Saturday, April 20, 2013

Street Sweeping

There are street sweepers everywhere. Our campus alone has at least a dozen or more. They are an additional cause of air pollution in China. Every day every road and sidewalk everywhere gets swept multiple times.

These are not machines. Never seen one. They are people with brooms. I can hardly imagine the number of hundreds of thousands of sweepers throughout China. They were everywhere during our first trip to China. There are even more now.

They keep things swept. Notice I said "swept" and not "clean."

It seems there is always dirt and dust on the sidewalks and roads. I think the street sweepers have a very interesting strategy to deal with it. What do you mean? Me? Cynical?

Here is the formula:
1. Stir every piece of dust and dirt into the air, swooshing it all around everywhere.
2. Hope that 1/3 of it clings to buildings, cars, plants, and people. It will never return to the ground and never need to be swept again!
3. Hope that 1/3 of it gets breathed in by the pedestrians and stays forever clogging their lungs. I testify they succeed really well with this.
4. Sadly let 1/3 of it return to the sidewalk or street.
5. After you have gone a few hundred yards, return to your starting point and begin again! It is an endless all day cycle.

How can this be? What is this? Now what do we do?

Above the smog the air was beautiful

I think I understand where the term "Chinese Fire-drill" comes from!
I think he spends half his time with binoculars focused on our window.
As we have said many times, a day is not complete until we have our

“How can this be?”
“What is this?”
“Now what will we do?”

 moment. Many times we continue in our state of confusion. Often we stumble along. Gratefully, on the stickier issues, there is always the tender mercy.

We have been writing several blog entries today. We have written in airports, on the airplane, and now in a hotel lobby. After most of the above has been completed, we have begun having an interesting series of our "special" yet typical “China moments.”

It started with the announcements on the airplane. They were in Chinese, perhaps also Cantonese, and then supposedly English. We have heard announcements for years and sort of know what they are by heart. This time we could not understand what they were saying - in English - sort of....

We began wondering - it was clear we were not landing at our destination. That has happened  before when we thought was a flight was non-stop and it was merely direct. Since we could not understand what they were saying, where we were, and what we were supposed to do, we were concerned we took the wrong plane.

As we got off the plane, we showed our tickets to the flight attendant. She told us it was the right plane, we just needed to all get off, take the shuttle bus to the terminal, and then when they called us, take the shuttle bus back out. Ok. The first wondering what is going on is resolved.
Hanging around the front of the hotel.

Everyone gets off the plane. Some get on one bus because they are at their destination. It heads to the terminal.

Those of us going on, the majority, get on a 2nd bus. It slowly heads to the terminal, drives the length of it, and makes a U-turn. Since it has doors on both sides we think it wants to line up to drive straight back along the front of the terminal.

It doesn't stop. It keeps driving. Slowly. It never stops. It drives right back to the airplane we just got off of.

We are really scratching our head wondering “What is going on here?” Fortunately almost the entire bus (we were the only non-Chinese on it) burst out laughing. It is as odd to them as it is to us. That is comforting. Ignorance likes company.

We get back on the plane, never having left the bus and only being off the bus maybe 15 minutes. Second wondering is never explained, but we take comfort the Chinese also don't know. So much odd stuff always goes on. It really is funny how much odd stuff constantly goes on.

We grab a taxi at the airport and head to our hotel. We get within several miles of it and suddenly there are blockades everywhere and lots of police and military. Soon the road is blocked the way our driver wants to go. He heads in another direction and while there is more military and more guns, we seem to get closer.

About 8 blocks from our hotel there is a final blockade and our non-English speaking driver signals us to get out and walk. It is about 90 and very humid. We grab our suitcases and start walking down the security lined street. We get to our hotel drive but the official looking guard will not let us go in. No paperwork. Someone from the hotel comes by, tells the official to let us in, and takes us in his golf cart the rest of the way. What is going on here?

Turns out there is a big Asian financial summit going on at the Sheraton Hotel next door. That hotel is closed. A large percent of our hotel rooms facing the Sheraton have been closed by security. We are on the 7th floor in the room closest to the Sheraton. The English speaking concierge who has walked us to our room explains they inspected our room and said the angle from our balcony was different (different for what? a clear aim?) so they allowed use of the room.

As I type now I am looking at an officer on the roof of the Sheraton with binoculars looking back at me. I wonder if we will be able to stay. Oh, and all the local seafood restaurants, all the restaurants in fact, and all the shops and stores we were looking forward to are closed for a week or so because of security.

This morning at the breakfast buffet we arrived just as it was closing. We had been told, or at least we had understood, that it would be going on for another 45 minutes. They recommended we come during the last hour.  Hurry and grab some food - since everything outside the hotel was closed, this was our only chance to eat and we wouldn't want to starve!

As we ate the manager of the dining room came over to welcome us in person as is the Chinese way. When she realized that we had missed most of the buffet she personally went to the kitchen and came back with fresh fruit and other goodies for us (such typical Chinese kindness). Where did we go wrong?  We left fully satisfied and happy but again wondering "How can this be? We are positive of the words they told us."

All in all it would have been nice to know. Interesting to be trapped in the hotel. Number 3 mystery at least understood. China is so interesting.

A new freeway

Freeway toll booth
Talking about all the construction and the messes and air pollution it makes is only one part of the story.

This morning we took a 20 mile ride out to the airport. It was mostly on a new freeway. 4 lanes in both directions and beautifully landscaped with mature plants, shrubs and trees. It was like a private park. Instead of being unusual, as it would be at home, this is very typical of China.

The dense, well-trimmed and watered shrubbery and trees are so different from what we would see in America. It is not unusual to see miles of flowering trees in bloom on a freeway less than a year old. Not only are the freeways landscaped but they are meticulously maintained - all by hand.

So often at home we see new public plantings dry out and die. Here the streets have constant watering trucks driving the boulevards water the hedges in the median and sides of the road. Impressive.

Along with landscaping is the constant road and sidewalk sweeping - much of it done by hand - even done by hand on the freeway itself.

One of the advantages of a country with a large population still trying to emerge from poverty is that there is so much available cheap labor.

Different from America, laborers  will work at any job to elevate themselves and become self-sufficient. The prime work motivation, even in very low paying jobs, is to work and sacrifice to allow their children to get an education. China really puts that inexpensive labor to work beautifying the country, cities, streets, and neighborhoods. It definitely soothes the heart and gladdens the eye.

These, and so many of our pictures, are hazy not due to poor cameras, nor being actually overcast and cloudy. Instead it is the haziness of air pollution.


This photo is exactly what the power plant looked like from the freeway. Real people have to work there. I can not imagine. It is coal and not nuclear.

Xi'an has many heating plants and several power plants and it looks like this around all of them. The soot coming out of the chimneys is filthy.

All of Xi'an was an ugly haze of air pollution that morning. As soon as we got just blocks north of this power plant, the air improved dramatically.

On the other hand, we had our third amazing dust storm here day before yesterday. While it is amazing outside, you would not believe how filthy our apartment is. Even closed up it is not really closed up and everything is covered in dust and dirt.

Cough. Cough. China.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

"Our" elementary school

One thing we enjoy about our apartment is that it is 5 floors above and 50 feet away from the 2000 student campus elementary school.

Very prestigious school. Everyone wants to get in. If you get in, you are guaranteed admission into the campus middle school (the middle school across from the south gate; it is building a 2000 student addition 2 blocks away from us here on campus).

Getting into the middle school pretty much guarantees you your choice of colleges  Chinese are obsessive about school ranking in a way we have never seen in America so the middle school is very desirable.

We enjoy living by the school. From early morning to early evening it is so busy and full of happy noises - 6 days a week

(Sunday is for private tutoring; but so are week nights for those (all) who want to get ahead. A neighbor asked us to tutor her 10 year old daughter from 9 PM to 10:30 PM Monday nights. We said, "No." What are they thinking?)

Its makes walking around the area a lot of fun when everyone is coming and going. Often a smiling child will shyly say "hello" and giggle when we respond in English.

At times we have been "mobbed" with smiling laughing kids who want to "talk" to  us. Their parents are very happy to have them practicing their English.

 Everyone is picked up by mom or dad or a grandparent or an after school tutoring program.

The other day one of the Chinese faculty members invited us to go over to the school yard with her to watch some jump roping.

The school had a full two days of an all-school jump roping contest. Single, pairs on a single rope, double Dutch, double Dutch teams and of course, teacher exhibitions since they all competed as kids.

They also had a hacky sack competition. This was done with small weights attached to feathers.

It was enjoyable being in the midst of all the kids being kids: practicing, competing, giggling, laughing, studying, reading school books, reading comic books, being coached by parents, being over-coached by tiger parents, playing cards, and generally just enjoying a couple of days in the school yard with their friends.

The gated concept really worked well here. Only two ways in and out of the school grounds with a single guard at each gate being sure no one left. Here are some fun photos from it.

We submitted our papers

We are moved by feelings being a very small part of what is taking place among the Chinese people.

It is exciting to see the church able to more freely discuss what is actually taking place (see newly released church website

We have felt prompted to submit our papers to serve again from August 2013 to July 2014. We have been assigned to return to Xi'an. We are excited. We look forward to being home for a few weeks this summer between the assignments.

Sports' Day

The other day classes were cancelled while the university held it yearly “Sports Days” on the new campus. 
Some of Ann's freshmen students. This is our college's group
in plaid.
As we arrived home from school two days earlier our phone rang with Zhang Yi telling us that we had been selected by the Student Council of the College of Languages, Humanities and Law to lead its team walking into the sports arena during their opening ceremonies.
She said no college had previously selected foreigners to have that honor before. Maybe kind of cool, and hopefully an indication we are creating some of the relationships we are trying to build.
When will we ever get the chance to do this again?  We were intrigued. Here are some are some of the pictures of us and the events we saw during the program.
The opening ceremony was fairly cool and showed evidence of influence from the 2008 Olympics.
Now stopped in front of the University officials to
We were supposed to wave at the crowd. Not comfortable. But since we had students sprinkled though it who were waving to us, it was easy to wave back, at which point the whole section waved back at us and then cheered. That was fun. The unusual Americans on campus. We are treated nicely.
The athletic contests were apparently selecting winners to go to a regional, then national competition.

The field was filled with the various college delegations.
The hurdles gave an interesting view of the composition of competition. There were a handful of outstanding hurdlers. Our students said they were PE majors who would all go on to be coaches.
There were also lots of very poor ones. Some obviously got recruited by friends who said "oh, let's go do it and represent our club." They tripped a lot. Reminded me of what I hear said about American Idol and reality TV in general: "Friends don't let friends....." Lots of friends here missed the boat.
The Dragon Club doing their most famous move: "Great Wall"


Two of our students just live to be part of their dance team.

Several hundred faculty were part of this demonstration.


Thursday, April 11, 2013

Instant walls and gated communities

Basketball courts and small buildings a couple of weeks ago. No wall along the street.

Same street with different view. And of course, the buildings 
are gone and the courts are to the right, behind the wall.

One fascinating part of construction  are the walls, especially the new "instant" walls.

It feels like almost everything in China is a "gated community."

We have wondered if this is a relic of a more severe police state. It is easy to control the comings and goings of people when thousands of them only have a couple of checkpoints they can pass through.

Take our campus. Very typical. It is surrounded by a 7-8’ cement wall. There are only three openings – gates. They are manned 24/7. Even for walkers, these 3 gates are the only way in or out of campus.

They just mortared over the brick all around
the basketball court
The basketball courts have been scrapped
away. who knows what is next
Last night, leaving the old campus to go to the new campus, we walked by the basketball courts where a construction crew was putting up a new brick wall.

Ann had seen them tearing down a couple of old small buildings on the edge of the site the week before. Most of  the area was filled with  basketball courts, badminton courts, and a big area where dance exercise goes on.

And now it is walled in.

Today the basketball courts have been removed. We wonder what is going on.

Seeing these walls suddenly pop up anywhere and everywhere is always interesting and always raises lots of questions we never get answered. China. And amazing construction.
Today they are assembling the crane to
start constructing the High School addition
on the front of our campus

Sunday night we were walking around the campus and discovered a fresh plaster wall essentially slicing off the back several blocks of the campus.

The old apartments have been razed over the last several weeks. Now that the rubble is gone, there is a fresh wall to keep everyone out during the construction of the new apartments.

As we ride the bus to the new campus we notice almost everything except commercial areas is either behind neighborhood walls or else there is a new wall protecting a new construction site.
Some of these walls are mortar or brick; others are gigantic billboards. The billboards are really funny. Many are artist renderings of the new apartment community.
Ann saw advertising the building of the Mall of America with a picture of the rotunda. They are full of creative attempts to use English to create a marketing cachet for "Vivid Living" "Colorful Living" and other phrases that make no sense to us.

The new wall surrounding the recently
demolished apartments on the north of campus

Truck access to inside walled area of
recently demolished apartments

Typical random wall

Typical construction wall. New waterpark
being built here.

Typical random wall

Typical construction wall
Typical construction wall. This
 is down the middle of a main street where they started construction a new subway line in Xian

More of the subway construction  wall

Wall around Wild Goose Pagoda
Typical random wall


Typical random wall

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The construction crane

[The last picture here is of the 700 mountains being leveled. The other photos are just of various construction projects in our neighborhood.]

In 2005, when we were tourists in China, we heard that the construction crane was the Chinese "national bird". We were impressed then and crane numbers have only multiplied since. The construction around Xi’an  verges on the unbelievable. This is a city with a population of 8 million people. We are only acquainted with a small part of it. What we have seen amazes us.

We have seen 6-8 major “Ridgedale type” malls that have opened in the last year or so. In our area of circulation through the city, we are watching construction of perhaps 2 dozen major projects and countless minor ones. Let me try to describe what we see when we are driving by a new project.

Most of the new major projects around here are 15-30 story buildings. No super tall 60-100 stories like the really big cities. Everything seems about the same height.  In Minneapolis a 30 story building is a pretty big deal and most projects in Minneapolis of 30 stories would be one building. Definitely not here.

The typical new project seem to be 8-15 buildings of 15-30 stories. Most of the projects are anchored by a new multi-story high end mall built at their base (including lots of restaurants and lots of high end western brand stores). (You cannot have all those people moving in to live and work there without shops, restaurants, entertainment, etc.) When a developer starts to build, he really starts to build. The first building to open in the development seems to be the bank that is financing the project. It will provide financing to buy all the apartments (we would call them condos), and functions as a sales office as well.

When we talk about 8-15 buildings, we don’t mean build one, finish it, start another, finish it, start another. When a development starts here, acres of old buildings are torn down, and all the new buildings start rising at the same time. Suddenly you have all these buildings rising up with their cranes sitting on top as they deliver all the construction materials.

In our little corner of Xi’an all these major projects, and countless "minor" ones of just a few buildings, amaze us.

Here are a couple of interesting related articles. The first is about Samsung starting to build a $7 billion factory in Xi'an. They are working with our university to specifically train engineering students for Samsung's needs. When is the last time a new company moved to Minneapolis and spent $7 billion? And this is going on all over China.

NoneThe other article is about China building new cities. It is obviously fraught with problems. China projects having 220 cities of over a million inhabitants within 12 years. That compares with 35 cities of that size in Europe  This particular article talks about a developer being hired by the government to level 700 low-level mountains to create a flat, buildable city footprint. China. Amazing.

Hard to put your head around what you need to do with a population of 1.4 billion, growing by 40 million a year, and still trying to get hundreds of millions out of poverty.