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Ghost Whispers

death catcher

I learned today that my sister passed away. I learned over the Internet that she died in November of last year. She was much older than me and never in great health, so I had wrongfully assumed she had “crossed over” years ago. Tonight in the still heat of a stifling Guangzhou I smelled the sour scent of some hard traveled memories and heard her whisper to me….

No, we were not close. Marriage came early for her, when I was 5, and before I was developmentally mature enough to crave or mourn losses. My military family was turning corners in or out of countries every three years or so and making the word “home” an abstraction. My sister was never in our family pictures. I saw her only a few times through the years and her face in my mind’s eye is blurred. I can remember her often speaking of pain and that remains palpable.

Until tonight I had almost forgotten I had a sister. She had been adopted by my unmarried mother at birth. She saw herself later in life as a stubborn vine that connected all of us to my mother’s alcoholic ex-husband and his mistress: She was the offspring of an affair, so her past was kept secret by my simple and well-meaning parents until she was a teenager. My mother and father, emotionally unsophisticated and afraid, asked a Catholic priest to substitute for them and tell her that she was adopted. It did not go well.

I have been watching DVDs this week “expat style.” We often buy two or three seasons of a show at a time, ones we cannot watch on regular TV and then air them from beginning to end in only a few days. It is a way to keep current with our abandoned culture and remain bonded to the lexicon, fashions and familiar emotions of our birth home. This week I have been storming through two seasons of Ghost Whisperer. And I have come to love the show for its generally positive outcomes, its promotion of health through acceptance and forgiveness and its desensitization of our collective fear of the unknown.* The protagonist of the show, who can see troubled spirits, helps earthbound souls unpack the heavy emotional baggage that holds them here. She helps them release after-longing and pain from the past so they can peacefully migrate into their future. It is not a story about religion, or eschatology (life after death), but about how to live well and without regret.

My mother developed Alzheimer’s disease and never was able to finally confront the trauma of being abandoned by her impoverished mother during the Great Depression. Too, she rarely spoke about the man who had deepened her emotional wounds later in life. She did so to protect herself and to maintain some illusion of normalcy for my sister and me. There was no malice in her deception, though my sister never forgave her or my father and never found emotional nourishment that would sate the pain. Where my mother insulated herself with delusions ( and maybe her disease), my sister did so with anger and distrust. After my mother died, I read in another Internet article that my sister had embarked on a public journey to discover more about her origins. I hope to learn one day that she was successful.

I wonder if other expats learn about their vacated lives past and present as I do? I view time compressed, via boxed sets of information that arrive in emails, letters, DVD’s and Internet entries. It was almost five years ago to the day that I leaned my sister’s husband had died an improbable death: an avid outdoorsman, he had contracted Bubonic plague from an insect bite while hunting. He was the first man in America known to have succumbed to the disease in decades. He was the most gifted craftsman I have ever known, but held back from his dream of being a woodcarver and gunsmith by the needy gravity of my sister’s suffering. So, I grieved my loss and his because his short fame was only in the peculiarity of his demise. We wandering expats may seem not to care about what happens to you, but we do. I do. And I, like others, frequent the few paths we can find along time’s rivers looking for signs of you. But can be a lonely and overwhelming journey when information flows so fast from so far away.

I laugh, mourn, celebrate and educate in absentia. Memory also presents to me as a frightened bird that requires patience to keep it nearby long enough that I can study, appreciate and accept both its beauty and its flaws.

I pray that both my sister and my mother are finally at peace. I long ago forgave them for simply being human. I hope they forgave this homeless child for the manifestations of his confusion .

I am the earthbound spirit now: I am on the banks of the river, coaxing the birds and vigilantly listening for whispers….

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* In another coincidence, I was surprised to see that the crystal ball mind reader on the GW website was created by my old friend and British doppelganger Andy Naughton .

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Cinderella Teaching in the Greatest Monkey Show on Earth

China economy

An open letter to my students:

Two men recently completed a controversial recreation of Mao’s Long March. At every point along the march, people stared at them and puzzled over their purpose. On one particular occasion, a rural farmer walked up to the travellers and asked, “are you here to do a monkey show?” The historian-marchers, having long ago tired of explaining their journey, wearily assented. “Oh,” the farmer replied. “So…where are the monkeys?”

One of my colleagues (your teacher) a year ago told me that there were two types of expatriate educators in China: performing and non-performing monkeys. It was his feeling that neither administration nor the student body understood any of the reasons he elected to remain in China as a teacher.

Any of you who have been my students in the past two years have seen the movie Cinderella Man. Many of you remember two of the questions I asked following the movie: who would you most like to be in the movie, and who do you think I would most like to be? A few of you knew immediately what my answer would be. It’s the same answer I would expect from anyone who has devoted their life to pedagogy. Some of you wanted to Jim Braddock, champion of the world, devoted parent, and courageous cum-victorious underdog. Others of you would be happy being the rich, yet hardly kind, fight promoter. And a small group of you were comfortable, as I was, picking Jimmy’s trainer as our role model.

I’ve been fortunate enough to have great successes in my life, but my greatest pleasure comes from seeing any one of my students succeed emotionally, personally, financially, or professionally.

Some doomsayers think that China’s spectacular growth is a fairy tale and doomed to a tragic end. If I believed that, I wouldn’t be here. But I believe that some of your notions about education, teachers, and Western culture must change or this will be a very short chapter in book 4,000 years in the making.

Many of you know that my expectations of you in class are different than some other foreign experts. I expect you, for the short time you are in my classroom, to behave as though you were a guest in a foreign country. I expect you to rehearse new patterns of behavior and to make a paradigm shift in your thinking about business and culture in order make to more effective global citizens and international businessmen.

I returned this week from a vacation of sorts, as I spent most of it reading and researching Chinese history and culture in order to better integrate myself into this society and to become a better teacher.

I can probably never expect to be more than a shengren, an outsider who one day you may come to know and trust as more than just an acquaintance. I know that I already view many of you as shuren, or as zijiren, special people for whom I will always have a place in my heart, and for whom I will always make time should you need me.

Here are some of the things I learned:

  • I learned that if your country’s explosive growth continues at its current rate for the next 28 years, your economy will be as large as that of the United States. While this sounds impressive, the reality is that you will still have only one quarter the spending power per capita at that time as your counterparts in America.
  • Your country, as estimated by UNESCO, will be 20 million college seats short of its needs by 2020.
  • In fields like engineering, only ten percent of your current college graduates, because of a lack of resources (including high-quality foreign teachers) and an advanced curriculum, will be able to compete with their global contemporaries.
  • China invests seven dollars of research and development money for a return of one dollar in new production output. Conversely, America’s ratio is one to one.
  • Your economy has doubled in size every six years, and 250 million people have been pulled up out of poverty. You have the second largest foreign reserves in the world. You made 25% of the world’s televisions, 60% of the world’s bicycles, and 50% of the world’s shoes and cameras.

Sun Zi’s 36 strategies have served you well to this point. You have used offensive, defensive, and deceptive strategies to create the most enviable economy in the world. But to sustain your growth, you will need better knowledge of your enemy. As you know, Sun Zi said,

“Know your enemy, know yourself, and you can fight 100 battles with no danger of defeat. When you are ignorant of the enemy but know yourself, the chances of winning and losing are equal. If you know neither your enemy nor yourself, you are bound to perish in every battle.”

Business is war. Were I still a military man, I might be guilty of giving aid and comfort to the enemy. It is my bounden duty to prepare you for battles in negotiation, acculturation, and professional assimilation. To further drag out this metaphor, I am the training officer who will ultimately be responsible for your campaign successes and failures.

For me, statistical data like that above isn’t much more informative than astrology in that it instructs you in what you can and should avoid. You can change a timeline that hasn’t yet been drawn.
I’m neither a performing monkey nor do I have a troupe of them for your enjoyment. I’m a teacher and a foreign who spends nearly 24 hours, seven days a week learning about and adapting to a China I’ve come to love dearly. All that is asked of you is that you honor my commitment and the commitment of other foreign teachers who take their jobs and their place in this society seriously. On one hand, a few hours a week against the rest of your life is a small sacrifice if you learn nothing. On the other hand, if it creates in you a kind of mental muscle memory that secures your position in even one future negotiation, it was time well spent.

With congratulations to recent graduates. I will always try be your cornerman.

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What would Buddha do?

Buddha in the sky with diamonds

Several years ago, attending a Jimmy Buffet concert with a Catholic priest (Indian trail, NC, not Margaritaville) , we were discussing ways to raise money for his new parish. In neighboring Georgia a woman was drawing huge crowds claiming to see incarnations of the Virgin Mary. So, we laughingly concocted a never-to-be scheme that involved catching and releasing a trout on the church property that we would say bore some saint’s likeness on its its tail. We would then put donation baskets all up and down the creek. It was sacrilegious, but damned funny anyway.

A few years later I visited Shingo, Japan where they claim to have Christ and his brother buried on a hill above town. Jesus, according to local mythology, let his brother take his place on the cross and then went to rural Japan and retired to a happily married life in the sticks. Surprisingly, there was no marketing involved anywhere near the grave site.

Please bear with me as this all comes together for you in the usual intuitive flash at the end…

I just read a delightful book first printed in 1999 entitled What would Buddha Do? by Franz Metcalf. The pocket-sized tome is rife with well thought out answers to a host of everyday questions, some that made me laugh out loud:

1. What would Buddha do if his credit cards are maxed out?

2. What would Buddha do when making a salad?

3. What would Buddha do to avoid burnout?

4. What would Buddha do about trusting the media?

The answer to last question can be found in the Buddhist writing Undanavarga 22.17: “One’s ears hear a lot; one’s eyes sees a lot. The wise should not believe everything seen or heard.” Buddha must read the China Daily too, where I found the picture above. It seems Buddha hung around for about an hour on Heibei’s Zushan Mountain, but unlike the manifestations in Georgia, he didn’t impart any wisdom to the local tourists.

In another book I reviewed recently, One Couple, Two Cultures, there was a story about a British man and his Chinese wife discussing behavior common in each other’s country. The wife seemed to have no trouble commenting on behalf of the entire 1.3 billion residents of China, while the Brit’ demured on speaking for the whole of England. I can with absolute certainty say that had the Buddha appeared in Stone Mountain Park, Georgia, that every redneck (remember before you shoot that my father hailed from Harlan County, Kentucky), instead of burning him as a heretic would have tried to sell him on Ebay. I still remember the eerie glow-in-the-dark St. Joseph that watched over me as a child sleeping in the dark.

Now I’m not sure what made them think it was Buddha and not Mother Theresa, Confucius, or Steve Irwin. But I continue to digress…

What surprised me the most is that nobody is now selling watches of Buddha waving from the peak or claiming to have private chats with Gautama himself. Another missed marketing opportunity for China. David and I are thinking about sorting through seaweed potato chips until we come up with  some that look like Sun Yat Sen or Lao Zi. We promise to donate all proceeds (and extra chips) to charity.

So what would Buddha do if Buddha were alive today? I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t be standing around in the Heibei fog, though he might possible blog a few meditations–using a wordpress platform, of course. So I’m off to see if WWBD-in-canton.com is taken. This way, we can answer the pressing questions like:

1. What would Buddha do if someone stole a taxi out from under his nose?

2. What would Buddha do if someone took the food from his plate at a Cantonese buffet?

3. What would Buddha do if he found out he were watching a bootleg copy of Seven Years in Tibet?

4. What would Buddha say if his disciples kept commenting on his weight and skin color?

Now I’m getting ready to read Metcalf’s answer to “What would Buddha Do about that Coffee Habit?” If this post isn’t a call for my spiritual rehab or caffeine detox, I don’t know what is.

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Addicted to Mediocrity: The Educational System in China

ENGRISH TEACHERS

One of my students gave a short speech yesterday on the person who had most influenced her life. Like many others she named her mother as her personal hero. It was a great impromptu speech and I applauded her for her candor about one issue in particular: She lauded her mother for giving up a high paying managerial job to take care of her as she grew up. But she lamented that her father was “only a professor” and unable to support the family in the style to which they had become accustomed while mom was bringing in disposable income. That, and a generalized genuine lack of enthusiasm and respect for even the best teachers here caused me to ponder the problem.

First, it brought to mind the old joke: One day in heaven, God decided he would visit Earth. Walking down the road, he met a peasant who was crying. God asked the man, “Why are you crying, my son?” The man said that he was blind and had never seen a sunset. God touched the man who could then see and was happy. Later, god met another man crying and asked, “Why are you crying, my son?” The man was born unable to walk. God touched him, he could walk, and he was happy. Farther down the road, God met yet another man who was crying and asked, “Why are you crying, my son?” The man said, “God, I work for the Chinese school system.” And God sat down and cried with him.

While average salaries for a professor in the US and Japan hover around six figures, the average Chinese senior college educator can expect to nail down $800-1,200 US dollars a month. A new faculty lecturer can expect to pocket about $360-400 US dollars and will toil in conditions that inner-city teachers in America would riot against. The system is so horribly flawed that I don’t expect the students to think much differently than they do now. Government figures show over 4 million college students graduating (a 22 percent increase) while the labor market will cough up less than 2 million jobs (a 22 percent drop) this year. And salaries are falling with demand: More than 40% of new graduates will earn a monthly salary lower than $190 USD a month. A migrant worker can earn from $99-148 a month in larger cities.

Academic standards in mainland China are decidedly weak compared to the west or even Macau or Hong Kong: many teachers can begin an academic career with a bachelor’s degree and garner full professorships without advanced training. They are appointed and promoted because of longevity, party connections or friendships within the school’s hierarchy. Foreign experts, a dreadful misnomer in many cases, are often hired solely for their ability to speak English or the color of their skin. While the government has made schools aware that the “experts” are essential to teaching managers how to become more internationally competitive as prices level out worldwide, they do little to encourage recruitment and retention of qualified foreigners. Only 1/6 of University level teachers have even a few weeks of English as a Second Language (ESL) Training. And those who are qualified and want to stay here cannot. You must be at least an associate professor with five years of tax-paying residency to even apply for a green card. And even then, the US government, in the wake of 9-11, will hand out more green cards in four days to Chinese immigrants than the Chinese government will part with annually for ALL foreign nationals combined. Just ask Dr. Janice Engsberg an American who has been working in China for 15 years, teaching in the mass communication department of Xiamen University. She was recognized by the Chinese government with its pretigious annual “Friendship Award,” and still is dreaming of a day when she might get a green card.

And a new term, the “industrialization of education,” has bred manyt new universities that only profit hunt as opposed to teach any functional skills. Investors, smart businessmen with no business being in the education business, are reaping huge profits by short-changing Chinese youth. Most of the teaching staff at these new schools are so unhappy with their poor salaries, large class sizes, and fossilized administrative mechanisms in place that they save their energy for second jobs and just go through the motions of teaching. Students are rarely taught transferable skills, especially in English, and employers hiring graduates know it. The students know as well that they have a snowball’s chance in hell of getting a good job upon graduation and they act accordingly. Pass by many classrooms and you will find students text messaging, sleeping, chatting or reading something other than a textbook. It is hard to blame them or the the public who has a long way to go in accepting teachers as a valuable part of societal development and social improvement.

An older article translated by EASTSOUTHWESTNORTH points up the attitudes held by those nostalgic for the days of Mao: “The rat is one of the ‘Four Pests’ in China. Today, there are ‘Four New Pests’ in China, and they are respectively: 1. Public security/procuratorate/court of law 2. National and local taxation 3. Doctors/teachers 4. Organized criminals Actually, while the organized criminals are bad, their damage is much less than that from the preceding three groups. In that bygone era, “public security/procuratorate/court of law” and “national and local taxation” were both imperfect, but they did not persecute people. In fact, public security was even a very respected occupation. Today, “public security/procuratorate/court of law” and “national and local taxation” are disaster areas for corruption. In that bygone era, “doctors and teachers” once assumed the role of victims. The synopsis of that era may be “If you have to work with a knife, you are better off being a butcher than a surgeon; if you have to manage a herd, you are better being a sheep shepherd than a school teacher.” But today, even city workers cannot afford to send their children to university, as education expenses have become a huge family burden. If you are sick, you won’t dare visit a hospital because it isn’t big news if a few days of stay cost you a few hundred thousand yuan.”

A recovered post from a few months before the crash…

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BONSAI AND THE CHINESE ART OF PENJING (盆景)

I volunteered last year to assist one of my students in obtaining a summer job: I told him if he landed the gig as translator for an International book on Bonsai and Penjing, that I would help him at no cost. After the first 300 pages and bits of poetry I was asking, “What the hell was I thinking?” Then after visiting a Penjing garden in Foshan and studying ther works included in the book on Gold Ribbon awarded Penjing and their creators from around the world, I was glad I had signed on.

BONSAI PEJING

At the risk of sounding prosaic I have to say: I do learn something new every day.The

book, finally finished and due out soon, led me to discover that the Japanese Bonsai artistry that we find so appealing is an ancient knock-off of the Chinese art of Penjing (pronounced PUN-JING) that dates back hundreds of years. In fact, the first potted plant known to have been used in China has an ancestry going back some 7,000 years.

Penjing is the Chinese art of creating a miniature landscape in a container. The word consists of the two characters shown on the left: “pen” – “pot” or “container”, and “jing” – “scenery”. An artist may use plant material and natural stone to build artistic compositions.

“Bonsai” literally means a “tree in a pot” (Mr. Miyagi just winced in heaven) though some of the “pots” can costs tens of thousands of dollars. The first historical records of this art form in China comes via paintings recovered from the Tang Dynasty (618-907) and the more elaborate creations, ones that would be prize winners even today, are found in pictures from the Song (960-1279) Dynasty.

It is assumed Japan caught the fever about the 13th century. The exact time during which Penjing reached Japanese shores is not known. In the 6th and 7th centuries, Japan sent envoys to China to study art, architecture, language, literature, philosophy and law. Chan, a form of Buddhism in which the original Indian teachings blended with Taoism was introduced to Japan a bit later and named “Zen” Buddhism. Penjing and Bonsai are Zen-like methods of achieving an active state of meditation that can reveal natural truth, beauty and harmony.

Not far from here in Foshan, Chin, where I helped with the book, the Sixth Flower Fair will take place in a couple of years. The Chinese call it the Flower Olympics as it only happens every four years and draws invited guests from over 15 countries.

One million people viewed the last exhibition in 2006. It is my guess that it will still be a while before the US National Arboretum’s National Bonsai and Penjing Museum hits that milestone.

I, and capable editor David DeGeest (who I roped into helping), are both richer for the experience, but my student owes us a couple of dinners and me a new set of reading glasses!!

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