That’s Entertainment?


I’ve never particularly enjoyed the experiences I’ve had at zoos. As a child, I was selfishly disappointed that animals didn’t come closer to the window for my viewing pleasure and, alternately, tinged with a sense of discomfort upon witnessing so many magnificent creatures looking tired and bored in their cages. My few and far between trips to zoos growing up always left me in a confused state of guilt, mild amusement, and disappointment. As an adult, I’ve managed to mostly view animals in their natural habitats—happening upon all types of mammals and bird species while visiting national parks in America’s southwest, spotting goats galore while weaving through the mountainous regions of Morocco, traveling from ger to ger on a combination of horseback and camel-back in Mongolia, or even lounging with well-attended to house cats in a cafe in Seoul. Unfortunately, all it took was a trip to a Chinese zoo to remind me of how easily we humans can take advantage of our position in the food chain.

IMG_8862Last March the second grade team took our students on a field trip to a local zoo in Xiamen to examine the impact humans have on animals, both positive and negative, for our IB unit of inquiry focusing on the theme Sharing the Planet. I didn’t expect the experience to be pleasant, however I had no idea just how severely we would expose our students to how humans affect animals. Our shocking adventure began in a barren open area, roughly the size of a football field, with a stone walkway, partial grassy patches, and a man-made lake hardly-filled with muddy water. In this space, a variety of animals—including skittish emus, an ostrich with half of its left wing feathers missing, friendly goats, and a couple of skinny cows—roamed freely with no particular appealing destination in sight. Halfway down the walkway were a couple of cages, each roughly the size of a parking space, with one containing a nervous wolf pacing back and forth, its grey tail curled between its hind legs. My students crowded around this cage, watching the wolf back away into a corner, and asked me why the animal’s cage was so small; why did it look so afraid; why was the wolf’s tail between its legs? They had been taught to ask questions, to be inquirers, but on this field trip the answers they found were hardly satisfying.

Employees of the zoo hustled our hefty school group along to their animal show—an appalling atrocity none of us anticipated. We sat on the tiered amphitheater steps, curving around the rusting, metal-barred cage with its bare, interior stage–a sad suggestion that a show most certainly will go on. Men, with bright polyester costumes thrown over their everyday attire, paraded monkeys out onto the stage to peddle bicycles in circles and walk along metal tight-ropes, much to the audience’s delight. After the monkeys departed back to their quarters, two slobbering tigers were made to perform tricks at center-stage. Students were in awe at the sight of these magical, beastly creatures acting on command—standing on their hind legs, jumping through hoops, and even pulling a cart carrying the two costumed employees—all while somehow refraining from devouring the humans demanding actions from them. Within moments of the tiger’s appearance on-stage, numerous students noticed their seemingly unusual behavior and surprising details—why are they slobbering that much; why don’t the tigers have a full set of teeth; how can the tigers eat without their teeth; why are they so fat? Informing a bunch of eight-year-old children that these endangered species were likely slobbering because they were drugged or sedated, that their teeth were removed to make it easier for a human head to fit inside their mouth without being hurt, that humans provided them with food so they didn’t need to hunt, and that, more likely than not, these tigers spent a significant amount of time in a cage, unable and without need to sculpt a lean physical form, was, once again, providing students with answers they didn’t want to hear and that I certainly didn’t want to deliver.

IMG_8863The treatment of animals at this zoo was, with no exaggeration, barbaric. Furthermore, the show I described above is not all that uncommon in China and despite this sort of mistreatment of animals being explicitly banned, there appears to be little to no enforcement of these laws (sound familiar?). It’s horrifying to think too that for some children this savage experience is the norm when partaking in an outing at the zoo. At least the zoos that I took discomfort in visiting as a child were on beautifully manicured properties, ran by  highly trained and dedicated caretakers.

Though some of our students were remiss in recognizing animal mistreatment, distracted instead by the plentifully offered amusements, the majority of students left the zoo that day expressing to varying extents that what they saw was wrong. I remain partially conflicted about exposing students to this disturbing reality—simultaneously wanting to maintain their innocence like some type of Ms. Holden Caulfield, but also burdened with the sense that these young minds are tasked, along with us, to make this world a better place. It’s hard to tell where the balance is sometimes. One student summed up her field trip succinctly, “I think it was fun, but I don’t think it was right.” Too often today, that’s entertainment.

The Great Wall of China Isn’t Visible From Space, Pollution Is

Credit: Jacques Descloitres, MODIS Rapid Response Team, NASA/GSFC

To witness first-hand the ever-evolving results of China’s massive economic growth over the last 30+ years is an impressive and simultaneously nerve-wrecking sight. They build buildings at an unfathomable rate, bestowing cities with a super-ability of transformation, constantly condensed into shorter and shorter periods of time. They are among nations investing aggressively in infrastructure, including clean energy, and are producing the greatest farm output of any country in the world. They are also bearing the consequences of their rapid development, particularly and most noticeably in the form of hazardous air quality. Coupled with and compounded by the challenges of climate change, China’s mitigation actions to limit or decrease CO2 emissions thus far have proved insufficient.

The graph below offers a stark contrast between the top two producers of CO2 emissions in the world–China and the U.S..

Though the current situation is grim and hard to swallow, China can and has taken action to cut back on CO2 emissions, including increasing investment in renewable energy from wind turbines and setting a target to generate “15% of energy needs through renewable energy by 2020.” China is also home to the city of Rizhao, a city of roughly three million in Shandong Province, which has been recognized by the United Nations for its habitable environs and, more notably, for its dedication to clean energy generation through large scale solar panel adoption “Rizhao has effectively reduced its energy consumption by 30 percent and achieved annual CO2 savings of 52,860 tonnes from solar water heaters.” (-WFC) 

By providing incentives to residents and educating the public of the benefits of solar power generation, plus the favorable market conditions for consumers seeing a decrease in solar panel prices, the people of Rizhao embraced renewable energy. This success story doesn’t have to remain an isolated exemplar. To take greater steps towards mitigation, China should continue to invest in clean energy solutions, provide incentives for consumers themselves to invest in renewable energy at home, and provide subsidies for clean energy industries. Enforcing stricter regulations for emissions and continuing to focus on decreased coal production will not only aid in improving conditions for those residing in the middle country, it will also assist in turning down the heat worldwide.

Climate change is a battle every single living thing will be impacted by and a challenge we all must tackle through making conscientious decisions about how we consume. China’s scale never ceases to shock me; it is a place unlike any other with a significant contribution of consumers capable of making decisions with widely felt consequences, for better or worse.


Clockwise from top: street art in Taipei’s shopping district, garbage collection in Hualien, and Taipei 101

Gorge-ous, delicious, scoot-scooting, better China

These are the five words that sum up my recent spring break to Taiwan.  Though much can be said about the stunning sights and scrumptious grub I had the pleasure of encountering, my main focus is on the discovery of a better China.

After residing on the mainland for half of a year, I’ve identified plenty of standard behaviors, misconceptions, cultural differences, and spectacles worthy of criticism or sometimes, albeit rarely, praise. I approached a visit to Taiwan with great curiosity and intrigue given the obviously deep, conflicting connections between China and Taiwan and the endless commentary I’ve collected over the years from fellow travelers comparing the two nations. What I found in Taiwan was, without a doubt and simply put, a better China.

International travel seemingly promotes constant comparison–your mind approaches every new experience as though you’re completing a venn diagram, charting the distinct differences and charming similarities between all that you’ve partaken in prior. Arriving in Taiwan, I immediately felt a surreal sense of being somewhere intensely familiar–Chinese syllables engulfing my eardrums, signs scrawled with intricate, unknown characters, views of dilapidated constructions long past their prime, food carts touting intimidating cuisine, etc..

However, as swiftly as I recognized these totems of my current home, there came a barrage of clear signs that I wasn’t behind the Great Firewall any longer. Those unknown characters flooding my field of vision with every glance were noticeably depicting traditional characters (much preferable to read for beginning Chinese learners, such as myself, as the characters tend to depict pictures that clue one in to the meaning of the word, a value lost with simplified characters, which are commonly used in mainland China); wifi was accessible all over the place and so were beloved social media sites, even the NYT, rendering my VPN wonderfully useless; the chaos of using public transportation was completely absent as people waited patiently in line, in the demarcated space, for passengers to exit before calmly stepping onto the train; sidewalks were shockingly clean of bodily fluids and other general waste; gorging on street food didn’t instantly make one’s stomach turn inside out from questionable hygienic practices or mystery ingredients; the hurdles to obtaining train tickets or just about anything were nonexistent and missing the oft expected bureaucratic nonsense.

Taiwan was a delightful shock to the senses and provided an appreciated view of what China might be like if I could simply wipe away so many of the grievances that induce a general tension and irritation when trapped inside this monolithic place for too long. By no means is China a lost cause; in fact, I encourage everyone with the means to experience this weird and fascinating country, rich with history and dense with power to reshape the world, for better or worse–just be sure you’re ready to see a baby shit on the sidewalk if you do pay the mainland a visit.

Son Preference

A few weeks ago, my teacher’s assistant (I know, teaching at an international school has me exceptionally spoiled) announced that she’s expecting her second child. The conversation continued with the typical congratulations as well as the not-so-common discussion about China’s one-child-policy, as my T.A. is a Chinese national who already has a young daughter. She informed me of a recent change in the policy, dating back to 2013, in which “families can have two children if one parent is an only child”–the fortunate case for my expecting friend.

Amidst the countless questions of when is she due?, is her daughter excited?, etc., I automatically asked if her and her husband knew or intended to find out the sex of their baby and the answer I received was one that surprised me, although I suppose it shouldn’t have. They would not be finding out the sex of their little one because they simply aren’t allowed to. In China, it is illegal to discover the sex of the child prior to birth due to high incidences of sex-selective abortion. To put it more plainly, people prefer to have sons.

Though China is an easy target to point the finger at, this problem is in no way an isolated one. India’s population, with its surplus of men, still shows a bias for sons, though like China there are shifts occurring to this cultural phenomenon. Even the UK, a member of the developed world, has found, through census data, evidence that suggests that as many as 4,700 girls have been aborted due to gender, “identifying discrepancies in the sex ratio of some immigrant families.”

It may not be surprising that across many cultures parents are inclined to want sons over daughters, particularly when considering the inequalities and extreme challenges women suffer in many nations. Additionally, within some cultures there’s an economic component to this desire for boys as families consider the enormous expense in marrying off girls. Ultimately, however, the preference for sons is only perpetuating the cycle of inequality between the sexes, continuing to degrade the value of women within these cultures, and increasing the level of threat to the personal safety of women.

Speaking on the topic, specifically in regards to the issue in Pakistan, Dr. Anita Raj, director at the Center for Gender Equality at UCSD, states, “data from the region [indicates] that about one in four women would prefer to have more sons than daughters…Such preference is deeply rooted in beliefs that women and girls have less value than men and boys. Thus, not surprisingly, mistreatment and even violence against women and girls is more likely in households where there is ‘son preference’.”

In Afghanistan, this desperate desire to have sons has manifested itself in a practice known as ‘bacha posh,’ in which families lacking sons disguise their girls as boys. Yes, the yearning for boys is so strong within Afghan culture that it is preferable to have a pretend son than a real daughter.  Investigative journalist Jenny Nordberg, in her new book, The Underground Girls of Kabul, shares the details of this fascinating and, shockingly, not uncommon trend occurring in Afghanistan.“It is incumbent upon every married woman to quickly bear a son – it is her absolute purpose in life, and if she does not fulfill it, there is clearly something wrong with her in the eyes of others,” Nordberg explains.

In some of the world’s poorest countries, the disposition towards having boys is also playing a role in nation fertility rates. The graph below show the total fertility rate (the average number of children that would be born to a woman over her lifetime) of every country in the world. Upon examination, it is immediately apparent that the developed countries of the world–countries of Europe, the U.S., Canada, and Australia–have lower fertility rates in comparison to their poorer, still developing counterparts in central Africa, Central America, and Southeast Asia. Then, there is Afghanistan, the yellow colored country sticking out in the Middle East, with an average Total Fertility Rate of 5.0-5.9, that’s over double the world average at 2.36. This yellow shading shows part of the story: women that are desperate for sons, lacking access to family planning and adequate birth control, and living within a culture that views the role of women as that of a child bearer and little else. Though these implications may not necessarily apply to every nation with a higher than average fertility rate, some of them do. And, these problems aren’t to be solved solely for the benefit of our world’s women, but rather for the improved quality of life for all in this world.

The current world population is at 7.2 billion and on a trajectory of continual growth (more on that later). If we want to live better and to live in a sustainable, fair, and prosperous world, we need to tackle inequalities and embark on a path moving away from Business As Usual.

I leave you with these questions to consider, ones I’m considering myself:

-How do we alter the commonly held views of a culture to view women as equals?

-How do we effectively provide women access to adequate birth control in countries lacking infrastructure and health care management?

-What are the most effective methods of decreasing fertility rates?

-What other impediments are preventing women from being educated in poor countries?


Thanks for reading. Please leave any comments, questions, or related news links below: