Friday, June 29, 2007

Environmental NGO's - Travel to Wuhan

During my lull between jobs, I managed to attend an international forum for environmental non-governmental organizations in Wuhan, Hubei province. Participants included Chinese environmental NGOs and American NGOs. The idea of a non-governmental organization is still fairly new to China and still a little risky. The Chinese NGO’s were there to network with each other and also to ask for guidance from well established American organizations. (If you are familiar, Sierra Club, World Wildlife Fund, and Natural Resources Defense Council were all present). While the presentations themselves were not overly enlightening, I came to understand a bit more about the problems facing NGO’s in China.

It became obvious in round table discussions (with translators) that China must obviously find their own method of building a non-profit, non-governmental sector. It was tempting for these budding, under-funded NGO’s to ask the comparatively wealthy American organizations for a step by step guide to success. However, the conversation repeatedly came to a halt when the Central Committee was mentioned. The Chinese government would likely thwart attempts to follow a similar development strategy.

Additionally I learned that most of the environmental threats are not rooted in policy from the central government, rather the local provincial and municipal governments. At the end of the day, Beijing can say what they want, but the mayors are going to make their cities prosper – and that usually includes bribes from industrial companies who ask for lax environmental restrictions in return. This came as a shock to me who held the ignorant vision of China as a completely centralized lumbering giant. As it turns out the central government struggles to keep their provincial appendages in check. In light of this, most environmental NGOs see this as their only niche. Most organizations are focusing on small, grass-roots, public participation projects rather than going for the impenetrable and enigmatic central government!

It was an eye opener for me. I also did a bit of networking with several NGO’s, took their name cards, and promised that my Chinese would be better in a year! Who knows where if anywhere that will lead, but it is good to keep options….even if they’re just in my head.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Visas and Guanxi

Borden, and overall dissatisfaction led me to quit my first job at the language school. Unfortunately my visa expiration date fell around the same time period. The burden of renewing my visa fell to me, a powerless white girl with Chinese nowhere near the level needed to get myself a new visa. Luckily, my friend, a professional here Dalian was willing to help me renew my visa until my next employer could sponsor me for a legitimate work visa.

Normally, to renew a visa, a foreigner must go to Beijing in the least and possibly even leave the country. I assumed that it would be the same case for me. However, I received my first lesson in the power of what the Chinese call, “Guanxi” (connections/relations). As it turned out a my friend's brother in law knows one of the visa officials. This means that we all make quick “friends” to exchange favors.

The entire process consisted of two meetings. The first meeting was just to understand my “options.” To me the meeting felt like classic modern Chinese bureaucracy - sketchy. The small sparsely furnished completely undecorated office had white washed walls with smudged footprints and cracks. A layer of black dust had settled on everything not regularly used. The visa official was also a classic picture: short, dark skinned, with a belly reflecting his financial prosperity and slightly oily hair past due for a cutting. He sat back in his desk chair with a cigarette and periodically checked a thick book of rules and regulations. While the two men spoke I observed from the sidelines. Afterward my friend translated the whole hour’s meeting to me in about two minutes. From this I gathered that much more was discussed that was let on, although actually I think he was probably just sparing me some useless details. I’ll never know! Basically we concluded that he could help me get a new visa without even leaving Dalian, let alone the country! But I was warned that these were special circumstances and that I should probably not flaunt it around other foreigners.

He later said that that we would need to return the favor to the official. Fearing the worst, I withdrew extra 100’s from the bank. Instead, he produced a fax which was the visa official daughter’s English homework assignment! I couldn’t believe it. So, my friend and I sat together in his office and wrote the middle school English homework together. I wrote it in native English and then he strategically added in some “Chinglish” to make it believable. If this doesn’t demonstrate the value of English proficiency in China, I don’t know what does. The whole deal was sealed with a letter of recommendation explaining that I was studying acupuncture in China for a few months and that it was not my intent to work. While it all felt sketchy to me, this is how China works right now and I was assured that because the rules on book are changing so quickly, it was not exactly illegal to make our own way.

Friday, June 15, 2007

What you see is what you get - public undie drying

A detail of life in China in which I take daily delight is that of shameless public underwear drying.

While we definitely used a clothesline in Ohio, I was always happy it was concealed in the back yard. But with little private space and dryers being a complete luxury here, you can see underwear drying anywhere - next to convenient stores, in front of restaurants, strung across sidewalks, and hanging off high rise apartment buildings. Displays include everything from racy black lace to huge gray cotton bottom buckets. I actually take great joy in buying an ice-cream from someone knowing full well that I am standing next to his freshly washed briefs dripping on the side-walk beside me. Somehow makes me feel like we know each other better and maybe I don't need to count my change. Who says China isn't green!