Smoke in My Eyes. In Minnesota!

When I lived in Beijing, we often had a weather forecast that was just one word: Smoke! It was usually in the fall, when the peasants in the surrounding provinces of Shandong and Hebei were burning the fields after harvest. The city would be shrouded in smoke, with off-the-charts bad air quality until it rained or the winds shifted to the north.

On Monday it was Minnesota’s turn. Smoke from wildfires burning in northern Saskatchewan descended on our fair state, making the air quality in Minneapolis worse than in Beijing.



Talk about embarrassing!


Image #1: MyFoxTwinCities

Image #2: Cooper, via MyFoxTwinCities


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Bilingualism is Good for the Brain

I ran across this interesting info-graphic on the Twitter feed of the good folks at It highlights how bilingualism is good for the brain.


I like the idea of dimentia prevention. And the next time someone says I’m dense I’ll just tell them it’s my grey matter and that’s a good thing.

Image source:

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The Ruts are Still Visible

Even though I had come looking for them, I was still surprised at the sight — wagon wheel ruts and the footprints of a child in the weathered sidewalk of a small town on the Minnesota prairie. I had seen them before, back in the 1960’s, but did not expect that they would still be visible today.

rust in the pavement

But there they were, evidence that a child had dragged his wagon through freshly poured cement on the sidewalk opposite the Baptist Church.

When my mother was born, her father was pastor of Immanuel Baptist Church in Westbrook, Minnesota. She was the third of four children. Her only brother, Paul was the oldest, and he was the little boy who pulled his wagon through the cement.

In 1932 her father was called to pastor a church in central Oregon, so the family packed up the Model A and headed west, leaving behind the ruts and footprints.

Last week I was driving in southwest Minnesota and took a little detour to Westbrook to see if there was anything left of them. To my amazement, more than 90 years after they hardened, they are still visible.

I never knew my uncle very well because I grew up on the other side of the planet and he passed away shortly after we returned to the United States. From what I do know, he was a wonderful man. In the same way that the ruts of his wagon are visible in the sidewalk in Westbrook, so too are the ruts of his life visible in the lives of his daughters and grandchildren scattered around the country.

Well done, Uncle Paul!

May the ruts of our lives be visible decades hence as well.

All Together Now

Last month, The Atlantic published a series of  amazing photos from China showing people — lots of people — doing things in unison.


I had a good chuckle because seeing people do things as a group is a fairly common site in China.

Students (from pre-school to university) learn how to march in step and do synchronized morning exercises.

Security guards practice goose-stepping in front of the establishments they guard.

Restaurant and store staff often line up on the sidewalks outside their respective establishments in the morning to chant or sing their pledges to serve their customers. Sometimes they even dance, as was the case with these ladies getting ready to start the work day in their beauty salon in Ya’an, Sichuan!


I remember my first encounter with a lots-of-people-doing-things-in-unison event in China. It was at the National Games held in Zhengzhou in 1984. All the foreign teachers in the city (that would be 10 of us) were taken to the event and seated in the VIP section where we watched a thousand 3-year olds dancing and twirling parasols in unison as part of the opening ceremonies.

china national games zhengzhou 1984

No way you could get a thousand  American 3 year olds to do that.

Am I right?

Friday Photo: Descending Into Hong Kong

Another thing I miss about living in Beijing is the opportunity to travel, not just around China, but all over Asia. Of course, the fabulous city of Hong Kong was a frequent destination, usually to attend meetings, but sometimes just to get “out.” A few months before moving back to Minnesota, I got to fly down to Hong Kong on China Southern Airlines brand-spanking-new A380, the double-decker airplane. This was the glorious view as we were landing.


For those of you familiar with the city, you can see Central, Tsim Sha Tsui, and the old Kai Tak Airport. And if you ever find yourself flying into Hong Kong, be sure to get a window seat!

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Imagine Having to Answer These Questions

Last week more than 9 million Chinese high school students sat for the annual college entrance examination, a test for which they have spent the last 2 years of high school preparing for.


It’s a make-or-break rite of passage in China. If a student passes, he/she gets to enter the Chinese higher education system. This will mean better future income potential which means he/she can take care of the family. If a student fails, then prospects dim considerably. In other words, a student’s future rides on how he/she does on this one test! In addition to questions on math and science, it also includes pretty wild essay questions. Here’s a description of these essay question from Shanghaiist:

From philosophical quotes to the meaning of a buzzword, these essay questions are designed to test not only students’ language abilities and knowledge, but also their creativity, experience and wisdom.

In the days following the exam, the questions are usually published online and in local media, triggering a nationwide discussion on what in the world they mean and what the writers of the test are trying to measure and who in their right mind could answer them.

Here’s a sampling of essay questions from the exams given in various provinces this year. How would you do?

  •  “A father was talking on the phone while driving on a highway. His daughter reminded him repeatedly to stop doing this, but her father would not listen. The daughter called the police and reported her father at last. When the police arrived, the father was reprimanded. This generated heated debate among the public.” Write a letter of 800 words to either the father, the daughter or the police officer.
  • Who do you admire the most? A biotechnology researcher, a welding engineering technician or a photographer?
  • Based on the three given uses of the word road, write an essay: 1) “The earth had no roads to begin with, but when many men passed one way, a road was made.” (Lu Xun) 2) There is no such thing as a road that dare not be walked; only people who dare not walk it. 3) You may take the wrong road sometimes, but if you keep walking, it will become a brand new road.
  • The buzzword “Fan’er” is popularly used to refer to a person, group or country’s “style.” Draw from personal experiences to describe your feelings about the word.
  • Choose one question to answer in 150 words or less: a) review a Chinese classic; b) write a poem on “circle;” c) comment on uncivilized behavior in Beijing.
  • Everybody has tough and soft spots in his/her heart. Whether you can reach an inner harmony depends on how you balance the toughness and softness. Please choose an angle and write an essay on this topic in 800 words or more.
  • An honest person may not be smart, yet a smart person may not have true wisdom. Please write an essay in no fewer than 800 words on this topic.
  • After getting on a bus, a little boy asked the bus driver to wait for his mother. A minute passed and the mother didn’t show up. Passengers complained loudly and the boy was brought to tears. When the mother finally caught up with the bus, everybody went silent — she is disabled. Write an essay in 800 words or more based on the given information.

I don’t know about you, but I’m sure glad I’m not a Chinese high school student!

Sources: Shanghaiist, CNN

Image source: Business Insider

Friday Photo: Satisfaction

I took this one in Zhengzhou during my first year in China, way back in 1984. So many things are typical of China at that time–the layers of clothes on the kid; the face mask; the orange soda (no Cokes yet); the bicycles with the plastic baskets. But one thing is universal — the look on the face of a child sipping soda from a straw!

zhengzhou child