30th post in 30 days

Alright alright. So this is the last post of the 30 posts in 30 day challenge (finally). Unfortunately, it's going to be a little anticlimactic since I don't really have any cool insights for today. Just a run down of some stuff I did today and maybe a little review of the month.

I got to go to a little town in Shanghai today that resembled a Pike Place sort of situation - small little places to shop and eat along a few dense streets and a few bigger restaurants and stores spread throughout. 

I didn't really want to eat anything there. That's when I realized... I don't think I'm that big a fan of Chinese food (wait what). I think there are a few things I really like, that are Chinese (most of which would be considered very 'white' of me to like too), and almost everything else I'm not a big fan of.

On the other hand, when I thought about it I'm pretty much a fan of all American type foods except those which include seafood (I don't like that cooked in any way).

That's my review for the day.

Now as for this month... I think it was a good excercise to write the 30 posts in 30 days. I think there were more platitudes and worthless posts than I wanted to, but I think there were a good number of quality posts too. It definitely made me think a lot more about my days and what I was experiencing. And beyond that, it forced me to do my best to analyze and remember. Normally, I would do something, think of something, then let it slip by. But I think the act of trying to remember "important" things is good. 

What's an experience worth to you if you can't even remember it the next day? Not much. So I'm glad I was able to turn my experiences this month into life lessons more so than I usually would have. 

I probably won't keep up this pace... but hopefully I will blog more now than I used to. Or maybe it will just tail off (actually that is probably what will happen). But I'll do my best to avoid it. Peace out for a few days (probably).

Instead of traffic laws, Chinese people protect themselves with hypervigilance

I've been meaning to post something about this since the day I got here, but today's a good day to do it since I don't think there was any big insight for the day.

Here in China, not only is traffic horrendous in it's volume, but also in the amount of hazard it causes. I'm pretty sure traffic laws here are pretty similar to the States, but one thing that is definitely different is the level of obedience. Trying to cross the street here is like playing a real-life game of Frogger, where you only have one life to lose. And that's even when the car traffic light is red, and the pedestrian light is green. Be careful.

Even if a street is one way, do not assume that you should only look down one way before crossing. The saying goes something like "assuming makes an ass out of you and me," but in this case assuming makes you dead. Or at least fatally injured. Cars, bikes, and motorcylces routinely like to go down empty one-ways because it's more convenient for them.

No matter how safe you can assume to be because of whatever rules are in place, throw all those assumptions out of the window. Always keep your head on a swivel when crossing the streets (or walking anywhere near them) here in China.

All this danger aside, I tried to figure out if there was some anomoly here where you would think that this is all dangerous but the accident/fatality rate here is lower. Just like how you would assume that the speed-limitless autobahn would be more dangerous than the streets of the States but accident stats prove otherwise.

I did a little Googling (and some Wikipedia-ing) and found this table of statistics listing nations and their corresponding road fatalities per 100,000 inhabitants per a year. Turns out...China has a much higher road fatality rate than the United States. According to this Wiki article (and of course you may question its accuracy), in the States we have a rate of 12.3 whereas in China they have a rate of 16.5. 

So, given of course that this information is accurate, not only is the rate higher than the US but I assert that this comparison grossly understates the actual danger on the streets of China. And this is why... the data is based off 'per 100,000 inhabitants' and China is one huge country. BUT in China, the amount of actual traffic is very much concentrated into a very small number of places: Shanghai, Hong Kong, Beijing, and others I may not know about. So the 16.5 number is a diluted number where you have a very high fataility rate in those small areas and almost a rate of 0 in probably the remaining 80% of China. So the streets of Shanghai are much more dangerous on any given day than the streets of the U.S.

But still... how do people manage to stay alive and not have massive traffic crisese everyday? I believe the answer is hypervigiliance.

Where in the US we have laws that keep us wary of what to expect, in China your job is to expect the unexpected. Everyone - drivers, pedestrians, bikers, etc - all know that everyone else will be following whatever rules they want (and often that is no rules). So everybody is hypervigilant, and that is how most people remain in tact.

Use Python to send real postcards via SendWrite

Not too much to report on China today. Dad went out to visit a friend at a University and I didn't really want to go. So I stayed in and watched some of the iOS tutorials from the Stanford lectures on iTunesU, wrote my first iOS app, and learned how to send a real life postcard using Python.

I used a company called SendWrite to do it. They have docs for CURL and some for Python, but their Python docs called for using APIWithBasicAuth, but I was more familiar with Python's 'requests' library so I decided to go with that and it worked fine.

Here's the Gist of what I did (lulz pun):

And there you have it! The only thing is you have to pay for your cards before you can send them, but other than that you're good to go! Check SendWrite out.

Coming down with a cold... gotta go to bed early. Peace out for now.

How different is language comprehension and language speaking?

I feel like it's gotta be very different.

The reason I pondered this was because while in China I am pretty fluent in understanding what is being said, but I have a very hard time speaking. I like to think that my accent is pretty good, it's just that a lot of the time I can't think of the words I need to be speaking. But when I hear them, I immediately know that's what I meant.

Similarly, in English I sometimes find myself stumbling as I write or speak when I feel like there's a perfect word for something I'm trying to express but I just can't think of it... I'm not a vocab buff, I don't read books often, and I don't read articles beyond the fold. So there's a reason why I might not have as many words right on the tip of my tongue. But again with these situations, it's similar to my situation in China where I know what I'm trying to say, and I'm pretty sure that I know the word, I just can't say it!

So that got me thinking about how connected those parts of the brain are. Knowing a new second language, and knowing your own language pretty well. I guess it seems pretty obvious that they are exactly the same? But I'm unsure.

Also I sort of feel that the language understanding part of the brain is much different than the language speaking/writing part of the brain. As shown by my lack of ability to proactively use big English words and use many words at all in Chinese when I can understand both perfectly well.

This research article suggests that they are the same part of the brain, but it makes no sense to me.

I'm very interested in how the brain works, how memory is stored and retrieved, etc so someone please enlighten me!

From China: All the wrong reasons for being selfless

Guilt & selfishness. From what I've observed, those seem to be the real reasons why many people here may act selfless on certain occassions. 

Firstly, the debate of whether having reasons such as guilt and selfishness are good or bad reasons to be selfless is actually a topic for another post. In that regards, I probably could have chosen a better title for this post, but I wanted it to be catchy. In fact, I will be discussing simply how those are the reasons I've noticed behind some selflessness here and I will not be trying to debate whether those are good or not. The means to an ends thing is a debate that could last 10 posts+.

Secondly, by "certain occasions" I am most specifically referring to dining experiences I've had while here. Similar things about selflessness can probably be extrapolated, but most of my 'evidence' will come from experiences I've had at famly meals.

Now to begin.

It is very common, that when out (or in) at a family (or even friends) breakfast/lunch/dinner, you will see others passing the plate to someone else first. Very forcefully. In a way that goes beyond what you will see in American politeness. 

For instance, today my Dad and I had lunch with his friends. When a plate of shrimp came out, my Dad insited his friend have the first take. Where upon his friend insisted, again quite forcefully, that my Dad have the first take. This went back and forth as voices raised until one person was able to outpower the other person (literally in a physical manner) in taking a spoon and shoveling some of it on to the other's plate. This is just one specific instance, but I could go on and on about other occasions of something exactly like this happening (including several more from the same meal). And I guaruntee anyone you ask who lives/lived/visited China will tell you the same.

This would at first seem to be an act of selflessness.

Another example (from the same plate). As the plate of shrimp was being devoured and only a few bits were left, they again fought over who would have the last bit. Again it became a physical fight. I even found myself engaging in such odd rituals with a plate of beef and me giving some of the last bits (with my chopsticks) to my Dad.

This would, also, at first seem to be an act of selflessness.

Now let me explain the motivations for such selflessness. People in China are taught that these are the right things to do. From very young (and I can speak to this from first-hand experience) you are taught to ALWAYS let your 'guests' eat first and NEVER be so greedy as to finish off  a plate. And it's grilled and grilled into you. The origins of these ideals are very selfless. In that you should treat guests well, and that you shouldn't be greedy. But because these ideals are forced down your throat, instead of Chinese people doing them because they are simply selfless (as such rituals intend), they do them because if they don't then they feel guilty. 

Beyond that conclusion making a lot of sense, I have two further pieces of evidence for this. As I mentioned earlier, I caught myself in the act of following such rituals when deciding to forcefully put some last bits of beef on my Dad's plate. After the fact, I thought about why I did that. I realized it was becuase I felt that I was eating too much of it, and I would feel badly if my Dad hadn't got to try any because of me. So that's straight up some guilt. And it was selfish because I wanted to rid myself of the guilt, and by giving some beef to my Dad I was able to do that. For self-satisfaction.

Another thing is noticing, time after time, people offering something on a plate to someone else, either waiting until they accept the offer or until that person decides to forcefully place the food on the other's plate, and then immediately going in and taking some for themselves. I saw this several times today and will see it more in the future (as I stay here in China). I cannot attest to exactly what these people are thinking when they do this, but I will make an educated guess. They would feel guilty for eating more off that plate, and therefore make someone else take some first (and act as if it was their duty to do so), and relieve that guilt to be able to take some for themselves and enjoy it comfortably.

So these so-called selfless traditions you will find in dining out, and in other situations where courtesy is often extended, have now become just a way for people to rid themselves of guilt. And that is selfish. 

Disclaimer though: I do feel like I see some people act truly out of selflessness. And especially when it comes to the older generation (i.e. observing the actions of my grandparents), I feel like when they make courteous gestures they do it because they are just being sefless and really care, rather than for other reasons. And again, I fall victim to this too.

Saw behind the Great Wall... didn't like the brainwashing

In China they now have a huge graduation-like celebration for you when you turn 18 and when you graduate. Cap, gowns, and everything. A huge ordeal. Since they can't throw those huge ordeals for every single individual in high school, they group birthdays togethers by months or so to get a large enough group that it makes sense to spend all the time/money into throwing that event.

I was told earlier this week when I arrived in Shanghai, that my cousin was to have hers! I was excited to go. Still excited as I walked into her auditorium and took my seat, I finally got a little dissapointed as it started. It was person after person, speech after speech. Admittedly, I drifted off a little at one point. 

As an American-born Chinese with only a few years of Chinese school under my belt at the ages of 5-7, I could still pick up enough words to get the general gist of what was going on. After giving listening a try, that's when I started to get intrigued again...

I started really paying attention to what they were talking about and I heard them emphasize family, country, and traditions. OK, well that wasn't too troubling..

But then... all the newly crowned 18-year-olds stood up and began speaking an oath. From what I heard (and confirmed with my Dad sitting next to me) part of their oath was a long pledge to remain true, loyal, and supportive to the Communist party. 

Then, surely enough, one-by-one cohorts within the 18-year-old class started screaming out oaths in synch with each other. Practiced, rehearsed, brain-washed. All the good bits. It felt really reminiscent to the Hitler Youth videos I see on Youtube.

And this was all supposed to be a celebration of the kids turning the ripe age of 18. But I couldn't stop picturing in my head a room full of top Chinese officials saying, "Hmm... OK we how can we brainwash these kids?"

"I have some great tactics we can use. Saw Germany use them successfully."

"Ok... now how do we get use them without being too open and getting criticized?"

"Hmm.. oh. Let's bring it to every school. Have a 'celebration' and do it then! And how can they criticize when we block ALL the things. lulz."

"Touche."

Oh right. That's the other thing. Along with the brainwashing, even if someone cared enough to talk about it they can't! All major social networks are blocked and the only one allowed (Weibo) is highly regulated by the Chinese government! 

It was really hard for me to see all that happening and realizing they couldn't do much about it. Noone could really get their voice heard that effectively even if they wanted too. I'm sure many people have thought about it, but realized rallying would be really tough.

And I talked to my Dad about it and he agreed the celebration was clearly a ruse to mask the brainwashing of these kids. And when I told him to bring it up with my Uncle, my Uncle agreed too but was very hesistant when talking about it. Not normally a shy person, he seemed that way when we brought it up.

My guess on it is that they've realized how badly the Chinese government is forcing their hand into their lives and how they have almost no say in it. So it's tough to face that fact, and easier to just try to pretend it's not happening. 

My dad told me a lot of Chinese are sympathetic to the censorship and brainwashing, because they feel it's the only way to main peace with such a large amount of people. Not only did I tell my Dad that's BS and that maybe the government should just act in the way that would not inspire riots, but also mentioned that it could clearly be a symptom of Stockhold Sydrome.

Anyways, today was a very eye opening experience. I'm really unsure about what it will take to fix these issues in China. Or if they ever will be fixed.

I told my Dad it's going to take a Ghandi of China - someone who can inspire a mass following, but who is not in it for the power. Because if someone likes power too much and gets traction, then it will just be another oppressive government taking over the old oppresive government.

How does China's Great Firewall work?

I thought it was pretty simple... until I got here. I figured that when an ISP received a request for a blocked domain or domains with specific key words, that it would stop there and no response (or a bad response) would be sent back. And then with search result blocking (on Google specifically) I thought that if there was a blocked search result, Google would still return a page with unblocked links with a "Results have been blocked" type message. Boy... I think I underestimated the Chinese Government.

Here are the things I've tried to reach unsuccessfully:

  • Google sites (sites.google.com)
  • Google Docs
  • Google.com (.com.hk is OK)
  • Youtube
  • Hulu
  • Posterous
  • Blogspot
  • Twitter
  • Any Google search page when searching for anything containing "facebook"

On certain VPN's and certain proxies I am still unable to access almost all of those sites as well. That tells me, either I am completely oblivious to how proxies/VPN's work or that the censorship here is much more sophisticated than I thought.

How did I know I was successfully connected to a VPN/Proxy? Well besides being prompted for credentials and then getting a response that said credentials OK, I also used a tool to figure out my public IP. I google'd What's My IP before using any VPN's or Proxies and kept that page up, and after connecting to a VPN or going through a proxy I figured out what my IP was again. Each time, the public IP my browser showed me was different, but without any VPN/proxy the IP was the same. So this told me I was accessing the internet through a different server. And in addition to that, I used a tool to verify that those new IP's originated from somewhere within the U.S.

So what happened when trying to access the internet through VPN's and Proxies? Well to be clear I tried, unsucessfully of course, to get around the Great Firewall with an NYU VPN, Home server VPN, UPenn VPN, and NYU Proxy. Again each verified that I was using it's public IP when accessing the internet. And so this is what would happen: Google.com would work...sometimes Hulu would work... but none of the other blocked sites I mentioned above would work.

Why is it that certain sites would work, but most of them would not EVEN if I was tunnelling to the internet via a non-China computer?? Does China have different tiers of censorship and know which sites are the highest priority to block and then let people easily access other  certain blocked sites?

How does that work??

The other thing was that whenever I typed in any "Facebook" related query to Google.com (or .hk) the response would get blocked. And then I would be unable to access Google for another 5 minutes or so while any other unblocked site would work fine. What is that magic??

And to clarify... by "blocked" I mean I would get a response from Chrome saying that Chrome could not connect, but when I opened up any other site (mostly Hacker News) in a new tab it would render just fine.

In the end, a certain VPN (GoTrusted) did end up working for me. You have to pay, but I am currently on a 7 day free trial. Yay!

Proud to be frugal

I didn't really consciously think about it until today, but there can be a lot of pride in being frugal. It struck me today when we were at my grandparents' place and they were talking about how they never buy new clothes and will always wait for one of their kids (e.g. my Dad) to bring back old clothes that their kids (e.g. me) grew out of. 

After keying in on that, I could hear over and over how proud they were at being so frugal. But I imagine, that their frugality really came out of necessity rather than a desire. It was a principle adopted into their lives based off a need rather than want. Or maybe it wasn't them, but their parents. But somewhere down the line, I am 100% certain that frugality was essential to survival.

But now it has become a badge of pride that they wear, my Dad wears, and I see myself adorning on occasion as well. Now that I think about it, though, it makes sense. It's never fun to be the victim of circumstance (i.e. frugality due to necessity). So turn it into a game, or something you pride yourself in, and it becomes now a factor of your life that you control. 

It's a great coping mechanism. But also I do honestly think it's a great principle to have (but that may just be generations of Zhao frugality in my blood talking). I think being frugal is great. It discourages waste, and we all know the world could use a lot more of that. As I addressed in a previous post, being frugal is absolutely wonderful as long as it doesn't impose too much upon your happiness. And if you were raised frugal, most likely it will not.

So sitting there listening to my grandparents go on and on about how they never have to spend any money really made me appreciate the origin of my frugality. Because somewhere down the line someone in my family really had to be frugal just to survive, I now have this great principle that will keep me from spending beyond my means and being a resource-waster. And I'm proud of it.

Great to see family

This is serious post #1 coming from behind the Great Firewall of China. Hopefully, I don't say anything too incriminating and get my blog blocked!

We got in late last night around 10PM local time in Shanghai and was picked up by my Uncle (Dad's side). We then drove to my Grandparents' place (Dad's side again) and said hi. I think I underestimated how good it felt to be with family. I'm not much for get-togethers and such and so I was not necessarily that excited to head to China. But, for some reason, it felt really good to see family who I haven't seen in 5 years or more.

I haven't really been in contact with them since the last time I was back, so maybe it was just the feeling of, "Oh, I remember you. We had a connection once." Or maybe there is just something grander to be said about family. Hopefully it's the latter, but the former wouldn't be too surprising.

Today we're headed to see more family and revisit my Dad's parents.

More posts about China to come.