Friday, September 23, 2011

Friday morning confessions

I don't often publish my meditations. This one felt heavy in my heart today, though, so maybe it's time to share it. Perhaps someone else out there is on the cusp of confession and just needs one more puzzle piece of encouragement.

Father, I am sorry. Sorry for putting other things first, even this morning. Sorry for not loving you with my heart and soul and mind and strength. Sorry for loving other things more than the one who gave his life for me. Sorry for finding greater joy and greater satisfaction in gifts more than the giver. Sorry for taking to heart and mind the accolades of mankind. Sorry for judging your created ones. Sorry for putting my needs above the needs of others.

Create in me a new spirit. Burn within me the way you used to. Be what my soul craves in the morning and at night. Help me to fall in love with you again, to be moved to tears just thinking of you. Help me to desire you above all things.

I used to love you like that. I used to run to you so often during the day. I used to spend hours talking with you. I used to laugh with you, too -- how can I describe the sound of holy joy escaping from my mouth? I felt completely satisfied in those moments with you. I threw myself on your immovable rock and never had a desire to move.

Help me find you again. In all this work, in all this great harvest, in being set apart from an ordinary life, I am scared to think of what I could become if I forget you or grow cold to your voice. I don't want to heal from the wounds you carve. They keep me alive in the Son and dependent only on the balm of his presence.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

quick to listen, slow to speak

Yesterday was defined by dichotomous tasks: talking in the morning and listening in the afternoon. The talking was nothing memorable. I introduced myself and went through the course syllabus and expectations. I never get bored with the variable of students, though; every class has its own fingerprint. But, in general, the first day is relatively smooth and well-rehearsed. Yesterday afternoon, however, I traded in my fatigued voice for a more passive role in unexpected conversations, abiding by the admonition of being, “quick to listen and slow to speak.”

The first came when I was forwarded a message received by my team-mates. It was written by the angry elf and sent to almost everyone in the English department, including the dean, the associate dean, and several others of sizable influence. Because I teach non-English majors, I was not included in the list of recipients. The email was brief but rife with anger. In it, he observed that the curriculum videos he had requested to be put on the school's English language website were not only listed in Chinese but were available for download with Chinese subtitles. While his frustration is understandable, his response is not. He actually referred to what had been done as, “plain stupid,” and ended the rant with a demand in all-caps to take the videos down. I can't imagine that things will end well for him, here – not after publicly insulting the very people responsible for hiring him.


Round two came several hours later while I was walking up a hill to meet a friend. At the corner opposite my dorm, I noticed a guy whom I met in the elevator one evening. He is Asian-American and has committed to a year-long Chinese study here. He smiled and waited up for me. A few strides later, he had begun to share his feelings on the locals. “They're selfish, always trying to talk to foreigners just to practice their English. Always got ulterior motives.”

I was aghast. Even considering the opportunists that do exist here (and everywhere else), I have found Chinese friends to be some of the most loyal and sacrificial of my entire life.

I gave him my best quizzical brow. You don't have many Chinese friends here, do you?

“Nah, not many.”

Not with that perspective, you won't.

“Yeah, but I've lived here for a year and know how they think.” He paused. “How long have you been here?”

This is the beginning of my fourth year.

He sobered up and tried to backpeddle his words, but the impression had already been made. He's not the first Asian-American to be so jaded with his own ethnicity. A few minutes later, he mentioned having a friend in the area who is also an American – a female teacher – who is struggling with culture shock. She's from North Carolina. He asked if he could put her in touch with me. For her sake, I said yes. I don't like the thought of a single female feeling so alone in this city – moreover, a southerner who actually knows that one doesn't order a bowl of grits according to individual grit count. I also want her to see a more holy representation of living a transplanted life here.

The third lesson in listening was delivered to me by way of none other than StoneCold. Some weeks ago, I had taken a raincheck on his offer to go walking after a heavy meal of hamburgers. I was just too tired. I didn't forget my promise, though, and was actually on my way to meet him when I had the unexpected encounter with the Asian-American mentioned above. We made the circuit outlining the entire campus - at least a 45 minute walk past dorms, basketball courts, the library, the main building, the dining halls, the gym and then back toward my dorm. As we passed underneath branches overhanging the sidewalk, he spoke of his desire to see China step out of the shadows of dominant countries that have always led it like a muzzled ox. I didn't have to ask which country might be the foremost offensive in his mind. Instead, I reminded him that the time of world dominion by a single culture is over. "The age of an ethno-geographical empire is no more, especially with world cultures being irretrievably linked by economies and social networking. The only empire on this earth that I now know is the empire of technology. It rules and it conquers and it absorbs generations into its kingdom. It has become a deity, worshiped and proclaimed, especially by our generations. I mean, can you imagine what would happen to the students here if their cell phones and computers were taken away? It would be chaos." StoneCold lifted his face in illuminated understanding and smiled.

Whenever he does that regarding some observation I have voiced, I know that I have won another square foot of respect and favor in his life. It is the Spirit within me granting wisdom in such moments, and to have three of them in one day is worth commemorating.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

grammar is for non-cannibals

That's what I'm sayin'.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Inside North Korea


Earlier this year, David Guttenfelder, chief Asia photographer for the Associated Press, along with Jean H. Lee, AP bureau chief in Seoul, were granted unprecedented access to parts of North Korea as part of the AP's efforts to expand coverage of the isolated communist nation. The pair made visits to familiar sites accompanied by government minders, and were also allowed to travel into the countryside accompanied by North Korean journalists instead of government officials. Though much of what the AP journalists saw was certainly orchestrated, their access was still remarkable. Collected here are some of Guttenfelder's images from the trip that provide a glimpse of North Korea.

Click here for website.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

seating charts

StoneCold and his friend, the Director, came over for - what else - hamburgers on Friday night. In the two years that we have been making dinner reunions, I think that I've deviated from the menu only once, and that was to give them an introduction to omelets. Though the risk was rewarded with nods of approval, StoneCold is much like me in his loyalty to first loves. In other words, the hamburger and its empire of dribbling lopsided deliciousness will not be dethroned.

We now all know the procedure. They show up with the usual contributions of lettuce and tomato, which save me the time of going to the market. Hands are washed, shirt sleeves rolled up to the elbows. Plastic cutting boards are retrieved from the drying rack. StoneCold prefers to use more traditional Chinese cutlery, so I always make sure I have a cleaver washed and ready. And he, in turn, always inspects it. I appreciate his discriminating methodology, especially during food prep. I told him last night that I would hire him for kitchen staff anytime.

Fresh ground beef is packed into a ball, flattened into a disc and seasoned. We drill doughnut holes in the middle of the patties to distribute the heat and then lightly brush them with melted butter for insulation. The hiss from the pan plays as background music to our conversations.

Our discourse last night was as stacked as the burgers themselves. We talked about our summers and about the schedules we keep this school year. StoneCold taught me two new words (apogee and paragee) which I will never employ except in this blog entry and maybe some future conversation with him in which I ridicule the chances of me ever using terminology as it relates to satellite orbits. We also discussed movies, classical music and my allergic reaction to higher math.

They both ate two massive burgers apiece. StoneCold lamented my decision to use paper plates, but his reasoning brought a big smile to my face. "I can't lick a paper plate," he said. I promised to use porcelain next time. Since he assumes all dishwashing responsibility, it's not a sacrifice on my part.

After dinner, StoneCold pitched the idea of going for a walk - something our trio did the last time we finished off a meal at my place. Had I not been up since an early hour, I would've accepted the invitation. I was pleased that he found it enjoyable enough to propose a repeat. I hinted that I might call the two of them sometime this week to join me in the late afternoon hours. The weather here is nearly perfect, and cool evening strolls are things that a Georgia girl living in Harbin doesn't forsake.

After they left, I realized that the silence following their departure was noticeable because we had laughed so much that evening. There was never a labored moment or an awkward exchange. And silence - when it did come - was welcomed as a moment of savoring the flavors, textures and smells of a meal that brings joy and company and acceptance.

My imagination has taken that moment on a trajectory toward eternity. One day, I will take up residence in my Father's kingdom, and I will sit down at His banquet. I hope that StoneCold and the Director are there and that maybe we will be seated together. And wouldn't our laughter be unbridled and complete, rising like smoke to the heavenly rafters...if we glance down to see that we will be feasting on hamburgers.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Irena Sendler

It's a shame that I found out about this quiet giant just yesterday. She died a few years ago. Read her obituary below, courtesy of The Times archive.

When Germany invaded Poland in 1939 Irena Sendler had no doubt how to respond. “I saw the Polish nation drowning. And those in most difficult position were the Jews. And among them those most vulnerable were the children. So I had to help.”

Sendler, a social care nurse for the Warsaw city council, spent the next four years risking her life in the Warsaw ghetto, delivering essential supplies and, when the true purposes of Nazi policy became apparent, smuggling out as many children as she could.

She saved many hundreds of lives — perhaps as many as 2,500. Even under torture and sentence of death, she refused to reveal the whereabouts of the rescued children to the Nazi occupiers, and after escaping captivity went back to the underground, making sure that those she had hidden survived the war.

She was born in Warsaw in 1910, the only child of Dr Stanislaw Krzyzanowski. The family moved to the nearby town of Otwock, where her father had a reputation as the only doctor who would treat Jewish patients during typhoid epidemics; he himself died of the disease in 1917. Irena, unusually for a Catholic child, was allowed to play with Jewish children and said that her father taught her “that if you see a person drowning, you must jump into the water to save them, whether you can swim or not”.

She married Mieczyslaw Sendler and became a social worker, caring for poor Jewish families in Warsaw. Under German occupation, conditions for the city’s 400,000 Jews deteriorated rapidly, and Sendler, defying Nazi orders, began bringing them supplies. After the Warsaw ghetto was sealed off in 1940, Sendler and some of her colleagues obtained passes from a sympathiser in the city authorities, letting them into the ghetto as sanitation workers.

They carried in food, clothes and medicine — including typhoid vaccinations — sometimes returning several times a day despite the risk to their own health and the horrors they witnessed. Starving children, abandoned corpses and SS officers using skulls for target practice — “I saw all this and a million other things that a human eye should never have to see,” she later said, “and it has stayed with me for every second of every day that God has granted me to live.”

In the summer of 1942 deportations from the ghetto to Treblinka death camp began. Sendler joined Zegota, the Polish organisation set up to help Jews, and began getting children out. “We would go to the ghetto every day and try to get as many children as possible because the situation would worsen every day.”

Smuggling them out was risky, because any Pole caught helping Jews was sentenced to death. Sendler used false documents, hid small children, sedated, in sacks and boxes — even coffins — and sent older ones out through the sewers or basement passageways. One mechanic took a baby out in his toolbox. Others went through a courthouse which had one entrance in the ghetto and another on the “Aryan side”.

But for Sendler, the hardest part was persuading parents to part with their children. Though the parents knew the children would die if they stayed, Sendler could offer no guarantee that they would be any safer if they left. She later described “infernal scenes. Father agreed but mother didn’t. Grandmother cuddled the child most tenderly and, weeping bitterly, said ‘I won’t give away my grandchild at any price’. We sometimes had to leave such unfortunate families without taking their children from them. I went there the next day and often found that everyone had been taken to the Umschlagsplatz railway siding for transport to death camps.”

Once the children were out, Sendler used her network to find them homes in Polish families, orphanages and convents. To help them blend in, the children were taught mainstream prayers and given new identities. Sendler kept a careful list of their real identities in the hope that they could at some point be reunited with their families. But in October 1943, alerted by an informer, 11 German officers arrived to arrest Sendler. She had no time to dispose of the list and gave it to a colleague, who hid it in her underwear while the soldiers ripped Sendler’s house apart. Sendler was taken to the notorious Pawiak prison, where she was methodically tortured and beaten, leaving her permanently scarred. She never revealed the names of the children or of her underground colleagues.

Officially, she was executed in early 1944. But in fact, Zegota had bribed a German guard to let her escape from death row.

Even after this ordeal Sendler continued her work, going back underground with a new identity, bringing supplies and medicine to the hidden children, and moving them on when suspicions were aroused. “I once carried such a tearful broken-hearted little boy to other guardians when he asked me ‘please tell me how many mums you can have, for this is the third one I’m going to’.”

After the liberation Sendler retrieved the list of names from where she had buried it during the Warsaw uprising of 1944, in jam jars under an apple tree in a friend’s garden. She helped Jewish organisations to trace those few children whose families had survived the Holocaust. But even these reunions were painful, for the children had to be uprooted from their homes yet again. Many of the rest were eventually sent to Palestine.

Sendler herself received little recognition immediately after the war. The regime which came to power in Poland had little use for the sufferings of the Jews, nor for non-party war heroes. In a still often anti-Semitic climate, those who had rescued Jews were targets of suspicion or contempt.

After divorcing her husband, Sendler married Stefan Zgrzembski, a fellow underground activist, and continued her work in social care and in the education system.

Her work was, however, known to Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority, which recognised her as Righteous Among the Nations in 1965. A tree was planted in her honour, but she was not allowed to visit Israel until 1983.

In recent years she had become increasingly well known in her homeland, and she was awarded the country’s highest decoration, the Order of the White Eagle, by President Kwasniewski in 2003. A biography appeared in Poland and Germany in 2006. Last year the Polish senate passed a unanimous resolution honouring her for “the rescue of the most defenseless victims of the Nazi ideology: the Jewish children”.

She wrote in response: “Every child saved with my help and the help of all the wonderful secret messengers, who today are no longer living, is the justification of my existence on this Earth, and not a title to glory.” She was too ill to attend, and this statement was read out by Elzbieta Ficowska, who was smuggled out of the ghetto in 1942, at the age of 6 months.

Sendler described her actions as “a normal thing to do” and refused always to think of herself as a hero. “That term irritates me greatly. The opposite is true — I continue to have qualms of conscience that I did so little. I could have done more. This regret will follow me to my death.”

She had two sons with Zgrzembski; one of them died in infancy, the other in 1999. She is survived by a daughter.

Irena Sendler, social worker and rescuer of Warsaw’s Jews, was born on February 15, 1910. She died on May 12, 2007, aged 98

Thursday, September 1, 2011

IKEA shelves and angry elves

Mankind is fascinating. Living abroad constantly strips me of boredom of my own species. And the IKEA found in Beijing - the second largest in the world - is a place where I go (when I'm in town) to spend equal parts shopping and observing the surplus of human behavior.

Beijing locals go there for reasons other than people-watching or finding a Scandinavian bookshelf. They make the journey largely because it's a free way to escape the heat and smog of the city, and the maze of display beds, chairs and sofas just begs for weary occupants.

Yes, they go there to sleep.

They also take advantage of the pre-fabricated rooms that provide complimentary backdrops for family photos.


Over 1,200 miles northeast of Beijing, I have found human behavior just as intriguing. This time, though, it involves a newcomer to our foreign instructor group. He's not affiliated with me, my team or our organization; he's independent. He comes from a legal background and seems to apply the aggression intrinsic to that profession to his current position. He has not come here without controversy, and his demeanor has already caused major tension among some in his department. On more than one occasion this week, my team and I have had to comfort his walking wounded after heated confrontation. When I found out that he had assailed another foreign instructor in front of department supervisors (most being Chinese), I was immediately grieved. He is an ex-pat with whom I am embarrassed to share a nationality. I found out that he has multiple marriages and estranged children whose numbers exhaust fingers on both hands. Thanks to the internet, I also found out that his questionable past followed him through various parts of the world and is now archived and available for anyone who plugs in the right search words. Considering his access to court documents, I am wondering if and/or how much information he has already had expunged from public record.

At this point, what I see is a man whose venomous outbursts just don't match up to the offenses that incur them. He is also quite short, so I have begun referring to him as "the angry elf." With his stature playing off of salt and pepper hair and a matching beard, he really does look like he could secretly steal into a cobbler's shop and make leather shoes all night. I realize that I may have to repent for thinking of him that way and especially for sharing it.

Keep him in thought. He must be a miserable wreck inside. Keep us in thought, as we wait and watch to see what will happen. Keep our newest team-mates in thought, as well. Their first week here has not been without incident, and it so happens that one of them is working alongside the angry elf.

It is no coincidence that a man as tormented as he must be has been placed right in the midst of so many light-bearers. This semester will be an exceptionally memorable one.