Christmas in China. Again.

Chinese Word of the Day:  懷舊 (huai2 jiu4 literally “to cherish” + “bygone/past”) nostalgia It’s been a busy few days leading up to and including Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Boxing Day.

Picture: Ruth in Papa Johns Pizza, Wuxi, China Picture: Seasons Greetings at Papa John's Pizza, the War on Christmas comes to China.   



China seems blissfully unaware of the “War on Christmas” that is raging back in the Untied States.  Virtually all the store signs in Chinese establishments say “Merry Christmas”.  It takes an American franchise to include us atheists and people of other faiths in the holiday season.  I would be thankful for that except that the founder of Papa John’s has been bashing Obama and claiming that he’d have to take Obamacare out on his workers.  We almost gave the place a pass, until we considered that some Chinese franchise owner doesn’t need to suffer because the founder of the chain is an idiot.

Christmas Dinner for the Teachers

Sunday evening the school treated us to dinner at the Sheraton. That was a little bizarre because the featured entertainment was a troop of Egyptians. So we dined to the throb of Middle Eastern drums and singing that sounded like Apache war cries. Below is my impression of the evening… Picture: My impression of our Christmas dinner for teachers.  Wuxi, ChinaI do remember delicious food and quite a bit of wine.  A wonderful dinner and many thanks to the North American College of Jiangnan University administration for treating us so well. We brought our own Santa for the evening – Michael who grew hair and beard and purchased a custom made suit in anticipation of this event . Picture: Our own Santa and Chinese child, the Sheraton, Wuxi, ChinaOur Santa was much in demand, but I missed getting a picture of him belly dancing with the Egyptians.   I noticed that he did perk up quite a bit in their company. Picture: Our own Santa and visiting Egyptian entertainers at the Sheraton, Wuxi, ChinaIt’s so hard for them to get their signage right in China, even at a five star hotel with lots of English speaking staff.  And that’s okay, because I love Chinglish. Picture: Chinglish sign found in the Sheraton, Wuxi, China.  "Please don't Tounch"Needless to say we wouldn’t think of tounching this display.

Christmas Eve

That was Sunday.  Then Monday after classes,  Christmas Eve,  it was a pancake dinner at Beth’s apartment. Ruth and I made a huge tub of eggnog from scratch, a recipe we’ve used for several years now. It included a bottle of rum and a bottle of scotch. Then Thomas brought another huge bowl of eggnog, and outclassed us by having a grater and fresh nutmeg. So we were awash in alcoholic eggnog and ended up taking home enough for Christmas dinner.

Christmas Day Dinner

Panda arrived for a visit just as we were leaving the Christmas Eve party, and stayed for Christmas dinner on Christmas Day, joined by Gloria and Lynn. We couldn’t manage a turkey, because our tiny oven is just too small for anything we could buy at Metro, so we settled for chicken drumsticks with mushroom sauce, mashed potatoes, squash, broccoli, home made cottage cheese, devilled eggs and a great bean salad. Lynn brought the desert. Shortbread cookies with sherry added a traditional touch to the evening, and Santa had put together stockings for our guests.  The company was delightful. 

That Thing They Pay Us to Do Here

While all this has been going on, we’ve been teaching. It’s the end of term, and this week I was giving individual attention to the students’ short formal reports. That had me staying past the bell on Christmas Day, with students I didn’t have time to talk to during the afternoon class. I never thought I could describe this work as gruelling, but this has been.  Today, Boxing Day, was, if anything, worse. The short formal reports include a cover letter, a title page (both with letterhead but with no page number), a summary on a separate page (to be numbered with a Roman numeral), table of contents (also to have a Roman numeral), introduction (where page numbering starts), and discussion which should include several headings with information and citations, a conclusion, recommendation, and finally a reference page. It has to include a survey of student opinions, which must be mentioned in the report and included as Appendix A for the survey questions and B for the student responses. All in all there is a heck of a lot to check over and correct in the first drafts. You can imagine. And I find I’m repeating myself endlessly to each student. At one point I tried to short circuit that by giving a mini-lecture on the purpose and content of the cover letter, but that fell on deaf ears and saved me no time at all. If you are at all interested in what we did this term, you’ll find everything on The Woman in China, Ruth’s site.  I think it was far too much. The good news is that I’m almost through all the first drafts, and will only have the marking of the final drafts to do to end the term. Oh, that and the usual paperwork. But I can see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Death by Nostalgia

This morning my son, Casey, sent me a picture, along with this note: “Grandma Carrie is taking pictures down and giving them to me. She gave me this one and it made me really sad. I love you dad, Merry Christmas.”

Me holding the infant Casey with Victor on his trike, circa 1983

Ah yes, sweet nostalgia. This picture was taken in 1983 or thereabouts. The incredibly cute kid on the trike is my eldest son, Victor, and that’s Casey in my arms. I wrote back to say: “Interesting that this made you sad, Casey. That was a happy time for me. Victor was such a cute kid, and I was so happy to be holding you. I guess I feel sad that those days are gone. But they were good days, and good to remember now. No regrets. Just enjoy your kids. They’ll be grown up before you know what happened. Love you too, my son. Dad in Wuxi, China” Now I need to find a towel and a glass of scotch.  

And the Tree is Up

Chinese Word of the Day:  圣诞节
(sheng4 dan4 jie2 literally “birth god festival”) Christmas.

Bonus Chinese Word of the Day:  圣诞老人
(sheng4 dan4 lao3 ren2 literally “birth god old man”) Santa Claus.

Here we are for another Christmas in China.  Hard to believe that this will be our ninth.  Where do the years go.

Picture: Christmas 2012 in Wuxi, China.  David and Ruth with GouGou.

Every year at this time I get homesick, remembering wonderful Christmases past with family now grown and a generation now gone. But I also feel so grateful for the family I still have and friends all over the world.  I truly feel like I live in a world of love.  I’ve been so lucky to have lived this long with no tragedy and no real hardship.  It’s been a charmed life.

Tomorrow we’ll be performing at the students’ Christmas party.  Jingle Bells in English and Chinese and Da Zhongguo, our newest Chinese song.  I’ve dodged being Santa Claus by calling on Michael, who has the hair, beard and girth plus a custom made suit.  He looks the part, and I don’t.  So I’ll be free to concentrate on the music.

I do love Christmas.  Merry Christmas everybody.  May you enjoy the joy that I’m feeling with this holiday season.  May you too live a charmed life.

I Get Email

Chinese Word of the Day:  火盆
(huo3 pen2 literally “fire tub/pot”) brazier

One of the things that makes maintaining this website worth doing is the very occasional responses I get from readers.  This one came in a week or so ago, and I just got around to answering it.  And then it occurred to me  that it might be good to share it with you.

Dear David,

It’s my honor to contact with you through e-mail and my name is max (Chinese name: Meng Xiangji) and worked in an exhibition company located in Beijing.

The article Spring Festival Holiday 2009 in your website emerged when I searched the pictures on brazier (charcoal pan) with Google, which was always used in the regions of China Northeast, such as my hometown of Liaoning Province, because of cold climate in the past.

I have been to Yue Yang City, my wife’s home town in Hunan Province next to Jiangxi, and never find out brazier, instead of electric heater for warmth. So you pictures attracted me deeply and I’d like to exchange more on china cultures.

The pictures attached are shot during the birthday of my grandfather (my mother’ uncle) who is 90 years old. You can see the brazier, which is made of mud in the picture that is difficult to find in reality, even  on internet.

Picture: Meng Xiangj's grandfather age 90 warmed by a charcoal brazier made of clay.Picture: Meng Xiangj's grandfather age 90 smiling warmed by a charcoal brazier made of clay.Look forward to exchanging more in future.

Best regards
Max Heinrich

And yes, I look forward to more such exchanges in the future.  I wrote back to ask Meng Xiangji whether that is a kang that his grandfather is sitting on.  These are beds built over what amounts to an oven that can be fired with wood through a hole in the outside wall.  If it is a kang, I think it hasn’t been fired up or there would be no need for the brazier.  I also asked for permission to post his pictures.

I got Meng Xiangji’s reply this morning.

Dear David,

Thanks for your reply and I’m glad that you can post the pictures that I delivered on your website.

Actually, the living pattern of China is too much different from the western.

The tiled-roofed house is popular in North China, especially in Northeast, just like my second attached picture. We named the house as “zheng fang (正房)” that faced to south in order to get enough sunshine as much as possible because the climate is very cold in North China winter.

Picture: Tile-roofed house in Northern China sent by Meng Xiangji

Usually, there are three rooms for a standard tiled-roofed house. You can enter the house from the middle room that is also the kitchen, in which cooking stove, table ware and water vat were placed. People often burn the firewood to cook in this room and the smoke produced in cooking stove will through underneath the Kang while some of the heat will be left and the rest will escape from the chimney.

Picture: Cooking Stove.  Under the lid is a huge wok.  Bellows at the side stoke the fire.The peasants often build the Kang that connected with cooking stove in the rest rooms. Either of the two will be bedroom, in which all the families live and sleep together. At the same time, the bedroom is always used as the parlor to welcome the gusts.

The other could also be bedroom but it often became the storeroom if the families are not too many. In another word, the son is still single.

Warmest regards

Meng Xiangji

Judging the Speeches, Judging the Country

Chinese Word of the Day:  比赛
(bi3 sai4) contests, competition.

This past weekend we were invited to be judges for the China Daily National Student Speech Contest, which is apparently a very big deal here in China.  We thought this would be an afternoon gig, and were a bit shocked to learn that we would meet fellow teachers at the North Gate at seven in the morning, but no matter. We were there on time and off to the most magnificent high school complex I’ve ever seen.

Linda Song, our Assistant Dean, met us a the gates and we were soon in a meeting with Mr. Gong Lixiang from China Daily, who gave us our assessment sheets and instructions.  By eight o’clock we were seated in a vast lecture hall, freezing cold with ineffective heaters mounted high up at the back of the room, and listening to the first of a hundred and ten speeches on the subject of the College Entrance Examination.

It was an uncomfortable day, both physically and emotionally.  While other teachers were judging elementary school children on poetry recitations and “My Favourite Person” speeches, we listened to a seemingly endless stream of nearly identical speeches by nearly interchangeable speakers.  How many times can one be told that “the College Entrance Examination has both good and bad characteristics” (Chinese students have been trained to never take a strong position unless national sovereignty is the issue), “every coin has two sides”, and “all roads lead to Rome” before the boredom grows to toothache proportions.  And then there would be the moments of empathy overdose, when a student who started well and looked promising suddenly blocks on the memorized, probably meaningless, words and stands there, silent, mortified, knowing he or she is blowing it but unable to do anything but writhe on the pin of shame until finally mumbling an “I’m sorry” and rushing away from the podium.  Ever so painful to watch.

Judging this kind of speech contest is difficult.  Most of the students have achieved a remarkable level of English pronunciation and fluency.  Compared to my ability in Chinese, they are amazing.  But very few of them stand out from the crowd.  As a group they are very impressive.  Ask me to pick out which one is the best, and that is a problem.

They fed us the standard delicious lunch feast in the faculty restaurant, with ten or more different dishes, all tasty.  (I begin to feel jaded)  And they paid us well – 800 yuan for the day, which is pretty good considering that our salary is 6,500/month.  We were, as usual, treated with great courtesy and respect, including being presented with very impressive letters of appointment in red velvet covers.  But we earned the money.  No question about that.

Now it Gets Personal

Facebook is blocked here, for whatever reason.  But the emails that Facebook generates still come to my inbox.  So I do learn what is going on back home.  I just can’t participate most of the time.  Last year I purchased VPN, my wormhole through the Great Firewall of China, and for a few months it worked amazingly well.  But when the high level government meetings over choosing the new leadership began, the VPN became very intermittent.  So I can only get on to FaceBook once in a while to talk back or comment on the messages.  Last night I found two very disturbing messages in my email in box from a close relative:

First there was this:

“I TRIED TO KILL MYSELF ON fACEB 00k tonightcaues I can’t seem to get it togethger i JUST WAnt TO BE IMPOTANT IN somosLIFE but GOD i INTERUPT.I always interupt, Now I am drunk and very much alive. Doesn;t anyine else ever interupt”

Then this:

“i seeriously need help. Caaaaan’t stop crying and am thinkingf is this really worth it. I KNOW IT SOULDS LIKE A PITY PARTY BUT IS MUCH WWWORSE.”

Whew.  Scary words.  And damn it, it was coming to me not as an email but through Facebook, so my responses were limited.  I fired up the VPN and managed to get on to Facebook long enough to send messages to everybody I could think of, but then the VPN quit and simply would not reconnect.  I realized that it was three in the morning back in Vancouver.  Nobody would be up or on line.  What to do?  I sent everybody in the family an email message, alerting them to the situation.  But after that… Nothing to do but fume and curse the paranoid political bastards who won’t let me connect with my family for fear of social unrest.

Finally around midnight here, seven in the morning back in Vancouver, people started to respond.  But on Facebook.  And then the emails started to trickle in, and everything is okay.  That’s the good news.

As dawn was breaking in the free world, I managed to get a call through with Skype.  So the Internet did not let me down.  And the cry for help turned out to be a false alarm, the result of a hack or vicious malicious prank.  The person who owns the account had no knowledge of the post.  What a relief.

I feel rather petty complaining about ANYTHING to do with modern communications.  Such a different world from the world of my childhood.  The Internet has made a huge difference to the experience of being an expat in China.  Already we take it for granted that we can maintain contact with friends and family all over the world, and we complain bitterly when that contact is even slightly reduced.  Yesterday, Ruth spent an hour talking to her mother and sister in Canada on Skype, for free, and this is just the way the world is supposed to be.  Until it isn’t working.  I don’t have a problem with the minor deficiencies and malfunctions of the system.  This is only to be expected when the whole technology is so amazing and complicated.  But when the malfunctions are being intentionally caused and maintained, for incomprehensible political or economic reasons, my gratitude quickly turns to scorn.  China had such a public relations triumph with the Olympics and China obviously cares about world opinion.  Yet they block Facebook and Twitter with an apparent total disregard for how bad this looks to the outside world.

I hope the new Chinese leadership will finally get over the Cold War attitudes of the past and allow the Chinese people, and foreign visitors, to communicate freely with the rest of the world.  It has never been in China’s best interests to isolate the country from ideas and opinions in the rest of the world.  That’s how they lost the Opium Wars.

Dinner with Students and Tea With New Friends

On Friday evening we were invited to dinner with the students from one of my classes.  We shared a variety of dishes at a nearby hot pot restaurant and my students insisted it was their treat.  That makes me just a little bit uncomfortable, but it takes a lot more than a dinner to buy a higher mark from us.

I really like these kids.  They are good people, if not academically enthusiastic (understatement).

Then Saturday we spent some time in Starbucks downtown marking student assignments before meeting my dentist and her boyfriend and visiting her home.  That turned into a party when a friend of hers showed up with a daughter and a niece.  Our lives certainly are full here.  Never a dull moment, except maybe… (see post above about judging the speech contest.).

Joy To the World

Chinese Phrase of the Day: 少年派的奇幻漂流
(shao4 nian2 pai4 de qi2 huan4 piao1 liu2  “young Pai’s fantastic drift about”) = Chinese title for “Life of Pi”

Wang Tao is a Father

Many students and teachers here will remember Wang Tao (Simon Wang), a student of mine a few years ago.  He graduated and joined the executive work force.  I was honoured to be asked to officiate at his wedding last year.  And now he is a father.

Picture: Simon with the baby gift.  I know that babies love a snuggly.We picked up this snuggly yesterday at our supermarket, and I was happy to learn that they hadn’t yet bought one.  Babies all love to be carried in a snuggly like this one.  It’s a great way to sooth them when they are fussing.  So today we met Simon at a different Starbucks, the one in Bao Li plaza near the train station.  It was great to visit with him, and to share his excitement over becoming a father.  It was also very interesting to learn about the club for new mothers his wife will live in for the next month.  They have twenty-four hour nursing help, exercise rooms, a spa, and lessons on how to care for an infant, a complete support system.  Simon will sleep there with his wife.  The babies are taken away at night to a separate room and cared for by a nurse, so the new parents actually get some sleep.  What a civilized way to live.

Wang Tao and Lu Ying have a baby.  Born November 30.  What a beauty she is.Congratulations Wang Tao and Lu Ying.  This is such good news.

A Visit From Panda

Always wonderful to have Panda come and stay with us for a couple of days.

Picture: Panda at her computer on our living room floor.  Warms my heart to see her.She has become like a Chinese daughter to us.

The Jumper

On a sadder note, there is still desperation and despair in our world and every once in a while somebody decides to put it on display.  We were on our way to Hui Shan ancient village when we passed a traffic jam.  A crowd had gathered to watch this drama unfold.

Picture:  A crowd gathers because a man has climbed a power pole and the police are trying to talk him down. Wuxi, ChinaPicture:  Police try to talk the man down from his high perch on a power pole.  Wuxi, China I have to wonder what it must feel like to be the centre of all this attention at a time when you are obviously not feeling great about life.  Simon told us today that this is becoming very common.  Apparently workers come here from the country side.  If their employer does the paperwork and documents their work, they have to pay benefits and taxes to the government and provide health insurance.  Workers are willing to work with no documentation in exchange for more money.  And this is fine unless something goes wrong and the business won’t or can’t pay them  Then they are out of luck and desperate to get some government attention.  Perhaps that is what is happening in this situation.

Picture: Police and gawkers await an outcome.  Will he come down or will he jump.  Wuxi, ChinaAnd yes, it is not just my imagination.  Bicycle helmets are becoming almost common here.  Early adopters are setting the style trend.  These bicycle riders paused briefly to see what the fuss was about.  Every time I see bike riders wearing helmets, a sight unseen during our first six years in China, I think about all the times I gave speeches to promote bike helmets and predicted that in a few years they would become common.  I would tell the audience that when that day comes they should remember me.  I always wonder whether they will.Picture:  A group of bike riders wearing helmets stopped briefly to check out the scene.  Wuxi, ChinaDid he eventually come down, or did he jump.  I’ll never know.  We didn’t wait to find out.

The Chair Maker

Every once in a while we see something here that looks like old China, the hand crafted, hard working, non-industrial China.

Picture:  A wicker chair maker on the streets of Wuxi, China.  Somethings are still hand made in a cottage industry here.I imagine this kind of work can be quite satisfying.  I’d like to learn how to do it.  Far more useful than making bull whips.

Picture: the back of a hand made wicker chair.  Wuxi, ChinaThere’s No War on Christmas in China

Picture:  A clerk puts a Christmas sticker on her shop window.  Wuxi, ChinaSo here we are in an officially atheist country and there’s no war on Christmas, no happy holidays.  Just good old fashioned Merry Christmas. Tickles my atheist fancy. Picture:  Christmas on sale at our local supermarket.  Wuxi, China Picture: Santa for sale at our local supermarket.  Wuxi, China

Yes, it’s Merry Christmas all the way here.  And that’s just fine by me.  I love Christmas.  My favourite time of year, except for Spring of course.

Picture: Mrs. Santa did our checkout at our local supermarket.  Wuxi, China

The Christmas music plays non-stop now, following us from Starbucks to the shopping malls with no apparent change of play list.  It all makes me just a little homesick.  Sigh.

Another Night at the Cinema – Life of Pi

Our friend Jin Bo was kind enough to look up the cinema where an English print of “Life of Pi” is playing.  His advice was to get there around six and buy tickets before going to dinner.  We should have followed his advice.  By the time we got there the lineup for tickets was huge.  We started at the back of the line around 7:00pm,  This is our view from the middle of the line around 7:30,

Picture:  Half way to the tickete seller, looking back at the line up. Wuxi, ChinaBy the time we got to the ticket seller, the 8:00 screening was sold out.  We got seats for the 10:20pm screening and settled down in the lobby to read our Ipads and wait for the show.  I was falling asleep, and a bit worried that I would not be able to stay awake for a long movie.  Not a problem.  What an incredible movie it is.  I used to know how movies were made, but not any more.  I have absolutely no idea how Ang Lee managed to get such stunning and realistic images.  I assume it is with a combination of live actors, live animals, puppetry, CGI and barrels and barrels of money.  From the look of the credits list all of this is true.  But watching the end result is a bit like seeing a 747 take off and trying to imagine how such a thing could come into existence.

I read the book when it was first published, back in 2001 and of course really enjoyed it.  But somehow the ending of the book left me dissatisfied.  Not so the movie version, which is very true to the book.  With the movie, the ending made perfect sense.  It’s one of those movies that stays with you for days.

When I see a movie like “Life of Pi” I have to wonder how such movies will impact the global culture.  It was so international, with a Chinese director and Indian star, set in India, Mexico and Canada.  When a teenager in a small American town sees a picture like that, showing middle class India, not the India they have been trained to expect, with slums and lepers and hordes of scrambling people, it must do something to raise consciousness. I would expect an effect similar to that of the black sitcoms, destroying the illusion that our differences are huge and other cultures are very strange.  We are living in one world.