Thursday, March 27, 2008

"T" Words

We were told that three “T” words would get a very strong response from our students: Taiwan, Tiananmen, and Tibet. And I (Linda) have found myself embroiled in discussions about Tibet with my students. Interesting, frustrating, exasperating, mind-boggling . . everything.

It started off in one class – the students were watching a press conference during a break and I asked them, “what’s so interesting?” This lead to a long discussion about Tibet, censorship, and other related topics. Keep in mind that this discussion occurred about three days into the recent deterioration of the situation in Tibet, and the censorship from our usual news sources was at an all time high and my frustration level was soaring. The students were outraged by any suggestion that their government was out of line; there was a strong sense that the international media was out to get them and that foreigners had manipulated the situation in order to embarrass Beijing before the Olympics. Several students articulated that China had invested heavily in Tibet, building roads and infrastructure to raise the standard of living there. It was unheard of to consider Tibet as separate from China, and, according to my students, almost all Tibetans are perfectly happy with the status quo; the Dalai Lama is interested in furthering his own power and political ambitions.

Unfortunately, they were trying to place me in the role of official representative of all foreigners. I tried to maneuver around this delicately, saying things like, “the Western Press is saying,” or, “Westerners would probably view things in such and such a way.” Keep in mind, I’m their English teacher – and I’m not trying to indoctrinate them in any way, just trying to achieve open and critical discussion in class. I have never offered my personal opinions in class, rather I have tried to hone the class discussion by asking them questions regarding their statements, and encouraging them to question each other.

Yoni, who has his own frustrations with this issue, helps me to focus on encouraging the students to think critically about what they hear in the news. To ask “why” questions when they hear a report – like – if the situation is really so wonderful in Tibet “WHY” do the Tibetans seem so unhappy? “Why” is it advantageous to the Western Media to lie about China? What ends are met?

However, things are never cut and dry in these heated discussions and later in this same class, in response to a student’s question, I mentioned that there are “Free Tibet” bumper stickers in NY. They almost lost it. One of my students, a lovely, intelligent, very articulate young woman almost cried. She clearly felt so outraged, so misunderstood.

After this class one of my students came up to me and asked to speak privately; turns out that she grew up in a Tibetan autonomous region (not Tibet itself, but an area in a separate province where most people are ethnic Tibetans). She had been silent during the class but stated that she has been struggling ever since she first enrolled in university; her fellow classmates never want to hear her opinions on Tibet and constantly tell her she’s wrong, until she’s virtually stopped talking about the topic. She said things like, “I love my country even though I don’t support my government’s actions,” and, “most Tibetans think that the Chinese built roads and infrastructure only to help rule and control the Tibetans,” and many more such statements. It was refreshing to hear her speak, but sad to see how marginalized she had become regarding this subject.

Then, a week later (that would be today) in another class, things got even worse. I have a feeling (can’t prove it – but I’m beginning to see conspiracies everywhere) that the students in one of my other classes heard I was discussing Tibet in a different class and felt it’s their responsibility to disabuse me of my false notions. Keep in mind, this is despite the fact that I really haven’t shared my personal opinions in class, at least not according to Western cultural norms. So the students in this second class immediately said they wanted to talk about Tibet (so much for lesson planning). Learning from my past mistakes, I guided today’s discussion more towards censorship – I asked the students how do they learn about news events, where do they get their news from, do they trust the news, etc. This lead to lots of interesting discussion – I’ll give you the highlights.

  1. Student A said that the main problem was that China’s censorship was not good enough yet, as China is still a developing nation. If censorship was “better”, then there would be no problem. When I pushed him regarding what did “better” mean he refused to be specific, but did say that a country with “better” censorship was N Korea. No, I’m not joking.
  2. Student B said that she saw a documentary of Tibetan monks speaking candidly about Tibet (not quite sure how she got her hands on this video, not an easy feat here in China). The monks spoke about how Tibet is historically different and separate from China, and should be independent. In addition, they spoke of repression they have experienced under Chinese rule. This student said this was very difficult for her as all her life she’s been told a certain story about Tibet, and yet these Tibetan monks clearly have a different story. And now she doesn’t know what to believe. She doesn’t think that anyone has really lied to her, but maybe there’s some miscommunication or misunderstanding.
  3. Student C said that he totally and 100% trusts his government to handle this situation.
  4. Student D said that China is like a family, if there is a problem within the family then the father must deal with it privately, it is nobody else’s business. When challenged on this point (what if the father can’t handle the problems, what if the father refuses to handle the problems) the student said, “the father can ask someone for help if he feels it is necessary.”
  5. Student E (who disclosed to me personally at another time how terribly her family had suffered during the Cultural Revolution) challenged her fellow students, “what if it was your relatives who were the victims?”
  6. Student F said that it’s better if they know nothing about “these kinds of problems” as there is nothing that they can do anyway. The government is merely trying to protect people by not informing them of problems, so they can focus on their work and be productive.
  7. Student G asked, “why are the monks killing the policemen?”
  8. And, of course, a very common response is to shift attention. Many of my students repeatedly point out that Americans and other Westerners should first deal with all of their problems (and they are happy to rattle off a fairly accurate list), or should look historically at how they have dealt with their own people in the past before they judge others. And that is a good time for a reminder that the only way that they even know about such things is due to a (relatively) free press in the West.
  9. When I told the students the Western estimates of number of people killed during the recent unrest they responded angrily, “Western lies.”

I hate to stereotype genders, but I’m afraid that all of the pro-censorship voices (in my classes at least) are male, and all of the “questioning” voices are female. But there are plenty of people in my classes who sit quietly and don’t express an opinion.

Anyway, I’m feeling particularly overwhelmed by how firmly some of my students are digging in their heels, and by how some of them seem to have literally taken on the task of “correcting” my views. One is, of her own volition, writing a report for me so that I can better understand the Chinese.

And at home, the censorship of the news continues and it’s amazing how it affects how we now “hear” the news. Were watching the Olympic torch leaving Greece the other day when the screen went blank (yet again) and Yoni and I turned to each other and said, “better find out what happened” and went to the internet. We know when something big is going on because of the censors – maybe they should work on improving their censorship technology.

And on a lighter note the mangoes are in season - both mini mangoes and regular sized. They are out of this world. Even better than the mangoes I ate fresh from the fields while on kibbutz in Israel.

Sunday, March 16, 2008


Just a quick update on censorship/Tibet – for those of you who are interested. Not that we can report anything newsworthy, as what we receive is fairly censored, but I thought the censorship itself might be interesting to write about. We get CNN and BBC on our television here and, every so often, when we’re watching TV the screen goes blank. Usually the censors are a moment too slow so we know the subject they’re speaking about. They’ve blanked out stories that are critical of the Olympics, and recently cut stories on the outbreak of a flu epidemic in Hong Kong, and inflation and how it affects the common person in China. Those are just a few I can think of off the top of my head. On average, we’d say that about once a week we notice a news story being blocked. But lately, with the ongoing repression in Tibet, the screen is blanking out ALL THE TIME. Even the lead story was blanked out the other day. Some major websites are blocked as well. But then tonight, they showed an entire news story that even featured the Dalai Lama. Can’t quite figure if the person pressing the “blank” button is sometimes sleeping, sometimes open-minded, or what. Besides, real news censorship seems to be virtually impossible – it’s just too easy to get news from proxy servers, email, and other methods that I probably don’t even know about. Of course, we could listen to the official Chinese English language news. I told Tal to turn it on the other night just for educational purposes. The news is always VERY positive, stories of previously uninsured people being thankful that they now have insurance, or new cabinet posts being created to tackle tough issues. But of course nobody will censor juicy news stories coming from other countries – so thank you Elliott Spitzer for ensuring that we are kept up to date about NY politics.

On a totally separate note – spring is here at least a month early. The heating has (thankfully) been turned off; the forsythia are past full bloom and magnolia trees are at their peak right now.. Here’s a picture of my parents with the boys in the courtyard near our apartment. We have been promised that the heat of the summer will be stifling, but now it’s very pleasant. But it doesn’t really smell like spring – I’m afraid after all these months it still just smells like pollution. I just can’t get used to it. Noam, on the other hand, recently told Yoni that he doesn’t even notice it anymore.

I'm also including another picture of my kids with my mother - you can see Xi'an's famous Bell Tower in the background. An important landmark in the middle of the ancient, walled city, right beside a new shopping mall, with a cascading water fountain flowing down the roof (it looks like glass in the picture, but it's water). Kind of symbolic of China today. The shopping mall has an indoor skating rink (but no zamboni!!!), a Walmart downstairs, and a Nike store that seems to sell the real product for real Western prices. In China a Walmart is a sign of true affluence . . go figure.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

extra pictures

Here's a few extra pictures that don't seem to really fit into any of my recent blogs, but I want to share anyway. Especially since I'm avoiding preparing my classes and studying Chinese (I'm hopeless).

The first two photos are in Laos: Noam and Tal after we climbed to the top of a "mountain" (hill) to see a temple and enjoy the view of Luang Prabang. It's a classic pose, for those of you who know my two boys. Second picture is me and Tal at the royal museum in Luang Prabang - was very impressive but also subdued in a unique way. Boys seemed to enjoy it (Yoni was at our hotel for his turn with the stomach flu) even though they often don't have much patience for museums. I think we're standing in front of the royal chariot, the monarch was carried through the streets in/on this for festivals. Unfortunately, after you do so much sightseeing it's hard to remember what was what when reviewing the pictures.

And here are some pictures from our recent trip to Beijing. My family at the summer palace and Yoni and Tal with our Fulbright-Buffalo friends in front of the famous "marble boat". It doesn't float , yet the construction of it drained military funds to a critical level.

While Yoni was in meetings the boys and I made it out to the Great Wall again. In November we were at the Great Wall in Jaiyuguan - the far Western part of the country, and here we are in Mutianyu, about 1.5 hours outside of Beijing. Even though they look a bit grumpy we actually had a glorious day; about as clear as Beijing gets.

Next picture is from a diving competition that we saw in the National Aquatics Centre - one of the venues for the Olympics. Was a very impressive structure and quite exciting to be there - but the toilets are definitely Chinese. I'm sure the athletes will manage. We were lucky to be in Beijing on the right day to see the semi-finals of the competition. The Canadian came in first (yahoo), Chinese were second and third. Unfortunately, I had forgotten our camera that day, so the guy we were sitting next to sent us this picture. Our camera could never have captured that.

Beijing made a huge impression on me this recent visit. When we first arrived in China in August, we flew straight to Beijing. And I remember being impressed with its growth (we were last there in 1993), but still very much feeling like we had arrived in China. This trip to Beijing, after living in Xi'an for 6 months, was totally different. Beijing felt so cosmopolitan, so international. We ate Persian food, felafel, and even enjoyed a kosher hamburger. Felt like everybody spoke at least some English, and when Tal needed to receive his third rabies injection following the monkey bite in Laos . . we found a Western medical facility (650,000 foreigners live in Beijing) that was charging VERY Western prices.

And the last picture is Tal and Noam on our overnight train from Beijing to Xi'an. We travelled on the eve of the lantern festival and there were fireworks EVERYWHERE. People were throwing them out of buildings, on the roads, you name it. Beijing felt like one big firecracker. We got an amazing view from the train, and arrived in Xi'an in time for breakfast. Very comfortable.

trekking in Laos and other stuff

We went on two treks in Laos. One with Penina and Shalom in the rain – a one-day trek including a longtail boat ride to a lovely waterfall. Yoni and I went swimming in the rain - we had to steel ourselves to take the plunge, but it was worth it. Couldn’t convince the boys to join us – even Tal, who has never balked at cold water in his life. Our bus got stuck on the way out and we watched as Yoni and the guides failed to pull it out of the mud. Seems that the footwear of choice in Laos – the flip flop – hindered their abilities. Eventually they succeeded, but they took off their flip flops and did it barefoot in order to increase their power.

Second trek was a two day affair with just our family after Penina and Shalom had left. The weather had, unfortunately, turned cold so we spent most of our non-hiking hours huddled around a fire. Here's a picture of Noam "crossing" a river with our guide. The rest of us were a bit more independent.

The villages we stopped through were wonderful. Would have liked to have been able to communicate more with the locals, and I realized once again what a blessing it is that Yoni speaks Chinese as it opens up so many doors for us here in China. In Laos we were only able to communicate through our guide . . and he was often busy preparing our food or doing other guiding related things. Here's some pictures we took while roaming through various villages. Note that the baby sling seems to have originated in this part of the world.

We got a bit frustrated with the concept of donations while we were traveling. Having traveled through countries where hordes of children can follow backpackers around asking for money and gifts, I was really pleasantly surprised that this never happened to us in Laos. The children always greeted us with smiles and waves, but never seemed to expect gifts. So when we were traveling I felt it was important not to hand things out, as I really believe this encourages a culture of begging – which is not good for the tourists or the locals. Although on the other hand, you really wanted to just empty your packs and give these kids anything you had. The conditions the families lived in were very primitive, as you can see by the pictures. So we chose to offer monetary donations to the local teachers or village leader. But one teacher that we gave money to was clearly not happy, although he accepted the money. He said to our guide that next time we should bring some gifts instead of giving money. Frustrating, and I realized again how hard it is to give in ways that are meaningful to the receiver. I'm attaching a couple of pictures of some schools we visited. Pretty bare, to say the least.

Anyway, the big event of the two day trek occurred about midnight when Tal suddenly threw up in bed. It was pretty cold and there was no water except what we had in our bottles. The village pump was far away and we had little hope of finding it successfully in the dark . . and the toilet, well, let’s just say there was a hole in the ground in a hut about 70 metres away. Kind of like vomiting in the middle of the night on a canoe trip. We were sleeping on these mattresses on an elevated wooden platform inside a hut, under mosquito nets, and Tal was right beside his brother. Miraculously, Tal was facing the correct direction and avoided throwing up directly on Noam - who luckily slept through the whole thing. I don’t know how Tal had the strength to hike six hours out the next day, but he did. I slowly got sick on the second day of the trek and by the time we returned to Luang Prabang was sick in our hotel room. My timing was better than Tal’s, but it’s still not fun being sick on vacation. My stomach wasn’t quite the same for the rest of the trip so I couldn’t even manage one last banana pancake before we left. I'm including a picture of the hut we slept in, as well as one of our lovely candlit dinner that night. Of course, this was before "the incident."

We had a variety of tour guides while in Laos – but nobody seemed to have a two syllable name: there was Da, Ping, Sak, and I’m afraid I can’t remember the other names. They were all pleasant, but not always knowledgeable. Oh well. But Ping was definitely our favourite guide. He lead us through a fabulous day of tubing and kayaking in Vang Vieng – the 20 something mecca of Laos. The last several kilometers of our kayaking trip we must have passed several hundred drunken foreigners floating down the river in inner tubes, stopping at these makeshift bars along the river blaring Bob Marley tunes and featuring giant swings that propel you over and into the river from tremendous heights. Y and I tried the “lowest” swing – but it still felt pretty scary to me (maybe after a few drinks it would have been easier). I’ve included a video of me swinging at the end of the blog – it may not look it but that was a significant drop. The only reason I let go of the bar was that I was worried I would crash into the platform if I held on any longer.

I'm attaching some pictures of Vang Viang - there's one in a stalagmite/stalagtite cave with our wonderful guide Ping. I think that's the cave where hundreds of locals hid (incuding our guide's older brother and family) during "The Secret War", "The War Against the US Imperialist Forces," or any other name given to this very ugly time period. On a happier note, there's a photo of Penina and Shalom having breakfast at our idyllic guest house, "The Elephant Crossing", and a beautiful view of Vang Viang on our day of biking through the karst peaks.

The whole drunken tourist scene was a bit disturbing. Towards the end Tal asked, with a very serious expression, “so is that what I’m going to do when I’m 18?” A good time for a lecture on the dangers of drinking and swimming. It's hard to imagine that a country that has only been open to tourism since 1999 can have attracted such a scene, let alone built enough infrastructure to sustain it. Some of the local restaurants played non-stop episodes of “Friends” while serving tons of Yoni’s favourite drink – Beerlao (Xi’an beer is terrible). Loads of young Israelis touring around everywhere. In fact, Beit Chabad had an outfit in Luang Prabang and several of our trekking leaders would say things like, “bo, yallah”, or acharei latzanchanim”. Ping referred to our inner tubes as “abuvim.” Those post army Israeli travelers sure get around.

A brief additional note from Yoni. Laos is an amazing country – in fact I find myself acting like an enthusiastic representative of Tourism Laos. The odd thing is that everyone I enthuse to about Laos tells me that someone else has done the same thing. Clearly Laos should represent a new direction in my research! I am looking for ways to get down to Laos for a couple of lectures through the Fulbright program… at the TWO existing universities in the entire country!

Another adventure we had that Linda failed to mention occurred when Linda and my parents were attending their Lao cooking class. Tal, Noam and I wandered down to a tributary of the Mekong river and then into a small village. There we stopped at a run-down guest house and played backgammon and sipped drinks out of the sun. The guest-house had a small, chained monkey that, according to the owner, never bit anyone who was male. So, intrepid boy that he is, Tal went over and made its acquaintance. They played a bit and then Tal returned for more backgammon. When we decided to leave, we walked past the monkey. The monkey, seeking to renew its acquaintance with Tal, jumped onto his shoulder. HOWEVER, Tal assumed that the jumper was Noam, and as all older brothers do, without looking, swatted Noam away.

Alas, while Noam has been described as a monkey in the past, this time it was in fact a real monkey. The monkey, offended, bit Tal through his shirt, breaking the skin. And thus began the long tale of the Rabies vaccine….crossing borders with a vaccine in an ice bucket …traveling by airplane and train and . . .

Perhaps the most lovely thing about the country - everyone smiles all the time. The people arewarm, welcoming and kind. Nobody seemed to be in a rush and seemed to genuinely want you to enjoy yourself. This contrasted with high energy, fast paced, and intense China - where recently I laughed so loudly at something in a restaurant that I caused this poor young waitress to, quite literally, jump! But then, that is a whole other story.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Laos food

The food in Laos was unbelievable, with some similarities to Thai food. The first night there we found banana pancakes. Not really a pancake, but kind of a puff pastry with banana and sweetened condensed milk. It’s the kind of food you buy from a street vendor, and they get the pastry just right by slamming it against their cart repeatedly until it’s paper thin. It was fabulous – I had them as regularly as I could manage, but it seems that the best ones we had were in Vientiane (the capital – and our first stop). We also loved their fish specialty – it was grilled with lots of salt and garlic so that it was crispy on the outside and perfectly tender on the inside. In general, we went fish crazy as we almost never eat the fish in China. Too much mercury, antibiotics, and other toxins says Yoni. Too bad – in the Chinese restaurants the fish often looks so tempting.

We learned that Lao people eat sticky rice as their staple food, and I really loved it. You roll it into a ball and pop it into your mouth with spicy (and I mean SPICY) dip. The locals have it for breakfast . . I tried it once but couldn’t handle it. Also learned that many foods in Lao don’t have an English name as they’re grown locally and the country has only opened up to tourism in the past 8-9 years. So we tried the “maknumnum” fruit and some other things that I can’t remember the names of. Pomello and banana trees were everywhere – and the bananas were small and so sweet. Tasted slightly different from what we’re used to. The pomellos are better in China and Israel.

Had a wonderful day learning how to cook Lao food with Penina and Shalom in Luang Prabang. I attended a similar course with Linda R in Yangshuo, China, but the cooking course in Laos was very different. Extremely laid back – spent just as much time on breaks as we did cooking. Very Lao – emphasis on relaxing, hanging out, and sharing food with friends. My experience at the cooking course reflects our experience with the Lao people in general – very warm, friendly, and always smiling. According to our reading, Lao people do not like stress and try to avoid it. So while my Chinese cooking course was a half-day and they crammed in as many dishes as possible, and ran the course in two shifts to maximize efficiency, the Lao course had a very different feel to it. It wasn't just about money either, as the course in China was much cheaper. We learned of an interesting saying that reflected our experience – the Vietnamese plant rice, the Cambodians watch it grow, and the Lao listen to it grow. Another great expression we learned was,”bo panyang” – no problem. A very common expression in Laos.

Of course the fact that we were coming from China made our experiences with Lao people that much more extreme. In China people work so hard, and the kids are always studying for their myriad exams. And you rarely see a group of young children playing together . . only toddlers seem to play outside and they’re often flanked by parents and grandparents as most families have only one child. But when we got to Laos there were scores of kids everywhere, always playing, almost always unsupervised. The country has a very high birth rate – and I can’t tell you how different it felt. Every time we passed a school it seemed like all the kids were at recess. Only later did we learn that there’s a shortage of classrooms so often times at least one class is outside playing while the others are studying. Of course the differences between China and Laos were further exacerbated as we left Xi’an in a state of deep freeze – coldest winter in at least 50 years and more snow than anyone knew what to do with. People literally hadn’t left their homes except for work and school in almost a month. And Laos was relatively warm and sunny (although an unusually cold spell occurred there as well later in our travels).

My students in China told horror stories about their Chinese New Year vacations - one student spent 36 hours on a train (was supposed to be 12 hours) with inadequate food and water. I can only imagine what the sanitation was like. Other students who came from smaller communities stated that their pipes all burst due to the deep freeze and they spent their vacations hauling water and freezing.

I'm attaching two pictures - one of Penina and Shalom with their fabulous morning creations, and the other is a picture from the local market. Much of the flavouring for the food there comes from this smelly fish sauce - lots of different kinds and all looked like it was the last thing you wanted to add to your food if you wanted to stay healthy.