Happy 2015

Happy New Year!

Teacher's Meeting at the Columbia RiverSo here’s our faculty meeting that took place this week at the new campus site, far away from everything else in the world.

Just kidding. Actually, we all jetted out to the Columbia River near Portland for our meeting. That’s Washington in the background.

The new campus site will be almost as disruptive as a commute to the Columbia would be, though. It’s painful to listen to all the problems that will be caused in just our small group, let alone the hundreds of other faculty and thousands of  students involved in this  exile  exodus.

It would seem that, despite its reputation otherwise, this country attaches little regard to education as a system. Of course, teachers here are no richer than their American peers, but moreover, as soon as the real estate values go up, universities are moved out to the wastelands, regardless of any impact on education, or education’s enrichment of the cities. This is not only true in Tianjin, but in most Chinese cities. Universities become outliers in far-flung satellite groups, disconnected from city centers, isolated for greater control, while rich real estate investors make a killing by developing the evacuated land.

Still, it wouldn’t be so bad if it hadn’t been handled with such utter disregard for the people affected. For example, we had long been promised public transportation for when the school opened. No ground has yet been broken for that. There’s no housing adjacent to the university. The closest housing developments lie 8 kilometers away (that’s about 5 miles). It’s a pleasant half-hour bike ride in the spring and fall, but summer and winter will tell another story.  It probably means that more cars will be purchased by people who really can’t afford them.  Unhindered by city traffic, they’ll spout even more hydrocarbons into the air.

There are also no elementary or high schools for staff families. There are no nearby businesses, at least not yet. And there are no places, other than dormitories, to stay the night on campus.

So the comparison to the wild lands around the Columbia River is not far from the mark.

Oh, and nobody will actually know for sure until February or March who will stay and who will go.  I keep thinking that if this university, the oldest in China, the foundational institution, is being tossed about like this, then what must other schools have to put up with?

On the other hand, a university education here is affordable even for farmers from the countryside. Nobody talks about turning the educational process itself into a profit center, like they do in the USA,  saddling students with debts unimaginable compared to when I attended university, not to mention the dismantling and privatizing of public education in general. No, they just talk about taking the land.  So I guess it could be worse.

Actually, just under two-thirds of the campus will be moving, including all the undergraduates. Those who remain should find the campus pretty roomy, at least until more businesses move in.

Actually, the connection between business and higher education is much more explicit here than it is in America. Take, for example, a shiny new building called the “1895 Building” (named after the year this university was founded) which was erected in a single year across the street from the main campus.

1895 BuildingI took this picture of it last March. It’s the building painted the color of gold bullion.

Except for some street-level shops, it houses an architectural firm attached to the university . I am told that this company ranks about the same as a normal university department in the governing hierarchy, and that it functions within the university just like any other department.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis picture shows a view from the 1895 building.  Tianjin University lies in the foreground.

The same grad students that study in the regular architecture department on campus also contribute their labor to this firm.  They do earn a small amount of pay. Oh, did I mention that the architecture grad program is not moving next year? In fact, they’ll be expanding into an otherwise abandoned building on campus.

Actually, there’s a lot to be said for business-educational partnerships.   It would seem, though, that there’s little use for education other than to gain skills to help companies make profits.

The Marvelous Weather

 It’s been cold, though apparently not as cold as Colorado or Iowa.  Temperatures dip far below freezing every evening and morning, though.

SkatersThe upside to the frozen ponds is the skating. A huge expanse beneath the lofty  Tianjin Television Tower is devoted to skating every year. I took this shot a few days ago at dusk.  The main skating area is actually in the distance. The shiny roped-off circular area closer to the camera is most likely too thin yet to be safe (?)

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People here don’t simply skate. They also drive a large variety of sleds and sled-like vehicles. These can be seen by enlarging the picture above. Actually, here is another shot that shows some of them a bit closer up.

Merry Christmas

 One of my biggest privileges here has been some  friendships with a small group of journalists. I’ve written about them from time to time over the years, and also traded pictures with them on occasion.

Christmas at Gloria Jean'sIn fact, the picture at right, which portrays students celebrating Christmas at the nearby Gloria Jean’s Coffee , actually got published in a local paper, as part of a conglomeration of Christmas shots. Unfortunately, the design overlapped the pivotal figure, the girl tied to  her computer, lost in cyberspace.  Can you see her? This obliviousness to actual space is perhaps typical of our modern life everywhere.

I always contrast this connected-yet-isolated condition with my many trips to Europe back in the old days, when nobody could get in touch with me for months at a time. What a different world.  Everyone I interacted with on those trips actually interacted with me.

Christmas magicianAnyway, these parties, like all annual feasts here, always feature the same activities — lots of games where guests can embarrass themselves singing or performing silly stunts, and some planned performances, such as magicians.

Yeah, this year I attended two local Christmas celebrations, and they both featured magicians.  Maybe it’s finally time for me to bring my “dove pan” and “linking rings” from home.  Anyway, the prestidigitator in the picture at left was pretty handy with card tricks and needle swallowing.

Professional Pictures

One of my journalist friends shared some pictures with me recently. I wrote her some feedback, some response to them.  I deliberately didn’t ask what the subjects were, though I’ve since discovered that the first picture comes from a “veteran’s home.”

But hey, this is a post modern world, isn’t it? Art stands on its own. Once it’s out there, the interpretation is up to the beholder, right?

Anyway, I thought that people on this list might also enjoy these shots.  It’s an opportunity to see this country through its own eyes. And if we don’t know the exact circumstances for each shot, maybe that’s better. Believe me, if you ever come to live here off the beaten tourist path, you’ll discover that discerning the true conditions of things is rarely easy.

Anyway, these are my original reactions. If you have any, I’d love to hear them.
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Veterans resthomeThe first picture with the middle-aged men strikes me as very lonely and impersonal.  The men are all dressed alike (the green jacket makes this even more clear) and they emerge from identical doors. Yet they are no group. Their circumstances push them together.

The surfaces of the building are clean, but hard and merciless. The men’s faces seem interchangeable.  They are not so hard. The unsmiling wear of a graceless existence impacts their appearance. None smile.  They should be presiding “in family” over the younger generations, their functional apparel exchanged for clothes of honor. Instead, they find themselves cut off and penned up. They don’t appear to be sick, but perhaps some other malady has pricked society into warehousing them this way.

03The baseball players, seen from that angle, tower like superheroes.  They are dirtied by the mud of good honest effort. The intensity in their faces contrasts with their older peers in the picture above. These young men are strong and confident. The  crowd together in a huddle, as a team, intent and purposed. Overconfidence stains the two at left. They lounge with hands on  hips, their success guaranteed by merely showing up.

Their uniforms, elaborate and colorful, unite them as a team — the Tianjin Lions. I would be tempted to Photoshop a blue sky with racing clouds above their heads.

53The young graduate clutches his hopes, now fulfilled. As inscribed on the stone, “dreams become reality.” The wind stirs his gown. It is a spirit that will lift him and his stone into a successful life. His smiling face tilts to one side, pressed against the rock like a young boy clinging to his mother. He is carefree. Decorum floats away into the air. The young man on the right, meanwhile, readies his cap, as if planning to fly off next. Or perhaps he’s just gripping it against the wind which streams into him from his highly-placed comrade.

BB5G3614Our mutual friend Du Hai in his days of longer, more tousled, hair, happily flashes a victory sign. He has just bagged a photo, or perhaps is about to bag it. His right hand cradles his weapon. The day is bright, with firm shadows. His quarry rests peacefully, quietly snacking. Does he snack on food, or on the latest news?  Deerlike, a brown sweater his coat of fur, he sits out of focus. He is but sustenance for the black-clad panther standing behind him, so close, so happy, so unannounced.

A women walks a bicycle respectfully through a temple. What sort of temple is it? The miraculously straight lines of demarcation enclose a lofty space above the fans, above the chandeliers. The space’s white pureness soars in contrast to the muddy browns of the world below.

BB5G3642The columns, like dim and standing arrows, transform into whiteness as they hurl into that higher plane. They point the way. Will the woman strive to leave the world of the bicycle for the ecstatic, yet spare, realm above?  Will she have to stage herself on the hard green seats, harmoniously bound to the stern, enclosing, angular walls? In the distance, a humbler figure ventures to enter. He’s escaping that same outer confusion, an indistinct world without guideposts.. It’s bright, but without form. Will he succeed where she may not?

DSC_5086The cat stares directly towards the viewer. His tongue hangs out. Is he thirsty? No, his coat seems tousled, as if he had just emerged from a soaking. Is he just happy to have escaped all his problems? It’s not always easy to perceive the thoughts of a cat. This cat himself is hard to perceive. His body stretches out of focus, but his face is sharp, emphasizing his gaze. (nice use of shallow depth of field). He stands amidst a formed, yet formless backdrop, a sheet that conceals the real world.  So much mystery here. Like the Cheshire Cat, only his eyes and his smile remain.

NG2R0256A queen sits proudly on a throne, her hair piled high like a crown. She gazes down her nose, away from her high-flying subjects, who merit not a glance. They stand at attention within the flying arch. Starched and stiff, they wait on cords. And they wait. She won’t let them clutter her perfect thoughts. She prefers the light. At first glance, all seems disheveled. True symmetry emerges only gradually. And light enters the passageway, which no longer seems as insulated as it first appeared. And still, the stuffed shirts wait.

NG2R8837Two figures huddle behind a veil of redness, reduced to shadows.  Their hands seem to touch. Perhaps they are paying each other. Perhaps they are taking things.  Perhaps they are playing at cards.  Perhaps their game will capture winnings for one of them. Perhaps one is a client, and one provides service. One smokes, addicted to nicotine. A bright, hidden light bears down on them.  An empty chair stands ready for the next actor in this shadow puppet drama. Additional curtains cover the side walls. What lies behind them?

NG2R8926The people in front don’t count. They have already rejected what she has to offer. She gazes off in expectation of others to come. Her child, of course, does count. He accepts what she can offer. Such a variety of goods, yet no one willing to buy. Feeding two mouths, she appears not careworn.  A tenuous existence, but they seem strong. They seem healthy.  Does she have everything she needs?

And how do they get all that stuff to their spot on the sidewalk? All those boxes, too many to carry very far. Who helps her?

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Administration BuildingI hope that you enjoyed these photos as much as I did.   I leave you with one last winter shot – the Administration building of our school, taken three  weeks ago when it snowed. (It has not snowed since then).