Wednesday, July 7, 2010

I'm moving this blog to Posterous

I'm giving Posterous a serious test drive. Here's the new address: All my old posts from blogger have been successfully imported to the new site, which is a pretty incredible feature Posterous has. Thanks for everything, blogger! But also, no thanks, kind of. I never really liked you that much. Maybe if you were different, I'd stay, and by "different", I mean better.

You were fine, blogger. Thanks all the same. We'll just leave it at that.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

life at ludicrous speed

My time in China is quickly draining, and my friends here are realizing it. My neighbors tried to book me, Ryan, and Bethany for dinner and the date I had to tell them was Friday, June 18. My meals are quickly being booked up and all the guys I have told I'd like to play basketball with are cashing in their rain checks. On Saturday, I played baseball with Koreans in the morning (I batted .1000, by the way) and played basketball with Chinese students at night. Two times in the last four days I've been set up with boys to play basketball with by mutual acquaintances. Today a Finance professor named Mr. Wong asked me to play with some of his students. On Friday my student, Sunny, asked me to meet her at the playground so her classmates, who I'd never met, could play with me. It will be a rude awakening playing basketball in the States; I won't be able to just park in the paint and own it. But now at least I know what it's like to be Yao Ming... by living in China, I mean. I'll never know what it's like to be 7'6".

The Saturday basketball game was after a going-away party my students threw for me. I have taught these 2 classes for 3 semesters now and I'll probably miss them more than any of my other classes. So, to celebrate our friendship, my students reserved a corner of the cafeteria, brought a laptop, a microphone, an amp, a slew of wooden rollers and dough, so that we could all make dumplings together while doing KTV (karaoke, Chinese style) in the background. I opened the party by singing the only Chinese song I know, 朋友 (pengyou-friend). The classes are 95% girls and the 10 boys all sat by themselves near the computer, eating nuts and drinking beer, which they bought at the cafeteria. So, I forced them to let the girls teach them how to make dumplings, something I love to do and hope to take back home with me. Inevitably, the party turned into a flour-fight.

Things are just as busy in the classroom. Since we are leaving a couple weeks early in the semester, we are having to make those weeks up now, meaning that during these last couple weeks, I have double the classes. Not to mention, I'll be giving all my exams the week before I leave, and for one class, the day before. Accelerated grading will be a theme starting this week.

But through all this there is immense purpose. After the English Week it hit me that if there can be this amount of impact in one week from students getting to know some teachers that they had never met, how much more can I have an impact in a few weeks with friends I've known for 2 years. Deep, life-hinging conversations are being had all over Baoding. Two girls have become true daughters of their Maker in the last two days. My buddy, Robert, is asking the Father for the gift of the holy ghost. My tutor and I just had a long conversation about the meaning of life yesterday. I was able to share the whole story with her. Things are happening and it's exciting to be a part of it. I'm just trying to keep up.


By the way, if you've ever wondered what my classes are like, this should give you a pretty good idea.

Friday, June 4, 2010

we ALL miss you, greg

Every day I get the same question from a different student.

"Jon, I hear you're coming back (always instead of 'going back')to America, and that you're never coming back to China..." It's not exactly a question, but the sad puppy face that always follows is effectively the question mark. And I always answer the same way.

"Yes, that's true that I'm going back to America," I say, with a bracing-for-impact expression on my face, "but never is a strong word."

I'm always sure to explain that I love China and that I'm not leaving because I don't like Baoding or our school or the students, but that it's just time to go home. A couple days ago, after class, my students, Ivy and Charlotte, were telling me how much they would miss me and that they hoped I would come back. After a few minutes of this, Ivy suddenly remembered something important.

"Will you see Greg when you go home?" she asked (Ivy met Greg when he and AJ came to visit).

Somehow it came up that she thinks Greg is very "handsome", which is the catch-all word the students use to describe an attractive boy because they don't really know the words "hot" or "physical specimen", which would both be apt descriptions of Greg.

"Can you please email me some pictures of you and Greg before you leave?" she asked in earnest.

I love that my leaving reminded Ivy that she needed pictures of Greg. But I guess it makes sense; shouldn't all things just continually remind us that we need to see Greg's glowing face again? I thought I'd share the pictures I sent with you. The first one is on top of Pike's Peak in Colorado. The second is from our Newfoundland trip a few years back. The third is from a silly moment in the Longwood house at ODU, but now I'm not so sure why we thought it was funny enough to spend so much time setting it up (Paul Sanders's hand can be seen holding Bella from under the table). The fourth is at a lobster restaurant in Maine, also from our Newfoundland trip.

Ivy responded to my email by saying this:
"Do you mind if i share the pictures with some of my best friends?
And could you sent me more about your "silly" pictures? I want to make a photo album of ours."

To inform everyone, I spoke with Greg a few days ago and he is surviving boot camp. He has the nickname "Under the Radar" on the front of his uniform because he is doing his best to stay out of the line of fire and just get through the darn thing. And it's working. He'll be back in VA just a few days before I will be.

Don't be shy, ladies; it's okay to ask for silly pictures of Greg for a personal photo album of yours, too.


Also, here's a video of Greg throwing a snowball at a tiger:

Saturday, May 22, 2010

the days are just packed

I've said it before and I'll say it again, if I have enough time to, that is: time is moving faster now more than ever! I feel like God is holding the fast forward button on his godly life remote, reclining back in his godly cloud chair in heaven. I mean, let's be honest: some things are funnier to watch in fast forward. For example, Jon, already late for his lunch date, trying to start his motorbike outside of his apartment. If Jon trying to start it by putting the bike in gear and running it up and down the sidewalks on campus isn't funny enough for you, hit fast forward. Just be sure to play it in normal speed when it never starts and he shouts in anger as he puts it back inside. That was a couple months ago, and ever since I've had the busiest and fastest two months of my life. Each of the last six weekends has been characterized by travel; either I have traveled somewhere or Ryan and I have entertained travelers in our apartment. As I write this, there are 12 American teachers sitting in my living room going over lesson plans as they prepare for "English Week" at our school. More on that later...

April 9-11
Beijing with the Phillips
What a blessing it was to see Peter and Janet in Baoding, Hebei, China! Tim had the great opportunity to show his mother and brother his Chinese life: his apartment, his classes and students, his friends, his team, favorite restaurants and foods, coffee shops, etc. I got to taste this when Greg and AJ visited me. There's no substitute for experience; I can tell my friends and family about my life, but to see it is another story (Don't feel bad, Mom, you got to see Nate's Chinese life; so you know what it's like!). This time also reminded me how much I love Peter. His trip to China was the most time I've spent with him in the last couple years and it was great to reconnect on our lives; plans, girls, etc. We got to see Tiananmen Square and The Forbidden City (my first time) together. Our good friend, Robert, invited us over for dinner at his mother's Beijing apartment and we cooked dumplings together. Truly, an unforgettable experience.

April 24-25
Dude's Weekend
The IECS babes all traveled to Lang Fang to watch Glee and bake cookies, at least I imagine that's what they did... The Dudes came to Baoding and stayed with Ryan and me. We... talked... in several locations for about 24 hours. After dinner at a nice restaurant I handed out some Norfolk (Emerson's) cigars I had brought over and all of us smoked together. Later we watched a kung fu movie. What did you expect?

the old "boat in hand" trick (click on the pic to really experience the magic)

April 30-May 2
泰山 Tai Mountain
Bethany and I joined our good friends, Vince, Loretta, and Lucy, to Tai Shan, one of the biggest and most famous mountains in all of China. It is known for its beauty, but also for its difficulty. As many mountains in China are, Tai Shan has been paved with concrete stays all the way to the top. It took us about 4 hours to reach the summit, and we rarely stopped. The last hour was one of the most difficult physical tasks of my life, only to be surpassed by the 10k race two weeks later. The trip was short and sweet: a bus trip through the night Friday night, Tai Shan on Saturday, then to the capital of Shan Dong on Sunday, home by Sunday night. I was so tired at the top that Bethany, Lucy, and I rode (expensive) cable cars most of the way down. Later Vince found out that I didn't take pictures during the ride. "What!" he said in disbelief, "that's the only reason anyone rides it." He was so overly upset that anytime one of us was upset about something the rest of the trip, we would just say, "Cable car!"

May 4
I had my students draw a self-portrait, and for each body part they had to write things about themselves, like for mouth-what you want to say; for heart-someone and something you like, etc. I drew a self-portrait on the board as an example. Here it is.

May 5
Cinco de Mayo - Robata Pinata
We decided to go get drinks to celebrate Cinco de Mayo. Ryan, Tim, and I decided to make a pinata. Unfortunately, we didn't have paper mache or... whatever else a pinata is made out of. But we did have boxes, imaginations, and an affinity for science-fiction. So, after about an hour's work, out came "Robata Pinata." We took it to a bar and busted it with a fake sword. For some reason, the Chinese people weren't as excited as we were about busting a box full of candy all over the floor, even though it looked like a robot. (btw-If you want to keep enjoying the holiday in the future, don't look up its origin, because there's really no reason to celebrate it and no one in Latin America cares about it. It's about as good a reason to drink as 5pm is.)

May 7-9
North Face 10k in Beijing
All of the IECS teachers traveled to ChangPing, just north of Beijing to run a 10k race together. We had all been training for a couple months and were all prepared... sort of. My training had kind of peaked at about the 6k mark; so for the first half of the race I was feeling good. Then things went downhill, literally. Everyone knew that the trail had hills, but we all underestimated how hard it would make the race. Nearly everybody finished about 10 minutes slower than they anticipated. The last 20 minutes was the hardest of my life. I'm not sure how I finished. At one point I was running (on empty) and I saw Peter, who had already finished. "Go, Jon! Only 2km left!" he shouted. This didn't really encourage me because I just wanted it to be over immediately. About five minutes later I saw Stephen. "Alright, Jon! Just 2km left!" What is this, Groundhog Day? I thought to myself. Somehow I finished in 70 minutes, which was slower than I wanted, but it felt good, at least it did later. It was also a great opportunity to hang out with Ken, who came with us to cheer us on. That night, after the race, a bunch of us traveled to the city to eat a good American burger. Ken and I split a blue cheese burger and a barbecue-onion ring burger. Later Ken told me that it was "the best dinner ever!" The next day Ken elaborated: "I think yesterday was the best day ever." Well said.

May 15-17
The Bossman comes
Newt, the head of IECS, came with his assistant (and our friend) Frank to stay with Ryan and me. He was here to spend quality time with the Baoding teachers, but also to prepare for English Week, which started a week later. We ate dinner at a restaurant we have endearingly called "The Sleeping Newt" because during our first week here, Newt took us to eat there and then... fell asleep. This time Newt didn't fall asleep.

May 22-now
English Week
12 Americans arrived on Friday night to kick off the highly anticipated English Week, something the students have been stoked about for a while. Bethany, Ryan, and I were most of our students' first American friends; so having 12 more come to our school just to meet them is quite a big deal. Saturday night we had "English Night", which the resident teachers usually run, but this time it was (other than leading music) Newt and the other teachers in the spotlight. After English Night, Newt invited the 300 students who attended to come and meet the teachers. And boy, did they accept! The 12 teachers were swarmed with hundreds of instant friends. I spent my time in the back of the room coaxing my students to go and talk to them. "I'm too nervous!" they told me. But I kept pushing and most of them took the risk. Throughout this week there will several lectures and English Nights, a day trip with students to the Great Wall, and finally and American Square Dance Night, which might turn into the biggest even this school has ever seen. It's humbling and freeing to not be the center of attention for once. Ryan, Bethany, and I are here to, as Ryan put it, set the other teachers up for success, and as they meet and befriend students, they set us and IECS up for success. Most of our good friends at Hebei University (where Tim, Kerry, and Amelia teach) were friendships that started on an English Week 2 years ago. It's amazing how much of an impact one week can make.

June 23
I go home.

Monday, April 26, 2010

solitary solidarity

This may come as a surprise, but about three times a week I go to work out at a gym. Now, I know what you're thinking: isn't this the same Jon that used to throw down cheese doodlez by the bag, the one who would get primed up for his high school basketball games by playing Ready2Rumble on Dreamcast for 3 hours, the same Jon who gained 25 pounds his freshman year of college, not because of booze, but because of, specifically, sour cream n' onion Lays potato chips? And if I'm not out of shape and overweight, the pendulum swings the other way completely. Those that met me at the Dulles airport last June remember a sickly, lanky, pale Jon (the mothers present immediately wanted to feed me). "Figured as much," you probably said to yourselves as you hugged me and wondered how long I had left. This year, however, I'm hoping to bound through that security gate a healthy, fit, pale Jon. But working out can be boring, if it's done alone. Just ask the group of Chinese bros that busted into our gym two weeks ago. Four guys walked in and, without a word, each found his own machine and pounded it. Now, if they had done this alone, who would have been there to witness the measurement of their biceps following the work-out? That's right: after finishing, they huddled together in the corner, pulled out the tape measurer and actually measured their biceps together. I imagine the measuring tape they used had three measurements on it: puny, useless, and massive. You could see the sinister grins on their faces as their biceps were, in fact, massive.

I usually go with Ryan, Tim, and Cameron. None of us are professionals, exhibited by our first destination upon arriving at the gym this afternoon: the trampoline. We burned calories by trying to "bounce" each other as high as we could. After that and a spry run on the treadmills, we pumped several irons, if you will; then we hit the locker room. Locker rooms always precipitate conversation, for better or for worse, and ours today was about Ryan's "70 yuan challenge." Ryan loves solidarity, even more than I do. He has bared with us through seasons 5 and 6 of Lost, even though it was never his idea and he probably wouldn't really care if we dropped the show, even this close to its end. Last year it was Battlestar Galactica, which is not anywhere near his interests. He told me he once he fashioned his own lightsaber in Middle School, but, after knowing Ryan at age 25, it's hard to believe he was ever into science fiction (maybe Star Wars is so widely loved, it doesn't even count as sci-fi). He does these things just to be with us; it's one of the things I love about Ryan. Just two weeks ago, Ryan convinced me join the girls in a class at the gym called "Body Pump." This is an ability and desire I might not be blessed with. As Bethany pointed out a few days ago: "Jon, you don't like doing something you're not interested in, do you?" Astute, Bethany.

Over the last year and a half, Ryan has been struck by his students' ability to live on such a tight budget. We estimated that each student probably lives on about 10 yuan each day ($1.50). That includes all three meals. Ryan has decided to give himself this challenge: spend no more than 70 yuan in one week. His purpose is be better stated on his blog, but Ryan essentially intends to build solidarity with his students. He wants to know what it's like to live like them. Of course, as always, I had my reservations. So, I questioned him in the locker room.

"Have you told any students about this?" I asked Ryan.


"We usually pay for students when we eat with them," I said, "Are we allowed to treat you to a meal?"

"I thought about that. I don't know," Ryan replied.

"I'll tell you what's difficult about this experiment," I said, "you are living the life of a foreigner on a students' budget. We have team dinner together at restaurants. You just came to work out at the gym, the membership for which you already paid for; something a student couldn't afford to do."

"Yeah, I've thought about all this earlier today when I was blogging about it. I'm not sure."

Just like that, without answering all the hypothetical questions and without even telling those he intends to have solidarity with, he started his challenge. While I'm stuck asking too many questions, Ryan tends to shoot first. Today, he bought one bottle of water to drink in the gym (1 yuan), and then we all went to lunch together. Ryan was going to just buy a couple pork burgers on the street for a few Yuan, but Cameron, Tim, and I chose a cheap lunch for all of us: dumplings. We ordered 3 plates of jiao zi (dumplings) with 3 different fillings, each plate containing 20 dumplings. We shared 60 authentic dumplings jam-packed with flavor for 28 Yuan. Split between four people, that's $1.00 each. I'm still in awe of this, even after a year and a half. But the awesome nature of the price dwindled once we realized how much Ryan had to pay: 7 Yuan. That leaves him with 2 Yuan for dinner.

"没事 (mei shi/no problem), I'll just have to get creative," he told us. In the school cafeteria, 2 Yuan can can probably buy Ryan a bowl of rice porridge and a piece of fried bread, but that's it. One of our students who excells at living a bargain lifestyle is our friend, Vince (pictured left). His stomach is a bottomless pit, yet he finds ways to fill it, usually by finishing the entire table's leftovers (and by sweating as he does it. Guaranteed: a meal with Vince is a meal with a sweaty Vince). It's common to let him finish your rice, or even your Coke.

"You should tell Vince about this," I told Ryan, "he would love to give you advice on how to do this."

I didn't finish my 20 oz. Coke during our meal; so, after lunch I left it at the table. As we were leaving, Ryan made a quick cut and ran back inside. He came out with my unfinished Coke in his hand.

"Vince strikes again!" he said, smiling.

It'll be interesting to see how this challenge affects Ryan, and what he learns about his students as he attempts to increase his solidarity with our Chinese friends, even in such a small way. Certainly, it will be tough. But not as tough as running on treadmills. Sure, it's easy while you're coasting, but try recovering from a dropped towel. It immediately turns into a light-speed banana peel you have to dodge under your fight. And one foul step on that thing, just one, and you're a goner.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

facebook stalkers beware!

A couple weeks ago I joined 人人 (renren/everyone), the Chinese version of facebook. I have, so far in my Chinese life, abstained from all Chinese online social networks, particularly QQ. This is basically AIM, but it's updated with twitter and facebook qualities. From conversations with students, it seems that approximately 1/3 of their lives are spent on QQ. They flirt, get angry with each other, make new friends, all on QQ. This could be said about my life at 15 years old, not 21, as my students are. I often hear stories about students getting on QQ to meet foreigners so they can practice their English. Sometimes I react by lecturing on the dangers of this activity, but usually I just smile and nod. When I meet someone new at school, the end of our conversation usually goes like this:

"Do you have QQ?" the student asks, giggling, hands over mouth (if it's a girl).


"What?!" the student asks with a look of utter incredulity. Clutching at straws he asks, "Do you have MSN??" almost as if he's asking, "Do you eat?"

"No, sorry. I can give you my email address." I might as well have said, "No, but I do wear diapers."

So, I've decided to meet them in the middle; I signed up for 人人. So far it's been fun to find my students and friends on there and see what their mysterious internet social lives are like. It's also pretty difficult; the enter site is in 中文 (zhong wen/Chinese), which is actually good for Chinese practice. The most jarring part of the whole experience was entirely one-sided. My second friend on 人人 was a girl I know from Beijing. Strangely, after becoming friends with me, she added me to her top friends bracket on the right side of her profile. I didn't think we were that close, I thought, but it's a nice gesture anyway. A few friends later, I noticed that everbody had done the same thing. Hm. I know people like me here, but come on. So I copied the characters above the "Top Friends" bracket, and pasted them into my trusty Google Translator.

"Recent Visitors"

Ahh!! I quickly exited the profile I was currently looking at. My cover was blown! It was like a searchlight finding a thief in the dark, or like someone yanking the bush out of the ground that I was hiding behind. I feld exposed. Mind you, I wasn't doing anything suspicious. I was just doing what people do on facebook, looking at pictures of people and watching their online activity without them knowing... which in all other facets of life would be known as "stalking."

This has totally shaken my view of online social networks. Now, on 人人, if I check out someone's profile I need to be okay with them knowing about it, or I need to leave a comment so that I had a reason to be there. I don't think facebook would ever adopt "Recent Visitors" because it would scare everyone, but should they?

Click for larger picture.

我 (wo/me)

Friday, April 2, 2010

that's no moon

Our clan of Americans climbed to the tip top of Moon Hill on an unfortunately dreary day. I remember feeling old because there were hundreds of steps to get to the first of two summits, and I actually had to take several breathers, and it wasn't due to the altitude. I'm glad to say that I've recently been training for a 10k (along with the rest of the IECS team) coming up in May in Beijing; so if I had a rematch with the stairs at Moon Hill now, it'd be no contest. This was the third leg of our trip, following Macau and Shenzhen, and it was also a homecoming for me. My first experience in China was in 2002 in this town called Yangshuo in the Guangxi province. Bryce, Mark, Hudson, and Andrew were all there, and it was this trip that catapulted a long-lasting, romantic, and somewhat steamy relationship between China and me. We've been hot and heavy ever since. I returned to Yangshuo two years later, and it was then that I decided to someday live in China. Who knew it would be so soon?

We spent 5 days in Yangshuo, staying at the Bamboo House hostel. It didn't take long for us to notice the Chinese character for righteousness painted on the tiled wall behind the front desk. I asked Annie, the young desk attendant and she proceeded to tell me her testimony. It was quite a blessing to connect with other believers in such a random place, and it wasn't the last time on this trip. Two of the days, unfortunately, were spent knee deep in tissues in my hostel bed. I had a nasty head cold, but on the last two days I had the strength to reunite with an old friend that some of the guys on that early trip would remember: William Wu. He joined our group for dinner the night before we left.

"I've changed my Chinese name," he told me over pizza.


"Because I hate my father," he said without hesitation.

It was this kind of transparency that originally attracted me to William, along with his sarcastic sense of humor. But this time he wasn't being sarcastic, and the next morning William and I met for breakfast and talked about what it would look like to forgive his father for leaving his family and starting a new one. As one might expect, it would be hard; it would be unthinkable, implausible. I told him that forgiveness is possible, but only if you've really been forgiven before. Only then will you pay the price for someone else's debt. Before we left we exchanged recommendations; he wrote several Chinese film and music recommendations on a slip of paper for me and I wrote "Romans 5:8" on a piece of paper for him and told him to look at it later. He thanked me. William is a believer in love and truth and I hope that will lead him to the incarnation of the truth.

Here's a video of us atop Moon Hill, high on altitude.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

panda brawl!

I neglected to post a story about the second half of our travels during the winter holiday; so here is the first of a handful of videos I'm posting instead. This is in Chengdu, Sichuan, during the final leg of our journey. We went to a Panda park and we were lucky enough to witness this clash of cuteness. Our tour guide said he leads groups to the park three times a week, but had only seen something like this once before. Enjoy!

Sunday, March 14, 2010


Yeah, I'll have a Fenti cafe latte, thanks.

Wait, there's a Pizza Hut too?? Let's go in!

Imagine our surprise when we walked up to the building hoping for a cup of Ctarbucks coffee and a slice of pizza, and we noticed that the lovely set-up inside is really just a lovely picture on the outside. There's no restaurant through these locked doors. There's literally nothing inside this building. The face of this building is a facade, really. A security guard from the neighboring parking lot saw us tugging on the locked doors and he walked over to help us. All he did was wave his hand and shake his head. When we asked questions, he shrugged his shoulders and returned to his post.

On second thought, I'm glad there's no real restaurant inside. Though they may look like pepperonis, I can't see Neaples being a good pizza topping.

Unrelated incident.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

you got served

Before you is a bounty; countless dishes handpicked just for you. Each dish seems to have the same question hovering above it: what in the world is this? You hold your chopsticks tentatively in the attack position. You want to look like you can't wait to dive in, like this is the meal of a lifetime, man. Sitting next to you is your Chinese assistant. Although he doesn't speak any English, he is about twice your age and he does touch your leg and laugh in your ear once in a while. The frequency of this increases with each glass of Baijiu he finishes. The bounty spins on its massive, glass lazy susan each time a waitress brings a new dish so that it situates right in front of you, for you to try first and for everyone to else watch. You reach for it, not knowing what it is. As you grab a piece, Ken, the friend you came here to see, translates for you: Pig Kidney. Your assistant, Ken's father, seems to enjoy your reaction after you try it. Later he'll put more on your plate. You don't seem to be too eager about the rest of the new dishes coming out; so Ken's father puts those on your plate too. This is his way of making sure you enjoy yourself, something you resort to chalking up to "cultural differences". These dishes include: duck feet, turtle soup, jellyfish head, sea cucumber (which looks earily similar to a massive slug), and pigeon. The deep-fried Kung Pao Shrimp is what you fill up on, the diamond in the rough.

Ken was excited to introduce Ryan and me to his extended family, but he was his normal quiet self at dinner. He didn't even greet his family members when we arrived, which seemed odd, but later it made sense when Ken explained that he saw his family every weekend for a big meal. His grandparents were over eighty years old, with plenty of energy to spare. Grandpa was proud to ask me, "How old do you think I am?" I played along, "Sixty," I said. He held up his hand to make the symbol for eight with pride, "Ba Shi!" Later I asked them how long they had been married. Again the hand symbol, this time for six, "Leo Shi!" Ryan and I raised our glasses to them and exclaimed, "Gambei!" (drink up!), though Grandpa was drinking Baijiu, a seriously terrible Chinese spirit that tastes like rubbing alcohol smells, and we were drinking Coke. The men at the table kept asking us to drink Baijiu, but were surprisingly acquiesent when we refused. Generally, Chinese men don't take no for an answer, and we're forced to take sips of it at each "Gambei". Though my description of Ken's father might sound like a creepy old man, leg touching is quite normal for Chinese men, and plopping a serving of food onto a guest's plate is considered polite; allowing a guest to serve themselves is nearly unthinkable. There is such an exorbitant amount of food ordered and forced upon guests at a meal with a Chinese family that I've often wondered if I was being fattened up to be eaten later for dessert. Meeting Ken's Grandpa was quite an experience, but he was only my second favorite. Ken's cousins had one of the cutest daughters of all time. She was shy, but later her mother, a nurse in her late-30's, came to sit by me and her daughter followed. I took a picture with her.

The cute little girl was certainly shy, but not about making noise. Throughout the meal she was up and around the room knocking on things and singing, later returning to pull her mom's hair. This is a typical practice for a Chinese child. An American girl would have been yelled at and/or disciplined for such a rukus, but Chinese children generally run the show, which is ironic, considering how strict Chinese teachers are. The other night I was at dinner with another Chinese mother and child, and it was the same routine. Noise and mess caused by the little girl, while the mother sits by, and everyone else watches and smiles. Her mother explained how her daughter will rarely listen to her if she tells her daughter to do something she doesn't want to do, but if her teacher tells her to do the same thing there's an immediate behavior change. Part of this lack of discipline at home is due to the one child policy in China; most people consider the upcoming generation to be extremely spoiled because the parents can't have any other children.

Ken is also an only child, and while his family is not wealthy, Ken is given the bulk of the family's finances to spend during his study. Along with this he's bestowed a high amount of pressure, which results in many arguments with his parents about his future. Ken studies German and English, all on his own, while working hard to get an Bachelor's degree in International Trade. He's a smart kid and often our conversations will lend themselves toward tangents on the many meanings of life. During our visit in Tangshan, we talked about what it means to have a soul, and whether animals have one, which of course led us to a conversation on the 2nd Resurrection... actually, I'm not sure how we got there...

It was a treat to visit his hometown and we were certainly taken care of. All of our meals were paid for and we were put up in a nice hotel. Toward the end of the trip, I was so used to being served that when we were boarding the train together to return to Baoding I noticed Ken was holding a big bag of snacks and groceries. I pointed at it and asked where he got it. "My parents," he said, smiling. Later that day (after a 6 hour train ride), I walked Ken to his dorm and I was holding the bag of groceries.

"Alright, buddy, I'll see you after classes start!" I said, walking away.

"Uh!" he said loudly, "the bag?"

"Oh, of course," I said, handing it to him, confused, "Sorry I forgot." I assumed it was for me.


Our visit to Tangshan was Ryan and I's second studen-home visit in a week. A week earlier we were in Handan visiting Lee, a student Ryan is close to but who I had only hung out with a few times. He is a little wealthier than most of our students, evidenced by his possession of an Xbox 360, a rare commodity in China. Most students play PC and don't even have their own. Lee's mom was quite the chatty cathy; I'd venture to say that I learned more Chinese during the 3 days I spent with her than during the previous month. As we were leaving, Lee asked me, "Jon, do you have all your stuff?"

"Um, yeah, I just need to get one more thing," I said. I walked over to his Xbox and picked it up, smiling at him.

"You can borrow it," he said.

"What? Are you serious?" I looked at him, searching his face for sincerity. It was there.

"Yeah, my girlfriend told me I need to study more," he said, "and I'll be in Baoding in two weeks. So I can take it back then."

Fastforward two weeks: Lee still isn't here and I've taken the Redskins into the 2013 season in Madden 2010. I've been playing far too much this week, but fortunately, one of the benefits of being single is I have no girlfriend telling me to stop...

Couldn't resist posting this: I took this picture of a picture of Young Ken and his parents. The cuteness continues...

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Chinese Mexi-Dip

We love Mexi-Dip in the Allison house. Growing up, every Friday night was spent on the den floor, sitting cross-legged in front of two piping hot oven pans of re-fried beans, covered in sauce, covered in tomatoes and onions, covered in cheese. There's even an art to eating it. If eaten incorrectly, one chip can drag the whole sheet of cheese off the top of the dip in one swoop, essentially ruining the entire evening. It's been a family tradition since the days of TGIF and remains one even today. I asked my sisters to send over the ingredients that we lack in China, along with the recipe, and I made it myself for my friends here. Even without sour cream (had to use yogurt with lemon juice as a substitute) and proper tortilla chips (had to use Korean kimchi-flavored potato chips), the dip was incredible. The result in pictures:


I found this piece of fake money on the floor of my classroom just after the last student had turned in her exam. If you look closely, you'll notice miniature notes on The Great Gatsby and Freytag's Pyramid. Looks like cheaters can prosper after all...

Friday, February 19, 2010

the deep south part 1

"Don't spit," Robert told me as we walked down a clean, tree-sheltered street in Shenzhen, "people will think you're from the North."

"I'm a foreigner," I responded, "it doesn't matter," and spit anyway.

Robert is a close friend who grew up in Shenzhen, a city which borders Hong Kong on the southern coast of Guangdong, and moving to Baoding was as close to culture shock as one could get moving from one Chinese city to another. Shenzhen is known across China for its wealth. Walking down its streets, I couldn't help but feel like I was in some American city. The streets were clean and there was a Starbucks and 7-Eleven nearby. I even bought a hoodie in H&M there. That was a year ago. Last month the entire IECS team returned to Shenzhen for another Conference, which kicked off the Baoding team's 3 week trip across southern China. Before we traveled to the South the team met in Beijing for two nights, one of which was spent at a restaurant listening to Tim's engagement tale, which, like a fine wine, gets taller with age. His story inspired all the other couples to tell their stories and by the end of the night everyone was swooning (So tie down the sails! We're going downtown!).

While we stayed in an ocean front hotel in Shenzhen, most of our time was spent in meetings. While I wasn't too excited about that with the sound of the ocean crashing a mere football field away, we had the opportunity to listen to some incredible teaching from wise (ie, old) men and women. Our main teacher happened to have been a Chaplain of the Washington Redskins; so, needless to say, I was spellbound at his every word, hoping the next one would be "Joe Gibbs" or "Art Monk." (why OH WHY did my iphone have to run out of memory just as he was telling a great Joe Gibbs story so I couldn't record it?!)

It was a time of challenging spiritual thoughts and ideas, and meaningful conversations. One of them occurred over a game of Majong in a private room in a neighboring hotel. It was one of those incredible electronic Majong tables that shuffled the tiles for you. All you have to do is push a button on the table and the center piece raises up, waiting for you to push the tiles into the center of the table. After you do that the center piece slowly descends back down and your newly shuffled tiles rise up in front of you, perfectly stacked into four walls. The waitress served us each free piping-hot tea and Tony (pictured right), our Chinese co-worker, promptly won three games in a row. Ryan started talking about the prospect of going to Graduate school to study the Scripture full time.

"I don't want to be an intellectual yuppy," Ryan said," just studying for knowledge's sake."

"I think studying is important," Tony said, feeling a tile with his forefinger and discarding it, knowing what it was without even looking at it, "but I want a simple faith."

At this point I couldn't concentrate on the game and I interjected.

"So, there's a balance to being a believer then," I said, always feeling the need to draw a conclusion for the sake of argument, "the renewing of your mind is important, but it's also critical to merely trust Him."

"I don't think there's a balance," Tony responded, "just the Holy Spirit."

I remained silent and drew and discarded tiles robotically for a while. Tony won again.

The rest of the week in Shenzhen was a blast, but I hard time resting at night because everyone was talking about next year. Many are not returning to China. What to do? I kept thinking. I'm still not sure, but I think ideas and dreams in my mind about it are becoming ever more coherent. One of the final nights was spent on the roof of our hotel with Tim and Stephen, a teammate in Tianjin. We smoked cigars from Emerson's in Norfolk I had brought all the way from the States and we called the gathering "Entmoot." The conversation ran deep as it always does when Stephen is around. He is a catalyst for all sorts of Joy and I'm so glad he and his wife, Beth, stuck with us for the next leg of our trip to Guangxi. But first the group split up for a couple days due to divided interests.

After the Conference, a small group traveled to Hong Kong for a couple days while the Baoding team went to Macau, a city very near Shenzhen and Hong Kong which was returned to China about the same time Hong Kong was. Like, Hong Kong, Macau was owned by a European country for over a century, but Portugal had had a hand in Macau a lot longer than Britain had been a part Hong Kong. Despite now being a part of China, Macau remains an expensive city and is known for being the eastern version of Las Vegas, actually generating more revenue in its casinos than its western counterpart. We stayed in a hostel in a border city called Zhuhai, a typical southern coastal city; though, not nearly as nice as Shenzhen. For two days we stayed in individual bedrooms that were so small it felt like sleeping in lockers, but they were clean and the room felt cozy rather than cramped. The border between Zhuhai and Macau is the most-crossed border in the world and we added to the statistic for those two days. We ate massive burgers the first night and explored the Venetian casino, never sitting down at any tables because we couldn't find the right minimum bid. Our goal was Blackjack, which remains my only real experience with gambling, but the Venetian was too affluent for our wallets; so we decided to wait until the next day and try another casino. The next day we visited St. Paul's Cathedral and saw disturbing paintings of St. Augustine and Japanese martyrs. Later we almost bought "ObaMao" t-shirts. We ate Portuguese food for dinner and afterward Ryan almost got in a yelling match with a passing driver who nearly ran over Kerry in a cobblestone alleyway. We then returned to our goal: an affordable Blackjack table. It took a few casinos before we found our table and it was worth it... well, it was for me. Tim wasn't so lucky. The dealer got 4 blackjack hands in the first seven or eight hands. I'm not sure how I survived the onslaught, but I was about even after them; Tim wasn't. Eventually the crowded table emptied and it was only Tim, Ryan, and me. We gave Kerry and Amelia a few chips to play with and we were promptly joined by a bald elderly Chinese man who spoke fluent English. He rarely bet on his own hands, but would toss chips onto ours and we eventually called him "Master" because of his unsurpassed knowledge of the game. With his astute advice and a few strokes of luck, I doubled my money. I actually had to get Bethany to take my chips away from me after I doubled up so that I could get up from the table, which is always the hardest part. It was worth the trip; even Tim would tell you.

Next we rejoined the Hong Kong group for our trip to Yangshuo, Guangxi, famous for its unnaturally shaped and beautiful mountains. If you google "China" you'll find pictures of the Great Wall and these mountains pretty quickly. It was a return trip for me, as my first two short trips to China were to the same area. I'll write about that later and I guarantee it will be one of the few instances when a sequel is even better than the original!

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

when Sceviours attack

"Nobody cares about me," I said countless times. Melissa visited Tim. Dan visited Emily. Bethany's parents visited her. Me? No one missed me, I thought. Just when I thought for sure that I was forgotten; when I thought I was forsaken, forgone, forsworn, the Sceviours came. Greg and AJ cared. They braved the treacherous drive to New York; they sat snuggly and patiently on a 14 hour flight to South Korea for a "short" layover. Then when the word "delayed" donned the electronic departure board, they didn't snicker or mope! No, they strolled right up to the Korean Air desk and were promptly rewarded for their optimism with an offer for a free night in a four star hotel in Seoul. They turned to one another and with grim faces said, "Jon would have wanted us to," and they acquiesced, begrudgingly, "Alright," they said to the beautiful Korean desk attendants with the red scarves around their necks, "if we have to," and they took it for the team, for me. The next morning they boarded that last flight beleaguered with exhaustion from their unfortunate extended layover and they sat, once again. They endured the jet lag, the staring, the donkey burgers, all for me...

Greg is an old friend, one of my dearest. But AJ had always been Greg's brother and over the years it was impossible for me to look beyond their similarities. I had always seen AJ as a Greg clone, another strapping young heart-breaker who might at any moment invest your money or take a nap on your bed. I learned more about AJ during this trip than I would care to mention to you. Let me just say this: AJ has read The Hobbit (more than once) and he listens to Sigur Ros. While he does have some of Greg's admirable qualities; ie, Greg's looks, and the desire to save rather than spend, (which resulted in his ability to purchase his own Macbook Pro and travel to China at the ripe age of 16, something Greg might not have even been able to pull off) AJ is his own man. Don't be fooled.

It was great to be able to take them to my favorite places and show them all my favorite foods. We got massages, which they loved, and the fire cups, which Greg abhorred. They loved the Coke Chicken and the dumplings, but they didn't really enjoy the Donkey Burgers and the cow tongue (but who did?). They were able to appreciate the cafeteria that's only a two minute walk from my apartment and all the different foods there: the gai fan (dish over rice), the dishes, the knife-cut noodles, and the fried rice; all for under or around $1. They met my close friends, like Ken, Vince, and Robert. They got whooped by Sophie in Ping Pong, as we all have (she plays on the school team and is my student). We held a special "English Corner" for the two of them, which was attended by about 20 girls, not surprisingly. A few of them joined us for dinner and it was such a delight to share Sophie and Ivy, two of my students, with them. Unfortunately, for about 4 days straight I was sequestered to my apartment, grading exams. It was a frustrating time for me, but AJ and Greg were able to find their own fun in the city, which was special (I hope) for them.

For the final week of their stay we decided to travel. It might have been counter-intuitive, given how cold it already was in Baoding, but we traveled even further north to Harbin, a city near the northeastern tip of China, bordering Russia. Our intention was to see the famous Ice Festival, entire buildings and replicas chiseled out of ice and lit by florescent lighting. As it turned out, our favorite part was a surprise to most of us: the Tiger Park. We spent an entire morning in a van with barred windows driving around snow covered landscapes, dripping with bengal tigers. "This is like Jurassic Park," someone said joyfully as we drove into the park and the massive fenced gate closed electronically behind us, locking us in with the tigers. Most of us held each other even tighter after that comment. The tigers were massive and sometimes they would come up to the windows and sniff us. "AJ!! Keep your hands in this car!!" Bethany would scream at AJ as he grinned back. At the final section of the tour, we were presented with a verbal menu of animals to feed the tigers, alive. So, we purchased the pheasant because it was cheap. An armored jeep drove out to the middle of the park and, as the tigers were crawling all over it, someone tossed a live pheasant out of the sun roof. One of the tigers leaped and grabbed it and it was over. So, we decided to step up and buy the lamb. It was the most revolting and mesmerizing spectacles I've ever seen. For about thirty minutes several tigers held the lamb in their mouths (don't worry, the lamb died early), each of them holding it still but gently pulling in their own direction; they each wanted it for themselves. One of them tore a leg off and ran away with it. Eventually it was pandemonium and the lamb was in pieces. The three girls in our group at this point were looking away, their cheeks streaked with tears, as the guys remained engrossed. The whole time the driver kept stupidly driving into the gathering of tigers to break them up. At one point our van was stuck and he kept backing up and pulling forward to get out with no luck. We all trembled at the thought of being stuck in a park of feasting bengal tigers. Overall, it was incredible and it was definitely my favorite part of Harbin. Well, that and Cameron riding an electronic bull in a sketchy mall.

Finally, the Sceviours had to leave and, while it was bittersweet, as parting always is, I was so happy that they had come. Certainly, as close as Greg and I are, there were moments of strife and we had to deal with them, but it felt good to be close enough to him to have to go through those moments, to apologize and to forgive. I truly felt loved by their visit, and sometimes that's a hard thing for a person to accept: another man's gracious love. It's hard to know what to do with it. I accepted it this time and can't wait to see those guys again. Maybe next time we can experience something a little less disgusting together.

(see left for more photos)