Monthly Archives: November 2015

Addendum – Feeling the Cold

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

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

This is the view from my front door this morning.

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

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

Anshan Xi Dao without traffic

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

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

2015-11-19 Section 163 Panorama

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Couple and Dogs


Feeling the Heat in Tianjin

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

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

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

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

Packing Heat

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

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

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

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

Nanjing Road on November 16
Nanjing Road on November 16

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

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

A Tale of Two Campuses

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

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

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

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

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

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

Manual Labor

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

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

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

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

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

Main Gate in town
The main gate for fifty years

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

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

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

2015-11-11 Room 301 Panorama 3



And here’s after:

2015-11-11 Room 301 Panorama 5



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

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

2015-11-11 Room 301 Panorama with students




Grand Vistas

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fried rice and noodles
Path-side Fried Rice

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

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

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

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

Walking down market lane
The path, crowded by merchants

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

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

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

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

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

Market Entrance

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monumental Considerations.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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