Monthly Archives: October 2007

More Pollution

I realize this is such a redunant theme.  In every other entry I seem to talk about pollution!  But the reason I talk about it to such excess is that it literally clouds so much of our experience of China.  It is very much a part of our daily lives.  Day in, day out and it gets really wearing.  Munchkin and I have both developed allergies and asthma in response to the pollution.  When I look around me, I imagine my situation multiplied by millions of people, literally, and wonder about the huge public health consequences that will be impacting this society as a result of it. 
 
I have been trying really hard to excercise every day, but last week the pollution got so bad I decided that I just couldn’t go outside in it, particularly not for anything aerobic.  We’ve been staying inside and encouraging Munchkin to play indoors, as well.  Today there was a wecome, drizzly rain which seems to have washed much of the pollution out of the air — into the watershed of course — but it didn’t come soon enough.  Munchkin and I have been using inhalers for the last week, taking antihistamines or decongestants and expectorant medications for congestion.  But she developed severe congestion and a tight, rattly cough.  I took her to the doctor.  The diagnosis: an allergy induced sinus infection.  She’s on antibiotics, we’re both on inhalers etc, with instructions to take daily peak flow meter readings.  So, the saga continues . . .

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The wheels on the bus

27 October 2007

In my last entry about my Beijing trip, I wrote about getting off the train and taking a bus across town to the bus stop closest to our hotel and then walking to the hotel.  By the time everyone had freshened up, it was time to go to dinner.  Our Beijing hostess and her husband were treating our group to Beijing Hotpot at a restaurant near their home.  I definitely will write about the hotpot, but first . . . how did we get there?!!  The bus of course!  So we returned to the bus stop and took the appropriate bus to the stop closest to the restaurant.  Riding the bus was a major part of my week with my Chinese friends.  I think it merits an entry in and of itself. 

 
                                                                                      
 
The buses in Beijing cost 1 RMB, unless the bus has a number over 100.  Buses with the numbers over 100 travel longer distances and the fare is adjusted according to distance traveled.  Thus, for those buses you swipe your mass transit card twice, once when entering and once when leaving.  The fare for the maximum distance seems to be about 3.5 RMB.  Compare this to a taxi fare of, say, 60 RMB to get from one side of the city to another, and it’s obvious why most ordinary people rely on public transportation. 
 
In Guangzhou, passengers enter buses at the front and exit from the rear.  Beijing is different.  Passengers enter through both front and rear doors.  Each bus has not only a driver, but an additional employee who rides in the back.  This person takes money and issues receipts for tickets, monitoring as people enter to see who uses their transit card to pay and who has not, as well as keeps order on the bus.  People seem very honest about paying.  They swipe their cards or else seek out the monitor to pay and get a receipt from her.  And when people didn’t pay, well, the bystanders around them made sure the monitor knew it! 
 
In general, people actually seemed fairly friendly and conversational on the bus, sometimes striking up conversations with each other or helping each other.  There is a massive TV campaign in Beijing right now to encourage this sort of friendliness.  The TV ads show people needing various kinds of assistance — a man whose trolley is too heavy for him to push, a woman who drops her bag, an elderly person who needs help crossing the street — and then show a scene of some kind person coming to their aid.  The person who is helped gushes with gratitude and the person who rendered the aid feels so good about their good deed that they are smiling and obviously happy as they resume their business.  The commercials sport an Olympics logo at the end.  As if to say, "Remember, we’re getting ready for the Olympics, be sure to help strangers and make them have a nice experience."  Exactly. 
 
But mass transportation in Beijing seems to me to be nowhere ready for the Olympics.  The City of Atlanta used the Olympics as an excuse to extend MARTA (mass transit) to then outer-limits of the city.  Beijing would be wise to improve greatly its public transportation infrastructure!  It seems to me that this particular infrastructure is already taxed to the limit.  Indeed, this is one place where the distinction between the "haves" and the "have nots" in China comes to light.  Just as in Guangzhou, buses (overcrowded past the point of believing) ride in special bus lanes and carry millions of commuters each day.  In other lanes, private cars and taxis ride past with one or two, fortunate people in them. 
 
In Guangzhou, with car and driver provided by my husband’s company, I am often one of those fortunate ones in the private car.  I do take the bus, almost daily.  But I also have the luxury of choosing when and where.  I am able to opt out of public transportation whenever it seems too inconvenient or crowded.  Millions of others don’t have that choice, and now I was one of them. 
 
On one day, it took us about three and a half hours to get to the Great Wall at Ba Da Ling using public transportation.  We rode about two hours on two connecting city buses to the long distance bus terminal, and then took a coach to Ba Da Ling.  One member of our party wanted to go to Si Ma Tai, the spot where I had been before, but there was no public transportation available to that location.  No wonder, then, that the the Great Wall at Badaling was so crowded while there were so few people at Simatai.   As I stood in the aisle and held on to the too-high handrail during the majority of the portion of the bus ride inside the city, the bus lanes were crowded with buses filled to the brim.  While the car traffic lanes were also crowded, they were moving much faster than the bus lanes.  I thought of the writings of theologians Stanley Hauerwas and Willimon in their book The Truth About God:  The Ten Commandments in Christian Life.  Hauerwas, fundamentally, argues that any action we take in society to segregate ourselves from those less fortunate contributes to social injustice.  By removing ourselves to suburbs, for example, we make it easier to classify other people as "other," as being different from ourselves, their problems irrelevant to our own, and therefore outside our realm of responsibility.  If I don’t have to experience personally the problems of the inner city, then why should I do anything about it?  Hauerwas thinks that if we refused to allow ourselves to succumb to the temptation to remove ourselves from the problem, then we would be more keenly aware of social injustice and demand that it be fixed. 
 
I observed a similar phenomenon happen at my children’s elementary school!  The school children’s lunch was awful, but the teacher’s line had delicious, well prepared and healthy food on it as well as a nice salad bar.  When I asked about getting a better, more healthy menu, the teachers and school administration brushed me off, saying the children wouldn’t eat healthy food.  I know my own children would have preferred to eat off the teacher’s line any day, but they weren’t allowed to!  I thought that if teachers were required to eat the same menu as the children, then with all their collective intelligence the administration, teachers, and cafeteria staff would have found a way to make the food not only healthier but also more tasty and palatable!  Similarly, I think that if big bosses and leaders had to ride public transportation, there not only would be a lot less traffic congestion but that mass transit would be a lot better. Beijing is no exception.  But hey, look at it this way.  Mass transit in any Chinese city is a long sight better than any public transportation I’ve ever experienced in the USA.  And that’s coming from someone who has made an effort to try in the U.S., without much success. 
 
In Beijing, unlike Guangzhou, the lines to wait for the buses are very orderly.  Each Beijing bus stop has a special bus policeman in an orange uniform, who enforces the rule of standing in line for the bus.  Each bus has a designated spot to stop at.  When the bus policeman sees the bus approaching, she or he uses an orange flag to signal to the bus driver the location of the line for that bus.  The number is also painted on the sidewalk.  So, for example, if a particular bus stop has ten buses that stop there, each bus number will have its own designated spot.  This is in sharp (and favorable) contrast to Guangzhou, where ten buses can all be lined up at once and it can even be impossible to read the numbers of the buses, and one can never be completely assured of the spot where one’s bus will stop. 
 
Although loading was orderly, there were times during Beijing rush hour when the buses would become so packed with people that it seemed to me that it would be impossible to fit any more people on the bus.  The bus monitor inside the bus would shout, "move on back! move on back!" (in Chinese of course), and she would enforce that by pointing to certain people and telling them to move back even if they were reluctant to give up their little spot.  I particularly noticed this one time when a very petite woman couldn’t reach the upper handrail (about six feet high) that hung from the bus ceiling.  Because of her short stature, she could only grab onto a vertical pole or onto one of the handgrips that is on the back of every seat.  The bus monitor made her move back to a spot where there was no pole or seat grip, forcing her to stand among the crowd of people without benefit of anything she could hold onto to brace herself.  Since I was much taller, I swapped places with the woman so she could have a grip, since I could use the high grip. 
 
Another time, during the week, I took photos of what I "thought" was a crowded bus.  I thought to myself, "this bus must have 200 people on it!"  I started to try and count the people, but I counted ten people just standing beside the bus driver and on the entrance step, not counting where the seats started.  I gave up, deciding it would be impossible for me to count accurately when people were so jammed in, and also not wanting to spend the mental energy to form an accurate estimate.  Perhaps there were already 300 people on the bus!  To my amazement, more and more people kept getting on the bus.  After it was so crowded I thought no more would fit, there may have been another 50 people added.  We were all squeezed in like sardines jammed in a can!  My friends and I all took great care to make sure we all fit on the same bus.  If we couldn’t all get on the bus, we would wait for the next bus.  Only one time, half of us got on one bus and half got on the next.  We used cell phones to keep in communication and make sure everyone got off at the correct stop. 
 
I learned some of the tricks to navigating on a bus when it’s this crowded.  The first challenge is to get on the bus in the first place.  If you can get both feet on the platform to enter the bus, you will fit in the bus somehow.  Remember the days of jumping on the twirling merry go round on the elementary school play yard?  It’s something like that.  You grab hold with your arms to keep from falling off and shove up onto the bus step.  One time when it was so crowded I was having trouble getting up to that place, a guy behind me seemed to say in perfect English, "just shove on in!" but I wasn’t quite sure if that’s truly what he said.  (That’s because during the entire week of riding the bus in Beijing, I only saw one other foreigner on a public bus in Beijing.  While this may have been a function of the areas of the city I was riding in, or the generally crowded conditions of the buses, I’ll just say that I was not expecting to hear anything spoken in English, and he said nothing else in English!)  In the end, as people moved on into the bus, making room with the help of the bus monitor, I got on the bus and so did the guy behind me!  But nobody else fit.   
 
Once inside the bus, the next trick is, indeed, to move on back.  Because that’s where the seats are.  As people leave, those seats open up.  If one stands in just the right place, she can be the first to grab a seat as it is vacated!  I found myself looking people over and trying to size up if they seemed to be a long distance or short distance rider.  Once, I asked someone.  Over time, it’s simply a matter of statistical probability.  The longer the ride, the more likely it is that one can snag a seat.  I also saw many instances of people giving up their seats for elderly, infirm, or parents traveling with small children.  If an elderly person gets on a bus and really wants a seat, all he has to do is find some able bodied young person, look at them and nod, and the young person will give up their seat for them. 
 
My Chinese traveling companions were very solicitous to do all they could to ensure my comfort on the bus.  When one of them would snag a seat, she would call me over to it.  I tried not to take advantage of this generosity too much, after all they were tired too!  I got fairly good at getting seats for myself in the grand shuffle.  I got especially good, for a beginner, at figuring out which seats might come vacant soon and stationing myself at the ready to jump in the seat when it was vacated!  As I got better at this during the week, I occasionally was able to offer one of my friends a seat in the same way that they had offered me one.  When the bus was crowded, it could feel particularly claustrophobic as one approached the stop where one must exit.  It was a wise move to begin moving through the mass of bodies toward the exit well ahead of the actual stopping place, and people would make way for exiting passengers as best they could. 
 
My public transportation for the entire week, including my trip out to the BaDaLing section of the Great Wall, cost 60 RMB.  This is in contrast to the transportation splurge of a taxi ride when I took my heavy suitcase and two shopping bags from my hotel to the train station on my last day in Beijing.  That one taxi ride cost 45 RMB. 
 
A last note is that the bus stop names are not written even in Pinyin.  In order to know what bus connects where, one must have a knowledge of the Chinese characters for that bus stop, or one must have language skill to be able to ask a bystander in Chinese which bus to take.  Moreover, it’s still a tad bit shocking to me, but one must also be aware that sometimes ordinary Chinese are only aware of what they need to be aware of in their surroundings.  By this I mean, that an ordinary person may be unaware of what is just beyond them on the next block, if that person has no reason to ever walk by that city block. 
 
Case in point.  On my last day, I went to Tian Tan (Temple of Heaven) by myself.  I knew what bus numbers to take and what bus stops I needed, and I had these written for me in Chinese characters.  My bus departed from Tian Tan Dong (Temple of Heaven East), but when I exited from the east gate of Tian Tan I didn’t know exactly where the bus stop was.  Should I turn right out of the gate, or left?  I asked some public workers who were cleaning the street where it was, and they didn’t know, so they summoned a security guard.  He thought perhaps I should turn left.  But at about that time, I spotted a bus stop just a bit further down to the right, so I went to see if I could find my bus number there.  I didn’t see my bus number anywhere in the signs on the stop, and I didn’t see the bus policeman in her uniform, so I asked some men who were waiting for a bus, showing them my paper with the bus number and name of the stop.  They said they thought the bus stop I needed was on the north side of the park.  As I headed that way, I was stopped by one woman who had overheard my conversation.  She showed me the spot, at that very same bus stop, where I was supposed to stand.  I was, indeed, at Tian Tan Dong.  Somehow, six other Chinese people in that same location had failed to notice that bus #36 stopped there or failed to know the name of that bus stop.  It turned out that my bus did go around the north side of the park.  As we drove by the north side of the park, and I saw where the men had been directing me,  I was grateful that the woman had stopped me and spared me from what would have been a veeeery long walk! 
 
Then, when we arrived at my correct bus stop where I knew I needed to disembark, I had a momentary hesitation about whether it was, indeed the correct stop.  I had memorized the characters for Guang Ming Da Zhao, but these characters seemed different.  By the time I got up my courage to ask the girl standing next to me, the bus was moving again already.  In response to my question, she replied, "Zhaole!"  (We passed it!)  Fortunately the next step was only about a block and a half past where I had needed to get off.  Not too much of a walk, but I didn’t tell any of my Chinese friends about that small mistake!  They were all very proud of me that I was able to navigate so well by myself, and I didn’t want to burst my own bubble!   
 
So in summary, while public transportation in Beijing is cost effective and relatively efficient (good bus connections are available to go everywhere), I don’t actually recommend it for the unitiated or faint of heart!

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“That is none of your concern”

26 October 2007

One evening during my trip to Beijing, one of my Chinese friends told me she thought my country should pull out of Iraq, immediately.  I replied that most Americans feel the same way.  We hope to get out of Iraq as soon as possible.  But, I added, it’s complicated because there is an emerging civil war there.  I replied that if we pulled out immediately there would likely be a bloodbath among the opposing factions. 

 
Her response was simply to look at me and say, "That is none of your concern." 
 
I must confess, it has never occurred to me that I ought to have no concern about a bloodbath.  The thought was rather shocking to me.  So shocking, in fact, that it has taken me a few weeks, figuratively speaking, for me to pick myself up off the ground and collect myself enough to think in terms of any coherent response. 
 
I’ve written before about the fact that I think one thing which makes my culture different from others is the inculcation of the Parable of the Good Samaritan into our value system.  The Good Samaritan is a parable intended to answer the question, "Who is my neighbor?"  The Good Samaritan plainly showed that he, not only a stranger but even someone with reason to shun the injured man, was in fact the true neighbor.  I believe the Parable of the Good Samaritan has profoundly influenced my culture in its viewpoint in this respect.  In my culture, what happens to another person IS my concern.  My concern does extend to strangers. 
 
Narrative ethicists, theologians, psychologists, and cultural anthropologist all speak in a babel tower of different languages to explain the moral compulsions we feel concerning those other than ourselves.  One of the greatest challenges in moral epistemology, in the area of philosophical ethics aimed at discovering a universal foundation for truth, is to navigate the stormy and murky waters where there is a clash between cultural viewpoints where it comes to this very issue:  what duty is owed to a stranger.  In particular, philosophical ethics has yet to answer satisfactorily the argument that no one culture is superior to another.  If one culture thinks it’s fine to use babies for bayonette practice during wartime, who am I to assert my own repugnance as being a morally superior view, or to impose my own very different viewpoint on that culture?  For the bottom line when cultures clash is:, by what set of common rules shal we govern behavior?  What rules can we agree on in spite of our cultural differences? 
 
In respect to the basic rules and assumptions of engagement, my friend’s comment points to a profound ideological and cultural difference between my cultural viewpoint and hers:  How far does and should compassion extend?  And, to carry her argument just one step further, I ask:  "If the cares of any stranger are truly none of my concern, then why would I ever render aid to anyone unless it were a matter of personal self interest?"   
 
All my life, I have never questioned the fundamental view that bloodbaths are bad.  The great moral epistemologists of the 20th Century devoted their best efforts to ensuring that there would never be a defensible philosophical basis for a repeat of the Holocaust.  On the other hand, what if this concern for Other does, indeed, arise solely from a Judeo-Christian moral view?  If that is so, is it not, actually, an insane imposition of my Christian viewpoint to impose my singular ethical viewpoint onto another religion that considers my religion and ethical standards to be infidel?  Would it perhaps, therefore, be preferable to let those people wash it all out in a bloodbath based on their own ethical values, rather than imposing mine?  If some other culture doesn’t value life so highly, perhaps I ought not be so concerned about their lives and, instead, devote my energies to focusing more on my own?  Further, does my definition of "neighbor" include not only a friend or loved one, but someone who considers me to be an enemy and would kill me for no reason other than my nationality or religion, if they had the slightest opportunity? 
 
I’d really like some comments on this one! Surely someone has some thoughts about it? 
 
And as a follow up, I’ll repeat three short stories a friend sent me in an email.  It doesn’t really matter if the stories are true, all that really matters is that a lot of Americans would see these vignettes as summing up a lot about how we feel about our history and values: 
 
 
When in England at a fairly large conference, Colin Powell was  asked by the Archbishop Of Canterbury if our plans for Iraq were just an example of "empire building" by George Bush.

He answered by saying, "Over the years, the United States has sent many of its fine young men and women into great peril to fight for freedom beyond our borders. The only amount of land we have ever asked for in return is enough to bury those that did not return."

It became very quiet in the room.

                                                        **************

Then there was a conference in France where a number of  international engineers were taking part, including French and American.  During a break one of the French engineers came back into  the room saying "Have you heard the latest dumb stunt Bush has  done? He has sent an aircraft carrier to Indonesia to help the tsunami victims.   What does he intend to do, bomb them?"

A Boeing engineer stood up and replied quietly:  "Our carriers have three hospitals on board that can treat several hundred people; they are nuclear powered and can supply emergency electrical power to shore facilities; they have three cafeterias with the capacity to feed 3,000 people three meals a day, they can produce several  thousand gallons of fresh water from sea water each day, and they  carry half a dozen helicopters for use in transporting victims and injured to and from their flight deck..  We have eleven such ships;  How many does France have?"

Once again, dead silence.

*****************

A U.S. Navy Admiral was attending a naval conference that included admirals from the U.S., English, Canadian, Australian and French navies.   At a cocktail reception, he found himself standing with a   large group of Officers that included personnel from most of those countries.   Everyone was chatting away in English as they sipped their drinks, but a French Admiral suddenly complained that,  ‘whereas Europeans learn many languages, Americans learn only  English.’  He then asked, ‘Why is it that we always have to speak  English in these conferences rather than speaking French?’

Without hesitating, the American Admiral replied ‘Maybe its because   the Brits, Canadians, Aussies and Americans arranged it so you wouldn’t have to speak German.’

You could have heard a pin drop!

 
 

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My first day in Beijing

We arrived in Beijing at about 3:00 PM after a 22 hour train ride from Guangzhou.  I traveled with a wonderful group of ladies who were classmates together in high school.  I won’t go into details, but I have had the fortune to be friends with them and to have been invited to travel with them, Chinese style, to see Beijing.  I hoped that by traveling and living the same as my Chinese friends, seeing the things they were interested in seeing and doing the things they did, I would somehow see Beijing, and Chinese culture, through Chinese eyes; to experience Beijing and this small slice of China from the perspective of a national rather than as a "weiguoren" (foreigner). 
 
Our train was met by another of the ladies’ classmates who has lived in Beijing for 20 years.  She met us on the train platform of the Beijing West station.  She had prepaid for a mass transit card for each of us.  She directed us to Bus 52, and we used our mass transit card to embark on the bus ride to our hotel.  The first bus numbered 52 was standing room only, so we waited for the next one to pull up.  We stood at the front of the line and formed a physical barrier so that we would be sure to get seats.  Once or twice, members of my party instructed people trying to cut into the front of the line to please wait in line, and the offending person would move to the back. 
 
When the bus came, there was a mad rush of bodies to get onto it.  I had made the unfortunate mistake of packing a suitcase that was not convenient for riding buses.  That’s another story.  Each time I travel, I learn a bit more about the benefits, and techniques, of traveling light.  To add to my difficulty getting on the bus, however, one of my friends in front of me dropped an item out of her bag and didn’t notice it.  I used one hand to pick up that item, but this left me one hand short when it came to lifting my heavy bag.  I caused some "traffic jam" and people behind me did some yelling, but one of my buddies helped me shove my bag on board and we did all manage to obtain seats at the back of the bus.  Those of us with normal size suitcases had to pay double fare, one for each of us and one for our bag. 
 
Our hotel was in the Southeast side of Beijing, so our bus went straight through Beijing, right by Tiananmen Square, the center of the capital city.  The scale of the plaza is impressive by any standard.  We were arriving during the week of the People’s Party Congress, and it seemed to me that the city was noticeably spruced up with beautiful displays of potted flowers and immaculately manicured landscaping everywhere.  Yet, as I mentioned in my earlier BLOG entry, my overwhelming sensation was simply that nothing could be beautiful when it was blanketed with so much smog.  No matter how beautifully a birthday cake might be decorated, it wouldn’t be very appetizing if it were covered in soot and ashes, and that was how I felt about my first impression of Beijing.  My throat was burning, my eyes were watering, and my chest felt somewhat painful.  I had developed a cough.  I found myself wondering if I would have to cut my trip short and go home.  These were my impressions and feelings as we rode about 45 minutes to our bus stop. 
 
We disembarked the bus at a stop which I later learned was called Guang Ming Da Zhao.  This was a very important name for me to learn, so I also memorized the Chinese Characters for it.  That way, if I were to be lost in the city I could find my way back to a familiar landmark.  As it turned out, this was an excellent location for using the city bus system.  It was at the intersection of two large roads and, because of this, many convenient and fast buses stopped at Guang Ming Da Zhao.  When we got off the bus, we were on the south side of the four lane road.  Our hotel was on a small street which ran away from the north side of the street.  There was a fence in the median, to prevent people from crossing by foot across the heavy traffic.  Therefore, we wheeled our suitcases the distance of about a city block to a place where we could cross, then wheeled them back up to the small street to get to the hotel.  Once on the small street, we walked about another city block to an alley where we turned into the parking lot of the hotel.  Altogether, this might have been about 200 meters. 
 
Once in the lobby, we checked in to our hotel.  China is a cash economy.  My roommate and I paid an 800 RMB deposit, 400 RMB apiece, for our room which cost 140 RMB per night for a private ensuite room with heat, AC, 24 hour hot water, telephone, and two single beds.  A special treat, our hotel also had an elevator to take us to our fourth floor room.  (On our last trip, this spring which had been arranged by a travel agency, none of the hotels we stayed in had an elevator.)  At the end of the week, I only had to pay an additional 20 RMB for the cost of the room.  The window screen in our room was broken, so my roommate asked if we could have a different room.  The reply was that there were no other rooms available.  At first, I didn’t believe this response, but over the next few days it became apparent that the hotel was, indeed, pretty full.  It seemed to mostly host Chinese businessmen and only one or two foreigners.  The only foreigners I saw all week in the vicinity of this location were a German couple and an Indian family.  As no English whatsoever was spoken, it was not a place a foreigner could have located or navigated around easily.  My cell phone also has a Hong Kong (British) type plug, and I had forgotten my converter which enables it to plug into a Chinese wall socket.  The hotel didn’t have one, but they allowed me to leave it at the desk to recharge overnight at a plug in their office. 
 
I assumed the hotel wouldn’t have internet, but I did see some of the businessmen using internet in their rooms.  My roommate inquired, and the businessmen said that of course, the hotel had internet.  We went downstairs to ask for wires to plug in the internet in my room.  I don’t have language skill to do this.  My roomate, who did the asking on my behalf, was told that only a few rooms were wired for internet.  She asked to switch to one of those rooms, but the answer was the same, that all those rooms were already booked.  It was no big deal, because during the week I located the internet cafe which I wrote about a few days ago.  I’ve decided that in this type of travel, it’s a waste for me to bring along my laptop.  I have to worry about it getting stolen, and it has limited use.  I didn’t even power it up during the week, and next time I think I’ll leave home without it. 
 
Though train travel isn’t as taxing as air travel, I felt just a bit tired from the travel across town.  I also wanted to shower, brush my teeth, and freshen up.  So we all took showers.  Then we set out again on the bus, a different bus, to our dinner.  We were treated to a wonderful Beijing Hot Pot dinner by our Beijing hostess and her husband.  I will write about that later. 

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Responsibility

The doctor’s statement came as such as shock that I almost gasped.  Did I hear him correctly?  I was in a neurosurgeon’s office for a third opinion on whether to have surgery to repair a ruptured disc in my neck.  His recommended plan of treatment, and the reason for it, was so completely unexpected that I almost gasped with shock. 
 
I was desperate for a cure for the pain in my neck.  To cope with the pain, I was having to take narcotic pain killers.  Even with narcotics, there were days when I was in so much pain I couldn’t sit up to work at a desk.  On days when I did work, I would be in so much pain afterwards that I couldn’t carry on a conversation with my children when I picked them up from daycare. 
 
It all started when I worked very long hours to complete an appellate brief in a highly contested death penalty case.  I had one week, or maybe ten days, to write a brief which defended the death penalty handed down by a jury to a retarded man after he shot two sisters to death in the parking lot of a Wal Mart store.  During the ten days or so that I worked on that case, I basically worked all day and long hours into the night, including on the weekends, going home basically long enough to eat and sleep.  The transcript of the trial was roughly 3,500 pages long, and there were roughly sixteen, separate issues which needed to be briefed on appeal.  The final copy of my appellate brief ended up being 88 pages long after I had parsed and whittled my arguments into as brief a form as I could possibly make them. 
 
"Ah, relief," I thought, as I submitted my final, bound copies to the state supreme court.  My neck was sore and stiff from working such long hours at my computer desk.  I could hardly turn my head from side to side.  I told my boss I was taking a few days off, and I went home for a much needed rest.  After one day, my neck was no better.  After three days, it was still no better.  I went to an orthopedic doctor.  To my utter shock, he said, "you have a ruptured disc in your neck."  Then he said, "It took a long time to get this way, and it’s going to take a long time to get better."  He sent me to physical therapy where I was given exercises to stretch and strenghten the muscles in my shoulders and neck. 
 
But after months of therapy, I was still in terrible pain.  I had recovered some range of motion in my neck, but the pain was ever present.  That’s when my daughter’s pediatric neurologist agreed to treat me, even though he normally only sees children.  He was the first doctor who felt my pain was worth treating and prescribed pain killers, explaining to me the "pain muscle spasm cycle:"  pain causes muscle spasm, muscle spasm causes pain, and it creates a vicious cycle.  This was the first real breakthrough in my treatment.  But moreoever, he sent me to a neurosurgeon to be evaluated for surgery.  The first neurosurgeon told me I needed surgery, but a second neurosurgeon disagreed.  This third neurosurgeon was, thus, to cast the deciding vote.  So, we are talking a long history, a lot of doctors, and a desperate patient.  The ramifications rippled all through my life, including my ability to work or be a contributing member of my family. 
 
"You don’t need surgery," said this new neurosurgeon.  "Further," he continued, "It’s something you’re doing that is causing this.  It’s a continuing injury.  The body’s natural tendency is to heal itself.  If this weren’t an ongoing injury, you would be better by now.  It’s probably something that you’re doing every day, and you’re the only one who can figure out what it is." 
 
Then, he said the most shocking thing of all:  "No doctor cares enough about you to sort out what is causing this problem with your neck!  You’re going to evaluate everything you’re doing in your life and figure it out on your own!" 
 
"What?!" I thought, utterly taken aback.  "My doctors didn’t care about me?!  A doctor couldn’t figure it out?  A doctor couldn’t fix it?  Did this doctor not care?"  This guy was very brusque.  He wasn’t smiling; he didn’t have a kind demeanor.  Then he elaborated. 
 
"It’s probaby something you’re doing for several hours per day.  You should examine every aspect of how you are using your body every day:  how your desk is set up at work, how your car seat is adjusted, how you are sleeping at night, what your pillow is like.  But the bottom line is, only you can make yourself better.  You’re going to have to figure it out and then do whatever it takes to change it.  It will probably involve a whole change of lifestyle." 
 
I left his office in a state of shock and disbelief.  This man had told me that my doctors didn’t care about me.  He had told me that surgery wouldn’t fix my problem.  He had told me that I was, in fact, on my own to solve the mystery of what was causing this terrible disability and pain.  I thought he was a very callous person, to make light of my obvious suffering. 
 
After the intial shock wore off, however, I realized he was right.  In the end, I’ve come to consider his advice to be the most valuable medical advice I’ve ever received.  His insight did, in fact, point me to the realization of the truth:  the habits that had caused a ruptured disc in my neck were, indeed, continuing habits, related to things I was doing every day.  I researched and learned about ergonomics, particularly proper posture and proper setup of a computer desk. 
 
Because in my job as an appellate lawyer, I was spending hours daily hunched over books in a library or crouched in front of a poorly fitting computer desk:  keyboard, monitor, and chair all at improper heights, with improper arm or back support as well.  Even the angle of my car seat in my car needed to be changed. 
 
And here’s the other fact:  No doctor cares as much about me as I care about myself!  It is only me, and my immediate family, who feel the consequences of health or poor health in a profound way.  Unless the doctor is my friend or relative (and there are some for whom I’ve very grateful), he’s not going to be personally affected if his diagnosis is wrong or if I don’t get better.  So, his investment in me is limited.  "Ten minutes, here’s a prescripton, and that will be ninety dollars, thanks."  This is okay for something simple like strep throat, but when the causes are complex and harder to tease out, it becomes more problematic. 
 
The bottom line is, in fact, that each of us must — absolutely must — take responsibility for our own health.  When we have health issues, it is only through being proactive and self assertive that we will gain insight, knowledge, and appropriate treatment.  If we are lucky enough to have caring, involved doctors who help us with this process, so much the better, but the bottom line is that it is an individual responsiblity.  Health is something we must take personal interest in and responsibility for, it is not a responsibility that can be shifted on to someone else. 
 
Over time, with research and self analysis, I learned about and addressed each of these daily issues, and gradually my symptoms did improve.  Unfortunately, I couldn’t undo the damage that had already been done, but by taking responsibility for and addressing all the things I could do on my own, I did more for myself than any doctor could have done for me. 
 
He was right.  I didn’t need surgery, I needed to change my life.  And nobody could tell me how to do that other than myself.  Thanks, doc.  I remain grateful for those shocking words of advice. 

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Creativity

You’ve really just gotta look!  The walking drink machine.  Maybe it’s befitting that this was published just ten days before Halloween.  I still remember the guy in my law school class, who is now a very dignified corporate lawyer, who came to a law school Halloween party disguised as a toilet.  Mabye she should be marketing these to a different audience! 
 
Slideshow: 
 
Related article, including cultural difference between how individual Japanese and Americans respond to crime threats: 
 
Fearing Crime, Japanese Wear the Hiding Place
By MARTIN FACKLER
Published: October 20, 2007
Japanese fashion designers are devising a variety of novel solutions that they hope will ease growing fears of crime.

 

 

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The Internet Cafe

In Beijing my $20 per night hotel didn’t have internet, so I used an internet cafe to check email.  I’ve heard about the internet gaming that goes on in China, but I was amazed at what I saw.  I walked up three flights of stairs to a quiet room that had a bank of 125 computers.  It was dark and quiet.  The outside windows were open, which gave some relief from the smoke from a few young guys chain smoking. 
 
                                                                                                                                 
 
At almost every computer there was some young person engaged in basically what looked to me like a complete waste of time — ranging from Mario Cart to war games to chatting with a boyfriend on skype.  (Okay maybe chatting with the boyfriend on skype had some redeeming value since it involved interaction with a real human being.) 
 
I paid 3 RMB per hour for use of the computer, which comes to what, about 50 cents per hour, roughly speaking. 
 
I tried to update my blog, but it wouldn’t let me.  I could sign into my blog, but I couldn’t type anything into it.  I think it was blocked, but perhaps I was wrong since all of the headings were in Chinese.  I wonder why it’s in English when I’m on my own computer but in Chinese when I sign in on a Chinese computer?  I guess I’m just a technology idiot not to know the answer to that question. 
 
Speaking of the general subject of internet and blogging, articles from Washington Post are frequently blocked, period.  I wonder why those are monitored so closely whereas other sites with the exact same news stories are not blocked.  Interesting.  It’s like when Saybay wanted to apply to a certain college and couldn’t access their web site.  Apparently some professor there had said something that offended someone.  It was a slight problem because this particular college required an online application!  We figured out how to get around it eventually, but it wasn’t totally effortless.  Joy. 
 
The funny thing is that speech does, in fact, shape society, as does a culture of gaming, in the same way that any particular mental activity or pattern shapes the mind and the thoughts.  The leadership of this culture is adept at media manipulation and shaping of the common mind and mindset.  I couldn’t help but think, however, in the climate of Beijing preparing for the Olympics, how fine the line is that must be walked in that arena.  On the one hand there is a mindset that foreigners are bad and bring bad influence or have done bad things to us in the past, or that bring in bad ideas.   On the other hand, there is the notion that we must be nice to the foreigners and treat them in such a way that they will feel welcome and as if we want them here.  I think it’s similar to a carrot and stick.  But I’m convinced it’s all about money and power.  Once it transfers, which it indeed is in process of doing, the world balance will shift.  This is Atlas’s shrug!  And what a shift it will be, because the ethics that dominate this society are completely different from those that govern those currently in vogue.  More on that another date. 

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Smog

I recently took an overnight train ride from Guangzhou to Beijing.  I want to write about many things, and I shall, but first things first, and that is my train ride. 

I took an overnight express train.  It left about 5:30 PM and arrived about 3:30 the next day.  It was a very comfortable, air conditioned express train, making only one stop along the way.  The train passes through several provinces on its way north; I believe the distance is roughly equivalent to traveling from Miami to New York. 
 
They say that the window of a train is a great way to view a country.  I’m not sure, because a train doesn’t go exploring or track into destinations off the beaten path.  But as I watched the countryside pass by from the window of the train, my first and overwhelming sensation was of the horrific smog.  It was simply overwhelming.  I’m amazed that the Chinese don’t have a word for this.  They simply say the air is bad or that it is foggy outside, making no distinction between polluted air and air that is simply heavy with dew.  In this sense, their language doesn’t do justice to the harshness of the truth.  It’s really, really bad! 
 
When we left Guangzhou, the air was relatively clear.  The air here has been more clean than I’ve seen it in a long time.  (It’s always cleaner in the summer, due partly to rain that washes the pollution out of the air and into the watershed, and partly due to less heating demand and hence less burning of coal fired plants.)  As we headed north, the air in the northern part of Guangdong Province also seemed relatively clear.  It’s always a bit hazy, but the air was good for this part of China. 
 
Overnight, the situation changed.  Sometime during the night, I was awakened by a chemical smell, perhaps faintly reminiscent of burning tires.  Then, from the time of first sunlight, I was struck by the dense fog.  Not a chemical plant was in sight, no belching smokestacks could be seen from the train window.  Farmers were out in their fields, plowing.  People were walking and otherwise going about their business in the small, rural, agricultural villages that we passed.  It looked a bit heavy, but at first I thought it was perhaps just morning fog.  Unfortunately, as the sun rose, the fog remained, and it never cleared. 
 
In fact, the smog became worse and worse, even while the train was still several hours outside of Beijing.  The air was so smoggy, I wondered how the farmers could work outside in it.  Inside the train, I began coughing and developed a sore throat. 
 
I remember thinking that the last time I saw anything so cloudy, it was the water in my fish tank on the night just before everything in the tank died.  This was one of my first efforts at fish tanks, and I didn’t understand the nitrogen cycle.  On day 1, the tank was beautiful with plants and fish, all nicely set up.  Five days later, the water was a bit cloudy.  The next day a lot more cloudy, but I didn’t realize the seriousness of it.  When I woke up the next morning, every fish in the tank had died.  The aquarium store then explained to me the nitrogen cycle.  As material in the water decomposes, it creates more and more waste.  Once the process begins, more things die and create more waste, which further compromises the health of the tank.  The fish can tolerate a degree of environmental toxicity (some fish tolerate more than others), but at some point the balance tips.  At some point, the fish tank can no longer support normal life.  As I rode the train, I couldn’t help but wonder, "When will the balance tip for the earth?" 
 
We were so far away from any obvious industrial activity.  In fact, I never saw a single industrial complex, admitting that I slept much of the journey.  But I wondered, does this type of air pollution waft all across China?  I vividly remember the dense pollution during my train ride in the corridor between Suzhou and Shanghai, but that would be expected since there is a massive amount of industry there.  I remember the constant haze of pollution in the world heritage geological site of Wulingyuan, but that could be explained by the proximity of Changsha, another industrial area.  The air in Foshan also never fails to burn my throat and eyes, but that is a center of ceramic activity, and one can see dark smoke pouring out of small buildings everywhere in that town.  But, the extent of the pollution I saw from the train was astounding to me, because it was obviously not a local phenomenon.  The pollution so thick you could almost swim in it, and it seemed to extend all the way through rural Hubei Province, Henan Province, Shandong Province, and Hebei Province. 
 
With my limited experience, I have no idea what the extent of the problem may be, what are it’s causes?  I can only see it and imagine questions like, "What are the public health effects?  What sunlight filters through this smog to the plants?  What does this mean for global warming?  How bad will it get before someone changes things?"  Another thought that passed through my mind was to wonder if Europe and the USA got like this before emissions controls standards were implemented.  How bad did it get in the USA before action was taken?  What spurred that action, what political will was motivated to create the Clean Air Act?  Industry will always complain that emissions controlls are impossibly expensive.  But if human cost and quality of life is taken into account, what is the balance, what is the true cost and who is bearing that cost?  Is it not fair to ask industry, and those who use the industrial products, to bear the cost rather than the farmer trying to tend to corn in his field? 
 
When we arrived in Beijing, the pollution was even worse.  One could not have seen the sun for most of the journey, and certainly not in Beijing.  My overwhelming impression upon arriving in Beijing, therefore, was not good.  I simply could not enjoy this city that is being so obviously spruced up and beautified in preparation for the Olympics.  I couldn’t think about anything but the pollution, as I was coughing, my throat was hurting, my nose was burning, and my eyes were watering.  I wondered if I would be able to continue on the trip. 
 
Then, something quite unexpected occurred.  In the western sky, on the evening of our first day, I saw cirrus clouds and a sunset!  Unbelievably, the air was clear in one corner of the sky, though only in that one corner.  It was somewhat shocking in itself, to see the air so smoggy all over except for one spot.  The next day, the air was much more clear, and each day through the week I was in Beijing, it was increasingly better.  By yesterday, the day I left, it was simply a beautiful day, crisp fall air and a brilliant sunshine, blue skies, with highs in the ’70’s during the day (21 C) and lows in the 50’s at night (9 C).  My friends assured me that Fall was, indeed, the very best season to visit Beijing. 
 
Returning to Guangzhou on the overnight train last night and this morning, it was already dark when I left.  I didn’t see if the pollution had cleared in the  Provinces near to Beijing.  By the time we reached Hunan and Guangdong Province this morning, the air seemed fine again. 
 
Pollution is not just a challenge facing Beijing as it prepares for the Olympics.  It’s a challenge that is going to demand the best efforts of China to avert a public and environmental health crisis.  There is a saying I once heard, "If you can’t breathe, nothing else matters."  It’s much the same with water.  Both are essential, and both are highly threatened in the China of my limited experience. 

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Republican sensibilities

Op-Ed Columnist
Conservatives Are Such Jokers
By PAUL KRUGMAN
Published: October 5, 2007

Krugman writes:  "If you’re poor, if you don’t have health insurance, if you’re sick — well, today’s conservatives don’t think it’s a serious issue. In fact, they think it’s funny."  
 
I think that this commentary, for me, this hits the nail on the head.  If you don’t believe me, read the article for specific examples of the jokes, both new and old:   
 
Maybe this lack of empathy is also the reason my personality was not appreciated when I worked as a prosecutor for the state attorney general.  When I expressed qualms about prosecuting a homeless woman who was being held in jail for the crime of child neglect — after she gave birth in a cheap weekly rent motel room (that had no telephone) — I was labeled as a pansy.   Or maybe the pansy label was in response to the time I expressed qualms about my role in arguing on appeal that the courts uphold the murder conviction of a man who was not only paranoid schizophrenic, but where there was no question at all about it.  He was so delusional that just hours after he killed his grandparents, he tried to call them on the telephone. The state’s own two, expert psychiatric witnesses testified he unequivocally met the McNaughten standard for insanity.  Just not tough enough, I guess.  I argued the cases and won them both.  That’s my duty as an advocate.  It’s the duty of my opponent not to let me run him over like a bulldozer (he failed).  But was justice done?  I don’t think so. 
 
Is America a nation where Justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a rolling stream, as depicted in Isaiah? 
 
I don’t think so.  Anyone who thinks it is, is delusional.  For blatant hypocrisy when it comes to social justice, just drive a few miles from your house and look at the houses in less affluent neighborhoods.  Or, look as far as the air conditioning unit emitting greenhouse gases, the incandescent bulbs in the light fixture, or the gas guzzler in the driveway.  Of course we can all do more.  I don’t claim to be immune from the hypocrite label, myself.  After all, it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.  But please, spare me.  If you’re around me, don’t make a fool of yourself by belittling those who have few choices in how they live.  I won’t think it’s funny. 

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