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!

Related Posts: 

East and West and Hong Kong

Hong Kong, China. Really?

I (Heart) Hong Kong

Bound for Hong Kong

Chungking Mansions  – a Global Village

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

Learning Mandarin Chinese: 5 Great Ideas to Improve Your Skills

Note: This is a guest post by the good folks at the Learn Mandarin Website. They also recently interviewed me for a post on their site about effective language learning methods. 

street games in Beijing


Learning Mandarin Chinese can be undertaken via a wide variety of methods.

Recently, we at Learn Mandarin Now spent considerable time interviewing a number of Chinese language teachers, students and experts in order to find out about the preferred methods to effectively learn Chinese. We are now pleased to share with you five great ideas to improve your learning skills.

However, before we start, we’d like to sincerely thank Joann, from this blog, Outside In, for allowing us to write this post and who also contributed to our recent research.

The top tips can be summarised as:

  1. Learn Chinese by travelling to China

While not everybody can actually travel to China, owing to their particular circumstances, many people say that the most effective strategy is to go to the country and immerse yourself in the language. If you are really serious about learning Chinese and want to improve your skills quickly, this is certainly one of the best options. In fact, we discussed this subject with Joann previously: Learn Chinese in China.

  1. Keep on practicing

If you are not in China, or not able to travel there, there are sites such as Italki where you can still speak with native speakers. As an example, we know of some foreign students who learned to speak Cantonese even though they are not in a city where Cantonese predominates.

Obviously though, if you can get to China to live or work, one of the best ways to improve your language skills when you are there is to talk as much as you can to native Chinese speakers and try to blend into the local culture.

  1. Set attainable targets

While there are many online courses which claim to help you learn Mandarin Chinese quickly and easily, it’s important to remember that, no matter which way you choose, it will take years to speak fluent Chinese.

Don’t rush to try to study advanced Chinese; follow a clear learning pattern, starting with the basics—and don’t expect to know Chengyu or idioms from day one!

  1. Learning Chinese characters is a key element of learning Chinese

Often, students struggle with the dilemma whether to learn simplified or traditional Chinese characters. However, in our opinion, it’s rather more important to simply get started and begin to take some action. If you can master either type of character, you can basically understand the other type.

In any event, learning Chinese characters is an important element of learning and, in fact, we offer some tips and the strategy about how to learn Chinese characters in this interview.

  1. Learning better Chinese is not always expensive

From recent research we undertook with expert bloggers: How to learn Mandarin Chinese, we found numerous sites offering to help students learn Chinese. When we looked closely, it was apparent that most are free or only require a small investment to get started.

No matter which way you choose, please check out our website Learn Mandarin Now as we are always finding new ways to help you learn Mandarin Chinese in the most efficient manner!

Related Posts: 

Chinese Language Learning Infographic

Learning ABOUT Chinese (and Language Learning)

My Favorite Language Learning Quotes

Learning Chinese in the 1920’s

Learning Chinese in the 1600’s

A Letter to Chinese Language Learners

Imagine Learning Chinese Without Pinyin

How Long Does it Take to Learn Chinese?

Better Than a Sandwich

I have some friends from Beijing visiting for a couple of weeks, which is always a rip-roaring good time. One of the fun (and sometimes challenging) things is keeping them well-fed. They are not enamored with a lot of American food, so I’ve been trying to make sure they get a Chinese meal in every other day or so. We all know about comfort food, right?

ham and cheese sandwich


Last week, my sister and I took them to Leann Chin, a local “Chinese” fast-food place for their much-needed fix. My sister loves the place, but I am not a fan. It is, however, cheap and fast and the food is stir-fried so I suspected they would be satisfied. Bad Chinese food is better than good western food, right?

As they were (happily) eating, I asked the husband (who is a bit of a foodie) what he thought of the food.

He stopped eating his noodles, and looked up at me… “Better than a sandwich,” he said, smiling.

Now, whenever I need to keep him in line I threaten to make him eat a sandwich!

Related Posts:

Comfort Food

Chinese Restaurant Syndrome

Finger Food

Image credit: Jeffryw, via Flickr