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  • grenphi 9:46 pm on February 13, 2012 Permalink | Reply
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    It’s been a few months that I’ve been back in the U.S., and by request, here’s a post on the experience being back.

    Transitioning back to the United States has been fairly easy. I missed American breakfasts enough to compensate for a lot of what I lost coming back from China. I may have my qualms with the United States, but omelets with hot sauce is not one of them.

    What has proven to be strange and abnormally difficult has been transitioning back to the culture at HWS. Where in Nanjing I had a community of people to go do martial arts with during my free time, here I do not. I fit in better in Nanjing as a foreigner than I do here as a student. I find a lot of the chit chat that I do trying to make friends and open doors here at HWS is boring beyond belief. I bond more with someone who’s struggling to choke me or bring my joints to breaking point than someone who tries to explain to me how funny their friends are drunk. Many of my conversations with fellow HWS students break down when I say “no, I don’t drink or smoke, I don’t party, I simply like training and being with friends”. I usually receive an awkward silence, and then a hesitant change of subject.

    Academics have been a struggle as well. First and foremost, I have to care, which I didn’t last semester. Efforts to focus and stay alert while reading and writing have renewed, and so far I’ve made it through the semester without too many problems. I’ve been fortunate to have a class that interests me, my EMS class, to keep me sane. Unfortunately, this has caused me to look at other courses much more critically. My sociological research methods professor  told me on the first day of the semester that she thinks her course is the most important in the curriculum, and that research methods courses should be taught across disciplines. In the next month I learned a myriad of definitions, read studies and accounts of studies, and have expanded both my vocabulary and knowledge about conducting research. In contrast, from EMS class I’ve learned anatomy, how and when to move injured people, take vital signs, and CPR. For whatever strange reason, EMS class seems much more important.

    I choose research methods as a comparison simply because it consumes a lot of times these days. My struggle with that class and EMS is representative my struggle with a culture of education that often times seems lost in abstraction. It’s important to research and discuss issues, but without putting your boots on the ground, no good is really being done.

    But, that’s why I returned to the U.S. I get to work and get involved, and I will make sure that my boots will hit the ground as soon as they are able. China was a nice vacation, a cool experience, but it will not compare to the life of purpose I will create here.

    • DougReilly 6:31 pm on March 28, 2012 Permalink | Reply

      Thanks for this post…it has given those of us in mission control a lot to think about, especially since we’ve devoted so much energy over the years to higher ed. You’ve pointed out so many interesting tensions in that system, some things we have noticed as well. The desire to have things grounded in details and real world applications is one of the things that motivated Asiapod and our work in study abroad in general. To join the conceptual with the actual, details with underlying dynamics, etc, and to get conversations started between people with diverse experiences, to search for resonance. Anyway, bottom line is that I really appreciate your post and can empathize with your present situation! doug

  • grenphi 2:16 pm on October 19, 2011 Permalink | Reply
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    Weekly Challenge 4 

    When it comes to iPod apps, one application has helped me above all the others: the DianHua app.


    Why is this you ask? DianHua isn’t much different from other mobile Chinese dictionaries. It has a study function with flash cards, a dictionary that can be searched with either english definitions, pinyin, or characters. Most other Chinese iPod apps do the same thing. Thus, it’s not really the DianHua app itself that I’m excited about, but rather iPod Chinese dictionaries in general. DianHua just happens to be the one I have.

    Anyways, back to the topic at hand. DianHua is one of many mobile Chinese dictionaries that allows you to input characters by drawing them on the touch screen. This is useful for translating pretty much any character whose pronunciation I can’t identify. For me, this means translating menus. Ordering food with words is leaps and bounds beyond grunting and pointing.

    That being said, I still do my fair share of grunting and pointing. But who’s getting fed? That’s right, this guy.

    It’s getting to be crunch time in the semester. Good luck to everyone working hard these few weeks!


  • grenphi 2:45 pm on October 17, 2011 Permalink | Reply

    Not exactly Kung Fu… 

    Apparently real warriors don't smile. I am not the Dragon Warrior yet.

    Upon arriving in Nanjing and making my love of martial arts known, the director of my program told me there were kung fu classes available nearby. Excited to study what many consider the first formal martial art in its country of origin, I excitedly followed up on her information. I imagined myself training with old Chinese men in traditional garments, holding deep stances for hours and meditating on Buddhist philosophy.

    Well, it wasn’t quite that. Welcome to San Da. Up above you’ll see a picture of me with my San Da coach. San Da is the Chinese kickboxing/street fighting counterpart to Kung Fu’s traditional forms training. It’s much more similar to Muay Thai than it is to Kung Fu (Muay Thai is Thai Kickboxing. Check out some Tony Jaa movies to see some fantastically sensationalized Muay Thai).

    I only make it to this San Da class once a week. It’s in a nice gym a few bus stops away from my dorm. Each class is about an hour and a half long. We start with some basic conditioning and dynamic stretching, followed by drills. For my first class, the coach made me work my roundhouse kick for a full hour before we ended with more conditioning. I got to throw hundreds of kicks against the bag to the sound of Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber (this particular gym plays a lot of American pop). It may seem boring, but I loved it.

    San Da classes run a bit differently than most other martial arts classes I attend. The instructor will give me private instruction for about 10 minutes (all in Chinese, no English). Then, he’ll leave and work with other students. I am expected to work on the drill until he returns and critiques me again. I learn a lot this way, perhaps more so than in traditional group instruction

    What I like the most about the class is the instructor. He’s serious but fun, and works to push his students to the limit. He doesn’t just talk the talk, he also walks the walk, or kicks the kick if you prefer. I have seen many martial artists perform, but my San Da instructor has by far the best kicks I’ve ever seen. He hits hard, fast, and on target with every strike whether it’s a roundhouse, a front kick, or a jumping spinning back kick. I sincerely believe he could shatter most of my rib cage with one strike of his shin. It’s quite impressive to watch him practice.

    The particular style of San Da that I’m practicing has some peculiarities though. Their hand techniques are fast and quick, but not as powerful as some karate or western boxing styles I’ve seen. Furthermore, their combinations are only practiced in sets of two, as opposed to going up to sets of 5 or 6 as some western boxing styles do. That being said, I am only a beginner. I definitely have only a fragmented understanding of the style, so there are things about their hand techniques I am probably missing.

    Thus, I get to keep practicing. Time permitting, I will be joining another San Da club as well, so this post may be getting a follow up.

    Best wishes to my fellow Asiapod bloggers and everyone back home,


  • grenphi 3:12 am on October 8, 2011 Permalink | Reply
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    Being Good People 

    Up above you’ll see a watch. This is a watch I bought at a supermarket in Nanjing for 178 yuan (about $28). It’s been fairly special for me. Besides finding it aesthetically appealing, it’s also been a source of hope. On bad days I like to look at my watch to see if the gears are still moving. When they are, I’m reminded that time is still continuing, and that things will get better. When they’re not turning, I’m reminded to wind my watch and get on with my day. It’s been surprisingly comforting.

    To the right you’ll see a picture of a man sitting on a stool. If you look closely, you’ll notice he has only one leg. He sits outside a café near my campus I go to when I crave bread or an easily digestible meal.

    • Before I came to China, I was told by numerous people not to give money to beggars. I’ve heard this from many people in China as well. As a result of taking this advice, I didn’t give any money to beggars for some time. This included the man you see in the photo. I walked by him several times a week. I said“你好”, I even waved and smiled to him as I passed by.

    But, when he stopped waving and turned his palm up, hitting the back of his hand against the stub of what may have once been a leg, I pretended not to understand. My waving hand would fall, my smile would fade, and my eyes would look away. I remembered what I was told, and followed what other people said and did.

    Looking at this now, I can see a sociological pattern. I was instructed to follow a particular norm, observed a particular norm, and internalized this norm. I took the word of perceived experts without much questioning, and refused charity to a man with one leg (and scars all over his torso, I found this out in one of our later conversations).

    To be honest though, this post isn’t really about me analyzing a normative structure that I followed. This is more so about a moral realization about being a good person that has been on my mind almost every day I’ve spent in China. Let’s look back at my watch.

    For 178 yuan I have a functional timepiece that is at once a source of comfort as well as style. Arguably, this was a worthwhile purchase. Some would argue it’s a deserved gift to myself. But, what kind of person buys themselves a watch and walks by beggars several times a week? Sure, my friends and some of my family have told me and will tell me again that I’m not spoiled or indulgent, but would this man with one leg agree? I doubt it. This isn’t limited to the man with one leg, either. I pass by several people each day in terrible situations without even meeting their gaze.

    So what should I do? I’ve asked people, and most still suggest that I don’t give beggars money, citing pickpockets and the risk of the beggar harassing me for more after I’ve given them some. Look back at the photo of the man. You’ll notice, the area was clear enough for me to take a picture. My camera was 700 yuan, and nobody tried to snatch it from my fingertips. In the photo you’ll also notice that the man is leaning next to his crutches. Do you really think that he’s going to follow me and harass me more? I don’t think so.

    Thus I’ve taken to giving him small amounts of money every time I go in to the café. I feel a bit better doing this. Does this make me a good person? Some might argue yes, but I don’t think so. My donations never reach the price of my watch. I do manage to help him, but I also walk by many others. A few days ago I walked by a man with both arms amputated at the elbow. I gave him no money. I didn’t look him in the eye. Take that in for a moment. He was on his knees begging with no forearms or hands to speak of, and I didn’t even look him in the eye. I walked by wondering how he managed to carry his change bucket along with him, all the while enjoying the comfort of the shiny ticking luxury item around my wrist. I can’t look at that experience and say I am a good person. I am not a good person.

    That being said, I don’t know if constantly trying to justify my actions while living with any degree of wealth is possible. As long as I enjoy privilege at the expense of someone else, I lack the consistency to be considered inherently “good” (I can hear Tenzin now, “nothing exists inherently”. Just work with me on this one).

    My friend Roy has a phrase he likes to use to describe someone he likes. He says “S/he’s good people”, a plural applied to a singular individual. I don’t know if my interpretation is correct or if I’m over analyzing, but the phrase usually refers to people being laid back and honest with themselves and others about their situation. So now my goals have changed. I’m not looking for a good person. I’m looking for good people. I may try to be a good person, but in all likelihood I will not be a good person. I will just be good people. I’ll have to be ok with that for now.


    • Sarah Ty 3:02 am on October 9, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      Not to mention one moral compass you once told me about: are your contributions to society generally making the world a better or worse place? And remembering, at least for now, that our insignificance in the universe can sometimes be a blessing. Anyway, great post! I like this quote: “I don’t know if constantly trying to justify my actions while living with any degree of wealth is possible.” Talk about challenging a normative pattern! You always give lots of food for thought, or as the Chinese would say: 很耐人寻味… Thanks for helping me think more about what it means to be good people…

      • DougReilly 1:21 pm on October 12, 2011 Permalink | Reply

        And yet another moral compass to think about: is the decision you are making good for all the world? In other words, if everyone did the same, would the world be better. This comes from Sartre’s existentialism, in which there is no discrete good, just webs of intersubjectivity. The key to this idea’s power is to understand how much we really influence the people around us, all the time.

        Great post, I love the watch analogy. I have a similar watch, though I have to turn it over to see all those tiny gears.

  • grenphi 2:12 am on October 8, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , signs   

    Weekly Challenge 3-Response 

    Will do.

    This is a sign that’s posted up in my bathroom, so I see it every day. The actual meaning of the Chinese isn’t “Slip Carefully”, although I appreciate the advice. A better translation is “Caution: Slippery Floor” or “Careful of Slippery Floor”.

    I don’t have anything deep or existential about this sign. It just makes me giggle. However, this message is partially built off the idea of not having a shower mat. By putting a towel on the floor, I beat the system. I don’t know if most Chinese people use shower mats because the only ones I’ve seen are in expensive hotels. But, I haven’t gotten a chance to see very many Chinese bathrooms, so I can’t say if this is a cultural phenomenon or not.

    Best wishes to my fellow asiapod bloggers and everyone back home. Slip carefully!


    • HMJ 1:14 pm on October 8, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      English translations of Chinese-language signs (or documents such as owner’s manuals) can indeed be hilarious, if not downright nonsensical. Even using mechanical tools like online translators will not as often produce results like this with most Indo-european languages I know. I would be curious to learn what linguistic mechanisms are at play there–that is, what fundamental, conceptual differences between the languages this reflects and, concurrently, what differences in mental/thought structures. In the sign you posted, there seems to be a misunderstanding (or different understanding) of the use and meaning of the adverb (carefully) as opposed to the noun (caution) or adjective (carefully). Does the Chinese language have adverbs?

  • grenphi 8:52 am on October 4, 2011 Permalink | Reply
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    Week 2 Challenge (late posting) 

    做了為了毛澤東 (zuo le wei le Mao Ze Dong)

    This is a late post for the week 2 challenge. I’ve been working on another post about some personal thoughts I’ve been contemplating, but it’s long and will have to wait.

    Up above you can  see the quote 做了為了毛澤東, which literally means “Doing it for Mao Ze Dong”. However, the saying has the double meaning of “Doing it for the Mao Ze Dongs”, equivalent to the American phrase “Doing it for the Benjys”, or less accurately, “Doing it for the cheddar” (there are hundreds of ways to say it, you get the idea. It’s all about making money).

    makin' those Mao Ze Dongs

    The phrase is rarely used, although many Chinese are familiar with it. I share it simply because I find it funny in it’s irony. Mao Ze Dong, a symbol of Chinese communism, is used in one of the country’s most capitalistic phrases.

    • HMJ 12:57 pm on October 4, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      Ironic, indeed. Or maybe a prime example that dichotomous categories or binary exclusives simply don’t work….
      Keep writing 🙂

    • Sam Smukler 1:15 am on October 7, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      Vietnam’s iconic communist leader, Hồ Chí Minh, has similar status. Bác Hồ (Uncle Hồ) is slang for money since he’s on all the money. You can ask someone “Bác Hồ ở đâu?” (Where’s your Bác Hồ?) to say “Show me the money!” kind of like “Put your money where your mouth is”. Or “Nếu Bác Hồ cho phép…” (If Bác Hồ allows me…) to talk about having enough money to do something. “I can only go on vacation at the end of the month, if I have the time and if Bác Hồ allows me”. 🙂

  • grenphi 1:31 am on September 30, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , Taiji   

    Move like a turtle, Sting like a bee. 

    It’s working! For now at least… I’m back on wordpress until the next mix-up. Thank you to Juliet and Doug for being so helpful these past few weeks. Hopefully things will run smoothly from here. Now, back to our scheduled programming:

    A few weeks ago I posted about Nanjing’s first Brazilian Jiu Jitsu dojo. I’ve been training there regularly ever since that post. However, since being here I’ve also taken up training in two other martial arts styles. So for part two of my martial arts in China series, we’re going to look at Taiji.

    Why yes, we are well dressed. Thank you for noticing.

    To the left is a picture of my Taiji instructor and I. I have no idea what her name is, and to be honest, most of the time I don’t know what she’s saying either (the classes are entirely in Chinese). I manage to pick out a few things like “relax” and “turn your hips”, both of which are instructions I’ve been hearing from my Karate sensei for the past eleven years. It’s nice to know I still can’t do either of those things. Otherwise, I rely on universal martial artist body language. So far, it seems to be working.

    The instructor is very good at what she does. She can move from deep Karate style stances to ballet height kicks, all in slow motion (did I mention she’s 3x my age?). I know a lot of martial artists. Extraordinarily few can do this.

    That being said, my instructor has some qualities that are much less mystical, or Kung fu-y if you will. She does not act in the super Zen fashion that masters are portrayed to have in movies. If anything, she’s got some spunk to her. If there’s something on her mind, she’ll say it very directly. If she’s not saying it with her mouth, she might be pushing and prodding at various parts of your body to get her message across.

    Our class meets twice a week in the lobby of our building, and are offered for free to international students. Each day we go through the exact same set of warm ups, and then work on a form (Kata, set of techniques, etc.). Each class we learn a new technique to be added on to the form. We’re then expected to be able to perform these techniques in the next class.

    Our class is small now. We used to have many people, but numbers quickly dwindled as students got bored of moving from position to position in slow motion for two hours a week. Personally, I love it. No, Taiji is not turning me into a cage fighter, but I’m learning and practicing focus, balance, and relaxation among other things. I end Taiji class with my undershirt soaked with sweat, meaning I’m working just as hard in Taiji just as any other class (except my academic classes. I work way harder in Taiji than I do in school).

    And that’s all I’ve got for this post. Tune in for my next edition to see what other martial art I’m focusing on instead of work.

    Best wishes to my fellow Asiapod bloggers and to everybody back home.


    • Sam Smukler 3:24 am on October 3, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      Hey Gennady. When I was in Vietnam this summer I took Muay Thai from a Vietnamese instructor, and ended up loving it for the same sorts of reasons you were talking about (classes entirely in Vietnamese, teacher that defied the “mystical Zen master” stereotype). It’s great to see your story. Hope to hear more from you soon!

      Also if you don’t know about this guy yet (http://www.youtube.com/user/brooklynmonk1), he’s spent the last 10 years or so training all over Asia and has some pretty great videos on pretty obscure martial arts, ethnic minorities, etc.

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