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.

Monday, April 5, 2010

It's a Baoding, Tianjin Spring

I walked outside of my apartment today and put my nose to the wind: fresh air. I sensed that Bethany was baking granola in her apartment, as the scent betrayed her secrecy. I heard the laughs of the students as they walked through the corridor between their dormitories and the construction site, where students will dwell next fall in a brand new building. The students carried their large, multi-colored pastel bottle fit to lug "ri shi" (hot water) from the canteen and knocked badminton birdies with their rackets long-months since stored away in closets and under beds for the winter. The sky is blue today...oh GOD, the sky is blue today.

"It's all these little things that make the difference," my friend Stafford Craymer said as he and his girlfriend, Kerry walked through my campus after visiting my morning classes at 8 AM and visiting my apartment. I can't describe how freeing it is having him and Kerry here together, a sense of renewal being able to delve deeply into our common past (all three of us went to college together) and sharing in the experience of the week at hand. It's a beautiful thing to watch them walking together through their mutual stations in life.

Our time in Tianjin was equally brilliant, just another confirmation of the glory at hand. We (the entire IECS family presently in China, plus several visiting members of the Family) met together and shared several memorable experiences, including walking through the multi-cultural streets of Tianjin, enjoying the chaning seasons as we stripped off our coats and allowed our bare arms to dangle in the cool breezes of the Spring afternoon. the visit was short, but so packed with little nuggets of brilliance. Talking with my China family is always something that comes at such a premium, just being able to delve deeply into one anothers' lives and ask some prodding (if not down-right challenging) questions of one another as we walk through our final days of this semester in China. As I looked around the room during our group's meeting time the night before Easter, I saw a dozen faces of people who would not be here, in China, next year, likely to disperse to corners of the globe/ the United States to celebrate our freedom in different ways. I felt strange thinking that I am among those leaving to go to...somewhere else. I have been accepted to a school in Vancouver, British Columbia that looks amazing, perhaps even "perfect" for me (if such a thing can be so), so I'm excited to see where I'm discern the leading of the father. I can't help but feel adrift again... my friends and I called this "the transitional twenties" after I graduated from college, and yet here I am getting ready to perpetuate that very sense for another few years. Anchored in the abiding spirit of the Father, there I find my "roots".

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Hello, Kitty!

I teach an English writing class on Thursday mornings at 8:00 AM. I'm often just a bit groggy coming in, so I don't always have the sharpest first 15 minutes of student interaction. Once things start to pick up, students begin interacting with the material, and I drink a liter or so of water, I'm usually right there with the fast-paced group.

I entered my first ten minutes taking attendance, still with a fog of-yet abiding from the night before. After attendance, I had the students copy down a quote from Dale Carnegie and analyze what they thought they would say to finish it:

"Many people think that if they were only in some other place, or had some other job, they would be happy. Well, that is doubtful. So get as much happiness out of..."

As I walked around the students' desks leering at answers and passing out the day's worksheets, I paused toward the back of the room. This class is small compared to some of my 50-student lectures, finding only about 15 non-English major students, so there were several empty desks with no students. I looked toward the middle of the last aisle and thought I saw something moving, maybe something blown by the wind. As I investigated closer, I realized the shear folly of my judgment: right there in the back of my classroom, over which I am expected to maintain complete control at all times, there was a brown, yellow, and white-striped cat balled up on one of the chairs snoring blissfully through the morning's exercises.
"There is a shao mao!" I said, noting the small cat's presence. The students seemed puzzled: was there really a cat here in class?

"Hello, kitty!" I said in a high, shrill voice, inching closer to the bobbing body of the cat. The students were still perplexed until then came closer to see that, indeed, there was a sixteenth student present in our activities. Several of them shouted in surprise, while others seemed less amazed: perhaps for them the biggest confusion would not be that there was a cat present, but understanding why they were not able to join him in his excursion through oblivion?

Perhaps the cat, too, deserved an opportunity to learn English?

"Ta ye yao shue shi!" I said, slipping one of the hand-outs under the cat's snoozing body, indicating his desire to study along with the class. The students laughed and continued buzzing at the new student's skills. I can only hope that my English students don't feel too intimidated by his rapid success, as he has already mastered the art of the "R"-trill: Prrrrrrrrrr!

Friday, April 2, 2010

Tianjin, China

We will be traveling to Tianjin, China, tomorrow to visit with our team-at-large for two days. I'm excited to see them and enjoy the company of these courageous men and women soiling their lives in the Cause of Peace.

There's talk of an eating contest and some tunes to celebrate The Emptied Tomb...a fitting tribute to the "Tomb Sweeping Festival," a traditional Chinese holiday, happening simultaneously to our own celebration of Easter.

Onward we go, unto the Deep!

Beijing University

didn’t sign up to move to China to do Women’s “Kingdom work.” Over
the past several months, however, I’ve been stretched in my conception
of what it means to love people by serving the English major students,
80% of whom are female. So, it was no surprise when Bethany and I
showed up at 6 AM to go on a field trip with our students that among
the 55 students on the bus to Beijing, three were boys and none of
them I knew well.
Our field trip this day took us to Peking University, which is touted
as the “Harvard of China” by most students. When we walked onto the
campus, it was like touring around in a park more than the a college
campus: Weiming Lake, a former royal palace, surrounds ancient
buildings which comprise central campus, including one building called
“Boya Pagoda,” a large stone tower that has been standing for well
over a century.
“Do you think we could meet some…real Beijing University students?”
one girl dreamed as we explored China’s highest academic echelon. We
stopped by a group of students practicing a drama and watched as they
interacted in their Sunday-morning activity. My students were in awe
of the opportunity to see the “greatest students in the land” studying
together. “There is a poem,” one of my female students recalled as she
rounded the lake of Beijing University. “This poem is a talk about a
student dreaming of waking early and sitting by this lake and reading
English as the sun rises.” She sighed as she stood by the lake,
realizing her vision.
Loretta is a fascinating young sophomore student who my teammates,
Bethany and Jon, and I have had the pleasure of knowing over the past
two years. She is a vibrant leader, which showed on this day as she
took our group through the nine-hour trip touring both Beijing
University and Tsinghua University, a sister school of Beijing U.
Bethany and I went with several students, including Loretta, riding
bicycles through the campus for around half of the day, basking in the
student life and enjoying the scenery around us.
On our bus ride home, Bethany and Loretta sat next to each other,
while I sat just behind them. I was awed by the closeness that one day
of riding bicycles and seeing famous buildings had done to bring these
students closer together. Loretta seemed so comfortable as she fell
asleep on Bethany’s shoulder. Later, Bethany would tell me that she
was Asking the Father to bless Loretta with himself, which I was also
doing as I watched the two of them laughing and sharing their mutual
“It’s really dark outside now,” Loretta commented. “I’m afraid of the dark.”
“Yeah, me too!” Bethany agreed. Bethany shared about how she is able
to overcome her fears by the Son’s presence in her life, something
that Loretta seemed awed by.
“Do you think that He is really dependable?” she asked, pondering the
character of her Maker in a truly personal way. Hearing the name of
the Son spoken of and mulled over so well by such a bright student as
Loretta speaks volumes to the weight that his Spirit’s movement has on
these students’ lives, not to mention how swiftly he honors those who
Ask. It was an exceptional opportunity to be a part of a real
community of young people learning together and allowing our presence
to relate a great desire to be faithful in their lives, something that
they might not see in other contexts where we are simply their
“foreign teachers.”

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

A-Maze-ing McyD's MacGyver Meeting

How does one make a good decision?

Today, I was walking out of my apartment with Bethany as we both prepared to venture outward to visit the city (we live about one kilometer north of the inner-city of Baoding).

"Where are you guys meeting for lunch?" Bethany asked inquisitively of the location of the weekly "MacGyver Meeting/ Dude Time" that takes place each week and consists of Jon, Tim, Cameron, and I divulging the inner-most recesses of our hearts and minds.

"Well, we're going to this really ethnic food restaurant in the middle of the city. It's a little pricey, but there's some amazing American cuisine there that we're excited to try," I answered her.

"Ahhh," Bethany said smugly as she grinned through her response.



And so met the first installment of the Spring, 2010 MacGyver Meeting, named after the famous late-80's/ early 90's TV show, making light of the way our "small group" meeting is kind of just thrown together with no real leadership or planning, but seems to result in amazing discussion and deep thoughts, similar to how the character from "Macgyver, Angus MacGyver, constantly makes huge bombs and dynamite to blow up entire compounds just by using some shoestrings, a paper clip, and a wad of chewing gum--just, being resourceful with what we have.

Since this was our first meeting of the semester, it seemed appropriate that we had no real topic to discuss outside of what we'd study together over the semester. After deciding that we'd be looking at The Greatest Letter Ever Written to an Italian, we settled in around a new, more immediate topic: making decisions.

"It's just been a tough time of trying to see how to make a good decision with the next 3-5 or more years of life," Jon stated. He proposed that, when we're looking through the word and the circumstances of life press around us to make a decision about life ahead, as they are now for all four of us, it seems like we want to take the responsibility of walking out a big decision off of ourselves and kind of just pin it on the Father, like a cosmic game of "Who stole the Cookie from the Cookie Jar?"

"Yeah," Tim interjected, "it's like, if He's not talking directly about something, how do we decide?"

"He's always talking," I said, over which Tim trumped,"Well, if He's always talking, then I'm not listening 'cause I can't hear anything!"

My desire now is to just see Him for who he is, trying to really know him and walk with him. Where does trust, though, fit with the principles of really taking responsibility for our own lives and actions, especially if it comes time to make a big decision and all the Father is saying is still consistently, "Do what you want." There's this word "call" that keeps getting kicked around that I still don't understand entirely but comes to bear entirely on this conversation.

Well, I guess that means I need to...figure out what I want? Indeed, a perplexing simplicity in the maze before us.
A maze we're not walking through alone.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Natural Beauty in the Mundane Moment

A Snow-covered bench flanks Moon Lake at the newly-reopened Hebei College of Finance (Baoding, China; picture by Ryan Bettwy)

It’s not that natural beauty doesn’t exist in Baoding, but it’s something that you have to search for more intentionally than, say, if the mountains stretched out before a blue, spotless sky all around you. I mourn on days when the sky is overcast and can’t be seen, which happens often here due to our proximity to Beijing, China (one hour by train).

Yesterday, however, I was confronted with the most beautiful natural scene I have witnessed in all of my time in Baoding. The moment came and went like a mouse darting out of its hole, grabbing the crumbs of a slovenly-eaten dinner, and exiting his way back to the hole again, just swift enough to yank his tail away from the sweeping eyes of the table-sitting eaters. I wasn’t expecting it as I neared the underpass leading out to the Olympic Gymnastics Training Center stationed in central Baoding, a mainstay on my bike route, no more than any man reclining after dinner at his table expects to see a mouse stealing the remnants of his feast hoarded for fellow varmints in their hole, but there it was, the image painted through the centuries onto the canvas of the present moment:

I saw two dozen birds circling around a group of apartments that rose awkwardly across the landscape off to my left like primary school boys craning their necks in the class picture to look just a bit taller than the rest of the boys. Their attitude was for naught, for their stage was stolen as I saw over them to the rare, clear sunset of Baoding, something I’ve only heard whispers of, like rumors of healthcare progress or the Chicago Cubs winning the World Series: something I’ve heard described and dreamed of for decades, but never quite able to get over the hump. Here it was, inviting me to drink in the warmth of the dying sun stretching yellow and orange and fading into green and blue as I ventured on. The uphill climb snaking unconsciously through traffic as I continued taking in the view brought the revelation of several snow-covered evergreen trees, which proved to be the actual destination that the birds I was watching circled. Even with the furious traffic around me, I felt confident that I was experiencing a unique moment that most motorists were likely to glance over without a second thought, which forced me again to mourn not only the obvious, days when the sky is covered, but also the days when the sky is laid to bear on our lives and I am not open enough to allow the moment to press in around me as a daily Ebenezer of faithfulness the likes of which come only in the seeking heart.
Amidst this moment, I cursed the circumstance of having forgotten my groceries outside the coffee shop where I’d been planning my first week of classes and reading a great memoir called ‘Tis by American-Irish author and teacher, Frank McCourt. Since several of the groceries I bought at the Da Ren Fa were perishable, I decided that it was a bad idea to bring them into the coffee shop, but instead buried them in the snow so that they could stay for the two hours that I inevitably spent in the shop. This resulted in the demise of my ponderous moment as I U-turned across buses and taxi’s zooming by, knowing that the seekers heart must rejoice both in the profound and the mundane, such as when you forget your groceries that you buried in the snow to try to save money on refrigerating.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Back to School

For about two weeks, the population of Hebei College of Finance has been as follows:

12 stray cats
5 women hired to shovel snow
2 guards at the front gates
my roommate, Jon
our neighbor and teammate, Bethany

Since we returned from visiting and traveling in the South of China, our time has rushed by in a whirlwind of Settlers of Cataan and catching up on the latest season of "Lost." I have cherished this time to refresh and enjoy imagining the things that will come with the new semester.

One vital cog in our daily life that we have missed during the holiday season, which officially ends tomorrow with classes beginning at 8:00 AM, has been the cafeteria. Now, I know the images that such a word conjures in most peoples' mind: something along the lines of food fights in high school where sloppy meat balls and cold noodles are carried around on pink-styrophome trays, only to be tossed into the trash along with the bag of chocolate milk that you accidentally poked a hole through on both sides, causing it to leak into your overly-salted, frozen-on-the-inside-and-burnt-on-the-outside french fries. "Hao chur," perhaps, is just the sound of the person using the toilet to vomitt as they enter the cafeteria in these scenes, but here we use this word (which literally means "delicious") to describe our daily intake of delectible foods, ranging from the tang su li gi gai fan (sweet and sour pork over rice) to the always-solid chou mien (fried noodles...don't forget to add the egg on the side!). Certainly, our cafeteria gets a low score when it comes to cleanliness-- sometimes we have to avoid other peoples' trash and soup puddles when trying to sit down at a table-- but what it lacks, it makes up for entirely in the food department.

This afternoon, after Jon led us in an incredible time in the word, Cameron, Jon, Tim, Amelia, Bethany, Kerry, and I walked outside and braved the flurries assaulting our faces to make our first ascent of the semester to "Cantine 1," the cafeteria where we often go to eat. As we walked, it was almost overwhelming to see dozens of students mulling about, carrying huge plastic bags stuffed to the brim with clothes and supplies, preparing for the semester at hand. I walked by one small congregation of guys chatting when one of them yelled to me, "Hello!" I don't actually know who he was, but I stopped for a few minutes to ask how their holiday had gone. In true back-to-school style, I must have answered that question a dozen time over the next two hours as I made my way through the cafeteria, ordering the dishes and enjoying the atmosphere with my team.

"Di di! Mei mei" I shouted when I was making my way throught he crowd in the main stretch of the cafeteria, past the two rows of long tables, and seeing a young boy and his sloghtly-older sister playing cards at a table in the corner. His long, black hair curled into a rat tail behind him as he grinned through one or two baby teeth he has left, as his mouth begins to take a more mature form. These two friends I call "di di" (little brother) and "mei mei" (little sister) because of how much I see them on a weekly basis during the semester. They both seemed excited to see me and my friends returning to their mother's store, the small gai fan place where we often (literally everyday, in fact) eat dishes over rice.
"I will never know what that is like," I often think when I imagine the position the owner and workers of this store are in, working almost everyday from 7 AM until 10 PM, serving food to college students and teachers. The mother of these children has a raspy voice and always wears an orange rag over her hair, but always seems to spare the energy to smile as she ask, "Chur she ma?" (What do you want to eat?) It was truly an experience of reclaiming a familiar position as we enjoyed our meal together and celebrated the new semester's beginning.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Chinese New Year 2010

Today marks the beginning of Spring Festival, the largest national celebration in China. It is also Chinese New Year's Day; China runs on the Lunar calendar, with the night before Chinese New Year's Day being called chú xī, or "Year-pass Eve." There is great depth and tradition to the Chinese New Year and it is celebrated throughout the country with great vigor and expectation for the coming year.

My team and I found ourselves in the best spot to take in much of the scene of the Chinese New Year's Eve, literally positioned thousands of feet above the capital city of Beijing as our flight from Chengdu, Sichuan, China came to its evening landing. Out the windows of our plane, we could see the blast of thousands of fireworks and bottle rockets. In the taxi ride on the way to the airport, we saw hundreds or citizens setting of fireworks next to and out of apartment buildings, parking lots, and business districts, all in the name of calling in the Year of the Tiger.

"Looks like they've learned a lot from last year," Jon said sarcastically as we drove through the city, in reference to the celebration that cost Beijing its newest television station, which was charred from a fireworks' explosion in the Chinese New Year celebration of 2009. A celebration was situated too close to the CCTV building, which eventually caught aflame when celebrants set off fireworks that went astray.

As it is, the volley of light and thunderous boom of the city recoiled around us. I loved the feeling of being welcomed back to our home city of Baoding with such a roaring party buzzing throughout the rooftops and city streets.

"It's like this in every city in every province in the nation, too!" we noted as we drove our taxi through Badoing on our way back to the school. Walking to find a taxi felt like we were literally in the middle of a war zone, what with not being able to speak peaceably to someone even 10 feet away due to the explosions going on around everywhere; just across the street from the train station, we saw three different fireworks displays of firecrackers and bottle rockets coming from the same alleyway between two different apartment buildings. The incredible display of greens and reds and yellows announced the New Year and the demise of the unfortunate soul who needs to wake up for work early the next day. Most people, as it is, celebrate New Years Day in the same way Americans celebrate Christmas Day: in their home cooking dumplings with their loved ones, all while setting off the occasional firework just to not lose touch with the Joneses.

"At least we're safe, away from most people and their celebrations once we get home," I postulated about our campus's strategic position North of the middle of Baoding, a mostly-secluded area. However, once we drifted away from the lights of the city, I saw the same lights of hundreds more celebrations coming from the smaller villages around the country side, celebrations spreading yolk on my theory that we would be spared from dealing with the all-night celebration. Then again, who would want that, anyway?

As we walked into our campus to the greetings of our doormen, we shouted loudly, "Ju ni xi nian qui le, peng you!" Happy New Year to you, indeed! Adorned in their stoic grays and greens, the security officers who we usually sheepishly wave and grin at when we wake them, confused and upset, from their slumber if we arrive as late as we did on this night seemed overjoyed that they had foreigners around with whom to ring in the new year (a ring in our collective ears, that is). "Looks like they didn't even want to miss the party!" I shouted, pointing to the remains of a 1,000-piece firecracker that was broken and blasted possibly minutes before, its insides still fuming from the scourge for which it was created: Chinese New Year, 2010.
Two pictures of Chinese New Year celebrations throughout China.
(pictures from:

Friday, January 22, 2010


For those of you interested in following my team's upcoming three weeks of travel, these are the spots we'll be hitting:

Baoding, China - Beijing, China (Jan. 23- 25)
Beijing, China - Shenzhen, China (Jan. 25- 30)
Shenzhen, China - Macau (Jan. 30 - Feb. 1)
Macau - Guilin/ Yangshuo, China (Feb. 1 - 6)
Guilin, China - Kunming, China (Feb. 6-7)
Kunming, China - Lijiang, China (Feb. 7 - 9)
Lijiang, China - Chengdu, China (Feb. 9 -13)
Chengdu, China - Beijing, China (Feb. 13)
Beijing, China - Baoding, China (Feb. 14)

The best way to reach me will be by e-mail or using skype to call my cell phone.

Happy travels!