Thursday, September 29, 2011

"Too black for me, maybe too black for you too."

Our editorial office is hiring new assistants, so this week I had my first experience sitting on the hiring side of the interview table.

Mostly it was really boring, I hope I never work in hr. People banged on about how fun it would be to work at a magazine (well, duh) and then it was pretty easy to tell within the first minute that most the people we saw weren't even close to what we were looking for, but we still had to see it through for 10-15 minutes every time. I've read before that people form an opinion within the first 30 seconds, and now I know that's true. Our two favorites looked me in the eye, had confident handshakes, smiled.

During one interview we asked a candidate what kind of music he liked (because he'd said he was interested in the arts section). He said something about having a wide variety of tastes and liking lots of different styles except, "hip hop is too black for me. maybe too black for you too."

His voice got lower and he kind of mumbled over the word black, which allowed my brain to wonder if I'd really heard it and excuse myself for just sitting there smiling at him as opposed to saying ... what? "It's not too black for me! It's just the right amount of black!"

Chinese people are racist. They live in a fairly homogenous society and all they know about black people is what they see on TV (though I hear from black Americans living in Shanghai that Obama has done a lot to change perceptions).

On the other hand, this is a young, well educated, fluent English speaker I was speaking with. He shouldn't get off as easily as an old person. And I think I probably should have let him know that's not an okay thing to say, at least with a frown and a little head shake.

I can think of a handful of times in my life where I was presented with similar situations. And every time I've always found the situation so mortifying that I don't think I've ever spoken up and told anyone they're full of shit, which is odd because I usually have no problem doing that.

Maybe I should resolve to tell more people off. At least racist ones.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

We're the side wants peace!

But we're sending poison needle-wielding assassins to silence our critics!

According to this article, at least three DPRK assassins went after South Korean anti-Kim Jong Il activists.

In quick succession, they successfully killed a pastor living in the Chinese border city of Dadong. In another Chinese city, they attacked a missionary. And the South Korean government foiled an attempt in Seoul to kill an activist who launched balloons with anti-government pamphlets into the DPRK. In all three cases, it appears the weapon or intended weapon was poison.

I think this backs up what I said in my photo blog: that it's a country that's highly militarized and also dangerously inept.

How much do your spy assassins have to suck that they're found out that quickly and they're all obviously doing the same thing? And they only have a 1 of 3 success rate.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

DPRK photo preview

Uploading photos is a pain over here. Here's a sample of some of my best, out of more than 400 taken, in North Korea. Family: you can see more at the next holiday meet-up. Everyone else: I will do uploads when I am in a country with better Internets.

The Puerto Rico Tae Kwon Do team stepping off our flight to Pyongyang. There was a big tournament while we were in town. The plane was really old. My seat was a wee bit broken, so couldn't get the back to come fully forward which seemed to irritate the teenage boy wearing Kazakhstan warm-ups seated behind me. They served beer and cider on the two-hour flight.

Airport portrait of Kim Il-Sung. The lights went out once as we went through customs. This happened a few times during the trip, our hotel had a generator though, so it wasn't a problem. At the airport they took all our cell phones and put them in a big bag for our guides to keep hold of (it's not like we could've used them anyways). They also searched our cameras for GPS functions, which is also a no-no.

We went straight from the airport to a World Cup qualifier match. DPRK vs. Tajikistan. North Korea won and we got there after the first and only goal. We sat in a special foreigners section. Our British guide rallied the foreigner section to do the wave, and the North Koreans followed our lead. That was fun.

The next day we were up early to go see the DMZ. It's been a little less than a year since I visited South Korea, I never imagined 11 months later I'd be standing in the same room, but entering from the other side. This is the arch of reunion, it's built over the highway that connects Seoul to Pyongyang (or would, if cars were allowed to cross the border). Each lady represents one side of the Korean Peninsula. There are murals carved at the foundations - on the North Korean side some really smart, young people extend their arms and the torch of the Juche philosophy (philosophy of self reliance that Kim Il-Sung made up). On the South Korean side, the people look all old and in need of rescue/reunion with family. All week the message seemed to be we want to reunite with South Korea and we want them to accept our philosophy. Tall order.

Here's the DMZ, in the foreground are North Korean soldiers, then behind them you see a South Korean soldier and behind him two US soldiers. My DMZ visit was much more relaxed this time around. On the South Korean side you have to dress up (no flip flops or shorts), and it starts with a safety briefing wherein you sign some sort of UN form that says if you get smoked it's not their problem.

There wasn't any of that on the North Korean side. Our guides gave us the North Korean version of the Korean War story, emphasizing that their side has always wanted peace and it's the US and the 'South Korean puppet army' that are the war mongers. They did briefly mention two "accidents," one in the seventies where North Korean soldiers hacked to death some Americans back when both sides could wander about the Joint Security Area, the other accident being when they killed a South Korean woman who went wandering (always inadvisable in North Korea) around her tourist hotel near the border and was gunned down.

Our guides motioned to the more formal, tightly-watched South Korean side (where you're told not to wave or motion to anyone on the DPRK side, we were free to do as we pleased) and made remarks like, "see, you can see we are more peaceful." But my overall impression on the trip is that the country is highly militarized. We saw hundreds of young soldiers all over Pyongyang, and they didn't have any of the military discipline I'm used to seeing exhibited by American soldiers. They smoked in rank, their hats were on wrong, their jackets misfit. I think it's highly likely the fact that you have all these young men who have been fed a bunch of one-sided war-time rhetoric, and don't have the same kind of discipline our soldiers do, is a major contributing factor to all the scary little flare ups that have happened.

North Koreans say they want peace, but then at the same time they also think there's a war going on. We went to see a music show on a national holiday and one of the acts was a comedian who did impersonations of characters in famous North Korean movies. It was all very light until at the end of the act he said something like (my guide translated): "If there's one spark on the Korean peninsula we will go fight and vanquish the enemies."

On our second night we went to Mass Games. The games go on for a month and a half, four nights a week, and comprise 100,000 performers (in honor of Kim Il-Sung's burfday). See all the girls dancing? Then see the Korean writing and flowers behind them? That's a giant human mosaic, the people have big books and change the pictures all throughout the performance.

Kim Il-Sung is the Sun. Everywhere we went we saw KimilSungia and Kimjongilia - a pink orchid and a red begonia, supposedly new flowers invented and then named after those two guys. We drove by an exhibition center and our guide told us twice a year their are flower exhibitions where all kinds of different work units bring their best flowers (their best Kimilsungia and Kimjongilia, that is) to be judged.

Kid on a scooter in Pyongyang. The capital looks like what I imagine China looked like in the mid seventies. There's no advertising anywhere, there are hardly any cars, lots of people walking and biking. All the buildings are big concrete blocks that look like they need to be painted.

School girls. The scarves indicate they're 'young pioneers.' A few years from now they'll take off their scarves and get their first pins with Kim Il-Sung's face on them. Every adult North Korean wears this pin all the time (unless it's a construction guy working in his undershirt, or some other sort of manual labor).

Ah, the Pyramid Hotel. 105 stories. 3,000 guest rooms. Started construction in 1987, never finished (no $$).

Me making a North Korean man really uncomfortable outside Kim Il-Sung's mausoleum. We were all being friendly and he agreed to take a picture with me so I put an arm around him, which is probably way too much (North Korea is super conservative). This big group of men and women crowded around giggling as we had our photo taken.

The mausoleum was a trip. Lots and lots of crying North Koreans. We got little mp3 players to listen to the narration as we walked through the halls and the English narration was completely overwrought "nothing could quench the people's great sorrow! They couldn't bare to be torn from their dear leader so soon..." Before you enter the chamber where the body lies, you go through this little passage that blows air on you to get all the dust off. All the women working in the mausoleum are tall and beautiful and deathly pale, which makes it all seem that much more morbid. Everyone, no matter what your work unit, has to go help on the farms during harvest season. These women though must be really careful, because they don't look like they've ever seen the Sun.

Here I am manning the artillery of the USS Pueblo, which was captured in 1968 in North Korean waters or International waters, depending on who you talk to. Technically it's still in active commission, but it serves as a museum on the Taedong River in Pyongyang now.

On our last day there was a big national holiday. Hundreds of women in traditional dresses went to dance in this big plaza where the monument to the workers' party stands.

Overall, it was a really special trip and I'm so grateful I had the opportunity to go. I'd recommend it to anyone who wants to see something really different, a way of life that (hopefully) wont be around forever. Everyone in my tour group was really well traveled (many, if not most, much more so than me). I guess North Korea isn't exactly first on anyone's international travel agenda.

Ah, I have so many more photos I want to show you guys. Hope to get more up soon!

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Good morning, biomedical waste

So my office is located in a restored lanehouse, which is pretty funky and cool because the editorial office is basically in a converted living room with high ceilings and fancy old chandeliers. Most of our neighbors are elderly Shanghainese, but across the way there's also a hospital building, affiliated with the hospital located across the main road. So this morning as I was biking in this guy in blue trousers was wheeling this stainless steel container clearly market with the biohazard symbol down the alley, past all the bikes and mopeds and the fruit stand.

Often enough nurses will be pushing old folks in wheelchairs down the way, presumably to get to the main building, but one time on my way to work they were pushing a stretcher covered with a white sheet, the only thing poking out was a bit of gray hair. It gave me the willies, but then I thought, well maybe they're just trying to keep the sun off the guy's eyes...

Monday, September 19, 2011

Stick a fork in her

Summer in Shanghai is finally OVAH! I almost wished I had a jacket when I biked to work this morning! Hurray!

It's been a busy week and a half, since returning from the Hermit Kingdom. On my first day back in the office (with almost zero of my copy in for October...) I was greeted with: Can you do this extra sidebar for the cover story, oh and you need to interview Akon in half an hour. Ageh!

Akon was cool on the phone though (For those of you who don't know, this is the video I sent my mom for introduction. Somehow she wasn't impressed.)

Last night I started going through my 400+ North Korea photos, will hopefully get some up by the end of the weekend.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Back from the DPRK

Yesterday I returned to the relatively-more-free world. North Korea was a lot like I expected it to be (I've done quite a bit of reading/documentary-watching in recent years). I imagine what I saw was a lot like what China looked like 30 years ago - lots of people walking and biking everywhere, dilapidated buildings, absolutely zero advertising anywhere. We had a little more latitude than I thought we would. Everywhere we went we were guided, but there were occasions where we got to interact with locals. There isn't much spoken English so it was mostly just smiles and waves. The worst thing was seeing young people who clearly suffered stunted growth from living through a famine. We saw a work unit full of 18-year-old men who were mostly all much shorter than me and one of them looked as if his head was too big for his body. 

We saw a lot. We watched Mass Games. We boarded the USS Pueblo. We paid our respects to President Kim Il Sung (who, by the way, holds an honorary doctorate from a phony US university, it was on display at the mausoleum, all the Americans in our group got a kick out of it).

My birthday was a week ago, 25 - woohoo! The year is 2/3 over, so I started thinking back to my new year's resolutions. One was to travel more, the other was to save money. So far this year I've been to rural Anhui, Xinjiang, Qingdao and North Korea. Plus I've picked up a bit of freelance work (and all but one of those trips was work-affiliated) so I've managed to accomplish both. I'm also doing pretty good on reading more books. I could still stand to find more language exchange friends, but I haven't been drinking much Coke. 

More on my DPRK adventures later. Hundreds of pictures to sort...

Friday, September 2, 2011

Totally Unfair

You probably know that China's phenomenal growth in recent years is largely fueled by the massive migration of rural people into urban industry centers. The come from the countryside, they might make between $200 and $500 a month, more if they have a skill, and China has them to thank for all that awesome economic growth.

But what you might not know is that these people are second-class citizens in the cities they work in, they have no claim to city benefits, and their children often have no right to attend school in the cities where their parents work. Shanghai, to its credit, allows children of migrant workers to attend up to middle school, but after that the kids have to go back to their home province. If a family has two children (which is more common among rural people, the one-child policy is more lenient in the countryside) they might be able to scrap and borrow to pay for high school for one child (usually the boy). But often the schools parents can afford are sub-par, nowhere near Shanghai standards. Girls suffer the most. And more often than not kids wind up dropping out of high school in their home province because they can't make the adjustment back to rural life or they just go to work alongside their parents in the city.

I know all this, but it just pulled at my heart this morning when I was talking to my ayi (cleaning lady). She's this brilliant, sunny person. When I first met her she said she liked me because I'm always happy, just like she is. I asked her why she's always so happy. She said she's happy because she has two children, which is most definitely something to be happy about in Shanghai. Most everyone loves their children, but since I hear her talk about them time to time, they've become part of what I know about her, and I happen to like my ayi a lot.

So this morning she came in - still very upbeat - and mentioned that her daughter was now back in Jiangsu, living with grandma to go to high school. We had a moment of stewing about how wretchedly unfair this is. Her daughter received top-of-her-class marks in middle school. There's nothing to be done. It's an 11-hour journey from Shanghai to the town she's going to school in, which is a lot closer than their home village, so they can visit occasionally.

Children deserve better.