I had meant to write on May Day, but things got away from me. I’d been struggling mightily with perhaps staying here one more year. I had actually reached the decision to stay. But when that offer was accepted, no peace resulted. Instead, anxiety welled up in my brain, clogging my thinking, and keeping me from sleeping for two weeks. What was going on inside me?
The issues and factors involved in this decision are too numerous to detail in any email, even in one of my typically loquacious meanderings. So consider yourself spared. However, some of my friends here were not so lucky, particularly J and J, Jeanne and Jeanette, whose ears of steel may remain permanently bent ever after.
Long story short — I’m headed home at last. After eight years, I’ll join the churning turnover of foreigners and Chinese alike from this turbulent city. My old friend Sunny recently asked me what I meant by that. And off the top of my head, the following names fell out, people whom I’d gotten to know pretty well from my earlier years here:
Rob Moore and his wife, Lonnie and his whole family, Steve Wedgwood and his whole family, my Ukrainian colleague Inga, my Canadian friend Jane, my journalist friend Du Hai, my New York intellectual buddy Pete, former students, now friends, such as Andy Yu, Liang Juan, Wang Ruijia, and other Chinese friends — my long-time ping-pong partner Liao Chuan, my friend Julie, and of course Li Xiang and his wife.
None of these good friends live in Tianjin today. A concomitant exodus of acquaintances has occurred as well. Thank goodness for me that a few, like the aforementioned J and J, still remain!
Well, as my father pointed out this week, maybe it’s time that I simply rested for a month, or for five, and let my frazzled brain heal. And I do feel deeply fatigued. I’m excited about the possibility of regaining some of my old memory capacity, as well as regaining some old friends in the Bay Area. And at this point, my family needs me in America.
And how did my inner self react when I emailed our college that I needed to go home? It’s a bit embarrassing to admit, but as soon as I hit the email’s “send” button, I dissolved in tears. Partly it was a process of finally letting go, and partly it was a profound sadness at leaving this place, a home that has meant so much to me over so many years, and abandoning the life that I had gradually built for myself. But my inner self seems to concur in the decision, difficult though it was. And I finally slept well last night.
The signs of a full life
He had come to Tianjin University eight years ago, the same summer that I came to teach at the same university. And this summer he will repatriate to Africa, with both a bachelor’s degree and an advanced Engineering degree in hand. And so for both of us, it was our final musical turn on the church stage. His dream is to develop a university like this one in Kenya.
If the kid of eight years ago had told me that, I would have nodded indulgently and said “How nice.” But when the man of today told me that recently, I could look him in the eye and affirm that, yes, this was a task that, though daunting, he could do. Such has been the pleasure of watching him, and others, grow and develop during my sojourn here.
As I head home, I hope to find similar pleasure in the growth of those from the Bay Area, whom I once knew as kids, and who are now fully grown, some even bearing middle-aged spread and sparsely-populated crowns.
Of course, I’ll miss the students here. This pair of pictures, the opening slides of my PowerPoint presentations that week, shows students from each of my two campuses. And despite the huge disparities between those campuses, the students are equally wonderful everywhere.
Although Chinese students are not always easy to teach, they have a profound sense of duty. So whatever outlandish thing the teacher suggests, they’re always willing to at least try it, and with enthusiasm.
In this case, they’ve all dressed up to role-play historical personages. They meet each other across the centuries to exchange views, much like the classic PBS show (authored by Steve Allen) called “Meeting of Minds.”
The purpose of the exercise is not only to practice English skills, but also to practice understanding that another person’s point of view may differ from yours. This skill is one with which many of my students have difficulty.
Here are more “opening shots” from recent PowerPoint presentations.
This old campus shot shows a group of maintenance workers, supervised by a security guard, tossing old bicycles onto the flat bed of a truck. The workers balanced themselves precariously on the spongy pile of tubes and pedals. Amazingly, as the stream of bikes flew through the air and piled on, none of these workers ever bounced off into the street.
Until recently, most of the parked bikes on campus were “abandonware” built up over several years. It was about time that somebody cleared them out.
And why had they been abandoned? Well, for the most part, they’re purchased as “used” for less than the equivalent of $10, or received as gifts from older students. So when a student graduates, unless they can sell it or give it to a friend, it’s just not worth the hassle of finding a way to dispose of it. And in fact, my former student Han Tao had thought to donate his bike to me, even though I didn’t really need another bike. But then, it got stolen anyway.
And one other factor may also promote this campus bike encrustation: the law. It is, in fact, illegal to sell a used bike in the city of Tianjin. I can only imagine that this law is meant to frustrate the bike-thief hordes by depriving them of a market. But like most such impracticalities, it’s widely ignored. And besides, stolen bikes can always be exported into nearby towns that have no such law.
On the other hand, students might think twice about actually selling their old bike. Why take even a miniscule risk of legal problems when there’s no real money to be made from the sale, anyway? Probably, official channels exist for disposing of old bikes, but if they’re like everything else here, they’re fraught with paperwork and procedural hassles. So why not just leave sleeping bikes lie?
Meanwhile, with the exception of bike thieves, people here are loathe to touch somebody else’s abandoned bike (or any other stray property, for that matter). So these ancient derelicts remain parked for years, locked in place like faithful cairn terriers, vainly waiting for the master who will never return.
Over the previous week or so, workers had been piling them up all over campus. In fact, they’d also piled up the bike racks, most of which would no longer be needed.
A notice at the entrance to each dormitory proclaimed their imminent impounding. Those bikes which remained, then, enjoyed that one spectacular final flight into the flatbed of oblivion.
Meanwhile, on the new campus, things are building up, not clearing out. These new-campus gardeners tend young fruit trees located in the largely-undeveloped western arm of the campus.
The smile on this worker’s face is typical. All the workers down there are as friendly and helpful as imaginable. In fact, one of the few pleasures of having to deal with the new campus is the extreme helpfulness of every worker on it.
In the distance, one can make out some tall apartment buildings. These might be the apartments that teachers were being pushed to purchase over the last few years, since they are the closest apartments to the new campus. None of them, of course, is a quick walk away.
They were sold with the promise that markets and other amenities would also develop nearby. This, of course, never happened. So many teachers now would like to unload them and remain living in the city. It’s simply one more example of how one cannot trust high-level leadership to live up to its promises. And I have some experience of my own to add to that narrative. But perhaps that’s a subject for later.
As for the carpets of trees growing everywhere along the new campus’s periphery, it’s good that this otherwise waste land has been marshaled for purposes both productive and “green.” Indeed, I’ve rarely witnessed so many trees all crowded together over vast tracts of land as I’ve seen here, either on the campus itself (like these) or just outside, edging the roads. On the other hand, there’s also a lot to be said for hedgerows.
Are these trees meant for the university, or is the university just leasing the land to companies who sell plants? Or is it a project of the city government? Who knows?
I only know that this particular field is located across the lakes from the classroom buildings, and that it is infested with hordes of screaming mosquitoes. Indeed, two mosquito species pursued me that day, and one species of gnat attempted to block my escape route. It was horrific. And that was in full daylight – just after 9 am! Shouldn’t any self-respecting mosquito be asleep by then?
This Old Campus shot depicts the annual crab-apple blossom festival, a very old tradition at Tianjin University. Why celebrate those blossoms and not others? It’s just another of life’s little mysteries, I guess. Parents and alumni join the present students in admiring both the flowers and springtime weather.
And on that particular day, several students celebrated by gathering around a plastic blossom personification who clutches an acceptance letter from Tianjin University. Now wonder she’s so happy!!
Several blocks of one campus street were closed off to motorized traffic. Little booths lineed the curbs, some for campus clubs, and others for local craftsmen. Beiyang Square, over at the heart of the campus, also filled with such booths. Various performances took place, and many opportunities to purchase or leave memories presented themselves.
I was curious whether any such celebration would take place on the new campus, since that’s where most of the students are these days. But who could I ask?
As it happens, many students straddle both campuses, despite the hour-long bus ride between them. This is a ride that students are not encouraged to take for any but official reasons. We can surmise this from the bus schedule – all the lines to and from the campus shut down daily after 8:30 p.m., the earliest closing time of any bus line in the city.
Anyway, some students have actually moved back to the old campus, not because people want to allow them back into civilization, but because after almost a year, their lab equipment still hasn’t been moved down there. Yeah, something about the promises of high-level leadership.
Anyway, I talked to one of these campus-straddling students. And no, not much crab-apple activity happened down in the new campus this year. Well, maybe someday it will. The carpets of crab-apple trees there are yet short.
As always, when I view the new campus, I see nothing but rectangular brick buildings everywhere, such as this shot from the school of engineering. One lone pedestrian makes his way along the vast processional way to the building entrance.
And as with the engineering building, few actual humans passed by during my moments there. Luckily for my photo, a friendly work-lady swept by to polish up the floor.
The People’s Stadium
Okay — one final entry in my never-ending series of before and after shots. It the Minyuan Stadium, located in the “Five Avenues” area of Tianjin, the former British concession area, and one of the nicest (and most expensive) areas to live in this city. Think of it as Sausalito without the house boats. Tall buildings are forbidden there, in the interest of preserving the historical architecture. Here’s what it looked like a few weeks ago in the early spring:
If you look in the distance for Tianjin’s tallest building – just right of center in the panorama — the Minyuan Stadium is located just below it in the picture. It’s one of the oldest (or perhaps the oldest) sports stadium in China. Here’s a panorama that I took of its back side in 2010:
It’s modeled after the Stamford Bridge stadium in London, England, the favorite stadium of Eric Liddell, the famous Chariot of Fire who was born in Tianjin, got the gold at the 1924 Olympics, and then returned home to become a science teacher at a local Tianjin High School.
Not only did they construct the original stadium to honor Eric Liddell, they located it just a few steps from Liddell’s former residence in Tianjin. This is what his house looks like today — pretty modern for something constructed in the thirties. Actually a lot of the buildings in the Five Avenues areas feature cutting-edge architecture. It’s not just the history that makes them interesting.
When I first got here, a big plaque on Liddell’s house proclaimed his former residence and described his work in Tianjin. That plaque no longer exists. I’ve often wondered why they took it down. The building nowadays is occupied by a business. It’s not used as a residence.
So I was dismayed when they tore down the Minyuan stadium. Perhaps it was getting old and was structurally unsound. Certainly its location in a neighborhood crowded by houses was inconvenient in this age of personal automobiles. There simply wasn’t much parking around the neighborhood.
Among other things, it houses one of the better pizza places in town. There’s even a track made of a soft reddish rubber material where locals can come to jog without jarring their ankles on hard city cement.
All in all, they did a great job, and here’s a panorama of the back side taken this year from the same location as the view above:
I have often felt greatly honored to be a teacher in the same city where Eric Liddell once taught, to serve in the area where he once served. In some ways, I’m not ready to leave, and will never be ready, regardless of the necessity. And certainly Eric Liddell wasn’t ready to leave when he had to.
But the depth of his still-remaining influence gives me hope that, though my contributions to this city can never be as significant as his, something about them may yet last.
And in the meantime, I’m still fulfilling some long-standing goals at the last minute. To wit, this bird, standing on the bed of an ancient tricycle just half a block from my apartment:
In English it’s called a Red-billed Blue Magpie. It must have the longest tail of any member of the crow-jay family. I’ve known about them since I first came here, but just last week was the first time that I actually saw one. And it was so close to my own home!
Unfortunately the picture is not too clear, but I was in a rush, and that’s the best I could do at the time.
And yeah, that’s kind of how I feel about my whole Tianjin experience these days. I was in a rush, and that’s the best I could do at the time. I can only pray that I have done enough.