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Archive for January, 2010

Connecting with Students

Sunday, January 31st, 2010

Associate Head of School Laura Danforth and Brittany Reed '10 of Miss Porter's and Me

by Jian Ping

Over the last two weeks, I made two trips to Connecticut: One to Miss Porter’s in Farmington, to talk about my book Mulberry Child and China’s Cultural Revolution (CR); and the other to Fairfield, to give talks at the Fairfield Ludlowe High School (FLHS) and the St. Thomas Catholic School. I talked about today’s China—its current development, religion, and the transformation from that of the ‘60s and ‘70s that I’ve covered in my book.

I was quite impressed by the questions the students asked, from the 6th to 8th graders at St. Thomas, to the students from three social studies classes at FLHS and the girls from 9th to 12th at Miss Porter’s.  I shared with them my knowledge about and first-hand experiences in China and felt I learned just as much from them.

I attended three classes at Miss Porter’s: Cold War, African History, and International Relations. The small class of 6 to 16 students sitting around a large round table in each room, and the teachers enthusiastically engaging the students in active discussions were all very much impressive. I was also very touched when the entire assembly of over 300 students and their faculties gave me a standing ovation when I finished my talk and the interest they showed in my book.

The AP class taught by Ms. Sousa at FLHS asked such in-depth questions about Mao, the CR, and today’s development in China that I saw their teacher smile with approval and pride. The elementary school children at St. Thomas were the most active in raising their hands. I had such fond memories of them—the year before I talked to them about my book and the CR. Soon after my return to Chicago, I received a thick envelop that contained each of the students’ thank you note—written or printed on red, green, and blue paper and nicely decorated with mulberry trees, vivid drawings or sparkling stars.

China—a far away country with a long history and many ups and downs in its development—catches the interest of the students. I’m so glad to play a role in helping them relate to a foreign system and people with a personal touch. I’m also very appreciative of the support and referrals from families and friends such as the Reeds and the Pollicks in Chicago and the Congellos in Fairfield.    

Jian Ping, author of Mulberry Child: A Memoir of China. www.mulberrrychild.com, www.moraquest.com

More On Movies

Wednesday, January 20th, 2010

Of the many movies that I saw at the Palm Springs International Film Festival, two docu/dramas stand out.  These are listed under the True Stories section of the Film Festival.  Both of them were Holocaust stories, but with completely different angles.

“Inside Hana’s Suitcase” tells the poignant story of two young children who grew up in pre- WWII Czechoslovakia and the terrible events that led to Hana’s death in Auschwitz.  In addition to tracing the lives of Hana Brady and her brother George who is the main narrator of the movie, (a beautiful performance from an 80-year-old man who now lives in Toronto Canada), the film covers the lives of their family during the 1930’s and 1940’s.  George is the only survivor. 

However the film also tells the present-day story of the “The Small Wings” a group of Japanese youngsters, and how their passionate and tenacious teacher, Fumiko Ishioka, helped them solve the mystery of Hana Brady, whose name was painted on an old battered suitcase that they received from Auschwitz – the notorious Nazi death camp.  The voices of children from Japan, Canada, and the Czech Republic contributed to the telling of Hana’s story. 

I thought the film was beautifully directed, narrated and dramatized and will undoubtedly garner numerous awards around the world.

A similar true story but one that has been made into a narrative film is “Broken Promise” which covers the young life of Martin Friedmann, a Jewish Slavic boy, who in 1939 is more concerned with refining his considerable soccer abilities than the fact that Czechoslovakia has become an ally of Nazi Germany.  His father, a poultry merchant, senses the problems to come and asks his nine children to swear that they will meet every year at Passover – whatever happens.  It is not a promise that the family members were able to keep.  Martin’s soccer skills and a considerable amount of luck, allow him to survive the concentration camp at Terizin and the transportation to Auschwitz that befell so many prisoners (including George and Hana Brady).  Amazingly, he gets transferred to a TB clinic, from which he talks his way into working in a Monastery; and, as the Russian armies advance in 1945, he joins a group of Soviet-led partisans, and despite some hair-raising events, survives the war.  Only one brother survives from his total family. 

Martin Friedmann was at the screening and spoke to the audience after the showing of this movie.  He is now an 85-year-old upright strong looking man, who became a civil engineer after the war and left Czechoslovakia when the Communists took control in1949 when he moved to Israel, to meet up with his sole surviving brother. 

An amazing story, which is beautifully done, and which may be on a short list for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.

Ellis M. Goodman, author of Bear Any Burden: www.bearanyburden.com

Movies From Around the World.

Tuesday, January 19th, 2010

I’ve just attended Palm Spring International Film Festival.  It is the now the largest Film Festival in the US, attracting more than 130,000 moviegoers who were able to enjoy this year, 190 films from 70 countries.  The films vary from US independent productions to foreign films, showcasing a variety of cultures, seeking awards and distribution in the US market. 

The Festival also highlighted films from Australia, and also broadly covers four different sectors of cinema excellence under the titles of New Voices/New Visions, World Cinema Now, Best Foreign Language Films and True Stories, which encompasses thirty unforgettable documentaries.  Of course, I was only able to see a fraction of the 190 films on offer, but these included some intriguing stories that provided me with some unique experiences.

The “White Ribbon” is a fascinating movie shot in black and white, in German with English subtitles.  This movie won the Cannes Film Festival Palme d’or.  It is a disturbing mystery that follows the escalating hateful behavior of a group of adults and children in a rural German village in the years before the First World War.  They live in a society of strict discipline, parental fear, and religious intolerance.  Their village was part of an agriculture community isolated from the militant mechanism that was sweeping the country at that time, and cleverly illustrates human behavior and particularly German behavior.  There were multiple threads of vengeful and just plain malicious deeds in this meticulous period piece, which draws the audience into an increasingly terrifying world. 

The Director has reminded us that the German adults of the Nazi era between 1933 and 1945 were children in the years prior to World War I, and perhaps one can see in this story the precursor to the brutal behavior and genocide of the World War II.

Another movie that I found to be as unique but completely different was a film from Kazakhstan called “Kelin.”  This movie was a remarkable visionary tale of love and desire set in the remote Altai mountains in the Second Century AD.   The film is completely without dialogue, but not without sound and a beautiful music score.  The exquisite photographic beauty of the winter scenes, birch forests, and the snow-clad hills is breathtaking. 

The story starts with two fur-clad hunter herders, bargaining with a father for the rights to his beautiful daughter.  Although the girl prefers the more handsome of the two men, she winds up with the one who pays the most.  “Kelin” (the name of the girl) accompanies her groom to his distant yurt, which he shares with his mother and teenage brother.  She soon adjusts to a life of hard work and sexually pleasing her husband, but one day the losing suitor shows up and kills his rival, and she prefers to follow her heart disgracing her mother-in-law and her husband’s younger brother with dire consequences.

Even though there was no dialogue, the story was clear, the acting was exquisite, and the scenery breathtaking.  There was screaming, singing, chanting and laughter in the film, and that together with the incredible music score made this movie an enchanting experience.

 

Ellis M. Goodman, author of Bear Any Burden: www.bearanyburden.com

CUSA Culture Show 2010 at University of Chicago

Tuesday, January 19th, 2010

By Jian Ping

On Saturday January 16, I want to a dinner and show organized by the Chinese Undergraduate Student Association (CUSA) at the University of Chicago in Hyde Park. It was their annual celebration of the Chinese New Year. The catered Chinese dinner of stir-fried vegetables, chicken, pork and fried rice was served at the Hutch Hall buffet style, followed by “Xiang”, a show on Liu Xiang, the renowned 110-meter hurdler. Liu became a national hero after winning the Gold Medal at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, but fell to disgrace amidst extreme pressure and expectations at the 2008 Olympic Games when he withdrew from the race due to injury.   

I was taken by surprise when I saw the large Hutch Hall was filled with people and the line to the buffet dinner remained long during the two-hour serving time. I asked Wilson Wu, Vice President of CUSA, how many people he was expecting for the night.

 “Over 500,” he said, smiling.

I knew Ted Lam, President of CUSA and he, along with a group of dedicated students, had been working on the event for months.  

“That’s very impressive,” I said, looking at the large mixed crowd of Chinese and Americans.  

“Xiang” started at 8 p.m. at Mandel Hall to a fully packed room of audience. As the story on Liu Xiang unfolded, I was amazed by the variety of different cultural aspects included in the show—from modern dance, to Taichi fusion and traditional fan dance. The narrative also reflected the different impact on Liu, including the roles of the media, the government, and fame/commercialism. Quite a well staged and performed program.

I gave my sincerely congratulations to Wilson and Ted on my way out. However, I didn’t tell them that the only disappointment I had was the lack of faculty members at the show. Except a Chinese professor who was at U of C teaching Chinese language temporarily, I didn’t see any other faculty. Why didn’t the professors show any support or interest in one of their students’ major annual events?

Jian Ping: author of Mulberry Child: A Memoir of China. www.mulberrychild.com, www.moraquest.com

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Ha Jin at Writers on the Record in Chicago

Monday, January 18th, 2010

By Jian Ping

Ha Jin was the featured author at Victoria Lautman’s Writiers on the Record, an hour-long live interview with famed authors at the Harold Washington Library Center. The program is conducted on a monthly basis (except in the summer) and open to the public. The recording of the interviews is broadcasted on 98.7 WFMT later and is available on her website at www.victorialautman.com. Featured authors include Richard Russo, Sherman Alexie, and Alaa Al Aswany. I’m a big fan of the program—having always been impressed by Victoria’s ability to draw out the essence of a featured book from the author. Whenever I am in town, I make my best effort to attend it and always walk away feeling inspired.

This month’s author is Ha Jin, one of my favorites. The focus of the interview was on his latest publication, A Free Fall, a collection of short stories on Chinese immigrants. It was very interesting to hear Ha Jin talking about how he set the scenes for all the stories in Flushing, New York, a Chinese concentrated area that had experienced dynamic growth in the last decade, and is still growing. What surprised me was that Ha Jin had never been to Flushing until 2005 when he was there to attend a conference. He said he had many of the stories written already by then and was looking for a setting. The bustling of the new Chinese immigrants in Flushing impressed him and he returned to the area 20 times afterward, including staying a night at $15 per night lodge to get a feel for the day-to-day life of working class immigrants.     

I like Ha Jin’s writing, especially his short stories. He is able to transcend his stories in simple language and mundane incidents to reflect something profound—the cultural conflicts between the grandchildren and the elders when it comes to name changes (Children as Enemies), the greed and pursuit of material things in China today (The Bane of the Internet), and the disconnection and longing of a Chinese man (A Composer and His Parakeets), to name a few.

I talked with Ha Jin after the interview.

“I was in Jilin when I served in the army,” he said upon learning I am from Jilin.

In Chinese, we refer to people from the northeast “dong bei lao xiang,” an endearing term for folks from the three northeast provinces in China. We chatted.

When I asked him if he was going to turn his writing to focus on Chinese immigrants in the U.S. from now on (His last novel A Free Life is the first to set in the U.S.), he said not necessarily. His next work would be on expatriates in China.

“Don’t you feel the 20+ years you have been away from China has created a distance from the pulse of life there today?” I asked.

“No,” he said. “It gives me a different perspective,” he smiled.

That’s a nice way to look at it, I thought.

I look forward to reading more of his writing. He has been a very prolific writer and a true inspiration.   

Jian Ping, author of Mulberry Child: A Memoir of China. www.mulberrychild.com, www.moraquest.com

Profiling for Security

Monday, January 11th, 2010

Seal of the United States Department of Homela...

Image via Wikipedia

In all our efforts to beef up homeland security, the one word that everyone tries to avoid in an effort to be politically correct is profiling.  Our long-suffering flying public is about to endure even more delays and inconvenience because of further changes in security protocols.

We are also about to spend an additional one-billion dollars on the newest high-tech security apparatus.  But technology will not solve our security problems.  Shortfalls in our security defenses come not from technology lapses, but from human error.  Whether it is connecting the dots between Homeland Security, FBI and the CIA, or TSA officials leaving their post or failing to follow procedures, it is these human errors that could be the cause of terrorists’ successes.

While technology can cover some of the problems, it seems to me that profiling of passengers is the least costly and the most effective way of dealing with potential terrorist threats.  The American public does not like to face the fact that we are at War, and if the country is at War, sacrifices have to be made.  Profiling is not necessarily discriminatory.  The suspect could be black, white, male, female, Muslim, Christian or Jew.  We know of course that the vast majority of Muslims are law-abiding and would have nothing to do with Al-Qaida or similar organizations.  However, it is regrettably true that, while not all Muslims are terrorists, every terrorist is a Muslim. So accordingly, our Homeland Security officials need to know the background of every Arab and Muslim name that appears on a passenger list.  Homeland Security needs to train specialist officers to interview these selected passengers on their arrival at airports with flights bound for the USA.  This is an expensive process, but it’s probably a lot cheaper than further investments in advanced technologies.

These officials should be trained to observe passengers as they move towards the check-in desks, looking for nervousness, or other behavioral patterns that might be suspicious. The trained interviewers should review passports and tickets and ask a series of simple questions, making eye contact with the passenger to discern suspicious behavior. 

These procedures have for many been carried out on all flights to and from Israel – a country that has been continually under terrorist threats for the past forty or fifty years – and very few incidents have taken place over the past decade or so.  More importantly, the passengers going through this process are dealt with courteously, speedily and efficiently.  And clearly, the process seems to work.

Perhaps Homeland Security and our other agencies will now move towards these procedures, which would certainly relieve stress and discomfort for the vast majority of the flying public and should eliminate the sort of incident that happened on the Delta flight to Detroit over Christmas.

Ellis M. Goodman, author of Bear Any Burden: www.bearanyburden.com

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On My Bookshelf

Sunday, January 10th, 2010

by Nancy Werking Poling

author of OUT OF THE PUMPKIN SHELL

I’m only 58 pages into Half the Sky (Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, Knopf). Even though it’s only January I’m convinced this is the most important book I’ll read this year.

Its theme relates to my last entry on the Comfort Women survivors of Korea. The authors explore the oppression of women and girls in developing nations, “focusing on three particular abuses: sex trafficking and forced prostitution, gender-based violence…and maternal mortality.” We read of the abuses, then of how women are resisting, and finally of how those of us in developed countries can support their efforts.

Time to make a cup of coffee and return to my reading.

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A Top-Notch Performance

Sunday, January 10th, 2010

By Jian Ping

I went to the New Year Celebration Gala at Chicago’s Auditorium Theatre with Francis, my daughter Lisa, and a couple of friends. I had been to similar New Year performances from troupes all over China time and again before. It was entertaining and in many ways, nostalgic around the Chinese New Year, the “Spring Festival” in Chinese, which is the most celebrated holiday in China. But compared to many performances I had seen in China, the shows I attended in the U.S. fell far short in the quality. I often wondered why they didn’t select the best troupes to go abroad.

We stepped into the overcrowded Auditorium without much expectation. Due to a reception on site, the doors to public admission opened late and in the record cold, people squeezed in front of the doors and tried to get in—it reminded me of a crowded train station in China.

Dance: Song of Harmony

Once inside, however, the scene changed. The air was warm and the crowd dispersed. But what was most surprising was the top-notch performance. We were swept away with songs, dances, acrobats, music, and the unique calligraphy/painting demonstration on stage. The wide range of shows on different cultural perspectives were impressive and the performance outstanding. Amuti Rouzi’s solo “In That Distant Place” a familiar folk song from Xinjiang,  accompanied with an elegant dancer; the dynamic dance by Jin Linlin with 300 hula-hoops, a world record; Wu Qiong’s distinguished singing of four different style operas (Beijing, Huangmei, Yue and Yu), the “modern soft acrobats” that tested the limits of body forms; and the Han Dynasty dance “Song of Harmony”…  One after another, they brought freshness, surprise, delight, and awe to the audience.

We were so excited and touched by the performance that after the show, we went to the nearby Hilton Hotel with our friends Martha and Earon and talked about the performance and China for another hour and a half. By the time we reached home, it was nearly midnight.

Solute to China Broadcasting Performing Arts Troupe for such an outstanding show and thanks to All China Federation of Returned Overseas Chinese and China Star Media Corporation for bringing the program to Chicago.    

Jian Ping, author of Mulberry Child: A Memoir of China. www.mulberrychild.com, www.moraquest.com

Witnesses

Tuesday, January 5th, 2010

by Nancy Werking Poling, author of Out of the Pumpkin Shell

Revised from my Korea journal, May, 2008

In front of the Japanese embassy, twelve Seoul police officers stood at attention, their black shields situated upright  in front of them. For sixteen years, at noon every Wednesday, a group, mostly women, has demonstrated there.

The Japanese embassy in Seoul is a stark brick building. Like the American embassy, it is surrounded by a high wall topped with a fence of barbed wire. All blinds at the embassy were closed the days I attended the demonstrations. No one entered or left the premises except for an occasional delivery man on a motor scooter.

On the opposite side of the street six former Comfort Women, identified by bright yellow smocks, sat in a row facing the embassy. Each held on to the top of a large white banner stretched from one end of the row to the other. Around them about a hundred supporters waved yellow paper flags and called out for justice.

In 1910 Japan annexed Korea, harshly ruling the country until the Pacific war ended in 1945. To satisfy the occupying soldiers’ needs, young Korean women were coerced into becoming sex slaves, euphemistically called “Comfort Women.” Maybe they should have been called Comfort Girls, as many were as young as fourteen when they were kidnapped or tricked into leaving their homes. Poverty and colonial rule had already made life harsh for them and their families. In the brothels they lived in constant terror and degradation. Many were raped by twenty to thirty men a day.

Estimates of the number of women range from 100,000 to 400,000. Only around one hundred known survivors are alive today. Most Comfort Women are believed to have been killed by murder, starvation, or disease. Not until the late 1980s and early 1990s did the few survivors begin to speak publicly of their trauma.

Accounts of Japan’s response differ. I’ve read online that Japan officially apologized and offered reparation money. According to Koreans I spoke with, the apology was vague and many of the Comfort Women rejected the money, saying it had to be accompanied by an admission of responsibility. Koreans have also been pressuring Japan to include this atrocity and others in Japanese history textbooks.

An American stereotype of Korean women is that they are shy and demure. Not so. Within their own culture they can be aggressive, as demonstrated by the raucous crowd gathered in front of the Japanese embassy. During my first visit seven women had organized a “Farmer’s Band,” that is a group playing drums, a gong, and an instrument that when struck sounds like a metal pie pan. Women used a microphone to remind the public of grievances and evoke noisy responses. Every now and then the friend who accompanied me translated the gist of what was happening. Once she told me that four Comfort Women had died during the previous week.

On the second Wednesday I attended, a group of preschoolers in blue school uniforms formed an orderly line to the side. Each carried a corsage or a handmade card in the shape of a heart. When the designated time came, they filed in front of the six women and sang to them with such earnestness that tears welled in everyone’s eyes. The press, with their monstrous lenses and intrusive ways, were there in full force. Who could blame them for wanting to capture the sweetness of the children as they handed over the cards and flowers, the Comfort Women’s eagerness to engage them?

The gathering ended with everyone fervently singing “Arirang,” a traditional folk song. Though it has a peppy tune, it’s a sad love song that expresses “han,” a deep sorrow. During Japanese colonization Koreans—forced to abandon their culture, even to the point of taking Japanese names—sang it as a means of protest. It evokes emotions similar to those felt when “We Shall Overcome” is sung on King’s birthday.

Being present with the six survivors, witnessing the dignity with which they sat on their stools, watching them lean forward to speak with the young children, hearing the heart-felt strains of a song whose words I didn’t understand—the memory makes me cry even now.

Of course I could not help but think of those who were not there, the thousands who died in captivity. The women who survived until liberation but whose lives were shortened by malnourishment and sexually transmitted diseases. The women who lived but were too traumatized to ever find pleasure in existence.  And there are those who week after week stand alongside the Comfort Women. By their presence they denounce the great evil that was done.

I am reminded of women throughout the world who suffer from violence. Many will not survive the trauma. Most who survive will be so wounded that they will never be able to experience peace or joy.

Who will stand with them, shout out for justice, offer a flower or a card in the shape of a heart?

Visiting New Zealand (Last installment)

Monday, January 4th, 2010

West Coast, Southern New Zealand

We returned to Chicago on New Year’s Eve. Due to the attempted bombing of the flight from Amsterdam to Detroit during Christmas, we received hand search to our bags and pat down to our bodies at Auckland Airport. But our flight departed for Los Angeles on time and we able to get upgraded on a United flight from LA to Chicago.

Over the last few days, we have looked at the photos we took in New Zealand several times. We continue to marvel at our experiences—the beautiful sceneries, our daily hiking, and the delicious food. It is fair to say this is the best, and the longest, vacation we have ever had.

My “record” experiences include the following:

  1. I have never seen so many sheep and cows in my life;
  2. I have never eaten so much lamb in such a short period of time and loved every bit of it;
  3. I have never gone through so many different climate and vegetation in a given day;
  4. I have never viewed so many waterfalls in a sound or mountain; and
  5. I have never witnessed so many creeks/rivers along a hiking trail.

Patio View from Te Puna Wai Lodge

A few observations/recommendations:

  1. Kiwi people are very friendly and patient;
  2. The water in the lakes, rivers, and ocean fronts is clearer and sky bluer in the Kiwi land;
  3. Abel Tasman, Routeburn Track and Milford Sound are places one must see in a lifetime;
  4. My highly recommended places include: the botanic garden in Christchurch, Te Puna Wai Lodge B&B in Nelson, Boat Shed Restaurant in Nelson (do the “trust the chef”menu), Hunters Wines in Benwick, Marlborough (wines and food), Franz Josef Glacier, Boardwalk Seafood Restaurant in Queenstown and Redcliff Restaurant and Bar in Te Anau.
  5. Make a trip to New Zealand when you can—it’s definitely worth it!    

Jian Ping, author of Mulberry Child: A Memoir of China. www.mulberrychild.com, www.moraquest.com.