Sunday, November 30, 2014

Worst Things About China

I'm trying to stay positive about life in China, but some things just suck. Does it make them suck less if I ignore them? Probably, but I'm not that good of a person.

When we first got here, our apartment building was top of the list. My school has undertaken a bunch of cosmetic changes that were not completed before our arrival, so everything was dusty and filled with toxic odors. Going outside was a terrible inconvenience, and even when we just stayed in like trapped rats (or carrots, as Russ Cargill would say), the toxic fumes would seep inside. More than once we had to abandon the living room because of paint fumes.

Mercifully, those repairs are done now, and our building isn't too bad.

Still on the list, though, are bathrooms, undisclosed information, and, sadly, church attendance.

Bathrooms all smell terrible here. Even the fanciest bathroom in the nicest establishment is going to smell like an open sewer. I thought it was due to squat toilets having open holes to sewer pipes, but the church bathrooms have recently been remodeled and have only ever featured sit-down toilets, yet they still smell terrible. Is it from the tap water? I don't know. When we went to Tianjin, our hotel bathroom was so nice that I decided we would, once each month, spend the night in a hotel, even if it's just down the street from our apartment, so we could take a hot shower that didn't look like it was set in a post-apocalyptic horror film's torture hospital set.

I've already written about undisclosed information. For instance, our school has a pool. How do we use it? No one has told us. So we ask. And they say, "You go to the pool." Hours, entry cards, regulations? No disclosure. An e-mail references something called a "deep water card." I ask what that means and no one can tell me. My wife and I go to look around and we get chased out of the pool because (as best we can tell, anyway) we are wearing street shoes on the pool deck. Evidently there is a rule posted somewhere about that. A rule that could be translated and shared with people who want to use the pool. How many other rules are posted? But when we ask, we're told, "You just go use the pool."

Finally, church. I understood coming here that church would be more difficult than it is in America. But I didn't really expect it to be so disproportionately difficult for different church members, and I really didn't expect that a source of the disproportionality would be those with little burden shifting some of their burden onto those with more. I feel many people in our branch have no idea what church is like for some of us, and they will never have any idea as long as they continue to have no contact with us. Now our building is going to have four branches using it every Sunday, and preliminary word we heard yesterday is that our meeting will start at 8:30. This means we have to leave our house no later than 7 am, which means we have to wake up our kids no later than 6. We will either have to eat while we're out, bring food with us to eat during church, or not eat until returning home at 1 pm.

I've read some online recently about the success of member groups in West Africa. I wish we would be allowed to have a member group. As it is, how am I supposed to do missionary work among my non-Chinese-national colleagues? "I know you know nothing about this church so far, but do you want to skip some meals and spend three hours standing up on the subway so you can find out more?"

There's an aspect of class distinction at play, as well, but I'm ignoring that for now. I just don't want church to be such a terrible experience every week, and instead of getting better, it is promising to get much worse.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

In the Academy But Not of the Academy

Here's an article about Brigham Young University professor Ralph Hancock's concerns over secularism's sway over Mormon intellectuals.

From its beginning as an anti-Mormon newspaper, the Trib is maybe no longer married to the format, but they have never given up flirting with it. So I read this article more as having a "look how close-minded and reactionary Hancock is" attitude than a Deseret News attitude of "Hancock warns of serious problem" or a neutral attitude of "Hancock says there's a problem."

The reason I link to this story is this paragraph here.

And here is Hancock’s deepest concern: The "dominant orientation" of the so-called bloggernacle — the universe of Mormon blogs — "assumes the moral superiority of intellectuals to church authorities."
I wouldn't say that the "dominant orientation" of the bloggernacle is secularist, but then I perhaps don't read as many different types of Mormon blogs as he does. I read a lot of old-school FARMS blogs, not new-school MI blogs. I don't read Feminist Mormon Housewives at all, and most of the material there that makes it to my attention meets with my disapproval. I don't listen to Mormon Stories, and the "personal attack" of John Dehlin by Gregory L. Smith that precipitated the MI restructuring seemed reasonable, balanced, and--above all--important. So while I might disagree with Hancock's analysis of the breadth of the problem, I completely agree that the problem exists and is a problem.

So here's my part, as a tiny corner of the bloggernacle, to fix this problem. If I have not in the past been explicit in these opinions, that doesn't mean I didn't espouse them.

  • God the Father is a real being, of tangible parts.
  • Jesus Christ is His physical Son, the Savior and Redeemer of all mankind.
  • The Gospel of Jesus Christ was lost through apostasy after the early apostolic period, and is being restored to Earth, starting in 1820.
  • Thomas S. Monson is a prophet of God, just like Abraham, Moses, or Isaiah.
  • The Family: A Proclamation to the World, perhaps is nothing more than a policy statement, but policy cannot be changed without direction. Although the proclamation has not been introduced in General Conference for acceptance of the church as scripture, it has been quoted again and again by leaders whose formal statements are taken as teachings from God.
  • Too many members of the church today seek to counsel the Lord and refuse to take counsel from his hand (see Jacob 4:10). We believe church leaders may have faults, but finding fault with church leaders is not helpful to anyone, especially the fault-finder.

I would probably write a clearer, more-complete blog post, but I'm home on a Saturday afternoon with four kids who are constantly yelling, and who can't be turned out-of-doors because the air quality is terrible today. So this will have to suffice for now.

Do Blind People Arbitrage?

The other day I was talking to my class about compensating differentials. I mentioned lower housing prices near airports as an example. I also mentioned the fact that negative externalities only exist where there is uncompensated harm. If a loud apartment dweller has two neighbors, one of whom hates the noise and one of whom doesn't care, only the one neighbor is experiencing a negative externality.

Suddenly, I had a question: do deaf people take advantage of compensating differentials tied to noise?

If you're deaf, you should live near the airport. Your housing payments will be lower, but that won't be offset with the negative externality of the noise. I guess that might end if landlords near airports come to realize the area has become a deaf ghetto, but if deaf people played it cool, they could totally be getting the mythical free lunch.

A researcher should map the houses of deaf people and overlay a map of ambient noise.

Friday, November 28, 2014

When Soccer Sucked

I've reached an age where I regret things that are passed and can never come back. One is playing soccer. Students at my school play every day, but the faculty has a terrible time trying to coordinate a once-a-week game, and the time favored by my colleagues is one I can't make. I've come to accept the fact that I am basically done playing soccer in my life, and I'm sad about it.

But it's not like I didn't have plenty of chances to play when I was younger. But back then, soccer sucked. Soccer was the worst sport on Earth, and I begged my way out of it when I was 12. At a church youth activity when I was 16, I joined in a soccer game and was shocked to discover that, actually, soccer didn't suck at all. But by the time you're in your mid-teens, you're either really good at a sport or you don't play it anymore.

Why did soccer suck when I was young? Well, one of the biggest reasons was because it was organized. I began playing organized soccer when I was about six years old, and from the beginning we were categorized and assigned roles. I was a defender, not because I was good at defense, but because my coaches felt all I offered the team was the ability to kick the ball away from someone else. The actual enjoyable parts of defense were not acknowledged. It was well understood that, if you were a defender, you were not very good.

Another big reason was the other kids. Constantly hearing the assessment of self-determined superior teammates was tiresome. I hated soccer practice because of my teammates and the coaches who failed to control them.

And the tactics sucked, mainly because there were tactics at all. The game was coached as a series of one-on-one confrontations. Passing was a sign of weakness. Skills were ignored. Winning games mattered. We played on regulation-sized fields from the beginning, which meant soccer was a lot of kicking the ball into empty space, especially when everyone went to the ball.

One year my team had a get-to-know-you event at a teammate's home. His parents had a foreign soccer game on TV to create ambiance. I couldn't understand why anyone would want to watch soccer. Wasn't it at least as boring and pointless as playing soccer?

When I returned to soccer at 16, after the game my friends on the high-school team said, "You're really good. Why haven't you tried out for the team?" Because until then, I hadn't known I was good at soccer. I had been playing a soccer-themed game called running-and-hierarchy-ball and I wasn't any good at that.

I would like to think my boys are actually experiencing soccer. Joe is a natural defender, and so we present defense as a desirable position, not the lot of the also-rans who can't be removed from the field because of rules about minimum number of players. Jerome is a natural attacker, so he has had plenty of opportunities to play defense, because he's only six.

Recently I've read some criticism of the pay-to-play system that permeates American soccer leagues more than some other sports. The good thing about raising the stakes is that coaching increases in quality. The bad news is that more kids are excluded, the best of the poor athletes go to other sports, and the hierarchy aspect of running-and-hierarchy-ball is increased. My kids have many, many fewer opportunities to play soccer than I had growing up. I guess the hierarchy aspect of the game extends to parents, too.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

It's the Little Things

Nothing really went “wrong” all day--not much ever does at Morgan and Patel--but not much went right, either. Traffic wasn't bad, but it was still traffic. I didn't have to drive past the three idiots on the billboard, but I could see them in my rear view mirror. A couple of projects I thought I had finished had come back to my desk, marked up with asinine questions in Grant's illegible scrawl. Paul let slip that he had Bucks tickets for the game that night, but he'd asked a new guy from his department, some young new college grad that all the older guys had a man-crush on. Jenna adjusted her breasts and looked up to catch me mid-ogle. Shelby called three times, once to tell me she couldn't find her keys, once to tell me I would have to come home at lunch to give her my key to the car, and once to tell me that she found her keys right where I had told her to look the first time she called. Some heating and cooling guys were working in the ceiling and were using an access point immediately outside my cubicle, blocking my entrance with their ladder. I got a phone call when I was on my way out to lunch, and I had to be back in time for a meeting at one, so my lunch hour was barely twenty minutes. When I got to the deli, the line was too long to wait. My one o'clock meeting turned out to be canceled. The company network was down for almost an hour. Shelby called me from the road to tell me she had forgotten to turn off the sprinkler in the back yard, so the grass would probably be swamped by the time I got home. I was going to recoup my lost lunch time by slipping out early, but Grant told me I had to stay until five because he was leaving early. Traffic again on the way home. The mocking billboard. Nothing good on the radio. Four bills in the mail. One of the boys had broken the leg off the piano bench. The cat had deliberately pissed next to the litter box. (Vanishing Vapour, pp. 54-5)

A common complaint among the readers of my novel--all four of them--is that the main character's motivation seems inadequate. "He has one bad day and he kills himself?" they ask. (Not really a spoiler alert; it's revealed in the novel's first sentence.)

To me, that part seems most authentic. Giant challenges in life can elicit a fighting response, but a sea of tiny annoyances just wash you down to oblivion.

I read an article entitled "Little Daily Stresses Can Kill You, Science Says" and although the author is writing about a different mechanism of death, the idea is the same. It's the little things that you can't fight back against, because there are a billion of them.

Every time my melancholia rises, it's the result of an hour-long parade of tiny setbacks. For instance, yesterday I had to work on Thanksgiving. At 7:45 a student rushed into my office to tell me why his score on his most-recent homework was low and that I should allow him to rewrite it. He returned an hour later to see what I had decided. Immediately outside my classroom smelled like a turkey dinner. A student presentation was a five-minute tirade on the arrogance of white people. (She was supposed to discuss the connection between minimum wage laws and unpaid internships.) I returned to my office to have my boss say, "Everything on your to-do list is crossed off so neatly," which, to me, sounded an awful lot like, "I read through your to-do list while you were out."

Many of my readers are probably thinking, "Geez, what a baby." I know because many of my readers have said as much to me in person. Oh well. I probably won't win any additional readers by telling you, "Why don't you suck it?"

So I'll just think it.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Travel, Past and Future

Yesterday I saw a slideshow (it's like a news story, but easier on the brain) of the world's largest cities. Some of them I've visited, some I plan to visit, and some I probably will never see.

28. Jakarta, Indonesia (10.1 m.): I have the feeling I'd die there.
27. London, England (10.1 m.): Not as threatening as Jakarta, but also not as close. My wife has been there and loved it, and I always promise I'll "make up" any accidental pregnancy with a trip to London, so maybe we'll end up visiting there before we're through.
26. Shenzhen, China (10.6 m.): I expect we'll end up visiting there before we leave China, if only because it's the border crossing to go to Hong Kong.
25. Paris, France (10.7 m.): Poland's most-beautiful city (that's a little trolling of any far-right French readers I might have), Paris has a lot of stuff that I recognize, so I should probably go one day.
24. Tianjin, China (10.8 m.): VISITED.
23. Kinshasa, D.R. Congo (11.1 m.): Another place I would expect to die. And not near anything that attracts westerners to Africa (unless you're Kurtz).
22. Guangzhou, China (11.8 m.): There's a really good chance we'll visit there, since nearly every flight from Beijing to Southeast Asia is routed through Guangzhou. (Less obvious is why they all have 28-hour layovers.)
21. Moscow, Russia (12.1 m.): Maybe as dangerous as Kinshasa. I recently read a tweet from someone who was assaulted on the Moscow Metro for wearing a shirt with an English slogan on it, but his attacker became his best friend when he responded in fluent Russian. I don't have the language skills to placate the xenophobes.
20. Los Angeles, CA (12.3 m.): VISITED.
19. Lagos, Nigeria (12.6 m.): I'd probably die before I got off the plane.
18. Manila, Philippines (12.7 m.): I think we might visit the Philippines before we leave China. It seems like a cheaper, less-dangerous Thailand (and since we're going to Thailand next month, we should visit the Philippines and see if my supposition is correct).
17. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (12.8 m.): Who doesn't want to visit Rio? But I don't have the body for it right now. Or probably never again since I was 17, really.
16. Chongqing, China (12.9 m.): There's a really, really good chance we'll visit here, since it's near Chengdu, Panda Flophouse of the World.
15. Istanbul, Turkey (13.9 m.): I'd like to see Hagia Sophia and walk across a bridge between continents, but I wish Turkey made an effort to change the English-language name of their country to something less ridiculous, like Turkia, and the government's lack of commitment in the fight against Islamic State gives me pause before I turn the browser in Expedia's direction.
14. Calcutta, India (14.7 m.): I like the idea of India, but I knew a guy who went to India and was hit in the head with a brick thrown at his van. It turns out Indians love the lulz just as much as the next ethnic group. My wife has no interest in visiting India (also a safety concern, I believe), and I don't really know what there is to do in Calcutta aside from seeing poor people. Well, they have a Black Hole there. I guess that's something.
13. Buenos Aires, Argentina (15.0 m.): It's so far away. It just seems tiring.
12. Karachi, Pakistan (16.1 m.): We've had a lot of fun joking about dying on trips so far this post, but let's not kid ourselves: there's only one city on this list where I'd really die, and that city's Karachi.
11. Dhaka, Bangladesh (16.9 m.): Less open defecation than Calcutta. When that's your selling feature, you need to reevaluate your life.
10. Cairo, Egypt (18.4 m.): Sure, pyramids, but what else? It doesn't seem worth the trip. All the good stuff's in the British Museum anyway, right?
9. New York, NY (18.6 m.): VISITED.
8. Beijing, China (19.5 m.): VISITED.
7. Osaka, Japan (20.1 m.): My wife visited Japan when she was younger and she would like to go back while we live in Asia.
6. Mumbai, India (20.7 m.): All the poverty of Calcutta with the added annoyance of its stupid name change. No thanks.
5. São Paulo, Brazil (20.8 m.): Brazil without the beach? Whose idea was that, and how quickly was he fired?
4. Mexico City, Mexico (20.8 m.): I've already been to several large Mexican cities (Los Angeles, Phoenix, Dallas, et cetera). I've already experienced pollution tourism. What else does Mexico City have to offer?
3. Shanghai, China (23.0 m.): An excellent chance we'll visit soon.
2. Delhi, India (25.0 m.): Delhi will see your rampant poverty, Calcutta, and raise you worse air than China (seriously).
1. Tokyo, Japan (38.0 m.): Another city we will probably visit in the next two years.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Member Missionary Work?

My school's term calendar showed one Sunday and one Saturday we would be working. So far we're halfway through the term and I've worked three Sundays and two Saturdays.*

When I have to work on Sunday, my family goes to church without me. One such Sunday, while I was at my desk, I got an e-mail notification that my daughter had created a Google Calendar event called "Church!" and had invited me to it.

One Sunday that I was not working, my wife and I were thinking of stopping on the way home from church to see a cultural site or two. So as we were getting ready that morning, I said to my wife, "What are we going to do today?" My daughter replied, and her most scandalous voice, "Go to church!"

Maybe this is why our branch hasn't bothered to give us callings (or even meet with us): they heard from my daughter that we're non-active.

* = These work days are supposed to replace holidays. So they give you the national holiday, then have you work it back the next weekend. Lots of stuff about China is great, and some of it is less-than-ideal, but the only thing that works me into a murderous rage is a one-day weekend.

Atrocity Porn

It seems my school makes a yearly field trip to a World War Two museum, which, in an effort to produce reasoned dialog and international cooperation, the Chinese refer to as "The War of Chinese People's Resistance Against Japanese Aggression."

I had no interest in going. I lived in the Washington, DC, area for four years and made sure I never once entered the United States Holocaust Museum, and I was not about to spend an afternoon looking at exhibits detailing the Rape of Nanjing (link intentionally not included).

I've already told you that I hate Holocaust deniers and downplayers. I don't need to see a murdered Jew to fully understand the severity of what happened. Maybe some do, and so I'm not going to generalize to a condemnation of such museums. I just don't see any benefit to my life, while I see a giant downside.

Worst of all would be treating these tragedies as a type of entertainment, or manipulating them for political purposes. Holocaust museums aren't trying to hold something over Germany's head for the rest of history, they are opposed to modern antisemitism.

I feel I'm making my point very poorly. A partial reason is my tiredness. Another is my reticence to criticize the internal workings of my hosts. And another is my desire to not really think about these things more than absolutely necessary. I don't need to watch a rape, or even a rape reenactment, to know it's a terrible thing. (By the way, add "rape" to the list of things I hate, and "rape apologists" to the list of people I wish would die in a fire.)

Denouement: my school allowed the international faculty to opt for a visit to a nearby bridge instead. It was a nearly-unanimous decision.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Chinese (Lack of) Toilets

Amidst the raging debate over squat toilet v. sit toilet emerges a sizable party advocating the Third Way: just go in the street.

China has an open defecation problem that is not adequately communicated by this map. When you see that something less than 10% of rural Chinese poop in the open, you might reasonably expect that the cities have, literally speaking, their shit under control.

Tell that to the teenage boy I saw pooping in the planter outside the grocery store yesterday around noon.

The idea of using a store bathroom is anathema here. Although cities have public restrooms (our building is right next door to one), they are less frequent than necessary, and often difficult to find if you are unfamiliar with the neighborhood.

It's not just a matter of poverty or culture or education. Seemingly-similar countries can have drastically different public pooping outcomes.

No one in our family has pooped in the street (yet), but Jerome has peed in the streets several times. The first time, we were sitting in a Subway, eating ham sandwiches that smelled of fish, and he had to pee. There was no public restroom in the building on on the block. My wife hoped we could get some sympathy for a small child, and perhaps some business would let Jerome pee in the employee restroom, but she took him out on the street to stand around and look helpless for a while, then turned it over to me. So we went down the alley behind Subway and found an area of relative seclusion. He resisted at first, but ended up deciding that peeing on a Dumpster was better than peeing in his pants.

The next time, I took the boys to lunch. As we approached the restaurant, Jerome said, "Oh, I forgot that I needed to go to the bathroom." Since his mother wasn't there, we didn't have to start with the false attempts at civilization and modesty; I immediately guided him to an area behind a shrub, on the side of a convenience store near a busy intersection, and told him not to pee on the equipment the store owners were keeping back there or else they would come out and yell at him.

Later in the meal, he had to go again. We were nearly done, so I asked if he could wait until we got home. Since he's six years old, of course he could not. I told him to go back to the side of the convenience store. He's our most adventurous child, so he left on his own without a problem. A moment later, he was back. It seemed there were kids hanging out in his pee location. I thought of giving him the keys to our apartment and sending him home, but he can't unlock the door by himself. I gave him directions to the public restroom outside our building, but it became obvious he would not make it that far. So I told him to suck it up and pee in front of the kids on the side of the building. He came back a little later, happy to report that the kids had left and he had some privacy at his busy intersection.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Chinese Toilets, Part 3

It's about to get awkward up in here.

How many toilet posts can I have before I start sharing things you wish I hadn't? The answer is "two."

I decided to be proactive and acclimate to squat toilets before I find myself in a dire situation. When the time comes that I'm rushing to a public toilet after eating some suspicious street food, only to find a solid phalanx of squat toilets, do I want that to be my first attempt at using one? I'll be much better off if I'm used to them by then.

So one Saturday that I had to work (even though students were not in class--this place makes poor decisions sometimes), I decided to use the squat toilet for the first time.

This is your final warning.

Westerners cannot get into as deep of a squat as easterners because we all stopped squatting when we were two. When westerners squat, our heels come off the ground and we balance on the balls of our feet, still over a foot above the target. Because of this higher placement, aim becomes more important. An easterner can use a squat toilet completely hands-free, I'd bet, but westerners must ensure proper direction. And when you're hunched over in a squat with a shirt bunched up and some extra weight around your midsection, you can't always get a good read on what's going on down there.

I became aware that I had urinated on my own ankle when I felt the dampness of my pants against my skin.

I texted my wife the three words no wife ever wants to receive in a text message: "Squat toilet mishap." I requested she send a kid over with replacement pants, socks, and shoes. And then I waited in the bathroom until I heard my kid out in the building hallway. I changed in the bathroom and sent my kid back home with a bag of my soiled clothes. And I never explained to my coworkers why I changed clothes in the middle of the day.

Since then I've been flawless. My success rate is now over 90%. But it will never again be 100%.

Chinese Toilets, Part 2

A strange phenomenon around here is the sexy toilet ad. One I've seen in a few different subway stations has a painfully-attractive couple standing over a sleek toilet, giving it sultry looks. The man and woman are touching, but I can't help feeling they both have the hots for the toilet. Every time I see the ad and want to take a picture, we're either late going somewhere or the platform is incredibly crowded. I'll keep trying, though.

When we were in Tianjin, we walked past a store selling home furnishings, and I noticed a billboard with a sexy toilet ad. Then I noticed another one, this one for a different brand, above the first. So sexy toilet ads are definitely a thing here.

My wife speculated that such ads are necessary because western toilet manufacturers have to induce Chinese customers to replace their squat toilets with bowl toilets. In America, they don't have to convince you that you need a toilet, they just have to convince you that you need a cool one (like this wall-mounted one, which seems awesome until you realize that all the pee that normally ends up on the tank will instead be on your wall). The initial threshold is a little higher here, so they have to use gorgeous people to help get over it.

Someone who would have a hard time with these ad campaigns would be my former college housemate (who had such a lasting impact on my life that I can't remember his name). He would ask the rest of us in the house, "Do you think a girl's rear is attractive?" If we answered yes, he'd ask, "You know that's where her poop comes out, right?"

Chinese Toilets, Part 1

Back when we first got to China and I had technical issues, I wrote this blog post for later use. In the meanwhile, conditions have changed, but for completeness, I will share this mostly as it was written and add a follow-up post later.

I know what you’re thinking: “He’s going to write about squat toilets.” Well, the joke’s on YOU, sucker: I haven’t even USED a squat toilet yet! Because I have no idea HOW, smart guy. I mean, I don’t know about you, but when I drop my pants and squat, I’m still right over top of my pants. I can think of a less-elaborate way to poop in my pants, thanks.

Actually, I’ve watched YouTube videos about how to use a squat toilet, and I think I have a better handle on how to go about my business. (Think “pants around knees,” not “pants around ankles.”)

“Hold on, fool,” you say. “You watched YouTube videos on how to use a toilet?” Yes. What of it? I know it makes me sound like a giant nerd, but YouTube videos can be really helpful. I basically taught myself effective swimming technique from library books and YouTube videos. I had some Indian students who invited me to play cricket with them, so I checked a book out of the library to make sure I knew what I should be doing. (I never ended up going because they rescinded the offer when I gave them failing grades.) People make fun of me when they hear these stories, but isn’t that what libraries and YouTube are for? (Well, libraries, anyway. YouTube is probably for watching this cat massage video.)

So anyway, if I’m not writing about squat toilets, what AM I writing about?

The stink.

We live on the fifth floor, 50 feet above the sewer, but our bathrooms stink like sewage day and night. You see, the shower drains connect to the toilet pipes, and each bathroom has two floor drains that do the same. So we have four holes in our apartment that conduct sewer gas into our place. We’ve taped up the floor drains, but the shower drains are still a problem. I’m thinking of getting plunger heads to set atop the drains when we’re not using the showers.

I was sort of relieved when I learned that it’s not just our bathroom that stinks. Every bathroom I’ve used has smelled like sewage, even in fancy restaurants and offices. The bathroom at church smells like the bathroom in an American bus station, and it is one of the nicest ones I've seen so far.

Monday, November 17, 2014

China Travels Map

I promised a map, to no one in particular. And here it is.

At the end of August, we landed at the airport, which is mostly in Shunyi. We BARELY (and I mean barely barely) drove through Tongzhou, then through Chaoyang and into Haidian, where we live. Two days later we went to church for the first time. Our local subway station straddles a district boundary, so by the time we got on a train, we had entered Shijingshan. We then rode across Xicheng and Dongcheng. That afternoon, my work coordinated a trip to Ikea for all new arrivals, and that took me through Fengtai to Daxing.

On Halloween, my school took us on a field trip to hike around some mountain. On the bus ride home, we barely entered Mentougou (though not as barely as our entering Tongzhou). Then last week my family took the train to Tianjin. We right across Tongzhou, so the brief visit on the way home from the airport no longer mattered. During our three days in Tianjin, we managed to visit all six of the city-center districts.

This data set has some problems. Since Beijing and Tianjin are municipalities that are equivalent to provinces, their districts are equivalent to other provinces' municipalities. Until I get around to fixing this layer, though, it shows province boundaries in bold dashed lines and district boundaries in thin solid lines. This makes it look like the surrounding province, Hebei, has many more top-level divisions than it really has. It's not that big of a deal right now because I haven't been to Hebei yet (though my daughter has, because of Girls Camp), but I don't want anyone (like my wife) to look at the number of divisions shown on this map for Hebei and freak out that I want us to go to them all. China actually only has somewhere around 400 second-level divisions, and I've already been to 18 of them (almost five percent).

Whisper Sweet Nothings, Which Is to Say, Whisper Nothing

Some accents sound sexy. These are the accents that beautiful foreign exchange students have in teen romantic comedies. But not all accents are so lucky. Some sound like the vocal equivalent of a garbage truck falling off the Empire State Building (which was the worst sound Large Marge ever did hear).

I recently had to talk with a woman who has a terribly strong Upper Midwest accent. It got me to wondering: is there any accent on Earth that is less attractive? Maybe something like a Bronx accent, or a Cockney accent. Russian accents can be okay, but very strong ones can make even the most-effeminate woman sound like a dude in disguise. Appalachian accents are pretty grating, too.

Lots of these accents might be unattractive because of their class implications. Ladies with Bronx accents aren't genteel. But the Upper Midwest is a relatively-middle-class area. Nobody hears someone from Minnesota and thinks, "Oh, you sound poor!" But they also don't think, "Ooh la la!"

I'm aware that, to many people around the world, the American accent is just such an unattractive accent. I'm fine with that. I get how someone could hear me talk and shudder in revulsion. Like I do when I hear people from the Upper Midwest.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Street Food Success!



Right after we figured out that our jianbing guy was actually our kaolengmian guy, he got chased off the streets for APEC. Because so many visiting dignitaries were cruising our neighborhood, let me tell you. All the street vendors had to vamoos, but the rotting garbage substation immediately next to our building was allowed to carry on, no questions asked.

Anyway, last night, in an effort to overcome my anger of having to work on a Saturday (I really should have included our "holiday replacement days" on my list of most-hated things), we went to see if they were back yet. And they were!

We celebrated their return by getting two. And they celebrated their return by making them twice as spicy as normal.

While we stood at the cart, watching the husband-and-wife team work, the guard from the nearby grocery store came over to tell everyone standing around that we have four kids. We don't know this guard, but he knows us. He told them we have a daughter and three sons. The kaolengmian guy was incredulous.

An old lady wanted to chat us up, but we'd already passed the limit of our Chinese language skills. Like most people we've met, though, she was completely undeterred when I said to her, "Wo bu hui shuo zhongwen." Another customer at the cart started translating for us, and the old lady also cut back some to simpler words we could recognize. She wanted to know if I was a teacher at the local school and if we came from America.

As we walked home, my wife said, "How did that guard know we have four kids? I haven't taken all four kids with me to the grocery store in a long time. I usually leave at least three home."

I said, "It's probably a game to him. He's like, 'Here's that white lady again, and this time with a different kid.' He probably keeps track of how many different kids he sees you with."

I had a meal of all the finest things China has to offer: kaolengmian, +C, knock-off Peachy-Os, and a single-serving cheesecake cup. It didn't make up for my one-day weekend, but it helped a little.

What Is the Opposite of Raindrops on Roses and Whiskers on Kittens?

So what else makes me belligerent? In addition to arguments supporting statism and arguments denying the restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ, I also become Bruce-Banner angry when I hear Holocaust denials (or downplays), support of abortion, or plans to restrict parental rights. Militant atheists frustrate me, but only receive my ire when they aim to use the state to enforce their religion. (And yes, atheism is a religion. Agnosticism is not, but rare is the true agnostic. It is usually a term used by atheists to make themselves more palatable.)

Former Mormons generally disappoint me, but the ones who can't just leave the Church alone get me angry. Pro-Palestinians, invariably fancied-up anti-Semites, also anger me. Generally, anyone who downplays terrorism sickens me. Islamic State beheadings and everyone who is not repulsed by them infuriate me.

A few years ago, a Cambodian woman at church was asked to give the sermon (Mormons rotate through the congregation giving sermons, which are just referred to as "talks.") The typical talk lasts about 15 minutes and is based on scriptures and teachings of church leaders. This woman's talk last about 40 minutes and it was just a recounting of her experiences under the Khmer Rouge. The more I listened, the more I was angered by the 1960s anti-war movement. The line from Country Joe and the Fish ("One, two, three, what are we fightin' for?") was shockingly answered. We were fighting so this woman and millions like her wouldn't have their spouses murdered, their children stolen, and their heads bashed in when they tried to learn the fates of their loved ones (among other experiences recounted). And any 1960s college student could have learned that had they not been so self-centered. "I don't want to save Asians, man; the sexual revolution's beginning!" Every communist apologist in America was in some small way complicit in what happened to this woman. But my greatest anger was towards the two teenage girls in church who we're mocking how emotional the speaker had become.

These are a few of my least-favorite things.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Great Moments in Internet Flame Wars

This title is not an oxymoron.

I can't stay silent when someone is saying something wrong. (Maybe this is the reason I keep blogging.) This leads me to argue with friends sometimes. But I was raised arguing for sport. My wife and my sisters-in-law don't get how my family disagrees so much. To them, arguing means you're angry with the other person. In my family, though, arguing means you respect the other person's intellect.

Some things aren't worth arguing. If you want to post on Facebook that the Atlanta Braves won the 1973 World Series, I'm only going to contradict you if we're good enough friends. But if you advance statism or deny the restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ, I will come at you like a spider monkey. (NOTE: Wikipedia says spider monkeys aren't that aggressive, but Talladega Nights says otherwise. I think we all know which of those sources is more trustworthy.)

ARGUMENT NUMBER ONE

About a week ago, I shared on Facebook this clip of President Obama.

I added,

This is highly offensive to me. Children should be raised by their families, not in "high-quality pre-school." It's not always an option for some families, but that doesn't mean it's not the goal. It is an option much more than it's used. Too many assume maximizing income is how to best care for children.

Two days later, a friend shared a "debunking" and wrote,

When teaching writing, especially informative or persuasive writing, we talk about bias and finding credible sources. It is always a hard lesson for students. What I see on Facebook makes me think adults need that lesson too. First, don't believe everything you read online. EVERYONE has bias. A credible source tries to be objective, even if trying to persuade you of something. For instance, take the stories from conservative websites about Pres. Obama's comments on stay-at-home moms. Out of context his comment has enraged many people. In context, he was giving a speech applauding Rhode Island for its family leave programs that allow parents to be at home with the children and allow those who choose to work not to have to choose between a sick child and a job. The comment that has everyone riled up, in context, is about NOT punishing those who choose to stay home with their children. Additionally, it referred to the trend of women and moms getting the shaft in corporate America because their employers think their work will somehow be infringed upon by having children, that women receive lower wages or are skipped over for promotion because there is the POSSIBILITY they may have children, and that women who do take time off to be stay-at-home moms are penalized when they decide to re-enter the work force. Please, no matter where you fall on the political spectrum, do a little research before reacting or posting something. It takes a minimal amount of time and will go a long way to bridging the ever-widening us/them perceptions that prevail. For example, A blog attached to The Wall Street Journal (paper known for its conservative bent) has a vastly different perspective on the speech and what it was about.

I read the transcript of the president's speech. Here is the relevant section.

[THE PRESIDENT:] So women deserve a day off to care for a sick child or sick parent without running into hardship. And Rhode Island has got the right idea. You’re one of just three states where paid family leave is the law of the land. (Applause.) More states should choose to follow your lead.

It was interesting talking to some of the small business owners in the meeting. They were saying how the Rhode Island law actually helped them do a better job recruiting and retaining outstanding employees. And so that shows you something — that this is not just a nice thing to do; it’s good policy. It’s good for business. It’s good for the economy. (Applause.)

Without paid leave, when a baby arrives or an aging parent needs help, workers have to make painful decisions about whether they can afford to be there when their families need them most. Many women can’t even get a paid day off to give birth to their child. I mean, there are a lot of companies that still don’t provide maternity leave. Of course, dads should be there, too. So let’s make this happen for women and for men, and make our economy stronger. (Applause.) We’ve got to broaden our laws for family leave.

Moms and dads deserve a great place to drop their kids off every day that doesn’t cost them an arm and a leg. We need better childcare, daycare, early childhood education policies. (Applause.) In many states, sending your child to daycare costs more than sending them to a public university.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: True!

THE PRESIDENT: True. (Laughter.) And too often, parents have no choice but to put their kids in cheaper daycare that maybe doesn’t have the kinds of programming that makes a big difference in a child’s development. And sometimes there may just not be any slots, or the best programs may be too far away. And sometimes, someone, usually mom, leaves the workplace to stay home with the kids, which then leaves her earning a lower wage for the rest of her life as a result. And that’s not a choice we want Americans to make.

So let’s make this happen. By the end of this decade, let’s enroll 6 million children in high-quality preschool, and let’s make sure that we are making America stronger. That is good for families; it’s also good for the children, because we know investing in high-quality early childhood education makes all the difference in the world, and those kids will do better. So we need family leave, we need better child care policies, and we need to make sure that women get an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work. (Applause.)

How can you read that and think his line "that's not a choice we want Americans to make" is about sick leave? He talks about family leave, then he moves on to child care. He bemoans mothers leaving the workforce because "great" places to "drop off their kids" cost "an arm and a leg." Only by tuning out for about a minute can you think he's still talking about family leave when he says we don't want mothers leaving the workforce to care for their children. This is why he follows it up with a proposal for more children in "high-quality preschool." Preschool doesn't solve a family leave problem. There is no way that the president is not criticizing the decision of stay-at-home moms in this speech.

I commented on my friend's post saying as much. I later got notice that she replied, but I didn't bother reading it. It's not my job to make sure you stop being wrong, only to advance the truth.

ARGUMENT NUMBER TWO

I've got a sister-in-law who looks for opportunities to disagree with our mutual church. In the past few years, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has started sharing in-depth articles detailing murkier or more-troubling aspects of church history and doctrine. The church has displayed an incredible degree of openness, even releasing this video displaying and discussing the temple garment.

My sister-in-law shared a link to a recent church article regarding the practice of polygamy in the Kirtland and Nauvoo eras and added, "Glad that the church is finally admitting this happened. Wish they'd been a little more straightforward."

Now, I'd share what I wrote in response, but she deletes disagreeing comments from her posts. Repeatedly. The only time I've managed to get her to not delete my comment was when I started with, "Don't delete my comment," which she took as a "personal attack." (She takes all disagreement as a "personal attack," which is her reason for deleting disagreement.) So I'm going to have to recreate my comment from memory.

I wrote something like, "What do you mean 'finally admitting this happened'? The church spent much of the late 1800s taking affidavits from Joseph Smith's surviving wives to refute RLDS claims that polygamous marriages were merely spiritual or symbolic. How can you say a church that had old ladies swear legal documents regarding their sex lives has ever done anything BUT admit this happened? Member ignorance is not leader conspiracy."

My wife predicted that my use of "ignorance" was going to get my comment deleted. Whatever the reason, within a few hours, my comment was gone.

Here's why her deleting dissent angers me more than her wrong comments. She says "X" and I say "Not X." Someone reading can then see both "X" and "Not X" and make a more-informed decision regarding the truth. But when she deletes "Not X", she is, in effect, lying. She is implying to her readers that there is no "Not X" position because no one is sharing it. But she knows there is such a position, because she saw it. Instead of confronting new information and adjusting her priors, she just makes the new information go away. Which is fine if she wants to be wrong. Like I said earlier, it's not my job to make wrong people be right. But it is my job to oppose liars.

Do I delete Facebook comments, or not publish blog comments? Only when they contain excessive profanity or (in the case of my blog) identifying information. (Anyone who really wants to find out who I am probably can, but I don't really want my blog coming up on the first few pages of a Google search of my name, and so far I've been able to keep it that way.) But comments that say in not so many words, "Hey, jackass, you're totally wrong," get to stay. Because maybe I am totally wrong. (And I'm definitely a jackass.)

My sister-in-law posts critical comments regarding church policy on same-sex marriage and female priesthood ordination, and then when anyone posts disagreements, she deletes the disagreements. To her casual follower, her specious arguments appear valid because they go unrefuted. She's no longer making claims about the church; she's effectively creating "facts."

My family has taken a "don't get her angry" approach, but that's just not something I can do. I have to say what is true. I take care to not levy an actual personal attack, and to not be needlessly inflammatory, but I will not be silent in the face of falsehood simply because the falsehood is spread by my brother's wife.

Am I being intolerant? By some standards, I guess. By the modern definition, which requires I embrace everything wrong lest I be accused of intolerance, definitely. I recently read a quotation from President Joseph F. Smith in October 1907 General Conference regarding the proper limits of tolerance. I would like to think my actions are in line with his thinking. But then again, I might be a totally-wrong jackass.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

"We Don't Update Our Blogs / We Are Train Wrecks"

I've been messing with my Feedly account, trying to get it linked with my Outlook account because Google is usually blocked in China. Anyway, I used the opportunity to take stock of the blogs I follow. And how many of those blogs are still active.

Nearly every blog I follow that is still producing content is either a professional writer or an intellectual (who are just professional writers who don't have to have readers to get paid). My daughter blogs, and my wife maintains a family blog (I think her personal blog has lapsed). The only other active "dude with sometimes thoughtful, sometimes funny opinions" blog I follow is Crank Crank Revolution. (Apologies to Steve if he's actually a professional writer and/or intellectual. Perhaps it's a sign of quality that his blog doesn't scream it through endless shilling.)

I began to wonder if it was just the blogs I followed that shut down, or if everyone did. So I conducted a super-scientific study: I went to my blog and clicked on "next blog" at the top. And then I did it a bunch more times. And it turns out that the only blogs still operating on the Internet are mine and some evangelical Christian ministries.

When was Peak Blog? Judging from the most-recent post of each blog I encountered in my research, it was 2010.

Is this a good thing or a bad thing? If I am blogging for attention, I now have less competition. But I probably also have a smaller audience. If I am blogging to get "discovered," the "less-competition" thing still applies, but this also could be an indication that I should adjust my expectations. Everyone else who hoped to get discovered gave up long ago, and I just haven't read the memo yet. If I am blogging because I consider myself a professional writer and/or intellectual, I guess I could trick some people into thinking that's true just by association. "This dude must be legit because he's still got a blog 'n' crap, and only fancy book-learnin' homos still blog, right?" But the gap between my ability and those of the real writers should become more apparent the more they are juxtaposed with no buffer. ("Juxta-what?! I just knewed he was a book-learnin' homo!")

So I spent some time asking myself why I still blog, and the answer is, I don't know. I don't think I'm doing it for any of those reasons. I don't do it for the feedback, because there basically isn't any anymore. Aggregators (like Feedly) have raised the cost of commenting on a blog. It was fun for a while to get new "fans," but those fans have all left and I'm still writing this blog. Probably out of duty, like I'd be a public failure if I ever stopped. Probably out of vanity, because I fantasize that I have thousands of lurkers who hang on my every word. Probably out of procrastination, because I can feel like I did something productive when I write a blog post, even though I didn't. Probably out of justification, because I can tell myself that I'm honing my ideas, even when I write about things that have nothing to do with my topic. Probably out of fun, because I like writing.

So I guess it's just me and the evangelicals. Until the Rapture, anyway.

Post title from the Weezer song, "Train Wrecks."

Sexless Students

I recently saw a map on the Internet (too lazy to look it up; find it yourself) showing the average age of each country's citizens when they lost their virginities. (SpellCheck wants me to use the singular "virginity," but it's not a collective virginity that the citizens all lose together. Although that sounds like one hell of a party.) Although the map is missing values for over half the countries in the world (but the publisher probably thought, "We have all the countries people really care about"), what catches the viewer's eye are the outliers. Evidently Icelanders get started young (and by lengthening their non-monogamous periods, they are increasing the chances that they are boning their cousins), and Chinese people get started late. No surprises there. We all knew Icelanders were pervs (Viking blood). As for the Chinese, they tend to follow tradition more. Less pre-marital sex, expensive real estate, and the expectation of having a home before marriage combine to keep a lid on things.

But the price of real estate can't keep hormones out of your bloodstream, can it? So how do I explain the utter chastity of my mid-to-late-teen students?

My school has at least 300 students. I'd say there are about 10 to 15 couples, all invariably seniors. I have one pair of students who probably like each other, but they haven't figured that out yet. All the rest of my students act like, well, I was going to say "act like grade-schoolers," but the fact is even American grade-schoolers are getting more action than these kids. (I was going to link to some news stories I've seen about that, but what came back from a search engine was terribly depressing.)

I wondered if maybe it was genetic. Do Asian pituitary glands turn on later? Probably not, as my male students all have about as much facial hair as their American peers. (Needless disclaimer: I'm not a medical doctor, so my understanding of human physiology is probably laughably limited.) So is it environmental? Can reducing the exposure to sex in media reduce the incidence of sexual behavior in youth? It seems that way. Not that advertising doesn't use sex appeal here, but it's usually a modestly dressed girl with a beautiful face, not a nearly-naked girl with a Photoshopped anatomy. A new subway ad we've seen features shirtless men carrying delivery boxes; my understanding is that they are advertising low-cost shipping on Singles Day purchases. It was the sexiest thing I've seen in public in China.*

* = Meaning that the advertisement is trying to be sexy, not that I found it sexy. But those dudes are good-looking. Just objectively speaking.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Chinese Counties

My wife told me I would not be tracking my Chinese counties while we were here. Sometimes I think she just likes to say things she knows are incorrect.

China has first-level divisions (mostly called provinces, but four municipalities have province-level equivalence) and second-level divisions (mostly called prefectures, but called districts or counties in the province-level municipalities). I am in the process of making maps of our travels, but I have to do some editing of the base files I downloaded which were incomplete. So in the meanwhile, I'll just use a list.

Aug. 22: Shunyi District, Beijing Municipality (1)
Aug. 22: Tongzhou District, Beijing Municipality (2)
Aug. 22: Chaoyang District, Beijing Municipality (3)
Aug. 22: Haidian District, Beijing Municipality (4)
Aug. 24: Shijingshan District, Beijing Municipality (5)
Aug. 24: Xicheng District, Beijing Municipality (6)
Aug. 24: Dongcheng District, Beijing Municipality (7)
Aug. 24: Fengtai District, Beijing Municipality (8)
Aug. 24: Daxing District, Beijing Municipality (9)
Oct. 31: Mentougou District, Beijing Municipality (10)
Nov. 9: Wuqing District, Tianjin Municipality (11)
Nov. 9: Beichen District, Tianjin Municipality (12)
Nov. 9: Hebei District, Tianjin Municipality (13)
Nov. 9: Hedong District, Tianjin Municipality (14)
Nov. 9: Nankai District, Tianjin Municipality (15)
Nov. 9: Hongqiao District, Tianjin Municipality (16)
Nov. 10: Heping District, Tianjin Municipality (17)

I've been to 10/16 of Beijing's districts and 7/16 of Tianjin's, with plans to visit one more Tianjin district before we return home on Wednesday. This is, of course, boring to everyone but me.

Sunday, November 09, 2014

Tianjin Weekend

I mentioned before that a lot of institutional knowledge is seemingly in our sight but out of our reach. Some of this is because our branch members couldn't be less interested in who we are or what we're doing here. Once they finished winning a dispute over which branch we were in (a dispute they conducted about us, not actually talking to us about it at all), they were done with us.

My work has some employees whose job it is to help the international teachers with living issues, but these guys tend to give us the attitude of, "Why did you move to China if you can't speak Chinese? It's not my job to make up for your stupidity." So doing anything is a lot more difficult than it needs to be, if only people would share information they know we need, or answer questions we ask.

My work is on forced hiatus during an economic conference in Beijing so the air will appear cleaner than it naturally is. We were going to use the opportunity to travel for visiting Chengdu and seeing the panda research center there, but as time went on and we continued to get no helpful answers about how to travel or how to use our bank card online, we ended up changing our plans. We came to Tianjin, a half-hour train ride that does not require advance purchase.

It turns out advance purchase would have been a good idea, though. We found this out when we got to Beijing South Railway Station at noon and found out the soonest we could get five tickets on the same train would be 5:15. So we got to pass five hours sitting on the floor of a train station (the station has about half as many seats as it needs, and I never saw an empty seat the entire time we were there).

But now we're in our hotel in Tianjin. It's our first time getting two hotel rooms. The three big kids are across the hall, sharing a king-size bed. Screamapilar is in our room, not falling asleep at 10 pm. This is my second Chinese province visited. Expect awesome blog posts soon. (Just don't expect them from me; you've read enough of my blog to know that by now.)

Saturday, November 08, 2014

The Rising Costs of American Football Viewership?

Marginal Revolution's Alex Tabarrok pointed me to a blog post by Gabriel Rossman about the rise of sports programing on television (specifically, American football) in a time of increasing costs to the viewers of sports programs. And both bloggers end up asking the same question: what up wit DAT?

A related question I have is this: is football increasing in popularity in spite of its transition to bloodsport or because of it? If Americans want an outlet for their blood-lust, then it can make sense that more of them are turning to football even though the costs of viewing it are increasing. But if Americans are becoming increasingly concerned about the physical toll football takes on its players, and they are still watching in greater numbers, then the problem outlined by Rossman is even more of a puzzle.

Here's my stab at an answer: football is both increasing and decreasing in popularity at the same time. As football players become larger, the collisions become more violent, and the players become more incapacitated, some fans are leaving. At the same time, other fans are being drawn to the shared experience (it's like the final episode of M*A*S*H and the first O.J. verdict had a baby) and some are even drawn to the violence. It's like there's an American football Slutsky equation and the overall effect is positive.

Either that or else I'm misreading the public outcry over football injuries. Maybe everyone else is just a lot more comfortable with their cognitive dissonance. Maybe there are actually no leaving fans. After all, the people who bemoan serious football injuries somehow always know when there's a new serious football injury that needs bemoaning. It seems to me like they're still watching as much as before.

Friday, November 07, 2014

Scooters and Subways

Last night we had to drop Crazy Jane off at a branch member's home across town so they could leave for Girls Camp early this morning. Although subway traffic was supposed to be heavier than usual due to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting going on here now, it didn't seem too bad to me.

Elsewhere on the Beijing subway last night, a woman was crushed to death when she became trapped between the train door and the platform door. This could have been her error (trying to enter a train well after the "doors closing" chime has sounded, or when there is obviously no room for her in the car) or the error of others around her (not being allowed to back up when the doors closed in front of her, or getting swept in or out of the car by others). Either way, it's too bad.

We have to go back across town tomorrow night to pick up Crazy Jane. I texted my wife, "Maybe we buy a scooter tomorrow for picking up [Crazy Jane]." My wife replied, "With her luggage[?]" I responded, "It's like you've never seen a Chinese scooter." Driving a scooter that looks like the end-stages of a game of Jenga is de rigueur around here.

I like the idea of getting a scooter. I think it would be easier to get Crazy Jane to Young Women meetings. My wife has mentioned this idea to some branch members and they have all supported it. However, one of the women noted, "The few church members who have had really serious traffic accidents while in China were all on scooters."

Our kids see the families of three riding on one scooter with a week's groceries and think it would be awesome. Jerome is convinced we just need two scooters, one for each parent to drive, with a kid standing on the runner board between the driver's legs and another kid sitting in back holding on to the driver's waist. In other news, Jerome has gone full China.

The main reason we won't get a scooter, though, is the range. The electric scooters can't get to Young Women and back on one charge, and the gasoline scooters are more-heavily regulated as motorcycles are. But if it turns out I'm wrong about the mileage available on a single battery charge, we might end up with a scooter, eventually.

Why Mormons Get Married on the Cheap: They Want to Stay Married

A few weeks ago I read this blog post at Marginal Revolution citing this work on wedding expenses as predictor of marriage length. Which made me wonder, "Did I spend too much on my wedding?"

If so, then our marriage was doomed from the start, because I don't see how I could have spent less. When I asked my wife to marry me (the most recent time, the one that counted, not the ones when we were teenagers and she was all, like, "Sure thing!" right before she was all, like, "Whoops, never mind!"), I was working for minimum wage at a big-box retailer (and being forced to work off-the-clock some, too). So my income wasn't all that panty-dropping. By the time we actually got married (almost three months later), I had moved up to a month-to-month contractor position in a city government office. Better, but still not enough to take 300 people to a destination wedding.

I bought the smallest engagement ring that still had its own solitaire diamond. The entire ring set (engagement and wedding) cost just over $700 (over $900 in 2014 dollars). I had to open a line of credit with the jeweler and make monthly payments.

When it came to the wedding, things were slightly fancier than your typical "cultural hall" wedding, but not by much. The marriage site was free, of course, and then we had a lunch at Olive Garden (back then it was still pretty good) for 19 adults and six children. The reception was at my in-laws' house and was catered by my new brother-in-law. My wife rented her wedding dress. My wedding ring was really cheap because it's titanium and super light. The largest expense of our wedding was probably the Bread Basket cake.

This kind of no-second-mortgage-required "shoestring" wedding is probably still the rule rather than the exception among Mormons (although it used to be ubiquitous and now it is merely commonplace). Why do Mormons get married so cheaply?

Well, perhaps one reason is the lack of alcohol at the reception; I remember hearing as a child how my grandfather spent more money on alcohol at my uncle's wedding reception than on the entire rest of the wedding. Drinking is a rich man's game, and alcohol is another example of how something gets associated with high status and then becomes desirable for the high status, often resulting in its users being trapped in their low status as a result of their use.

A second reason is that Mormons tend to have large families, which means less money to spend on a given child's wedding. If you're an only child, you can have your parents foot a much larger bill than if you're one of two marriages the family will have that week. (My brother-in-law's nieces got married on successive Saturdays.)

Next, Mormons put less value in the pageantry of the wedding because the part that matters is all taking place in the temple. In fact, I think most Mormons look down on extravagant wedding receptions because they diminish from the importance of the wedding ceremony itself. If the thing you remember most from your wedding day is something besides the wedding, you're doing it wrong.

And speaking of "doing it," Mormons get married younger, before they can save a bunch of money for their "ideal" weddings. I drove myself and my wife from the wedding lunch to my in-laws' home and I didn't once think about how down-trodden I was because I wasn't in a limousine. Instead, my brain was singing to itself, "We're gonna DO it, we're gonna DO it!" Which isn't some terrible thing: married people are supposed to have sex, and people having sex are supposed to be married. Mormons take that idea more seriously than most, so they have a little extra motivation to get married, even in non-luxurious circumstances.

My post title is facetious; I don't think any Mormons look at their cheap weddings and think, "According to Francis and Mialon, this marriage is going to last forever!" But I think the things that make Mormons more likely to stay married are the same things that make them less likely to spend extravagantly on their weddings: low incidence of substance abuse, a large social network with a bias against divorce, a lack of importance placed in wedding spectacle because the marriage itself is seen as paramount, and a healthy amount of in-marriage sexuality.

Thursday, November 06, 2014

I'm Superior to You All Because I Get My Attention Through Telegraphs and Carrier Pigeons

Saturday night at district conference, one guy commented to say that he's always had a very unfavorable opinion of social media because he hates ploys for public attention.

It seemed to me like this guy was fairly clueless as to what social media actually is, and he has spent his time railing in his brain against his incorrect perception. Most people with Facebook accounts are not posting material for anonymous strangers, but for their friends. And yeah, I know it's cool to use ironic "quotes" (oh, the meta-irony!) around the word "friends" when writing about Facebook, to let it be known you don't think Facebook friends are real friends. (I've done it myself on this blog.) But Facebook friends, even if they're Facebook "friends," are still people you somehow, somewhere once knew. Is disclosing personal information to people you know a "ploy for public attention"? Is that not the basis of all conversation?

Basically, if you go to the office and tell your co-worker about your past weekend, that's acceptable, but if you write a post on Facebook about your past weekend, you're an attention whore. This just sounds like old-people Luddism, not a serious social philosophy.

Of course some people use social media for attention, but some people use direct conversation for attention, too. As Elder Bednar has said, it's not the medium that is good or evil, it's the intention of the user.

Bad News and Good News Regarding Street Food

My jiānbǐng guy has been missing this entire week. The last time we saw him was Saturday night. He was around the corner from his usual spot. Then, Tuesday night, my wife and I went to a large bookstore to browse their map selection ahead of this weekend's trip to Tianjin. Leaving the bookstore, I was feeling peckish, but I decided to wait until we took the subway back to our neighborhood, so I could get a jiānbǐng. When we got off the subway at our stop, we couldn't find him at all.

I told my wife, "I'm going to ask someone." She said, "How are you going to do that? You don't speak any Chinese." I said, "It'll work." So I found a guy and asked, "Nǎlǐ jiānbǐng?" which is absolutely terrible Chinese, but I hoped it would get my point across. The guy said, "Xiàn bǐng?" which, I just found out right now, means, "Pie?" Had I known at the time that he was offering me a tip on where to score some pie, I probably would have taken him up on the offer, but back then I thought, "I'm pretty sure we're not saying the same thing, so I probably shouldn't agree." I made an eating motion. He made a drinking motion. I showed a bite with my teeth. He had grown tired of charades and shook his head woefully.

My wife said she had seen a guy on our street making jiānbǐng once, so we headed there. I was reminded of the scene from The Simpsons when, having been kicked out of an all-you-can-eat seafood restaurant, and failing to find an all-night seafood restaurant, Homer Simpsons had gone fishing.

We approached the storefront, which was a signless window with a man sitting behind a grill. I asked, "Nǐ yǒu jiānbǐng?" He pointed at a sign with a some characters and a price, but then he didn't start making food. It seemed like he didn't have any, so we walked away a little to review our options. I went back and asked again, and he said, "No."

So that's the bad news.

But here's the good news: some of my students told me today that what I wanted is not called "jiānbǐng" at all. It is called "kǎo lěng miàn." I came home and Googled it, and it is totally what I meant.

So now it's not my jiānbǐng guy that's missing, it's my kǎo lěng miàn guy. That somehow seems better, like I'm finally on the right track. If this was a Dan Brown novel, this would be Chapter 35.

I'm trying to ignore the ominous pronunciation of kǎo lěng miàn and tell myself that, even though it starts with "cow lung," it in fact contains no cow lung. I hope I'm right about that.

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Sex Sells, But Does Sexual Assault Sell?

My wife and I were walking around a mall here tonight when we passed a store called Evisu. In the window was a 10-foot copy of this picture from their website.

Copyright Evisu (probably), or maybe Terry Richardson.*

Everything about this picture screams "sexual assault" to me. The dramatic age disparity between the possibly-under-age female model and the greying-at-the-temples male model. The clothing disparity between the mostly-naked female model and the completely-clothed male model. The maturity disparity between the vapid young female model and the moustachioed male model. This is the type of picture a sexual predator takes when he can't believe his good fortune that the naive girl down the street believed his story about being a professional photographer who can really make her career take off. Except Terry Richardson really is a professional photographer who can really make her career take off. Is it not sexual predation if the story you tell the victim turns out to be true?

* = I have substantial social commentary to make on this picture, so fair use doctrine says I can reproduce it here for critiquing.

Who Do You Think I Am?

When we walk around Beijing, people do an exaggerated counting of our children, then hold up four fingers in disbelief, asking us to confirm that, yes, in fact we have four children. We nod in agreement, and then two things happen.

No. 1: they give us a thumbs up. This makes us uncomfortable because they are openly expressing rebellion to a government policy. I didn't bring my kids to China to criticize their government or to make a statement. I don't want to get anyone in trouble. The campy double-takes are fine, but the follow-up political commentary is unnecessary.

No. 2: they look me up and down as if to say, "So what's so important about you that the next generation needs FOUR copies of you?" Believe me, I wish I knew. It's humbling, and I'd like to have some accomplishment I could point to, but all I have is, "We're now slightly more protected against the potential future eradication of acne and depression."

When we went to Temple of Heaven, hundreds of tourists wanted to take pictures of Screamapilar, which is normal for China, but people also wanted their pictures taken with me. I wanted to ask them, "Do you know who I am?" Not in the usual DYKWIA sense, but because I want to know if they know something I don't know. Once Drew Carey lost a lot of weight and I got thick-frame glasses, students in Kansas started telling me I looked like Drew Carey. Do these Chinese people think I'm Drew Carey?

I used to want to be successful so I could stop being a failure. Now I just want to give my Chinese fans a legitimate reason to revere me.

Modern Decorum

Last Saturday night at Beijing China International District Conference, our district president showed us a clip from a David A. Bednar talk at last summer's Education Week. The applicable portion is the first 90 seconds.

(NOTE: it seems the video isn't posting correctly. If you want, go here and skip to 32:45.)

Is it just me, or does the hall twitter with uncomfortable laughter at the end of the David O. McKay video clip? Elder Bednar tries to get things back in line by going off-script and referring to President McKay as a "wise, aged prophet," something that doesn't show up in the transcript.

I mentioned this to my wife and she said she hadn't noticed any laughter, but she did notice Elder Bednar's mention of President McKay's age and thought it strange. Watching this again right now, she says she doesn't think anyone laughs. But I still think they do.

When I was in the MTC, an elder met a sister from France and asked, "Do you shave your pits?" When I was in Wisconsin, a missionary in my district couldn't hear the words "The standard of truth has been erected" without giggling. That's what I think of when I watch this clip: a total lack of maturity and decorum. A prophet of God is indistinguishable from Mr. Six to an audience composed of the prophet's followers. "Look at the crazy old man!" I see Elder Bednar's ad-libbed remarks as essentially saying, "He was old. Get over it, people."

Maybe I'm wrong. My wife thinks I am. I'd be interested in what Elder Bednar thought was going on at the time, but I doubt he's one of my blog lurkers. Maybe it's just a type of Rorschach test, and my uncharitable nature leads me to see a shortcoming in a mild-mannered audience. Or maybe I'm totally right and people can no longer set aside the lulz, even when they're in church.

Monday, November 03, 2014

Chinese Food

Food is very different here, as one would expect. And it's not really anything like Americanized Chinese food, as one would expect as well. As recently noted on Marginal Revolution, Chinese food is much closer to the source. When I write that, I intend everything that means, both good and bad.

We're easing our way into native food. We're not yet ordering whole fish or ducks, and I don't know that we'll ever get to eating animal organs instead of muscles, but we've managed to find some foods we like. They tend to be more like Western versions of Chinese food: meat and vegetables in a sauce and served over noodles or rice. We've eaten at a Thai restaurant that wasn't very satisfying, and at a Japanese restaurant that was very good.

Our kids have been much better sports about this than we expected. Crazy Jane already liked Chinese food, but she's not only accepted Chinese Chinese food, she's also developing a tolerance for spiciness. Jerome has taken to declaring every restaurant we visit as his new favorite.

Of course, there are Western restaurants here, but we try to visit them sparingly. We didn't move halfway around the world to eat a Big Mac, but the occasional trip to McDonald's (one of the closest restaurants to our apartment), KFC, or Pizza Hut is in order when we need to be fast and not worry about ordering.

Lots of restaurants have picture menus. Workers have various levels of helpfulness. Last week we tried to eat at a place that made no effort to facilitate our ordering, even when we were getting ready to leave. That was noteworthy as an oddity. Almost everywhere else tries their best to help us out.

Chinese restaurants have you pay first. This is nice because when you're done, you're done. You just leave. The waiting for your change was happening during the waiting for your food. But it's weird because it's never clear when they've finished taking your order and they're now telling you a price. They say something to me and I say, "我 不 会 说 中文"("Wǒ bù huì shuō zhōngwén"), which means, "I don't speak Chinese." They then act like, "This idiot is trying to get out of paying by pretending to not understand!"

Some of our family favorites, so far, are junk food items. We've become big fans of +C. It's a little hard to find sometimes, and the kind with honey is only available as an import from Hong Kong (and not very good, as it tastes a lot like a cough drop). The biggest problem with buying +C on the street is that most corner market refrigerators are not plugged in. They are just fancy display cases. You need to check to see if the cooler light is on before you enter the shop.

Since my life-long ambition has been to find a thirst-quenching beverage, it shouldn't be a surprise that we've tried a lot of drinks here. Most of the varieties of Arctic Ocean are very good. There's a pee-yellow kind sold only in bottles that's a lot like Cactus Cooler, then there are the three kinds pictured here (from right to left): orange, tangerine, and death. (Death is marketed as "plum," but no one's being fooled.)

Our grocery store had some Malaysian soda called Glinter. We tried a few flavors, including lychee, which is a weird Asian fruit that looks kind of like a raspberry with melted marshmallow inside. We didn't really like it.

A better Malaysian import is a kind of wafer-tube cookie called Astick. Evidently regular Asticks are giant, but what is much more common are Astick Minis. Varieties include peanut, chocolate, coconut, cheese, strawberry, and vanilla.

Finally, our most-daring (and most-successful*) foray into street food is something called 煎饼 (jiānbǐng). A husband-and-wife team serve them up from a propane grill mounted on the back of a bicycle on the sidewalk outside our grocery store. They show up around 6 PM and stay pretty late. They start with a sheet of yuba, fry an egg on it, paint it with a spicy brown sauce, paint it with a spicy red sauce, then cover the sheet with diced onions, peanuts, cilantro, and a sausage. They fold it up like a burrito, paint it again with the brown sauce, and bundle it into a cup. It costs ¥6 (slightly less than a dollar).

When I say "paint," I mean paint. Their utensils consist of a hardware store paintbrush and two hardware store putty knives. The other night as we walked up to the cart, the man was scraping the putty knives on a nearby brick wall to "clean" them.

Before we knew its Chinese name, we just called it a Beijing burrito. Now that we know its name, we've looked it up online, and discovered that a guy in Chicago sells them for $8 each. Today my students complained that ¥6 is too expensive for jiānbǐng, so I told them they could spend ¥50 for one in America. They flipped their collective lid.

* = Previously, I approached a cart with a sign that advertised "Beijing fruit pancakes," which turned out to be sandwiches with giant slabs of a rubbery mystery meat inside.

UPDATE: More adventures in street food here.

MUCH LATER UPDATE: It turns out we'd been lied to when we were told it was jiānbǐng. It's really 烤冷面 (kǎolěngmiàn).

Social Media in China

The Chinese government blocks certain websites. Among these are Facebook and Twitter. What is often billed as "Chinese Twitter" is something called Weibo. I suppose Weibo is acceptable and Twitter is not because fewer Westerners use Weibo, and it's probably under direct control of the Chinese government.

Once we arrived here, we learned of something called WeChat. (We "learned of it" by hearing my super-helpful colleagues say, "I'm on WeChat." Which is shorthand for, "Here's what WeChat is, here's my name, here's how to look me up, and here's how to add me as a contact.") The attraction of WeChat is that it doesn't count as a text (our cellphone plan in America had unlimited texting, whereas here we get 50 texts per month to share). I suppose the government has a pretty tight control over it, too.

One of my new-arrival colleagues knew of WeChat before coming here, and she strong-armed her friends and family into creating WeChat accounts in America. That's impressive. After hearing all my colleagues talk about WeChat, we thought it would be widely used among everyone here in China, but we've since learned that many of the Americans we meet through church are in China in body only, taking almost a perverse sense of pride in how disconnected they are from actual China, as if being "too Chinese" would be a stain on their escutcheons.

Of course, many in China use virtual private networks (VPNs) to access blocked social media sites. These cat pictures aren't going to look at themselves, you know. And right now the ghost of Aldous Huxley is making the Deuce Dempsey menacing scrunch face (available in tee-shirt format) at the ghost of George Orwell.

It's unclear to me just how bad a thing VPNs are here. My colleagues speak of them openly, going so far as to ask the IT department of our government-owned school to get VPNs on classroom computers so we can show YouTube videos in class. (The IT department said no.) Personally, I'd be willing to bet that, as long as your Facebook posts are of the "look at my kids at the Great Wall!" variety and not of the "let's foment rebellion and RAGE!" variety, you don't have much to worry about.

Chinese Apartment

We have a lot of kids by modern standards, and by Chinese standards, our family deserves a reality-TV show. So when we found out we were moving to Beijing, we didn't know how we'd fit in the average Chinese apartment. My school has on-campus housing, but the contracts I saw mentioned one- and two-bedroom places only, and it seemed like senior staff received priority placement in the two-bedroom places. We thought we might be able to pull off two bedrooms if we had to, but we couldn't really see how one bedroom would work.

My school also offers a monthly stipend to spend on housing. We began looking online to see what we could find in the neighborhood and how expensive it would be. But it was difficult because all the English-language websites were for housing on the other side of town, where nearly all of the expatriates live.

We found lots of listings, but they were all on the wrong side of town. We tried e-mailing some realtors (just like how realtors ruined apartment renting in the States, Chinese realtors infest the rental market here, as well), but we got back nonsensical messages that seemed to have been through Google Translate five or six times.

Also, it seems that Beijing real estate is just plain nuts. Instead of first month's rent and security deposit like we're used to in the U.S., many year-long leases require six months of rent (or more) up front. So we were looking at the possibility of giving upwards of $5,000 to someone with whom we could barely communicate for an apartment we'd be renting sight unseen. (Which would be the third time in our lives we would be moving into an apartment sight unseen. We should probably get our lives straightened out.)

My school pleasantly surprised us when they told us that we could have a four-bedroom apartment in the on-campus housing. As we struggled to finalize the rest of our moving plans, we at least knew we would have room for all of us.

The building was having facade renovation when we moved in. It lasted much longer than we were told it would, and some common-sense annoyance-attenuation efforts were ignored, so living here was very frustrating for the first month or so. In fact, when the apartment made my initial list of top-three annoyances of living in China. Finally, the construction ended and our building went from terrible to all right, which is about as good as it's going to get here without spending tens of thousands of dollars for palatial flats on the other side of town.

So here are some photos of the place. First, the exterior. When we arrived it was covered in scaffolding and plastic wrap. A few weeks later, the plastic wrap came down, revealing a black building. The workers used tape to create a brick pattern, then sprayed the building red and removed the tape. This makes me wonder what our building is actually made of. Is it just plywood under there?

We live on the fifth floor of a 13-story building (four is the unlucky number here, not 13).

The view from our apartment is not too spectacular because the building across the way is as high as we are. Colleagues who live five floors above us have a view of the entire district, including CCTV Tower.

The people who vacated our apartment offered to sell us some of their furnishings, but with no context. They had an area rug we turned down and several shelving units we bought from them. It turns out the entire apartment is tile floors and a giant collection of bookcases came with the unit. So we have no floor coverings and a billionty shelves. It was just our first experience with something we've since discovered is a pattern in China: a complete disregard for disclosing complete information. Time and again we'll hear, "Oh, there's a place just outside the north gate," which we later find out means, "Exit the north gate, turn right, walk over one mile, turn left, and enter the second shop on your left." A few days ago, a colleague wrote in an e-mail, "I'm going to the lake." This city has more than one lake. It turns out he meant the lake that is a one-hour subway ride away. Past a closer (and much larger) lake. The Chinese and the Westerners are equally guilty of this. Anytime someone says "it's next to" this other place, you should take that to mean "it could be considered to be on the same side of the city as" this other place.

So we now have an individual shelf for every solitary thing we own, which was how we came to have a series of bank shelves.

Don't think of this as an acid trip gone bad, think of it as a failed attempt by one of our kids to take a panoramic picture of the apartment.

It gives the general idea that you come in a front door to a large room that doubles as living area and dining area. To your immediate right is a small hallway with a washing machine (no dryer, a machine we've seen for sale at electronic stores here but which evidently almost no one has), and at the end of the hallway is a bathroom. Farther up the right-hand side of the apartment is the kitchen, and behind that is the adults' bedroom. Next to that is a bedroom shared by Crazy Jane and Screamapilar. On the other side of the apartment is a bedroom shared by Articulate Joe and Jerome Jerome the Metronome. This has its own bathroom. Between the two kids' rooms is a fourth room which functions as an office. The living room has a sun porch, and the office shares a sun porch with one of the kids' rooms. These sun porches are for drying clothes (and for children trying their best to fall five stories to their deaths).

We knew coming here that the apartment had three beds and a crib. We figured we'd have to buy another bed soon after arriving. What we weren't told (see a theme here?) was that one of the beds was much larger than a standard bed. We decided to have the two older boys share a bed until they complained about it, which they might not ever realize they should do. It turns out all that time we spent read The Great Brain books was just conditioning them for accepting this as normal. When they grow up and realize it was a 19th-century practice, they'll have a fun unbelievable story to tell their kids.

So that's a tour of our apartment. About a week after we moved in, a colleague unloaded an extra couch on us because he wanted room to hold a party, so we moved the giant chair away from the window and placed the new couch there. A few weeks later, this picture of Screamapilar in the living room looks much more homey.