Saturday, October 18, 2008

A Sense of Completion

One aspect of life as an academic is that the work you are doing today...collecting data, teaching students...typically does not result in tangible accomplishments until much later on. In that regard, this week has been unusual, as I've been lucky enough to experience a sense of achievement in two different contexts.

The first is that I finished writing the first draft of a new piece of research, a paper titled "Neighborhood Information Systems as Intermediaries in Democratic Communities." Yes, it is a real page-turner! This paper is going to receive its first audience in a few weeks in Washington, DC, at the third meeting of the International Working Group on Online Consultation and Public Policy Making. (No, I will not be making the trip back for the meeting! My co-author, Sungsoo Hwang, will thankfully take the lead and deliver the presentation.) It's really nice to have wrapped up my first project here in China. This was a paper that I had done the research for before leaving the United States, but all of the writing, from start to finish, occurred right here in my office on Zhongguancun Lu. Pretty cool!

Meanwhile, a report I worked on back in the spring has just been publicly released. OMB Watch is an advocacy group that focuses on, among other things, the regulatory system in the United States. Essentially, OMB Watch pushes for a more open, transparent, and active regulatory system as it pertains to areas like health, safety, and the environment. One of OMB Watch's aims this year has been to produce a series of recommendations about reforming the regulatory system that could then be delivered to the next administration after Election Day. As part of this process, OMB Watch assembled several groups of academics and practitioners to hash out the details. The report of the group I was involved with covers a variety of issues, such as federal advisory committees, electronic rulemaking, and whisteblower protections. For those of you interested, the report can be accessed online here. Go check it out. I know I will. Given the time lag, I almost remember what it's about!

~Steve

Friday, October 17, 2008

Hallowhat?

Two weeks until one of our favorite and there are almost no signs of the season. Except, maybe, at Walmart. Well, if you can count this as such...

On one of my comparative shopping outings the other day, I made my way to the "not-so-local" Super Center (one bus, one subway), and while I was not expecting aisles and aisles of kiddie costumes and candy, what I did see was almost more compelling. There were two small racks near the bedding department that held several types of cheesy plastic masks, head bands, and accessories, as well as small plastic pumpkins meant for filling with Halloween treats. The question? Where are all the bags of Nestle Crunch, Reese's, Peppermint Patties, and Kit Kats that we'd normally fill them with? Not to be found. This year's little goblins will be receiving small bags of wasabi peas and mango pudding cups. No, not really. But I don't think we'll be seeing any goblins anyway (except, of course, ours!).

~Desi

What Is China's National Game?

Go ahead, give it a go! So, what is China's national game? Think!!! You guessed it...

Ping Pong!

One of my early purchases was a ping pong set. Step one complete. Now, where to find a table?

Our house!

In our apartment, we have a Mahjong table. Well, it opens into a larger table.

"Well, it's like the old days," said Dad. "Your uncle and I used to play ping pong on the table in Grammy and Grampy's kitchen."

Now we play almost every day! Wait until we get back!

~Zoli

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Surprise After Surprise

Well, that was an interesting sequence of events! Last night, I gave my first public lecture here in China, at Central University for Nationalities. Here are some of the highlights...

The students arrived late to pick me up. I guess I can't really label this a surprise. I mean, driving up Zhongguancun Lu at 6 pm is never a bargain.

My audience would not be students who study politics. Again, I shouldn't call this a surprise. The university told me, in their invitation, that I would be speaking in the School of Foreign Languages. These are students, it turns out, who do things like read Gone With the Wind and then compare it to Chinese literature. Not an audience I would normally expect at an American presidency lecture.

The students knew an awful lot about the election. Here's where I think language is the key. Since these students are highly proficient in English (remember, Gone With the Wind), they have the interest and tools to stay on top of what's happening in the United States. This point really hit me when one student asked, during Q&A, a question that went something like this..."Barack Obama has proposed allowing Americans to withdraw money from their IRAs with no penalty. Is this a new proposal? Or has it been proposed before?" My answer to that..."I have no idea."

I received some friendly advice from the Dean. When I arrived at the School of Foreign Languages, I was ushered into the Dean's office. There I sat down on this pleather sofa. (I think it's the identical sofa as the one in my office.) The Dean then welcomed me and quickly got down to business. "How long do you plan on speaking?" Now, since I had never received any instruction on this, I decided to plan about 40 minutes worth of material, like I normally would for an academic lecture back in the States. The rest of the time, I explained, we could leave for question and answer. The Dean's response? "There is so much to say about the American presidential election. You should speak for at least an hour, maybe an hour and a half." I think at one point he may have even suggested that I could take as much as two hours for my remarks. My response? No problem. I can speak for longer than 40 minutes. (It's hard sometimes to shut me up!) But I don't expect that I will speak for a full hour and a half. This compromise seemed to work, and the Dean quickly escorted me to the room where my audience was apparently waiting.

Remember the sea of black heads? Well, that was the sight I was greeted with. My talk was in this big room where every single seat was filled. Plus, there were lots of people standing in the back. Now, remember, we are behind schedule because of traffic problems. So who knows how long all of these students and others have been waiting. How many were there in all? I'm bad at estimating things like that. Maybe 100-200 people. It was quite a crowd.

One of my students from Beida attended the talk. When I mentioned to my class that I was going down to CUN to give a talk, one of my students told me that he did his undergraduate work there. Well, wouldn't you know it, when I looked out at the assembled masses, who did I spot but that student. I later saw him, after the talk, jumping on his bicycle, presumably to pedal the several miles back to PKU.

There was a ringer in the crowd. One of the other people I noticed right away was the only foreigner in the audience. Uh oh, I thought, who's this guy? Luckily, the two of us had a chance to chat for a few minutes before my talk began. (Inevitably, there were technical difficulties with the computer I was going to use for my PowerPoint slides.) Turns out, he's an American who is teaching at CUN. He apparently came to China to teach for one year. One week before he was supposed to return to the US, he asked himself why he would go back and leave all of this. So he threw out his plane ticket and decided to stick around. Now he's in his third year.

Another name for "tough questions." Here's what the very first student I called upon after my remarks were finished had to say. "I would like to ask three questions. I am afraid that my questions are very direct and pungent." (The emphasis was definitely on those last three words.) I scrambled for my legal pad, ready to scribble down notes and having no idea what I was about to get hit with. Just how direct and pungent did the questions turn out to be? Here's an example...you be the judge. "Did Hillary Clinton lose the election because she is a woman?"

"Would you be my friend?" After the talk was over, I was instructed to move quickly, as the university had hired a car to drive me back. The longer the car had to wait, I presumed was the implication, the more it would cost the school. Moving quickly, though, was not as easy as it sounds. There were people who wanted to take pictures. There were students who wanted to ask about studying in the United States. And then there was this one student who persisted in walking alongside me as I was led to the university gate. At one point she told me that I had "profound insight" into American politics. And then she asked me if we could be friends. How do you respond to that? I reminded her that I had given everyone my e-mail address and they should all feel free to get in touch with me if they have any questions or comments about what I talked about or anything broadly related to the study of politics and public policy. That response seemed to satisfy her and off into the night she went.

Did all of that really just happen?

~Steve

Watch Out!

One aspect of day-to-day life here in Beijing (and China more generally) that you have to get used to pretty quickly is the constant dodging of spit, vomit, dog poo, and baby pee as you walk down the street. I mean, the stuff is everywhere. If this doesn't become second nature to you, trust me, you'll be stepping in some pretty nasty fluids and substances.

And it's not just the sight of the stuff itself. There's the sound of people clearing their throats constantly and then hacking the results, no matter where they happen to be at the moment. The best (uh, worst) so far? When Desi and I were sitting in this little soup and dumpling joint, a guy at the table across from us...

Warning! Graphic Content Follows!

...placed his index finger against one of his nostrils and blew snot from out of the other side of his nose...onto the floor, next to his table, IN A RESTAURANT!

At least all of those babies with the split bottom pants (check out the picture) look cute when they're taking care of business...

~Steve

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

How Would You Like Your Exhaust Prepared?

There I am, pedaling my way from Yan Bei Yuan to the School of Government. I'm feeling pretty good. It's early in the morning, the kids have gotten on the bus, and I'm getting a little bit of exercise on the way to campus.

Then I hit Xi Yuan. This is a major crossroads for buses taking different routes. Kind of like Metro Center. Just add in all of those fumes being emitted by buses waiting on line to pick up their passengers.

Riding behind a bus, it accelerates. I inhale some stuff. I ride through an area where there are tons of buses loitering. More inhalation.

Maybe this whole ride-the-bike-to-school thing isn't so smart after all. Yeah, you save some time. But you plow right through the "bus-o-sphere." Not very pleasant.

So I got to thinking that maybe riding the bus was actually the better, healthier option. At least you're not out there with the exhaust blowing in your face. This idea lasted until one day I was sitting (standing?) on a crowded bus that was going nowhere. All of that junk was just permeating the warm and stagnant air I was sharing with dozens of my closest friends. Not very pleasant.

Should I be taking taxis? At least they don't get stuck at bus stops. Maybe they knife through the "bus-o-sphere" quickly enough to avoid major inhalation.

Never mind...

Taxi drivers smoke. (Remember that guy with whom I shared a nicotine moment?) And you have to stand out there on the street, competing with dozens of your other closest friends for each empty cab that passes by. What are you inhaling while you're busy playing that game? Yep, you guessed it...

~Steve

Monday, October 13, 2008

Beijingren

Well, it has been almost two months, as most of you know. Some of you know it is one of my greatest desires to be considered a Beijingren. Well, finally, that chance came along when we bought our bus cards. I consider it to be my ID card. I feel that if I ever doubt my Beijingren-ness, I will look at my card!

~Zoli

Precise Planning...

...is necessary in these days of cooling temperatures. Since the drying times now for clothes (especially on overcast days) have just about doubled, we really have to stay up on the laundry. Unlike those "fluff" days back in the US, when we just threw the clothes in the dryer for a quick refresh or warm up, now two days notice is required...or damp underwear are guaranteed...and that's no fun.

~Desi

PS: The second picture is of that "omelet" thing we mentioned in a previous laundry blog, as per Melissa's request. Its purpose is to connect to the hanger, so you can lift it to the height of the hanging rod. We've seen them in designer colors at the market.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

My Room Life

Yes, my room is cool. Even cooler? My room life! I have two friends who are always with me in my room. Monkling, who you may know, and Blizzard Bao Bao (Blizzard Baby). You can see them in my drawing.

I will explain the drawing. That is me with Monkling and Blizzard Bao Bao sleeping on my bed. Next to us on the left is a shelf with a book, a lamp, and my phone charging. Next to that is the window curtain. In the bottom right is my green rug and above me are the cabinets.

But back to my life. Monkling and Blizzard Bao Bao are with me for everything I do in my room. This includes sleeping. Poor guys. They get knocked off the bed at night. Sometimes I even lay on them. They sit with me while I do my homework, read, and everything else. They truly are troopers.

~Zoli

PS: Monkling comes on trips with me. He even came from the US to China!