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Wyatt Smith, Keegan Traveling Fellow

Wyatt Smith

2010-2011 Michael B. Keegan Traveling Fellow
Vanderbilt University

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Tue
19
Apr '11

A Haitian Palm Sunday on Rue des Freres

Coming into Haiti during Easter season, one of my goals is to experience Mass services with local people. As a majority Catholic population infused with a sizeable voudou following, Haitians have an intricate relationship with religion. Given the exacerbated hardship many face in the wake of last year’s earthquake, not to mention the years of instabilty and poverty preceding it, faith and spirituality play an important role in people’s everyday lives.

After learning that my host, Sonia, and her live-in housekeeper, Odella, are both practicing Catholics, I ask to join them for Palm Sunday services at their local church. Sonia readily agrees, but warns me that Mass starts early at 7am, and we have to get there even earlier to find a seat admist the Easter week crowd. The considerations make for another 5:30am wake up, which is an ungodly hour by some’s standards but quite typical for most Haitians, who I find are by and large are up with the sun each morning.

I dress quickly, without showering, and join Sonia and Odella for the ten minute walk down Rue des Freres to their church. As we walk, large dump trucks and smaller tap-taps, the ubiquitous pickups carrying loads of passengers precariously seated on benches in their beds, kick up clouds of dust as they rattle past. The thickness of it causes Sonia to turn to the side and hide her face in her bright purple shirt. The sidewalk is broken pieces of rubble or dirt in places, so we have to jump into the road at points, trying to avoid the early morning traffic clog. Even though it’s only 6am, the informal economy moves quickly on this Sunday morning, as the unpredictability of electricity leads people to get as much done as possible during the daylight hours.

A young girl approaches us on the side of the road carrying an armful of palm fronds, the typical Catholic accessory for this Holy Week celebration that commemorates the day leaves were laid in the streets of Jerusalem to honor the triumphant arrival of Jesus nearly two millenia ago. At Masses in the States, the palm fronds are complimentary. Here, children sell them for 10 Gourde (25 cents) apiece. I buy three.

We reach the church and find dozens of people milling outside, greeting each other with calls of “bon Dimanche” and “bonjour, ce va?”  The chapel doors are locked until 6:30am, but the moment they open, we push our way inside and claim seats three rows from the back.

The church is architecturally simple, an A-framed building with two rows of wooden support columns running along the outer sets of pews. There are no elaborate murals or sculptures, just a simple altar and lecturn facing 40 rows of nondescript, wooden pews. Four stations of the cross are missing from the set that runs along the walls of the chapel, exposing the iron settings that once held them in place. Around 20 oscillating fans situated strategically throughout the sanctuary send streams of cool air cutting through the morning heat.

While Sonia saves our seats, I join Odella outside for the introductory prayer and entrance ceremony with the priest, a unique characteristic of the Palm Sunday Mass. As we wait, a crowd congregates in the lot adjoining the church, some 100 strong. Children run about in their best clothing, proudly holding palm fronds out of reach of distressed younger siblings or friends. Groups of teenage girls wearing blue uniforms with gold neckties and navy blouses chat loudly with friends in clusters. I learn they comprise a worship team that leads songs and gives readings during the service, which bears a strong similarity to teenage choir I met in Zambia eight months ago.

The priest, a light skinned, aged Haitian with a deeply wrinkled face and eyeglasses, emerges from behind the church wearing the red vestments of Palm Sunday. The ceremony starts 10 minutes early with the priest’s call to worship in deep, sonorous Creole. All around me, men and women hold their palm fronds high in the air, singing in unified voice. It is a beautiful sight.

Odella and I duck back inside the rapidly filling church and make for the back rows, finding all the seats surrounding Sonia save our two filled with other churchgoers. I estimate 650 people inside the building, with pew space for no more than 550. I am the only white man in attendance, welcomed with warm “bonjours” from all in our row.

Stragglers stand alongside the walls and ushers set up folding chairs along the ends of the pews as the processional begins. I am mindful of the Easter service at West End Methodist Church in Nashville one year ago, when I entered just before services began and squeezed into a similar folding chair on the end of very unsimilar row of worshipers. I chuckle at the recollection and feel a woman shoot a glare in my direction. This service is serious business.

I join in the processional song, singing along phonetically with the Creole lyrics written in my devotional. The unprinted words of subsequent readings, prayers, and responses prove much more difficult to follow, as the language sounds as unfamiliar as Swahili to the uninitiated. Sonia asks many times, “Do you understand?” Even though I do not, I promise her that I understand the gist.

The Mass stretches long–2 hours and 30 minutes–party due to the extended Gospel of Christ’s passion, a story recognizable in Creole only by the call and response nature of parts of the reading, and partly due to the 30 minutes of announcements at the commencement. Suffocating heat in the sactuary makes the length nearly unbearable, and I feel blessed every 20 seconds when the fan above my head rotates in my direction.

But during hymn at the Eucharist, as I observe Odella sway back and forth, eyes closed, and hum with a look of contentment on her aging face, I realize that the ceremony is absolutely perfect. All around me, men and women of all ages celebrate with conviction, one even calling out in Creole as she sat worshipping on the floor to my left. For a group of people that have seen so much pain and endured so many false promises of better presidents, more responsive governments, and brighter futures, these Haitians still have faith in their redemption.

As the service draws to a close and we empty directly into a street of honking moto-taxis and lumbering UN vehicles, Sonia turns to me and asks if I enjoyed the service.

I give her a hug. “It was great. Better than I could have imagined,” I say.

“But you didn’t understand any of it!” she laughs.

I admit that she is right, I did not understand the words. 

“But,” I tell her, “the meaning came across better than you might think.”

Mon
18
Apr '11

Motobikes, Haircuts, and Discomfort in Haiti

My first full day in Haiti proves eye opening. The hardships, while uncomfortable, are not overwhelming: the showers are frigid, the heat suffocating, the electrical grid undependable, and the public transport limited. But thanks to my Haitian hosts, I have access to a bed, clean water, and occaisionally, an Internet cafe. So it’s downright luxurious when compared to those living in massive refugee tent camps in the center of alleged ”nice districts.” An encounter with them last night has been quite impacting on my initial impressions of inequality and poverty in the Haitian state.

Yesterday morning begins with ease, as my Friday night hosts Joanne and Jean Paul drop me at a quality Internet cafe in the NGO-center of Petion-Ville on their way out of town for a weekend in Jacmel. There, I sit down for a few hours of research on Haitian history and observe the comings and goings of locals on a Satuday, many of whom are crowding around various televisions across the downtown area to cheer and jeer a high profile soccer match.

Then, out on the street, a friendly guy in his 30’s introduces himself as “Junior” and helps me locate a Haitian cell phone, hair cut, and place for lunch. As we clip through my to-do list, Junior engages in an impromptu interview with me. An excellent English speaker, he tells me that he returned home in 2009 after spending 15 years working as a computer technician in Canada. Due to the fallout from earthquake and what he termed “corruption in society,” he says that work opportunities have not come easy.

“People give jobs to those who they know, not necessarily the best qualified,” he complains, citing a familiar charge against private and public sector hiring practices across the developing world. It was not evident, however, that he has spent an inordinate amount of time in the job search process.

Junior offers his impressions on the recent presidential election, in which popular Haitian singer Michel Martelly defied conventional wisdom in besting an experienced opponent to win in a March runoff.

“He will do well for Haiti, unlike the other politicians,” he assures me, impressing me on the depth of “Sweet Mickey’s” commitment to Haitian development. “He spent his own money to help the refugees after the earthquake, while [then President René Préval] did not do so much as lift his little finger.”

Junior, like other Haitians I would later meet, is unmoved by criticisms of Martelly as an inexperienced, lightly credentialed candidate for the presidency. “The elites call him unintelligent,” he says, “because they cannot match his popularity.”

I can tell he is warming to me out of reasons of self-interest rather than friendship, but I don’t blame him for trying. Instead, I ask a series of questions about his experiences in the wake of the tragic disaster, to learn more about his situation.

“I was getting a can of juice inside a store on the afternoon the quake,” Junior says, “when the whole building began rocking back and forth. I was cursing myself for coming inside. Couldn’t believe I was going to die for a can of juice.”

Junior accuses local businesses of capitalizing on the tragedy. “Everyone was raising their prices, two or three times what they had been before the earthquake,” he says. ”They capitalized as people were starving. It was ugly, man.”

“The worst part,” he continues, “was trying to locate friends and family. You couldn’t talk to anyone because the phones were down. A huge mess.”

After escorting me to a local barbershop, where a young guy named Nixon obliged my request for a haircut by running a buzzer with a relatively high 6 mm guard all over my head, Junior accepts a small gift of 250 Gourde ($5) from me and we part ways. After the interview, I don’t mind breaking my self-imposed rule of giving out food rather than money. He proves worth it for the translation assistance, alone.

For two hours, I try to connect with my second host, a 27 year old Haitian woman named Sonia who, like my host the night prior, I meet on the CouchSurfer website. In communicating her address to me over email, she translates her address as “Dead Brother Route” instead of the Creole, “Rue des Freres.” This understandably confuses the moto-taxi driver I hire to drive me to her place, and we have to stop on the side of the road several times to check back with her for directions.

The moto-taxi is the sort of transportation I try to avoid, when possible. Basically a dirtbike with large racks on the back for 1-2 passengers, it is part motorcycle, part taxi. You ride sans helmet and hope that the driver stays true and other motorists blindside you in a more formidable vehicle. Like a car.

But apart from the tap-taps, a series of pickup trucks with converted wooden benches in their beds, the moto-taxis are the only game in town in Petion-Ville.’ Since I don’t know the exact route to Sonia’s place, I hop behind the moto-taxi driver with bags in my lap, say a quick prayer, and hope for the best. The driver makes liberal use of his horn to warn/harass other motorists, generally stays below excessive speeds, and for the most part obeys traffic laws. Luckily, my good fortune continues to hold out.

After arriving Sonia’s home, a simple, four room apartment she shares with a live-in housekeeper named Odella, she invites me to join her for a movie at the Brazilian Theater in eastern Petion-Ville. I comply and we hop aboard separate moto-taxis, speeding back in the direction I had come.

The Brazilian Theater is a stately single story, white building abutting a park filled to capacity with refugee tents. We head inside for a screening of documentary about a Brazilian popular musician, Caetano Velusa. I hadn’t heard of him before the movie, but apparently he is the Portugese equivalent of Paul McCartney. It was an unexpected experience, less than a day into my Haiti visit, sitting in a language school for a screening of a story in Portguese and French about a South American cultural icon.

Afterwards, as we walk out of the theater, Sonia asks me if I would like to eat dinner. It’s around 7pm and I am definitely hungry, so I agree as we navigate around the refugee camp towards a row of restaurants.

“Do you know Quartier?” she asks, referencing the restaurant a block ahead. While her English is not perfect, it far exceeds my French, so I say that it sounds great, not understanding that by asking, she was assuming that I would be taking her out to dinner.

Inside, I confront a spectacle of a restaurant better suited to the French Quarter of New Orleans than the desperately impoverished Haitian country. Waiters in smart, white coats serve glasses of wine to patrons seated at candlelight tables while a saxophonist seranades in the background. As we sit, I am open mouthed with shock, but she seems so confident in the restaurant, as if she comes here all of the time, that I don’t issue a word of protest.

The waiters bring out menues listing prices in Haitian dollars, a peculiar but common practice in a country that has operated on the Haitian Gourde (worth 5 times less) for decades. I order the least expensive item on the menu, beef medallions, and fortunately Sonia does as well. By this point, I have discovered that tonight’s meal at this French gourmet restaurant will be my treat.

Over dinner, I learn that she works for the Brazilian embassy in Haiti (hence the Portugese language center), that she balancing work with university studies (hence her inability to get in touch earlier in the day, when she had an exam), and that she lost her mother in the earthquake. The last piece of information is the hardest to react to, but then again I am finding that few were spared from some connection to the death toll.

I decide not to let being stiffed with the bill get to me long before it arrives. After all, I am a guest in her home and it’s not likely that she dines at Le Quartier regularly given her current living situation. Still, the place itself bothers me deeply. Outside, less than 100 feet away, one thousand “internally displaced people”, as the euphemism terms them, are huddling in tarpaulin-reinforced tents, trying to make it through another night. And inside, surrounded by tables of Haiti’s elite and a cohort of aid workers, all are enjoying Saturday evening meals of fine steak and wine whilst a sax player works the garden. The disparity is so real, so close…and I feel sick for contributing.

The bill arrives at an eye-popping 2800 Gourde; at $69, it is three day’s worth of budget for me (and three weeks income for the average Haitian, according to CIA Factbook). And while I try not to show my discomfort, I can’t help stopping Sonia when she moves to send her unfinished beef medallions and roasted potatoes back to the kitchen, asking instead for the waitress to wrap it up for us to take away.

Emerging from the opulence and back into the very real world, I walk slowly to the outer edges of the refugee camp and offer a “bon soir” to a lady standing in the darkness. “C’est por vous,” I say, offering the tinfoil-wrapped entree to the woman. Confused, she does not accept it.

I say in English, “It is from Quartier. Beef medaillions.”

Suddenly, a woman hustles over from the darkness on the left, where a group of young boys and mothers are all watching me intently. She grabs the foil, turns it to the light emanating from a nearby steet lamp, and squeals, “Le Quartier!”

I back off quickly as the second woman throws her arms into the air in celebration. The first is still standing there, silently. The boys say something to me in Creole, but I am on the street too rapidly to understand their meaning.

Sonia looks at me, smiling. “So you are really human?”

Perhaps she meant to say something else, and her meaning came out lost in translation. I sure hope she believed in my humanity all along.

Either way, it’s now a day later, and I am still paying.

Sat
16
Apr '11

Encountering Heartbreak and Hope: First Impressions in Haiti

Haiti represents a number of concurrent, conflicting realities. On one dimension, its people are proud members of the oldest republic in Latin America, and the first black republic in the world. On another, they are citizens of a failed state, the poorest country in the Western hemisphere, and lack a functional government to provide infrastructure, education, and opportunity. Some blame Western exploitation for the roots of Haiti’s poverty, as imperial powers instituted neo-liberal economic institutions under the threat of a gun and the lie of enrichment. Others point to the practice of voudou as evidence of an alleged “pact with the devil,” leading to the country’s prolonged suffering. Still more decry years of Duvalier dictatorship and despotism, which disenfranchised the lower classes of opportunity while promising them justice. Some impressions are accurate, others are misinformed, all are insufficient explanations by themselves. No matter the angle, the complexity remains: Haiti is proud and poverty-stricken, mysterious and mortifying, culture-rich and capital-poor, all at the same time.

And that’s before even accounting for the earthquake.

Since capturing my attention in the spring of my senior year, when I led a Vanderbilt effort to raise money for the emergency response effort and build awareness of the vast cultural story in the Antilles, Haiti has intrigued me as a country of great hardship and history. It is only fitting, therefore, that my journey through Latin America and the Caribbean ends with an exploration of the island nation’s tortured past, current challenges, and future prospects regarding democratic institution building and citizenship.

My journey to Haiti originates on the opposite side of Hispaniola, as I board a Carib Tours bus in the Dominican Republic capital of Santo Domingo. The bus company sales agent and I have a difficult time communicating, which makes it even more unsettling when she takes my passport for safekeeping upon departure. Although other travelers have warned me about the practice, I can’t shake the discomfort of being separated from my travel documents on the way out of the DR.

As we rumble out of the Dominican capital and head west, other passengers onboard the bus chatter in a steady stream of Creole. My skin color denotes my foreigner status among the 40 travelers, but no one pays me much attention. A woman in front of me launches into a loud sermon, commanding the attention of the entire bus as she admonishes us all to pray for a safe journey. For a moment, it feels like I have been transported back in time to my first bus ride in South Africa, some nine months ago, when I sat quietly while an old woman led our bus in prayer on the way out of Johannesburg. I am much more comfortable in the crowd at this point.

I strike a quick friendship with my seatmate, a Haitian woman in her late 20s named Maria, by offering a smile and a broken French greeting. We communicate in a mix of Spanish and French monosyllables as we fill out Haitian customs forms and eat our onboard boxed lunch of rice and beans. I learn that she has been working in Santo Domingo for one year—ostensibly since the earthquake struck—and now she is returning home for a bit. Maybe for Easter, maybe for good. My foreign language skills still aren’t advanced enough to tell.

Arriving at the Haitian border community of Jimani (more market space than town), we all pile out of the bus and encounter an expansive pool of shallow, muddy water separating us from the immigration building. Gingerly, we step across a row of stones, strategically protruding one after another out of the muck, before entering the cinderblock building and receiving our passports back from the bus company attendant. After receiving my exit stamp, the border agent waves me away without returning the passport. Looks like they are still keeping it safe.

We climb back aboard the bus and slowly inch our way through the informal economic zone that divides the DR from its impoverished neighbor. Rows of wooden lean-to’s comprise the market space, which is populated by vendors selling an array of liquors, second hand shoes, and bags of grain conspicuously labeled with the American flag, thanks to USAID’s branding campaign on relief efforts.

At the Haitian immigration post, moneychangers and Digicell SIM card touts hang tight to the building, all raising their hopes upon sight of me. It’s my standard practice to move as quickly as possible through immigration zones, so I demure and step inside, taking note of the plain concrete floor and temporary nature of the service windows, set behind plywood walls. Maria, my seatmate, squeals at the sight of a familiar face at the immigration desk, flings open the puny door fit within the plywood walls, and hugs the agent before disappearing in a different room.

I join the line for a few minutes, until Maria runs back out, asking for my passport. I hand it over and she disappears again, returning a few minutes later with my approved customs declaration form and an entry card to complete. When I reach for a pen proffered by one of the nearby money changers, he grabs the card and my passport and begins filling out the information for me. He forges my signature in five capital letters, “SMITH,” then hands it back to me, smiling. I know it disappoints him when I have no tip to offer, but he is still smiling as I slip a Quaker oats granola bar in his front shirt pocket.

Back on the bus, however, the mood is less jovial as we drive into Haiti. We move along the coastline of Étang Saumâtre, a lake abutting the highway where men fish in small boats as women and children wait on shore amidst shoddy tent encampments. As we drive, we pass rows of cinder block houses, guarded by iron spikes or pieces of broken glass mortared into tops of the surrounding walls. Others live less protected, taking shelter under blue tarpaulin held up by wooden poles. A neat grid of pre-fabricated homes, erected in the past several months by an unseen aid agency, occasionally jumps out of the squalor. But for the most part, the living situation seems dire.

As Port-au-Prince nears, evidence of the massive international effort to rebuild Haiti takes shape. A thousand-tent complex bearing the Yele Haiti logo of pop star Wyclef Jean’s foundation emerges on my left. Another temporary housing facility of tents bearing the flags of the People’s Republic of China appears on my right. I pass signs of Korean, French, U.S., German, and other international humanitarian efforts. A massive, one story UN complex of tents, humvees, supply trucks, and helicoptors under a MINUSTAH banner (Mission des Nations Unies pour la Stabilisation en Haïti), is by far the largest.

As we move slowly uphill towards the Petion-Ville district, the Haitian marketplace spills into the street. Vendors sell t-shirts, televisions, and live chickens within ten feet of each other. The poultry pick amidst the garbage littering the curb, which includes empty Styrofoam boxes, discarded plastic bottles, and a smattering of crumpled papers. Apparently, garbage collection is not timely or regular. Or in existence.

People’s articles of clothing are inscribed with logos that reveal secondhand origins. “BCMS Football 2006,” “Support the Troops,” and my personal favorite, “You Can Tell a German, But You Can’t Tell Him Much,” are all slogans printed on the t-shirts of the Haitian masses below. At one road-side market stand, a hawker has hung a hefty number of such t-shirts, all available for sale. A gray shirt bearing a familiar “Alabama Crimson Tide Football” logo across the chest catches my eye.

Once we arrive at the bus station in Petion-Ville and clamor to claim our luggage, I find a taxi driver and click through a to-do list in my mind: Withdraw cash (Haitian Gourde), find a SIM card for my phone, and call my host Joanne, a 27 year old Swiss/Haitian NGO worker from the CouchSurfing community. The list proves difficult to complete, as the first two banks and supermarket I visit all lack functioning ATMs. Once I locate a working cash point, the sky is so dark that I cannot waste time looking in vain for a phone SIM card.

Luckily, the driver allows me to call Joanne from his phone, and she navigates him towards Delmas 45, a middling neighborhood downhill from my arrival point in Petion-Ville. We pass a flattened building, one concrete floor pressed against the next, and a pancaked car on the side of the road, but for the most part this area of the city seems rebuilt since the damaging earthquake.

Joanne greets me at her home with her boyfriend, a young Haitian named Jean Paul. The two give brief tour of her surprisingly large, yet sparsely furnished four room apartment. I have a room to myself, complete with a mattress on the floor, a candle, and a window view of Port-au-Prince. The electricity is not too reliable, they warn, but overall it’s a great place.

“The best part is upstairs,” Joanne says, leading me up a set of concrete steps to the rooftop, where the city of Port-au-Prince stretches below us in the hot, humid night air. Eerily, not a single light shows from the hundreds of houses immediately below us. “Electricity runs through some neighborhoods, some nights,” Joanne explains. “But not all neighborhoods, all nights.”

The three of us climb into Jean Paul’s SUV and head back towards Petion-Ville for dinner. As we ride, Joanne sits facing me from the front seat, explaining that she has lived in Haiti for four months, during which time she has worked at a number of different NGOs on issues of civic education and sustainable development. Jean Paul uses his BlackBerry to show me a number of commercial spots he has created for Haitian businesses and foundations in his advertising job.

Joanne warns me that I won’t see white people outside of Petion-Ville after nightfall. “The UN doesn’t authorize its people to leave the area after dark. It’s considered too dangerous. But you’re with us, so don’t worry.”

Dinner is at a no-frills Haitian restaurant. I order the poisson (fish), which comes with plantains and fried acra, a typical vegetable fare. Over dinner, I am given a crash course lesson in Creole, covering the basics like, “how are you” (koman ou ye), “where is the…” (ki kote…), “I want” (m’vle), and “Do you speak English” (Eske ou parle Angle?). If only I had paid closer attention in French II.

I ask Jean Paul about his experience during the earthquake. His shoulders slump and he looks down as Joanne repeats the question to him in French for clarification. I feel badly for asking about the topic. Then Jean Paul laughs, and says simply: “I am a survivor.”

He tells me that he was driving home from the office that horrible afternoon, just like any other day. He heard a deep rumbling sound that he describes as a “du, du, du, du, du.” The ground began to shake. And then the world fell down around him.

“Buildings collapsed, one after another, on both sides of the road,” he says calmly, without emotion. “For thirty-five seconds everything kept falling, floors crashing one on top of the other.” Then, he says, the rumbling stopped and a telephone pole fell across the highway, nearly hitting his car. People emerged from the dust, covered in blood and crying in agony.

Jean Paul raced home and found his mother standing outside a destroyed building. Like her son, she had fortuitously stepped outside only minutes before the quake hit, sparing her from a certain death. The two of them could not contact his brother in the city, as Haiti’s telecommunications network was no more. They spent two nights in his car, before finding his brother and relocating to the brother’s apartment, which had avoided major damage.

In the aftermath of the quake, Jean Paul tells me that he tried freeing people he heard trapped in the rubble, but it proved impossible. “So many dead bodies,” he says, shaking his head. “I will never forget that man. Never forget that.”

Fourteen months after this terrible natural disaster, Haiti is filled with survivors like Jean Paul. They found a way to escape the destruction that killed at least 220,000, found a way to avoid starvation in the wake of the tragedy, and found a way to persist once widespread cholera broke out amidst deteriorating water and health conditions. They are still surviving today. 

In the midst of all that survival, it seems a bit trite to talk in platitudes about democracy. But given the pain inflicted by autocratic rulers and unmerciful outsiders in the past, scars in Haitian society today run far deeper than a natural disaster can affect. Democratic reform and institution growth will be key to overcoming Haiti’s great challenges. Coming out of a recent presidential election and looking into the future, it’s one of the few things that keeps Haitians hopeful. With the help a number of gracious and open hosts, I hope to begin to understand those emotions more fully.

Sat
26
Feb '11

My Conversation with George W. Bush

Posing with President George W. Bush, following our interview on February 7, 2011. I won the chance to meet the former president through a Facebook competition, aimed at generating publicity for his memoirs, Decision Points.

Like most political science majors at Vanderbilt, I spent many undergraduate hours crafting papers, honing arguments, and developing frameworks for analyzing presidential decisions. For all the work, however, I hardly imagined that a few months out of Vanderbilt, I would have the chance to apply that type of critical thinking to a personal conversation with an American president. Then a Facebook competition came along and presented that very opportunity.

Last October, I paid a visit to the embattled country of Iraq on the Michael B. Keegan Traveling Fellowship, a Vanderbilt grant that supports a year of international exploration on issues of democracy and citizenship. While cruising Facebook from my hotel room in the northern city of Erbil, I came across a contest to interview former president George W. Bush about his recently published memoirs, Decision Points. A few questions, a video, and thousands of Facebook votes later, I was selected as the winner among more than 13,000 entrants. To term such an opportunity “surreal” does little justice to my emotions at the time.

I spent hours preparing for the interview. In addition to reading President Bush’s memoirs a couple of times, I engaged people I met in my travels from Beijing to Bavaria about the most pressing issues in their countries, so that I might form a series of broad, internationally-grounded questions to pose to the former president.

I worried over syntax, debated over word choice, and wrung my hands over tone. By the time I boarded a flight for Dallas in early February for the interview, however, I decided to ignore the worry and treat the opportunity like a respectful, yet hopefully challenging conversation.

Once in Dallas, I hardly had time to be nervous. My driver got lost on the way to the meeting, and I entered the former president’s building in a rush, several minutes behind our appointed meeting time. Any lingering apprehension melted away the instant I entered the room, however, as President Bush belted out in his characteristic Texas twang, “How you doing, big boy? So glad you’re here.”

Bush dressed casually in a blue sweater and sat behind a simple wooden desk as he welcomed me into his surprisingly understated post-presidential quarters. While the pressures of his time in office may have been reflected in the grayness of his hair, any hints of fatigue were belied by his high degree of energy. It seemed evident that he was enjoying his retirement.

After a round of small talk—including his experiences at the Super Bowl in Dallas the night prior—we dove into a wide-ranging conversation on a host of international and domestic issues. We covered his views on the importance of U.S. aid to Africa (America faced a moral imperative to assist victims of the “raging pandemic” of HIV/AIDS), the ongoing unrest in the Middle East (“people everywhere want to be free”), controversial interrogation methods used in the post-9/11 world (“by taking actions that were legal, we saved lives”), and America’s relationship with China going forward (“we should attempt to resolve our differences without disrupting strategic linkages”), among other topics.

President Bush was a very welcoming figure who welcomed me warmly to his offices in Dallas. After a wide-ranging conversation, including discussions on a number of international and domestic issues, the former president offered encouragement for the future.

President Bush calmly answered most of my questions, but grew animated on the subject of Iraq and our failure to find the weapons of mass destruction in the wake of invasion. I asked the former president if he regretted the decision to engage troops in ousting Saddam Hussein. While he expressed “regret” for the loss of life, he said that “the liberation of 25 million people is an important milestone in the ideological struggle” between the forces of good and evil in the world. At no point in his presidency, he insisted, did he cast doubt on the Bush Doctrine principle of preemptively invading countries that might do America harm.

Beyond that telling exchange, President Bush’s most interesting answer came in response to my question about his expansion of executive power in the federal government. Instead of expressing concern about the executive branch becoming even more powerful in the future, Bush reframed my question: Congress and the president, he argued, exist in a constant state of tension. When the president feels the legislative branch “encroaching” on his authority, it is incumbent on the executive to “protect presidential power” using methods like the veto or presidential signing statements that couch his support for legislation under certain caveats. I found the illustration to paint a fascinating picture of President Bush’s perspective on the role of the executive branch in our system of government.

As our interview neared its conclusion, Bush revealed a few of the many talents that led to his rise in politics. Displaying interest in my future plans, he offered encouragement about my decision to join the Teach for America organization, counsel about pursuing graduate education in business to widen my worldview, and graciousness in calling my father to congratulate him on “doing his duty” as a parent. It was a kind gesture that my dad will never forget.

While our time together was short, my conversation with President George W. Bush left an impression on me unlikely to fade with time. He struck me as a man of deep conviction and a clear, if not always perfectly articulate, view of the world. While many of his decisions remain controversial—and I am the first to admit misgivings about the black and white nature of his worldview—I believe future events may redeem Bush for predicting the onset of democratization in the Middle East.

While Bush waits for history to be his true judge, he remains confident in the rightness of his intentions and actions as president, even as outcomes have not always developed according to plan. If our interview revealed anything, it is that no amount of second-guessing will shake him from that viewpoint.

Tue
22
Feb '11

Experiencing the Richness of Argentine Culture

Historic Defensa Street in the San Telmo district, one of Buenos Aires' oldest neighborhoods, come alive each Sunday afternoon with a mile-long street market.

A week into Argentina, I am reminded of how edifying it is to be out in the world. There is much to explore in Buenos Aires, the city of European-inspired cobblestone streets, steakhouses, street markets, teeming public life, and tango dancers. Factor in 86-degree summer weather in February, and it’s hard not to find high spirits.

Walking through Buenos Aires, few things stand out more than the cultural richness of its neighborhoods. In my area, the tango haven of San Telmo, 300 year-old buildings watch over tree-lined streets leading to public spaces full of artisans and musicians. A bit farther north, the Palermo neighborhood is equally gripping, boasting classic Argentine restaurants with spacious outdoor-seating and a series of museums that showcase the country’s historical grandeur. And Recoleta, perhaps the most upscale neighborhood of the capital, takes the cake with its world-famous gated cemetery, which locals term “the most expensive piece of real estate in South America.”

Perhaps the most wonderful aspect of Buenos Aires is the music. Sounds of guitars, drums, trumpets, and saxophones can be heard in every neighborhood. A troupe of electrical violinists play for tips in San Telmo’s Sunday street markets, only to be outdone by a group of Iranian marimba players a bit father down Defensa Avenue. Artists perform on corners in the day and in restaurants late into the night, reminding me every bit of the struggling musicians in New York to Nashville back home.

The best show I encounter takes place in one of the capital’s less-developed neighborhoods, west of the ritzy Palermo enclaves and Recoleta’s high-priced cemetery. Hundreds of twenty-somethings crowded into a small, open-air venue to hear the styling of La Bomba, a 16 person, high energy drum ensemble. Think a South American version of Blue Man Group, but with more musicians, less body paint, and a dimension of underground feel.

La Bomba takes the stage for their dance-inducing performance. This drum line put on the best musical act I have seen since leaving Nashville last May.

La Bomba puts on a diverse show, blending the sounds of hand drums, snares, quads, and even a guest saxophonist or two to make a uniquely Argentine sound. As the drumbeat resonates through the night air, groups of young people all over the venue jump, shake, twist, and spin, contorting their bodies in time with the sound. As concerts go, this one was high on the interactive scale.

Beyond the music, I am also a sucker for the food. Steak dinners, in particular, are a guilty pleasure of mine here in Argentina. Bellissimo, a restaurant around the corner from my hostel, serves one of the best: a 300-gram sirloin with steak fries and a glass of Malbec for 53 Argentine pesos ($13). I have eaten it three times, all around 11pm or midnight. The small restaurant is never more than half full, but the waiters invariably take their time in filling orders. Not that I need to look at a menu.

Argentine food, like everything else in the country, is a blend of influences from different regions of the world. Italian-style cooking has deep roots here, as evidenced by the plethora of pizzerias and bakeries across Buenos Aires, but one is also likely to notice hints of Lebanese, Spanish, Mexican styles as well. Within a four-block radius of my hostel, I can find fresh carne empanadas (beef in pastries), newly baked lasagna, hand-made pizza, or heartily cut steaks. There’s even a Chinese restaurant down the street, in which I was able to impress with my recently acquired, 20 word Mandarin vocabulary.

Then, there is the night scene. Argentines love a good party. And they find reasons to celebrate in many different forms. I prefer the more low-key, late night musical act, but appreciate the excitement of a tango street fair, like the one held in Republica Square on my first weekend in Buenos Aires. I arrived just as it was wrapping up for the night, but the thousands of Argentines pouring into areas nightclubs and tango halls did not seem fazed by the end of the official performance. As daylight broke, many of them were still celebrating the approach of Carnival with an air of festivity.

Here in Buenos Aires, it’s been difficult for me to gain access to official channels for interviews, but I am confident that my conversations with Argentines on the street mixed with the range of reading materials will allow me to flesh out more substantial views on the country’s transition from military dictatorship to democracy, as well as the challenges posed by the inflationary pressures in their economy (the Economist pegs real inflation in Argentina at nearly 18 percent, almost double the reported rate).

But until then, I am enjoying the wonderful culture. And the night life.

PS: While I didn’t film this, it does give you an idea about the La Bomba musical experience…

Thu
23
Dec '10

Developing “Guanxi” with the Global China Connection

GCC Alumni Association President Tyler Godoff (center) invited me to a student government networking event days into my China travels. We are pictured here with Tsinghua University student union chairman Jacky Zhang (second from left) and two other conference organizers.

Few societal norms are as important to understanding Chinese culture as guanxi, or the potency of one’s family, academic, social, and professional relationships. Guanxi influences everything in China, from negotiating potential business deals to cutting through red tape on the way to securing a housing permit. And in a country with a bureaucracy as large and cumbersome as China’s, the value of powerful connections cannot be underestimated.

Few entities have proven more pivotal in helping me develop my guanxi across the country than the Global China Connection (GCC), the premier student organization for promoting ties between promising young Chinese people with aspiring leaders across the globe. GCC’s mission to “build relationships that will change the world,” may seem overly ambitious for any student organization, particularly one in its early stages like GCC, which was founded in 2007.

But given the organization’s leadership team, which reads like an all-star lineup of Ivy League universities and top institutions in Beijing, with students from Harvard, Columbia, Yale, Tsinghua, and Peking Universities, GCC offers its members a more potent and prestigious network than most student groups. After a month of learning from its members, both American and Chinese, I believe that the organization is well on its way to realizing its lofty statement of purpose.

The president of the GCC Alumni Association, Tyler Godoff, first introduces me to the organization. A good friend from Vanderbilt with a wealth of charisma and a natural capacity for leadership, Tyler works in Beijing for a Chinese state-owned shipping and logistics firm, a job he landed through his contacts in GCC.

From the moment I enter the airport terminal and find Tyler greeting me with a “Beijing Welcomes You” sign, I begin learning the importance of networking in China. Just days after arrival, I am invited to participate in a student government forum at Tsinghua University, China’s top college and the breeding ground for its leadership class. There, I meet a range of talented young people across China, including Jacky Zhang, the student union chairman at Tsinghua University, and a number of leaders at Peking, Beijing Normal, and Tsinghua Universities.

Caught off guard, I am asked to deliver some remarks to the assembled students about my experiences hosting conferences in the United States. I don’t fall completely on my face, as the assembled group nods along while I speak. But although it’s my first speech in China, it’s not my first speech in Chinese. I still have a bit more practicing to do on that end.

As my time in China continued, GCC’s executive team continued to impress with their relationships among some of China’s brightest young minds. Their Chinese campus directors are knowledgeable, welcoming students with bright futures. And all are eager to network with Western students, in the hopes that they might utilize these relationships to add to China’s growth and development in the years ahead.

Chinese business dinner etiquette is important to networking and developing relationships. Here, I join GCC officers Gavin Newton-Tanzer (left), David Zhu (second from left), and Tyler Godoff (right) at a dinner with Chinese student leaders in Beijing.

Members of their leadership team not only opened new doors for me, they also helped me develop insight into the types of questions I needed to ask in order to grow my understanding of China. After learning about my opportunity to interview former president George W. Bush, Aaron Kiersch (senior vice president) willingly offered his opinion on the types of big-picture questions to pose, and Eric Glyman (director of initiatives) introduced me to a major health care executive in China so that I would develop a more well-rounded perspective on the Chinese economy.

Global China Connection’s co-founder and president, Columbia student Gavin Newton-Tanzer, shared his views on the importance of building relationships with Chinese students in this way: “Chinese people place a very high value on friendship, particularly with those who they meet during their formative years. Over time, they become less likely to branch out and add to their professional networks, partly because of their loyalty to the friendships made during their formative years.”

“And that’s where GCC offers value,” Gavin says. “We are providing opportunities for American college students to build relationships with some of the most talented young leaders in China. Given the importance of the U.S.-China relationship to our generation, these contacts will be invaluable for our members in their future business, trade, and policy relationships with the world’s fastest growing power.”

Gavin, Tyler, Eric, Aaron, and their colleagues in GCC’s leadership corps are wasting no time in advancing these relationships and growing their organization’s impact. A few weeks before my arrival, they met with U.S. Ambassador Jon Huntsman, Jr. to discuss President Obama’s 100,000 Strong Initiative, a bold vision for sending American students abroad to study at Chinese universities and strengthen ties for the future. GCC will likely play a major role in marketing this project to college students across the United States.

From meeting many of these young people over dinner to singing with them at one of Beijing’s famed KTV karaoke houses, I learned much about the norms and expectations governing relationships from the leaders of GCC. I recommend anyone interested in building connections in China to look up their organization online: http://www.gccglobal.org/. It’s a great way to get connected for the future.

Tue
14
Dec '10

Obedience as Virtue: The Unique Nature of Chinese Citizenship

Posing with a Chinese family after a meal of hot pot, a traditional stew whose origins derive in Mongolia and now serves as a cold-weather meal across China. They didn't speak much English, but through my friend Tyler Godoff (to my left), we were able to learn about theirs views on the importance of food in understanding China.

When interviewing people in my travels, I try to always include a question that probes people’s definitions of their citizenship: “What makes x different from any other sort of nationality?”

It’s an open-ended question for a reason, as the subject’s answer usually reveals much about his or her construction of nationalistic identity. For example, an answer like, “To be from this country is to suffer,” as one Kenyan soberly assured me at a celebration of her country’s new constitution in Nairobi, indicates a sense of victimization. “To be from this country is to be proud, and to be willing to die for it,” as a Tanzanian solemnly vowed, may indicate just the opposite.

Or it may not. It’s dangerous to generalize one person’s answer to define citizenship in an entire country, of course, and I try never to develop my framework for understanding population with such limited exposure. But when similar responses are repeated many times over, I have found that this line of questioning to be revealing about national mindsets.

The most common answers to my questions, “What makes Chinese citizenship unique,” or “What is the most important thing for an outside to understand about the Chinese people’s ways of viewing their country,” generally focuses on the cultural norms relating to the proper relationship between citizens and government.

“To understand China, you must understand our customs,” instructs a student at Tshingua University, the premier college for higher learning in the country, based in Beijing. “We have expectations to honor our parents, our teachers, and our country.”

A student leader at Beijing Normal University, a preparatory college for aspiring teachers in China, agrees: “We love our country, our government, and our party. Our schools preach patriotism and respect for our leaders.”

But the most innocent response may come from an elderly glassmaker in Gin Zhou, a rural village in Liaoning province, who tells me through a translator: “It is easy for the Chinese people to be controlled by government. We are obedient…I feel like Chinese people are more reserved. Foreigners are furious by comparison.”

This Chinese family in the rural village of Gin Zhou invited me into their home for an elaborate lunch during my time in northeastern Liaoning Province. Ge Chua He, who helped frame my understanding of virtuous obedience, is second from the right.

These were not the only answers to questions on the nature of Chinese citizenship—those ran the gamut from musings on poverty and struggling masses to exhortations that I eat as much Chinese food as possible in order understand the country (I did my best on this front). But at the end, a theme of obedience and deference to authority seemed most common.

It’s important to view these definitions in a positive light. The term “obedience” carries no negative connotation in the Chinese lexicon. Rather, it’s seen as the antithesis of anarchy, the counterpoint of disrespect and chaos. Independent thought and creativity, while not necessarily discouraged, are not virtuous in the same manner as humility and respect.

Nor should this unique virtue structure be seen as a product of communism, or any type of socialist design aimed to promote fealty to Red China. Rather, the Chinese virtue of obedience to power predates the Communist Revolution entirely. As far back as 500 BC, Chinese strategist Sun Tzi wrote a prescriptive case for deference among the masses in his oft-quoted field guide for battle, The Art of War, which explains: “The Moral Law causes the people to be in complete accord with their ruler, so that they will follow him regardless of their lives, undismayed by any danger.”

Even more influential are the teachings of Confucius, whose life philosophy remains the most generally accepted moral framework among Chinese people. For adherents of Confucianism, a series of dichotomous relationships govern the role of the individual: wives should defer to their husbands, children to their fathers, students to their teachers, soldiers to their generals, and subjects to their rulers. In return, husbands, fathers, teachers, generals, and rulers are expected to protect and care for those in their charge.

It should come as little surprise, then, that Chinese rulers have encouraged the propagation of Confucianism since the imperial days. So ingrained are these edicts in individual Chinese mindsets, Analects of Confucius has become required memorization for school children. Sallie Baxter, a classmate of mine at Vanderbilt currently teaching elementary school English in Beijing, tells me that any Chinese child under the age of ten can rattle off the series of Confucian expectations that govern their existence. “Study hard in school, or disappoint your parents,” “Earn high marks on tests, or disappoint your parents,” and “Honor the directives of wise rulers, or bring shame upon your parents” are all general requirements. Parental disappointment stands out as a general theme of consequence.

Posing with students at Chongping #1 school, a high school in the northern suburbs of Beijing. These students were models of respect and deference throughout my visit to their assembly welcoming a musical group from Indiana University.

Also important are the teachings of Laozi, a Chinese philosopher who developed the edicts of Daoism. Laozi instructed the most talented to “hide in the country and enjoy the brightness of their minds” rather than seek active roles in public life. When talking with one university student at Tsinghua University, China’s top institution of higher learning in Beijing, I learn that Laozi cautioned Chinese people against aspirations for leadership in the country, as such roles “pollute the mind and are not a good idea.” Talk about an original isolationist.

So what implication does China’s national value structure have for individual constructions of citizenship? I argue that its importance cannot be understated. In my every encounter with Chinese people, a sense of deference to their leaders emanates in responses to my questions about the meaning of citizenship in China.

“People of my generation are amazed by the government,” says Jiang Hong Fu, a 73 year old retired farmer, through the help of an interpreter during my time in Lushun village outside of Dalian, in northeastern China. “I am very grateful and thankful to live in such a society.”

His sentiments were echoed by Ge Chua He, a 60 year old retiree in Gin Zhou village of Liaoning Province, who also says through an interpreter: “The current leadership of our government is very strong. When problems do occur, it’s because of the people below them.”

Paul Chen, an engineering student at Tsinghua University with dreams of developing new technologies for China in the future, met with me on his campus in Beijing to discuss ways in which Chinese people view their citizenship.

And so the public lavishes praise on its national leaders in China, where the smartest and most capable are plucked from the country’s top universities and groomed for careers in public service at a young age. Government officials exist almost in a bubble, moving about China’s major cities in pricey black Audis with darkly tinted windows and even more expensive custom license plates. Questioning the government, or the Communist Party officials who populate its ranks—especially to a foreigner—is seen as an ultimate loss of face, perhaps the most important measure of reputation in Chinese society.

Yet instead of causing great angst, this system appears to work well for the Chinese, whose Confucian-influenced national mindset supports this unique value structure. By most economic measures, the country’s top leaders have lived up to their end of the bargain in the post-Tiananmen Square riot era, ushering in an era of prolonged growth and lifting millions from deep poverty. The agriculturalist nation is urbanizing at an astonishing rate and the government’s massive spending on infrastructure is setting the pace. Any qualms over the pervasive system of graft that plague China’s public sector are brushed aside by the country’s rapid 9.3 percent average quarterly growth rate and rising international profile in the past 20 years.

Far from protesting their government, more than a million young people sit for the civil service exam each year, each hopeful for the opportunity to land a secure career in public service to China. Only the most competent are afforded these lucrative jobs, where the benefits derive as much from perks and social standing as they do from paychecks. As Mr. Ge of Gin Zhou assures me, “It is a long career. Everything is guaranteed.”

In fact, when talking about issues of citizenship and views on government, the clearest theme that emerged was people’s discomfort with the issue. As a young, aspiring teacher in Beijing explains, “Chinese people can bear a lot. We have clothes. We have food. We have a house to live in. That’s okay. We don’t ask for more. That;s enough. Many people may be [privately] critical of the government, but they don’t want to be involved [in protesting]…why sacrifice my future and what’s ahead to be involved?”

Qiang Li, a young, college-educated man from Dalian, acted as my interpreter throughout my time in Liaoning Province. He offered many insights to my questions about the virtue of obedience in Chinese society.

For those who do protest, like 2010 Nobel Peace Prize recipient Liu Xiaobo, the status quo power structure allows few hopeful outcomes. My time in China coincided with the contentious awarding of the prize to Mr. Liu, a Chinese activist currently serving a jail sentence for his writings on democracy, which the government angrily denounces as treasonous statements that call for the overthrow of the People’s Republic.

But for all of the hullabaloo in the international community about Liu’s fate, his countrymen appear almost entirely unconcerned: Apart from a few angry editorials in the China Daily newspaper, condemning the West for meddling China’s internal politics, no one that I talk to in China seems even vaguely familiar with Liu as a political figure. “It’s funny that you ask about him,” says Qiang Li, a young, college-educated man who serves as my interpreter in Dalian. “The West gives him much attention, but he has no followers here. Most do not know who he is.”

And so, the drama of the empty chair in Oslo caused barely a ripple in modern-day China, where newspapers ran stories about Consumer Price Index figures for the country on the day one of its own received the world’s biggest prize. But the headlines are telling, as it’s in economic growth—not demands for political reform—that many young focus their citizenship goals in society. As an aspiring teacher confides: “My generation, we think about our own feelings and our dreams. Our society will provide room for some strange ideas and dreams. But for those who think about dreams of politics, this should come later.”

As another old Eastern saying instructs, “The tallest blade of grass is the first to be cut down by the scythe.” Taking heed, the Chinese people naturally blend in with the masses, channeling their ambitions for the country within the framework set by their Party.

And because they are virtuous, they obey.

Sun
12
Dec '10

The Impressiveness and Drive of Students in China

Students in China are eager to learn as much as possible about America. Here, I pose with Changping students at the Great Wall of China during a visit to their school, located just northwest of Beijing.

Throughout my travels, I have sought opportunities to engage with students in different global contexts. Given my commitment to join the Teach for America movement as a high school teacher in my home state of Alabama next year, I am always eager for the chance to learn about other educational systems, pedagogical models, and methods of thinking. China has given me no shortage of opportunities to embrace these topics across classroom communities.

Education carries tremendous value in China. President Hu Jintao sets the national tone with speeches centering on his vision of a “harmonious society” that stresses a “culture of scientific discovery.” In cities across the Middle Kingdom, teachers carry a tremendous amount of social capital and ambition for educational attainment permeates the culture. School children can bestow no greater honor on one their families than to be admitted to one of China’s—or the world’s—most prestigious colleges. Therefore, it is not difficult to find grade school students who study 12 hours a day, determined to sharpen their mathematical and language skills for the change to one day make their parents’ proud with admission to a leading university.

One of my first major exposures to a classroom community comes through an opportunity to teach an English lesson on American culture to 7th grade students at a small school just south of Beijing. Jill Xiaozhou, a colleague of mine in the Harvard Business School 2+2 Program working for UBS Financial Services in Beijing, invites the service event, coordinated by her company. I plan a lesson that focuses on the “melting pot” of American culture informed by languages, styles, and traditions from around the world. It also includes a mention of NBA stars and pop icons.

I found the students in this 7th grade classroom just south of Beijing to be a lively group! They were eager participants in my lesson on American culture

Throughout the lesson, all 30 of the students in my 7th grade classroom demonstrate a high degree of discipline by sitting quietly and attentively through two hours of instruction. Two hours! When asked a question, eager hands shot into the air and tiny bodies stood with straight backs as they offered responses. I instructed them to stand and ask a classmate questions like, “Who is your favorite athlete?” The partner would stand at attention, and proudly answer, “My favorite athlete is Kobe Bryant,” with a beaming smile. Something tells me that the students in my future high school classroom will require more classroom management and coaching than their counterparts in China.

My second major exposure to the Chinese educational system comes thanks to the Jiayu School in Changping, a city of 1.3 million just north of Beijing. Their school leader, a charismatic visionary named Jerome Ma, invites me to join a visiting musical ensemble from Indiana University in touring the Great Wall of China and meeting assembled students. Ma is a technocrat is some senses—his background is in management at Lenovo, the parent company of IBM—but I can tell from my initial conversation with him that he’s a leader of people more than computers. He has a vision for making his program truly international in nature and a passion for connecting his students with opportunities for higher education in the U.S.

Jerome Ma, leader of the Jiayu School in Changping, welcomes me to a musical performance as one of his ambitious students pours over a reading comprehension exercise I assigned her (at his prompting) in the background.

To move on this ambition, he partners me with a young girl in his program with dreams of enrolling at Harvard University in the coming years. The girl wears a turquoise and white jumper and flashes a shy smile at me as we meet and Mr. Ma asks me to counsel her on ways to improve her SAT scores. I encourage her to become a vociferous reader of English language magazines, newspapers, and textbooks in order to improve her vocabulary and recognition of grammar rules. Immediately, the pre-teen begins pouring over an article in the English-language China Daily newspaper about inflationary pressures in the Chinese economy and begs me to test her comprehension. I walk away impressed by her drive.

Later on, we sat down for their musical presentation and a duo of young emcees took the stage, welcoming their American guests to the program. Three hundred youngsters sat surrounding us, on the floor, on bleachers, and around the Indiana University orchestra. Awed by their respectful silence throughout the two-hour performance, I remarked to a U.S. State Department representative in attendance that I had never before seen such well-behaved children. A notable comment, considering that a majority of the three hundred of them spent the duration of the performance seated on the wooden gymnasium floor, with only a thin foam pad to cushion them.

In both of my school visit experiences, I walked away extraordinarily impressed by the students’ work ethics and desires to achieve. From the eager participants in my rural classroom to the disciplined listeners in the urban gymnasium, Chinese youngsters I engage with leave a lasting impression about the disciplined nature of the country’s educational system. I believe that we have much to learn from them in the States!

Thu
2
Dec '10

Scrambling to Watch the Iron Bowl in Beijing

Just as it took a heroic effort for Cam Newton and the Auburn Tigers to comeback against the Alabama Crimson Tide in this year's Iron Bowl, I had no shortage of obstacles preventing me from watching the game in Beijing (Photo credit: BleacherReport.net).

Few rivalries in American sport compare to the intensity of the Alabama/Auburn divide. Every Alabama native has loyalties in this rivalry matchup, even those like me who attended college out of the state. I’m a Crimson Tide fan, and for nine consecutive years, I have managed to witness the Iron Bowl matchup in person from the stands of the two schools’ stadiums.

But this year, I am watching from afar. At the anointed hour for kickoff, I sit alone at a friend’s sixth floor apartment in the Chaoyangmen district of Beijing, China. A cold wind blows through the streets of the Chinese capital as the clock on my computer screen inches towards 3:30am, the anticipated moment of kick off for the big game.

I am in China as a part of traveling fellowship that takes me across the world for a year in exploration of citizenship and democracy issues. Fourteen time zones of separation make it difficult for me to stay in touch with family and friends at home. But they can’t keep me from watching this game.

When the moment arrives, I breathlessly click on the link to CBSsports.com’s streaming broadcast of the biggest rivalry in college football. But as the screen loads, the ensuing message makes my heart drop.

“Content not available for your geographical location,” comes the taunt from CBS. It may as well have read, “Enjoy missing the most important Alabama/Auburn game in thirty years due to continental blackout, sucker.” I am aghast at my poor luck.

Refusing defeat, I flash back to a conversation over dinner, in which a wizened expatriate advised me about a Beijing sports bar called “The Den” that showcases Western sports for 24 hours a day. Within seconds, I have a route to the venue on Google maps and I am out the door, determined to get to a television screen before Auburn’s Cam Newton has time to gallop down the field.

Shining like a neon beacon beacon of hope in the night, The Den served as the place of deliverance for me in my attempt to witness the Iron Bowl coverage live at 4am in Beijing.

Several obstacles block deliverance from my sports purgatory, but most problematic is my inability to communicate with the cab driver. “Workers’ Stadium” (the sports venue adjacent to The Den) is not a phrase he understands in English, and I instantly regret not having learned even a few directional words of Chinese.

Hopeful that the Google map in my mind will allow me to pantomime my way to salvation, I begin gesturing to urge my driver forward. We blister off into the night at breakneck speed.

After the first couple of turns, it becomes clear that I forgot an important part of the route, as we are lost on the Chinese equivalent of an interstate. I motion wildly for the driver to take an exit, and we draw to a stop outside of a bank, both angry at the situation and my failure to learn directions in his native tongue.

I pretend to kick an imaginary soccer ball to communicate “Workers’ Stadium” to the driver, but he just laughs at me in turn. The bank’s night watchman proves similarly unhelpful, as he too lacks English skills.  Uncertain that I can even find my way home at this point, much less to a screening of the Iron Bowl, I begin praying for a miracle in the freezing cold as the clock turns to 4am.

Just when things seem to be at a complete loss, two guardian angels come on the scene in the form of a young couple, holding each other close to keep warm as theywalk across the street.

“Yes, I speak English, where would you like to go?” the young man asks in response to my request for help. My heart leaps with joy as he rattles off a set of directions to The Den to the cab driver. We are back in business.

Before long, I arrive at my destination and hurriedly shell out the fare before bounding into sports bar. Inside, I find a sparsely populated room with big screen televisions on every wall. They are all tuned to soccer.

I fail to control the urgency in my voice as I ask for a television to be turned to the CBS feed from the United States. A manager motions for me to follow him to the satellite box in the back and we begin clicking through stations. I cross my fingers and silently urge him on as he goes through the possibilities.

He can’t find the game. No words are necessary to understand this, I can read it on his face as he turns to me and sadly shakes his head. “No!” I yell. “Don’t give up! You can find this thing. I know you can!”

After the night manager at The Den heightened my anxiety with skepticism about his ability to find the game, we secured the CBS feed and I watched Alabama's most obsessed-over sports event of the year at this television. By the fourth quarter, when the clock struck 6:30am, I was one of the last remaining patrons.

I actually don’t know that he can. But the encouragement persuades him bring another staff member to join in the search, and within seconds, they pull up what may have been an illegal streaming feed of “Auburn vs. Alabama”. As images of crimson jerseys in a huddle flash across the screen, I shout in joy and jump into the air. Two very amused Chinamen stare up at me as I hug their shoulders, effusively thanking them in Chinese for their assistance.

I spend the next three hours yelling at the television, the only patron in the establishment attuned to the goings on of a football game halfway around the world. By the time I start watching the game, the Tide is winning 14-0, and others in the room begin calling for me to quiet down once the lead extends to 24-0.

“Give it up, mate,” says an Irish man to my left. “You keep screaming at that television screen you will cause yourself a heart attack. Looks your boys have this one in the bag.”

Before I can admonish him for jinxing the match, Auburn begins storming back. I watch helplessly as Alabama’s four score lead dissipates and Cam Newton rewrites the history books with this biggest comeback in Auburn history.

The Alabama cheering section in Beijing didn’t give up easily. Once the score tightened, more fans came onboard, and by the late second half I had an Irish cheering section to rival any watch party in Dublin. At 6:30am, when most in Beijing were still sleeping in their beds, this group was jeering at Auburn’s Chris Fairley more creatively than any Tide fan I have ever heard.

But the comeback was not to be. As the Auburn defense slammed Alabama quarterback Greg McElroy’s shoulder into the turf, ending his time in the game and with it, any chance the Tide had at mounting a comeback to rival last season’s fourth quarter rally, I joined thousands of other Alabama fans in cursing the football gods for allowing such a turn of events.

Still, as I emerged from my football watching sanctuary, squinting at the bright sunlight streaming down on another chilly Beijing morning, I stopped to say a prayer of thanks for my unlikely success at watching the game unfold in real time.

Separated from Bryant Denny Stadium by 7000 miles and an ocean, I definitely felt the disappointment of the loss. But more powerful, however, remained my sense of comfort in feeling back home for a few hours on the day after Thanksgiving.

And on the bright side, there’s now a room full of new Alabama fans in China.

Wed
1
Dec '10

24 Hours in Beijing: An Introduction to the Paradoxes of New China

My good friend and fellow Vandy graduate Tyler Godoff, who works with a Chinese state-owned shipping and logistics firm in Beijing, was waiting for me to step off the plane with this welcome banner. Go Dores!

After a brief respite in the United States, my traveling fellowship leads me to set out for China, the world’s rising power in the East. Growing up, I always viewed China as a country shrouded in mystery, a “communist power” on the other side of the world. It seemed like a place of immense factories, expansive cities, and an indecipherable language. My knowledge about the country grew with time, but my first visit still feels like pulling back the curtain that covers a place so widely discussed by the West, yet so little understood.

On arrival, a number of things immediately stand out as noteworthy. Most gripping is the scale. As a country of 1.3 billion people, China is home to a fifth of humanity, all cramming streets, shopping markets, and subway stations. A “second tier” metropolitan area like Dalian, a quickly urbanizing seaport in northeastern Liaoning Province, boasts over 6 million residents, more than the population of metropolitan Houston. Not too shabby for a place whose name few Westerners will recognize or pronounce correctly.

Estimates vary depending on units of measurement for metropolitan areas, but most agree that more than 150 Chinese cities have population totals above 1 million. The United States is home to nine. With such a large population, China’s economic potential looms large. Foreign interest in the emerging Chinese market has grown considerably in recent years, as the relaxing of economic policies allowed for potential investment: Thousands of Western businesses have set up offices in the burgeoning financial center of Shanghai and the historic Chinese capital of Beijing. And thousands more benefit from the cheap labor and capital inputs that feed the manufacturing beasts of Guangzhou and Shenzhen. But for all the outside investment and worldwide interest in the Chinese market, the country’s economic and political systems remain cloaked in mystery.

Towering skyscrapers and busy freeways are the norm across China, which is on pace to surpass America as the world's largest manufacturer this year, according to the Financial Times. My first day in Beijing served as a practical introduction to the unique nature of state capitalism in modern China.

Memories of massive famine and forced labor during the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution may still be on the minds of some older observers of the Communist Party of China, but contemporary watchers understand that China’s days as an economically communist system are long past. Since Mao Zedong’s death in 1976 and the institution of Deng Xiaoping’s “opening up” policies in the late 70’s and early 80’s, the “Revolution of the Worker” has given way to a climate of fierce competition and capitalism.

A short walk around Beijing reveals the power of the market in China today. International chains dot many street corners, towering office towers rise on the skyline, and cart vendors exploit every opportunity to sell magazines, food, or pirated DVD’s to anyone with a spare yuan to offer. Yet for all the aspirant entrepreneurs, reminders of China’s strong centrally controlled system are ubiquitous as well, taking the form of uniformed guards, security cameras, and the “Great Firewall of China,” which blocks errant Internet searches and Facebook users alike.

I get my first view of the relationship between historic communism and China’s new market economy hours after arriving in Beijing. On a frigid morning in historic Tiananmen Square, I fend off the advances of a hat salesman, eager to capitalize on the freezing temperatures by selling warm headgear. The hawker chased me through the square, shouting prices for his wares under the shadow of Chairman Mao’s tomb, where the father of the Communist Revolution lies in a formaldehyde-preserved state for all to pay tribute.

While brokering a price, the vendor drove as persistently and aggressively as any in Times Square. Even though the eternal presence of Mao, China’s iconic decrier of capitalistic exploitation, loomed yards away, it didn’t stop the hat and glove vendor from exploiting his market advantage in the below zero temperatures of Beijing.

A persistent hat salesman convinced me to purchase this attractive-looking hat on my first, frigid morning in Beijing. Pictured here with a fellow attendee at the Tiananmen Square flag raising ceremony. Chinese soldiers and the Forbidden City lie in the background.

After donning my hat (pictured at right), I joined the masses of people from across China gathered in Tiananmen Square to witness the dawn Chinese flag raising ceremony, Beijing’s daily nationalistic ritual that draws pilgrims from every corner of the country. The Red Army stood at rapt attention as the honor guard paraded out of the Temple of the Forbidden City, just under the balcony where Mao famously led revolutionary slogans with the masses, and into the Square to display China’s colors. Seconds after my encounter with the free market, I felt as though I plunged back into Red China.

A short walk later, this capitalist/communist paradox continued as I ate breakfast at KFC (one of the 3000 Colonel Sanders franchises in China, Yum Brand’s fastest growing market) before strolling through the magnificent People’s Hall, which serves as the seat of the Chinese government. The ratcheting dilemma built with a visit to the Forbidden City, the previous home to 24 Chinese emperors, where the young university students who swarm as independent tour guides are a far cry from those who terrorized the city as Red Guards just forty years ago.

At each point, the edifices of imperial and communist power made a huge impression, but it was the burning desire of all around me to capitalize on opportunities to sell, sell, sell—from watches to lasers to Forbidden City collectibles—that stood out the greatest.

Soon, I realized that the division was a mirage: In today’s China, socialist government and capitalism are one in the same. The two blend in the most natural of ways, creating corporate giants with politically appointed CEO’s, each dependent on the stability of the other for success and longevity.

I found a clear representation of this hybrid while searching for a SIM card at the end of my first day in China Mobile, the state-owned cell phone giant who commands a $200 billion market cap and 70 percent of the Chinese domestic market. China Mobile is the phone card to have in China; no other company offers the same network coverage or rate schedule. The government ensures its monopoly in different ways: For example, China Unicom (China Mobile’s closest competitor) users can’t find a signal in any of Beijing’s subway lines, whereas China Mobile offers its clients crystal clear reception. From a personal economic standpoint, there is no incentive to do business with anyone else.

But to purchase a SIM card for cell phone, I had to cede nearly every possible piece of information on my person, including my temporary residence address, passport copy, email address, American address, and alternate cell phone number. All were dutifully filed away in the computer systems of the People’s Republic of China. I was, so to speak, “on the grid”.

The China World Trade Center, completed in 2009, is a towering building in the heart of Bejing that represents "new China" as a home to mega-corporations, upscale hotels, and international conferences. I capped my first day in China with an interesting foray into a P&G runway show after arriving here on, of all things, a bicycle.

I don’t mean to insinuate that China Mobile, or the Chinese government for that matter, had any nefarious intent behind collecting my personal information. Neither this experience with government officials, nor the more intensive one, in which I had to register a temporary address in China with a police station in the Chaoyang district of Beijing, left me with the impression that “Big Brother” in China had any ill-will towards my being in the country as a traveling lao wei (old foreigner).

But the experience was the first of many encounters that shaped my understanding the unique nature of “communism with Chinese characteristics,” as the China’s people like to term their system. While the monuments of the Worker’s Revolution still loom large—there are few more impressive state houses than the People’s Hall and Mao’s portrait still peers watchfully onto Tiananmen Square from his former perch at the Forbidden City gate—the heady days of class struggle have been replaced by an era of government pragmatism, development, and long-range planning, all characterized in the form of neatly-outlined five year plans. Today, China’s priorities center on profit, not the proletariat.

Fittingly, I finished my first day in the glimmering China World Trade Center, where I stumbled into a winter fashion show featuring beauty products from the production giant Proctor & Gamble. Accompanied by a friend as eager as me to crash the event, I stashed by backpack and jacket under a bathroom sink and feigned my way into the ritzy affair, complete with paparazzi, Asian models, and a six-course meal.

To explain our presence, my friend and I spoke vaguely about using the Internet to connect China’s emerging middle class with a range of beauty products, but mostly we hung back and observed the ostentatious scene before us. In a display of bourgeoisie unthinkable just a few decades ago in China’s capital, a diverse mix of young professionals sipped champagne and chattered about the latest developments in fashion around the world. Lobster, expensive wine, and breathless commentary on P&G beauty products awaited us inside the ballroom, where regional celebrities paraded about a runway, preening for magazine writers and product merchandisers in a manner far more evoking of Milan than Manchuria.

We slipped away from the decadence after an hour or so, but at the end of my first twenty-four hours in China, the point was clear: Not everyone in the West may understand the shift, but today’s China is a far cry from the picture of the past. The government’s power, although no longer inspired by Maoist Thought, remains strongly evident and forceful in public life. But with its laser-like focus on development, the Communist Party of China has channeled its might to unleashing its masses of producers and consumers into the world economy. And it’s emerging as a new land of opportunity in the process.