Friday, April 30, 2010

3 in 3 days

I just read a report of yet another kindergarten attack in China, this one in Weifang, Shandong.  In today's attack, no one was killed except the attacker, who committed suicide by setting himself on fire at the scene after hitting five children with an iron hammer.

What a tragedy for these kids.  What a tragedy for their parents and teachers.  What a tragedy for China that this has happened three times in a single week.

More about the Confucius Forest

Last October I visited the Confucius forest and cemetery ("kong lin") on a beautiful fall day.  It was wonderful.

But if I thought kong lin was a gorgeous natural experience in the fall, I had no clue what spring would bring.  The trees were shining with the green-gold of sunlit baby leaves, and the ground was an undulating ocean of purple flowers.

*Sigh*  Beautiful.  The forest is just north of old Qufu, which you can see in this screen grab from google maps:

The old city is just north of the "A" -- you can see it outlined by the old city wall.  The forest is at the top of the picture, also outlined by a wall.  Look at how lush and green it is compared to the surroundings, and how big it is.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010


Spring is finally here and life lately feels full of friendship, fellowship, and new experiences.  Last weekend, my teammates and I spent a retreat day at the Confucius forest and cemetery.  Then we went to the local hostel and ate french fries.  The next day my teammate and I hopped on our bikes for another foray into the countryside.

Our university had a school-wide sports meeting yesterday and today, which gave us lots of time to enjoy the nice weather and hang out with our students.  No class!  I went to a local Confucius theme park with some juniors yesterday.  Today, two girls came over and taught me how to make some Chinese dishes.  Then I had a Chinese lesson with my adorable tutor.

New restaurants, new parks, studies of the Word, bike rides, lesson planning, dinners with students and friends...  These are good days in Qufu.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Mourning the Yushu Quake

 Newspapers and websites went to grayscale for the national day of mourning.  
(Collage from via

April 21, one week after the Qinghai earthquake, was declared a national day of mourning.  Here is a press release from the Ministry of Culture that gives the details of the national day of mourning.  It's long, so I've bolded the points I found most interesting:
Notice is hereby made to all Provincial, Administrative Region, and Municipality-level Culture Departments, the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps Culture Department, the Cultural Market Administrative Teams of Beijing, Tianjin, Shanghai, and Chongqing, and all subordinate work unites:
To express the profound grief that people of all ethnic groups across the country feel for their compatriots who fell victim to the Yushu earthquake, the State Council has decided to hold a National Day of Mourning on April 21, 2010. Flags across the country and at overseas institutions will be lowered and all public entertainment activities will be suspended. To carry out the spirit of the State Council decision, notice is hereby made of the following measures:
1. According to the instructions in the State Council notice, culture administration departments at all levels across the country, general culture market administrative agencies, and culture work units that fly national flags will lower them to half-staff in mourning.
2. Departments and work units in the national culture system will suspend any entertainment activities they organize.
3. Cultural and entertainment venues across the country will suspend their entertainment activities. All cinemas and theaters, dance halls, recreation venues, and game rooms, as well as all culture centers (or cultural palaces or stations) and community activity centers will suspend all entertainment, performances, screenings, and gaming activities. Internet service providers will suspend all entertainment activities including games, music, and video. Online cultural operators will suspend all online music, online games, online animation, and online video.
4. Culture administration departments and general culture market administration agencies at all levels should carry out strict observation of how the cultural and entertainment venues and their operators implement the State Council's decision, and shall deal with violators according to the law.
Office, Ministry of Culture (via
At my campus, the main change was that the two-day school-wide sports meet (originally scheduled for Thursday and Friday) was postponed to Monday and Tuesday due to national mourning activities.  This meant that we teachers had to teach classes on Thursday and Friday with very little notice, and students who planned to use the sports meet as a 4-day weekend had to cancel their trips home. 

Forced mourning.  It's a strange concept, like forced love or forced devotion.  Can it be mandatory but still be sincere?

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Guess that Text

Today I woke up with a terrible headache, which only grew worse as I was teaching my first of two classes this morning.  It got to the point that my stomach was upset and I feared that I might throw up right then and there.  So I dismissed my first class early, canceled my second class, and went home to sleep it off.

I am happy to report that I am feeling much better.  So well, in fact, that I'd like to initiate a little game of "Guess that Text."  The game is quite simple.  Below are three text messages I received today.  One is from a teammate, one is from a student whose class I re-scheduled, and one is from a student who wasn't in any of my classes today (so you see how word gets around).  Your task: Figure out who wrote each message - it's not too hard.

1) "hi,Alison,we heard that you are ill !how are you feeling now?  You'd better drink more warm water and have a good rest.Hope you will be better soon!"

2)  "Hey!  I'm sorry that you're feeling bad.  Is there anything I can do for you? I have some Ritz crackers if you'd like them."

3)  "hi Alison .Are you feel better now ?"

Side note:  As I was walking back home, feeling miserable, I ran into two separate students who both advised me that I should drink more hot water.  This is one-size-fits-all health advice in China, but I follow it every time.  Drinking hot water really does make me feel better; in fact, I'm sipping a steaming mug of it right now.  Weird, huh?

Monday, April 19, 2010

Freshman Goals

In my freshman oral English class, we did a unit on talking about the future.  One activity was to make specific, measurable, attainable goals for their years in college.  Here is a random sampling:
  • pass the National Computer Rank Exam
  • read 1000 books
  • look thinner
  • have a dog
  • improve my spoken English
  • improve my written English
  • learn several English songs
  • win a scholarship
  • learn Korean
  • go to grad school in Beijing
  • pass my level 4 and level 8 exams
  • travel to Hainan
  • make some good friends
  • finish reading the Bible
  • lose 3 kg in 2 months
  • teach Cambridge English
  • read 8 pure English novels
  • be an English tutor in the summer
  • write beautiful English essays from beginning to end without changing a single word
  • enrich my life
  • become a volunteer
  • learn Japanese
  • get a driver’s license
For each goal, they had to write a three-step action plan.  Here's my favorite:

Goal: fall in love with a boy
  1. take part in some activities and find out the boy who suits me
  2. find more chances to talk with the boy
  3. find a right time to express my feeling

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Biking in the Countryside

Today, my teammate Lisa and I decided to explore the surrounding villages and farms.  One of the best things about living in Qufu is that I can hop on my bike, go out the north gate, and be in the countryside in less than five minutes.

We had no set agenda this morning and took whichever path struck our fancy at the moment.  After a few hours, we came to a large road and asked some pedestrians the way back to our campus.  Turns out we were in Yanzhou, a different city altogether.  So we lunched in Yanzhou and biked the hour back to Qufu.

I love everything about this picture:  The guys working, the little square building, the smoke in the background, the bright green crops, and especially the mannequin.

A building by the road, seemingly abandoned

Inside the building.  On the right is a kang, a traditional type of bed.  You keep coals (or fire?) under the bed and it stays warm in the winter.

 Lisa making friends in the field

We happened upon a village market.  Here's the fabric...

...and the farm tools.

Curious kids

These girls were so cute.  See the fake curls clipped in the hair of the girl on the right?  And Grandma kept trying to get the girl on the left to give a peace sign in the picture.  I love her little sleeve covers.

Our hole-in-the-wall lunch in Yanzhou: greens, eggplant, steamed bread and tea.  We needed the energy for the long ride home; we were so tired.  What a great way to spend a Saturday.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Another Chinese Haircut


Yesterday I ventured out with the trusty, ever-fashionable Jessie to get my hair trimmed.  She decided that the guy that did my last haircut wasn't satisfactory (although I thought he was fine), so she called around and found someone who has "a lot of experience cutting foreigners' hair."  Puzzling, in a town where very few foreigners settle long enough to ever need a haircut, but it turns out he did cut a few of the American teachers' hair last year.

This stylist was a young guy with a Chinese-style afro, whom Jessie described as "a little eccentric."

I told him what I wanted:  My same hairstyle, but about an inch shorter.

Throughout the haircut, he kept suggesting small changes:  How about we angle the front up a little toward your chin?  How about we add a few layers here?  Is this too short?  I went along with each suggestion and pretty soon had a different haircut altogether, about 2 or 3 inches shorter than the original.  At the end of the cut, he revealed a picture of a cute Asian girl with exactly the same cut.

He knew all along where he was going, but for some reason never showed me the picture in the first place.  The artiste was making his vision a reality without needing to ask or inform the customer in advance.  He instructed me that I must come back every month and he will consult with me about my hair and help me find some new styles.

There is actually a cultural nugget in here.  In China, you are the expert of your own field and take it upon yourself to advise others freely.  For example, I have friends whose cleaning helper will not change the pillowcases weekly, as requested, because in her experience she does not think they need to be changed so often.  Everyone's an expert in something!

Other highlights:
  • My stylist kept one of his blow dryers on the floor.
  • He occasionally stored his comb in his China-fro when not using in on my hair.
  • I kept getting chided to sit up straighter and stop moving.
  • It only cost 10 RMB.  Less than $2.
I'm not too picky about my hair, so experiences like these are always fun and entertaining.  I like Chinese haircuts!

Earthquake Relief

You've heard about the recent earthquake in Qinghai province.  I've never been to Qinghai, but one day I'd like to.  You can experience the breathtaking views and high altitudes of the Tibetan plateau ("the roof of the world"), mix with people of several ethnic backgrounds, and get a taste of Tibet without actually going there.   Qinghai is a long journey away from my home in Shandong province.

Please remember Qinghai in their ongoing earthquake recovery.  You can donate here to World Vision's Earthquake Relief (including Haiti, China, and other projects).

Monday, April 12, 2010

Night on the Train

I just got back from a quick trip to Beijing with my friend Sara, a fellow teacher who lives in Rizhao.  We are both on small teams in relatively small towns, so we wanted a weekend to see friends, do some shopping, and go to Sunday service.

We took a night train home, as I usually do when traveling from Beijing, and I invite you to share the experience with me now:

The Setting:  Four bed sleeper compartment; luggage and IKEA bags on the floor, people on the beds.

The Cast: 
Alison and Sara, two sleepy American English teachers
Man1 and Man2, two middle-aged Chinese men in suits.

Scene 1:  11:00 pm.  Sara and I sit cross-legged on our beds eating Oreos and studying Chinese.  Man1 and Man2 arrive in the compartment, take of their shoes, and climb to their upper berths.  They stretch out on their beds and commence falling asleep.  The train departs. 

Scene 2:  11:45 pm.  Sara and I finally realize the lights don't shut off automatically.  Finding the light switch, we switch off the light and cuddle in.

11:46 pm.  Snoring detected. 

11:47-12:30:  Sara appears to be sleeping.  Man2 is definitely sleeping, unless he is the sort of gentleman who breathes like a saw while awake. I futilely try to listen to the rumble of train on tracks below instead of the rumble of Man2 above.

12:30 am:  I remember the earplugs that I've carried around since coming to Asia.  A quick search in the purse reveals nothing.  Drat!  Took them out last week, for no good reason. 

1:30 am:  If I'm going to be awake, I might as well be doing something.  I flip on my reading light and start studying Chinese.  Man1 above is apparently awake.  I can hear him sipping water.  He can hear me eating cookies.  I selfishly crunch louder in hopes of awaking the snoring Man2.

2:00 am - 3:00 am:  Tossing and turning.  I learn that putting my fingers in my ears provides temporarily relief, but my arm falls over as soon as I nod off.

3:38 am:  Still awake.  I decide to search for earplugs once more.  I unzip my bag, fumble, around, reach in, and retrieve... Yes!  My hot pink ear plugs.  In they go; peace at last.

Scene 3:  3:38 am - 7:00 am.  Sweet slumber.

Epilogue:  In my night-time fumblings for snacks, books, and earplugs, I somehow knocked an important card off the table.  It is the card that the conductor gives you in exchange for your ticket, so he knows your destination and can awaken you before you arrive.  The conductor came at 7:15 to collect the card and tell me we were near Qufu, but alas!  It was nowhere to be found.  He stood wordlessly in the doorway while I rifled through bags, looked in my shoes, lifted up everything around me, and put it down again.  Eventually I was belly-flat on the floor looking under the bed, where that pesky little card was found at last.  Ah, embarassing.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

"It's All-Consuming"

Tonight I happened upon a rock climbing article on (a travel website).  The article is about a couple of guys and their quest to figure out a new climbing route up Yosemite's El Capitan mountain.  The article has tons of jargon, but if you have three minutes, watch the video

They have put a collective four years into this project.  One of them is climber Kevin Jorgeson, who says:
Honestly, this is my future. Mescalito is all I can think about right now. It’s all-consuming. If I don’t focus all of my energy into it, I won’t succeed. I don’t have the background of El Cap free climbing that Tommy does. I’m having to change my climbing style a lot to adapt to this new challenge. I love it, but it requires that I focus all of time and energy on this. I wouldn’t have it any other way!
Aside from being a cool story, it made me think.  I give a mediocre effort to most things in my life (my walk with God, ministry, Chinese study, exercise, teaching, writing, friendship).  What if I approached them with the same passion, discipline, courage, hard work, and joy as these guys approach that impossible looking cliff? 

Monday, April 5, 2010

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Gaudy Gaudí

This is Antoni Gaudí:

He was a Spanish architect whose masterpiece was the Sagrada Familia cathedral in Barcelona.  Construction began in 1882 and eventually stopped when the funding dried up.  In 1936 the only remaining blueprint was destroyed, making it difficult to faithfully fulfill Gaudí's vision, although construction apparently has re-started in recent years.  Here's the cathedral:

I learned some interesting stuff about Gaudí while cruising Wikipedia just now.  He died when he was run over by a tram at age 73, looking so raggedy that no cabs would pick him up, and finally people walking by helped him to a pauper's hospital.  

Today one of my students mentioned that she liked Western culture, so I asked her why.  Of course, I already knew the answer: She likes the fancy-free, romantic lives of the beautiful people she sees on American TV. 

I was wrong.  Vivian told me she likes Western culture because she likes the architecture, the art, the literature and the music.  She admires Gaudí.  She enjoys symphonies.  She made some very sophisticated comparisons between Chinese and Western classical music, using Beethoven's 5th symphony as an example (her thought: Chinese classical music sounds "flat" while symphonies sound "3D").  She is particularly interested in the era between the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution.

Now, I am an educated person and so are you.  How many Chinese novels can we name?  Which Chinese architects do we admire?  Shoot, how many Western  architects can we name?  The only one I can think of right now is Gaudí, and the only "fact" I knew about him was that his name is the origin of our word "gaudy."  (Even this turns out not to be true.)

Here are my two points:

1) Our Western cultural heritage is rich.  Why do we let it languish in libraries and history books while we watch the next episode of America's Next Top Model? (Guilty here.)  Why does my non-Western 21-year-old student have a better grasp of Western fine arts than I do?

2) Most of my students are fascinated by the West because of Hollywood culture.  My student's answer was deeper and more thoughtful, and it made me glad to see that at least some Chinese are picking up on aspects of my culture that have nothing to do with Prison Break and Gossip Girl.  

I wish I could spend more Sunday afternoons sitting at the table with a bowl of strawberries talking about Beethoven's Fifth and gaudy Gaudí.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

A Chinese Language First

I had my first telephone conversation in Chinese tonight.

It's always been my opinion that second languages and phones don't go together.  When I studied Spanish in high school and college, I never got to the point where I felt confident on the phone, in spite of being perfectly capable of a face-to-face conversation.  I've also had dozens of misunderstandings with international friends over the past few years that have arisen from them having to speak their second language, English, on the phone with me.

Here's a little bit of trivia that they told us in telemarketing training: Only around 40% of our communication is conveyed through words.  The rest is through facial expression, body language, and tone of voice, so you have to work doubly hard to get a point across on the phone.  (Did you know I was once I telemarketer?  Well, now you know.)

My phone call tonight was from the guy at the train ticket office, and it went like this:

Me:  Hello?

Train guy:  Wei, ni hao.

Me (in Chinese now): Sorry, I don't speak Chinese.

Train guy:  A whole bunch of Chinese.  Did he say something about my train ticket being ready?

Me:  Tomorrow?

Train guy:  More Chinese.  Too much Chinese to be agreeing with my idea that I come tomorrow.

Me:  Now?

Train guy:  A little bit of Chinese.  Agreement, perhaps?

Me:  I come now.

Train guy:  More Chinese.  I caught the word "now."

Me:  Good, good.  Thanks, thanks!

Train guy:  Zai jian.

So I grabbed my keys and tripped off to his office, where he was waiting with my train tickets to Beijing next week.  It wasn't pretty, but my first phone conversation in Chinese ended in success.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Good Friday

"God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God."
-2 Corinthians 5:21, NIV