Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Greetings from Singapore

Okay, from the Air Asia plane to Kuala Lumpur EnRoute to Singapore actually. Did we mention that we’re not going to be in China for a bit? MPC (our sponsor organization) has its anual winter retreat in Chaing Mai, Thailand, and we’re bracketing it with a bit of family vacation: first to Singapore, where we’ll be seeing a friend of Jane’s from college, and then to the beach in southern Thailand before heading back to Chengdu in early February. Internet access, as well as our blogging motivation, may be sporadic, so don’t be to surprised if the news from Slow Boat gets even slower...

A few newsy things to report before we land - in the fine Zawadowski Wells tradition of booking ourselves solid before leaving on vacation, we (and by we, I must give most of the credit to Jane) managed to:

  • see a partial solar eclipse that had the good sense to happen on a rare cloudless day in Sichuan.
  • work with a group of students to start collecting donations for earthquake relief in Haiti. Many of our students come from areas devastated by the Wenchuan quake of 2008, so the news from Haiti has generated a lot of sympathy and desire to help on campus.
  • meet up with our Australian friend Olivia at the Chengdu Oceanarium, then go onward to a friend’s photography opening at a newly opened Swedish cafe, finally lugging our sleepy kids upstairs at about 10 pm.
  • Have some of Xander’s Chinese friends over for an early seventh birthday party on Sunday, complete with a homemade train cake and an expertly crafted game of pin the tail on the donkey.
  • oh, and print out a few chapters of Singapore guidebooks . We’re reading those right now on the plane...
Update - we'll I'm pleased to report that I have a great first impression of Malaysia. Well, the airport, anyway. We've shed about 15 pounds of clothes and I'm now on free airport wireless waiting for the boarding call to Singapore. Wow, I'm going to miss this country...

Monday, January 18, 2010

Hi, audience!

(picture: Ysa doing some intensive research of her own...)

Okay, when I read a blog and I come across a post describing how many people are reading that blog, my eyes glaze over and I usually skip it and go on to something more important. So, if you are one of those people, you can skip this post as well. For the rest of you, I put in a tracking program just after Christmas, so I Now Know Who you Are. And can see you on an interactive map... heheheh....

Well, I can see the location of your Internet Service Provider, anyway, which gives me some clues. It's fun seeing a new dot on the map and guessing who it is. Some (Pueblo, Colorado; Lansing Michigan) are easy (Hi Mom(s)!). Others are more challenging. New Castle, Delaware? Kelowna, British Columbia? Dniepropetrovsk, Ukraine? Now that we can get to this blog freely, we can read our comments again. Leave a note - we'd love to hear from you!

Anyway, having a connection to Haiti, however slim, and reading blog posts from there, and then going back and reading my posts to this blog has been a humbling experience. Many many thoughts have been going through my head about fortune, misfortune, and the privilege that all of us who are able to turn on a computer and read a blog all share. I haven't come up with any answers, but I am increasingly aware of how connected we all are. In the long run, I suspect that it's not the answers, but the questions that we ask, that count.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Not to dwell too much on Pat Robertson...

.. but this letter to the Minneapolis Star Tribune hits the nail right on the head. Apologies if you've seen it before, but I just had to pass this on.

Dear Pat Robertson,

I know that you know that all press is good press, so I appreciate the shout-out. And you make God look like a big mean bully who kicks people when they are down, so I'm all over that action.
But when you say that Haiti has made a pact with me, it is totally humiliating. I may be evil incarnate, but I'm no welcher. The way you put it, making a deal with me leaves folks desperate and impoverished.
Sure, in the afterlife, but when I strike bargains with people, they first get something here on earth -- glamour, beauty, talent, wealth, fame, glory, a golden fiddle. Those Haitians have nothing, and I mean nothing. And that was before the earthquake. Haven't you seen "Crossroads"? Or "Damn Yankees"?
If I had a thing going with Haiti, there'd be lots of banks, skyscrapers, SUVs, exclusive night clubs, Botox -- that kind of thing. An 80 percent poverty rate is so not my style. Nothing against it -- I'm just saying: Not how I roll.
You're doing great work, Pat, and I don't want to clip your wings -- just, come on, you're making me look bad. And not the good kind of bad. Keep blaming God. That's working. But leave me out of it, please. Or we may need to renegotiate your own contract.
Best, Satan

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Not much else to say...

As with many of you, I'm sure, Haiti has been on our minds a lot in the past couple of days. Not much that I can say that hasn't been said already, but I would like to share a few links that I think speak for themselves without much comment on my part.

First, I am trying not to spend too much time being angrily obsessed with this guy. More to the point, I'm trying not to be too saddened and embarrased that he's developed enough of an audience to get media play in the States. Hey, aren't we supposed to be better than that?

Second, Haiti's real deal with the devil.

Third, the real story. Or one of several million real stories, anyway. I haven't met Kim and Patrick, the authors of this blog, but just found their blog through links from Joel and Rachel's blog here.

Fourth, we've heard good things about this organization, for starters. MCC (our organization, for those who don't know) is also planning a sustained reconstruction effort, for when the cameras move on, but the root causes of the suffering remain. If you're considering donating, but don't know where to go, these are two good places to begin.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Connected in more ways than we can know

Our hearts are going out to Rachel and Joel, two MCC workers that were at our summer training with us in Pennsylvania last July. They are stationed in Port-Au-Prince, and they managed to climb out of their collapsed apartment building with only cuts and bruises after the recent earthquake there. Please keep them, their family, friends, neighbors, and coworkers, and all of the people of Haiti, in your prayers.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Nice contact with people, and knitting

What a normal day, yet so full of different experiences.

The ball really got rolling when Dave and I left our classes’ joint party with his student Elise, who wanted to copy the Wallace & Gromit video. As we chatted before parting ways, conversation naturally turned to he nan da bing, which they translated as a seed cake. I jumped at the opportunity to have Elise show us he nan da bing today, just on the other side of campus.

Then one of my students, Wendy, strolled by. Of course, Wendy. She and I bump into each other around campus all the time. She is the one who once proclaimed it as, “We are destined to meet again and again.” Her voice is very deep, her demeanor very calm, casual and, to tell you the truth, comforting somehow. Her eyes, behind Ira-Glass-type thick, black glasses, are big pools of liquid dark chocolate. A mesmerizing type of gal.

I was thrilled to see her, and extended her the invitation to come with us in search of he nan da bing. She’d never had it, either. Okay, plan was to meet up at 2:30.

Got home, ate lunch, set Xander up on an architecture-building website that he loved, and crashed for about an hour myself.

Met Wendy and Elise in front of the 1st cafeteria close to 3:00. A downright expedition-sized party were we: Dave, Jane, Xander on red wiggle-scooter, Zekey on bike with training wheels, Ysa in stroller mostly, Jiang A’yi, Wendy, and Elise.

We made our way over to the other side of campus and the students treated us to the flavorful flat cakes. They are thicker than crepes, thinner than pita bread. Three versions are vegetarian: one with egg mixed with the dough; one spicy version, one kind-of plain, maybe with onion and really buttery-tasting, even though there’s no butter here. So warm and good!

Then the students showed us SWINGS! Two, real swings that my kids could swing on! There is no such thing in China as children’s playgrounds such as Americans generally know playgrounds, so this was a real treat. Next to the swings, there were lots of simple, outdoor-style exercise machines the Chinese love to have - “exercise parks” - in this area, and about 72 ping pong tables, all full of students playing ping pong.

Since we'd earlier talked about knitting, Elise had planned to teach me how to knit. Elise is a real pro, but when I asked her to show me the completed scarf she said was in her bag, she said, “No.” She explained that if she were to show me, she might be embarrassed. I still didn’t get it. She further explained that others might think that she’s showing off. Us, sitting on a low wall in a corner of a playground, and her hesitant to show her work! In my teacher way, I said that this was a great opportunity to show the differences between our two cultures, that Americans are generally eager to show something that they’re proud of or do well, and Chinese people are very hesitant to do so. I suggested, “Let’s just try it the American way for a second, ok?” And she produced an exquisite white scarf with many different patterns, or whatever they might be called, knitted into it.

And then I learned how to knit! Elise was a great combination of having me watch her, and letting me try it, with her guiding my hands, even my fingers.

It was an emotionally beautiful experience for me. At one point, for several minutes, Wendy, who’d been sitting in front of me on the kids’ red scooter-type toy, was resting her hands on my knees. A real Chinese touch exchange! Chinese women hold each others' arms or hands or touch in some way publicly all the time, and usually I can’t get beyond thinking, “How Chinese! Cool.” But today I experienced it a bit myself, and it was very calming and natural.

Wendy’s fingers have red blisters on them, like she’d been recently burned. I inquired, and she said it happens every winter. She doesn’t like to wear gloves all the time (I understand, neither do I), so her fingers simply get too cold. I know it’s because people’s daily life involves being so cold all day and all night. These two girls further said that many of the students have blisters on their feet, as well. I was incredulous about these kinds of blisters on people’s feet, as feet always have socks and shoes on them. They said that some shoes just aren’t warm enough. That’s what you get when your life for months reaches a high 52 degrees for a couple of hours a day, and is therefore in the 40s, day in and day out. No indoor heating can really get you.

Anybody know of any good anti-blistering cremes out there?

It came around 5:00, getting colder, speaking of cold, so we set back home. As these things go in China, though, you always run into more people, so we ran into several of the boys’ classmates. They were ingeniously dipping paintbrushes into a plastic cup of water, and practicing writing characters on the sidewalk. Really, how smart, because you write all over one area of the sidewalk, it dries, and you have a clean surface again. Xander was so excited, begging them to teach him more, saying how much he needs to learn more Chinese characters. Zekey was trying his best to meticulously copy the character for “to have.” Even Ysa’s scribbles looked like Chinese characters!


I went away to go and buy dinner: our favorite wraps, oranges, apples and bananas. One sure-fire way to seal a great day in China for me is to wander outside the university gate by myself to see the latest in vendors, sights and sounds. Wasn’t disappointed today either, as a brightly-dressed, obviously non-Han-Chinese woman was squatting at the front of the outdoor market, selling what looked like huge hunks of blue cheese gone bad. She whacked off a piece to let me sample it, and from the crack of her machete on the substance, I could tell it wasn’t soft like cheese, but hard as a rock. Sugar! Sugar whose outer coating of the hunk of it had little green-grey strings, like Spanish moss. Of course! I bought a chunk to give the kids maybe tomorrow, and to see if Jiang A’yi can explain it more to me.


Wandering back home, seeing people carry bundled-up Chinese babies on their backs, noticing groups hanging out in street-culture fashion, enjoying the mix of trendy students, older generations, hard-working farmer/vendor types, I reflected on this amazing, yet normal day here. Good to have these kinds of days and feelings at least once in a while.

Monday, January 11, 2010

A photo a minute, more or less

Street badminton, Pixian

I took a 30 minute bus ride to the nearby county seat of Pixian to mail a package at the local post office, and, surprise of surprises!, ran into a bit of red tape. It was one of those "Sorry, even though your request makes perfect sense to any logical human being, it's not allowed by the letter of the law, so we can't help you" kind of things that you can find in any country, and seem to be concentrated around postal systems for some reason. It could have been maddening, but the two postal clerks still remained friendly, and very tolerant of my bumbling Chinese, so I wasn't too put off by it.

Everything resolved itself quite well in the end, and, more to the point, I got to stroll around scenic downtown Pixian with my camera for half an hour on a sunny early afternoon. I uploaded most of the pictures to Flickr, and you can see all of them here, if you'd like more of an idea of what the citizens of Pixian were up to from 1:15 to 1:45 today. Enjoy!

Charcoal vendor, Pixian
A charcoal vendor on his rounds - many restaurants cook over coal fired stoves.

Line for train tickets, Pixian
Spring festival is coming up, and it looks like everyone trying to get tickets to visit home for the holidays. The line went from a local small ticket office all the way down the block.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Full Plates

IMG_0221, originally uploaded by zawelski.

Once more, life in China is happening too fast to blog about - which I think is a good thing. As of yesterday, Jane and I have finished giving our finals. We've both been plugging away on grading, but there is also a visiting delegation of 15 American SUNY (think State U of New York, not moderate Islam) students here on our campus. So we were also out and about yesterday - listening to a few talks, playing a bit of pick-up badminton, watching students from both cultures bond, and of course, the traditional Sichuan Hot Pot. (I got to go while Jane stayed with the kids - it's her turn next.)

Oh, and we just found out the upstairs shower in our apartment back in the States is leaking into the first floor, so there's that to deal with. So far, I'm feeling fulfilled and not swamped, though. Hope I can say the same thing for our bathroom back in Oak Park...

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Ah, I knew we were in China for a reason...

From another NYT book review (umm, can you tell I'm procrastinating?), this article about how to keep your brain going. Basic premise is that our brains keep developing by getting new perspectives on information we already know. A quote or two...

Educators say that, for adults, one way to nudge neurons in the right direction is to challenge the very assumptions they have worked so hard to accumulate while young. With a brain already full of well-connected pathways, adult learners should “jiggle their synapses a bit” by confronting thoughts that are contrary to their own, says Dr. Taylor, who is 66.

“We need to know stuff. But we need to move beyond that and challenge our perception of the world. If you always hang around with those you agree with and read things that agree with what you already know, you’re not going to wrestle with your established brain connections.”

See. Brain deevelopment. Yeah, that's it. I'm not hopelessly behind in learning Chinese, I'm just, um bumping my neurons a bit...

Egges for breakfast (or was that "eyren")

Just read this interesting book review of "The Lexicographer's Dilemma", which talks about the rather arbitrary and changing nature of grammar rules in the English language. Rules tend to come after the fact, and all of the teachers and experts in the world can't stop people from making new words and usages up. As somebody who is now in the midst of grading his student's Oral English finals, a very good lesson to keep in mind.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Happy New Food! (um, I mean New Year...)

Okay, New Year's, at least the Western Dec. 31st - Jan 1st version, is very low key here, so not much to report. There is a government holiday on Jan 1, but it seems like people use it more as an excuse to watch late-night TV the night before and then go out and do some shopping. (The big festivities, of course, are for the Chinese lunar New Year, which is at the beginning of February this year.)

We started out 2010 with a little language lesson from Wei Wei, an amazing and very helpful student of Jane's, as the kids watched a video in the next room. (note: yep, we're letting the DVD do the babysitting every now and then - sigh). Wei Wei then took Jane out cell phone shopping to take advantage of the aforementioned sales, and we then treated her to lunch out at the local market.


Jane has been the family's official food blogger as of late, but she went to bed early to fight a case of the sniffles. I'll let her describe lunch (a sneak preview: YUM!), but will, in the "one picture is better than me sitting at the computer for the next hour" tradition, at least point you to some photos of the day that I posted on to Flickr. (Best seen large, like this)

Happy 2010, everyone!