Friday, May 29, 2015

A Million Good Things

The past month has been packed. Jam packed. With good stuff, yes, but just with...a lot of stuff.

What you are going to have to do, if you are here on this blog page and have five minutes that you can never, ever get back, is this: take a gander at the photography quiz below and see if you can figure out what the heck is going on. Some are obvious, and some are not.
  • 0-5 questions correct: You were distracted by the Twins game that was on Fox Sports North while taking the quiz/You are clinically blind/We need to hang out more.
  • 6-10 questions correct: You are probably a pretty normal individual with a pretty normal life.
  • 11-15 questions correct: Are you stalking me?/Why aren't you watching the Twins game right now, on Fox Sports North?/We could still hang out more.
1.
a. Celebrity Deathmatch: Beijing
b. A weird high-profile wedding in modern China
c. An ancient, long-forgotten Chinese tradition in which a man and a woman make bird calls to each other on the full moon of the third month of the lunar calendar
d. Me (look carefully, on the far left side) jealously watching Ellen sing with some other guy at a dinner she hosted

2. 
a. Dyersville on steroids
b. A dream I once had while sleeping in China
c. The ultimate battlefield
d. A picture from a baseball game in Seattle at which the Minnesota Twins defeated the Mariners 8-5, taken by a friend of Ellen's who was traveling in Seattle and for whom I gleefully helped get a ticket under the condition that he cheer solely for the Twins

3. 
a. Wangjing SOHO at night
b. An alien movie starring a Chinese babe and a homeless, bearded man with wet hair
c. An inner nostril hospital check-up gone horribly right
d. Ellen and I after we had surgery on our mouths

4.

a. My father can legally stay in the United States for one...more...year...
b. A Wechat message from my mom informing my that, after being senselessly denied twice, my dad received a tourist visa to China, which means he and my mom can both come visit me this summer
c. Pastor Dan's luck with Mastercard ran out, so he applied for a Visa card
d. My dad has actually and secretly been living in the Dominican Republic since 1995 (recruiting set-up pitchers for the Twins)

5.
a. An enormous memorial at Richard Steiff's tomb
b. Simon's Ursidaen* doppelganger
c. An optical illusion
d. A giant teddy bear ignoring my loving caresses at a hotel in west Beijing

6.
a. A bunch of ex-pats in Beijing watching the famous new television series 白屏幕
b. A woman from Arkansas giving an international piano lecture while her international piano students listen attentively
c. The BICF worship team jamming together at someone's house
d. People seeking shelter from a huge, brutal thunderstorm that lasted all day and well into the night

7.
a. Ice cream on my khakis
b. Ranch dressing on my khakis
c. Paint on my khakis
d. Bird poop on my khakis

8.
a. The arrival of spring
b. A portal to another universe where felines float in free fall
c. A space cat wearing a wild human
d. Me wearing a wild shirt my dad and pet cat sent me

9.
a. BWYA May Fair 2015
b. The day when I pretended to be a statue in a park, so all the birds subsequently crapped on me
c. An ancient, long-forgotten Chinese punishment for people who get caught going onto Facebook or Youtube
d. Three students who will never have a chance to pass English 8 Language A, ever, because when they get there, I'll be waiting for them...

10.
a. Several BWYA teachers and friends celebrate Ramon's completion of his final PGCE paper
b. Several ex-pats adhering to the instruction, "Okay, funny picture!"
c. Several strangers I asked to take a picture with
d. Several dudes in Ireland volunteering for a picture

11.
a. A celebrity-studded, red carpet event featuring all your family favorites
b. BWYA Prom 2015
c. Me on a Friday without a tie on
d. A movie set we broke onto

12.
a. The mandatory moment in a Skype conversation with my parents when Simon - much to my delight - gets heaved up against his will to see me and hear me say, "Kitty, kitty, kitty!"
b. Prom's this weekend?
c. My mom trying to prevent Simon from flying
d. My mom throwing out her back

13.
a. Me looking slightly surprised; Ellen looking slightly perturbed.
b. Two monkeys at the Shangri Hotel lunch buffet
c. Chimps on the Loose
d. Ellen and I doing impressions of you, sucker!

14.
a. Satan
b. the ghost of old Tom Joad
c. me writing in my now-lost journal on a school-sanctioned camping trip
d. A caveman in a modern-day cave

15.

a. Three guys who - with their carefully-selected shirt colors - are trying to look like a big bruise
b.Three guys who - sometimes - bite people
c. Three guys who - by the looks of it - eat pieces of peanut butter and crack toast for breakfast
d. Three guys who - after nearly a year and a half of being apart - finally just kicked out several jams for Jesus at church

Answers:

1. d - Ellen hosted the annual ABB company dinner, as she did last year. This is, as far as work is concerned, a high point in the year for her, and she did a sweet job. I snuck in and sat in someone else's seat, and it was an entertaining evening.

2. d - All of "d" is accurate and true; the friend loved the game as well. Next time we will go together. And the Twins will still win.

3. a - For many years Dan Clem and I watched Wangjing SOHO rise up like alien spacecraft across the street from his home; we wondered what sort of strange buildings they would be. Now we know. Or, now I know, because Dan Clem is not here anymore.

4. b - This is exciting! Because my dad and my mom can come to China this July, which will be a joyous trip if ever there was one. My parents have not been to China; get ready, Beijing.

5. d - The bear is at the same hotel where #13 was taken.

6. c - The BICF worship team holds something called a Sandbox Session to which members bring food to a potluck-style meal and then bring songs - new, old, or self-composed - to a potluck-style jam session. It's a good time, although I usually struggle to decide on a song to bring.

7. d - The bird poop appeared later in the afternoon after #10 was taken; moments before #10 was taken, Ramon also got crapped on by a bird as well. Brutal. It came out fairly cleanly, though.

8. d - Thanks, Dad and Simon.

9. a - Months before May Fair, some students randomly asked if I'd be willing to be a candidate for this humiliating charity fundraiser. Of course I said yes and then promptly forgot about it. As soon as I arrived at May Fair, an 8th grade girl told me what time I should show up to get pied. Most of the boys in my ninth grade English class sealed their doomed by throwing whipped cream into my face, and a whole army of primary school students who I'd never seen in my life also participated. I don't know what I ever did to them...

10. a - The PGCE course that Ramon took seemed to completely dominate his life. For months on end, it dragged him down...until he defeated it a few weeks ago.

11. b - It was a nice, relaxed event in 798. Next year all of my students will be graduating (I hope), and it will be a lot more emotionally jarring.

12. a - It always happens. And I always laugh when it does.

13. b - Probably Ellen will not be super pleased to know that this picture is on the internet. We ate a lot of food here.

14. c - The camping trip was fun; I was expecting that it would be lame and that all the students would complain the whole time, but it turned out to be a fairly good experience. There was laser tag, rock climbing, team building exercises, an awesome BBQ, and a kid screaming out crazily at another kid for several minutes at 3:30 a.m. in the morning. I climbed the Great Wall alone in the dark. Where were you?

15. d - Scott. The lost drummer. He returned. We ate together. We played together. We laughed together. We were together.

*It's the scientific classification term for "bears."

Bonus picture:

Sunday, May 17, 2015

300

This blog is slowly dying.

If you care, and don't believe me (this refers to an incredibly small percentage of the population, no doubt), please see the charts that I have meticulously compiled below.

This first chart refers to statistics you could just see for yourself, if you had the time and patience to look to the right of this very post, on the sidebar: the chart displays the number of blog posts that I have written in each of the past five years. As you can see, between 2010 and 2013, there was a consistent increase in the number of posts I was able to come up with, but then in 2014 there was: a big drop.


The drop is not over: as this next chart displays, even the number of posts written this very year is low and getting lower.


If the current trend of infrequent-blog-post-writing continues, this year, 2015, will end up being the lowest on record: my math (though rusty) projects that - based on the fact that I wrote 8 posts in 5 months - 2015 could see 19.2 posts published by the end of the year. This concerns me greatly, mostly because I am not sure how to publish a .2 blog post.

Of course, I have spent quite a bit of time thinking about the causes of this undesired reduction in writing on this blog. I have several theories, all of which I put into more charts below.




It isn't safe to jump to any conclusions, but, perhaps, there is some important evidence in the third chart. However, a more pertinent thought is: will I let this trend, or any trend, kill off my blog, this thing that I have poured into for six and a half years?

I don't want it to go. But something needs to change if I continue putting up posts that I am happy with.

To be honest, the lack of time to write is reflective of many different parts of my life. I have found, in the past couple months, that I don't seem to have enough to devote to anything I really want to do. The things I desire to do include more time with Jesus, studying Chinese more deliberately, writing, reading, and exercising. And of course to continue pouring into relationships that are important to me. I sometimes blame my job, the school full of students I love and work that piles up and up and up, but my own time management hasn't been particularly impressive.

The solution I am hoping to implement comes from Bill Hybels' book "Simplify," which I was reading until my final day in Lijiang, when I left the book - and my journal - in the back of the seat in front of me, 25J, on CA1470. The book is kind of about simplifying life, in many different ways. One point that struck me, though, was that we are the sole bosses of our own schedules. So I thought, 'I'll just have to make time for the things I want to do, the things that are important to me.' And that's the plan: to not just say, "Alright, I'm going to run today, and study Chinese for thirty minutes, and pray sometime, and and and..." but to make a plan, intentionally schedule time during the day for these things, and get them done. And it will be good.

And this blog will hopefully live on, as a result. Not so that you'll read it, but so that I get to write on it. This post is the three hundredth. How many more will we see? Five hundred? A thousand? Ten thousand? It depends on how many hamburgers I keep eating...

Friday, May 1, 2015

The Three People I Met in Lijiang

It's this town in the southwestern province of Yunnan, Lijiang is. It's fame is derived from its Old Town, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It should not be confused with "heaven." And I went there last weekend. And I met three people there. Sort of.


Lijiang is a tourist hotspot, and I knew this going in. I asked several people I knew about whether the infamous Chinese tourism monster industry had plundered Lijiang's Old Town and rendered it worthless, and the feedback I got was: "During the day, yes, the city is overrun with shoppers and tourists. If you get up early, though, it is one of the most beautiful places you'll find in China." I found this to be exactly true.

During the afternoons and especially at night, tourists thronged the streets, frolicking between this bell and embroidery and drum shop to that bell and embroidery and drum shop and maybe even one of the other fifty-nine bell and embroidery and drum shops in the Old Town area, taking pictures of every single thing that moved and also of many things that didn't and never would, dressing up in traditional Bai (one of the many ethnic minorities in Yunnan) wardrobe and posing for photos anywhere and everywhere, checking in with one of the thousands of travel agents who seemed more interested in their phones than booking a tour, and wandering around at appropriate tourist paces. During the early mornings, however, just like David Haysom said, the streets were empty, quiet, and beautiful. That was when I enjoyed Lijiang's Old Town.






But during normal business hours, there was too much. Everyone wanted to have a special moment there and be happy.


Like most Chinese cities, though, there were glorious riches to be found outside the city limits. And that was where I met these three people.


The first person I met was on the first trip I was taking out of the city, to Tiger Leaping Gorge. Some fast facts about Tiger Leaping Gorge: a) It is one of the deepest gorges in the world, measuring at some points almost 3,800 meters (12,500 feet) deep. b) It is about fifteen kilometers (ten miles) long. c) It gets its enticing and mysterious name from some legend in which a tiger jumped across the gorge (over eighty feet at its narrowest point) to escape from some dirty hunters. d) Boats and other watercraft usually don't make it through the gorge when they try to go through it, which is not often. e) The mountains between which the river runs are awesome and are named Jade Dragon Snow Mountain and Haba Mountain. f) When Ellen talks about this place, she calls it "Tiger Leap Gorge" in English, and it is super cute. Sweet place, and now it is definitely on my list of places to hike and conquer.



Anyway, the first person I met was named Chen Shi, and he was on the same small tour bus that I was on. We started talking on the way out, and he turned out to be a solid companion for the Tiger Leaping Gorge excursion. Some fast facts about Chen Shi: a) He is from Henan and lives in Guangdong b) but he recently quit his journalism job in Guangdong and is moving to Zhuhai c) and is going to work for an upstart smartphone company, the name of which escapes me, but first d) he decided to travel to Dali, Lijiang, Kunming, Chengdu, and Lhasa, e) and then business will take him to Sweden for a week. e) He said I was the foreigner with whom he'd spoken for the longest length of time, which surprised me because his English was pretty good.


We went. Our crew - which was Chen Shi and I, two other couples, and some old people - got to the gorge and ate lunch, and then our tour guide/driver/dude who has never learned how to smile in his freakin' life drove us deeper into the gorge, to this spot from which you can hike down to the river. So we did that. I thought it would be a short, easy trek, but it took half an hour of downhill hiking on a clear but steep path to reach the Jinsha River that runs along the bottom of the gorge. The old people didn't come; they would have died. Well-worth the trek down, of course; at the bottom we went out on a big rock in the river. It was here that you got the sense that you were really in the gorge; this was the highlight of the hike down.




 

Then we had to go back up, and it was hard. It was pretty sweet, but I wasn't really ready for it, mentally. There were at least five ladders and clear but steep uphill hiking. I sweat a considerable amount. Chen Shi bought us all waters. At some point, we reached a rest spot, and some woman who wasn't in our group broke down sobbing. It was just too hard for her, this hike was. So she broke down and sobbed. This was the highlight of the hike up.



Chen Shi said he had run in a marathon in the past year, and I sometimes take the stairs up to my seventh-floor apartment instead of the elevator, so we were fine climbing back up, but everyone else dragged their feet. When everyone did make it back to the top, the tour guide/driver/dude who has never learned how to smile in his stinkin' life ushered us back into the small, ghetto bus that he drove and took us straight back to Lijiang, which was lame because I thought we were going to do some rafting and also that we would go to the spot where the tiger supposedly leaped across his gorge. But no. Back to Lijiang, where Chen Shi and I ate some super good hot pot and talked about books we liked. Then he went off to catch a train for Kunming, and I returned to the solitary state in which I arrived to Lijiang.

Be well, Chen Shi! I hope that your trip to Sweden is great and that you meet a lot of beautiful Swedish women! Good luck with your new job! It was great hanging out with you!


The second person I met was on the second trip I was taking out of the city, to Yu (Jade) Long (Dragon) Xue (Snow) Shan (Mountain). Some fast facts about Yulong Xue Shan: a) It is actually a set of mountains (called, apparently, a "massif"), thirteen mountains in total...like a dragon with many spikes on its back, perhaps? b) The highest of the Jade Dragon's peak's is called Shanzidou and is 5,596 meters (18,360 feet) tall, and it's been climbed only once. c) The whole thing is twenty-two kilometers long. d) There is, not surprisingly, a lot of snow at the top. e) The snowiest of the mountains can be seen from Lijiang, and there is this park called Black Dragon Pool Park from which a quite picturesque picture can be taken...it is supposed to be one of the most famous photo opportunities in southern China. f) The glacier on top of the mountain is the southernmost in the northern hemisphere. g) When Ellen says, "snow mountain!" it sounds super cute.


Anyway, the second person I met was...it's time to be honest, it was two people, a couple. And if I am being really honest, even though we did exchange names, I didn't catch theirs. I doubt that they catch mine. It ain't important. Some fast facts about this couple: a) The dude goes to school at Peking University in Beijing, which means he is super smart; the lady goes to university in Wuhan. b) The male of the couple is going to the University of Washington in Seattle to study geological analysis, which means he is super smart. c) They both spoke English well. d) I went to where minibuses left for the mountain and I got into one of the minibuses, all by my lonesome. The driver and I waited a little while, and the minibus started to leave. We were in the middle of the road, waiting to turn, and I saw this couple trying to decide whether to get in a minibus; there were minibus drivers pestering them, and they looked indecisive. I rolled down the window and waved them over, and so they ran out into the road and got in the van. And then we left. And then the girl said, "Are you alone?" And I thought, "I happened to run into English speakers two days in a row? Are you kidding me? How lucky am I?" And we were friends for the rest of the day.


The three of us went on out to Yulong Xue Shan and entered the madness. As is the case with many a cool natural attraction in China, a huge, awful tourist center had been set up all around the foot of the mountain. We navigated through the storm of lines of red-coated tour group members to get our "independent traveler" tickets and go rent coats (with a deposit of 500 RMB...around $80). After waiting for our designated time to line up, we went through several levels of security checks before boarding a bus that took us to the cable car departure spot. And after waiting in that line for a bit, we took a cable car up one thousand meters in about six or seven minutes. The cable car went so fast because all its occupants didn't have the weight of money in their pockets, because the various entrance tickets to the park and the cable car, the coat rental, and the shuttle bus fees cost more than I am comfortable sharing in mixed company. Just like other China tour industry-ravaged attractions.



Did I mention that it was pouring rain this entire time? It was pouring rain the entire time.


Except that by the time we reached the top of the mountain, the rain had turned into snow. Like, white-out blizzard conditions. Which I hadn't seen since living in Minnesota during college. Which made the white-out blizzard conditions pretty awesome.


Except that all we could see was white snow. There was no amazing view of the sky, of the mountains towering over everything, of the beautiful snowy peaks framed by blue. It was all just white, with a board path and a few rocks. We made the most of it, but it was probably the worst day in human history to go (with the exception of the day the mountain was formed...that wouldn't have been a good day to go, either). The three of us took some pictures, threw some snowballs, and made a snowman. Then we went down.







To Blue Moon Valley. This was awesome, even if a lot of it was fake, man-made rocks. The water was several magnificent colors, and the falls were at least nice to look at, even if, when we got close, it was obvious that a swift kick or high leap would result in damage to the "rocks." The rain continued to pour down, but that added to the dark, mysterious beauty of Blue Moon Valley. We stayed there and explored for quite a while.








Eventually all three of us had had our fill, so we took a bus back to the ridiculous tourist center, got our coat deposits back, and returned to Lijiang, where the couple went off to catch a train for Kunming, and I returned to the solitary state in which I arrived to Lijiang.

Be well, awesome young collegiate couple! I hope that your relationship flourishes and that you have a killer time in Seattle! Good luck with your studies! It was great hanging out with you!


The third person I met was on the third trip I was taking out of the city, or, rather, to parts unknown above the city, on a big hill called Elephant Hill. Some fast facts about Elephant Hill: a) You can walk there from Lijiang's Old Town. b) The entire city can be seen from different vantage points on the hill. c) It's free to hike on this hill. d) It's easy to hike on this hill. e) If you come down on the western side of the hill, you will come down in Black Dragon Pool Park without paying; the park's admission is 60 RMB, but not for you, dear hiker! f) Ellen really likes elephants, and it's super cute.


Anyway, the third person I met was a lady from England. She was behind me on the road leading up to Elephant Hill, but the guard dude stopped me and told me to write my name in what appeared to be the official Elephant Hill guestbook, and then this English lady caught up to me, and I said, "Well. You goin' up?" Which was a dumb question, because she couldn't have been there for any other reason. Some fast facts about the English woman: a) I never learned her name. b) She was an avid hiker who spoke of going up Kilomanjaro and to Everest base camp c) Her boyfriend was back in town, not feeling very well. d) She and he planned to hike Tiger Leaping Gorge in next few days. e) She had told her sick boyfriend that she'd be back for lunch, so we only hiked together for about an hour. But it was super nice to have a nice chat with a native English speaker about hiking. Nothing against the other folks I'd met on the trip, but conversation is super smooth when you and your conversing partner understand each others' language perfectly. Although it's possible I used some Americanisms that she didn't understand, or that she said "lift" or "nappy" or "crisp" and I completely and totally misunderstood her, and still do.


We hiked up and after many stairs, reach the top of one of the two humps that overlook the city to the south. It was nice. The sun was shining. The birds were chirping. The breeze was cool.



Then she left, and I went to the other hump, the one that looks the other way, north, toward Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. I went there and just sat and looked and pondered my own existence for a while.


And after a while, I trekked back down, ending up in Black Dragon Pool Park without paying. Boom.




Be well, Anonymous English woman! I hope that your hike through Tiger Leaping Gorge with your sick boyfriend was spectacular! Good luck with the rest of ya'll's China journey! It was great hanging out with you!


There was other stuff that I could say that I did, like snoop around for good photo spots, climb up to Lion Hill Park, search for good cafes, buy souvenirs that couldn't be found in every shop on every street, journal like crazy, pose in pictures with people, talk to dogs, curse my dorm-mates for smoking in the dorms but smile quietly when they were very silent and considerate upon returning to the room at 3:30 a.m., read "Simplify" by Bill Hybels, and enjoy my hostel and its awesome, helpful staff. But life is short, so let's not waste time with these trifles.


Lijiang the city has been taken over by China, it's true, but I guess I wouldn't write it off completely. There are some places worth going, some activities worth partaking in, and some people worth meeting. There were also about a gazillion other spots well within striking distance if I had had more time - and probably if I had had a traveling companion (things got sort of lonely for this introvert, despite the fact that each day I ran into cool people): Dali to the south, which everyone claims is the same as Lijiang but more awesome and less crowded; Erhai Lake, on which Dali sits; small towns like Shuanglang, Xizhou, or Wase near Dali that make good day trips; or Shangri-La to the north of Tiger Leaping Gorge. Maybe someday, a return trip will be necessary. We'll see. We'll see!