Thursday, October 9, 2014

On going home

I live in Beijing. Although my books and old clothes are stored in my parents' attic in Connecticut, the things I need day-to-day are here. My girlfriend (and best friend) lives here, and though she came to the US once with me, it was more like a vacation than a homecoming.

However, I'm far from being a citizen of China. The number of people who are naturalized into this country is incredibly small. Part of this is because of the government, which (like America's) is paranoid about foreigners, and makes renewing one's visa a constant hassle.

But I think that even if the government relaxed its controls, the nature of Chinese society would keep most people from staying here forever. There have been several pieces published recently about why, but in short, China is dominated by a monoethnic culture which makes it nearly impossible for someone who is non-Han and/or not born in China to fit in completely.

To give just one example of the cultural chasm between China and the US: In America, when you go out for a meal, you choose between American food, Italian, Chinese, Mexican, Indian, Thai, etc.

In China, on the other hand, the nationality of what you eat is taken for granted. Chinese people eat Chinese food. What you choose is what you want the base of your meal to be: rice, noodles, or porridge.

Similarly, but more serious, are the effects of a single race society. My skin color, although it affords me enormous privilege here in the workplace, also poses an insurmountable barrier to assimilation. Though the US is far from a perfect melting pot, Americans generally wait until they hear someone's accent to judge whether or not they're a fellow countryman. But in China, white, black, or brown skin marks you as a foreigner before you even open your mouth. Even those expats who don't bother to learn Chinese know the meaning of "laowai", a semi-offensive epithet that you'll hear said about you if you go anywhere outside of the expat districts.

So, I'm still a US citizen, and will be for some time to come. I pay my US taxes (voluntarily, since I doubt the American government has any way of knowing how much I make here). But my identification with America has somewhat diminished. When you live in a place outside of America, you realize that just like most other societies, America exaggerates its own importance and correctness, in ways that are nearly impossible to see from the inside.

To take one example, how many of us are taught about the Korean War? We laugh at Chinese people's ignorance of the Cultural Revolution but act as if racism ended with the Civil Rights act.

But really, it's not the negatives of America that makes me reluctant to identify completely as American, but the positives of China. Beijing is a really exciting place, but I'm sure the same could be same of many cities. What's different for me about Beijing is that, like a Tough Mudder race, it's an environment of constant challenge. If you survive, it feels incredibly gratifying.

So for me, when I go back to the United States, it seems like a strange combination of home and not-home. Familiar but yet strange, it feels a lot like going back to one's old middle school. You find that the place hasn't changed, and yet it seems quite different - because you are not the same.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Will Dan McLaughlin be a professional golfer by 2018? [non-China]

The efforts of Dan McLaughlin to become a professional golfer through sheer determination are fascinating for anyone who's wondered about the roots of high ability. Given that he's already more than halfway through his 10,000 hours of deliberate practice, I wondered if it was possible to say by now whether or not he'll succeed.

CIW: Sports: Dan McLaughlin from Chicago Ideas Week on Vimeo.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

On Bitcoin [non-China]

I'm a bitcoin optimist, for several reasons. One of them is that I experience the inefficiencies of the current monetary system on a routine basis as someone who lives in a foreign country. Every time I want to transfer the money I make in Chinese RMB to my American bank account, I have to pay PayPal a 4% transaction fee. I hate having to use such an expensive way to transfer money, but it's better than the alternatives! (See how to use PayPal to do so here.) Compared with a wire transfer, at least PayPal is instant, and avoids the wire transfer fees from a bank which would come out to nearly as much.

PayPal's fees. 0.5%-2% sounds nice. The problem is, PayPal doesn't allow you to link a Chinese bank account!
Why should transferring money from one country to another cost so damn much? This is one of the questions that Bitcoin sets out to address. With Bitcoin, there's no banks holding your money and charging high fees to send it somewhere else. Once you own bitcoin, it's yours.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

A perfect China day

Living in China is hard. But it's like Ice Cube said - the more difficult your environment is, the better it is when it cooperates.

The weather was gorgeous. My English classes went by quickly. And to cap it all off, I got a bicycle.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

On knowledge and the meaning of "ex aequali" [non-China]

The advantages which Google, Yahoo and Wikipedia have brought to the curious mind are enormous. The amount of knowledge available to me at any instant is greater by a thousandfold than in the pre-internet era. I use Google and Wikipedia every day, and can't imagine going back to paper encyclopias and libraries.

Yet, as Socrates reminds us in the Meno, not all facts available to us are truely knowledge. Some, Socrates says, should rather be considered merely true opinions, since we believe them to be true without knowing why they are true.

But what the internet brings us is not even true opinions, but merely the capability to acquire such opinions. That is, it hasn't actually made us more knowledgeable, it's just given us the tools to more easily acquire opinions.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

A minor milestone on the path to fluency in Chinese

Last week, I got a question that made me feel good about the time I've invested in learning Chinese. It happened in the subway station on my way to a teaching job. He was asking me about being an English teacher, a topic about which I've talked many times before. After asking me a bunch of rapid-fire questions, he said “我说这么随便你怎么都能听得懂?” - You can understand me when I speak this quickly? When I replied in the affirmative, he asked me, "are you a native Chinese speaker or...?"! Of course I told him I wasn't, though it might have been funny to see (a la Fluent in 3 Months) how long I could pretend I was. (And yes, there is at least one white native speaker of Chinese.)

Today, I got a mail delivery. Unlike in the US, parcel delivery in China isn't always to your door (probably because everybody lives in apartment blocks). It's delivered by motorized tricycles with parcel carriers on the back, whose drivers will often stop at the gate to your complex or (in my case) the plaza of your school and call you to tell you that your mail has arrived and to come pick it up.

Anyway, when I arrived at the plaza and met the guy with the package, he seemed a bit surprised. After handing over my parcel, he told me that I spoke very good Chinese, and that "我没有听得出来" - that he hadn't heard it. I'm pretty sure he was referring to me being a foreigner!

In both cases, I hadn't said much yet. And in the latter case, some of what the delivery man had said, I hadn't understood, but had just ignored it since I knew the routine for getting the mail. So, in actuality I'm still far from having the competence, not to mention the accent, of a native speaker. But it's good to still be reaching new milestones in this incredible and incredibly challenging language.

Monday, March 3, 2014

The Kunming incident & thoughts on terrorism

It was pretty scary to hear about this incident from a friend of mine. I've been to Kunming - my Facebook profile picture used to feature the train station where the shootings took place - and I'm sure for him, as someone from Kunming, it was far worse. However, my opinions on the matter may be different from those of my friend, or of most people.

Below is a translation of a short article by China's state-affiliated Xinhua News Network, followed by my thoughts on terrorism.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

A note from the underground: pollution in China

For the past week, Beijing has been deluged under the worst pollution I've ever seen. Here's a terrifying photo a friend of mine took this morning in Guomao, the trade center of Beijing:

Saturday, February 8, 2014

A beautiful "art hotel" in Beijing [photos]

The Jiangtai Art Hotel in Beijing is one of the most amazing places I've stayed in my life. The "art hotel" name is more than symbolic: the entire hotel is covered with art of various sorts. The lobby:

Monday, December 23, 2013

Too many contacts? Contact Remover Plus [review; non-China]

Smartphones are great. But one annoyance thereof, concomitant with the ability to centralize your contacts from many different sources (Facebook, Gmail, Skype, telephone contacts, etc.) is that you end up with a lot of duplicate contacts.

A great way to remove them is an app called Contact Remover Plus (only available on Android). Here's how it works:

1. First, the app loads all of your contacts (or those from a particular account if you prefer):

2. You tell it what criteria to use (phone number, email address, name, etc.), and it looks for any duplicates:

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

China's insanity [photos]

Although I miss Taiwan and want to go back as soon as possible, I'm returning to China next month. (I've been back in America for the holidays.) People have been asking me why I prefer to return to China and I've been having a hard time answering. I know that I find China more exciting than any other place I've ever been, but why?

I've finally settled on using the word "crazy" to describe China. By itself, though, this word doesn't convey enough. Here are some photos of a few of the crazy things I've seen in China.

The do-it-yourself garbage truck

The beautiful street with hundreds of lanterns and no people

Friday, November 29, 2013

Why you should use RAW photos [non-China]

I've been getting into photography in the past few months - buying a used DSLR, experimenting with different lenses, taking pictures in different settings, etc. Most recently I've been learning how to edit photos on a computer. I remember reading Ken Rockwell's rather persuasive post on why RAW photos are unnecessary and not bothering.

However, after watching this tutorial I decided to try using RAW + JPEG mode with my Canon 350D, and the results were pretty convincing. (I use the freeware Lightroom replacement program Photivo.) Here's what five different processings of the same RAW file - a simple photo of a pie - look like:

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

American food: a post-China perspective [non-China]

It's easy to make fun of American food. I mean, does America even have a cuisine - other than McDonalds and Burger King? Back in college my friend from China Mr. Ji would complain about the cafeteria food. There wasn't much I could say to his assertion that food in America just wasn't as good as Chinese food.

But in the time since I've come up with a couple of things that American cuisine can boast of having to itself. Consider the first thing I ate today after having gotten back to America, this bowl of broccoli and hummus:

Because the broccoli was already done, this took literally 1 minute to make (microwave and put the hummus on top). Even if it the broccoli hadn't been cooked already, steaming broccoli doesn't take much time or effort. So, in comparison with just about any Asian dish, this is still a ridiculously easy dish to make. Moreover, it tastes good, and is off-the-charts healthy.

Honestly, I'd put forward hummus as the essential American food item. It goes well with almost everything, is both healthy and convenient, and nowadays is easy to obtain in most places (at least in the Northeast). My two college roommates and I would go through hummus at an incredible rate, and it's amazing how many food groups it goes well with: vegetables, bread, dairy (cheese)... Obviously hummus is not what people think when they think of American cuisine, but I hope some day it will be.

This was an abnormally full fridge, but that
amount of hummus would be gone in 3 days

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Studying Chinese at NTNU's MTC: a guide

I've been studying Chinese at National Taiwan Normal University (師大)'s MTC (Mandarin Training Center/國語中心) for the past three months. It's far from the best Chinese program I've ever done, but it can be hacked for a decent learning experience. Here are some suggestions.

*Switch classes at the beginning until you find one you like - and one that challenges you. I sat in on at least 5 and probably more like 7 or 8 classes in total, since I had initially been placed in far too easy of a level. The MTC moves really slow in the middle levels so you should be able to skip through some of those.
*Consider your classmates. If they're Japanese your class will be better at reading, and you will be expected to keep up. If European, better at speaking. Koreans are good at everything.
*The MTC offers classes for heritage speakers. If your speaking is significantly better than your reading or writing, get in one of those classes.
*Sign up for a supplementary culture class if you have the money. I enjoyed the cooking class, and although we sped through the recipes too fast for me to actually learn them, I think I've got a better sense for the basics of Asian cooking.
*Intensive vs. regular: I ended up being happy with the regular class experience since I had time as well as pressure to attend the supplementary classes. My favorite of these was the Chinese movies shown on Mondays. The intermediate conversation class and the Chinese story class are also good.
*Get to know your fellow students. I didn't do this enough and I regret it.
*Do a language exchange. Check the bulletin board on the 7th floor.

You can find "language exchanges" of all sorts here
*Consider a different program, either a smaller one or a more intensive one. If I had to do it over again, I would go to the comparatively priced (i.e. incredibly cheap by American standards at $1000/semester) program NTU/台大, where my roommate takes classes, and which is far smaller than the gigantic MTC. Not because their pedagogy is necessarily better but because I much prefer the smaller academic environment. The NTU kids all go out drinking together on the weekends, which I'm jealous off.
*I wasn't looking for a super-intensive class because I did the Princeton in Beijing program this summer and found that three months of backbreaking daily studying was long enough. But if you've got the motivation, and the money, the ICLP, which is also at NTU but run separately, is widely regarded as the Chinese course par excellence.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

More thoughts on money and happiness [non-China]

There's an interesting post in The Atlantic about the fears and anxieties of the super-rich which adds some anecdotal weight to the argument I made in this post. I had made the analogy to a video game:
In a video game, when you're playing on easy, just beating the objectives soon becomes boring. You start asking yourself what the point of playing the game is...
The author of the Atlantic article puts it this way:
If anything, the rich stare into the abyss a bit more starkly than the rest of us. We can always indulge in the thought that a little more money would make our lives happier—and in many cases it’s true. But the truly wealthy know that appetites for material indulgence are rarely sated. No yacht is so super, nor any wine so expensive, that it can soothe the soul or guarantee one’s children won’t grow up to be creeps. When the rich man takes his last sip of Château d’Yquem 1959, he tips back the wineglass to find at its bottom an unforeseen melancholy. Like Leontes in The Winter’s Tale, he notes in horror, “I have drunk, and seen the spider.” It is as terrifying a realization in Saint-Tropez as it is anywhere else.

In addition to the article itself, "reticentb"'s comment is worth reading.

Edit: On the other hand, some kinds of experiences, such as described in this story, may be worse than anything I'll ever to go through.

Edit 2: An interesting suggestion from a fellow blogger is to use goal-setting to make life harder. To me it seems that this should work: if I had a lot of money I would continue to spend most of my time learning Chinese, merely using my financial resources for transportation and other things.

Edit 3: A powerful look at what it's like to be poor.