Saturday, March 31, 2007

Three views of a restoration

Forbidden City

Forbidden City Scaffolding

Forbidden City

Some photos from a recent trip to the Forbidden City in Beijing. More photos of Beijing are posted here, and I will be writing something about that trip soon.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

A sad day for Philippine journalism

Newsbreak, one of my favorite magazines in Manila, has gone to a web-only publication. (I'm biased, I contributed to the magazine while I lived there, and have enormous respect for the magazine's founders and editors.) While I'm trying to remain optimistic that the rumors of a possible underwriter for a continuation of the print version are true, I've also seen many small publications die a quick death after the shift to web-only versions.

It's difficult to describe Newsbreak's importance to Philippine journalism without a little context. It wasn't a news source with broad appeal, like the shows the network I worked for, ABS-CBN, produced. It was for the movers and shakers, the politicians, businessmen, investors, the intelligentsia.

Philippine journalism has a reputation -- and that reputation is not always a good one. Since Marcos fled the country in 1986, the country has enjoyed a free press – a pretty big accomplishment for an Asian nation. But as is often the case, when it comes to press freedom in the Philippines, the definition of "freedom" is not so clear.

For years the country held the unenviable title of the most dangerous country for journalists – and journalist murders still make the news on a regular basis. A lot of journalists in the Philippines brush the killings off when the journalists killed are not considered legit – they're on the take, they pay for radio air time to blast politicians they consider corrupt. But other victims are legitimate journalists working on stories about corruption, professionals who will not take money to stay quiet. In the 21 years since people power, only two people have been convicted of murder for journalist killings. So how free is a press where reporters, photographers, cameramen and editors are threatened and killed on a frequent enough basis as to make most people immune to the story?

But blaming only the party responsible for the killings or government inaction doesn't look at the full story. The Philippine press, if famous for being free, is also famous for being rife with corruption. Reporters who don't take money from sources are often considered stupid by their peers. Reporters and cameramen at the nation's largest stations are paid very little – and the bribes are considered a perk of being in the business – supplementary income that some of the employees desperately need. The act of taking money from sources even has a name -- "envelopmental" journalism -- named after the envelopes of cash handed to reporters.

Newsbreak's stories were well-researched, thoughtful, agenda-setting pieces in a sea of one-source newspaper stories with bizarre headlines and brief TV news clips littered with inaccuracies. The editors and writers I met at Newsbreak were motivated and passionate. More important, they were outspoken about and have denounced the unsavory practices of the Philippine press. They've been threatened, they've been taken to court on libel charges, they've been arrested, and, according to their Web site, they've been working for a while without pay. I'm hoping they can keep up their passion and dedication long enough to resurrect the print publication -- it would be a shame to lose such an important contribution to the Philippine press.


Here's more commentary on Newsbreak's shift to a web-only publication。

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Staying ahead of the curve

In October I decided it was time to take the GRE and apply to graduate school. I am mercifully in the decision making portion of a long test and application process that ate up much of my time during the fall semester. I thought registering for the GRE would be easy; after all, the university students I taught in Hangzhou in 2004 were all taking the GRE to try to get into graduate schools in the United States. It couldn't be that difficult to register for the test in China.

But, as things sometimes are when you live in Asia, it was quite difficult. First I registered for the test in Hong Kong because the Nanjing registration deadline had already passed. I soon found out that I could only take part of the test in Hong Kong, the essay portion, and would have to wait until May to take the rest of the test. That was just too late. By May graduate schools would have already decided on their incoming class. So I did the next best thing I could think of: I registered for the test in Manila, where I could take the full GRE in one four- to five-hour sitting. I could have gone to Bangkok to take it, but figured I could wrap in a long weekend with friends in the Philippines.

Why is it so much easier to take the GRE in Manila or Bangkok than in China? Cheating. And it's not just cheating on the GRE -- it's every test you can think of. According to a brief in the New York Times about SAT scores being cancelled in South Korea (apparently China isn't the only country that keeps ETS test writers up late), in the early 90s around 10,000 TOEFL test scores were cancelled in China because of cheating.

For those of you who teach or have taught in China, this comes as no surprise. I often devised complicated methods for preventing cheating during midterm and final exams. In my writing classes I learned (the hard way) to take in-class writing samples from my students to make spotting plagiarism a little easier.

I'm not quite sure why the Philippines isn't also blacklisted by testing services. Last year the Philippines' nursing board exam was leaked. Forty-two thousand potential nurses had taken the test, and around 17 thousand passed. Some thought candidates should retake the test; others did not think it was necessary. But perhaps the Educational Testing Service, the gatekeeper of the GRE and SAT, among many other tests, had not had many problems in the Philippines. Or if they did, perhaps it's a question of volume: I would guess that the number of Chinese students taking ETS tests far outnumber Filipino students.

Still -- like the DVDs that make their way to a Chinese pirating company well before it leaves theaters -- copies of standardized tests always manage to make their way to Asia, and no doubt other enterprising students around the world. Cheating students definitely keep ETS test writers employed. In an attempt to stay ahead of the curve, they're probably writing multiple tests each month, and, not surprisingly, being beaten at their own game by the students they're supposed to test.

Friday, March 9, 2007

Lantern Festival

The night before school started a few friends and I decided to brave the Lantern Festival crowds at Fuzi Miao. We arrived at about 8 pm, which was our first mistake. By the time we got there, it was so crowded that a shoulder-to-shoulder line of police was not allowing anyone to enter. Luckily there were so many people that even the outskirts of Fuzi Miao were incredibly festive.

A proposal

I was mercifully nearing the end of the daily hour-and-a-half of pain when the 11-year-old Korean boy I tutor, Yang Hee, looks up at me and asks me what I thought was a sweet and innocent question.

"Christina, do you like me?"

"Of course, Yang Hee," I said.

I shouldn't have encouraged him. I could see the wheels turning in his head, searching for some newly acquired English he was hoping to practice on me. Finally he spit it out.

"Do you is want to marry me?"

I laughed. "Sorry, Yang Hee, I think you should find someone your own age."


The same night during the cab ride home I'm in the middle of sending a text message to a friend about my recent "proposal" when the cab driver asks me how old I am.

This is always an invitation to further questions about my life, particularly the lack of husband and child. I thought for a second about lying to him, but instead told the truth. As if cued by some invisible director in the back seat of the car, he promptly asked me how I can be 27 years old and not married. I'm asked this often enough in China to have a few stock answers that I rotate between – usually something about living abroad for a long time or not meeting the right person yet or that "foreigners" often get married later.

I think it's because most of my friends in Nanjing are younger than me, but this question, which usually does not bother me, made me suddenly feel like I should be living in an apartment overrun by cats. I feel like this question in China has a lot to do with the age of the person you're talking to. My 40-something cabdriver came from a time when getting married young was just what you do. The generation born in the late 70s and 80s generally has a different attitude toward marriage. Though I meet plenty of young women who got married in their early 20s, I also meet many people who are putting off marriage for a career, or just because they can, because they have more choices. But they still have to deal with their parents – about the same age as my cab driver – asking the same questions.

I'm back

After a few months without blogging, I've decided to start again. I'll admit, I missed it, and when I went home in February I had a few requests to start one up again. I named the blog "Letters from Asia" because I'll probably stray from stories about the country I'm currently living in, China. Although I expect that most of what I write about will be about China and my experiences as a student in Nanjing, I'll also probably write now and again about the Philippines, a country I grew to appreciate and love during the year I spent there working at a television station.

For those of you who stumble upon my blog who aren't members of my family or my friends, here's a little about me: I'm an American studying Chinese at Nanjing Normal University for a year. About a year and a half ago I left what some might consider to be a"stable" job with a community newspaper in Lake Tahoe to move to Manila to work for a television station undergoing enormous change. When my year in Manila was up, I moved back to China to continue what I started a few years ago when I taught English in Hangzhou.

I love to get comments from people, especially those who are more insightful than I am (and there are plenty of you out there), so I'm looking forward to hearing from all of you.