Covid Halted Much of Chinese New Year Travels

The Lantern Festival is a Chinese festival celebrated on the fifteenth day of the first month in the Chinese lunar calendar. Usually falling in February or early March on the Gregorian calendar, it marks the final day of the traditional Chinese New Year celebrations.

The 2021 Lantern Festival was February 26. After 15 days of holiday time, Chinese were ready to get back to work. Millions of migrant workers finally returned to their work places, some arriving at the latest last weekend. Schools opened March 1. Luzhou Vocational and Technical College was no exception. I’ve already heard the first weeks of school are going very well, with no quarantine necessary but a Covid test was required for everyone coming back from their holiday travels. Virus cases are virtually nil in China. To make sure the no-Covid climate remained throughout the Chinese New Year, the government put strict rules in place to dissuade citizens from traveling. It certainly worked. A majority stayed at home, not even visiting relatives in nearby cities. Tourist travel to scenic spots was lower than usual and overseas travel was basically completely restricted.

Touring in China

When I first taught in China in 1991, more and more middle class adults, with fairly steady incomes, were participating in the newly created tourism industry for the Chinese. Before then, it had mostly been foreigners and the very wealthy Chinese who traveled extensively on such tours. They often endured what were considered primitive conditions: hotels with minimal heat or air-conditioning, ratty rooms, squat toilets or no toilets at all at tourist destinations, unsanitary meals which caused stomach problems, no facilities for physically challenged individuals and uncomfortable travel conditions.

But in today’s China, for both locals and foreigners, 5 Star service by touring companies is expected and (for the most part) never an issue. Tourists are treated like kings and queens, with tour guides bending over backwards to make everyone’s experience special and unique.

Spring Festival (i.e., Chinese New Year), with millions on vacation, has become China’s tourism industry’s greatest money-maker. At least, it has in the past. Yet for the past 2 Spring Festivals, Covid has dampened people’s desire, ability, and carefree spirit to spend their money traveling.

A Tourguide’s Lament

Jason, shown here near his family’s home, in his beginning years as a tour guide

My former student, Jason, who is a tour guide for both foreigners and the Chinese, has lost his job.

His speciality trips were taking large groups of Chinese to Sri Lanka and Bali. He also led private 2 to 3-day tours for Americans, Brits and others to the Chengdu’s outer-lying world- renowned sites. (Chengdu, where Jason lives, is the capital city of Sichuan.) Due to his excellent English skills and ability to adapt to, organize and coddle his diverse clientele, Jason was a highly popular tour guide among numerous touring agencies. He’d be called at the last minute and farmed out to lead different tour groups which needed a fairly fluent English speaker.

That was Jason.

He even toured me to Dujiangyan, a city famous for the first ancient irrigation system built in the world. Here we are on that visit, in 2008.

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But a text message from Jason, received last week, revealed his current frustration. Like me, he is stuck in a situation where Covid has turned his world upside down. Without the trips to Sri Lanka and Bali, and without the foreigner tourists in country, he’s been out of a job. His tourism company has scaled back to only a few called in for in-country tours. Being the main breadwinner for his family (farming parents, unemployed sister and her husband plus the couple’s daughter), there has been a desperate need for an income.

Jason, the main breadwinner of the family, is shown here with his mom, sister, sister’s friend and father.

Jason’s Tourguide Wisdom Makes Him a Marketable Employee

From Jason’s past stories, I could tell he was an excellent tour guide. His ability to deal with various situations, and numerous personalities, surely would serve him well in any employment, especially one dealing with the public.

How do I know this? Because of all Jason’s tourguide stories which he’d shared with me over the years.

Here are a few.

Dealing with the Culturally Insensitive

Jason’s early experiences as a tour guide were quite challenging, one being the Sri Lankan tour he led for the first time. One of the older women, traveling with her daughter, had nothing but complaints: The food was terrible. (At every meal: “I want Sichuan laojiao (spicy pepper) sauce. How can they not have that?!”). The items were too expensive (She would bargain with great disdain, trying to get rock-bottom prices from the poorest Sri Lankan roadside seller and would often accuse the person of cheating her when actually, it was a reasonable ask. She’d haughtily walk away after a long altercation, not purchasing anything at all. ) The hotel rooms always had something amiss: the floor wasn’t clean, the bedding was sparse, the toilet was a Western style (she wanted the Asian squat toilet), service was slow. (These were top-notch, 5-star hotels that catered to tour groups and whose rooms were quite impressive and nothing to sneer at.) She’d argue with Jason about what was next on the featured daily agenda, saying she was tired and wanted to go back to the hotel. (Impossible to do without everyone else having to go along as well.)

Jason, at every disdainful remark, politely responded with patience and kindness. But it all came to a head on the tourbus when the woman went too far in one of her harping comments, aimed directly at Jason. Others on the bus came to his defense after he pointed out to the woman that her words were insensitive, he’d been doing his best to introduce her to this new culture and yet, she refused to be open to new experiences but was making her Chinese race look bad.

The daughter backed him up, chastising her mom for her behavior.

There was dead silence on the bus as the woman sat fuming. However, that did keep her somewhat in check for the rest of the tour.

Jason later told me he had several take-aways from this experience as a novice tour guide. First was to prepare Chinese beforehand for a new experience, reminding them how they might appear to those of another culture if they act rather arrogantly or without tolerance. Another was not to wait too long to call attention to bad behavior from one in his touring group. Do so in a quiet, polite, understanding way but be sure to nip it in the bud before it ruins the tour for everyone and aggravates them to the point of attacking the ill-behaved person. And, lastly, bring several jars of Sichuan laojiao sauce (or know where it can be purchased in Sri Lanka) to pass around at the dinner table. Even the most well-traveled, tolerant, adaptable Chinese have an issue with what they consider bland food. A happy stomach makes a happy tourist. Jason commented that bringing what appears to be an inconsequential item, in this case being a hot pepper condiment, actually was what could make or break a tour to a foreign country for his fellow Sichuanese.

Beware International Airports: The Call of the Sirens

Another lesson learned during his novice days of overseas tourism had to deal with the enticement of airports.

On his first guided tour to Bali, the airline routed them through Hong Kong. Instead of a direct flight from Chengdu to Bali, they were to change planes at Hong Kong’s International Airport before going onward to the island nation. Little did Jason know that walking a tour group through a prestigious airport, passing shop after shop of dazzlingly displayed international products not readily available on the China Mainland, could become a danger zone. Despite his reminder to stay together, follow his waving bright red tourism flag and don’t stray from the main thoroughfare, he began to lose members as they slipped away “just for second” to buy that special something for Granny Wu or Mother Ji or Uncle Li. By the time he confidently hustled everyone to the boarding area and began his head-count, he realized there were 4 missing. He had no idea where they’d gone off to. In a panic, after having the 4 paged on the loudspeaker, he left the others in the waiting area while he back-tracked to find the ones that had gone missing.

When he did find them, they were still standing in line to purchase their goods. He was lucky they had stayed together to support one another or he’d have really been in a bind.

Jason hurried them along, hustling them onward and getting them on the plane with just a few minutes to spare before take-off.

Since then, Jason is quick to sternly warn his tour members that if they wander from the pack while walking through any airport, he is not responsible for finding them. If they miss the flight, they’re on their own, end of story.

In my words: You follow the Call of the Siren (in this above case the irresistible Siren being the HK airport’s international merchandise), you suffer the consequences.

Jason’s Current Situation

I’m sure Jason is eager to return to his former life, much as I am. Here is our most recent WeChat messaging below:

Jason: I hope the world will be back to normal soon. It has already caused great damage. I lost my job as a guide and now I find another job. It’s kind of Internet technology. My job is the promotion of an App.

Connie: Some of my students did that for a part-time job in the summer. Not as fun as touring.

Jason: That’s true. And less income. But, well, that’s the best situation I can have now. As long as I can survive, there is always hope.

Ah, words of wisdom, Jason. Words of wisdom.

From small town Marshall, Illinois, here’s wishing you 平安 (Ping An, Peace) for your weekend.

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Lost in translation: Chinese New Year’s Humor

Out with the Mouse!!

The Year of the Rat is almost at an end. February 11, Thursday at midnight, the mousies are out; the oxen are in.

In with the Ox

Yes, it’s the start of Spring Festival, what we westerners refer to as Chinese New Year.

February 12 begins a new year, new beginnings and new hope in China. All across the country, families will be hunkering down to watch TV gala shows, eat “good luck” dishes and get ready for 16 days of celebrations. (7 days are public holidays but schools won’t be starting up until after January 26). Many will spend hours upon hours on WeChat (China’s equivalent of Facebook) to send out festive greetings, post holiday New Year’s vimeos and bestow virtual lucky money on friends, colleagues and relatives.

I’m certain that my own students and Chinese besties will be filling up my cell phone with messages of good wishes. I’m 14 hours behind Luzhou so I expect the posting flood will begin Thursday morning and continue onward for the following 16 days.

A Foreigner’s Confusion

Among the WeChat banter will be one conundrum I can never wrap my head around: Chinese New Year’s jokes. I’m sure in China, they hit the mark but once translated into English, and applied to my personal culture, the laugh remains an enigma.

As examples of this, here are the Top 8 funnies which I found on the Internet. Do you get the humor in these? I certainly don’t!

1. Let’s celebrate Chinese New Year by comparing our adult children’s careers, income levels and marital statuses.

2. I’m opting for Chinese New Year resolutions, since my American New Year resolutions were an epic failure.

3. If you celebrated Chinese New Year in America, do you celebrate American New Year in China? (Actually, yes, Chinese do: January 1st is 元旦 , or yuandan, a 1-day holiday, so celebrating “American” New Year is somewhat accurate.)

4. Remember, the Chinese word for opportunity is the same as the Chinese word for crisis. What does this mean? It means the Chinese are lazy. Happy New Year!

5. Happy Chinese New Year to you and the Chinese government official also reading this.

6. Chinese New Year, Mardi Gras and Valentines Day are too close…I don’t know what to paint on my nails.

7. I’d like to wish you a Happy Chinese New Year, but I don’t want to interrupt you until you’ve finished assembling my I-phone.

8. Let’s celebrate Chinese New Year by rigidly conforming to the strictly enforced suggestions for celebrating.

OK. So . . . . where’s the comical wit?

Now That’s Funny!

While the above totally missed the mark on my funny bone, these below puns certainly gave me a hearty, roll-your-eyes, deeply embedded chuckle.

1) I went to a Chinese food buffet for the new year. It was called “All You Can Eat and Dim Sum.”

2). The Year of the Ox is bound to be bad. I went out to eat at our local Chinese restaurant and when I opened my cookie, it was empty. When I complained to the server, she replied, “Ah! That’s unfortunate”.

3). I don’t like these Chinese New Year celebrations. They tend to drag-on.

4). Want to make the Year of the Ox a success? Just think outside the Ox.

5). What do you call an Ox with a big butt? Buttocks

6). Why couldn’t the Mackaw and the Ox never produce an offspring? It would have created a parrot-ox.

Would my English-speaking Chinese students, friends and colleagues “get it”? I’ll be posting these among my WeChat groups during the next few days. Let’s see what reactions I get and I’ll let you know.

Until then, here’s wishing you 平安 Ping An (Peace) for your day, with a last parting giggle before the the plague-ridden Year of the Rodents leaves us far, far behind:

Q: What do you call an educated ox without an education?

A: An oxymoron.

Groan away, folks! Groan away.

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Me and my mom’s “gig”

The first Sunday of every month puts me and my mom in worship as the special music.

For awhile, in-person services were put on hold so we’ve been showing up for our live taping session (December and January) with only a few in the sanctuary. Last week had our area Covid case numbers low enough that it was back to our 45-people limit, with 2 services being given: 9 – 9:45, 10:30 – 11:45.

Since my mom is the former choir director, her knowledge of church music is spot-on. For our “gigs”, she hauls out what’s needed for the church calendar to fit into the pastor’s message: Advent, lent, communion, Easter . . . . she knows it all and chooses appropriately to match the liturgical theme.

Today was the first time we’ve had communion in several months. My mom had searched through all the choir communion anthems and found us ones easy enough for me (a non-music major) to manage, with high enough alto parts she could manage. She gave me the soprano melody but she, also a soprano, took the second part. She can read music a whole lot better than I, that’s for sure.

If you’re interested in hearing us, here is the link. We sang an introit, I helped with the Mission Moment (World Service blankets) and we ended with two communion pieces, “In Remembrance” and “At this Table”.

https://fb.watch/3wgy2gcDo8/

Of course, it would be 5 degrees this morning for church after we’d had a week of in the 30s and 40s. Brrrr!! Made for a very chilly outing. Two weeks ago, we were in our PJs, enjoying our morning coffee while watching the online service. I’m sure many of those who are reading this and are church-goers know that feeling as well. Sure, it’s nice to stay in the comfort of your home for Sunday morning but enough is enough! Despite the frigid temperatures, we were very grateful to be back in the sanctuary once again.

Chinese New Year is Approaching!

February 11 brings in the Chinese New Year, or what the Chinese call Spring Festival. The Year of the Rat exits, the Year of the Ox begins!! Surely it must be better. Go out and have some Chinese food! Don’t forget to greet your hosts with “Gohng-shee, Gohng-shee!” This is said to congratulate one another on the beginning of a new year.

Gohng-shee, Gohng-shee! And Ping An (Peace) for your week.

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A 20-Year Reunion in the Making

When I first went to China in 1991, computers were just starting to make their way into the hands of common folk. Cell phones and smart phones were non-existent. Telephones were only for the very wealthy, with most villages, towns or factories having only one public telephone for people to use. And using that phone required special guangxi (connections), which was knowing the person in charge or the person whose desk the telephone sat on. I remember 30 years ago, when I taught at Nanchang Normal University, having only 2 telephones available for the foreign teachers: One was located in the outer building of our guest house (where we foreigners all lived) while another was in the administration office for foreign affairs. Only 1 dialed out of the country. We had to make an appointment to use it and pay the fee upfront by how long we talked.

Needless to say, we didn’t call home often. In my 3 years teaching at that college, I called to America only once. All other correspondence was by letters which took 2-3 weeks to arrive.

In 1991, the Internet was in the beginning stages of development. I remember listening to VOA (Voice of America) radio broadcasters, along with President Bill Clinton, touting the merits of this new global tool called “The Internet” and how it would change our world in ways we could never imagine.

Ain’t that the truth!

Not only can we stay in touch more easily but locating folks is much easier. With our new technology, the ability to find acquaintances, classmates, or distant relatives who have disappeared from our lives is now at our fingertips.

That same connectional ability can now be said for China today. Personal computers and cell phones, through the Internet, now make it possible for people to stay in touch with those who, 20 or 30 or 50 years ago, would have been lost forever.

A New University Tradition Starts in China

In “old” China, there were no school-organized reunions for high school or college. This was mostly due to difficulty in finding large numbers of graduates without telephones to call on, mailing addresses to compile (many didn’t have mailing addresses the countryside) or computers to create data bases. Reunions took place when classmates made a huge effort to personally stay in touch and manage to meet up on a whim with others.

WeChat (China’s equivalent of Facebook) and smart phones have changed all that. I belong to numerous WeChat groups, one of which is a Luzhou Vocational and Technical College alumni group. It’s called 大学同学 (University Classmates) and was started several years ago by one of my students from the 2001 graduating class.

Soon, many more were joining from other graduating classes and the group now has 57 alums and 14 teachers.

An Invitation to Join from Chuck

I was invited to join when I accidentally bumped into one of my former students on the city bus. I was coming back from my pool time. I swim every day in China, at a new Olympic-sized indoor sports complex located on the opposite side of the city. I remember I’d had a discussion with myself if I wanted to taxi home (15 minutes, for $3.00) or take the bus (1 hour, for 40 cents). As I didn’t have much to do when I returned home, I opted for the bus.

After settling down in my seat, I looked out the window to watch the street scenes go by. I didn’t recognize my student as it had been 15 years since we were on the campus together but he certainly recognized me. I wondered why this strangely masked Chinese man, with his 8-year-old son sitting next to him, was staring at me. I decided to ignore him. Finally, he got up the courage to say, “Are you Connie?”

“Yes, I am,” I answered, not quite sure how this man would know my name.

“I am Chuck,” he replied with an excited grin. “Maybe you forgot me. My English was very poor when you were my teacher.”

Believe it or not, I did remember Chuck when he was a freshmen, 17 years before. Yes, his English wasn’t very good but he always held onto an optimistic spirit, with a good sense of humor in laughing at his own language inadequacies.

As we talked, the story then unfolded that he’d been in an accident after graduation and his face was seriously burned, along with his arms and legs. The mask hid a majority of his deformities, which were so horrific that people were startled. Thus the mask. Even with the mask, I could see one of his ears was missing and thickly burned scar tissue covered his neck. This poor man!

He didn’t explain what had happened. He only mentioned because of the burns, he was now considered disabled and unable to work, which allowed for some compensation from the government but not much. He was selling items on the Internet to bring in a little extra money, although his wife’s salary seemed to be enough to keep his family cared for.

Before we parted, Chuck made sure I had joined the university classmate WeChat group. It is for that reason that I now am in touch with so many of my former students. I see photos of their children, enjoy their teasing banter back and forth in their text messages, rejoice in their family celebrations (marriages, births, milestone birthdays, children’s high test scores) and send sympathy for bad news.

On WeChat, students post their gatherings with family or others. “Angela” (to the far left) recently pulled together a few of her classmates (Class of 2004) for a Chinese New Year’s dinner.

Other announcements within 大学同学 WeChat group: Graduates of Luzhou Vocational and Technical College (my former students, now teachers) and retired teachers from our school volunteered to grade 6th grade students’ English language exams.  The exam booklet had numerous subjects to check.  The English teachers were only required to check the English part of the test. These exam scores would determine if the student moved on into junior high school or not.  

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Explosion of text messages: Our College-sponsored 20-year Reunion Celebration

The most recent excitement to hit this group is the school’s request for contact information for a 20th year reunion. Never has my college arranged such an event, so there was some confusion as to what this was all about. Here is the dialogue which took place a few days ago. (Teacher Wang below)

Teacher Wang

Teacher Wang: Students, please take time to open the attached document and fill it out.

Student “Ken”: What is this for? Is the information to be made public?

Teacher Wang: Due to the previous graduation information being accidentally deleted, Luzhou Vocational and Technical College is asking all alums to give the graduation information. This is in regards to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the founding of Luzhou Vocational and Technical College. This task has been entrusted to me. Please fill out the information by February 23. Thank you for your cooperation!

Once this announcement went out, there was a flurry of photo-posting that went on.

Some dug deep into the past, showing events with classmates, such as this outing to Fang Mountain which is located outside of the Luzhou limits.

Others included weekend meet-ups around the city with favorite teachers. Here are my English majors in 2003 with Teachers Chen and Xi at the Luzhou city amphitheater.


My favorites were those of me with the students.

Visits to my apartment, where Little Flower (my Chihuahua) entertained us with her doggie toys:

Our Christmas party in the classroom (I’m kneeling, first row, in the black Christmas sweater):

And, lastly, a 2005 graduation photo with our school leaders.  This included the foreign teachers at that time (myself and Beth, with the Amity Foundation) and a young British couple, Rosie and Alex, who were 6-month volunteer teachers.  They were traveling the world and contacted Amity to see if they could somehow connect with a Chinese college to teach English.  Amity arranged their stay at our college, after which they moved on to return home to England. 

Chuck, now a burned victim, is the last row, to the far left in the white shirt.

 

Some of the retired teachers in the WeChat group shared these.  A 2002 faculty Christmas party in my home:

Celebration Date on Hold:  Chinese New Year Covid Restrictions

The school’s 20th year reunion celebrations are currently on hold, but not the ongoing registration of alums.  With the Chinese New Year holidays approaching, beginning Feb. 11 and running to Feb. 26, there is concern the virus will spread. Migrant workers are especially worrisome to health authorities, with millions upon millions traveling home for the holidays.   China is going into measures to prevent the spread, with people urged to stay home or in their current locations and not visit relatives.  

Those who do wish to travel must have an updated negative Covid test which appears on the health App on their phones.  After arriving home, a 2-week quarantine is demanded.  Because everyone’s health codes are connected to a main monitoring system, the health department in every province, city, town and village knows where people are at any time, all the time.  Citizens are called and warned to remain in place if they leave their homes during quarantine or try to travel to areas which are deemed “at risk” (i.e., on lockdown as Covid cases were detected there). 

While this sounds drastic, so far, these procedures have allowed the Chinese to go about life as normal with no surging virus infections, deaths or hospitalizations.  Even masks are no longer required, although quite a few still choose to wear them.

I expect this upcoming 15-day holiday will be the test for the country, how well a cooperating public can contain what many countries find uncontainable.  

Cross your fingers.  The better China is able to do this, the faster I might be able to return.

Until the next report, here’s wishing you Ping Ahn (Peace) for your day. 

 

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My Chinese Church Choir Offers a Glimpse of Faithfulness

“Ping, Ping, Ping!”

It’s Saturday morning and my WeChat messages from the choir’s soprano group are becoming unusually active. Luzhou is 14 hours ahead of Illinois, meaning messages were coming in for China’s Saturday evening. That is a strange time for so many “ping!”s to take place.

What set everyone off? Below, I have translated for my English-speaking audience. Before reading, notice what always emotionally stirs me the most about this faithful group of individuals:

  1. The willingness to follow government guidelines to keep people safe.
  2. The dedication of both the monitors (leaders) of announcements and attendance to make sure their duties are performed in a timely manner.
  3. The commitment of being a responsible choir singer, which requires asking for leave and informing others why you will be absent.
  4. An adept, knowledgable use of Scripture for all occasions.
  5. A Christian-centered re-enforcement of encouragement, concern, care and love to one another.

January 16, 2021 Saturday Evening (China time)

Shouyi (monitor for choir announcements): Urgent notice, Brothers and Sisters. Peace. In response to the government’s epidemic prevention arrangements, the Sunday worship will be held online. All the staff involved in the service, be on time. (The congregation will not come.). There will be a live broadcast. We are singing tomorrow. We will prepare at 8:30 a.m. on the third floor of the church. The service will begin at 9:30. May the Lord prepare the time for the brothers and sisters, keep us safe and ask the Lord to remember us. Hallelujah!

Dian Da: In the morning tomorrow, be careful. It is very cold now. Wear more clothes.

Ke Daying: Good evening! Because I am out of town, this time before the Spring Festival (i.e., Chinese New Year) I ask for special leave. Thank you!

Gao Zhong: Well, may the Lord grant you peace as you come and go, and have a blessed New Year!

Huang Hong: I am sorry I cannot come. I am watching my grandson, in Shidong township.

Liu Ming: I am in the hospital today for the treatment of skin, my feet. I ask for special leave. Pray for the Lord tomorrow for us to prepare the time to serve. May the Lord remember you!

Zhang Ming (Attendance Monitor): @ Ke Daying, Huang Hong, Liu Ming — Got it!

“Naomi” Yu: What’s wrong with you, Dear Sister Liu? May the Lord lead you and help you.

Liu Ming: Thank you, gentle sister. Sorry, I sent the wrong message. It is not my feet, it is my face. Because of a lot of inherited freckles on my face, yesterday I went to the Medical Beauty Center of the Affliated Hospital of Traditional Chinese Medicine to laser off my freckles. After the face laser, blemishes surfaced more and more. The scabs are still repairing. I am afraid to scare you, my brothers and sisters, so temporarily, I need to ask for leave for a week. Everything is fine after the treatment. I thank God. I thank the sisters for caring.

Naomi” Yu: Thank the Lord, sweet child of God. You are gentle, virtuous, kind and optimistic. As the Lord said, “A capable, intelligent, and virtuous woman—who is he who can find her? She is far more precious than jewels and her value is far above rubies or pearls.” (Proverbs 31:10) Do safe protection, prevent infection, and may the Lord keep you safe.

Liu Ming: Thank you for your praise. I know I’m still far from a woman of virtue, so I keep working toward perfection. Post-care is really important. May the Lord renew my spirit through this treatment, just as it renews the skin from broken pigments. Whatever is not to God’s liking, He Himself renews. Just as the metabolism of the skin drains away the old, so we must drain away sin and let the care of the Holy Spirit clean and harvest new life.

 My Hope for this Entry

May we all stop, think and reflect upon our own faith as witnessed through this tiny glimpse at my Chinese church family’s devotion to the Lord.

平安 (Ping Ahn, Peace) for your Sunday. 

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My Birthday Celebrations

I celebrated my 56th birthday on Tuesday, January 12.  Here were my day’s events

Birthday Greetings from China

I awoke to find over 30 birthday text messages of good wishes, all from China:  my students, my colleagues, my church choir members, my friends.  Most were a very simple “Happy birthday, Connie!” but one rather long note was from my former English Association President, Ice. (The English Association is our campus language club, usually consisting of about 300 members who have interest in English, although their language skills may be quite limited.)

Ice was my best English Association President.  She was so capable!  Whenever we had planned events, such as our yearly Halloween and Christmas Activity Nights, Ice was the one to fill out necessary school paperwork,  coordinate the volunteers, order the items we needed, arrange schedules for set-up and clean-up and be present for all our organizational meetings.  She was always two steps ahead of me, uncannily knowing what was needed before I even thought of it.

Ice had such enthusiasm and a positive spirit for any idea I threw at her.  She was competent, trustworthy, and excellent at multi-tasking, problem-solving and organizing.  The fact that she remembered my birthday, 3 years later, shows what a thoughtful person she is.

Her words were as follows:

“As a student, my English skill is not perfect in choosing my words to give you birthday wishes.  I will try — Thank you for always having been nice to me. Also, thank you for your lessons before.  They really helped me a lot.  I wish you have a great birthday!”  

Ah, Ice!   Those words are perfect.  

Ice sent me this current picture of her studying in the library for her upcoming exams.

Others came from my Chinese church family, sent by choir members.

Zhang Dijie:  “It’s midnight at your place.  Rest well and God bless you and your family with good sleep!  Happy, happy every day!”

Shishu: “God bless you and your mother.  God bless your loved ones!  I hope all of you be safe and peaceful.  Jesus loves you!”

So many thoughtful notes of blessing me for my day.  It was wonderful!

Cards Arriving

In the post, I had 15 cards that made their way into my hands.  Some were new friends, United Methodist Women units that had seen my name in the prayer calendar.  Others were e-cards.  

My mom made sure to add to the pile with her own.

 

A daughter can never be too old to get a birthday greeting from Mom.

An Out-of-Town Trip to Rural King

Added to the special day was a trip to Rural King, located in Paris, Illinois which is a 20-minute drive from my hometown.  We hadn’t left Marshall in 2 months so this small excursion was one which we found especially fun.  

Those not familiar with this Midwest chain, see the below, taken from the website:

“Rural King, also known as RK Holdings, LLP, is America’s Farm and Home Store, a General Merchandise Store, providing essentials to the communities we serve. More specifically, we provide a broad range of necessities, essential goods, food, feed, seed and other farm and home products. Rural King planted its roots in Mattoon, Illinois in 1960. Since that time, Rural King has added over 100 stores in a thirteen-state area (Alabama, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, Ohio, Michigan, Missouri, Pennsylvania, Florida, North Carolina, West Virginia and Virginia). The heart of Rural King is the corporate office, distribution center and flagship store, located in its city of origin, Mattoon IL.”

While Mattoon is merely an hour away, we stayed closer to home at the Paris branch.

The best part of Rural King, aside from the unlimited, freshly popped popcorn (which is no longer served due to Covid concerns — boo!!!), is that dogs are welcome.  Bridget, our rescue from China currently celebrating her 1 1/2 years as an American citizen, tagged along with us.  She perched with contentment in the car as we cruised down Route 1. Later, she rode in the shopping cart around the store.  There she received numerous pets from customers and employees alike.  

 

One woman, enamored by how sweet she was, scooped her up and didn’t seem to want to put her down.  We almost lost our dog!

 I finally caved to Bridget’s whining and prancing and bought her a doggie toy, which she spied in the pet aisle.  Nor was I the only one conned by her cuteness.  She received meaty canine bits from the cashier upon check-out.  While this seems to be a Rural King tradition, I’m sure it’s not a tradition to give double treats, which is what she got!    

 

As we left, I was thinking this trip to Rural King ended up being more for the dog than for me.   I mean, gee whiz.  Whose birthday was it, anyway?!  

A Celebratory Cake

What is a birthday without a birthday cake?  My favorite kind has always been a decorated ice-cream cake and that’s exactly what I had.  Lit candles and a “Happy Birthday to you” singing  from my mom made the evening complete.  

 And the wish upon blowing out the candles? Can it possibly be that much of a secret?  Absolutely, a speedy return to my China, where I hope to be spending my 57th birthday among my Chinese friends, colleagues, students and Christian church family.  

Thank you to all who sent birthday greetings, prayers, thoughts and best wishes.  You made my day very, very special.  

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Covid Desperation: An Inability to Help

I was up at 7 a.m. last Sunday morning. Usually, I’m tucked away in bed, in my PJs, since my hometown church went to virtual worship services. My mom and I can easily sip coffee on the bed while watching Pastor Bob and our organist, plus special music volunteers, carry us into our spiritual moment for the Sabbath.

But last Sunday had me giving the message, with Pastor Bob taking a Sunday off, so I had awakened early enough to have some meditative time before getting dressed for church. It was also time for me to check my WeChat messages from China, this included notes from a former Peace Corp volunteer, Lindsey, whose messages are almost always uplifting.

But not that morning:

“Please pray for my family. My meme (grandmother), poppa (grandfather) and uncle have Covid. The hospitals are so full that she called an ambulance and they wouldn’t take her. The told her not to move except to go to the bathroom because her oxygen level is 80%, 90% if she is totally still. She’s very scared. There’s not much anyone can do. Our hospitals are overwhelmed and have a diversion order. They aren’t taking anyone and it’s a 12-hour wait in the ER.”

Lindsey’s family lives in South Carolina but Lindsey herself is in Korea, teaching English at a private pre-school in a city 3 hours from Seoul. She left for Korea in August after her Peace Corps volunteer position ended while she was in China, teaching English at my college. Due to Covid, in January, all Peace Corps volunteers were called back to the States.

Lindsey was able to spend time with her family before being accepted to a job in Korea, a country which had continued to accept applications for teaching positions in the country.

While America’s virus situation has escalated, in other countries (especially those in Asia), the governments’ pandemic plans went into effect quickly and swiftly. These helped to contain the virus and keep it under control. While Korea isn’t doing as well as China, it still hasn’t stopped a beat in hiring overseas’ teachers.

Lindsey is like Family

I consider Lindsey close to family. Our very short, 5 months together at my college had us sharing teaching ideas, enjoying campus walks, coordinating special English events (Halloween Activity Night was a huge hit!), and co-hosting English Center evenings. Lindsey was also extremely generous in helping me with my Open House Christmas parties and joining in to greet students, colleagues and friends for my special holiday gatherings.

Lindsey was such a huge help in entertaining my Open House guests. She joined me in almost every gathering I had (We are in the front row, sitting, to the right)


Hearing about her family, with all their quirks and unusual personalities, made me feel like they were my own. We even had hoped I could have a meet-up with them when I visited Clemson, SC, which was very near where her family lived. I had hoped for a visit to that area in the summer but due to Covid, and concern of spreading the virus or getting the virus, I canceled that trip.

After Lindsey left for Korea, we stayed in touch via WeChat (China’s equivalent of Facebook). Her job was a challenging one but she soldiered onward and finally settled into a routine with her pre-school children, teaching full days from 8 to 5 p.m.

Hearing that the Covid situation with her family members was so dire really hit hard. Even though this same story had been told on the news throughout the country, especially in California where my niece lives, having first-hand desperation coming from my friend, Lindsey, brought the danger of this virus even more into reality.

How strange that my hometown remains somewhat untouched by virus fear, with school in session, restaurants still open for in-dining, our 2 local hospitals managing very well and some places not even requiring masks. My hometown public library, for example, has patrons able to freely wander about without any face coverings, used computers, and easily handle book. This is a complete mystery to me.

Lindsey’s message reminded me that other areas are suffering unimaginable heartbreak and we must keep those people in our thoughts. We might seem indestructible at the moment, but I see my small-town community can very easily go the way of Lindsey’s small town in South Carolina. We are not immune and need to be vigilant.

Giving words of support

After shooting off a text message of prayers and concern, it was time for me to get ready for church.

I was so very thankful she had sent her message when she did. I was able to personally share her prayer requests during the worship service that morning. Being able to vocally ask for prayers, rather than through the usual emails and newsletter announcements, made my Sunday morning sanctuary presence all the more meaningful. How grateful I am for technology, which allows us to still connect through livestreaming, Skype and Zoom.

Since that morning, I’ve waited anxiously for each day’s update.

On January 4, I texted, “How is your Meme doing?”

Lindsey: “Not well. They have been waiting at the hospital for 12 hours. Have not been seen by a doctor, a nurse or anyone. Just sitting in the waiting room. It’s terrible.”

From her Meme: “Have a COVID type of pneumonia. Was given a Covid test finally, Covid positive. Oxygen level only 93%. Poppa may be going home. His vitals are better than mine.”

Then January 5, Tuesday news from Lindsey:

“Meme got a bed and said the nurses are really doing their best and working hard”

Today is January 7, my Thursday evening. Lindsey is just getting up in Korea to begin her day and I am waiting to hear from her. After yesterday’s events in DC, I am in need of some encouraging news. I await her email and will share with you when I hear more.

Until the next entry, here’s wishing you a calm spirit, a quiet moment of reflection, and a feeling of peace (Ping An) for your weekend.

 

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From China: Reaction to the Wieck Family Vimeo Christmas Greeting

In the previous post, you were able to enjoy my family’s vimeo of Christmas greetings to my Chinese students, colleagues and friends. Yesterday evening,  I spent over an hour individually sending to all my groups, students (past and present), special contacts and friends via  WeChat (China’s equivalent of Facbook).

 This morning, I had over 60 messages of praises and excitement over watching my brother, my mom and me give our special Christmas message. Here are the highlights of those communications.

Former student, Hero, Shows his Class

“Hero” is my former student, an English Education Major who  graduated from my college 5 years ago.  I have written of Hero in previous posts.  He was one of my most outstanding pupils.  While his classmates were sleeping during the 2 1/2 hour siesta time, Hero was with me, walking the campus and practicing his English.  Every noontime, he’d call me to ask where we could meet up for our daily chat time. Due to his diligence, his spoken language skills and understanding of my American culture far outshone all the other students in the English education department.

During his student teaching experience, he would often consult with me about problems he was encountering and how to solve these.  He also went out of his way to make his 45-minute English class for his young people, in elementary school, a special and exciting time.  Because of  his enthusiasm and excellent recommendations,  he  landed a teaching position in a highly respected Luzhou primary school, teaching the 3rd and 4th graders.   He’d often borrow my Halloween costumes and masks, Christmas decorations, Thanksgiving Day set-the-table lesson props and other visual aids to create interesting lessons for all three classes of 60 + students whom he was assigned.

 I actually visited his school 3 years ago and gave an English language activity session to 300 plus children (ages 9-12), including 8 teachers and the principal in the institution’s lecture hall.  We had such a wonderful, interactive 2-hours with prizes given and audience participation, which included not only the kids but the staff and administrators. Everyone was eager to join in, no matter how excellent, adequate or non-existent their English skills were. Having such an enthusiastic crowd made my visit both memorable and rewarding.

 I remember being very impressed by the progressive approach to learning at Hero’s school, which was one of the premiere public primary schools in Luzhou.  

Fast forward to today’s time period, with Hero preparing, on December 25, a Christmas Party for his home-room class of 60.  He had asked if I could prepare a few things for his students, including a video of my home.  This I did and sent to him last week.  He showed the 5-minute tour of my holiday house in between classroom holiday games.  The reactions, which Hero recorded for me, were hilarious!  Claps, cheers, “Oh!”s and “Ah!”s resounded as different Christmas items appeared on the power point screen.

My family Christmas greeting, however, was what brought down the house. This was a later addition to Hero’s lesson, which he had so carefully put together for several days.  I basically did my family video as a spur-of-the-moment thing and sent it to him around  his 3 a.m. on December 25.  His class party was to  be toward the end of the day after all the regular teaching was over.

I didn’t expect my Vimeo to appear in their party activities but Hero had spent his noontime putting together our video clip into presentable material.  This included framing us in holiday images. 

Then he sent me pictures and videos of the children watching and singing along with us, after which all the party fun they had participated in.  As you can see below, his well-planned, well-prepared Christmas unit was a huge success.

    Hero later told me what  touched his heart the most was when the students gave him a very special Christmas surprise:  Cards they had made themselves and a store-bought Christmas holiday  wall hanging which they had paid for and chosen themselves.  What a treasured moment  for us educators to experience: our students being inspired by, and grateful for,  the most precious gift we have to offer:  that of the love of learning. 

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My Sponsoring organization in China, The Amity Foundation, Shares with the Office 

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While Hero had his own touching ‘Spirit of the Holidays” moment, mine came in a text message from the director of the education division in the Amity Foundation. The Amity Foundation is my sponsoring organization in China and is located in Nanjing. It was founded in 1985 by Chinese Christians and serves impoverished Chinese people through development projects in education, health, social welfare, emergency relief and numerous other programs (See amityfoundation.org for more detailed information.)

I am an Amity Foundation teacher and have been in this position for close to 25 years. It’s just this year of Covid that has me away from my role as an educator and has kept me “stuck” in the States until my city allows my return.

Director She Hongyu shared that my video had been forwarded to those in charge of the meeting and would be shown to the entire Amity organization, administrators and staff, during their office Christmas celebrations. Another staff member sent me the above photo, captured in the middle of our carol, “We wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.”

It was honestly the best Christmas present I could ever receive. 

My students from Last Year:  Christmas celebrations?  Hmmm

The posted video also was a hit among my freshmen students from last year (now sophomores) and the college’s 200-member English Association WeChat group. I received many texts of “Merry Christmas, Connie!”, “We miss you!” and “Hope to see you soon.  Love you!”.  

Some mentioned remembering last year’s  Christmas lessons and visit to my home.  They included in those notes pictures of us together in my overly-decorated home.  Such wonderful memories for them.

 An Ego Lost

I’ve always been very proud of my 4-week Christmas unit. It includes the religious story, a history of modern-day customs, necessary holiday vocabulary, a Christmas-themed bingo game and a visit to my home to finalize all that we’ve learned.  An open-book, small group collaborative written test nailed home all that I had so carefully imparted to these young people, soon to be teachers themselves in a few years.  Almost everyone received 100% for their Christmas exam.

Particularly sad for me this past Fall semester was not being able to lead the 2020 freshmen through my culture classes, including Christmas.  I imagined all that previous students had learned from me about this special December celebration and how informed they are to pass on to others.  

Well, that was until I received the following WeChat message, complete with visuals, from one class of my 2019 English education majors:

Student Becky gleefully reported,  “Hello, Teacher Connie!  We remember your Christmas home last year.  It was so beautiful. So we have our own Christmas party in the classroom this year.  We had a very good time. Here are our pictures.”

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“Masks?” I was thinking.  “Surely they remember that’s a Halloween thing.”

If only Becky had stopped there. The true stab in the heart (and utter disintegration of my ego) came with her closing remark.

“Thank you, Connie, for teaching us about your festival.  Without your careful instruction, we would not understand this wonderful holiday.  Merry Christmas!”

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Merry Christmas to “My” China!

My family took time to record a message for my Chinese colleagues, students and friends which was sent out this evening. I’ve already received numerous texts: “Thank you, Connie, your mother and brother! Merry Christmas!”

Same to all of you: Merry Christmas!

Me, my mother Priscilla and my older brother, Paul, took a quick moment in between opening gifts to send a greeting to my Chinese students, friends and colleagues.

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Christmas Eve Service Preparations Underway: China and USA

During my time in the States, I am constantly updated through friends, students and colleagues about the virus situation in China. For the most part, things returned to normal beginning in the summer after strict protocols went into place on how to control Covid-19. Quite simple, really: If a case suddenly popped up anywhere in the country, everything shut down in that particular place. Contact tracing was implemented to pinpoint where the individual had been and who had been exposed. Massive testing of everyone within the person’s apartment building area went into place, anywhere from 2 million residents upwards, completed in a matter of days.

Almost all cases were imported, from returning overseas’ Chinese or foreign business people who came in for work purposes. The 2 Covid tests required 48-hours before getting on the plane (an anti-body test and a Covid test) plus the 2-week mandatory hotel quarantine upon entry into the airport, helped keep the virus from leaking into the public.

Despite these efforts, there were a few cases that mysteriously popped up with little clue as to where they came from. This happened last month in my particular region of China.

Sichuan Becomes a Hot-spot

Sichuan Province, where Luzhou (the smaller city of 5 million where I live) is located, was doing very well until last month. In the capital city of Sichuan, Chengdu, which is 3 1/2 hours away from Luzhou, a young woman tested positive. She was asymptomatic but her grand-parents became sick, thus the discovery of the virus. The girl was living with them and when they were tested for the virus, just in case, the positive result sent the hospital staff and city into virus-containment overdrive. Since everyone in China must have the health App on their phones, authorities can easily track where a person has been or is currently. The young woman’s route throughout the city, when it was discovered she was a carrier, was posted on government websites. Arrows and lines tracked her from different venues she’d visited, from several coffee bars, shops, the grocery and a friend’s house. Those who had been to those places were requested to come in for testing. Also, health officials in full protective gear went to test her grandparents’ apartment to see how much of the virus residue was left. They found quite a lot.

Local TV channels and newspapers reported the grandmother was not doing well but the grandfather seemed stable. The adult grand-daughter, meanwhile, was feeling fine but quarantined for 2 weeks far from others in a designated hotel outside of the city.

How Chengdu’s virus pop-up affected Luzhou and the Luzhou Protestant Church 

When Chengdu went into a red-zone infection category, Luzhou medical personnel were immediately called to their hospitals, clinics and offices as emergency procedures were put into place.  Luzhou has bus and car travel to and from Chengdu on a regular basis, with thousands of Chengdu-Luzhou/ Luzhou-Chengdu passengers a day journeying along the expressway and entering/exiting both cities.  The possibility of a virus-carrying someone landing in Luzhou from the capital city, 170 miles away, was deemed highly likely.  Temperature checks went back into effect for anyone on the freeway coming into the city.  The same went for people entering the city’s grocery stores with masks once again appearing on people’s faces.  

As for the Luzhou Protestant Church, which had been holding in-person services since the large-gathering ban was lifted in June,  notices from the religious affairs bureau to the church leaders were sent out about safety precautions to take.  Congregation numbers were to be limited, masks worn, members seated  3-feet apart and temperature checks taken upon entry.

Pastor Liao and others were informed to wait a few more weeks before final word came  down about Christmas Eve services and if those should be virtual only or could be in-person as always.  

As of last week, I heard the verdict:  Services can take place but with limited numbers entering the church.  Due to this, the church decided to do a fully taped virtual service to offer the public and believers with a fewer number of congregation members attending on Christmas Eve.  

The showing of the recorded service will be in the church on Christmas Day, beginning at 3 p.m., with a posting of the recording as well on WeChat (China’s equivalent of Facebook).

Choir Rehearsals Announced

As a choir member, I still receive the Christmas Eve rehearsal instructions:   schedule of practices, what to wear, warm-ups to do, the program order of service and hints for food intake.  The most recent text message is as follows:

“Dear Brothers and Sisters:  Rehearsals will start promptly at 7 p.m. today.  The church has prepared food:  soybean milk, bread and eggs on the 3rd floor.  If you want noodles, we contacted the noodle shop next to the church for dinner.  The brothers and Sisters who want noodles must go on their own, between 5 p.m. – 6:30 p.m.  Pray that God will prepare us for the presentation.  Thank the Lord!  Hallelujah!”

My Hometown Church Rehearsal and Recording

In response to all the choir announcements, I sent my own pictures and inside look into  a USA Christmas Eve service in the midst of a pandemic. 

My mom, former choir director of my hometown’s Marshall First UMC, was enlisted to consult with Pastor Bob Sabo and organist Jo Sanders to put together a Christmas Eve service.  Like my Luzhou Church, an in-person service was planned but then, due to increased virus cases, plans changed.  Unlike my Chinese church, however,  which will be having both in-person and virtual showings, Marshall First is going all virtual as strongly advised by our Illinois Great Rivers’ Conference bishop,  Bishop Beard.

Yesterday evening, all performers (my mom and I included) arrived early for a run-through before the final taping.  It was a 4-hour affair, with youth director James Southworth in charge of the production procedures, practice session and clockwork timing.  Masks, social distancing, staging strategies, disinfecting procedures for shared hand mics and where-are-your-marks were practiced to the point where we all felt comfortable with what to do, how to do and when to do.  

When it came time for the recording itself, with 3 volunteers manning the new cameras and sound-system, we felt confident of a successful virtual offering for December 24th.  

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By the time our evening ended at 8:30 p.m., with a “thumbs up” from James that the recording had stopped, we gave a HUGE sigh of relief. I couldn’t help but give a peek at the computer screen while our recording team checked to make absolutely sure they’d gotten it right.  

Wow!  It looked and sounded fantastic!  For a small-town church, it is impressive.  I will definitely be posting the link in the next entry for you all to enjoy as well.

While it might not have been the kind of Christmas Eve we’re all used to, I will say that as participants, my mom and I truly felt the spirit of this holy night was upon us.  I’m sure the others felt the same as well.

Until then, here’s wishing you Ping An (peace) for your before-Christmas celebrations. 

 

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