Sunday, May 30, 2010

Since the Time of The Roman Republic

The name Changzhou is actually fairly modern but there has been some city where Changzhou is since around 600-800 BC. To put that in perspective that means that there were people living in Changzhou when the Roman Republic was founded. There were people living in Changzhou when Athens was fighting wars with Sparta. There were people living in Changzhou when Homer was alive. There were people living in Changzhou well before the time of Alexander the Great, or Caesar, or Virgil, or Jesus. But today I don't think there is even one single building in the city of Changzhou that is more than 100 years old. How could that have happened? Washington DC which by world standards is very new city have tons of buildings more than 100 years old. But a city that is almost 3000 years old has none? I'm not talking about a 1,000 or 2,000 year old building just something built in the 1800's. But I still can't find anything like that. There are, I believe, a couple of reasons why there is a complete dearth of history here. First, older Chinese buildings were often built out of wood. The brand new "world's possibly tallest" pagoda in downtown is on the sight of an ancient pagoda, but the old one, actually several old ones, burned to the ground. It seems to be a rule that if you make something out of wood given a long enough period of time it will catch fire.

Also even when wooden buildings survive wood has to be replaced at some point, it just can't hold together forever. Unlike the ancient Greeks or Romans ancient Chinese buildings were usually made primarily from wood which degrades over time. The notable exception being the Great Wall made up of stone. Second, there was the Cultural Revolution. For 10 years people all over China smashed thousands of ancient temples and artifacts. It will never be possible to tell exactly how much was destroyed during all this but there were certainly a lot more ancient buildings in China before that then after it. But what may be even a bigger cause of the loss of old buildings is the relentless "modernization" that's taken place in the last 10 or 20 years. I just read former Wall Street Journal report Ian Johnson's book Wild Grass where he talk a lot about the destruction of thousands of ancient houses in Beijing. These ancient houses or hutong something of a famous tourist sight in Beijing but even last summer when I went to Beijing with my parents there were so few left it was hard to find one. I believe that more than anything most of the reason there's nothing old left in Changzhou is that it's all been knocked down and replaced with something new.

I'm not one of these people who believe that every old building must be kept just because it's old. In fact I think for a city to grow and be vibrant a lot of old buildings have to come down to make way for something more modern. But there's a difference in modernizing a city and burying the past. I can't imagine Rome if one day they decided to take down the Colosseum to make room for a new shopping mall. That may sound ridiculous but it's pretty much what's going on in China. I joke with people that there are no tourist attractions in Changzhou as if that's how it has to be, but a 3,000 year old city could be chocked full of tourist stuff. Changzhou has even had some important stuff happen here in the past. During the Taiping Rebellion in the mid 1800's one of their most important temples was located in Changzhou next to what is now the big hospital. But instead of a push towards preservation today there's nothing. This isn't the sort of thing that can be reversed. The new huge pagoda is nice but it's not the same as a 1,000 year old temple would be. You can't un-demolish a building, not even in China.

This also has negative effects for Chinese culture. Today there is essentially no such thing as Chinese architecture. Every building is just a copy of some Western design with maybe a cheap facade to make it look more Asian. If it wasn't for the Chinese lettering you'd never know that the downtown mall in Changzhou wasn't in any city in the US. Also what are future Chinese people going to look towards as Chinese culture. All the students learn about the long history of China but soon there will be no evidence at all of it. It will be as if the whole country just sprang full formed from the ocean in 1990. Oddly I bet the person who would be happiest with all this is Mao. Years after the violence of the Cultural Revolution ended China is working harder than ever to destroy everything old. This drive toward the modern is how a city with 3,000 years of history can have not a single building from 100 years ago.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Thailand - Border Run

I know I haven’t been keeping up with the travel journal well but I’m going to try to get back to them in the coming days. This is actually the last part I have written down for Thailand so after this I’ll just have to do it from memory, which will certainly be faster if somewhat less complete. I also only have a limited amount of pictures for the next few days due to some camera problems. But with all that said here’s back to the journal of my trip to Thailand.

When I woke up the next morning it was raining so hard I thought someone had turned on the shower. It continued for about half an hour than it just stopped and the rest of the day was bright and clear. Me, Ken, and Peter who had extended his trip by a couple of days, decided to head on up to Cambodia and Angkor Watt. We knew that the border closed at 8pm and we thought we had plenty of time, but we were wrong. We checked it out of the hotel by 8:45am, we would have left a day earlier but I’ve always been and still am pretty slow it getting going in the morning. We got a truck from the hotel to the boat and while we almost ran over one motto driver who fell on the slick roads we made it there in one piece. Immediately there were people trying to sell us dubious tickets to lots of far flung destinations but always disliking touts we just decided to do it ourselves.

The ferryboat took us back across to the mainland which while not a big trip, I could see the land even before we left, took a long time on the extremely slow boat. The boat chugged along but I was particularly worried as if the boat sank I think I could’ve swam to shore. We finally made it to the shore and we took another truck to an actual town a few km away. From there we got a buss to another city a few hours north that would hopefully have a bus to the border. That bus left around twelve but we still thought we were making OK time. All the buses seemed nice and they had the air conditioning which was crucial in the intense heat. My Kindle was great for all this as not only did I have books at a buttons press but I could read one for an hour or two and then easily switch to another block for a while.

When we got to the next town it was 1:30 but unfortunately there were no busses going to the border until the evening, and since it was about five hours away that would be too late. There was also a bus going to get another city near to the border but it didn’t leave until three. This didn’t really seem like it would get us there in time but we didn’t have many choices. We sat and waited for the bus to fill and for it to be three. The earlier buses had been half filled but this one was filled over capacity with people standing in the aisles. I had a seat but unfortunately it was wet from the air conditioning dripping onto it. Peter had the most interesting seat on the buss next to a couple of monks who in broken English told him they had been at some political rally and were big fans of the old prime minister Thaksin who had been deposed in a military coup with the tacit backing from the King the last time I was in Thailand. He was always much more popular with the poor people outside Bangkok. (Ed. People like these monks are on the so called “red shirt” side of the latest protests in Thailand you may have read about)

By the time we got to the next town we had finally made good time it was only about six. Another bus was also leaving immediately for the border which we thought might just get us there in time. And we arrived at the border town, for most over land borders I’ve seen there tends to be one town on each side of the border sprung up from the traffic in between, we still had to get a few km to the actual border. We grabbed a tuk-tuk barely stopping to negotiate and headed to the border. For all I saw that I border town the whole placing seems to be built on scams. There were about six fake Cambodian consulates and twice as many places promising to help with visas, which are extremely easy. A number of these places looked really officials and if not for the guidebooks warnings it would have been easy to fall for one. Our tuk-tuk driver tried to pull into one but after all of us yelling that we were just wanted to go to the border he finally took us there. By the time we got the actual border was a little past 730. Peter still needed a visa but that was easily resolved for the same price we paid in Bangkok. So at least if they were ripping of us off in Bangkok it was no worse than the rip off at the border.

I’ve seen overland borders before but I’ve never seen one that looked this pours. People seemed to just be walking back and forth at their leisure. In fact it seemed only the westerners even had to bother with anything like a passport or a visa. Once past the Thai side, which was infinitely more organized than the Cambodian side, we came not to the Cambodian border but to a series of casinos. It seems that gambling being illegal in Thailand has been put so close to the border that you can exit Thailand spend days at a casino and then reenter without ever going through the Cambodian border. In fact it’s sort of confusing which way you have to walk not to accidentally go into a casino. The Cambodian border on the other hand looked incredibly run down compared to the Thai one and again it was easy to almost miss the place where they looked at your visa.

This process took a while even though at only a few minutes to the closing there weren’t a lot of people going through. Once on the other side I was simply floored. All that was around was a big circle, the inside of which looked like it had the pedestal of a statue with no statue, and tons of trash everywhere. The only people around were an virtual army of people offering rides to Siam Riep, the town whose main, and possibly only, claim to fame is holding Angkor Watt nearby. The book basically said that there was no choice but to go with one of these guys since the police enforced an illegal monopoly and basically set the prices. We negotiated with about 15 people, which made me incredibly nervous in this strange and rundown looking place after dark. It just gave off a feel as if you had wandered into the wrong part of an American city after dark.

Unlike a lot of people selling stuff these guys were somewhat willing to negotiate against each other since I think they were probably going home anyway and we were basically the last tourist through the border. I don’t remember exactly what we paid but it was about what the book said it would be despite it being a huge rip off. We drove out of town on what literally seemed to be the only road for the two or three hour ride to Siam Riep. At one point we had to stop for gas which seemed not to be gasoline at all but what I think was propane pumped into a tank in the trunk, which probably insured that in a rear end collision we would all go up in a huge fireball. During that time I didn’t really want to get out of the car since I was worried we’d never see our bags again.

We finally rolled into Siam Riep which seems to be nothing more than hotels and restaurants in the whole town. Some of the hotels were run down; some were incredibly showy things for rich foreigners. We picked on that was nice enough for the two nights we were spending there. We went out to get some food at first worried about changing money until we discovered that the dollar is basically the official currency of Cambodia. They have their own money but they really just use it to make change from dollars since they don’t have US coins. Even the ATM’s game US dollars, there was in fact no other choice, and Ken even found an ATM that would take his Chinese card and give him dollars, quite a find.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Forms, Forms, Forms!

I've been getting a pretty good dose of the Chinese bureaucracy lately with all sorts of questions about various forms. Ma Ming, the guy who works for the international office in Alaer, wants me to get a basic health check in a hospital in Changzhou. Now that shouldn't be too much of a problem but he wants them to create a form including "blood check,heart check,liver function test and other check of common" but the problem is the standard form they make doesn't include any of that information and just basically says the person is healthy. I've been trying to get Teddy and him on the same page for a couple of weeks with no success. Meanwhile my Visa expires is now 10 days and while Teddy seems to not be too worried about it I'm getting a little nervious. So if you suddenly see me back in the US next week it's just because I got kicked out the country for being an "illegal." In China I'm generally OK with the wait until the last minute and to do things way of being expect when it comes to Visa issues since I know there is so little room for flexibility with this stuff so it just makes me extremely nervious. Well with only 10 days to go I guess I'll just have to see.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Be Careful With Facebook

The other day was Sean's birthday and we had a birthday party for his after the first interdepartmental basketball game. The Foreign Language team was matched up against probably the best team in the first game and even though they played pretty well they lost. Sarah ordered party subs from the new Subway that just opened up downtown. They don't do real part subs exactly so they basically just delivered a large number of traditional subs. I think it actually took two people to bring them all. Sarah also made cupcakes which were great. Sarah invited a number of people both with a mass e-mail. But when she was trying to invite Ken girlfriend she got the address a little wrong. She had been friended on Facebook a little while ago by someone she thought was Ken's girlfriend. But it turns out while the name of the person who friended her was similar it was slightly different. Instead of Ken's girlfriend Sarah had invited a teacher in the Foreign Language department. In fact Sarah had been having a conversation with her for a while thinking she was Ken's girlfriend. This other woman the teacher even showed up which was fine. She was actually someone I had met before around campus. Still I've never heard of someone being accidentally invited in the US.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Hail, Hail, the Gang's All Here

Everyone was over at Sarah's place recently after Sean's speech, it's speech time again though this time I'm not doing anything nearly as interesting as last years sex education, and Sarah suggested that we should take a group picture. I've mentioned all the teachers we have this year in my blog on various occasions but I don't think I've got any pictures of all of us up. In the picture, from left to right as you see the picture, are first Jordan then Sean and Me, next are Ken, Sarah, and Peter. I always get requests for more pictures with me in it so there you go.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

More Fun with Spelling

So I was covering one of Ken's classes this week and I decided since it was a very small class, only four students were there, to play Scrabble with them. It worked pretty well in the end. While there's definitly an opportunity in Scrabble to make really difficult words it also works pretty well with a lot of simpler words. I didn't let the students use dictionaries or anything and right up until the end of the game I never had to make any words for them. I did have to make the last few but they had gotten somewhat harder at that point. I didn't win the game, though I did make the winning word for the person who did win, but it was a lot of fun. I think the best word one of the sutdents came up with was "fake," with a fairly hard to use letter "k" on a double letter score. We didn't really play with challenges either as I wanted the students to take more chances making words, so if what they made wasn't right they just took it back and tried again. I think the students had a pretty good time, and may have even learned a word or two, which is all you can really hope for, so it was a good event in the end. What would be really interesting is if I had some sort of giant wall size scrabble board so I could play with a whole class, but then again I don't have any oral English classes this semester anyways.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

An Eight Letter Word Meaning to Move Your Hands Quickly While Looking for Something

Sean's dad was in Changzhou recently and with him he brought a copy of Scrabble. We actually were going to have poker night when he walked in with the game but we just decided to stop right there and start up a game of Scrabble instead. People always seem to think I'd be good at Scrabble since I read a lot and have a pretty big vocabulary but I'm actually terrible. First, I'm not any good at spelling so sometimes I come up with words that don't exist. Second, I just have no recall when it comes to words. I think that is part of the reason I have trouble when it comes to learning languages. I'm always blanking on words even in day to day conversations and when there's pressure to turn a couple of a couple of tiles into a word I just don't see it. It's actually sort of funny since I keep coming up with nonsense words, hmmmm no "Zorp" isn't a work how about "Qarg"? Peter won our inaugural game partly on the strength of being the person to use up all his tiles first which gave him a bonus score for all the tiles anyone else had left over. I'm covering one of those small Coventry classes for Ken on Wednesday and I'm planning on playing Scrabble with them so I'll let you know how it goes in a classroom setting.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Mirror Image

I was reading a really interesting article in the New York Times today. It seems that China sends some people to the US to teach Chinese and learn about US culture and I couldn't shake the feeling that these people were sort of like my mirror image. While I'm in China marveling about how odd Chinese culture is they're in the US trying to understand us. The things the teacher who was interviewed for the story was surprised at was exactly what I expected. She was surprised at how little people in the US work in high school compared to China, where a huge number of students essentially study 16+ hours a day. She was also amazed by the way the students relate to their teachers. In China the teacher is source of all knowledge and the students are just expected to sit there and passively absorb it, while the US has a system where the students are supposed to have something to contribute to the conversation as well. It's easy to teach in China since the students are so well behaved, but at the same time it can be frustrating that it's so hard to get them to say anything. A lot of times I wish for some more student involvement even if it came at the cost of some of my total power as a teacher. The Chinese teacher in the US was also amazed by people's reaction to a pregnant student. I've been amazed how much a lot of people are against kids dating even in college. It makes me wonder where all these 1.36 billion people come from.

Monday, May 3, 2010

May Day and Military Training

It's the May Day holiday in China, a labor day celebrated by most of the world but not the US as it became too associated with Communism and Socialism. But most of the students are gone on a three day weekend, though not the freshmen. The freshmen still have to complete their military training that was delayed at the start of the school year when the pig flu shut down the school for about two weeks. So the only people I see around campus today are the freshmen decked out in their fatigues. May Day creates a longer holiday for me since I'd usually be working on this Monday but now my only classes this week are on Thursday. I'm actually excited about having those classes though since I'm finally going to start on the Christianity section of the class. We've done Greece and Rome, including some pretty advanced stuff that at least some of the students seem to be getting. I'm sort of going all that way back to the basics when teaching about Christianity since most of them have only the faintest knowledge of what it is. I'm going to have to do classes on ealry Christian history, Christianity in Rome, Divisions in Christianity, Christian Dogma, famous Bible stories, how Christianity is actually practiced , and probably a class on Christianity today. That's going to take most of the rest of the semester. But it could be really interesting.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

April Showers Bring May Flowers

Well Spring has finally arrived here in Changzhou after months of the worst weather we've had in a while. Last year in April we had up and down weather a lot but nothing like this year. It was basically cold and rainy for the whole month of April. Ken had told one of his friends who visited to expect good weather only to have it rain for a week straight. China isn't usually an overly sunny place with the constant layer of haze but I think I went weeks without seeing the sun. But it looks like the corner has finally been turned. For the last three days it's been warm and sunny. Today I'm finally wearing shorts and I think the air conditioning was even on in the afternoon in the hotel. I even got a little sun burned yesterday when going out to see some Dragon Boat races, more on that tomorrow. The flowers metaphor is particularly apt as a number of my students have missed class over the last week so they could volunteer at some sort of international rose festival that is going on in Changzhou right now. Here are some pictures the first three are from Teddy's party and include a shot of me eating cake with chopsticks, a picture of the cake and a good group photo. The last picture was just taken at Sarah's place the other day of all this year's English teachers.