Wednesday, September 29, 2010

A Sixtieth Anniversary?

The other night, the Minister Counselor for Education in the Chinese Embassy invited to his beautiful residence (adjacent to Rock Creek Park and the Hungarian Embassy) a number of us who have been involved in educational exchanges with China. The occasion? To mark the 60th anniversary of the People's Republic of China accepting foreign scholars and students.

A small group of about fifteen of us first met with the Minister Counselor, to offer friendly advice as to how China might enhance the experiences of foreigners who come to China for educational exchanges. This was an interesting session that was conducted partly in English and partly in Chinese. (No pressure there!) The students, a pair of whom go to GW, made a number of great points about how to create environments where true language immersion can occur. (The root of the problem? With such interest in learning English among the urban Chinese population, it is now very possible to live in places like Beijing and hardly ever be forced to speak Mandarin outside of the classroom.)

After the meeting, our small group joined a larger assembly that included representatives of the State Department and other government agencies. The most interesting part of the speechifying part of the evening? Representatives from both China and the United States kept referring to this gathering as marking the 60th anniversary of China receiving foreign scholars and students. What was for the most part left unsaid is the fact that our two nations did not have diplomatic relations until about thirty years ago. Back at the founding of the People's Republic, American students were sent/called back home to the United States. (One of those students, who has over the past six decades had a long and distinguished career in and out of academia, was actually in attendance at the event. How cool is that!?)

What all of this diplomatic history means is that we Americans and Chinese were gathered in part to celebrate the acceptance all those years ago by the People's Republic of scholars and students from the Soviet Union and other communist countries against which the United States was aligned during the Cold War. I know, I know...There is much to commemorate in the educational exchanges that have occurred over the past three decades between China and the United States (including our little family adventure!). I am just not overwhelmed by calling such a commemoration a 60th anniversary.

In the end, all of this is a long way of saying that diplomacy is definitely not my professional calling!


Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Benefit Of The Doubt

I know what they say about monitoring our kids' use of media...computers and Internet, cell phones, etc. Overall I'd say that the Balla parental attention to this has been no less than diligent. That being said, you will understand my concern when I logged on to Z's laptop the other day and noticed something strange in the upper right hand corner of the GMail log in screen. Typed in the box where one might do a Google search was the phrase "We must never cede control." Hmm...

So I of course clicked on the search, only to find the rest of the statement: "...of the motherland."

Perhaps even a bit more concerning.

"What on earth is this?" I thought. (Add your own expletives.) Hmm. Steve sometimes uses Z's computer...Could he have been doing some research? I was hopeful....Hopeful that I wasn't about to find out some new things about my family unit, that is!

"Boys," I called out, "can I see you guys for a sec? Just a quick question...(pointing to the screen)...What on earth is this?"

As laughter erupted between Steve and Z, I awaited a much more innocuous reason for this search than my mind was generating. "Let me show you," said Z, as he pulled up the actual search...

Dwight Schrute giving his speech as Salesman of the Year.



Monday, September 27, 2010

Last Train Home

Fresh off of our presentation Saturday evening on the roles of the Catholic Church in a changing China (it seemed to me as if we all worked well together), the four of us yesterday took in a fascinating documentary about the effects of economic and social changes on family life in the Middle Kingdom. "Last Train Home" traces the journeys of a family of peasants from Sichuan Province who spend more than a decade living apart from one another.

"Last Train Home" chronicles the by now familiar story of two parents who leave the poor countryside and head to one of China's mega-cities to find work in manufacturing. Their two children (a girl first, then a boy...a common pattern in rural areas thanks to the one-child policy) are left behind in the care of their grandparents. Over time, the parents struggle with the separation, wondering if they are doing the right thing for their family. As for the children, neither stands out in school, and the daughter begins to rebel, eventually setting out as a teenager to make it on her own in the big city.

So, yes, this is a story that has been told many times. But "Last Train Home" brings us visually right into the middle of the family's turmoil. The cameras are rolling in the factory dormitory when the parents clean their clothes and worry out loud about what will happen to their children. The cameras are rolling when the once-a-year trip back home is delayed while family members are stranded at the Guangzhou train station for five days (five days!), along with hundreds of thousands (hundreds of thousands!) of other migrant workers. And the cameras are rolling out in the village when an altercation between the father and daughter turns terribly physical and the rest of the family stands there looking on in silence.

"Last Train Home" is the real deal. It is not for the faint of heart. But if you want an intimate look into the lives of China's fractured peasant families, "Last Train Home" is a good place to start. (We can fill in some of the gaps, if you'd like, the next time we talk.)