Apr 13, 2015

Idea: Visa Wait Times Eliminated!

One way the US government could drop visa wait times to *zero* is to employ the Chinese consulate's method: no appointments, first-come-first-served every day.

That just ocurred to me as I was sitting down to figure out what the girls will need for their visas to go to China this New Year (I will be staying in the US for work). But seriously, can you imagine what would happen if the Shanghai consulate switched to that system? 24-hour around the block lines, place buying and selling... It'd be insane. Luckily here in LA as long as you get to the consulate, say, an hour and a half before opening you can be near the front of the line and wait just a few minutes to complete your application.

I haven't written on this blog in a long time, but I'm glad it's still around for free-form writing whenever I need it. I post more on Facebook and Twitter, but this kind of long writing will always be saved for blogs.

Dancing Charity

Tonight I went to a dance charity event put together by WFLMS students with performances by dance clubs from seven other schools in Shanghai, all for sending students/funds to the Inner Mongolia tree-planting trip this year. After a slow start (sexy dancing? er), Nanmo Middle/High School really turned it up a notch and the rest of the show was awesome. There was even locking, and one dubstep number. Very nice evening, totally worth the price of admission and for a good cause.

The students even prepared an impressive promotional video, filmed in the WFLMS dance room, and put it on Youku:

Sommers on Shanghai housing rights

This afternoon I went to Anne Sommer's excellent talk on the history of housing rights in post-liberation Shanghai, and took some brief notes. Sommers is a lawyer whose frustration at the difficulties of buying an old home in Shanghai lead her to research the history of housing rights in the city and how they stand in the way of preserving its cultural heritage. I'd like to point out the "Two Ironies and One Tragedy" (you know you've been in China too long when…) of the event:

  • Sommers envisioned, and the audience bemoaned with her, a future when living in a restored Concession-era house would only be fate of the "mega-rich". Ironically, the audience at the talk wasn't exactly the bottom of Shanghai's barrel.

  • The talk was held in the Puli Hotel, a "new Urban Resort Concept that blends the immediacy and convenience of being in Shanghai’s most central location with the quiet, emotional indulgences of a peaceful, luxurious resort". Ironically, according to Google Earth, as late as the year 2000 the site of this hotel was occupied by what appears to be traditional Shanghai lane houses. See Google's satellite imagery below.
  • The tragedy, which Sommers alluded to at the conclusion of the Q&A session but didn't fully capture, is not that the material evidence of the concession era is being hoarded in the hands of the elite and crushed under the bulldozers of the big developers, but that the unique Shanghainese urban culture that thrived in the lanes and art-deco apartments is disappearing as its environs are being destroyed. In my estimation, the best hope for the preservation of this culture is not the foreign professional class that attended the talk, but low-income young people who are willing to mold their lifestyles to the challenges posed by lane life, rather than those who would mold the neighborhoods to fit their lifestyle.

That said, I learned quite a bit from the talk and I hope that it does spur some grass-roots efforts at stopping the demolition of Shanghai popular heritage.

In 2000, Jing'an Park was bordered to the east by an empty lot on Najing W Rd, and five rows of red-tile-roofed lane houses on the corner of Changde and Yan'an Roads.

(Note to self. People I recognized at the talk: Sue Anne Tay, Peter Hibbard, Tess Johnston, Neale McGoldrick, Lisa Movius.)

It's a big internet

I don't like to be all nostalgic, but this isn't exactly that. Back when I was in college the internet was full of nerdy people; all sorts of people, but all nerdy enough to spend time tinkering with connections, HTML, and online communities. Nowadays it's a different internet. Playing on Weibo, I'm finding that a more wide cross-section of the teachers at my school are on it in -- it's just a matter of seeing who is commenting on each others' posts, and guessing from their username who they are. Weibo's feature that lets you add nicknames to users comes in handy for remember who is who. And it's not like the walled garden of Facebook, it's like wide-open world of Twitter. I like it.

A walk at Raffles

IMG_2068

Today I spent about an hour outside Raffles City, observing the goings on. By this week there is no noticeable gathering besides the usual fringe of retired people looking for a place to take in some sun, along the railing that separates the sidewalk from Tibet Rd. There were still lots of police patrolling the area; I came in from behind Raffles City, along Hankou Rd past the Le Royal Méridien hotel and walked past 3 or 4 large police vans. The Peoples' Square subway Exit 14 was still closed "for construction". The Peace Cinema was also still closed to the public but the KFC next to it was open through the side door; the Hershey's store was open but the only entrance was from the outside sidewalk; and the outer door to Starbucks was still closed and manned by an apologetic green apron.

Besides the uniformed police on patrol, there were about double the number of plainclothes police standing and strolling around the area. I spent most of the time standing by a group of plainclothes policemen who at first I suspected of being "participants"; eventually I came to realize who they really were. At first I tried to identify them by their shoes but these didn't follow any pattern. The profile I eventually developed was: middle-aged man, conservative or short haircut, sour expression (only one exception), substantial build, average to above-average height, earbuds with wired microphones for communication, Nokia cellphones that looked like they hadn't been upgraded in years, and either smoking or carrying a bottled drink: water, tea, or fruit juice. I didn't see them engage anybody the whole time I was there but they did a very professional job otherwise; no chatting or joking around, kept an eye on me as I people-watched and read a copy of Southern Weekend. It was a nice, quiet time of being introspective about the role I play as a liberal foreign national living in this society. Maybe I'll write a blog post about that later.

The only thing out of the ordinary happened about 10 minutes before I left. A young man and woman, about mid-twenties and Chinese, who had been sitting a few feet away from me, sprang up and started passing out A4-sized fliers to certain people in the crowd and along the side of the sidewalk. It seemed to me that they were targeting the plainclothes police, though I can't be sure because they walked down the sidewalk a few dozen meters away from me as they did so. In all they must have passed out about 20 fliers and I eventually lost track of them in the crowd. I didn't get a look at the papers up close. From far away it looked as likely to be an ad for a real-estate development as any sort of political message so it's hard for me to draw any conclusions about who they were or why the police left them alone.

That concludes my report.

Two sites for teachers

There are two websites that I found today that caught my attention. First was a website recommended by Frank Noschese, a physics teacher from New York that I read on Twitter. It is a set of Scientific Abilities defined by Rutgers University that he picks a couple from to practice during each lab.

RubricScientific Abilities (Revised 02/18/2008)
AAbility to represent information in multiple ways
BAbility to design and conduct an observational experiment
CAbility to design and conduct a testing experiment
DAbility to design and conduct an application experiment
FAbility to communicate scientific ideas
GAbility to collect and analyze experimental data
HAbility to engage in divergent thinking
IAbility to evaluate models, equations, solutions, and claims

I had been planning to do something similar this year: make a list of all the skills I want my kids to learn during their labs this year, and check them off as we go through the year. This list is a little more abstract than I had been thinking because it deals with higher order thinking skills. It will take creativity figure out how to apply these.

Another website is the Hong Kong Association for Educational Communications and Technology (HKAECT), which has announced a "Multiliteracies for the 21st Century: Education, Communication and Technology" conference to take place in November. Maybe that can be my birthday present? I e-mailed about registration but got an automated vacation message in response, so I'll wait until August 25 for more information.

VPN in my mailbox

Today I found a couple of these in my mailbox downstairs:

Business card scan: "UNblock mynet: Best VPN experience in China! Fast, secure and cheap! Unlimited bandwith" (in Comic Sans)

It's an ad for a VPN to get around the Chinese government's "Great Firewall" (GFW) that blocks many foreign websites used by dissidents, like Youtube, Face and Twitter. This is the first time I've seen offline advertising for a service like this, and I'm guessing that our building was targeted because our neighborhood has a high concentration of foreign nationals. This type of ad goes right along with the majority of ads my mailbox sees, which is illegal satellite dish ads, illegal moving companies, and legal(!) housecleaning referral services.

A curious thing happened on the way to the Bund

I don't have a particularly strong attachment to protests. In tumultuous, post-socialist Spain where I spent most of my childhood, protests and strikes were common, but in our house they were viewed through the lens of in/convenience: teachers went on strike, we stayed home from school for a week; marches closed off roads, we went around them; etc. Politics didn't play a big role in our identity, and political action was looked upon as a curiosity more than as a serious agent for change. Perhaps my parents' missionary vocation and distance from home also prevented them from being overtly political.

In college I began to be more aware of the role of government and politics in shaping my life. Friends of friends were involved in social work, WTO protests, and art as activism. After college, I worked at a Borders bookstore during a period when the company was in decline and when some branches were attempting to unionize; the taboo nature of the subject at my workplace made it a forbidden fruit that I couldn't resist researching and experiencing vicariously. Ironically, even becoming more entwined with authoritarian China made me more open to consider socialism as a viable tool of government by the people, as twisted as the socialist system has become here.

All this to say that when I hear about protests like those in Egypt, or the proposed Jasmine Revolution here in China, I now am willing to take them seriously and evaluate them for whether they align with my personal political beliefs and methods.

I didn't make it to the first Jasmine Revolution meetup at the Peace Cinema on February 20 due to logistical reasons. Besides, the organization behind it wasn't clear and from the reception it was getting on Twitter my estimation was that it would turn out to be a journalist and curious-bystander fest, which didn't particularly interest me. In retrospect it was exactly that, though moreso in Beijing than in Shanghai.

What interested me more was the idea that this kind of protest could be and in fact was intended to be a regular, recurring event. Recurring events aren't news. They require a sustained effort and attract the truly committed. They must be designed to be sustainable and find acceptance, an equilibrium with their environment. So I was more curious about this week than the first date.

I really don't have much to say specifically about the protest itself. A combination of my passive-aggressive personality, my preference to let Chinese do their own revolution-ing, and having to frame/explain what was happening to the daughter I brought along meant that I kept the camera in my pocket most of the time and limited my involvement to a snail's-pace stroll along the front of Raffles City, dodging policemen and smiling exaggeratedly at everybody that would look at me. The policemen seemed mostly to be keeping people moving along; an interesting tactic was the use of "referee"-style whistles, which they would blow at anybody who seemed to be loitering. That meant that if anybody tried to stop and chat or say anything, they would be surrounded by a cacophony of police whistles that made it impossible to hear anything else.

A few photos:

IMG_7752Trying to come up in the middle of things, I discovered that exit 14 (I volunteer at People's Square for the subway so I know the place like the back of my hand) was a construction zone or something.

IMG_7753Into Raffles City through exit 15, found Peace Cinema blocked off. Poor Hershey's store, first victim of the revolution.

IMG_7754The door is broken according to Raffles City management, probably a lie.

IMG_7755An apologetic Starbucks worker standing outside informs me that the door from Starbucks to the outside of Raffles City is not open right now. Out of respect for the worker I didn't snap her picture, just this unrelated sign. At this point we were in the thick of things, our ears hounded by police whistles and milling around in the crowd.

IMG_7758Later that day we rolled through the newly re-opened Peace Hotel.

E-bike shopping troubles

We ran around to a couple places looking at e-bikes today, but came home with only some groceries and a tummy full of Sbarros and Hunanese food. The main problem is that we really want a solid bike with a quality child-seat on the back. The problem is that the seats we scoped out online all seem to fit bicycles and bicycle-style e-bikes only, and larger e-bikes don't have solid structures on the back that could support a toddler in a child-seat. Tomorrow we're going to make one more trip to Carrefour and then decide. If it comes down to it, we may just buy the bike we like and have the local e-/motobike shop jimmy-rig the seat onto the bike using some solid bars and bolts.

After a day of thinking and searching on Taobao, we decided to just buy a bike that works for us and then use a "safety belt" for Maryann. We chose a 都市风-brand bike from the Zhangjiang Carrefour, and have ordered a double-lock seat belt from Taobao. Jodi will be riding the bike solo to-and-from work this week and then will take Maryann once she starts school on September 1. She already rode the bike home from Carrefour this evening.


The reasons we chose this particular bike are:

  1. It is large enough to feel safe, but small enough to be maneuverable.
  2. It has a long seat so it can easily fit two adults.
  3. The frame on the back is solidly connected to the bike, so we have the option of switching to a child-seat if we decide it's safer than the seatbelt.
  4. It has two half-size batteries instead of one large battery. This makes them more of a pain to get out and requires two chargers, but it makes them easier to carry upstairs at night.
  5. The batteries are 48V 20HA, which give it an average range for an ebike.
  6. And that's about it. I will keep this blog updated with news about the bike.

Getting a Shanghai Driver's License

With the help of Jodi's parents we've become the owners of a dark blue Chery Tiggo. Since Jodi go her license in March I've been serving as the co-pilot, but we've run into a few situation where it'd be more convenient if I could drive too. So for the past couple weeks I've been working on using my California license to get a Shanghai license. I'll update this post as the process moves along (in it's usual bumbling way, in my case).

  • The first step was a visit to the DMV office in Minhang, at 闵行区沁春路179号 (179 Qingchun Road, Minhang). The guard informed me that all licenses for foreigners are being issued at the main DMV in Changning. That would be at 长宁区哈密路1330号 (1330 Hami Road, Changning), which is best reached on public transportation by taking Metro Line 10 to the Shanghai Zoo, walking over to Hami Road and catching the 739/807 north for two stops. The DMV main branch is open 9am-5pm.
  • The second step was a prelimiary visit to the Hami Road DMV. They asked me to bring: my original driver's license, an official translation of the original DL, my passport, and my temporary residence registration from the local police station. The DMV recommends two translation services: the one I used was the Shanghai Interpreter's Association at 静安区北京西路1277号1607室 (1277 Beijing W Road, Jing'an).
  • The third step was to get my California license translated. I went to the office mentioned above, a long-ish walk from Nanjing W Road metro station, where the translating took less than 10 minutes and cost RMB 50. The Interpreter's Association is located in a nondescript office building on busy Beijing Road, and the translation is done by the lady at the front desk. The people in front of and behind me were also there for driver's license translations.
  • The fourth step was to go back to the DMV at Hami Road with the correct documents. I took a number at the front desk of Building 1, had a quick chat with the desk on the second floor for foreign driver's licenses, and was directed to building 9 for photos and 10 for physical exam.
  • In building 9 I paid RMB 25 for a set of photos with my Chinese name and passport number printed below each photo. The photographer was quick and efficient, got a good shot on the first try without having to take my glasses off.
  • In building 10 I collected the photos and a form, filled out another couple of forms according to the poster examples on the wall, and paid RMB 60 for the physical exam. I was directed out, to the left, and upstairs where I took the exam form to each of about 8 different little rooms for a series of physical checks that were also quick and efficient. Which meant that the bad news was delivered swiftly and with finality: my left eye (cornea scarred by a childhood herpes simplex infection) did not meet the 0.8 standard, being only 0.3. Thus, I failed the physical exam. I was given an address in Minhang, 莘东路508号 (508 Xindong Road) where I could go for a re-exam any Wednesday 8:30-11:00 or 13:00-16:00, presumably after getting better glasses (wouldn't help me).
  • The fifth step was to go to the re-exam place, intending to do my best to explain my condition and plead for leniency. I took Jodi along for a language bonus, and Josie for a cuteness bonus. This is where the TIC started. The staff immediately grasped our situation and explained that they understood, but that they were required by the rules to use the same standard and that we would most likely fail again and lose the RMB 10 re-exam fee. They strongly suggested that we choose an alternative path, which was to go to a district-level hospital — Minhang's being conveniently located just down the road — which would have the driver's license physical exam form and be able to do the exam, and that the standards just "might be looser" (heavy emphasis on that phrase, repeated several times). We got the hint, hoofed it to the hospital, and boy were they right.
  • The sixth step was a visit to the hospital, the Minhang branch of Shanghai's famous Ruijin Hospital. Physical exams for DL take place on the fourth floor in the department that combines service for Taiwanese passport holders and plastic surgery. Several other people were there for the same service as me. I filled out the same form as at the DMV, pasted on another photo, and paid the RMB 40 fee. We chose the eye exam first as it was the highest hurdle to pass. And get this: after walking into the eye exam room and rousing the nurse from his nap, he took a look at my California license, verbally noted that I wore glasses, and then proceeded to fill out the form to the effect that I have perfect vision in both eyes, perfect hearing in both ears, and no other physical defects. Choosing to not look a gift horse in the mouth, we took the form back to the front desk where it was stamped and handed back. TIC indeed.
  • The seventh step is to go back to the Hami DMV and make an appointment for the written exam. Report coming soon.

Notes:

  • On my first visit to the Hami DMV I met a "fixer" at the gate who offered to help me out. I'd heard of this before, hiring somebody to grease the wheels, but since I was deteremined to go through this myself and also on a budget, I declined the offer immediately.
  • Coming out of the re-exam place, we also met a fixer who offered to smooth over the eye problem for RMB 800. Naturally we turned him down. I read on Shanghai Expat that somebody used this kind of service for RMB 500.
  • In summary: to change a foreign license to a Shanghai one, learn Chinese, get your license translated, then take original plus translation, passport, and temporary residence registration to the Hami Road DMV. It's pretty easy from there.