Friday, December 31, 2010

Oh, by the way, we’re not in China anymore...

In case you were wondering where we were, the Slow Boat took a long plane ride to West Papua, Indonesia shortly after Christmas. We’re at the beginning of a (wow! gulp!) seven week vacation / business trip / travel adventure through Indonesia, Thailand, and a bit of Singapore at the end. No photos at the moment because 1) the internet is fairly slow where we are, and 2) after all, I am on vacation...

If you’re only keeping up with our adventures by reading this blog, it may come as a bit of a sudden switch, but trust us, we know what we’re doing here. (Well, we never know exactly what we’re doing, but at least we’ve been planning this trip for a while...) Why and how we got here is the subject for the next post (or twelve).

A warning - there’s still happenings in China from before Christmas that I ideally would like to write about, so there may not be too much in the way of chronological order or logical sequencing coming up. If you’ve stuck with us so far, however, this should come as no surprise. In any case, happy end of 2010 and beginning of 2011!

Saturday, December 25, 2010

gifts and silence

Keep the campus silence

Merry Christmas, everyone! More technically, happy Boxing day, but being as it's still Christmas in a few other parts of the world, I guess I can still post this...

Buried in our hard drive somewhere, in the midst of our 18.2 days worth of music on iTunes (seriously, how did people live in Other Places before we had computers?) are 20 to 30 albums worth of Christmas music that I've had playing in rotation on our laptop when the thought crosses my mind that yes, maybe it would be good for our kids to recognize the fact that, yes, "Silent Night" is actually about the story of Christmas. (Or, as Ysa put it, "Daddy! This song is a Jesus song too!")

Also in the mix is Bruce Cockburn's rendering of "O, Little Town of Bethlehem", a carol that I'd previously exiled to the category of "incredibly schlocky and overly sentimental songs that I put up with anyway, because after all, it is Christmas." I mean, come on, I've lived in a Little Town, and - "how still we see the lie"?? Little towns are still because they're BORING BORING BORING, folks!! And, come on, what baby has a "deep and dreamless sleep" ? In a manger? In a town packed with drunken partying census-takers? Seriously, folks...

But then after all the sentimental setting in the song, verse three sneaks up:
How silently, how silently
The wondrous gift is given!
So God imparts to human hearts
The blessings of His heaven.
If you're just skimming along this blog before you check out your emails and the weather report and the traffic before you head off to work, stop for a bit. Now read those lines again, especially the first two. (Feel free to make any substitutions in the last two lines, depending on your ideas of God's gender, views of the afterlife, religious persuasion or lack thereof.) I was wanting to do some more explaining about how amazing they are, but then it wouldn't be silent, would it?

Merry Christmas!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

A poem for winter...


Waking up in our barely heated dark apartment, I've been thinking lately of this poem, by Robert Hayden, that I first read while in college. It's about winter, and poverty, and fathers, and sons. And for blessings we receive whether we know them or not, and perspective upon them.

It's always been one of my favorites, partly because even though it's so simple, the meaning changes for me each time I read it.

Those Winter Sundays

Sundays too my father got up early
And put his clothes on in the blueback cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

I'd wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he'd call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,

Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love's austere and lonely offices?

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Christmas time's a comin'...

Early morning fog, Old Chengguan Lu, Hongguang

...though this photo might explain why it's a teeny bit harder to get into the Christmas spirit here. Foggy, damp, and quite chilly in the morning, though sometimes the sun burns through by mid-afternoon. Though you might get the impression from the blog that I've been around all the while, most of what you've been reading lately was (gasp!) posted in advance, back in early December when I had a bit more time.

I've been out of town the last two weekends. First, on more a business trip to the town of Guang'an in Eastern Sichuan, where I got a chance to observe a few projects that my organization, MCC, is sponsoring there, in order to write about them for our American and Canadian publications in the next couple of months. Then, last weekend, a winter retreat for all of us to Beijing, which meant a chance to get together with colleagues, share thoughts and inspiration, and yes, even a quick afternoon trip to the Great Wall. Both short trips were eventful in their own ways, and you may hear more if time permits.

In the meantime, I'm wrapping up finals in all of my classes, filling out rubrics and plowing through student notebooks. The big news is that we're also preparing for a big trip - to Indonesia and Thailand! Thailand, because that's where our organization holds its winter training sessions, and Indonesia because we have the chance to visit some MCC friends there as well. All lots of work and disruptions to our routines, balanced out, of course, by the fact that we are incredibly fortunate to be able to do what we're doing.

Oh, and then Christmas is coming up in the midst of all this. So yeah, things have been a bit busy as of late. Because we'll be traveling, we're not going huge on the presents this year, but we want to make sure we don't ignore Christmas, either. I've been reading Dr. Suess's How the Grinch Stole Christmas to a couple of my classes that have finished with their finals, which, in addition to the pleasure of reading the phrase "Cindy-Lou Who, who was no more than two" to my students, has been a gentle reminder to not get too Grinchy myself...

Monday, December 20, 2010

Slow and Fast

Speaking of slowing down to notice things, a very cool slow motion video above. Find out how they did it here. (Hint: Einstein was right!)

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Ordinary Stuff - life on our street

Life outside the side gate with sunshine, Hongguang

Or, to be more exact, the street right outside the side gate of the university, caught in a moment of sunshine a week or three ago.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Ordinary Stuff - our local Kindergarten

Some pictures I took while waiting to pick up Zekey and Ysa for lunch while in a, shall we say, reflective mood one day...

Kindergarten double exposure

Kindergarten double exposure

Friday, December 17, 2010

Okay, I SO want to see this in person...

Metropolis II, from the amazing artist Chris Burden.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Getting the construction bug

Construction, Hongguang

Over the last year or so that I've been blogging from China, I think I've made several promises to myself not to publish any more pictures of construction sites. Guess what? The vow gets broken yet again. Why? Ummm, perhaps because our area seems like one big construction site...? The latest local project: a tunnel under the main highway through what used to be the main village square.

Now Jane's into the act as well. These are pictures from her walk to catch the bus to get to her Chinese classes in Chengdu three times a week. Go Jane!

Construction, Hongguang


Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Close the Washington Monument!

Related to the Tempest in a teapot nature of news, terrorism, and fear that I talked about yesterday is this modest proposal: Instead of attempting to find a better way of protecting the Washington Monument from terrorists, let's just shut it down! A quote:
"The grand reopening of the Washington Monument will not occur when we've won the war on terror, because that will never happen. It won't even occur when we've defeated al Qaeda. Militant Islamic terrorism has fractured into small, elusive groups. We can reopen the Washington Monument when we've defeated our fears, when we've come to accept that placing safety above all other virtues cedes too much power to government and that liberty is worth the risks, and that the price of freedom is accepting the possibility of crime."

Ordinary Stuff - M is for Mantou

Mmmm - Mantou!

Mmmm, mantou! Jane took this picture of one of the workers at the new mantou shop that opened up on our market street last fall. Mantou are steamed buns, and a godsend to hungry vegetarians on the way to the bus or running a bit late to teach a class in the morning.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Compare and Contrast

Lotus Wholesale Market, Chengdu

Century city, Chengdu

Please write your answers neatly in the space provided...

More teapots, more tempests

Double Danger

Viewing the American news cycle from afar over the internet has been very illuminating. Suddenly, a HUGE POLARIZING ISSUE appears! It came from nowhere, but all of a sudden, this HUGE POLARIZING ISSUE is of vital importance, and how you stand on this HUGE POLARIZING ISSUE represents your outlook on (choose one) freedom, security, totalitarianism, or even The Continued Survival of America Itself! It is, of course, vitally important never to rationally discuss the HUGE POLARIZING ISSUE in any public forum, because to do so will cause your ratings to drop and your voter approval to plummet. (And discussion is for wimps, anyway, right?) Better to shoot off a rant or two, and then hope that the next HUGE POLARIZING ISSUE will further confirm your polarized world view.

Oh, whoops, was I off on a sarcastic rant of my own there? Whoops, my bad. (Or actually, good for me, right? I mean, I'm just following the rules myself, aren't I?) Anyway, far be it from me to imply that I'm away from all this - I read way too many articles on HUGE POLARIZING ISSUEs myself, and of course, get all armchair quarterback-y forming elaborate personal opinions about them. Sigh. Going through my links, however, I have found what I believe to be a few clear well-reasoned voices (okay, clear well-reasoned voices that I also happen to agree with) that I'm reposting below, if only for a sense of perspective the next time one of these HUGE, um... thingamajigs, comes around again on the news cycle.

Here then, some perspectives, starting at the present and working my way back:

There, that's out of my system. Now, stop paying attention to things and get back to work, already!

Monday, December 13, 2010

What every four year old needs to know

Y, the geeeeenius

As long as we're on the subject of education, here's a post on early childhood that I ran into a while back that I read every time I start feeling guilty about not homeschooling our kids thoroughly enough, or worrying that they may be "falling behind" compared to their peers in the States.

From the article:
  1. "She should know that she is loved wholly and unconditionally, all of the time.
  2. He should know that he is safe and he should know how to keep himself safe in public, with others, and in varied situations. He should know that he can trust his instincts about people and that he never has to do something that doesn’t feel right, no matter who is asking. He should know his personal rights and that his family will back them up.
  3. She should know how to laugh, act silly, be goofy and use her imagination. She should know that it is always okay to paint the sky orange and give cats 6 legs.
  4. He should know his own interests and be encouraged to follow them. If he could care less about learning his numbers, his parents should realize he’ll learn them accidentally soon enough and let him immerse himself instead in rocket ships, drawing, dinosaurs or playing in the mud."

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Things you need to know...

Chinese by the numbers

...that you won't (or in my case didn't) learn in college.

If you don't read this article, you are 12% more likely to be injured while driving.

The word of the day


... is "travel" (at the upper left of the picture, in white). And "tools", and "types". Photograph is of the side of a building awaiting demolition. Dang, am I the only one that loves this wall?

Friday, December 10, 2010

Everybody's got something to hide...

..'cept for me and my monkey...
(Posted in the midst of working on my final grades while listening to the White Album...)

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Wanted: Global Stories


Hi, Internet! I was wondering if I could ask some of you for a little bit of assistance with a project I'd like to do with my students next spring....

The theme of my next semester's classes is going to be about telling and sharing stories, and that led me to the idea of a class web site, featuring photos, small essays, and short video clips from students, all telling stories about - whatever - to get them talking about their daily lives and experiences in English. From there, it was a short step to "Hey, I know a lot of folks around the world who know a lot of people with interesting stories to tell. Could we make this more global?" So my idea now is to get a web site going where students who are learning English can go online to see videos, photos and short essays from other people around the globe, which is where all of you (and your students, if you have any) come in.

If you are willing and able, I could use your help in one or more of the following ways:

1) Do you know anyone doing something interesting / inspiring in your local community who would be willing to put a short story about themselves online? It could be in the form of a short video, a series of photos, or even a short essay. The target language is English, but other languages could also work if a translation is provided.

What kind of stories? Anything that's interesting! I'm telling my students to act as tour guides, and asking them, "If you had three minutes to show a guest from another country anything about your life or your community, what would you show them?" Your responses don't have to be extraordinary - other people may be very interested in very ordinary details that you take for granted.

2) Would you yourself be interested in putting a small bit online describing something about yourself or the place where you live? Again, any bloggable format is welcome - see #1, above.

3) Most importantly, if you or anyone you know in your community is teaching English, I'm looking for teachers and classes to partner with. The involvement could be very simple (having a few students post a few stories, photos, or even short videos about themselves online), or more in-depth (integrating the web site into your class curriculum in some way, having individual students correspond with other students from other countries, etc.).

That's the project! So far, I've got participants lined up in China, Bosnia, Brazil, Indonesia, Kosovo, and the United States. Ideally, of course, it would be nice to have our range of participants be as diverse as possible. So far, I've had people reading this blog from six of seven continents, and it would be very cool if we could get them all represented. (By the way, do any of you know anyone in Antarctica?)

I have no specifics yet other than my quite general ideas, so I'm open to any and all possibilities that any of you may think of as well. Any feedback you have is more than welcome, and if you know of anyone else that may be interested in the project, please feel free to pass this email and my contact information along to them as well.

If you are interested in participating, please feel free to contact me in the comment section below, or at dwellsinchina at gmail dot com. I know that my students (who are very curious about the world outside of small town China) would greatly appreciate it!

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

What we need from Education

School gym, Chicago

" a vibrant and participatory democracy, whatever the wisest and most privileged parents want for their children must serve as the baseline for what the broader community deems essential for all of its children. Any other approach essentially says that our policy toward children comes down to a simple slogan: Choose the right parents! Choose parents with access, power, and money, and the world will open for you; choose parents without access and resources, sorry, you're on your own."
(From this article by Bill Ayers - well worth a read before we start blaming teachers or students for the state of education today.)

Adding to the collection


More scary-lookin' kiddie rides, posted without comment for your general edification.

IMG_8811 Scary looking kids' ride, Chengdu

Scary Lookin' Kiddie Rides, Chengdu

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Space and stuff

New house construction, Pueblo, CO

This blog post sums up a bit of how we felt sometimes back in the States, living on a single income in a smallish apartment, but surrounded by double income families in fairly large houses with all the trappings. Now that we're in China, our apartment, which is in fact similar in size to the place we lived in America, seems quite palatial sometimes.

Lots of people, limited space, and a lower average income means that, in the cities and suburbs, apartment dwelling is the norm for all but the wealthiest here. An emphasis on living with extended family means that even with the one-child policy, there are more people per apartment, and personal space often takes on a new meaning. The idea of an individual two-story house with its own fenced-in back yard close to a city? Very strange, indeed.

It will be interesting to see what happens when we get back... Maybe we can get all of us into 800 square feet? More interesting ideas on how large (or small) our homes need to be here and here.

Monday, December 6, 2010

When it's sunny, all the laundry comes out to play


Another equation: (Lots of people + small apartments + no dryers) × (very little open space) ÷ (the small number of days when it's actually sunny) = Laundry out to dry everywhere when there's sunshine.




Google beatboxing

It had to happen sooner or later. Click "listen" once you get to the site.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

"Zhi-jia-ge, zhi-jia-ge, that toddlin' town..."

Real estate ad featuring a view Chicago at night, Chengdu

Got a small dose of instant homesickness when I passed this construction fence in downtown Chengdu the other week. For those of you who aren't familiar with one of the greatest underrated cities on the planet, it's a view of downtown Chicago at night, probably taken from the observation lounge at the top of the John Hancock building, probably lifted from a Google image search somewhere and used without permission. (Said view, incidentally, being vastly superior to the one from the Sears Tower in that instead of paying $12 or so for a ticket up to the observation deck, you are obliged to purchase an overpriced martini at $7 and up, so you get a view and a drink.) Photos like these are quite typical around the new apartment towers that are springing up all over the place, probably because they convey a sense of wealth exoticism, and exclusivity. Pair them with a poorly-translated phrase in pseudoEnglish, and you're good to go. Ahh, the power of stereotypes...

Incidentally, 芝加哥 (Zhijiage), the word for "Chicago" in Chinese, translates character for character as “of - add to - older brother", or something like that. This happens because, of course, Chinese lacks a phonetic alphabet, so foreign names are simply collections of random characters thrown together to approximate the sound of the word in question. To make things even more confusing, Chinese has a little over 400 different spoken syllables, as opposed to somewhere around 4-5,000 in a language like English. This leads to most foreign place names in Chinese, for example, being only rough approximations of the original name. This makes for some exotic-sounding places (密尔沃基 - "Mi'erwaki", or 克利夫兰 - "Kelifulan") and another whole chunk of vocabulary to learn.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Take that, information superhighway!

Y'know, the internet is great and all, but there's also something to be said for books. For example, our apartment has a set of the Encyclopedia Britannica that our kids use all the time...

Friday, December 3, 2010

Hey, we've been there!

Customers eating at Yang Yang, Chengdu. Image from Eating Asia (see links below)

Another post on Sichuan cuisine by Eating Asia, this time featuring Yang Yang, a restaurant that we've been to a couple of times when we've been to downtown Chengdu. Their review of several ritzy new Sichuan restaurants in the New York times is also worth a look and a read, though all of the other places they mentioned are a bit beyond our budget....

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Collaborative consumption

Okay, so this woman has a book to sell, but hey, maybe "buying less stuff, saving limited resources, sharing with people, and making the world a better place" could, in fact, use a more snazzy marketing label.

Ewww. I just used the word "snazzy"....

With apologies to William Carlos Williams

A lot does depend on wheelbarrows, rain water, and white chickens, but sometimes, a bit of sunshine and a pile of bricks will do quite nicely.


Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Keeping our kids safe...

... from the wrong dangers. More that shows that we're just not that good at assessing risk.
"And while we certainly make constant (mis)calculations in our adult lives, we seem all the more determined yet befuddled when it comes to the safety of our children. For instance, the five things most likely to cause injury to children up to age 18, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, are: car accidents, homicide (usually at the hands of someone they know), child abuse, suicide or drowning. And what are the five things that parents are most worried about (according to surveys by the Mayo Clinic)? Kidnapping, school snipers, terrorists, dangerous strangers and drugs."
Hmmm... sound familiar, anyone?

Keeping Kids Safe from the Wrong Dangers, from the New York Times

Finding color where I can get it

So speaking of cold and gray, one does have to find antidotes somewhere...


Artificial flowers, Lotus Market, Chengdu

Changing locations

Don't know if it says more about China or about me , but I've been appreciating some fine bouquets of signage lately.