Apr 13, 2015

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.

Stamps of Disapproval

These make me cringe, but are worth a chuckle:

Stamps of phrases like "HUH.", "Has Potential", "Good Start", and "Are YOU happy with this?".

By graphic designer Heather K Phillips.

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.

Woxin and QR codes solve problems

Even though we've moved back to California, we still have a foot or two planted in China, and always will. One thing I regret not doing when we left was turning on international roaming for one or both of our China Mobile cellphones, as I'm unable to receive texts or calls to my old number. One way this has been annoying is that some websites, like those for online banking, will send confirmation SMS messages for performing certain services or allowing you to log in with your cellphone. Since I won't be able to go back to China to turn on international roaming anytime soon, I started looking around for solutions to this problem.

One solution that has worked out well so far is Wo-call. Wo-call is a service offered by the Hebei branch of China Unicom, which offers you a Chinese (Hebei) cellphone number that can receive calls and text messages through its app. By going through the registration process on their website, charging RMB 50 after being redirected to the China Unicom website, and downloading the Wo-call app from Google Play, I now have a working Chinese cellphone number. I changed my registered phone number in various accounts to the new number, and I've now successfully received texts from Alipay, ICBC and CTrip. This will be my stopgap measure until I return to China and visit a China Mobile office to get my old number back.

Another minor problem has presented itself after I switched to using a Mac and somehow messed up the security preferences in Firefox so that I can't use plugins on the Alipay homepage to login securely. Also, the other day Jodi was buying train tickets on her own computer and needed to use online payment from ICBC, but she doesn't have the software installed to use my ICBC secure USB dongle.

The solution in both cases was to log in using QR codes! I just opened up the relevant app (Alipay, ICBC), switched to QR scanning mode, scanned and confirmed that it was me by pressing a button on my phone, and the browser logged me in. Pretty convenient, and a feature I wish more websites had.

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.)

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.

Bank card retrieval

This past week I've gone through a long and tortuous journey, getting back an ATM card that I left in a grocery store ATM. Read on for the sordid details.

Two weekends ago I was sent by my school to an IB workshop in Singapore. The night before I left, I dropped by the grocery store to shop for a few last-minute purchases and to withdraw some cash from the Bank of Communications ATM in the lobby using my Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC) debit card. The plan was to take cash with me to Singapore, and leave the debit card home with Jodi in case she needed more cash.

Later that night as I finished packing my things, I opened my wallet to take out the debit card and found that it wasn't there. I immediately recognized that I had left it in the supermarket ATM after withdrawing the cash. I told Jodi, scrapped together as much cash to leave behind as I could, and made plans for the next morning.

At the airport, I called the ICBC customer service hotline and froze my account. I confirmed that the balance was correct, and was assured by the customer service representative that I could re-activate my card at any ICBC branch, including subway branches, once I had retrieved my card from the ATM. An hour later I was on a flight to Singapore for a four-day stay.

When I got back, I visited the ICBC branch near my school to try and withdraw some cash with my passport. No luck: no cash would be forthcoming without the card. The best they could do was print out a piece of paper with my bank account information that would prove the card belonged to my passport number. I was getting nervous because it was the beginning of the month and various things were coming due: rent, credit card bill, various utility bills, etc.

The next step was to find the card. I called the hotline for Bank of Communications and a helpful woman pointed me to the Xintan Rd branch of BoC as being responsible for this particular ATM. Discouragingly, she told me that cards like mine were usually kept for 4 days at the maximum--my trip had been exactly four days long--but that there was a chance mine was still there. I called the branch the next morning and was able to confirm that my card was probably in their possession, so in the afternoon I left work 30 minutes early and arrived at the bank 10 minutes before closing time. Using the printout from ICBC and my passport, I was able to claim my card. Being ever a scientist, I did not wait to activate the card before trying it at the ATM of the same branch where it was promptly confiscated for being frozen, necessitating another trip to the window for retrieval.

The afternoon of the next day, I took my passport to the ICBC branch in the Xujiahui subway station expecting a quick activation and finally being able to withdraw some cash. But no, the tellers were unable to activate my card because it had no personal information attached to it; this account was opened for me by my second employer in Shanghai back in 2006, and they had not given my phone number or address to the bank. The bank branch's standard procedure for unlocking frozen cards was to confirm phone number and address, and since my card did not have this information teller would require me to go to the bank where my account was opened, the central branch in Pudong, and "confirm my information". To me this was ludicrous: if my account had no personal information attached to it, how would the other branch even be able to confirm my info any better than this branch? Besides, the most important piece of personal information, my passport number, was attached to the account, and would be easily confirmable with my physical passport.

Without leaving the desk, I called the service number for ICBC and talked to a customer service representative. I hoped that the service rep would be able to guide the teller through unlocking my card without requiring a trip to Pudong. But even after handing the phone over to the teller twice and even escalating to a manager, the people behind the service number were not able to wrap theri heads around and solve this problem.

Finally, while I was busy on my phone, one of the tellers at the bank branch got on the desk landline to her boss at ICBC. After consulting with the boss, she received authorization to release my card without confirming my personal data. After a few simple questions about my last transactions, she handed the card off to another teller who worked on the computer for a few minutes and unfroze the account. There was a pause because the bank account is under my complete name, including middle names, and the input field was not long enough so my account name has always been SITTIGMICAHSTEVENSTU with a missing ART at the end, which is obvious if you are looking at my passport. But this was quickly resolved without my assistance and the card came back to me, ready to use. At some point, I still need to make a trip over to Pudong to enter my personal details into the ICBC computer system.

So it took a tense hour or so of negotiation between me, the two tellers, a security guard, the customer service rep, and her manager, but we were finally able to get the job done. Big thanks to Jodi for being a sport and taking care of the girls while I hashed this out. Hopefully this information is interesting or useful to somebody.

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.

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.