Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Xizhimen "Catacombs"

A few days ago, Z went on a BISS field trip (yes, the kids don't really attend BISS any more, but we're finding that once you go to BISS, you actually never leave BISS), so Julie and I had a rare opportunity for a girls' day out. On the list, of course, shopping and eating!

First stop, Xizhimen. When we dropped Z off at BISS and mentioned our plan to the receptionist, she was surprised that our excursion would include this area of Beijing. "Oh," she said, "foreigners don't usually know about that place for shopping." This "place," as she called it, is very elusive. Why? Because it is mostly underground and seemingly invisible to the untrained eye.

You see, most of the good markets in Beijing are not apparent to the ex pat community. Off the beaten track, or hidden in buildings whose signs are only in Chinese. (I know you're thinking, shouldn't all the signs be in Chinese? Actually, the markets that cater to waiguoren are well-marked in English.) The markets geared toward native Chinese residents are not. (Xizhimen is perhaps the best at keeping the good prices for Beijingren alone.)

The area I'm referring to as Xizhimen is not one actual place, but rather the name of an area surrounding a subway stop, and is denoted by the presence of three distinct buildings, as you can see. All of the great shopping is just a few blocks away, closer to the zoo. There are a few plastic structures that protrude from the ground. Following the stairway down within this structure, and entering through the green burlap doors, takes you to what I would call "Willy Wonka's Wonderland of Bargains." Stall after stall of clothes, shoes, jewelry, and accessories, at unbeatable prices...and not a single foreigner.

After we were finished underground, we ventured back to my infamous "bu liao" place. While above ground, this four-story building is also not an apparent shopping complex from the outside, but once you enter, floor after floor of small shops and tons and tons of locals (men and women, mostly in the 20-30 year old range) wait you. This time, I had some coverage, since Julie was now with me and could protect me from the sales lady (or myself and my elementary Chinese language skills, that is!). At last, I purchased my first Tibetan-style outfit. And yes, it is made of cotton!

Hands full of packages, we were ready for lunch. We jumped into a cab, and darted over to the Sanlitun area for some pumpkin soup and pumpkin penne at Element Fresh, and some more shopping at Yashow Market (a popular, well advertised "Chinese-style" market). The differences on this side of town are compelling. In the restaurant, almost all westerners. In Yashow Market, almost all westerners. The prices, outrageous until you exhaust yourself bargaining. Decent prices can be negotiated, but not without heroic effort and the "walk away."

In summary, Julie's and my excursion was a total success, mostly because of the company, but party due to one of the hidden treasures of Beijing. Indiana Jones has nothing on us, right Julie!?


Not Wasabi Peas...A Reprise

Voted "strangest snack on a China flight" by 4 Ballas, we took a definite pass on this one (although I think Steve did give it a second glance!).


In Search Of Yan Bei Yuan

As we've undoubtedly mentioned, right across the street from the front entrance of Yan Bei Yuan (our xiao qu, or apartment complex) is a wall denoting the boundary of Yuanmingyuan, the Old Summer Palace. For months, we have wondered why there isn't an entrance to the park right there, within steps of the homes of thousands of locals. We keep imagining how the park would come to life, with walkers, chess players, dancers, and others taking over its open spaces.

Our sense of wonderment especially holds since the nearest entrance is something like two miles away. (Yes, that's how immense the place is!) So, as kind of a little pet project, we headed off the other day to walk from the main entrance all the way to Yan Bei Yuan, or at least as close as we could get before running into the inevitable barrier.

It turns out that the barrier wasn't the other side of the wall, right across the street from where we live. No, we couldn't even get within about a quarter mile of Yan Bei Yuan. For some reason, the entire northwestern corner of the park is blocked off to visitors. It appears to be a beautiful area of little rolling hills, trees, and grasslands. If you look way in the distance (blow the picture up), there is the elusive Yan Bei Yuan.

So we didn't succeed in penetrating another Chinese barrier (we seldom do, it seems!), but at least we had a great walk out in the fresh air, so close but yet so far from the throngs of our neighbors...


Transparency And Public Participation

Here's a little piece I wrote for the GW Political Science newsletter. There are also interesting essays by Sarah Binder, John Sides, and Jim Goldgeier, so go check it out...

In the months leading up to last year’s election, an independent, nonpartisan task force (of which I was a member) assessed the current status of policymaking in the United States federal bureaucracy, and articulated a set of recommendations about how the relevant processes might profitably be reformed. These recommendations specifically addressed issues of transparency and public participation in executive branch rulemaking, and were delivered to the transition team on the morning after President-elect Obama’s victory.

Transparency and public participation can both improve the quality of agency decision making and enhance the democratic legitimacy of policymaking by government officials who are not directly accountable to citizens through periodic elections. Although the regulatory system as it currently operates is relatively transparent and participatory, task force members identified a number of broad concerns about existing bureaucratic practices (see page vi of the report, which I have talked about before). These concerns include:

1. Generally speaking, agencies are neither transparent nor participatory at the earliest stages of their decision making processes.

2. When agencies do open themselves up for public participation, they oftentimes fail to allow for the benefits of dialogue and interaction between external stakeholders.

3. Agencies have not taken full advantage of information technology to make their policymaking processes more transparent.

With deficiencies such as these in mind, the task force developed a set of recommendations designed to bolster the transparency of and public participation in executive branch policymaking. These recommendations include (see pages vi and vii for a summary discussion):

1. Making available online all records that an agency or court has determined to be releasable under the Freedom of Information Act.

2. Adopting best practices for establishing rulemaking dockets when agencies begin working on new rules and promptly including in these dockets all relevant background information.

3. Reducing barriers to the use of federal advisory committees, which provide stakeholders with opportunities to interact directly with one another rather than solely with agency officials.

4. Creating a bureaucratic culture that promotes communications with external actors, so long as these communications are disclosed in agency dockets.

In the end, agency rulemaking will surely remain one of the most common and important forms of policymaking in the entire American government, with agencies issuing thousands of new rules on an annual basis. As these rules collectively exert enormous influence over, for example, the safety of our food, environment, and transportation system, it is crucial that the Obama administration take steps to address shortcomings in existing rulemaking practices. By adopting reforms such as those laid out in the task force report, President Obama can help to ensure that government regulations serve the American public effectively and are adopted through fair and open processes.


Recharging Our "China Batteries"

All it takes is a quick trip to Tian'anmen...


Thursday, February 19, 2009

Chinese Perspectives On American Culture And Education

This week not only marked the beginning of a new educational experience for Desi and the kids, it was also the first week of classes here at Peking University. This semester, I am teaching a class the school has entitled "Social Science Methodology." This research methods (yes, stats!) class is one that I normally teach to GW undergrads. I have been advised to teach the same body of material to Beida's graduate students, as they have typically had very little exposure to this kind of critical thinking. We'll see how things go...

In the meantime, one of the tasks I gave students (there are about thirty of them, including just about all of my students from last semester) was to write down their impressions of how the Virginia Tech shootings of two years ago could have been prevented or at least reduced in terms of injuries and lives lost. This was after I had lectured about the timeline of events that day and provided background information about the shooter and various aspects of US policy.

Some of the responses I received were not surprising at all, in that they mapped very closely with what the investigation commission found and recommended.

For example, some students highlighted issues in mental health treatment...

Under the pressure of study and social communication, many students confront kinds of psychological problems. These tragedies may be prevented if there are more psychological consanting, mental problems aid, and more important, the attention to mental health from the whole society.

The university should take care about the students' mental health, and if teacher finds some student is unormal, he should send him to see the mental doctor.

Other students discussed gun policy related issues, which also drew much attention from the commission. But the students' perspectives did not center on improving the enforcement of gun laws as they currently exist...

Forbid people to use gun or let everyone bring a gun to class.

To implement a policy ban on guns-selling.

The government should forbid citizen to buy or have guns.

Strict regulations to forbid guns on campus.

Students also focused on strengthening campus security...

Set button of alarm in every room and make sure police in the campus can arrive immediately when hearing the alarm.

Take security tests when people enter the class building, just like we do in the airport and so on.

There must be someone watch them all the times, if he or she noticed something unusual he should call the police immediately

And then there was the large number of responses that mentioned that students and faculty should receive training in self-defense...

Tell people more knowledges about how to keep safe when suffer attack.

Professors and students should learn more about facing these serious situations.

Try to knock down the criminal. Some strong and brave teacher should do it.

Taken together, these responses really convey the students' "outside" views on US culture, from guns to mental health to security presence and training. I will definitely be interested in how such cultural differences play out as we go from one tough American issue to the next. (Everything from abortion to the death penalty to hate crimes is on the docket.) Will students, in effect, continue to recommend that the United States change its policies to be more reflective of how these difficult problems are handled in their China? Will there be more answers in line with the following? Stay tuned...

In Peking University, we have an down-to-up system to get more information about the student who seems a little different from usual and take action to investgat what happen and then talk to the student.


Every Day Is A Snow Day...

...When you're in home school!

This week we began our latest adventure and it is working out just great. The workload is heavy but really flexible. Our "normal" day goes something like this...

6:30 am...Wake-up, etc.

7:00 am ...School begins with the pledge to the flag (yes, the US Flag!), a morning prayer, a reading about the life of a saint, the daily Mass readings for the day.

7:15 am-12:05 pm...Religion, Math, English, Reading, a short break, Science, History, Spelling, and Vocabulary.

12:05 pm "ish"...Get ready to head out...Usually to see Steve for lunch and some fun. Take the other day, for example...With some newly fallen snow on the ground, we thought it would be great to see the Old Summer Palace (Yuanmingyuan) in a new light. This was just the type of "field trip" we were looking forward to when we planned this part of the year.

While sometimes we need to finish up a few items in the evening (especially on days when we have Chinese class or Chinese homework), the flexibility of this schedule is really refreshing.

A few added pluses...

First of all, since the program we are following is from a Catholic home school organization, our spiritual lives are being fed much more these days. Living in a country where Christians are in the minority, the availability of parish life is infinitely less convenient than what we are used to. In addition, since the Baltimore Catechism is one of the main religious books that the kids study from, I'm re-learning much of the Doctrine that I've forgotten...

Not to mention 6th grade English (if only Mrs. Bolger could see me now!), Algebra (Sister Margaret, you taught me well!), Spelling (Is that embarass or embarrass???), etc.

Thank goodness for Life least I'm up on that!

As for "specials" like PE, Music and Art, there are a multitude of options, and we are thinking "out of the box" as much as we can. For example, ping pong at the community center serves not only as a great athletic activity, but also as an opportunity to practice our Chinese language skills with other residents of Yanbeiyuan. An afternoon at the Sackler Gallery on Beida's campus provides plenty of Chinese art and artifacts (as well as a real 280,000 year old prehistoric man skeleton!) to view, discuss, and enjoy. Beihai Park is a great place to listen to all types of music, both played and sung, not the least of which is a choir that cheerfully belts out tunes like "Wo ai Beijing Tian'anmen." With a little practice, we may be able to join in for a few notes!

In all, our home school experience so far has been just as we expected...Exhausting but rewarding. While it is definitely rigorous, the variety of material and options as well as the flexibility in planning our time creates endless possibilities. Just perfect when there are countless things to do and see!


Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Fudan Translation Series?

You may recall that, a few months back, I was surprised to discover that Bureaucracy and Democracy has been reviewed in a Chinese journal. Well, my surprise was even greater the other day when I made a new discovery about the book and its ever expanding presence over here in the Middle Kingdom.

It all started when I was chatting with a graduate student at another university who I have been providing a little advice to on an informal basis. At one point, I had suggested that one of the chapters in Bureaucracy and Democracy might be relevant for a paper she was contemplating.

Fast forward to our most recent conversation, just the other day. The student mentioned that she had gone ahead and checked the book out of the library. I was stunned that a Chinese university would have a copy of Bureaucracy and Democracy sitting around in its stacks.

Then the student informed me that it was the Chinese version she was working with. Chinese version!?

Sure enough, what you are looking at is the cover of the Chinese version of Bureaucracy and Democracy. If you enlarge the photo, you can see that the book is part of the Fudan Translation Series. (Fudan University is one of the top 3-5 institutions of higher education in all of China.)

And, if that is not enough excitement for you, here is a link to the Chinese Amazon website where the translated version can be purchased...

Right now, the book is on sale for RMB 25.30 (that's less than four bucks!), a savings of 4.70 kuai off the normal retail price of RMB 30.00. And, if you buy it together with Charles Goodsell's The Case for Bureaucracy, another title in the Fudan Translation Series, it will altogether set you back only RMB 54.80.

So, what are you waiting for!?


Sunday, February 15, 2009

Thank You, Fulbright Program!

As part of our schedule at the Fulbright meeting in Guangzhou, we were all treated to some lovely evenings out. One night it was a dinner cruise on the Pearl River. The next evening, Bob Goldberg, the US Consulate General, hosted us for dinner at his beautiful home. What a way to spend a pair of spectacular southern China nights!


The Legendary Qing Ping Market

The Cantonese like to say that "anything that walks, swims, crawls, or flies with its back to heaven is edible."

Well, all of these creatures need to come from somewhere, and in Guangzhou that somewhere is Qing Ping market. A guide book we used back in 2004 described the place in this could spend an afternoon with your eyes popping out.

With a billing like that, you know we were gung ho to check the place out. But, alas, we were traveling with others and had a short time frame, so we never actually made it to the infamous Qing Ping.

This time around, though, we were not to be denied, especially since the market is only a few minute's walk from the White Swan. The only problem is that much of the live animal market has apparently retreated out of the alleys to harder-to-find locations, due to the fact that Guangzhou is ground zero for the spread of diseases like SARS and H5N1 avian influenza.

As a result, the only live animals we saw were being sold as pets. This is not to say that we didn't see anything unusual...

There were all kinds of dried mushrooms, snake skins, deer tendons, and other plants and animals used in traditional Chinese medicine. And there were a couple of guys hawking Siberian tiger paws. We have no idea if the paws were the real thing. Just to test them out, I offered them a really low price, but they were not biting at it. Those guys and their product, just like Qing Ping in general, remain a mystery to us.