Sunday, 17 May 2009

Google's Blogspot Blocked in China

All of Google's Blogspot sites, including this one, are presently blocked in China. I can only access it from a proxy server, which may or may not last long, though anybody else not using a proxy server can not access these sites at all.
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Saturday, 16 May 2009

Rain, Shine, Line Dancing and Traffic Congestion

A note back on the streets of Xi’an and rainy streets they are to this week. The dry and, no matter what other hardened foreigners might say, humid city streets of Xi’an have been turned into May-soon washed, quagmiresque tributaries. In other words, it does not rain here much, it was just becomingly stiflingly hot but this week it has pretty much rained non-stop. However, being English and having recently re-engaged with my old running regime, I was happy to be out there jogging in the rain and not in the 25+ summer evening temperatures that I can never quite get used to.

Amazingly, or it would have been if I had only just arrived in Xi’an, as I have not it was actually to be expected, on arrival at Shi Da’s running track I was to discover that I was only one of three on the track. Normally, this time of year and around that time of the evening, 9ish, there are literally hundreds strolling, walking the dog, chatting, romancing and even running around the track. Not to mention the soccer and badminton players, the Tai Qi exponents and the rhythmic, line dancers taking up all the other available spaces. The Chinese do not do going out in the rain.

I will dwell on these dancers for a moment as they are always a joy to behold and as I have watched them a few times in different locations this week. These dancers are not restricted to the wonderfully peaceful environs of Shi Da’s Campus sports ground but are to be found in public spaces all over the city. Someone has usually assembled some kind of music system that can actually create quite an imposing sound and not uncommon to even hear a little western dance music. A collection of women, often in there early 40's and upwards, proceed to move in rhythmic harmony, legs and arms swirling in synchronised flourishes.

The core of regulars are usually joined by a few young hopefuls attempting to keep in step with their more mature partners. I like to occasionally observe these gatherings because whether they are middle-aged regulars or young track suited students there is a conspicuous lack of self-consciousness in their movements, no matter their ability, which is rather refreshing to behold.

To continue on a different note but still with a rainy reference, I decided today to stand and contemplate one of the many minor road collisions that are increasingly occurring during this time of main road madness. A direct consequence of roads a plenty being ripped up in the name of the subway construction process. Of course, a greater number of accidents occurred in the torrential rain of this week. Two cars had a minor coming together at the entrance of a two-lane road near my house, blocking one side completely. The cars on the side of the accident tailed up behind them, while those on the other side continued to swing on down the road, access unimpeded. I had inside me at first a growing sense of frustration as I watched the two drivers just sit at the entrance of the road, paying no attention to the congestion they were creating behind them. Then becoming increasingly annoyed at the way in which the oncoming traffic made no concession to those left stuck behind the two stationary vehicles.

I wanted to get in the road, traffic attendant like, letting cars out here, holding others back there and generally getting the traffic moving on both sides. However, as I continued watching I realized that even though nearly all the actions that took place were being decided upon on selfish grounds, the natural flow of life allowed a reasonable give and take of cars moving in both directions. People crossing the road, a stalled engine, a turn taken too wide, a traffic light further down the road, a U-turning vehicle all added to what became a natural flow of traffic up and down both sides of the road. A little stilted maybe and on occasion more frustrating for one side than the other, but in the great scheme of things not a great deal less fluid, if at all, than what would have been managed by a Chinese police officer standing there intentionally directing traffic. Apart from one of course who had got those two cars moving in the first place.
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Saturday, 9 May 2009

Voluntary Work In Xi'an- Not Like This

I recently have been looking around at voluntary projects in Xi’an and came across these two companies, i-to-i and Global Volunteers. All I can say is never, never, never do these things, never. Now, I understand if one does not have experience of doing these kinds of projects or have any knowledge of the host country and that they need some help with organizing such work, however I still find these projects absolutely unacceptable in terms of cost and often in terms of the value of the work undertaken.

All I can say to you is think long and hard about what it is you want to do because I can guarantee you, you are wasting your money paying what is £800 ($1,176) and £1,600 ($2,495) for 2 weeks voluntary work. It is a disgrace and I write this having reflected on the note I began a few days ago. When I first discovered these projects and accordant fees I felt my response may have been a little too impassioned, but it was not and I am not. It makes me so angry to even think of it. This note continues and some of the issues arising from this are discussed below.

First, i-to-i are asking you to pay £800 ($1,176) for 2 weeks voluntary work, to pay for your own flight, to organize your own visa, and then you do your voluntary work. For every week you want to continue, you have to pay another £150/ $220 (1496RMB), meantime you are living in a dorm room and eating food that probably would only cost about $3.00 a meal here. So, for two weeks teaching you will pay $1,176 as well as flights and a visa, that is 8000 RMB plus the not inconsiderable additional costs. I cannot believe it.

Global Volunteers is even worse, their project for two weeks costs a staggering £1696 ($2,495) or £1,832 ($2695) for three weeks, 16,966RMB and 18,326RMB. The i-to-i project includes dormitory accommodation, three meals a day and transportation to and from site, as well as a local programme of support. The Global Volunteers fee includes ‘tourist class hotel’, all meals, on-the-ground support, $200 towards materials and administration.

All I ask is that anyone thinking about these projects does so very carefully. This is not because I do not believe in voluntary work; I have done a variety of voluntary projects in my time. I just cannot believe how appalling these organizations are. Doing voluntary work is doing voluntary work; paying to do voluntary work, get over it.

Of course, the costs of your placement must be covered but it seems to me these organizations should have a moral responsibility to keep these costs as low as possible, the volunteer is volunteering that is their contribution, surely any well structured organization will have other revenue streams in place to offset the financial burden on the volunteer, or micro-managing the project well enough on the ground, so fees do not reach these levels.

Volunteering is not about wealth it is about somebody giving up their own time to help someone else. These fees are phenomenal, no matter what these organizations might say, they are not doing a good enough job of respecting the nature of the project, and they should not be trusted in any way to offer a valuable voluntary experience.

Now, let us consider the cost of renting a luxury flat here in Xi’an. It would cost between 2000RMB ($294) – 3000RMB ($441) per month to have a 2-3 bedroom, furnished, great flat here in Xi’an (My 3 bed roomed flat costs 1000 RMB). That is about $73 and $110 a week respectively. So, the cost for living here in the centre of the city, at the most expensive rates, would be a maximum of $220 for a fortnight.

This figure could then be divided by 4 or 6 depending on whether it is a 2 or 3 bedroom flat, on the basis that both companies offer only shared accommodation as standard, i-to-i in a dormitory. The final figures per person for a two or three bed roomed luxury flat for a fortnight would be $55 and $36 respectively. A volunteer is paying $1,176 or $2,495 over that period.

This might seem a little of a false comparison but I just want to offer people an idea of the cost of life here and really the costs that an organized and established organization should be aiming at, at the very top end. The additional tariffs allow us to see roughly the cost of the project for a week for one person, though even they are a little expensive. Let us look again very closely at the figure that is being charged per week over and above that weekly figure.

For i-to-i it is $388 a week and for Global Volunteers it is $1027. These figures may, depending on your own financial circumstances not seem so bad, but in China, they are astronomical in terms of any sort of logistical/ transportation/ staffing costs. These are aspects that should also be to a large degree already managed on a macro-financial level, not simply on a volunteer by volunteer basis.

Global Volunteers talks about $200 of this going on materials, but what materials, $200 per person in China on materials is a lot of materials. They are not needed when you are teaching a bit of English for a couple of weeks. Moreover, a volunteer is offering their time free, why should a large donation also be formally attached to that commitment. Global Volunteers note:

‘The Global Volunteers service program fee reflects the actual costs of establishing and maintaining the program in each country. Eighty-five percent of the fee pays for program costs such as food, lodging, ground transportation, team leader expenses, project materials, volunteer coordination, program development and coordination, volunteer materials and communication, and on-site consultants. The balance is used for organizational overhead.’

They are saying that all the above will cost 14, 421RMB for two weeks. I actually, after being here in Xi’an for nearly three years, cannot quite comprehend that figure. Surely doing voluntary work is not about six star* living!

All I can say is find your own work and/ or think very carefully about the value of the work you are about to undertake. If you are going to do voluntary work here, then get yourself into the village communities of China, where most foreign teachers are not. If you want to do voluntary work here, you maybe need to be a little more proactive. There are a number of options. First, I would suggest getting into contact with any charities that already work in a region of China you are interested in, not one already organizing expensive placements, just one that has some contacts on the ground.

Secondly, I suggest you contact both the Yellow River Soup Kitchen and the Library Project in Xi’an, as they already have contacts with various insufficiently resourced schools around Shaanxi and may be able to put you in the right direction. Third, if you have more time and you want to make a slightly longer commitment I suggest first finding a paid placement here, this will offer you an easy route into establishing yourself in Xi’an. You can then choose to work limited hours and discover valuable voluntary projects yourself.

Get real and get it done yourself, you do not need these companies, or maybe you do but you need one that recognizes its moral responsibility in that role. The process of taking a little more time and responsibility for your choice of voluntary work will probably make the whole thing more rewarding in the end.

*See the first comment below for an important additional note.

The conversion rate was based on $1 to 6.8RMB and £1 to 10RMB.

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Sunday, 3 May 2009

Teaching In Xi'an

It is about time I outlined what can be expected from a teacher’s life in Xi’an. The first point to note and to emphasize is that it offers the chance of a very good life. It is easy for a native English speaker to not only find work here but to be paid exceptionally well for doing something, in many cases, that they are not particularly well qualified to do.

There is a full spectrum of opportunities for teaching English in Xi’an. It is possible to teach in state or private schools, Kindergartens, Primary and Middle Schools, English Training Schools, Universities and Businesses; you can teach 1-1 classes, small group classes and huge classes up to 100. The choice, after some initial work undertaken from an Internet advert, will be up to you. So, what about workloads, money and all that stuff?

My only advice is that whatever job you initially take, take it on a short-term contract, generally recognised as being for 6 months. The obvious reason being that if you don’t like what you are doing you are not stuck within a contract, which may cause you some unnecessary visa problems if you want to get out of it. The age or level you may wish to teach is obviously your decision to make and will depend on what jobs you first come across.

A University appointment or a post at an English Training School offers the most straightforward introduction to teaching life in Xi’an. I will begin by discussing the later. A Training School basically means a foreign company with Chinese associates who operate classes of about 16 kids, for between 1- 2 hours, all day on Saturdays and Sundays and some evenings during the week.

These schools exist not simply because of the increased demand for learning English in China, but because Chinese children are put through the ringer when it comes to extra curricula study in all areas of their curriculum, something, but not all, to do with ordinarily having 50-90 classmates and not learning that much !

Now, this option is usually quite good because, as long as you choose a reputable company, you will get a visa, a guaranteed minimum wage per month, a flat to live in and a bonus at the end of the contract. The company will also probably have some experience of helping people integrate into life here. Moreover, this kind of teaching requires very little planning and marking and, most significantly, primarily takes place at the weekends. In fact, if you do take this option I would recommend that you only take the minimum contract at first, which is usually just at the weekend, because you will very quickly find other work opportunities which will pay more per hour (100+Yuan), than the roughly 65 Yuan your average contract based wage equates to.

So, to recap, one very common, though not always that professionally rewarding first step into teaching in Xi’an, is to take a basic 15-hour contract at an English training School (Aston and English First are good places to start in Xi’an- see the links on the right). These schools will give you about 4-6000 Yuan a month (15-25 hours a week), a visa and a flat, and a small bonus at the end of the contract. Plus these hours will almost solely be at the weekend, giving you time to start learning Chinese, check out the city, pick up extra work for a higher hourly rate, or just hang-out doing whatever it is you like to do or have always wanted to do.

The other main option is working for a University, which you will find advertised in abundance around the web. Xi’an offers a multitude of opportunities here as it has so many Universities. The Universities will need anything from a bit of speaking practice within a class of 100, to small group tuition, to specialized linguistic and literature teaching, or even the teaching of more specialized subject content. Strangely, the Universities don’t tend to pay as well as the private schools and training schools, and often require a lot more contact time, preparation and marking. You just have to decide what you are in it for.

Of course, teaching university students in many cases will be more stimulating than teaching young ones. However, the level of English, the motivation, the size of the classes, the standard of the university will all be factors that can make teaching Chinese students a little frustrating, plus, unlike elsewhere, Universities want their pound of flesh when it comes to your commitment of time. Plus, young Chinese kids are a joy to be around. There will be though people with stories from across the spectrum, so read around, get a sense of what you are likely to be in for and sign a short term contract, you can always make a change later or stay on if you like it.

The average hourly rate for freelance work is still about 100 Yuan, but can go up, in some rather ridiculous circumstances, to around 200 Yuan (some people really need a teacher). If you’re looking around at Beijing and Shanghai for example, do not be put off by these rates, at 100 Yuan an hour, here in Xi’an, you will still be living a ridiculously easy life compared to the majority. You will, after initial acclimatization, be able to save a good chunk of what you earn. Many of the teachers I come across here who have been here a while, are able to save more than they would back at home, whether they come from Europe, Africa, the Americas or Australasia.

Also, unless you specifically find a rural school with a serious lack of funds or a legitimate voluntary work experience, do not be thinking: “Oh! The money’s not important, it’s just poor old developing China.” In the majority of situations, if you are not pocketing the money, the school’s manager or board of managers will be. If you are looking to just do a 3-6-12 month stint volunteering before heading back home then have a good look around, you don’t want to end up teaching some middle- class kids in Xi’an’s High Tech Zone. The links on my homepage to the ‘Yellow River Soup Kitchen’ and ‘The Library Project’ would offer you a first port-of-call for discovering legitimate voluntary opportunities around Xi’an, maybe try and liaise with them first. I will also attempt to find out more about the organisations I have seen on the Internet advertising volunteer placements in Xi’an and will update this note accordingly.

Teaching in Xi’an, whether for six months or for a few years, offers you the chance of a great life. Enjoy it. As a fellow teacher once noted: ‘Imagine receiving so many job offers you have to turn most of them down. Imagine a salary almost ten times higher than a native worker’s. Imagine a job that includes a free apartment, at least three weeks vacation and a plane ticket to return home. Imagine that this job requires no previous experience. Does this appear too good to be true? Not at all.’ You have the chance to choose your life a little here, as a friend and I often comment, it is like being retired with age on your side. Whether it’s just for a few months or for a few years it is a nice position to be in.

If you have any specific questions feel free to use the form on the right to send me a message.

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Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Some Habits Best Kept, Others Maybe Not

A couple of things that stood out on the Chinese culture front last week. The first, was listening to a Chinese colleague outline her lunchtime ritual. She noted how she goes from school to her car across the road, which she pays to park, then drives straight down the street to her daughters school, also where her husband works. This whole process takes under 10 minutes. Her and her husband then have lunch with their daughter, before retiring to a school provided dormitory for a siesta. She then drives back here for afternoon classes before returning again to meet her daughter when she finishes school. They wait at the school while their daughter does her homework and plays in the pleasant surroundings of the near-by university campus. They then drive home, about 5-10 minutes by car.

Why do I note this? Maybe back in Britain or in the States this scenario seems oh so normal. But, this is a nation of cyclists, bus catchers and walkers. No longer. One of the great things about living in China, and particularly here in Xi’an, as it is less developed than Beijing for example, is that it places many of the norms of our own societies in sharp contrast. The society here maybe in the process of going down the same route we took, but by doing so from a different starting point or time period, it sharpens the focus from which we view not only the changes here, but our own norms of behaviour.

Just weeks ago this lady cycled down the road at lunch time and then home in the evening, with her daughter on the back of her bike. Now, she makes 5 journeys a day in her VW Golf. I suppose this is all-good for the economy and is being increasingly supported by many major nations, particularly here and in the United States. These are the realities of the principles that underpin our societies. It is just that they seem to me a little crazy really and that's not even taking into account the environmental costs.

Secondly, I was sitting in a small fast-food restaurant doing a bit of studying when a young lad, your average looking student, sat down at the table just across from me. He began to chomp and slurp his way through his lunch, as if oblivious to any of the evolutionary etiquette that has emerged over the last however many centuries, in various parts of our various societies.

Now, I am quite used to this really, living on the street I live, which is not inhabited by the wealthiest of people and has an abundance of hole-in-the-wall restaurants. I have also stayed a number of times in rural village communities where the old noodle suck and slurp is going strong. I can actually manage a good noodle slurp myself and even recognise the benefit when the noodles are piping hot. However, there are levels, it doesn’t matter how you cut it, listening to this guy eat was no different from listening to an animal munching, noisily at its trough, every open mouth(ful) chomped, sucked and slurped over. Quite amazing.

This, of course, may well not be a bad thing, certain levels of etiquette go far too far and I particularly enjoyed eating with my right hand in India, but…I wished this bloke would shut the _____ ___.

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Monday, 27 April 2009

An Impression of the West from an Image of the East

I have decided to include this small exchange that I had between Pugster and Owltucan, two commentators on Mark’s China Blog, regarding foreign press coverage of China. These two had a long exchange that I ended up briefly adding to. I have included it for two reasons, the first, because I recently wrote a note here about 'Reckless and Lazy Western Journalism', and this continues on from that. Secondly, Owltucan made some good points that I would like to remember. Mark’s post was itself inspired by Timothy Garton Ash’s interesting article: ‘Lack of News about China has nothing to do with Bias’.

My first note:

I, in essence, agree with your very first comment Pugster, that Western News Agencies are too quick to give a lot of China related news a Communist Party, Authoritarian, Military twist. Although, as Mark points out, there are a plethora of stories that do not take that route, there are still too many that seemingly do so, and without justification. Owltucan offers the reasoning behind it, in his third post, where he mentions Fox News and how they offer the sensationalist and nationalistic headlines and stories that the masses desire.

My concern is that these stories actually crop up across the media spectrum and prejudice an audience, quite often without justification, that I find very dis-heartening and dangerous. OT goes on to say: ‘Interesting stories sell newspapers. To create an interesting story, you usually have to find bad, surprising news. People are not interested in hearing normal positive news. When you watch TV in China or read newspapers you will often hear/read things like "Hu Jintao visited Mexico and confirmed that China has good relations with Mexico and will work together with Mexico." You never hear this kind of things in western news because... it is not news. No one is interested in hearing about the normal workings of government.’

First, Pugster is a little too quick to make sweeping generalizations, I understand that, and OT has attempted to give him a more nuanced perspective.
However, I do not believe that the calling from the market-what the people want- is justification for the biased, mis-leading, often prejudicial media that can exist in the West. OT, I know you are not saying it is. In that sense, one mis-leading story is too many, and Pugster and others like him, or her, have every justification to get a little irate, and it is actually understandable why they sometimes go a little far in their interpretation. This mere fact that it can make people feel so violated is an indictment of our own media and more importantly society, and in my opinion is very worrying. Particularly so, with regard to China’s growing role in the world and many of our own nations growing weakness, and the consequential interpretation of these news stories in the minds of the masses. (I am fully aware that terms such as the West, Western or the masses have no subtlety as terms but they will do for now)

Secondly, with regard to OT’s view that good news is not news, again what a terribly sad indictment of our societies, if only negative, sensational, critical issues are news. I was chatting with a friend here in China recently and we were discussing how much we both enjoyed the simplicity, the innocence and the heartfelt honesty, whether of word or emotion, of many Chinese people. I absolutely disagree that good news is not news, it is just not true, even if it is in Britain or America, and even if news media outlets do of course need to keep tabs on the government. As you also added OT: ‘it is important for us to all realize that we know less than we think we know. Only then can we work hard to understand other people and their points of view.’

I think we, the Western we, have got to go a lot further in realizing we know less than we think we know. As our societies fragment ever further, with less and less funding going to places that desperately need it and with other countries around the world becoming more and more competitive, I believe our media and our governments need to think a little bit more carefully and thoughtfully about how they regulate each other, and thus our societies, and our societies views of themselves and of the ‘other’.

Owltucan’s response:

NFXA, you are right - UNFAIR negative news coverage of China IS an indictment of our society. Therefore we have to carefully analyse what we think of our system - is it a good system? Why do these things happen? Is there some simple way we can solve this problem? I would argue that while the 'Western' system is by no means perfect, it is the best system that has been found so far.

If we want a free press and all the enormous benefits that go with it, we have to accept that there will sometimes be problems such as unfair reporting. We can work to change this through advocacy campaigns, organisations which work for greater understanding between countries, media monitoring organisations, etc., but to advocate for greater government control of the media is VERY dangerous. Furthermore, it isn't clear how further government regulation of the media would lead to an improvement in the situation. How do you know that the government wants to paint a positive view of China? It is often in a government's interest to direct its citizens' anger away from itself and towards other countries. Indeed, contrary to what Pugster has said, Chinese media regularly paints a biased and unfair picture of other countries. We see thousands of stories detailing the negative aspects of democracy for example, but rarely do we see an example of how it has solved a problem - so much for Chinese media only reporting good news.

To address NFXA's next point, I also agree that good news is news. However, what I'm saying is that a very useful role of the media is to uncover surprising, 'new' things, not to just give a running commentary on the mundane workings of government (such as my Mexican leaders example). I would argue that surprising/new positive news is reported in the western media, although I would say that the most USEFUL role of a free press is to monitor government and uncover the negative things which people in government try to do. I also fully agree that we need to change the ways we consider our own societies and other societies, but it's easy to say this. Of course this is important and a positive thing. But how do you actually propose we do this? To say government needs to provide more regulation is a bit of a hazy solution. If you're saying government needs to actively control what gets reported in the media then I don't think I can agree with you, for the reasons set out above. If that's not what you're saying, then what are you suggesting?

My final comment:

Owltucan, I am no expert on the western media and its regulatory bodies, though I do not accept that mis-representative reporting should be a natural by-product of a free press. But anyway, that is a point for those with greater knowledge and insight into the regulatory bodies involved, or not. I make no excuse for a lack of any detailed answers, I have none, as I believe these issues run so deep into the fabric and nature of our society, that has, as you noted, existed for all these centuries, as well as in the psychology of the western or even human mind.

What I do find intriguing though is your continual return to the role of the media, not as a source of current affairs in all its forms but as the regulator of government. This seems a greater indictment of our societies and in this case our government, our democracy, than anything else. That the media, so outlined above by Garton-Ash, as acting so blatantly on the basis of market principles and appeals to the lowest common denominator, should be our great saviour in terms of holding the government to account. That would be quite amusing if it was not so sad. I have no answers OT but I came to China to get a sense of what is going on here, it is increasingly throwing a bright light back on my own country and its system.

The media maybe, and I say maybe, would be better to not think of itself as simply the regulator of government but as a key factor in the nature of our society. I don’t just mean one with a free press, but one with horrible atrocities that go on between people, one that has epidemic levels of ill-discipline in classrooms, a culture of shallow superstardom as motivation for a generation and a health service whose range and depth is being reduced by the week. Our media, our government, our economic system, our values are all in play here, but they are not working too well. What is the answer? I do not know. A government and a system we believe in would be a good start, and then it could do the job of governing. One of my professors at University once wrote:

“In my opinion, there is actually a profound tension, even contradiction between democracy (based on the postulate of equal power) and capitalism (which inevitably generates unequal wealth, and therefore also unequal power)...the modern Western polity, contrary to Fukuyama, actually contains a profound internal contradiction.”

Nietzsche once wrote:

“Democracy wants to create and guarantee as much independence as possible: independence of opinion, of mode of life and of employment... the three great enemies of independence... are the indignant [poor], the rich and the parties- I am speaking of democracy as something yet to come”.

Sorry to be a bit general Owltucan, but I do not have the answers. It was good to read your points of view; it has made me think the last couple of days.

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Friday, 24 April 2009

Meditation and The Last Days of my Manual Camera

Although I love to travel and have now lived in China for nearly three years, I have not actually travelled that much. I have also hardly taken any photographs here in Xi’an, where I have lived for most of that time. The first fact is not about to be rectified to any great extent, however, the second is. The link between these two points is my manual Olympus OM 10 camera, which I bought while travelling in Sri Lanka, on my way to India and not long before coming to China. Sadly, on my most recent travels I realized that a manual film camera is just no longer cost effective, with the additional price of film and developing it is just not practical these days.

Therefore, while I am now in the process of buying a Digital SLR camera, I have been looking back on the last photographs my old OM10 took. These include my limited travels in China. I have decided to add a few of my favourites here, to one, acknowledge the enjoyment I had using my old camera, and two, to kick off the inclusion here, within these notes, of China based photographs, that I am sure my new camera will increasingly be taking, particularly here in Xi’an. Also, for three, these places are actually quite good places to visit. These pictures were taken in Xi’he, Gansu (1-9), Langmusi, Sichuan (10-11), Jiuzhaigou, Sichuan (12-14), Bamboo Forest, Sichuan (15-16), Lijiang, Yunnan (17-19), Lugu Hu, Sichuan/Yunnan border (20) and Litang, Western Sichuan (21-25).

A number of these images include the Tibetan community, outside of Tibet, and when looking at them it reminded me of the few experiences I have had with Buddhism and meditation over the years. However, the mindfulness and attentiveness that I associated with those practices seems a million miles away from what one experiences in these communities. I have decided though to add as a backdrop to these images a brief introduction to meditation, as when I came across these methods sometime ago I found them particularly rewarding and looking at these images again, just reminded me of it. The passage is taken from a speech by Ajahn Sumedho at Amaravati Buddhist Centre in Britain:

'The word meditation is a much used word these days, covering a wide range of practices. In Buddhism it designates two kinds of meditation - one is called 'samatha', the other 'vipassana'. Samatha meditation is one of concentrating the mind on an object, rather than letting it wander off to other things. One chooses an object such as the sensation of breathing, and puts full attention on the sensations of the inhalation and exhalation. Eventually through this practice you begin to experience a calm mind - and you become tranquil because you are cutting off all other impingements that come through the senses.The objects that you use for tranquillity are tranquillising (needless to say!). If you want to have an excited mind, then go to something that is exciting, don't go to a Buddhist monastery, go to a disco! ... Excitement is easy to concentrate on, isn't it? It's so strong a vibration that it just pulls you right into it. You go to the cinema and if it is really an exciting film, you become enthralled by it. You don't have to exert any effort to watch something that is very exciting or romantic or adventurous. But if you are not used to it, watching a tranquillising object can be terribly boring.What is more boring than watching your breath if you are used to more exciting things?

So for this kind of ability, you have to arouse effort from your mind, because the breath is not interesting, not romantic, not adventurous or scintillating - it is just as it is. So you have to arouse effort because you're not getting stimulated from outside. In this meditation, you are not trying to create any image, but just to concentrate on the ordinary feeling of your body as it is right now: to sustain and hold your attention on your breathing.When you do that, the breath becomes more and more refined, and you calm down ... I know people who have prescribed samatha meditation for high blood pressure because it calms the heart. So this is tranquillity practice. You can choose different objects to concentrate on, training yourself to sustain your attention till you absorb or become one with the object. You actually feel a sense of oneness with the object you have been concentrating on, and this is what we call absorption.The other practice is 'vipassana', or 'insight meditation'. With insight meditation you are opening the mind up to everything. You are not choosing any particular object to concentrate on or absorb into, but watching in order to understand the way things are. Now what we can see about the way things are, is that all sensory experience is impermanent. Everything you see, hear, smell, taste, touch; all mental conditions - your feelings, memories and thoughts - are changing conditions of the mind, which arise and pass away.In vipassana, we take this characteristic of impermanence (or change) as a way of looking at all sensory experience that we can observe while sitting here.This is not just a philosophical attitude or a belief in a particular Buddhist theory: impermanence is to be insightfully known by opening the mind to watch, and being aware of the way things are.It's not a matter of analysing things by assuming that things should be a certain way and, when they aren't, then trying to figure out why things are not the way we think they should be.With insight practice, we are not trying to analyse ourselves or even trying to change anything to fit our desires. In this practice we just patiently observe that whatever arises passes away, whether it is mental or physical.So this includes the sense organs themselves, the object of the senses, and the consciousness that arises with their contact.There are also mental conditions of liking or disliking what we see, smell, taste, feel or touch; the names we give them; and the ideas, words and concepts we create around sensory experience. Much of our life is based on wrong assumptions made through not understanding and not really investigating the way anything is. So life for one who isn't awake and aware tends to become depressing or bewildering, especially when disappointments or tragedies occur. Then one becomes overwhelmed because one has not observed the way things are.In Buddhist terms we use the word Dhamma, or Dharma, which means 'the way it is', 'the natural laws'. When we observe and 'practise the Dhamma', we open our mind to the way things are. In this way we are no longer blindly reacting to the sensory experience, but understanding it, and through that comprehension beginning to let go of it. We begin to free ourselves from just being overwhelmed or blinded and deluded by the appearance of things. Now to be aware and awake is not a matter of becoming that way, but of being that way. So we observe the way it is right now, rather than doing something now to become aware in the future. We observe the body as it is, sitting here. It all belongs to nature, doesn't it? The human body belongs to the earth, it needs to be sustained by the things that come out of the earth. You cannot live on just air or try to import food from Mars and Venus. You have to eat the things that live and grow on this Earth. When the body dies, it goes back to the earth, it rots and decays and becomes one with the earth again.It follows the laws of nature, of creation and destruction, of being born and then dying. Anything that is born doesn't stay permanently in one state, it grows up, gets old and then dies. All things in nature, even the universe itself, have their spans of existence, birth and death, beginning and ending. All that we perceive and can conceive of is change; it is impermanent. So it can never permanently satisfy you.In Dhamma practice, we also observe this unsatisfactoriness of sensory experience. Now just note in your own life that when you expect to be satisfied from sensory objects or experiences you can only be temporarily satisfied, gratified maybe, momentarily happy - and then it changes. This is because there is no point in sensory consciousness that has a permanent quality or essence. So the sense experience is always a changing one, and out of ignorance and not understanding, we tend to expect a lot from it. We tend to demand, hope and create all kinds of things, only to feel terribly disappointed, despairing, sorrowful and frightened. Those very expectations and hopes take us to despair, anguish, sorrow and grief, lamentation, old age, sickness and death.'

The article continues here.

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Friday, 17 April 2009

Your Average Xi'an Morning!

I woke slowly and with sleep still in my eyes peered out through our new 'dust-net'. I saw that an inch-thick layer of lunar-like dust had again settled and completely covered the bedroom. I carefully rose from the bed, shaking a thin layer of dust from my hair that troublingly had managed to find a path inside the net. My girlfriend still lay sleeping peacefully.

I padded through into the living room, leaving a clearing trail of footprints behind me as I went. While quickly realizing, as I slipped headlong into a three foot high pile of dust, that I had left the window open overnight. We recently, however, installed a nifty new particle-vacuum, patented here in Xi’an’s very own High Tech Zone, which I have had positioned beneath the air-conditioner on the wall. I placed the blue mask, that came with it, over my mouth and turned it on.

It is a quite wonderful contraption, quietly going about its duties, or rather, duty: the silent and speedy removal of these pesky white particles, as I watch. I am not entirely sure how it works, though water has something to do with it, but it does manage to distinguish the dust from all the other bits and pieces scattered around the house. Within moments, it has syphoned the house clear. I had not enquired, nor had I wished to, about where all this stuff goes, but I did hear that it is trucked up to Taiyuan in Shanxi, loaded onto transporter spacecraft and, as part of China’s New Greener Earth Space Programme, exported to the moon. But, I don't really know.

I was no sooner out of the flat and off to work when I found myself falling footlong into a huge hole in the road: “That wasn’t there yesterday,” I thought to myself as I descended into the pit. Upon landing and while scrambling to my feet, I looked up, to see a couple of friendly Chinese faces peering down at me, they muttered the comforting words “Lao Wai” (foreigner), before continuing on their way.

Once I had clambered out and continued on, I happily consoled myself with the fact that this huge hole outside my home was probably part of Xi’an’s subway construction process, now, so I am also told, visible from space. I hope that in time I may well be allowed a more sedate way of descending into the same place, an electric escalator carrying me from the entrance of my apartment to the underground platform below.

This thought made me think of those moving walkway things that you get in airports, so good for a bit of "I am a world traveler with countries to go and people to see" kind of posturing. I like those things. To think we could have one here on Yang Jia Cun was quite a great thought and left me feeling rather positive about the day ahead.

When I got to the crossroads and after looking left and right, I calmly approached the mass of entwined vehicles in front of me. Nonchalantly, I clambered over the bonnet of the first car, squeezed agilely in front of a bus, stepped over the rear saddle of an electric moped, which was sandwiched between two taxis, apologizing as I did so, ducked under an open lorry door and made it to the other side of the road. I turned, momentarily, to observe again the interwoven pattern of vehicles at the junction of my street, before continuing on my way to work.

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Tuesday, 14 April 2009

Confucius Notations and the Slow Learning of Chinese

This extract I first discovered some time ago but rediscovered recently, it is taken from the Confucius text Centrality and Commonality: An Essay on Chung- Yung (the Doctrine of the Mean) and has served me as a grounding, though motivating force in my fluctuating pursuit of mastering, to some degree or another, the Chinese language. I also find that it manifests nicely in the common Chinese phrase, 慢慢来 (man4 man4 lai2), which means slowly, slowly come; offering a usefully patient perspective to an otherwise achingly slow progression, whether in terms of Chinese language learning, or generally as a human being in life. (I found the extract again here on pages 73-74)

‘Study it [the way to be sincere] extensively, inquire into it accurately, think over it carefully, sift it clearly, and practice it earnestly. When there is anything not yet studied, or studied but not yet understood, do not give up. When there is any question not yet asked, or asked but its answer not yet known, do not give up. When there is anything not yet thought over, or thought over but not yet apprehended, do not give up. If another [person] succeeds by one effort, I will use a hundred efforts. If another [person] succeeds by ten efforts, I will use a thousand efforts. If one really follows this course, though stupid, he will surely become intelligent, and though weak, will surely become strong’. [XX: 19-21]

I once had a Sociology teacher that pointed out that about 90% of humans have about the same level of intelligence, but their social circumstance dictates to what degree they have utilised it. The final 10% are split into two groups, the ones who have finely honed mental capacities in one field of brain activity or another; and those that have identifiable learning difficulties.

Empirically, I do not know how accurate those statistics are, but from a general perspective of living in life and meeting a multitude of different people, it seems about right to me. Consequently, it appears a humbling and chastising fact to be aware of, a two fold issue, involving good and bad luck on the one hand and motivation and excuse on the other.

I am of course aware of the many factors that dictate to us our being, but it does seem positive to try to realize that we still can be what we make of ourselves. Sometimes, maybe, we just have to adapt the context from which we judge ourselves, not always that easy, but, as Kong3 Fu1 Zi3 (Confucius) may never have said, doable.

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Friday, 10 April 2009

The Xi'anese and the Western Mind

I was planning to write a note here not just about Xi’an but more importantly, about the Xi’anese, as it is really the life of the people here that makes it a great place to live. I will however begin with a less than glorious portrayal of a Xi’anese person I came across during the first few months of being here. At the time, it was a little frustrating, verging on amazing though subsequently quite amusing; consequently the story has stuck with me.

I was with my girlfriend, lost in one of these vast furniture warehouses they have here in Xi’an. For those that do not know, here in China if you wish to buy a light or an oven or some paint or a valve or a sink or a sofa, you do not just go down to your local shop or even local multi-store. Here, you end up either on a street full of 50 lights shops or within a huge mall full of 50 light shops. This often means that, even if you were excited about buying the light in the first place, you certainly aren’t in the end, though it may still look good back in the home. (As an aside- B&Q, an English Home Improvement Multi-Store that has had a presence in China for over a decade, has just announced it is closing a third of its stores)

To continue, my girlfriend and I found ourselves lost, somehow, traversing the staff stairwell, up and down, a little in confusion, until we stumbled into the bright light of what was a supermarket, full of your everyday necessities; quite normal. That was, until a hand roughly rested on my shoulder and I turned to find a young security guard looking angrily at the two of us and shouting something, something that at that point for me was utterly incomprehensible. Even with the hindsight of understanding, I would still look upon his words as incomprehensible. He was telling us that we could not enter the supermarket from that particular entrance, as it was for the staff only. We explained that we were lost and had stumbled unwittingly upon it. He repeated that we could not enter the supermarket that way.

We then pointed out that we understood, but that we were now in the supermarket, with all the other people, and we wouldn’t do it again. He repeated his words. I, now a little annoyed, explained to him, as clearly as an annoyed lao3 wai4 (foreigner) can with very little Chinese, that we are now in the supermarket, it is no longer important how we got there, and that we would endeavour to leave through the appropriate exit. He responded with the words: “You cannot come into the supermarket this way”. This was now becoming an issue and we were quickly becoming the centre of attention. So, to appease all, I punched him flat on the ground…No I didn’t, I, listening to my girlfriend, who I must say had of course born the brunt of his frustration and was becoming a little embarrassed by all the fuss, respectfully retreated back the way we had come, muttering this and that about the Chinese under my breath, as I went.

It has just struck me that although I am often critical of the western media being particularly negative, when I am faced here with giving an example of life and the people in Xi’an I too have chosen a less than glorious example. I like the people here and very much enjoy living amongst them, but it is interesting that my mind first moved to a negative, though amusing, portrayal of a Xi’anese person and, what at the time was a frustrating experience. I will correct that in future notes. We cannot after all have the Chinese being tagged, on a whim, by a western mind, now can we?

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Friday, 3 April 2009

It Is Not Just The Summer Heat That Lurks Ominously Under The Surface

Two weeks ago, we experienced temperatures touching into the 80’s and I felt the sense of foreboding, usually felt in May, that accompanies thoughts of the sweltering hot summer months here in Xi'an. Summers here are not what they are back in the lush green Isle of England and, though still a relatively young and healthy chap, I have, during them, found myself subconsciously acting as a rather efficient sweat producing machine. Here I was in March already concerned about what lay ahead.

However, only a few days later and with talk swirling around about dust clouds drifting off the Gobi desert, the skies darkened and everyone one came across had some kind of sinus problem to sneeze about. The pollution here is something, I believe, you get used to, but every now and again it comes up and hits you. Temperatures during the rest of the week steadily decreased and by the weekend, this was reminiscent of being back in Britain, it was raining.

Now, it doesn’t often rain, so it is sometimes quite pleasant to close the windows and curtains to the local street vendors cries and the murderous noise emanating from the newly fabricated building, just yards from my home, that now houses a KTV (karaoke) studio, and to retreat inside. Not to mention being happy to escape from the weekend masses that gather ten deep at bus stops and who jostle for position on street corners, hoping to stand out in some way from the crowd when the next taxi driver passes by, red light lit. There are also all the children in bookshops and the husbands joining wives in coffee shops, giving these places an unusual sense of busyness, that can be happily avoided.

However, the days of sunshine had managed to fool the poor shrubs and trees into offering us a branch or two of fresh buds and even a few light coloured petals in places. They say here in Xi’an that we really only have two seasons Winter and Summer, as Spring and Autumn are dashed through so quickly we are always seemingly being faced with the harshness of freezing winter, or baking summer temperatures.

I am not sure how true that is, as the last couple of years, we have had reasonably enjoyable autumnal evenings and a plentitude of spring mornings. However, these last few weeks the poor plants have been left confused and battered by the onset of summer and an almost immediate return to winter. We may have trouble enough dealing with this situation, the old plants, without the prize of consciousness and the consequential awareness of circumstance that it entails, must be pretty confused indeed.

However, to see the blossom on a sunny day after the bleakness of a polluted Xi’an winter is quite something, but to see the fresh growth of spring being splattered and dashed by the rain and wind is less uplifting indeed. Tomorrow, though, is another day here in Xi’an.

Finally, with reference to life on the playground this week, I have, as my Chinese has improved, begun to talk a little more with the kids at the various schools I teach at, this week a new lad came over and introduced himself to me. He was probably about grade 3 or 4, so about 10 or 11, he didn't seem a particular earnest young boy, just your average kid running about like all the others and then throwing out a couple of questions in my direction, as he passed by on the way back to class. However, his second question, after asking where I was from, was whether Britain would help China or Japan when they have a fight. I diplomatically shrugged my shoulders and replied that I was not entirely sure. In China, you quite quickly gain the sense of the loathing for Japan that exists not simply under the surface, and get used to it, but occasionally, just like the situation above, you observe the odd circumstance that concerns you.

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