Friday, July 08, 2011

Singing English

Opening ceremonies for the university English festival took place on our final evening in Weihai. The festival offers opportunities to be creative with English; otherwise, it’s apt to be treated as a dry academic subject.  I was asked to make some opening remarks, but Joe was the one who brought down the house with his rendition of “Home on the Range.” While quintessentially American, it is not nationalistic, nor religious. 

Another high point was a hula dance by a student group in black shorts and silver tinsel. I believe their enthusiastic performance was supposed to represent the culture of New Zealand and Australia. 

A Curious Skill

Our last full day in Weihai, my Chinese “granddaughter” participated in a performance to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party.  Whether they like the Party or not, parents enjoy seeing their kids perform, and a couple of hundred kids were involved. Their proud parents and grandparents took photos.

I took photos as well, but I had another project that morning, for I’d just been told I’d be speaking at the opening ceremony of the university English festival, and a formal speech was expected.  I usually carry a notebook, and I started jotting things down.  A twelve year old Chinese girl whose group performed was sitting beside me. She was fascinated by the way I wrote English in cursive and asked me how it worked.  English is taught in the schools here, but the kids always keyboard or print.

Soon, a bunch of kids had surrounded me, and I’d written the cursive alphabet several times.   People
of my generation can usually write a pretty clear cursive.  It’s how we were trained.  I find it faster
than printing, though the keyboard is faster still.  It’s a dying art, though, similar to writing Chinese
with ink pot and brush. The college students I teach prefer printing unless they're using their laptops or  monkeying around with their cell phones.

Is This What They Call a Vacation?

From time to time, my friends suggest that Joe and I try an actual vacation instead of visiting a military dictatorship every chance we get.  Our trips to China allow us time for walks on the beach, visits to places of interest and conversations with friends, but there’s always work to be done and the continual struggle with an unfamiliar language and culture.

Here in Hong Kong, we know no one, and we aren’t working.  For two and a half days, we’ve been tourists.  We went on a tour of the city where we visited a Buddhist temple took a cog railroad up Victoria Peak, took a brief ride on sampan, shopped for souvenirs at an open air market, hopped on a ferry, viewed a light show and traditional Chinese dances. 

We ended the evening with dinner at a sports bar restaurant dedicated to the Manchester United Football Club. Joe tells me the men’s room features a trough style urinal with an embedded flat screen TV.

All of our needs were seen to by Anna, our tour guide and the driver she worked with. No need to struggle making ourselves understood in Chinese. She even hailed us a taxi when the evening was over. No anxiety; no struggle; no adventure.

Today, I spent shopping and swimming laps in the open air pool at the sumptuous Gold Coast Hotel I booked via  Soon we’ll go off to dinner, and afterwards we’ll likely take a walk on the beach.

Do I enjoy this?  Yes, in a way. But it’s much more rewarding to be with the friends we have made here, to work with the students, and make progress in using Chinese.  

What, pray tell, is a special administrative region?

We are spending the final days of our trip in Hong Kong, which occupies a series of islands in South China.  The Chinese government calls it a “special administrative region.” To me it seems like a different country, cleaner and more modern than other places in China. It is a beautiful region, and its citizens seem much less afraid of the government. 
Hong Kong was ruled by the British for 156 years and was returned to the Chinese government 15 years ago. Perhaps because it is prosperous, Hong Kong was allowed to retain its democratic form of government and to keep its own currency. 
Its citizens hold special passports and criticize the government more freely than do the Mainland Chinese.  Information control is not as extreme here as on the mainland, though it is not absent.  

Saturday, July 02, 2011

Merit pay for Teachers: A Chinese Student’s perspective

This essay was written by 地藏王菩萨, one of the students in the English Cultural Studies Class I taught here in Weihai.  As America considers how to evaluate and reward its teacher, we would do well to pay attention to this student’s perspective, which grows out of a culture that expects more of its students and offers its teachers much more respect than do we.
A school often gives its students the deepest impression in their life because not only did it broaden students’ sights by education, but teachers’ influences on students as well. Nowadays some individuals hold the idea that teachers should be paid according to how much their students learn. Frankly speaking, I consider this kind of behavior not a well informed decision.
Salaries that people earn are decided by people’s performances. Teachers are no exception. How much money teachers can get should equal how much efforts teachers make. In this case, by evaluating the amount of knowledge that students get to decide salaries of teachers sounds reasonable; however, there are some problems if this plan is carried out.
First and foremost, it is not fair for teachers if they are only judged by students. Everyone’s energy is not infinite, which means after a period of time of studying, students are likely to be lethargic and tiredness so that they do not want to study anymore even if they know the importance of studying. In this case, although teachers have tried their best to teach students knowledge as much as they can, some students cannot learn more. Thus, students might get lower marks. Marks is an crucial part deciding how much students learn and how much money teachers can get. It’s obviously not teachers’ responsibilities that students cannot get high marks because teachers have already devoted themselves to their career.
Also, how much students learn cannot be truly evaluated. Is the school’s performance the only way to decide a student’s knowledge? We cannot simply give children a test to discover how much they have learned in a class. Tests rarely measure one’s social skills, one’s ability to communicate, or one’s ability to integrate successfully into the world. Thus, it is not a wise idea to think that teachers should be paid according to the amount of knowledge students learn.
To sum up, because of unfairness of teachers and not being able to measure how much students learn, the fact that teachers’ salaries are depend on the amount of knowledge students learn is not advisable.
 Below: The students I taught this summer in Weihai

Female Obsession

She calls me “grandmother.”  The daughter of Chinese friends, she spent a year in the United States, and her English is excellent. She’s a top notch student. At age eleven, she’s begun filling out, and she told me she hopes to lose weight. We drove along a beautiful stretch of coast the other day. Here is a picture:

Cultures teach women to be ashamed of their bodies, and it starts very early. Weight isn’t purely an American female obsession. Chinese women are also concerned about weight, mostly for no discernable reason.  My Chinese “granddaughter” is entering puberty and has started developing curves.  She attends a very tough school and now has less time for exercise and play. Kids that age, like the rest of us, need to be active.  Weight, I believe, takes care of itself when we get enough exercise.
I’m at my normal weight now, though no one would ever describe me as willowy. 

My weight is the same as it was during high school. At the time, I believed I was very fat, and even my family ragged me about my weight.    

Friday, July 01, 2011

Was it the Cow’s Stomach?

After an excursion along a beautiful stretch of Weihai’s coastline, we met up with my Chinese “granchild’s” parents for a lunch at a local hot pot restaurant where meat is cut into very fine slices, placed in seasoned hot water, and cooked at individual tables.

As some of you know, I sample any food offered, and cow stomach was on the menu.

Part way through the meal, I exited from the table having been overcome with a malady I shall tactfully call the Traveler’s Trots.  Unfortunately, this restaurant did not have a Western toilet, so I had to use the Chinese version of the commode, which is nothing more than a porcelain hole in the floor.  I made quite a mess.
I experienced multiple calls of nature all last night and into the morning.  Armed with my Lonely Planet phrase book, I visited a Chinese pharmacy.
Personnel understood me. But there was the matter of reading directions. Fortunately, a Chinese student with excellent English was able to translate.  The medicine, which is quite effective tastes like lotus root.  I have never heard of anyone’s using it for this affliction, but of course this is China.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

"Great Firewall of China"

The Chinese government keeps tight control of  information on the web. Many sights are blocked. When I am working online and say anything remotely controversial, the screen freezes. Someone is watching. Sometimes, it’s comical, as when I couldn’t get access to the image of a question mark for one of my power points. 

Information control is an industry here employing thousands of people. Now that the Olympics are over, it’s tighter. When I send my blog posts to Dennis Cope in America, I use Freegate bypass software which uses proxy servers.
 I often feel I’m playing a cat and mouse game with Chinese information control.  But I doubt I’m in danger. Things have gone too far. There are too many foreigners here making similar observations. At worst, they deport us, and even that is unlikely to happen. When I teach, I do not directly criticize the government, and at the university, people know how I think. However, I’m able to say things a Chinese professor could not. Year after year, I’m invited back. 

Ninety Years ago Today..

Today is the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist party, and the governmentality operated television is filled with images of happy workers singing patriotic songs.  The attitude here toward such celebration contrasts sharply with what I remember of the American bicentennial in 1976.  For the Chinese regime does not enjoy the support of its people. 
My students keep asking me questions about the availability of guns in America.  I believe that if guns were available to the Chinese populace, the regime would have been overthrown.
Many of you know that my family of origin was Leftist, and that several of my relatives belonged to the American Communist Party in its heyday. I have never been as categorically dismissive of Marxist thought as the American Right Wing.  Nevertheless, one cannot keep from noting that every country that attempts to develop a Communist system rapidly turns into a military dictatorship.  People who live under Communism loathe it, except for a small elite.
The essential texts of Marxism such as Capital and The Communist Manifesto are hard to obtain here, probably because of their radicalism and emphasis and human rights.  My university students have not read them.  This would be like restricting our students’ access to the American Constitution and the Federalist papers.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Forward March

Chinese classrooms are not air conditioned, so the windows are open.  During class last night, my students and I were serenaded by hundreds of Chinese youth singing patriotic songs.
Military training is mandatory for all Chinese students.  It is given for several weeks during high school and again during the Freshman year of university.  Students march around in the heat and listen to lectures about their duty.  The students detest it.
The practice, which began in 1990 in the wake of the Tiananmen Square massacre, is supposed to develop self-discipline and loyalty to China.  Actually, it fosters resentment.
Military training used to be conducted during the first few weeks of university, but now they do it in summer school, at the END of the Freshman year.  It’s the very worst time, because it’s hotter now than in the Fall, and the kids have been on this campus for nearly a year and feel the campus is theirs. The soldiers that come in to train them are thus viewed as outsiders.  There are over three thousand Freshmen here, and they are all participating. It’s a reminder that China is still a military dictatorship.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Diving for Pearls in a Chinese Department Store

Weihai is a coastal community and therefore an excellent place to buy pearls.  But obtaining the genuine article can be a bit tricky, as Weihai also abounds in fakes.  A Chinese colleague who goes by the English name Zoe guided us to a reputable department store that features excellent pearls but which also permits a person to bargain.

After we bought the pearls, we looked around the department store.  The cabbage pictured below is made of the finest green jade.  When the cabbage is filled with gold coins and water, it’s supposed to bring a person luck and prosperity.  

Note that the cabbage is green, like the US dollar, which is viewed as the world’s most valuable currency. Chinese bills come in red, brown, blue and purple; only the fifties are green.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Return of the Renegade Suitcase

Weihai occupies a peninsula on the Northern edge of Shandong Province just across from Korea.  A typhoon which has been meandering up China’s East coast now hovers in the Yellow Sea between the two countries.  Currently, this is producing some very wet weather and nasty winds. The water is rough, the waves high, and the beach outside our hotel is deserted.

When we hailed a taxi for church, we were drenched to the bone, but we enjoyed the service where we saw many people we know from previous visits.

Afterwards, we had to get to the airport to retrieve Joe’s missing suitcase.  The weather had worsened.  A woman from church grew alarmed that Joe and I, like everyone else leaving church, were getting wet. She didn’t speak English and couldn’t have been much younger than I, but the Chinese can’t really tell how old we are.  In this culture that venerates age, I suppose she felt she should err on the side of caution.  Tackling me, she attempted to shield me from the driving rain with her body; then she pulled a towel out of her purse and tried to dry off my back, but the towel became soaking wet.  I’m not keen on physical contact from people I’ve never met, but I tried to behave as if I viewed her attentions as normal, which they may have been for this culture.

We were shoved into a dilapidated car which belonged to the woman’s husband. Her son, who spoke excellent English, was commissioned to stand in the rain and hail us a taxi.  Obtaining a taxi in the driving rain wasn’t easy as many people were scrambling for them.  The family used the words “Ye Ye” and “Nai Nai” (Grandpa and Grandma) as they discussed what to do with us. At length, a driver agreed to transport us, and we escaped from these kindly people. 

At the airport, I found a sign which said “Delayed Baggage” in Chinese and English. I pointed to it and produced the relevant documents. I wish Joe’s suitcase could tell us what it has been through. I’ve never seen so many tags, notes, seals, routing slips, and certificates of inspection on one piece of luggage.  

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Hazards of Culture Shock

As often as I've been to China, I am not immune to culture shock, which is defined as "the feeling of disorientation experienced by someone who is suddenly subjected to an unfamiliar culture ( In this state, we're apt to feel helpless and not solve ordinary problems like tracking down luggage efficiently. This is because our normal problem solving skills are all directed toward navigating the host culture.
It was not until this morning that I realized I could speak to a United Airlines representative about Joe's lost bag.  I'd been talking to my daughter and family via SKYPE.  It was lovely to hear their voices. Suddenly, I remembered SKYPE could be used to contact any phone number in the world.  Turns out United's lost baggage department runs out of India! (no comment). The official I spoke to told us Joe's luggage arrived at the Weihai airport yesterday. Someone might have called. We are going over to claim it this morning after the service at Weihai's one church.  Let's hope it's actually there. 

Friday, June 24, 2011


Joe had to have an emergency wardrobe, so we visited the Lichuan Market a couple of blocks from the campus. They have excellent merchandise, but no one there knows much English. This was an excellent chance to use my Chinese. People understood when I said "男衬衫在哪里?” This is "nan chen shan zai na li?" in Roman letters and means "Where are the men's shirts?"

Finding wrapping paper was another matter.  We are going to a party where we will inevitably be given presents, and we want to reciprocate.  Fortunately, the presents we bought in America were in my luggage, not Joe's, but they were unwrapped.  On overseas trips, it is pointless to wrap presents in advance, since Homeland Security unwraps them when they do baggage checks.  The compound word 'wrapping paper was not covered in my Chinese lessons nor in the Rosetta Stone software. I tried pantomime. The store clerk brought me carbon paper. Fortunately, Joe is good at finding things, he finally located some on a shelf.

Joe in his new shirt.

Tags from the new shirt rest on a sheet of polka dot carbon paper.

Good Morning China

Chinese parks are extremely safe. In the mornings, old people congregate in public parks and exercise. Some do Tai Chi; others work out on the free standing sports equipment. I join them, for I am extremely jet lagged and cannot sleep late.

 Afterwards, I walk on the beach.  I take pictures of people who photograph me in return.  I gather I'm something of a curiosity.

Moving On

No luck with retrieving Joe's luggage.  Airport personnel are sympathetic and give us copies of the reports they write in barely legible English. They promise we'll receive phone calls, but we don't. I'm not sure all the officials we speak to understand us completely. It helps that my Chinese is improving, but I'm far from fluent.  Maybe Joe's suitcase is back in Chicago.  We have to get on with the trip.

At the Hong Kong airport, we meet a bevy of travelers returning home to Taiwan after visiting the PRC.  Direct flights from China to Taiwan are available now.  They seem to be having a wonderful time.  They practice their English on us, and I do the same with my Chinese.  We laugh.  The women share snacks from plastic bags-- a cereal like wheat puffs and some dried fruit flavored with cinnamon. It has a rubbery texture.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Don't move when scanned

When our flight to Chicago was cancelled, United Airlines tried to reroute us via Knoxville, which is less than a two hour drive from our home.  The desk clerk assured us we'd make the alternate flight, though the timing was tight.  Predictably nervous, I flinched while having a body scan, and the Homeland Security officer summoned a female officer to give me a pat down.  That's what they call it, but the procedure was more like a gynecological exam with my clothes on.  The officer was a humorless African American female. Over a head taller than I, she wore hair extensions and bright blue gloves. She offered to do the pat down in private, but I told her to just get it over with. Refusing to rush, she explained what would happen in excruciating detail.  "I will run my hand down your back and then check your buttocks.  I will move my hand down your legs,  and then check your breasts and your crotch."  The degree of detail made me anticipate everything happening and increased my discomfort. 

When I tried to joke about the procedure, she advised me I shouldn't be talking. Never before have I been on such intimate terms with law enforcement. In medical settings,  you are told what's going to happen, but if you prefer get on with things, it's respected.  Here, there was no repect. After the body search, the officer placed her blue gloves under a scanner to check for explosives.  When none were found, she said I was free to go.

Grinning, I thanked her for protecting our country and told her I'd blog about the experience.  She didn't smile.  "Tell 'em not to move when they go through the scanner." 

We missed our flight.

Are we having fun yet?

We're finally in Hong Kong, and the Citygate Hotel, though expensive, is beautiful and close to the airport .  We rebooked our flights to Weihai for a price, and tomorrow we head out for Weihai. If things go smoothly, I'll have a full day of rest beforemy first lecture.

But things have not been going smoothly this trip.  The discounted Chinese airtickets and budget hotel I so cleverly booked online were non-refundable, and we may have to eat the cost.  And in addition to screwing up our flights, United Airlines lost Joe's luggage. They think it may have been left in Chicago.  They're checking, they say.  And since United does not go to Weihai, there will probably be some delays in shipment once they find it.

Along the way, we've talked to some interesting people, including a Carmelite ex-nun, and a Butler University student on his way to an overseas service learning project.

Hope the weather holds.  There's a typhoon warning out.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Best Laid Plans

We should be in Hong Kong. We have made it as far as Chicago. Apparently, a massive computer crash at United Airlines has caused cancellation of many flights.  We were in a hotel overnight at United Airlines expense. They gave us brown paper bags filled with tooth paste, lotion and soap, but wouldn't give back our luggage. They swear up and down that they'll  get us on a flight to Hong Kong later this morning.  I have a hotel reserved in Hong Kong, and I'm working on rescheduling the Chinese flights we will miss. Joe and I are exhausted.

That's the short version. The longer version is a blur of airports, long lines, and other exhausted people. I'll tell you more when I have energy.

What does tomorrow mean? It is 5:30 pm here, but at home it’s 5:00 in the morning. I leave Weihai tomorrow and make a stop in Beijing. ...