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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

Happy Pi Day from Tianjin

The journal from China continues . . .

pumpkin piWell,  3/14 has rolled around again, so here’s a shout-out to pseudo-Uncle John B. and pseudo-Nephew John C. and to all irrational math nerds everywhere. Happy Pi Day. May it be transcendental.  My own favorite pi is pumpkin.

Movie Night

Here in Tianjin, at the weekly movie night, we celebrated by viewing the recent academy-award-winning bio of Stephen Hawking, The Theory of Everything.  Unfortunately, this week’s movie night took place, not on Pi Day itself, but on Friday the 13th.

Here we are at a movie night in January of this year. Photo by You Sihang
Here we are at a movie night in January of this year. Photo by You Sihang

So the video card in the office computer failed right off the bat. Without a video card, there’s no video. But luckily, I had brought my laptop along that night.  We began the film, but the laptop chose to update itself and shut down about a half-hour into it. Eventually, we limped through the rest. Luckily, there won’t be another Friday the 13th until November.

Despite the hiccups in the process, the discussion after the movie was lively. And that’s the reason I like to hold movie nights in the first place. I don’t come to foreign countries just to look at pretty scenery. I come to find out how people think.

Normally, I just can’t sit for two hours for a movie (or anything else) these days. But it’s worth the trouble for a good discussion. The only other place I’m likely to watch an entire movie all at once is on an airplane, strapped into a seat.

Indeed, I had just seen The Theory of Everything on the flight over here.  Actually, I had watched several movies for the first time on that flight. It was 12 hours from San Francisco to Korea, and Korean Airlines has one of the better-stocked libraries, which passengers can view at any time on a screen attached to the seat-back in front of them. I was so impressed that I wrote down the entire list of movies, and will attach it as an appendix to the end of this message. Am I a fan of Korean Air? You bet.

At any rate, I also watched Birdman, Interstellar, Paddington, and Charade (1963), as well as some documentaries. It was a quintuple-feature with short subjects!  Birdman was the most interesting of them, but I’m unlikely to show it for movie night. Not all its subject matter is appropriate, and I don’t think the students here would know quite what to make of it, anyway.  And if the students aren’t dead sure of their own opinion, they’re not likely to say anything.

Students in Public

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIndeed, Chinese students are unused to expressing anything like a personal opinion in public. A maximum of 15 people can fit into our office to watch the movie, which is a good thing, since the larger the group, the less expressive the students become. Even so, I am lucky that some friends from America and Australia also attend, who model for the students what it’s like to simply say what you think in a public setting.   And they always have interesting opinions.

But for the students, expressing oneself in public always feels like being put “on the spot.” They know that their peers will judge everything they say at such times.   And in fact, they usually care more about what the other students think than what the teacher thinks, at least in my case.

Well, it’s common enough for young people to favor their peer’s opinions over a teacher’s.  But here in China, you also have to factor in the extreme competitiveness that they bring to any endeavor.  In the West, public expressions may simply be judged as “cool” or “lame,”  “awesome” or “weird,” “sick” or “sick,” etc. Here, they’re also judged on quality. It’s almost like everyone is asking “Who said it best?” and sometimes “Why does he think he’s so smart?” No wonder they hesitate to speak.

Student non-relations

And in fact, this overall competitiveness tends to drive out the easy collegiality that I generally associate with the student life.  It’s one reason that I ask my students to discuss topics of interest in small groups during class time.  They find out that they like swapping opinions with peers to whom they would normally never speak, and that such strangers can be trusted not to hurt them.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAt first, it seemed odd to me that students might only widen their circle of acquaintances if they were required to in an English class where such aquaintances were forged by means of  a foreign language.  But now, it seems normal.

In general, a student’s circle of acquaintances is small, and often limited to people who live in the very same dorm room, or work in the very  same lab.

In fact, here’s a related tidbit connected to our University’s upcoming move to the remote countryside, to somewhere north of Timbuktu: The staff may be upset over the isolation and distance of the location, but some undergraduates, I have heard, are upset because instead of six students per dorm room, there will be only four, and thus fewer friends to get to know.

Topics of Interest

And what kinds of topics do my students choose to discuss? Well, the students just finished planning their topics for this semester, so let’s take a look at one class section:

The ideal city for settling down.
Air quality in Tianjin
Protecting the environment
Movies that impressed you.
China’s achievements in economic development
The stupid things we did as kids
Stress relief through shopping.
Inconvenience of banning foreign web sites
Keeping in good health
Tianjin-Beijing soccer rivalry
The story “ordinary world” is encouraging
Cooking something new
How Tianjin’s development affects us
Faye Wong’s movies and songs
Rural life is more comfortable than urban life
The most impressive travel destinations
Our feelings and lessons learned from them.
Pretty girls on campus.
Working out in the gym
Keeping pets
Differences in East and West.
The singers we like in “I am a singer.”
Delicious food available on campus. 

It’s really a nice a variety. And they actually don’t seem much different than a list drawn up by young people in most places in the world.

Last-minute reconfigurations

It’s also obvious that this class section isn’t very large. Indeed. There were three of us foreigners teaching English last semester, and four this semester. Between semesters, somebody forgot to fill the fourth teacher’s classes. He only had one or two students per section. So on the day before classes began, the rest of us lost students to his classes.

Amazingly, word got out quickly, and, at least for my four sections, every student showed up on the first day of class, with no transferees hanging around.  Such quick reconfiguration might not have happened so smoothly back home, but here, where everything is always subject to change at the last minute, such reconfigurations are simply taken in stride. Still, I was impressed.

And I’m also more than happy to have fewer students. It means I can collect writing papers, check them off in my gradebook and write comments on them while the students are otherwise occupied.  And the students get them back ten minutes later! Such a deal.

 The Lantern Festival

IMG_8197 Lantern Closeup (Large)Fifteen days after each lunar new year, the lantern festival has been held in China for more than two millennia.  As the centuries passed, it was sometimes celebrated for a single day, sometimes for three days, and once, it was even a week.

It’s meant as an all-village celebration. Colorful lanterns, usually red, display riddles for the village children to solve.  It’s also a great excuse to socialize in the warming weather of early springtime, before planting begins in earnest.  As with practically every Chinese holiday, there are small roundish food objects associated with it. In this case, they are called Yuan Xiao, and consist of sweet dough stuffed with sweet fillings.

In San Francisco, they celebrate the Lantern Festival with a New Year parade that wends its way up Market Street and through Chinatown. Yet I’d never seen the celebration here in Tianjin.

Cityside Lanterns

Well, this year, I arrived back in town on the fourteenth day.  I rode out into the evening of the fifteenth day on my trusty “Flying Pigeon,” bicycle, the classic bike that put China on wheels.

And I found almost nothing. In the entire campus, only two lanterns hung, unlit, over one old building’s entranceway. Further afield, I couldn’t find much else. Sure, fireworks continually sprang up city-wide, and the constant pervasive drumming of firecrackers sounded like heavy rain on a tin roof overhead, even when there was no roof.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABut the only lanterns to be found were hanging  over restaurant doorways, and who’s to say that they wouldn’t have been hanging there, anyway? Finally, a few blocks from campus, I found two lit lanterns, staring out into the city from a fifth floor apartment like giant red eyes, as if the building itself were searching for companionship on this festive eve.

Well, I was disappointed. But the tenor of most of my Chinese friends went along the lines of “What did I expect? Tianjin is simply not a village!”

The Road to Yangliuqing
The Road to Yangliuqing

Well, one of Tianjin’s western suburbs, Yangliuqing, 8 miles from here as the crow flies, does pull out all the stops for the lantern festival every year.  And one of my journalist friends was going out with her family to view it on the third night!  And there was an empty seat in the family SUV, a BYD model S6.

BYD, by the way, is a domestic manufacturer that, at least for one year, sold the top-selling sedan in China. It also sells cars to Africa, South America, and the Middle East, but none to America, except for electric buses.  Indeed, Chinese cars and buses are moving quickly to hybrids and electrics. The first natural-gas car I ever rode in was a taxi in Xi An a few years ago. In fact, my most-used bus, Line 678, seems to have been wholly replaced by new hybrid vehicles while I was away last month.

The Gathering Crowd

Well, Chinese people are not scared off by crushes of crowds, and in fact, seem to prefer them to even small groups, let alone solitary wandering. As one can imagine, then, the trip to Yangliuqing was slow, as traffic was heavy. It took about an hour to negotiate the twelve miles from our meeting place over town.

Yuan Xiao spinners of multi-flavors
Yuan Xiao spinners of multi-flavors

As we drew close, the streets were strewn with LED faux-lanterns overhead. As is normal here, we found a spot on the sidewalk to park, and then walked towards the central square, which was closed off to traffic. The streetside was lined with vendors hawking every sort of trinket and treat, as well as cotton candy and those Yuanxiao sweets. In fact, the flour and the sweet globes themselves seemed to be milled and assembled in some sort of gigantic twirling pans that looked something like marching bass drums with one drum head missing.

Yangliuqing town center
Yangliuqing town center

The center of town blazed in light, an incredible electrical extravagance, but acceptable for the limited 3-day time slot.

Lanterns hung everywhere, but most especially along giant inflatable corridors, through which, like cattle, the people thronged.




This is the year of the ram, so electric rams danced from buildings.


Traditional giant electric fish-wielding toddlers sat everywhere, as they did every year. The word “fish” (“Yu” in Chinese) is homonym to a host of other words that all add up to good fortune.  So it’s like a hope for prosperity written in flesh and blood. Well, gilded flesh and blood.

IMG_8258 Fish Boy by the River (Large)Just down the road, part of the famous Grand Canal passes through the town. This canal, constructed hundreds of years ago, reaches down into central China. In the other direction, it flows east into Tianjin City, and then north to Beijing, though the latter stretch is partially filled in nowadays. At any rate, a giant, permanent, gilded, fish-and-toddler sculpture overlooks the canal at this point.

IMG_8268 The Candy Maker (Large)Near the statue, a candy craftsman was blowing hot liquid candy into the form of animals, the way other craftsmen might blow liquid glass. We got one of them, though nobody dared to eat it.

And a forest of leafless trees had been wrapped in tiny multi-colored bulbs. To wander through it was magical. And people sought out the trees wrapped in white bulbs to take properly-colored snapshots of family members with their smartphones.


IMG_8216. The cop and the fish (Large)

And all along every path were various glowing Chinese characters and character combinations which my hosts pointed out and patiently explained to me.

IMG_8280 Kid riding high (Large)

The standard hot pot

Afterwards, we stopped on the way home for a hot pot dinner.   The next time I’m in the Bay Area, I’ve really got to see if there’s a hot pot restaurant.

I’ve written about hot pot before. It’s the ideal family meal. At a spice bar, you assemble your preferred dipping sauce.  Usually it’s based on sesame sauce, but a couple dozen ingredients are available. I added lots of cilantro and onions, as well as a little Chili pepper.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABack at the table, a  double-pot of boiling water, half spiced and half not, bubbles in the center,  surrounded by bowls of whichever raw meat, vegetables, and mushrooms you’d ordered.

You take turns tossing these into the boiling water, and each time, it’s like an invitation for everyone to enjoy what you’d offered, once it’s cooked. And what’s more, it’s basically all protein and vegetables. Few carbs. A healthy, almost paleolithic, diet.

Well, by the time we sat down it was past ten o’clock.  And by the time we finished, and got me home it was almost midnight, long past my normal bedtime. What a great celebration, though. I finally experienced a lantern festival in Tianjin.

Appendix: The Korean Air movie list for March, 2015

As promised:

Full Length

Contemporary Hollywood Movies
Imitation Game
The Theory of Everything
The Hunger Games – Mockingjay Part 1
Beyond the Light
John Wick
Big Hero 6
Gone Girl
Night Crawler
The Judge
St. Vincent
The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby
Before I go to sleep
Kill the Messenger
A Walk among the Tombstones
Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No good, very bad day.
The Book of Life
The Equalizer
The Good Lie
Hector and the Search for Happiness
The November Man
This is Where I Leave you.

Classic Hollywood Movies
The More the Merrier – 1943
High Noon – 1952
Charade – 1963
Coming Home – 1978
Hannah and Her Sisters – 1986
Coming Home – 1978
As Good as It Gets 1997
Good Will Hunting 1997
Sideways 2004

Classic Kid’s Hollywood Movies
Sleeping Beauty

The Divine Move
The Pirate
A Hard Day
The Target

Other Asian
Don’t Go Breaking My Heart II
The Legend Ends
The Golden Era
The Whitehaired Witch of the Lunar Kingdom

Television Shows


Fabric of the Cosmos
Brain Games
Untamed Americas – part 2
History of Life – Birds
Futurescape – Galactic Pioneers
Mankind – Revolutions
Animal superpowers – hunters
The two-million year old boy.
Cities of tomorrow – vertical farms

Travel and Food
Vancouver BC
Los Angeles
Korean cuisine
Gorges of Karijini
Barble Bar
Western Australia
Bungle-bungle Mountains
Sri Lanka

The Osprey
Scarlett and Isaiah
The Airport Diary

2013-2014 Soccer Highlights
Golf 2014
Lebron James Interview
Seattle Seahawks
Rad Company

Comedy (several episodes apiece)
Big Bang Theory
My Family

Drama (several episodes apiece)
Sherlock (BBC) Season 3
House — Office Politics
Drama Festival
Introduce my Father (Korean)
Person of Interest – Season 3 (complete)

Life and Style
Hidcote Manor
Great Artists – Michelangelo
Ancient Art of China
Triumph of the Tomato
Amazing Water Homes
Treasure Hunters

Bolshoi Ballet
Red Men
Arthur Miller Bio
Nat King Cole Bio
Kandinsky Bio
Joe DiMaggio Bio
Where are we going, Dad?
Vivien Leigh Bio
Shakespeare Background
Sky Team Exercise Program





The land of clear air

It’s been a month since my last communication. I’d rather not go longer. Besides, my friends outside of the Western Hemisphere might enjoy more views of the Eastern Pacific – the Coast of Paradise.

Berkeley Hills

UC Berkeley Campus Fire Trails
UC Berkeley Campus Fire Trails

Honestly, it’s hard to imagine a more pleasant place to live than the west coast of North America. This path wends its way through the campus hills of the University of California at Berkeley. Berkeley’s campus is huge because it extends up into this range of tall hills. Most of the property is maintained in a natural state.  Patches, of course, have been developed into sophisticated physics labs.

Berkeley trail wildflowersFor years, a group of friends from church assembled every Friday to tackle those steep trails, which are actually dirt roads built for emergency fire vehicles.  This month witnessed my first foray through them in a few years. I could not have walked it last summer.

Even at the beginning of February, flowers were beginning to emerge along the trail. Some rose up from the trail edges like these.

California Bay LaurelOthers showered down from the overarching trees, like these.   They’re California Bay Laurel, called Myrtlewood in Oregon. They’re related to the Mediterranean Bay Laurel, whose leaves feature prominently  in Italian cooking. They’re more distantly related to cinnamon and avocado.

These common trees grow quite tall and enjoy the company of oaks. They branch almost as wildly as the oaks themselves. Most importantly, though, their leaves possess their Mediterranean relative’s aromatic qualities, but with even greater pungency.

Ane captures their imaginations
Ane captures their imaginations

They always remind me of Ane Rovetta, the multi-talented artist, storyteller, and  ethno-botonist. She also led nature walks with kids. Here she stands in a half crouch, confronting my elementary school class with stories from the old days.  It was at the campfire stage at Point Reyes.  It was 1988. Yeah, those kids are nowadays deep into middle age.

Anyway, back when she was a budding naturalist leading children, she had wanted her young charges to appreciate the power of the Laurel’s scent. She folded a leaf several times, breaking it along several creases. “Just do this,” she shouted, as she cupped her hands around her nose, sealing her face, and pushing the leaves onto it. She took in a very deep breath, entirely through her nose.

Next thing she knew, she was staring up. From the ground. And the sky was full of worried faces. The powerful leaf aroma had literally knocked her out. At that point, she advised the kids to maybe not smell it quite the same way.

IMG_0060 (Medium)Despite her propensity to take life to the edge, she’s still out there, still painting. I see her every few years, when she holds an open studio sale. And in fact, one of her paintings, with pigments hand-manufactured from the natural materials which she gathers herself, graces my living room. Its organic colors are not likely to fade. Here she is, a year and a half ago, flanked by her two sisters and several examples of her paintings.

Lake Chabot

Another collection of bays and oaks lives closer to hand, at Lake Chabot in Castro Valley. Lake Chabot is simply amazing.  I think of painter Carl Larsson in Sweden. Once he reached that country home in Dalarna, he never left. His entire career was based on paintings of that home.

Lake Chabot Boaters

I think a photographer could base a lifetime’s career on Lake Chabot. The continually transforming interplay of light on that oak-bay woodland, frosted with eucalyptus, constantly displays new possibilities.  Moreover, even when it’s overpopulated on the weekends, it never loses that quiet serenity.  It’s a miracle that such a place exists in the midst of a major metropolitan area.

What struck me most this time was the variety of birds. Okay, from memory, here are a couple dozen birds that I’ve spotted at Lake Chabot, listed  in compact, easy-to-skip-over form:

Mallard dripping wetMallard, Canada and hybrid geese, brown pelican, double-crested cormorant, robin, Stellar’s jay, scrub jay, Caspian tern, several kinds of gulls, Anna’s hummingbird, California towhee, varied thrush, Oregon junco, yellow-crowned sparrow, golden-crowned sparrow, Western bluebird, turkey, turkey vulture, ruby-crowned kinglet, brown creeper, American coot, great blue heron, great egret.

Double-crested cormorantsAnd in addition to all of those, other kinds of ducks appear on Lake Chabot, and some woods bristle with tiny warblers that flit about too quickly to ever see clearly. I’ll probably never identify them until I can learn their songs.  And I’ve still never spotted the nesting pair of bald eagles.

It’s not just the quantity of birds, but how photogenic they are.

Lake Chabot, like all the lakes in California, is low on water this year, though not as low as some, since it’s maintained as an emergency water supply.

Rainy BluebirdsAnd yet, rain did fall in California this winter. And here are two bluebirds, hunched down to keep warm, staring defiantly into the windy drops. Look close and you can make out the drops themselves.

One more picture just to show what light can do at Lake Chabot.  It’s some anonymous boatster captured by my long lens, rowing off into a psychedelic sea of electric gold. Click on it for the larger version to catch more details in the abstract patterns – they’re really beautiful.

Psychadelic Gold

Portland, Oregon

The rain followed me to Portland.  My mother, sister and I immediately embarked on our seasonal pilgrimage to the Pendleton Outlet store in Washougal. This small pier is part of a park on the Columbia River next to the store.  The locals walk their children, their dogs, their bicycles, and themselves around on it.

Columbia pier

To honor this Californian’s visit, all precipitation ceased.  On the right, the clouds summon fallen rainwater from the ground back into the atmosphere. Massive mounds of moisture float overhead like flying fleece.  The pier, too, seems to be floating, above the fleece.  The locals, sitting on the benches, must feel they are soaring.   In the end, the clouds departed, leaving nothing but crystal-clear Northwest Air™.

Willamette FallsFor the rest of my stay in Portland, the air remained clear and sunny, like in this picture. The Mountain is Mount Hood, an old volcano, one of many in the area. The falls are Willamette Falls in the Willamette River. This valley marks the end of the famous Oregon Trail, which brought so many settlers from the eastern United States, which displaced, of course, many of the people who had been living there for the previous millennia.

Mt. St. HelendsAnother local volcano, Mount Saint Helens, used to sport a sharp peak at the top like the others, but then it rather spectacularly blew it all off in 1980, flattening an entire region of forest, and spouting ash all over Portland (and other places).  Yeah, those were exciting days! This is the view from “Rocky Butte,” a tall promontory in Northeast Portland not far from my family’s homes.

Northeast PortlandHere’s a patch of Northeast Portland, seen from Rocky Butte. Many years ago, a Dutch friend of mine came to visit Portland. He never could get over the sight of so many trees growing all over everywhere. This shot compacts them quite a bit, but it’s true. This is the city, not the countryside. If not for the trees, you’d see only houses.

Trees are so sacred to Portlanders that the city recently made it illegal to trim them without the guidance of a professional arborist.

Portland Waterfront ParkDowntown Portland’s waterfront, along the Willamette River, is a long, stringy, park. At lunch time, it brims with walkers, joggers, and cyclists.

This part of the waterfront is dedicated to Japanese-Americans.  It’s located not far from the old “Japantown,” which no longer exists.  Various monuments call to memory the way these citizens were mistreated during World War II. It’s good to keep such self-critical monuments in the public eye, even if most people are jogging by too fast to read them.

I recall a string of self-critical monuments along the waterfront in Bonn, Germany, bringing to mind the World War II excesses in that country.  I’ve never seen any self-critical memorials in China, but perhaps I just haven’t looked hard enough yet.

Portland Chinatown GateYes, there is a Chinatown in Portland. But unlike its sisters in Oakland and San Francisco, there’s not much to write home about.  For one thing, there are hardly any trees.  For another, there’s no block jammed with Chinese grocery stores.  Still, it does have an impressive gate. I suspect, though, that not many of the city’s Chinese citizens live there.

Powell's front roomAnd then there’s Powell’s City of Books. They spent a year remodeling the main entrance on the corner of Burnside and NW Tenth Avenue. Powell’s is one of the truly great booksellers, its main store one of the largest anywhere. It was the first book shop (that I know of) which, decades ago, installed a coffee shop for the convenience of browsers.

Now the entire front room is encased in wrap-around windows. The effect is to draw the outer environment into the store, along with lots of customers.  Any book lover who visits Portland owes it to themselves to visit Powell’s.

Umpqua Ice CreamAs for me, I spent a lot of time visiting family, and sleeping. For some reason, I really slept well up there. And I even got home-cooked meals from my mother.  It was a thousand-kilometer drive each way, but it was worth it.

And I even stopped in Rice Hill, Oregon, each way for some scoops of that classic Umpqua ice cream.

The Way Back

So, in three days, I’ll be wending my way back to the CCP, the Chinese capitalist paradise. No one has thought to inform me of my teaching schedule, but that’s pretty normal. I suspect that I’ll start teaching again sometime around the eighth or ninth of March. We’ll just have to wait and see.  Usually I nag them until somebody tells me. This semester, I got tired of that. I wonder if they’ll let me know before or after my first class takes place?

An Oregon Rest Area for long-distance drivers. Free of charge, of course.
An Oregon rest area for long-distance drivers. Free of charge, of course.

It’s a pretty good thing I’m going back. As usual, I gained lots of weight while in America. It’s much easier to eat more moderately in China. Hopefully that’s what’s going to happen. I’m also hoping to be doing a lot more walking (on days when the pollution is not severe).

As always, I welcome any communication. Somebody asked me the other day what the hardest part of living in China is. I had to answer that it’s the fact that so little communication ever takes place there.

One of my Chinese colleagues recently asked me to compare the students’ English to the state of English in general in China. I had to answer that, except for my own students and a couple Chinese wives married to Americans, almost no Chinese person ever speaks English to me (or for that matter, communicates at all), including most of the English teachers, so how can I judge?

Anyway, I’ll close with one more beautiful scene from our lovely Pacific Northwest, taken through the windshield on my drive from Portland. That’s Mt. McLoughlin, another old volcano, in the background, and the Rogue River Valley near Central Point in the foreground.  What you don’t see, of course, is that crystal-clear air, through which you can see not just for miles, but for tens of miles.




















The Wild West

The Hai River, Tianjin's connection to the sea
The Hai River, Tianjin’s connection to the sea


A short message — mainly for those back in Asia and the southern hemisphere who may not be familiar with the West, the real West, the Wild West — some wild photos. Featuring genuine native-speaker sentence fragments. Sorry, it’s been a sore spot lately.  I mean.  Yeah.  Anyway . . . .

The Flight Back

My journey to America was fragmented, actually. The plane was an hour and a half late out of Tianjin, despite perfect weather (and sort-of clear air) and no visible traffic. Apparently the government had some non-apparent traffic in mind. Perhaps it’s a consequence of building the airport directly adjacent to an air force base.

Los Angeles from the clear air
Los Angeles from the clear air

It happened to me once before, last winter.  But this time the delay was greater, and I missed the connecting flight from Korea to San Francisco. So I flew to Los Angeles. I’ve decided that LAX is not my favorite airport. Considering the size of the herds flowing through the lot, they head ’em up  as well as could be expected. But, still . . .

I also found out that the American border crossings are moving towards computer-supervised systems where passengers can process themselves through customs. However, due to my general incompetence after so many hours of forced sitting, I got diverted to a human, who proved to be pleasant.

How many hours? By the time I got to San Francisco, and was collected by my long-time friend Sharon, and delivered at home, it was 26 hours door to door.  Afterwards, I slept the most I’d slept in one night for a long time. The good news was that so much sleep all at once dropped me into Pacific Standard Time almost immediately.

Point Reyes

For the first time in at least five years, I got to visit Point Reyes again, one of my favorite places on earth. My friend Arlene took me this time. We visited all the old haunts that carry so much meaning in my memory. But before we got there, we also visited a Gloria Jeans coffee shop.

The Mall-ified Gloria Jeans
The Mall-ified Gloria Jeans

As mentioned before, Gloria Jeans took over the old restaurant on the Tianjin University campus where the foreign experts used to stay. It’s an international Chain that began in Chicago, but is now mainly centered in Australia, where they’ve opened more than 400 shops. There’s also a Gloria Jeans in San Rafael, in a mall. It lacks the burgers and Chinese food of the Tianjin version, but still serves the same white hot chocolates.

Beware the Seal
Beware the Seal

Anyway, we visited the Visitor Center at Point Reyes, and discovered that the old map at the door had been crushed under the weight of an elephant seal. Sharks and Orcas also swam through the air under the high ceiling.  Otherwise, it remains the same, and it still maintains one of the best book stores of any visitor center that I know. And yes, I bought one. And yes, I also snagged one of the old style baseball caps, which they appear to be phasing out.

Kule Loklo

We visited Kule Loklo, the re-created Indian village, where I remembered Lanny Pinola, the kind and gentle soul whose forebears had dwelt there for thousands of years.  He always used to laugh and joke about the difference between his traditional diet of acorn mush and the McDonald’s down the road (actually, I’ve never seen a McDonald’s out in West Marin, though).

Traditional homes at Kule Loklo
Traditional homes at Kule Loklo

The old people, he said, had always lived to be ninety, a hundred, or much more.  But not now. Not when they’re cut off from the their traditional diet. “I’ll never see a hundred,” he’d joke. “I love McDonald’s too much. Hey, about about that for an advertisement — ‘Eat McDonald’s!  Kill you before your time!'”

He was right. He died about ten years ago, and nowhere near ninety. But Kule Loklo still survives him, even though, as he often said, no Indian would ever actually build a village there, not at the top of a hill where there’s no water.

The Educational Center

Clem Miller Environmental Education Center
Clem Miller Environmental Education Center – Panorama

Naturally, we visited the Educational Center, the destination of twenty-one pilgrimages over the years, leading groups of either forty or eighty.  My long-time camper colleague Kay is also gone, having also passed away too young about five years ago.

The field where we had conducted studies had been thoroughly  shorn into a lawn.  Yeah, that field has a lot of interesting history with my groups over the years.  Perhaps they’ll let it spring up again in the springtime. In the meantime, the dry poison hemlock sticks were cut down so they couldn’t tempt some kid.

Other than that, we didn’t explore any further, since the facility was in use at the time.  I did wonder if the daffodils would rise again by the sign at the turnoff.

Limantour Beach.

Limantour Reflections
Limantour Reflections

We also strolled onto Limantour Beach, again, remembering classes past. If you don’t know Northern California, you may be surprised at how few people were present to enjoy the beach. Only one person was actually swimming that day. Our real California is not like the more famous faux California found in the southland, like by Santa Monica. No, our beaches are made for strolling and reflection,  not for showing off trim figures in skimpy costumes. And if you want to surf, you better dress warmly.

Equus at the beach
Equus at the beach

That’s the beach where Sebastián Cermeño lost his fully-loaded and not-so-securely-anchored Manila Galleon to lashing rain and high winds in 1595. For centuries, pieces of the lost treasure, including Chinese porcelain, washed up on the beach.

It’s also where, exactly four hundred years after his loss, a small group of students huddled around a teacher in lashing rain and high winds, not just listening to the story, but experiencing it.  Yes, it was a teachable moment.

Point Reyes Station

The deceptively simple life at Point Reyes
The deceptively simple life at Point Reyes

We  briefly toured Point Reyes Station, the closest thing to a town in the region, and picked up some sandwiches at the same deli where my friends Bill and Marilyn got sandwiches, yes, many years ago.

The town looks like a simple country settlement, except that you’d better have a million dollars if you want to buy one of those simple homes, not that they come up for sale very often. I have to say, though, it’s a wonderful place to live, to breathe the fresh air, and listen to the quiet and the twittering of actual birds.  If I had the money, I’d probably retire there.

In addition to these places, we took both the Lucas Valley and Fairfax routes between Point Reyes and San Rafael. It was a day for nostalgia, as I realize even more strongly as I sit typing this in Arizona. The only thing missing was Gus Wright and his pieced-together Volvo. Well, that’s a long story for another time.

White Tank Mountains

Cholla reaching out from the ground
Cholla reaching out from the ground

Yes, I’m here in Phoenix visiting my dad. I’ve already typed more than I’d planned, but I really should include some desert pictures before I sign off.  The beach isn’t the only place where you can find sand, after all.

What you do find in the desert are a lot creatures prepared for self-defense and water conservation. Most of the plants are covered in barbs and spears. If you ever fall into cholla, you’ll be pulling them from your skin for quite a while.

Curve-billed thrasher with stick.
Curve-billed thrasher with stick.

The White Tanks are named  for some rocky pools located high up on the slopes, the most important geographic features in such a dry region. That said, it’s rained almost every day since I’ve been here, though seldom harder than what they’d call a “soft day” in Ireland. Temperatures are typical for winter – around 20 degrees Celsius.  It’s incredibly pleasant compared to winter in Tianjin.

We drove up to the White Tanks nature park a few days ago, before the rains started. I got lots of great pictures, and then we visited the park visitor center.

White Tank cacti
White Tank cacti

The last time I’d been here, the visitor center was an old house-trailer, cramped and full of animal and plant specimens.

These days the visitor center occupies a spacious showroom in a large public library, built right outside the park entrance. It’s quite professional.  Not only do they still have several cages of snakes and a gila monster, they’ve got some living black-widow spiders in their typical tunnel-shaped nests and some bark scorpions with a handy ultra-violet flashlight for making them glow. Cool.

Well, I’ve written more than enough. I’ll attach a few more desert pictures to the end. I hope the nostalgia wasn’t too thick!!

Big Skies in the White Tanks
Big Skies in the White Tanks
Gambel's Quail
Gambel’s Quail
Bird Nests
Bird Nests
A Forest of Saguaro Cacti
A Forest of Saguaro Cacti











Happy 2015

Happy New Year!

Teacher's Meeting at the Columbia RiverSo here’s our faculty meeting that took place this week at the new campus site, far away from everything else in the world.

Just kidding. Actually, we all jetted out to the Columbia River near Portland for our meeting. That’s Washington in the background.

The new campus site will be almost as disruptive as a commute to the Columbia would be, though. It’s painful to listen to all the problems that will be caused in just our small group, let alone the hundreds of other faculty and thousands of  students involved in this  exile  exodus.

It would seem that, despite its reputation otherwise, this country attaches little regard to education as a system. Of course, teachers here are no richer than their American peers, but moreover, as soon as the real estate values go up, universities are moved out to the wastelands, regardless of any impact on education, or education’s enrichment of the cities. This is not only true in Tianjin, but in most Chinese cities. Universities become outliers in far-flung satellite groups, disconnected from city centers, isolated for greater control, while rich real estate investors make a killing by developing the evacuated land.

Still, it wouldn’t be so bad if it hadn’t been handled with such utter disregard for the people affected. For example, we had long been promised public transportation for when the school opened. No ground has yet been broken for that. There’s no housing adjacent to the university. The closest housing developments lie 8 kilometers away (that’s about 5 miles). It’s a pleasant half-hour bike ride in the spring and fall, but summer and winter will tell another story.  It probably means that more cars will be purchased by people who really can’t afford them.  Unhindered by city traffic, they’ll spout even more hydrocarbons into the air.

There are also no elementary or high schools for staff families. There are no nearby businesses, at least not yet. And there are no places, other than dormitories, to stay the night on campus.

So the comparison to the wild lands around the Columbia River is not far from the mark.

Oh, and nobody will actually know for sure until February or March who will stay and who will go.  I keep thinking that if this university, the oldest in China, the foundational institution, is being tossed about like this, then what must other schools have to put up with?

On the other hand, a university education here is affordable even for farmers from the countryside. Nobody talks about turning the educational process itself into a profit center, like they do in the USA,  saddling students with debts unimaginable compared to when I attended university, not to mention the dismantling and privatizing of public education in general. No, they just talk about taking the land.  So I guess it could be worse.

Actually, just under two-thirds of the campus will be moving, including all the undergraduates. Those who remain should find the campus pretty roomy, at least until more businesses move in.

Actually, the connection between business and higher education is much more explicit here than it is in America. Take, for example, a shiny new building called the “1895 Building” (named after the year this university was founded) which was erected in a single year across the street from the main campus.

1895 BuildingI took this picture of it last March. It’s the building painted the color of gold bullion.

Except for some street-level shops, it houses an architectural firm attached to the university . I am told that this company ranks about the same as a normal university department in the governing hierarchy, and that it functions within the university just like any other department.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis picture shows a view from the 1895 building.  Tianjin University lies in the foreground.

The same grad students that study in the regular architecture department on campus also contribute their labor to this firm.  They do earn a small amount of pay. Oh, did I mention that the architecture grad program is not moving next year? In fact, they’ll be expanding into an otherwise abandoned building on campus.

Actually, there’s a lot to be said for business-educational partnerships.   It would seem, though, that there’s little use for education other than to gain skills to help companies make profits.

The Marvelous Weather

 It’s been cold, though apparently not as cold as Colorado or Iowa.  Temperatures dip far below freezing every evening and morning, though.

SkatersThe upside to the frozen ponds is the skating. A huge expanse beneath the lofty  Tianjin Television Tower is devoted to skating every year. I took this shot a few days ago at dusk.  The main skating area is actually in the distance. The shiny roped-off circular area closer to the camera is most likely too thin yet to be safe (?)

People here don’t simply skate. They also drive a large variety of sleds and sled-like vehicles. These can be seen by enlarging the picture above. Actually, here is another shot that shows some of them a bit closer up.

Merry Christmas

 One of my biggest privileges here has been some  friendships with a small group of journalists. I’ve written about them from time to time over the years, and also traded pictures with them on occasion.

Christmas at Gloria Jean'sIn fact, the picture at right, which portrays students celebrating Christmas at the nearby Gloria Jean’s Coffee , actually got published in a local paper, as part of a conglomeration of Christmas shots. Unfortunately, the design overlapped the pivotal figure, the girl tied to  her computer, lost in cyberspace.  Can you see her? This obliviousness to actual space is perhaps typical of our modern life everywhere.

I always contrast this connected-yet-isolated condition with my many trips to Europe back in the old days, when nobody could get in touch with me for months at a time. What a different world.  Everyone I interacted with on those trips actually interacted with me.

Christmas magicianAnyway, these parties, like all annual feasts here, always feature the same activities — lots of games where guests can embarrass themselves singing or performing silly stunts, and some planned performances, such as magicians.

Yeah, this year I attended two local Christmas celebrations, and they both featured magicians.  Maybe it’s finally time for me to bring my “dove pan” and “linking rings” from home.  Anyway, the prestidigitator in the picture at left was pretty handy with card tricks and needle swallowing.

Professional Pictures

One of my journalist friends shared some pictures with me recently. I wrote her some feedback, some response to them.  I deliberately didn’t ask what the subjects were, though I’ve since discovered that the first picture comes from a “veteran’s home.”

But hey, this is a post modern world, isn’t it? Art stands on its own. Once it’s out there, the interpretation is up to the beholder, right?

Anyway, I thought that people on this list might also enjoy these shots.  It’s an opportunity to see this country through its own eyes. And if we don’t know the exact circumstances for each shot, maybe that’s better. Believe me, if you ever come to live here off the beaten tourist path, you’ll discover that discerning the true conditions of things is rarely easy.

Anyway, these are my original reactions. If you have any, I’d love to hear them.
Veterans resthomeThe first picture with the middle-aged men strikes me as very lonely and impersonal.  The men are all dressed alike (the green jacket makes this even more clear) and they emerge from identical doors. Yet they are no group. Their circumstances push them together.

The surfaces of the building are clean, but hard and merciless. The men’s faces seem interchangeable.  They are not so hard. The unsmiling wear of a graceless existence impacts their appearance. None smile.  They should be presiding “in family” over the younger generations, their functional apparel exchanged for clothes of honor. Instead, they find themselves cut off and penned up. They don’t appear to be sick, but perhaps some other malady has pricked society into warehousing them this way.

03The baseball players, seen from that angle, tower like superheroes.  They are dirtied by the mud of good honest effort. The intensity in their faces contrasts with their older peers in the picture above. These young men are strong and confident. The  crowd together in a huddle, as a team, intent and purposed. Overconfidence stains the two at left. They lounge with hands on  hips, their success guaranteed by merely showing up.

Their uniforms, elaborate and colorful, unite them as a team — the Tianjin Lions. I would be tempted to Photoshop a blue sky with racing clouds above their heads.

53The young graduate clutches his hopes, now fulfilled. As inscribed on the stone, “dreams become reality.” The wind stirs his gown. It is a spirit that will lift him and his stone into a successful life. His smiling face tilts to one side, pressed against the rock like a young boy clinging to his mother. He is carefree. Decorum floats away into the air. The young man on the right, meanwhile, readies his cap, as if planning to fly off next. Or perhaps he’s just gripping it against the wind which streams into him from his highly-placed comrade.

BB5G3614Our mutual friend Du Hai in his days of longer, more tousled, hair, happily flashes a victory sign. He has just bagged a photo, or perhaps is about to bag it. His right hand cradles his weapon. The day is bright, with firm shadows. His quarry rests peacefully, quietly snacking. Does he snack on food, or on the latest news?  Deerlike, a brown sweater his coat of fur, he sits out of focus. He is but sustenance for the black-clad panther standing behind him, so close, so happy, so unannounced.

A women walks a bicycle respectfully through a temple. What sort of temple is it? The miraculously straight lines of demarcation enclose a lofty space above the fans, above the chandeliers. The space’s white pureness soars in contrast to the muddy browns of the world below.

BB5G3642The columns, like dim and standing arrows, transform into whiteness as they hurl into that higher plane. They point the way. Will the woman strive to leave the world of the bicycle for the ecstatic, yet spare, realm above?  Will she have to stage herself on the hard green seats, harmoniously bound to the stern, enclosing, angular walls? In the distance, a humbler figure ventures to enter. He’s escaping that same outer confusion, an indistinct world without guideposts.. It’s bright, but without form. Will he succeed where she may not?

DSC_5086The cat stares directly towards the viewer. His tongue hangs out. Is he thirsty? No, his coat seems tousled, as if he had just emerged from a soaking. Is he just happy to have escaped all his problems? It’s not always easy to perceive the thoughts of a cat. This cat himself is hard to perceive. His body stretches out of focus, but his face is sharp, emphasizing his gaze. (nice use of shallow depth of field). He stands amidst a formed, yet formless backdrop, a sheet that conceals the real world.  So much mystery here. Like the Cheshire Cat, only his eyes and his smile remain.

NG2R0256A queen sits proudly on a throne, her hair piled high like a crown. She gazes down her nose, away from her high-flying subjects, who merit not a glance. They stand at attention within the flying arch. Starched and stiff, they wait on cords. And they wait. She won’t let them clutter her perfect thoughts. She prefers the light. At first glance, all seems disheveled. True symmetry emerges only gradually. And light enters the passageway, which no longer seems as insulated as it first appeared. And still, the stuffed shirts wait.

NG2R8837Two figures huddle behind a veil of redness, reduced to shadows.  Their hands seem to touch. Perhaps they are paying each other. Perhaps they are taking things.  Perhaps they are playing at cards.  Perhaps their game will capture winnings for one of them. Perhaps one is a client, and one provides service. One smokes, addicted to nicotine. A bright, hidden light bears down on them.  An empty chair stands ready for the next actor in this shadow puppet drama. Additional curtains cover the side walls. What lies behind them?

NG2R8926The people in front don’t count. They have already rejected what she has to offer. She gazes off in expectation of others to come. Her child, of course, does count. He accepts what she can offer. Such a variety of goods, yet no one willing to buy. Feeding two mouths, she appears not careworn.  A tenuous existence, but they seem strong. They seem healthy.  Does she have everything she needs?

And how do they get all that stuff to their spot on the sidewalk? All those boxes, too many to carry very far. Who helps her?


Administration BuildingI hope that you enjoyed these photos as much as I did.   I leave you with one last winter shot – the Administration building of our school, taken three  weeks ago when it snowed. (It has not snowed since then).

Winter blows in

Clear Air – for now

leafless trees
Twigs over the old dorms

Well, I don’t have a lot of Sinological insights at this time. I can post some recent pictures, though. So . . the weather? No precipitation, but last week, winter blew in with a cold and clear vengeance.  Lows at night sank to the upper teens and lower twenties. The local ponds are growing a thin skin. But the wind did clear out the pollution, just like it does for San Francisco back home.

The wind also blew most of the remaining leaves off the trees. I took this picture today to show the result. The old dorms are slated to be torn down in order to construct the new business park. And if you’ve ever seen the inside of one, well, maybe they deserve to go. But on the outside, they have a wonderfully substantial character. I’ll be sure to snap some pictures of them this year while they still rule over the north part of campus.  Yeah, they don’t even have showers, though they do boast laundry rooms with sinks large enough to serve as  showers in a pinch, at least in warm weather.

Building 25 - five coordinated pieces.
Building 25 – five coordinated pieces.

I snapped this picture about a week ago. It’s the building complex where I hold classes. They take place in the left-hand branch. I really like the brick-like facade. The reddish brown is handsome and hides the soot.  Some of my Chinese friends, though, find it less appealing. Perhaps they like the smooth-white-tile-clad models which are more common.

A couple weeks ago, the cedar standing at its entrance was wrapped in traditional green plastic to withstand the frigid winter winds.  The tree is now a couple years in this new spot, having been moved about ten blocks from its old location.  It looks kind of scraggily, but it turns out that this is what an Old World cedar actually looks like.  Yes, the famed cedars of Lebanon would look just as skinny and withered as this one.  If you want to see an impressive cedar, then, I guess you better see the ones in California.

Another update for those who know this campus

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe campus “hotel” where, back in the old days, I spent half a dozen summers, is now mostly devoted to foreign student housing. But the old restaurant, which had been shuttered (or rather, bicycle locked) for about five years has finally been replaced.  It’s now a Western-style coffee shop called Gloria Jean’s. It even has good burgers.   And it turns out to that Gloria Jean’s is an international chain, founded in Chicago and now mostly located in Australia.

Man, how could I not have heard of a chain that big? And then, today, I discovered  (in a news article) something else I should have noticed by now — Samarium, element 62.  It’s more common than tin, yet I’d never heard of it.  I guess the world is still big, waiting to be explored.

The Previous bout of Fresh Air

Our last long period of clean air blew in back in October.  It was artificially induced, because of the APEC conference, a gathering of about two dozen heads of state, including our own.  As was the case for the Olympics, which involved considerably more people, it was deemed proper to take extreme measures to blue out the sky.

Yellow fall foliage
October Fishing on campus.

I guess it goes to show the way of the world, though. For the sake of two dozen individuals, who spent hardly any time outdoors, who also have the wherewithal to pack up their home atmosphere and bring it along with them, if they so desire, the air was cleaned and a new term was coined – “APEC blue” — suitable for any temporary pleasantness that you just know won’t last.

Anyway, they shut down gobs of factories across four different provinces, forbade automobiles with certain license plate numbers from driving, and gave rather lengthy out-of-season vacations to many workers in the capital.  One of my friends got ten days off work, which is not too shabby in the labor climate here. I don’t know exactly how many other workers benefited from this bonus break, but they were numerous enough to drive up hotel prices in not-so-near Thailand.

I guess it’s nice to be reminded that some people in this world count as much as millions of the rest of us, especially when the collateral benefits of their presence breathe so nicely.

Baseball where it counts

Chinese baseball
The Poster for the League

It was nice to see one of my home town teams, the San Francisco Giants, do so well this year.  And it was interesting to see that team member Tim Lincecum, the pitcher at the top of his game five years ago, is now the “old man” of the pitching staff, coaching and cheering on his younger colleagues.  Yeah, he’s all of thirty years old. Back then, analysts had predicted that anybody who put so much of his soul into each pitch would burn himself out in five years, and they were right. Still, while it lasted, it was brilliant.




smog-infested baseball field.
Before the wind came up

Well, the Giants may be a dynasty, but I’d credit the Tianjin Lions with an even greater achievement – survival. When baseball left the Olympic stage, support dwindled for the Chinese Baseball League. And when the main sponsor absconded with his company’s funds and left the country, it seemed like baseball’s fate was sealed.

So this is a league, and a team, that really knows how to fight.  2014 marked  the first baseball season in two or three years. They’d crawled back from the abyss. They’d lost a few franchises, and quite a few players who needed to find other jobs in order to survive, but the top two teams remained — Tianjin and Beijing.

The season was rather delayed and abbreviated – just a few weeks at the beginning of fall, mainly because certain people of power hadn’t sufficient grease on their palms. But all that no longer matters, because the players finally took to the field again.

And they even figured out a new batting strategy based on local atmospherics. If you hit a high fly, the ball gets lost in all the pollution!  Unfortunately, the wind came up for the second game in the series that I saw. It laid bare any flying object. Even mosquitos.

blue sky and baseball.
Blue Skies emerged for the final game

And the field got upgraded. New scoreboard. New bleachers. New clubhouse.  And the league has attracted a market basket of small sponsors instead of just one big one.

The fans were stoked. No more simple repetitive cheers of “jia you, jia you” all the time.  This year they broke out in  complicated rhymes and clever theme songs. Who knows? What if baseball survives another year? Might they get cheerleaders?

And yeah, in the season-ending championship game, Tianjin lost to Beijing by one run. But who cares? Next to survival itself, the loss of first place standing for second seems pretty trivial.

Oh, and bonus points if you can find the ball in the two pictures above.

Personal Notes and Appendices

Well, I got my plane ticket, finally. Korean Air remains the best!  And I have a brand new passport to replace the one which almost expired. I’ll be winging my way to SFO on January 16, with subsequent trips to Phoenix and Portland. I’ll be in the USA through the end of February.   I hope that I can see people again, more than l did last summer when my feet finally broke down completely and I really couldn’t walk anywhere.

colorful paintings
Portrait of the artist (and wife) as a middle-aged man. Yes, this is a traditional Chinese painting style.

As for those feet, the exercises prescribed by the physical therapist are literally reshaping them.  This process is not without its discomforts, but I remain optimistic that I’ll have normal-feeling feet, for the first time in ten years, by the time I return to the states.  I realized that they haven’t actually been normally-shaped for about three decades.

And as for the new mailboxes that we got here over the summer, even though my mother and sister mailed cards in plenty time for Halloween and Thanksgiving, nothing has ever appeared in those boxes. The layer of dust inside remains undisturbed and pristine.

So anybody attempting to mail me anything should go back to the old address.  My neighbor Lonnie did get one piece of mail from the states, but it was a large envelope with a 24-dollar postage tag.  It was a step up from simple first class.  I am reminded of something I read three years ago, which stated that China’s post office aimed to achieve as much as a 50% delivery success rate.

Piano Appendix

I’ve had these recordings sitting around for months.  Those who don’t care about such things will have to excuse me, I guess, since there are a few (cough. . cough.. parents, as well as my old music buddies) who might.

I was delighted to finally, after all these years, be able to play a be-bop tune in a bebop style.  The tune is called “Lady Bird,” by Tadd Dameron. It might not be as good as the original, but at least it hangs together.  Here it is:

Second up is a sort of pseudo-rubato version of Misty. “Pseudo-rubato” is a way of saying that I occasionally play fast and loose with the measure length.  This, by the way, is the reason that I only play with bass players who are friends.  Yeah, too many years pelted by chunks of fresh resin lobbed in frustration from a bass section that wanted a predictable beat. Anyway, this piece is dedicated to one such forgiving friend — the legendary “Strings” Carlbob.  Here it is:

And finally, here is the Bobster himself, accompanying me at home in California on the old Dave Brubeck tune, “In your own sweet way.”  I must also point out that the piano we used is that century-old Crown upright, bought at an estate sale when I was seven years old, and recently refurbished courtesy of my friend and house-sitter Tim Goodman.

Signing Off

Well, that’s all for this message.  If you get a chance to drop me a line, I stand ready to pick it up. Oh, and I almost forgot. Courtesy of my associate Dan Sumin, I was again entered into a photo contest. And again I got a prize! This time, it was third place, and the prize was a nice wristwatch.

almost as tall as a skyscraper
Trash Mountain

The subject of the picture is the tallest hill in Tianjin. I took it about a year ago to prove that, yes, Tianjin does have fall colors. The name of the hill? In both English and Chinese it’s called “Trash Mountain.”  I think you can guess the reason.

It certainly is a fine example of “making lemonade when life gives you lemons.” And it makes me feel at home; it’s like my alma mater Davis, California, where the tallest hill is actually a freeway overpass.







With apologies to Monet

water and lotus
With apologies to Monet

Claude Monet once told how, appalled at his own behavior, he was gazing into his dying wife’s face when he realized that he was also analyzing the changing colors in her complexion as she slipped away.

Sometimes I feel like that. Everyone does not have to be taught. Yet thoughts and strategies arise in my mind unbidden.

It’s been quite a while since I’ve sent out anything through this channel.  The picture shows Aiwan Lake, the closest pond to my apartment.  The once-abundant summer lotus bloom has shriveled into scribbles.  The willows, last to turn yellow each fall, blaze through the water under the retaining wall. Above the wall stretches a straight street, mysteriously plagued by drainage problems.

I recently had dinner with an old friend of mine, who actually grew up on these grounds. It was an exciting time. In this small patch of park, he and some other boys once discovered a buried stash of old coins, sequestered perhaps fifty years ago, but never recovered.

the old park
Built up in every direction, but it remains.

Things have changed so much since those days that he feels a bit of two minds when visiting the campus now.  Yes, it’s the same place. No it’s not the same place.

The lakes are smaller, for one thing. Turtle Pond hasn’t seen a turtle in years.  They don’t even call it that, anymore.

The canals are gone. That road along Aiwan Lake is actually an old filled-in canal. In the old days, it was part of a watery network that ran for miles. Not only could you sail across campus, you could even sail out to the distant “Water Park,” Tianjin’s answer to New York’s Central Park.

My friend’s father (who is actually a bit younger than me) is the man who named Aiwan Lake.  It comes from two characters that mean “love” and “evening.”  It’s meant to honor the pensioners who lived (and still live) next to it. As I ride my bike to class in the morning, I can glance through the iron fence and see such old guys, sometimes in groups, sometimes alone, sometimes with younger men, practicing their Tai Chi to warm up in the coolness of morning.

The old guy just stepped out

On the edge of that pond, for many years, lived an old man in a small tent. At least he lived there during the warm-weather months. He embodied the spirit of Aiwan.  I took this picture of his tent during the spring of 2009.

He raised ducks and geese on the pond, grew roses and other flowers  in a stone flowerbed, and studied Japanese in his copious free time.  Most times that I passed the tent, he seemed to be hosting visitors.  I used to write about him when I first arrived here, and about his ducks – Moe, Larry, and Curly. Yeah, Curly was the first to go. In the grand scheme of things, isn’t it always Curly who’s first to go?

sidewalk and space
clean and clear

This old man was not the last to go, though. One day, I suddenly noticed his tent, crushed to the ground as if flattened by a steam roller.  It maintained that state of shock for weeks, until one day, it finally picked itself up and wandered off.   Neighbors fed the remaining ducks.  They reported that the man’s daughters had fetched him. So now he lived with them. So I guess he’s doing okay. His departure seemed to mark the passing of an “old guard” — not just the person himself, but a way of life. Now, even the ducks have vanished. Maybe they’re off visiting  the turtles.

I snapped this picture at the same spot this week.  The “new guard” here is parents walking their kid to kindergarten. I wonder, though. Will they walk this plane much longer?

Our university’s big move to the countryside, involving thousands of people, is coming soon, probably over the summer, but nobody has officially announced how it’s to be done.  Nobody knows precisely who’s staying. Nobody knows precisely who’s going.  We only know that most are moving on, a few will remain,  while a fortunate even fewer will make Lotso™ money from developing a large piece of this old campus into a business park.  In fact, it’s the same piece where my friend once lived and grew up.

Some teachers have purchased homes out near the “new area.” They won’t be as convenient as the homes they have now, if only because they’re located much further from the job site, and a heck of a lot further from the city. There’s not much public transportation out there, yet, either. “Some day” there will be.  But, whatever. Shouldn’t the burgeoning automobile fleet take care of such minor details, and tide everybody over for a few years?  It’s too far for walking, but driving’s no problem. Hmmm.  Where have I heard that before?

water park and tianjin tower
plenty of space at the water park.

Well, the thought of the “water park” inspired me to stop by there over the weekend. What a great perquisite to living in this city!

When I first saw it in 1998 it was surrounded by a high fence, and charged an admission fee. That all changed a few years ago.  The fences dropped, leaving a little short frill of painted ironwork that even oldsters could vault.  It makes the grounds seem an accessible part of  the city, and not a walled-off facility.

A swelling in the corridor.
A swelling in the corridor.

And vaults aren’t necessary to  gain access.  The ticket kiosks were shuttered. Now anybody in the city can wander in without cost, and so, many of them do. And at the same time, the landscaping and structures have been upgraded.

These new facilities attract  a constant flow of strollers whose warm presence is what gives the place its real meaning. There aren’t quite so many now that the season is turning colder,  but there are still plenty, their population dwarfed in the picture by the huge expanse of the grounds.

lots of corridors
lots of corridors

It’s a place for birdwatching.  It’s a place for you and your twenty friends to practice ballroom dancing. It’s a place for clubs and organizations to set up displays. It’s a place for just you and your one friend to hang out.

It’s a place for men to gather around unending public games of chess.  And if it rains, you can all duck under some traditional long corridors, spacious enough to conduct dance sessions or almost any other activity.

And adjoining the water park is an amusement park for the kiddies.  The ferris wheel appears in the picture above. There’s also a double-decker carousel, a little Casey Junior type mini roller-coaster, and even my childhood favorite – the bumper cars.

Bumper Cars - the old stand-by
Bumper Cars – the old stand-by

And all this festivity is infused with snack and souvenir shops, including the venerable favorite — cotton candy.  Little plaster statues of cartoon-like characters overrun the place, blazing smiles of amusement and friendship.

There is only one plaster human figure among them, a character that I had hoped would have disappeared by now. Alas, he was still lurking out there this weekend.

Blue-eyed ne-er do well.
First glimpse of a foreigner

The sole human plaster figure sprawls just inside the park entrance. It’s a blue-eyed foreigner, fat and drunk but not afraid of further intoxication.

In fact, he’s drinking beer from a bottle when all the time he could have had draft!  How daft.

I don’t know. I watched people taking souvenir portraits with it, and reflected that for many kids, this would be their first contact with the apparition of a foreigner.  To me, it mars what’s otherwise a superlative experience in a well-thought-out park. But maybe for most folks it’s just not that big of a deal.

General Nie rides again
The general oversees the construction of the ramparts.

I had also come to the park that day to snap a picture of an equestrian statue, located just down the block from the entrance. It’s General Nie Shicheng. He led the Chinese Army in this area about a hundred years ago.   The general had come up in conversation recently because of his role in the “Boxer Rebellion,” when he also lost his life to a foreign bomb right here in Tianjin.

It always seems odd to us Californians to  actually stand at the location a major event featured in a high school history book so long ago.  To us in California, except for the Bear Flag revolt, history is something that mostly takes place out of state, Jedidiah Smith notwithstanding.

Yet here I was. Tianjin stood literally in the middle of the Boxer rebellion, whose major actions took place just north and just south of us.   For those Californians who may have forgotten the event, think of an army of Bruce Lees. You can learn more about the general here.

Well, I think I’ll close now before I give in to the dark side of pedantry. Actually, you’ve been spared. I’ve written quite a bit more than what appears here, but I keep erasing it.  Meantime, the government continues its stepped-up blocking of ever more web sites and Internet access from outside the country, so you could be forgiven if you thought you hadn’t heard from me because of that.

I hope then, that you enjoy the pictures and that it might give you some insight into what life’s like here “on the ground.”