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.


“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.


Videos of other cities can be found here.

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!


Insider, Outsider, and a Dying Toddler

You may have heard the news this week about a toddler in southern China who was run over by a small van (twice) and left unattended in the road while at least 18 people walked by without offering any assistance. The entire incident, from the girl first being run over to the arrival of a scrap collector who finally carries her out of the street was captured by security cameras and, as you can imagine has caused quite an uproar here in China.The video is all over the internet, but I will not link to it here; it's too disturbing.

Chinese social media exploded with discussions about how such a thing could happen.  Some say it is just another example of the breakdown of morality in a modern China that only values money. Others lay the blame at recent cases where bystanders have helped someone in need, only to be accused of causing the injury in the first place and thus being held financially responsible by the court. In other words, to help might bring the helper and his/her family mafan ("trouble"), both legally and financially.

Someone online started a "Stop the Cold-heartedness" campaign.

I also think that the insider/outsider mentality that I wrote about in my previous post plays a part in situations like these, which are actually common in China.  The difference here is that it was filmed for the entire world to see.

Interestingly, in all of the articles and analyses that I have read about this, the only journalist who's mentioned this aspect is Austin Ramzy, of Time who writes in a piece titled  Amid Anger Over Grisly Collision, China recognizes a Humble Hero:

"In his 1939 work Peasant Life in China, Chinese anthropologist Fei Xiaotong examined how social obligations were determined by the closeness of relationships. Fei "called this a concentric pattern of social relations with positions measured by how close one stood in relation to the actor," Linda Wong wrote in her 1998 book Marginalization and Social Welfare in China. "The more distant the location from the centre, the weaker the claim, so that ultimately one did not have any obligation to people unknown to oneself."

I don't know you, therefore you aren't.

Some are calling for the establishment of  "Good Samaritan" laws to prevent these types of incidents. I suspect that the cultural context of the Good Samaritan story was similar to China, in that there were clear distinctions between insiders and outsiders, Jews and Samaritans, and this is exactly why the story must have been so radical to those listening.

May we all (Chinese and foreigners) be more like the Good Samaritan, challenging cultural conventions and saying "God knows you, therefore you are."


Three more good articles:

Would a Good Samaritan Law in China have Helped Little Girl (Josh Chin, China Real Time Report)

A note on Chen Xianmei, China's most famous "trash collector." (Adam Minter, Shanghai Scrap)

Shocking Foshon Incident Reveals an upspoken illness at China's core (Yajun Zhang, The Guardian)



Still Wearing My Sandals

When I left my house this morning my housekeeper, noticing that I was wearing sandals, let out a yelp! Never mind that it was 70 degrees outside,  this was obviously not acceptable.

I have heard it said that in the former Soviet Union there used to be a joke: “If you see a Bulgarian, beat him.  He will know why.”

As I nervously walked past the grannies with their grandkids in the playground outside my apartment building, I had a nagging fear that these grannies live by a similar rule:  “If you see a middle-aged foreign woman wearing sandals after October 1, beat her.  She will know why.”

I have previously written about the great cultural clash that my sandals have become.  You can read about it here.

A Midnight Stroll

MiP-Jacket-Image Recently some friends and I have enjoyed reading the book "Midnight in Peking" by Paul French. Here's the description of the book from the book's website:

January, 1937: Peking is a heady mix of privilege and scandal, lavish cocktail bars and opium dens, warlords and corruption, rumours and superstition – and the clock is ticking down on all of it.

In the exclusive Legation Quarter, the foreign residents wait nervously for the axe to fall. Japanese troops have already occupied Manchuria and are poised to advance south. Word has it that Chiang Kai-shek and his shaky government, long since fled to Nanking, are ready to cut a deal with Tokyo and leave Peking to its fate.

Each day brings a racheting up of tension for Chinese and foreigners alike inside the ancient city walls. On one of those walls, not far from the nefarious Badlands, is a massive watchtower – haunted, so the locals believe, by fox spirits that prey upon innocent mortals.

Then one bitterly cold night, the body of an innocent mortal is dumped there. It belongs to Pamela Werner, the daughter of a former British consul to China, and when the details of her death become known, people find it hard to credit that any human could treat another in such a fashion. Even as the Japanese noose on the city tightens, the killing of Pamela transfixes Peking.

Seventy-five years after these events, Paul French finally gives the case the resolution it was denied at the time. Midnight in Peking is the unputdownable true story of a murder that will make you hold your loved ones close, and also a sweepingly evocative account of the end of an era.

It's a riveting story, well-told, and made all the more interesting by the fact that the setting for the story is so familiar.

Last Saturday, a friend and I downloaded the audio walk, which retraces the scenes and locations written about in the book. The most amazing thing to me is that, in a city where many of the hutong neighborhoods have been destroyed, the neighborhoods that form the backdrop for the book have all survived.

Here are a few photos from our walk:

Fox tower 3 (Small)

"The Fox Tower" (as it was known at the time). Now it's just called the Southeast Corner Tower. It used to mark the southeast boundary of the city wall that encirled Beijing. It is the only corner tower that survived the city wall's destruction in the 1960's.

Fox tower 1 (1 of 1) (Small)

The tower from another perspective

Chuanban hutong 1 (1 of 1) (Small)

Chuan Ban Hutong — much of the story takes place on this small street

Suzhou hutong 4 (1 of 1) (Small)

Suzhou Hutong, another street that features prominantly in the story.

If you're looking for a great 'whodunnit?' book to read, I highly recommend this one.

And if you're in Beijing, read the book and do the walking tour.  It's fantastic!



I help people prepare for and navigate the challenges of cross-cultural living through writing, speaking, and training.

Services offered include cross-cultural communication training, China briefings, and strategic networking.

Training/Speaking Topics include:

  • Cross-cultural Communication
  • Cultural Adjustment
  • Preparing for Work in China
  • Contemporary China
  • Language Acquisition
  • Chinese Language Learning

I have successfully provided training/consulting services for the following:

  • English Language Institute/China (Changchun, Beijing, China)
  • Northwestern College (St. Paul, MN, USA)
  • Wheaton College, Illinois (Wheaton, IL, USA)
  • International Academy of Beijing  (Beijing, China)
  • Institute for Cross-cultural Studies (Wheaton, IL, USA and Chiang Mai, Thailand)
  • ChinaSource (Hong Kong, China)
  • Lenovo (Beijing, China)
  • Marvin Windows( Warroad,MN, USA)
  • Minnesota Trade Office (St. Paul, MN, USA)
  • ZDL Books (Beijing, China)
  • InspiredBeijing (Beijing, China)
  • New Century Language School (Tianjin, China)

A Mountain of People, an Ocean of People

Ren shan ren hai is a Chinese 4 character idiom that means "a mountain of people, and an ocean of people."  In other words, lots of people.  And lots of people is something that this country has!  Whenever I'm engaged in a conversation with a Chinese friend (or stranger, such as a taxi driver) about some social problem that China has, the conversation will invariably end with the Chinese person sucking his/her teeth (a non-verbal that signals that there is a problem) and saying "there are too many people in China."  It always seems to come down to that.

The mountains and oceans of people were out in force this weekend to celebrate National Day. and here are a couple of photos to prove it.  The one on the left was taken at the Forbidden City (and you thought it was crowded the day YOU visited), and the one on the right was taken on the river front in Shanghai.

Bj sh national day from weibo

(photo source: