China with Polish Characteristics

December 13, 2007

The goldrush

Filed under: Uncategorized — chinatalk @ 3:54 pm

Ok, I am going home for two weeks to spend Christmas with my family, which is a perfect excuse not to post anything for a while. But before my laziness takes on its full effect, I would like to bring a certain trend in China to your attention – nothing pleasant. Every week, while doing research at work, I read about at least a couple of mine accidents, and recently it seems to have been really bad – at least 105 people died in an explosion at the Xinyao mine in Shanxi. The disturbing part, as you can read in the story, is that this accident is merely a tip of an iceberg. There were several other mishaps this very week, and according to the government figures, some 5000 people are dying in the Chinese mines each year (the independent labor groups say many accidents are covered up and that it’s more like 20,000 people). But the really sad and infuriating thing about deaths like those in Xinyao, is that they could have been easily avoided – the owners disregarded basic safety procedures in order to milk the most cash possible from their business (read this). No investment was made into proper ventilation or adequate equipment, while guanxi and ordinary corruption helped everybody to dismiss safety inspections and ignore the facts. What I don’t understand is how can so many people be driven to completely disregard the lives of others – is it the history that hardened the Chinese businessmen so much, or is it really just simple greed? Although my country is in an entirely different situation, it also underwent a transition from socialism to market economy and I’m very clear about the kind of jungle which early capitalism makes of the society. Capitalism can be savage, and it often still is at home – but nothing like this. In Silesia, Poland’s major mining and industrial region where I grew up, coal-mines are a way of life for many of the people. Accidents do happen, but they are not frequent, and each one is regarded as a disaster. People are collectively mourned, the causes of their deaths investigated, and each such tragedy clearly remembered. But here, in China, the weekly mine accidents quickly fade into the news headlines and the miners simply keep dying. Why does it continue? Much more could and needs to be done to improve the safety and legal control in the industry. And more effort can and has to be put into convincing people about the need for social duty and the need of even basic responsibility for others. The government, however, focused entirely on itself, has not set a good example for its people. To get rich is glorious, that’s true. But to treat each other as human – priceless.

December 9, 2007

Mandarin, mon amour?

Filed under: Uncategorized — chinatalk @ 4:42 pm

I can still remember when some four years ago in college, I walked into our dorm room and found my dear roommate sitting by the window, uttering strange high-pitched noises which made him sound like an complete idiot. The frustrated determination in his face made it even funnier. My poor friend had just developed a massive crush for an exchange student from Dalian and decided he had to teach himself Chinese. But back then in Indiana – the great cornfield of America – it was an uphill battle. The only prominent foreign language in the area was Spanish. There were no classes offered, no textbooks and absolutely no one to give you direction at the start – the closest teacher my friend managed to locate, a Chinese expat, was at a community college over an hour away. His Chinese endeavor soon died a natural death. Sometimes it still blows my mind that only a few years later, Chinese language programs have mushroomed not just all over the US (check out this for a sample and this if you want more goodies) but across the world. It became the zesty thing to study, and the demand is visible in the Motherland as well. As “Teaching Chinese to Foreigners” climbed steadily to become one of the popular majors in Beijing’s universities, the local entrepreneurs started tripping over each other to open up private language schools for foreigners. There are at least couple dozen of these in the capital, many specializing in one-on-one classes, and the price for their services has been climbing steadily – as much as 100 RMB/hour in some, which was unheard of when I first came out here (who goes to these places??). State-backed enterprises took off as well, with China Radio International starting an on-air Confucius Institute, promoting Chinese learning in all 38 languages included in their programming. Crazy! Watching all this, and the rising cohorts of enthusiastic mandarin learners, I almost get the warm fuzzy feeling inside. It’s only that in 2/3 of the cases there seems to be little effect to it, despite the entire hype and the stardust. While many expats in Beijing have certainly fallen for the worldwide China-fashion, most I have met really don’t put any sincere effort into their studies. After a year or two, most have barely mastered a caveman-conversational level of the language, the kind which comes in handy only after a fourth or fifth beer. While studying Chinese is certainly not fun and games (that what God made the Romance languages for), and while certainly it shouldn’t be expected, one can’t help but scratch his head when watching the whole thing – can this language really be as universal as English one day? Maybe. But how? And when? It’s not gonna happen thanks to the loudspeakers.

December 2, 2007

Coming to terms with Beijing… again

Filed under: Uncategorized — chinatalk @ 3:35 pm

During my two years in China I have said and written a lot about Beijing but I always get the feeling this city eludes me, that it refuses to be described and understood. Each time I arrive here I feel as lost and stunned as ever. The first time I thought it’s normal, especially because of the language. But then, months later, the second and then the third encounter were just as difficult, full of stark, bland feeling of space with little warmth to it – the whole city oozing at you like winter sunshine. How the hell do you live in that? It’s a great city, but it wears so many faces that sometimes you get lost without knowing what to do – many people never really manage to tap into Beijing and to connect with China that lives under the surface. Many just do the necessary part and let everything else slide past their bubble and then they go home, or worse, they stay. It’s been couple of months since I came back from Sichuan and it hit me (gradually) that I don’t want this place to be a big shopping mall, big nightclub and a self-important, self-pitying cultural bubble. I have friends here who after several years still go to a restaurant and point at the pictures, with a triumphal 一碗米饭 to demonstrate their linguistic achievements. And others, who remarkably fit the descriptions of the Old China Hands like the one below: 

He has never been invited to Chinese homes, has sedulously avoided Chinese restaurants, and has never read a single line of Chinese newspapers. He goes to the longest bar in the world of an evening, sips his cocktail and picks up and imbibes and exchanges bits of sailors’ tales on the China coast handed down from the Portuguese sailors, and is sorry to find that Shanghai is not Sussex, and generally behaves as he would in England. He feels happy when he learns that the Chinese are beginning to observe Christmas and make progress, and feels amazed when he is not understood in English; he walks as if the whole lot of them did not exist for him, and does not say “sorry” even in English when he steps on a fellow-passenger’s toes; yes, he has not even learned the Chinese equivalents of “danke sehr” and “bitte schön” and “verzeihen Sie” the minimum moral obligations of even a passing tourist, and complains of anti-foreignism and despairs because even the pillaging of the Peking palaces after the Boxer Uprising has not taught the Chinese a lesson. There is your authority on China. Oh, for a common bond of humanity! 

Does some of it, perhaps, sound familiar? The truly frightening part is, that the above fragment from “My Country and My People” by Lin Yu Tang was written in 1935, but it reads more-less like what you see on the streets in Beijing today. I’m not sure if they had the word 老外 back then like they do today, but the whole phenomenon is rather depressing. Can we avoid it? Because even though life in Beijing at times seems like an uphill, perplexing battle, I sure as hell don’t want to end up as another foreign zombie. “To follow knowledge like a sinking star…” Easier said than done, but the old man Tennyson had a point there.

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