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12/08/2009  On weekday mornings, a little before 7:00, the campus radio station begins its morning broadcast with the song “Simple Gifts”; a beautiful solo flute version. Even with my windows closed against the sub-zero Beijing winter air, the loudspeakers throughout the campus allow me to hear it. I usually stop whatever I'm doing and listen. Written in 1848 by the Shaker Elder Joseph Brackett, this traditional American song seems an odd choice for starting the day at a Chinese university. I wonder if anyone here knows the lyrics:

'Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free,
'Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
'Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gain'd,
To bow and to bend we shan't be asham'd,
To turn, turn will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning we come round right.

To be simple, to be free. I might try to find out what my students think about these words. In my English Listening class I often play songs and have my students fill in the blanks on a page of lyrics, and we then discuss the meaning of the song. I've used Simon and Garfunkel's “America”, “You Gotta Be” by Des'ree, and John Lennon's “Beautiful Boy”, for example.

Speaking of simple gifts: on November 1st it snowed in Beijing. I was told it's unusual for it to snow so early and so much. It was a quiet, slow, wet snow that piled up on bicycle seats and evergreen branches, bent the bamboo and young gingko trees, and enfolded red roses within thick white quilts. Despite waking up that morning with a sore throat, I went outside after lunch and took some photos.

I teach on Tuesday and Wednesday only, so on my long weekends I've been doing some sightseeing with a student of mine named Johnny Potter, who named himself after the famous boy wizard. So far we've been to the Summer Palace, (very crowded), to Tiananmen Square, (extremely crowded – we went shortly after National Day to see the parade floats on display), to Forest Park, (moderately crowded, but it's a big park so it wasn't too bad), and to Fragrant Hills Park. At Fragrant Hills, at the end of October, it was the first really cold day, yet the park was packed with people there to see the fall colors. Some of the maples and sumacs had started to turn but not many. We hiked up to the summit and rode a cable car down. We both bought the photo they take of you, smiling and waving, (and in this case, freezing), as come down the mountain.

After class Johnny and I often head to the cafeteria for dinner, frequently joined by Python, who took his name from another famous British movie. On weekdays I can eat lunch on the third floor, at the faculty all-you-can eat buffet, for only 5 yuan. Johnny and some colleagues of mine are tutoring me in Chinese. There are Chinese language classes taught to the international students, who are all from Kazakhstan. At the beginning of the semester I attended both of the two classes offered: one was too advanced for me, the other too basic. So I took Mark Twain's advice: “Don't let school get in the way of your education,” and I quit going to the classes. Now I just study on my own and with my tutors. Actually, when you live in China there's a classroom everywhere and everyone's your teacher.

Most evenings I watch some television to practice my Chinese listening skills. The other night I watched a figure skating competition taking place in Japan. I always tense up and hold my breath when they do those jumps. They leap up, spinning and turning in the air, and then trust in themselves to land on a single thin metal blade. Who invented this crazy sport!

To turn, turn will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning we come round right.

As I watched the skaters I was thinking that one of my favorite songs – “Tian Lu” (“Heaven's Road”), by Han Hong, one of China's most famous singer/song writers – might be good for use in a figure skating program. Han Hong specializes in Chinese folk music, and many of her songs are about her Tibetan homeland. I read that when Han Hong was starting her singing career no one appreciated her or helped her, so she now spends time giving a helping hand to talented new singers.

Today I'm listening to Beatles music because it's the anniversary of the death of John Lennon. Lennon wrote “Beautiful Boy” for his son, Sean. In my English Listening class I showed them photos of Lennon, Sean, and Yoko. I told them about the interesting coincidence of both John and Sean Lennon having the same birthday: October 9th – a wonderful gift for Lennon. Then I asked my class if they knew another “famous” person born on that day. Know one knew, of course, so I clicked and up popped a picture of me, hiking at Fragrant Hills Park. I enjoy making them laugh.

Before you cross the street,
Take my hand,
Life is what happens to you,
While you're busy making other plans.

I think that at times in our lives we all need to take someone's hand, as “life happens” to us and we head off on unfamiliar roads. Sometimes it's hard to recognize the help being offered. At times what at first appears to be a helping hand turns out to be someone wanting something. I put this question – about the sincerity of Chinese interpersonal relationships – to one of my classes as a debate topic:

A Chinese friend of mine once told me that after high school Chinese people don't make genuine, simple friendships; but rather they make connections based on guanxi, and calculations of personal cost and profit. Do you agree or disagree? Give reasons and examples.

Some students agreed, some disagreed, and we had a lively debate. Since I've been in China I've had experiences that support the idea and many that refute it. For me the jury is still out. Maybe no friendship is pure and simple.

12/23/09  I'm feeling a little sad today because three of my four classes have ended. I really get attached to my students and a part of me wants to just keep on meeting with them – even the ones in the back that sleep – and especially the ones that really want to learn.

Today my English Listening class gave me a Christmas present: a heart-shaped box with 20 small envelopes in it, each containing a little card with a short message. Heartfelt messages, in Chinese and English, thanking me for being their teacher. I tucked them all onto my little Christmas tree and took a picture. Next week I'll tell them that Santa visited me and gave me lots of gifts.

Then we started the day's lesson by listening to Nat King Cole's “Nature Boy” and I had them fill in the missing words on the lyrics.

The greatest thing
You'll ever learn
Is just to love
And be loved
In return.

I really can't think of a job I'd rather be doing right now. What could be better than having the opportunity to give out love and have it reflected back to me? Teaching is a great way to make a living.