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Drowning in Progress

Floating gently down the Yangtze River with a group of Chinese tourists in a desolate but scenic region of Hubei province, I almost forgot what I’d come for. But all at once the rolling hills parted and the mist lifted – and right before me stood the largest, ugliest human construct I had ever laid eyes on.

Stretching 7,661 feet long and standing 607 feet tall, the Three Gorges Dam is the largest power station in the world with a generation capacity of 22,500 megawatts, equivalent to the capacity of over a dozen nuclear plants. The dam is a testament to the emergence of China as a world power, serving as a demonstration of the country’s vision and technological prowess. It fits snugly between two small hills on the banks of the Yangtze – a giant eyesore of steel and concrete in an otherwise picturesque landscape.

A colossal project whose construction spanned two decades, the dam cost less than anticipated and began operation without issue. For tens of millions of Chinese in the nine provinces the dam services, the power station provides cheap, reliable electricity that allows businesses to flourish and families to live comfortably. In contrast to many other developing nations, China is not constrained by power shortages – a tribute to the government’s advance planning. More navigable shipping routes that resulted from the deepening of up-river areas have bolstered regional economic development, and the project has also reduced the risk of floods that could kills tens of thousands.

But improvements in living standards have come at a cost. The dam ravaged the regional ecosystem. Dozens of fish and marine animals have become threatened after the dam’s construction altered water temperatures and flow regime. Among those was the Baiji, a species of dolphin found only in the Yangtze River, which was traditionally revered as “The Goddess of the Yangtze.” In 2006, the same year that construction on the dam was completed, the species was declared “functionally extinct.”

“The water has risen so high that much of the natural scenery is now underwater,” said our tour guide as the boat floated through the three gorges, once a magnificent natural wonder now eclipsed in fame by its namesake dam. Our guide seemed to be lamenting, but then she caught herself and proceeded to mechanically list off all the ways in which the government has devoted time, effort, and resources to preserving regional wildlife. Even the goal of reigning in natural disasters by stopping floods may have had a price: there are whispers that the dam – and the weight of the water behind it – may be to blame for the devastating earthquake that killed so many people in Sichuan province in 2008.

But tour guides and wildlife specialists weren’t the only ones grumbling over the dam project. An estimated 1.3 million people were forced to relocate to make way for the rising waters created by the dam. That population included two entire cities, and countless towns and farm villages. Sure, the people were supposedly “compensated,” but can one really compensate for the loss of a home, a village, a way of life? As I looked out across the endless expanse of water behind the dam, I imagined the buildings that once stood there. I thought of the towns that had been obliterated for the greater good, and the peasants whose dreams had drowned with their farms. I thought of the people whose lives had forever changed course with the river.

And that’s when I met Ming.

A short man in his 50s with stubbly, graying hair and tough, lean arms, Ming delighted in my Chinese and our shared name (my Chinese given name is also Ming). He wore a fraying black coat and dress shoes, and was cheery, even ebullient.

“I come from Guangxi province,” Ming said in thickly accented Mandarin. “I grew up as a farmer, but then I became a factory worker. I’ve worked in the factory for over 20 years.”

As Ming told me his story, how he was born into the rural peasantry, how he got a job in the city as part of the 90s economic boom, how he’d recently retired, and how he was now traveling across China, seeing sights and places and people he’d never dreamed of in his bucolic home village, I was acutely aware that the amelioration of his life circumstances was the direct result of aggressive government economic policies like the dam project he was now visiting.

“So what is America like?” Ming turned to me. I paused uneasily.

“It’s … different.”

“It’s better, you mean. A better life.”

If Ming noticed my uneasiness, it didn’t deter him from continuing the line of questioning. He was ravenous for knowledge of America. How much did a meal cost? What was the average salary? What were living standards like? Each time I tried to equivocate. I didn’t want to offend him with my life of comfort back home.

Finally, Ming sighed. “It must be wonderful to live in America,” he said wistfully.

And suddenly I felt guilty. Guilty for having what others did not; guilty for condemning a country for wanting what I already had. Of course Ming must be thankful for all the dam has done, yet his only crime is wanting a better life. Is that a crime at all?

And that’s what makes China so dizzyingly complex. The beneficiaries of the brutal repression that paves the way for economic expansion are not only cutthroat tycoons and corrupt officials – they are also everyday, ordinary citizens. Farmers like Ming, who now live better lives because of decisions made by Beijing autocrats.

Surrounded by the serenity of the Yangtze, it was hard to fathom the turmoil that the creation of this edifice had inflicted on the communities that had once lived where the reservoir now lay. Yet it was equally hard to appreciate the incredible potential for this wall of concrete to help propel a nation out of poverty and into prosperity.

I watched as the river flowed into the dam. I imagined the giant turbines spinning continuously beneath my feet. I listened to the water roar as it poured out of the dam and back into the river. And the river flowed, and the turbines spun, and the water roared.


Hailing Cabs With Chinese Characteristics

It was 7:30 am as we stepped out from Beijing station, but any lingering fatigue from the 16 hour train ride was immediately zapped by the piercing cold. We hurriedly made our way across the snow-covered square to the taxi stand which, to our dismay, was burgeoning with travelers but bereft of taxis.

“If you wait in that line, it’ll be two hours before you get a taxi,” said a female voice with a thick Beijing accent, adding “r to the end of every word. I turned to face a tall, thin Chinese woman. Her tucked-in uniform and air of confidence evoked authority. “Where do you want to go?”

“Tsinghua University,” I said. “Can you take us there?”

“I can get you a driver that will for 100 kuai plus the meter.”

I turned back to Jacob and Ben. “What do you think?” I asked in English.

“I just need to get back in time for class,” said Ben.

“It’s cooold,” murmured Jacob. He had a point. Perhaps it was because we were so anxious to escape the cold that we overlooked the strange nature of her proposal. Most drivers will take you places either by the meter or for a fixed price; rarely are the two combined.

“Meter plus 20 kuai,” I said to the woman.

“Meter plus 70,” came the reply.

“40,” I said.

“Fine. But I need the 40 kuai now, before you get in the car.”

There were three of us, and there was one of her. I handed over the money.

She hopped over the metal railing, meant to ensure that people lined up for taxis in an orderly fashion, and she motioned for us to follow. She walked about 10 yards up the street from the taxi stand and waved at the oncoming cabs. A taxi pulled over.

“Get in!” She said, opening the cab door and tossing our bags inside.

“But this isn’t your driver,” I said.

A commotion stirred at the taxi line as indignant travelers realized they were being punished for their patience. Meanwhile, the empty taxis behind started honking.

“Quickly!” She said, practically shoving us inside.


Bang! The door slammed shut. As the taxi lurched forward, she plastered on a smile and waved a sarcastic goodbye. With a click, the meter turned on. The driver turned to us. “Where to?” And it was over.

We’d just paid a woman 40 kuai to cut the line and hail a cab.

I’d been swindled by a sharp-witted, uneducated woman at a train station in China. There was something ludicrous about it; and something magical, too. After months in China, after thinking I was familiar with all the devious tricks of the trade, after tackling the language that had once seemed so difficult and befriending people who had once seemed so foreign, it was at once refreshing and liberating to know that I’m still vulnerable. My learning is not yet done.

Riding in that cab back to Tsinghua, I wondered at that woman’s daring. That woman cheated me not because she was evil but because she was clever; because she realized that in a country where laws are liquid and cash is too, boldness pays even if it sometimes means bending rules that weren’t written in stone to begin with. Though China’s institutions are getting more orderly and honest, there are still too many hou men, or “back doors” to doing business and politics. Hence the Guangdong farmer who complained to me of local elections being bought (20 to 30 kuai per vote); the Beijing poker bar that gets around anti-gambling laws by having clients gamble refundable “points;” the friend applying to study in America, whose father gave the principal a “gift” to have his son’s grades changed to straight A’s. China’s entrepreneurial spirit is tempered only by the corruption that it engenders. Though most people queue up to get a taxi, there are still those who find it profitable to cut the line.

Perhaps there’s nothing unusual about cheating, trickery, or corruption in a developing country (or even in a developed one, for that matter, though perhaps the schemes become more intricate). But China is learning – after all, you can only be tricked so much before you learn to catch the tricksters. Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me. So thank you, swindler at the Beijing train station, for you taught me a valuable lesson.

But next time, I’ll hail my own cab.

Pollution, Education, and More

My alarm went off at 6:55AM, uninvitingly piercing through my restless four-hour slumber. But I didn’t care. It was game day for the Tsinghua Football Team.

I looked out the window, as I reached to put on my Crocs to take a quick shower. I was shocked by what I saw—or perhaps, in better words, by what I didn’t see. The infamous smog had masked all of the surrounding buildings.

In order to alert foreigners of the health risks of going outside, The US Embassy tweets the amount of pollution hourly at its location in the Beijing. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, anything about from 150-200 PM2.5 is considered “Unhealthy”, with warnings that “everyone should reduce prolonged or heavy exertion.” 250 is considered “Very Unhealthy”, and 300 and above is considered “Hazardous”. The pollution, when I woke up, was at 330, and rising.

Forced with a tough decision of whether or not to play, I quickly called up my friend Jingwen.

            “What’s the call?” I asked.

            He looked outside. “Dude, I can’t even see 10 meters in front of my building.”

Even though we had stayed in the night before, skipping a citywide Halloween party, we both knew we could not play. Missing both of us, our team was down two players for its game.

Unsurprisingly, the rest of our team, all Chinese, had no problem or concern about playing in the very unhealthy pollution-filled city. In fact, neither did the other Chinese players on the other seven university teams in our division. When the game ended, I called a player on our team to ask if people here minded exercising in the pollution and recognized its negative effects. I also inquired about the effectiveness of the masks that people often wear around the city to limit the effect of pollution. His answer surprised me.

“We know exactly what it does to you,” he said. “But we don’t care. We’re used to it. And those masks are to stop sickness, I think. Not pollution.”

I immediately knew where he was coming from. When one lives in the same place for an extended period of time, he or she has to learn to confront and deal with the issues encountered on a daily basis to live a fulfilling life. It’s an important lesson that has universal relevance, regardless of the magnitude of the daily challenge. Whether someone lives in a bad neighborhood, third world country, or pollution-ridden city, there is no benefit of living in fear. Sometimes it’s easy to forget how fortunate many of us are that we don’t face problems as far reaching as these. Jingwen and I have vowed to play in our game tomorrow—as long as the visibility is good enough to see the ball.

Playing basketball in the gym the other day with some Chinese students, I decided to test out my language skills and try to speak with them. One was on the school basketball team’s practice squad. He said he was a graduate student, but he looked to be my age. I wasn’t sure if I misinterpreted what he was saying, so I switched to English to understand his situation. To my surprise, I was right; the kid was only 19, yet he had graduated from Tsinghua in the spring, starting at one of the most prestigious universities in China at the age of 15. But he wasn’t alone. He told me stories of many of his peers and classmates, many of whom started studying there at the age of 13 or 14.

While there are a lot of similarities between the Chinese and American education systems, they consist of universal qualities of education: dedicated teachers, high expectations of student participation and effort, among other expected characteristics. However, the distinctions of the Chinese system are intriguing because they are so different and completely unimaginable from the American perspective.

From what I have observed, one major difference is the focus on student health. Despite incredibly expectations and the unthinkable amount of work that is assigned, all electricity in Chinese undergraduate dorms shuts off at 11:00PM.

Let’s think about this for a second. First, no Internet. No ability to email or interact through social networks. On a much more fundamental level, you can’t turn the lights on. You can’t charge your electronics. You can’t take a shower.

What does this mean? Well, once 11:00PM hits, you pretty much have to be in bed. Sure, students find ways around this rule by using other sources of electricity. After all, when you get six hours of work everyday, sometimes you need it. Regardless, the university’s attitude towards preserving sleep is both dictatorial and effective.

One difference that is perhaps more often discussed in America is the college admissions process. In China, the only thing that determines admission to a top university in China is your Gaokao score, which is in simple terms the Chinese equivalent to the SAT. When applying to colleges, you can only select one college to apply to from the three levels of universities. The colleges, at least in the top tier, then go through the Gaokao scores of all of their applicants, making a cut off at the score number where they can enroll a full class.

This means that when applying as someone with a decent score, you are taking a huge gamble when it comes to choosing your top tier college. If you choose one of the two best universities, Tsinghua or Beijing University, and your score is too low, you’re stuck with a tier two college. At the same time, you could simply choose a less prestigious tier one school; yet, this could turn out to haunt you if you find out your score would have actually been high enough for your real first choice school. Surprisingly, if your score isn’t high enough, you can pay approximately six times the cost of tuition and still enroll in your first choice college.

In a way, one might not think this is too different from the US system. The SAT, while perhaps not the sole decider, plays a huge role in our admissions process. You also can only choose one school to apply to early decision, and if denied admission often have to settle for a school not as “prestigious” as you may have hoped. Additionally, it is also an inevitable fact that a select number of students receive admission for reasons other than merit, such as from athletics or family influence.

But, in fact, the Gaokao is quite different from our standardized testing. For one, all of high school in China is spent preparing for the test. A few years back, my high school eliminated its AP program, citing that the approach of teaching towards the test takes away from the learning experience. While it’s easy to dismiss spending four years to teach to one test as an efficient way to educate teenagers, I think, after further evaluation, the method holds some value.

In China, due to the overpopulation, it would be impractical to use the same admissions process as that of the US. Having students apply to a large amount of schools in China would flood admissions departments beyond belief, leaving them with way too many essays and applications to read. Given the circumstances, I think teaching to the test, and having one test be the be-all-end-all is an efficient method. Thinking rationally, having students prepare for a test for four years is really testing their work ethic and endurance. They know what it takes to succeed; it comes down to their willingness to put the work in to do well. Further, because of the many, many students in China, the top scorers are not just hard workers, but also incredibly intelligent and insightful.  

In a way, isn’t hard work and intelligence the criteria from which colleges should be selecting students? Without the craze of cluttering a resume filled with extracurriculars that “look good”, students can also pursue extracurricular pursuits they enjoy without worrying if colleges will regard them highly or not. In my experience reading resumes and essays in my internship at a local college consulting company, this allows students to be exponentially more involved in things they enjoy, and as a result, they achieve tremendous success in their chosen fields outside of the classroom. The one test system also lessens competitiveness in the high school classroom, as you aren’t fighting with your classmates to earn the highest grades in every class.

With a year’s tuition at Tsinghua under $1,000USD, there is certainly a high reward of acceptance to this renowned university. And although the path to get here is determined by success on one test, the side effects of eliminating other variables in the admissions process enables students to work without a feeling of competition and lets them dedicate their free time to the activities that make them happy, without the worry of their significance. Would a similar approach work in the US? Perhaps not. But it’s certainly worth a discussion.


What do you think of the current US college admissions process? Would changes that incorporate some of China’s methods make it more fair or simplify the process too much?

Chengdu Panda Base

Everyone loves pandas. Maybe it was because you had that picture book about animals when you were a child and the panda was the cutest animal in it. Perhaps it was because you had that panda stuffed animal when you were six. Whatever the reason, the common perception of a panda is a soft, cute, cuddly, spotted, real life teddy bear, and it’s not too far from the truth.

But stop and think for a second. You haven’t ever seen one, have you? Where in the world do they possibly live? In fact, in the world today, there are less than 1,000 giant pandas, or the black and white pandas you know and love. 80% of these giant pandas are concentrated in Sichuan, China.  On our recent trip to Chengdu, a city within Sichuan, Geoffrey and I set out to find and observe these giant pandas and see if they were really as adorable as we had been led to believe.

“Make sure you take a bunch of pictures. As fast as you can please. Oh and take some video, too.”

The man speaking to me was from California, a FedEx pilot who had a few days to spend in China before heading back to the US. The place was the Chengdu Panda Breeding and Research Center, and the time frame to complete the task was about a minute, if the man working the line felt generous.

“Alright sir, please step up,” he said to the pilot.

And just like my career as a professional photographer had started. Well, not quite. But in that minute, I must have taken pictures from every angle of my new friend and this nonchalant, blasé beast, who found it much more interesting to lick the honey off of his paw than to look towards the camera. After a mere 60 seconds, it was my turn, and just 60 seconds after that, I was handed a t-shirt, a donation certificate, and an informational video, and was sent on my way.

Don’t get me wrong; spending time sitting with and petting a panda might perhaps be the coolest thing I’ve ever done. But walking out of the Sunshine Nursery looking at the long line of people about to do the same, I began to wonder what the fascination about pandas really was. Why did people like the pilot, who could have gone anywhere in China, fly to Chengdu to give a large donation to sit with a panda for one minute? Why did I do the same?

I thought about it for a while. And then I realized.

Giant pandas need to eat about 80 pounds of bamboo every day just to survive. This means they spend about half of their day eating. Their digestive system also is not very efficient, so a lot of the nutrients they need often do not get to the right places. Consequently, it is quite hard for a panda to have enough food to survive, let alone be able to process this food correctly and attain all of the necessary nutrients.

But the panda is one of the most beautiful animals in the world, and it needs our help to survive. Every person’s donation goes directly to this cause: maintaining the habitat for these animals and providing them with the materials to survive and reproduce. Without people like the pilot, or other visitors, there would be no Chengdu Panda Base, and maybe even no pandas.

And then I looked at a picture of me with the panda, one of many the pilot snapped for me as he frantically scrambled around during my one minute of fame. I saw the big smile spread across my face, one that refused to come off for a good half hour even after my time with the panda. I immediately knew I had made the right decision.


The Big Buddha Community

Deep in Sichuan province, in the town of Leshan, Jacob and I stood with several hundred Chinese on a plateau overlooking the tip of his head. Then we proceeded in a series of switchbacks beside his right earlobe. I inched along the trail, rounded a bend – and gasped. Before me, sitting peacefully in his mountain abode, was the largest human being I had ever seen.

Granted, he was a statue. But still. At 233 feet tall, this giant Buddha is enough to make anyone feel a little small and inadequate.


The Grand Buddha of Leshan stands 233 feet tall

No doubt that was largely the intent. Legend has it that a monk named Haitong conceived the project in the 8th century as way of pacifying the turbulent waters that often led to shipwrecks in the nearby river. Though Haitong labored fervently on the project, he did not live to see his ambitious endeavor completed some 90 years later.

I was struck by the vision of a man willing to devote his life to a project he would likely not live to see completed. It is someone who doesn’t care about recognition, glory, or fame, at least in this life. It is someone who is dedicated to a cause larger than himself. Indeed, Haitong’s story is filled with accounts of his rectitude and devotion – when a greedy local official threatened to siphon off funds from the project, Haitong gouged out his own eye to demonstrate his piety and sincerity. As you stare up past toes about as large as you into the face of this serene, timeless Buddha, Haitong’s message of the insignificance of the individual is one that resonates.


The right foot of the Grand Buddha of Leshan

I once had a history teacher who used to say that you could discern much about a society’s values by looking at their largest edifices. The coliseum in Rome, for example, indicates a love of entertainment for the masses; the pyramids of Egypt indicate an obsession with the afterlife.

So too does this Buddha – the tallest pre-modern statue in the world – tell us about Chinese values. Instead of dedicating their largest structure to themselves or an individual in their midst, the people here dedicated it to their common ideals of Buddhism. And Haitong’s story tells us of the selflessness that led to its creation. This structure is the product of a society that places the community above the individual.

This ancient ideal of self-sacrifice and emphasis on the community has its roots in Confucian teachings on filial piety and social harmony but echoes into modern times. It explains why some Chinese are so willing to forgo individual rights if it helps communal progress.

One student I met here was sympathetic towards the plight of Bo Xi Lai, the disgraced communist party official whose career erupted in scandal after he allegedly helped cover up his wife’s murder of a businessmen. He was also widely reported to abuse his powers to crush opposition.

“So you don’t believe all the evidence against Bo Xi Lai?” I inquired.

“Oh, I believe it, but he did so many great things for China. He helped the economy and lowered crime. Nobody cares about his abuses compared to how much he helped China.”

I guess, to some in China, it doesn’t matter if you enrich yourself and your friends through corruption, cover up a murder, and arbitrarily imprison people – as long as you increase GDP somewhere along the way. The individuals who are left behind are perhaps just casualties in the march towards communal goodness.

In front of me, the giant Buddha stares impassively into the distance. Looking into eyes just about as big as myself, I think I get a sense of where the Chinese are coming from.

Expect the Unexpected

When I first got here, I kept counting the days. I was a new inmate in this world of China; I didn’t know or understand the people around me, I didn’t recognize any of the food, and the only person whom I spoke to was my cellmate, Geoffrey.

If I actually was a prisoner those first few days, now I’m like Red in Shawshank Redemption: I got no plans to leave for a long, long time. Moving about campus integrated in a schedule that seems so cyclical, it’s amazing that with a similar routine every day I’ve been witness to so many cultural extremes and surprises.


Our first night in Shanghai

I’ve seen cafeterias crowded with students at 10pm working on research projects, only to see those same students the next day holding up China’s flag dressed in army gear marching around campus in battalions seemingly preparing for battle.

I’ve learned about people from just about every continent, background, and ethnicity, but I’ve also met New Yorkers with whom I share mutual friends.

I’ve realized that even though some smaller, unathletic looking Chinese guys can tear me apart in basketball, a sport I’ve played semi-competitively through high school, I’ve become a pitcher for the university’s baseball team, despite not having played in three years.

I’ve spent time with prominent businessmen over Beijing’s finest Peking Duck, and I’ve waited hours past midnight for a handful of 10 cent meat sticks.

I’ve received gifts from something as unique as a solar energy airplane after a business meeting to something as simple as a candy bar from a four-year-old Chinese girl after singing the ABCs with her, or a tiny orange-like fruit from a professor I met on the bullet train to Shanghai.

I’ve spent hours hailing down taxis with no success and a growling stomach. I’ve ran a quarter of a mile to chase down a homeless woman collecting water bottles to pay her for a full bottle she gave me for free. I’ve gotten ripped off more times than I can count. But through all the success and failure, I know I have yet to finish the first page in the encyclopedia of adventures that lie ahead in the coming months.

First thoughts on China

I’m speeding towards Shanghai in a sleek looking bullet train at 180 MPH. Outside, trees, cars, and brush blur together in a mush of earthy colors, like a shoddy reproduction of a slightly off-kilt impressionist painting. As I look out at the scenery whizzing by, I can’t shake the feeling that my whole time in China so far has been just like this train ride, almost too fast to digest what’s going on around me.

This summer, I decided to defer admission to college to explore my horizons on a gap year in China. Together with my high school friend Jacob, who also decided on a gap year, we are studying mandarin at Tsinghua University. Though we are based in Beijing, a sprawling metropolis of 20 million with towering skyscrapers and KFCs at every corner, the plan is to discover and explore the real China. (No, we haven’t found it yet. And no, we really have no clue what that means.)

Of course, not everything here will be easy – but hey, that’s part of the fun, right? Our first afternoon in China, we tried hailing a taxi for over an hour, because we didn’t quite realize that “there’s too much traffic” translates in English to “no, I will not waste my time going to your hotel that is 5 minutes away.” We continued walking half an hour in the wrong direction until, finally, an enterprising young cab driver decided to take the clueless foreigners to their hotel, instead of informing them that they were actually standing right next to a subway station which would take them directly to their destination in half the time for 1/10th the price.

It took Jacob and I a couple days to figure out how to use the subway system to get around

There’s definitely a learning curve here, but from my vantage point on the steep slope upwards, it will be worth the climb. We’ve been here only three weeks, but in that time I’ve eaten pig intestine boiled in blood at a stand about as sanitary as the dirt it was propped up on, endured cold showers because I couldn’t find the informative slip of paper that really did not seem that important at all when I first got it, and bought a bicycle for about the price of a cheap NY strip steak (which was about as reliable as the $4 “Rolexes” they sell at every street corner).

Of course, everything is different here, from the prevailing attitudes on the proper way to cross a street to the stars in the sky at night (I would tell you how they were different – if only I could see them through the smog). But this kind of differentness isn’t overwhelming; it’s exhilarating.

As I look back out the window again, I notice the beautiful rolling hills slide by in the distance. In fact, this train ride is perfect to enjoy the countryside vistas after all. Not too fast, not too slow. Just right.