Sunday, March 30, 2008


Two takes on the Tibet protests from two sides of the world.
Syracuse, New York, March 25, 4:15 pm
"Can you believe it?" asked the jewelry designer and gift store owner as I was browsing for something to bring back to C. We'd been talking about China, Tibet and India, the latter where the store owner travels frequently. "The university is going ahead with a group tour to China next week. And with all that trouble going on! It can't be safe."

"You mean Tibet?" I asked. "The Tibet protests?" She nodded.
"No, it's no problem in China unless you're wearing a Dalai Lama T-shirt or tattoo on your forehead," I said. "The average Chinese has no idea what's going on there. Or that anything is going on. Websites are blocked more than usual, even YouTube. The little news there that is running the same State-approved mangled English short story every day about 'March 14 Dalai Lama Clique violence of riotous beating, looting and arson in Lhasa' but I doubt if most Chinee even notice or care."

The store owner had Tibetan censorship problems of her own, though. She was also in a quandry over whether or not to hang some colorful orange and yellow Tibetan Buddhist prayer flags at the entrance to her store in a show of solidarity with the Tibetan 'splittists' as the Chinese media calls the protesters.
"My landlord," she said. "She's, she's ..."
"She's an agent of the Chinese secret police?" I asked.
"She's picky about what goes up here," she said. "She might want them to taken down."
"Christ," I said. "People are getting killed and their heads caved in this week over symbols like those flags. Go ahead, wave your Dalai Lama freak flags high. Landlord be damned!"

She laughed self-consciously. "Silly, I know," she said. But when I left the flags were flying, and while I doubt anyone in Tibet or China could feel the juju they were nice to see snapping against the cold, azure Syracuse sky.

Beijing, March 30, 10:30 pm
A freelancer journalist friend of mine, D., and I are in her apartment with an honest to gawd Tibetan "separatist" - a potential political refugee - I'll call P. D found him several days ago through a peaceful observance by Tibetan students at a university in Beijing. I have glommed along hoping to learn some more about the situation in Tibet and maybe get something worth publishing outside of China.

P looks as if he's straight out of central casting as a noble Tibetan independence leader - achingly handsome with long black hair tied in a pony tail, he's about 34 and looks something like an American Indian. He's also a bit nervous, twisting the beer bottle D has given him between answering our questions about Lhasa when the protests began. P was a tour guide with two German tourists in tow when the protests hit Lhasa - something he learned about when the temple he'd taken his tourists to was suddenly "closed." He'd returned the pair to their hotel then watched unbelieving he says as young, rioting unemployed Tibetan men began trashing and burning Chinese businesses with no initial opposition.

"I cannot believe there are no Chinese police or army that night," he says. "Only TV people. I think that the China government wants the trouble to show on TV later." And indeed the very footage has since been broadcast on TV and in news photos here.

P's not fan of the Chinese and says he has made a point of signing documents in Tibetan rather than Chinese as a low form of protest. He was unable to return to his apartment quickly and two days later when he did he found it and others near it had been forced open and tossed. He has Dalai Lama pictures and literature (banned in Tibet) in the apartment. Those were untouched though some other items - jewelry particularly - were missing. Neighbors told him Chinese police had been through.

He returned to the tourist hotel and his German clients who were itching to leave. He shows D and me a form they'd filled concerning his service giving him mostly 5's on a scale of 1 as worst to 5 as best, but added that they were "Most very disappointed not to see temples and to spend all time in hotel."

Take that, Tibet Tourism Association

P decided it was time for him to leave also. He's heard of, but not seen, cold blooded shootings by Chinese troops and police and was worried about his fate if he was traced to the Dalai Lama pictures in his apartment. "I have seen some people arrested," he says. "I see Dalai Lama in India before. I hear him. This is not his way. Too crazy now." Two bus rides, a van and a train have taken him roundabout and covertly to Beijing where he's now drifting from Tibetan restaurant to Tibetan restaurant on charity, solidarity and friendship.

He shows us a doctored Chinese passport with his real picture, a fake name and expired visa stamps from Vietnam and Czech Republic. P hopes to get a real visa for the Czech Republic using the bogus passport and then go to perhaps Poland, Belgium or maybe Ireland. After that? Who knows, he says. "I cannot go back Tibet now," he says. He finishes the beer, twists the bottle again before putting it down and fiddles with the 18 wooden prayer beads on his left wrist. D and I walk him through the narrow houtong district to a main street where he can hop a bus.

Sunday, March 16, 2008


Wrote this for another site after going to the first Major League Baseball game in China on Saturday - Dodgers vs Padres.

While it didn’t have the impact of the fabled ping-pong diplomacy that helped China and the United States normalize relations in the early 1970s, the first Major League Baseball game played in the Middle Kingdom on Saturday was notable for several, albeit lesser, reasons.

The debut tilt between the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Diego Padres in 50-degree temperatures under blue skies before a near-sellout crowd of about 12, 200 consisting of perhaps three fourths curious Chinese and one fourth expatriates and tourists was played to a 3-3 tie.

The phrase “kissing your sister” came to mind as the announcer proclaimed: “There will be no extra inning in today’s game” in English and Chinese, though it’s likely virtually none of the Chinese natives understood the sullied implication of a “tied” baseball game.

“No extra innings? That’s outrageous!” yelled one New York City native amid a chorus of scattered boos from similarly outraged purists. On the other hand, recalling a long ago 19-or more innings 2-1 snooze fest between the Colorado Rockies and the Chicago Cubs in Denver years ago, I was somewhat relieved.

The concession supplies were sporadic and limited but you couldn’t beat the prices. Much of the pre-game speculation among expats centered not on the starting lineups but on whether beer and hot dogs would be available. Even foreigners who didn’t know a double play from double vision understood the concept of a relaxed afternoon at an outdoor stadium, beer and foot long with mustard in hand.

Long lines at the concession stands didn’t guarantee a thing, however, as many waited patiently for make-believe hot dogs, hamburgers and Mexican tacos courtesy of a fake Western Beijing restaurant chain only to find nothing but peanuts when they got to the head of the line. “I finally hijacked a supplier,” said my seatmate upon returning with three “tacos” after a 2-inning absence. “Saw the guy toting boxes of these to the food stand and just stood in his way and shouted politely at him until he sold me three.”

Beer was plentiful however and – unlike every MLB stadium in the United States – extremely cheap at about US $1.50 for a 12 oz can vs $6.50 for 8 ounces of low alcohol froth. Some enthusiasts were buying beer by the carton and toting the boxes back to the stands with no apparent ill results.

Security was tight and heavy, but ultimately friendly. As one onlooker, an American named Nick Frisch quipped between explaining arcane concepts such as “RBI,” “bunt,” “sacrifice fly” and “infield fly rule” in Chinese to his polite but uncomprehending female Chinese companion: “We've already gotten used to KFC, Starbucks and McDonald's. Now, maybe the juxtaposition of PLA uniforms and baseball is something we'll get used to as well."

Despite the martial overlay provided by the PLA, the atmosphere inside the field was indistinguishable from a minor league game in the US, except the fans were more polite – applauding and cheering virtually every foul ball - and there were no bizarre promotional concepts like a 2003 “Ted Williams Popsicle Night” (first 500 fans received a free popsicle) sponsored by an Arizona minor league team after the announcement that the late-baseball legend would reportedly be cryogenically frozen in nearby Scottsdale.

Taunting the outfielders – an honorable baseball tradition in the US – was also notably absent, and much love was shown by and for “The Swinging Friar,” the Padres’ portly mascot as well as a clutch of bare-bellied, red and silver spangled pom-pom swinging Chinese cheerleaders.

There was sporadic organ music with the traditional “Charge!” ending supplied by a few knowing fans, and canned music between plays ranged from the Who, AC/DC, Led Zeppelin, Jerry Lee Lewis and Beatles to hip-hop. The traditional seventh inning stretch rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” was, sadly, a non-starter in our 88-yuan ticket section where only five expats rose to belt it out as the rest of the stands looked on bemused and puzzled.

"In general overall the ballpark had a good feel," Padres manager Bud Black told Associated Press. "The between innings entertainment was not unlike what we have in the States." Yes, except in the States you don’t have hostesses with large prop cards explaining the between-innings entertainment to the fans.

While both Dodger manager Joe Torre and Dodgers vice president Dave Winfield had promised “front line players” and “we’re not going to give you a bum roster” at the original January press conference touting MLB’s China debut the reality was different, though few seemed to notice or care.

Padres closer Trevor Hoffman was perhaps the biggest name, though his skills weren’t needed Saturday. Asian faces were few though LA’s Korean pitcher Park Chan-ho lasted 5 innings and LA shortstop Hu Chin Lung, a Taiawn native, received cheers simply for his name every time at bat.

Unlike Japan, Korea and Taiwan, baseball is virtually unknown in China though according to MLB historians an American named William Henry Boone formed the Shanghai Baseball Club in 1863. Babe Ruth and Casey Stengel reportedly played exhibition games in pre-Revolution China and MLB further asserts that baseball was the “unofficial game” of Mao’s troops during civil war, though it was banned and forgotten during the Cultural Revolution.

MLB is hoping to eventually find the same success as the NBA and Yao Ming, though it may be a long march. The reverse is true in the United States. Cricket’s first international game was played in the United States in the 1840s for instance and the silence there since has been deafening. Ditto for major league soccer despite occasional infusions of international talent such as Pele in the 1970s and more recently David Beckham.

So what success can baseball expect in a nation where ping-pong and badminton stars are the norm and playgrounds are packed with children playing soccer and basketball with nary a field of dreams in sight?

There are an estimated 100,000 children’s groups learning the game in China, and a sprinkling were on hand Saturday all in team sweat clothes and uniforms.

“Very good to see it with real players in real life, not on DVD,” said one coach – a Korean named Chung Hyop-cho who lives in Beijing and works for a Chinese youth baseball club, the Horses. “My boys have learned something I hope. Maybe the next Yao Ming of baseball is here today.”

Barring that, a sudden archeological discovery of a Paleolithic ballfield in Xi’an or perhaps terra-cotta catchers and outfielders that prove that China “invented” baseball might be the answer.
So Begins the Task

I’ll be back in the States late next week on a bittersweet mission. My 84-year-old father, John D – for David – Mitchell, is quite ill and my son and I are traveling from our two homes – he in Boulder, me in Beijing – to meet in Syracuse, NY to be with him, my sister, her son and husband.

I don’t want to say it’s to say goodbye but that sums it up. It’s a time I’ve dreaded since coming to China – always in the back of my mind with every occasional phone call I’d make and the irregular short hand-written letters he would post to me in Shenzhen, Hong Kong and Thailand.

My mother died about 12 years ago, suddenly though not unexpectedly and the initial shock helped numb the loss for awhile. In my father’s case it’s been a slow decline though nothing drastic until the last couple weeks when increasingly worried e-mails from my sister brought it home that soon we’d only have each other and our respective two boys.

I owe him more than I can even imagine – good and bad. Argumentative, gruff, opinionated, sarcastic, overbearing as well as loving, intelligent, witty and low key to the point that in his later years when visiting me for extended periods I’d joke with friends that it was like having a giant mutant cat living with me – I’d leave for work and return 9 hours later to find him more or less in the same position, contently reading seemingly not moving an inch since I’d left.

Together we’d sit comfortably silent for hours in each others’ company sipping bourbon and listening to John Prine, Bob Dylan Hank Williams, Django Reinhardt, Duke Ellington, Frank Sinatra, the Beatles, Willie Nelson, et al, or just reading and still understand each other perfectly in the silence.

Our last big road trip was a leisurely three day drive northwest from Colorado through Wyoming to the Little Big Horn battlefield on the Crow Indian reservation in Montana. I told a girlfriend at the time that he and I had driven for hours without saying a word.

“Nothing!” she said, aghast. “How can you stand it? Not a word?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “We just don’t need to. It’s all understood somehow.” She didn’t get it, compulsive talker that she was and maybe that’s part of why it eventually didn’t work out with us.

I’m in journalism (and also Asia) because of – and perhaps in spite of – him. He was a feared and respected journalism prof at the University of Colorado and Syracuse University and years later when older colleagues in Denver learned he was my father the reaction was pretty much identical.

“I’m sorry, but I originally thought your father was kind of an asshole,” one said laughing. “But I deserved it. He was the hardest and best teacher I ever had.” Tell me about it. When I was in the army in Korea he would send letters I’d sent him back to me with grammatical and punctuation corrections in red ink – just like the students who paid tuition for the same abuse, er, lessons at CU and Syracuse.

The remarkable detail about him is that he never had a father himself. His mother – my grandmother Maxine – was something of a nonconformist in the roaring ‘20s, so much so that my dad was a product of an affair she had with her married college English prof, supposedly after their eyes met as she recited a passionate rendition of Captain, My Captain, Walt Whitman’s ode to Lincoln.

She was largely absent later after leaving school to have him, with sojourns to what sounded like some kind of ur-hippie Isadora Duncan inspired modern dance commune in the Great Lakes, leaving him in the hands of unnamed relatives or friends of friends.

“What did you eat during the Depression?” I asked once.

“Air sandwiches,” he said evenly. “Bread with nothing on it. Mustard if we were lucky.” He said he and his fellow students spent 2nd grade writing their names hundreds of times at the behest of a teacher who sounded as if he had a drinking problem.

But he abided, raised two children, did his best with my complicated mother who also had her, shall we say, “issues” and cried on the phone when he called me to tell me that they were divorcing. It was the first, but not the only time I heard him cry.

The second time was many years later after I’d tracked down details of his biological father that included the amazing coincidences that he’d been a journalist after leaving the Kansas college where he’d procreated my father and that during his undistinguished but solid career as a wandering Midwest reporter had worked at the same newspaper as I later would in Kansas City.

The information also included a name and home phone number for a man who was my father’s biological half-brother.

“Do you want to try calling him?” I asked. Dad had been thumbing through the photocopied papers and a 1960 obituary I’d collected that included the first pictures of his father he’d ever seen; there was one from a college yearbook that also featured a group “Quill Club” photo with his professor “father” and 21-year-old college sophomore mother together.

His eyes began to get wet, he sniffled uncharacteristically and I looked away. “No,” he finally said. “They didn’tcare for me then ... ”

I hope it’s not too late to tell him I still care.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Faster Pussycat! To the Library

One of the burning issues consuming the Chinese public at the moment is a public debate over whether or not to recycle school textbooks.
About five or so provinces have tried to start a textbook recycling campaigns for the new semester that aims to reduce paper use and raise students' awareness of natural resources preservation.

According to the State media if all the textbooks in China were reused for five years, the country could save an estimated 225 billion yuan (31 billion US dollars) not to mention saving countless trees that otherwise would have needlessly died doing their part in spreading the word that Taiwan is an inalienable part of China.

But reaction, as they say, has been mixed – in some accounts downright hostile. Cited most often are “health concerns.” (Notably absent in the stories is the fact that the entire publishing industry in China is state subsidized and if “new” school books weren’t pumped out annually the industry would take a serious hit.)

This quote is typical: "Recycled books may carry harmful germs from previous users," contended a father in southeastern Fuzhou City. "I prefer to pay for the new textbooks since they are not that expensive."

I know. I know. This from a country – despite its pending Olympic gloss and glory – still largely synonymous in many foreign minds with terms such as “SARS,” “bird flu,” “toxic pet food/dumplings,” “public spitting,” and “filthiest public toilets in the Third World.”

I wondered if this concerned father had, say, considered the school library or, even better, the actual cash he prefers to spend on hygienic textbooks. Pull it from your wallet, sir. Look at that wrinkled, smudged 20 or 10 or 100 yuan note. Consider how many fingers have handled it before you and where those digits were inserted before the money was passed to you … Now compare that to one schoolbook probably reluctantly opened and thumbed through by a single student as few times as possible.

What was the last school textbook transmitted disease anyway?

As someone who grew up with used textbooks from first grade through university the brouhaha is virtually incomprehensible to me. There was even a remote sense of archeological discovery where some of the previous owners had signed their names.

“The same book as Julie Worley’s older sister? Her fair hands actually touched these same pages! I will never wash mine again…”
“Rick Daily had this? He can read?”

I tried asking some Chinese colleagues about the issue and it was clear as one put it that it is also a “cultural issue.”
“We don’t like anything old or used,” he explained. “It means we are poor.”

“Yeah, maybe, I can sort of see that though it doesn’t bother me,” I said, absently mindedly fingering the 2-year-old patch on my 8-year-old jeans and wondering how I was going to make it the end of the month on 800 yuan. “What about the idea that it’s what’s inside the book is more important than what it looks like on the outside?”

Another Chinese coworker laughed. “If you could read what is inside our textbooks, perhaps you would agree that a pretty cover has more value.”

Monday, March 3, 2008

Axis bold as love
It's been Commie manna from heaven since I've arrived in Beijing. In addition to almost stepping on the Cuban ambassador to China's shoes, I had my first face-to-face with real live North Koreans - one third of Geo W Bush's "Axis of Evil."

Portrayed largely in the news and travel accounts I've read as robotic American-loathing xenophobes it was at at the North Korean Haitanghua Pyongyang restaurant in Beijing where I learned if I couldn't paint the town red, at least I could paint it a tasteful beige. The invite came courtesy of a former Standard coworker, D, a British woman now working as freelancer based in Beijnig.

I was jazzed. Throwing diplomacy and common sense ot the wind, I donned my counterfeit Ralph Lauren stars and stripes shirt - usually reserved for July 4 - and after a convoluted taxi ride was deposited at the door of Pyongyang Lite. Outwardly it appeared to be like any other semi-upscale South Korean restaurant - no garish portraits of Dear Leader Kim Jong-il, for example - though closer inspection of the water bottles revealed the contents were supposedly drawn from North Korea's near-mythical Baekdu Mountain, the same location that Dear Leader's father was allegedly born after a rainbow and swallows foretold his coming.

The waitresses all spoke fluent Chinese as well as very limited English ("thank you") but I compensated with my even more limited Korean. The Uncle Sam shirt did draw attention - though not hostile, merely curious. Upstairs were karaoke rooms where the women, all attractive and in their 20s, also entertained for higher fees.

According to an article in Asia Times Online the restaurants are a revenue source for North Korea and draw a mix of curious South Koreans as well as foreigners like us eager for a glimpse of a semi-forbidden culture. That night we only saw a happily drunk South Korean couple and occasional gaggles of badly dressed, hatchet faced North Korean businessmen and/or aparatchiks with DPRK flag lapel pins irregularly emerging from the upstairs karaoke dens. They gaped quickly at D, me and our two Aussie pals and kept walking as we all gaped back. The waitresses all went to "the finest universities in Pyongyang" - sort of like going to the best junior college in Hibbing, Minnesota? - and then are sent to China as entertainers and waitresses. A wise career move? But it ultimately beats starving in the North, I suppose.

Our Miss Kim, (left, in psuedo-air hostess uniform) told us she had one unspecified day off per week, liked to shop and had no cell phone. This after both D and I had asked for her number. In very bad Korean I told her she was pretty. In passable English she thanked me and then repeated that she had no phone. Get the message? Yes, we see. But she smiled graciously and I felt I'd accomplished, hell, maybe as much as the NY Phil and 6 party talks in reducing tensions. At least she didn't seem to think that all Americans were stone cold killers, merely harmless old goats in garish shirts.