Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Who, or What, Is Doing the Fake Links?

Last night when I logged in The China Beat to read their interview with James Fallows (a great interview by the way), I was quite surprised to see several of my blog posts appeared linked to that one. The problem is, I wasn't the one who created the links, and even if I wanted to, I would have to time travel, as those posts of mine occurred earlier than the one they were linked to. In short, those links apparently were done by some automatic program on the internet – quite annoyingly.

The China Beat is a great blog and I have no problem promoting it. However those links made it look like I was promoting my own blog. I've always detested excessive self-promotion, and I'm very bothered by those automatic links.

Similar things also happened on my blog. Recently I often see the so-called "links to" appearing under a post of mine, but a check on those links showes they are not actually linked to my post. That is, they are fake. In most cases I tolerate the fake links, but I have also deleted a few that are obviously irrelevant to my blog content.

So the question is, who, or what, is creating the fake links? One suspect is Sphere, which I first noticed a while ago on CNN. Often one can see under a CNN report the "From the blogs" feature, marked "powered by Sphere."

Sphere offers a so-called "contextual widget" free to bloggers; at first I was intrigued and even considered installing it. However after I saw the irrelevant fake links appearing on my blog and fake links using my blog's name appearing excessively on other sites, I became sick of it.

So, my message to Sphere or any similar program: it is obnoxious and violation of my right of authorship when you insert fake links that are not actually linked from my blog posts. Please stop doing this!

Monday, December 29, 2008

China's Gas Tax: Progress in Spite of the Press

I'm excited to see that ten professors from Tsinghua and Beijing University wrote to Premier Wen Jiabao proposing a further increase in the gas tax. This is on top of the recent announcement that, starting in 2009, China's gas tax will be raised from 0.2 yuan (3 cents) to one yuan (15 cents) per liter, a 5-fold increase already.

The new proposal from the professors argues that (in translation):

One yuan fuel tax can't at all send the resource shortage signal to society. This figure not only is lower than the EU countries (about 6 yuan per liter) but also our surrounding countries and areas. It is only close to the United States. We can't imitate the American life style. We don't have sufficient resources. As such we can't follow the US fuel tax example either.

We think the fuel tax of 3-4 yuan per liter conforms to China's situation. Right now is the best time to introduce this tax quota. Currently the international oil price has fallen hard. If we keep our retail gas price intact, while adjusting the price of processed oil close to international standards, we will be able to provide room for the 3-4 yuan per liter tax. A one-Yuan tax wastes such a room; only 3-4 Yuan can fully take advantage of this rare opportunity. The opportune time, once passed, will not return.

This is a bold proposal, which would increase China's gas tax 15-20 fold instead of 5 fold. However, it sounds to me like the right move. We have seen in the US that, with gas at $4 a gallon, people really started to change their behavior. There were fewer miles driven, and a noticeable movement away from gas guzzlers. SUVs became hard to sell. A substantial tax increase in China would certainly change people's behavior there as well. The current tendency to drive more and bigger cars more miles will certainly lead to an American-style consumption disaster.

Strangely, since Xinhua's report on China's gas tax increase on December 20, I've not seen any major US paper mention it. This is certainly not because the gas tax issue is not a major concern. NY Times, for example, had an excellent editorial a few days ago, on December 26, which argues eloquently the need to increase "The Gas Tax." However the editorial completely shies away from the fact that the Chinese are one step ahead of Americans in this. It is an uncomfortable truth after all.

Another possible reason that major US media outlets avoided reporting China's gas tax increase might be due to their politically oriented attitude in journalism.

A great op-ed columnist of the NY Times and a two-times Pulitzer winner, Thomas Friedman, has also been strongly advocating a gas tax hike. However, I was quite surprised, and all the more disappointed given my admiration of his writing, when I read one of his op-eds in August titled "Postcard from South China." That op-ed begins with a great point that Macau's gambling business largely cancels the power of Zhuhai's wind turbines, a poignant observation on human conduct. (IMO, both Las Vegas and Macau are contributing to mankind's self-destruction.) However Friedman ends his piece vacuously with a mocking postcard and, because of ideological differences, dismisses all attempts in China to develop a cleaner economy. A demonstration that even a great journalist can sometimes be fooled by his own strong attitude.

"The problem for the ruling Communist Party is this: China can’t have a greener society without empowering citizens to become watchdogs and allowing them to sue local businesses and governments that pollute," Friedman writes. While this sounds profound and indisputable, what is his point, really? Does it mean that the Chinese should stop their efforts to develop a greener society and instead engage in a revolution to overturn the government first? Does it mean that the right political solution is the absolute premise of any economic solution? If so, since America has the absolutely best political system in the world, shouldn't its economic and environmental problems be solved already? Unfortunately, that is not the case.

I can see why Friedman hates China's political system. I don't particularly like it either. However, the attitude that always ties non-political issues with politics does not help. America is the world’s largest energy consumer, China is second. China is the world’s largest greenhouse gas producer, America is second. Any effort in either country toward a greener economy should be encouraged rather than ridiculed. The two countries should learn from each other, and be willing to follow suit when a good idea emerges in either one.

I should mention that, a non-political American publication, Morningstar, did report on China's increased gas tax. "We believe the reform is a major step toward reducing the distortions in fuel pricing and making sure consumption taxes are proportional to actual usage," stock strategist Dan Su comments. Nice to see someone is paying attention, though his name does sound Chinese.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Most Accomplished American President

By Weigeng Shi, guest blogger

It is Bush 43. His biggest accomplishments include (this is by no means a complete list):

  • Liberating American privacy;
  • Making possible the election of the first black president in US history (even if that hadn't happened it would have been the first woman president);
  • Bringing Florida, where the 2000 election was decided, five of its biggest hurricanes;
  • Reinvigorating the word "depression," which had fallen out of use since WWII;
  • Starting a war from scratch (he is the first modern American president to do so);
  • Getting bipartisan support to nationalize banks (he is also single-handedly doing the same for the auto industry);
  • Growing executive power enough to prevent serious legislative checks;
  • Eradicating crime in New Orleans, even though temporarily;
  • Successfully dismantling the Republican Party;
  • Bestowing the control of both the House and the Senate to the Democrats.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

"Thirteen Books that Changed America"

Monday morning, my friend Jessica alerted me that Jay Parini was going to be on WBUR's "On Point with Tom Ashbrook." She told me this because she knew how much I admire Jay and his writing.

I first met Jay when I attended Bread Loaf Writers Conference under a fiction scholarship in the summer of 2005. Jay was the instructor for my group of twelve writers. We each brought a short story manuscript to workshop. The morning before we workshopped my story, Jay told me he dreamed about Sail, the 10-year-old protagonist in my story. "Sail is such an unforgettable character," Jay said to me. These were the warmest words I had ever heard about my writing, especially surprising as they came from such a prominent author, at a low point of my writing career. I had submitted that story to many magazines, only to receive form rejections. Toward the end of the conference, Jay surprised me even more by recommending the story for the Best New American Voices anthology. Though in the end it did not get in, Jay had saved my writing career. That story, now titled "Feathers," is included in Apologies Forthcoming.

After the conference, I occasionally emailed Jay. I did so a bit gingerly, worrying about disturbing him. But he always replied. He has no airs. This is a rare quality in a great writer, in a time when it's common for established authors to be dismissive of newcomers. Jay stands out not only for his masterful writing, deep insights and great humor, but also his generosity and big heart. He has won forever my respect and fondness.

Listening to Jay's talk on WBUR Monday, I was very pleased to find that his new book, Promised Land: Thirteen Books That Changed America, is just what I need. I've always wanted to learn about American history more systematically and thoroughly; what a fun way to do it via discussion of influential books! Jay's book comes just in time for me to get myself a very nice Christmas gift.

Here are the thirteen books Jay is talking about (h/t www.onpointradio.org):

- Of Plymouth Plantation (1620-47), by William Bradford
- The Federalist Papers (1787-88)
- The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (1793)
- The Journals of Lewis and Clark (1803-06)
- Walden (1854), by Henry David Thoreau
- Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), by Harriet Beecher Stowe
- Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885), by Mark Twain
- The Souls of Black Folk (1903), by W.E.B. DuBois
- The Promised Land (1912), by Mary Antin
- How to Win Friends and Influence People (1936), by Dale Carnegie
- The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care (1946), by Benjamin Spock
- On the Road (1957), by Jack Kerouac
- The Feminine Mystique (1963), by Betty Friedan

Interestingly, and I'm quite proud to say, during my childhood and youth I've read at least three of the thirteen in Chinese translation (in comparison, my American husband had only read two: "Walden and Huck Finn," he said), which are:

- The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin
- Uncle Tom’s Cabin
- Huckleberry Finn

As I recall, those were popular books in China at the time. Ironically though, Uncle Tom’s Cabin had served as evidence to support China's anti-America propaganda in the 1960s and 70s. And all of us school kids had bought into the notion that the capitalist America had nothing good but was full of racial discrimination and labor exploitation. This is not much different from the way average Americans view China today: that the communist country has nothing good but is full of human rights suppression and government corruption. I'm sure Americans got that simplified notion from reading some well-written books, just like we Chinese did. Once again, reading diversely is crucial for real understanding.

On the radio, in answering an audience question, Jay said another book, Whitman's Grass, would have been the 14th in his list but was reluctantly left out because not many people read it upon its original publication. Interestingly though, the Chinese translation of Grass was a most popular poetry book among Chinese writers and poets when I lived in China.

Now I wonder, if I come up with a list of 13 most influential contemporary Chinese books, how many would have been introduced to America? I wouldn't even ask how many have been read by Americans.

Another thought: it would be an interesting research to find out which American books have been most influential in China. I can think of a few already. I would love to conduct this research if someone is willing to sponsor it.

"Reading is thinking, and writing is thinking," Jay said on the radio. That is exactly what I feel. Thank you, Jay, for saying this!

The holiday is upon us and let me stop here for now. Merry Christmas, everyone!

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

On "Translationese"

Lucas Klein correctly asserts in his Rain Taxi review of Apologies Forthcoming that the value of my writing "is to convey to an American audience the emotional complexities of individuals amidst the historical change of recent Chinese history." I find consolation that a discerning reader and reviewer has recognized my intention in realistically portraying individuality of Chinese people even in a time of collectivism.

In terms of writing style, on the other hand, Klein raises an interesting – and recurrent – issue. He writes:

Written in English, the stories often narrate with an awareness of the distance between the circumstances told and the circumstances of their being read. While the narrative voice tends toward a native fluency, quotations of speech or writing often come across in a kind of translationese. At its most productive, the styles of English and Chinese are blended, as when a character in "Second Encounter" is described as having "to spend too many lips and tongues in explanation." Too often, however, the stylistic switch locks the Chinese language into an essentialized otherness, and Chinese speakers come across as linguistically clumsy.

Not coincidentally, the same issue of "translationese," or "Chineseness" in English writing, has concerned other readers and reviewers as well, for example in Cliff Garstang's review, see discussion in an earlier post titled "On Chineseness". In that post the same example is mentioned ("to spend too many lips and tongues in explanation") – what a coincidence! – though with an opposite view.

I appreciate very much Klein's recognition that such stylistic switch is by design. He has noticed, again correctly, my purposeful use of the "translationese" style in dialogue, as opposed to the more standard English expressions in the narrative voice. And he isn't the only one. Matthew of Waiguoren Critic of South China, for example, writes in his review:

One quirk of Xujun's writing is the dialogue. It's not typical dialogue by American standards, but it is a close translation of Chinese speech, which helps to portray more of the culture to readers.

Obviously, my dialogue-writing approach has met with different reactions. My rationale is exactly what Matthew points out, that the "Chineseness" in dialogue can help portraying realistic characters in the context of their culture. As Chinese, in our real-life daily dialogues, folk adages (俗语), two-part allegorical sayings (歇后语)and even 4-character idioms (成语) are a common occurrence. To me, nothing reflects the thousands of years of Chinese culture more than the language. So why not use it with as many of the native idiosyncrasies in place as possible when writing in English? There is also, of course, the intentional effect of "otherness" – in Klein's word – to be considered.

Interestingly, there is often an English saying corresponding to a Chinese adage with nearly identical meaning and connotation. For example, in English "shoot yourself in the foot" and in Chinese "drop a rock on your own foot" (搬起石头砸自己的脚) . Apparently, when the English invented guns Chinese were still using rocks as weapon :-). If I invoke such a saying in a Chinese story dialogue, which form should I use? Naturally and without hesitation, my choice would be the latter. The reason, again, is the cultural context.

Do I sound convincing? Still, things are not that simple. I have heard several readers and reviewers expressing their feeling of occasional "awkwardness" while reading my book, for example see the latest Amazon review by Linda Austin. And they do have a valid point.

The problem as I see it is not the "translationese" but how to blend English and Chinese expressions in a seamless way, and that is the hard part, as the two languages are, well, not designed for blending. But this is not to say improvement is impossible. One way to do it might be to break long lines into short parts, to make the "translationese" appear more like accent and with less frequency.

Right now I'm proof-reading Apologies Forthcoming for its Asian edition (again in English), which is scheduled for publication by Blacksmith Books around the coming holiday season. I see this as an opportunity for improvement. If anyone who has read my book found a particularly awkward expression, I'd appreciate it very much if you could tell me.

Okay, I've just found one myself, in "Disciple of the Masses":

Then he told her, “They’ll be here. Don’t worry. Who’d have eaten a leopard’s gallbladder to disobey Chairman Mao’s instructions, huh?” He laughed.

Perhaps I should change " Who’d have eaten a leopard’s gallbladder to disobey Chairman Mao’s instructions, huh?" to " Who’d dare to disobey Chairman Mao’s instructions, huh? Unless he has eaten a leopard’s gallbladder." What do you think?

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Rain Taxi Review of "Apologies Forthcoming"

In the mail today came a surprising holiday gift – the Winter 2008/2009 issue of Rain Taxi, sent by my publisher. When I took the magazine out of the envelop, it was opened to page 7, where a nice review of my book Apologies Forthcoming appears.

I don't know Lucas Klein – the reviewer – and I didn't find his introduction in the magazine. So I googled, which led me to an unusual literary e-zine called Cipher Journal. Given that the review opens with an adage of Confucius, I suspect the editor is the same Lucas Klein, who apparently knows Chinese. So, if you happen to subscribe to Rain Taxi, enjoy Klein's review, which is in print only. Otherwise,enjoy his Cipher Journal online.

By the way, an interview with my favorite literary critic, James Wood, also appears in this issue of Rain Taxi. In addition, the magazine is running a benefit auction right now, and you can find some very nice, even rare, books in their list.

Monday, December 15, 2008

The Mosuo Walking Marriage on Lugu Lake (1)

by Maple, guest blogger

(Note: Some of you already know that Maple is an avid traveler and photographer. This is one of her latest travelogues, posted in two parts. See also her Dream Left on Covered Bridges 廊桥遗梦, and Yuyuan Taiji Celestial Village. - Xujun)

[in translation]

Ten years ago, what first brought me to Lugu Lake was a travel magazine photo. In that photo Lugu Lake was like a sparkling gem, inlayed on the northwest Yunnan highlands, the water's radiating reflections and the mountains' rich colors comprising an unsurpassed beauty.

I did not know much then about the rare continuation of the Mosuo people's matriarchal tradition. At the time Lugu Lake was a newly developed tourist attraction. The entire village had only one or two guest houses, two-floor wooden lodges made by the locals. Upstairs were bedrooms. On the ground level was the spacious central room, in the middle of which a huge fire pit burning wood day and night. On the fire buttered tea was boiling; in the fire fresh potatoes and corn were roasting.

Lugu Lake

In the house I stayed at there was an old grandmother, who sat in a big wooden bed cushioned with a thick sheep wool blanket, and smiled at me kindly. She did not speak Mandarin, and I didn't know the Mosuo language, so the only thing I could do was to smile back at her. We smiled at each other for probably a couple of minutes or longer, but neither of us felt awkward. Then she went to the fire pit and dug out two cobs of roasted corn, deliciously aromatic. She patted the residual ashes off the cobs with her furrowed hands before giving them to me. I obediently sat by her and ate. She looked at me; the warmth of a tender affection in her eyes made me remember my late grandma.

During the next few days I noticed that men and women in the house all revered the grandmother. When eating they held the best food to her first. When sleeping they kept the warmest place for her. For everything they asked her opinion first.

I asked her son, This place is called a "girls kingdom," does it mean women have the highest status? And he told me about the Mosou tradition of "A'xia," or "walking marriage." The man and woman in such a relationship each lives with his and her own mother. The man comes to the woman at night and leaves at dawn. All their children are raised by the woman. The two sides have no ties in terms of production, living, or properties. Their relationship emphases love, and they marry freely and part at will.

I was not impressed. Such a marriage is not protected by law. Wouldn't things fall into chaos? A woman can have many men and a man can have many women. Children don't even know who their real father is.

Mosuo woman

But the son said to me in all seriousness: Don't you Han people also have unfaithful men? The situation does exist among Mosou, some men to have "walking marriages" with several women. However usually a man has a relationship with only one woman at a time. When a couple fall out of love, the man simply stops "walking" to the woman, there is no property dispute or custody fight. It's not like you Han people who turn into enemies because of a divorce.

In every Mosuo family, the household head is the oldest woman. The grandmother in the house I stayed had two sons and three daughters. The oldest daughter had been in a "walking marriage" for three years already and they had a boy. Her other two sisters were still young. Both brothers were in their twenties and every night they went out for their "walking marriage." The older brother had a daughter, raised by the baby's mother.

Mosuo cats

I was both confused and curious. That night I begged the oldest daughter to take me to their "guozhuang" dance party. Mosuo women are natural sopranos. The woman's singing of "Qinhai and Tibet Highlands" stunned all the Han tourists.

At that time the Lugu Lake area did not have street lights. The oldest daughter and I walked home in the dark, behind us were a bunch of men holding touches, chatting and laughing. I asked, Is your boyfriend among them? Is he coming to you tonight? I want to see how handsome he is. She laughed bashfully, pointing a finger at me but couldn't talk. Not until we reached the door when she whispered to me that it was still early, time for men to drink and chat. He would come late in the night, after everybody at home had gone to bed.

I became more curious. You two already have a son, how come you are still so shy about it? Her face turning red and she laughed again. She pulled my long hair and complained, Why are you asking about everything? I'm not talking any more. Her expression made me yearn for the Mosuo love.

I imagined myself as a strong Mosuo man, on a night with a bright moon and thin stars, rowing a boat carved of a whole tree trunk, from the island in the lake, knocking my lover's door. Not for money, not for status, not even for progeny, just for love, pure love.

Mosuo man

That night by the fire pit, I asked my host's youngest daughter, Your sister's son is only a few months old, and she needs to work in the day, tending her walking marriage in the night, who takes care of the baby? The girl looked surprised by the question. We all take care of him, she said, whoever has the time. He's OUR son.

Children call all women at home "Ama." The grandmother, aunts and uncles are all their guardians.

Now, ten years later, I arrive at Lugu Lake again. It has become a hot tourist attraction. The lakeside is full of bars, shops, and hotels. Tourists do not come in groups of two or three carrying backpacks; they pour out of buses and cars. Using the words of a friend, who has been running a teahouse here for a decade, "It is horrible!"

Fortunately there are still misty waves on the lake of the horse hoof shape. Fat clouds in the blue sky are still exaggeratedly gorgeous. Water reflecting mountain, mountain shimmering with dew, Lugu Lake is still like a fairyland. Perhaps even more fortunate, the transportation is still backward. From the nearest travel center Lijiang is 200 kilometer and takes nearly10 hours winding up the mountains. I don't want to imagine, if there were a highway, or an airport, what would happen to Lugu Lake.

Mosuo dog

What would happen? My teahouse owner friend replies, Of course my business would be even better. Apples and walnuts from the mountains would be easier to sell to outside.

Don't you know that the ancient town Dayan in Lijiang has been destroyed by the endless development of tourist business? Do you want Lugu Lake to become the next Dayan? I say to my friend.

You don't understand, my friend pats my shoulder tolerantly; Mosuo people have the instinct of self-preservation. What you worry about won't happen here. (To be continued)

(All photos by Maple Xu, ©Copyright 2008, Maple Xu)

Friday, December 12, 2008

Harvard Student Observing Beijing's Gay Club

(Introduction: Samantha Deng, who speaks fluent Chinese, is a Harvard student studying abroad at a renowned university in Beijing for a year. The following is an excerpt from her report for a Medical Sociology observation project, posted with permission. – Xujun)

Destination is a Double-Edged Sword

by Samantha Deng

Building designed to escape rather than attract attention

Destination ("目的地") is the most well known gay bar and nightclub in Beijing. Located on Gongti West Road, it is directly across the street from a strip of popular nightclubs, bars, and restaurants frequented by expatriates and locals alike. I visited the club on a Friday night in November with two other girls and arrived around 10:30 at night.

Unlike its flashy neighbors with their ground-to-roof neon lights and large flat-screen televisions, the exterior of Destination is very modest and discreet, seemingly designed to escape (rather than attract) attention. The building that houses the club is about six stories high and looks modestly residential.

At the time of our arrival, all the windows were dark, and the blinds were drawn. A dark brown stone wall about two meters tall surrounds the building and blocks the first floor windows from view. On the building is a small lighted sign with the club’s name in English and Chinese. There are two doors facing the main streets but are sealed off with a red string on which hang small gray signs that point the visitor left with the words “酒吧入口” in Chinese and “Enter” in English.

A male staff member dressed all in black stood near the blocked doors and helpfully directed confused visitors to a gate on the side. Through this rusty iron gate, one stepped into a small courtyard, and on the other side – effectively in the back of the building – one finally sees the entrance to the club, guarded on either side by traditional Chinese stone lions.

Seven people staffed the well-lit room one first enters. Two were men dressed all in black who visually scanned every visitor walking in. The entrance fee was 60 RMB, and the ticket stub is redeemable for a drink up to that price inside. Based on my experiences, this price is comparable to middle-ranged clubs in the city, but it may nevertheless be expensive for the average Beijing resident and prevent frequent visits.

The club does not have separate restrooms for women and men; instead, each floor has one restroom that has both urinals and stalls. This arrangement is most likely a reflection of both the dearth of women visiting the club and the lack of sexual threat between people of different sexes here.

Women far fewer and noticeably less vivacious than the men

At its fullest, Destination held close to two hundred people, the overwhelming majority of which was male. The handful of women that were present was scattered in male-dominated groups and were noticeably less vivacious than the men.

The majority of men at Destination are the Hip Youths type, look to be in their late teens or early twenties, and exude an air of familiarity, even ownership, in the club.

One young man who typifies this came in a small group of about four. He wore a fitted white t-shirt with a colorful design in front and tight black jeans. Upon arriving in an upstairs room, he saw that a large vacant sofa, plopped himself down, and loudly beckoned his friends to join him. A moment later, he recognized another group of young men standing near the bar and rushed over, loudly exchanging greetings and hugs.

Another core type is the Older Men, though far fewer than the Hip Youths, they nevertheless occupy central positions within the club. In their early- to mid-thirties, the Older Men dress more conservatively than the Hip Youths in looser fitting clothes and are generally less active. They seem to frequent the bar and know other people there. One group that consisted of perhaps four foreigners and a slightly larger number of Chinese sat at a bar for a long time chatting animatedly with each other. More than once, one member would stop someone walking past that he recognized and the newcomer would stop to talk with the group. Both the behaviors of the Hip Youths and the Older Men described above suggest the existence of a “community” at Destination.

There are also Peripheral Observers and Outsiders. For example, during the course of the night I saw two old men who were at least sixty years old. They were in the club separately talking with a few young men, and neither stayed very long. The Outsiders, numbering very few, are people in the club who are not gay. One white heterosexual couple, for example, danced affectionately on the dance floor for about ten minutes before exiting. Another example was a twenty-year-old Korean man who did not realize that Destination is a gay club before entering. He expressed shock and slight disgust upon discovering the sexual orientation of the men around him.

"Five minutes into our acquaintances, he bluntly asked me to marry him"

We spoke with three men, who were of the Older Men type, for over an hour. They have been to Destination many times and befriended each other at the club. They did not know that we were at the club for an observation study, and they may have assumed that we were homosexuals as well.


Walter is a 30-year-old pop-music composer originally from
Shanxi. Except for a small black round stub on his left earlobe, he bears none of the stereotypical “gay” traits. He is about 1.8 meters tall, broad shouldered and fit, and his hair is cut in a neat buzz cut. He wore a long-sleeved black shirt with jeans. He readily told us about his experiences as a gay man in China and expressed his views on politics, culture, and homosexual life. Despite his openness, however, even after a full hour of conversation that touched upon many sensitive topics, Walter disclosed only his last name and nickname and withheld his full name, suggesting an impulse to preserve anonymity.

From the very beginning, Walter emphasized how lonely it feels to be a homosexual in China, repeating the phrase “孤独” two separate times. Consequently, he loves going to gay-concentrated places like Destination and saunas around Beijing to be with other gays. Even though these places present high-risk situations, he feels relaxed there. Despite the existence of these locations, however, he expressed disappoint in the gay scene in Beijing. Like many gays who are not native to Beijing, he had high expectations for this international city but found too many restrictions when he arrived.

For Walter, strained relationship in the family is a large factor causing the sense of loneliness. Although he criticized the religious-moral casting of homosexuality as a sin in the West, he nevertheless applauded Westerners’ recognition of homosexuality as being a distinct separate category from heterosexuality. He, however, gets no such recognition from his family. His parents had described his behavior as “disgusting” (“
恶心”); his sister, who is less socially conservative, had expressed regret that he cannot marry and have children (and thus continue the bloodline). Walter’s description of his family members’ opinions implied that they only see and condemn the deviant behavior without recognizing the innate difference between homosexuals and heterosexuals. In doing so, his family members are effectively denying him twice: with respect to both his homosexuality and his moral judgment.

Walter’s own views on homosexuality are a combination of the theories that sexuality is genetically predisposed and that it is environmentally cultivated. He argued that since ancient times, people have always displayed an aesthetic appreciation and attraction for the body, whether male or female. His sexual attraction for the male body, he implied, is only an extension of that primitive impulse. On the other hand, he off-handedly remarked that had Hu Jingtao grew up in a more socially liberal society in the West, the Chinese president would be gay (Walter pointed to Hu’s effeminate gestures and high-pitched voice as evidence). Walter phrased this assertion in such as way to suggest that Hu is not currently in the closet, but rather, he did not have the space to develop his homosexuality in China.

Walter’s overall attitude toward Chinese politics and society was critical. He especially cited the education system for the stifling constraints it imposed on children and criticized the Chinese government for masking many cruelties it performed to present the Olympic Games. He described himself as a deviant who has always been last ranked in his class in school. However, Walter remained optimistic about the future. He argued that Chinese culture is very “vibrant” (“活跃”), as evident by the dominance of the color red, and can readily embrace differences.


Charles is a man from Chongqing also in his early thirties who works in media. Short, stout, and bald, he wore a white t-shirt and jeans. After approximately five minutes of our acquaintances, he bluntly asked me to marry him. He explained that his seventy-year-old mother’s only wish in life is for him to get married, and he would like to do so to make her happy. He promised that he will financially provide for his bride his whole life and will willingly grant a divorce should she fall in love with another man. As with Walter, his family’s inability to understand that homosexuality extends beyond just behaviors that defy filial piety (namely, not marrying and having children) was causing Charles much stress.


Victor is a golf club executive from Taiwan who wore a buttoned-down long-sleeve shirt with rainbow-colored stripes. He did not speak with us much, preferring instead to converse with Charles or poke fun at the loquaciousness of Walter. He willingly bought drinks for his friends. Victor said that he comes to Destination about once a month.

A Double-Edged Sword

This visit to Destination offered a peek into the homosexual community in Beijing. On one hand, places like Destination offer gays who feel alienated in their everyday life a space to show their sexuality openly and to be with others like them. On the other hand, these gay-concentrated places also pose major health risk for their visitors. As Walter pointed out, the jubilation of finding other gay men may prompt some to engage in unsafe sexual behavior that result in the spread of sexually-transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDS. In addition, the sense of total relaxation may cause these men to engage in other unhealthy behavior: the three men we spoke with smoked cigarettes and drank alcohol without stop for the entirety of our conversation, which lasted over an hour. The other men near us were also chain-smoking, and the bar tenders even gave out free cigarettes.

That places like Destination represent both a psychology alleviation of pain and a space for perpetuating public health dangers suggests that the reduction of these health risks require more than just direct education about the illness. The observations from Destination indicate that a more effective and permanent solution to curb the spread of sexually transmitted diseases among gay men, especially HIV/AIDS, would address the social stigma that homosexuality carries in Chinese society. When gay men can be themselves and display romantic behavior in public just like heterosexuals, the lure of unsafe sex in bars and sauna will no doubt diminish. Social acceptance of homosexuality is thus an important step in preventing psychological and physical harm for this large social group.

[1]The names of these three men are altered to conceal their identity.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Melamine on Wall Street

There are some odd parallels between America's financial crisis and the tainted milk scandal in China. In each case greed, combined with a lack of proper governance, caused the crisis. In each case there were laws, bank oversight and credit evaluation standards, or food purity regulations, that should have prevented the crises.

A Chinese milk farmer who was arrested for adding melamine said he knew the chemical is not human food, and his family doesn't drink his adulterated milk. However he had no idea of the actual consequences, and never thought about it. For him, adding melamine was another investment risk necessary for doing business. The vaguer knowledge of the consequences, the fewer qualms he felt. But the ignorance did not prevent him from being arrested. To him the whole concept of his actions causing kidney failure in infants was as baffling as, say, a mortgage backed derivative.

One would think Harvard educated Robert Rubin, Treasury Secretary for Clinton administration and economic advisor for Obama's Transition, would know a lot more than an uneducated Chinese farmer. Yet it was this Robert Rubin who saw no red flags as he led Citigroup to make bold bets, who pushed for a more aggressive approach toward risk-taking that eventually resulted in Citi's demise.

I can see how those traders on the financial front lines selling mortgage backed derivatives and inflating credit ratings probably did not understand exactly what they were doing. They may have known something was wrong. They may also have shied away from their own creations when building their personal portfolios. But they did not see the consequences. They were just taking necessary risks to further business goals.

But for an economic expert like Robert Rubin? Either he, like the farmer, was blinded by greed, or the financial system he believes in has something inherently wrong. Or both.

The financial crisis has upset Americans for many of the same reasons the tainted milk upset the Chinese. The difference is, while what the Chinese milk farmer did was illegal, what the traders and companies in the US did is legal, and a lack of understanding actually prevents the guilty from being arrested.

What the poor Chinese farmer did was to make one gallon of milk look like two gallons and still pass the nutrition test. Buying melamine was cheaper than producing real milk. He had discovered his way to wealth through leverage. Had he lived in the US, he needn't bother with melamine, because he could get a lot bigger leverage LEGALLY.

Leverage, of course, is fabulously effective way to make amazing amounts of money. Homes could be bought with no money down, stocks bought with the slimmest of margins, and derivatives could be created without constraints from their underlying basis. Who would have thought it was leading to the credit collapse and market meltdown?

True, without the leverage a lot less "wealth" might have been generated. House prices would never have gone as high. The stock market would not have seen the gains it had. But what do the high-leverage derivatives do, really? Do the fortunes thus created actually create goods and services? Do they stimulate healthy productivity growth, or simply feed the greed and increase market volatility? Do we get more milk, or just milk that tastes different and make us sick?

The tainted derivatives are the melamine on the market. Yet Americans aren't shying away from them. Instead they are treated as an advantage of the financial system. As a Chinese saying goes, "The biting dog does not bark." The unseen poisons of derivatives are more damaging than melamine.

Worse yet, now the concept of derivatives is likely to be imported into China's financial market. Some insiders are hoping China will begin to trade derivatives next year. That is, China's financial system is poised to follow in America's steps.

I remember in 2000, before the tech bubble burst, one day at a Chinese neighbor's party I heard the host explaining the concept of derivative trading to a man visiting from China. The visitor, who had never heard such a concept before, was in awe and became visibly excited, arms dancing and eyes shining, in the hope one day China would also be trading such "advanced" novelties. Well, his dream may soon be realized. When that happens, Chinese people will not be so lucky to escape the damage the way Americans skipped melamine tainted Chinese milk. I just hope the stewardship of China's financial system falls to someone wiser than Robert Rubin and such a calamity can be avoided. It's not too late to stop introducing derivatives trading into China's financial market.

One final note: apparently, milk tainted with melamine is causing a new problem in China. There is too much of it; the cost of disposing is too high; dumping it into rivers increases toxicity. Now a food safety official in Canton has found a solution: burning the bad milk to make nice bricks.

With tainted derivatives, however, there will be no such clever way to "turn a bad thing into good." The only thing they will be burning is money. Tax payers' money.

(image from ChinaDaily.com)

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Chinese Activists Take Issue with Richardson Nomination

(Read also the comments below the articles)

Mercury News, Dec. 2: "Chinese-American activists oppose any Bill Richardson cabinet nomination"

[Related links]
CNN report: Dec. 3: "Obama nominates Richardson for Cabinet"
CNN Commentary, Dec. 5: "Obama ignored Latinos for top posts"
WashingtonPost.com, Dec.5: "Ranking the Cabinet Confirmation Prospects"

[Historical link]
AP, June 23, 2000: " Congressmen attack Richardson"

[In Chinese]

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Three Sides to Every Coin

A few years ago, one day my daughter came home from school saying, "Mommy, now I know what country China is." "What country?" "It is a country people eat babies!" I was surprised and asked her where that was from. It turned out her English class was reading Pearl Buck's novel The Good Earth. This image of China stayed with my daughter for quite some time. More than once when the country was mentioned in conversation, she would make a face: "Ew, China. People eat babies."

I read The Good Earth long time ago in Chinese and don't remember such a detail. No matter. Granted, that sort of thing is hardly in fiction only. Historically, during severe famines, even as recent as in 1959-61, baby-eating did occur. I myself have interviewed an eye-witness, so did the author of a recent book The Corprse Walker. Still, only a child would take one detail as representative of a country. Or so you'd think.

My generation of Chinese are all familiar with the fable "Blind men touching an elephant," because it was in one of our elementary school textbooks. Four blind men, each basing his conclusion on the part of the elephant touched, view the big animal as a column (leg), rope (tail), wall (body), and fan (ear) respectively. They argue fiercely and no one can convince another.

I had thought the lesson from this fable was clear. But now I have a new question: can any of the parts, leg, tail, body or ear be called representative of the elephant?

Turns out, taking a particular part of a thing and believing it as the whole is common in human behavior, not just the vocation of children and blind men. Perhaps even more so among adults with perfectly normal sights.

A few years ago I attended a writers conference in Vermont. In my group there was a woman, a Ph.D. candidate, who claimed she had read two books about China. When we workshopped a short story of mine, in which a child fed a few rice grains to a sparrow, the woman angrily protested that my story didn't ring true at all. Why? "From the books I read, Chinese people were very poor and didn't have food to eat. How could there be spare rice for a sparrow?" It didn't matter where and when my story was set (or that I had actually done this as a child). There was a particular image of China carved into the woman's brain and that wouldn't change no matter what. And she was hardly a stupid person.

I can tell you many such stories but to what end? There is a Chinese saying, "To move mountain and river is easier than changing human nature." I'm an incorrigible pessimist.

So it was a consolation when, last night, I read on the "Frog in a Well" blog a post titled "Lost Stories." The author is a young woman who recently graduated from college. In her post she compared two books that tell different stories and views of the Cultural Revolution. She says in reference to Wild Swans:

I had always taken these kinds of memoirs for granted, and I admit, I am still shocked when Chinese people talk to me about their experiences as zhiqing and how they were truly positive experiences that helped to shape their own personas, unlike the way it is painted in Wild Swans. It also made me think of other historical events and how we imagine everyone to have lived the lives of the few whose lives we read about. Do we think of the Japanese army in such a holistic way in World War II because of the Rape of Nanjing? We probably make similar assessments about American history; even though I know it is not true, I can’t help but think of all Americans in the Great Depression as the Joad family from the Grapes of Wrath. Historians claim to know that their are too many narratives to possibly record, and there are millions of interpretations of one similar event; but how do we effectively, especially in a class, show the plethora of interpretations of one 10 year period?

I haven't read Some of Us, the book that started her thinking, though I did hear about it. But it matters little to me whether this young woman's particular opinion on those books agrees with mine or not. What is remarkable is that, at her young age, she has begun to realize a simple fact: a country, a history, a culture is not a uniform iron board; it is a huge variation of people, behavior, and views. There is really no such a thing as a "representative" story. To hail a book such as Wild Swans as more historically significant than others is a misleading concept. The author of Wild Swans was raised in a high-ranking Party official's family and her perspective was limited to that background. A then-rebellion or Red Guard who fought against Party officials like her father would tell a different story from a different point of view. The two sides had taken turns to be victims and victimizers. They together, along with others, made the history of the Cultural Revolution, not just one side.

In the comments under the above-mentioned post, some raised the question of whether memoirs are appropriate in undergraduate history courses. However, the issue is not with a particular genre. It is using ONE book, memoir or not, to teach that causes a problem. If a teacher could find books with different views of the same period, I'm sure the students would learn much more. In other words, to be even vaguely close to the real history, a historical teacher ought to teach the concept of variety instead of looking for what is the most "significant" or "representative."

I'm reading Postcards from Tomorrow Squarer: Reports from China by James Fallows right now and I applaud his emphasis on the tremendous individualism and nonconformisim of Chinese culture. And I'm hoping his book will convince some less rigid-minded readers to realize just that.

(Coin image from www.charm.ru)

China's Mass Incidents and Government Response

Here's a good synthesized report by Chris O'Brien on China's recent mass incidents and the government's change of strategy in response. It presents varied views on whether such change means progress.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Jeff Wasserstrom on Lijia Zhang's Memoir

Today on The China Beat, Jeff Wasserstrom, professor of history at UC Irvine and a reknowned China expert, comments on Lijia Zhang's memoir “Socialism is Great!” - A Worker’s Memoir of the New China, and reflects on his own experience in 1980s Shanghai. In his post, "A Soulful Memoir of 1980s China," Prof. Wasserstrom also has a few nice words about my book Apologies Forthcoming, in which several stories are set in the 1980s China.

Now I must get Lijia Zhang's memoir and Prof. Wasserstrom's new book, Global Shanghai, to read.