Saturday, March 5, 2011

Vietnam Scenes: Hanoi

I've already commented on Hanoi's wonderful beer, food, art and "tiger mothers" so now I'd like to share some city scenes in Hanoi.

Furniture stores

There are many narrow buildings in Hanoi.  They are a result of an old tax based on the width of buildings.

"Tiger Mothers" in Vietnam?

Last month, I posted a warning that the "Tiger Mother" methods discussed by Amy Chua were possibly being applied in Yulin, China.

I've now captured evidence from a park in Hanoi, Vietnam that may prove to be of similar importance.  I'll post the photos and let you decide for yourself:

Innocent kids playing?  Or ruthless training by Tiger Mothers?  Sometimes it is so hard to decide...

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Bia hoi lesson - How not to be tricked

As I mentioned previously, Vietnam makes a special beer, bia hoi, that's enjoyed very fresh every day by many.  I realize that identifying a bia hoi location may not be always obvious to many visitors so I'd like to provide a quick guide.

The trick is to look for people drinking beer from glasses such as this:

However, you may still mistakenly identify some tea sippers as bia hoi aficionados since their respective liquids can look similar.  Another key thing to look for is nearby beer kegs (although my understanding is that bia hoi is sometimes served from a big plastic jug).  This, for example, is most certainly a place for bia hoi:

However,  if so many kegs turns you off, Hanoi has an answer - the single-keg bia hoi establishment:

As you can see, this photo was taken when the night was ending and the bia hoi was beginning to run dry.

Now that your eyes are readily spotting kegs so that you don't miss a critical bia hoi opportunity, you may find that you start making too many "false-positive" identifications.  For example, as much as one could hope, this is not a bia hoi keg:

That is just too big.  So, once you've trained yourself to filter out overly large objects as potential bia hoi kegs you may fall for the next trap:

The size is closer but again that is not a bia hoi keg.  It's a big pot of "pho" -- a delicious beef soup very popular in Vietnam.  How can you know this is pho?  Well, if you lack pho pot identification skills or a sense of smell you can look at the prominent sign.  Which leads to the next tip.  Typically bia hoi places also have signs saying... you guessed it, "bia hoi".  Here is one example in a tourist area meant to capture the attention of even those who haven't yet learned the key Vietnamese word "bia hoi":

"OK" you say, "We're ready for setting out, right?"  Well, one more word of caution...  Sometimes you can be tricked by signs, especially if you don't pay attention to the marks above and below the letters in Vietnamese.  Here is a sign that initially raised my hopes I would soon be enjoying a bowl of pho:

I suppose this sign may be brilliant for capturing my attention...  Anyways, it isn't for anything you can eat or drink.

So, look for the glasses, the kegs, and the signs.  Don't let any of them trick you, even though bia hoi is great with a bowl of pho.  And with that, I think you're more than prepared for your own adventure.

More on "The Writing on the Wall: China's Implicit Communication"

[note: in the process of adding "labels" to my posts somehow this post (unlike all others) from February was treated as a new post when I edited it.] 

I've received some interesting feedback on my post at James Fallows blog, The Writing on the Wall: China's Implicit Communication.

One, from someone not in China, was particularly unexpected and asked about the meaning of numbers in Chinese bathrooms.   It actually raised an interesting issue.

In many parts of China I've seen phone numbers on outside walls, walls inside hallways of apartment complexes, etc.  However, I don't recall often seeing them in bathrooms.  I don't think bathroom graffiti is common here.

I'm not going to ponder it more deeply at the moment, but there may be some fascinating things to uncover.

Let me know if you have anything to add...

Hanoi's Street Food

I've had some queries about an important aspect of my visit to Hanoi - food.

It's been fantastic.  While several restaurants had their charm, what most impressed me was the "street food" -- incredibly fresh, full of flavor, and cheap.  Plus, it provides you the opportunity to hang out with the locals.  Here are some photos of where and what I ate to see an important slice of Hanoi's culture:

Didn't know what they had, but it sure smelled good.

I sat down, looked at someone else's meal, and pointed.  Still not sure what it was, but it was good.

Fish cake

Again, couldn't resist the smell.

Full of all sorts of stuff and a wonderful broth.

I wasn't so hungry at the time but yet again the smell drew me in.  I didn't try the brains though.

Another success.  The dumplings were yummy.  And less than $1.
If you ever have a chance to visit Hanoi, I highly recommend following your nose and taking a plunge into the street food.  No Vietnamese needed.  I can attest to that.

Templates and Dioramas - The Banes of Museums in China?

[Note: This was originally posted March 2, 2011.  It has been re-posted to a date one day later in response to link spamming.]

Yesterday, I suggested that my impressions of the content of art and history museums in China may be influenced by a pattern of museum curators' choices and styles.

Chung Wah Chow, a "Hongkongese" writer covering a variety of topics and an author for the Lonely Planet guidebooks for China and Hong Kong & Macau, wrote to me:
"Being revolutionarily fervent is not the only problem in history museums in China. After visiting a dozen of those museums in China I found one thing in common among them. The way they display and tell the stories of respective provinces or... regions are exactly the same. I do not mean the contents are the same but the sequence, the story-telling techniques as well as the use of multi-media and dioramas to create certain effects are almost identical in all history museums in China. They just follow one formula or template and what the curators need to do is just to fill in the blanks. Where did they borrow the formula? If you come visit the Hong Kong History Museum you’ll know the answer."
In a later discussion Chung Wah explained more.  To paraphrase:
"What I was told is the former curator of the Hong Kong History Museum, after his retirement, was hired as a consultant to oversee museums in China.  That is why China is using the Hong Kong History Museum formula for their museums.  The curators in China organized study teams and visited the museum numerous times between 1998-1999 to "study" how to do a museum.  The result is they brought the whole template back to China.  So those brand new provincial museums in China all look the same...  I think you will only notice that if you see a dozen of museums in two weeks."
So, maybe I can add "strict use of a template" to my list of possible explanations for why many Chinese museums have underwhelmed me.  What Chung Wah said is consistent with some of my impressions of many Chinese museums.  It also seems plausible in terms of how "design" sometimes works in China.  The strict use of a copied template touches on what many claim is a problem for China - a lack of creativity in many domains.  I plan to further discuss creativity, "revolutionary fervor", templates, and other Chinese museum related issues later.

For now, I will highlight one of techniques Chung Wah referenced - dioramas.  I'll share just a few photos of the mannny dioramas I've seen in history museums across China.

Here is a scene that particularly "impressed" me at the Mazu (Matsu) Musuem in Shanwei, Guangdong:

In the Mazu (Matsu) Museum in Shanwei, Guangdong

This diorama at the somber 9.18 Museum in Shenyang, Liaoning is in my opinion one of the better I've seen:

In the 9.18 Musuem in Shenyang, Liaoning

And not my least favorite, a scene from the National Museum of Chinese Writing in Anyang, Hebei (which I should add was one of the relatively better museums I've been to in China - diorama notwithstanding):

In the National Museum of Chinese Writing in Anyang, Hebei

Very different content in the 3 museums above but all made ample use of dioramas.  Many museums have dioramas that fall somewhere between the styles and level of execution shown above.  At the very least, I'm sure the above photos could make for interesting caption contests. 

I'll save the topic of what Chinese (excluding Hongkongers) think of such displays for another day.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Impact of How and What We Share - Some Impressions From Visting Vietnamese & Chinese Museums

A couple of days ago I visited the Fine Arts Museum in Hanoi, Vietnam and was genuinely surprised by how much I enjoyed the collection.  What particularly struck me was how I felt I could connect with it more than similar museums in China.

I am not trying to make a blanket statement comparing art in Vietnam and China (which certainly has much in common).  I am only trying to puzzle through my reaction to the museum in Hanoi and whether it reflects any deeper issues.  I do enjoy much Chinese art and I believe it has made some important contributions.  It wasn't that any individual piece in the Hanoi museum couldn't necessarily have been matched in brilliance by one in China - I just had never previously reacted so positively to any comparable collection of art at a museum in China as I did to the one in Hanoi.

At one point I wondered if it could be due to a possible influence of French art since Vietnam was colonized by France for a period of time.   However, that explanation seemed less likely as I was already aware of the feeling prior to viewing any art from the colonial period or afterward.  As I spent further time in the museum I began to wonder whether my more positive feelings for the collection were not reflective of Vietnamese art in general, but instead of the choices of Vietnamese museum curators.  Museums curators are typically faced with many decisions about which pieces of art to display and each decision could lead to very different experiences for the visitor.  Maybe my "tastes" were more consistent with what the Vietnamese curators thought was best to display.

The suspicion this was true was heightened when I later noticed that I was able to enjoy some of the history museums in Hanoi more than many I've visited in China.  I, similar to many other non-Chinese, have found that history museums in China, particularly those covering events of the past century, can leave an over-the-top "revolutionary fervor" feeling -- sometimes to the point of being a distraction to the actual history being described.  The Hanoi historical museums I visited did not overly impress me but I felt less of the "revolutionary fervor" and found it easier to immerse myself in the presented material.

I wondered if my impressions of the art and history museums in Vietnam and China were examples of the impact what is chosen to be shared and how it is shared can have on one's impressions of a culture and how much those decisions themselves are yet another piece of the culture.

I recognize my exploration of Vietnamese museums - both art and historical - is very limited and it is difficult to really appreciate any selection criteria of the Vietnamese and Chinese museums without seeing what didn't "make the cut".  Also, my impressions may change as I visit more museums in Vietnam.  And...  maybe they were just the effects of the strong Vietnamese coffee.

For now, I'll wrap up the post with a handful of photos of pieces in Hanoi's Fine Arts Museum.  They aren't all of my "favorites" as some pieces weren't under suitable lighting for sharing though a photograph.  I also wouldn't say they are representative of the entire collection, but I did try to pick a variety of styles and time periods.  You can see what impressions you have of this small sample of the collection which so fascinated me.

[Added note: see follow up comments here]

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Bia hoi

I've happily learned that in the past the Czechs shared an important piece of their culture with Vietnam - their beer.  Vietnam's Bia hoi (beer) is brewed without preservatives and must be enjoyed immediately.  I was happy to help the cause last night.  Here is some of the bia hoi I enjoyed -- less than 20 cents (US) a glass!  For the price it's surprisingly good.

Here is a group of Vietnamese enjoying a bit of Czech culture in their own way.  There were many more people earlier and the other street corners of this intersection were being put to similar use.

Na zdravíMột hai ba, yo!

In Vietnam

I recently arrived in Vietnam for a bit so some related posts are on the way.

I came here on a bus from Nanning which drove by some stunning scenery along the way.  When I arrived in Hanoi I had no idea where I was in the city, no Vietnamese money, no hotel, no guidebook handy, ...  So what did I do?

1.  Walked around and found an ATM

2.  Got a bowl of pho


Friday, February 25, 2011

The Importance of Understanding Others: How a Single Speech Impacted College Students' Perceptions of Google in China

[Note:  Recently, I wrote some posts regarding Google in China on James Fallows' blog.  After adding some additional thoughts and clarifications I decided I wanted to write a shorter version of the posts to more effectively highlight a key part of what I wanted to share and to allow a quicker read.  Here it is...]

Last year, I spent a significant amount of time speaking to college students across China about a variety of topics to better understand their needs, desires, and concerns.  One of the topics I explored was students' impressions of the events which surrounded Google in China last year (for a review, a series of posts by James Fallows here covers many key moments).  I would like to share some of what I found from conversations with Chinese students who had a positive opinion about Google as I think it can highlight how a single event can be perceived very differently between two groups of people -- even when they share some similar goals.

Before discussing those students, for context it's important to note that many Chinese students lacked any awareness of news related to Google or were not interested in the news because they believed the situation impacted their lives very little.  For example, many students expressed little concern over any potential chance of Google leaving China.  They either already used another company's services, such as Baidu, or they felt they could switch to another company's services without much hassle.   Also, Google's refusal to continue censoring its results per government requirements mattered little to them.  They either saw value in censorship or didn't feel such censorship impacted any of their needs for information.

However, some students I spoke to did believe that the events of last year mattered and many such students held Google in high regard.  As in the words of one student:
"The people in Google always think 'We are Google' and that they can do anything they want. They think they are great.  They have their own ideas.  They can go their own ways.  They can choose what to do...
I trust them because Google was the first search engine and it was their own idea and their own method.  Baidu copied Google."
In addition to having a very positive image of Google, often these students felt that Google was "on their side".  Like many students I spoke to across China, they readily criticized their government as corrupt.  While most students felt powerless or first wanted their country to progress in other areas, some students believed Google might be one of the forces that could help bring about change in their government in the near future.  When Google first announced its review of the feasibility of its operations in China, the students wondered if some of their hopes would soon be realized.

However, much changed after an event that shortly followed Google’s announcement -- a speech by Hillary Clinton which addressed topics such as censorship in China and cyber intrusions apparently supported by the Chinese government.  Hillary Clinton's reference to Google in her speech particularly impacted the views of many students who had previously supported Google.  The US government's public alignment of itself with Google helped fuel a perception that they were a single unit acting towards a single set of goals.  Chinese students could readily accept the existence of such a close partnership due to the blurry line, if any, between government and much business in their own country.

Many Chinese students I spoke to often assumed that for any disagreement between the US and Chinese governments whatever the US advocated must be detrimental to China in some way.  The students did not consider it a likely possibility that under such a circumstance the US could be advocating something it genuinely believed to be good for both the US and China.  Due to it now be associated with the US government, Google and its actions were now viewed with more suspicion and it lost support amongst the students.

Hillary Clinton's speech may have actually been a gift to the Chinese government since it ended up distancing many of Google’s strongest supporters in China -- a group with many who also hoped for more reform.  The students who had been impacted by the speech may in fact be a minority in China but a) there are likely non-students with similar views and b) they may represent a key block of citizens who would lead any effort for change in China.  Although it's not clear whether Google had any control over the issue, based on what I learned if the US government wanted to maintain/strengthen Chinese citizens' support of Google and the ideals it represented to them then the speech was a mistake (at least in the short term) -- better had the speech never occurred or not so directly referred to the incidents surrounding Google in China.

However, many of the people in the US who wanted to see more reform in China saw Hillary Clinton’s speech as a strong step in the right direction or even as not strong enough. That many in the US apparently did not foresee the Chinese students' reactions shows the importance of having an understanding of the people you ultimately want to see influenced -- a particularly valuable lesson both for those who are trying to bring about change in environments around the world and for those who are trying to appreciate and evaluate such actions.

China Scenes: Chaozhou, Guangdong

Chaozhou, Guangdong is a city on China's southeast coast.  It has kept some of its older architecture and has several historical sites.  However, what Chaozhou may be most famous for is its food - a style that is treasured by many Chinese.

A variety of snacks

A dumpling & fish/beef ball soup at a famous restaurant

A home in the "old town"

A wall of one of the homes

Some local transportation

Friendly boaters

I wonder if any kids have second thoughts about going on the slide.

Some apartments

Roller skating in a park