Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Family in China

This is an article I wrote for You can view it here

It will come as no surprise to Meridian readers that family is important in China. Anyone who has read Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth will remember how family life is depicted. The protagonist, Wang Lung, fights to feed and protect his family in the midst of famine and war. His long-suffering wife, O-Lan births her children alone at home and then returns the same day to help her husband in the fields. His aged father lives with them, and when the family flees a drought, Wang Lung (following the Confucian ideal of filial piety) carries his father on his back. In better times, Lung and O-Lan, their sons, daughters-in-laws, their children, and even the wicked uncle and his family all live together.

A Nation of Shops

You can still see traces of this today. I am sure it still exists in rural areas although my exposure to this is limited. Rural China is changing. Few of today’s generation want to stay on the farm; many are migrating to the cities seeking new opportunities. And that is where I see today’s Wang Lungs. China is a nation of small shops, most of them run as family businesses. Many of them front out onto the street, open in the front with no door. Inside can be seen one of the family members manning the shop and helping customers. Behind a curtain in the back other family members are eating lunch, visiting, washing clothes or taking care of personal grooming. It is common for several generations to live upstairs above the shop. Children play underfoot and are tended by whatever sibling, cousin, or aunt is available. In a covered bazaar with many shops fronting out onto a narrow alley, some of the shops—one at this end, one at the other end, and one in the next alley—are owned by the same extended family. Once I was admiring a baby in one shop as it clung to its “mother,” but the next day I saw the same baby in another shop around the corner with its real mother. Another time when I was trying to pay for an item with a bill too large to cash, a small child ran up the street to an uncle’s shop to get change.

Grandpas and Grandmas

It seems that no matter how upscale a family gets, the family ties remain the same. There are many upwardly mobile families in China these days—young professionals on the rise. In nearly all cases, the mother works and the child (or children) are placed in daycare or tended by the grandparents. Many professionals in China retire in their 50s on a small government pension. Housing is hard to come by so it seems a natural thing for three generations to live together with the oldest taking care of the youngest. Every day on the streets of the city where I live I see a grandmother or grandfather gently shepherding a toddler along. It is a most endearing sight. In the morning I see grandfathers pedaling the family bicycle to kindergarten with a young child sitting behind. In the evening the flow is reversed, again with the grandparents providing transportation.

In the Words of My Students

I know little about the dynamics of family life in China. I suppose it may be the same as for any family in the West: a mix of joy and tears, arguments and reconciliation, high expectations and disappointments, stars and prodigals, Lamans and Nephis. But I do know there is love. It is revealed, unsolicited, in the bios and writing projects of my students. Each has filled out a card with his or her student number, name, contact information, and a little something personal about themselves. Guan Long (who uses the English name Lavender) wrote about her beloved Grandpa with whom she has lived since she was born. She added, “I love our family where I can feel more comfortable and happier.” Fan Shan Shan (Pheobe) writes, “We love each other very much, and as I grow up we’re more and more like friends.” Liu Xiao Xi’s (Alex) parents both work, one as a policeman and the other as a government employee, but she says, “Love and harmony are very important in my family, and I love my parents very much.”

When I asked them to write about their families, the results sounded like they had come from a Seminary class. Wang Zijia (Myra) wrote that, “My mother seems to be an angel sent by God. No words, no languages can express my feeling toward her. I think I will cherish the precious memory we have shared with one another forever.” And a similar sentiment was expressed by Xing Jie (Jessie) who wrote these profound words, “Family is where you get the power to move on.”

“I Am Their Hope”

In many cases it is on the backs of my young students that the family will move on. Families make an enormous investment in their children by sending them to a university. While it is obvious that the parents of some students are full partakers of China’s new prosperity—their children are taken to college in black Buicks (China’s new status symbol), carry laptops, and have braces on their teeth—it is equally obvious that others are sending their children to college on a prayer and a shoestring. Some students come from small villages. When describing his parents, one student simply wrote, “They are peasants.” I took this to be literal, not figurative. Having a child graduate from college is sometimes the key to upward mobility. Often the whole extended family will chip in. One student wrote about how her older businessman brother was funding her education. I was asking one promising young student about her parents. She said they were farmers, and it became clear further on in the conversation that the farm was very small, that there was no mechanization, and that the earnings were meager. Then most poignantly she said, “I am their hope.”

A Bitter Choice

In a land where retirement plans are not universal, children are indeed the hope of their parents in both the filial and financial aspects. Young people are amazed when they learn we have seven children, when they plan on having only one. But I was shocked when one young professional said she planned on having none. Early in their marriage, she and her husband had made a choice. Her aged parents lived with them and were totally dependent on them. The living quarters were small and cramped, and because of the crunch on housing this was not likely to change. They had decided that she had more of an obligation to her parents—to make their declining years comfortable—than she did to a future generation. They had arrived at this decision with full knowledge that the family line would end with them. In my experience, I find that while this attitude is not common, it is frequent.

From Dawn to Dusk

Maintaining a family unit economically is not easy. Chinese families work hard and long. This is particularly true of shop owners who always seem to be in their shops day and night. The idea of a weekend has little meaning for them, except that it may mean a spike in business since many professionals and government employees are off on the weekend. I know a man who runs a small copying business near campus. He operates with one copy machine and two computers out of a space that measures about six by eight feet. This is the family business. And he is always there. His hours are 8:00 am to 10:00 pm, seven days a week. But family is nearby. I see his little girl playing around his feet sometimes.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Settling In

We can hardly believe we have been here for almost two months. We are so busy and the experiences keep coming at us so fast we can barely take them in let alone record them in this blog. Nevertheless, we have settled in nicely and are comfortable in our circumstances.

In the previous blog we described the building in which we live, and there is a picture of what it looks like on the outside. The inside is equally Spartan, but we have gone to great efforts to fix things up even though we know we will have to leave them behind after our tour is over.

Our first effort was to fix up the kitchen. That meant buying some appliances we thought we needed to make life livable. Elva bought a few pots, dishes, a frying pan for the gas burner, and a microwave. We have since added a toaster and crock pot. But the purchase that really put our life in order was a new washing machine. It only does a small load. It fills from a cold-water tap under the kitchen sink (although you can add some warm water from the faucet) and drains into the kitchen floor. But it works great. We then hang the wet clothes on a line on the back porch if it’s warm enough outside or on a drying rack in the spare room when it’s not. Oh, we also had to buy an iron to press them with.

Basic furniture was already in the apartment—sofa, chairs, desks, and bed—but it was pretty bleak. True to our natures, we spent the money to decorate. (That was when we had money before the stock market tanked.) Beautiful Chinese wall hangings are now displayed in the living room and bedroom. We have also bought some original Chinese oil paintings (and have our eyes on more). A colorful bedspread spruced up the bedroom.

We had functional drapes in all the rooms, but they were not up to Elva’s standards. They were an ugly beige color, dirty, and older than Lao-Tzu. Moreover, the hems were uneven, which gave Elva nightmares. But a trip to the fabric market put this right. For a few hundred Chinese yuan she had new ones made. They were done in two days by young girls on treadle sewing machines who were working in an outdoor alley. They did a good job. Gold for the bedroom and red and gold for the living room. (It seems that red and gold are our colors these days.) And all the hems are the same length.

But the weather is turning cold. The leaves are dropping. Fall is here and winter is not far behind. I guess we’ll be back to the fabric market for winter coats soon.

Thursday, October 2, 2008


We would like to introduce you to our university, the Xi’an International Studies University—known locally as XISU (pronounced, Shee Sue). It is one of 20 or 30 universities, institutes, or colleges in Xi’an. In fact, Xi’an is known as a university town.

Elva in front of XISU's old campus gate

We live on what is known as the old campus. It is the site of the of the original university established in the 1950s, partly with the help of the Soviet Union. The architecture of the older buildings mimics that of Soviet-style construction during the Cold War, which is mostly concrete walls covered with plaster inside and out. There are newer buildings as well that are very modern in their outward appearance. The old campus houses faculty, some students, and features cafeterias, ball fields, and administration buildings, as well as our foreign teachers’ residence compound.

Our apartment, first floor, on the left

It is a ‘downtown” university on a busy street not far from the old city wall. Outside its front gates is one of the busiest commercial districts of the city where the traffic is crazy and the streets are alive with people, street vendors, shops and bus stops. But inside the campus is peace and tranquility, with tree-lined streets and students sitting and visiting on arbor-covered benches.

XISU's new campus

The real action is on the new campus about 20-plus kilometers out of town. This is where most of the students live and go to school. China has an increasing number of young people it has to educate, a population that has outstripped the facilities of most of the in-town campuses. The only solution has been to build new campuses on the outskirts of town in what used to be wheat and corn fields. XISU is one of a dozen or more of these. So while we live on the old campus, every morning we board a bus for a 30-minute ride to the new campus. Given the nature of traffic in China, this is an exhilarating and often death-defying event.

The Library

The architecture of the new campus is as modern as it gets although the construction technique of poured concrete appears to be the same. Its centerpiece is a soaring new library of glass, concrete, and shinning steel. There are long rows of dormitories on one side of a quad and two rows of multi-level classrooms and administration buildings on the other. A student cafeteria and ball fields are on the far end.

The usual schedule is to teach two classes of about 30-40 students in the morning, each class lasting for two hours. Then there is a 2-hour lunch/rest break followed by another 2-hour class in the afternoon. Each freshman class is divided up into 30- or 40-person groups at the beginning of the year, and those groups stay together as a class for all four years of their university life. Moreover, for the most part they stay in the same classroom all that time; the teachers are the ones that move about from room to room. The students even decorate their “homeroom” according to their own tastes. One has a giant mural of Yeo Ming, a national hero.

One of Steve's classes

Such are the physical aspects of XISU, the “bones.” In a future post we will describe the “heart” of XISU: the magic of the classroom and the spirit of those in it.

Sunday, September 28, 2008


One never knows when one will discover a little jewel—a diadem—in a faraway place. We discovered one last Saturday evening. All the foreign teachers at our university—and indeed foreigners from across the city—were invited to a musical concert sponsored by the Shaanxi Province. It was in honor of the contribution that “foreign experts” had made to the province. Essentially it was an awards program. The provincial governor was there, and he handed out awards—Oscar-like—to both Chinese and foreigners who had been working on various international cooperation and exchange programs. This was followed by the concert.

And what a concert it was. A full orchestra came on stage, all in black tuxedos or dresses, just like the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, DC. Most of the instruments were those normally associated with a classical western orchestra: percussion, horns, basses, and so on. But the string section featured only a family of Chinese instruments I believe are called Huqin that has a drum-shaped, hollow, snake-hide covered sound box at the bottom from which extends upward a round stick on which are strung only two strings that were strummed with a bow. A small version called an erhu replicates a violin and a larger one, zhonghu, serves as a viola. Interestingly enough the sound is not dissimilar from their western cousins.

Then the conductor made her entrance. She was a statuesque woman with horn-rimmed classes and shinny, black hair that was pulled back rather severely in a ponytail that streamed glisteningly down her back and extended below her waist. She was dressed in the traditional western black tie and tails and was a strong presence on stage. She directed the orchestra commandingly through a variety of Chinese and western musical pieces. As she shook her head in time with the music, the movement flowed all the way down her hair like ripples in a pond.

The Chinese pieces featured names like, “The Jubilant Yellow Earth,” “Heavenly Road,” “The Butterfly Loves,” and “The Red Detachment of Women.” All were by Chinese composers but sounded very western. We also enjoyed the “Carmen” overture and a piece from La Traviata. It was a first-class performance. All these numbers were performed beautifully. The audience was on its feet for a standing ovation at the end and coaxed two encores from the orchestra. It was a terrific evening.

Friday, September 19, 2008


You never know what new and exciting thing is awaiting you just around the corner. Last week, the English department was looking for a couple of American teachers to help advertise the upcoming Pomegranate Festival. The fruit ripens around the end of September and apparently it’s a big deal. Elva and our next-door neighbor, Edith Brown, another BYU teacher, volunteered. They had no idea what they were in for.

They were picked up in a big, black, government car and driven for miles out into the country. Upon arrival at the pomegranate grooves, which covered a whole mountain, it seemed the entire press corps of Xi’an was there. They interviewed Elva and Edith (with the help of a Chinese translator from the college) and shot hundreds of photographs of them picking the pomegranates. Elva felt like a movie star and had a great time.

Afterwards they were treated to a lovely Chinese banquet with many different foods. Elva tried most of them but let many pass by. After the officials observed that Elva and Edith weren’t making it with the chopsticks, they took pity on them and gave them forks. By the way they were treated you would have thought they were very important people. Anyway, they were in several local newspapers the next day and even made the front page of one of them. So what started out as an ordinary day ended up with Elva's picture splashed across the front of a Chinese newspaper. Elva’s students were very impressed .

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Elva's Post

We have been in China for almost three weeks and wow have we been busy. I know we promised to write on our blogspot at least once a week but as you know it didn't get done. There are too many reasons to explain why that didn't happen, but I will try to fill you in on what we did get done.

We arrived in Xian late Wednesday night the 26th of August after 23 hours of traveling. They showed us our apartment and we went right to bed. We only slept a few hours because we were still on Virginia time. I got up and unpacked all seven of our suitcases. First problem was I had forgotten to pack a bath towel. We have wonderful BYU teachers across the hall and they loaned us one. They also took us to the store which is about a one mile walk to buy some needed supplies. It is a good thing there were four of us to carry it all back.

It is a lot of work to try to collect the things you need to set up an apartment. We bought a pot, a frying pan, a shower curtain, towels and wash clothes, and some dishes. We had some nice Chinese friends who went with us because every thing is written in Chinese. We also bought a very small washing machine and a microwave. I have learned that you only use one thing at a time or you blow out the circuit. Since we have no car, it really has been challenging trying to get everything home. Yesterday we bought two book cases, and two lovely young sales girls helped us carry them the two kilometers to our apartment. We tried to pay them but they would not take it. Every one is so very willing to help us.

On that first Friday here we had a meeting with the Dean of the Business Department and all the other teachers who will be teaching with us. The meeting was all in Chinese accept when they introduced us and had us talk a little about ourselves.

We started teaching classes on Monday. The students are all so happy to have a foreign teacher. They make us feel very special. Steve loves his classes. He is teaching two writing classes with 40 students in each class. He spends a lot of time correcting papers. He also teaches three oral English classes and one class on History of Western Civilization with 150 students in it. I went to his class this week and it was outstanding. I have been assigned to teach five classes of Listening and Speaking and three classes of Business English. We work very hard at getting our lessons prepared because each of our classes is two-hours long.

We live on what is called the old campus near the center of the city, but we teach on the new campus on the outskirts of town, about a 30-minute bus ride away. The traffic is crazy. I have never seen cars drive so close to each other and so fast. Every bus ride is a new adventure.

We eat many of our meals in the campus cafeteria. The food is very different and most of the things we have tried we have liked. Some of it is too spicy for us. But we found peanut butter and jelly in the store so P&J sandwiches are always a good bet. Eggs are also available, and they come in several shapes and colors.

Today is the third Sunday we have been here. A story about our Branch President was in this week’s Church News—look it up. We have about 20 people in our branch consisting of 12 BYU teachers, two young students from BYU, and a woman from South Africa who is running an orphanage, and assorted others. Last Sunday after church the whole branch took taxi's to the orphanage, had a pot-luck dinner, and visited the babies. Right now she has 19 babies waiting to be adopted. Some of them are in need of operations (e.g. cleft pallets) before that can happen. How I loved holding them and loving them. She is an amazing women. I hope we can do some service for her. Steve has been called to be a counselor to the President, and I was called to be a primary teacher although we have only one 11-year-old boy in our Primary. They called two primary teachers: one to give the lesson and one to do sharing time. We get the needed material off the Internet.

Life is surely different of us, but we are well and happy. Remember us in your prayers as we do you. We love and miss everyone more then I can express. Please send us your news by e-mail ( The internet is up most of the time now, and I will try to answer every e-mail.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Done (or is it finished?)

The big day finally arrived. We finished our course of instruction. We even received a certificate noting the 100 hours of instruction we received in Chinese history, language and culture. Our minds are on overload, but our spirits are high. We are anxious to be on our way. We will have a week back in Virginia to decompress, retool, and repack before climbing back on an airplane for our 16-plus-hour flight to Beijing and then on to Xi’an.

We have been preparing for this adventure for almost a year now. We remember fondly having dinner with a couple of BYU China Teachers Program (CTP) instructors last year in Beijing (due to the kindness of Mac and Janet Coleman) when this idea was first hatched. Since then we have sold our home and moved into a smaller one (thereby requiring less maintenance). In the process, we have divested ourselves of half our possessions. We have spent hours on the phone with former CTP teachers finding out what was involved. After all this, we’re ready.

In addition to the Chinese and teaching lessons, one of the joys of this experience has been the people with whom we have had the pleasure of associating. These are some of the best people we have ever known. Most are retired professionals who have raised large families and are now on their way to do a little more good in the world. After all these hours in one another’s company we have bonded more than you would think possible. We have delivered practice lessons to one another and sat in discussion groups together. Most are amazingly talented and will do a great job for their Chinese students. We feel privileged to be in their company. We feel a little sad to see the group break up as we go to our separate universities, but we will see each other in Hong Kong in January when we reconvene for more training, and we are already looking forward to it.

2008-2009 China Teachers

However, there is a little group of us that will remain together because we all will be going to Xi’an. Ross and Edith Brown will be with us at Xi’an International Studies University (XISU), and Roger and Linda Terry along with Ronald and Diane Kimball will be nearby at Northwestern Polytechnic University. And there will be other BYU CTP returnees whom we have not met. So we will be in good company. Wish us God’s speed.

Xi'an China Teacher: (left to right) Brown, Terrys, Kimballs, and Ortons

Saturday, August 9, 2008

In training

Steve and Elva are about to embark on another great adventure: we’re going to China to teach English in a Chinese university. Our destination is the Xi’an International Studies University in Xi’an, China, or XISU as it is known. This is a program sponsored by the Kennedy Center for International Studies at Brigham Young University. We are very excited about this opportunity. We have been to China once before as tourists, including Xi’an, and thought a return trip would be great. There are about 80 of us being sponsored by the Kennedy Center, spread across about a dozen universities in China. All of us are retired empty-nesters looking for a way to serve others while having a little adventure of own.

But first a little training. Right now we are at the Kennedy Center in a crash course of Chinese history, customs, language and teaching methods. Our brains are full and our fannies have turned to cast iron as the results of training sessions that last from 8:00 in the morning to 9:00 at night. And we are only half way through.

We’ll return to Virginia for about a week before finally jetting off to Beijing and Xi’an on August 26th. Check in on this blog from time to time and we’ll keep you updated.