Saturday, October 27, 2012

Chinese adults stay limber with hacky sack

The adults in this video are pretty limber.

Cindy and I went to Ritan Park on Saturday in Beijing. It's right in the heart of the city, and you see all kinds of activities -- people playing badminton without a net, table tennis on public tables, dance classes, lots of kids running around and adults playing hacky sack.

Sunday, October 07, 2012

Hike in hills has auspicious beginning

Cindy and farmer near Auspicious Village

On Sunday we joined about 20 other folks on a hiking trip to villages about 90 minutes north of Beijing. A company called Beijing Hikers arranges tours every weekend.

This hike, which lasted a bit more than three hours, took us through several farming villages, walnut groves, orchards and up over some steep, rocky paths. The trip started near Jisicun (pronounced jee-see-tsoon), which we were told means "auspicious village."

Three-wheeled motorcycles haul everything.

Morning glories were all along the route. 

We finished the hike at Huanghuacheng, where the Great Wall rides the mountain ridge like a dragon's back down to a reservoir

On our tour we we had people from Sardinia, Slovenia, Pakistan, Malaysia, France and some others who were speaking languages we couldn't place.

This section of the Great Wall doesn't get many tourists.
Our two dozen folks were about the only folks up there
on a beautiful day. 

Impressions of China
China's grandparents
A little tour of Tsinghua University campus
Chinese adults stay limber with hacky sack

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
Deciphering China, ideograms to menus
Beijing revisited, 23 years later
From the Economist: Daily chart: Choked

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Pakistani journalist penalized by dumb immigration system

Zahid Khan, 29, is a graduate student in the Global Business Journalism program at Tsinghua University in Beijing, China.

I recommended him for the program after reviewing his application and interviewing him by telephone. He had solid journalism experience, an excellent academic record and an impressive personal essay.

Zahid had worked for the U.S. government in his native Pakistan for two years. He was a reporter for its news and information agency, Voice of America.  He traveled to Afghanistan on assignment more than once.

Wins fellowship to Penn

He won a fellowship to study in the master's program at the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, but there was a problem.  His former employer, the U.S. government, whose image he had helped promote in Pakistan, one of our key allies in the war on terrorism, denied him a visa.

No reason was given. So one is left to speculate.

One possibility is that he has been caught like a dolphin in a tuna net, that our skittish anti-terrorism authorities netted him by mistake. It could be that he is of the gender, age, marital status (single) and nationality that fits a particular profile considered risky. Young males trying to immigrate from Muslim countries attract special scrutiny. But we will never know.

In the meantime, he is working for me as a teaching assistant in the Multimedia Business Journalism course. Cindy and I took him to dinner the other night. He is a smart, talented young man, and he will get his graduate degree in journalism from a Chinese university, not a U.S. one.

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

What a $6 haircut looks like

 The barbershops on the Tsinghua University campus offer haircuts for 10 yuan, about $1.75.

Last year I had a couple of bad experiences at $1.75 each and decided to splurge by going off campus to one of the fancy hair-styling salons.

For 55 yuan, about $9, a young woman did an excellent job of giving a light trim that made the bushy mess neat and manageable.

So I decided to go back. When I arrived, the 20 or so workers were doing calisthenics led by an energetic supervisor. She called and they responded, apparently with inspiring slogans. "Treat customers well," I suppose they were saying. Or maybe, "Work fast."

Never read emails during haircut

Ever impulsive and impatient, I went to the place next door, whose hair cutters evidently had finished their daily exercise and group cheers.

They showed me a price list I didn't understand, except that the cheapest option was 38 yuan, about $6. I chose that one. I showed the young man I wanted about half an inch off all the way around. He held thumb and forefinger about half an inch apart to show he understood.

So I began reading emails on my iPhone, and when I looked up, the hair on the top was gone. Then he went after the sides and skinned me. He gave me the haircut that all his friends have.

What we had here was a failure to communicate. At the outset I had told him, wo bu shuo zhongwen. I don't speak Chinese. And he said, bu shuo yingyu. I don't speak English. So we were even.

My Dad used to say that the only difference between a good haircut and a bad one is a couple of days. In this case, it could be a couple of weeks before it grows back. My hair hasn't been this short since I was 17.

Hair stylists do group exercises, with call and response, led by the supervisor, center.

Some services and products are very cheap here. After I was done getting clipped, I found that my bicycle had a flat tire. I took it to our favorite bike guy near the south gate of the campus. The tire was cracked, the tube had a hole in it. In the 10 minutes while I waited he replaced both as well as the basket on the front, which had developed two big holes.

Total price, 55 yuan, about $9. Pretty good deal.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

To get a girlfriend, you need a back seat

One of my favorite sights on the Tsinghua University campus is of the male students hauling their female friends around on the back of their bikes. 

The girls ride sidesaddle and seem to have no problem balancing themselves perfectly without using their hands. It helps for a boy to have a padded seat on the back. No seat, maybe no girlfriend.

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Be bold, and luck be with you

My address to the 2012 graduates of the Global Business Journalism program at Tsinghua University, Beijing. 

I am going to talk with you a bit about luck and about your careers. In China, as you know,  luck is important. There are lucky numbers, like 8, so the Olympic games started here in Beijing at 8 pm on the eighth day of the eighth month of 2008. The world is an unpredictable and sometimes scary place, so we need all the luck we can get.

About 10 years after I started my journalism career, I was working at a large daily newspaper. I had covered the mayor's office for about three years, and I was tired of endless conflicts with the mayor, who was always calling the editor and complaining about my work. The mayor's version of reality was different from the version of reality that I was putting in the newspaper. So I asked for a new assignment.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Guangxi: Terraced rice paddies, sugarloaf mountains

Rice paddy near Ping'an
Yao women are famous for their long hair.

A tourism boom is fueling construction of new homes and hotels in rural areas.

In Old Drum village
This rice farmer, 70, said he had worked 50 years in the fields.

Ethnic Zhuang and Yao people showed their wares.

Village tucked in between the terraced rice paddies.

We happened upon a rice-planting ceremony. Note the water buffalo to the left.

Guilin is famous for its limestone hills -- karst formations. My
colleague, Yoichi Nishimura, news exec with Asahi Shimbun
in Japan.

Inside a Zhuang family's home.

Impressions of China
China's grandparents
A little tour of Tsinghua University campus
Chinese adults stay limber with hacky sack

Why the Chinese will never drop their written language
Deciphering China, ideograms to menus
Three days on the Yangtze River
Video: Chinese calligraphy in Xi'an
The madding crowd in the Forbidden City

Hike in hills has auspicious beginning
Beijing revisited, 23 years later
From the Economist: Daily chart: Choked

Saturday, June 02, 2012

China's grandparents

In a park in Beijing.
Many Chinese families still live with three and four generations under one roof. Some of my acquaintances leave their children in the care of their parents while they work.

In our neighborhood of apartment houses on the edge of the Tsinghua campus, we often see grandparents taking little ones with them on the back of their bicycles or walking and playing with them. It is very touching to see how much they enjoy each other's company.

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Three days on the Yangtze River

The rugged terrain of the Three Gorges region of the Yangtze sheltered it from much of the development taking place in the rest of China in the 1980s and '90s. Roads and bridges were few. The river was the main highway that linked the huge metropolis of Chongqing to Shanghai on the coast, 1,500 miles away.
Our cruise was far upriver between Chongqing and
the Three Gorges Dam (map from

There is still much natural beauty, and a cruise is relaxing and beautiful. About 200 Chinese, German, French and American tourists were on the ship.

We visited a famous pagoda. We took a trip on the Shennong Stream in peapod boats manned by the local Tujai people, who used to survive on fishing and farming. Now they have added industrialized tourism as a source of income. They hawk books of local history and DVDs with folk songs in their dialect. (video below)

Our trip ended at the Three Gorges Dam, the world's largest hydroelectric project. What we couldn't see on our cruise was how much has changed in the past decade. Much of the evidence was under water. Since 2002, the water backing up behind the dam has covered homes, factories, farmland, temples.

Today the river is about 300 feet deeper at the dam site than before the project. Above the limits of the water there are new towns to accommodate some of the 1.3 million people displaced by the project, and there are new bridges and highways connecting the gorges to the rest of China.

The Dam was highly controversial among the Chinese themselves because of the relocations and environmental issues. But in 1987, the government shut down debate on the project and it went forward. Scientific American did a review of the environmental issues in 2008.

At the Three Gorges Dam


Shennong Stream

China is opening up, slowly, by fits and starts

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

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Video: Chinese calligraphy in Xi'an

Many Chinese artists are as famous for their calligraphy as for their landscapes and poetry. Actually, they are all mixed together in many paintings.

In Xi'an, we got a demonstration of traditional writing with a brush. One of the characters, "guo", means country or kingdom and is still used today in the name of China: Zhong Guo, or middle kingdom. The U.S. is Mei Guo, or beautiful kingdom. France is Fa Guo, Germany De Guo and so on.

The guide also did a lovely rendering of Cindy's name in Chinese. Watch:

Connoisseurs of Chinese calligraphy may have some critical comments about our guide's skill.


China is opening up, slowly, by fits and starts

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

Sunday, April 08, 2012

The madding crowd in the Forbidden City

Bernardo Bertolucci's 1987 film "The Last Emperor" had some great
shots of the enormous plazas within the Forbidden City.
Beijing's winter wears you down. Every day the high temperature is around 30 degrees, at night it goes down into the teens and the wind from the north can freeze your eyeballs. As recently as last week, there was still some ice on parts of the canals that never get sun on the Tsinghua University campus. 

Lately though, we began to feel spring in the air and now it is in full bloom. The warm weather makes it more inviting to get out and around. Last Saturday we went to the Forbidden City, which was built 600 years ago and was the palace for the Ming and Qing dynasty emperors.

Lining up for tickets. They cost $10.

People had warned us not to go on a weekend because of the crowds. They were right. You get pushed and shoved a lot more in China than you might somewhere else. People don't speak to strangers, so it is rare to hear someone say, "Pardon me" or "sorry."

This couple asked to have their picture taken with us
 outside the Forbidden City. I said we were "meiguo ren"(Americans)
 and they said something back that sounded friendly. Mao's
 huge portrait is just behind my head. 

The scale of the place is breathtaking. Inside the 26-foot-high walls are some 900 buildings on a rectangular site the covers the equivalent of 170 football fields. This was the home of the last emperor, Pu Yi, who abdicated in 1911 and then was permitted to stay until he was evicted in 1924. The site was then converted into a museum.

When I visited Beijing in 1988 with a group of journalists, we were taken to meet the brother of Pu Yi. Evidently the government brought him out to meet foreigners. He talked about how it was good that the empire was overthrown and the people were running the country.

All the roofs have golden tiles, the color of the emperor.

Lots of parents lifted their kids over the railings to touch the lion's head on this bronze water cistern. The woman wearing an army cap with a red star is probably not making a political statement. The caps are a nostalgia item for tourists. You never see them on the streets. Only at tourist sites. 

Tour groups from all over China come to see the old palace.
Most groups don identical hats to keep track of each other.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Sitting on top of a volcano

Steam vents at the Craters of the Moon, Taupo
Here in New Zealand we are perched on a land mass where two continental plates collide. Below us, the friction and fracturing create tremendous heat and release the molten rock that lies beneath the crust.

When that magma contacts groundwater, the steam finds its way up to the surface in the form of vents and geysers and bubbling hot springs. They make up one of the tourist attractions around the two big islands. The Earth here shudders and moves. A year ago, hundreds of people were killed in Christchurch on the South Island when a major earthquake struck.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

How to speak Kiwi in New Zealand

At the moment, the New Zealand accent sounds the same to me as Australian, and its most notable distinguishing features are:

The short-e is pronounced like a short-i. "Yes, we expect to visit that section of town" is pronounced "Yiss, we expict to visit that siction of town." If you're good you go to hivven.

The short-a sound, as in, "The fact is, it's a hard task," sounds like a short-e: "The fect is, it's a hahd tesk."

Long-a becomes long-e in New Zealand, so "Be careful in that area" comes out "Be keerful in that eerea."

And you park your car here with a Boston accent: "Hey, mate, don't park your car there" comes out, "Hye, myte, don't pahk ya cah theah."

New Zealand chicken is where you go in the airport before you get on the plane.

That's half of it. With a day's practice, you could pass for a Kiwi in the U.S.

New Zealand was one of the last places settled by Polynesian peoples,
probably around 1250-1300 A.D. Map from Wikipedia. 

Recent settlement

Because of its isolation, the land we now call New Zealand developed thousands of unique species of birds and plants. The history of human habitation here is very short. Eastern Polynesians were the first humans to visit the islands, and they arrived a mere 800 years ago. They were also the first mammals. [Correction: there were three species of small bats when humans arrived.] They brought mice and pigs with them.

New Zealand's long isolation is remarkable given that Australia, the nearest large land mass only 900 miles to the west, has 40,000 years of human habitation. But the Polynesians had a great tradition of seafaring, and the aborigines who settled Australia did not.

Today the Maori people, descendants of the original settlers of New Zealand, represent about 15% of the population, and about one-fourth of them speak the Maori language. Maori is taught in the schools, but use of the language does not appear to be growing.

A grain of geology

Mount Ruapehu is one of the most active volcanoes in New Zealand.
It last erupted in 1995-96, but there are ski resorts on its slopes anyway.
On our bus ride today from Ohakune, we passed a number of volcanic cones. We will spend the next few days at Lake Taupo, new Zealand's largest lake, which fills an enormous volcanic crater. When the volcano erupted some 26,000 years ago, its dust clouds spread around the world and may have contributed to the last ice age.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

New Zealand: air and space

Cindy and I have some friends in New Zealand, Daniela Cavallaro, who is a professor of Italian language and literature at the University of Auckland, and Dan Stollenwerk, a theology teacher at St. Peter's College. At various times they have asked us when we would come to visit, and it seemed like now was a good time, when we were in the same hemisphere. 

Dan and son Stefano at Karekare beach, where some scenes
from the movie "Piano" were filmed.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Why the Chinese will never drop their written language

As I scratch the surface of Chinese, I now understand why the language cannot be simply converted to the Roman alphabet. They have to keep the ideograms, and we will never see newspapers or books written in the Romanized version of Chinese. Too bad. That would make learning the language easier.

This biography is supposed
to be flattering. I don't know.
Chinese does not have that many sounds. Many words are just one or two syllables. The problem is that you can have a syllable like shi which means different things in the four different tones for that syllable. But beyond that, each of those four tones may represent many different words and meanings.

One sound for 11 words

When you look in a Chinese-English dictionary for definitions for just the fourth tone of the syllable shì (the accent means falling tone) you find 11 different words with 11 different ideograms. This one sound  represents city, market, vow, matter, power, family name, to be, to try and more. Neither the sound nor the Romanized written form gives you a clue to the difference. You have to see the ideogram. (Context helps, of course.) 

Contrast that with English where homonyms like too, two and to are spelled differently. Or hoard, horde and whored; or palate, pallet and palette. At least in the written form, you can see that they are all different.