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.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

a little bit of Seoul

I am in South Korea visiting my cousin and her husband. They moved here for his job (a one-year assignment). My cousin has never lived outside the US, let alone in Asia, so I thought that spending the week during China's National Holidays with her would be a good way to avoid the mass chaos of travel within country since everyone is on holiday and nothing is easy when a good percentage of 1.3 billion people are in transit.

I arrived on Thursday evening, well-worn from a day that started at 3:30 a.m. and included four hours to teaching, getting to the airport immediately after class, flying from Harbin to Seoul and then taking a train from the Incheon Airport to the stop nearest my cousin's apartment. My seatmate on the plane ended up being a very generous resource once we arrived in Seoul. He is Korean-Chinese and goes back and forth between both countries. His Korean girlfriend met him outside of baggage claim, which is were we ran into each other after saying goodbye during the process of breaking up into different lines at customs. They both insisted that I use his girlfriend's cell phone to call my cousin to alert her to our arrival. They also escorted me through the process of purchasing a bus ticket and finding the right departure platform. We traded phone numbers and invited each other to meet up if I am in Seoul at any point this week or if he returns to Harbin in the next several months. Perhaps we will see one another again.

So far, we've toured around the area where my cousin lives, about 1.5 hours by bus from Seoul. Former student, Foster, is doing an academic exchange at a well-known university in the capital city, so when he found out I would be here for the week, he excitedly made plans to visit. He showed up yesterday and joined us for some sightseeing and then dinner last night. He developed a quick fondness for my cousin and her husband and even their ginger dog, Peanut. After he returned to his dorm last night, he sent me the following email:

I do not know how to put it, dear Meagen.Hardly can I hold my tears when I got on the train. My gratitude for God overflowed for he led me to meet such a nice and kind couple and made friends with them. I usually display the strong side in my everyday life. But this time, your cousin and her husband's hostiplit and warmth touched my soul. They are like a candle in the dark and cold winter,enlighting my life.The saying in Chinese is this:大恩不言谢, Which means we impress ourselves on the great kindness and when they are in trouble, we shall do everything we can to help them, to express our thankfulness and we shall be a whole life friends and stay loyal to them.

A rooftop terrace overlooking the city: