The China Chronicles, chapter 7 (2014)

— Back to Chapter 6

Happy New Year!
Dec. 31, 2013

JISHOU, HUNAN — Maybe the ball in Times Square hasn’t dropped yet, but here in China it is now 2014.

My New Year’s Eve was spent giving final exams all day, except for the usual 2.5 hour midday break. I spent my evening catching up on Arrow and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., and am looking forward to the next several days of relative peace and quiet — aside from reading exams and calculating grades.

Classes are over, my exams are done, and all the holiday parties have been put to bed. More about those later.

May your every day be happy and bright! 新年快乐! Xin nian kuai le!

Bitcoin update: Haven’t lost my shirt yet
Jan. 14, 2014

JISHOU, HUNAN — My “shirt” shrank a little, however, because the value of Bitcoin against the dollar has dropped from $864 to about $820 in the last four weeks. I’m still in the game, but bearish on the market for now.

Not that it’s easy for me to get Bitcoins in China anymore.

China’s financial overseers have choked off access to Bitcoin by forbidding China’s banks and third-party payment services — similar to PayPal — from trading in the crypto-currency. The big Bitcoin exchanges here, BTC-China, Huobi and OKCoin, soldier on, however. They have found ways to get around government restrictions, but they are not especially convenient.

So, if I want to buy Bitcoins, I can transfer money from my Chinese bank to my American bank, then pull money from the American bank to fund my account at Coinbase, where I can buy Bitcoins. Easy, right?

Aside from mining Bitcoins (see below), most people who want to own Bitcoins now have to exchange a fiat currency, like dollars or euros, for them. If that is hard to do, then most people will just forget the whole thing. Coinbase in the USA makes it fairly easy, but Bitcoins are a solution looking for a problem. Why bother using Bitcoins if plain old dollars (or euros, etc.) can do the same thing?

Maybe Bitcoins will be like the laser, which was a neat bit of technology when it was invented in 1960, but with no foreseeable practical use. The laser was described as “a solution looking for a problem.” It found first use in scientific research. Now, lasers are ubiquitous — in our DVD players, cash register scanners, industrial cutting equipment, police speed detectors, and a host of other applications.

For now, though, Bitcoins are a boutique currency, or investment, or pastime — however you choose to describe it — with limited public appeal.

While the USA has cautiously accepted Bitcoins and other crypto-currencies as a kind of commodity, to be traded like crude oil or pork bellies, China’s response has been to sharply restrict trading. As Bitcoin values passed the $1,000 mark early last month, the Chinese government abruptly banned banks from trading in crypto-currencies. The new policy quenched the bull market like a bucket of water on a campfire, and Bitcoin values dropped below $500 in a few hours.

With the new banking restrictions, the Chinese exchanges have found different work-arounds to allow customers to use yuan to get Bitcoins. BTC-China has created electronic vouchers, which can be bought on, one of China’s biggest online shopping malls, for yuan. You trade the voucher for Bitcoins at BTC-China. It’s like the cards you see in American stores to put minutes on your T-mobile plan, or fund your iTunes account.

As for the other two, Huobi’s president had set up a personal bank account to handle exchanges. Buyers would transfer money from their bank accounts to his, either online, in the bank or by ATM, with their Bitcoin address in the memo field. Apparently, he has since switched to using a corporate account, which competitor OKCoin had already done.

So far, China’s banking authorities have not clamped down on any of these gray-area swaps.

Chinese consumers see great advantages in Bitcoin, not just as an investment but also as a way to easily turn yuan — the other common name for Chinese renminbi (RMB) — into euros, pounds or dollars, and coincidentally get their money offshore. The government probably took a dim view of either practice, and clamped down on trade to keep all that RMB at home.

I have not bought any more Bitcoin since last month. My shared mining account at dribbles BTC slowly into my Bitcoin wallet. It’s not a gusher of money by any means, but as long as BTC/USD rates don’t crash, I’m making money, albeit very, very slowly.

[At the same time, I am mining other altcoins, like namecoin (NMC), devcoin (DVC) and iXcoin (IXC). They are sort of like Bitcoin’s little brothers and sisters, with dollar values far below big brother BTC’s.]

In poking around possible Bitcoin exchange methods, I stumbled upon Ripple, which was unveiled last year. Ripple uses a completely self-contained crypto-currency to facilitate payments or money transfers between account holders. One Ripple unit (1 XRP) is worth about one US cent now, but the exchange rate is not fixed.

If you have a Ripple online wallet, you can use a “gateway,” in their terminology, to turn dollars (or yuan) into XRP, and another gateway to turn XRP into some other currency. A gateway is a bit like a tollbooth giving you access to the Ripple “highway.”

In China, it’s possible to buy Ripple vouchers on Taobao to fund your Ripple wallet. Then you can exchange XRP (a lot of XRP!) to buy Bitcoins right on the Ripple website. Like the BTC vouchers mentioned above, the process is cumbersome, and probably won’t catch on.

You can also fund a Ripple account with Bitcoin through a gateway. I did this for kicks, and I have 100 XRP now (about $1). The developer of Ripple and XRP, Ripple Labs, has a “giveaway” that rewards you for participating in a distributed computing project, such as cancer or HIV DNA sequencing. That’s earned me about 5 XRP (5 cents) so far.

What will I do with this vast wealth? Right now, not much. Shop at Dollar General? It’s for the experience, I suppose, of being paid for doing something that requires little effort on my part. If the university weren’t paying my electric bill, I’d probably be losing money, since the computer needs power to do the DNA project calculations.

Speaking of which, Bloomberg Businessweek had a write-up on the 9th about the Bitcoin “mining war.” One of the miners interviewed, Joel Flickinger of Oakland, Calif., has two units that together cost more than $20,000, and rack up a monthly electric bill of $400.

He’s mined more than 100 BTC so far, which means he’s made a tidy profit (100BTC = $820,000 now), assuming he converts some of those Bitcoins into dollars. It’s a volatile market. If the BTC/USD exchange rate drops precipitously, he could lose his initial investment.

Mining is the term bitcoiners have adopted to describe the validation process used by the computers in the Bitcoin network. They don’t actually “make” Bitcoins. Each computer runs calculations to verify transactions entered automatically into the network, as a kind of code-breaking puzzle.* Units that solve the puzzle are rewarded with Bitcoins. Businessweek has a more detailed explanation, with an interactive graphic to illustrate the process.

* When I was younger, the local newspaper carried a game, Crypto-Quote, on the same page as the crossword. It was a simple letter-substitution code, a=e, b=t, and so on. The Bitcoin puzzles are much harder to crack, and become more difficult as more people use Bitcoins, so you need a lot of computing power to solve them.

Bitcoin update 2: I was wrong, my shirt got bigger
Jan. 16, 2014

JISHOU, HUNAN — My last post got it wrong. My Bitcoin shirt did not shrink. It stretched.

I took time today to do a proper accounting of my Bitcoin and related activity. I am ahead of my initial investment by about 18%, or about $50! Frankly, I’m a bit surprised, since Bitcoin values against the dollar are a little lower than they were when I first bought in last month.

One of my strategies has been to diversify. Bitcoin is not the only crypto-currency. It gets the most press, and has the largest value against national currencies, but there are other altcoins available, too.

My Bitcoin assets are about $115. In addition, I have smaller holdings in Peercoin (PPC), Namecoin (NMC), Litecoin (LTC), Devcoin (DVC) and iXcoin (IXC). These all trade separately from Bitcoin. The last two count for very little at this point, with dollar values measured in pennies to the altcoin. They’re like the penny stocks of the altcoin world.

In addition, I have counted my portion of a mining system at as an asset. While it is an expense (I had to buy it), it’s also easily sold as a commodity at at market prices. That alone is worth about $75.

So, the total value is about $323 on an initial investment of about $273, based on today’s markets. That’s not bad at all, considering crypto values have been pretty flat since the second week of December, when I decided to dip my toe in the water.

Meanwhile, I’ve come across a lecture series about Bitcoin at It’s clear, and walks you through the intricacies of what Bitcoin is, how it’s traded, and why it’s such a big thing. Best of all, it’s free! You’ll need to register at, but that is also free.

Udemy offers other courses, as well. Many are free. Others you have to pony up some cash (not Bitcoins, — not yet, anyway).

Chinese rocker censored, refuses to appear on New Year gala show
Jan. 20, 2014

Cui Jian in 2007

JISHOU, HUNAN — China’s “godfather of rock,” Cui Jian (崔健), has refused to appear in the annual CCTV New Year Gala program, because censors told him he could not perform one of his big hits.

“Nothing to My Name” (一无所有 Yì Wú Suǒ Yǒu) was the unofficial anthem of the 1989 Tian’anmen Square student protest, which the government would rather the Chinese public not remember, or even know about.

Nearly everyone in China watches the CCTV New Year Gala, which this year will be aired Jan. 30. That’s a lot of people. Cui, 52, wanted to perform the 1986 hit, but TV censors said no go.

Rather than acquiesce to their demands, Cui canceled his appearance.

Iconic 1989 photo:
A lone student stares down a line of tanks

In spring 1989 Beijing students took to the streets, demanding greater democracy and freedom in China. A huge crowd of students occupied Tian’anmen Square for nearly seven weeks. Martial law was declared on May 20, and on June 4 and 5, the government sent in hundreds of thousands of soldiers, some in tanks and helicopters, to crush the protests. There were reportedly thousands of casualties.

Before the crackdown, Cui had given a concert to the students during their hunger strike in Tian’anmen Square. Later, he toured China, until his political statements — such as performing one song with a red blindfold on — landed him in trouble with authorities. He was refused permission to give more concerts — a ban that wasn’t lifted until 2005 — and his lyrics were censored.

Album art from 1986

Perhaps emboldened by the less restrictive attitude, Cui may have been testing Chinese authorities with his choice of song.

The Tian’anmen Square incident is one of China’s “open secrets” — something that is known by many, but never spoken about. Official histories of China say nothing about it, and web searches are blocked by Internet censors. [I just tried looking up the Wikipedia entry, by the way, unsuccessfully.] It’s likely that many young Chinese born after 1989 know nothing about the protest and the violent reprisals by the government.

Despite the official secrecy, Cui’s fans know why he refused to appear, and have given their support over China’s version of Twitter, Sina Weibo.

Here’s a YouTube video of Cui perfoming “Nothing to My Name.”

[The English lyrics are at Cui’s website.]

More details about the story are available below.

The Guardian (UK)
Wikipedia entry for Cui Jian
Cui Jian’s official website

Chinese lunar rover Jade Rabbit may not wake up
Jan. 26, 2014

YuTu lander

YuTu rover on Dec. 16, 2013, as seen from Chang’E lander. Credit: Chinese Academy of Sciences, via Universe Today.

JISHOU, HUNAN — YuTu (玉兔), China’s first lunar rover, is experiencing some mechanical problems as it enters its second night time period on the Moon, worrying earthbound observers.

Night comes to the Moon every two weeks, and temperatures drop below -180°C (-290°F). YuTu is supposed to pull in its antenna and camera, fold up its solar panels and hunker down, keeping itself warm with its radioisotope power source.

Apparently, that process didn’t quite happen, and Chinese space scientists are concerned the little rabbit may not wake up again. They are reportedly scrambling for some way to remotely repair the malfunction.

The lunar lander, Chang’E 3, has also gone into hibernation, but it seems to be OK.

The robotic duo landed last month and quickly sent back images of the landing site in Sinus Iridum, to the delight of the Chinese and space fans worldwide. YuTu, which is named after the mythical rabbit who lives on the Moon with the goddess Chang’E, has traveled 100 meters (about 100 yards) so far.

Emily Lakdawalla has a more detailed report at the Planetary Society website.

Universe Today has several high-res photos, as well. This one was Chang’E’s Christmas gift to Earth.

Earth from the Moon

Merry Christmas, Earth people! Earth as seen by Change”e 3 on the Moon. The eyeball thingies are watermarks for China’s social network, Sina Weibo.

Moving money the modern way
Feb. 2, 2014

JISHOU, HUNAN — You work in China, and get paid in Chinese currency. So how do you send US dollars in your bank account back home quickly and cheaply?

Short answer: PayPal.

Longer answer: keep reading.

Using myself as a real life example. here are the options, ranked from most expensive to least.

  • Bank wire transfer: $15-30 in fees, 2-3 business days for final credit
  • Western Union transfer: basically the same
  • Withdraw cash from an American ATM, using Chinese bank debit card: $7-10 in fees, very quick, but requires physical presence in the USA at the time
  • PayPal: 4% in fees, two websites, 1-2 business days for final credit
  • Bitcoin: 1-2% in fees, three to four websites, 3-4 business days for final credit

The hands-down winner in my case has been #4 for the last four years. Today I tried #5, to test one of the presumed advantages of Bitcoins and similar crypto-currencies — that they make moving money across national borders easy and cheap.

It was a little cheaper than PayPal, and almost as fast. As for easier. not so much.

Bank wire transfers

My contract allows me to take 70% of my monthly pay out and send it home. When I first came to China, the only option I had was to wire money from my Chinese bank to my American bank. It was a laborious process, requiring me to fill out a long form and to have a Chinese resident present to facilitate the exchange and transfer. A Chinese national ID is necessary for wire transfers, at least at my bank here in Jishou.

I had to transfer money from my account to my Chinese friend’s account. Next, it would be converted to dollars in the bank’s computer system and then wired via SWIFT to my US account. The wire fees were $30 total ($15 at each end), and the money took about 2-3 business days to land in my US account.

The whole process was a bit of a pain. It would take about 30 minutes to complete, and I had to drag along a Chinese friend to the bank each time.

I found another way, as you will see.

Western Union

My bank in the USA does not accept Western Union wire transfers, so for bank-to-bank transfers, Western Union is not an option.

For the sake of comparison, I checked online for their fees. Sending $300 (about 1800 RMB) would cost about $15 (90 RMB). Here’s a table from the Western Union-China website showing the fee schedule.

Two banks in China allow you to send Western Union transfers using online banking. Mine is not one of them. The fees are the same, no matter how you send the money, so there is no financial advantage to using online Western Union services in China.

A big advantage of Western Union transfers is that they happen almost instantaenously. That’s useful in an emergency.

ATM withdrawals

When I used a brick-and-mortar bank in the States, I could withdraw money from my Chinese account at an ATM with my China Unionpay debit card, and walk the cash to the bank. Now that I use Ally Bank — which is Internet-only — this procedure would require buying a money order and sending it by mail to Ally.

Of course, I have be in the USA for this transfer to work, so it’s only available once a year. Both my Chinese bank and the ATM bank charge fees, usually no more than $10 in total.


From my days of trading on eBay, I have a PayPal account. When I learned that PayPal had a Chinese operation, I opened an international PayPal account and linked it to my Chinese bank account.

There are two PayPals available in China: one specifically for international payments, and another that’s only for domestic use. The latter competes with two homegrown payment services, Alipay and TenPay, which dominate the domestic market.

So now, my international transfers go like this:

Chinese bank –> China PayPal –> American PayPal –> Ally Bank.

The first three steps take just minutes. It requires visiting only the two PayPal websites. The first allows me to pull money from my Chinese bank and send it to the American PayPal account. From that site, I can send funds to Ally. There’s usually a delay of 1-2 business days for the deposit to be credited. That’s a little faster than a wire transfer, and the front end is much faster and more convenient than slogging over to my bank branch with a friend.

The cost of the transfers depends on the amount sent. Here’s an example. I pulled 726.67 RMB ($120) to send to American PayPal. PayPal charged me about 4% ($4.98) for the transaction, leaving me with $115.02. I then sent $120 to Ally. So, I spent almost $5 to transmit $120 to my American bank.

Quick and easy. Though some people, including me, grouse about PayPal, for international money transfers, it’s really good.


Boosters of Bitcoin and its various offshoots say crypto-currencies will eventually dominate the money transfer market. I have my doubts. For the moment, transferring money across national borders is not substantially easier than using PayPal or Western Union. It ‘s cheaper than both, however.

The attitude of China’s banking authorities toward Bitcoin has been somewhat murky since December, but the Bitcoin exchanges in China have worked out a money transfer system that regulators find acceptable.

BTC-China, Huobi and OKCoin have corporate bank accounts into which customers transfer funds from their bank accounts electronically, by ATM or at the teller window. This kind of account-to-account transfer is common in China, and it’s usually free-of-charge.

[In other words, if my buddy in Shanghai needs me to send him money, I don’t need Western Union. I just need his full name and bank account number, and I can deposit money right into his account using online banking.]

BTC-China has an English website, so I will focus on them. The minimum bank transfer at BTC-China is 2,000 RMB — about $330. For smaller amounts, like 100 or 200 RMB, BTC-China offers vouchers you can buy online. I have not used either method yet, but it would go like this.

Chinese bank/voucher purchase –> BTC-China –> Coinbase –> Ally Bank

This would require three websites. Transfer money from my Chinese bank to BTC-China’s account, then log into BTC-China to buy the Bitcoins and send them to Coinbase, the US-based Bitcoin site. Finally, log into Coinbase, convert to dollars and send to Ally. The only fees involved would come at the end: when Coinbase transfers the money to my Ally account, it and Ally together charge about 1-2% of the initial amount.

Yet another way is to use the Ripple network. Ripple currency is similar to Bitcoins, with one major difference. Ripple “coins” never leave the Ripple network. In other words, I can’t store Ripple coins on my computer, as I can Bitcoins.

Ripple uses “gateways,” which are separate exchange sites to convert other currencies, like RMB, into Ripple (XRP). There are several outfits selling Ripple vouchers online in China now. I’ve used one, RippleCN, to buy Bitcoins with RMB.

Today, I bought 0.0389 BTC (about $32) to put in my Coinbase account. The Bitcoin to Bitcoin transmission fees are zero. The only fee charged comes at the end, when Coinbase deposits money into my Ally account. My net deposit was $31.36 and it’s available in four business days.

That’s about 1.5% in fees, less than PayPal, but Coinbase requires a longer wait for final credit to your bank account. (It’s faster if you link a Visa credit card to your Coinbase account, but I don’t have one.)

The drawback was the number of websites required.

  • to buy the Ripple voucher
  • to convert from RMB to XRP and send to Justcoin. com, a Norwegian Ripple gateway
  • to convert to XRP to Bitcoin and send to Coinbase
  • to convert to dollars and send to Ally

This kind of website shuffle is hardly going to turn the money transfer market upside down. Maybe the BTC-China bank transfer will be a little easier, but it still would not offer substantial benefits — other than slightly lower fees — over using PayPal, which takes just two website visits and about 10 minutes of my time.

Maybe it will get easier. After all, PayPal had its growing pains early on. It took time for people to get used to the idea of sending money to an email address. Bitcoins are at the same stage now. There are still some kinks to work out. If the Bitcoin system survives, it may just give PayPal and Western Union some needed competition.

China’s Jade Rabbit moon rover oversleeps, phones home
Feb. 13, 2014

China’s YuTu lunar rover as seen by Chang’E lander. (Chinese Academy of Science photo)

JISHOU, HUNAN — YuTu was not feeling well when it turned in for the long lunar night two weeks ago, so maybe we can excuse it for sleeping an extra day. After all, its Earth-bound creators were afraid it wouldn’t wake up at all.

When China’s YuTu (Jade Rabbit) hunkered down for the long lunar night, it was supposed to pull in its camera boom and fold its solar panels over itself to keep itself warm. Something malfunctioned, though, and Chinese space scientists were afraid YuTu would freeze to death waiting for the sunrise.

It missed a scheduled wake-up call on Monday, and Chinese media reported the six-wheeled rover was out of commission just two months into its mission. YuTu and its companion, the lander Chang’E, arrived on Dec. 14, the first probes to make a soft landing on the Moon since the 1970s.

But a day later, listeners on Earth heard its radio signal, indicating the rover had survived. Its operators are now trying to determine what happened and whether YuTu is well enough to continue its surveying mission.

Details are at Universe Today.

YuTu is named after the mythological rabbit who lives on the Moon, where he makes the special drink that keeps the gods alive forever. Chang’E is a beautiful goddess who drank a similar drink of immortality on Earth, and rose higher and higher until she reached the Moon, unable to return to her mortal lover.

Jishou’s ‘Bernie Madoff’ executed for financial crimes
March 20, 2014

Zeng Chengjie, doomed Jishou financier

JISHOU, HUNAN — During my first year here, citizens here were caught up in a big real estate scandal that cost many of them their entire life savings. Some of those people are my friends and students.

The man ostensibly at the head of this scandal was Zeng Chengjie, a local real estate developer. I say was, because Zeng was executed last July. As a former reporter, I am ashamed to say I didn’t learn about it until just last week, from a French traveler of all people. But, as they say, better late than never.

Jishou is normally a very calm and peaceful place. (Another way to put it is, “boring.”) The only times it gets loud and crazy here are when it’s a big holiday, like Spring Festival, or when an NBA exhibition game is at the city sports arena.

But, in September 2008, there were mobs of angry people downtown, many outside the gates of the city government complex, demanding compensation for losing money in an investment scheme. For a time, there were police in riot gear and soldiers patrolling the streets. My foreign affairs officer called me on at least two different occasions to advise me to stay on campus and especially not visit the downtown shopping district.

At the time, being new to town, I was a bit unclear on what all the fuss was about. My students helped me understand it. It was a “get rich quick” scheme by a local financier who had the backing of local government officials. People were promised high rates of return on their investments into a real estate enterprise. Lured by these fantastic promises and the participation of government officials, local citizens invested their savings or mortgaged their homes to get in quick.

[Here is the blog post I wrote back then. I followed it up with a post to The Daily Kos in early October 2008.]

Well, like the infamous hedge fund managed by Bernie Madoff, this local version of a Ponzi scheme rapidly collapsed, leaving thousands of people almost penniless. And very angry, because they blamed the local government for encouraging the whole scheme.

Eventually, officials promised up to 50% of the losses would be paid back, and the protests subsided. The police ditched their riot gear, and the army went back to wherever they’re based.

Time passed, and forgot all about the scandal. Then, last week, I met a couple from France who are traveling for two months through Russia and China. They mentioned their friends had told them about Jishou’s big financial scandal, and the main instigator had been executed last summer.

News to me! Here I am, a longtime resident, and I never heard about it, though I am sure my Chinese friends did. It didn’t take me long to find articles about it, two of which I am linking here.

Zeng Chengjie was a Hunan native and had become quite successful as a real estate developer during the go-go years of the world economy before the 2008 “correction,” as the market analysts like to call it.

He had convinced most of Jishou’s residents and many government officials to invest in his real estate projects, promising high rates of return. Some media say he raised 16.8 billion yuan (about $2.8 billion at today’s exchange rates), about three-quarters of the local GDP.

Then the national government tightened regulations on investments, perhaps because of the world financial crisis, and local government officials pulled out their money. Zeng’s house of cards fell apart as more investors bailed on him.

He was arrested in December 2008 and charged with illegal fundraising. That’s basically anything not going through the normal banking channels, or (practically speaking) anything the government doesn’t like.

[There’s been a lot of coverage lately in the Western press about China’s “shadow banking system,” and how it threatens to destabilize the national economy. Zeng’s scheme was just one example of how these informal arrangements can go sour in a hurry.]

A provincial court sentenced him to death in May 2011. He appealed up to the supreme court, but his appeal was denied. Zeng was executed by lethal injection on July 12, 2013. His family was not notified beforehand.

His elder daughter and wife, who were allegedly involved in the scheme, are serving prison sentences.

Zeng’s youngest daughter (Sina Weibo photo)

Of course, the story doesn’t end there. His youngest daughter (at right) insists Zeng took the fall for the officials who were complicit in the affair, some of whom benefited financially from his fall from grace. According to her and others, Zeng had refunded $1.7 billion to investors before his arrest, demonstrating he was trying to recompense investors who had entrusted their savings with his firm.

Nothing surprises me anymore about life in China, so her side of the story is as plausible as the official version. The idea that local officials were getting rich off the gullibility of the citizenry is certainly believable. Whether Zeng was really crooked, or just overzealous, is something I can’t even wager a guess on. Bernie Madoff sure had a lot of very savvy investors fooled before his Ponzi scheme fell apart.

Coincidentally, the two men were arrested the same month. Madoff was convicted and sentenced to 150 years in the penitentiary. He might consider himself lucky he wasn’t operating in China.

First Lady Michelle Obama begins her Chinese tour
March, 20, 2014

JISHOU, HUNAN — First Lady Michelle Obama (米歇尔•奥巴马 mi xie er ao ba ma) arrives in Beijing this evening to begin her six-day tour of China. Accompanying her are daughters Sasha and Malia, and her mom, Marian Robinson.

Their tour will unfortunately not include Jishou, or even Hunan. The closest they will come is Chengdu, in neighboring Sichuan, home of the Giant Panda Research Center. Other stops include Beijing (natch) and Xi’an, home of the Terracotta Soldiers.

Peng Liyuan and Michelle Obama

Obama will meet with her counterpart, China’s own first lady, Peng Liyuan 彭丽媛. The two will spend a day together in Beijing, visiting a school and touring the Forbidden City.

Then, Obama will speak at Peking University, meeting with students. Later, the Obama contingent will make the obligatory tourist visit to the Great Wall. The visits to Xi’an and Chengdu will follow the Beijing sojourn.

The Obamas are widely admired in China. It should be interesting to see how the Chinese react to Robinson’s presence, as grandparents in China traditionally stay at home to take care of the grandchildren.

April update
April 7, 2014

JISHOU, HUNAN — I’ve been lax in keeping up the blogging, so here’s an update on life here in Jishou.

This weekend is a holiday, 清明节 (Qingming Jie), which is called Tomb Sweeping Day in English. It was Saturday, and many offices and schools got Friday and Monday off. Most Chinese families use the day to visit the graves of deceased family members, clean them, and leave offerings of “money” and food to their ancestors’ spirits. For those who live close to home, it’s also a chance for some quality time with family. For others, it’s a welcome respite from a 6-days-a-week, 51-weeks-a-year work schedule.

My holiday was the calm and peaceful kind. I didn’t go anywhere special — it’s been pouring outside — and anyway, I had private lessons to give on Sunday.

The university has offered me a generous raise for the following year, so I have agreed to stay another year. It will be my seventh year teaching here. To be frank, I never expected to stay this long, but the time has flown by, so I take that as a sign that my annual choice to stick around has been a good one.

My weekend teaching gigs have changed somewhat. The owner of the school where I had been teaching part-time for almost four years has moved back to her hometown. So, the school closed last fall.

I’ve kept one of those students for private lessons, however, a 14-year-old girl with aspirations of being a doctor. Her spoken English is now quite good after nearly four years at my friend’s school. We are working through New Concept English 2, a British EFL/ESL course that personally I find terribly dull. Despite that, it’s geared toward the Chinese English exam questions, and Michelle needs that kind of grammar-based instruction to do well on the college entrance exam in three years. So, we slog through it.

Last summer, when I taught Michelle and three others, we didn’t use NCE at all, but read The Midwife’s Apprentice together. I had found a complete classroom set at a Louisville St. Vincent de Paul thrift store, and brought back eight copies. Though the vocabulary and cultural setting was a challenge, the kids liked it, because they don’t spend much time reading and discussing novels in school.

During the fall, when I tutored Michelle and her friend Christina, we read and watched Sarah, Plain and Tall. This term, Michelle and I are reading Island of the Blue Dolphins, which I recall reading myself long, long ago.

Meanwhile, I have become a partner in a new English training school, Small Orange Light, with another Chinese teacher friend. Sunny is a friend of one of my college students, and wanted a foreign “presence” to help grow her clientele. So far, we have only 11 students aged 4 to 11. My duties are light — three hours a week, with a guaranteed monthly income of 1,500 yuan — with a focus on oral English. No grammar lessons! No New Concept English!

My new hobby of following the Bitcoin world continues, despite the hammering Bitcoin prices have taken in the last couple of months. I still own some Bitcoin and some other crypto-currencies, in the hope that eventually the markets will recover. If they don’t, no biggie. I didn’t bet the ranch on Bitcoin.

No one seems very clear why Bitcoin values against the dollar have dropped so much. I suspect the confusion over China’s legal treatment of Bitcoin has a lot to do with it. The Chinese have really dived into Bitcoin as an investment and as a way to move their money out of China. This second motivation has officials worried, since it flouts Chinese capital controls. Chinese officials are restricting easy access to exchanging yuan for Bitcoin, but they have not banned Bitcoin outright.

We are still not sure what the latest rumored regulations will mean. Even China’s Bitcoin exchanges are not sure, or so they say publicly. April 15 is the supposed deadline for China’s banks to close the accounts of Bitcoin businesses, so we’ll know something for sure in another week.

That’s all the news that’s fit to print for now. See you later!

What’s up, Jade Rabbit?
April 12, 2014

Photo courtesy Chinese Academy of Sciences/Xinhua, via

JISHOU, HUNAN — China’s lunar rover, 玉兔 Yu Tu (Jade Rabbit), woke up March 13 for its fourth lunar day of work, but its roving days are over.

Last month, Jade Rabbit lost its ability to move. Now it seems the craft has stopped working altogether.

Meanwhile, China’s Internet censors seem to be blocking space-related websites that have been covering the mission since Yu Tu and its sister craft, the Change’E lander, arrived on the Moon in December. When I tried to visit Universe Today, Nature and The Planetary Society for updated news reports, all attempts failed., however, worked, so that’s where this update largely comes from.

While everything was working according to plan, Chinese media were all over the story. Now that Jade Rabbit is largely out of commission, perhaps Chinese media censors want to keep updates muted.

The two probes’ soft landing in the Mare Imbrium basin were the latest coup for China’s aggressive space flight program. Both Change’E and Yu Tu were working optimally during the first month of the mission, sending back data and photos through January. Yu Tu was able to drive away from the landing site, as planned.

Then as the second lunar night approached Jan. 25, Jade Rabbit had troubles hunkering down for the frigid two-week-long night. The rover is designed to fold its solar panels over itself and to pull in its communications mast to keep its electronics warm. But that process didn’t entirely work.

Two weeks later, Jade Rabbit woke up, but couldn’t move. Engineers suspect the extreme temperature swings between lunar night and day may have cracked a circuit board. The rover was able to do some stationary science for the third lunar day, and once again had trouble entering nighttime configuration in late February.

Jade Rabbit woke up again sometime after the sunrise of March 10, but still immobile. Considering it was designed to last three lunar days (that’s three months’ time here on Earth), it has met its design parameters.

Teaching, 30 years on
April 23, 2014

Einsteintoon-cropJISHOU, HUNAN — Thirty years ago this month, I started teaching.

It seems like an incredibly long time — nearly half my life — but at the same time, those years have slipped by quickly.

In that time, I have taught more than a thousand students on three continents, in several subjects, from kindergartners to adults. And I gotta say, I still like it.

As with most careers, everyday work in teaching is fairly routine, run-of-the-mill stuff. At times, it is downright boring (reading essays, grading homework, marking tests, in-service meetings — ACK!), but most times it’s one of the most rewarding occupations in the world — not in the financial sense, but in a deeper and more significant sense. I get to watch young people grow and learn, and at the same time, I grow and learn.

Every teacher can list his or her success stories, I think: students who were nondescript at first, but who later achieved something, no matter ow small, that was noteworthy in some way. It’s those moments that make teaching so worthwhile.

After 30 years, I have lots of stories to tell, but I will offer three examples from the last several weeks to show what I mean.

When she was freshman almost four years ago, L. was a little shy, but clearly capable. Her spoken English was then already quite good. From a very poor, rural family, she almost dropped out of college while a freshman for financial reasons, but through her determination (and the assistance of a helpful benefactor), she will graduate in June. She’s only the second person from her village to attend college, and the first woman.

Last week, L. landed a job in Tanzania, to work for a Chinese-run oil refinery. They were impressed by her grit and her skills in English. Now, she’s in the process of getting her physical exam, inoculations, and passport. In another two weeks, she’ll fly from Beijing to Dar Es Salaam (her first flight ever) to begin her career in the oil business.

How about some more modest, but still significant achievements?

A few weeks ago, the students organized the first English Corner of the spring term. Two freshmen were sent as emissaries to bring me to the meeting place. One girl, D., was so nervous the last time she spoke with me that her upper lip trembled. So, this time she and her partner, J., rehearsed exactly what they would say when they called me.

How do I know? They didn’t tell me. They were right below my living room window as they ran through their lines. I happened to be sitting on the sofa with the window open, so I heard every word. After they ran through the dialog three or four times, D. made the phone call, and I pretended it was all new to me.

She made no mistakes, by the way. And her lip doesn’t tremble anymore when she talks with me.

A. is a student who puts the T in timid, so when she stood up last term without a word and walked to the front of the room to give an oral report, we were all momentarily stunned. Her English was stumbling, and she got stuck on a few words, but soldiered on despite near terminal nervousness. A. gave three other reports that term, each time struggling to get through them but refusing to quit.

Every student has the potential to achieve. The achievements may seem small, but for that student and that time in her or his life, those achievements are important. L. will be able to earn good money to send back to her family in Hunan. D. and A. will be able to speak in English more confidently, now that they’ve successfully leaped over some initial hurdles.

Teaching is a people profession. Of course, that’s obvious, but it’s something that a beginning teacher never truly understands until he or she is in the field for a year or more.

Teaching is not like working in a factory making widgets. Widgets are not self aware. They don’t have their own agendas, which rarely coincide with the teacher’s. And each “widget” in a school is entirely different from the “widget” sitting nearby.

You can make all the lesson plans you want (or are required to), but when boots hit the ground, teaching is an endless negotiation among somewhat interested parties toward a somewhat common goal, led by a person who is somewhat in authority.

It’s like herding cats, as someone once put it.

Teacher prep classes don’t really teach this reality, if in fact it can be taught at all. Sure, we learn about classroom management, discipline, time management, and the like, but experience is the only effective teacher. My first few years teaching were a bit rough, as I made mistakes, but like my timid student, A., I soldiered on.

Perhaps the awful reality of teaching is one reason why so many beginning teachers bail out after two or three years. That, and the modest pay, dwindling respect by others, bureaucratic nonsense, and politicization of education.

If you’re doing it right, teaching is bloody hard work. Not only must you be on top of your subject, but you have to herd the cats in such a way to present that subject to them. In many respects, we end up being surrogate parents, at least for part of the day.

Consider this, though. The average parent cares for two point something children, until they leave the nest. The average teacher cares for 20 to 40 students at a time, 180 days a year, until the teacher decides to quit or retire. Parents work with the same kids for their entire lives. Teachers get a different set each year. New individuals. new group dynamics, new problems, new headaches, new heartaches, new successes.

So, you wonder why some teachers get burned out?

Veteran teachers are supposed to be a font of wisdom for beginning teachers. They write books. I’ve read some of these books, and they are very good. I’m not planning to write a book yet. Maybe after I retire.

But here’s my number one rule for teachers, old and new. All the rest is commentary, to steal some advice from Hillel.

Respect your students.

No matter where they come from, what their backgrounds are, or what their aspirations may be, your job as a teacher is to help them get from where they are now to where they want to be — or where you want them to be — because sometimes they have no idea what they are capable of doing.

If you respect them, even when they are royal pains in the ass, they will respect you, even when you are a royal pain in the ass. With mutual respect, negotiations proceed more smoothly, and you can get stuff done.

I have taught (I think successfully) physics, chemistry, biology, geology, algebra, geometry, pre-calculus, astronomy, literature, public speaking, journalism, writing, oral English and Western culture. I taught physics for 23 years and English as a Foreign Language for six years, so far.

My students have set off on the whole gamut of possible careers: actors, dancers, doctors, lawyers, professors, teachers, founders of charter schools, nurses, artists, photographers, woodworkers, musicians, casting directors, lighting directors, film directors, authors, scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs, moms, dads — I’m sure I left a few professions out.

Since my first students oldest ones are now approaching their 50th birthdays, it’s entirely possible (though I prefer not to dwell on this thought too much) that some have become grandparents.

At this point, more than two-thirds of those students are Chinese, because my classes in America were much smaller than the ones here, or in South Africa.

(To put that in context, I estimate I’ve taught about 460 American students. That’s the current enrollment of the Jishou University College of International Exchange, and I have taught all of those students at least one term.)

Have I kept tabs on all them? Sadly, it’s impossible. Facebook is a big help, but since China blocks it I don’t get to visit it as often as I might otherwise. QQ, for my Chinese students, is another avenue of communication, but larger classes means less time to connect with every student, so realistically I only stay in regular contact with just a few from each graduating class.

Do I remember all their names? Faces, yes. Names, most of them. I’ve made it my goal here in China to learn at least the English names of all my students, so I can look at them in class and call on them by name. It takes me a year to really get them all down, and another year to learn their Chinese names. But, unless they spent some time talking with me in or out of class, in time those names (more than a thousand, remember) gradually fade away. My memory’s good, but it’s not eidetic.

I’ve taught in three quite different venues. I began my career at a small independent high school in Louisville, Kentucky — St. Francis High School. I did a Fulbright teacher exchange at the much larger Pretoria Boys High School for a year. (I still have my school tie, boys!) And since 2008, I’ve been at Jishou University in China, which has enticed me to stay yet another year with a generous raise. Besides all that, I’ve been teaching primary students English and have even done teacher in-service for Chinese teachers of English.

Teach and you shall learn. So I keep going. I still have a lot of learn.

Behold the pomelo
April 24, 2014

pomeloJISHOU, HUNAN — This is a pomelo, also known as a shaddock in English. The Chinese word for it is 柚子 (youzi). It’s about the size of a grapefruit, and resembles it somewhat, but it’s not as sour.

Pomelos, which I had never seen in my local supermarkets in Kentucky, have become one of my favorite fruits here. Wikipedia tells me that grapefruit may be a hybrid of pomelos and oranges, which may explain the similarities between the two large citrus fruits. 柚子 (youzi) and pomelo are apparently used interchangeably for both the pomelo and grapefruit, while shaddock is only for this fruit (Citrus maxima to the botanists). But to me, pomelo sounds better than shaddock, so I’m going to keep calling it pomelo.

The taste is neither sour like a grapefruit nor sweet like an orange. It’s a clean taste, if you know what I mean — refreshing with a hint of sweetness. Probably it would make a good palate cleanser, for foodies who like to do that sort of thing.

But, getting to that delicious interior is not so easy. For one thing, the rind of a pomelo is almost a centimeter (just less than half-inch) thick, so you have to cut off the top and score the rind with a knife, like so:

Peeling a pomelo - knife required

Peeling a pomelo – knife required

Then, after you expose the sections inside, you may still need to cut the membrane to pull them apart. You can see the results here.

The juicy inside

The juicy inside

Eating a pomelo takes more effort than eating a grapefruit, but it’s worth it. Yum!

Comparing Jishou 2007 and Jishou 2014 Sat, 03 May 2014 15:16:30 +0000

Here’s a view from atop my apartment building, taken in September 2007 by Kannan Puthuval, a previous foreign English teacher. (Source: Wikimedia Commons) Click the link below to see the full resolution.

Panorama of Jishou 2007

Super-duper size.

And here’s same view, taken by me just yesterday. Click the image to embiggen, or the link below to see the full resolution..


Super-duper size.

The two vantage points are approximately the same. I think Kannan was standing farther from the southwest corner of the roof than I was by maybe 1 meter (3 feet). We’re looking southwest to northwest.

You should be able to pick out buildings common to both images. You can also see several new buildings both on the campus and just outside it, as well as new homes on the hills west of campus. The dormitory in the foreground went up just three years ago. Also the tree at far right in the 2007 image has grown tall enough to obscure the view toward the north. The tree is not visible in my shot.

Jishou has grown some in seven years.

For the shutterbugs reading this, I created the panorama with four separate shots stitched together with a free tool, Microsoft Image Composite Editor. All I needed to do was load the four JPEGS into the ICE, and it spliced them together in a jiffy. I used a Nikon D60 with Nikkor 24-85mm ED lens at 28 mm, ASA 100, f/8 at 1/250 sec. I stood in one place, and squeezed off the shots as I turned to the right, making sure there was plenty of overlap between each image.

How NOT to teach English to first graders
May 9, 2014

Robinson Crusoe primer?

Could American 1st graders understand this?

JISHOU, HUNAN — There are times when I am left speechless by some people’s ideas on how to teach kids English. Here is one of them.

Many of my former students here are now working as teachers, either in regular schools or in one of China’s many English training schools. Some of these training schools are quite good, and others, frankly, are a bit dodgy. The latter kind are often opened by people with little or no teaching experience with the main idea being to make money off parents desperate to improve their children’s chances at getting into top middle schools, high schools, universities, careers.

So, take a look at the text in the photo here. You should be able to guess it’s an abridged version of Robinson Crusoe, by Daniel Defoe. There are no pictures. The right hand side of the book has definitions of the bolded words in the text.

My student, M., tells me her boss wants her to teach this text to five- and six-year-olds. Not with pictures, or cartoons, or activities, but by having the kiddos read the text out loud. He told M. it’s the best way to learn to new words.

Speechless, right? Me too.

Maybe that method would work with older EFL students who have some basic vocabulary already, but for first-graders? Even clever ones would find reading this text boring as all get-out, because there are no pictures. It’s just a collection of strange words in another language that they don’t even speak yet!

I guessed that the reading level of this text was about fifth or sixth grade, for native speakers. To be sure, I took the first paragraph and tested it at this website. The Flesch Kincaid Grade Level score was 5.32, so my guess was pretty much on the mark.

I told M. her boss was sadly mistaken, and that without visuals it would be nearly impossible for her little pupils to learn the meaning of the words they were reading. His belief that reciting words over and over again would magically help students learn their meaning is hopelessly old fashioned, and flies in the face of every accepted pedagogy for young language learners.

But, she says, he doesn’t want his teachers to use visuals. They have to recite the text and the students repeat it, and if necessary, the teachers can explain the meanings in Chinese. Meanwhile, M. reports that her pupils are bored silly, and worse yet, they quickly forget the meaning of the words.

So, I suggested she will need to become an actress. While she recites the text, she needs to act out the meaning in some way, to make the text more vivid. Either that, or wait at least five more years for their vocabulary to grow to match the reading level of the book they’re using.

To understand this situation, you need to remember that the Chinese government has mandated that all students learn English in school, and demonstrate their proficiency on the annual college entrance examination.

A student’s English abilities will determine which middle school will accept him or her, which high school, which university, which graduate school, even which employer. Parents know this horrifying situation all too well, and schedule extra English lessons for their children almost as soon as they can walk, especially in Guangdong province, where my student, M., teaches.

Sadly, the demand outstrips the supply of decent English training schools, so some kids, despite their parents’ best intentions and the schools’ lofty promises, will be no further ahead in English learning than their peers who take piano or dance lessons, or if they’re lucky, stay home to play.

One of biggest names in English education here is not a formally trained EFL teacher, but an entrepreneur, Li Yang, who created his own English learning method called Crazy English. Li is an English learning superstar in China, and he has become very wealthy selling books and videos, franchising schools and “English camps,” and making motivational speeches.

Some of his ideas are hard to dispute. He tells learners never to be afraid to lose face, that is, to forget the shame or embarrassment of speaking English out loud, of showing one’s ability, and of making mistakes. He tells them to study every day, to tackle English like a mountain climber tackles a tall peak, one step at a time. It’s all solid motivational stuff — positive, can-do reinforcement.

But the pedagogy of Crazy English boils down to reciting — and trying to memorize — sentences and phrases Li and his associates have culled from a variety of sources. Li wants his students to yell these sentences over and over again as loud as possible, nevermind that they might be mispronouncing them over and over again.

There’s no context, grammar, or sentence-building advice. Just recite/repeat, in the time-honored Chinese method, just louder and with less face.

In other words, it’s only a few steps removed from the training school boss forcing five-year-olds to recite Robinson Crusoe over and over again. Crazy English at least provides the Chinese translation alongside the English, so the reader has some idea of what they’re saying.

I am hoping M. can find some more creative ways to teach her pupils, because those early years are the key time to spark interest in and get grounding in a new language. Otherwise, that spark might just get snuffed out.

Using Bitcoin to top up your cellphone minutes
May 10, 2014

JISHOU, HUNAN — Here’s a practical use for Bitcoin: I just topped up my friend’s cellphone account by sending Bitcoin from my phone’s wallet.

My friend Laura is in Beijing and for various reasons not pertinent to this discussion, asked me to top up her cellphone account. Normally. I could do it from my computer by logging into my online bank account services and sending funds to top up any Chinese cellphone number.

Trouble is, the entire campus hasn’t had Internet access since 11:30 am (it’s now 4 pm), and she needed the funds right away.

So, I could have walked to the campus China Mobile office — in the pouring rain — and put in cash money — assuming their Internet was working — but I decided to try a new service called Piiko a try.

Piiko allows you to top up cellphone accounts worldwide just by entering the country code + phone number and paying with Bitcoin. I had about $20 in my cell’s Bitcoin wallet, so I tried sending half that to Laura’s account.

It worked!

Here are the details.

  • To use it with your mobile phone, you need to have a Bitcoin wallet on your phone, or WiFI access, so you can tap your online Coinbase or Ripple wallet.
  • Enter country code + phone number.
  • Select desired top-up amount.
  • Tap/click the provided Bitcoin address link.
  • Tell your browser to use the installed Bitcoin wallet to handle the link. The address and amount are filled in automatically.
  • Tap/click send.

Piiko credits the cellphone account after three confirmations on the blockchain (the online Bitcoin transaction ledger). That took less than 30 minutes. They charge a small fee, less than 1%.

I confirmed with Laura that her account was credited. Mission accomplished!

Meanwhile, China is making life hard for us Bitcoin users. It is now impossible to transfer yuan from our onshore bank accounts to any of the Bitcoin exchanges based in China. In addition, it seems the Great Firewall of China is now blocking access to offshore exchanges that apparently were being used by Chinese to trade Bitcoin. including, and the Hong Kong-based

At least two Chinese Bitcoin exchanges have closed up shop, and the surviving ones are regrouping, perhaps to negotiate a peace deal with China’s banking authorities.

The People’s Bank of China, which is more or less like the Federal Reserve, has issued several directives to China’s banks and third-party payment processors to cease all activity related to Bitcoin and to close all accounts of businesses dealing with Bitcoin.

These mandates have closed off most direct deposits to the exchanges (Not all yet, because This Is China) and killed many of the voucher programs, whereby a user buys an e-voucher containing secret codes to enter at a Bitcoin exchange for credit in yuan.

© 2007 Gary Larson

My suspicion is that the biggest exchanges are trying to work out deals with the central authorities, to make Bitcoin more palatable to Beijing. The free-wheeling, speculative Bitcoin markets, and the threat of giving Chinese a way to easily move their funds offshore, did not go over well with China’s very conservative banking establishment. The CEOs of the five biggest exchanges released a joint statement several days ago pledging to limit speculation and exert more control over their markets, suggesting (to me at least) that authorities were offering them something in exchange for their bowing and scraping.

Or maybe leniency, as in no jail time.

Ripple, on the other hand, seems to be flying under central banking authorities’ radar for now. So I’ve been able to use the Ripple network to transfer money between my Chinese and American bank accounts for next to nothing. It takes a little time, but hey, time is money, just like Einstein said.

Your lazy blogger checks in
June 1, 2014

JISHOU, HUNAN — Well, I’ve lots of blog ideas swimming around in my head these last three weeks, but none of them ended up in print till now. The muse was on vacation, and just got back from Mallorca.

OK, I was being lazy.

So, here’s what’s new here, in the middle of the Middle Kingdom.

I passed my annual health tests, which are required for all foreigners working in China. The schedule is: blood test, chest X-ray, ultrasound of abdominal area, blood pressure (135/71), height and weight. Takes about an hour to get them all done, but the testing requires a trip to the provincial capital, Changsha, to the international travel health office. Hunan citizens who will work or study abroad have to visit the same place for more extensive testing.

The university pays the fees for my tests, about 500 yuan ($80 or so). Outbound Chinese pay between 800 and 1,000 yuan for their physical examinations. Cash only, by the way. Sue, the new foreign affairs officer, accompanied me and took care of the arrangements.

While I was there, I met a young American working at a kindergarten. He said he’s been working in Changsha for three years now, and likes it just fine. Reasonably good pay (for China), good working conditions, nice vacations.

There were also three people from Germany (or maybe Switzerland — I didn’t ask), who are among the staff preparing the grand opening of a new Kempinsky Hotel in Changsha. One of them is a master brewer, who will offer some German-style beers once the hotel opens in the next few weeks.

Sue and I later tried out Changsha’s spanking new subway, one line of which opened April 29. The system resembles the Guangzhou Metro, and uses the same kind of round RFID token as the Guangzhou system. (Guangzhou’s tokens are green; Changsha’s are blue.) The ride was quiet and efficient, like every other rapid transit system I’ve ridden in China.

The first line to open is #2, which runs roughly southeast to northwest, and connects the South Railway Station, part of China’s High Speed Rail system, the main railway station, several stops along Wuyi Dadao (the main drag extending west from the railway station), and stops on the other side of the Xiangjiang (Xiang River), which runs through Changsha. Several other lines are still under construction, and together they should alleviate Changsha’s famous traffic jams.

My other two Changsha appointments were, lunch at Pizza Hut and shopping for Western food items at Carrefour next door. The cheese I bought might last another four days, but seriously, I doubt it.

These last two weeks have been sort of a mini-vacation from teaching for me.

I caught a bad cold two weekends ago, so I begged off teaching my weekend classes. My co-workers, Sunny and Will, came with two students and a mom to bring me some bananas and herbal medicine. Sunny even washed the dishes I had left in the sink.

I was fine by Tuesday, in time to be a judge in the annual English speaking contest. Twenty-six contestants addressing one of two possible topics: “Attitude is everything” or “Smile and the world smiles with you.” Ugh. I wish these contests would offer students some less insipid topics, but there you go.

The top two speakers ended up being one of my students, whose English name is Sade, and an art student from the Zhangajiajie campus, English name Sharon. Both young women have excellent public speaking skills, and their command of the English language is really strong. We might just have a chance at a prize in the fall’s provincial contest.

Because the contest fell on a Tuesday afternoon, my usual classes were canceled by the college. The rest of that week was normal, then Tuesday classes were again canceled so the sophomores could have a community service day. I went to Changsha Wednesday afternoon, missing those classes, and came back Thursday evening, to teach my only two classes of the entire week on Friday morning.

This weekend is a double holiday, so I took Friday off from my weekend teaching duties. Today (Sunday, June 1) is Children’s Day, a national holiday, and Monday is DuanWuJie, the Dragon Boat Festival. I’ll be blogging about that holiday later.

June 4 is a different kind of event: the 25th anniversary of the Tian’anmen protests in Beijing. It is not commemorated in any way in China, because officially, it never happened.

To refresh your memories, the Tian’anmen protests started in April 1989 and were finally put down by the Chinese army on June 4. This iconic image is a reminder of that time.

Tank man

The government is very sensitive about the Tian’anmen crackdown, and step up security measures every year around this time. I’ve noticed that accessing Google has been even harder these last few days, although searches for “Tian’anmen 1989” and its variants in English and Chinese are always blocked, 365/24/7.

But not searches in Spanish, so I don’t need to resort to my VPN to refresh my memory on those events in 1989. I’m preparing a blog about Tian’anmen, too.

Dragon Boat Festival (Duanwu Jie) is June 2
June 1, 2014

A box of zongzi from my college

A box of zongzi from my college

JISHOU, HUNAN — Today is a traditional Chinese holiday, DuanWu Jie 端午节, which falls on the fifth day of the fifth month of the Chinese calendar. As with many Chinese holidays, there are different stories behind the origin of the festival and its customs.

A traditional food item for the holiday is 粽子 zongzi, a kind of sweet rice cake wrapped in bamboo leaves. Since there is a Hunan connection with zongzi, let’s start with the origin of this tradition.

During the Warring States period, before the Emperor Qin unified China in 221 BC*, there lived a famous poet, Qu Yuan, in the State of Chu. Qu Yuan was a minister to King Huai, and fell victim to palace intrigue.

First, he was slandered by other court officials, which led the king to exile him to the northern provinces. Qu’s name was cleared, and the king sent him to negotiate peace with the State of Qi. At the time, the State of Qin was trying to conquer both Chu and Qi.

Then, during the reign of King Huai’s successor, Qu was once again slandered, and exiled to the area south of the Yangtze River, which separates the current provinces of Hubei (Qu’s birthplace) and Hunan. During his exile, Qu wrote many poems, lamenting the state of affairs in his homeland. Finally, when he learned that Qin had conquered the capital of the State of Chu, the despondent Qu Yuan picked up a heavy stone and walked into the Miluo River to drown himself. (The Miluo runs into Dongting Lake in northeastern Hunan.)

Legend says that the local people heard of Qu’s suicide, and quickly jumped into boats to throw sweet rice cakes into the river, to keep the fish from eating the Honorable Poet’s body. This is said to be the origin of both zongzi and the holiday pastime of dragon boat races, which gives the holiday its English name.

Another story says that Qu’s ghost appeared to his friends, telling them to make three-cornered sweet rice cakes and to wrap them in silk, as a way to appease the dragon king under the river. There are other legends involving the dragon king in this part of China, including a forbidden love affair between his daughter and a mortal in Yueyang, a small city north of Changsha.

But in other parts of China, the poet involved is a different man, generally local to the area. Scholars say the holiday in general was in prehistoric times a celebration of the summer, which is associated with dragons, as both are 阳 (yáng) in Chinese philosophy. So, Duanwu Jie has its roots in dragon worship going back thousands of years.
* Qin Huangshi appears as a character in several popular movies, including Hero (with Jet Li) and Myth (with Jackie Chan). He was the first emperor over all of China, which is named after him. (Qin –> China. In pinyin, the letter Q represents a sound similar to /ch/ in English.)

Tian’anmen Square protests, 25 years on
June 4, 2014

Tank Man

The iconic image of Tian’anmen 1989

JISHOU, HUNAN — In the spring of 1989, hundreds of thousands of Chinese university students, intellectuals and other citizens occupied Tian’anmen Square in Beijing, demanding greater civil rights and social freedom to parallel China’s new free-market economic policies.

The protests ended in bloody clashes between protesters, police and the army on June 4, leaving 2,600 dead and 2,000 injured, according to Red Cross estimates. In addition. 400 soldiers went missing. Other organizations have higher casualty estimates, and as high as 5,000 dead.

In any event, it was one of the bloodiest events in recent Chinese history, and a protest movement that has yet to be repeated.

Officially, the protests and the crackdown allegedly authorized by then-Vice Premier Deng Xiaoping 邓小平 never happened. China’s history books and the national history museum say nothing about the Tian’anmen protests, and if they do, no mention is made of the thousands of casualties. The government’s censors have blocked Internet searches of the event, and even the date. Searching Wikipedia’s English and Chinese sites will get you nowhere. (I used the Spanish site to check my facts. You Anglophiles can use the English site if you prefer — if you’re outside mainland China.)

In the last few weeks, I’ve noticed that it’s become harder to access Google’s services, including Gmail. Whether the slowdown has something to do with the June 4 anniversary, I can’t say for sure, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the Great Firewall of China were deliberately throttling Google’s traffic.

Deng Xiaoping is widely admired in China for his “opening up” policy of the 1970s and ’80s, which allowed the formerly insular China to become an important player on the world stage. But he’s also quietly suspected to have given the orders to stamp out the protests.

China’s revolutionary leader, Mao Zedong, died in 1976. By that time, US President Richard Nixon had paid his historic visit to “Red China” and “ping pong” diplomacy had warmed relations between the two former Cold War enemies. Mao’s death led to a power struggle within the nation’s leadership. While Deng Xiaoping never became premier or supreme leader of China, from 1978 to 1992 he was the most influential member of the leadership.

Under Deng’s reformist leadership, China abandoned the centralized economy of the Soviet Union and adopted a more capitalistic model — “socialism with Chinese characteristics” — that allowed its citizens more economic freedom and foreigners more opportunities to invest in China.

China GDP 1952-2005

Note the growth in China’s GDP after the “opening up”

By 1989 China’s economy was improving, its people better fed than before, and it was well on the way to become influential in the world economy.

Meanwhile, the former Soviet Union was loosening restrictions on civil rights with Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost. Many in China wanted the same kind of liberalization. Now that Chinese had the freedom to make money on their own, they also wanted freedom of the press, free speech and free assembly, and a more open and transparent form of government.

Students in Beijing’s top universities were the instigators of the protests that began in April of 1989, mostly in the capital but also in other cities like Chongqing. The students were joined by intellectuals, workers and other disaffected citizens, and by May about 100,000 protesters had occupied Tian’anmen Square. Food and water were supplied by local citizens, as well as the protesters friends and family.

Although there were members of the government who were sympathetic to the protests, demands to meet with top leaders of the country failed. The protests intensified, alarming hardliners in the leadership of the Communist Party.

It’s important to note here that the residences of the nation’s leaders are fairly close to Tian’anmen Square. The main political offices are adjacent to the Square, as is Mao’s memorial and the Forbidden City.

Martial law was declared on May 20 –against the advice of several retired generals in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) — but Beijing residents prevented the army from entering the city. After a temporary pullback of forces, a much larger military force –200,000 soldiers from five PLA districts — converged on Beijing from all sides. A full scale assault on the protesters began on June 3.

The assault ended the next day. Students were escorted back to their campuses, or walked there on their own, and the army pulled out during June 5-7. It was during the pullout that a lone protester walked in front of a convoy of tanks, stopping them temporarily, to be known ever since as “Tank Man.”

Many army soldiers and officers — estimates are about 3,500 — disobeyed orders to fire on the students, and were later punished or discharged from service. There were some reports that they were executed for insubordination, but there is no definite proof of it. Government leaders who were sympathetic to the Tian’anmen protesters were also purged, and there was a general reshuffling of leadership in both the military and government.

Deng appeared publicly in June 9 to denounce the protesters as “counter-revolutionaries” bent on overthrowing the government and to praise the army for its heroic efforts to quell the insurrection. He also honored the soldiers who had died in the conflicts.

Martial law was not lifted until January 1990, more than six months after the protest was put down.

Incidentally, one important figure in the Tian’anmen protests was Liu XiaoBo ((刘晓波), who won the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize, much to the consternation of the Chinese government. Liu has been in prison since 2009, serving an 11-year sentence for “subversion.” He is one of the authors of Charter ’08, a manifesto demanding that the government obey the nation’s constitutional protections of free speech and free press, and that China become more democratic.
For more information (a lot more!), has published a collection of links about the Tian’anmen protests of 1989.

Essay questions from China’s college entrance exam
June 19, 2014

Example of gaokao essay response, from 2013

JISHOU, HUNAN — China’s teenagers took the dreaded gaokao 高考 — the two-day national college entrance examination — two weeks ago. The gaokao tests specific knowledge of literature, politics, history, math, science, English and Chinese (putonghua 普通话), and requires an essay in putonghua.

This year, almost 9.4 million students sat the gaokao. That’s more than the entire population of New Jersey!

Students have an hour to wrote an 800-character response to the essay prompts. (Some versions require 1,000 characters.) Each province has a slightly different gaokao version from the others, and that includes the essay prompts, which are pretty cryptic — much worse than the freshman essay prompt I had, about the many uses of the paper clip. Shanghaiist has compiled translations of several gaokao essay prompts, some of which I share here.

Hunan Province (where I live): There was one a place where everyone was very poor. Most of the people who worked here left after two years. However, someone stayed for years and turned it into the most beautiful village with the others.

Write an argumentative article or a descriptive article on this topic.

Sichuan Province (west of Hunan): The world belongs to you only after you stand up.

Please choose your own angle and write about your thoughts on this sentence.

Anhui Province (east of Hunan): The artists say that the actors are allowed to change the screenplay, but the directors say that they are not.

Choose your own angle and talk about what’s your understanding and views on this topic.

Guangdong Province (south of Hunan): In the era of black and white films, there were not many photos. Although these photos only recorded a few magical moments of our lives, we enjoy reviewing them and they bring back precious memories. However, these old photos always got fate and yellow after years. And now, in the era of digital technology, there are tons of photos which record every seconds of our lives. They can be uploaded to share online and they never get fate or yellow. However, as the speed of people reviewing these photos goes up, these memories are not that “precious” anymore.

Choose your own angle and write an article on this topic.

I will note here that students in Guangdong generally begin learning English sooner than students in Hunan, Sichuan or Anhui, which may explain why the GD essay prompt is significantly longer than the others.

The gaokao is the only determining factor (officially, anyway) for acceptance to college. Students can choose three or four colleges to receive their scores. If a student’s gaokao score is equal to or higher than the college’s minimum, the student is generally accepted. Anything below, even by 1 point, disqualifies the student. As you can imagine, this draconian system puts a lot of pressure on students, teachers and parents, who all strive for the “key universities,” such as Beijing University or Qinghua University in Beijing.

Results will be published next week. If you hear cries of anguish from across the ocean, they probably came from China.

China’s stricter foreign worker laws almost nailed me
June 19, 2014

JISHOU, HUNAN — So, I’ve been here six years, and during that time, I never had a problem renewing my residence permit. This time, it was different.

Yesterday, Sue, our new foreign affairs officer, told me the Public Security Bureau (PSB) almost did not approve my renewal, because they were under the impression I was working at two schools, the university and a local middle school. Under the foreign worker laws, I can only legally work for the organization sponsoring my residence permit and foreign worker permit, so they believed I had broken the law.

Sue spent a lot of time talking them into renewing my permits, since I was not working at the middle school on a regular basis. (I subbed for two weeks and helped with some English testing for one day.) But she’s advised me to keep a low profile if I take any extra work in the future.

I was relieved I could stay another year, as we had just signed a contract to that effect, but at the same time, I got really depressed. I realized leaving here would have been really terrible. Jishou’s become my home.

Just a couple of days before, I had to reassure some very worried students that I was indeed coming back in the fall. They had misunderstood from my fellow foreign teacher that both of us were returning to the USA this summer. In my case, I’m visiting the States and coming back, but they were worried I was leaving forever.

I’ve made so many connections here after six years that leaving on short notice — my residence permit is due to expire in 11 days — would have been emotionally wrenching. I am really fond of my students, and like and respect my colleagues. And there’d be the more prosaic details of moving house, something I dread though I know it’s inevitable.

I’m not really planning to stay in China forever, but leaving with just two weeks notice was definitely not something I had even expected — six years with no PSB problems, despite tutoring in several places, including one of the PSB residential areas. I wasn’t exactly sneaking around. But I did have to tell several would-be employers that I could legally only be employed at one school, so I could only be a “guest,” not a regular teacher.

In other words, I was obeying the law, so I was gobsmacked when Sue told me the PSB suspected I wasn’t.

Nationwide, Chinese authorities are enforcing foreign worker laws more strictly. I suppose it’s a result of the new leadership at the top: President Xi Jinping seems to want to run a tighter ship. So, foreigners working with only tourist visas have been rounded up and sent home, and barred from ever re-entering China.

That was mostly in the big cities, which are jam-packed with foreigners living and working on three-month tourist visas, which requires them to leave China to re-apply for a new tourist visa, so they can keep working (illegally) here. Many work for English training schools who cannot obtain the necessary licenses to employ foreign experts. But the demand for native English speakers far outstrips the supply of “legal” foreign teachers, so the employers and employees resort to subterfuge to stay in business.

In Hunan, which has fewer foreigners per capita, I figured law enforcement would be somewhat less draconian. Now it seems it just took longer for the new rules to work their way west.

This whole incident reminded me how precarious my position is here as a foreigner. The Chinese public welcomes foreigners and our movies, TV shows and culture, but Chinese officialdom doesn’t trust us very much. If there were a reliable way to give Chinese students exposure to native English speakers without those teachers being physically in China, it’s a sure bet Chinese authorities would spring at the chance.

Xi especially seems mistrustful of Western influences — even while his own daughter studies at Harvard. There are now new restrictions on the availability of American TV shows and movies on the Internet. Until quite recently, despite copyright laws, anyone could watch them for free on several Chinese websites, or easily download them. Foreign programming on China’s TV networks has also been restricted, and Chinese professors have been forbidden to discuss certain Western political ideas with students.

But setting all that political and xenophobic stuff aside, Jishou has become my home because of the people who live here, who have welcomed me in their homes, and treated me sometimes like visiting royalty. I’ve settled in to life here. Leaving — whenever that is — is going to be heartbreaking. I’ll miss my students, miss my friends, miss the mountains, even the fiery hot food! (Muy picante!)

This incident with the PSB also smacked me across the head for being too complacent. I don’t really have a Plan B should working in Jishou come to an end. I could go back to the USA, I suppose, but have no idea what I would do. I could look for work at another Chinese university, or teach English in another country. But in fact, I’ve been very lazy in not ensuring I have an exit strategy. I’ve had only vague notions, and set down no clear path. If anything, this week’s glitch has reminded me that good things don’t last forever, and sooner or later, I will need to part with everyone and everything here. I’ve got to face facts, and plan for that day.

In the meantime, I will treasure my time here, and my Chinese “family.” Who knows what the future will bring?

NZ photog uses quadcopter to shoots Beijing, meets police
June 22, 2014

The Forbidden City from above. Photo by Trey Ratcliff

JISHOU, HUNAN — So, this photographer from New Zealand, Trey Ratcliff, had a great idea: visit Beijing and take bird’s-eye-view images of the city’s landmarks using his remote control quadcopter. One example is shown here.

But he forgot one tiny detail. Beijing is not just the location of hundreds of historical sites, like the Forbidden City and the Temple of Heaven. It’s also the national capital, which means there are lots of government buildings and official residences. The authorities don’t look too kindly on aerial photography of these sensitive areas.

I’ll refer you to his blog about the whole adventure. He wasn’t arrested, but the police did pull Ratcliff and his interpreter — both very personable sorts — in for questioning. His quadcopter was confiscated, but returned to him before he flew out of China.

In all, Ratcliff was a very lucky fellow, and the photos he took with his setup are gorgeous! Take a look.

Control? Open Channel C!*
July 2, 2014

JISHOU, HUNAN — There are almost a quarter million Chinese studying in the USA now, and many more who want to study in the States if they had the chance — my students among them.

But a Chinese (or really any international) student coming to the USA faces a lot of challenges: the language barrier, the writing barrier, cultural differences, different attitudes about dating and sex. I do my best to explain the differences, but my experience as a college student was three decades ago. So, my information is perhaps somewhat out of date.

A few months ago, I stumbled upon Channel C. Three Chinese students studying at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Pan Fangdi 潘芳迪, Niu Muge 牛牧歌 and Cecilia Miao 缪思 (Miao Si), began the project in an effort to bridge the cultural gaps between Chinese students and their non-Chinese classmates. They have their own YouTube channel and also one on YouKu, the Chinese version of YouTube.

Although the three are now in different cities in the US and China, they still manage with the help of team members Ye Du 叶杜 and Stephanie Sykes to produce cogent and interesting videos about career advice, dating advice, language learning, EDM raves, study habits and other topics of interest to Chinese students studying in America and to American students wishing to understand the Chinese better.

One recent one addressed an issue peculiar to China: the stigma against women pursuing Ph.D. degrees. Ye interviewed two young Chinese women studying at UW-Madison and the three discussed the “double standard” in China that says men can get Ph.D.’s but women who do so are wasting their youth — and throwing away their prospects of getting married. The two feel no such bias in America, however.

I like these videos because they address some real concerns among my students considering life abroad, and get to the heart of the matter frankly and usefully. That the producers are much closer in age to my students is an added, and very important benefit. I’ve shared several of their videos on my social media accounts in China. Though the dialogs are predominantly in English (very good English, I must say!), every episode has English and Chinese subtitles.

Aside from that, I admire their passion for bridging the gap between cultures and helping us all learn a little more about one another. You can pick up that passion after watching a few of their videos.

In fact, I like Channel C so much that I’ve become a patron — their second! — by pledging $1 for each video. Moreover, I’m asking that if you want to support their nascent video production company, that you will also become a patron. It’s easy. Go to this link at and pledge whatever you like, even $1. Pan, Muge and Cecilia are still students and pay all Channel C expenses out of their own pockets, so any extra money will be cheerfully accepted.

* As for the headline, it’s a reference to an old TV show. Details are at IMDB and Wikipedia There’s a movie planned for 2015, starring Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer. Baby boomer flick, for sure.

Dedication: man teaches solo in same rural Hunan school for 38 years
July 12, 2014

Zeng Xiangwei has been the only teacher in this rural Hunan school for 38 years.

JISHOU, HUNAN — When he retires in four years, teacher Zeng Xiangwei 曾祥伟 will have spent 42 years as the only schoolteacher in rural Dao County, Yongzhou City, Hunan.

He has also repaired and cleaned the school, tended the nearby rice fields, and fixed the village’s satellite TV installations.

QQ News (Chinese) and (English) have photo-features about teacher Zeng, who has to retire at age 60. He hopes the county can find a replacement who can teach the village kids English and computer skills. It will be a challenge to attract suitable candidates; the remote school is 35 km from the nearest county road.

Teacher Zeng in his classroom

Most of the children are “left behind” kids, and members of the Yao minority group. Their parents have left the village to work as migrant workers in factories and big cities, so the kids depend on grandparents and other relatives — and Zeng — to care for them.

Zeng plays jump rope with his students.

He hopes the county can build a new school, with a library, computers and an Internet connection, so that the village kids have a brighter future.

Fenghuang flooded after three days of torrential rain
July 15, 2014

JISHOU, HUNAN — The ancient quarter of Fenghuang, an hour’s drive from here, is underwater now after the Tuo River overflowed its banks after three days of heavy rain.

The shopping district is closed to tourists, and power is out in most of the city along the river. I haven’t heard reports of any casualties.

I was just there last week, and everything was normal.

Here are some photos obtained from Baidu News.

The new walking bridge over the Tuo River.

Residents near the shopping streets

Water has flooded the second storeys of buildings on the riverside.

We are expecting more rain the rest of this week. The campus here in Jishou has some minor flooding around Fengyu Lake, but I am high and dry in my mountain aeyrie. So, I’m OK.

Heavy rains threaten homes, crops across Hunan
July 15, 2014

Pedestrian bridge in Fenghuang around 8 pm today

JISHOU, HUNAN — Fenghuang has been hit the hardest, maybe, but heavy rains are affecting all of Hunan.

Xinhua reports more than 500 homes have been washed away by flood waters, and more than 1.15 million people are affected by flooding. Many rivers and Dongting Lake in northeast Hunan are at least 1 meter (3 feet) above flood stage.

In Fenghuang, local officials shut off power at 8 this morning as a safety precaution and four hours earlier, public safety officers were moving people out of threatened areas. Close to 110,000 residents and tourists have been evacuated to higher ground, as water levels of the Tuo River have exceeded 1.5 meters (4.5 feet) over normal.

The wooden Fengyu Bridge, which was built in 2008, has been washed away by the Tuo flood waters and the stone Hong Bridge has sustained heavy water damage. Both are popular tourist attractions.

This page shows Fengyu Bridge in the process of being washed out, as well as other photos tweeted from Fenghuang today.

Across Hunan, officials the rains have ruined close to 54,100 hectares of farmland and will result in economic losses of 940 million yuan ($150 million).

We’re expecting at least two more days of rain. makes Jishou famous
July 17, 2014

Aizhai Suspension Bridge

Aizhai Suspension Bridge

JISHOU, HUNAN — Of course, Bing likes to tease you with their hints. This is the Aizhai Suspension Bridge, which is about 40 minutes from Jishou. It sails over the small town of Aizhai, which is nestled between two peaks of the Wuling Range.

Preparing for the big annual trip home
July 26, 2014

JISHOU, HUNAN — In a few days, I’ll be jetting across the Big Water on my annual visit to the USA, with an added dash of Canada this year!

This map will give you an idea of how busy this trip will be.


If it’s Tuesday, this must be New York?

1. Arrive Chicago July 30
2. Providence, RI, to visit my son
3. New York City, to meet up with friends
4. Toronto, to visit with a Chinese friend and her family
5. NYC and New Jersey, to see my cousin
6. Cedar Rapids, Iowa, to see my daughter and her husband
7. Louisville, KY, to see the rest of the family
8. Dallas-Fort Worth airport, to fly back to China Aug. 28

Three domestic flights, four train rides and one cross-country drive await me this time. I’m going to try to blog the whole while, like a travelogue. We’ll see how that goes. Hah.

As the term was winding down last month, I had much more ambitious travel plans, since I had four weeks in July to kill.*

My first idea was to stop in Tokyo for a few days, since it’s “on the way.” But the airlines are nefarious in their pricing. A layover of a few hours is no big deal. A four-day layover jacked up the price a few hundred dollars. Why? Who knows? So I ditched that idea.

Taking a separate trip to Japan before leaving for the States was feasible, but the airfares (about $500 R/T from Hong Kong) were not favorable. Considering the air and train travel I was already planning in the States, another $500 seemed a bit dear.

Then I had another idea. Take the train to Hanoi, Vietnam. Tallying up the transport, visa and hotel costs gave me another $500-$600 budget. Certainly feasible, if I were not already flitting all over the USA.

So, in the end, I decided to reserve the Japan and Vietnam excursions for the future.

(Traveling overland to Hanoi from China is very affordable, by the way. There’s an overnight train that leaves Nanning, Guangxi province each day for Hanoi. Vietnam has a consulate in Nanning, a tourist visa costs $75, and if you pay extra you can get it the same day. The train stops at the Vietnamese border; immigration officers check your travel documents; and the train continues to Hanoi. The cost each way for a sleeper berth is about $38.)

* Why not spend all summer in the USA, you ask. Well, for income tax and Affordable Care Act purposes, I have to live outside the USA at least 330 days to maintain my expat status. That gives me 35 days to spend in the States. I usually shave it to 30 days in case I get the urge to pop in for a few days later in the year. If I stay longer, I would lose the foreign tax exclusion and would have to register for ACA health coverage. In other words, it would be expensive, above and beyond the usual travel expenses.

Hello, PLA? Complaints department, please
Aug. 4, 2014

SHANGHAI — The way I figure it, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army owes me about $244.

About three weeks ago, I read an article announcing that the PLA would be doing training exercises in the East China Sea from about July 23 to August 6 or so. As a result, the PLA was going to restrict all commercial air traffic in the eastern provinces,causing delays.

I was leaving for the US from Shanghai (that’s in the east, geography fans) on July 30. You can already predict where this story is headed, I’m sure.

But let me set it up.

My own flight plan was to fly out of Changsha around 10:20 am, land in Shanghai’s Hongqiao Airport around 12, take the inter-airport shuttle to Pudong Airport for my 4:10 pm flight to the States. Under normal circumstances, this arrangement would have been fine. I had four hours to travel cross-town in Shanghai, which takes about 60-90 minutes by shuttle bus.

It was not to be.

Whenever I am about to take a long trip, I usually can’t stay in bed, no matter when my flight is. So, I checked out of the Hunan Civil Aviation Hotel at 6:30. An airport bus was already waiting to leave, so I paid my 16.50 yuan ($2.67) and got on board.

I chilled at the airport until it was time to check in, enjoying a nice if somewhat expensive breakfast, punctuated by questions in Chinese from a curious 8-year-old girl who had clearly never seen a white man eating in a restaurant ever before.

So far, so good. (Except maybe for the curious schoolgirl’s prodding questions.)

As boarding time rolled around, there was a noticeable lack of activity at the gate. Since Changsha’s airport typically runs late, I didn’t get worried yet. Then the gate attendant put up a sign, notifying passengers that, because of “air traffic control problems,” the flight would be delayed an indefinite period of time.

Weather conditions were good — partly cloudy with several miles of visibility. Air traffic seemed muted, too. The ATC problems were not resulting from weather or high traffic rates.

It had to be the PLA. Dum dada dum!

Can you imagine the outrage in the USA if our military grounded civilian air traffic in peactime for training exercises? Americans complain when we have to take off our shoes and belts and get offended at full body scans that might take blurry images of our naughty bits. There would be congressional hearings and hash tag campaigns on Twitter if air travelers in America had to sit on the ground awaiting a go-ahead from the Air Force.

But This Is China (TIC). The PLA is an arm of the government, and when the government says jump, the wise citizen asks how high, please sir?

As we sat at the gate, I estimated the latest we could leave without fouling up my connection. Anything later than 1 pm would mean I’d miss my flight.

10:20 came

11:20 came

Finally, they told us we could board at 12:15, only to sit for another hour in a stuffy plane in 95°F heat awaiting departure clearance. We ate our lunch on the ground instead of in the air halfway to Shanghai.

Finally, we were airborne at 1:15 pm. I knew my goose was cooked. The best I could hope for was my connecting flight would also be delayed, and I could board anyway.

It was not to be.

Our landing was not delayed. I hurried off the plane as fast as I could, was surprised to find my bag already on the carousel when I hit baggage claim, and trotted to ground transportation.

An airport livery agent flagged me down. Normally I skip the airport limos no matter where I go, but this time I needed speed, Maybe, just maybe the driver could get me to Pudong in time for my flight. So I swallowed hard and plunked down 650 yuan ($100) for a cushy ride in a Buick Regal I hoped was fast enough to get to Pudong in an hour.

There’s nothing you can do in a situation like this. You can’t make the plane fly faster. You can’t clear the highways of slow moving cars. Getting angry doesn’t help. Nor does worrying. I knew I had a snowball’s chance in Hell of boarding my flight. The American airlines customer service rep (who I suspect was in India somewhere) offered no useful help. I just had to wing it (so to speak).

My driver was good, Richard Petty good. Despite Shanghai traffic, he pulled up at terminal 2 at 3:55 pm.

I rushed in, found the American Airlines desk and plead my case. Nope. That flight had already closed its doors. But there was another flight scheduled to leave 45 minutes later for Dallas. If I had a delay authorization, they could put me on the Dallas flight and another flight to Boston at no additional charge.

Until this trip, I have lived a charmed commercial air travel life. My flights have never been so late that I missed a connection. So, I had no clue what a delay authorization was, thus I had not asked Shanghai Airlines for one. No problem, said the lady in charge, Niki Qiao. She would take care of it for me.

(Coincidence time: Qiao is not a common family name in China, but it’s part of my Chinese name. Meeting Niki Qiao was especially auspicious.)

Well, Ms Qiao and her assistants got me sorted out,and I was able to sail through security since I had an immediate departure. China does not require you to take off your shoes and belts and go through a full body scan. That saves time. I got to my gate as they were boarding the groups ahead of mine.

The other good news was my new seat was better than what I had on the missed flight. An aisle seat four rows ahead of the lavatory. The bad news was our flight, like all the others, was almost two hours late departing. PLA delays were still in effect.

(This meant that in fact I could have boarded my original flight, because it was also still on the ground, but I reckon it looks better for the airline to close the doors as scheduled and at least pretend the flight was on time, even if in the end it wasn’t. And if I had made the flight as planned, I still would have missed my connection in Chicago. That layover was only 2.5 hours.)

But, now I didn’t need to worry. I had a 12-hour layover in Dallas. Even the PLA could not make us that late, and I could now try to enjoy the next 24 hours in transit.

There was one sour note, though. I had booked a room in a hotel in Boston, since originally I would have arrived around 11 pm and I figured my son would not want to drive back to Providence right away, after a full day’s work. The hotel (Rodeway inn) has a 24-hour cancelation policy. Where was I 24 hours earlier? I have no effing clue, but it was not near a computer or a telephone. The hotel clerk was unmoved by my tale of woe, repeating company policy prevented her from refunding the $144 room charge.

A hundred bucks for a fast cab,and another $144 for a bed I never slept in. Thanks so much, PLA. The bill will be in the mail — as soon as I get the address of your complaints department.

Correcting a Facebook post: the drummer girl is from Taiwan, not S Korea
Sept. 7, 2014

The video in question:

JISHOU, HUNAN — So, while I was noodling on Facebook last month in the USA, I came across this video of a young street performer playing a mean drum cover. I was impressed, so I shared it on my timeline.

The originator of the post said she’s Korean, which I found out today is wrong.

The drummer is Luo ShiRu 罗仕茹, who goes by the stage name S. White (小白 xiao bai). She’s from Taipei, Taiwan, not South Korea. Here’s her Facebook page.

Here she is performing another cover.

S. White sometimes performs with another Taipei drumming talent, Vela Blue, the stage name of Chen Manqing 陈曼青, outside the Ximen metro station in Taipei, sharing the same drum kit. Vela Blue, 26, also has some good chops on the drums. Here’s her Facebook page, and a sample of her work.

I notice both Xiao Bai and Vela Blue have the same right hand drumstick twirl.

Someday, kid, you’re gonna be a star!
Sept. 27, 2014

JISHOU, HUNAN — So, I’ve been a little busy these last three weeks. Classes started just two days after I arrived, then the freshmen started two weeks later, doubling my class hours. Oh, and then I was asked to act in a movie.

Hounded by reporters, I enter a local hotel

Hounded by reporters, I enter a local hotel. Photo by Li Dongling

Before you all get too excited, this is probably not a movie you’ll see in America, on TV, the theaters or DVD. It’s what they call in China a “micro-movie” — a 45-minute teleplay for the web only. In fact, it’s half a promotion for the local tourism scene and half a comedy-romance.

Two weeks ago, my foreign affairs officer Cyril Hu called me to ask if I had time to appear in a movie about Xiangxi, the prefecture of which Jishou is the capital. I agreed, figuring it would be a one-day TV thing, no big deal.

Then I met the director, 陈晓曦 Chen XiaoXi, and a few members of his crew, all from Beijing. His assistant, Xiao Hong, and one of my seniors, Li Dongling, served as interpreters. I was to be a foreigner who comes here looking for the “empress of Xiangxi.” It would not be a speaking part, and I would have to provide my own wardrobe. There is still some question whether I will be paid very much, if at all.

Instead of a one-day TV thing, they would need me at least three days, because they were shooting a movie over the course of two weeks. They asked if I had any experience acting.

Discounting three decades of performing in front of students, I said, “Yes, but very little.” I did a small part my first year here for Hunan Economic TV in a travelogue, and before I came to China, I was an extra in the Hannah Montana movie, for which I was paid $65.

(I will spare you the pain of watching the Hannah Montana movie. You can’t see me, or at least I haven’t seen me. Maybe you can see the sign I was holding and waving in the air. Maybe.)

That was enough, and I got the part.

On Wednesday we filmed at the Xiangxi Minzu Hotel. One scene was the one above: as I pull up in my chauffeured car, I’m greeted by a mob of reporters and photographers, and security guards hold them off while I walk to the elevator. Another scene was in the elevator with the male and female leads (plus a sound man, a gaffer, the director and a cameraman). Also, we shot a scene where I and the female lead meet the male lead bringing the “empress” to the hotel, and finally, the female lead and I sign a contract for something — I’m a little hazy on the details still.

The contract signing scene

The contract signing scene Photo by Li Dongling

The next day we all got to bake in the sunshine and 90°F heat in Century Square for “crowd scenes” as we “watched” a performance by the female lead at a drum festival. Not very coincidentally, this weekend is the Second Annual Jishou International Drum Festival, so the square was already full of drums and high school students drumming them.

A hundred drummers drumming

A hundred drummers drumming Photo by Li Dongling

I have the weekend off, but Monday I have other scenes to film.

Director Chen (below), has done two other web micro-movies. One is about the doting father of a partially paralyzed boy who learns how to play the piano with his toes. And the other is the first episode of 一次性爱上 (yi cixing ai shang) — which can be translated as “A One-time Love” or “Love at First Sight” — which came out in 2013.

Director ChenXiaoXi

Director ChenXiaoXi Photo by Li Dongling

We are now filming the second episode of 一次性爱上.

In part one, a young woman, played by 曲同雨 (Qu TongYu — below), strikes a deal with her overbearing lover. If he will let her visit the Jishou area (Xiangxi), she will give her dream of playing the violin professionally. There, she visits the scenic towns of Aizhai and Fenghuang and meets a man who convinces her to ditch her lover and follow her dream.

Actress Qu Tongyu and my student Li Dongling

Actress Qu Tongyu and my student Li Dongling

In part two, Qu Tongyu returns as the aspiring violinist to Xiangxi with her new boyfriend, played by 花昆 (Hua Kun — below), and along the way, they meet my character (Jason) and the “empress of Xiangxi.”

Hua Kun, the male lead

Hua Kun, the male lead

Both episodes highlighted the scenic areas of Xiangxi, including the impressive Aizhai Suspension Bridge and the ancient quarter of Fenghuang, a national treasure. As I said, the movies are a not-so-subtle way to introduce the splendors of Xiangxi to a national audience.

You can watch the first episode of 一次性爱上 here; there are subtitles in English. Director Chen’s first web movie, 半音 (banyin — Half-Step) is also on the Internet. Hopefully, you’ll be able to see them in the States.

I’m going to upload more photos into my Facebook and Google+ albums, if I can manage the climb the Great Firewall of China, so you can see more there if you’re so inclined.

Explaining the unrest in Hong Kong
Sept. 29, 2014

Hong Kong police used tear gas on protesters Sunday

JISHOU, HUNAN — If you’ve been watching the news, you’ve probably heard about the protests in Hong Kong. Media accounts are portraying this as anti-Bejing, but the unrest has much broader objectives than telling the mainland government to mind its own business.

Occupy Central is essentially an effort for universal suffrage, which Hong Kong has never had. Nevertheless, an important side issue is the extent to which the mainland government will have control over local politics.

Historical background

Before 1997 Hong Kong was directly ruled as a colony of the United Kingdom by a viceroy appointed by the monarch. The viceroy — known as the Governor of Hong Kong — appointed other government officials, including members of the advisory Legislative Council (LegCo). Indirect elections of LegCo members began in 1985, and beginning in 1995, 35 of the 70 members are now chosen through direct elections.

British control of HK ended in 1997, and Hong Kong once again became a territory of China as a Special Administrative Region (SAR). Replacing the Governor was a Chief Executive with essentially the same civil powers. A 1200-member Election Committee, whose members are appointed by the mainland’s Central People’s Government, chooses the Chief Executive by majority vote.

While Hong Kong has thus never had universal suffrage, or even a representative government in the style of the United States or even the United Kingdom, one of the goals of the Basic Law of the HKSAR was universal suffrage, with popular elections of all LegCo members and the Chief Exec.

The Basic Law was hammered out just before the 1997 handover, with all parties, including representatives of the mainland government, agreeing to its provisions. Pro-democratic groups in Hong Kong want to hold the Beijing government to the goal of universal suffrage, even as Beijing backs away from its acceptance of it.

In 2007 the National People’s Congress Standing Committee, China’s de facto legislative body, proposed universal suffrage as a possibility for the 2017 election of the Chief Executive, but the wording of the resolution fell short of promising a popular election. Earlier this year, the NPC said only those candidates who are supportive of the central government would be eligible and that there would be no civic nominations of candidates, virtually ensuring that the Chief Executive would be handpicked by the central government.

Occupy Central

In January 2013 Benny Tai Yiu-ting, Associate Professor of Law at the University of Hong Kong, initiated the Occupy Central with Peace and Love movement, with the stated goals of popular elections for the Chief Executive in 2017 and LegCo in 2020. Tai set about organizing a people’s occupation of the city’s financial district (called Central) along the lines of Occupy Wall Street for late September 2014.

A civil referendum commissioned by Occupy Central seemed to indicate the movement has broad popular support, even as government officials say any occupation or protest would likely be illegal.

Students took to the streets on Sept. 22, a few days ahead of Occupy Central’s scheduled protest. Violent police reactions to the students led Occupy Central’s leaders to begin their occupation of Central on Sept. 28. In fact, there are several groups estimated in the tens of thousands occupying several commercial areas around Hong Kong, and not just Central.

Police on Sunday used tear gas on protesters and arrested many of them, but today the police pulled back and for now are leaving the protesters alone, so long as they remain peaceful and orderly. Citizens have agreed not to obstruct traffic in occupied areas.

Tian’anmen Square 2?

True to form, mainland media and Internet censors have been blocking coverage of the protests. Many foreign media articles are unavailable, and web services like Instagram are completely blocked.

Mainland commentators have condemned Occupy Central as unlawful and unpatriotic, and alleged that “foreign influences” are responsible for the movement. Representatives of HK’s business and financial sectors have also been sharply critical of the movement, as they see it as threat to Hong Kong’s financial security.

Observers are comparing the HK protests to the Tian’anmen Square protests of 1989, which were eventually put down violently by the military on June 3 and 4, 1989 after weeks of largely peaceful, pro-democratic efforts by students and residents in Beijing. Whether the same fate awaits Hong Kong remains to be seen.

Hong Kong has been under the control of the 1% for more than 150 years. Beijing’s control is just one aspect of it. Occupy Central wants the other 99% to have a say in Hong Kong’s governance. At this point, it’s doubtful they will succeed.

Slideshow of protesters and police in Hong Kong
Sept. 29, 2014

This is one photo in the slideshow at

Hong Kong police use tear gas Sunday to disperse pro-democracy protesters

To see more, go to Yahoo News.

It’s a wrap (for me, at least)
Oct. 3, 2014

JISHOU, HUNAN — My first brush with Chinese film making has ended. Now I’m waiting to see the results, like everyone else.

My services were needed for only three days. I’ve already related the first two days’ events. The last day was Tuesday, coincidentally the last day before a week-long break for the National Holiday.

First off, consider that my schedule that day began with four hours of classes, and ended with four hours of classes. Sandwiched between these sessions of Oral English was that day’s filming in Aizhai and Dehang and a very late lunch at 3 pm. A really long day.

Along the way, I got a better idea of my role in the movie. One scene on Tuesday had me in hiking clothes in Dehang, coming across a local woman drumming in the local Miao style in a canyon.

Miao drumming in Dehang's canyon

Miao drumming in Dehang’s canyon

This scene happened some years in the past. At the time, my character, Jason, was moved to the point of tears and wanted to meet this woman, but she refused to see me. I left disheartened.

My other scene filmed on Tuesday was in the Ford used earlier. Jason is in the back seat looking at the video he made of the woman years ago, and once again is moved to tears. Somehow the lead characters in the mini-movie reunite me and the Miao drummer woman, but those intervening scenes don’t involve me.

The prop I got to keep, a 30 cent ring

The prop I got to keep, a 30 cent ring

And that was it. For three days’ work, amounting to about 15 hours of time, I received 1,000 yuan (about $160, so about $10 an hour) and three free meals. I got to keep the bad ass sunglasses (as my daughter calls them) I wore on the first two days of filming and a ring, which I found online for 2 yuan, about 30 cents. On the downside, the sunhat I offered as a hiking accessory was lost, though I suspect a member of the camera crew adopted it while the prop manager wasn’t paying attention. Attempts to retrieve it failed.

The ring, incidentally, has the Lord’s Prayer — in Spanish — written in it. Chinese fashion is eclectic. One wonders if the designer even realized what he or she was using in designing the ring.

I did learn a few things along the way.

  • Crying on command is very difficult, even aided by eyedrops and stage make-up, and fairly exhausting. On the third day of filming, the crew forgot to pack the “tear drops,” so we improvised with my re-wetting drops.
  • Film acting is a lot of fun, but also involves a lot of boring downtime.
  • The male lead, Hua Kun, is a good actor and a very good photographer, and I got along with him very well.
  • The female lead, Qu TongYu, is a good actress, but rather self-absorbed. Her downtime was usually spent with her boyfriend whose involvement with the movie seemed otherwise minimal. She also has a kind of wheedling tone when asking for something, which would get on my nerves if I had to spend more than two days working with her.
  • The director, Chen XiaoXi, is a likable perfectionist. Being fairly young, he may be embarking on a successful film career. As far I know, this is his third movie.

As soon as I learn when the movie is finished, I’ll post it here.

I have Western TV again!
Oct. 17, 2014

BBC World

BBC World

JISHOU, HUNAN — China would not be at the top of anyone’s list of entertaining television. The Chinese government strictly limits consumer access to Chinese cable and satellite TV channels, which offer a staid variety of historical dramas, reality shows, moralistic soapies and news programs — all of which must pass inspection by government censors.

Foreign channels, like the BBC, CNN or HBO, are usually only available at big-city hotels that cater to foreigners. Police patrol residential areas to ensure no one has an illegal satellite dish pointing in the wrong direction.

For an expat, this situation meant your only access to Western TV was through the computer, either by downloading programs or catching the rare streaming website that doesn’t black out China. (I’m looking at you, Hulu!)

But, as of last month, this expat now has access to more than 200 international TV channels, because I bought an Internet settop box marketed by A2SATV.

A2SATV settop Internet TV box

A2SATV settop Internet TV box

The provider also offers several hundred free TV channels from all over the world. The box with a year’s subscription to the premium package cost about $145, and subscription renewals are about $50 a year.

The box runs Android, and comes with two USB ports, SDcard slot, RCA connections and an HDMI port. Audio and video apps are included, so you can watch your own movies, view photos or listen to music. For decent TV viewing, the Internet connection should be at least 5 MB/s — mine is about 12 MB/s.

In practice, however, I’ve noticed some buffering issues, especially during times when students are not in class and are on the campus network. Still, considering the low cost of the service, I can’t complain.

I had inquired about buying a digital satellite set-up, but its cost and the inconvenience of siting the dish made it less than appealing. One of my neighbors has a satellite TV set-up. Their balcony faces south, so they have the advantage of being able to conceal their dish should the police check the area. My balcony faces north, so I’d either have to keep the dish inside, pointing through my living room window, or run a cable two floors up to the roof and put the dish up there. My TV habit was not that desperate, so I never seriously considered sat TV.

The first trailer of my ‘big’ movie debut
Nov. 13, 2014

Love at First Sight 2JISHOU, HUNAN — Back in September, I was called upon to play the part of a foreign visitor to Xiangxi Prefecture in a movie, 《一次性爱上2》 (Yi Ci Xing Ai Shang 2 — Love at First Sight 2)*. The first trailer for this “micro-movie,” a 45-minute web-only production, has just been released. Unfortunately, there’s no embedding options, so here’s the LINK.

The link will take you a Chinese video sharing site. Hopefully, you’ll be able to see it with no troubles. Meanwhile, I’ll try to download it and see if I can host from my own site or post it on YouTube.

There are no English subtitles yet, but there’s not much dialogue in the trailer, anyway. It’s a movie about romance, drama, spectacular scenery and the love of music.

* Interestingly enough, the Chinese phrase 一次性爱上 can be translated as “Love at First Sight,” but it can also be used to describe a one-night stand or a sexual escapade. This second possibility led to some interesting comments from my Chinese Internet friends. I had to assure them I was not acting in a porn movie, which, by the way, are illegal in China. So, I figure they were not thinking through the concept very carefully.

Teaching teachers, episode 2
Nov. 17, 2014

JISHOU, HUNAN — Saturday was a busy day for me, as I once again got to teach teachers.

The last time I led such a workshop was almost three years ago, when I and another American at the Zhangjiajie campus spent a few days in a nearby small town, Yongshun, teaching middle school English teachers from the nearby counties.

It seems that the local Foreign Experts office has once again realized that it could use Xiangxi prefecture’s measly foreign teacher contingent more fully, and organized a one-day workshop for teachers in Jishou city, and Fenghuang and Huayuan counties. This time, two teachers from YaSi Middle school handled the morning session, and I took the afternoon session.

Not three weeks before, we were part of another, more business-oriented workshop with local government and business leaders.

Whether this is part of a new effort to use us more widely, or to compensate for shutting off our part-time employment possibilities is hard for me to say. Either, we were paid for our efforts, and treated to free meals, so I won’t complain.

My readers who are teachers will identify with this remark made by two of the teachers at Saturday’s session. She complained that the morning presentations about teaching spoken English were interesting, but had nothing to do with her and the others’ daily teaching duties. I can recall having similar thoughts while sitting through many teaching conference presentations.

Chinese English teacher don’t have the chance to teach fun English games and activities, as we foreign teachers do. Their tasks are drill, drill, drill and test, test, test, vocabulary and grammar. They have 60-70 students per class, and 40 new vocab words to teach each week. Looming over them, and the students, are the midterm and final exams, and for Junior 3 (9th grade) and Senior 3 (12th grade) students, the June entrance exams to high school and college, respectively. Teachers can be penalized if their students do poorly on exams, so they all worry about getting their often stubborn charges to learn English well.

My responsibility was to teach something more immediately useful — pronunciation. Since I had done a similar presentation in Yongshun in 2011, I dusted off that one, made a few adjustments and led a 90-minute class, with another 45 minutes for Q&A.

Several of the teachers suggested there be other workshops in the future, as most of them feel less than confident in English skills. Most of them, as is the Chinese custom, prefaced their remarks and questions with, “My English is poor,” when in actuality it wasn’t. It just that they seldom have opportunities to practice spoken English, other than teaching their classes.

One teacher’s private question to me during the break time was especially touching. She’s been an English teacher in a rural school for 17 years. Her college classmates, also English majors, now are successful businesspersons in Guangzhou and Shenzhen, while she is still in her hometown trying to get reluctant teenagers to take English seriously. She was the verge of tears as she asked if there were any chance she could teach Chinese in the USA.

There are two obstacles to hurdle, I told her. One is to pass the visa interview. The other is to be accepted to the Hanban program sponsored by the Confucius Institutes, which requires a fairly extensive English interview and essay process. I told her, after she answered some typical visa interview questions flawlessly, that she’d probably pass the visa interview easily. The second hurdle would be a different matter, but I told her, nothing ventured, nothing gained. With 17 years’ experience, she’d probably be a very good Hanban teacher.

In all, I found these teachers to be as passionate about their profession as the Yongshun workshop participants, and as the teachers I know in America. Despite the daunting challenges facing Chinese EFL teachers, they all want their teaching to be solid and their students successful.


On a somewhat related note, several weeks ago I asked my teacher friends on Facebook for help in tracking down a quote about the many roles of a teacher. Well, I’m happy to say I found it — on my hard drive! I had saved it, then forgot I had it until I came across it yesterday by chance while doing some housekeeping in My Documents folder. I’m going to make it a separate post, since this one is a bit long.

A peek at a Chinese couple in Zhangjiajie
Dec. 2, 2014

JISHOU, HUNAN — Many couples in China choose scenic spots for their wedding photos. Few, however, choose to pose nude while doing it.

This couple, who may or may not be participating in a publicity stunt for the Zhangjiajie tourism industry, has got tongues wagging here in China.

Blue people in the forest!

Blue people in the forest!

They’re blue as a nod to the movie Avatar. Director James Cameron supposedly saw the rugged terrain in the Zhangjiajie National Forest Park and was inspired to recreate the terrain for the movie’s planet, Pandora. Whether that’s true or not, the Zhangjiajie tourist board is running with it. One of the peaks in the park was renamed “Hallelujah Mountain” shortly after the movie came out.

You can see more photos here (Chinese language) and here (English language).

The photos are SFW, because the couples’ “naughty bits” have been pixelated or concealed to satisfy strict censorship regulations in China. On the other hand, saturation levels have been Photoshopped. Zhangjiajie is beautiful, but the colors there are not that vivid.

Bitcoin in China update
Dec. 27, 2014

JISHOU, HUNAN — #Bitcoin is still alive and well in China, a year after the central banking authorities clamped down hard on banks doing Bitcoin-related business. We can still exchange renminbi for Bitcoin; it’s just not as easy as it was before December last year.

Before the big crackdown, it was easy to transfer money from one’s bank account to any of several Bitcoin exchanges in China using the UnionPay interbank debit card system or the AliPay or TenPay third-party processor systems. So easy, that it appears Chinese Bitcoin speculation was pushing the exchange rate well over US$1,000.

After the central bank restricted bank transfers and required banks close the exchanges’ bank accounts, the value of Bitcoins tumbled very quickly and has yet to return to the $1,000 level. Today, it was trading around $325.

All but a few of the Bitcoin exchanges in China closed their doors. BTC China is one of the few that survives. It works around the banking restrictions by using vouchers as an intermediate step, and two representatives who accept the bank transfers. I took advantage of this system this week to transfer part of my paycheck to my US bank account.

Previously, I had been using another cryptocurrency, Ripple (XRP), to exchange for bitcoins. While Bitcoin trading was sharply curtailed, the banking authorities seemed to be giving Ripple a pass, so I could buy Ripple vouchers on TaoBao, China’s big online shopping site, with my UnionPay debit card without much trouble. Then I’d exchange the XRP for BTC and finally use Coinbase to deposit dollars into my bank account.

That avenue is now closed as well. After I got my pay, I went to to buy Ripple and found all those options were entirely gone. I assume the long arm of the central banking authorities finally clamped down on renminbi-to-Ripple transactions, too. So, I decided to give the BTC-China voucher system a whack.

Here’s how it works. There are currently two resellers handling the money, each with an account on QQ, China’s ubiquitous instant messaging service. You send them an IM, they send back the bank account details. China’s banks allow interbank account transfers, so it’s a cinch to use your online banking to transfer money from your account to their account safely and quickly. Once they receive the funds, they send you two voucher codes which you enter at the BTC China website to obtain your Bitcoin.

The image image shows the CNY funding page. The resellers’ QQ links are near the bottom center and the voucher exchange button is at far right.

BTC China CNY funding page, showing reseller links and voucher exchange link

BTC China CNY funding page, showing reseller links and voucher exchange link

I was a bit wary of entrusting my hard earned cash to someone I don’t know, I admit. While BTC China has a very good reputation worldwide, you have to have some faith that this voucher exchange system will work.

It did. Within a few minutes of receiving my money, the reseller sent me the two voucher codes, which I used at BTC China’s website to buy Bitcoin. Total cost was nearly zero. My bank imposes a 1 renminbi (CNY 1) fee for interbank transfers. That’s about 16 cents at current exchange rates. BTC China imposes no fees to exchange CNY for BTC, and the usual BTC 0.0001 (3 cents) fee for Bitcoin-to-Bitcoin transactions.

Previously, I would transmit Bitcoin to Coinbase for eventual deposit to my US bank account. This time, I used a new US exchange, Buttercoin, which allows users to place both limit and market orders. Buttercoin launched earlier this year with some big name Wall Street backing. At the time I was online last night, Bitcoin rates were bouncing between $320 and $325. I bought mine at $324, so I placed a limit order at $325. That order was filled overnight, leaving me with about $2 more than I had started with.

In other words, I exchanged Chinese Yuan for US dollars online at no net cost to me. In fact, I made a couple of bucks in the process, because of market fluctuations. I haven’t always been that lucky; usually, Bitcoin values seemed to be dropping almost every other time I did these transfers. This time, exchange rates were holding steady.

For comparison, as noted before, sending money through PayPal results in a 4% transaction fee for currency exchange. The exchange from China PayPal to US PayPal is nearly instantaneous, and deposit to US bank takes about four days. My Bitcoining took several hours — the interbank transfer was not instantaneous and the limit order at Buttercoin happened overnight. The deposit to my bank will happen between one and three days. So, the time required is nearly the same, but the cost of using Bitcoin (at least this time) was much less.

Time is money, as they say.

It’s almost the end of the term
Dec. 30, 2014

Heads will roll!

Heads will roll!

JISHOU, HUNAN — Today I gave my last exams of the fall term. Classes ended last week. Once I hand in my marks next week, I’ll be free for nearly two entire months!

My duties this year are teaching Listening Comprehension and Oral English to the freshmen and sophomores in our college. That’s about 160 students, so my load is much lighter than in the past.

For the listening classes, we met in a lecture hall yesterday where I could meet all the frosh at once, then all the sophs at once. Judging from the groans of dismay, what I hoped to be a relatively fair exam may have been harder than I thought. More than a few students have told me they think they failed the test.

Both listening exams followed the same format. Part 1: A VOA Learning English report. Announcers for these reports speak more slowly and use easier words than regular VOA readers. Parts 2 and 3: Short exercises from their textbooks. Part 4: Dictation of the first paragraph of Matilda.

It seems they did OK with the VOA Special English section, but the readers on the other section spoke too quickly for the students. Granted, they did, but the exercises were pretty easy, so until I start reading the exams I won’t be able to diagnose the problem.

As for the speaking exams, I tested the freshmen and sophomores differently. The first years met me in my office two at a time, and I asked each one to give a self-introduction then gave them a topic to talk about together. Meanwhile, I judged their pronunciation, rhythm and speed, and conversational abilities. Listening comprehension was a side issue, which will go toward their Listening Comp grade.

The second years had to present an original story, with each person in a group speaking at least two complete sentences. It was a mixed bag. Some groups took to heart my commandment that the story be totally original or they would suffer lowered grades. Other groups procrastinated till the last moment (they had a month to prepare something) and performed skits I have seen previously these last six years. So, while their performances were pretty good, their marks are going to suffer penalties.

It’s been a busy month.

I took a week’s leave from Dec. 6 to 15 to hang out with my son in Hong Kong. Before I left, I had to submit my listening exams for printing. After I returned, there were rehearsals for the college’s annual Christmas Eve gala, dinners and luncheons, and my usual class schedule. Officially, foreign teachers get Christmas Day as a holiday, but rearranging classes is such a pain in the ass, I’ve never asked for the day off. I figure the lengthy winter holiday more than compensates for working on an American holiday.

Tanya, the Ukrainian voice teacher, and I visited the Xiangxi Children’s Welfare Home on Saturday. It was her idea to buy some snacks, milk, books and toys to give the kids there. Most of the children there have some disability. One little girl has Down’s Syndrome. A 12-year-old boy is blind and mute. A few others have developmental disabilities. They are all well cared for, by the way.

Yong Fu and I

Yong Fu and I

My young friend, Yong Fu (Xiao Fu), is a teenager and still lives in the facility. We’ve known each other for at least three years. She can speak a little English now, and can play songs on her electronic keyboard. (It’s missing some keys, so I plan to get her a new one soon.)

Carla in 2012

Carla in 2012

Tomorrow, I will take the train to CiLi, a three-hour trip, to visit Carla Wu (Wu Shuang), the same young lady who a year and a half ago was in hospital being treated at age 23 for osteosarcoma. Aggressive chemotherapy seems to have done the trick. Carla says she’s gained weight, and her hair has started growing back in — in time for her wedding party, which is in CiLi.

Carla also reports she’s pregnant. So, it’s just one happy event after another for her.

Once I finish grading papers, I’m free to do what I want. I’ll probably travel someplace, but those plans are still in flux. Details as they develop.

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