March 12, 2010

Flushing Data

flush_game

Flowing Data via Pat’s Papers via EPCOR

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March 7, 2010

Second Spring

Or, a New Direction in China’s Digital Communications

yfd1Back in January, Nowness posted a handful of production stills to mark the premiere of Yang Fudong’s “First Spring.” Well I’ve decided that they’re interesting enough to reblog here, a month and half a late to spite the title of their original source.

yfd2

Meanwhile, the New York Times recently ran an interesting article on bloggers in Shanghai. The article suggests, in so many words, that Chinese blogs are regarded as documents of unique cultural significance, and that their archives should be dog-eared, in a manner of speaking, for their future historical value as chronicles of first- and secondhand accounts of life in the Web 2.0 era, not to mention a massive body of meta-level commentary.

“The Chinese migrant experience to Shanghai is going to be as important to the future Chinese self-image as the New York immigrant experience was to the American self-image,” he said.

But whatever its gaps and the limits, Mr. Wang said, the broad rise of blogging has meant a welcome increase in available information; and more information means a better idea of what is really happening in the city.

–Maile Cannon & Jingying Yang, “Bloggers Open an Internet Window on Shanghai,”
The New York Times, February 24, 2010

yfd3

So it’s probably safe to assume that blogging in Shanghai (or Beijing, perhaps) is at once quite similar and quite different to blogging in, say, New York: I find that Chinese blogs are somehow both more and less authentic than their Western counterparts. It probably has something to do with the Western / American dogma of freedom of speech, but I’m not quite sure how or why.

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March 2, 2010

Hasidic Holiday

This Young Hasid demonstrates a finer command of irony than most neck-tattooed hipster. Plenty more at Vice.

Plenty more at Vice.

This past Sunday was Purim, a Jewish holiday that includes costumes. If you’ve spent any amount of time in northwest Brooklyn, you’ve probably encountered pockets of Hasidic Jews, predominantly in the area between the Williamsburg Bridge and Flushing Ave (where the above photo was most certainly snapped).

It’s hard to deny the stark contrast between the deeply conservative culture of Hasidic Judaism and the flippant liberalism of the Hipster Nation, yet both subcultures, at their core, are characterized by a strong sense of exclusivity and ideology.

I’ll stop short of an intrinsically misguided attempt at insight into the sociological significance of gentrification, religion and cultural identity; honestly, I just thought that it was a funny picture, especially for those of you who have been fortunate enough to have visited the mean streets of South Williamsburg. The Young Hasid apparently has a finer command of irony than many a neck-tattooed twenty-something bartender.

[purim_por_animation_r1_c1.jpg]

Picture from a Purim ad, via Hipsters and Hassids

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December 22, 2009

RE: Cycling

As some of you may have noticed, my previous post on getting around Beijing focused on public and bipedal transportation without giving transportation by pedal its due.

Read on to find out more about these beauties...

Read on to find out more about these beauties...

Over the summer, I took to biking as my preferred mode of transportation around New York, in keeping with the trend of bicycles as a legitimate form of transportation in Gotham; specifically, the fixed-gear / single-speed subcategory of cyclists (and/or hipsters). [Full disclosure: I ride single-speed; I never said I was that cool.]

[Similarly, I must admit that I have yet to ride a bike here, be it a traditional, iconic pigeon or a noble chromoly steed. Inexpensive rentals are everywhere, but I never found it particularly practical to actually partake.]

The Famous Flying Pigeon

The Famous Flying Pigeon

First, a bit of shoptalk: the vast majority of the bikes here are cheap single-speeds with low gear ratios and even lower cool factors. Saddles and tire pressure also seem to be slightly too low. Meanwhile, geometries range from relaxed to very relaxed: top tubes tend to be parallel to the bottom tube as opposed to the ground, like a woman’s bike, and some models have no top tube at all.

Bikes of larger persuasion are sometimes outfitted with lawn-mower-sized motors that get surprisingly (and dangerously) fast; bike-wagon hybrids are invariably motorized. Scooters, on the other hand, sometimes have pedals as well, like a vestigial tailbone. In all of the above cases, the pedals are entirely superfluous: petrol-power always trumps people-power.

Finally, any contraption with fewer than four wheels is allowed to go in any direction on any street or sidewalk at any time, at their own risk. Hapless New Yorkers—bikers and non-bikers alike—often complain about reckless, holier-than-thou cyclists acting like they own the streets; in Beijing, they actually do. For all the semi-authoritarianism of the state, bikes alone seem to be exempt from legislation. Maybe the government thinks they’ll die off on their own.

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December 16, 2009

Das Racism

The New York Times online recently addressed the topic of “China’s Changing Views on Race” in its Room for Debate blog, concerning the increasing integration of Africans (and, by extension, Westerners) in mainland China. The essays nicely elucidated my heritage, though I’m somewhat skeptical about the four experts’ uniformly positive outlook on race relations in China.

Each of the panelists is a (presumably naturalized) Chinese professor in sociology or Chinese studies—in other words, the intersection of the two—at a North American university. While I am in no position to question their credentials or interests in their optimism about the motherland, I would say that these individuals are perhaps more qualified to address the opposite case: the tide of racism in the Western world. Indeed, many of the more passionate (and arguably more candid) comments come from 外国人, white and black, relating their own experience in the Middle Kingdom.

Just as I can only speculate as to whether ivory towers have rose-colored windows, I cannot attest to foreigners’ experience of victimization. As an American (and a New Yorker no less), I would certainly love to believe that I am, by definition, blind to superficial differences… but I would probably have to be legally blind in order to to embody that ideal. Insofar as I have my sense of vision, I simply can’t help but notice that foreigners—again, white or black—look so obviously foreign here, and I can’t imagine that natives are any less discriminating (in the broad sense). For better or worse, I secretly empathize with these non-Han on two counts: not only as a minority in my own homeland, but also because I too can only see Chinese culture from an outsiders’ perspective.

On the other hand, my own Chinese-American status comes with another sort of baggage: I am often mistaken for a Chinese person. I suppose that this shouldn’t surprise me, since there are no outward indicators that I was born and raised in the Land of the Free and Home of the Brave, but I have come to realize that the gap between 75% fluency and 100% quickly becomes an infinite gulf in the context of extended conversation. If I pre-emptively admit that I’m American, my modest speaking ability is patronized; if not, my modest speaking ability might be regarded as a sign of a learning disability.

It’s not the worst thing in the world—just more incentive to improve my Chinese—but I’m not too proud to admit that I occasionally envy foreign-looking foreigners, whose underdeveloped language skills are invariably pardoned: after all, it’s much easier to exceed expectations when there are none.

In other news, China has agreed to set a target for reducing greenhouse gas emissions on the condition that they verify it themselves (i.e. sans international third-party monitoring). Typical. (NYT)

I’ve also realized that I frequently comment on the Times here; I suppose it makes more sense to actually share my thoughts in the designated area for it (i.e. on their website instead of mine). Perhaps the very same fear or lack of conviction that precludes commentary from my readers paralyzes me as well…

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December 6, 2009

Habit after Humanity

or, a thinly veiled metaphor for life and death

"Quit smoking early is good for your health."

"Quit smoking early is good for your health."

A friend who recently returned from China mentioned that “Cigarettes are so cheap that it’s cheaper to smoke than not to”, such that smoking more means you somehow spend less on food and alcohol (at least in theory). My field data suggests that this is entirely possible: the cheapest Chinese cancer sticks come in at just under 5RMB a pack, or 66¢ for twenty nicotine kisses—about 1/15th of what it costs in New York. (The gross disparity is somehow justified by the fact that there are also premium cigarettes that cost up to 100RMB [$15.00] a pack; I certainly hope that these are laced with something besides status.)

As a casual fan of cigarettes—a “social smoker,” as the nomenclature goes—I must say that I was rather excited at the prospect of inexpensive smokes. At first, I remained loyal to Camel Lights (at 10RMB [$1.50] a pack)—a rarity here, as they are apparently banned for a reason that I’m afraid to research; I found some “DVTY FREE” ones at a corner store, which is most certainly some kind of potentially life-threatening trickery—but I’ve since branched out to Nanjings, Red Eagles, Double Happiness and Baisha Blue in the same price range (Baisha White is the bargain brand at 4.50RMB). Not that I can really tell the difference, just trying to buy local.

I caught my neighbor sneaking a smoke out the window

I caught my neighbor sneaking a smoke, rear-window style.

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December 3, 2009

Culture Clash

ikea-beijing1

While Americans tend to pigeonhole IKEA as the beginning and end of home furnishing for the pre- and post-grad years known as the early twenties, the rest of the world sees it from other perspectives.

ikea-hamburg2

In this corner, coming in at some 50-strong, we have the displaced and disgruntled creative elite of Hamburg’s Frappant office building, staging an ideological protest by (re?)appropriating the showroom as a functional workspace.

ikea-beijing2

And in the other corner, we have legions of workaday Chinese, young relatives and cameras in tow, drawn to the blue-and-yellow monolith purely for sport and leisure, with little to no intention of actually buying anything.

ikea-hamburg1

And thus, Sweden’s pride and joy asserts its rightful status as a symbol for capitalism, globalization and (lest we forget) affordable modern design.

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November 30, 2009

The Winter of This Content

I neglected to mention Beijing’s climate in my first two China-related posts (where it might have been remotely relevant), but I figured its worthy of at least a brief summary: it’s pretty much the same as New York. Winters see sub-zero temperatures and a fair amount of precipitation while the dog days culminate with the eighth sweltering moon; the months in-between are temperate and altogether pleasant. I should also note that it’s appreciably drier overall, receiving less than half of the total rain and snowfall of New York City, which is apparently due to a phenomenon (slash doomsday device) known as the Siberian Anticyclone. As for Beijing’s notoriously poor air quality, the New York Times has a nice summary of recent progress.

firstsnow

November 1st marked the first snow of the season

Since my previous visits typically occurred during the idyllic post-solstice months between academic years, this marks the first time that I’ve been in China during the fall/winter. I must say that the gradual temperature drop only vaguely suggests the passage of the season: I’ve come to realize that 20+ years in America have conditioned me to associate the arc of holidays from October 31st through January 1st with the impending end of the year (not to mention time off from school or work). Each of these celebrations anticipates its successor as being less-than-a-month-away, imparting that uncanny sense that time is passing too quickly and too slowly at the same time.

nightsnow

The first two have come and gone with little fanfare—Halloween here is just another excuse for debauchery; Thanksgiving is a slightly more exclusive affair, in the form of prix-fixe menus at Western restaurants; both holidays are mostly observed by Beijing’s expat community—and I can hardly believe that it’s already December. Even so, I should note that the Chinese have taken to Christmas festivities, probably in the interest of emulating Western consumer culture and staking a claim to the American Dream of commercialism. Not only were they playing (English) Christmas jingles at the supermarket the other day, but customers were humming along, butchering lyrics, and cashiers had Santa hats on.

moresnow

I remain perpetually undecided as to whether this is comforting, amusing or alienating, or whether it is an inadvertent parody, misguided homage or latent critique of Westernization and globalization. Insofar as the Chinese sense of humor is not nearly as dry as its climate, I can only conclude that they’re not doing it on purpose… which is precisely the source of the ambiguity.

Or maybe I’m just reading into it too much.

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November 15, 2009

The Lay of the Land

or, I Assure You, BJBus.com is SFW

This is the second installment of my (admittedly verbose and highly parenthetical) chronicle of my time in Beijing:

First, a quick geography lesson: Beijing lies landlocked in the North China Plain, 150 km inland of the Bohai Sea. The city center is surrounded by a series of ring roads, loosely centered on the Forbidden City, such that the second ring road separates the dense city center from the outer districts, which stretch to the sixth circumscription.

My map of 北京. Wudaokou is in the upper left corner.

My home for these two months is in the heart of the 五道口 [Wudaokou] neighborhood in the 海淀区 [Haidian District], which constitutes the Northwest outer borough of the capital (top-leftmost marker on the Gmap). Wudaokou is regarded as Beijing’s prestigious university-town area, since two of China’s top universities are here, which means that 1.) I fall into the demographic of the local populace (though it’s less appropriate for my aging grandparents), and 2.) the requisite amenities and nightlife offerings are nearby… not to mention the profusion of foreigners enjoying the novelty and low cost of living here for a semester.

[I am still ambivalent about the 外国人, since I probably relate to them (even the Europeans and Australians) more than the native Chinese, but I have yet to warm up to my countrymen... whoever they may be. Either way, I play it cool.

That said, I have shamelessly been taking advantage of certain establishments that clearly find a non-Chinese audience: the (overpriced) coffeeshops and gym facilities. I'm not sure whether or not my patronage of these foreigner hotspots is a dead giveaway as to my nationality—that and the fact that I drink Americanos and smoke Camel Lights while perusing English websites and drafting blog entries on my MacBook. More on this in a forthcoming chapter.]

My only grievance about Wudaokou—a plaint about Beijing in general—is that it is relatively out-of-the-way (just outside the fourth ring road): it takes over an hour to get to work on the subway and at least half an hour to get downtown. With nearly 12 million residents in 4,000+ sq. km of metro area, Beijing is easily one of the largest cities in the Eastern Hemisphere (it is second to Shanghai for that title in China). Fellow New Yorkers, imagine Grand Street as one of the biggest cities in the world and you get the idea.

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