My Students Imagine Change

My communication majors’ final assignment was to create a campaign, on something they really care about. Civil society groups are still rare in China, but growing. These kids’ big concerns: Rural children’s malnutrition. Consumer and environmental safety. Rights for migrant workers, who are illegal aliens in the cities they build. Internet censorship, which makes it difficult (to my mind, impossible) to function as a university student. Calmly, intelligently, they call for accountability, for reasonable and humane limits, in a chaotic society whiplashed by freewheeling development that often seems as out of control as a runaway train.

The other most popular imaginary campaign (three students did it), was to get international elections monitors to China. (No wonder after the Qiao Mu affair I described in Nov.)

Writes one: “We perceive ourselves as the seeds of democracy and belief in peaceful political reform.”

More snippets:

G, who’s spent the semester writing about how Party-sponsored social services could ease rural poverty, surprised with a final piece challenging corrupt local officials. His campaign demands the shut-down of a chemical plant leaking toxins in northeastern China, by mobilizing neighborhood parents: “Our children may grow up under the influence of chemicals and we shall do something.” Check out this “Question” from the campaign’s FAQ page: “I really want to join you. But I am afraid that I may be run over by tanks or be thrown into jail.”

D, who earlier wrote about his grandmother — a farmer who raised three generations of intellectuals and never had her own name — returns to the theme, campaigning for China’s 47 million rural “left-behind” women. Though farmers are 31 times richer than three decades ago, these women “suffer loneliness, a lack of self-development and self-actualization, illiteracy, and are without spiritual well-being.” He proposes “Self-study programs, access to the Internet, recreational facilities, as well as construction of libraries.” D reflects: “I felt gripped by a complex feeling. Perhaps this is my duty in the future. To do simple but meaningful work as an ordinary individual, while to witness and create history in [an] organization.”

Also safety-minded, V wants school bus safety. Just this November-December, 33 Chinese children died in school bus crashes. She calls for stronger supervision modeled after Canada and the U.S.: uniform use of yellow for buses, new laws including right-of-way, strict load standards. “Drivers should be specially trained and government should subsidize school bus companies.” Bus safety is just part of what China faces today, she reflects: “poverty, injustice and repression that need to be resolved.”

R’s economically savvy campaign wants to construct earthquake-safe buildings, plus adding local job training and locally-sourced materials to the mix. “Our aim is to make safe houses available to all who need them, develop local skills, and local demand.”

Y, a lovely young woman, wants to promote ocean health and, by extension, seafood safety. (Heavy metals are so prevalent in bodies of water here, the embassy dr. advised us not to eat fish while in China.) Y’s first aim is to make people care. “I’ll adopt a listener-oriented approach to get my message across, being expert enough to talk about the subject and interesting enough to make the audience stay until the end. I will add stories, in different voices that will resonate.” One story: a farmer who “dared not eat the rice he grew himself, since the linkage of several cancer cases and heavy metal pollution in the village was confirmed. …What will he have for meals tomorrow?”

What, indeed?

Yearning for the Old

Liulichang on a December Saturday

from The Blue Lotus

Sentimentality is suspect, especially in Western travellers (I mean — everyone needs pennicillin and the other miracles of modern life). But you can’t help hunger for the antique in Beijing, where you may experience a 12-lane traffic jam on a newly-built road every day. Just one subway change got us to Liulichang Dongjie, a commercial street from the Ming times, now an antiques district–somewhat scrubbed for tourists but not too much, and strangely empty on a Saturday. And nearby, we did a good activity for my sore throat: taste tea in Maliandao, a giant tea district. It’s both a tastte of the past and a living wholesale marketplace. The oolong’s perfume was dizzying (but we already have lots of oolong). We tried pu’er, red, white, black; bought green & jasmine.

Big leaves

Tea test with Joe Weber of BusinessWeek-U Nebraska

Preservation: it’s not that no one’s working on it here, but it’s a race against time. Sometimes I hear about visitors who “hated China”–after experiencing traffic jams, pollution, nearly getting run over by speeding vehicles, & massive jostling crowds.

Probably should have bought this

Some actual antiques

Antidote: Follow your yearning for the old. My students feel it, I know, even as they train for cutting-edge global media jobs. For 20-somethings, everything has changed in one short lifetime.

Paper, some antique

We didn’t make it to Dashilan, the district the student below writes about, but it was right nearby:

“In my childhood memory, grandpa takes me here once a month, to walk the streets, narrow and crowded but in a lovely way. We purchase some daily goods, like shoes, scissors, tea, and clothes. I still remember holding my grandpa’s hand and squeezing our way back and forth from one store to another. Today, Dashilan has totally changed its form. The street must have widened three times at least. And it also has become much cleaner a place. But where is the savor of Kaorouji’s roast meat? Where is the refreshing smell of Zhang Yiyuan’s tea? They are part of my childhood memories. Today we walk without mentioning the past.”

What My Students Wrote About This Week

Shared office for foreign faculty. School of English and Int'l Studies.

Some of the stories my undergrads, in opinion-writing, wrote about this week:

A Communist Youth League project the writer is involved in, sending fresh college grads to the poorest mountain villages to teach elementary school, where the unlicensed teachers were all fired.

The popularity, and importance in China, of free, online U.S. college-course videos (humanities, social sciences, engineering and technology).

A love letter to the university’s British parliamentary debate club, which “promote[s] democracy globally by supporting discussion and active citizenship.”

China’s fast urbanization required importing 600 million tons of iron ore. You got a problem with that? The writer knows a Chinese raw-materials importer; it’s a small family company, not an ‘evil extractor’ or pillager.

A plan to prevent racist violence from erupting when Poland and Ukraine host the 2012 European Football Championship, by a writer who’s a member of FIFA, the sport’s governing body.

How unfair it is that small online merchants are being screwed by unfairly high fees by Taobao, the eBay of China.

That China must spend more money to combat the spread of AIDS in Africa.

No heat...until Nov. 15.

(Random selections, what was handy)

Smiling (Non-)Buddha

Lue Mnjun's enigmantic grins are everywhere.

The smiling work of leading Chinese contemporary artist Yue Minjun is everywhere–huge, grinning self-portraits, often in bubblegum colors. Taking Kenny to an all-day football (soccer) tournament yesterday, passed this. Ethan felt the smiles were genuine, goofy happiness. The Times piece linked above suggests the smiles may be the “illusion of happiness headed toward extinction.” Lue is part of what some call China’s Cynical Realism school, which meets the despair of contemporary urban China sardonically, with a sense of the absurd. Take it straight or metaphorically–Yue’s famous smiles are referencing Buddha’s smile. I don’t pretend to get Beijing life today. But I often think of a student, native of the city whose home was razed as part of the rezoning of low-rise alleys so high-rise towers could rise, who said, “I’m homesick every day.” And of an Edison, NJ dad born here and now back several years, for a hedge fund, who gets lost driving his own hometown.
My students’ latest sets of writing have wrestled the inexplicable delays in banning waste (“sewer”) oil from returning to the food stream; the wrongness of not letting a good candidate who wasn’t hand-picked run for office, and the anger on campus when hundreds of students were forced to “volunteer” for the administration, with work sometimes lasting until midnight, under penalty of disciplinary action. And there’s this. The smog (using the Embassy’s Air Quality Index, or AQI) has been above 400 this week & today, a multiple of emergency health conditions almost impossible to express. I didn’t put Ethan in his mask yesterday because our Chinese playdate didn’t have them. My friend said it was just fog, rolling in before the rain.

Forest Park, beside the Olympic stadia

My Students, in Their Own Words

Beijing Foreign Studies University

“I have often thought about what makes me different from the millions of the others who also got the same name. I believe, it is those people who raised me. My family is not a well-off one. But through my parents’ love and care I learnt about faith and trust. Through their examples of reading at night I learnt about the power of knowledge. Through their everyday housekeeping, through every meal, every outing, every call, I learnt responsibility and happiness and love. And my grandma, who regards me coming first in everything I do, never have doubt on my capabilities, she is my inspiration…I am glad to be myself. I am the Yang Yang who is like no one else.”


“For me, English is the best friend and teacher I ever had. It showed me how beautiful a language could possibly be, and it changed my perspective of certain issues like democracy.”


“I have experienced the atmosphere of overcoming difficulty after difficulty. Thousands of tests have effectively shaped me in calmly tackling barriers.”


“I come from a very traditional Chinese family with no siblings. To some extent, it results in the loneliness and independence of my personality. And I am somewhat grateful for the small size of my family because I can receive all my parents’ attention.”

“My choice of journalism major was not something random. I’d get moved by stories told by journalists and journalists themselves who fought for causes as human rights, peace and democracy. I can feel the language and I feel its power. It is my will to wield it as sheild and sword to preserve the many things worth fighting for.”


“Though I love it, I have never made up my mind to be a journalist, part of the reason for which is the objection from my parents. They don’t want me to be in danger but unfortunately, journalist is never safe.”


“Unlike most children around me, I was brought up by my grandparents. My parents have been away from home to make a living. They came back home twice a year, leaving my brother and me growing up independently. I always hoped summer and winter vacation could come soon, because only then could I get a chance to see my parents. Because of this unforgettable experience, I have been dreaming of becoming a teacher. I hope to get an average income from this stable job and use it to support my family. I dream that one day my parents no longer need to struggle alone.”


“I hope to be an international NGO worker, a member of the institutions under UN, to be someone speaking for our people, fighting for the promising future of the entire human beings.”


“I hope that I can be more critical and analytical every time I read some materials especially news reports and articles about current affairs. I hope to sharpen my thoughts so that I can see the essence of the events better.”


“I was raised under the influence of Chinese Confucianism and hold the faith in the ideal of ‘cultivating yourself, managing your family, governing the country and chase global peace’ proposed by Confucius thousands years ago. Thus I do not desire a life simply driven by money or fame but one with inner peace.”


“My ultimate goal is to do something good for the whole society. I can be a politician or a diplomat, or a employee in cross-continent corporations, or even a part-time writer. No matter what job I do, I will always remember to make this world better.”


“It is very hard for Chinese to make our voice heard. That is a big problem. And I want to be one of the journalists to introduce the wrold to China, as well as introduce China to the world.”