Monday, October 27, 2008

Study, Food, and Fun

This week I saw several events for students here at LNU. First, I was interviewed by a trio of tri-lingual hosts for a talk show on the student radio station. Then I stopped by the library to return some books and saw students hard at work early on Sunday morning. Dormitory life is crowded and difficult by American standards. The students sleep eight to a room and many of the older buildings have no hot water, so the students walk for several blocks to newer dorms where they can shower. That's why the library is always so crowded. Then I attended the CCTV English Speaking Contest. Thirty contestants gave a prepared speech, an impromptu speech, and answered questions from the judges. Participants came from universities all over northwest China. The winner of our regional contest goes on to Beijing for the finals. Finally, I watched some fiercely competitive basketball. Just who are those guys anyway?

On one of my walks, I came across a small group of older amateur musicians playing traditional Chinese music to celebrate the grand opening of a restaurant. I joined a small appreciative crowd to listen to the music -- a single piece that lasted about 20 minutes. On a barely related topic, this also seems to be National Dry Your Winter Vegetables Week. I'll ask my students to explain what's going on and report back to you.

Dalian Street Scenes: Chapter 2

Here is a collection of miscellaneous pictures that I took last Sunday afternoon (October 26) when I went looking for places of worship in Dalian. There's no theme: it's just a random collection of the kinds of things you would see on any ordinary autumn afternoon.

Russian Quarter

As the northernmost ice-free deepwater port on the Pacific coast, Dalian has been coveted by both the Russians and the Japanese. In fact, the city was leased to, occupied by, or ruled by one or the other of these two nations between 1895 and 1955. Most guidebooks list Russian Street as one of Dalian's main attractions. The street itself is now a wide pedestrian walkway runnng for about 200 yards near the old seaport. It was the heart of the Russian community around 1900. Many historic Russian-style structures remain, but they have all fallen into severe disrepair. The street is now the definition of "faded glory." It is lined with decaying buildings in front of which sidewalk vendors hawk cheap knick-knacks and souvenirs.
The narrow streets surrounding the main boulevard once held numerous brick-and-stucco residences for the Russian community posted to Dalian. Today, the area is mired in poverty and neglect. It is worth bearing in mind that despite China's rapid economic transformation, the rising tide has not lifted all the boats. Poverty is real and brutal, both in the city and in the countryside. I will have more to say about China's economic miracle and the increasing income gap in a future blog post. I'm a visitor, not a journalist, so it was hard for me to take these pictures. There are other scenes that I chose not to photograph at all.

Sunday, October 26, 2008


Since today (Sunday, 26 October) dawned clear and crisp and cool, I decided to make a photo safari to several of Dalian's places of worship. American readers might be surprised to learn that there even are such places, but it is worth knowing that freedom of religion is explicitly enshrined in the constitution of the People's Republic of China, although the enormous loopholes are pretty obvious: "No state organ, public organization or individual may compel citizens to believe in, or not to believe in, any religion; nor may they discriminate against citizens who believe in, or do not believe in, any religion. The state protects normal religious activities. No one may make use of religion to engage in activities that disrupt public order, impair the health of citizens or interfere with the educational system of the state. Religious bodies and religious affairs are not subject to any foreign domination" (Article 36).

The PRC recognizes five main religions: Buddhists, Taoists, Muslims, Catholics, and Protestants. There are also small communities of Hindus and indigenous folk religions, as well as religious movements that are not officially sanctioned. Estimates by Chinese scholars say that about 300 million people (31%) consider themeselves to be "religious" in some sense. A recent article in China Daily notes, for example, that official records show that there are about 16 million Protestants in China. (That sounds like a lot, but it's less than 1.5% of the population.) The number of Protestant seminaries has increased from 1 to 18 in the past ten years. There are more than 10,000 officially recognized Protestant churches. China also has more than 20 million Muslims worshipping in more than 40,000 mosques.

Our earlier blog entries had pictures of the Buddhist temple here in Dalian as well as various temples, monasteries, and mosques in Xi'an and Tibet. Today, I walked to a Roman Catholic Church, a Lutheran Church, an Anglican Church, a former Russian Orthodox Church, and a mosque. I know of a few more places of worship in various office buildings and hotels, and there is said to be a Hindu Shrine somewhere near the Buddhist Temple in Zhongshan Park. I have also heard that there is a new Protestant mega-church with about 4000 members near the airport, too far for me to walk today.

Echinoderms on Parade

Finally, the moment has arrived -- the festival we have all been waiting for in breathless anticipation is here! That's right -- it is now officially Sea Cucumber Month here in Dalian.

The uninitiated among you might well ask: "What the heck is a sea cucumber anyway?" So here is a helpful quiz to test your Sea Cucumber IQ. Is it (a) California slang for a guy who wears a surfer's wet suit at the beach but never goes near the waves, (b) an elliptoid vegetable growing in the warm salt water of the North Pacific, prized by gourmets when served in a salad with a splash of balsamic vinegar and a touch of triple cold-pressed Tuscan olive oil, (c) Florida slang for those purplish welts that amateur body-surfers get on their foreheads and elbows when the waves plow them into the beach, or (d) an expensive and quasi-edible aquatic bottom-feeding echinoderm with leathery skin and yellow vanadium-bearing blood that is beloved in Dalian as a medicinal panacea, an aphrodisiac, and [when properly distilled] an intoxicant?

If you answered (d), sharpen up your chopsticks and dig right in! You have earned the right to relish your very own sea-slug.

As for me, I certainly hope that there will be a parade with music, floats, and costumed sea-critters to mark the occasion. I wonder who will be named Ms. Sea Cucumber 2008?