Friday, January 16, 2009

Homeward Bound

Homeward bound I am … and so, it seems, is everyone else in China. Because the Chinese academic semester is pegged to the Chinese New Year, my commitment to the Fulbright Program extended until mid-January. My classes finished a couple of weeks earlier than others, so I was able to spend some time in Beijing. But now, everyone is finished with exams and papers. And, with the Chinese New Year (January 26, this year) fast approaching, students across the country are heading home. Everyone, it seems, is on the move.

I chose to take the train for this next to last leg – that is from Beijing to Shanghai. When I realized that the Chinese government has extended travel holidays to ease the density of the vast flow of millions, I admit I was a little nervous. A week ahead, when I purchased my ticket, first class soft seats were already sold out. My ticket was for the second class, hard seat coach. As it turns out I was seated in car 15; the train made up with 16 cars!

Anticipating the hard wooden slatted seats of trains in Central America, I bought a pillow-cased size bag and filled it with soft clothing. Ten hours on a hard seat – I had visions of writing the next Paul Theroux travel novel! The train was thoroughly modern; the seats were as comfortable as any airplane seat; my home-made sit upon wasn’t necessary at all.

The train left from Beijing’s new South Station, so we were out of the city in minutes. The train ride was pleasant; crowded at times; open seats for other segments of the journey. Only a handful of passengers stayed aboard to the end point at Shanghai. Many people of all ages were clearly eager to be home with family to celebrate the Spring Festival.

Enroute, we passed smaller cities, towns, villages and an occasional isolate house in the fields. The countryside was peaceful but, for sure, there were many places along the route that looked like they had been forgotten by China’s leaders. Three and four story buildings of weathered cement; two unfinished spanning bridges with vertical supports but no horizontal surfaces; a few too many trees planted along the tracks perhaps attempting to shield the still present rural poverty from the passengers passing on the latest bullet train.

It was also interesting to me to watch the people who got off at each stop. Men in pin stripped pants and ties exited at a small town. They carried gifts in bright red boxes A young couple, maybe even a brother and a sister, carried with them a cardboard box filled with dates, nuts and other treats more readily available in urban centers than in rural areas. As I watched urban people going home to small towns and villages, I was drawn again to reflecting on the astonishing strides that China has made in the past 3 decades. I also found myself hoping that efforts to extend this new prosperity out from the cities to rural areas will happen soon – for everyone’s benefit. I share the concerns of many who worry for the restiveness of the rural populace who have been left behind.

On Monday, January 19, I pack clothes, gifts, toothbrush and many memories into my bags for the last time and board American Airlines #288 for the flight home. Good-byes are not my expertise, even though I’ve had lots of practice this time. It will also be good to be home, to visit, to talk to you and hear your stories. In different ways, I’ve missed each of you. Until soon!

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The 2008 Election: a View from Chengdu, China

At 11 am when I left for the “Election Watch Event” at the Crowne Plaza Chengdu Hotel I had already been watching the election returns on-line for some three hours. In order to make the early returns a little more lively, I had pitted the predictions of CNN (on Foxfire) against those of the New York Times (on Internet Explorer). Watching the very early returns from Indiana on either browser heightened my own sense of suspense for the outcome of the election. The fact that the map of the election returns, now, at 4:30 am EST, still present Indiana as an inconclusive race sends shivers down my spine. This race could have been so very close.

Fortunately, the outcome was otherwise. When I arrived at the Crown Plaza Chengdu Hotel, I endured the delay of the usual security checks – minus removal of my shoes. Once inside, I was ushered to the reservation desk, where I gave my name and took a quick survey of the materials on the table. I saw only McCain-Palin buttons – my heart crept towards my throat, but I took a deep breath and decided that this was a hopeful (rather than an ominous sign). Hopefully, the crowd inside would be sporting the other buttons!

Most of the Chinese people I have met are Obama supporters. Among my students, a straw poll indicated 100% support for Obama! I was surprised and pleased.

The other good sign was the offering of real coffee! China is a nation of tea drinkers. I poured a cup … then a second one. I grew confident that the day was going to go my way.

I met a friend from the Consulate. He was talking with an older woman and a younger man. She was sporting one of those other buttons – her right of course. Their conversation finished, and my friend, apologetically, explained his friends away. It took great pains to be neutral!

The electoral vote edged upwards. There was a momentary pause in the conversation.

The Fulbright Liaison from the Consulate introduced me to the Consul General, Mr. James Boughner. We chatted for a bit – he seemed eager to retell the details of his interviews with reporters earlier in the day. He explained his perception that this was a unique moment in history and that the event deserved more than a tea party at the Consulate Building. Most of the invited guests were Chinese who in some way interacted with Americans in official capacities. An election in the U.S. is a complicated process – to say the least – and it was his belief that the experience should be shared as widely as possible.

As he spoke, the electoral vote jumped again. Then, a banner appeared across the lower half of the screen. CNN had called the election for Obama. There was a gasp. It was audible … The gasp was followed by the silence of disbelief and tears of relief. Then, the tension broke and the digital cameras took over. I had a small American flag in my top pocket; a colleague had brought an Obama T-shirt with him when he came to Chengdu in August (Gary plans ahead). A Consulate Mom had bought Obama hats and cheer leaders pom-poms in blue and white for her three children. It was a photo-op moment that made up for all of the pictures I have taken of Chinese friends! Look for our photos on the web!

We breathed a collective sigh of relief; thanked McCain for his willingness to concede early and for the sincerity of his remarks. We stood with Obama, as we imagined his own personal response to the victory, and waited …and waited … for his first remarks as President-Elect. After a very long two years, we were willing to wait just a little longer. We sat and listened in a mixture of disbelief and relief. We did it! Tomorrow, as the Leader said, our work begins again.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The Pandas – what’s not to love!

The Panda Research Center is situated just 20 minutes outside of Chengdu. Last Sunday, a friend visiting from the States and several students from my undergraduate class and I went to visit. The sky was overcast, or smoggy, as you prefer, but the variety of greens and flowering plants used in the landscaping at the Research Center gave the whole park an unusual brightness. And, several pandas made the visit just plain fun!

The tour begins with a walk down a path with sign boards introducing the history of the research center, with a few endearing comments about China’s love of the panda. As visitors round a bend, there is a small gift shop and an amphitheatre where a short, but quite well done video on the life cycle of the panda is being shown. The video depicts the pandas as solitary creatures, who each want their own space, big time! They eat only bamboo – and digest only a small part of what they eat. I can only imaging that eating some 40 kilos a day must sometimes seem like an onerous chore.

Settlements of any type seem to cramp their style. The video firmly establishes that the solitary nature of the panda leads to some difficulties in their breeding habits – poor – and justifies the need for a research center, with an emphasis on artificial breeding. At birth, the newborn panda it tiny, weighing an incredible 3.5 to 11 ounces! To my surprise, the babies are pink, have little or no fur, do not yet see – and have none of the characteristic black and white markings of adult pandas.

Within a year and a half, the young pandas are ready to play. And,we found several of them in Panda Kindergarten. One panda in particular seemed to be trying to find a comfortable spot in the y-branches of a tree. I this photo, he had decided for a moment that hanging from the branch was better than trying to cradle his bum in the low y-shaped branches. Or, maybe he was just teasing the crowd and the cameras that were following his antics!

As we walked around the park we stopped to watch two older pandas getting their afternoon exercise in a wrestling match. The goal of the match seemed to be to roll your partner down the hill at the edge of the grassy enclosure. The two did this over and over. We all wished that panda markings were a little more distinct so that we could tell whether or not the same panda did the rolling each time, or whether they took turns at this part of the game.

That reminds me of an oft’ told joke: “What is a panda’s fondest wish? A color photograph!” Ha! Ha! Cute!

The Chinese love their pandas and it is not hard to see why. Their rolly-polly furry bodies make them seem like more of a large kitten rather than a 200-300 pound animal. It seems like so much fun to go and play with them. I have the impression, though, that the friendly overture would not be appreciated.

I have visited the pandas at the Washington, D.C. zoo, but I did not realize until the visit to the Panda Research Center, that the D.C. pandas are (reportedly) the only pandas in the United States. Estimates are that there are now about 700-100 pandas in the world, up from about half that number 30 years ago. It is a visit I could make over and over again. The Panda Research Center is one of the unique rewards of being in Chengdu.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Post-Quake HIV/AIDS Prevention Planning

May 12 caught the Chinese off-guard. Much like September 11 in the United States. Many in China still refer to the earthquake by its date. Others refer to the catastrophe as the “Wenchuan Earthquake” (pinyin: Wènchuān dà dìzhèn) after the earthquake’s epicenter in Wenchuan County, Sichuan province.

The hard work of rescuing and treating the injured is over. Tents have been struck for those who lost their homes. Schools have been re-opened, if only for the purpose of giving the children an opportunity to step back into a routine that is familiar to them.

Others, including doctors who aided in the rescue work, hospital directors, community leaders, representatives of civic organization, researchers and health experts from several global agencies, including UNAIDS gathered for two days this past weekend to revisit their disaster relief efforts and to provide input to newly drafted guidelines for HIV/AIDS interventions in emergency settings. Many who spoke of their experience added that they wished such guidelines had been in place when the disaster struck. I was invited to attend. One of the students in my Global Health Challenges offered to serve as my interpreter.

China is still considered a country with a low infection rate. Many people still presume that the problem is confined to intravenous drug users. Still, a recently published UNAIDS report indicates that more cases of HIV/AIDS are identified in heterosexual populations each year.

As a result, professionals at the Conference remain concerned for careful monitoring at the earthquake site for possible new infections. The earthquake not only toppled poorly built school buildings, but also collapsed hospitals and clinics. When the upper floors collapsed, the weight of the cement also crushed sterilization equipment and other laboratory supplies. For several days there was not running water. One surgeon described his worry that their work may possibly have spread the disease. The need was so great – the resources so few. The surgeons worked 12 and 15 hour shifts; moving from patient to patient, having doused their hands in disinfectant and changing their surgical gloves.

The earthquake also left behind broken families and shattered relationships. The social chaos in the first days and weeks was unimaginable. Within a short time, the thousands who had lost their homes were housed in tenements of bright blue tents. The hospital director attending the Conference commented on the observed but quite unexpected sexual activity in the closely spaced tents. “Unexpected,” commented the hospital director, because the tents were placed so close together that there was little to no privacy.

The lack of guidelines for HIV/AIDS interventions in emergency settings meant that little thought had been given to the most basic means of prevention. The draft guidelines which address issues ranging from coordination and to shelter and site planning to health, education and behavioral communication change, are meant to remedy this oversight. No one had planned ahead for the earthquake, just as no one anticipated the events of 9/11. The Wenchuan EQ was a wake up call for health professionals in western China. The Guidelines, when published in January 2009, will set standards for HIV/AIDS preparedness for China and countries around the world. I was honored to have been included as a participant at this important global review.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

An Adventure in Sichuan Cuisine, October 17, 2008

On Thursday, after hosting the first session of the “Professional English Corner” I was invited to have lunch with my Teaching Assistant, Gao Bo, several of her graduate classmates in Preventive Medicine and their Faculty Advisor. We walked from the campus to Jin Guan Tang, a Sichuan restaurant just a few blocks away. The restaurant, like many others, is situated on the second floor, saving space on the street level for small shops.

As is typical in this area of China, at least, the dishes arrive one at a time, but seem to never cease to arrive. For today’s lunch, Dr. Li chose the following dishes:
Pickled lotus root (delicious)
Whipped sweet potato deep fried and stuffed with sweet bean paste
White radish and smoked pork
Chopped pieces of duck with red peppers and scallions
Steamed fish topped with sliced onions and scallions
Diced eggplant in a delicious sauce
Long stemmed mushrooms with green peppers
Toasted deep fried sesame rolls, and
Kung Pao chicken topped with large chunks of hot red pepper!

Just a few dishes, I would say! I am amazed at how much food is served for these lunches and dinners. Some guide books say it is a type of compensation for the scarcity of food available to anyone during the Cultural Revolution. Others say it is the Chinese sense of graciousness. By any standard, the meal was more than ample for the six of us.

The occasion of the luncheon was the one-month birthday of Maye’s (Zhang Min) new little baby boy. In keeping with the local custom, Maye had invited her graduate school classmates and her faculty advisor and me out to lunch to celebrate the day. I assume from the conversation that she would also host another meal for her family and friends. We chatted a bit about the baby; I asked to see his photograph. He was just precious – seemed to be smiling, already, at one month. Maye told me his Chinese name – but its multiple vowel sounds quickly escaped my memory. She also told me that he didn’t have an English name yet, but wondered if I would chose one for him. I was in a Peter mood; it is a name I’ve always liked; and, so I think little Zhang’s English name is now Peter!

Sichuan Food is famous the world over. The meal that we ate on Thursday was testimony to the freshness of the foods and the range of flavors. The pickled lotus root was delicious; -- I’m a pickle fan almost anywhere. But, the steamed fish – which is the next to last dish usually served – is absolutely delicious. There are two things that make is so good. First, is that the fish must be steamed above the water, in a sauce flavored with soy and other spices. Second…and key…is choosing an absolutely fresh fish to be steamed. One friend described how you can run your finger across the fish’s scales and know exactly how fresh the fish is. Another, jokingly –maybe—described grabbing a live fish from a tank to be steamed as he entered a restaurant.

Sichuan food is spicy … "hot" also comes in many flavors. I notice that the food is cooked with large chunks of hot red and green peppers, but typically these chunks are not eaten. Rather, the peppers are used to flavor the food. There is one peculiar little spice that I have never seen before; it is slightly larger than a pepper corn but has a prickly skin; it goes by the name “hua jiao.” It gives the food an unusual hot, slightly prickly taste. A touch of it is delicious. However, I did make the mistake of taking one of these little guys and chewing on it. What a surprise. Now when I tell my Chinese friends that I call this little seed “Chinese Novocaine” I always get a lively chuckle.

Still, the freshness and the flavors of Sichuan Cuisine guarantee every meal will be a delectable adventure in taste!

Traveling South to Yunnan Province (October 8, 2008)

Everyone is on the road during the week of vacation that surrounds China’s National Holiday, celebrated on October 1. As everyone in China has a weeks vacation, the holiday has earned the title “Golden Week.” I was no exception. I took to the airways to travel south to Yunnan Province to the garden city of Kunming. The city is actually what I imagined that Kunming would be. Smaller in scale; a bit more attention to design in architecture; color in buildings; being at higher altitude helped, too.

Kunming is located just over 6000 feet above sea level; the weather was a bit cooler and the air a bit fresher. But the real delight is that the altitude allows the smog to blow away each day and the earth’s blue sky to shine for most of the day. It was also nice to see a hill or two – I hadn’t realized just how flat Chengdu is until I got to Kunming. It is smaller in scale and population than Chengdu; it also has a reputation for having a year round spring time climate, like Northern California, I suppose. As a result there is an abundance of flowers that grow there, including orchids and a very large botanical garden. I imagine it is lovely in the springtime.

Yunnan Province is home to many of the nation’s minority groups – one third of its 42 million people belong to one of 25 registered minorities, among them the Hui, Yi, Miao, Tibetan, Mongols, Bai, Wa and Naxi peoples. The northern Han Chinese, the majority population, is the 26th group in China. To keep knowledge of the traditions and material culture of the minority groups alive in the minds of the Chinese people, the Yunnan Nationalities Museum has recently re-opened at an outdoor site10 kilometers south of Kunming city. The Museum, itself, is an outdoor walk-around park, something like out theme parks. Walking from site to site is pleasant, as the walkways are landscaped with a variety of the more than 400 types of flowers commonly grown in the area. At each site visitors walk are greeted by members of the community dressed in their traditional costume. Minority representatives at several communities played traditional songs or treated the visitors to a ceremonial dance. For me, the tour of the Yunnan Nationalities Museum provided an introduction to the range of traditions and to the fervor with which these traditional people adhere to them. Further evidence of the respect accorded these recognized ethnic minorities, all non-Han groups in China are allowed to have two children in urban areas, and three or four in rural areas.

While elaborate costumes are not commonly seen on the streets today, in Kunming and in surrounding communities it is not unusual to see brightly colored embroidered baby carriers used to tie babies a Mom’s back.

With a graduate student friend from Sichuan University who lives in Kunming, I also visited Xī Shān, also called the “Sleeping Beauty Hills” of Kunming. There is a beautiful winding road up the mountain. Because it was holiday week, everybody, including the huge tour busses wanted to go up the hill. We walked a mile or so, caught the views, and then turned back. But I must say it was an eye-popping experience to watch the tour buses try to pass each other on a lane and a half road!

At the Kunming airport on my return journey, it seemed everyone was buying boxes of fresh fruits or bunches of flowers to carry back to Chengdu and other places with them. I joined in and bought 10 apricot roses – it must be a Chinese dozen – for 10 yuan (6.86 yuan=$1US). In my apartment, they reminded me of the “Golden Week,” and my trip to Kunming for several more days. It was good to be home – even if it was already home away from home!

Sunday, September 21, 2008

On the Road in Chengdu, 9/20/08

Traffic! Where to start! How to begin! I prefer to think of traffic as being governed by a set of rules established perhaps during the Ming Dynasty when the Great Wall was extended by some 600 miles and much codification took place to protect the Empire. Then, probably only people filled the roads, whether with chariots or not!

Today, there are people on foot, bikes, bikes with small motors attached, motor bikes, cars, taxis and buses. Or, perhaps there are buses, taxis, cars, motor bikes, bikes with motors and without and people on foot for the latter order seems to govern the right of way. It’s a wonder that more people are not hurt!

I’ve not hit a car yet, but I’ve turned several times and found myself face to face with a motor bike rider. Today, I turned to avoid a motor bike and ran into the woman sweeping the street. We both laughed!

There is one particular intersection that also makes me laugh, sometimes out loud, each time I go there. It is the intersection of Renmin Lu (Renmin Street) and the gates to the HuaXi Campus of Sichuan University. Renmin Lu is a large thoroughfare in Chengdu, with three lanes of traffic in each direction – plus – a bike lane for bikes and motor bikes in each direction. It is actually quite beautiful with a wide median planted in a variety of grasses, and some begonias and marigolds. It also is lined with the most beautiful tall evergreen trees – a type of weeping cedar I would guess. However, it is filled with traffic at most every hour of the day.

The cross street connects the two sides of HuaXi campus. When the traffic on Renmin Lu stops, the cross walk is filled with all manner of feet accompanied by back packs, bikes, electric bikes and four-wheeled vehicles that are making left turns into one of the gates from Renmin Lu. It looks like a veritable free for all. It is a free for all! I’ve walked it, and dodged the other walkers and skipped around the bikes and electric bikes and watched with amazement as the left-hand turning cars make their way through the masses.

One evening I must have commented to a new friend here as we were crossing the intersection something to the effect, “This is crazy!” She asked me this past week if I remembered making the comment, and, then, asked me to explain to her why I thought it was crazy! I was left speechless. Gratefully, the taxis began honking its horn and my sputtering attempt at an answer was drowned in a chorused cacophony of sound! Whew! That was a narrow miss! I wonder what the cute little cocker spaniel riding along in the bike basket (above photo) would have to say!

I did buy a bike last week, at one of the so-called second hand shops. Second-hand shop is a euphemism for the widely known, poorly kept secret “stolen bike sale stand.” One student said to me, “we know they’re stolen, but we’re students what can we do.” During the Fulbright Orientation we were advised to buy the oldest bike we could – so that we’d be more likely to have it for the duration of our stay!

A bike is wonderful. The city is completely flat. None of the ‘ups and downs’ of Chapel Hill to worry about. Riding across campus is just good fun; only a few cars of residents are allowed on campus, so the roads are just for us bikers and a few rickshaws. Here, on campus the fabled rules of the Ming dynasty still seem to make some sense.