Thursday, August 21, 2008

Home on the Range

Dear America,

Appropriate to this final post of my China blog would be the first two stanzas (especially the second stanza) of John Lomax's 1910 version of "Home on the Range," reproduced below for your convenience.

Home on the Range
Oh, give me a home where the buffalo roam,
Where the deer and the antelope play,
Where seldom is heard a discouraging word
And the skies are not cloudy all day.

Home, home on the range,
Where the deer and the antelope play;
Where seldom is heard a discouraging word
And the skies are not cloudy all day.
Where the air is so pure, the zephyrs so free,
The breezes so balmy and light,
That I would not exchange my home on the range
For all of the cities so bright.
Home, home on the range,
Where the deer and the antelope play;
Where seldom is heard a discouraging word
And the skies are not cloudy all day.
On the flight back to America, I had the good fortune to be seated with two of my classmates, and one of them described our experiences in China as "Concrete, Smog, and Communism." While this description suffers the limitations of all three-word summaries of a rather complex and rich experience, the simplicity of expression does distill much of our impressions effectively.

To fully describe my last few weeks at Swarthmore would take more time (and a better memory) than I possess. The following is some of the highlights as best I recall them. It seems like a different world; and, I suppose, it was.

The second-last week of classes, which was actually the last normal week, went by in a blaze of, if not glory, something as equally blinding: In addition to the bi-monthly written essay, followed by a 15-minute oral report on it (this time to be accompanied by photographic illustrations; the topic was travel/tourism), there was the opportunity to participate in an extra-credit report. I and another student opted to work together on ours, which eventually turned into a half-hour report on cultural differences between Americans and Chinese. We took the positions of a Chinese and American "expert", each giving examples of why his own culture was superior to the others. It was fun, but would have been more fun if we'd had sufficient time to prepare.

That last weekend was a mix of good and bad: We were spared our usual weekly exam, which meant our week ended Thursday afternoon instead of Friday afternoon; Friday morning, instead of our exam, all the ACC students would be participating in our own version of the Olympics.

To celebrate our lack of exam, about half the 4th year ACC students went to a famous Xinjiang (China's westernmost province, in the news lately because of local unrest and riots) restaurant. This restaurant in addition to having grand food (they offer things like "whole roast lamb" and, which we selected, "2-meter skewer of lamb"), has various performances for two hours. They featured traditional music and dancing, demonstrations of kung fu hip hop, a snake dancer, and multiple audience participation activities: drinking beer through a straw contest, a business card drawing, and more.

Because most of the audience was Chinese, and therefore adverse to publicly making fools of themselves, and because we all were American college students abroad (and no one has better qualifications to publicly make a fool of himself), we ended up participating in nearly all the audience participation tasks. One of my classmates got a snake draped over his neck by a scantily clad woman, two of them participated in the beer-drinking contest (though one nearly got disqualified for trying to apply principles of syphoning to his advantage), and our entire table got roped into learning something which is either traditional Xinjiang dancing or is an ridiculous hoax for the entertainment of the Chinese patrons who weren't crazy enough to volunteer. This traditional dancing ended up snaking its way (so to speak) off the stage an onto a long line of tables which had been cleared off in the center of the room. Abruptly the stobe lights and modern dance music switched on, and we proceeded to (as the saying goes) rock it out for the next twenty minutes or so, with impromptu line dancing and all. It was an amazing end to the night.

To those who may express incredulity that I am using more than the figurative "we" in describing these events, let me assure you that I was indeed an active participate in the above shenanigans, and I'm almost convinced that should I be interested, there may just be a place for me in the line dancing profession. Thankfully for my reputation, however, I believe the only photographic evidence of these events were recorded by someone who is stuck in China. It was a fun alternative to writing essays and studying grammar.

The next day's ACC Olympics were relatively unremarkable; they were a mix of language questions, physical activities, and other events. In the afternoon I began a series of some of my most unwise moves ever: I attempted to go shopping on the day of the Olympics. After a quick nap, I made the hour-long trek to the Beijing Zoo market (I feel there are at least a half-dozen possible puns here, but I will leave them up to the reader's imagination), which past years had been a great resource for clothing and similar presents at discount rates. I arrived at 4:30 pm, only to see a flock of security guards shaking their heads at me as I reached the top of the stopped excalator. If there's one thing I know about China, I know this: seeing about twenty security guards shaking their heads at you as you approach them does not bode well. Sure enough, I reached the top just in time to see the last show shut its curtain; While the market normally closes at 6, starting that day they closed at 4:30. Why? Because of the Olympics.

Hot, tired, and discouraged, I decided I didn't want my day to end up a total waste, and so made the choice to hike over to Beijing's biggest bookstore to buy some dictionaries I wanted to take back to the US with me. This was located on Wangfujing street, a famous pedestrian area. After arriving I stopped in the park in front of the restored Catholic cathedral and decided to study some Chinese and maybe chat with some Chinese people (this is where I had met my Beijing lawyer friend last year).

Sure enough, not five minutes had passed before a young buck came over and started talking with me. His spiel was that he worked for one of the local art galleries (which means some artist hired out a shady-looking room in a building and gets young bucks to sell his work for him at high rates to foreigners. So I agreed to look at his art gallery. It was like many other Chinese art galleries I've seen, and as I admired some of the truly beautiful pieces, I also felt old and jaded; I had seen all this before, I knew the delicate interplay that would have to occur before I could leave without having bought anything: it was all predetermined.

After leaving, I pushed my way through the masses of pedestrians to get to the bookstore -- but, of course, it was closed: because of the Olympics. By this point, I had one hour before the Olympic ceremony began in earnest, and I was torn between returning to school and just spending time on my own there (something I wasn't excited to do), watching the games with a bunch of Chinese people and strangers at the large television screens in Wangfujing, or going to visit my restaurant-owner friend. I opted for the last choice, and decided the subway would be the best of several not-direct ways to get there. a half-hour later the subway driver announced in the car that, because of the Olympics, the stop I needed was closed. I got out one stop early and tried to make my way be foot, only to be stopped twice by lines of police officers shaking their heads; The sidewalk had been closed off. I made my way through the hutongs until I got back to the main streets, where I found the entire population of Beijing was desperately (and senselessly, as there was nothing there to see) trying to get into Tiananmen Square -- which was perpendicular to where I was trying to go. After forty-five minutes of intimate reintroduction to the fact that Chinese standards of personal hygiene are lower than American ones, I managed to break free of the crowds on the other side, and ducked gratefully into the hutong where my friend's restaurant was located. But, as I had come to expect given previous luck on this day, my friend still had not returned from her hometown. I ordered a late dinner and watched the show in the poorly air conditioned restaurant, nursing the free tea and my dissatisfaction at the Olympics.

While the opening ceremony was pretty enough, and certainly the scale was impressive (something like 15,000 people were coordinated in the performance), I failed to be specially moved by it. I don't know if I am being influenced by all the rest of Olympic baggage, but I still fail to see the opening ceremony as all that grand. Truth be told, given a choice I think I would enjoy watching most feature films more than the opening ceremonies, and they'd be much shorter to boot!

The following day, armed with knowledge of how to subvert the Olympic restrictions, I managed in the course of a few hours to buy all the things I needed or wanted, while for my last Sunday in China I went to a local Chinese church; and found myself disappointed to discover that while my Chinese has improved mightily, I still have great difficulty following a forty-minute sermon.

The last week of ACC was quite grueling, primarily because I contracted at least one illness. I had done my normal lesson preview and vocabulary memorization on the weekend and expected to prepare for my final exams during the week, but beginning Monday evening, I fell terribly ill. Between Tuesday and Thursday, in 48 hours I managed to sleep for 24 of them. The rest of the time I was mostly lying in bed or struggling to make it through class. I lost my appetite, eating an average of one small meal per day. And in the midst of it all I prepared and presented a 20-minute powerpoint presentation on Chinese martial arts and two ten-minute presentations on education reform and theories of China's past, present, and future development. There were also four take-home essay questions to be completed, and the final written exam on Friday.

By the time Friday morning rolled around, we fourth year students (even the ones who weren't sick) were exhausted and had reached the point where we didn't really care about our last exam. But, to our great delight, we discovered that an additional, non-graded essay had been attached to the end of our exam. After a near mutiny, most of us settled down to fishing this last task set between us and freedom. One student gave up after writing 100 characters, but after submitting it to the professors they refused to accept it and sent him back to the exam room to write more!

After finishing the essay and submitting it all, I went to the kitchen and was washing some dishes. It was then that I look outside for the first time that day: a beautiful power blue sky speckled with snow-white clouds was smiling down on me. I took it as a symbol of my final liberation from my long study program. It was truly beautiful.

That afternoon after selling some of my leftover things to my professors, I arranged to meet with one of my Chinese friends (she is already engaged, so I'm safe there). We went ice skating. I was inordinately excited to go ice skating; despite being decidedly mediocre at it, I find it's lots of good, clean fun, and I enjoy teaching other people how not to fall down. As it was the middle of the afternoon the rink was populated almost exclusively by young girls under the age of 10 who were busy practicing their jumps, twirls, and other fancy tricks (nothing like someone who looks about 5 years old and is wearing a pink dress skating circles around you to make you feel competent). We skated for an hour and a half and then went to KFC to chat for a bit (she said she enjoyed learning how to Skate, and swore that by the time I come back to China she'll skate even better than I do), before I returned to my university to participate in the final graduation ceremony and sumptuous dinner of roast duck.

While many of my compatriots went out to party later that evening, I was bushed and still sick. I spent the evening packing up my belongings, chatting with a classmate who was sad that I was abandoning her (she is sticking it out at ACC until December), and fielding telephone calls from several of my Chinese friends who were also sad to see me go.

Saturday morning I woke up early, finished packing, and then went to try to find some watermelon before I took the taxi to the airport. Every time I visit China the first thing I eat is watermelon, and the last thing I eat is watermelon. I had bought some watermelon earlier, but it had gone bad. The stores all were closed, so I instead sat on a bench and waxed into the sky. It was the most perfect sky and the most perfect weather I had ever seen in Beijing. I was in awe, and was completely content to do nothing more than sit, and look at the blue sky, the white clouds, the yellow sunlight, and the green leaves.

It is hard to explain how much the weather affected me. Certainly the change in weather coupled with the final release of two months of the most intense studying of my life were mutually reinforcing, yet I suddenly realized that blue skies and natural environments were something that I could not do without for too great a period or time, or life would lose its luster.

I had intended to write up a little note to each of my professors thanking them for their efforts in teaching 4th year Chinese this summer; they deserve the thanks. Between packing, a computer outage, and all the rest I never got around to it, however. I compromised by leaving a rose for each of them on their desks.

Two fellow ACC students were on the same plane back to the US, so we all travelled together. One final gift of the Olympics, a sort of insufficient peace offering as we left, was Beijing's new airport we departed from. We got through security and rushed over to one of the spanking new widescreen TV's just in time to see Michael Phelps win his 6th gold medal by one hundredth of a second. As we waited at the gate, we relaxed (or slept, for those who had pulled an all-nighter) on their super-comfortable and brand new cushioned seats. It almost made up for all the other Olympic inconveniences.

One of my classmates
described our time in Beijing as "concrete, smog, and communism". It was apt enough. Even on the plane, echoes of our time in China continued to reach out to us: when boarding, the theme song "Beijing Huanying Ni" (Beijing Welcomes You) played on repeat. And, 13 hours later as we arrived in New York, This song again played in what may have been one of the greatest ironies of the whole event: Even when landing in New York, Air China cannot divorce itself from a state-induced narcissistic obsession with the Beijing Olympics.

After a weekend at home catching up with local friends and participating in my younger brother's "going to college" party, I returned to college, where I am now working for the ITS (Information Technology Service) department, getting trained and helping with tech support. It's good work, and good pay, and gives me the opportunity in down time to write this update, respond to e-mails, and other minor but time-consuming tasks. And, as I have learned not to underestimate, every day the weather has been beautiful. It has been clear, bright, and cool; and Swarthmore being a National Arboretum doesn't hurt one bit either.

Yesterday I borrowed the hardware repair guy's solder. I resoldered the broken piece of my motherboard, and now the laptop I broke a week before leaving for China, and hauled around all summer works again. It makes me very happy, and also makes me realize never to trust what HP outlet Chinese guys say about whether my computer is fixable or not.

I'm beginning to worry that I'm losing my newly-learned Chinese at about the same rate I acquired it; give me two months and I'll be back at square one. While I am definitely losing some, however, there is a lot that will remain.

Looking back on the summer as a whole, I realize that it is about what I expected: I don't think I can honestly say that the summer was "fun", especially as compared with the last two summers. Even though there were some fun times, honestly, this summer was work. Whether working at an orphanage, or working at a university, I was working, and working hard.

As a result, I find it hard how to answer people when they ask about my summer. I usually say that it was good, and I learned a lot. It's true. It was good, and I did learn a lot. I don't really want to say it was enjoyable, because for the most part, it was really enjoyable: but the hard parts were hard because if they were easy, I wouldn't learn as much. ACC was the best learning environment for language that exists, and that is why I chose it in the first place. I decided at the beginning of this summer it wasn't going to be a fun summer, but a hard one. And so it was.

The summer wasn't fun, per se, and quite possibly this blog has revealed that to many of my readers. But having fun is not the only thing in life. This summer has definitely been worth every single day; I have learned much about Mandarin Chinese, about Chinese culture and psychology, about the Olympics, and about myself. And that's more than what anyone can expect from two and a half months.

My time in the Middle Kingdom is over -- for now. Any readers who wish to hear more stories are welcome to contact me.

For the last time,

Chris Green

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Confessions of an Ex-pat

Dear America,

It is now the afternoon after the exam of what has been the hardest week thus far. One hopes that next week will be better, but a warning yesterday from our professors (after grumblings by students that we in one day had 250 new words to learn) that life would not get baetter, and quick look at Monday's assignments, indicate the last two full weeks of class will be particularly exciting, work-wise.

They also will be exciting Beijing-wise. Preparations for the Olympics are moving into full swing, with projects being completed at record speed. In the subways and underpasses metal detectors and bag scanners manned by police are popping up where portrait artists and fake receipt sellers used to hawk their wares. Restaurants and small businesses are closing left and right, with signs saying they've gone to their hometown, and they'll be back in a month.

The sky, a sight rarely seen, has poked its blue face down on us slightly more often than is average in Beijing, but news reports continue to announce the pollution is still abvoe required levels and simultaneously quote staunch Chinese officials swearing that there will not be a pollution problem come D-day (or some careers will end... perhaps in a very permanent way). Already only half of privately own cars can drive on any given day, and there is talk of reducing private traffic to 10% of normal as a last-ditch effort to save the Olympics (stop and think about reducing 90% of all private traffic in, say, Phildaelphia or even better, New York or Los Angeles).

The last article we had to read (the one with 250 new words) was written a year ago about the Beijing Olympics, the preparations for it, as well as for the Olympic park after the games are over, and put me into something of a depression -- not only because the article was difficult, but also because of the content. The Chinese government has taken up the Olympics as a banner to show of fthe country to the world, a sort of "world premiere" for China, to dazzle and awe its foreign guests. To this end it has built a massive park, reduced price the all-you-can-eat catered meals of the athletes to $1 per meal, scoured its city clean of riffraff and peddlers, and tried to contain the rowdier elements of its population. It has enlisted a massive army of 10,000 "welcome hosts" whose primarily qualification is that they are beautiful and graceful young women to assist in the games, as well as tens of thousands of more people to volunteer. China has spent billions of dollars on this event, and it's doing it for the West and the world.

Unfortunately, it has all backfired.

As a Westerner in China, I personally, and the other Americans I know here, all find the Olympics a massive inconvenience. I can no longer find a cheap breakfast or a dozen other things on the street corner, because they all were run out of town. I have to worry that one day the guards at the gate of my college will not let me back in because I never carry my student ID and I might be a terrorist. Reading western news, I also get the impression that westerners care much less about the ugly metal mesh "bird's nest" stadium and much more about Chinese human rights activists being arrested without cause, athletes forced to sign promises they will not criticize the government or do other offensive things during their stay, the persistent pollution, and other problems of the middle kingdom. To westerners, the fancy welcome smacks of two-facedness when reporters are restricted from all but officially-sanctioned areas. China's bid for the Olypmics was accepted with the stipulation that it had to improve its human rights record, but to all appearances, it has simply used Olympic preparation to make its human rights abuses even worse. While the Party is practically salivating at the idea that they will astound rest of the world at its civilization, technological advancement, and athletic prowess, instead the only lasting impression is that though the dictatorship can (mostly) pull off a good show, the strain of it reveals the oppression, paranoia, and insecurity of the country's leadership.

The impression one gets from foreign media (to say nothing of China's state media) is that the Chinese entire population is devoting all their hopes and aspirations to the Olympics and to their success, for love of the Games. This is not a blatant lie, as very many of the Chinese people are genuinely excited about the Olympics and the fact that Beijing is hosting it. But simultaneously, large numbers of Chinese citizens are tired of seven years of government whipped-up Olympic fervor. And, in voices never heard, some complain that the money invested in this big charade to impress the world could be much better spent at home, helping the Chinese commoners.

And so I'm depressed. I fear that even if nothing drastic happens during the Games, the whole event will fail: the West will not have any better impression of China, and quite possibly a worse one. The leaders, critically misunderstanding the way the West thinks, will be angry at the West for not being impressed and happy. (Nevermind that part of this anger is legitimate, since the West doesn't understand China either; but that's their problem; our problem). And the Chinese people will once again have been betrayed by their leaders, both in promises and in results. I hope it doesn't happen, but I'm afraid it will.

The title of this post, however, was Confessions. Some might point out that up to now I have only written accusations and fears with a few facts sprinkled in, and so to the confessions.

Confession 1. I ended up buying one of those $0.17 flowers. Despite using this flower as a launching point for a discussion on the spiralling morality of Chinese society, the flower itself was pretty, and I intended on giving it to one of the office workers who had helped me out a bunch. The right moment never came, however, and I left the flower bloom in my room. I later bought three more and also put them in my room.

Confession 2. This particular confession I am loathe to reveal, as I know that even if no one else is reading this blog, my parents are. nevertheless, honest reporting requires me to admit that here in China, among the tastiest dishes I have savoured include things such as tomato and egg fried together, and a whole plate of eggplant. I defend this behavior, and my seemingly hypocritical refusal to eat eggplant (and reluctance to eat tomatoes) to the vast difference in style between the Chinese and American way. Many of my classmates here are also in full agreement that American and Chinese eggplant are worlds and worlds apart. Nevertheless, fears of repercussions once I return to the motherland make this confession particularly difficult.

Confession 3. I almost certianly will not go to see the Olympics in person. Good intentions did not overcome unwillingness to cut class and fight "in line" with Chinese people for 7 hours for the chance to get a ticket.

Confession 4. Yet again I have had to tell a girl that despite her feelings for me, it just wasn't going to work out. Why this seems to always happen in China and not, say, the rest of the year when I'm in America, is something of a mystery. Maybe this is why I keep coming back here.

Confession 5. While Chinese food is truly a delight to eat and variagated in ways that frequent purveyors of American Chinese restuarants will never imagine possible, I have begun to miss western food, particularly a freshly baked multiple meat pizza, ozzing with cheese and, I might even venture to say, goodness.

If I think of more confessions, I will keep you posted.

In more personal news, my attempts to make American breakfast succeeded beautifully. It was the weekend, I was wornout from yet another punishing week, and I needed some sort of succeed to cheer me up. After an almost fatal setback very similar to my failure several weeks ago (the cooking aparati were locked with no key available) put my mood in the black, I managed to gather everything. After a few mis-starts with the oil-and-wok instead of the butter-and-frying pan combination, I managed to create a beautiful plate of fried "bacon" (if you squint at it), scrambled eggs with cheese -- real cheddar! -- and a mound of pancakes. I was terribly proud and went around finding as many people as I could to show them my creation, especially Chinese people... to show them what a real breakfast looks like. Spurred by my glorious victory, I intend on expanding operations and trying some more ambitious culinary operations tomorrow.

This past weekend I also indulged in the luxury of revisiting the Beijing Zoo. Originally planning a medium-sized group of myself two of my Swarthmroe classmates, and my two pharmacy friends, the group expanded as One of my pharmacy friends (whom I dubbed Anna) brought along her younger sister (whom I had dubbed Allison) and brother; I, in the meantime, ended up agreeing to let three other ACC students to join us on our expedition. The size of the group ended up being not a problem, and we had a grand time meandering around the zoo and chatting. About half of us continued on to have dinner, and then we ACC students stopped at Wangfujing (the famous shopping street of my past) to meander a bit and see if we could buy some "Traditional Chiense clothes" for two of my classmates, since ACC was hosting a party with Traditional Chinese culture as the theme. We returned back to the school nearly eight hours after having left, thoroughly tired, but for my part, quite satisfied. I even went up and watched the party for a few minutes before falling into a much-needed sleep.

It's scary to think that in a few weeks I'll be back in the US, speaking English, preparing for the new semester and looking for some sort of job after I graduate. For the time being however, I'm busy enough learning a wee bit of Chinese.

And that, folks, is all for now.


Saturday, July 26, 2008

A Note from the Trenches

Dear America,

Recently we learned a couple Chinese phrases which roughly translate into, "to be honest" or even more simply, "frankly...". In composing this post, I nearly began typing them instead of English. I guess this learning Chinese by only speaking it all day every day idea has its effects after a while. But, to be honest, this past week in particular I've come to miss speaking English, to miss speaking not being a chore, and furthermore a chore requiring constant if minor correction from others. For a few days it was pretty bad: even when in class I nearly answered a question in English!

I realize it's been more than two weeks since my last post: the causes are primarily that the first week there wasn't much to write about, and then the second week there was far too much to write about. The acrobatics mentioned in the last post were a great hit, and a fellow student and a made a deal to return to China next summer and start up an acrobatics troupe.

I have been thinking a lot about next summer, and I am in a huge quandary: Barry Shwartz, a psychologist at Swarthmore, calls it the paradox of choice: I have too many options. I could try and find a job in America, or perhaps continue my 15-years and counting educational marathon by pursuing any number of further education choices: law, education, psycholgy, Chinese. Further possibilities include work for the government (again, possibly using Chinese or education in some way), or work directly in China.

At the moment I am somewhat burned out with traditional education, which is somewhat firghtening on several levels, primarily that I have only been doing traditional education since coming to college, and college-style education is pretty relaxed. Nevertheless, I feel that I am learning less and less for the love of learning and more for the ruotine and the grade and the diploma.

Over the past several years the urgency of my desire to actually make a useful contribution to the world has increased as well. As I feel I have a significant amount of potential that I could pour a wide array of different areas, the quandary becomes: how can I best spend my time and abilities? While I don't have a particularly strong desire for wealth, the need to pay off college debts combined with the possibility to use finances to help others makes finding a high-paying job something not unappealing.

I know so many different people whose work all depends on the generosity of others to continue, and so many others whose basic necessities could be met with a little money: as just one example, one of the fellows at the orphanage has a mentally unstable father who is currently living in a village cave-home because he cannot afford a house. To build a home would cost less than $1,500. Wouldn't it be grand if I could simply give it to him, and boom, his father has a new house?

On the other hand, taking a vow of poverty and doing good by teaching poor kids in Mississipi (or rural China), or working for the orphanage I visited this year isn't entirely unappealing either: you become like what you do, and I'm not sure I want to become like businessmen whose lives are money. The more I interact with folks from the upper-middle and upper class (being here and interacting with some current Ivy League students has helped me to gain a greater understanding of the normal upper class, rather than the weird folks who come to Swarthmore), to more I realize how unappealing the unconsciously selfish world of priviledge they live in. And yet with greater wealth and power, there is also greater potential to do good on a wide scale: Bill Gates's Foundation seemed to be a good current example of this. After all, he spent a large chunk of his life selling a poor product to the people, succeeded and became the wealthiest man in the word. Now he is using some large fraction of his wealth to help solve various major problems of the world (unfortunately, the problem of Windows remains apparently unsolvable).

In short, these are some of my thoughts for the future. My current tentative plan is to find some sort of work which pays in China after a I graduate, do that for two to three years, and then reevaluate. I figure that my life is volatile enough that any longer-term plans will inevitably be scrapped or reformed beyond recognition anyway. So, if any of you happen to know of a job, particularly one for an American or other foreign company which needs a bright college graduate with some Mandarin skills, do pass their information on to me. The hunt has already begun.

Though it feels like a previous era, I suppose it was only last week that we took our midterm exam. The exam was composed of four parts: two oral exams, one written exam, and four essay questions to answer and submit by the exam day. The amount of work required was pretty intense: the first oral exam was a 20-minute report on an article of recent Chiense news of our choice, with onyl a prompt card for help. The second oral exam was a random selection of two out of five previously announced topics on which we had to expand for eight minutes each. The essay questions for submission were long and complex, specifically requirion large amounts of grammar. And the written exam, while in normal format and length, required a staggering amount of retention of the past month of material.

In prioritizing my time, I ended up only half-preparing the second oral exam, and through the luck of the draw, with 120 possibilities for the two oral topics, ended up getting my second worst possible combination. Despite this, and my perpetual difficulty in remembering how to write Chinese Chinese characters, I actualy did pretty well on the exam; I was especially pleased with the first oral exam, in which I was actually quite proud of my performance.

After the exams, which were a Thursday morning, I decided to eschew an afternoon nap instead of adventuring outside of the school: I headed to a famous market about half anhour's walk away, vividly named, "Aliens' Street Market." I'm not sure who named it such, but it came about because it caters primarily to visiting Russians.

The afternoon was full of happy adventures which reminded me a lot of my time last summer in China, and have missed this summer: along the road I went under a vehicular overpass and found a car parking lot there, and ended up asking the parking attendant whether the spots were reserved, how much they cost, what sort of people park there, etc. Moving along, I passed through a nice little park, Ritan Park, and then arrived at what I figured must be Aliens's Street Market: the forbiddingly tall building was covered in twenty-foot posters of mean caucasian models in furs, which fits my stereotype of Russian women (unfortunately supported by personal experiences my first time in China).

The building was weird: there was nearly nobody there, and while most of the hundreds of little shops were closed, the others all had curtains covering the entrance. In a land where the customers are maore and shops spill into the street or hallway and the shopkeepers call you to from acroos the road, this was all pretty eerie. Furthermore, the wares all seemed to be "fashionable" -- full fur coats, black leather boots with stiletto heels (again, all stereotypically Russian...), and leather handbags. It was a terrible disappointment, as I had expected a motley collection of knicknacks, cheap clothes, and colorful people.

After fruitlessly coming the premisis up to the sixth floor I gave up and started back down again, amusing myself by using the super-slick floor to mak a running slide to the escalator on each floor. I had passed thre Chinese people on the third floor, and as I had to walk directly past them on my way out,I decided to get soem questions answered -- and it was from them I eventually discovered the truth: This was a wholesale store; Russians would come and would buy several dozen or more of a product, and then ship to to Russia to sell at higher prices. I also learned that the reason people wereso few and the stores all had curtains: Chinese were foridden to come into the building because they would steal the company's product secrets; and that is also why the stores have curtains in front of them.

Discovering all this took some work: I at one point thought they storekeepers were simply discriminating against Chinese and poor people, and asked, "What if I were a really wealthy Chiense person, could I buy your things?" and "Looking at me, do you think I would be able to buy your products?" It took a while and some miscommunication before it all was settled. And, as a bonus, they volunteered on their own that if I wanted to go buy common-market items and interact with real Chinese, I should go up the street to, of all place: Aliens' Street Market.

Sure enough, a few minutes away was he place I was actualyl trying to get to. But a careless question about pronouncing the Chinese name to the half-dozen or so men idling at the front door ended up in a half-hour or so conversation with them about local dialects, friends of theirs who want to learn English, and my current situation. The market itself was about as I expected, though slightly smaller; I continue to be both amazed at the diversity of items and also how little I want most of them; or, if I like them, how I have no use for them (for example, the beautiful cotton quilts being sold by one shopkeeper). After strol around I ended up spending the vast majority of my time having a good time chatting with the shopkeepers in the back corner of the market, discussing real estate prices in America, Chinese calligraphy and geography, and the psychology of the various shopkeepers (one woman was especially fun, as her fellow workers asked me to analyze her. I accused her of having a black heart, and then defied her to prove me wrong! After her hilarious proteststhat her heart was red, I compromised by saying she had a blue heart -- after all, one has to keep in mind all the deoxygenated blood). After an hour or two, I left... not having purchased a thing.

I was on the lookout for some old men as I wanted to try out my very new abilities in Chinese chess; last year I had visited Ritan Park and there had been droves of old men playing mah zhong, Chinese chess, and cards. On my way back to the school I again passed through it, but still no luck: only two old friends playing accordion and singing traditional songs as elsewhere in the park parents took their children fishing in the pond.

Moving south from Ritan park, I decided to take the subway back and eat at a restaurant along the way, definitely one I had not eaten at before. This particular area is peppered with embassies from around the world, and I was struck with a bit of homesickness, especially at seeling the large English embassy compound: behind their fence, they had oaks and ivy, peaceful, lush, and brambly. Even though it must be well-tended, it looks so natural and grand. The Chiense are so purposeful in everything they do, especially when it comes to public places and beauty: even famous mountains and rustic parks have clearly delineated proper and improper places to go, and the proper places are obvious manicured and maintained. The cities are even worse, with potted plant formations, and lonely shoots of grass in clay dirt. But the English embassy... it was so plain and so beautiful.

Nearly at the subway station, I passed a window sign advertizing, in English, a French bakery. One of my gustatory weaknesses is for good bread. I can usually survive pretty well with what I can get in America, even though it doesn't hold a candle to the great breads of Europe. China, however, has no bread worth mentioning, even when one takes into account their pitiable attemps at mimicking western bread ( lest we embarrass them, we usually kindly pass over these attempts). Armed with the knowledge that lots of foreigners permanently work and live in this district, hungry, and intrigued, I stepped into the small shop, empty of customers. Prepared for the worst, I asked the woman in charge what the story with their bread was -- and was pleasantly surprised to find out that the bread is made by a German (making the international aura of the shop even more absurd). The conversation turned to different baking styles, the differences of breads of different countries, and the clientele of the resuarant. She was a very pleasant woman, and won huge marks in my favor by giving me complementary water -- cold water, with a hint of lemon in it!

I ended up buying a big, round loaf of bread. It was something of a splurge, costing an exorbitant $4, but as I walked to the subway station eating it, I was happy to have spent every penny. It wasn't exactly European-quality, but it was very, very, good.

It was a good day. I bought supplies at the supermarket on my way back to school, and then packed up the few belongings I needed for our mid-semester trip; ACC funds up to go on a two-day field trip with essentially all expenses paid. I had signed up to go to Datong, in Shanxiprovince, and so along with about fifty of my comrades, I headed off to the train station that evening. Arriving in Chinese style over an hour before baording begins (which itself is anywhere from half an hour to foufrty-five minutes before the train actually leaves), I decided to make quick work of the situation by buying the cheapest newspaper possible, fluffing up my backpack, and bedding down for a quick nap on the waiting room floor. My plans were sadly thwarted by noise of the fellows cutting a steel beam at the other end of the hall (and you think I'm kidding!), but I at least tried.

Wo boarded the train, settled down into our comfortable sleepers, and despite a small mishap in which my bottle of water fell on the ACC Director's head while I was securing my backpack, I happily got to sleep without any problems.

The next morning we arrived too early (so far as sleep goes) in Datong. I understand that it isone of China's most polluted cities, which is saying something, as China has 16 of the 20 worst-polluting cities. The pollution wasn't all that obvious to me in the two days we were there, however; Beijing's pollution is like Big Brother, always there watching you from above. Datong's pollution, coming from the massive coal mining and refining industry of the area, apparently is less obvious. Or maybe we just got lucky.

I have never been to the western parts of China before; partially because of lack of opportunity and partially because I've been wanting to save what most people agree is the most interesting part of china to tour for later. Shanxi, while not exactly west, certianly is much farther west than my previous travels, and it was clearly different. pace of life in Datong was much slower than Beijing, and our tour guides informed us that development has not gorwn much at all in the past twenty years. It's something of a sleepy city. The food in particular was very different, having an almost Western flavor at times - with their main crops being corn and wheat rather than rice, noodles, corn bread, and other staples of Western diet are very popular. While certainly unmistakably still Chinese, the dishes were definitely very reminiscent of American food, and would be a good introduction to Chinese food for the wary American.

On our two days, we visited a number of different places of interest: primarily culturally or historically signifcant places; pagodas, temples, mountains, etc. My favorite place was the Hanging Temple, a rather unique place which according to legend (or rather, according to our tour guides, but I've learned to take Chinese understanding of history with a lot of salt) it has been around for 1,500 years. A quick reference to a much more reliable source (Wikipedia) indicates it's been around for 1,400 years. It is built on a slightly concave cliff faces in a valley, about 50 meters above the ground, and served as the rest stop of the ages for traveling pilgrims, as well as the home for the monks who lived there. Of special note historically is that it is apparently the only temple where Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism all are worshipped.

Beyond all that, however, it was very cool, and the scenery was beautiful. They had real grass there, and beauiful mountains and a river, and a monastery clinging like some overgrown moss on the cliffside. I determined to build my own monastery cum traveler's house on the facing cliff, I liked the place so much.

Later that same day, we climbed one of the mountains nearby, which was made exciting by the torrential rain which started as soon as we got out of the bus to begin climbing, and didn't stop until an hour and a half later when the last of us got back on the bus. As a result, we were all thoroughly soaked for a our return trip, which was schedueld to take about an hour. Comfortable hotel, warm dry clothes, and a good meal were on the mind of all those present, but Chinese traffic reared it's coal-dusty covered head and once again detained us. This time, the traffic jam was in epic porportions: we were stopped, literally not moving, for three hours. We were on the two-lane, no-shuolder road that all the coal trucks use, and apparently one of them had flipped. I got out and wandered around the cliffs near where we were stopped, but wasn't able to go too far for fear of the traffic jam miraculously ending. I ended up passing most of the time playing cards with a teacher and our tour guide, making the whole ordeal much more pleasant and almost summer-camp like.

The weekend trip was really a great experience overall. Getting away from the intense study, doing some physical exercise, visiting a new place and eating new food, chatting with classmates and teachers, all was grand. The break was well needed and well appreciated.

The hour grows late here, however, and so I must leave more recent updates for another time. Suffice it for now to say that classes began again!



As the hour grows late now as well,

Friday, July 11, 2008


Dear America,

It occurs to me yet again that some of my recent posts may give my gentle readers an unduely pessimistic impression of my time here in China. This, if true, I attribute to several factors. Firstly, the acaemic pressure is fairly high here, which is not the most conducive atmosphere to cultivating a happy-go-lucky spirit (sadly, the happy-go-lucky man will have to endure four hours of ill-prepared class with frequent and active participation of all students ensured by the professors).

Perhaps even more importantly, however, is the fact that this medium, in addition to serving as a conduit for you all to vicariously experience my life here in China, also serves as a place for me to complain, reflect, and analyze, without bothering those in my daily life.

Today I finished my final exam and the abortion debate. I was more tense during the debate than I really should have been, and it affected my performance somewhat. While in the midst of preparations for my prepared three-minute statement, I found myself more and more convinced of the simple logic of my position, and I remain confounded by people who apose abortion. It's so simple:

Axiom: just born infants born are human, with a right to life. (nearly everyone, regardless of position on abortion, agrees to this. We can therefore assume it to be an a priori fact, forgetting philosophy for now)

Axiom: human deveopment is gradual. (pysiological, psychological, and neurologicall)

individuals do not have the right kill people.

point 1. the unborn fetus is exactly the same as the infant born two minutes later, in terms of viability and development. Aside from the umbilical cord, etc., the infant is exactly the same. The about-to-be-born and the just-born child are both human, the precent inside or outside the womb makes no differences on the child's viability and development ... and therefore inherent humanity.

(aside: some may argue that the fetus is dependent on the mother to live; they make "viability" a requirement for humanity. This is flawed, as by their requirements people on kidney dialysis, with feeding tubes, etc. are all no longer human, and we all accept that people on kidney dialysis are still human.)

point 2. Given that the unborn fetus and the born child are identical in terms of humanity, and given that change is gradual, it makes sense that the fetus at 9 months minus one day is the same, insofar as his humanity is concerned, as the fetus at nine months, or the born child at nine month. Therefore at all points during development, the fetus is human.

conclusion: since the fetus is human, we must not kill him.

There are many minor points and small scuffles along the way, but the basic logic is that the baby and the fetus are the same, so far as humanity goes, and so logically the fetus is human as far back as conception, since there is no other point at which it is conceivable that humanity suddenly springs forth. (and, prior to conception, the egg and sperm individually do not have a full complement of DNA, and it doesn't make sense to call them human.

Sometimes when presented with this argument, those who support abortion find they cannot deny it. They cannot deny any point of the argument. At this point, I think I've won, I've convinced them, the world is one small step away from our daily massacre of the unborn --- and then they inevitably say, "but what about the mother's rights?"

Let me ask you: when does our right to do whatwe please with our own lives mean we can kill someone else? Never! Even in extreme cases, such as molesting of children, we as individuals have no right to kill the aggressor except in immediate self-defense. And pregnancy, painful and trying as it is, is a far cry from child molestation. Let me reiterate: individuals do not have the right kill people.

This leads to some difficult results. It means that maybe the child will have a hard life, or will be born handicapped, or that a rape victim must endure 9 month's reminder of her assault, but none of these situations, terrible as they are, allow us to kill another human being. The unborn child is human. We may not kill it!

We do not have the right to decide for someone else if he will die. The right to life is most fundamental, superceding the right to privacy (incidentally, a term coined nearly out of thin air, as prior to the Roe vs Wade verdict there was no such legal concept as a "right to privacy." I challenge you to find it in the Constition, the amendments, or anywhere else prior to Roe vs Wade.), the right to liberty, and the right to pursue happiness. My liberty does not extend to killing you, nor does my pursuit of happiness and a comfort-free life grant me the right to kill you.

The argument is simple, the conclusions, while very serious and unfortunate for many people, are also inescapable. Some people say, "what about rape victims who are reminded of their assualter by the fetus?" The proper response to one tragic assualt on an innocent party (a man raping a woman) is not another tragis assault (a woman killing the innocent fetus). But aside from this cold-hearted response, there are some comforting elements: only between 1% and 5% of rapes result in pregnancy. Of those who were pregnant, only approximately 50% carried out an abortion (read more). And of those who did not perform an abortion, many saw the birth not as a terrible reminder, but as creating good from evil, a way to renewal (read more).

But the simplest argument we always return to, is we must not kill humans. And a fetus, no matter what it looks like, is human. And that's the end of the abortion debate.

Otherwise, my life here is good. In spare moments I continue to chat online with various Chinese people with motives ranging from the purely innocent, to the ubiquitous desire for a native English teacher, to the young women of a marrying age interested in a foreigners who seem at least half decent and can speak Chinese. (Though to be fair, I don't blame them: if I were in their shoes -- unattached, lonely, working long hours and earning no pay with no reasonable expectation of advancement -- marrying a nice foreigner who will certainly have a standard of living several times my own wouldn't be something I'd stick my nose up at either!)

Dinner time draws near; this evening we go to see Chinese acrobatics, which I fully intend to enjoy. And tomorrow, perhaps I will succeed in making my American breakfast!


Monday, July 7, 2008

My Life

Dear America,

I have not written much about life at ACC now that classes have started. That is largely becuase once classes started, all signs of life disappeared; like squirrels in winter, the students all scurried to their rooms and huddle their until the storm outside is over (often very literally: it has been raining on average every other day here). We only emerge for our daily classes (kicked off with the ego-crushing vocabular quixz every morning at 8 am), only venture outside the camus for food, and only sleep when the work is done.

The first week was comparatively lax, lulling me into a false belief that I could manage the workload; little was I to realize that assignments would quickly get harder and more numerous. As it is now, aside from an hour here or there devoted to extra curriculars, My entire life is spent either in class or preparing for class. Even the extracurricular activities, such as the Chinese cooking class I'm taking, serves a triple purpose: a brief break from writing homework, preparating of necessary food, and a way to learn and practice new Chinese vocaulary.

Though it is full of dail frustrations, at another level there is something rewarding in being in an environment where no one bats an eye when you mention that you have been up since before 5 in the morning working on your homework; after all, we are all, more or less, in the same boat here. And, if nothing else, I'm learing large amounts of Chinese -- I am already full of misgivings that I won't have the opportunity to stay here for an academoic semester.

I've managed to hoodwink the professors here into thinking that I'm hardworking and industrious, primarily by stationing myself on a couch at the entrance to the building and simultaneously memorizing all the verbs related to Chinese lawsuits and people-watching. I doubt the facade will last long, however, as I have learned that I am at best only able to complete 95% of any given day's work. That last 5% adds up quickly.

I have mentioned this before, but it really is worth reiterating: the Chinese are obsessed with three things: the olympics, their fast economic growth, and Yao Ming/NBA/basketball. Not a day gos by without a reference to at least one of the three, and many jackpots days get three for three. Whether in oral language practice (say the following: "After Deng Xiaoping's Reforming and Opening Up Policy, although China's economy developed quickly, Chinese companies faced competition from international companies.") or in written assignements (write all the proper names in this paragraph: "Yao Ming and So-and-so of America's NBA have a certain skill set... the Bulls feel that their talent lies in the younger players...) or in our weekly exams (listen to the following and answer the questions: "The spokesperson for Beijing's 1993 bid for the Olympics is now full of confidence that China in holding the 2008 olympics will do so with the full support of the entire Chinese people...")

(That last example, taken from a newpaper, reveals the wonder's of China's proganda machine, as it can glory in the full support of all of China's people and simultaneously tighten Beijing security because of fears of ill-defined "terrorists" -- who, though of course not Chinese, might somehow originate from the Chinese provinces of Xi Zang (Tibet) and Xin Jiang. They are so worried, in fact, that they have been working with American counter-terrorist specialists to train up their troops. But I digress.)

In all honesty, I've realized that the Olympics are going to be more annoying than I expected, not so much because of the foreigners, as I originally had expected, but because of the Chinese! I have heard enough of how Yao Ming is going to play in the Olympics which reveal how developed China's ecenomy is (three for three), or how China's handling the Olympics has nothing to do with politics (and I have a bridge to sell you...). It's truly amazing. I yearn for September.

In other news in my life, I have at long last broken through with the front desk receptionists. It took a surprisingly long time, but I think I can safely say that I am on good terms with at least three of them; I'm not sure why I expend so much effort to befriend the front desk folks wherever I go -- perhaps a sense of self-preservation, as they hold the keys to my room. They also often can be very helpful when one needs directions, advice on good sentence construction, or hot water. So befriending them is a pleasant acheivement. (I suspoect that it took so long because foreigners are plentiful in the foreign students' dorm so I'm not anything special, and they also are surprisingly busy so have little time for idle chat).

This Friday our post-test activity is going to be a debate with Chiense students: the Americans can only speak in Chinese, and the Chinese can only speak in English. I and another clasmate are arguing that abortion should be illegal (a view conveniently in line with my own beliefs, and which I have debated before, albeit in English). It should be lots of fun. This Saturday another classmate and I have made tentative plans to make an "American Breakfast" for a whole bunch of folks. Those of you who read my blog two years agomay recall the fiasco of my last attempt to make an American Breakfast in China; I set out to get bacon, raw eggs, milk, flour, and oil. I came back with a grimy slab of pork, hard-boiled eggs, liquid yoghurt, and no flour or oil. My "American Breakfast" ended up consisting of boiling the pork slab in a wok that smelled of fish and then washing the pork down with the liquid yoghurt. With any luck, armed with greater breakfast experience and an improved Chinese vocabulary, I will perform better this year.

Sitting in front of me is a piece of paper. At the top is written in Chinese, "prepare the following argument: In the course of an adult's life, misfortunes are beneficial for an individual's development." The rest is blank. This, along with several other homework items has yet to be completed before tomorrow at 8 am.

Misfortune or not, I hope this assignment is beneficial to my development.


Saturday, July 5, 2008


Dear America,

Sometimes it is good to forget. Sometimes we need to remember.

Yesterday was the 232nd anniversary of the declaration of independence from England by the thirteen American colonies. Due to my circumstances, the best that I can say I did in way of celebration was to gleefully skip through massive puddles as the rain poured down, and to laugh at the timid Chinese stuck without umbrellas who flinched and squeaked or yelled as they fruitlessly tried to find shelter.

Tentative plans for one of my classmates to find someone willing to marry him so we could legally set off fireworks (they are only allowed at weddings and during the Spring Festival) having fallen through and week-end utter exhaustion, as well as a marked lack of unpolluted skies, public parks with walkable grass, barbeque grills, hamburger patties, and hot dogs, left few other options eating (dumplings and roast lamb on a stick alone in a grimy shop don't quite recreate the spirit of the 4th). I have to say, I definitely missed my family, my country, and our traditions. These are things that we need to remember.

Several months ago I pasted this as my byline for gmail chat. At the time I was still at Swarthmore, I was swamped with work with an uncertain summer, and had just been judged guilty by jury of my peers. "backstabbeD" would perhaps be equally appropriate. Despite being the most highly qualified individual to fulfill the position and being extremely excited about fulfilling the job, my application for Residential Assistant was rejected because I had made a public stand for one of my views that happens to be intolerable to my liberal peers.

To say "made a stand" implies I bodly stepped forth -- in fact, I only pointed out that a minority of college students do not want a sex column in their daily school news digest. But it was enough. Extrapolating from my comment, at least anonymous letter-writer has concluded that I am a homophobe and a blamer of rape victims for their assault.

Sometimes it is good to forget. After all, put two reactive chemicals together for long enough, add a little energy, and boom, you have a reaction. Nearly three years at school before the reaction happened is nearly a miracle. Furthermore, in the weeks following this fiasco, I found partial vindication through being elected by the student body to serve on the student council.

Every Friday, after our weekly exam, we 4th year ACC students go with our professors to do field work practicum -- which involves leaving the school (for some, this is the first time they have gone more than a ten minute walk from the campus that week) and using your Chinese somehow. The first week we went to a museum dedicated to Lu Xun, an immensely influential and renouned Chinese intellectual of the first half of the 20th century. We had read one of his articles, and we learned about his life and saw the room in which he wrote thousands of articles, stories, and essays trying to help his country in a tumultuous time.

Yesterday, we went to China's first private hospice-care facility; as the teachers frankly described it, "It's a place for old people who are quickly about to die". The average age of patients there is 82. On first arriving an old woman in a wheelchair brusque demanding we each come over to her, after which she gave us each a perfectly folded paper crane. We saw rooms and rooms of old people in beds with IVs, the old couple who are here together (but women can't talk to the old man, or else his wife will yell at them!), and some old people outside sitting in the shade.

Our time was short, but we were able to spend half an hour or so visiting with two old women, one who at 93 was still bright-eyed and with great gumption refused to let us leave until we had sung a song for her, "Everyone who visits me has to sing a song!" she explained. One brave classmate, God bless him, stepped forward from the midst of perhaps the world's worst singers and belted out an out of tune rendition of a song he wrote regarding some of the major events of China's recent hsitory. Sung to the tune of "American Pie, " it works well. The chorus, roughly translated, goes:

Bye, bye, generation of the 50s
no more hard word in the countrside
[... something I forget...]
But the econmy has definitely developed really quickly!

One of the directors said the oldest inmate is still clinging to life at 109; in her life she has seen the fall of the Qing Dynasty, the rise of the Chinese Republic, its destruction through warlordism, World War 2, the establishment of the PRC, the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, the Reform and Opening Up, and now modern-day college students, so young...

When one of the teachers asked the young nurse whether she found it hard to work here, whther she got attached to the patients and when they died it was hard, the nurse nodded and simply replied, "Every day there are two or three who die." As we left, another student echoed my thoughts when she said to me, "I truly admire the people who work here. I don't think I would be able to do it."

Tucked away in a corner of Beijing, in a stiflingly hot building, these patients, workers, and volunteers are people we need to remember.

I was once in a Japanese bookstore in New York, and slowly found myself meandering into the Chinese history section of it, where I picked up a book on the Nanjing Massacre. Most Americans tend to think of World War 2 starting sometime around the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 7, 1941 (As F. Roosevelt proclaimed, "...a date which will live in infamy"). For China this war, known as the Second Sino-Japanese War, began much earlier in 1937. Neither ended until 1945. Late in 1937 the Japanese surrounded Nanjing, then the capital of China. Over the course of the six weeks following their occupation of the city what has vividly and accurately been called the Rape of Nanjing occurred. Japanese soldiers killed 300,000 civilians in Nanjing alone: an estimated 500,000 additional Chinese civilians were killed in the ares surrounding the capital. Theft, arson, gruesome torture, and rape of women and children was even more common. Just one of many eyewitness reports: a girl was walking down a public street, grabbed by Japenese soldiers, raped until she bled, and then shot and thrown by the road side.

To this day, many Chinese people cite the Rape of Nanjing as a reason they hate Japanese. Even an educated Beijing lawyer I know, only in his thirties, confided in me that he doesn't like Japanese people because of what they have done to his country. At the same time, many high school and college students here closely follow Japanese movies, comics, and fashion. Japnese food is more and more popular, and business with Japan remains booming. For the upcoming generation, the term "Japanese Devils" is perhaps less meaningful than anime. They are quickly forgetting the past.

And yet, is it really such a bad thing? The atrocieties occurred 70 years ago: all or nearly all those Japanese soldiers are dead now. Their children are grown, and their grandchildren are now in college. We are two generations gone from that time; the people to forgive are gone, and we have a chance for a new start. Today's Chinese and today's Japanese do not have vivid memories of crimes of the past. They can start with a fresh slate, without the baggage their grandparents or parents still must carry. They do not remember what happened before. And sometimes it is good to forget.

At 21 years old, I am grateful that there are no major scars in my life I cannot forget. When driving a car, I always worry that one day I wil be the person who made the mistake and ended up crippling or killing someone through a moment of inattention. What would I do? There is no recompense that can be made -- I would have to live forever with that knowledge. The small things, however, add up too: the angry word, or not being entirely honest, or fighting with my brother, or self-pride, all add up and make their own little marks, just like the tiny scar I now have: a permanent reminder of a careless swipe with a paper cutter.

Though I am still quite young, I can easily imagine these things, these tiny marks, scuffs and scars adding up; after several more decades, will I not have been beaten and banged up even more, dinged and bent and tarnished by a thousand tiny bits of jealousy, of hate, of lust, of pride and anger? Having seen friends die, or drift away, and life ever changing, won't there come a time when I think -- enough, it's enough! While some people would do nearly anything for immortality, I fear an immortal life -- in this world, anyway. I would get stretched thin, and become nothing more than a whisp, or be worn down by the chains of past deeds, like Ebeneezer's colleague Marley. An immortal life with only our frail and sin-pocked bodies would be punishment, not reward.

What is the other choice? In short, death. And yet so many Americans, American Christians, fear death. It confuses me, for if we truly believe the Scripture, death is now powerless. Death is, to borrow a cliche, only the beginning. And it is the beginning of a beautiful new life -- immortal, yes, but also one in which all pain is gone, and all tears are wiped away. I don't know if that means all memories are gone too, or if it means the memories lose their sting: would we keep memories of a sin-filled world? If we do, certainly it will be different than now, and perhaps we will see them from afar. It is an immortal life of perfection that I look forward to, not a long, or -- heaven forbid! -- an immortal life here on this earth.

These promises of pure and painless life eternal, however, are easy to forget in our artificially busy lives -- which is why the last thing I did after packing away all my school belongings was to erase the four words that had graced the top of my door's whiteboard: God's promises are sure. Sometimes we need to remember.

I tend to lean to forgetting: whether it's today's 100 new Chinese words, someone's name, or what I did many weeks ago, I forget. Psychology reveals that human memory, while amazing in capacity in some ways, also is surprisingly porous in others. And the Israelites might as well have been called "The Forgetful people" as "the people of God." And forgetting sometimes is important is important -- it allows progress, it allows new perspectives and new ways; it is the temporary and imperfect solution to a life whic h if lived with perfect memory would be intolerable. Sometimes it is good to forget.

Nevertheless, sometimes we need to remember too.


Wednesday, June 25, 2008

A Day in my Life

Dear America,

Some of you may be wondering about my studies at ACC, the ostensible reason for coming to China in the first place.

Instead of long explanations, let me highly recommend that you take a few minuts out of your day and watch the YouTube video made by last year's student. Things haven't changed much. I affirm it is very amusing, highly informative, and scarily accurate. Welcome to my life.

Part 1.

Part 2.