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Saturday, December 15, 2007

Tianjin Explorations

I thought it would be proper to explore my new town, so here are some pictures of the Nankai district in Tianjin. Here you can visit Tianjin's TV tower, as well as Tianjin's water park ("shui shang gong yuan"):















Wednesday, December 12, 2007

China: A Lesson in Cultural Sensitivity

“A friend once told me that, if you ever want to complain, you should do so with a foreigner.”

This was what Ryan, another foreign teacher, had to say to me over dinner last night. We touched on a series of issues which I think touch every foreigner’s life in China; and not just China, but other countries as well. These are the issues which could be subsumed under the heading of “culture shock”; such issues as privacy, and social norms for human interaction and relationships.

Back to Ryan’s comment – we both agree that “complaining” about one’s shortcomings towards a native isn’t a very fruitful action, and for a number of reasons. First, it seems that China has this over abundance of national pride which can be felt in almost all Chinese. I believe this is owed to a number of reasons itself; I think it is a “natural” outcome for a communist country, considering that, in the 20th century, many communist states actively pursued propagandist tactics and did whatever else they could to maintain their credibility; China should be proud of its heritage, given the fact that China is one of the oldest civilizations in the world; people naturally feel an affinity towards their nation, as if the nation is part of them.

This last point is interesting in that it also affects me (I believe). Normally I tend not to follow the wave of patriotism in America – flag flying, flag decals on vehicles, Civil War reenactments, etc. However, in times that I have encountered criticism of my country from my foreign friends back home, I do find myself feeling somewhat offended and “having” to defend my country. Again, it’s as if I am having to defend who I am and everything which stands for me. After all, all that is America – football games, a bowl of cereal, Thanksgiving, barbeque, Texas – comprise my childhood background and are the elements of my life.

Ryan had asked himself if he were doing himself an injustice by holding back on his comments of Chinese society and life in Tianjin; or if he were doing the correct thing by glossing over (“sugarcoating”) his thoughts as he expressed them towards his Chinese students and friends. Ryan (as well as me) is a firm believer in being true to oneself – that you shouldn’t put on an “act” for others. However, I do admit, I often give into self-monitoring and social norms. In other words, I end up acting a certain way to please others in a given moment, despite the truth that it doesn’t accurately represent my personality and views on life.

With that said though, I think it is a natural outcome that we should feel the need to take on different roles for different people. As Anthropology and life experience have shown me, our “self” – the person who we perceive ourselves to be – is a concoction of others. In other terms, your self-definition is not only defined by you, but it is also defined by the people with whom you associate and spend most of your time. You know, if enough people tell you that your Elvis Presley, you might begin to believe that you really are (maybe not, but you might for a second play with the idea).

Marc often cites Jean-Paul Sartre on this very issue; that often times, “people can be hell.” I’m sure many of you often dislike that feeling of not being at liberty to express your feelings or thoughts around certain people. You almost feel as if others are trying to “control” you and your behavior.

However, in the case of being a foreigner in China, there really isn’t anyone specific who is “controlling” you, but it is you who is controlling your actions and beliefs. When you are in a foreign environment, you no longer have familiar ques to guide your reactions towards others’ behavior, because first of all, the behavior itself is different. Second, you can’t really guess how others will react to your reaction. So, if you have any sensibility, you’ll put the brakes on some of your immediate responses towards others.

I failed to mention that our self-definition is also the result of an inherited culture and history at birth; that being American already defines your core (who you are). I know this is an obvious statement – I was born in America, so of course I’m American. But, I think a lot of times the “obvious” becomes somewhat obscured by its everyday presence. It’s like thinking about walking when you are walking; no one really has to think about it anymore, because it becomes “second nature.”

I think this is exactly what gets a lot of people in trouble, especially when they are caught in a foreign environment. When you finally realize that you are “no longer in Kansas anymore,” wow – you better watch out! It begins to play tricks with your thinking and emotions. I think this is what causes the “U-shape” emotional experience that most people warn you against before you leave for another country. That is, in the beginning, everything is exciting and new, but once you have hit a routine, you find yourself in a slump. Little things start to annoy and irritate you; such as the way people walk, how they smile, the way they dress and comb their hair, how they eat their meals.

You no longer allow room for cultural sensitivity. Rather, you become too quick to judge others and their actions. You ask yourself, “why can’t they just do it right?” Well, what exactly is “right”? I think the lines do become blurred between “right” and “wrong” when you give space for cultural differences. This is actually an ongoing debate in the field of Anthropology, especially in terms of foreign intervention. When should an Anthropologist step in and say, “Hey, I think what you are doing as a cultural practice is incorrect and a harm to society”?

It truly is a challenge to remain level-headed and to maintain a sensitive approach towards other cultures. You know, we throw this word around – “culture” – as if we know exactly what it means. Well, I will be the first to admit that I can’t really describe this word or accurately define it for you (another Anthropological dilemma). And, even with a scholastic background in culture and in the field of Anthropology, I often find myself bewildered with Chinese social habits; what’s more, I want to easily denounce some of these habits as “ignorant” or “completely unnecessary.”

Of course, this is too rash of a decision for someone like me who hopes to better understand others. What’s more, this leads to a lot of the misunderstandings which people have for one another. As my students have said in class, “with the rise of technology, the world is smaller and smaller.” Contact with other countries is more real now and quite uncomfortably close. It’s like our technology is undoing the work of tectonic forces. All of the countries are coming back together – man is playing his global puzzle and each country is just one piece of the puzzle. If we wish to avoid tearing off the artwork of each puzzle piece, we have to be culturally more sensitive.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The Teaching Rollercoaster

I have a lot to say for my experiences over the past week. As I mentioned in my previous blog entry, I took part in my school’s English speaking competition as a judge. To say the very least, it was very entertaining and enjoying. I was surprised by the speaking abilities of some of the contests. Actually, I feel that they all could, more or less, carry on a conversation. Of course, they still need work with their pronunciation in much the same way that I need more work with my tones.

What the contest highlighted for me once more is the influence the West has had all over the world. It is an understatement to simply say that the West has been important in the last century. The fact that all Chinese, since primary school, have had English as a compulsory course reflects the role of the West in business, development and international relations.

However, I wonder what language might be the next important? Brian and I had talked about this once before. All other countries’ people are expected to learn English in school. Well, what about English-speaking countries such as the U.S., England and Australia? What language should we be expected to study and learn? Spanish? Chinese?

I thought this would be a good question to ask one of the contestants in the competition. Well, the result wasn’t so profound or intellectually stimulating; I’m not sure if this is due to the limits of speaking English, or if most students in China lack critical thinking (this is what Ryan, Sean and Mr. Brown assume). As for me, I know no question has a simple answer (pun unintended), and I’m sure that some students are bright, whereas other students still need development in their thinking. Of course, the contestant said Chinese should be the language for English-speakers to study, but I don’t really remember what else she had to say (it was either spoken to slowly or in chopped-up thoughts that I could not follow).

It’s not that I have a negative attitude or disinterest in my or other students at school, but I’ve noticed that lately, my mind has been wandering. For example, yesterday in class, my students gave a presentation on technology and development. I have to say, I was really ecstatic to see the first class’ performance; one group even made a PowerPoint presentation with pictures! However, the remaining two classes sort of just trailed downhill, reaching the bottom of no creativity. At that point, I remember sort of just gazing into “no man’s land.” I was asking myself if I have failed as a teacher, as well as evaluating my first semester’s performance. I wanted to know what I had done wrong and what I could do to improve my teaching for the next term.

I think I need to completely change the structure of my class, and have it more presentation-based. Although the presentations were mixed in their success, they did force the students to stand in front of the class and speak English.

1. My classes can have 10 presentations, which will be their grade

I don’t think I will give exams or writing assignments like I did this semester.

1. With exams, some students will only come to class on exam day

2. I lack a T.A., so I am stuck doing all the grading myself (it really sucks!)

I think I was a little ambitious with the mid-term. I had my students not only do an oral exam, but I also had them answer 10 reading/listening questions. In hindsight, emphasizing writing was a poor move on my part. After all, my classes are “Oral English” and the students already have other classes that focus on writing. However, my decision came after discovering my students’ reluctance to speak English in class. I also figured that, if their writing were to improve out of continuous practice, it would somehow enhance their ability to speak as well. Well, I’m not so sure that this was such great thinking…

As Liu lao shi said, teaching is one of the most (well, I think he said the most) challenging professions. I believe this, given the human dynamic of teaching. After all, you are not working with inanimate objects, but students who are complex individual thinkers. These students have different needs; their motivations are different. With that, you still need to find a method to encourage/motivate them all, and have some kind of meaningful impact on their lives.

Friday, December 7, 2007

The Joys and Challenges of Teaching

Yesterday was another high point in my experiences thus far in China. My school hosted an English speaking contest for students of all majors. Naturally, several students from the English department participated, along with students from International Accounting.

Normally, I go to my school twice a week to teach my classes. When I am not teaching, I usually stay within the city's boundaries, either spending time at the main campus, or staying with Lily's parents (on the weekends).

As a result, the time I have with my students is very limited, unless I decide to go out of my way to make the 1 hour trip to my school even on non-teaching days. Not to mention, most of my students have busy schedules, so they would only be able to meet up with me during certain times of the day.

However, yesterday's English competition allowed me to spend the afternoon and late evening at school, where I was able to meet with my students outside of class. My school asked if I could be a judge in their competition; they said they'd provide transportation back to the main campus after the competition was over.

I took this opportunity to invite as many students as I could for dinner. A few of my students who regularly see me -- Anthony and Christina -- also helped to arrange our dinner. It was one of the greatest moments as a teacher -- to be able to develop a closer/stronger connection with my students. At the table, we ended up having 10 students show up for dinner! I was oozing with joy and excitement.

As most of you know, although I can be a selfish person at times, one of the greatest joys in life for me is to see others happy and in harmony. One of the best moments is when all of my friends can come together in harmony, when we all can enjoy each other's company. This has to be one of the best characteristics of China; most of my students know each other, and they are all very good friends with each other. So, I was able to invite several students from some of my 6 classes, and it was more like a reunion between friends :)

Although some of them were shy, most of them seemed happy to see me outside of my role as "teacher." You know, I am a down-to-Earth guy and I have repeatedly told them that this job is more than just teaching and giving grades. They too wish to develop a friendship with me, one that can lead to a greater relationship between the U.S. and China.

I want to leave an imprint on their lives, though this goal is quite ambitious. However, with a genuine smile and an outgoing/happy personality, I think I can make life a little different for my students. Some of them have already asked me about the future of my teaching and stay in China. They were happy to hear that I would be in China for another semester to teach :)

I never thought that it would become this way, but I too have developed a strong attachment for my students. I even began considering a contract extension, so that I could stay on board for another year...

I think this might be one of the hardest aspects of teaching. Each year, you are given a new set of students, some good and some bad. However, indifferent to your feelings and attachment to your students, you are forced to say "goodbye" each year to the ones you have taught and enjoyed.

For the moment, my students have sort of become my "family," a family that I don't want to see disunited. Cathy and Nadia, the other foreign teachers, have also developed this feeling for their students. The good moments seem to come and go too quickly. We all wish that we had more time with our students this year.

I'm not really sure what the future will be of my schedule, and I am not sure if I will be teaching the same students next year. However, this is something which I hope for with all of my heart. This I realized as we passed the food around the table; when I felt a stronger connection with my students...

I'll write more on the competition in my next blog.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Remembering Tokyo



I would like to go back to Tokyo someday soon...

照品 (Zhao Pin) "Pictures"

Here are pictures from Lily's return home:

Here, we all went to visit Lily's grandparents. They were so happy to see her; abu (grandma) cried, because she didn't get to say "goodbye" to Lily the last time Lily left China...


Here, we are with Lily's cousin and cousins' future wife! We're also in the new apartment:

In this picture, Lily and Lu Kai (with Wang Ying and I) are in the back of a rickshaw (it's a like a little carriage attached to the back of a bicycle):


We're all at "Ying Kou Dao," a popular shopping district in Tianjin:

Lily and I at the new apartment ^_^ :

Thanksgiving in Tianjin. We ate with Lily's mom's co-worker, Lu Da Da, and one of their friends who has helped out mama's school in the past. This night was interesting because, after drinking quite a bit, Lu Da Da had a few things to say which should have been left unspoken, haha ;)


Lily and baba in the same evil hotel where I had to say "goodbye" to Lily before...

But, it was still very enjoying, because we celebrated Lily's birthday early! Her birthday is on December 4th ;)


The cake is a little lopsided, because I wasn't careful when I carried it back to the hotel >_<
It was still a great surprise for Lily, because while she and mama baba were in the restaurant, I snuck into a bakery next door and had them quickly make a cake! :D


It was a lot of fun. I know there will be plenty of more experiences to enjoy in the future :)

Monday, November 26, 2007

"The Return of Lily"

--The title should be more heart-felt and romantic, but I had to make a reference to Star Wars.--

I should first say, I hope you all had a wonderful Thanksgiving. It is the second holiday (in my view) so far that I was not able to experience, having been in China for almost 4 months now; the first was Halloween. Sure, you had Labor Day, and several other US holidays, but for me, I have always enjoyed Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years.

Well, I didn't feel too homesick, because my girlfriend came back for the week! Words can't express the many emotions that ran through my head as baba and I waited for Lily at the Beijing airport... Although my situation is very minor in comparison to many other couples out there in the world -- many military men don't see their family for years -- I was finally able to experience the beauty of reunion between two lovers. I can now appreciate the many times I see troops wishing their families "Happy Christmas" over the television, or when people feel a rush of excitement at the airport when they see their loved ones once again...

It's that feeling when your heart is thumping, many thoughts/memories are racing through your head, and you feel that you have finally come home to something. Even though Lily came to me, I felt that I was momentarily back home in Austin, like the many times Lily would ride her bike over to my apartment.

However, interestingly, and Lily admitted to this as well, it wasn't quite like home anymore. You know, when you're home, everything feels normal and comfortable, or at least that's how things should be. Except, when I reunited with Lily inside KFC, it wasn't the same -- it felt different. In fact, I had to hold and touch her for quite a while to know that it really was her again... I'm sure I made others around me feel the same awkwardness, but I wanted to smell her again; feel her face and her hair against mine; kiss her once more. It was like taking a shower after camping for 5 straight days. Haha, you know that feeling Brian; it's a great feeling of relief.

With that said, it really didn't take long for us to get back into the "swing of things" once again. In fact, we even argued some, just like an old couple would over dinner.

I should say that, with the mixture of the old and the new, things truly are different from what they once were. People might ask, "Is that a good or a bad thing?" I would like to say "neither," but if I had to choose, I guess I would say "good." As my friend Marc likes to put it, "change is good." I finally felt somewhat of a change in myself through my interaction with Lily. At least, this is what I tell myself. I mean, surely I've changed after spending close to 4 months in an entirely new environment, right?

Likewise, I'm sure Lily has changed, having lived with two of her friends with whom she never lived before. I think individually, our chemistry has changed. Moreover, our chemistry together subsequently has changed as well. Not to mention, my relationship with Lily's parents has greatly developed, which changes the outlook Lily and I have for each other. You know, I'm not just a simple boyfriend anymore, one with whom you can periodically date. At the same time, Lily means much more to me now (not that she didn't mean anything to me before).

I believe this has a great influence on our relationship now. I think it makes both of us more sensitive towards each other in the sense that we have greater expectations which we wish to be fulfilled. She wants me to "always" be happy; I want her to "always" agree with what I say; I want this; she wants that. In a way, it is almost like being married, but without a ring and a huge wedding bill waiting to be paid off...

I'm not saying it's a bad thing -- but it certainly is different from the way things were back in February. I think the best thing that Lily and I have for each other is "care." One of Josh's friends in South Korea told me that, for a woman to argue with you, or for her to become "irrational" -- get upset over something "little" -- shows that she actually cares about you. If a woman thought of you as just some play thing, or someone who was only temporary in your life, maybe she wouldn't care that all of your co-workers are female, or that you were leaving for another country; maybe she'd just dump you...

Moreover, I feel that Lily and I are also willing to admit to our faults/mistakes, which takes an ounce of pride away (maybe more, depending on the mistake). In my mind, great communication requires apologies once in a while, as well as humbleness on the part of each communicator. It really means a lot to me when Lily says she's "sorry," or that she made a mistake. It is also important for me to sometimes owe our arguments to a mistake I made, because I know neither of us is perfect.

Alma once said that, "to really know a person, to develop a deep connection with the person, you have to argue." Well, maybe I changed the words up a bit, but she said that you really don't know a person if you haven't argued with them on a consistent basis.

I love you Lily...

"South and North" -- The Chinese Take

So, we were in the car on our way to the airport to drop off Lily, and her mother had the following to say about “southerners”:

Like Jewish people, [Chinese] southerners are hardworking, save their money and are (in comparison to northerners) smarter.

It seems that some stereotypes are more global than we imagined …

It’s interesting in that China, like the US, is divided up into a “north” and “south” region. More interesting is that the qualities mama attributed to the southerners are (in my opinion) a reversal with respect to the US. There was a website which rated the IQ of Americans by the state in which they preside and all the northern states were (on average) smarter than the southern states; they did this around the time of the 2004 elections to reflect attributes related to party affiliation. I also feel that throughout American history, northern states have typically been the “first” with such areas as industrialization, emancipation, suffrage, etc.

Considering that our country almost split as a result of a civil war, I am somewhat surprised that China managed to remain united itself. If you take into account language and culture, in some ways, the north is almost like another country with respect to the southern area of China. One anthropologist/social scientist once said that the greatest barrier between societies and their cultures is language. This is because language is a mode of communication through which we can better understand one another. Once you have learned a language, you will begin to see that differences aren’t as great as you once thought before... however, in the case of north and south China, Mandarin and Cantonese appear to be completely different from each other, only hanging together on a tiny “traditional” thread. My girlfriend can read traditional Chinese, but spoken Cantonese for her is like “Greek to me.”

I believe Mao Ze Dong’s province lies in the south too. I should know this, but I am not really sure why Mao chose Beijing as the next (and current) capital of China. Lily’s father mentioned that, throughout Chinese history, the capital has moved to different locations throughout China, having once been in the south.

Supposedly on the day of Mao Zedong’s death, China experienced a massive earthquake which killed close to 200,000 people. Mao Zedong also met with a fortune teller who mentioned a set of numbers that represented how long he would rule and at what age he would die.

Another Chinese superstition is that, if a pot of tea is pointing at you, it will bring you bad fortune; this at least a Tianjin belief, so many people have their pot of tea pointing away from the table.

Speaking of “folklore,” I am looking through a book I bought on North Korea. It talks about Kim-Il Sung, the predecessor of Kim Jong-Il, in the first chapter. Supposedly, Kim-Il Sung was revered as the “next coming of Christ” who raised the north of Korea out of Japanese imperialist “shackles.” What’s more amazing is that many North Koreans sincerely believed this biased view. Kim-Il Sung was father to all North Koreans and to “prove” this, most parentless children from the Korean War were “adopted” by Kim-Il Sung during the formidable years of North Korea.

This followed Kim-Il Sung’s supposed single-hand defeat of the Japanese imperialists, along with the Americans who tried to “recapture” Korea. According to “the books,” Kim-Il Sung and his guerrilla army, without help from anyone else (including the Chinese), were able to fight off imperialist incursions on their land.

Well, so far that is what I’ve read. I will continue to read more and share what I learn along the way.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Perspectives on Teaching

For one of Lily’s government assignment, she was made to analyze differing perspectives on the IRS. Many people dislike the IRS and wish for the Internal Revenue Service to dramatically change. However, depending on each taxpayer’s circumstance – how much they make, how much they pay in taxes, how much taxes benefit them – these taxpayers wish for different changes within the IRS.

In much the same way, my teaching style and foresight as a teacher of English is taken with differing opinion from my students and other Chinese teachers.

I had the opportunity to hear out both a Chinese teacher and my student from last week, Christina, all in the same day (Wednesday 11/07/2007).

On this day, we were given heavy fog, which was another lesson within itself. In Tianjin, fog can be a serious problem, because it is much worse than anything you’ll ever witness in America (or, at least this has been the case for me). I’m not sure if it is a mixture of pollution and Tianjin’s close proximity to the ocean, but the fog, in the eyes of the Chinese authorities, can be enough to shut down a highway.

As we were stuck on the bus which takes me to and from my school, I learned from a Chinese teacher the reasoning behind our delay. His name, Sun Jing Jin, comes from his father being from Beijing and his mother being from Tianjin (or, it could be the other way around…). Just for convenience, I will refer to him by his English name – “Wells.”

Since I have been in China, teaching English, I have come across some of the most absurd English names. I apologize, I am not trying to criticize the Chinese or make them look like buffoons in any way; but this can be a serious problem if they – my students and others – ever want to work for an American company. I’ve seen names like “Fish,” “Lemon tree,” and even “Kill.” One of the other teachers, Nadia, has a student whose name is “Snake.” Well, when you compare these names to “Wells,” it’s not such a bad name; still a bit odd though…

So, Mr. Wells explained to me that whenever there exists a certain level of fog, the authorities close down the highway, because – in his words – Chinese drivers are not disciplined enough to heed caution in the face of fog clouds. Well, that was just one simple insight.

Wells, we got to talking about teaching and the current situation in China with teaching English. As Wells put it, teaching English in college is known to be a “disaster.” First of all, funding has been and will always be an issue for Chinese schools. With that said, most classes are oversized, and our students are only able to see us once a week due to a shortage of foreign teachers (and, again, funding); keep in mind that I get paid more than most Chinese teachers who teach twice as much as me!

This is a sad reality that most Chinese universities face as they try to provide their students with the best education possible. When it comes to English, foreign teachers are greatly needed. However, our living standards a bit higher, and for it to be at all worthwhile, Chinese universities have to compensate their teachers at a level which (in most cases) greatly surpasses that of other, Chinese teachers.

However, when it comes to teaching, funding is not only the issue; another is one which is more cultural. Since my students were toddlers, they were raised and groomed to possess a disposition not attuned to language acquisition. In other words, my students are afraid to make mistakes, because they have been taught by most of their teachers that making mistakes is a grave mistake; again, in the words of Wells.

Wells explained that even he, a Chinese teacher, finds it difficult to encourage student participation; students just don’t want to lose face. Moreover, Wells agreed that, to learn a language, you have to attempt, “fail,” learn from your “failures,” and progress.

Back to the issue of over sized classrooms, it doesn’t help my students that they most perform in front of many of their classmates. What’s more, my own ability to control the classroom is naturally lost. As Wells put it, you can only expect your students to have a certain level of attention towards you as you attempt to encourage student participation. What I mean is, using my teaching method – hand-picking each student to practice speaking – leaves me vulnerable to losing control over my other students. It’s, as they say, a double-edged sword…

Sure, I could group my students, but I’m still losing control, because I can’t monitor every group; my students will naturally want to revert to Chinese when I am not paying attention.

With student participation, it isn’t just intimidation, but some of my students have this belief that they do not need to really practice in college; that, most of them will receive their practice when they go off to work. I should say, it is a mistake to over generalize – not every student thinks in this way – but this was what Christina had to tell me last week. She said she tried encouraging her roommates to go with her to see me. However, they were – surprise surprise – reluctant to go because their English is “bad,” and they don’t necessarily need to practice their English these days. No, they can wait until they are part of the workforce, when it truly matters.

However, as Mr. Brown said, “Which is better, to make a mistake in my class, or to make a mistake on the job, where you could be fired?”

I really don’t understand this logic – of waiting until you work to practice English – but I have also been told that firing people is not very common in China. Ready, set… go! (I am ready for you all to clarify this for me)

In the end, Wells said that I shouldn’t expect to make great progress with my students. Rather, I should look to inspire my students and at least influence one, if not a few, of my students; to actually make a difference in their lives.

It’s not a gloomy outlook as most would think; it’s more of a realistic one, given our conditions as English teachers at a Chinese university. My respect for Wells greatly changed after this day… before, I thought he was just some annoying Chinese teacher who was so presumptuous as to recommend this and that to me; he really doesn’t hold back on his thoughts, an approach quite different from most Chinese people…

Afterwards, I joked with Wells that he should write a book on teaching.

The title: Teaching From a Chinese Status Quo

Author: Sun Jing Jin, aka “Wells”

Then he added, “You will need to co-author with me.”

Co-author: Meng, Maike, aka “Mikey,” aka “Michael Biediger”

Monday, November 12, 2007

"Summer Palace Dream"






Art is one of life’s most precious gifts, allowing us to share with the outer world our inner belongings.

Over the last few months, I have had the opportunity to travel and see another part of the world – China.

During this time, I have seen many beautiful places, met many gracious and wonderful people and I have had the chance to grow as both an individual and an artist.

As a way to reflect this appreciation and overall growth, I have put together a mix and visual interpretation, which I hope you all will enjoy…

The overall theme of this artistic endeavor is Beijing’s “Summer Palace,” a breathtaking place full of history and awe.

For many years during the later dynasties, China’s rulers would live here during the summer time.

More than just the palace itself, this endeavor also encompasses the themes of “summer” and “love.” We often find ourselves falling in love during the summer. I too found myself falling in love with a special someone; she has given me more inspiration than I could ever imagine ;)

The mix transitions from a “dreamy state,” where the two lovers have become inseparable and “mesmerized,” to a clubbier atmosphere, specifically Beijing’s “shi cha hai,” a famous pond-side club area. It is here where the two lovers remain together until the “dream” is over…

In this way, I dedicate this mix to my amazing girlfriend, Meng Ying. I will be “waiting here for you,” my love…

Lastly, the theme of “family” also finds its way in this mix. China has taught me an important lesson: family is a sacred gift in this life.

In the end, I want to dedicate this endeavor to my late grandfather and mother, two people who have made this world truly amazing. I remember the late summer evenings, when I would be out in grandpa’s backyard, enjoying the breeze and breathe of life with both my grandparents and my mother…

Through their love and support, I was able to be who I am today. I can’t thank them enough, and I will certainly never forget the impact they made in this world…

I hope you all enjoy, I put my entire heart and soul into this…

Love,

Michael “Blueshift” Biediger

Play here:

https://webspace.utexas.edu/msb64/Summer%20Palace%20Dream.mp3

Track List:

01. Swayzak – Smile And Receive (Apparat Remix)
02. Solarstone – Late Summer Fields (Solarstone Deeper Sunrise Mix)

03. Thrillseekers – Waiting Here For You (Breakfast Club Remix)

04. Deli, Demetreus – Better Love (Axwell Remix)

05. Miguel Migs – Mesmerized Shur I Kan Guilty Pleasures Vocal

06. Hawk – Emerald Mine feat Sasja (Ilya Malyuev Remix)

07. Mobin Master – Show Me Love feat Chavez Safari Mix

08. Eelke Kleijn, Nick Hogendoorn – Where Are My Goggles (Remix)

09. Remo – Ivision

10. Popof – My Toyz

11. Solarstone – Late Summer Fields (Alucard’s Vocal Mix)

Friday, November 2, 2007

Bai jiu -- "hate it or love it"

Some people love it, and some people hate it... it's very close to hard liquor, yet it is quite different from anything you'd ever drink in the states. I thought I'd comment on this drink -- what they call "bai jiu" -- because it is the Chinese drink of choice, especially during the winter. It has become a bit colder out now, and most Chinese people, along with their "hot pot," enjoy a glass of bai jiu; hot pot is fairly straight forward -- a hot pot full of vegetables and meats.

It would make sense for me to talk a bit about bai jiu at this point, considering that I had just recently drank quite a bit with "lu da da," Lily's mothers' co-worker/friend. Man, Lu da da loves any type of "jiu" -- alcohol -- the man can't live without it. I like him very much, he's a fun guy who keeps things interesting. When the meal seems to have died down, Lu da da never hesitates to bring out more alcohol... and, despite the concerns of mama baba, I thought I'd "entertain" lu da da for a bit this evening...

Right now, I'm a that point where I'm becoming quite sleepy; I think I need another glass to jump-start my wits, or at least further envigorate me. However, I am sipping, bit by bit, on some tea. Something which is quite different from the states, Chinese people often drink tea. In fact, it is expected at every single meal, much as you'd expect a fork and a knife. I have my assumptions for this... consider that tap water is undrinkable in China, so everyone has to boil their water... why not add a few herbs to your boiled water to make it a little more interesting?

Speaking of that, it will be interesting to see how China transforms from its development; how much of its past habits will be fused with the new, and how much will be abandoned...

What I mean is, China has social habits which seem to be in line with China's status quo; China's level of development, what it currently has and what it lacks. If, for example, China had drinkable water, would they be so inclined to drink tea?

Although this is a poor example, consider other points. Most Chinese mothers do not rely on diapers for their children. What is the reason for this? Or, what about China's approach towards the infrastructure of its cities? Certainly, now that China is "open" to the rest of the world, it can borrow ideas from other countries in its approach towards development.

However, how far is China willing to go to change its methods? I'm sure I am not making any sense at this point, but believe me -- I'm touching on something that most people also consider.

1. China is "developing." You'll agree with me on this.
2. Development brings change.
3. A country will subsequently change its habits as it adopts this "change."
4. Most often, a society will not entirely abandon its previous habits, but fuse these habits with the new.

My friend Sean commented no this in his "'J' is for juxtaposition." It seems that development and growth is occuring so fast that China barely has a change to "catch up." Apartments are going up, peoples' standard of living is increasing, but China's methods are lagging behind.

It's the same as what Reagan once said -- rather than give the fish, why not teach them how to fish?

Part of this results from China's countryside falling behind in China's race towards "improvement." Improvement in what? That's for the Chinese government to decide...

Yet, in much the same way, China is being built, from the bottom-up, by its countryside people. Maybe some of you may neglect to accept, but America was built by the very people it discriminates -- non-white people. In the same way, Chinese farmers and countryside people -- people who are disadvantaged -- continue to be the choice of labor for China's rapid development.

However, are they ready to accept a new China? A China that has different methods, different habits for dealing with everyday problems. Even Lily once said that, one reason for China's lack of environmental conscience results from the lack of education on the part of the farmer.

Any way, I'd hate for this to turn into a "Simpsons" episode -- man, that show needs to end. Back to the point of bai jiu. It's a very nice drink during the winter, will make you feel warm inside. In fact, most Chinese people enjoy heating up the bai jiu in a bowl of hot water, so that the bai jiu itself is warm in taste. I'll see what I can do Brian, I'd love to bring back some for you, but Lily's parents worry about customs; same for you too Tommy!

Again, I keep dreaming in my head of you all coming to visit me in China... please, if there is one thing you could ever do for me in my life... if I should write one thing on my grave... it would be that you should have come to visit me in China...

I'm ready to show you all the world.

1. Chinese food
2. Beijing
3. Tianjin
4. massages
5. Chinese people
6. me
7. southern China

I love you all and can't wait to give you all so much -- everything you all have given to me in my life...

Thursday, November 1, 2007

An Inconvenient "Teaching"

Today in class, I discussed - upon some students' request - the weather and the effects the weather has on our daily lives. Of course, you are all thinking, what an easy topic; however, try talking about childhood memories in Chinese, and then you will understand how simple subjects can be the equivalent of a college course.

But, I agree with you - it wasn't enough to have my students only discuss the effects the weather has on their emotions. Yeah, we all know that "I am happy when it is sunny." I thought I would take it a step forward and discuss the effects we have on the weather. In other words, I had them talk about the hotly debated issue around the world today - "Global Warming."

To do this, I had them first talk about the basic principles of "Global Warming." You know, light from the sun is trapped within the earth's atmosphere, and with the emission of more and more greenhouse gases, more light/radiation is trapped within the atmosphere; thus, the world becomes hotter.

I was actually quite surprised by their understanding of Global Warming, no less in English. I mean, I'm sure they are some of the most intelligent students I'll ever have; though, you might never perceive this due to the language impediment.

But, this led me to wonder what is taught to these students in school, how the Chinese government views Global Warming, and what China plans to do in the near future to combat Global Warming. After all, with China's recent aims at rapidly developing, more and more people are driving vehicles, factories are using coal instead of better, more renewable resources, and China is polluting the environment at an alarming rate.

I thought I could help get my point across with a little help from ol' Al. Yeah, I showed them parts of "An Inconvenient Truth," where they could hear the former Vice President discuss at length the phenomenon of Global Warming.

I wasn't trying to persuade them of the issue; in fact, they all overwhelmingly agreed that Global Warming is a reality. Rather, I was giving them just another lesson in English, and I also wanted to make them just a little more environmentally-conscious. This, I felt I owed to them, given the wonderful experiences Brian has given to me, when we would go hiking in the mountains, when he would hound me for not recycling. As always, thanks for everything bro ;)

I agree that change only comes in small steps. Perhaps, after this simple Oral English class, my students will remember this lecture when they next decide to throw trash on the ground; maybe not...

I wonder if, at all, I am making any change in class; making change in the lives of my students. One thing I always keep in mind is that, change must come from both sides; the teacher has to make his/her efforts, and so do the students.

However, I still find student participation to be a challenge. Although I say this, I am still surprised from time to time. For example, yesterday, one of my students made an appointment to see me outside of class. This turned out to be a good opportunity for both of us; she was able to practice her English, and I was able to understand more about my students.

I discovered a few discrepancies between my understandings of my teaching methods and those of my students. I learned from this student - Christina - that most of her classmates are under the impression that, in America, courses consist largely of fun and games. She told me that, in movies, she had seen quite a bit of this, where the teacher taught via games. Haha, if only this were the truth...

No, I told her that this was a misconception, one of many found in movies. On the contrary, most teachers/professors lecture in front of the class, whereby the students take down notes. This is precisely the approach I take towards my classes; not sure if it is "good," or "bad."
I also learned from Christina that most of the students found me shy at first, but have since come to find me more "interesting." She said that they came to this conclusion as a result of their previous instructor being somewhat of a "monkey." This was how Christina described him - a man who was "up and down" all the time. In fact, she said that, one time, he threw a pen at a student, because he thought the student was not paying attention...

You know, we often forget how influential we really are in our lives; how we lead by example, and the impressions we establish for others to follow. I know my role as a foreigner in China; I recognize the importance of setting a positive example before Chinese people, because they will hold, with high regard, my behavior. I don’t want to believe that I have the power to ultimately decide China’s relationship with the US, but I know that these are the small steps towards a strong relationship... that is, my attitude and approach these days...

The part which is "inconvenient" about my position is that I have to undo years of training my students have received within their school system. First of all, many students are expected to be error-free, and it goes back to the possibility of "losing face." I found out from Christina that most of my students dislike my method of hand-picking them to participate in class. This results from the large class size and students' lack of courtesy towards their classmates when mistakes are made; they like to snicker at other's faults. So, many students dislike having to speak English in front of others.

However, I feel it will be the only way that they can practice their spoken English. The reality is that many of my students have been studying English for quite a while - some almost 10 years. However, more often than not, they have had instructors whose English is substandard, making the students' ability to speak English quite difficult.

Given these circumstances, I am always aiming to do my best, working what has been given to me, and making the best of my efforts. I understand that, most of all, I will need patience. Second, I will need to be creative in how I teach the class, creating for my students exercises which are both adequate and interesting. These are the challenges before me, and I am ready to take them on...

I am also ready to take on Global Warming (I believe). Are you ready?

Thursday, October 25, 2007

In Moments of Sickness


The night before I came down with, what translation tells me, "stomach inflammation," I briefly witnessed a burial ceremony, which took place a building over from Lily's parents' home.

My understanding is that the complex in which Lily's parents currently inhabit is highly populated with elderly people, so it was no wonder that this had been the third ceremony I've seen since I've been in China. Not to be funny, but that would make it 1 death for each month that I've been in China... I'm wondering if counting down the days until I come back is really such a good idea...
The beautiful side to this is the juxtaposition that the apartment's small park serves (yeah, the very same park that I had mentioned previously in my blog). In the center of this park, there is a statue which shows a mother reaching out to her newborn, something which might indicate "youth," or, at the very least, "happiness."

During times of reflection, we begin to think more about our existence, where we're going, where we're headed in life, and what we've done along the way. But, I was just thinking about life's cycle, how we're born into something which has been in place since time immemorial. I'm not just talking about culture and history, but the earth and everything around it. God only knows - quite literally - where all this stuff came from, how long it has all been around, and the future of it.

Just like an old abandoned building that once housed many people, but is now just a backdrop for Tianjin's scenery, we too, like the leaves, grow and fall from the trees. More so, our structure becomes brittle and we begin to slightly crumble. I too felt this last Sunday, when my body took over me and began to operate me, rather than I it. First the headache, then the bizarre burping, followed by a loss of appetite. One thing led to another, and very soon I was in bed, receiving I.V. from "san yi," Lily's third oldest aunt. By no means was it a "near death" experience; rather, just another shock I felt within culture...

As it turns out, I.V., which rarely seems to be in use in America (I remember only using it maybe once or twice in my entire life), is administered fairly frequently to people in China. I only had the chills and threw up a few times, but these symptoms were enough to have me slightly bed-ridden. I was also told that anything "cold" was out of the question; a breeze, a bottle of water, a hand, a look.

In China, much like the rest of the world, it is bad practice to mix warm and cold food. Yet, in America, we do it all the time. You walk into a hamburger place and usually, with some fries and a big fat greasy one, you "wash your whistle" with some ice cold coke. But, attention to the stomach, more than just a bad chemistry experiment of hot and cold, is crucially important within Chinese concept.

As a result, the blanket was not to leave my stomach under any condition. "Gai beizi, gai beizi" (cover your stomach with a blanket) was what mama had to say when I was lying on the bed. Of crucial importance are also the feet. Both of these - the feet and the stomach - should be warm at all times. If they aren't, then you didn't learn anything in med school...

As strange as it sounds, some of the best moments come when you're sick. I remember the time when I had my wisdom teeth taken out... my mom and were with each other in the living room, watching some crappy movie... I think it was "behind enemy lines." However, this moment in time for me is like a wine stain in a porcelain-white shirt. I remember witnessing the time go by, as my mom and were just sitting there in that living room, living.

Much in the same way, mama baba and I saw the sun set, making its way across the world, to rise once again, above the land where my mother is buried.

The enjoying moment came, when I had realized that, not just I, but mama and baba too had their eyes glued to the television screen, watching the latest development in the escape of Michael Scofield and Lincoln Burrows! Yeah, "yue yu" (Prison Break) will surely have you begging for more.

I think these moments of sickness give us a chance to remember how fragile life is. No longer are you caught up in the fast paced lifestyle of making it to work, working the day, and constantly gripped with what your next move will be. No; you are slowed down; you are living for each minute as your body recovers and regains its full health. Not only are you reminded of how great it is to be healthy, but you are equally reminded of how great is to be alive.
I'll never forget my mom, just like I will never forget mama baba, nor any of you...

Love,
Mike

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Illness, Age and Death

No, no, no, you don't have to worry, I haven't become "emo." Actually, I have learned quite a bit about these three areas -- illness, age and death -- as it is understood with a Chinese frame of mind.

Last Friday, October 19th, was "lao ren jie," or "Old Person's Day" in China. On this day, many people will get together with their family members, especially with their elder members, and have some sort of meal and share a moment in time with each other; you know, pretty straight forward. At this point, I can't exactly remember what I did, step by step, that day. But, I do remember a few moments that might have led up to the illness that befell me on Sunday (I'm trying to sound like some old, ill-plagued Russian author here).

Okay, I remember now. Lily's dad and I began our morning with a jog in a nearby park. This was nice, because it gave Lily's dad and I one of our first man-to-man moments, where we were able to test our strengths and abilities. Actually, I just ended up jogging at a slightly faster pace than he, and it was a fairly laid back experience, with the park being filled with many "lao ren" (older people).

A bunch of old people like to chill out at the park, whether they're doing some form of "tai chi" (slow body movement), walking, or playing some kind of board game with each other. There was this one activity where everyone had a "sword" and they were practicing their upper-body movement with the sword.

This is a picture I took... on Saturday? It was taken in a nearby park area, found in the center of Lily's parents' neighborhood. Most living quarters have a small park, where you'll find trees, grass, benches and a lot of other stuff most people would have in their front lawn; except, this is everyone's "lawn."

I also learned one new exercise technique from Lily's dad. I found out that walking backwards (yeah, backwards) is actually a popular technique for many middle-aged/elder Chinese people. Lily's dad had told me that it is a good exercise for the lower back. After talking with Lily, I found out that Chinese people believe it is also a good mental exercise.

So, later that day, in the evening, we had one last visit to make -- to see nai nai, Lily's dads' mother. Like most Chinese people, nai nai quickly filled my hands with oranges and anything else edible in sight. Not wanting food to go to waste or to hurt anyone's feelings, I graciously accepted her fruit and we were on with our ways; we didn't stay too long, because it had already become late in the evening and Lily's dads' parents aren't so sociable. I mean, it's good enough to stop by, say "hi," and call it a day for some people.

Well, later that evening (I keep saying "evening" -- it was just one big blur in memory), my appetite got the best of me and I just had to bit into one of the oranges. Man, I have to say, that was one funky orange. I wasn't about to live on the wild side with this fruit, so I ditched the orange asap. However, the damage had been done (I'm laughing to myself right now).

No, I'm really not sure what led up to my stomach issues on Sunday (which is the next segment in my blog), but I have a feeling it was food-related. Maybe the orange, maybe a few hands that hadn't been washed in the process of making the food... I'm not really sure, but what I experienced on Sunday had snatched my appetite away from me for the last couple of days...

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Summer Palace in Beijing

Sorry for the lack of updates, everything has been going well for me on this side of the world.

My life in China at this point has sort of fallen into a routine. During the week, I am at the university, catching the bus in the morning to teach, or meandoring through the nearby neighborhood. It is in this area where my friend Yao owns a small shop. At this shop, many of the guys like to congregate and hang out. We usually go out for lunch together. If not that, we hang out in the front area and "shoot the shit."

However, I tried to change this up a little by making another trip to Beijing this past weekend. I met up with my friend Lu Kai Friday afternoon at some bus station near downtown Beijing.

I should start by introducing Lu Kai, or Lukey (as Lily likes to call him). Lu Kai is an old classmate of Lily's from high school whom I had the pleasure of meeting while Lily was in China back in August. We hit it off real quick when we first met; he bought my a beer, and then we all went downtown to a few clubs, where we shared more beer and laughs. From this point in time, I remembered Lu Kai to be a happy-go-lucky kidster, always laughing and cracking jokes. However, as is true for most people, you are only first introduced to one side of the story, to one component of a complex personality.

As it turned out, Lu Kai came off as one of the most caring, most mature persons I ever met. Every second we spent together in Beijing, he always looked after my well-being. He made sure that I was never tired, that I was never unhappy, and always did what he could to put a smile on my face. In short, Lu Kai really left an impact on me, one that has changed the way I would like to approach friendships in the future. More than that, Lu Kai gave me reason to further believe in a virtuous life. What I mean is, he always showed respect to elders -- Lily's aunt "da yi" -- he always had us going to bed early, and when tempted by "mistresses" of shi sha hai, he never wavered in his position.

Yeah, there's a place in Beijing called "shi sha hai." It's not a bad place; actually, it can be a very romantic spot, with many restaurants located right on the small lake. However, it also offers the "nightlife," where one can grab drinks in the bar, go dancing at the clubs, and even "call girls" for the desperate. With that said, no of this phased Lu Kai.

So, shi sha hai was Saturday night's activity. We didn't stay out too late for one minor inconvenience -- I left my passport back in Tianjin! Yeah, I made the high mistake of leaving the most important document back in another city. To be honest, it did not even cross my mind; I have become so used to living in China now, that it would be the same as me carrying my passport back in Austin.

Well, with a little bit of help from Lily's aunt, we made our hideout, like Anne Frank, in some nearby hotel. Yeah, I felt like some runaway fugitive, sneaking in and out of our hotel room. However, everything turned out to be fine after a few headaches and some thinking.

At this point, I do want to comment on some rather disappointing, yet real discrimination I finally encountered in China. When Lu Kai and I were trying to find a reasonably priced hotel in Beijing, we thought the "hu tong" would suffice. For some who don't know, Beijing has many hu tongs, which are really compacted neighborhoods that have streets big enough for pedestrians and people on bike. So, Lu Kai (I think I'm going to call him "Luke" from now on) and I perused some of the resting places one could find in the hu tong.

However, to our dismay, due to the fact that I am a "wei guo ren" -- a foreigner -- I was not allowed a place to stay. This was an interesting experience, because not only was it the first time I faced discrimination, I actually understood the Chinese coming out of the lady's mouth.

You know, sometimes it takes experience, or at least a few instances of some form of human behavior to, in the least bit, understand the circumstance of other people. I'm not trying to say that I am a completely changed man, that I finally fully understand racism and the plight of many non-whites; my encounter with discrimination was very minor. However, it did get a few cogs running in my head.

Back to Beijing and tourism, I was told by Lu Kai that we would be going to some "park" on Saturday. At this point, I was thinking, "of all places to see in Beijing, why the hell is Lu Kai taking me to some park??" Okay okay, time to practice a little patience and flexibility, I'm sure things will still turn out to be okay. I mean, at least I'm spending time with a nice guy.

As it turned out, some information was lost in translation. We weren't just going to some park. On the contrary, we were going to the Summer Palace! I soon realized this once I met up with Lily's cousin, Hu Miao.

First, here are the pictures I took: http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2343351&l=c3f63&id=7936253

I want to start by saying, of all the places I have seen in Beijing, the Summer Palace has, by far, been the most impressive. Located on a lake, the Summer Palace was once the home of China's kings and queens (at least during the Qing Dynasty). I am not sure how far back this historic place goes, but one can really feel like a "king" when taking a stroll along the lake and up the hillside.

On one side of the lake, one can walk in and around some of the finest architecture Beijing can offer to a tourist. The Chinese government has done a great job of restoring and preserving many of the relics the Summer Palace has on display for visitors. Speaking of visitors, although there were many, the number of people at the Summer Palace did not compare to the horde of people Lily and I saw at the Forbidden City.

Although I always encourage people to experience a place for themselves, I should warn you all not to have high hopes for the Forbidden City. Though the place is deeply rooted in history and has a background that overshadows any other historic landmark in Beijing, the place in modern times is just a deathtrap for tourists.

So, as always, the weather played its role in my experience at the Summer Palace. When we first began our adventure within the palace's walls, there was a foggy mist that hovered above the lake. It was very ideal for a moment of reflection and awe for nature's beauty. To me, it sort of reminded me of a romantic moment, when two lovers are taking a stroll along a lake with the weather's energy beckoning the lovers to slow down in time, and to just savor the moment. Well, I did my best with that description; you could also say it was like being "sleepless in Seattle."

Moreover, the weather had a second face. While cool and calm in the morning, the clouds broke and the sun soon shined down upon the lake and palace; it was truly a magestical moment, as if "God" or the kings of old were once again reigning down upon this sacred place...

For us though -- Luke, Hu Miao, and I -- we were just a bunch of frockling youngsters retracing the steps of China's high officials and various people of ancient royal status...

I hope you all enjoy the pictures I've posted! I have plenty more to say about China and I will keep the thoughts coming, one chance at a time.

Love,
Mike

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Ethanol and American Politics

I recently helped Lily with her government homework and found the articles somewhat interesting. She had to dicuss the impact of campaign contributions on Congressional behavior. In other words, how much does big business influence American politics?

This is interesting in that I have recently taken an interest in a fairly new television show called "Prison Break." I know I'm behind the times, but since I have had more time to watch television and movies, I have come to appreciate some areas of American pop culture that I before overlooked. For example, I recently watched "Minority Report" and found it to be a very interesting movie. In this movie, Steven Spielberg adapts one of Philip K. Dick's novels. As some of you know, Philip K. Dick has written many science-fiction novels which center around several common themes; these themes include technology, drug use, and paranoia towards government control. Of course, I am oversimplifying the complexity of some of Dick's works.

However, at this point, I think it is worth discussing the mechanisms of American politics, seeing as how the next presidential election is not too far off. Again, I find it intriguing that, without great effort, I find myself entrenched in a subject that greatly correlates with current events. In other words, I did not choose to look into politics at this point. Rather, it sort of just crept up on me.

Back to the point here, I read some interesting articles on ethanol and the motivations behind this "corn-based additive." Many people argue that this will come to replace gasoline, that it is more environmentally-friendly than our current energy sources. However, Lily had to read some articles which debunk this idea. In fact, these articles point out that, if anything, ethanol has the potential to produce in excess 25% more in greenhouse gas emissions than regular gasoline.

Looking at the matter more closely, it seems that in actuality, the ethanol industry has a strong grasp on the politicians' priorities. Back when Bob Dole was running for president, because he supported the ethanol initiative, he received $74,000 in campaign contributions. It is clear as day that, if you are in need of great money for your presidential campaign, you should think twice about shooting down ethanol as a potential option...

What I find more interesting, of course, is the television show that I have recently been watching. I must say, I am really hooked on "Prison Break." In fact, I can't wait to watch the next episode when I have the time and place. Without ruining the overall storyline, the main characters do encounter some larger problems, problems that involve the government and political corruption once it comes down to energy and profit. After all, America is an "energy-based economy," right?

Well, in any case, it will be interesting to see what course America takes in the next several decades to safeguard its power and economy. I just hope that many families will avoid catching fire of the political corruption that is soon to take place once things come down to the line; when peoples' wealth and power are at stake.

On another note, I will be heading back to Beijing tomorrow. I figure it is due time for another visit, because I haven't been back since August. I will be meeting up with one of Lily's friends, Lu kai. He's a really nice guy, we share many jokes together and share a similar sense of humor; so much so that we call each other "gemer," or "bro." I'm not sure what we'll do, but I'm sure we'll hit up some of the tourist hotspots and possible go out on the town at night.

For now, I'll leave with you this picture:

Isn't she beautiful? I miss Lily a lot, but thankfully, she will be coming back to China for Thanksgiving. In this time, we will be reunited again, and we all (as a family) will be able to eat together, enjoy one another's company, and all feel happy and warm. I want to say more about this, and I think I'll save it for next time. The conclusion is that family matters, and the more you become in love with your family, the more life becomes meaningful and worthwhile.

This I also learned from "Prison Break." Each character may seem dangerous, but in the end, they just want to be back at the same point with which we often take for granted. That is, they all want to be back with their families once again. After all, you don't know what you have until it is gone...

Love,

Mike

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Action speaks louder than thoughts

Not much can be said in the last few days. It has been quite relaxing since my return to Tianjin from Seoul. For the first few days back, the weather wasn't very encouraging with the continuous, albeit intermittent, rain. However, the rain did give me time to reflect, catch up on sleep and chill.

I slept quite a bit this past weekend, making up for some of the sleepless nights in Korea. Although I had only been in South Korea for just a week, I quickly got used to the college lifestyle once again; a lifestyle of going out late at night, drinking, not returning until the early morning, and just living a silly daydream.

I think part of me feels disappointed for having to leave so soon. Though China is hardly my turf, I have to admit that I have become accustomed to the city and the lifestyle already. With that said, Korea sort of brought me fresh air once again - quite literally - and I wasn't finished breathing.

That's when I got to thinking, what if I could make my way back again one day? Hell, why not just make it more than a simple visit? As Eileen and many others have said, I'm "young" and have a lot of time to explore myself, to explore the world and to learn more about life. I guess I'm trying to say that I've caught the "bug."

No, really, I'm thinking about making Korea my next destination once I've completed my year of teaching in China. And, I don't want to do it alone this time... *smiles* yeah, I want Lily to go with me this time around.

I know it won't be an easy goal to achieve, but since when have lofty goals been easy to reach? The biggest "obstacle" at this point is that she's a Chinese citizen, and I am not sure how the process works with non-American citizens. For the most part, Americans are gladly accepted into many countries and cultures. Of course, you would never know this according to what the news tells you at home. My time outside of America has highlighted some of the many freedoms we Americans take for granted.

I'm sure a lot of you know how dreamy I can be at times, neglecting to see the reality of things. But, for me, the best part of life is dreaming. Moreover, chasing that dream makes life worthwhile.

I'm thinking, walks on the beach, holding Lily's hand. Hikes into the mountains, where we can both get lost in nature. Perhaps we can make an occasional bullet train shot to Seoul, or a ferry trip or two to Japan. Japan is not the only place within one's grasp from Busan. At your feet, you've got Jeju Island - a supposed beautiful island of Korea - and at arm's length, you've got Lily's homeland, China.

The pay is also considerably better than what I am making in China. As a "developed" country, Korea's economy is on par with Japan and the US, making the Korean won fairly strong. Not only is this attractive, but Korea's relative position below the Japanese and US economy makes the cost of living in Korea lower. For example, you can get a 2 floor apartment loft for about US $450 a month. If you're lucky enough, the school for which you work will subsidize this expense. In a nutshell, those who go to Korea to teach English will leave with a nice sum in their pocket. After China, I’m not so sure how much I’ll be “worth.”

With all of that said, perhaps you can all appreciate the excitement I have for next year. Either way, I will be with Lily, whether in America, or someplace else in the world. However, to think that we could be setting sail down a highway that winds the mountains and overlooks the beach... I'm just in the sky right now with my thoughts...

As any man would do, the next step would be to consult the parents. Now, in America, it seems to be perfectly fine to voice one's opinions and ideas, whether they seem potential or otherwise. You know, you just talk out your ideas and have others contribute to the thought. Before I made the decision to go to China to teach, I had all the wise men sit at the table and discuss the issue - a few beers at Stone Werks with Valdo and Brian.

With this in mind, and my excitement at its peak, I thought I could discuss the idea of teaching in Busan with Lily's parents. Well, as it turned out, Lily's parents weren't so upset as much as Lily. Actually, Lily's father thought it was a really good idea, said I was smart, and Lily's mother also had a nod to give. I really did make all the pieces fit; location, pay, quality of life, it all fits nicely into my scheme.

However, I learned from Lily that thoughts are just thoughts, and one needs to have a sure understanding that the thought will become action before it is talked about before one's family. This, Lily told me, is another one of those unwritten rules, if not guidelines, in Chinese culture.

I admit, I have no idea if my plan will fly or sink to the bottom of the ocean. And, as Valdo once said, with which I agree, it's not so good to blow hot air; you should know what you're doing before you begin to tell others.

Right now though, my "hot air" is keeping me afloat in the sky and I haven't come down from it just yet. I thought China was a crazy idea, but it has turned out to be perfectly sound. My confidence is now creating another path in life for me to follow, but my maturity/experience needs to catch up.

Although I have seen some ugly sides to life, I have also been exposed to life's beauty and wonder.

The wonderful point here is that Lily and I give each other room for mistake and we learn from each other. The beautiful aspect of our differing cultural origins is that we are learning more about ourselves just as much as we are learning more about each other.

The next step for me is to grab Lily by the arm and take her on this ride before the dream is over...

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Busan Reflections

Today was a very nice and relaxing day. I've been told that you haven't "experienced" Korea until you have gone to a public bath. So, I took these words with heart and set out for the nearest public bath.

For some who are unfamiliar, public baths are places where Korean men strip down completely and chill out in pools of hot, jacuzzi-like, water. Well, today, I did just that, took the clothes off my back, and became "Korean" for a moment. Here's the view from the hot pool:

For 1000 won more, they will give you a customary outfit for public baths. They look something like this:

I spent the rest of this day relaxing at the spa, reading some of Josh's "Korea" travel book. It had some interesting tid-bits on North and South Korea; of course, I was more interested in North Korea.

There's something about a country which is still highly isolated in this day and age. The best the book could do in describing North Korea was to say that visiting Pyongyang (North Korea's main city) would be like going back to the Cold War communist days. That says a lot, considering that much of the Cold War ended in the late 80s, early 90s.

As the book would say, much of what we know about North Korea seems to be mostly rumor, and, as a result, it is hard to say what is "true" and what is "false." The truth remains that living standards are very minimal within North Korea, where everyone has highly limited freedom and low access to food and/or other resources.

The book also discussed the emergence of Kim Jung Il and the diplomatic relations North Korea has had with the US over the years. According to the book, Kim Jong Il came to power in 1997, after his father, Kim Sung Il, died of a massive heart attack in 1994. Interesting fact, Kim Sung Il is the world's longest ruler, even surpassing Elizabeth II. The sad part about Kim Sung Il's death was that his death occurred around a time in which Clinton was making strides in improving US diplomacy with North Korea; this involved disarmament in return for aid.

Late in Kim Jong Il's reign, efforts were once again made to improve diplomatic relations with South Korea and the US by inviting both figureheads to come and visit North Korea. However, by this time, Bush was flying words around, labeling various countries as an "axis of evil." No surprise, diplomacy with North Korea has since greatly suffered, with North Korea testing nuclear missiles last year. Not only that, but most North Koreans are fed anti-US propaganda as a result of this deterioration in diplomatic relations between the US and North Korea.

Of course, the political situation and the events which have led up to today are not quite simple, but I'm eager to talk more about some of the other experiences I've had so far in South Korea.

The day before my trip to the public bath, I and some of Josh's friends hiked Jangsan mountain, which is located to the north of Busan. For the sake of geography, Busan is in the southeast corner of South Korea -- clear across the country from Seoul -- and is right on the beach. Busan also has a mountain range to the north of the city. This really makes Busan a beautiful and lively city; if there isn't beach fun, you can always find yourself a hike.

So, I hiked on Monday up to the top of the mountain. It was fun hiking with Josh's friends; one of them had been teaching in Japan for 3 years. She had a lot to say in the way of Japanese relationships between men and women. She had mentioned marriage in Japan and said that it is largely seen as a "contract" between men and women. Once women become married, they soon evolve into the role of "mother" and quit their day jobs to raise the children. She also explained that women subsequently control the family's finances, and sex between a husband and wife is greatly strained; husbands do not believe in sexual intimacy with the "mother."

She also talked a bit about Japanese notions of "race" and what it means to be "Japanese." Her understanding is that, unless you are born in Japan, you'll never really be Japanese.

One conclusion that we all reached from our conversations with each other is that generalization is an easy, but dangerous mistake to make. Though she obviously knew something about Japan -- she lived there for 3 years -- and I know more about China at this point, we both still need to be mindful of diversity and differences within culture and society.

In other words, it isn't enough for me to simply say, "Chinese people are nice." Sure, some will be nice, but others will be bad. Likewise, for her to say that old Japanese men are rude and mean would be a gross generalization of Japan's elder population.

I think this is true, not just for people, but also for other aspects of a country. In the end, I just told her, "Don't listen to me. Experience China for yourself." That's really all I can say at this point, other than to share my own personal experiences.

I have not forgot to take things with a "grain of salt." Instead, I will remember what has been told, and then proceed to reach my own conclusions with well-needed research.

I had to point this out, because it's been bugging me a lot. Since being in South Korea, I have suddenly become a spokesperson of China for those who wish to visit the country. In some cases, I had to defend China in the face of criticism for those who have visited China

However, much like my situation with Japan and South Korea, these people only visited China for maybe a week. It's a bit of a stretch to say you know China after having been there only 1 week.

In my mind though, China still has to be my favorite place of the Asiatic countries I've visited. I admit, I am biased; China has become my second home. I really like China, and I can further say this after having spent time outside of the country once again. There is something there about the people and the culture which goes a lot further than just nice beaches and high technology; believe me, I was quite surprised by Korea's "bullet train," which went up to 300 km/hr!