Archive for June, 2007

Differences between Germany and China

June 27, 2007

There are several differences and most of them are hard to describe to someone who has not seen the everyday life in China. Liu Yang (刘扬), a young Chinese artist who has spend some time in Germany has put some of the differences into pictures, and not surprisingly, pictures can sometimes can explain a situation better than words. Her works are quite simple, however, they describe the situation quite well. Of course, some of the works are depicting stereotypes, but I am quite familiar with the situation depicted in one or the other image.

Waiting line
Waiting line.

Boss
Boss.

More images and comments (in Chinese) can be found here. [Update: The page is no longer available, see this instead.]

Marriage Market

June 24, 2007

While marriage between university students is not allowed or at least seen with great skepticism, one obviously can not marry too late in China, either. To please the society (or more precisely: the relatives), one should be married while in the late twenties. If the “30 year mark” is approaching one better gets a partner – especially if one is female. Our teacher told us, that a 30-plus-year-old woman is watched with a little bit of disdain if not married. However, according to our (male) teacher, if a man is not married at this age “it would still be all right”.

Shanghai People’s Square
“Marriage Market” in Shanghai, seniors are praising their grandchildren.

But what to do if there is not the right partner to marry? Since the prospect brides and brooms are working, there is no time left to meet the right partner. In this case parents or grand parents are taking responsibility and are going to look for a husband or wife, respectively. We could witness this procedure on a Saturday morning at the “People’s square” in Shanghai. In this park, located right in the center of the city, we suddenly noticed quite a large group of Chinese. When we got closer, we noticed small papers, sometimes like the “wanted” placard one knows from old western movies.

Marriage in Shanghai
Birth year, body height and degree and some requests for possibly interested persons are parts of this placard.

What kind of information was pinned on the placards? Some were featuring a longer text, but most only consisted of the most important facts: One’s body hight and age, the achieved study degree, the current job position and -most important- the annual income. When we strolled this special “market”, we somehow were not fitting right in the picture: Just some young western people in between all the Chinese seniors “taking care of their grandchildren’s future luck.” Since we were a little eye-catching, some started to talk to us, even showed us pictures of their daughters…

Taking Wedding pictures in Qingdao
Couples are getting their wedding photos done in font of a German built church in Qingdao.

When a Chinese has successfully found a partner and married, they need to get wedding photos taken. Chinese love to take romantic, sometimes cheesy photos. Therefore they come in their wedding dresses and suits (some were wearing quite casual clothes below – but you won’t see it later-on in the pictures) to some beautiful places and take pictures. When we were in Qingdao, we saw tons of couples in front of the German style church or at near the sea at Badaguan area where a lot of old European houses have been preserved. The Chinese made a business out of it – we saw the bus filled with couples that was going to several scenic spots to have a picture taken.

Back to Europe? No, just in Qingdao

June 21, 2007

Skyline of Qingdao
Qingdao’s skyline, in front of the skyscrapers one of the German-built churches can be seen.

Last weekend I joined a quite international travel group for a trip to Qingdao (青岛). For those who are not familiar with its history I just want to say that this city in Shandong province has been a German “concession” (respectively “occupation by the German imperialists” as the Chinese sign told us) in the early 20th century. The Germans were not only occupants , but they also brought along quite a few things that can still be witnessed today. There are a lot of German or European style building scattered in the city and the alleys reminded us of southern European streets because in comparison to Beijing they were narrow, not only following the north-south or east-west scheme and were edged by green trees.
So together with friends from Germany, China, Japan and Korea we hit the road the railway track for a 862 km ride to the coastal city. To get to Qingdao we once again used the overnight train, which took about 9 hours, for the way back we used the Shinkansen-like high speed train – the connection was just opened in late April and reduces the travel time to about 5:30 hours.

Old European style house
An old European style house, today it serves as headquarter for the municipal traffic police.

Qingdao will be hosting the Olympic sailing competition next year – so many of the old buildings are experiencing a makeover to present the city from its best side. On the other hand some things made me think the games have already opened: Some entrance fees were Olympic-level, for example the Laoshan area that we visited on Friday. We had great views from the mountain area right next to the coast, but I think even for a sacred mountain a fee of 70 yuan (ca. 7 Euro) is too much, especially if there are no discounts for students other than students from Qingdao University.

Laoshan area
Laoshan mountain area with amazing views on small coastal islands.

Actually at some other points our Beijing University student IDs were rejected because we are not Chinese – at Ying Binguan, the opulent former residence of the German governor we even requested an explanation from the director of this site after we had to pay the full fee to see pictures and a lot of furniture that was first used by the Germans and later by Mao Zedong and other party leaders during their stay at this pleasant house in the summers during the 1950s. The person in charge told us that in the past there have been other groups have complained, she stated that the city government does not allow them to charge only the student admission for foreign students and apologized for the misleading sign that simply said that there are half prize available tickets for students.

Ying Binguan in Qingdao
Ying Binguan, the former German governor’s residence.

The next day we visited the small, but neat the Lu Xun park right at the sea and went to the quarter were a lot of European villa style houses have been preserved. According to Wikipedia “Badaguan” (八大关) area is used to house retired party officials and military generals – I could not verify this information, but at least you need a ton of money if you want to live there as a private citizen. Because of the beauty of traditional western buildings and the proximity to the water we saw plenty of couples getting their marriage picture taken. This service looked very professional, the company that we saw used a small bus to get the couples to different romantic spots. But Qingdao does not only have history sites, it also features some beaches – unfortunately most are not really suited for bathing, so we took a ferry to Huangdao (黄岛, yellow Island), where we spent a whole day at the beach – swimming, playing soccer, sun bathing…
Although at the beach it was quite hot in the sun and left some of us with rather red shoulders or face, one can generally say that the weather was most comfortable because it was not as hot as in Beijing, the wind from the see brought us some fresh air. Back in Beijing, when we got of the train, we felt like we were standing somewhere in a traffic jam in front of a traffic light – but we just happened to get a day with bad air quality at which one could smell the difference between Beijing air and Qingdao air.

Tsingtao beer factory
Tsingtao beer factory.

Another “relict” from the German period in Qingdao is the beer factory that was opened by Germans in 1903 who did not want to miss their favorite beverage. Today “Tsingtao” has become China’s most famous beer brand (in Beijing there are sometimes “fake beers” that only have the Tsingtao label on the bottle but not the original beer inside). One special feature of the city are its numerous bars that also offer beer “to go” – the draft beer it is directly filled into a plastic bag…
There is a museum where one can not only inform about the history of the factory but also visit the present factory – after the visit one can drink as much as one pleases for free. We still did not go in, because the entrance fee was already on “August 2008” level and we did not have much time left and since at the bar just opposite only charged 2 yuan (0,20 Euro, the lowest price I have ever seen for beer in China) for a big glass, the free sample drinking was not that attractive either.

Street market in Qingdao
Fruits at a street market.

Although I have not seen a lot of fishing boats, there are a lot of seafood restaurants, at one evening we went to the Meishijie (美食街, a direct translation would be “beautiful-food-street”) were the restaurants were lining up along the street. After diner we continued to walk the street but after a crossroad it turned into a street for karaoke bars, unfortunately there was not a single one that did only offer rooms for singing, everywhere “extra services” were available so we named the street 美女街 and went to a bar at some other place.

Voting in China – not impossible!

June 12, 2007

In a country that one would not call democratic from the Western point of view, there have been changes to include democratic elements into the everyday life of citizens.
I am not talking about the elections hold at village level or the “voting process” at the national congresses where the delegates are confirming the Party’s proposals and making them law.
I am talking about balloting taking place somewhere else. The success of shows like “American Idol” in the US (“Deutschland sucht den Superstar” in Germany, respectively) made the production company think about China – and the voting by short messages has been a huge turnout. The show to find a “Super Girl” was not only seen by millions of Chinese, it has been tagged as “largest ‘democratic’ voting exercise in mainland China” (Wikipedia) because millions of votes have been counted to find a a winner – in 2005 during the first round it therefore received criticism from the state media.

But there are other systems of voting or evaluation – yesterday morning when I was at Bank of China to pay 22.95 yuan (about 3,30 Euro) gas fee, I could evaluate the service of the bank employee and rank the service either “excellent”, “average” or “poor.” This is not an internal review only, when the customer is getting to the counter, he sees how other customers rated the service on a scale of 1 to 5 stars.

Evaluation is big in China: Companies are putting up lists showing the most effective workers of the company. But it’s not like the in the US where the McDonald’s “employee of the month” is honored with a plaque displayed usually in an area next to the bathroom – the list features all employees, so there is a ranking that is clearly showing the worst employee of last month! Although this list is not made public to outsiders, i would not like to see my name on the down end of such a list. But Chinese companies obviously see this as a measure to make an incentive to work more effectively. And don’t anyone tell me I am currently living in a communist country!

努力學習 – Learning for exams

June 9, 2007

Tsinghua University Library
The library of Tsinghua University is filled with students – even on a Sunday morning in April when I was taking this picture.

I still have some time to prepare the exams that I have to take in my classes – other students are in the middle of preparing them and high school students are in the middle of the nationwide “高考”, the university entrance examination.
9,5 million high school students are taking part in the rally for the spots at the famous schools – the odds don’t look great to enter Beijing University or Tsinghua University – they are accepting only 6000 students.

The exams were schedules yesterday and and the day before yesterday and after the results are out, the students can use the points to apply at the universities. For Beijing University a score of 660 out of 750 points is necessary, unreachable for the majority of students. But it’s not that plain and easy: My language exchange partner told me that there are quotas for the provinces how many students they can be send to the top universities and in some areas you need to choose the universities before having taken the exam. This means if the exam is worse than expected, and one might not get into the university of one’s dreams, so one is taking some risk to apply for the top universities – my language exchange partner stated that he might not have taken the risk of putting “Beijing University” on his list, but at his province, there he knew his score before choosing the school.

The exams have different profiles for the different subjects one is going to choose at University. In general on can say that most of the questions will have a multiple choice system and don’t have a lot of “creative” taskes like the German exams at high school. When in Germany the content of something written for the English exam counted for 50 percent, it might be much less in China. Also students don’t have to write a lot in their English exams: A few hunderst words will be sufficient.

The candidates at the exams are not very lucky with the weather – it’s been burning the past days, the temperatures might jump over the 40 degree Celsius (about 100 Fahrenheit) barrier at some point soon. The ACs are running, but still the heat is making me a little “懒” (lan, lazy) and the length of my attention span is declining the hotter is gets.

As the students at Beijing University are studying hard to prepare their exams, I get the feeling that there is not much time left for me in Beijing. I will stay in China until September and my exams are in late July, the exams for Chinese students are coming up soon and their Semester will end at the end of June, earlier than ours. Some students will stay in Beijing, take some summer courses, others are looking for internships that need a serious preparation for the interviews that the companies are holing while others might be abroad for the holidays.

On the web I recently found an interesting (but quite long) article that touches various points of the Chinese education system. If you don’t want to read it all, I thing the first two sections are the ones that describe the current situation quite well.

Sanjiaodi, one of the most vivid places on campus

June 4, 2007

At Beijing University there are a lot of student clubs. As you will see at other universities and other countries it will always be the same – some with be active clubs while others mainly only exist on the paper. Furthermore within the clubs there are active and less active members. There are a lot of those clubs and every now and then they present themselves at Beijing University’s “Sanjiaodi” (Triangle-Area), this is an area where one can seldom ride the bicycle during lunch break as it is crowded at that time.
While there are not only clubs presenting them their activities or showing their skills, there are all kinds of announcements pinned on the boards at Sanjiadi – university related information on all kind of events, like upcoming lectures, movies, theater and musical performances that are hosted at Beijing University’s “Baizhounianjinian-Jiangtang” (a hall to remember the 100th birthday of Beida that was celebrated in 1998) and some notes of people looking for a roommate and job offers.

In my personal opinion, the “traffic situation” at Sanjiaodi has become better in the past month – meaning it is less crowded during the lunch break. The reason might be plain and simple: I might have just become used to the situation and will now keep riding my bike in a slalom around the people. Another explanation would be that the students’ exams are coming closer, some might not have the time to both prepare the exams and have time for their club’s activities. And clubs might be focusing to promote themselves at the beginning of the semesters to gain new members.

Student activities at Sanjiaodi
“German week” at Sanjiaodi

The student association I was coming in contact with most, is the “European Society of Peking University”. They not only helped to find the language exchange partner, but one of my language exchangee is a rather active member, so in early April I found myself at Sanjiaodi to ask questions about Germany…
The student group had organized a German week, were showing movies, had a speaker from the German embassy and had prepared a questionnaire to ask passer-bys at Sanjiaodi about their knowledge of Germany. The questions were rather special and I would not been able to answer all of them if I were asked, but instead I was the one who was supposed to ask the candidates who could win brochures, stickers of small books about Europe and Germany. But after I had asked my three questions I’d often become the one to answer questions about Germany. One man wanted to know what was happening if someone in Germany does not obey construction regulations and is negatively influencing the quality of the nearby residents – a very special case, I guess this happens in China much more often than in Germany, though.
I was working together with two very nice students, and as there were not that many people coming by during our morning shift, we just talked using German, Spanish, English and Chinese as one of the two is studying German and the other Spanish. However, I have to admit that my Spanish isn’t really good anymore since I haven’t used it in ages.

Group picture at Yunmengshan
Group picture at Yunmengshan

There were other activities of the club that I failed for several reasons, but last weekend the club organized a trip I took part of to Yunmengshan (云蒙山), about a three-hour-bus-drive northeast of Beijing.
On Saturday evening a bus full of German and Chinese students went into the mountain area were we had a campfire, karaoke and were playing games, on Sunday we did a six-hour mountain hike through the national park (I don’t know wether it actually is a national park but there was a sign about 云蒙山国家森林公园). We missed a great view as it was really foggy, it was like walking in a cloud – must be the name, since yun (云) stands for clouds. But on the other side it was probably good that we did not have too hot temperatures on our hike: A student who participated last year said that it was terribly hot last time. And the fog, moving fast because of the wind was turning the cliffs into a mysterious scene.