Category Archives: Cross Cultural Issues

Pollution in China: More Than Just a Dirty Word

13 November 2008

Today’s New York Times contains a scary satellite photo of brown, smog pollution not only over China, but extending over much of Asia.  It’s not surprising that the article is reporting about a U.N. conclusion that pollution in China is reducing crop production and affecting weather across all of Asia, into Tibet and the Himalayas and into India.  The smog in China is so overwhelming that it’s impossible for anyone to ignore.  I’ve written about this on my blog many times, since it was such an overwhelming part of my experience of living in China that I developed asthma as a result of it. 


U.N. Report Sees New Pollution Threat


Published: November 14, 2008

“Brown clouds” — a noxious cocktail of soot, smog and toxic chemicals — are blotting out the sun in large parts of Asia, a report said.

For Article click HERE


The distinctly Western viewpoint regarding the "smog" problem is to think in simplistic terms, that China is polluting "our" world and that "they" should stop.  But industry, and production, provides money — resources — to feed people and raise their standard of living.  The industry that results in pollution also brings prosperity, in some sense.  Asia (and I do not limit this to China) is in the middle of its own Industrial Revolution, an economic revolution we in the West have already experienced and benefitted from, that is raising the living standards of hundreds of millions of people. 

In the first Industrial Revolution, at the end of the 19th Century, pollution was horrific in much of Europe and America, until "they" (the powers that be) got rich enough to care about cleaning it up.  Why should China be any different?  Isn’t it a double standard to expect something more of the Chinese than the West expected of itself during its own Industrial Revolution? 

The Chinese viewpoint is that it’s more important to feed, clothe, and house people.  They need their industrial revolution to achieve this.  After this first, most important, need is met, then the environment will be the next priority, they say. I had a conversation with a Chinese environmental engineer one time on an airplane.  She told met that as long as people are hungry, they want factories and jobs.  It’s hard for her to get them motivated to put pollution controls on their factories, controls that cost money and reduce profitability by even a small margin. 

The leaders of developing nations of the world almost dare the West to be judgmental on this point.  Their viewpoint is that: "You’ve had your turn.  You polluted.  You used resources.  You continue to use massive amounts of resources in comparison to us.  How dare you judge?  We are only doing what you have been doing for a Century.  Now it’s our turn."*  

After all, Chinese also like the things we Westerners take for granted:  heat in our houses, transportation, electric lights, fuel for cooking.  It’s one thing to visit a village where people live at a subsistence standard of living and to see their traditional lifestyle.  It’s another thing to be born and raised in that village.  While certain aspects of lifestyle and culture should be preserved, I don’t think anyone really would want to also preserve other aspects of that village life:  the one in five infant mortality rate, illiteracy, lack of opportunity for a different life, or a life expectancy less than half that of the developed world. 

Children in Cambodia

Dwelling for an extended
family in Thailand

One of my friends pulled me aside last year for a special talk about this.  She said, "You in the West are so concerned about Human Rights, and you want to judge us by your own standards.  But we in China are still concerned about Human Rights on a more basic level.  We are trying to reach the point of having everyone in our country have adequate food, clothing, and shelter." 

I get her point.  Here in the USA, even poor people are rich by the standards of many in the world.  Do you own a car?  In China, only 4 out of every 100 people own a car.  Do you have heat in your home?  Where I lived in southern China, my family was among the fortunate few to have heat.  Do you own a computer?  Then, by Chinese standards you are quite rich.  Even city dwellers in China, rich by the standards of the countryside peasants, don’t have the same conveniences that Westerners tend to take for granted. 

For example, one day I walked with a Chinese friend through a back alley (a hutong) in Guangzhou.  We came across a group of homes that were scheduled to be demolished to make way for new development.  The occupants had already been relocated and they were vacant, giving me an opportunity to peer inside.  When I did, I was surprised.  Each one had only a single faucet in the kitchen, at the front of the house, and no other plumbing.  I mentioned to my friend that I was very surprised at this, that an entire block of apartments would have to share a single bath house.  My friend walking with me replied, "Well, my house is the same way."  I asked her how many families shared a bathroom.  "Eight," was the reply. 

At the time my other friend talked to me about her view of Human Rights, we were traveling through the countryside of China.  During that same trip, I saw farmers out in very cold weather (just above freezing), plowing their rice fields with water buffalo.  The men walked behind the water buffalo plows barefooted, and I could see why they worked barefoot in the cold, cold water.  For, with every step they took behind the plow, they would sink to their knees in the mud of the rice paddies. 


(This photo was not taken at the same time)

Their houses, behind them, had shutters over the windows, but no glass, meaning that even if they had heat, it would be next to impossible to keep them warm.



(This photo is from a different region of China, but it shows houses that are not built to retain heat, in an area that gets quite cold in the winter.)

These dwellings are better than many.  My daughters’ Habitat for Humanity group twice went to villages where they helped to rebuild homes for villagers whose homes had been washed away in flooding.  Their houses had been made from clay bricks, but the bricks were unfired.  As a result, when the floods came, the bricks just turned back into mud, their houses literally melting away.  Their new homes, made of fired brick, thus represented quite an upgrade.  Even though they also do not have heat, these homes do have windows, and they won’t wash away in the next flood. 

These villagers are very happy with their new Habitat homes.


Inside rural homes, cooking stoves are powered by woodfires made from small twigs.  In small towns, industrial goods that we take for granted — sharp cooking knives for example — are still hard to come by.  And one of my Chinese friends explained to me why Chinese eat rats and dogs.  She said, "You Westerners just need to understand, we are hungry.  We have to eat what we can find." 


Back to the conversation with my friend about the Chinese view of Human Rights, as we drove through the countryside. 

She said to me, as we were driving past the men plowing in the cold water of the rice paddy, "You in the West, you don’t understand.  These people [the ones plowing] have such hard lives that they see no reason to live. They don’t value their own lives.  We [the Chinese government] are trying to make their lives better.  We want first to give them a reason to live."  Then, she got a look of pain on her face as she continued, "These people don’t value their lives.  They don’t care if they live or die.  We are trying to give them hope of a better life, something to live for.  After we achieve this, then we will have the luxury of worring about other kinds of human rights."  

I understand this argument.  I think it is far too simplistic for rich Westerners just to think in terms of "us" and "them" or to apply our own paradigm to a situation which is so completely different from the situation in the more developed, already-industrialized world. 

Yet, I also view the Chinese government’s viewpoint, of blindly rushing forward along the same trajectory of industrial development as the West,  as tragic.  There is a saying say that those who are ignorant of history are doomed to repeat it.  (Witness deregulation of banks and the banking crisis today.  Was it not lack of banking regulations that led to the crisis of 1933?)  I wish the Chinese government would take the best of what the West has learned in its history, mistakes that the West made and learned from in its own industrial revolution, and the proactively apply it forward, to avoid making the same mistakes in its own Industrial Revolution. 

For example, clean technology now exists.  Built it into your plants now rather than having to do expensive retrofits later.  Solar power didn’t exist 100 years ago, but photovoltaic cells are available now.  Build that into your infrastructure.  Capitalize on wind power.  Avoid destroying wetlands and ecosystems.  Design cities and communities that are bicycle friendly rather than plummet wholesale into the automobile economy.   There are a thousand ways that Development could be channeled into positive streams.  Take advantage of the ability to learn from, rather than repeat, mistakes the West has made. 

Even the broader definition of Human Rights, the definition rejected by my friend, could also be applied to avoid mistakes of the past.  Labor Unions developed as a way of combating the abuses of large industrial units driven purely by profit.  The Freedom of Information Act and transparency of governmental decision making, the promulgation and enforcement of Occupational Safety and Health standards, the right to redress through the courts, yes, even food safety could be protected.  There is no excuse for allowing a greedy Party official to rob a peasant of his land and then sell it for a profit of 10,000 percent.  People who protest unjust conditions should be able to air their grievances in a full and fair forum, not in a sham court that excludes their lawyers or witnesses. 

Pollution is just one aspect of a larger issue. The real issue is, what trajectory does an enlightened government take going forward from here. 


Pollution.  Industrialization.  Development.  Sustainability.   

The satellite image in this article brings back, for me, vivid personal memories of those clouds of smog.  I remember one flight from Guilin to Guangzhou.  It’s a one hour flight, and we took off in bright, clear skies.  About thirty minutes from the airport, however, the air suddenly transformed from clear hazy, then becoming sooty and dark as we approached the city.  This was typical, I came to realize.  Whenever we went away on vacation and returned to China, it was almost as if you knew you were approaching China by the smog that greeted you.  No matter what the day had been like when you got on the plane, when you arrived in China the air would turn "foggy" and overcast, even on the brightest and sunniest of days. I came to think of it as normal, so it still comes as a shock sometimes when I find myself back in a less-polluted world. 

Indeed, one of the first things I noticed upon landing at the Detroit airport, this summer, was that I could actually see the planes from the airport windows.  I remember looking out and just being so shocked at the blueness of the sky, vividness of the airplane’s color, and being stunned that I could see details of the paintings on the aircraft as it took off into the sky.  At the Guangzhou airport, where I had just departed, I may have been able to tell that the object in the sky was a plane, but I wouldn’t have been able to see the color or detail of it.  Even months after returning the USA to live, I am still marveling that I can look up into the sky and see stars at night; and the colors of autumn take on a new clarity when there is no smog in the air to cover their brightness. 

Similarly, I already wrote on my blog of my train trip to Beijing about a year ago, when I woke up at dawn.  I was gazing out the window, through the fog, as the train crossed the Yellow River.  I saw farmers out in their fields, children walking to school, people going about their business in their various trucks or carts drawn by animals.  I kept waiting for the sunlight to appear as it first turned 9:00 AM, then 10:00, then 11:00.  But the fog never lifted.  Instead, it got heavier and darker, taking on a polluted odor and burning my eyes as we approached Beijing.  As the train traveled on, and as it gradually dawned on me that this was not mere morning fog and that it was not going to clear up as the sun rose, I began to wonder how those people out in those fields coped with living in this level of pollution. 

How does a farmer work in a field when he has to breathe this air?  How does a child cope with having to walk to school in this air?  Do the clean clothes hanging on the lines to dry come back inside all covered with soot?  I began to wonder what effect this was having on crops, not only from the pollution that would settle on the leaves but from the fact that no light was getting through to nurture the plants. 

The light that gets through a blanketing smog is diffuse.  The sensation is as if one is in a room where there is a light source somewhere, but one cannot locate it.  There have been times in Guangzhou when I went weeks without seeing an outline of the sun, or when the sun was like a dim light in the sky, as if one were looking at the moon through clouds.  Another similar experience is that of a solar eclipse, if it were behind some clouds.  The sun is there, but one cannot see it.  I’ve written before that sometimes I felt as if I could swim through the smog, it’s so thick. 

Photo of the Pearl River on a smoggy day (mid day, no storms or other clouds)


Photo of the Pearl River on a clear day (at sunset)

I personally have been out of China for five months now.  Munchkin’s asthma seems to be a bit better, but mine persists.  I hope it gets better. 

And I hope the government in China will become more tuned in to avoiding the mistakes of countries that have already passed through the Industrial Revolution ahead of her.  We know Life as it is.  Imagine life as it could be, a better way, a better life.  Heed lessons from the past, and build a better tomorrow.  Please, China, think Green, think Clean.  Not only the already developed world, not only the rest of Asia, but (most importantly of all), your own people, will thank you.


*Indeed, even if China is using more of the world’s natural resources, they have not yet overtaken the U.S. as the world’s largest consumer of natural resources.

** On November 14th, the NY Times reported on this a second time.  Here is the next article:

14 November 2008


U.N. Reports Pollution Threat in Asia


Published: November 14, 2008

“Brown clouds” made up of toxic chemicals are blotting out the sun in large parts of Asia, a U.N. report said.

To read article, click HERE

Bicyclists swim in the smog in front of Tian Men Square in Beijing





Filed under Cross Cultural Issues

Free Speech and Censorship

Why am I not surprised that the great firewall was not removed for journalists living in the Olympics journalist housing? Here is the article about it: 

Sports / Olympics
China to Limit Web Access During Olympic Games
Published: July 31, 2008

[To see article click here]

In my opinion, the West just really doesn’t "get it" when it comes to things (like free speech) that are not, and have never been, part of cultures that have no history of democracy.  To even discuss or understand the "free speech" issue in countries that don’t value free speech or democracy the same way as the West, requires that one step outside one’s own particular, very Western, cultural assumptions and viewpoints.  One must recognize that not all cultures value these notions or perceive them the same way, and actually there indeed are other ways of doing things. 

I believe that most people, when thinking about or discussing the issue of free speech, fail to discard their own, biased cultural blinders, whether those blinders point them to the conclusion that all free speech is dangerous or whether they point them to the conclusion that all regulation of speech is bad.  There is legitimacy in both viewpoints.  The truth is probably somewhere in between and varies according to the culture.  I believe that even in order to talk about these things, we really need to recognize our own, personal bias and the possibility that there may be another viewpoint which is equally valid for another culture. 

I think it’s important to recognize that the West’s experience of and thinking about the "discourse of ideas" is over 2,000 years old.  Our own experiment with free speech and self determination began in Athens in about 400 BC (forgive my license with historical facts), continued through the Magna Charta (about 1200 A.D.), and then we should also remember that the U.S. Constitution (with its guarantee of free speech) was a novel and strange idea in the 1700’s. 

In contrast to this, China was ruled by warlords just over a hundred years ago.  There is no 2,000 year old history of democracy, and China has long been a society in which to speak one’s mind could lead to dire consequences.  We in the West need to remember this before we assert that our own ways of doing things or ways of thinking about government are suited to this nation. 

China — along with most of the rest of the non-western world —  continues to be a society not only where information is tightly regulated.  But more importantly than this, I believe the educational system does not prepare people for the risks and benefits of freedom of ideas in the same way that western educational systems are geared to do.  Students are expected to memorize and regurgitate ideas and facts.  They are not trained in how to evaluate thoughts and claims that arise in "the marketplace of ideas".  This is (hopefully) in sharp contrast to students in America, who are taught to take every statement with a grain of salt and evaluate its speaker and origin carefully.  Rather, students in China are expected to accept what they are told at face value and believe it. 

This notion for me was underscored in the novel "The Monkey King" by Timothy Moe (which, though  out of print and difficult to obtain, is one of the books I’ve recommended and linked to in my reading list on this blog).  In one episode in that novel, the uncle is trying to mentor his two young nephews who are in a school in Hong Kong.  The two nephews are quite bright, and he sees they have potential to be very skilled thinkers, so he teaches them to think critically, to question the validity of ideas, and to engage in intellectual repartee at the evening dinner table.  He is very proud of their fast progress.  He encourages them to take this new skill to school and show their teacher.  He imagines that the teacher will be impressed with the young students and coach their skill to a new level. 

But the next day they come home from school with their hands bloodied and wrapped in bandages.  The uncle can’t imagine what happened to his dear nephews.  Thinking it was the result of a play yard skirmish, he asks what happened.  It turns out, their teacher had been so offended by their impertinence in asking questions that he had rapped their knuckles with a ruler and made them bleed.  Not everyone had valued their ability to ask challenging questions!  This illustrates that in that culture, the trait of challenging statements and winnowing them in the market place of ideas was not welcome.  Instead, students were expected and taught to accept the facts they were taught at face value and to memorize them.  I believe it’s still very much the same way today, in all but the very top universities.  (For there is a tiered educational system, with the very top students — and those targeted as future leaders — living by different rules and standards and being trained to more of a western standard.) 

Of course I oversimplify, but in the big picture of things, this also makes the populace easily manipulated by the media, both good and bad, because as a rule the population accepts anything they are told at face value.  As a result of this, the population can be incited to riot by the least bit of inflammatory "news" whether it’s true or not.   The ordinary population, thus, is like a sleeping and dangerous dragon that no one wants to awake from slumber.  I’ve read that the government is highly mindful that the last two regimes have been toppled by peasant revolts and it fears the same.  As a result of this real risk of civil conflagration, then, the media actually must be tightly controlled.  Riots do happen.  They are feared and tightly controlled.  When they happen, cars are overturned, houses are burned, and people get hurt.  In fact, I believe the threat to social harmony is so real that a large amount of censorship is justified. 

So, just as it is a huge oversimplification to chant the mantra "two legs good, four legs bad," it is also a gross oversimplification to assume or assert that pure freedom of the media is always a good thing.  We need to engage in a more sophisticated and thoughtful analysis, all of us on all sides.  Only then can we even begin to communicate or think about these things. 

And that’s FOOD FOR THOUGHT.  I’ll leave it at that. 


In case the article gets blocked,* here’s a very brief excerpt: 

Since the Olympic Village press center opened Friday, reporters have been unable to access scores of Web pages — among them those that discuss Ti*%n issues, T*&%$se independence, the violent crackdown on the protests in T$#@men Sqre and the Web sites of Am**sty International, the BBC’s Chinese-language news, Rad*o Free Asia and several Hong Kong newspapers known for their freewheeling politic*l disco*rse.


*I’m always shocked and pleasantly surprised that NYT is rarely if ever blocked.  My friends speculate that this is mainly due to two factors.  First, one must have a pretty high reading level in a foreign language (English) to read and understand it.  Second, you can’t block everything without making people wonder!   

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Filed under Cross Cultural Issues

The Parthenon

31 March 2008

Last summer our family took a little trip to Nashville,
Tennessee, so our college bound could pay a
visit to Vanderbilt
University.  While
in Nashville
for the quick trip, we had time to do just one thing in addition to the
university tour, so we opted to visit the Parthenon. 

Yep, you heard that
right.  The Parthenon.  For those who live in Tennessee, that probably comes as no
surprise.  I, on the other hand, was a bit surprised when someone
recommended that we visit the Parthenon, located in Nashville, Tennessee. 
I had always thought that if one wanted to see the Parthenon, one needed to
travel to the Acropolis, near the city of Athens,
in Greece. 
I was very surprised to be proven so wrong! 

The European settlers who first arrived in central Tennessee, in the late
1700’s and early 1800’s, were freedom seeking, individualistic, mountain men
and fur traders who made their living off the land.  The spirit of rugged
individualism remains strong in the mountains of North Carolina
and Tennessee. 
It’s even reflected in the language of those one time, remote areas.  One example is the word “you’uns,” to refer
to second person plural.  In the Northern USA, the second person plural is expressed as
"youse" or "you guys".  In most parts of the South, it
is "ya’ll" which is a contraction for "you all".  But
not in the mountains settled by the Protestant mountaineers.  The proper
form of address is "you’uns," which (my friend informed me) is a
contraction for "you ones".  Individualists. 

The Mountain men were such individualists, and so committed to Democracy and
what they considered to be the freedom of self determination, that they walked
Eastward during the American Revolution and confronted the loyalist forces at
King’s Mountain in North Carolina, a battle which is generally recognized as
the turning point in that war:  Prior to that time Loyalist forces
generally won and after that time they generally lost (in what we must
hopefully acknowledge was a bloody civil war). 

I’m sure that these men were somewhat rough and tumble.  But in the mid
1800’s, as civilization (in the form of settlers with less transient lifestyles)
arrived in those mountains, it was hoped that a higher form of culture could be
achieved.  In the outpost town of Nashville,
this was pursued through espousing a return to the Classics:  Classic
thought, Classic education, Classic ideals.  (To non-native speakers of
English, I will explain that the term Classic generally refers to the culture
of Greece and Rome.)  As part of the project of returning to the
classical traditions of civilization, in the 1840’s, an educator named Philip
Lindsay persuaded Nashville city leaders to
begin promoting Nashville as the "Athens of the West" and pursuing the idea of Nashville as a democratic
city-state on the frontier. 

As westward expansion
progressed across North America, however, Nashville
soon was no longer the western boundary of the frontier.  The city then
began calling itself  the "Athens
of the South".  In the late 1800’s, as they were preparing for the
Centennial of the founding of the City of Nashville,
the leaders of the community decided to build a centennial mall.  In light
of its aspiration to be the Athens
of the South, it was decided that the mall would be anchored by an exact
replica of the Parthenon. 

Ultimately, that decision resulted in the construction of an exact replica of
the Parthenon, complete with artwork and statue of Athena in the interior.  This replica was originally made of wood, but
it was so popular that it was turned into a permanent exhibit which now forms
the centerpiece of a park in Nashville. 

The Nashville Parthenon is the
only full size replica of that building in existence. Its 7-ton, bronze
entrance doors are the largest of their kind in the world. The pediment reliefs
were created from direct casts of the originals, which are housed in the British Museum of Art.  The Nashville
Parthenon makes a very interesting museum, indeed, complete with a video
history which shows an animation of the construction, history, and ultimately
the destruction of, the original temple built to the Greek goddess

(History of the Nashville Parthenon and the Tennessee Centennial, 

The Nashville Parthenon web
page also states:  "[i]n Greece the original Parthenon sits
as a sketchy resemblance of its past prominence, having been devastated by an
explosion in the year 1687 AD. and surviving somewhat the trials of War,
Bureaucracy and Tyranny."  Indeed, it was somewhat special to see the
Parthenon more like it might have appeared before its demise into the ruin that
it is today, sitting on the Acropolis above Athens. 

But something in recent events brought this visit to the Parthenon back to my
mind:  the Olympic Torch just embarked upon its journey to the Beijing
Olympics.  I recently saw video footage of the torch.  The video
footage, showing protestors and torch alike, was filmed so that the original
Parthenon could be seen in the background.  The real Parthenon, crumbled
and empty, stands in stark contrast to the reproduction in Nashville, which seeks to show it in its
heyday.  That contrast is actually what struck me, and what I’d like to
consider in this blog entry. 

The original Parthenon was built between 447 – 432 B.C., as a temple to the
Goddess Athena 
(  Built from
pentelic marble, it is considered to be the culmination of the Doric order of
classical Greek architecture
(  Obviously, it is
old, almost 2,500 years old in fact.  To put this in perspective, by the
time Rome took over Greece, the Parthenon was already
older than the cathedral Notre Dame is today.  Yet the Parthenon was
constructed with such architectural precision, as well as on such a good
foundation, that it hasn’t settled or shifted.  Prior to visiting the
museum in Nashville
I had assumed that the building had simply decayed, but this wasn’t the case at
all.  Visiting the museum, I learned that the Parthenon was in fact destroyed
rather than decayed. 

During Roman times, Athens devolved from being
an independent City state to being a remote outpost within the Roman empire.  The statue of Athena was looted from
the building.  I imagine (but don’t know)
that the building was then rededicated to the pantheon of Roman gods. 
Then, during Byzantine times, the Parthenon was converted to use as a
church.  Following the imposition of Ottoman rule in 1456, the Parthenon
was again converted, this time to use as a mosque. (A minaret was added! 
Can you imagine a minaret on the Parthenon?)  During all these
conversions, the structure survived more or less intact, until 1687. 

1687 was the year in which the Ottoman Turks at Athens were attacked by Venetian
forces.  The Ottomans encamped on the Acropolis, and they used the
Parthenon as a munitions storage facility.  I’ve read speculation that
they were gambling that the Venetians wouldn’t attack it.  But when a Venetian
shell did hit the building, the resulting explosion was spectacular.  (See
generally,,  The rest is history. 
It took just one cannonball, along with a series of decisions which failed to
value the cultural significance of the building, to destroy what has been
termed as one of the greatest architectural achievements in history. 

Athens is where
Democracy was born.  Dr. Thomas Sakoulas writes on his web site The
Parthenon (, and I
don’t dispute it:

The Athenian citizens were proud
of their cultural identity, and conscious of the historical magnitude of their
ideas. They believed that they were civilized among barbarians, and that their
cultural and political achievements were bound to alter the history of all
civilized people. The catalyst for all their accomplishments was the
development of a system of governance the likes of which the world had never seen:

Democracy, arguably the epitome of the Athenian
way of thinking, was at center stage while the Parthenon was built. This was a
direct democracy where every citizen had a voice in the common issues through
the Assembly that met on the Pnyx hill next to the Acropolis forty times per
year to decide on all matters of policy, domestic or foreign.

The fact that common people are
depicted as individuals for the first time at the Parthenon frieze
was owed to the fact that for the first time in history every citizen of a city
was recognized as a significant entity and a considerable moving force in the
polis and the observable universe.

Wow.  Look at that last line:
"every citizen of a city was recognized as a significant
entity".  Talk about individualism versus collectivism!  Talk
about clash of cultures!  The Olympics this year are hosted by a culture
that does not make this recognition, doesn’t even pay lip service to the value of

I wonder if that commitment to Democracy isn’t why Nashville,
and its independently minded citizens, chose to model their aspirations on Athens.  I’m not
claiming that Democracy is right for every culture.  I take some issue
with countries which attempt to proselytize the religion of Democracy without
any sensitivity to cultural or historic issues which would preclude success of
democracy in some the receiving country.   Democracy is a political system, not a
religion.  It is also a political system,
not an economic system.  Some people seem
to get this distinction confused. 

But what a sight, to see the Olympic torch, being carried from the shadow of
the Parthenon, from the city where democracy was born, to a country that at
this very moment in history is resisting the democratic winds so
strongly.  And, what a thought.  To
imagine a different kind of Parthenon.  An imaginary Parthenon consisting
of peaceful accommodation and cultural acceptance that is supposed to be the
hallmark of the government’s treatment here of minority peoples.  The
cultures are now clashing instead of melding, and it’s pretty clear which
culture will come out ahead:  the dominant culture, of course.  There
is no exception in history that I know of.  Why are we surprised? 
But at what cost? 

I believe that with cultural sensitivity, many issues could be resolved in
ways that would make the term "cultural genocide" seem preposterously
overstated.  But the delicate truce, like the Parthenon of Greece, is

First, there are very significant cultural blinders which render even
communication on this issue difficult, let alone agreement.  At a minimum,
policy makers need to recognize in the first place that there are actually
different cultural viewpoints that are legitimate.  Moreover, sometimes
our assessment of those viewpoints is necessarily tainted by the color of the
lense of our own cultural viewpoint.  Here’s an example illustrating the
effect of cultural lenses that was recently in the news:  rocks versus
tanks.  Eastern press watchers blasted the Western press for depicting
"biased" film footage showing protestors facing off against military
tanks.  The bias, according to accusations, was allegedly the result of
the camera footage failing to depict the "entire picture," showing
that the protestors had been looting or attacking some objects.  "Oh
no," the Western press seemed to cry, "we were wrong to do that, so
sorry!"  Well, perhaps so.  And then all photos ceased abruptly as
journalists were deported from the scene. I agree that the news reporter should
report all the facts and allow the reader to draw his own conclusion.  And
all the facts includes all the facts, not just those that are convenient for
one viewpoint or another. 

Hello?  All the facts?  At least they were trying.  While
the Republican administrations of the last several years have steadily
attempted to erode freedom of news reporters (e.g. Reagan and Granada), we actually do  try. 

The basis for the cultural "bias" is clearly evident:  in the
West, under Western values, deadly force is only justified in self defense when
it is necessitated to counter deadly force.  A famous case on this issue
involves a man who was protecting his business from burglars.  He set up a
shotgun so that when the door to the shop were opened, it would blow the
burglar to smithereens.  Sure enough, the burglar opened the door and was
blown to smithereens.  Up until this point, the self righteous business
owner loves the story.  But he’s not thinking of another, different,
perspective:  in a society that values life, the life of the burglar, no
matter how reprehensible his actions may be, outweighs the value of the
material possessions inside the business.  In other words, nothing that
burglar could steal was more valuable than his own life. In that case, the
business owner, in the resulting trial for murder, tried to argue he had acted
in self defense.  The argument didn’t hold water.  A person who
claims to act in self defense is only allowed to respond appropriately to the
threat.  There was no indication that the burglar actually posed any
threat to the life of the business owner.  In our culture, in the West, it
is viewed as murder to respond to a mere threat to property with deadly

Well, Asian culture places a higher value on the collective good than on the
individual.  In Asia, if it’s a matter of
the individual versus the collective, chaos versus order, guess who
loses?  Westerners need to understand that this is a very different value
system, where order is valued more than freedom and where the collective good
is valued more than the individual.  A person in such a society may well
gauge that society’s interest in being free from burglars justifies killing of
the burglar, even if a few innocents are blown away in the process and even if
nothing much of value was in the business.  I’m fairly confident in making
an outright speculation that the case wouldn’t have been decided as murder in
an Asian culture.  What do you think? 

Another place where there has been tragic misunderstanding and miscalculation,
sadly, has also been among the young protesters themselves, because they don’t
seem to have any grounding in the principles of nonviolence.  In this
sense, the government seems to have made a tragic miscalculation of the benefit
of separating these young people from their own religious traditions.  Had
they received training in their own custom of nonviolence, then violence and
bloodshed could have been averted.  But tragically, unless nonviolence (Ghandi’s
principle of satyagraha) is absolute, then protest is always vulnerable to
misinterpretation and misrepresentation of the cause for which one

The act of these young people in throwing rocks at a tank, no matter how
futile, does give that tank operator rationale, however small, to
retaliate.  When he becomes violent in any way, the protester becomes a
victimizer rather than a victim.  This enables denial and accusations
which can be used to justify retaliatory violence.  In contrast, it’s much
harder to convince the tank operator — or the watching world — of the
necessity for violence in the face of utter nonviolence, in the face of pure

This is one area in which the unrest last September is markedly
distinguished from the unrest more recently.  Monks last September adhered
strictly to nonviolence.  It’s kind of hard to say that a man walking in a
line to a monastery, barefoot and naked but for a saffron colored robe, was
part of a militia.  It’s hard for a mob that overturns a car or burns a
shop and its inhabitants to claim it acted with moral purity of motive. 
The failure of protesters to understand and adhere absolutely to nonviolence
will only achieve the opposition goal of marginalizing their message by
classifying it as self interested violence which justifies retaliation and
suppression, hence leading to further violence directed at those who see
themselves as the victims. 

These are all things to think about.  Both good and bad.  For better
or worse, the world is confronted with the issue of cross cultural interplay as
resoundingly as any environmental or political or economic issue.  For
culture underlies every assumption, the very world view which affects policy in
all the other areas.  In an age where the world is flat, where the market
place of ideas is as large as the world itself, the collective community needs
to learn very quickly, on the fly, how to confront and deal with these issues
of cultural difference.  For the risk is so high. 

After Centuries of standing on the Acropolis, all it took for the Parthenon
to be destroyed was one brief moment in time. 
Just one calculated (or miscalculated) judgment by perhaps by just one
person.  And then it was all destroyed. 
The lesson of contrasts and conflict is readily apparent, and the world
is watching. As noted in The Economist, "the coming months will
provide much opportunity for miscalculation by China in its handling of Tibetan
unrest" (The Economist, "Welcome to the Olympics,"

Here’s to crossing our fingers and hoping there is a rainbow somewhere at
the end of the rain. 

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Freedom of Religious Exercise . . . priceless

International / Asia Pacific
Chinese Police Clash With Tibet Protesters
Published: March 15, 2008
Violent protests erupted Friday in a busy market area of Lhasa, the Tibetan capital, as Buddhist monks and other ethnic Tibetans clashed with Chinese security forces.

Something that won’t be covered in the local press, for sure! It clashes with the idea of the economic liberators bringing modern lifestyles to the natives who need the influx of cash and tourists.  For instance, I just read one web page that claims that in the last 50 years the life expectancy of Tibetans has doubled, increasing from 36 to 67 years of age. 
Hmm.  I wonder if it’s possibly more complex than this? 
Even though this article is almost ten years old, it seems particularly insightful: 
Tibet Through Chinese Eyes
by Peter Hessler
Published in The Atlantic, Feb 1999

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What’s In A Name?

A lot. 
A Chinese person’s name is very important.  It means something.  My daughter’s Kung Fu master gave her a wonderful name. In ancient Chinese, it means "beautiful poem with a long history".   My Chinese teacher’s name means something like "beautiful white snow in the forest".  In my family, names mean something as well, but in a different way.  I think — in my family at least — we listen to the sound of the name (notice that all my children’s names end with an "ah" sound), think about the history of a name (e.g. is it a Biblical name?), and who has the name been associated with (a president? a prophet?  a favorite uncle?). 
A Chinese person’s surname is listed first, and it’s proper to call someone by their surname.  For instance, if I meet someone, they might say, "Wo qing Chen."  This is pronounced in American English like:  "Woe Ching Chun".  This means, "My surname [qing] is Chen."  If a person is introduced to me this way, then it is proper for me to call them "Mr. Chen."  In Chinese, I do this by calling them "Chen Xiansheng," the word xiansheng meaning "Mister".  If they are female, then I would call her "Chen Xiaojie," the word xiaojie meaning Miss.  (A Chinese woman does not change her surname when she gets married, and the word doesn’t change according to marital status.)
On the other hand, I’ve found Chinese culture to be more informal than what the books say.  When I meet someone casually, they almost always instruct me to call them by their given name rather than their surname.  There is a different way to refer to this name.  Whereas the word "Qing" means "My surname is x," the word "Jiao" (pronounced in American English like "jaow") means "I am called x".  So a person might say, "Wo jiao Xiao Fang," which means "I go by Xiao Fang."  A person may be even more specific than this, and say, "Wode mingze jiao Xiao Fang," which means, "My [given] name is called Xiao Fang."  In this case, I know that the person’s family name Chen and that their given name is Xiao Fang.  Thus, their full name is Chen Xiao Fang but if introduced in the more casual way I am allowed to call them just "Xiao Fang".  But if ever in doubt, I would refer to them by their full name, Chen Xiao Fang.  But suppose the person also tells me that she has chosen the name Sophie as her English name (i.e. Wode Yingwen mingze jiao Sophie).  If I translate this into English, I would call her Sophie Chen.  (In other words, she is Chen Xiao Feng, a/k/a Sophie Chen. )  
As a foreigner, sometimes the particulars of a person’s name are difficult for me to catch.  In earlier blog entries, for example, I’ve spoken of the difficulty I had learning even to hear the sounds in our driver’s name, Cai Yong Fu.  If the tones, as well as the sound of each consonant and vowel, are not said correctly, the name is not pronounced correctly.  Add to this that the name may be meaningless to me (perhaps since I don’t know that it means "beautiful poem with a long history"), and so it’s just a sound to be memorized.   Such a name, with no cultural or meaning context associated with it, and with sounds I’m not used to, to boot, can feel difficult to hear, understand, and pronounce.  As such, Chinese people often think that Chinese names are too complicated for the simple western mind. 
I can relate.  I remember how I felt when my band director could never remember that I didn’t go by Elizabeth (my first name), even after I had played in his orchestra for seven years.  I also know how I feel when someone continues to call me "Jan" after having known me for two years or so.  At some point it begins to feel awkward and hopeless to correct them.  I don’t want people to feel this way when I say their names, and so I often opt for asking my Chinese friends to tell me their English names.  It’s much easier for me to get a handle on, and remember, someone’s English name.  For instance, yesterday a met a man whose English name is "Mouce," pronounced like "mouse".  He explained to me that his friends began to call him mouse when he was in high school, because he played sports so well.  He was smart, small and quick on the playing field, just like a mouse.  Later, he changed the s to a c because he liked the spelling better.  He thought it was more interesting.  Well, this gave me a handle and I won’t forget his English name.  His Chinese name, however, is a different story for me.  I’ll have to study it in order to remember it. 
Most Chinese people who deal with foreigners have studied English and have adopted an English name.  Sometimes it’s a name that sounds a bit like their Chinese name (like my friend Xiao Fang who adopted Sophie as her American name), other times it’s a name that strikes their fancy (like my friend who adopted the name Dolphin because he liked dolphins).  And sometimes it’s a name just for fun.  Like my friend whose girlfriend in school gave her the name Yo Yo.  (By the way, could you guess that in China a famous cellist is known as Ma Yo Yo and a famous director is known as Li Ang?)  Most often, a teacher in school assigns them or lets the children choose from a list of western names.  The list must be very short, because there are a lot of boys named "David" and girls named "Sophie"! 
The other day, I met a woman who told me her Chinese name was "Doo Doo."  She gave me her business card, and it was spelled "Dodo".  I asked another Chinese friend yesterday, should I tell this woman that her name is not a good name?  The Americans reading this will immediately understand why it’s not a good name.   For others, I may need to explain:  "doo doo" is a colloquial name for feces, and "Dodo" is a silly way to refer to a person who is stupid.   So both the pronounced and written versions are bad.  I mean, I wouldn’t give this name to my dog!  My Chinese friend suggested not to tell the person.  He said that Chinese don’t take their English names very seriously anyway.  They have less hesitation about changing them, as well.  When my friend Dolphin needed to take on a more serious, professional role, he changed his name to something a bit more serious. 
This advice that Chinese don’t take their English names as English speakers take their own English names is in keeping with feedback I’ve gotten from another Chinese friend.  Several months ago, I wrote on this blog about the American-produced Danwei internet TV series called "Sexy Beijing," and specifically about the broadcast "Lost in Translation," a humorous segment about English names adopted by Chinese people. (This is archived in the Entertainment category of my blog entries, but I will quote the relevant portions of the entry at the end of this blog entry, below.)  I asked a Chinese friend to look at this segment and tell me if she thought it was insulting or not. 
Her response was first, that the name "Sexy Beijing" was humorous in itself, because it’s an obvious, punned reference to the series "Sex in the City."  Her response to the "Lost In Translation" segment specifically was that while Americans might think it strange that a Chinese man would choose a name like "Frog" for his English name, we English speakers need to understand that for the person choosing a name, it’s not such a serious thing.  English names come and go and it’s acceptable to choose one that is intended lightly or humorously. 
It plays both ways.  I haven’t given serious, intense thought to my own Chinese name, either.  I have not one, but two, Chinese names. That’s because one friend gave me a name, but I didn’t know how to write it.  A second friend heard it, misconstrued it, and gave me a different name that’s pronounced the same way but written differently.  Both names are good.  But not phenomenal.  I’m still in the market for a phenomenal Chinese name.  And our surname, "Shi," is completely random.  When our daughter’s kung fu master wrote her name in calligraphy for her, he assigned her that surname, and now we’re stuck with it (or my husband is, at least) because it would not be appropriate for him to have a different surname from his daughter!  So, these things that have very great meaning for a person who resides within the culture, have less import for someone who is not so deeply embedded in the culture. 
In the meantime, one of my Chinese friends asked me to help her find a truly excellent name for her son, whose Chinese given name is Zhi Ling.  What a serious task!  I ended up coming up with a list of about 20 names, with an explanation beside each name of its history and what it meant.  I tried to find a name that captured some of the sounds of the name (particularly the Z sound), but of course the Z names in English are more unusual, so I also found some options from more traditional names that weren’t too common but not too unusual and had nice meanings.  However, I think she ended up choosing one of the more common names.  I don’t really know!  I call her son Zhi Ling! 
Here is the excerpt from the previous blog entry: 
[I recommend ] 

But for starters, I recommend "Lost in Translation."  If you like it, you can use the above link to find more videos. 
Here are links to two web sites where this five minute video can be viewed: 
For North American users and speakers of English, I recommend the You Tube site:
For Asian users and speakers of Chinese, I recommend the Toudou site: 

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The Chinese Mindset

In light of comments below, maybe I stand corrected.  Somebody says I’m in for a real culture shock next time I’m in the USA.
Orignal entry:
This is just an example, but it seems "so China" to me.
Today I went shopping at METRO.  It is a German brand company operating in China.  Here are two web pages about the company: 
At one time, I was told that Metro had an expat manager.  The store had lots of wonderful goodies we couldn’t get other places.  Sour cream, salamis, cheeses, olives, wines.  But I’ve noticed a bit of a slide in the last year — certain things are no longer on the shelves.  This is to be expected, as the company sorts out what the local market is seeking and drops items that don’t sell.  But all in all, METRO is still a good place to purchase "foreign" food.  For example, it doesn’t always stock non-sweetened yogurt, but there are only two food stores in Guangzhou where I’ve ever seen it and this is one of them.  They have a few things that nobody else has. 
Additionally, about half of Metro’s stock is durable goods: cookers, grills, pots and pans, bicycles, etc.  It is name brand and good quality.  In fact, if one has a receipt one can actually return defective goods.  Because of this quality, and after having been burned by purchasing what turned out to be a counterfeit and defective HP Printer from a local computer store, I purchased a genuine HP Printer from METRO last year.  In almost every respect, it is a great little printer.  It cleans itself, never jams, even tells me when my inks are running low.  It brainlessly scans, faxes, photocopies, and prints great photographs.  There is just one problem with the printer.  It uses six ink cartridges, the ink cartridges are outrageously expensive, and (more or less) I can only get them at Metro.  
I have on occasion found Metro to be out of stock on certain colors, which is not very convenient when these cartridges are so hard to find.  One time I had to wait three weeks to get a replacement red cartridge.  Additonally, it’s quite a hike to the store and not always convenient to go, so I’ve taken up the habit of always keeping a spare of each color.  Whenever I find the cartridges low in stock, I can point it out to a clerk and the new ones arrive before I run out.  Today, I decided to restock my spare cartridges before there was a crisis.  I needed four of the six cartridges:  black, magenta, light blue, and pink.  The METRO store was out of stock in the pink color, so I asked the floor clerk to order one.  She called the Manager over.
The Manager (who did not speak English) proceeded to explain to the store clerk that I didn’t need all those colors, that I only needed three colors for my printer:  blue, yellow, and magenta.  I persisted.  Yes, I did need them, I explained. 
I thought he didn’t understand, so I walked over and showed him the box that packages one of the unsold printers.  The box clearly states what colors are needed.  Six of them.  I pointed to the colors.  See, six, and I named them in Chinese.  He still insisted that I did not need but three colors. 
I persisted.  I went to a floor model of the printer out on display, opened the lid, and showed him the six cartridge holders.  In my experience, the printer won’t work if any of the cartridges are missing. 
Finally, after a very long time of his explaining to the clerk how I didn’t need them, the truth came out.  He said that because the cartridges are so expensive, most people only use the three primary colors:  blue, red, and yellow.  So he now only orders those three colors. 
I persisted again.  "Would those three colors produce good quality photographs," I asked?  He hesitated.  Then he said that it would take ten days to get the pink cartridges from his supplier in Shanghai.  If I would agree to purchase them, he would order them and call me when they arrived.  I agreed.  I told him I wanted to purchase three of each color.  He took my phone number. 
My thought was, "This is so China!"  But, I wondered, what makes it so?  Our family discussed it at dinner, as we ate our beef purchased at Metro. 
My first response in answer to the question "What is so China about this," is that the Chinese customers are so driven by cost that they will sacrifice a major feature of their expensive, state of the art printer.  Namely, they sacrifice the capacity to print really excellent quality photos or other materials.  I can’t fault the store manager for responding to his market. 
But there’s another aspect to think about that may be less obvious.  The manager failed to anticipate that some of his customers do, indeed, care about having all the colors available.  If that were not so — if nobody at all were buying the cartridges — he wouldn’t have run out of the pink color in the first place.  It’s simply a matter of good customer service to have some in stock and to restock it when low, even if on a different schedule.  Secondly, he also failed to appreciate that it wasn’t necessarily that his customers don’t want the colors, there’s also a possibility that perhaps the printer itself simply uses less of the more subtle colors. 
I can’t imagine an American manager making a decision not to stock the recommended colors just because he thought it was cheaper for the customer.  The American manager may not think about why he is doing it, in a theoretical sense, but he will stock what the company recommends for restocking the ink.  Because that’s the right way to do it.  I don’t mean "right" in a moral sense.  I mean that he will follow the rules about how to use the printer and what is needed for the printer, including stocking the proper ink.  A second difference may be the consumer himself.  If an American customer doesn’t need to print good quality color, then he wouldn’t choose that printer, which is significantly more expensive than more strictly utilitarian models.  He would feel free to choose a cheaper printer even if it were not the very latest and greatest. 
And in closing, I wonder what the Chinese manager is thinking about this:  will he stock the colors in the future?  At the conclusion of the exchange, the girl who spoke English said that she remembere me from when I complained about a broken item a few weeks ago.  I guess I was being labeled as that troublesome foreigner.  I told her that though I shop here frequently, everything I had ever purchased at Metro was of good quality and that I had never returned anything.  I hope it’s not just perceived as the troublesome foreigner, but somehow I think I may be hoping too much. 


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A Culture of Lying part 3

This morning I woke up feeling rather guilty for writing about a "culture of lying," as if lying were unique to this culture and foreign to my own.  For examples of extreme dishonesty, all one has to do is look at any recent report in the news media.  From business executives to politicians, current events reported in the USA will show examples where people have violated basic principles of honesty and fair dealing.  Of course.  Thus, one might argue, isn’t it hypocritical of me to point an accusing finger at another culture? 
I don’t think so.  As I mulled over this question of hypocrisy, I thought again about my friend locked out of his own factory.  I thought of the quality manager who was beaten up and had to be hospitalized after he submitted a truthful report that was critical of quality in his factory.  I thought of employers who simply fail to pay wages to employees (according to a recent report I heard, there were 38,000 reported incidents of this in Guangzhou last year).  I think of the doctor who reported SARS to the media being put under house arrest because of his truthfulness. 
In the USA, when it happens we are shocked and appalled.  Over here, it’s seen as nothing out of the ordinary.  If lying isn’t outright state-sanctioned, then at least it’s tolerated and thus sanctioned as a practical matter.  (There are many who would point to rule of law as an essential component as well, but for sake of simplicity I won’t go there . . . .)
So I stick to my guns.  Westerners who come to China and engage in business must be prepared for a whole different level of institutionally sanctioned falsehood than what they have been used to in their home culture.  That is the bottom line as a practical matter. 

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A Culture of Lying part 2

"Very Yellow, Very Violent"

This now a famous quote recently raised a furor among internet citizens in China.  It is a phrase uttered by a thirteen year old girl in a television interview, in which she referred to the alleged pervasive violence and sexuality of the internet. 

I don’t know about you, but in fact I have to look pretty hard to find pornography or violence on the internet.  It NEVER pops up when I do a search for something like, say, "pediatric rash measles fifth rocky" or "juergen habermas" or whatever else is striking my fancy at the moment. 

But the alleged prevalence of violence, sexuality, and misinformation on the internet is the rationale which the government uses to advocate for censorship of the net.  That’s why it’s a hot topic.  That’s why I cannot access Wikipedia or any blog created on blogspot from where I live.  The information is supposedly deemed too dangerous for my sensitive psyche.  Information in all kinds of categories is, likewise, deemed too sensitive for my eyes and ears.  For instance, the map of the world in my children’s world history book, published in another country, was ripped out of the book before it was allowed to be imported for use in their school (on account of a geographic region being printed in the wrong color).  Likewise, Lonely Planet China is an officially banned book, on account of some outrageous things it has to say.  See 

In fact, this government has the most sophisticated and pervasive censoring system in the world, with (I’ve read) 100,000 people just devoted to censoring internet sites.  This "protection" of the public is the reason that I have a friend who teaches in a Chinese university who has Ph.D. students who are unable to access basic research materials essential to their field of expertise.  It also may be the reason that grown men and women in this society so, in fact, seem to take everything they are fed by the state mechanism at face value.  The machine turns on itself:  reliant as it is on spreading a certain version of the "truth," it does in fact create citizens who are unable to discern truth from fiction when they read "news" materials.  Students here are not taught how to be critical readers and critical thinkers, how to evaluate the credibility of information.  Rather, they are expected to take whatever they are told as "truth" and swallow it whole. 

The purpose of this post is to think for a moment about how such censorship might affect society as a whole, in a way which I never considered before.  I know it affects the ability of a populace to think for itself.  To analyze information.  To be aware of the world around it.  To think about how to . . . well, let’s not go there. 

But I never until today thought about how censorship might be inextricably linked to creating a whole culture where lying is viewed as acceptable. 

We notice over and over here, as a cultural difference, how people seem to be so readily "fast and loose" with what is the truth.  I’ve posited it as a cultural difference, a difference in values.  But could that be the result of something other than teaching consciously rooted in morality and, rather, rooted in something else that is of more recent origin? 

My thoughts linking decline of morality with lack of free speech began when I read a discussion about the recent television interview which gave rise to the quote above.  In late December, a thirteen year old female student was interviewed by Chinese television and quoted in support of censorship of the internet.  According to Zhejiang Online News, the interview was broadcast on December 27, 2007, by Beijing CCTV.  The young student said [in translation]:   

"The last time that I got on the Internet to search for information, a web page popped up suddenly.  It was very yellow [i.e. erotic], very violent.  I hastily closed the page." 

Zhejiang Online News further reported about the widespread ridicule and spoofing that proliferated after the interview was aired.  It appears that, fundamentally, no one believed the girl’s statement.  People who saw the interview thought that her statement was coached and manufactured by the State media.  The news report continues: 

"On account of the phrase "very yellow, very violent," videos, photographs, spoof cartoons and comments flooded the Internet overnight.   . . .

"The first one to comment was "mopper" (i.e. a member of the MOP forum) Gegege.  At 7:40pm that evening, she wrote a post titled ‘Tonight’s Joint News Broadcast was awesome’:  ‘Did you see that?  The news item about deleterious videocasts on the Internet.  A cute elementary Beijing school girl was interviewed and she said, ‘The last time that I got on the Internet to search for information, a web page popped up suddenly.  It was very yellow, very violent.  I hastily closed the page.’  At that time, I was having dining and I could not help but laugh.  Very yellow, very violent.  That is like the MOP slogan of Very Good, Very Powerful.  . . . ‘

"As soon as that post appeared, other netizens were drawn to the case.  [Another] . . . commented: "I saw that too.  I was laughing.  Where does one find a very yellow, very violent web page?"  . . . Netizen "irrissun" commented: "I heard that too.  I nearly threw up!  How does a little girl know when something is very yellow, very violent?  Weird."

". . . By early morning of January 5, there were almost 1,200 comments running to 12 pages. . . . ."

But, most telling for me, is this comment which comes next in the article:

". . .  Since [the girl] is an excellent student, some netizen thought: "She faced the CCTV reporter and lied to a national audience without blinking.  Isn’t she accountable for what she said?  If she is lying when she is so young, how far will she go when she grows old?  For children, academic grades are important.  But if her thinking and morals are rotten, then academic grades are useless no matter how good they are." [emphasis added]

This last comment led me to wonder:  What sets up a culture of lying, and why do people view this child’s apparent parroting of a state sponsored media position concerning censorship of the internet as being inextricably linked with an educational culture of lying? 

Here are one fellow blogger’s thoughts about it.  (I note unfortunately that between the time I first cut and pasted this copy and the time I publish this, the post seems to have disappeared; so I am unable to give a link to the primary source or give proper credit to the author):   

"In the media reports, I [the Chinese author of a different blog post] have seen this defense of the young girl — she is only thirteen years old, her values and judgment are yet unformed and she is therefore not responsible; even if she lied, she cannot be held responsible for she is only a victim of the system of the parents, the school, the teachers, the media and the reporters.

"This type of defense is logical, but I want to consider this matter further.  Among the doubters, some believe that "Very yellow, very violent" sounded too much like adult talk.  Thus, she was guilty of lying or colluding with the reporter.  I happen not to think so because I think that she was only using her standard narrative.  The interesting thing is why did she spontaneously say something to the camera that she did not really mean?

"For the longest time, our school system has encouraged people to lie. In the 1960’s and 1970’s, it was common to include clichés such as "The situation has never been better in China …" in the opening sentence of any essay composition.  Although these types of phrases have disappeared, the habit of the big lie has not been eradicated. Instead, they continue to show up in different forms.  The students know that they don’t mean to say something, but they are still being forced to do so.  One time, my son showed me a model essay and said angrily that this was a piece of junk.  When I suggested that he did not have to use it, he said that the teacher has already threatened him with poor mid-term grades if he refused to write in that manner.

"This example shows that our students are still unable to speak what they think.  They can say whatever they want in private.  But when in comes to writing essay compositions, they have to trot out all the ostentatious clichés and myths.  After toiling under this type of educational system for so long, they now have this natural habit.  When they are asked to speak in public, those words come out spontaneously without thinking.  When that little girl in Beijing faced the camera, she spoke fluently.  Such is the result of the "state ideological apparatus."  ‘According to Althusser, the "state ideological apparatus" includes the schools as well as the media such as television.  Therefore, we cannot underestimate the impact of television. 

"When I watch CCTV’s <Joint News Broadcast>, I find an interesting phenomenon.  Whenever something big happens, the reporters conduct street interviews and the interviewees play along perfectly by spouting phrases that are distinctly CCTV-like.  So I realized that the official version has travelled a strange journey.  When the propaganda machine gets started, the official version is implanted deeply into the subconsciousness of the people and their own thinking system is shoved aside.  Over the long term, the official version within the people’s minds is perfected even as their own system becomes increasingly barren and impoverished.  By that time, when a microphone is shoved in front of them, they will spontaneously and fluently speak the official version.  It goes without say that the propaganda machine will trumpet that this is the will of the people who support a certain policy.  I think that this is the true secret in the interaction between the propaganda machine and the people.

"Therefore, if we accept that the Beijing girl used some very CCTV-like phrases, then we must also admit that this type of talk has a broad foundation among the masses.  While the girl deserves our sympathy for her experience, what she said deserves our reflection."

Reflection, indeed.  It is a strange catch-22 when a population is so indoctrinated into listening and believing the official word that they are unable to tell truth from fiction.  Such a population is dangerous because it is easily incited by any incindiary influence, the flames easily fanned by any wind of inflammatory untruth.  But more important, to me, is the idea of state-sanctioned lying.  Everyone knows that the official line is not always the truth.  But when truth is disregarded from the top down, what does that say to the ordinary person about the value of truth?  No wonder, then, that truth is seen as something easily bent and twisted.  Perhaps the road to lies is, in fact, a slippery slope begotten by state sponsorship of doublespeak? 

There’s a joke circulating that you know you’ve been here too long when you think a certain state-sponsored daily newspaper represents the epitomy of investigative journalism.  But when an entire population is not only manipulated but coached in the value of lying, it highlights all the more the deleterious effect that lack of free speech can have on a society.  I hope that we who have it will value it and work hard to protect it.  If this is a case study in how media affects morality, then it demonstrates that we who can think critically must work to ensure that the ability to think critically is passed along to our young people.  All the more reason that we who have an education must strive to ensure that free and good quality education remains available to all.  All the more reason for people who have freedom to protect the tools that enable it. 

If you’re not already certain that free speech (and hence freedom of thought and of conscience and intellect) isn’t endangered in the USA, then take a second look not only at the political stage, but also at who controls the media and at the quality of education.  Last time I crossed through the immigration counter at Detroit International airport, why did the Homeland Security guy feel so free to grill me about what countries I had been to and why.  I mean, what if I had told him an answer that he didn’t want like to hear?  Think about it.  The balancing of interests between freedom and state needs is always delicate.  We must be careful to avoid the slippery slope. 

"’Tis education forms the common mind; just as the twig is bent, the tree’s inclined." 

Yep, it’s George Washington who said that.  He thought that free and universal public education was essential to democracy.

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A Culture of Lying part 1

Since living in China, I’ve observed extreme differences between what I consider to be Eastern and Western standards when it comes to cheating or stretching the truth.  In my own mind, I’ve attributed that to a cultural difference in basically amounts to how far duty to on "other" is considered to extend.  In the West, we have the parable of the Good Samaritan to drive thoughts toward a more expansive view of "Who is My Neighbor."  When a Stranger is in fact one’s neighbor, that person is brought within the circle of "others" to whom one owes a duty of some sort, including the duty not to cheat them. 
Yet, there are some problems with this view attributing basic moral compunctions exclusively to the inculcation of the Good Samaritan parable into Western thought. 
The Parable of the Good Samaritan could explain the value system of every Westerner, even non Chrisitans, because of the pervasive influence of the church over 20 centuries.  Yet, there are those who hold similar ideas about duty to others who come from outside the Christian religious tradition.  I refuse to excuse mere "post Christian" Europeans from the "Good Samaritan" category, because I think most of them fail to realize the extent to which their own "philosophical" views about right and wrong are influenced by 20 Centuries of Christianity.  But my theory fails to account for those who come from traditions which have never accepted Christianity but which have other foundations for values, such as Judaism and Islam.  Second, it fails to explain the countervailing value systems of some of my Eastern friends who hold Confucian or Buddhist values and who also would care for the stranger. 
I view fundamental lack of concern for the stranger as corrosive to the society in which I am living.  It is part of a greater package that also includes lack of concern for the truth.  It’s as if there is no ballast in the ship, no keel, that weighs the boat properly.  A friend told me just the other day of his first experience doing business in China.  He was the investing partner in machinery and a factory in one city, and had a warehouse in another city with a manager.  He thought he could live abroad and come in to check on things.  The warehouse manager stole the entire inventory, and the non-investing partner locked him out of his own factory.  Unfortunately, there are many similar stories about the pervasive culture of dishonesty (which incidentally is enabled by a judicial system that has no moral authority of its own; even when people get a judgment it is likely to be unenforceable).  But I cite this example merely as one example of a value system which enables the manager or the working partner, somehow in their own mind, to treat another fellow human this way.  I know it happens in Western societies all the time too, but it would be an accurate generalization to say that when this happens in the West we are surprised, but when it happens in the East we are not.  There is a fundamental difference in values which one can count on.  My question is, WHY?  (Hence the reason I posted my previous blog entry, requesting comments from people outside the Christian values tradition.) 
Well, I ran across an interesting thread in the news media which may shed an alternate light.  To post it here would make this post too long, so I’ll post it in the next . . . .

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Common Sense

I don’t know why I’m telling this story, and also I don’t know whether I should categorize it under cross cultural issues or daily life in my blog.  But something about it just struck me and I decided to write about it. 
Today I was in the store with Song Ying and she was helping me shop for groceries.  I’m out of olive oil in my kitchen and I wanted to buy some.  We were shopping at Metro, a large German brand store that has a lot of western food.  It’s something like a Costco or Sam’s Club for food and household supplies.  But unlike Sam’s, the Italian food is imported from Italy, the Spanish food is imported from Spain, etc.  [Metro is the place where I purchased my Italian "ham" last Christmas without knowing what it was made of.]   In the aisle where we found ourselves, there were about ten different types of olive oil from Spain and Italy, all in native language labels, as well as a few that had English language. 
One Spanish brand was 85 RMB per 1000 ml, and it was on the shelf next to an Italian brand that was 95 RMB per 1000 ml.  Song Ying remarks, "Zhege bie zhege gen gui [This one is a lot more expensive]."  Song Ying is really good at pinching a penny, but sometimes less really is less.  There are other factors like taste, nutrition, adulterated ingredients.  I proceed to show her the English words on the labels indicating that one was first pressed and cold pressed, whereas the other was neither first pressed nor cold pressed.  Then I say, "Zhege bie zhege gen hao [This one is a lot better]."  Then she smiles and says, "Qian ye hao [Money is also good]!"  We both laughed.  As we did, I thought about a conversation I once had with my mother comparing the price of peppers.  Red and yellow peppers are a lot more expensive than green ones, but my mother pointed out that they also have a lot more vitamins and that you have to also balance nutritional value when you purchase food.  Sometimes the more expensive food is the healther.  Especially in China! 
Just then, I found a different olive oil that was the cheapest of all:  the Metro store brand.  It didn’t say it was first pressed, and it didn’t say it was cold pressed.  But it did say it was "Extra Virgin," and it was 79 RMB per 1000 ml.  Both smiling of us smiling, we put it in the cart. 
Later, I was looking at my favorite drink, which I did not buy.  An imported bottled mineral water.  Song Ying says, "Ni xihuan zhege [You like this]."  I reply, "Wo ye xihuan quian [I also like money]!"  Laughing, we walked by that as well. 
I guess this says more about my own values than anything cross cultural, and it maybe says more about daily life as a housewife.  On the other hand, in a cross cultural sense, it also goes to show that people everywhere think about the same things, face the same challenges, sometimes answer the challenges slightly different ways and for slightly different reasons, sometimes reasons that aren’t so different after all. 
Here’s a P.S., which one could tie into another conversation SY and I had a few months ago which I wrote about on my blog (when she told me that Americans are fat because they have enough money for food, and that the reason Chinese are not fat is because they don’t have much money for food).  The other day, I pulled out a sample of some Italian salami, which is very expensive here.  I pulled off one piece for me and one piece for her.  Handing it to her to taste, I said that this was really good, but it was expensive.  She replies (in Chinese of course): "Hao chi duo gui"  (delicious food is all expensive). 

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