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The Man in China Archives
January 1 through April 30, 2010

Chinese word of the day:  随便
(su bin literally "follow convenient") = casual, careless, wanton, willful, as one pleases.

April 30, 2010  Culture Shock Again?

Before I came to China, I thought I was immune to culture shock.  Culture shock is only for the squeamish.  I was ready to eat bugs, or see live chickens dispatched in the market.  No problem.  But since then I've come to appreciate that culture shock can be much more subtle than the truly shocking.  Culture shock is happening anytime I'm thinking: What is wrong with these people? 

Strause Waltz in China, Jiangnan University, Wuxi

Wednesday evening this week we attended a concert on campus.  Delightful music played on two pianos, with a string quartet playing Pachelbel's Canon, one of our favorite pieces, thrown in for variety.  But all through the performance, people in the audience were talking.  Not in whispers, but in a normal voice, like they were listening to a CD in their kitchen.  For me it was like listening to a radio tuned between stations, or like that old Simon and Garfunkel version of "Silent Night" with the world news broadcast mixed in for irony.  I found myself getting angry.  What is wrong with these people?  But that's the wrong question.  The question is, what's wrong with me?  This is their country, and their culture.  None of the Chinese in the audience seemed the least bit concerned.  Most were having their own conversations at times.  If they take a much more casual approach to music concerts than is the norm in my uptight culture, who am I to be critical, or to try to correct them. 
     The audience called for an encore, and it was great to hear Scott Joplin's "The Entertainer" played as a duet in China.  I need to adjust my attitude.  Again.

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Sex Education in Chinese Schools

I'm told there is no sex education in Chinese schools, or if it happens it's because of the initiative of an individual teacher.  I took another poll of my students and was surprised to find strong support for the idea.  One class was unanimously in favour.

A vot of 23 to 3 in favour of sex education in Chinese schools.  Came as a surprise to me.  Jiangnan University, Wuxi, China

Sex of course is physically, emotionally, and socially dangerous.  I tell my students that sex is much more dangerous now than it was when I was their age.  Back then you could catch a disease, but the disease could be cured.  Now sex can kill you. 
     It seems to me that ignorance increases any danger.  If, like my dog, you don't know enough to look both ways before crossing the road, doing so is very dangerous.  Once you know how to deal with it, the road becomes pretty safe.  Never completely safe, of course.  There's always the chance that a drunk could swerve and get you while you walk down the sidewalk.  But a lot safer than if you haven't been taught how to minimize the danger.  Knowledge reduces danger for just about anything, yet sex education in schools is still a very controversial issue in many regions of North America.
     My class this week was a chance to introduce the students to some vocabulary they're not likely to have encountered before.  Words like puberty, abstinence, condom, genitals, pedophile, deviants, perverts, predators, menstruation.  I didn't talk about specific practices, fetishes, or even variations.  But I did try to explain the sex education issue and why there is a controversy over it.  Leaving aside those who believe that sex education belongs with the parents, despite the fact that many parents are ignorant or too uptight to accomplish any real education, it comes down to the question of what should be taught, and when. 
     There are those who say that there is no such thing as safe sex, and therefore the only thing to teach children is that sex is bad and dangerous and don't do it.  Abstinence.  The other side believes that trying to stifle one of humanity's strongest drives simply doesn't work, results in things like priests molesting orphans, and that a certain percentage of young people will have sex no matter what they are told.  Thus harm reduction is the only sensible approach - education about contraceptives and condom use. 
     There are those who would delay introducing the topic until just before marriage, those who would introduce it just before or just after puberty, and those, like myself, who believe that sex education in an age appropriate form should begin in kindergarten.
     I'm not out to destroy the innocence of childhood.  But ignorance is not innocence.  The first question a pedophile asks a child is what his or her genitals are called.  If the child doesn't know, or knows only the childish euphemisms such as "wee wee" or "thing", then the predator knows that child has no adult in their life that they talk to about their body.  It marks a child as "safe", a potential victim, and that makes the child more vulnerable.  Three year olds should know where babies come from, how they happen, and what the various body parts involved are called, both technically and in street language.  They should be taught what behavior from an adult is appropriate, and what is not.  They don't need to be frightened of strangers, but they do need to know that they can tell adults anything and be believed.
     Speaking of talking to strangers, the best thing a child can do in a situation where they are lost or confused is to pick a stranger to talk to.  Children have pretty good instincts.  The chances of picking a predator are miniscule, but a child who looks alone and frightened is a target.

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Chinese word of the day: 玉米花 or 爆米花
(y mǐ huā or bo mǐ huā literally "corn flower" or "explode corn flower") = popcorn

Opening ceremonies at the 4th Yangtze River Delta Job Fair for Foreign Professionals, Nanjing, China

April 25, 2010 Job Fair for Foreign Professionals in Nanjing

This past Friday afternoon we boarded a chartered bus at the North gate and set off for Nanjing, where we enjoyed a delicious buffet dinner, an evening of exploring, and a night in a five star hotel as guests of the Jiangsu Provincial Bureau of Foreign Experts Affairs.  Saturday morning found us part of the crowd attending the Yangtze River Delta Job Fair for Foreign Professionals.  

Opening ceremonies at the 4th Yangtze River Delta Job Fair for Foreign Professionals, Nanjing, China   A chance to schmooze at the 4th Yangtze River Delta Job Fair for Foreign Professionals, Nanjing, China

Since we're not looking for a job, we went out of curiosity and for a night on the town in Nanjing.  But the job fair turned out to be more interesting than I expected.  We were given a welcome package that included a dinner and breakfast voucher for the hotel, plus a thick book of "Requests for Foreign Experts" - job openings.  These ranged from the standard English teacher positions to "Specialist on fish and shellfish (clam) breeding, able to speak English and Japanese.", with all manner of engineering and medical specialties in between. 

The only potential employer that interested me at the 4th Yangtze River Delta Job Fair for Foreign Professionals, Nanjing, China   Jack explores potentials at the 4th Yangtze River Delta Job Fair for Foreign Professionals, Nanjing, China

Most of the booths at the actual fair were from universities and schools, though a whole row had all their posted information only in Chinese and were obviously looking for foreigners who know the language.

I saw no fatalities.  The 4th Yangtze River Delta Job Fair for Foreign Experts, Nanjing, China   I do appreciate the window dressing.  The 4th Yangtze River Delta Job Fair for Foreign Professionals, Nanjing, China
It's one of the mysteries of China: Why, with so many foreigners available, does the embarrassing Chinglish still
show up so frequently on Chinese signs? ( May this situation never be improved.)

This was my first time at this kind of job fair, and I came away impressed.  It was interesting to talk to so many potential employers in one location.  If I really was looking for a job, this would be the place to be.

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And Afterwards another Mystery of China:

Before the bus took us back to Wuxi, we had an hour of wandering in the temple market area. As usual it was fun to look for the unusual amidst the standard tourist gack.  I picked up a couple of silk tai chi suits, which I will use as pajamas on occasion.  Here's the scene:

Temple market, Nanjing, China

This is the temple market.  Exactly the same layout and shops can be found in most cities in China.  But there's a guy in the corner with a red plastic bucket and he's cleaning something at the water tap.

    In the middle of the tourist shops, what's in the bucket?  Temple market area, Nanjing, China

So the question is, what's in the bucket?

Mmmm Mmmnnn!  Turtle soup for dinner.  Nanjing, China

And the answer is dinner, in the shape of a very dead turtle.  But why here?  Why now?  Doesn't he have a kitchen?  Is this for a restaurant?  Doesn't the restaurant have a kitchen?  Why at a water tap in the corner of a downtown market crowded with tourists?  So many questions, and just one more of the sights that make China so endlessly fascinating.

The only seat in the bus where my legs can survive the trip.  Returning from the 4th Yangtze River Delta Job Fair, Nanjing, China.
Can anything feel more elegant than silk?  120 RMB ($17.50 CDN) complete with trousers.
No doubt there will be those who say I overpaid, but bargaining can only go so hard before
my conscience kicks in.  There's a huge amount of hand work in this garment.

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View from the tour boat window on West Lake,  Hangzhou, China

Chinese word of the day: 乌龟蛋
(wū guī dn literally "turtle egg") = bastard (slang)

April 22, 2010 More Liberal than I Expected

Today my News Reading for non-English Majors class read a story in their textbook from The Economist, May 3, 1991, about exotic dancers in a San Francisco sex club who went on strike to form their own union.  The textbook suggested two discussion questions: 1. Should stripping be considered a legitimate profession and 2. Should stripping be allowed (I'm told it isn't allowed in China.)
     After the students had a few minutes for discussion, I took an informal vote.  Much to my surprise, the class turned out to be far more liberal than I expected.  I really didn't think we'd get a single vote for allowing strippers to work, or for calling it a legitimate profession.

Students vote on the question of whether strippers should be allowed to work.  Jiangnan University, Wuxi, China

Results of the student vote on the issue of allowing strippers to work.  Jiangnan University, Wuxi, China

One of the girls did a nice job of summing up her argument for allowing strippers to work - banning them only drives them underground where they are harder to control and can't be protected by the law.  But as you can see, the vote was far from unanimous. 
     I asked one of the opposing students why he felt that stripping should be illegal.  He said that it's a moral issue, and that it's traditional in China to take this position.  I explained the western view, or at least the liberal western view, that the government doesn't exist to enforce morality.  After all, there are moralists in Canada and America who would make dancing and wearing makeup illegal. 
     That student also told me that morality comes from God, which I suppose means that an atheist like myself can't possibly have any morals.  Of course I strongly disagree.  I don't think I need God, or the threat of eternal punishment, to tell me whether something is right or wrong.  It's surprising to hear this argument from a student in an officially atheist country.
    
I also pointed out that many things were traditional in the past which are not allowed today, such as the beating of wives, cock fighting, and dueling.  Some things that were illegal in the past, such as blasphemy and homosexuality, are now legal, at least in Canada.  So tradition seems a weak argument for a law.
     Getting students to argue with me in class can be frustrating.  This is very much against the Chinese educational tradition.  In China, the teacher is the one who has the wisdom, and the students are expected to soak that wisdom up so that they can regurgitate it on the exam.  The idea of arguing with a teacher is really foreign to them.

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A covered walkway on the island in West Lake, Hangzhou, China

Chinese word of the day: 制片人
(zh pin rn literally "system component person") = movie producer

April 20, 2010 Home from another Outing

This past weekend we were again treated to a whirlwind tour of scenic China, this time to the famous West Lake of Hangzhou.

The trails around West Lake were jammed with tour groups in identical hats.  Hangzhou, China  It was a great day for kids in West Lake Park, Hangzhou, China 
It was a bright and clear day, the first for weeks, and the park around the lake was crowded.

Spring flowers were in bloom in West Lake Park, Hangzhou, China Uh, yes.  I see that it's water.  Thanks. Spring flowers were in bloom in West Lake Park, Hangzhou, China
The Chinese writing says: "railing side please pay attention security" but you have to admire the terse English translation.

Not a swastika.  The Chinese symbol is called wn, the fourth of auspicious. Thanks for holding my picture frame straight.  West Lake Park, Hangzhou, China

  Sometimes I really resent what the Nazis did to a perfectly good symbol of "perfect virtues and merit".

  I neglected to thank this guy for holding my picture frame square with his forehead.

The next stop after West Lake was a Xixi Wetlands park, also very crowded but serenely enjoyable once we were on the boat and touring the waterways.

The lineup started outside.  Wetlands Park, Hangzhou, China  Jim is a natural clown, and loves posing with the pretty girls.  Wetland Park, Hangzhou, China  The lineup started outside and continued under cover.  Wetlands Park, Hangzhou, China
Jim claims this is why he has no motivation to lose weight.  His Buddha persona  is a chick magnet here.
In the very long lineup for the boat cruise through the wetlands, Jim was constantly invited to pose for pictures. 

Jim and Janet enjoy the boatride through the wetlands.  Hangzhou, China  View from the tour boat as we cruise the Xixi wetlands, Hangzhou, China 

The next day we stopped at a bamboo forest park, called the Bamboo Sea, in Wuxi.  It was raining a bit, and the crowds were thinner.  The air in in the bamboo was delightful, and a sign informed us that it was ionized by the foliage and that breathing deeply for fifteen minutes would make one relaxed and energetic.

All bamboo, all the time.  A rest area in the bamboo park.  China  These roofs look so simple.  They'd fit right in to the B.C. rainforest.
I really would love to get a container load of timber bamboo back in Canada just so I could play with it and build some covered walkways and gazebos.  I'm particularly impressed with bamboo roofs.  They seem so simple and functional. 

Source water for Tai Hu, the large lake near our campus.  One of several sources, no doubt.
The writing on the rock inform us that this is the source water for Tai Hu, the big lake near our campus.

After the park we went to a restaurant that specialized in wild game from the mountain, featuring wild rabbit, wild mountain chicken, mountain goat, hedgehog, and cicada.  I could eat cicada all day, but most of the company was much more.... okay, the only word I can think of is "revolted" by the bugs.

Ruth was not revolted.  In fact, I think she's coming to like the cicadas almost as much as I do. 

Our final stop on the way home was the Violet Sand Earthenware Village, a ceramic district near Wuxi, where we watched artisans making teapots and these little guys caught my attention.  They are Jinchan (gold toads), which will supposedly help the owner hang on to his money.  They have a cute trick, demonstrated below, of changing colour when hot water is poured over them

The Jinchan looks duller in reality than it does in this picture...  until the hot water hits it, whereupon it turns a bright golden yellow.

This Jinchan was even more impressive, going from almost black to...  a clear jade green and white.

Once again our wonderful administration gave us a weekend to remember, complete with accommodations in a five star hotel and food we've never had before, even after almost six years in China.  Thank you Ms. Liu, Michael Bian,  Mr. Ding and all the staff of the International Office.

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Enclosed footbridge across the canal, Wuxi, China

Chinese word of the day:  混响
(hn xiǎng n. literally "mix loud") = reverberation

April 14, 2010 Talking about Acoustics

The whip is finished, and it serves the only possible purpose a whip can serve for me in this day and age,  since I don't have a bull to whip and am not attracted to S&M.  My new bullwhip makes a great demonstration prop for a discussion of acoustics.  Last week I promised my classes that I would break the sound barrier, and that's what I've been doing.

On the board, the subject is fast draw and acoustics.  The students have their heads down, playing a game called "Talk About the Past".  Jiangnan University, Wuxi, China
Double click on the picture above to see the demonstration of breaking the sound barrier.

The scobie hitch on the ball of my new bullwhip.  Slower to tie than a Turk's-head, but totally secure.  The finished bullwhip, now only of use to introduce a discussion of acoustics.  Jiangnan University, Wuxi, China
The ball at the end of the handle is now a scobie hitch.   I liked the look of the Turk's-head better.  But with the wrist strap coming out on each side, a Turk's-head turned out to be impossible to balance and tighten. It would come off for sure.  The scobie hitch is on for good.

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My Whip Story

I first owned an Australian kangaroo hide bullwhip back in the mid seventies.  At the time I was an active member of the Thunderbird Fast Draw club, which met on Sundays at a local indoor range and turned the air blue with black powder smoke.  We had Bob Mernickle, the world champion at double balloons, in the club.  He could draw a single action pistol and fire two rounds, breaking two balloons ten feet apart, in twenty-two one hundredth of a second.  It takes about fifteen one hundredths of a second to blink your eyes, so Bob was fast. 
     Guys like Bob paid a lot of attention to their guns, which were altered for fast draw with aluminum barrels and cylinders and would probably blow up if a real round was put through them.  Bob would sit for hours, watching television, cleaning and polishing his gun.  A request to handle or inspect Bob's gun would be met with a cold refusal, as if you had asked to fondle something more intimate than a cold piece of steel and aluminum.
     On my first visit to the club with the whip, Bob asked if he could try it.  We went out on the driveway behind the clubhouse.  Bob drew his hand back and then jerked it forward, which is not the smooth motion one makes to get the whip to crack.  The whip responded by picking his gun up out of his holster and dropping it on the gravel driveway.  I don't think he could have done that on purpose if he tried for a month.
     That should give you some idea of how tricky a bullwhip can be, and it explains why I'll demonstrate for my students, but none of them get to give it a try.  My new whip could take out an eye with no trouble at all.

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People in the Pasta - the Terminal 'A' problem.

The Chinese language has no words at all that end in a hard consonant, like 'd' or 't'.  So the tendency for Chinese students of English is to add an 'a' and soften the sound.  Thus "last Spring" becomes "lasta Spring" and  "past" becomes "pasta".
     I'm always looking for a way to impress on my students the importance of not adding that extra syllable. Today I explained what pasta is, and drew a rather crude picture of what "people in the pasta" might look like.

No no no.  You mean, people in the past, not people in the pasta.  Jiangnan University, Wuxi, China

I'm hoping this kind of connection will make them more careful about adding that terminal 'a' to words.

Brand New Bund, Brand New Chinglish

They are dressing up Shanghai for Expo 2010, which opens in less than a month now.  Part of the beautification has been done on the famous Bund, the walk along the river.  It's been widened, and simplified to make a long pedestrian walkway. 

The newly renovated Bund, ready for Shanghai's Expo 2010.

And below is the sign directing tourists to the toilets.

Great fun showing students what "go backwards" means to a native speaker.  Jiangnan University, Wuxi, China

Amazing to me that, with all the native speakers in China now, they don't verify that a sign is correct BEFORE they pay to have it made, but I hope they never catch on.  I love the Chinglish.  It's one of the most entertaining aspects of China.

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We get the occasional sparkling Spring day this time of year.  Jiangnan University, Wuxi, China

Chinese word of the day: 驯服母老虎
(xn f mǔ lǎo hǔ - tame the tigress) Working title for a Chinese language adaptation of "The Taming of the Shrew"

April 8, 2010 The Basis of Morality in China

My contract here says that I must not promote religion, or engage in political activity, so I try to avoid discussions of these topics in my classes.  But I do see my job, in part, to be promoting an understanding of Western culture and thought.  I've also come to see my students as a great resource for gaining an insight into contemporary Chinese culture and thinking.  Instead of just telling them what I think, and what most people in my culture think, I've been actively investigating what they think.  The results have often been surprising.

Send the professor to jail.  We don't like people who engage in sex with multiple partners.  Jiangnan University, Wuxi, China Turn the Nanjing professor loose.  What consenting adults do in private is none of our business.  Jiangnan University, Wuxi, China
A show of hands - the professor deserves jail time. The charges should be dropped..

Back in March, a famous Chinese sociologist, Li Yinhe, caused a flap by suggesting that China's law against "practicing and organizing orgies" was outdated and should be scrapped.  At the time nobody had been charged with this offence for over two decades.  Just a few weeks later, as if to make a point, the police arrested a 55 year old Nanjing professor, Ma Yaochun,and charged him with this "crime".
     As I understand it, Ma Yaochun didn't organize anything, and didn't even realize that he was committing a crime until he was arrested.  He was just a guy in an unhappy marriage who wandered into Internet dating sites, discovered the swinger community, and began to participate in a more liberated sexual lifestyle.  Everything was consensual.  Everything was between adults.  We're talking about wife swapping and swinger parties, activities that would attract no official attention in the West. But the professor is now facing a possible five year jail term.
      Some countries have moral codes that are very hard for Western liberals to comprehend.  Islamic fundamentalists take young athletes off a bus and execute them for the crime of wearing shorts.  A school teacher is jailed for allowing a student to name his Teddy bear Mohamed, and protesters gather outside the prison to demand her death.  Recently in Dubai, a foreign couple was jailed for kissing in public.  The people behind these events don't think of themselves as bad people.  In fact, they think we are the bad people.  They are trying to enforce their morality.  But their morality is based on something very different from mine - the authority of their religious leaders, holy book, and religious beliefs.
     Many religious people believe that morality must come from a belief in God, or an authority such as the Bible or the Qur'an.  But obviously this is not the only source of morality.  In Richmond, British Columbia, serious violence broke out in the Sikh community over the question of whether to have chairs in their temple.  A few years earlier, a Sikh father sent his daughter a kettle full of dynamite as a wedding present, because she refused the marriage he had arranged and married without his approval.  Their morality appears to be based more on tradition.
     Humanists base their morality on concepts such as the greatest good for the greatest number, or equality of all people, or reverence for human life and human wellbeing.  They might argue that if a practice does no harm, does not involve coercion, and only affects practitioners who are consenting adults, then nobody has a right to interfere.    
     Last week I decided to find out what my students think is the basis for their morality.  Interestingly, one of the first answers I got to the questions was "patriotism".

The basis of morality in China discussion, and a vote on whether the Nanjing professor should go to jail for "organizing and participating in orgies".  Jiangnan University, Wuxi, China

     I also thought I'd find out what my students think about the Nanjing professor who is facing a five year jail term for his swinging lifestyle, so I put it to a vote.  The question:  should the professor go to jail or not?  The result in the first class I asked: 24 to 1 in favour of jail.  Other classes, such as the class results on the blackboard above, were more... tolerant.  But still every class voted a majority for jail time.
     I put the same question to my News Reading for Non-English Majors class.  They are not freshmen, like my oral English students, and maybe they are a bit more sophisticated or worldly.  But still over half the class voted to jail the professor.
    It's easy to assume that these sweet and agreeable young people think the way we do.  They don't.  Most are comfortable with a government in a parental role, taking complete responsibility for all social decisions, and most take it as the right of the majority to tell people how to behave both in public and in private.  Most believe it is correct to jail a consenting adult who gives consent too liberally.

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Cultural Relativity be Damned

Recently I had a reason to look up the history of foot binding in China.  I found this very interesting article by James A. Crites.

Chinese girl with bound feet, lifted from an article by James A. Cirtes.
Photograph by Isiah W. Taber, San Francisco.

Mr. Crites ends his article with a pitch for cultural relativism:

     "However, let's not condemn this practice for we cannot judge it in respect to our own culture. To fully understand a practice such as foot binding we have to practice cultural relativism. That is we must suspend our own personal judgment and attempt to understand this custom in China's own cultural terms. "
                                                         Jim@eCrites.com

I strongly disagree with this, but I think I know where this comes from.  Westerners, mostly religious missionaries, have had a nasty habit of making judgments about other cultures and imposing arbitrary rules from their own - instructing women to cover their breasts, imposing silliness like "the missionary position" on sexual practices, and generally sticking their blue noses in where they don't belong.  In reaction the sociologists and anthropologists invented the concept of cultural relativism, the idea that we can't criticize another culture unless we are part of it.  It's a pendulum swing in the other direction, and I think it's wrong.
     I think we can have some very simple rules about what is good or bad in a culture, and there should be such a thing as universal human rights that transcend cultures.  Among the rules I would suggest are the following:

1. If the practice creates a class of human beings who have fewer rights, privileges, or abilities than another class, then it is clearly wrong.  So I can say that I think the caste system in India is wrong, as was the class system in England or the feudal system in Russia.  I can say that a culture that denies education, or a driver's license, to women is wrong.  A culture that allows the crippling of children to make them better beggars is wrong, as was a culture that turned girls into cripples by binding their feet. The leadership of China made this judgment about foot binding in their culture, and ended the practice.  Obviously they saw it as wrong too.

2. If the practice is imposed without the free consent of those affected, I can say that it is wrong.  So I think we can speak against arranged marriages, selling of children into sexual slavery, genital mutilation of infants (both boys and girls), and foot binding.

To say that we can't criticize another culture is absurd.  I can criticize my own culture, and do.  I'm convinced that someday the fact that it is currently legal in Canada to cut off part of an infant boy's penis with no medical justification will be viewed with horror and disgust.  I make judgments about my own culture, and I'm going to continue to make judgments about other cultures.  Call me judgmental, but you can keep your cultural relativism.

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Whip Report

The bull whip is essentially finished.  It came out at ten and a third feet, not counting the fall and popper.  I want to rework the Turk's-heads on the handle.  Also, the leather for the fall turned out to be too brittle.  Two cracks and the popper would break off.  I've replaced the cow hide fall you see in this picture with a kangaroo hide fall, but I'd like to eventually find something thicker.

My first attempt at whip making, finished.  Now I can break the sound barrier.

I can now demonstrate my ability to break the sound barrier and everybody seems to be impressed with the workmanship.  Making this whip turned out to be more difficult and time consuming than I expected, but isn't that always the way it goes.  Such arrogance on my part to think that I can match the work of a professional who has spent years learning a craft.  I think I came close though.  Now it seems I'll have to make a second whip, just to make use of everything I learned making this one.  That will have to wait until my plaiting induced tendonitis dies down and I get a couple more kangaroo hides from Australia.
     I'm going to write up the whole process soon, and maybe send that in to a how-to site.

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Spring has come to Jiangnan University and the cherry blossoms are out.  Wuxi, China

Chinese word of the day:  乐此不疲
( l cǐ b p literally pleasure this not exhausted) never be bored - idiom applicable to tedious hobbies like plaiting a whip.

March 27, 2010  Adventures in Teaching English

The week before this last one I reminded my students of the real reason I'm in China - to help them learn English.  It's easy to forget this sometimes, with all the interesting things I get to do here. 
     I usually begin each class by putting up a fill-in-the-blanks sentence on the board, and have each student complete the sentence during attendance.  That way I'm sure to hear the voice of every student at least once during the class.  This also lets me get to know the students a bit, and maybe even learn their names.  Below at the top of the black board is the sentence for the week of March 15:
I asked them what their biggest problem was in learning English, then corrected the word "problem" to be "challenge".  Let's treat learning a second language as a challenge, not a problem.

Fear, the biggest impediment to learning English.  Jiangnan University, Wuxi, China

Most of the challenges turned out to be mere mechanics.  To solve them only involves doing the work - reading, practicing, listening.  We can pick up vocabulary painlessly, without constantly running to the dictionary, the same way a child picks up vocabulary, by reading and listening and getting the meaning from the context. 

I don't like English but I have to learn it.  Talk about making it difficult.  Jiangnan University, Wuxi, China

But as you can see on the board, one student really nailed it: "I don't like learning English but I have to learn it." 
     It's hard, if not impossible, to make yourself do things you don't like or want to do.  That's my biggest challenge as a language teacher - to convince my students that learning a language can be fun, interesting, exciting, rewarding.  To get my students to love learning English.  Learning English turns out to be an emotional problem, above all else.

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The Emotional Life

When I was a child it was widely believed that emotions make for bad decisions.  The best decisions, everybody thought, were made logically, coldly, with no emotional confusion.  This turns out to be nonsense.  With recent discoveries in brain science and theory of the mind, our understanding of the roll emotion plays in decision making has been turned on its head. 
    
Without emotions, we can't make ANY decisions.  This now seems so obvious.  After all, things only matter because of emotions.  Without emotions, how can we prefer one outcome over another? We use the more evolved part of our brains to predict the future.  We use the more primitive, emotional part of our brain to decide which future we would like, and which we should avoid.  Decisions are a logic/emotion partnership.
Many of my students told me that their biggest challenge in learning English was:  "I can't clearly express my feelings."  So that lead to this week's class on the theme of feelings and emotions.

Expressing feelings at Jiangnan University, Wuxi, China
     My favourite sentence to come from this attendance: "Whenever I'm in David's class I feel encouraged."  Thanks Doris.

My students all know these words.  Well, except for archaic words like "gruntled", for which we now only use the negative - disgruntled.  And "ruth", my fiance's name meaning "compassion", another real word not recognized by Microsoft's spell checker for which we only use the negative - ruthless.  I know they can express their feelings much better than they think they can.
     Part of the problem is that learning English has been made into work for them.  Instead of emphasizing communication, they are ground down with grammar, pronunciation, and memorization of new words.  I can tell you, if I was a young Chinese I would hate English, and probably hate the foreigners who come here to teach it.  What a drag it must be to be nationalistic and patriotic, to be proud of your culture and heritage, yet be told constantly that your language is not the dominant one in the world, and success depends on imitating foreigners.  Yet if they could just come to love learning English, enjoy speaking English, rejoice at finding a new word or interesting idiom, how much easier their studies would be.

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Okay, Class, Get Into the Formation

I'm teaching mostly oral English this term, and one of the challenges has been to get students to interact with more than one other student.  If I tell them to change partners, I'm in for ten minutes of milling around and confusion.

My students arranged to make changing partners easy.  Jiangnan University, Wuxi, China
My students "in the formation".  We couldn't do this last term because the classrooms were too small.

But I've got the problem solved.  I get them to take seats along the edge of the rows of desks.  When my alarm goes off, after five minutes with one partner, the outside line simply stands up and moves back one desk, and the end of the line comes to the front.  Viola.  Instant partner change.

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Speaking of Viola

Two years ago I bought my Burmese bird's eye maple violin from the violin maker in Shanghai.  I love that instrument, probably more for its looks than its sound.  Last Sunday we did a day trip into Shanghai to help our friend Marion find a case and bow for her violin in Australia. So we went to the same shop where I bought my violin and there, on the rack, was a Burmese maple viola.  I fell instantly in love with it's deep rich tone, but I would have bought it just for its looks.  So now I have a matched set of violin and viola.  Does life get better than this?

My favourite master violin maker, Shanghai, China.

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Here are a few pictures from our day in Shanghai.

Our Australian friend Marion in the antigue market, Shanghai, China

                Marion with her new violin case.   

Worlds most elegant portapotties.

 We're pretty sure it was a sheep. Muslim meat market in Shanghai, China.
A Muslim meat market in Shanghai.  Interesting deboning happening.

The pet market in Shanghai, China.  Lots of variety but no snakes.
Everything from crickets to parrots, but no snakes.

This prehistoric beast was not for sale.  Pet market in Shanghai, China First time I've seen a chinchilla in a pet store.  I used to have one when I was a kid.  Long story.

The Chinese seem to be very fond of turtles. This prehistoric critter was for display only.  Not for sale.

This is a chinchilla.  I had one as a pet when I was a pre-teen but I've never seen one in a pet store.

   Shanghai barber at work on the street.  Shanghai, China.  The very definition of low overhead.
A barber at work in Shanghai.  Very low overhead.

A display of serious concentration.  Shanghai Peoples Square, China
Kung Fu in People Square, Shanghai.

After wandering through the Shanghai pet market and antique street with Marion, we ended the day having dinner with Marion and two of our favourite students from our classes at Harbin University in Weihai.  Jenny and Simon were seniors when we taught in Weihai.  After graduation they moved to Shanghai.  They recently married, and showed off a book of wedding pictures that were simply amazing.

Former students Jenny and Simon, now married and working in Shanghai.
Former students, Jenny and Simon, now married and living in Shanghai.  Congratulations.

Things you Don't Read in the Western Press

I came back from the five minute break between periods to find the monitor making an announcement in Chinese and the students all clapping and cheering.  I asked the monitor to tell me what was happening in English.  He told me that the class was supporting four poor students in an impoverished western province.  They had just had news that one of the students got very high marks on his exams, and that's why they were cheering.  You gotta love these kids.

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Whipping Along

I'm making progress on the bullwhip project, but it's certainly been tedious.  There's a lot more to an Australian bullwhip than meets the eye.  The one I'm making has five layers - a core of four strand plaited kangaroo leather, covered by a bolster (a solid leather wrap), covered by an eight strand plaited belly, covered by a second bolster, and finally the sixteen strand overlay.  Whew.  Its been a steep learning curve.

Tedious.  That's what a good hobby is all about.
My improvised cutter and sixteen strands of kangaroo hide lace, each about twenty feet long.

I've plaited the transition from the over one under one handle pattern to the under two over two thong pattern at least five times.  Three times because I wasn't happy with where it ended up, and a couple of times more because I made a mistake and had to undo it all.  No matter.  This hobby is pretty much over when this whip is finished, at least until I can afford some more kangaroo leather.  So there's no need to rush.  Come to think of it, there's no need for a bullwhip either.  I certainly am subject to strange obsessions and compulsions. 

Just getting started with the sixteen strand overlay.  Jiangnan University, Wuxi, China   No, the dog's not dead.  She just sleeps like that sometimes.
I just knew that ring on our ceiling would come in handy someday.

I think the whip is going to be a thing of beauty.  At least it looks good so far.

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Ruth waits for the delicious pita pocket street food, Wuxi, China

Chinese word of the day: 印象深刻
(ynxing shēnk literally "print image deeply") = impressed.

March 16, 2010  Whipping it Into Shape

The whip making project has been soaking up my spare time this past week.  It's been a great adventure.  I now have an email buddy in Australia who is an experienced whip maker.  He's been sending me tips and photographs of his work.  I've been making my first bullwhip from the kangaroo hides I bought down under.

The bullwhip belly, eight strands over a bolster over four strands.  Still to come, another bolster and sixteen strands. My improvised lace cutter.  The first section of the first five strands successfully cut at 3mm width.
There's a lot more to an Australian bullwhip than meets the eye.  Mine will be five layers - a four strand plaited core, a bolster, an eight strand plaited belly, a second bolster, and finally a sixteen strand plaited overlay.  It's fun to do something with my hands again.

One formula for a whip called for a lead shot loaded belly, but  I can't find lead shot in Wuxi, though I'm sure it must be here someplace. Another instruction called for an eight inch bridge spike to start things off, but I couldn't find one of those either and settled on a long bolt as a substitute.  It took a ride to the 招商场 (zhāo shāng chǎng - attract business market") to find something as common as a C-clamp.  There doesn't seem to be a do it yourself tradition in China, and tools that are very common in Canadian hardware stores are hard to find here.  I'm planning to post the whole whip making process once it is completed.  More on this later.  Right now, let's talk about Chinese culture.

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The First Words We Learned to Read

In Australia we were given a book written by an ex-patriot Chinese, "Mao's Last Dancer" by Li Cunxin.  It's a fascinating story of a poor peasant boy who grew up during the cultural revolution, was chosen to train in Madame Mao's Dance Academy, and defected to the West after Nixon visited China.  One thing that impressed me, of many, was his account of going to school in the 1960's and the first sentence he learned to read:  "I love Chairman Mao".  "Mao's Last Dancer"  by Li Cunxin.  A great read.
     I asked my students last week what the first sentences they learned were.  One response: "I am a Chinese.  I love my country."  Another was "My mother loves me.  My father loves me. I love my mother and father."

  From the Dick and Jane reading primer.  See Dick run.     A page from the Dick and Jane primer.

Contrast this with the first sentences we learned to read.  "See Dick.  See Dick run."  Our primer emphasized independent action,  not emotion or connections.  The connections were there and implied, but not expressed.  Our culture is all about individual actions, with or without others involved.  The Chinese culture is all about community, connection to family and country.
    
I'm not making a judgment here.  Frankly, I prefer my culture.  Western people tend to find emotional expressions of love for family or community a bit embarrassing, even cloying, except on special occasions like weddings and funerals.  It's stating the obvious.  I think my family connections were intense enough without my primary school education re-enforcing them.  But it is interesting to note the difference between my culture and the Chinese culture.  Maybe this is why we find our students such sweet people.

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After the brilliant summer sun of Australia, Jiangnan University campus is subdued and somber.  It's only four in the afternoon and the street lights are on.

 

March 08. 2010 Settling in and Welcomed Home

Chinese word of the day: 公牛 鞭子
(gōng ni biān zi ) bull whip (I'll start making one as soon as I can find a bridge spike and some lead shot.)

What a surprise.  A knock at the door this afternoon and there was a delegation from the administration, lead by our favorite boss lady, with some "Women's Day" flowers for Ruth. 

Ruth and the delegation from the administration, lead by Ms. Liu, with the beautiful bouquet for Women's Day.  Jiangnan University, Wuxi, China

It's this kind of thing that makes us feel so good about living and working here.

First Chinese Class of the New Term

The welcome home contined when Wang Yijing came for our Chinese class, bearing gifts to bring us happiness and prosperity in the Year of the Tiger.

Ruth and Wang Yijing decorate our door in the traditional fashion.  Jiangnan University, Wuxi, China Read right to left, top to bottom.  If you can.  Jiangnan University, Wuxi, China

This traditional Spring Festival door decoration should be read in the ancient way - right to left, top to bottom.  The right hand side of door reads: 金牛踏祥云百事通顺 (jīn ni t xing yn bǎi sh tōng shn) which is to say "Golden cow step on propitious clouds hundred things become no barrier smooth."
    
Across the top reads: 万象更新  (wn xing gēng xīn)  "One thousand images change new", which is idiom we're told means best wishes for the future.
    
The left hand side of the door reads: 玉虎添新翼一家拼安 (y hǔ tiān xīn y y jiā pīn ān)  "Jade tiger add new wings one family safe."

And Our Dog is Home

Panda is wearing the hat we couldn't resist buying for her as we were leaving for Australia.  Bought it in the Shanghai airport.

Our friend Panda took Gou Gou to her home for the Spring Festival Holiday.  While we were in Australia, GouGou was in Hebei Province having a holiday of her own.  Separate vacations.  They arrived back about four on Saturday morning.  Good to have our dog back in the pack.

 Ruth and GouGou.  Good to be home.  Jiangnan University, Wuxi, China  GouGou, exhausted after a night on the train.  Jiangnan University, Wuxi, China   Panda wearing her panda hat and working hard.  Jiangnan University, Wuxi, China

Somber Weather but Green Leaves

The weather in Wuxi since we got back from sunny Australia has been rainy and very dull.  One might say bleak.  But we went for a walk to the peninsula in the little lake, and you can see fresh green leaves on the willows.

Yes, Spring is coming.  You can see green leaves on the willows in this picture.  Jiangnan University, Wuxi, China  Elegant but bleak.  Jiangnan University in early Spring.  Wuxi, China

We ended our fast (For our students, a fast means going completely without food.) on Friday evening.  Six days, minus a couple of hours, ingesting nothing at all except water.  It was an interesting experience.  I shed a bit of the belly I brought back from Australia, and if I can change my eating habits the fat should stay off. 
     There's a lot of controversy over the merits of fasting.  Some claim it will cure everything including cancer.  Others, mostly in the mainstream medical profession, say it is of no value at all and actually dangerous.  I can only judge by how I feel, and the results I got.  Right now I have nothing negative to say about the experience.  I won't claim that it made me feel super healthy, but I felt good, even on day six.  Just taking control of my body for a week seems to me to be worth doing. 

Bright and shiny new trash cans.  Jiangnan University, Wuxi, China

Every time we go out we notice little improvements to this campus, like these new trash bins.  They might not be absolutely necessary, but touches like this sure make the whole university feel upscale.

There's been a lot more going on than I've posted, including a Sunday trip in to Shanghai.  But this is really going to be tedious if I post everything.  I have two classes tomorrow morning.  Time to check my lesson plan and get to bed.

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March 02, 2010 Back in China

Ruth with our Australian hosts.  Sad to leave you guys.  Moe, Victoria, Australia

Chinese word of the day: 绝食
(ju sh v.o. literally absolutely cut off + eat) = fast, go on a hunger strike

Ruth and I returned home to Wuxi on Saturday after a smooth and uneventful flight.  I never cease to marvel at air travel.  To be sitting in a comfortable armchair, eating snacks and watching a movie while seven miles in the air and traveling at 700 miles per hour continues to amaze me.  It humbles me to think that the Wright Brothers flew a few hundred feet in 1899, and all of this has developed in the brief period since.  If I had been there at Kitty Hawk I would never have imagined where we would be today. Taking the world we live in for granted seems impossible to me.
    
I returned from Australia with a head full of wonderful memories.  We were treated with such warmth and hospitality by Marion and Bernie and Andrea and Kirsten and Ann and Don and Hank and Gretchen and all the other wonderful people we met there.  Thank you all.
     We got up in time on Sunday morning to see the U.S. team score the tie goal in the men's Olympic gold hockey game, and then got to watch as the Canadians took the gold in overtime. 
Unlike in Canada where the top of the list is the total medal count, in China they report Olympic medals with the number of gold medals at the top of the list.  It was a thrill to see Canada in the top spot for Olympic gold in Vancouver.

Ruth gets an inspection prior to cleaning.  Wuxi, China

My first phone call was to Dr. Chen, my dentist.  I needed to get a front tooth cap glued on again. Ruth decided to come along for a cleaning. It took a bit of time to track down Dr. Chen's new working address, but we got there.  It's comforting to know that western style dental care is available in Wuxi, at a price that's a fraction of what it would cost in Australia or Canada.

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(Please.  I very nearly removed the blog function from this site because all I was getting was comment spam, but I've got a plug in activated now that takes care of that.  I would love to hear from you.  Just say hello and let me know you dropped in, okay.)

Warning:  Irrelevance Alert

What follows has nothing to do with China, other than that we live here.  So if you landed on this site looking for information about teaching in China, Wuxi, or Jiangnan University, please scroll down to previous entries or visit the site archives. 

Fast Forward

Ruth and I are on a fast. Eating no food at all.  Just water.  This is nearing the end of our third day.  I haven't done a fast for many years.  I think my last one was in the early eighties and lasted for twelve days.  For this one I'm aiming for five or six days, because we start teaching on Monday.
    
Why a fast?  We sent an email to Bernie, our Australian host, saying that without his cooking it just didn't seem worth our time to eat.  This is almost true.  But after a holiday spent eating and drinking quite freely, we both feel like we need to detoxify and change our eating habits.
    
How hard is it to fast?  So far not hard at all.  I had a bad headache yesterday, but today I'm feeling pretty good, if a bit low energy.  Ruth and I both did the morning workouts on the elliptical trainer and though our calorie count is dropping, we're still hanging in for half an hour.

I'm hoping to become a shadow of my former self.  This was my shadow under the bright Australian sun.

What am I hoping to achieve?  A bit of belly loss would be nice, but I know that it will come back instantly once I start eating again.  To lose fat for good takes a dietary and lifestyle change.  So really we're out to change our eating habits. When we come off this fast, we want to eat smaller portions, with a higher percentage of vegetables and less meat.  I'm tempted to go vegan, but I don't think I'm quite ready for that.  One thing I know for sure, I don't want to reward myself for fasting by going on a binge when it's over.  I have an investment in this.

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My New Hobby (As if I need another one!)

I also returned with a new hobby.  Don't laugh.  Or go ahead and laugh if you want to - I'm not afraid of being absurd.  Here's the slightly embarrassing thing: I'm learning how to make whips, specifically the wonderful bullwhips for which Australia is famous. 
     You may not know this, but any time you see a whip in a movie, it's an Australian whip.  Indiana Jones carried an Australian whip.  I bought one in the late seventies, and didn't realize how good it is until I got looking for a new one in Australia.  My old whip is a cracker, a thing of beauty.  But it is old.  I wanted a new one, but couldn't find what I liked on this short trip to Australia.  Then I realized I'd rather learn how to make one myself.  So here goes.

Two kangaroo hides and a strip of cow leather, the start of my new hobby.

I bought these two kangaroo skins from a leather dealer in Melbourne.  Kangaroo leather is amazingly strong.  I cut a strand only an eighth of an inch wide off these hides and couldn't break it with my hands.  Neither could anybody else I handed it to.

 I also bought a strand cutter.  So below you see my very first attempt at plaiting eight and sixteen strands.

My first 8 and 16 strand plaits.  A humble beginning, but it took some time to figure it out and it's a start.

It seems I'll be able to make something that looks a lot like an Australian bullwhip.  The trick is going to be building the belly, the core of the whip that determines its handling characteristics.  That is going to take some research, and probably a failure or two.

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February 22, 2010 and Tourist in Australia

Chinese tourists on the Great Ocean Highway doing what Chinese tourists do everywhere.  The Apostles are just a background.

Chinese word of the day: 鸸鹋
(r mio) = emu

Emu in Tower Hill crater,  Australia We were excited to see emu in the wild.... little knowing that they've become picnic area bums.

We've been enjoying a wonderful holiday in Australia, watching the Winter Olympics on TV and cheering for the Canadians, Australians, and Chinese.  Congratulations to the Chinese medal winners:  Yang Zhou taking gold for Short Track in the Women's 1500m,  Meng Wang taking gold for Short Track Women's 500m, Beixing Wang taking Bronze for Speed Skating Women's 500m., Xue Shen and Hongbo Zhao taking gold for Figure Skating pairs, and Qing Pang and Jian Tong taking silver for Figure Skating Pairs. 

Xue Shen and Hongbo Zhao took the gold for China  in Vancouver.    Xue Shen and Hongbo Zhao took the gold for China  in Vancouver.

We watched Xue Shen and Hongbo Zhao's performance and they were beautiful.  Congratulations to all the Chinese athletes.

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Chinese Tourists in Australia

We were surprised to see the number of Chinese tourists here in Australia.  Chinese prosperity is giving opportunities unheard of just a few years ago. 

Shirley is from Suzhou, just a half hour from our campus  in Wuxi.   It's good to see the Chinese experiencing the wider world at last.

We had some Chinese conversation practice every day of our holiday within a holiday, our road trip down the Great Ocean Highway.

This big red kangaroo can do 70 km/hour in a panic.  I don't think he panics much though.
This guy was taller than me, and no doubt has a few pounds on me.   He does about twenty feet in a hop.

And a cow?   We rented a car for a few days of driving down the Great Ocean Highway.  Australia.
I was a bit intimidated by the thought of driving on the "wrong" side of the road.  Turned out to be less confusing
than I'd expected.  Biggest problem was hitting the wiper switch instead of the turn signals.

A good idea to remind the foreigners.  It's easy to forget.  Very cute koala.  Essentially boring.  They sleep twenty hours a day and spend their waking time in a drugged stupor.

Ruth inside a tree at Mate's Rest on the Great Ocean Highway, Australia   She'd be a tree hugger, but she needs longer arms.
I had no idea that Australia had trees are big as our B.C. cedars.
 The dappled light in the rain forest is beyond beautiful.

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February 04, 2010 Australia Report in Brief

Mornington Peninsula beach, Australia.  We're on vacation.

Australia is awesome.  Awesome food.  Awesome scenery.  Awesome people.  Check out Ruth's Flickr site for a lot more pictures.

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Double click the picture to see a video clip of the didgeridoo busker.  Melbourne, Australia

January 30, 2010 Didgeridoo Yer Website

Chinese Word of the Day: 都下不了脚了
(dōu xi b liǎo jiǎo le literally "all not less than foot") = no room to put down feet/ room is a mess.

So, here we are in Australia.  It's been great.  Perfect summer weather but not too hot.  Beautiful country reminiscent of the foothills of the Canadian Rockies at the best time of year.  I'll be posting more vacation pictures in a day or two.  But for now, just double click on the banner picture to hear the didgeridoo player.  It's Australia.

The Chinese characters read: "Dog not in bun", Melbourne, Australia

 

The other day we were in the Chinese part of Melbourne and found this sign on a cafe wall.  Ruth was so tickled to be able to read the Chinese characters, and get the joke that obviously is only intended for Chinese speakers.

"Special pork Bun" translates as 狗不理包子 (gǒu b lǐ bāozi) or "dog not in bun".

 

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More irony.  Nobody in China wears a bike helmet, so this billboard in the Shanghai subway, advertising insurance, is looking to the future.

Chinese Word for the Day:尊重宗教信仰
(zūn zhng zōng jio xn yǎng) = respect religious belief

January 21, 2010 Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport

     We're off for Australia.  We have a friend in a small town near Melbourne who has offered us refuge in her house, plus the use of her swimming pool, wood fired pizza oven, and car.  Wow.  There's no other way we could afford to see Australia, and certainly no better way than to have a friend to visit.
     I will be posting from the road, but for the next five weeks, the man in China will be in Australia.

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Extreme Dining

Extremely elegant, that is. 

The table setting for our dinner to celebrate the start of the holiday.  China is a country of contrasts.  We were driven through the textures of a Chinese city to find this.  Pure elegance.

Last night the Foreign Languages administration again treated us to a dinner, a celebration of the start of the Spring Festival holiday.  After five years in China they can still feed us things we've never had before.

Candied duck tongue.  The sea cucumber is more or less tasteless, like hardened gelatin,  but the broth was delicious.
I could recognize the sea cucumber on the right, but what was that dish on the left? (mouse over to find out)

Yes, I've lost the beard.  Spring Festival dinner, Jiangnan University, Wuxi, China
It's an international crowd. The former judge and his wife from America, the Japanese teachers,
the Russian dance teacher and her son, and our Chinese hosts.

Munching this gourmet food we all agreed that Jiangnan University is the best place to work in China, if not the world.

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Student Opinion Poll Continued

Last week I told my students about the Danish cartoonist and asked them whether the paper should have been allowed to publish the cartoon.  This week I told them about France banning the hijab, the Muslim scarf, and other religious symbols in public places.  This week's question: Was France right to ban the wearing of religious symbols in public.

Again, a vote for authoritarian control.  Other classes were not so clear on this issue.  Jiangnan University, Wuxi, China

The vote:  16 to 7 in favor of authoritarian control.  As I said before, this is their culture and they like it the way it is. 
     Those who said France was wrong often stated that we should respect religion.  I asked them why, and explained that I respect people's right to believe whatever they want, but I don't necessarily respect their beliefs, or their religion.  I don't know how they deal with the cognitive dissonance caused by believing in a loving God who will punish me with eternal damnation in the fires of hell simply because I don't worship him.  Strange concept of love.  And when religious people say things that are absolutely stupid, such as the American evangelist who told his followers that the earthquake in Haiti was their own fault because they made a deal with the devil, I can see no reason to respect them at all.
     Because they know that I'm not fond of religion, my students were surprised to learn that I think France is making a mistake.  To me it seems to be religious groups that want to take away our freedom of expression.  If we take away freedoms in reaction, then the religious fanatics have truly won.

Capital punishment might be wrong, but not China.  Jiangnan University, Wuxi, China

As a follow up I asked their opinion on capital punishment.  While a few students felt that capital punishment is wrong, there were no votes critical of the recent Chinese execution of the British citizen.

Just a hint of cognitive dissonance in this class.  Jiangnan University, Wuxi, China
A bit more cognitive dissonance with this class.  Fifteen to nine against capital punishment,
but only five to eighteen critical of China's decision to execute the British drug smuggler.

And this let me explain the concept of cognitive dissonance.

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Chinese Word for the Day: 反话
(fǎn hu literally "opposite speech") = irony

January 14, 2010 Irony

My sudents.  Not unhappy.  Not feeling repressed.  Jiangnan University, Wuxi, China

     Looking back five years to before I came to China, I realize that I came to this country with an expectation that the Chinese people would be miserable.  You know, repressive communist dictatorship in power.  No freedom.  People can't say what they think about things.  But what I found here was a mostly very happy people who laugh a lot and really enjoy life.  It's been a puzzle.  According to what I've always been told in the West, the Chinese SHOULD be unhappy.  This week I think I have discovered at last a part of the reason why they are not.  This is their country, and their culture.  They like it.  They like it just the way it is.  Why in the world would we in the West expect anything else?

Happy students.  It's their culture, and they like it the way it is.  Jiangnan University, Wuxi, China

Fairly recently a fanatic broke into the home of Danish cartoonist, Kurt Westergaard, and attempted to kill him with an axe and a knife in front of his five year old grand daughter.  They survived by barricading themselves in the bathroom "panic room" until police could arrive to save them.  This is all part of the continuing brouhaha over the cartoon Westergaard drew that was published in a Danish newspaper.  The cartoon itself was part of a discussion of freedom of expression and self-censorship in the face of violent reprisals against artists, including the murder of a Dutch film maker, by fanatical followers of Islam.
     This past week I told my students the whole story of the Danish cartoon.  I explained that it caused no initial outrage by itself, but "religious leaders" later took the cartoon,  added other material that had nothing to do with the discussion, or with Islam for that matter, and then went to Muslim countries to instigate protests and riots.  Danish embassies were attacked.  In all, something like a hundred people ended up dead.  
     I asked my students this question:  Should the newspaper have been allowed to publish the cartoon?

The class vote - no to freedom of the press by a wide margin.  Jiangnan University, Wuxi, China

It wasn't a unanimous vote by any means.  But every class came down solidly on the side of NO.  The press should not have been allowed to publish the cartoon.

My most liberal class.  Still fifteen to ten in favour of controlling the press.  Jiangnan University, Wuxi, China

This lead to a very interesting discussion.  I'm not allowed to talk about Chinese politics here, and wouldn't want to if I could.  But this is talking about Denmark.  Besides helping students develop language skills, I do see my job to be helping them appreciate and understand Western culture.  So I had to explain a few things such as:

1. There is no authority in Denmark that could forbid publishing the cartoon.

2.  Most Western countries have laws against hate crimes, but those must be promoting hatred and violence, not just commenting on it.

3.  Western democracies believe that freedom of the press is essential for a healthy society, and that controversy is acceptable as long as it is restricted to words and ideas. 

4. Political cartoons are supposed to upset people and mock ideas that some people care about.  If people are setting off bombs in the name of Islam, as seems to be happening in various places in the world, so that the entire religion is now associated with terrorism, isn't this a legitimate statement for a political cartoonist to make?

I also got a chance to explain the meaning of the word "irony".  What could be more ironic than a religious groups reacting to the suggestion that they are violent by storming embassies and rioting, and by trying to kill the man who made the suggestion with an axe.

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Goodbye to Google in China

Google.  Living up to the company motto: Do no evil. Protesters lay wreaths at Google office in Beijing.  Picture filched from the Washington Post with thanks.

All of the above post becomes more relevant with the news that Google has decided to withdraw from China.  I have to say good for Google.  I think this was the right decision, given the recent tightening up of communication over the Internet in China.  But I use the search engine many times every day, and the thought of Google abandoning China is more than a little disturbing.
     I asked my students if they knew why Google is threatening to pull out of China.  Much of the reporting of this is blocked on the Chinese Internet.  They knew about the hacker attacks on Google, but they seemed unaware that at least some of those attacks were aimed at getting information about human rights activists.

     I'm trying to reserve the word "tragedy" for events that really deserve it, such as the recent earthquake in Haiti,  events which cause people to die.  Google leaving China is not a tragedy.  But it will be a loss for Google, and a terrible loss for the Chinese economy and the Chinese people.  Google is living up to its motto (Do no evil), and gaining a lot of very valuable public support.  China is destroying much of the good will it generated with the Olympics, to no long term purpose that I can see.  So, maybe not a tragedy, but a terrible shame and a great pity.
     Unfortunately I can't seen any solution, at least in the short term.  China can't be seen as backing down to a threat by a foreign company.  Google has to stick by it's decision or lose all credibility in the Western world.  My guess is that Google will leave as promised.  After some face saving compromises on both sides, Google may come back.  Or China may reconsider the reform and opening up policy.  But any time China has taken an isolationist position, the Chinese people have suffered for it.  I hope the Chinese leadership will see that they can't have the door open while keeping the screen door locked.

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Chinese Word for the Day: 导盲犬
(dǎo mng quǎn literally guide blind dog) = seeing eye dog

Wuxi now has all the modcons of any modern city, including a new Imax theatre.  Wuxi, China

January 09, 2010  Minds Blown in Imax 3D

Spoiler alert: Giving away story points for Avatar is hardly spoiling anything.  The story is strictly formula and very predictable.  Thats not what makes the movie work, and it works very well indeed.  But you should see Avatar before you read this.

Avatar
- the perfect fantasy for a juvenile species

      Weve just come out of watching Avatar, in Imax 3D.  What a beautiful movie.  What amazing visual effects.  What astonishing technical achievement.  What great performances.  What a nice solid and politically correct story line.  It's a new benchmark for cinematic achievement.  Such a shame that it throws away it's true potential.  It could have been a great movie.  Everything is there except the heart and brains.

A stolen screen shot from Avatar.  Beauty and spirituality.  All it's missing is intelligence. Of course.
Avatar - religion with a reality that actually makes sense.  What a concept.

     Avatar has everything the classic formula demands.  Greedy industrialists, avaricious despoilers with no respect for anything but money.  Thuggish military, but with one redeeming member, a woman of course (Everybody knows that men are not nurturing.) who has a big heart and wont follow orders.  Incredible war machines, including the big walking robots from Alien now revisioned as foot soldiers. Religion that is actually founded in reality and makes sense. A nice ecology message set in a beautiful primordial forest decorated with gorgeously bioluminescent plants, hideously dangerous beasts, and handsome noble savages with a deep spiritual connection to nature and reverence for life who somehow live in total harmony with their terrifying jungle mates.  Bloody battle scenes with white knuckle acrobatic combat and aerial eye candy.
     True to the formula, the villain dies in one-on-one hand to hand combat in the penultimate scene.  Oops, make that one on two.  Times have changed.  The heroine is no longer just a yankee,  the helpless feminine fluff yanked through the sets by the hero, the yanker.  Todays female hero has a more active part.  She gets to save her man and kill the bad guy.  Actually, in this movie she gets to kill the bad guy and save her man twice, no, three times counting their first meeting.  This is a new and improved formula, and who could object to that.  The allegory is beyond obvious.  Its us, the people of the developed world, against the rain forest people.  And whose side are we on?

Avatar - mouth breathing mercenaries against the noble savages.  Avatar - noble savages against mouth breathing mercenaries.
        James Cameron has obviously done it again.  The movie is breaking all box office records, and is going to be the biggest hit in movie history, right after Titanic by the same director.  Bravo.  Bravo.  Go and see it.  In fact, go and see it twice.  Its worth it.  I truly and sincerely really loved it.  Go and see it.  And then think about it.

Rousseau and his noble savage live on in Avatar.

Avatar is an incredible ride and great fun.  But all the warm and fuzzy justification for hard hitting combat in which good guys and bad guys get to kill each other in thrillingly acrobatic ways leaves me profoundly dissatisfied.  So, heres how I would throw away all that box office success and make this movie into a record breaking money loser.  Yes,  I would do this.  No question.  And I would do it gladly, on purpose.  Screw the investors.  Lets finally get one thing right.  We dont need a battle scene to end this beautiful movie.  It deserves better.
     Sure, the battle scene is the big payoff.  But is it worth it?  Do we really need to feed our children this vision of humanity, where the only choice is between kill or be killed, fight or surrender?  What about. What about Gandhis solution?  Why couldnt the forest people beat the invaders with public relations and passive resistance.  In every place on earth where this kind of conflict is currently underway, from the Congo to the Amazon rain forest, that is the only hope for the indigenous people.  They dont have a prayer with military solutions.  Bows and arrows, even when fired from flying dragon creatures, don't do much against machine guns, as the British demonstrated with the charge of the Light Brigade.  Hunter gatherers are out gunned and over powered by our high tech culture.  But they can still win.  They just cant do it with battle scenes. 
      I know this is a money loser, and doesnt get the adrenalin up with lots of death and killing and oh such sorrow as characters we care about.
and wonderful flying animals we care about even more, bite the dust.  But its a viable alternative.  Isnt it time we acknowledged this?  Isnt it time we stopped feeding our kids simple minded cowboys and Indians endings?
     Let me take you back to the movie for a moment.  The great tree/village has been destroyed, the home of the ever so spiritual forest people.  Now the human military machine is poised to move in and wipe out the tree dwelling savages.  Our avatar hero has tamed the colourful big boss flying critter.  Hes ready to make his pitch to the tribe.  How about he has a brain in his head?  An actual idea?  A realistic answer to the problem?  How about he finds a solution that would avoid virtually ALL of the bloodshed and horror?
     Heres how it plays out: He calls the tribes together.  Tension is building.  The military is getting trigger happy.  And then. The forest people lay down all their weapons.  Twenty thousand of the elegant blue humanoids simply walk toward the sky people camp.  The are pleading.  They are defenseless.  They are harmless.  But theres an awful lot of them.  If a machine is sent out to move them, they lie down under its treads and passively die.  You see?  We can still get our sympathy points.  Now tell me, what is Colonel America going to do in the face of this?  Are his grunts going to slaughter these people?
     Ruth says for this to work you need media coverage.  Well, folks, its a movie.  Lets add media.  Lets add reporters and cameras.  There are human beings involved, with human feelings.  Dont tell me they will all go along with the destructive corporate rape and pillage.
     The answer for the forest people is not fight and die, lose everything versus win and save our homeland.  The answer is meet the enemy and make a deal.  Theres a win win situation here, and it doesnt involve killing anybody.
       I know, I know.  This is why Im teaching in China and James Cameron is making block buster movies.  But you know what.  I dont care.  Im sure he has a lot of fun with all his toys.  I have a lot of fun watching what he does.  And I dont have to feel like a traitor to my own intelligence and the intelligence of my species.
     There are lots of other criticisms of the Avatar story points.  Why, for example, didnt the marine on their team teach the forest people some tactics.  Surely spears thrown into those helicopter rotors would be a better idea than flying straight into their guns, especially when you can have a high ground advantage.  But Ill let those things go.  They are trivial compared to my big complaint. How can we possibly end violent military conflict here on this amazing planet if we cant even find a good solution in our best and most expensive fantasies

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Chinese Word for the Day: 你赶火车吗?
(nǐ gǎn huǒchē literally "You catch a train?") = You've got a train to catch? You're in a hurry?  The same thing we might say if somebody is in a restless hurry.

Our friend Panda at work.  The bottles are left over from our" Chinese corner" party the night before.  Jiangnan University, Wuxi, China

January 06, 2010 (yikes!  Already?) 

Another Term Begins

This year we are doing two weeks of the next term before the Spring holiday.  Here's my new schedule for students who want to audit any of my classes.  Visitors will be welcome unless it gets too crowded.

Into the Next Decade

Anybody who is bored in this world just isn't paying attention.  Blasphemy is now illegal in Ireland, with a 25,000 Euro fine for intentionally upsetting any religious group.  The Irish atheists are fuming.  Atheist Ireland published a list of 25 blasphemous quotes. What fun.
I note with some pleasure that religion doesn't seem to get a lot of respect on my corner of the Internet.  Here's a recent Abstruse Goose web comic that pokes gentle fun at the believers.

Abtruse Goose reprinted without permission.  So check out this webcomic, just to justify this theft.

This prompted quite a few comments from a user group I belong to, including these:

      > Is that what they hear when we explain our world view?

       >I doubt if its as simple as that. I imagine some religious type might have that sort of reaction, 
         but Im sure not most, and then there are probably some atheists out there who have
         comparable reactions when a religious person talks about their perspective.

And that inspired me to put together my own comic, with apologies to Abstruse Goose and the late George Carlin.  Call this an homage.

My usual over-reaction to an expression of religiosity.  Unwarranted, I know, but it's what I hear.

When I was a teenager, many adults got very upset at seeing a boy with long hair or an ear ring.  Some of them, including my father on occasion, got violently upset.  Personally I think freedom of expression includes the right to upset people.  Especially when people are irrationally touchy.  Blasphemy is NOT a hate crime.  The word does not belong in the law books of any modern nation.

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Here at Jiangnan University in Wuxi, China, life bubbles along. It's been over a week since I posted any thing.  My excuse is I've been dealing with the end of the term paperwork.  Last night I finished the lot of it. 
     Ruth has been having a great time with on line tutorials, teaching herself how to create web pages using HTML. This will give her incredible control and flexibility, not to mention a deeper understanding of website creation.  I'm looking forward to going that route myself, once she has blazed a path. 
     Today we've got an appointment to do some assessments of students for the administration.  We were expecting to do this just as a thank you for all the nice things our admin does for us, but yesterday we got a phone call telling us we'll be paid for our time.   With our plan to spend our winter vacation in outrageously expensive Australia, a bit of extra money is going to help a lot.  Our administration makes us feel valued.  Sure makes this a great place to be working.  Thanks again, folks.

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Are you Ready for Chinese Handwriting

Wang Yijing, our Chinese teacher, wrote this message on our whiteboard.  He told us that this is a sample of Chinese hand writing, and he even claimed that it could be read by any Chinese person.  Could have fooled me.

Chinese hand writing: 新春  愉快 (xīn chūn y kui - "beginning of Spring happy")

We tested this assertion on our Chinese friends.  They could actually read it, and added the line of character below the scribble.   Much to our amazement.  

 新春  愉快 (xīn chūn y kui - "beginning of Spring happy") on our whiteboard.  Jiangnan University, Wuxi, China
Both the scribble and the characters below it say 新春  愉快 (xīn chūn y kui - "beginning of Spring happy")
Can you see the characters in the scribble?  I can, but I'd never be able to "in the wild".

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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.       

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