Tag Archives: Beijing

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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Blessed Silence, or An Introvert Finds Respite in Beijing

Jocasta

Jocasta

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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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

By BRET SCHULTE

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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Easter 2013

One of the priests at St. Joseph’s here in Beijing wrote this account.  I should like to meet the ladies of whom he speaks.

“He Is Risen! He Is Risen Indeed! 

     The eight ladies sitting around me in the plain conference room definitely belonged to the rural side of the Chinese urban rural divide. They were all middle aged peasant women very much of their time and place. Their weatherbeaten faces told of the hardships of life in a “cotton belt where planting, tending and harvesting of the white plant are still done “old school” and mechanisation remains a pipe dream. Too old to have been caught up in the extraordinary growth that has transformed China they live according to the rhythm of the seasons; a lifestyle that is fast becoming archaic in the new China. Their age is also against them in other ways also, the upheavals of the Cultural Revolution, and a poor appreciation of the merits of educating girls deprived them of schooling; all of them are functionally illiterate. Only a few of them are comfortable in Mandarin, and even those that seem to be speaking in the Standard Language are difficult to understand. Though only four hours by train from the capital one is definitely a world away from urbane Beijing.

       Despite their apparent unsophistication, these women have a global sense that is surprisingly rich. Foreigners are relatively common visitors, and I am welcomed with curtesy but little of the wonder that is par for the course in other places. Despite their limited education, certain world events are discussed and analysed with as much enthusiasm as in Poland or the Spain. They will never visit France or Italy but they mention towns and cities in both countries with relative ease. I don’t know if any of these ladies have sons or daughters who studied in the US but it would be unremarkable if they did and they are in daily contact with returned graduates. Their sense of the august universities of US may be vague but are at most only one degree of affinity away from those hallowed halls.

      The link that makes these village women global citizens is their Faith. With their sisters (and brothers!) in New York, Dublin and Bombay the ladies of XizhongYing face the challenge of making the love of God and neighbour alive. Through their Faith Jerusalem, Nazareth, Rome and Lourdes become barely less real and perhaps more emotionally present to them than Beijing or Shanghai. The network of relationships which follow faith has made their pastor a graduate of Catholic University of America and a Sister from the village a student at Chicago Theological Union. The new Pope’s election, is already old news even if the CCTV failed to cover the white smoke as the rest of the world did, and nobody had to ask who is this Francis after whom he chose to be named. These women may be illiterate, and have no access to the internet, but they the are connected into something which is bigger than themselves and which means the world to them.

      The ladies of Xizhongying face a problem. Poverty in the Middle Kingdom, like Socialism, has “Chinese Characteristics”and rural poverty is proving particularly intractable. Though poor themselves, their faith demands they help those even worse off around them. They have reached the limits of individual charitable deeds and these brave women are dipping their toes in rather murky waters of organised social service in a Communist country. What may seem second nature in Europe or the ‘States is bewilderingly novel here. The impulse to serve the poor of course is common, but the stuff of organised charity, meeting, minutes, treasurer’s reports, fundraising, and volunteer management, is all strange and new for women who can have a deep impulse to love of neighbour, but have never even heard of a raffle, or a bake sale, let alone organised one, nor managed the proceeds for the good of the poor.

      Often, for outsiders, the High Drama of China-Vatican’s on again off again relationship dominates our understanding of the Catholic Church in China. But for me the exciting story is in the experiences of people like the women of Xizhongying. In a small village in a forgotten part of Hebei, the yearly retold story of feet washed, a cross borne and an empty tomb offers and demands of these villagers more than the Confucian tradition or family loyalty expects. These ladies, rather than work out their response to this story on their own, are struggling to organise co-ordinate, sustainable charitable work. We may never arrive at announcements of “Bingo Night in the Church Hall” to fund it, but in the halting efforts of these women to care together for the poor around them I see evidence, if such were needed, that Christ not only washed feed and then died for us but that on the third day He did indeed Rise from the Dead! Alleluia.”

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