On Family

The past three months of my life has been mainly about family. Being a nomad can be tiring, and I needed a good dose of doing not very much. I ate, slept, read, procrastinated, worried about The Future, and spent time with my family. I haven’t lived with my parents in more than six years and a part of me has missed them dearly. In February, I traveled to the opposite corner of the country for Chinese New Year. It was one of the biggest family gatherings I can remember with everyone there on my dad’s side. It was a week and a half of easy smiles and relaxation and fireworks and enormous amounts of home-made deliciousness. I had to tactfully reply to questions from my younger giggling cousins, mostly about boys. One insisted I let her be a bridesmaid when I inevitably get married very soon (her words, translated).

They told me about their lives and their difficulties and showed me around the city. One afternoon, my future bridesmaid went on a tirade about how much her teachers charge for supplementary weekend lessons. 100 RMB per student per hour was obviously way too much considering the class is overcrowded with more than sixty students. The lessons are supposedly optional, but teachers often skip important material (which will be on tests) in class so students are forced to pay on weekends to keep up with the demanding curriculum. All the teachers do this, she said, but some just charge too much. With the increased fees, they can make more than a year’s basic salary with one weekend of extra lessons. My cousin complained about the worst offenders, but it was accepted practice. She also told me about her daily 14-hour schedule and the backdoor approach to getting students into well-known middle and high schools. She told her stories like it was the most natural things in the world. For her, that is her reality… so far removed from my own. In retrospect, my teenage complaints seem trivial. Again, I’m so very grateful that my parents are my parents and I have the family that I do.

I’m an only child. My entire family, with the exception of one cousin and one second cousin (I had to look this up to make sure – my dad’s cousin, I mean), are all in China. Having spent the majority of life in North America, I’ve had very few family gatherings and even those were small. I know my grandparents, aunts and uncles and their families… and very little beyond that. My mom doesn’t speak of her extended family very much. She isn’t certain where all her aunts and uncles are. My dad occasionally tells stories but only if I specifically ask. This past month, my grandparents came to spend the summer at my dad’s townhouse in the middle of a large housing development (where I am now). The majority of properties here are owned by people from large cities who hold onto them as an investment and the occasional weekend getaway. Few live here on any permanent basis (with the exception of an old couple across the street and a random Portuguese family with two young girls who love our dog. They’ve been here for at least three months. No one knows why… or even how they found their way here.) To me, it was already full house – my grandparents, my parents, myself, and the dog.

Last week, my dad casually informs me my grandpa’s younger brother, whom he has not seen in over forty years, will be visiting from Heilongjiang with his son. (I think he’s called my great uncle… and another second cousin?) This great uncle was driven from their home village for unspeakable reasons (literally, since no one will tell me) and fled to Heilongjiang in the northeast, where he has been living since. He grows grapes. After so many decades, he’d finally earned enough to fund a cross-country journey to seek out his siblings. He found us through my great aunt who hadn’t moved all this time and then… there I was, standing dumbstruck in the middle of the airport watching my grandpa and great uncle embrace and cry and laughing about how much the other has aged.

The same week, my aunt’s husband came to the city for surgery accompanied by my aunt, later joined by his brother and his brother’s family. My parents couldn’t deny dinner with either side of the family and we ended up with a table of 12 somehow-or-other-related people. Great uncle, second cousin… even a cousin’s cousin’s wife. It was so surreal, because my dad had arranged dinner at a rather fancy place with servers who insisted I have varying glasses of water, tea, corn juice, wine, and baijiu (strooong Chinese alcohol). There wasn’t much space left around my plate. Conversation around the table was animated with lots of introductions and questions and toasts. It was surreal and I felt absolutely out of place among family who spoke with at least four noticeably different accents.

Next month, I’m moving to Hong Kong. For now, the plan is some short-term future planning. I never imagined actively choosing to live there since apartments are outrageously expensive and are the size of shoeboxes. But it’s a great place to be, where I have great friends, and though I’ll never admit it to my parents (who won’t be reading this blog since wordpress.com is banned in China. Thank goodness for VPNs), I want to be close to them. Guangzhou is just a train ride away and I could come back and plague them whenever. In the past, I’ve been sadly inconsistent in contacting my parents while living on another continent. Timezones, work, school, stuff sometimes just got in the way. My parents were so understanding it hurt.

Though my grandparents and aunts and uncles have all agreed vocally I should live in Hong Kong, my parents have never voiced that opinion. For them, my choices are my own and if I go back to Canada or Europe or wherever else, so be it. Airplanes are convenient and the world is easily accessible. I would never make a decision based solely on my family’s wishes (self-centered that I am), but I’ve come to realize that their proximity has at least played a part in my upcoming move. Granted, right now I’m certain I won’t stay in HK for forever… but that’s silly, because uncertainty is the only certain thing in the world. Ah, but I’m preeetty certain I won’t be reuniting with a brother I haven’t seen in forty years any time soon. Okay, so I still can’t get over the presence of my great-uncle. Here. He looks a lot like my grandpa. They recognized each other right away at the airport – no preliminaries, no questions, just a look and they knew they’d found their brother. Family. Nothing else like it in the world.

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Purchases

Here are three recent interesting money and future related China stories. I couldn’t decide on one sort of feeling after reading through them… partially depressed, partially resigned and partially shocked. Buying beauty, selling a kidney and trading years of life… and for what? A hopeful future or momentary satisfaction, or maybe there was no choice available in the first place…

For some of the 6.8 million students who graduated this year, plastic surgery offers a way to boost self-confidence and increase the likelihood of getting a job. The doctor interviewed in this Bloomberg video says to some, getting nose jobs or double-eyelid surgery is like purchasing a new handbag. Apparently, having needles stuck in various facial muscles and injected just isn’t treated with the same attitude anymore. Though not as prevalent as in Korea, the absolute numbers for surgeries in China still rank among the top. These surgeries can’t be cheap but I guess for recent graduates, these expenses can be claimed as an investment.

Some other students though… they just make terrible decisions. The SCMP reported last week that another high school student sold a kidney. He received only a tenth of the profits, or 22,000 RMB, while the patient who received the kidney paid 216,000 RMB. The rest of that money was presumably distributed between organ dealers and doctors who performed the transplant. Five men are on trial now. The saddest part about this though? The kid started searching for organ dealers online after his parents broke his computer in a failed attempted to curb an addiction to video games. Eventually he bought an ipad and iphone because he didn’t know what else to do with the money. Bet he’ll be regretting those purchases when the next version shows up.

To earn lots of money, what he should have done instead is start practicing an Olympic event between the age of 4 and 15 then win a gold medal for it. Just like Chen Anqing for example. For winning China’s first gold in London in women’s 10-meter air-rifle, she has been awarded over 1.5 million RMB in the form of cash, real estate and a car by her hometown of Chenzhou and 800,000 RMB from Zhuhai, where she trained. Even as I congratulate her, I wonder whether she thinks it was worth all the struggle, including leaving home as a teenager and not seeing her grandfather for two years for fear of distraction.

Would you agree to a deal without knowing the exact terms?

An existential crisis

In the past when people asked “what do you want to do?”, my initial reaction was “to change the world”! But our very existence has already changed the world. Is it in any meaningful and lasting way? No idea. Now I can only answer “I don’t know” or “it depends”. What to do with all the choices, all the decisions and all the uncertainties? Do we… I… even have to do anything at all? I don’t think ‘existential crisis’ is too severe a term for some of my thoughts lately. For me, it’s more related to the purpose of our lives, whether we have a meaning or value or importance. I’ve never questioned my own mortality because it’s an undeniable part of our existence. Death and taxes, no? But our time is limited, pending science fiction discoveries in health, and what to do with that time has been troubling me. Though it’s not related at all to my academic background, maybe I’ll go work for that gaming company after all. Or flee back to the safety of academia, assuming there’s enough room for the underpaid. What bright prospects! No, maybe my existential crisis isn’t personal at all. Maybe it’s a crisis for all of humankind, for something other than ‘to survive’.

The recent discovery of the Higgs boson (or something remarkably similiar) hasn’t helped my thoughts very much. You can find a brilliantly animated explanation here from PHD Comics or some of the best analogies here. So many of the world’s most brilliant minds had gathered at CERN to discover the elusive particle and success finally came on July 4th after billions of dollars in investment and more than five decades of searching.

Though my knowledge of partical physics is probably limited to references from the Big Bang Theory, I still feel the importance of such a discovery. I remember hearing references to the Higgs boson from way back when, and the limits of science have been pushed far beyond traditional boundaries. Why am I, as an individual, not working towards a greater cause to alter human history? A part of me still wonders how so many resources could be devoted to this cause all the while children die from curable diseases. Another part wonders about the motivations of governments to fund such experiments – probably to produce weapons of mass destruction. Maybe even weapons of ultimate destruction. Maybe this is the beginning of the science fiction scenario in which surviving humankind must live in space because Earth has been rendered completely uninhabitable! Perhaps, maybe, possibly, probably, with a chance of, could be…

“Better than having no choices at all”, another part of me says. I then think of the strict, terrifying education regime in China and especially the recent fallout from of the national university entrance exam. Middle school students get IV drips as they study. A student learned his mother has passed away only after taking the exam. These are extreme cases, while high school seniors studying everyday from 7am-7pm (with a halfday on Sunday) and homework until 1am is the norm. I am grateful to have not grown up under such a system. And yet, because of the privileges and choices I’ve been given, I feel more pressure to achieve something. Once, I asked my dad what I should do for a career (aside from being a doctor like him). He answered: “It doesn’t matter what you do, as long as you’re the best.”

China in general hasn’t helped my crisis much either. The entire country seems to be going through an existential crisis and living here has made the feeling all the more prominent. China is all the hype these days, and an Economist blog post on learning mandarin made it to the top ten commented and recommended lists. Conjugation doesn’t exist, but there are tones. Writing can be complicated, but speaking can be easy. To provide that extra boost, some parents have actually relocated to Asia so their children can have the benefits of knowing mandarin. The number of foreigners with fluent mandarin on the streets of Beijing continue to surprise me, though I don’t know why it does. So many have lived and worked here for years and may be more Chinese at heart than Chinese citizens abroad. On the other hand, the series of foreigners misbehaving in China continues with the pool incident as the newest installation. The country which once idolized anything foreign has been provoked and I wouldn’t be surprised to see a surge of nationalism in response.

The government has been featuring a series of unsung heros and Good Samaritans throughout the country. A recent SCMP article tells the story of how state propaganda is eager to show off the good side of China and the selfless sacrifices some have made. As the article not available without a subscription, here is a recent list of these heros:

  • Zhou Chong: rescued a three-year-old girl dangling by the neck while he was on his way to a job interview. “He has had his face splashed across Guangdong’s newspapers and television broadcasts. He was sent to Beijing to meet Politburo members, including propaganda chief Liu Yunshan, who dubbed him “a hero of our era”.”
  • Zhang Lili: teacher in Heilongjiang province whose legs had to be amputated after pushing two children out of the path of an oncoming bus
  • Wu Bin: bus driver in Zhejiang province who steered his passengers to safety after he was fatally hit by a metal object that smashed through his windscreen
  • Zhou Yulan: a teacher in Hubei province who risked her life to protect 659 college entrance exam admission cards during a robbery

These stories amaze me, and I become optimistic knowing there are still good people in the world, particularly in China. If in their positions, what would we do?

Unfortunately, these individual heroic acts are no match for the pervasive broader system. Want a fake degree from a fake institution? How about putting spikes under overpasses to prevent the homeless from seeking shelter there? Or sentencing a maid to 10 years in prison for theft of their employer’s cellphone? Or an abortion at 7 months? … Definitely a crisis, if not an existential one. With the new leader of Hong kong being met by protesters and the once in a decade change in leadership scheduled for October (or maybe November now), what changes will we see come this time next year?

Questions will keep on rolling in, and all we can do – all I can do – is try to gather my thoughts once in a while and hope not all my friends leave Beijing in July. I have reached one conclusion though: I want to stay in Beijing for the near future. Too much is happening here to just leave so soon. The challenge now is to find a way to stay (read: job I like). I am still ready for that epiphany and my fingers are crossed.

Although… it’s good to know my mindset isn’t quite as bleak as Mr. Jon Arbuckle’s. At least not yet.

Inflation and tomorrow’s costs

When I stopped for something cold to drink yesterday, I saw a little boy about 7 or 8 at the same roadside shop. He was a scrawny looking kid and had a 1 kuai (1 RMB) bill stuffed tightly inside his little fist. As with most children I see in China these days, he was wearing glasses two sizes too large, but still eagerly peered through them to examine the collection of available popsicles. He darted indecisively between the two freezers before finally picking up a popsicle and summoning enough courage to ask the shop keeper “How much is this?” “1.50” said the shopkeeper. The process repeated for five more popsicles and I was surprised to hear that his voice remained calm. When he finally found one for 1 kuai, he cheerfully handed over the bill and went on his merry way.

There’s a vegetable booth at the entrance of the xiaoqu (residential area) where I live. I remember the old lady in charge one day remarked how almost all popsicles had risen in price in the past year or so. The conversation is clear in my memory because I was trying desperately to find the little half kuai notes and coins which I was sure I had. Even as prices increase, why are these small coins, including 1, 2 and 5 fen (cent) ones, still in circulation?

Even though recent the inflation rate has been below target, it was at a high of 6.5% last year. Keep in mind China’s 4% target rate compared to the 2% of many Western countries, including Canada. Food prices have been volatile and higher prices more often than not impact the poorest segments of society the most because they have no choice about whether or not to eat! For a person making a medium minimum wage1 of 1250 kuai per month in Beijing, a 1 or 2 kuai increase in the price of each meal translates into an extra 7% or 14% of their income spent on food. To a person who regularly fills up on 400 kuai tanks of gas, or someone who spends 5000 kuai of company money on a dinner for six, it may not seem like much, but inflation can take its toll on those most vulnerable and I suspect it already has.


1 China has no national minimum wage and instead, each province (or province level city) sets their own minimum wage. According to Haver Analytics’ latest 2012 data, the highest minimum wage is in Guangdong at 1,500 kuai per month while the lowest minimum wage is little more than half that in Gansu at 760 kuai per month.

Windows into the Chinese internet

Again, so many interesting articles I want to share and discuss! But time is limited and I will elaborate later this evening. In the mean time, everyone can at least be entertained. Chinasmack and Offbeatchina are two of my favourite windows into the Chinese internet (in english). The stories they share are sometimes hilarious, sometimes horrifying, and are often accompanied by translated comments from Chinese netizens. If you know other such websites, please recommend!

From Chinasmack: Boys, Boyfriends, Young Men & Fathers

And Patriotic hairstyles in China from Offbeatchina. What great parents these children must have!

On the more serious side, the China Media Project offers a collection of articles from the Mainland, commentary, and archives deleted weibo (the Chinese hybrid of twitter and facebook) posts.

Go forth and explore the Chinese internet, my friends.