Oh Google, where art thou?

GoogleAs many of you have probably read, Google earlier this week dropped a veritable bomb on the Chinese internet community by announcing its possible removal of web services within China.  This threat comes in response to what Google has labeled as an infiltration of private company information (namely, the email accounts of known human rights activists within China) originating from an undisclosed Chinese network.  The company listed around 30 other private corporations that had also been subject to hacking from the same source.  Though the company has not said it outright, they hint heavily that the perpetrators are certainly linked to China’s government censors, but I do not think that this came as much of a surprise to anyone.

Google provides services to a regular user base of almost 100 million Chinese, and it has been noted by many reputable sources that this is a highly educated demographic, with as much as two-thirds of its users being college students or holders of degrees.  Although Google is not the top search engine (Baidu, China’s number one search engine, has a user base nearly three times in size), it is favored by the academic and the business communities for being significantly less censored and providing greater accessibility to relevant international papers and documents.

It has taken me a bit of reading to understand what exactly is happening with all of the noise that has been caused by Google’s Tuesday announcement.  It is as though we are in the first few seconds of insanity following a major announcement at a press conference.  Many of the articles that I have been reading say quite a bit about the immediate facts, but it was not until this morning that I found any articles actually beginning to synthesize all of the information at hand.  There are a few things that I want to point out in this matter, as I think they are quite important.  The first point that we must look at is the actual statement of intent released on the Google Blog.  The company has said directly that they will be in discussion with the government about the possibility of an uncensored search engine within China.  I see no possibility in such an option, what with a government that still denies that it actually censors anything.  In addition, I do notchina-internet460x276EEYYEYYEYE believe that the Google Corporation actually believes these talks will prompt the change they claim to seek.  Instead, I think they have seen a very solid opportunity to build the framework for an explosive and intentionally controversial exit from the Chinese community.

This morning, I read that the Google motto is something along the lines of “Don’t be evil”, and began wondering what they are really thinking in this whole matter.  Although this fuss was prompted by the hacking of private email accounts, the argument brought to the table stems mainly from disagreement with restrictions on access to information.  Although the Chinese internet market is rapidly developing, it would not be a major blow to Google’s financial status to remove their operations entirely.  This may seem to be business suicide, but I think they are gambling on the idea that their international recognition as the top western search engine will allow them an easy return should they decide in the future to come back to China.  With this in mind, it seems that Google is hoping to act as a temporary martyr, and to instigate the start of a much larger movement within the Chinese public to push for an easing of internet restriction.  Never before has such a massive company made such public opposition to the Chinese government.  It is daring to say the least, and I think Google has done so with some intention of inspiring the voices of many who are currently keeping quiet.

Without the availability of Google, most of its current users will default to Baidu, which provides significantly reduced content and is generally understood to be buddy-buddy with the government censors.  Such happenings will undoubtedly cause a large scale complaint movement among Chinese netizens and (as I think may be the hopes of Google) possibly spread to the typically less vocal majority of the web community.  It will also prompt a huge outcry from the well educated millions of college students who will no longer have any ease in finding the information they regularly use for their studies.  And finally (and this is very much speculation), I would not be surprised if it will cause some level of tension within China’s own government, as a decent number of government officials use Google’s services on a regular basis.  Many people say that these officials can already access whatever information they want, but keep in mind that the vast majority of them are much lower down on the chain and do not necessarily have this privilege.  For the most part, lower officials have little more awareness of their government’s doings than the people whom they govern, and I suspect that in many cases they are just as curious.  Though we will probably never hear it firsthand, I expect that this will put a new level of pressure on the higher-ups to reduce the censorship, or to make greater exceptions.

Whether or not any of this will come to fruition is hard to say, and it depends entirely on whether or not Google actually leaves.  At this point, if they are to uphold their statements, I cannot see how they will do otherwise, though as is common in the corporate world, statements do not mean a whole lot.  One way or another, it has already drawn a massive amount of attention worldwide, and has raised the voices of many new, young students who are horrified by the prospect of loosing their great tool.  This is certainly not an end to any form of censorship, but I think that this announcement will only help to push forward the slow movement toward reduced restriction, and has set up a foundation for private companies to begin their own interactions with the Chinese government (though this does scare the life out of me).  The next few months will certainly bring greater light to the matter.

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Day one in the Northern Capital

Jet lag is a no joke.  My first true day in Beijing started sometime around four in the morning, at which point my internal clock decided sleep was no longer in the books.  The simultaneous existence of exhaustion and inability to sleep is a curious thing, not dissimilar to the sensation I remember as a young child in the early hours of Christmas morning.  I killed a large block of time with an extended shower and contemplation of the possible benefits of having a toilet with two possible flush power levels (one used less water than the other).  With time, the sun eventually rose.  Or so I think.
DSCN0122Anyone who has spent time in Beijing will probably make some comment on the pollution level, in particular the generally ever-present layer of smog that hangs over the city.  The first day-lit sight that my eyes found was a city shrouded in an almost smoke like cloud.  Unlike fog, this covering leaned toward a thick, dirty grey color, at times moving into the reds and oranges.  When we first left the building, I was immediately aware of a smell that I recognized, but could not label.  It reminded me of some part of my childhood, and I eventually placed it as the slightly sweet, mostly acrid smell of burning coal.  It was everywhere.  In some parking lots, you could immediately pick out which cars had been left the longest by observing the thick layer of dust and dirt that had collected on top of them. In addition to the  standard chemical  pollution, Beijing is also subject to a fair amount of sand and dust pollution, carried by wind currents from the deserts to the west.  As we got onto our bus, I looked up and could see a small, dirty orange ball glowing in the sky.  The sun appeared to have little more radiance than a daytime moon, and not nearly so much clarity.

Our first day out consisted of visits to several locations, including the Beijing Science Museum, an opening ceremony, and a trip to the Hanban (Confucius Institute) world headquarters.DSCN0129 The Confucius Institute has played a major part in the spread of Chinese culture and the propagation of Chinese language programs internationally.  Hanban acted as our hosts while we were in Beijing, though from what I was able to understand, they were not directly in charge of our itinerary, but rather carrying out the plans of a mystery person much higher up on the food chain.

DSCN0134The museum was entertaining, but apart from this and our first excellent lunch, I have little recollection of the day.  A very distinct image that has remained in my mind is a memory of our driving past the Olympic boulevard, stretching what appeared to be miles away into a smog induced orange infinity, something not dissimilar to the world I had pictured while reading “Dune”.DSCN0140 This place, which I had seen so many times in pictures and on TV, was suddenly nothing like I had envisioned it being.  It was massive to the point of incomprehensibility, and in its size I found it to be unreachable and alien, almost cold.  This spot, which had held the eyes of the world for more than two weeks in the summer of 2008, now stood like a field after the battle.  For a moment, I felt very out of place, and was glad to keep moving.
Although we did not actually stop to look at the Olympic facilities at this time, we passed close by, and Ronald told us a good number of things about the buildings, making note of the fact that many of them were currently undergoing renovation for better public usage.  Many areas, he told us, were completely closed, and were not anticipated to reopen any time in the foreseeable future.  It was hard to understand how so much time would be put into the construction of these state of the art facilities, only to let them lie dormant.  On the other hand, I believe this is the case with most Olympic villages following their intended use.  It is as though theses locations do not live past the time of their intended purpose, at least not in the same capacity.  It seemed a waste to spend so much money on such massive construction only to have it stand vacant, but I am quite sure that the expenditures were returned in tourism and an overall increase in the international awareness of China as a rising force.

DSCN0139The rest of the day was not of any great significance, at least up until dinner, at which point we finally found ourselves with some free time.  I was exhausted, but bent on making something of the evening, and ended up in the room with a few friends drinking Tsingtao, the Budweiser of China.  If I felt like I had enough material to do so (or better yet, if I thought I could make it interesting), I would write an article just on Chinese beer.  I was quite interested to find that most of the beer in China has about half as much alcohol as the same brands in the U.S.  I have been wondering whether this is an attempt on the part of brewers to make beer more appetizing to the large number of Chinese who are slightly allergic to alcohol.  It became quickly apparent that the effects of jet lag almost doubled to standard effects of drinking, and although it was my intention to go to bed, I was soon headed out of the door to a club called Dao, conveniently located across the street from our hotel.  Other than the fact that it was filled almost exclusively with Chinese, this place was indistinguishable from any number of clubs within Manhattan.  Drinks were not terribly expensive on our end (about 5 dollars US), but in Chinese standards this club is certainly limited to a more elite crowd.  Having spent about an hour inside, I decided that it was an experience I could easily replicate at home, and headed back to the hotel to have another attempt at getting some sleep.

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Arriving in Beijing

DSCN1036After 5 hours on the plane, your back and legs start to hurt, and your eyes and throat dry out.  After 9 hours, you start to wonder if you have been on the same plane the whole time, or whether you have woken up on a different flight, one that just has shocking similarities to a previous bit of travel.  This feeling of déjà vu persists on and off for the remaining 5 hours.  It is in this space of time that you truly become lost in that strange world suspended far above the earth.  At times, it becomes difficult to distinguish whether the sound of the engines is loud or soft, or if it is even a sound.  It is as though you forget about the noise, only to find yourself here and there suddenly feeling as though you have noticed the sounds around you for the first time.  The atmosphere of the flight and your thoughts start to merge.  Then, with the almost predictably violent sound of landing, I find myself suddenly in China.

All told, the trip from New York to Beijing took about 21 hours, factoring in the layover and delay that we had in Chicago (courtesy of snow).  By the time I stepped into customs at the Beijing Capitol Airport, I was having difficulty believing how far from home I actually was, and the experience as a whole as it remains in my memory borders on a dreamlike state.  I don’t remember what I was asked as I entered the country, and everything up until searching for my bag is little more than a blur.  Despite this lack of clarity, the grandeur of the airport was not lost on me.  Of all the places that I have traveled, the Beijing airport is without a doubt the most amazing design that I have encountered, and perhaps the most tactful bit of engineering that I observed on the trip.  Its roof is an ever undulated metal latticework, and because there are no divisions or obstructions to your line of sight, it appears that you can see miles away within the building.  Cavernous does not do the space justice, and though I was exhausted, I think much of my initial confusion was simply distraction caused by the pure size of the space.  One cannot but feel that there is a statement being made in within its construction.


Following the locating of my bag and our passage through the remaining inspection point, I met the first true character of the trip, our tour guide, who immediately introduced himself as Ronald McDonald.  Chinese who are early in their study of English, or who are working at hotel desks and other service counters, often pick English names that leave visitors a bit stumped.  At one particular hotel, I would later be assisted by three employees, who’s name tags read Passion, Rocky and Journey.  In this particular circumstance, I suspect that the names had been directly translated from parts of their respective Chinese names, as words describing natural elements are not all that uncommon.  Other names drifted away from funny and more toward confusing, however, and the students within my group often commented on the strange choice of name combinations that exist.

Ronald McDonald

Ronald McDonald

The same is true for non-Chinese trying to come up with names for themselves to use while in the country.  I have found, almost invariably, that it is not possible for a westerner to come up with a name that the Chinese do not find incredibly amusing.  There is far more culture within a name than natives of a region realize.  It is only when an outsider tries to replicate this process of selection and creation that this complexity is revealed.  Ronald McDonald did not surprise me nearly as much as some other names.  For one, Ronald sounded very similar to our guide’s given name (which, for the life of me, I can’t remember).  For tour guides in any part of the world it is important to quickly connect with the guest, and I believe that McDonald was chosen with Americans in mind, built off of a perception of the McDonalds franchise as being one of the most deep seated aspects of American culture.  True enough, I doubt that there is anyone who, upon hearing the name, does not immediately associate it with our beloved craftsman of cuisine.  Used domestically, this name would certainly cause its bearer some grief, but within China it was apparent that it was very effective.  Everyone in the group was immediately at ease in speaking with our leader, and there was no chance that any of us could forget who he was.  Over the course of our time in Beijing, Ronald and his assistant Ben proved to be not only the finest of guides, but also vital in keeping our group on time and together.  As he would later note, he had previously acted as the tour guide for all of the Mrs. Universe Contestants, as well as Cyndi Lauper, and was quite proud of these successes.

The first major realization that I had upon our arrival bore absolutely no relation to China.  It was, in fact, the immediate awareness that the mobilization of a group of 200+ students was not only impractical, but unreasonable.  After a lot of shuffling, some hurry up and wait, and a moment of yelling (a terrible idea in any airport), we took maters into our own hands, and, finding that we had all of the members of our subgroup present, headed to the bus and decamped to the hotel.  The city of Beijing is formed by a series of concentric circular roads, with Beijing proper lying within the inner three.  Outside of these lie three additional circles, of massive diameter.  Ronald told us that the widest of these had a circumference well in excess of 200 kilometers.  Even with a knowledge of the city’s population standing in excess of 13 million, this still shocked me.

DSCN0111Our hotel, called the Xiyuan, lies just within the third ring road, to the northeast of the center.  The layout of the entire city stems from a central point, namely the Forbidden City.  Though they are called roads, the name is not quite correct, as each of the rings is an artery for travel within the city.  They are nothing short of highways, and are almost never at a lack of traffic.  The first few days of travel are more than a little bit overwhelming, and at times you cannot but wonder how it is possible to make it anywhere without getting into an accident (perhaps more on this later).

DSCN0112By the time we had arrived at our hotel, most people were completely subdued by sensory overload, and headed to their rooms for the night.  Figuring that there was no time to be wasted, I tried to fight off exhaustion and head out with a few others to see the surrounding neighborhood.  Making it as far as a massive Santa Clause and Reindeer Ice sculpture in front of the building, the lights and endless honking of the city night immediately began to overwhelm me, and I did not spend more than 20 minutes looking around.  Standing on a bridge crossing over a very large roadway, I thought over and over again about where I was, but was still unable to process the idea that I had finally made it to China.

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Back in the States

DSCN0364Three of four hundred miles north of Hawaii, my stomach dropped as the plane plummeted what must have been a good hundred feet, bringing about a brief, albeit somewhat disconcerting sensation of weightlessness. We had been flying in some of the worst turbulence I have ever experienced in my many times on planes, and had been stuck in it for nearly 4 hours. Our plane seemed to move two feet in any of the possible directions, causing drinks to fall and eliciting a variety of creaking and banging noises from the cabin. At times, it was such that I couldn’t but wonder how the wings did not snap. Sitting far to the back of the plane, I could watch all of the passengers being jolted in an almost synchronized motion, choreographed in perfect time with the unpredictable shifting of the aircraft. Two hundred and fifty bodies suspended in a cold, black nothingness, being tossed and turned 38,000 feet above the Pacific Ocean. Then, with the return of the sun, the bumping ceased, and with our landing in California, I had a true sense that my trip to the Middle Kingdom had come to a close.Door Knocker
Words cannot accurately describe the two weeks which I have just spent in the Peoples Republic of China. I have been home for not even a day, but already feel that I must begin the process of all that I experienced, before the sensation attached to these memories begins to fade. The trip was entirely overwhelming, but at no point was it bad. I did not have access to a computer (nor would I have found time to use one if I did), but took a large number of pictures, and kept a pretty decent running log of everything that we did, along with the endless number of thoughts that I had over the course of the trip. Over the next couple of days, I am going to try and piece everything together, and write a number of articles in a manner following the course of the trip. As I had initially expected, we were generally at the mercy of our hosts, but beyond this, nearly all of my initial beliefs about Chinese culture turned out to be slightly off. It was not that they were wrong, but rather that everything was so much larger than I could have possibly imagined. I have heard it said on multiple occasions that the more you know about China, the more you realize that you do not in fact understand what you have learned. There are elements within this thought that were truly confirmed by this trip.DSCN0244
As I sit writing, it is hard to even begin to label a single emotion that I can tie along with our journey. It seems as though I never actually left, and that the trip was nothing more than a dream, one in which everything had shifted a bit from the world which I was accustomed to. There was no point at which things were exactly the same, and for the duration of the trip it was hard for me to accept that I was actually in China. I had no doubt that it was not home, but at the same time it was unlike anything I could have possibly imagined. It is as though all of the history and culture that has ever existed is present in every moment. Unlike the culture in which I was raised, where I have always understood history to be a chronological set of events, it seems that within China the memory of history remains constant within the present. There will be a number of occasions on which I come back to this idea. How a culture can manage to have so many levels is beyond me. The levels of complexity are such that the ideas held by China’s own citizens are widely varied, and frequently do not agree with one another. Common knowledge in one region can be all but unheard of in another. Duality is a word that came up quite often in the discussion that I had with other students on the trip. For the time being, I will leave it as this. Jet lag and generally feelings of confusion are making it difficult to get solid thoughts together. Expect more daily in the weeks that follow, there is no end to the words that will be required to even begin describing the short time that I have experienced.

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I love New York

I love New York The Chinese are known for their great hospitality.  Bringing someone into your home and making them feel at ease, regardless of what part of the world you are in, are values that are a large part of being a good host.  The job of a host is not limited to serving a meal and having good conversation, but on an even greater level providing an atmosphere that is conducive to creating a feeling of family.  It is in this setting that the greatest exchange of stories and culture often takes place, prompted by the mutual respect that must exist between a host and their guest.  Today, as I was shopping for a few items that I need for the trip (a solid pair of shoes), it occurred to me that I should prepare a bunch of small gifts to bring with me to China to give to the variety of hosts that we may have.  It is good to bring gifts that are representative of your own culture, as these really say something about where you come from.  As it turns out, finding good gifts that truly represent American culture, New York in particular, is not the easiest thing to do.  Lets review our options.

Five souvenir-like items off the top of my head that are often associated with New York

  1. I New York T-shirt/mug/keychain/stuff
  2. Statue of Liberty miniatures
  3. World Trade Center commemoratives posters, stickers, artwork…
  4. Subway Maps
  5. Empire State Building replicas

Out of this list, I would be immediately inclined to remove the World Trade Center items, along with Statue of Liberty collection.  They are certainly representative of aspects of New York, but just aren’t right for the job at hand.  And the Empire State Building…it’s just not all that interesting.  I New York, the oldest of all standbys, wins again, with Subway maps coming in a close second place.  The irony of the matter is that in my quest to locate any of thisstatue_of_liberty_flash_drive_prod New York memorabilia I would probably head straight to China town.  Its far cheaper than purchasing the authorized merchandise (which, as far as I am aware, is not domestically manufactured), it looks identical, and for all intents and purposes will serve exactly the same job.  Something seems a bit immoral in presenting gifts of good will to citizens of the country in which said gifts were made.  From a realistic standpoint, however, it is neigh on impossible to find such souvenirs made anywhere other than China.  Gifts aside, there is still much care to be taken in leaving a good impression as a guest.

While I anticipate (and actually look forward to) plenty of embarrassing cultural misunderstandings, I figure that it can’t hurt to study up on information about traditions and formalities for some of the events that we will be attending.  The U.S. has a slightly dubious reputation for being extremely laid back in terms of formal events, and though the Chinese are accustomed to this fact, putting a bit of effort into understanding their cultural traditions can go a long way in building a relationship.  We are going to China to observe traditions and culture, but at the same time we are bringing a bit of our own culture along with us.  Our language, the way we dress, the way we eat, how we act in the company of others, all of these have characteristics that are strongly tied to the culture in which we have been raised.  While my group and I will be completely absorbed by the culture of the Chinese, there is no doubt that they will be equally intrigued by our Americanness.

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Rant on misleading statements

I haven’t written anything in a few days, and feel that it is sometimes worth writing simply for the sake of writing. And since there is no way that I could ever go past the storage limits of my server, I figure why not post it! I spent a good portion of the day getting aspects of the blog to work in a method that I find suitable, but I suspect that come January I will probably want to revamp the whole thing. I’m currently reading Chen Guidi and Wu Chuntao’s “Will the Boat Sink the Water”, a good book that examines the turbulent relationship between Chinese peasants and the government. Although many of the problems spoken of within the book are changing (new regulations set forth in 2006 have begun to bring greater aid to the peasant population), its contents are still of great relevance.

Chen and Wu's Book

Chen and Wu's Book

Human rights and social welfare are at the top of the hot-word list on any number of discussions pertaining to China, and though I do not deny their importance, I often read articles and blogs that are too quick to put full blame on the central government for these problems. It is certainly their job to monitor and maintain the problems at hand, but one must remember that such issues do not change overnight, especially within a country with a billion-plus population. It does not take an expert to determine that China is not a democratic society. It is not correct, however, to immediately state that the lack of a democratic government is a problem within China, as democracy may not be the best option for a nation with such a drastic rate of change and development. Yes, I know, saying that democracy might not be the best leads most Americans to scream their heads off. This may be one of our greater faults as a society, as it stems from a mindset which forgets that the vast majority of countries do not have the level of stability that we enjoy. China has a population more than three times the size of the U.S., and certainly has a different need to maintain social stability. As such, it is not so easy as voting to change the style of legal system. No one tool can work for all jobs.

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I went to Leshan, Buddha was all I saw

Leshan Buddha As the days move right along, I continue to receive various emails in regard to my upcoming trip.  Most of these letters are in regard to missing paperwork, confusion about where to send said paperwork and, most importantly, money.  Spaced intermittently among this variety of notices are a few bits of golden information about the program itself, and what we will actually be doing.  A day or two ago I was most excited to find that I had finally received not only a list of the people that would be living together, but also the schools to which all of our sub groupings would be assigned for the second half of the trip (the main group is massive, and will be broken down into 13 subgroups, each of which will be hosted by an individual university).  My initial understanding of the arrangement was that all of us would be staying in schools located within Chengdu proper or the immediate vicinity.  As I looked down the listing for each of the groups this remained the case, until I came to my assignment, however, at which point I saw that I would be staying at the Leshan Teachers College.  I believe it is time for a small geography lesson.
If you go to Google images and type in Leshan (乐山), you will be hard pressed to find much of anything other than a huge number of pictures of a large, stone Buddha.  This is no mistake, in fact most references to Leshan stem only from a notation of the city as being the home of the world’s largest carved Buddha. Second in mention to the Buddha is the Luding Suspension bridge, a chain link bridge which was captured by the red army during the course of the Long March, but this is a significant number of miles away to the northwest.  Luding Bridge

The Leshan Buddha is quite a thing to behold.  At 71 meters in height, this mammoth religious relic is thought to have been created in the early 8th century, the middle of the Tang dynasty.  Leshan proper is situated at the confluence of three rivers, the Minjiang, Dadu and Qingyi.  As history tells us, the location was at one point a region of major distress for boat traffic as the river currents were known to sink boats with great regularity.  In an attempt to appease the anger of the river and to grant safer passage, the prolific Buddha was commissioned and crafted over a period of 90 years.  Did it work, you ask?  In fact, it did!  Modern study of the area surrounding the Buddha has shown that the sizeable removal of stone and its subsequent dumping into the river to some degree altered the flow of the currents, reducing their ferocity.  It seems prayers are not always answered with thunder and flashes.
Leshan lies almost 100 miles to the south of Chengdu, within the central portion of Sichuan Province.  Sichuan is one of the poorest regions within China, and is home to a massive number of the migrant workers who travel to the coastal cities in search of greater employment opportunities during the non-harvest seasons.  As I stated above, it is rather difficult to find consistent information about the city of Leshan  A search for the Leshan Teachers College revealed a meager nine or ten pictures, a third of which may very well be generic examples of Chinese schools.  When looking for a simple figure such as the size of the population, there is a wide margin between the estimates.  We’re not talking about a difference of thousands either.  One source puts the population at about six hundred thousand, while others put it as high as five million (which is, in fact, not all that large in terms of Chinese cities).  Discrepancies lead me to wonder about the facts.  The lead up to the “Discovering China” program has been nothing if not mysterious, a fact which, although at first I found to be rather frustrating, seems now to only add to the overall allure of the trip.  If anything, the mystery only adds to my excitement.  I am a part of a group of ten young students who will be spending a week and a half living in Leshan, China, a city at which even the all knowing internet is at a loss for words.

For those that are interested, here is a map, courtesy of our friends at Google, showing the greater region in which the “Discovering China” trip will take place.

View Larger Map

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14 Days

chinese flag

Two weeks exactly. I just counted the number of days twice and got a little dizzy. That’s how long I have before I board a plane and make my way to the Middle Kingdom (no, not middle earth, Middle Kingdom). I, along with another friend of mine who was also accepted to the trip, went to an orientation meeting held at Stony Brook last Thursday to hear a bit more about the “Disovering China” program and get some idea of what’s in store for us. We were a half an hour late to the presentation, courtesy of Google maps and backward Long Island roads. The Charles Wang lecture center made Purchase College look like a hole in the ground to say the least. Somewhere between the cascading waterfalls, granite bathrooms and spiral staircases I became completely distracted. By the time I found the room, the lecture was already well under way, and I had more than a little bit of that “first day of class” feeling that so dominated high school. The presentation was good, and answered a few questions of mine, as well as giving a number of suggestions for travel that I would not have thought of.   For one reason or another I have not been all that excited about the trip, which is nothing short of ridiculous, as I realize how much of an opportunity it will be. I think much of my reservation stems from some level of anxiety. It’s almost as if it’s too large for me to understand. After listening to all of the potential trips that we will be taking in China, in addition to the number of amazing lectures that we will attend, however, I can’t help but look forward to the fast approaching departure. More and more it has begun to occur to me what it really means. I’m going to China, to at least two of the cities (Beijing, Chengdu and Chongqing are listed as stops) on my top ten list of interest, and will be hosted not only by the Chinese government, but also by some experts in areas of study that I most love. Why it is hard for me to just sit back and enjoy, I’m not sure, but for now that is my primary goal. The organization of the program sounds like it was very well thought out in certain areas. The group that is going is absolutely massive, consisting of nearly 200 students and a large group of educators and several state officials as I have been told. Once we are in China, we will spend two or three days in Beijing, visiting the standard sights and celebrated the Jan 1st New Year (Chinese New Year occurs Feb 14th this year). Following our stay in the capital, we will head far down to China’s southeast, where will be staying in Chengdu, home to the worlds largest panda research center. This portion of the trip should prove to be the most interesting, as the group will be split into thirteen different sub-groups. Each of these mini groupings will be staying at a different university, and will be under the direction of a Chinese student, which should prove to be a very interesting interaction. It is my hope that we will be given enough freedom to move around on our own, as I have heard from others that being the guest can sometimes lead to a bit of an overbearing host. Either way, I think it will be fantastic, and a learning experience on all counts. I am especially looking forward to the food. Hot pot is a Sichuan specialty, revered for its incredible spiciness. The famed Sichuan pepper is not only incredibly hot, but also has a numbing effect on the tongue, creating an all around euphoric sensation. I have a major final tomorrow, perhaps I should spend some time contemplating the immediate challenges.

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A Love For Textual Activity

Over the decent amount of time that I have spent working as a summer camp counselor and as an instructor for middle and high school students, I have met and spoken with a bizarre number of parents, teachers and general educators who seem nothing short of baffled by the amount of time that their students spend texting and on social networking sites. Although I cannot come close to matching the habits of the worlds texting elite, and have never entertained the slightest interest in having a myspace, I do spend a fair amount of time on facebook and (while I still had a phone) had a pretty regular set of running text conversations. A recent question proposed by a teacher got me wondering: What is it that makes text based communication so appealing?
Lets start with the numbers- Nielsen, perhaps the most reputable census taker on all things digital- media, reported that in late 2008, the average teenager sent and received something in the neighborhood of 80 text messages a day. To the horror of psychologists and specialists in adolescent development, this number is almost double that from the year before, and it is quite likely that a repeat increase will be found by the end of this year. When so many phone plans now come with unlimited talk as a standard feature, what is it that prompts so many individuals to choose texting over standard conversation? While many of the leading phone companies promote texting from a standpoint of convenience (A text can be used in a myriad of places where a phone call would simply not be possible. Class, the movies, dinner…), and while most educators see it as a developing trend of laziness, I think that the reasons lie far deeper in the human psyche than just a need to simplify our conversations. Perhaps a text fulfills a need for an emotional connection that has been lost in our modern context.
One of the main tenets of traditional Greek theatre came in a set of rules pertaining to the depiction of violence. Very simply put, acts of violence were never to be displayed on the open stage, rather they were acted out audibly from somewhere out of the audience’ view. This was by no means from a belief that graphic violence was unsavory. The idea behind this style came from the though that the human mind was far more capable of creating its most horrible thoughts when given less information. Based on the suggestive violent sounds coming from offstage, the mind of each person would fill in the unspecified details, intentional blanks as they were, in a manner that it found to be most horrifying. This concept fits in quite well with more modern understandings of the brain. In order to better process the unspeakably massive amount of information that it receives each moment of the day, the human mind does not seek to have a complete understanding of each event it encounters, but instead builds some of its own assumptions to allow a person to move through the thousands of thoughts without having to process each one individually. In many ways, it condenses the millions of minute signals it receives into larger, more digestible thoughts. Much like an agent deciding which fan-mail makes it into the hands of their star.
If you find yourself saying “yes, this is all well and good, but what of the texting revolution?”, fear not! In my mind, it is wrong to say that today’s youth seeks digital communication to avoid the commitment required by a face to face (Or even voice to ear) chat. Texting and other services similar to AIM and facebook chat are inherently limited in their ability to convey complicated ideas during conversations. When speaking face to face, or even just on the phone, the person uses a large array of senses to help with understanding the conversation. These can include facial expressions, tone of voice, speed of speech and many nearly undetectable signals. When using text-only based communication, we have access to none of these indicators, and as a result it would not surprise me to find that the mind of the individual substitutes many of these missing tidbits with information that the person already has about whomever they are communicating with. Going ever farther than this, it would make sense that the mind selects the things that it likes best, allowing the words to be tailored in a way that makes the most sense to the person (Do you ever find yourself narrating a text message in the voice and personality of the person you receive it from?). This makes a lot of sense when used in the context of texts between people who have recently met. Without having extensive imbedded knowledge about the person you are communicating with, and without having those primal signals to convey a deeper meaning, a conversation can take any tone that your subconscious wishes. While I will not deny that this often creates a false sense of understanding in communication, one cannot deny that it is thoroughly addicting. Though I have yet to hear of a texting-rehab (Don’t laugh just yet, video game rehab is a reality), many individuals have begun to suffer physical damage from extensive stress to the thumbs and poor posture due to looking down for extended periods of time. And don’t even ask about texting while driving.

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China, What is it to Me?

About two months ago, I applied to be a part of a trip to China at invitation of the Chinese government.  This trip, called “Discovering China”, is a one time only trip being hosted as a thank you for assistance given to Chinese students following the huge Sichuan earthquake in may of 2008.  With the exception of flight costs, it is an all expense paid trip, and should prove to be an amazing experience, especially given our status as guests of the government.  Prior to my acceptance into this program, I had been trying for nearly a year and a half to get over the China to continue my studies, but found that I was simply confounded by numerous issues, the most dominant being financial.  Although I was accepted to study at a Chinese university in Beijing for a semester, my plans were thwarted by the arrival of complete economic collapse and subsequent escalation of loan costs.  Traveling was just not in the cards.  I also spent several weeks working on an application for the CSC scholarship, a year long scholarship provided by China to students looking to spend time studying Mandarin and other courses within China.  Although this seemed to be a great and generally unknown method of funding, it turned out that the competition was low simply because no one knew where to send their applications once they had them completed.  I suspect that many of the errant applications followed an ill fated path into the circular file.  Following this attempt, I decided to hold my trip abroad until after I had finished my degree, and for the most part I am happy to have made such a decision.  The summer brought about a number of great realizations in regard to myself and my true interests and goals.  I by no means had a revelation of any sort, but rather came to conclusions about what I don’t want to be (Still want success, don’t want to be a track-bound businessman).  I was overjoyed to receive the news that I would be going to China in December and January, but now find myself wondering what on earth I will do once the program is completed.  China has always been large, and finding that I am finally going makes it suddenly seem so much the larger.  Aside from a disinterest in leaving what would seem to be the beginnings of a great romance, I can’t fight my general concern about my plans as a whole.  I want to have China as a path for business and the future, but I certainly don’t want to be bound to the physical location.  I say this now with the full awareness that I have the not infrequent tendency to try and predict my likes and dislikes before they happen, but I am disconcerted by the fact that I am unable to see how long my time abroad will last.  I never thought that I would miss the U.S., but I can’t help but see what I am leaving behind for the time.  Don’t get me wrong, I am beyond excited.  It is just a very large change to try and process.  This is not only the attainment of a long sought after goal, but also a departure from one chapter of this life and the entry into the next.  What I can do with this seems unlimited,  and I believe that this is what scares me.

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