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Tuesday, August 13, 2013

‘Now the pupil is teaching us!’

Wang Yaping’s school days: A guest post by Wang Jun

After leaving its launch site in northwest China, the Shenzhou-10 rocket orbited the Earth for 15 days. The three astronauts managed to dock successfully with the orbiting space lab module Tiangong-1 before returning to earth. Mission complete, inquiries about spaceflight from school children rocketed. We had new heroes, but for me it was personal.

Waking to CCTV news on the eve of China’s most recent manned space flight, I knew there was something familiar about one of the crew. While mission leader Nie Haisheng was something of a veteran of the Chinese spaceflight programme, Wang Yaping (no relation) was being introduced to us as the second ever Chinese woman to go into orbit around the earth. As the news broke, I thought to myself – without wishing to undermine her giant step for women everywhere – ‘I know that girl!’

And I do. From 1991 to 1994 I taught at Yantai 23 Middle School, primarily in Chinese studies – not the language, but ‘articles’, i.e. students’ pastoral education. Wang Yaping was one of our students at exactly the same time, before moving up to high school. I don’t remember all the students from that period, but one left a big impression on the whole school. Back in those days, Ms. Wang was the Chinese subject lead, the class representative – holding the Chinese subject office accountable to students – and the classroom study commissioner. Unusually, she excelled both at sports and studies simultaneously. There are plenty of middle school students I don’t recall at all, but this cute and studious girl had a school-wide reputation because she made such an impact. She balanced sports training and studies, was strong across all subjects and able to class-lead straight from her first year. All her tutors praised her responsibility, determination and confidence.

If I make her sound like an astronaut almost from birth, it is worth recalling that in 1991, no-one even joked about this career choice. Back then, it was not really a dream that was normal for China. Nowadays, Ms. Wang is the first famous person from the school (and pretty much from the city of Yantai). Statistically, with just 10 Chinese space travellers in history, two of them women, this occupation would always sound improbable. Her almost unique status makes her a local hero throughout Shandong Province; not bad for someone from an ordinary family of cherry farmers who kept a low profile after leaving school.

Pupil turned teacher when Wang Yaping gave a 40-minute lecture from space, performing a five-section experiment and showing how – in line with the physics she’d just explained – her results could play out differently in zero gravity. Back in Yantai, the frisson of local pride went well beyond her school student audience, not just from seeing all her hard work pay off. There was widespread recognition of the possible dangers involved in a 15-day mission such as this, especially with take-off and re-entry. Her parents were reportedly bemused on their first ‘reassuring’ trip to their daughter’s People’s Liberation Army training centre, but Ms. Wang had been building up to this moment since middle school – completing her formal education at the army’s strict Chang Chun pilot college, which, within the strictures of the university quota system, had talent-scouted her on a visit to the high school and saw potential both in her grades and physical fitness scores. These days her mentors at these institutions are saying ‘in the past we taught her, now she teaches us’.

Some Yantai locals now see her as a celebrity – a growing phenomenon in China recently – but the family are having none of it. Ms. Wang’s parents temporarily vacated the family farm to avoid interviews and TV journalists. In part, they were worried about their growing recognition of the potential dangers inherent in their daughter’s job. In the event of a tragedy, they didn’t want to be doorstepped as part of some mawkish TV specials, which – like celebrity itself, are an increasingly high-profile component of Chinese broadcasting.

Away from the personalities, public support for this venture was high. Like the Olympics before it, the spaceflight programme is a chance to showcase the country and both match and exceed the efforts of the United States. A few commentators, mainly outside China, have argued that money should be spent on smaller, basic items instead. Yet having a space programme is consistent with President Xi Jinping’s ‘Chinese Dream’ phase, so the government itself seeks to treat space travel as part of this wider project. To those who say spaceflight is a luxury, happy and excited Chinese reply ‘why not do it’, talking up the future benefits of developing space – for humanity as a whole. In Wang Yaping, we have a serious person capable of carrying these dreams.

* Wang Jun studies Crisis Management at the University of Belgrade.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Where the Snide Talk Ends?

What to do with this blog? It's clear that I reach more people, and get more interaction, on Twitter and Facebook (ventures into Tumblr and Pinterest have gone nowhere yet). The stats show some oddities (48 Latvian page views so far this month), plus hundreds of  'Comrade Delta'-related visits, but otherwise I'm not sure where it's all headed (only that I won't be retiring on the earnings just yet). I've got projects on the go and some offers of paid work for an e-zine. Although I've a way smaller readership, it's perhaps worth me having a chat with readers, in a faint echo of Jason Walsh's discussion about the future of Forth a while back, to see where the blog should go. But not today. Suggestions welcome.

Friday, August 02, 2013

Winding Refn Me Up

Over on Spiked, it becomes clear I was not very keen on Only God Forgives and less than impressed by Saint Ryan of Gosling's latest character.