An update

Things to write about: the Lama Temple.  Table Tennis.  A difficult week.  A wonderful time at church.  These are some of the things I reminded myself to update.

About two weeks ago two of our Assistant Teachers, Emma and Cecilia, took us international faculty to the  Yonghe Lama Temple.  (I believe I have the spelling correct.)  This temple was originally a mansion, best understood as a complex of buildings,  for one of the emperors during the Qing Dynasty, but was given over to be a temple.  Each structure within this magnificent and fascinating assortment of buildings has and tells its own story.  No doubt the most impressive sight was that of a Buddha, standing about 55 feet high (with about 25 feet below unseen as a foundation), carved from a single piece of wood.  Photos are not permitted inside the buildings, as they are sacred spaces.

As for table tennis, one of my students, Haddy, is ranked second in Beijing for her age group.  In a fit of hubris I suggested that she and I play.  Thankfully, we have not played.  Instead, we have hit across the net.  Not only is she an excellent player, but she is also a good teacher.  What I thought might be a one-time event seems to be turning into a Wednesday lunchtime event, which I don’t mind at all, especially as a lot of other students are joining in!

Not this current week, but last week, was difficult.  I think many of the faculty were feeling a bit tired, and we are collectively realizing that our work here, while offering tremendous opportunities and privileges (among which is working with a stellar group of students), will also be very difficult, mostly, and not unexpectedly, due to the language barrier.  Patience is the order of the day — and of the coming days.

At church, my friend Chang ended up sitting next to an older, perhaps elderly, gentleman, rather unkempt, but very much at home in the church.  Indeed, as Chang said, “He was very enthusiastic, and this made me a bit uncomfortable.”  What she was referring to was at the sign of peace, he was not willing merely to shake hands; he insisted on hugging, and so forth.  While I can fully understand Chang’s feelings, what I tried to explain to her is that perhaps this elderly man sensed in her a certain kindness, he felt able to attempt some form of human connection.  (Is this man homeless?  Does he have friends?  I don’t know.)  I further tried to explain that perhaps because of this momentary human connection, he might have left church feeling, well, a bit more human, and not so anonymous, that to attract others who may not in the eyes of the world be attractive, could in fact be a gift of mercy to a hurting world.  At the end of this conversation, while Chang may not have fully accepted my attempt at an explanation, she did say that she wished she could think similarly.

Right about this time we then were visited by my favorite book seller from the Foreign Language Bookstore, Cheng Wei, and then later on one of the expat priests from the parish, who is from Queens in NYC.  We all had a brief time of merry, animated and fruitful conversation, with everyone going away feeling a bit better about themselves and the world around them.  All good.

To follow: the electron stream, traffic rules as a variation on Schrodinger’s Cat, and Thomas Paine visits Beijing No. 2 Middle School.




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Soon to update

For about a week  now I have been without my personal pc, as the screen has given up the ghost.  Today I wandered over to a nearby electronics store, what has to be the World’s Ultimate Electronic Store, or near to it, and purchased a desktop monitor, which is now attached to my laptop.  (I know I didn’t bargain as much as I could have, but I did get the price lowered a bit.  Such things take practice, like so many things.)  It’s a bit of a tape-and-bailing-wire fix, but it is working.  So, anyway, now I can get to the program necessary here in China to get to the blog, so I should be able to update it shortly.  For now, though, other things to do on this very warm late September afternoon.

Things to write about: the Lama Temple.  Table Tennis.  A difficult week.  A wonderful time at church.

For now, though, let me add now that tomorrow we all meet some of our student’s parents, beginning at 8:30 in the morning.  High drama.  It should be good.

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Of the Mid-Autumn Festival, Teacher Day, and more

    Teacher Day Tour, 11 September 

The Mid-Autumn Festival was this past weekend.  This also combined with Teacher Day, which allowed for a three-day weekend.  The Friday before Teacher Day, which was Saturday, the school hosted an amazing banquet at a hotel; I noted this earlier.  Then, the evening of Teacher Day itself, the principal of the school hosted a private dinner for the teachers of the International Division.  This was a truly elegant affair, in which we were treated to an assortment of wonderful food at a very large circular table, around which sat about15 or 16 individuals.  There were toasts, good conversations, and, afterward, tea in a separate tea room.

That Sunday I met my friend Chang for church at 8am, and had a relaxed time with her, learning more about China and the language.  She had graciously ordered me a Chinese-English, English-Chinese dictionary for me, which will be of great help as time goes on.  She also helped me find a very good, and complete, version of The Dream of Red Mansions, a Chinese classic.  At 2500 pages it ought to be a classic!  I have not been able to start it yet.

That afternoon, another colleague of mine, David Lasson, and I were given a four-hour walking tour by a group of students.  This was a tour of a very famous hutong (alley) that used to be the home of nobility and the wealthy during the some of the dynastic periods.  Now it is a very, very crowded shopping street, but it still bears the marks of history.  That a group of 6 students would take 4-5 hours out of their day to host an afternoon like this speaks highly of education in China, and of the students themselves.

On Monday I got together with the daughter of an old friend from the military, whom I haven’t seen in about 30 years!  She is a senior at the Naval Academy, and is doing a semester here in Beijing.  I had never seen her before, obviously, and it was wonderful to meet her, and through her to hear about her father.

This afternoon, I went over to observe the after-school Model U.N. organization at work.  Keep in mind that this group has its own lecture hall at the school.  Within about 5 minutes of being there, I had been asked to be the English adviser to the group in order to help the students with English wording and phrases as they prepare for their events.  I was at once surprised, but I am also incredibly honored to be asked to do this.

While China may have its bureaucratic intricacies, they are not always at work.  Tonight when I got back from school, I told Kimmy, one of the front-desk clerks, and a wonderful human being, that the sink in my kitchen was clogged.  Within about 20 minutes there was a staff engineer on his way up to the apartment.  In about 15 minutes it was fixed.  Keep in mind, this was in the evening.  I marveled.  I later brought down some moon cakes, a Mid Autumn Festival treat and gift, for the front-desk staff.  And there I met a gentleman who works in education through the State Department and his wife, who is from Paraguay.  I have met some truly interesting people just entering and exiting the apartment.  (I was reminded by this man that the Model U.N. is a very big and prestigious organization in schools throughout China.)

Beijing.  It’s an amazing city.  The weekend is soon upon us — and it will be cooling off!


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Bicycling in Beijing Traffic . . .

. . . is good for one’s prayer life.

An historic day for me, today, at the market next door, I purchased a bicycle.  I was told not to buy anything expensive, and I succeeded.  The bicycle and lock cost about $70. 00 USD.  And, although today is a damp, drizzly early autumn day, I decided what better way to break the new thoroughbred in?  Cycling indeed is one of the preferred, and no doubt easiest, ways to get around this city.  Speed is not the issue, but rather being able to move substantially faster than walking.  I have noticed that Beijing traffic by and large moves slowly, but it is always moving.  Rarely does it appear to be stopped, like one might see in Northern Virginia or around the D.C. Beltway.

I already have a light mount on the bicycle.  Now I must mount a bell, as a bit of a “clang” is very helpful to warn in a kindly way the swarms of pedestrians that are found everywhere and at all hours.

Today is formally Teacher Day here in China.  I should add that last night Beijing No. 2 hosted a feast at a nearby hotel.  There were probably at least 50 main dishes available, buffet style.  Tonight there will be a smaller meal for those of us of the International Division.

Oh.  I am now also an officially registered “Foreign Expert.”  Things are good.



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That Makes No Tense (cont’d)

Yesterday afternoon I asked the Subject Representative in one of my classes, an absolutely delightful, though also quite quiet, young lady, “Will you collect the homework?”  To which she immediately replied, “No.”

Well.  After the momentary short-circuit inside my mind and soul subsided, and I rebooted my speech mechanism, I retorted, “No?” as though to say, “Did I just hear you say ‘No’?”

Moments later I realized what had just happened.  I had asked, “Will you collect the homework?”  However, because Chinese has no tenses, what she heard was, “Have you collected the homework?” to which the correct answer was “No.”  Immediately afterward, she then realized her mistake and said, “Oh, yes.  I will collect it.”

All this happened within about 5 seconds.

Teaching moments can come within very small packets of the space-time continuum.

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Teacher Day

Here I am posting photographs some of the elegant gifts that I received today for Teacher Day.  What makes this day different from similar days in the United States is that it is not simply a day for giving gifts to teachers, but rather a day in which students can express the significance of teachers in and upon their lives.  There truly is a collective mindset here that, while not thinking about education in overly earnest or somber tones, nevertheless thinks about it reverentially.  The difference may seem subtle, but it is real.  For me “reverence” means not only respect for something, but also a deep sense of relationship that can also include ideas such as delight, joy, winsomeness, and even affection and love.  One young lady three days ago came into the teachers’ office after school to ask some chemistry questions.  Afterward, she was trying to express her feelings about her new Anglo teachers, but could not find the right words.  The next day, she found me in the morning and said that she had first found the Chinese words she wanted, and then found the appropriate English words.  She said that, “Deep within my heart, I want you to know that all you teachers have warmth and zest.”  “Warmth” and “zest” were the words she had been trying to express.  How does one respond to such words from a student, except to reply with words of profound gratitude?  As faculty here, we are all wonderfully grateful for working with the students who are a part of this program.

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One added thing I am grateful for, and this is that the students are very enthusiastic in their helping me learn to learn new words in Chinese, and to pronounce them correctly.


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That Doesn’t Make Any Tense

Here is an example of a perfectly logical Chinese sentence, written by one of my students who is growing in his ability to work with English: “Yesterday there is something wrong with my computer.”

Soon after I arrived here I found out that the Chinese language does not have tenses; verbs themselves occur in the present tense, with context and modifiers, such as “yesterday,” indicating when something takes or took or will take place.  What this young lad, then, is meaning to say is, “Yesterday there was something wrong with my computer.”  Of course, his ability to write what he did already puts him light years ahead of my knowledge of Chinese, which is coming along very slowly.

This slowness on my part was made apparent when I read out my students’ family names today.  I knew they would laugh.  And they did!  Following collective hysterics on the part of one class, I found out that “Sun” is not pronounced “sun,” but “soon.”  Then, I tried to pronounce another common family name, Shi.  The best I can do with this is to imagine eliding the “sh” sound with “u” sound in the name “Burt,” with just a touch of the “r” thrown in, all formed toward the front of the mouth, right behind the upper and lower teeth.  “Shee” would have been so much easier.  Of course, when I used this pronunciation, I was regaled with yet more delighted laughter.  Additionally, some of the tonal differences (in Chinese there are 4 major tones: flat, rising, falling-rising, and falling) I cannot yet distinguish at all.  In my attempts to say words with the correct tone, I have already gathered more than a fair share of confused looks.

In an earlier post did I write of a short drive down a one way street — the wrong way — ironically enough to a physical examination?  Driving in Beijing is a somewhat metaphysical activity.  This was demonstrated yesterday when a new friend of mine here lent me her bicycle to ride.  One really has to believe that you are able to pass through physical objects, as though some exotic subatomic particle, in order to navigate the frightfully Newtonian world of Beijing traffic.

Last night this same new friend and I attended a choral concert of sacred music at St. Joseph’s Church.  These choristers, from children through adults, with one spectacular bass soloist thrown in, though not paid, could near well match any choir I have heard in the States, including the paid choir of St. Ignatius Loyola in NYC.  They sang pieces as early as Palestrina up through the contemporary English composer John Rutter.  However, the closing hymn, sung in Chinese, and which most everyone in the standing-room-only audience seemed to know, was something like “Jesus Always Lives in My Heart.”  What a blessing.


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A Quick Update

The past week provided for a guided tour of the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven and the Summer Palace, with side trips to a pearl factory and a tea house.  The tour company has to receive some remuneration from the latter two, as each involved something of a soft/not-so-soft sell.  Yes, at the tea house I left with a good supply of some very good Chinese teas, puer and oolong.

I will soon find out whether I’ve put this in a post already, but I don’t think so.  This has to do with the vast scale of humanity here in China.  The day of the tour, I found out that between 40,000 – 50,000 persons were visiting the Summer Palace the day we were there.  Back in the States, only national parks, and maybe Disney World and major transport hubs have that sort of human traffic on an exceptionally busy day.  Still, consider this.  Even if 50,000 people were to visit the Summer Palace every day of the year, it would still take about 120 years for every current living person in China to visit it.  Kind of staggering, yes? The economy here seems to move forward by sheer unstoppable inertia derived from the multitude of humanity.

This past Thursday we all went to the Beijing Ballet.  The two ballets were choreographed by a cousin of mine (maybe), Roland Petit.  They were good, but they also appeared to be choreographed for a Chinese audience, as they were both also very stylized, yet in a simple way.  I reminded myself that ballet in China is something of a young art form.  When, for instance, Martha Graham and George Balanchine were in mid career, China was undergoing the Cultural Revolution.

Friday, the new faculty here has a rain-soaked walk in the morning.  The thought was to open a second account, this one needed to tie into direct deposit.  The Language Barrier reared its proud head.  Later in the day, a group of us went to another branch of the same bank, though this time under the tutelage of two of our Assistant Teachers, both of whom are Chinese.  We succeeded this time.  However.  However, the logistics were great, with paper flying, stamps stamping, supervisors supervising.  Then (oh, woeful moment) I made the decision to try to deposit $150.00 in Amex traveler’s checks into my account.  Much more paper.  Many more stamps.  More consultations.  This process took the better part of 45 minutes.  Even my personal guide at that point, Emma Bai, was laughing at it all.  I was terrified, as I felt the wrathful eyes of waiting customers searing into the back of my head.  One irate Beijinger at another window was near postal at having to wait as long as she did.  I didn’t exit the bank.  I fled the bank.  Moreover, I do not believe I will show my face there for several weeks.

Yesterday, Sunday, I went to the English 4pm mass at St. Joseph, presided over by a priest from Dublin; the other priest, logically speaking, is from Queens, NY.  As you might imagine, it was a very multinational congregation.  It will be a good place.

Classes begin on Thursday 1 September.  Some fine tuning is required between now and then.


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Architectural Comment

Temple of Heaven

If you look closely, the lowest tier of tiles appears to dip slightly inward and downward from the left and right, and then forms a somewhat straight line at the center.  This is how the eye (and the lens) sees things.  However, this is an optical illusion which would be seen from any viewpoint.  The tiles are, like the top two tiers, in a circle and with no dip at all; they are all on the same level.  The architects and engineers of the Parthenon would approve.

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Madonna and Child

Madonna and Child

This is one of the most beautiful representations of a Madonna and Child (Mary and Jesus) that I have ever seen.  It was on the cover of a brochure for the Beijing Diocese, which I picked up at the church yesterday.

Today, 22 August, took the new faculty members of the International Division to northwest Beijing, the Haidian District, for the health exam for our work visas and permits.  This is the first time I have ever been in  a van when the driver went intentionally down a one-way street — the wrong way, mind you — in order to shave minutes off a trip.  No doubt our collective blood pressure, along with existential angst, was raised a bit at that point.  Beyond that, all seemed to go well.

Now, back at the apartment, I am working on my lessons for the first few days of school, which will be taken from Thomas Paine’s Crisis in America, a title suggested by my former middle-school student in Virginia, Tiffany F., who is now doing graduate studies here in China.  In fact, she insisted I teach this.  To be sure, as I am teaching American Literature, it fits in well, as it is a piece of Colonial writing of the first order, and it has the added benefits of teaching something about the American character and language.  Thanks, Tirf!

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