Conducting Debut

File this one in the “you’re never too old to do something new” folder. On Wednesday morning, my mom, who is a musician, but has never before directed a band, stood before a high school band in Wisconsin and directed as they played “The Stars and Stripes Forever.”


Here’s the back-story….

My mom loves to talk about things she’s always wanted to do. The rest of the clan tries to come up with ways to make them happen (often to her surprise and amazement).

“I’ve always wanted to drive John Deere tractor,” she said once. We contacted a farmer friend and arranged for her to drive one on her 70th birthday.

“I’ve always wanted to drive a zamboni,” she used to say, often. A family friend knew someone who worked at a local skating rink, so she arranged for my mom to drive one on her 80th birthday.

gp zamboni 3

In recent years, she has talked about her desire to direct a band playing “The Stars and Stripes Forever.” It so happens that the same friend who got her on the zamboni heard her express this wish is the conductor of the Hudson High School band in Hudson, WI. A couple of weeks ago, he called and told her his band was playing her song (so to speak). Would she like to come over one morning and direct it?

Of course she said yes.

In preparation, she spent the past 2 weeks practice-conducting with a YouTube clip of the Marine Band playing the song.

On Wednesday morning, she was ready for her conducting debut. Here it is in full.

Way to go, Gracie!

With winter just around the corner here in Minnesota, she’s now started talking about always wanting to drive a snow plow.

Looks like we have our work cut out for us!

Thirteen Five

The “China watcher” corner of The Internet nearly ground to a halt on Monday night and Tuesday after Xinhua, China’s official news agency posted this bizarre video to YouTube.

It’s a video designed to promote the upcoming release of the the government’s five-year economic plan (yes, China is still socialist enough that they do this), the 13th such plan since the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949. Shi san wu (十三五 ) — 13.5 — is a short hand reference, and apparently one that lends itself to a catchy rhyme.

In case you’re wondering about the significance of the five-year plan, here’s what The Economist has to say about it:

“In the era of Mao Zedong, China’s five-year plans were strictly implemented. The Communist Party set specific production quotas — for instance, for steel and grain — that work units had to meet. This central direction and, often, misdirection squandered resources to disastrous effect, leaving much of the country impoverished. In the 1980’s as the government loosened its grip on the economy, it also became a bit more relaxed about the five-year plans. Rather than rigid agendas, they have become more like rough guides to how leaders want to steer the country.

The five-year plans are no longer just economic in focus. Much attention is also given to environmental protection (there are targets for cutting carbon emissions and curbing energy use) and to social programmes such as health insurance. In the absence of democracy, the five-year plans are the closest thing to an election manifesto for the Communist Party, laying out its longer-term priorities. But since the party still has overwhelming power, the plans carry more weight than ordinary manifestos. All major actors — local officials, banks, and big companies, both state-owned and private — change their strategies and their rhetoric to look like they are in line with the plans.”

And as for the video itself, it’s not something that you can un-see, and for that I offer my apologies!

No, I’m not a China Expert

Whenever I’m in Beijing, riding around the city in a taxi, I usually end up having a conversation with a taxi driver that goes like this:

He: Where are you from?

Me: America.

He: Your Chinese is good.  How long have you been in China?

Me: More than 20 years.

He: Ah! You’re a zhongguo tong (a China Hand)

Me: Nali, nail! (Far from it.)


The Chinese dictionary app Pleco gives the following as definitions of zhongguo tong: China watcher; an expert on China; an old China hand.

But is there really such a thing as a China Expert?

David Wolf recently raised (and answered) this question on his blog Silicon Hutong in a post titled No China Experts. After declaring that he is NOT a China expert (never mind his working in China for nearly 20 years), he states emphatically “there is no such thing as a China expert.” Futhermore, he says,

“Anyone who comes to you claiming to be a “China expert” is either deluded (and thus to be pitied), lying (and thus suspect), or out to separate you from your money (and thus to be avoided).”

One of my favorite longer attempts at explaining the phenomenon of the “old China hand,” or the “China expert,” is in a chapter of the wonderful book published in 1992 called Getting Along with the Chinese for Fun and Profit, by Fred Schneiter. (It was later published in China under the title The Joy of Getting Along with the Chinese.) In the chapter titled “Old China Hands Won’t Admit it” he writes that there are no China experts, and those that actually know something about China and the culture (what Wolf might call “specialists”) know enough to deflect any attempts at being labeled as such:

“If Chinese comment on a foreigner’s expertise, a foreigner who understands how the Chinese see things is conditioned to deflect the suggestion with vigor, not from modesty, but because to do otherwise would simply make the foreigner appear foolish. The Chinese know there are no China experts. Don’t be misled by the fact that they may sometimes use the English or Chinese word for “expert” in referring to your particular knowledge specialty. There are few things you can do which make you appear more foolish than to have the word “expert” on your business card or to give anyone the idea that you think you are quite something. While Chinese develop a special regard for foreigners who work at trying to learn China’s ways, they appreciate a foreigner being cultured enough to be modest about it. I often suspect that in sizing up a new foreign acquaintance, Chinese occasionally are inclined to toss out the “China expert” line simply to see if the foreign is savvy enough to know how to handle it.” (p. 77)

Perhaps Wolf says it best, then:

“China is to large, too old, and too complex to be sufficiently understood by a single individual. At the very most, we can be “specialists.” We can never be experts.” 

Amen to that!

By the way, even though Getting Along with the Chinese for Fun and Profit was written in the early 1990’s, it really is a must-read. I’ve been re-reading it this week, and am being reminded of how much my thinking and understanding of China and Chinese culture was shaped by this book.

Getting Along With the Chinese: For Fun and Profit (Travel/China) by Schneiter, Fred (2000) Paperback

And, besides being helpful, it is really quite funny. The writing style of Schneiter will have you chuckling the whole way through.

This post was originally published at ChinaSource under the title, China Expert? Far From It on October 5, 2015.

Friday Photos: This Week’s Best

In a slight departure from my normal Friday photo posts, which have only featured my own photos, today I am highlighting two photos out of China this week which made me chuckle and scratch my head.

The first is of the Chinese leader riding in a Cinderella carriage on his way to a state dinner at Buckingham Palace.


Here we have the head of the COMMUNIST Party of China, engaging in one of the most bourgeoisie things imaginable!

(Image credit: South China Morning Post)

The second photo is of a promotional event to highlight the Chinese Internet company Tencent being licensed by Disney to stream all six Star Wars Movies.


Storm troopers on the Great Wall! What’s not to love about that?

Image credit: Reuters, via


1912 Road Map

I love road trips and I love maps. In fact, when I take my road trips, I still use the good old Rand MacNally Road Atlas to figure out how to get from one place to another. No GPS for me, thank you very much!

Two weeks ago I had the chance to do a long and fast road trip from the Twin Cities to Colorado and back to attend a memorial service with my sister and mom. We had friends visiting from England, and we piled them into a rented mini-van with us so they could experience an American road trip. We left home on Tuesday morning, and returned on Saturday evening.

After we got back I ran across this fascinating map on a site called Internet Archives. It is a 1912 AAA road map of the United States, published in a magazine called The Bicycling World and Motorcycle Review.

I was particularly interested to see how one might have traveled by road from Minneapolis to Denver in 1912. (Please go here to see a larger version of the image.)

Screen Shot 2015-10-20 at 10.24.15 PM

Interestingly, you can see the ancestors (so to speak) of both I-35 that runs from Minneapolis to Des Moines, and I-80, which connects Des Moines to Denver (via I-76 spur).

If you’re interested in knowing more about the development of the US interstate system, I heartily recommend the book The Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways, by Earl Swift.

The Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways

Related Posts:

Road Trip Dreaming: Minnesota to Beijing

Scenes from a Western Road Trip

Road Trip: St. Paul to Skagway, AK

An Impromptu Road Trip

Friday Photo: Rutting Elk

Last week my mom, sister, and I had to make an unexpected trip to Colorado to attend a memorial service. Some friends were visiting from England, so we decided to take them along on a Great American Road Trip.

Following the memorial service, we took them up to visit Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park. We were lucky enough to be there during the autumn elk rutting season. There were elk everywhere, even in the city parks.

But it was in Rocky Mountain National Park itself where we got to see this:



Holiday Traffic Jam

I’m a little late to the party, but this video has been flying around The Interwebs all weekend. It is a drone-shot video of an insane traffic jam on a highway just outside of Beijing — a highway that I have travelled many times.

I must admit that I chuckled at some of the headlines which described it as a jam on a 50-lane highway. A 50-lane highway? Really? I can assure you that there is no such thing as a 50-lane highway in China (or anywhere, for that matter).

Here’s what you are seeing: the highway coming into town is actually a 3 lane freeway. On the outskirts of the city is a toll booth, with perhaps a dozen or so toll booths. The traffic spreads out to the booths and must re-merge back into 3 lanes on the other side.

Unfortunately, what happens (and what is seen in this clip) is that the cars do not get into neat lines for the upcoming tool booths; rather that just take up every inch of tarmac as they jockey for position. In other words, three lanes spill into 50, then squeeze back to a dozen, then back to 3.

Here’s what I can’t figure out: this happens every year, so why do so many drivers head there in the first place?

Related Posts:

Dancing Traffic Cops

Zhengzhou Traffic Jam, 1984

Mooncake Traffic

Death by Traffic Jam