Happy Chinese New Year

Today is Chu Yi (初一), the first day of the lunar new year on the Chinese calendar. For those of you keeping track, it marks the beginning of the Year of the Pig. It’s “my” year, which means I’m either 12, 24, 48, 60, 72, or 84. I’ll let you guess which it is!

All across China, people are making their way, if possible, back to their hometowns, in what is often billed as the world’s largest human migration. Everyone, from migrant workers to young professionals to university students, is on the move—in most cases returning to small towns and villages in the countryside to visit their families.

And they do not return empty-handed. Since gift-giving is such an important part of New Year celebrations, and is also a primary way of expressing love in Chinese culture, the travelers are laden down with gifts of all sizes and shapes.

When the holiday-making comes to an end, and the workers, yuppies, and students head back to the cities, they will be taking with them, not only memories, but special gifts that will remind them of home.

Film director Jia Zhangke teamed up with Apple (yes, it is a marketing effort for the iPhone XS) to produce a short film, titled The Bucket, about a young man whose mother sends him back to the city with a very heavy bucket. It’s a gorgeous and sweet film, and you’ll need to watch the video to find out what is in the bucket! (email readers, click here to watch the film)

What food or gift does your mom send home with you after the holidays (whichever ones you celebrate)?

(Note: this post first appeared at ChinaSource.)

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A Tribute to My Father, 2019

Eighteen years ago, I was at a small beachside resort in southern Thailand when I got word that my father had died. Within 24 hours I was on a plane bound for Minnesota. Below are the words that I spoke in farewell and tribute to my dad at his memorial service on January 25, 2001 in Roseville, MN. Standing before a crowd of 600 people to deliver these remarks was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. The first part was written at 30,000 feet above the North Pacific Ocean as I flew home from Thailand.

Posting this here is my annual tribute to him. And this afternoon, our family will engage in another annual tribute — a trip to DQ to raise a Dilly Bar in his honor. 

The call you dread and fear and never expect comes. It’s mom. “Joann, your father died this morning. Please come home as soon as you can. I need you.”

Like an arrow out of no-where, somewhere, it hits first the head, then the heart, and slowly the pain sinks into your bones.

One day you’re relaxing on the beach, washing off the stress of a difficult term, and 24 hours later you’re wandering in a daze around international airports—Phuket, Bangkok, Narita—all jammed with people, and yet feeling so incredibly alone.

The words keep shouting in your soul. “Joann, your father has died,” slamming against your bones and your organs and your skin like a bullet ricocheting around a steel cavern. You try to drive them away with polite conversation, with reading, with hymn-singing, hoping against hope that driving the words away will drive the reality away as well.

But then the words and reality force their way back and the pain starts again.

“Joann, your precious father stepped into glory this morning.”

“Joann, your wonderful father went home to be with his Savior.”

With every fiber of my being I believe these words, but don’t want to believe them at the same time. He was a precious father, but now he is lost in wonder, love and grace in the presence of Jesus.

Yet here at 30,000 feet above the Pacific Ocean, I feel just plain lost.

Lost in sadness.

Lost in pain.

I know he’s with his Savior, but I want him here with us.

How will I get through the next ten hours on this plane? How will I bear to see my mom and sister and her family at the end of this long journey?

One hour at a time, one grace at a time.

“He giveth more grace when the burdens grow greater; He giveth more strength as the labors increase. To added affliction, He addeth more more mercy; to multiplied sorrows, He multiplies peace.”

Then it hits me.

Despite the pain, I too am lost in love and grace. Sustaining grace.

John Piper describes it like this: “Not grace to bar what is not bliss, nor flight from all distress, but this—the grace that orders our trouble and pain, and then in the darkness is there to sustain.”

Will the sadness and the tears and the pain ever go away?

Probably not. But then again, neither will the grace.

So, my beloved dad is gone. What to say?

The words that scream loudest from my soul are simply, “please come back.” I know he’s in a better placee, but I still want him back here. There are too many words and no words. But following are a few—just a few of the special things I remember about my dad.

He had a sense of humor. He loved to laugh and make others laugh, and he was never in danger of taking himself too seriously.

He was a servant. He would do anything for anybody anytime anyplace, from bringing coffee to my waking mom every morning to fixing church roofs to shoveling neighbor’s driveways.

He was humble. In a stuffy academic world, he was just himself.

He was generous. If there was a financial need, he gave. His giving to us seemed limitless and it gave him great joy.

He was compassionate. His heart was tender and easily broken by the pain and suffering in the world. Last month in Beijing, we visited a clothing market that the government was ready to close down. The peddlers were selling their goods at rock-bottom prices. In a crowd frenzied over the best bargain, he kept asking, “what will happen to these poor people?”

He loved Jesus. Quietly and simply, he ordered his life grounded in that love.

He was a wonderful father and I miss him so very much.

Perhaps the greatest tribute I can give will be when I come to the end of my days and people say of me, simply, “she was just like her father.”

Goodbye Dad. I love you and miss you more than words can express.


Read more posts about my dad:

Pittman Hall

Pinch and a Punch

Happy Birthday, Dad

It was Chicken! It was Chicken! 


Evacuation, Part 2

One More Photo

Karachi Memories

Happy New Year

Is it 2019 already? Where did 2018 go? For that matter, where did 2000 go? And 1975? You get the picture….

Looks like Hong Kong was the place to be when the clock struck midnight. The amazing fireworks display gets going at the 1:48 mark. (Email readers, please click here to watch the video.)

May you and your family have a splendid 2019.

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video source: Euronews, via YouTube

2018 Books: Top Ten

Thanks to being part of a book club and the discovery of audiobooks, I did a lot of reading (and listening) in 2018.

Here are ten of my favorites:

The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia, by Michael Booth

This is an interesting look at the cultures and societies of the Scandinavian countries, which tend to score high on happiness indexes. The author set out to find out if people in Scandinavia really are happier, and if so, why.

The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia

The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom: America and China, 1776 to the Present, by John Pomfret

We often think of US-China relations beginning with Nixon’s visit to China in 1972. Pomfret shows that the US and China have been engaging one another since the 1700s, and that things really haven’t changed that much.

The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom: America and China, 1776 to the Present

Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman, by Robert K. Massie

After visiting St. Petersburg and seeing her burial place and the palace where she lived,  I needed to learn more about this amazing Czarina.

Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman

The Collapse: The Accidental Opening of the Berlin Wall, by Mary Elise Sarotte

This is the rivetting story of how the Berlin Wall came down, not as the result of a well thought-out plan, but as a series of bureaucratic blunders.

The Collapse: The Accidental Opening of the Berlin Wall

Land of Lincoln: Adventures in Abe’s America, by Andrew Ferguson

Apparently there is a vibrant sub-culture of Abe Impersonators in the United States. Ferguson travelled the country to meet them, and produced this laugh-out-loud story.

Land of Lincoln: Adventures in Abe's America

The Men Who United the States: America’s Explorers, Inventors, Eccentrics, and Mavericks, and the Creation of One Nation, Indivisible, Indivisible, by Simon Winchester

Our nation is what it is today because of a collection of oddballs doing oddball things. This is their story, told by the master story-teller Simon Winchester.

The Men Who United the States: America's Explorers, Inventors, Eccentrics, and Mavericks, and the Creation of One Nation, Indivisible

The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey, by Rinker Buck

In 2015, Buck and his brother decided to build a wagon, buy some donkeys and retrace the journey of the pioneers along the Oregon Trail, or at least as close to it as they could find. They made it from Kansas to Oregon in one summer.

The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey

The Right Stuff, by Tom Wolfe

When Tom Wolfe died this year, I realized that I had never read any of his books and decided to remedy that. All I can say is Wow!!

The Right Stuff

Suicide of the West: How the Rebirth of Tribalism, Populism, Nationalism, and Identity Politics is Destroying American Democracy, by Jonah Goldberg

In interesting, and sobering look at political ideas in the United States.

Suicide of the West: How the Rebirth of Tribalism, Populism, Nationalism, and Identity Politics is Destroying American Democracy

Surviving the State, Remaking the Church: A Sociological Portrait of Christians in Mainland China (Studies in Chinese Christianity), by Li Ma

This is an excellent book for anyone wanting to understand the house church movement in China.

Surviving the State, Remaking the Church: A Sociological Portrait of Christians in Mainland China (Studies in Chinese Christianity)

Don’t Touch the Red Button

During the two weeks I was in China, I took four different high-speed train rides (the absolute best way to travel). As with all other public spaces in China, there are lists of behavior rules posted all over the train, and a steady stream of announcements over the loudspeaker about prohibited “uncivilized” behavior.

Most of the announcements on the trains were the usual stuff: don’t talk loudly on your phones, don’t litter, don’t interfere with the train attendants, and don’t run and romp around.

But the one that I was most interested in was the admonition, DON’T TOUCH THE RED BUTTON!

Of course, it would never occur to me to touch a red button; in fact, I hadn’t even noticed any red buttons…..until they loudly declared the prohibition on touching red buttons!

Of course, I had to go hunting for the mysterious red button!

Rejuvenation Express

When China began building its amazing high speed rail system in the early 2000s, Hu Jintao was the leader of China. As with all leaders, he had a slogan or catchphrase that was used (ad nauseum) to symbolize his rule. With Hu Jintao, the slogan was “build a harmonious society.” For his 8 years in power, the word harmony and harmonious were ubiquitous; so much so, in fact, that to this day I still find myself wincing whenever I hear the words.

Even the high-speed rail system got in the act, and the trains were labeled “Hexie Hao”. There’s no good way to translate that term, as it applies to a train, but let’s just call it the Harmony Express.

“Welcome aboard the Harmony Express. The next station is Shanghai.”

In 2011 Hu Jintao stepped down and was replaced at the top of China’s political system by Xi Jinping. His slogan is “national rejuvenation.”

And just like that the train  that I was on this earlier this week, which sped along at 200 mph, was now called the Rejuvenation Express.

“Welcome aboard the Rejuvenation Express. The next station is Beijing!”

New leader; new railway slogan!

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A Vile Vial

My travel itinerary on this China trip took me to Taiyuan, the capital of Shanxi Province. Besides being the center of China’s coal production, Shanxi is famous for vinegar. In fact, when you step off a train or plane, the smell of vinegar is in the air.

Upon arrival, our hosts took us to a traditional Shanxi restaurant. Beside each table setting was a vial of vinegar that looked frighteningly similar to a vial of medicine. Before eating the meal, we had to sip the vinegar through a tiny straw. Apparently it will cure pretty much anything that ails you.

Be that as it may, I found it rather vile!

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Cover the Cars!

While visiting friends in an old neighborhood of Beijing last week, I noticed something I hadn’t seen before –quite a few of the cars parked along the streets and alleyways were covered.

When I got to my friend’s house I asked her about it. The conversation proceeded like this:

Me: Why do some of the cars have covers on them?

She: (laughing) Oh, this is a new phenomenon in Beijing. The drivers don’t have permits to park their cars in the neighborhood. The covers are to prevent the traffic control police from seeing that they don’t have permits. This neighborhood is very strict when it comes to parking.

Me: Well, can’t the traffic police just pull up the cover and look at the windshield?

She: Oh, that’s too much work for them. They just go by because they only have to report (and ticket) the cars that they inspect and see don’t have permits. Since they can’t see whether the cars have tickets or not, they just move on. Once one car did it, the others started; they didn’t want the traffic police to pass up the car parked in front and ticket their car, so they covered it to.

And presto! – a new industry is born – producing car covers!

Another classic example of the old Chinese adage: the top takes measures and the bottom takes counter-measures.

Or, to put it into plain English — the leaders make the rules and the people find a way around them.

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