Monday, October 15, 2012

I will read anything this lady writes.

William Tyndale, who was burned at the stake for his translation of the Bible, who provided much of the most beautiful language in what is called by us the King James Bible, wrote, he said, in the language a plowboy could understand. He wrote to the comprehension of the profoundly poor, those who would be, and would have lived among, the utterly unlettered. And he created one of the undoubted masterpieces of the English language. Now we seem to feel beauty is an affectation of some sort. And this notion is as influential in the churches as it is anywhere. The Bible, Christianity, should have inoculated us against this kind of disrespect for ourselves and one another. Clearly it has not.
--Marilynne Robinson in a new collection of essays entitled When I Was a Child I Read Books

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Overhead in the locker room

Lady 1: Don't you just hate those talking scales?

Lady 2: Oh yes! Every time I get on mine at home, it says, "One at a time, please."

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Tuesday, July 3, 2012


That headache I mentioned in the last post dated over a month ago?

High blood pressure.

Generational high blood pressure, I should clarify. It's practically a requirement in order to have my family name.

So, coupled with some other health concerns, I ended the semester a month early and flew home two weeks ago. I moved all my stuff out of my apartment because I'm taking a year off to spend Stateside.

Right now, I'm taking a break and waiting for a lemon pound cake to reach southern perfection in the oven. My family and I are leaving tomorrow morning for Orlando, FL, for some Fourth festivities with relatives.

Not sure how much I miss China, yet. Air conditioning and customized healthcare and a Kitchen Aid standing mixer keep me well distracted, so far.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

stuffed crust: not for the feeble

Yesterday was a long and challenging day. It started with a headache and it ended with a magnified headache that bridged from temple to temple.

Lunch was spent at a nearby pizza buffet that was on the way home. Some friends and I stopped in during a dead time, so the place was unusually quiet. In fact, half of the floor staff was sleeping in plain view at the back of the restaurant. I chuckled at the lack of decorum but admitted my simultaneous envy over such a reprieve; mine didn't come until much later.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Teach it and they will come.

A few weeks ago, one of our largest school-sponsored clubs asked me to give a TED-esque presentation. (If you don't know what TED, is, click here.)

At first, I declined because it would require yet another commute across town to our second campus, a place which already owns me four out of five teaching days in the week. One of their leaders, a current student, finally sold me on the idea when she asked me if I would speak about the ways in which I have encouraged my students to "do the right thing," all year. I took it as an open door through which I should step in order to reach ears that rarely hear counsel of the heart from teachers. The majority of my presentation was dedicated to internet integrity and how that impacts their current reputation, their future chances of acceptance by international schools, and their overall legacy that will continue long after they are gone.

It was a good night. No, it was a great night. Standing room only. With so many in attendance being current students and former students, it reminded me that I have one of the most amazing jobs on earth.

Friday, April 20, 2012

resurrections from music

This is one of those videos that I could watch over and over again.

Friday, April 13, 2012

time warp

On Thursday, I left my apartment at 7 a.m. and it was raining. By the time I caught the bus, the rain had trace amounts of snow mixed in it. Two hours later, the flurries were everywhere. Flakes were the size of a penny. By noon, the snow had stopped and the emerging sun had melted most of it away. Grey skies turned blue and the temperature reached mid 50s.

Harbin is one of the few cities in which it is entirely possible to experience three seasons within four hours.

Photos courtesy of students.

Monday, April 2, 2012

tough love

So I sat down tonight to write the following email to a former student who has asked me for help in studying for the TOEFL, an extensive qualifying exam required by every U.S. university to prove one's level of English proficiency. I hope it strikes him with a holy discomfort.


Let me prepare you for this email. It will not be easy to read. It's not even easy to write. Understand that what I share with you, I share because I care about you. If I didn't care about you, I wouldn't take the time or the effort to use this opportunity to help you see things with a fresh perspective.

I taught you when you were just a freshman, and I realize that over time, people can mature and make positive changes. However, it's my overall experience that, unless there is a major trauma in one's college life, what works for the first year will continue to be the formula applied to the second, third, fourth year and so on. I also know that the academic environment here encourages whatever means are necessary to achieve the final result. In China, everything depends on the final mark. It is not that way in the U.S. Our education system highly values the process of learning as much as the final outcome, which is why many professors develop long-standing friendships with their students; it is considered an interactive part of learning. Academic integrity receives high priority among colleges. We have clear definitions of cheating and plagiarism, and when one is caught, the result is often expulsion from the institution with no hope of ever returning. American universities share names of such individuals so that the odds of being accepted to another university are slim. No school wants to be known as a refuge for liars, cheaters and fakes.

I say this because I want to establish that I am evaluating you based on the perspective of a U.S. school, and what I share with you should be taken with all seriousness. As your former teacher, I am somewhat acquainted with your approach to learning and academic integrity, and I will tell you that I am greatly concerned when thinking that you might possibly study in the United States. To be honest, X, I do not think you are a good candidate. Here are my reasons why:

1. You have already indicted yourself by choosing an internet moniker that displays great contempt for certain areas of western education. "FUCKtheGRE" not only insults American institutions AND your American teacher who tried to help you see the value in a foreign language, but it also labels you as arrogant and short-tempered. Consider that many US schools now have access to Chinese microblogs, and do not think for a moment that they are not out looking at your posts. They want to know if the person on paper is the real thing. Sadly, with a name like your previous one, you would not pass the test of authenticity.

2. You once told me that you have no problem cheating on exams or quizzes if they're not important. While your attitude about cheating certainly isn't rare, it is slightly alarming that you have not considered how this will affect your performance in America. X, cheating is not tolerated there. Not on homework or on quizzes or on exams or on finals. Not even in writing articles. If you still cheat and are accepted into an American school, you are putting that school and your own reputation in huge danger. More importantly, cheating is like setting a small part of a forest on fire. If you get away with it, it begins to consume other areas of your life: your business, your taxes, your friendships, your marriage. X, your lack of conscience is going to be a serious threat to your future. Sadly, when I think of you in 20 or 30 years, I do not imagine a content man who is surrounded by good friends and a strong reputation. Instead, I imagine a man who has achieved life's luxuries at the expense of his own morality. You would not be a man whom I would trust, X, and that's heartbreaking for a teacher to have to tell her own student.

3. You have hired an agency to do things for you. I know more about agencies than you probably think I do. While they promise to make your dreams come true, they are actually part of the reason why American universities are increasingly suspicious about Chinese students. Agencies do more than translate; they forge the entire application for many students. The trouble is that the application doesn't match the ability of the students once they arrive on campus. On paper, the student has exceptional communication abilities and outstanding contributions to class. In person, the student can barely speak and sits silently in class, never interacting with the other students (except for the ones who are Chinese). This is causing some American students to be resentful of Chinese kids who buy their way into class yet never contribute. They are, essentially, taking away the chance from someone who does the work honestly and independently.

4. You have demonstrated little interest in true study. Why go halfway around the world if all you really care about is smoking, the NBA and your girlfriend? You can have those things here in China without doing any damage to the reputation of the US schools.

This isn't just your academic life I'm talking about, X. This is your whole future. Instead of focusing on what a US school can do for you, start asking yourself what YOU can do for yourself. Maybe you need to take some time for self-examination before you expect an American university to change your life.

While I love China and desire the best for my friends and students here, I am also protective of the reputation of my own country's universities. After all, I am a product of such an education, and I wish for the level of excellence to be maintained for the sake of my own children and grandchildren. Your current performance does not meet that standard, and if I were on the admissions committee of your target schools, you would not be selected.

Our conversation tonight has given me reason to believe that you do not yet understand that YOU are a part of the problem that keeps Chinese education from experiencing its true potential. Change starts with the individual, not when you step foot onto foreign soil. Whoever you are now determines the rest of your days. For your sake and for the sake of your wife, children and the subsequent generations, I hope that you choose to re-evaluate your attitude and approach to the life you have been given. It is not too late to choose a better way.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

the rock to which we cling

Regarding my relationship with kids, I'm not exactly the ogre-ish Mama Fratelli from The Goonies, but I'm no Mary Poppins, either. The odd thing is that while I favor well-mannered children (and who doesn't?), it seems to be the mischievous rowdy ones that somehow fall within my shadow of influence. For instance, when I worked in Japan, my employer offered classes to children as young as three. Once I had established my reputation as the branch's most requested teacher, I used that to my advantage and negotiated out of most children's lessons. However, one of our regular instructors had some conflicts for a few consecutive weeks, and his classes defaulted to me because – as I later found out – I was the only one on staff who might be able to control a group of three-year old boys led by a wiry little guy who could somehow scale the 6-foot body of his British teacher in less than a minute. I remember looking at them through the observation windows as I made my way to the door. There was only one way to establish my presence, so I entered the room where they were darting and screaming, and I immediately stiffened my posture, hardened my face in seriousness and gave a sharp and effective commander's “Hey!” The chaos was stilled and every single little pair of almond eyes looked up at me in shock. I scanned each face like a sea captain who had just confronted the band of mutineers. From that point on, they were mine. Restricting their feral activity gave them freedom to use their indefatigable imaginations. I taught them “Itsy Bitsy Spider,” with exaggerated gestures, and they requested to perform it each week, their favorite part being when we would emphasize the line “and WASH! the spider out...” with a dramatic extension of our hands in every direction. Their exhausted mothers watched with pride and subtleties of wonder that the wild things of home were suddenly standing at attention when the foreign teacher entered the room. After a few weeks, their regular teacher returned, and I happily passed his former students back to him. It was a refreshing change of scenery for me, but I knew then, as I know now, that children are not my target group.

Which brings me to Tuesday night at our fellowship. We have a bi-lingual study there from 5:30-7:00, and it's been warm enough this week to walk the 45 minutes from my dorm. I arrived early and took a seat in the back while the music team rehearsed and did mic checks. On a bench to my left was a mother and her little girl of about three, whose delicate frame could've passed her for a two-year old had she not been so sturdy on her feet. She wore a lime green coat and pink pants. Her hair was straight, black and cut short so that her bangs fell just into the rise of her eyebrows. Her skin was pale and translucent, and she wore a tan-colored patch over her right eye. The patch hid slightly behind glasses that made her other eye appear disproportionately large, and the moment I saw her walking so carelessly in front of my seat, I silently crowned her the cutest sweetest face I had seen all week. She turned and noticed me smiling at her but didn't register any emotion. Her indifference was welcome; being a foreign face in China doesn't often afford moments of homogeneity. She made her way back toward her mother, and I gave her a subtle wave as she passed by. Again, she noticed but didn't seem impressed, and it's not in my nature to try to win over small kids. She went her way, and I returned to navigating through the alto range of the songs being practiced.

A few moments later, she circled around (again) in an aimless walk that only children can pull off without raising suspicion. As she passed by me, I looked at her and smiled at all the cuteness that she embodied; the little white boots, the puffy green jacket encumbering so small a stature, the miniature features on a porcelain face. She stopped and evaluated me for a minute and then turned and walked right up to me and draped her body over my crossed legs. She rested her chin on my knee and looked up at me, neither with sparkling curiosity nor with eagerness to play. She didn't move, and neither did I. We just stared at one another for several seconds, and then she turned her face so that her cheek rested above my knee. She was tired and had decided I was a good rock on which to rest. My left hand instinctively covered the back of her head, and I ran my fingers through her shiny black hair. My heart felt a special affection for this child who asked nothing of me other than to simply be who I was, where I was. She didn't expect entertainment, and she wasn't dumped on me by a parent who wanted bragging rights.

I looked up to see some friends of mine walking through the door, and when they noticed the tiny human starfish suctioned to my leg, they whispered, “Who is that?” I shrugged my shoulders and laughed, “Dunno, but she's been here for ten minutes.” Her mother had been watching and came to retrieve the listless child once the service started. I didn't protest but was a little disappointed that our tender moment came to an end. The next time I saw her, she was curled up next to her mother on one of the benches, dreaming little-girl dreams full of cotton candy, rolly-pollys, and pigtails.

This morning, I thought of her and how much she had affected me. My desire to suddenly protect her and love her were no doubt stirred by her quietness and vulnerability. In the same way, how much more does the Rock on which we fling ourselves release His lavish love on us when we approach Him with weary silence, simply trusting that He will be Who He is: a comforter, a protector, an immovable rock, a Father who reaches down and gently anoints us with His hand. Yet how often do we, instead, come with a sense of entitlement or the expectation of being entertained or amused. Our interaction superficial, we return to our lives boasting of His favor when, in fact, we have not known the fulfillment of simply anchoring ourselves to His satisfying presence.