Monthly Archives: April 2015

Happy Easter from Tianjin

It’s April.  It’s 39 degrees and windy for the morning commute. On a bike. Do I put the long underwear back on?  Should I have worn my down jacket? Well, at least it’s not Massachusetts.

Rows of Rentabikes
Rows of rentabikes that nobody rents.

As if that weren’t annoyance enough, this month the email system changes, though not the email address itself. Still, I’m crossing my fingers that contacts don’t get lost. I can at least send out this message on the familiar system before anything . . . . happens.

On the other hand, they recently upgraded and sped up my Internet connection here, at no extra cost, so now I can stream video, just like I can in the states. It makes quite a difference when Skyping my dad. Meanwhile I’ll have to be careful not to use too many full-sized photos in these messages. It’s just too easy to upload them now.

Beneath the fortress, access to our campus from neighboring Nankai University.
Beneath the fortress, access to our campus from neighboring Nankai University.

Well, Happy Easter. And Happy Qing Ming. Yes, the “tomb sweeping” holiday coincided exactly with Easter this year. Please don’t ask how many years until it happens again. I’ve written about Qing Ming before. It’s the day when everybody goes out to the cemetery to sweep away accumulated dust and leaves, and make tombs presentable again.

What’s cooking

outdoor frying riceWhat’s new? Today I traipsed over to the local market for some take-away. I decided to try an outdoor  vendor whom I hadn’t purchased from in a long time — mainly because of the long lines of students in front of his stall.  But today was a holiday, so customers were relatively few.

And , yes, it’s fried rice.  So people really do cook that here. However, the sign announced “Jiangxi style.”  That’s a province way to the south.  The man also prepares fried noodles, more common here in the north.

He throws in vegetables of various kinds, eggs, spices, and stir fries it all in a sleek wok. Then he pops in a premeasured dose of cooked rice, mixes thoroughly, and stir-fries it some more. I have to say, it was delicious and filling. Well, the students always know, don’t they? And I also have to say that it really didn’t taste much like the American equivalent.

Going to the Dogs.

And there, right next to his stall, sat something I never imagined might turn up in our simple market, never in a million centuries. It was a Sharpei puppy, the first I’d ever seen in China, even though the breed itself is Chinese through and through.  Those little guys are rare and expensive.  It was like finding an emerald in a jar of pickles. There he sat, cool as a cucumber. Not a bark. Not a tail wag. But regally alert.

Shar Pei at the marketIf you haven’t seen one of these dogs before, then, yes, that’s the normal skin. And as an adult, he’ll grow into most of it. So, contrary to me, he’ll get less wrinkled with age.  But both of us will sport wrinkles in the end.

The word “sharpei” seems to mean sand-skin, possibly because the coat has a very rough texture. This one had a nose that matched his coat’s sandy color, an even rarer variation.

They were almost exterminated here during the Cultural Revolution, but a Hong Kong businessman spirited out about two hundred of them, which is why they suddenly became known in America at about that time.  They were only recognized by the American Kennel Club in 1991. They are closely related to another ancient Chinese breed, the Chow, which is more frequently spotted in these parts.

Flower Power

Photo Photo PhotoYeah, speaking of the sixties . . . .  Well, speaking of Tianjin University.  Every year at this time, the crabapple festival takes place — not for the crabapples themselves, mind you, but for their flowers.

All weekend, tourists flowed into campus to snap pictures of a long crabapple row. Some of them toted bulky cameras with seriously massive glass attached. Most of them, however, shot with mobile phones — usually pictures of smiling girls, their lovely faces framed by pink and white blossoms.

Crabapple fest.And on Saturday, students of all stripes set up booths or presented performances.  The monument to the school’s founding was surrounded by red-and-blue-roofed tents, like defensive fortifications with entrances  in three locations.

Face painting under the red roofYes, these little booths were not simply spread out on the square willy-nilly.  They were lined up in rows and strapped in with string, channeling all the onlookers into the same narrow paths.

Occasionally, an onlooker broke out of the maze, vaulting over the strings the same way they pop through iron fences or scramble over brick walls elsewhere on campus.

Astronomy clubAt first, I thought that maybe this channeling was simply intended to guarantee traffic flow to the less popular exhibits. But no, it’s simply the mind set here. Of course the booths will have channels!   It’s not a matter for discussion.  It’s just like the lantern-bedecked walking corridors that I wrote about last month.  It turns the whole thing into some sort of Disneyland ride. Yeah, Pirates of the Bohai Sea!

Forever blowing bubbles
Forever blowing bubbles

The main entrance to this little tent community was surmounted by a balloon-bearing arch, making the ride aspect even more festive.  The balloons seemed to be birthing soap bubbles, which struggled to descend through the pea-soup atmosphere to reach the ground.  You can spot them in the enlarged version of the picture at right.

The campus street with the crabapple row was blocked to cars, and all along it stood the exhibitions that required more space.

Opera on the squareOpera performances took place on the plaza behind the administration building. I remembered those red-clad women from last year, when they wore blue.

The same onlookers who would never tune in an opera on television stood enraptured. It reminded me of outdoor Shakespeare plays I had attended back in college at Davis. They had granted me friendly access to the bard.  Perhaps it will work out the same for these young people here and now.

Phone booth time capsuleAnd shades of Dr. Who. It was a red British tardis. Inside, a little camera sat waiting. Those who wished could enter and record themselves. The recordings would be placed in a time capsule, to be unearthed at some future date.

There were too many exhibits to post pictures of them all — the alumni association hawking post cards and other souvenirs, the boards for posting good fortune messages, the  DNA centrifuge exhibit, the Chess and Go players club, as well as craftspeople selling various souvenirs, the folk singers and much, much more.


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAs for me, things have been pretty up and down. I have to say, the education in language acquisition that I’ve gleaned from this experience in China has been impressive.  My understanding has deepened significantly, and my skills have only gotten more effective with time. It only goes to show the advantage of stability. I’ve been here over six years, and still my lessons are developing.  It’s kind of like when I taught elementary school and it took six years before I actually felt  that knew what I was doing.

I worry sometimes about teachers in America. When are they offered such stability?  I quite literally taught the same class for twenty-one years in the same room, now but a razed memory.

Actually, according to the federal government ( the annual turnover rate for teachers (15.7%) is one-third higher than the average for other fields (11.9%). It’s well known that almost half of all new teachers are gone after five years.  They mostly leave because of a lack of support, and a lack of respect, both tangible and intangible.  None of the members of that exodus remained long enough to ever achieve their full potential as teachers.

I think of this because finally I saw a study that confirms what all working teachers already know – that it takes many, many, years for a teacher to reach full potential. My own feeling is that somewhere around year six is when it all starts coming together.  And I’ve now seen it in my own practice here in China, as well as my earlier experience in America.

The Souvenir Photo ShootIndeed, I had planned to quit teaching in America at the end of year five in favor of computer programming. Then, an influx of support during that key year helped me to put the last few key pieces together. And so it was that I never entered what was then an extremely higher paying career that entailed a lot less stress.

One of my students from those days is now a high school teacher himself!! He recently wrote about something similar on his highly-recommended blog.

Yes, even once you do get it all together, support and respect are lacking.  Why? My own feeling is that the type of skills that you develop as a teacher are mainly invisible to the observing public, as well as to some school directors (not all, thankfully).  And of course there’s the political angle, with its constant demonizing of teachers as lazy union members.  And even the politicians who do support teachers think that the endless layering of new demands and requirements are what those teachers need in order to make a go of it.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHere in China, the foreign teacher population seems to flow by like migrating salmon. Few seem to stay put for very long, particularly if they are English teachers.   People are seen as even more interchangeable than they are back home.  The Chinese teachers are more stable, particularly at this university, where salaries are higher and working hours more brief. Indeed, one year, the entire staff of our department got their required courses done the first semester, and then simply took the whole second semester off. Only myself and my foreign colleague Rob remained to actually teach during those months.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABut the Chinese teachers must adhere to the forms handed down from central authorities.  They have little latitude to make changes themselves.   I’ve heard them complain that they are evaluated annually, but very little of it has anything to do with actual teaching skills.  Yeah. Where have I heard that before?  You know, it’s well known that Chinese culture is imbued with a deep respect for learning and culture. So it came as somewhat of a shock when heard a Chinese teacher complain that, yeah, nobody respects actual living teachers.

Flame off

the last crabapple blossomSorry for the rant.  Usually I can avoid such excessiveness, but certain problems seem to weigh on my mind, like the climate study that came out last month, the first of probably many that will link California’s continuing drought to global warming. Yeah, if Portlanders got tired of immigrants from California before, they better get ready for another thirsty wave!

Lots of things go through my mind these days. I’d be interested in hearing what’s going through yours