Friday, September 18, 2015

China Bit: Suzhou Sirens

Sirens to remind people of Japanese aggression
Sep 9, 2015|By Pan Zheng

Air raid sirens will sound across Suzhou on September 18 to mark the outbreak of China’s War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression in 1931. The city government decided to test sirens on this day instead of April 27, the anniversary of Suzhou’s liberation in 1949.
All over Jiangsu Province, sirens will be heard to commemorate the September 18 Incident 84 years ago when the Japanese army attacked Chinese troops in Manchuria, setting off a 14-year war in China.
The sirens will sound at 10pm and last nine minutes. People are reminded to stay calm during the alarm.

I Googled the item above as sirens here began wailing at 10 a.m. this morning. Given that began wailing at exactly 10 a.m. and that the weather outside was calm--being a good Iowan the first thing that I think of with a warning siren--I didn't think too much of it. Also, the pedestrians, cyclists, and motorists continued in their nonchalant ways. But a second round led me to my computer to find the above. I'd never heard warning sirens here before. (Note that the article refers to them as "air raid sirens". Really?)
This reminder of Japanese aggression isn't the only recent reminder of that distant war  that the Chinese people have received of late. Earlier this month the Chinese celebrated a new holiday to mark the surrender of the Japanese to Chinese forces, ending the brutal and humiliating occupation of China by the Japanese. The big-wigs celebrated by holding a Soviet-style parade of military hardware and marching troops parading through Tiananmen Square. Apropos the occasion, Vladimir Putin attended as a guest. Meanwhile, a great many ordinary Chinese spent the holiday pouring into Japanese-owned malls to buy Japanese-manufactured goods, or they went out and bought Japanese brand cars. One senses a disconnect from the leadership's ideas about how they should think of Japan. For C, it was a day off of school. 
Some suggest that all of this reminder of a war that ended over 70 years ago is to foment nationalist pride and denigrate the Japanese. In the U.S.,  it would be the equivalent of sounding sirens to mark December 7, 1941, and the bombing of Pearl Harbor, or to declare a national holiday for V-J Day. Even in my youth, less than 20 years after V-J Day, I don't recall any commemoration. And while the anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack was noted, it was not a holiday or major event.  Those who lived then and were affected by the war, such as my parents, certainly recalled that date and what they were doing when they learned of the attack. But for us young ones, it was strictly a historical event.  The current generational equivalent is 9/11, but note that American high schools are now populated by those who have no personal memory of 9/11. Time passes. 
As for me, if I'd have been asked, I would have suggested a celebration of 70 years of peace between China and Japan (and the U.S. and Japan). The cause for celebration is the successful rehabilitation of Japan after the war and its place in the world today. A fact, that I must add, justifies some measure of American pride. 
Anyway, an interesting choice of a date to test the sirens. But was something else something else being tested? 

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

China Bits

Haze, a skyscraper under construction: a bit of China

It's been more than a year now since I posted on this blog. Now it's time to get back to it and to provide some background about why I've not been writing.

I have several excuses. One, pure laziness: writing is work. Second, Iowa Laoshi in the Middle Kingdom has written so well about many of our experiences here in China that I don't believe that I can add much more than "yea". And finally--and most distressingly--I feel that I don't really know much about China.

We've been living in China for over a year now, and I'd logged some time in earlier visits before moving here. But unlike our experience in India, where we lived in a family compound (in a guest apartment), worked in Indian workplaces, and spoke a local language (English), we've none of that here. Of course, we didn't get far with our Hindi (and nowhere with our Malayalam), but where we lived and worked, the locals spoke English, often extremely well. In China, C works in an English-language school that consists of all English-speakers except for the janitorial staff. (Even the Australians and New Zealanders speak English, although sometimes I wonder with those accents and strange turnes-of-phrase.) I work at home, so I have not regular social contact with locals. Smiles and a Chinese "hello" ("ni hao"), along with ordering some of my favorite dishes at the local noodle shop, are my most extensive local interactions. I volunteer as a coach at the school, but I can teach basketball and volleyball in English (and most of the players are Korean  anyway). Add to this the observations of our eldest, who's spent a long time in China and who speaks the language well, that trying to get to the heart of Chinese society is like trying to to peel to the center of an onion. A very large onion. I've been discouraged.

However, I realized that while my direct understanding will be limited, I still observe things. To borrow the term that Temple Grandin used to describe herself to Oliver Sacks, I can be an "anthropologist on Mars". I won't be able to ask questions or discover explanations, but I can describe from the outside what I percieve and ponder.

And so I'll try to do this in small chunks. It will be bits of China, short observations (barring some great revelations). Thus, I'll introduce such pieces as "China Bits", bite-sized observations and reflections to whet the appetite. For real insight and deep consideration--to provide real nutritional value--you'll have to turn elsewhere. But if nothing else, I hope that I'll provoke some curiosity and further inquiry. 

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Dress Codes and Other Observations from Suzhou

Images of the winning team
Dress Code. One of the immediately apparent differences between China and India is between the types of clothing that women and men wear. Indian women, in both the north and the south, usually dressed in local costume. That is, usually in a sari, salwar kameez, or kurta. Only in some sections of Delhi or other of the largest cities (or in Bollywood photo shoots) would you ever see a (young) woman in a skirt or shorts or revealing any leg. The clothing is is marked by vibrant colors and lots of decoration. Jewelry is very prominent. In China, on the other hand, one rarely sees anything that I'd call traditional or local costume on men or women. The women tend to wear western-style clothing with skirts, dresses, or shorts with high hemlines. Having spent so much time in India, the sight of females with legs almost came as a shock. I perceive no difference in women's clothing from that worn in the contemporary West. Chinese men get the most boring clothes award, about as bad as contemporary Western males. In India, the more educated and well-to-do dressed in a Western style, but often with some Indian flare. In the north you'd see stylish kurtas on men and in the south, many men wore longis (man-skirts; long or above the knee, depending on taste). Thus, in a head-to-head match-up of India and China re dress, India wins.

N.B. The number and ease of women in the public spaces in China compared to India deserves a complete post of its own. I perceive a huge difference. 

Everyday wear in Kerala, this is a mundu (a white longi)
Decked out to be checked out in a sherwani

Firecracker 500. Some mornings here--before 8 in the morning--I'll hear bursts of firecrackers go off in our compound. I do not know the occasions. A wedding announcement? The anniversary of a death? The birth of a child? I don't know. Such events seem entirely random to me. Since we have a number of multi-story buildings in our compound, we get quite an echo effect.Howver, let me assure that nothing has matched--or can match?--Jaipur during Devali. Now that was a lot of fireworks, by everyone, everywhere in the city, all night. We'll have to see how Chinese New Year shapes-up.

Learning Mandarin. So far my efforts have been self-taught and computer-assisted only. It's a matter of baby-steps. The first thing that I'm trying to do (per the advice of those who've given the matter series consideration) is to learn the Pinyan system of sounds and tones. (Mandarin is a four tone language.) I'm trying out small phrases here and there as the situation allows. I'll keep readers posted, but it's not easy, and we do miss the Glamorous Nomad's help. For my lunch outings, pointing is still my best bet!


Monday, August 11, 2014

Shirtless in Suzhou & Other Observations from Suzhou

"Shirtless in Suzhou" or "No Shirt, No Shoes, No Problem". Some little cultural differences that one observes from time to time in a foreign country really strike us. In this case, I'm referring to the fact that in hot weather one sees some Chinese men pull up the their shirts to bare their midriff, or they completely remove their shirts. I haven't seen this phenomena much here in the Chinese burbs, but I have seen it here and in Chengdu. It's not something you see a lot of, but you do see it, and for obvious reasons, I couldn't resist the first alternative title. And I have to admit, I haven't seen anyone shoeless in a restaurant, so I admit to some artistic license with the second alternative title. I haven't done this, and I won't until I have those 6-pack abs. You can breath easy now. And for what I hope are apparent reasons, no photos with this piece.

"Let me point something out to you."Today I went to lunch and to the cleaners for the first time here without the Glamorous Nomad as my interpreter and guide. To say that my Mandarin is not up to these tasks is an understatement the size of Mt. Everest. But I find that resort to the universal language of pointing and grunting can work. Based on a picture in the restaurant, I received a delicious bowl of noodles, the specialty of the house at my favorite neighborhood eatery. As for the laundry, I'm hoping that they got my sign language that one set of clothes needed ironing only (back and forth with the hand) and the other needed washing and ironing (making a hand-washing motion followed by an ironing motion). Time will tell. Anyway, the opportunities for miscommunication are rife, but with my current (miniscule) level of Mandarin, it's all we've got. (Technology fails us here, as C recruited the GN to give us the phrases, but my phone is in the shop getting gerry-rigged for China, thus leaving me bereft of guidance.)

Check this out:  These photos from The Atlantic online provide a glimpse of 21st century China. China isn't not quite as diverse as India, in that it's much more modernized for the most part, but it is an ancient culture and one in amazing transition such that no particular scene seems out of place. We haven't been here for long, but you don't need to be here long to get a sense of "yup, that's what we see".

Cool, cool water. At home, that is, not from a Chinese home or restaurant. While the hot, sultry days of last week made cool water from the frig a must, when I was out at our local coffee shop (NB: coffee shop, not tea house) and I'd finished a delicious panna cotta, the barrista gave me a glass of warm water. That's the Chinese way. They don't think cold water a good idea, even in warm weather. Needless to say, I found that first sip a bit disconcerting, yet I've lived to tell the story. I think that the difference comes out of Chinese traditional medicine. Just another one of those little cultural differences.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Dream Living

Do you recognize this skyline?
Before we left for China we spent several days with friends who live in the far north side Chicago burbs. For the most part, the weather was mild, the scenery green, and the people tame. As you ride the train to downtown Chicago, you view the pristine towns along the way. Sometimes the facades seem too perfect, but nothing's perfect. The towns seduce you as if a part of Norman Rockwell's America. A walk to the lakeshore revealed beautiful, manicured homes from around the turn of the century built by Gilded Age businessmen to escape the heat and bustle of the city. The houses—only houses—were all single-family. When it comes to material well-being, this is an alluring example of the American Dream. (These folks do have to put up with harsh winter weather. As I said, nothing's perfect.)

From our bedroom window in the Chinese burbs

Now we're in China, where we get to see the Chinese Dream. We didn't appreciate this until the Glamorous Nomad* noted that she enjoyed staying in the "suburbs". "Suburbs"? All around us are high-rises and not a single-family dwelling in sight. Yet, on further reflection, she's right. Wide boulevards, manicured greenery, and modern amenities make this area into the burbs, China-style.
Our apartment, on the sixth floor of a 22-story high-rise, is brand new. We're the first inhabitants. Everything is in good working order, and as a special treat, all the knobs are solid and hinges don't squeak. C has decorated with a mix of Indian and Chinese motifs, and I'm looking for a Tibetan thangka to grace a wall, but we’re doing well on the move-in.

Our compound (gated & fenced) with manicured greenery & walkways. Very nice.

Can China sustain and continue the Chinese Dream along these lines? This is a huge question for them and for the rest of the world. But for now, they're doing well indeed.

*The Glamorous Nomad, or has she’s designated in China, “Number one daughter”, is currently our special house guest, welcome-to-China interpreter, and guide extraordinaire.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

10 Things We Loved About India

 C & I have now exited the land of the coconuts and Mughal palaces, and she wrote this list for her blog (Iowa Guru in the Land of the Coconuts) with which I concur. I put my comments in italics following her comments.

1.     Mangoes, the best I’ve ever consumed.  Also the Keralan delights of appam, dosas, and the coconut curries, and the paneer of the north and the lassis from M.I. Road in Jaipur. C made some of the most delicious mango lassis ever consumed by any human being. We even had the national mango festival across the road from us!

2.     Fabulous Textiles, hand-block prints, embroidery work, silks, and cottons. I scored a lot of good shorts. Although I'm not a clothes-horse, even my limited aesthetic can appreciate the incredible beauty and workmanship.

3.     Mughal era Palaces:  Udaipur’s, Jodphur’s, and Jaipur’s were all winners. These were quite amazing. We were living the life of Jackie O (visitor to the majaraja's palace in Udaipur) for a few minutes.

4.     Sari Shops:  Both the products and the shopping experience.  Saris are the funnest clothing I’ve ever worn. C learned to rock the sari as did No. 1 daughter. Ladies of all ages look good in these beautiful clothes, although given the temperatures, they look a bit hot.

5.     Nature, from the gorgeous coffee plantations of Wayanad, to the especially exotic birds like kingfishers, green bee eaters, and water fowl of every color of the rainbow. India has degraded far too much of its environment, but the parts that are preserved provide some beautiful viewing, except for the tigers we never saw!

6.     The beach at Kovalam, 30 minutes from our home in Trivandrum.  We didn’t get there often enough, but it was enough just to know it was there if we needed to escape. We could have had a good life as beach bums. Really a nice to hear the waves lapping up on the shore.

7.     Great traditions and festivals of both the Rajastanis and Keralan people, especially Devali in Jaipur and Onam in Trivandrum. I will never forget Jaipur during Devali: like a war zone so many fire crackers were exploding around us. Definitely a fun time. But C did fail to mention the kite festival of Jaipur, in which we watched (but could not master) the art of aerial combat with kites.

8.     The people, all the friends we made and all the people who were friendly and curious and very pro-American. This was the best. We made some wonderful friends and had some great experiences with people. Anti-American? Only one drunken auto-rickshaw driver in Jaipur.

9.     Cheap books. I bought too many--wait, that's a non-sequitur. But we both bought a lot. Nothing like the less expensive south Asian editions to whet your appetite to buy.

10. JLF:  Jaipur Literature Festival:  enuf said. What a treat! 

Thank you, India!

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

A Good Ol' Fashioned Fourth

Well, not really.

We were up early enough--5 a.m. But we were on a flight from Kochin, Kerala in south India on our way to Chengdu, Sichuan, China via Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. As the day broke, I saw the southern most tip of India below me narrow into a vanishing point followed by a string of tenuous islands, followed later by a view of Sri Lanka, the land of the mythical city of Lanka, home of Ravana, the demon king in the Ramayana, the classic Indian epic. Not exactly the normal scene for Fourth of July celebration. Yet, I needed to do something. No hot dogs, no picnic, no parades, no band playing Sousa marches (not even on my iPod!).

First, I needed to address my custom of reading some outstanding work of American history for the Fourth. I panicked at first. I had only two paper books with me, neither a work of American history. But my trusty Kindle came through. I searched and discovered that I had The Education of Henry Adams that I hadn't finished. In fact, I hadn't finished it since my senior year in college when David Schoenbaum assigned it for his class on 19th century Europe. At the time I wondered how this work by an American about himself (written in the third-person) and published in 1918 could qualify for a 19th century Europe course. But I under-estimated both Schoenbaum and Adams. Now I could make up for it, and I dove back in. (I'd read some in Jaipur last year.) A great choice. Modern Library chose it as the outstanding work of non-fiction in the 20th century, and I wouldn't disagree. The work is a masterpiece. 

But one can only read a masterpiece for so long on a flight, where thrillers or less demanding works are the norm. So while disappointed that I didn't have "Stars and Stripes" or "Washington Post", I decided to listen to American music; American composers and performers. The list included the following: 

  •        Frank Sinatra with the Tommy Dorsey Band (early Sinatra)
  •       Paul Simon ("The Myth of Fingerprints") and Simon & Garfunkel (Simon rates as the greatest popular American songwriter of the Baby Boomers—sorry Billy Joel). 
  •       Stephen Schwartz's "All for the Best" from "Godspell", his musical of Mathew's Gospel, very early 70's America. The Gospel according to soft-shoe.
  •        Barbara Streisand's "All in Love is Fair" from her "The Way We Were' album, one of the first albums that C and I bought when we were newlyweds. Babs rates as the best Boomer female vocalist, no?
  •       Louis Armstrong. What more to say
  •         "America" from "West Side Story". Bernstein & Sondheim. Wow. Great piece of Americana.
  •         "America" from Simon & Garfunkel's classic "Bookends" album. Another piece of Americana.
  •         "American Pie" by Don McLean. The beginning of college for me marked by this elegy for a crazy time in the 60's. A lot of history in this song.
  •         Nathan Gunn performing Billy Joel's "And So It Goes". I'm a Billy Joel fan, but this performance is even better. Ran out of time to get to "We Didn't Start the Fire". Too bad. Kate made it into a fun 4th game.
  •         "Anyone Can Whistle" by Stephen Sondheim (an American great) performed by Cleo Lane and James Galway (we'll make this Irishman an honorary American).
  •         Ella Fitzgerald. Great. (Can’t recall which song. L)
  •         "Appalachian Spring" by Aaron Copeland. Our greatest American  composer for orchestra? “Yes” for my money, and this is his best work. A pure joy. I couldn't listen to it all because I wanted to get a lot of variety, but it's great. Sorry I didn't get to "Rodeo"!
  •         The Fifth Dimension performing "Aquarius/Let the Sun Shine In" from the American Tribal Love Rock Musical "Hair". The popular rendition by a fun, talented vocal group from the 60's.
  •         "At the Zoo", Simon & Garfunkel.
  •         "Attaboy" by Yo-Yo Ma, Stuart Duncan, Edgar Meyer, and Chris Thille. Fun American folk music.
  •         Samuel Barber's "Adagio for Strings". Is there an American orchestral piece more beautiful and haunting? (No!) Played continually on the radio when FDR died.
  •         Dave Brubeck Quartet performing "Blue Rondo a al Turk". Classic jazz, the original American musical form.
  •         "Because All Men Are Brothers" performed by Peter, Paul, and Mary with Dave Brubeck. Jazz meets folk. Fun. A song of hope and humanity.
  •         George Winston performing "The Black Stallion" theme composed by Carmine Coppola for the film we saw at a drive-in with the G family. Great memory. I'm a big George Winston fan.
  •         Billie Holiday singing "Blue Moon".
  •         Tony Bennett. Vintage and still with us.
  •         Aretha Franklin "Chain of Fools". Too little Motown so far!
  •         Phillip Glass from his music from the terrific American documentary by Errol Morris, "The Fog of War" about Robert McNamara. An American tragedy to my mind. Great music. Also listen to Glass's soundtrack for the film of "The Hours".
  •         "Colour My World" by Chicago, one of my favorite 60's/70's groups. Hard to pick, but this came up first.
  •         Pete Seeger performing "Guantanamara". Another American performer for the ages.
  •         George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" performed on piano by the Five Browns. This prompts a great memory: in the Bicentential of the signing in 1976, C and I took my Aunt Barb to Ames to hear Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic perform an all-American concert culminating with Bernstein conducting and playing the piano for "Rhapsody in Blue". To say it was memorable understates it entirely.  

I ran out of time. Some greats have been left out for a lack of time: Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Judy Garland, Bette Midler, B,S & T, more Sinatra—I thought I'd get to them later. I didn’t even look further down the list! 

Having reviewed this, I'd say we Americans have done okay with our music. I like it anyway. Happy belated Fourth to everyone!