Thinking of Home

Thoughts in the Silent Night

Beside my bed a pool of light –
Is it hoarfrost on the ground?
I lift my eyes and see the moon,
I bend my head and think of home.

Li Bai

This is one of my favorite Tang poems from the great master Li Bai. Li Bai is awakened suddenly and sees a light. He is confused at first about what it is and then notices the moon. It seems he thought for a moment that he was home and then realized he wasn’t. This brought out in him a sense of longing for home.

This kind of thing happened to my twice recently. Two nights ago we had the opportunity to go on a home stay with students and their families from the middle school (like our high school) associated with Beijing Normal Unoversity. This is one of the top middle schools in Beijing and the students are extremely gifted and fairly fluent in English. The school has a beautiful city campus with excellent facilities that would be envied in the US.

I was graciously hosted by the family of Zhang Zeyu. The brought to the nice apartment in the outskirts of Beijing and we had the opportunity to talk about many things in China and the US. What struck me was that people to people contact brings out the best in us. The Zhangs were wonderful hosts and welcomed me into their home and went out of their way to make me feel comfortable. Mrs. Zhang even taught me to make dumplings (see below). Mine didn’t turn out so well. The food was fantastic though, probably the best I’ve had in China!

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That night, lying in bed, I woke suddenly and didn’t know where I was. For a split second, I thought I was home and then remembered where I was. Perhaps a taste of home life brought out a little homesickness as I thought about my own family. I am having fun here but I do miss them!

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A Saturday in Beijing

The past few days have been a bit low key. I’ve picked up a bit of a cold and have been trying to shake it (I think I’m on my way back). We’ve had a variety of meetings and lectures – a lecture and tour at one of Beijing’s finest art academies, a lecture on Christian missions in China at a beautiful Jesuit center for Chinese language and culture, and a presentation at China Daily (China’s largest English language newspaper).

Yesterday morning was spent at a huge weekend “antiques” market. I use “antiques” because it is dubious whether much of the merchandise is really antique despite claims made by sellers. We were told that you can be almost certain that whatever you buy is some kind of reproduction. No worries though because I’m not in the market for antiques anyway. I did by some interesting propaganda posters, mostly reprints but a couple of “originals.” They could have been (it’s more likely than finding a real Ming vase) and I paid a bit more, but I’m not counting on it. I really wanted a Deng Xiaoping poster and they were very hard to find. Of course, Mao posters were ubiquitous.

In the afternoon a few of us went over to Behai Park which is right across from our hotel. We hadn’t gone there till yesterday because it has an entrance fee. Little did we know what we had been missing! It is a beautiful park with a huge lake and in the south end a large Tibetan style stupa. We rented a paddle boat and enjoyed the cooling breezes (it was very hot). Here are some pictures.

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Today we go on our home stay with our host families in Beijing. I’m excited but a little nervous. Tomorrow we have some more lectures and are off to Xian by overnight train. So, I won’t have internet for a few days and maybe longer depending on the hotel in Xian. So, don’t worry if you don’t see an update for some days.

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A Tale of Two Cities

Du Fu, A Lament After Travelling from the Capital to Fengxian

Only the highest in the land may bathe here,
The low and the wrteched have no part in the feast;
But the silk shared out in the Vermilion Hall
Was woven by the hands of poor women . . .
The emperor makes these gifts in his infinite goodness,
In the hopes that the land will prosper;
But if his ministers forget this truth,
His gifts are surely wasted!

Like any city, Beijing can be a story of contrasts, especially in terms of rich and poor. This should not be surprising to us and the same could be pointed out in New York, London, Paris, and just about anywhere. So what I write here should not be taken as a criticism. In fact, I think Beijing is doing well in addressing disparities in income and living conditions given the rapidity of its development in recent years. I don’t really think we in America are in a place to point fingers given our tremendous wealth and the amount of poverty and injustice in our country. So this is just an observation.

This morning we went to the huge, new building housing the Beijing Olympic Organizing Committee and heard a presentation about preparations for the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.

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After hearing and seeing all the evidence of these preparations, I can guarantee you that the world will be blown away by the Beijing Olympics. We have seen various Olympic sites from our bus and they are very impressive and either already finished or near-finished. The preparations have been pain-staking and thorough and the community spirit evidenced in Beijing for the Olympics is palpable already. Billboards, countdown signs, banners, merchandise, etc. are omnipresent here. It is hard to go anywhere and not find an opportunity to buy an Olympic shirt or hat. I think we all will be impressed next summer.

Then, this afternoon we went outside of Beijing center to the outlying part of the city. This area is filled with the factories and the laborers that sustain Beijing’s economy and are helping prepare the city for the Olympics. This area is the home of hundreds of thousands (or more) of migrant workers who have come to Beijing seeking employment. This is a tale that can be found in many cities in coastal China. Of course, life is very difficult for the migrants and their children face an enormous problem obtaining education. Because they are migrants, the do not automatically receive the public education given to official residents and must either pay high fees or go without. Many cannot afford these fees and thus have no education or are taken advantage of by fly by night schools trying to make a quick profit off desperate migrants.

One school though is attempting to bridge this gap by providing quality education to migrant children either at no cost or at a low cost. It is called the Beijing Dandelion School and it is run by idealistic and dedicated administrators and teachers who want to serve these migrant children. The school is an impressive place, though spartan, and I was impressed with the teaching we observed this afternoon. Teachers work for less than a tenth of what they could make in Beijing proper, yet they stay because they love the children and believe in what they are doing. The kids are extremely motivated and well-behaved, grateful for the opportunity they have. Several American schools have visited the Dandelion school to do community service in China. I would love to bring PDS kids here!

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As the Beijing Olympic preparations go on, we should not forget the poor whose efforts make it possible yet will probably, as Du Fu says, “have no part in the feast.”

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An Amazing Woman

Today we met someone who surely is one of the world’s best kept secrets. Prof. Wu Qing is simply one ofthe most amazing people I have ever encountered. Meeting her brought to mind a line from a Du Fu poem which reads, “There is a beauty of the ages, who lives obscured in an empty valley.” Now Wu Qing does not live in an empty valley, but she is a “beauty of the ages” who deserves to be more well-known than she is in the U.S.

At age 70, Wu Qing is a bundle of energy, belief, commitment, and passion for helping others. The daughter of the famous writer Xie Bingxin, she has survived the trials of the Cultural Revolution and emerged as a noted scholar and activist, particularly on behalf of rural and migrant women in China. In 2001 she received the Magsaysay Prize (the “Nobel Prize” of Asia) and is the deputy-director of the Beijing People’s Congress. She has traveled all over the world speaking out about many causes and has received many other awards and recognitions. Our whole group was simply blown away by her and her honesty, intelligence, and eloquence. This will be a highlight of the trip! Here is a picture of Wu Qing.

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Sightseeing

Accessing the internet has proved difficult the past few days but, for now, I have access. The past few days have been spent visiting the spots that most tourists see while in Beijing and for good reason. Saturday we went to the Temple of Heaven, Tiananmen Square, and the Forbidden City. The weather was not the best on Saturday and we battled continual light rain and occasional downpours as we toured these famous spots. We walked through Tiananmen in what seemed like a monsoon with water swirling several inches above our feet. Needless to say we did not pause to examine this mammoth square. We were saved slightly by the ominipresent Beijing vendors who had an endless supply of $1 umbrellas. I was comforted knowing I would return in about a month after the Fulbright program is over for another visit. In fact, we did return to Tiananmen on Sunday to capture a couple of snapshots (the weather had improved considerably – see below).

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On Sunday we went to place everyone associates with China – the Great Wall. The weather was perfect, skies blue and not too hot temps. The drive was suprising as it again revealed the extent of greater Beijing. We passed the Olympic stadium which was magnificent. Time will not allow a complete description of the Great Wall experience but let’s just say it lived up to its billing. My roommate Jeff and I defied warnings about attempting to climb up to the wall (most took a cable car or chair lift) and walked up countless flights of stairs. It wasn’t bad though thanks to my running and we made it. The views were amazing from the Mutianyu section of the Wall and we took time to explore about and down this famous structure. Below is the obligatory Great Wall snapshot. Again, I look forward to returning.

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Sunday ended with a visit to the Peking Opera (a bit touristy but cool). Tomorrow and the days following mark a return to lectures and study as we visit Beijing Normal University and the City Museum.

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