Hot and Noisy

My friend who writes for "That’s Shanghai" has penned an article about moving from the city out into the ‘suburbs’ of Shanghai, thinking that he and his family would enjoy a more bucolic, and hopefully quieter lifestyle. But it has not been the case, as he has found out that life "outside" (the ring road, that is) can be every bit as noisy and chaotic as life "inside" (the ring road):

Adding to the confusion is the exceptionally slow migration of modern retail practices.  My local hypermarket operates in the same fashion as a countryside wet-market.  The produce section has more groping than a dark hallway at a hight school dance.  From time to time, a member of the meat department will emerge to yell out the special of the nanosecond: "Fresh squid, two-for-one."  The bum’s rush results in the little old ladies beating each other about the head and shoulders with slimy tentacles.  All this is meat for a new reality show.

You really need to read the whole thing.

I chuckled because he was actually describing the hypermarket across the street from where I live, and by Beijing standards, I definitely live "inside," which here means inside the 4th ring road. No matter what time of day I go in there, I will find 4 or 5 clerks or product representatives hollering at the tops of their lungs trying to get the shoppers’ attention.  There’s a lady who sells bee products right by the checkout, so if the lines are long, we get to hear her pitch several times. And there are also people pushing tea and doufu. I always get tripped up by the lady pushing the mini-donuts! I tend not to linger too long in the hypermarket because it is just so noisy.

In fact, China is noisy, and that is one of the things that foreigners have to adjust to here.  Restaurants are noisy.  Streets are noisy.  It sometimes seems that nothing can be accomplished here without noise. Some of the worst purveyors of noise are the ubiquitous loudspeakers that seem to be perched everywhere in China.  In parks.  At the shore.  In the mountains.  Even in the "wilderness."  I remember hiking in a national park near the North Korean border many years ago.  The closest town was 20 miles away, but were never out of earshot of a loudspeaker bombarding us with sappy music.

At the time, I was studying Chinese with a tutor, and when we returned I asked her about this phenomenon—why there would be loudspeakers in the wilderness.  She told me that if people weren’t able to hear sounds related to human beings then they would feel lonely and afraid.  She was serious, and my brain almost performed an illegal operation as it tried to process what she’d said. Then she taught me a new word  renao, which literally translated means "hot and noisy."  Women Zhongguoren xihuan renao," she said.  "We Chinese like hot and noisy."  That pretty much sums it up. 

And in case you’re interested, the opposite of renao is lengqing, which means cold feelings.


It seems that all elevators in China have music playing on them, usually Kenny G or something equally sappy.   But not the elevator of the Hong Kong-Macau International Center on the east side of town.  This afternoon I got on an elevator over there and was greeted by the song "Oklahoma!".  You know, the one about the winds sweeping down the plains and the sweet-smelling waving wheat!  Oklahoma!—right here in Beijing.  I had a good chuckle.  And of course now I can’t get the tune out of my head!

Good On Ya, Australia

I’m now back in Beijing after a wonderful few weeks in the land down under.  For this traveler who usually flies strictly east-west, it was kind of strange to fly for 12 hours, and actually arrive at my destination the same day, not a day later, or as is the case when I fly to the US from China, a few hours before leaving.  I will say, however, that the South China Sea seems very very big when flying over it from south to north!

I believe the last post I wrote about Australia was as I was setting out on my east coast drive, in search of the Bay of Fires.  Well, I’m happy to report that the Bay of Fires did not disappoint—long deserted beaches with white sand and turquoise water.

After Bay of Fires, I drove down the coast to Freynicet National Park.  My main goal was to hike up a mountain to view Wineglass Bay.  It would have been great to hike down to the beach, but it was a case of my spirit being willing but my knees saying ‘DON’T EVEN THINK ABOUT IT!’.

From there I drove down to Hobart (the state capital), then back to the Launceston area to bid farewell to my friends there before flying off to Sydney for a couple of days on my way home.  Getting out of Launceston turned into quite the drama.  I got to the tiny airport 4 hours before my flight because I needed to drop of my rental car to avoid getting charged a whole other day.  Unfortunately the flight that I spent 4 hours waiting for was cancelled. The incoming flight from Sydney was late because lightening had hit a fuel depot at the airport, shutting everything down for several hours.  By the time it got to Launceston, there wasn’t enough time for it to get back to Sydney before the 11pm curfew.  So they put us all up at a hotel in town, and flew us out the next day.

As for Sydney, I really only have one word:  WOW!  Ok, I’ll write a few more… of the things that kept running through my head was why can’t we have any urban spaces in the US that work like this?  Yes, it has the stunning physical beauty (like Seattle, but with better weather), but it has so much more that makes it an urban area that is pleasant and fun and works!!!

Australia’s a great place, and I hope this was just the first of many visits.  Hey, I’ve got to go back….I signed up for Qantas’ frequent flyer program!!!

A Tribute to My Father

It has now been seven years since my father died. Below are the words that I spoke in farewell and tribute to my dad at his memorial service on January 25, 2001, in Roseville, Minnesota.  Speaking them before 600 people was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.  The first part of this tribute was written at 30,000 feet above the North Pacific Ocean.

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.  “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.”(John Piper)  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 com back.”  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.      


Tassie Coast

I’m writing this from the Online Access Center in St. Helens, Tasmania ("Tassie," as the locals call it). I picked up at smart blue Toyota at the Launceston airport yesterday and drove over here.  It was only about 120 miles, but it took over three hours to get here.  What the map didn’t clearly show were the three mountain ranges that had to be crossed.  I would get over one only to find myself in a valley surrounded on all sides by more mountains.  Only one way out–up and over.  Each range was covered with thick, lush forests—rain forests almost.  It was absolutely gorgeous.  The terrain here sort of reminds me of the Oregon Coast, only with really strange trees.  Instead of tall, stately pines there are tall gnarly gum trees (what I would associate with a tropical climate, which this defintely isn’t!). There is definitely something wrong with this picture.  One of the forests I drove through had just had a bush fire go through—as in the day before.  There was still smoke in the air, and I could look into the forest and still see small fires burning.  Bizarre.

When I checked into a motel last night I asked the clerk if the motel had internet access.  Now I will grant you that he is possible that he couldn’t understand my Yankee accent, but the word "internet" seemed qutie foreign to him.  "Internet," I said.  "You know, email!" "No, we don’t have anything like that here," he replied.  Bill Bryson’s right when he says that in rural Australia it’s always 1975! 

I’m off to visit Bay of Fires. All the signs and advertising say it is rated as the "second most beautiful beach in the world."  Hmm.  I wonder which one is "most beautiful." 


Here in Australia, hiking is called bush-walking.  It seems everything that is not urban is classified as “bush”.  Yesterday, since my teaching responsibilities were done by the afternoon, I decided to take a walk in the bush above the training center where I have been staying. It was a nice warm day, and I needed the exercise.  I was having a nice walk until about 20 minutes up the trail, when the trail was narrowing and the bush getting decidedly thicker, I suddenly heard a rustling to the left of the trail, and caught, out of the corner of my eye, some creature dart REALLY FAST along the trail and dive into a thicket.  Need I say that I jumped straight up and let out a yelp?  And turned around and started walking straight back from whence I had come?  About 50 yards ahead, the same thing happened, only this time on the other side of the trail.  Either the critter was circling in for the kill or he had called in for reinforcements and the the ambush was being set.  Another yelp on my part and I was practically running out of the bush.  It’s important to keep in mind here that I had just finished reading Bill Bryson’s book, In a Sunburned Country, in which he takes great pains to point out that  Australia has  one of the world’s highest concentrations of deadly creatures.  I have no idea what it was, and am quite sure that it was NOT one of those deadly creatures, but it spooked me nonetheless.  When I got back to the campus and told my Aussie friends about this close encounter with a mystery creature they all howled.  Dumb foreigner!

Today a local friend took me to Cradle Mountain for a hike.  In 2 hours we encountered all manner of weather–sunshine, rain, sleet — in several cycles.  And walked through all manner of terrain from tundra-like to rain forest.  Stunning.

Apparantly road-kill is a problem in Tasmania.  Here’s a sign reminding drivers not to hit the kangaroos!

Back to the Future

Now this is interesting.  The Chinese government announced yesterday that, beginning on June 1,  stores and shops in China will no longer be able to give out free plastic bags to customers.  They will need to bring their own cloth or string bags for their items.  We’ve come full circle now.  When I first went to China in the mid-1980’s there were no plastic bags.  Everyone had their own mesh bags or baskets and took them along when they went shopping. We used to think it was wonderful.  Then China modernized and went the route of plastic bags, which soon became a blight on the national landscape.  Literally.  They are discarded everywhere, and when the wind in a Chinese city picks up (like it often does in Beijing), they fly all over the place, ending up in trees and powerlines.  I remember once biking in the countryside outside of a city in the northeast and seeing an entire field covered in pink and blue plastic bags. We thought we had stumbled on the farm where they were grown!  The plastic bags are convenient, that’s for sure, but I think China might be better off without them.  We’ll see soon enough!

Mis-sent to Tasmania

Back in the old days, when I first went to China (mid-80’s), our main means of communicating with the folks back home was the beloved "aerogram," those single blue sheets that we scribbled on, folded up and put in the mail.  The price included the cost of international postage, thus making them the most affordable way of mailing letters back and forth.  I can’t remember now what the cost was, but anyway, it was cheap.  They were pretty fast as well, making the trip across the pond from Minnesota to Zhengzhou (where I lived then ) in about 10 days. Most of the time.  Occasionally one of these aerograms would take a detour before getting to me (and I don’t mean through the local public security bureau, although that was always a possibility). They would actually be mistakenly sent to other places.  I received one once that had a big stamp on it that said MIS-SENT TO SHREVEPORT!   Shreveport? Shreveport and Zhengzhou didn’t even sound or look the same!  It had been mailed about 5 weeks earlier.  My favorite wandering aerogram, however, came with a big stamp on that said MIS-SENT TO TASMANIA. Now that was interesting. Tasmania, an island off the southern coast of Australia, about as far away from anywhere as you can be and still be on the planet.  And my little aerogram had gone there.

Ever since receiving that letter I have wanted to visit Tasmania, to be stamped "mis-sent to Tasmania."  And here I am, in Tasmania!  I still can’t believe it.  It’s gorgeous.  It’s warm (70’s). The people are friendly.   Having a wonderful time. Wish you were here.