Saturday, May 27, 2006

Fingerprinting our guests

The process of obtaining a Chinese visa was slightly tedious. I assumed that for visitors to the U.S., procedures would be more streamlined. WRONG!

At least for Asians, U.S. visas are very difficult to obtain, and very expensive, given the exchange rate. I believe James Zhang said they cost $100 for a single entry. That's 800 renminbi. In addition, entrants to this country pay another $100 to the Department of Homeland Security. And except for British travelers, all visitors to the U.S. are fingerprinted.

Yes I know the arguments. In this post 911 universe, we have to be on the lookout for terrorists, and we need to take additional precautions. But excuse me-- I am truly embarrassed to learn that people like Professor James and Professor Daniel, academics whom we invited to the U.S. were subjected to this procedure.

I'm told we're the only country with this requirement, and it's true, based on my experience. England and Ireland simply stamp your passport. Mexico has you fill out a form shortly before you land. Turkey has you purchase a visa after you land. In France, they frisk you at the airport. But I know of no other country that requires fingerprints. If they're so necessary, why exempt the British?

Look, I know there are arguments on the other side. Officials compare the prints of new entrants to those of terrorists and criminals on file. But fingerprinting our guest scholars! Do you fingerprint your dinner guests? I am deeply ashamed. And to foreign visitors come to share their expertise, I truly apologize.

Discriminating Bills

To function at all in another country, it's necessary to use the money system. It's not a classroom exercise, where you take all the time you need. When a transaction is complete, you're expected to produce the right amount of money, and quickly.

Joe and I were initially confused when we saw the Chinese money or renminbi I'd swapped for dollars with my friend James. In America, we're used to seeing pictures of different presidents which supplements numerical information. Chinese bills mostly have the picture of Mao. How do you tell them apart when you're in a hurry? The obvious answer didn't dawn on us right away, accustomed as we are to the American system. Chinese bills are different colors, and some of them are different sizes.

Economic Literacy

Literacy is embedded in social practice. In a money economy, the ability to read and handle bills is essential for participation. I was reminded of this when I visited a region of Mexico last summer where only 60% of the adults are said to 'read'. Yet many otherwise non-literate adults could hawk their wares at market and discriminate bills.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Not all computers speak English

While visiting my friends, Prof. Daniel Zhang and Prof. James Zhang, I showed them this blog. Prof. Daniel became fascinated with it, and I said it would be easy to set up a blog for him. Problem was, his computer wasn't configured in English. It spoke Chinese.

The word 'blog' was in English, but all the instructions were in Chinese, though the buttons were all in the familiar colors, and the screens were laid out as they usually are in blogspot. I was able to infer the meanings of many characters from their position-- what reading specialists call the pragmatic cuing system. Between the two of us, Daniel and I came close to getting his blog running. But not quite. Wednesday, I'm making a repeat visit, and this time I'll bring my own laptop. It speaks English.

Green tea

Today, I visited my Chinese teacher and his roommate, also an exchange professor. They served me a delicious green tea. Now, if you read the web, there are all sorts of arcane practices associated with the preparation of Chinese tea. See for example Chinese tea 101. I don't know how many Chinese people engage in these rituals. My friends prepare tea quickly and matter-of-factly by getting the water very hot and adding a spoon of dried green tea. They don't fool with strainers and teabags. The expanded leaves rest in the cup's bottom when you finish. Simple and delicious.

The Chinese have been consuming tea for perhaps 5000 years, while the West has known about tea for fewer than 400. Maybe we ought to try doing it their way.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Tickets to China

When you travel to China, obtaining tickets is part of the adventure. It's not like scheduling a flight to Mexico or even Turkey. I scheduled my trip to Turkey online. Getting to China is something else. The travel agent has been working on the Weihai trip for a week, and she still hasn't received confirmation from Air China.

Part of the issue is that China is literally on the other side of the world. On our round planet, it's about as far away as a person can go without coming back. Chinese time is precisely twelve hours ahead of ours (in the Eastern zone), which makes it hard to do business. Also, the Chinese are very careful about who they let in their country, and their business practices are very different from ours.

Some people advise you not to buy tickets until you have the visa in hand. It sounds sensible, but it doesn't work. The Chinese embassy likes to see a copy of the tickets in the application package. Neither the visa process nor the business of getting tickets is quick. I am happy to have both tickets and visa in hand-- I depart for Nanning June 12.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006


Before I arrive in a foreign country, I always like to have some of the national currency in hand. It makes me feel better if I don't have to run around an airport trying to change money right away. James Zhong, my Chinese teacher, is going to swap me some renmimbi or Chinese currency for some dollars. Renmimbi means literally "people's money."Another name for renmnbi is yuan. Mao Tse Tung's picture is on every bill in the PRI (People's Republic of China). Because the Chinese numeric symbols are easily forged, special symbols are used to designate amounts of money (see above). For more information about the Chinese money system, check out

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

An orderly desk

Since I'm leaving the country, I feel I ought to leave an orderly desk. As a teacher, I am in the habit of giving grades. If I were grading myself on daily office neatness, I'd give myself something between a B- and a C+. Neatness is not, shall we say, an area in which I normally excel. So it feels really weird to have a completely empty in-basket and a dusted-off desk with all the writing implements tucked neatly into pencil cups.


As my date of departure-- June 12-- approaches, I spend increasing amounts of time on personal maintenance: getting teeth checked, having an eye exam, getting prescriptions and shots. Rather like what we did for the car before driving to Philadelphia: got new tires and an oil change.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Emergent Chinese

As the double decker bus hurtled through Philadelphia's Chinatown, I noticed the sign "Great World Supermarket." And there it was: one of the few Chinese characters I know. It was 'da,' the Chinese word for 'big,' here translated as 'great.' Now, I know more about print and what it does than a small child learning to read; nevertheless, I was doing something similar to what children do when first acquiring written language. I was acquiring another culture's system of print.

A Perch for Learning to Read

From the top of a double decker bus one sees a lot of what reading teachers call "environmental print." Here, like a child in a car seat, one moves past a variety of signs at eye level. I got to ride in one of these marvelous buses during a trip to Philadelphia, when I visited my son Michael.

What does tomorrow mean? It is 5:30 pm here, but at home it’s 5:00 in the morning. I leave Weihai tomorrow and make a stop in Beijing. ...