Saturday, April 30, 2011

from planes to (bridal) trains

I watched the royal wedding yesterday through two different venues. One was a live broadcast on CCTV, which is state-run. This means that every one of the 50+ channels piped into my apartment is CCTV. There is no such thing as competition. The other venue was Yahoo!'s live stream. I used this to fill in the gaps when CCTV strategically cut away from moments inside Westminster Abbey.

Afterward, I was inspired enough by the ceremony to begin planning a lesson built around engagements and marriages, particularly as they have evolved through Western history. My mind is exploding with ideas. I may kick myself for this.

As I was checking my usual websites this morning, I found this fascinating article originally posted by Collectors Weekly, and I plan to integrate it into the lesson:

From World War II Parachute to the World’s Most Romantic Wedding Dress

Apparently there’s a small wedding in England this week. While we’re sure that Kate Middleton’s wedding dress will be a fashion tour de force, we’re also sure that it can’t possibly be as romantic as this one, which is from the collection of the Smithsonian. Here’s their description:

“This wedding dress was made from a nylon parachute that saved the groom’s life during World War II. Maj. Claude Hensinger, a B-29 pilot, and his crew, were returning from a bombing raid over Yowata, Japan, in August 1944 when their engine caught fire. The crew was forced to bail out. It was night and Major Hensinger landed on some rocks and suffered some minor injuries. During the night he used the parachute both as a pillow and a blanket. In the morning the crew was able to reassemble and were taken in by some friendly Chinese. He kept the parachute and used it as a way to propose to Ruth in 1947. He presented it to her and suggested she make a gown out of it for their wedding.

“She wondered how she was going to make ‘this voluminuous item’ into a dress. Seeing a dress in a store window that was based on one that appeared in the movie Gone with the Wind, she patterned her dress after that. She hired a local seamstress, Hilda Buck, to make the bodice and veil. She made the skirt herself; she pulled up the strings on the parachute so that the dress would be shorter in the front and have a train in the back. The couple were married in the Neffs Lutheran Church in Neffs, Pennslyvania, July 19, 1947. Their daughter and their son’s bride also wore the dress for their weddings.”

Friday, April 29, 2011

The Great Wall

People who live in colder climates have higher rates of depression. Strike 1.

People who get limited sunlight have higher rates of depression. Strike 2.

University students have higher rates of depression. Strike 3.

From March-June, university students - especially seniors - are under tremendous pressure and have higher rates of depression. Strike 4.

By the time you are seniors, one out of every four of you will consider suicide.

This is what I told my two classes today.

We did a lesson on health, but I give special attention to depression and suicide because they are crouching at the doors of so many.

At the end of both classes, I took a few minutes to talk to my students. The lesson ceased. It was quiet. No one was speaking but me. No one was distracted or disengaged. I was saying words that they've never heard a teacher say -- maybe even parents, for that matter.

I let my eyes fall on every one of them.

You are my students. In a way, you belong to me because I am now one of the people responsible for your well-being. I love you. I care about you. And no matter how bad it gets, you need to remember that you always have a choice, even if it feels like you don't. Choose life. Because if you choose death, you can never undo that. Go back to your dorms and talk with your dorm-mates about today's lesson. Come up with a plan on how to respond if one of you gets that call in the middle of the night saying, "I'm on the roof," or, "I just swallowed 100 sleeping pills." Because I go to sleep at night with my cellphone by my side, never knowing if I'm going to get a call like that. But chances are, I won't be the first contact. Chances are, it will be one of you. Are you prepared for that?

I never know how this will echo through their lives as they progress through the next few years, but I do this lesson every spring because it may be the only plea they ever hear in the drone of verbatim lectures and sterile powerpoint presentations.

Immediately afterward, two girls approached me and asked for advice about how to cope with some turbulent relationships. We talked for several minutes and continued our conversation down the five flights of stairs connecting us to the lobby.

About 30 minutes after my teaching day ended, I received a text message from one of those in attendance -- a boy who, by many accounts, has it made with a pretty girlfriend on his arm and a high score on his college entrance exam:

I want to say that thanks so much for your kindness and lesson, today. I'm a depressed boy and have been stuck in some problem for years. To be honest, I have been smoking for years too. You always touch me because of your care to me. Thanks.

Lessons like today show me hidden hurts and fears -- something that I, as an outsider, have no right to see. And yet, there I am, listening to whispered confessions that have, perhaps, never been granted permission to go beyond their own walls simply because no one has called out to them from the other side.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Necklace

We were sitting in a sparsely patronized restaurant, sharing a long overdue meal. I taught her two years ago, when she was an uncharacteristically chatty freshman who could easily take one breath and draw it out for at least five or six sentences. Not much has changed, except for her more mature look and her upperclassman status.

The light reflected something shiny peering out from the top of her collar. I intended to glance at it just briefly, until I noticed that its shape and color flung my mind from China to my Georgia hometown.

Why was its prismatic color and simple shape so familiar?

And then my memory retrieved a vignette from this past summer: a bookstore – not even one I frequent all that often – and a glass case that contains handmade jewelry designed by a local woman who I always thought was one of the most effortlessly beautiful ladies I had ever met. I used to babysit her three children. We would spend hours lost in imagination, they in their fuzzy footed pajamas curled up inside the crooks of my arms and me feeling the youthful twitches of maternal joy and contentment over reading, “The Little Prince.” They are now teenagers, and their mother runs a successful faith-based jewelry business. I was looking at all the pieces she has displayed at the bookstore and noticed one particular pendant that I thought was delicate and elegant. It was Swarovski crystal, cut as a faceted hollowed square with one corner being fastened to a chain by a silver clasp.

Nine months later, that same style pendant was suspended right below the collarbone of my former student.

“Your necklace reminds me of someone,” I said.

“Oh really? A friend gave it to me several years ago. I didn't even know what Swarovski was at that time,” she grinned.

Some moments later, our dialogue hovered over the topic of faith. She said many times that she believes in a “great power,” but never any specific title beyond that. I kept my contribution simple. I spoke the name of the One I love and serve and said that He is different from all others because He made Himself the very sacrifice that is demanded.

She tilted her head while her eyes followed an invisible line of thought. I needed an example. I quietly asked for something that would make sense to her. A parable moment.

Suddenly, her pendant caught the light again, and it all came together.

“It's kind of like your pendant. If you see it on its own, you may think it's quite pretty. But when you compare it to knockoff pendants, that's when the difference is really clear. That's when your understanding of its value makes it even more beautiful. Same with Him. All others are knockoffs and cheap imitations, and they make His gift even more priceless.”

Being from a country in which the entire retail landscape is dominated by knockoffs, she eagerly nodded in complete understanding.

I hope one day that understanding makes its way to her heart -- a turn which would cement a Swarovski pendant and Deborah Lynn Jewelry and The Lamb's Well Bookstore among the pages of eternal Chinese history.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Before the world wakes up

On the days that I have 8 a.m. classes, my alarm goes off at 4:30. Getting out of bed is no Disney fairy tale; ain't no melodious array of enchanted forest creatures warbling along with the growing rays of dawn.

It's me, yawning through the first well-rehearsed steps of preparing coffee, shuffling my slippers across a tiled kitchen floor that wears stains of the past week's cooking battles.

It's me, darkening the door frame that separates living room from kitchen.

It's me, being invited to the window by the unexpected realization that the sky was looking back at me for the first time in months.

4:30 isn't easy, but it has a silent majesty that only a few eyes get to see. I was glad to be one of them today.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

The Grand Tour

Evan Osnos, a columnist for The New Yorker, has written a fascinating article about the perceptions of Chinese tourists abroad. If you've ever done a group tour, especially in Europe, this is a worthwhile read:

Thursday, April 21, 2011

for Mo

My little sister is studying in Spain this semester. She emailed me sometime during the night to inform me that one of her two cats was found dead at the entrance of my parents' neighborhood. They think he was hit by a car. Of the two, he was her favorite.

She is trying to absorb this news while maintaining focus on preparing for final exams. The final stretch has included a not-so-brief introduction to the mother of all Spanish verb tenses: the subjunctive. Anyone who has ever studied Spanish groans in sympathy.

Please remember her this week. It's not gonna be an easy one.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Envy this, Parisians!

What: dinner with friends
When: April 17, Palm Sunday
Where: nearby restaurant
Menu: see for yourself

Friday, April 15, 2011

Does she really know how much she's loved?

There is a girl whom I've mentioned in previous newsletters home. I met her through one of my team-mates. She is affectionate, easy to laugh, candid and great fun at ktv. She is a student at HIT but is participating in a year-long academic exchange in S. Korea. We keep in touch, and I have worried about her on more than one occasion. Her self esteem is frail and is constantly being appraised based on how others treat her, particularly boyfriends. I've been impressed with none of them.

This afternoon, she gave me another reason to look toward Him to save her from...herself.

me 15:42:31
HEY! Long time no talk.

her 15:45:42

her 15:45:48
are you busy now?

me 15:46:01
No. Just relaxing at the moment.

me 15:46:21

her 15:46:55
I've so busy these days and take maybe 3-4 hours sleep everyday

her 15:47:15
did [team-mate's name] tell you I'm on a diet~?

me 15:47:42
So you're on a diet AND you're only getting 3-4 hours of sleep everyday?

me 15:47:48

her 15:47:53
yea ...almost die

her 15:48:45
I just eat a meal once for three days...

her 15:48:52
but it works well

me 15:49:36
Wait a minute. You eat once every three days?

her 15:50:22

her 15:50:29
other time just drink water

me 15:50:46
My darling girl, that is NOT healthy in any way.

her 15:51:03
yea~~I know

me 15:51:12
If you don't eat more often than that, your body will burn not only fat but also healthy muscle.

her 15:51:13
but quickly to lose weight

her 15:51:24
I heard about that

me 15:51:58
Not necessarily. If your body thinks that it is starving, it will actually do all it can to preserve fat. It is a survival technique that you can't control.

her 15:52:38

her 15:52:56
I think it wont last long

me 15:52:56
If you want your body to let go of fat, you have to eat enough good things to let it know that it's ok to let go of it. Otherwise, you will discover that you're not losing much weight at all. It's your body's way of protecting itself.

me 15:53:39
Why are you trying to lose weight so quickly, anyway?

her 15:55:46
I don't know

me 15:56:49
You are beautiful. And I'm not saying that just because we're friends.

me 15:57:01
You don't need to put yourself in danger just to be thinner.

me 15:57:55
And if you're under stress, the diet is only adding to the pressure that your body is feeling. Make sure that you take care of yourself and treat your body right.

her 15:59:41
ok I will!

me 16:00:15
I hope so. I want you to come back healthy, not weak and feeble!

me 16:00:41
So promise me that you'll eat something good and healthy tonight for dinner, ok?

her 16:00:57
I ate my lunch today~~

me 16:01:37
Well, I hope that you eat dinner, as well. It doesn't have to be a huge meal...and it doesn't have to be junk food...but eat at least a little something so that your body knows you're not starving.

her 16:02:13
I am not sure~~~

her 16:02:29
I don't why I want to lose weight so sudenly

her 16:02:41
maybe because the Korean girls are so thin

me 16:03:18
Beauty comes in many shapes, not just thin girls.

her 16:04:32
I still want to ....

her 16:04:42
anyway I will watch out my health

her 16:04:53
I wont let myself die....

me 16:05:11
Losing weight isn't a bad thing, but you have to do it for the right reasons and through the right process.

me 16:06:04
Ok, I feel better if you promise me that you'll eat regular meals from this point forward. Don't make me come to Korea and feed you like a baby!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

her 16:06:22
I just want to do it in a fast way...

her 16:06:34
ok...I will eat supper...!!

her 16:06:37
don't worry

me 16:06:37
Fast is dangerous and often ineffective.

me 16:06:53
Be patient and do it the right way so that you don't harm yourself.

her 16:08:33
I will~~~~~~~~

me 16:09:02
Because you know that [the Canuck team-mate] and I mean what we say. If you don't take care of yourself, we will come knocking on your Korean door!

her 16:10:38
ok~~~I got it!

me 16:11:26

her 16:12:02
I will go to study~~~

me 16:12:12
Ok. Get some rest tonight.

me 16:12:15
Talk to you soon.

her 16:12:30
there is an midterm exam tomorrow

me 16:12:55
I hope you do well. Good food and a good night's sleep are major contributors for a successful exam.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

things I'm still learning

I received an email this week from someone who will be moving to China to teach next year. She asked me if I had any advice for her. I thought my response would make a good post:

At this point, so much information is filling my head that I don't even know where to go from here. So, what I'll do is just enumerate things as they pop into my thoughts.

1. Your classroom will likely be equipped with a computer and a projector. Don't count on technology, though. For example, even though I work at one of the top nine universities in the country and one that is known for its technology, the classroom computers here DON'T have internet connections. Some often have problems opening up flv video files and pdf documents. Go figure.

2. Computer viruses are RAMPANT across China, especially at universities. If you have a PC, make sure that you have solid anti-virusware. If you have a Mac, you'll have less risk but also less availability of technicians if something goes awry. I have a Mac laptop and haven't regretted the purchase.

3. Bring lots of photos and maps of your town and state with you. Great conversation pieces.

4. Bring good deodorant. If your city is comparable to Harbin, you'll only have a few roll-on brands from which to choose.

5. Bring perfume. China is a smelly country. We do what we can.

6. If you are unsure if something is available in China, check It's the Chinese version of ebay, basically. Though the site is in Chinese, you can type in brands/names in English and usually get some form of feedback.

7. Certain electronic devices are actually MORE expensive here than in the States, especially Apple products and digital cameras. So if you're on the cusp of purchasing or upgrading, do it before you come.

8. Prescription meds are easy to obtain, many being over-the-counter here. However, you might want to bring some standard meds with you that might come in handy if you feel under the weather as soon as you arrive. They'll buy you some time until you get familiar with the whereabouts of the nearest pharmacy. Personally, I usually bring at least one supply each of the following: steroidal cream (for skin allergies that may arise as your body adjusts to the water difference), cough suppressant, general antibiotic, nausea tabs. Also, you may go through a period of stomach turmoil. Bring Pepto tabs or anything else that you feel is suitable. Over the years, several friends have recommended purchasing charcoal tablets, available at most health food stores at home. They're cheap, natural and are usually helpful with mild bouts of diarrhea.

9. I'm not sure what resources you have for calling home, but we're big fans of Skype over here. Google voice is also used by several of our colleagues. Another suggestion is to invest in Magic Jack, which is sold in the U.S. It allows free calls via the internet by assigning a local (US) number to you. Very handy with often clearer audio than Skype.

10. Chinese photo frames are tacky. Bring your own, if you have room.

11. Charge up your computer battery before you leave the US. If you fly through the Beijing airport, you can access its free wi-fi in many locations. It also has a Starbucks, so if you're a coffee drinker, you can get your fix. By the way, coffee IS available, though you'll likely have to get it at import stores. The other alternative is to drink the instant stuff which is sold in most supermarkets.

12. Chinese people abide by the calendar and not the season. For example, it could be unseasonably cold one day in November, but gloves and/or heavy coats won't be worn by locals until a certain date has officially arrived. Likewise, you may be tempted to wear sandals as early as April, but be prepared for scornful looks from old grannies if you do so before a certain date.

13. If you are NOT familiar with the history and current standing of Taiwan and Hong Kong among mainlanders, do some research before arriving so that you don't say something that might offend locals. I can't say much on these two issues.

14. Assume that all your communication will be monitored. Exercise discretion when having conversations with people back home and even with people here.

15. Try to get business cards printed as soon as possible after arriving, with one side in English and one side in Chinese. Giving your business card is quite a compliment and honor to the recipient, and it will be accepted with both hands. Giving with both hands is recommended.

16. "Guanxi" is a word you should learn from the start. It represents the often complicated and extensive network of contacts that one uses in order to receive help, social mobility, benefits and the like. Establishing guanxi is an integral part of the culture here. Yes, you will be asked for help and assistance from colleagues and students, but the nice thing is that you can also return the request. Likewise, if you ask someone for a favor, expect that it will be reciprocated at some point in time.

17. Chinese people have superstitions about almost everything. If you get sick at some point, you will likely receive helpful messages such as, "Feel better soon and drink more hot water!" "Wear more clothes!" This is their way of showing concern.

18. If your students are anything like mine, they will practically trip over themselves to help you in any way. Spending time with a foreign teacher is a bragging right, and they also vie for the opportunity to practice their English. Take advantage of it and utilize local students to help you get around the city and get your place equipped.

19. Learn to hold things very loosely in your grasp. Things in China change quickly, and the locals are able to adapt without much anxiety.

20. Have some songs tucked in your pocket for immediate use. At banquets, in particular, you will be expected to sing. Don't worry if you don't have a good voice. No one will care. They will applaud you as if you were Celine Dion performing at Caesar's Palace. (Many of my Chinese friends are tone deaf, so in comparison, I'm a musical prodigy.) :-)

21. Make sure your family has your mailing address in both Chinese and English. If they can print it out or copy/paste it into a customs form, it will help expedite any shipments from home. My mom is a pro at this. She uses the USPS for most shipments.

22. Bring small gifts from home to present to the people who will help you transition. This likely includes your department head, the dean of your department, your Foreign Affairs Officer (usually the person at the school who helps you sort out your visa and residence permit), and maybe a few others. We usually bring things like scented soaps, chocolates, and small jars of canned preserves.

23. If possible, check with your school to see if your paycheck will be deposited into your bank account. Believe it or not, some teachers are still payed in stacks of cash. (China is still largely a cash-based society.) You may want to see if your bank in the States has any sort of partnerships with Chinese banks. For example, I can use my Chinese ATM card at certain ATMs in the States with no transaction fee.

24. Students LOVE to try American food. If you don't cook, you might want to learn at least a few basic recipes which will earn you major points over here. If you like to cook, you'll be an instant favorite.

Monday, April 11, 2011

This ain't no Paula Deen, y'all.

I've been cooking a lot, lately.

Well, not really. What I mean is that students have asked to come over and cook FOR me. Who am I to deny them the pleasure of a wok and a hot plate? Nevermind the fact that I get a free meal out of it. I do it all in the name of cultural exchange.

ABOVE: Chinese dinner with a student of mine and her dormmate. The former confessed that she has a crush on a guy in her class, but she's afraid of appearing too forward. So, I did what any understanding teacher would do: I orchestrated a class activity requiring partners to find each other based on related material. What a coincidence that their information went together.

ABOVE: homemade pizza

ABOVE: A typical dish from the seaside city of Dalian: stir fried pork, celery, ginger and potato tossed in soy sauce and vinegar

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

sunset weeping and sunrise rejoicing

I know an orphan. His mother died unexpectedly after the school year had started. His hometown is far away, and he couldn't attend the funeral because it coincided with mid-term exams. His father has now transplanted himself to the city in which the eldest son resides.

When his mother died, he chose me to be his confidant. I don't know why. I had to trust the plan of that moment.

Since then, I spend time with him almost weekly. He has become a friend to me and to my team. He joins us on Sunday mornings, when possible. He comes over to hang out. We include him in celebrations and even mundane daily activities. He is a sweet, thoughtful and responsible young man. But even with those attributes, he has been without Hope.

Until now.

Prior to the start of a new week, we had a long, thorough and heartfelt talk on Friday in which we walked through the Roman road. It was made clear to me that it was time we broach that topic, and it was received with understanding but not commitment. As we said goodbye, he told me that he would spend the remaining hours of the night in thought of what was discussed.

He joined us last night at our weekly study. He was more subdued than usual, no doubt being affected by thoughts of his mother on a holiday (called Qing Ming) in which the dead are worshiped by surviving relatives. Meanwhile, throughout the city, small fires were popping along side streets as nationals burned paper effigies of items believed to be of use in the afterworld, including houses, cars, cell phones and even cigarettes. Our gathering was a world within a world; being in it but not of it. I was thankful to have him with us on such an occasion.

I didn't say much in reference to our Friday night conversation. I didn't need to. The sobriety on his face told me what he was thinking. I handed him a tract that was passed out to all in attendance on Sunday morning (not a usual practice). Written in both Chinese and English, it very clearly puts down all the points that we had addressed on Friday night. When I was handed a copy, I could quite literally feel my heart enlarge. I just knew that I knew that I knew: the time was at hand. I gave the tract to him last night and stepped back to watch things unfold at a pace in accordance with His plan and not mine.

I received a text message from him at 7:30 a.m. today. It was simple: “I want to.”

I will meet him after class this afternoon.

On the heels of an evening devoted to idolatry, this news gleams like the morning sun. I hope this is the first of many posts which follow his story.

Monday, April 4, 2011

the weeping prophet

I have been studying the words of Jeremiah, lately. It's not light reading; poor Jeremiah was equipped with the unenviable task of telling an entire nation of people that their transgressions were soon to be confronted by unrestrained holy fury. The response was as brazen as the grievances that were addressed. No one believed him, and he was repeatedly imprisoned or on the run. To make the burden even more daunting, it appears that he had only one faithful friend: his scribe, Baruch.

This morning, I was reading chapters 47-48, and I was amazed at the metaphorical mural being painted in the description of how He would judge and destroy those appointed nations. To be put in the cross hairs of divine wrath would be a terrifying consequence. And yet, being on the other side of the story, I boasted in belonging to One who can both love and judge -- violently. It's much like fleeing to a big brother who takes up the cause of the weak sibling. In that moment, I don't want someone who is meek and mild. I want someone who can lay a whole lotta hurt in one fellable maneuver.

I love Him. I fear Him. And I am glad for the reasons that justify both.

vivid verses:

“Ah, sword of the Lord, how long till you rest? Return to your scabbard, cease and be still.” (47:6)

“Moab has been at rest from youth, like wine left on its dregs, not poured from one jar to another – she has not gone into exile. So she tastes as she did, and her aroma is unchanged. But days are coming when I will send men who pour from jars, and they will pour her out; they will empty her jars and smash her jugs.” (48:11)

“Come down from your glory and sit on the parched ground.” (48:18)

“Make her drunk, for she has defiled the Lord. Let Moab wallow in her vomit; let her be an object of ridicule.” (48:26)

“I have stopped the flow of wine from the presses; no one treads on them with shouts of joy.” (48:33)

“So my heart laments for Moab like a flute.” (48:36)

“I have broken Moab like a jar that no one wants.” (48:38)