Saturday, December 10, 2011

Impressions of China

Pickup games at Tsinghua, from October.

A couple of times a week I go to the Olympic-size pool on campus to swim. There are a dozen outdoor basketball courts adjacent, and on class days, the students have pickup games. Even when I go swimming at night, there will be some guys still out on the courts in the dark, playing by the weak light seeping in from the street. The ball rings off the cement, the shadowy figures move around, the ball planks off the backboard. The game goes on even when the temperatures are in the 40s. I have never seen a girl on the courts or in a game on the many soccer fields. 

We live on the first floor of this building.

We live on the southern edge of the campus in a six-story apartment building that is owned by the university. Many of the faculty members live here in rent-subsidized apartments. We have a small place. A living-dining room with a table and two armchairs, our bedroom with a big armoire, a second bedroom with a desk and single bed, a very small kitchen and a bathroom with shower. It is perfectly adequate. The apartment building is in the middle of a traditional style Chinese neighborhood, called a hutong, that is fast disappearing from Beijing. 

An alley in our neighborhood.

The homes are typically one-story brick affairs that share a courtyard. One building will house bathrooms and showers for all the residents to share. By American standards, these homes would not be considered attractive. Many of the university's service workers live here. For a while Cindy wanted to move to the more-modern end of the campus but we decided that our place has other benefits, such as proximity to restaurants, stores, the subway stations and other amenities. 

At Weihai conference. My teaching colleague, Joe Weber, a former editor at Business Week, is in the foreground. David Liu, a consultant to the New York Times, is at his right. I am going over my remarks.

A couple of weeks ago, I was invited to give a speech to a conference of Chinese journalism professors in Weihai, a coastal resort roughly equivalent to Ocean City Maryland. A lot of Russians come south to vacation there. Many of the cafes and restaurants have Russian signage. But when I was there, nothing was open. They asked me to talk about foreign correspondents covering China, so I prepared a talk about Edgar Snow, Nicholas Kristoff and Peter Hessler, all American journalists who wrote books during different eras over the past 75 years. I wrote out a 100-word introduction in English, had it translated into Chinese, practiced it with a tutor (I recorded her voice to get the tones right) and then tried it out on a Chinese colleague who told me it was understandable. Hen hao. Very good. The audience applauded very enthusiastically to this intro, more enthusiastically than to the speech itself (a translation in Chinese was published in the program, so they could follow along). I haven't put in the time and effort needed to learn the language. It should be a minimum of an hour a day. I spend maybe -- maybe -- a couple of hours a week. It's not nearly enough.

The Cleveland Indians, who have a 
Korean player, are popular with 
students here.
Chinese news media are tightly controlled by the government, but there are still lots of surprisingly candid articles that get into the press. Corruption stories are common if they focus on provincial or local officials. Criticism of the top party leaders at the national level is not seen. Foreign press are not censored. You can rely on what you see about China in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and the Economist, for example. But the government can limit their access to officials and make it hard to get information. The party understands the value of letting people blow off steam in the social networks like Weibo (the Chinese equivalent of Twitter), and there were some 120 million comments on that network that talked about a high-speed train crash and the failures of public officials that caused it. The government tolerated a week of this and then just shut down the commentary by filtering out any messages on that subject.

Teaching photography.
Teaching multimedia is a bit of a challenge here. I want each of the students to maintain a blog with material related to the course, but most platforms are blocked. For that reason I had my students set up blogs on Tumblr, a platform that was not blocked back in September. Now it is blocked. I can't access their work or my own without using special software, and only then when I am off campus. Twitter is blocked here. Facebook is blocked, as is YouTube. There may be commercial motivations for this so as to allow homegrown versions to develop, and they have. But the government also is very worried about "social stability," and free flowing commentary could threaten that A high-ranking party official at the university told me that the party itself is deeply divided on how much openness to permit. He said the trend is toward more transparency, but recent history shows the pendulum swings rapidly back and forth, depending on the issue and circumstances.

A couple of my students practice photography.

I am teaching two courses this semester: multimedia journalism, in which the students create and edit videos, audios, slideshows with sound and fully integrated multimedia reporting projects; and English news writing. 27 students in the former class, 25 in the latter. Their English is generally good.  If I were a newspaper editor, I could work with their copy. I have seen worse from Americans. These students are the cream of the cream of the crop in China, so they work hard, pay attention and try to get better. They come from all over China. Tsinghua is considered the MIT of China; Beijing University, which is next door, is considered the Harvard. A colleague here this semester, who teaches journalism at the University of Nebraska, says the Tsinghua students are head and shoulders above the kids he works with. He was an editor at Business Week for 20 years. 
The multimedia classroom where I teach has the latest tech equipment. They have a lab with a dozen big Macintosh computers where my students do a lot of their video work. 

Subways are packed on nearly every line, at nearly
any time of day. 
We live in northwest Beijing. The commercial and tourist center is toward the east and southeast of the city, almost an hour away on the subway. When Cindy and I want to do something with her expatriate friends, we go to that part of town, where they all live. Downtown Beijing has commercial centers that could be in any U.S. shopping mall, with the same brand name stores. We have also shopped at the Silk Market and other places that are more traditional.

One of the main shopping districts, with pedestrian mall.
Last Friday we saw an ad in for an Irish movie that won the Golden Palm award in Cannes (The Wind Through the Barley, or something like that), and went to a neighborhood of hutongs that has been gentrified; the old brick houses have been converted into trendy restaurants, bars, etc. This place was like that, about two dozen seats total. We watched the movie and then stayed a bit to hear some Irish music played by a bunch of Americans. Subway rides are not for the claustrophobic. You are packed in more tightly than you are on any other subway system I have ridden in the U.S. or Europe. 

Cindy with some of the students at Thanksgiving dinner.

Baked sweet potatoes for sales on the street.
Food is good. The university has subsidized cafeteria style restaurants for faculty and students that serve a variety of dishes. Typically you have chopped vegetables mixed with finely chopped meat or tofu. Dinner for two costs $2 or $3. Or you can go one floor down to the restaurant and get dinner for two -- more variety and higher quality -- for about $10 to $15. A few times a week we go off-campus to Starbucks or another cafe where there is free wi-fi and where we can use a virtual private network to access Facebook. 

Deciphering China, ideograms to menus
Guangxi: Terraced rice paddies, sugarloaf mountains
Three days on the Yangtze River
Video: Chinese calligraphy in Xi'an
The madding crowd in the Forbidden City
Why the Chinese will never drop their written language
A little tour of Tsinghua University campus

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