Publication: Morality in Chinese blogosphere

In today’s China Daily

In his book East Look West See, the author Zhai Hua – no relation to me – voices the problem with our surname:

“From kindergarten onwards, people with the last name ‘Zhai’ get used to others mispronouncing or writing this rare name wrongly. ‘Zhai’ is often mistaken for ‘Qu’, ‘Cui’, ‘Huo’, or ‘Yao,'” he writes.

Zhai Hua taught me much about my last name in this humorous chapter, from its references in classical texts to Chinese airline computers’ present inability to correctly key in the character.

When I contacted him for an explanation as to why we Zhai’s are such a marginalized minority, he told me that there are actually a greater number of people with the surname Zhai than Qu in China. Yet Qu is more recognizable because of its famous bearers.

Well, thanks to a handicam, the World Wide Web and the purient curiosity of netizens, millions more now know how to pronounce my last name, as

the online sex scandal starring Zhai Ling, or “Shoushou”, has unwittingly popularized this rare Chinese character over the last month, and I couldn’t help myself from following the links bearing my last name.

I generally avoid the Chinese blogosphere – I find Chinese blogs, bloggers and blog followers overwhelming. On the rare occasion I do follow a story I get lost in the labyrinth of links, updates and comments. I can’t separate the news from the opinion, nor the authors from the readers.

The Web pages are crammed with miniscule fonts and pop-up ads waiting in ambush. Frankly, the Chinese blogosphere gives me a headache, but more importantly, the more I see of it the more it frightens me.

With the twin luxuries of technology and free time, personal business becomes public business at startling speed. As Zhai Ling apologized to the nation for actions conducted in a private bedroom, I thought of the many cheating American politicians who have paraded remorsefully at press conferences.

As netizens spun stories of Zhai Ling exploiting her tragedy to forge a film career, I was reminded of the enterprising vultures behind Hollywood and British tabloids.

Fortunately, Zhai Ling hasn’t parlayed her surging in fame into an X-rated DVD release ( la Paris Hilton) or a reality television show (a nod to Kim Kardashian)yet.

While I wait and see what this young woman who shares my last name ultimately makes of her time in the limelight, I prefer to give her the benefit of doubt.

Although she has received film offers on the back of the scandal and scored a Cosmo April issue interview, I hope she won’t learn the wrong lesson from all this – that fame is worth exploiting at any price.

It is, however, much harder to give the same benefit of doubt to the general public that is following her story. Beneath a Sohu story about “Shoushou”, the reader comment that scored the most “hits” reads: “She’s just a prostitute. What’s the big fuss?”

What a damning judgment on a stranger’s misfortune.

This comment was followed by, “I don’t want to read news stories. I want to see the photos” and another one saying, “I admit I came to this page looking for photos. I’m disappointed.” I stopped scrolling down when I saw the fourth comment, “I have the videos. Leave your address if you want them.”

After much Baidu-ing, I finally found a decent commentary. Su Pengyu wrote a story that raised the question, “Why is it that whenever a scandal breaks we Chinese are quick to jump on the morality but slow to discuss the legality?”

He contends that the public’s attention is on Zhai Ling’s “amoral” acts, completely ignoring the problem that our laws are inadequate to punish the people who distributed her personal materials.

I found Su’s view interesting, informative and morally upright.

But I was in the minority again. The bar chart at the bottom of the story showed that 2,325 readers found it “boring”. Another 305 readers felt “angry” after reading. Are they angry for her or angry at her?

Thank goodness there was a bar representing the 269 readers who were “compassionate”.

But wait, what is going on with the 200 people who found the story “funny” and the 146 who felt “happy” after reading it?

On Monday, I wrote about the “investment bank tabloid” and fretted over the state of ethics and morality in the Chinese Internet age. I hate to sound like a broken record but today I have to ask this question again.


China Quirks: The demolition crew comes knocking

Yellow bulldozer, slanted blue roof and villagers watching

I live in a luxury complex surrounded by luxury condo complexes on all sides except one.

Outside the northern window of my dining room I can see a tiny hamlet, “Xin Zhuang” (Village Xin), the last remaining suburban village in this neighborhood that hasn’t been turned into million dollar apartments.

I’m separated from Xin Zhuang by one street, but my world seem separated from theirs by thirty years of economic development. The houses in Xin Zhuang are wobbly red brick structures patched up with bits cement here and there. There is no indoor heating nor toilets. Stray dogs run wild with bare-butt children playing in the dirt. The villagers of Xin Zhuang ride their bicycles to my building every morning to drive cars, clean houses and walk dogs.

This morning, instead of reporting to work most of the villagers stood around the edges of Xin Zhuang watching. They were watching a small yellow bulldozer and a handful of khaki-uniformed men, the demolition crew, take down some illegal structures. In the three weeks that I was gone visiting Singapore and Hong Kong, some enterprising villagers built gleaming blue and white additions adjacent to or on top of their wobbly brick houses. They are technically illegal constructions, but in China everyone engages in a hundred illegal activities from the time they wake up to the time that they leave work. The word “illegal” just means that only the unlucky ones get caught.

I’ve seen the iconic photographs of lonely protestors standing amidst rubble and machinery. I’ve read about old neighborhoods disappearing overnight to make room for legal structures – shopping malls and private residences. But I’ve never seen it happening live and so close to me.

What is it like to stand by as your neighbor’s house is torn down, wondering if yours is next? What if it is your house, what do you do then? Sigh with resignation, cry with anger or put up a struggle? And what does the man driving the bulldozer, who probably just take his day’s wages and go home to a suburban village similar to the one he’s tearing down, feel?

The villagers stood around silently watching, waiting to see what will happen. The bulldozer easily ran over one blue and white room. It crunched on top of it and crushed the whole pile flat. It then stopped in front of another blue and white house. The khaki-clad men formed a ring outside the door. There might be a dispute but I couldn’t see clearly.

I made my morning toast and sat by the window. I also watched.

After a while, a couple walked out of the house and climbed onto the blue roof. Would they make their stance there? Would there be a fight? Is she bending down to pick up a brick to throw at the demolition crew?

I saw the woman, dressed in a hand-sewn cotton-quilted jacket, like the ones my grandmother made for me when I was little, pick up some wires and gingerly walk around the roof. Slowly, she and her husband dismantled a satellite dish, wrapped it under arm and descended from the roof.

Publication: Investment bank tabloids

When I worked at an investment bank the first thing my boss taught me was the importance of discretion.

We were generating profits for the world, allocating capital to the most deserving and striving for utopian efficiency. Yet, at the same time, these endeavors were carried out under a cloak of secrecy, and at times there were underhand dealings, intrigue and sex.

My boss’ advice was: “Avoid scandal. Don’t send anything dubious by e-mail and if you receive something just leave it. Don’t reply, don’t delete, remain a bystander.”

So, imagine my surprise when I received a forwarded e-mail in which a Chinese wife, a cheating husband and a mistress swapped fighting words (in English) via e-mail and cc’d all their friends.

The content of the e-mails gave netizens voyeuristic pleasure over the disintegrating lives of others. (I’ve withheld names to preserve any remaining dignity for the parties involved.)

The wife’s initial e-mail reads: “As a fellow woman, I often wondered if the level of ecstasy this vacation brought you equates to the level of devastation this vacation brought to my children and me.”

The husband’s reply: “I am firmly standing by and behind (my mistress). I will certainly hope she will marry me one day soon!”

The mistress’ self-defense: “You nonetheless sought to burn me on the cross as the scapegoat for your failed marriage.”

Investment bank tabloid

More shocking – and tantalizing to netizens – was the professional profile of the love triangle and the invited spectators. A finance world recruiter friend in Hong Kong verified for me that these e-mails came from and went to real people holding important posts in big banks including Credit Suisse, Merrill Lynch and Standard Chartered.

My first thought was, “I can’t believe this really happened!” Such bigwigs should surely know the basics of email discretion! How could they air their dirty laundry in front of the whole industry? I could understand the wife sending the first in a jealous rage, but what happened to the “don’t reply” rule when it came to the husband’s and the mistress’ turns to maintain a dignified silence?

The trio conducted round one of e-mails with icy and sarcastic civility, signing off with “Best regards” and “With sincere regards.” By round two, the wife really let it rip:

“I shall slit your throat before the eyes of your ‘love’, letting him witness the true blood color of a whore, which stinks of lust.”

I was at a loss for what to make of it, so I spoke to some girlfriends to see what their thoughts were, as women and as finance professionals. One friend, a former Goldman Sachs employee, jumped in with a feminist view – “Why do women always blame each other? The man is the real culprit here.”

She was right. The wife had sent her choicest words to the mistress and cc’d their industry peers with the intent of shaming her. Why didn’t she write an open letter to her cheating husband instead? I suppose it’s easier to hate the mistress without mixed emotions or fear of future blame from the children. But, as the saying goes, “It takes two to tango.”

Another friend sent me a New York Times story about young couples fighting their intimate battles on Facebook. In the article, the writer interviewed a wife who called her husband “Jerky McJerk Jerk” on her page. A friend of another fighting (and engaged) couple bemoaned the fact that the public bickering was disrespectful to mutual friends. After all, she had spent plenty of time helping them work out their issues in private.

As I ponder love, marriage and intimacy in the cyber-age I wonder what psychological damage these bitter e-trails do to the children? Is there a risk of physical danger to the parties involved at the hands of netizens intent on supporting one of the parties?

But most of all I wonder: what happened to our ethics? Young students are the ones surfing English materials online and here they are treating one family’s pain as fodder for jokes, even translating the original e-mails into laughable local dialect versions.

Publication: Socioeconomics of the Chinese squat

If every culture has its distinctive cuisine and customs can every culture also lay claim to a unique physical posture?

In that case, the squat is as quintessentially Chinese as pork and cabbage dumplings.

Last year, I returned to Beijing after a few months spent observing the French and American ways of life.

Being away opened my eyes to the rampant squatting I had previously taken for granted as ordinary Beijing scenery.

Suddenly, I found myself peering out taxi windows and staring at groups of men squatting on sidewalks, stepping around hordes of squatters at train stations, and staring down at squat-style toilets.

My sudden curiosity about squatting arose because I had just accustomed myself to two other “national postures” – the French lounge and the American walk, or rather, the American jog.

Sounds odd? Let me explain.

A deeply-seated local habit

All around Paris I saw Frenchmen (and women) doing their part, insouciantly lying on grassy lawns while partaking in long summer picnics. They also prostrated themselves near any permitting architecture – under historic arches, beside refreshing fountains, atop slabs of stone – while reading, smoking, or, quite often, making out. It seems everyone indulges in this national pastime.

The French “working lunch” consists of grabbing a gourmet sandwich, walking to the nearest jardin and settling into a green recliner, provided by the government to perpetuate the patriotic lounging position.

Contrast that with the United States, where people convey themselves by a brisk walk or jog. New Yorkers bumped me left and right as I navigated intersections at the leisurely gait I had acquired in Paris.

Purposeful executives pounded the pavement on Park Avenue at all hours. Even in their free time, Americans like to step it up with a jog through the neighborhood.

Away from bustling New York in a retirement town in the Northeast I saw the pace slow a bit, but it was much of the same.

Walking, jogging or full-on running, carrying oneself in a pert upright posture is certainly the American way.

Clearly the French and American “national postures” has something to do with socioeconomics.

So, what is it about China that makes people here so inclined to squat?

A cultural anthropologist might be able to provide a good answer, but I’ll make my own guess.

It may have something to do with our agrarian history and the more confined spaces we live in.

Consider an American farmer out in his field surveying his crops. When he tires of standing he can sit on a wide variety of implements – tractors, chairs, or even nicely packaged sacks of farming supplies.

Now, if a Chinese farmer wanted to take a break in the field he’s pretty strapped for options. Should he rest on his hoe and plow? In the dirt? Certainly not near fresh fertilizer! He’s probably going to squat to rest his feet, for lack of better options. (Disbelieving foreign friends, believe me, once you get used to squatting it actually is less tiring than standing).

I’m postulating that the squat is a legacy we inherited from our more recent agrarian past, but not all Chinese farm, so how do I explain the popularity of the squat off the field? A lack of space and amenities might be the answer.

An average American kitchen has countertops, electric stoves and plenty of appropriate sitting places.

But regular Chinese moms cook in unglamorous spaces tucked into the corners of their homes.

Lower-income families frequently cook off makeshift gas or coal burners set on the floor. In these situations, the squat is a more comfortable position (and at a suitable height for the task at hand).

I might have dreamed up a far-fetched socioeconomic explanation for the Chinese squat. We won’t really know for another few decades just how ingrained in our cultural fabric the squat is, until our GDP reaches a level where every family can upgrade to a Western kitchen or an industrialized farm.

Publication: Letters to the future
A chalkboard stands propped up on a side alley in the 798 art district bearing a handwritten message: “798 Art & Travel Post — This is a special place requiring a special state of mind to do a special thing — write letters.”

The 798 Art & Travel Post, affectionately known as the Panda Slow Post, is special indeed. Here, visitors sit in cozy nooks writing letters to loved ones and leave it in Panda’s safekeeping until a specified date in the future. When the delivery date is near, Panda staff retrieves the letters from a safe-box at China Merchant Bank and send them off as pleasant surprises to the unsuspecting recipients.

Although the business is mailing letters, the team behind Panda prefers to think of it as “safekeeping sentiments.”

Zhao Yue, the company’s 26-year-old creative director and one of its three founders, explained how it started. A colleague traveled to Lijiang and sent Zhao a postcard. When the colleague returned, the post card still hadn’t arrived, “At first, we joked about snail mail, Zhao said, but the joke blossomed into a business.

At the time, Zhao was working on lifestyle investment projects in her regular job. Inspired, she started planning Panda Slow Post in October 2008 and it opened for business in February last year.

“Life moves at such a fast pace. We offer people a chance to slow down and reflect,” says store employee, Liu Ying. Liu was so attracted to the idea when she read about Panda in the press late last year she quit her job and came to the store.

“I showed up and talked to the operations director. I thought that if there wasn’t a job available I could just deliver the mail.”

Liu was hired and now stands behind the counter at Panda.

She recounts the stories behind some of her favorite letters. A girl came in to write a letter to heaven, addressed to her deceased father. An elderly Taiwanese man wrote a letter to his future grandson, whom he might not live to see. A boy going abroad to study sent a letter to his parents expressing his love and gratitude, to be mailed after his departure.

By its first anniversary, Panda had amassed more than ten thousand letters in its safe. The letter destined for farthest date in the future is to be mailed in 2069. A young couple asked to receive it on their 60th wedding anniversary.

The biggest worry for Panda’s customers and its management team is the fate of the letters if the company ceases to exist before all the letters are delivered.

Zhao, acknowledged the problem and said, “For a company or an individual, the most important thing is trust. Whether or not Panda Slow Post is still around as a business in the future, we as individuals promise to fulfill our responsibility and deliver the letters.”

Others share Zhao’s commitment. Liu Ying said: “the management team has discussed this issue with us. As long as this group of people is still around, even if the company has fallen apart, we can still personally deliver the letters. If we are no longer around, there will be our children, and our grandchildren.”

Panda already has a network of volunteers who can help with delivery if the company stops operating.

This loyal following may well widen as the company expands its micro blog, rolls out new services (such as delivery by hand), and goes through with discussions for a book or short film based on their story.

Despite their enthusiasm, it’s clear that Panda Slow Post is still a start-up. Aside from the question of how to ensure future delivery, the company is also trying to work out its pricing scheme.

In 2009, the store opened with novelty prices, charging 9 yuan for a letter delivered in 2009,11 yuan for a letter dated for 2011, and so on.

This year, prices have been revised to a 10-yuan starting rate (for letters delivered within one year) and 5 yuan extra for each additional year.

When asked if the new prices take into account future inflation in storage and postage prices, the Panda team replies that this is a “developing business”, adding that current prices were “unlikely to change” again in 2010.

Visitors seem generally unconcerned. Some two hundred people drop in daily. Eighty percent end up mailing something, mostly dated for delivery within two years. While Panda’s popularity surged based on a few sentimental stories, the majority of visitors are just looking for light-hearted fun.

Long Huijin, a student from Hunan, is sending a card for her friend’s birthday on March 1. An elderly Japanese lady, Tomiko Kikuchi, who is a tea instructor based in Yokohama, came to see for herself after hearing about Panda from a friend who had come earlier. Hong Qishun, a tourist from Taiwan, selected a “Best Employee Certificate” card for each of his employees back home as a souvenir. Bai Xiaolong perused the store’s many guest book, filled with visitors’ heartfelt messages, while his girlfriend Sun Nianan wrote a letter to her sister.

At the cash register, Liu rang up a sale, 44 yuan for two postcards, envelopes, and postage to Singapore. It isn’t cheap but then again, what is the price of time stolen out of a busy day to sit down, reflect, and write a letter?

Publication: Immigration frustration

Immigration problems have plagued me all my life. Yet, I never gave serious thought to “upgrading” my passport. Last year, a foreign journalist in Beijing interviewed me about my passport for a story she was writing about Chinese citizens swapping their nationality for easier international travel or better education and work opportunities overseas.

Why did I hang onto my Chinese passport? Because I always felt – and wanted to remain – 100 percent Chinese. Despite spending most of my life overseas, I’m sentimental about my nationality and want to keep my unpronounceable name, “difficult” passport, the whole shebang.

This wasn’t an easy choice. In the 1990s, stern officials at Xiamen International Airport scrutinized my light crimson “personal” passport and demanded a “return flight permit” each time I crossed the border. I’d never heard of such a permit, so I showed them the multi-entry visa in my passport instead. Sometimes, they didn’t buy it and forced me to stay for a few days while they called Beijing to check if our countrymen were indeed allowed to leave and live overseas. It was a lot of trouble for a ten-year-old who only wanted to come visit her grandparents every summer.

I plunged deeper into the murky waters of immigration when I went to America for university. Like other international students, I went through the harrowing process of applying for an F1 student visa. My Chinese passport didn’t entitle me to the usual five-year student visa. I got a three-month visa instead. Every time I left the US to visit my family or do an internship abroad, I had to schedule a visa appointment months in advance and hope that I would be allowed to return afterwards to finish my degree.

My immigration problems worsened when I started looking for a job in the US. Anti-terrorist and protectionist policies pitted me against hundreds of thousands of graduating international students. We fought for the 65,000 H1-B “white collar” visas granted each year. As I prepared for job interviews, in the back of my mind I worried: Would Company X hire me over an American? Would they submit my application early enough to get me in on the visa quota? Luckily, I made it through.

As I juggled the stresses of immigration every year, friends and family kept asking me when I would apply for the “green card” or ask my husband to sponsor me for citizenship. I thought about it, but I always concluded that if I hate getting visas to stay in other countries, I would hate it even more to get a visa to stay in my home country as a foreign-passport holder.

When at last I came back to Beijing to stay, I felt like holding out was worth it. For once, I listened to other people’s problems about extending their visas to stay in China. Finally, my Chinese passport was making my life easier, not harder.

But I may have been over-optimistic. As I scoped out the job market for “sea turtles”, a Chinese term for overseas returnees. I found that many Chinese companies blatantly self-discriminate in their hiring. Jobs that require excellent English skills don’t stop at asking for that, they go further to stipulate “Americans, British, and Canadian applicants only.”

Private companies and even some government agencies that deign to hire Chinese to fill “foreign” positions often insist on paying them less than a “real” foreigner. When the rest of the world is waking up to “equal work, equal pay”, China is still deep in slumber.

In my years away, the thing that really bothered me about immigration policies is the inhumanity of it all. Many times I stood in the waiting room of foreign embassies helplessly watching grannies crying at being denied visas to visit their children overseas. I never thought this scenario would play out in my own family, in my own country.

Last month, my cousin brought his Malaysian wife and baby back to China for a long holiday. My “nephew” had been born overseas. When his “L” visa was about to expire, we went to renew it at the visa office by Lama Temple.

The first visit went badly as two visa officers rudely answered our inquiries and asked for more obscure documents to prove that the mother and child should be allowed to remain in China.

The second time, we presented the documents at three different counters and were told three different things by three officers. The last one claimed that my nephew wasn’t really Malaysian because his father is Chinese. Therefore, to apply for a visa to stay he would have to renounce his Chinese citizenship first.

Talk about an absurd Catch 22: my nephew has no Chinese documents to renounce. Yet, if our immigration policy is to forcibly recognize him as Chinese, then why isn’t he allowed to overstay his visa to be with his father? In the end, my cousin sadly sent his wife and baby back to Malaysia.

After sticking it out through the problems that my passport gave me in the years that I lived overseas, the last thing I expected was for it to give me trouble when I came home. For my cousin and me, staying loyal to our nationality hasn’t led to a rewarding or welcoming return. My disappointment and frustration this time might just be enough to get me in line to apply for the “green card” right away.

Publication: Khemit’s fight or flight adventures

My article in China Daily…working for the Khemit Bailey PR machine…

Khemit Bailey is a 28-year-old American who has lived in Beijing for more than a year. He tells METRO what it’s like to teach parkour (which some call extreme walking), an urban sport that involves clambering and jumping on, off and over obstacles in the fastest and most efficient method possible.

METRO: Wikipedia says parkour can be compared with martial arts, but parkour practitioners are developing skills to run away from people, rather than to fight them. What are you trying to run away from?

A: A lot of people have that impression and it’s kind of true, but parkour isn’t just running. It’s also about chasing. It teaches you to move around your environment. In real life, you might not be in many situations where you have to get away quickly, but think of it like a martial art. You learn the ability to do something but you don’t necessarily have to do it. Parkour encompasses the idea of fight or flight. You’re either chasing down somebody for a fight or running away from a dangerous situation. If I had to run away from something it would be a ninja.

METRO: Why a ninja?

A: If you watch old movies, any scenes that have to do with getting around swiftly pretty much involve ninjas and superheroes. I wouldn’t mind running away from a superhero, but I kind of like ninjas, because they’re the embodiment of cool.

METRO: “Ninjas are the embodiment of cool?” Please elaborate. A: Ninjas are fighting machines and they’re well-versed in parkour, although they don’t call it that. If you can escape from ninjas, you can escape from anything. METRO: Are there different forms of chasing and running away?

A: There’s an important distinction between parkour and free running. In China, we call everything “paoku”, but actually they are different. Parkour is all about utility – getting from place to place as quickly and as efficiently as possible. There are no extraneous movements in parkour. Nothing is done for aesthetic value. Then there’s free running, which is very similar but is all about style. Free runners do a lot of front flips, which look awesome but are not very useful.

METRO: You mean I can’t just escape my worst enemy by continuously front flipping?

A: You certainly could if your worst enemy were a toddler, or if you were flipping down a mountain.

METRO: Speaking of utility, what have you used parkour for in real life?

A: I actually use it all the time. I’m the kind of person who likes to jump over a fence rather than look for an entrance. I’m lazy. But the main appeal of parkour for me is that it changes the way I look at the world. Not doing parkour, I see things around me that look like barriers and seem insurmountable. From doing parkour, I started thinking of ways to get around obstacles. It’s a way of thinking about life.

METRO: So, you see everything as a barrier do you feel the urge to jump over me right now?

A: I don’t want to jump over you right now. But that’s not to say that I won’t later.

METRO: What’s the history of parkour?

A: David Belle is considered the founder of parkour. He and a group of friends developed it in France about 15 years ago. Where they were growing up there wasn’t much to do. So they tried to jump over things and have fun. They saw potential there and developed it into a system of techniques that you could teach to people who aren’t naturally athletic. The other big name is Sbastien Foucan, a friend of David Belle’s who founded the spinoff sport, free running. The James Bond movie, Casino Royale, is what sparked these sports’ popularity.

METRO: As an instructor what is the hardest thing about teaching parkour?

A: It’s the fear. Some basic movements employ balance, which is difficult. Certain jumps, such as the dash vault (a jump done with legs first), are made more difficult by the fear of falling backwards.

METRO: You teach children too. Do they pick it up easier because they have no fear?

A: Yes and no. Most of my kids are aged 10 to 15. Kids are more athletic and mentally flexible, but their attention span is short. The temptation they have to jump over stuff instead of practicing the moves is really strong. I prefer to teach adults.

METRO: What kind of parent sends their kids to learn parkour?

A: An awesome parent. Kids are jumping over things anyways and teaching them how to do it safely is useful.

METRO: What type of person is attracted to parkour?

A: You’d be surprised. Some of my students are really overweight. My oldest student is 45 years old. The parkour “type” is someone who is open-minded and attracted to movement.

METRO: Do people think you’re crazy when you show up at the park and start jumping over random things?

A: I try not to do it alone. In a group you’re less crazy. But yes, if I am alone doing it, people think I’m crazy.