#34 哭哭了

This is my friend Nick. He used to work in Suzhou with me. He misses China. I miss China. We miss China. This blog entry will be about what I miss most. If Nick wants to tell you what he misses most, he can do his own damn blog.

I miss the beauty of China, particularly the beauty of Suzhou. I could have put 10,000 pictures here, but limited it to two from my neighborhood. If you want scenery, go read #19.

Yipu Yuan
Part of my evening walk, just down the street from my flat, between Shi Quan Jie and Soochow University

I miss the food. Lordy, I miss the food.

The weekend Bánh mì from Rong’s.

Watermelon Juice (西瓜汁) in Beijing
My standby neighborhood restaurant: YangYang Dumplings
One of many post-tutorial food sessions with the wise and lovely Emily, this time with fish.
Fast. Cheap. Delicious. Dan Dan.

Most of all, I will miss the people.

Mi amigo Jairo; 我朋友 Jill
Jimmy and HongXia. They made my life much more interesting and fun in Suzhou.
People I’m still pleased to call my friends. Some of the former staff of the University of Dayton China Institute.
Hong Xia: my friend, colleague, amanuensis.
Five great students all of whom thought their teacher would never stop talking about Kant.

The irrepressible Zoe, who will not like this picture, but would like it better than any of the other ones I have.
阿姨. Quite possibly the nicest person in Jiangsu Province.

There are good things about being back in the States. Allegedly I’m safer; presumably less risk of exposure to COVID-19. A helluva lot more exposure to being a gunshot victim. Personally, I would prefer to take my chances with the former relative to the latter.

Showers are better. Steaks are cheaper. It is good to see my family and my Dayton friends. Barbecue is barbecue (although somewhat shaky in Ohio, I am headed to Texas in May). I understand what people say, for the most part. I don’t have to take my life into my hands crossing the street. I don’t have to use a VPN to access many parts of the Internet.

But . . . but . . . but . . . perhaps I mentioned this.

I miss China.

#33 代顿大学中国研究院

The China Institute at the University of Dayton was a bold and ambitious project. The University decided to close it.

I did not agree with the decision, as I explain in the following letter. I sent this letter to someone pretty high up the food chain at UD, but I saw no reason to include his or her name.

I’m still waiting for a response.



300 College Park
Dayton, Ohio 45469

Dear XX:

We’ve been friends for a long time, and I’ll appeal to that friendship and to what I hope is mutual respect to offer some comments on the recent decision to close the University of Dayton China Institute. I know you’ve already heard a good bit about this, and I know you have plenty of other things to do, so I will try to keep this short. I also realize that I’m not a wholly unbiased participant in this conversation, having had fruitful and very gratifying experiences during my three semesters in Suzhou.

I should note at the outset that much of the information I’m drawing on here is, at best, second-hand, and is based more on conjecture, rumors, suspicions, and preliminary conclusions than I would like. That this is the case is part of the problem I will briefly discuss below.

There seem to be two basic issues with the decision: the factual basis on which it was made, and the process by which it was made. I am not privy to much of the information that drives the former, thus what I can claim to know in this context is, admittedly, incomplete. But let me address them in turn.

1)         The factual basis

As far as I understand, the decision to close the CI was largely financial; these problems were exacerbated by difficulties in recruiting students and faculty. Obviously, there are enormous demands on the University’s resources, and other commitments such as the UD Sinclair Academy and Flyer Promise Scholars programs took priority. These are genuine concerns, undoubtedly, although I have also heard (again, informally and incompletely) that there is some dispute over the amounts of money involved and over the likelihood of the CI breaking even or better. I cannot say anything further about this aspect of the decision, since these financial specifics were apparently not generally available.

Based on my own experience at the CI, in (at most) five years we have gone from having a great deal of difficulty attracting students—to the point of cancelling classes—to having a relatively large group of students, from the University of Dayton as well as Northeastern University (NU-bound students), Canisius University, and North Carolina A&T University. Whether four or five years is sufficient to determine the eventual success of a program is subject to dispute; but the enrollment numbers I saw certainly indicated the program was going in the right direction. More important, the success of the CI—as discussed at length by the China Institute Working Group—is clearly predicated on satisfactory student experiences being communicated to peers as a component in attracting future students. This communication is fundamentally a feedback mechanism, where previous students play an important role in recruiting—informally and otherwise—other students. This mechanism had just begun to function as envisaged; it was clear from students’ responses in the Fall 2018 cohort that their experiences were extremely positive, both educationally and culturally, and a number of students indicated to me that they would be telling their peers about the opportunities the CI offered. The changes I saw from my first semester at the CI (2014) to the recently-concluded Fall 2018 semester were remarkable, and gave every indication that the program had turned a corner and was developing momentum in terms of generating adequate enrollment. Certainly, problems remained, as noted and addressed by the China Institute Working Group’s final report. But based on the information available to me, none of these appeared to be insuperable. My evaluation of this includes the occasional mention, in this context, of the complex and difficult political issues between the US and PRC governments. I have seen little indication, in word or deed, that these issues would have much if any effect on the day-to-day operation of the China Institute and its educational mission.

I will add that the structure and staff that is in place in Suzhou is well-established, smoothly-operating, organized and efficient. I have been involved in several international programs at the University of Dayton, and having been here over 20 years have engaged with any number of institutional structures; I have never worked in any such University context with a better staff and with a better-organized structure. Students and faculty were treated professionally and responsibly; curricular needs were met quickly and effectively. University students left having had a positive educational experience, having had an opportunity to interact extensively with a distinct culture in China, as well as with an extremely diverse group of students. I am unaware of any other UD program that so well fulfills the promise of offering students an experience that reflects UD, Catholic and Marianist values, which actually delivers on UD’s commitment to educate the whole person, and promotes our commitment to a global perspective in education. As emphasized in Habits of Inquiry and Reflection, our students were in fact immersed in a diverse culture, and were able to take advantage of this opportunity to appreciate differences much broader and deeper than those experienced on the UD campus. Dr. Spina remarked, in his Inaugural Address, the

special value in the inclusion of deep international and intercultural living/learning immersion experiences as one of the ways in which students can satisfy the expectation of meaningful experiential learning.

In my years at the University of Dayton, I’ve seen no program address this important value better than the China Institute.

2)         The decision process

I have always admired the University of Dayton’s commitment to shared governance and to openness in its decision making. I have not always agreed with those decisions, of course, but the standard process followed was transparent, public and collaborative. I’m not sure I can say that the decision to close the China Institute followed that tradition.

In his Executive Summary of the China Institute Working Group’s final report, “Increasing Student and Faculty Engagement at the China Institute,” Dr. Jon Hess noted

In Spring 2018, the CAS China Institute Working Group was tasked by Dean Jason Pierce to produce a plan for how the College could increase both student and faculty engagement with CI. The group was charged with identifying (a) challenges for the CI, (b) means of advancing both the university’s long- range vision and the CAS strategic plan, and (c) developing a plan for robust involvement that would advance UD and CAS strategic priorities.

After meeting throughout the semester, a number of suggestions were made to address the challenges posed by the CI. Obviously, none of these was implemented; the decision to close the CI seemed to have been made, at the latest, in October of 2018 (although some have speculated that this decision was made as early as May, 2018). Thus, the Working Group’s good-faith efforts to identify problems and to develop solutions for them were ignored.

Furthermore, it is clear that the decision was made without consulting those who were in the best position to offer an accurate assessment of the situation on the ground in Suzhou, and who might have offered an informed and contrasting perspective on the CI and its prospects. To the best of my knowledge, both Associate Provost and Dean of the China Institute Weiping Wang, and Executive Director of the China Institute Jia Jia Wei, were informed of this decision after it had been made and were not consulted at any stage of the decision-process. I am less certain whether Sean McCarthy, head of Enrollment Management for the CI, was asked for his input although my impression is that he was not. Nick Johnson, Director of Student Life at the CI, has extensive experience with the program in Suzhou; he was not consulted about this decision, and learned of it after it had been made. I have taught three semesters in Suzhou (and, in 2007, for six weeks in Nanjing), and thus probably have as much hands-on faculty experience as anyone at UD; other than as a member of the CI Working Group, I was never asked to offer my perspective or views on the program and its prospects and, again, learned of the decision well after it had been made. To the best of my knowledge, no former or current CI students, UD staff, or CI staff were asked to offer their input or provide relevant information about their experiences in Suzhou. This seems to conflict, sharply, with the very idea of a university, where important decisions are made in a collaborative and transparent manner. It also seems to raise genuine problems for the decision-process itself, where informed sources with substantial experience were left out; presumably the best decisions are made on the basis of the best information available. It is difficult to regard this process as including those with precisely the kind of background that would be essential for coming to an informed decision.

XX, I’ve gone on here longer than I should have, and I appreciate your patience. But, in general, I would argue that the decision to close the China Institute was hasty and made on the basis of insufficient information. Giving such an ambitious project five years—at most—did not give us the opportunity to determine adequately the trajectory of its potential, nor the opportunity to implement the thoughtful suggestions the Working Group offered to meet the challenges the CI confronted. The process followed did not conform to the University’s commitment to the importance of shared governance and collaboration in making important decisions.

I am quite confident that this letter will have little effect in changing anyone’s mind, let alone the decision; a decision that was, to be fair, presented as a fait accompli is not the kind of decision that is changed. But, in closing, one other point should be made, and one that many of us might have offered in evaluating what the future would have held for the China Institute.

There are a number of foreign universities operating campuses in Suzhou, including Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University, the National University of Singapore, and Duke Kunshan University. In the broader region, a number of schools have campuses, such as Johns Hopkins in Nanjing, NYU in Shanghai, and the Tsinghua–UC Berkeley Shenzhen Institute. While some Catholic schools, such as Notre Dame, have and continue to explore establishing educational structures in China, the University of Dayton was poised to be the preeminent Catholic university in a large part of China, if not the PRC as a whole. In addition to the role this could play in the University pursuing its distinctive Marianist mission, it offered a unique opportunity to the University of Dayton in terms of international recognition and prestige. China’s overall role in the international community in the 21st century probably needs little reiteration.

XX, I appreciate you taking the time out of your schedule to read this and allowing me to express my views, however inchoate. Of course, I’m happy to discuss any of these issues further, should the situation arise.


Kurt Mosser

Associate Professor

Department of Philosophy

#31 再见苏州

Kicking and screaming (figuratively, for the most part), I left Suzhou on February 10th. I assumed this day would be long and full of bureaucratic snafus, missed flights, long lines, minimal food, and an excess of coffee. Sometimes, one’s predictions turn out to be exactly correct. But, in all honesty, it wasn’t as bad as I expected. Just as setting one’s goals sufficiently low makes them much easier to achieve, assuming the worst can result in whatever does happen—however bad—being better than that worst.

My flight was a little after noon, so naturally my driver picked me up at 5 am to take me to the Shanghai airport. That turned out to be a good idea; it only takes about 90 minutes to get to PuDong airport (although we did have to stop when entering Shanghai to get our temperature taken), but I needed the time available. I had to fill out health forms, and because my baggage was overweight (all those books I planned to read in the Spring came back with me) I had to pay that. Not at the ticket counter, but at another counter, then return to the ticket counter to demonstrate I’d paid. My luggage and myself were only checked through to Toronto, not Philadelphia: not because of 2019-nCoV, now rechristened by the WHO “COVID-19,” but because the two airlines I was using did not—according to the ticket agent, who spent quite a lot of time on her phone translating things—have an “arrangement.” Otherwise, the Shanghai to Toronto connection went smoothly (although I was out 1000¥, or $145, for those books). 12 hours later the fun began, courtesy of Air Canada and the US Customs Service.

I check in for the Philadelphia flight; I knew I was going to be rerouted to a designated CDC airport for screening, but the very nice but underinformed woman at Air Canada did not. After 15 phone calls and a 30-minute wait, I was booked to Newark. Since Air Canada and China Eastern, as noted, did not have an “arrangement,” I had to go pick up my luggage, pay another overweight fee, get this ticket (now to Newark), then go back through security. I had four hours to do this, and by the time I got to Customs I had about an hour until my flight.

There is a Simpsons where Patty and Selma—Homer Simpson’s sisters-in-law—describe their work at the Bureau of Motor Vehicles, saying “Sometimes we don’t let the lines move at all. We call those ‘weekdays’.” This, evidently, was the inspiration for Customs between Toronto and the US. I had moved about 12 feet in 45 minutes. One window was open. There was no chance of making my flight now, and I wanted to tell my daughter Emma that I was not going to make my flight (she was going to drive from Philly to Newark, bless her, to pick me up). But we were told that if we used our phones we would be escorted out (thus the threat was “you get to stand in this line again, but from the back”). By the time I got to the Customs agent, my flight was long gone.  But that didn’t matter, since Customs now took me to some room in the bowels of Newark Airport (if that isn’t poetically redundant) and I sat there for an hour waiting for someone to talk with me. There were a few others there; we had all been in China. We were all, shall we say, uninformed. Would we ever leave Toronto? Would we ever leave this room? Would I ever eat again, given the somewhat less than fabulous offerings on the flight from Shanghai?

If you dont hire enough agents, then you don’t need to open any windows. A ninety-minute wait at Customs between Toronto and the US.

Eventually, they called my name, I went in to talk to some Customs guy about China, establishing that I had never been in Wuhan, had never been in Hubei province, and had no symptoms. I did not mention that the last month, with the combination of New Years and COVID-19, that I had spent about four minutes total with anyone, and that the longest exposure I had to anyone in China was with a 服务员 at a restaurant ordering food.

I was now taken to another waiting room by another Customs agent, who told me I could text Emma to update her on the situation. He left; as I texted Emma, the Customs agent at the desk started screaming—genuine screaming—that I could not use a cell phone there because “there are signs all over that say that.” I pointed out that the signs had the proviso “without authorization,” which I had been given. This genius apparently thought “proviso” was some sort of devastating, possibly obscene, insult, and he then threatened to have me removed from the airport. So I put my phone away and waited. Eventually another Customs agent (I lost count; this was my sixth or seventh) came to escort me to my flight, a rebooked flight to Newark. We had about 30 minutes, so in addition to discussing the Knicks, the Yankees, the University of Kansas basketball team, and the differences between living in Toronto and Newark (where he used to work), he allowed me to alert Emma of the new arrival time. I thanked him as he handed me over—I was in some sort of custody, to be repeated when landing at Newark where I was handed over to another Customs agent—and told him he was the only person all day who had made any sense. The extent of my “screening” at Newark, which made all of this mishegoss necessary, was to ask me if I had been in Wuhan, or Hubei Province, in the last 14 days. I said no. They said have a nice day.

Interestingly, no one even mentioned that I was supposed to be going to Philadelphia, except the Air Canada desk clerk, who told me that—this is pretty much a quote—once I was in Newark I was on my own, and that I would be responsible for arranging (and paying for) the flight from Newark to Philadelphia. I can’t really get this all straight, but I think I’d been going about 36 hours without much food or much sleep, so I just shrugged and mumbled something in Chinese (through my mask). It might have not been adulatory of Air Canada.

At any rate, I got to my hotel in Philadelphia courteous of the supererogatory efforts of my daughter Emma and her beau David at about midnight. It was still February 10.

The next morning at 4:30, thank you jet lag, I’m up and ready to rock. I delayed long enough for places to get open, and headed for one of the few things I missed in China: a traditional unhealthful American breakfast.

Reading Terminal Market, Philadelphia

#30 死成

Somewhere around January 28th, all the Fulbright scholars in China were told to leave the country. If we stayed, we would lose our Fulbright status, and our funding. (But as I tell my Introduction to Philosophy students, it is not as if the Catholic Church did not give Galileo a choice.) We were also told we were not coming back.

Many of us are very unwilling to go; some are trying to ride it out in Thailand, or South Korea; others are already back. I’m writing this on 02.07, and I return to the US, I hope, on the 10th. Unfortunately, a lot of flights are cancelled—some whole airlines have quit flying to China—so it should be, um, interesting to see what happens trying to get out of Shanghai.

It sort of reminds me of the old bartender’s last call: “You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.”

In other words, I have to leave China, but it is not that easy to get out. My fellow Fulbrighters have shared various horror stories, including 3-day nightmares (3-night daymares?), 6-flight sequences, 3 hours in customs awaiting a health check that was then determined to be unnecessary. [(Overreaction leading to panic +  commercial interests) + (insurance companies + (n > 3 x government bureaucracies) {including the biggest country in the world})] = unpleasantness. We shall see. I’m pretty safe in Suzhou, I’m following standard precautions (although some suggestions have been a little conflicting: don’t leave your house, but get plenty of exercise). Instead, I now get to hang out in one of the busiest airports in the world for who-knows-how-long, then get in a very enclosed space for 14+ hours with who-knows-whom. Odd approach to preventing a communicable disease, to provide ideal conditions for communicability.

Mostly, I just feel very goddamn sad.

My colleague put it best: “I a little want to weep because of sad.”

I will miss my students, my colleagues, my friends, my Ayi (阿姨). I will miss Suzhou and the phenomenon that is China (not all positive, but always amazing). I will miss continuing to embarrass myself in Chinese—back to the more traditional self-embarrassment in my native tongue, I guess—and I will miss the chances to travel within China to Yunnan and Zhangjiajie. I will miss going to Berlin for a week on my way home (although it is not clear I will miss having to pay for a lot of that). I will miss the food, and the old ladies screaming on the bus, and drivers trying to kill me, and motorscooters trying to kill me, and taxis trying to kill me, and buses trying to kill me, and the chicken feet drying behind my apartment, and the pagodas, and the convenience stores, and the gardens, and the thousands of things to see here every day that are different, entertaining, intriguing, bizarre, or as quotidian as you can get. And while I am working on some things, it is not clear that I will ever get to return, other than as a tourist.

The virus—amazing how easily one begins to refer to “2019-nCoV”—is not something to dismiss. It is killing people. And the government here is doing a lot—some vital, some perhaps not—to mitigate its spread and effects. (To be sure, the government has its share of critics, many much better informed than me. And I have not addressed here the tragic situation of Dr. Li Wenliang.) It has also turned all of us into amateur epidemiologists (although some of my contacts on WeChat are closer to being professional epidemiologists), and there is a lot of information flying around, some very helpful, some not so helpful, some idiotic. (I heard from an American student that her co-worker thought she might get this virus by ordering food in a California Chinese restaurant, which is only slightly less absurd than those who think this virus has something to do with Corona beer. There is a lot wrong with Corona beer—”beer”—but this isn’t one of them.)

I have gotten my temperature taken at Costa Coffee, Starbucks (most are closed, but not all), a restaurant, getting on the subway, and getting on the bus. It is difficult to get in my apartment complex, and apparently I cannot leave after dark, or at least it gets quite difficult. Virtually everything is closed except places to get food and phones (the two Chinese essentials for life). I was in the biggest shopping mall the other day (pictures below), and two workers were playing football (soccer) in the hall. There is almost no one on the street, and virtually 100% of those who are are wearing masks; every place open that I saw requires one to wear a mask to enter.

So Suzhou is a ghost town, which is pretty creepy when a town of 10 million+ people looks like this. I’ve provided a number of pictures below from my jaunts (said jaunts being generally advised against). Everyone is waiting for things to get back to . . . normal.

Suzhou, how I hope to see you again.

Suzhou Center, weekday afternoon
Outside Suzhou Center [苏州中心], weekday evening
Traditionally busy street close to Suzhou Center
Suzhou Center
Ping Jiang Street, usually crowded with tourists
Ping Jiang Street
Suzhou Center
Like a bad science fiction movie. With dumplings.
Subway, 3pm [15]
My old neighborhood from China Institute days
Three people on this bus: the driver, me, and the guy taking temperatures.
For some reason, my entry #4, which is nothing but pictures of gelato, is by far my most popular. Especially in Russia. Consider it tradition.
Tony Bennett had San Francisco.

#28 新年:第二

Part Two of the New Year’s Holiday report.

You want quiet? Come walk around a large Chinese city on New Year’s Eve. Or New Year’s Day. I’ve been in louder libraries. I live in a town of about 10 million, and this is what my street looked like New Year’s Eve at about 8 o’clock (a Friday night):

I’m sorry I don’t have a picture of what this street normally looks like, but suffice it to say that it is quite dangerous to cross (I’m getting better at it, though), and there are a lot of restaurants, convenience stores, jade shops, clothing stores, and, of course, the hooker bars. This is what it looked like on New Year’s Day:

One of the busiest streets in Suzhou, usually full of locals and visitors, is Guan Qian Jie, with high end stores, very famous and very old Chinese restaurants and candy stores, coffee shops, a Taoist temple, a Pizza Hut, two McDonalds, and all sorts of other things. It looked like this on New Year’s Day, the middle of a Saturday afternoon:

Ping Jiang Lu, also always so chock full o’people—tourists and locals—that one can hardly walk or avoid being run over by a motor scooter, looked like this:

One thing one gets used to in China—if one plans to survive—is people everywhere, all the time, and a lot of them. The first complete Chinese sentence I think I learned was the standard complaint “中国有太多人”/”China has too many people.” So seeing Suzhou, or Guiyang, as a ghost town is not just a little unnerving; it can be a little creepy.

Pretty much people hang out with their family, eat, maybe drink, and many watch the New Year Show that is all over the TV and various other media platforms. Which is kind of cool. So I did my part to participate.

This quiet, of course, was not helped by the Coronavirus issue emerging from Wuhan. But, to be honest, I don’t think it would have been any different without the health emergency; there was no Coronavirus last year in Guilin, and I would not have been surprised to see a couple of tumbleweeds roll through on New Year’s Eve.

The outbreak of the virus has, of course, put a damper on a lot of things. It is not unusual to see people wearing masks, but most do not. Yesterday walking around, I would say that 60-70% of the people I saw were wearing them; today was closer to 80%.

A lot of public gatherings, including in Beijing, were cancelled; people generally followed instructions (wear a mask, wash your hands a lot, use sanitizer, avoid live animals [human and non-human?] and live animal [human and non-human?] markets, be careful about what you eat.

Wuhan, a town of 11 million, was completely shut down; the closest analogy I can think of is closing down Los Angeles—nobody in, nobody out, including LAX—on the afternoon of December 24th. Some people are suspicious of the government reports on the Coronavirus, given some of the things that happened in the past (e.g. SARS). From my angle officials seem to be doing a pretty good job of keeping people informed about what to do and what not to do, and they have extended the range of the general shutdown to include some 56 million people. But people travel, and Wuhan and its environs has a lot of folks, so it remains to be seen what the contagion vector is here. Yes, I just said “contagion vector.” It also makes me wonder what the moron in the White House (I realize this is unfair to other morons) would do with this kind of emergency: or any kind of emergency, for that matter.

In any case, things will be calm for awhile. Then school starts, I head to Taiwan for a week, and come back to warmer weather. I will close with a thank you to my lovely and wise Chinese tutor Emily, who gave me this electric blanket. I told her she revolutionized my world; she said I exaggerated. I’m not sure I did; down here in the southern part of China (江南/Jiangnan) people act like it never gets all that cold. So the apartments aren’t all that equipped for cold. I think it is cold. Not Chicago cold, not Murmansk cold, but pretty damn cold. Emily saved me, and I’m getting a lot of reading done since I can do that in the warmest place in my flat.

And a quick thank you to the family for my Christmas delivery; a sweatshirt from a fine university (part of trying to stay warm) and some candy, the life expectancy of which was disturbingly short. Not too sure about the flip-flops, but one can never have enough.

Oh, OK. A couple of food pictures, as is now de rigueur:

Excellent noodles from YangYang Dumplings
Yes. I risked Coronavirus: going outside, mingling with the masses, and eating street food. But these here taters are darn 很好吃!

#27 新年:第一

In about a week, it will be next year here, and everyone is getting prepared. We leave the year of the pig, and head into the year of the rat. I do not like rats. I really do not like rats. Conveniently enough, the Chinese word for “rat” seems to be the same for the word “mouse”: 老鼠. I have no problems with mice, beyond the fact that its plural reminds me of irregular things in language, which reminds me of Chinese, which reminds me of the effort I’ve put into learning Chinese, which reminds me that said effort seems have had little payoff. But otherwise, mice are okay. Rats: not okay.

Mice can be cute. So as I walk around, I see New Year’s greetings featuring cute mice, including this one. (It does make me wonder if Disney knows about all these copyright infringements; they seem to be a litigious bunch.)

Compare the pretty much uncute contrast, from the old “Underground Comix” days.

Otherwise, things are getting ever quieter. A lot of people are packing up and heading out. Walking through Soochow University’s campuses (there are two, one close to where I live and one where I teach), one sees a lot of people walking their suitcases, getting ready to catch a bus to catch a train, and then another train or plane, to go home and hang out with the family. This will almost certainly involve having two dishes for good luck: fish and dumplings. There are also all kinds of New Year’s candy available, and there will be, no doubt, some fireworks, and some hongbao: the omnipresent red envelopes full of cash. It seems unlikely that during the Song dynasty (960-1279) these were delivered on one’s phone, which seems to be the case frequently now.

I’m staying in Suzhou for the holiday; last New Year’s I was in Guiyang, and I have never seen such a large city so deserted. It will be interesting to see how quiet Suzhou can get. I’ve been stocking up on food, just in case it is difficult to find. My friend Zoe informs me, though, that many restaurants will be open. She added that people will stare at me, eating alone during the holiday. I observed that given that I’m a Westerner, and that I use my chopsticks with my left hand, I’m pretty used to getting stared at. But I’m not as much a novelty as some people; no one wants, for instance, to touch my sparse remaining hair. My African and African-American friends are not so lucky.

The other excitement of the week was attending another meeting for which I was entirely unprepared. I was asked this (and I quote):

The Suzhou Foreign Affairs office is going to hold a meeting of International experts this Friday afternoon to collect suggestions for the future development of the city.

Since I have already established beyond all doubt my undeniable expertise in “Urban Logic,” I said I would attend. I’m not quite sure I qualify as an “international expert” on anything—perhaps on the 1982 St. Louis Cardinals, or on forgetting Chinese characters—but I didn’t have anything to do, and I thought there might be food. (There wasn’t. But the tea was good.)

So we sat around and each of us made a little speech about what we would do to improve Suzhou. I was the only American; most people were Chinese, but there were Japanese, a couple of Italians (one of whom made his speech in Chinese), and a Croatian (more about him later). Some talked for what seemed like nine hours; some spoke in both Chinese and English. I, of course, made my standard apology for not being able to speak Chinese (which I make in Chinese), then gave my spiel (Hey! German! or Yiddish! Or both!).

Mine was definitely the shortest, probably about six minutes. I said I was a Fulbright, and could choose to go anywhere in China; since I chose Suzhou, obviously I didn’t think much was wrong. (How’s that for international expertise?) I said one area of restaurants, bars, and teahouses along the lake should be shut off from traffic, and I said that it would be nice if more restaurants had pictures and/or English on their menus, recognizing that English was—whether we like it or not—today’s lingua franca. (Hey! Italian! Sort of!) I also mentioned that development is a double-edged sword, and too much of it can risk exactly those characteristics that tourists come to see. (I made a snide reference to Venice here, and the Italians nodded knowingly; or maybe they were just nodding off, I’m not sure.)

The guy running the show seemed to think that adding English to menus was somehow a great cultural affront, which I didn’t really get. I just thought it would help folks make a little more money—my money, for instance—if you could eat in a place without being able to read Chinese characters for food (which, as mentioned previously, are not always illuminating even if you know what the characters say).

The thing that kept me awake—I have to admit, there was some serious boilerplate being tossed around—was that we were all using this translation device. It will, when it works, be extremely cool; you speak your language, and up on a big screen it is very quickly translated (in our case, into English, Japanese, or Chinese, depending on the speaker). But it is not quite there yet, and I had to quit looking at the English translations because they were just off enough to be quite hilarious. I wish I had direct quotes, but here is an attempt to reproduce the effect:

Thank you for inviting me today. My primary suggestion is to develop sports and athletic endeavors, and remind Chinese children, and their parents, that physical activity is not only good for them, but makes them better students.

[Translation on the screen:] This day is a day of Yes! Suggestions of anus sports and production don’t deny our cats the needs they have. Physics can prevent tomorrows from the aspect of now, but spend time on pop. [I am not making this up; during the Croatian’s speech, both “anus” and “sexually” showed up in surprising contexts. Please observe the use-mention distinction. And, yes, I am immature.]

One last point: I have met a fair number of Croatians, largely because where I lived in Chicago every single building superintendent was Croatian. But the Croatian at this meeting was by far the largest Croatian—one of the largest humans—I have ever met. It was nice of him to stand next to me in the picture, so I look like Linda Hunt (without her talent, of course).

International Experts

Next week will be New Years Part Two. In the meantime, food pictures.

Basically: Chinese Scrambled Eggs. Meh.
Bamboo. Crunchy. Good.

Shrimp. Zoe ate almost all the shrimp. That is okay, since I’m pretty suspicious of shrimp in Asia.

Basic noodles. My staple dish.
Fake chicken made from tofu. (素鸡). Didn’t taste like chicken. Didn’t taste like tofu. Weird texture. Weird taste. Weird. Not bad, but weird (or new; I’m a tolerant soul).

#26 食

Classes have concluded. Grading has concluded. Nothing happens until after New Year/Spring Festival. So it is, naturally, time to eat.

I’ve mentioned before that the easiest introduction to Chinese culture is food. Food is everywhere; there are probably 50 restaurants within three blocks of where I live, and the blocks are not especially large. Many of these I cannot eat in because they list things only in Chinese. I am a bit intimidated by that, and even when I can read some of the characters, I can’t read all or enough of them, or those selling me those dishes will ask me questions I don’t understand.

Me:     I’d like the chicken soup.

Them:  XXXXX

Me:      Could you say that again?

Them:  XXXXX

Me:      (I wonder if they are asking if I want them to pour it on my head or down my pants?)

So I don’t go in.

And even when I can read the characters, and I’m ready for questions (I can usually deal with things like “do you want it heated?” and “is this to go or to eat here?”), the dishes may have names that are not really that informative. So I go into a place, and read the menu, and am not that confident what I will be getting when I ask for “Seven Swallows Fly Over Purple Mountain.” Is that fried duck tongue? (If so, ok.) Is that eggplant? (If so, not ok.)

This is frustrating. These restaurants are very cheap, and I’ve eaten at many of them when I’m with Chinese speakers. But I’m often on my own, would just like a bowl of noodles or some chicken and rice, and am too cowardly to go for it. I am working on it: characters and attitude.

In the meantime, I fix things at home and eat at a) Chinese restaurants with English menus, b) Chinese restaurants with picture menus, and c) Western restaurants. The last tends to be quite expensive, so I try not to go to those too often. However, it is sometimes nice to just get a hamburger or some pasta or a pizza.

But this week, it seemed all sorts of folks wanted to go out to eat. Monday there was my friend Jimmy, who helped me by doing some translation work; Tuesday was Emily, my Chinese teacher (and patient soul); Wednesday was a student at Soochow University, whose name I don’t actually know (I have it narrowed down to Mariah or Mary), and I’m not sure she knows my name either; Thursday was Emily again, and Zoe, an old pal. (Well, she’s not old, but I’ve known her since I arrived in Suzhou.) Friday was lunch with Ann and Hong Xia, two colleagues from my university.

Yet, foolishly, I forgot to take pictures, except with Jimmy. So no pictures of Uighur food, Chinese barbecue, or the various dishes I was treated to at the new Soochow University faculty dining room. What was I thinking?

But I did remember to take some pictures at the good dumpling restaurant quite near me; I eat there every couple of weeks, because their food is very good and it is close (and they have a menu with both English and pictures). It is a little more expensive, in part because it can be, given the reviews it gets on Yelp, Trip Advisor, etc.. And probably because of that, there are often people in there looking suspiciously like me.

So have some food pictures, and come back next week to see if anything more exciting has happened. Generally, at least in my life, everyone seems to be waiting to go home, or some place, for the upcoming holiday, the biggest holiday of the year. Not me; travelling during the New Year holiday is something for people much braver, and much more tolerant, than I will ever be.

[I will admit I have not yet turned on the TV in my flat, and have not had a beer since August. New Year’s Eve, I am going to have some beer, and watch—along with all the rest of China—the New Year’s Extravaganza. I don’t understand most of it (it is very Chinese), but I like watching it anyway. Last year I watched some of it (it goes on for awhle) in a bar in Guiyang. Beer seems to help me understand it better, or help me not care that I don’t.]

Jimmy—Korean Barbecue
Excellent Chicken Dish at Yang Yang Dumplings
Green Beans at Yang Yang Dumplings: a great dish

And, of course, dumplings (饺子) at Yang Yang Dumplings!

#25 小队目标

My daughter Emma, bless her heart, is good at introducing to me current lingo (although by the time I write this, it will all be, no doubt, out of date): “lit,” “HAM,” and, importantly, “squad goals.” If I understand “squad goals” correctly, it is the idea that one’s group has certain aspirations, either to be or to do. I’ll go with the explanation provided by Grammar Girl:

”Squad goals” can be simply the goals of your squad (your friends or your clique), but sometimes that seems to play out in practice as simply “awesome,” as in “This is awesome,” meaning “I or we want this someday,” or “We want to be like this.”


In the US—I don’t know about elsewhere, and I get mixed responses when I ask my Chinese friends about this—we like to make New Year’s Resolutions. Lose weight, read more, quit shoplifting, whatever. This generally seems to conform to the following recursive sequence:

  1. Make resolution for the new year
  2. Keep the resolution for a while (2 days, 2 weeks, 2 months)
  3. Break resolution
  4. Feel regret and/or guilt at 3) until New Year’s
  5. Make resolution for the new year

I make resolutions, but I’m surprisingly good at keeping them. Some handy suggestions for this successful strategy:

  1. Resolve to do things one already does
  2. Resolve to do things that one likes to do
  3. Resolve to do things that are ridiculously easy to achieve

No doubt, my reader would like examples. Well, okay then:

  1. I resolved last year to read 50 books. Since I read 50 books every year, this was achieved.
  2. I resolved last year to travel more. I like traveling, I found a way to pay for it (actually, I found a way for some of you to pay for it: your tax and tuition dollars at work), so this was achieved.
  3. People in front of me in line at the store are often challenged by math, by coupons, by natural language, by reality, and sometimes by all of these; I want to kill them. I resolved last year not to kill them. Since I don’t really think I could kill anyone, this was achieved.

Here in China, I spend a lot of time by myself. I have some good friends here, but everyone is busy, so I think this means my squad is what set-theorists would call a singleton, a set of one, or just me: 一个人. It’s okay; I’m good at keeping myself entertained, and those books aren’t going to read themselves. Plus I have a guitar and a mandolin, 10,000 steps to get in every day, Chinese characters to forget, courses to teach, writing to do: there’s a lot to occupy my time. So if I understand this correctly, my squad goals reduce to my goals.

(My daughter will be happy to correct me on this; she seems never to tire of telling people—including the Twitterverse—about my asking her what the “insult community” is, since I had never heard of the “incel community.” Of course, now having heard of the latter, I wish I had not.)

So my New Year’s Resolutions:

  1. Read 50 books
  2. Finish one philosophy paper, get a good start on a second one, and get a good start (~100 pages) on the book I’m writing. And finish writing the five songs I have started.
  3. Get better at Chinese, specifically listening comprehension

Otherwise, classes have concluded, except for grading the final assignments. I now have until February 17 to do whatever it is I do, which is mostly trying to write and to learn some new guitar and mandolin pieces. On February 17 I go to Taiwan for a week, to give a couple of papers, see an old friend of mine (a former student from Nanjing University), and check out Taipei. (Is it here that I’m supposed to say “Taiwan is and always has been part of China”?)

Then the next semester will begin in earnest, and I hope to as well.

A couple of final points:

I finally got to see the famous “Precious Belt Bridge” (宝带桥), originally built in 819 c.e.. It is a complicated but cool little piece of Suzhou history; for more details, see Koss, Stephen Beautiful Su: A Social and Cultural History of Suzhou, China (ppg. 62-64). And a major shout-out to my former student Danny—aka “Legend”—for helping me get there, which was surprisingly difficult.


I would also like to note that Neil Armstrong’s influence in the PRC is palpable. Over many urinals in China, one sees signs about one individual small step forward leading to profound cultural progress.

And for no particular reason, I celebrated my New Year’s Day with Italian food: a little mozzarella, some cornbread cake-ettes, and lasagna, from Il Milione (which is good, but not as good as MammaMia!, for those fretting about eating Italian food in Suzhou).

#24 中国观察随笔

I’ve already offered some of my observations about China, and about people I’ve encountered in China. This blog entry is just a bunch more random observations about the Middle Kingdom and some of its residents, a few of whom have appeared here before.

Since the first picture I post is the one that shows up on Twitter, I have to choose wisely. And it is especially wise to include a picture of my two student friends—helpers—Jill and Tianyu. When I have an emergency, they come to my rescue. Since I have not had too many emergencies, I don’t need to bother them: they have plenty of other things to do (such as study). I hadn’t talked to them for a couple of months, and then last week they showed up—completely on their own, and out of the blue—at my flat, bringing me that which is pictured below. It was an incredibly nice and thoughtful gesture.

They have been extremely patient with me, and with my one continuing problem: the bank. As mentioned before, everyone under the age of 120 uses the phone to pay for things, from a small bottle of water to, I guess, a car. (I haven’t witnessed anyone buying a car, to be honest, nor do I plan to. I once tried to buy a car in the US using my debit card, which certainly got an interesting reponse from the dealer.) Jill, Tianyu, and I have not had success in getting my phone to work to pay with AliPay and WeChatPay. My colleague Hongxia then tried. We spent an hour at the bank, only to discover not only could Hongxia and I (and Jill and Tianyu) not get it to work, the bank could not get it to work. While this is frustrating, at least Hongxia has La Gioconda to comfort her.

Hongxia is a philosopher at Suzhou University, with specialties in the philosophy of art/aesthetics and Martin Heidegger. She even puts up with me although everytime I write Heidegger’s name on the blackboard I seem not to be able to help myself and add a little symbolic comment.

A little existentialism, a little German, and a recommended bar on the Rive Gauche in Paris.

She is very tolerant of what I guess is my frequent tendency to annoy her, and even took me out for a lovely Christmas dinner at a Chinese-French fusion restaurant (mostly French), where I never even saw a single chopstick.

A little salmon, a little caviar

Hongxia also helped me (since—did I mention this?—I cannot use my phone to do this) order pizza for the last day of my “History of Western Philosophy: Kant to 1900”:


A couple other random remarks.

As my reader knows, I spend a fair amount of time on the bus. I’m often on the same bus with the same people, and while they may not have figured out who I am, I know who they are. One of the regulars is a woman who rarely says anything, but always sits next to someone who has quite a lot to say. This woman almost exclusively responds to her interlocutor by saying only something that sounds like “aaaaah” or “yaaaaah” or “baaaah,” over and over. Twenty-five minutes of “baaaaah” over and over has led to my new name for her: Goat Lady.

Another regular is a Westerner, a guy I think of as the albino Philip Seymour Hoffman. In fact, he is not albino (is that term politically incorrect? If so, I didn’t use it), but he is really, really white. He also looks a great deal like Hoffman. I’m pretty sure it is not, in fact, Hoffman, since the guy on the bus is alive. However, even though we are often the only two Westerners on the bus, every time he looks at me (looks through me) as if he has never seen me before, even though I have tried to say hello. This, in fact, is fairly standard in my lao wai encounters. Perhaps I appear very threatening.

But on this same note, apparently Suzhou’s bus riders met and voted that it is okay to sit next to me. I’m on the bus almost every day, going one place or another. From August through November, Chinese would never sit next to me unless that was the last available seat, and sometimes not even then. This was a remarkably consistent pattern. Suddenly, everything changed, and now people sit next to me even when there are lots of other seats available. I’m not sure what I did. I’m guessing that, as is so often the case, I did nothing.

One New Year’s holiday, our family spent it in Manhattan, staying near Wall Street. (The daughter wanted to do the Times Square thing, which turned out to be a little frigid for those not sufficiently drunk to realize they were getting frostbite and hypothermia.) The other reason we were there was to see the Vermeer exhibit at the Frick. (The lines were ungodly long, so we didn’t go. These holiday plans, as you can see, didn’t quite work out.) But behind the hotel desk was a framed picture, and the clerk—when he saw I was from Ohio—kindly informed me that it was not the original. That was certainly helpful, given that this is probably one of the three or four most valuable paintings in the world, and how surprising it would be that some random hotel would have the original hanging in the lobby. When I saw the same picture (okay, any philosophers reading this will quibble with the word “same” here) in a shop in Suzhou, I decided not to go in and ask the owner if this was the original.

I usually post pictures of good food; here’s an exception. This was listed as “mashed potatoes with truffle, bacon, and egg.” In fact, it was much closer to lukewarm potato pudding with an overwhelming egg taste, with no trace of truffle (and we all know how tasty those truffle traces can be), and a piece of undercooked bacon on top. I ate it—of course—but it was pretty terrible. Mistakes were made.

At least there was watermelon juice.

A last note, on what is known as “Chinglish.” Anyone who makes fun of odd or humorous translations they see in China should first show me their characters and the brilliance of their own Chinese. Most Americans, were they to try to translate English into Chinese, would come closer to producing a Jackson Pollock painting than anything close to a comprehensible sentence in natural language. So I understand why Chinese folks sometimes get annoyed at those who make fun of Chinglish (中式英语).

With that said, this seemed to be a particularly unfortunate translation choice, particularly given the color of the beverage in question.

#23 节日

I realize I don’t write all that much about the actual Fulbright experience. I seem to write about what goes on while I take advantage of the actual Fulbright experience. So be it.

I’m about four months into the ten month stay, and I know I won’t want to return to the US. I especially do not want to return to a US where Donald Trump can be reelected; but I don’t think I can afford to teach in China. But I have not stopped trying to do so.

The holidays are among us, and the one thing I definitely do miss—my guess is that almost everyone would regard this as obvious and/or self-evident—is the family. I have some pretty good friends in Suzhou, and even a few scattered around China: Beijing, Taiwan, Hong Kong. But given the following picture, who wouldn’t miss this, my son Henry playing with his food?

And this is Henry, a few years earlier, playing with an Elvis impersonator in Las Vegas:

This, of course, is Emma. She often reminds me of Winston Churchill.

And this is Robyn, who has never reminded anyone of Winston Churchill.

I think this is the first Thanksgiving I’ve ever missed with everyone, which made me sad.

Emma’s no-doubt excellent greens, from a recipe she learned from her Nana

And I will also miss Christmas, meaning I will miss these kinds of profoundly thoughtful expressions of the Christmas spirit, and pie:

Then, in January, we will have New Year’s/Spring Festival here in China. I will no doubt be blogging about that, since elsewhere I have never seen such enormous cities completely shut down for several days, or more. Imagine standing in Times Square at 9 pm on New Year’s Eve, and seeing two people and maybe one car. That’s what China looks like. And it goes on for several more days.

As you may have surmised, not a lot went on this week. Classes are winding down, and given what we have been talking about, the students seem more than a little relieved:

And, for no reason that I can identify, here is Yindan:

Next week will no doubt be livelier and more exciting. In the meantime, have some more food pictures.

Potato soup and Crawdad flatbread
Green curry, and lemongrass chicken skewers. Unlike my last attempt at Thai food, the food was both good and spicy, and the server was not from the Twilight Zone.