Saturday, April 25, 2009

You Don't Want To Know What's In This Basket (Especially You, Mom!)

This is a blog I probably shouldn't write. But since most of the oddities we've experienced in China have really faded into the background (is that assimilation?), this type of thing, which would freak most people out (it did freak me out when we first arrived), is worth a mention.

You see, the plumbing in China, which must originate in the Tang Dynasty, is awful. In fact, it can't handle much more than, say, "number one." Therefore, most bathrooms, public and most private, contain these baskets for the disposal of all paper products. Yes, all. In this way, the aromatic essence of many restroom facilities is a bit less than pleasant. Luckily, many bathrooms also have an ayi on hand to constantly empty these unpleasantries. Some also burn incense to ward off the nasal assault.

On the aside, what I've come to realize about the squat-toileted, toilet paper-free, incense-to-cover-up-the-smell bathrooms in China, is that Chinese people in general are just not "moved" by waste. Bathrooms, except for those in western standard apartments and shopping malls, whose facilities are indistinguishable from those in the US, are simply a place to take care of business, and they don't spend much time thinking about it. In addition, since the focus of the country is on the group rather than the individual, privacy is not a prized possession. So while most bathrooms have stalls, most of the time even the women don't shut the doors.

What has our solution been to all of this? Just get over it. Make it quick, don't breath in much, don't look around, bring your own TP, and have some Purell on hand.

And to answer the question you're thinking but probably won't ask...No, we don't have one of those baskets in our apartment! But, the plunger is always at the ready.


PS: If you e-mail me, I will NOT send you a photo of what's inside. It's even too gross for a mother-of-two, biology teacher to snap.

Municipal Environments, Nonprofit Entrepreneurs, and the Development of Neighborhood Information Systems

That, my friends, is the title of my latest little publication. Want more? Here is the link to the E-Democracy issue of I/S: A Journal of Law and Policy for the Information Society in which the article appears. There is some nice stuff in there, by an assortment of members of the International Working Group on Online Consultation and Public Policy Making, all of it put together by Peter Shane of Ohio State University.

Still need more? Here is the abstract of the article..

In recent years, organizations in dozens of municipalities around the United States have implemented neighborhood information systems. Neighborhood information systems are technology innovations that bring together and disseminate, via the Internet, regularly updated statistics on births, crime, educational performance, and other vital community conditions. Drawing upon research on organizational innovation, this article examines the environmental characteristics and entrepreneurial activities that have been associated with the formation and diffusion of the National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership (NNIP), an association of some of the strongest and most visible neighborhood information systems. A series of statistical analyses demonstrate that NNIP projects are especially likely to be present in large, densely populated cities with sizeable minority populations. Interviews with individuals who have been leaders in the NNIP illustrate that a combination of local entrepreneurship and the sponsorship of national organizations has provided the resources necessary for the creation and maintenance of specific neighborhood information systems. These findings highlight the conditions, obstacles, and resources that nonprofit organizations encounter and draw upon when seeking to adopt technology innovations.



Let's Kao Rou!

Do you kao rou? I do!

First question...What is kao rou?

Kao rou is when you get a plate, coals, meat, and veggies, and you cook it yourself. This is definitely one of my favorite things to do and eat. I LOVE to manage the tongs and season the meats and veggies while I cook them. My favorite meat is...You guessed it, Grammy!...Chicken!!! (It is still nowhere NEAR as good as Grampy's chicken!)

Second question...What does kao rou mean?
Well, this is an easy answer. Based on the last question's answer, you can guess that kao means "grill" and rou is meat.

Third and final question...Where does it come from and where can you get it? The first part of the question is to go unanswered. The truth is, we don't know where it is from. We actually get it at a Korean restaurant.

Next, the accouterments. Kao rou comes with a delicious sauce (or so I am told), lettuce, chicken feet (which Julie says are monkey feet), seasoning, pickled veggies, and some little greens. One other cool thing is that there is a contraption on the table (a metal tube, actually), which sucks all the steam and smoke up! Well, next time you are in Beijing (any takers?), stop by and give kao rou a try!


Thursday, April 23, 2009

Our First Fulbright "Lecture"

As soon as Daddy told Taiyuan Li Gong Da Xue that he was available to give a lecture to their students, the person who had invited us asked Daddy if Mommy would also give a lecture, since we we all going to come. Not having anything prepared to speak on, Mommy politely declined, saying she would be happy to speak with students and teachers on topics they were interested in.

However, once we arrived on campus, Ying Ping, our main contact, was still interested in having not only Daddy giving lectures. She asked me if I would be willing to speak before Daddy got up, and she extended the invitation to Z as well. We had plans to do a day of home school while Daddy wasn't with us, so we didn't give a definite response to the request.

During the Q&A, though, Daddy received many questions about us and our time in China. One person even inquired when he would get to meet the three of us. So Daddy, knowing that we had already considered coming to his lecture, promised the students that we would join him the following day for Q&A after his second lecture.

So the next day, after Daddy finished speaking, Mommy, Z, and I entered the lecture hall and seated ourselves behind the table on stage, as Daddy introduced us and the audience applauded.

I will admit that I did have butterflies as the first question was asked. This was my first experience answering questions on the spot in front of an audience. (Improvisation, Ms. Rankin!) Luckily, the first question was for Daddy, so Mommy, Z, and I got settled and were served tea!

But before I knew what was happening, the questions hit me like bugs on a windshield. Some questions were about the topics discussed in Daddy's lecture. One of these was even pointed at me, concerning how I felt during past world disasters. This was a tough one, but manageable, as Mommy and Daddy helped out with some parental insights after I was finished.

The most interesting questions came through when Z and I were asked specific questions about our experiences in China. After giving details of where we have been, Z was asked what he thought about Xi'an by a Xi'an ren, and if he thought there were differences among Chinese people. He answered the first with a story about running through fountains, and the second with "They're all Chinese!"

Mommy gave a talk about how much she loves Chinese food, before telling the audience how much she appreciated their presence.

My favorite question had to do with my clothes. That day, I had chosen one of my favorite Chinese outfits, purple pants with swirls and mirrors, and a white top with embroidered patterns around the neckline. Z was also wearing a brown traditional shirt, so the students were interested in why we chose such "non-Western" looking outfits. I was passed the microphone and talked about how much I LOVE shopping in China, especially for countryside style clothes that most Americans don't know exist. I concluded by saying how much I will enjoy wearing my new favorite clothes next year!

Overall, I know we all had a great experience sharing our insights and American/Chinese lives with the 150-200 students, teachers, and others present. I hope the audience had as much fun as I did. Watch out China! It's not just Daddy anymore!


Exchanges In The "Black Market"

While in 太原, a "black market" opportunity presented itself. For my birthday, I received two fives and two twenties. I usually keep them with me. On our way out of our Shanxi noodle place, a Chinese man asked us if we had any American money. (In Taiyuan, there were a lot of people who were interested in money, so maybe there is a club!) Accidentally, I left my money back on campus. Having none, I promised to bring some back later.

Now, there are two pros for me. First, I do not have to pay the exchange fee. Second, I share culture with Chinese people.

Later, I came back, money in hand, and got thirty five yuan for five dollars. The moment I pulled out the cash, a group swarmed around me. I "sold" not just one five dollar bill, but two of them, for a total of seventy yuan. Julie, Mom, and I moved out of the crowd so we did not get "killed" by people trying to buy my money. One man followed the three of us and offered forty yuan for a five dollar bill, but I had no more.

Dad, meanwhile, was explaining all the symbols and letters on the bills. Other people (obviously part of the "club"), pulled out their own one dollar bills and compared.

This was my first experience in the "black market!"


Follow Us To The Best Noodles In China

Shanxi province, not to be confused with Shaanxi province, is famous for one prepared food. The dao xiao mian (literally, "knife cut noodles") are famous all over China...And for good reason. These wide "ribbons of wow!", which are made to order by a chef who slices them from a block of dough in to a huge pot of boiling water, are incredibly tasty. They are served in broth, and can be accompanied by a varied selection of condiments. Our favorite add-ons are dou fu, hard boiled eggs, small cubes of beef, pork meatballs, and, in some places, pickled vegetables. The loudness of the slurs and slurps in the restaurant is directly correlated with the quality of the noodles.

In Taiyuan, at the heart of Shanxi, we think we may have found the number one mian guan. To get there...

Leave Taiyuan Li Gong Da Xue via the Xi Men (West Gate) and turn right.

Walk for, say, four hundred meters, and turn right into the first alley.

Continue past a few noodle restaurants until you see the huge red sign on the right with the white letters...大同刀削面。

Order the rou mian.
(And if you are a little chilly, add an order of mian tang. It's the water the noodles are boiled in. While the thought of drinking noodle water may sound less than appetizing, the taste and warmth are surprisingly appealing.)

Voted by four our of four Ballas as one of the top foods we'll miss back in the US (we don't know of any Chinese restaurants that serve Shanxi noodles), we plan to continue our noodle feeding frenzy at comparable mian guan in Beijing.


Wednesday, April 22, 2009

A View From The Hill

After a few days in Taiyuan, we decided to head out of the city and spend the morning hiking up a nearby mountain. Zhao Laoshi and Yingping were kind enough to arrange a driver (Wu Shifu) to take us out into the countryside and then back into town. With all of this support in place, all we had to do was pa shang pa xia (climp up and climb down).

On the way, there were a number of what we by now consider "ordinary" features of any Chinese hike...

A stairway paving the way to the top. (What is it like to hike on dirt and rock?)

A pagoda near the top...With local villagers selling water, snacks, and trinkets. (A bag of dried apples set us back all of one kuai.)

A Buddhist temple even further up toward the summit. (We decided to take a pass on this one. Our allotted time was running low anyways.)

Along the way, we looked down into the valley where Taiyuan in located. Although it was a sunny day in the city itself, from our distant perspective, all we could see were tall buildings enshrouded in smog, nuclear power plants at the edge of town, and other industrial activities that were kicking up dirt and dust.

Finally, there were the ants. Ants? Desi, Julie, and Z were fascinated by watching ant after ant jump off the edge of one step down to the next one below. These "suicide" ants would lay there for a second, perhaps momentarily stunned, and then get up and scurry off to the next "cliff." Needless to say, the four of us (even Z!) decided not to try out any imitation on this one, and instead kept to our own two feet, all the way down the way more than one thousand stairs back to our waiting black car.


Working In A Coal Mine

Desi had the idea to go to this coal mine museum just down the road from Li Gong Da Xue (Taiyuan University of Technology). This was a great idea, given the historic and contemporary importance of coal in the Shanxi region. As it turned out, we got way more than we bargained for, a real treat for the four of us and Li Ling, who was accompanying us that morning.

It all started at the ticket window. The listed price was sixty kuai for what looked to be a pretty decrepit museum from the outside. That price, for some reason, was quickly cut in half...And then I inquired if there were student tickets. When the answer came "you," the price for Li Ling and the kids was cut in half yet again.

The next question that came was whether we needed a guide. My answer to this question is always "bu yao." "No, we don't want a guide." The ticket seller's response? "You have to have a guide. It is for your safety." Two questions came to my mind at that point. If we must have a guide, then why did you ask? And, more importantly, what's so dangerous about this museum?

The tour itself started out pretty innocuously. Our guide spoke in fairly simple Chinese, and Li Ling expertly translated, as we made our way through a series of exhibits about different types of coal and things like that.

Then we came to a small theater, where we were to watch a short 4-D movie. The seats in the theater were equipped to vibrate, so when there was a volcano or some other earthshaking event on the screen, we were all jostled about ourselves. The chairs also, we found out much to our surprise, were able to fire jets of air toward our eyes (kind of like that test they sometimes do at the optometrist). The creme-de-la-creme came when it not only rained on the screen, but when water also came pouring down on us from above. Smithsonian IMAX movies were looking lamer and lamer by the moment!

At one point in the tour, I thought we were done, as we emerged into a gift shop. Pretty cool stuff, all carved out of coal, but we took a pass. (Many of the items were priced at several hundred kuai.)

Much to our surprise, though, our next move was not to the exit, but into an elevator designed to simulate the transportation miners use to get down way under the earth. Upon arriving in the "mine," we all put on tou deng (head lamps) and started the underground portion of our tour.

Much of the equipment down there was real. Machines that are used to bore holes in rock. Mechanized columns that hold up the ceilings of mine tunnels. We even got to ride in mine carts. (The ride was not quite as exciting as the one in Journey to the Center of the Earth. I didn't even get the chance to save a very attractive Norwegian girl from certain death...)

All of this equipment required people to operate the simulated mine, and sure enough there was quite a crew down there, just waiting for us to arrive and then jumping into action. I should say these are unusual jobs to have, but it goes without saying they are certainly better than working in actual mines themselves.

Once again, we thought we were done, when our guide unexpectedly led us into yet another part of the museum. This time, we learned nothing about coal and coal mines, but rather about some of the most famous historic artwork that has been produced in Shanxi province. All of the pictures hanging on the walls were replicas, but there were nevertheless some pretty cool images, like this one horse that keeps its eyes on you no matter which way you walk. (An equine Mona Lisa...Probably painted like a thousand years before Da Vinci lived...)

Yes, we did eventually get the chance to leave, when our guide deposited us out a side entrance next to what appeared to be a lot where cars are sold. Back out in the sunlight, we resumed our stroll through the streets of Taiyuan...


Taiyuan Kites

On our first day in Taiyuan, our guide and friend, Yingping, and her student, Li Ling, took us to a park that runs along the main river in town. It was about a forty minute walk from campus (plus time spent mingling), and it was a nice windy day.

Arriving at the bridge over the water to the park, we noticed many kites flying around. Finally getting to the park, we saw one particular kite, a "speedy" kite, being driven by a man wearing a blue shirt. He was doing tricks, such as skimming the water, resting the kite on pillars, making it zoom down, scaring people, and following people and bumping their heads with it.

The rest of our walk around the park consisted of seeing a puppy in a small bag, playing with coal on the ground, and trying, unsuccessfully, to count the number of kites. (I estimated around two hundred.)

Now I'm really on the hunt for one of those speedy kites!


Blue Sky Days In The World's Most Polluted City

A few years back, Taiyuan was apparently named, by the United Nations or some other such organization, as the world's most polluted city. In general, the Shanxi region is known outside of China for the mining and burning of coal, and for bearing the scars of decades of industrialization.

After spending a few days in the city proper, our take on Taiyuan is that it is far from the "hell on earth" it has been billed as. One morning, I had a pleasant jog through the campus of Taiyuan University of Technology, where we were all graciously hosted by Zhao Laoshi, Yingping, Li Ling, and company. The day was windy and the sky was bright blue and filled with white puffy clouds. And the evenings were cool and refreshing, great for strolling through the alleyway neighborhoods.

None of this is meant to deny the pollution problems that exist in Taiyuan, in China in general, and in the United States and the world beyond. It is just that one-dimensional portraits of places (e.g., Washington, DC as a murder capital), while they serve valuable purposes, also have the effect of caricaturing the living conditions of entire populations.

For our part, we were glad to have the opportunity to catch a brief glimpse of Taiyuan in its three-dimensional incarnation, as a city that does not appear all that different from any other mid-sized Chinese metropolis. Are we just being utterly naive? Have Taiyuan's problems been overrated? Are things just getting better as time goes by? At least spending a few days in Taiyuan allowed us to change the questions we are asking, even if we don't yet have a good feel for the answers.


Reaching 250 Kilometers Per Hour...On The Ground

April 1st marked the opening day for a new dong che (very high speed train) from Beijing to Taiyuan, the capital city of Shanxi province. Prior to the opening of this route, which cuts through several mountain ranges via tunnels (one series of tunnels lasted over ten minutes, which at 250 kilometers per hour covers some serious tracks), the regular train ride took somewhere between seven and eleven hours as per reports from Taiyuan residents.

The views, especially in the greater Taiyuan area, are spectacular. They include canyons whose origins we are unsure of (nature or man made due to mining) and hills which show evidence of reforestation, as we observed thousands upon thousands of saplings planted in straight lines on almost every empty spot of land. Also visible were workers planting these trees, near makeshift tents that seem to be set up as their temporary housing, suggesting that these men sleep where they work.

Just another testimony to why train travel in China is so kuai you fangbian (both quick and convenient). And for only 157 kuai each way, a little over twenty dollars, it is a luxury worth paying for.


Sunday, April 19, 2009

Greetings From The Heartland

For the next few days, the four of us are calling the city of Taiyuan our home. Taiyuan is the capital of Shanxi Province, an ancient home of Chinese civilization and, more recently, one of its industrial centers. It is also a place where you can get lots of delicious types of noodles. (Right, Z!?) For some reason, although these noodles are famous all over China (there are tons of Shanxi noodle joints in Beijing), they don't seem to have caught on in the West.

Anyways, I will be delivering two lectures at Taiyuan University of Technology, which is perhaps the top university in the province. (Although I understand they have quite a rivalry with nearby Shanxi University!) Here are the links to the web pages where my talks are advertised...