Friday, April 18, 2008

Learning About China

I walked away from National Geographic's Inside the Dragon event the other night with two lessons echoing in my head.

It is impossible to "get" China.

The journalists and photographers who talked about and presented their work demonstrated, if nothing else, the diversity of the land known as the "Middle Kingdom." China is composed of an array of incredibly different places, from mega-cities like Shànghǎi to locations that are as isolated as any in the world. These places are called home by dozens of minority groups (including Tibetans and Uighers), and who knows how many languages and dialects are spoken by these peoples. (Good luck to those of us who are trying to learn the "Queen's Mandarin!") The bottom line is that you can't convincingly boil China down to a 30-second sound bite, no matter how hard you might try.

A useful way of approaching China is from the "bottom up."

Rather than trying to get one's mind around all of these places and cultures by focusing on the country's leadership and what is going on at the very top of government and society, it probably makes more sense to start at the bottom, so to speak. That is, focus on individual people and families, on particular business enterprises, on certain public decisions and events. Chronicle these people and their experiences. In my case, for example, study laws not as they are written in the legislature (there is not much that really needs to be said about the National People's Congress). Instead, track how regulations are developed and implemented at the street level. Who is participating? Does their participation matter?

None of this is to suggest that there can't be a body of cumulative knowledge about China, not by a long shot. But what we ought to be doing is thinking like reporters (i.e., working from anecdotes), and acting like social scientists (i.e., looking for general patterns that come out of individual stories). At least this is how I see things at the moment, thanks to Peter Hessler and company!

~Steve

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Where's It Gonna Be?

By the way, the four of us are still waiting to hear what city we will be living in when we move to China (which is happening in only three or four months...wow!). In the meantime, we have been keeping busy with our language studies, as well as taking care of the details that need to be arranged no matter where we end up.

Health care. We have always been insured through Montgomery County Public Schools, where Desi works. But with Desi taking a leave of absence, that is of course not an option (without doing that bank-breaking COBRA thing). So we will be switching over to one of GW's plans. Thankfully, since this is a "change in status" kind of event, we don't have to wait around for open enrollment.

The mail. A colleague of mine who is currently spending the year in Moscow tells me that bulk items aren't sent along when you have your mail forwarded to another address. This is good news, as the vast majority of our important communications (creditors and so forth) will be electronic. Good news, that is, for whoever it is that agrees to do this for us!

Physical exams. Fulbright requires that all four of us get checked out and cleared for life abroad. My exam is apparently the most extensive, which strikes me as a wee bit curious given that we all will be plopped down into the same foreign environment. (Yeah, I know that I am the grantee, but still...)

Julie's high school. Julie's first shadow visit is now under her belt, with a few more to come in the weeks ahead.

Property management. We have an agent coming by this Friday, probably to tell us that our house is a disaster and that no one in their right mind would want to rent it for a school year.

It seems like there should be more items on this list. (Or maybe each one of these tasks is just taking a long time to close out.) What am I missing, Des?

~Steve

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

A Real Life Family Circus

When I was a kid, I really liked opening up the Sunday paper and checking out Family Circus. You remember Family Circus, that comic strip where the kids blamed "Not Me" for everything bad that happened in the household.

My favorite strips were the ones where Billy or one of the other kids zigzagged around the house and the neighborhood, a dashed line marking every bird bath that was splashed in and every newly washed car that was jumped on.

Well, today is my Billy day...

Out the door by 7 am.

Sit in traffic on Connecticut Avenue, trying to figure out the best rush hour route to the Academy of the Holy Cross.

Drop Julie off at Holy Cross with a few minutes to spare.

Try an alternate way back toward Julie and Z's school, up Beach Drive through Rock Creek Park.

Look back at Z to verify that he is not joking about how he has just lost a tooth in the back seat.

Send Z on his way at school, a few minutes later than usual, but not bad given how we got there.

Drive back home, park the car, walk to the Metro, and head on down to campus.

Teach a class on regression analysis!

Eat leftover tacos for lunch (while editing an article I am writing).

Jump back on the Metro and head home (more editing).

Pick Julie up at Holy Cross.

Reconvene with Desi and Z back at the house, for an interlude of work.

Grab some dinner on the run, on the way to...

...the headquarters of National Geographic (downtown, near my office).

Take in "Inside the Dragon," a program by a couple of journalists and photographers who have covered China for many years (we are kind of interested in the topic...).

Drive out of Washington, DC and back to home, sweet home...

~Steve

Monday, April 14, 2008

Excited (and Nervous)

It is the night before my first high school experience. Tomorrow I will be shadowing at Holy Cross, and I am both excited and nervous. I can't wait to spend the whole day at a high school and see what it is like (lunch is included!). It is going to be so much fun, especially since I am shadowing one of my friends' sisters. I am a little nervous, though, because this is my first time shadowing at a high school ever. I have no idea what it will be like, but I am overall very excited.

~Julie