Einstein’s Triangle

I spent most of the day reading up on Albert Einstein and his relationship with Mileva Maric and Elsa Lowenthal. Some pretty interesting observations, although by no means do these explain anything.

  1. Albert and his girlfriend Mileva got pregnant shortly after Albert graduated from university, but this baby disappeared when Albert was 23 years old and his girlfriend Mileva was 27. They didn’t get married (in January of 1903) for at least a year after the disappearance of their daughter, who is said to either have been given up for adoption or died in infancy, although neither spoke of the situation. Mileva ended up having the baby by herself at her parent’s house in Novi Sad, Serbia (where she was from).
  2. Mileva failed the graduation exam in 1900 (which Albert passed) – and ended up staying in school and retaking the exam a year later (while three months pregnant). After Albert graduated, he couldn’t find a job for at least two years, and only secured a permanent position (at the patent office) in 1903 (when he was 24 years old).
  3. in 1902 (when he was 23) Albert formed a discussion group called “The Olympia Society” in which a core group of his friends got together to talk about philosophy and physics. His girlfriend and later wife would attend although not participate. The group lasted until 1905 – until the last of his friends had left Switzerland.
  4. During all of this time (from the above observations), from the moment that Albert graduated until 1905, he had been working on his PhD thesis. Not surprisingly, the year he received his thesis he also published a collage of reviews and scientific papers espousing specific theories he had been thinking about during his studies. This is apparent, as from 1900 until 1905 he only published 67 pages worth of papers, but in one year published a staggering 79 pages of papers and reviews. He married Mileva in 1903 (after securing his permanent job). It’s unclear if he started his PhD immediately after graduating or if he waited until he found his job at the patent office (in 1902, after the birth of his child).
  5. However, it wasn’t until he was 29 (in 1908) that he found a position teaching at the University of Bern. I’m unclear what exactly he did between getting his PhD and finding a position as a teacher, although it is clear that he spent a great amount of time writing and publishing articles with the Annalen der Physik. Unlike later publications, these were written papers and not lectures, so it seems he wasn’t teaching during this time.
  6. After he found a position teaching, many of his papers were either co-authored or were transcripts of actual talks and lectures he gave.
  7. Somehow (I’m still tracing together details), between 1914-1919 he and his wife had separated, finally divorcing in 1919. Their second son was born in 1910 (when Albert was 31). In 1910, he was already deeply unhappy with his marriage to Mileva, as he wrote to his “high school sweetheart” Marie and told her that he thought of her “every spare minute”. At this point, his older son was a toddler and his second son was a mewling baby. However, by 1914 he was so unhappy that he actually started a romantic liaison with his cousin Elsa (who was three years older than him).
  8. At this time, Elsa was raising two children on her own in Berlin, and when Albert and Mileva moved to Berlin in 1914 he must have immediately started spending time with her and her family (although he had been reaquainted with Elsa two years earlier). So shortly after moving to Berlin, Mileva took her children back to Zurich.
  9. In 1913, Mileva had her children baptized as Orthodox Christians, while Albert (to his death) remained nonreligious. Albert was raised by secular Jews, attended Catholic schools while growing up, although he did have great affinity for Jewish people. He claims to have been trained in both the Bible and the Talmud, which would have meant he either attended some kind of Jewish school outside of his elementary schools or his family practiced more than he ever admitted – or he self-trained himself (which is highly probable, given his personality).
  10. Strangest of all (for me) is that by the time his second wife had died (in 1936), he doesn’t appear to have reconnected in any significant fashion with his ex-wife, although his son (Hans Albert) moved to the United States 5 years from Switzerland after his father moved to the US in 1933 from Germany. Mileva, however, stayed in Zurich until her death.

My main concern in this investigation is to discover how his relationships with the three women in his life affected his research, as well as how the impact of the children in his life (his three children and Elsa’s two children) impacted him and affected his research. Elsa claims in an interview that he discovered relativity while locking himself in an upstairs room for two weeks, while she had to bring him food. I guess it’s nice to claim things like that, but the fact is he didn’t reconnect with Elsa until 1912, but he started writing about relativity in 1905 and published his first significant paper on general relativity in 1911. How much of Einstein is a myth (or ‘fake news’) is hard to glean immediately.

How he transformed from a very well-appreciated academic to a foofy-haired genius is still something I’m slightly confused about, but I’m guessing it had more to do with politics, the American media, and Albert’s controversial relationship with Robert Millikan (the president of Caltech, a deeply militaristic patriot, a fellow Nobel laureate, a military researcher who developed weapons for the US army during World War I, a eugenicist who believed in the greatness of Nordic civilization, and most famously a research who became famous because he ‘doctored’ the results of the experiment for which he was awarded the Nobel) as well as his relationship with many Hollywood elites (such as Charlie Chaplin) than it had to do with anything he actually wrote.

Volcanoes and Villages

doing some research on the Paektu Volcano in China/North Korea —  

  1. Known as Changbaishan 长白山, a famous tourist location in Jilin province – very famous in both Chinese and Korean history, literature, and the mythology
  2. 150 kilometers from the volcano to my wife’s hometown (Qidaogou 七道沟)
  3. Known as the birthplace of the dude who founded the Korean Empire, Dangun, as well as the birthplace of the progenitor of the clan which eventually conquered China and created the Qing dynasty, Bukuri Yongson (of the Aisin Gioro people)
  4. In the caldera of the explosion created in 945 A.D. is a lake called “Heaven’s Lake”
  5. Interestingly, the first major Korean kingdom known as the Goguryeo (from where we get the name Korea) ended after the nobles and royalty left their country to take residence in another kingdom someways down south – in the 10th century, about 50-100 years after the volcano erupted and caused ash and ice to cover the entire country within a 120 km radius for almost 3 years, and even caused snow to fall in May once year
  6. Some perspective – the eruption at Pompeii was a 5 on the VEI scale (Volcanic Explosivity Index), while the Paektu eruption was a 7 on the Index, making it one of the most devastating eruptions in history
  7. The Aisin Gioro claim their progenitor Bukuri Yongson was born from a virgin on the mountain; three heavenly maidens were bathing in the lake at the top of the mountain (which formed after the eruption), and a magpie dropped some red fruit near one of the heavenly maidens (Fekulen) who ate the fruit and became pregnant with a son
  8. The fruit itself was a god transformed by the Emperor of Heaven, and the magpie was also a transformed god
  9. Bukuri took a boat down from the mountain, and when he came to a group of men fighting he pacified them, told them his story and his clan, and from there consolidated their power until they finally conquered the Ming dynasty
  10. The Goryeo dynasty (not to be compared with the Gorguryeo, whose nobles fled to Goryeo after the eruption) which basically gained power after the volcano erupted — recorded in their books that the Jurchens (who were what eventually became of the Aisin Gioro, or so they claim) were forced to live on the other side of the Yalu River from the volcano, making me wonder if they were remnants of the Gorguryeo who failed to assimilate into the Goryeo
  11. So what started as a worried research into the impact zone of the volcano (should North Korea conduct a nuclear test too close to the volcano, and hence cause some ash damage near my wife’s hometown) appears to have much more importance than I initially realized–
  12. Final thoughts: it could be argued that if the eruption did not happen, the Manchu people (the Jurchens) would never had had an impetus to invade and conquer China. I mean, if your land was a volcanic wasteland, would you stay? Having traveled to that area several times, I can say the land takes a lot of work, the mountains are precipitously dangerous and confusing, and it’s even rumored that when the founder of the current Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was out on his military march to found his empire, he got lost in the forest not far from Paektu Volcano (around 90 miles away) where he was so hungry because he couldn’t find anything to eat, that his troops killed one of their horses for their dinner

pages referenced
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Volcanic_Explosivity_Index
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/946_eruption_of_Paektu_Mountain
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paektu_Mountain
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jurchen_people
https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/journal-of-chinese-history/article/writing-an-empire-an-analysis-of-the-manchu-origin-myth-and-the-dynamics-of-manchu-identity/07FC88C3A956FC31ACE2983099062EAD/core-reader
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eruption_of_Mount_Vesuvius_in_79
https://www.google.com.tw/maps/place/Paektu+Mountain/@41.0919908,127.9695787,39168a,35y,72.92t/data=!3m1!1e3!4m5!3m4!1s0x5e34aef69343d173:0x29f9d45614652dce!8m2!3d41.9930214!4d128.0774546?hl=en
http://nbbs.tvchosun.com/m/boardDetail.bbs?bbsNo=sisatankBbs_10176&contID=102522&boardType=&pn=0
http://edition.cnn.com/2017/05/02/asia/north-korea-nuclear-test-mt-paektu/
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1815_eruption_of_Mount_Tambora
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1257_Samalas_eruption
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aisin_Gioro
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Qing_dynasty
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Changbai_Mountains
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lake_Segara_Anak
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Goguryeo

Anna and the King, or when I learned my boss was a king

First, a true story. Before my trip in 2003, I perused the local library for any information on China, and all I could find were pictures of men and women dressed in blue uniforms, riding bikes from a book published in the mid 1980s. China wasn’t in the news, wasn’t a rising power, but most importantly to me was different, a literal Wild West for a native Californian who had grown up in the Silicon Valley during the 80s. In many ways, my experience mirrored Anna Leonowen’s experience in Thailand during the 1860s (she also thought her employment in Siam would be a romantic excursion), and continues to mirror the experiences of expatriates working in China even today. I would like to explore the dichotomies presented in the story of Anna Leonowens (told by Peter Krikes, Steve Meerson, and directed by Andy Tennant in the film, Anna and the King) through three rules (or quotes from the film) as well as the impact of those rules had I known and practiced them during my first year.

Rule #1: “Best not to assume too much.” In the beginning of the film, the prime minister of Siam chastises Anna for jumping to conclusions she may be swaying the king towards changing his policies, when in fact he was just being polite. In her book, Leonowens remarks with stunning audacity (even to the end of her five-year stint in Siam) at the brutality of the culture, the uncivilized manners of the king and his ministers, and the horrifying treatment of the common people with an attitude that would do her contemporary Harriet Beecher Stowe proud. Even in the film, Anna (portrayed by Jodie Foster) presents an image of a woman far more interested in securing the rights of women forced to serve as wives for the king than the bloated attitudes she taught her son to convey to appointed princes, illustrated when he shoved the prince of the country because of an insulting remark.

When I first arrived in China, I came saddled with a college education (worth around $100,000), a three-month EFL certificate to teach English, as well as six months teaching experience in a local community center in Chicago. However, when I arrived at the city where I was supposed to teach, my guide told me to stay on the train. Five hours later, I got off the train in a tiny mountain town near the border of Russia, escorted to my “apartment” (the operating room of the school’s former dental clinic, complete with chair and instruments), and a day later I was dumped unceremoniously in front of thirty-five toddlers and told to teach them English. No book. No introduction. No experience.

Little did I know that my boss knew as little as I did. I was selected for my position through a third party. When arriving at the newly-built school, they did not even have enough time to prepare a room or the prescience to issue me a proper visa; they were forced to bribe the police just to keep me in-country. Just as I made wrong assumptions, Anna was far more concerned with the rights of the women under her care, and she seemed to care little that Thailand was suffering from the brutal border violence in Burma, or hardly respected the stress of a man with thirty-two wives and eighty-two children. During Anna’s five years with the king, he also lost his favorite daughter to cholera, saw his beloved younger brother die, and even through his trials managed to turn Siam from a medieval kingdom to a country that embraced free trade and European education.

Rule #2: “Most people see the world as they are, not as it is.” Perhaps Anna should have shone the mirror back on herself, rather than criticizing the people of Siam for their acceptance of slavery. Her conclusion shows promise of transformation: “…or perhaps that is my weakness.” Even King Mongkut, according to Anna’s book, viewed her little more than a servant, having no concept of the suffragette popularized from John Stuart Mill. However, the world must be seen from both perspectives, the observer and the observed, as in the space between observer and observed is reality.

When I returned to the United States in 2004, I remarked to my family and friends that during my employment as a kindergarten teacher, I was little more than an indentured servant. I was locked behind the gates of the school (much as Anna was in the palace compound). Services were forced outside of my contract (similar to Anna’s translation and editing services, in addition to her tutoring of the prince and her teaching of the king’s 82 children and wives). I was also used as a marketing ploy for the school because of my white face, blond hair, and blue eyes (just as Anna was used when asked to serve as a third party to the governor of Hong Kong, Sir John Bowring).

After ten years of living in China, perhaps I should not be surprised that the way I was treated was much the same as any other employee. At the time I saw corruption and nepotism; I now understand the realities of an ancient culture suddenly forced to adopt suits and ties. Just as there is beauty in the culture of coffee shop meetings and neighborhood potlucks, there is also beauty in morning employee exercises and the midnight blaring of disco boomboxes in the community square.

Rule #3: “They are the ways of one world.” By the end of the film, Anna has grown, throw aside her colonial attitude and adopted Thai life. While Anna’s real life was starkly different (she left Thailand a sick, tired woman, and a royal court that breathed relief at her departure), the film presents a vision all foreign workers should embrace. One culture is no better than another; difference must be judged according to the fruits, and fruits must be sampled carefully with an open mind.

When I left China in 2004, I had been through a gauntlet: moved to three different schools over one year, never teaching the same students for more than four weeks at a time, one fired colleague, one colleague that fled the school during the middle of the night, police raids on the school campus, and learning how to jump the school fence during the night so I could write e-mails to my parents. Seven of my colleagues angry, bitter, disillusioned or fired by the Chinese leaders who simply reflected Chinese values, and me? I had no desire to return to that country again.

Years later I realized that had I kept a more open mind during my time, I might have had a stronger impact on those I touched. King Mongkut’s final words about Anna were that she was a “difficult woman,” and while his son Chulalongkorn appreciated Anna’s diligence, he agreed with his father her impact was minimal, given her frequent desire to accost and challenge the king on matters of court legality. During the last month of my employment, I was also called “difficult” through my attempt to speak for those I felt were being unfairly charged by my boss.

Or when I learned my boss was a king. Midway through her service to the king as governess in 1864, Anna plead from the king to have an increase in salary, to which he bluntly refused and then followed up shortly after with a request for her resignation (feeling he would lose face if he fired her, as he did hire her). She denied him and over the years the king grew to bear her, culminating her time in Siam with a refusal to act as an intermediary in the writing of a letter to Sir John Bowring, a source of sensitivity for the king given his close relationship with the governor and desire to not hurt Bowring’s feelings (Bowring, 2011). After being forced from the palace by armed guard, Anna finally deigned to write a letter to Bowring, but only of sentiment (not of any substance). She returned to England; a year later, the king died, giving the throne to his son Chulalongkorn (Anna’s pupil).

Real life clashes harshly with the romantic image of Anna in the film, which ends in a slow waltz under a moonlit gazebo, the king and Anna embraced, tears rolling down their faces, the forbidden love of a god and mortal woman hand-in-hand hidden behind their eyes. King Rama V (Chulalongkorn) sadly recounts in the last line of the film of the love his father held for Anna, and the good she did for Thailand, giving power and authority to Anna’s transformation.

Near the end of my first year in China, I remember walking into my boss’ office to say hello. He was sitting behind his desk wearing his favorite turtle-skin glasses, playing Counter-Strike (a popular computer game among Chinese youth). I asked him how he was doing, and he gruffly looked up at me, smiled, nodded, and then went back to his game. Leaving the office almost as quickly as I entered, I could hear the bullets clatter from his gun to the ground, and the sound of his rifle reloading. I had caught my boss in a rather unrefined moment, yet was also reminded of the enormous authority he wielded. He knew he had power. I judged, to my shame.

The assumptions foreign workers make discredit them; their insistence on viewing the world through their particular cultural lens becomes a burden; but their transformation into holistic learners to respect and even admire culture, is the defining characteristic that sets them apart from others. Kings may be kings, servants servants, but beauty is always found when one is neither, but a learner.

References

Bowring, P. (2011). Sir John Bowring: The imperial role of a lifelong radical. Asian Affairs, 42(3):419- 429.

Leonowens, A.H. (1870). The English governess at the Siamese court: Being recollections of the six years in the royal palace at Bangkok. Retrieved from http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/8678

Philosophy of education

I come from a long line of uncommon teachers. An uncommon teacher is one who teaches or trains in the duties of an everyday work life, rather than in a classroom. My father was a videographer who far preferred explaining the intricate guts or the laborious editing process than the actual job of shooting a wedding or editing the event afterward. In his spare time, he would elaborate on the way a car engine was put together, why the clouds were cumulus before a storm, or the exact process of how to perfectly cook a soft boiled egg. My mother was celebrated as an encourager, a trainer, and a mentor. She relished in the act of taking a neophyte through what normally was an agonizing dance of making mistakes, and surpassed her peers in her ability to toss the neophyte into action while at the same time holding the learners’ hands. After 25 years of trying to operate a small sales business, she finally found her passion in mentoring and training missionaries for the field.

Background of new model. From these experiences of uncommon teachers, plus my ten years of teaching experience, I have developed a unique model of education for adult learners (specifically, above the age of 17). My model was inspired by classic theories of education (Bloom, 1956), combined with a Christological worldview and my own unique perspective. I have also used Jane Vella’s approach (2002), some ideas of Parker Palmer (1998), and some of Bruce Chilton’s research (2000) on the concept of the teacher during first century Jerusalem which paved the way for the unique style utilized by Jesus. In this paper, I will apply each of the ten areas of my model to a specific question relating to learning theory. The goal of this paper is to clearly illustrate and define a new model of education and learning that is both based on the transformation of the individual towards a Christ-like state, as well as instilling an ethical approach towards cross-cultural education (specifically in comparison with Chinese models of education, as I am a teacher in a Chinese university).

Based on apotheosis (or heroic transformation), my model should not be confused with Meizrow’s transformational model (1991), which focuses on the three meaning schemes of beliefs, attitudes, and emotional reactions. My model uses three core concepts of educational psychology in Bloom’s taxonomy (1956): cognitive (to know), affective (to change behavior), and psychomotor (to experience). I relate the concepts to 1st Corinthians 13:13: “And now these three remain: faith (cognitive, to know), hope (psychomotor, to experience), love (affective, to change behavior).”

With the goal of apotheosis, each of the three concepts (faith, hope, love) expands into two paths. Faith (known in the model as enlightenment) opens into synthesis (ability to process knowledge) and intellect (ability to utilize knowledge), hope (known in the model as pilgrimage) opens into enculture (lifestyle) and expertise (skills), and love (known in the model as virtue) opens into eudaimonia (happiness) and discernment (critical thinking). Faith is dyadic, necessitating an acceptance of both belief in a creator and reason (see Pope John Paul II’s encyclical letter on fides et ratio, September 14, 1998), hope is ultimately focused around the eschatology of the establishment of the Kingdom of God on Earth through the return of Jesus Christ, and love is centered in the Second Commandment: “to love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 12:30-31). I will review each of the ten concepts in my model by answering a simple question about adult education and learning. I divided the questions into three categories: 1)What is learning?, 2)the adult learner, and 3)the teacher as learner.

Figure 1: Original educational model of transformation

educational transformation

What is learning?

1. What is the purpose of learning? The purpose of learning is heroic transformation, or what is known in Greek as apotheosis. “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and accepted and perfect” (Romans 12:2). Paul was an educated man, studied in the classics, letters, and holy texts yet he continued to encourage transformation into the image of Christ. “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Corinthians 3:18). For myself, education has always been an occupation of a hero-raiser, but as a Christian heroic qualities must always be drawn from the image of Christ.

Jesus was a teacher and leader, mentor and encourager. He was a recognized as a rabbi by other teachers of the law, and was a member of the highly celebrated chasid caste (rabbis who were anointed by God and could channel the ruach, or Holy Spirit), revered even among Jewish leaders such as Gamaliel (Chilton, 2000). He was a pupil of John the Baptist, and continued his master’s legacy through the practice of John’s mishnah (words and actions that conveyed one’s teachings), while making the mishnah totally his own. Just as Christ transformed his own talmid (disciples) through mastering halakhah (a rabbi whose actions were equal to his words), so a teacher must focus on transformation, specifically oriented towards teaching and training pupils so that they do adopt the same methods and capacity to think critically in their own lives. The purpose of learning, therefore, is to become transformed into a new creature in the image of Christ.

2. What is the definition of learning? To learn is to fundamentally process information in such a way that the information is coded and chunked for interpretation, also known as synthesis. According to Waitzin (2007), learning is accomplished when a series of tasks take place, much like a long journey: 1)intelligent preparation, 2)cultivated resilience, 3)informational naturalization through incremental practice so that 4)when one carefully assimilates information for pattern recognition (known as chunking), 5)the focus becomes enlarged, simplistic, defined, and ready for utilization. Synthesis is classically seen as the solution to the struggle between thesis and antithesis, where common truths are reconciled between the proposition and reaction to said proposition. In learning, synthesis is the ability to hear an intellectual concept, intuit the boundaries, and classify what is common for categorization.

As an aspect of faith, learning as a journey is intimately attached to the act of listening, watching, and practice. As Paul says: “What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me–practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you” (Philippians 4:9). In many places in scripture, learning is equated with receiving the Holy Spirit, implying a humility that passes intellectual boundaries (Galatians 3:2), ending in a beautiful communion with the Creator of the universe.

3. What is the truth of adult learning? The truth of adult learning is that no matter how much one learns, learning can never be truly achieved without embracing enlightenment. For children, learning is a technique that allows them to pass through the expectations of society: test-skills, essay patterns, and reading abilities are important powers to achieve academic fluency. However for adults, learning must breathe on its own, just as Palmer states: “geologists are people who hear rocks speak, historians are people who hear the voices of the long dead, writers are people who hear the music of words” (p. 107, 1998). For children, the aspect of being learned is one’s educational status; for adults, the act of maturity in knowledge, where light is literally shone onto a dark space deepening insight through a delicate dance between spiritual truth and reason. In Palmer’s example, the act of listening to rocks doesn’t transform the geologist into a rock worshiper, the historian into a necromancer, or the writer into a mystic; rather, the enlightened adult is able to put the two disparate concepts in his mind, both the material and the immaterial and hear the knowledge within.

Learning, according to God, cannot be divided from the act of experience as experience is the best teacher. In the Old Testament, the word lamad is repeatedly used to describe the act of teaching (over 80 occurrences alone, with 16 references in the book of Deuteronomy, and 26 references in Psalms). However, lamad is also used interchangeably with the act of learning. When God tells the Israelites to learn something, He is telling them to teach it – when He tells them to teach something, He tells them to learn it. One cannot teach something without truly understanding the implications of what is taught. Lastly, lamad is also used to signify the word train, bridging the gap between the act of teaching and the act of learning through the process of incremental practice.

The adult learner

1. Why do adults learn? Adults learn because of the necessity of enculturation, the first aspect of pilgrimage (or hope). While education for children is mandatory in most countries, education for adults is optional, used as a catch-up enculturation mechanism to renew or introduce skills necessary for survival in a given context. Enculturation is the process to acquire value according to a set behavioral standard within a given culture through deliberate action, either on behalf of the student, the teacher, or both. Adult education takes many forms: universities, training programs, community colleges, Sunday school, even in-house corporate consultants and equipping classes.

As I teach graduate students in the school of engineering, my classes focus on equipping students with the ability to communicate in the English language their specialized fields and common lives, so that they can increase their prestige as professionals and improve their socialization skills. However, my students are primarily studying English to be acculturated out of their cultural worldview and into a non-Chinese worldview. Enculturation and acculturation are similar; while enculturation teaches relevant skills in the native context, acculturation is the method for teaching relevant skills in a foreign context. Both enculturation and acculturation are relevant reasons for adult education, although enculturation is by far a more necessary component of society.

While an important aspect of society, enculturation is an even more important aspect of the Kingdom of God. One of the two aspects of hope, enculturation (or lifestyle) is the process of preparation as adopted children of God (Romans 8:23) into the holy Kingdom, and is significantly anchored in the future rather than the present. As a teacher, I seek to communicate the lifestyle and hope (elpis) that is sanctified by God through my actions and my words, while at the same time helping my students prepare for the lifestyle that awaits for them on this Earth. Therefore, teaching values such as love and respect for the sacredness in life is important to my teaching, with the hope I can inculcate those values within myself and my students as well.

2. What methods do adults use to learn? The three methods adults use to learn in my model are the intellect (faith aspect), expertise (hope aspect), and discernment (love aspect). The intellect is the ability to utilize knowledge, expertise is the skill needed in order to create change within a society, and discernment is the method to increase one’s capacity to critically assess either personal behavior or the behavior of another (such as a person, an idea, or a thing).

The intellect is the action aspect of enlightenment, where the learner not only utilizes the knowledge they processed through the act of synthesis but also reflects on how the knowledge was used (expertise and discernment). Expertise is the action aspect of pilgrimage, applying intellect in discernment to accomplish tasks using knowledge learned through synthesis and enculturation. Discernment is the action aspect of virtue, when judgment on the rightness or wrongness of intellect and expertise truly supports the end goal of education (apotheosis) or design methodology (eudaimonia). The three methods are entwined with each other, necessary for transformation to occur.

Praxis is an important tool in methodology for adult education as it acts as a gauge for whether the intellect, expertise, or discernment was used properly. According to Vella (2002), praxis is both a deductive and inductive activity used to foster an increase in intellect, expertise, or discernment (what Vella calls knowledge, skills, and attitudes). The act of praxis involves a close analysis of content, the act of re-creation in a different context, and a re-analysis through participatory examination. Applying Vella’s praxis to my model would mean taking a lesson for my engineering students and identifying the key truths (the intellect), re-purposing those truths for my business students (expertise) and critically assessing the value of those truths outside of a classroom of engineers (discernment).

More importantly, though, are the lasting values represented in the methods. The intellect without God is related by Solomon as “striving after wind” (Ecclesiastes 2:26), because the purpose of obtaining intellect is vain rather than holy. Solomon also said that if skill is used in envy of one’s neighbor, the expertise obtained is “striving after wind” (Ecclesiastes 4:4:). The spirit of God (also known as God’s ruach) was the physical manifestation of God’s love for his people, the presence of God in the Temple, the power which anointed kings, and the aspect which saved through physical manipulation of the earthly elements. Even in the New Testament, the Greek word pneuma was used in the same capacity as ruach, although the pneuma rather than presiding as a covenant between God and His people inhabited the disciples and anointed each of them with the legacy of the chasid; a truer testament of God’s love could not be found. However the key truth about the Holy Spirit is the gift of discernment: when Jesus went into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil, he was led by the Holy Spirit and only after his experience did he truly begin his ministry as the answer to prophecy (Matthew 4:1-11), to bring the love of God to every person on the earth.

3. What is the importance of learning as an adult? The importance of learning for adults, according to my model, is to practice faith, hope, and love. In my model, faith, hope, and love are represented by the concepts of enlightenment, pilgrimage, and virtue. Paul compares the practice of faith, hope and love to the maturation from child to adult (1 Corinthians 13:11), and then draws a metaphor of a mirror to explain that in the practice of faith, hope, and love full knowledge of the self is realized. Therefore, the importance of learning for adults to for adults to learn about themselves and understand how to holistically practice the love of the pneuma.

Contemporary theories of education stress the importance of learning as a participatory activity helping society move from a more mechanistic worldview focused on materialism to a world focused on discovery, creation, integration, and peace-making. Vella (2002) stresses six quantum concepts regarding the current of learning: 1)relatedness, 2)holism, 3)duality, 4)energy, 5)uncertainty, and 6)participation. Her model is known as dialogue education and is empowered by quantum concepts, which like Palmer (1998), stresses the importance of learning as a community.

Paul in the book of Ephesians also stresses the importance of learning in community. “Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love” (Ephesians 4:8). Paul goes beyond quantum thinking, saying that the body is one creature, each part necessary for every other part.

The teacher as learner

1. What is the role of the teacher in adult education? The role of the teacher in adult education is to convey virtue through both words and actions. According to Dungy (2010), teaching must be oriented towards building lives of significance, creating a legacy of lasting value, and traveling together (student and teacher) so that integrity, character, and faith is strengthened for all involved. Education is about empowerment, which makes the teacher the one who empowers.

I connected virtue together with love because love without virtue is savage and lustful but love with virtue is pure, honor-bound, and noble. As a teacher, my job is to love my students in the same way that God loves his people or that Christ loves us. Paul was compelled to classify virtue apart from knowledge, given the popular sentiment that virtue (arete) was in itself knowledge. Paul says faith must be supplemented with virtue, but virtue with knowledge, showing that the two are not the same (2 Peter 1:5). The result of teaching must always be measured with a yardstick of virtue: were the students’ lives enhanced, did they grow in excellence, were they empowered because of the example their teacher set?

2. Personal design methodologies. As I grow as a teacher, I recognize that learning is intimately connected with happiness. If students are happy, they are more open-minded and willing when learning but if unhappy about a subject, more close-minded and skeptical. In his inspirational book about teaching, Burns describes a student referring to his teacher: “You helped me to realize that learning is the key to a full and happy life” (2011). He explains that the best teaching comes from the heart, not from a book, that excellence is about making a class fun, inspirational, and applying teaching methods of self-empowerment where worth is equal to possibilities of the future.

In my own experience, the concept of eudaimonia (happiness) is the core value in my design methodologies. Developing activities and assignments which not only increase value but confidence, love, virtue, hope, and enlightenment are key aspects to my design methodology. While I have struggled over the last ten years of finding a happy medium between encouraging the professional capacities of my students in taking charge of their own education to defining exactly what is necessary to pass a course, I have consistently tried to develop materials which have lasting, eternal value.

In an environment of stunning negativity, I feel the necessity to design courses that not only empower but educate. Tom Wolff, an educator in a Chinese university, wrote a book detailing 18 different kinds of complaints, with a collated 412 submitted allegations over a two-year period, indicating the level of dissatisfaction existing for many foreign teachers in China (2009). Given that learner autonomy is not stressed in the Asian classroom (Ma & Zhang, 2009), curriculum that is based on students needing to do self-evaluation, self-direction, and personal engagement with course material must be tempered to fit the unique model of education present in China: teacher-centered, test-based, and attitude promotion (Gao & Watkins, 2002). Inserting happiness into the utilitarian model present in many Chinese classrooms is a necessity for invigorating learners beyond the walls of the classroom.

3. Personal teaching methodologies. I have described teaching and learning as the same through the Hebraic lamad, with a beautiful example of Jesus as both teacher and learner. Hope is the cornerstone of my teaching methodologies as it is the act of pilgrimage towards the Kingdom. Jesus established the Kingdom through the granting of the Holy Spirit upon all, including the Gentiles.

Just like Jesus’ example, in Chinese tradition the word jiaoxue xiangzhang literally means “teach-learn each other-grow up,” a common phrase among teachers to explain the importance of learning what you teach. Confucius said: “He who is able to acquire new ideas while reviewing old knowledge is worthy of being a teacher” (The Analects, Book II:11). Zhang made a connection between the affective learning of the student and the competence of the teacher in a given subject, showing a relationship between the teacher’s mastery and passion of the subject taught (2011). Therefore, the need for me to not only be a continual learner in my field but a teacher is absolute.

Besides his occupation as a talmid of John the Baptist, the book of Matthew describes Jesus as both learner and teacher: “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:29). Jesus would not have told others to emulate his example of gentleness and humbleness if He himself was also not on a journey of learning. As a student of John the Baptist, Jesus continually enhanced his kabbalah (spiritual technique), emphasizing the need for purity not from outward structures but from inside (Chilton, 2000).

Conclusion

Six years ago I began to teach Chinese students at the university level. Knowing what I know today and applying my philosophy back then, my teaching would have been dramatically different. Rather than delivering lectures to my students, personally investing in them for the purpose of apotheosis into the divine image of God. Rather than trying to change society through sweeping reform activities, focusing on mentorship. Rather than legitimizing myself as a scholar without peer, stooping beneath my students and deigning to believe that even they could teach me. Finally, seeking felt needs of my students first, rather than as a last resort. Applying these would have radically altered my teaching, and no doubt will radically alter my future as a teacher — no… a learner.

References

Bloom, B.S. (1956). Taxonomy of educational objectives, Handbook 1: The cognitive domain. New York: David McKay Co Inc.

Burns, T. (2011). Thank you, teacher: An appreciation of a difficult job well done. London: Axis Publishing Limited.

Chilton, B. (2000). Rabbi Jesus: An intimate biography. New York: Doubleday.

Dungy, T. (2010). The mentor leader: Secrets to building people and teams that win consistently. Winter Park, FL: Tyndale.

Gao, L.B., & Watkins, D.A. (2002). Conceptions of teaching held by school science teachers in P.R. China: identification and cross-cultural comparisons. International Journal of Science Education, 24(1):61-79.

Meizrow, J. (1991). Transformative dimensions of adult learning. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Palmer, P.J. (1998). The courage to teach: exploring the inner landscape of a teacher’s life. San Francisco: John Wiley.

Vella, J. (2002). Learning to listen, learning to teach: the power of dialogue in educating adults. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Waitzin, J. (2007). The art of learning: An inner journey to optimal performance. New York: Free Press.

Wolff, T. (2009). Teaching EFL in China: What every foreign teacher should know before they go. New York: Nova.

Zhang, Q. (2011). Teacher immediacy, credibility, and clarify as predictors of student affective learning: a Chinese investigation. China Media Research, 7(2):95-103.

Holism and idealism: a different paradigm

Standing in front of a crowd of around 600 students seated in an auditorium, I held up my hand to silence them. In the quiet atmosphere of nervous silence, one of the girls sitting in the front row looked at the test and began to explain (in a rather loud voice) her displeasure at the nature of the test, speaking in a loud voice and prompting students behind her to peer over their desks like curious cranes at the little squawking bird flapping her wings. In all my years of teaching, that girl wasn’t the last outburst during a test I encountered – but never had I witnessed such an emotional reaction to an exam. Little did I know how important the test was in Chinese culture, even as I angrily told the girl she had to leave the auditorium (and therefore, I most likely sealed her fate). I probably should have realized the importance the next semester when one of my students (again, sitting in the front row) began crying over her test paper as she stared with huge weepy eyes at an abstract diagram of vocabulary and pictures, continuing her sad session until she had to pull out a handkerchief and wipe away her tears.

According to Gao and Watkins, student achievement is a public event in China, measured chiefly by the exam at the end of the year. Most teachers (according to Gao and Watkin’s research) view their job as teachers in five key areas (listed from student-centered to teacher-centered): Conduct guidance, attitude promotion, ability development, exam preparation, and knowledge delivery. To generate data, the authors used a mapping-plane as well as Kember’s “conception of teaching” as a guide (1997), then based on interviews and a questionnaire (School Physics Teachers’ Conceptions of Teaching, SPTCT) generated responses from student-centered to teacher-centered from keywords and phrases. Kember’s “conception of teaching” involves six separate categories: the essence of learning, the essence of teaching, the role of the teacher, outcomes, content, and teaching methodology.

While the authors are critical of China’s test-culture, they also recognize that the system has lasted for more than 1,000 years (from the Tang Dynasty), when the Kefu was used in order to promote scholars into positions of the government, and lasts to this day known as the gaokao (high school test). Gao and Watkins suggest two different orientations from their research: a cultivating orientation (composed of conduct guidance, attitude promotion, and ability development) and a moulding [sic] orientation (composed of exam preparation and knowledge delivery). While the authors do show comparisons between the variant orientations and western models of teaching, they also recognize the uniqueness of the five key areas, due to the complex context of China’s history and culture. However, while western models of teacher are generally centered around knowledge transmission, they do not contain the holism embedded in Chinese methods. Hence, for the teacher aiming to work in China a new paradigm of teaching must be recognized.

Teachers of Chinese students (even Chinese students abroad) would do well to remember Han Yu’s words from the Tang Dynasty: “What is a teacher? A teacher is the one who shows you the way of being human, teaches you the knowledge and enlightens you when you are confused” (Shi Shuo, published 1973). In China, the teacher is admired; this admiration does not come from vacant authoritarianism, but from the tradition of teaching as an Ideal. Confucius, China’s greatest teacher, considered the goal of teaching to achieve ren (or humaneness, a self-actualizing state that can only be achieved through holistic scholarship). Teachers from the western tradition look back on Socrates in admiration: a man constantly surrounded by eager learners, seeking to unravel the secrets of the universe who in his self-centered idealism caused so much disharmony in his society that he was forced to commit suicide; his pupils continued his tradition of critical scholarship, breaking down structures and unmooring their minds from the proverbial dock of history, into Aristotle’s dream. Confucius, on the other hand, relished in harmony, died an old man happily surrounded by his pupils who eagerly copied his words into what would become the most powerful continuation of culture on the planet.

Gao, L.B., & Watkins, A. (2002). Conceptions of teaching held by school science teachers in P.R. China: identification and cross-cultural comparisons. International Journal of Science Education, 24(1):61-79.

Kember, D. (1997). A reconceptualisation of the research into university academics’ conceptions of teaching; Learning and Instruction. Journal of EARLI, 7(3):255-275.

Liu, Z. (1973). The way of being a teacher in China – the way of teachers. Taipei: Chung Hwa Book Co. LTD.

 

 

The Teacher’s Identity: a review of Palmer’s “Courage to Teach”

My first “real” teaching experience was standing in front of a crowd of four year-old children, holding up cards of colors and numbers, and then dancing until my audience was giggling so hard that they forgot they were speaking a foreign language. While not all teachers may have had origin stories as kindergarten teachers, my journey into the teaching profession began quite unexpectedly. What you realize (even as a kindergarten teacher) is that teaching begins with relationship and only after a relationship has been established can learning take place. When the eyes of the teacher lock with the child and there is a spark of trust – then, only then – can learning begin.

As children grow older into adults, they fashion more poetic and artistic ways of learning, but in the end relationship continues to be the keystone, even in university and postgraduate studies. Parker Palmer recognizes this key fact, as the thesis to the book “The Courage To Teach” centers around the community that grows and is watered by the teacher. Even though I teach in a different country, culture, and sometimes language, the relationship between student and teacher is still tantamount, albeit interpreted and visualized differently. Even though expectations for what that relationship means may differ from culture to culture, the student and teacher can never be separated.

As a teacher, I have struggled with the concept of who I am as a teacher. Am I an instructor? Am I a friend? Am I a spiritual guide to help my students reach the next plateau in their lives? Am I the sage on the mountain, or the muse that whispers secrets into the hearts of learners while remaining at a distance to observe a transformed life? Palmer explains that the core of a teacher lies in his or her identity. “Identity and integrity have as much to do with our shadows and limits, our wounds and fears, as with our strengths and potentials.” (p. 12) In other words, identity forms the central axis upon which teachers revolve around: how far they can grow, their possibilities of self-actualization, how they relate to their subject material, and the extent to which students can grow under their tutelage. However, teachers are not the impact mechanism which affects students, according to Palmer; rather, once the teacher identifies the work of teaching as a vocation where “deep gladness and the world’s hunger meet,” (p. 30) then the result is what Palmer describes as good teaching. Good teaching is the penultimate goal, because the beauty of education lies in the subject-based classroom, where ideas are met with passion from both teacher and student. While Palmer wouldn’t necessarily say that the content of the lesson is more important than the teacher, neither would he say that the teacher is deserving of authority because of privilege or status; rather, in the mashing of paradox and fulfillment, within that tempestuous storm lies the diligence of purity and true knowledge, keys to unlocking true learning.

Perhaps the most insidious barrier to true learning is the atmosphere of the classroom. Teachers often complain of toxic environments, where students are uncompromisingly stalwart in erecting and rebuilding barriers to learning the teacher attempts to pursue. Sometimes these barriers are as simple as a consistently snide attitude toward the material of the class, and sometimes these barriers are as poisonous as repeated attempts to derail other students through an elaborately orchestrated coup. However, such grand dreams of Hell are merely illusions from the teacher’s fear, transformed into monsters and shadows that if not countered lead to a true malformation of bad teaching, where the teacher loses all credibility in not only the students but in himself or herself as a bearer of knowledge. Palmer classifies this barrier as “the teacher’s fearful heart” (p. 47), and reflects that the only true counter to fear is a change in attitude. Rather than combating the toxicity of the environment, the teacher should treat good teaching not as benefiting the student, but rather as benefiting the teacher. “Good teaching is an act of hospitality toward the young, and hospitality is always an act that benefits the host even more than the guest.” (p. 49) However, Palmer doesn’t say that the teacher shouldn’t attempt to care for the students, as “a good teacher is someone who can listen to those voices even before they are spoken – so that someday they can speak with truth and confidence” (p. 46). In other words, a teacher has priority, but if the teacher is at risk of falling to fear, confidence falters and only the strongest student survives, if survival can even be called a hope.

Wisdom is generally found in paradox. Many view this as the “wise man’s crutch,” with popular sentiments such as “during peace, prepare for war,” or “the wise man knows he is not wise.” Simplistic philosophical algorithms which propound great thoughts by abusing the existence of unspoken space are the sage’s artillery. As a teacher, I am held to account to the things I teach and often see myself on that distant high hill; what the wise man on the hill often fails to perceive however, is that while he chose solitude over community (as many scholars do), he stands out as he is the only one on that hill. According to Palmer, paradox is the key to good teaching; creating environments of tension in which learning can occur. He mentions six different kinds of environments of paradox: protected but open, inviting but dangerous, self-led in community, realistically archetypal, a community encouraging solitude, and a place of active discourse and quiet reflection (p. 76-78). Tension is the key to unlocking potential; tension for tension’s sake does not create potentials, but neither does tension for learning’s sake. Rather, exercising one’s abilities in the medium between light and dark, while aiming the mind at a goal allows one to critically assess the virtual environment, and through that assessment, self-knowledge is increased, which when utilized as a source of energy, helps create bridges over rivers of mystery and encourages us forward into the mist. In the end, the ability to learn can never come from any other but the self. However, the teacher must take full responsibility over the environmental design.

Palmer asserts strongly his Quaker identity, and perhaps nowhere stronger is his dedication to his faith in his preaching of the community of truth. As a teacher, I operate primarily in community but also outside of it – a class is a scheduled activity, required by the state, encouraged by the culture, and associated with shame and honor in the social spectrum. The student has no choice over the material studied, nor choice over the tasks assigned, and no choice over the time of the prescribed learning nor the length of that learning. In a true community the voice of the many act as one, but in a classroom, community cannot be understood in traditional terms; if purported as such, such definitions serve only to act as a rationalization for a more positive teacher and student relationship rather than a communal activity. For this reason, Palmer explores the concept of community not as a commune of individuals but rather as “the community of truth, the grace of great things, the transcendent subject, the ‘Secret that sits in the middle and knows,” and the sacredness of soil that Palmer believes community is rooted in not as physical and objective fact but as the numinous energy at the heart of reality, which binds all together, teacher and student alike. (p. 112) While this definition may seem obscure and philosophical, heis not claiming that community shouldn’t be held accountable as a collection of individuals working in harmony, but rather the spirit of community must be central to the reason why all parties are gathered. In other words – attitude. The classroom cannot be understood as a social requirement without the prescience of why and how that gathering of hearts and minds is necessary for personal growth. Even a person who hates learning must find an apple in a dry orchard if he seeks to become more than what he was; for this reason, community doesn’t spring out of the ground like a well of water; a teacher must, like a focusing iris pointing a laser of light at a spot on a wall, create an atmosphere of an “eternal conversation about things that matter, conducted with passion and discipline.” (p. 105) For Palmer, that conversation deals with a particular subject, but I believe the teacher, as a leader, must also know how to wield the power of the iris wisely; a teacher does not exist in a vacuum.

In our modern society, we are inundated with data. Wikipedia boasts millions of pages of information, our liberal arts colleges offer hundreds of different majors, each major holding under its wings several different disciplines, even a field such as engineering must now be understood as mechanical engineering, biomedical engineering, structural engineering, coastal engineering, electrical engineering, chemical engineering, and so on. The university has responded to this and does its best to offer as comprehensive an education as possible. Palmer asserts that what has happened in our society because of the rise of data collection is backward; rather than being more knowledgeable, we are less; rather than having more skill, we have trouble knowing how to actually process the data into action. Furthermore, in the university, classes often operate from one of two poles: where the teacher is a bastion of knowledge, or where the teacher workshops the students into pseudo-professors where every emotion or thought has value, regardless of the extrinsic value those ideas carry. Palmer’s solution then, is to offer less meaningless data, but data of value to the community. “The human brain works best with information presented not in the form of isolated data bits but in patterns of meaningful connection, in a community of data.” (p. 130) Hence, the responsibility lies on the teacher to carefully select information for a course that not only is aligned, but mindful that both the learners and the tutor are members of an intricate biological microcosm that grows and changes from the things touched, sensed, and experienced. Hence, the goal of education should neither be the holy hand grenade of knowledge from Heaven’s ambassador, nor should the goal of education be for students to play Battleship with their texts and hope to sink their opponent’s navy. In the center of everything lies the passionate subject, a bendable but intractable member of the learning society which is strategically selected by the teacher while at the same time open to interpretation. After all, the subject won’t go away if a student interprets it into oblivion, but that interpretation may reveal a deeper secret about the student previously unrealized, as long as the student is able to focus on the step-process of the latter obliviated idea.

Teaching is a personal art. Teachers draw from their lives stories, metaphors, experiences, emotions, and fears, in this complex interplay of personal elements a unique teaching methodology is practiced. Each teacher carries different variables into the classroom, and as such, rubrics, selection of curriculum, even priorities and time schedules differ from class to class. One teacher telling another teacher how to teach better can be explained by thinking of an image of a bird telling a beaver how to build a better home out of sticks. While both the bird and the beaver use the branches of a tree to build their homes, they are not the same creature and have different goals even though both are trying to provide for their families. Given these barriers to discussion, how can one teacher benefit from the experience of another teacher, without feeling the need to clone himself after that teacher? Palmer outlines a three-pronged process, which I will restate as preparedness, sacredness, and reflective paraphrasing. (p. 156-160). Preparedness concerns the full background of an issue, even data which might seem non-relevant. Sacredness is an attitude of pure exploration of situation and methodology. Reflective paraphrasing is the final step in the process where the listener tells the focus what she or he said, along with clarifying questions and non-confrontational observations. While these three methods may be useful in bridging the gap between teachers and allowing them a space in which to conceptualize themselves in a different environment, Palmer asserts the necessity for educational leaders to encourage dialogue. “Good talk about good teaching is unlikely to happen if presidents and principals, deans and department chairs, and others who have influence without position do not expect it and invite it into being.” (p. 160) Palmer’s premise, from the beginning of the book to the end, maintains a healthy accountability for those in power, whether those people are the teachers in charge of their classrooms or the leaders in charge of their teachers. As a person who has influence without position, I am encouraged by Palmer’s words.

The dread word for any teacher is invariably reform. It’s not that teachers are enemies of reform, but reform means change and forced systematic change is not a teacher’s bread and butter; much like the amputation of a limb, teachers view reform as a soldier might leer at a medic holding an axe in his hands. Teachers spend a lifetime developing strategies for use in the classrooms – elaborate rituals, choice texts, personal philosophies that others would find ludicrous outside of the tiny spec of wood, metal, and paper that comprises the classroom. Teachers spend countless hours pouring over evaluations, trying to come up with crazy theories in the sometimes haphazard goal of shaping lumps of teeny, naïve, and hormonal creatures into something their societies can be proud of on both an intellectual and a social level. So when words like “educational reform” get thrown around from other teachers (especially those outside the system) often the result is met with cold distance, apprehensiveness, or even outright rejection. Palmer recognizes the inherent weaknesses of reform, especially as reform tends more or less to be institutional rather than carrying intrinsic value. Hence, for Palmer the strategy is not to find ways of incorporating reform within the teacher’s life, but rather reforming the concept of the movement. To illustrate the reformed movement, Palmer uses four stages: institutional rejection in community, establishing support systems and a shared vision, opening goals and vision for public critique, and establishing a reward system outside of institutional values. (p. 172) Rather than working through the institution, Palmer asserts that a movement has value as “movements have the power to alter the logic of organizations because an organization is, at bottom, a system of social sanctions: do this and you will be punished; do that and you will be rewarded.” (p. 186) However, given the foundation of an institution lies in punishment and reward rather than passion and community, movements are to the institution what a shot of morphine is to a man bleeding on the battlefield: a second chance, a reawakening, and a re-purposing of “the power within each of us that in communion with powers beyond ourselves, co-creates the world, for better or worse.” (p. 189)

As a teacher in China, there are further challenges. I don’t have the space to talk in details, but there are five cardinal concepts of social intelligence of great importance in Chinese society: mianzi (face – impression management/self-presentation), wuxing/wulun (holism – social cognition/information identity), guanxi (relationship – attunement/interaction awareness), renqing (favor – influence/behavioral affectation), and yuan (fate – concern/interest management). Teaching in China affords me space; as a foreigner, I am not privy to the intrinsic culture, but I am aware that the culture where I live is far more attuned to social intelligence than my own and as a teacher I must train myself to be keenly aware or face the consequences. I bring this topic up because while Palmer’s model of teaching works well in a Judeo-Christian culture based in the sophistry of Plato, Aristotle, and Adam Smith, the Chinese worldview towards education is very different, founded in the entirely different philosophical petri dish of Confucius, Mencius, and Laozi. While Palmer identifies areas of improvement for the vocation of a teacher, most teachers would welcome his suggestions even though they might balk at their own responsibility to change; in China, I’m afraid many if not most teachers would find Palmer’s suggestions not only amazingly out-of-touch with the ideals of the teacher, but unusable except in particular situations where western ideas are more welcome and schools have been incentivized to test out alternate theories.

For myself as a scholar living in a foreign country, I have come to recognize that Palmer presents two significant challenges to me: firstly, that in order to function as a teacher in China, I must relearn basic concepts about human action. Not only does Palmer explain the inherent spirituality of the teaching profession, but he does so in a way that revitalizes old ideas in new colors. I must learn this language of human action, how to interpret what I see before me, and how to speak that language in such a way that I know who exactly I am, how my fears root me to inaction or backward thinking, how to approach the paradox of east and west and use that so that I can create a more positive learning environment. Concepts like mianzi and renqing are extraordinarily powerful as relationship modulators, while wuxing, guanxi, and yuan establish even the expectations of my own work. Mianzi and wulun alters/limits the extent to which I can affect change among my students, wuxing and yuan influences the amount of power I have as an influencer without position, and guanxi changes the nature of promotion, benefits, and even the concept of the movement.

Secondly, while I do believe that I have the spiritual gift of teaching, I don’t believe I am currently investing myself in it to the fullest extent.  While the culture is challenging, I am not naïve enough to believe the system would be any better in another place – so Palmer speaks directly to my attitude and the necessity for me to be a light to others, no matter how dark the island may be.

星期五中文课:第一章 (zhang1=chapter)

yi2 da4 dui1
        我有一大堆问题 (因为我的问题太多了),因为我住在中国 
        他讲了一大堆

nian2nian2de
        夏天太热了,我的身上粘粘的 (因为我出了很多汗)
        年糕(nian2gao1=rice cakes)吃起来粘粘的,很好吃
        我有一大对吃起来粘粘的年糕
        一个星期没打扫(da3sao3=clean),我的地板(di4ban3=floor)粘粘的

qian1ming2
        你需要我的签名吗?
        请在这签名吧
        (不能说”签名”你的名字)
        树(shu1=book)上有我的签名
        填表(tian2biao3=fill the form, biao3=form)的时候需要签名

ca1diao4 (mo3diao4=wipe away [abstract form])
        请你把墙(qiang2=wall)上的脏(zang1=dirty)东西擦掉
        把你的签名擦掉
        把这个粘粘的东西擦掉/擦掉这个粘粘的东西
        我要把我的记忆(ji4yi4=memories)抹掉

dian4zi3
        中国的电子业(ye4=industry)正在进步(jin4bu4=progress)中
        在考试中,学生不能用电子词典(ci2dian3=dictionary)
        时代广场卖很多电子产品(chan3pin3=products, shang1pin3=commodities, 商品)

gan1ga4
        他问我一个很尴尬的问题 (问我是不是一个星期没换(huan4=change)衣服(yi1fu)了)
        我告诉(gao4su)学生,’你很臭(chou4),你应该洗澡(xi3zao3)’,这个让我们很尴尬
        如果问一个美国人工资(gong1zi1=salary)是多少他会很尴尬
        为什么你看起来很尴尬?/为什么你的表情(biao3qing2=facial expression)很尴尬?

shui4dai4
        把睡袋放在车里/在帐篷(zhang4peng=tent)里
        带着睡袋帐篷去露营(lu4ying2=camping) [你什么时候露过营?] / [ying2di4=campsite)
        名胜古迹(ming2sheng4 gu3ji4=historical site)

mei2duo1shao3
        到了月底(yue4di3=end of month),我们没剩下(sheng4xia4=left over [VERB])多少钱
        买很多东西以后,我们没多少钱了
        吵架(chao3jia4=fight using words/da3jia4=physical)以后,没剩下多少个朋友了

yao4shi4
        要是/如果过了十五分钟他没来,我们就可以离开
        要是不睡觉(shui4jiao4=sleep)的话[想一想,客气一点],你就很困(kun4=sleepy)
        在中国要是你挑战(tiao3zhan4=challenge)老师(的话=attitude designates meaning),  你会很麻烦(ma2fan=troublesome)

lv3guan3/lv3she4
        这家(measure)旅馆很高级(gao1ji2=high-class)
        要是学生旅行(lv3xing2=travel)可以住(zhu4)在青年旅舍(=youth hostel)
        旅舍有公共(gong1gong4=public)的厨房(chu2fang2=kitchen),公共的洗衣机(xi3yi1ji1=washing machine),房间很大,可以付(fu4=pay)一张床(chuang2=bed)的钱

(以后写故事)。。。待续(dai4xu4=to be continued)…

Releasing the anchor of self-perception

The first time I heard the word career was in a high school business class. “You want to make sure you choose the right career, something you are really passionate in,” she said. “If you choose the wrong career, you may later come to regret that decision.” At the time I was sixteen years old. For years, I had been traveling with my parents to Amway conventions; most of these adventures I spent a majority of my time in the hotel room watching movies, swimming in the pool, or exploring the hotel for any secrets it might hold, but in recent years I had begun to attend the actual seminars, and when I turned 16 I bought my first IBO Kit (Independent Business Owner) and then presented my “business opportunity” to my biology teacher, Mr. Cross.

Mr. Cross was known as one of the strictest teachers in the school… or perhaps even the universe. Never smiling, his brow always settled in a comfortable suspension-bridge shaped arc, his bright eyes behind a set of thick glasses, his tall spindly body hovering over students like an ominous shadow. So I decided that he would be my first, because I do enjoy a challenge. I didn’t know it then, but he was also my last. No, he didn’t dissuade me from becoming a millionaire, but he did allow me into his home, he spoke with me not as a teacher but took me seriously, and he wasn’t intimidating at all. He revealed to me something that would later become part of my ethos: that being a teacher didn’t mean that when you left school you carried your job on your back, but outside of the classroom, a teacher was as real as any other man, someone who sat on his couch in his pajamas and watched late night sitcoms, or someone who despite bringing piles of work back to grade, relaxed with some jazz and a cup of tea. The career doesn’t make the man, I learned. The man makes the career.

Fifteen years later I stopped struggling. I became a teacher.

Edgar Schein, more famous for his organizational opus, “Organizational Culture and Leadership” (1992), also was the author of a self-assessment called “Career Anchors” (2006). Schein begins by describing the inner career as a “self-image of competencies, motives, and values” (Loc 85), where competencies are defined as talents and skills, motives defined as aspirations and hopes, and values defined as character, beliefs, and priorities. For Schein, the anchor is a self-assessment which allows a person to understand the drives of his or her inner career (the self-image), and then once understood can more easily manipulate the external career (horizontal, vertical, or inward steps toward advancement) to better suit the purposes of that particular anchor (of which Schein lists eight). The anchor acts as a stable force which provides momentum and direction for movement in an organization or company and allows the worker self-direction and awareness of why he or she is drawn to particular types of work, or why the worker’s dissatisfaction erupts in overcompensating time spent in hobbies, second jobs, or leisure activities (Loc 160).

As confusing and fragmented as it is, experience more than any other power transforms our abilities and goals. Schein focuses on self-assessment and believes that by defining and clarifying one’s primary career anchors, he or she can become more fully developed. Schein lists eight career anchors: 1)technical/functional, 2)general managerial, 3)autonomy/independence, 4)security/stability, 5)entrepreneurial creativity, 6)service/dedication to a cause, 7)pure challenge, and 8)lifestyle. For an organization to be truly efficient and utilize their staff, they need to treat career anchors as strengths. 1)Specialists should be utilized in areas that requires concentration and focus, 2)problem-solvers should be given direct access to conflict, 3)agents should be the external arm of the organization, 4)pillars should be embedded deep in the organizational and offered opportunities to solidify and recognize loyalty and thereby keep the organizational solid, 5)creators should be given the freedom, incentive, and support to be innovative, 6)influencers should be placed at strategic locations in the organization to serve in capacities which drive organizational ethical standards, 7)warriors should be positioned in the hardest zones of disagreement with goals firmly communicated and rules of compromise fully explored, and 8)integrators should be the barometers of health in an organization, queried at periodic times to make sure the organization is healthy and thriving. By transforming the self-assessment of career anchors into action-oriented positioning, an organization can more fully appreciate the diversity present instead of using the self-assessment tool as a repatriation tool or mere encouragement for a single worker to take his or her career more seriously.

Our self-perceptions are the primarily limitation of the career anchor as a tool. Before I took the assessment I read through his book and came to the conclusion that my career anchors be service/dedication to a cause, entrepreneurial creativity, and autonomy/independence, as I identified strongly with those three in my personal belief system. However, after taking the assessment, I discovered something surprising: my three top career anchors were actually service/dedication to a cause, lifestyle, and technical/functional. Initially when reading through the descriptions of lifestyle and technical/functional, I scoffed at both but for different reasons. I believed that people who tested as lifestyle were more concerned with a life free of responsibility, and that people who tested as technical/functional were droll and boring. However, I realized that my own self-perception was flawed, and that my actions were a stronger reflection than my ideals.

For years I struggled with the concept of career, ever since I first heard the word in my high school business class. I was a bookseller, a secretary, an undertaker (yes, I was), a videographer, a poet, a columnist, a projectionist, a lobbyist, a security guard, and a day care counselor. Nothing seemed to fit. “The rest of your life,” my high school business teacher might have said, “is defined by your choice of career.” Of course, she was wrong. Our lives are not defined by our careers; rather, we define our careers. The day I realized this, I was standing in front of a mirror, and on the other side of the mirror I saw Mr. Cross staring back at me, but with one difference: I was smiling.

References

Schein, E. (1992). Organizational culture and leadership. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Schein, E. (2006). Career anchors: Participant workbook (Kindle version). San Francisco: Pfieffer.

A personal mythology

Depending only on our assumptions to understand a culture is dangerous. Trompenaar and Hampden-Turner (1996) state that the only way to manage cultural change is to use stories to rewrite our assumptions about implicit culture. In this short essay I am going to talk about assumptions I had about Chinese culture (based on my initial reactions to experiences I had), and then relate several stories that changed my mind, and through these experiences explain some of the key differences between an American upbringing and Chinese culture.

“The Funeral”

When I first came to China, I had an opportunity to attend a funeral in the mountainside. Even though this was a funeral, I was curious to know how funerals among Chinese Christians differed from funerals among American Christians. You see, I come from a culture where the dead are mourned in personal silence. God, for Americans, is a mystical calculator they keep in their pocket, who I have often imagined has the voice of the late Richard Harris; a great, mournful voice, apologizing for the blood of the world, and a bright piñata for our confusion and angst, opening his arms to the barbs we throw in our pain and guilt. However, in China I experienced a different kind of God, one that surrounded the crowd on the mountain in a warmth only because we were together, and uplifted each person there with the peace of a prosperous and unique future, promising each family a future of peace while also promising each family a future of struggle.

The United States comes from a strong background of Puritan beliefs, capitalistic philosophy, Enlightenment idealism, and postmodern sensibilities, while China comes from a background of Confucian ethics, taoist emotionalism, historical precedence, and socialist methodologies. Every artefact of culture invaded my brain and tried to make sense, but continually failed: Russian winter jackets, German cars, French superstores, Korean movies, American fast food, Japanese televisions, and English accents: for a country that prided itself on an immense history and sterling culture, how could so many other cultures have so much power? In the United States, Chinese culture had been relegated to cheap restaurants, Japanese culture to cheap cars, and European culture to out-of-date emotionalism, but in China foreign constructs held immense power. In China, the political, military, and artistic systems were Russian imports, the economic model an American import, and the social system was a fragment of Marxist ideology and failed dreams, touched with a bit of ancient Chinese sentimentalism. The values and underlying beliefs of the two countries were not even comparable, and that fascinated me.

“The Cup”

While I was working as an English teacher at Peking University, I was invited to be a guest judge for an English-speaking competition, and later as an honored guest for the televised finals. In the story above, I spoke about internal characteristics of both China and America (values and underlying beliefs), but in this story I will speak about the external characteristics (the arts). Art in China has a long history of emulation, from the long-standing tradition of learning how to paint landscapes by copying the masters, to the art of calligraphy, a beautiful discipline where the artist instills his or her passion into the brush and the tiniest variant of movement in the shape of a word is considered beautiful and unique. As I was sitting in my front-row seat at the televised finals of the competition, this emulation became magnified in everything, although strangely the emulation was not from the Chinese masters but from American television shows.

Whenever I look back on the recording of the competition finals, I swallow a bit of my pride. Every object on the set, everyone sitting in the arena-benches in the audience, and every activity the participants took part in looked American… except when the camera panned to me. Bigger than everyone around me, dressed in a yellow tweed jacket, and clapping and smiling out of sync, I was noticeably different from everyone else in the audience, who were sitting quietly with their hands in their laps, trying to blend in with the background, not making sudden movements, but becoming a part of the portrait of intense expectations. The CCTV Cup was a realization that even as a spectator, my basic instinct was to act like an American, to move to my own rhythm, even when the rest of the world was clapping at the same time.

“Work is Work”

I was nervous; previously she had refused to see me, take my calls, or even recognize my desires to communicate with her. Just a week before, we were on good terms; suddenly we were enemies, beholden on opposites sides of a battlefield without a choice. She could not look at me; I could only wonder what I had done wrong. “Family is family, work is work,” she told me in her office, sighing and shrugging her shoulders as if she held a great burden. “When you work in China, you must understand this.” A week before, I walked up the aisle of a conference hall of the Saixiang Hotel in Tianjin, a city not far from Beijing. When I embraced hands with my bride, I had little idea that my school, unbeknownst to me, forgot about the date of my wedding and scheduled a very expensive class on that very day, and because there was no teacher to teach that class, the school not only lost a huge amount of money but also a great deal of face, and something had to change.

According to Trompenaar and Hampden-Turner, cultures deviate between universalism and particularism in the development of rules, and the use of internal and external control mechanisms to enforce those rules. China, for example, is highly universalistic when it comes to developing rules but incredibly particularistic when it comes to enforcing them. Furthermore, the influence of Taoist philosophy on Chinese culture has engrained among people a dialectic of natural movement between dark and light, or that people naturally transform from something into something else rather the American perception that people are born a certain way and can never change. Nothing good can last, and nothing can really last; therefore, the only things that last are the things that must change and in changing they last. After I was let go from the school, I spent a long time in mourning and anger, even though I left one of the most dismal schools and ended up in the highest university in the country, not even one day after I was let go. The American in me was stunned, but no one else seemed surprised. The American in me demanded retribution and punishment, but the Chinese seeping into me transformed that rage and frustration into the most amazing thing: forgiveness.

“The Walking Street”

More than the impersonal attributes of rules and control however, are cultural issues that affect a person’s self-perception as well as emotional state. Trompenaar and Hampden-Turner also relate the cultural values of individualism and collectivism (self-perception), and neutral and affective (emotions). Growing up in the United States, I learned some very difficult lessons about not allowing other people to define what I believed about myself, and that I was fully in control of my emotions: no external force could or should govern my state of mind, unless I allowed it to. Like most people, I believed what I knew to be the truth; that either people thought that way, or wanted to think that way because they knew in the darkest part of their heart, they also knew it to be true.

Consider my surprise, then, when I took my teacher for coffee. Over the last couple of weeks, I felt there had been some tension between us, and being that she was my tutor, I wanted to make things right. I should have realized something was off when the moment we stepped outside of the cab, she started walking on the opposite side of the street, and when I moved toward her, she reacted and asked me to stay a few feet away from her, but to keep walking. Perhaps she wanted to play the part of a spy? No, actually. She was embarrassed that others seeing her would think she was my girlfriend.

Later that afternoon, after buying her some ice cream to assuage her frustration as well as drinking a cup of coffee to try and force my brain to interpret the events of the day, she told me that not only had I embarrassed her in class by asking too many questions, but that everyday she felt a creeping doom when she had to mentally prepare herself to teach me. And here I thought I was the model student! I had been praised by my professors in university for my unflinching dedication to learning and truth-seeking, but in China I was considered a brute, little better than a hoodlum looking for an easy pinch (a term of endearment, I thought). However, for many people in China, self-perception is a reflection of perceived expectations from other people, and emotions are contextually defined by those same perceived expectations. I thought that by inviting my teacher out for coffee, I could make it right, but it wasn’t until I realized that by trying to make it right, I was constantly making it worse. Only after I changed how I acted in front of her in the classroom, was she able to change how she acted in front of me.

“The Teahouse”

One winter, I visited a friend who lived in the city of Xi’an. A prominent surgeon and Party member, a couple of years before he stayed with my parents in California while he was doing a residency as a foreign expert and cancer researcher at Stanford University. He quickly became a close family friend. While visiting him in Xi’an, I believed that like great family friends, we would spend some time together, visiting the sites, having dinner together, and speaking of my family back in California and his life there. However to my surprise we spent most of the time entertaining his friends, drinking in teahouses, schmoozing up to officials, and only speaking to each other in the car as we moved from place to place. By the end of the trip, I was so confused, upset, and in pain from the massive headaches I suffered from the large amounts of tea I drank, but more importantly, I was jaded by our friendship, believing he had used me to uplift his position as a Party member so as to ensure his status as the “surgeon with the exotic foreign friend”.

Trompenaar and Hampden-Turner speak also of three very important cultural concepts: specific and diffuse (responsibility), achievement and ascription (status), and past, present, and future time (orientation). My experience with my friend allowed me a unique glimpse into a special situation. My reactions were pure examples of American perceptions of responsibility, status, and orientation. As a friend, we should (responsibility) have spent the time together, growing closer and laughing about old times, thereby solidifying our status as friends, and securing the future of our relationship. However, in the mind of my friend, he would owe me far more by the simple act of allowing me an opportunity to show him off to his friends, and that action would ensure for decades to come his appreciation and dedication to us as friends. Furthermore, the status I would afford him would be “change in the bank”, so that in the future if I needed a favor from him he would be more than happy to sacrifice his time and effort to help me, something that even my greatest of American friends would likely need a lot of convincing to even consider. Once I had realized this, I was embarrassed, but I suppose I can write that off as being too American about the whole situation.

“The Man with the Turtle-Skin Glasses”

My first year in China I worked at a kindergarten. My boss was a big man built like a football player, with broad shoulders, a belly of iron, and huge, square-framed glasses that he claimed were covered in turtle-skin (he said with pride). I remember walking into his office for the first time and being surprised: he was sitting at his computer desk, playing Counter Strike, a popular computer game where the player acts in the role of a counter-terrorist officer and runs around a map shooting terrorists in the head. He was older, in his fifties, respectable, but when I walked in he motioned me to sit in a wooden chair beside his desk and continued playing his game. When he was done, he turned to face me and asked me if I liked Chinese food, and what did I think of the cold buns they served in the school cafeteria for breakfast. I was too stunned to reply; eventually I gathered up my energy and said it was good; I waited for some time, but he didn’t have anything more to say, so then I collected myself and after making up an excuse, went back to my room, about ten feet away just down the hall.

As a final conclusion to this short essay, I want to talk a little about leaders and followers. I wouldn’t necessarily say my boss was a good leader (he had to flee the country two years later) but he was an ordinary leader who did what he believed was expected of him. He was an authority, he was rich, and in general he didn’t have a lot of expectations of others except to not embarrass him and work with the other staff. He was always there, but rarely did he make his presence known unless circumstances demanded, but if his presence was made known his shadow fell over everything. Aside from being less personable, he was more or less like any other non-exceptional leader I had ever known. He expected his staff to fulfill their duties, and they expected him to tell them what to do. Sure, certain intricacies were apparent: the lack of discussion when he made a decision, the sardonic and cleverly worded remarks from the staff when he wasn’t around (as well as some moaning), and the fear of what it might mean to have a relationship with him. We are all people of flesh and blood and more or less respond in similar ways. If we let it, culture has power over us, but if we master it, culture is merely another language to learn.

Transforming values

Society is fundamentally ruled by the powerful, who maintain their power by offering others security. The powerful offer physical security, personal security, familial security, and quite often moral security that is based out of how that particular powerful group views the family and how they view the interplay between different members of the community. Opposing this “security” is more often viewed as a threat to the whole and put down immediately. The Pope was a shining example of how a leader could offer both moral authority and security, while at the same time stand out as a monstrous vehicle of power and dictatorship, “the leader of the world.” However, the United States was one of the first forces to truly challenge the papacy, and they did so through offering not only moral authority but intellectual authority through their espousal of freedom as a human right. During the beginning of the United States, scholars and thinkers were obsessed with the motivational forces that ruled over the human soul, and today, those motivational forces have evolved to values-based leadership. Leaders recognize today that people mobilize not only from the recognition of their own human rights, but from leaders who offer a living model of those values of human rights.

“Rulers who neither see, nor feel, nor know, / but leech-like to their fainting country cling, / rise like Lions after slumber / in unvanquishable number — / shake your chains to earth like dew / which in sleep had fallen on you — / ye are many — they are few.” (Shelley, 1819) Even in the 19th century, popular culture had begun to embrace the idea that values could transform the world. Shelley’s criticism that leaders were so distanced from their followers that they were blind, unfeeling, and stupid, was a bold thing to say when rulers still felt they had divine authority on their side. The idea that followers of a divine authority actually had chains was less a statement that people needed freedom, and more a claim that people had a right to live their own lives without being chained in the dreams of a leader who was blind.

Are one set of values any better than another set? How can you make a differentiation, without making a judgment? For example, we look at modern-day Sharia bound cultures, where women are forced to wear headdresses and covers so that they are not seen in public, when in fact many of those women support that culture and when westerners criticize those cultures, the westerners are the ones who are in turn criticized for being immoral. Do leaders need to stand for the values of their followers, or do they need to reframe those values and transform those under them? Should the leaders in closed countries such as China and Saudi Arabia seek to transform their countries to become more like other countries and their values, or should they seek to solidify themselves in favor of their own people’s values?

I often struggle with knowing where my values lie in the country I live. I am an ex-patriot, and for many people I come into contact with I am the first ex-patriot (or foreigner) they have ever met. When they see me and watch me, everything I do becomes everything the other world is. If I cry or scream or smile, I begin to form their own minds about the actions of people who are not Chinese. If I cheat or steal or sin, that is added to the value system of other countries, at least in the eyes of those who are watching me, in the exact same way that I erroneously attached the ethics and values of China to Tracy, that tiny little Chinese girl in my second-grade class, or how I also erroneously attached a judgment of Iran by observing the parents of my friend whose family fled to the United States in the 80s. However, I am an image of the West, and there is nothing I can do about that. The values I espouse become the main line in inquiry for anyone I meet, unless that person is lucky enough to meet someone else and grow their judgment set. As a leader however, the values I espouse are even more important, not because it should matter to me whether or not someone has a favorable opinion of the values of people from other countries, but because that will affect my effectiveness in reaching that person and trying to help them grow.

Intercultural immersion: synthesis

There are certain moments of sublime clarity I remember from my childhood. Sitting at home at the dinner table, the wax from two red candles burning between a baked turkey and a Chinese rice dish, and the prayers of my mother before the meal asking that God would watch over not only my brother and I during the school vacation, but also the Chinese family that lived with us as they were adapting to life in the United States. I remember visiting my friend from Iran and eating dinner with his family, studying the golden-framed paintings all over the house and trying to understand why a family would place so many sculptures in so many places. I remember a missionary from Thailand coming through the front door of our home, handing me a ball woven of hard bark, and telling me that this ball was a soccer ball for the village children where they worked, and every time I kicked that ball I saw myself in dusty fields with other kids, sharing together in sore, reddened feet and the abounding laughter of enlightened joy my peers could never experience in their insular lives. These experienced were profoundly formed by my experience growing up in a family where foreign cultural values were embraced alongside the basic American values of expressed democracy, Christian service, and the manifest destiny of spreading the love of our faith to the corners of the Earth. There is both a sanctity and a blindness to manifest destiny though. Historically a masonic concept, over time manifest destiny has come to mean more than spreading a democratic faith to the far side of the dusty world, but has transformed into an American ethic that provides both our salvation as a nation as well as the seeds of our destruction as a people devoid of weakness and riddled with ethnocentric attitudes in the vain quest to bring light to the huddled masses of shades outside our borders.

When I graduated from university, I had that same fire to reach the world for truth (perhaps I still do, albeit in a different way). Freshly christened with two shining degrees (and an online certificate) I took a plane to China, eager to embrace my destiny as an educated neophyte granted the wisdom only $200,000 could have bestowed. I believed in the fundamental goodness of the learning process, in the transformative power of Christian light to reach across national boundaries and yank people into a more pure outlook and even in the prospect that English could transfer that same manifest destiny from myself to my students. I had traveled to over sixteen different countries and been given a unique perspective on the world that most people would be envious of, and came from a cornbread American family that had the blessings of both urban and farmer philosophy, along with the revelatory message of Christ for the world. However, as Elmer (2006) and Lewis (1996) both stipulate in their respective volumes, I carried my culture on my metaphorical back, with the intent to teach rather than learn, to bestow rather than grow, and to perform rather than reform. The most striking difference between Elmer’s servant model and the model I took abroad was that Elmer’s servant serves through lowering his face to the ground and submitting, while in my first couple of years in China I was a paragon of virtue who expected the natives to submit to my knowledge and grow into a new paradigm. In a word, I was a monster, albeit a gentle beast who preferred to embrace before consuming.

When I began to teach at the Chinese university, inwardly my desire was to serve the students. At the beginning and end of each class, I queried the students as to what they wanted to learn, as the administration “had no expectations” (outwardly, in any case) and my singular desire was to both communicate the love of Christ through my actions of intensely desiring to help the students perform their language abilities beyond even my highest expectations. I desired to serve, and still today I carry that same dream, although Elmer (2006) has taught me that to truly serve, I must carry no attitudes of greater-than but instead always approach foreign culture as a less-than, and Lewis (1996) has taught me that regardless of appearances, the people I am interfacing with have grown up in a reality so far beyond my understanding that I could well be on another planet trying to convince the natives that green was red. In order to really reach the other side of the gorge, I have to first give up my image of what I think the other side must look like, close my eyes, and once I reach the other side of the bridge, carry no expectations except for my own necessity to listen to the sounds and take in the colors.

Strange, though. I grew up in California, near San Francisco, a city that once upon a time was 90% Chinese. Asian culture is almost second nature to most people in California, but it is also different. Over the last hundred years, political upheavals, wars, famines, deaths, and the passing of generations have altered the landscape of culture, to the point where I wonder sometimes if two or three generations ago the culture was even relatively the same. Lin Yutang, a Chinese scholar who wrote in the early 1900s during the first Republic of China, writes about Chinese culture in his book “My Country, My People,” and while many of his descriptions seem apt, they are also off-putting, bridging culture with words but separated by time. Lewis (1996) remarks about Chinese culture, expressing the power of taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism over people’s lives (Loc 9199), philosophies which are barely even recognized among today’s Chinese youth (due to Mao Zedong’s policy of using the volumes of Confucius from people’s homes as kindling during the Cultural Revolution); culture transforms over time and eventually fades, replaced by the shared experienced and trauma of a people (Loc 10068).

Many times I feel like Joseph, the Hebraic hero who found himself sold as a slave to a rich landowner in Egypt, and years later became the second highest-member of Pharoah’s court. Elmer (2006) provides a wonderful illustration of Joseph, encapsulating his cross-cultural work into a model: acceptance, trust, openness, and serving (Loc 1965). The divide is wide, but with perseverance, patience, and humility the divide can be crossed, even when culture changes faster than one might hope and the cross-cultural worker finds himself struggling against the tides of an ever-changing sea.

As a cross-cultural worker in China and an educator, I often find myself existing in the China Hand paradox. A China hand (Zhongguo Tong) is a foreigner who has lived in China so long, that many people (even Chinese people) are quick to acknowledge their vast experiences and wisdom of even Chinese culture; having lived in China for almost ten years, I most qualify for this illustrious title and the respect it engenders, even though my cultural awareness still lacks. How can I become a servant in a culture that desires to elevate me? I am reminded of Christ washing the feet of his disciples, kneeling down and wiping away the grime of dust, touching broken toenails, cleansing wounds and blisters, pushing the dirt-covered sweat from gnarled hair, perhaps even removing pebbles and rocks from between the toes. In a society of cleanliness and purity such as Israel, for a man of honor (a king, even) to step down and wash his servants’ feet must have been considered abominable, a breaking of custom and culture, much like what cross-cultural workers feel when they make the initial breach into an alien land and witness people doing things they had never even considered as proper behavior. My dream is to be like Christ, to be a servant first, and to truly respect the Chinese culture in a way that only Jesus could. To be a servant means to serve my family first, breaking out of the American perception of the man of the house and moving towards the Christ-like habit of serving others first without the expectation that my humility will engender my greatness, but rather humility for humility – a state of mind, and a pattern of living.

Dagan: a world at your fingertips

I am attempting… to re-construct several of my stories into the world they were meant to be.

The process has been a longtime coming, and I am not sure if/when the completed project will be finished, but I have started on the basic skeleton. If I can find enough threads in the stories so far I may add to it, but I will also need to do some rethinking and rewriting. All just takes time.

Twine is a new program that is used to create hypertext stories, although I believe the more important value may be in constructing hypertext novels. Most hypertext stories are very short, taking the reader through short moments and highly programmed. The hypertext novel is just an evolution of the novel, where further stories outside of the main story can be explored and the world can be defined more deeply in ways that may help the reader appreciate the story more.

The Last Fairyland

Memories of Old Beijing: the swirling, stone fairytale bridges of Beihai, crossing over crystal clear lagoons of budding flowers and jeweled rocks. People pace on the hillside, reading from the classics, while children run and hide in the caves beneath, playing hide and seek from their shadows. A long corridor of brightly painted wood shadows them as the readers descend from the hill, where they sit and watch the small waves curling in the vast lake beyond, little boats dotting the water like intrepid explorers. This is Beihai, the treasure land of Beijing.

I am walking up the hill, toward the towering and bulbous White Dagoba, the crown of a four hundred year old temple that was built from the lakeside to the top of the hill. There is a slight moment of vertigo, as the zigzagging stairs sway a bit, but I regain myself and continue the hike. Green, foudroyant sabina trees, strong and tall, shadow the staircase as I ascend, and fleeting birds dart from the tops of the trees. I am a little tired, after spending all morning wandering the halls of the Forbidden City, but being here in the middle of wildlife and quietude refreshes me.

I have spent the greater part of two weeks trying to find a picnic spot in Beijing. While it is not uncommon to see people eating happily away on the sidewalk of a busy street with a kebob of charred lamb between their teeth, I would hardly call that a picnic. A picnic is a time of joy and serenity, sitting on a mat while surrounded by beauty, letting the feelings of the day wash away while eating with family and friends. It seems I found the perfect place. As I walk up the hill, everyone is eating: there are five people sitting next to the temple wall with a bucket of fried chicken; further up there is a couple with a child eating some sausages and oranges. While there are no tables, people have turned the hillside into a dining room, leaning on trees, unwrapping sandwiches and perching themselves on smooth rocks, while sitting red tea and sending their gaze across the city. The whole island seems to be a giant picnic table, in the kindest and most beautiful sense of the word.

The view is incredible from the top. I recall the vistas of Anacortes, of northern Washington, with flourishing green islands amid ships and boats dotting the sea, tiny stars in a vast sky. This hillside used to be covered in a giant palace, once upon a time. Kublai Khan, during his reign as Emperor, built a wonderland called the Palace of the Moon (Guanghaidian), where he entertained visitors, and even entertained Marco Polo when the Italian came to visit China. Today the palace is gone, having been destroyed in an earthquake, and during the Ming dynasty the Yong’an Buddhist temple was built in its place, meant to honor a visiting Tibetan lama. During that same time, the Emperor Qianlong had a Rosetta-like stele erected on the hillside, which included Han, Manchurian, Mongolian, and Tibetan languages.

Descending the hill puts me in a kind of euphoria. I don’t realize until I have paid the small three yuan fee for a system of caves that labyrinths the entire northern part of the island, and find myself face-to-face with grim-faced bodhisattvas and craggy walls, little slits of light filtering in to light up the wry grins of these venerable holy men. They frighten me a little, but only a little. There is only so much a little clay man can do. I imagine myself as a little child racing through the caves, while my parents sit together on the crest of the hill sipping tea. It is all too reminiscent of Tom Sawyer’s Island.

At the bottom of the hill, pink, budding bunge flowers poke out from the ground, and the smell of mint-like sorboria fills the area. There are couples sitting by the lakeside on benches, hand in hand, watching the boats drift by. The Fangshan restaurant, famous for their Qing dynasty dishes, stands awkwardly out of time, and an imperial painted boat floats by, filled with Sunday families.

I make my way back to the entrance of the park, walking past the boating docks of floating paddle-boats and old rowboats. I would like to come back here someday and try them out. It looks fun.

The Circular City (Tuancheng), the ancient capital of the Yuan dynasty, confronts me as I exit the park. Once an island of pine trees, it later became an Imperial Palace, and then was destroyed when the Eight-Power Allied Forces entered Beijing. This surprises me: not even the might of the rest of the world was able to shake it, and while it was destroyed, it was again rebuilt and stands once more at the exit of this fairyland, once upon a time a model of where the gods were supposed to have lived.

Beihai, for thousands of years, has been a place of relaxation, thinking, and joy for the people of Beijing. Throughout the dynasties it was used as a pleasure palace for the rich and noble; then in the 20th century it became a place for revolutionary thinkers and reactionaries; finally in the 21st century, it has become a family paradise. No matter where you go, it is that small part of Beijing that has always spoken in a small voice to the heart of people, and been a place of meditation and contemplation. Even as a foreigner, it appeals to me a place of bursting creativity and reformed passions. This continues to mull through my head as I head into a taxi, and see the last mists of the lake disappear as the busyness of the streets rise into life.

Shadows of the Queen

“How much farther?” she asks me, her breath already starting to sound heavy. The air is thinner up here, and the cars less. A few pedestrians pace on the sidewalk, while a gentle evening breeze comes on, racing through the shadows of skyscrapers.

“I can see it, up there,” or at least I think I see the building. In truth, there are so many trees and buildings blocking the view, it’s hard to tell if the building up ahead is actually the tram center for Victoria Peak. We decided to take the Mid-Levels tour, a staggering 800 meter-long escalator that runs up the belly of Victoria Peak from the sea. It was mostly because last time we were in Hong Kong we wanted to go on the legendary stairway, but we failed to find the entrance.

However, this trip didn’t turn out much better. I look up to the mountain and see the giant square building that looks out on the horizon from the summit, and wonder if we will ever get there before the sun sets. We are wandering in the upper levels of the city, a dizzying blur of restaurants, rising streets, and apartment buildings that rise like dirks into the murky sky.

At least we managed to find the entrance. Located squarely at Central Station, one need only follow the elevated platform towards the mountain and then… walk up.

 

The island of Cheung Chau is a dream. We sit at a seaside restaurant, listening to the sounds of the waves lap against the anchored boats. The ferry that goes from Central Station to the island is setting out, leaving a wide wake that causes several of the neighboring boats to dangerous teeter to one side. It was an inexpensive and relaxing ride, taking about a half-hour. I spent a long time just sitting quietly and listening to the sound of the waves.

Cheung Chau is an island steeped in mystery and intrigue. Home to the famous Cheung Po Tsai pirate cave, it once was the Tortuga of Asia, being a safe bastion for hundreds of ships, and about 20,000 pirates. They were under the command of a warlord named “The Kid,” who harassed Qing dynasty officials for years until he was offered a position in the government, when he relented of his ways and became an enforcer against piracy. The unique shape of the island provided that the pirates could anchor their boats on the opposite side, and the heavy mist that often cloaks the area provided for an almost unstoppable army.

The island is also famous to having an enormous number of dogs, many of them wild. When we took our walk to the Cheung Po Tsai cave later that afternoon, we passed by a group of dogs that were hiding out in a local cemetery. They approached us, and we froze, feeling like wolf meat. However, they merely crossed the road and disappeared into the jungle, and we continued on our way.

 

The sun has nearly set; we are now climbing. Somewhere down the road we missed the tram, and every now and then we can see it climbing the green hills toward the Peak. The road has risen to about a thirty degree angle, and we are putting everything into just staying balanced. The roads in Cheung Chau were much nicer; as we scaled the hills of the island, we were walking through a fairyland of luxurious abodes, a literal amalgamation of British architectural styles reminiscent of Tianjin. Here, finally on the Mid-Levels, the multi-million dollar apartments rise high above our heads and disappear into the mist, the tops covered by gray fog and burning electric lights.

“There!” I proclaim, and then with a sinking feeling realize what is ahead.

She looks at me, sweet as anything. I’m not sure she knows what I’m putting her through. This was supposed to be a romantic outing, but it’s turning out to be worse than a high school P.E. Class.

As the road ends, a trail begins. We step over the chain and find ourselves looking at an even steeper incline.

“Is this ok?” I am exasperated. Such an ordeal, but what seems like just a simple request: see the top of Victoria Peak, but rather than going on the usual tourist buses, find our own way there. Such idealism seems to have gotten us into a bit of trouble.

She smiles. “Let’s go!” I admire her optimism.

As we scale the mountain, the barking of dogs echo across the hills. The Mid-Levels are home to some of the most expensive homes in the world, at least for their miniature size. Millionaires are lucky to own a single flat. Much of the upper-class Hong Kong citizens employ workers from the Philippines as maids, and own a dog or two. We didn’t know it at the time, but discovered later that this was a secret trail known to the owners of those dogs and their dog-walkers, as they were the only hikers we met on the trail. That, and the sound of our feet.

 

Two days before we were scaling a different kind of mountain. Located in the furthest south you can go in Hong Kong near the city of Aberdeen, Ocean Park is an amusement park known for two things: an endangered species zoo/aquarium, as well as roller coasters that not only have awesome speeds and hills, but are built in Hong Kong-style: into the hills.

Riding on a 1.5 kilometer gondola cable-car system takes fun-goers from one end of the park to the other, scaling a high mountain with an unprecedented view, and letting people off near the summit, where they must climb down to either the rides portion of the park (which also houses a number of aquariums) or make their way through a series of labyrinthine escalators to the lower parking lot.

The top of the park gives a great view of Aberdeen, as well as the vast sea that spreads out to the south. At the low price of about 240 Hong Kong dollars (that’s about 31 US dollars) the trip was one of our most memorable, viewing giant pandas, riding roller coasters, and taking in the sights of one of the most beautiful panoramas on the island.

 

The sun has set. As we climbed through verdant woods, the sun set into the horizon and fell below the sea. We climbed high enough to across the tops of the Mid-Level apartments, witnessing light fall on their side and turn into a kaleidoscope of steel and glass.

It’s windy on the peak, but we’ve found shelter at the top of the mall, where the only sound is the air whistling through our jackets. It’s beautiful here; the night sky has made it clear it will not be held back by modern technologies, with stars glimmering above our heads, shining through sparse clouds.

The horizon of Hong Kong is glorious, and it’s no wonder why it is memorable. We hold hands and look out across a sea of lights, until they are swallowed up in darkness.

Orcs in the CBD

I stepped through the portal and felt an ethereal sense wash over me, as if I had donned a new skin and personality. There were dragons playing among waterfalls and sharp crags before me, and I could hear the sound of battle-axes and war cries from the distance. A faint green hue flooded the room, giving the walls an ancient, decrepit look. Painted onto the walls was an elaborate mural showcasing a great war between men, beasts, and even fouler things, with magical energies swirling about their strange horned mounts and a sky torn open by a rift. Before I could take another step into the maelstrom, however, a waitress cheerfully greeted me and asked me how many to seat.

Welcome to Azeroth. Or Beijing. Anyways, what’s the difference?

I suppose China is famous for their themed restaurants. There is that one restaurant near my house that is Mao-flavored, with a giant portrait of the great leader looming over every table, and little red flags draped across the railings like a parade. Then there is the Mexican cantina, complete with Gaudi lanterns and long, pitted wooden tables full of beer and popping fajitas. Near the Yonghe Gong Temple, there is a small dive called The Rive (clever, being that it overlooks a canal) with long couches, fruity icees, and art books and magazines shelved into deep-brown shelves, just like an old college locale. I think, though, that this is the first time I’ve ever encountered a World of Warcraft restaurant, inspired by the famous online computer game. It was an experience, no doubt, that I will want to try again, just for the sheer audacity of it.

The menu was a colorful selection of dishes from the game. Just to prove their point that these were really Azeroth dishes (Azeroth is the game world), below each featured dish is a picture of a character actually hunting down the particular foul magical beastie, and then a beautiful photo of the cooked creature, with salivating spices and colors to match. The price for the food was also very decent, being that the dishes that are prepared are so unique. I believe my favorite dish was the plate of lamb-something-or-other, that was basically a plate piled high with lamb tenderly cooked still on the bone.

The owner was kind enough to sit down and have a chat with me. Yuan Yuan and his partner, Tao, started the restaurant a mere two months ago, after they had been burned out selling Olympic souvenirs and made enough money to actually, “do what they wanted to do, and just have fun.” They wanted a place to make their dreams of playing the game a reality, and also give other players a chance to not only immerse themselves in the culture of the game, but connect with each other on a real level, meet each other, get together for special gatherings, and even find love. Once a month, the World of Warcraft restaurant has a Cosplay gathering, when players can come to eat and party with their friends dressed up as their heroes from the game. Already there have been several romances that have gone that extra mile, thanks to Yuan Yuan and Tao’s efforts to host these special gatherings.

After our conversation, Yuan Yuan took me around the restaurant and allowed me to take some pictures, showing me the mural his friend painted, that even showcased his cousin and his cousin’s wife on the wall (as their characters, of course, in heroic repose), as well as the many friends who have come and given their pictures to the walls of the restaurant. The restaurant also features computers with World of Warcraft loaded on them that customers are free to play on (as long as they have an account for the game). Finally, he took me to a special part of the wall where players post messages to each other, a community board of hellos and requests to meet up in the game sometime.

As a night out, it truly was a unique one, “Blizzard Restaurant” will be hard to forget. You can find the World of Warcraft restaurant by taking the Line 2 subway to Chaoyang Men, and then taking bus 846 to the Gaojing Baiyun Shichang (高井白云市场), or taking the Line 1 subway to Sihui Dong and then taking bus 648 or 488 to the same stop (or alternatively, taking a cab to the address). My suggestion, if you’d like to save about 50-90 kuai. Once you find the Baiyun Shichang, the restaurant is located through the front gate, at the back. It is visible from the street, with a very long sign and a number of orcs looking very happy with some very sharp weapons.

Address: 暴雪餐厅:朝阳路高井白云市场内 Tel: 8576-8949 (local Beijing number)

Price range: Dishes cost anywhere from 10 kuai to 50 kuai, on your fancy. Some are more.

Postmodern Fantasy Literature: an overview of contemporary ideas

Lecture Goal: Give a broad view of contemporary American fantasy literature and where the ideas came from

 

1. Sword and sorcery in the 30s-60s, based on Weird Tales and Lord of the Rings

Weird Tales in the 1920s, born from Edgar Allen Poe and H.P. Lovecraft (Cthulhu)

Fantasy, horror, myth, and swordplay – Conan the Barbarian, Robert E. Howard

Fritz Leiber, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, and the idea of true adventure, from Conan

 

2. Heroic fantasy and dark magic in the 70s, 80s and 90s, based on Dungeons and Dragons (1975)

Michael Moorcock, Elric of Melnibone, combination of heroic myth and popular fantasy

Roger Zelazny, the Chronicles of Amber, and castles, dungeons, monsters and sorcerors

Tanith Lee, emergence of dark fantasy based on authors like Mervyne Peake with Gormenghast

Emergence of allegory, deep symbolism and heavy themes with Ursula LeGuin (Earthsea) and Patricia McKillip (Riddle-Master)

 

3. The American-style journey novel in the 90s and 2000s, based on The Wheel of Time

Robert Jordan and the journey novel “Wheel of Time”

Terry Goodkind and the emergence of Mass-produced epic fantasy

George R.R. Martin, the anti-Lord of the Rings, beginning of the New Weird with China Mieville

 

4. Urban fantasy novels in post-2000 era, based on Harry Potter

J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter, and urban fantasy

Anne Rice to Laurell K. Hamilton, and contemporary urban vampires and faeries, Wiccan stories

The Fantastic City and the New Weird, with China Mieville and Jeff VanderMeer

 

5. Literary fantasy

Breaking out of the genre, with Octavia Butler and Parable of the Sower, combining different forms

The movement of fantasy to break free from genre

 

Questions to ask at the end:

1) What was the first magazine to have sword and sorcery? 6) Where does Harry Potter take place?

2) Who created Fafhrd? 7) What is the religion about magic?

3) What was the game that inspired heroic fantasy? 8) What old idea does urban fantasy use?

4) The Wheel of Time was what kind of novel? 9) What did Octavia Butler break out of?

5) What happened to fantasy novels after Terry Goodkind? 10) What is current fantasy literature trying to do?

 

words to put on the board:

contemporary fantasy

 

Edgar Allen Poe

H.P. Lovecraft

Cthulhu

Barbarian

Invented world

Sword and Sorcery

Weird Tales

Lord of the Rings

Michael Moorcock

Elric of Melnibone

Dungeons and Dragons

Amber

Tanith Lee

Mervyn Peake

Gormenghast

Ursula LeGuin

Patricia McKillip

Riddle-Master

 

Journey novel

The Wheel of Time

Mass-production

New Weird

China Mieville

 

Harry Potter

urban fantasy

Vampires

Fairy/faerie

Wicca

Otherworld

Jeff VanderMeer

 

Octavia Butler

Parable of the Sower

Literary fantasy

Genre

Xun, Dreaming of Lost Names

I admire Lu Xun. Not for his timidness, which he was not; not for his resolve, which faltered often; not for his calculating mind, which carried the burdens of a man blinded with inhibited sorrow; and not for his kindness, which crossed blades with his cruelty so often he might have been his own doppelganger; rather, I admire his perspicacity with words, his transparency of soul, and his exuberant passion in the movement of ideas through the vehicles of people and systems. Once a teacher myself at Peking University, Lu Xun exhibits ideals I wish I had but also showcases the dangers of adorning the armor of a hundred ideals, each engaged in civil strife.

“The present passes step by step,” Lu Xun states, meditating on the temporal, changing, and suffering nature of the world. Relaxing with my wife and son by Weiming Hu in the shadow of Ciji Temple, I am swept in the immediacy and evolution of moments, as if the passing of people through the reflection on the lake were a mirror to another world where time could be rewound and marched backwards. The remaining walls of Ciji Temple show that the present world is unrelenting; pockmarked and fading paint the only memories of her fabled past, when people would stoop by the stone altars and press flame and smoke into their hopes and dreams.

Overlooking a pond while standing on a lotus-pod bridge, I cannot agree with Lu Xun about the suffering of the world. Lily-pads float on the surface of the water, and tiny skittering waterhoppers bounce across the translucent surface, living in an impossible dream of speed and haze. The reflections of the terraced rocks and spaces of rippling blue skies to the small creatures are not the only constants; for a good portion of their life, my figure standing on the lotus-pod bridge becomes an anchor to them, much like watching a tree grow, strengthen against the wind, and shed yellow leaves in autumn. Suffering is inconsequential to the process of time, existing only as a cloud marking the passage of life from one evolution into the next.

If suffering is an inconstant spouse, of what use is education? Learning is the process of uncovering truths, not only about the world but about ourselves. Students are the phalanx of learning, charging forward bravely into the unknown with no expectations. Lu Xun described the brave students of Peking University as “tolling alone in the caverns of wind and dust deep at the bottom of the sea,” and in my mind looking at the surface of the lake from beneath, I begin to understand his meaning. The waterhoppers cause ripples in the water, and the image of Ciji Temple shudders, the red walls and carved altars shrugging as if held by a fierce wind. As I rise to the surface of the water, images between the past and the present shift into one: mendicants kneeling by curls of gray smoke and scholars in long robes are replaced by the sound of a bicycle bell and the flash of a camera.

Emerging from the lake, the world has changed: sky-tall construction cranes towering behind green mesh shielding shoot dust into the sky, students with golden cards rush by with apocalyptic fear pressed into their cheeks, multinational sandwich kiosks hide behind forgotten and overgrown gardens, and an electric buzz permeates the ether: the sound of oil burned into flame and lightning humming through crisscrossed optical pathways. And yet, although the future has arrived I find myself on the dry shore, smiling and viewing the landscape with pride and joy, much unlike the dismal parades of Lu Xun’s dread and phantasmagoria.

Lu Xun always believed that the goal of education was to be “properly adapted to the individual to develop each person’s personality,” and everyday our society seems to be moving closer and closer to this tenable dream. There are mountains to ascend and rivers to pass, but we are on our way. “I am living among men,” Lu Xun remarks when reflecting on his proud time at Peking University, as his students gave him the hope to press forward, even in the dismal hour of warlords and massacres. Our times are lighter and more hopeful today; let us remember that and dare to dream.

Ash

The filmy dust of the new year floats, no, hovers over the edge of the earth.

Coming back to familiar territory, I hit a sudden realization that Brazil has finally arrived. The paint on buildings is flaking off like waves dried against a tombstone, and my breath is heavy with the weight of fallen dreams. But unlike those visions of the future, something is amiss.

In the corners of this world, where shadows meet light, there is laughter and joy. The scent of boiled pork and herbs, the feeling of fresh steam escaping like clouds into the sky, and the light inside people’s hearts shining through the gloom – these are differing alignments, hopeful buds on trees that are only beginning to sprout, or perhaps have been growing in the shade for a hundred years.

Buried beneath the carboned remains of burned things, new life awaits. That is the way of the world.

Pumpkins on the Wall

Whisperings under lantern.

 

A god goads me from the wall, and around him pumpkins dance. Red apples shine from the slick wipe of a dishrag, stacked in symmetrical circles over a plate of ivory memories.

Children are fleshed out in our words, giving life to space which would otherwise remain motionless.  The patterns of letters and sounds coalesce into models of tranquility and chaos, transfixed with a key centrality which I have yet come to understand fully.

Writings from a White Elephant in the Bedroom

A curious thing, setting aside various inhibitions, is to stare outside the window while staring at your feet at the same time. You get a unique understanding of where you actually are.

The clouds overhead become like whitewash, filling the skies with a dull sense of being *someplace* familiar yet set apart. The birds twittering tells you the morning has come, but don’t birds also sing in the evening?

My horizon is a green burough of leaves, cement pathways, and red brick memories clustering together in a menagerie of voices and images hard to forget.

Towards a new categorization

In reviewing the New York Times “Notable Books of 2011” I started compiling what I hope to be a different kind of categorization of fiction and nonfiction. As a writing teacher, I find it imperative to teach how good writing can flow from the classroom into society, and so in this categorization I am looking towards a fundamental understanding beyond already established genre classifications.

While working at Barnes & Noble in the late 90s, I learned that classifications of books had become so ridiculous that fiction even had labels like “aviation fiction” and varying degrees of romantic fiction which I do not want to post here; nevertheless, as a teacher I find it impossible to teach good, solid forms with built foundations of theme and type without trying to come up with some kind of categorization.

Under fiction, I noted:

  • Historical – dealing with the past as subject and setting
  • Regional – dealing with a particular area as a main theme
  • Edge – fringe stories, with a focus on living outside accepted society
  • Political – focused on the interplay of structural power
  • Sorrow – any story with deals primary with how to cope with primary sadness
  • War – soldiers, generals, or citizens are the focus of experience
  • Relationship – tales which center on the interplay between sexual desire and shades of friendship
  • Finance – where the exchange of money is the primary concern, either with criminal or legal ramifications
  • Fantasy – stories which are painted in secondary belief
  • Science – stories which deal with the possible use and expansion of technology
  • Horror – stories that use death as a romantic notion
  • Culture – dealing with the interplay between national and ethnic worldviews
  • Religious – exploring human spirituality, especially in myth and the experience of invisible yet universal felt forces
  • Metaphysical – utilizing surreality and philosophical concepts made real in contemporary life
  • Occupational – where the theme is centered around the success of failure of work culture


Under nonfiction, I noted:

  •  Cultural studies – explaining current current
  • History – exploring the impact of the past on both past and present
  • Biography – describing the transformation of one human experience
  • Religion – defining the characteristics of the supernatural world in common life and the realistic impact
  • Economics – breaking down the relationship of money and culture
  • Technology – forecasting the future use and current impact of human invention
  • Linguistics – indicating how language, the structure of the written and spoken word, is related to both culture and identity
  • Poetry – exploring experience through line, rhythm, and image
  • Physics – capturing the essence of the natural world through formula, theory, and numerical consistency
  • Environment – understanding human relationship with the natural world, both through academic investigation and cultural implication
  • Political science – mapping out the relationship of culture and nation
  • Travel – exploring how new culture affects human experience
  • Art – describing the formulation and purpose of sensory imitations of life
  • Philosophy – explaining the categorization of the human mind regarding basic concepts and structures in the world logically

In teaching writing, it is always my goal to help students combine the skills of a researcher with the skills of a good writer.  I do believe that in the above categories great books have been written, utilizing all the skills of great writing, and that anyone in knowledge and practice of those skills can do the same.