Happy May Days from Tianjin

Spring

Spring has sprung, and, in typical Tianjin fashion, bounced back back and forth. We went from a week at 40-degree highs (Fahrenheit) to a week of eighty-degree highs to a week of 50-degree highs (with rain).  When I began writing this, it was 62, but two days later it was back to the eighties again, where it still is, having reached a humid 90 yesterday.  Must be summer arriving.

Fortunately, our concrete massif of a building has not had time enough to absorb the heat, so it’s still nice and cool inside.

The Tianjin Water Park
The Tianjin Water Park

Somewhere in the midst of all that meteorological confusion arrived a perfect day. Actually, it was Monday, Star Wars Day (“May the Fourth be with you.”) and the pollution suddenly dropped to reasonable levels.  I had taken some out-of-town friends to our local water park and zoo, so we climbed into a tower and snagged the view seen above.  As I so often say, Tianjin really is a beautiful place, if only the air were cleaner more often.

The Water Park

The Floating Walkway
The Floating Walkway

The “water park” by the way, receives that moniker because “water park” translates its Chinese name, 水上公园. So don’t expect to find a water slide. The park  simply celebrates water, which flows every which way throughout the city.  After all, the name Tianjin itself means “Heavenly Ford,” indicating that, from ancient times, you couldn’t navigate  the region without getting your toes wet.

One cool park feature, which I hadn’t noticed until that day, was a floating walkway that leads strollers through a particularly marshy and reed-infested natural part of the central lake.  Amongst the reeds I found one of the biggest, fattest, wartiest toads I’ve ever seen.

Indeed, the park is a great place to spot wildlife of all kinds, particularly birds.

Wide Squares at the water park
Wide Squares at the water park

When I first started living here, six years ago, the park was not nearly so nice. It was enclosed by a high forbidding iron fence and they charged admission. Everything  inside seemed cheap and dusty.  A couple years later, they had scrubbed and upgraded all the facilities, lowered the fence to a height that even old guys could vault, and let the rest of the city just flow in – admission cost free.  Indeed, there’s a crowd of old guys that, contrary to all the remaining rules, invades the place every morning for a bracing morning dip in the lake.

Most invasions, though, take place on the weekends, when the long corridors and wide squares attract groups of musicians, dancers, chess players, and Tai Chi practitioners.

The Zoo

rhino horn
The rhino horn, available for petting (though nobody did).

The zoo adjoins the water park. And I wish that they could get whomever manages the water park to manage it, too. When so much of the city has made so much progress, it seems stuck back in the old days, a couple decades ago.  It’s still an okay place to see animals, but badly in need of an upgrade.

The cages resemble those seen in the west generations ago. What’s amazing to me is that if you want to reach over to touch, or feed, the giraffes and rhinos, you can. And the same is true for many of the other animals.  Of course, in some ways, it’s cool to be able to come so close. Where else could I get such a lovely giraffe portrait, taken from directly under the creature’s head?

Giraffe Portrait
Giraffe Portrait

In addition to being bad for the animals, it looks to me like lawsuit$ waiting to happen. Of course, legal niceties don’t work quite the same way here, so nobody’s really concerned about that.  On the other hand, there is the vibrant social media, where complaints can mushroom overnight.

And the zoo definitely has potential, if someone were only willing to invest some serious cash into it.  I saw many workers that day working steadily to keep things neat and presentable, but when the facilities are crumbling and outmoded, there’s only so much that they can do.

Dinosaurs by the lake
Dinosaurs by the lake

And the zoo has its own lake, with boats for hire, just like in the water park. And thank goodness they chose to keep their dinosaurs isolated on a little island in the middle.  If only Jurassic Park could have done the same!

But on the other hand, even the pandas that I remember from my previous zoo visit, eight years ago, were missing.  Taking their place was a twin pair of Malayan Sun Bears.

Food Highlight of the Month

Later, the same zoo-visiting friends all gathered at our nearby “Crazy Chen’s” restaurant. The name makes it sound like a chain which might advertise on late night TV, but actually it’s not a chain, but one of the best restaurants in our neighborhood.

Crazy Chen's Chinese Delights.
Crazy Chen’s Chinese Delights.

I don’t really remember what this dish was called, but it was glorious.

The middle of the plate is piled with lamb, chopped and fried, with onions, various red and green peppers and cilantro.

Using chopsticks, you gather it into the little pockets, along with the pre-stuffed lettuce.

I don’t know how traditional this dish may be – certainly everything else on the menu was traditional — but again, it demonstrates one of the many  Chinese delights that Americans will never enjoy at their local Panda Express.

Tianjin University

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
“Yeah, I really did wear that.”

I like to include the pictures that I present twice a week as the first slide in each lesson’s PowerPoint presentation.

First up, from about a month ago, a young romantic couple cements their relationship with a picture on campus, snapped by a tree-climbing photographer.  It was early spring, and love was in the air. I can just imagine, 20 years from now, the couple’s adolescent kid saying “Dad, did you really wear things like that back then?” or maybe “What were you thinking???”

The Ad Building
Communist-era architecture.

Next up, the back window of the administration building. I had visited there that day to sign up for one more year teaching English.

It was a hard decision, actually.   I’ve had various little health issues for the last couple years, and health care here is not as convenient as it is (fortunately for me) in America.  Yeah, I sure do thank my lucky stars to have had a good union job during my working years.  My health care costs now are so much cheaper than most of my non-teaching friends.

Anyway, various health concerns have continued this semester as well, which I’ll have checked out next month when I return. However! Today, I walked the entire traditional 2.85-mile path around the main campus that my friend Jeanne and I have trodden so many times. And for the first time in a very long time, I never had to stop because of  sudden foot pains. Physical therapists, and simple exercises, really have worked miracles for my feet.

Anyway, the administration building was built back in the early 1950’s, back when true-believers made sure that everything was quality work. It even hosted Mao ZeDong once. They should put up a sign — “Mao spoke here.”

Beiyang Square
Walking up the wall

Next up – a view of Beiyang Square, the center of the campus.  The angle makes it look like a slope, but actually it’s flat. Most of the square is a light-colored textured stone that offers sure-footing. However, the fashionable grey stripes are a polished  stone which, when wet, slides slicker than a day-old banana peel.

How kind of the architect to encourage pedestrians to attend to where  they place their feet!

Beiyang square.
The first fountain of the season.

Here’s a more conventional shot of the square, taken from the same steps on the administration building where Mao once addressed a crowd. The fountain had been turned on for the first time since last fall. Rows of newly-planted annuals added color. When their blossoms fade later in the summer, they’ll be dug out and replaced rows of other annuals.

The campus shuttle stopped just long enough for the shot. I’ve never ridden it, but perhaps I should, just for the experience. I think it costs the equivalent of about twenty-five cents.

The gazebo on the lake
I (heart) Tianjin University

Finally, when I stepped into the gazebo on the lake, I noticed that someone seemed to have dripped something rather durable into a  heart shape on the stone floor. Epoxy?

It seemed very sentimental, with the blocky School of Architecture and the setting sun in the background.

The Big Move

Mechanical Engineering Lab
A metal press in the lab

One of my former students gave me a tour of the mechanical engineering facility, a multistory building full of cool  toys professional equipment. It even has a little track for robot races!  It even has 3D printers!

When most of the campus moves out to the boondocks, these machines will remain, and provide the school with a tidy income. They’ll be rented out to other schools in the area who will flock to this campus for short-term seminars.

Yeah, the move.  It amounts to the biggest change for the university in over sixty years. This summer, most of the campus should move out to an old warehouse district a hour from here by car.  Or will it? Not all the buildings are finished yet, and of those which are finished, not all have been inspected and certified by the city.

And Chinese construction is notorious for getting it just up to an acceptable level, but no further. Indeed, one of the likely post-move challenges will be that of knocking the kinks out of the facilities. As an example, our present shared office never had workable heat for the first five years of its existence.  It made for some pretty cold office hours in Decembers.  

A Rainy Day
The administration building and a tight corner.

This “just enough” quality extends to other areas as well. For example, one of my colleagues is an Australian who teaches business English.  She was assigned an apartment in the building next to ours, a building mostly inhabited by Chinese scholars and some grad students.  Had it been thoroughly cleaned after the previous resident had vacated?  Why should it be? Perhaps the next person to move in wouldn’t care so much about that. Then all that effort would have been wasted.

The original opening date for the new campus was September 2013, and the present opening date is September 2015. But will it actually open this fall? Who knows?

How can people plan in such a situation? And of course, the answer to that question is simple – most people simply don’t make plans, not for this or most other areas of their lives.   As my friend Lonnie says, modern Chinese society is reactive, not proactive.

This reactivate quality may seem odd to Westerners, but actually it’s quite rational. It simply follows from the authoritarian nature of society here.   The people on top will take charge to an extent only found within businesses in the West. Indeed, I remember one of my first jobs – a night watchman at Amfac Corporation’s data center in Brisbane, California.  While sitting at a receptionist’s desk one evening I found a booklet outlining the company policies, not only for how to dress and act at work, but also how to dress and act at all other times.

All authority here has that quality. For example,  the above mentioned Australian colleague, like many teachers (but not me) was assigned a student assistant.  In addition to helping print worksheets and mark tests,  the assistant could also clean up the above-mentioned dirty apartment, as well as run errands and do other domestic chores.  Well, my colleague, shocked, has never asked the assistant to scrub anything.

I remember my ethnic studies courses, eons ago in college. We discussed Asian decision making. The point was that Asians planned through consensus. Everybody gets together and talks out an issue until agreement is reached. It all sounded so wonderfully inclusive.

Well, I don’t know about the rest of Asia, but what I’ve found here is something slightly different. Yes, everybody does get together to air all views.  But then, at some point, whoever actually has authority will make a decision, and everyone else throws out their differences and falls into line. Instant consensus.

And do people really throw out their differences? Well, with this impending exodus of  uncertain date, stress levels are up and morale is down, but it’s usually not aired in public. It’s hidden behind pleasant faces.  People say “Nothing to worry about” when they mean “There’s nothing that anybody can do to affect it, anyway.”

The other day, my colleague’s supervisor came to ask her to postpone classes for a few weeks, because the students were doing final projects.  This request, by the way, was by no means arbitrary. Students in that department generally are scheduled to be working/studying about seventy hours per week on ordinary weeks.   They really did need a break from classes at this point and it was very kind of the authorities to recognize this. My colleague readily agreed, but found out later that the postponement had already been announced and confirmed to the students before she was even asked.  Yes, that’s what consensus is here.

Summing up

Well, such is life.  I hope everything is well with you. Drop me a line if you get a chance.  It seems I’m not writing as frequently as before, though. I hope that I can see many of you this summer in America.  Last time, there wasn’t enough time to see as many as I would have liked.