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Archive for January, 2011

Walmart – And Food For Thought

Monday, January 31st, 2011

 

By:  Ellis Goodman

I admire Michelle Obama, the First Lady, who has focused on healthy eating and reducing childhood obesity since entering the White House.  The recent announcement by Walmart, the nation’s largest retailer of a 5-year-plan to make thousands of its packaged foods lower in unhealthy fats, sugars and salts and to reduce its prices on fruits and vegetables, was a welcome step in the right direction.  Furthermore, it appears that Walmart will be pressing its major food suppliers like Kraft to follow suit.

I believe that Walmart’s intentions are genuine and not just “green-wash,” but I also believe that they recognize the commercial value of their decision and the favorable publicity and public support that their actions will bring.  Maybe it also signals a recognition, that the public is demanding more healthy food and, indeed, locally grown organic fruits and vegetables, which will gradually move the U.S. toward the public’s demands in most European countries.   However unfortunately in the U.S., this will not be an easy task because, as always, our Congress and “special interests” are going to get in the way. 

For decades now, Congress has been providing massive subsidies to our corn and soy bean farmers.  Initially, this was designed to help family farmers survive and compete in the world by encouraging exports.  What has happened over the past couple of decades, however, is that the family farm is rapidly disappearing, to be replaced by massive multi-national corporate owners who efficiently farm vast acreage heavily saturated with pesticides or worse, genetically modified seeds.  These special interest subsidies have recently been compounded by additional help for ethanol producers, a highly inefficient but politically lucrative way of providing even more subsidies to these farmers.  The massive production of corn products has led to the introduction of corn syrups into virtually all our processed foods and many other products, which have become part of the U.S. staple diet.  While these subsidies and mass production has made processed foods, in particular, extremely price competitive, it has also been a major contributor to our health and obesity problems, as our population from an early age, gets “hooked” on sugary, sweet-tasting foods and beverages. 

At the other end of the scale, it is well known that our consumption of fruits and vegetables – a healthy diet – is far too low, particularly in lower-income areas.  People who live in those areas complain that fruits and vegetables are just too expensive; and, compared to the processed foods and sugary drinks that are available, that is true.  Unfortunately, Congress does not provide any subsidies or financial help to fruit and vegetable farmers.  As a result, U.S. costs are not particularly competitive and, thus we are a major importer of pesticide infected and preserved, fruits and vegetables from other countries, particularly Mexico and Central America.

If Michelle Obama and Walmart want to make a much stronger impact on children’s health and obesity in this country, their focus should now be to reduce incentives to our corn and soybean farmers, and focus on helping our fruit and vegetable (particularly local organic) farmers so as they can provide healthy produce for all U.S. citizens.  We can only live in hope.

Ellis M. Goodman, author of Bear Any Burden: www.bearanyburden.com

Reading Mo Yan

Friday, January 28th, 2011

By Jian Ping

I watched the film Red Sorghum, written by Mo Yan and directed by Zhang Yimo, years ago. I loved the presentation of the down-to-earth, yet heroic life of the peasants. But I never read the book.

Recently, at the suggestion of a friend, I obtained the English translation of Mo Yan’s  novel Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out (生死疲劳). With three other books I was reading simultaneously, I was thinking to cover two or three chapters a day, at the most.

But I was mesmerized and ended up finishing reading it in less than a week. The narrative Mo Yan chose was unique—the reincarnation of a landlord, Ximen Nao, who was executed at close range during China’s land reform. He came back first as a donkey, then a ox, a pig and a monkey, before being elevated to a human again. The story covered nearly half a century of China’s recent

Mo Yan 莫言

 

history. Without getting into the nuts and bolts of the political movements, Mo Yan vividly presented the impacts of these movements on people and their lives, from devoted participants, opportunists, to those who dared to resist and those who just wanted to get along with their lives. No matter what position one held in the social hierarchy, nobody’s life was spared of the political and social waves. This is not a novel—it’s a powerful social critique, conducted with more realism via the eyes of animals than that of human beings. It’s an outcry that touches the heart to the core and creates chills, especially on someone like me who lived and witnessed some of the episodes, albeit in a different setting.

The translation by Howard Goldblatt is wonderfully done. For those who are interested in recent Chinese history and literature, this is a must read!

Jian Ping, author Mulberry Child: A Memoir of China. For more information, visit www.mulberrychild.com, www.moraquest.com

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President Hu’s Welcome Dinner in Chicago

Friday, January 21st, 2011

By Jian Ping

Supporters across the street from Hilton

Last night, China’s President Hu and his delegation attended a welcome dinner hosted by Chicago Mayor Richard Daley. My daughter Lisa and I, along with 15 or so bi-lingual people, mostly members of Chicago Sister Cities International, provided help to the event at the request of the Mayor’s Office.

It was the first visit by China’s President and Mayor Daley stated it as a “big, big, big, big deal!”

President Hu gave his speech (I took the photo from a distance without using flash!)

I had the privilege to greet people at the entrance with a few others working at the event and saw the VIPs of Chicago arrive. I could see through the revolving entrance door that a large group of people standing behind the metal bars across Michigan Ave. were waving Chinese national flags, and a long “dragon” was dancing back and forth vigoriously, accompanied by drums, all in the bitter cold. I chatted with Yi, a Ph. D student from Purdue who carried a large camera, trying to capture President Hu entering the hotel. He said he came with 162 students from the University to extend their welcome to President Hu.

A policeman came in the lobby, his face flushed red from the cold.

“Could you tell me how to say ‘move on’ in Chinese?” he asked.

Lisa and I posing by the welcome banner

Qing Zhou Kai,” I said. He repeated several times until he got the pronounciation right. I watched him walk out, still saying the phrase aloud.

Shortly after 7 P.M., Mayor Daley accompanied President Hu to the Grand Ballroom where more than 500 guests gave them a standing welcome ovation. Daley gave a welcome speech in which he declared he wanted Chicago to be the friendliest city in the U.S. to Chinese companies, investments, and visitors. Hu gave a very upbeat talk as well, emphasizing bilateral relation, increased trade—both imports and exports, and mutual understanding between China and the U.S.

It turned out to be a very exciting evening and I’m glad I was there to witness and support it.  I’m so glad that today’s China is a world away from the China I grew up in.

Jian Ping, author of Mulberry Child: A Memoir of China. Visit www.mulberrychild.com, and moraquest.com.

Mulberry Child is being developed into a feature-length documentary film by award-winning director Susan Morgan Cooper and will be released in 2011.

Education and The Chinese Mother

Thursday, January 20th, 2011
School Children

Image by yewenyi via Flickr

By Ellis Goodman

The recent Wall Street Journal essay “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior,” has prompted a rash of comment and controversy.  The article and its aftermath of course provide excellent PR for the new book by Amy Chua.  The essay highlights the intense pressure and discipline which Chinese parents bring to bear on their children to achieve academic, musical or athletic excellence.  Some of these pressures have clearly had negative effects, from terrible suicides to various levels of depression and other problems.  So, one must conclude that extreme methods in parenting can have substantial adverse effects.   Nevertheless, there has to be a happy medium.  Chinese American students dramatically outperform all other US educated children, and their careers and lifestyles reap the benefits.  Perhaps high expectations, coupled with freedom of expression, may provide some of the answers for our children’s future success.

We know that the US education system is failing, but we must also recognize the generational changes that take place. I was born in England before the Second World War and grew up in an environment where discipline and good behavior were expected.  Although my father and mother loved me, they were not hugging parents.  My father’s greeting was to shake hands with me.  I was expected to be “seen but not heard” when there was company around.  At my various schools, we had strict discipline, and we were all terrified of the teachers and the threat of caning or other punishments, or expulsion for bad behavior or poor performance.  These circumstances were the norm. 

What has changed in today’s world, is that the parents of the Millennial generation (called “helicopter parents” because they hover over their children), follow the daily performance at school, either through direct communication with their children’s teachers or online.  Teachers today are not allowed to enforce strict discipline.  They have to be politically correct; and in addition to dealing with irate complaining parents, they are in some cases even physically threatened by their students.  How do we get out of this mess, and how are we going to compete in the world with so inadequately prepared students?

In a recent global survey, US students were ranked between eighteenth and twenty-fourth in the developed world. Children in China led the way in math, sciences, and other subjects. 

If the US is going to be able to compete with the best educated children in the world, we have a number of issues that clearly need to be addressed:  These include the following:

1.     A much higher standard of better qualified teachers with pay and tax benefits to match.  In China, teachers are revered, paid well, and receive much respect from the community.  In the US, our sometimes poorly qualified and poorly-paid teachers receive little respect.  There are those who say the problem lies with the teachers’ union.  There well may be some restrictive practices that need to be addressed, but in a society where educators earn a fraction of derivative or hedge fund traders, something is clearly wrong.

2.     Our education curriculum needs to be changed.  In European countries, children will learn a foreign language from the 3rd grade though the 12th.  In the US, students will take French or Spanish for two years.  They can’t possibly learn a language that quickly. Similar comments apply to history, geography, and other subjects.  As a result, our students are often frighteningly ignorant of our world.

3.      China, Japan and most European countries have an additional twenty to thirty days schooling per annum more than US schools.  We need to shorten our summer vacation period.  It makes no sense for students to have a summer vacation that lasts from mid-May until the end of August.  A lot of younger students will forget what they learned, and it takes weeks of revision to get them back on course when the school year finally begins.  The original reason for the long summer vacation was that one hundred years ago students were able to help their agriculturally-employed parents with the harvest and other farm work in the height of the summer.  This does not apply in today’s world.

4.     US schools spend substantially more time and money on sports and sports facilities than other countries.  High schools often have hundreds of millions of dollars invested in sports arenas, swimming pools, and gyms. This is unheard of in European and Asian schools.  Of course sports are a healthy and a necessary part of the curriculum, but the outlandish expenditures in the US could be better employed in additional and better educational facilities and educators.

 5.     For the most part in the US, education is a local responsibility paid for by local property taxes.  This inevitably means that, if you live in a poorer area, you will have a poorer school, poorer facilities, and poorer educators.  In most other countries, education is a federal responsibly with a national curriculum. We need to rethink and reform our whole system.

So to provide the educational quality that will be required for the US to compete in the 21st Century, these and other issues will have to be tackled. Our politicians point out this is a wake-up call, but who is going to have the courage to take the necessary steps to put things right?  The question is whether our legislators and leaders have the will or the interest to do what is necessary when they are so busy catering to special interests that will provide funding for their next re-election.

Ellis M. Goodman, author of Bear Any Burden: www.bearanyburden.com

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The Fighting Spirit

Wednesday, January 19th, 2011

By Jian Ping

Zahlavova celebrating the first set win again Venus Williams

I stayed up late last night to watch the tennis match between Venus Williams and Sandra Zahlavova and Fernando Verdasco vs. Janko Tipsarevic on ESPN. I found the fighting spirit—the desire to win and the persistence to fight despite setbacks—inspiring and touching.

Tipsarevic, an unseeded player, overwhelmed Verdasco, seeded number 9 and won the first two sets. But Verdasco managed to stay in the game and on the fourth set, survived three match points to play the tiebreaker. The last few points he won, or rather the way he played, with courage and strength, was simply beautiful. Meanwhile, in another court, Zahlavova, ranked number 97, played Williams, ranked number 4, with vigor and energy. She won the first set like a fireball. I was mesmerized by her eagerness and determination.

In the end, Verdasco made his miraculous comeback and won the match, while Williams, despite the pull of a muscle on her upper thigh, managed to beat Zahlavova.

I applauded to all four of them for the fighting spirit and sportsmanship they demonstrated. There is only one winner in the scorecard for each match, but for me, watching each of their powerful servings, each run across the court, and each hit for a return, I eagerly gave them my applause and deemed them all winners with great fighting spirit!

Jian Ping, author of Mulberry Child: A Memoir of China. Visit www.mulberrychild.com, www.moraquest.com for more information.

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Parenting

Tuesday, January 18th, 2011

By Jian Ping

Amy Chua’s recent Wall Street Journal article “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior” created a lot of controversy. The day it appeared in the paper, I received two emails from my Chinese friends, with one telling me his son called Chua “a monster,” and the other, a mother, saying she was enraged that Chua calling her “extreme disciplines and demands” in bringing up her children the “Chinese way.”

“Where is the feeling of love?” my friend asked.

I was also astonished, despite my understanding to a certain extend. Many Chinese parents are strict with their children and push them hard to realize the parents’ high expectations. I must say I was no exception. However, even I found Chua’s behavior disconcerting.  

There are traditions in different cultures when it comes to educate the young. In the Chinese culture, since our ancient sage Confucius’ time, education has been highly valued and emphasized. But the education was not just academic studies—it has always included the components of self cultivation—including virtues, morals, love, and respect.

“I grew up in China,” my girlfriend Jing said. “My mother never pushed me in my studies when I was young. If anything, she was always worried that too much study would ruin my eye sight. She kept reminding me to take breaks.”

Another Chinese, a father in this case, made the comment to me: “She (Chua) is making a more stereotypical comparison between Chinese and Western parenting. In my opinion, the goal of parenting is not to produce winners—there can only be so many winners, but to nurture individuals who are contributors to society and live a happy life while doing it.”

These are views of Chinese parents, too. More balanced, in my opinion.

Parenting is a complicated task to which there is no preparation. It is a privilege, a blessing, and a challenge. No matter a Westerner or an Asian, we all cherish aspirations for our children. The key is to learn parenting in a way that is loving and nurturing.

Jian Ping, author of Mulberry Child: A Memoir of China. Visit www.mulberrychild.com, www.moraquest.com for more information. Mulberry Child is being developed into a feature-length documentary film by award-winning director Susan Morgan Cooper and will be released in 2011.

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Staffless Stores

Monday, January 17th, 2011
Sports Authority

Image via Wikipedia

 

By Ellis Goodman

I’m not really a great shopper.  But like most men, when I do shop I know what I want. I get into the store and out quickly.  I am certainly not one to browse though the Malls.  However of course, I do my share of Christmas buying and receive my share of gifts.

Before Christmas when shopping for presents, the stores that I visited were not only packed with shoppers, but also with eager assistants ready to help me make my purchases.  As is very common, I received a couple of gifts that I decided were not for me and needed to be exchanged.  So, I went to Sports Authority and Macy’s for that purpose. 

I walked in about noon on a Tuesday to my local Sports Authority store.  The total area of the store must have been at least 20,000 SF; and, as I wandered around this vast cavern to find the relevant area to exchange some sweat pants, I searched in vain for an assistant to help.  In fact, I walked around the total store and apart from a bicycle tech man working away in his own area, there was not one assistant in sight.  Eventually, I went to the two check-out clerks and asked if anyone could help me.  They assured me there should be assistants on the floor, but there were none.  As I was about to give up and in fact was just leaving the store with my purchase still un-exchanged, I suddenly saw two or three sales assistants who appeared from the back of the store – perhaps from their lunch hour.

With the help of one of them, I was able to affect my desired exchange.  And, after going through the usual rigmarole at the check-out counter, issuing a credit for my original purchase and buying the new item, I was able to successfully complete my mission.

Two days later, I had a similar experience at Macys, where I was returning a gift for my wife.  The housewares department, which was again at least 20,000 SF, had two customer service signs hanging over empty desks and not an assistant in sight.  After five minutes or so of wandering around aimlessly lugging a very heavy coffee maker, I saw an assistant helping a customer.  I quickly made my way towards her and sheepishly stood there looking into space while she continued to work with this customer for another five minutes or so.  I then followed them back to the customer service area where they completed a purchase, and I was next in line for this one rare assistant – my savior of the day.

She was very courteous, but when I asked why there was so little help on the floor, she informed me there had been wholesale staff cutbacks after the Christmas period, and that she only had one other assistant to cover the whole of her department.

I can see why online sales are becoming more popular, because the struggle of finding knowledgeable help in the store of your choice is becoming more difficult.  Of course online sales do not help the economy as much.  We need “bricks and mortar” stores not only to enjoy the shopping experience, but also to provide employment.  If the Macy’s assistant’s comments about staff cutbacks are repeated through the retail trade, we will probably see an increase of unemployment figures in January. 

It is sad but true that, in these difficult economic times, retailers are cutting their staff costs to a bone in order to keep their prices under control.  But inflation is in the air and this does not bode well for the future of the economy or employment.

 

Ellis M. Goodman, Author of Bear Any Burden: www.bearanyburden.com

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Echoes of the Past—Exhibition on Xiangtangshan Caves at the Smart Museum

Tuesday, January 11th, 2011

by Jian Ping

Altar in a Xiangtangshan Cave (image by Dan Downing)

I had intended to visit the “Echoes of the Past” exhibition since its opening in September last year, but my two international trips, the holiday season, and the catching up with piles of neglected work after all the fun prevented me from going. Finally, I stopped by last Saturday, before it closes on January 16!

I’m so glad I did! The thirteen fragments of Buddha, bodhisattvas, and animal figures from the Xiangtangshan Caves were phenomenal. They were carved out of limestone in the Northern Qi Dynasty in the 6th century. Either in free-standing locations or as part of a recreated altar where a 3-ft tall Buddha head, two bodhisattvas heads, and two large hands were set up, they generated a feeling of serenity. These pieces came from various museums in two continents. As I read the details, both at the Museum and from the websites of the Smart Museum (http://smartmuseum.uchicago.edu/exhibitions/echoes-of-the-past/) and the Center for the Art of East Asia (http://xts.uchicago.edu/) at the University of Chicago where a research project on the Caves had been going on since 2004, I gained a better understanding of the significance of these objects—they were looted from the sites since about 1910 and were sold at the world art market. Today, fragments of the sculptures from Xingtangshan are found in Britain, Sweden, Canada, Japan and the United States. In her research, Dr. Katherine Tsiang, Associate Director at the Center, took photos of more than 100 objects located around the world. These photos are easily accessible online or from the computers and kioks set up at the Museum.

The "Digital Cave" at the Exhibition (image by Jason Salavon)

An unique feature about this exhibition is the use of digital imaging, including 3-D scanning. Three wall-sized screens project images and settings of a cave and a series of montage make you sense a “virtual” or at times, real immersive experience on being in the cave. Richard Born, Senior Curator at the Museum, will give a closing tour at 2 p.m. on Sunday, January 16. Go for a visit or join the tour before it moves to Washington D.C. I bet you won’t be disappointed.

Jian Ping, author of Mulberry Child: A Memoir of China. Visit www.mulberrychild.com, www.moraquest.com for more information. Mulberry Child is being developed into a feature-length documentary film by award-winning director Susan Morgan Cooper and will be released in 2011.

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Sex, Movies, and Women’s Tears

Saturday, January 8th, 2011

by Nancy Werking Poling

author of Had Eve Come First and Jonah Been a Woman

and Out of the Pumpkin Shell

She’s in tears. She’s just learned that her child has been kidnapped by a psychopath; her parents have been in a serious automobile accident and are in an intensive care unit in Ethiopia; her best friend has died in an avalanche while skiing. In sympathy he pulls her close. The next scene shows them in bed, the sheet pulled up to hide all but their bare shoulders.

I’ve long suspected such scenes in movies and on TV are men’s fantasies. Do they really think that sex helps a woman deal with her grief? Why haven’t actresses, tears running down their cheeks as they played these roles, not put their hand in front of the camera lens and advised the director, “Sex is not what a woman needs in this situation.” But then, their economic survival depends on compliance.

Reading yesterday’s New York Times (“In Women’s Tears, a Chemical That Says, ‘Not Tonight, Dear,’” Jan. 7, 2011) I discovered I may be on to something. “In several experiments, researchers found that men who sniffed drops of women’s emotional tears became less sexually aroused than when they sniffed a neutral saline solution that had been dribbled down women’s cheeks.” In the experiments male subjects didn’t know the women whose tears they were sniffing, so it wasn’t empathy that caused their testosterone to drop.

Leaving me to wonder why script writers, presumably men, would prescribe sex as a salve for a woman’s grief. (I want to believe, perhaps mistakenly, that women writers wouldn’t do this.) There are, of course, many explanations, sociological and psychological in nature, which I’m not qualified to expound on, but I’m pretty sure of this: men who truly care do not take advantage of a woman dealing with tragedy. Neither do I believe that a woman who’s just learned that her son committed suicide would at that moment crave sex.

But, hey, writing a movie/TV script is entertaining a fantasy. A male fantasy, obviously, in which a vulnerable woman needs a man’s body more than anything.

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