Thursday, October 12, 2006

Can you drink the tap water in Hong Kong?

I've heard conflicting stories about whether the tap water in Hong Kong is safe to drink. Some say it is, some say it's not: that you have to boil it to get rid of the germs. "Let's Go"'s guide to Hong Kong says that it depends on the quality of the plumming. That could explain the varied responses.

So I ask the receptionist at the NTT International House, where I'm staying, whether the tap water is safe to drink. She looks a bit shocked, and says, "Wha? No, you have to boil it first." So I decide that in this case, I should be boiling my water. I also notice there's a water boiler apparently for this purpose already in the room. At first I thought it was for coffee and tea, and it probably is, but I noticed that unlike coffee makers, this just pours out hot water.

So I began to boil my water, and I even get a pitcher so I can cool the boiling water off in the refrigerator. But I started seeing signs that perhaps this was unnecessary.

1. No one was getting traveller's diarrhea. Usually in a group of 12 students, we would expect at least someone to be careless over the span of several weeks, or at least eat at a restaurant that was sufficiently careless. Especially since some of them thought it was fine to drink tap water when they first arrived (and locals set them straight, but not immediately). And one would expect that someone would be incapacitated enough for others to know about it. Now Jenna was in the hospital for food poisoning last week, but that was a case that seemed too severe to be just problems with the water. Typically bad water might give you the runs, but not put you in the hospital feeling sick.

2. When we went to Monkey Mountain last month (a place where wild monkeys come up to humans and beg for food) we ran across a reservoir and a water pumping station which was unlocked (?!) and we saw signs in English for things like "Chlorination area". So Hong Kong is not as lax with its germs as we were led to believe.

3. As evidence that Hong Kongers can sometimes be overly cautious, a few locals have been worried about the sanitation of utensils at nice restaurants. The restaurant brings out hot water before the meal, and the local might pour some in a cup, then put the chopsticks in, apparently to sterilize it. If you don't do the same, the local may be worried for you, and put your chopsticks in, too. I understand this for sketchy hole-in-the-wall places, but one local did this at the nice seafood restaurant on the HKBU campus. This is a minority of locals that do this at nice places, but it's evidence that it's not unreasonable that Hong Kongers were just being overly cautious when they say you have to boil your tap water to drink it. Note that in washing dishes, the main issue is not sterilization: to kill bacteria you need water that is generally much, much, hotter than what is typically available. Rather, the idea is to physically remove bits of stuff from the utensils, and water is a solvent.

4. The idea of boiling water because of bad pipes doesn't even make sense. Bad pipes may contribute rust, but typically not bacteria. I remember being an undergrad in Boston and the water would sometimes come out brown. I just waited a few seconds for the water to clear, and drank it all the same. I may have ended up with a higher intake of dietary iron, but I didn't get sick because of it.

Put this together with the fact that some Hong Kongers say it's fine to drink the water, and I'm left very skeptical about the idea that I have to boil my water to drink it.

So I'm going to do my next adventure. For the sake of scientific exploration, and to entertain you, my audience, I have been drinking tap water unboiled for the past few days, and will continue to do so until any bad consequences ensue.

So far, there are no problems. The water tastes fine, or at least it's as reasonable-tasting as tap water in Los Angeles. And no traveller's diarrhea yet. I did choose to do this experiment when I wouldn't be on trips or have to be at a long event (like a Gala dinner). But I'll update you on the progress of this as time goes on.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Views of America, China, North Korea

I was at KIBC tonight, for game night. There were several folks from the US and a bunch of people from Mainland China, and a few local Hong Kongers, playing various games in different parts of the room, with different discussions.

Some random conversations.

A discussion I overhear about North Korea. A mainlander (Aaron from Chengdu) expressing concern about North Korea. Though in the US we take it for granted that China and North Korea are allies (they're both Communist, right?) he feels it necessary to explain that China and the US fought a war in the 1950s and China supported North Korea then, so China and North Korea are sort of like allies. That's it? The Korean War is the only tie? He said that a year ago, if you asked anyone if the US and North Korea were to get into a fight, which side China would choose, anyone would have said "North Korea". Now, China would support the US.

Not that he supports such a military solution. There's a lot of suffering in North Korea, and what would an attack solve? Maybe it's best to let this go, he suggests.

Later, I'm talking with another mainlander, Diana. She is an exchange student for one semester from Xiamen University, in Fujian, studying English and PR. She would like to study in the United States, but feels she needs to go back to Beijing to support her parents when they grow old--as the only child (with China's one child policy) it's her filial duty.

Xiamen University is apparently a very beautiful and clean university. She says other mainland students come to Hong Kong and say, "Wow, how beautiful and clean". She feels it's just like her home university. I didn't tell her how people at Pepperdine University see HKBU in comparison.

Xiamen is across the Taiwan Strait from Taiwan. She feels that Taiwan should be united with China, and inevitably, it will be. The way she phrases it is interesting: "Anyone who is truly Chinese sees that Taiwan should be part of China". Every now and then the army practices nearby, and she gets nervous, though. Will there be fighting? She hopes not.

She is amazed at the strength of the US, having only a 200 year history. She wonders what its secret is. Perhaps because it is welcoming to so many people from around the world? She wants China to be great too. She calls herself patriotic.

Diana also knows a surprising amount of US history. Apparently, in schools, they have to learn US history as part of world history. In US schools, we learn world history, but we get a vague idea about China, and that's it. Chinese students have to memorize all the states, the names of the presidents, and knew about the Civil War. They also learn about English history, German history, and cover the history of each of the continents.

These were in her textbook and she had to read about them all. Wow. The grade school students in China actually read their textbooks?! She compared the educational system in China to that of the US, and said that in China, there was a lot of lecture and people just had to learn what the teacher said, while in the US, students might be put in groups where they are supposed to learn by experience. In China, therefore, the teacher can give a lot of the reasons why, where in the US, the focus is more practical: on how. This is the reverse of the connection that is usually made in the US between experiential learning and lecture: lecture is viewed as rote learning, while experiential learning lets students discover why.

One thing to note in all of this: these Chinese students are very patriotic and Chinese-centered in their perspective. But they are not in favor of war, and they are not antagonistic against the US. They don't see the US as a natural enemy of China, and in fact they all express a desire to travel there. Temporarily, of course--their true home is in China and always will be.

When I was in grad school I had a roommate who was from mainland China, and when he first arrived he felt sure he would go back to China. By the end of the year, he wanted to stay in the US. He also learned about the Tiananmen square massacre, and changed his view of his government.

Of course these students don't have a say in the direction of Chinese politics. But the next generation of Chinese leaders will come from backgrounds like these, and have these perspectives. There are some in the US that see China as a potential military threat. It is true that they have a considerable investment in military (though nothing compared to the US). But culturally, they don't see the US as a rival militarily. Perhaps they feel that they should, by all rights, be the leaders of the world, and indeed, perhaps all peoples feel something of this. But they don't see an attack on the US as the way this will be achieved: rather, they seem generally against war, and seem bent on developing their country and achieving prosperity.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Anniversary Gala Dinner

The Gala dinner was quite an event. Hong Kong Baptist University is celebrating its 50th anniversary, and the Chief Executive of Hong Kong, Donald Tsang, came, as well as a number of distinguished guests: various consul generals from places like Hungary and the E.U., business leaders in Hong Kong, representatives from other universities in Hong Kong, representatives from affiliated universities in Thailand, Taiwan, and so on.

The event itself took place in the Hong Kong Convention Center main ballroom, and it was the most elaborate event I've ever seen. I thought it would be a regular banquet, but no, it bore a closer resemblance to an Emmy awards show. Professional people from the entertainment industry with some connection to HKBU were MCs (alternating in English, Cantonese, and Mandarin) and featured singers. Awards were given with klieg lights and presentation music.

The meal had 10 courses, and the menu describing them was a very clever acrostic, where the first character of each dish, put together, spelled out "Hong Kong Baptist University Golden Anniversary Evening Banquet". More specifically, for those of you who can read it, it spelled out:
where the first dish was
and so on. The challenge, I think was 學 meaning learning (it is featured in the word for "University") and that one was "Deep-fried Crispy Chicken":
(the word-for-word translation is: "learn have place become phoenix transmit happiness". Go figure.) The last one was
which is a bun filled with lotus bean paste (like the moon cakes for mid-Autumn festival which just happened) and these are traditional buns for birthdays.

The food was delicious. They leaned a bit on the side of being Western-friendly, probably, but everyone seemed to enjoy it. I talked with a Hong Kong student who was there and he didn't go for the speeches but said the food was excellent.

Everyone was taking pictures. They had a set right outside the ballroom specifically for this purpose. Our International office did that too.

Sorry I don't have other pictures from the event; I didn't bring my camera. We took this one while everyone else was supposed to be playing a game, where each table got quizzes about HKBU.

I also discovered that there is a local Cantonese Happy Birthday song, though they also sang the English Happy Birthday song, as was fitting for Hong Kong.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

North Korea's got da bomb

I must admit here I was wrong. I thought North Korea did not actually have nuclear weapon capability, but they just did a nuclear test. My reasons for coming to the conclusions I did was that just about no one goes around saying, "We've got nuclear weapons". They just do a nuclear test and take everyone by surprise. The reason for this is that they can suffer international sanctions if they get nuclear weapons, but once they have them, it is a done deal--there's no going back, take it or leave it. So the rest of the world simply must accept the reality of the situation.

North Korea, on the other hand, has been hinting that they have nuclear weapons for some time, but not doing a nuclear test (which, by its very nature, provides independent incontrovertible proof of their nuclear capability). Why do this? Because the US has flip-flopped on its commitments to help them build a nuclear power plant. Several times, the US promised to help them build this plant which would not allow uranium enrichment to military grade, in return for North Korea not pursuing its own nuclear power program, which would lead to bomb-grade uranium production, and eventually a nuclear bomb. Of course, since we switch from Democrat to Republican presidents and back and forth, we end up promising, then taking back our promise. North Korea then said, "OK, if you're not going to help us, then we're going to build a bomb." This generated a tepid response, more along the lines of, "Iraq Iraq Iraq Iraq Iraq Oh, North Korea? Whatever. Iraq Iraq Iraq Iraq" from the current administration. The administration seemed to understand the point I was making: no one claims to be building a nuclear weapon. They just test it when they're done and let the world come to its own conclusions. So Washington was going to call North Korea's bluff.

Well, I must admit, North Korea wasn't bluffing.

What next? Will North Korea attack the United States? The problem with making predictions is that it is hard to predict a single person. A mass of people is easier to understand. But North Korea really doesn't want to conquer the United States (or even "take away our freedoms") but just wants the US to make some concessions (like a power plant or aid or at least stopping our crackdown on North-Korean-made counterfeit US currency). That makes it unlikely that North Korea will actually launch a nuclear attack on the US or its neighbors or anyone. But they might use it as a negotiating chip, and if their bluff is called, they (I mean he) might feel obliged to go through with it just for honor's sake. But I was wrong before.

Another big problem is that this nuclear test helps Kim Jong Il domestically. Not that Kim Jong Il has to get votes in the next election, but no leader can survive a situation where he is universally hated for long. Kim is probably not hated, only because people in North Korea don't know any different. But the nuclear test is worth a bunch of kudos points and an occasion for patriotic fervor, which will mitigate any dissatisfaction with how the regime is handling domestic situations.

The other issue this raises is what should be done in response. The problem with going back to the negotiating table is that we reinforce an environment where the only way to get people to talk to you is to build your own nuclear bomb. This is a problem if you are against nuclear proliferation, as I am. One might argue that such an environment is the only reason we're in this mess right now. We need to create an environment where all the negotiation happens before anyone even threatens to build a nuclear bomb. And that's impossible because it means listening carefully and sympathetically to everyone who wants to talk to you.

What about a military response? Any such response would make many enemies of our friends in the region, and could give North Korea the excuse it needs to attack the US, and actually have some of the world on its side. Well, I don't know if anyone will be on its side, but Kim Jong Il might think they will, and so he might act accordingly. Of course, that's assuming Kim Jong Il actually wants to attack the US. It is notable that there was no military response to any country doing a nuclear test in the past. So an invasion or bombing in response to Pyongyang's actions would be hard to justify to the world.

There's another reason: the US has had a policy since the end of the Cold War to maintain the readiness to fight in two wars. We have those wars already: Afghanistan and Iraq. We don't have the strength to fight in three wars. We do have the capability of doing an aerial bombing raid on the palace, say, but it's not clear that this will do anything. Well, it might do one thing: right now the world is on our side in this: North Korea is clearly the bad guy. But if we respond with bombings (making good TV media copy), we equalize the moral high ground. And in return for nothing.

How about an economic sanctions approach? The problem is that we're already doing that to the maximum extent possible. So is just about everyone else. So what more can we do?

Well, it may be that the people who had been doing business with North Korea under the table might be tired of holding their noses and walk away from the deal. Perhaps. But given that their work was clandestine to begin with, they don't have to worry about public opinion, only their consciences, and somehow I don't think conscience is a high priority among that demographic.

What about doing nothing? This does have some appeal: no one can accuse the US of escalating anything, it has precedence (it's what was done whenever anyone else has done a nuclear test), and it doesn't reward North Korea for being bad. It's even possible to do this while looking strong domestically: just make condemnation speeches, impose economic sanctions (maybe the public won't notice that these sanctions are already in place), disband the six-nation negotiations (North Korea has been boycotting them anyway so this will have no effect), and say we will never talk with them again (a lie but who'll catch us on it?). And because of Iraq, no one will call Bush a roll-over.

And all of this of course is relevant to Iran, who has been denying that it is developing nuclear weapons, then winking out of the corner of its eye. "No, we're not developing nuclear weapons. But in case you see a mushroom cloud in, say, the next few weeks, remember, we have the right to do it." This is political gold for Ahmedinejad. Here's my analysis of Iran's nuclear program: Once upon a time, the people were upset about the Shah and ended up with the Ayatollah Khomeini and the Islamic Republic of Iran. The birth rate spurt under Khomeini turned into a large demographic of youth who don't know what it was like under the Shah (Khomeini encouraged couples to have lots of children) but don't especially like restrictions on their clothes, music, and so on. They voted in reformers like President Khatami. But unemployment was high and making a living was hard, and Khatami didn't deliver (mostly because he couldn't). The populace said, "fine, if you're not going to deliver for us, we're going to the other party." Ahmedinejad understands that this is the only reason he's in power, but he also knows he has as little chance at delivering economic prosperity as Khatami did. So he hints at building a nuclear program, which excites patriotic fervor, and people can forget that they have no jobs. This draws international criticism and threats, which emphasizes to the people that they really do need nuclear weapons. And so on.

Does Iran want to attack the US, or Israel, or anywhere else? Probably not. Those of us who watched the 1979 Revolution saw fanatic idealogues, but one thing about staying in power for 25 years: you get less radical and end up more for the status quo. Ahmedinejad, for all his demagoguery, doesn't actually want a war with the West or with Israel, or at least he has given little evidence that he is actually so blinded by his ideology that he's suicidal. In fact, he's been pretty cunning politically up to now, suggesting that he does have his wits together.

But the big issue is that our response to North Korea has vast implications for what will happen with Iran. There's the precedence issue, but also the more resources we throw at dealing with North Korea, the fewer resources we will have for Iran. And by "resources" I mean military, but also international opinion, political opinion domestically, etc.

Now, domestically, all of this can help the Republicans, as long as they can say, "The world is a dangerous place and we're the ones that can make you safer." These events strengthen the first part, anyway. I don't know if people will buy the second half of that.

Well, this is all familiar. A song by Tom Lehrer, anyone?

Extra! Extra! Inside info. on Thailand

Okay, I just got back from the 50th anniversary gala dinner for Hong Kong Baptist University, and I do have some stuff to say about that. But I met someone who's been in Thailand for much of his adult life (going back and forth from the US) and he says that military coup in Thailand was brought about when the civilian government started to make some changes to the military structure. For a long time the military worried about military things and the business world worried about business things, and everything was fine. But the businessmen running the immediately previous government started to change the constitution to put civilians in charge of the military. Then the coup happened. Two days before the new civilians were supposed to start work.

The whole scandal story is real, but nothing that would necessitate the military stepping in.

Anyway, that's what he says from his perspective on the ground. And it does explain one fact that is otherwise puzzling: why the military only picked ex-military types for positions of power. You'd think if it was just that the military had to fix the country for the country's sake, saving the country from corruption, then they'd just pick a bunch of people who are generally well-respected by the populace, military background or not. But if it is to protect military interests, you can see why they would only use ex-military.

Anyway, I thought this was worth putting up as a separate blog entry.