Big Brother in China

At first I don’t really notice.

Sure, they take our temperature with a laser to the forehead before letting anyone off the plane, but with our health declaration signed, our entrance forms and visas completed, they stamp our passports and welcome David and me to China.

And at the Beijing hotel just across the street from the red-light district (just imagine our concern as the cab slowed in this area) they take our temperature again, this time with a thermometer to the ear, and photocopy our passports and visas.

Then, when we arrive the next day at my sister's house in an ex-pat enclave outside Dalian, we have to register with local police and I think, well, they really want to keep track of us while we're in town.

We can't access certain internet sites, Facebook and Twitter. Other sites are blocked (hint, spell Tiananmen Square wrong on Google in China for a sampling of blocked images) and my sister reminds me that "they" could read anything I send by email. In other words, "Be careful, Little Sister."

But Big Brother pretty much leaves us alone as long as we allow every hotel to photocopy our passports and visas each time we check in; as long as we don't cause any trouble.

On the hot, humid summer afternoon when we visit The Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square, however, Big Brother is watching and he wants us to know.

His signs warn us NO STOPPING, NO BURNING as we walk toward Mao's portrait. Along with thousands of Chinese we pass beneath Mao as he stares out at Tiananmen Square. We walk beside soldiers standing at guard every ten feet, but not all guards are in uniform. These soldiers stand at attention but are dressed like tourists. Big Brother wants us to know that there are soldiers among us.

They check our bags before we enter the square and as David and I mill around watching families snapping photographs with Mao or in front of the Chinese flag, we also watch men watching us, men not in uniform but taller than the average Chinese man, walking slowly, saying nothing; watching.

There are cameras on each of the light standards all over the square. Cameras watch, soldiers watch, civilians watch, and thousands of people move in and around this open space.

Scarred tiles cover the square and I imagine fires burning, blood shed; the echo of bullets raining down on peaceful protesters. I picture tanks lining this space where families and tour groups walk and imagine these same civilians hurling rocks at soldiers who fire back with live ammunition on these same streets where buses, taxis and bicycles rush past us on this Wednesday afternoon.

There in this peaceful crowd, I begin to understand the significance of the student and civilian protests staged here in Tiananmen where Mao is memorialized and government buildings flank the square and why there hasn't been significant protest since. Even though, according to the documentary "The Tank Man," 1 in 10 of Beijing's citizens took to the streets to protest government corruption and limits to free speech that May and June, this well-behaved crowd here in Tiananmen Square understands the consequences of acting out.

No one in China acknowledges the violence from the crack-down in 1989 publicly. University students filmed for a 2004 documentary feign ignorance of Tank Man's image. But if twenty years ago 1 in 10 of these same citizens flooded the streets to keep the military from entering their city, if they watched as soldiers opened fire on students, friends, brothers and sisters; if they saw citizens arrested, tried, imprisoned, and disappeared after the events in Tiananmen Square, they know the cost of protest. They understand the price and because this growing middle class risks losing so much they  teach their children what has happened and understand what could happen again.

Even though the 20-year anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests and massacre passed peaceably nearly two months ago, I imagine conversations around kitchen tables all over China, in hushed voices from living rooms and dorms, conversations posted in code on proxy servers because Big Brother is watching. He is watching so The People can never forget.


Say Eggplant!

In China they say qie ze (sounds like chie zu) when taking a picture. It sounds a little like cheese but it Mandarin it means eggplant.

David loves taking pictures and loves a cheesy post even more so on our visit to China this summer we sang out qie ze and struck one of several popular poses all over that crazy country.

Yu Yuan Garden, Shanghai

Fountain at Wild Goose Pagoda, Xian

Wang Fu Jing, Beijing

Terra Cotta Warriors in Xian

Summer Palace, Beijing

Summer Palace, Beijing
Temple of Heavenly Peace, Beijing

The Great Wall at Mutianyu outside Beijing

Dan Dong with North Korea across the river


The Birds Nest, Beijing


Blank Page

Hello there, Blank Page. How are you today?

I am not sure what I'm doing here. I've been visiting with old pages lately and they are just nothing like you. They are so problematic and have so much baggage. I realize much of that is what I bring to them, but still, there is something about you, Blank Page.

There is something so fresh, optimistic and, sometimes frightening about you. But, really, I should come by more often. You usually make me feel better and you don't scream your problems to me like those other pages do. Those novels, stories, poems, even notes just don't listen like you. You are the best. You sit there and you take and take and take. So thank you, Blank Page. Thanks for always being there, for always being willing to accept whoever I might be on any given day. You rock, Blank Page. You rock!

Okay, I realize it's nice to be here, but it is also complicated. I can't see you all the time. If I want to go anywhere, I have to see those other pages. I have to revise and rework, and think about the problems those other pages have. You have your limits. You can't be my all-the-time-page. You are a little too, you know, blank.

But I will visit more often; for all the energy you provide, I'll be back. When I'm ready or when I need you and I know you'll be there. You'll be there.


I turn 35 this week and feel the weight of the number, a number heavy with all I haven't accomplished: a baby, a book published, a home with a yard. I find a scattering of white hairs near my part and a white eyebrow. Seriously. A white eye brow.

I sign up for an Olympic-distance triathlon that weekend: 1500 meter swim, 40 K bike, 10 K run. I stand in queue before the swim start with women in the 35-39 age group. I compare my body to theirs, how my waist, arms, and legs squeeze into this neoprene wetsuit and try to guess their stories, mother of three? Lawyer? Personal trainer? They surround me, all the lives I might have if I'd chosen to live differently, married, not married, life in the city or the country, run a little more, not finished that whole tub of ice cream the other night.

We count down to the start together and then plunge into the water, thrashing about until the strong swimmers stretch ahead and those of us who spend only a couple days a week in the pool lag behind. I am in the back half and struggle to find breath, struggle to keep going toward the buoys that look so far away. I breathe and pull and try to imagine I'm in a heated pool instead of this cold lake with no lanes or edges. I swim; pull, breath, pull, breath, stretch and make myself slippery through the water. Forty minutes later I emerge on the shore and jog up the boat ramp to the transition.

The bike leg starts with a short, steep hill and it's there, climbing up that slow grade that the ages of my competitors are revealed to me. I'm not sure why this has become part of triathlon culture but not only is your race number drawn onto your arms and legs in permanent marker before the start, but your age is as well, on your left calf, so as you pass people or as they pass you, you can see this number, this age.

I smile to myself as I pass the 27-year-old. I don't feel too bad when the 31-year-old flies by on her bike. Hey, who knows what she'll be able to do in four years. At the top of the hill a 54-year-old charges past and I hope to I'll be able to do that someday, but honestly, probably not. I can't even do it at 35.

I fly through the rolling hills of the 26 mile out and back bike course and pass more bikes than pass me and in my completely unscientific calculations, I'm doing great for my age.

After the ride it's time for the long slog of a 6-mile run. I continue to check the legs of my competitors, study the numbers and the bodies of the walkers and runners all around me. My legs feel heavy. Maybe it's from pushing too hard on the bike or maybe I just didn't train hard enough for the run, or maybe I'm just getting old.

A 38-year-old passes me, her long, lean legs strong up the path and she disappears around the corner. I curse my legs for not following her, for not carrying all of my five-foot-one frame up another hill, but my muscles have nothing left. I convince myself that surely that 38-year-old woman doesn't eat ice cream. She isn't still carrying the weight of a miscarriage. She is so much taller than me. That's why I can't keep up.

I pump my arms; urge my legs on. I pass a few walkers, (32 and 28), but come on, age is just a number. I've been telling myself that for years. I still get carded sometimes. I look way younger than my 35-years.

But age does matter. I've been paying attention to the numbers on my leg and on the legs of my competitors my whole life. When that number was still in single digits I watched gymnasts and figure skaters in the Olympics and thought, it's not too late for me. I could do that with my life. I could become an Olympian. When it was too late for my Olympic dreams, when I was too old to become the next Mary Lou Retton, I blamed my parents. If they had put me in gymnastics, or tennis or made me keep swimming my life would be so different. If I didn't have Olympians to measure up to I compared my accomplishments to the barometer of my older brothers and sister. What had they done by my age? Was I ahead of their curve or behind?

I pick up my pace at the 5 mile mark and pass a 37-year-old woman. No one else will pass me, well, no one older than me will. But a 41-year-old flies by and there is nothing I can do but keep pressing on, at my pace.

I cruise down a last, long hill to the finish line 3 hours and 35 minutes after I started. The comparisons of the day fade away as I walk toward my friends and family, 35-years-old, carrying a bit too much around the waist and hips on this course, but still, 3:35 feels like a good time for me.


Graffiti or What I Wish For the World

I am fairly certain I learn more than I teach at the middle school where I work in Los Angeles. I don't think I'm a bad teacher necessarily, it's more that my students don't really want to learn what I'm supposed to teach them whereas I find their lives fascinating.

This year I teach about one hundred students, and my school serves teenagers from all over the city so I have a little microcosm of LA experiences: recent immigrants, Los Angeles natives, UCLA professor's kids and aspiring gang members. But my classes are the "regular" kids, not the honors or advanced classes, so the percentage of aspiring cholos to scholars is a little off. The funny thing about my students though, is that they are middle schoolers. So even if they look like punks, and often act like punks, they are at the same time just nice kids trying to make sense of the world and find a space where they might fit.

This year my students participate in the Doodle 4 Google competition that the Google people sponsor where they ask kids to redesign the Google logo.

I explain the contest to my students and then let them get creative. In these days of high-stakes testing and strict instructional pacing plans, I don't do this very often and students react to this freedom in a variety of ways. Some just want to color, others draft and redraft striving for perfection. Some scrawl quickly and then chat about how they will spend the $15,000 prize. Ten of my students enter the school competition. I take the entries to the computer lab where the technology coordinator, several other teachers and I are meeting to choose winners.

I set my students' artwork on the table and take in the competition. One entry, "Helping Hands" transforms each letter into a good deed. Nice. Another depicts an environmental utopia with doves flying artfully above the Google landscape. A third shows the first three Google letters as monsters, then the last three an economic utopia. All are rendered carefully, but one of my own student's pieces can definitely hang. Stephanie has drawn a group of environmental activist penguins holding signs that say "Go green" using the Go from Google. I can imagine any one of these four Doodles winning in the regional competition.

But Google allows us to send six entries so we get to pick another couple for competition. We select another one of my student's renderings of a good v. evil city sprouting from the letters and growing from light to dark.

With one more to choose, four drawings remain in the running. Two are my students' work, and both carry the careful styling of graffiti artists. I want one of them to win. I think of the winners from last year: blue-prints for castles, rainbows, flowers, and animals. None of those designs capture the urban landscape where so many of my students grow up.

Several teachers are uncomfortable sending up a "tag," glorifying this illicit activity that is one aspect of gang involvement. I see their point but I really want one of these two boys to win. I have to stop and think about why it is important that Google receive an entry from my school, an urban LAUSD public school that captures a different reality, a reality that isn't about classic art or architecture. This is the art that holds power in my students' lives and maybe it isn't beautiful to everyone, but what art is? And maybe it's more than a rendering of their urban existence because it's art they understand, art that reminds them of the tough and beautiful place where they're from or where their cousin or brother or uncle is from.

"I want one of these two to go," I say pointing to my graffiti artists.

While we discuss these last two entries, the artistic style is not in question but whether or not we are comfortable promoting gang-related illegal activity.

We don't choose Daniel's melting Google tag partly because the "l" looks like a melting penis but also because he didn't check the citizenship box for his immigration status on the Google application.

In the end the committee leaves the decision to me and I choose to send on Brian's drawing of a brick wall with a Google tag and the sidewalk littered with images from local gangs. I know he won't win but I'm proud that I can advocate for him and his art.

I draw my own Google with my students this year. The G is an ear, the "oo" a boom box, the "le" a microphone and cord. My wish for the world is that everyone would have a voice and that those with power would listen.

As I look at all of the student Google winners displayed in the hallway, "Our Economy," "Go Green," "Helping One Another in Friendship," "Stop Graffiti," and "Beautiful World" I'm proud of the voices from Emerson expressing not only our students' wishes for the world, but the realities of the world we wish we could ignore.