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The Man in China
September 19, 2008 The Intern and the Snakes
I now have my assistant. She's on probation for another couple of weeks, but if she keeps up the good work she will survive that with ease and I will take down the help wanted notice above.
Meet my Girl Friday, 顾晟 Gù Shèng, English name Tina. Gù means "look after" and while there is no single character word Shèng it means "grand and bright". I'm hoping she'll look after me in the grand style and be very bright.
Aside from the tedious data entry of my class lists, one of the first things I asked Gù Shèng to do for me was to research the source of snake skins for erhu. She reported that erhu are made from the wild back boa, a snake which has been driven to extinction in China by overhunting. Killing wild snakes is now forbidden in China, and all skins for erhu production are now imported from Vietnam or Burma. This is not exactly an elegant solution to the problem.
Gù Shèng has gathered a very impressive amount of information in a very short time, and I'll be posting her report soon.
In the meantime, I have recently found an old friend (actually he found me), a wonderful character we all called Tex, who now calls himself Master Tex and is on the edge of paying his rent with online sales of hypnotism sound files. (I said he is a character.) Tex is a herpetologist, among many other things. I have very fond memories of a trip to the ocean that Tex organized to gather creatures for a salt water aquarium.
I asked Tex if he wants to come to China and farm snakes with me, and got an enthusiastic response. He's sent me the following information about the snakes used to make erhu.
Right now thoughts of farming snakes to make erhu , thus saving the wild snakes, are just a pipe dream. But you never know. This is where things always have to start. With a crazy idea. I shall pursue this, if only because it's fascinating.
September 16, 2008 Video Clip of the Birthday Party
Here's a shaky cam clip of the birthday party, with Reid Mitchell on guitar and vocals singing the Hank Williams song, "Lost Highway", with yours truly adding some improvised fiddle licks. I kind of lost it on the break, but still this isn't too bad considering this was the first time I've heard the song. Gotta love those three chord country tunes. This is an 8 megabyte clip, too big to send to friend through email. It may take some time to download. Thanks to William for taking this clip for us.
September 14, 2008 Family Dinner for Mid-Autumn Festival
Panda met Julia in my IELTS preparation class last term, and they have become good friends.
Today Panda called to say that Julia's parents had invited us to a family dinner to celebrate the mid-Autumn festival. Julia said that her mother is a dog lover, so we should bring GouGou along.
We were expecting to go to Julia's home, but instead found ourselves in a private room in a high end restaurant.
Here's a photo montage of that dinner, just so you can see the kinds of feasts we are treated to here. It started with the appetizers.
Then moved on to the main dishes.
I was wondering when they would stop arriving. Here's the full list.
The hospitality of the Chinese people continues to amaze me. Thank you Julia, and please convey our thanks to your parents. To have the kind of experience your family gave us is the real reason we came to China.
September 13, 2008 Great
Have friends come from afar is indeed a pleasure. The big surprise for Ruth's birthday party was going to be our friend Thomas showing up. He's on a business trip from America. Unfortunately, holiday congestion stranded him in Shanghai and he couldn't get to our apartment until nine in the evening, so the surprise for the party had to be delivered by phone.
We had a wonderful time with our guests. The party started at our place, with a special screening of the Canadian animation classic, "The Log Driver's Waltz", and a couple of songs. Ruth and I did a reprise of "You Belong to Me" and Reid Mitchell sang a Hank Williams classic, to which I managed to add a few tasty fiddle licks. Cinderella sang a song for us in her very sweet voice. Ruth sang the beautiful song she wrote for her father.
And of course we all ate cake.
Then the party moved to a restaurant outside the North gate. One of the delights of China is that I can be a big shot, and pick up the tab for 18 dinner guests, for a total bill of 310 RMB ($48.08 Canadian).
Thomas finally made it to our place about nine o'clock. We sat up with him until four in the morning, talking about religion and getting Thomas's take on the looming U.S. election. Thomas and I are poles apart on the religion issue. He's a fundamentalists "born again" Christian and I am a devout atheist. I absolutely can't understand how a man as intelligent as Thomas can believe what he believes, but it's great that we can talk about this subject. He does broaden my view of the born agains beyond the bigoted hate mongering redneck stereotype. Thomas has a loving heart, and while he believes that homosexuality is something God doesn't approve of, he's at least willing to mind his own business. Not exactly free thinking, but a step in the right direction.
September 13, 2008 A Rant and an Indulgence
I've had the occasional person tell me that a belief in science is just another religion, and that a belief in the principles of science is no more legitimate than a belief in God. This makes no sense to me at all. Science is the exact opposite of religion.
There are two kinds of belief. One is based on revealed truth, faith, or authority. God told me so I believe it. The priest told me that God told him, so I believe it. I read it in the holy book, so I believe it. I don't have to explain why I believe. There is no explanation. I just believe. I have faith. This is religion.
The other kind of belief is based on observation and verification, and then a logical causal relationship between the observation and the explanation (a theory*). Others can duplicate the observation, and argue what it means for the theory. The theory can be refined based on further observations, or dismissed if it doesn't hold up to examination. This is science.
The two are not identical. They are opposites. Those who are attracted to religion tend to be unhappy with science. Science offers more questions than answers, and refuses to accept answers without evidence. Those who want certainty in their lives find science disturbing. As one scientist recently said: Reality is not only stranger than we know, it is stranger than we can know. This is not comforting to someone who is looking for answers.
One of the ironies of the situation is that evolution has shaped us into decision making, answer demanding creatures. If our observations and logic doesn't find an answer, we will make one up until a better answer comes along. Or even past that point. This trait has helped us survive as a species, but it doesn't incline us to believe in evolution.
We are living in very strange times. As I write this, some religious believers are traveling North America giving lectures to families and children, sometimes to very large audiences, making emotional appeals to reject science, reject reason, and "believe" in a literal interpretation of the Christian bible. Very recently I had a relative, who had actually attended one of these lectures, ask me this question: "Do you think we came from slime?"
I can think of a number of biting and snappy responses to that question, but the short answer is "Yes."
My question to him would be: Do you think you were created in the image of God?
If so, what an amazing belief this is. To me we are so obviously animals. So obviously connected to all other life on earth, including even slime, that to think we are anything else seems totally absurd.
Which takes me to the question of why most people believe what they believe. The simple answer is that they believe what they want to believe. They believe what religion tells them because believing is easier than arguing with a scientist. They believe because they need a simple answer and they can't find one outside of their dogma. They believe because, in the words of another relative, "I just got tired of thinking about it.". They believe because of where they were born and the culture they were born into, and believing something else would mean rejecting their entire world. They believe what they believe because they are afraid to believe anything else. It's too scary to think that maybe they are tiny, alone, and unimportant. Maybe they came from slime. Scary thought.
*One of my favourite scientific theories is that it is trees waving that cause wind. This seems so obvious, because every time it is windy, I can watch the trees waving to make the wind. It's fun to get kids to figure out how to refute this theory.
September 13, 2008 Let's Party
Ruth's actual birthday was last Saturday, but we are stretching it out by having the party today. This morning I rode my bike into the village to the bakery and had the cake artist put together this masterpiece for her. He spent over a half hour on it, and it was amazing to watch the dragon take shape, and the details, right down to the claws.
September 12, 2008 Students Bearing Gifts
Once again it is Mid-Autumn festival time, and once again we are being showered with moon cakes and gifts. This is Winkle, who came to visit on her 21st. birthday to bring us a present from her home town, some live crabs and boiled beef. She'll be to lunch tomorrow to help us eat them.
And here is George (Zhu Kaining) with his gift of moon cakes. George is feeling pretty good these days because he got the very top marks in his department, mostly thanks to his high score on the English exam. Yes (pump fist in jubilation).
And once again, it's feast time, thanks to the administration. Delicious.
It's a good life if you don't weaken, as my Uncle Bill used to say.
September 12, 2008 Chinese Endangered Snakes
After sending my questions about erhu snake skins to several people, I got this reply back from Mr. Yu Xiao. I had contacted him because his email address was on a link to the Chinese WWF, but the card at the bottom of his letter suggests he's actually involved in the ivory trade.
I'm finding this all very upsetting. I never would have purchased an erhu if I thought the snake skin it was made from came from an endangered species.
If the snakes used to make erhu are endangered, it seems obvious to me that it is not the tiny number of exported erhu which is endangering them but the manufacture and sale of the instruments in China itself. Surely it would not be difficult to farm snakes for this purpose, or to make erhu with a drum head from an animal that is not endangered.
To make an international show of banning the export of erhu, while allowing unrestricted manufacture in China from wild snakes seems.... hypocritical. I just hope there is more to this situation than I understand at the moment.
And this just in, in reply to this question:
So that's where things stand. The CITES MA site is all in Chinese, and well beyond my translating ability. So I'll have to wait for more help from Zhu Kaining to explore this further.
On a Lighter Note - One and a Half Minutes of Fame
Here are some pictures of the performance for the freshmen in the sports stadium, our rock star moment.
September 11, 2008 Horrified by Possibilities
This morning I got a phone
call from the campus post office. The erhu I had sent off to
Krystal in Canada had been returned to sender. The reason
given is that it has the skin of a snake on the resonator drum.
Unfortunately, this email came back immediately with a notice saying that Mr. Wang's email inbox is full, and my message had been rejected. If anybody reading this can shed some light on this situation, I would really appreciate it.
The erhu makes such beautiful music. But this isn't worth wiping out an entire species. Not when there are so many other materials available. As a card carrying hippy tree hugger, I just hope for good news about this.
September 10, 2008 Teachers' Day in China
A young man named Day and another student came by with this cake from English 0701.
Did I mention the lily? We're being showered in moon cakes. They sure make us feel welcome here. To all our students who sent their best wishes, a big thanks. We love you all.
September 9, 2008 This Site is Back
After a very frustrating week of contacting tech support for my
server, and for the FTP program I use, I finally got in
touch with my friend Gary Hammer, who lived across the hall
from us here two years ago but now lives in the United States.
Gary got me to set up a program called Crossloop, that let him
take control of my computer from America. He checked out my FTP
client (SmartFTP) and my server (Dreamhost) for me and uploaded a
couple of files. Conclusion - there's nothing wrong with the
server or the FTP software. Something was blocking me from
sending files, most likely the LAN at this university.
It's good to have my voice back.
Dinner Invitations, Performance Requests and Birthday Parties
I took Ruth out for an all you can eat Japanese food dinner on her birthday last Saturday. This coming Saturday I'm hosting the official birthday surprise party.
Regular classes don't really get underway until next week, though I've had two of my News Reading classes already. Today Ruth and I will sing an English song as part of the program to welcome freshmen to the university. Tomorrow evening we have a dinner feast with the teachers and administration. Later this month we have an invitation to join the Municipal Government for a dinner to celebrate the 59th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China. That too promises to be a feast.
I had a request from Krystal in Canada to buy her an erhu, so I had fun shopping for one for her. I'm off to the post office to send it to her this afternoon.
Never a dull moment in China.
September 2, 2008 I'm Now Published
For a few days I lost the ability to update this site. I'm now back. And the news is that I'm now a published restaurant reviewer. We picked up the most recent issue of Wuxi Life magazine yesterday, and there my two reviews were, as expected.
That's fun. I always wanted to be a restaurant critic. I shall now learn to speak like Christopher Lee (the voice of the restaurant critic in Ratatouille.) Actually, I worked with Christopher Lee many years ago. A real gentleman. He's a trained opera singer, and I could never come close to imitating his voice.
August 30, 2008 Safely Home...in China
Well, it was a totally great vacation and now it's over. During the summer I become homeless, and feel quite disconnected. A big thank you to all my friends and family who showed me such kindness and generosity.
After an uneventful flight, which seemed almost too short, we're back in our apartment at Jiangnan University in Wuxi. We have reclaimed our dog, had a dinner with Elaine, who returned a few days earlier from Israel, unpacked, given GouGou a bath, had our first shopping trip to get basic supplies, during which we introduced our new colleague, Reid Mitchell, to the western style big box in Wuxi's New District, and as I write this are enjoying a visit from our young friend George. Ruth is showing off her pictures of summer in Winnipeg. In an hour we're going out to dinner with Reid and Jin Bo, our liaison to the administration here. I have one day to prepare for my first class of the Fall term, Western Periodical Reading, which happens at 8:00am on Monday morning.
August 27, 2008 My Past Catches up with Me
Today I had a dentist appointment, so I was up at six and on my way to the commuter train by ten after seven. But wait, what's that across the street from the train station. It looks like....
Yes it is. It's a film crew setting up to shoot something.
And what a surprise to find that my old friend Neill Fearnley is the director.
It was great to see Neill, and it was nice to learn that I'm
not completely forgotten within the industry. I will admit to a stab
of jealousy, seeing Neill gainfully employed in the position I
enjoyed for so many years. But then he told me what he is
doing, and the jealousy evaporated. He's shooting a Made for
TV movie and Neill gets twelve days to put it in the can.
Twelve days???? That is terrible. To put it in
perspective, the last Made for TV movie I directed had 32
shooting days. The last movie of my own that I cared about had
more than sixty shooting days.
My dentist, Doctor George, asked me if I miss the old life, and I could honestly answer no without it feeling like sour grapes. Maybe someday I'll make another movie within the mainstream industry, but it won't be a made for television product on a twelve day shooting schedule. That kind of work can't compete with what I'm doing these days.
Ruth is flying to Vancouver tomorrow and we'll meet at the Vancouver airport. We'll be back in our apartment on campus at Jiangnan University on Friday afternoon. It's been a great holiday, a great summer. Time to get back to work.
August 25, 2008 Congratulations to China
The papers over here in Canada are all full of praise for the Beijing Olympics. Congratulations, China. Your coming out party was a great success. In fact, Canada is now worried that the 2008 Olympics will be an impossible act to follow when the Olympics come to Vancouver in 2010. Of course there are the critics (reduced to nit picking at this point) but I'm now starting to hear objections to the China bashing that our media is so fond of. And today's papers are full of praise. What a show. What a triumph.
My Vacation Winds Down, but Much Was Accomplished
I got the maintenance done for my house, including replacing the entire sewer connection.
I also had a wonderful dinner with Tony and Donna, attended by my sister Catherine, Cousin Belle and her husband Ken, Reta and Martin and Darlene and Ken. Some of my Chinese friends will remember Tony, Donna, Reta, Martin, Ken and Darlene from their visit to Wuxi. (If not, scroll down to the May 27 entry.) They are still bubbling with praise for China and their brief time at Jiangnan University, with particular mention of Panda, Leonardo, William, George and Winkle, and Wang Rulong. You guys made quite the impression on your visitors.
Tony and Donna have a gorgeous estate on Wonnock Lake. It's too much for them to handle now, so they'll be selling and downsizing. I'm glad I got to see their place before they move. Pictures do not do it justice.
Ken plays a great selection of sing along songs accompanying himself with the guitar. I had a great time improvising fiddle licks to the familiar tunes on the violin.
Speaking of violins, I'm completely in love with my new violin hand made by Shí Ruìlín in Shanghai. (scroll down to see that story) Not only is it a joy to play, it never fails to knock me out with the beauty of the wood it's made from, especially in bright sunlight which brings out the wood grain in shifting gold patterns. My old friend and violin teacher, Ivernia Cullerne, gave me half a dozen tangos to learn, and I'm having great fun practicing them. The plan is to get Ruth up to speed with the guitar chords and then find a couple of dancers at Jiangnan university who can perform with us. Shouldn't be impossible.
Random Vacation Pictures:
They have a commuter train from Maple Ridge into Vancouver now. It can't compare to the fast train from Shanghai to Nanjing, but it's something at least. It runs down the valley from Mission in the morning, but doesn't run back until the afternoon. This means that a trip to Vancouver takes all day, whether I want to stay there or not.
Two more days of vacation left, and then I meet Ruth at the Vancouver airport for the flight back to Shanghai. Summer has gone by in the blink of an eye. Regrets: I didn't manage to connect with Michael Clarke and Cindy, nor with Cynthia Sophia the Baroness von Rhau, nor with Florentia Scott, nor did I get to sail on Godfrey's new boat. Maybe next year.
August 11, 2008 the Vacation continues
Time flies by,
but I'm getting things done. Today my formal invitation from
the Chinese government arrived, so early tomorrow morning I
shall catch the commuter train to Vancouver and take the documents
in to the Chinese embassy. That should complete everything to
get my visa for the coming term.
On Saturday I was lucky enough to catch a play, "Proof", that was directed by my friend Gordon May. A wonderful production and a very interesting play, the story of a young woman who has cared for her brilliant mathematician father, and a mystery about a famous mathematical problem.
Along the way I've been having great conversations with a variety of people, like Gordon's wife Ursula's father, a retired politician who gave me a completely different understanding of the whole Avro Arrow scandal, and like Jock MacNeill, a retired school superintendent who taught for a while in Nigeria but fled the country when civil war broke out, only to learn that his entire staff had been executed a month after his departure.
And I received a letter from William, our Chinese teacher:
How wonderful it is to have friends. Friends take care of me here, and friends in China take care of our dog.
August 5, 2008 the Family Reunion, Goodbye to the Farm
The farm where I spent so much of my childhood and early teen years is leaving the family, sold because nobody has the energy or strength to take care of it any more. Everything is decaying, falling down, rotting, or overgrown like the old biffy below these words.
I remember this biffy being positioned over a fresh hole. My mind and heart is flooded with memories. Rain on a shingle roof. Tiny frogs in the mud cracks. Rodney, as tall as me and my sisters, the terrifying rooster who would attack us in the farm yard (until dad caught him at it and chopped off his head). The heifer we tried to ride. The smell of fresh cut hay. The call of the cock pheasant. Bullfrogs in the pond we all called "the dam", with their croak we could hear for a quarter mile, earning them the name "diesel frogs". Digging fence post holes beside the turkey field, and later stretching the nasty barbed wire, invention of the devil. Working with my dad building huge fires to clear brush. Cows and chickens and ducks and guinea hens. Winter snows on the field and trees. Hoar frost and ice on the creek. The memories go on and on. Seeing the farm was death by nostalgia.
The shed I built with my dad has lost much of its roof and will soon fall down.
The old farmhouse may be razed to make way for a modern home.
And my writers shack, created as a refuge in which I wrote "Skip Tracer", my first feature film, is all but rotted away, hidden in the woods that I myself planted.
The trees, twelve inch seedlings when I planted them, are now forty feet tall. Life is overgrowing all signs of agricultural industry, the fences, the pig pens, the barns, the sheds, the well tended and ordered gardens. It's all gone without a trace. My beloved gully will belong to somebody else.
But the reunion was a celebration of the strength and vitality of my family. The next generation, my kids and their cousins, all look like movie stars.
My generation is looking ... pot bellied and grizzled. We're all getting old.
But the kids are coming up. And they are without exception beautiful.
My family comes in all shapes and sizes, from lean as a strip of beef jerky to super sized. All great people to call kin folk.
It was fun being a member of the older generation, and letting the kids do the work. My sisters and cousins did a fantastic job of decorating, preparing, and setting up the family photo display in the old farmhouse. We were all given potted seedling pine trees to take away, each with a shingle from the old woodshed roof. And somebody did a great job of cleaning up afterwards. All I did was enjoy.
I had been thinking that the farm being sold was all about me, and the end of my childhood. But as I got talking to my family at the reunion, I realized that every one of us have intense memories of the farm, and we all loved the place. There'll be reunions in the future, in venues that don't hold so many ghosts and memories. There'll never be another reunion like this one. I love you all, folks. Thanks for being who you are, my family.
August 1, 2008 Summer in Canada continued...
The weather has been cloudy and damp for the past couple of days, but nobody minds because the lawns and gardens need the rain. Hopefully it will clear up for the family reunion this weekend. I've been testing the B.C. transit facilities and so far the buses, ferries, and trains get high marks. On Tuesday, my brother, Ed, gave me a lift from Maple Ridge to Horseshoe Bay where I caught the ferry to Nanaimo. A short wait at the terminal brought a local bus that took me within walking distance of my Nanaimo house for a meeting with building management people, and they gave me a lift downtown to their office, which is right across the street from the Nanaimo bus depot. The bus for Chemainus left in fifteen minutes, and there I caught a local bus to the Crofton ferry terminal, arriving just in time to watch the ferry leave the dock. So I had an hour or so of studying Chinese in a local cafe before the next ferry.
On the Vesuvius side, Desiree came to get me. We went shopping and she made a delicious curry chicken dinner. The next morning Casey took me for a tour of the fish farm he's been building, and then Desiree delivered me to the ferry to Victoria.
On the Victoria side, the first bus had a dead battery, so we had to wait half an hour for a replacement, but I still got to the passport office before eleven thirty. Such a relief to have my new, 48 page valid for five years, passport in hand at last. After picking up my passport, I walked to the three blocks to the Victoria bus station and had time for a sandwich before the bus to Nanaimo pulled out.
A beautiful ride along the Malahat to Nanaimo, then a ten minute wait for a local bus that dropped me off a block from my friend Clint's door. Just in time to invite myself to dinner with Clint and Linda. We finished one of the blue cheeses I had forgotten in their fridge on my last visit, washed down with Spanish wine, and the barbequed salmon was delicious.
Yesterday morning, Thursday, on their way to the Duke Point terminal, Clint and Linda dropped me off at Departure Bay in time for the 7:55am ferry. I had a good long violin practice in the ferry stairwell, and one kind gentleman even approached with a coin until I thanked him and explained that I was practicing, not busking. The ferry had to wait outside Horseshoe Bay for ten minutes for the harbour to clear, which probably caused the half hour wait for my bus connection to Vancouver, but I still made it to the Chinese consulate visa office by eleven thirty. By two I was on a local bus to the Harbour Front Station, where I had a latte and waited for the train to take me back to Maple Ridge. It's hard to understand why waiting and sitting should be so tiring. My theory is that it all has to do with sensory overload and stress. At any rate, it sure is nice to be back with my family in Maple Ridge.
Time to archive again: So soon. So much has happened in the past few months. The really good stuff is in the archives, folks. I hate to bury it back there, because I fear that nobody will ever click on the links. But you should. Really. I promise.