Over the River….

I am sure that we will cross at least one river, and we’ll definitely be driving through some woods on our way to Lutsen this morning.  My nieces are scattered around the country (Edinburg, TX; Hollywood, CA; Juneau, AK), so neither my mom, sister, nor I had much interest in putting on a big Thanksgiving Dinner.

So we’re going to Lutsen Resort, on the north shore of Lake Superior.  We’ve rented a condo and made reservations for the Thanksgiving Buffet at the lodge so we’re good to go. If  you were hanging around this blog 4 years ago, you may remember that Lutsen is the sight of the infamous blizzard wedding of Pierre and Kari. (my niece).

In case you missed it, and in honor of the happy couple who now live in Juneau, Alaska, here is a reprise of the blog:


I could be wrong, but unless you were one of a small group of people who attended my niece’s wedding  last weekend, you have probably never heard a bride utter those words into a microphone just before reciting her vows. Don’t worry.  It wasn’t a reference to those upcoming vows, but most likely was a reference to the fact that we were all standing outside along the shores of Lake Superior in a blinding snowstorm.

We Minnesotans spend most of our winter existence walking a fine line between being hardy and insane.  I guess at that moment my niece surmised that we had all crossed the line into insanity, never mind the fact that she and the groom were leading the way. Her statement notwithstanding, however, the consensus among the guests was that it was the most fun wedding.  Ever.  It wouldn’t surprise me if the headlines in the local newspaper read “Beach Wedding in a Blizzard.”  When it was all over, there was a foot of new snow on the ground and a happily married couple.  And, as far as I know, no one caught pneumonia, which is a good thing as well.

To say that the wedding of Kari and Pierre was unconventional would be an understatement.  But then again Kari has never done anything conventional in her life, so there was no reason to expect that her wedding would suddenly be conventional.  To start with, neither of them like to be the center of attention, so the thought of the typical American “princess for a day” wedding was out of the question.  They wanted something that would be fun — for their friends, not just them, and something that would allow all of us to get in touch with our inner Minnesotans.  The logical place then was outside, and in Minnesota, “outside” doesn’t get any better than the north shore of Lake Superior, that greatest of Great Lakes.  And along The North Shore there is no finer establishment than Lutsen Lodge, a historic resort nestled in a cove where the Poplar River runs into the Lake.  Never mind that the date was December 1.

The weekend wedding festivities began on Thursday night, with Pierre’s father preparing a home-cooked Lebanese meal for the families and the other early birds who had arrived.  Stuffed zuchini, pita, bakhlava—all in the heart of lutefisk country!  Friday was a day for “playing” (as the Chinese would say).  Some folks went  to Sven and Olie’s Pizza in Grand Marais, some played hockey, and others just enjoyed the beauty of the shore.  Friday evening, the guests convened again for  dinner at a restaurant at Lutsen Mountain.  Another unconventional aspect to this wedding was that there were no groomsmen or bridesmaids (they didn’t want friends to have to spend money buying outfits they would never wear again).  And since it was to be a short ceremony outside, there really wasn’t anything to rehearse, so instead of this being a rehearsal dinner for members of the wedding party, it was a groom’s dinner for everyone.  Pizza, buffalo wings, and dart-games were the order of the evening.

The wedding announcements had stated that the ceremony would be held outside “weather permitting.” If weather didn’t permit, then it would be held in a conference room in the lodge.  Saturday morning we awoke to news of a major snowstorm headed our way.  A big one.  A “ten-incher.”  Would this be the impermissible weather that forced us indoors? Not likely….that would be far too conventional for this couple. By noon the snow was flying.  By 3pm, it was flying horizontally….off the lake!  Never mind.  At 3:30 all the guests gathered down on the shoreline, sipping coffee and hot chocolate. Then Kari and her dad walked down from the lodge.  I probably don’t need to add here that the ceremony was short, and as soon as it was over we all fled back to the lodge for a wonderful sit-down dinner. I think one thing is clear—this wedding has forever raised the bar on what is meant by “weather permitting.”

After dinner, the plan was to gather around a bonfire on the beach.  But there was this little problem of a raging blizzard.  Could one actually start a bonfire in a blizzard, and if so, would anyone in their right mind actually go out and enjoy it.  Well, we learned that the answers to both questions for this group were a resounding YES.  It wasn’t easy, but eventually Ken became the hero of the weekend and got the fire going.  The bride and groom changed back into their ice-fishing clothes and joined the party by the fire, singing and dancing to Johnny Cash tunes (Pierre had driven his truck down to the beach) late into the night.

The next morning we bad the bride and groom farewell as they headed off on their honeymoon….to Ely, Minnesota!  The rest of the family loaded up the vans and cars and headed back to the Cities, still chuckling about the beach wedding in a blizzard!

Congratulations, Pierre and Kari.  We love you!

Click here to see more photos of the wedding.

Not surprising for a couple who were married in a blizzard on the beach, Kari and Pierre spent last winter homesteading in Alaska, on the edge of the Aluetian Islands. You can read about their adventures ontheir blog North to Alaska. Now they are living in Juneau, and they blog at Whaleburps. Click on over and check it out.


Summer Palace in Spring

Time for another old photo post. This one was taken in 2002, so it isn’t actually that old.  But it’s one of my favorites, so I thought I’d share it. The view is from from the temple at the top of Longevity Hill, situated on the northern shore of Kunming Lake inside the Summer Palace grounds in Beijing.   It is facing west towards the Fragrant Hills. This is a 20 minute bike ride from where I live.

Consider it proof that we do, on occasion, have gorgeous days in Beijing!

Noel and Joann’s Excellent Adventure

I'm not entirely sure what I'm getting into, but in March Noel Piper and I will be making a trek across China — Shanghai, Wuhan, Chongqing, Chengdu, and smaller cities in the mountains southwest of Chengdu — tracing the footsteps of Esther Nelson, a Swedish immigrant from Minnesota who worked in China from the late 1920's until 1951. 

Noel is researching to write a biography of Ms. Nelson, and has enlisted me as her guide, translator, and all-around side-kick. She blogs at Tell Me Where to Pack, and earlier this week explained the purpose of the trip in a post titled Our "Following in the Footsteps" Expedition:

Esther Nelson’s average-looking exterior hid an adventurer’s heart. Who could have foretold that the self-deprecating Swede-turned-Minnesotan would spend her life in China?

Nowadays, some travel to China several times a year. But for Esther to travel to Sichuan from Minneapolis in 1924, 1932, 1939, and 1947 was 15 weeks by train, ferry, ocean liner, river steamer, raft, chair, rickshaw, foot and maybe mule or wheelbarrow. This was true of every traveler from America to China until not so very long ago.

During the epochal years of 1924-1951, Esther lived in Chengdu, Yachow, Suifu, Ya’an, and Huili, working as a nurse and as a teacher of nursing students. Her first post was during the early years of what later became Sichuan University. In addition, her interest in the minority peoples of the Tibetan Plateau sent her trekking to villages as far away as 60 Li.

This was an era of warlords, civil war, invasion and liberation. In 1927, she evacuated to Shanghai because of anti-foreign activities. In 1935, the Chengdu hospital was flooded with casualties from the Long March nearby. In 1940, she stayed in Suifu despite Japanese bombs. In 1945, she evacuated to America due to Japanese invasion, returning to China in 1947. In 1951, she had to flee, even without an exit visa. This was a grueling trek, during which a young mother died near Hanyuan, leaving 4 children. Esther cared for the motherless infant through the rest of the journey. Perhaps we will find the monument to the lost mother still there.

I am 63. In the end, Esther was 61. It seems propitious to follow now in the footsteps of this remarkable woman, along with Joann Pittman, another woman who has made China home and brings almost three decades of language and cultural experience to the venture.

Through visiting places Esther lived and following routes she traveled—in particular that last journey wrenching her from her beloved land and people—we want to understand her life, place and people from a perspective closer to her experience. As she wrote: “I cannot explain how happy I am to be going up this river once again. There is something takes a hold of me, thrills me, as I go inward. It cannot be explained, it can only be experienced.”

Esther Nelson’s story rests now in her letters waiting to be told, a story that is intimately interwoven with China’s. A story that both Chinese and others need to hear and see to understand better those historic years and their own place in history and to appreciate those who have gone before and to see what it’s like now in comparison.

Our digitalized albums of Esther’s pictures will be conversation starters and might connect us with a child or grandchild of one of her students or neighbors. Our photography as we travel will give a glimpse of China today through the immediacy of blogging, as we are able. Later a biographical travelogue book will grow from this venture, with photos of then and now.

We go in the spirit of Esther Nelson, leaving the USA: “Fare thee well my dear, dear church. Farewell Minneapolis. Farewell, Minnesota, state of 10,000 lakes, and farewell USA. As I leave you waving farewell, I turn and on the other side there is the waving and beckoning of welcome—my chosen people.”

We'd love to have you go along with us as virtual  fellow travellers, which you can do by subscribing to this blog and Noel's blog.

And a reminder…..comments are now open on this blog.  Click on the 'comments' link below  (if you're reading this by email, you'll need to go to the site).  I'd love to hear from you.


Book Give-away

My friend Noel Piper, who blogs at Tell Me When to Pack is giving away two free copies of my book “Survival Chinese Lessons.” To enter, visit her site and leave a comment.


And while you’re there, you can read about our upcoming adventure– following in the footsteps of Esther Nelson, a Swedish immigrant from Minnesota who worked in China in the 1930’s and 1940’s.


“Live the Language” – a Great Beijing Video

Sitting in Minnesota, watching this short video of Beijing kind of makes me homesick! It was produced by Education First, a global study-abroad program. Click on the link and enjoy a tour of my adopted hometown.


EF – Live The Language – Beijing from Albin Holmqvist on Vimeo.

 (HT: Yourenotfromaroundhere.com)

Videos of other cities can be found here.

Nothing is As it Seems

In order to understand China today, it’s helpful to understand this simple rule: nothing is as it seems. In fact, I would say this rule applies when observing and analyzing nearly all segments of life in China:  politics, economy, social relationships, and even religion. To put it another way, whatever China seems to be at any given moment, it is in fact, the opposite.  This can be difficult for westerners because we tend to be dichotomist in our thinking, wanting something to be either this or that. We don’t do well with this AND that.


Rob Gifford, in his book China Road expresses well the confusion and bewilderment that await those engaged with China when he writes, “China messes with my head on a daily basis.  One day I think that it is really going to take over the world and that the Chinese government  is doing the most extraordinary thing the planet has ever witnessed…The next day it will all seem built on sand and I expect it to all come tumbling down around us.” (China Road, p. 17)


To illustrate this principle, I would like to highlight 8 myths or misconceptions that abound regarding China today.


Myth # 1:  China is a communist country. 


What I mean here by communism is a Communist or Marxist belief system. Although the Communist Party of China (CCP), with its 72 million members, remains firmly in power, the reality is that communism is no longer a unifying ideology. China today is essentially a consumer society. Every human being is hard-wired to want more stuff, and the Chinese are no different. The economic reforms of the past 30 years have significantly raised the standard of living of most Chinese, and China’s participation in the global economy means that anything can be purchased for a price.  Most Chinese today are concerned with the bettering their economic condition and/or the accumulation of wealth.


Myth # 2:  China is a capitalist country


Capitalism here of course refers to a particular economic system, where the means of production are in private hands. While private enterprise is flourishing in China, there are many sectors that remain under state control. These include key sectors such as education, media, resources, and transportation systems. The official term that the Chinese use to describe their system is “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” When queried about this Chinese friends usually say “it means capitalism, but we’re still uncomfortable with the word.”  What it really describes is a system where the economy is increasingly ordered along free market principles, but the political system remains authoritarian.


Myth #3:  China is a wealthy, modern country


Since most visitors to China spend their time in cities, this is usually the overwhelming impression. To be sure, many cities are extremely wealthy and modern. However, trips to the rural areas of China reveal a different reality, namely that China is still very much a developing nation, where millions of people live in poverty, and have lifestyles that differ little from their ancestors of a hundred years ago. Recent statistics indicate that only 24 million people in China earn more than RMB 2,000 per month (approximately USD 300), the minimum tax exemption threshold. In other words, more than a billion Chinese still make less than RMB 2000 per month.


Myth #4:  China is a poor, backward country


The reality is that China has many characteristics of an emerging modern nation. There is extreme wealth, with China now lagging behind only the US in the number of billionaires. There is a sophisticated telecommunications system, with more than 900 million cell phone subscribers.  China has an ambitious space program that includes putting a man on the moon by 2025. These are not typically characteristics of a poor and backwards country.


Myth #5: People live under severe oppression.


While there was a time when fear was the dominant feature of the lives of Chinese people, the reality in China today is quite different. As the state and party continue to back out of personal lives (not entirely, mind you, as evidenced by the one-child policy) people today have many choices that were not available to them 10 or 15 years ago:  choosing majors and jobs; buying homes and cars; traveling abroad. In some ways the government has made a bargain with the people: we’ll give you space and freedom to prosper economically, and you leave the politics to us. “So long as you don’t challenge the authorities, you can say and do anything” is how a friend has described it to me.  It’s also important to remember that people in China are very patriotic, and they love their country deeply.


Myth #6:  People live in freedom


While Chinese people enjoy many personal freedoms today, they do not extend to the political sphere. Freedom of expression is severely limited, with no room for criticizing the government or the Communist Party. Citizens do not participate in choosing the leaders; rather they are appointed and selected within the personnel system of the Party. Further, since China’s legal system is still weak, and the Party sits outside (and above) it, people are often subject to the whim of local political leaders who are accountable to no one.


Myth #7:  Religious persecution is the normal experience for believers of all faiths


Many people have the false impression that no religious activity is permitted in China and that believers (particularly Christians) are severely persecuted.  While there was a time when that was true (1950’s to 1980’s), persecution is not the normal experience for most believers in China today. Religious belief has made a significant resurgence in the past 30 years.  There are 5 “approved religions” in China:  Buddhism, Daosim, Islam, Protestantism, and Catholicism.  Accurate numbers are difficult to come by, but Buddhism claims the most adherents, with Protestantism being second (perhaps 50-70 million). Christianity is the fastest growing religion, with that growth taking place in both the registered and unregistered churches. In addition, the church’s role in society seems to be expanding, with opportunities for church involvement in meeting social and humanitarian needs. In addition to the approved religions, Chinese traditional folk beliefs and superstitions are also common, especially among the rural population.


Myth #8:  There is religious freedom


While the government says it offers “freedom of religious belief,” it reserves the right to set the boundaries within which religious activities can be practiced, and those boundaries expand and contract in response to the political environment. Religious activities are under the supervision of the State Administration of Religious Affairs and the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (Self-Funding, Self-Governing, Self-Propagating). All religious activities must be registered and approved, and unregistered groups are often harassed and/or shut down. The government is fearful of allowing space for competing ideologies and belief systems that may pose a threat.


If you find all of this confusing then consider, once again, this quote from Rob Gifford: “If you’re not confused than you simply haven’t been paying attention.” (China Road, p. 274)

Where’s the Cockpit?

Last week, after a long flight from Beijing, via Seattle, I found myself in a hotel room near the Los Angeles International Airport. I was there to attend a conference.

When I got to my room, I spent several minutes hunting in vain for "the cockpit," the console (so ubiquitous in Chinese hotel rooms) which has switches that turn the lights and television on and off. It was nowhere to be found.

Once the initial confusion wore off, I had an idea — check the lamps directly.  Maybe I can just turn them on and off using their own switches. Sure enough, that worked.

What a novel idea!