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Some condemn immigrants; many benefit from them

28 Nov

dim-sum-garden2

As a twist to what is current, I’m writing positively about immigrants.

 

Whether we acknowledge it or not, newcomers have always played a role in improving American’s special brand of capitalism. A recent innovation I stumbled upon involved food, a truck and a series of parking lots around the Philadelphia suburbs.

 

The participating entrepreneurs are Chinese and the heart of the operation is

a Chinese app called We Chat. This single app, available in English and Chinese, is something like Facebook but has been built out so it is many apps in one. It is used by millions of Chinese people around the world to do things for which Americans use multiple apps. Now it is being used to find and organizing markets for products.

 

Business people from Philadelphia’s Chinatown section use it to sell food products to people in the suburbs who might not want to drive into Chinatown. There are a number of groups doing this.  I’m not sure how many, but I know one sells just mushrooms, one vegetables, and one food from Xian province.

 

The seller I did business with was selling frozen dim sum products. They buy from wholesalers and sell in bulk, mostly on the weekends.

 

As the weekend approaches, We Chat is used to tell buyers what products are available in the upcoming delivery. Most important, they are informed of the the times the food truck will arrive and depart from each parking lot on the delivery circuit.

 

The customer orders using a phone and is given an order number.

 

The closest stop to my house is about 20 minutes away, and the truck would be there Sunday from 10:20 a.m. to 10:50 a.m. It’s a small window because the truck has to move on to the next lot and new customers, like a bus on a schedule. I arrived around 10:15, and saw an unmarked truck at the far end of the lot, away from a large shopping center. That was it.

 

The back of the truck was open and loaded with boxes labeled with numbers. There was a man inside.

 

On the ground was a woman with a clipboard.

 

“I’m number 56,” I told her.

 

shanghai-house-xiao-long-bao

I had ordered two 5-pound bags of something called Shanghai Xioa Rong Boa. In English they are called soup dumplings. These dumpling have become a big hit in several newer restaurants in Chinatown.

 

Not long ago, Chinatown in Philadelphia was a tired, weary, unexciting place. The restaurants were dirty and the menus hadn’t changed in years. Most, I believe, were owned by long-established Cantonese. Now, after a whole different wave of Chinese immigration, there is a new breed of entrepreneurs in Chinatown. They have opened stylish eateries with fresh, fun, unusual offerings. Some are inexpensive and have attracted large numbers of urban hipsters.

 

As a result of this renaissance, soup dumplings are found all over Chinatown. They come in several varieties. To properly enjoy them, you have to master the technique of eating them.

 

The soup dumpling exterior skin is made from dough. Inside is the filling, usually meat and soup. If you eat them wrong, you risk scolding your tongue on the hot soup, or exploding the dumpling and having soup cascade onto the table and your clothes.

 

One way to eat them is to use a Chinse soup spoon. Put the dumpling on the spoon and take a small, gentle bite of the skin. Let some of the hot soup leak out onto the spoon, where it can cool. In addition to cooling, this releases the pressure and prevents an explosion. Sip the cooled soup then, after a moment, bite fully into the dumpling or put the whole thing in your mouth.

 

At Dim Sum Garden on Race Street you can get an order of eight pork soup dumplings for $6.25. These are fresh, not frozen. You can even watch them being made. At the truck, a bag of 100 frozen dumplings is $20.

 

“Only two bags?” the woman outside the truck asked.

 

“Yes, just two.”

 

The man inside put my order in a plastic bag. From the looks of things, all the other orders were in larger boxes.

 

“And, I heard you get a free drink,” I said.

 

The man in the truck put a can of Sacred Lotus Leaf Herbal Tea in my bag. As required, I paid in cash.

 

The tea was from Fujian province in China but the frozen dumplings came from a factory in the Maspeth section of Queens, right near Brooklyn. The commercial neighborhood was established in the 17th century by Dutch and English settlers. I guess immigrants continue to operate strongly there. In fact, Queens – the home of President-elect Donald Trump – may be the most diverse town in all of America, maybe the planet.

queens

“There are 1 million immigrants and a mix that is perhaps unprecedented in this borough’s history,” said Joseph Salvo,  a demographer with the city Planning Department.

 

He said the population is almost equally divided among Asian and Hispanic groups from countries such as China, Guyana, Ecuador, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, India and Korea.

 

Either way, someone there in Maspeth was working a job that helped bring soup dumplings to my table, and people closer to my home have come up with a great and inventive alternative to food shopping in the city.

 

The whole thing seems pretty good, and my thanks go out to the immigrants – or sons and daughters of immigrants – whose hard work and clever approach made it happen. They were attracted to the U.S. because of our system. They learned it, and grew it, and allowed many to benefit from it.

 

Bon appetit! Or maybe I should say, hen hao chi!

 

Lanny Morgnanesi

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Something I recently learned

3 Mar

Chinese-students

The reason Chinese students have the highest test scores in the world is because they cheat.

If that is not entirely true, it is at least partially true.

In the U.S., Asian and Asian-American students appear to work harder than their Caucasian classmates. Anyone who has observed this can easily believe the reports of China’s international dominance in reading, science and math. Test results say students from Shanghai lead the world, with the U.S. as a whole coming in 29th.

Why is it then that Americans always win an unusually high number of Nobel Prizes while the Chinese win very few?

Well, maybe we’ve rigged that system – which is something the Chinese seem to have done with the system of international test scores.

Book-Afraid of the DragonA new book has put a spotlight on the weaknesses of the Chinese education system and exposed fraud and cheating. It was written by Yong Zhao and is entitled, “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon? Why China Has the Best (and Worst) Education System in the World.” A full discussion of the book can be found in a Nov. 20 article by Diane Ravitch in the New York Review of Books. (subscription required)

Here are three items plucked from the review:

  • It is not uncommon for Chinese test takers to use wireless cheating devices.
  • Sometimes the students just buy the test answers on the open market.
  • When there was a rare crackdown on cheating in Hubei Province, a riot broke out. Two thousand people reportedly smashed cars and chanted, “We want fairness. There is no fairness if you do not let us cheat.”

This is not to deny that there is incredible test preparation in China. One famous test-prep school starts at 6:30 a.m., finishes at 10:30 p.m. and gives homework. But do these students actually learn anything? There is increasing legitimacy, in both America and China, in the argument that teaching to the test does not a genius make.

In the final analysis, creativity and innovation are sacrificed.

PISA-test-scoresZhao points out that the Chinese invented the compass but instead of using it to navigate the globe, they used it to find locations and burial sites with good fengshui. He said China – which had no Renaissance, no Enlightenment and no Industrial Revolution — was the first with gunpowder but never used it for modern weaponry.

Then there is this business of the Nobel Prize. A quick search of the Internet shows the Chinese have won six while the U.S. has won 353.

In his book, Zhao quotes a professor at Beijing University who says that since 1949 there has not been a single Nobel laureate among the 1 billion people educated in mainline China:

“No one, after 12 years of Chinese education, has any chance to receive a Nobel prize, even if he or she went to Harvard, Yale, Oxford or Cambridge for college. . . . This forcefully testifies [to] the power of education in destroying creativity on behalf of the [Chinese] society.”

It’s been said that Zhao wrote his book to convince the U.S. not to discard an education system that emphasizes fresh ideas and the spirit of individualism. It’s for certain he doesn’t want us to be suckered in by reports of China’s high test scores.

Standardized tests and teaching to those test is a growing America practice due to current government policy, but Zhao and Ravitch warn:

If the West is concerned about being overtaken by China, then the best solution is to avoid becoming China.

 

My own opinion is that the Chinese are a lot smarter than Zhao lets on. For one, I think Chinese mariners of old did a lot more global navigation than his statements suggest. And with respect to gunpowder, in some circles China might be considered highly moral and civilized for preferring firecrackers over canons.

I’ve been amazed by both the ancient and the modern Chinese mind. Its effectiveness should never be underestimated or said to lack creativity. If the American mind has dulled – and there really is no evidence of that – it is because it has become too comfortable. Fortunately, the Chinese economic miracle has given it some discomfort.

If it is napping, it will surely wake, and soon.

By Lanny Morgnanesi

Let me tell you a story about a man, a horse and a joke

5 Apr

The jokes of a people tell you much about the people.

A little hobby of mine is to learn of and listen to the jokes of foreign cultures. I’m proud to say that with patience, an open mind and an attention to the nuances of language, I’ve been able to laugh alongside many a hysterical foreigner.

In so many cases, it’s really about the language, which because it is not English can be used in ways that English cannot.

Chinese, for example, has so many sound-alike words that there is an entire genre of Chinese comedy called Cross Talk, where Abbott and Costello-like characters stand on stage and grossly misunderstand each other. These bits are much like “Who’s On First.”

This week, large numbers of Chinese people are cracking up not over misunderstood language but over a short video. It is of a man getting brutally kicked in the head by a horse. The humor is not in that brutality but in a message conveyed by the kick – a message that has nothing to do with animals.

Here’s the background.

In China, there is a popular idiom that translates literally to: “Pat the horse’s ass.”

When someone pats the horse’s ass, they are sucking up to the boss or flattering people to get ahead. We use the similar expression, “kissing ass” or “brown nosing.”

While many Chinese have benefited from patting the horse’s ass, there is a danger to the practice if it is too transparent. It can backfire. Most Chinese who watch their sycophantic colleague advance would prefer that they fail. No one likes as ass kisser.

In the video widely circulating among Chinese, the victim, prior to being kicked so hard and so directly, walks across the street and actually pats the horse’s ass.

The payoff for doing so is pretty damn clear.

And that’s why it is so funny to this culture that relies heavily on metaphor and symbolism. The humor is achieved without a single word.

All right now Mister and Misses America — DO YOU GET IT?

Lanny Morgnanesi

Communist is jealous of former Communist

3 Jul

Putin-Xi Jinping

Xi Jinping, the president of China, visited Moscow in March for talks with Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia. Xi is a Communist. Putin used to be one. Still, the non-Communist impressed the still-Communist with all the things his country is doing for its people.

Back home, Xi told the Chinese how impressed he was with Russia’s ability to care for its citizens. In the U.S. we call this welfare, food stamps, handouts and the dole. Those who don’t get it resent government for giving it. But Xi thought it was noble and Putin said any government that denies its people the basic components of life has no heart. Worse, he said, doing so creates stress, anxiety, dissatisfaction, crime and turns people into animals.

Xi seemed concerned that China has not done quite as well as Russia. He told his people that Russia provides five guarantees:

  1. Free housing.
  2. Free medical care (but not medicine).
  3. Free education (including one meal a day).
  4. Free public water.
  5. Government review and approval before any company can layoff off a worker.

Putin, a tough old bastard who was a lieutenant colonel in the KGB, sees this as civilized and helpful in building the economy and keeping people happy and productive.

Would you be happier and more productive with these things? Or would you hate yourself and your government?

I always thought we didn’t have these things because the rich people had taken all the money. But in post-Communist Russia the rich people also have taken all the money.

So how do they do it?

Maybe by using what they saved from pulling out of Afghanistan.

I’ll end with a joke – a true story.

A former United States secretary of defense during the Cold War visited new Russia and was amazed.

“Everyone is rich,” he said. “They drive big cars, smoke big cigars, have money bulging out of their pockets. On their arms are beautiful women. It is just like Beverly Hills, except there are fewer Communists.”

By Lanny Morgnanesi

Watching the human condition from an airport waiting room: the toll of fate and time.

29 Jun

iraqi-refugeesHumanity struggles.

A good place to observe this is the international gate at Newark Liberty Airport. It is not a struggle for life and death, just life, and the simple routine of getting to where one must be.

Almost no one here resembles the highborn. Save for a few Japanese, all are dressed casually. They seem vulnerable, dependent on unseen forces disinclined to treat them well; at the mercy of an uncaring system.

Pale complexions are few. Most of those must be off somewhere else; perhaps in a special room that requires a card to enter. Out here, little English is heard, although most speak it. As bilinguals, this actually puts them above the cloistered monolinguals.

While there is struggle, there is no real suffering. Indeed, some smile. But the smiles cannot mask anxiety, impatience, fear of the unknown, crying babies that need to be fed, heavy belongs that need to be carried awkwardly from one place to another like a ball and chain.

Many are traveling for pleasure, but this doesn’t resemble pleasure.

But let me clarify.

The transit experience at Newark Liberty Airport is really not all that bad. While I have reported accurately and expressed true feelings, I was greatly influenced by what I was reading.

Such as: a story about 3 million Afghan refugees; a story about 1 million Syria refugees; the review of a book by R.M. Douglas called, “Orderly and Humane: The Expulsion of the Germans after the Second World War.”

Book cover -- Orderly and HumaneWith respect to the latter, as you might suspect, the forced relocation of 13 million German civilians from Central and Southern Europe was neither orderly nor humane. According to Douglas and history, it was much like the relocation of the Jews during the Holocaust – only this time the atrocities were committed by Americans. The Germans were transported in locked rail cars, kept in concentration camps and rarely fed.  Most were women and children. About 500,000 died.

So as I read I also watched. I saw people moving about uncomfortably, sullen, waiting, waiting and waiting. I thought of all those who risk everything – mostly life — trying desperately to get somewhere that is not worth going to. All in all, the United Nations estimated that in 2012 the world contained about 10.5 million refugees.

Then, in my boredom, I recalled an elderly Chinese woman I once knew. After World War II, she moved to America with her husband-scientist. Late in life, they bought a suburban house that was as large as some small hotels. It had a finished basement so grand that the couple used it as a ballroom.

At a dinner party, this woman casually told me how she left Shanghai on foot – with masses of others – after the Japanese invaded in the 1930s. She was headed many hundreds of miles away, toward Central China, where there were no Japanese. Along the way, it was not uncommon for the migrants to be bombed.

This woman, on the most treacherous journey of her life, may have retained some hope. But amidst war, hunger and death, she most certainly was not thinking how nice it would be to one day live in a $2.5 million house and invite people over to dance.

How powerful the effects of fate and time!

The people at Newark Liberty Airport, at least for now, aren’t going to die, or starve or be forced to live in tented refugee camps (although a few may already have done that). Even so, some, maybe even me, could experience it in the future. It takes only an atrocious natural disaster, an attack on critical infrastructure or a few super microbes that destroy either food or people.

We will all go a running.

How powerful the effects of fate and time.

I somehow see this, or fear this, as I observe a relatively small mass wend its way through a limited but wholly sufficient transportation network. Suppose that network was not sufficient?

Chinese city-ShenjenIn the very near future, over more than a decade, the world will witness a planned event that will be either a migratory miracle or a disaster of incredible proportions. It probably will be both. The Chinese, perhaps recalling other great shifts, plan to relocate 250 million people from the countryside into cities, many newly built for this purpose. This number exceeds the combined populations of all large cities in America. It is the equivalent of moving almost 80 percent of every person in the U.S.

The Chinese are accustomed to solving big problems with big solutions. The purpose of this one is to spur economic growth. Living in rural poverty, as so many Chinese do, adds little to the economic engine. In cities, these same people are expected to be better producers and consumers.

It’s a very bold plan.

Will it break hearts, souls and spirits?

Will it strip people of their heritage, culture, routines and roots?

Might it possibly create contentment, an unthought-of elevation in living standards?

Perhaps even an increase in ballroom dancing?

What it will do for sure it put people where they never expected to be.

How powerful the effects of fate and time.

Should I be in China during this epochal migration, I will try to keep off the main roads and certainly stay out of airports. They are simply too depressing.

By Lanny Morgnanesi

A land once overcrowded now builds cities for no one

9 Mar

 

Struggling to sell real estate. -- NEW YORK TIMES PHOTO

Struggling to sell real estate. — NEW YORK TIMES PHOTO

 

A Chinese casino dealer from Vancouver called about an investment. He said vacation homes in China’s tropical Hainan Island, off the southeast coast, were selling for 600,000 yuan or about $92,000. A friend of his bought 16.

China once had no room for its people. Dingy one-room apartments were the norm. That was 25 years ago. Today, there is housing galore. There is so much housing that many cities are completely empty.

Shiny, modern, architecturally splendid ghost towns.

They’ve been built for no one.

According to a report on CBS’s 60 Minutes, these empty new cities are being constructed at a rate of 20 or more a year.

The ghost towns – the name used for them by the Chinese – are not modest. They are grand, with rows of skyscrapers. Many resemble Manhattan.

Why are they being built?

They are being built because people like my friend and his friend are willing to buy them whether they are empty or not. People want to buy them because they see housing as a sure investment, with prices – because of massive speculation – going up and up and up, as if there will be no end to it.

To a smaller extent, this happened in the U.S. Remember? Homeowners all thought they were rich, or would be soon. A bubble was created, and it burst, causing the recession of 2008. The thought of easy money (the easier it looks the harder it hooks) causes people in both the West and the East to lose all reason. But how in God’s name can someone look upon an empty city, knowing that many other empty cities exist, and think real estate is a good investment?

How can developers get financing for these cities? How can an economy that not long ago could not feed its people sustain such ridiculous, irresponsible and wasteful practices? It strains my mental capacity to come up with answer.

But I feel confident of this: Soon there will be great hell to pay.

As the high price of wheat caused an Arab Spring, a drop in housing prices could cause revolt and even revolution in China. I see it as that serious. Average people have invested entire fortunes that will most certainly be lost. Chaos will follow, but it won’t bring back the money.

The Chinese government has tried to cool the housing market and stop the wild speculation. Recently, it said it would apply a 20 percent tax on the sale of investment homes. The New York Times photo at the top of this post shows people struggling to sell their properties after they learned of the new tax.  The Times also reported that couples are getting divorced as a way to skirt the tax and have two people claim residence in two houses.

Some China experts say crafty people will find ways to avoid the tax or the government will end up ignoring it.

So, the frenzied buying of homes is not likely to stop soon. It’s like a contagious disease. Even I would like to have a $92,000 vacation home on lovely Hainan Island if it will be worth $200,000 in a year or so. But if I can control myself and wait a little longer, I might be able to get it for $10,000 – or maybe two for 10.

In a country of 1.3 billion people, I’ll probably have the Hainan beach all to myself. A ghost beach is so much better than a ghost town.

By Lanny Morgnanesi

A Buddhist would have no trouble with this

17 Jan

Chinese labor camps

It could be argued that all experiences are good ones.

Philosophically, we could say that if God is good and great then all our burdens are worthwhile and purposeful. We can even learn to like what we hated.

Last week in a bar I told a story of one of the worse nights of my life. I told the story with verve, delight and nostalgia. I got laughs. I was glad to tell it; glad it happened; glad to learn from it. For the first time I realized I was glad to have this piece of film on my reel.

It is too personal to tell here, so I won’t. Its importance is not in the sharing but in reminding me that the misery of each moment carries within it a miraculous value.

It was more than the bar story that forced this revelation. There was also a news story about China. The report said China might dismantle its system of labor camps.

I have no idea what a modern Chinese labor camp is like, but I’m familiar with the tradition of locking up political prisoners and trying to “re-educate” them. I’ve known many people who were victimized by this system during the Cultural Revolution of the 1970s. Some were driven to suicide or to the brink of it.

During this period, all schools were shut and an entire generation of young people was sent to the countryside to labor on farms. Some were considered “red,” or part of the revolution. Others were labeled “black,” or counter-revolutionary. For them it was harsher. They were watched closely and always under suspicion.

While all worked together, the “blacks” were more like prisoners and the “reds” more like guards.

From a first-hand witness I heard a story of a young woman – a “black” – who was laboring in mud. To keep the dampness out of her cloth shoes she put in newspapers. When everyone returned to their rundown barracks, a “red” youth noticed the newspaper inside this woman’s shoe contained a picture of Mao Zedong.

For that show of disrespect she was beaten.

But like myself in the bar story, this was a time of youth. The times contained moments of ultimate value.  Lasting friendships (even between blacks and reds) were forged. These “sent-down” youth, in some respects were very free. They grew up and learned about themselves and others. There is joy in that.

Which is why many Chinese from that generation – those living both in China and in the United States – visit these former labor camps while on vacation. It’s a for-real trend, and they visit with fondness and to share old times with comrades. They take smiling photos of themselves standing near the squalor they thought would be a permanent part of their lives. (Modernization hasn’t changed everything.)

What they went through is far, far, far from my so-called worse night. Yet they have reacted as I did. Their moments carried something and will occupy a peaceful part of their memories.

I don’t claim to truly understand this, and the exceptions must be legion. Even so, there clearly is something to this idea that all experience is good. And so my new goal is not to wait 30 years for warm nostalgia but to live fully and happily in the present.

To accomplish that in even a small measure would be exquisite.

By Lanny Morgnanesi

 

 

 

 

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