FB fellows are people who know how to get places on time. After all the other hoops you have to jump through, getting there on time seems a relatively small one. So breakfast was at eight outside on the patio, and at nine every chair was full. In an almost creepy display of planning, they managed to have exactly the right number of chairs, presumably so they could tell at a glance whether everyone was present. Then there were some opening speeches. It takes a particular talent to make this kind of speech interesting, and I'm not sure these guys from the State Department really had it. The basic message was, it's all about mutual understanding. The government's interest in this program is to promote world peace through cultural connection on the individual level. Actually, of all the government's goals (some more, some less laudable) this is one that it's not too hard to get behind. It's actually pretty uncomplicatedly good, even if the implementation is at times imperfect.
Interesting trivia: The FB program was originally funded by the sale of surplus weapons post-WWII. Everyone seemed to think this was a wonderful and powerful symbol, but I couldn't help thinking about where those weapons might have got sold to. Some place we were wickedly trying to destabilize? Because I bet it wasn't exactly a swords into plough-shares sort of deal. Few things, I think, sell better than weapons, and I bet maximizing profits entails NOT turning them into plough-shares first. But oh well, one can't be too pure I suppose.
Interesting trivia point the second: the first FB fellowships were to China. Yep, in 1947 or so. Not really the best time to be muddling about in China, actually, and as it turns out some poor fellows didn't make it back until the mid-50s because they got put in jail. But this was all mentioned very jokingly. They keep better tabs on us these days.
Finally, McCarthy condemned the eponymous Sen. William FB (it was his bill that got the FB program going) as being half-bright, which makes everyone feel amused and pleased to be associated with FB's name these days. Since I tend to relate to the contemporary events through analogy to traditional China, it reminds me of Song dynasty factional politics, the enemy of my enemy is my friend, etc.
This was most of the morning, together with brief self-introductions during which--since I knew I wouldn't be able to take in much anyway--I did a slightly less rough demographic survey (still not perfect, slightly fudged, but probably good to within +/-5.
PhD student: 16
Recent grad: 35
Asian heritage: 23
Eurasian (est.): 6
African heritage: 2
The total should be 54, but I obviously failed to tally all the data in some places. In any case, it was surprising and interesting.
Then another speech by a government guy. I should interject that this orientation conference was incidentally like a crash course for me in all the China-related current events stuff that I was assumed to be already quite familiar with. One example here, so-and-so's important speech about how China needs to transition into being a "responsible state-holder"--a term which apparently caused consternation in China for some time because it has no good Chinese translation. Well, no surprise there. I couldn't even say what it means in English! It's obviously some weird political jargon, and if anyone reading this can define it please let me know.
The only other thing really worth mentioning about this guy's floor-time was a very arch question he received from the floor: "If you were your counterpart in China, what would you be telling our counterparts in China?" The question didn't exactly stymie him, so much as cause him to give a more candid answer than maybe he meant to? He said, he would probably say (among other things) that he considered China to already be a responsible state-holder and that the U.S. should look to itself! Good exercise in putting yourself in the other guy's shoes, huh?
Next came a panel of FB alums talking about the topic of the day: daily life in China. I won't bore you with all of even the set of things I considered potentially useful enough to write down. There were many! But here are a few from my notes: Bring small things that you love, like your favorite soap. Glasses are cheap and easy to get. Bring your own mosquito repellant because Chinese brands may well have scary chemicals. Bring your own chest X-rays. Bring a winter coat because although they are obtainable, they're also very expensive. If biking, bring your own lock and helmet. (Bikes are cheap, theft rampant, and cycling generally terrifying.) Buying a cell-phone in China is absolutely de rigueur, and do not skimp on the price. Be careful who you give your number to, however (past incidents have included stalking and marriage proposals!). Be philosophical about things that go wrong. A good apartment finding service is called "Wo ai wo jia" (I love my home). Bargaining for rent is expected (AARGH!). Gyms are common and all the alums had joined one. It's good to have a daily routine. Don't expect to get very much done in a day, because things take a lot more time in China. Expect to burn 3 or 4 weeks just getting set up (!). Do volunteer stuff. But absolutely under no circumstances (1) accept any compensation for anything--it's against the FB rules--or (2) let yourself be pressured into becoming someone's English tutor or teaching classes. FB is buying your time and doesn't want it spent in other ways. Trustworthy family members are preferable for the money-handling than direct dealings with a bank. Let embassy people know about all travel and address changes. Name-cards are also de rigueur, and cheaper to get in China. Have two types is recommended (one with the cell-number, one with just e-mail). Chinese professors with students by getting roaring drunk on baijiu; if you can't drink, don't even start. (This caused me to contemplate whether I should start working on my tolerance…?) X-visas, F-visas, archives, give back to the community, letters of introduction. Last, a sobering thought: China has one of the worst pedestrian fatality rates in the world. Go with the pack in crossing the street, as there's safety in numbers. Additionally, don't just look left and right before crossing--look 360 degrees. :P
Well, that was about the content-level of day one. I should add that this was all carried out in an atmosphere of "business formal" dress-code. Being unused to it, I found it extra-excruciating and exhausting. However, the comfort-factor of all this information was well worth the discomfort-factor of wearing a suit. I resolved, however, that my next suit purchase will be a pants-suit. Suit-skirts are an oppression.
Speaking of oppression, we watched a fairly sickening installment of something called Wide Angle, focusing on the gap between rich and poor in China. Now any television program that takes the gap between rich and poor as a theme is already likely to be disturbing. But this was really awful. Apparently the way to become rich and famous in China is real estate development. The couple featured is really at the top of the heap. In every luxurious high rise they build, the wife said (completely unabashed), she keeps one apartment out for themselves as a collectible item. Meanwhile, the migrant labor used for construction of such buildings sleep on cardboard palettes in the units they work on, put in ten hours a day, and when paid at all get wages that translated into dollars sound meager by Great Depression standards. Greatly depressing all right.
Directly after this already full day, the schedule called for us to next go have dinner at the Official Residence of a Chinese Minister of Culture embassy-type. The weather was dripping hot. We got loaded onto little buses and taken into the wilds of D.C. embassy-land. No one sat with me in the bus. Then, waiting and chatting as we all slowly filed in, I offended a pol.sci. grad student by accidentally mentioning that I found reading the Chinese newspaper too boring to be able to keep up any proficiency in it…she gave me this icy look like, what kind of alien from outer space are you? There is a general trend among these kids--most of them very thoroughly hooked into the modern world--to consider what I do a weird eccentricity. But I should try to avoid making it worse with such ill-considered comments, argh!
Anyway, the house was old-fashioned mansion-sized, mostly organized vertically. There was no AC. The culture guy gave a speech Chinese to the effect that the warmth outside was to reflect the warmth inside, and then a speech in English involving a parable about two neighbors. Upon reflection, this parable had a nasty undertone, but (in good Chinese politician form) very hard to pin down the terms of the metaphor. Family A wants to entertain family B and decides to clean the carpet, but has no vacuum cleaner. Family B has a vacuum cleaner and family A asks to borrow it. But family B says it can only be used in family B's house, so suggests that family A bring over their carpet, which they do. Sometime later, family B wants to entertain family A and decides to mow the grass, but has no lawnmower. Family A has a lawnmower and family B asks to borrow it. But family A in turn says it can only be used to family A's house, so suggests that family B bring over their grass. [This was told with much greater laboriousness by the fellow, I will add, while sweat was soaking through all our suit-jackets.] That was the parable, to which he added the remark that China and the US are like neighbors. Any thoughts anyone? Our State Dept. guy quipped that next time he'd bring his lawnmower if the other guy brought his vacuum. I guess it must have been a criticism of the US (a.k.a. family A) asking for impossible terms--but at least in my reading of the story, family B started it by setting the terms to begin with, which A only reciprocated albeit in stronger form. So is China actually supposed to be family A responding with impossible terms only because the US (as family B) made such absurd terms to begin with? But it's hard to see anything as really impossible for the US….
Enough to give one a headache, obviously--a not wholly successful communication. Next, a buffet of tasty and unusual Chinese foods, eaten standing, still no AC. But casting around for something to do, I noticed a couple Chinese fellows (staff of some sort) chatting with one of my fellow Fbers in a corner. I went over first with the idea of rescuing him, but then decided to have a piece of the action because one guy in particular he was talking to was very cool to talk to. Some people just put you at ease when you speak Chinese to them, and this was one. So I talked to him for a long time, not a really deep conversation, but an enjoyable one.
One comforting thing that I tend to forget in all-Western groups (but remembered at this point) is that Chinese people never need to be convinced about the value of studying antiquity. You never feel like they are looking down their nose at you and considering you an impractical person. Instead it makes them feel good that you are learning about what they consider the best parts of their civilization. A small minority remember classical Chinese as a horrible high school experience, but most appreciate the best stuff, and Shiji usually makes the cut. So generally it's great social smoothing. I imagine they are downright pleased that you don't want to talk about uncomfortable topics like gender inequality, migrant labor issues, or Taiwan-China relations.
That being said, a lot of the projects people are doing ARE really cool. Some make me almost wish I were in another life. Like, there is this former Fulbright girl who was studying rural education. She got hooked up with a lot of NGO's (I know what that means now...), went out to the countryside and has a lot of energy for developing limited and practical solutions. Things are just so can-do there, it seems. Even little efforts to help are magnified by the great efforts the people themselves make to put them to good effect. Anyway, she just radiated this sense of being on a good path. It reminds me that there are two ways of trying to change the world: you can wear yourself out fighting the bad stuff, or you can go seek out and act in service of the good stuff. The latter really makes people very cool to talk to, as well as probably ultimately more successful. As for me, I suppose I'm not doing either one, myself, but it even feels good just to meet and appreciate the people who are.
Actually, in the atmosphere of idealism and "giving back to the community" sometimes it's hard to feel that anything other than changing the world is important. But--it's interesting--the government types were all careful to acknowledge the importance of seemingly irrelevant PhD projects. They have a vague dogma about "the importance of the intellectual cadres" who do stuff with paper. They don't even really know what the importance is, but they have a minor commitment to it. Fortunately, we intellectual cadres can live fine on the crumbs!! Just don't ask us to go dig toilets in the countryside!
Ugh, I am such a bourgeois reactionary.
On the ride home, everyone was very weary. A girl I had known from Middlebury sat next to me, and we had a brief conversation about how we are diametrically opposite in every way. She is far S.CA., very tall and skinny, fashionable in a bold racy way, very uninterested in the past, very interested in the present, loves to bargain for things (she offered to help with my rent!), does some business-y, economics-y thing. We didn't have much use for each other at Middlebury. I love the classical tradition and she hates it--it was clear on the first day. But, both two years older now, we have equably accepted our differences; finding ourselves in the same network, we may just be able to do each other good turns. You never know. She also told me about a bad bike-accident she had, in which she ran into a bus. (At least it wasn't the other way around!)
After all this, I confess to an utterly unproductive night. (We got home around 9.) Though I was invited out drinking again, I couldn't think of anything getting out of the damned suit, flopping down on the huge clean white bed, and watching some HBO. Saw the last part of Star Wars III, and then had a good long sleep.
Originally I meant to get fully caught up with this record, but clearly I am too long-winded and will have to finish with the orientation tomorrow!