The colors and crisp weather make the upper Midwest a land many ought to envy. Something about the air in the autumn makes me feel more alive. In addition, harvest time is a recognition of a summer well done. I knew this fairly well as a boy due to my mother’s side of the family being farmers. Down here in the Metro, though, it takes drive to see the reap and the brilliance of autumn.
I’m lucky to have a brother living out west of Minneapolis in the smallish-sized town, Buffalo. I drive out to the quietness of his house a couple times a months to work on the book I’m eager to show all of you sometime soon! On the way out to Buffalo, city buildings turn into birch, pine, and maple.
Now enjoy this autumn story with a French twist…
Three weeks ago, I attended an international social event. It was simply a time for foreigners and traveling locals to commingle over a happy hour. I was talking to a few travel-friendly locals about their experiences abroad when two young women with accents came over to the group. Here’s a picture of them I’d snap later on:
Their names (left to right) were Camille and Lucile and had arrived to America only a month prior.
These French women were French teachers for a French immersion school. (That’s right; for a few tuition dollars your child can learn all the basic subjects in French: )
These gals were eager to meet some people outside their school, so came this event. While there, they tried some wine which I don’t think knocked their socks off. I mentioned Minnesotan wines–knowing nothing about local wine quality, but figured they might be interested. (Fun fact: every state in the U.S. has at least one winery.) Minnesota actually has several, and the two French femmes were intrigued.
Soon after, while out at my brothers, I looked up a winery very close to his place: Woodland Hills just outside Delano. I called them up and mentioned I had two women from France eager see how Minnesota wines measured up. The winery was eager for the international audience. So two weeks later, Camille, Lucile, and I drove out for a Fondue Friday at the winery. The girls had yet to see the country and enjoyed the views west of town. They also enjoyed the vineyard:
Woodland Hills is a picturesque vineyard on an old farm property just west of Delano. The barn and other farm buildings have been renovated as wine-making facilities.
A homey architecture and decor filled the small restaurant. It doubled as a gift shop full of wine-inspired gear. It was also where the wine tasting was at:
“C’mon, keep pouring”.
“Cheer up, Don. It’s Fondue Friday!”
The girls ordered a couple whites and we got our fondue. We sat outside to enjoy a quiet, calm night away from the traffic of central Minneapolis. The scene was great, and the weather that night couldn’t have been much better: clear skies, bright, full moon, and moderate temperature. Some acoustic musicians played relaxing, but upbeat and familiar tunes under the gazebo with lyrics such as: “It’s a one horse town, and that’s alright by me.” (Well, familiar to us, anyway. I explained to the girls what “one horse town” meant.)
The wine? Well, the French were hard to impress. It turns out Lucile grew up in a small village in surrounded by vineyards–one of which her grandfather founded. She sensed her white was lacking in how long the flavor lasts. (Anyone know the term for that?)
But the girls compensated for flavor with the elegant and subtle hints of…marshmallows:
Who needs fondue?
A campfire burned as the centerpiece of the outdoor tables, and Woodland Hills gets an extra hat-tip from me for offering up the marshmallows, sticks, and graham crackers. The girls stared at one middle-aged Minnesotan man who purposefully turned his marshmallow-on-stick into a mini-torch. They told me burned food was carcinogenic and proceeded to perfect their browned-but-not-burnt versions.
Eventually, Mike, the owner of the joint, came over to talk to his guests:
They discussed the barrels the wine was aged in and all that jazz; then he offered them a glass of Woodland Hills red. Lucile and Camille liked it: )
As the night wore on, so did the cooling temps on us. Thankfully, we had that campfire aglow. The stars came out, and I half-jokingly told them their families could be staring at these very same skies right now. (Albeit at 3am their time.) They do miss home, but are excited for this chance to hone their English and experience life outside their country. I can relate as I taught English abroad myself.
We made for a good team this Friday night in the crisp, colorful autumn evening.
This is a piece about our connection to ancestors, their way of life in the Midwest, and these discoveries through one little old lady.
My Aunt OliveHendrickson was born in South Dakota and now lives in South Saint Paul. I’m 31; so guess what year she was born: 1970? Back to 1958?
How about way back in 1935?
How about before WWI.
June 9th, 1914. (I know. It was kind of a trick question. Aunt Olive is my great, great aunt. –I think that’s how it works out.)
I didn’t even know she existed until just three months ago. I got an out-of-the-blue email from a woman named Beverly Klein. I knew the name Klein, but not Beverly Klein. Saying she was my Grandpa’s cousin, she said she’d read a couple articles I wrote in her newspaper: the Bemidji Pioneer. She also added to that she sends the pieces down to her mother, Olive Hendrickson, who lives nearer to me in South Saint Paul.
Hmm, so this Olive is my grandpa’s cousin’s mother. Beverly then put it in another way, writing: she’s your great-grandfather’s 97-year-old sister. Wow. My great-grandpa Ferdig was alive when I was little, passing away when I was 6 or so. Then after my great-grandmother—his wife—died, I assumed that all that generation was gone and that my grandparents were now the eldest family alive. For me, it was as if this eldest generation came back from beyond to reclaim its place in my world, a time capsule digging in another twenty rings into the family tree. A couple weeks later, I arranged to visit my great-great aunt Olive.
It was a twenty minute drive from Minneapolis to South St. Paul. Her rockin’ digs are in a senior housing complex. Living alone, her apartment was the kind of place you’d expect: off-white walls, soft beige carpet, a TV a few models behind the times. Grandma Ollie, as her family call her, had the expected short curly hair, glasses, and loose-fitting button-up shirt and pants. She was short, too. When I stood next to her, I could have rested my arm atop hear head. Indeed, she’d later say she was but 4’11” even in her young-adult years.
Aunt Ollie and I
She was 97 but as mobile and communicative as someone 20 years younger.
So let’s go back to those young adult years. Actually, let’s go back to 1914. Olive Hendrickson told me her story…
She was born Olive Mae Ferdig in Trent, South Dakota on June 9th. Trent is a tiny, tiny town (pop. 232, 2010 census) near the border of Minnesota, a bit north of Sioux Falls, SD. Olive was the 8th of 11 children of William and Rose Ferdig, and with few modern conveniences in rural America in those days, you can pretty much picture “Little House on the Prairie”-type conditions. In fact, these lands weren’t geographically too far from the settings of those books.
Here’s Olive as a baby with her siblings:
The Ferdig children when Olive (baby #8) came along. (Top) Mabel, Bessie, Albert–oldest boy in the middle, Clarence (middle left), Earl (right), Earvin (2nd youngest), Raymond (youngest), Baby Olive (middle). Leo, Harold, and Ruby were yet to come.
I asked many questions about her father William because it was such a treat to have this woman before me who could tell me first-hand what my great, great grandfather was like. Though he looked large in photos, he was better described as stocky:
William and Rose Ferdig
William was an unsettled man. A jumpy German who moved about continuously. With a load of children you wouldn’t think that would be an easy thing to do, but despite protestations from family and obvious logistical issues of moving in those days, his will found a way to bounce from Iowa to South Dakota to northern Minnesota back to Iowa back to northern Minnesota to north-eastern Minnesota and so forth.
William grew up in Sioux City, Iowa—almost straight south of Trent, as a matter of fact, and not too far from Sioux Falls. Here’s a map for ya:
Look at the very bottom right: Sioux City, Iowa is where William and Rose started. They headed up Interstate 29 (just kidding) -perhaps a dirt road back then in the 19-aughts all the way to Trent which is north of Sioux Falls and south of Brookings.
Rose Scofield also grew up in Sioux City, and this wasn’t the only pairing of these two sibling sets. There were three. William and two of his sisters married Rose and two of her Scofield brothers.
I have more questions than answers about the life of William and Rose, but what I gathered from Olive is that soon after marriage, they were off. And that her father’s restlessness was vivid. One time they left their home in such a hurry that they, “left a nice organ in the house”, she said. Later on, Olive was just one week shy of graduating the 8th grade, but her dad had the family up and leave anyway. Later at her new school that fall, she had to repeat the 8th grade all over again.
“When he got ready to move, he wouldn’t listen to nobody,” Olive said.
According to other relatives, there’s a story from my great-grandfather (Olive’s older brother), Clarence Ferdig, that their father came home late one night and had all the children hurriedly gather into their horse-drawn wagon. He ordered them to cover their heads under a blanket. Clarence said his father got into a fight at a saloon, injured a man, and was now wanted. Tough to hold down a job that way. To make a buck William did some logging and farm work.
This was America in the 1920’s. Men in cities during that era started to dabble in modern luxury—automobiles, electricity, indoor plumbing, phonographs. They went to work and wore a suit, had a routine, perhaps a small business. On the weekend they’d play golf, mingle with others, and have a cocktail.
And then there was my great-great-grandfather, William. What a clash!
He did do a nice job of cleaning up for this shot, though:
This is the cover of the Ferdig family tree.
Asked about their personal habits, Aunt Ollie said that neither of her parents smoked. William did like to get a bottle “when he could afford it”. They hardly went to church–perhaps because there were no churches around at times–though missionaries would visit. She said the family got along and that they “never fought or nothing”.
Naturally, Olive had even fewer answers about her parents’ parents. Her one story about interacting with her grandparents was when her family made one of their many moves back down to Sioux City to care for her father’s bed-ridden diabetic mother. (That’d be Olive’s Grandma Ferdig, or my great-grandfather’s Grandma Ferdig, or my own great-great-great Grandma Ferdig—whew!) Olive remembers her brothers shucking corn for area farmers down there in Iowa to make a couple bucks.
Interestingly, and sadly, she never even saw as much as a picture of her Grandpa and Grandma Scofield.
After caring for their grandma, they skedaddled out of Iowa (the week before her 8th grade graduation) and moved back up to northern Minnesota to a place called Quiring Township about 35 miles north of Bemidji. This place is so remote that I grew up 15 miles from there, and I hadn’t even heard of it until Olive mentioned it.
Her school was a one-room schoolhouse; all the roads were dirt; and a trip to the bathroom meant going outside. They were always poor. “We didn’t have nothing”, Olive asserted, recalling a lack of a bicycle or ice-skates for the kids. They’d keep their milk cool by putting in a bucket and lowering it into a well and heat their modest home via a wood-burning furnace. They needed it, too. Because back then winters were winters, and you didn’t get to escape the conditions at will. On those frigid February nights, Aunt Ollie told me she remembers waking up in the morning and seeing ice on the dish next to her bed.
Reminiscing in the comforts of her present-day home, she said, “I often wonder how we got by.”
As a token of remembrance, though, Ollie recently purchased a model replica of the same kind of stove used by her mother:
Ollie would be free of that fleeing-family living when she met Roy Hendrickson. Roy’s little brother, Louie, who was Olive’s age, handed her a Valentine’s Day card (guess that tradition goes back a while) when they were teenagers in school. He played Cupid, though, not Casanova and signed it with his brother’s name. “He was full of heck, that Louie,” Olive said with an adoring laugh. Louie’s alive today–across the border in Wisconsin, racing Olive to 100.
Unfortunately, Roy isn’t. But little did Louie know, that 80+ years ago, he was helping set up a marriage that would last almost 70. Today, Olive’s husband, Roy, has been gone only 10 years. And him being 6 years Olive’s senior means he was 94 himself when he passed. She was 18; he was 24 when they married, and they shared 69 years in marriage.
Roy and Olive’s life began up in northern Minnesota and took a turn for the west out to North Dakota where Roy’s two brothers had farms. Later, in Grand Forks, Roy got a job at a meat-packing plant, and later yet–the 1950′s–they moved to South St Paul where he worked meat-packing until his company closed. After a day of digging out kidneys, he’d come home and have to soak his hands, Olive said.
South Saint Paul would be their home up until the end.
Here’s a bit of video of our interview:
We met for only an hour and a half, but spanned a lifetime. And her life isn’t done yet. In fact, in celebration of it, a mini-reunion of distant relatives all came together three weeks later for her 98th birthday on June 9th.
The community room at her living facility was the place for this event. Walking in, I saw the usual cake and gifts and snack trays along with tables with people sitting around.
The center of it all of course was the birthday princess:
Interesting was how spread out the relation was between all the attendees. I knew less than half of the people there—such a branching out can occur in four generations. Actually five now. Olive has two great, great grandchildren.
Also there were a few people that I knew were related, but I never bothered figuring out how. Beverly Klein’s (the women who originally wrote me the email) grandson, Tim, was there. Also growing up in Blackduck, I always thought of Tim as friend of my younger brother, not a relative. (It seems a sort of either/or thing: family or friends.) Yet, there were Tim and I, tied together by William and Rose Ferdig and Olive Hendrickson, his great grandma and my great, great aunt.
Another young fella, Kyle, and I took our branching to paper and diagrammed our tree of life:
My tree on the right; his on the left. Ollie and Clarence are our sibling great-grandparents. We each share 1/16th of William Ferdig. What does that make us?
What would you guess by looking?
What I do know is that in a paternalistic society, I tend to put more weight into the ancestors who share my name. But my mom’s mother’s mother’s father has the same amount of genetic similarity as do William and I. (Well, the fraction is the same, but maybe there’s significance to Y chromosome down through the generations? Any geneticist or biologist out there?)
How about some musicians?:
Ollie’s B-day got a soundtrack! I believe these middle-age strummers are Ollie’s grandkids.
After some cake and commingling, we stepped outside. It was a gorgeous afternoon and one of Ollie’s children brought the old car that her and Roy bought back in the 50′s.
This was no jalopy, either. She was cherry. Car show ready, it was, reflecting those sunbeams like it was the source of the glow. Ollie stepped into the driver’s seat like the clock was turned back 50 years and waved like a beauty pageant like the clock was turned back 80:
When seeing a shot like this, with all the family in the background, I always wonder if an elderly person like Olive ever thinks about all the beautiful life they are responsible for.
This shot puts some perspective on this as well:
Generations 1, 2 and 5.
And here’s a bit of footage for ya from the party: )
Reflecting on her life, Olive said back in her apartment, “I don’t know how we lived.” It’s incredible how different things are today than how they were when she was a girl. All the inventions (she said of my digital camera’s screen image, “If that ain’t something!”), all the luxuries and comforts.
She must think to herself, “Wait, did all this really happen right here in Minnesota in one lifetime?” The 20th century was an exciting era to experience. Now 12.5 years in, the 21st is treating her pretty good, too.
There are a host of issues in our world that we are nowhere near solving. Take drunk driving, we try to find that sweet spot between how to punish the problem, and prevent the problem, and even outsmart the problem. For all that we do, though, people still drink and then drive.
But what if instead of trying to figure out the problem, we eliminated it. In this series called “Problem Solved?” I take a look at issues that perplex us and how we might win the battle by erasing the war via technology.
Today, we look at organ shortage.
The wait lists for transplants are long and many die in wait. The situation is dire. Healthy people just don’t donate an adequate amount of organs in life or posthumously to keep up with demand for those in need of kidneys, heart, etc.
Campaigns are common to try and get people to donate. Facebook just started one. Others have called for the right to financially compensate someone for their organs. (Today, it is illegal to pay someone for doing so.)
But instead of banging our heads against the wall trying to find more donors, or debating the morality of being able to sell body parts, how about we use technology to eliminate the problem by increasing supply?
Growing organs is on the horizon, both by way of 3D printing technology–literally printing organs–and by way of something being innovated right here in Minnesota at the Mayo Clinic. There, doctors are reprogramming regular cells from your body to become stem cells–the cells we have as embryos that become the parts of our infant body.
By reprogramming our adult cells, and then injecting them into a problem area of a patient, they can act like stem cells by recreating and repairing the issue–for example, a bad heart valve.
Either by growing/printing organs or by reprogramming cells, these represents how technology can address the problems of our world not by changing laws or creating campaigns, but by simply eliminating them.
On April 10th, I attended a community forum where Minneapolis mayor RT Rybak made his pitch to citizens about the Viking stadium proposal. I use the word pitch, but it was more like a declaration. The mayor and the council had approved the measure with its $150 million price tag for the city.
(Since this forum took place, a State committee defeated the bill, throwing everything back up in the air. As I write this, more is being done to try and sew together the loose ends of the stadium deal including a visit to the Capitol by the NFL commissioner.)
Regardless of how this issue resolves itself, this night was important as crucial points about this debate surfaced and revealed themselves: points about policy, economics, and our love of sports.
I arrived wondering why the mayor willingly walked into the lion’s den of angry Minneapolis tax payers when the decision to approve the stadium was already made. I gave him props for giving citizens their say and facing their challenges. But now I suspect he agreed to do this forum as part of a deal to coax on-the-fence city council member, Sandy Colvin Roy (nervous about voter disapproval), over to his side. I can imagine the conversation going something like, “Sandy, you go along with the stadium, and I’ll appear in your ward to back you up and make the case for the stadium.”
Whatever the reason, there he was at the Lake Nikomis Community Center:
Stating his case
with those in attendance in favor of the stadium:
and those against:
Should the citizens have the chance to vote on the stadium?
Many communities in New England are known for holding lengthy town hall meetings where residents have their say on all aspects of the budget. Most of America, though, elects representatives to do this bidding for them—-though at the risk of giving politicians a longer leash. When it comes to this issue, Mayor Rybak’s favors the latter, claiming that it’s his and the city council’s job to decide how to spend city money—including this stadium—and that the time for public decision-making comes at the ballot box every four years.
That’s an easy claim for the Mayor to make as anyone on the DFL ticket wins in Minneapolis. But, it doesn’t mean his point is without merit. And many do agree with him. The stadium, though, straddles the line of who should be able to decide, and many in attendance wanted a chance to vote.
What are the economic benefits of building a stadium?
This was the dominant theme of the night. Indeed, this is the benefit advocates tout loudest—and in this case, very loud, as not building a stadium also involves the threat of losing an NFL franchise.
This point is an easy one to offer as everyone can picture the economic activity of builders building, players playing, and stadium employees working—all on account of building a stadium and the Vikings franchise. Conversely, we can feel the lack if the stadium wasn’t built, and especially, if the Vikings left town.
So it’s not surprising that economic and job claims are an effective argument and persuade people all the way up from citizen to city council to governor. And interesting is how even in a time of recession, the case to spend a huge sum of money can be bolstered on account of this argument.
More interesting, though, is that this argument—which can so clearly support the stadium supporters—has also been undermined time and again. It keeps getting used because it works to win the debate, but for the intellectually curious and honest, there’s really no need to keep retreading these points. This isn’t the first stadium ever built, and by examining all the stadium projects in the U.S.—dozens of them, as economists have done—the numbers show that a community doesn’t gain much from a sports franchise, let alone building a stadium.
One has to remember that tax dollars are a zero-sum game. If they aren’t spent on a stadium, they would be spent elsewhere, employing other—or perhaps even the same–workers doing something else. Regarding the franchise, if people didn’t spend money to see a game, they’d spend their money to entertain themselves another way. Did we feel a blip when the Northstars left town?
This isn’t to say that stadiums and sports teams don’t offer jobs–of course they do, but are these jobs better than what would have been? It’s also not to say that stadiums and teams don’t grow the economy. But the numbers tell us they largely tend not to. Economist and Freakonomics author, Steven Levitt, writes, “Sports do not create many jobs or generate much economic growth. And such evidence has proven to be quite persuasive. In fact, a survey of economists by Gregory Mankiw noted that 85% of economists agree that local and state governments should not subsidize professional sports.” See here. They also found that the studies that do that show significant job and economic growth are ones conducted by those with economic interest in seeing the stadium built. Neutral studies show insignificant gains.
So when getting down to nuts and bolts, we find that this debate is really about three things: status—having a flashy new stadium; revitalizing a neighborhood in Minneapolis; mostly, though, it’s about Purple Pride—fear of losing the Vikings to another city.
But what is this attachment to the Vikings worth?
Well, back at the neighborhood forum, Mayor Rybak thought the stadium was a money saving proposal. He thought it was smart for Minneapolis citizens to go along with the plan because this plan also included an agreement for the city to retain more of the entertainment tax dollars that the state usually absorbs. The city, then, could use that money to do things that property taxes are normally used for. So his warning to us in the audience was: if we don’t build this stadium, your property taxes will go up.
Even stadium backers, I assume, need to scratch their heads at that rationale.
But maybe not.
Because despite using this same kind of child-like monetary logic when justifying my need for a new car some years back, today it’s radical to oppose this stadium at the expense of the Vikings leaving Minnesota. People love the Vikings. Plus, the momentum of this national conversation has normalized subsidization in almost every case. But rising up 10,000 feet we can look down and see that our whole perspective and behavior regarding stadium building in this country has been skewed as the NFL leverages people’s addiction to football to its utmost.
Truths have been twisted. The onus isn’t on us to come up with a plan for a stadium. Zygi Wilf can enjoy our market and take advantage of our team and state pride, but not exploit that pride by having us plan and pay for their place of business. The NFL wants a team here as bad as we want one. Yet right now our governor is doing the NFL’s bidding no matter the expense to our state and communities.
People go broke trying to keep up with the Joneses and last I checked, we were in a recession. We ought to be demonstrating some Minnesotan common sense and tightening our belts. Instead, we’re buying luxuries when we can’t pay for essentials, building a billion dollar stadium with the idea that it will save us money, and banking on building it on the back of gambler’s losses.
The house that gambling built.
Yet it’s considered radical to oppose this stadium—“Are you crazy?! Do you want to see the Vikings leave!?”
At this monetary and moral price—and if that is the ultimatum—then yes.
That’s not to say we don’t welcome a franchise, of course. I’d just like to know why the stadium can’t be built privately, like the baseball park in San Francisco or Gillette Stadium, the home of the New England Patriots. Or why can’t there be a system where the public can donate on their own accord? I grew up loving the Vikings and might just chip in if given the opportunity.
The reason these two points aren’t seriously considered is because they haven’t needed to be. Why wouldn’t the NFL and owners take taxpayer money since taxpayers are willing to give it? In large part, this is about a drug dealer squeezing all they can from their sports junkies.
Let’s sober up, Minnesota.
As someone who disapproved of the Twin’s stadium, I admit being impressed that first home-opener. I remember walking around First Avenue and the energy in the air was palpable with Twins fever and Minnesota spirit. I heard the ‘ding ding’ of the light rail cars go by as Twins jersey-wearing fans ate outside their favorite sportsbar under a gorgeous sunny day. More fans walked the sidewalks, and one lady said to me, “It finally feels like a real city.”
So putting the brakes on this stadium effort would be a serious buzzkill, I know. It would also seem awkward to be the stick in the mud while all these other cities in the U.S. regularly cough up their dough for billionaire’s stadiums. But in time, cooler heads prevail and studies show that these “highs”—economic and physical—wear off.
America’s radicals: the Tea Party, the Occupiers—ever-distancing themselves from one another—are, in a strange twist, in agreement in their opposition to this stadium. Tea Partiers dislike taxes; Occupiers hate giving more of their money to the 1%. In today’s America, these “radicals” aren’t that radical anymore. In St. Paul, who’s left supporting the stadium, so far, is our DFL Governor with support from Republican representatives.
It is my hope that these moderates realize that all that we’re forfeiting with this stadium deal is much greater than the benefit of watching the Vikings play.
Well, with a full belly of Chinese eats, it was time to let it settle into the relaxing, calming environs of a lecture hall. Good for digestion I hear—and sleep deprivation.
But you won’t be nodding off with this post. It was a kind of homecoming for me as I met a couple fellow Minnesotans. Come meet them yourself and see what a college lecture in China looks like.
Lei and I sauntered out of the cafeteria and toward her class, Contract Law. Yippee! Here we are on the way. Too bad the blasted sun had to be out, ruining my chance of taking shots of other students:
We got in the lecture hall, and of course the students were surprised to see me—I did kinda stick out. I mean I am thirty.
The room had the look of some old-school institutions in the U.S. White, bland. This is indicative of what I’ve experienced in a few academic settings in China:
A few random flocks of early birds, nesting and chirping before the prof comes to quiet things down.
The vibe of the student body was pretty reminiscent of my college days. Most wanted to lay low in the back of the room; several arrive with phones and music players buzzing; none look too thrilled to be there:
'Is it over yet?'
Actually, and surprising to me, there’s a fair amount of lethargy on campuses here. According to my friends who teach at colleges, students are pretty low-energy when it comes to learning. This went against the idea I had that students here are all “front row” types with hands eager to raise.
Then again, this was Contract Law, right? But if Hollywood’s taught us one lesson about school, (besides that 25 year old’s make great high schoolers) it’s that a rockin’ teacher can come in and make anything seem interesting! So who do we got today? Drum roll for Professor Wang Jian please.
Though I know nothing about him, except he had that same kind of professorial manner in his delivery, he’s cool in my book for allowing me to take pics and video during the lecture:
The class filled in nicely.
Okay, now that we’re versed in Chinese contract law, I don’t want to hear any excuses for not finding that job. Just gotta move a hemisphere. You wouldn’t be the first Minnesotan to come over here for work. (ahem)
I gotta tell ya, it’s a whole different job market, Readers. At the risk of jinxing what they got going on, it’s a scene of no-end-in-sight economic expansion, with opportunities easier to come by or make yourself. Take English teaching; as more Chinese make more money (and continue to have one child) they’ll have the disposal dough to spend on something like English classes. Consequently, it’s pretty easy to find work. Yes, pretty easy. (As oppose to what I’m hearing about back home.)
But there is one catch. You gotta live in China. That didn’t stop the Minnesotans I met, though. Turns out there’s a whole slough of ‘em working as teachers and teaching assistants at a neighboring college to the one I was visiting. I walked on the red-brick road from BNU to UIC:
And I arrived at United International College:
Impressive, because it’s really the only one on campus. This is a small, expensive, tightly knit college that encompasses 3-4 departments in one, large building:
Lovely, hilly back drop, too.
So, whereas I was worried about finding the English department here, it turns out it was literally “just up the stairs and down the hall”. And here is where I met this guy:
Ya, sure. I'm in China you betcha.
This photogenic primed-to-be-professor young gentleman is named Jonas. Recognize him? Well, probably one of you at least knows someone who might, because Jonas is from Grand Rapids. He’s a recent college grad and now enjoys the time teaching English in China.
Unfortunately, the pic was all I really had time for as he was preparing for a class, but I did get a chance to talk to a couple other young ladies. Jessica Steinbauer is a teacher who’s been here over a year now and enjoying the experience. She’s from Owatonna and graduated from UMD. Amy Gilk is a Canon Falls native and a graduate from Augsburg in Minneapolis. The best part about being here, says Amy, is the karaoke bars and trying to communicate in conversations via broken English/broken Chinese. The worst, no surprise, is missing her family.
In total there are at least a half-dozen Minnesotans who make up a good chunk of the English Department at this tiny college north of little-known Zhuhai. But enjoying the proximity to Hong Kong and Guangzhou, Zhuhai offers “real Chinese charm” with all the modernism one craves.
There’s actually quite a connection between China and Minnesota. If you recall, Tim Pawlenty made trips out here. In fact, the Executive VP of UIC had met with Pawlenty in the past. And these recent grads get to take advantage of the exchange programs and teaching opportunities as a result of these relationships.
Me? I just got lucky to have a friend work at my school previously. And you? Who knows? Maybe China will be in your future, too. Or at least you’ll be wearing, playing with, listening to, or preparing food with something that was made here.
As China continues to build their wealth, their interest in education will increase. This means something to Minnesotans like Jonas, Amy and Jessica. And yet, this is just one small slice of the increasing pie that a better China means for Minnesota…and the rest of the world.
So, I keep hearing from the New York Times and such that we’re supposed to be threatened by the countless graduates being pumped out of the universities over here in China. Well, I figure I’d better get down there and check things out for myself.
But threat schmet. I was just darned interested in seeing what a college setting out here looked like. I had met a couple local gals who talked up their campus something special. So I agreed to pay them a visit and get a tour. It was great. I got to meet other students, a professor, and even sat in on a class. Perhaps most interesting, though, was that I met a bevy of young Minnesotans taking part in a teaching exchange program.
So I turned back the clock a few years, grabbed my book bag, and headed out to commingle with the young adult population known as college students. Come see what this looks like…in China!
A half-hour bus ride and I arrived at Beijing Normal University in Zhuhai. Sorry, I didn’t do my homework (ironic) to figure out why it’s called “Normal” but the Beijing part is because it was originally founded there.
I waited a moment at the bus stop and tada!, my guide cometh:
'And if you look to your left, you'll see a fraternity hazing a freshman by having him run blindfolded and naked into the Dean's office.'
I met Lei at the World Music Festival that I wrote about a few articles back. And off we went. Signs of campus life were unmistakable. Like bikers:
And with a Chinese twist. Can't see where they're going, but they'll be good and pale getting there.
And here were the jocks. (Do they still call them ‘jocks’?)
Dudes, this is our year to win the Wooden Gong from our rivals!
We made a right and entered the main campus area. There’s no large gate or entranceway, just a sidewalk nearing the buildings. The grounds aren’t as well-groomed as American campuses, but it was still nice and hills in the background made for nice setting.
Here's where all the books hide out
And for those who like to imitate life; or is it the other way around?
No, it's not shabby. It's on purpose. The art building.
We approached the library first. Apparently, the whole student body was studying today:
China: a nation that already loves bikes. College: a bunch of active young adults without cars. That explains it.
But besides bikes, nothing screams “college” like an organization’s table to recruit people or fill out some surveys:
College: a nucleus of young adults looking to make a difference.
It’s interesting what happens after graduation. This idea of “making a difference” dwindles. Whether it’s career and family responsibilities or just the reality setting in that making a difference can be really hard, it’s a wonder what happens to that fire in the belly.
Into the library we went:
Where's the books?
Oh well, horseplay’ll have to do:
Found ya! Actually, dude had the same idea as me.
But not too much horseplay; we were being watched:
Fathers of Chinese intellect, inspiring thought from beyond the grave.
I made my way into the book areas of the library and I wanted to see the old ones–not sure why. So we took the helpful library employee away from his computer card game and were guided to a few shelves. These books were worn:
brittle, discolored pages
I asked Lei (my guide) the print date. She studied the opening pages and agreed that it was an old book, alright. All the way back from 1980. Poor books here in China must have bad lifestyles. They age quickly. Of course, finding a real old book may be tough considering the revolutionary status of China throughout the 20th century. If you head to Wikipedia, there’s a great write-up of the recent history of China. How much it’s changed in 50 years! Heck, 30 years. I’d fill you in on the detentions and killings and book burnings, but college isn’t the place to be learning details like that:
'Hmm, Tale of Two Cities, To Kill a Mockingbird. Oh, here it is! Twilight'
Oh, I’m only kidding. There were myriad malleable minds meandering through the modes of mental exercise.
About Chinese education, it has been said by more than a couple people here–locals and foreigners–that China has its strength in numbers in terms of educated youth. But the Chinese system is rote. They teach for the tests, so results are impressive, yet the lack of leaders and creative thinkers is also evident.
After the library, it was time to enjoy some China college cafeteria chow. Lei and I picked up a friend along the way:
Oh, Brandon. You and that camera of yours.
It was what you’d expect, assuming you expected anything. Typical Chinese food–noodles or rice with meat and egg and veggies–done fast and greasy. The environment was like any cafeteria. I watched a table next to ours. Four college fellas. After we struck up small talk, one said he’s going to study abroad in Wisconsin this fall. Hey, ho! Marquette University, Milwaukee will be graced with the presence of the guy in green:
Better be careful, Marquette students, this guy'll be pushing up the grading curve.
Well, Readers, there’s more to say, but not today. Soon, I’ll write you about the class I sat in on and the Minnesotans I bumped into. One was from Grand Rapids, of all things!
Until then, here’s to another slice of life delivered to your plate.