Unexpected Generosity

Doug Speeching compressed

On Thursday, June 23rd, more than a half a world away from the Jing Yu Xi Wang Migrant School, about 75 kind and generous people gathered to help me make good on the promise I made to Director Wang over three months ago. For those who read my blog back in March, you may remember that I committed to “do my best” to raise enough money to pay for the remaining six air conditioners required to equip the school.
I have to admit that I had my doubts about being able to raise $3000 from those who had never seen the school, had never met the children there, had never heard of Lotus Education and who possibly had no personal ties with China.   I have never been involved in any fundraising.  And, even though I was a salesman for many years, I have a real fear of asking anyone for money.

Two things kept me focused:  First, my promise to Director Wang who had shown me such kindness while I was at the school and second, the words of one of the students.   She told me,  “Teacher, you are in our Chinese hearts now and we will take care of you”.   At the time, she was only referring to protecting me from dishonest taxi drivers.  Not so dramatic.  Nonetheless, that one sentence has driven my desire to ‘take care of’ those wonderful kids who welcomed me while I was there.

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auction 2 compressed

So, in mid-April, armed with missionary zeal, I started planning “something”.   I didn’t know what that “something” was, but I was planning it.   I talked to friends, neighbors, colleagues and customers who all said, “That sounds like a good cause! Let me know when you figure out what you are going to do”.   I had no clue.  I won’t go into the details, but some of my first ideas were anemic at best.   Then, one day, I mentioned the fundraiser to a family friend, Sarah, who is a professional fundraiser for one of the local child protection agencies.  Everything started to come together almost immediately.  She gave me clear direction and identified which of my plans were irreparably crazy and needed to be dropped post haste.

Sarah kindly offered her home, which is larger than ours (and considerably cleaner because my children do not live with her).  She designed the invitations, edited my long-winded introduction, created email invites, enlisted her children and their friends to stuff envelopes and created spreadsheets with the invitee’s email and snail mail addresses…and the list goes on.  I was dumbfounded.

The neighborhood Chinese restaurant generously agreed to donate the food and one of my customers agreed to donate the drinks.  I got in touch with the local Confucius Institute  and the Kansas City Chinese American Association.  Their members responded with enthusiastic support.  They provided entertainment in the form of food and traditional Chinese dance and song.   The President of the KCCAA, CJ Wei co-sponsored the event in the name of his organization.

marissa elizabeth anna compressed

marissa elizabeth anna compressed

I claim credit for the idea about the silent auction.  I have always admired the beauty of Chinese art and culture and over the years I purchased several antiques and culturally representative items which I have cherished.   I felt the time had finally come to give those things a purpose.   Other wonderful items were donated by members of the Chinese Community, local businesses, and other generous friends.   Two bright acrylic paintings were donated by an up-and-coming Chinese-American artist who has appeared in the press and has had shows at well-known galleries, Marissa Hitt.  Marissa is a fine, well-spoken young lady who will tell you all about her very unique images. Both of her paintings sold at the auction.  Oh, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that Marissa is six and a half (yes, 6yrs and a half).

The weather was beautiful for the event.   Guests were able to view the silent auction, watch a continuous slide show of the school and take from the buffet.   Outside, guests could sit eat and socialize.  It was a very multicultural crowd.

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picture board compressed

I spoke for a few minutes about the school, the wonderful people of Lotus and expressed my deepest gratitude to those who had given of their time and resources.  It was humbling to see how so many people had come together, half a world away, just to express love and support for children they have never met.

The dancers were beautiful, the singers were wonderful and, when the donations were added up, we had not only met the $3000 goal, we had exceeded it by over $700.   I will use this word again: humbling.

The next day, I received a call from my chiropractor who had made a generous donation, even though I had forgotten to invite him until the day of the event. I thanked him again, but he said that he had even better news.  The acupuncturist with whom he shares an office (whom I did not know and did not invite) had been telling one of her patients about the fundraiser and the school.  At the end of the session, her patient left a donation for $1000.  This was truly an expression of selfless compassion.

In the meantime, other donations have come in and we have exceeded the $5000 mark.   I am not only pleased to be able to repay my debt of gratitude to the children of the Jing Yu Xi Wang School, I am also proud of my own community for their generosity and compassion.   What a wonderful thing.


子路曰:愿闻子之志- “老者安之,朋友信之,少者怀之”
One of Confucius’ disciples once asked him: “What is your wish?” The answer was: “That the elderly will have peace, that friends will be true and that children will be cared for and cherished”

wonderful food compressed

wonderful food compressed

Visit the Seniors’ Center with us!

We are preparing a volunteer outing to a senior center on May 28th. Visiting the senior center is one of the most splendid volunteer events held by Lotus. By joining us you can show your international community service by showing your love and care to seniors. It is also a wonderful experience to participate in the Confucian ideal of filial piety. You can find more information about our volunteer excursions on our website, and read about our most recent visit to the seniors’ center.

The detailed arrangement are as follows:

When: 8:00am—2:00pm on May 28th, 2011
Where:Suite 1201, C#XiWu Plaza, 12 Suzhou St. Haidian District
Who: Lotus Students, staff, host families, interns and volunteers

We will go to the senior center at 8:00 am, departing from Lotus Beijing office. The caring program will start at about 9:00a.m. until 12:00 pm. The program and includes caring activities such as singing, dancing, Chinese Cheirapsis, balloon games, holding a birthday party and listening Senior’s personal stories. From 12:00pm. to 2:00pm., we will return to the Lotus Beijing office to have lunch and share personal feelings about the experience.

If you would like to join us or you have something you’d like to perform for the seniors, please email us at beijing@lotuseducation.org before 6:00 pm. on May 26th (this Thursday).

Up to the Mountain

Longquan Temple

[singlepic id=87 w=320 h=240 float=right]It seems that a lot of religions have stories about mountains. Moses went up Mt. Sinai where he received the Ten Commandments, the Yellow Emperor studied Daoism at Qingcheng Mountain (there are an awful lot of holy mountains in China), and who doesn’t love to build a monastery or a retreat house in the mountains? This story, which is long overdue, is about three days I spent at Longquan Temple at Phoenix Mountain (凤凰岭自然风景公园), northwest of Beijing.

Lonquan Temple (龙泉寺) is a Buddhist temple that dates from the Liao Dynasty. These days it’s a lot bigger than it was back then. Recently a lot of new buildings have been added and more are planned. It’s a kind of modern monastery. The current abbot runs a translation centre, translating his own writings into various languages for global consumption. There seems to be an active evangelism component to the mission of Longquan, though the extent of this mission is not quite clear to me. Longquan Temple maintains an active online presence through a blog, and a network of volunteers using QQ (a Chinese social networking site and popular chat client). It also has a well-equipped media room for audio and video production.

New Year’s Eve

I went up to Longquan (or up to the mountain, as everyone who goes there says) at the suggestion of my colleague Holly. Holly is a big fan of the abbot and the work they do there. It was Chinese New Year, and I had nowhere else to go. Honestly, my preference was to spend some time with friends, setting off firecrackers and drinking baijiu (a Chinese liquor), but that plan didn’t work out. Holly told me the monastery would be ‘bustling’ for the Chinese New Year. I very much doubted her. In fact, I was right, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t fun or interesting.

Holly and I went up the mountain together on New Year’s Eve (that was February 2). Lonquan was hosting a “Multi-lingual Dharma Assembly” during the week-long New Year holiday. She told me I could go up there to volunteer and to recite the Sutras in my own language. I wasn’t terribly interested in reciting the Sutras, but I did think volunteering for a few days would be fun. That way I could do some manual labour and wouldn’t have to stress about my day job or my studies. I was assigned to the kitchen (大寮) which suited me quite fine.

[singlepic id=62 w=320 h=240 float=left]As usual with many new experiences, on arrival I just had to follow the crowd. Bow when they bow, clap when they clap, etc. I basically had no idea what was going on for about six hours. There was a New Year’s Eve show put on, with various short skits about living the Buddhist life, singing, musical performances, a speech by the abbot, and a year-in-review video of the monastery’s activities over the past year. At the end of the festivities, we recited a Buddhist text as the clock struck midnight. Then we all received our lucky money from the abbot as we went outside. Outside everyone had their chance to ring the temple bell for good luck in the new year. From Phoenix Mountain there is a great view of Beijing, and there were fireworks going off everywhere across the entire city.

A note about fireworks in Beijing. I was told fireworks and firecrackers are banned inside the fifth ring road in Beijing, due to population density and fire hazards. The fifth ring road encloses most of the city. Outside that there’s a sixth and maybe seventh ring road. However the term “ban” is relative in China. Whatever ban there may or may not be, nobody cares. There are fireworks and firecrackers everywhere, every day of the week-long Chinese New Year holiday, even up to the first morning back at work. You might as well say the Communist Party is banned in Beijing. It’s complete nonsense.

After taking my turn at ringing the bell and watching fireworks for a while, I went back into the monastery and chatted to a few people for a bit. I met Hongmei, who was in charge of the kitchen. She wasn’t actually who I was told to find, and I never did find my kitchen contact the whole time I was there, but I did get where I needed to be. Hongmei told me the wake up call would be at 4 AM and work starts at 4:30 AM. I found my bunk in what looked like a gymnasium turned into sectioned dormitories. My dorm had at least 40 beds. Others were bigger. I think I got to bed after 1AM that first night.

The Monks Run a Tight Ship

[singlepic id=76 w=320 h=240 float=right]On the first morning, someone’s alarm sounded at 3 AM. Then he put it on snooze and it sounded again at 3:15 AM. If you know me, you know I don’t like to be disturbed in the morning hours before my planned time to get up. The Chinese philosophy is that “early to bed and early to rise” is good for your health. Fine, I can go along with that, but how healthy do I really need to be? Isn’t 4 AM early enough?

I made my way to the kitchen at 4:30 AM as directed. I wasn’t actually doing any cooking, I was working under Hongmei doing food preparation. We’d retrieve vegetables from the various food stores around the monastery, clean them, chop them, and then deliver them to the chefs for the next meal. We were always preparing food one meal in advance. So at 4:30 in the morning we were preparing the food for lunch. At any given time there were between four and twenty people working on food preparation. I always seemed to be in an awkward position with work assignments. First of all, my Mandarin is mediocre at best so giving me instructions isn’t that easy, and second, I don’t think anyone ever expected to see a white man do manual labour, so they were afraid I’d injure myself or something.

The monks run a massive kitchen operation. It’s exactly the kind of thing I like: organized, logical and efficient. Hongmei ran a tight show as head of food preparation. There are huge pantries and food stores all over the monastery and it has its own tofu-making facility. The kitchen is a full industrial kitchen except it has no dishwashers. Dish washing is all done by hand. The monk in charge of the kitchen, who I really liked, told me that the monastery acts as a place of refuge in case of emergency. They have their own water supply from a spring in the mountain and their own farm at another location. Though there is electricity there, the stoves are wood-fired. I believe the monastery can support 1000 people without any outside resources, and there were about 800 there during the Chinese New Year holiday.

[singlepic id=74 w=320 h=240 float=left]I spent most of the day in the kitchen. At some point Hongmei told me they would need help distributing food at meal time. I wound up doing this every meal time for the next few days, and I quite enjoyed it. I had to do a quick study in hand signals. At meal time we’re not allowed to talk. If you want more or less of some food being distributed, you have to indicate what you want with a hand signal, and the guy distributing food (me) needs to know what you’re talking about. Food is distributed in large buckets. By the way, the food is fantastic. I’m not vegetarian but these were the tastiest vegetarian meals I’ve ever had.

Food distribution was an interesting experience. In China, people sometimes ignore all the rules (see above, about fireworks) and sometimes they queue up and follow instructions military (communist?) style. This was more of the latter. The food servers worse blue aprons and a white hat. There was a young man in charge who lined us up and marched us up to the dinning hall. We lined up all the buckets and he assigned each person a bucket to distribute and told us which rows in the dining hall we were responsible for feeding. He then said a prayer and we all went to work. When we were not distributing food we were supposed to be standing neatly in a line by the wall waiting for further instructions. We were not allowed to engage in idle chit-chat. Distributing food to a few hundred men only served to make me famous. Before that I was the white guy mysteriously doing manual labour in the kitchen, and only known to whoever else might have been working in the kitchen. Now I was the white guy mysteriously serving other people.

[singlepic id=86 w=320 h=240 float=left]Meal times are also interesting because they’re gender-separated. I believe everything is gender-separated at the monastery, not just the dormitories, but also meal times and prayer and scripture reading times too. We all worked together in the kitchen though. As a consequence of the gender separation, from New Year’s Eve, when we all went out to ring the bell, I didn’t see Holly again until we both returned to work in Beijing. In fact, she left the monastery before me and I didn’t even know she was gone.

The Abbot of Longquan Temple is somewhat of a hero for the many young people who were there. It’s a big place, so we didn’t see him often, but on the first night I accidentally had a quick one-on-one chat with him, which made some of my kitchen workmates a bit envious. I was coming back down to the kitchen after serving dinner and saw that there were a lot of people blocking the kitchen door. When people stand around doing nothing in front of doors or at the top of the stairs in a subway station, it drives me nuts. Can’s they go gossip in a corner somewhere? I just pushed right through the crowd. That’s how you get by in Beijing, with lots of elbow, so I’m good at it now. After pushing through I suddenly found myself in the middle of a circle of people surrounding the abbot. At this point I felt a bit embarrassed. There wasn’t much of substance to our simple chat, just him asking me where I’m from and how I came to be at the monastery. My impression of the abbot is that he’s a very sincere guy, dedicated to his work. He’s always got a big smile on his face.

An Ordinary Day at Longquan Temple

Day two at the monastery started at 3 AM, just like the first. I really wouldn’t have minded the extra hour of sleep until 4 AM, but at this point I had to resign myself to getting up at 3 AM because after that alarm went off, many other people started to stir too. Let me tell you this, if I had been able to figure out whose alarm that was, I would have made sure he didn’t get any breakfast. I’m not very zen.

The second day went by like the previous. I worked in the kitchen, discovered new food stores, which continuously amazed me, and helped in food distribution at every meal. The monk running the kitchen invited me to take some time off from the kitchen to go recite the Sutras. I told him I probably wouldn’t understand what was going on, so I might as well just stay in the kitchen. I think he understood, both the reality that my Mandarin just isn’t good enough for that, and the fact that I wasn’t really interested. In Chinese culture, you don’t often say “no” directly, so saying I wouldn’t understand was the perfect way to decline the invitation. In the afternoon I went hiking on Phoenix Mountain with Linyu and Zhibing, a couple of friends I’d made in my dormitory. It wasn’t quite as cold out there as it was in Beijing and the sun was shining so it was a fantastic hike.

[singlepic id=88 w=320 h=240 float=right]The Buddhist Retreat

Before I went up the mountain, Holly had been asking me to help with some translation. The organizers of the week-long “Multi-Lingual Dharma Assembly” needed some terms on the schedule and program introduction translated into English. There was some discussion between us about whether the word ‘assembly’ was the right word or not. I don’t know much about Buddhism, I only have a vague notion of what the Dharma is, and before I went to Longquan I really didn’t know what was going to be happening, so I didn’t know what to call it.

After two days at the monastery, I started to figure out that it was essentially a Buddhist retreat. It had all the hallmarks of any church retreat I’ve ever been on: sleeping in dorms; a massive kitchen operation running to feed hundreds of people; everyone early to bed and early to rise; lots of prayer times; and people addressing each other in ways they would never do on the street. We all addressed each other using a form of the word “brother” (师兄) which is typically only used among those studying Buddhism, Taichi, or other such things. There is a word for sister (师姐) but I was told that it typically isn’t used. It reminded me of Star Trek, where everyone addresses their commanding officers as “Sir” even if the CO is a woman. One thing that did distinguish this retreat from church retreats I’ve been on, was the number of young people. There were a lot of enthusiastic young Buddhists at the monastery that week. That’s good, because every religion like every society, needs new life to pass its values onto the next generation and to carry the torch. Obviously the Longquan Temple’s evangelism work and online outreach programs are effective.

A lot of people assumed I was a Buddhist when they met me. A perfectly reasonable assumption, else why was I hanging out at a Buddhist retreat when I could have been drinking baijiu and lighting fireworks? Others didn’t really know whether I was a Christian (as Chinese people assume all westerners are) or whether I had no religion at all. Some tried to encourage me to become a Buddhist. As is typical of people engaging in evangelism, some of them were more more pushy, and others were more tactful and respectful. I tried variously telling people nothing at all, and telling them I’m Catholic, but it didn’t seem to make any difference in how they reacted to me.

Coming Down the Mountain

My third day at Longquan Temple started at 3AM just like the previous two days. What can you do? I worked in the kitchen in the morning and then made preparations to leave in the afternoon.

[singlepic id=90 w=320 h=240 float=left]As I was trying to leave, I was approached by one of the volunteers and a friend of Holly’s who told me to follow her quickly to some unknown destination with a purpose she didn’t seem to have time to explain to me. We arrived at a room somewhere in the back of the monastery where I’d never previously gone, which was full of young people. These people, who I think were all volunteers, had been invited to have a quick audience with the abbot. He wasn’t there at this point, but we were being briefed by a monk on what to do when we met him. We were all given “lucky money” envelopes to give to the abbot when we saw him. As usual, I didn’t understand a great deal of what was going on. At some point everyone got up and filed out of the room to meet the abbot. I think things got a bit mixed up, because we ran into him outside the monastery on our way to the appointed meeting room. We all handed over our lucky money gifts, and then paid our respects to the abbot by kneeling down and bowing with our heads touching the ground. We did this three times.

On the second day at Longquan Temple, I had been interviewed by the volunteer journalist for an article on the Longquan Temple blog. He asked me what I thought of the place and the people there. I told him that Christians believe our faith should be shown through our actions, that it’s not just words and prayers. I said that it was clear by the way they welcomed me and made me a part of their retreat without hesitation, that the people I met at Longquan Temple were sincerely living out their faith. I’m not sure if he understood what I meant, because that quote didn’t wind up in the article, but it’s the highest compliment I can offer them.

That afternoon I walked down the hill to the bus stop and caught the bus back into Beijing. The city was still empty and quiet, most people having not yet returned from the Chinese New Year holiday. But there were definitely fireworks.

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Last Good-bye and Home Again

It has been almost two weeks since I posted my last blog. In the meantime, I have said good-bye to the Jin family, the children at the school, my friends at Lotus Education in Beijing, have gotten into hot water with the USDA for importing Chinese dried beef sticks and have slept in my own bed for the first time in almost a month.

Last Tuesday I went to the school for the last time.  The kids were as rowdy as usual, but I was afforded a bit more attention on my final day.  I did my best to tell them that I appreciated their patience with my poor Chinese and that I would miss them very much.  At recess time, I was given little gifts.  There was a handmade yellow bead bracelet  (lots of Chinese guys wear these – I was assured by the little girl who made it that it was just a bracelet and not of any religious significance), several drawings of girls in fancy gowns,  a chalk rendering of a sunset at sea, drawings of cartoon animals (possibly traced, but it’s the thought that counts), a handsome red ballpoint pen (which was permanently ‘barrowed’ by the end of school that day), a small ring set with a plastic red stone (“for your Chinese daughter because she’ll know that red is lucky and it’s the color of her flag”) and sort of an abstract multi-media painting with stars, birds, lightning bolts and  quotes by Zhou En Lai and Deng Xiao Ping on the bottom.   I love the gifts and I love the kids- even the rowdy ones who wouldn’t pay attention no matter how loud I yelled.

Toward the end of class, I looked out the window and saw Director Wang.  I had not expected to see him again as he had gone home to Central China for the Qing Ming festival.   After class he came over and told me that he had come directly from the train station to school in order to see me before I left.  He invited me into his office and quickly brewed me a glass of tea. He produced a new, unopened can of green tea of the same sort he had given me before.  He had bought it in his home town and wanted me to have it.  We talked about my next visit, the school, the students (who I thought was best and who had who had not paid attention – fortunately for the slackers, I couldn’t remember their Chinese names).  I thanked him for his support and kindness.  In the meantime, my tea glass had been filled for the third time and some of the kids were standing outside the door making motions which clearly meant that they couldn’t wait for me any longer.  Not wanting to offend my host, I remained seated and waved good bye to the children.  This was not exactly how I had pictured my farewell, but things never turn out how we expect them to – good or bad.   Director Wang is a very dear man who truly has the children’s best interest at heart and he scares the holy heck out of them. After my last glass of tea and my last barrage of thank you ‘s, he led me to the school gates and gave me a very ‘un-Chinese’ pat on the back.  Outside, my usual entourage was still waiting for me after all.

Henry, Diana and Lily, some of my walking palsThe twins, Lilly and Jessica, little Henry and Diana (all the kids had English names which I found much easier to remember) walked slowly down the dirt road with me, asking some last minute questions like: “Are you sad to leave us?”,  “Are you going to be happy to see your family” and the very Chinese question “How much money do you make?”  (No, I didn’t tell them)  “Can you use chopsticks” and “Do you like Chinese food better than hamburgers, etc. etc”.   Our little group always caused people on the street to stop and stare (old white man with Chinese kids speaking Chinese to him didn’t compute for most passer bys).  But that last day, it seemed that the neighborhood had actually got used to our little parade and we had fewer gawkers.   Diana (who had given me the yellow bracelet) held my hand most of the way.

Unlike other days, the moment we got to the main road, a taxi pulled up.  I hailed him.  “Your mingpian, your calling card, teacher!  Do you have a calling card?  We don’t know your address!   How can we write you?” I didn’t have any cards with me and I promised that I would write them soon and they would get my address then.   I got a quick hug, I think, and I got into the car.  “When are you coming back?”  “Next year,” I yelled through with window. Until that moment,  I had been very guarded about saying if and when I’d be back, but my four ‘protectors’ looked so genuinely sad that I couldn’t have told them anything else.

That night, the Jins fed me my favorite dinner and I played on the floor with Dudu who had told his parents earlier that day, they shouldn’t let Yeye (grandpa) go home.   On the wall in their dining area, they had a very large scroll on which was written a verse by an 11th century poet,  Su Shi

For thousands of years, the waves of the eastward flowing Yangtse have been washing away all the great heroes of the past… Around uneven steeps of the rocky walls which reach the sky, the huge waves beat against the banks, bursting like thousands of layers of snow.

On the first day, I had commented on the beautiful calligraphy. That night, after dinner, the scroll was taken off the wall, rolled up and given to me.  This left a huge empty spot on the wall, a perfect expression of the generosity and kindness afforded me by my hosts, the Jins.

On Wednesday, Livia from Lotus came and picked me up.  I got hugs from the neighbor, and was accompanied to the car by the Jins.   With the thank you’s  and hugging over (hugging is not particularly Chinese), we departed on one last wild taxi ride through Beijing.

Now I’m back home with my wonderful family and China seems surreal and far away. It’s sort of difficult to write about it now.   In the end, the experience far exceeded my expectations and frankly, I never would have believed adventures like this were possible at this point in my life.

Thanks for reading this long blog.  I’ll be back.

Sunday School Anyone?

Today is Sunday. This morning Mrs Jin, her mother and her son took me shopping so that I could buy some gifts for my family. As a typical guy, I have, of course, put this off pretty much to the end of the trip.

I am in the ocean transportation business. I have been since 1979. Not that many years ago, I remember saying with absolute conviction, “there is no way that the Chinese public is ever going to be able to afford western consumer products”. This statement was about as correct as “the world is flat”. Today we walked through some of the largest displays of Dior/Chanel/Longines/Cartier/etc I have ever seen in my life and the throngs of Chinese consumers were consuming as if there were no tomorrow.  Ikea, H&M, Gucci, they are all here and they are booming in a way that US retailers can only dream of.   Cheap?  Think again.  I was trying to find some clothing for my two older kids with a ‘hip’ Chinese motif.   US$80 t-shirt anybody?   Didn’t buy that one, but close enough.   There were, however, young Chinese hipsters paying US$120 for just a sweat shirt that said something groovy in English like “Pretty Boy Car Love” (whatever the heck that means).   After I made my purchases I felt like a jerk when I thought about the kids at the school who wear the same thing every day again and again and again (not out of choice).

After making our purchases, we weaved thru the crowd to a basement-level mega-food court.  We ate a delicious North Chinese hot pot with paper-thin slices of lamb and fish, mounds of mushrooms, pork blood squares (no, I didn’t eat those), carrots, daikon, tofu.  These are put into the boiling two-sided hot pot (one side very spicy other side not spicy at all) which is full of secret Chinese medicinal herbs (vide my last blog).  After a couple of moments you fish them out and dip them into seasame sauce and burn your mouth.   Yummy.

Hot pot behind us, they caught the subway home and I caught a cab out to the school.  Yes, school on Sunday.   When I got there, I realized that I was not just the only volunteer there, I was not just the only teacher there, I was the only adult there.  32 kids came to class.   I felt somehow guilty that they were there appearantly just to listen to me scream interesting stuff like  “Mr Brown likes Summer because it’s hot” over and over.   Class started at 1:30 and was supposed to go until 4:00.  I let them take rather long breaks and we stopped at 3:50.  They were overjoyed.   I was told that they they were supposed to stay until 5pm (no teacher? no administrators?  no clue…).   I told them that I would be going. My gig was done at 4pm and nobody ever told me  I had stay longer.   My entourage from school to the highway is growing.   Today I had seven with me.   One little girl held my hand all the way.  She said, “Teacher, you are in our Chinese hearts and we will protect you”.  What she meant was, that they would protect me from the gouging taxi drivers.  They asked me a few days ago what the taxi would cost from school to the place I am living.  I toned down the number, not wanting to be a big shot and told them 25 Yuan (it really costs about 40 Yuan or US$6).  The reduced number of 25 Yuan left them in a fiduciary stupor.  “That is too much, Laoshi(*)” they said, “the taxi drivers are taking advantage of you because you are a foreigner.”    So every day for the past few days, they walk me down the road, past the fresh chicken shop (with the chopping block and pile of guts out front), the mule meat barbeque (I’m not making this up), the new and fresh looking public toilets with their personnel dressed in white (the kids point this out as a matter of neighborhood pride), the bike repair shop/tent, the guy who brings dozens of bowls of goldfish for sale on the back of his three wheeled bike every day, the pineapple seller who has a running mahjong game going  and doesn’t actually ever seem to sell pineapples, the People’s Police station and the  cigarette store.   I have made it a rule that if anyone runs out into the street, they can’t walk with me anymore, so they all stay on the sidewalk and yell and the top of their lungs at the passing cabs.  When one stops, they rush it, pull open the doors and tell the driver to take me home by the most direct route and that I am a foreigner…as if the driver couldn’t  notice on his own.  A couple think they know where I live and have given incorrect addresses to the driver.  One guy believed the kids and I really had a hard time re-routing him to the correct destination.

I’m not sure who is going to be at school tomorrow since it is technically the official Qing Ming holiday and ‘normal’ schools are closed.  The kids in the class today all told me they would be there.   About another month here and I’d be understanding enough Chinese to actually figure out what is going on.    Well, that’s not going to happen.   A couple more days and this will all be a very lasting memory.

(*) Laoshi = teacher

Medicinal Massage and an Invitation to Return

Today, Friday, is chilly and gray in Beijing.  The steam is pouring out of the street vendors stands and the dust hanging in the air for the past few days seems to have settled a bit thanks to the sprinkles.   Until today, it has been very dry since I arrived and every gust of wind brings with it a little bit if grit that settles between the few hairs I have left on my head and between my tea-yellowed teeth.   My lips look like the unrestored Dead Sea Scrolls and eating spicy food can be painful if not handled correctly.  The next door neighbor lady took pity on me and brought me a real honest-to-goodness German-manufactured Nivea brand chapstick.  I had forgotten to bring one (although brought every other pharmaceutical under the sun to the point I was worried that customs might be suspicious) and I had looked all over for one here to no avail.  I was so overjoyed that she may have thought my long string of  ‘thank yous’ was ingenuous.  It was not.  My lips are on the amend now, but are still very red.  “As red as strawberries” as one student pointed out.

The same neighbor (whose daughter, WeiWei, is the same age as my host family’s son DuDu – 3), offered this morning to perform a therapeutic Chinese medicinal message on me this morning after breakfast.   Were not talking spa message here.  Key is “Chinese medicinal” so it’s gotta hurt – I figured that up front.  Remember Chinese medicine with those dozens of needles, the flaming cups attached to your skin that create mega-hickies, the burning moxa (incense like tablet’s affixed to the top of the needles), the ground up dried flora and fauna made into a refreshing drink?  That’s what I was counting on.  I have to say that I really like the neighbor lady.  She and Mrs Jin, the hostlady, are good friends.  They are both in the mid-30′s or so and are very modern and sort of…..I guess “laid back’.  The neighbor lady, I found, possesses the strongest fingers I have seen or experienced in my entire life.   The first part of the procedure consisted of her sticking those very strong and pointy fingers so deep into my stomach and leaving them there for a couple minutes at each scientifically designated point.  She got know all my innards up close and personal.  The neighbor exclaimed that I had the softest stomach she had ever felt on an adult.  I asked if this would be a good thing since my Western male mind doesn’t like the idea of being a marshmellow.  Oh, yes!   This was really good, she said.  And the fact that I had not cried out in pain indicated that I am indeed healthy.  I don’t know if she had noticed the tears rolling down my cheeks.  They were not tears of joy.  After all of the recesses of my stomach are had been completely explored and she found that umbilical hernia I need to have taken care of one of these days, she moved on to my back which was tenderized with copious elbow pressure and rapid palm movements.  Legs, arms are fingers were pulled and the bottom of my feet were beaten within an inch of their lives.  It was the best message I have ever had in my life (and I’ve had several).  After it was all over, I was unable to get up for several minutes.  I drank a few cups of hot water (they love hot water here —  no tea, just hot water) and ate only one bowl of Mrs Jin’s mother’s hand made dumplings and vegetables (much to her dismay since she thinks I am about to die of starvation at any moment).  I dragged myself out on to the street and hailed cabs.  Two stopped but wouldn’t take me to school (I was going the wrong direction for the first one and the other one was almost out of gas and the destination was too far).  The third cab stopped and was far and away the slowest, most courteous driver I have ridden with yet.  Downside was that I got to the school late.

This was my last class with the 9-11 year olds (3rd level) before I retrn home.  They were so happy to see me and have me in their class, but really were not into learning English much.  We were working on numbers.  I had them count off. They got to 12 and then looked at me…a couple could go to 20, but only a couple.  They were great at repeating the numbers thirteen to twenty, but that was about it.   Their school book actually had the “1-2-3-5, once I caught a fish alive” song which a sang.  They liked it.   They sing a lot.  We worked on that for the rest of the class.  The finished product sounded something like “ONE TWO THREE FOUR FIVE MMUM AYE PHUSH RYEBE!!!!!!“  But that’s okay….a good time was had by all.

Director Wang was still at the school today.  After my class was over (only had one hour today, he called me into  his “office” and we drank tea from his hometown.  Really strong green tea.   He leaves for home on the train this evening.  Nine and a half hours transt.  He showed me his ticket a couple times.   Our conversation far exceeded my expectations.  We exchanged email and mailing addresses and he wanted to make sure when, exactly, I would return next year.  When I said I couldn’t promise that I’d be back in 2012 he looked honestly distressed.  He showed me pictures of his wife and family in a photo album hidden behind the hanging blanket which separated the room. His wife is pretty and he has 4 children.  Thi is very rare for ethnic Chinese in “One-Child-Family-China”.   Minorities are exempt from from the one child rule, but Mr Wong is ”Han” Chinese and not an ethnic minority.  I only said he was lucky to have so many children and he agreed.  Since we wouldn’t be seeing each other anymore any time soon, he gave me a little folder with little button-sized portraits of of Chairman Mao in the various stages of his military and political career.  ”This is for your Chinese daughter”, he said.  He also gave me the open can of tea from his hometown.  The tea was  clearly one of his prize possessions.    Of course, he knew that he would be able to replenish his supply while on home leave.  Nonetheless, this was a heartfelt expression of his appreciation and I thanked him again and again.  He told me “Many of the children’s parents don’t even earn 1000 yuan (about $360) per month and many of them have several children living in one room.  Those children will be here as long as this school stands and I know that they would like you to come back”.  He walked me across the courtyard to the tin and reebar gate and asked that we stay in touch.

I waved and walked down the now muddy lane with the sounds of the kids screaming their repetitions for their other teachers.  I’ll be back tomorrow.

Star Anise, Congee and the Hidden Teacher

Today is Thursday and I’ll be back in the States in a week. That’s a good thing and a bad thing. Good thing because I miss my family very much and a bad thing because I’m going to miss the host family and the kids at school very much too.

Yesterday was almost uneventful at school.  It took me a while to find out why the kids  were so very quiet and reserved in the beginning.  It was as if I had become a fearsome authority figure overnight. Perhaps I was wearing some culturally frightening new piece of clothing?   Everybody sat straight in their seats and the usual din of repetition was more…military.    After about 15-20 minutes into the lesson I slid between the desks to the back of the room – just to keep everybody on their toes.  Noticed a new girl sitting way in the back.  Looked older than the rest.  Aha! It was their usual teacher, small but mighty.  She was not repeating after me, but she was watching every movement like a cat in a room of 47 mice. She left the classroom  in the last few minutes and the student’s relief was noticeable.

I arrived at the school early yesterday to find two black cars with tinted windows parked way down the muddy lane were cars usually don’t go.   Didn’t think much of it.  When I came into the courtyard, there were 4 or 5 relatively well dressed younger people (mid-20′s to mid-30′s) speaking with Director Wang.   One of the men came right up to me and asked in passable English, “Are you the foreign volunteer?”.  I said I was.  “I am a volunteer too”, he said.  “The children tell me they like you very much.”  I thanked him and asked if he would be working as a volunteer at the school too.  He said that he would not, but that the had wanted to meet me.  There was no further explanation.   By this time, my class was starting (the nice quiet one mentioned above) and I went in.  One of the other guys in the black car group took pictures of me in ‘friendly interaction’ with the kids though the  windows.  Then they were gone.    I found out today that these were people from the local Communist Party headquarters and that yesterday, they had promised to send volunteers to help at the school as well.   That’s a good thing.  The school has been there for a few years, I hear, and it is good that more local help is on it’s way.

Today, Director Wang as well as two grad students from the University of International Studies (am not sure if that is the official English title) took me to lunch.  Tomorrow is the last time I will see Director Wang as he is going home to Henan Province for the Qing Ming Festival next week.  Qing Ming is known in English as Grave Sweeping Day, which sounds pretty somber, but it’s not.  Think ‘Memorial Day’.  If I understood correctly, there was a death in Director Wang’s family in the not-too-distant past and he wanted to go home.   The lunch was down the street from the school, in the second floor of a newer brick building and was, if not ‘world class’, clean and nicely appointed.  We sat in a separee around  a table that was made for at least 10.  The menu came to me.  Great.  This is Chinese etiquette.  The guest gets to choose.  I pleaded ignorance.  I was told, “no problem – just look at the pictures”.  Well, the pictures all looked like Chinese food I had never seen before and unfortunately, the menu was not graced with pictures of happy chickens, cows and pigs like menus are in Kansas City so that you know what you are hopefully getting.  I can read enough Chinese for sure, but names of many dishes totally belie what they really are.  Example:  You order the “Garden Chicken” and you know what you will get?  For those of you who guessed bullfrog, you are correct.   So after much humble pleading on my part, Director Wang ordered…..and did he ever order.  Only question asked was, “can you eat spicy food?”   I definitely can.   In all, we had 8 dishes: tofu noodles (cold), chicken that looked curried, but was just really yellow, chicken with hot green peppers, a whole carp, chicken with potatoes and peppers in a red sauce over noodles, thinly sliced cold beef tongue, long, and dark dried mushrooms with peppers.  No rice, of course.  It was all exceedingly delicious.  Really.  So far, I feel just fine.  Well, except for a little headache.  We also enjoyed a (large) bottle of rather warm beer with the salty, spicy food.  It tasted good too,  even warm. After lots of food and several toasts, it was time to go and teach the class…oh boy…..one and a half hours of class….oh boy again.  I am sure that none of the kids noticed my beer breath.  The odor of the school room takes care of that.  But they did tell me that I looked tired and hot.  They were correct. I was really tired and already these small rooms bursting with bodies are very, very warm.  As I mentioned before, I have no clue how this must be in the hot Beijing summers.

My host family - particularly the grandmother of Ms Jin – has been feeding me as if I were a starved stray cat….which I am not…I’m actually trying to get my weight down a bit.  But nothing doing.  Every meal is prepared from scratch and nothing goes to waste ever.  I have not eaten one thing here that would not go into the ‘scrumptious’ category.  Mornings it’s flat sesame breads, steamed Chinese buns, tofu and mushroom soups, fermented red tofu (my absolute favorite), congee….the list goes on and on.  I have eaten nothing here that I have ever seen on a menu in a Chinese restaurant in the US.   I love wolfberry tea.  What is wolfberry?  Who the heck knows?!  They look like red raisins and you can put them in soup or make tea out of them and they are tart and yummy (and have medicinal value in Chinese-Medicine-World which I don’t really understand).  The Jin’s next door neighbor brought me two big boxes of them and I may have to smuggle them back home.  She also brought a huge bag of dried beef from Inner Mongolia I said I liked…I definitely can’t take that home.   Last night we had crepes which we rolled up with Boston lettuce, scrambled eggs, plum sauce, hot sauce and scallions. Delicious!!  Who would have guessed it?   Noticed this morning that the buttons on my shirt are sort of  ‘pulling’.

I will end here as the sizzling sound of frying something-or-other and the fragrance of a star anise are wafting in from the kitchen, calling me to my evening meal.

Pennies, Street Kids and Blood Pressure Medicine

I was looking forward to an ‘easier’ day on Tuesday as I knew that would have the older class, the same one that I had on Saturday. Monday’s experience with the younger kids had left me a bit frazzled, just by virtue of loudness, their number and my tendency for claustrophobia. So I waltz into class yesterday (a bit late as no cab driver in Beijing seems to be able to find this place on the first try) with a smile on my  face and an actual lesson plan in my backpack.  Well, as Gomer Pyle said, “Surprise, surprise, surprise”….the room was filled to the gills just like on Monday.  Turns out that only about half the kids come on Saturday.  I wondered why 5 boys were standing against the wall outside of the class room yesterday…the room was full, no more chairs and they stuck their heads through the windows to ‘attend class’.

Wednesday's eager faces

My lesson plan had originally revolved around the ability to address individual students with questions.  I’d like them to stop repeating for just a moment and answer a question in a full sentence (Do you like candy?  “Yes, I like candy“).  This doesn’t work in setting where you can’t even see all the kids.  So we went back to reading the text out loud.   I noticed this morning that the sound waves are starting to make the skin peel off my face.

At break time, I was again showered with attention, particularly by the younger kids.  I was given candy, which I dutifully ate, little gifts (ballons, beat up little plastic toys, pieces of cloth (?)).  I was given a little bag of flavored ice.  Very interesting.  It was salty, but not too bad…I only prayed that it was not made with the local water.  Then I was given a ‘fizzy candy’ (yes, I’m sure they all knew what they were doing) which caused me to start foaming at the mouth.  Needless to say, even the kids who are not too sure what I’m all about thought this was hilarious and I got points for being a good sport.

One little boy has become my constant companion, protector, confidont (although most of the time I have no clue what he is talking about) and attache.  He asks me over and over, ‘How many countries have you visited?’, ‘Do you like China?’, ‘Will you come back tomorrow?’.   In the courtyard are recess time, he often holds my hand and fends other kids off.  I ask him not to chase the others away, but he has obviously claimed me.  Yesterday, he asked if I had been to Korea – to which I said I had not.  He said that he speaks Korean.  I understand a few words in Korean and I can confirm that he does speak Korean.  I asked if he was from Korea and he stopped talking.  I’m guessing his family are North Korean refugees who have been here for a while.

After almost two hours of  marathon ‘repeat-after-me’ boredom, I decided to try 15 minutes of individual interaction.  I had a bunch of American pennies in my  bag, so I would ask the question in the text:  How much is the candy?   and hoped against hope to get the answer we had been repeating over and over and over: The candy is one penny.    I squeezed down the aisle and would look individual students in the eyes and ask  HOW MUCH IS THE CANDY. The vast majority had no clue what to say.  The few who did, got a penny.  I said that these were just small souvenirs and that they could keep them.  They were thrilled to see the pennies.  Here is what surprised me, though:  Every last penny came back to me at the end of class.  Every penny.  I told them in Chinese that this wasn’t the idea and that these were just small prizes to keep for those who responded correctly.  No deal.  They all said the same thing:  “Laoshi, I can’t take this”.  I’m not exactly sure what to make of that, but I think they appreciated the offer.  They are awfully good kids who don’t have very much at all.

After school, my little shadow and three other boys (one of whom I had sent to the Director that day for being disruptive) all followed me down the dusty dirty road to the main highway.  They asked questions, most of which I didn’t understand, offered to buy me food from street vendors (remember, these kids are about 10yrs old) and cleared my way of any scruffy dogs or other kids on bikes.   There was obviously big juju here walking down the street with the old foreigner.   We got to the main road and I was suddenly reminded that these really are tough street kids.  Two of them ran out onto the 3 lanes of traffic coming at them at about 50km an hour.  If you have been to China, you know that cars really don’t stop for pedestrians.  They might slow down to get around them….they might.  The kids were stepping in front of oncoming taxis (all them with passengers already) trying to get one to stop for me.  It’s good that I had remembered my blood pressure medicine that morning.  I nearly flipped out.  I pleaded for them to get out of the traffic which they eventually did.  I politely told them that, since there were no cabs coming I would walk alone to the next major intersection and catch a cab there and that I would see them tomorrow.  They bought it and left.  Whew!

I will leave you with this harrowing story in the hope that my next blog will be of a more demure and culturally interesting nature.  This afternoon I am working with the oldest kids in the school – just one hour. What can happen in an hour?

My Ears are Still Ringing

Yesterday, Monday, I had my first hour with the younger kids at the Migrant School. I have stood up in front of a lot of people before and have delivered messages long and short and have always been rather collected. Yesterday, I nearly fell apart. I walked into the room…no….I squeezed into the room and counted: 67 kids in a room that would be approved for 20 in other places. The kids were actually sitting on each other. I noticed a couple of the more ‘narrow’ kids were sharing one stool. The desks were so far forward that there was not really much room for me to turn around.

Of course, due to the sheer density of the crowd there was a lot of jostling and complaining going on.  It was almost impossible to control the back quarter of the room as there was no way to get back there (unless you are under 5′ and weigh less that 70lbs).    As I mentioned before, the method of teaching the kids are used to is simply repeating after the teacher….anything the teacher says.  It’s kind of like listening to your echo through giant rock concert loudspeakers.   So even if I switched over to Chinese to say “turn the page”, they repeated in Chinese….TURN THE PAGE….I don’t think they were kidding.

The sheer thrill of having a foreigner stand up in front and pay attention to them seems to be incentive enough for them to want to work (well, for about 90% of them…no class is without it’s goldbrickers).  After an hour of high decibel repetition (there was just no way to ask individual questions in that forum), they all filed out of the room, each one thanking me and saying that I should come back (even the goldbrickers).   About 8 stayed behind and brought out short hand brooms with which they swept the massive amounts of garbage on the floor into a big pile, lined up the desks and put the stools on top.  My kids back in America would have a fit if they had to clean up after their classmates.

Today I took a walk to the cleaners to have my clothing washed and my shirts washed and pressed (one of the things that isn’t cheap in China – actually costs more there than in Kansas City) and went by the bank.  The grandmother in my host family is now preparing handmade noodles, stewed pork belly (no, it’s really good), what looks like wild asparagus and something else that smells really peppery….we’ll see.   At 12:45 I’ll catch a car back out to the school.

Thanks for reading.

The Lotus Leap of Faith

Before I tell about my experiences of the past few days, I’d like to tell you about how I got here in spite of my better judgement.

I am a mid-baby boomer, 55. I taught English as a second language 30 years ago in the US. I do speak some Mandarin, but not all that much.  I am married, have three kids ranging from 8-19.  This year, I had a couple of weeks of carry over vacation which didn’t jive with my wife’s or kid’s vacations, so the choice was, clean out the basement or go some place by myself…(the basement is really scary bad so the choice was easy).  I had been to China once before when I picked up my adoptive daughter in 2003 and I really liked it.  Sitting in a hotel room for two weeks didn’t sound too thrilling (still better than the basement gig, though), so I started ‘googling’.  I went from bed and breakfast to homestay and from homestay to volunteer.  There are LOTS of sites out there, but the Lotus site appealed to me.  I wanted to stay in the Beijing area and found that they had two opportunities: A nursing home and a school for migrant worker children.  At first, being an older guy, I sort of thought about volunteering at the nursing home.  I spend lots of time at the nursing home where my mother (now 100 years old) lives in Iowa and I know the routine.  Then, thinking of my long-gone days of teaching, I inquired about the school.

The folks at Lotus wrote back promptly and confirmed that I could volunteer at the school for just the 10 days and that they would work around my schedule in case I had any other wishes (sight seeing, etc).  They also said that they would place me in a host family.  If anybody my age is reading this, you might agree that the idea of living in someone else’s apartment doesn’t sound to appealing.  But what the heck!  Sitting in a hotel room by yourself doesn’t sound too fun either.  I do that enough for work.

My wife and friends kept asking: “Do you know if  Lotus is really reputable?”  I had to say that I didn’t.  I thought, ‘well, if this is all a bust, I can go and get that hotel room afterall’.  The communication I received from Lotus was always prompt and very accommodating and kind.  It was a leap of faith, and I’m so very happy that my trust was well founded.

I was picked up from the airport in Beijing by Livia who is soft-spoken and kind.  She took me to my host family, the Jin’s who live in a very nice apartment in the western suburbs of Beijing.  Mr and Mrs Jin are in their 30′s.  They have a 3 year old son and Mrs Jin’s mother lives with them.  They are very open, hospitable and helpful.  Their son addresses me as Yeye (grandpa) which is just fine with me.

On Friday (I arrived last Thursday), Livia came and picked me up from the Jin’s to take me to the school.  It was quite a drive and rather difficult to find.  I have to interject here that China’s incredibly rapid development has bettered the lives of millions and millions of people.  There are, however, still some sectors of the economy which will catch up someday, but have not as of yet.  The school is located in an area which is truly interesting and picturesque and incredibly poor.  The narrow street (one car wide) is lined with street food vendors, cigarette shops, bicycle repair shops and tiny vegetable stands.  Many Chinese migrant workers live there and you hear different dialects and smell different food.

The school is in a small wooded area.  It is a very old (or looks that way) brick structure with classrooms on either side and a courtyard in the middle.  We met the school director, Mr Wang in his unheated 10 X 10 office.  Livia interpreted when necessary and we set up a schedule for me in the next two weeks.  The entire time we were there, kids were peering though the windows to see the old foreigner.  As we went out, a throng was standing there giving me the peace sign and shouting “hello!”.

On Saturday, I had my first class from 1:30 to 4:00.  There were also some volunteers there from one of the local universities.  They were mostly education majors who come in as well.  They helped with translations as well.  There were about 20 kids in the class, all ranging from 11 to 13.  They were honestly excited to have me there.  We departed from the text rather quickly.  The kids are taught how to read and repeat after the teacher.  They repeated everything I said.  I started to depart from the text and tried to use the words in the text in a sentence.  Yikes!! Obviously, no one had ever done this before with them.  We had so much fun that they decided that they didn’t want to go to recess.  Other kids started to come in and sit down — I think a few came in through the window when my back was turned.  What the heck!  At least they were breaking the rules for educational purposes.   When 4pm rolled around, they didn’t want to leave…I was kaputt.   The photo is of the last stragglers with me after class was finally over.  It was a truly wonderful experience.

I am going back again this afternoon and will be working with some of the younger kids.  Hope it’s at least half as good as the first class.

I’ve written too much and I thank anyone who has held out this long reading my ramblings.  Will try to keep my stories brief going forward.

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