Wishing Jessica Latshaw Well!


Today was the last day of classes for the term.  Now, although on the Spring Festival holiday, these same students — and I am very proud of all of them — must now participate in one straight week of ten-hour days of TOEFL and SAT training.

And, now that we are all on break, I can now concentrate a bit more on my own writing, as well as some pleasure reading.  Of course, I will also spend time working on Chinese!

Well, for those of you in the States (and perhaps around the world?), one of my students today posted Ms. Latshaw’s “Ain’t My Friend” to the Chinese YouTube, Youku.  You can find the link above.

The lyrics to the song are below:

baby, you ain’t my friend, and I ain’t your last call; nor can I let my heart wonder how you feel about me at all.

Cause you got all your fans, people who are on call, but I ain’t one of them, nor can I let my self pretend…oh-oh-oh, baby, you ain’t my friend. oh-oh-oh…

See, I don’t really really wanna just be your friend, we’re either gonna play this game or let the game end; I mean, sure, I’ll be polite and wave as I walk by, but it hurts way too much to act like we still fly; after everything that happened, that happened between us–you’re so good at pretending, while I just make a fuss; now, I ain’t saying that it’s now or it’s never gonna be, I’m just saying that this friendship feels impossible to me; and maybe someday it’ll be just fine between us, but that day ain’t today, and maybe there’s some truth to the way they always say that, baby, you’re from mars, and maybe I’m from, I’m from, I’m from venus…


it’s not like you were wrong when you decided that I didn’t belong next to you, it’s just hard to stand here with you, when I’m not really with you, do you know what I mean? don’t think I’m trying to be mean–no! I think you’re just great, too great, in fact, that’s why I take a step back; it’s just a matter of survival as I walk through this new trial; don’t take it personally, cause I’m just trying to live free, to take a deep breath now and feel what I feel; as I keep walking, watch me walking, no, I won’t stop, though you ain’t here, stop with all the fear I tell myself, again and again, just as long as you say that you are my friend…so, hey hey hey, a baby (ay ay ay) you live your life now, and I’ll be busy living mine…so hey hey hey, a baby (ay ay ay), I already got quite enough friends now, thank you, yeah, I’ll be fine…



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Missing the States?


There are some things I miss about the States, in particular NYC.  And, of course, I miss friends there, while slowly making 1.3 billion friends here.  See the above link, for example.  This kind of wonderful subway entertainment one does not see here in Beijing — yet.  I wrote the artist, suggesting that she post this on Youku here in China.




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Amazing Grace

Tonight our school celebrated New Years.  It was a delightful evening in every respect.  Little did I know that it would be punctuated by the entire English faculty of the main school, about 20 teachers, singing, by candlelight, a beautiful rendition of the hymn, “Amazing Grace.”  I couldn’t help but sing along, quietly, but with enough sound to add my some hushed polyphony.

Yes, China continues to surprise me.

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Christmas Eve 2011

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On Christmas Eve, I went to the service that began at 10pm.  The church was surrounded by police.  While at first I was a bit intimidated by this, I realized that this was for simple crowd control.  This church is in the middle of an agora, so on most nights the plaza out in front is filled with hundreds of people, doing anything from sitting and talking to hip-hop dance clubs practicing their craft.
This night the plaza was quiet in order to allow for the procession, which began at around 11pm.  Inside, there were several thousand of the faithful, mostly Chinese, but also quite a few ex-pats.  It was all rather glorious.  One ongoing source of surprise and delight is that living in an officially atheistic country has an unintended consequence of having rather clear and clean air of faith.  In a way I have discovered breathing Christmas to be much easier and simpler here than in the States.  “Merry Christmas” is just that.  The words of Christmas do not return unaccomplished.   Last night, after coming home from an early Christmas Eve feast at the family of one of my students (and such a feast it was!), I gave the equivalent of a 6 dollar tip on an 11 dollar fare, along with a “Sheng dan kuai le,” “Merry Christmas.”  It was as though I had offered this cab driver a new home and a free education for his children.  The thankfulness and gratitude and delight he expressed chased me out into the night.  How easy it is to bless others.  And, at the dinner, my student, a lovely young lady of about 15, asked the kind of simple yet immense question that seems to permeate much of our students’ thinking, but does not yet know how to find fuller expression:  “Do you believe in God?”
I had invited a friend of mine, a graduate student in pharmacology, whose entire being is delighted with learning more about Christianity and, in this case, its Catholic expression.  She, in turn, had invited some of her friends.  Because this is such a heavily attended service, tickets are necessary.  I had four, graciously given to me by the principal of our school, so just enough.  My passport ended up being my ticket.
The first half of the service ended at midnight.  However, as it would then go on for another hour at least, my friend and her friends had to leave, as did I.  So, quite a memorable first Christmas Eve night here in Beijing!

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Ruminations — With Photos

Last night I attended a performance, a concert in the main auditorium of the Great Hall of the People.  This is the hall where, according to the Chinese teacher who accompanied me, “all the important decisions are made.”  Indeed, throughout the concert I was seated at some delegates desk.  As you will see from the photo below, this venue is enormous.

The concert was given to celebrate the anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Navy, since the time of the Revolution, that is.  One of the things that struck me was how muted the applause was.  Indeed, at the end of the concert, as all the performers came out to take their final bows, including the composer for the evening, a career naval officer (this was also a retrospective of his work), the applause seemed scattered and, at best, polite.

This was because the music, or, more precisely, the lyrics, was described to me as “empty.”  In reply I also suggested “nostalgic.”  While I could not understand the lyrics, my guess is that the music expressed a desire for a simpler time, when things were more certain, ordered and predictable, “the good old days.”  This prompted a brief discussion how China, in the process of development, but doing so at a rate perhaps unprecedented in history, is trying to sort out its heart and soul.  What is China?  What does it mean to be Chinese?  These are questions I asked my students at the beginning of the year.  I offered a contrasting example of “Americana” (i.e. possibly cheesy portrayals of the U.S., Las Vegas, baseball, mom and apple pie) and the 4th of July, both of which can create connected feelings of nostalgia,  festivity and purpose, but without any deeper understanding for what it means to be “American” (still don’t know what this means myself!), or the significance of the 4th.  In this way each can be at once celebratory and empty.  No doubt, the U.S. is also sorting through similar existential questions as China, but with a reasonably dimmer outlook, at least at this particular point in history.  Onto other matters below the photos.

File:Mausoleo de Mao Zedong-Tianang Mei-Pekin-China8438.JPG


Yes, Halloween came to Beijing No. 2 Middle School after our midterm examinations.  The students no doubt enjoyed this, and most all Chinese students enjoy being in front of a camera!  I can take artistic credit for the TI-84 costume, as this was my idea which this student then put into 3 dimensions.  And what is a Chinese Halloween party without a Red Guard!


The exams themselves were a first for the students, that is, exams done in English.  My exam, which consisted primarily of three short essays, was a true first.  This is because most all Chinese students take multiple-choice exams using bubble sheets.  This may be due to sheer numbers.  One of our assistant teachers attended a boarding school with 24,000 students.  Think of it.  While some students did exceptionally well, others did not.  And, on two separate occasions I had to speak with tearful students, trying as best I could to help them keep things in perspective, and to encourage them to keep going.  This is not an easy thing to do in an educational culture where your success on one exam can mean not only the university you go to, but also the trajectory of your entire life.

The other day I saw one of our school’s directors walk away from the administration building toward the main academic building with a purposeful stride.  A cat, one of two that has taken the school under control, quickly walked after her, and with an equally purposeful stride.  I called out to Director Zhou, “You are being followed!”  She turned around, laughed and walked back to the administrative building.  Sure enough, this cat wanted to be fed, and was not going to let even a school director to go anywhere without first receiving some nourishment.  There are priorities, after all.  The director in the midst of all this told me that this cat had recently displaced three fish from the school’s little fish pond.  This is one serious feline.

This same director also arranged for me, another international faculty member, as well as several other faculty from the main school, all Party members, to go to the National Museum of China (picture below).  It is an amazing place, worthy of several days’ attention and study. In our few hours there we saw modern Chinese history in reverse, going from an entrance hall with an Olympic symbol embedded into this enormous relief sculpture, back to the mid 1850.  It occurred to me again that China has undergone the equivalent of the Industrial Revolution, the American Revolution, and the Civil War (not to mention WWII), all in the space of about a century.  This kind of historical compression, if not unique in history, is nevertheless rare.



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On Probability Fields, Bowling Pins, Midterms and More

I have decided that the image of  an electron stream is too orderly for Beijing traffic.  I believe “probability field” is more apt.  On a bicycle, when I enter this field, I have to wonder what will happen and what won’t happen at the same time, depending on which universe springs into action at that particular moment.  I think, “Have I been hit and not hit at the same time?”  I believe I have seen Schrodinger’s cat darting about on more than one occasion.

However, as there is a more practical Newtonian component to this, I come to bowling pins.  If you think of a car (or bus, or one of the truly lethal silent electric scooters) as being a bowling ball, and Beijing cyclists as being so many bowling pins, I have realized that being the 1-pin is not desirable. As I a enter one particular roundabout, I strategize as to how to be either the 7 or 10 pin.

Onto more important matters.  I am now aware of this book.  What do I do with this knowledge here in Beijing?  Questions of faith can be discussed quite openly.  Questions of faith as presented here?  Well. Prayers.



This coming week is midterm week for our students.  I know that some of them are truly anxious, as perhaps they should be.  Still, I do not want them to be too anxious.


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Unexpected sight in Beijing, but most encouraging

These are indeed Chinese sisters, who are working among the poor in Beijing.  There were about 50 such sisters at the mass this day, 16 October 2011.  Wonderful.

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A quick thought on a remarkable moment

One year ago I would not have imagined myself teaching Chinese high school students in Beijing.  More specifically, I would not have expected to be asked to be the English-language sponsor for the Model United Nations at a high school in Beijing.  And, even more specifically, nowhere on my radar screen was there the possibility of having a serious hour-and-a-half conversation with a Chinese student, a young woman, a participant in the Model U.N., on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and how it pertains to the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea (DPRK), or North Korea.  However, this is what happened this afternoon.  This student and I discussed this very issue in detail.  Moreover, this discussion required crossing a still quite high language barrier, while also involving comparative history, culture and politics with respect to North Korea, China (during the time of Mao and since), and the United States.

I should add, about two weeks ago, while on a walk with some colleagues, we walked by the North Korean Embassy.  As we passed by about seven or eight teenage girls came out of the compound.  Clearly, these were among the Very Privileged Few.  They were dressed stylishly, and were perhaps off to an athletic event.  One had the word “Soccer” emblazoned on the back of her warm-up jacket.  I can now say that I have been within conversation range of North Korean citizens, though at the moment I did not have the presence of mind to try to start one.  Maybe next time.

Amazing.  Gratitude.


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China, meet Switzerland

Yesterday, I had the delight and the privilege of going on walking tour of several sites, including the Forbidden City and Behai Park (http://www.travelchinaguide.com/attraction/beijing/beihai.htm).  I accompanied 6 of our school’s young students, who themselves were tour guides for a group of Swiss students who have been in China for about 3 weeks.  The international aspect of what I am doing here continues to become more and more apparent.  And I am grateful.

The new face of China

The Vast Expanse of Beijing

China and Switzerland in discussion







Our evening dinner: the exchange continues



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Foolish Pride (is this a redundancy?)

For the past two weeks I have felt buried in work, grading papers, that is.  Because I am too scrupulous simply to put check marks (or to split infinitives, even when no one’s watching), this took hours upon hours.  And, to be sure, it was my own inflated sense of purpose that led to my assigning too much at too close intervals.  The students, I must add, absorbed my foolishness with a great degree of diligence.  The assignments were, I believe, substantive, but that only slightly diminishes the wrongheadedness of thinking I could do more — indeed should do more — when less work probably would have been the better way.  Having said this, I now have my head once again slightly above water, which is a good thing.

Tomorrow we will be finishing seven straight days of classes.  This reminds me of an lawyer joke I once heard in New York City:  “What’s so great about Fridays?”  “There are only two days left in the work week.”  The reason for the seven days of classes is that this past week was the National Holiday, well, holiday.  It marks the founding of the PRC back in 1949.  Because this is a high time for travel within China, I took the advice of everyone and didn’t try to see any famous site.  Instead, I took time to relax, get caught up on some reading (I read all of Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm), and graded papers.  I also began reading once again a George MacDonald story, one that I had to suspend when I moved here.  Thank you, Jennifer Anne, for sending it to me!

As we were back in school this week, I was able again to continue my table-tennis tutorial with one of my students, a young lady who is ranked no. 2 in Beijing.  I cannot play her without learning something of value, and I have made real progress.  I watched her practice yesterday afternoon with the school’s team.  The word “awe” comes to mind.  Now, if only I could move ahead in the same way with my study of Chinese.

Tomorrow afternoon begins another weekend, one which I will use to regroup a bit.

For those of you who are reading this, if you want to get an excellent 10-minute introduction to the Middle Kingdom, click on the following link and watch:   http://www.tudou.com/programs/view/yGV349V6Sjg/

Next time, I hope to add some more photos.  I wish I had had my camera at the ready as I rode home this evening, as I saw a not altogether unusual site, but one that continues to make me smile.  It was of a daughter (I assume) riding on the back of a bicycle, sideways on the bike rack, driven by (I assume) her mother.  The daughter was dutifully holding an umbrella, keeping off the traces of light rain.  Seeing such things is among the simple pleasures that makes life in Beijing so livable.




















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