Apr 13, 2015

Private school kids and face-to-face time

I have a theory about kids who go to private school in the big city. These kids don't go to a school for which they are zoned, so they travel a long way to school. They don't live near their classmates; in fact, they probably live in an apartment building, far removed from the unfriendly streets below. At night they spend hours doing homework and other things alone. This means that school is the only time they interact face-to-face with their peers.

It's not like when I was young, finishing school and heading out to the soccer field, playground or unattended construction site. I think kids need that unstructured social time and hate interrupting it to return to another structured academic task.

That's why I'm a fan of productive student-student interaction in class, even sometimes letting unproductive interaction go on for a few minutes if I feel like it's meaningful.

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.)

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.

Random bits of reflection

At work today I came back to find a new scarf on my desk. Turns out to be a gift from the union that was organized at my work a week or two before the Chinese New Year break, which I joined. Glancing through my e-mail I saw that, of the 9 teachers in my department, only three of us joined: myself, and the other two local teachers. I wonder if the social science department had a higher subscription rate.

This morning Jodi went to the 1st Maternity Hospital near the former Expo site and got her first ultrasound. It was 3-D: two dimensions plus time, so basically a movie. I think she put a still up on her 微博, like a Chinese Twitter but with pictures, video and censorship. The point of this piece of news being that, yes, we're having a third (and, uh, last), and that it cost RMB 300 to get the the ultrasound movie burned to a CD, which is RMB 100 more than last time, proving that inflation is everywhere.

Also, I'm coaching soccer this season. I volunteered to help coach the the boys team but so many guys tried out that they formed a JV team as well and let me take it alone. The guys are super respectful and proactive so coaching them is great fun. I joined in a drill today and my old cleats breathed their last; the plastic must have dried out over the past few years that I haven't played so the sole cracked and a couple cleats broke off. I'm not sure our budget can cover anything nice right now. I'll probably get something basic to replace them.

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:

Train Tix Redux, 2014 Version

So, once again it's time to return home to the in-law's house for Chinese New Year. And time once again for the drama that surrounds this crazy migration.

In years past we've done different things to get the family to "home" in Hunan: take the overnight train, ride an overnight bus, send Jodi and the girls back early, fly to Changsha and complete the trip on land, drive our own car... Anything that worked to get all two, then three, then... five of us to our destination. Last year we drove, which was OK but meant spending a night on the road each way and about ten hours of driving each way. This was acceptable, but given that the total money cost was about the same as flying, and the time cost was far greater, we decided to look at other options this year.

One new option that presented itself this year was the high speed rail connection that has opened between Shanghai and Jodi's hometown, which is a station near the final stop in Changsha. The trip would start in the morning, arrive in the afternoon, take us directly to our final destination, and the cost could be as little as a half to a third of the cost of flying.

I say could be because we still ran the risks associated with taking the train during the Chinese New Year season, which is: trying to get tickets. Again, I say trying because this is never a certainty; a major factor in our having taken so many different form sof transportation is that it's often been difficult or impossible to get train tickets due to the high demand, scalpers, or other unknowable reasons.

And this year was no different. On the morning when train tickets would be available through the Railway Authority's website, Jodi fired up the browser (I taught class at that hour). The first disappointment came when she saw that second class tickets were sold out, probably to students who can buy pre-sale tickets and people who logged on just before. The second disappointment was that in filling in our passenger information, enough time passed that the first class tickets sold out as well. The last disappointment was that we were able to get two adult and two children tickets in business class, which cost twice as much as first class (still affordable to us, but almost USD 200 for the adults). So this year we will be taking the train, it will be fast, but once again the process leaves a bitter taste in our mouth.

As I write this, another colleague is holed away in a classroom with her iPad and cellphone vying for tickets. She holds little hope: word is that even with the new real-name registration system, scalpers use software to start the buying process and find buyers in real-time who can pay within the payment window time for the scalpers to finish the purchase.

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.

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.

On your marks

This is a test of my new Blosxom weblog (the old is new!). I'm getting tired of Blogger being GFWed, and having more reasons to let local users without VPNs or SSH tunnels read my weblog. For the next couple hours I'll be updating templates, customizing RSS feeds, installing plugins, and so on. Happy hacking to me!

"The greatest teacher of them all"

Jiang Xueqin in The Diplomat:

Now that I’m in Beijing I often wonder if it’s possible to build a strong educational programme in the imperial capital of guanxi. To counter guanxi, which is essentially about leveraging one’s personal network, I thought it best at Peking University High School to emphasize process over people. So we instituted a policy that to enter the International Division, students must enroll in a week-long admissions camp.

This is a really over-the-top (in a great way) method for dealing with high school admissions. Somebody on Google Reader tried to defend guanxi in contexts other than this article, but the way I see it guanxi is a transaction that benefits some parties and has negative externatlities for many more others. For me, then, it's a no go.