Monday, October 11, 2010

Back in Blacksburg

From now on, I will be blogging at:

Back in Blacksburg.

Thanks for your patronage!


Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Tai Mang

Tomorrow is the Flame Youth festival. What is the Flame Youth festival? Well, the name comes from a very much "Chinglish" phrase wherein the Ministry of Study Affairs (MSA) of Hebei College of Finance attempts to capitalize on the burning embers of the period between childhood and adulthood, those facinating moments when the young find hope in a dream far beyond their capabilities and the old are revitalized enough to dream again.

This is the vision behind "The Flame Youth" festival. My part is to jump around stage as "Puck" for our remodeled version of Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and to fall in love with a Spelling Bee contestant during my hosting efforts.

Along with classes, recovering from English Week last week, and beginning the process of "diengagement" from Hebei College of Finance, it's honestly just been tough to think straight and let the days be 24-hours only.

My favorite part of the days:
Talking with a little Chinese girl of approximately 3 years for about 30 minutes in the copy store. She doesn't know much English, but I taught her to count to five and she taught me how to play patty-cake in Chinese. Her English level was rudimentary, but I kept pretending to know everything she was saying. She was also enjoying a fabulous feast of bi tsi fan (my own "Engnese" version of saying "she ate her own boogers every few minutes").

I was inspired this morning by ps. 38, which hit me in the face with a dose of reality by claiming the simplicity of knowing that The Father "will answer." It was as simple as claiming that truth. Done and done.

*special shout-out to my brother, Robert Ramsey, for his wedding to Sarah Ramsey last weekend...Alta Mons never fails!

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Flat Stanley

A few weeks ago, I received a "Flat Stanley" paper doll in the mail from a kindergarten girl in Texas. She asked me to help Stanley enjoy China and keep a journal for him! So, here's "Stanley and Ryan's adventures in Baoding, China!":

Dear journal,

Today was one of the craziest days of my life! I got to Beijing, China at 5:00 PM two weeks ago and I think I got off the plane in a bag with other mail, but I ended having to sit in the envelope for another two weeks! Sometimes, things are a little slow when I am being shipped around through the mail. I woke up today to the feeling of someone finally opening the top of envelope I was held in, allowing me to see light for the first time in two weeks! I barely recognized anything I was seeing until I finally heard someone's voice.

"Hello, Stanley!" a man said loudly. "My name is Ryan!" I saw him finally, as my eyes adjusted to the light, and said quietly, "Hello, Ryan. Where am I?"
"Why, you are in Baoding, China, of course! This is my home and I'm so glad that you were able to come here!"
"But, what will we do now?" I asked. I'd never been to China and had not seen very many people in weeks.
"You look hungry. Let's go get you some food!" Ryan suggested.

We went to eat some food in the cafeteria. Nothing made sense: I couldn't understand any of the writing, which wasn't letters and numbers like I am used to in America, but looked more like a drawing or a symbol. I saw everyone staring at Ryan as we walked.
"Why is everyone staring at you?" I asked Ryan.
"Well, Stanley, many of the students here at Hebei College have never seen a person like me before. All of the students at this school are Chinese, meaning they have black hair and dark eyes, but I have brown hair and blue eyes, so people sometimes will stare and say,"Look! A foreigner!"
"Well, what about the writing here. All these things look like drawings instead of words!"
"that's because the Chinese language," Ryan said, "is made up of thousands of characters that first came from a drawing. Each character has a word attached to it. For example," Ryan said, pointing to a sign on the wall, "this is the character for 'ma', which means 'horse'." He pointed to the character on the wall:

"Look closely and you can see the figure: four legs, the horse's hair, and his face looking off to the left!" Ryan was right: many Chinese characters I saw looked like a picture of what they described. I was amazed! We finally made it to the cafeteria. I was so hungry! I asked for a hot dog.

"Oh, sorry Stanley, we don't have any hot dogs here in China," Ryan said. No hot dogs... what?! I asked, "What do people eat here in China, then?"

"Most people eat simple things like soup, rice and chicken, or noodles. Actually, there is one dish that is famous in Baoding: The World-famous Baoding Donkey burger!"

Ryan gave me the dish. It was a big, round bread with meat inside. "How do I eat this?" I asked. He gave me two sticks and said, "Here: these are chopsticks!" I looked at them and knew the truth: I have never used such big chopsticks before! I tried, but it was very difficult to learn to used the chopsticks. I finally just told Ryan that I was full, even though I only ate a few bites of the donkey meat.

Dear journal,

Ryan and I went exploring through the city of Baoding, China today. We got to ride to a taxi cab. The traffic in Baoding is crazy! I almost got sick as we weaved in and out of traffic, around parked cars, and people riding bicycles throught the city. There mus have been 10,000 who I saw just in one taxi ride through the city. As we drove, Ryan let me sit on his shoulder to look out the window. I saw a man walking through the street pushing some sheep across into a field, hundreds of people riding their bicycles, lots of stores with brightly-colored chinese characters on their signs, and many tall buildings al around me. My favorite thing to see was when Ryan paid the taxi driver with Chinese money.

"This is called 'yuan' instead of 'dollar'," Ryan told me. I loved seeing all the different colors of the money: blue, green, red, silver, and gold!

Dear journal,

Today, I went to Ryan's class. Ryan teaches English to Chinese college students. I have never been so excited to be inside of a classroom as a visitor! It was very different from the classes that I used to teach in America. For one, there were about 50 students in this class. When Ryan and I walked into the room, everyone shouted, "OOOOO!" and clapped when they saw me. I was so nervous, but my nerves calmed down as I told the students about America and about all of my friends in Texas. The students told me about their dormitories, where they sleep and live with six people in each room...even more crowded than when I have to fly around the world in an envelope!

Talking with the students in Ryan's class about Texas made em very homesick, so I asked Ryan if he could send me back to America.

"Yes, of course I can," he said, "but we will miss you so much. Make sure to keep in touch when you go back to America!"

I promised him that I would. We hugged and I said thank you for his help in China. He said, "Of course!", then shut the envelope and put me back into the mail room. Hopefully, I will be back in my home in Texas soon!

The 2010 Northface 100 10K

Runners and their fans before the Northface 100 10K race

Ryan and Eric, post-race celebration

Two weekends ago, I had the honor of sharing the weekend with my team from Baoding and the team "at large" from Lang fang and Tianjin, China. Together, we ran in the Northface 100 10K race, a race sponsored by Northface held in Northern Beijing. The location is scenically beautiful and really brought a lot out of us. Coming into the race, I felt a bit "smug" knowing that I wasn't a candidate for the dreaded Broom Bus, the car that picks up stranded runners who can't finish their race. This was the first time that I have ever run a race for the second time, which I found made it much more difficult to stay focused in my training and really appreciate the challenge of running a race. My goal coming in was to run faster than I did last year (53 minutes), a goal that I failed to meet. However, what I got instead was an intense and unexpected lesson in brotherhood and humility from the hands of a 5' 6" Chinese sophomore named Eric.

Eric lives in Langfang, China and is a student of Peter Lucas-Roberts. This past Fall, Eric decided to take up the challenge of running in the Beijing marathon, a race that I also competed in. We finished with roughly the same time, my race ending only 15 minutes before Eric's. Coming into this race, however, Eric had other ideas.
"My goal is just to beat you!" Eric said vehemently to me in the hotel. Peter, the consummate teacher, took this as a teaching opportunity.
"You're going to push each other, brother. This is your chance to run together and encourage through the race. Whether or not you beat him, this is your chance to be brothers for each other." I personally would have left Eric up to his notions of trying to defeat me in the race, as my competitive juices often take over when I'm trying to push for something in this way ("this way", meaning the competitive). I love competing and found Eric's challenge tasteful, not threatening, but also overlooked that there could be-- and was-- greater purpose to our race together this weekend.

Thanks to Peter's gentle correction, all Eric could say to me in warm-ups was, "My goal is to finish together. We will finish together." From the very start of the race, Eric and I were inseparable. I've never spent much time running with other people, so I found this to be quite difficult in that I didn't know how to maintain proper pacing when accounting for not only myself, but for another person also. here I was running through packs of runners, on the curbs of the road and around trees, trying to find space to pass the slower competitors, all the while turning to see if I'd lost Eric.
"Don't worry about me," he'd say. "I'll keep up with you."
In this manner, I carried our team for the first 40% of the race. Around the first water station, which came at the 3.2 km mark, I began to really feel the weight of my failure to train. 'Was it something I ate...or didn't eat? Did I wear the wrong clothes? Maybe it's a lot hotter than last year...' These thoughts began to plague me as we progressed forward into the middle of the race, a long, wide-open stretch of road that looks out onto the water basin. During this time, runners can see one-two milometers ahead of them, something that the twists and the turns of the rest of the course prevents. It was here that my previous thoughts got the best of me, and I stopped to walk.

I felt like a bit of a failure. I felt threatened in my own ability and wondered if I could regain my stride. After only a few seconds of walking, Eric's voice called out a few steps ahead.
"Come on, brother! We're together!"
"Zou...zou. You go!" I said, not believing that I could continue forward.
"Come on!" he said. I could see he wasn't going to accept my excuses, so we began running again.
"Let's Ask for strength," he said. Of course we should Ask for strength!
"Father, please give us strength to go," I wheezed out between labored breaths. I felt the weight of the race coming down upon me, my own expectations pressing down the most.
"Yes, give Ryan and me the strength to go forward," Eric reiterated as we ran. He ran next to me for the next 5 kilometers as the manifestation of conviction of my expectations in the flesh. I was humbled to feel like he was straining so much to carry me the last several kilometer, constantly pointing back to simply asking for strength. Without Eric running with me, I truly would not have finished the race under one hour, which we completed together at 55 minutes. To his credit, we finished the race hand-in-hand and rejoiced together through the line, a life lesson in perseverance through the flesh, both of personal pride and of physical labor.

Eric (white shirt, left) and Ryan hand-in-hand through the finish of the 2010 Northface 100 10K

Sunday, April 25, 2010

The 70-yuan challenge
One of my biggest struggles with living in China is striving to gain solidarity with my students. "Meeting them where they're at" goes beyond just sitting and being with someone over a certain amount of time, but extends into a greater sphere of trying to understand where it is they're coming from. I've learned that this isn't something that just happens over night, especially not if there's separation from home on both ends of the equation: me being from the other side of the globe, my students coming from all four corners of China.

I've found ways to bridge this gap between us over the last two years, including visiting students' homes, learning their native language (Mandarin Chinese), studying the history and culture of China, and staying overnight in a students' dormitory, which typically houses up to six students each semester.

I'm trying an experiment this week that I hope will help me understand some of the socio-economic factors of being a college student here at my school. For this week, I've decided to live on the budget of a normal college student at Hebei College of Finance. For most of my students, who are coming from rural towns and families that are scrapping together just enough money for them to pay for tuition fees, the main expense in any given week comes from food. I often spend between 200-300 yuan per week on food, whereas my students are spending about 70 yuan each week. (To help you understand, the yuan/ dollar exchange rate is approximately 6.8 yuan/1 dollar right now, and remains constant because China fixes the yuan to the price of the US dollar.) I understand this disparity as a matter of both tastes-- I buy juices and sodas at meals whereas many students drink nothing-- and food costs, with noddles and soup priced at 3 yuan, which students often eat, while a chicken dish over rice is 7 yuan, which I eat often.

This is something that I felt led to commit my mind, body, and heart to this week, to really think through what making decisions about food means for my life, especially in terms of how I relate to others through food and meals. It is an important exercise because these people are important. It would be easy for me to say, "Well, I'll just pay for my students' meals all of the time when we're together because I have the job and they are the student," but things do not always work out that way; culture plays a huge part in this. It's often difficult for students to allow us to pay for them over and over again, as this might be seen as a form of "losing face" among a group of people, which is a huge issue in Chinese culture. I want to be able to act with authority in the lives of all persons I meet to express love, but if something I do that I see as loving does not speak to them in a way that they understand, then that expression, if I keep doing it blindly over and over, loses the heart entirely: am I just here to love as I see fit or am I here to love the people I'm with in ways that meet them entirely in the person they are today?

I see this as a great opportunity to meet my students newly each day and get to make decisions differently than I typically do. Hopefully this week-long challenge leads to some long-term changes in the way that I see economic factors, especially food, relating to my life as a whole, both in my relationships with people and my relationship with the Father.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Spring Cleaning

These are some pictures of some women who really get at the heart of service. Their job is to be the grounds keepers of Hebei College of Finance, the school at which I am currently employed as a teacher. Their jobs in the Winter are to scrape snow off of the streets (no plows in Baoding city) using wicker brooms or makeshift shovels (usually a board nailed to a stake/ stick of PVC pipe); they sweep the streets daily, a never-ending job in a dusty campus with little or no grass; they clean windows and pick up bicycles that have been knocked over by the wind. However, the job I'm most impressed by is their "Spring cleaning" gig: before the school authorizes the lake to be refilled with water (during the winter, it is emptied to ensure no one tries ice skating and falls in), they sit on tiny stools in a row of ten-twelve, picking up every rock and stone on the lake bed and clean it off, ensuring that the lake is clean for the Spring. Check it out:

Nine of the twelve women cleaning the stones

A wide-view of the lake before it is refilled

Piles of already-cleaned stones dot the path the women take to clean the lake bed.

I'll never complain about having to teach 16 hours of class ever again.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Combative Compassion, Tougher-Stressed Tenderness

It's difficult to have tenderness and compassion sometimes (Phil 2). These are not qualities that are assumed a world where "things" tend to happen. I've been faced with this several times during my work in China, as I walk down the road and face stares and shouts from passers-by saying, "Hello!" It's one thing to laugh off these jests form the townspeople once or twice each day. However, these occurrences seem to multiply on themselves as a jaunt through town elicits 10-15 shouts and hundreds of stares each day. In this position, it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain a tender-hearted attitude and a compassionate mindset towards the culture in which I am very much a foreigner.

The prevalence of this strange side effect of living as a foreigner in a homogeneous society does not, however, forgive me for accepting a hardened heart of ignorance toward people. My call here is not to assume that stares from dark, unknown eyes automatically means dark, hardened intentions or ideas toward me, and vice-versa. I need a way to see the Father in those eyes that look on me with surprise and wonder. Yesterday, I saw this happen twice. In the middle of the day, I went lifting weights with Jon at the local gym where we have become members. He began his usual work-out with a 30-minute run, while I took some time getting to the gym by riding my road bike the 8-kilometer trek. Upon arrival, Jon and I were ready to dive into our lifting routine, starting with bench presses. Our feeble attempt to prepare for reentry to Western life by adding bulk to our bi-ceps, though, was somewhat thwarted by the presence of the local gym professional. When we got to the bench press, he walked over and grabbed the weights that were on our bar, pulling off the 45-pound weights to put on lighter, 35-pounds ones. I wondered at this, as I was certain that I could handle 10 reps with the 45-pound weights on each side of the bar. As it is, I asked him to leave the weight alone. He did just that. As I lifted the bar off of the bench, though, he was right there hovering over me, trying very much to help me lift the weight. I was frustrated because I knew that I only required assistance for the last couple of reps and wanted to continue my lift unimpeded, so I stopped and asked him to do just that. He backed away and waited until my lift was over. However, as I sat up on the bench, he came up to me and told me to turn around on the bench to stretch. I was confused, but allowed him to do what he was doing. He had me put my hands on my hips and pulled my elbows behind me. I think he was trying to show me that I should stretch after lifting. Really, I don't know what he was doing.

I do know that he was trying very much to help Jon and I as we lifted.
"I just don't think I want to listen to him," I told Jon after the man had gone away. "I don't want to be assumed as needy because I'm foreign."
"Yeah. I think it's a very Chinese thing to give so much focus to people and just get right up in their space to help them," Jon offered, with which I perfectly agree. However, I didn't like it and didn't really want to learn from him, instead just wanting to focus on my lifting. It's just one of those strange cultural quirks that I just don't understand, to which I've become increasingly aware of as I get to know the culture of Baoding and of China overall.

Another example came last night. We were celebrating a birthday party for three American friends from Hebei University in an authentic American restaurant called "Pizza Hut"-- a very rare treat to the taste buds, devouring cheese in such large quantities in China. As we began the meal, a little boy of perhaps 12 years came up to our table and asked, "What nationality are you?"
"USA," I answered. "And you?"
"I am China, of course!" he bellowed.
This exchange lasted only about 30 seconds until he retreated to his table, but I still felt overwhelmed by the occurrence, as such a conversation happens at every turn, whether asking what country we are from, how long we've been in China, why are we in China, how much money do we make each month, and so forth.

Within the context of these encounters, I want very much to honor my call to love these people well. As I mentioned, it becomes easy to slip into a mindset that is not loving, one that assumes the worst of peoples' intentions rather than allows room for grace to flow both from me to the person I speak to, and from them to me. The only way I've found to achieve this tender heart is by asking repeatedly throughout the day for it: honor me with a heart that loves Chinese people, not one that bemoans my circumstances.