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Thank You, Good Bye…and hello.

28 May

After two years of articles on places as distant as China to Minnesota to Moldova, and on topics as diverse as law to technology to stories of interesting people, I’ve decided to discontinue this blog.

But this isn’t an end. It’s a beginning.

Over the last couple months, I’ve built a new website under a new name which will continue to feature the same type of content as New Plateaus. (I also transferred all the content from New Plateaus.) This new site is called The Periphery and can be reached at theperiphery.areavoices.com. I’m excited about the new site and eager to continue to offer thought-provoking material under this fresh start!

Please subscribe to, or visit, The Periphery to check out the latest pieces. If your newspaper is in the Area Voices network, but doesn’t yet subscribe to it on their website, let them know and I’m sure they’ll be happy to do so.

Thank you for reading New Plateaus and now let me welcome you to the new home of this content: The Periphery. My first piece comes out tomorrow morning about Native American veterans I met over the weekend.

 

-Brandon Ferdig

 

 

 
 

New Plateaus Spotlight: Daystar University, Nairobi, Kenya

29 Aug

New Plateaus is about interesting people, places, and ideas. Sometimes we’re lucky enough to get it all of this in one story. This article is about education, the history of East Africa, and how a Minnesota-connected university is doing their part to develop a continent.

I met Pat Mahin last winter when I worked at an Italian restaurant. One night we catered a benefit dinner for a foundation helping disabled children. It was a nicely dressed crowd out for a good cause and a good time. Pat really stuck out among his fellow guests despite him being a White, 60-something, thin, clean-shaven man with glasses—for he was wearing something like this:

Pat in Africa wearing the attire I saw him in that night in Edina.

Before I even had a chance to ask if he’d like beer, wine, or soda, I had to ask about the get up. He gladly shared that it was East African attire. This, of course, led to further questions, and I soon discovered that Pat Mahin worked for Daystar University in Nairobi, Kenya. Opening up this can of worms, and me having to get back to work (Pat was thirsty) we scheduled a time to meet again.

Not long after this benefit dinner, Dr. Timothy Wachira arrived in Minnesota. He had hands to shake, places to visit, and good news to share. Dr. Wachira is the Vice Chancellor (we say President) of Daystar University. As Daystar is a Christian college, Wachira was meeting and greeting congregations to spread the word of the school’s progress and success and to offer thanks for their support. Concluding Wachira’s American tour, Mahin arranged for all of us to meet at the offices of Daystar U.S.—Daystar University’s fund-raising arm—where he works as the Manager of Projects and Church Relations.

I arrived at their suite on the third floor of what was once the Edina Middle School. Mahin showed me around the offices before leading me to the conference room. There I noticed a large bulletin board on the back wall because of all the young, smiling African faces pinned upon it.

Soon Dr. Wachira entered the room, a middle-aged Kenyan with mustache, glasses, and friendly face. More than a friendly face, he had a friendly heart and was generous to offer me time this morning—the last of his three-week American stay. We were also joined by the Executive Director of Daystar U.S., Dr. Kathleen Johnson, a middle-aged woman with a short, blonde haircut and the look of a leader.

Here was the trio:

We sat down and began. But before we talked Daystar, we talked Kenya and Wachira.

 

Kenya is a mass of land about 20% smaller than Texas which lies square on the equator in the region of East Africa:

Though at this tropical latitude, its coast and elevated inlands means, “Kenya has one of the best climates in Africa”, said Mahin. The capital, Nairobi, is an 8 hour drive from the coast.

Kenya began, like so many modern African nations, as a territory of European rule. In 1963 Kenya gained independence from the British Empire. Over the years, this has been met with challenges from within by group repression, government corruption, and violent outbursts. In 2010, though, a new constitution was approved to worldwide acclaim, etching into stone the ideals of ethnic and gender equality, recognition of environmental issues, a re-defining of the three branches of government, and interestingly, some love for the younger Kenyans: one needn’t be 35 anymore to run for president. Any adult is eligible. J Academically, Kenya now offers 14 private schools as well as the giant, public University of Nairobi with a University of Minnesota-like 54,000 member student body.

Perhaps most notably, though, Kenya has developed to become East and Central Africa’s largest economy, with projections suggesting continued growth into the future. Boosted by rapid expansion in telecommunication and financial activity over the last decade, the service sector now contributes 62 percent of GDP; the agricultural sector, though, employs a whopping 75% of the workforce.

Kenya, accordingly, is East and Central Africa’s hub for financial services—and this predominantly takes place in Kenya’s heartbeat, Nairobi:

Nairobi, Kenya

Over the last 100 years, the capital has swelled from a railroad outpost to become the cultural, banking, and social hub it is today. The city had just half a million people in 1969; now it has a population of 3.1 million. That’s a lot of people. And despite the development of an ever-growing suburban middle-class, money hasn’t kept up with population; Nairobi is noted for its five populous  slums. Though not dangerous, according to Mahin, they are dirty and very cramped:

Though with still a ways to go, Nairobi and Kenya are leaders in a developing Africa. As such, they make the appropriate setting to continue our tale of Timothy Wachira and Daystar University.

Timothy Wachira was born in 1957 in a village of 1,000 outside Nairobi. Residents lived in humble dwellings without electricity or plumbing in a country that wasn’t yet a country. One advantage of colonialism was that school was offered to most children. About three-fourths of them in Wachira’s village attended primary school. Wachira was advantaged more so in that, his father being a school teacher himself, he grew up in a home that stressed the importance of literacy and learning a skill to make a better life. His family also had enough money to send Wachira to a boys-only boarding school.

After primary school the separation between those who would/wouldn’t attend school drastically grew as only 20% of primary school graduates went on to secondary school, said Wachira. Space, competition, and cost contributed to the low numbers. Four years of it was followed by two years of high school. And for Wachira and a few ambitious others, college after that.

While grateful for his opportunities to learn, Wachira also admitted the shortcomings of education in a colonized environment. “Education was not education”, he said firmly in his Kenyan accent. He went on to say that schools were in place simply because the British needed a labor force, and that schools were shaped to provide accordingly. A different motivation, however, was seen from the schools run by the missionaries. Their goal was to help as many Kenyans as possible understand the Bible. The difference Wachira saw between the two Western motives, then, was that colonizers didn’t want everyone to be educated (not every job requires literacy) while the missionaries did.

Another effect of colonization was language. Wachira was educated in an English school system—as children in Kenya are today. In fact, English is the national language of Kenya today; Swahili is the dominant local tongue. With English acumen and a degree from the University of Nairobi, Wachira moved to Liverpool, England and earned a masters in Veterinary Medicine. Not quite finished yet, he went back to Nairobi for his doctorate.

As a professor and researcher, Wachira taught at his alma mater, the University of Nairobi and traveled to Australia and back to the United Kingdom to work for the African Medical Research Foundation. He then went on to shape schools, working in 2004 to transform St. Paul Theological College outside of Nairobi from a seminary to a multidisciplinary school. Today it is known as St. Paul’s University in Limuru. And to bring us up to the present, and back to the focus of this story, in 2010 Wachira became Daystar University’s Vice Chancellor.

 

Daystar started in 1964 as a non-denominational Christian communications company by a couple from Portland, Oregon named Don and Faye Smith and their South African partner, Motsoko Pheko. Don Smith had a PhD in Communications and recognized the need not just to witness Christianity to Kenyans, but to take a page from the modern service movement and teach Kenyans to witness to each other. (And now, today, it’s Kenyans teaching Kenyans how to witness to and serve other Kenyans and beyond.)

So in 1974, Daystar bought land in Nairobi to establish a campus downtown. The success of this school allowed (and required) them to expand. Soon after the downtown location was started, they built on a 300 acre plot 27 miles outside Nairobi where Daystar University’s main campus is today.

Growing in size and reputation, Daystar attracts Africans from all over the continent, and through the years has accumulated quite a list of graduates. “Right now there’s 12,000 graduates from Daystar in Africa, in 40 different countries”, said Mahin. Wachira added that they currently enroll around  4,400 students from 20 different nationalities. Many of Daystar’s graduates have gone on to some impressive positions: an employee at the BBC Africa, a head of World Relief Africa, a VP of Compassion International, and Kenya’s Minister of Communications.

The two-campus university uses its original downtown location for night classes and the back-to-school crowd. And at the main campus is where all the unmistakable signs of college life are: dorms, cafeteria, extra-curriculars, and sports (theirs are soccer, rugby, and basketball) with which they compete with area schools. I never asked about fraternities, but they are a dry campus.

Most of students of Daystar are local Kenyans, and English is the language used in class though a “lot of students come from French speaking countries”, said Mahin. These countries include the Congo, Zimbabwe, and Burundi, and this brings us back to the faces on that bulletin board in the conference room:

These glowing portraits represent Daystar’s intra-continental reach as well as their ability to offer students in need scholarships to attend:

Not every student at Daystar is African, either. South Korea has a modest population of exchange students as do American colleges, Bethel and Northwestern of St. Paul, Minnesota. We Minnesotans, then, are graced with the presence of some of Daystar’s students in return. And according to Wachira, an American from Oregon is enrolled at Daystar not just as an exchange student, but as a normal, full-time undergrad. Perhaps this student was drawn to the price tag; $5,800 covers everything for a year at this private school. But though cheap by American standards, that’s very expensive for most Africans.

From sponsors abroad, about 100 students at Daystar are currently on scholarship. When Daystar began, the whole school was dependent on donations from Americans; now they stand on their own as a center for learning—for Africans, by Africans. And more than just economic and enrollment growth, Daystar University also has achieved remarkable academic expansion. Smith founded what began as a communications school to help teach and create church leaders. Today, communications remains as its strength. “That’s their sweet spot” , said Mahin. But Daystar has expanded its academic breadth and depth to include 29 majors and nine graduate programs—including a PhD in, yep, communications.

Areas of expansion include majors in business and  economics, social sciences, performing arts, languages, and math and science. In fact, Daystar recently won a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to study leishmaniasis, a parasite transmitted by sand flies.

Expansion, however, has not diluted the school’s original and main purpose. Rather, it has distributed it throughout its many different disciplines. Its “sweet spot”, the idea of becoming leaders by way of service, remains at the core of the Daystar beat. “When graduates come across the stage and get their degree, they also get a towel”, said Mahin.

This symbolizes Jesus washing the feet of his disciples, of being a servant leader:

Daystar graduate with her diploma and towel

The Daystar niche, and a significant shift from most American studies, is to have students ask, “How does this knowledge help my people?” said Wachira. One good example is well-known alum Christine Nguku. She was a well-paid anchor on television, but resigned from her job to start a radio station in her home community.

In a continent known for its difficulties in political leadership, Daystar tries to shine as a place to transform Africa. “Send young people to Daystar, learn the values of Christ, and they will avoid the corruption pitfalls,” said Pat. Besides service, Pat also gets the vibe of gratitude. As he’s travelled to Daystar over the years, young men and women from all over Africa have greeted him with enthusiasm, telling him, “Please tell the people of America thank you for helping to make my dream come true!”

Here in the U.S., this is precisely what Pat Mahin does, traveling to churches to share the mission with new congregations and maintain relationships with current donors. He says it’s rewarding to help a bright child, who never could have afforded it, have a chance to get their college degree. And he loves to show the donors this reward—either with pictures, video…or even in person. “I organize trips to go to Daystar to show the campus and the graduates to the visitors so they can see directly what the graduates are doing in the society and how they are transforming Africa.”

 

to new plateaus,

-Brandon

 

If you want to find out more information about Daystar, visit their university website: http://www.daystar.ac.ke/  or their fund raising website: http://daystarus.org/.

If you or your congregation are interested in donating to the Daystar mission, call Daystar U.S. at 952-928-2550 or email Pat Mahin at pat@daystarus.org.

 

  

 
 

Stomping-Ground Culture 2: Our Grandparents

18 Nov

While I was still “up north” as we say, visiting my family in Blackduck, I decided to stop out at each of the grandparents’ places. Some may consider this dull, but it was enlightening. Here’s why:

As if the Fates of blogging were looking down upon me, my time with my old granddads offered fresh examples of our young, Minnesota culture, wonderfully capping this theme and introducing another. This new theme was this: the depth we gain from having relationships with the elders in our society.

This is actually my theme for next time, though you’ll see its footprints in this post. But for this post, I want to keep up the culture bit. Here we go. :)

Do you remember last week’s post about the county fair and the demolition derby? Yes, America loves its cowboys and competitions. She also loves the smash, crash, sis-boom-bash of colliding cars.

But…

Does America not also love the restoration?

Funny how a day after I saw functioning cars being destroyed, I visited my Grandpa Ferdig and saw this:

A destroyed car to be made functioning.

And not just functioning, but beautiful. Somehow, these themes are opposing, and yet equally American. There’s just as much a thrill to see a pristine car become a fire-ball as there is to see a humble junker turn into a prize-winner.

I first entered Grandpa’s house and greeted his entryway and den whose own faces greeted me back—those of deer and antlers of caribou, moose, and elk. He went out hunting in Colorado just this last fall as a matter of fact, and at his age, that’s adds optimism to my future of active senior living!

And this activity–the hunting–I think actually best represents Northern Minnesota culture. The Sportsman. For I don’t know another technologically advanced country whose citizens are so connected with nature in the way Americans are.

But for all the antlers on the wall, I’m not convinced the trophies are what drives the activity. And like his old, beat-up truck, I’m not sure it’s the dream of driving it around that gets him going.

Maybe it’s the passion to tinker with gadgets, or to see the beauty and potential in something previously discarded. Perhaps is about reliving the past. Either way, while America loves to smash and destroy, she also loves to build and create. Here’s my Grandpa standing next to something few people in the world would want to claim as theirs:

As American as apple pie, the automobile represents the wide-open spaces and the love to move about them. And in this case, the truck stands as a symbol of Grandpa’s creativity, improvement, and transformation.

Here’s a Studebaker he restored:

Stud

So he’s got his restored car, but what does he do? He starts another.

It reveals an American trait that has shaped its progression and growth. It’s in American blood–and literature. It’s the thrill of the journey; the change, the transition, the process rather than the result; the trip, not the destination. It’s what John Steinbeck wrote in “The Red Pony”. (Right, Mrs. Zea?–my 9th grade English teacher.) He wrote that “westering” was the key, not in reaching the Pacific coast.

I think this is what drives America. (I also think it’s what leads to high levels of anxiety and drinking.) But the need to keep active and building something is pronounced in the American culture and psyche.

Even more interesting—-it was the grandfather character saying this to his grandson in “The Red Pony”, if I’m not mistaken.

Thus enter my other grandpa: Mom’s dad, Grandpa Freyholtz. I also paid him a visit while “up north”.

I went to his house and entered the familiar rooms that I remember playing in as a boy. We sat, and of course, Grandma had coffee ready. We sat at the old table that we had played cards on numerous times during holidays.

We chatted about the usual, but I did what I always like to do when I have the chance: hear their story(s). Grandpa’s is interesting because he came from a family of successful farmers in the southern part of the state. He had a nice life scripted out for him, having just got married, had a couple young children, and successful operation. But see, it was this very “certainty” that bothered him.

Though one never knows what life has in store, he also didn’t want a life predicated by what his father and other family were doing.

So he made up his mind to pack up the family in 1965 and head someplace north of Brainerd–he said he liked the evergreens. He wound up just north of Blackduck, situating himself 250 miles away from the life he knew. The soil wasn’t as good, the growing season shorter, and his family wondered why he moved away. But he wanted a life that would be fresh and adventurous.

For better and/or for worse, one thought came into my mind: How American. The same trait that keeps people busy building is the same itch to go places and experience new things.

Then Grandpa said something profound, “I’m a restless spirit”. (What grandfather says that!?) It really struck me because I considered my own travels and my own difficulty fitting into any mold that resembles a “normal” life.

I identified with my Grandpa, but I also sharpened my identity as being a member of a larger group; because I think this is the same spirit that drove the Ingals family of “Little House on the Prairie” from Wisconsin to Kansas, that drove countless Europeans (and Asians, etc.) out of their countries for a new life across the Atlantic (or Pacific).

That I could connect with the words of the old, raspy voice from this elderly man made me realize more than these American cultural identifiers. I realized, through this intimacy, what makes “culture” the powerful, life-giving element it is: it adds meaning to your experience on Earth.

Gee, I guess our nascent culture does have some weight and meaning. And this must be the benefit that keeps other people (Native Americans, Chinese, Jews) attached to the ways of “their people” that I previous thought just a limiting liability.

So from my Granddads came two important lessons in American Culture: restoration and restless spirits. And my connection to them and these traits helped me realize the enhancement when staying connected to those that share your spirit.

to new plateaus,

-Brandon

 
 

Stomping Ground Culture, part 1

12 Nov

If you’d asked me before about the culture of northern Minnesota, or America even, I’d have suggested it better described as a lack of culture. Growing up, we never had our version of a pow wow or exotic clothing—nothing drawing back to the days of ancient ancestors.

Removed from lederhosen and the German language (though not entirely from polka) my family didn’t identify with the “old country” in any traditional sense. And actually, I saw our lack of strong, cultural identity as an asset.

Fewer divisions between people existed, and with all the ethnic conflicts around the world, attachment to the activities of others in one’s group, I saw the whole idea of “culture” as over-rated. Hence, I was grateful that America gave humanity a chance to “reset”, individuals less defined being in a group.

(I’ve since, however, realized the strength gained from such attachment–the depth and tradition of a practicing Jew, the community of the Chinese, the spirituality of the Native Americans.)

And I neglected something else by not looking right before my eyes: that just because the bright colors of indigenous-wear and exotic moves of cultural dances all over the world makes their history bright and obvious, this doesn’t remove the fact that culture is made everyday, everywhere. It may not be as “romantic” or “other-worldly” as 3,000 year old ceremonies, but movies on a Friday night, the X-box 360, and your church up the road are examples of culture just the same.

My nephew, Robert, already developing his ushering skills at church.

My brother's church

What’s more, some of the cultural events of northern Minnesota are unique and as expressive as an Indian’s ornate head-dress. I experienced them when visiting my old stomping groups of Beltrami County, and they exclaimed the social vibe, the emotional release, and the identity with its participants that good culture offers anywhere in the world.

So let’s get to know my old neighborhood by seeing them at their best.

Before I stepped foot back on American soil, my father said I had to drive up to Blackduck the weekend of the 14th of August to see my brother-in-law, Kevin, compete in the contemporary rural version of the gladiators—the demolition derby. I did; and it was cool. And I’ll describe it shortly.

First, I’ll say that it was just one of many events at the annual gathering known as the county fair. Like gatherings worldwide, these fairs are about having fun and camaraderie–some drinking, music, a lot of socializing, and games.

County fairs are great cultural markers because they demonstrate two traits of America–its agriculture and competitive spirit.

Farmers from around the region bring their best crops, livestock, and rodeo skills. That’s right, rows of pigs, poultry, cattle, horses, and more are lined up for the judges to determine the best of the bunch. Cooking Cassanovas and Baking Bigshots also bring their A-game to compete in contests of cuisine: the best pickles, pie, or pumpkin bread.

I reflected on this activity and how uniquely American it is. The idea of a Chinese person taking pride in how well their pig or carrots stand up to others brought a smile to my face as it seemed so out-of-place. Hmm, so America does have a unique culture, after all.

Here's two older gals hearkening the culture of a generation or two ago as they sing classic country music at the fair.

If there’s one fashion ideal of the American that sticks in foreigners’ minds, it’s the image of the cowboy:

cowgirl

Indeed, this is a fashion and lifestyle belonging to America and stretches across all it’s fine, fifty states. (except maybe Hawaii)

I spoke with this women for awhile about her life on the farm:

She was preparing to compete in the horse-riding competition.

For many of these folks, it’s a family operation they maintain for hobby. It’s fun to farm. :)

In the evenings, the fair goes from animals and food to games and rides. Moonlight replaces daylight, and is accompanied by thousands of small light-bulbs that stimulate the rides. My family and I enjoyed some time there, especially my other nephew, Garret:

Him and Dad (Kevin, the demolition derby driver) buying tickets for the games and rides.

Now go play and win a prize, Garret!

Garret is eager as the carnie looks on.

And here I’ll mention that America’s distant past does have old-school culture living on through the Native Americans. There are many who live in northern Minnesota, and as their ancestry in these lands goes back countless generations, some retain pieces of their old ways.

Here’s one family at the fair:

And here’s me and my little brother, Anthony:

Yee haw.

The following day was the big event that Dad told me to come for: the demolition derby. For those of you who don’t know, here’s what it is: take an old car and drive it around other people driving old cars. Crash into each other until the last car is moving.

Cool, huh? :)

Well these people thought so:

getting ready for some smash action

You get a nice crowd at these things:

C'mon, man, just kiss her. You know you want to.

He's a good listener.

Alright, enough jibber-jabber. Time to crunch, smash, destroy, destroy!! Ahhh!!! (sorry, had to get that out of my system.)

Okay here come the cars:

pink car looks okay now...

For my readers in China, Americans like to customize their cars to be louder, more powerful, and look cool. This demolition derby is no different.

green car looks okay now...

And they’re off!

uh oh

Finally one vehicle remained, and the proud owner came out of the wreckage to claim his prize.

This is pretty American--a 15 year old driver: ) Here's being interviewed these as he took 2nd. Atta boy.

After the cars beat themselves silly, it was time for the trucks (themselves an American icon). So this was some super-saturated American culture here!

And they’re off.

My brother-in-law, Kevin, there in the middle.

uh oh #2. The firemen had to come at one point in the contest.

When the trucks wound down, Kevin’s displaced driveshaft put him in 5th place. He won a few bucks.

Afterwards, it off to Kevin’s parent’s place to eat, drink, and be merry. Cousins and friends from all over the rural land came to have a good time. Good ‘ole northern Minnesotan fun.

(I’ll also add that in the western part of Minnesota, my friend, Kelsey, tells me that they blend the theme of agriculture the idea of demolition derbies by having combine-tractor demolition derbies!)

A “reset” button was pushed when all the Europeans came to America. It provided a chance to start fresh with some separation from the old ways. There is still a culture, though, and seeing it right after being in China for a year allowed a good look.

I hope you had a good look and can appreciate the culture that you live in and that you create each day: )

to new plateaus,

-Brandon

 
 

Home Sweet Home: China in Minnesota

05 Nov

All the pictures and words and emotions regarding China came to an end, folks. This post is about my arrival back and experiences being re-introduced to Minnesota.

I left Zhuhai on an unusually clear, beautiful, warm, sunny day. The car ride to the airport featured lush green palm trees and bright blue skies that lit up the brand-new housing developments being erected along the highway. It was a helluva lasting impression, and it kind of made me sad to leave. It always is a little hard and weighty to leave behind a place and the people you may never get to see and experience again, especially after being there for a while.

From the little Zhuhai airport I flew to Shanghai. A couple hours in the Shanghai airport had me wandering around looking for food that wasn’t silly expensive. I talked to one tall, red-headed American/German girl who just had the time of her life working in Shanghai for the summer. She’d probably be the envy of many-a-situated adult in America who wished they’d studied/worked abroad in a land so different and freeing. Heck, I envied her with her care-free spirit.

Finally I left Shanghai (and China)—on the day my visa expired—to Chicago. The American flight differed from the ones I was used to in Asia. Food was worse and flight attendants grumpier.

Lastly, it was a jaunt in the air from Chicago to Minneapolis.

I was home.

My brother picked me up from MSP. (He also dropped me off here 11 months prior.) I saw his car approach and his face behind the wheel. He stepped out. What do you say when you haven’t seen someone in a while? There’s always that neat reunion vibe.

Driving out to his house in Buffalo, MN, it struck me how everything looked the same back here in the Twin Cities. China was always building. My brother, Jerald, responded that China is developing and America is developed. I suppose he’s right, but in the coming days and weeks, I’d feel the lack of growth-energy here in America.

A box of Grapenuts, which I missed so much in China, was waiting for me at Jerald’s house. He’s awesome. I had a bowl that night and stayed up much too late as it felt like the afternoon hours to my China bio-clock. I then got up (at 5am) and did my tai chi routine established back in Hubei province.

This first, fresh morning where I practiced some calming, meditative exercise revealed the stark contrasts between American life and that which I was used to in China. It was the clean neighborhood—which seemed sparkling; the single-family homes—which seemed luxurious; and the quiet environment—which seemed silent.

Not only were these attributes exaggerated because, in significant ways, China is the opposite. They also seemed sharp because being away awhile allows for fresh eyes upon return. And this is what this and next week’s blogs are all about—a revelation of the life here in Minnesota.

I’d spend the next few weeks visiting my family around the state and documenting the culture I grew up with—but perhaps didn’t see so vividly as I did being re-introduced.

So for you readers living in Minnesota, enjoy the fresh view yourselves. For my readers in China, it’s time to turn the tables and let you experience a different land and culture through the lens of New Plateaus.

:)

And perhaps especially for my Chinese readers this post will be fun because I unexpectedly (though life is reliably cheeky) had pieces of China retain their place in my life even here, on the opposite side of the world.

I settled into a groove at my brother’s place in “suburban-like” Buffalo, Minnesota, a small town 45 minutes west of Minneapolis:

map

He lives in a development of three-story single-family homes. A neighborhood like this is a rare site in China where almost everyone I met lived in an apartment complex.

I admit it was nice to feel the space.

Though affordable in America, it doesn’t come cheap. Debt is the key word as Americans live on borrowed dollars and are contented (and motivated) to put in long days and nights working to stay above the red. I don’t think people back in China know this kind of lifestyle so well. Nor am I sure they’d want to.

Different folks, different strokes.

One thing I can say, though: it’s nice to have nice things. And it’s nice to provide a nice home for children:

My nephew, Robert, and a lovely pair of twins that my sister-in-law babysat.

Getting outside, I visited the local coffee shop, “Buffalo Books” where I’d write and observe:

'Your move, Ted.'

Seeing the foundations of a community in most places in the world is sort of challenging because you’ll have to dig deep. But in America nothing’s too old, and downtown areas of any town–particularly smaller ones–are not too different than the ways they were erected 150 years prior. One-story, uninterrupted buildings line the streets and house small businesses such as bakeries, bookstores, and hardware shops.

Here’s a view of my hometown, Blackduck, Minnesota:

Indeed, a “3-D” view of a town (the history recognized) is quite doable and refreshing, for it provides an understanding that normally goes unnoticed when caught up in the hustle and bustle of daily living.

As a matter of fact, I headed up to Blackduck a couple weeks later to visit family. And it was way up here, of all places, away from the big city, that some residual “Chinese” experiences occurred. Here’s a map of Bemidji, Minnesota, the biggest town up there.

map

My mother and I decided to visit Itasca State Park on a Saturday. It’s beautiful nature reserve full of lakes, hills, forests, and most notably, the headwaters of the Mississippi River:

headwaters

That’s right. That’s the “mighty Mississippi”. All mountains start with a slight incline, all fires with a spark, and similarly, the Mississippi with a creek:

Go ahead and cross the river for fun.

Others enjoying themselves:

Mom and I

We started driving home, but decided to make one last stop to enjoy a beautiful view over a lake. Walking down the path, I heard some talking. It was definitely foreign yet strangely familiar. I caught a word or two and thought, “that’s Mandarin Chinese”. We encountered three folks from China along the wooden walk-way. A middle-aged woman who works for 3M drove up this weekend to see the park. With her was a friend and her son who studies in London:

Son took the picture

I gave them my blog address and hope they checked it out, perhaps are even reading this one: )

That night, I sought out another China interaction in northern Minnesota by getting a taste of the local American-Chinese food:

I entered and greeted the host:

host/owner, perhaps

It’s a wonderfully typical American-Chinese restaurant: Chinese inspired art, family-style restaurant layout, and of course, as much yummy, goopy food as you can stand:

Though Americanized, the food is still the creation of home-grown Chinese-folk. None of the employees knew English, but these two did:

While I ate, the fella and I spoke. He’s been in America for quite sometimes—was originally in New York City. He came to Bemidji several years ago for another Chinese restaurant. He doesn’t like the cold, originally being from SE China (as are the employees), but as happens in life, in any country, his children and wife keep him grounded.

How interesting to go from place to place, country to country to find people of all colors in “each other’s” countries aspiring for the same goals in life. (I met Americans settled down with family in China, as well.)

Being in China all those months, there were times I longed for the chance to eat “normal” food, see the things I was used to, and be around “my people”. Now that I’m back, I’m excited to say “Ni hao” to Chinese people every chance I can. :)

And I look forward to next week’s post where I share with you some pure, untainted northern Minnesotan culture: county fair and demolition derby!

until then,

and to new plateaus,

-Brandon

 
 

Impressed With China

28 Oct

Days before I left to go to China a liberal friend of mine said he was interested to see if my political views might change upon being in China. His angle was, “yeah, they’re communist, but look at their impressive education and transportation projects. We could learn from them.”

The New York Times was/is fond of saying the same things, touting initiatives the country efficiently institutes that it considers “forward thinking”. China should be imitated.

Then there were the detractors.

Other folks told me to watch out because the government could, and does, arrest and imprison people for small, unpredictable reasons. “Don’t do or say anything they might not like,” they’d tell me. A friend of mine who taught in China spoke with displeasure about her experience, her mail being opened and People magazines confiscated.

(America is funny because the views on China are so polarizing—sometimes both ends being held by the same person!)

Not settled into any “pro” or “anti” camp, I went with an open mind. And I found that the pro-Chinese sentiment was right. But so was the anti.

They were both truthful in that their considerations were valid. It’s just that people choose to pick the areas of concern that happen to catch their eye.

I did find myself going back and forth while in China. My first month there I was impressed with a pro-China vibe. I was surprised to see people seeming so peaceful and content. I always felt safe in the city. I never saw a car getting pulled over by zealous police. I immediately saw signs of freedom not present back in America: kids regularly out by themselves having fun in the streets, no one giving a guy a hard time for lighting up a cigarette in public, drinking a beer on the sidewalk wasn’t against the law.

I saw a country of people living their lives as they saw fit. Meanwhile, I’d read headlines from American news about the U.S. getting on China’s case about human rights, environment, economic reasons. And the crazy part was that the U.S. just had the oil spill, had the banks all fail in ’08, and was/is guilty of its own human rights issues.

I couldn’t blame China for what they’ve come to believe over the years: that they’re always being targeted and picked on by the West.

Then a few months went by.

My blog was censored. I went to perform a transaction at the bank, and it took all day and cost me unanticipated fees. My mail was opened, and I couldn’t send things home that I wanted.

I saw a people complicit with government policy. I saw an unkempt population who thoughtlessly threw plastic, styrofoam, and glass into the ocean creating floating rows of litter. I encountered a protest and was pushed away by police and plain-clothed men. These examples, of course, spurred on some dislike.

Now I’m back, and when people ask me about my feeling towards China I don’t give the good or the bad, indicating placement on the anti/pro-China continuum; I have to give them both.

I like to say that I was impressed with China. The good parts were impressed upon me; the bad parts were as well. The truth was deepened.

In a controversial land like China, people look for the drama of “terrible” or “great”, but traveling and living there wasn’t about defining a position. It was about getting to know China, and my world, better.

There’s a pull to taking a side on a topic and falling down into the depths of an allegiance (at least I’m susceptible to this.) One has to take a side on social issues, I suppose, but before you do, take as long as you can to hold out and see all the truth. Or take a side (commitment and sticktuitiveness are honorable, and there’s a time and place to make a stand), but don’t forget that there’s merit to the other side. The expense of missing out on a hemisphere of truth can be very costly.

In the experiences and issues that make up our lives, don’t let your made-up mind prevent you from seeing all that is there.

to new plateaus,

-Brandon

 
 

The Faces I Lived Amongst

22 Oct

Home: where routines are made, and the places and people are familiar. It’s a location that let’s you get into your groove of life and feel comfortable.

The hunter-gatherer peoples of pre-civilized humanity had a “home” of sorts: it was the people they kept close. Then when farming, domestication, and cities sprouted, humans came to know the comforts and productivity of staying put, of enjoying the regularity of a homestead.

For the most part, this holds true today.

Feel the difference when away from home—more alert and present, more uncomfortable, excited, or anxious? Then as you’re within striking distance on the return trip, you get that groove back, and the familiarity of the environment puts you in a new state.

Regardless of your specific reaction, the impact of home makes Dorothy truthful when saying there’s no place like it—wherever it is. Bemidji, Minneapolis, Buenos Aires, or Zhuhai. That’s right, even if just a temporary home, like Zhuhai was for me, these points all held true to the degree that a year in China can allow.

Whereas my last slideshow boasted a wider geographic breadth, I’d argue that the variety of this slideshow is greater. Because when you get to know an area, when it’s your home, you delve into its crevices to reveal what really makes it tick—just as a matter of being there and living the day to day. So it’s a matter of depth.

Here are the faces that made me feel at home in Zhuhai. It’s appropriate that I finish my China posts with this ode to my home there.

Enjoy:

(oh, and I really wanted to give you an audio option with this slideshow, but my tech skillz are sour this morning. So do yourself a favor a play a nice melody to go along with the show: )

Boy, looking at pictures and seeing the times that you had really has you appreciate the moments past!

I’ll be honest, though, I can specifically recall some of those pictures, and the moments had weren’t as enjoyable as the pictures tell me they could have been. In other words, sometimes I wasn’t all there when taking or being in the picture. I was thinking about something else–worrying, anticipating, pre-occupied with something.

Each picture captured a precious moment, and the degree to which I wasn’t soaking in that singular experience is the degree to which I missed out. It’s the point made in that old adage: life it what happens when you’re busy making plans.

I realized when reviewing the slideshow that I had an incredible year, but am guilty of sometimes living the moments as a means to an end–a paycheck, a resume builder, a time-filler. The reward of my time in China wasn’t just something to gain “down the road”; the trip itself was the reward!

Here’s to not wasting a drip of life.

And as a treat to my China-based readers (and heck, a self-reflective treat to those in America, too) next time I’m going to write a post about my return to Minnesota. Re-introducing myself to county fairs, Chinese buffets, and state parks with fresh eyes was a revealing and enlightening experience that I look forward to sharing with you.

It’ll be a introduction to Minnesota for the Chinese who read this blog; and maybe for you Minnesotans, it’ll be a fresh re-introduction for you, too.

Until then,

and to new plateaus,

-Brandon

 
 

Feminine Power

19 Oct

Greetings Readers,

An article of mine about China was featured on the website: The Good Men Project. I want to share it with you. :)

I will say, though, that it’s a bit different than the travelogueing you are used to. In the spirit of “reaching new plateaus”, I sometimes delve into deeper themes of humanity. Here, I talk about the idea of feminine power: how I became introduced to it, how it was clearer to see in China, and how we lack its understanding in America.

Enjoy!

http://goodmenproject.com/featured-content/feminine-power-the-recognition/

 
 

A Chinese Yearbook

14 Oct

Whew! Sorry for the tardiness, folks. I was monkeying with putting together a slideshow for ya—and it’s good!

It might be the single, most powerful image to humans: the face.

In it we see so much; and from it we react so much. Ever examine your feelings when seeing different faces? It’s incredible how the subtle changes and appearance of a face can affect us.

From familiarity, relief, and comfort from a loved one’s face; to tenseness, anxiety, and even horror from an unfamiliar or threatening one. And apart from these extremes are countless areas in-between. We recognize the tells of an expressionless face: one’s age, their experiences, scars, weathering, softness, tone, mood—we get to know them with this one image, maybe even know some of their story.

The face is universal. The gestures: head tilts, head nods, head back, head forward; smiles, grimaces, scowls, frowns, stares, squints, ogles, glares, glances, sneers, sighs, eye-rolls, winks, blinks, raised eyebrows, jaw-drops, jaws clenched, peers, pouts, puckers

This post is the first of two, and each features a slideshow for you offering a look at all the looks I got from the people I met. :)

This post is devoted to the faces I met all year, all over as I traveled around the country.

Enjoy!

With all the variations in faces mentioned at the top and seen throughout this slideshow, it’s a wonder we always talk about Chinese all looking alike! It goes to show the countless experiences and interactions one can have even in a homogeneous country like China.

My next post is a slide-show revealing this variety not just all over the country, but from within one city and my home in China: Zhuhai.

Variety is everywhere! And there’s no better way to see it than by looking at it straight in the eye. It’s a big world, folks. Go check it out one face at a time.

to New Plateaus:

-Brandon

 
 

Letting Go; Letting Life

06 Oct

The trek was over.

I got back to Zhuhai, my home in China for the past eleven months. But though I was done trekking, I wasn’t through with traveling. See, these were my last 48 hours to prepare for my final departure back to Minnesota. This preparation included the boring stuff like getting all my money out of the bank, squeezing all my things into two suitcases, a carry-on, and a personal bag, and selling some things I accumulated over the year.

As well, there were lots of goodbyes and reflection, the latter being triggered as I spent my final afternoon walking the docks of Zhuhai:

Because it so happens that my first afternoon in Zhuhai I also wandered the docks. Almost to the day, 11 months prior:

The day before I took this shot, I arrived to China fresh, not knowing what to expect. I simply exited the plane alone with my pre-conceived notions of hectic traffic, lots of Chinese people, and smog.

Thankfully, these stereotypes weren’t too common.

I anticipated a year of boundless travel and exploratory possibilities. (You know how it is when you make loose plans to do things “in the next six months”. It’s exciting because you really can do anything, but you gotta realize sooner or later that you can’t do everything!) Then as “these next six months” are upon you; you gotta start actually doing these things. Time to buckle down…kind of.

You learn to play that delicate game of planning while being open to the possibilities.

I was awkward those first weeks, as well as anxious, excited, and clueless. I don’t usually mind this when I travel, actually, but something about the “temporary permanence” of 11 months shook me a bit. I was irritable and bothered by others staring at me and grew tired of struggling through the simplest transactions at the market.

Most of the time, though, I chilled and went with the flow—open to the possibilities, as I said, and I honestly can’t recall an instance where this rhythm ever brought me to a place where I didn’t leave a better person. (Gosh. Think about that! If we could always just move through life, each day, to this beat.)

My first week in China, my clueless, go-with-the-flow self was up on stage dancing for a community festival.

The following months, I’d be in the spotlight several more times:

The Zhuhai Daily's English section

Emceeing our school's Chinese New Year's Celebration

In a TV studio audience

Cooking at my school's food festival

Modeling for my school's literature and outdoor advertising

I didn’t create these scenarios—at least not in the sense that I went to China trying to be an emcee or a show-cook! Life brought them my way. But I did come to China, and I took advantage of the opportunities that surfaced. I guess that’s the delicate game I spoke of.

[Here I am, regurgitating the script for living that's been taught to me by a compilation of spiritual role models. It's about finding that balance of self and “other”, doing the work assigned to you when you and Life collide. As you make your way, sometimes it's seeing only enough in front of you to take the next step with certainty---or sometimes even walking off the edge and trusting a foundation to be there.]

Belief, faith, letting go and letting Life.

This corresponds a level of serenity in one’s entire life—as well as in each infinitesimal moment. It has been written about and defined differently in spiritual terms, secular terms, self-centered terms, human-worshiping terms from every corner of the world for all of documented human history. And the weight of this lesson is no lighter today than it was 5000 years ago.

(This is not to say that we don’t have to sometimes be more aggressive, creative, manipulative in getting the outcomes we want, but the year for me was an exercise in relinquishing. And as a matter of fact, by this process I found myself more apt to insert my ideas and organization into the mix.)

If you’ve read my blog, you’ve seen that this year wasn’t spent in one city. I traveled around quite a bit. From the regional sights of Yangshuo, Doumen, Hong Kong, and Macau:

Yangshuo:

Doumen:

Hong Kong:

Macau

Senado Square

The Venetian casino

Then were the far away locales of Beijing, Henan and Hubei provinces:

Beijing:

Rural Henan province:

A family farmstead

And to the mountains of Hubei province:

Where I practiced Tai Chi:

Finally, I also visited the international destinations Vietnam and Cambodia:

Hanoi, Vietnam

Cambodia:

Life with the monks

Cruising down a river

In each place, near and far, the surface images parted to reveal deeper meanings behind the environments and people I encountered. This was more than an education about these particular people and places. It was an education about humanity in general—about you and I.

A fish/animal market in Zhuhai

The treatment of animals here in Zhuhai had me asking about all of humanity’s treatment of animals. Indeed, how/can/should we seek to prevent the deaths of animals? I also discovered a window of animal edibility–ones too distant (spiders and snakes) are looked at with questionable appetites; too familiar (horses, dogs) and most find it inhumane. But just right are those in the middle—cattle, deer, chicken. Funny how that works.

Then from animals to people, in many places it was the locals who were on display. I always felt a bit funny realizing the double-standard: how would we react if an Asian tourist came and took pictures of how we lived?

Yet here I am in Guangxi province:

Cattle herders

And here I am in Macau at a Buddhist funeral service:

Getting more personal, I arrived to China admittedly jaded from the politicization of education in America. In my ideological division I realized the common phenomena of taking a side of an issue and then disregarding anything that resembles the opposition. Faced with my bias while undergoing my teacher training, I quickly saw my veil and worked to remove it.

In China, I freshly realized the importance of education and the immense importance it plays in the continued progress for humanity. I’m grateful for this as my open mind and heart allowed for the infusion of youthful energy:

Two of my students

I wondered how much of this “child-like” enjoyment can be recaptured, after the initial shock of adulthood has been realized, by getting back to finding pleasure and contentment in the little things. Of course, I did have to say that children have something going for them that us adults don’t—that magical blurred sense of reality and fantasy.

Then referring to a deeper self in all of us, my time outside the cities and towns and into the untouched-by-human arena of nature, I could sense that mental division we have between our appreciations for both realms. Part of us likes the technological; part of us the natural.

I learned that humans are called by nature. Part of us “is” nature and that sense that you get when hiking or fishing or camping seems to be a resonating of a deep part of our identity…harkening to a past time when human all lived with nature, perhaps an homage to this part of the mind that still exists today.

And a nugget of wisdom—actually quite a gem—I came upon one random day was the lesson that if armlessness can’t stop the painter, what’s ever stopping all of us from expressing ourselves?

And indeed, our efforts, as he exemplifies, with the opportunities Life presents along the way, as my experiences exemplified, reveals that we all have a lot going for us.

Next time, I’m going to offer a look at all the people. It’ll be an album of eyes whose expressions all come together to create what we know as the Chinese.

to New Plateaus,

-Brandon