Monday, March 31, 2008

A Little More Shanghai

Thomas and I got back from Shanghai late last night, and today was back to Monday morning for the whole family. I'll report our Shanghai trip in a few different posts. Today, the boring one. Below is a shot of the famous Pearl building in the Bund area by the harbor. This photo was from the only "clear" day. Thomas took it from a moving taxi. It was so foggy the other days, you couldn't see halfway up the building.

So the weekend went pretty much like this. We were holed up in a campus hotel, where the food was - in one of my favorite Chinese words - 马马虎虎mamahuhu [just so-so]. A student would come to collect me and I would give a lecture in the really imposing building below.

The picture cannot do it justice. It's about 30 0r 35 floors with massive classical [that's western classical] columns all around. My lectures were usually on the 23rd floor.

Above is a really nice poster for my talks. I got them so I can bring them back and shamelessly display them. But Ann says they are going into the basement.

Here Thomas and I are not eating at the campus hotel but in a popular Shanghai restaurant [not trendy, just popular]. Shanghai food is very sweet, and one of the students said that people in Shanghai have a higher rate of diabetes than the rest of China.

Well, the best part of the trip for Thomas was actually not all the pigeons he ate, but getting to stay in the hotel room while I gave my talks. Because we brought the computer, Thomas could watch DVDs while I was away. Since I gave 3 talks that lasted 2 hours each (plus walking time), that came to about 7+ hours of DVD heaven. And what did he watch? Star Trek: The Next Generation. Ann's favorite is now one of Thomas's favorite.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Arrival in Shanghai

Thomas and I arrived in Shanghai this Friday morning. Ann and the girls are back in Xiamen doing "girl stuff". I am giving some talks at Fudan University on American Philosophy, and since the price was cheap enough, Thomas is coming with me.

I wasn't able to load any pictures so maybe that will wait until we get back. We had a slow day today, mostly staying in the hotel room while I worked on my papers and Thomas played various games. Only he and I would enjoy laying around like this in a campus hotel room in an exciting city.

Anyway, I gave my first lecture this evening. Tomorrow morning some students are picking us up and bringing us sightseeing. We will go for the morning, and maybe a little in the afternoon. Then I lecture again Saturday evening. My last lecture is on Sunday morning.

Thomas had two pigeons and a bottle of Sprite for lunch. Then at dinner with people from the philosophy department, he had another pigeon and a coke. His mother would never let that happen. Okay ... no more pigeons for the boy!

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Michael's Birthday and our sense of community

Today was Michael's birthday, so we headed out to the vegetarian restaurant near the temple. After we were seated, the waitress gleefully present me with an umbrella -- I recognized it right away -- I left it there about 6 weeks ago...I was so surprised, since I assumed it was just lost, and all this time they were waiting to give it back to me! The owner of the restaurant came out during dinner to chat about the kids (I have this conversation down in perfect Chinese.."are they all yours?"..."yes we have three children" " she [Helen] Chinese?" "Yes the girls are adopted" [in Chinese "shou yang" 收养] least she sent out a plate of beautifully carved fruit for our trouble :)

After dinner we waled back home through the temple grounds at twilight, and who is walking out of the inside gate, but our favorite monk! the one who gave Sophia the image of the black Buddha way back in the fall. He recognized us and tried to explain some new calligraphy on the temple wall to me. With my improved Chinese I could tell it was something about the mountain...but that's about it! The monks had been hosting some kind of evening gathering and many people, maybe family members? were walking out at that time -- but such a coincidence to run into him. He loves us because Michael is a philosopher, and also Sophia made a big impression on him. Back to the apartment for a "world religion" theme birthday..with a pagoda cake, homemade in our toaster oven...

Prayer beads from Thomas

And from me, a Buddha image in a leather pouch from the antique store in Lijiang, and just to be fair, the three Taoist deities I picked up at the flea market here.

The video is educational for the children who read the blog -- learn to sing Happy Birthday in Chinese! Here are the words in pinyin and characters:
Zhu ni sheng ri kuai le...(repeat 4 times)
祝 你 生日 快乐 !!

Tomorrow morning Michael is going fly out to give some papers in Shanghai at Fudan University, and he decided to take Thomas along, since he has tomorrow off of school anyway, and can get to see Shanghai. They are taking the laptop along to amuse Thomas in the hotel room while Michael is lecturing, so it may be a few days until I can blog again.

In addition to the incidents of happy connection described above..a sense of belonging has settled over us of late. With kids at 3 different schools, 2 on campus, me in school and all Michael's students and colleagues, we have begun to have the sense that we are always seeing someone we know. It's just like Buffalo! Especially Sophia's school, which is in our neighborhood on campus, is a hub of familiarity. Everyone with little kids in tow for blocks around it seems, knows her name. I see my morning Tai Chi folks in the afternoon picking up their grandkids. and of course we have become very friendly with parents at Helen's bus stop. They are forever translating notes from school for me and are willing to chat in English after I humbled myself in Chinese to them!

This week I taught English in Sophia's class for the first time, just for about 10-15 minutes. They were adorable, but a little confused by me! We'll have to take it slow. Although, Sophia is picking up Chinese songs pretty fast, so we'll see.

To top off this feeling of well being, this week I started meeting someone to exchange oral English/Chinese with them. At first I didn't want to do it because I am feeling a little stretched, but the person who asked me to meet this woman is someone I respect, so I agreed. I am SO glad I did! The woman turned out to be one of the most interesting people I have met in China, so interesting that I really am not going to say too much about her in the blog, because I want to respect her confidentiality. But we have many things in common, and had a terrific talk about her life and work, and I am learning the answers to many questions I have about China...

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The Most Amazing Fact about Chinese Students

There are a lot of differences between Chinese and American students. And there are, unsurprisingly, a lot of differences between the Chinese and American educational systems - from the primary school through graduate work.

But the most amazing fact (and difference) about Chinese students and their experience of the educational system is: THEY DON'T CHOOSE THEIR OWN MAJORS! Think about that for a minute, or a few hours, and think about the consequences of such a policy. Then also think about what Chinese society must be like for this to be just another ordinary fact of life for Chinese students.

These are some photos I took last semester in one of my classes. It was a low attendance day, but the students were amused at the photos. The girl giving the V sign above is one of my better students - Chen Dongmei. The student below, Zhu Zhijie, is also one of my better students.

In any event, I wanted to briefly discuss the fact about being assigned a major. Well, it is only partially true. About 20% of students (the best) get to choose their majors. This comes right out of high school. When students take the big national exam (that determines everything) they list three schools that they would want to attend. But it's tricky. You can only list one good school [in China called "a key school"]. That's because if you list two key schools - for instance if you put Peking University first, then you put Xiamen University second, then Xiamen University will not admit you because you listed them second. This means that you have one shot at a good school, then the other choices are for colleges and universities that are more provincial [these are inferior, don't try to think of it as comparable to the US where you can go to a good school that is small, etc.].

You can also list three majors of your choice. Remember, you are a high school student when you do this. So now the students take the all important national exam. Here is the story of one of my students whose family name is Wang [which is about 1/4 of China]. She put Xiamen University first, and regional schools from her province second and third. She scored high enough to be admitted to Xiamen University, but not high enough to get one of her desired majors (for instance one of them was English). She was assigned to be a philosophy major. She had no clue what philosophy was. But she decided that the best thing for her was to go to XiaDa even though she wasn't clear about the major. Well, as you might expect, she does not like philosophy. She can't figure it out - what are they talking about?? She has been studying it for years but still can't make heads or tails of it.

I think that this is a very common reaction. Now philosophy is a tough subject, and clearly not for everyone. But imagine being forced to study almost nothing else for years - and not liking it, and not being able to change. That's tough. When I was in Jinan, I brought this up and a professor of political science said that he thought about 50-60% of the political science students hate the subject.

Recently at Xiamen University they have instituted a double major, such that you can choose your second major. At least I've heard this but I am not sure about it or about any conditions that are placed on it.

To give you some examples, students filled out a sheet of questions I gave them. To this question about majors:

One student who went to undergraduate at another school in another province wanted to major in English or History: she was assigned Ideological and Political Education.

Another student from another school wanted to major in Literature or a Foreign Language: she was assigned to Marketing.

Another student wanted to major in Physics or Music [hey, they are 17]: he was assigned Chemistry ["It's okay, but I'd rather do something else"].

Another wanted Foreign Language or Law: got Ideological and Political Education.

Now, several students got the major that they wanted and are happy. Several students got the major they wanted and then found themselves unhappy. Several students got philosophy by choice, but several did not. Several who got it assigned are now happy with it. But this is what you would expect. The difficulty is the ones who are forced, don't like it, and are trapped.

This system is more efficient, but at the cost of much misery and suffering. It is these issues about freedom and choice that still highlight cultural and political differences the most to me.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Happy Easter Sunday!

Look -- the Easter Bunny knows where Xiamen is after all! I apologize to the non-family readers of this blog entry -- it is heavy on photos of my adorable children :)

The Easter Bunny brought Chinese Barbies for the girls- Helen's is a bride with traditional and western style wedding dresses...

Aren't they so cute!!!

There are a lot of photos of Helen today because she is the one child who will actually stop and smile when I tell her to -- this photo is for her Aunt Linda who gave her this special necklace last year for Christmas...

I had bought matching sweater sets for the girls -- very cute with embroidery and little pearls on them -- then the forecast was for cold rain --so we were surprised by a tolerably nice day -- overcast but warm and pleasant for Church and some fun in the yard afterwards.

Above are the kids with our friend Oscar of Spain...

The English service was still pretty packed, even after the crowds last night ...I think Catholicism is thriving in Xiamen. We had some great music -- I tried to capture some on the video, below -- it came out just so-so...

Afterwards we decided to spoil ourselves with the Easter Brunch at The Sofitel Hotel, where we ran into many families from Thomas's school and other foreigners living in Xiamen. They had champagne and children's activities including an Easter egg hunt on the terrace...

Somehow Helen ended up with an enormous chocolate egg..which pleased her enormously...and we stayed until they closed the place down at 2:30, sipping our champagne, eating WAY too much, especially Thomas who ate 3 steaks and about 8 coffee eclairs (they were small, but 8?!?)

We survived another holiday away from family and friends in the US -- our last big one here -- and we surely do miss everyone very much!! Happy Easter to one and all!

Saturday, March 22, 2008

The Easter vigil

Since tomorrow is Easter and there is no Paas egg dye in sight, we had eggs for dinner and made the little tiny holes in the shells so we could paint them...

Not sure if you can tell, but Thomas's egg is a Bionicle egg, apparently..Last night the family went to the Good Friday service at our Church -- it was all in Chinese, and hard for Sophia to stay still for, although it was so familiar to us and we were glad to be there. Tonight Michael sent me as a representative of the family to the Easter Vigil. Again -- the service is so familiar to me, that I always knew what was going on, and some times had glimpses of understanding the Chinese a bit too, since I knew what reading was going on and could listen for key words I know. WE started outside, where the priest built and blessed the fire to light the Easter candle (my photo did not come out) form which we all lit our candles. The church was packed and I ended up standing in the back with an Australian woman we know. I took what I though would be a lovely photo of the faithful with their candles...until this woman answered her phone in the middle of my picture (and of Mass, by the way...still a ways to go on cell phone etiquette here).

The church really looked beautiful tonight and I realized how lucky we are to have a church like this in Xiamen, and a vibrant Catholic community.

During the Easter Vigil is a traditional time to baptize adults, and there were 5 baptisms and confirmations tonight, including the one below. It was very moving for me to be present for this service, and I especially wanted there to be baptisms. By the way - I can read the characters on this banner -- ye li lu ye (Alleluia). The church was beautifully decorated tonight. The video below is the "Gloria" in Chinese -- right after they turned up the lights form the Liturgy of the Word... More tomorrow on the big day itself..

Friday, March 21, 2008

Thomas' concert and thoughts on the free press

Yesterday was a spring concert at Thomas's school. I skipped class and went to it to represent the family. Thomas is at the far left of the group, easiest to see him in the first picture, in the big group he is almost cut off. This upper school chorus did a couple of songs, there were drums, xylophones, lots of songs by the little kids which were so cute and entertaining. There is also band music, which was OK...when the 5th grade did their piece I realized that our friend Kate would have been up there if she were still here -- since all of them started learning together in September...

Thomas has really not done a lot of extracurricular activities this year -- we are so far from the school, he gets home at almost 5 anyway. He was in the Chess Club for a while, but hasn't wanted to go out for sports because the format is very competitive. I rode the bus home with him after the concert and I realized that we don't appreciate Thomas enough -- it is a really long ride, and he has not complained much - of course he gets to bring his Nintendo DS to school every day -- which will NOT HAPPEN next year. I think his respect for his teachers has grown as the year went on. They are both male teachers, which was a first for him. There is a lot of homework, it seems, or else it just takes him a long time. He is trying to write everything in the computer this year, which is good since his handwriting is sloppy, but time consuming.

On to our other topic...the idea of a free and open media. I know that you north American readers are so tired of hearing about the US election season and/or the sordid private life of Elliot Spitzer that you are just about ready to give up on the media altogether. I have been having a reality check on that this week. The reality of living in a country where huge events are happening and have to resort to proxy servers, passing around emails and outright hearsay to find out what is going on has really been hitting home. I am sure most of you know more than I do about the unrest in Tibet, which has now spread to some of the places we have visited this year in Yunnan and Sichuan provinces. If you could only see some of the patently ridiculous statements coming out of the national media here about the "evil D----L---" (don't want to use any key words here for the firewall, although the blog is already blocked in China anyway). Americans -- I have this message : we should never, ever take for granted what a free press has done for the transparency of our government, and we should protect it at all costs. What the government here is able to get away with in the name of security and stability is really quite scary. Not to mention so poorly done as to defy any thinking person to believe what they have to say. If you don't believe me, try pulling up the China Daily website (leading English language newspaper) and compare some news accounts with those being put out by AP or the BBC. By the way, my thanks to folks like my Dad who have been sending links to articles via email-- I am often able to follow these better than trying to search, because with a proxy server, like, you can't follow links to other sites very well. I guess CNN ran a story on the "Great Firewall of China" and how experts believe that they (the Chinese government) have never been filtering or shutting down as many sites on the web as they have been this week. Some people with yahoo accounts can't even access their email, and everything is crawling at a snail's pace, as more and more content is being filtered for key words, which many believe are used to either block or increase scrutiny of sites and possibly individual users. Of course the real question -- can the free flow of information really be stopped? My belief is ultimately not--but not everyone has access...

Monday, March 17, 2008

Qufu: The Holy City of China


To learn, and then have occasion to practice what you have learned-

is this not satisfying?

To have friends arrive from afar-
is this not a joy?

To be patient even when others do not understand-
is this not the mark of a gentleman?

Confucius, Analects 1.1

On Saturday during my stay in Jinan, the Institute of Politics provided a driver for the two hour trip to Qufu [pronounced something like 'chuFOO']. The Philosophy Department gave me a student, "Dominik" [Chinese name unknown], to accompany me. I should say 'us' because my fellow Fulbrighter, Nancy, also accompanied the group.

Qufu is the birthplace and ancestral homeland of 孔子, pronounced 'Kongzi', which means literally "Master Kong". Westerners know him as 'Confucius' [a Latin name given by Jesuits during the Ming Dynasty]. Kongzi was born in Qufu in 551 BC and died there in 479 BC. Kong is a very popular family name in China.

Below is Dacheng Hall, on the spot where Kongzi would teach his disciples. The actual structure dates from the Ming Dynasty (2000 years after Kongzi).

Through the many gates and platforms one arrives at the ceremonial hall, in which you can find a very large statue of Kongzi with robes and beard, etc. It was here that all the emperors of China would come to pay their respects, and make their sacrifices to the great sage.

"The Master said, 'I transmit rather than innovate. I trust in and love the ancient ways.'"
Confucius, Analects, 7.1

Because Kongzi's philosophy became the state ideology, and because he was quite the traditionalist, at various points in Chinese history his philosophy and his ideas came under attack.

Below was a sign that we found in one of the rear building in the Confucian Temple complex. It was behind a door that was open (so that it was not visible unless you went behind the open door - if you follow that).

It is hard to interpret but a consensus of a few students thought that it was an attack on Kongzi which rallies scholars to smash the old ways - likely from the 'Cultural Revolution'. Certainly the Red Guards came into the Confucian Temple, smashed much of the statuary and destroyed much of the old artifacts. But now they are gone, and Kongzi is still around. Tradition 1, Radicals 0.

After we left the temple area, we walked through the Confucian Mansion. Because Confucius, Kongzi, was so important all the members of the Kong family received special state privileges. I am unclear on the full extent of these, but one was that they could live in the Mansion. I don't know how they decided which descendants could live here, but it was a fairly large complex. It was a very traditional Chinese house with various different 'wings' and sections that would accommodate a large extended family.

Above you see a typical bedroom. There were various sitting rooms, as well as a wedding room in which the bride and groom would ascend to the seats of their parents to receive their blessings before heading to a staircase that leads to the second floor ...

The shot above seemed like an interesting view of the tower roughly in the middle of the complex.

After the Mansion we only had time for a quick trip through the Kong family cemetery. Another family privilege is that any descendant of Kongzi can be buried in the family plot - which is huge. Members of the Kong family have been buried here for 2500 years, and they still are today.

The shot above is the grave and marker of one of the later descendants who wrote a famous play called "Charity". As you can imagine, not many people in China are buried anymore. If you can't imagine that, then you haven't spent much time in China. There would just be no place to bury so many people. But if you are in the Kong family, ... you have special privileges.

Throughout the grounds (which we took at fairly high speed in a little tram) a wide variety of statuary could be seen. Unfortunately, I did not have the time to stop and take more interesting pictures.

Finally, we arrived at the section of the cemetery grounds where Kongzi was buried. The long walk toward the area was guarded by a variety of pairs of animals, and finally these two rather impressive generals.

Finally, we came to the relatively simple grave itself. You can see the large marker and the mound under which the old philosopher rests.

The pads and items are for people who come to light incense, or to bow three times, or to pay their respects in whatever way people do.

Below you see that there are two markers. I am not sure why. You can see that the markers, especially the first one, is put back together after the Red Guards smashed it. This is the case with everything in China. Whenever you go into a temple of any sort, you'll see the statuary bisected and put together again - and you know why.

Below is a hut, built in the Ming Dynasty, to commemorate the vigilance of Kongzi's disciples. After the old sage died, his followers stayed on this spot for three years as a mark of reverence. But one of the disciples, a merchant, stayed for another three years as a mark of special respect.

And here you see the younger, not famous, philosopher beside the grave of the old, famous philosopher. [Note my Canisius hoodie. It says "Philosophy" on the back!]

Ran Qiu said, "It is not that I do not delight in your Way, Master, it is simply that my strength is insufficient."

The Master said, "Someone whose strength is genuinely insufficient collapses somewhere along the Way. As for you, you deliberately draw the line."

Confucius, Analects, 6.12

Jinan, Shandong

The picture below is probably not your image of a Chinese university. You might think of traditional Chinese designs with upwardly sloping tile roofs that have dragons festooning the eaves. Or, you might think of the god-awful Soviet era functionalism and the (possibly worse) cement block and white tile exteriors that are much too common in China.

On the other hand, if this is your image of a 19th century German Catholic church, you would be right. Shandong University began as a mission school by German immigrants and the church still stands and still has daily masses - although all in Chinese now. The church is in really good shape and beautiful inside (they asked me not to take pictures), but also quite a surprise at a Chinese institution.

I traveled north to Jinan in Shandong Province [which means 'east mountains'] to give some lectures at the university - invited by the prompting of a fellow Fulbrighter there. The school has 7 different campuses and a total of about 60,000 students (and not the largest in China!).

Below is the philosophy department office, with pictures of Karl Marx and Confucius over the doorway. It was too incongruent to pass up.

Here I am shamelessly posing in front of the sign advertising my lectures. The sign is all in Chinese except for my name. I don't think it came out as clearly as I had hoped.

I flew in to Jinan very late on Thursday night, getting to the campus hotel at about 2 am. The next day I gave a talk on Peirce and sign-theory from 10-12 in the morning, and then a talk on race and identity from 2-4. There were about 30-35 people at each talk and the mix of philosophy and politics students generated some interesting discussions.

These trips are partly funded by Fulbright and the nice part is that after you are done lecturing the school gives you off to a student who then takes you sightseeing for the weekend. On Saturday, we visited Qufu, the hometown of Confucius (I'll blog about that another day soon). On Sunday, "Chris" [Chinese name unknown], took me around Jinan - the City of Springs.

The shot above is entering the old street that has a lot of traditional housing, vendors in all the alleys, night markets, etc.

Below you see a take on the usual street food in China. You can get a skewer with something on it and they fry it up for you so that you can nosh on it as you stroll the streets.

I passed on the squid and shrimp on a stick, but was particularly puzzled by the crabs on a stick, since it is unclear to me why you would want to eat that while walking. Chris said that you have to break them off and suck the meat out of the shell - which doesn't strike me as a strolling activity, but then I am not Chinese.

Here is a spring in the middle of a very old neighborhood. This is called "The Prince's Pool" because all the area was owned by some prince and nobody could swim in the spring except for him. There were a good 12-15 people swimming. Although it was mid-March in the north, the temperature in the spring is a little warmer (although not a hot spring). It might be hard to see but there are women doing laundry in the pool as well. There was a generally festive atmosphere about the place, especially as it was a warm spring Sunday and people were happy to be out in the sun.

Above is a gate into Daming Lake [if I am correct about the characters, it just means "big clear lake"], the biggest body of water in the city. Lots of boats were out on the water. All the springs drain into Daming Lake, and, since Jinan is in a valley the mountain waters drain here too.

Above is a view of the area center with a strange looking sculpture at the center. I say that it is strange because it is supposed to be symbolic of Jinan but I couldn't decipher exactly why. Theories abound.

Right next to this area we walked into a lovely green spot, Bauto Spring Park. And in the open, in a small pool, were several seals [!] swimming around. [Note: they may be sea lions. I confess that I don't know the difference.]

This is the most famous spot of the park where three springs bubble up to the surface. The park was filled with people, especially multi-generational families with small children.

In some of the recesses of the park there were small courtyards with apricot trees in bloom, and other green and flowering plants. The courtyard below had Magnolias in bloom. The rooms that surround each courtyard were filled with various artworks. Mostly either large calligraphy works or very traditional Chinese paintings of birds on bamboo or misty mountain scenes.

After leaving the park we headed over to Nancy's apartment. She is a fellow Fulbrighter and she should be coming to Xiamen to give some talks in May. Nancy was recently in Xi'an, which has a fairly large Muslim population and she bought these Muslim hats in the market there, which of course we had to try on.

This is, left to right, Zhang, Chris, myself and Nancy. Yes, we know that we all look foolish. We don't care. These students study political science. Chris and I had interesting discussions all day about China, the west, politics and economics. He studies politics and economics and focuses on a kind of Milton Friedman-style economic theory. Zhang, who is smiling in the photo below, is writing his Masters Thesis on Cambodia during the Pol Pot regime [lovely!].

This is a favorite hangout of the group. It's really a pretty messy parking lot where they BBQ skewers and serve draft beer. We had a lot of fun. The girl above is 'Bing-Bing' [which really means Ice-Ice] and she comes from Heilongjiang Province which is really far north - and very cold. It is the province of the city of Harbin, which many people know from its yearly ice festival. If you have never heard about the Harbin ice festival you should look it up and see some photos. People who have been there say it is incredible - and incredibly cold.

As a note interest, Nancy and I and various other professors had been discussing politics all weekend in the evenings and at dinners. Nancy thought that the Olympics would lead to some kind of political action and protests of some kind or other. We assured her that such would not be the case, especially in Tibet or other regions in China. Well, by Sunday evening we found out that we were wrong and news of the riots in Lhasa came out. Luckily Nancy hadn't found out by the time I left for Xiamen, or I would've never heard the end of my political naivete.