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The Howdy Herald (Nuclear Family Radiation)

[The Howdy Herald is a family/friendly newsletter I send out somewhat annually. It is full of Howden/Cartwright doings and musings. It may not be of any interest to you whatever.]

The ImmediClan, minus one hunk of Will.

October 12. It’s a Friday afternoon in Dalian, Liaoning Province, People’s Republic of China, Asia, the World, Third Rock from a Modest Sun. I’m sitting in the 5th floor Reference Room of the School of International Business, a college at the university where Diana and I make our material living (and earn our visa privileges). The room has been mine for 90 minutes now, and there’s a pleasant breeze that seems to come straight from the scrub-forested hillside that fills the window to my left. It’s all I can see, and traffic sounds are fairly distant. Pleasant. I even hear the odd bird, and there aren’t too many in a city like Dalian, relatively clean though it is. This is a nice little zone. I should come here more often.

Yes, Sam and Diana and I are back in Dalian for our fourth China year. After five weeks of teaching at Dongbei Caijing Daxue (the Northeastern University of Finance & Economics), we had a full week off (we didn’t even have to make up the holiday on the following weekend!) for the combination of the ancient Mid-Autumn Festival and the PRC’s National Holiday (Happy 63rd birthday, New China!). We went to Hong Kong for an annual treat which used to happen in the seven-week Spring Festival break in January and February. This “Family Reunion” for international Baha’is living in China seemed like it was coming too early in the year, before we really needed it, but it proved to be perfectly timed. What a refresher! We were not actually in the densely urban (but clean and orderly) city proper, but in a camp on a small mountainside. Old friends, new friends, study and reflection and talk, talk, talk. (Students and other Chinese friends: What, no shopping?) We then ferried over to Macau – Ah, you like gambling casinos, yeah? Um, no – to visit with a dear family, the Pearces, who have become wonderful friends though we’ve never lived in the same city. We came back to Dalian pleasantly exhausted from late-night/early morning conversations that never seemed quite long enough.

What are we doing here, you ask? Well, aside from making our living, much of our life and joy comes from being able to share the Baha’i teachings and way of living with interested Chinese friends. It is a revelation to them (as it continues to be for us, actually!), and helps them to see themselves, their society and their way of living in a fresh and hopeful way. Well, mainly it does this; as it does for us, the Baha’i perspective also challenges assumptions and biases and – frequently, for the Chinese are experiencing an incredible pace of change and a parallel attachment to “the old days” – traditions. As Socrates is reported to have said, “The unexamined life is not worth living” – but it is a little easier, sometimes! Unfortunately, not all of us wake up, whether in the morning physically or at any moment, spiritually, with a light in our eyes and a song in our hearts. And yes, our Chinese is (very slowly) improving, except for our fully fluent 12-year-old Sam (women de fanyi, our translator), and we are (very slowly) coming to understand the ways and history and destiny of this fascinating and frustrating and colossally important place. I still run and play outdoor basketball on the ever-busy courts of two neighbouring universities. (Also very slowly!) Sam, after three years in a local Chinese school, is in grade 7, jumping on a bus at 7:15 to go to the Dalian Maple Leaf Foreign Nationals School. It’s the first time any of my sons has gone to a private school, and while costly, it has been great for him so far. He is following brother Ben (and cousins Lisa and Laura) in playing the trombone in a school band (figuring out how to buy one in China was an adventure in itself), loving being able to really play in Phys. Ed., at recess, and at twice-weekly “Club” sessions that are the only real extra-curriculars the school has, AND in studying in English for the first time in his life! This is my favourite bit of Cartwright-Howden trivia: Sam previously spent four years in French schools in Ottawa and the three years in Mandarin. He still studies pu tong hua, where his oral skills are amazing but he’s behind some others in reading and writing. So interesting, and he’s working very hard and well. [Added NOTE: Sam has grown an inch since we got back to Dalian; losing by a cm or so when he measured against our friend Xiaoqiang in early September, he was crowing at being a centimetre clear of him nearing the end of October. He’s 5’6”, and Diana is next in his sights. The basketball coach deep in my head just won’t shut up.]

Meanwhile, back in Canada: Our house is happily rented, our taxes are (fairly) happily paid, and our health care is joyfully available. We rely, when we’re visiting the homefront, on the domestic kindness of friends (thanks, Wendy and Bernie’s Bed and Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner!) and family in Caledonia, Cayuga, Haliburton, Montreal and Edmonton. Two trips down home to my old stomping grounds were enabled by Hertz and especially by sisters Julie (and Paul) and Pam, and by brother Bill (and Chris), where I also got to see nieces and nephews and especially Son Two, William. Will continues to study part-time at McMaster and work at everybody’s favourite Haldimand restaurant as a bartender and server. Haliburton is Diana’s mother, Margery, and her quiet lakeside getaway, while Montreal is time for One and Three: Ben writes and plays music and is also a restaurateur, managing a boutique pizza place, while Dave works part-time as a theatre tech and full-time as a self-taught scholar. (Not to mention hundreds of hours in home renovation: imagine, a Howden man with practical skills! All three of the Big Dudes are far beyond me in such matters.) Montreal was also the annual conference of the Association for Baha’i Studies, which I love immoderately, and which brought together my family, Baha’i and Chinese worlds. Ben and Dave attended sessions and a dear Chinese friend, Lizhu, arrived midway and began to get acclimatized prior to beginning his Ph.D. studies in a discipline I can barely describe, let alone understand, at McGill University. At summer’s end, we flew to Edmonton for a few days, hanging out with my big sister Lea as well as spending time with Diana’s cousin Doug (and Pat). Everyone treated us like gold, while Hertz, the Queen E Hotel, and L.L. Bean, to say nothing of Baskin-Robbins, Harvey’s, Dairy Queen, the Magic Fryer et al. helped relieve us of our gold. Wow, Canada’s expensive on a Chinese salary! We’re so lucky to receive such kind hospitality and so many comfortable beds, though we get wildly out of routine and were glad to get back to our ninth floor apartment. Yeah, and I put on 15 pounds, even though I ran a fair bit! It’s mostly gone now, but sheesh.

October 19. My little writing nook in our spare bedroom cum study circle/storage/meditation chamber. A week has blurred by. There are small men on the roof of the lower apartment next door, hunching along using acetylene torches to heat rolls of tarpaper they’re applying to the roof. There were many more at the beginning of the process, which I’ve been watching at idle morning moments for weeks: a half dozen or so lifting off old shingles by hand and placing them into used plastic bags, which were then flung down six storeys; a dozen when it was time to ferry bags or buckets of cement to the roof by a rickety A-frame and winch and hand-mix and trowel it smooth. All of this, of course, without safety harnesses, masks for the tar fumes, or a door to access the roof – they ascend six storeys, crawl out a tiny hallway window, and climb a horizontal-then-vertical ladder to a roof without any railing. It’s a reminder that China is still (as it insists, especially when it comes to international talks about climate change and greenhouse gas emissions) a third-world country in many ways – never mind the BMWs, skyscrapers flying up everywhere, and the generally monstrous economic growth. (My fascination with the work of these men is in a post called ‘Third World Theatre” on www.JamesHowden.com , although I haven’t actually written it yet. Feel free to prod me if you go looking and it’s not up yet!)

Diana slept (partly) through the Sam’s shower-and-stomp-and-clang storm of prepping for school, but I just heard a slight groan as she looked at a kitchen which “has reaped the whirlwind”. Luckily, our aiyi (“auntie”, a generic term for women of a certain age, in our case for the wonderful Teng Shuli) comes this afternoon to restore order and cleanliness, just in time for our Friday night “peaceful zone” of reading, meditation, prayer and discussion, a highlight of our week. We’ve just completed our seventh week of teaching, so eleven more to go before Spring Festival. Diana is now on her way to a lively morning market with a friend from our complex whose English is good, the same one where her small wrist-banded purse was neatly snipped and snatched two weeks ago. It’s the first time we’ve been nicked that way. I’m considering taking a luxurious little holiday today: Jane Jacobs’s Dark Age Ahead has been whispering at me from our bookshelf, and if I can stop thinking about to-dos and news and other outings, I may just curl up for an extended reading festival today. Do you think I can do it? I am hopeful.

Well, brave soul, you’ve made it through the Herald. Thanks!…We send our best wishes to you, especially if we were unable to see you this past summer….It’s been fun thinking of all of you possible readers.

Peace and progress, (Uncle) Jay/Dad/Coach

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