“The Plan of Birth” and more!


I put together a lesson plan for demographics – the study of human populations for a given country. We talked about how China ended its One Child Policy in 2015, and now adheres to a Two Child Policy. Surprisingly, over half my students are not the only child in their families– many are ethnic minorities (Hui Muslims, or Tibetan) and they were not impacted by the One Child Policy when it was enacted in 1979. Families were permitted more than one child if the first was a girl, and in rural communities where my students are from the laws were not strictly enforced.

Family planning was largely successful in China, and the primary punishment for having a second or third child was to pay a heavy fine. I challenged the students to think of the reverse situation- hypothetically, could a government force you into having children?

We look at Japan, a country on the cusp of living off of robot servicing in several decades. Birth rates are among the lowest in the world, and the taxable population continues to shrink every year- while the elderly live longer and longer, siphoning government funds for their pensions and healthcare.6a00d83456fd3269e200e54f1e77c88833-640wi.gif

“You are the prime minister of Japan. Your country will collapse in 100 years unless people have more kids. What rewards and punishments would you create to encourage childbirth?”

Most of the students discussed rewards related to financial incentives (such as tax credits), extended parental leave, and subsidized primary school. They became quite creative with their punishments though, which had me laughing hysterically when I peeked at their notebooks.

A student formally titled his laws “The Plan of Birth” and I have summarized the most cruel and unusual punishments (all against the 8th Amendment of the US Constitution, of course) from the class below:

Those who do not contribute Japan’s birthrate will be punished in the following manners:

Forbidden from going abroad
Must work on weekends
Your pay will be cut in half
You will be defamed terribly in public
Can’t go to restaurants
Forbidden from taking public transportation
Forced to divorce your spouse and automatically paired with a new spouse
Forced to live in a zoo with animals
Cancel your citizenship
If you don’t have children your parents will hate you forever!!

AQI 2000

Fullscreen capture 4122018 102012 PM.bmpAQI: Air Quality Index

Best Case Scenario: naturally occurring sandstorm

Worst Case Scenario: chemical plant explosion in nearby ‘new economic zone’Fullscreen capture 4122018 94527 PM.bmp

Permanent Impact to Health: unknown. possibly lung cancer, and other diseases that eat away at the body for inhaling chemicals at a concentration equivalent to smoking three packs a dayFullscreen capture 4122018 94723 PM.bmp

Pedestrian Footbridge

This school year, a new pedestrian footbridge was constructed to connect the two sides of our campus (doomed by fate, a highway splits our school in half along a north – south axis. The first year I was here, we could still risk our lives to cross the highway when the traffic light turned red for precious seconds. The traffic light has since been removed entirely, and the only way to get across campus is to use the new, narrow overpass)

We have a row of student safety patrols on the ground that wear vests and carry signal flags to guide confused / lost peers and ensure we queue in a civilized manner for this perilous journey. To be fair, I took great pride in being a safety patrol once, though I was in sixth grade then, and was there to assist 6 or 7 year olds.

The footbridge lights up at night in wild flashes of colors. This is common for most buildings, tunnels, and highways throughout China- kind of tacky from afar, but definitely fun to walk through up close. The bridge at our school flirts with the entire spectrum of the rainbow, but lingers longest on purple. It has a futuristic vibe to it- part Star Trek, part strip club – the perfect setting for rocking out to the Weeknd’s Starboy after a long afternoon of teaching.Fullscreen capture 4112018 114134 PM.bmp


m2 (Ping Fang Mi)

After ni hao (hello! 你好), and zai jian (goodbye! 再见), ping fang mi (平方米)is the third most commonly used phrase in China today. In Lanzhou and everywhere else I traveled, I hear these three words on a daily basis. Ping fang mi means meter2, and this is always used in discussions for price per square meter. These days, everyone is talking about the urban housing crisis in ChinaFullscreen capture 442018 110733 PM.bmp

In the past decade, property prices across China doubled every 24 to 48 months, depending on the city. In Xiamen, the awesome island I visited last month, property prices grew 4.6% A MONTH in 2016. Provincial governments across all of China have made efforts to restrain housing price growth, but the market for property is insatiable.

All sorts of laws are in place to cool the market: preventing non-residents from buying property in Beijing, preventing married couples from buying a second home in Shanghai (Which hilariously led to skyrocketing divorce rates for a period of time, as sneaky married investors attempted to circumvent the law), 100% down payments for second homes, the list goes on…  Fullscreen capture 442018 110722 PM.bmp

The price per square meter for apartments in central Shenzhen, Guangzhou, Beijing, and Shanghai is as expensive as the going rate for condos in Manhattan, London, Paris, and Sydney. It is not uncommon to see one bedroom apartments in these tier 1 cities sell for $1 million USD.

This should be really shocking, because average monthly salaries in those cities are around $3,000 USD, and since China is still nominally a communist country, in theory these properties must be returned to the government after 70 years– you cannot “own” property, merely “lease” it.Fullscreen capture 442018 112412 PM.bmp

An acquaintance I met in Shanghai Jiaotong University in 2009 – then a fellow student – recently took out a 30 year, 10 million RMB mortgage for his apartment in Shanghai! I can’t imagine being 28 with a $1.5M USD mortgage… and his salary for sure is lower than what I made in New York. Unfortunately for men in China, home ownership is a rites of passage to adulthood: it’s almost impossible for a man to get married if he doesn’t own property.Fullscreen capture 442018 110701 PM.bmp

There are numerous reasons for this, much of it rooted in centuries of tradition, but most recently China’s one child policy and resulting gender imbalance of 120:100 Male to Female ratio has been the main driver of exorbitant prices. Basically, the power has shifted to the women to pick from a larger pool of men.

The same way male peacocks and betta fish have magnificent tails to impress mates, Chinese men must attract a woman with the most valuable currency of all: ample, sun-drenched ping fang mi in a downtown district walking distance from the metro, with excellent schools and an IFS shopping mall!IFS new look(2).jpg

Though Lanzhou is considered provincial by the rest of China, it has not been shielded from this brutal phenomenon that’s infected the rest of China’s cities.  A standard two bedroom apartment outside downtown Lanzhou now costs 1 million RMB ($150k USD). It’s still only a fraction of the cost of a home in Beijing – but this is an enormous amount of money to pay back for people living here, where college professors make under $1,000 USD a month.Fullscreen capture 442018 110655 PM.bmp

My circle of friends here consist mostly of single men in their late 20s and early 30s. The clock is ticking and soon it will be their turn to take out the dreaded mortgage. Their current occupations – aspiring tattoo artists, baristas, part time insurance-peddlers – put them in a position where they make substantially less than the already severely-underpaid college professor.

But it’s now or never– waiting another two years to buy a home will surely result in paying 50% more for the same home in 2020 than in 2018. And then you risk not being able to afford a mortgage, ever. Which means you will be single for the rest of your life. It’s a lose – lose situation. Life sucks.Fullscreen capture 442018 112322 PM.bmp.jpg

A couple of the guy have gone apartment hunting with their parents recently, and upon return they seemed so, so stressed and somber from the ordeal. It goes without saying that once they sign a 30-year contract to get the keys to their new house, they’ll be spending over half their take-home pay each month to service the mortgage.

I did my best to comfort them. “Stability is a good thing! I would love to own a home!” (Both statements are true- and in my head I already have the image of a massive, open concept kitchen with nice countertops and German appliances for my future home. But realistically, I can expect my hypothetical mortgage to take up a much smaller share of my disposable income than theirs. And hopefully I just marry rich.)

These days, any discussions regarding ping fang mi are usually followed by one English word, repeated three times

“Fuck fuck fuck!”

Love Story

I got back to campus around 10 PM after a lengthy bike ride downtown. In the darkness, near one of the student dorms a crowd has gathered; candles are being lit, and rose petals neatly strewn in the shape of a heart. The candles spell out “SneedU” and “YXQ”. Neither makes any sense to me, but the excitement is palpable. OMG! I’m about to witness the infamous biao bai 表白, the ritual that takes place when a guy likes a girl and publicly declares his interest in her!!!Fullscreen capture 3262018 53546 PM.bmp.jpg

Whoever this love-struck guy is, he definitely has guts. I could never do something like this knowing the odds are probably 50/50 at best… I would want to die after a public rejection from some dude with a quasi-French/Italian accent… but life is all about taking risks (as I tell my students regularly!) and maybe this is the only girl he has fallen for so far in his life, which makes this event all the more important.

Anyway the crowd begins to swell and the guy requests for all of us to pull out our cellphones, turn on the flashlights, and play a Jay Chou song in unison. The latter request is tough to manage, but he’s lucky I had a portable MINISO speaker in my backpack from class earlier in the afternoon, so I plug in the speaker and we have the necessary Jay Chou song on repeat.

I try to imagine what happens next- will the girl’s friends bring her out from a random corner of campus and surprise her? Or was she tricked into staying late at the library and will see the candles on her way home? As it turns out, we were standing right under her dormitory, and she is presumably at home. The guy tells us the name of the girl (her initials were YXQ), and all together on the count of three we shout her name, then beg her to come downstairs. “I’M WAITING FOR YOU!” 我在等你!”

Everyone’s neck is craned toward the dorm, trying to figure out which floor and which room this girl lives in. There are a bunch of other girls in the dorm looking confused and excited, as they stick their heads out the windows to figure out where the girl is. The boy’s dorm is across the narrow street, and there too, a ton of guys have poked their heads out to witness the spectacle.Fullscreen capture 3262018 53601 PM.bmp.jpg

A few minutes pass and nothing happens. We try again, and shout her name. “I’M WAITING FOR YOU!” 我在等你!”

Still nothing. We call her name again. Nothing. The crowd begins to murmur with explanations

she’s probably putting on makeup”

“maybe she’s sick”

“she’s not at home”

“she isn’t giving him face! 不给他面子!

I helpfully offer a “maybe this is the wrong dorm

“so awkward!!!”

This guy is still standing in front of his glowing, candle-lit heart creation, with his unblinking eyes fixated on the upper floors of the dorm, refusing to make eye contact with anyone in the crowd. His back was probably soaked in sweat and his legs quivering with nervousness, but it was hard to tell in the darkness. He is a tough cookie. I can only imagine what thoughts were running through his head.

It’s been ten minutes. We shout her name again and again and tell her to come down. I quietly change the song on the MINISO speaker to a Bossa Nova cover of Craig David’s Don’t Love You No More, which was more appropriate for the current mood of the evening.

Finally, after what felt like an eternity, a shy girl stumbles out of the girl’s dormitory and walks over to the flickering heart. She is wearing a surgical face mask and a huge hat, both to shield her identity (though everyone on campus now knows her name). The guy leans in and whispers some stuff in her ear, and a minute later they are hugging.

Everyone claps and cheers, and I hear waves of “oohs!” and “ahhs!

She is covering her eyes while they hug with her free hand, because some student paparazzis are snapping away at the emotional and hugely anticlimactic moment for their WeChat and QQ logs. A couple asshole guys are shouting “KISS KISS KISS! 亲一个! 亲一个! 亲一个!”

The ritual is over. The couple walks to a quiet corner of the building to discuss their budding romance in private. The crowd scatters, as curfew is coming up in a few minutes. I turn off the Craig David breakup song and put my speaker away, satisfied that I finally witnessed the very public formation of a new relationship.Fullscreen capture 3262018 53549 PM.bmp

I’m deeply relieved for this guy, but at the same time feel even more terrible that girls at our campus feel obligated to take part in these dramatic ceremonies (What if she hates the guy? What if she never met him and has no idea who he is? What if she was actually sick and had diarrhea all day? Should she still rush downstairs so the guy doesn’t risk plunging himself into the Yellow River out of loss of pride?)


My short trip to Xiamen (pronounced Shaman, like the chanting, spiritual witchdoctor) left me recharged and deeply relaxed. Xiamen is one of the most comfortable major cities in China- the city is mainly comprised of a large island off the Fujian coast. In the 1980s it was one of four SEZ (Special economic zone) that led China toward modernization and economic prosperity.5ef46560533e48c0acc5bfa5.jpg

That being said it is neither overdeveloped nor inhumanely capitalist in feeling, which is the dreary reality and fate for many of other China’s mega cities and early SEZs. The population sits at 3.5 million; there are numerous parks, the skies are blue, and the coastal breeze is much appreciated.Fullscreen capture 3162018 70148 PM.bmp.jpg

The name Xiamen means “doors to the mansion”- after losing the Opium Wars, Xiamen became an entrance point for European powers to conduct their business and governance in China. The tiny Gulangyu Island is a short ferry-ride away, and it is here that the Westerners built their consulates and homes. Fullscreen capture 3162018 94103 PM.bmp.jpgMany of the buildings are still standing today – although in various stages of decay – and their terracotta roofs still paint a magnificent picture of what the island looked like a century ago.   Fullscreen capture 3162018 70158 PM.bmp

The tourist ferry port to go Gulangyu was even busier than some train stations and airports I have been to in China- expect long lines, and bring your passport as always! I got into a screaming match with a couple who definitely cut me in line, (I parroted off some propaganda I see regularly about traveling with class 文明旅行!!! 听过没?”, which in retrospect is an un-classy thing to say to a stranger ) but two minutes later I was over it and completely #unbothered since we would be stuck on the same ferry anyway.Fullscreen capture 3162018 70204 PM.bmp

One of the best local dishes here is an inexpensive bowl of 沙茶面 (Satay Noodles). The broth is rich with south-east Asian spices and there’s always the option to add an egg and some mish-mash meat rolls for more flavor.Fullscreen capture 3162018 70638 PM.bmp

I also found a small restaurant serving handmade vegetarian dumplings and noodles, where the dough for the noodles was being kneaded on one end of the table, and the patrons sat at the other end eating the finished product. An intimate and comfortable experience, though I was nervous for the little boy (the owner’s son, I assume) whose fingers were constantly in the vicinity of the fast moving knives.Fullscreen capture 3162018 70630 PM.bmp

Xiamen gets an A+ for urban planning. A wide pedestrian/ biking boulevard surrounds much of the perimeter of the island, so traveling from district to district became a pleasant and scenic experience. A pair of highways have been built out over the ocean, which makes for some dramatic night photography.Fullscreen capture 3162018 70217 PM.bmp

The coolest neighborhood in Xiamen is Shapowei (沙坡尾)made up of low-rise buildings from the early 20th century. Most storefronts have been converted into cafes and specialty restaurants, and I spent several evenings here wandering around, stopping for the occasional snack and drink.Fullscreen capture 3162018 65956 PM.bmp

I wonder what Xiamen will look like a decade from now – if its urban population will double, if the island will drown under thousands of new high rises, if traffic will snarl the heart of the city… but hopefully the city can retain its coastal cool, and hold tight its history as the doors to China.