Monday, April 30, 2012

My Family's History in Context of Chinese History

I think I am overdue to write up a little bit about what I learned while I was in China, about its recent history (and how it all ties with my family's history). Over the years my mother has passed down little bits and pieces of things to me, but during my most recent trip to Beijing, our fabulous tour guide put all the pieces together for me in a way that makes much sense.

China has had thousands of years of turbulent history. One of the causes of instability, but also of the richness of our culture, is that within the traditional borders of the country, there are numerous ethnicities. The most populous of these groups is the Han Chinese, which basically consists of people who look like me. This is over 90% of the country's population, but the country has historically been very diverse -- during our trip to the Great Wall, we passed by a Chinese group (wearing Chinese school clothes) whose students are fair-haired and light-skinned, and whose eyes are green or gray or light brown, with features that could have passed for Western. They were looking at our kids curiously because they had never seen real-life Westerners, but I was looking at them curiously because I had only heard about Chinese people who look like them, but never seen one in real life. In any case, little wonder is it that over the years the different people developed very different dialects and cultural beliefs.

Every few hundred years, there would be a new dynasty in China because one of the ethnicities would rise up against the emperor. When the new dynasties came in, the emperors were usually strong and had firm control of the country, but over the next generations, their heirs would be sloppy rulers and have much weaker control of faraway farmers, eventually overthrown by a new dynasty.

The last dynasty to be ruled by an emperor was the Qing Dynasty. In the 1800s, the Qing Dynasty was prosperous and exported many goods (such as silk, porcelain, and tea) to England. England was trying desperately to find something to balance out the trade, but China was self-sufficient, so England found opium as a viable export. This got everyone in China addicted, including the emperor. At some point there were well over 1000 tons of opium being exported to China per year. When the Chinese authorities began to seize and crack down on the trade, the British soldiers invaded, marking the beginning of the Opium Wars. In the 1840s, following the first Opium War, the Chinese government ceded Hong Kong to England, and Shanghai became jointly ruled by foreign forces and Chinese authority.

For various reasons, the Qing dynasty became weaker and weaker. When it was finally driven out by the Nationalist Party led by Sun Yat-Sen, the people were very grateful for the revolution. After Sun's death, however, the government again was weakened by his successors. When Japan invaded during WWII, the ruling Chinese government was so preoccupied by worries about the rise of the Communist party that they kept retreating instead of fighting the Japanese. My grandparents retreated (on foot, naturally) as the Japanese forces advanced, and every town they passed by they saw arms and legs in the trees after the bombing from the Japanese. The Nationalist government was so weak that they retreated all the way to Taiwan, where they still rule as the majority party. That was when my grandparents (on both sides) fled to Taiwan. For years, my maternal grandpa despised the Japanese and never bought anything made in Japan. My paternal grandpa worked on the force of the Taiwanese secret police that took people away who were heard speaking against the government. My paternal grandpa had a lonely end to his life, and my mother always said that it could be karma. (Compare this with my maternal grandpa, whose birthday is still annually celebrated in the family about 7 years after his passing.)

Eventually, the Japanese had to retreat as a consequence of Hiroshima. China fell to the rule of the Communists, led by Mao Zedong, who came into popularity because he was a viable alternative to the weak Nationalist government. Under his rule, kids were forced to "struggle" against their parents, which means that the parents were put on public display daily and their children needed to repeat everything their parents had said against the Communist government, following which their parents were publicly punished. Some parents were stoned to death this way. My cousins were forced to do this to their parents, and each night they went home, knelt at the feet of their parents, and cried for forgiveness. The "struggles" severed the ties between two generations and put an end to precious traditional values. My mom says that the reason why Chinese people throw trash everywhere now and have a poor sense of public manners is related to this. During a time when the kids ought to have been learning manners from their parents, they were taught to struggle against their parents. The Communist Party did this in order to ensure that no one could feel safe to speak out against the government, even in the privacy of their own homes. During the early rule of the party there was also rampant poverty. Each family was issued food stamps; even if you had money, you were not allowed to buy extra food, because extra food was simply not available.

As far as current situation in China, I think that Communism has led China to amazing improvements over the years, in a way that is not probable in a free society. I also think that the West can't possibly begin to understand situations in Tibet and Taiwan, without knowing the history that has led up to the way things are now. Yes, the Communist government has flaws, but it is hard to say what the country would have been like without the system that is in place now. 

That's what I understand. I tried to verify most of it via the web, but some of it is passed down via word of mouth through my family. At some point, I hope to be able to pass down what I know to my children, so that they can understand the recent history of China in how it has affected our family. I hope to also remember to tell them that my great-grandma (who was alive when I was a kid; my family has good genes to live until at least our 80s) still had bound feet, and that my paternal grandmother never learned to read because she was raised in an age when education for women was not valued nor common. History is as recent as you will let it be!


We are in the middle of a 4-day weekend (Tuesday, May 1, is Labour Day in Germany, so we have a bridge holiday on Monday as well), so Geoff and I decided to take a weekend trip away. Originally we were planning to go to Rotenburg Ob Der Tauber, which is a walled medieval city in Bavaria, but because of some last-minute logistical issues, we changed our plan and took the train instead to Hamburg for two days.

The city of Hamburg is elegant and lovely; if you go, I highly recommend taking a free daily walking tour that starts at 11am in front of the Starbucks in the Rathausmarkt. (Since this tour is publicized by Starbucks, you can get flyers from any Starbucks in the city, that includes a city walking map.) The tour runs on tips only, but the tour guide we had was fabulous and weaved together all of the architecture of Hamburg with fascinating historical details for about 2-3 hours.

In Hamburg there is the former headquarters of the factory that produced Zyklon B, which was used by the Nazis to kill millions of Jews during WWII. The tour stops here for a bit as the tour guide points out the fact that the German government had to win a lawsuit against the current building owners in order to put up a plaque at its entrance to help people remember the crimes that took place.
Also, there is the St. Nikolai Church ruins that are a testimony to the 8 days of 24-hour nonstop bombing campaign that the Allies bought upon the city in 1943. The raids were ominously named Operation Gemorrah, which in itself is a name to make me shudder. At least 40,000 people died in the air raids on Hamburg, and the fire storms in the city grew to be three times the height of the St. Nikolai Church, displacing over a million Hamburg residents. Today, the scorched church ruins are left as a memorial to the damages done by war. (It's hard to gather unbiased information about this, but I think that Germans consider the raids an act of war crime from the Allies.)
The St. Michael's Church in Hamburg is also where Johann Bezenberg made his experiment to help prove that the earth rotates about its axis, using the observation that the object dropped from the top of the church does not land directly underneath but lands slightly "ahead" of the rotation.
Besides that, there is a very lively and touristy red light district to check out in Hamburg (prostitution is legal in Germany), where the Beatles had frequented/performed during the time that they had lived in Hamburg. There is also a Miniatur Wunderland, which boasts to have the largest model trains in the world, which Geoff loved. (I am not very interested in model train cars, as it turns out. The place was far too crowded for my liking; I did like their airport models, however, with planes taking off and landing on schedule, and I liked that they altered the amount of daylight periodically to show dusk, dawn, morning, and evening views of the various models.)

The city itself is surrounded by canals and waterways, and it is lovely to walk around, especially in this fresh spring temperature. We didn't eventually have time to do this, but there is also a water ferry #62 that is covered by your all-day metro tickets that you could ride around the city. I plan to return at some point to Hamburg to see their famous Sunday fish market, to try their famous local Hamburg fish dishes, and obviously to ride the ferries! So, till next time, Hamburg! :)
PS. We noticed that Hamburg -- or at least the parts where we were -- had few people drinking on the streets as compared with Berlin, even though technically it is still legal to drink in open air. Our tour guide told us that the city has been making a concerted effort to drive what it perceives as "bad" behavior out to the fringes of the city, by playing classical music on the intercoms near the financial center of the city. Hilarious. We did hear classical music being played everywhere from the intercom speakers; it is amusing that it is viewed as a deterrent for drinkers to linger around. Of course, our tour guide also thinks Berlin is "bombastic!" :) :)

PPS. Much to my disappointment, hamburgers (the delicious things they sell at In and Out) didn't come from Hamburg!

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Creative End-of-Year Assignment

For the end of the year, I am thinking about asking my middle-schoolers (7th- and 8th- graders) to make a creative assignment for me. I am hopeful that we will have about 2 full weeks following the big semester exams to do this / include presentations as appropriate. Options I am throwing around:

* Informative math posters (ie. process posters about problem-solving tips OR posters comparing various methods of one important topic)

* Building a cool 3-D model of something of their creation (ie. line art, origami, toothpick model)

* Creating a math comic strip or animation that involves a topic we have studied

* Video-recording a math song or math rap of their own creation.

Any other ideas? Any suggestions on how I should structure this so that it is open-ended yet still structured? The way I envision it, kids can choose their own groups BUT they will have to fully justify the workload of every person to me, before the groups are "set." Individual projects are welcome as well. Grading will be based on criteria of accuracy of information, presentation, creativity, and sufficiency of effort (relative to # of group members they had).

If it works, then at the very end of the year we will have our own mini math fair. :) I am not teaching any of my 8th-graders next year and I know I will miss them dearly. I hope they will create things by which I can always remember them!

PS. Outline of tasks is here.

Friday, April 20, 2012


I just got back from an amazing school trip to China. We went to Beijing, toured around for about 3.5 days, and then headed over to Shanghai for about 6 days. The kids had a very authentic experience -- in Beijing we were greeted by a partner school that did all kinds of performances as part of their welcome ceremony, and they also took us to one of their students' houses to show the kids how to make traditional northern dumplings. We ate a feast in that three-generation family's courtyard and the kids and the adults from the school sang spontaneously to entertain us, showing true Chinese hospitality in a way that you could not have explained to the kids in words beforehand. In Shanghai, our students stayed in host families -- an even more authentic experience. During the day, they went to classes with their host students in the morning (at a public middle school in Shanghai, with 60 kids and one teacher per class), and in the afternoons there were special activities planned for them, such as calligraphy class and traditional seal-cutting class. It was really neat; they really had a hard time picking out a favorite memory afterwards, because everything was so different. The teachers were wined and dined by the school as well, and even at the end, we enjoyed a spectacular performance of traditional instruments at our send-off party by this Shanghai school. The Shanghai school also had a plethora of extracurricular activities, such as Chinese orchestra (of traditional instruments), traditional Chinese opera (taught by a professional opera singer), and an English(!) drama class for 6th-graders, taught by an American! We got to see all of this in action, and our kids even got to participate in their Cinderella play-reading along with the Chinese students. Needless to say, it was a really unique and interesting experience!

For me, even though I had been to both Beijing and Shanghai before, this trip was a special experience. In Beijing, we had a fabulous guide who knew all the histories of the dynasties and leading up to the fairly recent introduction of communism in China. He was fabulous and truly an amazing character -- the kids wanted to take him with us to Shanghai! If you or your friends/family go to Shanghai, I would highly recommend looking this guide up well in advance (he books up quickly, sometimes months in advance); his name is Xiao Wei and you can reach him at weiyilun123 AT 126 DOT com.

In Shanghai, because I was there with 3 colleagues who were great fun, we went out one night and had a great time in the city. We had dinner on the Huangpu river, and then we went up to the top of one of the super posh hotels (costing around 1000 Euros a night) and had a drink at the top while overlooking the entire city. At 10pm, the city shuts down its lights to save energy, and we were there at the top while the blackout happened. It was really spectacular and special!

I also met up with my parents a few times during my stay in Shanghai, which was really awesome. They took me out to eat at one of the "famous" soup dumpling places that they had learned about from watching food programs on TV; for 35 very delicious soup dumplings and a bowl of noodles, we only paid a total of 38RMB for the three of us! (That is about 5 Euros total.) Amazing!

Another thing that made the trip special was to go to China with colleagues who had grown up in East Germany. A lot of the nuances which would have gone unnoticed by me (such as how certain people have power in the schools because they have shown loyalty to the party), did not go undetected by them. For example, did you know that in every school in China there is a special "Party Secretary" whose job is to ensure that the school does not speak or act in a way that is out of line with party politics? To hear the other teachers point out certain things and to also hear them speak of their own experiences back before the Berlin Wall came down, was fascinating for me and a great learning experience.

On the students' side, everything was pretty fabulous. In the beginning, we had some minor issues of lack of sensitivity towards the host culture, but by the end, the kids had seen and experienced so much kindness that they themselves were extremely grateful and gracious towards their host families. It was truly a cultural lesson you could not have brought to your school or taught in a vacuum.

And now, counting down till the end of school!

PS. I would have loooved to post some more photos from the trip, but I need to abide by school policy to not post student photos! Bummer... We even took some neat videos.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

The List

I am on vacation and it is brilliant. I don't have time or energy to really read during the school year, so I've already read 4 or 5 books in the last week since vacation had started. (They are all fictional books this time, so they're going by very quickly. Plus, the train rides between Jersey and NYC and the flights between NYC and Berlin have offered me plenty of sedentary time to read.) Geoff and I also had some opportunities to see some friends in the city, which has been really great. Eating two containers of Chicken and Rice by myself also didn't hurt. (This took me a couple of days, obviously. Geoff ate two of them himself. Yummmm.) We also ran into some old friends when we went swing dancing on Thursday, and that was really lovely as well. We dance a bit in Berlin and the scene is very friendly and pretty fun, but I miss the company of my dance friends in NYC.

I've been doing some self-reflection and realized that I always do things months after I say I am going to do them. It's pretty annoying to Geoff, who is super responsible.** But I guess it's at least somewhat better than people who say they will do something and then never do it, right?

For example, I had been thinking about taking private German lessons in the fall of last year. It was not until January of this year that I started actually doing private lessons. Now that I take lessons, it's hard to imagine that I didn't think it was of immediate importance sooner.

Another example: Last year I thought as soon as I had moved to Berlin that I needed to find a regular yoga studio, so that I could be motivated to keep practicing yoga. It was not until at least November or so, that I went to the studio for the first time. Another month or two passed before I started going with any sort of regularity.

With that in mind, here are some things that are idly on my plate (my thinking about them means that they are at least getting into the queue of things that need to be done, even if I won't get on them right away):

* Doing my 2011 U.S. taxes. sigh. I am pretty sure I'll end up filing an extension this year, unless I sit down tomorrow and miraculously all of the paperwork (German and Salvadoran) I need is already in one place and easy to locate.

* Transferring money over to my Roth IRA account. Of course, still for 2011. In my defense, I was trying to be "good" about this and I tried to transfer the money about a week ago online, but I had forgotten that Bank of America is now stricter about online transactions, so I had to physically walk into a bank and handle that. Now I have to follow up on the other side to make sure it actually went through and will be properly filed as 2011 contributions.

* Planning out my summer road trip through Asia. (I have officially bought roundtrip plane tickets, so at least I am fully committed to this now!) Usually, Geoff plans a good portion of our trips; I've got to step it up this time since it's a solo trip. Also, because I'll be traveling by train from country to country, I feel like there must be more logistics involved than our usual trips. Hence, I am encouraged to put it off.

* Looking into the possibility of going to Herrang Dance Camp this year. Herrang is the world's biggest swing dance camp, and it runs for all of July each year in Sweden; I've been wanting to go to this now for years. From when swing dancing was a serious passion of mine to now. I'd like to go because, heck, I now live a short hop away from Sweden. But, since we're getting some house guests at the end of June and then I'll be away traipsing through SE Asia for most of the summer, this seems to have taken a back seat both in terms of budget and time. Still, I feel that I owe it to myself to at least investigate the costs, as to totally rule it out and have no regrets.

* I'd really like to up my yoga practice to twice a week, since I suspect that my German meds help me retain extra water weight. I think I can succeed in upping yoga to twice a week next school year, because it involves my leaving school at a reasonable hour on a regular basis. But, I'd like to start this sooner, if possible. (I think it could be possible after I lose my batch of Grade 12's around IB exam time.)

* I'd like to see a knee doctor. I've been afraid of this for years, because as a kid (in high school) I had an injury, didn't have money to get it fixed, and since then I've had at least one weak knee. Doing aerials on it as a swing dancer certainly made it worse. Now I feel kind of like I'm a hair away from limping around everywhere. Geoff thinks I should get it looked at by a doc, since I am paying a lot of taxes to the German medical care system. I think that's a good idea but I am afraid. So, this goes on the list but isn't of high priority.

So, that's the list. It looks disastrous at second glance. I'll chip away at it soon, now that I've said the items out loud.

**I am lucky to have Geoff as a backseat wedding planner. He gives me reminders and deadlines and in general keeps me from putting things off. If the logistics were left to me, our wedding would not happen until we're retired.