Tuesday, May 06, 2008

I'm a spy

Norm and I at the Qingdao Naval Museum


The desperation of the homeless here is startling. I realize there is a wide income gap in America, but it must be wider in China. Yesterday, I saw a guy driving a brand new Ferrari down an alley next to a man with no legs pushing him along on wheels.

Everyone seems to play a role in society and the most menial of tasks are jobs. It is common to see people selling all kinds of things - sweet potatoes, DVDs, silverware – on the street. While it’s an illegal living, it’s a living and, if nothing else, it shows initiative. So, when I see homelessness here, I can only assume that most of the people are in the direst of straits.

Many of the forms of begging here are similar to that in the U.S., but the key difference is children. About once a week, a child, dirty and poor, asks me for money with his parents or owners nearby. I say owners because some of these children are orphans, bought by adults to beg for money.

A few weeks ago, I saw a child without his parents and it broke my heart. I still get the chills thinking about it. He was young, maybe 12 years old and he had burns all over his body. And I don’t mean cigarette burns. I mean he had a skin graft over his head and his hands were knobby and mangled. He looked like he belonged in a burn unit or intensive care or physical therapy. But, here he was, on the subway, asking people for loose change. So, we gave him a couple kuai and he moved on.

I think about this often and now I realize that it’s tough to be poor in a developed country like America, where at least there is an established infrastructure to help the needy. However, being disabled or poor in a developing country like China takes desperation to a new level.

Monday, May 05, 2008

"Sleeping" on the Boat

It was a symphony of the worst kind on the overnight boat ride from Dalian to Yantai. These guys, especially the one on the left, put Boog to shame (and that is saying a lot).


Back in January, I woke up newspaper-delivery early to watch the AFC Championship at an expatriate bar, the Big Bamboo. At 4:00 a.m., the streets were about as desolate as I’ve seen them. It was my first realization that the millions of people I see during the day really do sleep. It was an odd sight and, for a brief instant, I feel like Tom Hanks in Castaway – but at least he had Wilson.

I’m walking through a fine mist that coincides with the constant moisture in the air here. Aside from my visible breath, there are few companions around and the sun hasn’t begun to think about rising.

As I near what I think is the address, the voice of Jim Nantz begins to echo down the street. It’s music to my ears. It’s also four minutes into the game and the Patriots are not winning yet. Matt, my teaching colleague, and I inch our table closer to the guys smoking cigarettes. Cigars or cigarettes - make your choice because you can’t have both. And it dawns on me that Shanghai is probably 25 years away from passing smokeless provisions.

It feels odd to be watching the game “live” as it feels taped. The audio setup and video images interchange between high definition, being in sync, black and white, to crazy internet feed. I glance out the window find an odd mixture of people on the streets – the many Chinese caught up in the early morning twilight next to prostitutes waiting for the foreigners to leave the bar.

A guy with a Donovan McNabb jersey strolls in during the 2nd half. He’s originally from Upper Darby and is opening a Mexican restaurant here soon. I haven’t seen the guy since. But meeting him is a good metaphor for the type of foreigners you meet here – quickly coming or going, and dreaming a big dream.

Lately, I’ve been dreaming about my family and cheese steaks. Both are about to come true.

Slow boat to China (and from)

This is a short clip of our boat trip from Dalian to Yantai last month. Get a load of the Chinese over the loud speaker at the beginning -- WELCOME TO MY WORLD.

Quick Chinese Lesson


I got this text message from one of my students yesterday. I told her I was going to send her some English grammar exercises and she replied. Her message above says:

"Thanks, don't worry about it. (Xie xie, bu yao dan xin)
I know before you return home (Wo zhi dao hui jia zhi qian)
you are comparably busy." (Ni hui bi jiao mang lu)

It took me a solid hour to look up the words I didn't know, but it felt good once I knew what was being said. When you look up a word in a Chinese dictionary, you have to know the number of strokes in the character and which stroke comes first. It takes practice.

In this respect, learning Chinese makes me feel like a kid again. The terminology is new and completing the simplest task is something to be proud of. One of the (many) significant differences between English and Chinese is the tones - you have to master them through practice, but once you do, you can get your point across.