Monthly Archives: December 2015

Happy White Christmas

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

The Community Band

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hazardous Air in Tianjin
Hazardous Air in Tianjin

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

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

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

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

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

The Kidnapped Statue!

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

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

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

Heading for Lunch
Heading for Lunch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Unique Souvenir

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

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

Please Release Me

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

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

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

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

Another Winter Hoopoe

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

How does such a situation get resolved?

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

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

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

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

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

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