JewBus or JuBus (Jewish Buddhists)

Ancient Hebrew scroll found in Mogao Buddhist Caves

What is a JewBu?
Jews and Buddhists have been hanging together for a long time. Take this scroll. he My rabbi (in email) tells me this scroll, it’s actually only a photo from a display, (the original was spirited away by tomb raiders in the ’20s, I think to the British Museum) is familiar (though the handwriting isn’t). It relates to Tashlich, the ceremony between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur when we throw breadcrumbs or pocket lint into moving water to symbolize being rid of our past sins. The priceless scroll is one of thousands discovered in a cache, later taken by European explorers. It’s from Mogao, or Cave of a Thousand Buddhas, a complex of almost 500 often-magnificent Buddhist caves used since 400 AD for meditation and worship, full of sky-high Buddha carvings, in the Gobi desert along the Silk Road near Dunhuang (map below). Holland Carter won a Pulitzer for this story in the Times on Mogao. There were Sanskrit, Tibetan, Mongolian, Chinese, Arabic scrolls…and our very own Hebrew.
Wherever you go, there you are.

Dunhuang, the nearest town (25 miles) from the Mogao Caves, is closer to Kirgyzstan than Korea–central Asia, not far from Pakistan and Eastern Mongolia. Around Dunhuang, the huge empty desert and Mingsha Dunes, it’s not that hard to imagine the caravans carrying the silk, the foods, the scrolls of many faiths and philosophies.

Buddhist nuns, Wutaishan, Shanxi province

China looks different through Jewish eyes. Our antennae pick up these ancient wavelengths and we feel our two people’s world-spanning presence and interaction. And we spend so much time in temples and Buddhist sights, because they’re most often China’s most richly interesting cultural treasures.

Buddhist caves at Yunggan, an early Buddhist cave

The JuBu experience is a path fairly well-trod, by practicing Jewish Buddhist thinkers such as Sylvia Boorstein. Who my rabbi emailed me about yesterday, as did my friend, the great Brooklyn author, journalist, “Sisterhood” blogger, guide to all things modern-Jewish-woman, Debra Nussbaum Cohen. The term JewBu was coined (or, popularized) by the poet Roger Kamanetz in his bestselling 1994 The Jew in the Lotus: A Poet’s Rediscovery of Jewish Identity in Buddhist India, a book I’ve always loved. It narrates the visit of Jewish leaders to Dharamasala, summoned by the Dalai Lama, so they might teach him how the Tibetans can survive culturally and religiously in their diaspora and exile. I had a meditation teacher when I was in high school, who’d just finished a decade at Tasajara, the Zen Buddhist farm retreat in California.

Ethan finds the character ‘Buddha’

(She was Jewish.) I haven’t thought about that 30-year-old time until I just wrote it but maybe that makes me a JewBu. The ‘American Buddhist’ classics she gave me Miracle of Mindfulness and of course the great Japanese monk Suzuki Roshi’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mindwere imprinted into my brain quite young. Perhaps this helps explain our frequent visits to Buddhist hallowed ground in China.

At Wutaishan…more on that another time

Yesterday I started reading Letters to a Buddhist Jew by Rabbi Akiva Tatz. I hope Kenny might read it as part of his bar mitzvah preparation. It begins with a story, not the rabbi’s own but a young man he knows:

“[The Dalai Lama] greeted me with his warm, loving smile and asked if I was Israeli.
‘Yes,’ I immediately answered.
‘Are you Jewish?’ he continued.
‘Indeed,’ I replied.
He was silent for a couple of minutes and then said: ‘You come from the most ancient wisdom…the source…You do not need to travel all the way here to seek the truth…You should return to your country and learn your religion well. Return here if you feel the need, but only after you have done so….’
At the time I was deeply disappointed and kept thinking: ‘Have I ventured all the way to Bihar to discover that I should learn Torah?’ ”

North peak, Wutaishan (Five-Peak Mountain), Shanxi

Of course, we should (learn Torah)–there’s never been any doubt, only a lack of time and commitment. We didn’t need to come to China to realize that. But here, we find ourselves slowly immersed in Buddhism and experience it becoming a filter for our Judaism, as in the other direction we see and feel Buddhism here (Chinese, Tibetan, Mongolian) through the lens of our own ancient people. The JewBu (JuBew?) experience is an ad infinitumechoing hall of mirrors.

Temple cat, unafraid of temple lion

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Sweet and Bitter

Outside Beijing, it’s suddenly rural Hebei province. Where my generous, beautiful student hosted us in her village. We walked through the sweet potato fields (also some peanuts and corn). Ethan loved pumping water and bringing it inside. Fun, she said–the first time. Small farming terraces, impossible for machines to navigate, greatly increase farming’s hardship. An amazing cook, her mom has farmed for more than 30 years.

From the sweet potato, mom made fantastic silky cellophane noodles (lunch, with greenbeans; dinner, cold with cucumbers and vinegar). With dishes of fish, pork in black bean sauce, roast duck, other vegetables, and the holiday special rice dumplings filled with date, sweet potato was also served in sugared cubes that harden like candyapple when dipped into cold water at the table. What a feast at this farm on Dragon Boat Festival.

Later, since a mom is never allowed to rest, and since she hadn’t already cooked a feast, the children demanded a lesson in making dumplings. It begins with fresh greens.

We talked about how poorly equipped and staffed rural schools are, and the far higher college-entrance exam scores rural kids need to get into college. Suddenly I understood: this discriminatory policy is to reproduce more farmers. By capping their opportunities, food will be grown. China won’t starve.

The poster says, “Men! The One-Child Policy is your responsibility.”

The noodles, made by a neighbor in the village from sweet potato flour.

More Great Student Journalism

Writers Workshop, my apt

If you’re unmarried at 27, you’re a “leftover lady” – Reese explores this ridiculous problem in the third and last batch of student final pieces, (the first batch here) presented aloud at my apt, over lunch. For a look at some parents’ alarmed, creative reaction to their kids potentially being leftover, we travel with Jolie (and in a related piece, Natalie) to Matchmaker’s Park, a well-done tale (she’s even recruited as good bride material). THose poor, anxious parents stand for hours with placards advertising their children to other anxious parents.

Jolie

Natalie

Lucia told the story of an NGO founded by China’s  leading, pioneering investigative journalist Wang Keqing, who sometimes teaches in this department, to help miners and other impoverished Chinese industrial workers with black lung disease. Some on staff were initially persecuted, for embarrassing the government. The NGO is one of few–it’s a new and uncertain area of China’s nascent, still-beleaguered civil society. Happily, it recently got on the government’s good side, and a few celebrities have lined up for a big fundraiser this month.

Aileen takes us on a journey through her feelings of patriotism and yet demand for information about her home that she loves,  China, on a trip into the troubled Tibetan area, Qinghai. She seeks to explore the unrest (while translating for a journalist from India), and must grapple with being accused by security forces, at every step, of being a traitor.

Aileen journeyed to Tibetan Qinghai

Susan looks at Confucius Institutes (from her days earlier this year interning in NYC), particularly the one at Pace University, and realizes the U.S. students there are learning more about Peking Opera, silk, calligraphy and classical poetry than she knows, as a devoted English student. She determines, then, to rediscover her own culture.

Susan

Laura shows us why Christianity, despite the hype and worry, won’t catch on in China. We see her quit, after too much uncomfortable touchie-feelie hugging and what feels like too much fake saying “I love you.”

Cynthia shows us a migrant laborer who founded a hotline to help others, a well-drawn bio piece about a modern-day hero.

Susan Yu takes us inside student union election politics – a microcosm for Party politics, and urges change towards a more truly democratic process.

In a

Susan Yu

nother great piece, we see how Chinese senior citizens, displaced from the center and their old communities by Beijing’s rampant, outward, horizontal growth pattern, are now being accused of clogging up mass transit when they travel back to their favorite old spots at rush hour.

Cynthia

And Guanlin tells the story of life as a Beijing public toilet cleaner who actually lives inside a stall, with his wife and grandchild.

Liya wrote about Beijing’s oldest foreign-owned small business, run by China’s original British hipster.

Shao Yao Jews

ImageWe are constantly changing trains at Shao Yao Ju, especially on Jewish holidays — when I go get the boys at school in order to go to synagogue. At first our Woody Allenesque way we referred to the station was, “Shao Yao Are-You-Calling-Me-a-Jew?”

Now we just call it, “Shao Yao People-of-the-Jewish-Faith.”

Image

 

Little Monks

Little Buddhist monk, SW China’s Yunnan province

I’m disturbed by little monks. Yes, it takes a lifetime to learn scripture; I read an interview in National Geo with an old Tibetan monk who talked about his happy willingness to enter monastic life, at an uncle’s urging, at age 6 or 7. In Kathmandu years ago, I remember the armies of adorable tiny monks playing ball (soccer fever among little-boy monks being the subject of the film “The Cup,” 1999). Many little Tibetan monks have a much more materially comfortable life in the monastery than they’d have at home. Maybe more spiritually comfortable. Their families are passionate about religious life and they’re honored to join early. But I’m disturbed. They’re cloistered long before they can maturely consent. China has rightly banned the practice before age 15 or 16, but the law goes unenforced.

Playing with our boys. Baisha, Yunnan.

Our boys have played with little monks, whenever they’ve meet them. Basketball, pingpong, tag. This shouldn’t be taken as me implying that these little monks are victims of sexual abuse. Although the BBC out of Colombo, Sri Lanka covered a terrible story this month, hundreds of sexually abused Buddhist monk boys, and we know from many accounts this happened, happens. And of course we’ve seen sexual abuse in Western religious educational settings. I’m by no means pointing to Buddhism (Chinese, Tibetan, Sri Lankan) as uniquely guilty, and this isn’t the main point of my case, as it is for religiouschildabuse.org, an atheist organization that despises religion and uses child abuse as a bludgeon.

I’m saying, we’ve seen a lot of baby monks. And just as it’s disturbing that little Chinese athletes, say, are removed from home and family and friends to training schools from a tender age, as it’s wrong that children anywhere be controlled by large, forceful institutions of any kind, it’s wrong for baby monks to still tolerated here, in 2012.

Monks cleanup, Kanding, Western Sichuan

Stimulating Discussion With Chinese Students

The campus cats. Beijing Foreign Studies University.

Some of these tips I got on arrival, from Fulbright meetings. Other later in my time here. A lot didn’t work. Below is what did. The custom is, teacher’s right/students listen & regurgitate later. Much has been written about how frustrating this is to American lecturers, here and at U.S. colleges (where, sometimes, language proficiency or fraudulent applications may be at fault). There are solutions.

Distribute questions a week in advance to a group. The group prepares the answers. The “discussion” (group presentation) occurs at a planned time.

This didn’t suit a reporting & writing course. They reported and wrote almost every week. Instead, I gave a quiz on the rare non-reporting, non-writing weeks, to ensure they used that week to get caught up with the past month or so’s reading. After the quiz was a reasonably good time for discussion; everyone was ‘on the same page.’

Explain that they need the skill of being able to discuss material, to be transnational. Explain that it’s required in the U.S. classroom, from middle school onward. Lay out the expectation the first day that every student is expected to speak in class, and that to challenge the teacher is considered polite. That questions don’t imply I haven’t done a thorough teaching job.

Unless the students had done a semester abroad, or was naturally extroverted, this had no impact. By the end, I’ve imparted a living sense of a different student-teacher relationship–more actively engaged (if not quite Socratic), more ‘democratic’ and hands-on and debate-oriented. But it’s a slow build, not something you can create in a day.

Call on students randomly.

This worked poorly.

–Go around the room, one by one.

This also worked poorly. Many students were unprepared, unwilling, too nervous, got stage fright & lost their fluent English.

Ask a question. Break up into pairs for discussion. Let one of the pair represent their thoughts aloud.

This might work. I broke into groups of 4 or 5. Sometimes we had a good exercise. The problems were 1) I gave too much time to prepare; 5 minutes would be good but I probably gave 10+, so it devolved into a chat-fest. And 2) the same old gregarious, extroverted, most-fluent students would be speaking, as always.

Here is what worked for me:

Explain the purpose of student-teacher individual conferences, and then pass out a weekly sign-up list. I made coming in mandatory, at least once. Many students came a lot. I had 4 hours/week set aside for conferences (most weeks), at my kitchen table. Discussing, tutoring, mentoring, relationship-building all much easier in this informal setting.

Class lunches. This was strongly recommended by Fulbright, as a key part of our We’re-Not-Your-Typical-Foreign-Expert approach. Great tradition. Class leader would reserve one big table (7-9 students), almost every week. Rotated around until everyone (nearly 90 students this year) participated. They ordered so I learned about a lot of good foods, too. Guest speakers sometimes joined, or other faculty, which was extra great.  Informal setting meant no one was on stage so there wasn’t stage fright or the other problems. Only downside was, had to regularly remind everyone to use English, so we could get to know one another better.

–Distribute a ‘self-evaluation sheet’ the day a piece is due, and discuss after they’ve filled it out. Got this idea from a Chinese professor. Students use this ‘quiz’ to evaluate their work (which they have in hand, in hard copy), against the techniques/skills/theories contained in the latest readings. After they’re done, it’s all fresh in mind, they’ve had a critical, analytical half hour with the material, they’re called on to share aloud the result of their self-evaluation.

BFSU Main Building spring 2012

Sax Man

By Kenny
Throughout the years learning an instrument, everyone wants to perform something. They want to show off what they learned. That’s why they created the recital. At British School of Beijing, there was a recital Thursday night. I had been practicing for the recital for months. I had to give up rugby (against my own will). I practiced and practiced with many hard struggles on the way there (like breaking my finger and delaying my practicing for 3 weeks). Even disobeying the doctor who said I couldn’t play — for the love of the saxophone, even though it might’ve hurt a little bit to play. But I still did it for the love of the instrument. I performed twice. Once alone with a piano accompaniment, and once with the orchestra (a big band).

The day before the concert I went in the first 2 periods of the day and started practicing and thought, ‘Oh no, I’m screwed, I can’t keep up with the piano, he’s going too fast, I don’t know when to start, I’m gonna embarrass myself.’

With an hour to the performance I’m practicing insanely hard with the piano. Playing with a piano’s really hard. When the concert started the flute, piano, trumpet ensemble played. first My friend and I were in the dressing room when in the trumpet ensemble played. I said to him, “Aren’t you in the trumpet ensemble?” He runs over and looks. Luckily for him he had a solo later in the orchestra.

Ten acts later was my solo performance on the tenor sax, with the piano, a piece called “Dark Light” (composed by Mike Nock). I hear the piano, I start going…I see friends in the theater watching me. In the middle, I see a mistake: I had arranged the pages in the wrong order, instead of 1,2,3,4 it went 1,2,4,3. I had to flip a page and go back. Luckily it was only 2 seconds. It went very well.

I had one more performance, the wind orchestra. We start with “Funkytown.” Everyone was liking the song. Since I’m a tenor sax I was playing the bass part. Towards the end of the song I had a solo. It went really well. There are 3 saxophones in that piece, me and 2 friends. Our band’s very big. There are maybe 11 clarinets, 13 trumpets and 7 flutes. The next piece was the theme from “The Simpsons.” That went well but I always get lost at one part. Luckily I got lost for about 8 seconds but I know where to catch up. That’s when my solo is. Our final piece was “Firework” by Katie Perry. It starts out with the clarinets, then saxophones and then flutes and trumpets come in.

I felt really good and it was definitely worth it. The sound was beautiful.

Earlier in the day, to get ready, my music teacher Ms. Joyce Liu, from Guanxi province, says, “Kenny, you need more practice. Come here another hour to play.” After an hour I still can’t do it, but I’ve gotten better. But I’m still falling behind a little & I’m really worried. To get my mind off it I dyed my hair blue, stuck my hair up, and put on some sunglasses and a backwards hat and made my way down to the house music competition.

At the local barbershop, my new faux-hawk

My house, the blue house, Romans, (color like Ravenclaw) were in 3rd place. We needed to win this to get close to winning the house cup. The Key Stage 3 (middle school) Romans team, about 20 of us, start out by singing a song from The Avengers movie, which makes us sound like a team. There’s a lot of tension, we’re all standing in a straight line in a military position. In a few seconds “Party Rock Anthem” goes on. We all start doing a shuffle in a messy order. Then we started dancing, clapping our hands, jumping up and down as the music goes on. Then comes a friend onto the stage wearing a box on his head, dancing. We got
a huge round of applause and the judges started clapping. Our next solo artist was a student piano player who’d played on CCTV and gotten interviewed. Luckily, she was in the Romans house. She played a beautiful classical piece that almost made me cry. The final score…We won the cup for the third year in a row!

Revealing Student Journalism

Final papers, read aloud over pizza, for appreciation, not critique. “Spoken-word performance”-style, over 4 hours with food & drink (my normal U.S. seminar length, unheard of here). Some students needed help projecting their voices. Great work again, some ‘Reporter’s Journey’-type experience stories, and interrogations/explorations of trends and youth countercultures that reveal some of the fissures in China today.

Betty lived in tight quarters for a story

A graduate degree from a top Beijing university won’t get you your own flat. Betty’s final showed life in bunkbeds, 7 to a small apartment (1 bathroom) after grad school.

Li Xueman explored troubling junkets for journalism students

Alina’s story shows Christianity’s pull for youths, being spread by Korean missionaries at “house churches” with singing and guitar, and cozy potluck dinners. Other hot trends: becoming a body guard at Israeli-run training camps; hating doctors (doctors have begun to bear the brunt of patients’ anger at a sick healthcare system–some doctors have even been violently attacked in hospitals). Another Israeli motif came up in Lei Hou’s story on the chutzpah of an instructor who’s brought Krav Maga, a technique born in an Eastern European Jewish ghetto, to china, home of martial arts. China maybe didn’t need another martial art! But Krav Maga is simpler, quick to learn, effective, and requires no meditation.

Patients are venting anger on doctors, already hard pressed by the same troubled system, Tracy writes.

One student went in search of where her e-waste goes. But a neighborhood once was home to recyclers (peddlers whose kids climbed on old electronics leaking poison) is gone…Is e-waste is down thanks to buy-back programs? It’s not clear.

Wang Fei looks at the allure of becoming a mogul’s body guard

A piece on MayDay, the Taiwanese pop sensation with 10 million online fans, shows how even after 2 decades, they’re still inspiring China’s young people with ballads about “nobodies who overcome obstacles.”
And one student describes a series of luxurious junkets she took, organized by the Propaganda Ministry for j-school students. It’s a clear-eyed look inside a media system where “only the rich and powerful have a say.” She concludes: “This will cripple our nation.”

Granddad, Janni Shoot China

Shooter, shot


Amazing and rare when your grandparents visit you in China.

Shooting Suzhou St., in the Summer Palace


They shot lots of pictures. About 14,000 between them. They’ll only keep 8 or 9. Those’ll be some damn good pictures! Granddad published this book of his work, My Depth of Field, for charity. Stupendous landscapes. Artwork.

They’re extremely good.


They don’t think shooting themselves is interesting. In China, they captured clouds over Huang Shan, misty rice paddies, temple ruins, faces. By the way they stop so often, we’re made to think more about what we’re seeing.

Forbidden City




Finally they rested over hotpot!

Editors Take Note: Amazing Youth-Culture Stories

Carlotta, who lived in Cuba, fluent in 3 languages, covered migrant street musicians.


Writers Workshop today, my grad students shared final pieces. Wow:
–Black-market drivers’ licenses, China’s deadly, open secret. Great police sources.
–Part-time heavy metal rockers, because being full-time counterculture is a luxury in a nation where the single child is obliged to care for parents, and if married, two sets of parents. Subtle, fascinating. Written by Qu Song, who’s here:

China’s rockers must meet family obligations while pursuing music.


Of note: one of China’s first (if not the first) rock band was out of this university, Beijing Foreign Studies U., mid-’80s.
–My Buddhist Week-end. A student experiences Buddhism during a retreat at a nearby temple, nearly destroyed in the Cultural Revolution, reopened 7 years ago and thriving, especially attracting young Chinese. Written by Celina, who’s a true skeptic, so it feels like something when she reads about lighting incense at the end.

–The rise of China’s English interpreters. Though demand is exploding, and there’s a sense their lives are glitter and glam, it’s really the opposite. They’re the bridge, the middlemen China’s boom would be impossible without. Yet they’re treated like — well — crap, mostly. Dong does a masterful job on it.

Dong covers the woes of simultaneous interpreters, lynchpins in China’s high-flying business deals.


–Young intellectual elites, desperate to leave China. We’ve heard about the Party children granted the privilege of study abroad. But not so much about the highly-educated yet ordinary Chinese youth, an intellectual elite, who are tired of the bribery to get ahead, the need for constant flattery, the uncertainty if you’re not well-born, the lack of rules. Chen Lin boldly dissects the trend of those desperate to go somewhere else by focusing on young Chinese expats and would-be expats to Australia.

Cheng Lin (L) and Pu Ge (R) during our last-class workshop


We also heard fabulous stories on the lomography cult, how electronica sets Beijing youth free, on Chinese young people going to live in Seoul as K-Pop groupies, on the African minority community and the discrimination they experience in Guangzhou’s so-called “Chocolate Districts,” on young graduates seeking the “Iron Bowl” (government jobs).

Jean explained how Beijing electronica parties every night (+ a festival each summer) set young people free.


Sophia did a profile of an impoverished rural girl with 3 years of schooling who heard on TV (at age 21) about a Beijing boarding school for rural girls, applied, got in, was the star, got a college scholarship, and how is the head teacher there, inspiring young women to follow her. We heard from Ashley about the hard life of China’s geriatric care aides, untrained, unlicensed, yet relied on by working families–including her own–who can’t give their elders round-the-clock care.

Rhine, a member of the Lomo subculture, covered it beautifully.


I am so goddamn proud of them. I teared up. Hate to have to go…

One group of about 20 down, two more to go.

Dajuesi, Gem of the Western Hills

Second-to-last on our list of temples* or si (“suh”) was Dajue Si 大觉寺, 1,000 years old, though mostly ruined and rebuilt in the Ming era. Once Beijing’s largest, an exquisite Buddhist ‘scenic site’ (not active) at the city’s Western edge, outside a rustic village, perched on a steep rocky mountainside, Yangtai Shan, 扬泰山.

Most unexpected: Super-chic, gorgeous, beautifully dressed rich people eating elegant fruit plates and drinking tea in some of Dajuesi’s outdoor courtyard space, converted into a tea house. Tea menu options ran $100, $200+ (yeah, that much). Hot water and a tea set, to drink some in the garden, included. Party elites from the secret military installation in the Hills nearby? We got ice cream pops at a grocery, ate on some rocks, thanks!

I printed every possible map of the location (close-up, middle distance, long view) but still 6 cabbies refused the edge-of-town fare. Finally I got the number of a hotel nearby, who could give verbal directions, which did the trick. The 45-minute ride cost $15. Incredible how rural it gets so suddenly, just 25 minutes from this university district.
It was so shimmery clear a day, so blue, so fresh, AQI was in single digits!! After smog so bad the day before, I wanted to get your vision prescription checked. At Dajuesi a shine emmanated from each object in the world: every leaf, every stone.

One Liao-dynasty relic remains (916-1125), a stone tablet engraved with Beijing’s history. Nearby a frigid underground spring feeds square stone pools.

The precious-metal Buddhas in the halls are exquisite; the main one apparently artistically significant. It’s easy to climb a bit up the mountainside to a white, 300-year-old stupa surrounded by pine and cypress.

It was Kenny, again, urging us to do more, see more, use every moment, that motivated the trip. Another fantastic imperial Beijing Buddhist gem with its own unique qualities, that moved us, after–thanks to Kenny–we discovered it for ourselves.

Chongqing Narratives, Up Close

Night, Chongqing’s Yangtze river shoreline


Chongqing, mid-May, 2 weeks after popular, charismatic governor Bo Xilai (Chongqing city is considered a province) disappeared into some secret jail somewhere, his wife charged with the suspected murder of a British family friend. A month earlier he’d been sacked from his job, with Prime Minister Wen Jiaobo’s ominously announcing that a danger was brewing of a “return to the [chaos of the] Cultural Revolution.” Bo was a “high-flying princeling, a son of one of Chairman Mao’s revolutionary comrades, who hoped to become one of the top nine figures at the Communist Party Congress to be held this autumn” but his pedigree offered no protection. We were jazzed about walking into the scene of this LeCarre novel, excited to see war-time capital Chungking, and the river featured in a 1956 children’s book we read, The House of 6o Fathers, illustrated by Maurice Sendak, about a little Chinese boy swept away in a sampan during the Sino-Japanese war (who befriends a downed U.S. airman from the Flying Tigers, in nearby Hunan).

Narrow old streets by the river


Home of Bo, famed for steep mountainous gorges beside the giant Yantze, capital of the West, Chicago-like, overnight expansion (well, over 10 years) into a hilly wonder of high-rise steel. Sichuan hotpot where even ‘medium’ is a challenge, featuring those great brain-altering peppercorns (we received 5 packages as a gift). It was a chance to think about the politics of the place–about the narratives that have taken hold around Bo, and whether (and how) ours differ from our hosts’, who lived it all up close.

With Fulbrighters Jan & Pat Munday, Montana eco historian

I’ll add that a lecture trip with kids in tow was distracting and cost me focus. But I want them to see China. I wish I could say they’d behaved better. Earlier bedtimes would have helped. Still, they were loved (so people claimed); 4-6 student volunteers minded them over pingpong while I spoke to the largest groups ever, a nice way to finish, at Southwest and Sichuan Foreign Studies U, and having given these talks for 7 months, I have my message down. Laser focus or no, advocating for a watchdog media is as good a message as I could hope to deliver!

The boys and my lecture poster.

The first Bo narrative came from our host, a public health and contagious disease professor who cooperates with UMDNJ, a man so avid about educational exchange, he invited a journalist to talk to his lab! (-and arranged lectures in journalism departments). Each day he assigned 5 different students to accompany us, and be exposed to our crazy Western ways. He described a friend, a higher-up in Bo’s office, who said his boss would phone to rant angrily at 3 or 4 a.m. The words the friend used to describe his boss: bizarre, eccentric, cruel.

Speaking at Sichuan Foreign Affairs U


But our host cared less about that than Bo’s budget. He was glad to see him gone because he considered his public spending fiscally unsound. Did the sacking simply reflect internal Party politicking without wider resonance, or did it embody a shift in course of the giant ship called China? A shift, for sure, he said, for the better.

Banquet; that better not be a beer.

Another Bo narrative you won’t hear, at least we didn’t, in Chongqing: The “FOR THOUSANDS OF YEARS” one. I’m wary myself when the insight on China begins that way, as in this FT analysis: “For thousands of years Chinese politics has been punctuated by violent internecine struggles played out behind palace walls but almost never have they spilled out into the public arena in such a spectacular way.”

Audience for my talk. How many U.S. news organizations have shut down?


Then there is “the Chongqing Model is Over” storyline. This is popular in investment bank notes. It suggests the neo-Maoism Bo at least mouthed (who knows what he really believed…) is done for. Like his ‘Sing Red’ campaign (folks in big groups singing old Party hymns outdoors)…we’ve seen that. Like his public investment in low-income housing, perhaps with funds confiscated from capitalist businesses, including 2 expropriated Hilton hotels. (The developer was charged with bribery and prostitution).

Rooves of old Chongqing


I don’t actually buy the “Robin Hood Is Dead” storyline. China’s growing wealth gap is a huge problem, on everyone’s lips. Keeping the lid on discontent will require more, not less, public investment, maybe in housing. And staving off much-feared economic slowdown will require continuing priming of the pump, call it neoWhatever. Third and most importantly, while Chinese President Hu Jintao, and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, are on the record opposed to subsidized low-income housing, and all sorts of state-owned-enterprise monopolies (esp in banking, where they’ve strangled small-biz development, for one), SOEs are entrenched power blocs, grown larger and more powerful through mergers, run by supermen. Those vested interests remain a powerful force in favor of more of the same. Bo or no Bo. The students and profs I spoke to in Chongqing agree, particularly about the vested interests part.

Georgie, a partner of UMDNJ.


There’s widespread agreement around the narrative that Bo’s fall Highlights China’s Growing Wealth Gap. Sacking him – whatever micro-secret-faction ultimately triumphs–helps the Party overall save face. Bloomberg reported recently the Bo clan is worth at least $136 million. That “fuels perceptions of corruption in the Communist Party and deepens social tensions over China’s widening wealth gap.” So he had to go. Even if that Ferrari his Harvard son drove only once was borrowed.

Temple, elevated highway, Yangtze


Finally there’s the Bo narrative as the story of The Horrors of Succession Struggles in Secrecy–a storyline where we and the Chinese differ, because for so many here (except the rare out-and-out democracy activist), it’s hard to imagine anything else. For months, from when Bo’s deputy sought asylum at the U.S. embassy in February, till the Bo scandal itself broke in mid-March, Party leaders were utterly silent. Did this mean they were divided? Or is it just how things work when there’s no forum for political debate, no consistent operation where things proceed predictably, according to known laws? Where there’s no public method for hashing out differences in the ‘town square’ (offensive as that dialogue often becomes, in today’s America)? That absence, that silence, is perhaps the most bizarre difference from America you notice and feel here. What’s going on? Who knows. Try checking out the Weibou gossip, which may be true, but who knows? Who’s up and who’s down and why? It’s anybody’s guess. You share links, scan scholarly journals, browse (translated) perhaps-reliable Twitter feeds, for a glimpse of “truth.” Is it? Maybe! Leading up to the October Congress in which 70% of those in power will be replaced here, the stakes are high and good information—reliable, vetted, factual, accurate–is hard as ever to come by, Weibou notwithstanding. And it’s more than weird, it’s scary. As The Economist points out, authoritarian rule through backroom secret deals always carries the scent, the possible edge, of violence. “As recently as 1989, a succession struggle was waged in blood on the streets of Beijing.”

And we were singin’ ‘Bye, bye Bo Xilai. His son don’t drive a Ferrari, he’s a really nice guy.’ And all the Party members were drinking Moutai singing, ‘This’ll be the day my career dies. This will be the day my career dies’…”

Chaoyang Birthday

Look at that haze: Air Quality Index: 200+


Super-hot bad air day for the rescheduled 9th birthday party. Thunder storm with lightning held off until an hour after. Chaoyang Park, ‘Beijing’s Central Park,’ has forest trails, boat rentals, sand beach, science museum…and amusement park. We had a suitcase of food, & donuts because anything frosted would melt.

Meeting place: Mod weird south gate


The adorable boys are from England, China, Australia, and Mexico. Some don’t like the feeling of g-force, some aren’t tall enough for the big rides. We tried to compromise to do most rides together.

…like a smaller roller coaster…

Everyone likes bumper cars…

Rides are embossed prominently, “Made in China.”

The Classic Flying Swing

Bless Andy’s mom Sai for coming, she made runs for bottled water, we went through more than 30; herded them from behind, and got group discounts by bargaining in Chinese at the ticket booths. They’re adorable and Ethan’s going to miss them. Stay in touch, please, Rowan, Riley, Max, and Andy, wherever in the world your families go!

Third grade buddies, Chaoyang Park, Beijing.

Ethan will miss you guys.

Ethan’s Pictures of Chengde

By Ethan
These are my pictures and only my pictures from Chengde. Chengde is a palace where the Chinese emperor decided to show that he honored all the nationalities that he had taken over such as Mongolia, Manchuria, Tibet and the Han. The emperor would stay there in the summer, if he wasn’t at his other resort in Beijing.

I’m going to show you pictures about the Outlying Temples.

This is the entrance to the PuLe Temple.




Jurassic Guangzhou

GuangWai Journalism lecture

Beijing is so dry, you’ll see people standing beside humidifiers rubbing mist on their faces. So while Guangzhou, in the south, may be best known for its adjacency to the Special Economic Zones, the first areas permeated by capitalism with Chinese characteristics, we were loving the jungle plants & moisture.

Colonial Xiamien Island, Guangzhou

Although Ethan, playing with a 2-foot wide leaf straight out of Jurassic Park, had an allergic reaction where all his skin began itching badly. Luckily, mom’s purse contains antihistamines–that’s why they call it ‘the ambulance.’

Wild park adjacent to Guangzhou Foreign Studies Univ, w/ Amy & Fred and Emma our host.

My host from the J-school, which offers courses in international reporting and multimedia, was incredibly gracious. About 300 students came to hear about Writing Better and the U.S. Media Crisis. Two questions from the Q&A (I paraphrase): “How can we get the government to stop controlling the media?” and “How will your government’s control of the media affect this year’s U.S. presidential elections?”

We squeezed in a bit of tourism, though the traffic was so bad we didn’t do much. It’s a giant city of about 13 million, home to the world’s tallest structure, a radio tower. The exhibition center was bigger than an airport. It has some pretty leftovers from the foreign occupiers and is said to have a strong international influence but it struck us as a very typical modern Chinese megalopolis…in the jungle.

Xiamien Island

Receiving gifts. Journalism prof. Emma Du, Guangzhou Foreign Studies U


Fantastic spending time with fellow Fulbrighter (art historian and Americanist) Amy Werbel and Fred Lane, and young Graham (fluent Mandarin speaker). They helped us reflect on how our perceptions of China, and we, have changed this year, and what Chinese habits we might like to adopt. Taking up less space…napping instead of caffeinating…lowering the volume of family – uh – discussions.

More on that soon.