July 17, 2004

 

We continue to enjoy living in Xian, although summer here is far less lovely than in Seattle.The climate is more like that of eastern Washington, i.e. very hot and dry with occasional thunderstorms.Fortunately our apartment is air-conditioned, so we are comfortable.

 

Fran has now finished her teaching and Tyler finishes his on July 21.This letter describes our recent teaching experiences, as well as our July 10-12 trip to the city of Pingyao to celebrate our 23rd wedding anniversary.

 

Teaching

The Computer Science Department has been suggesting that Tyler teach a specialized class on game programming techniques for engineers in the high tech zone.The original proposal was that he teach a short course meeting 10 times in July.They offered extra money.It sounded like fun, but after thinking it over, he decided that he didnít have time and declined.

 

The next offer was that he could shorten the 10-week classes that he has been teaching and then do this extra class.That sounded reasonable and he agreed to start the short course in July.He is planning to make July 21 our last day teaching so that we can have two weeks for exploration.By shortening the regular classes, the students are taking Tylerís final exams at the end of the final exam week.When we had put together our original schedule, we did not know the regular university calendar.

The people from the high tech zone needed to get back to us on this proposal, and they apparently didnít.On Tuesday July 6, Gao Yuan asked me if I could start teaching the class the next morning.By the way, it would be a class of grad students, not engineers, and I should come up with some way to score them for the class. And classes would be taught in two-hour chunks, not the 75 to 90 minute classes that we had previously discussed.I agreed to start teaching a sequence of 8 classes on July 8.I rearranged the class outline to meet the changed audience.

 

Tyler has had other surprises.One morning he was preparing his lecture for the afternoon when he was asked to participate in the exams for the graduate students.He wound up spending the morning giving them their English exam.Another afternoon he was shown the projects that the graduate and undergrad students have done.These included a GPS system running on a Palm Pilot designed for low cost; an auto theft prevention system using cell phones; apartment walk-throughs; a museum walk-thru that lets you arrange objects, and Internet security.One morning Tyler was asked to come to the main outdoor area for photos.He was included in the photos of the graduating classes.Then Computer Science had a graduation ceremony in which Tyler participated.He even wound up saying a few words to the graduates.Since Tyler has been teaching third-year students, he did not recognize anyone in the graduating class.

 

Fran gave her last lecture on Friday, July 9.She had been teaching her class three times each week, but this schedule changed in mid-June.Her students were taking final exams in their other classes and asked her if the class could meet twice weekly during the two week exam period and then four times weekly afterwards to make up the time.Fran was sympathetic to this request because she has un-fond memories of her college final exam days and would not have wanted to attend a class while taking finals in her other classes.However, the result was an intense schedule of four classes weekly during the seventh, eighth, and ninth weeks of the class.

 

Fran has enjoyed synthesizing and sharing knowledge about water pollution problems and solutions with her students.She has also felt good rapport with the students.This feeling was confirmed when Dr. Wang (the Environmental Science professor who has helped Fran with teaching logistics) told her that the students have been complimentary about her teaching.

 

Fran has been delightfully surprised to receive gifts from three of her students.June 22 was a holiday called Dragon Boat Day.The Chinese celebrate by participating in races on boats that are shaped like dragons, eating a sweet sticky rice dish called zons, and wearing heart-shaped amulets that are supposed to ward off evil spirits.Hua Wen made heart-shaped amulets for Fran and Tyler.She sewed them herself and filled them with fragrant herbs.Fran was very touched to receive this personal, homemade gift.Another student (Mao Fan) gave Fran a pretty fountain pen to thank her for being kind and supportive; Fran has been encouraging her to apply to graduate school programs.A third student (Zeng Yan) gave Fran a beautiful book of paper cut pictures, accompanied by a beautiful note that thanked and complimented Fran on her teaching.

 

Fran gave the final exam to her class on July 13; a graduate student in Environmental Science helped her to procter the exam.Northwest University has strict rules about final exams.Students are required to bring their notebooks, briefcases, handbags, etc. to the front of the room and to sit in alternate seats.The remainder of this week has been busy with grading the final exams and term papers, and assigning final grades.These are numerical grades; 60 is the passing grade.The grades for Franís class turned out to resemble a bell-shaped curve, with half of the students receiving grades in the 70s, one quarter receiving grades in the 80s and 90s, and one quarter receiving grades in the 60s.Actually, Fran had reluctantly assigned failing grades to four students because these students had done poorly on the quizzes, writing assignments, and final exams and had skipped many classes.However, Dr. Wang asked her to change these grades to 60; a student who fails a class at Northwest University is required to take a makeup exam the next semester and this would obviously be logistically difficult.

 

Another part of Franís teaching experience was giving a guest lecture on oil spills to Toniís geology class (Toni is the Visiting Professor from Kansas who lives in the same hotel as us).It was fun to speak to a new group of students and to meet some friendly geology faculty.

 

Pingyao

Buildings in China can go up or down almost overnight.The small to medium-sized buildings are brick; the big ones are reinforced concrete.There had been a row of funky shops for bike repair, etc. outside the entrance to the new campus of Northwestern University.One Friday, Tyler went there and the buildings were all gone.They also took down a brick mechanical building on the old campus next to a building where Tyler teaches.One day we went out the north gate of the university and found that there was a new two-story building across the street in the bike lane.Large areas of Xian are rubble where new construction is replacing old.Buildings are taken down by hand and the bricks trucked off.There has been a lot of street widening over the last few years.Buildings that are hundreds of years old are preserved, sometimes expanded upon with new auxiliary construction in the old style.However, there is very little concern about preserving old buildings that are not historical.Thus most Chinese cities have a similar blandness with lots of interchangeable white-tiled buildings.

 

This was a reason to visit PingYao.It had been a prosperous banking center in the 19th century, but then became a backwater and was bypassed by progress.The result is that it retains a core of narrow streets and architecture from a bygone era.It is a ten-hour train ride from Xian.Gao Yuan had gotten us train tickets on the first class (soft berth) sleeper.The train station in Xian was extremely crowded; many students have finished their school year at Northwest University and the other universities in Xian and are returning to their home towns for summer vacation.However, once we boarded the train, we had a comfortable ride.We arrived in PingYao at 6:30 on Saturday morning, July 10 and were greeted by the friendly, English-speaking owner of the hotel where we had a reservation.She directed us to a golf cart taxi [cars are not allowed inside the core of the city during the day] and bicycled back to meet us.The town has a charming feel early in the morning.There are no neon lights and the shops are closed up using wooden panels, not steel doors.We had breakfast at the Yunjincheng Folk Custom Hotel, then checked into our room where we slept a bit more.

We had an excellent lunch at the hotel, then wandered about town.On closer look, it was not as charming.The streets are lined with souvenir shops with the vendors calling out ďhelloĒ and trying to entice us to buy.We did quite a bit of walking trying to find a museum that was incorrectly located on the map in our guidebook.We decided to visit a Taoist Temple in the afternoon, but when we tried to buy tickets, they directed us to a booth outside the city walls where we had to buy a ticket book for all the cityís attractions.It is only good for one day, but it is possible to extend it for a second day by going to an office between 5:30 and 6:30 and presenting passports.We were wondering why they didnít just sell two-day tickets.

 

It is hard to buy round-trip train tickets in China.We had been planning to take an overnight train returning to Xian at 6:30 Tuesday morning.We tried to buy this ticket at the PingYao train station when we arrived, but it was not available.Our hotel owner tried to book a ticket for us, but could not get it.She suggested that we take the day train back on Monday.

 

Our second day in PingYao was pleasant.We visited old style houses and an old bank in the morning.These buildings (like our 300 year old hotel) are organized around one or more courtyards.There is a sequence of different buildings as you move farther into the structure.

 

In the afternoon we had planned to rent bikes and go out to the Shuanglin temple, which has some remarkable wood carvings.However, a thunderstorm started just as we were getting ready to head out.We changed plans and exchanged massages in our room.When the rain stopped, we went out and took a walk on the city walls.†† The view from the top of the walls was very interesting and different from the ground view.We were able to walk a bit more than half-way around, finding a way to get off at a different point than we had started before closing time.Most of the access points to the city wall were kept locked.We had an excellent dinner at our hotel dining room.

 

On July 12, our anniversary date, the train ride back to Xian was pleasant.Fran was able to upgrade our tickets to soft sleeper, which meant that we shared a compartment with two other people.Fran had a chance to grade papers and Tyler prepared PowerPoint lectures for classes the coming week.We also napped a bit because we are recovering from colds.

 

Arrival in Xian was a bit rude.A friendly chap approached us as we got off the train, but he disappeared when he realized that we did not need a hotel.As we left the station, someone else appeared to help us get a taxi.That was OK but unnecessary, since we know where the taxi stand is.However, the cab he brought us to wanted 30 yuan for a ride that should cost 5 to 10.None of the other cabs would take us for less than 20.We wound up taking the bus to the center of town for 2 yuan.We had a specific restaurant in mind for dinner on our anniversary (Judy, this was the restaurant where we celebrated your birthday).The train had arrived at 8:30 and we wanted to get to the Wu Yi Restaurant before it closed.We did fine going by bus and had a delicious dinner in a pleasant setting.

 

We have found that there is a difference between traveling in China and living in China.In many ways, living here is easier.We need to use Chinese when we order food in a restaurant or go shopping, but the staff are always patient and helpful.On the tourist circuit, menus are bilingual and many more people speak English.However, the tourists are constantly getting hit up for sales of one thing or another.We like the neighborhood where we live; it is typical and we can wander about without attracting much attention.

 

However, we want to do more traveling before returning home.We will take a short trip tomorrow and Monday to Luoyang, a former imperial capital that is five hours east of Xian by train.We will visit the Longmen Caves, where there are outstanding Buddhist sculptures.After Tylerís last class, we hope to visit Tibet for 11 days.Gao Yuan has a travel agent friend who is working on the arrangements.

 

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