The China Chronicles, chapter 2 (2009)

— Back to Chapter 1.

New Year’s Day in Fenghuang
January 3, 2009

JISHOU, HUNAN — I closed the old year in good spirits, but started the new year irritated at needing to suddenly change my plans for Jan. 1, 2009. By the end of the first day of the New Year, however, the irritation was gone. I was exhausted, but ebullient and quite content.

New Year’s Eve I spent with some of my former Oral English students. 陈欢欢 Kasurly (that’s her English name) met me to go shopping at the supermarket that afternoon. We have become cooking buddies, so we made dinner for ourselves while we awaited her seven roommates to come watch a big concert on my TV.

Around 9 or so, my Ukrainian neighbors invited me up for another dinner they were making with one of my present students, Jen. So I left the gaggle of freshmen to watch their TV program, and hung out with the girls upstairs. Denis, the husband of a Ukrainian voice teacher, came up later, and we all shared his brandy. Then the concert girls came up to toast the New Year before they had to scurry back to their dorm after curfew.

Originally, my plans for New Year’s Day were to spend the afternoon making dumplings at the home of Fu Xiao, one of my students, but on Dec. 30, I had received a call from my liaison officer, David Luo, that forced me to postpone that date.

David told me that Hunan Economic TV (HNETV) wanted a Westerner — ideally one who spoke Chinese — to appear in a program about Fenghuang, a tourist attraction not far from here. They were going to shoot it on New Year’s Day. They had called the university, and David then called me to press me into duty.

I agreed with some reluctance, since my last TV excursion to Dehang was fun, but in some ways a little annoying. We three Americans were basically props for that program, which aired Christmas Day here on Xiangxi County TV. So I was dreading a similar experience in Fenghuang.

My interpreter for the Dehang gig had been my friend Shelldy (庞肖狄 Pang XiaoDi), who is always great company, so I asked her if she wanted to join me in Fenghuang. Thankfully, she had no exams that day, and agreed cheerfully. My irritation was already beginning to wane.

When I had asked David if Shelldy could go, he said it was not a problem, but HNETV had asked for a faculty translator. As it turned out, that faculty member could not go, so it was just me and Shelldy who joined the HNETV crew at 10 am.

Unbeknownest to either of us until that morning, the star of the program was YoYo,

Yoyo, lovely Hunan ETV hostess,蒋宏杰,Jiǎng HóngJié

Yoyo, lovely Hunan ETV hostess,蒋宏杰,Jiǎng HóngJié

a beautiful model/actress/TV host well known here in Hunan. Shelldy was ecstatic, and after working with YoYo for the better part of a day, I’ve become a YoYo fan, too.

On the drive down to Fenghuang, the directors gave Shelldy a summary of the program. YoYo was to be a tourist visiting the ancient town, but in some scenes she would also portray a native Miao (see photo right). I was her co-star (yes, you read that right!): when she was a tourist, I was a local ex-pat; when she was a native, I was a tourist. We would shoot three scenes together. In one, YoYo would speak English dialogue. In another, we would both speak Chinese.

So, I would not be a prop at all, but an active participant. In addition, the crew was courteous and friendly, and treated me and Shelldy as colleagues. I was already in high spirits before we arrived in Fenghuang.

We were met in Fenghuang by the director of the city’s tourism office, who had arranged two sumptuous meals for us during the day’s shoot. Before lunch, the crew shot YoYo (born 蒋宏杰 Jiǎng HóngJié in Hengyang, Hunan) playing the tourist, walking the shopping street in the old town and staring at a tour map. In between takes, passers-by would stop to ask YoYo to pose with them for photos.

Before that day, I knew nothing about YoYo. After the day was over, she had impressed me with her professionalism, calm demeanor and friendly, patient manner with her numerous fans. Of course, her telling me across a table that I had wonderful blue eyes, a warm heart and a handsome face may have colored my opinion!

After lunch, we shot a scene in a famous silver shop, with me playing the tourist and Yoyo playing a Miao shopkeeper. The dialogue was in English, which she can speak fairly well, and basically consisted of me complimenting her as a beautiful girl, taking her photo, and then proceeding to buy a lot of silver jewelry for my daughter.

Later scenes included YoYo as a young Miao woman washing clothes on the banks of the Tuojiang River, and me playing the part of a photo-happy tourist, and the two of us exchanging Chinese dialogue in a local bar. (That’s where she complimented me, as we waited for the crew to sort out the scene.)

After two big meals, and a lot of standing out in the freezing cold, we finally left for home around 11 pm. Shelldy was now locked out of her dormitory, so the TV crew put her up in their hotel in Jishou. They delivered me directly to my doorstep around 12:30 am.

I have no idea whether I will get paid for this gig, and I frankly don’t care. I got to spend the day with a good friend, meet new people (and a local media star!), and be an actor. By far, it was the best January 1 I have had in years.

[Photos of the day — and many others — can be seen at my Picasaweb site.]

Post-New Year’s update
Jan. 13, 2009

JISHOU, HUNAN — My exams are marked, final grades are calculated, and I can now start my Winter Holiday! Phew!

The campus is pretty empty right now. University students have four weeks’ break, officially, but many left for home as soon as possible after their last examination. Left on campus are a few exchange students, assorted graduate students with work still to submit, and faculty.

In China, Spring Festival — celebrating the lunar New Year — is a big family affair, like Thanksgiving and Christmas are in the States. Imagine rolling Independence Day (fireworks), Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Eve into one holiday, and you can begin to understand what a festive occasion awaits us here.

With some time on my hands — finally — I can recap what has happened in the last several days since my last post.

When we last left our hero, he was recovering from a long day in Fenghuang shooting for a TV show….

The following day, I helped make and eat dumplings at the home of a freshman student, Fu Xiao, whose father is a local government official. Fu Xiao and her friend, Tian Fang, another of my students, helped me buy a space heater for my apartment, since the heat pump does a crappy job warming any room besides the bedroom. Xiao’s father gave me a gift of Xiangxi tea, grown in the mountains around here, which I swear is the best damned tea I have ever had. Sweet and fragrant. Aaahhh!

Earlier in the day, XiaoDi had called me, to tell me that the ETV crew once again needed my presence in Fenghuang, this time on Saturday. Since she had an exam, I was deprived of my favorite interpreter, so I asked another friend, Yang XiXi, a senior, to help me out. Her spoken English skills are also very good, and fortunately, she was able and willing to come along.

So, it was on Saturday afternoon that the ETV crew picked me, XiXi and her boyfriend up for another trip to Fenghuang. Alas, the beautiful ETV emcee, YoYo, was not with us this time, but the buoyant energy of the crew made up for her absence.

This time, they wanted to shoot a scene with me photographing a lovely Miao girl by the river, who would sing a courtship song to me, and I would have to sing something back — in Chinese.

The Miao and Tujia are ethnic minorities here, and have lived in this part of Hunan (Xiangxi county) for thousands of years. Singing is an important part of both cultures. When entering a Miao village or home, local people will sing a song, and the visitor has to sing something in return (and drink a bowl of rice wine) to be granted entry. Miao and Tujia men and women court each other by singing songs back and forth.

But who would be the lovely Miao girl by the river? YoYo was not with us, and none of the women in the crew seemed willing to take on the role. Instead, they insisted XiXi do it.

Asking XiXi to come along was thus serendipitous, because XiXi’s father is Miao and she knows a lot about Miao culture. She does not know the Miao language, however, so while the crew negotiated with a local boatsman, XiXi learned part of a Miao love song phonetically from a nearby older Miao woman. (Miao do not use Chinese characters for their language, so XiXi had to write down the lyrics in pinyin.)

Originally, both I and the Miao girl would be in boats passing on the Tuojiang River, but the crew decided the logistics would be easier if I stayed on the quai and the girl was in the boat. At this point, XiXi’s enthusiasm (she had only signed on as a translator, after all) plummeted to zero. She can’t swim, and the idea of getting in a boat the size of a canoe did not exactly thrill her. The crew insisted, and with encouragement from me and her boyfriend, she donned Miao clothes, and ventured out into the river.

Despite freezing weather and her misgivings, XiXi did an excellent job in her role, prompting one director, Zhou Jie (Jane), to praise her as a very good actress. Jane also managed to coach me to sing a few lines of a Chinese boatsman song in reply, so after several takes, we were all able to wrap up this shoot in time for dinner. No midnight marathon this time.

Jane has since given me a rundown of the program the crew is shooting. It is a four-hour presentation of the culture and scenery of Xiangxi county. The Fenghuang segment is only one of five they have been shooting since Jan. 1. If I had not had exams to administer, I may have very well been asked to appear in other segments. The program will premiere on the 17th here at the university, to kick off the county’s celebration of the New Year.

The program is also a way to divert people’s attention away from the economic turmoil here. In September an elaborate and illegal investment scheme fell apart, leaving thousands of local people with losses totaling 1 to 2 billion yuan. There have been intermittent protests by the government buildings downtown since then, and the police have been on enhanced security watches practically non-stop. Today, I saw a small army patrol downtown, and their bivouac at the Jishou Sports Arena.

It’s a mess that the government would like to make go away, but is not prepared — rightly so — to reimburse all the unwise and unsophisticated who risked their life savings in the get-rich-quick scheme. Some families are now completely broke. Spring Festival is a time for big family meals, monetary gifts to youngsters, fireworks and visiting all your friends and relatives. With no money left, many local residents are upset, and expect the government (which looked the other way when the illegal investment scheme first began) to help them out.

Meanwhile, life goes on for everyone else. Downtown is still as busy as ever, with the usual crowd on the sidewalks. I have eaten and shopped downtown several times in the last few days with no problem, though the continual cluster of police and residents by the government building tends to slow down both vehicle and foot traffic on that block.

With school out and more time on our hands, I have been to spend “quality time” with a good friend who leaves today on a sightseeing tour before she heads home to her parents. My friends in town, most of whom are either teachers or students, have plans to keep me busy during the Winter Holiday, with sightseeing excursions, dinners, karaoke outings, a family Spring Festival celebration, a birthday party (mine!) and Chinese lessons. In early February I will be an honored guest at local Miao and Tujia cultural activities.

So, while the campus is relatively deserted and Jishou’s citizenry a little tense, I will be busy and happy.

Observations on Chinese student life
Jan. 15, 2009

JISHOU, HUNAN — University life for students in China mixes the regimentation of a secondary boarding school with the freedom of young adulthood. After five months here, I still find the combination baffling.

In a similar vein, I have learned that Chinese parents and secondary schools are generally far less liberal about their children’s social connections, especially dating, than most Western parents. This parental control can extend into the child’s university years, as well, to an extent that would drive most Western students batty.

Whether the added supervision of teenagers and young adults is a good thing, I cannot and should not say. It’s not my culture, after all. On one level, I can understand the motivation for such tight control of youngsters. A child here is a precious investment in a family’s future, and because of national birth-control laws, an extremely limited resource.

Most Chinese families can legally have only one child; if they live in a rural area, they can legally have two. There can be dire consequences for couples who have a little oopsie, and produce an additional child above the legal limit. Those consequences include hefty fines, additional taxes and job demotions or barriers.

Chinese culture is more conservative than Western culture, so there is already a cultural reluctance to grant young people a lot of freedom. If you also consider that any child is a one-time-only gift to a couple, parents probably want to protect their children from harm and from potentially dishonoring the family. Thus, parents keep a close, draconian eye on their teenagers’ social life.

The emphasis on education is another big factor in sheltering children from what most Westerners consider normal rites of passage into adulthood. Middle- and high-school students spend their time in a pressure cooker of study, study, study, test, study, study, study, test, culminating in the critical college entrance examination. The scores on that examination determine a student’s future; poor scores doom the student to a life without a college education or perhaps a decent income. In China, children are expected to support, even house, their parents until they die. So, the results of the Chinese college entrance examination have far-reaching consequences, much more than shoddy scores on the SAT or ACT might have.

My evidence is pretty anecdotal, but I am living in a socially more conservative area than say, the cosmopolitan cities of Beijing or Shanghai, so I am reasonably sure that the generalizations that follow are accurate. My students will see this post on my Qzone page, so I hope they will comment on it.

It is fair to say that Chinese children stay children longer than in the USA. That is to say, parents and society prevent them from interacting with the outside world in the ways American teens can. They cannot drive a car until age 18, so their mobility (and privacy) is restricted. There are really no part-time jobs available for them to work, so they have no real opportunity to work alongside other youngsters or adults, apart from their own family members.

Parents and schools tightly constrain youngsters’ leisure time. Students have lessons on weekends, and free time at home (or in the dormitory for boarders)is usually for doing sports, homework and further study. If the child is allowed TV access, Chinese TV is nowhere near as racy or provocative as even American network TV (not to mention US cable or European TV) is, so there is less chance for them to see the adult (mis)behaviors American parents dread their children seeing on the tube.

[The Internet, despite the Great Firewall of China, is a mitigating factor, however. Like teens everywhere, Chinese students are tech-savvy, and manage to watch what they want when they want either on their computers, or on their MP4 devices. So, some of my students have acquired American ways of thinking that sometimes puts them at loggerheads with their parents.]

Most parents actively discourage (and prevent) their high school age children from dating or even from having boy- or girlfriends. For the majority of students, then, their first real opportunity to have relationships — sexual or romantic — usually has to wait until they enter university. Even there, their free time is restricted in many ways.

One college senior told me her mother still periodically checks the girl’s cellphone message and Internet email queues to see if there is evidence of any boyfriends in her life. Her mother has kept this vigilance up since the girl was in middle school. A freshmen confided in me recently that she has fallen in love with a classmate, but fears telling her mother since mom has strictly forbidden the girl from having a boyfriend in college, so that her grades do not suffer. (Honestly, even as a parent, I cannot see how anyone can realistically expect to enforce such a ban. Chinese hormones are the same as American hormones. Love is universal.)

At this university, and I suppose elsewhere in China, the dormitories lock up for the night at 10:30, or sometimes at 11 pm. Spending time with students in the evening requires us all to keep a careful eye on the time, as students may not be able to re-enter their dorms if we stay out too late. (Though, of course there are “secret” methods of re-entering after curfew — another universal human behavior.) Dormitories are single-sex only; girls may visit the boys’ dormitories, but boys are not permitted entry to the girl’s dorms, or even to their quads. With as many as 10 students to a room, the chances for couples to have some private time together in a dorm room are virtually non-existent in any event.

Unescorted visits to members of the opposite sex seem to be frowned upon, anyway. They are Just Not Done. This is a poor generalization, however. One of my student female friends, aged 20, is notably reluctant to visit my apartment without someone else in tow, despite our spending time alone together shopping and eating elsewhere. On the other hand, another girl the same age cheerfully visits with me, sometimes for an entire afternoon, with no supervision. [At this point, I hasten to add that there is a stipulation in my contract that I have no “love relationships” with students. I confess to being a little hazy as to what that exactly means, and whether it applies to all students or just the ones I teach. So, in some ways I appreciate the caution of my female guests, not to get rumours floating around. I rather like my job here, thank you.]

Couples do manage to acquire some quality time. The trees around Fengyu Lake provide excellent cover for kissing and whatnot; and there are several hotels near the university that willingly rent out rooms, no questions asked. Some couples go so far as renting apartments in town, to facilitate their trysts. While there are cultural taboos against premarital sex, and potential problems for would-be brides who are not virgins, sexual mores are changing here, albeit slowly.

Other social activities remind me of the images we have of the quintessential American high school of the 1950s. We don’t have sockhops here, but group activities — like the end-of-term college parties I attended — are just as chaste and alcohol free. The games at the parties were just clean fun, but for someone accustomed to the often drunken mayhem of American university life, they were more like the activities at an American pre-teen’s birthday party than games for 20-somethings.

Which, I must say, is not a bad thing. American uni students seem bent on spending as much time as feasibly possible in chemically altered states, despite being under less academic pressure — typically — than Chinese kids are. There is no apparent restriction on alcohol sales here; the campus supermarket sells (admittedly watery) beer and the more potent rice wine, but there are cultural taboos against public drunkenness. Men are more likely to drink (and smoke) than women, so an American-style coeducational kegger would be a pretty unlikely event.

On the academic side, class schedules for most students resemble American high school than American university schedules. On some days of the week, students might have six to eight hours of classes. They might also have required study sessions early in the mornings, or late in the evenings, and additional meeting times on weekends. Attendance is monitored, though not to the degree that it is in secondary schools. Teaching for most subjects depends almost exclusively on lecture and recitation, with little of the give-and-take class discussion even US middle school students enjoy. And there are the ever-present examinations (with attendant long-term consequences) looming in the not-to-distant future: finals, English mastery tests, postgraduate exams, etc., etc.

That their behavior seems more innocent than American university students’ does not imply Chinese students are childish in mind or beliefs. While most seem to possess an infectious, childlike optimism, the students I have spent time with are thoughtful, mature young adults, with serious concerns both for their futures and for the future of their homeland. They — especially the older students — recognize the corruption and foot-dragging of the central government, and chafe under the infuriatingly conservative restrictions of home and school. The younger students seem more “westernized” in some ways than even the seniors, a tendency that one of my senior friends has also noted, which leads me to suspect that China’s “opening up” thirty years ago will in another two or three decades result in a China that will be in many ways unrecognizable to people now.

Perhaps my students’ children then will enjoy freedoms their parents now only wish for.

Big Hunan TV debut
Jan. 24, 2009

JISHOU, HUNAN — OK, so I was only on screen for maybe 10 minutes — tops — sandwiched in between musical acts for a pre-Spring Festival concert extravaganza, but it was still a debut on provincial TV.

And, get this, all of my lines were in Chinese! I learned them on the spot, with patient coaching from a Hunan Economic TV director (and of course promptly forgot them all by the following day).

Here is the link to the on line version of the telecast last night. You will only be able to watch it if you are using Internet Explorer and only if you download a plugin for IE here. I have had no luck viewing the clip yet. Either it is not yet available, or my antiquated versions of Windows (2K Pro) and IE6 are not up to the task.

When you load the first link, this is what you will see. I have labeled the appropriate buttons to click on to see the video.

Screen cap of ETV media page

Screen cap of ETV media page

If any clever person can figure out how to capture this video stream and/or make it a YouTube video, let me know. I have people working on the task on this side of the world, too.

I have already chronicled the background behind how I ended up in this TV production, so I won’t go into great detail here. Briefly, I was pressed into service when ETV called the university looking for a westerner who could speak both English and Chinese well. I was the closest approximation, an American with next-to-no Chinese speaking ability. I agreed reluctantly, since I had made other plans for Jan. 1, the day of the shoot.

Previously, I had appeared with two other American teachers in a local TV production about Dehang, a nearby Miao village. My friend, Shelldy, had been my interpreter for that gig, so I asked if she could join me on the ETV shoot. So it was that she and I ended up spending more than 12 hours in Fenghuang, a scenic, historic town about 90 minutes from Jishou, with a buoyant (and young!) TV crew.

The star of the program is YoYo, the stage name of Jiang Hongjie, an attractive actress/model/TV host and a Hunan celebrity. In the scenes that survived the editing process, she and I sit across a table in a Fenghuang bar, she playing a tourist to Fenghuang and me playing the ex-pat owner of the bar. She asks me how long I have lived in the town (two years) and about how I came to be there.

I pull out a photo album, and we look at the photos. In one, I am pulling ginger candy at a local candy shop. As we look at another, I tell her that I came across a beautiful Miao girl (YoYo in custome) washing clothes in the Tuojiang River. And finally, I reminisce about another beautiful Miao girl I saw passing by in a boat, as we see me taking photos of the second “piao liang.”

We shot that bar scene after dinner Jan. 1. By that time, we had been working for close to 10 hours and were all tired. I was extremely unsure whether my hastily learned dialogue even sounded remotely Chinese. (Remember, I was playing an ex-pat who had been living in China for two years, so I didn’t need to sound like a native speaker, just intelligible.) Once that was in the can, we left Fenghuang, arriving around 12:30 am, with me retiring to my flat and Shelldy and the TV crew to the crew’s hotel.

The riverboat scene came from day 2 of the shooting. Shelldy had an exam, and could not accompany me. When she sent me a text telling me about the details of day 2, I was chatting online with Yang XiXi (Katrina), one of my senior English majors. Katrina’s spoken English skills are also very good, so she ended up being not only my interpreter, but actress and singer, too. The Miao girl in the boat is in fact Katrina.

I had to give exams myself the following week, so if the crew had planned to use me again, my further involvement would have been out of the question. As it turns out, the crew stayed in Jishou for nearly three weeks, leaving for home (Changsha) only after filming all over Xiangxi county and shooting the big concert at the university on Jan. 17.

To spotlight the video, ETV planned to show segments between performances during the concert. Many big superstars were in the concert, so the viewership was expected to be very high. Xiangxi and Jishou are in the midst of an economic crisis, after thousands of residents lost millions of yuan in a dodgy (and illegal) real estate investment scheme last fall. There have been mass protests in downtown Jishou, and the local police have been on heightened alert since August, pulling long shifts and duty rounds. [My friend, Smile, is not sure if her policeman husband would actually be able to join her for Spring Festival tomorrow. That’s how bad it is.]

To bring attention to the more positive aspects of western Hunan and bring in some tourist dollars, I suspect the venue of the end-of-year superstar concert was hastily moved from Changsha (ETV’s HQ and the provincial capital) to the Jishou U gymnasium in the fall. The tourism spots featuring YoYo were, I also suspect, another last-minute addition, since inserting them between superstars singing would virtually guarantee an audience.

There were two rehearsals at the Ji Da gym (Ji Da is local slang for the university, which in Chinese is Jishou Da Xue). At the first, on the 16th, I was able to see the final video for the first time. After my appearance spouting Chinese dialogue, the guy sitting next to me started up a conversation — in Chinese! — assuming that I would understand him. So, I was convincing after all, if still functionally unable to speak the language. [My students are also similarly impressed, since they know how little Chinese I know still. I’m getting better, though!]

The first rehearsal was also the dress rehearsal for the dancers who would be performing around the superstar singers, the special effects (hundreds of LED panels, flamethrowers, sparklers, smoke machines!), and the timing of the acts. Some of the dancers were pros, and some were from the College of Music and Dance. Local Miao and Tujia people also participated.

The second rehearsal was the afternoon of the concert. When I arrived at this one with Smile and another friend, we saw police everywhere. This rehearsal was for the superstars, so the cops were there to protect the stars from … what, I dunno. The campus was virtually empty, since school officially closed for Winter Holiday on the 15th, and hardly anyone knew the big concert was in Jishou. Mostly the police tried to discourage us from taking photos during the rehearsal, which we all did anyway.

We could tell there were superstars present because some of the people standing around were wearing black masks covering the lower halves of their faces. Why someone would expect this disguise would make them more anonymous defies logic, but there they were.

After sitting in a cold gym watching the second rehearsal, I was fully expecting that I, Smile and Tina would also be able to attend the actual performance as guests. No such luck. ETV was being stingy with passes, so instead I wangled a free ticket from the university. That ticket gave me a seat in the nosebleed section, but at least I didn’t have to shell out a couple hundred yuan for a ticket or worse yet, sit at home watching the TV broadcast.

My comrades in the nosebleed section were also impressed with my performance, and a couple took photos of me, but that was the extent of my fame for the night. [Good, I think those black masks look stupid!]

So, what came out of all this TV brouhaha? For me, experience being an actor, working with a professional TV crew, making new friends, cementing existing friendships, discovering my mouth can actually make Chinese words, gaining a little fame (but not fortune) and some street creds. We’ll see whether there are long range effects after last night’s province-wide telecast on satellite TV.

Spring Festival and baijiu-rthday fun
Feb. 6, 2009

JISHOU, HUNAN — My activities for the past couple of weeks have kept me away from writing much of anything, other than emails and QQ chats, so I am using this warm February afternoon to relay my activities since Jan. 15.

The university officially went on Winter Holiday on Jan. 15. Classes resume in nine days. I managed to turn in all my grades by Jan. 13, clearing the way for my own four-week holiday.

My friend Rain had plans for me beginning the 20th, so I basically had a week with little to do. The Spring Festival is a time for families to gather, much as Thanksgiving and Christmas are in the States. Given the mayhem of Spring Festival travel, students wisely leave campus as soon as they are able. Otherwise, train tickets may be impossible to obtain. This left the campus a virtual ghost town after the 13th, the day on which most students had their last examinations.

Fortunately, I have friends in town. One of my freshmen, Grace, invited me to travel with her family to her grandmother’s village in the countryside on the 15th. There, her relatives were making a special kind of rice cake, a traditional New Year food of the Tujia people. (The Tujia and the Miao are both ethnic minorities, native to this part of Hunan province.) After boiling the rice into a sticky porridge, the cooks pour the rice into a stone vessel. Then, two people (usually men) pound the boiled rice with heavy wooden mallets, breaking the kernels and forming an even stickier rice mixture.

[Photos of the process are here in my Picasaweb page.]

When the rice reaches the right consistency, the two pounders link their mallets together and rotate around the stone mortar to pull the still steaming rice free. They carry the dough ball to a greased stone slab, where others (usually women) knead the dough further and shape it into flat, round disks about 2 to 3 cm thick. The disks are then laid out on a sheet of plastic to dry in the sun.

Grace’s family made two kinds of sticky-rice cakes: white and yellow. I forgot to ask how the yellowed ones are colored, but their consistency reminded me of corn bread, so I wonder if yellow corn is part of the porridge mixture.

While the rice cake production continued, some of the village children led Grace and me to a cave a short distance from the village. (Most of this short distance was up the side of a mountain. Western Hunan has no shortage of steep slopes to climb.) Grace herself had never been to her grandmother’s village, so the trek was an adventure for both of us. We penetrated pretty deep into the mountain, but we two adults dissuaded the much younger (and more nimble) set from exploring the cave any further. We did leave our initials on the cave ceiling before leaving, though.

Her family served a simple, but very tasty country meal, and of course the requisite firewater (baijiu) to the men. Baijiu is a local brew, usually fermented from sorghum or millet, with alcoholic strength ranging from moderate to instant hangover. Grace’s uncle owns a baijiu distillery, so our liquor came from a reused four-liter water jug. Not chic, but still very good.

During the Spring Festival I had several occasions to drink baijiu, of various qualities. Around here, baijiu is served with meals and is the beverage most commonly used to toast one another at meals. Traditionally, men largely drink it, but I have noticed than women, particularly the younger ones, also partake of the aqua vitae. It goes down surprisingly easily, even at higher proofs, which (as I learned from experience) means it is best not to drink too much too quickly.

My next excursion was to walk around Qian Zhou with Rain, our mutual friend, Smile, and Rain’s daughter. Originally, we were going to visit Qian Zhou on the 20th, but Rain’s job and the need to pick her brother and sister-in-law up at the Zhangjiajie airport meant a delay until the 21st.

Qian Zhou Zhen is just about 10 km south of Jishou. It was once the site of an ancient town, much older than Jishou. (Before the 1950s, my friends tell me, Jishou was a tiny little riverside village, while Qian Zhou was more of a town. Their roles reversed once the Chinese government made Jishou the capital of the Xiangxi Tujia and Miao Ethnic Minority Autonomous Prefecture and located a university here.)

Now Qian Zhou, like many other places in China, is the focus of rapid urban development. The ancient quarter’s architecture has been recreated rather lifelessly with concrete blocks, but Qian Zhou still retains some of the original flavor of the town. There is a temple to Kong Zi (Confucius) there, which tour groups visit from time to time. It was once a school, and during the Cultural Revolution, a re-education detainment center.

The rest of Qian Zhou resembles more a modern Chinese city, with wide avenues, high rise buildings and many shops and restaurants. There is a huge park there, and a broad plaza faces the imposing Xiangxi government building, where Rain works in the cultural affairs office. The long range plan, apparently, is to move the commercial district and main train station from the cramped downtown of Jishou to Qian Zhou. When this will happen, given the economic downturn, is up for debate.

The following day, we went to downtown Jishou, so that Rain could buy holiday decorations for her home and for mine. For the new year, you are supposed to decorate your doorway with banners of red and gold (traditional Spring Festival colors), and hang colorful paper lanterns and the special new-year’s knot around your home. Sweets are another requirement, since eating something sweet as the new year begins ensures a sweet new year.

Rain and her parents live on the eighth floor of a building in the Qian Zhou Teacher’s Village (her father is a scholar on Tujia culture, especially the weaving art of xilankanpu). There I had New Year’s Eve dinner on the 25th. Just before we sat down to a sumptuous meal cooked by her grandmother, mother and sister-in-law, we lit firecrackers — a custom to scare away any evil nearby. (Baijiu was part of this meal, too.)

After dinner, I learned why the Chinese greet the New Year with fireworks. According to ancient legend, there was a demon called Nian (年 – the same word for the lunar new year) who ravenously ate any animals or people in his path. A boy discovered that Nian, though fierce, was afraid of loud noises. Firecrackers especially scared the creature away, so to keep the evil Nian at bay, the Chinese shoot off fireworks as the new year begins.

Another custom, not as widely practiced nowadays, is to stay up all night until dawn. I and most of my friends barely made it past 2 am, however.

On New Year’s Day, traditionally you eat dumplings (we call them potstickers sometimes in the States). My dumpling lunch and larger dinner was in the home of Harry, one of my freshmen. I later joined Harry and his family a few days later to visit his uncle and aunt in Fenghuang.

On the 27th, another friend, James, who teaches English at a local middle school, invited me to join his family in Furongzhen for lunch and dinner. We ended up staying the night in a hotel, as well.

The trip to Furongzhen was a bit of an adventure, so forgive the details. James’ brother-in-law has a car, but it could not hold all of us. So James and I took a bus to Furongzhen. James sat in the last seat in the back, and I just in front of him. The bus was crowded and the roads are bumpy. Next to James was a mother and her two young children, one of whom had just finished a milk drink before boarding the bus.

You parents reading this probably already know what happened. The girl got carsick and threw up her milk drink onto the floor next to me. Not entirely pleasant to witness (or smell), but the trip to Furongzhen is mercifully short.

After another big dinner (this time I drank beer instead of baijiu), James ended up playing cards with his relatives and I adjourned to a nearby international hotel to surf the Internet and chill. It’s hard to enjoy yourself when everyone is speaking Chinese and playing an unfamiliar card game (for money!); besides, I was tired.

We returned the following morning in a minibus that reminded me of the kind that ply the streets in South Africa. The goal for the operators of these things — no matter what country — is to pack as many people and luggage as possible into the van. Surprisingly, it works, and if you don’t mind the shoulder-to-shoulder accommodations, a faster way to travel than on the regular bus.

That afternoon, Rain and Smile picked me up for my birthday celebration. First karaoke, then a big dinner in a nice hotel with primo quality baijiu. Too much baijiu. The three of us got quite happily drunk, but my two escorts managed to squire me and themselves safely home.

The next day, a slight hangover notwithstanding, I accompanied Harry to Fenghuang, where I had breakfast, lunch and dinner — but no baijiu. Two nights in a row would have put me under, for sure.

Recommendations: Joanna Wang and Not One Less

Feb. 12, 2009

FENGHUANG, HUNAN — So, there I was in a car, coming back from another trip to Fenghuang, when Billy Joel’s “New York State of Mind” emanated from the CD player.

Two things make the soundtrack for this part of my life noteworthy. I was not heading back to Manhattan, USA, but to Jishou, China. (And, no, I was not feeling homesick, though the song is one of my favorites.) More importantly, the singer was not fellow Long Islander Billy Joel, but a woman with a soothing, sultry voice.

Oh, I was hooked! After listening to the rest of the tracks, I had to ask who she was.

Wáng Rùolín (王若琳), also known as Joanna Wang, is a Taiwan-based singer/songwriter in the Norah Jones mold. So far she has cut two CDs, and if her music gets more US airplay, Wang might just give Jones a run for her money. (Like Paul McCartney, one of her idols, Wang plays guitar left-handed, as you can see in this photo).Wang RuoLin

The two women have similar singing styles — a casual, effortless sound, as if each one were singing just to you, one person at a time. (I am dating myself here, but Astrud Gilberto in the 1960s had the same off-the-cuff style, and became popular worldwide, despite being a less skillful singer than these two.) They are both comfortable singing pop or jazz. They both have famous fathers (Jones’ pop is Ravi Shankar; Wang’s is Wang ZhiPing, a Taiwan music producer and songwriter.) And they are both quite young (Jones is 29, Wang is 20.)

Normally, I hate covers of my favorite songs. The originals get so stuck in your head that no other version can replace them. One possible exception would be Johnny Cash’s cover of “Hurt,” which is so good that even Trent Reznor likes it better than Nine Inch Nail’s rendition.

Wang somehow manages to do justice to both Joel’s ode to New York City and to Spandau Ballet’s “True,” without making either sound like elevator music or something from a “soft-jazz” FM station. (Don’t get me started on artificial FM genre stations, especially soft jazz. Ugh!)

Running into Wang was just one of my chance encounters with Chinese arts and music this past week. A few days ago, I finally watched a 1999 movie by Zhang Yimou, Not One Less (Yi ge dou bu neng shao 一个都不能少), which my students have been recommending since September.

Yimou is more famous in the USA for his blockbusters like Hero (with Jet Li) and House of Flying Daggers (with Zhang Ziyi), but his films are not all wire-fu melodramas.

Not One Less is a simple story about a young girl pressed into being a substitute teacher, because her poor village’s regular schoolmaster has to care for his sick mother. Barely out of primary school (5th grade) herself, she has to teach an unruly group of students in a one-room schoolhouse with only a well-worn text and 30 pieces of chalk.

The title comes from the schoolmaster’s admonishment: he will pay her 60 yuan for the month’s work if she loses no students by the time he returns.

She does lose two. A girl leaves after being recruited by a sports academy. A boy, whose father is dead and mother is ill, runs away to the nearest city, to see if he can find a job.

The girl teacher goes after the boy with a tenacity that will bring tears to your eyes. And if you don’t reach for the tissue box by the time she makes a tearful plea to the boy to come home on TV, then your heart is made of stone indeed.

Wei Minzhi
The life of the girl who played the young teacher would make a good movie, too.

Zhang used real villagers as actors, and most of the characters’ names are also their real names. Wei Minzhi (魏敏芝) was a 13-year-old village schoolgirl when she auditioned to play Teacher Wei; her ease in front the camera and natural acting ability brought her the leading role.

After Not One Less became famous in China and across the world, Wei Minzhi’s life changed. Instead of living out the rest of her life in her tiny village, she was able to go a good high school, then to Xi’an International Studies University.

An aspiring film director, Wei applied to the School of Directing at Beijing Film Academy in 2004, but was unable to win a place. Soon afterward, however, a professor from Brigham Young University-Hawaii found her, and two years later, Wei became a BYU student on a full scholarship.

Wei, who married David Lau last July, is due to graduate from BYU-Hawaii in 2010. (I know this because Wei and I just became Facebook friends.)

So, here are my recommendations to sample some modern Chinese culture. track down Joanna Wang’s CDs and Zhang Yimou’s Not One Less. They will not disappoint.

Amazon links:
Not One Less

Joanna Wang: Start From Here

Joanna Wang’s new CD is not available from Amazon. Order it here.

Passport (under) control

Feb. 20, 2009

BEIJING, CHINA — I am violating my no-Starbucks rule and chilling at the pervasive overpriced coffee house just a few blocks from the US Embassy. A caffe Americano (plain black coffee) here is 24 RMB, about $3.50. Some things are universal.

The clientele is bit more international than in Louisville, of course. Within earshot were two women speaking German, a group of businessmen and women speaking Chinese, two Americans and one Caucasian woman fiercely intent on her iPod and laptop. This place, attached to a swanky hotel, is a bit more upscale than some SB’s I have visited, too. But then, that seems to be the norm here. (The Pizza Hut I visited earlier this week looked like a 4-star restaurant.)

The purpose of my visit to Beijing now fulfilled, I can take time to record the last few days’ activities. Nothing really exciting happened, unless you count the afternoon spent shopping for a new laptop (which I am now using).

My passport expires in September, but I have decided to stay longer than a year. At some point I needed to renew my passport, so I can renew my Chinese residence permit. It expires in early July, so first things first. I had to renew my US passport before July.

If you are in China when your US passport is due to expire, you have to visit the US Embassy (an imposing rectangular glass edifice) in Beijing in person. A bit of a pain if you live in Hunan, 24 hours away, but them’s the rules. Before you visit, it is best to make an appointment through the embassy’s American Citizen Services website, http://beijing.usembassy-china.org.cn/service.html. (There were a few there today with no appointment, which did not seem to be a problem.)

My appointment was today at 2 pm. The embassy is in the Chaoyang district of Beijing, in the northeast just outside the 3rd Ring Road. You need two passport photos (natch), a completed renewal form (DS-82), your old passport and $75 (517.50 RMB currently).

While the embassy website is very informative, the directions to the proper entrance are a bit obscure. Here is my version.

If you are traveling by the subway, get off at the Liangmaqiao stop on line #10. Use exit B to the surface. That will put you on the north side of Liangmaqiao Road. Walk east one to the first intersection — with DongFang Donglu. Turn left. You will pass this very Starbucks on your left and a diplomatic compound on your right. The next real intersection (not an access drive) is An Jia Lou Road. Turn right.

Skip the south gate of the US Embassy on An Jia Lou Road. It looks like the gate for official state visits, from the size of it. The east gate is the one you need, just north of the corner of An Jia Lou Road and Tianze Road. (Turn left at the corner if you are still on An Jia Lou.) There is a sign marked “visa services.”

There is a security checkpoint, where you must leave your laptop and cellphone behind. (Don’t leave your wallet, too, like I did. I had to retrieve my passport so I could go back to get my money!) The ACS office is in the main building on the second floor. The security guards (bilingual Chinese men on my visit) can direct you.

Beginning Feb. 1, the Beijing embassy started a mail-return system, which means blokes like me in the hinterlands do not have to make another trip to the capital to pick up a new passport. For another 42 RMB, the embassy will mail your old, cancelled passport and the new one by express mail.

Two important details. The return address has to be in Chinese characters, and you will need to write those characters on the shipping label before handing the label to the ACS personnel. I had the first part of that equation, but since I am still functionally illiterate in Chinese, I had to ask for help in filling out the label. Fortunately, the staff was not very busy and the woman at window 2 kindly copied my address onto the label for me.

Across Tianze Road is a cluster of restaurants and businesses. The post office is on the second floor of the foreign visa services building. You show them the completed label, verify the price using a document from the embassy, pay the fee, and you’re done.

The ACS will return your old passport to you after all the application paperwork and payment is made. They will send you an email when the new one is ready. You send them the old one by express mail, with the address in Chinese characters. They cancel the old one, and return it and the new passport using the prepaid express mail.

Aside from my leaving my wallet at the security checkpoint, the whole process was a piece of cake. Almost as easy as visiting the post office back in the States. I will also say that the staff I met here were all quite cheerful and friendly.

OK, coffee is done. Time to wend my way back through the Beijing metro and bus system to the hotel.

Passport (under) control, part 2
Feb. 20, 2009

BEIJING — I cut short the previous post, because I realized what time it was: the beginning of rush hour! The time flew by while was writing; it was already 5 pm when I left the Starbucks.

Rush hour in Beijing is like rush hour in any big city. As an experienced New Yorker, I knew what I was in for: commuters packed like sardines in a rolling tin can. It was either brave the commuting hordes, or sit in Starbucks for another hour to wait rush hour out. I decided to brave the crowds.

Onve you have experienced the arcane, century-old NYC subway system, any newly designed (aka modern) system is a piece of cake. Beijing’s subway is no exception. Pardon me while I bore you with details.

My hotel, part of the 7 Days Inn chain, is in Sihui, near my friend Katrina’s Beijing home. It is neat, no frills place, a bit like a Super 8 or a Motel 6. You get cable TV, a nice bathroom, a kingsize bed, free Internet, a smallish room, and free breakfast for 169 RMB a night. My stay here was a total of 1014 RMB for six nights, or about $150. [You can add that to the cost of renewing my passport. That, and another 900 RMB for train fare.]

I realized earlier in the week, while riding the subway with Katrina, that the 495 bus line two blocks from the hotel connects to the Sihui (四惠) subway stop on Line 1. Since she was leaving with her mom later in the week, using the bus would make my getting around on my own a lot easier.

So, here’s my routine for the last few days here. Walk to the bus stop. Pay 1 RMB. Walk two blocks to the subway stop. Pay 2 RMB for a single-use fare. Press the fare card against the turnstile sensor. Walk down to the platform. Zip to the intended destination (facing crowds at rush hour). Insert the subway fare card in the exit turnstile. Proceed to destination. Repeat as necessary. Each one-way trip cost me the equivalent of 44 cents — a lot cheaper than a cab. Given Beijing’s traffic, it’s also a lot faster.

Both the bus stops and the subway stops are announced en route in Chinese and English. The bus signs are mostly in Chinese, but 495 is a loop and the stop I needed was the bus terminal near the Sihui subway station. The subway system, like Hong Kong’s, is clearly laid out, with bilingual signage and maps. Very modern and efficient.

To get to the embassy, I had to transfer at the Guomao station onto line 10. To reach Tian’anmen Square and the Forbidden City, I had to stay on line 1 and get off at the Tian’anmen Dong stop. The subway also runs (obviously) to the Olympics park, the airport, Beijing rail station and a ton of other places.

My tour books say that Beijing will not give a visitor a true sense of China, and in that I concur. China’s capital is in so many ways yet another big city. It sprawls across the flatlands here, like Denver or Los Angeles, or like the Boston-Washington, DC, megalopolis. The ancient character of the city is all but gone, victim to first the Maoists’ desire to obliterate the pre-communist past, then to the Chinese capitalists’ desire to make Beijing a world-class city.

Aside from the Forbidden City, other ancient parts of Beijing are little specks compared to the rapid modernization here. Ring roads (expressways) encircle the central district like an archer’s target, with the Forbidden City and Tian’anmen Square at the bullseye. Cars are everywhere; I read a few days ago that 1,500 cars are added to Beijing’s streets each day.

Katrina and I managed (almost by accident) to find the home of famed Chinese author Lao She. It is now a museum in the hutong (old neighborhood) where he lived, Dong Cheng Qu. Lao wrote, among other works, Rickshaw Boy (Luotuo Xiangzi 骆驼祥子), which I remember seeing on my parents’ bookshelves years ago. Lao’s is a sad story. World renowned as an author, in the mid-1960s Cultural Revolution zealots humiliated Lao publicly and forced him to admit that his literature was counter-revolutionary and thus worthless. Broken, the gentle author “disappeared” on August 24, 1966, either by committing by drowning himself in Taiping Lake near his home or (it is alleged) by being murdered by the Red Guard.

Some hutongs still exist, but now it seems like they are being preserved partly to attract tourists. South of Qianmen, one of the few existing relics of the old walls surrounding the Imperial Palace, is a shopping street that resembles old Beijing. An imitation trolley carries tourists along the reconstructed buildings. I walked about two blocks into this glimpse into the past, then gave it up. The architecture is pretty, but the whole experience is rather dull and cold.

Beijing in February is not really hospitable to tourism. When I arrived Tuesday morning, it was snowing. It snowed again overnight, inducing Katrina and me to cancel visiting the Forbidden City in favor of computer shopping (and eating at Pizza Hut, where I showed her that the proper way to eat pizza is with one’s hands, not with a knife and fork). Yesterday was a little dreary, but the sun poked through the clouds enough for a walk around Tian’anmen Square. Today it was cold, but sunny, and tomorrow promises to offer the same. So I will spend most of the day in the Forbidden City — in between rush hours, of course.

Product endorsements: Phelps, eat your heart out

Mar. 1, 2009

JISHOU, HUNAN — I am now doing product endorsements. I hope someone at Kellogg’s is reading this post.

Here’s how it came about. I use QQ a lot to chat with Chinese students and people who are not even students. One of my QQ pals is Elektra, who is a senior at Jishou Normal University. She has a part-time job working in town for a start-up company selling educational software to parents and schools. [The words “start-up company” and China are no longer mutually exclusive, you know.]

A few days ago, Elektra invited me to visit her workplace, a medium-sized office in the local government complex on Zhouzhengfu. With four-day weekends now, I have plenty of time, so we agreed I would come by yesterday around 5:30 pm to meet with her and her boss, Mr. Hu.

Elektra’s English skills are actually very good, but she was initially nervous that she would not be an effective interpreter for me and Mr. Hu. We sat in the waiting room, while Elektra explained the goals of the company and its primary product, a 2600 RMB software/hardware package that restricts schoolchildren’s access to a computer and the Internet, while providing a secure chat, blog, and instructional platform.

Normally, I oppose net-nanny measures, but in China children are often left alone at home (or with non-technological grandparents) until their parents return from work. Elektra and Mr. Hu said that probably 10-20% of China’s hundreds of millions of school-age children are addicted to surfing the Internet and to playing computer games, including the violent kind. So, the company’s founders, with support from the national government, developed the e package. logo

It includes a USB keylocker/keylogger for the parents or school to use, and a set of programs that give access to the Internet through the e portal, and provide instruction in a variety of subjects at a variety of levels to the child using the computer. Elektra demo’ed the package, and I had to admit I was pretty impressed.

The e package is being used in other cities, but only recently has the company begun marketing it here. The Jishou branch piloted the e project at one of the private primary schools in town, which has a fairly well-equipped computer lab, about three months ago. [This, by the way, was the first time I learned that Jishou even has private schools.] The Jishou branch of course wants to market it to the rest of the city’s parents and schools.

And one way to help market it would be to get a product endorsement from one of the local foreign experts, namely me. Elekta and Mr. Hu politely asked if I would be willing to write a short statement extolling the virtues of the e package for their office bulletin board to show prospective buyers, and to pose for photos holding the logo. So, I did, carefully leaving out any mention of my employer, Jishou University.

After six months here, I have learned that whenever a Chinese person who is not a close friend asks for a big favor, or is about to ask for one, the request is invariably followed or preceded by a nice meal. So it was we (the now ebullient Elektra, Mr. Hu, his teenaged stepson, and two other workers in the office, and I) adjourned to the local Mao Jia Restaurant. Mao Jia Fan Dian is a chain of restaurants in China (and elsewhere — the USA, they are known as Hunan Mao Jia) with a Chairman Mao theme. Patrons are given little red-and-gold pins with the leader’s profile; the decor depicts Mao, his hometown in Hunan and his family; and the menu includes his favorite dishes.

Dinner was great. [No baijiu this time, if you have been keeping score.] I learned more about Mr. Hu, who in many ways represents the new capitalist China. A graduate of Jishou University, Mr. Hu, who is 40, majored first in the music school then in the law school. He taught for a while, then with his wife opened a furniture shop selling hand-crafted, Imperial-themed items from manufacturers in Shenzhen. After getting involved with the e package, he has since turned over the daily operation of the store to one of the young men who works in his office. Mr. Hu’s wife, Ms. Jiang, still continues as the buyer of the store. He wants his 15-year-old stepson to go to university abroad, and he wishes that the Chinese educational system was more like that of the USA.

After dinner, we adjourned to the furniture showroom, where I was further impressed. The pieces have a traditional look to them, but with clean modern lines. It’s hard to describe without any photos to help, but suffice it to say that the pieces would be suitable for any well-to-do Chinese family’s upscale home or entrepeneur’s trendy office.

In other words, I can’t afford ’em.

We ended the evening with Mr. Hu serving fragrant tea from Fujian Province in the traditional manner on a table shape liked an ancient Chinese coin (the kind with the square hole in the middle) made from faux stone. After more pleasant conversation and several rounds of some of the best tea I’ve ever had, Mr. Hu gave me an ashtray from his store’s stock and some of the tea, and we made our farewells.

Had Michael Phelps been caught with a bag of green tea in his ashtray, his life would have been so much happier.


The other China

March 11, 2009

HUAYUAN COUNTY, XIANGXI, HUNAN — The public face that China shows the world is of a vigorous, prosperous world economic power. The other face of this complex nation is the remaining poverty in rural areas.

Several weeks ago, I saw a famous Chinese movie, the English title of which is Not One Less. Made in 1999, it depicted the poor living conditions of a small village in Hebei province, whose one-room schoolhouse looked as if it could fall in on itself at any minute. My friends here (and the star of the movie, Wei Minzhi, herself) told me that conditions for many villages have not appreciably changed in the last decade.

On Monday, one of my seniors — newly freed from the rigors of studying for a critical national English examination — took me to visit her father’s village in this county in the mountains west of Jishou. “You will see the real China, the way farmers live every day,” she said.

Quite honestly, Jishou is not a thriving metropolis. This part of Hunan is quite poor, so I was already accustomed somewhat to the simpler lifestyle here. But, truth be told, she was right to expect the visit would open my eyes.

The trip by car took about two and a half hours. The two-laner leading west into the mountains winds its way (I am talking mega-switchbacks here!) up the foothills of the Wuling Range into the highlands bordering the neighboring provinces of Chongqing and Guizhou. We passed through a busy town center teeming with ethnic Miao going about their daily business.

[Tourist advisory: There are several Miao villages around Jishou and Fenghuang, which cater to tourists. There are performances of Miao singing, drumming and dancing, displays of Miao clothing, and models who wear the elaborate silver jewelry intended for special occasions. Folks, it’s just a show. They don’t live like that every day.]

This part of Hunan has two principle businesses: agriculture and mining. There were plenty of dump trucks carrying limestone, coal and perhaps shale (I couldn’t really tell) on the two-laner, which of course suffers like all busy roads from the pounding of these overloaded trucks. (Folks in eastern Kentucky can relate, I am sure.) The roadside scenery alternated between neatly organized, terraced farms and huge quarries cutting into the mountainsides.

We also saw the foundations of yet another Chinese superhighway, which snakes through Hunan on its way into Guizhou. While the two-laner follows the rugged contours of the land here, the new highway will soar across broad valleys on ridiculously tall pillars and dive headlong through the limestone mountains, destined to carry the vehicles newly prosperous Chinese are buying in droves.

Finally, we turned off the main road onto a newly made concrete roadway leading to the village. My student told me that it used to be a dirt road not long ago, but that her father, a banker in Jishou, had arranged for a modern road to be laid.

Our first stop was the village primary school, from which her father graduated some four decades previously. It has changed little. The sturdy-looking, but rundown school consists of three classrooms side by side, a large courtyard, and some storage rooms and toilets, surrounded by a dry stacked limestone wall. The classrooms have no decorations on the walls, though the sun streams through their large windows. The furniture consists of simple desks and benches facing a chalkboard.

Huayuan County village schoolroom

Huayuan County village schoolroom


It was a scene from Not One Less, but in real time, in 2009.

My student’s aunt is one of the teachers. The children, who are largely Miao, come from several neighboring villages on foot every day. When we visited, they each had a textbook open to a page of Chinese characters with the corresponding pinyin next to them. (It looked familiar; I have one just like it, a children’s book to learn chengyu — Chinese proverbs.) The books looked well worn, but in better condition that the single text Teacher Wei had in the movie. Likewise, the children were dressed fairly well, not as neat and tidy as their city cousins might be, but certainly presentable.

I said a few words to the aunt’s class of primary students, in English, which my student translated not into putonghua (Mandarin) but into the local dialect here. Her aunt followed up with a few words of Miao to clarify matters. Mostly I told them to study hard, and to go to university, so they could become successful like their “elder sister,” my student.

My student’s grandparents (aged 86 and 90), uncles, aunts and several cousins still live here in this village. Only her father left permanently to pursue his career, a feat that his pluck and good fortune enabled.

When he was a middle school student, representatives of the revolutionary government came to recruit villagers to attend Peking University. Unlike his peers, who like wallflowers avoided direct contact with the important guests, her father saw it as his duty to ensure the guests had something to eat and drink. Impressed by the boy’s courage, the guests nominated him to attend the prestigious national university.

[Incidentally, the same kind of pluck enabled Wei Minzhi to be the lead actress in Not One Less. She was not afraid to perform in front of strangers.]

After university, he went into banking, marrying a Han woman and settling in Jishou, which in comparison to his hometown is a thriving metropolis. Their two daughters are both university educated; one works for a Beijing newspaper, the other is in her last few months of uni, contemplating either work in China or study abroad. They are the only two of the several cousins to go to university; the rest work or are trying to find work with their high school educations.

Grandfather and grandmother are still spry, though with hearing losses, walking about their farmstead to care for the pigs, the chickens and their garden. They rent the fields out for someone else to plant and harvest. Both were visibly very proud of their banker son, and of his second daughter who could translate for their American guest.

While not prosperous in the material sense, their village is not impoverished in the same way as a remote village might be in, say, southern Africa. They have electricity, potable water, satellite TV, and decent road access to the outside world. The children can attend school, though paying for boarding children at middle and high school, and paying university tuition is a real stretch for most farm families. Financial aid in China may be available only for one student in each academic college at a university; and it might not go to the poorest student.

The grandparents’ home is not palatial, but roomy and comfortable in a very rustic way. To get to the pit toilet, you have to pass an enormous sow in her pen; she was fortunately sound asleep when I entered her domain. Two of her probable offspring roamed outside the house, competing with the cats, the dogs and the chickens for leftovers from lunch. The walls are made in the traditional way, with interwoven stalks of bamboo slathered with (now dry) ox dung. [Newer homes are built of China’s ubiquitous concrete blocks.] The floor was stone, and the roof tiled.

Back in the days of the Cultural Revolution, this village was divided into three work units. Each unit was expected to till the fields and produce enough food to feed the nation, but not necessarily themselves. Villagers were so hungry then that they ate the bark off the trees, effectively deforesting the woods around them.

Those days are gone. Now, there is plenty to eat. We had enough food at lunch to feed a small army — I hope the leftovers went to people, not farm animals.

The two Chinas, one modern and prosperous, the other rustic and poor, co-exist so close to each other that in one short day trip I could see both. They intersect in the relatively few village residents who left the countryside to jump on China’s prosperity wagon, and who are raising their children to be city folk. Bringing the villages into the 21st century remains as a task for the government and for the devoted children and grandchildren of the Chinese farmer. It will happen, eventually.

English Corner marathon afternoon

March 23, 2009

JISHOU, HUNAN — I spent all afternoon yesterday talking.

As I have mentioned before, a standard feature of any Chinese university (or high school, too, I reckon) is the English Corner, an extracurricular, student-led activity to practice spoken English. My responsibilities here include participation in the English Corner, for obvious reasons.

I live and work at the new campus. Our English Corner is held (weather permitting) every Sunday at 5 pm on a green across from the athletic facilities. I have already chronicled my first visit to English Corner lo! these many months ago. After that initial mob of visitors, attendance settled down in the following weeks to a more manageable number of regulars and the occasional newcomer.

Jishou University (JiDa in local parlance) has, at my last count, four distinct campuses: new campus, old campus, the medical campus in Shijiachong, and the affiliated teacher’s college across the river, where Princeton-in-Jishou fellows Juliann and Stephanie teach. A few students from the old campus have come to the new campus corner, but only those dedicated enough to travel the 3 km to do it.

Last weekend, my fellow foreign expert, David, and I were invited to an English Corner at the old campus. Many students attended, but the crowd was not a mob as it was during my first experience last fall. Once the initial novelty of seeing Westerners in the flesh faded, we all settled down to relatively calm chatting on the green.

Old campus is home to the Preparatory College, a transition year for students who scored poorly on the college entrance examination, but who want to attend university. Most of the prep students are 18 to 20 years old, come from Jishou or nearby areas, and for the most part have never spoken English with a foreigner. Through the intra-campus student word-of-mouth network, the prep students invited David and me to a special English Corner at the medical campus yesterday.

David instead accompanied a group of frosh to Dehang, so I was the sole foreign expert on this excursion. Julie and Layla, two of the officers, met me at the north gate at 1:30 pm for the taxi ride to Shijiachong. On arrival, about an hour ahead of schedule, there were few students present. We met a small group of class representatives so busy practicing some recitations that they did not spend much time talking to us. I realized later that they were rehearsing the short remarks they would later say during the Corner’s opening ceremonies. [No, I am not kidding.]

New campus has an English Corner of long-standing, and thus has a well-worn casual feel to it. Despite our officers’ attempts to structure it with games and pre-selected topics, it usually devolves into a few clusters of 8 to 12 students who chat in English with each other, or with me and David. It’s a great time to exchange QQ and phone numbers, and meet English speakers from other colleges on campus.

By contrast, the activity yesterday was a well-publicized extravaganza. The prep college has several classes of 30 or so students each; each class has one or two officers, and one or two representatives to the English Corner. Using a portable public-address system, each of these officers said a few remarks before the activity started. [Introductory remarks by officials are part of the standard operating procedure before any Chinese program begins, even before concerts. Fortunately, these students were not as long-winded as their elders.]

After these introductions, the classes were given the topic, “How can we become confident?”, to discuss among themselves. I was asked to visit each class group in turn, to give them a chance to talk to me. Afterwards, there was a show, as each class had picked one or two members to sing an English song. That was the official program, anyway.

The unofficial program was organized mayhem, like my first English Corner experience in the fall. Excited students wanted to know where I was from, what cities had I visited, did I speak Chinese, did I like Chinese food, did I like Chinese girls (a subject that could fill a book!), did I like the NBA, who was my favorite player/team — questions I got to answer not once each, but many times. Then, there were the obligatory photo ops. I shook a lot of hands, like a politician on a campaign stump, and willingly agreed to hug two female students. [Ah! The perks of celebrity status!]

While I was answering questions from one class, a small boy in his school uniform walked over to me, stuck out his hand, and said, “Hello, how are you?” He came later to repeat the process, this time with his more bashful buddy in tow, who also shook my hand.

It turned out that the boys were faculty children, a group of whom just happened to be passing by our noisy activity. At some point in the middle of the singers’ performances, these kids got the idea to ask me for my autograph while I was trying to politely listen to the singers. Then, someone allowed them to have some of the balloons the college students had put up as decorations. The first boy brought a balloon to me to autograph. On the spur of the moment, I drew a cartoon face on the balloon with a mustache and a beard to accompany my name.

You can predict what happened. I got to repeat this exercise easily 20 times more, as one child after another brought another handful of balloons to be signed. And of course we posed for photos.

An hour and a half later, this English Corner ended, and my own students, Angela and Sunny, accompanied me to our English Corner at new campus. As new organizers, they had devised a (fortunately simpler) program for our activity, with a word game and a topic, but we eventually just settled into our usual sit-on-the-grass-and-chat behavior.

Describing a few of the members in my circle will give you an idea of the diversity of students at our English Corner. Three, Corinna, Janet and Mary, were my spoken English students. Ailsa, a sophomore politics major, is my new neighbor. Another girl, a junior marketing student, reported proudly she had just passed her business English certification exam. A newcomer, to whom we gave the English name Janina, is a sophomore in the Resource and Environmental Science College. Another newcomer, a junior in the physics department, also asked me for an English name. She proposed two, “Simple” and “Easy.” I demurred, explaining that “simple” implied she was stupid and “easy” implied something even less complimentary (I whispered the meaning in her ear, to avoid her embarrassment). Instead, we settled on “Jasmine,” one of her favorite flowers. There was also Nick, a medical student from the old campus, and his girlfriend, Nina, both newcomers.

All of these students speak English quite well, though Janina and Jasmine said they had never spoken to a foreigner before. Jasmine, in particular, said she regretted not meeting me sooner, as she wants to be an interpreter and has to pass the TEM8 exam next year to make that goal a possibility. I pointed out that she has a nearly a year to prepare, so the few months of lost time talking to me was not tragic.

These experiences were yet more demonstrations of the hunger some Chinese students have for learning English, which for better or for worse has become the benchmark for success in education and the job market. Some hope to work in international business, others to study abroad. Some just want to be able to understand English-language entertainment media better. All recognize that doing well on their English proficiency exams, no matter what level, will enable them to pursue whatever goal they have.

As a foreign expert, the native English speaker is at once a celebrity (and a novelty, especially in this province), a teacher and a stepping stone to success. If you can patiently withstand the repetitive questions about your origins and the like, you will grow to appreciate the important role you play in the lives of a significant number of students. Sure, it’s cool to pose for photos with pretty girls and handsome boys, to get small gifts of their appreciation, and to wallow in their palpable excitement at your presence, but even cooler to know you are opening a door to a new world for the few students to whom you become a friend and/or mentor.

I was drained by the end of the afternoon, even after a (quiet) dinner with three of the students in my circle, but the effort was worth it. I suppose only a lifelong teacher would have found the afternoon fun, but I’m crazy like that.

Great Firewall blocks youtube.com
March 24, 2009

JISHOU, HUNAN — Lest its population catch wind of the true situation in Tibet, the Chinese government has blocked access to all of Youtube.com with China’s mighty Great Firewall.

It seems too many videos of Chinese soldiers beating Tibetan monks ended up on the video-sharing site.

The BBC has more details, but I can confirm I cannot access Youtube without running through the Tor network. Maybe the Tibetan resistance can put the videos on vimeo, too.

Russian expert, American right wingers drinking the same Kool-Aid?

March 30, 2009

JISHOU, HUNAN — There’s a Russian scholar who’s been drinking the same water as some right-wing crazies in the US of A.

According to Igor Panarin, an important figure shaping Russia’s future diplomats, President Barack Obama will declare martial law sometime this year, leading to a schism of the United States into six parts. The sudden breakdown of the USA’s government will then enable Russia and China to become world leaders.

If you google “obama martial law,” you will find a host of right-wing-crazy sites that have been predicting the same outcome since last fall, before Obama was even elected. One site even suggests that former President George W. Bush would declare martial law to prevent Obama from being elected!

All wishful thinking, I guess.

I learned about Panarin after one recent English Corner at the old campus, during which two students deviated from the usual routine questions about my birthplace, love of China, etc., and instead floored me with completely surprising questions.

One boy asked me, quite seriously, if I liked Obama and whether I believed the US would split into six parts soon. He explained that his politics professor had read a book by a Russian expert (Panarin), which predicts the eventual end of the USA as we know it.

[The other surprising question was from a girl who asked if I believed Westerners and Chinese can be happily married together. She does not, she says. More about that question later.]

I responded by reminding him that the last splitting of the USA led to a bloody civil war, and the eventual reunification of the United States. (Though I did not mention that some folks in the South are still not convinced Reconstruction was such a great idea.) Despite the pressures on Obama and the USA, I told him it was highly unlikely that Obama would declare martial law and even more improbable that the USA would fission.

Whether I convinced him, I can’t be sure. After all, he has read a book by a prominent Russian scholar.

Panarin is a dean of the Russian Foreign Ministry’s school for diplomats, a former space agency spokesman, and allegedly a former Soviet KGB analyst. His anti-US screed and recent public predictions of the death of the USA fit in nicely with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s anti-American platform and his dreams of restoring Russian hegemony.

Earlier this month, Panarin addressed domestic and foreign media at a press conference. Noting that he has been predicting the end of the USA for years, Panarin said recent economic and political developments had enabled him to pinpoint when everything would start to fall apart.

According to the AP report on his talk, Panarin did not provide much specific evidence for his conclusions. The scholar instead explained he had been analyzing news reports from the USA.

Panarin argued that Americans are in moral decline, saying their great psychological stress is evident from school shootings, the size of the prison population and the number of gay men.

Turning to economic woes, he cited the slide in major stock indexes, the decline in U.S. gross domestic product and Washington’s bailout of banking giant Citigroup as evidence that American dominance of global markets has collapsed.

“I was there recently and things are far from good,” he said. “What’s happened is the collapse of the American dream.”

Panarin insisted he didn’t wish for a U.S. collapse, but he predicted Russia and China would emerge from the economic turmoil stronger and said the two nations should work together, even to create a new currency to replace the U.S. dollar.

[One wonders if China’s leaders have also studied Panarin’s book. China’s central bank recently proposed that the International Money Fund (IMF) should replace its current currency standard, the US dollar, with the IMF’s own internal currency unit. Then again, they might be worried about the nearly $1 trillion of US debt China currently holds.]

On the US crazy side, the predictions of doom and gloom seem to derive a combined fear of black people, Muslims, liberals and anything not white Anglo-Saxon conservative Christian. (How Alan Keyes fits into this mindset, I cannot fathom.)

During the presidential election, there was the mostly unspoken Republican subtext of “do you want a black man running the country?” There is continued belief of some anti-Obama nutjobs that somehow there is a huge conspiracy enabling Obama, who they believe was not born in the USA, to ascend to the presidency unconstitutionally. Then, there’s the whole question of his middle name, Hussein, which wingers insist means he’s secretly a Muslim and, since all Muslims are terrorists, also a terrorist, too.

Visiting these anti-Obama sites is like peeking into the mind of a seriously deranged mental patient. Obama, a centrist liberal in actuality, is to these people alternately a fascist and a socialist. His master plan — or perhaps it’s the plan of his “co-religionist” Osama Bin Laden — is to declare martial law on some fabricated pretext, and make the USA an Islamist/fascist/socialist state. Christianity will be outlawed, and Obama will forcibly remove white farmers from their lands and give the property to blacks.

[Note: Someone has tried this last tactic already. Robert Mugabe, the president-dictator of Zimbabwe, expelled white farmers several years ago. The results have been disastrous. Only an idiot would suggest anyone else try it.]

Then there’s the whole “End Times” crowd, who see in every news report further evidence of the Second Coming of Christ and the fulfillment of all the nasty stuff in Revelations, whose author was also probably batshit crazy. Gay rights, same-sex marriages, separation of church and state, to name just a few of their fears, all point to the Rapture.

So, Panarin, for all his lofty credentials as a foreign analyst, is just a plagiarist. It looks like he’s been analyzing (copying) the predictions by the scarier fringe elements of the USA. Considering his predictions, and theirs, have failed to materialize for more than a decade, it’s time to shove them into the dustbin where they belong.

New friends, spectacular scenery and delicious food = great holiday
May 3, 2009

ZHANGJIAJIE, HUNAN — If there is one tie that can bind Chinese and Americans together, it’s our innate friendliness, although I think the Chinese might even outdo us Americans sometimes.

This weekend was the May Day holiday, which I and a friend spent in Zhangjiajie at the home of our mutual friend. The three of us had a good time touring some beautiful country, but the scenery was not the only thing impressive about the trip. It was the people we met.

Weeks ago, Nora had invited Ailsa and me to spent the weekend at Nora’s home. With no classes on Friday, we decided to leave campus on the 9 pm train on Thursday. The train was predictably crowded with northbound holiday travelers, and we had no seats. [The Chinese rail system will sell you tickets even after all seats have been booked. China Railways figures you’ll either make do standing or whangle a way to sit down.]

We walked toward the rear of the train until we could go no further. There were no seats, but by chance we ended up next to a group traveling together to Zhengzhou. They were feeling pretty mellow after downing some baijiu (aka “white wine”), so when two of them left to smoke on the end of the carriage, they gave their seats up and everyone scrunched together to make room. [It also helps that one of us was a white-haired Westerner; I get preferential treatment because of both age and exotic-ness.]

The Zhengzhou group included a woman who was just four years younger than I, two younger men and two men who were maybe in their mid-40’s. None of them were fall-down drunk, but they were garrulous — albeit in Chinese. Nora and Ailsa served as translators as the ZZ travelers asked me to drink some wine (I did, but not too much) and the woman asked me to pose with her for not one, but easily 20 photos. [She never seemed satisfied with the way she looked in the previous 19. I also wondered if she wasn’t subtly hitting on me]

These pastimes kept us happily occupied as our train, a local, crawled its way toward Zhangjiajie. Local trains stop at every station and have to yield right-of-way to the faster trains. So, ours pulled onto sidings at least four times (I lost count), taking nearly three and a half hours to cover 125 km. Did I mention this train was not air-conditioned?

Friday was pretty much a bust in terms of sight-seeing, since the rain poured down all day. So, on Saturday morning, when it was clear the rain had stopped, the three of us were more than ready to get out and about.

We grabbed a quick breakfast, and hopped the #8 bus to visit a reservoir lake Nora had visited in the past. We sat in the back of the bus, and soon Nora and were chatting with a woman sitting directly in front of us. As it turns out, she (Kerry Wang) was a Changsha native who had come to Zhangjiajie to be a tour guide to Chinese clients several years ago. She is keen to improve her English so she can also guide foreigners, and said she was excited to see me, a westerner, on the same bus as she.

Kerry and Ailsa are both from Changsha, so the Chinese hometown hail-fellow-well-met mode kicked in. Like Americans, Chinese people travel far and wide within their country to find work. Unlike Americans (or at least unlike me), the ties they have to their hometowns are deep and long lasting. So anyone from the same city, town, village or wide spot on the road is immediately considered family. So it was that Kerry offered to be our tour guide for the day, gratis, since she was off work on a year’s maternity leave. [Yes, American women, I said a year’s leave. Jealous?]

Our first stop, the reservoir, offered boat rides from the Xiang Ren Xi dam to the other end of the lake where sightseers can hike along the river. One boat already had four passengers, university students who were patiently (?) waiting for the captain to decide when he had enough passengers to make it worth his while to leave. Three of the students were, coincidentally, from Changsha, so the hometown ties-that-bind sprang into action as we shared our snacks and brief introductions.

As the boat set off finally, a young couple hollered for passage and the captain came about to pick them up. The young man was an art student in Zhangjiajie and his artist girlfriend was visiting from Shandong for the week.

We all became pretty good friends that morning, agreeing to eat lunch together at a noodle place after our boat ride and morning hike and to visit another scenic spot, Lao Dao Wan, that Kerry knew about. It would offer the same kind of spectacular sights as other more touristy places near the city.

Rather than take a bus then hike to our destination, Kerry and the local art student found two neighborhood men willing to transport us in their vehicles, a minivan and an open air tuk-tuk. [A tuk-tuk is a three-wheeler with a motorcycle’s front end and a drive axle in the rear. Ours had two facing bench seats a little longer then the fender “seats” in the back of an old Jeep CJ.] Adventurers as we are, the art students, Nora, Ailsa and I all wanted to ride in the tuk-tuk.

The air was fresh and clean-smelling after the heavy rain, and the temperature was cool and refreshing, so we had a great time as our noble steed jounced along the road to Lao Dao Wan. We had just gotten off to start our hike to the entrance to Lao Dao Wan when another minivan pulled up, and its surprising cargo hopped out.

The American hometown mode now kicked in, as one of the new arrivals was Gary, an American English teacher in Zhangjiajie, and his girlfriend, Karen. Gary, a Trenton, New Jersey, native, recently coached basketball at Mercer County Community College. Karen used to work at the Princeton University U-Store. And I (if you didn’t know) went to Princeton, which like MCCC is in Mercer County. Instant bonding.

We hiked together to the entrance, crossing the river several times on conveniently placed rocks, only to wait while Kerry and Nora negotiated ticket prices with the operators. The original prices were 13 yuan for the Chinese students and 23 yuan for the three foreigners. Persistence paid off, as we all only had to pay only 13, but the haggling took up time the four uni students did not have. They left with Kerry, who had invited Nora, Ailsa, the two art students and me to her house for dinner and now needed time to prepare.

Gary is as garrulous while sober as the ZZ crowd on the inbound train was while tipsy, so we had a great traveling “English corner” as we climbed up and down and around the cuts the river had made through the foothills of Tianmenshan, the mountain beside Zhangjiajie city.

Someone needs to rate Chinese scenic hiking trails like US rivers are rated for whitewater rafting. On a difficulty scale of 5, this particular hike was about a 4. If you are afraid of heights, rivers crossings on slick rocks and steep muddy slopes, skip Lao Dao Wan. Some segments of the trail would scare the willies out of Americans used to liability-proofed tourist magnets. The paths along the canyon walls and hillsides consisted of steel rebar steps driven into the rock with chains as handrails or bamboo ramps and railings. Under these circumstances, hikers have to to be as surefooted as mountain goats and similarly unperturbed by precipitous drops along near-vertical slopes.

Our guide followed us, but we were not entirely sure what he would have done in an emergency. None of our cell phones had signals in this deep divide.

On reflection, I still would have done the hike. The best scenery is the kind you have to work to find, and this area has not yet fallen prey to the crowds and the rampant commercialism of the Zhangjiajie Forest Park and Fenghuang.

After the hike, Gary and his party went their way, and we five tuk-tuked back into town, then hopped the #8 bus to Kerry’s side of town for dinner. The plan was for Kerry to cook Changsha style, Nora to cook Zhangjiajie style and XiaoDan (the girl from Shandong) to cook her style. I invited Mike, an English major I know from the Zhangjiajie campus, to join us and we shared a scrumptious meal and an evening of English and Chinese conversation. We all were acting like old friends who hadn’t seen each other for years, but in fact the majority of us had met for the first time that very day.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is what impressed me most about the weekend. Few Americans would invite six complete strangers to their house for dinner, and few strangers would have accepted the offer. But we did, and were that much richer for it.

A little trust and friendship go a long way. More of us should try both.

Give me your tired (books) … yearning to be free
May 4, 2009

JISHOU, HUNAN — This post is an appeal to book lovers with too many books on their hands. I want those books.

Honestly, I don’t need them for myself. I want them for our college here at Jishou University and for the university library. Jishou U is not a rich school, and students in our college express their frustration at finding only worn and tattered English-language books on the library shelves.

As at most Chinese universities, the English language section leans heavily toward the classics: Shakespeare, Dickens, Poe, Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Twain, and (in translation) Stendhal, Tolstoy, and Flaubert, among others. All great writers, but their English prose is difficult for ESL students and furthermore is somewhat out of style.

I’d love to show my students works by Saul Bellow, John Barth, Agatha Christie — really any author of the 20th century. Fiction and non-fiction books would be welcome, but books that touch on sensitive political matters (Tibet, Taiwan, the 1989 Tiananmen Square student protest, etc.) or that are overtly anti-communist or anti-Chinese could get me in a world of trouble.

If you are so inclined to send any books my way, be forewarned that postage to China is outrageously high. So sending just a few books at a time is fine. Delivery is slow, too, so don’t be anxious if it takes weeks for me to acknowledge receipt.

I would be ever so grateful for any donations from my readers and the people they know. Please send them to:

John Wheaton
Jishou University
College of International Exchange
120 South Renmin Road
Jishou 416000 Hunan
CHINA

Audiobooks and e-books are also welcome, but please observe copyright laws. Just send legal copies to john dot wheaton at gmail dot com.

A year ago today
May 12, 2009

JISHOU, HUNAN — I am writing this brief post in between reading student diaries and essays. The local time is 3:00 pm. One year ago, at 2:28 pm, a massive earthquake hit Wenchuan County in Sichuan Province, which adjoins western Hunan.

The magnitude 8 quake killed more than 69,000 people, including more than 5,300 schoolchildren, injured more than 370,000, and left at least 4.8 million homeless. There are still thousands of residents unaccounted for.

My students here in Hunan tell me they could feel the earthquake in their own middle schools and at Jishou University. Buildings swayed in Beijing and Shanghai hundreds of miles from the epicenter in central Sichuan. No one knew the extent of the disaster until a few hours later, as the nation heard reports of derailed trains, ruined highways, non-existent cell phone coverage, and piles of rubble where buildings and schools once stood.

A year later, the region is still far from recovered. While China has done an admirable job in responding to the disaster, better in many ways than the US responded to the less deadly Louisiana hurricanes, there is some discontent. There are recriminations that schools were shoddily constructed, inviting catastrophic collapses in an earthquake. The government has squelched public protests about poor school construction. Rumors say some provincial officials have absconded with millions of dollars in national and international reconstruction donations. Meanwhile, residents complain they are still homeless, still have no work, still cannot find enough to eat.

The complaints, while valid, pall in comparison to the death toll, of course. Most difficult of all to comprehend is the number of children lost as their schools collapsed on top of them and their teachers.

It all happened within three minutes, without warning. Then the earth was quiet again.

But not the survivors.


China suppresses media contact with earthquake victims

May 15, 2009

JISHOU, HUNAN — The survivors of the March 12, 2008, Sichuan earthquake have a lot to say, but the Chinese government won’t let foreign journalists hear it.

Parents whose children died when school buildings collapsed in the 7.9 magnitude quake accuse the government of being complicit in allowing shoddy construction in Wenchuan County.

This reporter for the Financial Times tried to interview one such mother, but men in an unmarked car forcibly prevented him from talking to her. The Chinese government, naturally, denies any such suppression is happening.

I can’t seem to embed the video. Here’s the link: Financial Times report.

China’s Domains That Cannot Be Seen now include blogger/blogspot.com

May 18, 2009

JISHOU, HUNAN — Sometime in the last week or so, China’s net nannies decided to add blogspot.com/blogger.com to the growing list of Domains That Cannot Be Seen. We are left to guess why.

You can usually tell when the Great Firewall of China has been turned on. You get this message in your browser (in my case Firefox):

Network Timeout
The server at rantingowl.blogspot.com is taking too long to respond.
The requested site did not respond to a connection request and the browser has stopped waiting for a reply.
* Could the server be experiencing high demand or a temporary outage? Try again later.
* Are you unable to browse other sites? Check the computer’s network connection.
* Is your computer or network protected by a firewall or proxy? Incorrect settings can interfere with Web browsing.
* Still having trouble? Consult your network administrator or Internet provider for assistance.

Considering I never had much of a wait to access blogspot.com before, I assumed it had joined youtube.com, wordpress.com and livejournal.com (among others) as a Domain That Cannot Be Seen. A visit to Danwei.org, the Chinese-media-watch website, confirmed my surmise.

Youtube.com ended up on the banned list a few months ago, when YouTubers were posting videos of Chinese soldiers beating up protesting Tibetans, particularly Tibetan monks. Tibet is one of those “sensitive issues” that the Chinese government would prefer Chinese not know too much about.

Next month will be the 20th anniversary of the fateful mass student demonstration in Tian’anmen Square, during which the Chinese military opened fire on unarmed students, killing hundreds or thousands, depending on whose statistics you believe. The government has been trying to quash any reminders of the “June 4 massacre.”

[When I visited the Square in February, police were checking bags for possible weapons and bottles of liquid for potential flammables, incidentally controlling the number of visitors to the Square at any one time.]

So, my guess is the net nannies want to keep Chinese away from blogspot, in case they see any such reminders of June 4, 1989. I have never been able to access Livejournal.com since arriving in China late last August. It’s hard to say why it continues to be blocked.

Now, those of us who are determined to have free access to the World Wide Web have tools at our disposal. In my case, it is using the tor proxy network. (That website is also a Domain That Cannot Be Seen, not surprisingly.) The Tor network uses computers outside the Great Firewall to connect to blocked websites; the Great Firewall just sees the Internet address of the external proxy computer, which changes periodically to foil the Firewall.

Enabling Tor on your personal computer adds it to the Tor network. Firefox has an add-on (TorButton) that allows you to select when Firefox uses Tor to surf the Internet. The extra connections adds a little overhead to transmission rates, so pages load slower, but at least I can see the sites I want to see when I want to see them.

Of course, the typical Chinese netizen does not have such Firewall leapfrogging tools at hand, so the Great Firewall is still pretty effective in cutting off most of the population from external news and commentary sources.

Welcome to China.


Local American population surges twice

May 25, 2009

JISHOU, HUNAN — I live in a small city in the western fringes of Hunan. The usual American population here is normally four in a city of 300,000. Last week, the American population briefly surged, twice.

The first influx was on Wednesday. A group of ethnobotanists (folks who study people’s uses of plants) arrived from Zhangjiajie to spend two nights in Jishou. The US national basketball team was the second wave. They played an exhibition game against Lithuania Saturday night (a close win for USA, btw), and left the next day.

[The US basketball team was involved in a intercultural faux pas earlier that day. Details are here.]

It was fun while it lasted.

Dr.Gordon Tucker and Zhiwei Liu of Eastern Illinois University have brought a group of students to China four times now. EIU and Jishou University are sister institutions, so part of their time was spent at the campus in Zhangjiajie and here in Jishou.

Typical of communications at educational institutions, I learned of the Americans’ visit only by the way. My neighbor, MeiMei, a Russian translator for the university, told me about it on Monday. So, I asked my foreign affairs officer, Cyril, if I could meet them.

I ended up having dinner with them Wednesday at the Qin Zhao Hotel, which belongs to the university. Students sat at one table, faculty and uni officers at the other. Ample food, grape wine and baijiu soon had all of us feeling quite happy.

[The students (six women and two men) were not served baijiu, but one of the JiDa biology profs soon was bringing baijiu over to the students’ table for toasting. Per local custom, only the men got the baijiu.]

I had tried to convince Cyril to let me bring some of my students to meet the Americans, but the uni was worried about exposing our students to potential swine flu carriers. {sigh} Gordon told me the Chinese health ministry had everyone checked before they left the airplane in Beijing, so I decided to take matters into my own hands.

When I visited the student table (baijiu cup in hand), I asked them and their local student guide, Aimar, what they planned to do after dinner. They said Aimar was going to take them to a KTV (karaoke club) and would I like to come? Bingo! I immediately sent out a flurry of texts to friends and students I knew would be free that night.

Our party that night included the American students, me, Aimar, MeiMei, my former neighbor, Ailsa, and two of her friends, my good friends, Tina, Elektra and James (who was celebrating his 32nd birthday), and James’ date. The American profs stayed in their hotel room.

After being cooped up in a train from Beijing for 24 hours, the Americans were ready to party! We had a great time, and (for the teacher in me) I was able to get a few Chinese speaking to native English speakers. Tina, a senior in my department and the manager of a clothing store owned by her mom, helped the Americans shop downtown the next afternoon and evening, and Elektra (a senior at the teacher’s college) and Ailsa (a sophomore in the politics department) exchanged email addies with a few of the Americans. We have also joined their Facebook group.

So far, photos of the party have not yet come my way, so you will have to use your imagination. We partied until midnight.

I didn’t see the entire American group again, but did run into Daniela (born in Brazil — I could dust off my Portuguese conversation skills) and Brant on the JiDa campus Thursday evening. The rest were shopping with Tina downtown. The EIU folks left for Fenghuang Friday morning, and were bound for HuaiHua, Guilin and finally back to Beijing by train.

The basketball players arrived sometime that night, but unlike the American students, they were not interested in hobnobbing with the locals. My friend in the PE college, who has the curious English name of What, told me the teams would practice in the gym Saturday morning.

I arrived at 8, but then we learned the teams would not come until 9. I called a few of my students (the girls were especially interested in seeing the tall, handsome men 😉 ) to come join us. But, the teams then announced they would come at 11.

So, What, Kasurly and I decided to eat lunch in my flat. Kasurly and I also planned to cook dinner for our friend Mary, who turns 19 today, so we three went shopping at Jun Hua supermarket for food.

On our way out, we ran into Julila, a classmate of What’s, who asked if she could join us. We ordered a cake for Mary at the university canteen, then proceeded up the hill to my apartment. We asked Mary to meet us on the way.

On our way upstairs, I knocked on MeiMei’s door to invite to her lunch, and keep her from away from her usual meal of noodles.

While we ate, Kasurly’s roommates called her to say the Americans were practicing in the gym already. So, at 2, we all rushed down the hill to watch and take photos. The US team left for their hotel (the Qin Zhao, naturally) soon after we arrived, but the Lithuanian team then took to the courts.

After their practice ended, one of the Lithuanians told MeiMei (in English), “Beautiful shirt, beautiful girl.” MeiMei, who lived in Minsk for 10 years, automatically responded, “Spasibo.” Then the player, his team mate and MeiMei had a brief, but happy conversation in Russian.

At this point, it was time to pick up the cake and head up the hill to fix dinner.We were joined by Elektra and her friend, Sara, who is also one of Mary’s classmates. Mary encouraged us to try to get into the game without tickets (it is possible here if you are patient), so around 8:30, we returned to the gym to stand by the entrance.

The guards let me in, as the token white guy with a camera. One guard was from Elektra’s and Sara’s hometown of Hengyang, so they were able to get in, too. Elektra and I ended up sitting on the gym floor by the Lithuanian goal; Sara went into the stands.

It was a close game, and well worth the effort to evade spending 300 yuan each for a ticket. It also cheered up Elektra, who had found out that day that she had not done well enough on an entrance exam to attend the foreign language college in Zhangjiajie. Her postgraduation plans are in disarray, for now.

The teams left the day after, so the American (and Lithuanian) invasion was over as quickly as it began. Now, we’re back to normal: four Americans in Jishou.

China restores access to livejournal.com, other sites still blocked
May 28, 2009
JISHOU, HUNAN — Ever since I arrived here last fall, China’s net nannies have blocked Livejournal, the popular blog site. Mysteriously, today, I was able to visit my daughter’s blog with no problems.

WordPress.com is also now accessible. Just last week, it wasn’t.

Even more strange, I was briefly able to access a blogger.com site, then promptly lost that ability. The Great Firewall has been blocking blogger.com and blogspot.com for a couple of weeks now.

Youtube.com, alas, remains verboten.

Duan Wu Festival time
May 29, 2009

JISHOU, HUNAN — These Chinese holidays just sneak up on me, I swear. I knew about Mid-Autumn Festival and Spring Festival before I came here, but some others I learn about just a few days before, it seems.

Because of my temporarily sparse teaching schedule, getting a day off Thursday for Duan Wu — the Dragon Boat Festival— gave me almost a five-day holiday. Too bad I had not made any plans ahead of time.

But I managed to find things to do, and see.

First, a primer on Duan Wu. This traditional holiday has roots going back (like almost everything in China) thousands of years. Its origins are so ancient that there are different stories about the reason for the holiday.

Until recently, the national government had banned many traditional holidays as national days off, but in the last few years, the Party has reinstated several traditional holidays (another is QingMing — Tomb Sweeping Day) to give the hardworking Chinese public some respite.

There are two key customs associated with Duan Wu: dragon boat racing and zongze. One I did not see. The other I ate a lot of.

Dragon boats are long, seating at least 12 paddlers and many times more. Every town or city with a large enough navigable body of water sponsors boat races. I had planned to go to Yuanling, near Fenghuang, to see a traditional dragon boat race, but heavy rains forced the postponement of the race. Fenghuang did not cancel its race, but my friend and I decided not to brave both sloppy weather and the inevitable crowds there. The Yuanling races will be next month sometime.

Zongze are dumplings made with glutinous (sticky) rice, with various kinds of fillings (meat, red bean paste, etc.), which are steamed wrapped in bamboo leaves. They are a traditional food of the holiday.

The foreign affairs office gave each of the foreign teachers a box of 20 zongze, with each of four flavors in vacuum-sealed bags. We also got a huge box of preserved eggs, another traditional food for all sorts of holidays. These eggs are also known as “thousand-year eggs,” since the traditional method of preparing them is to bury the eggs underground in a highly alkaline clay for a several weeks or months. As disgusting as the process sounds, the result is usually quite tasty.

[We folks of Swedish extraction have a similar food preservation method, which produces lutfisk, which unlike thousand-year eggs still has to be cooked. Another unique preservation method — fermentation of herring — produces the more, um, pungent surströmming, which smells so awful that I have never risked eating it.]

Besides the foreign affairs office gifts, some charming students dropped off two zongze from the canteen Thursday morning, and my friend, Rain, and her three-year-old daughter, Nancy, gave me five more on Friday morning.

It’s a good thing I like zongze. Unfortunately, the eggs were not so good. The yolks tasted rather acrid, and even my Chinese guests Friday night ate them sparingly.

With my travel plans scotched for Thursday, I spent the day inside watching the rain disconsolately, hoping it would let up enough to make going out to dinner more enjoyable. My friend Elektra and I had made a date to meet her friends, Ms. Xiang (a local hotel sales manager) and her boyfriend Mr. Wu (the hotel’s karaoke club manager), for dinner. Then we all went to a Jishou night club.

Jishou is not exactly a hotspot for nightlife, so learning that it had a non-karaoke night club was a real revelation. Elektra described it as a way to show me some “local culture.”

The evening’s activities began around 8, with a betting game: two spinning wheels with numbers on them for two players to throw darts at. Member of the audience bet on the sums of the numbers hit. I quit when I broke even, and Elektra and I volunteered to be the dart-throwers several times.

An hour later, there was a floor show of lovely young women in gowns for the audience to vote on. Then, three lively song-and-dance numbers, two solo singers, female and male, a very energetic traditional flute player from Changsha with a weird shtick, a tame (by US standards) strip show, and a ribald comedy skit involving PLA soldiers, a party official and a local mayor. Elektra could not (or was too embarrassed to) explain much of the dialogue in that last skit, but I got the gist of it.

All I can say is, the acts weren’t Vegas by a long shot.

Of the singing and dancing, it was OK. Not terrible, but Simon Cowell would not have been pleased. One peculiarity stands out. It was the second time I saw a male singer in China deliberately get drunk on stage. The first time was when I watched a TV variety show — I was a captive audience somewhere — during which a singer chugged first bottles, then pitchers of beer on stage, then continued performing seemingly unaffected. I was stupefied, but chalked it up as the performer’s gimmick. So, watching a considerably slimmer and younger man repeat the same feat with a pitcher or two of wine cooler convinced me some Chinese ideas of entertainment are just fucking weird. (I don’t know the exact pitcher count. I was trying to get to the toilet at the time, but was corralled on the way by some showgirls wanting photos with me.)

The flute player’s shtick is to invite a young woman, preferably one who is not escorted by a man, to join him on stage. Elektra’s friends had pushed her into this public embarrassment the previous night. First, he asks the girl a multiple-choice test: (a) is she single and will she be his girlfriend? (b) does she already have a boyfriend? (c) is she married? [Elektra surprised everyone by picking (a).] Then, while he plays the flute kneeling next to his hapless victim, she has to mop his brow with a napkin.

He was a pretty good musician, despite the tastelessness of his shtick, though.

The strip show was hardly sexy, or maybe I’m just jaded. The girl strutted her stuff for a while, then picked a suitably drunken fellow from the audience, pulled off his shirt and sat him down in a chair on stage. She ran her hands up and down his chest and belly, finally undoing his belt and taking it off. She took off her top to reveal a skimpy bra. She strutted some more. The yokel then pulled off his pants, leaving him in his boxers. (I am not sure if this part was scripted.) She took off her shorts, to strut in bra and panties. He then removed his boxers to reveal (mercifully) briefs underneath. At this point, drunken yokel was sent back to his ringside seat, and the girl finished her act in skimpy bra and G-string.

Here my comment will probably shock my children, present and former students, and anyone convinced that teachers are also monks: I have seen better … much better. I decline to offer further details.

China continues its censorship of Web by blocking Google.com
June 24, 2009

[UPDATE June 25 15:56: Google.com is once again available in China, for now. I’m leaving this post up, though.]

JISHOU, HUNAN — Sometime this evening, the Chinese net nannies blocked access to Google.com, part of the government’s ever continuing struggle to combat (officially) pornography and (unofficially) access to sites critical of the government.

True to form, the state’s censors are using Google as a poster child to warn those who might want to buck the censors.

CCTV, the state-run television, had a report earlier this week blaming Google for “providing ‘vulgar and unhealthy’ content.” The report featured an interview with a young man — later discovered to be a CCTV intern — who said his roommate had become addicted to porn thanks to Google’s help.

State censors then blocked the intern’s name (Gao Ye 高也) from permissible searches at Google China, the Chinese (net nannied) version of Google.com. Google.cn apparently agreed last week to restrict access to porn, so we can still use it. But, the Great Firewall of China is now blocking the international site,Google.com, which joins youtube.com, blogger.com and blogspot.com on the no-no list.

Experts suggest that the government’s anti-porn crusade is a smokescreen to block access to politically sensitive websites. We lost access to Youtube, for example, after videos of Chinese soldiers beating Tibetan monks showed up there, and blogger and blogspot went dark around the time of the 20th anniversary of the Tian’anmen Square Massacre earlier this month.

Blocking Google.com might serve the same function, or as the articles at Danwei.org suggest, the sudden crackdown may be retaliation for national and international protests about new forms of government censorship.

Green Dam Girl

Green Dam Girl

A few weeks ago, China announced that by July 1 all computers sold in China must have a web-filtering program installed called Green Dam Youth Escort, supposedly to prevent children accessing porn and violent material. Chinese netizens instantly cried foul, and most have mocked the program as a thinly veiled attempt to censor the Internet. Critics have created an anime character named Green Dam Girl. She’s often depicted wearing a cap with a “river crab” on it. The Chinese for river crab is a play on the word “harmonious,” referring to the “harmonious society” theme of government proclamations.

Another group of Chinese netizens proposed a national boycott of using the Internet on July 1, the deadline by which manufacturers must provide Green Dam on new computers.

Computer experts at the University of Michigan then alleged Green Dam was a security risk, allowing external computers access to a user’s files and Internet browsing history. The UMich analysts recommended users uninstall Green Dam ASAP.

Representatives of a US software firm, Solid Oak, accused Green Dam’s developers of stealing code from Solid Oak’s own Cyber Sitter web-filtering application.

Finally, the US government weighed in on Monday, saying it had grave concerns on how Chinese Internet censorship would affect trade and access to information.

China, however, remained resolute yesterday in requiring Green Dam on new computers.

Blocking Google.com, then, may be a way for the Chinese censors to show us all who’s boss, in a virtual pissing contest. (Though, as I have reported earlier, there are ways to circumvent the Great Firewall of China. It’s cumbersome, but it works.)

On a more personal level, losing access to Youtube and Blogger/Blogspot was a nuisance, but a minor one. Losing Google.com, however, means I cannot easily access my photos at Picasaweb or use www.gmail.com to read my email and access my contacts files. [I can still check my gmail using Thunderbird and Yahoo! Mail, though. Only Web traffic is being restricted so far, not POP/IMAP/SMTP traffic.]

It’s impossible to say how long Google.com will be blocked. When I arrived last August, I found that Livejournal.com was blocked, then sometime this spring the ban was lifted. In true authoritarian form, Chinese censors giveth, and they taketh away.

China postpones net filtering software deadline

June 30, 2009

JISHOU, HUNAN — China’s censors have postponed the deadline by which computer manufacturers must include a net-filtering application called Green Dam Youth Escort.

Green Dam was supposed to be installed on all computers sold in China as of tomorrow.

The requirement — made ostensibly to protect youngsters from pornography — resulted in an avalanche of protests from China’s Internet users, computer manufacturers and the US government. China’s netizens were prepared to boycott the Internet tomorrow as a protest.

[UPDATE July 1: Green Dam has inspired China’s wittier netizens to create a manga-style “Green Dam Bitch.” A variety of renderings of GDB can be seen here. A link in the accompanying article takes you to an image search for 绿坝娘 (Green Dam Bitch) on www.baidu.com, but the search will fail. Baidu, a homegrown search engine, will instead say, “The search result possibly does not conform to the related laws and regulations and content policies.”]

Critics of Green Dam say the application is not only a security risk, allowing external computers access to users’ files and browsing history, but a probable means for Chinese authorities to censor the Internet.

Chinese authorities offered no explanation for the delay.

The Great Firewall now blocks Facebook
July 16, 2009

JISHOU, HUNAN — Sometime in the last week, China’s Internet gatekeepers decided to block Facebook, thereby cutting off my students (and thousands of other Chinese users) from communicating with their Facebook pals.

I can still use FB, but now I have to go through the Tor proxy network. Whatta pain.

China’s net nannies have been on a campaign recently to lock down the Internet, obstensibly to shut off access to pornography, but coincidentally to limit access to sites critical of the government. Given the recent riots in Xinjiang between Muslim Uighurs and local Han (the ethnic majority in China), one can only guess why Facebook has been banned here.

The media site, www.danwei.com, is now also blocked, too. Danwei’s writers are openly critical of Internet censorship in China, and provide links to news sites that are less biased than the official government sources.

For example, if you believe CCTV-9, the international arm of the state TV media, everything is just peachy keen in Xinjiang, where more than 150 people were killed earlier this month and where the army is patrolling the streets to prevent more outbreaks of ethnic violence. CCTV-9 interviewed a Westerner who teaches at a university in Urumqi, the provincial capital, and who said categorically that there were no problems on campus and everything is back to normal. We also got to see a queue of Chinese residents stuffing 100-yuan notes into a donation box — the whole scene was patently contrived for the telecast.

Of course, life in Urumqi is not so rosy, and outside media — including Youtube.com, blog sites, and one supposes also Facebook — would provide Uighurs a chance to get the real news out to the world.

A Chinese wedding celebration: getting there is half the fun
July 16, 2009
HUANGJIAKOU, HUBEI — Last weekend, I went on a trip with a friend to see her friend get married. Since I haven’t written anything lately about what I’ve been doing, now’s a good time to tell you what I’ve been up since classes ended July 3.

Elektra (her English name) recently graduated from the Jishou Teachers College. Last summer, she worked in Guangzhou with a young man just three years older than she. He was getting married this month, and so invited Elektra to the wedding in Hubei. She knew I was planning on visiting Hubei this summer, and mentioned her trip there. I asked if I could go along. The couple was cool with the idea, so Elektra and I left last Thursday for Hubei.

Quick geography lesson: Hubei 湖北 is the province immediately north of Hunan 湖南. They get their names from proximity to Dongting Lake 洞庭湖, near the city of Yueyang 岳阳. “Hu” 湖 means “lake. “Bei” 北 is “north,” and “nan” 南 is “south.” Jishou is in the western part of Hunan, but we were going to the eastern part of Hubei, near Wuhan, the provincial capital.

In China, as in Wyoming, where I used to live, going anywhere is usually measured in hours. Since we were traveling by bus, the trip would likely be an all-day excursion under the best of circumstances.

First leg: Leave Jishou’s north bus station in an air-conditioned coach (with DVD movies and a toilet) for Yueyang, a city of 5 million in northeastern Hunan. Cost: ¥130. This part went flawlessly; the trip by expressway and two-laner via Changde took about 7 hours. We stopped at a rest area for a quick lunch around 12.

Second leg: Since neither of us had been to Yueyang before, Elektra asked for directions to get to Honghu 洪湖, in Hubei, the largest city near her friend’s home village. We needed to take a city bus to another intercity bus station to catch another air-conditioned bus to Honghu. Cost: ¥30. We were lucky to arrive just before the bus left as scheduled at 4:30 pm. So far, so good.

The most direct, quickest way from Yueyang to Honghu is to take a ferry across the Yangtze (Changjiang 长江) River, since there is no bridge across the river as yet. But after bouncing along a two-laner for about 90 minutes, we found the road to the ferry dock hopelessly in gridlock, for reasons unknown. Our resourceful driver and bus conductor (yes, they have bus conductors in China) together worked out an alternate route — another ferry crossing a few kilometers away.

On a road that was still being paved.

This part of the leg was not exactly smooth sailing. One lane was still mostly a dirt road; the other freshly poured concrete. So, we gingerly picked our away around dips and potholes until we finally reached the next ferry dock directly across from Luoshan 落山 in Hubei around 7:00. Here we snacked on lotus seeds while we waited for the ferry to depart.
Yangtze ferry boat

Third leg: Our bus had broken down, so the bus company had arranged for another bus to meet us passengers on the Hubei side of the river. The actual crossing took about 15 minutes. The groom’s friends instead met us in their car in Luoshan, and drove us to Huangjiakou, the town nearest to the groom’s village, another two hours away. (Luoshan is on the southern end of Honghu Lake, about a half hour south of Honghu city. Huangjiakou is several kilometers north of the lake.)

We arrived at the groom’s home around 9:30 pm, and had a very late (but very tasty) dinner at 10:00. Shortly afterward, we were driven back to our hotel in Huangjiakou.

The next day, we were picked up in the morning. We switched cars, so the groom’s (borrowed) car — a Buick — could be decorated for the wedding. Buicks, incidentally, are considered almost as prestigious an automobile as a BMW or a Cadillac in China. The decorations were to include many red roses (plastic ones with attached magnets) and big double-xi 喜 window stickers, also red. Xi means good fortune and happiness.

Once back at the house, we basically did nothing until about 11, when the actual wedding was supposed to take place. The groom, Xiao Yi, is an up-and-coming businessman and has built a nice two-story home next to his parents’ house. The ground floor has a small bedroom, dining room/living room and small kitchen; the upstairs has an air-conditioned bedroom with satellite TV, an office with a computer and a bathroom large enough to park a small car in. Typical of Chinese construction methods, the house has concrete block walls, that are tiled on the outside and drywalled on the inside.

In the front yard, which faces a small lake, the musicians had set up a small stage, where they performed modern and traditional love songs. Various relatives would from time to time set off fireworks, a traditional Chinese custom, to celebrate all kinds of events, including funerals, by warding off evil.

The shady side yard was full of relatives and friends chatting with each other, talking on their cell phones, playing majong or cards, and drinking a lot of water. It was about 93°F out by noon, so everyone was trying to stay cool.

The guests had brunch at 11, then Xiao Yi went to his uncle’s house to change clothes. (It is considered bad luck to change into your wedding duds in your own home, or your parents’.) Lu Lu, the bride, had already left for the bridal shop in Huangjiakou to get dressed.

We were told that tradition required Xiao Yi to go commando (no underwear) for the festivities. We were offered no explanation for this curious requirement, nor for the new package of red briefs Xiao Yi carried with him. Because of the heat, he wore no jacket, but his outfit included long dress pants, a crisp white shirt, necktie and a red rose buttoniere.

We followed the musicians to the uncle’s house to await Xiao Yi’s exit. As soon as he emerged, the musicians (two horn players and a drummer) started playing a traditional tune while we all walked back to Xiao Yi’s home for his last meal as a bachelor. He and his buddies joked around with each other, gave tips to the musicians walking around the table, ate a lot of food and drank a moderate amount of Hubei beer.

After their lunch, we piled into five cars, musicians included, to drive to town to meet the bride. The more cars in the procession, the better, we were told. More cars means more prestige. Bride and groom met at the bridal shop, and we all took a short march, with horns, drum, firecrackers and confetti cannons, down Huangjiakou’s short main street. Then we got back in the cars, and returned to the village.

wedding march

[As best as I can tell, it was this short march that was the actual marriage ceremony. No one officiated the marriage, unless Xiao Yi and Lu Lu had taken care of that civil requirement earlier.]

Back at the house, the best men and bridesmaids joined the couple in the dining room, where earlier someone had posted a list of 10 things for the newly married couple to do. Here are three of the more interesting, and embarrassing, to-do’s.

Xiao Yi’s best man dropped a coin down the front of Lu Lu’s dress, telling the groom that if Xiao Yi did not reach in and retrieve the coin, the best man would take care of it himself. Xiao Yi, after some hesitation, managed to get the coin out of Lu Lu’s bodice without violating too much of her modesty.

Lu Lu’s turn came next. She had to work an egg up inside one of Xiao Yi’s pants legs, across his crotch, and down the other leg. Now we had the explanation for the no-underwear rule, although Xiao Yi fudged by wearing briefs!

[I kind of like this custom. It would be a suitable counterpart for the American custom of the groom reaching up under the bride’s skirts to pull off her garter to throw to his attendants. Why should he have all the fun?]

The couple also had to kiss for 30 seconds. For Westerners, such a requirement is no big deal, but Chinese do not kiss in public, even if they are married. So Xiao Yi and Lu Lu had trouble successfully smooching for the stipulated time, because one or the other would start laughing from embarrassment.

With the 10 to-dos out of the way, Lu Lu repaired upstairs to change into a more comfortable red lace dress, to complete one of her traditional roles as the new member of the groom’s family — to serve tea to all of the groom’s older relatives, who were in turn expected to throw money for the couple into a basket on the table. It was a lot; I lost count after about 30 100-yuan notes hit the pile.

Then we all ate dinner. All the meals were prepared by a small army of friends and relations working in the kitchen shed in the backyard. We ate fresh fish, crayfish and lotus stems from the lake, pork, duck, chicken, cabbage and other greens, fried peanuts and of course rice. Mercifully, baijiu (Chinese firewater) was not part of the menu.

Elektra and I chilled with Xiao Yi, Lu Lu and Lu Lu’s younger brother until about 7:30, then Xiao Yi took Elektra and me back to the hotel on his motorbike. His car-driving friends had already gone home to Wuhan or to take other guests to the bus and train stations.

The next day, we four visited the ecological park on Honghu Lake. Elektra and I left for Yueyang on Sunday, and returned to Jishou on Monday. I’ll report on those details later. Meanwhile, here’s the happy couple.
happy couple

Summer on the 28th parallel
July 17, 2009

JISHOU, HUNAN — Forget all my complaints about living in Kenticky’s heat. Mid afternoon temperatures here had been consistently in the mid-90s for the last two weeks. Today the mercury hit 100°F.

It’s hotter elsewhere, like 104°F in Wuhan and Changsha, but after a certain point a few extra degrees is irrelevant. It’s hot and humid, and unlike Kentucky, we don’t get afternoon thunderstorms to provide some relief.

But, you know, I’m not complaining. A quarter century of living in Kentucky prepared me for this kind of weather. And my apartment has air conditioning. So, no worries.

Sorry, Shanghai! Wuhan was better.
July 25, 2009

WUHAN, HUBEI — I came here to see the solar eclipse, trusting that the weather would cooperate. We were lucky. Shanghai, where all the big professional astronomers gathered, had torrential rains all morning Wednesday.

I did get photos, despite the thin clouds moving into Wuhan. Once I return home, I can post them here. My primo shot was a nice one of the “diamond ring” effect, when sunlight passes through mountain peaks on the Moon’s surface. (Shot with a Nikon D60 with 200 mm Nikkor on a tripod, ASA 400, 1/50 second — I was shooting manually and did not note the f-stop. I’m guessing around f/22)

Diamond ring, 2009 solar eclipse

Diamond ring, 2009 solar eclipse

I couldn’t get very good corona shots, because the clouds were just a little too thick. [I have uploaded my eclipse photos to my Picasaweb site. Check there for more, unless you live in China. The Great Firewall is now blocking Picasaweb, too, as of July 25. I will also upload them to my QQzone for my Chinese friends.]

Now I am in Liuyang, where my friend, Xiao Tan (his nickname), is celebrating his birthday. Then, back to Changsha and Jishou.

Journey to the East, to see an eclipse
July 28, 2009
WUHAN, HUBEI — Sometimes flying by the seat of your pants is better than weeks of careful planning.

Originally, my plan was to travel to Chongqing to the west to view the July 22 solar eclipse, but Wuhan became my destination after my friend Elektra and I were invited to Liuyang to attend a friend’s birthday party later the same week. Given the time required to get anywhere in China, being in Chongqing on Wednesday would have made it difficult to get to Liuyang, east of Changsha, two days later.

Both Wuhan and Chongqing turned out to be better choices than Shanghai, where a group of astronomers from around the world set up shop to view the event. Heavy rains ruined any chance of seeing the eclipse there.

There were a few other reasons to choose Wuhan. I learned that there would be viewing sites at Wuhan University and near Dong Lake, and I needed to buy a solar filter to safely watch and photograph the eclipse. I figured some Chinese entrepreneur would be selling them at Wuhan’s prime viewing spots. (I was right.) Also, Wuhan is Hubei’s provincial capital, so we figured there would be many different bus and train departures from Wuhan to Changsha.

A more picturesque location, and one that would have been closer, would have been to head due north of Jishou to Longshan County, just below Hubei’s boundary, or into the rural areas of Hubei past it. But neither of us knew anything about the terrain there. This part of China is mountainous, and I wasn’t sure we could find a good viewing place.

So Wuhan it was. We left Jishou at 11 am Tuesday on a sleeper coach — a new experience for both of us. The coach travels overnight to Shanghai, stopping at Wuhan on the way. You can watch movies on the way, or sleep in fairly comfortable berths, bunkbed style. The trip to Wuhan cost ¥150, or about $22, each. The Shanghai fare is about twice that.

On the same bus were a woman and her teenaged daughter, who were also traveling to Wuhan for the eclipse. So, we four became travel buddies.

Around 10 pm we arrived in Wuchang, the eastern “borough” of Wuhan. We were deposited basically in the middle of nowhere. We saw a few taxis plying the street, but not much commercial activity. Conveniently, a fellow with a car was waiting for us. Undoubtedly, he was an associate of the bus company or bus driver. He offered to take us to a hotel near the best viewing sites, either Wuhan U or Dong Lake Park. After he and our new friends haggled a bit on a ¥25 fare for each of us, we set off.

I have to confess that this part of the journey had me a little worried, since we were all new to the city and we had no idea whether this guy was honest or not. Fortunately, he was. After a 25-minute ride, we arrived at a swanky hotel about midway between Wuhan U and Dong Lake. It was booked up, but we found a more reasonably priced 7 Days Inn down the block – ¥179 a night with VIP card.

The next morning, we took a taxi to Dong Lake Park. As I expected, there was a fellow there selling #14 welder’s glass plates from a box for ¥5 each. The price, while very fair, probably still made him a tidy profit.

Welder’s put these plates in their visors to protect their eyes from the glare of arc welding. Experts recommend the darkest (#14, which gives the sun a pleasing green color) for safe eclipse viewing, and even then only for short periods of time.

The park, even at 8 am, was teeming with people of all ages and nationalities. There was a group of German eclipse tourists, wearing identical caps and T-shirts. A Japanese man next to us set up a small telescope, with a high quality solar filter, on a motorized mount, attached a video camera to it and recorded the entire event on his notebook computer. There were several other photographers/videographers there, too, who like me had less elaborate equipment. Many folks had welder’s glasses, kids had eclipse “glasses” that local fastfood restaurants and schools had handed out, and some adults were going to view the eclipse through exposed X-rays or 35 mm negative strips. We advised one man with an X-ray of someone’s chest that his was not dark enough to be safe, but I am not sure he understood. Wuhan’s cloud cover probably saved his eyesight.

I came with a newly purchased tripod (a Benro A550ex), my Nikon D60 and two lenses. The 200 mm manual focus Nikkor was my main tool for shooting the actual eclipse, while the autofocus 18-55mm Nikkor would handle the other shots. Holding the welder’s glass over the lens worked very well. The glass was flat enough not to create any rippling of the images, but there was some reduction in image sharpness — not much of a problem given the clouds anyway.

This eclipse would be my second total eclipse of my lifetime, and the first for me to view from the ground. My first was on Feb. 26, 1979, when my buddy, Dave, and I joined our boss and his girlfriend on his plane to leave Casper, Wyoming, to find clear skies north to watch the eclipse. We ended up watching it from the air, because we had no time to find a place to land.

The most memorable part of that excursion (aside from circling Devil’s Tower in a tight 45-degree bank) was watching the edge of the Moon’s shadow race across the ground below as totality approached and seeing the stars pop into view during totality.

The thin clouds in Wuhan were going to prevent us from seeing any stars this time around. As it was, the clouds were racing the eclipse. As totality approached, the clouds were already dimming the view of the Sun as the Moon gradually covered it.

On the ground, people were getting more excited as the light grew dim and the temperature noticeably dropped. When totality started, nearly everyone went “ooo!” (or something similar). The horizon turned red, like at sunrise, but in all four directions, and the park became gloomy. The feeling was like dusk on a fall evening, or the dreary period just before a bad rainstorm starts.

And it felt like fall, even though Wuhan is one of the “oven cities” of China in July. The clouds were actually the leading edge of a low-pressure system moving west across China, but losing the Sun’s heat for six minutes was the main cause of the cooling breeze on the lakefront park.

As totality neared its end, the clouds got thicker, and finally viewing the final portions of the eclipse became nearly impossible. I caught a few glimpses of the Moon uncovering the Sun through the clouds and my welder’s glass, but the views were not as good as before.

We said goodbye to our friends from Jishou, who were taking the next train to Changsha, packed up my gear and set off for the Hubei Provincial Museum. Solar eclipse 2009 was now history.

I’ve given up trying to figure out the Great Firewall
July 29, 2009

LIUYANG, HUNAN — Sometime while I was traveling last week, the Mighty Keepers of the Great Firewall of China decided to close off Picasaweb, Google’s photo-sharing site.

So, I had a devil of a time bringing up the photos I put there to show my friends here. Even more frustrating, I can upload using Picasa 3 as before, but I can’t edit my online photos and albums without standing on my head, tunneling with Tor and blocking scripts from google-analytics.com with No Script for Firefox.

Earlier this month, China’s net nannies also pulled the plug on Facebook, depriving me and my students here access to our English-speaking (and Chinese-speaking) buddies. Again, for me, Tor and Firefox come to the rescue.

Meanwhile, I discovered entirely by accident that the Huffington Post is no longer blocked. WTF? Is there some new conservation law I missed in physics class? The Law of Conservation of Blocked Websites?

Exploring Wuhan, Hubei’s provincial capital, day 1
Aug. 3, 2009

WUHAN, HUBEI — After totality was over on July 22, the clouds moved in, and watching the end of the eclipse was unrewarding. So, we packed up our stuff and set off to explore this sprawling city of 9 million people.

We had an ambitious plan: visit Wuhan University, Hubei Provincial Museum, Huang He Lou (Yellow Crane Tower), Wuhan Botanical Gardens, Mo Shan, maybe go shopping …

We did about half those things, partly because we chose to go to the museum first (it’s really big!) and partly because we took the right bus, going the wrong direction, to visit the tower. We got a cheap (2 yuan) hour’s long tour of Wuhan by taking the long way to Yellow Crane Tower.

The provincial museum is fairly new, and showcases a huge collection of 2200-year-old artifacts unearthed in the late 1970s from sites in the northern part of Hubei. There is also a section highlighting the prehistory of Hubei — including fossils of Homo erectus (Yunxian Man) and contemporary animals.

[Note to creationists: those animals did not include dinosaurs. Dinosaurs did NOT co-exist with humans in China, or anywhere else for that matter. This sign makes that concept very clear.]

Homo erectus and fellow animals

Homo erectus and fellow animals

For me, the most interesting part of the museum’s collection is a huge set of 46 bronze bells, spanning five octaves, that were found in the tomb of Marquis Yi of Zeng, who died in 433 BC. The bells were crafted so that each one can sound two different musical tones, depending on where they are struck. For a modest fee, you can hear museum performers play the bells and other instruments of the time in the theater. They close their set with a portion of the “Ode to Joy” movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Really cool to hear it played on truly ancient instruments.

And yeah, not to state the obvious, it is somewhat awe-inspiring to realize that China has a recorded history that spans 5,000 years, and that Marquis Yi ancestors (mind you) were undertaking large-scale water conservation projects, building huge bronze smelting and forging factories, mastering astronomy, commerce, art, music, war and probably government bureaucracy long before Europeans did.

(On the other hand, that long history means Chinese students have that much more to learn for their interminable examinations to enter middle school, high school, university and postgraduate school. We Americans complain about 300 years of history — 1/16 that of China’s.)

Not all of the museum’s exhibits are as fascinating, and we actually skipped the less appealing ones. There is a hall of famous people from Hubei, consisting of a photo and short bio (only in Chinese) of each one. The history of writing (we zipped through it) had some interesting displays, but you would need some patience to visit all the displays. [NOTE: Mainland China simplified the character system decades ago, so most modern Chinese cannot easily read traditional characters. Thus, a modern Chinese person has as much difficulty reading 2200-year-old characters written on bamboo splits as a modern American has in reading Beowulf in the original language.]

Yellow Crane Tower, Wuhan, China

Yellow Crane Tower, Wuhan, China

After the museum, we decided to visit Huang He Lou (Yellow Crane Tower), which is not far away by bus IF you take the bus going in the right direction. Which we didn’t. Armed with a city map (in Chinese), my companion found the correct bus route to take, but both of us failed to realize that boarding the bus directly in front of the museum meant we would be heading west across the Yangtze River on the New Changjiang Bridge, looping through the Hankou district of Wuhan, crossing the Greater Changjiang Bridge heading east, and reaching the Tower a full hour later. Oops!

We were not alone. A mom and her two daughters, who kept running into us in museum, and two college students from Shenzhen also made the same wrong choice. The girls, I think, were as fascinated with me as they were with the museum, as the younger of the two greeted me with a bubbly, “Hello, pleased to meet you!” every time she saw me. We entered the tower park separately from them, but met up with the mom and girls at the big bell outside to take some photos of each other.

Yellow Crane Tower is one of the three “great towers” of Chinese history, with the Yueyang Tower and the Nanchang tower in Jiangxi. Each tower now, of course, has been reconstructed in modern times, but the locations have remained constant for at least a thousand years each. Each tower has rich legends about it. Yellow Crane Tower, for example, got its name because a Taoist Immortal living at the site drew a picture of a yellow crane, which came to life. He later flew away on the back of the yellow crane.

Huang He Lou now is a reproduction (built with traditional wood joinery techniques — no nails or other metal fasteners) of the 7-story Qing Dynasty tower built in the 1880s. The Qing era tower was built just a kilometer away from the original third-century tower, which had burned down in 1884. The current tower and park were developed in the 1990s. From the top one can have a commanding view (the original towers had a military purpose) of sprawling modern Wuhan, the Yangtze River (Chiangjiang) to the west and the lakes in Wuchang to the north and east.

The girls from Guangzhou and I, Wuhan

The girls from Guangzhou and I, Wuhan

A short distance from the tower is a huge ceremonial bronze bell. Visitors can ring the bell for 1 yuan each strike, and the pit under the bell was full of 1-yuan coins. We elected just to take photos in front of it.

At this point, it was around closing time, so we went our separate ways. Elektra and I took the right bus going the right way back to our hotel (no ’round the town tours this time!) for dinner and good rest. The next day we planned to visit the Wuhan Botanical Gardens before catching the afternoon train to Changsha.

I was on the BBC World Service tonight
Aug. 5, 2009

JISHOU, HUNAN — It was only for a minute or two, but my voice went out all over the world. Did you hear me?

This morning, I wrote a reaction to former president Bill Clinton’s visit to North Korea to retrieve the two American journalists imprisoned there. Tonight, while I was chatting online with one of my students, Lynfay, my website notified me that a comment was awaiting moderation. About 90 minutes later, I decided to check the comment out.

My first reaction was disbelief. The comment was from a woman identifying herself as Shaimaa Khalil, a journalist with the BBC World Service, who said she wanted me to say something on the program, “World, Have Your Say.” After four years of dealing with comment spam, I checked out the website and by golly, there really is a Shaimaa Khalil who works for a real BBC program called “World, Have Your Say.”

[Sorry, Beeb, this program is broadcast live at 1 am China time, so I have never listened to it and had never heard of it. Nothing personal.]

Anyway, Ms Khalil wanted my telephone number so she could talk to me a bit before the program. We spoke briefly around 10:30 pm my time, and she filled me in on the program’s topic of the day: “With the two US journalists now freed, did Bill Clinton’s visit only reward North Korea’s bad behaviour?” Sensitive to the late hour, she said they would try to have me speak on the phone during the first 15 minutes of the program, which airs at 1 in the morning here.

Good thing I’m a night owl.

The gist of my remarks was essentially what I said in my blog post this morning. There is no argument that it’s wonderful to have brought Euna Lee and Laura Ling back home. Meanwhile, North Korea was able to save face and get some nice positive news coverage for a change, and Washington was able to get a foot in the door that North Korea normally keeps shut tighter than Fort Knox.

Other reactions have been less positive. Given North Korea’s refusal to play by international rules, Clinton’s visit could be seen as giving the dictatorship there some measure of legitimacy. Those of us in the studio and on the phones volleyed these ideas around during the hour-long program. If you’re interest in hearing it, the BBC just put in online at the WHYS website.

Ms Khalil also asked me how people in China had reacted to Clinton’s visit. I didn’t get a chance to talk about it on air, so I will here.

The official word from government-run Xinhua News Agency was profusely positive. Skirting the issue of the grounds for the arrest of Lee and Ling, Xinhua noted that North Korea and the US were both able to save face. Clinton was 万选 — Wan Xuan (one in a thousand), “Mr Right” for the job of retrieving the pair.

Bill Clinton and Kim Jong Il pose together

Bill Clinton and Kim Jong Il pose together

Xinhua also noted Clinton’s visit with North Korea’s frail leader, Kim Jong Il, might open doors to negotiating a halt to North Korea’s nuclear arms program. Like North Korea’s other neighbors, China is just a little nervous about the Pyongyang regime having nukes to shoot around.

Did Clinton and the USA play into North Korea’s hands? North Korea did, as the Washington Post reported today, specifically ask for Clinton to come to Pyongyang. Had he not, one wonders whether Lee and Ling would be home with their families now. Certainly, Kim got some good press at home and abroad. North Korea got to save face, and the USA had to (maybe) lose a little. We don’t know what Clinton and Kim talked about in their private meeting, so perhaps North Korea privately had to lose something, too.

What it does highlight is the new administration’s willingness to actually talk to other governments before sending in the shock troops. Conservatives pilloried Barack Obama for his campaign statements that he would open dialogues with “rogue” nations like North Korea and Cuba, but the Obama administration has demonstrated that diplomacy works. We should all be grateful that this little bit of history had a happy ending.

Some thoughts on teaching after 25 years
Aug. 10, 2009

JISHOU, HUNAN — Yesterday, I read a Washington Post column by Sarah Fine, a young, idealistic teacher who was quitting the profession after four years. It’s a well written, poignant piece, and I wanted to write some reaction to it here.

I had trouble working up a sufficient head of steam to get started. I had lots of things to say, but nothing was gelling in my mind. So, figuring reading something else would help, I swung over to the Daily Kos to see what was up there.

Amid all the political commentary was this excellent response to Fine’s column by teacherken (Ken Bernstein), which at this writing has received more than 350 comments, some sympathetic, some critical.

If you read teacherken’s response to Sarah Fine’s confessional, you will pretty much read be reading my reactions, too. He and I share several characteristics: we both got liberal arts educations at renowned northeastern institutions (he, Haverford; me, Princeton), we both worked in other professions before becoming teachers later in life (he much later than I), we’re both Quakers, both liberal Democrats, both socially liberal, both love teaching.

But I have a few other things to say, now that it’s a day later and I’ve had more time to mull over Fine’s column.

Some of my readers already know my background, but for the benefit of the one or two people who are not members of my family, friends, colleagues or present and former students, here’s a quick recap.

After graduation from university, I worked for five years for two small daily newspapers in Wyoming and Kentucky. Halfway through year 5, I was disenchanted with daily newspaper journalism and wanted to do something different, and perhaps more meaningful. So, I ended up in grad school to get a masters of arts in teaching physics, a program which incidentally I never finished. Midway through my master’s program I serendipitously landed a job at a small independent high school teaching physics.

I stayed at that school for 23 years, one of which I spent on a Fulbright teacher’s exchange in South Africa, and seven of which I also served as the school’s technology coordinator. I finally left the school in June 2008, 24 years after I first walked through its doors as part of my teacher-prep observation requirement.

Sarah Fine’s school and mine are worlds apart. Had her first gig been at my school, she would probably still be teaching. Hers instead was a charter school in Washington, D.C., where she was overworked and underappreciated, an expendable cog in a factory to churn out graduates. Mine was a rare oasis of collegiality and mutual respect among administrators, staff, teachers and students, where I was pretty much free to teach however I liked, so long as my students actually learned something.

Fine fails to address one distinctive aspect of teaching, so you may not fully understand the anguish this young woman endured during her short stint. Classroom teaching is a lonely profession. Sure, the teacher is certainly never alone while teaching a roomful of students, but in that role he or she is the sole leader of the class. Few of us have teaching assistants or aides. For seven hours a day, the teacher runs the show in his or her classroom, herding 25 to 35 cats who for the most part would rather be curled up in bed at home or frolicking outside. With few exceptions, no one pokes their head in to see what the teacher is doing. The classroom is a little island nation, isolated from the rest of the school.

[Another aspect of the loneliness of the profession are the untold hours spent reading and grading homework assignments outside class. Classroom teachers cannot pass this chore off to some teaching assistant like college professors do.]

Now, if a teacher has an understanding administration that supports and trusts its teachers, the isolation is not a bad thing. In fact, for the right kind of person, it’s a liberating experience. Being master of one’s domain gives a teacher extraordinary leeway in organizing class activities, trying out new teaching methods, and pushing the envelope of teaching. Most truly excellent teachers are also still learners; they realize that each year presents new opportunities to try new things, to learn new methods of reaching their students.

Of course, this petty fiefdom situation can also lead to abuse of the system and/or the students, if a teacher has the wrong kind of temperament, has an axe to grind, or has a certain inability to keep sex out of the teacher-student relationship. Fortunately, most of the nation’s teachers are mindful of their ethical and professional responsibilities, or we’d have a hell of a mess on our hands.

Fine, by her description, wanted to be a push-the-envelope kind of teacher. Her students were active learners, and scored well on mandated examinations, but she had zero appreciation and support from her superiors. Her wide-eyed efforts to improve education at her school were summarily ignored by the administration, discounting both her role as a professional and as a valued employee.

Many teachers, myself included, say they stay in the profession because of the kids. It sounds a little sappy when we say it, but it’s true. A subject teacher invariably teaches the same old thing year-in, year-out, but we teach it to a different group of students each time. Each class of students has a certain “class personality.” There may be individual students who for one reason or another stand out in the crowd, but the group as a whole within a few weeks jells into a unit with its own quirks and goals. Dealing with each new class is, for lack of a better word, fun. Teaching is a people-oriented profession; if you don’t like dealing with people, you should find another job.

Students, at least in my admittedly blessed experience, want to learn and may even enjoy being in your class (though they may outwardly deny it). If the teacher can channel their energy into learning the subject at hand, the outcome is mutually satisfying for all involved. Students also bring their own ideas and skills to the classroom. A teacher (who is not a petty dictator) can learn as much from these students as they from the teacher. My former headmaster often said teaching kept him young, and I concur. I think working with people my own age now would be indescribably dull.

But staying for the students only works for so long. At some point in any teacher’s career, there is the burnout point. In Fine’s case, she burned out at year four, a victim of poor administrative support and a sense that no one respected teaching as a profession. My burnout came much later in my career.

I have not talked about this part of my career with hardly anyone, so if you’ve read this far, you may be in for some surprises.

Around my fourth or fifth year, one of my students asked my why I didn’t do something else, like become a physicist or an engineer. I told him that for me teaching was fun, and when it stopped being fun, I would pack it in and do something else.

I avoided burnout by taking summer workshops, learning new techniques, employing computers in the laboratory, tweaking my syllabus each year, and taking a year to teach abroad. On the other hand, I wrote my own burnout warrant when I agreed to become the school’s tech coordinator on returning to the US in 2001.

Originally, the job did not require much work. The school had one server, few email accounts, a small computer lab filled with underpowered computers, and little dependence on technology. As the years passed, though, fueled by my own vision for the school’s technology and the growing pervasiveness of IT in society, the tech coordinator job became exponentially more time consuming. By 2008 my work week was typically 50-60 hours long, which did not include the time I spent outside the school learning IT on my own.

Clearly the solution was either to return to being only a physics teacher, or to ditch teaching and become a full-time tech coordinator. I couldn’t make up my mind which to do, and my administration was not being especially helpful in making the decision. I had the clear sense that my bosses preferred keeping me in both positions, despite my protests that doing two full-time jobs at the same time meant I was doing neither job to the fullest.

And so, at some point in 2007, the job stopped being fun. I still loved my students, still loved my subjects, still respected my colleagues, but I was now showing up to work out of a sense of duty, not out of a sense of self-gratification. It was about this time that the opportunity came to teach in China, which led me to my current position far from physics, IT management, and the United States.

In her essay, Fine mentions the seeming lack of respect Americans have for teachers. To a large extent, I agree. In the USA, people suggest that “those who can’t, teach,” or that teachers could certainly be doing something better with their lives. As one writer once noted, telling someone at a party you are a teacher is a conversation killer, because everyone “knows” what teachers do, and it is seldom interesting, so they feel there is nothing to talk about. Since everyone has gone to school, they also assume they know as much as professionals about what is wrong with America’s schools, but are seldom willing to hear what actual teachers have to say. In the USA, teachers are simultaneously the hired help and master craftsmen, mistrusted and respected, overworked and underpaid.

The culture in China is different. Teaching here is respected, and teachers, too. You can be a complete flop in the classroom, but you will be respected as a teacher. (Of course, you will get more respect if you are a good teacher!) While teaching in China will not make anyone wealthy, the pay is at least commensurate with the social standing of a teacher. As a university professor, I make quite a bit more than most government workers and certainly much more than the median income in this rural part of Hunan.

And I am obligated to teach no more than 18 hours a week. If I need to teach more hours, my contract stipulates I must be paid pro rata. And a 5% raise is automatic. There’s none of the “will we have enough money to pay the teachers, much less give them a nominal raise?” anxiety I endured for 23 years previously.

So, I am still a teacher, now beginning my 25th year in the profession. I have some regrets that I am not serving that symbolic anniversary back at my former school, but only a few. A burned-out teacher has little to offer his school, after all.

Weird encounter with a Chinese Christian (or Christian Chinese)
Aug. 13, 2009

JISHOU, HUNAN — This encounter happened this morning, but the stage was set yesterday. I met a Chinese guy who apparently is an itinerant Christian preacher of some kind, and he hit me up for money.

I meet a student every afternoon outside near the basketball courts for our lessons. The weather has been cooperative (no rain) and the trees give us enough shade to make sitting there comfortable.

Meeting in the open means random people wandering by will sometimes just pause by Clark and me. Some just listen and leave. Some interrupt to ask me questions. One asked me to be her teacher, for pay. Yesterday, while I was going over one of Clark’s essays, this older dude kept circling around us, waiting for the opportunity to ask me a question.

His clothes (blue cotton shirt, dark gray pants) were a little worn looking, but not in really bad shape. His mustache and beard were scraggly. I’d say he was about 40ish, or maybe older, since his hair was going salt-and-pepper. His question was a grammatical one, not too hard to answer. So, after five minutes, he said thanks, asked for my business card and went on his way. I took him initially for a somewhat eccentric professor.

This morning, promptly at 8:30, he called, asking to meet him for unspecified reasons. I suggested we meet in the afternoon, but he said he would be leaving around noon, could we meet now?

I found this idea just a little presumptuous, since I did have other things to do. So, we agreed to meet in an hour.

I found him sitting next to a young man — I reckon one of our students — talking to him while pointing to a large bilingual Bible in his lap. My new acquaintance asked me to wait a minute. So I sat down and listened, trying to understand the gist of the conversation.

(It’s funny, but even when a person is speaking Chinese, a Bible quote sounds just like a Bible quote. There’s something about the rhythm, or maybe the conviction of the speaker that makes it sound Biblical.)

Anyway, the student left after five minutes and the preacher fellow asked me if I was a Christian — Catholic or Protestant. I said I was loosely raised Protestant, was a believer for a while, but was no longer a practicing Christian. I didn’t get into the whole “I’m a Quaker” thing, and I was really not keen on debating belief, but he asked me why I wasn’t a believer any more.

Well, we spent a few more minutes talking about science and religion, but I could tell his immediate concern was not to convert me. Francis (his English name) got down to brass tacks. He was planning on leaving Jishou today and could I loan him some money.

OK, I thought to myself, I’ll play the game, so I asked how much he needed.

“2,000 RMB.”

“Ah, I’m sorry, I can’t do that. I’m a professor, you know. Besides, I don’t know you. We met only yesterday.”

Francis thought for a while. “Then, could you loan me around 100 to 300?”

“How about 200? You know, I will traveling next week myself, so I need to save my money.” (I’ve loaned this amount to a student needing travel money already, so there was precedent. Not that Francis would know that. Besides, 2,000 RMB is half my monthly income and could buy someone two round trip softbed sleeper berths on a train to Beijing. )

Francis thought some more, and said finally that he would try to find another source of funds, and not to worry about loaning him any money. We shook hands, and I went on my way.

On my way back to my apartment, I caught sight of Francis in the same place, Bible in hand, once again talking to another college student.

I’m talking about this encounter because I have had few discussions about religion here, and until today never had seen anyone preaching (even quietly) to someone else. The asking for money part was a little annoying, but I sensed that Francis was sincere and not trying to scam me like the street people along Broadway in Louisville. He didn’t press the issue, either, and didn’t start cussing me out when I refused, unlike the Louisville street people.

Officially, China is an atheistic country. The government tolerates only certain recognized churches, but there are many “home churches” where people meet on the sly, since such meetings are illegal. Missionary work here is very low key out of necessity. Public religious gatherings would be closed down by the cops in a New York minute, and someone identified as a proselytizer would be arrested. I wondered if Francis’ itinerancy had something to do with avoiding arrest, in fact.

One of the stipulations of my contract is to “respect China’s religious policies, and … not conduct any religious activities incompatible” with my status as a foreign expert. So, I am very careful to avoid sounding like I am trying to convert my students to Christianity.* Not that I would anyway, given my Quaker background and present non-belief, but it pays to be cautious.

The university library does have copies of the Bible and books of Bible stories in the English language stacks. I am not sure about the Chinese stacks. Local bookstores also carry bilingual Bibles, and you can order them off the Internet. So, it’s not like China is completely suppressing Christianity or knowledge about it. But the government keeps a very tight lid on it, and other religions, too.

(Two of the troublespots in China lately have coincidentally been religious “hotspots,” Tibet (Lama Buddhism) and Xinjiang (Islam). Whether the central government is trying to quash the religions there I cannot say.)

So, Francis is a brave soul, but a careful one. Meeting students one at a time in the open is like hiding in plain sight. And his asking for money is a time-honored tradition among both Buddhist and Catholic monks, if a little too forward for my tastes. It was a meaningful encounter in many ways.

——————–
* Students do ask me questions about the Bible, Jesus and so on. And I answer them. I don’t avoid discussing religion if another person raises a question. I do avoid bringing the subject up myself.

On a related note, I will also mention an interesting conversation I had with my foreign affairs officer recently. There was a bad train wreck in Hunan about two weeks ago, and Chinese authorities always worry about how foreigners interpret events. It seems the local Public Security Bureau (PSB) was inquiring of my FAO where the foreigners at the university were and what were they doing. The PSB wanted to know about my typical activities. He told them that I was a quiet fellow who stayed at home, but who also liked traveling around China. If my FAO knows I blog, he didn’t mention it. It was a reminder that China still has a Big Brother complex, and that foreigners have to be careful not to rock the boat too much. I don’t worry about being arrested or deported, but caution is the better part of valor.

The vagaries of traveling in China
Aug. 15, 2009

CHANGSHA, HUNAN — Planning is important when traveling, but maybe I didn’t plan as carefully as I should have.

I am on my way to Beijing, to meet up with some friends and do the sight-seeing I couldn’t do in February. I planned to get to Beijing the same way as last: shuttle bus to Changsha, then overnight express train to Beijing. Only this time, I was going to stay overnight in Changsha.

And a good thing, too. Because my plans for train travel were dashed yesterday evening.

China has an extensive passenger train system. It also has a huge population. Normally, getting a train ticket is not a big issue, but the end of the summer holiday is two weeks away.

So, when I went to the ticket office last evening, I found a horde of people trying to buy tickets. And I found there were none for me.

The Changsha ticket office has two big LED boards listing available tickets for northbound and southbound trains. For the Beijing-bound trains, there were no sleeper berths available until after the 22nd, no seats until the 19th. If I wanted to travel standing for 16 hours, I could have gotten a ticket for the 18th.

But I was expected in Beijing on the 16th. And standing that long in a crowded train has little appeal. It’s bad enough on short trips.

Fear not, dear reader! I will be in Beijing as planned, but I just had to spend about twice as much money to book a round-trip flight there. (For reference, with fees and all, my tickets on China Southern Airlines were 2330 RMB; a round-trip train trip (soft sleeper) would have been about 1100 RMB.)

Here’s how I recovered from my errors. While you cannot book train tickets online easily in China, booking hotels and airline tickets is as easy as in the USA. After returning to my hotel room (155 RMB, btw), I logged onto eLong.net, a discount travel site. Within short order, I booked my tickets for a Sunday morning departure and a Friday morning return. With eLong, you can pay cash for your tickets. If you are in a major city’s central area, they will deliver them to you. Mine were delivered to my hotel room this morning at 10, four hours ahead of schedule. The messenger politely accompanied to me to the ATM across the street where we settled accounts.

So, I stayed another day in Changsha — no big deal. I ate at Pizza Hut and shopped at Carrefour (my big Western fix for the summer), and walked around town some until the 95° heat chased me back to the hotel.

Tomorrow I’ll catch the shuttle to the airport, and after a two-hour flight, be in Beijing. Till then, toodles!

Bizarro world What’s Up, Tiger Lily?
Aug. 22, 2009

CHANGSHA, HUNAN — While I wait for my lunch companions to show up, I will try to dash off a quick movie review.

Of course, it’s not very current. GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra opened in the USA weeks ago, but I saw it for the first time here just last week. In Chinese. With Chinese subtitles.

I didn’t miss a thing.

Some B-movies have redeeming virtues, despite poor acting, bad direction, cheesy scripts, or lousy camera work. Really bad movies (grade Z’s), though, combine all four to make a US Grade A turkey.

And being a science-fictiony kind of film, GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra, brought really bad to a whole new level with really awful science concepts.

Here’s a few glaring mistakes.

The Bad Guy (TBG) has a huge underwater lair that puts Stargate Atlantis’ digs to shame. Yet, this underwater metropolis is supposedly a secret. How? Its heat signature alone would be as bright as lighthouse beacon to a spy satellite in orbit.

For argument’s sake, let’s suppose the US government knew about The Bad Guy’s secret underwater lair. Wouldn’t the Defense Department be just a teensy bit interested in why TBG has all of that expensive hardware hidden away, especially since TBG is supplying high-tech stuff to the DoD?

(Then again, maybe not. Consider the DoD’s careful monitoring of Blackwater and Halliburton operations in Iraq.)

And he also has a secret weapons facility in the Arctic! Apparently, he hasn’t read up on global warming.

Meanwhile, The Good Guys have their own top-secret underground lair in, of all places, the Sahara Desert. No heat signature problems there (maybe), but if keeping water out of a high tech facility is difficult, think about keeping sand and dust out of one. Not a clever choice, in my book.

In this Saharan facility are hangars the size of aircraft carriers, a deep-water training tank the size of Seaworld, and multiple levels of living, dining and training quarters.

How did all that stuff get there? Without being noticed. By anyone, like the Saudis, or Mossad, or the Russians, not to mention the Egyptians. (I won’t even go into the money required to buy and build all that stuff, secretly.)

One of the cool GI Joe gadgets is an exoskeleton that enables the wearer to run (judging from a fleeting glimpse of its heads-up display) up to 80 mph. It seems impervious to denting, abrasion, gunfire, explosions and high impact collisions with trucks, automobiles, pavement and nearby buildings.

Setting aside the difficulties of manufacturing something from such wonder materials, consider the safety of the poor guys inside. Someone forgot to read up on the law of inertia here.

Imagine you are in a metal can hurtling along at 60 mph when you suddenly hit a larger, immobile object. Your metal-can conveyance (commonly known as a “car”) stops moving and crumples into a mere shadow of its stylish design. Meanwhile, you and anything else in the car keep on moving at 60 mph until something gets in your way. If you’re lucky, your seat belts and airbags will do the stopping job, slowing your body at a rate safe enough for you to walk away. If you’re not, the rapid deceleration will make mincemeat of you.

So, our Heroes are bounding around Paris at high speeds, with acrobatic agility, and slamming into things left and right, without feeling a thing! In the real world, their insides would be a slurry after two or three high-speed impacts. An exoskeleton (especially one that is form fitting!) cannot protect its occupant from concussions and broken bones, unless the engineers also designed inertial dampeners (à lá Star Trek) to evade the law of inertia.

And speaking of inertia, TBG’s force weapons also violate Newton’s Laws. Somehow, a henchmen fires one of these things, concentric rings of — something — fly from the barrel, and heavy objects going flying like feathers in the wind. But there’s no recoil. It seems that pushing a car aside with one of these things would at least muss up your hair.

Nanomites. The main premise of the movie is that TBG, who also appears to be the sole hardware supplier to the US government (strategically a really bad idea), has developed a nanoscale robot that eats anything in its way, like army ants. [Reminds me of another B-movie I saw ages ago, with South American villagers yelling, “Moribunda! Moribunda!”] These little buggers can chew through a tank in no time flat, leaving nothing but … dust? I’m not real clear where the waste products go, exactly. Anyway, the nanomites can be turned off, or their voracious appetites could possibly eat up everything, including The Good Guys and the Whole Earth. (But not other nanomites, hmmm…)

So, the TBG, not content with being the sole hardware supplier to the US government, owning a secret underwater lair the size of Denver, Colorado, and an Arctic weapons facility, decides he will unleash his miniature terror weapons on a strategically important site … the Eiffel Tower. A logical choice, since France has such a dominant role in world affairs now.

He sends two of his loyal underlings, the Hero’s Ex-Girl Friend and the Mysterious Asian Dude, both of whom have serious anger-management issues, in a high-tech SUV to race around the streets of Paris to use a handheld rocket launcher to splatter the nanomites all over the base of the Eiffel Tower .. from about a mile away.

A boat up the Seine would have gotten the job done much more effectively, methinks. Paris has a nifty Metro system, too. Careening SUV’s around Parisian traffic is tres inélégant. You’d expect someone with a Denver-sized underwater lair (and an Arctic weapons facility) to be a little more efficient.

TBG’s high-tech SUV survives crashes, explosions and all kinds of mayhem until it is broadsided by a TGV. There’s three problems with this premise. To the best of my knowledge, the TGV does not have surface-level crossings in Paris — they kind of defeat the purpose of high speed trains. Two, the SUV survives explosions and all kinds of collisions, and hitting a train barely dents it, but it gets knocked out when it lands on its roof? What is it? A turtle? And what of the train? It (well, its cheesy CGI simulacrum) keeps zipping through the Parisian streets as if nothing happened. Real trains, like, derail when they hit cars.

Talking about characterization in an action movie like this one is pointless, but comic books do a better job at character development.

Take the Hero, his GF and her brother/his buddy for example. Hero and girl are engaged, hopelessly in love. Well, I can tell she is, anyway. Sienna Miller acts better than the wooden Channing Tatum (Who picked this guy’s name? Seriously, I think of Carol Channing and Tatum O’Neal whenever I hear his name.) On a mission in Iraq, Her Brother/His Buddy gets killed by friendly fire — he goes into an enemy bunker and the Air Force takes it out. Boom!

Hero’s now Ex-GF gets seriously pissed at the US government because her brother was killed in Iraq. So, she signs up with the TBG’s outfit, where she specializes in being a cold-hearted, ass-kicking bitch of a killer with really nice cleavage. Even meeting her ex-BF, our Hero, in the GI Joes’ sub-Saharan lair doesn’t slow down her single-minded rage of vengeance.

Oh, yeah. She has a secret identity, too. He’s married to some rich dude. So, she’s not helping TBG for money and glory. She’s just really, really pissed.

Our Hero gets captured saving Paris from even further destruction from nanomites. Then TBG says he will use our Hero as a test subject for some nasty nanomite surgery. Faced with this gruesome demise of her (formerly) beloved BF, the Hero’s Ex-GF loses her anger-management problems and tries to set him free. We then discover that TBG’s evil doctor henchman — her own fucking brother, who didn’t die after all, but just got warped, like Anakin before he went Darth — has nanomited her, to make her do TBG’s bidding.

No amount of dialogue could help explain this plot point. Brother almost killed. He signs up with The Bad Guy. His sister gets really pissed off. She signs up with the same bad guy. She doesn’t recognize her brother in his Darth Vader-like suit, but surely he knows who she is. (Human resources would have noticed. Trust me on this.) He doesn’t say, hey, sis! It’s me! I’m not dead! Surprise! No, he shoots her up with nanomites to make her a lackey of TBG. These kids have some serious family issues, I’d say.

Then there’s the whole Mysterious Asian Dude-Silent Good Guy in a Full Bodysuit subplot. MAD was a star pupil at a martial arts school in Japan (?) apparently. SGGiaFB was a (white) street urchin who nevertheless had kick-ass martial arts skills. MAD catches SGGiaFB stealing food in the academy kitchen. They fight, pretty equally matched. Kindly, wise, aged sensei stops MAD from inflicting serious damage on the street urchin, accepts the boy into the academy, and eventually voices his approval when SGGiaFB finally defeats MAD in practice.

MAD (who if you remember has serious anger-management issues) goes postal, kills the kindly, wise, aged sensei, and flees the academy. Meanwhile, the street urchin grows up, dons a full body suit (including a face mask with no apparent means of allowing air, water or food in), and becomes a kick-ass GI Joe operative. Predictably, these two foes duke it out in the end, and MAD falls — apparently — to his death.

Now, the movie’s makers have left things open for a sequel, gods help us. One of TBG’s henchmen, who likes to whistle, “For he’s a jolly good fellow,” has undergone nanomite cosmetic surgery to become a dead ringer of the movie’s President of the USA. He switches places with the real POTUS in the POTUS’s emergency bunker (supplied by TBG and protected by TBG-nanomited Secret Service agents). And, given the surreality of this movie, he impersonates the POTUS so well that no one notices … yet. (Dare I say this movie was made while George W. Bush was still in office?)

The best part of the movie is Sienna Miller, and not just because of her cleavage. Until the ridiculous change of heart/character at the end, Miller oozes evil, kick-ass bitchiness throughout the other 85% of the flick. The budding romance between Hero’s Other Best Buddy Who’s Not Dead or Warped and Red-Haired Heroine with Really Nice Cleavage is kind of fun to watch, if only because she’s so frosty military .. and white … and he’s so bumbling affable … and black.

And yes, I know these characters have names. Mine are more descriptive. Get over it.

By the way, we paid 25 yuan (about $3.50) each to see this flick, on the insistence of my friend’s younger brother. If you paid substantially more to see it, I am sorry for your loss.

———–
Cultural enrichment sidebar: What’s Up, Tiger Lily? was Woody Allen’s debut as a film director. In 1966, he took a Japanese action movie, dubbed English dialogue that had nothing to do with the original plot, and created a comic masterpiece. As for the Bizarro world, see here.

Science thoughts from underground
Aug. 29, 2009
WULINGYUAN, HUNAN — One of my last stops before classes resume was Yellow Dragon Cave (Huang Long Cave) here, near Zhangjiajie. The cave itself is stupendous. The tour includes a short boat ride on the underground river and a lot of stair climbing.

For me the highlight was this stalagmite, the “Sacred Needle for Stabilizing the Sea,” which rises 19.2 meters from the cave floor.

Sacred Needle for Stabilizing the Sea

Sacred Needle for Stabilizing the Sea

The tour guide rattled off two impressive figures relating to this structure. One is that it is insured for several million dollars. The other is that the Sacred Needle is about two million years old.

This blog has highlighted the sheer silliness of creationism over the last four years, especially the ludicrous claims of Ken Ham’s Creation Museum in northern Kentucky. Ham (among others) figures the world was created in exactly six days about 6,000 years ago.

To bolster their claims that the Bible accurately describes the creation of Life, the Universe and Everything, Ham and Co. try all kinds of hand-waving arguments to counter reams of contradictory evidence from astronomy, geology, paleontology and biology, like

  • The flood in the story of Noah created the Grand Canyon, aided in the dispersion of humans across the planet, and buried all known dinosaur fossils at about the same time, 2348 BC.
  • Radioisotope dating is flawed, because in ancient times radioactive minerals decayed at faster rates than they do now.

Consider this stalagmite. [Mnemonic device: stalacTites are on Top, stalagMites are on the bottoM.] It has been formed over many years by the slow drop drip drip of water through the limestone above the cave. Each drop of water contains dissolved minerals, which are left behind as the water slowly evaporates (very slowly — caves are usually humid and cool). Each drop deposits yet another microscopically thin layer of minerals on the stalagmite. Over eons, these layers can build up to form a spike 19.2 meters tall.

[For the Sacred Needle, the growth rate is about 0.01 mm/yr, using the tour guide’s information for its age. That’s pretty typical for stalagmite growth, I found.]

Creationist handwaving cannot help explain away the antiquity of the Sacred Needle. Rapid water flow, such as one might find in a Noachian flood, cannot form stalagmites or stalactites. It takes a slow — a really slow — drip drip drip of water to deposit the layers of minerals so they form a column and not a puddle. Just walking around the cave confirms the drip rate. For the stalactites I could easily see, the drips were probably coming one a minute or more. Not bad enougha yet to fix the faucet, in other words.

It bewilders me how anyone in the 21st century can still insist the world is just a few thousand years old, and that it took only six days to make it.

Maybe these people should get out a little more. They don’t need to visit China. Skip the Creation Museum and visit Big Bone Lick State Park or Mammoth Cave instead. The evidence for the real age of the Earth is there; it doesn’t lie. The Creation Museum does.

One year on
Aug. 31, 2009

JISHOU, HUNAN — Today marks the first anniversary of my arriving here, exhausted and bleary-eyed after a long trek from Hong Kong to the Chinese interior. I’ve been reflecting on the past year for several days now.

Before I get started on those reflections, I want to say that I don’t regret coming here at all. In many ways, my leap across the ocean is the best thing to have happened to me in several years. I am happier, more relaxed, less hefty, and more sure of myself than I was before. As I have said before, I am one lucky fellow.

Many Chinese who meet me for the first time are surprised that a man my age would decide to leave his children behind and live far from his hometown. They fear I am lonely and unhappy. It’s a cultural misapprehension, though, stemming from the difference in our cultures.

In China, people can retire at 50. They also tend to stay in one place, usually their hometown, for most of their lives. Children are expected either to live with their parents, or at least be a stone’s throw away from them. So, for Chinese unfamiliar with American customs, I should be living somewhere on Long Island with one of my kids, taking care (as many Chinese grandparents do) of the grandchildren, playing majiang or chess, and watching TV.

Of course, I explain that I haven’t lived in my hometown for 35 years, my kids live in three different cities in four different homes, and while I am sure they love me, would prefer I live someplace else anyway. And, for the kicker, I can’t get my retirement income until I am at least 62.5 years old, still about 9 years off.

In all likelihood, if I were still in the USA, I’d be pretty much in the same living arrangement as I am now, except my employer would not be paying my rent. So, why not live in China?

I have told the story of how I got here many times over, but here I go again. Three years ago (this month in fact), my previous employer hired a teacher from China to begin our high school’s Chinese langauge program. She was a professor from Jishou University’s Foreign Language College in Zhangjiajie, about two hours north of here. During that same year, I was getting restless and was considering finding a new job. So, before she left for home, I asked Connie if I could teach English at her university, since I had learned China needs foreign teachers.

Six months later, I received an email from the foreign affairs officer at Jishou U (JiDa, as we call it here locally, for Jishou Da Xue) offering me a position, a contract and information to get my paperwork in order. I dwelled on this momentous decision about a day (or less, actually), told him I would come that September, and told my head of school that I would be leaving in June.

On August 27, with only a one-way ticket, I boarded the non-stop to Hong Kong. I had barely enough money in hand to buy a return ticket should I have had chickened out on arrival. For all intents and purposes, it was (for the immediate future) literally a one-way ride.

My introduction to Hunan was to arrive in Changsha a few days later, in a driving rainstorm, knowing only two things: where the airport shuttle dropped me and where the train station was. I managed to get a ticket for Jishou, and arrived here early on the morning of Aug. 31, the day before classes started.

What a difference a year makes. I’ve been to Changsha and the Changsha train station several times now. I know enough Chinese to read the train announcements board, should I want to buy a ticket. I know more than two places in Changsha, and can almost navigate the bus system unescorted. I’ve stayed at the same hotel enough times to become friends with the manager. I know now that spending a little more money than a train fare provides a quicker, more comfortable, more convenient bus ride. I have traveled between Beijing and Changsha now twice under (mostly) my own power. And this year, on my anniversary of arriving, it thankfully did not rain cats and dogs.

On the teaching side, I cut my teeth on two small groups of seniors and sophomores, about 30 each. The 140 freshmen came a few weeks later. And as I have had to endure for the last 20-odd years, a few months later I had to say goodbye to the seniors, several of home I consider to be dear friends. I think I have convinced most of the freshmen (now sophomores) that it is OK to make mistakes when speaking English; in fact, mistakes are inevitable, so they should just get over it and talk!

Of course, I now have to train a whole new bunch of nervous freshmen the same thing. Some things do not change.

I have heard horror stories from other foreign experts about their unhappy teaching experiences in China and elsewhere: unpaid or late paychecks, contracts that mean nothing, additional duties for no additional pay, random dismissals, poor organization and communication, poor living conditions. Not so here. While my pay is modest compared to what I could receive in Beijing or Shanghai, I get paid every month on time. My contract is honored. I feel secure in my job. I respect and like my colleagues. My foreign affairs officers are helpful and quick to assist me.

And, as I have mentioned before, I work fewer hours and have substantially fewer hassles than I did in my last job. It’s sort of like semi-retirement.

Are there downsides? Of course. The weather here can be horrible, kind of like Kentucky’s. I still cannot carry on a conversation in Chinese, but I can say some actual sentences now. Sometimes the food upsets my stomach, especially if I eat too many peppers too quickly. No central heating means my apartment is chilly in the winter. (Heat pumps suck.) Real-time communication with folks back in the USA is complicated by a 12-14 hour time difference. China’s net nannies arbitrarily have cut off access to some of the sites I used to use regularly, including Facebook.

I am acutely aware, too, that I am not in the United States. Here, I don’t have Constitutional protections of free speech and expression, or religious practice (if I were still doing it). I need to be careful about what I say and to whom. I cannot be too critical of China’s government or its domestic policies. I cannot give anyone the idea that I am attempting to “brainwash” my students or anyone else. It’s important to be diplomatic and to remember that “discretion is the better part of valor.”

On the whole, though, I love it here. I have many friends. Chinese are among the warmest and friendliness people on Earth. No exaggeration. I am learning and experiencing new things. I am growing as a person and as a teacher. I am having fun. And, I am looking forward to another great year.

Don’t worry, but H1N1 has found its way to Jishou
Sept. 9, 2009

JISHOU, HUNAN — It was only a matter of time before swine flu would penetrate into the Chinese heartland. Within a week of classes starting at the university, a student was diagnosed with H1N1.

Then another a day later. According to some (unverified) reports, perhaps eight more students may be infected as well.

Jishou University has four campuses. The first student diagnosed with H1N1 lives at the old campus, near downtown. The second lives here at the new campus. Their roommates are being monitored as we speak.
I haven’t heard any bad news from the other two campuses, medical and foreign languages.

Our students have had the fear of God (or something like it, since China is officially atheist) put into them at meetings earlier this week. Wash your hands. Cover your nose and mouth when you sneeze or cough. Throw your tissues away immediately. Don’t touch your eyes, nose or mouth. If you feel ill or feverish, go directly to the school clinic, do not pass go, do not collect $200.

My foreign affairs officer, Cyril Hu, called me to his office this morning to give me an oral thermometer (A mercury one! The USA has all but abolished those.) and two sheets of instructions (in Chinese!?) about what precautions to take against the swine flu.

Meanwhile, rumors and fears are bubbling through the student community. One girl texted me to say there were “several” people down with the flu. Another student on QQ told me she had heard the uni would ban any travel during the upcoming eight-day National Holiday break. Both rumors proved to be false.

The same student on QQ said she was reluctant to study in the library, or even in her dormitory (she has nine roommates), since we are supposed to avoid crowds. She advised me to avoid going to the old campus or even downtown to go shopping for the same reason.

I told her I would be cautious, and advised her to do the same, but not to be fearful. Just the same, she told me she bought some medicine to help ward off the illness. She didn’t tell me what.

Chinese officials say there have been only two deaths out of the 4,400 confirmed cases of H1N1 infection so far. Most people are getting ill with fairly mild symptoms and recovering within a few days.

But, the swine flu is spreading quickly. Since we just finished summer break, many students have poured in from all parts of Hunan, including the capital, Changsha, where there have been at last nine confirmed cases. Many students also traveled over the summer to the big cities, like Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou and Shenzhen, where there are many more international travelers. Students and tourists are the vectors for the virus. It was just a matter of time before H1N1 came to our little neck of the woods.

China’s government, which early on was requiring all airline passengers to be checked before they even got off the plane, will soon start a nationwide vaccination program against the flu. Schoolchildren will be the first to receive the vaccine.

[I can just imagine the hue and cry in the USA were the Obama administration to attempt something like that!]

With a population of 1.3 billion, many of whom live in crowded cities, China has the right to be worried. The juggernaut of manufacturing the world’s consumer goods can’t afford (literally) to get sick.

I’m not worried. I’ll follow orders and wash my hands a lot, take my temperature once a day, and call my FAO if I feel sick or if the mercury rises. And I’ll keep an eye on my students, too.

In my spare time, I sleep
Sept. 19, 2009

JISHOU, HUNAN — I haven’t written much lately, because I’ve been a little busy. Classes have started, and I only have half my schedule in place still. The freshmen start classes next month.

In addition to my university classes, I have also become a private tutor to three students (ages 8 to 25), a teacher of two small groups of primary students, and a guest “lecturer” for a friend’s middle-school weekend enrichment school. Since the uni is sending two students to the provincial English-speaking contest, I will also coach their pronunciation and intonation skills for the next four weeks or so.

Here’s my schedule right now:

Sunday

Monday

Tuesday

Wednesday

Thursday

Friday

Saturday

8:00-9:40

Oral English
2009-Z1

English Composition
2009-G2

Oral English 2008-
Z2

English Composition
2008-G1

Oral English
2008-Z1

10:10-11:50

(11-12) Miki’s
class

Oral English
2009-Z2

English Composition
2009-G1

2:30-3:30

Harry tutor

Lizzie and Color
tutor

3:00-4:40

Eights

English Composition
2008-G2

Lizzie and Color
tutor

Sixes

5:00-6:00

Clark tutor

Clark tutor

Clark tutor

8:00-9:00

Niki tutor

Niki tutor

All the classes labeled 2009 (China uses year of entry, not graduation, to denote classes) will not meet until after the National Holiday ends Oct. 8. This weekend, 4,000 freshmen arrived, and will have 10 days of orientation and military training until the holiday begins Oct. 1. I can’t comment on those classes yet, but I anticipate being very busy reading and marking 70 freshman compositions and 70 sophomore compositions each week or so.

The 2008 classes are the same students I had during the spring term. I’ve gotten to know them pretty well, though with a total of 145 students, of course I know some students better than others.

The Wednesday morning and Friday classes are two-year students, so most will leave the university next June to find work, probably as primary or middle school teachers. However, the uni provides a way for two-year students to obtain a bachelor’s degree. They do self-study in 13 subjects, and sit for an examination in each one. If they pass the exams, they can get a bachelor’s degree, and thereby qualify to take the postgraduate examination to further their study.

They are not two-year students by choice, necessarily. The college entrance examination, which more than 10 million students took this June, determines a student’s fate. High scores mean a student can attend a “key” university, like Peking U, or Shanghai Foreign Language University. Low scores mean they will have to settle for lesser schools (like Jishou U), or attend preparatory classes, or be consigned to a two-year program, or all of the above. Or have no university education at all. It’s a ruthlessly efficient sorting system, which penalizes students with poor preparation or poor testing skills.

A number of my Z1 and Z2 students have thrown themselves into their self-studies with a dedication that frankly takes my breath away. If they are not in class, in bed, or at a meal, they are reading the books they have to know backwards and forwards for the first set of exams next month.

The Thursday classes are the undergraduates – the four-year students. By virtue of their college entrance examination scores, they qualified for a more leisurely path to a bachelor’s degree. The logic of this dichotomy eludes me – the “weaker” students have to work twice as hard as the “stronger” students to get the same thing – but there it is. The undergrads are also in our college to prepare for study abroad, if they so choose.

All my current students need richer vocabulary, so every week now includes a vocab activity. Everyone has to bring in three new words or idioms, and I will call on a few students each class to teach their vocab to the class.
So far, it’s going pretty well.

We are learning discussion skills in the Z1 and Z2 classes. We are also awaiting the arrival of their textbooks, but personally I hope the books take their sweet time, I used the same text last fall with the current juniors, and it sucks. Meanwhile, I am wearing out the copy machine providing my own essays to discuss.

The composition classes have a better textbook, but the first half of it duplicates what we did last spring. So I am starting them writing compositions right away, with the additional goal of their writing a research paper each term. They have no experience writing expository papers, much less formal research papers, so it should be an interesting experience for all of us.

Clark, one of my clients, is 25 and is preparing for the IELTS exam in November, so he can attend the University of Bridgeport (Conn.) next year. He needs help in improving his writing, so he can get an acceptable score in that part of the exam. We’ve been meeting since July.

Niki is my neighbor downstairs. He is 8, and just arrived from Ukraine. His folks are music teachers here, and Niki has to follow the same curriculum as his school back home. So, that means covering his English primer this school year.

Lizzie and Color are our representatives to the provincial English speaking contest. Neither majors in English, but both are announcers on the campus English radio station. We’re going to work on their pronunciation and intonation, a continuation of the lessons I gave them in July. Both are juniors.

Harry, one of my G1 sophomores, wants some coaching for the Business English exam. He has plans to study abroad, and to go into international commerce.

Miki is a graduate of the Foreign Language College in Zhangjiajie. We met over the summer at an English Corner hosted by the Princeton-in-Jishou visitors to the Teacher’s College. She’s about 26, and teaches English at one of the local middle schools. Her husband teaches math. They have a weekend enrichment school for about 50 middle schoolers. I teach lessons once in a while to keep the kids’ interest up. Last Sunday, six of the kids took me to KFC for lunch.

The sixes are (right now) seven six-year-olds. The eights are (right now) four eight- and nine-year-olds. My friend, Smile, a second-year graduate student, wants to start an English training school and is now laying the foundation. The kids are children of her friends and neighbors at the Public Security Bureau (PSB) – the police HQ – where her husband works.

[Momentary digression: In China, many employers – and all government agencies – provide housing for their workers. So, just about all the police officers and their families live on the PSB grounds. We are meeting the kids in a park on the PSB grounds, which is a great way to advertise.]

Smile’s grand plan comes with the expectation that I stay in Jishou at least two more years, so that I can train other teachers in my methods – mostly Total Physical Response (TPR) and some other language instruction methods. I find it a little weird that I’m suddenly an expert in ESL when I’ve really only done it a year, but in Jishou there is not a lot of competition for the job.

Staying longer is actually not such a bad idea. If the uni cares to keep me around that long, which I figure it will, I might also end up being co-founder of a school. That has a certain ego-stroking appeal.

Oh, yeah, I forgot to mention, in case anyone is wondering. I am getting paid for all this extra work. I’m not rich by US standards, but by local measures, I’m pretty well off.

China adds another layer of bricks to the Great Firewall
Sept. 27, 2009

JISHOU, HUNAN — With the National Holiday fast upon us, China’s net nannies have blocked yet another Internet service, the Tor proxy network, which had been pretty reliable until quite recently.

China typically blocks access to the World Wide Web around important national holidays, such the 60th anniversary of the founding the People’s Republic of China next Thursday. With so many sites blocked already (YouTube, Facebook, Blogspot, to name but a few), I guess the censors decided the surest way to cut off potentially inflammatory websites was to choke the Tor network off.

Of course, there are ways around the newest layer of bricks in the Great Firewall of China.

I noticed something was fishy when I tried to connect to Facebook using Tor. My Tor client couldn’t complete the connection to the network. My little onion stayed yellow, and never went to green.

Tor uses a decentralized network of proxies scattered around the world. The Tor client checks a list of active proxies (computers acting as go-betweens), then logs into the network using one or more of the proxies. An add-on to Firefox then switches Firefox over to use the proxy to access the WWW.

An active Tor connection displays a green onion icon in the Windows taskbar. A pending one shows a yellow onion. The icon refers to Tor’s “onion routing” of connections to make tracing difficult.

Checking the Tor client’s message log, I discovered the client was only finding a few of the thousands of proxies on the network, and stalling in its search for more. A quick survey on Google confirmed my suspicions; China was blocking the Tor proxy network by choking off access to the public Tor proxy directory, for the first time since I’ve been here.

But, Tor designers prepared for such an eventuality. You can add “bridges” — unpublished proxies — manually to the Tor client’s network configuration. Once I discovered how to get the bridges, I was back in business checking out Facebook. (YouTube still remains off limits, because the Firefox add-on’s treatment of Flash. I can get to YouTube, but I can’t view the vids. I’ve been too lazy to try to fix it.)

To get three unpublished bridges, you have to send an email to “bridges [AT] torproject [DOT] org” using a Gmail account. Only Gmail messages are accepted, for security reasons. The subject line should be blank, and the message body should just say, “get bridges” (without the quotes). In less than a minute, the reply gives you three bridge IPs and brief instructions on what to do with them.

There is another Firewall hopper called “Freegate,” which I have not tried yet. Predictably, it is nearly impossible to download from within China right now, even by going to the CNET download site. Another web-based proxy, sneakme.net is likewise being blocked. It was accessible only a couple of weeks ago.

So far, Google, Wikipedia, and all Western news sites are still open without resorting to sneaky IP legerdemain. I am hoping the net nannies don’t get that paranoid.

Greetings from Chongqing!
Oct. 5, 2009

CHONGQING — We have an eight-day holiday now, so I decided to get one last trip in before I buckle down to teach my 280 students for the next four months. So here I am in busy Chongqing.

I have a friend here, and originally I was going to come for a visit in July for the solar eclipse. But, I was invited at the last minute to visit someone else in Liuyang (in Hunan) the weekend following the eclipse, making visiting Chongqing a little impractical. So I postponed the trip indefinitely.

My options this holiday week were to stay in Jishou and hang out with the many folks who did not go home, or splurge and take this trip. I did both, as it turns out.

Since Moon (my friend here) had to work overtime Oct. 1-3, I stayed in Jishou and observed China’s 60th National Day and the traditional Mid-Autumn Moon Day with my Jishou friends. Nearly everyone on campus was glued to the new flat-screen TVs installed in the campus dining hall to watch the National Day festivities in Beijing Oct. 1. I watched it on and off in my apartment.

The ceremonies included displays of China’s military personnel and hardware, and a sort of creepy review of the troops by President Hu Jintao.Hu Jintao in limo With his Mao-jacket-bedecked torso sticking out of the sunroof of an enormous, black Chinese-made limo (similar to the one Mao once had), Hu repeated the same phrases over and over again as he greeted the troops. I swear he never moved a muscle other than the ones operating his mouth.

The non-military parade floats were colorful and lively, but five decades of watching parades has left me a little jaded when it come to parade floats. Needless to say, there were no helium-inflated cartoon characters joining in this parade.

Criticism of the ceremonies aside, the day is one of great national pride for the Chinese. After six decades — half of which were under the unyielding domination of Mao and hardline Maoists — China has a lot to be proud of, considering its position in the world economy now. China still has a dismal human rights record and it tightly controls the information its people receive, so it’s not a rosy picture in all respects, but the China of 2009 is worlds apart from the backward, impoverished country of 1949.

The next day, I had lunch and dinner with friends. And on Oct. 3, the Mid-Autumn Moon Day, I had nine people over to my tiny apartment to cook dinner and enjoy mooncakes together. This day is a family holiday, when families share big meals together then go out (weather permitting) to eat mooncakes under the light of the full moon. We sat on the soccer field to try to find the Lady (Chang’e) on the Moon.

(Incidentally, I got three boxes of mooncakes this year: one each from the university, my college and one of my private students. So I had plenty to share!)

Chongqing is (as the crow flies) relatively close to Jishou, but since it is on the other side of the Wuling mountain range it might as well be on the other side of the country. I could have taken a train there (about a 10-hour trip), or a bus (along twisty and very bouncy mountain roads for about the same amount of time), or fly. Round-trip tickets between Changsha and Chongqing were 1300 RMB, just a little more than the money I had recently received for my tutoring gigs, so flying was the best choice.

The shuttle bus between Jishou and Changsha takes about 4 hours on the new expressways in Hunan — the superhighway linking Chongqing and Changsha is still under construction — so I set out Sunday morning for Changsha. (Cost is 100 RMB.) On the airport shuttle bus in Changsha, I met Titi, a young woman Chinese woman studying for her MBA in Bangkok, Thailand, and later in Sydney, Australia, and Dick, a 60-ish Australian from Perth enjoying a three-month tramp around Southeast Asia and China.

Dick and I had a chance to talk in the terminal as we waited for our 5 pm flights to Chongqing and Kunming. He’s been retired for some time now, and about 18 months ago came to the startling realization that he did not want to be married to his wife of 34 years anymore. They divorced, and a few months ago, Dick decided to tour Thailand and Vietnam, places he had visited years before. Along the way, he met a Chinese woman from Changsha, who invited him to come to her relative’s wedding in Hengyang, Hunan. Footloose and fancy-free, Dick came up from Vietnam largely on his own.

He was heading back to Bangkok (where he has a significant other, apparently) by way of Kunming, the Spring City, where the climate is spring-like year round. (A new entry on my wanna-visit list)

As for me, my flight took just an hour. I was met by Moon and her brother-in-law at the terminal, and we zipped into town to enjoy hotpot with her daughter, her sister and her niece. The food was indescribably delicious — we ate at one of the premier hotpot restaurants in Chongqing — and predictably spicy.

But it was a different kind of spicy from Hunan cuisine, which relies heavily on chili peppers for its fire. Our hotpot used different peppers I couldn’t identify, including one legendary kind that numbs your mouth temporarily. I ate one by chance, and my tongue tingled for about five minutes — the same kind of feeling you get when your foot falls asleep. Weird, but strangely refreshing. (I also ate slices of cow’s stomach – crunchy, but rather bland tasting.)

Right now, I am chilling in my spacious hotel room on the 16th floor of an apartment building in downtown Chongqing. It’s a bargain at 138 RMB (or $20) a night. You couldn’t touch such a room with less than $100 in the States. After lunch, we’ll tour some places and have homemade dumplings at Moon’s sister’s home.

Chongqing’s monorail commuter train runs near my hotel, which is in the Yangjiaping pedestrians-only shopping area. The monorail bisects the shopping district. (Check this link to see the Google map of it. Marker “B” is roughly where my hotel is.)

Chongqing monorail
Later!

Attention, Austin Powers!
Oct. 8, 2009

CHONGQING — Forget fembots, Austin. Here is your new foe/challenge — the women’s militia of the People’s Liberation Army.

Chinese women's militia Photo by the AP.

According to Danwei.org, even the stony-faced Hu Jintao smiled when he saw these women marching in last week’s National Day parade in Beijing. I wonder if he was also reminded of miniskirts and white go-go boots when he saw them.

Or am I just dating myself?

Another photo, courtesy of Danwei.org:
Women's militia

Riding the rail in Chongqing
Oct. 9, 2009

CHONGQING — One of the highlights of my short trip to Chongqing was, believe it or not, riding the rapid transit monorail.

Until 2005, Chongqing — a city of 5 million in the urban area alone — had no rapid transit system. Getting around the Mountain City meant riding one of the bajillion city buses or taxicabs plying the helter-skelter maze of streets. The national government’s ambitious Western Development plan, however, aimed to change that situation. Within the next few decades, Chongqing will have a network of six rapid-transit lines on a par with Beijing’s existing metro system.

So far, only one line, Chongqing Rapid Transit #2, has been completed. It’s about 19 km long and runs roughly north to south like a backwards question mark. I rode it between Yangjiaping and Linjiangmen last Wednesday.

CRT map

Monorail systems, I have learned, are easier to build, have a smaller footprint, and are easily adapted to hilly terrain, such as Chongqing’s. Since the cars run on rubber tires, they are surprisingly quiet. It took me a day to realize my hotel was not even two blocks away from the rail line. (The trains rarely sound their horns, since there are no surface grade crossings.) Even walking below the track it was hard to tell when a train was approaching.

In the Yangjiaping district, line 2 is about three stories above ground. We took the stairs and escalators to the ticketing section, paid our 3 yuan one-way fare, and waited for the next train. (Bus fares are 1-2 yuan. Taxis start at 5 yuan. So the CRT fare is a good deal.)

CRT monorail station, Chongqing

CRT monorail station, Chongqing


The stations are clearly laid out, with sign boards announcing arrivals in Chinese and English. Attendants warn people to step away from the barriers when a train is due to arrive, since the trains are so quiet.

CRT train approaching station

CRT train approaching station

The trains are made up of four articulated segments. There are no communicating doors as with subway cars. The ride was smooth and quiet, but I was expecting more of a “gliding on air” sensation. The traction surface is not apparently as flat as a pane of glass, so there was some up and down movement, sort of like riding in a Caddy on a rough stretch of interstate highway.

CRT train interior

CRT train interior

I couldn’t really judge the speed too well. Maybe we peaked at 60 kph in a few places. Anyway, it was faster and more comfortable than riding the buses, so I am not complaining by any means.

In general, I found Chongqing an interesting place to visit, but not as exciting as Hong Kong or Beijing. If you love to shop, though, it’s a virtual paradise. The #2 line passes right through the middle of at least two pedestrians-only shopping districts, including Yangjiaping where I was.

I visited the Ciqikou old town, which reminded me a lot of Fenghuang near Jishou, except it is a lot more crowded, and the Three Gorges/Chongqing Museum. (The Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River is downstream from Chongqing. The city itself is on the confluence of the Jialing and the Yangtze Rivers.) The museum contains many ancient relics retrieved before the dam flooded the upstream valleys, as well as exhibits of Chongqing’s long history.

After visiting the riverfront on Wednesday, my friends took me a new “cultural center” designed to look like a building from the Qing dynasty. Imagine an American downtown galleria crossed with colonial Williamsburg and you’ll get a mental image of what it looks like. Tacky.

The cultural center’s main theme was really commerce, not history or culture. There were various kinds of (overpriced) cultural arts and crafts to buy, as well as the mass-produced trinkets sold in Ciqikou and Fenghuang, The food was good, although the restaurants were little more than shoeboxes.

At the pinnacle of the “cultural center” are three icons of Chinese culture: an imitation pirate ship (Arrrhhh! Give me all your movies and mp3’s!), a Subway and a … Dairy Queen. We didn’t eat at either joint. Instead we went back to Yangjiaping to eat at a Western-style steak place called Houcaller Beefsteak (the Anglicized version of its real name, Hao Ke Lai Niu Pai). I shocked my companions by ordering chicken breasts; they figured I would order a steak. I didn’t bother to explain that my last attempts to get a Western-style medium rare steak resulted in first one that was barely cooked and second (a few minutes later) one that was over cooked. I figured chicken is more foolproof, and I was right. It was tasty. Even the mashed potatoes were done right.

The freshmen arrive at Jishou University
Oct. 17, 2009
Cross-posted at The Daily Kos and rescued! That’s two diary rescues in a row.

JISHOU, HUNAN, CHINA — Last time I wrote a diary for Teacher’s Lounge, I introduced myself and my experiences of teaching English in China for this past year. This time, I’d like to introduce you to my freshmen and give you some sense of their lives here.

We have just come back from an eight-day break for the National Holiday and Mid-Autumn Festival. The freshmen have started their classes, which means we faculty suddenly have many more classes to teach. My own courseload just doubled, in fact.

Chinese universities reverse the order in which students arrive at school, compared to the US norm. Here, the returning students arrive first, and begin classes right away. Then, two weeks later the freshmen arrive. Their orientation is generally brief and utilitarian — there’s none of those open houses and parties that are a major part of American Freshmen Orientation Weeks. All freshmen are also required to have military training; in Jishou University’s case, they had 10 days’ training between arrival and the National Holiday.

JiDa’s 4,000 freshmen arrived on a dreary, rainy weekend, beginning with the first trains at 6 am Saturday. Volunteers from the sophomores and juniors awoke at 4 am to be ready to meet the first arrivals, as they — some with parents in tow — staggered off the university buses shuttling between campus and downtown. The volunteers helped the freshmen find their dormitories and the dining halls, pay their school fees, pick up their military training uniforms (green camos), and find the local supermarkets. The last students arrived around midnight Sunday. Military training started promptly at 6 am Monday.

Last year and the year before, training was longer and included target practice with rifles. This year, the training was curtailed to include only physical exercises, marching and drill formation, partly to reduce the possibility of H1N1 infection. (About 20 of our returning students, out of 11,000, were diagnosed with H1N1 in September. All were quickly quarantined, and have recovered, thank you.)

An older student gives freshmen some advice.

When I first observed last year’s military training (which lasted nearly four weeks, in blistering heat), I was somewhat discomfited. As a child of the Cold War, I recalled the propaganda we heard back then about China and the USSR forcing military training on their youth, to prepare for an invasion of the USA and Europe. Needless to say, such invasions never occurred, and in any event, the freshmen do not receive combat training; it’s more readiness training, just in case China is invaded.

While I am student of World War II history, one major blind spot in my education (and self-education) was the Japanese occupation of China from 1937 to 1945. That occupation, marked by sheer inhuman cruelty and relentless aerial bombing, left an indelible mark on the Chinese psyche. I can’t help but wonder that the requirement that college students receive even a modicum of military drilling is in large part due to the bitter memories of occupation.

Drill practice

Taking a break

As I mentioned before, many of our students here are literally fresh off the farm. Many have never left their home villages. Ever. So, at the age of 18 or 19 or 20, they are for the first time miles and miles from home, from their parents, and from their high school buddies. For many, Jishou — a compact city of 300,000 — is the biggest (or only) city they have ever visited. They are scared shitless, very homesick and achingly inexperienced, but at the same time, full of hope and optimism.

My colleagues are likewise full of spirit. Recently, we all had fun in the office passing around some old photos brought in by Prof. Wang, who asked us to pick her out from college photos taken 27 years ago. Her Chinese co-workers were grabbing the photo albums from each other’s hands like a group of teenagers, wanting to see Wang laoshi in her younger days. We also admired photos she had of two local superstars: the artist/sculptor/poet/author/piccolo trumpet player Huang Yongyu and the singer Song Zuying, who with Placido Domingo helped close the 2008 Olympics (below).
Placido Domingo and Song Zuying

Huang was also involved in the Olympics, painting the symbolic multicolored tree to represent “One World, One Dream.” That award-winning painting now hangs in the Huang Yongyu Museum here at Jishou U.

Aside from this faculty frivolity, we are giving the freshmen a crash course in English pronunciation, so if you walked into our office between classes, you could see a half-dozen Chinese professors dutifully practicing their own pronunciation of those annoyingly difficult English consonants, like “th” and “zh” as in “measure.”

My first classes with the freshmen went well. For the majority, I and my British colleague, David, are the first foreigners, not to mention first foreign teachers, they have ever met. I could basically just show up and read a comic book, and they’d be impressed. One of my oral English classes applauded when I entered the classroom. The other, following one girl’s lead, sang a Chinese pop song for me. I had to pose for cell-phone photos at the end of one class with a number of the students. (After a year in country, I suspect my face is now spread liberally all over QQ, China’s equivalent to AOL and Facebook.)

As enthusiastic as they are, most of these students are terribly shy when it comes to speaking English. I will spend the next several weeks coaxing, cajoling and complimenting these students to get them to open up even a little.

As I recorded in my own blog last fall, my students have an inspiring and seemingly infinite supply of optimism and dedication to hard work. For some, this outward show of confidence and high spirits is a thin veneer over some very fragile souls. (Some of these freshmen are little more than children in many ways.) Sometimes their fragility peeks out from behind their masks, often very poignantly.

Rather than relate my possibly biased impressions of my students, I thought it would be interesting to have them “talk” directly to my readers. So, I asked my 60 English composition students to write self-introductions for me, advising them that I might share some of their remarks with a foreign audience. While very shy when speaking, as writers they are sincere and insightful. I hope you enjoy reading some of their work. I’ve grouped these excerpts by subject matter.

About coming to college

Sweet, a girl from Yueyang, Hunan, who loves Westlife and Allen Iverson:
I think everybody here is friendly, so I should never be nervous in my future university life. I met my foreign teacher today. In my eyes, he is easygoing and friendly. I think he will help me gain more confidence in my future life. I really thank him. I hope I can learn more meaningful things from my teachers and classmates in the future.

Peter, a boy from the Hunan countryside:
I’m 19 years old, however, my mother still thinks of me as a little kid. Compared with some classmates who are coming from Fujian or Guangdong, my home is not so far away as I thought, but I always feel homesick. After all, it’s the first time that I’m so far away from home. In fact, I don’t have much knowledge about my homeland, because I come from a little village and the study tasks weren’t too much.

Beryl, from Guangdong province:
My dream of entering university has come true. To my surprise, the life in college is so different from that in high school. Gradually, I will adjust myself to the big family. I am so glad I am here. For my dream, I will try my best.

Alice, talking about her parents’ hopes for her:

They just want me to become a useful girl and live a happy life. I so love them and even now I’m missing them very much.

Eagle, a boy from Shaoyang, a small Hunan town:
I’m somewhat shy for I lived there for so many years, and seldom went out. But now, I’m here, standing behind another starting line. As a person who wants to travel around the world, I really want to make you my friends.

About their goals in life:

Linda, from Changsha, the provincial capital:
I always feel shy, and when I talk with boys, I will be nervous. So I hope the boys can make friends with me. … In my heart, I love English very much. I hope I can speak English very well, but sometimes I haven’t the courage to speak and read loudly.

Tina, from Hengyang in southern Hunan:
Many friends of mine said, the first time they saw me, they all thought, “Oh, she must be a shy girl.” But after some days, they all found I’m active and humorous, because I want everyone to be happy. I often play jokes. … I like English very much. I promised that I would learn it well. So I’ll work hard in the future! I hope that one day I can communicate with foreigners fluently. And maybe someday I’ll go abroad to live or study and make a lot of friends there!

Penny, from Xinhua, Hunan:
I often think about my future, my life and my friends. I hope I could go abroad one day. I like France. I like its beautiful scenery, but I also like Shanghai — that is a great city. After graduation, I want to continue my study in Shanghai. In my opinion, I am beautiful. I would like to make friends and enjoy making them happy. I think friends are the most important part of my life. This is me, a simple girl.

Shelley, from the countryside of Hunan:
I want to be a country teacher in my county. I very much admire the teachers who died in the Wenchuan (Sichuan) earthquake (in 2008). To be a teacher like them is also my dream. I have many dreams. Some of them are difficult to reach, like to be a singer, to be a superstar and so on. Do you think it’s very funny? I think so.

Starr, also from Hunan:
I have three dreams. One is to be an English teacher. The second is that one day I will have a chance to travel around the world and make many foreign friends. The last is to gain enough money and try my best to help the poor people.

Lisa, who wants to make a lot of money:

In this way, I can help my parents live a better life. That is the point! My parents spent so much for me. I must give them a happy and comfortable life in their old age. So that’s my biggest goal.

Shining, from Yuanling, Hunan:
I had many dreams when I was a child. I wanted to be a policewoman, a doctor and so on. When I had grown up, I found I was too short to be a policewoman. To be a doctor? It’s impossible. I can’t stand the smell of the drugs. I’m even afraid of doing operations. It’s too terrible for me. So now my dream is learning English well, that someday I can go abroad. I’ll try my best. I believe if you think you can, you can. Nothing is impossible in the world. Just believe in yourself.

About their hometowns

Gloria, who today took second prize in an English speaking contest:
Hello, everyone! I’m Gloria. My hometown is Yiyang. It’s a city in the middle of Hunan province. Although it’s not a modern city with a powerful economy, it’s really suitable for us to live there. The air is clear, the sky is blue and the rivers are clean. Especially , the people in my hometown are friendly and optimistic. Most of them live a leisurely life without much pressure. I think this style of life is what we indeed need, because this society becomes more and more competitive and we all bear too much pressure to move on. …

Jackie, who wants foreign friends:
My hometown is Longshan. It’s a small county, but it is very beautiful. It has a lot of mountains and rivers. It’s not very developed, but it has its own culture. People there are kind-hearted. When some people come to visit Longshan, the [people there] will be very happy and enthusiastic to them.

Blanca, whose parents are village teachers:
My hometown is called Yongshun. I think it’s a beautiful place. There are a lot of trees. There is a river called MengDongHe — we also call it “Mother River.” In a natural park, Bu Er Men, every day you can see many old people go there, because it has a hot spring that is good for our health. The air is clean and fresh, so many people can live a long time.

William, who is from Guangdong, speaks Cantonese as a native language, not Mandarin (putonghua):
Guangdong is famous for its advanced economy and many people from other provinces or countries come to Guangdong for work. As a result, GD is becoming a multicultural place step by step, but you can still see many ancient buildings and traditional customs … I like reading, ping pong, drawing and music. I don’t care what style the music is if it can move me deeply. When having a break, I like to plan my future and think of everything. Almost everything can interest me. I’m just a funny boy.

How Long (really, that’s his name), from Yongding, Fujian province:

Though my hometown is not very big, our economy is developing quickly, Almost every family has a new house and a car. The transportation is more convenient than before. What we eat and drink have improved greatly, and have become much more healthy.

Jenny, whose father is a prof in our college and who took first prize in the English speaking contest:

I have lived in Jishou for 19 years. It’s a small city in the northwest of Hunan Province. There are two major peoples living here — one is the Miao people, the other is the Tujia people. And I belong to the Tujia people. We have our own customs that lots of people from various places are curious about. If you are interested in my hometown, I’m glad to be your guide.

Fenty, from Shenzhen:
As we all know, Shenzhen is a young city. Thirty years ago, Shenzhen was just a small village. There were no tall buildings, no wide roads, no trains, no airports, no museum, no schools, no park, and so on. At that time, people were living by fishing. However, in 1979, the leader named Deng Xiao Ping made a decision to support five cities, including Shenzhen, with an active (redevelopment) policy. Today, Shenzhen has become a big modern city with a big population. Shenzhen is a city of great chances; everyone can create his own life here. Nothing is impossible here.

And some general philosophies we can all live by

Gina, a quiet and homesick girl from Hengyang:
My life topic is happiness. I think happiness is good for us. Because of happiness, you can make friends with many people and study well. Life is always beautiful to a happy person, after all.

Joanna, from Loudi:
I lived in the countryside all my life, and I haven’t a rich family. But I live happily, because my parents love me very much. From now on, I will study hard. I hope that I can succeed one day.

Ritin, from Hunan’s countryside:
I like to smile. In my heart, a smile can solve any problems. I also like quiet, because staying alone I can think about many things. My motto is, “Perseverance is the mother of success.”

So, these are my Chinese students. In the weeks to come, their youthful enthusiasm and naivete will be tempered by failures and setbacks, and by the stark realities of living life on their own. Judging from my experience with their older colleagues, their respect for hard work and education will not change that much over time. If we are worried now about China becoming a superpower, think about what it will be like in 20 years, when these students start making an impact on their nation’s society and economy. Talk about a slumbering giant waking up.

RIP Palm Treo 600
Oct. 22, 2009

JISHOU, HUNAN — My cherished Palm Treo had a stroke on Sunday. It started acting flaky on Friday, recovered somewhat on Saturday, but ended up partly paralyzed by noon Sunday.

It could send, but it couldn’t receive, reliably, anything. No texts. No phone calls. Except when it wanted to. It was like dealing with a patient from a House M.D. episode.

One friend thought I was mad at her, because I wasn’t responding to her calls or messages. Another thought I was seriously ill. The first called a mutual friend, who assured her I was not angry at anyone. The other eventually caught up with me on QQ.

The flakiness started Friday. People were complaining they were texting me, but not getting my usual prompt response. After pulling out the SIM card, buffing the contacts and blowing some air into the Treo, I got it to receive for about 10 minutes, reliably, and longer, sporadically. Some people could reach me, while others couldn’t. Frustrating.

I’ve had the thing for about three years, and it’s about five years old, ancient by cell phone standards. It was beginning to exhibit some other annoying behaviors, like refusing to charge unless I connected it just so, and arranged it on the desk just right. If I bumped it too hard, it would shut off the radio. Occasionally, the touch screen would not respond, but after I pressed on the entire surface, it would work again.

So, I was considering buying a new phone, because I knew eventually the Treo would just die. I was just hoping I could postpone spending the money a little longer. No such luck. A cell phone is not all that useful if no one can reach you, especially for someone who kinda needs his clients to call him to confirm appointments.

On Tuesday I went downtown with a student who was friends with a manager of a China Mobile phone store. I knew I wanted a Nokia, specifically the e63, but the price (1980 yuan, about $289) gave me pause. They showed me a Chinese smartphone that looked like a cheap copy of a Nokia smartphone (and at 200 yuan, very, very cheap), but it felt like a cheap POS that might last three months before the keys started falling off. I considered buying a regular phone, the kind without a QWERTY keypad, but in the end I realized it was false economy. We bargained with the manager, and I got the Nokia e63 for 1800 yuan (about $260).

Of course, an hour later, another friend told me her boyfriend had bought the same phone for 1400 yuan at a different shop. You just can’t win.

My shop is catty-corner to Jishou’s only KFC, on one of the city’s busiest intersections. Doubtlessly, I have walked past this shop dozens of times, and, as distinctive as I am here, the manager and the staff had seen me pass by.

Having me as a customer — a paying-a-bunch-of-money one, at that — was apparently the highlight of their week. So, I had to pose for photos with everyone, the manager, the salesmen, the saleswomen, even the student I came with! More images of me for people’s QQzones.

Anyway, I like the new phone, though I am still learning how to use it. And tomorrow, I will go back to the shop to buy the USB data cable that Nokia so kindly fails to provide. Hopefully I can avoid another round of photos.

A Chinese food joke
Oct. 26, 2009

JISHOU, HUNAN — I should go to bed, but I have to share this joke a Chinese friend told me. I swear I did not make this up.

“You know the problem with Western food? You eat it, and an hour later you’re hungry again.”

Good night, folks. You’ve been a great audience.

Jishou’s weather, just like Louisville’s
Oct. 31, 2009

JISHOU, HUNAN — You know the old saw, “If you don’t like the weather, just wait an hour?” Well, it’s true here, too.

At 3 pm, there was a light cloud cover and 86 degrees F. At dinner, one of my friends got a call from her boyfriend in Changsha, who told her the temperature had plummeted to the 60’s, it was raining, and a northerly wind was blowing hard. (The gusty wind also locked him out of his home: the wind slammed the door against the wall, pushing in the lock button, then slammed it shut … while he was outside and his keys inside.)

Sure enough, by the time we finished dinner at Will Long Cake (they do serve more than cake there; it’s like a Dairy Queen Brazier, but not as greasy), it was cold, gusty and starting to rain. Right now (10:30) it is pouring outside, and I just turned on the heater.

Of course, I shouldn’t complain. The Philippines just got clobbered again by another typhoon, the third in the last five weeks.

I got a flu shot
Nov. 6, 2009

JISHOU, HUNAN — Today, while I was working on the computer in the office, my deans asked me if I would like to get a flu shot.

That’s the way they phrased it, anyway. The real meaning, however, was, “We really expect you to get a flu shot. Today. With the rest of the staff.”

But such directness is very un-Chinese. As it was phrased, it took a while for the true meaning of the “request” — or “mandatory option,” as my high school chorus teacher put it — to sink into my thick skull. They caught me while I was in the middle of entering students’ names into the Epals.com website, a task which Epals does not make especially easy by limiting you to 25 names at a time.

Distracted as I was, and still without a morning cup of Joe, I stalled and said I would think about it. My British cohort, David, was also likewise pecking away at another computer. He basically said, no. If it wasn’t a requirement, he would rather not. “I try to avoid taking medicines,” he added.

Soon after, David left to teach his classes, leaving me alone with two deans, the staff assistant and one of the head teachers. They chatted away in local dialect (It’s bad enough I can’t understand putonghua, they have to speak Jishou language!), so I could catch a few words, including the Chinese for “flu” and “teachers,”, and our names, David and John. The dean told me she had had her shot earlier in the morning, so I asked her how she felt. (FYI, she’s about my age.) She said her arm was sore and she had a slight headache. No biggie.

(Note: she did not say, “No biggie.” I am paraphrasing.)

After about 15 minutes of listening to them, I decided, while still working on my tasks, that I might as well get the shot. I had no real objections to it, and they seemed quite concerned that I was not eager to get one. David’s remark about avoiding medicines was an additional spur in my side. It offended the scientist in me. (David is a former engineer, I learned recently. ‘Nuff said.) Since our students and colleagues have already concluded that their foreign teachers’ temperaments are so different, I figured doing the opposite of what David did would just solidify that conclusion.

After I agreed to receive my poke in the arm, Prof. Tang, the associate dean and my immediate supervisor, revealed that each college had a quota of faculty and students to be vaccinated. This explained why Dr. Peng, the dean, was checking off a list of the staff’s names earlier in their animated Chinese conversation. So, my agreement would help take the heat off the college.

The university and local health officials are really quite serious about H1N1 after nearly 24 students came down with it since school started in September. Several girls in my G2 sophomore writing class were sent to the hospital, and their roommates were confined to quarters for a week. As a result, I did not meet that class at all during their quarantine, and our college has had extra attention paid to it.

China has mobilized a huge supply of vaccine, and schools have high priority. I am guessing health officials want enough of a “herd immunity” to confine, or at least control the pandemic, especially in the College of International Exchange, a veritable hotbed of H1N1. (We only have 300 students, so five H1N1 cases at one time is kinda significant.)

Anyway, I walked to the school clinic with the staff assistant, where we were joined by two other teachers and three sophomores. There, we discovered we did not have the proper forms, and had to wait awhile for copies to be made. Then we went in one a time to get jabbed by a very efficient and masterful nurse. (Seriously, I didn’t even feel the needle go in. It was over in less than 10 seconds.)

It’s now about 12 hours later. And I feel fine. No headache. My bicep feels only a little achy. Earlier in the day, I felt a little weird, but it was probably more fatigue than the vaccination. I’ve had a very busy day; fortunately, only half of it was work.

Oh, I almost forgot the most important part. The shot was free. Damned socialist medical care!

Seven pictures are worth 10,000 words
Nov. 14, 2009
[Cross-posted at The Daily Kos, and rescued from diary oblivion. That’s 3 for 3!]

JISHOU, HUNAN, CHINA — Friday, my sophomores in oral English were more animated than I’ve seen them in ages. It was a set of posters that livened them up.

To preface this diary, I need to explain that our classrooms here are barebones dull: white painted walls, beige tile floors, fluorescent tube lighting, wooden desks and chairs bolted to the floor, and a single double-wide chalkboard. We at least have ample natural lighting from the windows along the exterior wall.

And no heat, but that’s for another diary. [It was at least warmer today than yesterday’s high of 6° C (about 43° F).]

In September I decided that staring at the mostly bare walls was getting boring, so I decided to spend a little money and order some posters from the USA off the Internet. (I won’t link to the site here, but the site’s name is no exaggeration. They have ALL kinds of POSTERS.) I ordered four at first, one for each class of sophomores, as the freshmen had not started classes yet.

Three were decently sized, but I failed to read the description of one carefully and ended up with a tiny little poster of Mount Rainier. Very pretty, but not exactly awe inspiring. Since class Z1 of sophomore Oral English meets on Fridays, they were the unlucky recipients of the miniature Mount Rainier. The other classes had claimed the larger posters.

Feeling a little guilty at giving Z1 short shrift, I promised to order several more posters to make up for my error. I was also going to outfit my four freshman classrooms with posters, as well. Fortuitously, my favorite posters website had a sale going on last month and I was able to order seven for not too much money. (Shipping is another matter: I spent $32 on postage for $38 of merchandise.)

The posters arrived yesterday, just in time for today’s class. I didn’t realize how much fun they would have in selecting their favorite.

I meet each class of students once a week for 100 minutes: 45 minutes of instruction, 10 minutes’ break, and another 45 minutes of instruction. During the first “hour,” they worked a crossword puzzle I had made up to help them review for next week’s vocab test. While they mulled over the puzzle, I unveiled the posters and laid them out on the front row of desks.

It is testimony to the self-restraint of Chinese college students that none of them were distracted by the posters’ display. My high school students in Louisville would have been all over the posters in two shakes had I pulled them out so early.

But that self-restraint sometimes can be worrisome to a teacher. After the break, I went over the solution to the puzzle, showed them the posters one at a time, and explained that they were going to vote on their favorite poster by secret ballot.

Nothing much happened.

Oh, boy, I thought to myself. Maybe they didn’t understand me. So, I wrote brief titles for each poster on the board and explained what I wanted them to do again. Then a student, Lydia Chen, suggested I use numbers instead of titles, which I did.

Magically, the class came to life. Students got up from their seats to look at the posters more closely. Some took them back to their seats, so their seatmates could see them better. Others took photos of the posters with their cellphones. There was a lot of chatter, most of it in Chinese. One boy rolled up one poster (you can guess which one in a minute) and pretended to take it with him. They were … happy! Like kids on Christmas morning.

I know you’re wondering which posters we had, so here they are:

* “Tranquil Cabin by the Lake,” a painting by T.C. Chiu
* Westlife 6 (Chinese students love Westlife, and Backstreet Boys.)
* Marilyn Monroe (She is posing, hands behind her back, in a low-cut evening gown.)
* “Daybreak,” a painting by Russ Carter of the Santa Barbara shore
* Muhammad Ali, a black-and-white photo montage (I lived in Louisville for 25 years, and I have met the Champ, thank you very much.)
* An extra large Jack Daniels label
* The Chrysler Building, New York City, 1948

[And yes, the boy wanted Marilyn all to himself. Didn’t we all.]

As it turned out, the students were fascinated by all the posters, even the ones I thought would be kind of boring to them. So I was very interested to see which ones would be the most popular.

I collected their ballots, and as I tallied them, gave running commentary like the race announcer at Churchill Downs. “Daybreak” had an early lead, with Westlife 6 bringing up the rear. Westlife 6 surged ahead. Then, they were neck and neck down to the wire. Finally, it was “Daybreak” by a nose! “Tranquil Cabin” was a length behind Westlife 6, and the others were distant also-rans.

After class, Lydia asked me why I wanted to give the posters to my students. I was touched by the question, since it revealed the source of the enthusiasm I witnessed. (Remember, many of these young people are from humble circumstances.) I answered simply that I wanted to decorate their classrooms, and as the local American teacher, I felt obligated to put up American (OK, Westlife is not American. So, shoot me.) images. I did not reveal my other motive: to show my Chinese students little slices of Americana they have probably never seen, but will soon have to discuss in class. Muwhahahaha!

One other gratifying moment came after the poster runoff. With only about 20 minutes left to the second “hour,” I had to truncate my planned listening and speaking lesson by half. Our textbook, Inside Out, has an accompanying CD. I had planned to have them listen to long and short vowel sounds, and repeat them, but skipped that to play a funk cover of the Carole King song, “You’ve Got a Friend,” by a ’90s British group, The Brand New Heavies. The song includes the words used in the vowel sound exercise, and the text splits each line in two, leaving it to the students to piece together the lyrics.

It’s a fun listening exercise, and I am pleased to say my students got 100% of the match-ups correct. So successful was this mini-lesson that Angelina Zeng, another student, asked me after class to teach it to the students at Sunday’s English Corner.

Today was one of those times when the students’ demand for learning almost outstripped my capacity to supply it. I wish every day could be like it.

My latest travel adventure: Shaoshan, Mao’s birthplace
Nov. 27, 2009

JISHOU, HUNAN — This weekend’s trip to Shaoshan was great during the daytime, but interesting (in the alleged Chinese proverbial sense*) during the night.

Shaoshan (韶山), a county near Xiangtan, south of the provincial capital of Changsha (长沙), is the ancestral home of Mao Zedong’s family. Mao (毛泽东) was born and raised there, and spent his final decade there in a specially constructed compound for the founder and first Chairman of the People’s Republic of China. As you can probably guess, there are all kinds of touristy places to visit.

The area also lays claim to Mao’s successor, Liu Shaoqi (刘少奇), who hailed from Ningxiang county, near Changsha. Liu was at one point a darling of the great leader, then he fell out of favor during the Cultural Revolution, only to be posthumously rehabilitated as a national hero in the 1980s.

So, we visited museums dedicated to Liu and to Mao, the statue of Mao and a mountaintop garden dedicated to Mao. It was an “all Mao, all the time” weekend, with some unexpected features.

(It was a lot like any version of Windows.)

On Saturday night, our hotel lost power — for the entire night — just after we finished dinner. I am still not clear whether the entire neighborhood went dark, or if it was just our place. (Blue screen of death)

On Sunday afternoon, before we left for Jishou, our tour guide took us to hear a high pressure sales pitch for super-sharp, indestructible tungsten steel kitchen knives. It was like Vince, the Shamwow guy, but in Chinese — though our presenter was much better looking. (Pop-up windows and adware)

On Sunday night, our bus threw a U-joint on the expressway, stranding us for three hours while our driver and two roadside mechanics repaired the driveshaft. (Device driver malfunction)

Other than that, it was a great weekend.

But wait, there’s more!

Last Tuesday, my dean asked if I wanted to join the rest of the faculty on a weekend trip to Shaoshan. This meant it was free, so naturally I accepted. We were to leave early Saturday morning on board a school bus. (Not a Big Yellow, Americans. This is a rather comfy coach with reclining seats and a TV/DVD player … and some maintenance issues, as we discovered later.)

Eighteen of us, including five faculty children, left promptly at 7 am that Saturday, and arrived in Shaoshan in time for lunch. We picked up our tour guide, an energetic young woman in a robin’s egg blue winter coat, just before we stopped for lunch.

Now, I thought lunch was pretty good, but Frank, our assistant dean, said it reminded him of the food in the university eating hall — in other words, not so good. Maybe eating almost every day at the eating hall has ruined my palate, or maybe I just like free food, any kind of free food.

Anyways, from there we went to the Liu Shaoqi Memorial Park.

Liu ShaoQi

Liu ShaoQi

Liu was one of Mao’s closest companions in the early days of the Communist Party of China (CPC), and served as a national leader in the 1960s. Later in that decade, he and Mao had a falling out along political and philosophical lines. During the Cultural Revolution of the 1970s, Liu was labeled a traitor to the cause and effectively sidelined. Deng Xiao Ping declared Liu rehabilitated in the 1980s, which led eventually to the creation of this memorial park in 1988.

Most Chinese parks have an imposing entrance gate and a long, broad stone walkway to a central monument. In this case, the walk leads to a 7.1-meter-tall bronze statue of Liu, apparently deep in thought while holding a pipe. A bilingual plaque notes that the height of the statue corresponds to Liu’s age when he died and to the July 1 anniversary of the founding of the CPC.

Liu and Mao met in 1922, at a regional meeting of the CPC. The memorial hall includes bronze statues of the men meeting at that time, as well as statues, photographs and documents of Liu as a wartime leader and as an important architect of the fledgling Chinese government and economy of the mid-1940s. Many of Liu’s ideas were adopted in the 1970s when China “opened up” China, and are still in practice today.

The park also includes the earth-walled home of Liu, though it was not clear to me whether it is a reconstruction — Liu grew up in Ningxiang, not Shaoshan. Ostensibly, the 21-room house dates from 1871. In addition, a Soviet-made turboprop airplane that Liu used for official state business was installed in the park in 2003, leading me to wonder how they got the thing there. It’s about the size of a DC-9!

Liu ShaoQi's official aircraft

Liu ShaoQi’s official aircraft

After touring Liu’s park, we headed for the ancestral farm home of Mao. Born Dec. 26, 1893, Mao grew up in Shaoshan, but left in 1910 for further education. He returned in 1921 to begin his involvement in the CPC.

Having walked through the Mao family home, complete with pig and cattle pens, but no livestock, we then left for dinner at our guesthouse in town and a good rest. Having spent the day walking in chilly weather, I was looking forward to a hot shower and warm air in a hotel room. Alas, it was not to be; around 8 pm, as I settled down to mark a pile of vocabulary tests, poof! the lights went out.

Tired as I was, I shelved plans to mark the tests and just went to sleep. I was warm enough under the blankets that I didn’t miss the forced-air heat.

So, the next morning, after breakfast at the hotel (here I agreed with Frank — the food was … eh), we visited the Statue Square of Mao Zedong, where our college leaders left a wreath of flowers at the base of the statue.

Chairman Mao Zedong

Chairman Mao Zedong

Then, we got on the bus and rode to ShaoFeng, a mountain park in which there is an ancient Buddhist temple at the peak and at the base, a poetry garden featuring Mao’s poems. My colleagues and our guide stood by one stele and recited in unison one of Mao’s more famous poems, or so I reckon, since they all seemed to know it pretty well.

[Linguistic sidebar: One of the CPC’s changes was to simplify the Chinese characters bu reducing the number of strokes, but this happened after Mao wrote the poems. So many young Chinese have as hard a time reading traditional characters as we have reading Chaucer.]

Then we toured DiShui Dong (“Dripping Water Cave,” but there is no cave — what?), where in the ’60s, the government built for the aging Mao his own countryside retreat, complete with an air raid shelter and an earthquake-proof situation room.

Well, I bet George Washington would have had them, too, if there were airplanes and earthquakes in post-colonial Virginia.

Come to think of it, imagine what our memorials to our Founding Fathers would have been like had photography been invented, say, around 1700 or so. Instead of a few choice paintings, we would see endless photos of Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Franklin, and their buddies standing, sitting, eating, smoking, talking, drinking, signing documents, addressing huge assemblies, riding their horses, sitting in carriages, and so on and so on. You get the idea — boring with a capital B.

I love history, but after about the 50th photo of Mao (or anyone, really), the whole documentation-of-every-waking-hour gets a little tedious. Throw in lots of important looking documents and the occasional video, and all-Mao, all-the-time wears thin pretty quickly.

Back in the day, such a flippant criticism of the great leader probably would have resulted in my immediate deportation. Now, while most Chinese respect Mao for the changes he enabled, they no longer worship him as a demigod. Three decades after his death, Mao is now respected as a mere mortal with flaws.

Lunchtime passed, with another passably good meal, then our energetic guide directed our driver to a building in Shaoshan where we were subjected to a sales pitch.

Those of you in the States who have unwisely agreed to a “free” visit to a timeshare place will recognize the scheme: Offer a free (or reduced price) stay at a resort in exchange for sitting through an excruciating, 45-minute sales pitch.

So, our chipper guide herded us into a small room in which there was a demo table, a mostly empty display case for electric shavers, and two posters extolling the virtues of their super-sharp, indestructible tungsten steel kitchen knives and cleavers. Our “Vince” was a young woman in her early twenties who was, for somewhat kitschy reasons, dressed unflatteringly in an outfit resembling the Red Army’s olive-drab uniform. She proceeded to launch into her sales pitch, complete with hammering an ordinary cleaver and the super-cleaver against a steel pipe and showing us how the super-cleaver still could cut a daikon radish effortlessly. She demonstrated a two-ended vegetable peeler, a chef’s knife, and a waterproof electric shaver (it works underwater! — just in case you want to shave while swimming). And she finished with the usual, “now what would you expect to pay for such fine products?”

Well, that’s what I guessed she said. Naturally, she addressed us only in Chinese, and I was not really interested in getting a translation. I could get the gist of it, having spent too many hours watching infomercials and visiting the Kentucky State Fair. In the end, only one of us bought a chef’s knife (80 yuan) and several us (me included) snagged the peelers (10 yuan each). A complete set of knives, with wooden knife block, would have been 380 yuan.

[I can almost guarantee that the same knives are probably being sold in the US for at least twice as much. I considered buying a set as a gift, but postage would have wiped out the savings and taking knives on an airplane nowadays is a risky affair. So I saved my money.]

By this time, it was about 3:00 and time for us to hit the road.

On the way to Shaoshan, I had noticed our bus made quite a bit of noise, but I figured it was an unbalanced wheel. The university’s buses are usually used only for short trips, so maybe the maintenance crews don’t fuss about rumbly noises.

But as we made our way back home, the rumbling got louder and louder. Twice, our driver pulled over, got out, and walked toward the back end of the bus. I had this sinking feeling that I knew what was causing the noise, because I had heard it before in my own cars.

Dum-da-da-dum {cue spooky music}: Impending universal joint failure. Oh, shit.

[A car talk moment: In ancient times, most cars had engines in the front that drove the wheels in the back. This arrangement required a tube called a driveshaft to connect the two parts. Since the engine doesn’t move up and down, but the wheels do, the driveshaft has to have joints like hinges at each end. The “hinges” are at right angles to each other, to allow 360 degrees of movement — a universal joint.

After long years/miles of service, U-joints get very loose and the parts they are attached to start to vibrate. If the U-joints are really worn out, the little bearings inside can work loose and jam the joint up, then the joint shatters and your vehicle is out of commission.]

By this time, we were on the Changsha-Changde Expressway (the ChangChang), tooling at about 60 mph and hearing an ever louder rumble coming from somewhere under the bus.

Rumble, RUMble, RUMBLE, RUMBLE! RUMBLE !! BANG! … silence.

We coasted onto the shoulder, and the driver got out. And we got out. Men, women and children set off in different directions to go pee, while the driver crawled under the back end of the bus. I looked up in my cell phone the Chinese word for “universal joint” and showed it to him. He said yes, and gave me the thumbs-up, impressed with my mechanical expertise.

A chicken joined us as we stood outside the bus in the chilly evening air. This poor hen apparently had fallen off a truck, and was wandering dazed on the shoulder. Since a low wall kept her from leaving the shoulder, she, with her limited chicken wisdom, decided the best route home was to cross a four-lane divided highway. We tried to convince her otherwise, but finally gave up the debate.

In answer to the timeless riddle, the chicken did not cross the road … entirely. She made it across one and half lanes before being flattened (with a disgusting popping noise) by a semi.

About a half-hour later, an emergency road crew came to effect repairs. Three men managed to get everything back in order after three hours, and we were back on our way. We finally pulled into campus at 12:30 am.

Sometimes, with free travel, you get what you pay for, but in the end it’s usually better than not going at all.

————
* I had always heard that, “May you live in interesting times,” was an ancient Chinese curse — “interesting” implying “too chaotic.” It turns out that it’s not Chinese at all. Some English-speaking dude came up with it.

Thanksgiving Dinner 2009
Nov. 28, 2009

JISHOU, HUNAN — On the spur of the moment, I decided to invite the other four Americans in Jishou to Thanksgiving dinner. Since two of them live right above me, the original plan was to meet at my place.

Then I thought, why not invite some Chinese friends, too? After all, there are many people who have been my family here, but I have never had them in one place at the same time. By the time I got done compiling a guest list, I had 20 names! I can squeeze at most nine people into my apartment at any one time, so clearly we would have to go to a restaurant.

The other Americans were fine with eating out, and since I teach six classes on Thursdays, it was by far a better idea than cooking at my home.

I had this brilliant idea Monday night. Perhaps I’ve gotten enculturated, because the people around here seem to spring dinner plans on you at the last moment. Planning, schmanning. So, I got busy with my cell phone and sent a flurry of texts to my friends on Tuesday morning.

At lunch, I talked the plan over with my friend, Frieda. Her favorite restaurant is Zejiahu, which is near the north gate of the university and which is where our college’s graduates held a dinner in June. The food is really good and the service, very prompt.

She advised buying drinks at the supermarket, because they would be cheaper, and helped me book the room and order the dishes ahead of time. We did the booking and ordering on Thursday after lunch, and did the shopping just before dinner Thursday.

So, to make a long story short, we all had a great time. My Chinese friends had a chance to meet one another and practice their spoken English, and we Americans felt (I hope) that Thanksgiving was a just little homier by sharing it with happy people over good food and wine.

The photos are up on my Picasaweb photo pages and on my QQzone, too.

Throughout the day, my students peppered my cell phone with Thanksgiving wishes. Denise Zhao, one of my dinner guests, was the first, at 6:30 in the morning. One sophomore class gave each student and me an apple with a thank you note on it. My freshman composition classes took the wish-giving a step further. They each presented me with greeting cards signed by all of them, and the G1 class hid in an adjacent classroom, then popped out, each student holding a piece of fruit with Thanksgiving greetings on it for me.

I said this last year, and I will say it again. The people I have met here are among the most wonderful in the world. Though we were born on opposite sides of the world, it seems as though we have known each other for decades, not just one year, or even one month. I am thankful for their friendship, their hospitality and their help, and I love them dearly.

And here are the special people who made my Thanksgiving dinner memorable: Frieda, Tina, Harry, Shelldy, Ailsa, Nora, Denise, Swallow, Kasurly, Mary, What, James and Tony; and the Americans, David, Drew, Matt and Jamey. For the three who couldn’t make it, Elektra, Smile and Sherry, there’s always Christmas dinner and/or Spring Festival.

I hope everyone stateside had a great holiday, too. Remember those who are not as fortunate as we, and try to do something to help.

We now resume our regular programming, now in progress.
Dec. 13, 2009

JISHOU, HUNAN — My webhost just upgraded many of its customers to a new superduper server over the weekend. Somehow, my site got lost in the shuffle, but now we’re back!

Predictably, the outage happened while I was out of town and for the most part away from the World Wide Web. So, I had no idea anything was wrong until my buddy notified me by email. I sent a message to Planet Earth Hosting, and 24 hours later, the site was up, good as new.

The occasion for my trip out of town was the big car show in Changsha. Two of my former students were going — one to shop and one to wish — and asked me to join them.

So, Saturday morning I took the coach to Changsha. Also on board was a postgrad friend of mine and her friend. They were going to Changsha to shop and (for one of them) to sit for a qualifications exam. To my delight, the bus company has changed its normal stop — next to a swanky hotel — to a place practically next door to my usual — non-swanky — hotel. It makes catching the return bus a breeze now.

That Saturday, I shopping for some wee Christmas gifties with Tina, one of my former students from Jishou U. Her boyfriend was busy at work, and she was bored, so she squired me around the shopping district to find what I wanted. Meanwhile, she bought some stuff, too.

Maybe this kind of thing is available in the States. If it is, I missed it. So, excuse my ignorance. Here, there are shops where cell phone users can bling their phones with glitter, rhinestones and other such sparkly whatnot. After I got what I needed, we went to a little shop where a woman painstakingly glues bling on cell phones, computers and anything else with a hard, shiny surface. It took her about 45 minutes to customize Tina’s phone around the camera lens.

And yes, I waited patiently in the shop until it was finished. It’s too easy to get lost in some of those shopping malls in Changsha. And, by the way, they have Christmas shopping sales in China, too.

Tina then had to join her boyfriend for dinner, so I dumped my purchases in my room and headed for Carrefour (two blocks east) to buy some badly needed Western food items: spaghetti sauce, tomato paste and pasta, plus some snacks for the weekend.

Sunday morning, my other former student in Changsha, Isabella, called me. We met at her school, Hunan Normal U, and with her cousin took a circuitous bus ride to the car show north of the downtown.

Pretty girls + cars = car show

Pretty girls + cars = car show

The last time I was a car show — or at least one that I can remember — was the 1971 International Car Show in Manhattan. My dad and I went, to ogle at the beautiful …. um … cars … yeah, that was it. That show had some concept cars as spice up the pantheon of production models. The Changsha event, while somewhat less glamorous, had Honda’s robot, Asimo, to add some pizzazz.

(I did not actually see Asimo there. The Honda exhibit was surrounded by a crowd at least eight people deep. I could only see the big TV screen showing a movie about Asimo.)

We have read about China’s new wealthy class of citizens, but seeing shiny new Jaguars, Porsches, Mercedes-Benzes, BMWs and Ferraris — some with “Sold” signs in the windows — brings the point home more distinctly. No car dealer is going to haul prize merchandise to an exposition center for five days without the expectation of selling at least some of them.

I did not drive it home

I did not drive it home


Isabella, her cuz and I stayed just a couple of hours. We were all just window shopping and I had a bus to catch at 3. Tina and her beau stayed to consider which auto they might eventually buy, perhaps with their wedding money next year. Isabella’s cousin wanted to eat Western food, so I suggested Houcaller — a steak place — which I knew was somewhere near my hotel. They got T-bones and I got sirloin plates, for about ¥40 apiece (about $6 — yeah, Americans, cry your eyes out).

Fortified with this filling meal, I boarded the bus for a mercifully uneventful five-hour ride home. The on-board movies were (a pirated copy of) of 2012 and a (probably also pirated) copycat film from Thailand, 2022: The Great Tsunami. These two completed a weekend of disaster movies for me. I’ll blog about that later.

Disaster movie weekend
Dec. 15, 2009

CHANGSHA, CHINA — Unlike my last trip to the vicinity of Changsha, this one was not fraught with peril. The disasters were limited to the movies I watched.

Our bus screened two mega-disaster movies, the American 2012 and the Thai copycat version 2022: The Great Tsunami. (It goes without saying both were pirated copies.) And, before I fell asleep in my hotel Saturday night, I watched that classic star-studded extravaganza, The Towering Inferno, with dialogue dubbed into Chinese, of course.

Disaster movies are just really stupid, you know? It makes no difference when or where they are made. They’re just mindless entertainment.

Let’s start with Roland Emmerich’s 2012. As soon as heard the Important Scientist announce ominously that a massive solar flare had sent a storm of neutrinos toward Earth, and these neutrinos for the first time ever (Now with new cleaning power!) were interacting with matter, I knew the rest of the movie would be, scientifically, a stinker.

I was not disappointed.

Physics mini-lesson: Yes, the Sun produces neutrinos. Lots of neutrinos. They are a product of nuclear fusion, the gift that keeps on giving us heat and light from that yellow ball in the sky. The sun has been pumping out these little fellows for the last five billion years, and like all other subatomic particles, solar neutrinos don’t suddenly take the notion to change their ways. Neutrinos normally sail right through the Earth (and us, by the way) like nothing is there. They only very rarely interact with atoms, detectable by little flashes of light in huge underground tanks of pure water.

The premise of 2012 is that this sudden superstorm of neutrinos gets the Earth’s core all in a tizzy, and earthquakes, tsunamis, Go Go Speed Racer-style plate tectonics and global flooding are the cataclysmic result. It’s like the planet Krypton meets Waterworld.

Of course, the world’s G8 leaders somehow have expected something like this, so while we’ve been worrying about presidential birth certificates, Sarah Palin’s syntax errors, Balloon Boy and Octomom, they have conveniently been building humongous arks under the Himalayas. Yeaahhh.

Anyway, the rest of the movie divides its time between John Cusack, playing a famous author/flunky limo driver (say what?), trying to get his family to safety, and the leaders in Washington, DC, trying to get their collective asses to safety. Cusack saves his family. The folks in DC aren’t as successful: the president is clobbered when a tsunami slams the USS John Kennedy into the White House.

Getting Cusack’s children, his ex-wife and her amateur pilot boyfriend away from the perilous USA to the Himalayas is just one “car chase” scene after another, except our heroes spend their time outrunning seismic faults, walls of water, exploding volcanoes and other cataclysms, one after another after another. It gets tedious.

Cusack’s character, of course, has all the answers (like the DaVinci Code dude played by Tom Hanks), and even manages to find a plane to whisk them to safety.

Plot point: The ex-wife’s boyfriend says he has had only a few hours in a single-engine plane. Yet, this Lindbergh of pilotage manages to safely fly a twin-engine Beech away from a crumbling airstrip, dodging collapsing buildings and flying debris (no stall warnings?), and then manages to safely land the plane on a remote airstrip to refuel. (Cusack has to find Woody Harrelson, playing an Alex Jones/George Noury radio knowitall cum nutjob, to find where to go next, just as the supervolcano under Yellowstone National Park blows). Later on, our quick learner flies as co-pilot on a Russian-made, eight-turbine cargo plane on a transoceanic flight. Riiiight.

I’ve also had a few hours in a single-engine plane — eight, if I remember correctly (my log book is in a box in Kentucky right now). I was just learning how land the plane at that point. Of course, if the world were crumbling around me, maybe I would suddenly acquire Lucky Lindy flying skills, too.

If I did, I hope I have a better end that the poor sucker in 2012. After safely flying them all to China (which has conveniently moved two thousand miles closer to the USA), Emmerich promptly kills the pilot boyfriend off as our heroes try to stow away on the ark, thereby clearing the way for Cusack and his ex to reconcile and discover they never really stopped loving each other, and so on and so on.

I won’t belabor the plot any more. It’s just a wrapper for a lot of over-the-top CGI effects. I will offer some small praise for Emmerich’s choices of safe havens for our dauntless heroes, China and South Africa, my present and former homes away from the USA. The cargo plane lands in China, which is skimming like a catamaran over the mantle, and the ark lands in the Drakensberg Mountains of South Africa and Lesotho. (Those wacky plate tectonics have elevated South Africa’s mountains higher than the Himalayas, which end up under water.) Then, the ark’s passengers come out to look at their new home just like the roly-poly people in Wall-E do.

Now, the Thai version of the apocalypse was a little harder to follow, since the dialogue was in Thai and the subs in Chinese. The plot is only slightly different from its American progenitor: for obscure reasons, there are simultaneous earthquakes all over the world, which create a giant tsunami. Of course, the tidal wave heads right for Bangkok and our heroes must save themselves, busloads of children, random strangers we care about, etc., etc. from imminent inundation.

(Of course, that part of the world did get hit by a real tsunami last year. The movie version makes the real one look like a ripple in a pond. You can see the trailer and some stills here.)

Unlike 2012, which basically annihilates most of the earth’s 6.4 billion people (Why don’t the characters seem more upset? Have they all read too much Ayn Rand?), 2022 manages to save most of Bangkok’s residents from death. The prime minister tells the public there will be a major festival inland on the very day the tsunami is predicted to hammer the city. So, 15 million people empty the city without much fuss.

Witness one major difference between American and Asian cultural values. Americans seem fixated with the concept of a select few surviving a global catastrophe, a relic of Noah’s ark and Revelation’s prophecies of the Second Coming. Asians, rather, seem more comfortable with saving most of the population. Go, Buddha!

Major catastrophes like asteroid/meteor strikes, crazy weather patterns, solar storms and the like make for some bombastic drama, but I am waiting for someone to script a movie about a future time after the icecaps have melted and sea levels have risen. A global warming movie might actually get some folks — especially the ones living along the coasts — thinking about what all the fuss is about. (Would NYC become a new Venice, then? I wonder …)

By comparison to the numbered movies, The Towering Inferno, one of Irwin Allen’s many disaster flicks, is a little more realistic. High rise office buildings can catch fire, though fortunately not to the extent suggested by this 1974 potboiler. Age has not improved it, however. I thought it was silly 35 years ago, but it was fun to see all those old movie stars on the screen again.

In TTI, a small electric fire blossoms into a raging inferno in a poorly constructed 138-story office building, while lots of San Francisco bigwigs and other Famous People join in the building’s grand opening celebration. The fire traps many of them inside, and the bulk of the movie focuses on the heroic efforts to get them out alive. Maybe it was exciting 35 years ago, but it now seems to drag on forever. Or maybe I was just tired from shopping.

Allen’s schtick was to gather up a cast of veteran and not-so veteran, but still big stars, hand them a formulaic script, and put them in dangerous, quasi-realistic situations, like sinking ocean liners and burning buildings, only to escape unscathed 2 to 3 grueling hours later. The audiences ate it up, and TTI won three Oscars and made the two studios that collaborated on it a bundle of money.

Not high art, but moviegoers like disaster flicks, and I confess I do, too. The two number movies killed a lot of time on my 4.5-hour bus ride. The Towering Inferno, though, just put me to sleep.

Another day in the life
Dec. 21, 2009

JISHOU, HUNAN — Yesterday was unusually busy for me, so I want this chance to take to chronicle it.

Every Sunday, I teach spoken English (and some reading) to five 9-year-olds for two hours. These kids are the children of police officers — friends of my friend Smile, whose husband is an officer, too. One of my student friends helps me in this project, since I need someone to translate English to Chinese. Though the kids are rambunctious, they are also very bright, so the job is not as awful as it sounds (unless the reader happens to be a primary school teacher, who would know what I mean).

At 11, Nora and I left the police residential compound (警公安局 jing gong an ju) and headed for lunch at the university dining hall. There we were joined by four of my students (roommates), our friend from the PE college and a senior in the chemistry college who wanted just to talk with me. Afterward, three of us went for a walk and a sit in the sunshine, which has been in short supply these last four weeks, and the rest went off to their own things.

Our conversation in the sunlight revolved around that bane of Chinese students’ existence — national exams. Kasurly, one of my sophomore oral English students, had just taken the CET6 (College English Test – band 6) the day before. What, a junior from the PE college (no, he is not on second!), had taken the CET3 that morning. Both figured they passed, but were not entirely sure. Kasurly was considering her next steps — a national secretarial exam and/or a national translator’s exam — while What was debating taking the postgraduate exam next year. I have almost given up trying to keep track of China’s national exam system; it makes ETS look like a bunch of amateurs.

Anyway, at 1 pm, I had to go to a meeting of the JiDa Tae Kwon Do Association. One of my freshmen (also named Smile) had invited me after I told her I had earned a yellow belt 20-some years ago. This club was started by two upperclassmen in the PE college, both black belts. For 30 RMB a term, a student can join and learn this Korean martial art, a real bargain. After some warm ups (stretches and a run around the track — they did two laps and I wimped out after one — 400 m), they gathered around me and asked questions like students do at English corner.

Smile Wu Chengjun

Smile Wu Chengjun

Smile asked her classmates to tell me why they wanted to learn tae kwon do. Some said for fun, others for fitness, but Smile said she wanted to learn it for defense. She was quite frank in explaining her motivation. As she did it in English, most of the students there probably didn’t catch most of it, so she didn’t risk losing too much face. Here is what she said, as best I can recall.

Smile is a country girl and her family is pretty poor. When she was 16, she had come home dejected from a poor showing in the college entrance examination. She went to her room and sulked for a while, then came out to watch TV. Suddenly, a man barged into their home, grabbed her father and tried to take money from him. Her mom failed in defending her husband, and 16-year-old Smile ran to their aid. But her kicks had little effect, and the man ran out of their home with her dad’s money.

The girl was sad that her kicks had no power, and ashamed that she could not defend her parents. So, at university, when she heard she could learn tae kwon do for very little money, Smile jumped at the chance.

How she managed to relate all this without bursting into tears still amazes me, but I could tell she was making a supreme effort to contain herself.

Then, the white belts played an elaborate game of round-robin tag (and yes, I joined in it), while the colored belts practiced punches and kicks. They gave me a huge, red Christmas star as a gift, and we posed for the usual array of commemorative photo shoots. I then left to make my 3 pm appointment.

Nik is the 8-year-old son of Grisha and Anya, two visiting piano teachers from Ukraine. I teach Nik English two hours a week, while his folks handle the rest of his curriculum (Ukrainian, Russian, mathematics, health, natural science and civics) so he can rejoin his hometown school once they return in the spring. We figure Nik will be far ahead of his classmates there, since Grisha tells me the local schools have been closed twice because of the flu.

After our lesson, I got on QQ where I found Tina, one of my former students. She was minding one of her mom’s clothing shops and was starving, so she asked me to join her for dinner downtown. Since I did not feel like cooking, I agreed and took a taxi to meet her for baozai (clay pot rice dish). We then did some window shopping, then returned to her shop, where I tried on a couple of nice looking wool coats. (Price: about 600 RMB, or $88, after Tina’s generous discount.) I decided to wait on buying one, because my friend Frieda texted me to say she was at a concert on campus, nursing a godawful headache but gamely attending to support her roommate’s performance. I decided the gentlemanly thing to do was to join her, to support her supporting. Besides, I like attending these end-of-year concerts. While the performers are generally amateurs, and sometimes not so good, there is at least variety to keep from being bored.

Except when the dramatic skits go on too long, and the public address system is much too loud. Naturally, faculty get to sit right in the front row, next to the loudspeakers. Frieda’s headache was suffering from the noise, but she had promised her buddy she would stay to watch her. As things go, her roommate’s song was the next to last act, so the two of us gamely waited it out, munching on the peanuts, sunflower seeds and oranges left for us faculty types.

Performances over, the troupe (all members of the applied physics college) posed for pix, and of course, they invited me — the only westerner there — to join them. Jeez louise.

Before we both called it a night, Frieda and I had a late night snack — noodles for her and fried rice for me — then we went home to get some sleep. (She was tired, too. She had taught piano lessons all day and not taken time for lunch or dinner.)

So, that was my Sunday — 14 hours of fun. Not a typical day, but illustrative of my life here.

Christmas in China II
Dec. 29, 2009

JISHIU, HUNAN — My pictures on Facebook and Picasaweb may give you some idea of what my Christmas holiday was like, but here is the text version.
Our college had planned to have a big Christmas party/performance like we did last year, but fears of spreading H1N1 scotched that idea. Instead, each class (we have nine groups of 27-40 students each that we call classes) was to arrange for its own Christmas party. While disappointing, the lack of a college-wide Christmas event freed up a lot of time for all of us planning on performing.

Last year, the preparations for the big gala pretty sucked away any free time I had, so I was not able to plan any Christmas event of my own device. This year, though, I decided to invite people to my home for a dinner. A few friends had already offered to cook for us, so all I needed to do was to clean up the apartment and get people there.

But first, there were some Christmas Eve events. One of our classes, Sophomore Business English G2, held their party in the morning. They had four hotplates going at the same time, cooking up 火锅 huoguo (hotpot). Previously, they had decorated their classroom with three Christmas trees, snowflakes on the windows, balloons and Christmas lights (spelling out “Merry Christmas”). All the students wore Santa hats. I am not sure whether David, their oral English teacher, was supplied a hat. If he was, he opted not to wear it. All the faculty were invited, so between my classes I visited the four hotpots to sample their wares.

This class should write a cookbook. It could sell, I think.

At lunch, the university held a luncheon for the foreign teachers and postgraduate students, all seven of us. Besides David and I, there were Matt and Jamey, postgrads from Oklahoma, Grisha and Anya, piano teachers from Ukraine, and their son, Nik. Joining us were a few faculty from our college, the deans of the music and international exchange college, and some university officials. We ate at the Qinzhao Hotel, which is on campus and serves traditional local dishes. Naturally, baijiu was supplied and drunk, making teaching my afternoon classes particularly challenging.

The enormous meal at lunch meant I had no appetite for dinner, so after a light snack, I went to Christmas party #2, organized by the sophomore English Education class Z2. Instead of cooking, they put on their own show, with dancers, singers, a magician and karaoke. Here, I sang, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” which some students had no idea was an American song.

Friday was Christmas Day, and I am entitled to a day off, but I chose to meet some of my oral English students to give them their final exams in the morning. At 10, I repaired to my home to clean up for the afternoon’s party. Three students (Helen, Gina and Ailsa) offered to help me, so we four made the place presentable in pretty short order.

Now, my “head cook” called me in the morning and told me (I swear she did, honest!) that she would bring both the meat and an extra cookpan, but could not arrive until after 2:30. No problem. I asked two other guests to bring the vegetables, and they arrived around 3 with veggies and a bottle of rice wine (baijiu) from Guilin. I neglected to go to the supermarket, because I had assumed earlier that morning that some people would bring lunch food, and others dinner food. Nope. Never assume anything, they say.

The head cook finally arrived around 4, because she had had a PE exam that afternoon. But, she came with no meat or cookpan. She swears she had told me she couldn’t possibly have brought either, because she had no time, and she had told me that in the morning.

This, boys and girls, is why foreigners need to learn Chinese, and Chinese need to learn English.

So, we had lots of veggies and no meat, and no hotpot is complete without meat. (Sort of like, “How can you have your pudding if you don’t eat your meat?”) So, four of the guests volunteered to run to the market to buy meat and some ready-to-eat snacks, while the rest of us prepared the veggies and watched TV.

To make a long story short, all 15 of us worked it all out and had a great meal together, washed down with Coke, OJ, red wine and/or baijiu.

After this party broke up around 6:30, a few of us were invited to another dinner party downtown. This arrangement goes sort of like this: one of my friends is Shelldy, a music college senior; her guzheng and English student is Li, a sales rep for a local tobacco company; Li is friends with Miss Xiang, the manager of the Dolphin Coffee Bar and Western Restaurant; Miss Xiang invited me, Shelldy and some of our friends to dinner that night.

Got it? Good.

Anyway, I had a second dinner, a passably good steak (though Houcaller in Changsha does a better job of it) and some reasonably good coffee brewed with a fascinating contraption heated with an alcohol burner.

Li, Shelldy and the coffee contraption

Li, Shelldy and the coffee contraption

Then, we went to the Dolphin karaoke club to sing some Chinese and American tunes until about 10:30.

So, it is now Dec. 26th. I was invited to the wedding luncheon for Anna Zhang, who works in the Foreign Affairs Office. I improved my local street creds by arriving with 红包 hong bao (lucky money) in the appropriate red envelope enblazoned with the double-lucky character 富富 (fu-fu)for marriages.

The happy couple pose with David and me

The happy couple pose with David and me


Chinese wedding customs are different from American ones. Here, couples get married by applying at the government offices and signing a few forms. They may, depending on their families’ traditions and desires, have a ceremony for family and close friends to attend. Some have two ceremonies, if bride and groom hail from different places. Then, there will be a luncheon or dinner for colleagues and not-so-close friends to attend. Everyone is expected to bring hong bao, and not gifts. (In the bigger cities, there are now wedding registries at the malls, but this custom has not yet caught on in the interior.)

Practically speaking, hong bao is to offset the costs of holding the banquets and other ceremonies. At Anna’s shinding, we handed our hong bao to a table of friends, who recorded the givers’ names and counted the money given. (Some couples may not have enough money beforehand to pay the caterer, so knowing how much “loot” they have taken in alleviates worry and despair.)

I asked three people how much money I should give, and checked online as well. One friend from Jishou said 200, a Shanghai website said 500 and another friend said use my own judgment. I opted for 300, so I wouldn’t seem too cheap but also not too extravagant. I don’t know neither bride nor groom very well.

My friend Nora wanted to cook that afternoon, so I invited a smaller group of student friends over for dinner, including two of my cleanup crew who could not stay for dinner the day before. There were eight of us this time. After dinner, Nora wanted to visit a girl she knows who lives at the Xiangxi Welfare Home — the local orphanage/old folks home — because it was the girl’s 14th birthday.

Yong Fu has cerebral palsy and has been confined to a wheelchair most of her life. She has no parents, either because they died or because they gave her up, I am not sure. Originally from Zhangjiajie, she knows Nora and Jack, one of my students, pretty well. Yong Fu was apparently adopted by an American couple for a while, but her needs exceeded their ability to meet them, so she came back to China to the Xiangxi Welfare Home. Jack had bought a birthday cake, and Nora was going to visit Yong Fu, too.

Six of us decided to join them,and we were met by three other students, Grace, Lily and Cindy, freshmen from my college. (The College of International Exchange has basically adopted the welfare home as a “sister institution.” Several of our students visit there regularly.)

Although it was well past 8 pm, the staff at the welfare home allowed to us to quietly visit (since the other kids were asleep) Yong Fu in her room. It is spare, but roomy, with two wardrobes and a private bathroom. She has a bed by a double window, a desk and a dresser, and a few educational posters on the walls to learn Chinese characters (I could use a few myself). The facility itself is spotlessly clean, and Yong Fu at least seems very happy, all things considered.

After some greetings — with a dozen people they take a while — we unboxed the cake, sang the birthday song, and asked Yong Fu what size piece she wanted. To our surprise, she said she only wanted a tiny bit, because she wanted to share the cake with the other children in the orphanage. (Looking at some photos in the lobby, I reckoned that Yong Fu is the oldest child there.) Nora wanted Yong Fu to call Nora’s mom in Zhangjiajie — her mom also knows Yong Fu — so we waited for the two to talk for awhile.

We all pose with Xiao Fu

We all pose with Xiao Fu


Then after the call, we chatted some more, posed for photos, and let Yong Fu go to bed. Although it is difficult for her to leave her wheelchair to get into bed, she refused all help. Her struggle to crawl into bed moved Grace to tears, and she moved aside to hide them.

[Grace has a depth that I didn’t suspect. At lunch the next day, I learned from Grace that she chose not to sit for the college entrance exam as a high school student, thinking she could make her way without a college education. She succeeded to some extent, becoming the manager of a floral shop for three years in her hometown of Huaihua, but at the relatively advanced age of 21 decided to take the college entrance exam. Grace said she realized finally that she needed a college degree, especially as a young woman; otherwise, people meeting her might think she is not very smart.]

At this point, we left, hailed three cabs and headed home. I was pretty exhausted physically at this point, and my living room and kitchen were a mess. We had left in a hurry to visit Yong Fu. Gloria and Gina, both freshmen, sent me messages apologizing for leaving my home in such a state, but I told both that Yong Fu’s situation was far worse than mine. So, a little mess left for me to straighten up was no big deal. 没问题 meiwenti — It doesn’t matter.

So, that was how my second Christmas in China went. I hope yours (assuming you celebrate it) was as fun, exciting and fulfilling. If not, there’s always next year.

Students in (actually, not in) hot water
Dec. 29, 2009
JISHOU, HUNAN — On Sunday we had a small student uprising, over hot water, or the lack of it.

The student dorms here do not have water heaters providing hot water from the taps, so students usually use hot water pots or immersion heaters to get some hot water for drinking, washing, etc. Otherwise, they have to go downstairs to hot water dispensers outside the dorms, drop in some coins and fill their oversized Thermos jugs. Considering some dorms have eight floors, you can see why having an electric teapot might be desirable.

Unfortunately, the wiring in some dorms is perhaps a little dodgy and at least 30 years old (I bet), so early Sunday morning there was an electrical fire in one of the women’s dorms. No big deal — no one was hurt and there was little damage — but the university responded with a typically quick bureaucratic response.

Ban all electric heaters. No teapots. No immersion coils. No hotplates. Nada.

This announcement came later that evening, and the students did not take to it kindly. In fact, they took to the campus, yelling, blowing whistles, banging metal lids together, around 11 pm, demanding the uni reverse its unilateral ban on hot water appliances. They kept it up well past 1 am Monday.

Someone even posted a video on one of China’s video-sharing sites, showing the announcements, a queue of girls getting hot water from the dispensers, and a gaggle of vacuum bottles waiting to be filled, while the audio played the students’ Sunday night protests.

As protest causes go, it may seem pretty minor, particularly if your own university in the States also had similar bans. (I know Princeton did. Who knows how old some of the wiring in the dorms from the 1920s are?) But we are in Hunan, where few buildings have central heating, and none of our student dorms have heat pumps to keep things warm in the winter or cool in the summer. So, you can imagine why students living in unheated dormitories when the overnight temperatures outside are just barely above freezing would like to heat up some water once in a while.

I am not sure if the problem has been resolved. Either the students have accepted the decision with typical Asian resignation, or the university has relented. If I hear loud mobs down campus tonight again, I’ll have my answer.

Go to Chapter 3. –>

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