Category Archives: Uncategorized

Happy White Christmas

There was white on white for Christmas in Tianjin this year. Yeah, new-fallen snow on the ground and new-floating toxic soup in the sky. And it’s almost the end of the month and I’ve written nothing so far this month for friends and family.

The Community Band

Chinese Christmas TreesThis was my second white Christmas in Tianjin – the second in 8 years, not counting some years where drips and drabs of snowfall didn’t actually fall on Christmas itself, but persisted in cool corners, gathering soot.

I traveled out Christmas morning to see and hear a Dutch acquaintance of mine, someone who has more courage than me, someone who has integrated herself so thoroughly into the local society that she actually joined the community band in her neighborhood. Yes, once again the Dutch people’s worldwide influence belies their modest numbers.

The pictures show the dusting of snow in her neighborhood on that morning.

Sweeping upThere’s something universal about a community band. It really doesn’t matter what style they play or what patched-together instrumentation they feature.  The charm of a community band is not simply the music – which is usually played competently. It’s the community – both the orchestral community and the larger community from which it’s drawn. And for this performance, the audience swelled in numbers until it almost attained the size of the orchestra itself!  Yes, things don’t get much sweeter than that.

The Community BandOh, and the omnipresent personalities that compose every such ensemble were again evident here!

The classic conductor, youthful in demeanor, though maybe not in years, seemed to physically reel in melodies out of that thick orchestral sea. And then we noted the standard-issue saxophone soloist, coursing with overconfidence through Kenny G hits, wading his way along arrhythmic routes which the G’ster himself would not dare to navigate. Then there was the shoal of bottom feeders, who would be clarinetists in America, but erhu-istas in China. Such individuals avoid standing out. They swim with the current, happy for the experience, and happy to remain concealed amongst their fellows.

And of course, one or two giants always do stand out,  breaching free from the gravitational confines of mediocrity, into the rarefied atmosphere of excellence! Such potential! But in the end, they always succumb to the gentle, but inevitable, pull that again enfolds them into the medium from which they had emerged.

Hark the Herald Angels Sing
Chinese Sheet Music – “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing”

Oh, and don’t forget the M.C., floating serenely on a middle-aged spread —  elegance without the encumbrance of eloquence.

Yes, all of these requisite roles presented themselves before a community audience, mainly composed of children pushed within range of the director, to be lectured at, and initiated in, the arcane traditions into which we all were about to embark.

All of this constitutes the universals of the community band. Indeed, the photo above at left depicts the director herself delivering that cultural lecture before commencing the performance.  And you, too, can witness a bit of this cultural magnificence for yourself.

I uploaded one ensemble piece, entitled “The Flower Blossoms in the Full Moon,” to YouTube, where it can be viewed here:

I also uploaded a flute and sheng duet, entitled “Wu Bang Zi,” here:

And finally, there’s a sheng solo piece, for those who may not be familiar with that instrument:

Library Main Staircase
The grand staircase in the New Campus’s main library

Interestingly, as soon as these pieces were uploaded, they were automatically analyzed and tagged by YouTube’s computers. Youtube then informed me of the pieces’ titles, and they let me know that two of them were copyrighted works, but that the copyright owner didn’t mind (for now) if I hosted them on YouTube. Perhaps, though, if you want to view them, you should look sooner than later.

In addition to this fabulous music, I also celebrated Christmas on the preceding weekend with a group of friends in their office downtown.  So all in all, it was celebratory holiday for me this year.

Hazardous Air in Tianjin
Hazardous Air in Tianjin

I guess the only other personal news this time is the surprising level of pollution that I’ve seen here lately. Indeed, over the past year or two, the atmosphere had seemed to be improving. The power plant that supplies our winter radiator heat stopped spouting exhaust from its chimney, and instead spouted from a series of shorter ones.  Probably, as I have heard, it’s one of many that have been converted to natural gas in order to reduce atmospheric particulates.  Earlier this year, when I saw lower pollution levels (down to only 13 on one occasion), I had been quite encouraged.

A cozy study nook in the old campus's main library.
A cozy study nook in the old campus’s main library.

However, the last couple weeks have been as polluted as any that I’ve seen here ever. The level reached 524 at one point, with local readings even higher.  It’s been most discouraging. Public schools (except for colleges) closed for three days.  Even more automobiles were pulled off the road, which meant I lost the opportunity to ride in a car back from the new campus last week.

Automobiles don’t represent the bulk of the problem, though. One of my British friends sarcastically commented, “Yeah let’s get those coal-fired cars off the road!”

However, one of my students got me a new mask, which I’ve been wearing regularly. At this point, though, it’s no longer white, so I may need to find another one.  And two weeks from now, I can again breath the air of California, clean thanks to the EPA.

The Kidnapped Statue!

The Empty Beiyang MonumentIt was shocking. The Beiyang Monument on the new campus seemed destined to shelter that regal figure of the school’s first director forever. But two weeks ago, I visited the site, and the statue had vanished, as can be seen in the picture at left.

As with so many things in China, I’ll probably never find out exactly what happened to it.  Perhaps they wanted to shelter it from the cold. It couldn’t have shattered, could it?

If you enlarge the picture, you can also see the secret of the monument’s strange dome, and why it never seems quite in focus when you look at it. This view was taken from the Colosseum building, gazing straight out towards the main gate, with its sacred corridor of history, and its water cascade (emptied for the winter).

Heading for Lunch
Heading for Lunch

If you look in the opposite direction from that spot, you behold the view at right. The path from the entrance continues unobstructed over the double-tracked bridge, crossing the eastern end of the interior moat, and continuing west, and perforating the main library, which is the giant grey block in the distance. It then continues, still in a straight line, by the student recreation center, where it ends at the swollen western end of the moat, which has been christened “Youth Lake,” the same name as one of the ponds on the old campus. Such grandeur! Again, enlarge the picture to see more details.

I snapped that photo at the beginning of lunchtime. The students streaming towards distant cafeterias are dwarfed by the impressive structures. The scene reminds me ever so much of that famous 800-year-old painting of passersby on a river during the Qingming festival.

Autumn FishingThe old campus boasts nothing so glorious as that scene. But in exchange, I present the simple autumn fisherman (though the picture was only taken about ten days ago). His presence on that old-campus pond, indeed on every pond bigger than a bathtub, remains as timeless as the Qingming festival itself.

Office HoursAnd I held my very first office hours in the new campus two weeks ago!  In fact, as far as I know, it’s the first time that the office there has been used by anyone.

Eight students came by that day to make up classes that they had missed.   I’m not able to do that for the students here at the old campus. The promised office in the old campus never materialized. Well, often promises don’t materialize around here.

Mainly, it’s a result of shifting leadership. That’s what happened to the promised subway stop at the new campus, for example. A city leader was promoted to another job, outside the city, and his successor felt no obligation to honor those commitments.  So we’re all on the bus now.

Marco Coffee
The cafe at the new campus where I have lunch.

I realized that, at a minimum of forty minutes in each direction, my weekly Wednesday commute to the new campus is the longest commute that I’ve ever endured.

On Wednesday mornings, I take a bus chartered by the university. It’s a bit of a hassle to get listed as a passenger (reservations must be made in the previous month), but it’s comfortable. Unfortunately, there’s no such bus at a reasonable time available for the return journey.  So for the return trip, I catch the ordinary city bus, with its customary suspenseful jockeying for seating space.

It really makes me appreciate my class sections here on the old campus – with the shortest commute that I’ve ever had, more comfortable rooms, and the convenient access to just about everything that I need (except office space) throughout the day.

My Unique Souvenir

The famous SignatureI’ll probably be  the “only person on my block” in California to have the autograph of the President of Tianjin University, Mr. Li Jiajun himself.  I obtained it thanks to my friend and former (really former – the guy’s over thirty now) student Andy Yu.

Andy’s father has had a long and influential presence on this campus, and he even named one of the lakes. He’s an amateur photographer who showed interest in my work. He took some of my pictures of the University and donated them to the campus archive, hence the letter of acceptance (with a serial number) signed by President Li himself.  It’s all too cool.

Please Release Me

The dome from a more usual viewpoint
The dome from a more customary viewpoint

Yes, Engelbert Humperdinck would fit right in, here in China.

I have an Australian friend here who works a desk job at the publicity department on campus.   Everything for her was new, exciting and a big adventure until the adventure got a little out of hand, because the department moved to the new campus. The forty minute commute (80 minutes round trip) every day took a lot of the joy out of the job.

So when she heard of an opening in the newly-formed school of pharmacy, located back at the old campus and paying a significantly higher salary, she went for it. And to make a long story short, she succeeded, but not before negotiating.

Another Winter Hoopoe

Because, contrary to what Johnny Paycheck might say, you can’t simply leave a job in China. You’ve got to get a letter of release, and without that letter, other companies, let alone other departments in the same university, aren’t going to hire you.  And therein lies the rub that almost upset her job-changing plans.  The old department simply didn’t want to let her go, even after the period of her contract had ended.

How does such a situation get resolved?

Either it doesn’t, and you’re just stuck working in your old job, or you find someone of greater influence to intervene.  That’s what happened in this case.

I also heard the Tianjin University Choir this month.
I also heard the Tianjin University Choir this month.

And last night I had dinner with a Chinese friend who described the exact same situation happening between her positions at an old company and a new one. Without the intervention of an influential person, she, too, would never have been released from her old job, unless she simply didn’t want to work at all.  It really makes one appreciate the role of connections in this society.

In fact, I’ve been told that if I stop working for Tianjin University, I’d better get a letter of release from them, as it might even affect my ability to get visas to visit China in the future. On the other hand, I’m also told that this university is usually reasonable about granting such letters.  So I’m not too worried about it.

Such a basic fact of life here! I’d heard hints of such things, but never had it spelled out clearly until now, after living and working here for almost eight years. Yeah, China, where all information is dispensed on a strictly need-to-know basis.

Well, I’m going to stop writing this letter, at least, and finally send it off. Happy New Year, everybody. <sigh> It’s already too late to even wish you a happy Boxing Day.


Addendum – Feeling the Cold

After sending that message earlier this week, a remarkable thing happened, so I wanted to include it in this, my rather public version of a journal.

No, it wasn’t the first snowfall of the season, though I’ll include a couple of pictures of that, too. And it wasn’t an end to my continuing health problems, which remain a constant source of annoyance. On the other hand, my feet continue to improve.

This is the view from my front door this morning.

Snow Parking LotYes, that’s the very same plaza / parking lot where I took that picture of a hoopoe not long ago for my previous message.  And next up is almost the exact spot where that bird took a dust bath, now occupied by some anonymous young couple reveling in the sparkling whiteness.

Couple in a Parking LotI tried to take a taxi this morning, but taxis were not to be found. In fact, traffic was not to be found. Drivers here don’t do well in snow. They tend to spin out. No taxis plied the byways of my local streets.  I walked all the way out to the main road (Anshan Xi Dao), and it wasn’t much better. There weren’t any unoccupied taxis on the main road, either. In fact, there was hardly any traffic at all. Here’s a shot for anyone who has never seen this street in the daytime with so few vehicles.

Anshan Xi Dao without traffic

Finally I gave up waiting on taxis and trudged home, which is why I have time to write this. But snow is not actually what I wanted to write about.  This is what I wanted to write about:

2015-11-18 Class section 157 panorama croppedYes, those are my lovely students at the new campus happily practicing their English last Wednesday.  And the next photo shows a corresponding group at the old campus the next day, on Thursday:

2015-11-19 Section 163 Panorama

Those of us who teach in China are well aware of the students’ reluctance to speak out during class.  I once calculated that the magic number was somewhere around 7. Fewer than that, and the students would speak readily. More than that, and everybody just clams up.

Many teachers resort to awarding points towards the students’ grades just to get anybody to say anything.  I’ve never been comfortable with that. I never even gave out gold stars when I taught elementary school in California.  So if the demands of the lesson require a student to talk, and nobody will, then I just point to one (usually randomly). True volunteers usually step forward, though, given enough time to think.

Anyway, my goal for the students is that they learn enough linguistic theory, and practice it, so that they can go on to perfect their English after the limited class hours that they have spent with me.  Or, for that matter, they might someday want to master a new and different language altogether.

Simply explaining this theory doesn’t work, at least not for the majority of the students. The concepts are too foreign compared to what they’re used to, particularly as most of them study engineering, and not biological sciences.  The only way to reach them is to build up the concepts gradually and somewhat indirectly, encouraging their own thinking processes to assemble those ideas into a cohesive theory.

Well, I seem to have reached a milestone this week.  I actually teach English somewhat differently every year, as my knowledge of language learning and of the students both deepen.  Every year it seems that my understandings and skills for teaching Chinese students “have arrived,” and every next year I discover that there’s actually a whole lot more to be understood.

Meanwhile, I search out more effective ways to build up these linguistic concepts gradually and somewhat indirectly.  My latest additions to this buildup, by the way, are “movie talk” and the “face identification area” of the brain.

Well, this week, in my last class on Thursday, as my exhaustion from the two long days threatened to topple me completely, I stopped talking at the end of another short presentation segment and again asked for student response. I usually get about three responses, either through volunteers or by invitations.

A young woman volunteered and stood up (another common habit in Chinese schools). She began recounting the key concepts of the lesson, speaking slowly (because of the foreign language) and measuring every word. But she didn’t stop. She plodded along, and every time I was about to say thank you and give another student a chance to contribute, she dredged up another concept, connecting it to the previous week’s ideas.   Where was she headed with this?

And then she put it all together, exactly the way that I was planning to, and then she extended the ideas just as I would be using them in the following weeks, but with her own spin on them, thinking as she continued speaking, even as her ideas provoked me to rethink a couple of things.

And this expression was all coming out in public, in the middle of class.  It was remarkable. It was marvelous. Students had spoken thoughtfully in class before, but not like that — not taking the risk and putting together new concepts in public.  Students had put ideas together before, but not so extensively, and again, not in public.

And I realized that this is what I had been working towards for several years now.  And I wondered if this young woman was simply a fluke. Well, finally she sat down. I told the class that this was why I love teaching.  And I was about to continue with the lesson, when I realized that only one student had given response at that point in the lesson. Was there another volunteer? There was. And she began an exposition much like her classmate’s!! So maybe it wasn’t a fluke.  Maybe it’s a milestone. But what might I have done to encourage it at this time?

Anyway, that’s my addendum. And I’ll attach another snow picture – that anonymous young couple playing with some (feral?) puppies in that very same spot once occupied by a hoopoe.

Couple and Dogs


Feeling the Heat in Tianjin

One of my friends asked yesterday if I’d been sending out email messages, and I realized it’s been a month and a half since the last one.  Well, I’m still here.  Please don’t forget me!  I think of things to write all the time, but then I can’t remember if I already wrote it last time or not.

Hoopoe outside my doorWhile I’m thinking, and for my bird-watching friends, here’s a snapshot of one of my favorite birds – a hoopoe.  It’s sitting by my front door, in a space that was designed as a little plaza, but now is a little parking lot, due to the rapid proliferation or automobiles..

Hoopoes mainly eat bugs that live underground.  I thought that this one must be quite frustrated trying to get through the bricks, but then I discovered that food was not its purpose.  A misaligned and sunken brick had accumulated quite a bit of dust, so this bird happily took a dust bath.

When they fly, hoopoes seem like giant butterflies, marvelous to behold. They are not related to woodpeckers, but to hornbills, and less closely, to kingfishers.

Packing Heat

The heat arrived right on time, on November 15.  That’s the hot-water heat that’s pumped in from a plant a few blocks away. All the cities north of the Yangtze River have this winter heat, supplied as a public utility.  Prices vary depending on the heating subcontractor, but my small apartment (about 800 square feet) is assessed at about $300 US for the period from November 15 to March 15.

The water comes through gigantic insulated pipes that mainly run overground, along walls and buildings.  Instead of simply starting it full blast on the 15th, they ramped it up gradually, beginning a couple days earlier.  In fact, compared to the “old days” a few years ago, when they just let it rip full blast for four months, a more nuanced approach has taken hold these days, and the amount of heat varies with the weather and the time of day.

The upshot is that it never seems quite as warm as it did five years ago. But, it probably does save a lot of heating costs, as well as pollution from the power plant. I’m just glad it’s finally on. It’s been pretty cold. Highs will be in the 40’s this week.

And since the heat comes through the walls, the bathroom mirror no longer fogs from taking a shower, and those pajamas that had been hung out to dry on the balcony, and were still damp after five days, could be brought inside to finally  dry off completely.

Nanjing Road on November 16
Nanjing Road on November 16

Yeah, pollution seems better overall than a couple years ago, but we still have our smog-choked days.  I took the above panorama from the office of Korean Airlines in the International Building on Nanjing Lu. I was there to buy a ticket to SFO for January 10. I expect to not tarry long in California, though, but to head up to Portland for a while.

The panorama shows one of the better days, though smog is still evident. Longtime Tianjin residents will recognize the continuing proliferation of tall buildings in the center of the picture, which is the central shopping district at Binjiang Dao (though large malls continue to sprout up in other areas). Also, at the left edge, one can spot the Tianjin TV tower in the distance.

A Tale of Two Campuses

I continue to teach all day on Wednesday at the new campus, and all day Thursday at the old campus.  Now seven weeks into the semester (the half-way point), classes are finally getting more organized.

The end of the line by my apartment
The end of the line by my apartment

Transportation Wednesday mornings continues to be a concern. This picture, taken on a Wednesday before 6:30 am, shows the end of the line, a short walk from my apartment, where the line’s buses are all parked overnight. This line opened just a couple months ago precisely to ferry people to the new campus and back.

And every morning, we all try to  guess which bus will be the express bus (forty minutes) and which will be the slow bus (an hour and forty minutes). All the buses are marked the same, so we are all spread out, speculating. Then, a driver approaches one of the buses, and immediately a line forms and we board. The cost for the express is the equivalent of about 80 cents U.S.

Unfortunately, most of the buses are parked with their rear-positioned engines right next to the apartments on the left. And it can take a few minutes to warm them up on cold mornings.

So on several occasions, angry NIMBY residents, who are mostly grannies and grampies, have expressed their displeasure by blocking the buses with their bodies, leading to a scramble to find rides for the normal ridership.  Since the oldsters usually wait until 7 am to start these activities, it hasn’t affected my 6:30 am commute – yet.  Meanwhile, it’s nice to know that the Chinese tradition of fed-up citizens blocking heavy vehicles with their bodies is alive and well.

Manual Labor

The express bus heads out Weijin Lu for two or three miles before turning onto an expressway.  At that intersection, every morning, hundreds of people stand huddled against the cold.

Day-labor workers I don’t know who they are, nor what sort of work they seek. I only know that occasionally a van pulls up and they all gather around it. Most are men, though many are women.  I only know two things: We usually pass by too quickly to get a good picture. And I’m glad I don’t have to live like that.

New Campus Entrance
Our busload enters the new campus by an  extended gauntlet of major events.

We arrive at the new campus shortly after seven, stride down the entrance path, and take an electric tram to our classroom.  Last week we learned (by talking to the driver) that these trams park inside the entrance, but they can be dispatched elsewhere merely by calling a phone number and telling them where you are.  How convenient. Now we won’t have to walk so far back to the entrance after work (1 kilometer).

And by the way, we can compare the new campus main entrance to the old one, in a picture taken at about the same time.

Main Gate in town
The main gate for fifty years

Note the floral display celebrated the university’s 120th anniversary just inside the gate. And also note how much shorter the hike in is, and the constant stream of people coming in and out because there’s actually some place outside the campus worth going to.

When I arrive at my classroom on the new campus, then my own labor begins. Since I’m not the only one using that room, the tables and chairs are spread out haphazardly and often backwards every Wednesday morning.

I spend about twenty to twenty five minutes lugging the oversized and oddly-shaped tables into some semblance of order, parking about a third of the chairs onto the back wall and out of the way.  Here’s “before”

2015-11-11 Room 301 Panorama 3



And here’s after:

2015-11-11 Room 301 Panorama 5



Luckily, students in the classes that take place in my absence follow the time-honored rule of students in China and pew sitters everywhere – move as far away from the pulpit as possible. That leaves me room in the front to start placing tables.

Oh, and here’s what it looks like when it’s full of students:

2015-11-11 Room 301 Panorama with students




Grand Vistas

IMG_0824 Dining Hall Number 3
A dining hall in off-peak minutes at the new campus

For lunch, the new campus features several student dining halls. Here’s one of them. This shot was taken after the daily lunch rush.

I find the food to be pretty inexpensive, though I have heard of students complaining that it’s more expensive than at the old campus.

The people that work in these dining halls are pleasant to a fault. I have heard that many of them are people whose homes were displaced by the university moving in, and that they were offered jobs such as these in partial compensation for the loss of their property.

As in many things here, it’s hard to say how accurate that story is. However, it seems reasonable if only because the workers are almost unbearably pleasant and helpful.  After all, countryside people throughout China are well known for their hospitable and kind natures.  So that fits.

I can’t say I’ve anything to complain about at the old campus dining halls, though. And the old campus has advantages that the new one lacks — alternatives.

Fried rice and noodles
Path-side Fried Rice

Here, for example, are a group of food sellers. The guy on the right with the adroit wok hands has some of the best and cheapest fried rice and fried noodles in Tianjin, and he has a long line of students every meal time to prove it.

His little stand is located next to a simple covered market that has stood here for years. However, it was closed in August and just reopened again a couple weeks ago.

Vendors from inside are outside.
Vendors from inside are outside.

It was closed for renovation. I found out from a young architect friend of mine that buildings in China have rated lifetimes.  Some of them are rated as short as five or ten years. And at the end of that time, they get overhauled or maybe torn down.  It was time for this simple market building to be overhauled, the second time since I’ve been here.  And while the work was going on, the many merchants inside were asked to simply move outside.

Walking down market lane
The path, crowded by merchants

They spread out all along the footpath between the market and where I live. This picture shows the resulting improvised conglomeration.

Luckily the reconstruction was finished just before the cold weather set in.

And I have to say, the results were impressive. The basic structure of the building was not altered, but new stalls were added on the outside, and the footpaths on the inside were widened, so one no longer has to squeeze by people in order to move about.

And the booths on the outside have a new plastic rain cover high overhead so customers won’t have to negotiate a field of puddles when it rains.

There was lots of new paint. Everything looked well scrubbed and much neater than it had after the previous reconstruction, about five years ago.

Market Entrance

This shot shows the entrance.  The merchants’ display area was reduced in order to make the paths wider, but they also added some stands that made the horizontal displays more vertical.

So it was quite well thought out.  And to top it all off, one of our favorite and friendliest fruit sellers, who had been selling for a couple years on the street side, now has an indoor location.

Fruit-sellig ladyAnd this picture shows her (and her mother?) in their new indoor setup.

So people here have lots of choices, convenient and plentiful. On the new campus, though, there are few alternatives to speak of.

So for the first twenty minutes of lunch time after class, the dining halls are jammed pack with lines ten deep as everybody tries to get fed all at once. In fact, for this and other reasons, I’ve taken to brown bagging it and eating in my classroom, where I can watch videos and spread out my legs.

And when the dining halls close between meals, the only food sources there are a few small markets with selections of ramen and other (basically) snack foods.  One hopes that this situation will improve with time, but it’s not likely that a market like ours will be built anytime soon.

Monumental Considerations.

New LibraryI’ll close with a couple pair of comparison shots.

First up is the main library on the new campus, a building of truly monumental proportions. It was generously donated to the university by a grateful alumnus, and it’s named after him.

As I’ve mentioned in a previous letter, it isn’t actually as impossibly huge as it appears, because most of the inner space is a huge atrium. So it’s really more like an impossibly long building bent into a rectangle.  I’ve only been inside briefly, long enough to find out that most of the books are on the top (third and fourth) floors. I’ve been told, however, that there are lots of comfortable study rooms for the students, as well as a coffee shop.

But its outward appearance, as with all the surrounding buildings, and the sacred path of pilgrimage at the entrance pictured above, is meant to create an almost religious grandiosity. And it is impressive.  And the library is one of the few buildings down there without a red-brick facade.

Main Library at the old campusMeanwhile, the main library at the old campus has study rooms, but probably not as comfortable, and its interior is much more crowded. But it seems to stand like a tea house in a park, intimate with its surroundings.  And the entrance that you see in the picture is merely the inviting gate to extensive floors spreading out in three directions behind it. It looks much smaller, but I wonder if it really holds so much less.

And then we come to the monument of monuments – the symbol of Tianjin University. It was set up on the centennial of the school’s founding, back in 1995.  Here at the old campus, it dominates a huge paved square, and is almost always surrounded by activity, day and night.

Fruit contestHere is a shot from last weekend. Every year, fruits are given out to the students on this date as a kind of bonus just for studying diligently and being all-around nice people (which they invariably are). And at the square, a blue tent full of fruit was set up next to the ever-watchful monument.  I mean, where else would it be set up? Every activity that takes place in that square is set up right next to the monument.  It’s like an old friend, or a parental symbol. You just want to be near it.

No wonder, then, that they turned this part of the fruit distribution into a little sideshow game – throw the hoop and claim a fruit!  And these contestants were far from the only people wandering or skating or biking around this monument on that day, or entering it to show their kids the school song, emblazoned on one of the inner legs.

And I actually once tutored the daughter of the man who built it (as part of a summer program with ERRC), so having met the designer and enjoyed dinner in his home,  I may feel even more favorable to it than most.

Colosseum PanoramaWell, the new campus has a monument too.  And it must be better because it has five sides instead of four. And it even has a dome. It stands vigil, almost alone in the midst of a circular building, reminiscent of the Roman Colosseum, but with staid, implacable windows rather than a boisterous crowd. This building appears in its entirety in the picture of the entranceway of history above.

Its pristine grandeur will not be disturbed by silly fruit games, since it’s surrounded by a patchwork of grass and loose white stone. And further out, the pavement is rough, with stones angled in all directions, which sparkle when reflecting some distant lights that hit it after dark. And it really is dark there after dark. You can bike on the pavement stones or walk on them, but I think skateboards may not work.

And instead of a spacious interior that invites people in, the new campus’s monument is filled with the titanic figure of the school’s first director. And it seems unlikely that his regal splendor will be disturbed by night-time line dancers, like you’d find near the old campus’s monument.

Well, that’s all for now. My health problems continue, though they’re more annoying than debilitating at this point.  This does seem, more and more, like my last academic year at this university, which has been my Chinese home for eighteen years.  It’s going to be very hard to leave it.

Happy National Day

Holiday Greetings from Tianjin!

China mapNational Day was October 1, and we’re still on holiday until Thursday. I’ve used the opportunity to get outside and take some pictures, and now I have time to compose them into a letter. And a reminder – clicking on the pictures will give you an enlarged version.

Class Started

Many have asked about the new campus, the gulag, or as one of my friends in Oregon put it, the “thought adjustment facility.”  Yes, class started there on September 30. However, the next day, October 1, started the week-long holiday for National Day, so classes are on hiatus until October 8.  And on October 9, I’ll have spent exactly a month in town and only actually worked two days.  What a rough life. On the other hand, there will be no more holidays, and no more breaks, until the third week of January. Since we’re starting so late, we’re finishing late, as well.

And why start so late? Because, as expected, they’re having trouble getting the new campus prepared. The Internet is still spotty, and the mobile phone service cuts in and out, and even the water supply isn’t always dependable.  However, all the students were moved out there, anyway.  Unlike at the old campus, there is no housing for regular staff.  The promised housing for foreign staff is not going to be finished until at least December.  None of the foreign staff that I know is unhappy about the delay.

And, yes, they did have the big opening ceremonies on the 120th anniversary of Tianjin University, the day after national day on October 2.  Nobody I know attended them, partly because it sounded like too big a hassle, and partly because these sorts of ceremonies are really intended mainly for the leadership and a few journalists, anyway. I did have the opportunity to go. But I would not have known anybody else there. They took place at the campus’s main entrance, which apparently had only been finished the night before. Or maybe it’s only provisionally finished.

Blocks of Bricks - library on left
Blocks of Bricks – library on left

Meanwhile, my Australian friend Jeanette, who works in the publicity department on the new campus, found herself, with no warning whatsoever, with a microphone in her hand and asked to Interview Ernesto Zedillo, one of the visiting dignitaries, whom many will remember as the former president of Mexico.  Such lack of preparation time is normal around here, where all job demands come at the last minute, often after waiting all day with nothing to do.

Thus, she wasn’t familiar with the ex-president’s current activities (I looked it up, though – he now teaches at Yale and sits on the boards of various international corporations), so she had no idea how to even address him!  But through skillful use of diplomatic language, she managed to pull off the feat of not actually addressing him at all. It turns out that he’s quite a nice guy. No surprise, really.

The Main Library
The Main Library

Her interview took place in the main library, a building so gigantic that it’s hard to wrap one’s mind around it, let alone one’s camera lens.   As one can see in the picture, it’s not actually as huge as it first appears, because most of its “footprint” is a spacious, roofless interior courtyard.  The building itself, then, is shaped like a hollow square, and though the actual floor space is still generous, it’s not exactly the humongous structure that it seems to be when viewed from the street.

Remarkably, even though it’s the same rectangular shape as all the other buildings, it doesn’t have a faux-brick facade like them.  Apparently, that’s because it’s meant to act as a landmark, the one unique building in the center of campus.  Well, it’s certainly big enough for that.

The library dwarfs the building where I teach.
The library dwarfs building 44 where I teach.

I found out that the faux-brick facade is has been named the official facade for Tianjin University.  That’s fine with me, because I like it. It reminds me of my brick-laying grandfather, among other things.  Unfortunately most students really don’t like it, or so students have told me.  Well, what the students think is not important.

I found out that the architects of the new campus were mainly professors at our university.  This surprised me, because I thought that professors here would be capable of more inspired designs. However, they were under pressure from leadership to make the buildings look as big and grand as possible.  That’s why the library, like one of those disappointing chocolate Easter Bunnies, is mostly hollow space inside.  The architects had to assign their building-materials budget to buying just the basics in bulk, leaving few resources for innovations.

Well, the leaders got what they wanted. Grandiose vistas full of the largest, but simplest buildings possible, wasting a great amount of space, and lengthening the time one needs to walk anywhere. It’s like a warehouse district for giants.  My building, for example, is exactly three-quarters of a mile from the bus stop. There are some shuttles, and some rent-a-bikes, but it’s all still being organized, so we’ve never had a convenient opportunity so far to take one.

And though my friend Eileen will remind me that she walked a lot further than that to high school, (and mostly through driving Castro Valley snow, I believe),  I will still insist that my walk here works out to be much further in “Oldsters miles.”

Of course, leaders don’t generally walk at the new campus, nor have to catch a shuttle.  Luckily, by my apartment in town, the end of the bus line is only a couple hundred yards away. So at least the walk is convenient on this end.  And in the meantime, if the air is good, the exercise will improve my strength and health.  And my strength and health are, in fact, improving.

Ah, the bus.  It’s a city bus.  There is a university bus, but it’s too expensive and the schedule rather inconvenient, so nobody has considered taking it.

Anyway, the express city bus costs under $1 US, while the local-stop route is about half that. When I took the 6:30 am express, we arrived at the new campus in 35 minutes.  The trip is exactly 25 kilometers (15.6 miles).  Unfortunately, the trip back was longer due to traffic: an hour and forty minutes. I think that works out to an average speed of 9.4 miles per hour (15 km per hour).  Traffic is heavy because of all the cars, but also because most nights there are crashes.

We were packed like sardines onto the bus that night.  My three colleagues and I had to stand the whole way in searing hot-house humidity (many windows on the bus didn’t open)  Only one young man gave up his seat, and that was for his girlfriend.  I kept thinking “I’m retired. I really don’t have to be doing this.”  One advantage of the crowd was that it was impossible to fall over.

I’m hoping the crowd on the bus simply resulted from the date – the night of a major holiday.  And so, bored students, like bored sailors everywhere, were jumping at the chance to put into port and spend a wild weekend on shore leave, trying to forget their otherwise bleak existence out on the big briny. So on normal days, maybe I’ll find a seat on the night bus.  The suspense is not killing me.

"Give One, Get One" activity
“Give One, Get One” activity

My classes at the new campus, as per normal, went well. To this day, no matter what the rest of my life is doing, I’m always happy and light hearted when teaching.  It’s amazing, really.  It’s better than tonic.

Anyway, this picture shows some students on that first day of class doing a language-development activity that many will know:  “Give One, Get One.”  Yeah, good times.

Interestingly, I couldn’t find the surveillance camera in my classroom. Other classrooms have one.  I’ve seen them elsewhere in the building.  Probably, they just haven’t gotten around to installing it yet.  In fact, one day last month, we had to travel out to the new campus to get our identity-cards readjusted (their electronic innards didn’t work), and that service was located in a security room.

The cards are important because teachers need them to turn on the projectors in their rooms. Gone are the days (still here at the old campus) where you have to get the projector key from a guard at the door.  And yes, for a moment, we got to watch The Watchers.

Cameras to watch classroomsThey had a wall of TV screens, each of them prying into a different classroom – sometimes the view came from the front of the room and sometimes from the foot.  The resolution on the pictures was amazing. Had it been any better, I might have been able to check the accuracy of the notes that students were taking.  The Watchers also had their own screens at their desks with additional classrooms displayed.

When you combine all the classroom cameras with the omnipresent street-side cameras, you pretty much end up with a scene that Big Brother George would immediately recognize.   It makes wonder, in fact, about the dorms.  And all this on a campus so far from anywhere, that few thieves would be able to find it, let alone haul anything significant away.

Actually, The Watchers were, as we used to say in high school, bored out of their gourds.  One of them struggled mightily, though mainly failing, to maintain consciousness.  I think they were happy when we showed up with five identity cards to adjust. It took them an hour to do it, and they were 80% successful – only one card still wouldn’t work. That’s a solid B- in my book!

By the time classes actually started, the one faulty card had somehow been fixed. Unfortunately, one of the others (not mine) then stopped working for that day. Yeah, good times.

The cards also function as meal tickets. And yes, that means that the meal tickets at the old campus won’t work at the new one and vice versa.  One has to “charge” them with money to buy lunch.  Unfortunately, this can’t be done at the dining halls themselves. You have to walk half-way across campus to the only place where such transactions can be carried out. I did. And now I have about 25 meals worth on my card, more than enough for myself, so when you come visit me, I can take you to lunch. What a pain, though. I used up most of my lunch hour just walking over there.

To add insult to injury, the Chinese teachers have a subsidized lunch – often they pay nothing. That program is not available to us foreigners, though. Well, at the end of the day,  it’s not a matter of much money, so it’s only the symbolism that’s annoying.

Out on the Town

Entrance to Chang Hong
Entrance to Chang Hong Park

Last weekend I took advantage of the bike that Lonnie left me. It’s so much easier to ride than my old one that I’ve taken it all over town. Yesterday I rode out to my friends the Boogaards out in Hua Yuan – 4.6 miles each way, and it seemed like nothing.  The Boogaards, by the way, will be moving across town soon.

Anyway, one point of interest that I cycled to was Chang Hong Ecological Park, located just a couple miles from my apartment.  Chang Hong means “Long Rainbow.”  It’s like a miniature version of the water park south of here.

Boat Rentals
Boat Rentals

It’s really a nice little getaway from the surrounding city. I entered the park at the rear entrance, which is located at the end of a quaint little shopping street full of specialty gift shops and restaurants.  And there’s lots to do! Gazebos and corridors for sitting and talking. Basketball courts.  A plaza for kite flying. Extensive paths for walking among the greenery. Crafts for the younger set, as well as slow-speed carnival rides like bumper cars, also for the younger set.

Changhong Park Painting Activity
Painting plaster heads (sold in the background)

The park also contains extensive waterways. One can rent a paddle boat, or even fish.

Fish indeed! One of the fundamental laws of Chinese existence is that any body of water larger than a bathtub will attract fishermen.  And maybe even the bathtub.

In the fishing picture below, one can see some actual fachwerk (Half-timbered) houses.  Well, the visible timbers are actually just a facade, but still, they look nice. And they must be hugely expensive, occupied by rich tenants, and yet, when I got closer, I didn’t see any of the omnipresent bars that grace most windows in town, including mine at my apartment.

ChangHong Park Fishermen

The West Train Station

I also, for the first time in many years, toured the West Train Station.  The panorama below shows  how it appeared the last time I had seen it in 2009.

090127 West Station Panorama 2 (Custom) I found almost the same spot and made an updated panorama this weekend.  Here’s what it looks like today:

1015-10-03 Tianjin West Train Station Panorama 3 cropped (Custom)The builders were nice enough to preserve the old station, even though they apparently haven’t figured out what to do with it yet. It’s all fenced up and locked down. Perhaps it will make a nice museum someday.  According to my maps, they haven’t moved it at all.

West Station Main Entrance
West Station Main Entrance

Meanwhile, that gray object to its left is the new West Station. It doesn’t look so big in the panorama, but here’s a shot of just the main entrance to give a better idea of its bulk.  Like some other buildings I can think of, its massive scale is meant to impress.  This building has some style, though.

In fact, I had taken that early 2009 panorama precisely because some of my students back then had given me a tour of the city planning museum.  There was a special exhibit of the plans and models that various architects had submitted to compete for the new station’s design job. I remember seeing the model of this design, as well as several others. My students correctly predicted that this design would win. So later that month I cycled over to take a “before” picture.

Cubist Floor patterns at the West Station. The slopes enclose escalators to the platforms.

Well, actually, I am late to taking the “after” picture. They finished the construction a couple years ago. They do work fast here. And now, the same kind of “fast trains” that fly all over the country, and that stop at the main train station, also stop here. However, the West Station trains generally go to different destinations than those from the Main Train Station.  The two stations, by the way, are connected through the city metro – it’s about a fifteen minute trip between them.

I was also surprised that one can gain access to the main departure waiting room without a ticket, just like at the Beijing station. That access is not allowed at Tianjin’s main station, another indication of how much more things are controlled here than in other parts of China, I guess.

The Time Tunnel Effect
The Time Tunnel Effect

I was also amazed at how empty the waiting room was. Again, both the Beijing and Tianjin main station have been crowded every time I’ve gone there.  But at the West Station, I could take an almost perfect “time tunnel” shot of the main room.  The structures to the sides are the entrances to the platforms.  It’s a pretty standard arrangement for new train stations in China.

I didn’t notice any fast train to Beijing on the departure list, but if there is one, I’m thinking it might be a whole lot more pleasant to wait for it here than at the main station.

Catching a few winks in the West Station.

I mean, look at the people in this shot. They don’t seem to be concerned about anything in the world.  Actually, they don’t seem to be even conscious. And still, there’s a KFC readily available!

And in addition to the two floors of grandiosity above ground, there’s a huge chamber underground with access to parking and to the city metro. All in all, it’s quite convenient, and not as confusing  to navigate as Tianjin’s main station.

Boats on the Grand CanalAnd there’s more!  Through the back windows, I caught a glance of an older way of life – a boating way of life – along the Grand Canal, the waterway that was built centuries ago to connect Beijing with cities along the Yangtze River.  I’ll acknowledge, though, that all the satellite dishes do tend to spoil the antique effect.

Yes, the West Station seems to have it all.

And here is a picture of that same canal, taken about a hundred years ago:

Bei He Canal, 1911

Mid-Autumn Festival

The mid-autumn festival was celebrated on September 27th and 28th this year, and for those who are counting, yes, that means there were only two possible work days last week, and I drew one of them.

Autumn Moon 20013The point of the festival is to go outside and enjoy the sight of the moon.  It’s nice, really, because when I go observe the moon on that night, it always brings to mind autumn moons from previous years.   Here, for example, is a picture from two years ago, showing building 25 on campus, where I used to have an office.  And no, I did not Photoshop the moon into that shot. That’s what it actually looked like.  And yes, building 25 is not shaped like a warehouse.

Autumn Moon 2015This year’s moon view was a bit different. I had just returned to Tianjin from Beijing with a group of friends which included Jeanette’s family. I had succeeded in getting everyone lost in the Tianjin Train station, so we gave up finding the exit and took the subway to a station near my home here.

When we came out of the subway, there was excitement!  Two of those cursed electric bikes had run into each other, and in the deflection, had scraped a passing car. Tempers flared, and entertainment for the whole street ensued! Anyway, that’s why there’s a crowd in the middle of the street in the picture. The distant moon is orange, kind of like the eclipsed moon in America earlier that afternoon, but in our case, the orange color resulted from sand and pollution in the air.

Han Tao's Moon CakeThe other point of the mid-autumn festival is to eat “moon cakes,” little sweet cakes that generally only appear this time of year. (So don’t buy any in January – they’re not likely to be fresh) This year, my friend and former student Han Tao gave me a homemade one to try, which naturally turned out to be even more delicious than the kind you buy in the stores.  Yes, it was an eventful festival this year.

I’ll finish this letter with a picture of the coolest tree I’ve seen in a long time. It was installed a couple weeks ago in back of the old Administration building here on the old campus, the one with character.  What an interesting trunk structure!











The New Campus

Greetings from the old campus,

Back in Town

Main LIbrary
Summer foliage and the entrance to the Main Library

I’m continuing to rest and recover. Early this morning, for the first time in months, I actually felt like getting dressed. Of course, yesterday, I had spent the entire day indoors in pajamas, de-cluttering my apartment, so no wonder.  A few more days of de-cluttering, and I’ll have an attractive home again.

Having dressed, I wandered about this old campus. And I was amazed at how much stronger I was feeling than when I left in June.  I guess the daily (sometimes twice-daily) naps are beginning to pay off.

Ducks and Geese at Aiwan Pond.
Ducks and Geese at Aiwan Pond.

This was an official move-in day for the university, so I saw lots of students pulling suitcases, many topped by pillows.  In some cases, the students should have gone to the new campus instead of the old one, but they didn’t know where the new one was located, so they just came here to be re-directed.

And big news!! After an absence of several years, the ducks and geese have returned to Aiwan Pond!!  I can’t help but wonder if the old man is back, the guy who studied Japanese, the one who tended them before. The picture shows the shelter that somebody built to house them. They even put up little fences on each side of it to keep human intruders at bay.

Hazy Lake
Haze enshrouds the Lake of Commitments

The morning was bright, and the air had returned to its normal polluted haziness after some pretty clear days in previous weeks.

Actually, there had been a lot of clear days this month, due to the celebration of the victory over Japan in  world war II.  In America, the day is called VJ day, to distinguish it from VE day, but nobody here cares about VE, so “V day” it is.

The administration building
Grandma shows the kid what campus is like.

Anyway, all the nearby factories had shut down for the ceremony, and a magnificent photo-op was staged in the capital – a military parade of impressive proportions. The general public was excluded from attending this parade, of course.  That’s true of all such events, as far as I know. On the other hand, it could be viewed on television. Those who are curious can click here to see it.

The camera, after the chorus’s intro, and before the parade itself, emphasizes who actually did attend.  This focus on the identities of important attendees is common, not only for government events, but also for business and academic events as well.

The coming semester

Meanwhile, I had received my schedule for the coming semester. One full day teaching from 8:30 to 5:00 on Wednesdays at the new campus, followed by one full day teaching on Thursdays at the new campus. Four sections at each location, for a total of eight sections in all.  I have a feeling that by Thursday night I’ll be ready for an early bedtime.

A workman hauling materials
A recycler cycling the back alleys

Why were the days scheduled right next to each other like that, with no chance to recover one’s strength in between? Almost certainly because it just never entered the minds of the scheduling officials that human factors might affect their scheduling decisions.  Such considerations are not common here.

And as for my former teaching colleagues in California, whose working hours are triple what mine are (or more),  and who are wondering what I have to complain about, hey,  I’m retired. Gimme a break! And by the way, my same lesson plan should serve for all eight sections each week.

Senior Citizen on roller-blades

One salutary effect of the new schedule, though, is that for once I might be able to observe my Chinese colleagues teaching their English classes on Mondays and Tuesdays.  For the last several years everybody’s classes were scheduled on the same two days, and since I’ve always taught more hours than they do, (Howzzat, former California colleagues??) I could rarely visit any of their classes.  At last, my curiosity may be assuaged.

Last time, I wrote about the new campus. This time, I actually went there. Most classes have not yet begun, and, indeed, my first classes are not scheduled to begin until September 30.   So several of us ventured down there to check the place out.

At last – the new campus

About a week ago, city buses began running between the two campuses.  There had been rumors of such a thing, and friends had sent me announcements, sometimes with conflicting details.  Only when the buses were actually parked, ready to depart, and we could question the drivers face to face,  could we actually be sure.  The good news is that the terminal stop on this end is located at the entrance to our housing development.  It couldn’t be more convenient.

Terminal bus stop
The waiting buses and the posted schedule (at right)

The regular bus stops 26 times, winding its way through town.  It takes about an hour and a half to reach the new campus at the end of the line. However, in even better news, there are also express buses that stop only four times and make the trip in 45 minutes, at least in minimal traffic.  At US $0.80 for the faster trip, it’s twice as expensive, but the extra forty cents (US) is worth it, in my view.  We all piled into the express bus.

The new Campus
Walking into the new campus

Forty-five minutes later, we de-bussed at the southeast entrance, which is not the main entrance.   We began the long trudge into the middle of campus.

The old campus is about half university and half residences.  The new campus is about the same size as the old one, but with hardly any residences.  So there’s lots of room to spread out labs, dorms, and classrooms. And spread they did!   The good news is that the trees are not planted in the middle of the sidewalks, like they usually are in town, so the long hikes everywhere are unimpeded.

“Bauhaus with Bricks”

Before they built the new campus, the site was an old warehouse district.  In light of recent events, who knows what the soil might contain at this point? Anyway, the architects who designed the new campus seem to have taken the site’s history into account, because almost all the buildings we saw that day had that typical Kleenex-box warehouse shape, albeit with a brick facade.

Building 44
Building 44 – with an entrance in the middle.

Here, for example is building 44, where my classes will be held. From this angle, it looks like two buildings, but it’s only one.   Inspiring?  Perhaps someday, when the trees grow large enough to obscure its rectangular  outline.  You’d think that such a huge building would have enough classrooms to hold half the city.  However, there’s a lot of wasted open space inside.

The castle "keep"
The Hollow Heart of Building 44

Here’s a view of the hollow innards of building 44.  It reminds me, more than anything else, of a prison exercise yard, particularly with the surveillance cameras, and the hallways along the walls suitable for guard patrols.  Or maybe it’s just an empty Kleenex box.

In any case, there’s more volume devoted to open space than to classrooms.   This inefficient use of space means longer journeys for getting around anywhere in the building (except for on the ground floor, of course).

In fact, I was told that the school library, which squats next door, is constructed in the same hollow manner. The library was the only major building I saw that day without a brick facade – it’s the grey one in the picture above behind building 44.  If such hollow buildings are typical, then it’s a tremendous waste of space, spreading out the buildings more than is necessary, entailing ever-longer walking times. On the other hand, all the hiking should keep us all in better physical shape.

Note the color of the camouflage
Sophomores participating in their two-week mandatory military training

And speaking of exercise, we happened upon some sophomores undergoing their required military training.   The picture shows the ends of rows that extended for a third of a kilometer down the lane. At last, there’s enough space for all of them to participate in the same drills at the same time and location.  Indeed, the many wide, straight avenues on campus reminded me ever so much of the one used for military parades in Beijing.

The administration building

We wanted to enter a classroom and try out a projector. As I’ve mentioned many times before, higher education in China lives and dies on PowerPoint.  How would it work here?

To run the projector (we had been told) required a special card, like a hotel’s key-card, to slide into a slot on the console.  No such cards had yet been issued to any of us.  How could we try out a projector, then? There had to be an answer, since presumably teachers might misplace such cards from time to time.

We spent two and a half hours talking to everyone from guards to officials, in person and on the phone,  in order to figure this out.  Everyone had a different story about what we would need.

At one point, our journey led us to the “1895 Building,” one of the administration buildings. Inside the lobby, we discovered rows of clerks around the room’s periphery, who represented various administrative departments.  One row of clerks represented the “International Cooperation Office,” the people who oversee the foreigners at the university.

Clerks in the 1895 Building
Probing the Clerks for Answers

Over the years, of course, we have worked closely with the people in the International Cooperation Office, in recent years with a highly-competent and caring administrator named “Echo.”

Now, it would appear, we would have to work through this row of gate-keeping clerks, all of whom to me were strangers. As for the real administrators, they were locked away somewhere else. And even if the room appeared to be a lobby, there were no stairs, elevators or hallways to provide access to any other part of the building.

Well, no clerk in any row seemed to know the answers. We might have given up at that point, had we not run into an acquaintance, a professor from the English department, who had come into the “lobby” at that time by chance. HE knew the answer. He knew how to get the projector working when we had no card.

So we had wasted two and a half hours of our time, as well as the time of various well- intentioned but misinformed guards, clerks, and officials.  It would merely be a mildly interesting anecdote if not for the fact that this is the way things here work all the time.  Official sources of information are spotty at best, but if you happen to know the right person, then you can find out what’s actually going on.  This, then, is one aspect of the culture that tends to wear on me over time.

Well, at least that “lobby” had a nice shiny-clean floor.  And, to be clear, all of the clerks, guards, and officials that we had spoken to that day were positive and helpful to a fault. It’s the system that makes life difficult, not the many individuals who struggle within it. You can’t share information that you don’t have, or share good information when you don’t know that yours is faulty.

The Cafeteria

In no time, we’d tried out a classroom projector, noted its various strengths and weaknesses, and visited all of our actual classrooms.  Before heading home, we decided to celebrate by eating lunch at a student cafeteria.  Naturally, the meal cards from the old campus would not work here.  But as a stop-gap measure, they were selling little paper tickets – one per yuan – with which to purchase food.

Cafeteria #4
Lights shine off the cafeteria floor

The first thing I did upon entering the building was to slip and almost fall.  It was the slickest shiny-clean floor I had ever seen in an eatery of any kind.  Of course, that little spot of invisible mystery liquid was not supposed to be there. But what about when it rains?  I can imagine the domino effect as hundreds of students, all released from classes at the same time, and with a much shorter lunch hour than before, rush into the building.

As for the food itself, it was serviceable. Well, it’s a student cafeteria, isn’t it? With that in mind, it was quite good. And it was cheap. I paid about US $1 for two-and-a-half helpings.  I just need to remember to wear shoes with rubber soles for the next time I go there.

The Soulless Campus

Like most information in China, most of what I had heard about the new campus was spotty and contradictory.  Anybody who wants real information better go find out in person, or know the right people. One thing had always stuck with me, though.  A colleague’s student had visited last spring, and described it to her as “The place has no soul.”  I had always wondered what he’d meant by that.  But, as I stared out a window from one Big Box to another, I think I began to understand his meaning.

Compare this picture to any of the six pictures of the old campus at the top of this message:

The Campus without a Soul – even the dorms look like that.










Summer in the States

It’s another summer message from California, particularly intended for those on my list who live outside North America.

California's State Flower, the Golden Poppy
California’s State Flower, the Golden Poppy

I’ve rested a lot during my summer in the States. In fact, I’ve spent a large portion of the time in bed. My lungs have enjoyed the fresh air outside of China.  I’ve been getting doctors to check out my health.  My friend Carl even gave me rides to the health clinic. Finally, during this last week, I’m beginning to feel like a human again.  Just in time to return to China next week.  I think I’m ready, but then one never knows until one actually arrives.

As Time Goes By

A number of factors have indicated that, as all good things must come to an end, so must my time in China. In fact, this will likely be my last year teaching full time in China.  Actually,  I might not make it past the semester break in January, depending on whether health and stress permit. It’s hard to believe it’s been seven years already, though it’s a little easier to believe it when I visit Schafer Park School, my stomping ground for twenty-five years, and I no longer know most of the people I see there.

The Cunninghams invade the Castro Valley Community Center
The Cunninghams invade the Castro Valley Community Center

Another rather mind-bending reminder of time’s passage came at a family reunion, not my own family’s, but the Cunningham family’s, that I was nevertheless privileged to attend.  One family member, who had been an infant the last time I’d seen him, was now not only grown up, but he bore the same middle-aged paunch as myself, and a head of gray hair.  Has it really been so long?  Apparently.


So I need to start thinking about what comes next. My main interest remains cognitive science, so hopefully I’ll be able to somehow work within that field, particularly with its application to instruction.    We’ll see.  I spent a large part of the summer in Portland, Oregon, rewriting the book that I wrote last summer. It’s about English Language study in China. It has lessons for Americans as well.

Powell's Espresso Book Machine
Powell’s Espresso Book Machine

I hadn’t planned to write a book last summer, but I was visiting Portland then, too, and when I got to 130 pages, I figured I should at least print it out. And Powell’s Books in Portland has an instant-publishing machine called the “Espresso Book Machine.” Just feed it a pdf for content, and another pdf for the cover, and presto! Your book materializes, right on the spot.  Just like in Star Trek!! And it actually looks like a real book, like you might find for sale on Powell’s nearby bookshelves! How cool is that?

Cover snap - English study with Chinese Characteristics
The Book Cover

Of course, book content is another question altogether.

So this summer’s rewrite is 150 pages, probably about 140 pages more than anybody will ever actually read, but a fun challenge nonetheless.  Well, at least it’s more logically ordered and understandable than the the stream-of-consciousness model produced last year. Yeah, J. D. Salinger I’m not.

And yes, those are my very own photogenic students on the cover – they are not professional models (though most of my students could be).

China News

Perhaps you’ve heard of the recent explosions at Tianjin’s port. In case you haven’t, here are a some YouTube links.  Basically there were two extremely large explosions, and a few small after-fires followed.

This is a compendium of several different mobile-phone shots of the same two explosions.

Note that the apartment blocks that you can see in the vids are mostly on the order of thirty stories.

This one shows an American expat returning to his apartment in such a block, located over a mile from the blasts.

And finally,

This one shows an aerial view of the aftermath at the site itself, taken by one of those little quadcopter drones.

So this marks the second time in a year that Tianjin has made the international news, and both times, the news was unhappy. (the previous time was a Tianjin University professor arrested for industrial espionage in California)

Tianjin Binhai Port, taken last March. The explosions occurred at the far left of the frame.
Tianjin Binhai Port, taken last March. The explosions occurred at the far left of the frame just under the far engine.

Luckily these explosions took place in an industrial working district, far from the city center, next to the ocean port, Binhai Port, and at 11:30 p.m., when most of the workers were far away tucked into bed. Obviously, had they taken place in the main part of the city, or during daytime, there would have been a lot more than the couple hundred dead and the several hundred injured that in fact resulted.

Luckily for me, the explosion took place 31.6 miles away (as the crow flies) from my apartment. Of course, the school is moving to a new site. But that’s still 23.4 miles away from the harbor. And the wind, in both cases, usually blows any fumes in the other direction, away out to sea.

One of my students used to work down there, and another old friend has a mother living in the area. Hopefully they are okay.

The New Campus

By the way, in case anybody’s curious about the new and the old campuses – first here’s a link on Google maps to the old campus. Where you see a cluster of lakes – that’s us. And here’s a link to the new campus.  It has the shape of an arrowhead, outlined by a moat around the whole site.  And then, city canals wrap around most of the moat.  It’s a double-strength water barrier. There’s no need for building normal walls around the new campus. Students won’t be going anywhere.  It’s beyond the range of the city’s buses, and certainly I’ve never seen anybody swim in Tianjin’s canals.

You’ll also notice a circle of lakes and canals in the center of the new campus, crossed by various bridges. This means that if you walk any distance across campus, you’ll have to take a bridge or two. This further means that the bridges are foot-and-bicycle-traffic bottlenecks.  One of the basic tendencies in China is to create such bottlenecks and barriers everywhere.  They make the place feel even more crowded than it actually is, and probably helps the government use population size to justify everything it does differently than the rest of the world.

To the lower right of our new campus you can also see the new site for Nankai University, our neighbor at the old campus. It’s also surrounded by a moats, lakes, and canals.  I guess the two universities are not meant to continue their current chummy relationship.

As the crow flies, these new campuses are located eleven miles from the old sites. But roads are longer and traffic is heavy, so think 45 minutes by car.

The campus isn’t really ready.  The new buildings have not been certified for use by the government inspectors.  Some have not even been finished.  But we’re moving anyway.  It’s like “Here I come, ready or not,” but not as much fun as that children’s game. Why the rush? Partly it’s because that’s how things are done. Hurry up and wait, and then hurry up some more. But the rush is also driven by greed, greed for carving real estate profits out of the old campus. Well, my hope is that the government inspectors do their jobs honestly and well.  I’d prefer no closer-to-home catastrophes.


The Wild West Fest
Picnic at the Wild West Fest

I did spend time visiting my sister and my mother in Portland, Oregon. Actually, it was quite serene – days full of lounging around, writing that book, and helping them out with chores now and then.  I have to say that I really enjoyed it, and I think that my improving health is due to their contributions.

And I did get out a little bit, even visiting some old friends from China who now reside in the Portland area.

Traditional Blacksmith
Traditional Blacksmith

I thought that I’d escape the California drought in Portland,  a city that’s normally so wet and dreary that they sell city landscape coloring books for kids with only two crayons – grey and brown. But drought conditions prevailed there, too. It never really rained once while I was there.  All the grass dried out, as can be seen in these pictures. In fact, it was the hottest summer for Portland in recorded history, and it’s not over yet. For that matter, I don’t remember a hotter summer back in Castro Valley, either.

The Balloon Animal, but what kind is it?
The Balloon Animal, but what kind is it?

My sister and her staff put on a “Wild West Fest” at the community center which she directs.  They had petting horses and sack races. They had a traditional blacksmith demonstrating his anvil technique, as well as a clown tying up balloon animals.

There was face painting, too. And, as is traditional in America, food booths sold huge amounts of food. All in all it was well attended, and the weather was not too hot that day.

Bernie pontificates from the TV screen.
Bernie pontificates from the TV screen.

I also attended a political rally in Portland, along with my sister and brother-in-law.  It’s my first one in decades.  In this case, it was for US presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.  So many people turned out that they had to move to a larger venue that holds 19,000.

Even then, about 8,000 were not able to fit inside. Unfortunately, we found ourselves among the latter.   Somehow, they were able to simulcast the speech to various restaurants in the area, so there we all were, standing outside of one of them, watching through the window and listening through the loudspeakers. It was crazy, but celebratory.

The Long Drive

Klamath River Rest Stop
Klamath River Rest Stop

I drove up and down highway 5 between Portland and the Bay Area, taking my friend Tim’s blue Honda, which mostly survived the ordeal. I needed two days to get up there, but only 11 hours to drive back, due to improving health.

It was a fun drive. I had time to stop at some of my favorite “rest stops.” The picture shows one near the California-Oregon border. The air that day was hazy, as can be seen in the picture. It’s not industrial pollution, but smoke from the many wildfires burning in the surrounding mountains.

A “rest stop” mainly consists of lawn, picnic tables, bathrooms, water fountains and huge parking lots. It’s all available without charge. Some of them in Oregon also serve free coffee. Others have snack vending machines.

Lunch at the rest stop
Lunch at the rest stop

So I could sit at a picnic table and eat the lunch that my mother had prepared for me.

It was great.

On the way, I passed Lake Shasta, one of the largest reservoirs in California.  I’ll insert a shot of it below. To be fair, the water level is rarely allowed to reach the line of trees along the rim.

But I’ve never seen it so low before.  To get an idea of the scale, the small white spot near the middle of the frame is actually a Three-story house boat.

Lake Shasta
Lake Shasta

In the background at right lurks Mt. Lassen, which I normally think of as snow-capped, but not this summer.

Back in the Bay Area

Alameda County Art
Alameda County Art

I did get out a little bit in the Bay Area, too. I attended the Alameda County Fair with my friend Jerry and his family.  A county fair has no known equivalent in China.  They’re basically a showcase for local arts, crafts, and livestock, mixed with carnival rides.  The picture at right, for example, shows the art exhibits.

Many county fairs host a “destruction derby,” a truly bizarre, but typical, piece of Americana.

The Destruction Derby
The Destruction Derby

Three or four old cars take to a muddy field and ram each other, like a high-powered bumper-car game.  The last car still moving wins the prize.  It’s actually not as violent as you might think, since the strategy generally involves warping the other cars’ bumpers into the tires so that the wheels can’t turn. Still, it’s always a crowd pleaser.

Claremont Diner
Claremont Diner

I also got to eat at one of my favorite traditional American diners – the Claremont Diner in Oakland, along with my friend Kate. The shot, taken from my “booth,” highlights the train track that encircles the room. Unfortunately, the train was not running that day.  And the meal? Hamburger and Fries – the traditional diner fare.

Lake Chabot

San Francisco and the Bay, seen from Castro Valley, twenty miles away.
San Francisco and the Bay, seen from Castro Valley, twenty miles away.

I’ll close with a few pictures of Lake Chabot, one of Castro Valley’s nicest features, starting with this shot of San Francisco, twenty miles distant.

Another highlight in these shots are the white pelicans. These birds are native to Southern California, but rarely occur so far north.  This group has spent the entire summer at Lake Chabot – they are no fly-by-nights.  In fact, this summer, white pelicans have been seen throughout the Bay Area.  Some naturalists suspect that their presence may be connected with global warming. So what about China’s birds?  Yes, in Tianjin this year I had also seen birds that should not have come so far north, according to my field guide.

Anyway, here are the rest of the shots. Next time I write, it should be from China.

The bench on Fairmont Ridge - Lake Chabot in the background.
The bench on Fairmont Ridge – Lake Chabot in the background.
Flying White Pelican
Swimming Pelicans
Swimming White Pelicans
Red-winged Blackbirds
Red-winged Blackbirds
Snowy Egret
Castro Valley panorama from Fairmont Ridge
Castro Valley panorama from Fairmont Ridge








Tianjin in the eyes of the foreigner

2015-06-20 Hai He Panorama (Custom)I took this panorama last month along the Hai He, the main river in Tianjin. The steps on the right lead up to the main train station in town. The opposite bank contains Jinwan plaza, a financial center. The cigar-shaped building towards the right used to be the tallest building in town. It’s also a financial center. And it’s only about five years old.

Since my first visit in 1998, the river banks have been cleaned and developed beyond any reasonable expectation at the time. In fact, I have no pictures of the riverbanks from back then, since there was nothing beautiful to remember.

The Competition

For three years now, my contact in the International Cooperation Office has submitted some of my photos to a city-wide contest among foreigners. And for the third year in a row, one of my photos actually won a prize – third prize in this case.

foreigners enjoying the sites, crowded by photographers
foreigners enjoying the sites, crowded by photographers

My prize winner was taken not far from this spot on the Hai He River, actually.  The occasion was the opening ceremony for the contest itself, which was rendered more attractive by the the promise of a tour on a bus and a guided visit to the city’s planning museum. The photo at left show a bunch of typical foreigners enjoying the view that day from the open-topped tour bus.

It had been four years since my previous such excursion. I had forgotten that these trips were mainly intended to harvest pictures of foreigners enjoying the splendor of Tianjin. Or actually, the foreigners could only try to enjoy it because all they could see were photographers and big lenses in all directions.  Here are three examples, in addition to the bus photo above:

The JVC manThe pansonic man




So, somewhat as a joke, I snapped the picture below at right.  Yes, it really is a lens bigger than your head.

And no, he never lowered his lens.
And no, he never lowered his lens.

And somewhat equally as a joke, I submitted it to the contest along with some others.

I never dreamed that they might actually single it out for a prize. I keep wondering – did they understand it in the spirit in which I took it, or did they imagine that the man behind the lens in the picture isn’t a Chinese photographer at all, but an enthralled foreign tourist in Tianjin drinking in its sumptuous vistas?

Well, whatever. A prize is a prize.

A Boatload of Dragons

The omnipresent fisherman.
The omnipresent fisherman.

Getting back to the Hai He — three of us had ventured out last month in search of dragon boat races.  They form part of a traditional observance held every June called Duanwu.   Duanwu is actually celebrated in many variations across eastern Asia, including Vietnam and Korea.

In China’s case, the boats commemorate the suicide of the diplomat and poet Qu Yuan in 288 B.C.  He had despaired of the fact that nobody – but nobody — would ever listen to his sage advice on governance and international relations.  At least, nobody who mattered would listen.  Anyway, upon his suicide, boaters searched, but failed to find his body, alive or dead.  They even scattered balls of rice throughout the river area to distract fish from eating him. Still, no trace of him was found. The dragon boats, then, commemorate the boats used in the search that day.

We weren’t sure exactly where Tianjin’s dragon boats would be, having gotten conflicting information from various sources. We started at the train station and walked south along the river, finding no crowds at all along the way. In fact, if not for fishermen, who, in China, can be found on any body of water larger than a bath tub, there would have been hardly anybody along the piers.

International bridge and cotton shipments
International bridge and cotton shipments

The photo above again shows Jinwan Square, but also notice the little bridge across the river. It’s the oldest bridge in Tianjin, built at a time when both banks of the river were occupied by foreign powers (Italy, France, Japan and England at this spot), so it was known as the International Bridge. I got the picture at left from a collection on the Internet. It was taken about 1940.

The French Concession
The French Concession

The picture at right, also taken about 1940, shows mainly the French concession, and you can spot the International Bridge in the upper left-hand corner.  It’s amazing, really, what huge swatches of land were ceded to foreign powers during the many wars against the Qing empire.

In the meantime, the territory has long since been reclaimed by China, and the bridge has been rechristened “Liberation Bridge.”

The Quest for Dragons continued

Nope. No dragons here.
Nope. No dragons here.

But where were the dragon boats? We continued our walk down the half-deserted riverfront.

I found it surprising that the dragon boat festival, which is such an old tradition in China, was proving so hard to find.  Yeah, I guess this is what happens after decades of repudiation of ancient customs. Now that people want to get them back, it’s proving hard to re-insert them into people’s senses of priority.  And yeah, most events in China tend to be catch-as-catch can, but still . . . . where were the dragons?

A local Zongzi Dealer
A local Zongzi Dealer

On the other hand, one part of Duanwu has returned with a vengeance, and that’s because it’s something you eat – Zongzi.  These little rice balls commemorate similar rice balls used to distract the fish during the search for Qu Yuan’s body, over 2000 years ago.

Zongzi constitute yet one more variation of the glob-of-rice-with-who-knows-what-in-the-middle that is so common throughout East Asia. In this case, it’s all wrapped in leaves and steamed.  And since you don’t actually eat the leaves, they can be almost anything you like.

Gathering leavesHere, for example, one can see two women, earlier in the season last year, gathering leaves from the newly-sprouting reeds at the edge of Aiwan Lake on campus.

Perhaps the young sprouts have leaves that at their tenderest stage, and thus they are easier to wrap around dollops of mystery-filled rice.

The fish planting

Anyway, continuing our journey south along the river that day, we encountered a small group of people standing around crates full of catfish.

Fish liberatorsThey were led in chants by what seemed to be a Buddhist priest. Unfortunately, we couldn’t understand the message that they were giving. The main audience seemed to be the fish, and they didn’t seem to be poetry lovers, since they struggled mightily to exit the crowded crates.

CatfishI guess these people must have been the anti-zongzi environmentalists, who took the side of the fish who lost out on a human meal during the search for Qu Yuan back then.  Certainly, there was not a grain of rice to be seen.

Or, since the fish looked like little dragons, perhaps it was an endorsement of dragons themselves over dragon boats.

We didn’t stick around to witness the fish’s liberation into the river, though I did notice, later that day, that many of them had fatal run-ins with those ubiquitous fishermen.  However, they were too numerous for even such dedicated hooksters to harvest them all.

There be dragons

Well, we finally did find dragon boats, parked on the river outside the Astor Hotel.

opening cermony.In fact, we made it in time for the opening ceremony.  All the high mucky-mucks, dressed almost identically in white shirts, but no ties, since it was “casual Saturday,” gathered in formation to lend authenticity to the proceedings.  They stood in a line like defensive soldiers, in front of the almost-obligatory decorative-blue background.  With the sun in their eyes, not many were able to smile, but that’s okay, since it wasn’t really necessary to be welcoming — as always in such ceremonies, it was enough to just stand there.

The parasol bridgeAnd there turned out to be a small crowd of spectators!  Here are some of them lined up on a bridge next to the Astor Hotel. You’ll note the many umbrellas parasols. Chinese people don’t seem to like the bright sun, particularly the women, who don’t want their face darkened by a tan.

Dragon boats fly past the Astor Hotel
Dragon boats fly past the Astor Hotel

And then they were off!! But it wasn’t clear exactly when the start occurred, nor did all the boats even speed off. It was like the piglet races at the county fair, though. The start was confusing, but eventually they did all head up the river in more-or-less the same direction.

Light-hearted rowersWe decided that this must not be the actual race, but perhaps a pre-competition parade. Maybe the races themselves would take place later in the afternoon, or even the next day.

And certainly, many of the rowing teams seemed to be having far too light-hearted a time for a real race.

Lion DancersAnd we even saw lion dancers and real dragons!! In California, these creatures seem to sprout from every Asian neighborhood, as I’ve heard they do in southern China, as well. But they’re pretty rare in Tianjin.

The lion dancers extended their necks fully to salute the rowers as they passed by.

Not one, but two dragons graced the festivities.
Not one, but two dragons graced the festivities.

The dragons sailed along the side of the river like they usually do.

I swear, it was finally starting to feel like I was actually in China.

Well, this note is already longer than I had intended, so I’ll stop at this point.

However, twenty-five years ago, when elementary schools were mandated to teach ancient Asian history, but not given any materials to teach it with, I wrote a long book for my students about Chinese history. One of those chapters was about Qu Yuan and his famous poems. I found it, dusted it off, and fixed it a bit, and now attach it here for those wishing more information on they guy. Click on the link to access it: Qu Yuan

June Tunes

Greetings, not from Tianjin, but with Tianjin!

Yeah, I haven’t much felt like writing anything lately. It’s a combination of too much going on in my life, and too much of the same old craziness wearing down on me.  Still, some events have been interesting.   I’m not actually in China at the moment. For that matter, I also let June slip away from me. But I can write as if I were and I hadn’t. Hence the title of this note.

The Big Move

Mechanical Engineering Lab
A metal press in the lab

This picture appeared in my previous note. But it turns out to have even more relevance than ever to Tianjin University’s big move exile to the distant lands of old warehouses and weeds.

Almost no one I know has actually been out to see the new site, mainly because it’s not easy to travel out there. And yet, we’re already headlong in the process of moving. Yeah, moving like lemmings, in joyous ignorance of what we’ll find. But that’s okay. The move’s planners don’t know much more, either.

One of my colleague’s students toured the new site. He told her later that “the place has no soul.”  Another colleague’s student visited there and exclaimed happily that, unlike most pieces of property in China, the campus had no enclosing wall.  I guess she hadn’t  noticed the moat?

A lazy weekend afternoon at the Tianjin University Village 6 square.
A lazy weekend afternoon at the Tianjin University Village 6 square.

Yeah, thousands of people will occupy the new site come fall. 99% of them don’t want to move. But there’s nothing to be done about stopping it. The old site’s real estate is too valuable to waste on students. The land along the main street has already been sold, and the buyers can’t wait to tear down the old dorms and build their new business park. And, to be fair to their evident impatience, I did once see a flyer about the new campus that set a date of 2013 for the opening. So it’s two years behind schedule.

Local coffee and pizza shops, some owned by students.
Local coffee and pizza shops, some owned by students.

As for me for next year, I will most likely  teach one day a week in the new campus, and one day a week in the old campus, for the students who remain.  Of course, nobody can say for sure, as we’re all lemmings in this process. Hey, there’s still two months to go. Plenty of time to sort things out.

How is it, though, that some students will remain in the old campus, despite its value as real estate? Couldn’t a business make more money from the site than a simple school? Well, this point brings me to my new understandings of business’s position in Chinese universities.

Academic departments engage in a friendly competition.
Academic departments engage in a friendly competition.

I’ve mentioned before that an architecture business is attached to our University. Its CEO sits at the same meeting table as all the heads of academic departments. The architecture business, as well as the associated academic architecture department, are not moving to the new campus. After all, clients seeking a design consultation like to meet the staff in town, not in some far-flung gulag. And the staff includes the students in the academic department.  One of my former students, in fact, recently designed a railroad station for the business. So the academic department can’t move out there, either.

As for my own department, Culture and Law, it’s moving. This was a bit of a surprise to me, since our department includes the hallowed school of Marxism. But maybe it just goes to show the real position of Marxism in modern society.

Tai Chi enthusiasts practice on campus
Tai Chi enthusiasts practice on campus

Recently one of my English students had missed quite a few classes.  He had never contacted me (as students generally would) about the reasons for his absences. So I asked his buddy in the class to talk to him. If he wasn’t going to return to class, he should inform me so that I could sign him up for English the following semester. Well, after that he came to class.

He also came to office hours to get caught up on what he had missed. And while he was there, I asked him where he’d been.

Every kid's favorite fountain on a hot day.
Every kid’s favorite fountain on a hot day.

He was spending most of the week, every week, in Tanggu, the port town located about an hour’s journey southeast of here by light rail.   That explained his difficulties in attending class. And while there, he was operating what he called a “distillation column,” which turns crude oil into petroleum, which can later be further refined into various petrochemical products.

The view from my classroom on a fabulous day.
The view from my classroom on a fabulous day.

I tried to imagine what sort of study he could be doing of such an established technology. But no, he assured me that he was doing no study there at all. So why was he out there? Because it was part of a business, loosely associated with Tianjin University through his academic adviser. And was he paid to do this work? Of course not. He’s a student. He simply does what’s asked of him.  Actually he seemed to relish the idea of telling his adviser that some maniac English teacher (me) was so insistent that he attend class that who knows what might happen otherwise. And after that, the student regularly attended class. And he arrived on time.

So, yeah, business is a much more integral part of the university in China than it is here. And if part of the old campus will be developed into a business park, well, that’s simply a small extension to what’s going on there anyway.

The Move Begins

One of my favorite birds, a hoopoe, feasting on worms.
One of my favorite birds, a hoopoe, feasting on worms.

The big move formally began on May 18th.  With great pomp and ceremony, various officials ushered a phalanx, not of staff, but of machines, out to the new campus. Maybe they figured that machines can’t complain or cry, so nothing would spoil the bright dawn of the new campus’s development.

These were not ordinary machines of course, but huge museum pieces that had occupied part of the mechanical engineering lab for at least sixty years.  And I realized that I must have seen some of these machines during my recent tour of that building, a few weeks earlier.  And I wondered if one of them might even have been the machine in the picture at the beginning of this note.  It’s certainly big enough, grand enough.

Traditional musicians entertain the crown in the student activities center.
Traditional musicians entertain the crowd in the student activities center.

Well, the machines didn’t cry or complain. However, when they reached their ultimate dispensation, it was discovered that neither the floor nor the foundation of the building was strong enough to support them!  I don’t know exactly how this failure was discovered, nor how anybody could have let it happen, since no one has exactly been open about the situation. I only know that a mad scramble to install a new foundation and floor ensued.

And I suspect that the Move’s beginning will prove emblematic of the entire process.  It’s not likely to go smoothly, nor are the new facilities likely to be fully ready.  But until it happens, we’re standing between the bear of business and its cub of profit.  It could be a stressful, though highly exciting, position. I wonder sometimes, though, if maybe I’m getting a little old for such excitement. We’ll see about that in September.

The Bridge Park

Well, this whole idea of businesses as part of a university goes against my cultural grain, but that’s just an example of how cultures differ, and not something for me to sit in judgment of.  And when you think about it, besides chopsticks and lion dancers, there’s not much more basic to Chinese culture than entrepreneurship, and the dream of forming one’s own business.  So it only seems fair to provide a concrete example of where this system has functioned well.

Bridge Park nestles in a cloverleaf
Bridge Park nestles in a cloverleaf

And that spectacular example is a public park that opens some breathing room in the midst of densely-populated Tianjin. It appears in the center of this photo taken from space by Google Earth.

The land had long stood idle.  Other than some brief employment as an army shooting range, nobody had ever done anything with it. And that’s because of the high water table. All of Tianjin is sopping wet from rivers flowing in from every direction. That’s why so many canals are needed just to keep the rest of it solid. Indeed there’s yet another canal in the above satellite photo running from top to bottom right along the freeway.

water lilies and a bridge are what Bridge Park is all about.
Water lilies and a bridge are what Bridge Park is all about.

No one had ever built on this plot of land because it flooded all the time. Warding off this water flow would be difficult and expensive. But as a park, it held promise. The assignment was given to a landscape architect business associated with Peking University in Beijing.

The professor and students planned a park that was both beautiful and practical — it could deal with the water through a series of catch basins and a large L-shaped lake, all held in place by dense plantings, some of native plant species, and some of imported ones.  It could guard the neighborhood from floods while providing a peaceful public space.

The local reed species grow between the cement blocks.
The local reed species grow between the cement blocks.

China has a long history of working in harmony with nature, particularly with water, going all the way back to Yu the Great, over 3000 years ago. It’s thrilling to see this sensibility reasserting itself in the modern world.

And it’s wonderful to see Chinese architects doing it, when so often, even today, foreign architects are hired for the most important buildings.

Elevated pathways host joggers, like great bridges.
Elevated pathways host joggers, like great bridges.

The two photos here show the same set of reeds — seen from overhead and seen from across the lake. From across the lake they look like a common reed thicket, such as grows around the edges of most ponds. But the overhead view reveals cement blocks that allow the visitor to freely navigate through them, perhaps on the lookout for frogs and small waterfowl.

Each “hill” is planted with a different kind of flower, and the red elevated pathways form more bridges between them.  They remind me of Mayan temples.

a jogger enjoys the view from the "bridge."
a jogger enjoys the view from the “bridge.”

Actually, red lines are a key motif in everything this architectural group designs. Red lines crop up throughout the park, as well as in their other parks elsewhere.

Well, I think a few more pictures will speak more eloquently than anything I write. So at this point, I’ll simply paste a few in.


Red benches for socializing
Red benches for socializing
Yes, the Chinese do cosplay, too. And what a peaceful place to record it all!
Yes, the Chinese do cosplay, too. And what a peaceful place to record a new costume!
I don't know how they managed to get fall foliage in the spring.
I don’t know how they managed to get fall foliage in the spring.
Exercise machines are available to the public
Exercise machines in the background here are available to the public
The happy soldiers also sport red lines.
The happy soldiers also sport red lines.
Real flesh-and-blood kite fliers also appeared.
Real flesh-and-blood kite fliers also appeared on the day of our visit.
More bridges, more lilies
Entrepreneurs cluster around the main entrance to the park (which is at a street corner).
Sometimes the red lines are the path itself.
Sometimes the red lines are the path itself.
Jeanette and Han Tao pause outside the museum.
Jeanette and Han Tao pause outside the bridge museum, which was closed that day.
The area just inside the main entrance is a traditional hanging-out venue.
The sign announces the pond jumping
A sign announces the pond jumping


Yeah, they didn't even bother to finish translating the final sentence.
Yeah, they didn’t even bother to finish translating the final sentence.

And, yeah, the presence of questionable English is the final mark of Chinese authenticity on this park. I’ll include one typical sign for your reading pleasure.

When I first saw scrambled English like this in China, I was annoyed. But now. . . . Okay, I’m still annoyed. I’m an English teacher, after all!  But I’m also filled with warmth that this beautiful site is an  authentically Chinese development, reflecting both the modern and traditional worlds.

Well, I hope you enjoyed the trip. If you get a chance, drop me a line.

I’ve actually been in town for exactly a week now, and today was the first day that I made it through the entire day without a single nap. And my word count here has passed 2000 so I’m now officially ready to venture out and do things.  I’ll conclude with one final Bridge Park shot – a panorama taken from near the main entrance.

The lake spreads out in a 90 degree angle from the entrance.
The lake spreads out in a 90 degree angle from the entrance on either side of the museum.

Happy May Days from Tianjin


Spring has sprung, and, in typical Tianjin fashion, bounced back back and forth. We went from a week at 40-degree highs (Fahrenheit) to a week of eighty-degree highs to a week of 50-degree highs (with rain).  When I began writing this, it was 62, but two days later it was back to the eighties again, where it still is, having reached a humid 90 yesterday.  Must be summer arriving.

Fortunately, our concrete massif of a building has not had time enough to absorb the heat, so it’s still nice and cool inside.

The Tianjin Water Park
The Tianjin Water Park

Somewhere in the midst of all that meteorological confusion arrived a perfect day. Actually, it was Monday, Star Wars Day (“May the Fourth be with you.”) and the pollution suddenly dropped to reasonable levels.  I had taken some out-of-town friends to our local water park and zoo, so we climbed into a tower and snagged the view seen above.  As I so often say, Tianjin really is a beautiful place, if only the air were cleaner more often.

The Water Park

The Floating Walkway
The Floating Walkway

The “water park” by the way, receives that moniker because “water park” translates its Chinese name, 水上公园. So don’t expect to find a water slide. The park  simply celebrates water, which flows every which way throughout the city.  After all, the name Tianjin itself means “Heavenly Ford,” indicating that, from ancient times, you couldn’t navigate  the region without getting your toes wet.

One cool park feature, which I hadn’t noticed until that day, was a floating walkway that leads strollers through a particularly marshy and reed-infested natural part of the central lake.  Amongst the reeds I found one of the biggest, fattest, wartiest toads I’ve ever seen.

Indeed, the park is a great place to spot wildlife of all kinds, particularly birds.

Wide Squares at the water park
Wide Squares at the water park

When I first started living here, six years ago, the park was not nearly so nice. It was enclosed by a high forbidding iron fence and they charged admission. Everything  inside seemed cheap and dusty.  A couple years later, they had scrubbed and upgraded all the facilities, lowered the fence to a height that even old guys could vault, and let the rest of the city just flow in – admission cost free.  Indeed, there’s a crowd of old guys that, contrary to all the remaining rules, invades the place every morning for a bracing morning dip in the lake.

Most invasions, though, take place on the weekends, when the long corridors and wide squares attract groups of musicians, dancers, chess players, and Tai Chi practitioners.

The Zoo

rhino horn
The rhino horn, available for petting (though nobody did).

The zoo adjoins the water park. And I wish that they could get whomever manages the water park to manage it, too. When so much of the city has made so much progress, it seems stuck back in the old days, a couple decades ago.  It’s still an okay place to see animals, but badly in need of an upgrade.

The cages resemble those seen in the west generations ago. What’s amazing to me is that if you want to reach over to touch, or feed, the giraffes and rhinos, you can. And the same is true for many of the other animals.  Of course, in some ways, it’s cool to be able to come so close. Where else could I get such a lovely giraffe portrait, taken from directly under the creature’s head?

Giraffe Portrait
Giraffe Portrait

In addition to being bad for the animals, it looks to me like lawsuit$ waiting to happen. Of course, legal niceties don’t work quite the same way here, so nobody’s really concerned about that.  On the other hand, there is the vibrant social media, where complaints can mushroom overnight.

And the zoo definitely has potential, if someone were only willing to invest some serious cash into it.  I saw many workers that day working steadily to keep things neat and presentable, but when the facilities are crumbling and outmoded, there’s only so much that they can do.

Dinosaurs by the lake
Dinosaurs by the lake

And the zoo has its own lake, with boats for hire, just like in the water park. And thank goodness they chose to keep their dinosaurs isolated on a little island in the middle.  If only Jurassic Park could have done the same!

But on the other hand, even the pandas that I remember from my previous zoo visit, eight years ago, were missing.  Taking their place was a twin pair of Malayan Sun Bears.

Food Highlight of the Month

Later, the same zoo-visiting friends all gathered at our nearby “Crazy Chen’s” restaurant. The name makes it sound like a chain which might advertise on late night TV, but actually it’s not a chain, but one of the best restaurants in our neighborhood.

Crazy Chen's Chinese Delights.
Crazy Chen’s Chinese Delights.

I don’t really remember what this dish was called, but it was glorious.

The middle of the plate is piled with lamb, chopped and fried, with onions, various red and green peppers and cilantro.

Using chopsticks, you gather it into the little pockets, along with the pre-stuffed lettuce.

I don’t know how traditional this dish may be – certainly everything else on the menu was traditional — but again, it demonstrates one of the many  Chinese delights that Americans will never enjoy at their local Panda Express.

Tianjin University

“Yeah, I really did wear that.”

I like to include the pictures that I present twice a week as the first slide in each lesson’s PowerPoint presentation.

First up, from about a month ago, a young romantic couple cements their relationship with a picture on campus, snapped by a tree-climbing photographer.  It was early spring, and love was in the air. I can just imagine, 20 years from now, the couple’s adolescent kid saying “Dad, did you really wear things like that back then?” or maybe “What were you thinking???”

The Ad Building
Communist-era architecture.

Next up, the back window of the administration building. I had visited there that day to sign up for one more year teaching English.

It was a hard decision, actually.   I’ve had various little health issues for the last couple years, and health care here is not as convenient as it is (fortunately for me) in America.  Yeah, I sure do thank my lucky stars to have had a good union job during my working years.  My health care costs now are so much cheaper than most of my non-teaching friends.

Anyway, various health concerns have continued this semester as well, which I’ll have checked out next month when I return. However! Today, I walked the entire traditional 2.85-mile path around the main campus that my friend Jeanne and I have trodden so many times. And for the first time in a very long time, I never had to stop because of  sudden foot pains. Physical therapists, and simple exercises, really have worked miracles for my feet.

Anyway, the administration building was built back in the early 1950’s, back when true-believers made sure that everything was quality work. It even hosted Mao ZeDong once. They should put up a sign — “Mao spoke here.”

Beiyang Square
Walking up the wall

Next up – a view of Beiyang Square, the center of the campus.  The angle makes it look like a slope, but actually it’s flat. Most of the square is a light-colored textured stone that offers sure-footing. However, the fashionable grey stripes are a polished  stone which, when wet, slides slicker than a day-old banana peel.

How kind of the architect to encourage pedestrians to attend to where  they place their feet!

Beiyang square.
The first fountain of the season.

Here’s a more conventional shot of the square, taken from the same steps on the administration building where Mao once addressed a crowd. The fountain had been turned on for the first time since last fall. Rows of newly-planted annuals added color. When their blossoms fade later in the summer, they’ll be dug out and replaced rows of other annuals.

The campus shuttle stopped just long enough for the shot. I’ve never ridden it, but perhaps I should, just for the experience. I think it costs the equivalent of about twenty-five cents.

The gazebo on the lake
I (heart) Tianjin University

Finally, when I stepped into the gazebo on the lake, I noticed that someone seemed to have dripped something rather durable into a  heart shape on the stone floor. Epoxy?

It seemed very sentimental, with the blocky School of Architecture and the setting sun in the background.

The Big Move

Mechanical Engineering Lab
A metal press in the lab

One of my former students gave me a tour of the mechanical engineering facility, a multistory building full of cool  toys professional equipment. It even has a little track for robot races!  It even has 3D printers!

When most of the campus moves out to the boondocks, these machines will remain, and provide the school with a tidy income. They’ll be rented out to other schools in the area who will flock to this campus for short-term seminars.

Yeah, the move.  It amounts to the biggest change for the university in over sixty years. This summer, most of the campus should move out to an old warehouse district a hour from here by car.  Or will it? Not all the buildings are finished yet, and of those which are finished, not all have been inspected and certified by the city.

And Chinese construction is notorious for getting it just up to an acceptable level, but no further. Indeed, one of the likely post-move challenges will be that of knocking the kinks out of the facilities. As an example, our present shared office never had workable heat for the first five years of its existence.  It made for some pretty cold office hours in Decembers.  

A Rainy Day
The administration building and a tight corner.

This “just enough” quality extends to other areas as well. For example, one of my colleagues is an Australian who teaches business English.  She was assigned an apartment in the building next to ours, a building mostly inhabited by Chinese scholars and some grad students.  Had it been thoroughly cleaned after the previous resident had vacated?  Why should it be? Perhaps the next person to move in wouldn’t care so much about that. Then all that effort would have been wasted.

The original opening date for the new campus was September 2013, and the present opening date is September 2015. But will it actually open this fall? Who knows?

How can people plan in such a situation? And of course, the answer to that question is simple – most people simply don’t make plans, not for this or most other areas of their lives.   As my friend Lonnie says, modern Chinese society is reactive, not proactive.

This reactivate quality may seem odd to Westerners, but actually it’s quite rational. It simply follows from the authoritarian nature of society here.   The people on top will take charge to an extent only found within businesses in the West. Indeed, I remember one of my first jobs – a night watchman at Amfac Corporation’s data center in Brisbane, California.  While sitting at a receptionist’s desk one evening I found a booklet outlining the company policies, not only for how to dress and act at work, but also how to dress and act at all other times.

All authority here has that quality. For example,  the above mentioned Australian colleague, like many teachers (but not me) was assigned a student assistant.  In addition to helping print worksheets and mark tests,  the assistant could also clean up the above-mentioned dirty apartment, as well as run errands and do other domestic chores.  Well, my colleague, shocked, has never asked the assistant to scrub anything.

I remember my ethnic studies courses, eons ago in college. We discussed Asian decision making. The point was that Asians planned through consensus. Everybody gets together and talks out an issue until agreement is reached. It all sounded so wonderfully inclusive.

Well, I don’t know about the rest of Asia, but what I’ve found here is something slightly different. Yes, everybody does get together to air all views.  But then, at some point, whoever actually has authority will make a decision, and everyone else throws out their differences and falls into line. Instant consensus.

And do people really throw out their differences? Well, with this impending exodus of  uncertain date, stress levels are up and morale is down, but it’s usually not aired in public. It’s hidden behind pleasant faces.  People say “Nothing to worry about” when they mean “There’s nothing that anybody can do to affect it, anyway.”

The other day, my colleague’s supervisor came to ask her to postpone classes for a few weeks, because the students were doing final projects.  This request, by the way, was by no means arbitrary. Students in that department generally are scheduled to be working/studying about seventy hours per week on ordinary weeks.   They really did need a break from classes at this point and it was very kind of the authorities to recognize this. My colleague readily agreed, but found out later that the postponement had already been announced and confirmed to the students before she was even asked.  Yes, that’s what consensus is here.

Summing up

Well, such is life.  I hope everything is well with you. Drop me a line if you get a chance.  It seems I’m not writing as frequently as before, though. I hope that I can see many of you this summer in America.  Last time, there wasn’t enough time to see as many as I would have liked.






Happy Easter from Tianjin

It’s April.  It’s 39 degrees and windy for the morning commute. On a bike. Do I put the long underwear back on?  Should I have worn my down jacket? Well, at least it’s not Massachusetts.

Rows of Rentabikes
Rows of rentabikes that nobody rents.

As if that weren’t annoyance enough, this month the email system changes, though not the email address itself. Still, I’m crossing my fingers that contacts don’t get lost. I can at least send out this message on the familiar system before anything . . . . happens.

On the other hand, they recently upgraded and sped up my Internet connection here, at no extra cost, so now I can stream video, just like I can in the states. It makes quite a difference when Skyping my dad. Meanwhile I’ll have to be careful not to use too many full-sized photos in these messages. It’s just too easy to upload them now.

Beneath the fortress, access to our campus from neighboring Nankai University.
Beneath the fortress, access to our campus from neighboring Nankai University.

Well, Happy Easter. And Happy Qing Ming. Yes, the “tomb sweeping” holiday coincided exactly with Easter this year. Please don’t ask how many years until it happens again. I’ve written about Qing Ming before. It’s the day when everybody goes out to the cemetery to sweep away accumulated dust and leaves, and make tombs presentable again.

What’s cooking

outdoor frying riceWhat’s new? Today I traipsed over to the local market for some take-away. I decided to try an outdoor  vendor whom I hadn’t purchased from in a long time — mainly because of the long lines of students in front of his stall.  But today was a holiday, so customers were relatively few.

And , yes, it’s fried rice.  So people really do cook that here. However, the sign announced “Jiangxi style.”  That’s a province way to the south.  The man also prepares fried noodles, more common here in the north.

He throws in vegetables of various kinds, eggs, spices, and stir fries it all in a sleek wok. Then he pops in a premeasured dose of cooked rice, mixes thoroughly, and stir-fries it some more. I have to say, it was delicious and filling. Well, the students always know, don’t they? And I also have to say that it really didn’t taste much like the American equivalent.

Going to the Dogs.

And there, right next to his stall, sat something I never imagined might turn up in our simple market, never in a million centuries. It was a Sharpei puppy, the first I’d ever seen in China, even though the breed itself is Chinese through and through.  Those little guys are rare and expensive.  It was like finding an emerald in a jar of pickles. There he sat, cool as a cucumber. Not a bark. Not a tail wag. But regally alert.

Shar Pei at the marketIf you haven’t seen one of these dogs before, then, yes, that’s the normal skin. And as an adult, he’ll grow into most of it. So, contrary to me, he’ll get less wrinkled with age.  But both of us will sport wrinkles in the end.

The word “sharpei” seems to mean sand-skin, possibly because the coat has a very rough texture. This one had a nose that matched his coat’s sandy color, an even rarer variation.

They were almost exterminated here during the Cultural Revolution, but a Hong Kong businessman spirited out about two hundred of them, which is why they suddenly became known in America at about that time.  They were only recognized by the American Kennel Club in 1991. They are closely related to another ancient Chinese breed, the Chow, which is more frequently spotted in these parts.

Flower Power

Photo Photo PhotoYeah, speaking of the sixties . . . .  Well, speaking of Tianjin University.  Every year at this time, the crabapple festival takes place — not for the crabapples themselves, mind you, but for their flowers.

All weekend, tourists flowed into campus to snap pictures of a long crabapple row. Some of them toted bulky cameras with seriously massive glass attached. Most of them, however, shot with mobile phones — usually pictures of smiling girls, their lovely faces framed by pink and white blossoms.

Crabapple fest.And on Saturday, students of all stripes set up booths or presented performances.  The monument to the school’s founding was surrounded by red-and-blue-roofed tents, like defensive fortifications with entrances  in three locations.

Face painting under the red roofYes, these little booths were not simply spread out on the square willy-nilly.  They were lined up in rows and strapped in with string, channeling all the onlookers into the same narrow paths.

Occasionally, an onlooker broke out of the maze, vaulting over the strings the same way they pop through iron fences or scramble over brick walls elsewhere on campus.

Astronomy clubAt first, I thought that maybe this channeling was simply intended to guarantee traffic flow to the less popular exhibits. But no, it’s simply the mind set here. Of course the booths will have channels!   It’s not a matter for discussion.  It’s just like the lantern-bedecked walking corridors that I wrote about last month.  It turns the whole thing into some sort of Disneyland ride. Yeah, Pirates of the Bohai Sea!

Forever blowing bubbles
Forever blowing bubbles

The main entrance to this little tent community was surmounted by a balloon-bearing arch, making the ride aspect even more festive.  The balloons seemed to be birthing soap bubbles, which struggled to descend through the pea-soup atmosphere to reach the ground.  You can spot them in the enlarged version of the picture at right.

The campus street with the crabapple row was blocked to cars, and all along it stood the exhibitions that required more space.

Opera on the squareOpera performances took place on the plaza behind the administration building. I remembered those red-clad women from last year, when they wore blue.

The same onlookers who would never tune in an opera on television stood enraptured. It reminded me of outdoor Shakespeare plays I had attended back in college at Davis. They had granted me friendly access to the bard.  Perhaps it will work out the same for these young people here and now.

Phone booth time capsuleAnd shades of Dr. Who. It was a red British tardis. Inside, a little camera sat waiting. Those who wished could enter and record themselves. The recordings would be placed in a time capsule, to be unearthed at some future date.

There were too many exhibits to post pictures of them all — the alumni association hawking post cards and other souvenirs, the boards for posting good fortune messages, the  DNA centrifuge exhibit, the Chess and Go players club, as well as craftspeople selling various souvenirs, the folk singers and much, much more.


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAs for me, things have been pretty up and down. I have to say, the education in language acquisition that I’ve gleaned from this experience in China has been impressive.  My understanding has deepened significantly, and my skills have only gotten more effective with time. It only goes to show the advantage of stability. I’ve been here over six years, and still my lessons are developing.  It’s kind of like when I taught elementary school and it took six years before I actually felt  that knew what I was doing.

I worry sometimes about teachers in America. When are they offered such stability?  I quite literally taught the same class for twenty-one years in the same room, now but a razed memory.

Actually, according to the federal government ( the annual turnover rate for teachers (15.7%) is one-third higher than the average for other fields (11.9%). It’s well known that almost half of all new teachers are gone after five years.  They mostly leave because of a lack of support, and a lack of respect, both tangible and intangible.  None of the members of that exodus remained long enough to ever achieve their full potential as teachers.

I think of this because finally I saw a study that confirms what all working teachers already know – that it takes many, many, years for a teacher to reach full potential. My own feeling is that somewhere around year six is when it all starts coming together.  And I’ve now seen it in my own practice here in China, as well as my earlier experience in America.

The Souvenir Photo ShootIndeed, I had planned to quit teaching in America at the end of year five in favor of computer programming. Then, an influx of support during that key year helped me to put the last few key pieces together. And so it was that I never entered what was then an extremely higher paying career that entailed a lot less stress.

One of my students from those days is now a high school teacher himself!! He recently wrote about something similar on his highly-recommended blog.

Yes, even once you do get it all together, support and respect are lacking.  Why? My own feeling is that the type of skills that you develop as a teacher are mainly invisible to the observing public, as well as to some school directors (not all, thankfully).  And of course there’s the political angle, with its constant demonizing of teachers as lazy union members.  And even the politicians who do support teachers think that the endless layering of new demands and requirements are what those teachers need in order to make a go of it.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHere in China, the foreign teacher population seems to flow by like migrating salmon. Few seem to stay put for very long, particularly if they are English teachers.   People are seen as even more interchangeable than they are back home.  The Chinese teachers are more stable, particularly at this university, where salaries are higher and working hours more brief. Indeed, one year, the entire staff of our department got their required courses done the first semester, and then simply took the whole second semester off. Only myself and my foreign colleague Rob remained to actually teach during those months.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABut the Chinese teachers must adhere to the forms handed down from central authorities.  They have little latitude to make changes themselves.   I’ve heard them complain that they are evaluated annually, but very little of it has anything to do with actual teaching skills.  Yeah. Where have I heard that before?  You know, it’s well known that Chinese culture is imbued with a deep respect for learning and culture. So it came as somewhat of a shock when heard a Chinese teacher complain that, yeah, nobody respects actual living teachers.

Flame off

the last crabapple blossomSorry for the rant.  Usually I can avoid such excessiveness, but certain problems seem to weigh on my mind, like the climate study that came out last month, the first of probably many that will link California’s continuing drought to global warming. Yeah, if Portlanders got tired of immigrants from California before, they better get ready for another thirsty wave!

Lots of things go through my mind these days. I’d be interested in hearing what’s going through yours