Sunday, August 15, 2010

I'm Out

Waiting for my plane home from Shanghai at the airport. Takeoff in one hour. 15 hours from now I'll finally be home.

Though there were certainly ups and downs this summer, overall it ended up being pretty great. It was so tough leaving all the CET students and HIT roommates.

Anyway, more detailed post later. Gotta go.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Healthcare, More Basketball, and Analyzing China on a Bus

First, sorry again for the delay in blogging. Our final exams (we all have 4) begin next week. In addition to beginning to prepare, I've spent this entire week researching and writing a paper for my one on one class on the problems America and China will encounter reforming their healthcare systems. While Chinese is difficult enough as it is, trying to write about a topic that could take up many books and is far beyond my comprehension makes it all the more challenging. Nevertheless, I submitted a rough draft this afternoon (2800 characters - by far the longest Chinese essay I've ever written), so I have some breathing room to write some English for a change.

Second, one more basketball-related story (I honestly believe basketball provides interesting glimpses into a country's culture). Last Sunday, I played in my usual pickup basketball game. By now, I recognize almost all of the regular players on the first court (best competition). They're a really nice group, and I'm not really looking forward to not being able to keep playing with them. Anyway, that day there was a group of black people at the basketball court as well (that sounds wrong, but is there a better way to phrase it? they were not African-Americans - some were from Africa, others from the Caribbean). To be blunt, while whites are rare in Harbin, it is even rarer to see a black person. A few were just watching, but one was playing, and he was incredibly good. He clearly drew people's attention, as people gradually came over to our court to watch. As the crowd grew, more people became curious and joined in watching. An hour or so into playing, there were - no joke - more than 200 people watching our 4 on 4 pickup basketball game. When I play in New York, it's exciting if one or two guys stop and watch for a few minutes. But here all 4 sides of the court were absolutely packed with people, curious to see the game. Towards the end, I actually ended up on the guy's team and spoke with him a bit afterwards. Turns out he is from the Ivory Coast, has been in Harbin and Beijing for 4 years, is fluent in Chinese, and is engaged to a Chinese woman. We exchanged phone numbers and ended up playing the next two days as well. Each time he came, the crowds followed. Pretty hysterical.

Anyway, on to more serious things. In my business Chinese class, one of the topics we covered was the Chinese real estate market. While I had heard that there was a serious real estate bubble in China, I was otherwise not very informed on the issue.

In short, towards the end of last century, China switched over from a welfare housing system to a system in which local governments are in control of selling land to private buyers. This has put local governments in a pretty easy position to be bribed on land deals. This, in combination with the rise of a super wealthy class in China that often has the money to purchase multiple luxury homes (and other factors - like the influx of money into China's economy due to recent stimulus bills and excessive provision of bank loans), has sent the price of luxury homes skyrocketing upwards. Purchasing a home in many of China's major cities is nearly impossible for most of China's lower and middle class.

While some argue that the demand for these luxury homes just isn't there (it's just a bubble waiting to collapse), this is only part of the story. The other part is the demand for cheap, affordable homes is not only as strong as ever but is expected to grow going forward. Millions of villagers from China's poorer western region have immigrated to cities, and millions more are expected to come. For example, the southwestern city of Chongqing (initially part of Sichuan province but turned into its own municipality) is expected to receive 1.5 million immigrants in the next 3 years. Imagine New York City adding that many people in that short a time span! To meet the demand, Chongqing's government is planning to build 323 million square feet of housing over the next 3 years.

The point is this: luxury real estate bubble or not, China's market for housing is growing rapidly and isn't going anywhere anytime soon.

While I was in Shanghai, I marveled at how China managed to turn what was essentially farmland into a sea of towering skyscrapers all in less than 20 years. Even having been to several cities in China, it's still difficult to comprehend the scale and speed at which this country's infrastructure is growing.

No, pictures are not enough, but maybe they can help a little. Two weekend ago, we took a weekend trip to Changchun (a few hours from Harbin), by Chinese standards a relatively small and undeveloped city. Bored while driving around the city on our bus, I decided to start taking as many pictures as possible. Though the quality of the pictures isn't always great, it was an easy way to capture a lot of the city in very little time. Last weekend, I did the same in Harbin on our way to the Harbin Tiger Park (pictures and videos of that adventure included as well - warning: some are kind of gruesome and disturbing). Again, pictures don't do enough justice to what's going on, but hopefully they give some sense of the massive scale of development taking place here.

First, Changchun:

Next, Harbin:

Taken from a moving bus, my pictures clearly aren't that great. Nor do they completely illustrate the point I'm trying to make. If you're curious, check out this photo exhibit in the New York Times (thanks to my Dad for showing it to me):

Taken by a professional photographer not in a moving vehicle, I think he outdoes me by a bit. Nevertheless, the point is the same. Being here, I've gotten the impression that wherever you go, there are always massive construction projects. Everywhere. And not just one building. Many large buildings all being built together. It's staggering.

And finally, I have to admit that I have a weird fascination with city skylines. I'm not sure why. I think a skyline says a lot about a city. How developed it is. Its character. So here is Harbin (again, from our bus):

No, not outstandingly impressive. But this is China's 10th biggest city. Moreover, despite being fairly large, it is considered fairly undeveloped. With the pace at which this country is growing, I am extremely curious to see this same view in 10, 20, 30 years. My guess is one won't even be able to recognize that it is the same city.

Here are the rest of my pictures from the past two weeks. Week 5, including our trip to Changchun:

Week 6, including our visit to the tiger park:

Again, some of the tiger pictures/videos are kind of disturbing. The park offers visitors the opportunity to pay some money to feed live animals to the tigers and watch them eat. I didn't want to, but some of my classmates did, so we bought a few ducks. Lovely.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Why This Language is Sometimes Infuriating to Study

According to Wikipedia, Mandarin has only 400 spoken monosyllables, but over 10,000 characters. What this means is that even though there are 10,000 characters, there are only 400 ways to pronounce them, so many characters by default have to be pronounced the same way. 4 tones (if you can distinguish them - even after two years, I sometimes have trouble) increase the available number of sounds to 1600, but that's still nowhere near enough. Check out the following two links to get an idea of what I am talking about:

Notice that ignoring the tones, all of the words are pronounced exactly the same way (either "shi" or "shishi"). Even knowing the tones doesn't remove all the ambiguity. Then, when you have "she" (pronounced almost the same way as "shi" - the difference is there, but it's subtle) as another sound, you're stuck trying to differentiate "shi" "she" "sheshi" "shishe" and "shishi" (fortunately "sheshe" doesn't mean anything).

I've never studied Spanish, but I can listen to someone speak Spanish and have a good idea of what he's talking about. But when a Chinese person says "shishi," and I'm stuck trying to figure out which of the 20 shishi's he meant, it's sometimes difficult to understand.

Enough complaining. Time to do my homework.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Cultural Exchange

Last week, my roommate and another HIT student took three of us to a Mahjong club. For 12 kuai (less than 2 dollars), you get a table, unlimited food and drinks, and a Mahjong set. The place is open 24/7. I can't explain all the rules of Mahjong now, but in many ways it's similar to the card game Gin Rummy. We didn't play for money, but it is often played for stakes.

Tonight, I returned the favor and taught a group of HIT students how to play Texas Hold'em, an important part of my college experience (I actually don't play that much, but I've met a bunch of my best friends through poker). All in Chinese, a significant challenge. Since it was their first time playing, we off course didn't play for money. If I accomplish nothing else this summer, I will at least have helped spread American gambling culture to China and brought back Chinese gambling culture to America.

Anyway, we leave for our weekend trip to Changchun in 7 hours. I should probably go to sleep.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010


One of the main goals of being here is to completely emerge myself in Chinese. And I often do. I've often try my best to eliminate English from my life. My roommate gave me about 100 of his favorite songs, so I can listen to Chinese music. I've started to take notes in Chinese (no always possible, but getting there). I try to avoid my computer as much as possible (sometimes failing, but I try).

The language pledge truly helps. Take today as an example. I woke up at 8 and spent two hours preparing for my business Chinese class test. Newspaper class. Then lunch while continuing to prepare. Test. Office hours (I just go and chat with the teachers to practice my Chinese). 3 hours of basketball. By now I actually recognize a bunch of guys at the court, so I talk to them a lot. Dinner, still speaking Chinese. And finally, I'm writing my blog, the first time all day that I'm even thinking in English. Every day, Chinese all the time.

But has anyone else ever been in a foreign country and just felt like they needed to feel a little more at home for a bit? Needed to escape from the foreign atmosphere? Chinese - both the language and the culture - all the time is great, but sometimes I just need to feel like I am back in America. So, yesterday, while starting to prepare for my test, I spent 5 hours at the coffee shop I sometimes go to to do homework. Two cups of coffee. Dinner - a ham, egg, and cheese sandwich. English music. For those five hours, despite the fact I was preparing for a 20 minute oral presentation on the Chinese stock market, Chinese currency policy issues, and the challenges facing China's exports (thrilling), I kind of felt like I was back at home. Kind of. Not completely, but somewhat. Probably as close as possible.

Ideally, while in China, I would not speak or even read a word of English. I wouldn't listen to English music. But I don't really think that's possible. I think I'd go insane. Sometimes it's important just to feel at home, even if it's just for a few minutes. Whether it's listening to music, talking to family or friends, or buying bread and peanut butter and jelly and making sandwiches in my room, small breaks from complete emersion keep me going. Now, unfortunately, back to the grind. It's late, and I haven't started my homework.

Here are the pictures from our trip to Fenghuangshan (Fenghuang mountain) last weekend:

Monday, July 12, 2010

An Apology, A few more Random Thoughts, and an Attempt to Answer my Last Question Through Pickup Basketball

First, an apology. I've kind of flaked out on consistently keeping up this blog. Not to make excuses, but unlike last summer, I have very little time to myself here. And that's probably a good thing. While having a roommate is a major part of the difference, CET has been much more of a group atmosphere than HBA was. I spent many nights at HBA locked up in my single, not really talking to anybody. That never happens here. People - either other students or our HIT roommates - pop in and out of our rooms. We eat meals in groups all the time. We watch the World Cup together (even last night, despite the fact that it ended at 5:00AM China time). It's fun and good for my Chinese, but my blogging might be a little more infrequent. Sorry...

Anyway, a few quick minor interesting things. Some people I've spoken to at home seem to have the impression that certain topics of conversation in China are absolutely forbidden. Don't even bring them up. Without going into too much detail in case... whatever... in three weeks I've had plenty of interesting conversations regarding these "sensitive" topics. Government censorship, Tibet, Taiwan, human rights, the currency manipulation issue. The HIT students in general are aware that they are somewhat controversial topics, but they are more than willing to have real discussions about them. And they are curious to hear our thoughts too. Again, without going into too much detail, there seems to be a huge divide in thought between older and younger people here. So before we bash China too much, I think we should give it some time and see what happens in the next decade or so. Based on conversations I've had, I think there is going to be fairly dramatic change.

On to something else. Sometimes before class, I find an empty classroom and do some last minute review. On one of the desks in one of the classrooms, someone carved in the words "我找对象," pronounced "Wo Zhao Duixiang" and meaning "I am looking for a boyfriend/girlfriend." HIT's male/female ratio is about 7 to 1. Of all of our male HIT roommates, I don't think a single one has a girlfriend. Yet many of the female roommates have boyfriends. So while either a boy or girl could have written those words, there's a 7/8 change it was a lonely guy. Of course, American engineering schools have unbalanced male/female ratios as well. But China's male to female ratio is about 120/100 and growing (mainly due to the one-child policy). I don't think millions of young, lonely guys is beneficial to the stability of a country. While it's not really a topic discussed very often, I'm curious to see how the "我找对象" phenomenon ultimately plays out.

One more quick thought: this language is so unbelievably, frustratingly difficult. What was I thinking starting it? I continue to spend countless hours trying to figure out the subtle differences between the pronunciation of "chu" and "qu." I can barely even pronounce my own name right ("My name is Qi Yuanshi" "Ji Yanshi?" "No..."). Then there are the characters. For example: 已, 己, and 巳 are all completely different characters. Or how about: 戎, 戊, 戍, 成. and 或. In many ways, I think my Chinese is getting better. For example, in my business class I explained to my teacher how the Chinese government artificially lowers the value of the renminbi. I had a pretty sophisticated conversation with one of the HIT students on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Yet I still find myself in situations where I have absolutely no idea how to say anything intelligent. Oh well.

On to part three of this post. Rather than try to explain how I think Chinese culture in general is different from American culture, it might be easier to start with one small part of each country's culture: pickup basketball, something I'm fairly familiar with in both countries. Each country's version is surprisingly different from the other.

Basically, Chinese pickup basketball abandons every formality of American pickup that slows the game down, much more fast paced. Instead of playing full court 5 on 5, Chinese almost always play half court 4 on 4. Why? Because 16 people and two basketballs gets a lot more people playing than 10 people and one basketball. For choosing teams, 7 of the 8 people stand in a circle and put out either a fist or an open hand. Fists play with fists, open hands play with open hands. It usually takes about 10 seconds to get to 3 of one and 4 of the other (the extra person joining the group of 3). In America, we divide teams by shooting foul shots - you make it, you're on one team; you miss, you're on the other. Not only is it not a fair process (the better people usually make the foul shots), it takes forever. I've been in lines where all 10 people miss...

The game starts without checking the ball. In America, whenever a play starts, the offensive player first gives it to the defensive player who then gives it back, kind of a way of making sure everyone is ready. Not checking in China. As soon as the offense passes the ball in, the game is on, whether the defense is ready or not. Games are always first to 5 baskets, and there are usually 3 teams on a half court. So as soon as one team reaches 5, the losing team is off. The waiting team immediately gets on and within 30 seconds, the next game begins. No breaks. In America, games are usually to 21 by 2's and 3's. At the court I play at in New York, they are to 12 by 1's only. While the games themselves are longer, the breaks in between are much longer. In New York, after each game, the winning team goes and takes a 5 minute water break. Then there's usually an argument as to who has the next game. By the time everything is figured out, an entire game could have been played.

Though I did witness one massive fight break out (two teams starting beating each other up - it got really vicious), the games are usually much smoother than games at home. When I play in New York, every two minutes someone yells at someone else or argues a call. Very infrequent here. Nevertheless, the games are incredibly competitive. While the people I play with at home are generally bigger and stronger, I've played against many teams here that would give teams at home a run for their money. Basketball is taken very seriously here. The courts are packed from 6AM until midnight. Every day.

Obviously, one shouldn't read too much into a culture based on its style of pickup basketball. But it is interesting that some aspects of Chinese pickup basketball appear in other ways. As I've mentioned before, restaurants often ask for money first, then they give you food. And no tip. No extra formalities to slow down the process.

If I didn't have an absurd amount of homework due tomorrow (that I haven't started because I played 3 hours of basketball today), I might try to continue. But hopefully this wasn't a bad start. To be continued when I get some again.

Here is the link to pictures form weeks 2 and 3 (I'm trying the direct link to the album - if it doesn't work, go to an old link to my public albums and look for "CET Weeks 2 and 3"). I have tons of new pictures from this weekend's trip to Fenghuang Shan (Fenghuang mountain), but they're not online yet. Coming soon...

Warning: there may or may not be pictures of me with alcoholic beverages in this album. But it's ok, because it's legal here.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Open Question

After returning from China last summer, nearly everyone I spoke to asked the same question: how are Chinese people different from Americans? How is their culture different from ours? Each time I was asked, I failed to give a coherent, intelligent answer. Yes, the food is different. They use complicated characters instead of an alphabet. They generally go to bed earlier than we do and wake up earlier than we do. But are those really major differences? Also, the people I met last summer differed so dramatically from one to the other that I never felt capable of categorizing 1.3 billion people as having a certain characteristic or behaving in a certain way.

So, in an attempt to not fail as miserably in answering the same questions after returning from Harbin 6 weeks from now, I'm curious to hear from those of you reading my blog. For anyone who has been to China, what makes Chinese people/culture unique? For those of you who have been to other countries, what differentiates the people of those countries? Maybe hearing from some of you might help give me some ideas for answering the same question. Or maybe not. But it's worth a shot...