Monthly Archives: March 2015

Happy Pi Day from Tianjin

The journal from China continues . . .

pumpkin piWell,  3/14 has rolled around again, so here’s a shout-out to pseudo-Uncle John Beck and pseudo-Nephew John C. and to all irrational math nerds everywhere. Happy Pi Day. May it be transcendental.  My own favorite pi is pumpkin.

Movie Night

Here in Tianjin, at the weekly movie night, we celebrated by viewing the recent academy-award-winning bio of Stephen Hawking, The Theory of Everything.  Unfortunately, this week’s movie night took place, not on Pi Day itself, but on Friday the 13th.

Here we are at a movie night in January of this year. Photo by You Sihang
Here we are at a movie night in January of this year. Photo by You Sihang

So the video card in the office computer failed right off the bat. Without a video card, there’s no video. But luckily, I had brought my laptop along that night.  We began the film, but the laptop chose to update itself and shut down about a half-hour into it. Eventually, we limped through the rest. Luckily, there won’t be another Friday the 13th until November.

Despite the hiccups in the process, the discussion after the movie was lively. And that’s the reason I like to hold movie nights in the first place. I don’t come to foreign countries just to look at pretty scenery. I come to find out how people think.

Normally, I just can’t sit for two hours for a movie (or anything else) these days. But it’s worth the trouble for a good discussion. The only other place I’m likely to watch an entire movie all at once is on an airplane, strapped into a seat.

Indeed, I had just seen The Theory of Everything on the flight over here.  Actually, I had watched several movies for the first time on that flight. It was 12 hours from San Francisco to Korea, and Korean Airlines has one of the better-stocked libraries, which passengers can view at any time on a screen attached to the seat-back in front of them. I was so impressed that I wrote down the entire list of movies, and will attach it as an appendix to the end of this message. Am I a fan of Korean Air? You bet.

At any rate, I also watched Birdman, Interstellar, Paddington, and Charade (1963), as well as some documentaries. It was a quintuple-feature with short subjects!  Birdman was the most interesting of them, but I’m unlikely to show it for movie night. Not all its subject matter is appropriate, and I don’t think the students here would know quite what to make of it, anyway.  And if the students aren’t dead sure of their own opinion, they’re not likely to say anything.

Students in Public

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIndeed, Chinese students are unused to expressing anything like a personal opinion in public. A maximum of 15 people can fit into our office to watch the movie, which is a good thing, since the larger the group, the less expressive the students become. Even so, I am lucky that some friends from America and Australia also attend, who model for the students what it’s like to simply say what you think in a public setting.   And they always have interesting opinions.

But for the students, expressing oneself in public always feels like being put “on the spot.” They know that their peers will judge everything they say at such times.   And in fact, they usually care more about what the other students think than what the teacher thinks, at least in my case.

Well, it’s common enough for young people to favor their peer’s opinions over a teacher’s.  But here in China, you also have to factor in the extreme competitiveness that they bring to any endeavor.  In the West, public expressions may simply be judged as “cool” or “lame,”  “awesome” or “weird,” “sick” or “sick,” etc. Here, they’re also judged on quality. It’s almost like everyone is asking “Who said it best?” and sometimes “Why does he think he’s so smart?” No wonder they hesitate to speak.

Student non-relations

And in fact, this overall competitiveness tends to drive out the easy collegiality that I generally associate with the student life.  It’s one reason that I ask my students to discuss topics of interest in small groups during class time.  They find out that they like swapping opinions with peers to whom they would normally never speak, and that such strangers can be trusted not to hurt them.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAt first, it seemed odd to me that students might only widen their circle of acquaintances if they were required to in an English class where such aquaintances were forged by means of  a foreign language.  But now, it seems normal.

In general, a student’s circle of acquaintances is small, and often limited to people who live in the very same dorm room, or work in the very  same lab.

In fact, here’s a related tidbit connected to our University’s upcoming move to the remote countryside, to somewhere north of Timbuktu: The staff may be upset over the isolation and distance of the location, but some undergraduates, I have heard, are upset because instead of six students per dorm room, there will be only four, and thus fewer friends to get to know.

Topics of Interest

And what kinds of topics do my students choose to discuss? Well, the students just finished planning their topics for this semester, so let’s take a look at one class section:

The ideal city for settling down.
Air quality in Tianjin
Protecting the environment
Movies that impressed you.
China’s achievements in economic development
The stupid things we did as kids
Stress relief through shopping.
Inconvenience of banning foreign web sites
Keeping in good health
Tianjin-Beijing soccer rivalry
The story “ordinary world” is encouraging
Cooking something new
How Tianjin’s development affects us
Faye Wong’s movies and songs
Rural life is more comfortable than urban life
The most impressive travel destinations
Our feelings and lessons learned from them.
Pretty girls on campus.
Working out in the gym
Keeping pets
Differences in East and West.
The singers we like in “I am a singer.”
Delicious food available on campus. 

It’s really a nice a variety. And they actually don’t seem much different than a list drawn up by young people in most places in the world.

Last-minute reconfigurations

It’s also obvious that this class section isn’t very large. Indeed. There were three of us foreigners teaching English last semester, and four this semester. Between semesters, somebody forgot to fill the fourth teacher’s classes. He only had one or two students per section. So on the day before classes began, the rest of us lost students to his classes.

Amazingly, word got out quickly, and, at least for my four sections, every student showed up on the first day of class, with no transferees hanging around.  Such quick reconfiguration might not have happened so smoothly back home, but here, where everything is always subject to change at the last minute, such reconfigurations are simply taken in stride. Still, I was impressed.

And I’m also more than happy to have fewer students. It means I can collect writing papers, check them off in my gradebook and write comments on them while the students are otherwise occupied.  And the students get them back ten minutes later! Such a deal.

 The Lantern Festival

IMG_8197 Lantern Closeup (Large)Fifteen days after each lunar new year, the lantern festival has been held in China for more than two millennia.  As the centuries passed, it was sometimes celebrated for a single day, sometimes for three days, and once, it was even a week.

It’s meant as an all-village celebration. Colorful lanterns, usually red, display riddles for the village children to solve.  It’s also a great excuse to socialize in the warming weather of early springtime, before planting begins in earnest.  As with practically every Chinese holiday, there are small roundish food objects associated with it. In this case, they are called Yuan Xiao, and consist of sweet dough stuffed with sweet fillings.

In San Francisco, they celebrate the Lantern Festival with a New Year parade that wends its way up Market Street and through Chinatown. Yet I’d never seen the celebration here in Tianjin.

Cityside Lanterns

Well, this year, I arrived back in town on the fourteenth day.  I rode out into the evening of the fifteenth day on my trusty “Flying Pigeon,” bicycle, the classic bike that put China on wheels.

And I found almost nothing. In the entire campus, only two lanterns hung, unlit, over one old building’s entranceway. Further afield, I couldn’t find much else. Sure, fireworks continually sprang up city-wide, and the constant pervasive drumming of firecrackers sounded like heavy rain on a tin roof overhead, even when there was no roof.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABut the only lanterns to be found were hanging  over restaurant doorways, and who’s to say that they wouldn’t have been hanging there, anyway? Finally, a few blocks from campus, I found two lit lanterns, staring out into the city from a fifth floor apartment like giant red eyes, as if the building itself were searching for companionship on this festive eve.

Well, I was disappointed. But the tenor of most of my Chinese friends went along the lines of “What did I expect? Tianjin is simply not a village!”

The Road to Yangliuqing
The Road to Yangliuqing

Well, one of Tianjin’s western suburbs, Yangliuqing, 8 miles from here as the crow flies, does pull out all the stops for the lantern festival every year.  And one of my journalist friends was going out with her family to view it on the third night!  And there was an empty seat in the family SUV, a BYD model S6.

BYD, by the way, is a domestic manufacturer that, at least for one year, sold the top-selling sedan in China. It also sells cars to Africa, South America, and the Middle East, but none to America, except for electric buses.  Indeed, Chinese cars and buses are moving quickly to hybrids and electrics. The first natural-gas car I ever rode in was a taxi in Xi An a few years ago. In fact, my most-used bus, Line 678, seems to have been wholly replaced by new hybrid vehicles while I was away last month.

The Gathering Crowd

Well, Chinese people are not scared off by crushes of crowds, and in fact, seem to prefer them to even small groups, let alone solitary wandering. As one can imagine, then, the trip to Yangliuqing was slow, as traffic was heavy. It took about an hour to negotiate the twelve miles from our meeting place over town.

Yuan Xiao spinners of multi-flavors
Yuan Xiao spinners of multi-flavors

As we drew close, the streets were strewn with LED faux-lanterns overhead. As is normal here, we found a spot on the sidewalk to park, and then walked towards the central square, which was closed off to traffic. The streetside was lined with vendors hawking every sort of trinket and treat, as well as cotton candy and those Yuanxiao sweets. In fact, the flour and the sweet globes themselves seemed to be milled and assembled in some sort of gigantic twirling pans that looked something like marching bass drums with one drum head missing.

Yangliuqing town center
Yangliuqing town center

The center of town blazed in light, an incredible electrical extravagance, but acceptable for the limited 3-day time slot.

Lanterns hung everywhere, but most especially along giant inflatable corridors, through which, like cattle, the people thronged.




This is the year of the ram, so electric rams danced from buildings.


Traditional giant electric fish-wielding toddlers sat everywhere, as they did every year. The word “fish” (“Yu” in Chinese) is homonym to a host of other words that all add up to good fortune.  So it’s like a hope for prosperity written in flesh and blood. Well, gilded flesh and blood.

IMG_8258 Fish Boy by the River (Large)Just down the road, part of the famous Grand Canal passes through the town. This canal, constructed hundreds of years ago, reaches down into central China. In the other direction, it flows east into Tianjin City, and then north to Beijing, though the latter stretch is partially filled in nowadays. At any rate, a giant, permanent, gilded, fish-and-toddler sculpture overlooks the canal at this point.

IMG_8268 The Candy Maker (Large)Near the statue, a candy craftsman was blowing hot liquid candy into the form of animals, the way other craftsmen might blow liquid glass. We got one of them, though nobody dared to eat it.

And a forest of leafless trees had been wrapped in tiny multi-colored bulbs. To wander through it was magical. And people sought out the trees wrapped in white bulbs to take properly-colored snapshots of family members with their smartphones.


IMG_8216. The cop and the fish (Large)

And all along every path were various glowing Chinese characters and character combinations which my hosts pointed out and patiently explained to me.

IMG_8280 Kid riding high (Large)

The standard hot pot

Afterwards, we stopped on the way home for a hot pot dinner.   The next time I’m in the Bay Area, I’ve really got to see if there’s a hot pot restaurant.

I’ve written about hot pot before. It’s the ideal family meal. At a spice bar, you assemble your preferred dipping sauce.  Usually it’s based on sesame sauce, but a couple dozen ingredients are available. I added lots of cilantro and onions, as well as a little Chili pepper.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABack at the table, a  double-pot of boiling water, half spiced and half not, bubbles in the center,  surrounded by bowls of whichever raw meat, vegetables, and mushrooms you’d ordered.

You take turns tossing these into the boiling water, and each time, it’s like an invitation for everyone to enjoy what you’d offered, once it’s cooked. And what’s more, it’s basically all protein and vegetables. Few carbs. A healthy, almost paleolithic, diet.

Well, by the time we sat down it was past ten o’clock.  And by the time we finished, and got me home it was almost midnight, long past my normal bedtime. What a great celebration, though. I finally experienced a lantern festival in Tianjin.

Appendix: The Korean Air movie list for March, 2015

As promised:

Full Length

Contemporary Hollywood Movies
Imitation Game
The Theory of Everything
The Hunger Games – Mockingjay Part 1
Beyond the Light
John Wick
Big Hero 6
Gone Girl
Night Crawler
The Judge
St. Vincent
The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby
Before I go to sleep
Kill the Messenger
A Walk among the Tombstones
Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No good, very bad day.
The Book of Life
The Equalizer
The Good Lie
Hector and the Search for Happiness
The November Man
This is Where I Leave you.

Classic Hollywood Movies
The More the Merrier – 1943
High Noon – 1952
Charade – 1963
Coming Home – 1978
Hannah and Her Sisters – 1986
Coming Home – 1978
As Good as It Gets 1997
Good Will Hunting 1997
Sideways 2004

Classic Kid’s Hollywood Movies
Sleeping Beauty

The Divine Move
The Pirate
A Hard Day
The Target

Other Asian
Don’t Go Breaking My Heart II
The Legend Ends
The Golden Era
The Whitehaired Witch of the Lunar Kingdom

Television Shows


Fabric of the Cosmos
Brain Games
Untamed Americas – part 2
History of Life – Birds
Futurescape – Galactic Pioneers
Mankind – Revolutions
Animal superpowers – hunters
The two-million year old boy.
Cities of tomorrow – vertical farms

Travel and Food
Vancouver BC
Los Angeles
Korean cuisine
Gorges of Karijini
Barble Bar
Western Australia
Bungle-bungle Mountains
Sri Lanka

The Osprey
Scarlett and Isaiah
The Airport Diary

2013-2014 Soccer Highlights
Golf 2014
Lebron James Interview
Seattle Seahawks
Rad Company

Comedy (several episodes apiece)
Big Bang Theory
My Family

Drama (several episodes apiece)
Sherlock (BBC) Season 3
House — Office Politics
Drama Festival
Introduce my Father (Korean)
Person of Interest – Season 3 (complete)

Life and Style
Hidcote Manor
Great Artists – Michelangelo
Ancient Art of China
Triumph of the Tomato
Amazing Water Homes
Treasure Hunters

Bolshoi Ballet
Red Men
Arthur Miller Bio
Nat King Cole Bio
Kandinsky Bio
Joe DiMaggio Bio
Where are we going, Dad?
Vivien Leigh Bio
Shakespeare Background
Sky Team Exercise Program