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.
There was white on white for Christmas in Tianjin this year. Yeah, new-fallen snow on the ground and new-floating toxic soup in the sky. And it’s almost the end of the month and I’ve written nothing so far this month for friends and family.
The Community Band
This was my second white Christmas in Tianjin – the second in 8 years, not counting some years where drips and drabs of snowfall didn’t actually fall on Christmas itself, but persisted in cool corners, gathering soot.
I traveled out Christmas morning to see and hear a Dutch acquaintance of mine, someone who has more courage than me, someone who has integrated herself so thoroughly into the local society that she actually joined the community band in her neighborhood. Yes, once again the Dutch people’s worldwide influence belies their modest numbers.
The pictures show the dusting of snow in her neighborhood on that morning.
There’s something universal about a community band. It really doesn’t matter what style they play or what patched-together instrumentation they feature. The charm of a community band is not simply the music – which is usually played competently. It’s the community – both the orchestral community and the larger community from which it’s drawn. And for this performance, the audience swelled in numbers until it almost attained the size of the orchestra itself! Yes, things don’t get much sweeter than that.
Oh, and the omnipresent personalities that compose every such ensemble were again evident here!
The classic conductor, youthful in demeanor, though maybe not in years, seemed to physically reel in melodies out of that thick orchestral sea. And then we noted the standard-issue saxophone soloist, coursing with overconfidence through Kenny G hits, wading his way along arrhythmic routes which the G’ster himself would not dare to navigate. Then there was the shoal of bottom feeders, who would be clarinetists in America, but erhu-istas in China. Such individuals avoid standing out. They swim with the current, happy for the experience, and happy to remain concealed amongst their fellows.
And of course, one or two giants always do stand out, breaching free from the gravitational confines of mediocrity, into the rarefied atmosphere of excellence! Such potential! But in the end, they always succumb to the gentle, but inevitable, pull that again enfolds them into the medium from which they had emerged.
Oh, and don’t forget the M.C., floating serenely on a middle-aged spread — elegance without the encumbrance of eloquence.
Yes, all of these requisite roles presented themselves before a community audience, mainly composed of children pushed within range of the director, to be lectured at, and initiated in, the arcane traditions into which we all were about to embark.
All of this constitutes the universals of the community band. Indeed, the photo above at left depicts the director herself delivering that cultural lecture before commencing the performance. And you, too, can witness a bit of this cultural magnificence for yourself.
I uploaded one ensemble piece, entitled “The Flower Blossoms in the Full Moon,” to YouTube, where it can be viewed here: https://youtu.be/wWQpt0IhZ0Y
Interestingly, as soon as these pieces were uploaded, they were automatically analyzed and tagged by YouTube’s computers. Youtube then informed me of the pieces’ titles, and they let me know that two of them were copyrighted works, but that the copyright owner didn’t mind (for now) if I hosted them on YouTube. Perhaps, though, if you want to view them, you should look sooner than later.
In addition to this fabulous music, I also celebrated Christmas on the preceding weekend with a group of friends in their office downtown. So all in all, it was celebratory holiday for me this year.
I guess the only other personal news this time is the surprising level of pollution that I’ve seen here lately. Indeed, over the past year or two, the atmosphere had seemed to be improving. The power plant that supplies our winter radiator heat stopped spouting exhaust from its chimney, and instead spouted from a series of shorter ones. Probably, as I have heard, it’s one of many that have been converted to natural gas in order to reduce atmospheric particulates. Earlier this year, when I saw lower pollution levels (down to only 13 on one occasion), I had been quite encouraged.
However, the last couple weeks have been as polluted as any that I’ve seen here ever. The level reached 524 at one point, with local readings even higher. It’s been most discouraging. Public schools (except for colleges) closed for three days. Even more automobiles were pulled off the road, which meant I lost the opportunity to ride in a car back from the new campus last week.
Automobiles don’t represent the bulk of the problem, though. One of my British friends sarcastically commented, “Yeah let’s get those coal-fired cars off the road!”
However, one of my students got me a new mask, which I’ve been wearing regularly. At this point, though, it’s no longer white, so I may need to find another one. And two weeks from now, I can again breath the air of California, clean thanks to the EPA.
The Kidnapped Statue!
It was shocking. The Beiyang Monument on the new campus seemed destined to shelter that regal figure of the school’s first director forever. But two weeks ago, I visited the site, and the statue had vanished, as can be seen in the picture at left.
As with so many things in China, I’ll probably never find out exactly what happened to it. Perhaps they wanted to shelter it from the cold. It couldn’t have shattered, could it?
If you enlarge the picture, you can also see the secret of the monument’s strange dome, and why it never seems quite in focus when you look at it. This view was taken from the Colosseum building, gazing straight out towards the main gate, with its sacred corridor of history, and its water cascade (emptied for the winter).
If you look in the opposite direction from that spot, you behold the view at right. The path from the entrance continues unobstructed over the double-tracked bridge, crossing the eastern end of the interior moat, and continuing west, and perforating the main library, which is the giant grey block in the distance. It then continues, still in a straight line, by the student recreation center, where it ends at the swollen western end of the moat, which has been christened “Youth Lake,” the same name as one of the ponds on the old campus. Such grandeur! Again, enlarge the picture to see more details.
The old campus boasts nothing so glorious as that scene. But in exchange, I present the simple autumn fisherman (though the picture was only taken about ten days ago). His presence on that old-campus pond, indeed on every pond bigger than a bathtub, remains as timeless as the Qingming festival itself.
And I held my very first office hours in the new campus two weeks ago! In fact, as far as I know, it’s the first time that the office there has been used by anyone.
Eight students came by that day to make up classes that they had missed. I’m not able to do that for the students here at the old campus. The promised office in the old campus never materialized. Well, often promises don’t materialize around here.
Mainly, it’s a result of shifting leadership. That’s what happened to the promised subway stop at the new campus, for example. A city leader was promoted to another job, outside the city, and his successor felt no obligation to honor those commitments. So we’re all on the bus now.
I realized that, at a minimum of forty minutes in each direction, my weekly Wednesday commute to the new campus is the longest commute that I’ve ever endured.
On Wednesday mornings, I take a bus chartered by the university. It’s a bit of a hassle to get listed as a passenger (reservations must be made in the previous month), but it’s comfortable. Unfortunately, there’s no such bus at a reasonable time available for the return journey. So for the return trip, I catch the ordinary city bus, with its customary suspenseful jockeying for seating space.
It really makes me appreciate my class sections here on the old campus – with the shortest commute that I’ve ever had, more comfortable rooms, and the convenient access to just about everything that I need (except office space) throughout the day.
My Unique Souvenir
I’ll probably be the “only person on my block” in California to have the autograph of the President of Tianjin University, Mr. Li Jiajun himself. I obtained it thanks to my friend and former (really former – the guy’s over thirty now) student Andy Yu.
Andy’s father has had a long and influential presence on this campus, and he even named one of the lakes. He’s an amateur photographer who showed interest in my work. He took some of my pictures of the University and donated them to the campus archive, hence the letter of acceptance (with a serial number) signed by President Li himself. It’s all too cool.
I have an Australian friend here who works a desk job at the publicity department on campus. Everything for her was new, exciting and a big adventure until the adventure got a little out of hand, because the department moved to the new campus. The forty minute commute (80 minutes round trip) every day took a lot of the joy out of the job.
So when she heard of an opening in the newly-formed school of pharmacy, located back at the old campus and paying a significantly higher salary, she went for it. And to make a long story short, she succeeded, but not before negotiating.
Because, contrary to what Johnny Paycheck might say, you can’t simply leave a job in China. You’ve got to get a letter of release, and without that letter, other companies, let alone other departments in the same university, aren’t going to hire you. And therein lies the rub that almost upset her job-changing plans. The old department simply didn’t want to let her go, even after the period of her contract had ended.
How does such a situation get resolved?
Either it doesn’t, and you’re just stuck working in your old job, or you find someone of greater influence to intervene. That’s what happened in this case.
And last night I had dinner with a Chinese friend who described the exact same situation happening between her positions at an old company and a new one. Without the intervention of an influential person, she, too, would never have been released from her old job, unless she simply didn’t want to work at all. It really makes one appreciate the role of connections in this society.
In fact, I’ve been told that if I stop working for Tianjin University, I’d better get a letter of release from them, as it might even affect my ability to get visas to visit China in the future. On the other hand, I’m also told that this university is usually reasonable about granting such letters. So I’m not too worried about it.
Such a basic fact of life here! I’d heard hints of such things, but never had it spelled out clearly until now, after living and working here for almost eight years. Yeah, China, where all information is dispensed on a strictly need-to-know basis.
Well, I’m going to stop writing this letter, at least, and finally send it off. Happy New Year, everybody. <sigh> It’s already too late to even wish you a happy Boxing Day.
After sending that message earlier this week, a remarkable thing happened, so I wanted to include it in this, my rather public version of a journal.
No, it wasn’t the first snowfall of the season, though I’ll include a couple of pictures of that, too. And it wasn’t an end to my continuing health problems, which remain a constant source of annoyance. On the other hand, my feet continue to improve.
This is the view from my front door this morning.
Yes, that’s the very same plaza / parking lot where I took that picture of a hoopoe not long ago for my previous message. And next up is almost the exact spot where that bird took a dust bath, now occupied by some anonymous young couple reveling in the sparkling whiteness.
I tried to take a taxi this morning, but taxis were not to be found. In fact, traffic was not to be found. Drivers here don’t do well in snow. They tend to spin out. No taxis plied the byways of my local streets. I walked all the way out to the main road (Anshan Xi Dao), and it wasn’t much better. There weren’t any unoccupied taxis on the main road, either. In fact, there was hardly any traffic at all. Here’s a shot for anyone who has never seen this street in the daytime with so few vehicles.
Finally I gave up waiting on taxis and trudged home, which is why I have time to write this. But snow is not actually what I wanted to write about. This is what I wanted to write about:
Yes, those are my lovely students at the new campus happily practicing their English last Wednesday. And the next photo shows a corresponding group at the old campus the next day, on Thursday:
Those of us who teach in China are well aware of the students’ reluctance to speak out during class. I once calculated that the magic number was somewhere around 7. Fewer than that, and the students would speak readily. More than that, and everybody just clams up.
Many teachers resort to awarding points towards the students’ grades just to get anybody to say anything. I’ve never been comfortable with that. I never even gave out gold stars when I taught elementary school in California. So if the demands of the lesson require a student to talk, and nobody will, then I just point to one (usually randomly). True volunteers usually step forward, though, given enough time to think.
Anyway, my goal for the students is that they learn enough linguistic theory, and practice it, so that they can go on to perfect their English after the limited class hours that they have spent with me. Or, for that matter, they might someday want to master a new and different language altogether.
Simply explaining this theory doesn’t work, at least not for the majority of the students. The concepts are too foreign compared to what they’re used to, particularly as most of them study engineering, and not biological sciences. The only way to reach them is to build up the concepts gradually and somewhat indirectly, encouraging their own thinking processes to assemble those ideas into a cohesive theory.
Well, I seem to have reached a milestone this week. I actually teach English somewhat differently every year, as my knowledge of language learning and of the students both deepen. Every year it seems that my understandings and skills for teaching Chinese students “have arrived,” and every next year I discover that there’s actually a whole lot more to be understood.
Meanwhile, I search out more effective ways to build up these linguistic concepts gradually and somewhat indirectly. My latest additions to this buildup, by the way, are “movie talk” and the “face identification area” of the brain.
Well, this week, in my last class on Thursday, as my exhaustion from the two long days threatened to topple me completely, I stopped talking at the end of another short presentation segment and again asked for student response. I usually get about three responses, either through volunteers or by invitations.
A young woman volunteered and stood up (another common habit in Chinese schools). She began recounting the key concepts of the lesson, speaking slowly (because of the foreign language) and measuring every word. But she didn’t stop. She plodded along, and every time I was about to say thank you and give another student a chance to contribute, she dredged up another concept, connecting it to the previous week’s ideas. Where was she headed with this?
And then she put it all together, exactly the way that I was planning to, and then she extended the ideas just as I would be using them in the following weeks, but with her own spin on them, thinking as she continued speaking, even as her ideas provoked me to rethink a couple of things.
And this expression was all coming out in public, in the middle of class. It was remarkable. It was marvelous. Students had spoken thoughtfully in class before, but not like that — not taking the risk and putting together new concepts in public. Students had put ideas together before, but not so extensively, and again, not in public.
And I realized that this is what I had been working towards for several years now. And I wondered if this young woman was simply a fluke. Well, finally she sat down. I told the class that this was why I love teaching. And I was about to continue with the lesson, when I realized that only one student had given response at that point in the lesson. Was there another volunteer? There was. And she began an exposition much like her classmate’s!! So maybe it wasn’t a fluke. Maybe it’s a milestone. But what might I have done to encourage it at this time?
Anyway, that’s my addendum. And I’ll attach another snow picture – that anonymous young couple playing with some (feral?) puppies in that very same spot once occupied by a hoopoe.
One of my friends asked yesterday if I’d been sending out email messages, and I realized it’s been a month and a half since the last one. Well, I’m still here. Please don’t forget me! I think of things to write all the time, but then I can’t remember if I already wrote it last time or not.
While I’m thinking, and for my bird-watching friends, here’s a snapshot of one of my favorite birds – a hoopoe. It’s sitting by my front door, in a space that was designed as a little plaza, but now is a little parking lot, due to the rapid proliferation or automobiles..
Hoopoes mainly eat bugs that live underground. I thought that this one must be quite frustrated trying to get through the bricks, but then I discovered that food was not its purpose. A misaligned and sunken brick had accumulated quite a bit of dust, so this bird happily took a dust bath.
When they fly, hoopoes seem like giant butterflies, marvelous to behold. They are not related to woodpeckers, but to hornbills, and less closely, to kingfishers.
The heat arrived right on time, on November 15. That’s the hot-water heat that’s pumped in from a plant a few blocks away. All the cities north of the Yangtze River have this winter heat, supplied as a public utility. Prices vary depending on the heating subcontractor, but my small apartment (about 800 square feet) is assessed at about $300 US for the period from November 15 to March 15.
The water comes through gigantic insulated pipes that mainly run overground, along walls and buildings. Instead of simply starting it full blast on the 15th, they ramped it up gradually, beginning a couple days earlier. In fact, compared to the “old days” a few years ago, when they just let it rip full blast for four months, a more nuanced approach has taken hold these days, and the amount of heat varies with the weather and the time of day.
The upshot is that it never seems quite as warm as it did five years ago. But, it probably does save a lot of heating costs, as well as pollution from the power plant. I’m just glad it’s finally on. It’s been pretty cold. Highs will be in the 40’s this week.
And since the heat comes through the walls, the bathroom mirror no longer fogs from taking a shower, and those pajamas that had been hung out to dry on the balcony, and were still damp after five days, could be brought inside to finally dry off completely.
Yeah, pollution seems better overall than a couple years ago, but we still have our smog-choked days. I took the above panorama from the office of Korean Airlines in the International Building on Nanjing Lu. I was there to buy a ticket to SFO for January 10. I expect to not tarry long in California, though, but to head up to Portland for a while.
The panorama shows one of the better days, though smog is still evident. Longtime Tianjin residents will recognize the continuing proliferation of tall buildings in the center of the picture, which is the central shopping district at Binjiang Dao (though large malls continue to sprout up in other areas). Also, at the left edge, one can spot the Tianjin TV tower in the distance.
A Tale of Two Campuses
I continue to teach all day on Wednesday at the new campus, and all day Thursday at the old campus. Now seven weeks into the semester (the half-way point), classes are finally getting more organized.
Transportation Wednesday mornings continues to be a concern. This picture, taken on a Wednesday before 6:30 am, shows the end of the line, a short walk from my apartment, where the line’s buses are all parked overnight. This line opened just a couple months ago precisely to ferry people to the new campus and back.
And every morning, we all try to guess which bus will be the express bus (forty minutes) and which will be the slow bus (an hour and forty minutes). All the buses are marked the same, so we are all spread out, speculating. Then, a driver approaches one of the buses, and immediately a line forms and we board. The cost for the express is the equivalent of about 80 cents U.S.
Unfortunately, most of the buses are parked with their rear-positioned engines right next to the apartments on the left. And it can take a few minutes to warm them up on cold mornings.
So on several occasions, angry NIMBY residents, who are mostly grannies and grampies, have expressed their displeasure by blocking the buses with their bodies, leading to a scramble to find rides for the normal ridership. Since the oldsters usually wait until 7 am to start these activities, it hasn’t affected my 6:30 am commute – yet. Meanwhile, it’s nice to know that the Chinese tradition of fed-up citizens blocking heavy vehicles with their bodies is alive and well.
The express bus heads out Weijin Lu for two or three miles before turning onto an expressway. At that intersection, every morning, hundreds of people stand huddled against the cold.
I don’t know who they are, nor what sort of work they seek. I only know that occasionally a van pulls up and they all gather around it. Most are men, though many are women. I only know two things: We usually pass by too quickly to get a good picture. And I’m glad I don’t have to live like that.
We arrive at the new campus shortly after seven, stride down the entrance path, and take an electric tram to our classroom. Last week we learned (by talking to the driver) that these trams park inside the entrance, but they can be dispatched elsewhere merely by calling a phone number and telling them where you are. How convenient. Now we won’t have to walk so far back to the entrance after work (1 kilometer).
And by the way, we can compare the new campus main entrance to the old one, in a picture taken at about the same time.
Note the floral display celebrated the university’s 120th anniversary just inside the gate. And also note how much shorter the hike in is, and the constant stream of people coming in and out because there’s actually some place outside the campus worth going to.
When I arrive at my classroom on the new campus, then my own labor begins. Since I’m not the only one using that room, the tables and chairs are spread out haphazardly and often backwards every Wednesday morning.
I spend about twenty to twenty five minutes lugging the oversized and oddly-shaped tables into some semblance of order, parking about a third of the chairs onto the back wall and out of the way. Here’s “before”
And here’s after:
Luckily, students in the classes that take place in my absence follow the time-honored rule of students in China and pew sitters everywhere – move as far away from the pulpit as possible. That leaves me room in the front to start placing tables.
Oh, and here’s what it looks like when it’s full of students:
For lunch, the new campus features several student dining halls. Here’s one of them. This shot was taken after the daily lunch rush.
I find the food to be pretty inexpensive, though I have heard of students complaining that it’s more expensive than at the old campus.
The people that work in these dining halls are pleasant to a fault. I have heard that many of them are people whose homes were displaced by the university moving in, and that they were offered jobs such as these in partial compensation for the loss of their property.
As in many things here, it’s hard to say how accurate that story is. However, it seems reasonable if only because the workers are almost unbearably pleasant and helpful. After all, countryside people throughout China are well known for their hospitable and kind natures. So that fits.
I can’t say I’ve anything to complain about at the old campus dining halls, though. And the old campus has advantages that the new one lacks — alternatives.
Here, for example, are a group of food sellers. The guy on the right with the adroit wok hands has some of the best and cheapest fried rice and fried noodles in Tianjin, and he has a long line of students every meal time to prove it.
His little stand is located next to a simple covered market that has stood here for years. However, it was closed in August and just reopened again a couple weeks ago.
It was closed for renovation. I found out from a young architect friend of mine that buildings in China have rated lifetimes. Some of them are rated as short as five or ten years. And at the end of that time, they get overhauled or maybe torn down. It was time for this simple market building to be overhauled, the second time since I’ve been here. And while the work was going on, the many merchants inside were asked to simply move outside.
They spread out all along the footpath between the market and where I live. This picture shows the resulting improvised conglomeration.
Luckily the reconstruction was finished just before the cold weather set in.
And I have to say, the results were impressive. The basic structure of the building was not altered, but new stalls were added on the outside, and the footpaths on the inside were widened, so one no longer has to squeeze by people in order to move about.
And the booths on the outside have a new plastic rain cover high overhead so customers won’t have to negotiate a field of puddles when it rains.
There was lots of new paint. Everything looked well scrubbed and much neater than it had after the previous reconstruction, about five years ago.
This shot shows the entrance. The merchants’ display area was reduced in order to make the paths wider, but they also added some stands that made the horizontal displays more vertical.
So it was quite well thought out. And to top it all off, one of our favorite and friendliest fruit sellers, who had been selling for a couple years on the street side, now has an indoor location.
And this picture shows her (and her mother?) in their new indoor setup.
So people here have lots of choices, convenient and plentiful. On the new campus, though, there are few alternatives to speak of.
So for the first twenty minutes of lunch time after class, the dining halls are jammed pack with lines ten deep as everybody tries to get fed all at once. In fact, for this and other reasons, I’ve taken to brown bagging it and eating in my classroom, where I can watch videos and spread out my legs.
And when the dining halls close between meals, the only food sources there are a few small markets with selections of ramen and other (basically) snack foods. One hopes that this situation will improve with time, but it’s not likely that a market like ours will be built anytime soon.
I’ll close with a couple pair of comparison shots.
First up is the main library on the new campus, a building of truly monumental proportions. It was generously donated to the university by a grateful alumnus, and it’s named after him.
As I’ve mentioned in a previous letter, it isn’t actually as impossibly huge as it appears, because most of the inner space is a huge atrium. So it’s really more like an impossibly long building bent into a rectangle. I’ve only been inside briefly, long enough to find out that most of the books are on the top (third and fourth) floors. I’ve been told, however, that there are lots of comfortable study rooms for the students, as well as a coffee shop.
But its outward appearance, as with all the surrounding buildings, and the sacred path of pilgrimage at the entrance pictured above, is meant to create an almost religious grandiosity. And it is impressive. And the library is one of the few buildings down there without a red-brick facade.
Meanwhile, the main library at the old campus has study rooms, but probably not as comfortable, and its interior is much more crowded. But it seems to stand like a tea house in a park, intimate with its surroundings. And the entrance that you see in the picture is merely the inviting gate to extensive floors spreading out in three directions behind it. It looks much smaller, but I wonder if it really holds so much less.
And then we come to the monument of monuments – the symbol of Tianjin University. It was set up on the centennial of the school’s founding, back in 1995. Here at the old campus, it dominates a huge paved square, and is almost always surrounded by activity, day and night.
Here is a shot from last weekend. Every year, fruits are given out to the students on this date as a kind of bonus just for studying diligently and being all-around nice people (which they invariably are). And at the square, a blue tent full of fruit was set up next to the ever-watchful monument. I mean, where else would it be set up? Every activity that takes place in that square is set up right next to the monument. It’s like an old friend, or a parental symbol. You just want to be near it.
No wonder, then, that they turned this part of the fruit distribution into a little sideshow game – throw the hoop and claim a fruit! And these contestants were far from the only people wandering or skating or biking around this monument on that day, or entering it to show their kids the school song, emblazoned on one of the inner legs.
And I actually once tutored the daughter of the man who built it (as part of a summer program with ERRC), so having met the designer and enjoyed dinner in his home, I may feel even more favorable to it than most.
Well, the new campus has a monument too. And it must be better because it has five sides instead of four. And it even has a dome. It stands vigil, almost alone in the midst of a circular building, reminiscent of the Roman Colosseum, but with staid, implacable windows rather than a boisterous crowd. This building appears in its entirety in the picture of the entranceway of history above.
Its pristine grandeur will not be disturbed by silly fruit games, since it’s surrounded by a patchwork of grass and loose white stone. And further out, the pavement is rough, with stones angled in all directions, which sparkle when reflecting some distant lights that hit it after dark. And it really is dark there after dark. You can bike on the pavement stones or walk on them, but I think skateboards may not work.
And instead of a spacious interior that invites people in, the new campus’s monument is filled with the titanic figure of the school’s first director. And it seems unlikely that his regal splendor will be disturbed by night-time line dancers, like you’d find near the old campus’s monument.
Well, that’s all for now. My health problems continue, though they’re more annoying than debilitating at this point. This does seem, more and more, like my last academic year at this university, which has been my Chinese home for eighteen years. It’s going to be very hard to leave it.