Herald-ry 2011: Another Family Newsletter Thundering With TMI

[This family report was written in early September, 2011. The author stands by his commentary, if not necessarily his publication choices.]

Good morning, all my relations! It’s a blue-sky Monday in Dalian, and Sarah Harmer is singing “I am Aglow (With Thoughts of You)” in the next room. It’s not only a sweet and lively tune, but it’s a good mask for the usual September sounds in our apartment complex: military training next door. Freshman college and university students in China spend their first few weeks on campus in a kind of boot camp, so we hear endless repetitions of canned marching songs, indefatigable shouts of “Yi! Er! San! Si!” (their counting is outstanding, though limited; I used to think the same things about my high school’s football teams during their early-practice calisthenics), the crow-like hollers of young women crying out their martial arts thrusts and, of course, the Chinese national anthem. This morning’s alarm was megaphoned instructions a little before 6 am, and canned trumpets doing some sort of reveille. HELLO!! Sam was out the door by 7:30 for his third day of school, and Diana was teaching Oral English at her university by 8. So now it’s just me and Sarah, and a mad wind whirling about and through our 9th floor apartment. I can see the Bohai Sea between the cupolas of the apartment buildings across the street. I’ve just received the sweetest email from one of our dear friends here. It’s a good day.

Oh, the beds we’ve slept in!  Canada was a glorious, homely and instructive place to be this past summer. We had two brief visits to our house on Presland Road, visiting our tenant and pawing through the things we have stored in the basement, things we’ve managed without for two years. Hmmm. Things. Our arms are a little longer from carrying some of those oh-so-necessary things in airports and parking lots, and we’ve found places for most of it in our new apartment. (We conscripted a couple of dozen young friends to help us move in the rain and up the hill in our complex in Dalian, three days before we flew home in June.) Not having custody of our own, Beds the First were lovingly provided by our dear hoteliers, Wendy James and Bernie Benoit, who put us up (and up with us) for the weeks we spent in Ottawa. Sam also bedded down in a cabin at the Rideau-Ottawa Baha’i nature camp, the same week I couched with brother Bill and sis Chris in Caledonia, visiting with my son Will (and a new great-niece, daughter to my lovely niece Megan, who was my birthday present in 1986). There was also a Montreal B&B around the corner from the St. Henri “Whale Factory” where sons Dave and Ben live, and where Sam got to hang with the big guys, and a Baha’i Summer School in Arnprior for four nights, and two go-rounds near Haliburton in that peaceful zone cultivated by Diana’s Mum Margery. (Oh, and Jay slipped on up Highway 11 etc. to Parry Sound for a couple of nights in a pretty loft at the home of dear friends Barry and Patti Jenkins.) We had a night in Kingston in Diana’s dad John’s and Jean’s airy new place on “Cartwright Point”, the old homestead, while Sam and his buddy Sebastien tented outside among the trees and ‘coons. The three of us also lived with my sister Julie and her husband Paul in Sweet Home Caledonia during several days of wild Howdenized carousing (oh, the enormity). After his last Ottawa days, Jay was off to San Francisco for the Association for Baha’i Studies conference (bed number 9, for those keeping score at home; and yes, I love that gathering of spirited mind), meeting Diana and Sam August 14 in Calgary at the home of her cousins Gord and Denise Murray (where we also had overdue visits with another Murray cuz, Ken, and Jay’s sister Lea from Edmonton). From there we drove our rented van to Banff and Lake Louise, where we spent a few nights in a hostel after splendidly exhausting mountain hikes before driving to Invermere, B.C. (or was that Windermere?) for a lovely visit with Diana’s Aunt Jean (Margery’s sister), and a shorter tongue-wag with her cousins Barb and Larry Val-Zehan. And then Kamloops for a few days, with friend Kim Naqvi and her roomie, Nela, and then we descended upon a YWCA in Vancouver and upon Alexa (Diana’s sister) and John for a couple of days before flying to Beijing, and thence to Dalian. (Whew! Game summary? Fourteen beds for Jay, I think, and thirteen each for Diana and Sam, all of them clean and good and most of them of a character utterly friendly and homey and love-ridden.)

Canada is BIG. Have you noticed? So are our kitchens and backyards and vehicles (and waistlines – too many BBQs and sweet treats for me meant an instant coupla kilos extra baggage on the flight back! – it’s a hard land to be dietarily moderate in) and the garages we need just to hold all the STUFF that our houses can’t contain. This is one of the things that anybody who’s been in China or nearly anywhere on Earth will notice about Canada. But they also notice unbelievably clean cities (often treed and relatively close to nature, ‘ceptin’ maybe Toronto and its insulating suburbs), and outside of them are roads that go on and on with nothing to see but trees and hills and water and sky, even in Ontario, say between Ottawa and Haliburton – beauty, and repose, and the hum of the open road, and water, water everywhere with so much to drink in and swim in. Nothing gives Diana more delight than to jump out of a four-wheeled box and into a clean, hill-bound, peaceable lake. Unbelievable bounty, really, even for the guy just watching the splashers. With all Diana’s relations (and my big sister Lea, whom I was afraid we might miss this summer) in Alberta and B.C., we decided to do this Western Canadian swing and add something none of us had done before: that classic drive from the plains to the foothills and through those incredible mountains that we usually only see on calendars and tourist brochures. I’m here to say: they are actually real. (Funny, rather telling comment, one of many attempts to articulate the feeling as we gazed from height across valleys toward yet more magnificent snow-headed heights: “Wow, it looks like a movie set!” But CGI has nothing on this…) Moraine Lake. The view from the Lake Agnes teahouse. Rogers Pass, the highest point in the mountains. Ancient cedar forest in Glacier National Park, a temple of creation that insists on reverent gratitude. Waking up in a hostel, or Aunt Jean’s, the arid hills of Kamloops from friend Kim’s apartment, to “lift up mine eyes unto the hills from whence cometh my help”. Sea and sky and mountain from a bicycle seat in Vancouver’s wonderful Stanley Park. Looking out upon gorgeous valleys and snowcaps, glittering lakes and the spectacular backdrops for every rise and fall of the sun. This was a good move. That is a gorgeous country, one of astounding natural greatness and good fortune. We must keep our hearts as alive and as big as the land that we’re so grateful to have sprung from. Big hearts? Yup, lots of them there, too.

Fam- damily. Of course Reason One for being in Canada was recharging family batteries. This required the road show, and that was fine with us. Diana’s mother is well, though she’s foreseeing the end of the splendid isolation of her small queendom-by-the-lake. (Jay sighs. Interestingly, her sister Jean also lives solo beside a beautiful lake among hills.) Her dad John has put down roots near his childhood home, but that won’t stop him from travelling widely, in search of fresh sightings of birds and history. It had been a few years since we’d seen Diana’s western cousins and auntie, and I loved deepening those ties a little, not to mention our visits with Alexa and Lea, sisters in the western (not-quite) wilderness. Jay’s sibs are all well, though Lea had a bit of a health scare at the beginning of summer and is just getting her strength back. (This summer also marked the first time in memory that we didn’t camp with my sister Pam at the Cayuga “Jarretton” while down home. Revolutionary!) And of course, there are my young men. To be brief, oldest son Ben is completing his degree at McGill in December, and lives in the same building as Dave (no. 3), who has added union organizing/negotiation to his work in setup and construction for theatre, concerts and conferences. Will, son the second, lives in Caledonia and this year begins to juggle his serving/bartending in a cool and classy small restaurant with his return to school at McMaster after years working. Sam (now 11) starts his third year in our local Chinese school, speaking Mandarin fluently (at least for most purposes; science class goes over his head sometimes!) and generally keeping his parents on their toes. Interestingly, though none of the guys plays much basketball these days, they’re all into combatives. Sam works semi-privately with a sanda teacher (gong fu but with elements of boxing and judo), working hard and quite loving it. Ben studies ninjitsu (yes, I have a personal ninja) along with many non-martial arts, Will has enjoyed boxing and Brazilian jujitsu training (and, just to confuse things beautifully, also does quite a bit of yoga), while Dave has boxed but is now avidly learning Irish sports, that astonishing game hurling (oh, I’d have loved it, except for the dental bills) but especially Irish (Gaelic) football (a little like rugby, a little like Aussie rules football – skilful, fast and rough). I think I’d be in trouble if I wasn’t such a peaceful dude.

Evening. Since I left off, my intended reading ‘n’ hoops afternoon was derailed by the sudden discovery by university officials that our passports had been updated this summer. I should have thought of this, “old China hand” that I am, but I was not prepared for the whirlwind of sighs and bureaucratic scurrying. This meant that our housing permit – we are registered with the police and security agencies – must be renewed INSTANTLY!! , and we needed new visas and new Foreign Expert Certificates and all these things needed to be done within 10 days of arrival. Photocopying, frantic phoning by our university’s international affairs officer, a little guanxi (somebody knew somebody who knew somebody who lubricated the process at a sticky point), many forms filled out, and tomorrow’s one-hour trip out to the central organize-the-foreigners office with two university officials, and about 700 yuan (about a tenth of Diana’s monthly salary)….Well, let’s just say that I feel very special, and that amusement works a lot better than steaming frustration. (Such a peaceful dude, right? Peace is hard work, especially the internal kind.)

And it’s a Monday night, and we’re trying to follow the Mormons and their “Family Home Evening” model, well, except for the home part: we went out to Easy Burger, Sam motored about on his bike, and we bought frozen treats (melamine-free, we hesitantly assume). Diana’s playing a card-dealing version of Monopoly (for the ADHD generation, I presume) with Sam, and soon I’ll be reading with him, a little early Psych 101/Intro Coaching mashup called The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle (highly recommended, by the way, not kid stuff at all; a great companion to Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers). Does Jay know how to do bedtime stories? OH yeah. Earlier, as the popsicles were being negotiated, I looked up and saw the remains of a pretty sunset over the hills. 6:45 pm, and it was nearly full dark. China has no time zones, let alone “daylight saving”. Here, the part of the day to be saved and savoured is the morning, and the sun (and the marching freshmen) will be up and doing not long after 5…

Last year in Dalian. We planned on one year, which then turned into another. And last year was better than the first, so here we are again, and now we don’t predict much. Sam is fluent in Mandarin. (We are decidedly not, though we are frequently entertaining and occasionally ept.) He’s been pretty happy at school, off to a fine start again this year. His best buddy, interestingly, is a Russian kid named Ilya who’s been in Chinese schools from the start, and so is a more fully integrated student. (He reads and writes; Sam is still pretty rudimentary, maybe first grade or early second grade level.) They’re good and active together, and their whole relationship is in Chinese, which is pretty cool to watch. It’s also fun to watch the Chinese folk watching them. He’s getting to love skateboarding, though it’s not at all popular here. He became a bit of a yo-yo wizard during last year’s craze (which seems to have abated, certainly with Sam). His piano playing, while sometimes a bit of a battle, is progressing, and I really think that despite his reluctance he actually feels the music and might admit to himself, after a quick look around, that he enjoys it.

As for Diana and me, we try various things to stay in tune: running and basketball for me (I was actually rediscovering remnants of my game before coming back for the summer), tai chi and some running and weight work for Diana. My teaching at the Dalian University of Technology began to wear on me: 900 Master’s and Doctoral students a year, many repeats of the same lessons, only 8 sessions with each group of 30 (I felt like a one-man assembly line, at times), and I ultimately decided to finish there and join Diana at the Dalian University of Finance & Economics. Fewer students, fewer hours, better pay, and it was a tough decision, mark of loyalty-run-amok, I figure. One slightly bemusing but still gratifying thing was that DUT students had nominated me for something called the “Xinghai Friendship Award” so I got to attend a large gala and receive a citation and pottery vase from the mayor. (I contributed, I’ll have you know, to the “economic and social development of Dalian”. Ahem!) Diana’s development of a course in Environment & Business has been quite well received at DUFE, and she has surprise herself at how much she enjoys teaching and how good she is at it.

Travel. This year we travelled the north/south length of Vietnam by train, from Hanoi to Saigon, with a stop of several days in a small village near Danang. All these places that for me were simply tragic content of newscasts from the 60s and 70s are real places, with (to me) surprisingly welcoming people, gorgeous green rice fields, great (non-Chinese) food (including the silver lining of French colonialism – good bakeries!), and motorbikes everywhere. After that was the Baha’i reunion in Hong Kong, a more social and studious sort of escape, and then the highlight of our year, of our lives, really: our second, and Sam’s first, visit to Haifa, Israel for pilgrimage to the Baha’i World Centre and its holy places, including the achingly beautiful settings of the tombs of our central Figures. How to describe the refreshment, the heart renovation, the confirmations, the deepened learning and appreciation? Poorly, I suppose. I can still go back there in my mind when I need re-orientation, a little focus and calm and resolve, which is pretty much daily.

Of course, what really powers our canoe is the stuff we do as volunteers: sharing the Baha’i system of knowledge and practice (personal and societal improvement) with a lovely and growing group, mainly students at the nearby universities. We were quite thrilled, too, at the end of last year, to go beyond polite nodding and begin making deeper inroads of friendship among the residents of our housing complex. This mainly occurred via student friends that had trained in providing character education classes for children, and/or a program of spiritual empowerment for “junior youth” (12-14 or so), offering the above to our neighbours. Several have responded positively, so the programs will begin soon. It’s community building of an essential sort, we believe, and it seems that more and more Chinese parents are recognizing it, too; an ethical and service-oriented dimension appears to be missing in the high-pressure world of Chinese education. So we’re excited to see how this progresses, which makes our efforts to improve our Chinese all the more important!

This year in Dalian, Diana will teach Oral English and Environment, Jay O.E. and freshman writing classes (and since they’re all doing military training, my schedule is pretty cushy for the next couple of weeks), and Sam will increase the number of characters he can read and subjects he can understand. Jay will try to be more productive as a writer. Diana will plan avidly for our Spring Festival travel-time, following up on Thailand in ’10 and Vietnam in ’11. Sam will become even more famous in our district. Jay will continue the ongoing search for his abdominals. Diana will enjoy criminally inexpensive foot massages and full-body scrubs. Sam will devour the new novels we brought back from Canada, likely many times over for the faves. Jay will get Diana off his back and finally read Don Quixote (and Annie Dillard, and re-read The Promised Day is Come, and…). Diana will teach more awed Chinese friends how to make brownies and cakes. Sam will watch many episodes of the BBC series Merlin. What else? Friday night “peaceful zones” of sharing sacred writings, and building “veritable friendships”; walking, and more walking, in the relative tranquillity of our apartment complex and the crammed, vivid streets; monthly meetings with other foreign Baha’is, such a treat, plus the big annual “family reunion” of same in Hong Kong; periodic expeditions to Ikea or Metro (a German wholesale grocery place) or the Cheese Guy (Diana’s great find of last year) for foods and such we can’t find close by; the odd ex-pat-organized entertainment, though we try to avoid the very real “ex-pat bubble” that many seem determined to inhabit; near-daily grazing among street vendors and markets (Sam’s focus more on the cheapest candy, game cards and posters than on fruits and veggies, oddly enough); study circles and more study circles; the eternal quest to feel at home in the world, to learn more and love it better, not to mention figuring out what all these people are doing…  

So I think that’s more than any of us bargained for, but such is the Herald.

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