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Rain, 1 May 2014

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA                                         OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA


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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China Little Flower

China Little Flower

China Little Flower is a medical orphanage in the Shunyi District of Beijing.  The home is in a villa, reconfigured to serve this very valuable and beautiful work.  When I first arrived in Beijing in 2011, there were, on a regular basis, about 40 babies there.  Now the number is roughly 60.

As I learned from the founder of Little Flower about a week ago, medical problems are the primary reason why children are abandoned in China.  There really is no national health care, and the costs for treating a baby with a life-threatening or chronic disease can be well beyond the means of many families.  So, as I understand it, thousands of these children each year are left in hospitals, where they enter the orphanage system.  Some are left at the orphanages themselves. Interestingly, perhaps sadly, this phenomenon of child abandonment is relatively recent in China’s history.  Apparently it began to grow exponentially following the opening of China in the 1980s.

About a third of the state-run orphanages are apparently well run, a third make an honest effort at trying to do well, and a third are where babies and young children go to die, victims of institutional neglect and disease.  The quality of these orphanages depends, as one might infer, on the financial status of the municipalities in which they exist.  If the village or city is well off, so, most likely, will be the orphanages.  If however the area is poor, all bets are off.  For those so inclined, one can find on Youtube segments of the 1995 BBC documentary, “The Dying Rooms,” which portray the horrific conditions of the poor state-run orphanages.  I have been told that things have improved since then, but are still not good for thousands upon thousands of babies and children across China.

China Little Flower, which came into being in the 1990s, is private founded and established by a couple from the United States, but who have made China their home.  It is also one of the few orphanages in China that is able to provide round-the-clock medical care for babies, preemies, as well as children born with cleft palates, digestive and coronary conditions, infections and so on.  In cases, it will fly children outside China for specialized surgeries that cannot be done within the country.  It is not a long-term orphanage.  Rather, other homes send babies to Little Flower for specific medical care. When the children are well enough to leave Little Flower, they are then sent back to the orphanages from which they came, with the express mandate that these children be adopted.  Little Flower itself cannot and does not do adoptions.  These are done by the government.  In January of 2012, Little Flower joined with the Beijing Chunmiao Children’s Aid Foundation.

Over the course of the past two years I have visited Little Flower regularly, and have introduced it to others, students and colleagues alike.  As I mentioned before, it is an amazing place, where medical care is combined with warmth and love.  I am always inspired by my visits there, inspired and filled with hope.  It is one of the reasons why I wish to continue to stay in China.

More information on China Little Flower can be found at its website, and on Facebook.Image

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Arkansas meets Beijing, 23 July 2013

This is surprisingly like my time here in Beijing.
July 21, 2013

Down in the Delta, Outsiders Who Arrived to Teach Now Find a Home


HELENA-WEST HELENA, Ark. — If you are from around here, you know Doug Friedlander is not.

Born in New York City and reared on Long Island, Mr. Friedlander is Jewish and vegetarian and has a physics degree from Duke.

But here he is, at 37, living in a roomy white house in this hard-luck Delta town of 12,000. Mr. Friedlander and his wife, Anna Skorupa, are part of a gradual flow of young, university-trained outsiders into the Delta’s shrinking communities, many of whom arrived through Teach for America and stayed beyond their two-year commitment.

Mr. Friedlander is now the ambitious director of the county’s Chamber of Commerce. He frets over the kudzu that is devouring abandoned buildings. He attends Rotary Club meetings, where he sidesteps the lunch offerings for carnivores. He organizes workshops to modernize small businesses and pushes tourism and the development of a decimated downtown along the banks of the Mississippi.

The mechanization of agriculture, lost manufacturing and a legacy of poverty and racism have taken their toll on the Delta, but Mr. Friedlander is thrilled to be here. He left his job at a software company in North Carolina’s Research Triangle nine years ago, taking a two-thirds pay cut, to “make a bigger difference.”

To that end, “this is the most fertile soil on earth,” Mr. Friedlander said. “If I were in New York, I would be a leaf at the end of a branch at the end of a tree — in a forest.”

Mr. Friedlander arrived in 2004 to teach science at Central High School in Helena. He was one of 71 corps members in the Delta; currently, about 300 of them fan across the region’s classrooms each year, mostly in Arkansas and Mississippi.

Here, in towns like Helena, a former agricultural hub and river port, they find some of the most devastating poverty in the country: shacks on cinder blocks, schools with nearly all students on subsidized lunch programs.

Segregation is a fact of life. Private “white-flight academies,” as some locals call them, are common, leaving public schools to serve an overwhelmingly poor, black student body.

“I just knew when they left my classroom, it was an uphill battle for so many of my kids,” said Greg Claus, who is from Ohio and taught art at a public junior high school from 2008 to 2011. Now an assistant to the mayor of Greenville, Miss., he has seen the names of some former students on the police blotter. Several more are already parents.

Teach for America is fiercely competitive, drawing top graduates accustomed to success. “For most, this is the hardest challenge they’ve ever met,” said Luke Van De Walle, a 33-year-old corps alumnus from Indiana who has settled in Helena with his wife, Jamie, and their two young children. “They put a lot of effort in, and they get chewed up by 25 third graders.”

Still, some former members say they have never felt so satisfied.

Michelle Johansen, 37, arrived from the University of Michigan in 1997. Since then, she has become a volunteer manager at the farmers’ market in Cleveland, Miss. She works part time at Habitat for Humanity and is an adjunct instructor at Delta State University.

“I don’t want to leave,” said Ms. Johansen, who is married and has two children. “The work I’ve been able to do in the Delta is fulfilling.”

She does wish there were a Target in town. And a movie theater. There is no place to get brunch. But, she said, “there’s something about the Delta that’s very special, and if people are open to it, they will be captivated by it.”

Matty Bengloff, 28, is one of those people. He grew up in an apartment on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Now he owns a three-bedroom home in Cleveland, as well as a hip new yogurt shop called Delta Dairy, with his fiancée, Suzette Matthews.

“The barriers here are low,” Mr. Bengloff said. “You can be really entrepreneurial. Everyone is eager to help.”

But the transition is not always easy.

Residents cured Mr. Bengloff of his Yankee ways. Soon after arriving in the South with Teach for America, Mr. Bengloff was in a school speaking to a receptionist. When he could not hear the man’s words, Mr. Bengloff asked, “What?” The receptionist said: “I can tell you’re not from around here. When you don’t understand something, you say, ‘Excuse me, sir?’ Or, ‘Sir?’ ”

Mr. Bengloff took the lesson to heart. Now his habitual use of “ma’am” irritates his mother back East. He drawls, “Thanks, y’all,” to customers passing through his shop.

Ms. Johansen and Mr. Bengloff said they were attracted to the quirks and complexity of the Delta.

They have found schools that are progressive and a complicated political scene. Ms. Johansen’s doctor is a catfish noodler (who fishes bare-handed). Shopping online is more necessity than convenience, though a two-hour jaunt to Memphis is common. The unofficial town motto, plastered on bumper stickers, is an ironic “Keep Cleveland Boring.”

No one, residents say, is too busy for a good chat.

“I know people who live in places with lots of things,” Ms. Johansen said. “Movie theaters. A Target. And they aren’t happy. I’m a happy camper.”

Mr. Bengloff, who is Jewish, found what locals call a “church family,” led by a retired rabbi who commutes from Memphis once a month. Just as many of the temple regulars are Christian as are Jewish, just because they like the diversity of experience and, said Mr. Bengloff, “the rabbi is great.”

Some longtime residents initially resented the inflow of Teach for America members with fancy degrees and backgrounds. Those troubles have largely eased over time. And the hard truth is, the Delta needs the people.

“It’s good having highly educated folks coming back,” said Chuck Roscopf, a lawyer in Helena. “My kids, my friends’ kids — they’re all gone. They’re in Dallas or just about anywhere else, but they won’t come back.”

Teach for America entered the Delta in 1992, when it dispatched a few dozen corps members to Helena and Marianna, Ark. The numbers and geographic reach expanded steadily but exploded in 2009 because of an influx of funds from the State of Mississippi and the Walton Family Foundation.

The organization now estimates that over those years, 250 corps members have stayed on after their two-year commitments were over. Some have remained in education; others found jobs in private industry and community organizations.

They have started education-based nonprofit groups, like Mississippi First and the Sunflower County Freedom Project. Mr. Friedlander and Ms. Skorupa, with other Teach for America alumni, were founding board members of a new Boys and Girls Club in Helena.

Mr. Friedlander remains a hard-charging New Yorker, which has rubbed some folks the wrong way.

“If he was just here to make money, they probably would have run him out of town,” said Jason Rolett, the executive director of the Boys and Girls Club of Phillips County. But Mr. Friedlander has won the trust of much of the community, Mr. Rolett said, “because of his heart, how much he cares.”

Mr. Friedlander enjoys ripping through a PowerPoint presentation of Helena’s new health center, riverboat tours, renovated historic buildings, a downtown emerging from ruin and new businesses. His pride is palpable.

Helena even has its first director of an advertising and promotion commission, Julia Malinowski, 27, from Seattle.

Word is spreading beyond the Teach for America crowd.

Recently, graphic designers opened a firm called Thrive in Helena after living for five years in Brooklyn, where “about 200,000 people were trying to do what I wanted to do,” said a co-owner, Terrance Clark.

He has had enough work in the Delta to hire two interns from Midwestern design schools this summer. And Mr. Clark has recruited a group of friends from Indianapolis to come to Helena to work on community projects under his company’s 501(c)(3) umbrella.

Mr. Clark, Ms. Malinowski and the rest work together in a chic business incubator downtown.

The space is airy and open, with interior brick and a glass conference room — sort of like what you would find in Brooklyn.

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Acts of Kindness

The insanity that can be Beijing traffic (“Why is that car driving toward me — on the sidewalk?”) can lead to forgetting that there are individuals with individual lives and individual stories in fact at the wheel.  And not everyone is the same.  

The other day after what may have been yet another day filled with frustrations at school, I was riding home, and, as is my way, I joined the probability field, arrived safely on the far side of a particularly probabilistic traffic circle, said a quiet prayer of thanksgiving and headed toward my apartment.

Now, it may be said that Beijing drivers will situate their cars so as to cause the most disruption in the least amount of space.  This may have to do with “saving face”: I don’t care if neither of us can move, I am not going to get out of the way.  As I began peddling down this side / access road, I saw such a situation developing.  I should add that here I was doing what one is taught not to do in the States, ride against traffic.  Then again, here in Beijing “wrong way” is a very fluid concept.  After all, the laws of motion generally do not dictate that particles move in a “right way” and a “wrong way.”  And, in the philosophic / scientific materialism that now seems to be the prevailing ethic here in China, a car is but a big particle of physics.  Why should it, a person or a bicycle not go any direction a subatomic particle can go at any given place in time? Yes, collisions happen, but why quibble.  

Anyhow, back to what could have been yet another traffic tie up due to car placement.

I was driving toward 2 or 3 cars on this narrow stretch of roadway.  The car I was most concerned with could have placed itself in such a way that it could not go forward, while at the same time not permitting me to ride carefully past.  Instead, the driver stopped, providing me enough space to ride through, and indeed kindly waved at me to proceed. In two years here in Beijing, this was a first for me on the receiving end.  When I on my bicycle make clear by hand signals that I am giving a car — a much larger physics particle — the right of way, I am most always met with looks of delight combined with confusion.  There’s a metaphor here somewhere.

Only yesterday, 27 May, and, yes, after another frustrating day at school, with students being “sick” in record numbers due to SAT preparation, and parents reinforcing the lie that their child is sick, etc., I was again riding home.  Even though the air quality was the standard “unhealthy,” I had opted not to wear my somewhat hi-tech and somewhat expensive face mask.  Instead, I placed it on top of my jacket, which was inside a bag, which was inside the wire basket on the front of my bike, which is now fastened to the bicycle by string.  I do not jest.  

Because of this somewhat fragile relationship of physics particles of various sizes and shapes, unbeknownst to me, and in my distracted state, said face mask bounded out of this bag and onto the street without my noticing it.  

Sometime after this, a gentleman on a bicycle came riding up beside me and began talking at me.  In Chinese.  Already a problem.  I had no idea what he was trying to say.  Had I cut him off?  Had a violated the probability field?  I simply wanted to be left alone to my thoughts.  Still later on he flew up beside me and signaled to me something.  I muttered the one phrase I am confident in Chinese, “I don’t know.”  He chuckled and rode off.

It was only moments later that I realized that this stranger had been trying to communicate to me that something had fallen from my bicycle, my face mask, and was trying to get me to stop and turn around to retrieve it, but my ignorance of language had gotten in the way.  When at last I did turn around, saying quiet words of thanks for this man’s attempts to help me, I could not find this article.  My hope, of course, is that someone found it, knows where to find new filters, and will put it to good use.  

I rode on my way, purchased another mask at my nearby health-food store, and so contributed to the Chinese economy.


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