Originally published in International Schools magazine and aimed at teachers considering a move to China.
The classical gardens, first. Master of the Nets is my favourite: small, but it has all the elements. Not gardens in the Western sense, but homes for the well-to-do, built around a central pond. In a classical garden, art and nature melt into each other. Every doorway, every latticed window, every view down a bending corridor or around a corner, frames a picture as carefully designed as any work of art. I love to imagine the owner, retired after a difficult career of public service, spending his days sitting in a pavilion overlooking the pond, gazing out at the Taihu rocks and—walled off from the surrounding city—basking in the peace of a vast imagined wilderness as he sips his tea, smokes his pipe, and writes poetry in the beautiful characters he mastered so long ago.
Once you have visited some gardens, go to the Suzhou Museum—not so much for the contents as for the buildings and grounds, which were designed by the world-famous I.M. Pei as a modernised, stylised classical garden. Pei’s uncle actually owned one of the gardens—the Lion’s Grove—and Pei played in the Taihu rock labyrinths that delighted my own children when we first arrived in Suzhou. (Taihu rocks are giant pieces of limestone, soaked for years in the waters of Lake Tai, the result a twisting, perforated greyish-white monolith that may seem to be a woman, a lion, or a distant mountain range.) Bring some fish food, offer it to the goldfish, and wonder at the swarm of colours as they compete for the morsels falling from heaven.
Suzhou’s gardens and many of its other treasures—not all—survived the Cultural Revolution thanks to the easygoing resourcefulness of the Suzhou people. To protect precious bas-relief sculptures, I am told, they plastered over them and wrote “Long Live Chairman Mao” on the dried surface. Though the Red Guards knew what was underneath, they dared not destroy those words. As a result, the old city centre retains much of its look and feel from ancient days—which is not true of many, perhaps most Chinese cities today.
Go to the Taoist temple in the middle of Guan Qian Jie, the ‘walking street’, or to the Buddhist temples at West Garden or Hanshan, and burn some incense, or have your fortune told. (The Taoist fortune tellers, in my experience, are more accurate.) If you go to Hanshan at the western edge of the old city limits, don’t miss your chance to walk over and gaze awhile at the huge barges going up and down on the Grand Canal, which stretches (at least in theory—not all of it is navigable today) from Hangzhou, two hours south of Suzhou by car, to Beijing—a public works project that vies with the Great Wall, though it is perhaps less picturesque. After that, stroll into the little shopping street where real artists have their studios, intermixed with the usual shops selling tourist curios. My favourite is the man who creates amazingly detailed paper-cut art, some of it kitschy, some jaw-droppingly beautiful, in sizes to suit any budget.
Back in the city centre, take a Sunday afternoon to see a Kunqu Opera performance at the Kunqu Museum. For 30 RMB (about US$5.00) you can sit in the tiny theatre and marvel at the art of these singing actors whose every movement—down to the last fingertip—is exquisitely precise. You won’t understand a word, but it doesn’t matter. (Even most of the Chinese members of the audience need to read the lyrics on a very untraditional LED display over the stage, because the actors’ words are in ‘Suzhou hua’, the local Suzhou dialect). Kunqu Opera delighted one of the emperors on a visit here, and he imported Kunqu performers to the capital, where they contributed importantly to the development of Peking Opera. Kunqu, to my ears, is much more pleasant than its northern cousin. I like to sit on the side near the musicians, where I can watch them play in perfect harmony with the actors: cymbals, drums, dulcimer, and several stringed instruments. Amazing, humbling talent.
Modern Suzhou is . . . modern! A brand-new 21st-century subway system just opened its first line last year. Shopping centres selling absolutely anything you could ever want are lit up at night—along with the rest of the city—like the Christmas decorations of drunken Dionysian revellers. Although prices have risen shockingly since I arrived in 2004, you can still taxi wherever you need to go on a teacher’s salary, and once you master the buses and subways—or buy an e-bike—transportation is very affordable indeed.
Suzhou lies in the vast Yangtze River delta. The weather is wet and grey, the landscape similar to Holland, canals included, windmills (usually) not. Rainy springs; hot and humid summers; glorious autumns; and cold, wet winters with an occasional sprinkle of snow. The air quality is much better than Beijing, but much worse than Vancouver. If you are asthmatic, like me, invest in a good face mask; if you suffer from depression when deprived of bright sunlight, consider other destinations.
As with most places, if you eat locally, you can live quite cheaply, but if you want to eat just as you do at home, be prepared to pay. You can buy just about everything here that you could in London or Los Angeles, but at roughly twice the price. As for all those stories about food adulteration, yes: it is a problem. But the truth is, millions of people here eat pork, fish, shrimp—and everything else—on a daily basis without ill effects. Much more dangerous is the traffic, which works on different principles than you are used to; let others do the driving until you acclimate.
Suzhou is the perfect place, I think, to experience both old China and new China. I would not trade my decade here for anything in the world.
Ten years ago I heard of the passing of Anne Osman, my friend and colleague from Casablanca American School, where I worked from 1986-89. Today I came across this piece that I wrote about Anne. It was published on an earlier version of this web site but was somehow lost in the move. This seems [...]
A letter to Maury Wills. For those who don’t know, Maury Wills played shortstop on the great Dodgers baseball teams that featured Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale in the 1960s. In 1962 Wills stole 104 bases, breaking Ty Cobb’s 1915 record for steals in a single season.
I was following reports about [...]
First: we can never know what the author intended. Even if we ask the author in person, we cannot know whether the answer we hear is sincere, or truthful. It gets worse: the author himself cannot know with certainty what impelled him to write this or that. Why did I eat oatmeal for breakfast? [...]
I’ve always thought the public schools needed to study the best literature. I always taught Oedipus Rex to all kinds of what they used to call remedial or development classes. The reason those kids are in those classes is that they’re bored to death; so you can’t give them boring things. You have to give [...]
Q: What portion of the human body consists of human cells? A: About the amount from the knee of one leg down to the foot. The rest is bacteria.
This reminds me of commercial television. We commonly regard TV as a medium of art and communication financed by advertising. Actually, however, it is an advertising [...]
Some of my students were devastated to discover that Hamlet dies at the end of the play, so I have obliged their tender sensibilities with this additional scene. —etm
Scene: Wittenberg. A room in an inn.
HORATIO But how is this possible?!
HAMLET ‘Season your admiration’, good friend. In short, by a hair’s breadth [...]
What’s the difference between social and societal? Not much, but enough that you may become the victim of social stigma if you ignore subtle societal signals.
Societal is the pedantic alternative to social. . . .
I couldn’t agree more, having read hundreds of teeth-grating essays filled with “societal” this and “societal” [...]
In 1968 millions of people were outraged when anti-war activist Kiyoshi Kuromiya announced that a dog would be burned alive on the UC Berkeley campus to protest the use of napalm (jellied gasoline, for you youngsters out there) in Vietnam. No dog was harmed: Kuromiya’s point was that Americans were less concerned about the Vietnamese [...]
“How Shakespeare Changes Us”, at lit-hum.org. The first comment is worth a look, too.
“Good Advice About Bad Writing”, from DailyWritingTips.com.
Brief, clear, and to the point.
From The Atlantic, a piece worth reading by Maura Kelly. Here’s a taste:
Why the emphasis on literature? By playing with language, plot structure, and images, it challenges us cognitively even as it entertains. It invites us to see the world in a different way, demands that we interpret unusual descriptions, and pushes our memories [...]
Anyone interested in writing, anyone interested in science fiction, anyone interested in Ray Bradbury who just died at the age of 91, anyone interested in much of anything will find lots to think about in this wonderful interview with Bradbury from the late 1970s, rediscovered and printed in the Paris Review in 2010. Among other [...]
Everything is—not perfect, but cosy When suddenly there’s a big lurch That you can’t explain Or control.
At first you think, no worries, We’ll be back on course in a moment. But we aren’t.
Then more lurches, some big Some small And long stretches in between.
Thinking, can’t we just go back To where [...]
A very useful article on the Mac Observer points aspiring writers to an iTunes U lecture series, a podcast, and an app.
How to take notes—that’s the problem.
With a Kindle book, forget it. The best you can do is select some text and then share it via Twitter or Facebook. Not useful.
With Apple’s iBooks, it’s a bit better. You can select some text, copy it, switch to ‘Notes’, paste it, and then add whatever comments [...]
All serious art is being destroyed by commerce. Most people don’t want art to be disturbing. They want it to be escapist. I don’t think art should be escapist. That’s a waste of time.
—Edward Albee, American playwright http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edward_Albee#section_4
This thought-provoking piece by the eclectic Robert X. Cringely caught my eye today. Here, Cringely quotes a friend who was an engineer but changed careers and became a high school math teacher:
“The problem is that I’ve found that all these things that are purported to improve student learning ignore the number one factor in [...]
Years ago I began sending out poems at Christmas time, in lieu of cards. Here’s one of the first I sent.
The View from an Attic Window
BY HOWARD NEMEROV from New Poems (1960) for Francis and Barbara
1 Among the high-branching, leafless boughs Above the roof-peaks of the town, Snowflakes unnumberably come down.
The great literary critic George Steiner writes, somewhere, that just walking through the streets of Paris during his childhood was an education and an inspiration. Nearly every street and square in the city is named after someone who made a difference: scientists, poets, politicians, generals, intellectuals, labour leaders, architects, and on and on. Every intersection [...]
A great piece that ought to be printed out and put on the wall next to every writer’s desk. That includes you, students.
On Sunday I went to meet Lu Ping, a wonderful Suzhou artist who works in Beijing but who has just built a country vacation home for himself and his wife in the nearby ‘water town’ of Luzhizhen.
You can see some of his work from the 1990s here:
I bought several of his woodcut [...]
The news about entire retail shops being copied by clever Chinese entrepreneurs leads to the obvious question: where do we go from here? Clearly, fake stores are an intermediary step in the development toward a much more ambitious project: fake countries.
Think about it: millions of Chinese people would love to visit France, for example, [...]
The death of singer Amy Winehouse at the age of 27 connects, I think, with the terrible events in Norway. Both stories concern mental illness of a certain sort, and in both cases the social and cultural context plays a role.
For Amy Winehouse: She was clearly ill, and yet in our culture she could [...]
Congratulations to Steve Thorsett, Willamette University’s newly-appointed President, who was a student in my ‘World Literature & Philosophy’ class at South Salem High School in 1982-83. Steve has had an impressive academic career already, including a stint teaching physics and astronomy at UC Santa Cruz, where I studied as an undergraduate.
Administration of anything—much less [...]
The clumsy formulations I grew up with—what is the moral of the story? what is the hero’s or heroine’s tragic flaw?—still influence and flatten the questions people often ask about literary works, as if there were one answer, and a right answer, at that. The genius of literary study comes in asking questions, not in [...]
Babies cried, or lay lifeless
Mothers sprawled awkwardly
Young men, old men, old women, girls and boys
Body parts and fluids everywhere.
Only whimpers, or dazed silence as the sun shone indifferently.
It struck back.
Babies cried, or [...]
I just received a note from one of my “cyber-colleagues” on the English Companion Ning, and part of it was about Independent Reading:
I also want to thank you for some advice you have given me last year regarding Independent Reading – I have taken some of your ideas, changed and implemented them in my [...]
I just came across this blog post by Barbara Kerley. Although aimed at people learning to write fiction, it matches exactly the advice I give to students in my literature classes, especially at the IB Diploma level, where they need to analyze how the authors’ choices and techniques produce the effects we see in the [...]
Here’s what David Carl, a teacher at St. John’s College, answered in an email message to one of his students:
In general, our encounter with great works should tend to make us hopeful, and therefore optimistic. I have the words of several authors in mind when I assert this, such as Montaigne (“The profit [...]
I am usually wary of stories in the U.S. media about education issues—almost always I find distortion and oversimplification.
This piece by the Associated Press is no exception, but it caught my eye, particularly these two findings from the report it cites:
_Students who studied alone, read and wrote more, attended more selective schools and [...]
Reason #1: They show me what students are thinking.
Here’s a recent post from one of my Grade 9 students about ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’:
Response to chapter 12
The main event in chapter 12 is that Jem and Scout follows Calpurnia to the church where Cal goes. They experienced some uniqueness in ‘blacks’ church. [...]
Larry Ferlazzo asks that question, and many others reply: a great resource if you are looking for valuable education books to read. Thanks, Larry!
I received this email message today—
I am an ESL Instructor at [redacted] and I came across your blog and website. I enjoyed reading it and want to try some of your ideas. I also believe in independent reading (I call it extensive reading). Each student reads different books to the ones we read as [...]
In September Tom Whitby proposed that educational bloggers counterbalance the negative press in the U.S. about schools and school reform by agreeing to post their positive suggestions for improving education. All the posts were to be published on Sunday, October 17, with links added to a Wallwisher page that Tom created. Below are almost all [...]
Nearly a month ago Tom Whitby called for educational bloggers to take back the (mostly U.S.) debate over school reform by posting reform ideas simultaneously on October 17th. Here’s my contribution to the cause.
Most problems faced by schools are not educational, but cultural. Once a positive culture of learning is in place, needed improvements [...]
I’m a big fan of Alfie Kohn. He’s deeply humane, unafraid to disagree with commonly accepted ideas, always on the side of students, tireless in his advocacy on their behalf—and he grounds his opinions in research. I often recommend his books—especially The Homework Myth and Punished by Rewards.
Recently, however, he posted a piece titled [...]
High school writers looking for a place to publish their work should have a look at The Blue Pencil Online, a project of the Walnut Hill School for the Arts, in Natick, Massachusetts (USA). Their standards appear to be quite high, so for a young writer of real talent and ambition, the Blue Pencil just [...]
I lived in The Netherlands for two years before moving to China. Walking down the street in The Netherlands required serious training in modern dance to avoid stepping in ubiquitous piles of dog poop. A video of ordinary pedestrians would resemble a mass outbreak of St. Vitus’ dance. (Indeed, Aachen wasn’t far away.)
In 2004 [...]