China from the Inside: In Their Own Words

Excerpts from Karissa Woienski's ('13) China blog, Dreaming in Chinese

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Playing with the Great Firewall of China

As you may have heard, yesterday Liu Xiaobo, a Chinese human rights activist, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. After reading about it on Time's website (via my Chicago connection), I decided this was an opportune time to see just how great the Great Firewall of China actually is.

The Great Firewall of China refers to the Chinese government's attempts to block certain websites—anything that might be politically touchy, for instance, or social networking sites. In general, it isn't too big of a hassle, if only because I can get around it with my Chicago VPN connection, but I'll write more about day-to-day use of the firewall in a different entry. Since I had only ever run into the firewall while trying to access Facebook, using a political event to see just how vast the firewall actually is seemed like a fairly good idea. (Until the police show up on my doorstep tomorrow....)

I started by going to Google, which redirects to Google Hong Kong, and typing in "Liu Xiaobo." I hit enter, and "the connection has been reset" web page popped up. Funny, that's the same one I get when I try to access Facebook over the Chinese connection. I went back to the Google HK homepage, and searched "Mao Zedong." Immediately, the Wikipedia link popped up along with numerous portraits of the glorious leader. No problem with the connection there, I guess.

I then went to Baidu, which is the Chinese government-approved search engine. Searching his name there, I was able to find links to some online forums apparently discussing the event. However, my computer can't display Chinese characters, so I had to use Google translate to translate the page for me. I copied and pasted the forum text, but again, "the connection was reset." I was mildly impressed that the Chinese government was thorough enough to block political messages even from Google Translate, which was confirmed when I tested "hello" both ways in Google Translate with no problems. Point 1 to the Chinese government.

I then reconnected to my Chicago VPN connection, which basically identifies my computer as being on campus. Translating the text there, I was able to get only some gibberish about cheap plane tickets and a user comment of "Haha, sensitive words—No [don't use?] Yuntai forum." That's not an exact quote, but the gist of it seemingly implies that the author of the post was well aware of the censors. Through the VPN connection, I also got the Chinese characters for Liu Xiaobo's name, and after I disconnected, went back and typed them into Baidu. This time, all it brought up was press releases from the Chinese government berating the Nobel Peace Prize Committee for awarding it to a Chinese dissident. I'll include the text below—the contrast to the reports I read on Time and CNN was surprising.

While the China server blocked me from searching/translating things about Liu Xiaobo, it didn't "reset" the connection when I went to Time's website and brought up the story there. I searched for it, and was able to access their story as well, despite the fact that when they broadcast the story on the news, China blacked out the station. (BBC also reported a blackout in China during the broadcast). So while the Great Firewall is comprehensive enough to block politically charged messages from being translated on Google Translate, it wasn't comprehensive enough to block CNN or Time's online articles. I was surprised they were sneaky enough to block the translate tool, but apparently the Great Firewall still has some gaping holes in it.

Posted by Karissa at 12:13 PM
Labels: Chinese government, politics, security, the Great Firewall

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Crescat Scientia...

...vita excolatur. Let knowledge grow from more to more, and so be human life enriched. As most of you know, it's the motto of the University of Chicago, and I figured that as I move into the second session of my study abroad classes, it was worth reflecting on it, especially in light of studying abroad.

Truth be told, I had never really contemplated the motto deeply, or even shallowly for that matter. But during this past class session, I drifted off a little bit, after my professor mentioned in passing the ancient Greeks, leading me to think about how cool it would be to really study them for awhile—not like skimming history studying, but an in-depth study of them. I then started contemplating how short a time four years actually is—not nearly enough to even come close to studying everything I want to. This contemplation was followed by the realization that a lifetime is a very short amount of time to study everything I want to, which in turn made me slightly depressed and wishing I was immortal.

In my class notes, I frequently make sidebar notations of things the professor mentions in passing or that pique my interest. These little notes range from book titles (The Monk and the Monkey) to subjects (art history) to people (Alexander the Great). All are things I want to either read or study more, and I'm beginning to compile a list for when I have some elusive free time. Now, I've done this in all my classes (not so much in Chinese) throughout college, meaning that with roughly 4 notations a week in each class, 3 classes meeting twice a week, 10 weeks in a quarter, 4 quarters I've been in school = 960 subjects I want to study in more depth. Granted, some of those things might overlap, but most of them won't, meaning I've got a lifetime of studying cut out for me. Suddenly, four years seems like an even shorter amount of time. Sure, I can still "study" them once I graduate and have a job, but it won't be the same as having world-class professors share their knowledge with you while you study full-time.

The growth of knowledge seems very tied to connections; my studying ancient Chinese civilization and how it interacted with ancient Rome made me want to learn more about Alexander the Great and read The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, for instance. Even a small connection like that between the two can lead to the exponential growth of knowledge. And in the same way, living in Beijing provides me with a set of observations and experiences that I can connect with the readings and lectures in class—for example, the most recent reading for tomorrow mentioned the cosmos vs. the microcosm, which made me think about how much of Chinese culture is in relation to the microcosm, from the hutongs in Old Beijing to the iPod Shuffle-sized ancient pots we saw in the museum. That's one of the benefits of studying abroad to me: being in the culture enhances and solidifies learning; it allows you to make more connections. Being here just makes everything more relevant—having been to the Forbidden City and discussing ancient court life lets me imagine it in more detail, or at least historical accuracy. (Though that's actually debatable, though that's a different topic—see, another connection!) Being here just offers my imagination a million different paths to considering a topic, and that's one of the things I've enjoyed about being here.

Crescat Scientia, vita excolatur. Let knowledge grow from more to more...exponentially through sidebar notes made during class...through connections made from living in a completely opposite encountering different perspectives on the same topic...and even from thirteen weeks straight of Chinese food. And so be human life enriched. :)

Posted by Karissa at 7:02 PM
Labels: academics, civ, observations, unexpected

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Karissa's Guide to Bargaining

Part One: A Sample Purchase

Hypothetically bargaining for a pair of shoes or a bag that I'm willing to pay 100 RMB for.

» Once you ask the price, the seller immediately pulls out a calculator, in order to ensure no difficulties with a language barrier, and says something like, "My normal price is this (punches 680 into the calculator), but you are a student/speak Chinese/are young/another excuse to reduce the price so you think you're saving, so I'll give you this." (Punches in 450.)

» Depending on the price, my reaction falls somewhere between looking distressed and shaking my head, or laughing at the ridiculousness of it. "I'm just a poor student!" (Punch in 60.)

» Seller responds with a complaint about their need to make money/the quality of the item/the cheap price they're giving you. (Punches in 350.)

» I respond with something along the lines of, "Can't do it" or "I don't have a ton of money!" (Punch in 70.)

» Seller rolls her eyes and says, "Okay, I give you really good deal. Don't tell anyone, I can't give all my goods away this cheap!" (Punches in 200.)

» I recycle the line of being a poor student, maybe add on the explanation that I've studied Chinese, which is very difficult, they should give me a discount! (Punch in 75.)

» Seller says, "Final price, 150."

» I counter with my final offer, 100.

» Seller says no, 130.

» I shake my head no, and leave the stall.

» If the seller absolutely cannot sell at that price, they'll let me go. If they'll make even a couple dollars off of it, though, they'll yell after me, "Okay, okay, 100!" or reduce the price another 10 or so.

» If they come to 100, I'll go back and buy the item, but if they just reduce the price, I'll yell "100!" back and just keep walking, at which point they'll normally agree.

Part Two: Useful Lines in Bargaining
  1. "I'm just a poor student, you have to give me a discount!"
  2. "I don't have much money!"
  3. "But I've taken the trouble of learning Chinese, and it's so hard to learn!"
  4. "Too expensive!"
  5. "But I have to eat, too!"

Read the rest of the entry.

Posted by Karissa at 11:00 AM
Labels: fun, shopping


Excerpts from Alex Kramarczuk's ('12) e-mails from China
October 20, 2010

After the class trip to Xi'an, I made my way to Xinjiang. During our first course, Narratives of the Silk Road with Professor Chin, we spent some time studying Xinjiang. Professor Guo Wu [accents] from the Institute of Archaeology, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, whom Professor Chin invited in to give a lecture, talked about cross-cultural pollination and social interaction between China and the "western" world in ancient times. As it happens, he spent some time talking about Xinjiang—an important crossroads on the Silk Road. He touted Xinjiang as having a "cosmopolitan society" and as being an "area of cultural overlap." After that lecture, I approached him to ask whether I could visit one of his excavation sites. I'm a big proponent of hands-on learning. I believe that if you don't see, feel, or put into action what you've "learned," then you've either never learned it or you've only learned it halfway.

I remained in contact with Professor Guo Wu over the next two weeks to figure out where I should go and what I should see. I've spent the last two days in Urumqi and will be rounding out the week in Turpan. On Friday I'm going to head to a famous Buddhist grotto 70 kilometers east of Turpan, where the professor's colleagues' excavation site is. You know, of all the places I've been to in China, Xinjiang is definitely my favorite.

Xinjiang is an autonomous region of the People's Republic. It borders Russia, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India. It makes up about one sixth of the Chinese territory. The majority ethnic group is the Uyghur. To the best of my knowledge, this is the only "province" of China where the Han people are a minority. Xinjiang means "new frontier." I think that only like four percent of the land is arable. It's mostly deserts and mountains—tall mountains. Xinjiang is also where China tested its first nuclear bomb, at Lop Nur.

Xinjiang truly is a cosmopolitan center. It may be in China, but it has a very Middle Eastern feel to it. I told my parents that if you took a chunk of land in Iraq or Iran and peppered it with a few Chinese people, then you'd have something akin to Xinjiang. This truly is a special place. I don't think the east can hold a candle to the west. That's just my opinion, though.

October 22, 2010

I started thinking about what it means to be a foreigner—well, not so much what a foreigner is, but more so what it feels like to be one. These are just musings.

I was eating nang today, sitting on a curb. I'm used to people staring or saying, "wow, he's tall!" Or, if they're kids, then they're bound to say "Hello!" Of course, as soon as I turn to say hello back, they start giggling and run off. It's kind of like a game. When I was in Guizhou, lots of kids tried spanking me—I guess it's good luck or something. Maybe it's because I'm in a part of China that's so different from what I think China is or what I've already seen. But people really give foreigners a good once-over. I thought about it, and in the United States I don't think we have the same sort of phenomenon. Foreigners come and go but they usually don't even get a second glance. Here, though, I'm all the rage. I don't mind it. I just think it's interesting that being a foreigner in China is so different—is such an experience.

I was eating skewers for lunch today outside a restaurant, and the boss came out just to shoot the breeze with me. My taxi driver cut me a good deal, too. He was happy to have a chance to make a foreign friend and chat.

It doesn't matter where I go, people look me up and down. If they've got some guts, they start a conversation. That's something I really like about China. You can just talk to people. People place a big premium on talk here. In the U.S. I feel like everyone's too busy doing their own thing. No one wants to just sit down, relax, and talk.

October 23, 2010

When we were at the Beijing Zoo, people were just tossing trash into the gorilla cage. One man threw a full bottle of green tea, which the gorilla proceeded to drink. The sign clearly says not to feed the gorillas or throw trash in, but I don't think anyone cares. The cop sauntered up, tapped the man on the shoulder, and then wagged his finger. It was all so nonchalant. It seemed random, too. And yet, at the same time, I could say to myself, "That's China." I feel like being in China is pretty surreal. I never really know what's going on, never quite have a grasp of the situation.

When I was at Gaochang yesterday, I rode a donkey cart around the ancient city. The driver was a young boy. His friend hopped on, too. They were both Uyghur, and only one of them really knew Chinese. It was fun—it's not every day you ride a donkey around in the desert.

China really is an idea—one you can't ever really grasp. We had a speaker come in, Andrea Pasinetti, who had worked closely with Teach for America founder Wendy Kopp to create something like TFA in China. He told us to be careful. Once you feel like you're at home in China, as if you've mastered your environment here, you're going to get knocked down. China changes so fast and is so many things that you can't ever really understand it. Sometimes it seems as though, since there's so much going on, China is one big contradiction.

Let me end with one last memory from the Xi'an trip. We visited the Big Goose Pagoda one day. The original pagoda had been destroyed; it was built during the Tang Dynasty at the request of the monk Xuanzang. The government built a new one. I think it's a travesty. There are so many things in China these days that are fake. It makes getting a pulse really hard. I can't tell what the culture is or who the people are because it's all hidden. I feel like the government took its glorious past and kind of besmirched it by putting too much make-up on it. Sometimes it's the broken, beat-up old things that are worth keeping. They've got character and zest—something irreplaceable. There's so much in the past. Of course one has to keep moving forward. But there's a right way and a wrong way to move. I don't think recreating a new past is right. But then again, we have some pretty fake cities back in the U.S., too. Celebration, Florida—case in point.

November 23, 2010

First, I want to say that maybe I was a little rough on China in my last message. When you've got a history as long as China's, things are bound to break and are bound to need repair. I just feel that the usual reaction is to rebuild, not restore. It's like China is always in pursuit of Mao's perpetual revolution. Things always have to keep changing. At least, that's the feeling I get here.

Last week Professor Farquhar invited a friend of hers to meet us, a contemporary artist named Laurens Tans. He said something that really resonated with me: he said people here seem to be oblivious to the fact that things are moving forward at a blistering pace. Beijing today is nothing like Beijing a few years ago, and it's very different from Beijing in the 1990s. Mr. Tans said this might be a benefit of being on the outside. Certainly it's striking to us who aren't from here. What's more striking, though, is that to the Chinese this is life, it is normal, and that blistering pace is nothing. It's as if China has been on the fast track for a century. Consider how much has happened here, how much has changed, in that time. It's truly amazing—more so because initially change was rejected. Confucianism was key, and the past was something to be honored and replicated. Now, in the present, China has really embraced the idea of perpetual revolution. I'm excited to see how this will culminate.