Monthly Archives: September 2014

The End of September

I’ve been here now for three weeks precisely.  We’ve had two weeks of instruction so far. It’s time for an update.

Quick Notes

As for my feet, they are gradually, very gradually, improving, but far from normal yet. However, I’m beginning to understand the situation better, so I still hold out hope.  I figure, I have two parents whose feet still work normally. Yes, they’re still only in their *early* nineties, but still.   They give me courage to persevere with this, on the theory that the problems are mechanical and not organic.

Hardworking Students
Hardworking Students

It’s amazing, though. No matter how disgruntled or out of sorts I am, put me in front of a class of students, and all my problems disappear.  It’s the same here as it was back in America.  My class schedule is great this year, too. I have four sections which I see once on Tuesday and once again on Thursday. So I’m going from 8 am to 5:30 pm on those two days (with a 2.5 hour break for lunch). And that’s it.  As I always say, compared to any public school job in America, be it elementary school or high school, it’s like playtime on holiday.

So I am also holding office hours and movie nights on Fridays. They are really the highlight of my week.  It’s nice to always look forward, not to the weekend, but to the day *before* the weekend.

The Flight to China

Breakfast Bash
Breakfast Bash

My flight here was smooth. Well, there was one hangup.  The airline put me up at the Hyatt Hotel next to the airport in Korea, and treated me to both dinner and breakfast buffet. Naturally, I over-ate, and paid for it with a sore stomach later.

It was worth it, though  Here’s a picture of their buffet area, taken right before it opened for breakfast. Food counters are spread out over three large regions. Yeah, it was sweet. And sour. And tart. And salty, and every other possibility you might think of, from Italian to Asian and everything in between.

And the air was clear all the way to Tianjin.  I even saw Dalian when we passed it.  And with the change in airline picture-taking rules, I could now  take a picture of all those red and blue roofs that blanket the plain near the Tianjin airport.

Red and Blue Roofs
Roofs and river

The River in the background is called the Hai He.  It connects Tianjin to the coast and the Bohai Sea.  The highway in the foreground does the same thing.

Just upriver from that view, you’ll find some heating towers, and no, it’s not a nuclear plant.

salt and power
Salt and Power

It’s a combination coal-fired electricity / desalination plant.  This region of the world is just as much a desert as Southern California.  The desalination plant is not profitable yet, but every little bit of fresh water helps to keep the local aquifers from depleting.

London’s The Guardian recently wrote a story about it here.

Off to the right from the plant sprouts an apartment ghetto.  They spring up all over the broad plain like mushroom patches.  The whole wide area looks like some architecture department’s project sandbox — a patch of skyscrapers here, a pile of factories there, a hotel/shopping complex way over there, and an airport . . . Oh, yeah, the airport.

On top of everything else,  while I was away, they went and opened a brand-new airport terminal. It dwarfs the “old” Terminal 1, which will now serve international flights only.  I mean, they finished Terminal 1 just six years ago.  Before that, the old facility wasn’t much more than a tower and some portable stairs for boarding the plane from the tarmac.

Terminal 2 was crowded with planes that day, while ours was the only plane pulling up to Terminal 1.

There’s a story about Terminal 2 here.

I found a cab to town, and sat wondering over all the new and strange buildings that I saw all along the way.  Honestly, it’s even more fascinating than the crystal-growing experiments we used to do in junior high.

It’s a Great Hall

Tian An Men
Arriving at Tian An Men square, Beijing.

On Sunday, a small number of us took part in the big banquet / reception for “foreign experts” at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.  It’s the huge conference center on the west side of Tian An Men square.  The day proved to be overcast, but the pollution was not too bad.

I’d previously attended this reception in 2009. Then as now, I was amazed to be seated in the very same room where Nixon and Zhou and a whole bunch of ancillary personnel commemorated their very public meetings in 1972.  It’s where they took those famous pictures of Zhou and Nixon clinking glasses. Gan Bei!!

So five years ago, I wrote this:

Great Hall Tourists
Chinese Tourists wait to cross at the light by the Great Hall.

We each had to show our original official invitation  and a passport to enter.   Everyone was dressed up. Even I wore a tie, for the first time in probably several years. After passing through metal detectors at the door, we entered the building. It was huge. Really huge. We filed into a giant room with a giant staircase. We followed the stairs up to the second floor and then into one of the biggest ballrooms / dining rooms I’ve ever seen, big enough to hold two or three football fields, surrounded by cream-colored columns.  . . . . . . The ceiling was about two stories above the floor, and we marveled at the engineering necessary to make such a giant flat ceiling hold itself up with no supporting columns in the middle. Yes, they don’t call it the *great* hall of the people for nothing.

And they built that hall back in the 1950’s. It took one year. So China’s been the master of the quick build for decades.

All the above comments still apply, and I somehow found my tie again, after all those years.

They wouldn’t let anybody bring in cameras back in 2009, so I had no pictures.  Everyone but me snapped away with their cell phones, though.  My phone back then was too cheap to sport a camera. Well, by now they must have realized it was silly to ban cameras while allowing cell phones, right?

Yeah, you’ve guessed the answer to that one. But now, my cell phone’s camera is almost as good as the camera I had back then, as long as I don’t mind waiting a few seconds for the picture to actually take after pressing the button. And of course, the phone manufacturer  (Samsung) placed the lens right at the spot in the phone where it’s most natural to grip it and cover it with oil from one’s hands. <sigh>

The good news — the food was excellent. In fact, I’d say that, except for the mass meals prepared by my acquaintance Amy  (“The Genius”), the cook at First Pres. Church in Berkeley, it’s the best food I’ve ever had that was served to about 1600 people. (Actually, it was 185 tables, most with ten chairs, and mostly  full).

The Menu

hors d'oeuvres
The hors d’oeuvres.

And yeah, I copied the menu for the curious:

Hors d’oeuvres (Black Pepper Duck Breast, Anchovies, Flavored Chicken, Marinated Bran Dough, Cauliflower, shredded vegetables, vegetarian spring rolls, and bread). They also had some delicious little cakes.

Main Courses:
Soup of Scalp and Bean Curd Slices
Stewed Beef
Kung Pao Turkey (yes, turkey)
Assorted vegetables
Sauteed Salmon
Sweet Sago and Pumpkin
Vegetarian Curry Fried Rice

And for dessert, they had melon (like cantaloupe) and watermelon.

The schedule

Well, we entered at 5:00 pm.  The servers even tucked in our napkins for us.  They gave each person  a large glass for drinking and a small glass with a dollop of wine for toasting.  Dinner itself was served after the national anthem, the toast to China, and the featured speaker.

The high official came out on the stage. His speech was printed in our programs, both in English and Chinese – a convenient Chinese language review, which we studied as the speaker read his own copy out loud. And yes, like most such speakers here, he read it slowly and clearly without glancing up from his lectern.   One got the impression that he’d rather be home with his grandkid, but by gosh, he’d do his duty faithfully and somehow get through this.   And again, that’s standard and typical for such talks.   Everyone appreciated his efforts.

The dinner was great. I usually don’t like stew, but this stew was marvelous, pungent, and full-bodied, and best when poured over the rice. The salmon was another stand-out. Well, I always do favor salmon.

And then, as 7pm approached, the servers suddenly  filled with nervous energy. They feverishly collected anything left empty from each table.  And when the hour arrived, every guest stood up as one and prepared to exit. Some detoured through the bathrooms, while others ascended the stairs of the vast podium. I did both. And it was while standing on the latter that I got the following panorama.

The Great Banquet Hall
The Great Banquet Hall

Next to each table stands one of the servers, their presence and stature clarifying one’s apprehension of this wonderful room’s vast scale.

A picture of Zhou and Nixon, for easy comparison, is here.

Well, I have a few days off, so I should be able to write another one of these soon. That’s all for now, then!

I do hope to hear from you sometime!  Just a line or two would be nice.


The end of August

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWell, it’s the end of August. The back-yard geraniums that had bloomed in June when I arrived now are blooming again to commemorate my imminent departure on Saturday, Sept 6.

Time to migrate to the East. It’s been an odd summer. As many know, my feet all but broke down completely, so I didn’t do much. Just didn’t feel like standing up, let alone getting out. On the other hand, between two physical therapists and one podiatrist, I have a plan to regain my walking abilities. So far it’s working. My hope is that by December I will once again be circling the Tianjin University campus, as I often did with my friend Jeanne, which also yielded many of the photos that I’ve included in these messages over the last few months.

Before I depart, I would like to post a few more pictures of America, particularly for those overseas  who wonder what there is to do in America without having to walk too much!  County Fairs are not the only things happening!


I spent a wonderful two weeks in Portland, visiting my mother and sister and some foot specialists.

Portland, of course, is situated at the end of the Columbia gorge, a gigantic canyon filled with the Columbia River, one of the largest rivers on America’s western end.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe roads ascend the cliffs, and follow them along. Close-passing logging trucks proved a bit hair raising in their speed, weight, and width. Well, maybe walking along the road at that location was not the wisest idea. It reminded me of my father telling me of his adventurous youth, piloting such trucks through some of the nearby forests, and how a fully-loaded logging truck (like the one in the picture) is not easy to stop.   They also kick up quite a breeze when they pass by your ear.

2014-07-16 Dam panorama 2 partial croppedThe Columbia River, because of the steep cliffs, is a great place to build a dam. In fact, there are about a dozen dams along it, and another two dozen on its major tributaries.  Unlike the situation in California, water is not stored to assuage the thirst of the land. In Western Oregon, it rains all the time!!  Instead, the dams mainly generate electricity. And in fact, about two-thirds of all electricity in that part of the country comes from dams.

The Bonneville Dam

The dam pictured above is the Bonneville Dam, the closest one to Portland. It’s actually a dam complex. The picture shows the high-tension electrical wires. The closest white water in the river is the entrance to a “fish ladder” that allows migrating fish to pass through the dam to their spawning grounds upriver.   I still remember coming here as a kid to see the fish climbing the ladder.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnd in fact, we stopped to watch the ladder-climbing fish. And there’s even a viewing chamber with a glass wall in the side of the ladder to see them close up. And as shown in this picture, I’m not the only one who goes wild with a camera at times like these.

Most of the fish were salmon, of course, but we also saw many lampreys. Lampreys are the cutest fish this side of hagfish. They attach themselves to other fish with their sucker mouths. A ring of sharp teeth penetrates the fish’s scales and the lamprey feasts a la Dracula on the fish’s blood.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAInterestingly, lampreys also use these sucking mouth parts to glom onto the glass in the viewing chamber, to take a break in the swift-moving current, like the fish in the picture.  It held onto the glass and let it’s long body wave “in the breeze” like a banner on a windy day.  If you want to see the teeth, just click on the picture for the full-sized version.

And here are the actual electricity-producing OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAturbines.  People on organized tours, in fact, are allowed to walk out onto one of them.  If you look close you can see the bridge to it. Unfortunately, no groups were operating at the time we arrived, so we could only view them from the floor above.  Without people in the picture, it’s hard to appreciate the scale of this apparatus. But luckily, somebody came riding across the floor on a giant tricycle when I snapped the picture.

It was a lovely trip that day. Highlights not only included the dam and several impressive views, but also some new pajamas from the world-famous Pendleton mills, located on the Columbia’s Washington shore.

Powell’s Books

IMG_2303 Powell's Books in Portland cropped for wallpaperAnd speaking of scale, for decades, I’ve been trying to snap a photo that truly represents the immensity of Powell’s main bookstore on Burnside.  I don’t really think it’s possible, though. My favorite picture so far shows just the corner of the building.  I snapped it on a cool winter’s evening a few months ago. Powell’s was an early adopter of the coffee-browsing bookstore culture. The thought of that warm coffee just on the other side of the glass wall was overwhelming on that chilly evening.

IMG_5178 powell's exterior cropped for wallpaperThis summer, I snapped a photo from the other side of the building. The size is more apparent in this shot, but there’s little warmth in the composition.

Pictures taken inside also fail to demonstrate the size — the books are stacked so thick and tall that a photographer can hardly step back far enough to view more than a case at a time, except at the staircases or through the windows. Here are some examples.

IMG_5123 (Large)IMG_5121 (Large)IMG_5116 (Large)Anyway, Powell’s Books is still one of the great independent booksellers. Book lovers should heed the call if they’re headed towards the Northwest.

Rock and Roll

IMG_5219 Ed's House of Gems cropped for wallpaperOnly a few blocks from our residence in Portland stands Ed’s House of Gems. For people who like rocks, fossils, and shells, it’s like a museum where everything is for sale.

It’s stood at that location since before I was old enough to remember.  Ed’s furnished the Nautilus shell that I used in class for many years. It’s where I bought a Jurassic-Park-like piece of amber with insects inside. And let’s not forget the trilobites.

IMG_5207 (Large)IMG_5209 (Large)They have rocks in every stage of finishing – from just dug out, to polished to a high sheen, to mounted as earrings and brooches.  And also every stage from cheap to expensive.  It’s really a wonderful variety in all respects. Since I was a kid, they also added a back room, lockable at night, full of their most unusual items.

IMG_5215 (Large)I can’t say enough good things about them, and I don’t even work for them. Well, they deserve all the free advertizing they can get. If anybody from overseas (or underseas) ever comes to visit us in Portland, plan on a trip to Powell’s and to Ed’s.

Bay Area Highlights

And actually, I did have an overseas visitor in the Bay Area this summer — one of that group of Tianjin journalists which I’ve been so lucky to know over the years.  She was here in the Bay Area for only three days, but we really took in a lot.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnd I had a newly-purchased telephoto lens to try out.  Here, for example, is an American Great Egret, caught stalking fish (and catching them) on San Francisco Bay.

Despite my having taught elementary school for so many decades, it was my first trip to Crab Cove in Alameda, a place full of crabs and the creatures who consume them.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASome of the birds, like this egret, can be seen all year round. Others, like this group of Pacific Golden Plover, I was lucky to spot as they wended their way by on their annual migration.

Anyway, besides the birds, there were plenty of invertebrates, from crustaceans to worms, as well as a double-helping of ground squirrels, who climbed right onto the picnic table to snatch the food given to us by our neighbors up the street the previous evening.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe squirrels who attacked our table were considerably fatter than the lean one in this picture.  I didn’t think they deserved a picture, however.

Anyway, there’s also a visitor center with living fish exhibits. I can see why so many elementary school classes have visited there over the years.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe also took in the Oakland Museum.  It has three levels for art, nature, and history.

And I have to say, it’s odd to visit a history museum and see exhibits of items that I remember from real life, such as the Doggie Diner sign in the section on California Car Culture.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe also stopped by Fenton’s in Oakland for the East Bay’s premier ice cream experience. Amazingly, and probably for the first time since I was in high school, I found a parking space in their tiny lot.

Yeah, I did take a picture of the ice cream itself, but there’s no need to torture the readers of this message with the image of an item that they can’t reach.

Did we ever get to San FrOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAancisco? Yes, and the highlight was the beach, Ocean Beach, south of Cliff House.

The naturalists among you would have noticed a shoal of Vellela Vella, also known as “By-the-wind-sailors” which had washed ashore.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI was able to drop into “docent mode” and explain these little creatures to some passers-by. What looks like an individual animal is actually a colony of tiny anemone-like creatures, similar to the Portuguese Man-o-war, but not dangerous. The sail is constructed by specialized members of the colony, and it does indeed catch the wind, enabling the entire colony to move about the ocean’s surface to reach new food sources. Usually, they’re found far out at sea, but this time, the wind had blown them onto shore.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe also visited other parts of Golden Gate Park, including the AIDS memorial garden, and the Japanese Garden. I was disappointed to find, though, that the arboretum, formerly free and open, now charges a rather expensive entrance fee.

And speaking of that, I discovered that there are no longer any toll-takers on the Golden Gate bridge!  If you don’t have the electronic payment system on your car, then it snaps a picture of your license plate, and you get the bill in the mail a couple weeks later. And it’s $7.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERADid we ever get to Chinatown? Yeah, but not to the San Francisco version. We actually tried to get there, but it’s simply too difficult to negotiate that neighborhood in a car, let alone find a place to park, let alone one that doesn’t cost an arm or a leg.

So we visited the Chinatown in Oakland, instead. Arguably, it was a better choice anyway, because it’s not so tourist-oriented. What you see are ordinary people leading normal lives. And the traffic is a little bit heavy, but not bad, and parking was easy to find, too.

2014-08-13 Laurence Hall Berkeley Panorama (Custom) (3)The final stop was the Lawrence Hall of Science in Berkeley, for that magnificent view of almost the entire bay, framed by fog falling through the hills from the outer coast. Again, those with quick Internet connections can click the panorama and enjoy the view for themselves.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe final shot for this post is a shot of Castro Valley’s beloved Lake Chabot, taken from a slightly unusual vantage point, the trail along the top of the hills, which my feet have healed enough to enable me to reach for the first time this summer.  My friends the Smiths call it the “dog path,” because dogs can be walked off leash. Indeed, most of the strollers I encountered had dogs with them, and all of them were friendly.