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Archive for October, 2009

Turning Traumatic Experiences into Narrative

Thursday, October 29th, 2009
Chicago Library

Chicago Library

Ellis and I did a joint program yesterday evening at the Harold Washington Library. It was part of the annual Chicago Book Festival program. Our topic was “turning traumatic experiences into narrative.”

Even though the stories of our books—Mulberry Child: a Memoir of China and Bear Any Burden—took place in two continents and one is a memoir of family story and the other, a fiction of family saga and espionage, we found many common grounds in our writing. The traumatic experiences described in our books and their impact, the resilience demonstrated by the main characters, and the family ties and support. I talked about several traumatic incidents in my life, especially during China’s Cultural Revolution and how the strength demonstrated by my grandmother Nainai and my parents helped me survive such experiences.

It is safe to say that every one encounters traumatic experiences in his/her life. Some people are paralyzed by them, some feel victimized, and some are able to triumph over them. We each have our own way of dealing with such experiences. I shared with the audience the process of healing as I wrote down my experiences and encouraged everyone to write about theirs.

Ellis talked about his book Bear Any Burden and the traumatic experiences his family members and friends went through during the WWII. He has drawn many real life incidents in his fiction. He addressed the issue of post trauma stress disorder that soldiers and civilians suffered and the impact of today’s war on us—a war that is being fought in different ways, with enemies dressed in civilian clothes and terrorists in the form of suicide bombers, etc.

We enjoyed an animated discussion with the audience and stayed behind after our talk to continue our conversation with several individuals. Janette Kopacz, Adult Services of the Library, stayed with us till the very end. We had worked with Janette before on several library events in the Chicago area and continued to be impressed by her dedication and timely follow up.

Despite the serious nature of our topic, it turned out to be a very gratifying evening.

 Jian Ping, author of Mulberry Child: A Memoir of China.

Verbage V Footage

Wednesday, October 28th, 2009
Map of the conflict area around the Gaza strip

Image via Wikipedia

We live in a modern world of ever-increasing forms of communication and instant information.  This is not all good.  The demise of the newspapers and quality news reporting on television has led us into a world of instant clips of a few seconds, from which we are supposed to form opinions of world events.  Over the past hundred years or so, the global public accessed the information on their own local environment, country, and global affairs though newspapers, which provided the reader with the opportunity of creating an informed opinion on issues that matter.

The arrival of radio allowed a wider audience to listen to news items and comment, and the advent of television brought to the public for the first time visual support to the news from news bureaus of the major networks around the world.  Unfortunately, network news is now no more than a news magazine of mostly irrelevant “fluff.”  The viewer therefore finds it increasingly difficult to seek out serious news and comment from around the world.  The dumbing down of America continues at a furious pace.

The Vietnam War was perhaps the first conflict that brought the horrors of daily combat into our living room with the true but unpleasant sight of death and destruction.  The embedding of reporters into tanks and other army vehicles at the beginning of the Iraq War was less than successful.  It failed to give us, the public, a larger view of the conflict or even the damage inflicted as a result of the US “shock and awe” bombing.

As our wars have changed from massed armies in uniforms with tanks and other equipment facing each other, into conflicts involving road-side bombings, suicide bombers, terrorist activities against civilians, and insurgents indistinguishable from the local civilian population, so the rules of war and the reporting thereof are changing.  Terrorist groups, insurgents and Jihadists have become ever more sophisticated in the use and manipulation of those few seconds of a TV image. 

In the recent conflict between Israel and Hamas, we now know that Hamas had deliberately placed their rockets, weaponry and their fighters in congested civilian areas, schools, and hospitals.  They invited television news teams – BBC, Al Jazeera, CNN and others – into the conflict arena.  We, the viewing public, were shown numerous clips of dead civilians, damaged schools, and terrified children.  These images prompted a United Nations investigation into war crimes abuses by the combatants, headed by, one should note, such human rights protectors as Libya and Saudi Arabia. The resulting outcome has created a furor.

While this conflict was filling our television screens every evening and we were told about the fourteen hundred Palestinian deaths, another conflict was developing, which received no television coverage at all.  The Sri Lanka government had launched a major offensive to finally eliminate the Tamil insurgency, which had been raging on and off for more than two decades.  This major military offensive totally destroyed numerous towns and villages, killing thousands of militants and civilians – men, women, and children – and forced over 150,000 people to flee their homes and hide in the jungles without shelter, food or water.  Eventually, the remnants of the rebels and an estimated 100,000 civilians were cornered on a spit of land, forcing the Tamil insurgents finally to surrender.  Nearly 100,000 civilians were placed into temporary refugee camps, where most of them are still languishing seven months after the end of the conflict.  However, there were no TV crews nor five-second clips of the death and suffering of those civilians.  So, no world outrage and no UN war crimes investigation.

But it prompts the question, what should be the rules of war in this new environment?  How does a democratic country who values life, – US, European, or the only democracy in the Middle East, Israel – respond to attacks from unidentifiable combatants operating deep in civilian areas?  Is it a war crime to respond to those attacks, knowing there will be some civilian casualties, or is the war crime perpetrated by those who use human shields, from behind which they launch their attacks?

The Geneva Convention and protests of proportionality of responses are inadequate in this new world.  The format of today’s armed conflicts has changed, and so should the accepted rules of engagement.



Ellis M. Goodman, author of Bear Any Burden:




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Arbitrary Rules

Monday, October 26th, 2009
Chinese children salute cars

Chinese children salute cars

In today’s New York Times, there is article “Salute All Cars, Kids. It’s a Rule in China.”

At a glance, it appears funny: a group of kids saluting to a passing car, with their hands raised and smiles on their faces. The “rule” is created for the safety of the kids by their school—an attempt to catch drivers’ attention to the kids who walk on the winding mountain roads without sidewalks. One adult expressed concern when two vehicles from opposite directions came at the same time, the implementation of rule might generate more danger for the kids as they turned their attention to one side.

The point of the article is not so much about the effectiveness of the measure, or the right way of setting up road bumpers or school signs on the roads. It is more about the arbitrary rules that administrators at various levels took the authority to set up and enforce. The examples listed in the article are all ridiculous rules that had been implemented at different locations and circumstances.

It’s an exaggeration to claim “Salute All Cars” as “a Rule in China.” However, I believe that there are many arbitrary rules that are set up at will at various levels. As China moves forward with its economic reforms and emerges, with each passing day, as a world political and economic power, the society needs to change. Such arbitrary “rules” are a reflection of the traditional “people” ruling, “人治,” versus “law” ruling, “法制.” It’s high time to stop “autocrats” from making rules.   

Jian Ping, author of Mulberry Child: A Memoir of China.

Horse Sense

Thursday, October 22nd, 2009
"War Horse" Production London

"War Horse" Production London

There is a new memorial statue in Hyde Park in London honoring animals that went to War.  As is well known, the English adore their animals, particularly dogs and horses and the memorial has received favorable reviews and public support.

There is also a new play called “War Horse” produced at the National Theatre and now transferred to the West End.  “War Horse” follows the life of a farm horse rounded up and sold to the British Army at the beginning of World War I, much to the regret and opposition of the farmer’s son, who had nurtured, trained, and loved the horse.  With the aid of incredible puppetry, we follow the horrors of the First World War and the mass destruction of animals in their last hurrah before mechanical warfare took over.

The well known author and journalist, Max Hastings, wrote about the incredible contribution and suffering of over a million horses sent to France between 1914 and 1918.  Only 62,000 returned.  Throughout the centuries until the First World War, men had always relied on animals to provide an indispensible military advantage, and the Calvary in various forms had since the Middle Ages, become the “striking force” of armies of the period.

We’ve all seen those glorified paintings of the Calvary charging into battle with swords drawn as their wild-eyed mounts surge full tilt towards the enemy.  What has never been depicted however, were battlefields in which abandoned, maimed, or severely wounded animals wander in agony and bewilderment.  Armies have also listed their losses in men and guns.  Rarely, is there mention of the horses that gave their lives in the service of victory. 

World War I with its trench warfare, gas attacks, and gradual conversion to mechanical warfare was particularly cruel to those poor horses, as they suffered bullet and sword wounds and the torture of wire and mud. Even more horrifying were the Calvary charges, attempted particularly in the first few months of the war, which ended in total disaster in the face of raking machine gun fire.

Throughout the following years of the trench warfare on the Western front, horses worked in the most deplorable conditions, pulling guns, ambulances and supplies.  Thousands were left dying by nails and blades from the battlefield.  In the two-year period prior to the Armistice in November 1918, the British Army recorded the death of 58,000 horses and the wounding of a further 77,000.

What madness, that such things should happen during a 20th Century War.  Horses and other animals unable to comprehend the horrifying circumstances of their lives, died by the hundreds of thousands and few returned to a normal life for these unsung heroes.



Ellis M. Goodman, author of Bear Any Burden:



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A Surprise Question

Sunday, October 11th, 2009

 It was at the Women’s Leadership Summit at Benediction University (BU) in Lisle, Illinois when I received a surprise question from one woman in the audience. I was the first of the three speakers at the Summit.  More than two hundred women and a few men attended the half day event. This year marked the 3rd annual summit, which is the brain child of Dr. Gill, Dean of the Business School at BU.

It was inspiring to see so many women from the community gather together in the Krasa Student Center, ten grouped at a table where lunch was offered after the main session. I shared the stories of the female role models in my life: Nainai, my grandmother and my mother. Their strength, courage, and integrity tested at the most difficult time of our lives served as defining moments for me, and I always draw inspiration from their examples when I run into adversities in my life. I showed the audience pictures of Nainai, an illiterate, gentle looking woman with bound feet, yet most extraordinary; and my mother, a strong, retired school administrator and government official who would rather break than bend when faced with persecution. I could feel the audience related to the experiences of my mother and grandmother as I spoke.

“Where do you think your mother and grandmother’s strength come from?” one woman asked.

I explained the difference between my mother and grandmother and my understanding of the origin of their strength: hardship in life and devotion to a life-long commitment.

Then a woman raised a question that took me by surprise: “If you were born a son, do you think your life would have been different?”

I gave a long-winded answer, addressing the traditional value placed on male and female in Chinese culture, the one child policy which intensified the gender preference, and my own life. “Born into a family of many strong women,” I heard myself saying. “I don’t think my life would have been different if I were born a male.” I mumbled. Even as I was making the statement, I knew I should make a distinction between home and career. I had just talked about the gender discrimination I headed right into when I got my first job in Beijing. My career path would have been drastically different if I were a male.

As I tried to reign in my thought and articulate them, I saw the microphone was passed to another woman who had her hand in mid air. I moved on and never adequately addressed the hypothesis of what if.

Why was I so defensive about my life as a female? Why didn’t I come out straight and state that it was impossible to imagine how different my life would have been had I been born a male; however, I was certain it would be very different. But because of the adversities I had encountered in my life as a female, I have become who I am today—going abroad to study as a result of fighting discrimination and resulting in a much richer, multicultural life and career. Difficult as it was sometimes, I have learned so much and benefited from the experience. I would not trade it for “being a male.”

I wish I could track down the woman who had raised the question. But I had to leave the Summit early to catch a flight to go out of town. But despite my inadequate in addressing the question, I was grateful that she asked. It made me ponder and realize that I am proud to be a woman.

I felt empowered, equally if not more, by attending the Summit. The other two speakers, Jean Holley and Arin Reeves were inspiring to listen to. What a wonderful idea to organize such a conference and what a well-organized summit.


Jian Ping, author of Mulberry Child: A Memoir of China.

Moon Festival

Sunday, October 4th, 2009


Moon Cakes

Moon Cakes

Yesterday was the Moon Festival. Several countries in Asia celebrate the festival. In China, it is also called the Mid-Autumn Festival. The closest equivalent in the U.S. that I can think of is Thanksgiving. Moon Festival is an occasion for the celebration of harvest. It is a time for families and friends to get together.  

The Moon Festival is the 15th day of August in lunar calendar, which falls in late September or early October in Gregorian calendar. Traditionally, one item that everyone shares at this time is the moon cake, a round shaped, sweet cake made of flour and a variety of stuffing. Supposedly the moon is the fullest at this time.

When I was a child, the Moon Festival was always an occasion I was looking forward to. A moon cake was a big treat, and my mother usually cut one into six small pieces for my siblings and I to share. If we were lucky, there would a box of four moon cakes with different stuffing: red bean paste, lotus seed paste, five different nuts, or one of the above mixed with egg yolk. My favorite was always the red bean. I remember we picked a small piece and nibbled on it, relishing every bite. Sometimes, we also made paper lanterns. When night fell, we placed small candles inside the lanterns and lit them up. We ran around under the full moon, with these self-made lanterns in hands. The flickering of the candle light brightened our excited faces.

Then the Cultural Revolution came. It smashed everything that was considered “traditional” and “old.” For years, there was no celebration, moon cakes, or lanterns.

I am glad those “revolutionary” days are over. Today, many people in China and abroad celebrate the Festival. Families gather together, and friends give nicely packaged moon cakes as gifts. When I called my mother to wish her a happy Moon Festival yesterday, I was pleased to learn all my sisters and their husbands went home, to celebrate the Festival with her. I wish I could be there with them.

 Jian Ping, author of Mulberry Child: A Memoir of China.

Stubbornness or Character Building?

Thursday, October 1st, 2009
Deck Pool

Deck Pool

I’ve been swimming almost every day in the outdoor deck pool of my condo in the south loop of Chicago throughout the summer. 45 minutes to 1 hour each time. A good exercise and a great joy. Early in the morning when the sunbathers are not out yet, I usually share the pool with a Mr. Wong—a small, thin Chinese retiree who had come from Hong Kong decades before.

I am pleased the pool is still open as we approach the end of September. I feel the chilly breeze of the fall on the deck, but once in the heated water, it feels just like a cozy summer day. But I was surprised yesterday when I dipped my feet into water and found it cold. I hesitated for a moment, and then waded in. Gooseflesh immediately covered me. It must be below 55 degrees. I sped up, splashing and kicking, to warm up. The cold water felt like needles poking on my legs and arms. I persisted, dogmatically, as if I were fighting a battle.

Mr. Wong appeared. He took his time placing his bright yellow towel on a lawn chair and putting two identical stainless steel bowls that contained a dozen or so of quarters by the edge of the pool—his daily routine. Each time he finished a lap, he would move one quarter from one bowl to the other. He would leave after all the quarters were removed.

“The water is cold,” I warned him before diving into the water for another lap.

Through my dark goggles, I saw him slowly inching into the water. I heard him gasp and then, jump in. “Bravado,” I cheered silently for him, taking comfort in thinking that I was not the only stubborn one.

Less than five minutes later, however, I saw Wong move toward the stairs. Once out of the pool, he started running toward the chair to grab his tower. He wrapped it around him without drying his body and disappeared through the sliding door before I reached the edge of the pool. I had never seen him move so fast.

I smiled and turned for another round, and another. I felt the chill to my bones, but continued. I found myself checking the handles of the watch I placed by the pool frequently. Time seemed to move very slowly.

I got out of the water 35 minutes later, shivering all over. To fulfill the designated workout time, I stepped into the small fitness center and was relieved to see no one around. I did sit-ups and weight in my swimsuit for 25 minutes. Then, like Wong, I ran upstairs in record speed. I took hot shower for a long time.   

I had a headache and running nose afterward, which have continued today. But despite the physical discomfort, I must say I also feel a sense of pride. Is it stupid stubbornness or passing the test of a “crucible” that helps build character? I would like to take it as the later.

Jian Ping, author of Mulberry Child: A Memoir of China.