Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Tractor Pull

This past weekend I went to the Champaign County fair with a few friends from the NEH institute. Two were New Yorkers and one Floridian. The Floridian was the most keen to go and the other two were just along for the cultural experience. They had never gone before and were curious to see this event. I remember going with my dad when I was a kid, but mostly what I remember is that the races were too loud. It is funny coming back to America after 5 year of being mostly abroad. There are certain things about America that I can very clearly see in a cultural light now. Tattoos, large serving sizes,striking up conversations with strangers, all those things aren't as normal in the places I have been. Certainly I haven't seen any tractor pulls. At the tractor pull just about everyone I saw in the grand stands was fat. Interestingly I saw what I would dub a "mega cup" for the first time and then saw another one just a few minutes later. It looked like a plastic coffee mug, but was big enough to fit a 2 liter bottle of soda. Judging by the guys holding them I'm sure the were packing it away. The tractor pull itself was interesting, for the first 15 minutes or so. After the first few people went and we got the jist of what was going on the event became rather boring. I suppose for those involved and probably for people who are interested in farm machinery and mechanics this would be a cool event, but not for us. The two New Yorkers put it best. One said, "I can't believe people do such a thing" and the other one made a comment about how when the announcer said stuff like, "Look at him go! what a competitor!" the only thing happening was a guy driving a tractor at about 15mph. I was a bit indifferent, but my butt was getting sore (not enough padding, maybe I should have bought a "mega cup") and so when they suggested we leave I was all for it. The Floridian hadn't had his fill yet and wanted to see the semi-truck pulls, but decided to come with us. All in all, a nice night enjoying American culture.


This past weekend I took a trip to Springfield with a few other members of the NEH institute. Its not a long trip from Champaign-Urbana to Springfield, just under 2 hours. However, we started the day late and so arrived around noon. First we went to the Lincoln home. The home and many of the homes and area around it are part of a national park. Because of this our tour guide was a national park ranger. A bit of a funny guy. The Lincoln home is fairly small when compared with today's homes. We were reminded again and again about not touching things and which parts of the home were authentic and which were not. I had a bit of a flash back to being on the Fox Glacier in NZ. Every time the guide asked a question I answered it, no one else did. It occurred to me after the first few that perhaps the questions were rhetorical so I stopped answering, but I don't think they were. My impression was that the house was not that big or fancy. Then again, Mr. Lincoln was not that fancy (but certainly was big at 6ft 4inch). I remember seeing a billboard one time that had a picture of Lincoln. Underneath it said, "Fail, Fail, Fail, Succeed" Implying that you should not give up on your dreams. The meaning in the Lincoln connection was that he lost three other elections before accepting the nomination to run for president in 1860. As the guide told us over and over, Mr. Lincoln was a lawyer in Springfield when delegates visited him to ask him to accept the nomination. Another striking thing was that on election night Mr. Lincoln was out until 4am waiting for results. Today we have so much in the way of technology to keep us connected. Back then the best way to talk to someone was to knock on their door. Along with the couch that Lincoln reclined on and other interesting items I also saw the Lincoln outhouse. Presumably it once contained some Lincoln logs. Ba'dam Ching! After looking around the Lincoln house and neighborhood we went to the Lincoln museum. We didn't have too much time but I was impressed with the detail and presentation. There were two main sections, one devoted to his early life and one devoted to his presidency. Both were very interesting. I found the sections on cartoons drawn of Lincoln and the room made to seem like he was lying in state to be the best. The cartoons were funny mostly because those were probably the only images that most Americans saw of Mr. Lincoln. There was one little series where portraits of him went from haggard looking to handsome with a quote underneath that said, "The closer he gets to being elected the more handsome he becomes". Luckily today we have 24/7 television to remind us of which candidate we should vote for, based on their looks. Probably the neatest fact that I learned at the museum was that the picture of Lincoln lying in state was not even discovered until the 20th century between the pages of an old book. Makes you wonder what is still out there or what has tragically been lost. My overall impression after seeing both places was that Lincoln was just a man. A very witty, probably smart, freakishly tall for the time, ordinary man. His kids busted up his house, his wife gave him hell from time to time, and he sometimes did things just because he knew he should.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Chicago Rock n' Roll Half Marathon

Here I am in Champaign-Urbana at the university campus doing a program with other teachers and of course everyone knows that I am heading to Chicago for the weekend to run the half marathon so the question comes up, when did you start running? I remember it quite clearly. I was 13 and I have a friend named Tim Roberts. His dad was a runner and would do 5ks a few times a week. Sometimes Tim ran with him so Tim was a bit of a runner. Personally, my dad wasn’t around too much since my parents were divorced and looking back I think in some ways I thought it was cool when older guys took the time to do things with me. When Tim asked if I wanted to go running with him and his dad I jumped at the opportunity. That run didn’t go so well since it was my first long run, but it sparked something inside of me. Even though I don’t think I ran with his dad again I did continue to run with Tim and then to just run in general. That is how it started. Here I am 17 years later and still running. Sometimes people ask about my knees or tell me that I will get old and stop some day, but I just don’t see that happening. At the very worst my knees will give out and I will start riding a bike or something else. I don’t see regular exercise becoming a small part of my life. I love using my body. Now, I’m not crazy, but I do get the itch to run if I haven’t done so for a day or two. I think this is a good thing. As I stood on the start line with more than 20,000 other runners this past Sunday I felt really good to know that I was not alone. Races are very interesting because at least 99% of the runners know full well that they have no chance of placing. Yet people show up in hordes. People basically race themselves, but I think more than that I and they enjoy the camaraderie and the feeling of community. Running can be a very lonely sport. That is one reason I like it. This is my zen time. I get to get some endorphins pumping and let my mind find a special place to relax and I run alone so no one is talking to me. Getting into a large race and seeing and feeling the crowd can also be exhilarating and I really enjoy doing it from time to time. The Chicago Rock n’ Roll half marathon was a nice race. It was very flat and since I got a room at the Travelodge hotel just blocks from the start I didn’t have to wake up early. As I sauntered out with other runners I was greeted by a sunny warm morning. The race went well and there were lots of water, Gatorade, Gu, and cooling stations along the way. I started out in corral 11. I like to start with a group that is slightly slower than me so that I can pass people along the way. It makes me feel like I am moving fast and I think gives a better race experience. I finished in 1:58 and was happy with my time since I was aiming for under 2:00. A bit faster would be nice, but maybe next time. I also got to stop midway to see my fan group, my mom and nephew. It was cool to stop for a few minutes to talk and have a drink. I think my nephew really enjoyed seeing me and the other runners, he seemed to be excited. Overall a great day. Now, on to the next race.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Roller Derby

I'd never seen roller derby in person, though last year I had seen the movie 'Whip It' and that had piqued my interest. The idea of tough girl athletes playing a game that was physically on par with hockey seemed pretty cool to me. Last saturday I attended the farmer's market here in Urbana and the Twin City Roller Derby girls had a booth to encourage all comers to their match the next day. How could I pass up a cultural experience? I went with some of the other guys at my NEH institute in Champaign for a night on the town. We had heard that there would be a roller derby match at a nearby rink and 5 of us went. Mostly we all had preconceptions of tough girls, with tattoos, beating each other up. Though that did happen a bit it was more fun to watch the sport of the game as well. It took us most of the first half to figure out the scoring, but once we did and once we all had our favorite girls picked out it was a lot more fun because we could cheer for the appropriate people at the appropriate moments. I would have to say the girl I chose, Black Eye Betty, must have been the MVP of the game. I don't know how many points she scored as the jammer for the Damagin' Dames but it must have been at least 40 of the team's 109 total. If you have never seen roller derby I recommend it. I will be going back to see another match at the end of the month. If you would like to know more about the sport, check this out.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Toronto to Niagra

I did not get to spend a lot time in Toronto. There for a just a few days and adjusting my clock the maximum 12 hours, I had trouble doing much of anything besides enjoying early morning runs by the lake and walking around the downtown area. I was there for an IB conference and that was productive
I learned a few things about IB Econ, but probably equally as well I met a lot of good teachers. One in particular stuck out. He was going on his first teaching job abroad, to Hong Kong, and was very excited. He expressed how nice it was to be among teachers who were globally minded rather the teachers he had been around for the past few years. He expressed it very succinctly by saying something like, these people do the same thing all the time you know? Every year they look forward to the same vacation in the same place because it’s something safe that they know. Lots of teachers in the states don’t like the state of education, have a hard time finding a job, don’t feel respected by their students, but they are afraid to try something new and foreign. I think in many ways he is right. Besides getting to spend time getting to know the teachers I spent some time getting to know Toronto. Toronto transit is too expensive and too small. In addition, not many people were riding. Even during peak times it wasn’t hard to find a seat. Probably because of the aforementioned reasons. Lots of people smoke on the streets. You would think coming from Shanghai, where you can smoke almost anywhere, this wouldn’t strike me as odd, but it did. One day on the way back to the hotel I had that thought and the next day it was confirmed as a fellow classmate from Montreal said he was surprised by the number of smokers, or at least their lack of hiding it. The people here are diverse. I was quite impressed with the diversity I could see and more so with what I could hear. Korean, Indian (hindi), Spanish, and French were very common, but I also heard some Chinese, Japanese, Russian, Arabic, and German. The city itself was nice. There were plenty of parks and open areas. I really noticed this when running. In Shanghai it is hard to run a longer distance because the buildings hem you in and you can’t see your horizon. It feels like you run to nowhere. In Toronto horizons were broad. I could pick a point a few miles away and see it for most of my run. I like that as my destination markers are constantly in my vision. Since I was in Toronto I decided to go to Niagara Falls as well. It was probably one of the most anti-climatic things that I have done. I don’t mean to say the falls were not impressive, they did look very nice and I think they are the biggest falls that I have ever seen. What was anti-climatic was the way I approached it. I took a bus and walked to the falls. No tour, no big thing. I sat looking at the falls for a short time and then got lunch before heading back to the bus terminal. I could be completely wrong, but I have a nagging notion that my grandfather spent his honeymoon at the falls and so I was thinking of him a lot when I was there. Something clicked for me as I was leaving Toronto. I no longer wish to come back to the U.S. I still miss my family and the friends I have there, but for all the reasons that teacher I met said, I don’t want to come back. I don’t want to come back to a profession that is not respected. I don’t want to come back to insubordinate students. I don’t want to come back to pay/benefit cuts. I think more than anything else I don’t want to come back because now I am enamored with the idea of seeing the world. It's better than any perk I could get in the US. I am moving on to my 5th country in a few weeks. That will be the 22nd country I have entered and I am sure it will lead to seeing a bunch more in Southeast Asia. I have to wonder what this will mean for my future. Since leaving the U.S. 5 years ago I have had a vague feeling of, at the very least an obligation that I would return. Now that that is gone, what will the next chapter bring?

Saturday, July 07, 2012


As I was leaving China I encountered a dilemma. I had saved a substantial portion of my earnings in RMB intending to convert it to USD before I left for the US. Because RMB is a controlled currency it is not as easy to convert
as in some countries. I met a few roadblocks, but more than anything I thought it ridiculous that I could not easily find an answer on the net so I am writing this and tagging it in the hopes that if someone does a simple search like I did they may find this information. First, if you are exchanging less than 500 you can go to any bank yourself with just your passport. You need no other documents to my knowledge. If you are exchanging more than 500 here are some ways in which you can do that. 1.Find a Chinese citizen. They may use only their ID card, or their passport, to convert any amount of RMB to USD. However, fair warning that not all banks carry a lot of USD. Call ahead or be prepared to hop around to different banks until you find one with enough. 2. Get from your employer a letter of resignation, basically it is a letter saying that your contract is ending. Take this along with your employment verification book (its a little red book that looks like a Chinese passport), your tax documents, your original employment contract, and your passport to a bank at which you have an account. 3. Exchange the money at the airport. They will do any amount for anyone, but their rates are not very good.

Monday, July 02, 2012


This past weekend I took the fast train from Shanghai to Nanjing. The best part is I did so with my old friend David. You may remember him from other appearances in my blog such as here,here,or here. I must admit it took me a couple of hours to shake the dust off of our relationship. Its been more than 2 years since I have seen David, but by the end of the trip we were like peas and carrots again. David is extremely useful to travel with in China since he is near fluent in Mandarin. I even remarked at one point that I would like to shrink him down and put him in my pocket to which he replied I should just learn more Chinese (I maintain shrinking him would be easier). Our first night in town we didn't do much beyond get some street food eats, drink some beer and hang out. We tried to go to a trendy part of town called 1912 but the beers were way over priced, 30kuai (about 5 dollars) for a 350ml Chinese beer. That is a 900% mark up! No thanks. The second day in town was our touring day and we walked everywhere. We went to the Sun Yat Sen memorial where we had our picture taken many times. I know I am handsome, but that was too much. In some parts of China people are still drawn to a foreign face. I don't think Nanjing is one of those places, but at tourist attractions you will find people from those places since they are likely coming from a more remote area. The memorial itself was cool and once you have reached it at the top of the hill there is a nice view of Nanjing. The most surprising thing for me was that on the ceiling of the tomb is a flag of the Kuomintang, otherwise known as the nationalists in China's civil war. After the memorial we went to the Nanjing Massacre Museum. Perhaps it is because we had both read and seen much about it prior, but it did not strike either of us as overly shocking. Of course I don't mean to say that the actions of the Japanese troops aren't shocking, but hearing about many of the atrocities before hand certainly lessened the shock. I also expected a bit more anomisity towards the Japanese, but I didn't find anything that I would have considered out of place or over the top in any of the placards or pictures. At least among the English translations, perhaps in Chinese the nuances are slightly different. It was around the time of going to the museum that David told me a story about his time in Beijing when he was a student. He was attending Beida University and sitting in on a lecture by a fairly liberal minded professor. One day the professor started talking about the Japanese and basically said that the Japanese people who committed atrocities in China were all dead and there was no point in holding it against those who are now living. To which many students stood and yelled at him that he was wrong. I'm sure it was an animated session. Many times when I encounter things like this, the memorial park in Hiroshima for instance, I think much the same thing. In my mind time periods are like different worlds. People had completely different experiences and perspectives and so people of a nation completely renew themselves every 80-100 years. This is also an apt time to point out how stupid it is to hate a nation. My grandfather fought against the axis in WWII. I'm not saying he hated them, but his country did demonize them and ask him to go kill them. His daughter married a German man and his grandson (me) married a Japanese girl. Different times = different worlds. Back on track, after the museum we had time to kill and so we decided to go to the presidential palace. I'm really glad we did. The grounds were beautiful, but the history was rich. The compound had been home to Sun Yat Sen,Chiang Kai-shek, and the leader of the Taiping rebellion Hong Xiuquan who believed he was the brother of Jesus. Long story short, it didn't work out for him. Having hoofed it all over Nanjing we went back for some rest at the hotel before heading out with David's friend for some beer on the Nanjing streets and then late night karaoke with another group. It was very fun. The next morning we headed out early and came back to Shanghai were I got to show David around Shanghai at YuYuan Gardens, the Bund, and to have a drink in the Financial Center tower. Everything went very well until I misjudged how long it would take for him to reach the station and he missed the last train back to Beijing. While this was fortunate for me since I could spend more time with him it meant wasted time for David. In the end everything worked out. I'm looking forward to meeting him again. Perhaps in a different time, a different world.