December

China Journal
December 1985

My year in China was eventful. I tried very hard to keep a record of my daily activities.
Some days were more exciting than others; I'll let you be the judge.
Sadly I did not continue my written journal past the first semester. However, for the 2nd semester I have included a synopsis and reflections on some high points along with photos.

December 8

We were excited today with our first snow flurries of the winter! No accumulation, though. We have been experiencing a very mild winter this year, so they say. It’s just as well. imageWe have no heat in our classrooms or our apartments, except for our bedrooms. In China, only those cities north of the Yangtze River have heat inside their homes, schools and places of business. This is to conserve energy. However, people in southern China do experience a great deal of discomfort when freezing Siberian cold fronts move in from the north. We have experienced several of those here in Shanghai already, and they are bitterly miserable, although they don’t last long.

I often wonder how the boat-people and street-sleepers manage during these times.

December 9

Today I took a few hours to go to the Shanghai Marintec Exhibit. Tickets to this exhibit were at a premium. One of the students gave me his ticket and insisted I go. Since we have several students who work in Ship Designing and Engineering, I felt I should make the attempt for their sakes. Many of them were not able to go. It proved to be quite fascinating. I was especially intrigued with the ship-models on display. Many countries of the world had booths on display and were giving away free posters and pamphlets advertising their particular companies. The United States was not represented, surprisingly. Many students were wanting to know why. I collected lots of literature on ship building and design and brought them back for the students. They absolutely devoured everything.

December 13

We were delighted and amused today when our two little Christmas trees arrived!!! Several weeks ago I asked Zheng Xian Min if he knew anyplace in Shanghai where we could buy a Christmas tree. He said he wasn’t sure what a Christmas tree looked like, or where and if we could find one. A few days later he called and said the teacher’s office was sending us two Christmas trees as a gift. We were elated! I found out later, Christmas trees are terribly expensive and next-to-impossible to find. In order to get one at all, you must go through the infamous Chinese “back door.”

So, when the trees arrived this morning, of course we were excited! I was working at my desk and Karen was standing by talking to me and looking out the window. All of a sudden, she broke into peals of laughter. Our trees were being delivered outside. One for Norah and Rollie and one for us. I have to admit, my first glimpse of our tree sent me into hysterics. A few minutes later a knock came at our door. Karen and I managed to control ourselves long enough to graciously accept our little bonsai tree, delivered by Zheng Xian Min and six helpers!! I think they were more pleased and excited about it than we were! After they left, Karen and I went to work with the scissors and scotch tape, and tried patching the tree up a little. We trimmed some of the longer branches and taped the sprigs on where they were needed on shorter branches. Here was the end result:

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Oh, yes…we were finally able to get our star to stand up straight by taping it to a chopstick!! Well…a few lights, tinsel, and small decorations (we had brought from US) helped the situation considerably. We called it our Charlie Brown Christmas tree, and our students absolutely loved it!

December 14

Today at 6:00 A.M. we boarded a train for Wuxi for an all-day excursion with some of the members of Class A. We were absolutely freezing on the train since there was no heat. Wuxi is located approximately 87 miles west of Shanghai, and has a population of 650,ooo. After two hours of traveling, we arrived in Wuxi with frozen toes but warm spirits. It is always a delight to be with students outside of the classroom and get to know them better as friends. Once having arrived in Wuxi, the students quickly hired a van for traveling and fed us warmed steamed-bread. Fortunately, it began to warm up as the day progressed.

Wuxi is located on Lake Tai (Tai Hu), one of China’s five largest lakes. We were all quite intrigued with the fishermen along the lake shore. It was fascinating to watch them cast their nets and scoop for freshwater clams. It is incredible to believe that an entire family, and all their possessions, will reside on one of these little boats.

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Fisherfolk on the Rivers (by Fan Zhongyan 939-1052)
Men who come and go on the rivers,
All enjoy the savor of perch.
Pray, look at the leaf-like boat,
Now seen, now unseen, in the windy waves.

The original name of this city was Youxi, meaning “with tin” – referring to the local tin mines. But, the tin was later depleted during the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.- 220 A.D.) and the name was changed to Wuxi – “without tin.” We visited two of the main garden parks situated on Tai Lake. Everything was bleak and bare because of winter, but the parks still had a charm and attraction to them. Turtle Head Island (Yuantouzhu) is a beautiful park situated on the southern shore of Taii Lake. The island itself is in the shape of a turtle’s head, thus its name. We also visited the famous Li Garden – Liyuan. (Seems like the Chinese consider everything in their country famous for one reason or another!) All of the parks I have seen so far in China reflect the same classic Chinese design which includes rockeries, arched bridges, pavilions and walkways built on dikes that cross the lake.

Some time ago I had mentioned to the students in class that I would to visit a small Chinese village. So, one of the special delights of this trip was getting to take a long walk through the outskirts of Wuxi. One of the students, Pu Bar Rong, is a native of Wuxi, so knew all the back roads quite well. Half-way through our hour’s hike along the back roads we ran across a pre-school. Mr. Pu walked in and asked the teachers if the “foreign guests” could have a visit. The teachers apologized that the children were all taking their afternoon nap, but cordially invited us to come in and have a look anyway. As soon as four foreigners walked in, the children all jumped out from under their covers squealing with delight – they had never seen the sight of a foreigner! They were especially attracted to Rollie’s white hair and kept calling out, “Yeye – Yeye: Grampa! Grampa!” The children were all so adorable, of course we all pulled our cameras out for a picture. The teachers hurriedly explained to the children that their picture was going to be taken so they should crawl back under the covers like good little boys and girls and look like they were sleeping!

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Well…they tried!!

In the early evening we returned to Wuxi for a delicious supper of “Sweet Baozi” – meat dumplings for which Wuxi is quite famous. This was absolutely some of the tastiest food I’ve ever eaten in China. I imagine the fact that we were half-starved also added to the enjoyment. We then spent an hour shopping and walking the streets of Wuxi at night before boarding the train for home. I was totally exhausted and ready to curl up for a nap, but sat by Song Guo Xing who carried on a non-stop conversation all the way home to Shanghai. The students absolutely delight in practicing their English with us and seize every opportunity. (There is never a moment’s rest!) I was especially proud of Mr. Song, however. He is the same one who told me his name was “Computer Science.” He has made amazing progress with his English! He’s an exemplary student!

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Mr. “Computer Science”
with his son
“Winter Tiger.”

December Christmas Week

This week we will have three individual Christmas parties for our students here at Tian Lin apartments. They are so excited…this is their first Christmas party and they are beside themselves with the anticipation.

A journal entry from one of the students read:

“December 24th is our turn to join the Christmas party. This is the happiest day in this month. We classmates rode on our bicycles and others went by bus to Tian Lin. The first impression given to me is the wonderful rooms. When we visit Miss Pardoe’s and Miss Isensee’s bedroom we are all full of praise. The rooms are small and warm but clear and bright. The wall are hung with many pictures and Christmas cards. In the sitting room there is a beautifully decorated Christmas tree. Another think that surprised me is Miss Pardoe and Miss Isensee dressed up beautifully and gracefully. Miss Isensee played her guitar and we sing the Christmas songs. The next item was exchanging Christmas gifts. It’s a funny game and makes us laughing and yelling a lot. At about 3 o’clock we go downstairs to Dr. R. Lewis’s and Dr. N. Lewis’s apartment. Mrs. Lewis is a very good plain cook and she prepared delicious refreshments for us. We toasted and blessed each other. We eat and talk until our monitor says “good-bye.” This is our first time and last time (maybe not) with our English teachers to spend a joyful Christmas. I’ll sink it into my mind forever.”

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Professor Ling Shuang opens up his gift at the Christmas party – a red plastic blow-up toy seal!! Prof. Ling is the Chinese administrator who oversees the ESEC program. He also teaches several under-grad English courses on campus.

Another student journal entry:

“It’s the first time that I went to our teachers’ apartment today. I was so glad that we would have the Christmas party there. Knocking at the door, we found that our teachers who were wearing nice dresses which made them much more beautiful than usual, opened the door and invited us to come in. As soon as I entered the room, I sniffed a pleasant slight scent and felt the warm air surrounding me. Though the weather was very cold because winter in Shanghai is always cold, it was so warm inside the room that many of us took off our coats. I also took off my coat because both the air and the heart was warm. Having looked at my teachers’ pictures, Christmas cards and other interesting things which were carefully decorated, we began to exchange our presents. Every one of us took one gift and there were many kinds of presents. Among them were books, toys, sculptures and so on. It was interesting exchange. Can you say it was a present exchange? No. I believed that wasn’t only the present exchange. That was an emotion exchange, pleasant exchange and friendship exchange. The party was carrying on and all of us were intoxicated with joy!”

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Christmas Party Reception All the goodies, including nuts, candy, and popcorn were eaten with chopsticks!

Another student journal entry:

“Today is Christmas Day, which is the largest festival in a year for many people of the west and other places in the world. As the east nation, Chinese people weren’t familiar with the festival. However, recently the people who know Christmas Day are more and more. Every Christmas Eve, many young men and women always went to churches. They listened to Christmas songs, too part in many activities and talked with priests or Christians. During the Eve, churches were too crowded, so churches had to print the tickets for Christmas and gave them to some people according to their policy. I remember that before Christmas Day of last year, one of my colleagues told me he got a ticket for Christmas from a church. Although he wasn’t a Christian, he was very interested in such activity. Later, I asked him how he felt on that day. He smiled and said, “It is very interesting! The song is so sweet. I have never had such an experience.” Since then, I’ve known anybody can enter a church and take part in the activities there, even though he isn’t a Christian. On a Sunday, my wife and I went to a church downtown. The waiters (I’m sorry, I don’t know how to call them) at the front door were very kind to us. The church was already crowded. It spent a few minutes for us to find our seats. On that day, we were very lucky because a priest from the middle America was making a speech in English. The Chinese priest beside him was translating his words into Chinese. In his speech, there were many English words I didn’t understand. Besides, I wasn’t familiar with God, Bible and some stories. Just because of Chinese priest’s translation, I understood the speech. The topic was about how to know and understand a person then help him/her. Of course, it was a complex problem. I am neither a communist nor a Christian. I think China knows outside too less, so does outside. It is necessary to exchange between different cultures. Sometimes we can find many common points.”

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December 24 - Christmas Eve

This evening all the foreign teachers and students were treated to a marvelous Christmas Eve reception at Jiaotong University. Everything was beautifully decorated with a Christmas tree and lights, and there was wonderful Christmas music, including Handel’s Messiah!! The array of food was beyond our wildest imaginings. We had a sumptuous feast of Chinese as well as western food, including a huge stuffed turkey and a beautifully decorated Christmas cake. I must say the administration of Jiaoda went out of their way to give us a pleasant Christmas, and to help us celebrate our traditional holiday. They are kind and gracious people. Each foreign guest was also presented with a gift, a beautiful pen engraved with the name and seal of Jiaotong University.

December 25 - Christmas Day

This morning my team (Karen, Rollie, Norah and I) got together for a Christmas breakfast of good old western pancakes! Then we exchanged gifts. Then I left for lunch at Ruth Peever’s apartment across town. She had invited several of the English teachers from the Christian Fellowship to have Christmas dinner together.

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We had a delightful time and scrumptious food including stuffed chicken, baked potatoes and mashed potatoes, carrot coins, cauliflower, beets, and some yummy sweets and Ada’s famous pecan pie!!

Later in the evening Helen Oatey and I went to the Shanghai Community Church to attend their 5th annual Christmas Night Candlelight service. What an amazing experience that was! I can honestly say I’ve never been in any Christmas service before that was more beautiful than this one. The church was beautifully decorated with a Christmas tree, lights, wreaths, poinsettias and candles. But, the real beauty of the service was in the people who were participating.

The Hengshan Community Church was formerly Episcopalian and was built by Americans in 1925. During the Cultural Revolution it was severely damaged and then closed down. On Christmas night 1980 the church was reopened again for the first time. One of the members of image the church was telling me that their first service after the reopening was so emotional, people could hardly contain themselves. The pastors could hardly conduct the service for their tears! As I sat in the service I could really FEEL the depth of emotion and worship from the congregation.

The order of the service was quite traditional and included the reading of Scripture from the pastors, congregational singing and prayer, a flute solo, harp solo, and a mini choir cantata. Many of the songs I recognized including: Silent Night, O Come All Ye Faithful, and Joy to the World. At the end of the service the choir filed out of the church, carrying their candles down the center aisle. If only I could have had pictures of their faces!! They were followed by the pastors. When the pastors reached the back door, one of them turned around, faced the congregation and crying out with a loud, emotional voice, raised his arms and blessed the people. I will never forget this service as long as I live!

One of the ladies in the church, who spoke fluent English, told me there are more than 20 Christian churches in Shanghai. She said Hengshan Community Church had a membership of 3000, and that 1/3 of them were young people. She said one thousand have been baptized since the church reopened.

Well, thus my first Christmas in China ended. I must say it was a wonderful and meaningful experience.

…for we have seen His star in the East! Matthew 2:2

December 27

This afternoon we were invited to a Christmas Party for all foreign teachers in Shanghai, sponsored by the Vice-Mayor of the city. Once again, they outdid themselves in making us all feel welcomed and appreciated. The best part of the afternoon was the refreshments – special Shanghai pastries. Shanghai is famous for its pastries, but it is difficult to find them in the stores while they are fresh – they sell out quickly.

Student quote of the week:

“In Christmas evening, Santa Claus gives children gift horses!”

December 29

Last night, Zhang Zhong Xiang, director of Foreign Affairs at Jiaotong University called me to ask a favor. A friend of his who is a director with the Shanghai Film Studio had just come to visit him and was in a panic. They had scheduled to begin work on a movie entitled “A Grain of Rice in the Boundless Sea” – but they needed some foreigners who could pass as Europeans to participate in the movie. He didn’t know any foreigners, so called on Mr. Zhang hoping he could draft some of the teachers from Jiaotong. So, Mr. Zhang called me and asked if I could round up some teachers on the spur of the moment. He told me the movie was about the life of a famous Chinese painter, Liu Hai Shu. Mr. Liu is now quite elderly, in his 90’s, and they were wanting to film his life story while he was still living. As a young man, Mr. Liu studied art in Paris. This particular segment of the movie was to be a dance scene in Paris at a private party. We were told they only needed us to appear in background scenes and that we didn’t need to be concerned about any speaking parts. It was pretty short notice and I was only able to recruit six teachers, including myself. At 8:00 this morning the studio director came in a van to pick us up. Rollie was told to come dressed in a suit and tie. The five of us ladies were told we would be able to change into clothing at the studio wardrobe.

As soon as we arrived at the studio, we were whisked off to the dressing room. We dressed and undressed a dozen times, but couldn’t find anything that fit! Being foreigners, we were image considerably larger than the average Chinese and couldn’t fit into any of the clothes! I finally managed to squeeze into an ugly, old aqua-colored dress that was three inches too short in the sleeves and about five inches too short in length! The side seams in the dress were ripping out. I couldn’t find any dress shoes that fit, so I ended up having to wear my brown loafers. I was then told to go to the hairdresser to “have my hair repaired!” That was an interesting experience as my hairdresser had never styled curly hair before. image I was feeling rather dowdy until I saw my “partner,” then I didn’t feel quite so bad. I was paired up with a tall, Swedish business man passing through town for a few days. He was discovered in his hotel and whisked away to the studio to appear in this movie! We were one motley looking crew and not feeling very Hollywood. Mr. Swede was forced to wear a suit about seven sizes too small. They ended up taking the hem out of his pants, but they were still too short! We nearly split our sides with laughter when the others walked out of the dressing room. Kate was the only one who managed to find a good-fitting dress. The others, out of desperation, were dressed in sweater-tops and make-shift skirts, made from dresses with the bodices rolled down!! Yikes! We were all walking around feeling rather sheepish, and grateful that we would only be appearing in the background, with no close ups – or so we were told.

Once everyone emerged from their dressing rooms and had their “hair repaired,” the filming began with the dance scene. Swede and I were told to sit on the sofa, pretend we were sipping wine, and visit. Fortunately, he spoke fluent English. The dance scene was shot several times and lasted about an hour. In the middle of this scene an old man walked into the studio and immedi ately everything came to a halt. Everyone gathered around him to make introductions and shake hands. Someone explained that it was Liu Hai Shu, himself – the man whose life-story we were filming. He and his wife, and daughter stayed for quite some time to watch the filming.

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Mr. Lui Hai Sum his wife and daughter, and the "Leading Lady"

Well, once the dance scene was finished, the six of us got up and headed back to the dressing-rooms, relieved that it was all over. However, as I was walking down the hall someone grabbed me by the arm and said I had to come back, that I was in the next scene. I just couldn’t imagine! When I found out I was going to have to play in a scene next to the leading lady, I was panic-stricken and horrified! It was a very minor scene, but nonetheless, I was front, stage-center in my ugly dress and brown loafers!

In this particular scene I was asked to stand by the leading lady, keep my mouth moving and feign a conversation. Then the leading man was to walk up and ask her for a dance. They shot the scene five times before they were satisfied with the results. Not knowing what else to say in Chinese, I simply kept repeating the question “Ni de shemme mingzi?” –What is your name? The poor lady would politely nod and repeat her name for me. She did this about fifty times before it was all over. The worst part came in the second shooting. I had accidentally exposed some flesh in front of the camera, because of the growing rip in the side seam of my dress under my arm. The director yelled something, the cameras stopped rolling, and in ran a seamstress with a needle and thread. She whipped in a few stitches and the show proceeded.

Soon after, we were told we would be taking a lunch break. All of the cast were to be transported by bus to a local restaurant a few miles down the road. Horrors! By this time, we just wanted to go home. We weren’t too excited about making an appearance in public in our ill-fitting clothes. To top it off, we only had a few minutes to eat a bowl of noodles before we were rushed back to the studio. By this time, we were all convinced the life of a movie star was not too glamorous. Once back at the studio, we were told that we were needed for several more scenes, and were asked to stay. It was too late to back out. We were committed! Norah was asked to sit at the grand piano and play some music, which she managed to feign by running her hands back and forth across the keys. Rollie was plugged into several scenes with the leading man. They really liked his appearance in his nice suit, and with his white hair he looked like a real sophisticated French scholar.

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The Movie Set

As the afternoon wore on, we began to get progressively more tired and hungry. At six o’clock, without a break, we were served a delicious box supper of rice and meat sauce with pork. We were famished and managed to gulp down our supper between scenes.

Soon I was escorted to center-stage once again, was asked to sit in an easy-chair, and was told in this scene a Chinese gentleman would walk up to me, bow politely and feign an animated conversation, to which I was supposed to respond. The cameras started to roll. A very sophisticated man walked up, bowed politely, and began reciting the only thing he knew in English, the ABCs! So, I responded with the only thing I could think of in Chinese at the moment – the numbers one to ten …”yi, er, san, si…” We tried to look as animated as possible, nodding our heads and smiling a lot, and desperately trying not to burst out laughing! The director seemed pleased and only shot the scene once. Later, Karen asked me, “You two seemed to really be enjoying your conversation! What were you talking about?”

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Kate and I with the Leading lady"

Finally, at about 7:30 in the evening we were told filming of the “dance scene” had been completed. We were quite relieved and more than ready to go home. The director took us all to a back room and presented us with gifts of appreciation. We were each presented with an original piece of Chinese calligraphy done by one of Mr. Liu’s pupils. He is also rather elderly, but quite well known in China. We were told later that the calligraphy was considered quite valuable. The calligraphy was a treasure, but the memories of our “Chinese movie debut” were even more so. All the way home, all we could say was, “Only in China!” Only in China could we have ever gotten a bit part in a movie on the spur of the moment!

The movie is scheduled to be shown on T.V. in April. (Shanghai was considered the Hollywood of China. It would have been interesting to see the final result of our movie debut, but we all left the country before it was aired.)

Student quote of the week:

“Most husbands in Shanghai are pen-hecked!”

December 31, 1985 - The Last Day of the Year

Today the students threated me to a surprise birthday party! Actually, they’re such fun-lovers they’ll use any excuse for a party. Since Karen’s birthday is June 4th, they decided to have a combination birthday party for the two of us. We were presented with some lovely gifts, flowers, and cakes complete with candles. For the first time in my life I was not able to blow out all my candles with one puff!! That is a sure sign that I’m getting old!

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One of the students got up and shared a “Congratulatory Speech:

Miss Isensee, On this wonderful day today, I, on behalf of all the classmaters of ESEC give warm congratulation to you! We congratulate you for the birthday happy! Although you are a long way from your home in the United States. We hope Shanghai may become your second hometown, and we may become your good friends. We want you may enjoy this jubilee jocundly and stay memorable in your life.

In China we have an ancient proverb: the happiness of a teacher is with “have pupils everywhere in the world.” You are American teacher, but you not only have American students, you also have many Chinese students on the other half of the earth. You really “have pupils everywhere in the world.” This is the biggest happiness in a teacher’s career. Miss Isensee, we enjoy your excellent teaching arts. You help us a great deal. Please accept our deep feelings of thanks for you. Please accept our heartfelt congratulation. We congratulate you “everything is satisfactory.” Finally, accept our a little present. Please.

Absolutely the worst thing about Chinese parties is that everyone is made to PERFORM, either a song, dance, pantomime, magic trick, or whatever… Of course, the honoree is expected to perform first. Karen and I were totally unprepared and ended up singing “God Bless America” and “Edelweiss.” Prof. Ling followed with a rendition of Beijing Opera and brought the house down!

The Chinese divide years into cycles of twelve, each year represented by a certain animal such as: Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Sheep, Monkey, Rooster, Dog and Boar. So, this is the “Year of the Tiger.” According to the Chinese calendar I was born in the year of the Rabbit. (But, due to the date of my birth, I’m told I have a tiger tail…whatever that means.) “Those born in the year of the Rabbit supposedly make good companions. They are well-bred, tasteful, happy, tender and peace-loving. They are deeply moved by the problems and misfortunes of others, and enjoy the warm and intimate environment created by the friends that surround them. Among the famous people born in the year of the Rabbit are: Confucius, Martin Luther, Albert Einstein, Queen Victoria and Bob Hope.

Actually, this amounts to an ancient Chinese horoscope and I put no stock in it. In ancient times a young Chinese maiden would never be allowed to marry anyone to whom she was not compatible according to this calendar. The students tell me that now very few Chinese people adhere to this code, but they just enjoy studying it for cultural and historical purposes. It is said that some peasants in the countryside still swear by this horoscope. Horoscope reading, divination, palm-reading and the like are evidently rampant in some areas of China. Many of our students have gone to palm-readers are quite surprised at our opposition to such things.

image Prof. Ling left the party this afternoon with his red plastic toy seal in tow. (He had inadvertently left his white elephant Christmas gift at Tian Lin after our party.) So, we brought it back to him today. Seeing such a distinguished Chinese professor walking the campus with his toy brought lots of stares and chuckles.

The Chinese are not known to make great celebrations in honor of someone’s birthday unless they are very old. But often they will be served some special foods such as glutinous rice peach-shaped dumplings and noodles, both of which represent long life. This semester Karen and I have tried to remember all of our students’ birthdays with a cupcake and a candle.

image Zhang Yi and Chen Jie celebrate a mutual birthday.

This afternoon Karen and I were given tickets to attend an international volleyball competition between the Chinese Women’s Olympic team and an International All Stars team at the Shanghai Stadium. Chuang Yi Ang, from Class C, managed to get the much-sought-after tickets from his brother who is a High School coach here in Shanghai. There must have been at least 10,000 people packed into the stadium. We were fortunate to get to see the game at all even if we did have to sit in the last row at the top of the bleachers. Enthusiasm was at a fever pitch! I thought the All Stars were fantastic, especially Mireya Luis who was one of the most incredible and superb spikers I’ve ever seen! Other members of the All Stars included girls from the U.S., Japan, Russia, Cuba, and Peru. The All Stars played superbly considering they had only practiced together for two weeks! The Chinese team showed more consistency, even though they weren’t as powerful, and managed to squeak in a win. They also won the match in Beijing against the same team. In both matches they had to play the full five sets. One of the favorite cheers throughout the game was for a large section of spectators to yell “Chinese team…” and another section would respond “Add the gas!” Of course, the fans were delirious with joy when their team won.

I was looking at the New Year’s edition of Time Magazine today. One particular section had quotes from famous people who died in 1985. I particularly like the quote from Hungarian-born photographer Andre Kerteiz. He expressed my sentiments so precisely – “The best photographs are the ones I never take. The moments never come back.” My first four months in China have come to an end. They have been so rich and varied that I could never capture all the moments with a camera or even with my pen. I can only make stumbling attempts. Time and circumstances often don’t allow me to record the best of memories, but as one of our students so aptly described it, “They will sink into my mind forever!”

Good-bye 1985, one of the most amazing years of my life!




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