Sunday, March 27, 2011

Words That Inspire

A few weeks ago I gave my students a writing assignment out of Christina Baldwin’s book, StoryCatcher.  One of the options in this particular assignment was to “describe a time when language inspired you.”  Students could draw from a speech, a letter, a book or a conversation, and then talk about why they found these words inspirational.

On Wednesday, I spoke at a lunchtime faculty sharing session about my interest in the role of story and storytelling, my classes here and my writing.  Following my presentation, one of my colleagues asked what I thought I would take away from my experience here in China.  I knew the answer immediately.  The stories my students have shared with me. 

The next morning, the assignment to my students about the inspiration found in language, and the question from my colleague, found their connection like two powerful magnets. Right now the language that inspires me is found in the stories shared by my students.  

Some of their stories are light-hearted and humorous and others are profoundly moving.  The very first writing assignment included the option of describing a relationship with a grandparent or elder. Most of these students either have or have had very close relationships with their grandparents, many of them having lived with their grandparents while their parents were getting started in their careers.  A later assignment encouraged them to record a story that had been handed down within their family and with this topic I seemed to have hit the mother lode. Their grandparents’ generation witnessed more changes in China than any other time in this ancient country’s history.  I have heard terrifying stories about the Japanese occupation, the Great Leap Forward and the resulting famine that took the lives of an estimated 30,000 people, and the cruelties and horror that occurred during the Cultural Revolution.  Embedded in these stories of brutality, are the stories of backbreaking work, bravery, pride, survival and hope.  What this generation survived and accomplished, so that their children and grandchildren could have better lives, is nothing short of miraculous. 

For many of my students, the so-called “little emperors” of the one-child policy, the process of recording and sharing these stories is very transformative.  They realize their privileged positions in these legacies, and take very seriously the responsibility of being the only link in this generational bridge to the future.

David Isay, a documentary radio producer and founder of StoryCorps, identified the following premises when launching his wildly successful oral history project in 2003.

That our stories – the stories of everyday people – are as interesting and important as the celebrity stories we’re bombarded with by the media every minute of the day.

That if we take the time to listen, we’ll find wisdom, wonder, and poetry in the lives and stories of the people all around us.

That we all want to know our lives mattered and we won’t ever be forgotten.

That listening is an act of love.

Those four points are reaffirmed for me time and time again, as 47 students and I share in what novelist Ron Carlson described as the “radically fundamental” act of sitting together and listening to stories.

Saturday, March 12, 2011


There are some lessons I need to learn over, and over, and over again – and still they don’t stick.  Yesterday was one of those days where even the simplest task seemed to take on new layers of complications.  If asked, I would probably have answered, I was having a bad day.
Close to an hour after Josh left for school I got a call from him.  “Mom, the shuttle took off almost 20 minutes late and it went to Jiuzhou Port before Gongbei, so I am going to be a least a half hour late to school.  Can you e-mail Mr. Farwell (the principal) and tell him I will be late?”  I e-mailed the principal, informing him of the situation and also requesting that he let me know that Josh did, in fact, eventually get to school.  While waiting to hear back from him, I spent some time catching up on the Caring Bridge journal from a friend battling leukemia.  Her most recent entry talked about the very real possibility she will need to have a stem cell transplant.  She was waiting on the results of a blood test and if she is positive for NPM-1, and negative for FLT-3, she could continue with chemo and not need to have a stem cell transplant at this time.  
After hearing that Josh did indeed arrive at his school, and repeating –NPM1, +FLT3 in a combination prayer and mantra, I set off to catch my own shuttle to go to Jusco, a department store in a downtown area of Zhuhai.  When I arrived at the location where the shuttle buses usually wait, there were no buses, and instead I found a pink sign announcing a change in the schedule and the routes. 
There used to be two shuttles  - one that ran on the hour and went to Ziuzhou Port – with a stop right near Jusco, and another that ran basically on the half hour and went to Gongbei.  Now there was only one route, it would travel first to the port then to Gongbei and it ran less frequently.  This explained why Josh’s trip to school that morning did not go as smoothly as in the past and threw a kink into my plan.  There was no 11 o’clock shuttle, and I didn’t feel like waiting until noon for the next one. Having taken the city bus (either #3 or #69) home from Jusco in the past, I figured it would be just as simple to take the city bus there and marched over to the bus stop and hopped on #3 heading south.  I watched the familiar landmarks go by, then started to watch carefully for the stop right in front of Jusco.  I never saw it.  Next thing I knew we were heading into the tunnel on our way to the extreme southwest side of the city – Gongbei.  At this point I felt myself growing furious and frustrated.
As the bus twisted and turned along its way, I went back to focusing on “positive for NPM-1, and negative for FLT-3” and telling myself I really did not need to be anywhere today, and I would find my way back.  Arriving in Gongbei I decided to wander through the massive underground shopping area before catching a bus to travel back to the extreme NE part of Zhuhai where I live.  With the right attitude a trip through the underground can be quite entertaining.  Ninety percent of the merchandise is jiade (fake).  I checked out the knock-off Kipling bags and found a few with labels that said Kiplig.  But really, I did not have the right attitude that particular day, and decided to just find my way above ground and catch a bus back to more familiar territory.  Not surprisingly, finding my way out to the main street where I entered turned out to be a more formidable task than I counted on, and by this time I was getting really hungry, and as my dear friend Sue W. would say, “peckish.”  Eventually I did find my way back, boarded a #69 bus, and convinced myself that this one had to stop right by Jusco, because I had taken it home from Jusco many times.  Again, familiar scenery, landmark after landmark, and then I saw the Dragon Union Station!  And I knew we were back near Tangjia and somehow I missed the Jusco stopped yet again.  I got off at Hai Yi Wan Pan, walked into Park and Shop, bought two pieces of Pesto pizza, sat down on the bench outside, ate my pizza and stewed.  I had now spent almost the whole day riding buses and still had not gotten where I was going.  I had also dripped oil from the pizza down the front of my shirt, so I returned to my apartment, changed my shirt, returned to the shuttle stop and caught the 2:30 shuttle that, in the end, took me to Jusco.  My main task was to pick up a fitted sheet for Josh’s bed.  With the humidity here, and no dryers, you cannot count on anything line-drying in a timely fashion.  While none of the sales people speak English, the woman working in bedding found a piece of paper that identified items in both Chinese and English, and once we established that it was a “fitted sheet” I was looking for, I began using a combinations of mime and picture drawing to communicate I was looking for fitted sheet for a boy (initially she was handing me pink floral patterns) then clarifying it was a “big boy” after she started handing me blue sheets with various cartoon figures.  Finally we settled on a “manly” blue stripe, I returned to the bus stop and caught the #69 bus back to Hai Yi Wan Pan, and felt satisfied I had accomplished what I set out to do.  Back at the apartment, I took the sheet out of the package and discovered it was a “flat sheet.” 
At this point, I gave myself a short lecture on perspective, repeated my “positive for NPM-1, and negative for FLT-3” mantra and sat down to read the New York Times Global edition on-line.  The first thing I saw was “Earthquake and Tsunami hits Japan.”  The article had been posted 15 minutes before I turned on my computer.  It had all happened in the last hour.  Then I turned the television on and watched CCTV – the English language station.  Over the course of the evening I watched the images become more and more devastating.  I called Josh and asked him to be home before 8:30PM, because the road to our part of Zhuhai travels right along the seashore, and initially our province (Guangdong) was included in the Tsunami warning.  The warning was lifted, but I was still relieved when Josh arrived back at the apartment.
I don’t know why it is so hard to keep the big picture in view.  March 11th truly was a horrible day for millions of people in this world.  Tragedies continue to mount through out Libya, Bahrain, Yemen and so many other battle weary nations. Journalists and dissidents are still being detained here in China.  It will be days before we know the extent of the devastation in Japan.  In retrospect, I didn’t have a bad day at all.

Sunday, March 6, 2011


This past Friday evening I was invited to a potluck dinner at the new apartment of one of my colleagues in the General Education Division.  “Potluck” also seemed like an appropriate metaphor for the faculty of the General Education division that were in attendance:  Nazul, our host, is a sociologist from Bangladesh; Victor, my upstairs neighbor, is a historian from Panama, Mat is a philosopher from the U.S., , Milen is a sociologist from Bulgaria, Ivette is a Buddist scholar, from New York City but returning to a job in Texas at the end of this term, a friendly woman whose name I don’t recall, is a Chinese language scholar, from China, but recently returning from 15 years in Australia and a few others who’s names and disciplines I don’t recall.  My favorite moment was just before we were about to eat and Nazul was explaining what was in the Indian rice and chicken curry he had prepared, and a few latecomers arrived.  Nazul said, “I was just introducing the food.”  After the food had been properly introduced, wine and orange juice was poured, toasts were made and we dug in.  Ivette had celebrated a birthday the week before and brought a lovely strawberry cheesecake so that the celebration could continue. 
Unfortunately, right about that time my cell phone rang, and when I answered it, Josh said, “Mom, I don’t feel good.”  Fortunately, the party was just two building away, and I was able to scoot home quickly.  I am not sure if it was a type of stomach flu, or some kind of food poisoning, but suffice it to say, he had a very rough evening.  By about midnight the worst of it seemed to have past and he slept quite soundly until Saturday morning.  It was a weekend of Sprite and Saltines for Josh, and catching up on grading for me. 
Both Saturday and Sunday, I did walk to Tangjia to pick up a few groceries and just get some fresh air.  I had not been in Tangjia on the weekend, and did not realize the extent of the huge market that spills over into the commercial area.  Both times I brought my camera, but only managed to take a few photos.  Walking back I thought more about my reluctance to take photos.  Here in Zhuhai, the college and university faculty are considered among the financial elite. While our apartments are modest by U.S. standards, we do live in a “gated community.” But just beyond that fence are parts of Tangjia that, to most American eyes, look like a slum.  It is not all that way, but there is significant poverty pressed right up to modest, yet working class, establishments.  
I want to take photographs because I want to remember this experience and I want to share it with others.  I want to photograph the woman on the bicycle selling chickens out of the cage on the back of her bike, and the fish venders, with plastic bins and children’s swimming pools filled with fresh fish. Or the multitude of individuals selling produce along the sidewalks in the main commercial area.  But I don’t.  I try my best to always ask permission before I include a person in a photo, and as of yet I don’t know how to ask that in Cantonese.
There are so many fruits and vegetables there that I don’t even recognize.  Today I bought strawberries, kiwi and oranges.  I need to get one of my students to go to the markets with me and tell me the names of some of the produce.  Once I know the name of something I can always “google it” and figure out what to do with it.
I often write down bits and pieces of language that inspire me.  In a collection of the best of women’s travel writing Andrea Oseas wrote, “Bring an open mind, comfort with ambiguity, and a measure of recklessness, the siren breathes in your ear, and each day will be exhilarating.”  Fortunately for me, I do not have to be too reckless to find a market full of fresh produce  - exhilarating.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Way it Is.

As you can well imagine, living in Mainland China while antigovernment demonstrations surge across the Middle East presents some new layers of complications.  Censors have intensified the filters on Internet access that were already considered “the tightest in the world.” As most people who have lived in this area can tell you there are “special tools” to get around some of those barriers.  However, I have come to suspect that using those “special tools” to circumvent the system, together with this increased level of scrutiny that might have been responsible for my Internet repeatedly being shut down.  My top priority is to have regular access to e-mail and Skype, so I have decided to play within the rules.  Given the fact that the Internet company has my passport number on file, this seems like a prudent choice. 

I will continue to post to my blog via my good friend, Kris, who originally helped me to set up my blog and designed the fabulous logo for MAD & TAJ.  I will not be able to read the comments posted there on any regular basis.  I will have very limited access to facebook.  Hong Kong and Macao do not have the same level of restrictions and are relatively close by.  When I am in either of those locations I will find an Internet cafĂ© and check in on facebook.  In the meantime, if you want to communicate with me, good old e-mail is best. (

This past week I was reading an article on-line about problems with soldiers being too connected (constant text messaging and Skyping) with family at home.  The battalion chaplain described the young soldiers as “the microwave generation,” implying that there is an expectation that needs, be it hunger or communication, will be met quickly. (New York Times, July 25)

While I am old enough to be most of those soldiers’ mother, I find myself equally guilty of microwave mentality.  Circumstances require that I dial it back for the next few months.  Not a bad practice under any circumstances.

 After work today I walked to Tangjia (the commercial area closest to where I live) to pick up a few items at the grocery store, and bring home dumplings for dinner.  After five pm much of the area turns into a huge farmers’ market.  The produce is quite amazing.  Very few adults in the area speak any English, but obviously the children are studying English in school because they all like to say “hello” to me.  As I become more comfortable in the area I will take more photos. 

The weather in the area is currently quite beautiful.  It is in the low to mid 60’s in the morning, and goes up to low to mid 70’s during the day.  I continue to enjoy observing day-to-day life within the apartment complex.  The buildings surround two long artificial lakes with walkways on either side, and bridges placed at strategic points.  In the morning, I see retired folks exercising at the stations that are placed next to every bridge.  This morning I saw an older woman (I am guessing in her 70’s) stretching with her leg placed as high as her shoulder on a ladder-like set of bars. One evening I saw an older gentleman practicing Tai Chi as the sun was setting. 
The apartments around the lakes.

In the early evening I hear individuals, school children I assume, practicing piano, flute and trumpet.   There are numerous dogs, of all sizes and shapes, residing in the complex.  Mornings and evenings, dogs and their owners are out getting their exercise.  There is one woman who sings while she walks her dog. 

And there are much-adored babies.  The one child policy has resulted in many caregivers for every child.  It is sometimes referred to as “4-2-1.” Which stands for four grandparents, two parents and one child.  At UIC we were warned that this configuration leads to certain “little emperor issues” with some students but I have yet to experience this.  I am thoroughly enjoying getting to know my students.  I am once again teaching a class on the role and practice of “Story and Storytelling.”  The first day that the students shared their stories, I realized that no matter how many books I read, or where I travel in the next few months, I will learn more about China from their stories than from any other source.  (And I will do my best to keep you posted.)