Monthly Archives: August 2015

Summer in the States

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

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

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

As Time Goes By

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

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

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


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

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

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

Cover snap - English study with Chinese Characteristics
The Book Cover

Of course, book content is another question altogether.

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

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

China News

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

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

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

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

And finally,

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

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

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

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

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

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

The New Campus

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

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

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

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

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


The Wild West Fest
Picnic at the Wild West Fest

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

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

Traditional Blacksmith
Traditional Blacksmith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Long Drive

Klamath River Rest Stop
Klamath River Rest Stop

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

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

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

Lunch at the rest stop
Lunch at the rest stop

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

It was great.

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

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

Lake Shasta
Lake Shasta

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

Back in the Bay Area

Alameda County Art
Alameda County Art

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

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

The Destruction Derby
The Destruction Derby

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

Claremont Diner
Claremont Diner

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

Lake Chabot

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

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

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

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

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