Saturday, March 29, 2008


One month. One hundred and sixty nine yuan. Here’s what I learned:

1) We can cook Chinese food affordably. Jessica can make awesome fried rice. Brian does a delicious tofu and onion dish, and I feel pretty confident I can do a reasonable job of scraping together some basic ingredients to make almost anything edible.

2) One finds surprising rewards in taking time to walk someplace instead of taking the bus or driving. Saving time by faster transportation isn’t always the better choice. Walking is good for the spirit. A slow pace is good for the soul.

3) Money can never buy a true family or faithful companionship. I feel so grateful for spending this time with Jessica and Brian who were a daily encouragement and devoted companions. And, though Darla lives on the other side of town, just knowing she was participating in this experience with us was a blessing.

4) I think I’ve realized what I appreciate most about having a sufficient amount of money to cover my daily needs; having money is convenient. Honestly, I’ve never been a big spender. I seldom buy things, and so I really thought being “meager” wouldn’t be a far stretch from the way I generally live each month. But I learned that the most significance I place on money is in terms of convenience: grabbing food to eat at a restaurant is far more convenient than buying vegetables (meat is too expensive!) down the hill, trucking back up to the apartment, cooking, and finally cleaning up afterwards. Making decisions to go into town involve more planning to ensure enough time has been allocated for walking there and back. Visiting friends who live far away becomes much more difficult. Making plans with others involves considering how much money I have to spend and what kind of bind a certain activity might put me in later. Ah, convenience. Sadly, I realized that poor people are also an inconvenience on others. Those without money are not able to participate in the types of activities we generally take for granted: eating out, watching TV, using the Internet, basic traveling, etc. We’ve realized that friendships are more difficult to continue when the relationship does not share a similar financial status. This month we’ve felt a significant decline in the amount of e-mails from back home. While it can be argued that those back home knew our Internet usage would be meager and, therefore, decided it must be pointless to keep us updated on their lives, I think it is important to note that we seldom keep relationships with people from whom we do not receive equal effort and involvement. How many relationships do we actually have in which we are giving more than we are receiving or investing more than the other party (and all the while not complaining about this discrepancy)? So this made me think. Why do we not help feed the hungry or give money to the poor? Is it because we don’t care? Is it because we don’t love? I think, actually, we do care and we do love. Much of the reason for not helping those in poverty comes from the fact that it’s inconvenient. Poverty does not come and find us in our pleasant housing and comfortable neighborhoods. Poverty can’t knock on our doors; it’s too busy just trying to survive. We must meet poverty where it is. We, who have the blessing of financial convenience, must inconvenience ourselves to find the poor, to help them where they are. After a month of being conscious of the small amount of money I have to spend, of the limitations I have on everything I do, and of the inconveniences that come with penny pinching, I am convinced that those living in poverty do not have a responsibility to find us before we should feel compelled to help them. We have a responsibility to find them. And, I think we’ll find the more we help others, the less we’ll think about ourselves and the less we’ll consider serving an inconvenience. I hope!

Thursday, March 27, 2008


Completely blank. That’s what happens to me when I sit down to blog at a reasonable hour with little to no demands on my time. Midnight is when I find my true inspiration – a fact that plagued me with little sleep during my college years. But it’s nine thirty, I just finished my one hour English lecture (supposed to be two) and my one hour interrogation from fifty some curious students, and I have nothing else to do…so I’m blogging.

Well, Meager March has turned into a month of firsts for me (not intentionally, but well executed nonetheless during a month that could easily have proven to be very boring). The first “first” is that I was electrocuted. I’ve never been electrocuted before – even that time when I touched the “electric” fence while at Cullman, Alabama just to see what it was like. Maybe the electricity was off or maybe we were lied to about it to prevent us from crossing the fence that lead to pastureland filled with terrifying and mean-hearted cows. Anyway, a couple weeks ago I had just washed my hands and had only pat-dried them (which means they were still wet). I then noticed the blow drier was still plugged in, a pet peeve of mine – when things are not put up after being used. So I unplugged it; only, the adapter didn’t come out with the plug, and my wet fingers clumsily touched the prongs that were still barely inserted into the adapter. I got quite a jolt. It was exhilarating, but I wouldn’t recommend it. My hand was a bit shaky after that for a few minutes.

The second, more exciting “first” came Monday night at 11:24 pm. I generally fall asleep before eleven, but this night I found myself tirelessly thinking in bed when suddenly it began to shake. Then I noticed the whole room felt like it was moving. It didn’t last long, and I immediately thought that the Germans above me were causing the racket (a justifiable thought because they’re quite loud actually – often jumping up and down and running and moving furniture late into the night). But then I thought it might have been an earthquake. I’ve never been in an earthquake before so I couldn’t really be sure. I fell asleep contemplating the cause of the shaking but was awoken at midnight by a phone call from Michael Scofield (from China not Prison Break) who asked if I’d felt the earthquake and said a lot of students had congregated outside. He was just checking on me, and given the inherited and fake cheery voice I put on for people who wake me up (so as not to let on that they have just interrupted my slumber), I think he felt assured of my peace of mind of having survived this harrowing experience. I mean, how many people live through earthquakes that measure a whopping 4.3 on the Richter scale and occur 30 miles from one’s location?

I’ve decided to go back to the States for a few weeks this summer. I had originally intended to stay in China during the summer and make my annual trip home during the winter break next year. However, I think it’s best I go home for a few weeks, and since I’ve made that decision, I’m increasingly looking forward to spending time with my family and friends.

My oldest brother and his wife are hoping to visit Shanghai for a few days next week, and I’m planning to take a couple days off from work to meet them there. This semester many of the Shiyan foreigners’ families have come for visits, and it’s such a blessing for all of us.

Well, in an effort to quit babbling while the quitting’s good, I’m signing off for now. Love much!

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Mid-March Update

It’s been a busy month. I’ll try to keep this update concise, but I can already tell it’s going to end up grotesquely long. My apologies!

This semester we’ve each been given a heavy load of classes, most of mine yet to begin. I’m teaching a freshmen English majors’ course which meets twice a week. It’s the one class I really look forward to teaching; the other classes are necessary annoyances filled (for the most part) with too many students unmotivated to do the work it takes to learn English well and yet expecting me to work miracles. But I love my majors. We’ve been spending a lot of time together outside of class, and that’s made a huge difference in class. Barriers set up by the student/teacher relationship tend to be torn down after an afternoon of volleyball and basketball or an evening of horrific, personal animal attack accounts (one girl’s brother was bitten in the head by a pig, had to have six stitches and still doesn’t grow hair on his head in that spot. Stop laughing, Jessica!). In a couple of weeks, I begin another English majors’ class (sophomores this time), which will be followed a few weeks later with four new, seven week long classes.

Meager March is going well. The most drastic changes in our daily lives have involved meal times. We’ve cooked at home a lot and seem to be continuously eating leftovers. There are days when we’re totally meager and days where we cheat a bit (eating some things we’ve stored in our pantry) and days where we’re totally blessed by the kindness of others. (William took us out to dinner at Happy Guy’s this evening since his mom’s in town visiting for a few days.) We’re walking a lot more, choosing a brisk hour and a half walk to the medical school over a forty minute, one kuai bus ride. The exercise has been great for us. We’ve also toned down our Internet usage. Apparently, all my friends and family back home have toned down their e-mail sending to me during this time too because I barely have anything to respond to when I do check my e-mail once a week. (Yes, that’s a plug for all those who read this to send me messages even if I don’t check my e-mail everyday. I still need to hear from y’all!) We seldom watch movies now also which has forced us to find alternative methods of entertainment (sadly, this often results in Jessica, Brian and me just staring at each other and contemplating things like who is the worse person, the one who laughs when the word “paralyzed” is mentioned or the one who laughs when the phrase “do your duty” is spoken; in other words, is it better to be heartless or brainless?). Actually, we’ve been pretty productive or constructive or whatever you want to call it. I’ve read several books during the time we might normally watch a movie, we’ve been spending more time studying together, and I think we have done a better job preparing for class and building relationships with our students this semester as well. So what’s the most difficult part of Meager March? I’d say ignoring the local folks (Happy Guy, the fruit ladies, the street rice people, and juice lady) because we can’t afford their products right now. We feel guilty abandoning them. Also, I’m tired of washing dishes. With our eating at home everyday, I feel like I’m constantly doing dishes (minus the times Brian or Jess help out). But the family dining style of sitting around the table in the evening eating while discussing our day has been a total bonus.

Meager March challenges have been mostly successful thus far. Jessica and I were able to get five of Brian’s students to dress up like the Beijing Olympic mascots, write a poem about him, and present it all to him on his birthday last week. It was awesome, and I must say, Jess and I hit that challenge out of the park with flying colors. (Since I moved to China, I tend to mix metaphors. It’s a growing problem.) Actually, the only challenge I’m personally failing at the moment is the memorization of the book of Philippians. I still have two weeks to memorize it, but I was supposed to be doing a chapter a week and I don’t even have the first chapter memorized yet. There’s time, though.

Today was an especially sunny and warm day. Jessica and I walked to Box Coffee to ask the owners if they would grind some out of date whole bean Starbucks coffee Brian’s had since last year. The owners were really cool about it, and Jessica and I were able to chat a bit with them in Chinese about coffee and, well, coffee I think was the main topic of conversation, but it was interesting anyway. They didn’t charge us anything for the grinding of two pounds of coffee beans. We gave them a bag of coffee that was way out of date, and given their connoisseur-like knowledge of coffee, it was probably slightly offensive to offer them year old coffee, but they were gracious, and the four of us shared a cup of an uncommonly strong medium roast that should have been consumed a long time ago. Come April I’ll be setting up camp in that coffee shop and pumping myself full of caffeine in an effort to gear up from what will prove to be an energy expending month – Active April.

We’ve begun meeting all day on Sundays. We have our Meeting in the morning, enjoy lunch together, and then spend the afternoon playing sports outside or playing games inside (depending on the weather). We then cook dinner, which is always a huge affair. Usually the Chinese family members make dishes and the foreigners add a soup or something else that’s not too difficult to make. We have some amazing cooks in our Family. After dinner we have another study or discussion or singing before dispersing around nine o’clock. It’s an incredibly long and totally rewarding way to spend our Sundays, and I’ve certainly felt blessed by taking a whole day to encourage and be encouraged by the brothers and sisters.

A couple weeks ago on one such Sunday afternoon, we were playing volleyball when I turned around to see a small brown and very well groomed dog doing a front paw stand while urinating, back legs kicked high in the air, on a rock. I yelled out in my surprise, but when the others turned around to see what I was staring at, the dog had dropped back down to four legs, appearing totally normal. I tried to explain what I saw, but, of course, no one believed me. Today, however, I was totally vindicated. As Jessica, Brian and I were walking down the hill to Happy Guy’s, we saw (all of us) the same dog urinating on a dumpster or wall or something with its hind legs kicked high in the air. It’s an amazing feat of acrobatics, and while I don’t blame the others for having not believed my account of this the first time, I feel totally pleased that my story was corroborated by yet another fortuitous encounter with this dog.

I often feel like I witness incredible things in China that are unexplainable in the very least and unbelievable to anyone not privy to the evidence I have stowed away in my memory. A couple days ago, for instance, I was standing on the street waiting for my dinner date when I saw a totally adorable one-year-old kid being carried by his dad up the hill. When they passed me, I smiled at the baby who winked at me and nodded his head. For about fifteen feet, the baby kept winking and nodding his head at me, even returning my wave, until they disappeared behind a building. It was like watching those talking baby movies where computer generation is clearly responsible for the facial expressions on the babies’ faces; only this kid was real, not digitally touched up, just incredibly expressive. Jessica refuses to believe me. “I think you thought you saw the baby wink,” she says. I’m not too worried about proving myself, though. Eventually, we’ll run into the boy wonder again on the street, and as the baby winks at us over and over again, I’ll remember the dog and how the truth always surfaces, no matter how absurd.

Did you know that Beijing can control the weather? Well, not totally, but they spend lots of money on something called “cloud seeding”. Basically, when there are clouds that might cause rain at some point in the future (most likely at an inconvenient time like during the Olympics or before other big events), some folks load rocket launchers with silver iodide and shoot it up into the clouds. The silver iodide concentrates moisture and causes the rain to come down sooner than it would otherwise. Interesting stuff that’s considered unbelievable by some…

Oh, another little tidbit of trivia I’ll add before going to bed: one of my students told me that Shiyan was listed as the third most pleasant Chinese city to live in. For one reason, it’s really safe. I don’t know the other “official” reasons, although I certainly have my personal reasons for why it should be considered the first most pleasant city to live in, but then, I haven’t been to every other city in China so I’m sure I’m a bit biased. At any rate, I thought Mom would be glad to hear that Shiyan is considered both a safe and pleasant place to live.

Grace and peace to you all.