Ethnic Minority Park

I’m back in the Middle Kingdom for a couple of weeks, traveling with some friends. Last week, we stopped into the China Ethnic Culture Park, located close to the famous Bird’s Nest. Although I lived in the city for 15 years, it was actually my first visit.

However, even though I had never been there, the park is one that looms large in the annals of bad translation folk lore in the minds of Beijing expats who were around in the 2000s. In the run-up to the Beijing 2008 Olympics, the city launched a campaign to “clean up” the bad English signage. This was a good thing since the sign on the nearby freeway exit ramp pointing drivers to the park said RACIST PARK NEXT EXIT. It was a very very bad translation of the word minzu (民族) which is best (or at least better) translated as ethnic group.

On a Monday morning, my friend and I pretty much had the park to ourselves. In the hour we were there we saw 3 gardeners, 1 peddler, 2 leaf sweepers, 1 other tourist, and a slightly bored-looking group of high school students.

Here a a few photos:

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Gracie on the Air

Last week, my mom (aka Gracie) was invited by Bill Arnold to be on his afternoon radio program on Faith Radio (KTIS) in the Twin Cities. He does a regular spot he calls “Words of the Wise,” where he features conversations with people who are over 80.

She qualifies!

You can listen to the interview here.

And here are some fun photos!

Way to go, Gracie!!

The Ship

In case you’re wondering about the ship we were on, it was the Norwegian Breakaway, one of the largest vessels in the Norwegian Cruise line’s fleet. 3900 passengers and 1500+ crew!

The highlight of every evening was watching the sun set as we left port.

 

Stockholm

The last port of call our Baltic cruise earlier this month was Stockholm, the capital of Sweden — another city that I have always wanted to see. And like the other cities on our trip, it did not disappoint either!

In fact, I would say that it’s location on the water and old world architecture make it truly one of the most beautiful cities I’ve ever visited.

And of course, as was the case in Denmark, for this Minnesotan, everyone looked vaguely familiar!

It was a fantastic trip; hard to believe I was just setting out a month ago. If you ever have a chance to do a Baltic cruise, do it!

And now I’m off to Hong Kong for a meeting! Back Sunday!

Finland

When I was a junior high-school student at Karachi American School in Pakistan (in the early 70s), my art teacher was a woman from Finland. I liked her (even though I was terrible at art), and ever since then I have wanted to visit Finland. So I was thrilled that Helsinki, Finland was one of the ports of call on our cruise earlier this month.

As the ship docked early in the morning, a thick fog descended onto the city. We missed some of the wider views of the city, but it still managed to be impressive.

After a drive around the city, we travelled 35 miles east to visit the historic city of Porvoo, a charming 800-year-old town.

The town is dominated by the Porvoo Cathedral, a Lutheran Church that contains a statue of Russian Czar Alexander I. He looms large in Finnish history as the Russian ruler who granted autonomy to Finland after it was taken from Sweden.

One of the books I read in advance of the trip was The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia, by Michael Booth. It’s a great book that examines the history and contemporary social/political issues, as well as cultural characteristics of Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Finland. It’s a great read.

The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia

And a book I now have on my wish list is Finland at War: The Winter War 1939–40, by Vesa Nenye and Peter Munter about the the Soviet attack on Finland during World War II. It’s a lesser-known story about that war.

Finland at War: The Winter War 1939–40

And for a fun link to China, here’s an interesting article in The Guardian about the popularity of Finland among many Chinese:

Why do millions of Chinese people want to be ‘spiritually Finnish?” A Finnish cartoon about a socially awkward stickman has become a hit in China — even inspiring a new word in Mandarin. Why has it struck a chord?

Three Layers of St. Petersburg

St. Petersburg is a city of layers with each layer corresponding to a different historical era and and each visible in the architecture and various sights around town.

The first is the classical layer which can be seen in the ornate architecture of the city built by Peter the Great. Many visitors assume that it is classical Russian architecture, but our guide reminded us that St. Petersburg was built as a European city, not a Russian one. It is this layer that most attracts visitors.

The second layer is that of the Soviet era, during which the city was named Leningrad. Vestiges of that era can be seen in the giant, nondescript apartment blocks that dominate the outer areas of the city.

Seeing these giant housing blocks was quite disorienting since they looked exactly like the thousands of apartment buildings that are commonplace in Chinese cities. As soon as we got out of the center of town — the old city — I felt like we could have been in Beijing (minus the crowds, mind you). In fact the photo above looks a lot like my old neighborhood in Beijing.

It was quite disorienting!

The Soviet era is also visible in the subway system, with its ornate Stalinist art extolling the virtues of the working class.

The third, and most recent layer of St. Petersburg is that of the post-Communist era, characterized by traffic jams, shopping malls, and gleaming skyscrapers.

During World War II, Hitler ordered his army to capture and destroy the city. Although it was under siege for 900 days, they were never able to take it. It is estimated that more than 1 million of the city’s inhabitants died, either of starvation and disease or during the frequent bombardments.

An excellent book about the siege is The 900 Days: The Siege Of Leningrad, by Harrison Salisbury.

The 900 Days: The Siege Of Leningrad

 

The Prodigal Son

One of my all-time favorite books is The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming, by Henri J. Nouwen. As such, one of the highlights of our visit to St. Petersburg was seeing the Rembrandt painting that inspired the book. It is housed in The State Hermitage Museum.

It was another one of those moments I almost curled up in a corner and cried, so overwhelmed was I to be seeing the painting.

Here’s the description of the painting from the museum website.

Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn. 1606-1669

Return of the Prodigal Son

Holland, Circa 1668

In the Gospel According to Luke (15: 11-32), Christ relates the parable of the prodigal son. A son asks his father for his inheritance and leaves the parental home, only to fritter away all his wealth. Arriving at last at sickness and poverty, he returns to his father’s house. The old man is blinded by tears as he forgives his son, just as God forgives all those who repent. This whole work is dominated by the idea of the victory of love, goodness and charity. The event is treated as the highest act of human wisdom and spiritual nobility, and it takes place in absolute silence and stillness. The drama and depth of feeling are expressed in the figures of both father and son, with all the emotional precision with which Rembrandt was endowed. The broad, sketchy brushstrokes of the artist’s late style accentuate the emotion and intensity of this masterly painting. This parable in Rembrandt’s treatment is addressed to the heart of everyone: “We should be glad: for this son was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found.”

 

St. Petersburg

Because I have long been a Russian history buff, our 2-day port of call in St. Petersburg, Russia was definitely one of the highlights of the trip for me. My fascination with Russian history began in high school when I read the book Nicholas and Alexandra (Tragic, Compelling Story of the Last Tsar and His Family), the story of the last Czar and his family, who were murdered by the Bolsheviks in 1918.

Nicholas and Alexandra (Tragic, Compelling Story of the Last Tsar and His Family)

The first stop on our tour of the city was the Peter and Paul Cathedral, inside the Fortress of Peter and Paul.

The Cathedral is where all of the Czars are buried, including Peter the Great and Catherine the Great.

In 1998, the remains of Nicholas and Alexandra and their children were interred in a side chapel of the cathedral.

I’ll be honest and say that I was so moved at the chance to be there and see these graves that I almost curled up in a corner and cried.

Almost.

In preparation for our visit to St. Petersburg, I read the book St. Petersburg: Madness, Murder, and Art on the Banks of the Neva It helped put into context what we were seeing.

St. Petersburg: Madness, Murder, and Art on the Banks of the Neva

Now I’m reading Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman, by Robert K. Massie (author of Nicholas and Alexandra).

Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman