Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Flux capacitor... fluxing

Yes, its time to leave this developing nation in its awkward adolescence complete with high risk behaviors and growing pains and get back to its future, a voracious consumer society of gross affluence and (abusive) power.

It's also time to resume more scienc-ey topics for this blog (apologies for the technical jargon :)

I think I'll kick it off starting now with a bit o'wisdom from The Onion:

I Believe In Evolution, Except For The Whole Triassic Period

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Perspectives across ponds- a random post

I have had a couple days of downtime - unplanned downtime- here in the East. Because my communications skillz are severely lacking, I have willied away many hours on the internet. In doing so I came across this headline: Britain is 'sleepwalking' towards US-style segregation of schools, figures show.

This is an interesting article to read as I, a foreigner, sit in China, in a "French" cafe -never mind the sweet bean-filled croissants and green tea mousse cake- sipping a latte (which is quite delicious, btw!). Speaking for my paisanos back in Meiguo, the typical western perspective of China is that it is filled with only Chinese, not counting Tibetans in Tibet or Taiwanese in Taiwan. In a way this is true, since relatively speaking there is not a huge population of immigrants here, legal or illegal. But to the Chinese, thier society includes several dozen minorities that they view more or less as exotic creatures that are most interesting when practicing cutural rituals, songs or dance while wearing traditional clothing. Imagine if the Indian reservations in the US were Disney-ified, and then multiply that by 1 billion (the difference between 300 million US residents and 1.3 billion Chinese) to get an idea for the huge industry built around minority tourism here. And that's just the domestic tourism market- there's a huge international market for this tourism branch as well. In fact, during my first stint in Beijing, I was taken to a bar with some type of minority theme. There were real live minorities, young adults, singing, some quite well, and dancing, wearing blue jeans and sneakers beneath their traditional costume, as a crowd of Han Chinese, chain-smoking and drinking Heinekin for 5 USD, looked on. It's very likely these singing/dancing minorities were sending money they made back to the people in their village.

Interestingly, for being apart of a food-centric culture, mainstream Chinese aren't generally too interested in partaking of minority cuisine. I've happened through some of these minority areas over the last few years, and the Chinese I travelled with usually go to great pains to stay at Han hotels and eat at Han restaurants... Anyway, I'm getting to a point...

...which, is that segregation in China was never an issue, because there is the Han Chinese and then there was everyone else and that's just the way it was and the way it had been for millenia- even though to the outside world the difference wasn't neccessarily that noticible. Diversity, particularly during the Cultural Revolution, wasn't an inherent value or a lifestyle concept here. (I just googled "cultural revolution" ... probably a bad idea! If this post ends suddenly, call the U.S. Embassy!)

Change is brewing, though you can bet that change is happening much more slowly than economic growth, and in actuality is a side-effect of that growth. I'm here in a cafe - the only foreigner with a dozen or so Chinese. Last night I ate at a "South American" BBQ place that was remarkable for many reasons, one being there was a waiting list to get into the place, which for a town with at least a million restaurants and probably half a billion people who could never afford this place (the set menu included absurd quantites of meat and a buffet for the equivalent of 6.25 USD), is something remarkable. This restaurant isn't even downtown- its way in the northern edge of the city- basically a suburb. Another reason, is that in this giant restaurant, a main floor and encircling balcony- probably sat 250 people all told- I spotted 2 other foreigners. The place was packed, a soft-rock trio sang covers of Wham! from a little platform. There was a buffet. There were no chopsticks- instead forks, spoons and knives! Twenty years ago- heck even 10 years ago, this would have been unheard of. And it wasn't like the customers were at a display or some kind of exotic show. It was definitely still a Chinese atmosphere- a bunch of families eating and talking, just there for dinner, some possibly for a special occasion. The great thing is Beijingers are enjoying these places! Maybe soon the aspects of other cultures, including minority populations, won't seem like a spectacle, but just like a good time.

So what I am saying is that- Pollyanna Moment- there is hope for harmony in the world, because we are all susceptible and in many ways accustomed to sticking to our own cultural norms. But, lo and behold, when we expose ourselves to other cultures, we often find many things that we like about it and that there really isn't a need to blow one another up over it. On the contrary, our differences make for lucrative tourism industries. But keeping us all from sticking to our comfort zone, takes effort. Look at me- here I am in Beijing at a French (i.e., western) cafe. But hey, at least I didn't go to the KFC or Pizza Hut next door.

Really, we humans aren't all that different from one another. Just take it from the Chinese boy band video playing in a continuous loop feed on the LCD flat screen TV that hangs on wall next to me. I think I'm going to go have another latte.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Revisiting Geo Glory Days

A brief blog post about differences in professional geoscience in China versus the US:

I met today with the Northwest branch of the China Geological Survey. It was a good time and brought a couple things to mind.

China is hugely populous, and they can and do sprinkle the countryside with mappers every year at a fraction of the cost for the US to do the same. There was a time, maybe 30 years ago, when the same thing did happen in the US, with the US Geological Survey paving the way. It wasn't that salaried geoscientists busted the US budget, but for some reason, it is no longer a funding priority to know what in tarnations our motherland is composed of and so mapping is becoming somewhat of a lost art in the US.

Not so in China. And with a country that contains some of the most bizzare geology in the world- Tibet plateau, Loess plateau, giant rivers, low basins surrounded by mountains, feathered dinosaurs- there is no shortage of discoveries to be made. It is fun to see it happen, but really there's no way to infiltrate this process as a foreigner. I can come here and find small areas or even regional relationships to delve into, but nothing brings about an intimate knowlege of a place like mapping does.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Bird's Nest

Are you ready for 2008? Beijing has been prepping for years. The jewel of its Olympic Games will be its stadium, currently under construction:


The stadium is known as the "Bird's Nest" and it is truly awesome. I've caught a few glimpses of it during the past week. In its current stage of construction it looks pretty much like it will next year- you can google to find a variety of artist renditions of its completed look. I won't spoil it here for those who like surprises. I can tell you it is like no other stadium ever built- and because of the massive resources it required- around four times the average tonnage of steel used in similar constructions- its likes will probably not be seen again any time soon!

China, despite extreme poverty in the countryside, has a wealth of resources to be dispatched on a project like this. The economic hurdles for a project to be successful, well, they don't exist in the same way that they do in the fully "developed" world. Thus, the '08 games are sure to be a visually stunning display, akin to a cultural shock-n-awe extravaganza. I know I'll be tuned in!

To check out all the proposals for Beijing's Olympic stadium you can look here. I think they made the perfect choice.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Eastern Exposure

Apologies to the few people (if any) out there wondering about the latest word from the South- its been a while. I can offer a plethora of excuses - moved to a new house, end of semester hit, and now, I am making a relatively brief sojourn from the South to the Far East. At this moment I am sitting in the "Cradle of the Communist Revolution", the city of Yan'an in Sha'anxi Province, People's Republic of China. Miracle of Miracles, the hotel has wireless! I can only imagine the variety of viruses, virtual and real, to which I am currently being exposed.

I have been attending an "International" Conference on petroleum geology, but the demographic is at least a 3-1 Chinese to Foreigner ratio- which is kind of like getting a glimpse into the future when this gargantuan population starts to spread its wings the coming decades. You can tell I've been here a while because of the extraneous capital letters finding their way into this post.

Needless to say, any amount of time in China is fodder for an array of blogging subjects, and in this case even on geoscience topics. Perhaps tomorrow I'll post a few photos from the field trip associated with this conference. But tonight the majority of my energies must go toward digesting a Chinese Banquet dinner. So I'll post just a few words on what that means.

I've been to quite a few Banquets now in China and they usually involve consumption of a foul liquor called baijiu and recently Great Wall red wine and other beverages. Your hosts may frequently request you to "gan bei"- the equivalent of bottom's up- to chug your drink. Animals or parts of animals that are considered special along with all manner of other special foods- for which it is better to just remain ignorant to their true origin- are the focus of the meal. There's usually a lot of toasting, a continuous arrival of plates of new food, plate after plate after plate, and then usually when the fruit arrives, you know you've almost made it to the end.

Tonight had a little extra- professional karaoke singers (a real job only in China) belting Traditional Chinese songs. Being foreigners, we got to sit in the front row, next to the loudspeakers. It was hard to keep a straight face.

Then, when we returned to our rooms we had a gift waiting - a bag of field clothes, consisting of a bright Red (redder than the Red Army) outfit, complete with shirt, pants and hat.

I am pretty sure this is just overwhelming hospitality, but there comes a point when you start to wonder: are they just messing with us foreigners? Sometimes it is hard to tell, and in the end, we may never know! It is as the Chinese saying goes: You can always fool a foreigner.