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.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

From the Beijing Paralympics, on site -- 9/13/08

At first, it was just a passing thought. A moment later, I made the decision. The unit I teach on the Americans with Disabilities Act, with a focus on workplace accommodation, is one of the more compelling units of my course on Strategic Management of Human Resources. I was going to see the Paralympics!

I asked my Dean and he responded with enthusiastic support. I bought a ticket. A Fulbright colleague in Beijing offered me one of the tickets she had been given to the wheel chair tennis event by her University. A second Fulbright colleague in Beijing kindly invited me to stay with her in her small but cheery apartment. I was off.

The Paralympic athletes were inspiring, perhaps even more so to me, than the athletes who competed in the Olympics. When I complained to myself about my hurting feet, I was reminded that each of the Paralympic athletes had first to overcome a personal disability before even beginning to take up a sport or train for the Paralympics.

Watching the wheel chair tennis matches took my breath away. It's a game I have played and one that my Dad excelled at. I know the challenge of anticipating where the ball will come and getting my feet there before the ball has come and gone. But watching the players seated in wheel chairs meet the ball in a timely fashion was something that I could hardly imagine.

The first match played in center court was between two guys, one from France and one from Chile. Natch, I applauded for the Chilean, throwing in a few Spanish cheers. However, he was clearly outpaced in both speed and strength by the Frenchman, who had taken the gold in a previous Paralympic match. The next match was between two young gals -- a blond from the USA and an African from South Africa. It made for some torn allegiances, to be sure. They were both very good players and had some long, deep in the court volleys. Because they hit the ball with less force than the guys, the ball travelled more slowly; the long volleys and the movement of the chairs positioning and repositioning was really a beautiful site to see. The South African won several games and the first set was long. However, the American player eventually took the set.

We walked around the other tennis courts and watched gals and guys from the States, Canada, China and Germany engaged in matches. Even though I think of myself as reasonably aware, the experience was still an eye-opener. These matches were not the finals so there were no medals awarded.

However, we were also able to get tickets to the Judo event – the finals. We watched several excruciating hours of judo wrestling, men and women, in two weight classes. These athletes were legally blind, category 3 – that is, some of them had some peripheral vision, but that was their maximum visual ability. The judo was hard to watch; several times I was relieved when one of the refs from the sidelines approached the main ref and said something. The matches calmed down a bit, when this happened. ‘Just not my sport! BUT, well worth watching to be able to watch the awarding of the Bronze, the Silver and the Gold medals in each of the categories. Each of the winners was escorted by a sighted person to the medal stand, and the medals were placed around their necks with the same elegance and honor that appears on TV. Only, the athletes had to be helped on and off the stand by their sighted assistant. What an inspiring moment, whatever the sport.

And Beijing ... wow! What a city. Wonderful, but not a city for those who tire easily. I, in my impulsive way, of course, wanted to "do" the city in a long weekend! But my feet rebelled. Simply impossible. We did see the Forbidden City, now the Palace Museum, and Tiananmen Square across the boulevard. I took a bus tour of the city, so saw the location of many other monuments and skyscrapers and some old and some rebuilt “hutongs” (old neighborhoods build down a winding alleyway) as well. It is curious to observe the Chinese apparent preference for razing old buildings and building models of old buildings in their stead, instead of renovating and preserving the old building, themselves. Still, every street, no matter how high the skyscrapers, is lined with trees. It seems that landscaping arts is the one art form that escaped politicization in earlier epochs. On the ground, from the sidewalk, the streets can be quite pleasant.
It was a short trip, but seeing a couple of events at the Paralympics made it very worthwhile. My best to you! Deborah

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Settling In to the University, 9/5/2008

My home away from home is beginning to look a little more like my pad. I’ve found a few dishes and glasses and a French press for making my morning coffee for the kitchen and some silk throw pillows for the living room. Irony of Ironies is that I found most of the things at IKEA -- the Swedish department store that imitates Danish modern design; that has moved much of its manufacturing base to China.

I am getting the drift of the city of Chengdu. It is good to be able to go out and around. When I go more than a block or two from my building, the Foreigners’ Guest House, however, I carry a set of file cards with notes on them in Chinese and English. Please take me to .... It's a bit humorous, the blue-eyed woman who seems not to be able to read, but so far it seems to work. I made several outings on the weekend, and am back in my place with absolutely no fantastic stories to tell about the outings. One day, I’ll write about the traffic. For today, suffice it to say that no news is good news in this case.

My role at the university is taking shape, too. I’ve given my first class, an introduction to policy and practice challenges related to global health. Course registration is a little less organized in China than in the States, so I really had no idea what to expect. I didn’t know whether three or a hundred ‘n three students would show up. In the end, there were about 60 who came to hear and choose. My teaching assistant, Gao Bo, a doctoral student, told me that she was very pleased with the presentation. So, I was happy too. I didn’t know! From my informal conversations with students before class began and in the Q&A period, there seems to be a wide range of English language skill. This is as we had been cautioned at Orientation. But still, I wasn’t sure how to hit the mark. Gao Bo thinks that there will be 45-50 students who complete the registration process. If I can get them talking, even among themselves in small groups, I know I will learn quite a lot. What a privilege to be here among these talented young people!

Dean Ma Xiao of the School of Public Health also extended a kind invitation to me to a welcoming dinner. As those types of events go, it was excellent. The people of Chengdu seem to be very grounded, very personable, and just plain friendly. In some ways they remind me of the people of North Carolina! Neat! Dean Ma talked a little about his visit to the rural country side last week, where he is seeking to identify a possible research site. His own professional training is in health promotion and behavioral health, and the focus of his proposed work is on HIV. It will be interesting to talk more with him in the coming weeks about his work.

Another of the dinner guests had recently returned from Rochester, where she did a year’s post graduate study in a Suicide Prevention Center there. She is interested in doing some research on mental health among the migrant population in Chengdu, using the CDS screening tool for depression as a measure of mental health status. She, also will be interesting to talk with more in the next weeks.

I am also beginning to better understand my role and the roles of my colleagues as Fulbright Scholars. Some of this is subtle, but clues here and there are giving me a better picture of expectations of our time in China, painted as they are in the understated strokes of a Chinese artist painting ranges of receding mountains shrouded in a thin cloud. One key clue I found was in the background description of the U.S. Ambassador to China, Clark T. Randt. Mr. Randt is a lawyer, fluent in Mandarin Chinese. He has lived and worked for more than 20 years in Asia; he has lived for extended periods of time in both Beijing and Hong Kong; is a member of the New York and Hong Kong Bars; and a recognized expert on Chinese law.

He has been more in legal practice than in the University, but I thought it noteworthy that he is fluent in the “local” language. His background and his position also help me to understand why about half of the 18 Fulbright Scholar Awards to China for the 2008-2009 year are lawyers or political scientists. Interesting, no? There appears to be tremendous pressure – a full court press, maybe – to move China’s law to be more systematic (rational?) and transparent. The Fulbright Scholars are assigned to posts in Beijing, Xiamen, Sichuan (where I am), Shanghai, Hangzhou, Wuhan and Tianjin. You may not know all of these cities; I don’t either. But the spread of cities helps to make the point that this is a nation-wide effort.

It is also becoming clear that as China grows as a global power, it is seeking membership in some global consortia, such as the WTO. I gather from several conversations that membership comes with certain requirements. Accountability is at the top of the list, but not because it leads the Roman alphabet!

I am glad to have started classes. I feel a little like I am playing catch up with the semester in Chapel Hill. I know that my semester will be different, challenging, wonderful, frustrating, and, above all, an adventure in global understanding. I feel humbled by the opportunity to be here.

I continue to note curious little quirks. There is one that seems to fit with this narrative. I went into a rather upscale shopping mall, just to see what it was like. First, I noticed that all of the shop clerks said, “Good morning” to me, in English … translating from the Chinese word “Ni hǎo” even though it was 7:30 in the evening! Then, I found myself chuckling aloud when I rode the down escalator and noticed a sign where one could have caught one’s head leaning to examine some pricey scarves between floors saying “Please take care of your head!”

We’ll do. I hope you are each well and enjoying your work and the cooler fall weather. With best wishes, Deborah