The Road to China

Chapter 21: 

Viewer Mail

Yes, that's right; in this chapter I take the time to answer some of the frequently asked questions I've been delighted to receive from readers all over the world.  

Question #1: "Gee, those are great pictures.  What kind of camera do you have?"

Never ask a photographer this question, for it implies that it is the camera, not the photographer, that is responsible for the quality of the pictures.  (It's kind of like saying, "Gee, those are great stories.  What kind of word processor do you use?")

Allow me to rephrase the question to more accurately reflect what was probably meant: "Gee, the pictures on your website are so clear and so colorful!  How do you get them to look that way, and can I do the same thing?"

Now THAT question I can answer!  But in doing so, I will have to get technical for just a moment.  It turns out that there's nothing special about my camera (a 5-megapixel Minolta Dimage A1 digital camera), for ANY camera, film or digital, could have produced pictures of this quality on the web.  (Web pictures require far less resolution than printed pictures.  This means that even a low-end 1- or 2-megapixel camera can take pictures that look outstanding on the web.)  

The first secret is that cameras do not see light the same way that the human eye/brain does.  (Books have been written about this subject.  That is why Hollywood movies require so many large lights just so it will look "normal" on film.)  Armed with this knowledge, all photographers tend to look only for subjects where the light is amenable to film.  The right light can make the difference between a "blah" shot and one that is bright and colorful and eyecatching.  

The second secret is, after taking my pictures and transferring them onto my laptop, I use Adobe Photoshop to adjust the gamma curves and correct the color balance.  (This isn't really a secret; these are the same things that happen when you turn in your color negative film to a 1-hour photo place, only with digital I get to have all the fun myself.)  Then I optimize the image for web viewing.  This essentially means throwing away most of the pixels to get the size down, and then using the Unsharp Mask filter to make it appear sharper to you, dear reader.  ("Unsharp Mask" is a counter-intuitive term which has a rich history in the graphic arts world.  It is required because every time you resize an image, the image gets a little fuzzy.  For web viewing, you can restore the sharpness of any 72 dots-per-inch image by using Unsharp Mask values of 500, 0.2, and 0.).

Before: Image straight from digital camera (resized).  All cameras expect the scene to be 18% grey, so this is considered a correct automatic exposure.  Resizing it to fit into this tiny square resulted in a little bit of fuzziness, which also has to be corrected.

After curve adjustment and "Unsharp Mask" sharpness restoration.  


One of the things I love about China from a photographer's perspective is that the ceilings are always low, flat, and white (no acoustical ceilings here), which means I can bounce the flash off the ceiling and get very natural-looking light (like I did in the example above).  


Question #2: "Gee, those are great stories!  What kind of word processor do you use?"

Oh, shut up!


Question #3: "Gary - If diapers haven't caught on yet, what do families with infants do to keep the house clean?"

I got that question a LOT.  Behold, the answer from the father of the baby featured in Chapter 15:

We used diapers at first. After he was 7-month-old , we tried to make him to "do it" regularly. Of cause, it was difficult. We usually found him with wet trousers, and the floor had to be cleared up too. But we don't use carpet in our home, it's a lot easier to clean up wood floor. When he was 1-year-old, he began to tell us he wanted to "do it". And we also became more good at finding out if he's trying to do it. Sometimes, he even crouches by himself, and does it silently, then turns his head around and calls: "grand-father!". In that case, we must run to him, or he will get his feet into it and play.

As you saw last time, he still made his trousers wet sometimes. All we can do is to reduce the chances, not eliminating it. And it does cost my parents a lot time to keep the floor clean.

We think diapers do save our time, but it's harmful for him to drag a heavy, wet and hot burden around for a long time.

Hope my answer helps!

Zhou Haidong


Question #4 - So how much Chinese are you able to speak?

The short answer is "less than I should be able to by now".  Before I left for China I was very diligent in my studies to acquire some functional level of Mandarin, the dialect that is supposed to be the common denominator throughout the provinces.  And I was making excellent progress, too -- below is a sample conversation which repeated itself countless times whenever I entered a Taxi (all of it translated into English):

    Me: "Lido Hotel, please."  

    Taxi driver: [Insert long string of fast-talking Mandarin language here]

    Me:"I don't understand.  I don't speak Chinese"

    Taxi driver (does a double-take at this self-contradicting remark): "What?  Your Chinese is EXCELLENT!"

    Me: "I only speak a little Mandarin"

    Taxi driver: [Insert long string of fast-talking Mandarin language here]

Everyone here tells me that my pronunciation is so good that it's inconceivable that my vocabulary is only 30 words, and so people continued to ramble on unintelligibly as if there was a hope of me understanding them.  

When my teaching job started a week after I arrived, however, I was fighting burnout pretty much the whole time.  Generally the recipe for relieving burnout is to ease the demands on your mind -- immersing yourself a new and different language when you're fighting burnout is like running naked in a blizzard when you're fighting a cold.  So, as inopportune as it was, I had to put language study on the back burner just so I could continue to be effective at my job.  

But then something interesting happened - I discovered I could get along very, very well with the deficient vocabulary I already had!!  Not because others could speak English (most can't); but because through many years of travel I have learned the universal language of miming.  Buying things at a store was a piece of cake.  Asking directions meant pulling out a map, pointing to a destination, and shrugging my shoulders implying "Where?".  The phrase, "A mime is a terrible thing to waste" suddenly took on new meaning.

Clearly I did not intend to waste my opportunity to learn here, so as soon as my teaching duties ended in early January I continued the Pimsleur audio language course again.  It's amazing how all that stuff goes to long-term memory so quickly!!  If those lies they taught us in Kindergarten about how, in Capitalism, "the best products get the market share" had been true, Berlitz would be out of business by now.  


Question #5 - How secure is it in China?  Are you worried about the authorities?

China is safer than in America (not surprising - most countries see America as one of the most dangerous places to live in the world).  The following are the only comparison statistics I was able to find from Interpol (although mysteriously incomplete):

Volume per 1,000 Inhabitants
United States China
Murder 6.8 2.16
Sex Offenses 35.92 3.38
Assault 382.04 1.49
Theft 4497.98 87.75
Fraud Not Available 6.49
Drug Offenses Not Available, but you can bet it's larger than 3.92! 3.92

It's a little strange though - there are window bars and steel doors on every home, and it seems that 1/3rd of the Chinese population are employed as security guards.  You'd figure that with such relatively low numbers people would let their guard down.  Could it be that the official numbers are being under-reported?  (Naaaah!) 


Question #6:  Wehaven't heard you talk about Tibet, Macao, Taiwan, and other places the Chinese want to assimilate.  Why are you avoiding talking about these politically important humanitarian nightmares?  Your 'blog lies via omission! 

In China, there are certain topics that make sense not to discuss out loud.  (The corollary to this, of course, is that in China people have been conditioned to keep their unsolicited opinions to themselves.  If only the rest of us could practice this valuable trait, only a little!).  The Chinese Government absolutely does not want any foreign teachers talking about (inciting) these politically sensitive issues.  In fact, up until last month there was a long-standing law that said foreigners could not run private schools here, specifically because the government did not want the education to be tainted with foreign values and ideas.  

It is important to keep in mind that, just as Americans value freedom of speech and religion, so does the Chinese government value order and lack of internal dissent (and if you read about the history of 19th and early 20th century China, you'll see that such dissent played a large role in what seems like an endless string of conflicts and revolutions - it's easy to see how these values developed).  Each side uses the resources available to them to enforce and disseminate these values.

So, as a general rule I don't discuss my opinions.  However, one day while I was holding a mock "state council" (where local laws were discussed and voted upon) in my class, I did probe a little bit on my students' opinion on this matter.  None of them saw it as an issue - "the land belongs with China, and why do other countries insist on criticizing us for doing the right thing?"  But then it uncovered a deeper resentment: "Why does everyone constantly say that China has no human rights?  That's ridiculous!  There's nothing wrong with punishing those who break our laws!"


Question #7 - Is there any racism in China?  How do they feel about Americans?  How do they feel about America's scholarly and illustrious leader?

There is racism all over the world.  It is a universal human quality to want to make yourself feel superior by belittling others who are different from you.  This is the way God created us.  That having been said, and despite a lot of anti-capitalist propaganda 50 years ago, the Chinese generally love Americans.  As mentioned in some of the earlier chapters, this is a country that is now striving to be all things American (not just Western, mind you - AMERICAN!)  But there are different shades of Americans.  One thing we quickly discovered while starting the English Teacher Recruiting business was that it was very difficult to place blacks and Chinese Americans as native English teachers.  I can only explain this partially.  In the case of private schools, when parents pay a large sum of money for their children to learn a foreign language with a native foreign speaker, by golly, that native speaker had better look authentic!  Our strategy was to keep these well-qualified but more-difficult-to-place teachers and have them host our own weekend schools (which are much more profitable for us anyway).   

Do the Chinese hate any particular race or nationality?  Oh, yes!  The Japanese.  For all of their pillage and looting and abuse and aggression, starting in 1915 and coming to a climax in World War II, for which they still have not apologized.  There are also problems with the North Koreans - Chinese students at #80 High School had to be separated from the Korean foreign exchange students because of the incessant fighting that broke out between them.  Tibetans seem to be well liked, despite the amount of trouble that region has caused the political elite.

What do they think of George W. Bush?  They initially did not want to say; so my students asked for my opinion first.  Knowing that my opinion of him would be well-received by any listening official, I made an exception to my no-opinion policy and shared it honestly, and my students then said they thought he was a big bully.  Then they added that they're glad most Americans are not like him.  


Question #8 - Hey, Gary... What's the deal with all the beautiful women I see you pictured with (wink wink, nudge nudge)?

Oddly, this question came almost exclusively from divorced, middle-aged men.  I probably should have talked about this in the chapter discussing cultural differences, but let me do my best to explain some of it now.  If you travel to China and find yourself flocked by innocent young women sending nonverbal signals that say they're REALLY interested in being close to you, it is most likely because you are a foreigner and therefore a curiosity.  Much to my chagrin, it does not mean the same thing it does in America!  

China is very polarized when it comes to issues of physical pleasure.  During the time of the cultural revolution, most natural human activity was frowned upon, and although this is no longer preached, it has still resulted in a huge country where innocence lasts much longer than it does in America -- some might say that China is where America was in the 1940's or 1950's (or where New Zealand is reported to be today), and that emotionally, the students here are 5 years behind their American counterparts.  "What a complete waste of their youth and beauty!" quipped one western teacher.  "Yes, but look at the social advantages.  You don't have the epidemics of social diseases, teenage pregnancy, and welfare families like we do in America" retorted another.  "The divorce rate is probably a lot lower, too!"  

And yes, a few of my students were in love with me -- it's no different than what a lot of high school teachers the world over go through.  Despite what might seem like unlimited opportunity in a target-rich environment, all of my students see me as an older brother, and nothing more.  The notion that they will all save themselves for marriage -- a notion that is rapidly eroding in popularity, by the way -- is still the predominant view among today's Chinese youth.  And many in the big cities are career-minded, which means they don't expect to get married until at least 30.  

Then there's the opposite side of the polarization: the prostitution business in the big cities is huge, omnipresent, and growing.  Whatever it is you're looking for, you don't have to look very far to find it  -- in fact, it will more than likely find you!  Residents have been known to complain that it's getting harder and harder to find a barber shop that actually cuts hair.  There is also no shortage of gold diggers -  very beautiful Chinese women with "traditional values" looking to latch onto a westerner with their relatively infinite earning power.  (I've actually received two proposals for marriage since I arrived here...)  

I have seen no shortage of Western men here who came to China after a bitter divorce specifically to adopt a beautiful ripe pet wife with no baggage (and equally little communication skills) to deal with.  For those of you who are wondering why I haven't taken that route, I can tell you that I have seen many examples of this type of marriage, and I'm not impressed with the vast majority of them.  I'm not interested in a trophy wife; instead I'm looking for something just a little more substantial (and I know this is a difficult concept for many of my American colleagues to comprehend).  (And I'm hopeful that something good will happen very, very soon!)


Only One Child

Westerners are not the only ones who covet Chinese wives.  A confluence of two forces have made Chinese women in great demand here in China as well.  The first is the Government's famous "One Child" policy to address the problem of unsupportable population growth.  Under this policy, unapproved pregnancies are subject to forced abortions and sometimes forced sterilization.  This policy is in effect in the big cities only; families in the countryside are permitted to have 2 children, but some have up to 3 or 4 kids, who are unreported and consequently receive no education. 

Then there's the ancient and still-ubiquitous preference for a son, which means that if you can only have one, well, by golly, it had better count!  So ultrasounds and voluntary abortions are up as well, and now the ratio of men to women (on average) is about 1.3:1.   This has created a backcountry business of abducting and selling women to farmers who want companionship and also need children to help run the farm.  

According to many teachers I've spoken to, the one-child policy has also resulted in spoiled children who are used to growing up as the center of attention and treated as "little emperors"; they don't work as hard as previous generations, and are said to be ill-prepared to deal with adult life.  (Sound familiar?)  This is in stark contrast to the other stories which say how competitive the job market is and how hard modern students must work.  Another disconnect?  (I think it is entirely possible that they are both true; it is more competitive AND they are more lazy.)  

And one more thing that doesn't make sense - the girls in my classes are an order of magnitude smarter than the boys.  Interestingly, this has been confirmed by every other teacher I've spoken to.  Why haven't the women taken over by now??  (Okay, that's a rhetorical question.  But still I found it to be a fascinating surprise.)  


Let's End on a High Note

Earlier I spoke about how beautiful, pure, and simple Chinese pop music is.  Finally I am able to share some samples with you, thanks to some students who were able to transfer their Karaoke videos to my computer, which were then shrunk down in size to make it easier to download.  (Special thanks goes to Mike Cole for doing these video conversions!)  Please keep in mind that I am in complete violation of America's flawed Digital Millennium Copyright Act when I provide for you these samples.  But this is China, so that means nobody here cares.  (At least not this year...)  And I'm too far away for the RIAA to sue me.  


Music Video 1 (6.6 MB - .wmv file)

Larger version - 53 MB .avi file

Music Video 2 (6.1 MB - .wmv file)  (This one's my favorite.) 

Larger Version - 36 MB .mpg file

This is an excerpt from a Karaoke CD which contains a collection of patriotic songs during the reign of Mao.  Many (like this one, entitled "The East is Red") inherit the Russian March feel so reminiscent of the cold war, and show a lot of historic footage of the People's Liberation Army in all its glory.  (20 MB (!) .avi)  (Make sure the file downloads to your hard drive first before you try to play it - otherwise you'll only hear the audio portion.)  (Click here for Larger version - 49 MB .avi file)

Mr. Mao (as he is affectionately referred to) is very well liked here, similar to the way we honor George Washington or Ronald Reagan.  When asked what they thought of his leadership, most older citizens respond that, although he did make some mistakes, overall he did a magnificent job.  (Many people I spoke to during my first trip to Germany felt the same way about Hitler.  He brought the country out of a depression!  He built the autobahns!)  The more educated opinions peg him as a great revolutionary but a very poor politician and governor, whose experiments nearly wrecked the country several times.  

My head is huge!


Hey, Mister Tambourine Man by William Shatner (Audio only 2.8 MB - .mp3)

The Captain of the Enterprise does a dramatic reading of this classic 1960's-era music hit.  Oddly, it was intended to be serious when he recorded it in 1968.  

This has absolutely nothing to do with my trip to China, by the way.  But this is both the funniest (and, on a different level, the saddest) thing I've heard all year, and, well, as I said, I wanted to end this chapter on a high note.  (C#.)



Until next time...

"Yours Truly, Gary Friedman"

February 8, 2004


--- Addenda - Feb. 18, 2004 --- 

Regarding my observation above that the girls are much smarter than the boys, Gloria Wall writes:

"Dear Gary, 

As a linguist I want to comment on your finding that your female students seem to be so much more intelligent than your male students.  This is a result of the subject that you are teaching.  Over and over it has been proven that women (generally--there are a lot of exceptions) learn languages faster and easier than men.  The field linguists I know in very remote places all report this.  Even in places where girls are discouraged from learning and hardly go to school, those who teach children to read say that even unmotivated girls learn much more quickly than highly motivated and intelligent boys.  There are of course men with a natural gift for language learning, like there are girls with a natural gift for math, but as a general rule, basically smart girls will learn languages more quickly than basically smart boys.  It's probably some hard-wired advantage--I expect that it has something to do with the larger and more complex corpus collosum connections in women. This is a very politically incorrect position of course, but it has a lot of research backing it up.


[Editor's note: Since returning from China I have written a book about the camera which accompanied me on this journey.  You can read more about it here.  -GF]

Next Page - Chapter 22

Previous Page - Chapter 20.5

Table of Contents


Return to The Friedman Archives Home Page

There are many, many more images in this site than can be browsed. 

To quickly find an image, enter your keywords here: