Teaching in China

China no longer seems like an exotic destination to me, given all the goods and services we exchange with this country every day. Many of my friends have traveled extensively in China, and I have visited Hong Kong on a couple of occasions. The opportunity to teach a 36-hour class on local government at the China University of Political Science and Law in Beijing has, however, given me a better view of an amazing place and some great young people.

I have 13 students in my class, ranging from a post-doctoral student to second-year undergraduates. Despite the differences in age and education, they work well together and are unfailingly attentive and polite. I’m not sure I would be willing to listen to me drone on about local government for 36 hours over 9 days, but these students seem to be intent on getting as much out of the class as possible.

I really don’t talk for four hours every class, as I assign projects that require the students to work on group projects a fair percentage of the time. They have produced staff memos, developed a code of ethics, and created a draft strategic plan so far. The students are learning new concepts and vocabulary in a relatively unfamiliar language, yet they clearly understand most of what’s being taught. I wonder how many of us could handle a college-level course on Chinese local government taught in Mandarin.

My two course assistants, Yong and Alice (some students use English names for class), are eager to please and fun to be around. They like to practice their English and don’t seem to mind hanging out with old people to do it. We have made good use of the translator app on our smart phones to help make conversations work.

We haven’t spent all of our time in the classroom, although the schedule and the weather haven’t allowed too many opportunities for outdoor activities. We visited the nearby Ming Tombs our first day here and have had the chance to ride in a rickshaw, shop in a mall, and listen to traditional Chinese music at Chiangping Park. I’ve been running every morning and discovered a great natural area near our hotel today.

China may not be exotic anymore, but it remains an interesting place with remarkable people. I’m looking forward to our remaining two weeks here and the chance to visit historic sites like the Great Wall and the Forbidden City. Mostly, I’m enjoying the interaction with a great group of young people who are at least pretending to be interested in what I have to say.

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Pictures from top: At the Ming Tombs; standing on the library steps at the University; a Ming Dynasty Emperor; and children playing in plastic floats at a park.

Triumph over Tragedy

Rarely a day passes without some kind of tragedy grabbing our attention through television news, Facebook, the newspaper, or Twitter. Today we learned of snipers killing five police officers in Dallas, Texas, following a peaceful protest over the deaths of unarmed African-Americans in Minnesota and Louisiana. As horrible as these events are, the greater tragedy could be the threat they represent to peaceful life and improved opportunities for all Americans.

My first reaction to the events of recent days was sadness at the thought of increasing violence in a country where violence has actually declined over the past few decades. I had to remind myself that during my lifetime great American leaders, including a president, have been assassinated. Wars have claimed hundreds of thousands of lives. Riots have destroyed inner cities, and crime waves threatened the safety of people across the country. My parents and grandparents lived in even more violent times when world wars killed millions.

It’s hard to find comfort by rationalizing tragedies today with the thought that times were much worse in the past. We live in the present, and we should be affected by the bad things going on around us today. We can’t, however, let these incidents rob us of our most important asset, which is our belief in the prospect of a better future. The fight to make things better requires a tenacity that’s hard to sustain without hope. I believe that for every tragedy that makes the news and grabs our attention, there are countless acts of kindness and self-sacrifice that work to make the world a better place.

Yesterday, I was privileged to run alongside about 20 law enforcement professionals carrying the torch as a fund-raiser for Oregon Special Olympics. This event has been conducted for the past 30 years as a way to bring both money and attention to a cause that should inspire hope in all of us. Special Olympians who confront daily challenges most of us cannot imagine demonstrate optimism, perseverance, and accomplishment that truly triumphs over tragedy. Police officers and countless others throughout the world have recognized the importance of this contribution and given of their time and resources to support it. There is too much pressure in the world today to choose sides and attack those who don’t see the world as we do. As a society, we need to keep working on the issues that divide us; and there are many ways for individuals to contribute.

If we can’t all participate in the many good causes going on in our communities every day, we can and should remember there is no barrier to kindness and good works. Each of us has the ability to do something nice for someone else with the sure knowledge we will be rewarded in ways we might not expect. Violence will be a part of our lives in spite of everything we might do to work against it, but it need not control or destroy our lives. We have the power to overcome it if we have the will to use it.