Thursday, August 30

moments of wonder

I have had a lot more time to read since I got to the U.S., seeing as how I don't have a real job here and all. The latest book in my stack was the novel Life of Pi by Yann Martel. I loved this description of the stranded boy on the boat when he experiences a flash of lightning.
It was something to pull me out of my limited mortal ways and thrust me into a state of exalted wonder.... To Richard Parker I shouted, "Stop your trembling! This is a miracle. This is an outbreak of divinity. This is...this is..." I could not find what it was, this thing so vast and fantastic. I was breathless and wordless. I lay back on the tarpaulin, arms and legs spread wide. The rain chilled me to the bone. But I was smiling. I remember that close encounter with electrocution and third-degree burns as one of the few times during my ordeal when I felt genuine happiness.
At moments of wonder, it is easy to avoid small thinking, to entertain thoughts that span the universe, that capture both thunder and tinkle, thick and thin, the near and the far.
Hopefully it won't take being stranded on a boat in the middle of the ocean for me to experience some wonder at the amazing created world. Actually, I'm going to have an awesome chance tomorrow because my sister is scheduled to be induced into labor. I'm going to be holding my little nephew soon!


I read two posts recently on a blog of someone I don't know. They are really challenging for me. As I've been here for a month now, I realize how easy it is to be caught up in myself. I could give a lot of excuses for that, but I won't. I have gone to places where I could engage with people outside of my comfort zone and I haven't. It's not limited to my time here in the States, either. I certainly get comfortable and stuck in a routine when I'm across the ocean, too.

If you have any spare time, read and consider this. Here's one quote. (I modified it just to keep my blog on the safer side for when I go back.)
Following J requires following J; and He’s far from the home-bound, television-loving, non-Democrat we’ve made Him. The real J is out on the fringes going, moving; alive, enlivening. He might hang out with a few rich people, but mostly J is with the outsiders and nogoods. It seems to me that if many of us had to follow J through the Middle East of A.D. 30, we would have let him walk far ahead of us until finally our obsession with ourselves left us hanging out at the Jerusalem Starbucks to talk about mnstry with other Pharisees.

There's a great follow-up here. The author says "This is not a list for 20-somethings who have not yet “put down roots” alone. This is a list for 45-year olds with three kids in school, a mortgage, and a shaky retirement plan." Take a few minutes to read and consider. I know I need to.

On a somewhat related note, also check out this gem of a website: 6 Billion Others. You can click and hear different bits of life stories from people around the world. It's so good to have your worldview expanded and your heart touched. It could lead to so much more with an open heart and a willingness to go.

Tuesday, August 28

I won't keep going on this too long

but I just ran across another article related to my previous post:
Who pays the price for cheap goods?
We Americans need to think about where our cheap stuff comes from and whether we want to support it.

Sunday, August 26

thinking about China and me

I just finished reading Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China, by Jung Chang. I've read a few different books on China, but this is one that really helped me get a clearer picture of China's history. It's kinda long, but enjoyable and totally worth it if you are looking for a glimpse into Chinese life from before the time of Japanese occupation of Northern China in the 30's to just after Mao died in 1976. Reading it has given me a better understanding of the Chinese people and perhaps any people under leadership that exploits them.

Lately, there has been talk in the news which has led to a lot of talk among people in the community of how Chinese products are unsafe. Some people even bring it up in the context that the Chinese are out to get us.

My Dad subscribes to the New York Times and sends me articles on China occasionally. He just sent me this: As China Roars, Pollution Reaches Deadly Extremes. I took some lines out of the article that I relate to.
Chinese cities often seem wrapped in a toxic gray shroud.
Environmental woes that might be considered catastrophic in some countries can seem commonplace in China: industrial cities where people rarely see the sun.

On windy days in Yanji, I'm thankful that the pollution is blown away and we can see something other than gray sky. Whenever I visit bigger cities, though, clear days are much harder to come by. Here in Kentucky, I've been reminding myself to be thankful that there are beautiful white clouds and blue skies so often.
Chinese buildings rarely have thermal insulation. They require, on average, twice as much energy to heat and cool as those in similar climates in the United States and Europe, according to the World Bank. A vast majority of new buildings — 95 percent, the bank says — do not meet China’s own codes for energy efficiency.

This is too apparent in the winter. I have seen snow blowing in through the roof of a hallway in the winter. The rooms we teach and work in are heated, but we almost always wear our long down coats and sometimes hats and gloves inside when it's cold. The wind in the winter makes our buildings whistle.
This spring, officials in Yunnan Province in southern China beautified Laoshou mountain, which had been used as a quarry, by spraying green paint over acres of rock.

I often think about how some of the things that bother me in China or about Chinese people are things that are common in America, too, but just are covered up a little better. Often when I ask what students want to do when they finish college, they'll bluntly say, "I just want to make a lot of money in business." Of course, most people in America want the same but say it in a way that sounds better. Americans are also destroying our environment and doing other things we blame on other people, we just know how to cover it up in a way that is more distinguished or less recognizable than green spray paint.

Chinese manufacturers that dump waste into rivers or pump smoke into the sky make the cheap products that fill stores in the United States and Europe. Often, these manufacturers subcontract for foreign companies — or are owned by them.

Indeed, Britain, the United States and Japan polluted their way to prosperity and worried about environmental damage only after their economies matured and their urban middle classes demanded blue skies and safe drinking water.

But China is more like a teenage smoker with emphysema. The costs of pollution have mounted well before it is ready to curtail economic development.

Wednesday night, China and what they are doing to the things they export, was brought up. Another person then commented that maybe we should stop pointing the finger and look at our own greed for a second. I was really glad to hear that. We should be concerned about health and safety, but we can't forget our own role in world events. The actions we take when we hear news like this should cause us to make changes in our own lives and hopefully changes in our community and world. That will mean different things to different people, but I know one place that I can look at is whether I treasure my Maker and the things of him over things that don't last.
The toll this pollution has taken on human health remains a delicate topic in China. The leadership has banned publication of data on the subject for fear of inciting social unrest, said scholars involved in the research.

In some countries, not all the news gets out to the people. Surely even in the States there are things that are hidden from us, but what are we doing with the information that we do have? Are we allowing ourselves to keep delicate topics in the news from impacting our lives? I have recognized a callousness in myself lately with all the news I see on the internet or hear from other people. We, as people who have great freedom, have great responsibility. I don't know the full extent of what that means, but I know it's something I have to deal with.

Thursday, August 23

tobacco barn

We stopped at a random barn on the side of the road today because I wanted to get pictures of the tobacco drying in a barn. There are old barns like this all over the place. Most of them look like they are about to fall down, but they are still used for a few weeks out of the year to dry the tobacco leaves from the rafters.
Views tonight on our (almost) nightly walk. The sunset amazes me every time!

Monday, August 20

If you thought Texas was country...

There are some characters in Kentucky. A phone call just came in from one of the members of the congregation here. He began the conversation with, "I thought you woulda done gone to the hospital by now!" Today is his birthday and he wants the baby to be born on his birthday. There are quite a few August birthdays in the small congregation here and they all keep making requests that the baby be born on their day.

Last night, at the Sunday night gathering, the quirkiness of the people out here made me laugh. My brother-in-law taught on 1 Corinthians 13. At the end, he asked for comments and one of the guys (who makes a good living by picking up roadkill and making it into pet food) asked "We didn't miss the one on women speaking at meetings and wearing head coverings, did we? I don't want to miss hearing your take on that one." That guy also frequently comes to meetings in his horse and buggy. Another lady said "Talking about patience, what if you're married to someone who doesn't have that?"

A few nights ago we went over to the house of the guy who has the birthday today. His wife made us some of her famous pecan pie. We got to hear about their dog, Woodrow, and how she cleans his behind after he poops. The pie maker's sister was also there. Everything she said was funny to her, so after every comment, she would get a huge smile, look at us, and then hit her knee. She actually was a pretty entertaining lady, but perhaps in a different way that she imagined.

A lot of people out here have gardens, so we are enjoying baby watermelons, flavorful tomatoes and jalapenos that get dropped off on the doorstep or given to us as we go on evening walks. I made some yummy jalapeno poppers and John Mark has been making some tasty salsa, but we've still got a lot of garden goods to eat up.

I don't know if it's just a good conversation starter when I'm around, but everybody's talking about China and how we need to throw away or return any toys that have come from there and be careful not to buy fish or seafood that's imported from China. Since it's not something I can really avoid when I'm living in China, I don't pay attention to the news, but people want to know what I think about it. Saturday, we had the neighbor across the street over for turkey burgers and discussed our disillusionment with Wal-Mart. She said she thinks she made it through last Christmas without buying anything from there, which is no small feat when you have grandkids.

We're still waiting on that baby, but having a good, relaxing time in the process.

Laura and me a few weeks ago on a Sunday afternoon.

Laura's baby shower last weekend.

Monday, August 13

culture shock?

I don't think I'm actually going through culture shock ,but there are some funny experiences in coming back to the States. I think I'm getting more used to changing cultures and this trip back has been easy so far, probably mostly because I'm not doing much. I don't know anyone here except for my sister and brother-in-law, so all I've really been doing is reading and doing what they do.

There are still a few things to get used to in coming back. At first it was just having to think about having to put the toilet paper in the toilet instead of the trash can. (Chinese sewage generally can't handle toilet paper.) I think I'm used to that now, but I still can't get used to the air conditioner. They say it's the hottest August on record for Kentucky and I hear people talking about it everywhere, but it feels downright cold to me because I spend most of the day inside where rooms are frigid. My sister thinks I'm crazy. I might well be. Today we went into Lowe's and I was so happy to go back outside and feel the warm sun. At home, I'm usually under a blanket and at night I'm sleeping under a pretty heavy comforter even though the highs outside are hitting 100 during the day.

There's the normal shock of how much is available at grocery stores. That always gets me the first few times. I am doing better about responding this time though, I think. In the past I've been over-excited to buy all the stuff we can't get there. This time my reaction is more often "you mean people actually buy that?" Today I saw frozen peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in the frozen foods section at Super Wal-Mart. They were crustless, but come on! I think it might take more effort to defrost one of those than make your own.

Yesterday, my brother-in-law was about to throw away a Ziploc bag. I stopped him and told him I'd wash it. He said he never would have thought to do such a thing. I think I started doing that after I lived in Romania and watched the Americans I lived with there do it.

Last week my sister and brother-in-law had their last baby care class to go to. We ate dinner together at a mall and they left me there to wander while they went to their class. I was looking around at Bath and Body Works when I heard some people talking behind me. The first thought that went through my head was "They're speaking English! I wonder if I know them." Immediately after that, I realized that I was in America so I probably didn't know them.


I've been in Kentucky for about a week and a half now. It's good to be here just hanging out with my sister and her husband. We don't have too much going on, but that's okay with me. This is an abandoned store just down the street from where they live.

I've been here a few other times to visit, so I've learned a little about the tobacco farming culture. This is the first time I've been in the summer. The tobacco is fully grown and ready for harvest in most fields. We went out and took some tobacco pictures last week.

My sister and her husband. She's ready to have the baby any time now! This is my favorite picture of them, but this view doesn't capture the fullness of her belly.

We went to downtown Louisville last week too. We didn't go in the Louisville Slugger museum, just took some pictures outside at the big bat.

Monday, August 6


I got a plane ticket to Shanghai because my sister thought she might have the baby any day. I was there for one night on Wednesday. I went to the Bund, the waterfront with old European buildings on one side and the new Chinese skyscrapers on the other.

The waterfront walk was full of tourists and locals. Even after 9pm, it was still hot and sticky, so there were quite a few guys sporting the Chinese way of cooling off - wearing a shirt but exposing the belly.

Thursday morning I went to the Yu Yuan garden. It has this bazaar outside the entrance that is kinda sad because it's a commercial sell out with Starbucks, Dairy Queen and all that.

Parts of the garden, like all tourist attractions in China ever since I moved there two years ago are under construction to get ready for the Olympics.

Thursday afternoon, I got on a plane from Shanghai to Chicago and then Chicago to Louisville! I flew "standby" the whole way home since I didn't have a ticket booked until later this month. It's an amazing (at least to me) story of how Father was faithful in getting me through. Traveling in America isn't quite as colorful as China (although I did get to sit next to a mom and daughter who were traveling with a two foot tall concrete frog saying 'welcome' in the airport), but I'm sure I'll have a few pictures and things to post about anyhow.

I'm now hanging out with my sister and her husband, waiting for the baby to come. My sister is worried about me being bored, but I'm sure I'll find plenty to keep me busy.

Saturday, August 4

23 hour train ride

"This vast ocean-like expanse, furrowed by sharp ridges of rock, inhabited by gazelles, dotted with white and red lamaseries...I am obliged to understand it."

"I still, you see, don't know where life is taking me," he wrote to his friend Max Begouen. "I'm beginning to think that I shall always be like this and life will always find me a wanderer."

- Teilhard de Chardin, French paleontologist who worked in China
(quoted in For the Time Being by Annie Dillard)

(WARNING: long post ahead)
I took the train from Beijing to Yanji a few weeks ago, on the way back from my vacation trip to Qingdao and Xi'an. I had a lot of time to observe, read, and write. It was a great chance to learn more about this China that I am "obliged to understand."

Across the seat from me: a 9 year old or so girl whose face comes to a point at her chin. The girl is quiet, content to be close to her mom, not doing much. Next to them is a girl in her twenties who has an amazing capacity for sleeping in these straight backed seats.

Next to me: a university student who speaks a little English. She is sitting in front of the table and sets it up in a way that reminds me of the way you see bingo players on TV. She has a book, which surprises me because I have only ever seen one other Chinese person with a book on a train. They sometimes read magazines, but never books. (This amazes me - that they can be so content on long journeys with almost nothing to do.) This girl, however, doesn't read more than a few pages of the book during our long train ride. Instead, she uses it to file pictures of her boyfriend after taking them out periodically to gaze at them. She has her food stash, which is sizable, especially for such a small girl, in a mound on the edge of the table. She pulls out a bottle with sand, flowers, and little messages rolled up in it that she sets up. Later, she pulls out a small photo album, a portable Winnie the Pooh fan, and gum. She arranges each of these items, shakes the bottle every once in a while and plays with her phone.

Across from me on the next bench up is an older mom with a really fat baby. The mom is giving her banana pieces alternating with cake pieces and the baby has banana in her buzz cut. The woman holding her apparently can't chew with her mouth closed. I can see everything that goes in as well as the whole process of chewing.

When I first got on the train, it looked might there might be a few seats left, but by the time we leave, I can see that was a silly assumption. There are people standing almost two deep all along the aisle because there aren't enough seats. Although most of them get seats as others get off the train, I am amazed that people will actually buy a ticket for a 23 hour train without getting a seat. I had actually planned on trying to switch to a sleeper once I got on the train, but now that it's so full, I don't want to get out of my seat.

10 minutes into our trip, people are already eating: shrimp flavored chips, steamed corn rolls, cucumbers, packaged cakes. The lady next to me spills drinking yogurt on herself and the lady across from me generously offers her a napkin. (Tissue is a valuable commodity on the train!) Soon, the mom and daughter combo pick up some chicken feet from the passing food cart. The student next to me opens up a huge pack of unshelled sunflower seeds, the essential Chinese train food, and we share them. Later on, three of the four other people in our area buy a package of spicy flavored tendon to chew on. I feel a bit left out, but decide not to join them in their munching.

The mom and daughter soon fall asleep. First the daughter falls asleep in her mom's arms, then they trade places and the mom falls asleep on the girl. I want to take a picture, but then remember how I despised it when people took pics of me sleeping with my mouth open on the last hard seat trip to Harbin in the winter. The drinking yogurt woman has graciously given up her seat temporarily to a guy who is catching himself from falling asleep with jerking motions. I try to think of some way to help him out but can't think of anything short of giving him my shoulder to rest on, which would definitely not be appropriate.

The woman with the fat baby looks old enough to be a young grandma, but I know she is the mom because she's been breast feeding her quite openly. The baby apparently made some secret signal because the mom quickly moved over to the inside seat and positioned the baby over the floor (the baby is wearing split crotch pants even though she's barely old enough to walk and can't say much of anything). The friend of the mom quickly puts some toilet paper on the floor, but it doesn't catch much of the numbers one and two that are squirting out of this baby onto the floor. So, the friend spends quite a while cleaning up the rest of the mess with toilet paper. I can't take my eyes off the whole scene...that this baby actually just did her business on the floor of the train. A little got on the edge of the seat and the mom's sock. Yuck. Diapers were a great invention, even if they are horrible for the environment and keep children from learning to be toilet trained until later.

I finish one of the books I brought with me and start another one after I brush my teeth in the sink at the end of the car. A woman gets on the train at the next stop and starts yelling at someone at the end of the car. I have no idea what she's talking about, but she provides some entertainment/distraction for the rest of the car. They all stand up and look at her. She proceeds to do this after almost every stop for the next two hours.

The girl next to me has taken her boyfriend pictures out of the book and propped them up against the glass bottle so she can look at them some more. Soon, she puts them away again and we all lay our heads on the table or contort ourselves into strange sleeping positions as we get ready to try to sleep as much as we can.

I sleep pretty well. I wake up a lot, but since I am sitting near the table and the girl has cleared most of her stuff off so we can rest on it, I lay my head on the edge and don't feel too sleep deprived. In the morning, most people get up, wash their faces and comb their hair. One guy even changes shirts. I don't see much use in any of that since I won't be seeing anyone I know until after I get home. The guy next to me gets a bottle of vodka like liquid and a package of dried squid from the food cart man as he passes. Breakfast of champions. I get hot water for my instant coffee and enjoy it with a muffin I bought in Beijing while the mom and daughter finish off their chicken feet and share a bowl of instant noodles, which is the same thing they had for dinner.

As I pull out my breakfast foods, people stare at me. I imagine it's to see what the foreigner is eating, although it's a more Western stare than I'm used to. They look at me, but then look away when I look up instead of the more common stare-at-me-whether-I-notice-or-not stare. There's a morning mist coming off the river we pass that is really beautiful. The corn on the stalks seems to be so much taller than when I left and the rice fields aren't as green.

We get closer to my stop (the second to last one on the train) and the train begins to empty out. I stretch out a little and try to focus on reading to pass the time, then we finally get there. I'm thankful for a day of cultural insight and really thankful that it's over!