Olympic Wrap-up and Post 8/08 China

Posted in Olympics, Sino-US, Relations and Comparisons, Society at 12:31 pm by Benjamin Ross

Over the past three days, a cool has descended on the Chinese capital. In the span of just over two weeks, the Beijing Olympics have transformed from the most hotly anticipated event in the history of the People’s Republic of China, to the annals of modern Chinese history. Around Beijing, the hangover from the Olympics can still be felt. Olympic signage still dangles from bridges, buildings, storefronts and volunteers in blue shirts are still milling around on street corners, and the occasional wide-eyed foreigners with their credentials dangling from their necks are still walking around Wangfujing like they just landed on the moon. For locals however, it’s back to business as usual. The anticipation, the excitement, the vigor of the masses has all waxed and waned, as 12 million people recuperate from their 16 day party and settle back into their routines.

Even though Beijing appears to be returning to a semblance of normalcy, the rippling effects of the Olympics will be felt for generations. For my parents and their contemporaries, they all remember exactly where they were the moment Neil Armstrong set foot on the surface of the moon. Regardless of any practical effect it would have on Americans’ daily lives, the metaphorical significance of the first moon walk was immense. It presented Americans with reason to be proud to be American, and to be proud to be human. More importantly it catapulted us to a new age, where a feat previously reserved for science fiction novels had now become reality.

The PRC did not even begin competing in the Olympics until 1984. To ascend from those depths to become both the host nation, as well as the gold medal tally leader, is a deep source of pride and accomplishment for the entire Chinese nation. 50 years from now, Chinese retirees will all remember their exact location when Li Ning ran through the sky in the Bird’s Nest. For China, this moment, and the 16 days which followed it will shape the way the nation views itself for years to come. It was during the summer of 2008 that China realized dreams which only thirty years ago would have been unthinkable. The memories are not going to fade. What will gradually fade are the memories of pre-Olympic China.

What we just experienced in Beijing was no mere sporting event. It was bigger than that. China may not have sent a man to the moon, but the symbolic implications are there. The way in which 1.5 billion Chinese view their country and themselves will never be the same. For the Middle Kingdom, this is the beginning of a new era. Welcome to Post 8/08 China.

For me, my current China journey is about to wrap up as well. I am heading off to Shandong this afternoon for some exploring and independent travel. I should be back in Beijing by early next week, and will remain here until Sept 9, when I head off to Japan for a 4 day layover. On the 14th, I fly back to Chicago where it’s back to Italian Beef sandwiches and job hunting. At this point, it is uncertain when I will be back in the Middle Kingdom. I feel extremely lucky to have had the opportunity to be in Beijing during these historic times, and am eagerly anticipating what this new era will bring. With that, I want to officially wrap-up my coverage of the Beijing Olympics. It’s been a wild ride, but it’s time to move on. Post 8/08 China is now embarking on new territory and will never be the same as it was during pre-Olympic times. Expect some posts from the Shandong in the days to come.



Tax Day…in China?

Posted in Business 'n Economics, Sino-US, Relations and Comparisons at 1:55 pm by Benjamin Ross

Today is April 14, the day before April 15, the infamous date when the IRS requests all American citizens to submit their tax returns. This will be my first Tax Day in the US since 2003, and it got me thinking about paying my taxes in China. This is actually a question I get quite often from American friends. How did I pay my taxes in China? The funny thing is that I really have no idea how or if I paid my taxes in China at all (excluding projects for which I was paid for in USD).

I spent my first two years in China teaching at Chinese universities, and my salary was always in Chinese currency…and when I say “in” Chinese currency, I literally mean in Chinese currency. On the first day of every month, one of the teachers from my school would knock on my door, and hand me a folded wad of 45 one hundred RMB notes (approximately $540 at that time). There was no pay stub, no deductions, not even a little red envelope for my bills.

Typically, getting paid in cash would not be a bad thing, but I wasn’t exactly stoked about having to ride my bike to the bank once a month with that kind of cash on my person. Furthermore, I always wondered if there were any taxes I would ever be expected to pay. I asked the school administration about this several times and was never given a clear answer.

After going through this same overly simplistic process in my second university job, I came to the conclusion that my taxes were probably taken out before my income was figured. Thus, a job which had a salary of 4500 RMB per month in China, actually paid 4500 RMB, whereas in the US, a salary quote is always before taxes. Furthermore, at the end of the year there was no filing I was required to turn into the Chinese tax bureau.

This tax situation, or lack of tax situation I should say, is not just limited to foreign experts or English teachers. When I worked at the barbershop, the practice was the identical. Every month, the employees would receive their earnings, in cash, without any forms listing withholdings, and without filing tax returns at the end of the year. (It would be interesting to hear how, or if this situation is different for those whose positions are higher up on the economic totem pole than those of an English teacher or a hair washer.)

Now that I am back in the US, I am back to going through the same procedures we all do in April to ensure that Uncle Sam is getting his fair dime me. I have returned to the land of pay stubs, deductions, and 1099’s, and I can’t help but feel distant from the world where you get paid in a wad of bills, taxes are an afterthought, and there are no year-end returns to file. Sometimes it’s just the little things you miss about a living in the Middle Kingdom, like not paying your taxes.



Sweet Home Chicago (personal update)

Posted in Announcements, Personal Anecdotes, Sino-US, Relations and Comparisons at 12:13 am by Benjamin Ross

Generally when blogging, I try to keep myself out of the spotlight, but it’s been a while since I’ve written a personal update, so I wanted to scribble down a few words to let readers know what I’ve been up to of late.

As most of you probably know, I moved back to the US in late August, and then moved to Chicago in late October. It is hard to believe that I have already been here 5 months. Overall, I have been extremely pleased with my decision to move to Chicago. I came here for two reasons primarily. Firstly, I wanted to live in a large cosmopolitan city, but also wanted to remain in the Midwest. Secondly, after being abroad for 3 years plus, I wanted to be close to friends whom I had rarely seen over the past few years. Coincidentally, most of the people I care about (excluding immediate family) all live in Chicago. Thus, the Windy City was the logical choice.

Chicago is an excellent city from both a cultural and a practical standpoint. With its history of immigration, Chicago, like New York City or San Francisco is a salad bowl of cultures from around the globe. On any given day, I could eat dim sum, have a conversation in Mandarin, buy chilies at a Mexican grocery store, drink Zywiec in a Polish night club, get a ride from an African cab driver who speaks 6 languages, go out for Korean BBQ, overhear a conversation in Fuzhou hua, buy tamales from a street vendor, and the list goes on. It has been reinforcing my image of what it means to live in America.

I have also been enjoying the convenience, financial freedom, and sense of ecological and social responsibility which comes along with not owning a car (something which is not possible in many American cities). Chicago’s rapid transit, while old and dilapidated, is also one of the most extensive systems in the country. I live a 7 minute walk from a subway line which in another 10 minutes takes me downtown, from which point I can get virtually anywhere in the city via the 8 different lines. Rarely is there a location within the city which I can’t reach on the train.

As for my employment, I am currently working 2 jobs. I spend my days as a medical interpreter for a company based out of Cincinnati. Several days a week they send me to different hospitals in the Chicago area where I am an interpreter between doctors and Chinese patients who can’t speak enough English to get through their appointments. In the evenings, I work 4 nights a week as an English teacher at a local training school, not so different from the ubiquitous 培训学校 in China. My students are all adults and come from a variety of backgrounds. The largest percentage of them are Polish, but I also have students from Ukraine, Bulgaria, Austria, Mongolia, Thailand, Korea, Turkey, and Benin. It has been an interesting and completely different experience from teaching Chinese students, and I plan to elaborate on this more in a future entry. Needless to say, I have learned more about Eastern Europe in the past few months than I had in my entire life.

Even though I am back in the US now, I am doing my best to keep in touch with my life in China. People often ask me if I miss China, and I my answer is “no.” This is the same answer I would give people in China when they ask if I missed my life in the US. To me, my life in China has always seemed separate from my life in the US, like an alternative universe. When I am in the US, I think about the US and when I was in China, I thought about China.

That being said, in the past few weeks I have not been able to help myself from thinking about the events which have been transpiring in China. And the more I think, the more frustrated I become, not so much with the events themselves, but with the way they are covered by the media, both Western and Chinese. While the Chinese media does its typical song and dance of selective reporting and damage control, the Western media continue to feed us the same over sensationalized, one-sided, Hollywood dribble we’ve come to expect in post 9/11 America. Neither side is lying, yet nobody is reporting the whole truth. With one side seeking to numb the masses and the other in dire need of sales and ratings, the true losers are the readers. The resulting ignorance on both sides only provides more fuel for the fire, and I fear this trend will continue throughout the impending Olympics.

With all this in mind, I am going to do my best to take a trip back to China for the festivities this summer. While plans are still up in the air, and by no means definite, it is my desire to keep current on the country I spent nearly 1/8 of my life living in, and besides, if the proverbial shit hits the fan, I plan to be there to pick up the droppings. In the interim, I’ll be in Chicago, which for now, and the foreseeable future, is home.



Impressions of America from Chinese Eyes

Posted in Culture Clash, Sino-US, Relations and Comparisons, Society at 11:04 pm by Benjamin Ross

This past week I had the pleasure of acting as interpreter and cultural facilitator for a delegation of Chinese businessmen visiting Kansas City. For several of them, it was their first trip to the US, and for all of them it was their first time in Kansas City. For me it was a chance to begin reciprocating the Chinese people for all of the help and assistance I received from them during my time in the Middle Kingdom. Here are some memorable quotes from this week as my Chinese associates described their impressions of Kansas City, and the US as a whole.

When asking how their flight was…
“American airport security is such a pain. We had to wait in line for half an hour, and it seemed like they searched everything. In China, it’s much easier.”

While driving through a suburban office park…
“Nobody is on the streets. The street life here is so boring.”

Also while driving through a suburban office park…
“There are so many trees, and the sky is so clear. It is so beautiful.”

While walking in the front door of the company…
“Did you see that sign on the door which had a gun with a circle and a line through it? You would never see anything like that in China.”

At the steak house…
“These steaks are quite different from the ones we have in China. They aren’t served on a flaming skillet and there’s no egg.”

While discussing China with Americans who had never been…
“The impressions Americans get from reading about China are completely different from the impressions they would get from visiting China in person.”

At a strip center…
“All of these little shops look so unique. In China, the small shops are all the same, and none of them have colorful signs like the ones here.”

While shopping for men’s clothes…
“Man…these are expensive!”

Heard throughout the week…
“Americans are so fat. Everywhere there are fat people. Why are Americans so fat? Is it the food?”
(heard on several occasions, often with “fat” gestures made by arms)



Thoughts on 9/11

Posted in Personal Anecdotes, Sino-US, Relations and Comparisons at 7:40 am by Benjamin Ross

Today is September 11, a day in which we recall the terrorist attacks which shook our nation back in 2001. For many people, 9/11 is a time to reflect…to look at the freedoms we have in America, and be thankful for what we have. When I realized that this would be my first September 11 in the United States since 2003, I was reminded of a conversation I had with an old woman in my apartment complex several months ago when I was still living in Fuzhou.

The woman was a retired teacher of philosophy who had published several of her own books. She was originally from Shandong province, but had moved in with her son in Fuzhou after retirement (as is Chinese custom). A remarkably well-educated and worldly woman who had grown up in an age when most women were illiterate, she would frequently engage me in conversations about philosophy and politics whenever we would pass each other. One day she came to me with a question.

“Do Americans love war?”

I had been asked these kinds of questions, but never so directly, and I had a stock answer.

“I don’t think anybody loves war. Wars are usually caused by large-scale governments, not by the citizens themselves.”

“I agree,” she said, interrupting me before I could finish. “But in America, you are democratic, right? You can vote for your own leaders. Here in China, we have no say in the government, but in America your leaders are chosen by the citizens. Your government likes to start wars in other countries, so I have always thought that your people must love war as well, since this is what your government does, and the government is chosen by the people.”

I am not a political scientist, nor am I sure that the transitive property necessarily applies to matters of international relations. But what I do know is that this view is not unique to my old Chinese philosopher friend.

In the wake of 911, the American public was bombarded with rhetoric from our leaders about fighting terrorism and “keeping the world safe for democracy.” However, what we did not receive was much verbage indicating any form of self-introspection. Why would any country, organization, or even a terrorist group want to attack the United States?

There is never an excuse for killing innocent civilians, and I in no way condone the events of 9/11, but that does not mean there are no reasons behind it. Yet we are often skirted away from any form of self-introspection by explanations such as “The terrorists hate freedom!”

For those of you who have spent time abroad, I do not need to tell you what the Iraq War has done to America’s reputation on an international scale. For those who have not been abroad, I suggest you call a friend from Britain, or France, or China, or Afghanistan, and ask them.

Would it not be out of line to suggest that America’s actions and reputation on the international sphere had some influence on the events of September 11, 2001? Furthermore, does our growing reputation as a nation which causes wars abroad have any impact on the future security of the United States?

When the topic of 9/11 came up, the old woman told me she had sympathy for the American people, but that she understood why terrorists would be compelled to carry out such actions.

“I don’t think it is right to attack civilians,” she said “But I also do not think it is right to mess around with another country’s internal affairs.”

As for her view that Americans “love war,” I was unable to convince her otherwise.



The Time China Blog, and other Media Grievances

Posted in Sino-US, Relations and Comparisons at 2:51 am by Benjamin Ross

Recently I have begun following the Time Magazine China Blog. Here is the gist of the past few posts. China produces fake products. China has phony environmental awareness programs. China says they are going to open up media restrictions for the Olympics, but we all know that it’s baloney. China wrongly incarcerates people who are not criminals. China has slave labor. China is cracking down on independent blogs, et cetera, et cetera.

What irks me about this blog is not that it is completely one-sided, but that it makes no attempt to understand or explain its opposition. It only takes a novice journalist to criticize China based on standards which would be applicable to the United States. A more skilled journalist would dig deeper and examine why the particular situation evolved the way it did.

This failure on Time’s part to provide decent journalism on China is nothing new in the American media, and it reflects a deeper problem. As Americans, we are cognizant of the conditions and historical events which gave rise to our political system. While our political/economic system isn’t without its own flaws, it is well-tailored to our culture and ideals. What Americans often forget is that the conditions and historical events which gave birth to the American system have not been identical around the world.

China’s history over the past 50 years has followed a different path from ours in the USA. While we were worrying about escalating gas prices and the threat of communists from far off continents, Chinese people were worrying about whether or not they would have enough food to eat or how many of their children would survive infancy. While McDonald’s was building an empire so that Americans could fulfill their 5000 calorie per day diets, Chinese people were subsisting on meals of cabbage and sweet potatoes. We endured Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. The Chinese endured Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward.

The hardship, turbulence, and insecurity of the past 50 years (and you could say the past few millennia as well) have a deep impact on Chinese people’s psyche. Although living conditions in China have rapidly improved since the Reform and Opening Up, the values which evolved under previous conditions will take far longer to dissipate.

Is it justifiable to put harmful chemicals into products to increase profits? Would it be more justifiable, or at least explainable, to do so, if increasing your profits meant the difference between being able and not being able to pay for your children’s medical bills? Are there ever situations where an authoritarian government and media censorship are necessary to ensure the continued development of an economy? I am not suggesting that the answer to any of these questions is “yes,” but a responsible journalist would at very least address them, and rather than simply using standards based on a country thousands of miles and several decades of development away.

By criticizing problems without analyzing the reason for their existence, the American media only adds to the current conception that the USA over meddles in other nation’s internal affairs. Those who believe that Chinese citizens are unaware of these issues because they are not staging massive demonstrations are using their own value system to judge 1.3 billion people. The Chinese have opinions as well, and many of them are ironically quite similar to those of Western journalists. The difference is that the Chinese understand the source of their problems, and realize it takes more than just a magic wand and a protest (or a few posts on time-blog.com) to make them go away.



Pirates of the Middle Kingdom (update)

Posted in Business 'n Economics, Sino-US, Relations and Comparisons at 9:38 am by Benjamin Ross

continued from “Pirates of the Middle Kingdom”

After the initial harsh reactions to US complaints against piracy, China appears to be (at least according to the state run media) stepping up efforts to protect intellectual property. According to this article from China Daily, Chinese authorities have destroyed 42 million pieces of contraband. If true, this certainly is a step in the right direction for supporters of intellectual property rights. However, one sentence from the article had me concerned.

“Workers across the country set fire to 30 million pieces of smuggled and pirated audio and video materials.”

Did they say “set fire?” Was that really the only to dispose of all those discs? To me, the environmental ramifications of 30 million CDs going up in flames presents much more dangerous prospects, than the potential loss of profits for American companies.



Pirates of the Middle Kingdom

Posted in Business 'n Economics, Sino-US, Relations and Comparisons at 11:54 am by Benjamin Ross

China and the US have been in the news again, and this time it’s about intellectual property rights. The US is accusing China of not taking intellectual property laws seriously. China has responded by giving
the US the proverbial middle finger
. Here’s my take.

From the American Perspective

pirated DVDs piracy
A street vendor peddling DVDs from his bike in downtown Fuzhou.

Piracy of software, movies, and music in China is not just rampant, it is the default. I do not know a single store in Fuzhou where I could buy a legitimate copy of a movie, (or Windows Vista for that matter). While many businesses are succumbing to the pressure to use legitimate software, this is far from the case for private consumers. And as far as movies, buying a legitimate DVD in China is a ritual reserved for collectors or those who want to show off their wealth.

Clearly, more could be done. There is an entire floor of a mall here in Fuzhou which is dedicated to selling pirated software and movies. The discs are purchased wholesale by weight and then sold for slightly under a dollar a piece. Whether it’s Lionel Richie’s Greatest Hits, Adobe Photoshop CS2, or the Borat Movie, everything can be purchased for the price 2 liter bottle of Pepsi. This isn’t exactly an environment that you could say is making it difficult to distribute contraband.

From the Chinese Perspective

It’s not as easy as it sounds. China is a country of 1.3 billion people with a large governmental web spreading out from Beijing to every little nook and cranny across the Chinese empire. Enforcing regulations in big cities can be relatively efficient, but passing these laws down to small locals (where contraband is often produced), is not as simple as it is in the US, or any other country in the world for that matter.

US companies aren’t really losing that much money. This is just conjecture here, but say piracy was suddenly eliminated in China. It is difficult to imagine droves of Chinese rushing out to buy legitimate DVD’s and software. Many workers in China still make less than a dollar a day, and it would be a stretch to expect them to spend an entire days’ wages on a movie. This is even more so the case for software. People making $150 a month, would simply not buy a $300 copy of Photoshop. They would either not use it, or more likely, find other ways to obtain the intellectual property (i.e. downloading, or burning copies of the original).

It will be interesting to see what the next few moves will bring about. This is not the first time the US has pressured China on Intellectual Property Rights. China has responded (at least according to what I have read in Chinese media) by busting several piracy rings, and increasing the penalties for offenders. A friend of mine here in Fuzhou even witnessed a small store get busted for selling pirated discs. Nonetheless, it still seems finding pirated movies and software is no more difficult than it was three years ago, and finding the real stuff is still virtually impossible.

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