Saturday, May 20, 2006


A few months ago, my friend Liz Aab moved to China to learn Chinese and seek new opportunities there. She is currently in Chengdu now and sends out her keen observations periodically for our enlightenment. Since she has granted permission to me to publish these interesting emails, here's the first installment:

Aabservations - On time

Here's a curious observation by a Chinese friend: it's not that Chinese don't make fun of their politicians the way we do in America, it's that they don't make fun of politics at all. Politics are seen as serious. Even American politics...

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Senior year of college my next-door-neighbor from Kathmandu, Nepal remarked that his biggest culture shock was America's obsession with scheduling things. We plan our days down to the quarter hour (or worse). Right now, reading this email, you can probably see the time in at least two places. But in Nepal, people plan to meet at indefinite periods of time. Watches aren't really necessary.

In China, it's not exactly the same -- our classes always start right at 9 am for instance, and my tutors expect to meet me within 3 minutes of our appointed times. It's that people in China just don't plan that far ahead. For instance, my semester ends in 5 weeks and I don't know what I am doing right after then. When I get called for a job, teaching or promotions, it is always for tomorrow. And even though most people in China need to travel during the crowded May holiday, and transportation sells out, most people don't try to buy their tickets until a week or two ahead of time.

Back in New York I was making brunch plans for 12:30 pm at XYZ place 6 weeks in advance. My Palm Pilot was indispensable, and when it broke, I double-booked myself twice by accident. But here in China, people don't need that level of organization for their lives.

I don't think one way is better than the other. When I was a kid, my family would go down the Alpine Sled, which is basically a summertime bobsled track in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania. I would go as fast as possible, exhilarated the whole time with the wind drying my eyes and whipping my hair back. My mom would come down several minutes later. "Mom, what took you so long!" I would jibe.

"I was admiring the view," she replied.

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Speaking of time, did you know that China has only one time zone -- Beijing time? It's a country wider than the US, easily 4 time zones wide, and right above it Russia has 6 time zones that border China.

One Time Zone, One China. I didn't realize til coming here how important unity is to this country. Seriously.

And secondly, when I was in Shanghai (which is as far from Chengdu as Houston is from New York more or less) I couldn't tell any difference in how early the sun rose or set.

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If you like sappy, cheesy, whiny songs, come to Asia. Mostly love songs, the kind that sank the Titanic or brought Whitney Houston and Kevin Costner together in the Bodyguard.

Why is that? Any thoughts? Or maybe a better question is, why don't sappy love songs top America's charts too? I really appreciate your replies to my WWI and Taiwan questions, and would love to hear your thoughts on this too.

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Every twelve years is supposed to be a bad year (specifically when it's your sign year, eg. if you were born in the year of the Monkey and it's once again the year of the Monkey). So to generate good luck, my teacher told us yesterday, you can wear red underwear. At which point my (male) classmate, wanting to know whether our (female) teacher believed in this theory asked, "Do you like to wear red underwear?"

It wasn't until her face turned red that we realized that this was probably not an appropriate question. Another day, another lesson...

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Wal-Mart is coming to Chengdu. (Will it be a luxury goods vendor?) They are building one across the street from my school in a gigantic mall.

I watched the construction workers building the massive foundation. They used hand carts, bamboo baskets, hand picks, and shovels. Except the omnipresent cranes, there were no machines.

No need to go to Ancient Egypt to see the Pyramids. If you want to marvel at how brilliant engineers and abundant dilligent workers can erect enormous structures without machines, just come to China.

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Move over American Idol. China has Supergirl! Tomorrow 10,000 girls in Chengdu will be competing to get their big breaks. One is a friend of my friend, and I met her tonight over street barbecue. Her voice isn't beautiful, but it's shares the raspy power of great folk singers. I hope she does well. She quit her frustrating cookie-cutter bank teller job making 500 RMB ($60) / month to pursue her passion for music.

Also going down in C-town tomorrow night is a party hosted by Vogue magazine. (Yes Vogue.) My classmate works at modeling agency and was invited to the she-bang which has 300 of China's top models (so he has been told). Vogue is popular in the coastal cities, and is now trying to Go West like the rest of China's development, apparently.

And the other hot item here at my school: Unilever summer internships. Foreign companies (and Chinese banks) are really attractive employers, at least among the folks I talk to. Plus one of my friends loves consumer products. She showed me at least four kinds of moisturizer, and proudly pointed out which were owned by P&G (her favorite company) and which by Unilever. Writing to you from Communist China...

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"Without the arts (music, visual art, performance, etc.), societies would not have a strong sense of their cultural identity." Discuss.

This was a question in the GRE prep book that one Chinese friend is studying. We had been practicing the analogies (a useless stupid section), and I was trying to explain to her why PROCURE : APPROPRIATE was analogous to MOCK : BELITTLE or some other stupid waste of time. GRE vocab is tough, and you really have to understand all the little nuances too. I had trouble with the Analogies section, and I speak English good.

But okay, you figure if they just study enough English, they can rock the GRE right?

Wrong. The GRE asks you to write an essay or two. My friends and teachers may know English words like "polyandry" and "hamper" and "hegemony" (that's a popular one) but they don't know the word "essay." They've never really been asked to write an essay, arguing their opinion about something, showing both points of view, refuting one, arguing a point, using supporting evidence, defining a thesis.... They've never had to think about these abstract questions, questions that have no right answers. That actually have no answers, come to think of it.

I'll leave you now until next time. But just to imagine Chinese students, growing up in a culture which is pretty much the stereotype -- diligent students who memorize the right answer, and are never encourage to express imagination or challenge superiors or question assumptions -- and see how you'd do answering the GRE questions below. I can guarantee you they've never been asked to write essays like these in school.

Have a great day,
An Ke Xin

Present your perspective on the issue below, using relevant reasons and/or examples to support your views.

"Patriotic reverence for the history of a nation often does more to impede than to encourage progress."
"Government should never censor the artistic works or historical displays that a museum wishes to exhibit."
"Government should preserve publicly owned wilderness areas in their natural state, even though these areas are often extremely remote and thus accessible to only a few people."
"Government funding of the arts threatens the integrity of the arts."