“What did I just sign?”: On informed consent in China

My husband John had done everything the Human Subjects Committee asked. He reviewed the study with his departmental ethics representative, completed online training on human subjects, and, most importantly, created clear consent forms for his study, with this vital clause:

Right to Withdraw: Your participation in this study is completely voluntary. You have the right to withdraw from this study at any time, without penalty.

Prospective subjects would read the consent form and, if interested in participating, sign their name and then complete the questionnaire. The consent form listed the contact information for all researchers, including John, so they could contact them with any questions — by phone or e-mail.

Additionally, the consent form said the following:

We will conduct several 30-60 minute focus groups. The American treatment program will be discussed and the participants will be asked to comment on the program. If you are interested in being contacted about participating in the focus group, check here_______, and provide us with a means of contact:
phone__________________ email________________________ cell phone_________________

After John went to China, he distributed his consent forms — with the questionnaires — to parents of young children via a school teacher. To John’s surprise, out of 150 returned questionnaires, around 90 participants volunteered to participate in focus groups. We were thrilled — but surprised at the same time. Most studies in the US, including psychological studies like my husband’s, have difficulty recruiting participants, especially for discussion groups. Why was it so easy in China?

But when John called one of the focus group volunteers, something seemed wrong. Continue reading ““What did I just sign?”: On informed consent in China”

“Do you believe in God?”: How religion surprised me in Zhengzhou, China

This post is a remembrance of my experiences with religion during my first year in China — 1999 — when I taught English in Zhengzhou.

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It was an early week in September, just as China’s Autumn Tiger — the fierce summer heat that claws its way into September — was in full force when a college-age Chinese girl with a ponytail approached me on the streets of Zhengzhou. I had been looking for the Indian restaurant in town with my friends, and had fallen behind when this girl stepped out of a group of young people and spoke English to me.

“Hello! Are you a Christian?” the girl blurted out as naturally as if she was asking how my day was.

She had hit me with the 64,000 yuan question — religion. Continue reading ““Do you believe in God?”: How religion surprised me in Zhengzhou, China”

China, reflected in Ken Burns’ “National Parks” documentary

About a month ago, I started watching Ken Burns’ documentary on the National Parks. And what I saw surprised me: China.
Blatant commercialism of the parks in the 19th century — from Niagara Falls to Yellowstone — echoed my experiences in Yellow Mountain, as well as non-natural sites such as Shaolin Temple and Lijiang.
The Hetch Hetchy Valley was dammed and sacrificed for drinking water for San Francisco, just as the Three Gorges — and the surrounding cultural heritage and towns — have lost out to China’s power demands.
The Native Americans, who were paid to star in a Native American version of “minstrel shows” at Glacier National Park, reflected today’s Chinese minorities (or those dressed up to resemble them) performing minority dances and rituals for paying Chinese tourists.
A toll booth that used to stand at the head of the Grand Canyon’s famous Bright Angel trail reminded me of “hidden fees” charged by parks such as Wulingyuan.
And the US railroad’s once-monopoly of Yellowstone — where expensive hotels, water, and dinners of common canned food were the norm — recalled my journey to Yellow Mountain’s summit, where only memorable part to the hotels and food was the high price.
When it comes to tourism, and the natural world, today’s China has a lot in common with the early history of the US parks system. Like the US then, China’s parks and historical sites are in a “wild wild west” era where decisions about China’s parks are left to local management or government — which often put profits before preservation.
Is it different in today’s China? In some ways, yes. The old hotels and barracks left behind by, say, James Mason Hutchings in the Yosemite Valley, would probably have less of an impact on the land. Compare that to an elevator built into one of Wulingyuan’s delicate sandstone pillars. These may be removed, eventually, but have they already left a scar?
At the same, China has changed so fast — faster than the timeline of the US — as it played catchup with the rest of the world. Yet, natural areas are slow to heal and revive; you can’t just commission a developer to erect a forest within a year, or clean a river.
And then there’s the tricky question of politics. In the US, environmental activists, such as John Muir, helped shape and direct the parks. Though China has a stronger environmental movement, activists do still end up, wrongfully, in prison.
On the other hand, China has something we didn’t: history, such as what’s in Burns’ documentary. They can learn from the national parks of the past. They can discover what was done right — and wrong — and do better.
While “better” is still only a promise for most parks, there’s still hope. Just recently, China moved to designate its first national park, with a better balance in mind:
Bai, whose agency approved Tangwanghe as the first national park, wants “a balance between conservation and tourism” as China develops a parks system.
There is another park, Pudacuo (it too claims to be the first national park — who knows?) that has avoided kitsch and capitalism in favor of conservation:
The official slogan of China’s year of ecotourism is “Be a green traveler and experience eco-civilization.” Pudacuo park serves this goal by requiring visitors to park their cars and tour the park in low-emission buses shepherded by guides such as Yang.
Still, there is some concern that overdevelopment could spoil the natural beauty and dilute the Tibetan culture of Diqing. But local authorities pledge to tread lightly. Logging in the region was halted a few years ago to preserve the alpine forests, and heavy industry is off the table, said Qi Zhala, the Communist Party secretary for Diqing.
What has been your experience in China’s parks? What other challenges does China have, that the US, or other countries, did not? I’d love to hear from you.

About a month ago, I started watching Ken Burns’ documentary on the National Parks. And what I saw surprised me: China. Continue reading “China, reflected in Ken Burns’ “National Parks” documentary”

Of China’s Countryside Bachelors, and One Chinese Man’s Divorce

Er Ge in Yaolin Cave in Zhejiang Province, less than a year after his wife abandoned him.
Er Ge in Yaolin Cave in Zhejiang Province, less than a year after his wife abandoned him.

Er Ge, my second-oldest brother-in-law, wanted to marry for life.

His bride in 2005 was a lovely, lithe girl of 18 from Guizhou who worked in a local sewing factory, often evenings. I never forgot her almost ubiquitous smile in my presence. It was inscrutable, a smile that remained far too long to be just about happiness.

Mysterious smile or not, she must have made Er Ge happy, or at least relieved.
For years, his mother had fretted over finding him a wife — not easy, given the distorted sex ratio, especially in the countryside. Er Ge’s own personality added challenges. He was always the wallflower of the family, parsimonious with his own words, as if they were a precious currency. It took years before I even held a bona-fide conversation with him. But Er Ge’s mother didn’t want him to take years before he understood romance. So, following in a long tradition of mothers who arranged marital affairs for their sons, she made inquiries in town, and eventually found him a bride. He would be the last of the three brothers to be matched.

Er Ge is a peasant, and still resides in his family home, so they held the celebration at home too. He donned a black polyester suit and tie; she dressed in a white Western-style tulle wedding gown with roses in her flowing black hair.

She may have looked like a fairytale bride, but there is no fairytale ending here. Continue reading “Of China’s Countryside Bachelors, and One Chinese Man’s Divorce”

China’s ‘Little Emperors’: Children in country tend to be indulged by families

Many grandparents in China help raise their young grandchildren. Here, Yu Huimin holds his grandson Yu Kaiqi during Chinese New Year.
Many grandparents in China help raise their young grandchildren. Here, Yu Huimin holds his grandson Yu Kaiqi during Chinese New Year.

This is the concluding article in a four-part series of articles providing a snapshot of modern life in China in observance of October 1, 2009, the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. It was published October 11, 2009 in the Insight section of the Idaho State Journal

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It was Chinese New Year 2003 when I first met Yu Kaiqi, the boy who would become my nephew. Almost a year old, he was bundled up in endless layers, like a silkworm cocoon — and just as precious to my future father-in-law, Yu Huimin, 61, who carried him everywhere. I was stunned. If this boy were in the US, his parents and grandparents would have been letting him teeter and totter on the floor, taking his first steps to explore the world. But not here. For almost the entire day, he was tucked safely away in his doting grandfather’s arms.

Today, Yu Kaiqi, now seven years old, is still the family’s center of attention — but for all the wrong reasons. Throwing objects at the teacher. Lying. Sassing his parents. Daily temper tantrums. Not going to bed on time.

Unfortunately, Yu Kaiqi is no anomaly in China. Some studies, including a 2006 paper from Jinan University, suggest that 11 percent of young Chinese children misbehave. Others, including a 2002 Qingdao University paper, put the figure at 23 percent. Suppose you apply that lowest estimate — 11 percent — to the 2000 China census count of 95 million two- to seven-year-olds. That adds up to as many as 10 million Chinese children troubling their families.

And when they’re vexed by a naughty child, families look for explanations. Jin Genxiu, my 55-year-old mother-in-law, believes Yu Kaiqi’s bad temperament is the cause. Yu Huimin blames the school environment and declining standards in society. But there’s a culprit more close to home: parenting. Continue reading “China’s ‘Little Emperors’: Children in country tend to be indulged by families”

For China’s Youth, Money Often Trumps Love in Marriage

This is the third in a four-part series of articles providing a snapshot of modern life in China in observance of October 1, 2009, the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. It was published October 4, 2009 in the Insight section of the Idaho State Journal.

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Can money buy love and marriage? Anya Wang's fiancee broke off their engagement to pursue a woman with more money than her.
Can money buy love and marriage? Anya Wang's fiancee broke off their engagement to pursue a woman with more money than her.

Anya Wang, a 36-year-old human resources professional, used to believe in a loving marriage until earlier this summer. Just when she and her fiancee were going to get married within a month or so, he left her — for a woman with more money. “I once wanted to marry for love,” she admitted. “But I’m changing my ideas. Maybe I will simply marry for personal benefit.”

Wang is not alone. Caroline Jin, a 33-year-old translator, voiced a similar change of heart during a recent conversation about dating and marriage. “Before, I didn’t care about whether my future husband had money and a home,” she explained. “But now, I think I would expect those things.” She giggled with her hand covering her mouth, as if embarrassed to admit the truth.

Jin and Wang are changing the way they look at marriage. For them, and many others in China, money has increasingly edged out love in marriage decisions. Continue reading “For China’s Youth, Money Often Trumps Love in Marriage”

One Naxi Artisan in China’s Vanishing Culture in Lijiang

This is the second in a four-part series of articles providing a snapshot of modern life in China in observance of October 1, 2009, the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. It was published September 27, 2009 in the Insight section of the Idaho State Journal.

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Lijiang, Yunnan Province, China — At the foot of the sacred Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, a peak soaring to over 18,000 feet in a mountain range just shy of the Tibetan border, I found my first moment of true serenity after weeks of traversing across China.

The artisan Bi Zhihui, right, and his grandmother work on embroidery from their home in Baisha, Lijiang. Bi's unique embroidery art, passed down through six generations, is a tradition that deserves more attention from tourists and tour operators in the area.
The artisan Bi Zhihui, right, and his grandmother work on embroidery from their home in Baisha, Lijiang. Bi's unique embroidery art, passed down through six generations, is a tradition that deserves more attention from tourists and tour operators in the area.

I was staying in an old wooden Chinese-style courtyard house, one of the many traditional homes lining a cobblestone street in Baisha, Lijiang that offered a rare glimpse into the life of one of China’s most distinctive ethnic minorities: the Naxi people. Baisha was once the capital of the ancient Naxi Dongba Kingdom, and even today the place seems to exist in another era. I saw Naxi women dressed in their characteristic blue blouses and pants wrapped with a blue or black apron, roaming the streets with baskets on their backs filled with produce, or babies tucked gently into a brightly colored child holder. Every now and then a herd of cattle or goats, often led by a man wearing the traditional cowboy-like Naxi hat, would flood the entire street, the soft click-clacking of their hooves the rhythmic accompaniment to this animal parade.

I am also here for something else — my friend Bi Zhihui, a 37-year-old artisan who is Naxi and Yi, one of China’s other ethnic minority groups. Continue reading “One Naxi Artisan in China’s Vanishing Culture in Lijiang”

For Many of China’s Rural Residents, Health Insurance is Not Enough

This is the first in a four-part series of articles providing a snapshot of modern life in China ahead of October 1, 2009, the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. It was published September 20, 2009 in the Insight section of the Idaho State Journal.

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Peng Qiulan and Jin Genxiu, like most residents in China's countryside, have rural health insurance policies that only cover a fraction of their medical costs
Peng Qiulan and Jin Genxiu, like most residents in China's countryside, have rural health insurance policies that only cover a fraction of their medical costs

Zhongshan, Tonglu County, Zhejiang, China — In a old wooden home hidden behind Zhongshan’s main street is a place where Ye Xianna, my husband’s 76-year-old grandmother, is quietly putting her trust in Jesus — to protect her against illness.

After sitting with for nearly four hours in the rows of turquoise-colored pews that felt like tiny park benches — witnessing speaking in tongues, singing hymns in Chinese, and preaching on the virtues of Christianity — it was one of the congregation who spoke the most important reason why Ye, like many others in the church, was present that morning.

A senior man in a tan-striped polo shirt and oversized brown pants, with squinty eyes, stubble and a mostly toothless smile, stepped behind the turquoise podium with a blood-red plastic cross attached to it, and began addressing the room.

He was speaking in the local dialect of Tonglu — one of the thousands of dialects in China that sounds different from the country’s official Mandarin Chinese — so I couldn’t understand his words, at first. “What is he saying?” I asked Ye, sitting next to me in the pew in a flowered blouse and pants, with her wiry, shoulder-length gray hair tied into two pigtails.

Ye, whose local dialect is better than her Mandarin Chinese, explained it to me as simply as she could: “His arm used to hurt. Then he believed in Jesus, and it stopped hurting.”

Her simple words spoke a powerful idea: that Jesus heals, literally.

And for many churchgoing senior citizens in China’s countryside, like Ye, it’s the one thing they can count on in the face of a rural healthcare system that is still far from ideal. Continue reading “For Many of China’s Rural Residents, Health Insurance is Not Enough”

The Troubling Chinese Mother-in-law Relationship

IMG_2151It could have been any other pile of clothing — pastel linen blouses, jeans with a flower pattern embroidered on the side, a silk robe in peacock blue, and more. But they were my the clothes of my sister-in-law, Da Sao, married to my husband’s eldest brother. And my Chinese mother-in-law was anxious to clear them away.

“Look at all of these clothes,” she said, lifting up a shirt and then the jeans, sighing. “She buys them on a whim, wears them once, and then brings them over here — and never wears them again.” Then, smiling towards me, she added, “you should wear them.”

It was a lonely pile of clothes, desperate to be worn. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that this was more than just housekeeping — because Da Sao was becoming infamous during our dinnertime conversations.

One day, my inlaws chastised Da Sao for enrolling her son, Kaiqi, in too many afterschool activities. Another day, they declared her too lazy, spending too much time on the computer. On another, they decided her cooking wasn’t up to snuff. I couldn’t help but notice that, even as both in-laws spoke, my Chinese mother-in-law supported the brunt of these indictments.

Da Sao is no saint — but not once did my inlaws suggest that Da Ge, her husband, did anything wrong (Da Ge, according to my husband John, is an uninvolved father who has also exacerbated his son’s behavior problems). Clearly, this was a troubling Chinese mother-in-law, daughter-in-law relationship.

But it’s not just Da Sao. For thousands of years, daughters-in-law have dreaded their Chinese mothers-in-law. Why? Continue reading “The Troubling Chinese Mother-in-law Relationship”

Saying “I love you” with a toilet: of indirect displays of love in Chinese families

Nobody really asked why that toilet was built before Chinese New Year 2003 — at what would later become my in-laws home. They had always lived without indoor plumbing, instead using a feitong (a large urnlike container) or, for the room, a matong (a small bucket with a top). The feitong and matong made it easy to recycle human waste on their fields, and the whole system had worked just fine.

But then again, they had never hosted a foreign girl (me!) until that Chinese New Year.

That toilet is like many things in Chinese culture, where “I love you” is an unspoken phrase that finds its voice in the sumptuous feasts that fill the dinner table, the hongbao stuffed with crisp, red RMB bills, the boxes of green tea and smoked tofu that friends and relatives forcibly stuff into every last empty corner of your luggage.

My in-laws do not hug or kiss me, or any of their children. But they, like many Chinese, find extraordinary, indirect ways of saying they care. Continue reading “Saying “I love you” with a toilet: of indirect displays of love in Chinese families”