Friday, June 30, 2006

sino journal eight: return to chengdu

I have posted some pictures from my stay in Kunming and I will post some more from Chengdu. The photos are pretty much devoid of people since certain folks wish to remain in the background and not have their photographs published. I also need to be careful revealing identities in the latest blogs about Kunming and Chengdu. Thank you for understanding.

Thursday June 22nd. I flew from Kunming arriving at Chengdu about noon. I am staying in an extra bedroom of an apartment rented by a New Yorker. He is here to study Chinese. His apartment is in a nice complex where many government and party officials live. I had lunch in a nice, nearby restaurant with a family and two sisters from Southeast Asia. I was told I needed to have my notes for Monday’s talk emailed to our contact at a local university. The translators wanted to look it over before my talk. No hurry but this afternoon would be fine, maybe tomorrow morning at the latest. This presented a problem for me since I had neither notes nor topic. I also needed to know the audience for the talk and what level to pitch it. All I had to go on was that the faculty member was a materials engineer and the audience would most likely be his students.

I planned to spend the afternoon and evening preparing my notes. However, I was totally wiped out and slept several hours in the afternoon. In the evening, I got a little done but was still tired and retired early. No problem, with a long afternoon nap I would probably wake up in the middle of the night and would not be able to sleep. What a perfect time to work on my notes.

I slept another nine hours, straight through the night.

Friday June 23rd. I did finish my notes by late morning and emailed them to my university contact. My American host had his final exam and returned late in the afternoon. I felt led to make the evening a night devoted to just him. To celebrate I took him out to his favorite restaurant, a Tex-Mex place, where he could have all his favorite dishes. The food was quite good and they had milkshakes that were among the best I have ever had anywhere. We had a wonderful talk, very good, deep sharing. We also ate too much, running the bill up to 82 rmb. This is really quite expensive for two people, but then how often do two New Yorkers in China get to celebrate the end of a semester together? (The bill worked out to be about US$10.). We went back to his flat and watched one of his favorite American movies, The Patriot with Mel Gibson.

Saturday June 24th. I was to speak at a once-a-month English Corner held in a family’s apartment. I decided to speak on The Richest Man who Ever Lived. There were to be many nonbelievers there and I thought it would not be too explicitly Christian (2,900 year old wisdom from an ancient Jewish king). There were over forty people crammed into the apartment. I think it went well but turned out to be more explicitly Christian than my hosts expected. However, everyone knew the hosts were Christians and no one was shocked or surprised at my content. People were there not just for the chance to speak English but also because they were interested in Christianity.

Sunday June 25th. We went to an international fellowship this morning in a luxury apartment – the nicest apartment in which I have ever been. All ex-pats, mostly American but a sizable minority of Southeast Asians. I spent the afternoon revising my notes for Monday’s talk. At Saturday’s English Corner, I met the young faculty member who is bringing me to campus. He wanted more “depth.” He is a young economist and I would be speaking to economics faculty and students. Opps!

The sole purpose of my talk is to build up and give credibility to this brother who is starting out his career as an economist. Being the one to know and invite a Western scholar to campus could really boost his prestige here. So I needed to beef up my presentation. (I was to speak at other universities but they are having, or have had, their final exams.)

In the evening, I was to have dinner with a couple whose daughter just returned from high school in Australia. They want my advice about choosing her major. I am not looking forward to this. In the states, this usually means the kid wants to do a major the parents, usually the father, does not like. I am brought in as the reasonable outsider who is expected to agree with the parents. Problems will arise if I don’t.

Dinner was at the home of a Christian family. The hostess was an outgoing Southeast Asian. (Imagine someone with the best qualities of Judy Tomford combined with the best of Sandy Colbert.) It turned out to be an absolutely wonderful evening. The 17-year-old was a great kid, loved and admired by her parents, and she loved and admired the parents. She became a Christian in Australia and her parents were extremely and openly interested in Christianity. Daughter and parents were perfectly charming people.

Students must select a major when applying to university and the father was completely open to supporting his daughter’s decision. He just wanted her to make the best decision possible.

This was not a typical or traditional Chinese family. The mother told a story of how years ago her daughter’s teacher came to visit her to discuss the child’s progress. The mother told the teacher her priorities were first, her daughter’s happiness, second, her daughter’s character, and third, her daughter’s education. This is exactly the reverse of the typical priorities of Chinese parents. You cannot believe the pressure Chinese kids are under to perform well in school. However, here I was sitting next to this well adjusted, happy 17-year-old who seems to have it all together – at least as far as any 17-year-old reasonably can have it altogether.

Later that evening I emailed my revised notes and emailed them to the young economist.

Monday June 26th. Another hot and muggy day in Chengdu. I spent the morning resting so I would be fresh for the talk at a local university. It turns out I'm the first foreign scholar to ever speak here. Since the purpose was to build up and give some credibility to the young economist who invited me, I wore a long-sleeve shirt and tie despite the weather. (I need constantly to remind myself that this is not about me, thank you very much.)

A car came by to pick me up at about 3 p.m. My American host and two Southeast Asian sisters also were to go to the talk to translate if need be and to otherwise intercede. I took my laptop to read my notes because I could not find a printer. I went into the lecture hall with the young economist, my three friends, two translators, and the dean of the business administration and economics faculty. There were about 100 people and it was SRO.

I opened my laptop and had the document loaded to read when I discovered I left my glasses back at the flat. This is my fourth week in China and I had never been more than ten feet away from my glasses at any time. Try as I might, I could not read the laptop screen. I tried enlarging but I needed glasses to click the right amount to enlarge. Rather than futz around in front of the crowd I decided to wing it. I had to do my address from memory.

There were three local family members, two sisters and a brother, sitting in the front row and thinking of me the whole time. They were quite surprised later when I told them I could not read my notes. I fooled everyone. In fact, they said they were impressed that I only occasionally glanced at the screen and then spoke at length. In fact, I was glancing at the very blurry screen in order to buy some time to think of what I was to say next!

There were problems with the translators. (Some I could tell were happening at the time while other things were explained to me later.) There was some humor that should have been easy to get across but was completely flat when translated. There were a number of times when the translators said the opposite of what I said. Some faculty in the front row were getting agitated because they could understand enough English to know the translators got it way wrong.

The Q&A went very well. Even though sometimes I gave a detailed answer, which was then translated, “He says he not a China expert and cannot answer the question.” I do not know how much of this was poor translation, pretending to know what I said in order to save face, or deliberate misrepresentation. It really does not matter. Looking back, I realize that there were enough students there that understood my English to know what I really said. Students will discuss this among themselves.

We would have been there all night if the students were allowed to continue past 6 pm. Their questions were thoughtful and intelligent. I was able to duck political issues politely, but maintain credibility, answer honestly and professionally about a number of issues.

Bottom line: the dean was very happy, my economist sponsor was very happy (although he got a bit panicky about the translations during my talk). A number of indirect indicators show conclusively that it went well -- it wasn't just people saying good job.

I think the Asian reading of these indicators is interesting:

First, we were to have a dinner with the dean after the talk at a hotel on campus. Instead, the dean decided after the talk to take us to the best restaurant in the area.

Second, there were only nine of us at dinner (my three friends, two translators, the young economist, the dean, the assistant dean, and myself) yet the dean ordered twenty dishes (an Asian sister counted). This is over the top.

Third, my Asian sister found out the dean spent over 750 rmb for dinner (a bit less than $100). This is extremely extravagant and very way over the top. A very good dinner would only be a couple dollars per person in this land of cheap food and cheap labor.

Fourth, the dean had every intention, I later found out, to get drunk with me at dinner by having repeated toasts with a Chinese version of white lightening. Getting drunk together would signify that we had become close friends.

Fifth, he sent us home in the university’s Buick minivan. Buick is a prestige car in China and this was probably the best vehicle on campus. In Asian culture, these sorts of things are very important.

Everything turned out well. Mission accomplished. My young economist friend was very happy. His stock is on the rise. Most importantly, it was all God. There were so many things that could have, that should have, gone wrong. There was some serious intercession going on before and during my talk.

Tuesday June 27th. My last full day in China. No activities planned. No pressure to get things done for others. I can relax. A day all to myself. Well, sorta all to myself….

In the morning, I went shopping downtown with my American host and now my friend. I had a serious deficit of gifts to bring back. However, we went all over, to all kinds of shopping areas, and I could find nothing except some postcards.

I found out I had to go to a meeting that afternoon. It was basically a three-hour committee meeting. It was not so bad since we all had a debriefing of what went on at the university talk the day before. This is where I learned most of what really happened. After the meeting, I took everyone out to dinner. They wanted Western at the Tex-Mex place. A very pleasant evening.

Be blessed!
RB

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