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May 23, 2005

Kaifeng, China — in the year 1000 it was the most important city on Earth

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As I began the day with China, so shall I conclude.

Today Kaifeng is grimy and poor, lacking even an airport.

Things change.

Nicholas D. Kristof, in his International Herald Tribune column today, lists the cities he considers the most important in the world at 500–year intervals, going back millennia.

The list:

2000 B.C. — Ur, Iraq

1500 B.C. — Thebes, Egypt

1000 B.C. — Sidon, Lebanon

500 B.C. — Persepolis, Persia

The Year 1 — Rome, Italy

500 A.D. — Changan, China

1000 A.D. — Kaifeng, China

1500 A.D. — Florence, Italy

Today — New York City, New York

2500 A.D. — "Probably none of the above"

His column is devoted to just how great empires come to get that way, and how they destroy themselves.

It's worth reading, and follows.

    Glory is as Ephemeral as Smoke and Clouds

    As this millennium dawns, New York is the most important city in the world, the unofficial capital of planet Earth.

    But before New Yorkers become too full of themselves, it might be worthwhile to glance at dilapidated Kaifeng in central China.

    Kaifeng, an ancient city along the mud-clogged Yellow River, was by far the most important place in the world in A.D. 1000.

    And if you've never heard of it, that's a useful warning for Americans.

    This column's headline - translated from Chinese, a language of the future that more Americans should start learning - is "glory is as ephemeral as smoke and clouds."

    As the world's only superpower, America may look today as if global domination is an entitlement.

    But if you look back at the sweep of history, it's striking how fleeting supremacy is, particularly for individual cities.

    My vote for most important city in the world in the period leading up to 2000 B.C. would be Ur, Iraq.

    In 1500 B.C., perhaps Thebes, Egypt.

    There was no dominant player in 1000 B.C., though one could make a case for Sidon, Lebanon.

    In 500 B.C., it would be Persepolis, Persia; in the year 1, Rome; around A.D. 500, maybe Changan, China; in 1000, Kaifeng, China; in 1500, probably Florence, Italy; in 2000, New York; and in 2500, probably none of the above.

    Today, Kaifeng is grimy and poor, not even the provincial capital and so minor it lacks even an airport.

    Its sad state only underscores how fortunes change.

    In the 11th century, when it was the capital of Song Dynasty China, its population was more than one million.

    In contrast, London's population then was about 15,000.

    An ancient painted scroll, now in the Palace Museum in Beijing, shows the bustle and prosperity of ancient Kaifeng.

    Hundreds of pedestrians jostle each other on the streets, camels carry merchandise in from the Silk Road, and teahouses and restaurants do a thriving business.

    Kaifeng's stature attracted people from all over the world, including hundreds of Jews.

    Even today, there are some people in Kaifeng who look like other Chinese but who consider themselves Jewish and do not eat pork.

    As I roamed the Kaifeng area, asking local people why such an international center had sunk so low, I encountered plenty of envy of New York.

    One man said he was arranging to be smuggled into the United States illegally, by paying a gang $25,000, but many local people insisted that China is on course to bounce back and recover its historic role as world leader.

    "China is booming now," said Wang Ruina, a young peasant woman on the outskirts of town.

    "Give us a few decades, and we'll catch up with the United States, even pass it."

    She's right.

    The United States has had the biggest economy in the world for more than a century, but most projections show that China will surpass it in about 15 years, as measured by purchasing power parity.

    So what can New York learn from a city like Kaifeng?

    One lesson is the importance of sustaining a technological edge and sound economic policies.

    Ancient China flourished partly because of pro-growth, pro-trade policies and technological innovations like curved iron plows, printing and paper money.

    But then China came to scorn trade and commerce, and per capita income stagnated for 600 years.

    A second lesson is the danger of hubris, for China concluded it had nothing to learn from the rest of the world - and that was the beginning of the end.

    I worry about the United States in both regards.

    America's economic management is so lax that it can't confront farm subsidies or long-term budget deficits.

    American technology is strong, but public schools are second-rate in math and science.

    And Americans' lack of interest in the world contrasts with the restlessness, drive and determination that are again pushing China to the forefront.

    Beside the Yellow River, I met a 70-year-old peasant named Hao Wang, who had never gone to a day of school.

    He couldn't even write his name - and yet his progeny were different.

    "Two of my grandsons are now in university," he boasted, and then he started talking about the computer in his home.

    Thinking of Kaifeng should stimulate Americans to struggle to improve their high-tech edge, educational strengths and pro-growth policies.

    For if they rest on our laurels, even a city as great as New York may end up as Kaifeng-on-the-Hudson.

May 23, 2005 at 04:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

World's best travel adaptor

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From, of all places, high–end luggage manufacturer Tumi.

Who knew they had an electrical/computer skunkworks?

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One half of this elegant matte black device is an electricity adaptor (top) that converts anything to anything — U.K., U.S., European, Australian, it doesn't matter where you are.

The other part is a phone/modem adaptor (second from top) which again converts almost anything to almost anything else.

Jonathan Margolis featured this marvelous device in his Technopolis column in this past Friday's Financial Times.

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He wrote, "Some may argue that the phone/modem part is a tiny bit tragic since, despite its cleverness, nobody really uses phone modem cables any more and broadband cables are standard worldwide. But there are still plenty of hotels where dial–up is the only option."

Margolis noted (correctly) that the adapter is not available on Tumi's website but that it can be purchased in person at the Tumi store, 170 Piccadilly, London W1 (020–7493–4138) and Heathrow Terminals 1 and 4, air side.

But what about those of us who won't be in London anytime soon?

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Great news: you can get it online here for $95, a heck of a lot cheaper than the £80 ($146) you'll pay in the U.K.

May 23, 2005 at 03:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

BehindTheMedspeak: Anosmia

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Losing your sense of smell can be catastrophic.

Anosmia, the medical term for the condition, is almost impossible to treat.

Last year's Nobel Prize for Medicine was awarded to Professor Richard Axel of Columbia University and Professor Linda Buck of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center for their discovery of a large gene family, made up of up to 1,000 different genes, controlling production of specialized protein receptors that create our sensation of smell and allow us to differentiate between up to 10,000 different odors.

Smell receptor cells are continually dying and being replaced by new cells that have to be wired up correctly in the brain.

Did someone just say "stem cells?"

Learn more about anosmia via the useful links here.

Paul Lukas wrote a very interesting article about anosmia; it appeared in this past Wednesday's New York Times Dining In section, and follows.

    Failing the Sniff Test: The Nose, Ruined

    Robert Weinstock doesn't remember the accident.

    "It was Oct. 7, 2003, and I was going to get a prescription from my doctor," he recalled recently.

    "It was just two blocks away, but I was running late, so I took my bicycle. I'd only been biking for about five seconds when I turned a corner. The next thing I remember is waking up in the hospital."

    Mr. Weinstock, a 37-year-old illustrator and children's book author who lives in Greenwich Village, soon learned that he had been hit by a truck, resulting in a broken arm, hearing loss in one ear, spinal fluid leakage and a fractured skull.

    He spent two weeks in the hospital, where he underwent two spinal taps and skull surgery.

    Given the gravity of his injuries, Mr. Weinstock didn't worry too much about how his food was tasting.

    "My mother was bringing me soup from some fancy market," he said, "and I realized at some point that it all tasted like chicken fat, schmaltz. I didn't say anything, because I figured there was just something off with the food."

    But after he left the hospital, he realized the problem was wide-ranging.

    "Coffee smelled a bit rank, anything with garlic tasted horrible - and I always loved garlic!" he said.

    "Then I had mint chocolate chip ice cream, one of my favorite foods, and it tasted really chemical-y."

    Mr. Weinstock was experiencing a loss of smell, or anosmia.

    Because smell and taste are so closely related, anosmia patients usually complain first about food that doesn't taste right.

    They find themselves in a world where they can no longer take for granted that chocolate will taste like chocolate, longtime favorites are suddenly unpleasant, and the parameters of good and bad flavor, or ripe and spoiled, become a guessing game.

    A lifetime's worth of learned assumptions and preferences are sent back to square one.

    "The taste buds can only detect sweet, sour, salty and bitter - the full symphony of flavor comes from the nose," said Dr. Charles P. Kimmelman, a Manhattan anosmia specialist.

    "But when your brain is hit really hard, it wiggles like Jell-O, and the little fibers going from the smell nerve endings up to the brain are stretched taut. Some of them get torn, injured or bruised."

    Can the damaged fibers regenerate?

    "To a certain extent," Dr. Kimmelman said.

    "But not necessarily along the same pathways they had before. It's like a crossed circuit. And there's usually a phantom sensation, like when a person loses a foot but still feels like his toe is hurting. The brain is trying to make sense of what little information it has coming in."

    So some things may be perceived differently than they were before the injury, and others may not be perceived at all.

    Dr. Kimmelman said that most anosmia patients recover only 20 to 30 percent of their sensory function, and that there is little doctors can do about it.

    Anosmia may be caused not only by head trauma but also by upper respiratory infection, nasal or sinus disease and exposure to toxins.

    Some people are born with the condition.

    People from all these camps usually find their way to a Yahoo anosmia message board (health.groups.yahoo.com/group/anosmia) that has emerged as a popular support group.

    Many anosmic people say the biggest challenge is in the kitchen.

    "I wasn't a great cook to begin with, but with anosmia you can't tell when something's burning," said Lori Mesnik, a computer consultant from Edison, N.J., who suffered a head injury in December.

    "One time I steamed some broccoli, and it wasn't until I cleaned up later that evening that I realized the water had boiled out and burned the Teflon from the inside of the pot."

    Another common complaint: dealing with the frequent perception that compared with other disabilities, anosmia is no big deal.

    "Most people treat me like a circus oddity," said Maria Topper, a school science coordinator from Oceanside, Calif., who became anosmic about two years ago, apparently because of allergies.

    "They do not realize how much of a life-changing experience it is to lose these senses."

    Mr. Weinstock initially played down his condition.

    "At first my attitude was that I was grateful not to be a vegetable," he said.

    "I thought, 'If this is the worst I have to deal with, that's fine.' But it did take a lot of the joy out of eating. It was deflating to bite into something and have it taste bad."

    Because eating is such a social activity, he sometimes felt left out at dinner gatherings.

    Restaurant outings became crapshoots at best, pointless extravagances at worst.

    But the problems of this condition go beyond culinary inconvenience.

    Anosmic patients may not be able to smell a gas leak or a fire, and they can unwittingly eat spoiled food.

    Mr. Weinstock once handed a milk carton to his girlfriend, Dana Stevens, who poured milk in her coffee and discovered it had turned sour.

    Mr. Weinstock, completely oblivious, had already finished his cereal.

    Mr. Weinstock was eventually referred to Dr. Kimmelman, who gave him the University of Pennsylvania Smell Identification Test, considered the gold standard for assessing olfactory function (available from smelltest.com for $26.95; minimum order seven tests).

    Mr. Weinstock initially thought he'd done "fairly well" on the test but was disappointed to hear that his score placed him among the bottom 5 percent of the population.

    "That's when it began seeming more real," he said. "I realized this was going to be a problem."

    Undaunted, Mr. Weinstock slowly began orienting himself to his reconfigured palate.

    "Thai, Japanese and fruit were O.K., but almost anything else tasted off," he said.

    "Anything with a sauce or a melding of flavors tasted muddy and schmaltzy. Processed foods like candy, soda and toothpaste were very chemical-y, almost astringent."

    Ms. Stevens, a freelance journalist who occasionally writes film reviews for The New York Times, helped out by setting up blind taste tests for Mr. Weinstock.

    She primarily used ice creams and sorbets, since they all had similar, neutral textures.

    Slowly but steadily, Mr. Weinstock showed progress: At first he couldn't tell chocolate ice cream from vanilla, but later on he successfully distinguished between the relatively similar coffee and dulce de leche.

    Both he and Ms. Stevens remember that as a milestone.

    "My theory was that immersion therapy would help - lots of stimulus, lots of flavors," Ms. Stevens said.

    "Besides, the alternative seemed so grim. At one point I found this anosmia web site where people posted messages like, 'There's more to food than flavor - there's still texture and color and temperature!' And that just seemed depressing, like, 'Ah, here's a red cube, and it's tepid, oh boy!' The taste tests made me feel like we were working on something, making progress."

    Whatever the impetus, Mr. Weinstock's taste sense appears to have improved.

    "I've definitely gotten better at eating things with garlic, especially cooked garlic," he said.

    "In general, there are more things that taste good. And I'm better at understanding what tastes good and what doesn't."

    At a Brooklyn cafe recently, he tucked into a lemon buttermilk soufflé with obvious gusto.

    Although he estimates that he's recovered about 70 percent of his taste capacity, he concedes that this could simply be a matter of acclimating to his new sensory environs - after all, he initially thought he did well on the smell identification test, too.

    Taste, it turns out, is a difficult thing to pin down.

    "It's like asking a kid, 'Do you feel taller today?' " he said.

    "Any changes have been happening so gradually that it's hard to tell. I've had more than a year to forget what it was that I lost."

    One thing he hasn't forgotten: his old favorite, mint chocolate chip ice cream - or "mint chocolate R.I.P.," as he now calls it.

    "I kept trying it, but eventually I gave up, because it became too dispiriting," he said.

    His new favorite foods are blood orange juice and salad.

    "And as sad as it may sound, vanilla may now be my favorite ice cream. It tastes very vanilla-y."

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    He paused, and then added: "Or at least how I remember vanilla tasting."

May 23, 2005 at 02:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Full–Bottle Wine Glass

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I didn't know quite what to think of this object when I first saw it.

I mean, I see that it's a real wine glass, mouth–blown in Italy; but it holds an entire bottle of wine — up to two liters worth of liquid.

I suppose it does expose more wine to the air for the purpose of letting it breathe than does the narrow opening of a bottle.

The website says it's meant to allow users "to assure that they, in all honesty, only had one glass of wine."

Stands 13.2" tall; 4.25" in diameter.

$19.95 here (wine not included).

May 23, 2005 at 01:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Boys named Sue don't fare very well — Johnny Cash was right

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University of Florida economist David N. Figlio burst into the news earlier this year with his report on how children with unusual names don't fare as well in school as those named more conventionally.

Now he's back with the results of a new study: what happens to boys named Sue and the like.

It's ain't pretty, either for them or their classmates.

Johnny Cash was right after all.

Here's a news story about Figlio's latest work, which was reported in a working paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research.

    The Unusual Name Game

    We know it's tough being a boy named Sue.

    Now it turns out it's also a problem to be a classmate of a boy named Sue, according to University of Florida economist David Figlio.

    Figlio found that boys with first names typically given to girls were more likely to misbehave in junior high school than students with less distinctive monikers.

    And boys in classes with boys who have feminine-sounding names were more likely to have discipline problems and lower standardized test scores, Figlio reports in a new working paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

    Two months ago, Figlio found that children with unusual names don't fare as well in class.

    In his latest analysis, he used detailed data collected on more than 76,000 students in the late 1990s from a large school district in Florida.

    In exchange for access to student records, including names and disciplinary histories, Figlio promised not to reveal the school district or otherwise identify individual students.

    Overall Figlio found that nearly 2 percent of all boys in his sample had names that were overwhelmingly given to girls.

    That means the typical Florida middle-schooler will share about one out of every three classes with a boy named Sue ... or Ashley, Courtney or Shannon.

May 23, 2005 at 12:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Cheeky Chimp Feed Me Spoon

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I happened on this quirky baby spoon in yesterday's Washington Post.

The plastic cover keeps things clean until chow time.

Wrote the Post's Janelle Erlichman Diamond, "its kicky monkey design will make little ones go ape."

Little ones — what about the rest of us?

$6.95 at Periwinkle, 3815 Livingston St. NW, Washington, D.C.; tel: 202–364–3076.

But what if you don't live in Washington, D.C. or environs?

Then what?

Are you supposed to shrug, and go without?

Not likely, if you're a joehead or a bookofjoe crack research team member.

They went into the cyberspace wormhole and emerged, rather worse for the wear, with some good news — and some bad.

The good news is that you can get these spoons online, and in a chi–chi red as well as pristine white.

The bad news is that the site's in the U.K. so goodness knows what shipping will cost you.

More bad news — the website won't have them until next month which, while only eight days away, might as well be the year 2525 if you've just got to have one now.

£2.99 ($5.46) here.

May 23, 2005 at 11:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Pencil Chair

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Designer Jeremy Alden, who's just graduated from the Pratt Institute, created it out of 600 pencils.

He began the chair wondering if it would support his weight.

William Hamilton, in his New York Times story of this past Thursday wrote, "When asked, he [Alden] took a seat and smiled."

Alden calls his creation the "50 Dozen."

Do the math.

[via William Hamilton and the New York Times]

May 23, 2005 at 10:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

'By 2025 the number of English–speaking Chinese is likely to exceed the number of native English speakers in the rest of the world'

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So said Gordon Brown, the U.K. finance minister, during a recent trip to China.

If we won't learn Chinese then the Chinese will simply do the heavy lifting and learn English.

It's as simple as that and it's happening.

The Financial Times is well aware of who's going to be ruling the planet in decades to come and is doing its level best to tell us, in our own language, how it's going to happen.

The Times article that follows, by Andrew Yeh, appeared on April 13, 2005.

It speaks for itself.

    New Dawn in a Shared Language

    Many more Chinese are learning English to further their opportunities, driving the market for education

    On a typical weekday morning, Gao Long retreats to a snow-covered park among the grey buildings of Beijing Normal University to practise English by herself.

    Several other students do the same.

    Some sit on benches mumbling over books while others saunter to and fro in sub-zero temperatures while reading aloud.

    They come to work on their spoken English and escape the cramped dormitories they share with many roommates.

    "You don't disturb anybody in the park because everyone is reading out loud," said Ms Gao, a bespectacled college undergraduate.

    "You have to rely on yourself - others can only give you a form or teach you certain ways but it's still up to you in the end."

    Ms Gao spends her time here reading passages from her heavily marked English text, stopping every now and again to perfect her pronunciation of tricky words such as "pesticide".

    As the weather warms up, she says, even more students from the college will come to the park to practise.

    There are countless Chinese youths with the same curiosity and drive as Ms Gao for mastering the English language.

    In a country imbued with the values of self-improvement, learning English is often viewed as one of the surest ways to improve one's career opportunities.

    And these attitudes are expected to yield significant demand for education-related products and services in the years ahead.

    China is a country that has historically placed great value on education. Yet its current fanaticism for learning English is unique.

    "It's a phenomenon," said Zhou Chenggang, a former BBC correspondent who is now vice-president of New Oriental, a private Beijing-based company that runs a network of English teaching services around the country.

    "The biggest motivation is that they know it will help their lives."

    In China today, the keenest students of English tend to be those cramming for foreign exams, with the aim of going abroad and winning scholarships.

    To do well on the Graduate Record Examination (GRE), a test of verbal, quantitative and analytical skills, for instance, a Chinese student must be familiar with up to 20,000 words.

    And someone taking the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) needs to learn around 7,500 words, Mr Zhou estimates.

    Students in the capital, where the country's best universities are located, are known for reading and watching everything they can get their hands on.

    This hunger for learning is expected to generate huge growth in the market for English education products, which includes teaching services, textbooks, test preparation manuals, dictionaries and information technology products and services.

    The demand for classroom instruction has been increasing, too, though spending power in many Chinese cities remains limited.

    New Oriental estimated its total enrolment was 750,000 last year, up from 450,000 in 2003.

    And the demographic range of students is widening.

    Mr Zhou of New Oriental says that in the 1990s nearly all students learning English were preparing for specific foreign exams - such as GRE, TOEFL and the International English Language Testing System - to give them a chance to study abroad or raise their prospects of a job at a multinational company.

    These days those studying the language include children, older people and those with a general interest.

    English texts are now the fastest growing sector in China's book education market and account for up to 8 per cent of the retail book market, according to Xin Guangwei, a publishing industry researcher and author of Publishing in China.

    Numerous foreign education and publishing companies have been positioning themselves to cash in.

    Their success, however, will be determined by the extent to which they can access the market and how well they can outperform and co-operate with Chinese publishing houses.

    There is considerable Sino-foreign co-operation in the market for learning English. Oxford University Press and The Commercial Press, one of China's oldest publishing houses, together produce a bilingual English-Chinese pocket dictionary.

    Oxford University is also involved in producing English coursework materials for China's classrooms.

    Gunawan Hadi, Asia vice-president of McGraw-Hill Education, says his company has been working with Chinese publishers to develop English texts and reference materials.

    He adds that the company's China revenues have grown steadily in the past five years.

    Other foreign publishers such as Pearson Education and Cambridge University Press have also been trying to target the country's English enthusiasts.

    Gordon Brown, the UK finance minister, said during a recent trip to China that Britain's education exports were now the fastest growing export earner, having nearly doubled in five years to £10.3bn ($19.5bn) - equivalent to about 1 per cent of the country's gross domestic product.

    Mr Brown said that education exports would be vital to the UK economy - possibly reaching £20bn a year in 15 years time - and that China is expected to be the primary driver of growth.

    Many believe that China already has the world's largest number of people learning English.

    "In 20 years time, the number of English speakers in China is likely to exceed the number of speakers of English as a first language in all the rest of the world," Mr Brown said during a speech in Beijing.

    "I believe this is a huge opportunity."

    Those on the crest of the wave of learning are endlessly creative about study methods.

    Jessy Zhao, a 23-year-old from China's western Xinjiang region who is now studying for a Masters in education at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, covered her dormitory room wall with memos with English words she wanted to remember.

    "There was a movie that I really liked a lot when I started to learn English, so I tape recorded the conversation and repeated it again and again just for fun," said Ms Zhao.

    Students can be particularly obsessive about memorising vocabulary. Maggie Cheng, a student of English at Beijing Foreign Studies University, recalls how someone from her home town was given two Oxford dictionaries by her family as study aids.

    She ended up using one as a reference guide and the other for memorising.

    "She would read a page and then rip a page - for a sense of accomplishment, I guess," Ms Cheng says.

    There are many study aids available to Chinese students.

    Aside from the internet and English books sold in stores, outdated foreign newspapers and magazines are often for sale at a discount from street vendors and underground hawkers.

    Ms Gao of Beijing Normal University has been studiously flipping through issues of Time magazine because the "stories are real rather than a sham", she writes in an e-mail.

    "I read every book I can, I'm very interested," explains Ms Gao, who spends long hours in the library.

    "I think books help broaden our modes of thinking and knowledge."

    ********************

    Cost and Complications Take Some of the Appeal Out of Studying Overseas

    Despite China's fascination with the west, the number of Chinese students heading overseas has been declining in recent years, while those returning have been on the rise.

    More than 114,600 students went abroad to study last year, down from 125,000 in 2002, according to statistics from China's education ministry.

    And in the last five years, the number of Chinese returning from overseas stints has been increasing, exceeding 25,000 last year.

    Many students are choosing to stay at home to avoid the cumbersome visa procedures associated with foreign travel and the heavy financial cost of studying abroad - in marked contrast to the trend of the 1990s.

    UK universities in particular have witnessed a significant drop in the number of postgraduate applications from China, as well as other Asian countries.

    But for many students, the returns they seek can only be met by leaving China, where the job market for young professionals is tight.

    English language skills, coupled with scarce expertise in a technical area, are seen as a combination for success.

    "I regard [learning English] as a key to open the door to another world in which there are different cultures and people I want to understand," says Annan Yang, a 23-year-old from Hangzhou, near Shanghai, who is studying for a PhD in biology at Johns Hopkins University in Washington.

    "It's a tool like a computer to get information," she explains.

    "Especially in science, if I want to know the development of a field, I must know English because the best magazines are in English."

    Gao Long, a student at Beijing Normal University, says she wants to go to the US since it represents fairness and better opportunities.

    A book she is now reading describes an American town where life is "in harmony with its surroundings".

    "It's an open country," says the 16-year-old.

    "In China, many jobs are based more on background. In America, people pay more attention to your ability."

May 23, 2005 at 09:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

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