This has to be one of my favorite photos from my recent trip to Beijing — a Tibetan Buddhist monk hanging out in Tiananmen Square.
The umbrella makes him look quite dapper, don’t you think?
In the Beijing neighborhood that I stayed in last week, I noticed a wall covered with propaganda paintings (in the US, we might call them “public service announcements”). I’m always fascinated by these paintings and/or posters as they give a glimpse into what the leaders are concerned about and what the leaders think the people should be concerned about.
These propaganda paintings are typically done in the style of “socialist realism” — sturdy, square-jawed hero conquering whatever difficulty lies before them.
But these were different. In terms of color and style, they seemed to be evoking traditional Buddhist art instead of socialist realism. I know that the government has been on a campaign to promote traditional culture and cultural values; this was the first I had seen it reflected artistically in propaganda.
Here are a few examples:
When I moved back to the States 5 years ago, I envisioned returning to China often, so even though I closed up my apartment and shipped nearly all of my belongings, I left behind at a friend’s house a small blue bag with some items I didn’t want to haul back and forth. Think toiletries and a hair dryer.
It’s been convenient because whenever I do go to Beijing I stay with that friend, and she always greets me at the door with my blue bag!
Last Sunday morning, as I was preparing to leave Beijing and fly back to Minnesota, my friend said to me, “See you next time. As long as your blue bag is here, I know you’re coming back!”
And of course she’s right!
Last night while at a restaurant with friends in Beijing, I had one of those quintessential China interactions. It was beastly hot, so I ordered a can of Coke to go with my meal.
The waitress responded, “hot or cold?”
Lest you think she was off her rocker, hot coke is a thing here!
Last week I attended a conference at the Asia World Expo in Hong Kong, a large convention center near the airport. Given it’s rather remote location, there are no eating places nearby (except at the terminal). And surprisingly, within the complex itself I only spotted a Subway and a Starbucks.
So how do you feed 3000+ conference attendees? You line them up and give them box lunches. Like this: (email readers, go here to see the vide0)
One of the lines I found myself in was serving a box lunch with pork chops a potatoes. When that was announced, the people in line behind me exclaimed, “What, no rice? That will never do!” and then hightailed it to another line.
Once we got our box lunches we were directed to return to our seats in the large meeting room and eat there.
It was amazingly efficient!
My sister and I spent the better part of this week traversing the western United States on our drive home from a family reunion in Oregon. The timing of the reunion coincided with my mom’s 90th birthday. We all gathered outside of Bend, the city where she grew up.
My mom (aka Gracie) was born in Westbrook, MN in 1927. In 1931, when she was just four years old, she and her 3 siblings and her parents climbed into a Model A and headed west. Their destination was Bend, Oregon, where her father had accepted a call to be the pastor of the First Baptist Church.
Even though she was very young when she made the trip, she still has quite a few memories of the drive. One story she told us was of stopping at a “town” in the Oregon desert, east of Bend called Millican. “There was just one building,” she told us. “I remember it because we all thought it was so funny that a town would only have one building.”
On Monday, as my sister and I were driving across the Oregon desert (my mom and brother-in-law having left by plane earlier in the day), we were on the look-out for the one-building “town” of Millican. Sure enough, it was there, only the establishment that may or may not have been there in 1931 was definitely closed! Why it is listed on the map is a mystery.
And if you ever have the chance to drive across the desert of eastern Oregon, do it! It’s gorgeous!
We are back home now, and declare the two weeks of birthday celebrations officially over!
My mom (aka “Gracie”) turned 90 on April 22. To help her celebrate the big occasion, my sister and I launched a campaign for her to receive 90 birthday cards. By the end of the day on the 22nd, she had received 136!!!
We had a lovely brunch with family and a few friends on Saturday morning. In the afternoon, we made arrangements for her to go for a ride in a “big rig.” (Thanks, Al!)
This week, we are on a “birthday road trip” back to the place where she grew up — Bend, Oregon. As you can see, this 90-year old isn’t about to slow down!
The numbers are impressive: there are now more than 328,000 Chinese students in universities across the United States. When the first wave of students came in the 1980’s, they were mostly visiting scholars (professors). Now the students coming are undergrads, and in many cases high school students.
What is it like for Chinese students on a campus in the US? A reporter from The Economist recently spent time exploring the lives of Chinese students at the University of Iowa in Iowa City. Her story, Alienation 101 is sobering description of what is commonly known as an “expat bubble:”
At Iowa, as at many other American universities, the influx happened so fast that students, both Chinese and American, have had little time to adjust. As a consequence, what could have been a meaningful cultural encounter can feel instead like a lost opportunity. The Chinese population is so large that it forms a separate world. Many Chinese speak only Mandarin, study only with other Chinese, attend only Chinese-organised events – and show off luxury cars in Chinese-only auto clubs. The Chinese government and Christian groups may vie for their hearts and minds. But few others show much interest, and most Chinese students end up floating in a bubble disconnected from the very educational realms they had hoped to inhabit. “It takes a lot of courage to go out of your comfort zone,” Sophie says. “And a lot of students on both sides never even try.”
Writing about the role of Chinese student associations, she writes:
The Chinese students aren’t really disengaged, however. They are just immersed in a world that is largely invisible to the rest of the university. At its centre is the Chinese Students and Scholars Association (CSSA), funded and monitored by the consulate in Chicago. Its structure even mimics the Communist hierarchy, with a “propaganda department” and a tight circle of leaders tacitly approved by the consulate. It puts on four big events each year aimed almost exclusively at Chinese students, including a Lunar New Year gala marking the biggest holiday in China. Last November, Mingjian attended a CSSA “speed dating” show in which male students in tuxes declared their love for female students in flouncy dresses, with nearly 300 students egging them on. It was conducted entirely in Mandarin.
One of CSSA’s main purposes is to make students aware that Beijing is watching over them. A Communist Party directive last year exhorted members to “assemble the broad numbers of students abroad as a positive patriotic energy”.
She also looks into the Christian ministries that reach out to the Chinese students:
Sophie Fan was given a harder sell that first night in Iowa, riding with the talkative young evangelist from the airport. By the time he dropped her off at her dorm, she felt compelled to promise that she would come to a Bridges International ice-breaker party. Sophie longed for American friends, and if Christianity was such a big part of American culture, what harm was there in learning more? Her Chinese classmates, she found, were less interested in engaging with locals. “I have roommates who are afraid to talk to Americans,” she says, “and I ask them, ‘What’s the point of coming all the way to America if you’re not going to talk to anybody here?’”
Unlike other foreign students, many Chinese haven’t been shaped by any one faith, which can make them more receptive to new ideas. Christian groups also make sure to pad their missionary work with free food, friendship and American culture. “Most Chinese students aren’t looking for spirituality,” says Pearl Chu, a senior bio-chemistry major who is a devout Christian. “They go because these American students are reaching out to them, talking and listening. I think Christian groups have done more than the university to integrate Chinese students.”
And if there are Chinese students in your community, are there ways you can be reaching out to them?
Image credit: Welcome to Iowa City, by Adam Simmons, via Flickr