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Published: January 25th 2010
"Sleepers" Art Exhibit
A modern art exhibit at TCG Nordica, a bar/restaurant/art gallery/concert hall run by Swedes in the artsy part of Kunming
If you've been reading the news, you're probably aware that Google has threatened to make an exit from China. Google accused Chinese hackers of infiltrating its computer network, and the Secretary of State has backed up Google's demands for an explanation. In addition, Google is frustrated with the censorship applied to its search engine in China. The Chinese government also recently announced that it would begin scanning text messages for "unhealthy" content, and within the last year, both Facebook and YouTube have been banned from the Chinese Internet, as well as many blogging and photo-sharing sites (I access these sites using a VPN that connects me to a U.S. IP address).
With all of these issues in the news, I thought it would be interesting for the 10-year old students I teach to have a debate about freedom of speech. I split them into two teams and assigned one group to defend censorship, the other freedom of speech. After ten minutes of brainstorming, the debate began. As I listened to each side, I was progressively blown away by the depth of understanding the children had of the issue, as well as their ability to express their opinions in
Kumming at Sunset
The view from my apartment
The Pro-Freedom of Speech team came up with phrases like "people aren't monkeys, they can decide for themselves," "it is important to learn other people's opinions," and my personal favorite - "censorship is like a bird in a cage." The Pro-Censorship side was just as eloquent, citing, "a prophet knows without speaking words," "you can use the heart to talk," and "one person's words can kill many."
Despite my curiosity, I decided not to poll the class to find out their true opinions, leaving them to reflect in privacy, instead. But I do wonder... what do these kids really think? They are all near the top of their class, and are bright, hardworking children. Growing up in a country that defends censorship and widespread propaganda, what position will they adopt as they grow up? In their eyes, each side is defensible. Who knows how they will feel as they get older?
I guess this is exactly why I decided to spend time teaching them. My class is titled "Brainstorming," and the whole point is to teach the students to be creative and think for themselves. As time passes, I've started to feel personally invested in improving
My Living Compound
The inside of the compound where I live
the children's ability to objectively examine an issue and form opinions that are truly their own. I think this type of education is crucial to the next generation of Chinese thinkers and activists. Who knows what kind of thinkers the country will have in 15 years?
Why I Love Chinese Living Compounds
Chinese society is highly structured, monitored, and community-oriented. It often feels that I have no privacy, a desire for solitude is regarded as unnatural, and the individual counts for very little here. Except, there are some definite advantages to living in a Chinese city, one of which is the Chinese "xiaoqu," or living compound:
I live in a large compound which houses thousands of residents in 20-story buildings, as well as at least a hundred businesses. Because of cooperation between utility companies and banks, I can pay my water bill at any Chinese ATM machine, and my building entrance is thirty feet away from a supermarket, public exercise equipment, a hair salon, bank, produce store, bakery, hospital, massage parlor, cell phone provider store, and bicycle parking lot.
Some Chinese compounds function as self-sufficient mini-cities, and perhaps the most unique aspect is the presence of
A crowded disco in the clubbing part of town
medical clinics throughout the city. There's no need to go to a major hospital for a minor problem - there is a clinic two doors down from me, dedicated solely to my compound. Treatment is essentially free, since you only have to pay for the cost of the medication you receive (usually about two dollars). Even at the big hospitals, it only costs three dollars to see a doctor. Although the quality of care doesn't compare with Europe or the United States, it's perfectly adequate for non-serious medical problems. So even though Chinese society can feel suffocating at times, there are benefits from the system, as well.
My next trip: Harbin Ice Festival!
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