Thursday, January 14, 2016

A Letter to a Thief

Dear Thief;

First, I'd like to thank you for affirming my feeling: my bike, with its sassy red and white striping, is worth a second look. No doubt that is what prompted you to take a closer look at it, thus realizing you could make off with one of its accessories. The computer attached to the handlebars might not be of much use to you, especially since you only took the display – not the wiring, sensor or mounting cradle, but then: who knows what motivates a thief to steal anything? Certainly not me. I can't even conceive of taking anything that doesn't belong to me, whether I need it or not.

This is the third time something has been stolen off my bike. The first time, while my lovely bike was chained to a bus stop, the flashlight used as a headlight was taken. I take total blame for that; I should have known better than to leave such a useful and convenient accoutrement so blatantly available, especially as that particular bus stop lies directly along the path that middle-schoolers follow home. I can see a child's eye captivated by that tall, red-and-white machine that I ride, and being tempted to snag that light. What child doesn't like a flashlight? Especially a cool, compact one with a high-discharge LED beam?

The second time, a thief made off with the pump I kept strapped to the bike's rack. Whereas I usually keep my bike in my house, that day it was parked just outside my ground floor apartment because I had to go to class that afternoon. During my mid-day snooze, I thought I heard someone tinkering with my bike through the open balcony door. Too lazy and sleepy to get up, I told myself it was all in my mind, and kept on drowsing.

That theft was a bit more disappointing. I'd kept that pump on the back of my bike ever since I've owned it and it had never been taken, even when I left the bike at a bus stop (so I could ride public transportation into town). On our campus, everyone knows that bike is mine, and I'm well-liked by everyone. I can't imagine anyone here deliberately stealing something from me. However, I have an upstairs neighbor who is... not quite right in the head, to say it kindly. He scavenges around campus, hauling all manner of things to store in our building's foyer. Every few days, it gets to be too messy and then, I can hear him muttering to himself as he sorts through his trash, deciding what to haul away and what to keep.

If he is indeed the taker of my bike's pump, I can forgive him. Surely, he doesn't know any better. Besides, a bike pump can be useful in all sorts of ways. So, that theft, too, makes a measure of sense.

But you, dear Thief. You are a complete stranger to me and to my bike. You took something you cannot possibly use, and that has no meaning to you. You stripped my beloved ride of a tool I need to gauge my riding. You see, I don't just ride because it is fun and healthy. I ride because I intend to reach a goal I'd set for myself since my return to good health 2 years ago: riding long distance.

Because of my broken leg, I was forced to stop training. My plans for the summer just past, distance riding, were shelved because I hadn't healed enough to undertake that challenge. Now, with a clean bill of health, I'm letting nothing stop me from training: not bad weather or cold, not the ache in my knees or my breath, rendered harsh from the dirty air. I may cough for hours after a ride and suffer a raw throat, but for me, it is all worth it to reach my goal.

And then, while visiting with my good friend, who lives in a newly-built housing area where apartments sell for thousands of Yuan per square meter, you, low-life taker of things not yours, saw fit to strip me of the tool that is helping me track my progress and fitness. And for what? What could that computer interface possibly do for you?

Now, I need to thank you again, Thief. I had always believed in humans' fundamental good nature. I had always believed me and my things were safer in China than anywhere else in the world and, surely, leaving my bike in the foyer of a new, fancy apartment building, it would be safe from people like you. Now I see how wrong I was. I now know I will have to be ever vigilant, making sure I leave nothing for you to take. I will have to live as though you are around every corner, ready to snatch what doesn't belong to you.

See how you damage society with your selfishness and greed? And I'm only one person. Imagine everybody having suffered a theft. Wouldn't they too lose faith in humanity? Be wary of new contacts? How can anyone be open and friendly when there are people like you, ready to take what is best about people - trust, and destroy it?      

What if somebody stole something of great personal value from you? How would you feel? Would you even feel?

Finally: I thank you a third time, Thief. That computer had stopped working for some reason, and I was going to replace it anyway. I couldn't justify rushing to town to buy a new one, with my month-long absence from the country imminent, and I was loath to spend the money on a new computer if all the old one needed was a new battery (I hadn't had time to check it, yet). I was going to wait until I got back to China to resume my fitness log. Since your pilfery, I can justify spending 50 Yuan on a new accessory. And I get to laugh at you for stealing something that doesn't work. 

But make no mistake, Thief: I will attach my new device in such a way that you will have to work to steal it.

                                                          With accessories



Wednesday, January 6, 2016

2015; The Year in Review

By all accounts, personal and general, one could say that this has been a bad year. For some reason, I saw fit to snap my leg while on a hike, which resulted in emergency surgery 5 days before boarding a plane back to China, in February. It took me nearly all year to heal. Meanwhile, the trickle that had been Syrian refugees early in the year turned into a flood because of escalating violence in their homeland. ISIS further claimed responsibility for an attack in Paris and again in San Bernadino, California.

The ChinaDaily blog server – where I contribute in addition to our own blog - was hacked; all articles, comments and commendations were lost. Working with that site became an exercise in frustration: comments wouldn't post, pages couldn't be accessed... fortunately, ChinaDaily techs were hard at work, retrieving articles thought lost forever. I didn't give up hope on that community but... 

Right around that time the fall semester started and, because my colleague had been arrested and deported (see The Man With A Plan entry, posted  September of this year), I soon became overwhelmed, teaching several classes per day – a far departure from the previous semester, when I only had 3 classes per week. Because I was so busy, and focused on nothing but teaching, I didn't  write anything for several months.

Fortunately, by the time that classroom madness started my leg had healed sufficiently to manage the rigors of standing for hours a day and climbing stairs to get to my rooms. However, only last week did I get a clean bill of health: the doctor declared it completely healed. You can't imagine the amount of pain killers I swallowed just to keep up with myself these past months! 

Taking a broader view of thing: tempers and fear flared around the world because of terrorism: 374 attacks worldwide this year alone (source: Wikipedia),_July–December_2015,_July–December_2015

We only heard about the big ones: Bankok, Paris, California but, it seems from the statistics that every day, somewhere, people were running for their lives. Rest in Peace to those who didn't get away, who were caught up in someone else's madness and suffered for it.

Let's not forget those who perished in plane crashes, because of bad weather, at the hands of others in non-terrorist acts and those who, by their own hand ended their suffering. They should rest in peace, too.

Yes, by any reckoning, one could say that this has indeed been a rough year, all around. What made it golden for me was the kindness shown, both personally and worldwide during this difficult year.

European countries are risking their economies sheltering refugees. All over the world, people grieved for those slain during the various terrorist attacks – at least, those reported in the news. We shared a frisson of fear at their possible escalation. In these terrible times, we united in care and sympathy for everyone who needed succor, whether we, personally could do anything to help or not.

As for me, kindness and care enveloped me like a gentle blanket throughout the year. Starting with family, who cared for me during and immediately after my hospital stay. And then, the flight crew who ministered to me when I threw up on the plane – one of them, apparently moved by my pitiful condition, offered a 'fu' угд for good luck after helping me clean up. I guess he thought I needed it? And, all of those devoted people pushing my wheelchair-bound self through the airport in Beijing and Wuhan, even offering bathroom stops along the way. After having been left stranded in LAX, where no one would so much as bring me any food, let alone permit me to stay in a wheelchair (the aide stated she had to take her chair with her, leaving me on a bench in front of the deserted Air China counter with my luggage, a broken leg and a pair of crutches), the charity and support offered in China caused me to spill tears of relief at feeling no longer alone and helpless.

And Sam, who met me at the airport! Not only did he arrange a replacement ticket for the plane I missed in Los Angeles (because of uncoordinated efforts of the handicapped assistance team, along with the less-than-urgent disposition of those pushing my wheelchair), but he accompanied me home and stayed 2 hours, seeing to my comfort, preparing something to eat (I'd not eaten the whole flight because of my upset stomach), arranging my sleeper sofa so that I'd have an easier time settling in. And all of this when he should have been with his family, celebrating Spring Festival! Sam deserves a medal for the valor he displayed. What he and his family have done for me this year goes far beyond kindness. I can never thank them enough.

The list goes on... 

The dean rearranging all of my classroom assignments to the first floor of the teaching building nearest my house in the aftermath of my leg-break so I wouldn't have to hobble so far or attempt the stairs. Teachers with cars, chauffering me to and from class. Students helping carry my things whilst I crutched to and from class.

Friends who drove me to the store, and then carried my groceries into my house, and put them away for me. Friends who saw to it that I had a measure of entertainment, inviting me on outings, even though I would slow down the fun with my crippled gait. Friends who made the trip to my remote outpost in Wuhan for a visit. Friends on the ChinaDaily blog site who, worried at my long absence, sent concerned messages.

And, from total strangers:

The bus driver who, noticing my pronounced limp while walking to the bus, took special pains to see that I was settled before leaving the bus stop. The policeman who, seeing that I couldn't make it across the street before the light turned red, stopped traffic to ensure my safe passage. My neighbors who, knowing I was incapacitated, took it upon themselves to bring me fresh veggies, and never accepted payment (but I did manage to sneak in a gift or 2).

If I should expound on year 2015 in the future, it will be kindness that I will remember best. The old man on the bus who insisted I take his seat, even though he was bowed with age. Those who ran to help in the aftermath of the Bankok and Paris attacks. Those who took in refugees at the risk of collapsing their own economies.

As though to underscore the kindness theme of this year: the dear soul who, seeing my bike chained to the bus stop one day when the weather turned foul, worried that my seat might get wet, and so placed a plastic-wrapped mouse pad on it, to keep it dry. S/He even went so far as to tuck it between the seat and the pole it was chained to, so that the cover would not blow off in the sudden storm. That person had no idea who that bike belonged to so I can't say that his/her actions were kindness directed specifically at me. I can only infer that that person just brimmed with a desire to do good, and so committed a small, thoughtful act that touched my heart.

Oh, if everyone could be that good!!!   

Alice and Sylvia

A few months ago, one of my colleagues asked me what I thought our students' biggest problem was, with regard to administration. “Lack of accountability” was my immediate response. He mulled it over for a few seconds, and came to the same conclusion.

I don't know about other schools but here, students can 'play' on their phones the whole of class time, while the teacher lectures on and on. They can hold none-too-quiet conversations; our teachers have recently been outfitted with portable amplifiers so they can shout over any classroom babble. Students don't have to participate in class. All they really have to do is be there and be counted, turn in the occasional assignment and take exams.

You would think that, if students do not invest time and attention in their education, they would surely fail, right? Not necessarily.

Academic dishonesty is a hot topic in China, and has been for a while. The most recent Civil Service exam, held November of last year, brought forth avowals of 7-year prison terms for those caught cheating. Nationwide, teachers carefully proctor national exams such as the GaoKao, TEM and CET exms, separating the students into assigned seats so that nobody sits close enough to see anyone else's paper. Those exams now require students to show their ID to gain admitttance into the testing room so that an unprepared student cannot cajole (or pay) a more erudite student to take his/her place.

You would think that, with all of this focus on dishonesty, that students would straighten up and fly right, wouldn't you? I mean: how else would they earn their grades? Or, at least, the teachers and administrators would see to students being held accountable, right?

Last semester, I had a boy so shy, he didn't dare speak in class. I kept that in mind, come final exam time. I invited him to speak directly with me rather than addressing the whole class, as the other students did. He still couldn't get a word out. I had no choice but to flunk him. Later, upon reviewing my grades sheet, the dean recommended that I retest that student. As there was another student from the same class who had also earned a zero for having missed her final exam – she did not ask for leave and offered no good reason for having missed class that day, I was instructed to meet with them both – on my own time, and give them another chance at passing.

That experience left a bitter taste aftertaste. I hadn't envisioned my teaching responsibilities in that manner. The teacher accommodates the students? Shouldn't it be: the student complies with directives?

What worries me is how this lack of accountability in students' fledgeling steps as adults will translate when they are out from under the protection of the university environment. Life offers no guarantees or safety nets, few sure-fire successes and seldom does anyone get a chance at a do-over. If we permit that now, during their first few steps into the big, bad world... what exactly are we teaching these kids?

Alice, a good student from a difficult group of rowdy classmates, contacted me the week before finals. Her grandmother, who had suffered a stroke last year, has now taken a turn for the worse. Her family had called her home, worried that their dear daughter would miss the chance at seeing her grandmother for the last time. Two hours before boarding the train she called me, sobbing, asking if I would please make an exception and hear her present her final exam early.

I'll admit to annoyance. This was Christmas week, when I was busy trying to engineer special memories for all of my 400 students. Free time was at a premium and I needed every moment I could get. Nonetheless, this child made an effort, and obviously she needed comforting. Off I went to meet her. Instead of discussing the planned final exam topic, we talked about her grandmother. I learned more about her and her family, and was touched and amazed that she would actually be thinking of final exams when the grandparent who raised her lay, dying.

Contrast Alice with Sylvia. The day before finals, Sylvia sends a text message: her sister is getting married tomorrow. Could she make up her final exam later?

I think we can all agree that weddings are not spur of the moment occasions in  China. Months – even years of planning go into pulling off the perfect gala, designed to impress rather than have any symbolism. Surely, Sylvia knew in advance when her sister's wedding would be, and could/should have arranged her make up exam in advance.

In her text message, she stated she wanted to make up the exam and asked when she could. Considering my busy schedule that week, I suggested she contact me when she came back to school. Today, she messaged me: Do I have time right now to give her the exam – on a Sunday afternoon? After a flurry of messages in which she balked at my various suggestions of when to meet, we settled on the next day. I'll be testing her on my time, seeing as my teaching obligations are over with for the semester. Come time to turn in grade sheets, I will most likely be encouraged to give her a grade commensurate with her peers, rather than with her effort, ability and attitude.     

While it is great for the kids to find success with or without effort, and it makes the school look good that every single student passes, I can't help but think of how the Alices – those who are conscientious and hard-working must feel amidst all of the Sylvias.

With all of the talk about revamping the education system in China, building world-class universities, and all of the news reports of families sending their progeny abroad for better education, I would think that this aspect of the Chinese education system would get more scrutiny. The solution is easy: if a student doesn't perform, don't rate him/her as though s/he does. In short: hold students accountable.

More than anything in a textbook or lecture, accountability would give these young adults an education worth having.