No Medical Privacy Here

Yesterday I decided to slip away from my conference to visit a local hospital here in Chiang Mai.  I wanted to see a dermatologist about a funny spot above my eyebrow.  I stopped off at the check-in desk and they sent me to the fourth floor, where the sweet nurses escorted me to a nice waiting room. 

About 5 minutes later, another nurse came in and called me to a desk in the room.  Beside the desk was a blood-pressure measuring contraption into which I was instructed to stick my arm. I did so, and it squeezed.  When it had locked on the reading, it (the machine) announced in a loud "voice" what my blood pressure was.  For some reason in Asia, there is an affinity for machines that talk.  Now everyone in the room knew what my blood pressure was.  It spit out a piece of paper which I get to keep as a souvenier of my visit. 

After taking my blood pressure for all the patients to see, she had me stand on the scale in the waiting room.  I did so, praying with all my might that it was not another talking machine!  Fortunately, it wasn't.

When I did get in to see the dermatologist, she pronounced my spot to be nothing of consequence.  I stopped off at the cashier and paid my $9 and left. 

Three Kinds of Foreigners

I'm in Chiang Mai, Thailand this week, attending a conference.  Unlike Bangkok, it's big sister in the south, Chiang Mai is a laid back town with tons to keep tourists entertained: elephant rides, jungle trekking, butterfly farms, foot massages, shopping, and great eateries.

Being a compulsive people-watcher, I enjoy watching the tourists who breeze through here.  Based on my observations it seems to me that every foreigner in town this week falls into one of three categories:  young hippy-trekkies, oversized European tourists, and English teachers from China.

By their clothes ye shall know them!!!

Happy Niu Year!

Here in Beijing we are only 15 minutes away from the beginning of a new year–the Year of the Ox.  The fun thing about that is the Chinese word for ox is niu (pronounced nee-you….say it real fast). 

Since it got dark around 6pm the city has turned into a free-fire zone.  Virtually all bans on fireworks have been lifted, and it seems that most people on the streets and in the neighborhoods are doing their best to match the fire-power of the Olympics Opening Ceremonies fireworks displays!  And I'm not talking professionals here, folks—-just ordinary people roaming about blowing things up. Big things. 

I was at a friend's house this afternoon, but left in time to make sure I arrived home before dark.  I did not want to be caught walking home without my body armor.

I live in a housing estate that has 15 20 story towers.  People are now pouring out of the buildings in preparation for the magic midnight hour.  As I look down on the gathering storm from my apartment I can't help question the wisdom of setting off BIG boxes of fireworks next to so many cars. 

Sleep will not be an option tonight.


A Dog’s Life

I stumbled across this column by humorist Dave Barry.  It's for all you dog lovers out there.  Be warned, though:  do not read this if your bladder is full.  Just don't.  Here's the opening graph…

I'm trying to convince my wife that we need a dog.  I grew up with dogs, and am comfortable with their ways.  If we're visiting someone's home, and I suddenly experience a sensation of humid warmth, and I look down and see that my right arm has disappeared to the elbow inside the mouth of a dog the size of a medium horse, I am not alarmed.  I know that this is simply how a large, friendly dog says: "Greetings! You have a pleasing salty taste!"

Go here to read the entire column.

Sharpening the Knife

One of the fun (and difficult) things about the Chinese language is that since it's been around for 5000 years or so, it has an idiom or set expression to cover every conceivable circumstance that a human being might find him/herself in. 

I learned a fun one yesterday:  磨刀不误砍柴功  (mo dao bu wu kan chai gong), which means "sharpening the knife longer can make it easier to hack the firewood."  In other words, take extra time to get it right in the preparation phase and then the work will be easier.

It was well-timed reminder for me as a couple of projects that I am working on are getting a much slower start than I would have liked.  But the delays now will definitely make things easier in the long run.

Don't forget to sharpen your knife!

A Tribute to My Father

Eight years ago today, 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

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


Life Below Zero

You will notice that that subtitle of my blog (see above) is "Random Thoughts on Living Well Where I Don't Belong." Well, here in Minnesota, we are just finishing our 3rd straight day of daytime temps not even managing to get above zero (F), and believe me if there is a place on this planet where NOBODY belongs, it is here.  So this post will be a detour—some random observations on living life below zero.

1. Since I come from China, the land where people begin wearing long underwear in October, and by January are wearing 4-5 layers under their clothing, I find myself wondering if anyone I see (in stores, restaurants, banks, church, etc.) is wearing long underwear.  When in a social setting I have to work hard not to either ask the people around me how many layers they have on, or even more importantly I must stifle the urge to reach over and grab their legs to start counting myself.  This, you see, is a fairly common occurrence in China.  I must admit, also, that there is less need here (even though it is colder than cold) because one is only outside long enough to get from the house to the car to the store to the car and back to the house. 

2.  Black ice will get you every time.  This is an invisible layer of ice that develops on the roadways.  Ironically it seems to attack SUV truck drivers the most, since they foolishly think that because they have 4WD they are immune.  No one is immune.  You hit a patch and you are going into the ditch.  No questions asked.

3.  My mom has an aversion to gloves.  Every time we go somewhere she is always clutching (NOT wearing) a pair in her hands.  There's nothing I can do to get her to actually put them on!  Go figure!

4. Cars are unbelievably dirty.  Sand and salt get dumped on the road by the ton, and end up coating the cars, leaving what some around here call "snow booger" hanging from the cars.  What's funny is that many people cope with cold by becoming obsessed with them, and can be seen wandering around parking lots kicking at every snow booger they see.  It's not a pretty sight.

5. I learned the hard way that it's probably not smart to go through the car wash as the temperatures are plunging then let the car sit idle for 24 hours.  Jumper cables anyone?

6.  If someone says it's too cold to snow, smack them.  It was ZERO the other day and we got an inch. 

7.  The snow is gorgeous.  Personally I can't get enough of it.  My friends who have to spend the rest of the winter here snarl at me when I say that.

Well, it is winter. And this is Minnesota, where we are actually quite good at living life below zero.

Twinkling with Inheriting and Development Achievement

This post is a re-run of something I wrote back in 2005.  It's still one of my favorites, and since only a half dozen people were reading my blog back then, I decided to post it again….

On Thursday night my landlady called and asked if she could come to my apartment because she had some translation questions for me. Now anyone who has been in China for awhile knows the fear and dread that
well up inside at the sound of someone asking for help with translation
work.  "Just read it over."  "It won't take long."  Those words always precede hours of painful and laborious mental gymnastics
trying to translate phrases like the one in the title of this post from
what we call "Chinglish" to English.

My landlady and her husband have their own business producing
publicity and promotional materials for schools in China.  Since English is so popular, these materials (from DVD's to brochures)
must all be in English as well as Chinese–never mind the fact that
very few English speakers will actually see or read them.  In the China
of 2005, one simply cannot produce something like this without any
English in it.  My landlady out-sources the translations to
professionals; however, there are times when, for some reason, she
doubts the accuracy of the translations, so asks me to look at them to
see if the English makes sense and if it indeed accurately reflects the
Chinese meaning.

Yesterday she had one such project for me, and that noise you heard emanating from the western side of Beijing on Friday was the sound of
two cultures and languages clashing! 

An interesting feature of Chinese
discourse is the use of poetic and flowery language in nearly every
conceivable context, formal and informal.  A language that has been
around for 3000 years has quite the collection of poetry, expressions,
and idioms, and they are all to be used as much as possible. 

The phrase "twinkling with inheriting and inheriting achievement" is merely an extreme
example.  The document we worked on had line after line after line of
such phrases, and I was supposed to see if they were OK.  After
awhile of trying to decipher these, one of two things happens.  Either I read a sentence and decide
it makes perfect sense (a sure sign that I have been in China way too
long) or I have to attempt to convince her that it is impossible to
translate such a sentence.  In fact, after yesterday, I am convinced that there
should be a law against translating such sentences. 

When I read it in
Chinese, it makes perfect sense, but there's no way to get it into an
English sentence that both maintains the poetry and has meaning.  Take
your pick, Mrs. Li.  You can't have it both ways!  Ah, but you see, in
Chinese, they do have it both ways, because poetic language is not only
permissible in formal writing, it is expected, for it is one of the
main ways to demonstrate that one is a literate and cultured person. 

After my brain was fried to a crisp trying to disentangle that mess of a
sentence, we sat back and discussed the cultural differences.  I
explained to her that it was so difficult because in English we have
different sets of rules for business writing than for essay writing. 
Poetic and creative language can be used in essays, but not in business
writing.  Therefore, when translating such phrases, I may be able to come
up with some suitable English words that approximate the meaning, but
their presence in such a formal setting is completely unacceptable. 

Translating such a sentence is nearly impossible because it will never
come out in a manner that suits both sides.  If the Chinese person
insists that the emotional language remain, than it will be gibberish
in English.  If the English speaker wins, then the Chinese will feel
like the translation isn't close enough to the original (and they'd be
correct, of course).

In the course of the conversation, I learned the distinction between two Chinese words for written text:  wenzhang and wenjianWenzhang is the word for essays or articles of a literary nature.  Wenjian is the word for formal documents, like something a boss or leader might hand down to his/her underlings. Wenzhang demands emotional and flowery language.  Wenjian is cold and impersonal, and implies authority, command, and distance.  Poetic language is not used in wenjian.

Aha!  I said to her.  That's the problem.  To Chinese, a brochure like this is considered a wenzhang.  In English, it would be considered a wenjian
Finally a breakthrough in understanding (for both of us)….why the
languages were clashing.  In her mind what we were translating was a wenzhang and in my mind it's clearly a wenjian.  Finally she understood. Finally, I understood!

Wenzhang, Wenjian, …..let's call the whole thing off!