Saturday, November 15, 2008

63 into 3 (From Rick)

Marco Polo, Mr. Magoo and I are traveling through China this year as part of a Fulbright family. As a 63 year old, this is the freest I’ve felt in my life. Living in Beijing with no Chinese language skills means I must relearn everything. I’m like a 3 year old toddler, an adventurer who is learning by asking questions, making mistakes, trial and error. Exploring hutongs and underground shops, navigating grocery stores, every day is an adventure. Be it the Great Wall, Temple of Heaven or Tiananmen Square, you are an outsider among a billion hard-working Chinese people. As a new “3 year old,” I’m very inquisitive. It is an adventure to try finding a post office, supermarket (underground without signs), camera repair shop or Hutong restaurant without the benefit of language, maps or Google. Sometimes you hop a cab and call the shop and hope that someone speaks English to give the driver directions. Thankfully cabs are cheap ($3-5 per trip) and subways even cheaper (2 Yuan, about 35 cents.)

If you live here you learn something new every day, just like they taught us to do at Molloy High School almost 50 years ago – “Non Scholae Sed Vitae” – not for school but for life. If someone told me 50 years ago when starting Molloy HS that I’d be living in China with a 9 and 11 year old child, and a law professor wife, I wouldn’t have believed it. Now I too am lecturing on labor arbitration, environmental mediation, tutoring law students in English, listening to Peking Opera, and attending seminars on James Joyce “Ulysses” and corporate social responsibility in China. With children here you play badminton, soccer, ping pong, ride bikes, run track, and (of course) attend PTA meetings.

I Find Jimmy Hunt, JH Finds Me (from Rick)

Strange, exciting things happen in China.

Jimmy Hunt was my best friend in grammar school in Forest Hills, NY. I lost contact with him 45 years ago but heard he was living in Hong Kong. I kept searching the internet, but no luck. After moving to Beijing in August I received an invitation to a grammar school reunion. I sent regrets. On the “Evite” I saw a Vincent Hunt from Beth Page, NY had also sent in a reply. I took a long shot and wrote Vincent to ask if he was related to Jimmy Hunt. On Halloween, 10/31/08, Jimmy Hunt e-mailed me to say hello and welcome to Asia. He’s living in Singapore now. I had found him!

On Election Day (Wed. Nov. 5 here) we went to an Embassy/American Chamber of Commerce election party in Beijing. (See separate blog entry.) I was interviewed there by Bloomberg Financial (TV) on Obama’s US/China relations and how I thought it would be for China. The next morning Jimmy Hunt e-mailed me that he saw me on TV as he was having breakfast in Singapore. CNN/Bloomberg is blocked in China, but now Jimmy Hunt found me. Strange, exciting things happen in China – come visit and find out for yourself. If you want to shake out the cobwebs, travel to a foreign land – Massachusetts, California (yes, they count as foreign) or Beijing, China – you’ll have a great time and it will make you SMILE every morning when you wake up.

US Presidential Election in Beijing (Judy)

Like millions of expatriate Americans, we cast our absentee ballots. Rick mailed his off weeks before the election, but I delayed sending in my ballot so that I could show it to my classes. Several students took the time to study the ballot and ask terrific questions about why we were voting for “electors” rather than just voting. They found the ballot questions a puzzling concept. But this delay meant a last minute, rushed trip to Federal Express to assure that the ballot arrived on time. Fri. Oct. 31st I tracked down a FedEx office in Haidian, the district in which we live. A bus ride, a walk, asking 3 strangers to help me call FedEx and a mere 2 hours later I arrived at the FedEx store. The young FedEx clerk was curious about the absentee ballots and showed me another envelope ready to send off. She was wondering if it were going to the same place. No – my ballot was going to Massachusetts, that one to Minnesota. But as I stare at a thousand Chinese characters, overwhelmed and confused by what they all mean, her question now seems quite reasonable.

On Wed. Nov. 5th we attended an election party sponsored by the US Embassy. Along with about 800 other people we gathered at the Renaissance Hotel to watch the returns on CNN. Unlike the US, our gathering was from 8 am – 1:30 pm. They held a mock election and this was an Obama crowd, so cheers erupted when Pennsylvania went for Obama, and an even louder cheer went up when it was called. A few tears were shed in that room.

Friday, November 14, 2008

When we saw the long johns, we should have figured...

Fall has embraced Beijing. We often see cleaners on the street and in the parks sweeping the leaves with large straw brooms. A few weeks ago tables began to spring up on the weekends, selling long johns and thick sox. We should have taken this as a warning! As it grew cooler we asked our neighbors when the heat gets turned on. Pretty early, they said, November 15th. Beijing is like Boston weather, so there have been some chilly days. We’ve learned to bundle up, layer our clothing, and keep the toaster oven open. We also learned that the “air conditioner” (available to the faculty apartments but not the students) also has a heating feature, so that has also taken the chill off our apartment until the heat comes on.

Sights and Sounds

In the last few weeks we have begun to see occasional beggars in the street. US press had reported that the beggars were removed during the Olympics. Language barriers keep us from finding out – yet – where they went during the Olympics. Perhaps some students will help us find out. Beggars are not an unusual site in US cities, and many show signs of substance abuse or mental illness. We do not have enough cultural knowledge to find patterns yet in homelessness here. We have seen folks who have suffered devastating physical injuries (disfigurement that appears to be from accidents). We need to develop a better understanding of Chinese tort law in action.

We had dinner up by Beijing University with the Balla family. They have a wonderful neighborhood around them filled with small restaurants and food stalls that appear and disappear depending on the time of the day. They report that in the evening the restaurants are filled with men in their 30s, 40s and 50s. Because we live in a dorm which is mostly occupied by young women, we don’t see a gender gap. But perhaps the Balla experience is a sign of the challenges facing men in China.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Teaching Law in China (November Insights)

The fall semester is long (about 18 weeks) and is divided in half. I taught Torts for the first 9 week segment and will begin teaching Legal Ethics/Legal Profession on Nov. 14th. The Renda students report that many of them have 7 classes, which means over 21 contact hours per week. Unlike their US counterparts, the Chinese law students carry fairly slender books. I have prepared my own materials for Torts and have been assigning about 10 pages per class. With 7 classes, it makes sense that the reading has to be manageable. In addition, from our classroom exercises it is apparent that the language skills of the students vary widely. Some can read through a paragraph quickly. Others need several minutes to digest the material and look up words they do not understand.

The class started out in early September fairly small, but has grown to 48 students. This is due in part to the addition of students who had been focusing on the Chinese bar exam, which was given at the end of September. Other students are sitting in on the class to help them improve their English. Thirty two students actually took the final exam. The fact that 16 students would voluntarily audit a 3+ hour class at 8 am on Friday morning captures the motivation of these graduate students.

The students frequently will express their thanks for the course. It may perhaps be a polite way to welcome the foreign professor. But from their comments I infer that they are used to a more passive learning experience and are interested in more interactive and livelier classrooms.

The 7 week course for the Temple Law School/Tsinghua LLM was an intensive and tiring experience, but worth it to meet the great students and learn more about teaching legal reasoning to Chinese students. Ding and I hope to develop a US legal reasoning text for Chinese students, so Ding attended most of the classes. This has helped us generated shared ideas on the best approach to this subject.

Alas, final exams means grading….

Visits, Gifts and Boston Red Sox

We were so happy to have Jim and Eileen, from Chicago, visit us in October. Jim was in town on business and Eileen took advantage of their first year with no children at home to accompany him. She was an inspiration, managing buses, long walks and exploring neighborhoods. As a veteran New Yorker she did not hesitate on her second night here to take the subway back to her hotel alone at night. David D., who is renting our home with his family, was in Beijing on business and delivered a heavy bag of mail and miscellaneous items. He is in the wine business and also included 4 bottles of very nice wine. We’ve discovered that good beer is plentiful and cheap; not so wine.

Julia and Jason also sent a box, which arrived as Rick was monitoring the Red Sox-Tampa Bay game via the internet. The Sox were down 7-0 and were about to be eliminated from the playoffs. He had accidentally left his Red Sox cap in Boston so J&J had found a Red Sox cap and put it in the package. Rick donned the hat and suddenly the Red Sox came back to life and had the most spectacular single-game comeback in their history. I had just taught causation in torts. Clearly there was a correlation: hat on Rick’s head/Red Sox win. As to causation, we didn’t speculate but just enjoyed the ride. The luck ran out 2 games later, but it was a fun while it lasted.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Living at Renmin (October Insights)

Renmin University has been a terrific place to call home. We live on the 17th floor of a graduate student dorm. The apartments on our floor have been modified for faculty, so we enjoy the benefits of a hot water heater in the bathroom (warm showers anytime!) and 3 bedrooms, a living room, and a galley kitchen. Our apartment (about 800 square feet) has good light and views of Beijing. From what we gather in our elevator conversations with the students in the building, the student apartments have anywhere from 6-8 students per apartment. The masters-level students in Torts report that they are in rooms with 4 students per room.

This tight living space for the students is probably the source of the creative use of outdoor space. (Our thanks to Eileen H. for providing this insight.) Every morning 30+ students can be found in the small park in front of our apartment reading English aloud. At first it looked like they were dovening, focusing so intently on their work. Rick has begun to go out and talk with them. Last week he took 7 students to breakfast at the Paradiso café and for a princely sum of $7 bought everyone breakfast.

In the evenings you can find several groups around campus engaged in dancing and other exercise. Music often flows up to our 17th floor. In early September we followed the sound and found a rock concert taking place in front of the Fine Arts building. Some nights it will be traditional Chinese music. But the campus settles down by midnight. Every dorm, including our own, has women who monitor the entrance. Doors are locked in the late evening. By 8 a.m. the next morning the park again fills up with students studying and practicing English.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Elementary & Junior High in China (October Insights)

School continues to go well for Elizabeth and Anna at the BISS school. Elizabeth observed that the academics seem easier than schools back home, but the standards are very high. They expect work on time, neat and with appropriate detail. There is a strong emphasis on multi-sensory learning. A book project involves not just reading the book, but exploring the culture, writing reports, doing art projects. The visit to Xian resulted in multiple projects to take advantage of the experience. Anna’s 4th grade class has been studying ancient civilizations, again drawing on their visit to the Great Wall. They also have gone to an archeology museum so they could engage in a “dig,” and have been making a model of an ancient and modern civilization.

Elizabeth is on the soccer team and took part in an all-day soccer tournament with other international schools. BISS is the smallest school so perhaps their sports success cannot rival their larger compatriots. But they won the sportsmanship award! We were very proud.

With a highly diverse international study body, the school emphasizes multicultural understanding. We've learned from conversation how the word "okay" has quite different meanings in different cultures. To an American it typically means "go ahead" or "that's fine." In Asia, it may merely mean "I heard you." This can cause big communication gaps if the question is "Can you take care of this problem?" "Okay." Hmmm.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Yangtze River Trip

During National Week, the first week of October,we took a 4 day trip up the Yangtze River with our friend Karen Stock (art historian Fulbrighter teaching at Beijing Normal). We flew to Yichang on Monday and were taken by a guide to the ship. With 4 levels the boat appeared to be quite typical of the cruise ships traveling up and down the river. We spent 4 days cruising up the river, stopping at the Yangtze dam, taking a side trip up one of the streams in the gorges, and visiting the Ghost City before arriving in Chongqing. The scenery was beautiful, the dam huge and impressive and the entire trip disquieting. We slowly came to understand (partially, we’re sure) the massive human and environmental disruption of this project. Well over 1 million people, and 1000 villages, were moved. Entire villages were moved to cities, or rebuilt higher up. Imagine your family graveyard swept away. The tour guides offered a consistent description that the younger people tended to like the change, but the parents did not. We could everywhere see glimpses of what was under water: a small part of a thousand year old walking trail that is now mostly under water, trees that lived right at the water line (and are soon destined to be covered as the river continues to rise), markers indicating how much higher the water will go. Tens of millions of people live downstream in the flood plane, so we do not have the facts to say it was not worth the disruption. But you cannot help but pause at the scale of the change. We were very, very glad to have made the trip.