Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Retire the Dragon

I've been considering some more news commentary while so far away so people interested in how my mind is changing can watch the world reflect off my computer screen.  The trick, of course, is not to misspend too much time doing it.

But for those who found the dragon image I referenced for China in my first post to be a tired cliche, Christina Larson at Foreign Policy shows you are not alone.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

The Rebirth of Chinggis: A laowai's glimpse at 21st century Mongolia

The glistening image of Chinggis Khan
Ulaan Baatar- Sandwiched on a plateau between global powers Russia and China, it is easy for an American ignorant of the region to imagine the sparsely populated Mongolia as a marginal nation that will forever be coerced in the shadow of its giant neighbors.  Of course, Mongolians remember that, at its height, the Mongol empire was the largest land empire, stretching from Bulgaria to Korea. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the Mongolian national identity has been rising like a 130 foot steel image of Genghis Khan (known locally as Chinggis Khan).

Mongolian religious art and culture culture, from what I can gather, appears to be a rich mix of traditional shamanistic practices and buddhist influences from afar as Tibet and India.  The art and iconography of Mongolia's buddhist temples, ritualistic masks and traditional dress is intensely colorful, powerfully violent at times, erotically sexual at others, and suprisingly psychodelic.  

Masked dancers of the Tumen Ekh National Song and Dance Ensemble.

Other ethnicities, including the Kazakh, add layers of different traditions, designs, art and rituals.  With a semi-nomadic herding tradition, the basic unit of social organization is the Ger, a home that can be built in 60-90 minutes and taken apart in half as much time with materials that can be shipped on the backs of camels or horses.  
Twin gers of relatively affluent Kazakh herding family with wind turbine and solar panel (on right ger just above and to the side of the entrance.  Their herd of sheep is visible in the distance to the viewers left.)

Southwestern Mongolia is also believed to be where throat singing began.  The singing styles based on the harmonies of the singers voice of resonant overtones in the throat and mouth are essential parts of Mongolian art, and even the chanting styles of Buddhist monks I saw in the Gandantegchinlen Monastery (pictures not included).  
Throat singing with the Tumen Ekh ensemble.  I'm afraid I failed to save the names of the singer or the musicians.

This style of singing has become famously associated with Mongolia's northern neighbor, the Tuva Republic (part of Russia), from the documentary Genghis Blues in which blind American blues singer travels to Tuva for the first time to win the Tuvan national throat singing championship (a clip is on Youtube, forgive the German subtitles).

Tall Shadows
The standard English language historical text in the Mongolian Museum of National History, as well as the bookstores and gift shops of Ulaan Baatar, is Baabar's History of Mongolia: From World Power to Soviet Satellite, printed in a joint venture by Cambridge University Press and Mongolian national publishers.  

Baabar describes how the 1911 Mongolian independence became possible with the the imminent collapse of the Qing dynasty which had dominated Mongolia as a foreign power.  With the Bolsheik revolution to the Northwest, both Russian White Guard and Chinese nationalist troops invaded in 1917.  This era included a Russian dictator with a ragtag army of soldiers from Eastern Europe to Japan named Roman Ungren von Sternberg whose wikipedia page is just too bizarre for me to comprehend.   

While the national government failed to raise enough support and troops to throw out the invaders, several rebel groups organized into the Mongolian People's Party enlisted the aid of the Soviet army, starting a series of events that would shape the future of the Mongolia for the next 70 years.  With military might came political advisors.  After the Czarists and the Chinese were defeated, a process of sovietization of the society over the next generation collectivized farms and other property in 1928.  This was wildly unpopular with many Mongolians, particularly the nobility and Buddhist clergy.  Disorganized rebellions were easily put down with Mongolian-Soviet military power into the early 1930s, coinciding with a war against the Japanese over control of parts of Mongolia.  With Soviet propanda against Japanese spies, a whole generation was purged.  Climaxing in 1937 with mass murder of almost the entire Buddhist clergy and the execution of the exiled prime minister Genden who refused to carry out the purge, no level of Mongolian society was spared the purge.

This history seems to be an important part of the Mongolian national consciousness.  A Museum of Political Persecution was founded documenting much of this.  But, with the exception of the bullet riddled skulls excavated in 2003 from a Soviet mass grave in Mongolia, the museum is poorly organized for an English-speaking audience.
Bullet riddled skulls excavated in 2003 from a Soviet mass grave in Mongolia.

Zorig and the New Mongolia
Soviet control of Mongolian affairs continued into perestroika, but in the late 1980s several organizations, particularly the Union of Mongolian Composers, created space for students and young adults to openly discuss politics and the future of Mongolia.

From this energy sprung the Mongolian Democratic Union, which organized protests and open letters, some carried in the press, calling for elections with a multiparty system and basic political freedoms.  The coming out party for this movement, described well in an excerpt of Mossabi's Modern Mongolia: From Khans to Commissars to Capitalists, was a small but boisterous December 10 1989 Human Rights Day Protest in Sükhbaatar square.  Though Rossabi argues that the demonstrations reflected divisions within the ruling Mongolia People's Revolutionary Party, the government did not respond to the demands, the protests swelled in size and became increasingly rowdy, immortalized by the photo of Sanjaasürengiin Zorig, the "Golden Magpie of Democracy," calming the crowd as it seemed about to lay seige to government offices.  The confrontation ultimately climaxed in a March 1990 hunger strike demanding that the entire politburo of communist leadership resign, arrange for multi-party parliamentary elections and separate Mongolian government functions from MPRP party functions.  By mid-April Mongolia had entered a new phase in its history.
Infamous photo of Sanjaasürengün Zorig from Mongolian newspaper reports from early 1990.  I am unable to find the photographer's name.
Sükhbaatar Square now is a center for congregation for young and old; bicycle, roller blade and power wheel

During my first moments in Mongolia, reading the cyrillic script and overhearing fragments of conversations in a language where I could barely distinguish the syllables, there was something extremely foreign and somewhat intimidating in the Mongolian language.  I imagined that the Klingon language might have been modeled after Mongolian, carrying its history of conquest under the Mongol empire and representing a Soviet styled nemesis of the USA-like Federation of  planets.

Of course, that impression reflected more on my ignorance than on the Mongolian language.  Though written in cyrillic, it is not at all a slavic language.  Several alphabets pre-existed the use of cyrillic, famously including the alphabet introduced by Zanabazar shown below whose first symbol is on the Mongolian flag.  
Part of Soyembo alphabet introduced by Zanabazar in the 17th century.

Another alphabet was used in the pre-soviet area, and was elegant enough to be used on typewriters.  

However, at that time illiteracy, especially among herders, was the norm.  As part of the literacy programs devised under soviet advisors in the 1930s, the cyrillic alphabet was adapted and taught all across the country.  The result was a linguistic as well as economic and cultural Sovietization.  While the traditional scripts are still studied, as are Tibetan and Sanscrit in this Buddhist country, they are still only marginally used in public context outside of the monasteries and universities.

Post-Soviet Discontent
Though Mongolians are apparently quite proud of the peaceful transition from Soviet domination to a new Mongolian national identity, the post-Soviet era has also been wrought with disappointment, corruption and inequality.  There is a palpable tension in Mongolia, a mix of frustration and aggression that is simmering underneath the apparent economic growth and outward political stability.

The post-Soviet transition to democracy also left Mongolia's economy without the Soviet support it had become dependent on.  Before 1990, the exchange of Mongolian Tugriks to the American dollar was about 10:1.  Now that ratio is above 1300:1.  The period of privatization was heavily directed by foreign lending institutions such as the IMF, World Bank and Asian Development Bank, resulting in a defunding of education and health care.  The mining sector was being increasingly exploited by foreign corporations with relatively small benefit to the Mongolian economy.

The "end of the romantic phase of post-Soviet Mongolia" occurred in 1998 when Sanjaasürengiin Zorig was stabbed to death in his apartment the day he was nominated as the candidate for Prime Minister.  His widow speculated that the still unsolved crime was related to corruption in the privatization phase that Zorig refused to participate in or allow.  

I met a highschool English teacher who was skipping work at school to make money as a guide to foreign tourists because of the difference in money.  She hoped to give up teaching and help her sister start and run a hostel.  Our driver says he was a doctor trained in women's health, (though he also claims to have been a gun and drug runner with the Mongolian mafia in 1990s until he was shot at and decided that wasn't the life for him).  He says he gave up working as a doctor in order to work for a tourism agency for better pay and lifestyle.

This distortion of economic incentive is not the recipe for good social and economic development.  Despite the apparent boom of construction in Ulaan Baatar, as numerous cranes tower over the city, many construction sites are half-finished shells with no signs of active construction.  Some streets are coming apart, and there is a strange sense of growth and decay at the same time.  The national recreation park contains a new amusement park with rides and bumper cars, but the rest of the park around it seems like a scene out of the depressing "Return to Oz" movie.

While the poor outskirts of most modern cities like Mexico City are defined by the shanty town, Ulaan Baatar is wringed with Ger districts of new rural to urban migrants in search of work.  Particularly bad winters at the end of the 1990s led to an increase in poor immigrants and a rush of homeless children, many of them living in the sewer, a number of them involved in prostitution.  Since then more orphanages and NGOs such as Save the Children have been addressing the problem but it continues.  Violent crime and property crime also appear to be on the rise.

The ecology and economy of the Ger show similar dichotomies.  Some gers have wind turbines and solar panels to charge the batteries they run their household electronics off of.  Those with substantial herds can burn the dung for energy, but they also apparently burn and dump the trash, much of it plastic.  The drainage ditches and roadsides of Mongolia are sadly decorated with plastic wrappers, drink bottles, and broken glass.

Mongolian Fascism and the Duality of the Swastika (Khas)
The failures of the post-soviet democratic leadership to provide economic stability for Mongolia have occurred in the context of simmering resentment towards Mongolia's Soviet experience and socialist ideals and animosity toward foreign interests profiting in Mongolia.  This has created fertile ground for what would seem an unlikely location for the rise of Nazi-inspired Fascism.
Photo: Dan Chung of The Guardian newspaper

Youth fascists have been involved in increasingly common incidents of violence targeting inter-racial couples, homosexuals, transsexuals, foreigners (especially Chinese) and Mongolian women associating with foreigners.  NPR describes a recent "song by a band called 4 Zug. The title: 'Don't Overstep The Limits, You Chinks.' It is a violent, hate-filled tirade against Mongolia's massive neighbor, China."  After shopping for a made in Mongolia hat and jacket at the "Black Market" of Naran Tuul, I met one such shaved head youth wearing a German cross pendant around his neck throwing a punch in my direction. 

Many have pointed out the irony of a Mongolian political philosophy respectfully modeled after the racist Nazi policies that targetted Mongolian POWs for execution.  Perhaps more interesting is how Hitler's rebranding of the swastika, a Hindu and Buddhist symbol, as a Nazi emblem gives fascism a strange symbolic connection to the pre-Soviet Mongolian buddhist tradition.

The symbol, called a "Khas" in Mongolian appears not only in traditional design, but in traditional games and on the first Bank Note of the Republic of Mongolia in 1921. 
It was explained to me to be something like a spiritual compass rose, taking in energy from the four cardinal directions and unifying it into oneness.
Though my Mongolian is woefully inadequate.  I believe this book states that traditionally the Khas was part of a spiritual machine that kills fascists.

So Much to Say: I've Said too Much
Its impossible for me to do justice to the Mongolian experience with 5 days and no Mongolian education.  The future of Mongolia remains in contention, poverty remains rampant while social services like transportation, education, health care and child care are in ruins.  While a sparsely populated country, the lack of clear ecological policies are going to catch up with the Mongolian environment.  The youth movements, in tension between the democratic revolutionaries of the previous generation and the rise of Mongolian hip-hop culture, are significantly influenced by fascism, but its impossible for me to appreciate other influences and the dynamic between them all.

As I return to work in Beijing, I can't help but fantasize about interesting possibilities for a health worker collaborating with Mongolian doctors and researchers to push the standards of Mongolian health care...

ed. note: The phrase laowai is an anglicization of the Chinese 老外 (lao wai = old foreigner).  See the 1st post from China for more.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Monday, September 20, 2010

Beijing to Ulaan Baatar

Ulaan Baatar- This weekend I took the long train ride from Beijing to the Mongolian capital on a Mongolian Railway train.  The 20 hour trip included a surprisingly fun three hour layover at Erlian (二连浩特).

My Fogarty colleague Sarah planned most of the trip.  From Summer in Beijing, its quickly becoming winter weather in the desert of Mongolia, with nightly lows below freezing this week.  With much more to say, it will have to wait.  The early Mongolian morning calls...

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Beach House in the Big Leagues

Now that Beach House is in the big leagues, when they coming to tour China?

More on Changping

I thought i would include some pictures of where I've been spending some time.
The first shows the gleaming glass facade of the proud new CDC building, complete with fountain and flags of China and the CDC logo.
From large hill on campus, the CDC in its context.  Beyond the cafeteria in the near background, there isn't much else before the mountains in the distance.
Shuttle buses line up to take people home at 4:00.  Don't miss the bus, or you might have to find your own way home.  I like the texture of this picture, but I noticed that I caught this sign as far down as the Boiler Room.

If you can read what comes below Boiler Room, you may understand why i was later disappointed I missed "动物中心" in the photo above.   Its one of those details that rewards a viewer who takes time to really see the whole picture.

The experience of the Chinese bathroom is also a little different, and worth noting (without getting dramatic about the Asian-style squat toilet).  I've had the strange experience of walking into the bathroom of the national center for disease control and prevention and hearing diarrhea and smelling cigarette smoke.  It's strange to imagine an individual in that situation, but i suppose it may mask the bathroom smell.

Here is an example of a shiny clean squat toilet complete with cigarette butt.

Perhaps even more strange to me was the use of the western toilet stall for storage for the week or so that some building maintenance and repairs were going on.
These are just the minor details that color one's sense of being foreign.  More soon on the deeper meaning of work and life in China.

Sunday, September 05, 2010


This was a pretty miserable week for me.  I went to bed Sunday night with some aches and an increasing fever that gave me some delirious dreams.  Monday I awoke with a headache, some disorientation and malaise.  On Tuesday I stayed home, and while the headache was a little better, I developed a productive cough with green sputum.  This all gradually has been improving, with some interspersed moments of near syncope.  Whether this was viral, or more likely some bacterial illness,  I learned the word 感冒, cold or flu, which apparently hits Western visitors to China particularly hard.

Hopefully, my sickness hasn't discolored my outlook on life in Beijing too much.  On the bright side, though one of the teachers on ChinesePod states that "everyone in China has diarrhea... right now," at least I don't have 拉肚子.

Beijing Commute
My daily routine begins shortly before my 5:40 alarm every morning.  I have a habit of nervously waking up at the first signs of a lit sky, usually around 5:38.  After getting dressed and packed for work, I walk 5 minutes to a shuttle bus.  I might stop by a store for this great honey sweetened yogurt for 2 rmb (about U$0.25, plus the deposit on the ceramic container).

My shuttle bus picks up in front of the buildings that, until this past year, were the headquarters of the China CDC.  The China CDC was founded in 2002 by the Chinese Academy of Preventive Medicine as a quasi-governmental NGO with ties to the Ministry of Health.  Its founding was described in the paper, The Current State of Public Health in China, which I cited in my previous post.  The office was opened up in four buildings just West of 天坛 (Temple of Heaven), shown by the arrow on the map of Beijing below.

After eight years, the CDC was overflowing, and began to rent out space from a hotel across the street.

In the interest of more space, a sprawling suburban campus some 40-50 kilometers out of Central Beijing, behind a cornfield in the Changping District.  On the above map it... does not fit.  Zooming out, here it is, identified with the arrow north of the Sixth Ring Road.

Since there was little mass transit to that cornfield before the CDC moved in, and since car ownership is still relatively low among Chinese workers and students, China CDC has to provide shuttle buses from more than a dozen different neighborhoods around the city.

My commute takes an hour to work every day (without traffic) and 75-100 minutes on the way home when traffic is worse.  Though some have been asking, I have not been stuck in the 10,000 car traffic jam or the 10 day traffic jam.  While those epic calamities are farther in the country-side, this town is still daily gridlock.

I have spent the last couple of weeks starting my job as a researcher/data analyst at the China CDC.  I gave my first presentation on Friday updating my boss and colleagues on my work analyzing the geographical differences in anemia in Chinese elderly, and preparing to use CDC data to find an appropriate level of hemoglobin to use as a definition of anemia among this population.  It was four days of data analysis, since I only made sense of the data at the beginning of the week (it's mostly in Chinese, I needed an English copy of the survey, etc.).  But I guess the presentation was satisfactory, since my boss suggested I give him a draft of the paper in 2-3 weeks...

Saturday, September 04, 2010

New Nikon: First Fotos

Dancing statues across from Tianqiao Acrobatics Theatre
Beijing disappears into the haze outside the 摄影器材城 where I bought this camera

Friday, September 03, 2010

Los desaparecidos de hoy

Violence on the Homefront
The last week brought a wave of notable stories related to violence on the homefront.  The tragic killing of a Jamaican-born hustler and hip hop record executive Jewish convert brought a good New York Times article on the black orthodox Jewish community of (where else) Brooklyn.  The Baltimore Sun highlighted the return of a long time teacher to kindergarden classroom for the first time since a former pupil murdered her son.  And several random attacks on Central Americans in Baltimore, including the beating death of a 51 year-old Honduran by a 19 mentally ill man who reportedly "hated Hispanics," and the shooting of two Hondurans (one fatally) by a 14-year-old girl in East Baltimore.

Desaparecidos: Ahora y Entonces
In Mexico, the bodies of 72 South and Central American migrants were found stacked in a shed, after one survivor managed to alert police after being shot in the throat.  This mass grave is one of a string of recent findings of mass graves in abandoned mine shafts, ranches, and shallow pits.  Most of the recent mass graves are thought to be where rival drug gangs are burying the bodies of their slain rivals, many of them showing signs of torture.

This new find raises questions to me about that narrative.

The bodies of a couple hundred forgotten migrants already litter the deserts of the USAmerican Southwest every summer.  Countless more Cubans and Haitians have disappeared in the Straights of Florida heading North.

Los Dasaparecidos, also a song by Rubèn Blades, refers to those left-wing, community and/or labor activists kidnapped off of the streets and imprisoned, tortured, exiled, murdered and sometimes thrown into the sea.  Originally coined in Argentina, where the torturers became known by their green Ford Falcon, the phenomenon was common in Brazil, Chile, Colombia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico, Panama, Peru and Uruguay and other places around the world.

It strikes me that the disappeared of our world may not be always much the community organizer that political power hopes to silence (though they are certainly at risk in today's world), but also the poor people that private or corporate power (such as the cartel) find disposable (as perhaps the powerful so often do).

Thursday, September 02, 2010

From Motherland to Forbidden Fruit

My roommate has started posting a series on her blog about her recent trip to North Korea.  I passed on the trip offer, largely because of the expense and the strictly controlled movement.  I must sound so boring.