Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Rain or shine in Beijing

Just after rain, as seen from the dumpling shop
Weather in China wasn't entirely what I expected. Then again, in some ways it corresponded exactly with what I had thought about the country.

The day I arrived, it was sunny and warm -- comparable to a fairly normal Midwestern summer day. My friend commented that it was the clearest she'd ever seen the city. Normally, she explained, the smog is bad enough to keep the views vaguely obscured by a haze.

You could see some smog that day -- I remember noticing buildings a few blocks from the Forbidden City were fuzzy and greyish --  but it still felt pretty sunny. I didn't feel like I was choking from the smog, like I thought I might.

It rained that day, too. Right after we left the Forbidden City and found a little dumpling place for lunch, the clouds dumped a short monsoon onto the streets -- again, not unlike a Midwestern summer storm. A woman outside was hawking umbrellas as she walked around; my friend commented she probably did pretty good business. Some people on bikes got drenched if they didn't park quickly enough to duck inside a shop. The dumpling place -- a hole-in-the-wall with a few booths -- had a full house.

The rain let up but sprinkled sporadically for a little while after, prodding us to venture inside a store filled with foreign books that had a music shop, an art store and a couple of other establishments attached to it. More on that later. Eventually the rain quit altogether but left in its wake a cloudy haze that reminded me of Cleveland, Ohio, for some reason. It was slightly depressing.

The visit to the Great Wall of China (Mutianyu section, outside Beijing) was on the most heavenly day my friend could remember. It was her... fourth time, I think? visiting the Great Wall, but her first during the summer, and what a day we were given for it.

The view. The clouds. The wonderful, anomalous weather.

Pollution was worse in Xi'an than in Beijing. A 12-hour train ride southwest-ish from Beijing, Xi'an is the ancient capital city of China where the Tang dynasty is celebrated and the Terra Cotta Army was unearthed. It was perpetually Cleveland-ish and, I think, caused me to get sick the second day we were there. I felt like I had a cold, and craved orange juice and sleep. Fortunately I seemed to have gotten enough of both, as I felt a lot better the next morning when we had arrived in Tianjin.

Most of my days in Tianjin, it was sunny but "cloudy," as I considered it, which was probably better termed "smoggy." You'd look up at the sun and realize it wasn't the blinding orb you were used to, but an orange disk no more worthy of being squinted at than the moon. The skyscrapers in the distance (and there were always skyscrapers) were barely discernible through the haze.

And when you were up in my friend's apartment on the 20th floor, the smog looked worse. My friend explained that was pretty normal, that the smog tended to be thickest a little above ground level. At one point I Skyped with my siblings and some of my extended family, and attempted to show them via webcam what the view looked like from my friend's window. This is what my family saw:



Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Tozer on consequences

No man lives unto himself. Either directly or indirectly, you are deeply influencing somebody else. If you are a carelessly living Christian, there may be persons who will use your careless life as a shield, a hiding place for his own much more serious iniquity. Or there may be those who kneel at night and say, "God, make me like brother So-and-so, make me like Mrs. So-and-so." It can be both ways, for deeds have consequences and are the result of choices, whether they are impulsive choices or carefully thought out choices.

In the Bible, a wise man is not necessarily an educated man or one of high cultural level, although he could be. A wise man is a man who acts with an eye to consequences. He thinks, "What will the result of this be?" Then he acts in a way that will bring him consequences he will not have to be ashamed of or afraid of in the day to come.

--Paragraphs excerpted from "The Dangers of a Shallow Faith," A. W. Tozer

I'm not dead, but it's been a busy few weeks, and I hope to have some more blog posts written in the next couple of weekends. Especially with the three-day weekend coming up!

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Prohibited zones, or, The Imperial Palace

There are two things I've associated with Chinese history for many years. The first, of course, is the Great Wall. The second is the Forbidden City.

But I didn't realize just how big this thing was. I thought, really, that it was just a humongous courtyard surrounded by about four buildings, each connected to its neighbor by a high wall.

I didn't know it would be this high.

I didn't know that it would have a moat around it.

And I didn't know that the outer wall surrounded several courtyards.

The Meridian Gate (see picture) was impressive enough, bigger than I'd imagined. It also looked more Chinese than I ever thought authentic Chinese architecture would really look.

See, I've seen examples of Mexican restaurants that are pretty well overdone. Think "Cinco de Mayo" (which is in fact a pretty minor Mexican holiday, on the order of Flag Day here). So I figured the most, what I'd call garish, Chinese restaurants I've seen in the U.S. were similarly exaggerated.

Nope. To wit:











The different rooflines really fascinated my friend. I was struck by the ubiquity of bright reds, blues, yellows and greens. The traditional Chinese aesthetic is so different from what I'm used to. So is the modern Chinese aesthetic of architecture, but that fascinated me to no end. (More on that later.)

And the distinct Chinese aesthetic extended even to the names of the buildings. The Gate of Supreme Harmony. The Hall of Preserving Harmony. The Gate of Divine Powers. The Hall of Earthly Tranquility.
The Hill of Accumulated Elegance.

The Forbidden City was the oldest thing I'd ever seen to that point. I never realized before how weird old things are, and how much the passage of time and the descent of generations can change things and at the same time leave some aspects untouched. And it's a little strange to think that some emperor had lived in these palaces years and years and years before I was walking around, snapping pictures of his house.

Monday, July 14, 2014

On hostels in China

Consider me sheltered. I'd neither seen the movie "Hostel" nor spent much time in said lodgings (with the exception of a couple of nights in a Costa Rican hostel). Come to think of it, I still haven't seen the movie. All I know is that it freaks everyone out when I tell them I stayed at hostels.

Our first Chinese hostel was a few subway stops away. Subways, for the record, are not like New York subways. They're clean, like Washington subways, and new, like no other subway I've ever been in -- there are light-up displays of the train's route above every exit in a subway car, with the stops on the map in red lights and turning green as you pass them. (The coloring choices threw me off every time.)

Beijing Saga front hostel entrance
Once off the subway, we walked to the street our hostel was supposed to be on. If you could call it a street. It was narrow, the road just barely wide enough for a car and a half, maybe. Sidewalks were for all intents and purposes nonexistent, whether because people were sitting there (mostly in daytime) or cars were parked up on them.

My friend had stayed at this hostel once before so she was sure of its quality. The room was spare and the beds mere mattresses on slabs of wood, but everything was sturdy and clean. As is apparently custom in China, no toilet paper or hand soap was provided (let alone little bottles of shampoo), but two pairs of shower slippers awaited us as well as sheets, a pillow and a light blanket on each bed.

The windows wouldn't open -- which was comforting to my friend, she said. And interestingly, you had to put your room key (an electronic card) into a special plastic pocket in order to enable the room's electricity. I'd seen that once before in a hotel room, I think, but I sure didn't expect it in a low-budget place like a hostel.

That wasn't the end of the hostel surprises.

Hostel room in Xi'an
Our second hostel, one in Xi'an, was a place my friend had never stayed at in a city she'd never even been to, so she relied on Internet reviews. They said it was a stellar place to stay. And they were right.

There was artwork hanging in the hallways and beautiful woodwork and lighting throughout. The rooms felt more like decent hotel rooms (not even like motel rooms) than they did hostel rooms. The furniture all matched and was a gorgeous dark wood texture in kind of a Mission style (I'm not entirely sure what this style was actually called, but this furniture would have looked at home in a U.S. home.) There was even a TV with cable on it, and we found CNN. Which means we watched a couple hours of a forensics show while we rested one day.

My friend said watching English-language TV was a huge treat for her. It's something I took for granted and honestly I usually consider TV an annoyance. (I don't have cable at home and tune out the cable at work when the sports guys are monitoring some game.) I had never given it a second thought before.

Like at our first hostel, there was no hand soap provided, and we still got a pair of shower slippers.

Breaking the silence, or, How to travel without language

Yes, I realize the most recent post on this blog is now more than a month old.

I've kept you in suspense long enough about my China trip.

It's the first time I've ever been wandering around a country whose language I couldn't at least make out a few words of. When I got there, I also realized that I'm not very good at reading the faces of people in Asian cultures. In other words, I'm not sure I could have even pantomimed my way through ordering a meal at a restaurant. Even with a pictorial menu.

My friend met me at the airport. She'd given me detailed instructions on what to do once touching down on Chinese tarmac (which is the same as American tarmac) -- follow the crowd to the customs kiosks, hand over your documents and basically just wait there. I wouldn't have to say anything, she said, and she was right. The signs were even in English in addition to Chinese.

Past the "Foreigners" sign at "Immigration," I just followed the hallways (and even a shuttle-train! the things you see at a huge airport!) to the exit. She and I found each other as soon as all of us airplane passengers emerged into the big waiting area -- for which I was grateful.

She helped me get some Chinese cash from an ATM and I got my first glimpe of "kwai" -- in 100-kwai bills, bright red and worth about $16 each. I kid you not, these looked like the money I used to play with as a child when I pretended to be an expert spy.

After a bus ride and a walk outside the Beijing West train/rail station (I think), we bopped into a restaurant that served pretty typical Chinese fare, as my friend described it. She wanted to get me her favorite dish -- green beans and red pepper things all tossed together and fried in some sort of vegetable oil, called gan bian dou jiao. Thank goodness she did the ordering. I sat there with a silly grin on my face, just glad to be alive and at my destination, while she handled the menu -- yes, with big, clear photographs of the dishes, like a paper Pinterest board -- pointing to what we wanted and saying "this" in Chinese (which to me sounded like "jigga.")

I don't have pictures from my first meal, but this is a later family-style one.
We ate family style, with little plates for us, seated opposite each other in a booth that felt like it could be at home in a Burger King or McDonald's, and the three big platters of food in the middle of the table. I was glad I'd already had some practice with chopsticks -- it's just not Chinese if you eat it with a fork, and some places probably wouldn't have had forks to give poor un-chopstick-coordinated foreigners anyway.

Germophobes beware. Family style means you pick your food off the platters with your chopsticks, sometimes including the rice, and when you finish the little bit you started with on your tiny personal plate, you pick up some more food. With the same chopsticks you bit from moments before. It's not quite as gross as it sounds but I do know friends who might not have been able to bring themselves to do so. From the first day on, nearly every meal out was family-style.

She paid for the meal with one of those 100-kwai bills, even though it totaled to only about 43 kwai, or roughly $7.

Friday, June 06, 2014

All my bags are packed

...I'm ready to go.

Who knew that you could travel to Asia using only carry-on luggage? Well, I didn't, until I found out I'd be packing for 80- to 100-degree weather. Then I realized... shorts and T-shirts take almost no room.

So I'm almost completely packed for my trip. Right down to the bags of delicious flavored coffee I'm taking for me and my friend to enjoy while we're there. Even with the coffee wrapped in two plastic bags (one shopping bag, one zip-close bag), I suspect its smell will rub off on my clothes. Is that a bad thing?

This is the farthest I've ever traveled. And the first time I'll be in a country in whose language I have no hope of making myself understood. I'll go through customs all by myself -- they'll even take my temperature, to make sure I don't carry H1N1 or SARS or MERS in with me -- and then I'll get to spend the next nine days hanging out with a good friend from college, almost the only other person in whose words I'll find meaning.

Despite everything, we've stayed in touch, and now she'll get to show me all the places that now feel familiar to her. Her apartment complex that alone is home to almost as many people as my entire city. Her school. Some of the little restaurants she's learned to order food at (how, I don't know, since everyone speaks Mandarin or some other dialect).

I'll even ride an overnight train with "squatty-potties."

It'll be amazing. I pray I'll grow to understand the country and its peoples in a deeper way than I possibly could just reading a book. (I also pray I don't catch some disturbing disease, haha!)

Thursday, May 29, 2014

I got Pinterest?

So I interviewed someone for work about how she's using Pinterest for her business. Fact No. 1: She's not a wedding planner. Fact No. 2: I have heretofore refrained from signing up for a Pinterest account.

Well, I have one now.

What exactly does one do with Pinterest? I mean, besides waste time on it. I don't really know. And I waste enough time on Facebook. And I never was subject to that Pinterest mania I've seen so many other Pinners suffer from.

Compendium of links #58: Nerdy video edition

For once, it's a midweek edition of the Compendium! Mostly because I finished teaching ESL, mowing the lawn and generally getting things done so I want to do something that is fun. Like blogging. And sharing really fun nerdy videos.

Therefore, this entire compendium will be made up of nerdy videos I've found recently.

Doctor Who meets Rocky Horror Picture Show:



Another timey-wimey-themed video short:



Zelda: Ocarina of Time meets mariachi (or flamenco?) band:



How to multiply two (not more) numbers using lines: (Note on this one: It also makes you think about the possibility of a limitless number of dimensions... since you can always multiply by one more number... :D )



Batman meets Charlie Bit Me:



And finally, a Five Iron Frenzy song I ran across that is all about guys needing to take out their testosterone via nerdy video game pursuits and other seemingly pointless but competitive toys: (Don't miss the Lord of the Rings reference!)

Friday, May 23, 2014

Review: Getting Naked Later: A Guide for the Fully Clothed


Getting Naked Later: A Guide for the Fully Clothed
Getting Naked Later: A Guide for the Fully Clothed by Kate Hurley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars



As a regular reader of Kate Hurley's blog thesexycelibate.com, I knew before this book was even published that I'd want to read it. Her writing on the blog is poetic, piercing, sometimes filled with raw emotion but pretty much shot through with the desire to glorify God and love others despite -- or sometimes by way of -- her singleness.

Hurley is around 36 years old at the time of writing, a Christian songwriter who's slowly letting go of the fierce desire she feels for a husband and family. She becomes very vulnerable in sharing some of her stories, both in her book and on her blog, but those stories are often the very ones that single women (and men, in some cases) can identify with. Stories like how she's been in 33 weddings (take that, 27 Dresses!) or how she suffered from Lyme disease for several years, or how she got into ministry to urban homeless or how the youth group frenzy around Josh Harris's book "I Kissed Dating Goodbye" doomed a generation of young Christians like her to awkward friendlationships.

OK, I exaggerate on that last bit. A little. But her chapter on "90's Dating Gone Bad" is drawn in part from a series of posts on her blog that are worth checking into. If you like them, you'll like the book, a mix of therapy and wisdom for older singles... or even young ones like me who apparently are old at heart. (Old at heart? Is that a thing?)

For that matter, younger single gals would benefit from reading about her mistakes and what she learned from them -- especially if you younger single gals are interested in dating well, getting married and avoiding divorce. There's the standard stuff about looking past a handsome face to observe a guy's character, but there's also some advice on how to respond gracefully -- or even snarkily -- to well-meaning, but unhelpful, comments and advice from your friends.

To sum up: A certain demographic will love this book, most likely. If you're not sure that you're part of that group, don't take my word on her book -- just check out the most well-read posts on her blog and decide for yourself.



View all my reviews

Review: Jesus the King


Jesus the King
Jesus the King by Timothy Keller

My rating: 5 of 5 stars



If you're looking to study the life of Jesus as told in the Gospel of Mark -- maybe you're Christian, maybe you're interested in biblical studies, maybe your name is Mark -- this is a great place to start, because of the author's clear and methodical exposition and attention to the text and its ramifications.

Tim Keller, pastor at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, is well known in Reformed Christian circles; he's a founding member and vice president of The Gospel Coalition, among other ties, and sometimes called the next C.S. Lewis after the publication of his earlier work "The Reason for God." Lewis he is not -- he's not Anglican, and holds to more evangelical Christian theology than Lewis did, not to mention his style is not as clear-cut as Lewis's -- but his writing is certainly worth the read. Keller does his homework, quoting from theologians, philosophers and novelists spanning hundreds of years (including a lengthy quote by N.T. Wright which has inspired me to seek out that theologian's work).

In "Jesus the King," first published as "King's Cross," Keller frames Jesus' life as the approach of the King to the crisis of the Cross, separating the book into two sections of nine chapters each. In a conversational style, he mixes insight into Jewish and Roman culture of the time with philosophical and theological conclusions he exhorts his readers to consider seriously. He tackles such topics as the problem of evil and pain, how God can be both loving and angry, absolute vs. relative moralism, and the Reformed understanding of the Cross as atonement, among many others. One of the more interesting aspects of this book is Keller's dives into the meanings of various Greek and Aramaic words used in the Gospel of Mark, along with the cultural connotations they would have held for the gospel writer's original readers.

Extensive quotations from the Gospel itself and Keller's attempts to keep them in context are commendable. In all, evangelical Christians will likely be challenged by Keller's book whether they're Reformed or not. As my youth pastor said over and over, the Bible is like a bowtie, with the Old Testament pointing to the Cross and most of the New Testament recording the Cross's impact. Given that, studying the Cross itself and the King who hung on it could not be more worthy an endeavor.



View all my reviews

Sunday, May 11, 2014

What I learned #8: About China

I'm going to visit China for a short while this summer.

I'M GOING TO CHINA THIS SUMMER!

Let that sink in.

Anyway, to prepare for the trip -- which is intended to see as much as possible while hanging out with a friend from college who's teaching there now -- I'm reading a book called "A Traveller's History of China" by Stephen G. Haw. And the book has taught me some rather interesting tidbits.
  • Ancient Chinese philosopher Yang Zhu subscribed to the ideal of Hakuna Matata, and the Daoist movement his ideas were incorporated into boiled down to "if it ain't broke, don't fix it."
  • The dynasty that left behind its Terra Cotta Warriors and built the first Great Wall (later extensively rebuilt/repaired) lasted just 50 years.
  • One random Chinese Buddhist monk spent 16 years on a jaunt around India collecting Buddhist texts to take back home. Those texts got their very own pagoda for storage -- the Wild Goose Pagoda in Xi'an.
  • The Khans (as in Kubla Khan... otherwise known as the Yuan Dynasty) were invading Mongols from the north, and gained control over the whole of China. However, they were driven back home by the Chinese within a century of their invasion. A century!
  • The Chinese pigtail was actually a requirement imposed by a Manchu (foreign) conqueror in the 1600s.
  • Tea was virtually unknown in Britain until the 1700s. But by around 1800, the import duties Britain imposed on Chinese tea amounted to 10% of the British government's total revenue.
  • "Kowtowing" literally means the ceremonial gesture that the Chinese dynasties expected of people visiting the Emperor's court -- kneeling and touching your forehead to the ground. It was a sign of submission to the Emperor, which the British ambassadors pretty much hated so they refused.
Interesting, huh?

Sunday, April 27, 2014

I have a new bike

I kept telling myself I needed a few more gears than three.

And I finally did something to fill that "need."

In the first world, a bike with more than 3 gears isn't much of a need. But it's one of those things that would give me a little more motivation to get outside and go biking, which a) improves my health and b) gets me off of Facebook. :D

So when my aunt offered to give me a bicycle that was just what I was looking for -- the right size, 10 gears, everything -- I jumped at the chance. A mini tune-up later, and it was ready to rock!

I took it out on the first group ride of the season yesterday, looking forward to tackling the hills on the 17-mile route with ease (or, at least more easily than I tackled some of the same hills on a 10-mile ride last year with my 3-speed). I was nearly halfway through the ride, quite happy with how the bike was working out and how sure I was I'd have the energy to finish the ride, when the unthinkable happened.

OK, maybe it wasn't the unthinkable. But I did land on the pavement with a badly skinned knee and a bike out of whack.

Another rider helped me straighten out the handlebars, which had been knocked askew (Google it!), and I proceeded on my way. I shortly realized that my wheel had been knocked out of whack, too. I'm fairly certain the spokes are out of true, which means some of them need a good tightening so the wheel doesn't rub up against the left brake.

Only later did I also realize how badly I'd hurt my knee. It was numb and swelling by the time I drove home and cleaned it up. (TMI, I know. :P )

So my goal this week is to re-straighten the front wheel and nurse my knee back to health (by which I mean, don't do much besides take care not to, say, knock it into the side of a table).

And then, it's back on the bike with me. Because not even a minor accident can keep me from a sport I actually enjoy!

Compendium of Links #57

The past few weeks have been going by in a blur. It's likely to only worsen until about the end of June. I know there's something going on every weekend until at least Memorial Day. And I don't know whether to be extremely excited or tired just at the thought of it. :P Fortunately, the weekends all involve people I love dearly so I think the excitement will overcome the fear of getting tired out.

New Age Bullsh*t Generator - The computer algorithm spits out a lot of gibberish disguised as New Age enlightenment, much to my amusement: "The complexity of the present time seems to demand an awakening of our chakras if we are going to survive. Suffering is the antithesis of understanding. Bondage is born in the gap where joy has been excluded." And so on.

Test your European geography knowledge with this interactive map! You get points for naming a country on the first try! I've gotten pretty good with the Slavic countries, surprisingly enough - which I attribute to having heard a speaker from Bosnia-Herzegovina recently.

It's Always Spilling Over the Edges - Sometimes there's something serious on BuzzFeed. Here, an essayist reflects on empathy, pain vs. suffering and the shame of telling one's story. (I.e., the kind of telling that might evoke the rebuke "stop wallowing in it! Move on!")

A new book teaches Chinese characters via memory games that turn the characters into pictures that you can actually understand. It's probably a great approach, especially for visual people.

Surprised by N.T. Wright - Christianity Today published a fairly lengthy profile of theologian N.T. Wright. I read a quote of Wright's in a book recently, "Christ the King" by Tim Keller, and was impressed with the eloquence (marriage of meaning and beauty in the words he chose) and have decided to see if I can't find Wright's book on worship.

Why I Defend Muslims - Yet another serious article. I know, I know, but this one is probably the one most worth reading! Skye Jethani, author of "With," explains why he represents Muslims differently than a lot of evangelical Christian speakers and how it pertains to living out the Christian faith and bringing others to it.

Lastly, here's a tongue-in-cheek crash course on how to ask about adoptive families: The basic rule is, "if you wouldn't say it about a boob job...." Enjoy. Haha!


Saturday, March 29, 2014

Compendium of Links #56

I'm such a baby when I get sick. All I have the energy to do is sit on the couch and read... if that. All I've got is a bad cold, and I slept till 11 a.m. today. I blame it on my sister. :P

A Japanese architect won an architecture prize for his beautiful temporary structures built in the wake of major disasters. Check out the photos of the buildings made of cardboard... paper... you name it! (HT: A cousin)

An addicting math-y game featuring Doctor Who! It's called 2048... I think because 2048=2^11 and there are 11 Doctors. So far I've only been able to get to the seventh doctor, I think.

A really neat GIF shows the progression of history through the borders of U.S. colonies, territories and states!

Tim Challies shares 8 ways to get more done this week -- very commonsense stuff but often overlooked or pushed aside! (I'm talking to myself here. :P )

Jon Acuff finally distinguishes between "haters" and sincere disagreement.

A quiz from Pew Research: How millennial are you? I got a score of 65, pretty close to the average millennial score. The spectrum also marks the general scores of Gen-Xers, Boomers and the Silent Generation.

How to make your own pop -- carbonation included! It takes a bit of experimenting to get it so it doesn't taste too bitter. I'd add a lime for flavor, too.

If you've seen the movie "Frozen" (which I recommend, by the way), you'll probably get a kick out of this parody.

Saturday, March 08, 2014

Compendium of Links #55: Good advice edition

I took my Amiguita (my Little in Big Brothers/Big Sisters) to the YMCA pool today, but had the morning all to myself to get some chores done and take care of other fun things. Like blogging!

The Art of Manliness sounds off about what it means to pay attention and remain focused. Pretty good advice, too.

Speaking of my Amiguita, here's a list from Boundless.org of 20 ways to mentor in your 20's. This business about "finding yourself" and such isn't what life is all about. It's about finding God, and investing in others is part of that. You're never "too young" to start (unless you're, say,  9 months old).

A friend of mine is battling sterility and trying to have children. A blog she wrote a few months ago is a piercing insight into what she feels when she's surrounded by women with cuddly little ones, and how she must remain tenderhearted toward their joys.
Watching someone else live the life you thought you’d have is painful. You can easily become discouraged and even resentful. It doesn’t necessarily matter if the person or people living how you thought you would are deserving (which is arbitrary anyways because what we deserve, we don’t want!) or not, it can still feel like stinging reminder that something feels off.

The NSA had an advice columnist. Seriously! Apparently she went by the pseudonym "Zelda."

And for your entertaining video... a widely known pop-dance tune played... in a very country style!