Sunday, November 23, 2008

Naked


I haven't been blogging much because I recently started a new job. And some other things in life... But mostly, because colleagues at my new job, being American and adept at googling, found out about my blog, and hence, my past.

They didn't mind my past, just as my previous Chinese employer. But they do read English, so they know some periphery of my thoughts by reading through my blog.

So I feel naked.

And being in a leadership position now, I was reminded of the fact that certain speeches would make people all the way across the Pacific, particulary of the legal persuasion, worried. What if the Chinese government...?

I did my best to assuage that worry--as long as I don't advocate overthrowing the government, I should be fine; the government is a lot more neglectful than what the outside could possibly believe; ...

But the news headlines go contrary to my argument. My own past is of no particular comfort either.

So I have to hide my private parts from the curious eyes of my colleagues.

In this age of web 2.0, what bushes can we hide behind?

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The Sophistication of Art

To show off my urbane sophistication, I took my parents and my 10-year old niece to 798, a post-modern (or modern?) art district transformed from a decommissioned military factory compound.

The three diligently studied the art work in gallery after gallery--a true miracle for my mother who spends all her time cleaning.

She points at a huge oil portrait, hanging on the wall, of a steely and desperate looking girl. "This looks so realistic," she says, her finger following the flow of her neck. "This vein here looks like about to burst open."

In the next gallery, my niece moves from one huge charcoal painting of a horse to another huge charcoal painting of another horse.

"Like it?" I ask her.

"Yeah," she proclaims with her usual 10-year-old enthusiasm. "But why the artist paints the same thing over and over?"

Because the painter uncle has to make money, the easier way?

After an overdose of galleries, we stroll among the pipes and boilers of the factory compound.

"Now this is nice," comments my father who has quietly studied the arts. "It reminds a little of our old danwei, work unit... Remember, the neighborhood you grew up in? It was a power plant so it also had pipes and boilers like this... Except the pipes would be hissing with steam..."

We walk some more, taking in the silence around us. Indeed it looks just like the neighborhood I grew up in, except it was... silent. Too many signs and posters for galleries. Too many young travelers with their eager heads stuck out in all directions. No workers, or children, or freight trains--filled with coal--whistling in the distance, or loud speakers blaring propaganda songs, or pipes hissing with steam.



Now it's no longer alive, life, once simple and vibrant, has become sophisticated art.

"I like this best," continues my father who walks a few steps behind us. "It brings back some memories... Old memories..."

Monday, August 18, 2008

Beautiful Games

The Games, are a beautiful thing. The audience cheered for a forceful US strike on the beach sand transported from Hainan, for the Slovenian who won the first-ever track-and-field gold for his country, and for the Russian woman who broke the world-record in 5000-meter steeplechase.

The jumpers led the crowd to clap for him before he set off. The audience ahh'ed when he failed.

Then there's the Irish lady who fell into the water in the steeplechase. The crowd cheered her on, as loudly as for the Jamaicans after they swept women's 100-meter dash.

The young did the wave they had just learned and clapped until their hands sore. The middle-aged laughed. The old guy sitting next to me, with his white hair under a white humble hat, kept perfectly still and straight for a good hour. Then, melting into the crowd, he smiled gently and mouthed a 加油 (Go! Go!).

My eyes went moist. The Games bring the best out of people. Perhaps the Chinese still don't know how to cheer like a sophisticated Western crowd (How to do the wave again? And can they learn some new way to cheer other than waving the little flags and yelling 加油?). Perhaps the government is bent on all kinds of schemes--dirty or not--to put on a perfect show. Perhaps some citizens have pursued nationalism to the point of xenophobia. But the China I saw at the Games--the old reluctant to show their emotions and the young screaming their hearts out--by so eagerly learning to embrace the Olympic spirit, is already part of the spirit.

Monday, August 11, 2008

To Villainize, or not

One day after I hoped that China not be villainized more than John Edwards, I found out a friend was taken away to make the Olympics more peaceful and harmonious.

It's a tricky business to love this place. For there are always many reasons not to.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

John Edwards the Villain

This morning an American friend called from San Francisco. We hadn't talked for a while so we chit-chatted about his job pushing ethnic studies in 9th grade, Obama, and the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics. He is a school teacher and a big-time Sinophile, having spent a year learning Chinese in Beijing and coming back almost every year during summer break.

Invariably, our conversation turned to America and China. He said that he felt increasing negative sentiment on China in the US. China is a growing threat. China has big problems in human rights and Tibet. China doesn’t deserve the Olympics. And China cheats--just look at those female Chinese gymnasts; they can't be not under-aged!

But the US cheats in other areas--Look at Bush and Iraq! Thus argued my friend.

One wrong doesn't justify another, said his friends.

It was impossible for him to discuss China with his American friends, he said. He doesn't understand the vehemence in their attitude, as if they all know China so well that their opinions are susceptible to no persuasion. When he explained the China he knew from personal experience is a lot more complex, his friends accused him of acting like a China expert, again.

"But that's exactly what I'm arguing against," his exasperation rushed over through the cross-Pacific phone connection, "that even after having lived in China and known so many Chinese, I don't dare to claim to know China. How can they be so sure of their convictions? They have never come to China. They don’t know a single Chinese. They just buy the stories fed to them by the media!”

I laughed. I said that so many people seem to know China nowadays. Even long-time expats in Beijing are handing out digests on how to approach and report on China for tourists and journalists visiting for the Games. Yet like my friend, I find China increasingly complex, and rich, and eluding easy characterization, especially after having lived in Hangzhou without any expat for the past few months.

People need a villain to stamp on, I suggested, just like they need a hero to worship; and China is the new big villain to quench this desire.

My pseudo-psychological analysis seemed satisfactory, but not to have alleviated my friend's worries. After hanging up the phone, I went online. The English-language reporting on the Opening Ceremony has been glowing (now it's the turn of the Chinese netizens to trash the event). For a while, the world appeared to have forgotten the issues of Tibet, Uighur and human rights, and accepted China's message of peace and harmony, just as I was entranced by the TV screen on the opening night and moved to tears on several occasions.

Then I read the detailed reporting on John Edwards's salacious affair and the millions of dollars bestowed on that woman and the recent contrite public apology on such a shameful act as well as the insistence of no knowledge on the millions of dollars having been lavished on that woman.

Even a poster boy of a man self-made through hard work and moral righteousness failed to the human weakness. And I believe Edwards is still doing as much as he can to control the damage--including lying.

So we all have a villain inside. Why villainize China so much?

Friday, August 08, 2008

My Mother is in Town for the Games

My parents arrived in town yesterday for the games. As soon as she put down her luggage, my mother started dusting, cleaning, laundering and having my dad hang a string in the kitchen to line dry the laundry. And she complained about her knee, about my niece being too loud, and about me not making enough money.

The same old mother despite my many tete-a-tete regarding the importance of leaving time for exercise, recreation and peace of mind, especially at her age.

It's a bit of a relief to step out and go about my usual work. Taking a cab about town, I saw cops everywhere, tourists having replaced the residents everywhere, and all the unfinished construction sites prettied up everywhere. Seven years in the making and it's happening in less than 24 hours? It felt surreal. For beneath all the heavy makeup, Beijing still looks the same--the haze hanging over the city ("Let's see how the government can manufacture a clear day tomorrow for the opening," chuckled the taxi driver), the strong desire to put on a face-enhancing extravaganza at all costs (A friend said it felt like the family is receiving important guests and all the poor relatives have to go into hiding, just like old days), and the visiting foreign reporters fishing for the same old China stories (Can we interview you to understand more of the underground church? asked a foreign reporter).

I dragged my parents out for a walk after dinner, much to my mother's displeasure (she still has tons of cleaning to do, even though our ayi just came for his weekly cleaning today). I took them to The Place Mall which is rumored to have the second largest LCD screen in the world. The huge screen was filled with Coca Cola logos due to an event there sponsored by the company. I kept on describing how wonderful the images on that screen were in other non-Olympic days.

I wanted to impress my mother, tacky tourist trap or not, to get her mind off cleaning. She had not wanted to come in the first place. I had pleaded with her. It's probably the last and only Olympics she would experience in person. I want her to be happy, however briefly, even though she appears bent on denying that to herself.

So I'm praying for a safe and good Olympics, for my mother and other Chinese who are like my mother. Just to be able to have fun for a brief period of time. It might be a silly party and people have all the reasons to scorn at this show-and-dance on top of the environmental and human rights problems. But I've learned (or forced) to be more patient, for Beijing has changed faster, much faster, than my mother.

And for my mother, I hope she can enjoy the silly party, even just a little bit.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Muddy water and live fish


When I worked as a product manager in Silicon Valley, the business rationale ran something like this--let's find an unmet need, figure out an innovative way to satisfy that need, and voila, we'll make a lot of money in the process.

Now more than 4 years back in China, I'm still struggling with the Chinese business rationale--let's find something to sell, pile on tons of superlatives and expert opinions to shove it into the mouths of prospective customers, and hope that they swallow it so we can make a lot of money in the process.

Of course it's not quite clear cut as that: I remember all of my friends, the "insiders", laughed at the expensive Siebel CRM systems and how they tend to way underdeliver their promises; then again in the US we can, and the press can, laugh at the overzealous sales people and watch Siebel go downhill.

In contrast, here in China, in the industry of Internet advertising that I'm in, there's a consensual hush over the big industry secret--that several well-known websites routinely resort to clandestine software to fake clicks on their clients' advertising to enhance the clickthrough rate.

So that justify us to cheat in a similar fashion to enhance customer "satisfaction"?

No, we will never do that. That's against the core values of the company. But we can use fancy terminologies to enthrall the market. To promise some hi-techy panacea that'll transform China's internet landscape. We'll use "top-notch" technology to deliver superb clickthrough rates, whereas in reality we simply leverage the cheap manpower and the shuffling around of some resources. So suggested the boss.

Then we shall add all the data points together and make the customer report look good?

Oh, that wouldn't be ethical, would it?

But we already fooled our customers into believing our "technologies." Why not add the numbers together? Those numbers are real, just not generated in the way we promised the customers.

That wouldn't be right, would it?

The boss pondered on.

I am always at a loss at the ambiguous line of business ethics in discussions like this -- so we can't cheat, but we can't be entirely honest either; we can't be as low as those despicable media that everyone secretly despises in the industry, but we can't be entirely clean ourselves.

Everyone cites the tired saying--water doesn't harbor live fish if too clean (i.e., something muddy has to exist to protect the fish from fisherman).

Yet unlike many old China hands who disdain the backward Chinese business ethics, I thoroughly enjoy this ambiguity. It's challenging. It prompts me to think often where I shall draw the line: other than the cold seemingly self-evident values taught in business school ethics classes, I have to be responsible for my employees (how do we compete in a tricking market place?) and my customers (how do we provide some real value even if not in the ways promised?).

It's both challenging and enjoyable for it's alive. The discussion is alive. My boss, my staff and I are alive--how do we define the ethical line in our business? Despite what the professors have said in classrooms, we, like kids, have to search for the line all over again by ourselves in practice.

Tonight after dinner, a sales person sought me out. She bought me coffee and vented her unhappiness. Her team leader was selfish and untrustworthy. She felt stifled and unappreciated. She felt sad about her team, for a team is not a team if not a winning close-knit team that helps each other to excel. She cried. She wanted a chance to lead her own team, to do things right.

I enjoy the ambiguity and the earnestness in China. For despite the muddiness of the fish water, people, deep down, want to do things right.

I trust that the water would clear up gradually, and more fish would survive eventually.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

The Residents are Angry

For days, residents chatted excitedly among themselves in the apartment complex where I'm staying, while cops watched wearily from their patrol cars just outside the gate. The compound is perhaps the most expensive in the neighborhood, beautifully landscaped with lush plants and flowers and with a tiny muddy river running through it.

The agitation came from the river--the government wants to clean up the river and turn the banks into public recreation areas with boat docks and bike tracks. Not a bad idea considering how polluted the river is right now. But the residents are angry--as property owners, they had not been consulted before being told that walls would be built along the banks and their apartment compound's land would shrink.

That would decrease the value of our property! One resident seethed.

Owners' association organized late-night planning meetings and public rallies. Huge banners unfurled from the top of the tallest building proclaiming the residents' "strongest resistance." On Saturday afternoon during a rally a resident was arrested after an altercation with a plainclothes cop. More confrontation. Riot police was called in. The intersection was jammed.

A resident said that he had taken photos of the plainclothes cop and he would post it on the Internet. Another chimed this is our property, they can't do whatever they want here; doesn't the government want a harmonious society; we are all for harmony here! (A beer-bellied cop chuckled awkwardly nearby.)

A day later I came down the building and saw two cops helplessly surrounded by angry residents again. Many were yelling "get off our property," "you don't have any right to be here." Even a kid learned fast--"Get out, cop!" he screamed at the top of his voice.

It's exciting that finally one hears some angry voices up close. Only confrontation begets negotiation which begets some semblance of true harmony.

Let one hundred voices bloom.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Christian Asylum

At one of my previous companies in Beijing, we sent one of the young colleagues to the US for training on a business visa. It took us quite some effort to get the visa for her. After she came back from that training, she worked for us for a few more months and then quit and used the same visa--not expired yet by then-- to go back to America.

She taught Chinese at some community center on the West Coast. Sometimes she sought my advice on MSN on how to find her ways in the US. School or no school? Which major? Before she left for the US, she had cried in front of me, feeling sorry for having to leave the company and uncertain what she could do in a foreign country. She swore that she had never planned to take advantage of our good intention (and visa sponsorship) in the first place, and it was accidental that she found a program in Beijing certifying Chinese tutors for foreigners. Despite my nagging suspicion of having been used, I remembered how difficult it was for me when I first moved to the US, so I replied to her queries. Plus, who am I to judge if she deserves to be able to go to the US so easily (while others, like my friends and I, had to study so hard to score high on the damn TOEFL and GREs to get our student visas)?

Tonight she pinged me again on MSN. She wondered if she should apply for a green card at her lawyer's urging.

Which category?

Political asylum for being a Chinese Christine.

I didn't ask if she is a Christine. That's moot. Every immigrant has a green card story, just as every New Yorker has an apartment story (at least for the not-so-wealthy ones). Immediately after 1989, all Chinese students living in the US automatically qualified for green card because they were considered to be at risk for government persecution if sent back in China. Many later Chinese immigrants applied for green cards under political asylum for allegedly having suffered from the Chinese government's one-child policy. Two of the illegal Fujianese immigrants at the restaurant where I waited table got their green cards that way. They were no more than 22 years old then.

What does the lawyer say is the success rate? I asked her.

96%. She quickly added that she had only asked the lawyer to help change her status into a student visa. It was the lawyer who had given her the idea of the green card, and she wondered if I think she should go after it.

How much?

$4000.

I remembered my own struggle to get my green card. In my days of desperation I could have claimed any political asylum if not for the fact that I lacked the guts to make up police brutality stories. Now it's so easy for her--persecution of Chinese Christians is well reported in the Western media; likely she only needed to claim the Christian faith and the immigration would accept a reasonable likelihood of persecution if she has to return to China.

So incredibly easy, for she only needs to claim a faith she might not believe in. She had told me before that going to America this way was her only chance of escaping a commoner's boring life in China, making little money and seeing no bright future. Even God might forgive her for that.

"It seems to be worth it," I typed my comment. $4000 and 96% success rate.

Then I thought of those real Christians suffering for real in China. I thought of those really needing freedom instead of just a life better economically. Before I succumbed to my urge to pass some judgment, however, I thought of what America represented for me, once, and all those who fled there to escape a past and seek a future, however trivial to the nonchalant observers.

So I added--"But it's up to you." And your god.

"I know," she typed back.

Monday, May 26, 2008

The Confused Filmmaker

On Sunday I went to visit a filmmaker friend whom I hadn’t seen since my long leave of absence in 2006. Unsurprisingly he dropped many curious questions about my absence. Our conversation then stayed on politics. I mentioned the recent sentences of several dissidents, including Hu Jia.

He said, “Don’t you think Hu Jia is a little too much? I watched his documentary online. He was…often inviting troubles himself.”

I asked if he meant Hu Jia had acted headstrong in front of those who had followed him. He nodded yes. “There were good things that had happened to this country and under this government. It’s not right for him to ignore the positives and lash out only the negatives.”

I was taken aback by his confident commentary. I had known him before only as a quiet filmmaker who had graduated from the Beijing Film Academy and opened a film equipment resell/rental business with several friends to support his filmmaking dreams. We had rarely spoken other than discussing technical details of filmmaking before.

“So you think it’s alright to send him to jail even if he had said something incorrect?” I protested out of reflex.

“He will come out of prison faring much better than before,” he said.

“What do you mean?”

“Surely he will get a visa and financial support to go to America and stay there for the rest of his life. How much better could it get?”

His confident reduction of human motives to such vulgar calculations sent chills to my body. How could he, an out-of-mainstream filmmaker with the obligatory long hair and pensive smile, be brainwashed to such extent? What’s the hope for China if even the bohemians consent to silencing the dissidents?

I remember a writing seminar I had been to two months ago. Two well-known Chinese writers were asked if their writing had any political intonation. Both answered no. Both said that they only cared for arts, not politics.

I could understand them, my filmmaker friend, and my own silent self. There is an invisible gag in the air. It’s better to get used to its prevailing nonexistence.

There was a lull in our conversation. My lips felt dry. I said you sounded very interested in political matters. He said of course, my partners and I are probably “noted” by the Big Brother as well. He described a meeting with some kind old comrades at a certain authoritative bureau; the comrades did not exactly forbid them from making independent films, but warned them against making political ones.

“Of course we won’t touch politics,” he said. “We just want to make films.”

Yeah yeah yeah, repetitive artsy “Chinese” films about AIDS, or poverty, or migrants, or urban alienation that aim for some big award at some Western film festival.

Then he asked for my opinion on a film he wants to make. He said he was really troubled by the bipolarized reporting and emotions on the Tibet issue and the Olympic torch relay, before the Earthquake took over the headlines. He said he had been a loyal reader of CNN and other Western online media before. Like some of his friends, he didn’t believe the Chinese official media and thus often looked to the West for “truth.” The CNN incident told him that the Western media were equally unreliable.

“Now my friends and I don’t know who to trust anymore,” he exclaimed quietly.

He wanted to make a film, about a Chinese guy confused by the issues of Tibet, of protests over Tibet, of Westerners advocating Tibet’s independence despite having never stepped in Tibet and knowing little of the real-life complexities there, of his Han friends clueless of why some Tibetans hate them so much.

“You know how extreme people could get on these issues?” he looked ahead in the air. “Friends would argue so violently over dinner tables that even long-time friendships are difficult to maintain. Some love the West and would argue for the West despite everything. Others would take to arms to revenge the humiliation over the torch relay. You know the government had to police the university campuses to prevent agitated students from teaming up to smash the Carrefours and the KFCs? You don’t believe me? People are ready for violence, and extremism. The society is getting increasingly unsettled. Something is ready to explode. I wouldn’t be shocked to find Al-Qaeda-like Chinese suicide bombers in the next few years.”

So he would like my more Westernized opinion on what kind of portrayal of this Chinese guy’s confusion would be receptive to an Western audience. The film would be banned in China for sure. But the Western audience… he would like to describe the China and the Tibetan issues as he understood, and he would like to… bridge the massive misunderstanding between China and the West. He expressed him ideas slowly but clearly.

I was even more shocked than before—for a non-political filmmaker, how could he consider such a topic innocuously nonpolitical? I said you are crazy to be even thinking about embarking on this. The West…at least the Western media, likely have little room for your confusions and your efforts to sort them out. They have their minds set already.

The only way I could see your film finding an audience, I suggested, is to focus on the main character’s confusion.

“That’s easy,” he said, “I’m still confused as hell.”

Then he added, “but don’t they, the West, understand the severity of the problem? China is rising, and agitated, and ready to explode on being slighted. I’m not kidding. I talk to my friends, my relatives, and kids still in school I don’t know well. Some of them could seriously go out and hack foreigners in the heat of the moments. The government is having a difficult job holding this huge pool of discordant population together. God knows when… That’s what I want to make—a film about the making of a Chinese suicide bomber attacking foreigners.”

“You are crazy!” I took my turn to exclaim. “You will be arrested by the police the day the film becomes public. Better to show the main character getting addicted to a computer game of suicide bombers in the end.”

He liked my idea. We sipped our tea and shifted the converation to more pleasant topics: the Korean Pentecostal missionaries are converting Beijingers in house churches like wild fire; his business is getting very well; people need religion; people need a reason to believe in something…

We parted promising to get together for dinner and drinks in the near future. And I left feeling optimistic again about everything.

Monday, May 12, 2008

The Aftershock

The tremor hit this afternoon at 2:30pm. The floor began to undulate under my feet. Then people started to yell one by one--"It's an earthquake!"

Few ran. We were working on the 24th floor in an office tower in Hangzhou. Perhaps others were as scared as I was, but there's no time to get down to the ground floor anyway. Despite my nausea from the unsteady floor, I also had the vague confidence that if the first shock did not take down the building, the aftershocks would not kill us either.

The minutes felt VERY long.

It was half an hour later when I really got scared shitless--the news arrived that Chengdu, my hometown, was very close to the epicenter. My parents are in Hong Kong but I still had many relatives and friends there. Calls would not go through. Little update on the Internet on the damage. For a while, there's only my imagination concocting the worst possible scenario.

Alas, who the f*** cares for office politics, stock options, career plan, Olympic torch, the controversies around the Torch Relay, Chinese politics, ethnic tensions in China, or the incomprehensibility of blatant patriotism when all one could think of is the safety, the bare minimum of safety, for one's loves ones?

Finally relatives messaged back that they were safe.

Throughout the rest of the day, friends and colleagues messaged and inquired about my family in Chengdu, from Beijing, Shanghai and as far as the US. Everyone in the office was greatly saddened by the rising death toll in the epicenter. Government is organizing disaster relief. Soldiers and armed police, the proud tools of proletarian dictatorship, are moving in to help.

The news reports were genuine. People's concerns and willingness to help were genuine.

Perhaps we should have mild aftershocks everyday to remind us that everything else is kinda stupid, compared to our own vulnerability and the well-being of our loved ones faced with this vulnerability.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Gay Marriage, China Style (II)

Sunday afternoon I came home and found Jim lying over our living room sofa, his head dropping almost to the floor, his eyes blank.

I guessed right immediately that he’d just had another big fallout with his budding celebrity boyfriend. Once again befitting the temper of a prima donna, the boyfriend destroyed his fancy mobile phone. Only this time he hammered it to pieces, and in a continuing fit of frenzy, he hammed the TV stand to pieces as well.

And once again our friend Jim said, “I think I should get married.”

Jim is from a wealthy traditional Chinese family in the south. He has been a model filial and pious son for his entire life, except for his inability to get married and bear kids for his parents. Everyone wondered why, for he was very handsome, very youthful looking and very wealthy in his own right. Lately, the parents increased their crazed efforts to arrange him blind dates.

“How could you not like the girl? She was pretty and docile and healthy.” I imagined him being interrogated after each failed date. Perhaps like in the movie The Wedding Banquet, the parents would soon find him a date with two doctor’s degrees.

“Marriage would get everyone off my back,” Jim sighed. “They would not let me in peace until I get married. And what’s so bad about marrying a woman anyway? My parents would be happy. My siblings would be happy. My aunts and uncles would be happy. My parents’ neighbors would be happy, cause they always took as their own business to remind my mom that I’m in my late 30s already.” He ground his teeth at the mentioning of the neighbors.

I reminded him again that to get his parents off his back was no good reason to cheat an innocent woman into a fraudulent marriage. The truth would come out sooner or later, and he would be hated by the woman for the rest of his life. Why destroy a woman’s life and become the target of hatred?

“Show me one straight Chinese man who doesn’t fool around in massage parlor or karaoke bar,” Tim demanded (and you’ll show me a happy homosexual?). “The women all knew about their husbands’ escapades. But they don’t talk about it. If I could provide material comfort and security for my wife, would she complain about anything else? I doubt it.”

I pondered for a beat and realized the folly of my Westernized logic—I really don’t know any straight Chinese man who doesn’t fool around (except hopefully my brother-in-law); and the wives all seem perfectly happy knowing perfectly well that their husbands would more than likely fool around in the gazillion massage parlors and karaoke bars in China. But how about your happiness? I insisted. You make your parents happy and then a wife you don’t love happy, yet would you be happy?

“I couldn’t see why I wouldn’t be happier. I’ve been alone almost forty years now. I want a family. I want kids.” Jim sat up straight in the sofa. “Don’t you wonder what you’ve been doing with your time as each year passes by? Just to make more money and watch yourself age? Married people don’t worry about aging, for they see with their own eyes the growing up of their own kids. They may go one day but their kids stay. That gave…some meaning in life.”

I said I don’t quite have that mid-life crisis yet, for I don’t have one-tenth (or one-hundredth) of his wealth and I’d love to be in his shoes (and mansions) so I could go travel around the world and make arts. But I do see his point about the glooming emptiness of life and the exuberance of kids’ laughter dispelling this emptiness of life.

“Perhaps you should get married and have kids,” I said hesitantly. “I do see your point about you not being able to lead a happier life. You can’t get out of the closet. You can’t face the pressure of your parents. You don’t want to hurt anyone. Then perhaps marriage is for you.”

We both went silent. I was wondering if this type of conversation had happened gazillion times in the West in the 50s and 60s, before the gay rights movement. He was surely thinking about his ill-tempered celebrity boyfriend.

“But wait,” I gradually saw the light, “it can’t be that way.” The light was shining brighter. “You can’t be happy that way. Gazillion gay men had tried exactly that strategy in the past, fooling themselves into marriages, into having kids, believing that would solve their problems and make them happy. Don’t trust my rhetoric or logic. But trust statistics—I haven’t read or heard of any happily married gay man. So don’t go down that road. You’ll only find yourself a bigger mess. True happiness can only happen from within. You can only be happy when you find peace within, with yourself and with your sexuality.”

I delivered that breathless speech in what I believe a self-assured and convincing way. I paused for effect. He sat motionlessly, either digesting my words or digesting the image of his boyfriend in a frenzy.

Then immediately I remembered a wealthy married gay man in his 50s who had sent his family to England so he could enjoy himself with his money and the money boys around him. He appeared convincingly happy when I interviewed him for my failed gay marriage doc.

I didn’t tell Jim that.

A day later the problem was solved—the boyfriend apologized and they went back together. The marriage discussion was postponed and the blind dates continued, perhaps until the next hammered mobile phone.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

I heart China

As soon as I got to work this morning, I began receiving invites after invites on MSN messenger to add a "(red heart) China" next to my name on the messenger. Apparently people all over China are doing this today to show solidarity in face of foreign media's recent antagonism against China.

I didn't add the red heart to my name, feeling not particularly patriotic this week.

I read my friend Lisa's blog entry on her road trip in California. That made my heart aching for the Central Valley which I had driven through so many times. Yet when my friend Jeff skyped from San Francisco and asked when I would move back to the US, I said I couldn't yet; even if I could, there's all that jazz in Beijing that I couldn't leave behind.

In the evening I read another friend's blog entry on her husband's appeal being denied. It reminded me of my sister's ordeal two years ago. I noticed the drizzle that had lasted all day and realized that my heart had been damp too.

In the office at 10pm, two of my colleagues noticed my MSN messenger did not have enough red hearts.

"You are not patriotic enough," one girl giggled. Then she began talking with the other girl about how every single friend of theirs was doing the red heart China today, about how the foreigners so misunderstood China. "They think Chinese men still wear queues and Chinese people are very rude. Yet they have no idea how advanced China has progressed."

They nodded at each other in complete agreement.

I wanted to defend the clueless "foreigners" but I quickly remembered there exist too many clueless foreigners just like that. Moreover, I didn't want to get into one more argument about patriotism and the reason of my lack thereof.

I msn'ed with my sister before I left office at 11pm. She said I read the friend's blog too. She said I would have gone crazy if I were in her shoes. That hopelessness. That lawlessness. That rottenness beneath the surface.

I jumped into one of the cabs waiting outside the office building; cabs had better business at this hour for everyone working late pass 9pm could get their cab fare reimbursed by the company. The driver had a heavy Sichuanese accent. I asked if he was from Sichuan. He said yeah, are you? I said yes.

His Sichuanese accent was different from mine--though only a true Sichuanese would be able to tell that--still it made me feel close. I asked why he had travelled so far to drive a cab in Hangzhou. He said he'd been working in Hangzhou for 10 years as a migrant worker before cabbing. He said life now was much easier except for his messed up sleep schedule due to his night cab shift.

When I handed him my 10 yuan cab fare, he inquired with big smiles piled on his endearing wrinkled face: "Do you need a receipt of bigger sum for reimbursement?"

That made my heart warm--only a true compatriot would offer that chance to fleece the company! Living in China, I realized once again, gave me chances everyday to enjoy that closeness of my people, to tell the subtle differences in us being Chines--accents and all--and to love my people because we share the same blood despite the illusions of shiny gaming exterior and the jingoism much contrary to my taste.

I Heart China.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Shame

China jails rights activist outspoken on Tibet
By Chris Buckley
Guardian - UK

BEIJING, April 3 (Reuters) - A Buddhist Chinese dissident outspoken on Tibet and other sensitive topics was jailed for three-and-a-half years on Thursday, a conviction likely to become a focus of international rights campaigns ahead of the Beijing Olympics.

Hu Jia, 34, was found guilty of "inciting subversion of state power" for criticising the ruling Communist Party, a verdict at which the United States expressed dismay.
"In this Olympic year, we urge China to seize the opportunity to put its best face forward and take steps to improve its record on human rights and religious freedom," the U.S. Embassy said in a statement.

The official Xinhua news agency said Hu had made a "confession of crime and acceptance of punishment", leading the court to issue a relatively light sentence. Hu's two lawyers said he had acknowledged "excesses".

"In the end, I think that he came to accept that some of his statements were contrary to the law as it stands," said defence lawyer Li Jinsong.

"So to some extent he accepted the prosecution's allegations."

Hu has 10 days starting on Friday to decide whether to appeal, but Li said he was unlikely to do so. Hu could apply for medical release to treat a bad liver and other illnesses, the lawyer added.

The "inciting subversion" charge can attract a jail term of five years or longer, and before the hearing lawyer Li Fangping said a long sentence was likely. After the hearing he said he was unaware of any deal in return for the sentence.

Another Chinese dissident, Yang Chunlin, who called for human rights to take precedence over the Olympic Games, was sentenced to five years in jail in late March for the same crime.

Foreign reporters and diplomats were excluded from Hu's hearing but Xinhua gave details of the offences.

The court heard that from August 2006 to October 2007, Hu published articles on overseas-run Web sites, made comments in interviews with foreign media and "repeatedly instigated other people to subvert the state's political power and socialist system", Xinhua said.

In two Web site articles, one on law enforcement ahead of last year's Communisty Party Congress, and one entitled "One Country Doesn't Need Two Systems", Hu spread "malicious rumours and committed libel", Xinhua quoted the verdict as saying.
Dozens of well-wishers gathered outside the court to express support for Hu and rowdily air their own grievances.

"Hu Jia is a hero to us because he stood up to speak out, so we should also speak out," said one of them, Li Hai.

International human rights groups were quick to condemn the verdict.

"This verdict is a slap in the face for Hu Jia and a warning to any other activists in China who dare to raise human rights concerns publicly," said Mark Allison of Amnesty International.

"It also betrays promises made by Chinese officials that human rights would improve in the run-up to the Olympics."

WIFE UNDER HOUSE ARREST

Starting with advocacy for rural AIDS sufferers, Hu emerged as one of the nation's most vocal advocates of democratic rights, religious freedom and self-determination for Tibet, recently shaken by protests and a security crackdown.

"Hu spread malicious rumours, and committed libel in an attempt to subvert the state's political power and socialist system," the court said, according to Xinhua.
His conviction is likely to become a focus for critics of the Communist Party's strict controls on dissent and protest ahead of the Olympics in August.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice raised Hu's case when in Beijing in February, and the European Union and other Western governments have also pressed China on the matter.

Hu's relatively rapid trial suggested authorities wanted to get it out of the way well before the Games, said Joshua Rosenzweig of the Duihua Foundation, a San Francisco-based group that works to free Chinese political prisoners.

"I think a lot of people hoped that, given the damage that China's international image has suffered over the past few weeks, ... Hu would have been treated with more leniency," Rosenzweig said.

Hu was detained by police in late December after spending more than 200 days under house arrest in a Beijing apartment complex.

"I don't think that three-and-a-half years is actually all that light," said Rosenzweig. "Especially when you add in the two years of what amounts to illegal house arrest."

Hu's wife, Zeng Jinyan, who has also often criticised the Chinese government, and their infant daughter remain under house arrest and their telephone is cut off.
Zeng attended the hearing, emerging with her baby from the courthouse visibly upset before being whisked away in a police vehicle.
(Additional reporting by John Ruwitch in Hong Kong; Editing by Nick Macfie and Jerry Norton)

Friday, March 28, 2008

Paranoia

One day after I cursed the idiotic Olympics-induced paranoid that triggered the flight restriction to Beijing, I seethed again with anger at the security checkpoint at the Shanghai Hongqiao airport. I had traveled by train from Hangzhou to Shanghai in order to catch a flight back to Beijing, for ever. Now the guards were taking forever examining my toilettery bag, opening and sniffing at everything, the toothpast tube, the tiny cologne bottle, the hair gel jar, and even my dental floss pack.

"You have to check in this jar because it's over the size limit," I was told by this particularly fastidious female guard who held my hair gel jar with outstretched arms as if it was radioactive.

After they wrote down the details of that jar in a record book, I was escorted to the exit leading back to the check-in area. It felt like 911 all over again.

At the check-in counter, while the pretty attendant attached the baggage tag to my duffle bag, I asked in exasperation what had caused this...carefulness. The upcoming Olympics? The unrest in Tibet?

"Earlier this month some terrorists brought a bottle of gasoline onto a flight from Xinjiang to blow up the plane," The attendant smiled at me sweetly. "Ever since then it became really strict."

"Were they Ughigur?"

"Of course."

With the Ughigur terrorists and the Tibetan riot, the government's paranoid doesn't seem so idiotic after all.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The Tibetans


I'm so swamped with work in Hangzhou that I've been almost oblivious to the heated media war between China and the West over the reporting of the recent riot in Lhasa. Only through reading my friends' blogs did I realize that it's actually a BIG deal out there. (Of the few I read, Rebecca's post here I found most close to how I feel.)

Honestly though, I don't understand what the big deal is--don't we know already that media, Chinese or Western, tend to write stories to fit their editorial bias? That the Western media tend to find some particular "Chinese" angles in their reporting? And that our beloved country tends to gloss over, intentionally or unintentionally, the historical wrongs done to ethnic minorities?

My first memory of meeting Tibetans was during a train ride at the beginning of the 1990s. I was in college then and they were highschool students coming home to Sichuan from Beijing. They were chatty sunny-looking kids who genuinely appreciated the chance attending better schools in the big Han cities--there's an entire program of that sponsored by the government. They said that they did not want to go back to their hometowns after schooling. They were eager, like most other people in China, for big-city life ("cultural genocide" was obviously not in their consciousness).

My second encounter with anyone Tibetan was in the mid 1990s in Boston. I was hanging out at Harvard Square. My Chinese friends were excitedly waving little Chinese national flags, waiting for the then-President Jiang Zemin to show up visiting Harvard. Exile Tibetans and Taiwanese were staging protests. Someone pushed a flag into my hand. I wandered by a protest stage. A couple of young Tibetans jumped at me. They yelled--Stupid Chinese, Don't You Ever Show That Stupid Flag of Yours at My Face! I yelled back--This Is America!

For many years after I could not forgive the Tibetans. Perhaps because of that close encounter. Or perhaps because I had an ex who's a Tibetan Buddhist Scholar absolutely loving everything Tibetan. I considered that too--as Lisa Simpson once famously said-- alternative in a mainstream sort of way.

Anyway, after my ex's constant brainwash over a few years, I stopped arguing that there's no ethnic bias towards the Tibetans because Chinese suffered harsh fate as well in the Cultural Revolution. I stopped getting into a fit each time my ex criticized China over Tibetan issues even though I was still pissed.

In the Spring 2004, I ran back to China. In Gansu I visited Xiahe, a big Tibetan town. I met a great Tibetan guy there who took me to visit his wife and his new-born baby girl in the hospital, and then his uncle who's a lama at the Labrang Monastery. They made me sweet Tibetan cakes in the lama's residence.

For a few years afterwards I cherished that sweet memory of Tibetan cakes in Labrang. Like all new-agey Chinese, I woo'ed and ahh'ed at everything spiritually Tibetan.

Then in the Spring of 2006, I met this young armed police guard of Mongolian ethnicity who came from Tianshui, another big Tibetan autonomous region in the Gansu province. He told me rough stories of growing up in that rough outpost region where the only high school in town was divided into two halves--Han and Tibetan. He studied with the Han Chinese who were constantly bullied and robbed by the knife-carrying Tibetan students.

The two sides constantly fought in school yards and in dorm rooms. One night during a particular nasty fight, the biggest Tibetan bully stabbed a broken beer bottle into the waist of a Han friend of the Mongolian kid. The Han kid spent months in the hospital. His friends, including my young Mongolian guard, sought revenge and ambushed the Tibetan bully one night. They beat the shit of him, and then they ran out of town.

The Mongolian guard said that before then, he had excelled in school and he had a beautiful sweetheart in the same class. That incident changed his life--he labored at an airport in Lanzhou before being dragged home by his uncle. The family sent him to the armed police to get him out of trouble. There went his dream of attending university with his beautiful sweetheart.

He told me that his raison-d'etre was to go back and to kill that Tibetan bully one day. His life had been completely ruined in that fateful night, by a swift thrust of a beer bottle held in the hands of a Tibetan. At my repeated requests not to kill, he would reply that he had his Mongolian pride to keep.

The moral of my drawn-out story? That people are stupid and we are all messed up.

So once again, I don't understand how the media and the media consumers can get so worked up over something--the Tibetan-Han relationship--that defies the line between black and white. I find myself again blaming both sides, which ends up feeling like hopelessly defending both sides.

It's complex. So... Am I being too indecisive?

Then at 5pm this afternoon, we got a mass email from the company HR: "Due to the upcoming Olympics, CAAC has decreased the number of flights to Beijing in order to cut down on traffic to the Capital. Please book your flight 4-5 days in advance if you need to travel to Beijing for business."

Ok, here's something so idiotic that there's no defending for it--at least not in my rush to feel decisively opinionated at something.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

What if?

A friend of a friend who's a well-known British TV journalist and presenter has been commissioned by this foreign broadcaster to make two long and five short documentaries. He asked if my film partner and I would like to make one of the ten-minute short. We jumped at the opportunity.

We proposed to follow three university seniors of different social and economic background for a day and see how their class background affects their lifestyle and outlook of the future. It is simple, risk-free (both my partner and I hold Chinese passports), and easy to execute, compared to the TV journlist's ambitious plans to examine China's present cultural landscape, evolution of political structure, rise of Christianity, growing citizen unrest, and many other hot-button issues in his other six documentaries.

So we thought.

Three weeks later, the TV journalist has come back with more than half of his filming done. He has interviewed Christian pastors, citizen groups protesting to protect their rights, cold miners in Shanxi, and dissidents from all over. Local dissidents helped organized their interviews and his crew were dully followed and harrassed by the police. Going forward, he has lined up many big names in the Beijing social and cultural scenes for yet more interviews.

In the meantime, our little pre-production has generated only one and half candidates. The cooperative lower-middle-class kid is an intern at a friend's company. The poor farmer girl from Qinghai is seeking big-city experience before she graduates. But the girl's sister, who lives in Beijing with her cab-driver husband, repeatedly asked how she could trust us. She said God knows what you'll do with the footage, and what the heck is XXXXXX (the name of the broadcaster). She refused to let us film her apartment where the Qinghai girl stays.

Even more difficult is to find a rich kid graduating from college. Our facebook friends are either rich but too young, or solidly middle class. The only bona fide rich kid introduced to us by a friend is only a junior and has scary government connection.

So we settled on a upper-middle class kid introduced by a friend of a friend at an international consulting firm. The kid was extremely considerate and cooperative at first. When he realized that we are doing the documentary for a broadcaster and not for the consulting firm, he very carefully expressed his many concerns which basically summed up to a "no."

That left my partner and me desperate and flabbergasted. How is it possible that the TV journalist could access so many dissidents yet it seems impossible for us to find a straightforward rich kid who enjoys touting his/her wealth?

We had a long lunch with the upper-middle class kid. He said in his generation few care to discuss and comment on contemporary political issues. Most are focused on improving their lives, and they are careful not to leave any mark that could come back and bite them in the future.

"I know you two are nice," he said. "But how could I be sure that there won't be any risk associated with the footage. What if the broadcaster does something with it? What if it gets on the Internet? What if someone uses it against me? You never know right?"

It dawned on us then that unless one could “benefit” somehow from talking to the media--either to voice their grievances or to broadcast their views--few in China are willing to share their minds publicly. The endless What-ifs. There’s our political reality and also thousands of years of mandarin culture in which one verbal slip could send the entire family to the gallows during a political turmoil.

What if… What if we all realize the depressing inhumanity of worrying too much about too many what ifs?

Monday, February 25, 2008

Prison Break

The management invited a senior executive from an international market research firm to talk about Internet usage in China. The executive told many interesting anecdotes after his formal presentation. He said when I first came back to China in 2004 from years studying and working in the US, my firm had big ambition to make it in this vast market. Then in January 2005 Zhao Ziyang died. His firm’s automatic measurement tool recorded a huge spike in online BBS discussions on the former party leader. How could the automatic tool have automatically recorded and reported the politically sensitive data? The authorities demanded to know. He and his team apologized, removed the data and promised not to make the same mistake again.

Then a few months later, in April 2005, Pope John Paul II passed away. Once again the tool recorded a huge spike in BBS discussions on the former Pope. How could I have known there were many Christians in China? The executive grinned. He and his team had to apologize again to the authorities, removed the data and promised to do the right thing next time.

Unfortunately for them, neither they nor their automatic tool knew what data should be deleted before public consumption. The third strike came after the BBS went abuzz in late 2005—this time over public protests against Japan and Japanese businesses in China. After this last apology and data removal, they merged with a government-controlled media entity.

Finally they became politically correct—their Chinese partner is surely kept up to date with the inside insight regarding what data to show and not to show. The only concession they had to make—besides giving up 51% ownership—is that the Chinese partner has the right to remove undesirable data, though it promised not to tamper with the accuracy of the remaining data.

I felt the same chill listening to his anecdotes as watching the vicious Secret Service agents chasing and killing innocent people in the first season of Prison Break. Governments are all alike in their preference for conspiracies. When they manipulate the data and hide the facts, how could we know what is real? How could we conclude about our peers, our society and what ought to be done to our surroundings? If we think few cared for Zhao Ziyang or the Pope in China, we could end up brushing them aside as irrelevant historical vestige, even if we had cared for them ourselves in the first place.

As I pondered, the executive continued. Very soon we’ll publish a report on the present Internet usage in China, he said. You know why the government is nervous? Because the data showed that more people are reading BBS and blogs and watching peer-uploaded video than those visiting more traditional portal sites. The authorities can censor the portals easily, but how could they monitor every BBS and blog post and remove the unsavory ones in time? (So there is hope?)

But of course this time we had to delete some data again, he chuckled. We could not show that the most consumed content online is porn.

I was incensed—how could the government take away my right to know that my peer Internet users care for porn more than politics! All governments want to keep people in the dark, if possible. But at least in American TV series, there are beautiful lawyers and prisonbreakers attempting to keep the government at bay.

We ought to have our own version of that show in China.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Holidays and Lies

Holiday time is the time for lies. Everyone wishes each other lots of money in the new year (despite the fact that the average salary raise for Beijing’s IT industry is only 10% and that is to accommodate the recent high inflation) and every dream coming true (when do they ever?). Since the zodiac sign for 2008 is rat, a synonym of the verb “count” in Chinese, half of the group-sent sms greeting messages that I’ve received include the phrase “count (rat) your money until your hands grew weak in the new year!”

Yeah right!

For me, on top of all that, I had to make up a story to innocent friends and relatives that I could not join my family in Hong Kong this time because I could not get my paperwork in place (how could I, a well-organized operations person, have missed his paperwork!). My grandpa yelled over the phone: “What do you mean you are not in Hong Kong? Why don’t you come back to Chengdu then? Next time you have to bring your girlfriend back. No, I don’t want a girlfriend anymore. I want your spouse. Yes, spouse. Girlfriends can disappear the next day, but a spouse will keep you company for a long time. Yes, you have to bring a spouse back next time, before I go visit Buddha.”

Ok ok grandpa, a spouse from me to you next time.

Still, when the fireworks lit up in the sky, all I saw was this beautiful crassness of tradition—a showoff to see which family’s firework shoots up the highest and the noisiest, a trigger of children’s shrill laughter, and the picture frame to preserve many fond memories.

Holidays, despite their wastefulness, are worth the lies.

video

Sunday, February 03, 2008

The Day After Tomorrow

A rare snowstorm has hit Southern China and paralyzed the train system, leaving millions of passengers going home for Chinese New year stranded. Air travel has been affected less. Still, it took us three trips to the airport and two days' waiting before we got our boarding pass.

The airport is a mess--people sleeping on the floor, crowds pushing and shouting "We want to go home!", armed police in green uniform standing expressionlessly, and hoards after hoards of special police commando units in black uniform arriving at the scene to keep order. The communication system has totally broken down. No one knew which flight is coming and when. Passengers have to search counter by counter to find the agents issuing boarding passes for a particular flight. Agents refuse to admit if any flight has been cancelled depsite being shouted at. Last night, the jam-packed KFC ran out of food at midnight, and some say that there were 20-30k passengers stranded at the airport. Many commented that real life has finally caught up with Hollywood's imagination in the blockbuster The Day After Tomorrow.



Surprisingly, the chaos has conducted itself rather orderly. People pushed and shouted in unision only in short bursts. A few were arrested for disorderly behavior. A rather timid-looking armed police guard said: "Can't blame them. They've been waiting for a flight for over 30 hours now."

Perhaps a harmononious society is possible after all.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Misnomer



The Chinese blogosphere (at least on Sina's blogs) has not been completely silent on Hu Jia's arrest. One thanked Sina for having not deleted his post immediately. Another two (here and here) somehow passed through the censor.

Of course there are those representing the government's view cheering (here and here).

Hu Jia was living in an apartment complex called Bobo Freedom City. What an apt misnomer.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Zara


Even after almost four years back in China now, I was still often branded "American" by my colleagues. When I showed physical impatience at four-hour-long weekly meetings, argueded with my boss about some of his not-so-wise decisions, or asked questions about details of some business that people at my level are supposed to know and not to inquire even if don't know, I would be told--"Only Americans would do that." (Good Chinese, I came to understand, are supposed to follow orders and when frustrated, shrug their shoulders and sigh, "Mei you ban fa, there's nothing we can do about it.")

It has begun to annoy me. I really enjoyed my job, much more so than back in the Silicon Valley. Learning about my colleagues' way of life is fun. Helping them grow professionally is fun. Even more fun is to feel being part of something that I don't have to try but just naturally understand. Yet despite all that, I was still recognized as the odd one out.

(I wanted to tell them that my impatience and tendency to argue were from my incredibly difficult and very very Chinese mother. Then unfortunately I found myself at a loss to come up with something clever in Chinese to deliver that.)

Anyway, there's this very cool young colleague of mine who always dresses in trendy Korean clothes. She belongs to the post-80s generation, which to my peers born in the 70s, often meant self-centered, pleasure seeking and reckless at their lives' responsibilities (what are they again?). Slightly disappointing to me, however, she has all the wild rings and bracelets and looks all rebellious, but at work she speaks low and walks quiet.

So one day we were talking about fashion. She said she was switching from Korean to Japanese (what's the difference?). I asked her to pick out the best dressers in the department (me! me! me!). She mentioned her boss, a guy in his early 30s who carries Louis Vitton bag and wears Prada. She said he is a... metrosexual. (Brand queen?)

How about this other good-looking trendy manager in the department?

He? He dresses like a homosexual, with his tight colored T over tight long T, she giggled. (Gasp! The guy is married with a new born baby!)

Oh well, I had to volunteer myself. "How about me? What's my style?" I asked.

"You?" She scanned me from top to bottom. "You try everything. Most often you just look... how should I say it...American."

That's so not true! I protested. I shopped mostly at Zara nowadays to save time and keep my style consistent. How could she mistake a distinct European style for American?

But she only shrugged. "It's American to me," she said.

Oh well, perhaps being American isn't so bad if it allows me to be Chinese and forgiven at the same time for being different--loud, argumentative, and fashionably sloppy.