Monday, October 24, 2011

In the Land of the Khans

Though I have not updated my blog in a while, about a month, I will write today about my trip to Inner Mongolia. During the National Day holiday, I went to this province and experienced many of its sights and experienced its culture.

Inner Mongolia for those who don't know is a province of the People's Republic of China. Inner Mongolia is a portion of what is historically the national homeland of the Mongolian people, among a handful of other lesser known peoples to the West. I know it's a raw deal for them but the Mongols conquered half the world, they should at least get a province named after them for the trouble. The nation of Mongolia is what is referred to as Outer Mongolia. In 1912, Outer Mongolia achieved its independence from China during the chaos of the Xinhai Revolution and the Balkanization of China under warlords, communists, and nationalist forces. Inner Mongolia was not able to break away, though there were rebellions, and Inner Mongolia remained mostly a part of China. During the 30's and 40's, Japan conquered the region and made it into a briefly lived puppet state that was absorbed into the Chinese puppet government Japan set up after the Second Sino-Japanese War started. When Japan was defeated, Inner Mongolia returned to Chinese control and has remained there to this day.

Inner Mongolia is an interesting province in its demographic makeup. Mongols make up 17% of the population of Inner Mongolia, which isn't remarkable in and of itself but this population is larger than the population of Mongolia. All together the population of Mongols in China is about double that of Mongolia when you add together the Mongol populations of other provinces. Inner Mongolia is also home to more traditional Mongolian culture in some respects. Mongols in China still use the ancient Mongolian script, a spidery vertical script that the ancient Mongols adopted form the Uyghur script. Goods and items from the nation of Mongolia are often found in markets, mostly cigarettes and vodka, and marked by their use of Cyrillic. Mongolian in Mongolia uses Cyrillic due to Mongolia's status of a Soviet puppet state for so many decades. Mongolians always seem to pay homage to their own history as well, picture of Genghis Khan are almost always found in Mongolian homes and restaurants. In the face of an overwhelming Han Chinese majority, it seems to be a harkening back to a time when their ancestors were kings and masters of half the world. Mongolians in China also live a sedentary lifestyle. The old nomadic ways were ended by Mao's policies and modernity but herding and farming are still very common.  The Mongolians also make a pretty good beer. The breweries of China are tied to their provinces and the policies on the sale of beer are very protectionist. Though this leads to a veritable array of Smokey and the Bandit scenarios, this also leads to a small and often lacking selection in some provinces.

Inner Mongolia itself is a land of stark beauty. The landscape is very much like the people who inhabited it in times past, harsh and rugged. The winds whip over the grasslands having little to buffer them. This has also made Inner Mongolia a prime location for wind turbine generators.

At night, the temperatures can quickly drop 20 to 30 degrees in the grasslands. The landscape is somewhat varied though, full of mountains and a few deserts. The deserts themselves are vast and sandy, offering few landmarks for those that get lost within them.

Unlike most provinces in China, the skies of Inner Mongolia remain obscured. Lacking in population and with farming and mining being its main industries, Inner Mongolia is free of the malaise that afflicts most of China. At night in the grasslands, you can see every star in that portion of the night sky and the Milky Way itself.

The capital of Inner Mongolia, Hohhot, or Huhehaote in Mandarin, is itself a standard modern Chinese city. Much of the city was constructed in the modern era though if offers a few "temples" to be seen. Most of these temples no longer seem to be used for worship. One has to ask how authentic a house of worship that charges a 60 kuai entrance fee is. Around these temples are the standard tourist shops and booths, very similar to those you would find in the states. A giant mosque is also within the city but it was being renovated while I was there so I did not see it. A refreshing change of pace was seeing an authentic Tibetan Buddhist temple outside of the city. Tibetan Buddhism is very popular in Inner Mongolia. Not because of Tibetans but because that brand of Buddhism spread there in times past.

Within Hohhot is also the provincial museum. All provinces have such a structure but  the quality of such institutions isn't always assured. Henan's museum for instance is one of the best in China due to the large amount of cultural treasures and artifacts amassed in that area. Inner Mongolia's does not fare as well. The building itself is massive and somewhat open on the inside. Most of the museum is dedicated to cultural exhibits, the Chinese space program, the mining industry, dinosaurs, and history ranging from prehistory to 1949. Most of the historical artifacts are unremarkable though, many of them are even from Henan. Unsurprisingly, an area mostly populated by nomadic herders is not a prime area for unearthing magnificent treasures. The signs also leave much to be desired.

Hohhot itself is not the draw for tourists both domestic and foreign. The city itself is unremarkable and stark in the modern Mainland tradition. The real draw is the area itself and the Great Wall. Many may ask, "What, I thought the Great Wall was in Beijing?" It is, it actually starts outside of Tianjin and winds its way through Northern China. Unsurprisingly, the wall built to keep out the Mongolians covered a good deal of Inner Mongolias border with other provinces. You might remember from the last time you watched Mulan, the wall went a long way. And yes, I am judging you by the way.

This is how much of the Great Wall stands today. Though this wall was built by the Ming Dynasty as a screw you public works project directed at the Mongols, their former oppressors, it has not been maintained since. Only the wall around Beijing and civilization largely is. This wall is now open for anyone to climb on and almost fall off of, it's quite a drop on one side while the other is probably only good for a concussion. The local farmers grow their crops right up beside the wall and no one seems to realize that their pile of empty baijiu bottles is right next to one of the greatest wonders mankind has ever made. Wind turbines also spin on the other side of the wall too, no mind given to the piece of history that stands near it. The only people who seem to care are those not from the area or China, taken in by the majesty that many locals take for granted.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Country Roads

For this post, I'm going to tell you a bit about the province and area that I live in. I live in Zhengzhou, Henan Province. To be more precise though, I don't live in the city proper, I live just outside the city in a newer district. This is the view from my balcony in the morning.

This is the weather when it's particularly nice. For the first couple weeks I have been here, the sky was very hazy with pollution and then it rained for about two weeks. You honestly have no idea how much the rain sucks when you have to sun/air dry your clothes. The climate when it doesn't rain for several weeks is kind of like Nebraska or Iowa. You might ask, what's behind those walls
There's a lot of this around here. Zhengzhou is very rural and around this time in the fall you also see this

The local farmers dry out and shuck their corn in the roads. Along the busier roads they keep to the medians but this is a common sight in rural China. The farmers shuck the corn by hand and then load it up for the market. So to answer your suspicions, I am indeed knee deep in corn and hypothetical farmer's daughters.

The university I work at used to be in downtown Zhengzhou, which is a 40 minute drive by bus away now. The campus was moved as an effort by the government to make "university towns" but I assume this is actually the work of some education official's plot to destroy "fun" and subsidize boredom. There isn't much nearby and you have to do all your shopping at the school store or when we go into town on the weekends. It takes so long to get into town not because of distance but because of the population issues, which will be addressed later.

Henan itself is the heartland of China. This is very much Mao's country, which for you Americans out there would make this a very red state. I actually polled my students in an exercise involving the financial crisis and state funding. They overwhelming chose the military to receive the most funding, pensions and unemployment to receive the least by ranking them last so I'm pretty much in Alabama. Henan itself has a similar reputation as the "heartland" states in America but the people here are friendly and I've encountered no racism or overt nationalism. Henan is also the birthplace of Chinese civilization. Xi'an, Luoyang, and Kaifeng are all in this province and this province is one of the major areas from the Romance of the Three Kingdoms.

Henan itself is the third most populous province in China. Henan is 8th in population density but the first five on that list are municipalities, meaning cities so large they are treated like provinces. By GDP it is ranked 5th but this statistic is deceptive. GDP per capita is ranked at 20th meaning that not everyone here has gotten a piece of the pie. This will all come back when I talk about Zhengzhou city proper. Henan also has the 2nd highest gender imbalance of males to females, about 142 to 100, so it's not the best place to pick up chicks.

When a lot of people think of China today, they think of Shanghai or Beijing. Sprawling metropolis full of people and neon lights. As my Chinese friends will tell me though, Henan is the real China where people have lived as they have for years, before the boom hit China and internationalization overtook the affluent municipalities. Even with the new money the nation has made and the scramble for modernization, China is still very much the nation of farmers it was when Mao unified the nation under his banner  a week and a day from today, 62 years ago.

Friday, September 16, 2011

A Carnival of Healthcare

The way things are done in China can be very alien to Westerners. Healthcare is a good example of this and in some ways this is not a bad thing.

When you do a great deal of things in China, it is often a bureaucratic nightmare. This is even truer for foreigners living and working in China. Whenever you open a bank account, open a cellphone account, visit the hospital, and do any number of essential activities that require official approval, you must bring your passport. It's also a good idea to have an interpreter because if you are outside of Beijing, Shanghai, or any number of cosmopolitan internationally diverse cities, English will be hard to come by. Even if the official or person you are dealing with speaks some English, they will sometimes pretend they don't understand you because they don't want to lose face or on the rare occasion be bothered by anyone, let alone a laowai. It's a lot like the DMV except for this level of bureaucratic obfuscation clouds every aspect of governmental interaction. You also have to fill everything out correctly, such as using a check when required, because sometimes they will not accept the wrong symbol that acknowledges that yes, you are a man and no you have not suffered from leprosy. My personal theory is that this is a combination of the Chinese tradition of having a complex bureaucratic infrastructure and the Chinese government's subsidization of the paper and big stamp industries.

When we first arrive at the hospital, our guide for this adventure into the believed "heart of darkness" that is Chinese healthcare talks to the clerk. There is a long line for appointments and at the pay counter we notice this too. In China, you generally pay for healthcare before you receive it. If you have insurance, you will have to contact your provider on your own and get them to pay you back some of the cost afterwards. We are then led away from this area though and into a nice waiting room where we fill out our residency health forms. We laugh for a good 5 minutes about checking the box to confirm a past history of "yellow fever" and then finish up. The form by the way lists a number of diseases not seen in the Western world since the Second World War but I think this is mainly because there are many immigrants from less industrialized countries in China. From there we wait in the check in line. After about 10-15 minutes we get our pictures taken and a series of medical vial stickers are given to us.

Our journey begins by ascending the stairs to the second floor and going into the blood sample room. The room is clean and the needles are all new. Our biggest fear is put to rest because needle safety is always a concern. We also get scolded at by an older nurse for laughing at some unintentionally funny posters about AIDs and HIV, one of which shows a topless cartoon woman breast feeding her baby. After our blood is taken, we are given a tiny plastic cup about half to three-quarters the size of a dixie cup. This is the urine sample cup. After supplying this sample, we place it on a tray full of about a hundred urine sample cups, all without lids but numbered so you don't have to worry about samples getting mixed up. After that trial, we are directed to the area where our other tests are done.

This is where the title of this post comes from. The area where the many tests are done is a long hallway with different signs describing what's inside. The first room I enter is to look at two pages in a book that tests color blindness. I pass with flying colors. The next room is the x-ray. I am not given a lead shield to wear or anything.  The Chinese apparently don't need such decadent things as radiation shielding. A man works the x-ray machine and then begins to move my body into strange poses in front of the machine, most the time smashing my face into the machine. It was like a cross between being arrested and a massage. Following that is a blood pressure test, like the ones at supermarkets, and my height and weight are measured simultaneously on a machine.  I don't recall what it was but I'm sure it's about the same. The oddest test is the ultrasound. Yes, I was given an ultrasound but luckily I am not with child. The last room is the ECG. This one has a longer wait because the ladies get theirs done first and the door has to be closed because it requires them to take off their shirts. When the men do it, it's pretty fast and uses an older clamp machine. After that, we are done. In the span of an hour and a half, we complete what took several trips and a combined time of 5 hours to do in the United States. There was also a lot less complaining than in the States where every technician acted like you were being a nuisance because you expected them to do their job, the job that they are paid a good deal of money to do. The Doctors also did not act like you were asking them to perform some arduous task.

So in China, where a monolithic bureaucracy is the force that moves this giant country, healthcare is better in some respects and better than the expectations of outsiders. Pretty much everyone passes these health tests too and no one makes them out to be the monumental task they can seem to be. The medical checkup was quick, friendly, and did not involve degrading procedures like a genital check or threats of testing for STD's by cotton swab. The actual medicine of the Chinese speaking world might be suspect, I'll talk about Chinese medicine another time, and safety is always a concern in less affluent areas but the healthcare system adequately made a simple checkup a simple checkup.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The White Dragon

This post is mostly going to cover something you will probably experience if you go to China. It is called Baijiu though we've taken to calling it the White DragonBaijiu (白酒; báijiǔ) means white alcohol in Chinese. Don't confuse it with white wine which is Bai Putaojiu (白葡萄酒; báipútaojiǔ). It's a very strong clear alcohol, about 40-60% alcohol by volume and 80-120 proof. It's very similar in appearance to vodka, Japanese shochu, and Korean soju but stronger. Just think of Everclear from a nation with loose alcohol strength standards and you got it. You can buy it at any convenience store, mom and pop hole in the wall stores, and big supermarkets. It runs from 4元 to as expensive as Western alcohol, which is in the hundreds of 元. You really get what you pay for too.

This is Erguotou, (二锅头; èrguōtóu) which Wikipedia tells me means "head of the second pot". As you can see, this bottle looks like it came from a former Soviet Republic, an Eastern Bloc state, or the now defunct Yugoslavia. It doesn't waste time on things like advertising or graphic design, for 4元 (under $1) you've entered flavor country my friend. At 56% alcohol by volume, it'll get you drunk. It is clearly a drink designed to dull the pain of a working class, a very pained working class. It's apparently really popular in Beijing, where it's made, and in the North among blue collar workers.

When we got into Shanghai, we bought a bottle of this for about 5 of us to try out. We had been told several times that we would be required to drink baijiu at official functions. Yes, that is correct, I would be expected to drink at official school banquets. The president of the university is quite the drinker and in the Chinese toasting tradition, he comes around to us and we will be expected to drink to his challenge, health, or whatever is put forward. This can be done many times in one go around too. You also have to do this with the people of importance as well so that equals a lot of drinking. You don't have to do it with baijiu but that's the default in Henan. The Communist Party secretary at the school is also a big drinker so we've been working on our A game to show the reds how we do things in America, Rocky IV style. We have not drunk with the secretary yet but when we do, USA all the way. If you go to any other important functions too, like weddings for instance there will be a lot of baijiu drinking too.

This is Yang River Blue Classic (洋河蓝色经典;yánghélánsèjīngdiǎn) which is much better than Erguotou. This is what we had at the banquet held in our honor when we arrived. The bottle we had ran for about 125元 and was pretty smooth. It was still just as potent as Erguotou. One of my coworkers had about 7 shots of it so we call him the Dragon Slayer. I only had one shot but I drank a lot of beer instead because the White Dragon has destroyed many a man. We had just gotten there and I had only been in the country for a week so I wasn't looking forward to vomiting all over a classy expensive Chinese restaurant in the same tradition as George H.W. Bush at a Japanese banquet.

Luckily though, beer is served pretty much everywhere and Western alcohol can be found in town so I don't have to resort to baijiu to get my drink on. You can also get Suntory products here so for relaxing times, we can make it Suntory time.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Language Barriers

Usually when someone writes an initial blog post, it is something that merely states that this is the person's blog and that there are big things planned. What in reality usually happens is that the person fails to update their blog after this declaration and the blog descends into the depths of oblivion that consumed most Geocities sites over a decade ago. For this inaugural post, I am going to talk about language barriers.

Having lived most of my life in the continental United States, I have never experienced a language barrier. That is to say I have never been thrust into a situation prior to coming to China where I found myself incapable of going about my everyday business due to a language barrier of any kind.

In Shanghai, where there are many Western tourists, foreign teachers, and a higher level of affluence, English is available though uncommon. In Zhengzhou, where Western tourists are rarer, there are fewer foreign teachers, and on a whole the city is at a lower level of affluence, English is hard to come by or nonexistent. Many of the signs that are in English are usually in a hodge podge of broken or misused English that is referred to as "Chinglish"or "Engrish", though "Engrish" is primarily Japanese. You see Chinglish more often than not on clothing and it is often hilarious. In many ways though, the lack of English in China almost mocks you here, with it only being supplied in a limited though practically mocking fashion.

With my limited Chinese, which is very limited in the grand scheme of things since we never learned how to sign up for a cell phone or ask for a Coke Zero in Chinese. If there is no English available in Zhengzhou, the chances are that there will not be someone who knows even basic English to help you. Even the number signs in Chinese, which are similar to those used in sign language, are not the same as they are in English. These number signs are used a lot too, especially in purchases 10元 or cheaper.

Buying things a lot of times is not hard though. If you want something, you generally point at it and ask “duoshao?”, which means how much. They will tell you in Chinese, which thankfully I know my numbers, and then I will either barter with them if outside or just pay them in a store. The rules for the record by the way are that if it has a fixed roof, you generally don’t barter. Bartering generally involves me telling them “tai gui le” which means “very expensive” and then lowballing them. A lot of times I am charged a foreigner fee because I make five times that of the average resident. At restaurants, I try to find places where I can point to what I want on a menu or in a case. If you don't have that option, it can be difficult.

Last weekend I went to a Hui mian place downtown with some of my friends/coworkers for instance. The Hui are a more recent minority group in China. They are Chinese who adopted Islam hundreds of years ago from Silk Road traders but share little in common with the vast majority of what Westerners consider Muslims. The women generally wear a headscarf and the men a white hat. They are well known for their noodles, lamb dishes, and their acumen at business. The very nature of the eating establishment was alien to us. When you enter the establishment, to your left is a woman sitting at a wooden table with a pad full of tickets, a stamp, and a razor blade for cutting the tickets. This woman spoke no English and since it was busy she was not interested in holding our hands. After a while of fumbling, we hand her 12元 each and she gives us our ticket. From there, there is a buffet counter. You pick out what you want and then you pay them. Not knowing how this works, we ordered 4 dishes for 100元 though we probably should have ordered 2. We ordered green beans, some type of beef, what we thought was some type of red meat covered in a sauce but was in fact fish, and what we thought was a type of noodle but was actually really long mushrooms that tasted like Fritos. We ordered some beers and that sat down. While we sat there, several of the waitresses just stood there and stared at us giggled and talked about us in Chinese. This is somewhat normal in Zhengzhou where people tend to stare at foreigners more due to their lack of exposure. After about 15 minutes, I realize that everyone in there has noodles but us. I call over the waitress, tell her we want noodles, she takes our tickets, and then brings us a very large bowl of noodles. We did not complete this meal, there was too much, but the learning experience only cost us under $30 all together.

I would like to digress for a moment to make a note on money and the currency of the PRC for those who aren’t familiar with it. The Yuan is spent in the same manner as the US Dollar is in the US for reference. 1 kuai, the Chinese word for dollar, has the same value as a Dollar in US society. The exchange rate differs but the Dollar still goes a long way, around $6.39.

Supermarkets on the other hand can be frightening, especially when buying food. There's so much available but most of it is labeled in only Chinese. There are also people in the stores who urge you to buy things but you have no idea what they are selling sometimes. Luckily though, a lot of items will have English on the label so you can see what it is you are buying.

In many ways, this has left me very secure in my ability to cope and survive. I know many who read this might not think so but it’s frightening when you realize that you have to feed yourself when you don’t know exactly what it is you’re looking at. It has also left me with a good understanding of what it’s like to be a foreigner in a mostly alien place.