Rain, 1 May 2014

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This afternoon here in Beijing, we had the first measurable rainfall in nearly a year.  For the half hour or so as the rain came down, accompanied by some lightning and thunder, this unfamiliar cacophony spelled bliss. It was wonderful. Yes, we have had flirtations with rain.  And, on one or two occasions, I have woken up to see the ground damp, but nothing like this. As an additional gift, I could feel the humidity drop and the air cool, creating a lovely near-English feeling, a proper companion to my sipping some P.G. Tips tea and finishing C. Bronte’s The Professor, the final scenes of which take place in England.

The rain has stopped now.  My hope is that this shower was but a prelude to more rainy days to come.  We need them. Indeed, perhaps it may rain more as the evening wears on, at which time I will move from C. Bronte to Thomas Piketty and Capital in the 21st Century.

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Bible Study on the No. 5 (4?) subway in Beijing

Several weeks ago, providentially while going to church, I think it was, I ended up standing near a couple whose young son, perhaps about 4 years of age, was sitting next to an older gentleman.  During the course of the subway ride, the lad’s animated conversation with the older man caught the attention of a number of people on the subway.  Moreover, the boy’s interaction with is parents also proved to be delightful and worthy of an audience.

What struck me, though, is that at one point the older man, perhaps the grandfather?  I really don’t know, took out a Bible and began to teach, instruct and guide the boy through various passages.  He did this very quietly and with no fanfare, but also perfectly out in the open, with not a hint of self consciousness.  It was like breathing.  

The boy himself seemed absolutely at home with all this.  He listened intently and then added comments which made the older gentleman smile and his parents look perfectly content.  Additionally, other passengers on the subway within earshot began to pay attention, some close attention.  One of the things I have found here in China is that the people are not at all anti or antagonistic toward religion, be it Christianity or other expressions of faith.  What seems to be the case, rather, is that faith, certainly not of the religious variety, is a category at all.  It’s not a part of a person’s living, moving and having being.  For this reason, discussions of faith often result in real if perplexed interest, kind of “What is this thing that has come to pass?”  Certainly at the church where I attend, which is kind of the cathedral to central Beijing, the curious and the passers by are forever wandering in.  Some stay, some look around and depart.  I like to think that they are all, in some way, touched by grace.  

At one point the parents of the boy along with the boy got off the subway at the same stop I did.  The older gentleman stayed and continued on.  

I believe it is Isaiah who speaks of God’s word going forth and not returning without fulfilling its purpose.  So it does.

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On the death of Nelson Mandela



Yesterday morning here in Beijing I awoke and, on the Christianity Today website, I first found out about the death of Nelson Mandela. I then went to the NY Times site to read more.  

I had the privilege of seeing Mandela from a distance.  During his 1990 visit to New York City, his motorcade began right outside the building where I was working at 1 Battery Park Plaza.  This was the only time I would see him in person.  Why then the profound sense of sadness that I seems to have engulfed me?  I am by nature one who often ponders and, at times, broods about things.  Even so, I find myself pondering, if you will, my response to Mandela’s death.  

One thing that comes to mind is that I cannot think of any other leader in recent history who combined the magnanimity and gravitas that Mandela embodied.  As I think about this now, he reminds me of Presidents Washington and Lincoln, both who attained the leadership of a country during a time of profound and bloody division, yet who sought to rise above it themselves, and so to raise the nation above it.  As in the word’s of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address (which only now I have I taken the time to read in its brief entirety, “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

Moreover, the dignity and patience of the man is a lesson to me here in China.  No, patience ought never be an excuse to delay, much less hobble, the pursuit of justice. At the same time, perhaps it is patience, combined with perspective and wisdom, that keeps the pursuit of justice from becoming hurried, and then, at times, itself unjust, certainly unfettered and unrealistic and then unrealized. What Mandela learned on Robben Island astounds me.  Would that people everywhere, not only leaders, learn and emulate the same lessons, but mercifully in less arduous circumstances.  Here in the Middle Kingdom how I can complain and be petulant about what in the larger picture are but daily (sometimes hourly) inconveniences.  As I hope my work here will continue for a few more years as this amazing country continues to live, move and have being, I know that I must temper my strengthening desire to see things change now, with the understanding that the change, reform, call it what you will, I want now may reflect little more than my own, personal felt needs and desires, and does not reflect the longer term and the appropriate desires and hopes of others.

My hope and prayer now is that Mandela’s own country, South Africa, will move forward, peacefully and justly, magnanimously.  It is a country facing difficult and uncertain times.  May the life of Nelson Mandela continue to be a guiding light for its journey into the future.

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Grotesque Domestic Product

I have read, as most anyone has, that China will within the next few years overtake the United States as the world’s largest economy. I used to be impressed by this, and, to a certain degree, I still am.  However, the more I realize that this statistic pertains to each nation’s respective GDP, I have become increasingly skeptical.  

GDP, as best I understand it, has to do with total goods produced, plain and simple.  It has nothing to do with whether those goods are in fact productive, beneficial, lead to development, or are of any use whatsoever.  They simply need to be produced, and in so doing produce jobs, revenue, and so on.

Here in the Middle Kingdom I am recognizing that much of the country’s GDP must literally go up in smoke.  Here’s my for-instance.  Even in the winter, schools in China insist on keeping doors to the outside world open. And, when people see them open, they simply walk through them without closing them.  Closing them does not enter most people’s, students’ or teachers’, conceptual framework here.  Open doors offer a path of least resistance, so take it.  

What I have tried to explain to students is that keeping doors open in winter wastes energy.  Wasted energy forces Beijing’s coal-fired power plants to burn more coal.  More burning of coal creates more air pollution.  One would think that this would result in immediate awareness and that people would begin to close doors.  

What I have begun to realize is, of course, keeping doors open does in fact mean more burning of coal.  Burning more coal means that more coal has to be produced.  Producing more coal increases expenditures as well as revenues.  Increased expenditures, jobs, revenues and so forth increases GDP.  And, one must not forget that this cycle, whether beneficial or not, of increasing the GDP leads to bonuses.  Bonuses accrue to individuals, and those individuals become beholden to those who pay the bonuses, who are often members of or closely connected to the Party.  So, much like smokers in the United States subsidize all sorts of wasteful and harmful practices and policies, the “Open Door” policy here does the same.  Each, of course, lines the pockets of certain beneficiaries and benefactors alike.  Again, it doesn’t matter what is made or produced, as long as it is in fact made or produced.  One would not normally think of wasted energy as a product, but here in China it appears to be.  

Are school administrators and students tacitly instructed to keep doors open in order to increase wasteful spending?  I don’t know, but it seems that way.  Implementing a policy that would encourage a school not to waste energy would seem to be a simple and non-controversial thing to do.  Still, I have been through two winters here, and thus far open doors to the winter cold appear to be the norm.  

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Reading Augustine’s Confessions in Beijing

I will be the first to admit that “reading Augustine’s Confessions in Beijing” doesn’t have, or most likely will not have, the same allure as the book, Reading Lolita in Tehran. Still, my guess is that there are some points of convergence.  To begin with, as an English teacher here in China, I never would have assumed that one day I would be teaching Medieval Literature at any high school in Beijing, much less to only two students in a seminar class, and, as a first text, to be looking at Augustine’s Confessions.  Even so, as Augustine had a high doctrine of the sovereignty of God, I should perhaps not be too surprised by any of this.  Indeed, a year ago I taught a part-time English course to a group of young seminarians here in Beijing, at the Beijing National Seminary for the Roman Catholic Church in China — which is funded by the government.  Go figure.  

This seminar on medieval literature, as I indicated, has two students in it, both young women.  Yes, the Confessions is new to them.  Yes, trying to tease out Augustine’s understanding of sin, original sin, memory, sex, temptation, good and evil, the Fall, and the infinite love and grace of an infinitely loving God, and how all this has somehow contributed not only to western literature, but also to a great degree to western thought and psychology, is slow going.  However, it is slow going in the same way that plants, flowers, trees and so on do not sprout overnight.  To be sure, this is a process of cultivation not (yet) of harvesting.  And it is exceptionally enjoyable and rewarding.

One of the things that has not surprised me too much, but which has, rather, delighted me and broadened my sense of wonder, is how well Augustine’s thinking and observations, inasmuch as he is a close reader of human nature, translates into Chinese culture, and, more specifically, into the modern 21st century understanding of two young Chinese women.  On several occasions, for instance, when Augustine is describing his experience with schooling, Roman literature, the Greek language, and doing things to please one’s elders, both of these students find ready points of convergence.  It’s as though Augustine is describing them.  Of course, when the conversation turns to more specifically theological questions, which these two seem eager to understand, the conversations become less animated and more circumspect.  When trying to describe to them Augustine’s conception of God as not only being infinite, but everywhere infinite, that is in indivisible infinity such that the infinity of God exits everywhere infinitely, that became a bit dizzying. Of course, when I think about this on my own, I may feel myself losing my own balance.  

When discussions turn to matters of sin and sex and sexuality, what is surprising is that these two are able to speak frankly and without flinching.  There is a pragmatic matter-of-factness to these discussions which is at once absolutely appropriate to the moment, and yet revealing enough of our humanity to remind us that these are not merely abstract, academic issues, but rather questions of the mind, heart, body, soul and spirit.  Augustine’s Confessions thus far has provided an excellent platform or staging area to deepen East-meets-West thinking about any number of questions.  

In the remaining weeks of this term I hope at least to introduce Boethius’ Consolations of Philosophy.

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Blessed Silence, or An Introvert Finds Respite in Beijing



Yes, I am an introvert living in China.  I cannot say that I live among 1.3 billion people all at once, but on any given rush-hour subway ride, it’s easy to feel the numbers.  Even on a relatively quiet day in Beijing, the sheer volume of humanity is immense.

These past few weeks have been something of a sprint for me, mostly due to college applications: reading essays, meetings with a steady stream of students, writing recommendations, and fighting the Common Application.  All of this is truly rewarding and, I hope, fruitful, but again the relentless immersion in and amongst the lives of others can wear one down. 

This past week was CARP Week at the school.  I still don’t know what CARP stands for.  In any case, the theme of the week was “light.” Students and faculty spoke and thought about light from the perspectives of science, literature, culture and drama.  It culminated in an abbreviated yet very well done version of Oedipus Rex.  See the photo of Jocasta. 

CARP Week has segued into travel week.  Now, most of the students are elsewhere.  And by elsewhere I mean elsewhere: Botswana, Bali, Yunan and Shanxi/Shaanxi.  I was hoping to go to Cambodia with a trip, but it was scrubbed.  

So, here I am.  For the first time since arriving at The Affiliated High School of Peking University, I can say it is truly quiet, almost silent. When the wind blows, I can hear the rustling of the leaves.  It’s beautiful.  Monday I begin again with college applications, as I am working with students from the main campus, who remain here in Beijing.  However, for these 48 hours, I will revel in this peace.

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The Catholic Church in Tibet

Until my flight from Shenyang to Beijing yesterday, I was not aware that there is an extant, albeit small, Catholic population in Tibet.  This is kind of like the Jewish community in Keifeng.




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