Friday, December 30, 2011

I've missed you more than me own luggage.

Two weeks since a post. Roughly that length of time without consistently solid sleep. Welcome to a country in which the end of one fairly new(ish) imported holiday (Christmas) is only the overture for a more widely celebrated holiday known as Spring Festival. In a few weeks, the entire country will begin stampeding in all directions as each and every good citizen makes the way home in time for the most important holiday of the year. Travel during the month of January is a nightmare, especially if a train ride is involved. That is one of the reasons why I head to Thailand as early as possible. I enjoy exploring China, but not in competition with 1.34 billion people.

So what's been keeping me so occupied for the last two weeks have been:

1) Cookies. All kinds of cookies. Chocolate. Peanut butter. Peppermint. Lemon. Sugar. Pinwheel. Some drizzled with chocolate. Some rolled in mint crumbs. Some decorated with royal icing and amateur piping. I lost count of how many I made. Fortunately, cookies and all things involving baking are wildly exotic here in China, so if I mention that I need helpers, I get immediate responses. Sounds exciting until you take into account, though, that Chinese people - for the most part - are completely unschooled in the art of baking. It's no exaggeration that some of them have never even handled butter. So...eager help doesn't always mean faster turnout. Nor does it ensure that their cookies will look anything like the photos online. In fact, assume that their batches could double as ink blot tests; no one sees the same thing twice.

2) The boss kept her promise. She came over to learn how to bake. We made fudge brownies from a box mix that she brought with her, and I also taught her a classic sugar cookie recipe. It was a big moment that's taken four years to materialize. I have never seen a Chinese woman - or man, for that matter - find such delight in operating a hand-held mixer. She squealed. SQUEALED. And she's already ordered one for herself.

3) Christmas day was a steamroller. It began with service at our fellowship, every pew being filled by people. I will give credit to the Chinese; their body size and lack of personal space qualifies about 50% more attendance than foreigners trying to maximize the same amount of seating. Our service is flanked by two other services, both in Chinese. The first went into OT, thus pushing ours back, which meant the final service was delayed. They weren't happy. Standing outside in negative temperatures didn't do anything to alleviate the situation. There were other things I noticed that day -- workers dressed in Santa suits during the first service -- that were unsettling to someone who has been brought up with very clear boundaries between secular and sacred. I would be eager for someone to explain that perplexity to me and more than eager to share my thoughts with them, in return.

4) Christmas evening was spent singing Christmas carols with students in the dining hall. More or less a yuletide choral flash mob. Our grand finale was sung by candlelight, intruded upon only by camera flashes.

5) Final exams have almost finished. I have no guarantee that I will see the same students next semester, which saddens both me and them. Those freshmen sure are lovable.

6) Tickets for Thailand have been purchased, sort of. I know when I'm going, and I know roughly when I'm coming back. I've booked the outgoing flight but am still hammering out details about the incoming itinerary. Some friends and I are thinking of paying a visit to The Soldier while he's home. If so, we will be the only foreigners - moreover, foreigners with fair skin and hair - in his entire village, population 40,000. I really really hope we get asked to be in a parade.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

the power of cookies, part three

The title of this post refers to its parent and sister posts made last year around this time. (Click here for original and then click here for the follow-up. The backstory will help to explain why cookies have received so much attention on this blog. Essentially, homemade cookies are something of myth and lore in China -- akin to finding a magical unicorn.)

This is merely an extension of a project that we tested last Christmas. It comes at the worst time of year. We're nearing the end of the semester. Final exams have either commenced or are in progress. Students vying for graduate positions at US institutions are inundating us with requests for proofreading their personal statements or supplying letters of recommendation. The holiday banquet - practically an institution, itself, within China - is at the end of the month. It's not just a palooza of food; it's also a buffet of performances by multiple departments. No expense is spared with even some groups going so far as to hire professional choreographers. (Keep in mind that China is not known for its intrinsic rhythm.) As our contribution to the festivities, my teammates and I are planning to sing a song in Chinese, which means at least a few practice sessions so that people don't confuse our lyrics for high mass in Latin.

There are many things pulling at our hours, but not much can be sacrificed. The month of December is - even in its most naked form - bustling. So why is it that cookies get such priority? Because they make people happy. Moreover, they make important people (like my Chinese boss and my national colleagues) happy. And building relationships with them is important to me. So, if some holiday cheer comes by way of sugar, chocolate, peppermint and peanut butter, I'll gladly be a little wearied by the end of the week. Today's special delivery to my department - and the smiles and oohs and ahhs it elicited - reminded my tired eyes and parched knuckles that spending Christmas efforts for the right thing will ultimately be rewarded.

Check out my goodwill ambassadors for this year:

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Oh, the weather outside is frightful...

But radiators are so delightful.

And temps are getting low low low

Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow.

The Christmas tree went up this afternoon, with help from three young men who were rewarded with homemade peanut butter cookies and a meal outside of campus.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

a student's reality

What if this was your neighborhood...your yard...your house...your living room...your bedroom...your life?

Monday, November 28, 2011

hold your applause

From an email I sent out to some people this evening

Dear friends,

One of my students recently attended a Tuesday night service. I didn't get any feedback from her until today, but what she said jarred me. I shared it with my team here at school, and I think the insight behind her statement is worth forwarding to some of you. First, let me preface this with some background information:

Earlier in the semester, one of my students stood up to speak about the assigned topic of, "FAMILY." He related the story of his grandfather, who had been captured by Japanese soldiers. He was put to work in a camp, escaping only by killing two of them. As the student recounted that event, the class broke into applause and smiles. I ached. After his presentation, I slowly made my way to the front and spoke for a few minutes about how grieved I was that the loss of life - though that of an enemy - was celebrated. I reminded my students that life is still life. In that same breath, I encouraged them to consider that generational hatred puts them in more of a prison than those who represent a bitter past.

Fast forward to today (Monday). I had class with the same group of students. Today's assignment was to discuss the outcomes of a unique assignment given two weeks ago. Each student received a piece of paper with 13 activities/destinations throughout Harbin. One of the 13 had to be chosen and completed. It was done with intentions of giving freshmen students an opportunity to get to know their city. One of the options was to attend a service at [ ]; that's why you may have seen several new faces with us on recent Sundays and Tuesdays.

The young lady who was present last Tuesday spoke about how friendly the people were and how interesting she found the video series that we've been watching At the end of her presentation, she said, "But there was something that confused me. In the video, they talked about Moses leading the Hebrews out of Egypt and G opened the water to let them through. He punished the Egyptians, though, and drowned them in the sea. When that happened, everyone in the room clapped. But didn't we learn that we aren't supposed to celebrate the death of our enemies?"

Her memory was spot on, and her insight stunned me.

I knew the timing wasn't appropriate to discuss anything with her, so I allowed the presentations to continue. I did, however, mention this to my team at today's meeting. They, like me, could only initially reply, "Wow." In discussing this with my team, we concluded two things which I will mention to that young lady:

1) Cs make mistakes. Our response to the video caused confusion for at least one person and may have hardened her heart against us and, ultimately, the One we represent. We asked that this not turn her away from any interest that she may have about learning and seeking.

2) Perhaps people clapped because of G's demonstration of His sovereignty over man and nature. In the story of the young man's grandfather, He was not mentioned. It was man against man. However, in the events of the Red Sea, there would have been no victory without His miraculous presence and hand orchestrating it so. In that case, perhaps the applause was for Him and not so much for the lives lost.

I and my colleagues found this a very thought-provoking moment of the day. May it help us to be more sensitive to the perceptions of newcomers and to those who are watching and listening to our everyday responses.

A question on Chinese minds

Being single in China isn't easy. The population is already lopsided as the result of the one-child only policy. Men will soon outnumber women by 30 million. 30 MILLION. That's like the states of Texas and Colorado being filled with nothing but bachelors. Add to that the expectation of parents and grandparents to marry and produce an heir to carry on the family name, yet with little being spoken of in families about the way to go about it all. It's akin to the blind leading the blind. No wonder our university students are so curious about it all. Many of them have never even been on a date. When they finally do find love, they take it so seriously that their well-being rides the wave of the relationship. If it crashes, so do they - literally. Many jump from windows. Some take pills. Either way, their lack of coping skills leaves them defenseless and all too quick for a surrender.

Our fellowship has noticed that even among believers, there is an alarming level of ignorance about approaching a romantic relationship from a Truthful point of view. Many of our like-minded friends aren't even aware that we are not supposed to be unequally yoked.

As we have discovered how vast this void is, we have begun to talk about discussing this on one of our Tuesday nights. Tomorrow has been designated the first of these talks in which we highlight something that seems to be on the minds of many and yet, has not been given proper attention. We are calling it, "Single and Serving." It will provide a chance for anyone to come and be a part of group discussions. Some groups are led by singles like me, and others are led by couples who have enjoyed healthy and stable marriages for years -- even decades.

Our hope is that people will be able to ask questions and receive counsel that is Word-centered and that their understanding of earthly love will be broadened by a greater picture of eternal union. Please remember us. It will be an important night. Many (students) who have heard about it are eager to attend, with a good number coming for the first time in their entire lives.

If the video below doesn't load properly, click here.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

a heart full of rocks

If you look closely, you might see
That I walk with a lean
Bending toward the left
Trying to hold up this heart of mine
A heart full of rocks

The weight of those rocks
Swings my heart like a pendulum
Their solid masses moving to and fro
With the rhythm of my gait
They tumble about
As my feet burn into the day
Like a signet into melted wax

Where did these rocks come from?
The young man whose giant stature cowers to fear;
The girl whose sideswept bangs point to pleading eyes;
The boy who kneels at the altar but sees not the High Priest;
The loved ones who want my service to have a deadline;
The longing to write what I have never written;
The answers still hidden behind a curtain of time

This heart full of rocks
Sometimes grows weary with its cargo
A cache of precious stones
Jagged enough to bruise the walls that enclose them
But polished by the whispers of communion
Unable to rend their vessel
But displacing enough comfort
To remind me that I have a heart at all.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Ashes to Beauty

One of my students, a handsome well-spoken city boy, showed up at our Tuesday night study two weeks ago. His religious background requires kneeling before sitting in the pew. I told him that wasn't necessary, but he did it out of conditioning. He sat in front of me, and within a few seconds, I detected a thick unmistakable cloud of cigarette smoke. He was covered in it, but I wasn't sure if it was firsthand or from being prisoner to a thoughtless taxi driver. (On the books, smoking in taxis is prohibited, but this is China.)

I taught his class the following afternoon. During some group work, I found an empty bench in the back and observed the students working. A few seconds after sitting down, my nose retreated in the same way it did the night before. I looked over at the belongings next to me, and I recognized his coat and scarf. I had my confirmation...and the ensuing conviction that there was a reason I noticed his habit two days in a row.

But we barely know each other.

I watched the students smiling and talking with the discussion partners. He was near the front of the class. So young and so full of potential. I kept imagining him gasping for breath. It made all the difference knowing that he is MY student.

A few minutes later, teams began making presentations. I found a piece of printer paper in my stack of handouts. The lower half was unmarked, so it folded and tore it from the rest of the document. It became my makeshift stationary. I had to be succinct, and I had to be quick. I didn't know what I would write, and - more concerning - I didn't know how I would get it to him without drawing attention from classmates who watch my every interaction.

I don't remember what I wrote. I wish I did. Only fragments come to mind:

I don't know when you'll read this, but I trust God's timing.
Smoke-filled lungs are tortured lungs, indeed.
I hate to think that you will pay such a huge price for a youthful addiction.
As your teacher, I care about your well-being.
I hope you don't consider this an invasion of privacy.

Once I finished it, I folded it up and starting working out HOW I could get it to him. My eyes scanned his coat, and that's when I realized there were two large pockets on the front. No one was sitting behind me, and sliding the folded note into the pocket took all of two seconds. It was done before anyone could even turn around. I hoped and asked that he would find it within reasonable time. That was it. I left the rest to our mutual Maker.

I've thought of that note since last week. Tomorrow (Wed) is his class. This afternoon, I received an email from him. It was attached with a four-page response. I can't betray some of the information he shared, but there's a future at stake, so I'm sharing enough to prick the finger of petition from anyone who feels moved. Please remember him.

I cannot help to say that I REALLY appreciate your letter. It is so kind and sincere of you to write this letter to me. So I hereby want to tell you some truth of myself, confidential ones that I never shared with any female friends, even my girlfriend. It’s disappointing, but I do admit that I really smoke. Sorry to hurt your feelings. In the start, a pack could last for a month. But now, it can be emptied in two days. Disappointed again, right? I’m so sorry about that and I really mean it. But anyway, that is the situation right now.

It is no denial that smoking is bad in every aspect and brings numerous diseases especially cancers. A youthful addiction, it is so precise, a youthful addiction that changes entire life. I probably would blame myself for not quitting it some decades later. But still, another truth, I don’t know how to quit, or, more accurately, not determined to quit it now. I am a man without strong determination. Although I have a good girlfriend who keeps pressure on me to quit smoking. Although I received your letter, which made me almost break into tears. Although I imagined how depressed would my parents and grandparents be when they know this thousands of times. I cannot quit it. Admitted, I am such a weak person.

I picked it up again last year. I was mentally destroyed by the failure in election (I failed to be the Chair of the school’s Student Congress but only the Vice-Chair) and relationship. (The girl that I’ve been pursuing for the whole year was never interested in me) As a result, I turned to my old friend. It is not an excuse to start the torment of my lung. I am feeling guilty about this because I once thought He cannot save me or relieve me from this suffering. I was wrong; He can do anything because of who He is. I was just not faithful enough. Could you tell me how to be more faithful? I mean I sometimes forget the rituals, like one before the meal, one after get up and before go to bed.

Again, I really thank you for your attention and advice to me. I really never ever expected this kind of warm-hearted letter. It must be a blessing which is giving me the best foreign teacher I ever had. It is also a miracle to bring two souls to each other only after a lesson at [your fellowship]. And I’m sure that it is a message to tell me stop smoking ASAP. I will keep it in mind and keep the letter carefully.

Thank you for your time reading such a long and meaningless email, too. I’ve never sent an email more than 600 words in English. I’ve never told my life story in English to anyone neither. I am extremely glad and happy to make friend with you. See you tomorrow~

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

undercurrents of grace (continued)

I had lunch with two students last weekend: one - the extrovert - was there at his own request for extra help and the other - the introvert - was there because he is only a few blank stares away from failing class. I thought a meal might soften the initial awkwardness of combining two students of such segregated proficiency and personality. It was a wise move.

While our chopsticks were moving from plate to plate of steaming Chinese dumplings, the extrovert mentioned something about, "that country to the east of us."

You mean Japan? I clarified, not understanding his ambiguity.

"Yes, that country," he affirmed.

His second refusal told me what his words didn't.

You know, when you refuse to give a proper name to a person or to a group of people, you are attempting to dehumanize them. Criminals do it all the time to their victims so that they won't have to consider that person another human being.

"Oh, but that's not what I meant," he stammered.

So what did you mean?

"I want to forgive them but they haven't admitted things that they did to us."

So you're waiting for them to make the first move?

"Yes," he replied.

You know, forgiveness is a miraculous act of mercy and grace because it often requires the person who was hurt to make the first move. Is it true forgiveness if you stand on one side of the line saying, "You come to this side and then we'll talk,"? Where's the compassion in that? Sometimes forgiveness has to start with the victim, but it ends up setting both sides free.

His chopsticks were resting on his plate. In fact, both boys had stopped eating. The introvert was silent but unwavering in his attention to the two of us.

The extrovert stared at me for several seconds and then crinkled his eyes a little. "Do you get this power from that book you told me that you read all the time?"

I nodded my head. Yes.

He nodded in an I-suspected-so way and said, "I would like to study it if it gives you that kind of strength. There's a lot about it I don't understand, but I'd like to."

Let me know when you're ready. I have some resources for you.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

undercurrents of grace

If my daily life was a drainage pipe and you could just open up a manhole covering and stick your head down in there to get a glimpse of what kind of conversations have been passing through, you'd be overwhelmed. I mean, I am. Overwhelmed by doors that are opening and questions that are coming out of nowhere from students who have the courage to ask. Overwhelmed by the sparks in classes that lead to discussions about eternal things. Overwhelmed by the responses of students to the challenge of choosing mercy over generational bitterness.


After almost four years, she has finally chosen to sit down with me and study. I know that she is fickle and often changes her mind, so if our Friday nights together continue, it will be a miracle. Maybe it's appropriate that we're reading about the great flood: If he can preserve the entire population through eight in a giant boat, he can take care of one shipwrecked girl.

He and his partner told me the day of class that they couldn't complete the homework assignment, which was to dress in business casual attire. I pulled them into the hallway and, as any teacher should, warned them. But I did that mostly out of protocol. I dismissed his partner to return to class. I kept him for an extra talk. Compared to his classmates, he is goliath. He is tall and obese with large swollen fingers. He slumps in his desk. He rarely talks and when he does, he fidgets and stammers. His self-confidence is nowhere in sight. I began, "I know this assignment was difficult for you." He looked down and nodded, pulling a little at his shirt. "But I want to help you," I continued, "I'd like to help you work on your English and your confidence in speaking with others. If you're interested, let's get together once a week. Let me know in a day or two if you'd like to accept my offer." That was two weeks ago. He has been to see me twice. We meet at my place of Tuesday fellowship and then we have dinner together, usually with a small group of other students. The first week, he said little and inhaled his noodles. The second week, we went around the table and took turns sharing something about ourselves. When it came to him, he said, "I read a lot of science fiction, and I think it helps me to understand some of what we learn on Tuesdays and how maybe I can believe in Him." I should've been wearing a seatbelt for that one. As I walked the dinner group to their bus stop, I turned back to see him talking with another young man. He was chuckling -- chuckling! And in class this week, he didn't slump. He seemed more alert and awake. It so happened that this week I was able to tell an ancient story. In a recent article of a national publication, the title read, "SHENZHEN PONDERS PROTECTION FOR GOOD SAMARITANS." It is in response to a tragic story of a little girl who was run over and left for dead while 18 people passed by without helping. We discussed the article and then I asked the class, "Do you know what a good Samaritan is?" Some guessed and guessed correctly. My next question was met with silence. "Do you know the origins of that name?" And so, as a supplement to their understanding, I shared with them the story. They were mesmerized and then shocked when I put it into cultural terms for them by asking them to imagine doing the same act of kindness toward a wounded Japanese soldier 50 years ago. Unheard of. I happened to glance at him while the story was being told. He had a look on his face that I can't describe, sort of like he knew inside information because of what he's been learning on Tuesday nights. For me, it was a double blessing.

To be continued...

Sunday, November 6, 2011

a deck of carts

On the way to fellowship last Tuesday night, I ran into a guy who was also going to the same place. He showed me a side street that avoids some of the construction nearest our destination. As we rounded the corner of our detour, I saw four or five carts turned up and stored for the night. They were rusty and ragged except for a band of color down the sides. Beautiful symmetry. I stopped and gazed at them for a few seconds. My company didn't realize I had quit walking until he turned around and saw me fixated on what he probably appraised as glorified wheelbarrows.

It was too dark to get a photo, and I was without my camera, but I knew I'd be back.

I left my apartment about 30 minutes early this morning. I wanted enough time to get some photos of what tempted me on Tuesday night. The diffused morning light made me hopeful. And yes, they were there. A few people passed by and stopped to look at what I was doing, more curious about the crouching stranger with camera than about what might be captivating her. Why does something have to be glossy and sequined for people to pay attention to it?

I think dingy splintered wheelbarrows are much more intriguing.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Bond, James Bond

After covering a lesson last week in western dress codes, I mandated that all my students come to class wearing an outfit of business or business casual caliber. Some wore suits and ties, some wore sweater vests with collared shirts, and some...

well, take a look.

Yes, it's plastic torn from a larger piece of plastic. Yes, it's threaded through the button hole. Yes, I laughed and cried simultaneously.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Party time! Excellent!

According to this blog's stats, 3502 people have viewed this blog. That's about 3501.1 more views than I ever expected, so yeah, I find it a moment worth celebrating.

And by celebrating, I mean having a second cup of coffee at 5:15 a.m.

Party on, Wayne. Party on, Garth.

Friday, October 21, 2011

a letter for the soldier

After spending ALL DAY trying to knock out emails and computer work, I have little time and hand-eye coordination left.

I just finished drafting a letter to the soldier and will have a trusted friend translate it for me within the next day or two. It is intended as an arrow to the soldier's heart and addresses the issue of violence in his life that I have only recently connected through stories he has shared. I foresee that his military service, beginning as soon as he graduates this June, will only reinforce the explosive outbursts that have defined and damaged the lives of those closest to him.

I have shed many petitions and many tears for this young man. If you happen to remember him and me and that letter in the next few days, please intercede.

Do the right thing.

Preface: Wang Yue, nicknamed “Yueyue” by Chinese media, is a two-year old girl from southern China. She made international headlines after being hit by two different vehicles last week as she was playing near a busy market in the city of Foshan. Her mother was hanging clothes nearby. Neither driver stopped nor demonstrated any responsibility. Of the 18 passersby, no one offered any assistance. Only one woman, an elderly scrap scavenger, came to Yueyue's aid and removed her from the road. The event set off a firestorm of microblog posts throughout the country, due in no small part to its harrowing images that were recorded by a camera on the street corner. The video and national collective anger have been at the forefront of Chinese internet posts all week. Sadly, Yueyue died today from the injuries she sustained.

Several weeks ago, I issued a challenge to my students to, “do the right thing.” It was prompted by an experience I had while waiting for the teacher bus that takes faculty and staff to and from our school's second campus across town. Recently, international students have also begun to use the bus. No one – including me – said anything the first week. I felt especially guilty since I am also a foreigner, and it's easier for me to recognize those who live in my dorm. Basically, I knew good and well that they weren't teachers.

By the second week, the number of foreign students had multiplied, and those waiting for the bus attempted to get on before the teachers. That kind of blinding disrespect forced me to open my mouth on behalf of all my colleagues. I quickly blocked the bus door with my arms and yelled to the crowd behind me, “TEACHERS FIRST!” Everyone stiffened in surprise – including me. Either by shock or shame (or both), the students who had seemed so eager for a seat suddenly stood still and allowed the visibly more mature people to step aboard.

One of the international students whom I had blocked is a young man has been a student here for a few years. Though we're far from being friends, we have enough familiarity with one another to usually exchange a simple conversation. That day, after we arrived at second campus, he looked at me and said with a smile and a light chuckle, “If you ever do that again, I'll kick your ass.” His words shocked me. Not only did he say it to a teacher, he said it to a female teacher. In the opinion of some of my colleagues, that's enough to get him expelled from this institution.

To add insult to injury, once I arrived at second campus, I joined the swelling groups of students huddled around the elevators on the first floor. In my own defense, I should point out that my classroom that day was on the eighth floor. I consider anything below the fifth floor to be stairs-only. To students who use the elevator to get to the third or fourth floor, I want to say, “Excuse me, are your legs broken?!” As the elevator doors opened, any male students standing around me quickly made their way inside with not one glance back at the teacher and female students who were there, first.

This salt on the open wound of my bus experience burned in me like a righteous anger, but I decided to make a teachable use of it. I spoke to each of my classes that week about doing the right thing, and I challenged them to look for opportunities – no matter how small – to show humility and respect within a world that is racing at inhumane speed toward individual satisfaction. Maybe it's nothing more than standing back and saying, “Ladies, first.” Maybe it's offering a seat on the bus to an elderly gentleman. Maybe it's taking the stairs to the sixth floor so that a teacher can occupy your place on the elevator.

The objective is that doing the right thing in small everyday practices will help to steel us – Chinese and foreign, alike - for doing the right thing in cases where it's a matter of life and death.

No one would agree with me more than Yueyue.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

the DMZ: a trip unlike any other

Korea* is the only divided country in the world. The polarizing 148-mile line crosses the 38th Parallel and is considered the most heavily fortified border on the planet. There is an unnerving silence that hovers over the 2.5 miles of cease-fire territory known as the DMZ (demilitarized zone), while armed guards of opposing governments stand within feet of one another, neither crossing the cement demarcation line. The Korean War is still, technically, a war. An armistice established in 1953 ushered in the last 50+ years of more silent aggression, most currently utilizing technological warfare.

Venturing closer to the DMZ, there are echoes from the past that still claim rightful ownership of modern fears: anti-tank obstacles line roads that are considered arteries to and from the borders and are designed to explode into debris to block incoming tanks; barbed wire and posts sheltering conscripts with binoculars dot the banks of the Han River; motion-detecting flood lights rise tall above the water's edge, poised to illuminate anything that trips the sensors; four secret tunnels discovered between 1974-1990 by the South are believed to have been dug by the North as infiltration measures capable of moving up to 30,000 soldiers under an hour. One of the tunnels is now available as a tour elective, though I'm pretty sure you don't get a chance to purchase a photo at the end of the ride.

There are two military checkpoints required for all tours. One is just past the Han River; the other is located within the first gate of Camp Bonifas, the UN military base. At Camp Bonifas, tours must deboard from commercial buses and reboard on a military bus driven by an armed soldier. From that point forward, the military makes all decisions, including when and where cameras may be used. Photos are allowed only at certain junctures, and visitors are strongly warned against gesturing, pointing or making any sort of movement which might provoke the DPRK soldiers that are watching from all angles on the other side of the border. No one is allowed off the bus at unsanctioned stops. The area is peppered by landmines and any deviation from the route is a death wish. The only benefit to such restrictive surroundings is the freedom now available to wildlife. Within the overgrown ruins and hidden detonators of the DMZ, endangered plant and animal species have thrived, making a slight mockery of the intentions of both sides.

The apex of the tour is stepping into Panmunjeon, one of three neutral buildings where negotiations are made between North and South. Its small size is compensated by bright blue paint. One half is occupied by the North and one half by the South. There is an understanding that whenever one country has tourists inside the building, military from the other side patrol the outer half with freedom to through the windows. That didn't mean much to me until one moment in which I was taking a picture of a stoic UN soldier inside the building. As I brought the camera away from my face, I glanced up to see a pair of North Korean eyes fastened on me from outside the window five feet away. Neither of us gave way to expression. It seemed as though we were both ghosts for a moment. His gaze left me and settled on someone else, but I stood there for a few seconds taking in the sharp angles of his face and how they matched the equally sharp angles of his muted green suit, polished medals and hat. Those from the North who are stationed at the DMZ are surely some of the most brawny and well-fed in a country suffering from mass starvation; likewise, the South also selects physically superior soldiers who meet or exceed the required 5'8" stature (American counterparts must stand a little taller - six feet, minimum.). A black belt in martial arts is also requisite. Adding to the intimidation tactic is the staple pair of black opaque aviators given to each South Korean lookout. Those along the border stand at attention with clenched fists. I have no idea how long the rotation lasts, but it must be exhausting to maintain such a posture for hours at a time. Those guys might celebrate more than anyone if and when the war finally comes to an end.

*Image source:

From our tour bus, we began to see the increased military presence as we traveled closer to the border.

lookouts along the Han River

a memorial erected in the peace park located on the South Korean side; used by families to remember loved ones whose graves are across the border

messages for peace and unification

Caught in an ambush during the Korean War, this locomotive was riddled with over 1000 shells. Only the conductor survived.

These four statues represent the generations of South Koreans looking toward the North, waiting for unification.

Panmunjeon. The leftmost blue building is where negotiations are held. The large building on the opposite side is Panmungak, belonging to North Korea.

The red arrow in this photo points to the military demarcation line that divides the two countries.

Inside Panmunjeon, we were guarded by South Korean and U.S. military, representing the U.N.

a DPRK guard

DPRK guards marching

a UN soldier guarding the door that opens to the North

THE AXE MURDER INCIDENT: This plaque stands in place of a former poplar tree that was cut down in 1976. The tree became an obstruction to a checkpoint on the Southern side, so guards were ordered to prune it. In the process, they were confronted by opposing soldiers and a battle ensued. Two Americans were killed in the skirmish, including Captain Arthur Bonifas (after whom the base is named). The tree was felled three days later and replaced by a memorial. Since that time, the military demarcation line has been strictly enforced, with only the blue buildings within the Joint Security Area (JSA) being allowed any exception.

The Bridge of No Return was used primarily to exchange POWs at the "end" of the Korean War in 1953. Each prisoner was given a choice between the two countries, but once the choice was made, there was no going back. In the end, 13,444 chose to return to the North and 89,493 chose to return to the South.

Saturday, October 15, 2011


Hello Kitty is Japanese. Because of course it is. But that doesn't mean that Kitty Whimsy can't be found on a backstreet of one of Seoul's eclectic artsy collegiate neighborhoods. Don't even bother to ask if we indulged in Kitty waffles and Kitty coffee.

More amusing than the cafe itself is the le clientele.

glimpses of Seoul

I'm back in China, but life never promised to slow down for a week's vacation, so as soon as I landed, I had to pick up the work that accumulated while I was gone.

While I'm still digging out from the rubble of email, here are some scenes from our two visits to Seoul.

Pay attention to the restaurant "seats." This is taking multi-tasking in a dangerous direction:

Stole my heart...

Monday, October 3, 2011

National Holidaze

This photo leaves me with no regrets over getting away during China's National Holiday(s), which commemorate the founding of the PRC in 1949. The official holiday is always on October 1, but many workers, students and teachers (like me) are given the entire week.

The left panel shows crowds at The Forbidden City (Beijing), and the right panel was taken along the riverfront in Shanghai. (Source:

Love this excerpt...

...from poet Andrea Gibson:

I am not looking for roses.
I want to break like a fever.
I want to break like the Berlin Wall.
I want to break like the clouds
so we can see every fearless star,
how they never speak guardrail,
how they only say fall.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Scenes from Suwon

The Cuz and I took a short train ride to the city of Suwon, today.