Toe back into the online pool

Travel* +  time zones +  away from internet +  jet lag  = no web activity. It's a mathematical axiom known since the time of Euclid. But before sleeping off the latest long-haul trip and rejoining the crack, round-the-clock Atlantic Monthly web team reporting on the Aspen Ideas Festival effective in a few hours, two notes from opposite ends of the world.

From China: Three months ago I mentioned that an "unofficial site" in Beijing was providing hourly Twitter readings on the air pollution element that is most threatening to health but is either not measured or not reported by the Chinese government itself. I knew then but did not say that the "unofficial" site was actually on the roof of the U.S. embassy in Beijing. I did not say it because friends at the embassy said that calling attention to it could seem provocative or thumbing-the-nose at Chinese authorities and could jeopardize the whole undertaking. A tremendous amount of "unofficial" activity goes on in China, under the hallowed principle of "one eye open, one eye shut." As long as the authorities' noses weren't rubbed in the flouting of rules, many things were possible.

For better or worse, and perhaps with different guidance from embassy officials, Time magazine's blog recently revealed that the site was on the embassy roof. And just now my favorite paper, the China Daily, has picked up the story. In the short run, I see that it has kicked Twitter followers for the service well up above previous levels. I hope the readings continue -- and, of course, that they eventually show healthier air.

From America: There are lots of things my wife and I will miss about China, and lots of things that are a relief to escape. I will chronicle them systematically at some point. Here's one brief "I miss China" item for the moment: Jeez is it a pain to return to the culture of tipping. I hated the haggling in Chinese markets and preferred to shop where there were simple price tags -- and the item was worth it to me, or it was not. So too did I hate this episode on arrival in Aspen today:

We got off an airplane and got into a van headed for the conference headquarters. We climb out at the HQ, and the driver stands in our path and announces, "Your transportation is covered by the conference, but you are perfectly free to tip." I guess he could tell we had been away.

I know and respect the little signs saying "Gratuities appreciated" on, say, the shuttle buses taking you to airport car-rental lots. I understand the ritual supplement at restaurants, and am always "generous" in that regard. Same with hotel maids, and so on. I have worked in tip-receiving jobs. But this episode just made me think: there has to be a better way.

I rummaged through my pockets that were still full of Chinese RMB and finally found a $5 bill. I gave it to him and thought: I do not believe that countries with a tipping culture end up having a fairer distribution of income than ones (like China) where tipping is unusual and can even seem insulting. They just end up delivering the money in a way that is more demeaning all around. The driver can't have enjoyed this exercise. I know I didn't. Please! Just add the money to the fare -- or the restaurant check or the hotel bill --  rather than having all of commercial life colored by the haggling / hostile-servile on one end / guilty-paternalistic on the other end institution of the tip. Ok, Ok, we can deal with the environmental crisis and health-care reform before that. But this is a place where the Chinese (and the Japanese and in many cases the Aussies and others) have it right.
* Explanation of travel oddities: We left Beijing two weeks ago today; spent 72 hours in the US; were out of the country again; and are back, today, for the duration.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.


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