Sunday, May 22, 2011

A snowless winter

Well, it’s a little ironic that I haven’t written an entry for this blog in almost four months. It’s not that I didn’t have any time, but… when I had time to write (back in February), nothing was happening, and when things finally started to happen, well, I was too busy to write! But here’s a little update on what I’ve been doing the last few months.

To summarize it all in a few sentences, I was riding the roller coaster of job (and sole) searching for some time, as well as traveling, and finally beginning to flirt with really doing business in China. I’ve been to Korea, Mongolia and Shanghai, survived the Chinese holiday season, and eaten dinner with one of China’s top business elites (more on that in another entry).

In the last week of January, I moved into my new apartment with my new Chinese roommate, Allen. It’s a ten-minute walk to the subway, and just a 20-minute walk to the Sanlitun Village, Beijing’s premier hub for luxury & import stores, restaurants and nightlife. While being near a popular foreigner area is a plus, my immediate neighborhood is quite Chinese, and in a very good way. My street has a large “wet market” or what we might call a farmer’s market in the US. I can buy fresh fruits and vegetables, eggs, meat and lots of other delicious Chinese treats pretty much everyday. There are also two small restaurants (called a “xiao chi” in Chinese) right outside my apartment door, and I frequent them enough that I’ve gotten to know the owners pretty well. I’ve got a bike that I ride everywhere, and since Chinese bikes are just as crappy as the “Made in China” stereotype, I’ve had to visit the local bike repair shop four or five times in the last two months. Luckily the guy who runs it isn’t the type to cheat foreigners, and each repair has cost less than a dollar! A few days ago I finally got an electric motorcycle, and I’ve been enjoying the freedom of weaving between cars, bikes, people and busses without having to peddle for my life!

A peak into our apartment

I’ve even begun to adopt the Chinese habit of getting up around sunrise and going to bed around 11pm (at least on weekdays). Some mornings I’m out the door around 7am to go grab some steamed buns for breakfast from outside the wet market. As I walk down the street, it’s already bustling with people, bikes, carts and rickshaws. I arrive at the steamed bun stand, where the two girls running it are scrambling around to meet the demands of ten or more customers gathered around it. One of them shouts at me to ask me what I want, and then smiles, since I’m the only foreigner who ever goes there, and she already knows what I’ve come for. The chaos of this street reminds me that I’m still living in a developing country, and it’s places like this neighborhood – crammed in between the modern high-rises and skyscrapers – that gives Beijing it’s real Chinese character.

The first two weeks of February marked the Spring Festival and Chinese New Year, a holiday season that could be compared to the Christmas holidays in the US. During this time, everyone in China goes home to be with their families. For weeks before the holiday began I would spot long lines outside the train ticket counters disbursed throughout Beijing, and when the holiday came, it felt as if Beijing had suddenly emptied out. You could navigate the streets between 4pm and 8pm without getting stuck in a traffic jam, and you could take the subway without being packed in like a sardine. My guess is that several million people left Beijing to return to their home cities and provinces during this time (with a population estimated as high as 20 million, Beijing is home to millions of migrant workers). Finally, Beijing had become quite and peaceful.

And then the fireworks began.

China is the land where fireworks were invented, and during Spring Festival they certainly live up to this reputation. Imagine being in New York City on New Years Eve, and that at least one family in every apartment building in the city decided to set off their own fireworks to celebrate the new year. Now imagine that instead of just doing it when the clock hit midnight, they were shooting them off constantly from 5pm until 3am. Further, imagine that this continued for 10 days straight. Yeah, that’s basically what happens in every city, town and village in China during Spring Festival. I honestly would not be surprised if the money spent on fireworks during Spring Festival in China exceeds all the total money spent on Christmas presents in the US during the holiday season, but that’s just a guess.

So here’s my typical, noob-foreigner reaction to this epic fiesta:

Day 1: Wow, this is so cool!!
Day 3: Man, the Chinese really like their fireworks!
Day 5: Ok, this is starting to get a little annoying…
Day 7: Seriously, do you have to launch the loudest and most obnoxious firecrackers outside my bedroom window at 2am?
Day 10: I’ve had enough of these f**king fireworks!!

Thankfully I had a short reprieve from the madness during a weekend trip to Seoul, South Korea in the middle of February. It was once again time for me to leave the country for a visa trip, and there also happened to be a big swing dancing festival in Korea that weekend.

Festival instructors showing off some moves

Arriving in Korea, I in some ways felt like I was back in the US – the country is more developed, and the style of buildings remind me of what you’d see in San Francisco, or even a street in small- town American. On the other hand, I felt like a tourist again, because I could not speak one word of the language (well, actually just one word, which I only knew from watching Arrested Development). Surprisingly few people in Korea speak English, and I definitely got lost several times. When I finally found my way to the dance studio, I was immediately overwhelmed by the beautiful Korean girls, and by the amazing swing dancing skills of the Korean men. In fact, I found out that Seoul has the largest swing-dancing scene of any city in the world – people there go dancing almost every night! Over the course of the festival (which included several workshops), I probably danced with at least 50 Korean girls, and said less than 50 words to all of them combined, since most of them couldn’t speak much English. I also got to spend a morning with my Korean classmate from study abroad in Hangzhou two years earlier. She took me to walk around one of the popular shopping and restaurant districts, and we had a very touristy Korean meal.

A street in South Korea - looks pretty familiar, no?

I staid in a hostel for most of the trip, but spent the last night in a Korean Sauna, or Jim-jill-seong. Basically you pay about $6 (half the price of spending the night in a hostel) for 12 hours in the sauna. But this is no ordinary sauna – it includes hot tubs, showers, fitness equipment, massage chairs, and mats that you could sleep on (although it was pretty hard to sleep). The sauna is separated into a men’s and women’s area, so naturally most of the men just walk around naked… but that wasn’t the strangest thing. As I was sitting in the hot tub, I tried not to pay attention to what the men taking a shower right across from me where doing, but I’m pretty sure this one guy spent a good half an hour madly scrubbing just in his pelvic region. Some of the stories I’ve been told about these places get stranger still, but I’m not going to share that here…

Around this time I was still looking for a job, so I had some time to work on an interesting project with my friend Van Yang. Van is a documentary filmmaker who moved to China a few years ago and started his own film studio last fall. I think I’ve mentioned him and the fact that he’s quite talented before, so I was very excited to help him create a video about China’s 12th Five Year Plan (FYP).

For those of you who don’t know, every five years the Chinese central government creates a plan for the country’s economic, social and political development in the next five years. I think Jonathan Watts describes the process that goes into this best:

“An army of cadres, officials and academics have spent years laying groundwork for the plan – the 12th since Mao Zedong started Soviet-style strategising in 1953. They have one of the world's most ambitious administrative tasks: plotting a course for a continent-sized nation, a 1.4 billion population and a $5 trillion economy that is growing at double-digit speed every year.”

The 11th FYP was a watershed in terms of its focus on clean energy and environmental protection (although some of the impacts of this are questionable), and the 12th FYP promises to continue to expand this trend. The statistics are staggering. In the next five years, China will invest nearly $600 billion in water conservation projects, build the equivalent of seven more Three-Gorges Dams (the largest dam in the world), install 10 million electric car charging stations, plant 12.5 million hectares of forest, build 35,000 kms of high-speed rail (half the length of the entire US interstate highway system), and build nearly 40 new nuclear power plants.

The scale and pace of the change taking place in China right now is unrivaled in all of history. But much of the world does not understand the role of the FYP in this transformation. The goal of our video was to inform and inspire people around the world by sharing the facts about the 12th FYP in a visually pleasing, easy to understand videographic. You can see our final product here.

We had an ambitious plan to time the release of our video with the news about the plan’s release in China, and have several key media sources use our video to spread the news. We got off to a good start, with China Central Television (CCTV) getting word about our project, and featuring us on their program, “Rediscovering China.” You can watch the clip here (the show is 25 minutes, with our group being featured in the last 5 minutes). A few days before the plan was released, the show aired on Chinese national television (I even got a text from my friend in Shanghai saying “I just saw you on TV!”). It was pretty exciting, and we were all ready for our big release…

…and then the earthquake and Tsunami hit Japan. All the news agencies lost interest in covering the release of the plan (and thus our video), and turned their attention to the devastation on Japan’s west coast, and the near meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear plant. That morning I got a text message from a Chinese friend saying “radiation hit the Philippines today and is headed for the Chinese coast. Stay indoors and cover your thyroid with iodine!” Prevailing winds actually would carry the radiation out into the Pacific and toward California, so there was nothing to worry about in China. But apparently the panic was spreading, and by noon the next day I heard that all the stores on the east coast of China were out of salt (a source of iodine).

And now finally I come to the title of this post. In all my life I’ve never gone an entire winter without snow, but this year I came very close. Aside from a few flurries one day back in December, and a small snowstorm while I was in Korea that had all but melted by the time I returned, the Beijing sky was nearly cloudless from November to April. Millions of acres of crops failed this spring due to the lack of water, and this is a trend that has only been getting worse. Beijing is most likely seriously feeling the effects of ramped industrialization and the slow approach of climate change. It’s been a strange few months, and it gets even stranger in my next post about looking for an English teaching job…

A Chinese family enjoying the snowless winter with an ice-sled

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