The schedule for Tuesday July 2nd included a visit to Public School 159 in Beijing, in the heart of Beijing’s financial district, the Chinese version of Wall Street.
PS 159 is a magnet school of sorts. It attracts the best students in the region. In China, senior high school is not town-based. Rather, where you attend has to do with the zhongkao (“jong-cow”) exams taken after 9th grade.
China has a rigorous exam system designed to sift for the best, most promising, hardest-working students and push them forward. Scoring too low on the zhongkao will usually bar you from admission to an academic high school and instead push you toward a trade school, or a lower score can push you straight into the servile class.
The students at PS 159 are some of the best that Beijing, the capital of China, has to offer. It regularly competes with another school for the #1 ranking in the region.
This is nothing compared to the college entrance exams, called the gaokao (“gow-cow”). The gaoako’s are brutal. One exam which can determine the rest of your life. They’re so important that for blocks around the schools construction is stopped. “Random noise“, like honking, is prohibited.
Stories proliferate of students hooked up to IV’s of animo acids while cramming, or a one student who wasn’t told of her father’s death for 2 months, so as not to distract her from studies.
Consisting of sections of math, science, English and Chinese, the gaokao lasts nine hours over two days. Perhaps the most dreaded section is an 800-character essay that is supposed to test a student’s writing and thinking ability.
The essay questions range from the literary to the philosophical or even downright cryptic. On Chinese social media today, students from different provinces compared their prompts.
In Beijing, students were asked what Thomas Edison would think of mobile phones if he were alive today. – Salon
The roots of the gaokao are the Imperial exams of Confucius, that were supposed to level the playing field for rural students. Critics charge that the exams, which count for so much, are heavily weighted against rural students.
Nevermind that the odds are heavily against those students, since a quota system based on residency means it is much easier for applicants in cities like Beijing and Shanghai to get into universities there, which are generally considered the best in China. Peking University, among the most prestigious, does not release admission rates, but Mr. Zhong said on his television program that a student from Anhui Province had a one in 7,826 chance of getting into Peking University, while a student from Beijing had one in 190 odds, or 0.5 percent. (Harvard had a 5.9 percent acceptance rate this year.)
We’re greeted by the principal (the Chinese equivalent of a superintendent in America) and given a tour of his school. It’s 6 stories, with an elevator.
Following the tour and the tea, we were offered the chance to eat lunch in the cafeteria with the faculty and some of the students. Putting myself in their shoes, I understand the reaction, but the faculty were looking at us like we were strange apparitions. We ended up eating by ourselves, the predominant reason presumably being the language barrier.
After lunch came the part I’d been waiting for. I had an hour with a group of high school students. These students volunteered to give up some class time to meet with an interesting American teacher. Since they couldn’t find one, I did met with them. This group had all been to Wilkes University earlier in the year as part of an exchange program designed to help them make up their mind about pursuing studying in America. The trip began in California with students staying with host families for a week, then heading east.
Their English was very, very good.
I had been warned that Chinese students can be shy, and they were. So we did some warm-up exercises, including syncopated hand claps to loosen everyone up. I began by asking them what they wanted to know from me and 20 heads all simultaneously looked at the floor.
I turned the tables, going student to student, asking them what they liked the most about being in America. And this was the spot that cemented something I’d intuited: there’s not much difference between us besides language. The answers were typically
American teen. Many of them liked seeing the Wilkes-FDU basketball game. Lots them liked Disney. Many still kept in touch with their host families.
A running joke started when one boy said he liked his host family. I asked “why?”. He responded: “good looking daughter”. So anyone who mentioned the host family automatically got asked ‘cute boy?’ or ‘cute girl?’.
The NBA is huge in China, primarily I’d guess due to Yao Ming’s time with the Houston Rockets. Whenever we encountered Chinese with limited English, we’d get asked where we were from. Answering America to a young man almost always got the response of “LeBron James!”. LeBron might be our most popular ambassador to China.
The kids were awesome. They wanted to know about life in America. Many of them were concerned about security, given the recent bombings in Boston and the constant crime news that’s part of our media culture. Part of what I told them was that the America seen on the news is not the America they’ll experience. Sure, there are bad people in every country and every culture. But most Americans are the same as most Chinese: kind, hospitable, and generally happy to share their country and their culture.
Then they got to see The Video. In the first week of June, as the China schedule firmed up, I went around to a bunch of the juniors and taught them a greeting in Chinese that translated to “PS159, Pennsylvania welcomes you”.
The PS 159 visit was set up by a woman who is in business helping Chinese families set up American educational experiences – either senior year in high school or college. She wanted to take us out to dinner on what was our second-to-last night in China.
We suggested something casual. ‘Casual’ to me meant ‘let’s go to a restaurant and order off a menu’, which was something we didn’t do in China with the exception of the ‘Italian’ restaurant in the hotel or KFC.
Casual to her meant renting an ornate private room at the Grand Hyatt and hosting another roundtable dinner. Our 5th.
It’s not that these dinners aren’t impressive, but I’ve learned a lesson. What we assume is something wonderful about our nation’s culinary culture might be weird, or awful, to someone else. The lesson is: ask ahead. Don’t assume they’ll like it just because you do.
Our hostess ordered for everyone off the menu, as is the norm. We were told that all of the side dishes came with the main dish; supporting acts, if you will. Not speaking Chinese, we didn’t know what the main dish was, which wasn’t a problem because we didn’t know what most of the dishes were.
At this point in the trip – and if this sounds ungrateful, I apologize, it’s not meant to be – the food adventures were getting old. I wanted predictable. This dinner was not predictable – it was dish after dish of “I hope I can find a slice of pizza later”.
And then this arrived. It’s a “sea cucumber” served on a bed of tofu.
But it’s not a vegetable.
Note to consider: of the Americans on the trip, I’m the pickiest eater. However, I think I was a real trooper in China. I tried things that I never would have thought I’d put in my mouth.
This was a step too far.
I looked at Melanie, who’d flipped hers over to find the bottom was what I would kindly refer to as “hollowed out”. Also called eviscerated. Mike was cutting his apart and pushing it around. And Kerry just looked at me with a halting ‘uh-uh’.
It was some sort of sea-dwelling slug, and a line had been crossed.
Chicken cooked and served with the head still on, looking back at you? OK, if that’s how it’s done here. Peel and eat shrimp with the head and antennae still on? Sure, if that’s the custom. Random bits of unidentifiable stuff at the bottom of my soup bowl. Sure, I’ll just sip the broth and roll with it. Duck tongue? Eh, OK. My wife will eat it. But this? Nuh-uh.
What we didn’t know until our hostess suddenly jumped up and announced she was going to get her car was that this was the main course. As we gathered our things, the waitstaff began boxing up the
slugs cucumbers. These were going home with our hostess because they were about $175 EACH. U.S.
Right. I’m sure we came off as ungrateful barbarians. Not every cultural bridge can be crossed at once
Moving on, we went to the Laoshe Teahouse for a variety performance. Each act was between 3 and 10 minutes with an MC introducing each. As it was all in Chinese, I didn’t understand a word of it. But as much of it was acted, I didn’t need language for a lot of it.
After a musical performance worthy of Yoko Ono (the verdict on good or bad is up to the listener), a big dude came out and balanced flower pots on his head. And tossed them. With his head. And caught them. With his head. And spun them. With his head. Dude was awesome.
There were a couple of comedians doing slapstick, a mock fight…
Then there was the amazing Chinese Sichuan opera face-changing. Two dancers wearing layers of masks. They change them by (apparently) snapping their heads fast enough that you can perceive the change, but cannot catch how it happened. Freaky and very, very cool.
In 1994, former President George H.W. Bush visited Laoshe Teahouse, an event commemorated by a statue of him greeting the Teahouse founder.
This is China.
Four miles. Mile 1, straight up a mountain. The next half mile is a run-downhill-then-go-straight-back-up run with a 40 pound sandbag on your back. The next two and a half miles are a run down the mountain with obstacles like firepits, rope climbs, and mudholes. In 94 degree heat at 70% humidity.
He finished in 1:33, in top 10% of his age group, with no knowledge of the course or format beforehand. Cross country people I talked to were thrilled with two-and-a-half hours.
He is the toughest guy I know.
He’s my brother.
I’m incredibly proud of him.
This is a real sign.
Points to ponder:
– This is truly a lovely tribute to a man (?)(I hope it’s a man) who gave his time as a community volunteer
– if my friends ever used my nickname in a public memorial (not that I have one)(as far as you know), I’d return and haunt them.
– Not that I’d ever (hopefully) have a nickname like Lumpy. Though I’m sure it was meant lovingly. Most likely.
– I like to picture Lumpy out there, takin’ ‘er easy for all of us.
– As if Lumpy would take ‘er any other way.
[The whole series of blogs can be read here]
Monday the 30th was mostly a travel day – another bullet train, this one from Zhengzhou to our new home base in Beijing. So this seems a good a place as any to add in some miscellaneous thoughts that don’t fit elsewhere.
Let me preface this whole series with this thought: I’m not trying to be ethnocentric. I admire much of what I saw of China. In some cases, I chalk up the things I didn’t like to a difference of opinion and a culture gap. In no way am I a pro-America chest thumper. The main reason for our trip was to try to build, in our own little way, ties between China and the U.S. by introducing our students to each other.
That said, most of the culture shock was instructive. And some of it was really funny.
CONSTRUCTION AND VENEER
China is building. This is not a controversial statement, but until you see it – the sheer amount of it – you cannot appreciate it. America hasn’t seen a building boom like this in over 50 years, and that’s only scaled down to our size. We’ve never done anything like this.
No matter where we went, there it was. Entire neighborhoods, 20 or 30 city blocks square, razed and being replaced with new buildings.
The scale and scope was amazing.
What was equally striking was the short lifespan that much of the construction has. We were in several buildings that were less than 15 years old. The facades were beautiful, the foyers and very public areas were flawless. But when we got into the building, there were massive structural flaws – gaping cracks in the concrete walls that weren’t evidence of settlement as much as wholesale shifting. There were 2 inch gaps in many places. Nothing seemed to be maintained, even to the point of a fresh coat of paint.
Decade-old residential buildings (I asked) were showing rust stains down the sides and evidence of structural defects. The massive residential buildings appeared to be mostly pre-fabricated concrete boxes stacked like so many boxes of saltine crackers. In these huge new residential areas, where 20 or 30 new buildings, each 20-30 floors, were being constructed at the same time, there was little evidence of structural steel girders.
It seemed to be so much facade, much of it for show, with corner-cutting everywhere. Say what you will about American government regulations, but these buildings would not be allowed to be built in the U.S..
In a real way, China seems to be where the United States was during the Gilded Age, past its own industrial revolution and coming into its own as a world power. They’re just trying to do it at an accelerated pace. And in the middle of so much great history, the present seems entirely disposable. There is an urgency to now, no matter the cost or price to be paid. Perhaps remnants of Mao’s Great Leap Forward mindset?
For those too lazy to click and read, a study claims that pollution in northern China cuts 5.5 years off the life of the average Chinese and that “based on their modeling, the researchers estimated that the 500 million residents of northern China in the 1990s collectively lost 2.5 billion years from their lives”.
There was also this: “In January, PM 2.5 measurements [particulates in the air] reached more than 1,000 micrograms per cubic meter in some parts of northeastern China. A daily reading above 300 is considered “hazardous” and the index stops at 500. By comparison, the U.S. has seen readings of 1,000 only in areas downwind of forest fires. The U.S. national air quality standard for daily PM 2.5 exposure is 35, and most areas in the U.S. are easily below that threshold.”
Living in Beijing on a bad day is the equivalent of being downwind of a forest fire. Please remember that the next time a politician recommends doing away with clean air laws.
Unless it has freshly rained to clean the skies (and pour the suspended pollution into the groundwater, which it did when we arrived back in Beijing), the air is a filthy, depressing, disgusting mess.
AMERICAN FAST FOOD; CHOPSTICKS AS DIETARY AIDE; SUPERSIZE WHAT?
China’s cities have lots of American fast food. You’d expect McDonald’s, and you’d be right. I avoided it out of principle.
The bigger surprise was KFC. KFC is huge in China. In the northeast U.S., KFC is an also-ran chain. Not in China. It enjoys prominent status. Urban areas in China are almost as saturated with KFC as the U.S. is with Starbucks.
It’s not quite the same as an American KFC.
Which might not be the worst thing in the world. We had KFC three times when we needed something quick and (fairly) predictable. Which is twice more than I’ve eaten it here in the last 5 years.
China doesn’t supersize. Because I don’t speak Chinese and your average Chinese KFC worker doesn’t speak English, Xiaoqiao, Wilkes University’s China coordinator, did the ordering for us. So when I ordered a chicken sandwich meal, large, I had certain expectations. When Xiao came back with drinks that, to me, looked like a small, I said “oh, they’re out of large cups?”. To which she responded, “those ARE the large cups”.
Sheltered – and way overfed – Americans.
Which leads to a broader (pardon the pun) point: if you saw someone who was obese, you could bet all of your RNB that they were American. Granted, I didn’t get a look at all 1.1 billion Chinese, but I didn’t see one that fit the American definition of fat. I saw a bunch of Americans that did. You don’t realize how obese we are as a nation until you go to the east.
Part of it is that eating in China seems to be slower. For one, you really can’t plow through your food with chopsticks the way you can with a fork the size of dustpan. You have to eat slower and it gives your brain a chance to realize that “hey, I’m full” before you’ve polished off another thousand calories.
China has also instituted a national ‘eat healthy’ campaign, portraying healthier eating as a duty to your country. Kind of like Michelle Obama. Maybe that’s why Sarah Palin thinks she’s a Commie for trying to encourage kids (and her husband) to lay off the junk food.
Chinese folkways say that cold things – water, soda – are bad for you. Even on a 97 degree day. Hot tea or plain hot water is almost always offered as a refreshment upon your arrival. You can’t order a cold water in KFC. If you need it, you get boiled water with ice – though I suspect this has a lot to do with the fact that NO ONE should be drinking tap water in China. We even brushed our teeth with bottled.
Nothing says refreshing when you’re sweating gallons on a hot day like a cup of scalding hot tea.
File this under: things to know when traveling in Asia.
They (largely) don’t use American-style toilets.
This is a (cleaner) example of an Asian toilet. A porcelain hole in the ground.
You also have to bring your own toilet tissue. There is none in there for public use.
There are some American-style toilets. We called them ‘sitters’. Versus the ‘squatter’. You can figure it out. Mostly you’ll find sitters in American hotels (we booked based largely on that criteria) or handicapped stalls. In the cities, they weren’t hard to find. Out in the mountains, at the touristy places (Longmen Grottoes, Shaolin Temple, Terracotta Army, The Great Wall), not so much.
And opening those stall doors was like kicking in the door on a random house. Maybe it’s a pleasant sitch and maybe you just burst into the filthiest restroom in the Port Authority in NYC. You don’t know until you try it. There was a game show in the 1970’s and 80’s called Let’s Make A Deal, starring Monty Hall. Monty would give away cash and prizes, and then give you the opportunity to trade them away for a shot at something bigger behind “Door #3”. Sometimes it was a new car, and sometimes…. it wasn’t. Or, to quote Forrest Gump, “you never know what you’re gonna get”.
At the Shaolin Temple the restrooms were outside-accessible individual stalls, like a strip mall. They all had this sign:
Mike and I initially thought it meant that you could go skiing or tobogganing. But that doesn’t make sens….. ohhhhhhhh….. right. Got it.
As confusing as this was to us, sitters are equally confusing to Chinese who haven’t traveled much. Sitter stalls often have variants on this sign:
I thought it was a joke.
It is not.
At the Beijing airport, just before we boarded our flight home, Mike and I were washing our hands in the men’s room of the VIP lounge. It was a lovely men’s room, and not just as far as men’s rooms go (always fly first class if you can). The stalls were elevated about a foot off the floor. In the mirror, we could see a man’s head over the stall door. It was close to 8 feet of the ground. Doubting it was Yao Ming, we both instantly realized that the right side of the above sign was, in fact, a necessary coaching maneuver. It turns out that there are some horrific injuries suffered by Chinese who try to squat on a sitter. Don’t Google it, just trust me. Do. Not. Stand. On. The. Rim. Of. A. Toilet.
This is China.
[The whole series of blogs can be read here]
Most of the time, the heart of our national’s capital is a monument to monumentalism, the neoclassical ostentatiously trying to pass itself off as the eternal. But for a few years at the end of the 20th century, the architectural stasis was interrupted by something weird and charming: the Washington Monument became a light-up cartoon version of itself.
From 1998 to 2000, the austere obelisk underwent a major renovation, which meant it had to be surrounded by scaffolding. So the architect Michael Graves—then at the peak of his Target-distributed consumer pop-design celebrity—came up with decorative drapery that looked like oversized blockwork. At night, the rig glowed from within, to emphasize the lines of the pretend masonry.
It was fun to look at, in a tacky way, and that electrified tackiness served as a pleasant reminder that erecting a giant pseudo-Egyptian monolith was pretty tacky to begin with. Before it was an icon, Washington Monument was a colossal folly, the result of a botched and contingent process of design and construction. The site is misaligned because the ground was unstable; the top doesn’t even match the bottom. We barely pulled it together.
But then the renovation was over, and the scaffolding came down, and the monument was all skinny and serious again. The silly version was apparently gone forever, a passing fancy.
History had other ideas, though. The 2011 earthquake did enough damage that the monument has gone back under scaffolding for repairs. And to go with the scaffolding, the Park Service revived Graves’ drapery design and lighting scheme. This week, the lights came back on.