I had planned to stick to my quarterly holiday publishing schedule, but then came the total solar eclipse on August 21, an event of unsurpassed holiday-ness. And the path of totality passed a mere fifty miles from my mother’s and sister’s homes in Portland. To view the sky from the famously cloudy and rainy city of Portland was a gamble, but worth it for something I’d wanted to see for my whole life. Indeed, August 20th was depressingly cloudy.
But the morning of August 21 dawned cloudless, with only a hint of wildfire haze. My sister and I piled into the car and headed south into the countryside. It had been tempting to just stay in Portland. After all, at our houses there, the moon would cover 99.3% of the sun. 99.3% of anything is pretty good. But why not drive out to view completeness, when it’s only fifty miles down the road?
We took country roads, avoiding the freeways. They were not too crowded. We made good time, and even stopped for breakfast at a Subway. We found two other parties inside — one from Arizona, the other from England. When we told everybody that we had just come from Portland, they laughed and said that’s okay — locals count, too.
Tents bloomed on every roadside within the path of 100% coverage. How long had they camped there? How far had they traveled from home? That part of Oregon is full of evergreen trees, the perfect habitat for camping tents, alternating with farmland. In fact, some Oregonians meld the two and farm evergreen trees, to be harvested in December as Christmas trees.
We happened upon a broad swath of recently-parked cars fronting a vineyard. Joining them, we discovered one of my sister’s friends from work, who actually lived nearby.
We walked up the hill from the vineyard, to a knoll with views into the distance in all directions. The field next to us was not vegetables, not fruit, but grass. Oregon grass is exported throughout the West as turf. This field had recently been harvested, and so had been burned to cut down on weed seeds. Across the street was a Christmas tree farm, complete with farmhouse and shed!
The eclipse began around nine o’clock. We had obtained the requisite sunglasses from Kaiser Hospital for free, and they worked great — at least for human eyes. They didn’t work at all for my cameras. But luckily, some paper and a pinhole could project a solar image to record the event.
Totality was scheduled for 10:17 am. As the time neared, the light dimmed. But it still wasn’t dark. At 10:15, it remained dim, but not dark. It was a very strange dimness, though, with a brittle quality. It felt somehow thin. But “dim” was not “dark” – it wasn’t even “shaded.” Wasn’t an eclipse approaching?
Temperatures slowly fell by about ten degrees Fahrenheit, and we were happy to have remembered to bring jackets. But still it was dim, not dark.
Suddenly, it was dark. We had hoped to have spotted the shadow sweeping towards us from the west, but it pounced suddenly and caught us unawares. And all around us, people’s voices erupted in cheers.
There in the sky, where the sun had been, floated a little glowing Cheerio. A few seconds before, the sun had been too bright to view directly. Now, it just floated in the sky like a life saver. The glowing circle, of course, was the sun’s atmosphere, the corona, which still shone brightly enough to overwhelm my camera’s sensor, making it appear thicker than it did just to look at it.
No stars appeared in the sky. Perhaps the wildfire haze reflected too much light into our area. Or perhaps our location wasn’t close enough to the very exact center of the path of totality.
And then, as the moon slowly uncovered the sun, a shaft of unimaginable brilliance peeked out over the top and pierced the air. It was instantly too strong to gaze upon. When I looked down, my surroundings were suddenly dim once more, and no longer dark. And somewhere in the distance, a rooster began to sing.
And like rock fans leaving the stadium during the final tune, cars began moving north. I had not realized until that moment that nothing had moved during the darkness.
Well, the roads were now backed up everywhere, as the crowd that had gathered over several days all rushed out at the same time.
So we stopped in the nearby town of Mount Angel, which attempts to be German. They even had a newly-constructed German-style building complete with an animated Glockenspiel and a restaurant on the first floor. Elsewhere could be found a Biergarten (of course) and colorful displays of potted window-flowers. The essentials of German culture.
The restaurant seemed to be enjoying its busiest day ever. But we were happy to stay and enjoy a cheese fondue.
Afterwards, we toured the downtown area, all six or eight blocks of it, and hit the road again. The driving time back was easily twice as long as for coming out. And when we reached home, our mother reported that it had just gotten dim and cold, but never dark. It’s surprising that 99.3% coverage was just not good enough.
Well, I spent quite a bit of time in Portland this summer. I did a bit of gardening, and helped clean out a garage that could easily have passed for an archeological site. In fact, I collected an antique hand drill and brought it home to California with me. Those things are hard to find these days!
I also went boating with my brother in law on the Columbia River. This photo of Mount Hood comes from that foray.
The Columbia near Portland is lined with cliffs of what appears to be worn columns of volcanic basalt. The photo depicts a train tunnel drilled through some of them.
Some of these cliffs have spectacular waterfalls, which, because it’s Portland, don’t often dry up.
I also snagged my traditional bird picture — a nesting pair of ospreys with two chicks. They’d set up house on a tower in the middle of the river. In fact, someone seemed to have constructed a platform for them to build on. Maybe they were expected to guard the tower. In fact, almost every such tower along the river supported some nesting ospreys.
I snapped a second “traditional bird picture” later back in town. This is a Savannah Sparrow, closely related to a song sparrow, in my mother’s garden. For weeks, it sang for several hours each day. Why would anybody want to have a bird in a cage, when this beautiful voice is available for no upkeep cost whatsoever?
Of course, I did attend a Fourth of July parade on national day. This one, located in Vernonia, Oregon, was the briefest ever. That’s most of it captured in just one photo.
Well, Vernonia is a pretty small town. It’s known for its lake, and . . well, just its lake. But some in-laws lived in town, which brought us out there.
Finally, one of the more unusual sights in Portland, located just a few blocks from our house, is called “The Grotto.” Located both above and below a cliff, it’s a meditation garden, associated with the Catholic Church. About a hundred years ago, a young man wished to express his thankfulness to God. All the money that he possessed merely amounted to a (low) down-payment on the property, but the difference was made up by the church and numerous contributors. It truly is a peaceful place, and the rest of my pictures were taken there, starting with one of the actual “grotto” itself.
My health continues to improve as evidenced by the fact that I started writing this yesterday and finished it today, and I got other chores done, too. In contrast, my note last winter took a month to compose, and not much else was accomplished.
My traditional Chinese medicine practitioner in Oakland and my Physical Therapist in Portland were able to see what no other doctor could. Which was that, even though my spine is kind of messed up, the problems actually come from my shoulders and hips. Years of high stress had exacerbated posture trends that probably started with saxophone playing and computer operation.
I still think that I have some sort of food allergies, but simplifying my diet doesn’t seem to help. But my neck pains have decreased to the point that a couple extra-strength Tylenol can lower its intensity. And my increased strength is self-evident. My memory continues to recover as well. Still, I’ve got a ways to go to achieve complete health.
I don’t think that my tinnitus is simply an ear malady, but there’s still no clear path towards diagnosis and elimination. Some sort of mental feedback mechanism must be involved because just listening to this recorded sound amplifies it in my mind so that it persists when I’ve stopped listening. It’s an interesting phenomenon, but it would be more so if I could view it from a disinterested perspective.
Anyway, an article was recently published in the news about how much people are affected positively by even short messages from time to time, which caused me to consider the friends who have written me during this past year, the most miserable and needy year of my life. Particularly I need to thank my friend Arlene who’d kept steady track of my progress all year. Finally I’m emerging from it all.
As far as all the other things going on in America these days, <sigh>, my thoughts are too complicated to express it all in a few thousand words. It’s funny, but when I first moved to China, I set a goal to write at least 2000 words every week. In the end I wrote about 103,000 words over 42 weeks, for an average of almost 2500 words a week. Now my goal is to never cross 2000 words at one go, no matter what.
But honestly, sometimes I think I should just move to Germany and pull a “reverse Thomas Mann.” Many of us in America are in mourning. Never had I imagined such an attack on the heart of America within my life time. Nevertheless I remain optimistic for the long run. So yesterday I started writing a list of topics that could be expounded. But there’s no space to write about even one of them here — thankfully so, some might say — so I’ll just list them in an easily skippable paragraph.
truthiness . . . mafia . . . fake . . . monarchy . . . AntiAmericanism . . . antidemocracy . . . neonazi . . . rule of law . . . ethnic cleansing . . . high crimes . . . antiscience . . . health care . . . nuclear catastrophe . . . climate devastation . . . multiculturalism . . . fox in the hen house . . . serial lies . . . divisiveness . . . enhanced violence . . . hollowed-out EPA . . . dementia . . . P.T. Barnum . . . bullies . . . alternative facts . . . hollowed-out state department . . . the stable background . . . elite misdirection . . . inequality . . . nationalism . . .
Well, I could go on, although I think that the root of the solution is trust and verifiable information — well, that and control of our money. And hopefully the above list of words won’t block this email from entering China. Meanwhile, as mentioned before, Christians can place their hope in a better place than politics.
At the end of my sojourn in Portland, I had a dream in which I walked into an elementary school and, without fanfare, promptly went to work. I’m taking that as a good sign for the future. I just hope I won’t have to wait much longer for the strength to pull it off.
It’s not July Fourth — not yet. As I begin writing, it’s still early June. But I’ve learned not to wait. Progress comes more slowly these days. And I would like to share some pictures. As always, clicking on a picture should bring up a larger version.
Well, our hometown basketball team, the Warriors, won the NBA championship. And as all my Chinese students know, Americans turn everything into parades, so on June 15, they turned that victory into a parade. Somewhere between a million and 1.5 million people showed up to welcome the players.
And with over a million high-spirited basketball fans, crowded and pressing upon each other in a manner not common in America, and some operating at the limits of their self control, there were no problems. None. With violence haunting the news on a regular basis, it’s good to remember how ordinary folks prefer to share joy.
I have no pictures of that parade, since, due to health reasons, I couldn’t go, but never fear. I do have pictures of a less-well-attended local parade. But first, goodness knows I never did get to share pictures of the San Francisco new year parade in February. Well, here’s one photo of that event, anyway. It’s a rooster “float” constructed by my favorite American airline – Southwest!
Every spring, my own small town hosts a rodeo, which is a competition for cowboys, originally a part of Mexican ranch culture. “Rodeo” is in fact a Spanish word meaning “go around” as in “round up.” More rodeo information is on Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rodeo.
These sturdy horses, instead of racing to snare stray cattle, slowly led the parade with flags, including the national flag. A full kilometer of the main street had been closed to normal traffic, and the route passed throngs of onlookers. Well, not exactly throngs, not for the entire route, anyway.
Elsewhere the route boasted thicker throngs, shown here. Some spectators had arrived early to claim the best locations, but, hey, this wasn’t the Warriors. Space was easy to spread out on.
We had no impressive floats like the San Francisco Parade above. In fact, Val’s Burgers just loaded a few employees into a pickup truck and called it done.
But that’s okay. After all, everybody loves Val’s! Besides, it’s not just any truck — it’s a classic Chevrolet from about 1970.
There’s something about these parades that brings out the old codgers with their even older classic cars.
So here’s a row of “Model A” Fords, from about 1930, the same kind that my dad drove as a kid, when he turned “ice wheelies” along the frozen winter streets of Portland, Oregon.
Yeah, those old codgers and their overly-preserved lumps of steel nostalgia.
But wait! what’s this? A 1967 Plymouth Belvedere !?!?
Oh my, a 1967 Belvedere was my very first car, though mine was a sedan, and blue. Does that make me a classic, too? Or just an old codger? Stingy for sure. I never would pay extra for white-wall tires like those seen here. And back then, people worked on their own cars, changing fuel pumps, water pumps, and brake shoes with abandon. That part I don’t miss, though it somehow seemed fun at the time.
Besides old cars, there were marching bands. This one marched out from our local high school. A teen-aged me once marched with that organization, swinging my saxophone. It was not such a big group back then. But it was a big deal.
Of course, politicians always show up to a parade. This is Nate Miley, my town’s representative on the county board. He also rode a classic car (naturally), at least at first, but soon he popped out to give candy to kids and to shake hands.
This was the first time I had ever actually seen him, except in pictures. I was not surprised that he turned out to be such a friendly guy.
And there were many more horses. Several of them carried what we used to call “beauty queens,” though that label may no longer be current. Anyway, they were all pretty enough, and they waved enthusiastically
Other horses carried little kids and still others carried more of those old guys who have been fixtures at these parades for thirty-five years.
This horse, a palomino, negotiated some tricky dance steps ahead of the Wells Fargo Wagon. These wagons belong to the living history of the West. After all, I have some money at Wells Fargo Bank today. But the bank doesn’t impress me like it did decades ago when I opened that account. Most of my money is no longer there. The account is kept for nostalgia. But those wagons are still great.
Besides the horses, bands and old cars, other parade entries were harder to classify. Take this bunch of boy scouts. What are they riding? Bovine versions of a soapbox derby?
Well, it’s creative.
And these guys must be devotees from the local Sikh temple. Sikhs come from Punjab in northern India. Many live in California. Yuba City, where I once lived for a few years, had (at that time, at least) the largest Sikh temple outside of India. Well, they may once have been Punjabi, but having gotten trapped in a parade, they’re now as American as apple samosas.
And we did have a small number of “floats,” mostly flat-bed trailers pulled by giant pickup trucks. This one was tractor- pulled — not just by any tractor but a “classic,” a Massey-Harris 101 from 1946. I’m not sure what the plastic cow is supposed to represent, but hey, it’s a plastic cow. Who needs an explanation?
Oh, and did I mention that a real rodeo is still associated with this parade? It takes place one week afterwards, and my friends Ric and Carolyn invited me out to witness it this year.
The setting is a few miles outside of town in the surrounding hills. They sell cowboy hats in case you forgot to bring yours. They also sell the usual assortment of junk food and sugary drinks. We passed on that.
The started off with a parade of sorts (naturally), led again by flag-carrying horse riders.
A large part of any rodeo consists of cowboys riding on top of badly-behaved livestock. The handlers strap a belt around the animal’s lower torso. That’s where a wolf or lion or bear would most likely grab it, so the animal reflexively kicks for all they’re worth. Can the cowboy stay atop his steed?
One of my favorite pictures shows a cowboy not exactly staying on top of his bull. It was a miracle that he didn’t get trampled, though many such miracles took place that day. Most of the bull riders hit the ground after one or two seconds. Apparently the bulls are harder to ride than the horses.
Of course, the horses aren’t particularly easy, either. And once the rider has flown off his mount, how do you catch the horse to remove that belt to calm him down again?
Well, that’s where the other horses come in.
Meanwhile, even kids could successfully ride the mechanical bull if it was adjusted to be gentle.
Besides riding the cattle, cowboys also caught them by throwing ropes from horseback. We witnessed several variations of this – a single contestant roping a calf and then leaping from his horse to tie it up, a team of two ropers immobilizing a calf from horseback, etc.
Some cowboys even took flying leaps off the back of a horse onto the back of a calf to wrestle it to the ground. Others caught a “wild cow” and milked it, as in this picture. Actually, this particular maneuver was a bit controversial because it’s viewed as mean to the cow. But I don’t see how it’s any meaner than the others.
Women and children also had a place in the rodeo. The kids tried to ride sheep, none of them successfully, and the women raced horses around a course of barrels. They were pretty good.
So a good time and a good competition was had by all.
As for me, my life is still circumscribed by health struggles, though that may be changing.
At this point I’ve seen about every kind of doctor or health coach that you could name except for a gynecologist.
And I must thank those who have helped me through these, the absolute worst twelve months of my life. Those who kept in consistent contact, like my long-time friend Arlene, or got me out of the house to events like the rodeo, were key to my making it through. And every short text message or email, even those a couple dozen words long, helped immeasurably. Otherwise I would have given up.
I pretty much have given up on Kaiser, so presently I’m working with a traditional Chinese practitioner, who seems the most effective so far. She has extensive experience with both musicians and athletes, which in my case translates to confidence that my body may be old, but it’s not injured.
Afternoons without neck and shoulder pain are now happening. Everyone all along had assumed that the problem was the neck, but it now appears that it’s the shoulders, and the neck secondarily.
The ear ringing is still a problem. I suspect it’s related to everything else, so perhaps it will attend to itself with the same time and exercise. And what do I mean by “ear ringing?”
Well, on June 5, I attended a concert in San Francisco, a string orchestra that included my longtime friend Carlbob. And yes, there really is a Carlbob, and yes, he really is a double-bass virtuoso who lives the larger-than- life that everybody knows about. Nobody could make all that up.
We rode together to the city. The concert would be in Chinatown, where we actually found street-side parking for free. It was a gold star day.
The picture shows a small Chinatown park. The figure is Sun Yatsen, more commonly known as 孙中山in China. The butterflies are just painted on the side of a house across the alleyway. But they’re charming, aren’t they?
Anyway, the concert took place in a small Catholic school. The picture shows the foyer as the orchestra warmed up. Interestingly, the audience’s folding chairs had been constructed for the World’s Fair a hundred years ago. They built things to last back then. Only now are they thinking that they need refurbishment.
Anyway, I had planned to photograph the concert itself, but as it began, my ear ringing suddenly ramped up even louder than the orchestra, even in loud passages. On the theory that loud sounds made it worse, I moved outside the room, but the ringing never did go down that night.
Anyway, such is life. Still, I think the worst is over, although I still haven’t figured out what’s in the food or environment that lays me out for three days at a time.
Meanwhile, Carlbob is off to Vienna.
Here in California, the grass is no longer green but golden, and the birds sound off as never before, probably because of the rainy year. They’re trying to build nests where nests have never appeared before, such as on top of porch lights on my street.
And a couple weeks ago, a tiny “Bewick’s Wren,” a species I’d never noticed before, landed on a bush right in front of my eyes. For a long time we stared at each other, wondering who was going to move first. I didn’t have time to fetch a camera, but a week before that, I had gotten this shot of a “House Wren” by Lake Chabot.
Then I had turned to shoot the golden hills of late spring. The same view today would be even more golden. One can compare it to the green-hill picture that I sent previously:
. . . . .
… …Well, I finished writing in two weeks — not six weeks like last time! Progress!
Happy Easter! Well, belated Easter. Very belated Easter. I’ve been trying to get this written for over a month. Meantime, it just gets longer and longer. I wanted to extend the idea of a Christmas “catch up” letter from an annual to a quarterly schedule, and I already missed the first deadline.
California is green again — in fact more than just green! After five devastating drought years, which strangled millions of trees, the Heavens opened upon us over the winter. It’s the most rain in recorded California history — ever. Of course, Portland still got more rain than we did. Also, the ground water lost will probably never be replenished, at least in my lifetime. Nevertheless, for the first time in five years, the state is officially out of drought.
It rained again yesterday. They say it was probably the last rain for the next five or six months, which is normal. The annual grasses die of thirst every summer, and then spring up again from seeds in the late fall. And because it’s all new growth, it sparkles like emeralds.
This picture, snapped a couple weeks ago, illustrates that lush green – it’s Garin Park, located at the edge of Hayward. The town, the edge of the megalopolis, can be seen just pushing over the ridge above the barn.
Getting Out of the House
I finally did get out of the house some weeks ago, driving up to Sacramento to visit an old friend from Ireland, and to nearby Davis to visit my pseudo-nephew. Despite the constant rain, I did fire off a few snapshots.
These windmills have stood on the Altamont Pass for thirty years or longer, part of a vast wind farm. But actually I just snapped the picture to enjoy the sight of more green grass .
California’s capitol in Sacramento was designed in a classical Greek / Roman style, which is common for such buildings in America. I hadn’t planned to stop inside, but a sudden swelling of rain convinced me . It was only the second or third time that I’d gone in there since a study trip in high school many years ago.
It houses the main offices for our state’s governor and all the important officials. It houses displays that showcase each of California’s 58 counties. It also contains two large rooms where the legislature discusses and votes on new laws. The front doors (shown here) are not usually used. Instead, everyone enters and exits through side doors set up with metal detectors.
The only office doorway with an actual guard seemed to be the governor’s office. People walked in and out, tip-toing around the fierce golden bear, an endowment and legacy from a former governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger. I didn’t try to go in, thinking they’d simply refuse me. But maybe they wouldn’t have, since when I asked to see the legislature, they just pointed me towards the observation balcony and asked me not to drop anything over the ledge.
The law makers’ attendance was 100% that day because they would be arguing and voting on a new tax, which is always contentious. Well, I watched for an hour, while they proposed and voted on various modifications to existing laws which were so reasonable that 100% (or close to it) voted yes on each one. Groups of young students on school study trips filed in, got bored, and filed out.
I passed the time snapping closeups, like this picture of a chandelier. And I reflected that in China, I probably could not have just walked in off the street to see people passing (or not passing) proposed laws.
Finally, I also “filed out.” I heard later that the new tax law had been vigorously argued until late in the night. In the end, it passed, but just barely.
The rain had stopped, so I went out to enjoy the public park that surrounds the building. It’s populated by various trees from all over the world, many given as commemorative gifts to California over the years.
This cherry tree, for example, was presented by Japan. The rain had scattered many of the blossoms onto the lawn, adding little pink sparkles to the green.
Luckily, the rain stopped just long enough for me to reach my car, where my umbrella lay safe, awaiting my return. Yeah, people in California are not much in the habit of carrying umbrellas around.
The Tapes of Instruction
I mentioned last fall that, during my twenty-eight Hayward teaching years, I had amassed a collection of almost 800 videotapes, mostly six-hour off-the-air recordings, a source of snippets for later use in class or to entertain the kids during the lunchtime break. And indeed I did use many such snippets over the years. This year, I digitized many of them into MP4 files. Many others were simply thrown out. The process of going through these tapes brought me back to the times when they were recorded. It’s strange, though, to feel nostalgic about an educational video.
The remaining 35 tapes, though already digitized, are hard to part with. Most are video records of trips to China or the annual school trips where we camped and studied science. I was privileged to lead 21 such forays during my Hayward tenure. They were far from easy to pull off, and often highly stressful. Indeed, without mountains of volunteer help from the students’ parents, they never would have taken place. Nevertheless, they encapsulated the most meaningful parts of my teaching experience. They granted me new understandings of community as well as the natural world.
The picture above was snapped in 1990, the first year that I partnered with my colleague Kay Frye for the trip. That’s her standing in the pink, taller than the rest. And yes, it was luxury camping. The intent was for kids to study science, not to rough it! Sadly, Mrs. Frye passed away about half way through my tenure in China. It was an inexpressible loss.
Certainly I’ve been fortunate in my 40-year teaching career. Among other things, I gained unforeseen insights into the natures of knowledge, language and learning.
Many of those insights resulted from a second teacher-training and masters program which I attended at UC Berkeley, a decision inspired by one of my teaching colleagues, an alumna of that program.
It’s called Developmental Teacher Education. At the time it was still fairly new. Based mainly on the theories of Jean Piaget, it survives to this day. More than just a training in methodology, It completely inverted my understandings of the nature of knowledge and learning. The picture shows my cohort from that time. Among other things, I concluded that language and thinking are not the same.
The beginning of an obsession
My obsession for the past eight years has in fact been language — its nature and development — a long-term interest of mine, starting with the girl in the picture, my sixth-grade classmate Jeanette. She’s posing for our class picture. The hairstyle pegs her in time.
Our class that sixth-grade year had been “challenging” to teach, and not in a pleasant way. Years later I once had to teach my own “challenging” class — karmic payback, I suppose, for going along with the general rambunctiousness back then. That sixth-grade picture is the only class picture I have where the teacher does not appear. That’s probably not a coincidence.
Jeanette belonged to a clique who, among other things, bragged about imbibing their parents’ liquor and puffing secret cigarettes. I can’t say how much (if any) of this derring-do she took part in. But I can testify to an amazing skill. Behind the teacher’s turned head, words soundlessly and almost constantly slipped through her lips, to be lapped up and understood by her friend across the way. The whole clique carried on through such silent communication all year, but Jeanette was the master.
Never once did I grasp their messages. It had to be English, no? That mystery initiated me into a life-long obsession with the nature of language and communication.
Another Language Teacher
Years later, I entered UC Davis as a scientist, and emerged as a middle-school teacher. Easing that metamorphosis was Professor Chuck Irby, a man who understood ethnicity and culture more deeply than anyone I’ve met before or since. Again, the hair style dates the picture. Sadly, he died relatively young, his papers now housed at UC Santa Barbara, and an annual award for excellence in ethnic studies given in his name.
Over and above new cultural understandings, Chuck Irby’s UC Davis classes helped me appreciate America’s salad-bowl ethnic mix. Depending upon how one defines “ethnic,” America has almost never had a majority ethnic group. Certainly in California today, there’s no majority group no matter how you define it. This cultural richness, to me, constitutes America’s exceptionalism and its strength. It’s one of the main reasons that I love this country.
Okay – a gratuitous Davis photo – the little shack where I lived while attending Professor Irby’s classes. It boasted no oven nor hot water, but did have a gas hot plate. The washroom was two doors down and the rent was about $50 a month. I realized at that time that standard English grammars were wrong, so I began writing my own on a tiny desk in that shack. However, I never got very far with it — I just hadn’t the linguistic background back then.
Professor Irby was most insistent that a culture’s foremost expression is its language, a relationship which affords mutual gateways to the study of each subject.
By language, he meant much more than grammar and word lists. He meant the presumed assumptions behind even (and especially) the most basic vocabulary. He also meant the human interactions that provide meaning and context to language. I am reminded of the Chinese question “吃了吗？” (Chī le ma? = Have you eaten?). In English cultures, that question usually means an invitation to lunch. In Chinese culture it’s equivalent to “How are you doing?” Perhaps there’s a cultural history preserved in phrases like those.
I never could quite get used to Tianjin people seeming to constantly invite me out for a meal, even though I did know what they actually meant. Well, that’s the nature of culture, I guess.
On the other hand, the phrase did accord with the Tianjin people’s friendly nature. This picture displays a typical example of such hospitality – my long-time friend Andy, with wife, daughter, and parents, seeing me off in style last June. They actually did invite me for a meal! The restaurant had once served Colin Powell, Laura Bush and other celebrities. But then it served us.
And speaking of hospitable food and drink . . .
My church in Berkeley has “put its money where its mouth is.” This year we’ve opened a new coffee shop, a non-profit enterprise located within the church buildings. All the proceeds will benefit refugees who are fleeing insufferable conditions in other countries. And most of the workers are also refugees, which gives them some training in running a coffee shop as well as in the quirks of American cultures.
The name contains the year 1951, a great year for a number of reasons. But in this case, it celebrates the year that the United Nations authored its legal definition of the word “refugee.”
It’s good to see our church stepping up in light of the recent dramatic changes in our Central Government (not the California government). And of course, ethnicity is a driving concern of this new regime, as witnessed by the constant references to Mexicans, Muslims, Syrians, African-Americans and others in the news.
Okay, a gratuitous Berkeley shot, taken about a month ago – it’s the University Faculty Club on campus, which also rents room like a hotel. It would be fun to stay there someday. The interior is all finished in wood.
The knowledge that I gained from Professor Irby has helped a lot in understanding the vagaries of ethnic relationships in our salad bowl society here. However, what to do with this understanding is another question. Certainly a long country-wide conversation about ethnic relations has long been overdue, one of several overdue conversations, though one that I feel is fundamental to the rest. So far, we’ve famously passed laws to deal with the grossest problems between ethnic groups, a useful first step, but not a long-term solution.
It’s a process I’m vested in, firstly because three of my four grandparents weren’t even born in this country, and second because I live in California, where, whenever I go shopping, there’s only a sixty-forty chance that the shoppers next to me are even speaking English. And you can’t tell by looking which shoppers those would be. It’s quite different from China, where anybody who looks Asian is assumed to speak Chinese almost by their DNA, and the rest of us simply can’t. The picture was taken at Costco, the only store besides computer stores where I’ve actually enjoyed shopping.
One thing I do know. We’re all in this together. And one other thing I know, from living abroad myself for a few years — The entire globe is all in this together, including the parts that we might find odd, illogical or dangerous. And the next few years will be decisive.
My health situation
Well, I’ve not given up hope. I figured I’d need six months to rest up from the exhaustion that, in part, brought me home to California. In the end it took seven – until the second week of February. The health problems from China had also stabilized.
But new problems took their place. I’d had ear ringing for years, but last fall it suddenly ramped up in volume so loud that background noises no longer could mask it. At the same time began an unrelenting and often debilitating pain in my neck bones, which, depending on the day, spread across my shoulders, down my back, or up to my head. It feels like somebody just hit me in the spine with a hammer, and then “pulled” all the muscles in the area, except it’s felt that way for months. So I’ve spent many days flat on my back, all alone, too full of pain to move. Meanwhile I’ve been seeing more kinds of doctors than I even knew existed before.
So despite some significant bright spots from time to time, these past few months have been the most miserable, lonely, and desolate of my life so far. I never thought my own home could ever feel so bleak and empty. And it’s hard to improve the situation and connect with people when I never know for sure if I’ll be able to stand or even sit the next day. Indeed, more than once this winter I felt like I wasn’t going to make it, and could feel myself slipping away, wondering how long it might be before I’d be discovered.
Well, the worst seems to be past, but pain still dictates my life. It’s three steps forward and two steps back. So on Sunday, for the first time in many months, I had almost a pain-free day. Even more exciting, the withdrawal of pain brought back my ability to reason and remember, and I felt fully able to intelligently take part in the Sunday school discussion at church. Interestingly, I’ve come to suspect that most (or maybe all) of the “senior moments” that plague older people’s memories may actually be the simple result of pain. Certainly I never had any increased memory problems until the pains ramped up last year.
But then, after such a promising Sunday, I was back writhing on my back for most of the day, too pain-ridden to stand, or even to sit at the computer. Yesterday was a bit better.
Still, I’m hopeful. And I’m thankful to have a roof over my head and a retirement income, items that all too many lack these days. I’m also thankful for my parents’ continued health stability, which has taken a load off my enfeebled mind, and particularly my sister and brother-in-law’s help with all that. And I’m also thankful for those who kept in touch with me over the past few months, including several friends in China. It’s amazing what a difference a paragraph-long email can make. Particularly during the winter, it kept me from feeling abandoned.
So with such positive thoughts I can end this section with another picture. California is like Ireland — forty shades of green. It’s just that California’s forty shades only appear in the springtime. Here they are – the same old view from Fairmont Ridge, but taken just last week. Click to get the larger version with even more shades. It’s as beautiful a view as any national park.
I’d originally written this before the event, hence the older pictures:
Last weekend I took part in a world-wide march of scientists — 600 locations in all. Our own local gathering took place at the Hayward Shoreline, a nature area on San Francisco Bay that will probably be under water in a few decades. I took these pictures there about a month ago.
This sort of march is amazing, really, because scientists almost never behave this way. I tie it to the recent focus on”fake news,” AKA “alternative facts,” as if truth and physical reality were simply a matter of willing it, or voting on it.
Some people seem to take that view, though. Or perhaps they think they can escape the laws of physics. Or maybe they’re caught up in blizzards of obfuscation (困惑) from those who wish to hide reality from them. But that’s why I wanted to join this march. Facts, in the normal English meaning of the word, are like “data.” They don’t have alternatives. They are what they are.
I remember the tobacco industry obfuscating the dangers of its product for years. How many died young as a result? I remember the gasoline industry obfuscating the danger of lead additives for years, which not only poisoned people, but even harmed the automobile engines that ran on it. In both cases, the motive was profit, while the industries themselves already understood and hid the truth.
That’s why I wanted to march. Even if it might not change things much, it’s still better than sitting at home doing nothing. After all, the stakes of the present obfuscations may be much higher this time. I’m glad it took place during one of my relatively pain-free periods.
Probably only about 500 or 600 people showed up, since we’re a pretty small town. Larger cities probably had much larger turnouts, not that the number of turnouts matters to my motivation.
The photo at right, sent to me by my friend Sandy, shows my favorite protest sign from the march.
In the meantime, here’s one more shot of the Hayward Shoreline as it appeared several weeks ago with the sandpipers, willets and avocets that crowd in to feed upon the bay’s bounty. It’s also worth enlarging to see all those birds.
As for what’s actually still in the future . . .
I hope to finally finish revising a book about language acquisition and teaching in a Chinese university. I think I do have something meaningful to contribute, which I’m hoping will inspire others to do the same, and to reflect upon their own teaching.
Language, as Professor Irby taught us, can be one of the most divisive forces in human societies. If my ideas can contribute in any way to the many others that increasingly improve language teaching, then it’s worth doing, Babelfish notwithstanding. And if anybody in the neighborhood would like to give me writers-group feedback, you’re invited. Oh for an Inkling!
Well, this message turned out much longer than I’d intended. And I never did get to write about my trip to the Oakland Zoo, or the Chinatown New Year’s parade from early February!! Okay. One gratuitous shot of the crowd at the New Year’s parade.
For almost all my life, I’ve not only been a member of a community, but usually a significant player. Now that I seem to spend most of my life staring at empty rooms, the only community I have left consists of the people on this mailing list, spread out over four continents and associated islands. It would be wonderful if everyone on this list could meet together, though that’s far from likely. Even so, having a community to write to is helping me piece my life back together. So thank you.
And for those outside of China, since I’m no longer there, I’ve found a pretty good alternative for learning the latest about that wonderful and fascinating country — a well-produced YouTube video blog about southern China’s way of life from a foreigner’s perspective. It’s called ADVChina. Here’s a sample. And this is the home page for their channel.
I like to think that I have at least one grand adventure left in me. At this point I’m strong in every way except the unrelenting pain and the excess fat from staying in bed for months at a time. It remains to be seen if my next adventures are physical or virtual or something outside of either. In the meantime, one more picture from Garin Park. To me it seems like a view full of promise.
Having sent out a long Christmas letter earlier this month, I’ll keep this shorter and sweeter.
And for those of you in China, who are already celebrating boxing day, Christmas day is still in full swing here in California and Oregon.
I’ve been visiting my sister and my mother in Portland, Oregon. We experienced a magical snowfall the day that I arrived, which stuck around for about five days, snarled traffic, and has now vanished. So today , even though the sidewalks are typical Portland moist again, the snow arrived close enough to consider it a white Christmas after all.
Last night, my sister staged a sumptuous Christmas Eve feast, complete with an hors d’oeuvre table, for seven of us here at my mother’s house, the house that my grandparents built with their own four hands ninety years ago.
It was great to see all the familiar fine China (porcelain) and fancy silverware and Swedish glass, which are only used for special occasions, all set out with ham, mashed potatoes, salad, dinner rolls, and green beans with mushrooms.
And for desert, my niece-in-law baked a fruit pie with the crust shaped into a nativity scene.
We also attended a special Christmas Eve church service which featured, among other things, a traditional candle-lighting activity.
And today, in deference to Chinese tradition, I ate an apple.
Finally, we fulfilled a decades-long ambition – to grow our own Christmas Tree. We’d attempted to do this once before, many years ago in California. However we chose the wrong tree species, a Monterey Pine, which we later learned is famous for the speed that it grows. The first year, it was too short. The second year, it was too tall. Fifteen years after that it had reached almost fifty feet (about 15 meters), so we had to chop it down before it endangered nearby structures.
Nobody knows the species of this year’s tree — it volunteered to sprout by the house a couple years ago. But we harvested it this year in time for Christmas. It’s a bit of a “Charlie Brown” tree, but we were able to hang some of our oldest ornaments, and also include the traditional Swedish Christmas goat.
And for the Chinese point of view, one of my journalist friends from China put together a pastiche of Christmas photos that he’d taken in Tianjin. Those who wish to peruse it can find it by clicking here. I hope you enjoy it. For me, it was especially poignant to recognize my oft-taken bus #842 (two of them almost together, naturally) stopping at Binjiang Dao amidst the shopping frenzy.
So in one year, traffic in the Bay Area increased by 18%. I thought I’d left the crazy traffic behind me in Tianjin, but it’s trapped me here, too. And the reason is the same as in China — a fast-developing economy. California has by far the largest economy of any state in the USA, and it’s humming. But the traffic is hard to put up with.
Happy Halloween? Yes, I started writing this in October, actually long before Halloween, and now Thanksgiving has passed and it’s December. Progress has been slow lately. And as time has gone by, I’ve felt compelled to add further details as they occur. So now it’s too long. But this letter can now perhaps stand in for the traditional “Christmas Letter.”
Last month, I had Thanksgiving dinner with my friends Ric and Carolyn and their family. Everyone at the table shared three recent things that they were thankful for. My first was that I was able to finish well (or at least fairly well) in China, the logistics of which I have much to thank my friends Jeanette and Jeanne. My second was for my parents, and their continuing influence in my life. And the third was for my Sunday school group at First Presbyterian Church in Berkeley. They’re an unusual group, and an unusual Sunday school. These three things do not, of course, exhaust the list of things I’m thankful for, but dinner time was limited.
It started to rain in the middle of October, the first rain after the normal dry summer. Then it took a break for two weeks and began again as Halloween grew near. It rained a couple times in November, and now rain is predicted for the coming weekend in December. Still, all this rain does not suffice to ameliorate the effects of our years-long drought. But I’ll thankfully take what I can get.
I took the picture of grass seedlings back in October, about two weeks after that initial autumn rain. Plants around here waste no time once any moisture appears. New sprouts had already burst through the blanket of old leaves that had covered the ground all summer.
All summer, the hills had looked like these in Vacaville, shown in a picture that I took in July of this year — Golden grass punctuated by dark green oaks and other broad-leaf trees. California is known as the “Golden State,” possibly because of the gold rush that brought it into the United States back in 1850. But to me, the golden grass, lavishly covering the hills, is just as good a justification for our 24-Karat nickname.
Of course, all that dry grass presents a fire danger. So in populated areas like ours, we call in the goats! Yes, a couple hundred real goats, who have really lucked into a nice life. All they have to do is munch grass all day, process it in their stomachs, and poop it out to fertilize the next season’s growth.
Nobody’s going to slaughter them. Nobody’s even going to milk them, as long as they play the role of “living lawn-mower.”
I walked up onto Fairmont Ridge in Castro Valley a couple days after that second rain in October. This picture tells the story. The enthusiastic grass sprouts already had stained the hills green. They needed no second invitation to get growing. Today the hills are almost solid green, and the upcoming rains guarantee that we’ll have a green Christmas this year.
Yeah, many places hope for that “white Christmas,” like those which I enjoyed a few times in Tianjin. But Californians hope that the rains begin early enough for a green alternative. Winter light will refract through the youthful sprouts as if they were emeralds. The hills will transform from precious metal to precious jewels.
On the other hand, I’ll miss that lavish greenness on Christmas Day itself, because I hope to celebrate the day in Portland this year.
When I returned from China in July, my mother told me that I “had given my best years to China.” Okay, it’s nice to have a mother to tell you things like that, but I’ve thought about it, and I think that she’s right. For most occupations, the best years may occur considerably younger than I am now. But teachers continue to grow throughout their careers. And there’s no question that during my China years, I was more capable, with more conceptual resources at my command than I had in my thirties and forties.
And it’s also true that my body had little left to give by the time that I left. So I can relate to California’s annual surge in grasses. I feel like a thirsty grass seed, ready to spring forth, but waiting for the returning rains. So I’m still waiting for the return of good health, which has eluded me so far.
These last few months have seemed like some sort of purgatory. I have been continually wracked with pains in various places in my body, plus a ringing in my ears at times louder than road noise from the Honda, not to mention the daily insomnia. So I’m getting to know all sorts of health care options, including some that I’d simply never thought of before, none of which has left me pain free or in peace so far. Every time we think it’s solved, it turns out not to be, although I finally did home in on one food allergy that was causing problems.
Feeling so “under the weather,” I have often just stayed home. Consequently, this has been the most lonely and isolated period of my life so far. I never expected to feel that way here in California. So I very much appreciate those who kept in touch during this time. Often, just receiving a short email made all the difference in the day.
Meantime, I do feel optimistic in general. The “okay” days are becoming more common, and there’s even an occasional “good day,” when most of the pain departs. And somehow, when I need strength to meet some necessity, such as leading the Sunday School last weekend, strength appears.
The constant pain had made thinking and memory difficult, so for a while, I’ve had to temporarily give up my goal of writing a book on teaching language. Instead, I’ve stuck to things that don’t require a lot of brain power, such as reviewing and throwing away old videotapes. Eventually, I’ll toss all of them, but I’m first digitizing some of them. According to the recycling rules here, each cassette has to be disassembled for separate disposal of the tape inside. It takes some time to do all that – five screws per cassette.
I had almost 800 VHS tapes clogging up my living space in July, mostly 6-hour tapes recorded off the air over the years so that I could share snippets of them in the classroom. Now I’m down to about 250. Soon they’ll all be gone. I’m also digitizing old negatives, so I can throw the prints away. The process of reviewing those old records, both videos and photos, has been a pleasure. They remind me of so many good times over the years.
Further, I’ve been giving away a great variety of things, including 31 shirts – some of which were 31 years old (they’re still wearable!!!!!) and which appeared in driver’s license portraits spanning several decades. My quick exit from Tianjin, where I had so much to give away, proved to be a valuable object lesson.
Reuniting with Family
Happily, I was able to visit both of my parents when I first alighted in North America back in July. My father was visiting in Sacramento (California’s capital city) to celebrate his birthday. Here’s his cake. He’s actually older than 59.
I was able to visit quite a few Sacramentans on that trip, including my Irish friend Bernie and my step-relatives as well.
I also visited the park in Sacramento where I had lived across the street for my first six years. Crabtree Park. Chinese people take note – there’s no fence around it, nor around any of the public parks in this region. The name reminds me of the crab-apples in Tianjin, except that it comes from a person, and not a plant. I remember that monument in the picture quite well. It’s where I suffered my first bicycle accident, a one-vehicle crash. I didn’t know that you had to lean the bike in order to keep your balance on a turn!!
Back then, a long cement path stretched out behind the monument right through the middle of the park. My father, along with various other assorted neighbors, had poured it a few years before when the park had been new. I imagine that all the neighbors chipped in some cash to buy the cement, and they were good to go. Back then, the vast majority of folks were middle class, and enjoyed working together and chipping in. Those were the days when Americans looked down on places like some countries in Latin America because, over there, the well-off lived apart, huddled behind gated communities. Little did we suspect that such things would some day arise in the United States, too.
Anyway, someone must have removed that cement path when they decided to put baseball diamonds in the middle of the park. It must have disrupted the fielding.
I even found the school where I had attended kindergarten and used to walk home several blocks with a bunch of older kids. Sometimes back then I got distracted and fell behind them. So I walked home alone. Yeah, these days, kindergarten kids don’t walk so far without an adult nearby. Times have changed. They have even changed the name of the school! I found that out from a friendly kid who was passing by, who confirmed the former name.
Then I headed north to Portland to visit my mother, my sister, and various ancillary friends and in-laws as well. The picture shows the fuchsias in my mother’s garden, which have been there as long as I can remember, back to when it was my grandmother’s garden.
And I discovered something else interesting about my mother. Long before “ascii art” was a thing, back when my mother was a young girl, she had produced some ascii art the hard way – with a manual typewriter.
These are two of my mother’s pictures, still at the old house after all these years: Charlie McCarthy (whom some may remember was Edgar Bergen’s lively puppet), and Claudette Colbert, who graced the silver screen long before Steven Colbert ever took over the late show. In fact, it was long before there even was a late show, or broadcast television, for that matter.
It’s a long drive from the Bay Area to Portland – about a thousand kilometers. I don’t know if I could have done it without a house halfway in which to stop and sleep. That was the Smith’s house in Grants Pass, Oregon. It’s not far from the Rogue River, with its boat-loads of tourists, as seen in this picture.
So Halloween was over a month ago. It really does work the way I described it in English Class at Tianjin University. So forty-three trick-or-treaters came to my door in California – though that’s not as many as in the old days. Trick-or-treaters are small bands of costumed kids who circulate around a neighborhood in the darkness demanding candy from each address. They come up to the door while their parents wait down by the street. Actually one parent followed his kid around in an automobile this year. That was different.
Anyway, I took a fantastic portrait of one group of kids demanding candy at my front door. But then, I realized that I wasn’t comfortable sending it. People here tend to be very protective of kids’ privacy. Certainly as public school teachers we learned this. You simply don’t post kids’ pictures anywhere that random people might recognize them and trace them. When I was in China, I wasn’t really thinking that way, but now that I’m back, my old training has come back. But then I realized that I could post a picture of adults instead!
So here’s a picture of adults that I recently scanned into my computer. It’s part of the annual Halloween parade at the school where I used to work, which was torn down several years ago. Yes, American schools actually take time away from the lessons for fun trivialities like this.
The parade would snake through all the classrooms twice, picking up each classroom’s students the first time through, and dropping them off the second time through. That way, all the students could admire each others’ costumes from the comfort of their own chairs.
And yes, those students are adults . . . . . at least, they are now. Actually, they probably have kids of their own about that size now. So in another 25 years, maybe I’ll share the outstanding portrait that I took this year.
Okay, about the elections
So what about the elections? Chinese friends in China have been asking me about it. So I guess I’ll state my opinion, and be done with it.
And by the way, nobody in America has asked me about my opinion, which comes as no surprise. The country has been strongly divided politically, and the main two divisions have been turned hostile towards each other. And it’s not just a recent result of social media. It’s the culmination of a long build-up that began over thirty years ago. But that’s the reason that nobody here really wants to discuss it at this moment. Particularly at holiday get-togethers.
As for me, when expressing any of my opinions to Chinese people, I first admonish them that many Americans will not agree with me, so I (or anybody else) can’t claim to represent “what Americans think,” the way that Chinese students so often cite “what Chinese people think.”
And actually, I’ve completely given up on most of the political web sites I used to read. At this point I get all the news and politics that I need from the local newspaper and from Slashdot.org, a web site for geeks and nerds that mainly discusses technology. The participants there pretty much mirror the American population politically (though many participants live outside of America). It does have a slight libertarian bias, but it’s one of the few places I know where people of widely different opinions can actually discuss politics without total acrimony, and I get the foreigner’s point of view from time to time, too.
For me, the most significant and upsetting thing is not the election itself, but how little the truth has mattered in the process this year. And I say this as someone who believes that an objective reality does, in fact, exist. Apparently, not everyone does.
Indeed, this year’s Oxford Dictionary “new word of the year” is “post-truth.” This refers to the idea that there’s no room for facts in politics — it seems to all be based on emotions. The Chinese leadership has already commented upon this state of affairs, as evidence that democracy is not such a good idea because people seem to care more about how they feel, and not what will deal with real problems. I don’t really agree with that conclusion, but I have to say, it’s quite bizarre to see a major politician making a claim, when public records easily show them to be lying, and when caught in the lie, they simply “double-down,” as if verifiable evidence to the contrary didn’t even exist.
It kind of reminds me of a situation involving my former neighbor in Tianjin, a foreigner who takes an active interest in issues of environmental pollution. He once had the chance to talk to the mayor, and when he brought up the subject of air pollution, he was told that actually Tianjin didn’t have a problem with air pollution, so don’t bother worrying about it. I guess the mayor didn’t get outside much. Well, we’re getting those sort of assertions here now, too, with a major politician claiming there has been no drought in California, as just one of a copious supply of examples.
Anyway, “Post-truth” also refers to the astonishing amount of misinformation that has actively and intentionally flooded the Internet and some of the media over the past year, some of which (but hardly all of which), according to American intelligence, came directly from Russian intelligence, with the aim of influencing and/or discrediting this election. I don’t know if the Chinese leadership has commented upon this, but there’s probably no need for them to bother, since this sort of situation is already exactly how they justify their high degree of Internet control, punishing those who “spread rumors” and censoring social media conversations.
And a quick word about media accuracy in America — a couple years ago, the audience for NPR radio was shown to be the best informed on basic news facts in America. Since NPR shares some resources with PBS television, I’d not be surprised to find similar results in the video sphere. NPR and PBS are the least dependent upon advertising, which I think is related to their overall accuracy.
As for the outcome itself, in my particular county (县) Hillary got 75% of the vote, and her Republican opponent received only 14%. It’s safe to say that in other parts of the country, the results were quite different. Still, over the country as a whole, Hillary received about two-and-a-half million votes more than her opponent (which is the current count as I write this – it could go higher). But the total number of votes doesn’t matter. It’s how those votes are distributed. So she lost. This is the second time in recent history that the Republican won the election with fewer votes than the Democrat, and only the fifth time in all of history that it’s happened.
And for the paragraph above, I added links to rather non-controversial news sources, since some folks will dispute all of the above assertions, though I think they represent more than “just my opinion.”
So anyway, I’m not particularly sanguine about the idea of these guys taking over again. Some of them have already started talking about phasing out Medicare, which for me, with my continuing health problems, is not what I want to hear.
Honestly, it’s as if the country had elected a less-genial P.T. Barnum as president. Yeah, where’s the egress? Fasten your seat belts. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.
But three things do offer me comfort. Foremost, as a Christian, I have a better place than politics in which to place my hope. Second, many of the other issues on various ballots that I supported did pass. And third, the kinds of things that I most love about my country continue to grow, even though this past year (and probably the next few years) may present a significant challenge to such development.
So that’s my feeling on the elections.
One thing (of many) that I love about America
I took piano when I was little, but when I was about to enter high school, I realized two things. First, I wanted to be in the high school marching band. Second, it’s hard to march with a piano. So I started the clarinet.
When I actually got to high school, I realized two more things. First, the 65-member marching band was good, but the 16-man jazz band was cool. Second, my clarinet wasn’t going to fit in. So I started the saxophone. And by the time I was a sophomore, I joined the jazz band.
By the the next year, I realized two further things. First, I could finally play all the parts without error. But second, the most exposed parts (solos) required me to improvise on the spot. It was nerve-wracking. Other than listening to recordings, nothing in my musical training had prepared me for that.
And when Gary Juhl, one of my most respected senior-classman musicians, invited me to play in his small jazz combo, I felt more exposed than ever. It was scary. But “fools rush in where angels fear to tread,” so I stuck with it. By the next year I was heading up a group. All-improvised music. Overconfidence kept me from being scared by the exposure.
So what about this jazz, this “improvised music?” A few years ago, I read a paper online submitted by a Chinese student for a masters degree in music. The paper consisted of a detailed analysis of how the famous jazz musician Miles Davis signaled the beginnings and endings of tunes to the rest of the group – or at least it was the writer’s theory about it — he was still open to being proven wrong.
Actually, he was right, but I was aghast. I felt perhaps a taste of what some people may have experienced when the anthropologist from the other side of the world came to one’s village, only to express interest or even astonishment about what’s painfully obvious to anybody living there. But I realized how little many folks know about how jazz works — how all the musicians improvise, but somehow they still make it all fit together. So, in brief:
Traditionally, in small group jazz (3 to 7 people in the band), everybody follows a predetermined sequence of chords, which keeps the sound harmonious. They listen and react to each other’s playing. Often, they’ll play a melody together at the beginning and again at the end of each tune, which is supposed to inspire the improvised sections in the middle.
But there’s one other critical factor that makes it truly jazz — a shifting leadership. At different times during a tune’s performance, one musician after another assumes the role of leader, of soloist. At that time, all the other musicians shift to supporting roles. They react to the soloist musically, but also feed him/her ideas, and fill in some empty spaces, as appropriate.
It’s thought that Louis Armstrong came up with this idea. Certainly it came out of the New Orleans/Chicago African-American funerals-and-brass-band music scene at that time. It could not have come out of any European folk music or classical music back then, nor from the Native Americans. It’s a wonderful framework for growing musically, as everybody gets to be the leader, and everybody learns to support others. The multiplicity of roles maximizes the spontaneous creativity of all concerned.
Later, when I became a teacher, I realized that this form could be adapted for other uses, such as for writer’s workshop. The jazz form didn’t fit all areas of the curriculum, but to the extent that it did, I could use it to nurture the students’ creativity. And the way that you prepare for the lessons greatly resembles how you practice for a jazz group.
This adaptation fit less well in China, but it did fit in places. For that matter, the Sunday School class that I mentioned above uses a form very similar to jazz. For even another matter, since the days of Louis Armstrong, the jazz structure has spread to other popular music forms as well, such as bluegrass, country, rock and roll, and others.
And by the way, for those interested in the history of jazz and how it fit with the larger society, it would be hard to improve on a recent and highly-recommended talk given by Wynton Marsalis and Jon Batiste, even though I might put those relevant facts together in a different way than they did. And that’s the whole point.
Because what is the essence of teaching? It’s the ability to analyze and understand a situation in terms of the facts. And then, you analyze and understand it completely differently, but also based on the facts. And then, you do it again and again. This is what gives the teacher the resources to impart lessons to the students, none of whom see the world from the exact same point of view or background. This sort of creativity is exciting, but it must be based upon the facts, which is why the recent shift to a post-fact worldview bothers me so much.
So it’s certainly true that jazz has greatly enriched my life in general — not just in music, but also in any success that I might have had as a teacher. That’s a pretty big impact. And if an African – American culture had not developed in America, it never would have happened that way.
When I hear people say that America’s greatest richness is its ethnic diversity, this is the sort of thing that I think about. And when I multiply this one factor by the dozens of ethnic groups that live in America in substantial numbers, such that there’s never actually been a majority ethnic group, the result is an abundance of alternatives for dealing with practically any situation. My own family history reflects this mixture, as my four grandparents were born in four different countries, representing three ethnic groups.
Of course, the opportunities for such concept sharing are limited when the groups who create them are not embraced by other groups within society. But I’ve been so happy to witness a growing acceptance of the “other” group developing over the decades. This process has suffered some setbacks in the past year or so, mainly due to divisive politics, and it’s unfortunately possible that the coming years may stress it even further. Nevertheless, the growth that I have been privileged to witness has been genuine, and I think it will prevail in the long run. Indeed, I think the “Millennium” generation shows great promise in this regard.
Well, I will wind up this letter with a couple pictures. The first was taken a few days ago — the green hills near Lake Chabot that I had mentioned above.
It also shows some of the basalt rocks that decorate parts of those hills. Now that it’s winter, temperatures go down to 5 degrees Celsius overnight. But the afternoons are still warm enough for me to walk around outside barefoot in complete comfort.
And finally, another set of adults who were formerly children in my classroom in California. That’s a room, and a school, that no longer exist. Friends from China may recognize this picture – It hung in my living room in Tianjin and also appeared in a calendar that I once put together. It also expresses how honored I have been that, even though I don’t have kids of my own, I was able to participate in the raising of a new generation of young people.
These people did not constitute the whole class, but only those who wore a fancy hat for “Hat Day.” I look at those faces and I see the joy that all children should revel in. And even though you can’t limn particular ethnic groups from faces, they still imply the variety that I’ve lived in for most of my life, and that I value so highly.
Yeah, California dreaming, but not like the old song; more like California snoozing.
My nerves are shot. My energy has bottomed out. I’ve been home a week. So today I started to unpack. I’m behind in my emails. But I’m enjoying the glorious weather, so wonderful that it could make my eyes fill with tears, except that I’m too pooped to actually squeeze them out.
Before returning, I’d joked that I’d have to sleep for a couple months. It turns out to be no exaggeration. Most days I take two naps. Some days, up to five.
How could I get so worn out? Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that China has changed me a lot. It’s a challenging place to live, and the attendant growth pains can suck you dry after awhile. It’s a paradox, actually, because Tianjin is just full of lovely people, whether students or pensioners, office workers or cab drivers. And yet, it’s still a challenging place to live. And so it took me a week after my arrival in California to get up the strength to even open my suitcases.
The old friends from China
The last few weeks in China had been quite busy. First of all, there were the essays from 241 students to grade, as well as setting out all of my grades in proper form on a spreadsheet for submission to my department. But there was also a lot of packing, a lot of giving things away, and a lot of old friends who wanted to see me one last time.
You know, last time, I bemoaned the fact that so many good friends had left town forever. This time, the number of friends that still lived there was brought home to me. And it was I who was leaving forever.
Here, for example, is a picture from our final movie night, with the film credits still scrolling on the screen in the background. For several years I showed such movies in my office. This year, we lost the office due to the move to the new campus, so I had to use a classroom instead.
What matters to me is not the movie so much, but the discussion afterwards. And thus, a group like this is just about the right size. Most of them are students, but several are not, such as my Australian friend Jeanette standing next to me, Mr. Guo on the other side of me, “Jack” at the far right, Han Tao behind me, and Liu Zheng and Li Wen who stand in the back row. And of course You Sihang snapped the picture.
Chinese students in large groups like this are extremely reluctant to venture any opinions about anything, no matter how trivial. So in addition to their friendship, I valued the participation of these older friends in setting an example of how to discuss things like movies, and that it’s okay to have a simple opinion. A fully-fledged polemic suitable for publication is not required.
And here’s another wonderful group of people — office workers in a company where I occasionally help out with their English.
Sunny, the (fairly) young woman at the left, is actually one of my most long-time friends in Tianjin. I met her eighteen years ago, an interval of time that hardly seems real to either of us, despite the fact that Tianjin today, like China today, is barely recognizable from what it had been back then.
The company makes bricks to insulate blast furnaces. When they started twelve years ago, Sunny was the only employee. Now the company has dozens (maybe hundreds?) of employees located at various sites around China, and it literally exports to the world. The photo shows just a few of these workers attempting to arrange themselves into a group pose.
Two years ago, the gap between this company and my university was bridged when one of the office workers’ daughters wound up in my English class!! And last month she got married, so I was invited. That’s her in the red dress below. And that’s her mother in the green shirt and brown jacket.
They decided to hold a more-or-less Western wedding. They invited too many guests to fit into any restaurant or dining hall. Tables were set up outdoors, filling a plaza in the city’s old Italian quarter. Passersby stopped and stared, perhaps because of the Western style, but perhaps because they thought that such a big to-do must feature somebody famous.
And here are a few more office workers who didn’t fit into the picture above, happily attending their co-worker’s daughter’s wedding. Note the tourists standing at the fence in the background.
The man in the dark blue shirt at the end of the table is the company driver who gave my dad a ride from the Beijing airport five years ago. Yeah, lots of good memories. I was offered his services for my final trip, but I had already made other plans.
And my taxi ride home that night illustrated the fact that I now know just enough Chinese to get me into trouble. The way was dark, punctuated by street lights, and we were coming from an unfamiliar direction, so I started asking about the route. Well, I knew enough to ask my questions, but not enough to understand all the answers. And the driver did not take well to the fact that I was questioning his judgment. At one point his dispatcher polled him as to his activities and he answered “Yeah, I’ve got an old foreigner headed towards Tianjin University.”
In the end the ride cost considerably less than the taxi ride that I had taken out there. And in fact it cost even less than that. He refused to accept the whole fare, saying that I was his first foreigner, so here was a discount. The guy was really irritated, irritated enough to be super-polite, and I kicked myself for not trusting him, since almost every time I’ve ever wondered about a cab driver’s route, it has turned out that s/he was actually saving me money.
My department also remembered me on my birthday this year.
Here I am in a private room in a restaurant with three of my colleagues – Zhang Yue, who coordinates the foreign teachers. Xiao Zhenfeng , who coordinates student testing, and Liu Changhua, our connection to the mysterious and rarified realm of the Graduate department leadership.
I celebrated my final days with lots more friends, including those from the Jian Hua organization such as Jean, Linda, and the Boogaards. I attended the last Jian Hua Community Night of the season, at the Jian Hua office, where they sang Happy June Birthday to me and two others. But “Après moi le déluge.”
The weather had been clear on the way there, but the rains and the thunders settled in while we were distracted singing birthday songs.
I’d recently listened to Garrison Keillor, describing the “long summer rain” at Lake Wobegon. Keillor’s rain was soft, cool, and introspective. Tianjin summer rains are violent cascades that fill up the sewers in a few minutes and flood the streets. My friend Lonnie always kept a special pair of flip-flops to deal with them. I, on the other hand, had only my expensive SAS sandals that night.
I had departed before the others in order to get more packing done. Like the others, I had no umbrella. Pretty soon I was swimming through puddles, completely soaked. But the odd thing was — I wasn’t at all cold. The rain had the same warm temperature as the air. It was like wading through a giant bath tub with the shower running.
Still, I jumped (literally) at the chance to hop in a cab that happened by. “Anshan Xi Dao,” I yelled as I entered. That was one of the main streets in the city. Once we’d got there, I’d planned to tell him how to find my particular street. He was very friendly, and he asked me the standard impersonal questions, such as my age and how high my salary was.
But he seemed mystified by “Anshan Xi Dao.” I told him to just follow Weijin Lu, one of the main arteries in the city. But he still looked mystified. “Which way is that?” he said. I was taken aback. Had he just moved to town that day? Still, I didn’t want to repeat my earlier mistake, so I pointed vaguely in the right general direction and set to watching what he would do next.
“Which way now?” he asked. “This is Weijin Lu.”
But it wasn’t Weijin Lu. I knew that, even though it was raining too hard, and the night was too dark, to make out the street signs. “Look,” I said, just drive forward.” And he did. “Now turn left.” It was Tong An Dao, which led to Nankai University. I carefully instructed him on which way to go at each block until we arrived by my apartment. At every turn he got more and more quiet and subdued. As I paid him the fare which was displayed on the meter he sank into absolute silence.
Well, what do you know. I had actually found a taxi driver who’d wanted to “take me for a ride.” I suddenly didn’t feel so bad about not trusting that other guy. It was an interesting way to be relieved of guilt. And truly, petty swindlers like this guy really are few and far between among the Tianjin taxis.
Later, my former student Han Tao took me to pizza in the type of place that could only be found in China.
Its presence was anything but obvious — just off Anshan Xi Dao and down an alley. And the hallway from the front desk to the dining rooms was paved with an aquarium. It feels very strange to walk over swimming fish on the way to your seat. If you look closely in the picture you can see one of the coi swimming around. I can only imagine that a cat would go crazy in such a place.
And my journalist friends took Jeanette and me out to the ball game!! Amazingly, the league still existed, having survived the sponsor who had lost all its money to an absconding CEO three years ago. It survived the fledgling popularity of the game itself. But, like Tianjin University, it could not survive the relentless drive to move facilities out to the middle of nowhere.
The ball park used to be located right in the center of town, across the street from Nankai University. They even made lots of expensive improvements to that field for last year’s season. But now that field is closed, to be dedicated to more profitable enterprises.
The new field is located even further from the city than Tianjin University’s new campus. It’s an entire sports complex that includes three full-sized baseball fields, in addition to the normal assortment of gymnasiums, tracks and soccer fields.
Yeah, they located the stadiums where no buses or trams run. The only way to get there is by private car or a very long bike ride. And the set of rest rooms isn’t quite complete either. The nearest one was located in a large building about one kilometer away. And yes, “there’s an app for that.” We were only able to find that restroom because Li Wen had a smartphone app specifically dedicated to locating bathrooms. Here’s a panorama of the whole field. The bathrooms were located in that distant building with the white arched dome.
The players actually live at the site, since there’s no convenient way for them to get there otherwise.
And like everything else in that part of the province, it’s still under construction, even as it’s being used. The scoreboard, for example, was present, but it lacked the electricity to light up. So we kept score the old fashioned way — by asking the other members of the audience, most of whom were family and friends of the players. Oh, and did I mention that the Tianjin Lions beat their opponents that day?
After the game, we walked to a different baseball field to play with You Sihang’s new quadcopter, which snapped the picture of us above at right, laying around next to the pitcher’s mound. Yes, it was good training for my post-China activities — or rather, non-activity.
And then there was my dinner with Andy Yu and his family, whom I’ve known for 17 years. Andy’s father is an avid bird photographer. Last year, he helped me donate some of my photos to the Tianjin University Museum. Andy himself is now married with a child, living in Shenzhen, but happily back in Tianjin for a visit that weekend. The picture demonstrates that his daughter, for all her youth, has already developed a healthy interest in photography. She’s perusing my latest set of snapshots.
In addition to all this, I had dinner with Scott Carlson, the closest our fellowship has to a genuine pastor (as he is actually ordained), and I spent time with Jean, with Jeanne, with Jeanette, with Lee, and with other English teachers and of course, Professor Ji, the Tianjin native whom I’ve known longer than anybody. It really was a full social schedule, a normal semester’s worth compacted into three weeks.
And the final activity took place the night before my departure, when Jeanette took a bunch of us to an authentic Xinjiang (Western China) Restaurant. I met my first Egyptian on that occasion, and he explained to us some of the intricacies about Ramadan schedules, which was currently underway, which was the reason that he was waiting until late in the evening before chowing down.
It was the consensus of the group, except for me, that this was my last opportunity to savor Xinjiang cuisine. I wasn’t so sure that I couldn’t find such food in San Francisco, but I didn’t belabor the point.
The old friends. Really old friends.
California is part of a different universe from China. Nevertheless, my return simply continued this non-stop socializing with old friends, beginning with Karen Cauble, whom I’ve known since my freshman year at Bixby Hall at the University of California in Davis. She and her husband picked me up at the airport.
And then I slept for two days.
And the next day, another friend from Davis freshman days, saxophonist Bill Barner, dropped by to play jazz, along with the legendary Carlbob, the bass violin virtuoso whom I’ve known since high school, where he simply went by the moniker “Strings.”
And the next day, the two sons of my friend and house-sitter Tim Goodman took us out to breakfast at Doug’s Omelettes. And then there was the fourth of July weekend. Our little street is famous for its summer socializing. They scheduled a block party for the Third of July (the actual date of the Declaration of Independence’s publication), when I would be here, and also Tim, who is immigrating to England in two week’s time.
The block party was well attended – perhaps fifty or sixty people in all, about half of them under the age of 15. Yeah, this street has an astounding number of little kids. And they all play well together.
And of course there were fireworks. First off, there were more sparklers than I’d seen in one place since I myself was a kid on that very same street.
But surprisingly, there were also the kind that I associate more with Spring Festival in China, the kind that ascend to about the tenth floor before they explode. Yeah, not strictly legal in California. And suddenly our old tales of childhood cherry bombs no longer seemed so impressive.
We shot off fireworks for about half an hour before Officer Friendly showed up to tell us to cut it out. It was too late to be making such a racket, anyway, and some neighbors had complained. He did not confiscate any of the remaining contraband, however. So the remains were ignited early on the subsequent evening. And the neighbors being the neat people that they are, they swept up the spent shells from the entire street .
I also rejoined my Sunday School class at First Presbyterian Church in Berkeley, and then I got to take two of my Berkeley friends, Arlene and Kate, to the Alameda County Fair. It was a great adventure to a place filled with the most unhealthy food imaginable, much of it sold “on a stick.” Kate had never seen a fair before, and Arlene had not attended one in a couple decades.
In the picture, the two of them seem aghast at my devotion to “curly fries,” my annual county-fair culinary tradition.
We took in the animal exhibits, the crafts constructed by kids, the model trains, and had our ears blasted out by several musical groups performing at various venues scattered across the fair grounds. I declined the suggestion to try riding the mechanical bucking bull.
But the highlight of the afternoon was a troupe of Chinese acrobats, who hailed from Hebei, the province that surrounds Tianjin and Beijing.
One acrobat tossed bowls onto his head while riding a unicycle on stilts. Other acrobats juggled clubs from one to the other from similar unicycles
And here, another acrobat balances at the top of a tower of chairs, all of her weight on her teeth. Hopefully she has a good dentist.
To me, finding such people performing in our local county fair illustrates the continuum between peoples worldwide.
And then yesterday, I had lunch with my dentist friend Jerry. Well, I still haven’t found a Xinjiang restaurant in the Bay Area, but here, right in the little town next to mine, we found an Afghan restaurant.
Sure, their kebabs aren’t exactly the same, but they’re still delicious. And they’re certainly a lot healthier than the curly fries of the previous weekend.
And it turned out that Ramadan had finally come to an end, so relatives of the restaurant’s proprietors, dressed in traditional garb, stopped by to wish them well. And then they were off to visit more relatives.
But not before I could snap a picture of them through the window where we were sitting.
And later this morning, I’m off to Sacramento to celebrate my dad’s birthday. It’s truly been a most social month, spread out over two hemispheres. And so many pictures this time are snapshots of people, in contrast to my usual landscapes.
It’s a time of endings and beginnings, not only for me, but for the fore-mentioned Garrison Keillor, who this week has finally ended his Prairie Home Companion career. The final News from Lake Wobegon can be viewed on Youtube at this link:
As for my future email messages, I’m not sure. Now that many Chinese people are on my list, I suppose I could write about America instead of China. And Bill pointed out things like the Dadaist festival in San Francisco, something that most people outside of Paris, New York, and California would have little familiarity with.
So, we’ll see. In the meantime, I have a mound of normal email to get caught up with. As always, I welcome any communication back from the people on this mailing list. As I told my friend Jeanne last month — no long compositions like this one are necessary. Just fifty words (or 49) would be welcome!
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
Last weekend I played piano in one of our church musical groups. The leader was an acquaintance of mine, a young Kenyan, Edgar Sirucha, whom some recipients of this email also know.
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.
This next shot depicts the spacious foyer of the computer science building which dwarfs any human who enters it.
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 theoldest) 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.
What would they replace it with? As it turns out – a shopping complex with an underground parking lot. However, though the stadium is gone, its spirit lives on in the shape of the shopping center.
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:
One more Goal fulfilled
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.
Here’s to health. For over a year, mine has been constant misery. But earlier last month I discovered the principal cause – a medicine that I had been taking for high blood pressure. So I switched medicines. It was like waking from a year-long nightmare.
Yeah I still don’t compare to 34-year-old me, who swam a mile in 32 minutes several times a week (never did reach my goal of 30 minutes, though <sigh>). I’ve still got stuff to deal with. The medicine was not the only cause. But still. I feel fairly normal for the first time in well over a year. It’s a good feeling. And my feet continue to heal, too. I briskly walked the standard 2.5 mile “Tour de Tian Da” with my friend Jean last week, with no foot pain at all. Makes me want to go somewhere again, for the first time in a long time. Just not sure exactly where, yet. Oh, and I also have 241 essays to grade <sigh> so it won’t be this week.
Speaking of my students, here are some of them pretending to be historical figures, discussing current events a la “Meeting of Minds.”
When you click to get the closeup version, you’ll note that, as in each of the past thirty years, my students are the most adorable on earth. And they’re smart, too.
And then, there’s this: a flavor of Lay’s chips that you’ll probably not find stateside — Seaweed. Perhaps I should start a chip of the month series to highlight some of them.
Too Small to Fail
I usually attend an international Christian Fellowship on Sundays. We meet in a hotel about a half-hour taxi ride from here (about four miles, in other words). We used to meet on the campus of a private school, but they got bought out by Nankai University, so we had to move a couple years ago. The photo is a panorama which shows the ballroom where we hold court, but we’ve rented many additional rooms in the same building complex for various purposes.
To satisfy the local government, only foreigners are allowed at this gathering, and they check passports at the door to be sure. It’s one of the most ethnically diverse congregations I know, certainly more diverse than any back in the states. Occasionally I play saxophone, usually with a group of Africans who really can raise the roof.
So the news that we might have to move again was certainly unwelcome. But unfortunately, the hotel was going bankrupt. It wasn’t really a surprise, since business hadn’t seemed brisk of late. So finally the slowing economy in China was going to have an impact on me personally. The elders began casting about for another site.
But then, an interesting thing happened. The government stepped in and simply stated that, no, the hotel was not allowed to fold — like it or lump it. Instead, they suggested that the hotel secure some investors and close temporarily for renovation. When they reopen with more attractive facilities, they ought to be a more successful concern.
I don’t think this strategy would play out quite this way where I come from. In fact, I’ll believe it happens here when I actually see it. But it certainly does highlight the interconnectedness in this society, without which nobody would even think up such a scheme.
So the only question now is whether we’ll be allowed to continue meeting while the hotel under renovation and all the regular staff have been let go. It seems likely, but who knows?
Spring — old and new
My series comparing and contrasting the new and old campuses continues.
The first “old campus” shot shows some of the oldest dorms in the central campus. These will be torn down sooner or later in order to make space for the business park that’s scheduled to be constructed here.
The picture shows a small porch between two adjacent buildings. The low fence which frames the porch was simply improvised out of a pile of bricks. But it’s charming.
The door here at the building’s end is not normally opened, though such doors can open in unusual circumstances. I remember once seeing students passing out departmental T-shirts from one of these doors at the beginning of the year in September.
And then, a young man took out his camera to capture his girl friend, who must have once lived there. Extending her arm in the common “victory salute” that seems emblematic of all Chinese young people, she posed herself in front of a student-created picture, affixed to the dorm wall. Maybe she’d created it. Who knows?
The message in the center says something like “Youth, without regret, in march step, walks the path to the barracks.” (at least I think it’s something like that). The message on the ribbon says “Software Institute. Barracks 3, Connection 14” (or something like that — just knowing what the characters mean doesn’t guarantee that you know what the message means).
Many old dorms feature these mini- masterpieces, sketched in chalk. They usually last for several months before the rain washes them away or a newer drawing replaces them. They convey a hominess, a charm and warmth, despite the military theme and the cold bricks that back it up. In the distance, the willows have begun leafing around Youth Lake. And further back, the vigilant Tianjin Television Tower demonstrates that we occupy the heart of a metropolis.
The “new campus” picture shows some of the new dorms (I think). They are the rectangular buildings with the faux brick facades.
These brick facades come in two shades. Some people claimed that the lighter ones were dorms. Others claimed that the darker ones were dorms. Like everything else in Chinese, it’s probably not so clear cut.
Certainly the darker building in the foreground is no dorm. In fact, it seems built for giants, not people. And this gigantism is no trick of the lens. Try to make out the Lilliputian bikes leaning against it. Of course, none of these buildings features student-sketched chalk drawings, military or otherwise. Every line must be clean and sterile.
The following week, I glanced out one of my new-campus classroom windows and witnessed the noontime sun lighting up the flowering fruit trees like fluffy pink sparklers next to the neighboring engineering building.
I grabbed the shot. Later in the day, I took the bridge over there to get a closer look.
From there, the flowers seem gigantic, encrusting my classroom building as if it were an arbor. Well, this actually is just a trick of the lens. Those trees, or any of the other trees, will never grow big enough to balance the overpowering bulk of those buildings.
Still, the flowers were appreciated, and a surprising number of them appeared in the subsequent weeks.
So I sought out flowers on the old campus, as well. And since my previous dorm picture only showed the end of the building, I grabbed this shot of almost an entire dorm building to make up for it.
Yeah, despite the brick commonality, these old-campus buildings harbor a much deeper and more rugged character. And everything about them is solid and weighty.
I’ve been inside one of those once or twice. It’s solid and weighty in there, too, but also drafty and dark. And there are no showers. However there are laundry rooms. There are no washing machines, just sinks. But one can improvise and give oneself a cold shower by standing in the sinks. Yeah, it’s not luxury. I’ve heard that the new campus dorms are luxurious in comparison.
As I stood framing the shot, a man came walking along the wall next to “Youth Lake,” carrying a bag and a trident. Was he Neptune overseeing his realm? He kept walking and soon he was out of sight. I showed the picture to my students, and they didn’t understand what he was doing, either.
Melbourne, focus of the universe
My Australian friends Jeanette and Norma discovered an Australian exhibit in the 1895 building, the architecture business associated with Tianjin University. It’s called “The Black Box,” because those black boxes that record airplane diagnostic information were invented in Melbourne. And so was everything else you’ve ever heard of, apparently.
The exhibit consisted of little black boxes held up on posts, arranged in a large grid in a dark (naturally) room. You take a smart phone, lay it across one of these boxes, and the screen lights up with yet another Melburnian invention. Oddly, there was no fish ‘n chips — not even a picture!
There were, however, images of child safety seats, camping coolers, power strips, footballs (Australian Rules, though), trash bins, electric guitars, and almost every useful item known to modern man. Leave it to Melbourne to furnish light in the darkness!
Now and Then
My continuing series of Now and Then pictures features the track stadium on campus. My first visit to this spot occurred eighteen years ago. At the time, it was an empty lot. We took some students out there to play a game of pickup baseball. Not many years after that, the wave of development swept over it and the stadium sprang up. Over the years, I’ve visited that spot with many significant friends.
The panorama above was taken in the fall of 2008. My friend Rob and I had come out for two reasons. First, to talk to our departmental head, Mr. Yang, and ask him a favor. And second, like Mr. Yang, to cheer on the colleagues in our department as they competed in various track and party games. Like bullfighting, it’s more than a sport — it’s a ritual with deep and symbolic cultural roots. Rob and I could have taken part in it, but somehow our American culture was not quite attuned.
Anyway, if you look closely, you can make out the teams from various academic departments passing quietly by in formation as a lead-up to the actual competitions.
So a couple Saturdays ago, I returned to that stadium and rediscovered the exact seats that we had occupied almost eight years ago. And I snapped the above panorama. Since the area was already pretty well developed in 2008, one doesn’t see such dramatic changes in eight years. But if you look closely and compare, you can find lots of new tall buildings in almost every direction. Yes, development continues apace.
I’ve been back in Tianjin for three weeks now, my jet lag finally evaporating.
The graduate school modified our class schedule. The old campus classes moved from Thursdays to Mondays, while the new campus classes remained on Wednesdays. Thus, a day of rest bloomed between them. And believe me, that day of rest significantly lightens everybody’s mood.
More importantly, the weekly expedition out to the new campus gulag is easier to recover from when it’s no longer first, but second in the week.
Room assignments at the new campus also changed. The new locations contain normal rectangular desks (seen in this picture), which fit together in normal rows and columns, so other teachers won’t scramble them so utterly in our absence. And my new classroom is located on the first floor – a welcome change from the top floor in a new building without elevators. Yeah, they call it a “green campus” that saves energy.
Oh, and one additional welcome change – a new express bus.
The bus routes down to the new campus were inaugurated last September. The express bus (85¢ US) could make it in 40 minutes, and the local stop bus (50¢ US) took just under an hour. But that’s without traffic, which can stretch either of those trips out to an hour and a half or longer. The same physical buses plied each route, but as of this month – no longer.
Can you guess which one is the express bus in the picture? Hint: it’s the big one with the line of passengers waiting. It has plush tour-bus seating and a better heater, while retaining the classic side door in the middle for easy exits.
And according to my friend Jeanne, it also features an annoying voice that constantly admonishes the driver whenever s/he goes to slow or too fast. Seated in the back, I’ve not heard it, though perhaps my bus’s driver figured a way to destroy it. Yeah, it’s pretty bad when the vehicle itself is a back-seat driver.
If they wanted to have such a special bus as an express, why wasn’t it ready on the first day of the route? Because that’s the way things work here. You never over-prepare. When the routes were announced mere weeks before they were to start running, then they started thinking about what kind of bus. By that time, the only expedient left was to press any old equipment into service and go for it. And believe me, that first load of hardware featured transmissions ready to fall from their sockets. Only when the new routes were a going concern did they get the new buses.
Well, they hadn’t posted the schedule or specifics about the route right away, either. Information is currency in this society. You don’t toss it around willy-nilly.
Pollution continues unabated, billowing through town in swollen waves. However, I now know that the air filters within my apartment do their job. My mother’s Christmas gift was a “laser egg,” a product only available in China, which can only be purchased through WeChat payments. It’s a portable pollution measuring device.
The picture shows it sitting in front of my computer screen at home last Sunday. The pollution index was 453, hazardous to man and beast. Yet within my apartment, the laser egg measured just 40, a value that would even be acceptable in the Bay Area. It’s quite a remarkable number, considering how poorly these drafty apartments are sealed.
Interestingly, by Monday night, due to some brisk, cold, northerly winds, the outside index had dropped to about 70! Inside, the laser egg had dropped to 4 — cleaner than clean. Yes, we breathe at the mercy of the winds, and these particular winds probably blew some of that pollution all the way to California!
Those who are interested in the variety of winds in Tianjin, and their interaction with pollution and the mountains north and west of here can consult this link:
You’ll see an animated map like this one. It’s actually quite mesmerizing to watch the dirt sweep around our region in complex swirls.
I mentioned WeChat payments. WeChat is an evolving technology, launched in 2011, just five years ago, which has grown into a behemoth that coordinates most of contemporary Chinese society. Yet many people outside of China don’t know about it. The Chinese name is 微信 (Wēixìn), which means micro-letter. It’s like a combination of Twitter and Facebook plus Apple-pay. Of course, at least two of those three are banned in China.
I learned of WeChat from my American friend Lonnie. He used it to maintain communication with his Chinese wife when they found themselves on opposite sides of the globe. It offered something unheard of China – a telephone answering machine, all done up in software. And this one worked for free, even from halfway around the world — anywhere a data connection was available.
Yes, until WeChat, basically none of China’s hundreds of millions of telephones ever had an answering machine. How’s that for a cultural difference with the rest of the civilized world?
WeChat provides both voice and text messaging, as well as the ability to send pictures. People can form groups for group messages, and “follow” friends who post public messages. And nowadays, you also can plug in some cash, and go shopping online. Honestly, if you’re not on WeChat, do you have any identity at all? And what other sorts of convenient services may they incorporate in the future?
My own WeChat connection resides on my iPad, another bastion of faulty capitalization. A recent development in WeChat’s software means that it must remain my only connection, since I can’t transfer it to other devices, since those devices must be tied to my smartphone through its camera and its telephone number. I had used my American landline number to sign up in the first place, and it has no camera. Yeah old technology. It also means I don’t get the updated WeChat client with automatic translation.
Of course, the entire WeChat infrastructure is overseen by the government or its minions. And if they don’t like your message, it will quickly blink out. Meanwhile, since it’s all tied to your mobile phone, they can sit back and learn everything about your location, everything about the pictures that you take, everything about who your friends are, and everything about your interests and purchases. Honestly, I sometimes feel sorry for career spies. What’s left for them to do? I guess they’ll have to take low-skilled jobs such as hunting down and deleting objectionable thoughts from people’s message streams.
This month’s picture collection
My obsession with photos documenting campus life continues unabated. This interior shot depicts the second floor of the old campus’s Student Activity Center. A student studies behind an architectural model that someone seems to have abandoned there. It’s labeled: “Science Park – the region surrounding Youth Lake.
Interestingly, one of the modeled buildings is the Center itself! It’s the white sail-shaped one at the left in the picture, sitting on the bank of “Youth Lake.”
Since the semester’s classes had not yet commenced, the room’s occupants were few. It was a bit cluttered – old plush seats arranged like cafe booths, easels, pictures, notices. A large painting, carelessly leaning against one wall shows workmen constructing . . . . something. Maybe a boat? Maybe the student center?
The enveloping clutter seemed more protective than smothering. As I wandered about, the sounds of distant rehearsals – pianists, choirs, etc. — romped about me.
And I also remembered this building from my first trip here in 1998. At the time, an “English corner” (for practicing speaking English) took place just outside it, a couple evenings a week. Foreigners and motorized vehicles weren’t so common back then, so I remember standing in the street, in the gathering darkness, surrounded by a small mob of students politely grilling me about everything American for a couple hours. The experience was okay, but not one that I wanted to repeat.
The analogous Student Activity Center room at the new campus sits by an analogous artificial lake also called “Youth Lake.” It’s visible on the right, through tall windows that seem to invite the outdoors in for a visit.
There’s no clutter. There’s no inexplicable painting or cast-aside keyboards and architectural models — just re-arrangeable chairs and cushions, scattered across the wide floor. Again, the faint sounds of rehearsals – pianists, choirs, drifted in the space.
The Center’s lecture hall also represented a decided upgrade to the old campus’s center. No one performed that day, but someone gave drum lessons in the back stage area. In fact, the whole building was a decided upgrade. Despite its lack of warmth, it’s really a nice facility.
This picture shows the entrance to the main administration building, which houses the offices of the president, the publicity department, the international cooperation office, and several other campus-wide organizations.
The foyer is literally three stories tall. The exterior entryway is infested by a forest of gigantic rectangular columns which loom even taller. Like most structures down there, they are cloaked in faux-brick.
A friendly desk with clerks replaces the more common guard station. Meanwhile, the guard stands at attention by the door, at least during business hours. When you greet him with “Ni hao,” he does his best to be polite and respond softly without moving his mouth or anything else. Of course, nobody but foreigners ever acknowledges the guard’s presence.
By comparison, the foyer in the old administration building seems pretty plain and matter of fact. Yet, this is the building known and visited by Chairman Mao. It boasts no standing guard, but it does offer a podium with an informative guide to the building. What it lacks in grandeur is made up by its historical gravitas.
In the end, I couldn’t find that combination of sky-high ceiling plus guard anywhere at the old campus. Only the trees displayed such majesty. In fact, the camera frame could not even contain their splendid height. How could I completely depict their stateliness?
And then I remembered the “ball mirrors.” Four of them had been planted in the sidewalk by the lakeside long ago.
The ball’s shiny surface reflected entire trees, all the way up to the tip- top branches. And in fact, it even reflected me. So I captured it all and even included the bonus of some passing tennis shoes.
This, not the administration building, constitutes the old campus’s true majesty.
Of Possible Interest to Teachers
In December I wrote about a successful lesson and its emotional fallout for me. This month, it happened again, and I realized just what it was that I missed most about teaching elementary school. I realized it as I wrote about it in my journal entry for this week.
It’s kind of a long entry, but I placed it at the end, so those who aren’t interested can more easily skip it. The background was that the students were supposed to perform skits that day, but in this particular class, some actors in the scheduled groups had been called away unexpectedly. Again, the normal chaos.
= = = = = = = = = = = =
My final class at the old campus presented me with a challenge. Actually, that particular section presents me with a problem of some sort every single week. It’s my “difficult” group, I guess.Isn’t it funny, though, how so often the most challenging classes end up being the most meaningful? Yeah, I’m looking at you, Matt.
Anyway, enough students were missing that we could only present two skits, so even after the emergency extensions that I had prepared, an empty third of an hour remained. I had been thinking recently of “thought shots.” A thought shot is a revision technique used mainly in stories.
Yes, it’s revision – the heart of good writing. Basically, you insert a paragraph into story events that tells what a character is thinking about them. The purpose could be to better depict a character’s personality, or to fill in background information, etc.
In general, a thought shot is tied to the details of the scenes in which story characters find themselves thinking. In other words, if the character is sitting in a restaurant, s/he might react to the décor, the other guests, or the food itself, as each of these things may trigger memories or meditations.
I had included thought shots in my English course here for a few years, but I finally gave up on them because few students ever seemed to understand that the thought shot is triggered by details of the “here and now,” and is meant to connect them clearly to the character or to other events. Instead, the students’ thought shots often wandered away from the scene at hand and into the same sloganeering and platitudes which they’d been so thoroughly trained to regurgitate on command for their whole lives.
But I still taught explode-a-moments, another revision technique which stretches out the moment for dramatic emphasis. So instead of writing “I drank some water,” I might stretch out the moment by writing – “My hand moved towards the chilled glass. Gratefully, my fingers wrapped around it. The liquid inside danced and sparkled. I began to lift it towards my waiting lips,” etc.
But then I thought – maybe an explode-a-moment could anchor a thought shot?
In other words, one could first write an explode-a-moment. Then, for each sentence or two in that explode-a-moment, write a sentence to describe what the character is thinking. I had been thinking that the students ought to review explode-a-moments soon, anyway, so, maybe now would be a good time to do both – review explode-a-moments and try out my thought shot idea.
So I had the students take out paper to write. A list of explode-a-moment prompts already resided on my computer. I displayed it:
She dove into the swimming pool.
He fell from his bicycle.
She tossed a paper into the trash bin.
The firecracker (鞭炮) exploded.
A cat caught a mouse.
A house fell down in the earthquake.
He laughed so hard at the joke.
She picked up the flower and smelled it.
He sped around the corner on his bike.
I chose the last one for myself. I picked up a piece of chalk, and quickly wrote an explode-a-moment on the chalkboard.
As he approached the corner, he leaned to the left. His feet circled faster. His fingers gripped the brakes. He took a deep breath. He slowly turned the wheel. People jumped out of the way. He pedaled faster. The bike flew like a cyclone, until the corner had been passed.
The students should be able to understand most of that vocabulary. Perhaps not “gripped,” or “cyclone,” but then I hadn’t had time to think more carefully.
The students then chose one topic for themselves and wrote explode-a-moments for it. After a few minutes I called time. My directions, then, were to read each sentence that they had just written, and write what the character was thinking for that sentence. Gee, this exercise might also trap the students into actually reading what they had just written!!!
First, I picked up a piece of yellow chalk and tried it myself. Would it produce a coherent thought shot tied to the moment? It felt like I was swinging on a trapeze without a net. I’d never actually tried this before.
Steady your mind. I don’t have much time. Can my feet move fast enough? What if somebody steps in front of me? It would be a tragedy. I’ll watch carefully. Yeah, I need to go fast. I’m late.
Hey, that paragraph hung together nicely. And it’s clearly rooted in the events of the scene. I asked the students to do the same thing. They set to writing.
The bell to end the class cut off the students’ writing. So at that point, I asked one of them to read what she had written. She did. And her paragraph also hung together very nicely. And it was centered “in the moment,” and responded to the events of the scene that she had written. Cool. The writing sample in the picture above, which I happened to snap while they wrote, also does this. Perhaps this year I’ll finally have students who will understand “thought shot.”
And I reflected that this sort of improvisation is the daily part-and-parcel of teaching elementary school in America, where the teacher might have five, six, seven, or even eight different lessons in one day, covering as many different subjects. No teacher ever has time to prepare fully, the way I now could. Improvisation is a necessary skill.
The picture shows an assembly at my old elementary school back in May, 2007. When I once showed it to a group of students here, they couldn’t believe it was America. “Nobody’s blond,” they said.
Nowadays, instead of 30-40 lessons to plan each week, I have only one or two. With plenty of time to prepare, and in order to keep my eight sections all “on the same page,” my lessons had become scripted. I wanted all eight of them to hear the same complete message, and scripting was the only practical way to ensure that. I also wanted all the students, who often can’t understand spoken English, to understand whatever I said, and the only way to ensure that was to write it all down like subtitles so they could also read it. And I also wanted it all written down to help students who came to office hours.
But even though I always left some room in my scripts for variation, and even though I had written the scripts myself, thus making them presentations that I could stand behind, they couldn’t provide the improvisatory thrill of knowing what I wanted to teach, then not having time enough to prepare everything, but teaching it anyway. It’s that thrill of charging forward, while not completely knowing which way “forward” actually is. It’s the sort of forced risk-taking that wore me out as an elementary school teacher. But I miss it.
It all reminded me of my first lesson here at Tianjin University, almost eight years ago. I had bought a plane ticket from San Francisco to China, which would put me in Tianjin a couple weeks before classes would begin, according to the previous year’s calendar. That would give me time to get over jet lag and plan out the first few English lessons.
But then, I got a note from the English department that the schedule had changed and they wanted all of us to start classes a couple weeks earlier than anticipated. (Such chaotic last-minute changes will be familiar to China veterans). So my first class was now scheduled to begin at about the same time as the plane would be touching down in Beijing.
Luckily, my American friend Rob was already working in the same department, and he was “on the ground” and ready to go. He volunteered to take my first couple class sections for me. In fact, he’d take the first half week, so I could observe him and see what sorts of things the students were used to. Cool.
Everything went according to this new plan. He took over my first class early in the week as my plane touched down and a car swept me off to Tianjin. And then the next day, he led me around to my second class so I could observe him. As we passed down the fourth-floor hallway of Building 8 (shown in the picture) and neared the door to the classroom, he took out a schedule to double-check the room number. Suddenly, he froze in place and did a double-take. “Hey, my own class also meets right now. Well, good luck!” and with that, he was off down the hall. And I had ninety-five minutes to fill, with nothing but vague thoughts in my mind as to what I would do. I don’t remember now what I did back then, but I do remember that thrill of “pulling it off.”
Only weeks later did I find out that actually I’d only had to fill ninety minutes, not ninety-five, since a five-minute break was scheduled in the middle of every session. I had kept wondering what all those extra bells were for, but none of the students had ever dared to tell me. Again, China veterans will be familiar with this non-communicative phenomenon.
Yeah, good times. In that first September here, not only had the schedule been unclear, but the official class lists had not been forthcoming for the first few weeks. My classes filled to overflowing with students who didn’t themselves really know if they were supposed to be enrolled or not. The picture shows part of one of these classes.
Up until this year, those had been the largest classes that I had ever had. One of them grew to over fifty students, and they didn’t even all fit in the room until finally about a dozen of them were sternly told not to attend.
Since those dark-age years so long ago, the English department has gotten its act together, though the general chaos of of this year’s move to the new campus has definitely put a strain on it all. This was the first year since 2008 that I didn’t have a class roll sheet to start class with.
In any case, this week’s improvisatory lesson worked. In fact, It gave me something to also try with the other sections later on in the semester. Life is good.
Those of you stuck in Tianjin for the winter might appreciate my home town, Castro Valley, California. In many places, people dream of a white Christmas. In California, with the rainy season starting in the fall, we dream of a green one.
The panorama below, taken yesterday on the outskirts of town, shows the trail up Fairmont Ridge from Fairmont Drive. Castro Valley is to the right, San Leandro beyond the hills to the left. Mount Diablo is visible in the background through the morning fog. If you click on the picture, you get the big version – and it’s pretty big this time. Clean air, and shirt-sleeve temperatures.
As I locate the car in the parking lot in the picture, I reflect that I am home, but my home is my mother’s, not mine, and I drive a Honda, but it’s my friend’s, not mine. It’s good to remember such things and maintain perspective about the blessings we receive, that we did not work for.
I enjoy taking pictures of this countryside-like area so much, that I might give the wrong impression of the area where I live. It’s not the countryside, but the heart of a megalopolis. Just before taking the panorama above, I peeked over the hills into neighboring San Leandro and got the shot at right. That’s the “Bay Fair” shopping center. Yes, it’s an American mall. If you enlarge the shot, you can just make out a BART metro train moving behind the shopping center. There’s also a freeway in the foreground.
And now – the obligatory bird pictures from Fairmont Ridge – a junco, a mockingbird, and two yellow-crowned sparrows eating/pollinating willows.
Two campuses in Tianjin
When I left Tianjin on January tenth, the canals and ponds had frozen over, though still not completely. And the air had put on that typical winter coat of soot. In fact, a couple weeks earlier, the air quality index had soared — the worst I’d ever seen – 668. And to commemorate it, I offer a screen shot from my computer monitor.
Needless to say, this was disappointing. Actually, pollution levels in the last couple years had seemed to improve, and the coal-fired heating plant near us seemed to have been converted to natural gas.
But an AQI of 668 sure makes Castro Valley, where pollution levels usually hover between 30 and 40, look pretty clean (As I write this, it’s 17, while Tianjin is 180). And if California levels ever go over a hundred, a “spare the air day” is called, and it’s really a pretty big deal. In Tianjin, people are happy when it’s just a hundred.
In China, I had labored under a cough ever since November that never got really bad, but never really went away. Until I arrived in California. After about a week, it disappeared, and never returned. I did catch a cold in Oregon, but after two days, the cough was gone. Yes, air quality is really something to factor in when considering Eastern China.
I’ve got one last pair of pictures comparing the new campus and the old campus for 2015. The first picture, at left, shows the main bus stop outside the main gate of the new campus. The sun is trying, but mostly failing, to push through the smog. The campus is located on the right – and one can barely make out one of the distant campus buildings across the frozen moat. On the left, across the street, and behind me, as well as in front of me, there’s a patchwork of newly-transplanted trees – all alike. And on the far side of them lies nothing. I suppose one might count the dirt as something. But it’s really nothing. Nothing for miles. Empty.
The corresponding shot from the old campus appears at right. The campus buildings on the left come right up to the frozen canal (it’s a canal and not a moat because it doesn’t surround the whole campus). The smog is the same, but the other side of the street is full, not empty! Buildings spring up everywhere, containing all the resources of a huge city. The blue sign in the picture announces the FM frequency for traffic information. And the bus stop is located in front of the buildings in the middle of the picture.
The guy on the left wears a mask, the kind with a valve for quick exhalations, so the air trapped within the mask doesn’t heat up like a warmed-over Amazon rain forest. That’s my preferred model as well.
The cage in the canal contains a small flat boat, used occasionally for maintenance. It’s the only boat that sails this canal, which ends at the end of this block. Actually, when they had planned this neighborhood, they had envisioned small tourist boats moving up and down the canal from bases in the nearby “water park.” In fact, the road at the university entrance arches high over the canal, precisely to accommodate such boats. However, the plans never panned out. It would have been cool, though. I can soimagine a Chinese gondolier belting out Peking Opera. I’d pay for that. Even if they didn’t dress up in costume.
Apropos shopping centers, if you follow the street in that last picture into the distance, you’ll find yourself at one of Tianjin’s largest malls. In Chinese, it’s called 大悦城, which translates to something like Big Enjoyment City, but everybody calls it just Joy City in English. This gives the Chinese English learner, who doesn’t seem to like words longer than two syllables, a fighting chance at pronouncing it. And if “joy” and “enjoyment” don’t mean the same thing, well, how important can that be? Translation between English and Chinese isn’t really possible, anyway.
Food for Thought
Well, my friend Jeanette and I traveled down to Joy City in early January to share a lunch at a Sizzler, complete with the traditional salad bar. Yes, Sizzler. They didn’t do so well in America, but they’re still growing in China, not to mention Australia.
I didn’t get many pictures that day. However, someone has posted a nice tour of Joy City on Youtube here: https://youtu.be/7wlW–G25Nc
I did squeeze off one shot, seen at left. Such a cool model motoring setup. It evokes many happy memories from my youth. The sign in the corner (translated into dollars) says 7 dollars for ten minutes – 8 dollars for twenty. That’s a lot of money for the average Chinese person to spend on such frivolities, but not so much, really, for those in the new middle class.
Other than the Sizzler, the main culinary highlight for this winter was the Shao Bing (烧饼). My colleague Lee discovered this vendor/chef one evening after work. His little stand is set up along the path through our housing development. I assume that the little girl is his daughter. She regarded me with some suspicion throughout the transaction. These sorts of reactions don’t happen as often as they used to in Tianjin, though.
Anyway, shao means roasted and a bing is anything flat made from wheat dough. (and every imaginable variation of that form can be found in northern China)
Prior to finding this guy, I had not known about Shao bing, but every time I’ve bought some, passersby have taken note as I ate them. It’s yet another example of something everybody knows, but I’m just finding out after eight years.
But they’re great — especially hot off the grill in the early evening. They aren’t plain dough – but some spice is mixed in. They are cheap – less than twenty cents (US) apiece. And they are not all oily like most bing, since most bing end up deep-fried in oil. Their warmth can really pep you up when strolling home after a long tiring day.
Portable food stands like this are common throughout the city, and often improvised from a wide variety of cast-offs. For example, all it takes is some charcoal and an old oil drum, set upon a pair of wheels, and you have a serviceable and mobile potato cooker.
Some food processors are more sophisticated, though. This strange contraption roasts sunflower seeds. It looks kind of like a clothes drier without the front door. Sunflower seeds roll around and around until they drift out the front into a basket.
Street-side food contraptions come in many forms. Maybe they pop corn. Maybe they puff wheat (with a loud bang). Maybe they melt sugar for sugar sculptures. Some occupy the same spot on a sidewalk for years. Others drift about the city. Maybe they’re just never satisfied with one location. Maybe they’re just keeping one jump ahead of the licensing authorities.
Of course none of this wonderful variety of food can be found out in the gulag of the new campus. They do, however, have dining halls out there. And this picture shows a typical meat and vegetable dish, plus a few spring rolls (which are not typical) all poured over rice (which is almost universal in school cafeterias – even in the relatively-riceless north). As you can see, this ignorant foreigner put his chopsticks down on the plate backwards. 太不好意思了!!!
You’ll also note the university emblem on the plate itself. Thanks to my friend Jeanette, I arranged to buy four sets of these plates and brought them home as practical souvenirs. So, long after I have returned to America for good, I can still enjoy that dining hall ambiance. And I’m pretty sure I’m the first “kid on my block” to own these gems.
Here, for example, is the table at my mother’s place in Portland last month, all set with genuine Tianjin University plates. We did not, however, use chopsticks that night.
Sights in California
So I did travel around from California to Portland and back – a jaunt of about a thousand kilometers each way. And of course, I got some photos out of it.
After three years of drought, California finally had a normal rainy season this winter. So I got lots of photos of cloudy, drizzly weather, like the moody photo of avian swimmers in Lake Chabot, the Lake next to Fairmont Ridge. There are two coots and three different geese – A Canada goose, a white-fronted goose, and something that looks halfway between them.
Again, it’s hard to believe you’re in the heart of a megalopolis when you view a scene of people peacefully fishing amidst hills and forest, unfazed by wet weather. But in Castro Valley, such scenes are typical.
I also took the path up Fairmont Ridge, as is my habit. As always, the path streamed with people walking their dogs.
In this shot, Castro Valley is in the background. The asphalt road leads to a “children’s memorial,” a remembrance of Bay Area children lost to violence through the years. The earliest names are now about twenty years old, and unfortunately, new names are still being added.
On a brighter note, I found that climbing the ridge involved considerably less huffing and puffing than it had last summer. I guess my health had hit bottom last summer, and things are looking up again.
And wandering down the path were, apparently, a pair of Leprechauns, judging by their dress and their size next to the gates, the signs, the bench in the background, and that bulky eucalyptus tree. Well, with all that green, it’s no wonder they turned up.
Up to Portland
I didn’t take pictures on the way up to Portland – it was too cloudy and dark the whole way. However, the weather cleared on the trip back. So I snagged another shot of my favorite mountain – Mount Shasta — up in northern California.
In the foreground is a wonderful institution of the Interstate Highway System – the rest stop. This one is near Weed, California.
Rest stops are exactly what the name implies – a place to take a nap, eat a snack, use the (always clean) toilets, etc. They are located every thirty to sixty minutes along the portion of the Interstate outside major towns and cities. And they usually feature beautiful views, if not of mountains, then at least of forests. Here’s an typical example not too far from Portland. Note the blue picnic table. It was a bit too cool in the morning to picnic, though.
One notable surprise was the price of gas. Here’s Central Point, Oregon, where I filled up for a dollar eighty six a gallon. The mountain in the background is Mt. McLaughlin.
I think that might be the cheapest price that I’ve ever paid for gasoline, allowing for inflation. I have mixed feelings about such low prices, but it was nice to fill up the tank with a twenty-dollar bill. The trip to Portland takes two tanks. So a round trip for less than four twenty-dollar bills in fuel is quite a bargain. For metric thinkers, that’s forty-nine cents a liter. For the Chinese, that’s just over three yuan a liter. I never thought I’d ever see prices that low. Of course, the prices are a bit higher than that in California, due to the refinery monopoly there, but still . . . .
Portland was just as beautiful as always. And it even stopped raining there a couple of times. The picture shows Downtown Portland and the riverfront. Does it always look so beautiful? Yes, it does.
And what about downtown itself? Here’s a panorama of Pioneer Place, an upscale shopping area, on a typical grey and drizzly day. That’s the stylish Apple store on the left side of the street. There are a few artifacts from constructing the panorama from several smaller shots.
In Portland, I mainly puttered around the house, and spent a lot of time revising my writings about language acquisition. But I did get out a couple times to the movies, and I did visit a some old friends from Tianjin, and I did go out to a car show.
Perhaps due to the fall in fuel prices over the last couple years, the cars that they showed this year seemed bigger than I remembered – except for the Fiat and the Minis, of course.
As always, I paid close attention to the Hondas. And I wasn’t the only one. Here are a bunch of Honda fans carefully examining the new HRV.
All in all, I wasn’t ready to buy anything, but it was lots of fun, anyway.
I also attended a cat show, for the first time in decades. And I wasn’t the only one. Actually, I had no idea that cat shows were so popular. Here’s an overhead view. A half-dozen “rings,” where the judging takes place are located on the right.
Cat shows are different than dog shows. For one thing, all of the judges rate all of the contestants. The cat owners, then, are always carrying their pet from one ring to another and to their cat cages, and back again.
Cats also aren’t shown by their own handlers. Instead, the judge just picks up each one in turn. The picture shows a judge about to pick up a cat.
Also, cat shows feature many categories of what would be termed “mutts” in a dog show. In fact, there were lots of categories — so many that most contestants were awarded first, second, or third in something. And of course, some cats were pretty exotic. Three examples include a Bengal Cat, a hairless cat, and the Lykoi, a new breed that only appeared a couple years back. Its sparse, yet wild, hair makes it look like a werewolf cat.
And, speaking of werewolves, I also took in a lecture at Portland’s Reed College given by Dr. Demento himself, that radio disk jockey whose connections to werewolves, fish heads, and Weird Al Yankovich are well documented.
For new fans, here’s a YouTube video from Dr. Demento’s 20th Anniversary Celebration, back in 1991. I’ve been a fan since the early seventies, so it was quite a treat to see and hear him in person.
It turns out that he’s a graduate of Reed College!
Here’s what he looks like these days. Unfortunately he was fighting off a flu the night that I saw him.
Interestingly, he presented three lectures that week, and none of them concerned novelty music. It turns out he is also interested in the history of popular music. So he delivered a very academic lecture on the various ethnic roots of American music, illustrated by a lot of recordings that I had never heard before. The lectures on other nights examined Frank Zappa’s career, and the history of punk rock.
I took a panorama of the Reed College lecture hall where he spoke. I would point out that this modern room features a chalk board – and no obvious trace of a projector screen. I mention this because, back in Tianjin University’s new campus, teachers are all on a high tech system where we each have a virtual desktop served up from a central server projected onto a screen in whatever lecture hall we may find ourselves. Luckily I can still use my own laptop, since the system’s bandwidth often isn’t sufficient to function under load. In other words, it often freezes.
But when we asked why such a system had been implemented, we were told that colleges everywhere else in the world already had such systems, so China has to catch up! But Reed College seems to give greater value to the simple chalkboard. In fact, my friend (and former student) John, who is teaching math at UC Davis, tells me that they also use mainly chalkboards.
Go figure. Here’s the panorama. It’s really quite a beautiful room:
Since I always feature some Chinese food in these messages, it seems only right that I feature something American in a message like this.
In this case, it’s Swedish American. My sister, brother-in-law, mother and I all went out to dinner at Portland’s local Swedish Association. The posterized picture at right was taken with my mobile phone, (I’d forgotten my camera) which has a lot of “artistic” options.
The culinary highlight of the night was Lutefisk, a method of preparing fish that renders it the consistency of hard jelly, with a fairly bland taste. They say you have to be Scandinavian to like it, but actually, once you smother it in white sauce, melted butter and allspice, it tastes like, well, white sauce, melted butter and allspice, so not bad at all.
Two weeks later, my mother, sister and I drove out to a new Scandinavian heritage center. A local Scandinavian restaurant, Broder’s, set up a franchise inside it, so we enjoyed shrimp salad (Swedes are big on shrimp and crayfish), as well as a cream herring salad, and three open-faced sandwiches on brown bread. (The Swedes are big on these, too). The sandwiches were all different. One featured gravlax – cured, uncooked salmon. There was also farmer’s cheese and curry chicken apple salad, along with pickled beets. For a culture with a noted aversion to spicy food, these Swedish sandwiches had an intense flavor.
Back to China
Well, this message was a bit longer than usual, but then, I had two global hemispheres to cover. I have just a few days left in California. I’m planning on heading to China on February 21, for what is likely my final semester teaching there. I haven’t decided whether or not to continue these monthly updates. Let me know if you have an opinion.