, here is a condensed version of the English section of the examination. In 120 minutes, students had to answer 84 multiple-choice and fill-in questions on seven short listening passages and six reading selections, plus write a short composition of at least 120 words.

Note: Chinese students typically begin formal English learning in grade 6 or 7. By the time they take the gaokao, they’ve studied English for five or six years.

English section of 2013 Hunan gaokao (Time limit: 120 minutes)

Part 1: Listening Comprehension (30 points)

Section A (22.5 points): Students hear six conversations twice then answer two multiple choice ABC questions about each one.

Sample question:
What is the woman looking for? A. A pan. B. Carrots C. Tomatoes

Section B (7.5 points) Students hear a short passage twice, and fill in three blanks in a summary.

Part 2 Language Knowledge (45 points)

Section A (15 points) 15 Multiple choice questions, on grammar and usage.

21. Happiness and success often come to those ________ are good at recognizing their own strengths.
A. whom B. who C. what D. which
22. “What do you want to be?” asked Mrs. Crawford. “Oh, I ________ president,” said the boy, with a
smile.
A. have been B. am C. was D. will be
23. You must learn to consult your feelings and your reason ________ you reach any decision.
A. although B. before C. because D. unless
24. Around two o’clock every night, Sue will start talking in her dream. It somewhat ________ us.
A. bothers B. had bothered C. would bother D. bothered
25. The sun began to rise in the sky, ________ the mountain in golden light.
A. bathed B. bathing C. to have bathed D. have bathed
26. If nothing ________, the oceans will turn into fish deserts.
A. does B. had been done C. will do D. is done
27. — Have you heard about the recent election?
— Sure, it ________ the only thing on the news for the last three days.
A. would be B. is C. has been D. will be
28. Do not let any failures discourage you, for you can never tell ________ close you may be to victory.
A. how B. that C. which D. where
29. You cannot accept an opinion ________ to you unless it is based on facts.
A. offering B. to offer C. having offered D. offered
30. Every day ________ a proverb aloud several times until you have it memorized.
A. read B. reading C. to read D. reads
31. ________ warm at night, I would fill the woodstove, then set my alarm clock for midnight so I could
refill it.
A. Staying B. Stayed C. To stay D. Stay
32. He ________ sleep, although he tried to, when he got on such a hunt for an idea until he had caught it.
A. wouldn’t B. shouldn’t C. couldn’t D. mustn’t
33. The university estimates that living expenses for international students ________ around $8,450 a year,
which ________ a burden for some of them.
A. are;is B. are;are C. is;are D. is;is
34. — I don’t understand why you didn’t go to the lecture yesterday afternoon.
— had done B. was doing C. would do D. am doing
35. Not once ________ to Michael that he could one day become a top student in his class.
A. occurred it B. it did occur C. it occurred D. did it occur

Section B (18 points)
There are 12 fill-in-the blank questions in a reading passage, with four choices provided for each one at the end of the passage.

When I was 8 years old, I once decided to run away from home. With my suitcase 36 and some sandwiches in a bag, I started for the front door and said to Mom, “I’m leaving.”
“If you want to 37 , that’s all right,” she said. “But you came into this home without anything and you can leave the same way.” I 38 my suitcase and sandwiches on the floor heavily and started for the door again.
“Wait a minute,” Mom said. “I want your 39 back. You didn’t wear anything when you arrived.” This really angered me. I tore my clothes off—shoes, socks, underwear and all—and 40 , “Can I go now?” “Yes,” Mom answered, “but once you close that door, don’t expect to come back.”
I was so 41 that I slammed (砰地关上) the door and stepped out on the front porch. 42 I realized that I was outside, with nothing on. Then I noticed that down the street, two neighbor girls were walking toward our house. I ran to 43 behind a big tree in our yard at once. After a while, I was 44 the girls had passed by. I dashed to the front door and banged on it loudly.
“Who’s there?” I heard.
“It’s Billy! Let me in!”
The voice behind the 45 answered, “Billy doesn’t live here anymore. He ran away from home.” Glancing behind me to see if anyone else was coming, I begged, “Aw, c’mon, Mom! I’m 46 your son. Let me in!”
The door inched open and Mom’s smiling face appeared. “Did you change your 47 about running away?” she asked.
“What’s for supper?” I answered. (277 words)

36. A. packed B. returned C. cleaned D. repaired
37. A. drop out B. go by C. move around D. run away
38. A. pressed B. shook C. threw D. pulled
39. A. bag B. clothes C. sandwiches D. suitcase
40. A. explained B. suggested C. continued D. shouted
41. A. angry B. sorry C. frightened D. ashamed
42. A. Certainly B. Naturally C. Suddenly D. Possibly
43. A. play B. bide C. rest D. wave
44. A. sure B. proud C. eager D. curious
45. A. house B. tree C. door D. yard
46. A. also B. still C. even D. already
47. A. conclusion B. promise C. concern D. decision

Part 3 Reading Comprehension (30 points)
Three passages to read, with 5 multiple choice ABCD questions after each one.

Passage A
Planning a visit to the UK? Here we help with ways to cut your costs.
AVOID BIG EVENTS Big sporting events, concerts and exhibitions can increase the cost of accommodation and make it harder to find a room. A standard double room at the Thistle Brighton on the final Friday of the Brighton Comedy Festival (19 Oct.) cost £169.15 at Booking.com. A week later, the same room cost £118.15.
If you can be flexible and want to know dates to avoid—or you’re looking for a big event to pass your time—check out sites such as Whatsonwhen.com, which allow you to search for events in the UK by city, date and category.
STAY AWAY FROM THE STATION If traveling to your destination by train, you may want to find a good base close to the station, but you could end up paying more for the sake of convenience at the start of your holiday.
Don’t be too choosy about the part of town you stay in. Booking two months in advance, the cheapest room at Travelodge’s Central Euston hotel in London for Saturday 22 September was £95.95. A room just a tube journey away at its Covent Garden hotel was £75.75. And at Farringdon, a double room cost just £62.95.
LOOK AFTER YOURSELF Really central hotels in cities such as London, Edinburgh and Cardiff can cost a fortune, especially at weekends and during big events. As an alternative consider checking into a self-catering flat with its own kitchen. Often these flats are hidden away on the top floors of city centre buildings. A great example is the historic O’Neill Flat on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, available for £420 for five days in late September, with room for four adults.
GET ON A BIKE London’s ‘Boris bikes’ have attracted the most attention, but other cities also have similar programmes that let you rent a bicycle and explore at your own pace, saving you on public transport or car parking costs.
Among the smaller cities with their own programmes are Newcastle (casual members pay around £1.50 for two hours) and Cardiff (free for up to 30 minutes, or £5 per day). (358 words)

56. The Brighton Comedy Festival is mentioned mainly to show big events may __________.
A. help travelers pass time B. attract lots of travelers to the UK
C. allow travelers to make flexible plans D. cause travelers to pay more for accommodation
57. “Farringdon” in Paragraph 5 is most probably __________.
A. a hotel away from the train station B. the tube line to Covent Garden
C. an ideal holiday destination D. the name of a travel agency
58. The passage shows that the O’Neill Flat __________.
A. lies on the ground floor B. is located in central London
C. provides cooking facilities for tourists D. costs over £100 on average per day in late September
59. Cardiff’s program allows a free bike for a maximum period of __________.
A. half an hour B. one hour
C. one hour and a half D. two hours
60. The main purpose of the passage is __________.
A. to tell visitors how to book in advance
B. to supply visitors with hotel information
C. to show visitors the importance of self-help
D. to offer visitors some money-saving tips

Passage B
In my living room, there is a plaque (匾) that advises me to “Bloom (开花) where you are planted.” It reminds me of Dorothy. I got to know Dorothy in the early 1980s, when I was teaching Early Childhood Development through a program with Union College in Barbourville, Kentucky. The job responsibilities required occasional visits to the classroom of each teacher in the program. Dorothy stands out in my memory as one who “bloomed” in her remote area.
Dorothy taught in a school In Harlan County, Kentucky, Appalachian Mountain area. To get to her school from the town of Harlan, I followed a road winding around the mountain. In the eight-mile journey, I crossed the same railroad track five times, giving the possibility of getting caught by the same train five times. Rather than feeling excited by this drive through the mountains, I found it depressing. The poverty level was shocking and the small shabby houses gave me the greatest feeling of hopelessness.
From the moment of my arrival at the little school, all gloom (忧郁) disappeared. Upon arriving at Dorothy’s classroom. I was greeted with smiling faces and treated like a queen. The children had been prepared to show me their latest projects. Dorothy told me with a big smile that they were serving poke greens salad and cornbread for “dinner” (lunch). In case you don’t know, poke greens are a weed-type plant that grows wild, especially on poor ground.
Dorothy never ran out of reports of exciting activities of her students. Her enthusiasm never cooled down. When it came time to sit for the testing and interviewing required to receive her Child Development Associate Certification, Dorothy was ready. She came to the assessment and passed in all areas. Afterward, she invited me to the one-and-only steak house in the area to celebrate her victory, as if she had received her Ph. D. degree. After the meal, she placed a little box containing an old pen in my hand. She said it was a family heirloom (传家宝), but to me it is a treasured symbol of appreciation and pride that cannot be matched with things. (360 words)

61. “Early Childhood Development” in Paragraph 1 refers to __________.
A. a program directed by Dorothy B. a course given by the author
C. an activity held by the students D. an organization sponsored by Union college
62. In the journey, the author was most disappointed at seeing __________.
A. the long track B. the poor houses
C. the same train D. the winding road
63. Upon arriving at the classroom, the author was cheered up by __________.
A. a warm welcome B. the sight of poke greens
C. Dorothy’s latest projects D. a big dinner made for her
64. What can we know about Dorothy from the last paragraph?
A. She was invited to a celebration at a restaurant.
B. She got a pen as a gift from the author.
C. She passed the required assessment.
D. She received her Ph. D. degree.
65. What does the author mainly intend to tell us?
A. Whatever you do, you must do it carefully.
B. Whoever you are, you deserve equal treatment.
C. However poor you are, you have the right to education,
D. Wherever you are, you can accomplish your achievement.

Passage C
It’s such a happy-looking library, painted yellow, decorated with palm-tree stickers and sheltered from the Florida sun by its own roof. About the size of a microwave oven, it’s pedestrian-friendly, too, waiting for book lovers next to a sidewalk in Palm Beach country Estates, along the northern boundary of Palm Beach Gardens.
It’s a library built with love.
A year ago, shortly after Janey Henriksen saw a Brian Williams report about the Little Free Library organization, a Wisconsin-based nonprofit that aims to promote literacy and build a sense of community in a neighborhood by making books freely available, she announced to her family of four, “That’s what we’re going to do for our spring break!”
Son Austin, now a 10th-grader, didn’t see the point of building a library that resembles a mailbox. But Janey insisted, and husband Peter unwillingly got to work. The 51-year-old owner of a ship supply company modified a small wooden house that he’d built years earlier for daughter Abbie’s toy horses, and made a door of glass.
After adding the library’s final touches (装点), the family hung a signboard on the front, instructing users to “take a book, return a book,” and making the Henriksen library, now one of several hundred like it nationwide and among more than 2,500 in the world, the only Little Free Library in Palm Beach County.
They stocked it with 20 or so books they’d already read, a mix of science fiction, reference titles, novels and kids’ favorites. “I told them, keep in mind that you might not see it again,” said Janey, a stay-at-home mom.
Since then, the collection keeps replenishing (补充) itself, thanks to ongoing donations from borrowers. The library now gets an average of five visits a day.
The project’s best payoff, says Peter, are the thank-you notes left behind. “We had no idea in the beginning that it would be so popular.” (317 words)

66. In what way is the library “pedestrian-friendly”?
A. It owns a yellow roof. B. It stands near a sidewalk.
C. It protects book lovers from the sun. D. It uses palm-tree stickers as decorations.
67. Janey got the idea to build a library from __________.
A. a visit to Brian Williams B. a spring break with her family
C. a book sent by one of her neighbors D. a report on a Wisconsin-based organization
68. The library was built __________.
A. by a ship supply company B. on the basis of toy horses
C. like a mailbox D. with glass
69. What can we infer about the signboard?
A. It was made by a user of the library. B. It marked a final touch to the library.
C. It aimed at making the library last long. D. It indicated the library was a family property.
70. The passage tells us that the users __________.
A. donate books to the library
B. get paid to collect books for the library
C. receive thank-you notes for using the library
D. visit the library over 5 times on average daily

Section 4 Writing (45 points)
Section A
(10 points)
Directions: Read the following passage. Fill in the numbered blanks by using the information from the passage.
Write NO MORE THAN THREE WORDS for each answer.

While there is no widely accepted definition of MOOCs, their key features are open access:they are currently free to participants, no entry qualifications are required, they support an unlimited number of participants and as yet, very few include any form of accreditation (认证).
Currently offered by some famous universities, MOOCs are attractive to people who do not have the financial resources to meet the growing costs of university education, or who do not have formal qualifications. They also allow participants to study at their own pace.
The potential for MOOCs to deliver education is obviously vast—they could be considered as a huge step forwards in widening participation. They also have the potential to provide a unique window on universities that offer popular and valuable courses, they may attract some participants to register for formal fee-paying programmes at the same or other universities and are likely to promote new ways of on-line education.
However, it is still very early days for MOOCs. The quality of the education provision is highly variable, with many courses offering only recordings of lectures, and delivery is particularly difficult in some special fields that require practical classes, research projects or extensive library access. Besides, wider engagement with participants requires very considerable resource. Even limited feedback or examination becomes a major task if there are several thousand students in the class.
Considering the challenges, some people argue MOOCs will soon evaporate (蒸发). But they certainly provide good opportunity for widening higher education, are a means of raising awareness of universities to audiences of tens or hundreds of thousands, and are well worthy of serious consideration. (271 words)

[Questions were cut off on my e-copy of the test.]

Section B (10 Points)
Directions: Read the following passage. Answer the questions according to the information given in the passage.

“Let’s Talk”:The Free Advice Project
A few weeks ago, I took a walk around Washington Square Park. I met all the usual people:street performers, the Pigeon Guy, a group of guitarists singing in harmony. But off to the side, sitting on a bench was a woman doing something vastly different—giving free advice.
A week or two later, I set up an interview with her and we discussed her project at length.
Lisa Podell, 32, started the Free Advice Project this past May. It began as an experiment;she sat in Washington Square Park for a day with a sign that read “Free Advice” as a simple way to reach out to people. Podell was astonished at the strong response.
Podell admits that she was doubtful at first, but now she describes the project as mutually (相互地) beneficial. People learn from her—but she also learns from them. She says that the majority of those who come to her are dealing with some pretty heavy issues, and they expect her not only to listen, but also provide real answers.
Having worked as a full time teacher and now as an adolescent advisor, Podell believes that talking things out is an important in the decision-making process.
Sometimes, people walk around all day, keeping their problems in their own head and thinking about them in the same way. Podell simply strives to provide people with perspective.
I asked if there is a future plan for the Free Advice Project. Podell said she would like to promote it to each public space in New York, which would be carried out by various volunteers across the city. 
It was truly inspiring to meet someone with such a big heart, especially in New York—where it is sometimes very hard to find anybody to listen.  (303 words)

81. In what way was Podell different from other people in the park? (No more than 6 words) (2 marks)
___________________________________________________________________________________
82. What do people in need expect Podell to do? (No more than 10 words) (3 marks)
___________________________________________________________________________________
83. According to Podell, what should people do when making decisions?
(No more than 6 words) (2 marks)
___________________________________________________________________________________
84. How would Podell promote her project in New York? (No more than 15 words) (3 marks)
___________________________________________________________________________________

Section C (25 points)
Directions: Write an English composition according to the instructions given below.
请以下列词语为关键词写一篇英语短文。

Keywords: match winner loser result

内容:
1.自己或他人的一次经历;
2.你的感受。
注意:
1.必须使用所给4个关键词;
2.词数不少于120个;
3.不能使用真实姓名和学校名称。

Content:
1. Your or another’s experience;
2. How you felt about it.
Note:
1. The four given keywords must be used;
2. The composition should be at least 120 words;
3. Do not use your real name or your school’s name.

RIP Wang Linjia and Ye Mengyuan
July 8, 2013

UPDATE: ABC News has just published a profile of Miss Wang and Miss Ye. Worth the read.

Classmates Ye Mengyuan and Wang Linjia


JISHOU, HUNAN — By now, you have heard of the airliner crash at the San Francisco-Oakland airport Saturday. The only fatalities were two Chinese high school students, who were siting in the rear of the plane and were apparently ejected onto the runway when the tail was torn off just before impact.

The two girls, Wang LinJia 王琳佳 and Ye Mengyuan 叶梦圆, both 16, were classmates at Jiangshan Middle School in Quzhou city, Zhejiang Province and were part of a school-sponsored summer trip to Los Angeles. Their 32 classmates and supervising teacher all escaped the crash of Asiana Flight 214 safely.

As a teacher and a parent, I cannot fail to grieve over the loss of two young ladies who probably had bright futures ahead of them.

I’ve found other photos of the girls using Baidu, China’s answer to Google.

Wang Linjia

Ye Mengyuan

LA church cancels summer camp, following deaths of two Chinese girls in air crash
July 9, 2013

This report from ABC’s affiliate in Los Angeles might not go national, so I’m highlighting it here.

West Valley Christian Church near Los Angeles planned on hosting a group of high school students from Zhejiang Province this month, but those plans changed after the group was involved in Saturday’s plane crash in San Francisco.

Two of the students on that trip, Wang Linjia and Ye Mengyuan, both 16, were the only fatalities in the runway crash of Asiana Flight 214.

The students and their teacher, most of whom escaped serious injury, will fly back to China in a few days. Four students are still in hospital, however.

Meanwhile, the parents of Wang and Ye will fly to San Francisco to collect the bodies of their children.

The school group boarded Asiana 214 in Shanghai. It made a stop in Seoul, South Korea, then had an uneventful trans-Pacific flight to San Francisco-Oakland airport. On approach, however, the plane came in too slow to safely land, according to preliminary investigations, and crashed on the runway, losing its tail and bursting into flames.

The students were to spent three weeks learning English, visiting California universities and doing sightseeing.

Third fatality in San Francisco air crash is another Chinese student
July 15, 2013

Liu Yipeng, 15, shown in a school video

JISHOU, HUNAN — Liu Yipeng 刘一鹏, 15, died Friday in a San Francisco hospital as a result of injuries sustained in the crash of Asiana Airlines flight 214 the previous Saturday.

Liu’s classmates, Wang Linjia 王琳佳 and Ye Mengyuan 叶梦圆, both 16, were killed when the plane crashed while landing at San Francisco-Oakland International Airport. Wang apparently fell out of the rear of the plane when the tail section was torn off. Ye was found near one of the wings.

San Francisco authorities later confirmed that a rescue vehicle ran over Ye, whose body was concealed by the fire retardant foam sprayed on the plane. The county coroner has not determined whether Ye was alive when the rescue vehicle struck her.

Liu was found her seat and had suffered serious injuries to her head and abdomen.

All three girls were part of a school group from Jiangshan Middle School in Zhejiang Province. The group was to visit a church summer camp in Los Angeles and do some sightseeing for about three weeks. The camp has been canceled, and the students and their teachers are returning to China.

The Associated Press has more details about the girls and the aftermath of the crash.

Summer holiday update 1
Aug. 10, 2013

CHANGSHA, HUNAN — Here’s my summer so far: 3 T’s. Teaching, travel, Thailand. Except Thailand starts tomorrow. (4 T’s, then)

The spring term wrapped up for me around July 4th. Right away, I started teaching some middle school students English four hours a day for 20 days straight. I also finished up working with some university faculty preparing study and research abroad. Together, these two jobs netted me 10,000 RMB.

With one group of students, we spent one hour with oral English and the other with their textbook, New Concept English 2. Despite its title, NCE was first written in the 1970s. It’s more suitable for adult learners than teenagers, but that’s what they use at their training school. I tried to make it not too boring.

The other group has better English, so we read an American juvenile novel, The Midwife’s Apprentice. I had found a classroom set in a Louisville St. Vincent de Paul store in April, and brought back eight copies. It was slow going, because the vocabulary is pretty advanced even for American young readers, but the story is interesting and it held their interest. Explaining the culture and history behind the story was harder. We watched an episode of Ivanhoe to give them a sense of the period. (Not too accurately, though. Ivanhoe was set in Richard the Lionheart’s time and The Midwife’s Apprentice in the time of Edward Longshanks some 150 years later. Still helpful, though.)

After these lessons ended, I took a motorcoach to Chongqing on the new highway that was just finished last year. We traveled over the Aizhai suspension bridge and reached Chongqing about seven hours later. My former student, Parker, who is a graduate student there met me at the station and we had some of Chongqing’s famous hotpot (火锅 huoguo) in a restaurant that was almost as hot as the dish despite too overworked air conditioners.

The next morning Parker saw me off at the train station, as I was taking the high speed rail to Chengdu, about two hours away. There, I met up with Sarah, Mick and son Riley, old friends from Louisville who were visiting the family of his college roommate. (Centre College, yo! My daughter’s alma mater)

I’ll write about Chengdu in more detail later. While I was there, I decided to book tickets to Bangkok, after waffling about it for most of June and July.

Changsha was after Chengdu. I spent a week here also doing some teaching for another former student who runs a summer training school out of her flat. For a week of work, I received 4,000 RMB, giving me plenty of cash for Thailand. This experience also deserves a separate blog, so bear with me.

Tonight, I take a redeye flight to Bangkok, beginning a two-week sojourn in the Land of Smiles. I am psyched!

Please note that I am typing this on my Android tablet, which puts the space bar next to the period. So, if you see random periods in strange places, that’s why. Also, it’s a pain to select text for format changes, so this is in plaintext.

My summer travels: pandas and tigers, Chiang Mai!
Sept. 2, 2013

[I wrote this for my students and QQ followers to read. I’m reprinting it here for other readers.]

HENGYANG, HUNAN — In past years, I have gone back to America during the summer holiday, but this year was different. Since I went back to the States in April for my daughter’s wedding, I decided I would travel to other places during the summer. I was also able to meet old friends and former students.

During four weeks this summer, I taught English in Jishou and Changsha, so I had more than enough money to go traveling. Many of my Chinese friends, and Maddi and Daniel, have visited Thailand, so I decided that would be my destination this summer. Your money goes a long way in Thailand. Haha!

Planning how to beat ⅄ale

Planning how to beat ⅄ale


To give you an idea of what I did, here are the cities I visited in a five-week period.
In China, Chongqing, Chengdu, Changsha and Hengyang.
In Thailand, Bangkok, Amphawa, Korat, PhiMai, NonSung, Sawang Daen Din, Udon Thani, Chiang Mai, Mae Rim.

I traveled by plane, train, metro, subway, car, bus, tuk-tuk, songraew (pickup trucks converted into small “buses”) and motorcycle. I did a lot of walking, too. I visited ancient sites in China and Thailand, saw many Buddhas, took a lot of photos, petted real tigers, saw real pandas (who were in air-conditioned rooms while I was sweating outside), reacquainted myself with old friends, and made new ones. I learned two phrases in Thai, and realized something interesting about Asian languages. I discovered I really like Thailand, especially Chiang Mai. So, I’m going to visit it again … soon I hope.

Now, on to some details about my holiday…

Chongqing/Chengdu
Sarah and Mick are old friends of mine from Kentucky. Sarah teaches French, and we worked together for 15 years at the same high school in Louisville. Mick is her husband, and he is also a teacher, but of science. Their son, Riley, just graduated from college. His roommate, Miao, is from Chengdu and Miao’s parents invited the three of them to visit Chengdu this summer. (By the way, my daughter graduated from the same college as Riley and Miao. It’s called Centre College, a very small but excellent school in Danville, Kentucky.)

At first, we thought they could visit me in Xiangxi, but finally we decided it was easier for me to meet them in Chengdu. Miao’s parents are very hospitable, and agreed to meet me at the train station, bring me to a hotel near their home, and drive us all to different places.

I took the bus from Jishou to Chongqing, passing over the Aizhai Suspension Bridge. In Chongqing, I was met by Qu Jingwen, one of my Chinese students who is now a postgraduate at Sichuan International Studies University. I stayed there just one night, and took the high speed rail to Chengdu. Our first excursion was to Dujiangyan 都江堰, site of the Qin Dynasty irrigation and flood control project. I knew nothing about this structure before this trip, and I was very impressed at how clever these ancient engineers were. This project still works today, after 2,200 years!

[My friends have since reminded me that this park and structure were seriously damaged during the May 2008 earthquake that obliterated the nearby city of Wenchuan.]

A red panda in Chengdu's Panda Research Station

A red panda in Chengdu’s Panda Research Station

My friends had already visited the Panda Research Base and Jiuzhaigou before I arrived. They were to spend the weekend at Emei Shan, but I decided to stay in Chengdu and explore on my own. I visited the Panda Research Base and Jinsha 金沙 Archaeological Site and Museum. Both are easy to get to using the Chengdu metro. Maddie and Daniel visited the Panda base last summer, and were lucky enough to hold a panda, but while I was there it was very hot, and all the pandas were inside air-conditioned rooms. So, I was disappointed I couldn’t hold a panda. Still, I could see them eat and play, so it was not a total loss. And the red pandas were outside, though mostly napping in the 40-degree heat.

I will say, however, that Chengdu seemed cooler than Changsha, because of a nice breeze. Just maybe I like Chengdu a little more than Changsha, but that’s after only one short visit to Chengdu.

Sarah and Mick told me Jiuzhaigou looks just the photos you see in books and on the Web. No Photoshopping. So, I will go back to Sichuan sometime to visit there and see for myself. I also want to visit Emei Shan and the big Buddha at LeShan.

Changsha
My next stop was for work purposes. Another former student of mine, Liu Fang, runs a small training school with her husband, a science teacher, in the Kaifu district. She asked me to spend a week in their home and teach oral English to several of her students. For pay, of course. Because time was of the essence, I flew from Chengdu to Changsha (910 yuan, if you’re curious). We went out to eat several times, went to the shopping street a few times and just hung out together. There, I met Mr Shao, a physics teacher who agreed to meet me at the airport when I returned from Thailand, and Miss Zhang, who taught English and is a dance student at JiDa, and several memorable students. One boy had a T-shirt that I also now own. It shows a picture of The Beatles 披头士 from their TV cartoon show, which was very popular when I was in primary school! I was surprised to see a 15-year-old Chinese boy wearing a shirt showing an British rock band from the 1960s. I’m not even sure you can watch their cartoon online in China.

Is this from the Beatles TV cartoon series?

Is this from the Beatles TV cartoon series?

Thailand
For several weeks, I had been considering a trip to Thailand, but was unsure whether i should go in summer or winter. Summer is the rainy season, but costs are lower than the peak (dry) season in winter. While in Chengdu, I decided to stop hesitating and book air tickets to Bangkok. My hotel was close to a travel agency, so one day I walked in and asked to book round trip tickets from Changsha to Bangkok. They were a little confused why I didn’t want to book from Chengdu, but finally they understood what I needed. The cheapest fare was a direct flight from Changsha in the middle of the night (3154 yuan — about $500). I would arrive at 1:00 and leave two weeks later at 2:00. These are what we call “redeye” flights in English. You can guess why, I think.

My friends in Changsha took me to the airport shuttle and Chen Du, a former student from the 2008 class, met me in Bangkok at the ungodly hour of 1:00 (actually it was more like 2:30, because of delays). He teaches Chinese near Korat, about two hours away, and he got a few days’ leave from his school to meet me. We visited several places around Bangkok, the temples Wat Arun and Way Pho, the floating market in Amphawa and the train market in Mae Khlong, among them. With his help, I learned how to use the public transit in Bangkok, which is similar to the metro systems in Chinese cities and just as fast (though not as crowded). This would come in handy when I returned to Bangkok in two weeks on my own.

After Bangkok, we went to Korat (Nakhon Ratchasima) and visited the 11th century palace ruins at PhiMai and his middle school in NonSung. From there, I took a bus to Sakon Nakhon, close to the small city where another former student, Chen Xiaohui (2008 class), also teaches Chinese. Both these students are in their second year of teaching in Thailand, and can speak some Thai now. They teach using English, Chinese and Thai, and use English more than you would expect. Their middle schools each have three or four foreign English teachers, and most Thai teachers can speak some English (but little Chinese). Her good friend there is a Thai English teacher, Rutchanee, whom I also know from Facebook. Teacher Rut was kind enough to pick me up at the bus station and take us around on the weekend.

No, this is not in LA.

No, this is not in LA.

]My next stop was Udon Thani, about 90 minutes away. Two other students of mine, Huang Ziyan and Liu Hui (2009 class), teach in a small city, Si That, near there. I arrived on a Sunday, when they were free, and we visited the monkey park in Kumphawapi. A large group of monkeys live alongside the people in this town. There was also a car show in Udon that was a lot like car shows in Southern California, with customized cars and loud audio systems. Thais love cars as much as Americans do, I think.

On Monday the 19th, I boarded an overnight bus to Chiang Mai, in the northern part of Thailand near the mountains. From this point I was on my own, because all my student friends had classes. (Thailand has different school holidays than China does.) Chiang Mai is Thailand’s second largest city and has a large foreign population. Chen Du recommended I go, and I am glad I did. It’s about the same size as Zhangjiajie with more things to do than even Yangshuo in Guilin. There are many restaurants and markets, museums and activities, like Tiger Kingdom, where you can pet real tigers. All of my travels to this point were DIY (do it yourself), as I hate tours, but I did sign up for a half-day tour of Doi Suthep, the famous mountaintop temple there. Our group was very international:

  • two German ladies on holiday from teaching; their next stops were Hong Kong and Hawaii
    a young couple from Sweden
  • a young woman from Italy, traveling alone
  • a young woman from Holland, also traveling alone, but who has visited Thailand twice before
  • a family from Wuhan; the son works in London in finance, and this was his parents’ first trip out of China
  • and, me, the American

After our tour, we all had dinner together and got acquainted.

Aside from these activities, i walked around the northeast part of Chiang Mai and some parts to the east. My visit to the famous night market was rained out, so that’s another thing to save for next time. i also didn’t have time to visit Thailand’s famous beaches in the South, so those are other destinations for the future.

Changsha/Hengyang
I came back to Changsha on the 24th, stayed with Liu Fang two nights, then took the bus to Hengyang, the hometown of my friend and colleague Kang Dongmei. She’s leaving Jishou to live in Hengyang, so we wanted to see each other in case we didn’t have a chance later on. I also looked up another former student, Jiang Peijun (2005 class), who studied in the UK and now teaches English in a college in Hengyang, her hometown. We hadn’t seen each other for four years, and it was good to see her again.

So, five weeks of travel, many cities and lots of friends. I had a great time. Too bad it had to end.

Linguistic revelation, courtesy of my Thailand travels
Sept. 18, 2013

JISHOU, HUNAN — Over the last five years, I’ve been puzzled by the manner in which one or two students in each class pronounce English. Talking with my Chinese colleagues, it seems some of these students have the same indistinct pronunciation in Mandarin, as well. We concluded it was a syndrome which used to be called “lazy tongue,” but (I have just learned) is now referred to as an apraxia of speech.

Now I am not so sure, after hearing the way some Thais speak their own language. My students’ diction problems may result from the speech patterns of their mother languages, which are often not Mandarin.

Some disclaimers, first of all. I have no formal training in linguistics or speech therapy, so take whatever I write here with a grain of salt. I am proposing a hypothesis, based on an amateur’s observations.

My students’ diction problems may result from the speech patterns of their mother languages, which are often not Mandarin.

Briefly, here is the situation. Several of my students’ English is blurred or mushy. Their voices seem to come from way back in the oral cavity, instead of more toward the front of the mouth. In addition, their consonants are often indistinct, so I have to pay close attention to what they are saying to be sure I understand. Speaking speed seems not to be a factor, as slow and fast speakers are equally indistinct. Nor does fluency level make a difference. And practicing English results in little improvement, as seniors talk as mushily as they did while freshmen.

The nearest approximation to their sound I can offer is the way a deaf-from-birth person sounds when they speak, if they have been taught to speak and not to use sign language. Yet, none of these students have hearing problems, as far as I can tell.

“Lazy tongue” or “mush mouth” — terms that are no longer used by professional speech therapists — is a syndrome that affects articulation of sounds. Usually, adults notice it in children as they leave the toddler years and approach primary school age. Normally, as a toddler ages, their diction improves so that even strangers can understand what they say, despite some mispronunciations like “bugetti” for “spaghetti.”

I thought this was a reasonable explanation for these EFL students’ diction problems until I visited Thailand last month. There, I was surprised to hear some Thais speak their native language in the same way my students pronounce their English (and presumably, their Mandarin). That is, the sounds came from way back in their oral cavities, as if their tongues were flat and pulled back from the teeth. Only some Thais sounded this way, so it is not the way standard Thai sounds. I reckoned they were either speaking their local language, or an inflected form of Thai.

Ah ha! I thought to myself. Maybe there is some connection here.

Two likely explanations came to mind.

  • Apraxia of speech is common in this part of the world, or
  • Given that many Thais also have “local languages,” as do many Chinese, there may be “local languages” that are typically spoken deep in the oral cavity with comparatively little tongue movement.

Not being an expert, I really can’t answer the question. I’d need to do some careful research to test my hypothesis, which is the second explanation.

For one thing, I would have to find out if my affected students’ “local languages” are from the same language family as the speakers in Thailand that I heard. There are many ethnic and language groups crossing national borders in Asia. For example, Hmong/Mien/Miao speakers are found throughout the mountainous regions in China and Southeast Asia.

For another, my surmise that some local languages are typically spoken in the back of the mouth might be full of crap, since I have no expertise in this matter at all.

And I would need a native speaker of Mandarin and/or a speech therapist to evaluate the students’ Mandarin diction. If their Mandarin is clear, and their English is not, then there would be something else affecting their pronunciation.

In short, I have just devised a research project suitable for a master’s or Ph.D. thesis. Any takers?

Five of my great students
Oct. 23, 2013

JISHOU, HUNAN — Teaching is a people profession, a concept that many of today’s corporate-minded “reformers” of education ignore. Students and teachers are more than just cogs in a machine. Ideally, they should be partners in a joint venture, to learn.

For me, my students are among the greatest delights — and strengths — of my job. Allow me to introduce a few more of my Chinese students.

Chris Mo Dong

Chris Mo Dong

During National Holiday, I visited two of former students, who were among the first I taught in China. I met them when they were seniors, and only taught them one term. Chris and Sophia now live in Tianjin, near Beijing, and work at Nankai University. Chris and Sophia were classmates and got married soon after graduation. Now, they have a two-year-old girl, and comfortable jobs.

Chris was the first Jishou University student I met here. He, Sophia and their classmate, Ava, all worked as interns in the Foreign Affairs Office. They were my right-hand man and women for the first several weeks of my time here, before I got my feet on the ground and found other students to help me out. Chris’ special area of expertise was as a tech guy. Ava was adept at arranging travel tickets and helping me shop.

Sophia Wang Qian

Sophia Wang Qian

Sophia was at the time quieter and less confident in her English, but is now much better, since her job requires her to be bilingual.

Chris has a master’s from the University of Liverpool. Sophia lived there with him for six months. Ava has a master’s from Durham University, and teaches English at a university in Beijing. She’s also married now, with a guy who works for Microsoft’s China division. The two of them toured the USA by car a few months ago.

As a teacher, it’s gratifying to learn how your former students are doing. I’m pleased to say most of mine from the last 30 years of teaching are doing pretty well (at least the ones I know about). I was reminded the other day that the very first high school students I taught are now in their mid-40s, and some (ye gods!) probably have kids in college by now.

How is this possible? I still feel like I’m only 25.

Ava Yao NianNian

Ava Yao NianNian

On the other hand, one of my Chinese students is facing down cancer at the age of 23. Carla is not the first of my students with health problems, but we have been become close in the last two years, so her illness affects me particularly deeply. (Sad to say, I have also lost a few of my former students to illness, accidents and suicides. Very few, but students are supposed to die after their teachers and parents, not before.)

Carla is also among my first Chinese students, but from a later graduating class than Chris, Sophia and Ava. I’ve known all of them for five years. While she was a student, Carla didn’t talk much with me, partly because of her shy nature and mostly because her classmates were more garrulous. After graduation, she landed a job in Huizhou, Guangdong province, teaching English at a vocational college. Her major was English education, but one term of student teaching in a middle school was not enough, so Carla sought out my help.

Carla Wu Shuang

Carla Wu Shuang

After a year or two of exchanging QQ messages and texts — but never meeting face to face because of scheduling conflicts — Carla switched in my mind and heart from being just one of 70 students to being a very good friend. I found she is very thoughtful, a bit of a daydreamer, and a very good teacher. She cares about her work and about her students.

When she told me in August she was in hospital for a tumor on her leg, I was stunned. There were no warnng signs. She got a sharp pain in her leg, and the doctors found she had osteosarcoma — a kind of bone cancer. Just before the National Holiday, she had gone through her first round of chemotherapy, and it made her so sick that she was ready to give it up forever. I helped her change her mind.

I visited her in the hospital before traveling on to see Chris and Sophia. Carla was weak, but in good spirits because three of her classmates (Meg, Yily and Martha) were also there to see her. I gave her some magazines to read and a stuffed koala bear to hug (grey and white like me, I said), and ginger tea to her mom for Carla’s nausea.

Now I am happy to say Carla is doing much better. She’s at home, and went fishing with relatives a couple of days ago. Her blood tests are giving good results and she’ll go back for more chemo in a few weeks. On the downside, she’s lost all of her shoulder-length coif and has taken to wearing hats to hide her baldness. Her weight is down, but her appetite is still good. I’m confident she will win this battle.

Laura Liu YaLong

Laura Liu YaLong

My traveling companion on this trip was Laura, who is a senior and is also a good friend. She had nothing special to do during the National Holiday, and had never been to Beijing — or outside Hunan province, so I asked her if she wanted to come along. Laura is only the second person in her village to attend college, and the first girl. She had scored high on every subject but geography on the college entrance exam. If it hadn’t been for that 60ish score on geography, Laura would have probably gone to a top university … and we would have never met.

Had she not attended university, Laura, who just turned 22, tells me she would be probably be married with a toddler to care for, or working in some low-end job, like most of the girls in her poor village. Instead, she’ll be able to find a good-paying job in a big city, because her English skills are excellent and she’s resolute in her goal of making her family’s life better.

When she was a freshman, Laura was ready to quit school, because of family problems back home. It took some persuading, but I convinced her to finish college, because in the long run, she would be able to do more for her family than by dropping out. Laura knew that already; she just needed someone to give her some support.

It may be true that my hundreds of students may have learned something from me (well, I hope!), but in fact I have learned a lot from my students, some of whom are more courageous and ambitious than I ever was at their age. Each one has a story to tell, and I am privileged to be a part of it.

China space agency unveils shanzhai lunar rover
Oct. 25, 2013

JISHOU, HUNAN — Rather than be new and creative for its upcoming lunar rover mission, China’s space exploration engineers have copied NASA’s Mars landers, rather like Chinese manufacturers’ notorious habit of selling counterfeit brand-name goods — called shanzhai 山寨.

First, let’s see the Mars Exploration Rover and its smaller older brother, Sojourner.

Mars Exploration Rover (right) and Sojourner

And now the Chinese lunar rover, due to be launched in December.

China’s lunar rover, Chang’e

See any similarities? So did China’s scientists, who worked hard to propose new designs for the state space agency. Instead, the agency went with NASA 2.1.

From the South China Morning Post:

It was the first time that the secretive space agency – run by the military – had invited civilian scientists to participate in a major exploration programme.

Many top universities set up special teams of their best researchers, who proposed creative rover designs. Wen’s own team, for instance, offered a design with only four wheels but with a greater ability to manoeuvre over rough terrain.

Civilian scientists were disappointed when authorities decided on a design they felt drew heavily on the American design.

Zhu Jihong, a professor of robotics who entered the competition on behalf of Tsinghua University, said the outcome had dampened Chinese scientists’ enthusiasm for innovation.

“In the beginning they said they encouraged original thinking. In the end they did not even bother to make an announcement or give us any feedback,” he said. “We will not participate in anything that involves the military in the future.”

One big difference: the China rover is nuclear-powered, rather than solar-powered like NASA’s Mars rovers. So, it won’t need to take a rest when the sun goes down for two weeks. (A day on Mars is a little longer than on Earth. A day on the Moon is about two weeks long, because the Moon rotates once every 28 days or so.)

Chinese space agency representatives said the mission was critical, and needs to succeed, so the agency went with a proven design. Standing on the shoulders of giants, I suppose.

Guest blog — Carla Wu: Is everything all right?
Oct. 26, 2013

Carla Wu

Carla Wu

YUEYANG, HUNAN — Carla Wu (吴双 Wu Shuang) is a former student of mine, graduating in 2011. In August she was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, had surgery to remove a tumor on her femur, and has had two rounds of chemotherapy so far. Today I am publishing a poem she put in her Qzone. We hope you like it.

Is everything all right?

It’s already been more than two months. As for today, in a word, it’s nice to be alive.

I went home, so, that’s ok.

I can sleep and be lazy every day, so, that’s ok.

I eat a meal, have a drink, or on a nice day, can sit quietly in the sunshine in the courtyard, so, that’s ok.

I have a lot of time to think about things every day, so, that’s ok.

I can read and write every day, so, that’s ok.

If I am bored, I can watch TV, so, that’s ok.

On sunny afternoons, I can go out for a walk, so that’s also good.

Sometimes, a lot of childhood friends come over to play cards, or to chat with me, so, that’s ok.

At night I can see the limitless night sky, so, that’s ok.

As winter gradually comes, I don’t have to face the long, long ugly scar like a centipede on my bare leg every day. So that’s good, too.

My mind has no problems. I can learn, so, that’s ok.

My limbs are perfect. I can move, that’s so good.

My eyesight is still good I can also see the warmth of the world, so, that’s ok.

I don’t have any infectious diseases, I can be together with my people and share their love, so, that’s ok.

Around me, I always have so many who care about me, who encourage me, my friends, so, that’s ok.

After a long time away, I finally got to the Internet, you are all there, as at the beginning, so, that’s ok.

After so much, I’m still alive, so that is good.

Is everything all right?

一切都还好

已经两个多月了,时至今日,唯有一句感叹,活着真好。

我回家了,所以,还好。

我每天都可以懒懒的睡觉,所以,还好。

我每天吃过饭喝完药就可以坐在院子里安安静静地晒太阳,所以,还好。

我每天都有很多很多时间来思考,所以,还好。

我每天都可以看书写字,所以,还好。

在无聊的时候我还可以看看电视,所以,还好。

在天气晴好的午后,我还可以出去走走,所以还好。

有的时候,很多儿时的伙伴过来陪我打牌聊天,所以,还好。

在晚上的时候我还可以无限的仰望夜空,所以,还好。
现在渐入冬天,我不用每天赤裸裸的面对那道长长的丑陋的如同蜈蚣似的疤痕,所以,还好。

我的头脑没有问题,我还能学习,所以,还好。

我的四肢仍然健全,我还可以活动,所以,还好。

我的视力依旧很好,我还可以看见这世间的温暖,所以,还好。

我没有得传染病,我还可以和我爱的和爱我的人在一起,所以,还好。

在我周围,始终有那么多关心我,鼓励我的朋友,所以,还好。

在我很久之后再上网,你们都还在,一如当初,所以,还好。

在经历了那么那么多之后,我还活着,所以,还好。
一切都还好。

Jishou U students perform ‘Romeo and Juliet’ in Tujia setting, nab runner-up prize
Nov. 4, 2013

JISHOU, HUNAN — Chinese universities have had a Shakespeare competition for the last nine years. This year, Jishou University was first runner-up. Students from the Zhangjiajie campus adapted scenes from Romeo and Juliet to a Tujia minority setting, complete with a Tujia-style wooden home, costumes and songs. Check it out!

[You will see some advertisements first. Sorry about that.]

The Tujia are one of China’s ethnic minorities, and have lived in this part of China for thousands of years. Setting Shakespeare’s blank verse to traditional Tujia songs works surprisingly well.

If the embedded video doesn’t play, try this direct link.

Back in business again
Nov. 22, 2013

JISHOU, HUNAN — I took about 10 days off from blogging, focusing on school work and planning for a short junket to Guangzhou on the 15th to 17th. When I got around to blogging about the trip, I discovered my site was G-O-N-E. Vanished. Desaparecido. Nearly all the files in my public_html directory were missing. I was hacked big time!

Not only that, my webhosts backup server had also had problems, so they had no backups of the files. On the bright side, the databases were untouched, so rebuilding the site is not a big deal. Just a nuisance.

Thanks so fucking much, Mr Hacker Dude. It’s not like I have anything else to do this afternoon.

So, depending on when you visit this site, it may look different than before. I am considering changing to another theme, but for right now it’s the same look as before. I need to re-enable the plugins I had running, and take care of a few other cosmetic items first.

Other than that, I’m fine. How’s your day going?

The new Wheat-dogg’s World
Nov. 22, 2013

JISHOU, HUNAN — Same old stuff in a bright, new package!

While rebuilding the site this afternoon was a pain in the butt, considering all the other things on my To-Do list, the result is quite pleasing, if I do say so myself. The most noticeable change is the new theme, called Montezuma, created by the same shop that made the last theme, Atahualpa. I’ve moved from a three-column format to a two-column design, but may return to three-columns in the future.

A few plugins have changed. The weather plugin I had before was eight years old, and I’ve switched to a new one developed by Weather Underground. For social networking, I’ve switched to the AddThis plugin, which offers the usual social media, as well two of the most popular social networks in China, Sina Weibo and Qzone. WPTouch should be offering a mobile-ready site to mobile users, as before.

Wordbooker, which links my Facebook status and the blog, may or may not be working. The webserver seems to be blocking some curl_exec functions.

Given the situation I was left in this week, with a demolished site and no decent backups, I’ve added a new plugin, UpDraft, which will automatically back everything up to my GoogleDrive on a regular schedule — files, media, databases, the whole shebang. It seems I can’t depend on my webhost to take care of this necessary task. Grumble, grumble.

Left to do:

  • Cosmetic changes. I’d like either to superimpose the banner over the banner image or fill the white space to the right of the banner with the search box and perhaps the weather info, which are now widgets in the right sidebar.
  • Content recovery. All of my media files are gone. So, any graphics, photos, videos or audio files I uploaded are now missing, and the pertinent blogs have nice empty white squares. That’s going to take time, because I need to inspect each blog one by one and make the necessary corrections. Bleah.
  • More content recovery. I had another WordPress site for my students to use, containing lecture notes and PowerPoint presentations for the British Literature and Western Culture courses I taught. I still need to restore that, too. Again, the database is intact, but the WP files and associated media are all gone.

Meanwhile, I have two recommendation letters to write, a final exam to prepare, juniors to interview for their final assessments, and weekend classes to teach. So, now that I’ve got the necessary website items taken care of, it’s time to be a teacher again.

Guest blog: Carla Wu — Such is life
Nov. 22, 2013

YUEYANG, HUNAN — My friend, Carla Wu {吴双), wrote this last week in her Qzone. I’ve taken the liberty of translating it (with a lot of help from Google Translate!) and reposting it here.

You can see the original here.
———-

Such is life. We not only cannot change the past, we cannot predict the future. Up to now, I still cannot believe, but it is already the case, and suddenly it is so. No accidents, no remorse, no discomfort, no resistance. I have it accepted all with calm, and even faint excitement.

Photos of my hospitalization have been published before, and just-after-surgery photos have also, but here are a few pictures from the end of it.

Carla-black dressThis one (left) should be just after recovering from chemotherapy. It had not yet finished off my hair. (Hard to keep one’s hair rooted in one’s head. This feeling is actually not a very good memory, not just one, but another one, and another one — looking at my fallen hair, I found that it was like in a horror film.) On this day, the sun was very good, I feel okay and on my own went down the corridor. Who could know? It’s not long, but I went to the bathroom, got inside and fainted to the ground. I felt like I’m dying, slowly leaning on the wall, not calling out for help, gradually my effort and awareness faded, and then I went down . Perhaps many people expected as much, and I was lucky, the hospital doctors and nurses came quickly, and afterward I slowly woke up. However, when the camera took this image, I did not know this would happen; then I was still very happy, finally being brought into the sunlight.

me-Carla
This is in the hospital (right), many of my friends came to see me. Looking at these photos I know just how bad a state I was in. I did not comb my hair, the cabinets were not organized, messes everywhere. The day after National Day [Oct. 1], my state was not good, because of the effect of the drugs. Before this, I had not eaten for several days, even had no strength to speak. At noon, several classmates came and I ate a few mouthfuls of porridge. When this photo was taken in the afternoon, I barely was able to sit propped up and say a few words, almost all my energy was spent. But my heart was still very happy. During hospitalization, I got a lot of encouragement and help from many friends, it was a great comfort and satisfaction. I can’t thank you each one by one, please forgive me.

Carla-home1This is the picture (far left) after I was discharged home. My hair has completely fallen out, I can only rely on a hat to cover it. It appears as if I will be home for awhile, albeit temporarily.

Carla-home2This one at left is after I was home for a few days, my spirit and body are recovering well, and I began putting on weight.

Carla-home3This is a recent photograph (right). Hunan weather has begun to enter a random pattern, 28-29 degrees yesterday and today suddenly only 9-13 degrees. We cannot know how to dress, for summer and winter weather come in random alternating patterns. Anyway, I have all the equipment to spend the winter. Secretly I will tell you that I have successfully gained 10 kg [22 pounds].

The cut leg muscles are slowly healing, although up to now, the wound is still numb. I see the scar, but I also try to remember the pain. Although movement is no longer so easy as it was in the past. I still feel that without a wheelchair or crutches, this battle is a particularly happy thing. I now drink bowls of bitter stuff every day[1], I hate it, suffering terribly. It’s extremely difficult to drink. Moreover, the most painful thing is that many, many delicious foods I can no longer eat.

So be it, now I have to wash down my medicine.

[1] Carla is referring to the Traditional Chinese Medicine a doctor in her hometown has prescribed, to help her deal with nausea and weakness caused by the chemotherapy. As of today, Carla is back in Changsha for another round of chemo. When I chatted with her this morning, she was doing well.

生活就是这样,既无法改变过去,又无法预知未来。我到现在,我都还不敢相信,已经是这样了,突然就这样了。没有意外,没有悔恨,没有难受,没有反抗,我平静的接受了所有,甚至还有隐隐的兴奋。
住院前的照片都已经找不到了,刚做完手术后的照片也已经找不回来了,发几张后面的图片吧。
这应该是刚接受化疗后的照片,刚刚开始从化疗的状态中开始恢复,还没掉完头发呢。(看着自己辛苦留下来的长发,一根根脱离脑部,这种感受其实不是很好受的,不是一次性,而是一根一根,一把一把的掉,看着自己掉下的头发,发现,恐怖片也不过如此。)那天阳光很好,我自我感觉还行就自己走到了走廊上。谁知,没多久,不过去了趟洗手间,从里面出来就晕倒在地上。我知道自己快不行了,扶着墙壁慢慢走,想呼唤也怎么也发不出声音,渐渐没了力气和意识,然后就倒下去了。也许,很多人就这样意外了,我很幸运,医院医生护士很尽职,一番慌忙过后我就慢慢醒了。不过,在拍照的时候我还不知道会这样,那时还是很高兴的,终于可以重见天日。

这是在住院期间,很多朋友都过来看我。后来看照片我才知道,我那时的状态多么糟糕,头发也没梳,柜子也没整理,到处乱糟糟的。那天,刚好是国庆节,我的状态并不好,由于药物的作用,还是觉得很难受,在这之前,已经连续好几天没有吃过东西,连睁眼说话的力气都没有。中午,几个同学过来,喝了几口白粥。拍照的时候已经是下午了。撑着身子坐着,勉强和他们说几句话,几乎耗费了全部的精力,不过,心里还是很高兴。住院期间,得到了很多很多朋友的鼓励和帮助,实在是一个很大的安慰和满足,就不一一感谢了,请自觉对号入座。

这是出院回家后的图片了,头发已经掉光,只能靠帽子来遮掩。看上去,好像状态还好,回家了嘛,尽管只是暂时的。

这个时候应该是回家有几天了,精神和身体都恢复得很好,又开始发胖了。

这是最近的照片。湖南天气又开始进入了随机模式,昨天还28,29度,今天突然就只有9到13度了,我们只能重新开启乱穿衣模式,冬夏季节随意交替的感受不好啊。不知道别人是什么状态,反正我的冬天装备已经全部用上了。偷偷告诉大家,我已经成功增肥了10斤。

腿上切掉的肌肉也慢慢长起来了,尽管到现在,伤口的一边还是麻木的,没有知觉的。尽管到现在,我看到疤痕,还会回想起当时的痛苦。尽管,行动再也不如以往那么方便。我还是觉得,不用坐轮椅拄拐仗是一件特别幸福的事情。这是我现在每天都要喝几碗的东西,我恨死它了,苦得要命,难喝至极。而且,最痛苦的莫过于,好多好多好吃的我都不能吃了。
就这样吧,我又得喝药了

Thanksgiving 2013
Nov. 29, 2013

JISHOU, HUNAN — First, I am going to pimp my mention in NPR’s Protojournalist blog. They invited expats around the world to contribute short reports on how we were celebrating the holiday. None of my photos on Instagram got used, but you can see a few of them here.

Thursday is a work day for me this term. I have morning Oral English classes till just before noon. The only Western holiday we foreign teachers have off is Christmas, and only a day at that, so all other holidays are working days for me. It’s just something you have to accept as expat. On the bright side, Chinese universities typically take four to six weeks off for winter holiday and six weeks off for the summer, plus there are other shorter holidays scattered throughout the year.

After classes, I met Laura Liu for lunch. I have mentioned her in an earlier post about my students. Laura and I are close friends, but she had other plans for dinner, so we met for lunch at a place downtown that serve noodles Yunnan style. It’s one of my favorite places to eat in Jishou, and I hadn’t been there for months. The service is unique. The server brings out thinly sliced bits of meat and fish, vegetables, mushrooms, and tiny eggs (I’m not sure from which kind of bird) first. Then, a covered clay pot containing boiling broth comes out. The server drops the eggs in first, then the meat, mushers and veggies, and puts the lid back on. A few minutes later, the server returns with soft rice noodles, which are added to the pot and the dish is now ready to eat. Delicious!

Tomato and egg (with Joyce's love)

Tomato and egg (with Joyce’s love)


For dinner, several juniors from class G4 had offered to come to my flat to cook dinner. But, my house was a mess — dishes in the sink, stains on the countertop, and the living room floor hadn’t been mopped in a week. So, I did a blitz cleaning of the flat, and still had time for a short nap before 4 pm, when they planned to arrive.

Diced pork with cucumbers and chilies

Diced pork with cucumbers and chilies

Eight students came. One, “Trans” Li, has been my student the last two years. Six others were all transfers from junior colleges, and new to me and Jishou since September. The last was not even my student, but still a student in our college. The best part: I didn’t need to do a thing, except tell them where the rice and kitchen things were. I could take photos and chat with the girls who were not busy with food prep and cooking.

Braised fish with chili pepper

Braised fish with chili pepper and garlic

Here’s a brief rundown of the food items. Fruit salad with dressing (With cucumbers! It actually works.) Sliced huái shān (淮山 wild yams), cooked with a little chili pepper until hot but still crunchy. Diced pork with chili pepper. Braised fish with chilies and garlic. Boiled fish with chilies and fresh cilantro. Shoestring potatoes lightly fried in oil. Tomatoes and egg. Preserved (“thousand-year-old”) eggs. Chinese cabbage. Diced pork with cucumber and cilantro (and chilies). And lots of rice.

Cook Amy Gong presents her contribution

Cook Amy Gong presents her contribution


My Nikon D60 is out for repairs, so I am relying on my cellphone camera and the photos Trans Li (short for “translator,” btw) took before her camera batteries died. In all, there were 12 of us in my tiny flat: the eight students, James, my fellow American teacher, and Ukrainians Tanya and Irina, who teach voice and dance, respectively, in the music college. And we still had leftovers.

Some of the happy party: from left, Amy G, Lilyth, me, Tanya, Irina, Joyce, Joanna

Some of the happy party: from left, Amy G, Lilyth, me, Tanya, Irina, Joyce, Joanna

Every Thanksgiving here has been different each time. On three occasions, we ate out. Yesterday’s feast was the third that took place in my home, or someone else’s. This one was more international than earlier ones, since I invited my Ukrainian neighbors to join us. Each one has been a happy, enjoyable affair, with good food, great company and friendship. I got to talk with (and pose for photos with) some of my newer students, which took down some of the barriers that language teachers need to breach to get their students speaking their target language. And the food was wonderful. The four cooks, we all agreed, should open a restaurant outside the school.

Chatting on the couch

Chatting on the couch

Working abroad, apart from your family, can be hard on some people. It’s one reason why many working abroad eventually return to their home country. I will admit, I miss my kids and my extended family, not to mention all the familiar Thanksgiving Day foods and customs (the Macy’s parade!). I know they miss me. I have not been part of a family holiday going on six years now. So, I am thankful for my family’s willingness to put up with my absence, and thankful for the opportunity to forge new friendships in my new home here in Jishou. I am also thankful that the world is full of caring, generous people who welcome strangers into their midst.

I hope everyone reading this has a great holiday. Mazel tov.

Wherein I dip my toe into the bitcoin sea
Dec. 13, 2013

bitcoin1JISHOU, HUNAN — Bitcoin may be the greatest thing since hard money, or the biggest flop since the 17th century tulip bulb bust, but I wanted to give it a try, just in case I could make some money.

Bitcoin is a computer- and Internet-based currency, although some say it’s more a commodity than a kind of money. It’s decentralized, meaning there is no one authority (like a national bank system) controlling it, and it’s virtual, meaning it exists only in digital form. As I write this, 1 Bitcoin (BTC1.0) is worth about US$864, a considerable decline from the week before, when it crossed the $1,000 mark.

How do you get bitcoins? There are four ways. Sell something for bitcoins. Trade something for bitcoins. “Mine” bitcoins on a computer. Buy bitcoins with regular, old-fashioned money. A fifth way, stealing bitcoins, is supposed to be nearly impossible, because bitcoin “wallets” and transactions are heavily encrypted. Hence the alternate name for bitcoin and its many cousins: crypto-currencies.

Well, I wanted to get ahold of some bitcoins and another crypto-currency, peercoin. This was last week, when both were flying high relative to the dollar. I had nothing to sell or trade. My mid-range Lenovo notebook lacks the necessary computing power to mine bitcoins. So, my best and only option was to spend money and buy them.

Being a complete n00b, I stumbled around in the dark before discovering two sites that make it easy to buy bitcoin. I also found a bazillion others that make it less intuitive, if not downright shady.

Coinbase.com is based in San Francisco. You register for free, and once you link a US-based bank account to your Coinbase account and get it verified with a micro-deposit and withdrawal, you can buy up to BTC10. Coinbase seems well on its way to be the Amazon.com of bitcoinage in the USA, judging from this article at TechCrunch.

[If you want a simple introduction to bitcoin and Coinbase, TechCrunch has an interview with Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong. I tried to embed it, but had no luck.]

After stumbling around sites that are primarily geared toward dollar, euro and ruble exchanges, I found two China-based sites — btcchina.com and rmbtb.com — that allow you to exchange Chinese renminbi for bitcoin. As it turns out, the Chinese are just gaga over bitcoin, probably because it provides an easy and relatively cheap way to convert renminbi into dollars, British pounds or euros. Such exchanges are also (so far) not closely monitored by Chinese authorities, who are likely using them, too, come to think of it.

Because it has a better English interface, I chose rmbtb.com. One big difference between it and Coinbase is the manner of transfer. Coinbase wants a direct link to your bank account. Using an intermediary, such as PayPal, is not possible. In fact, I found most bitcoin exchange sites consider PayPal radioactive, at least for deposits, because it permits chargebacks. Rmbtb.com, however, allows you to use two PayPal-like services in China, Alipay and Tenpay. I already have an Alipay account, so it was a fairly simple matter to move some renminbi from my Chinese bank account to rmbtb.com via Alipay.

Now, I was also interested in peercoin (PPC), which is less known than bitcoin, but which some gurus say will be even better in the long run than bitcoin. It’s also much cheaper right now than bitcoin, like about $5 for each peercoin. My original plan was to buy peercoin directly, skipping bitcoin completely, but I soon discovered going from dollars or yuan to peercoin is well nigh impossible without using wire transfers, or intermediaries that charge fees up to 10%. Wire transfers are too costly for small investments, and the exchanger websites are not exactly forthcoming in how much personal information you need to provide them before they allow you to use their services.

[One exchange site, paxum.com, asks for Social Security number, address, phone, date of birth, and a lot of other stuff that gave me the willies. It seems quite reputable, but that much information in the wrong hands could lead to easy identity theft. So, no thanks, Paxum.]

So, after stumbling around the labyrinth of exchangers, I gave up the idea of buying peercoin directly and went to one of the biggest exchanges, btc-e.com.

All told, I have about $240 tied up in this game, which is all I care to risk for the moment. As of this writing, my cryptocoins together are worth about $265. As long as bitcoin’s value against the dollar keeps rising, I should be OK. Peercoin has yet to gain any momentum upward.

The reaction to bitcoin by the USA and China, among other nations, has been interesting. Rather than shutdown bitcoin trading entirely, the US government has decided that Coinbase and other US-based exchangers have to perform due diligence on the identities of their users, to reduce the chance using crypto-currencies for illegal activity.

This requirement incidentally also makes it easier for the Internal Revenue Service to track trading in bitcoins. We expats are well aware that the long arm of the IRS extends around the world. We have to file our tax forms every year, and pay US income tax on our foreign income (above a fairly lofty sum I doubt I’ll ever reach). So, trying to use bitcoins as a way to stash money out of sight of the IRS is going to be harder.

Incidentally, American tax and bank reporting requirements mean that banks in cooperating countries with American accountholders have to tell the IRS how much those Americans have stashed on their offshore accounts. While several national governments have agreed to these requirements, many banks around the world are now refusing American customers. Even two of the online cryptocurrency exchanges I found expressly state they will not accept American customers, no matter where they live.

China, meanwhile, told its banks earlier this month they cannot trade bitcoins, but have not restricted individual Chinese from doing so. Right after this announcement, the value of bitcoin plunged from about $1,000 to less than $700, and has slowly been climbing up toward the $1,000 level since. Curiously, the Chinese government does not seem too worried about Chinese exporting their renminbi offshore via bitcoin, despite national restrictions on how much currency can be taken out of the country. The Chinese are major players in the bitcoin market, so Beijing’s sly acceptance of bitcoin may enable the currency to gain traction.

As this analysis in Salon.com says, this kind of government attention and regulation is just what bitcoin fans hope to avoid with their pet currency. The original concept of bitcoin, and its various cousins, was to create a currency free from central authority and regulation. Rather, the bitcoin network is supposed to self-policing and self-regulating. Now, some hardcore believers want to create a completely anonymous currency, in which no one would know who owns how much coin. [But how would you buy such a currency, I wonder?]

For the European Union’s reaction to bitcoin, check out this report in The New York Times.

Governments and law enforcement agencies hate the idea of completely anonymous, unregulated (and untaxed) financial instruments. Bitcoin is testing the limits (or the patience) of government authority. It may go the way of e-gold, killed by allegations of money laundering and illegal activity, and its own weaknesses, or it may become the 21st century version of pork bellies. Meanwhile, I’ll see if I can make some coin, as it were.

Chinese probe touches down on lunar surface, sends back photos
Dec. 14, 2013

JISHOU, HUNAN — The Chang’E 3 lunar lander successfully touched down on the Moon earlier today, becoming another feather in China’s space exploration cap. After a short radio blackout, it sent back photos of its approach.

Chang'e 3's lunar approach

Chang’E 3’s lunar approach (CCTV13 photo)

Chang’E, named after the Chinese moon goddess 嫦娥, carries a six-wheeled rover, Jade Rabbit (yu tu 玉兔), also a figure in Chinese mythology. The rover, which resembles the NASA rovers exploring Mars, will deploy in a few hours to begin a three-month mission.

China is only the third nation to soft-land a spacecraft on the Moon, following the former Soviet Union and the USA. The lunar project follows China’s successful low-earth orbit manned missions, and is a probable prelude to a manned mission to Earth’s nearest neighbor in the next few decades.

Chang'E 3's landing zone, relative to Luna and Apollo sites

Chang’E 3’s landing zone in Sinus Iridum, relative to Luna 9 and 16 and Apollo 11 sites

The probe has landed far north of landing sites by the Soviet Luna 9 and 16 probes, landing in 1966 and 1970, respectively, and the Apollo 11 landing in 1969. India and Japan have also sent missions to the Moon, but have not had soft landings. The last soft landing was by the Soviet Luna 24 probe, in 1976.

More details are available at Space.com.

The story of Chang’E (version 1)
Dec. 14, 2013

Once upon a time, there was a beautiful little girl living in the palace of the Jade Emperor in Heaven. Her name was Chang’E 嫦娥. One day, she broke the Jade Emperor’s favorite porcelain jar. Angered, he banished her to live among the mortals on Earth.

Now an ordinary human, and not a goddess, Chang’E became a simple farm girl in a well-to-do family. She grew up to be stunningly beautiful young woman. A farm boy, HouYi, fell in love with her, and they became friends. Then one day, a strange thing happened. Ten suns appeared in the sky, which would scorch the Earth and kill all the people. HouYi was an expert archer. He climbed to the top of the highest mountain, and shot down nine of the suns with his arrows. He became a hero, was made the king and of course, he married Chang’E.

But fame and fortune made HouYi a little crazy. He was a cruel king, and greedy. He wanted to be immortal, like the gods. So, he spent a lot of money to get a magic pill to preserve his life. Being a little careless, King HouYi left the pill on his bedside table. Chang’E, thinking it was a sweet, ate the pill. Just then, the king entered his room, and ran toward Chang’E in anger. Fearing for her life, she jumped out the window!

Chang’E did not fall. Because she was born in heaven, she already had been an immortal. The pill gave immortality back to her, but it also made her very light. She kept rising and rising and rising. HouYi tried to shoot her down, but he failed. Chang’E kept flying up and up until she reached the Moon!

The Jade Rabbit on the Moon

The Jade Rabbit on the Moon

She had always worn a jade rabbit around her neck. Once she arrived on the Moon, the rabbit came alive, to keep her from feeling lonely living on the Moon by herself. Even today, you can see the rabbit on the Moon’s face.

As for HouYi, he felt very bad at what he had done. He tried to join his beautiful Chang’E on the Moon, but he failed. Instead, he rose up to the Sun, and built a palace there. Now, the two of them circle around the Earth, sometimes passing by each other, but never meeting.

[In Taoism, Chang’E and the Moon represent yin, and HouYi and the Sun represent yang.]

The story of Chang’E (version 2)
Dec. 14, 2013

HouYi watches Chang’E rise up

Once upon a time, there were two immortals who lived in the palace of the Jade Emperor in heaven. Their names were HouYi, an expert archer, and Chang’E, his beautiful wife. One day, the ten sons of the Jade Emperor turned themselves into ten suns. The people of Earth cried to the gods to help them, because the suns were too hot and would scorch the Earth.

Chang’E and HouYi took pity on the people of Earth. HouYi took his bow and arrow, and shot down nine of the ten suns, leaving only one to keep the Earth warm for the people there. The people of Earth were very happy, of course, but the Jade Emperor was not. HouYi had killed nine of his ten sons! As punishment, he banished HouYi and Chang’E to live as ordinary people on the Earth.

Now an ordinary woman, Chang’E feared growing old and losing her great beauty. HouYi loved his wife very much, and looked far and wide for something to help her. Finally, HouYi found the Witch of the West, who made him a magic pill that would give anyone immortality. But she told him, “I have made one pill for you to share with Chang’E. Only eat half of the pill each!”

HouYi returned home and placed the magic pill in a special box. He told Chang’E not to touch it until he came back from running some errands. She agreed, but finally curiosity got the better of her. Chang’E opened the box and took the magic pill out of it. She walked outside, examining the pill. Just then, she heard HouYi coming home.

Startled, Chang’E didn’t want HouYi to know she had taken the pill from the box, so she decided to hide in her mouth. But, when HouYi came outside holding the now-empty box, she got scared and swallowed it!

Right away, Chang’E started to float up into the air. HouYi tried to grab her feet to keep her down, but he couldn’t reach her in time. Up, up, she went, until finally she reached the Moon. Now, she was immortal, and could never die. But her beloved husband was still on Earth.

Chang’E was not entirely alone there. The Jade Rabbit also lived on the Moon, where he made the elixir that kept the gods immortal. The two of them became good friends.

As for HouYi, the loss of Chang’E changed him from a kind and helpful man, to a cruel and selfish one. He quarreled with one his archery pupils, who in anger hit him with a club, killing him. Because he was a former immortal, HouYi’s spirit rose to the Sun, where he built a fine, golden palace. He and Chang’E both circle the Earth, sometimes passing near each other, but they can never meet.

The Story of the Jade Rabbit (Yu Tu)
Dec. 15, 2013

The Jade Rabbit on the Moon

The Jade Rabbit on the Moon

Long ago, three bodhisattvas decided to test the character of the animals. They chose the fox, the monkey and the rabbit for their first test.

The bodhisattvas disguised themselves as starving beggars, and each asked the fox, the monkey and the rabbit for food.

The fox immediately ran off, stole a farmer’s chicken, and presented it to the first beggar. The immortal refused it, saying it was stolen and a poor offering.

The monkey scampered into the trees, and came back with two bunches of bananas. The second bodhisattva also refused the offering, because the monkey only did what the beggar himself could do.

The poor rabbit, who only ate grass and leaves, knew he had nothing to offer. So, he asked the third immortal to make a cook fire. Once the fire was ready, he threw himself into the flames, saying the men could eat his flesh.

But the rabbit was unharmed by the fire. The immortals were so impressed by the rabbit’s generosity, that they let him live forever in the Moon Palace. They honored him further by placing his likeness on the Moon for all the world to see. If you look carefully at the full moon, you can see him, standing next to the pot he uses to make the Elixir of Eternal Life for the immortals.

———–

This is very loosely adapted from the Japanese Konjaku Monogatarishū, which is itself adapted from the Buddhist Jataka, or tales of the Buddha, from the 4th century BC. The transmission of the tales came first to China, then Japan, as Buddhism spread north and east from India.

The Chinese idea that a rabbit lives on the Moon comes from the Chu Ci 楚辞, Chinese poems of the 3rd century BC — the Warring States period. The Han poets imagined that the rabbit 玉兔, who is white like the finest jade, spends his time pounding herbs into the elixir that gives the immortals everlasting life.

These stories and the tale of the goddess Chang’E are told to children during the Mid-Autumn (Moon) Festival, which usually falls in late September or early October in the Western calendar.

Bitcoin update: Trading Chinese renminbi just got harder
Dec. 17, 2013

rmbtb.com logo

rmbtb.com logo

JISHOU, HUNAN — Bitcoin’s value against the dollar has dropped dramatically these last few days, bouncing between US$600 and $700. Meanwhile, China’s restriction on bank trading has cut off one of my channels to convert renminbi into bitcoins.

I found this message from rmbtb.com today.

Dear users,

Due to recent requirements by the People’s Bank of China, AliPay can no longer be used as a deposit or withdrawal method.

Users with existing CNY balances at the time of this announcement will be allowed to withdraw CNY using AliPay prior to 21 December 2013, when the AliPay function will be completely removed. Other users have had their AliPay withdrawal limit reduced to zero.

We have also tightened the withdrawal limits on Tenpay to 3,000 CNY. Please bear this in mind when selling BTC.

We are searcing for reliable new payment options, and will update in the future when these are available.

Alipay is a PayPal-like service in China. I’ve used it mostly for online shopping at www.taobao.com, but as with PayPal, you can also use to send money to an email address. Alipay uses the Bank of China as the conduit, and the government forbade banks from dealing in bitcoin earlier this month. So, no more transfers to rmbtb.com.

Tenpay is a similar service by Tencent Inc., makers of the QQ and WeChat instant messaging apps. I don’t have a Tenpay account, and I rather suspect transfers through it will also be shut off.

This change means my only option to buy bitcoins now is to go through Coinbase.

Since the Chinese were major players in bitcoin markets, it’s not hard to see why bitcoin prices against national currencies (which bitcoiners like to call “fiat currencies”) have dropped precipitously this month from a high arund $1,000. Preventing China’s banks from dealing in bitcoin means they are now reluctant to let their accountholders trade renminbi for bitcoin, which has in turn choked off demand.

As wonderful as bitcoin is as an idea, in practice we still need to pay our bills and buy stuff with normal currencies. Making it difficult to exchange BTC for national currencies will relegate bitcoin into a niche market from which it may never escape.

Go to Chapter 7 –>

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