Summer in Beijing

Greetings from Beijing!

I hope everyone is enjoying their summer wherever you are. I’m in Beijing for the next four weeks. I’m teaching 2 history classes at Beijing Normal University. This is my third summer teaching in China and my second year in Beijing. The flight over was pretty uneventful—just long—thirteen hours. I don’t sleep on planes, so it’s a time to read and watch a lot of movies. I get over jet-lag pretty quickly—so I’m just about adjusted here.  Beijing is a city on a scale that few people who live in the US can imagine. It boggles my mind that any group of humans of this size can co-exist in close proximity without chaos ensuing everyday.

I did want to share something with you today about China’s recent history. June 4th is the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests in which 300+ protesters were killed by government forces. The protest that occurred in 1989 reflected the increasing frustration  of a largely younger generation against the restrictions and controls of the PRC (Peoples Republic of China) and the Communist Party. Since the 1970s China and the US (due in part to the diplomacy of Richard Nixon and Zhou En Lai) enjoyed open relations that benefited both nations economically. Despite this modernization in China, the social and economic reforms expected for the Chinese people did not occur. This frustration against the CCP exploded in a series of public protests throughout China’s cities and culminated in the protests taking place in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. CNN live coverage reached new levels in international reporting. Images of people, signs, images of the Statue of Liberty made headlines around the world. But the most searing image was the footage of a young man standing up to an approaching tank, a force of human conviction facing off against the military power of the Chinese Communist Party.

In the aftermath of the protests, thousands were imprisoned. The government crackdown on dissidents was rapid and highly successful. Today 25 years later the students I teach have little to no knowledge about the event or its global significance. It remains a forbidden subject and those who keep the memory alive in their voices, writing, and art continue to face the threat of imprisonment. As the anniversary approaches here in Beijing, the military presence is highly visible in anticipation of any minor or major demonstrations. As I sit here at my desk at the university, just a short subway ride from the square, I wonder if I will even know what happens there in the coming hours due to suppression of any media coverage or freedom of information. I’ve decided not to ask students to remember or write about the event in class today. Partly because of concerns over my own welfare, but also because I do not want to place the students in a position in which they feel threatened. To speak about Tiananmen is against the law.

One thing to add . . . due to censorship I am unable to post this to the NAECC blog myself—I’ve asked Deb to do it on my behalf. My access to the NAECC travel blog is blocked by the Chinese Communist Party. You along with thousands and thousands of other websites, seem to be a threat to China’s national “security.” We, the citizens of the U.S., are a fortunate people under any circumstances. And with that comes a responsibility to do what we can to make the world a better place to live for everyone.

Take care and be in good health.


Dr. Dawn G. Marsh
Associate Professor
Department of History
Purdue University


The streets where they live . . .

Last Friday my first excursion as a tourist took me to the Presidential Palace. A steady, but gentle rain fell all day and did not deter my plans to get out and about. I wanted to get to know Nanjing on her own terms and walking seemed like the best way to do that. With map in hand, I convinced my good friend Tomas that we could easily walk the distance from the university. Funny thing about the official Nanjing map is the scale. As we maneuvered our way, block to block, I began to doubt my directions. I did not want to pull out the map and become a spectacle to the throngs of people maneuvering the wet sidewalks, slick streets and dripping trees. But after some time and no hint at where we might be, I did pull out the map to try and reconnoiter our location. A very friendly young man offered to be of assistance and we stood under my umbrella turning the map this way and that. I think perhaps he was more interested in practicing his English than offering insight to our location. I made several attempts to point out our destination, but he seemed to be rather clueless as to how we would get there. We offered many renditions of “xie xie” (thank you) and moved further on down the road.

My instincts told me we were still heading in the right direction, but more jokes about Mao’s Long March were cropping up with each step. One of the things that amazes me is the endlessness of the city: block after unbroken block of buildings in various states of construction and decay. New buildings going up next to crumbled structures older than the United States, gleaming signs flashing advertisings with the clarity of our most modern movie theaters next to handmade posters offering goods and services I cannot translate. The old and the new, the broken and repaired line up with a thousand faces filling the stores, passing me on the streets and streaming by on the roads. There is no horizon to see, no physical landmark that in the distance that gives me a hint of the natural order of the world. The haze is to thick to allow the sun to cast a shadow, no familiar breeze coming from a direction I know. The faces so foreign I cannot read their mood or demeanor and their language is a cacophony of sounds and syllables, inflections and tones falling around my ears and doing me no good.

I am anxious and excited as I walk the streets of Nanjing. There are few non-Asian people here, so wherever I find myself, I draw some attention. I am anxious because all of the tools so easily, if unconsciously, available to me are not available. And the instinctive tool I miss the most is being able to read the faces passing me. It is easy to recognize a smile no matter where in the world we are or anger or surprise, but there is also a subtlety to facial expressions relative to the cultures we come from, or more specifically relative to the cultures we are most familiar. I do not know Chinese faces well enough to tell whether or not the smile is sincere or sarcastic or whether the scowl is from anger or exhaustion. And it’s just enough of a mystery to keep me a bit on edge. I may be reading more into it because I feel exposed when I prefer some level of anonymity in unfamiliar situations. But the more time I spend here, walking to work, going to the grocery story, catching a taxi, the more the faces become familiar. In the absence of language skills communication takes place.

I am also very excited to be in Nanjing for many of the same reasons that cause anxiousness. It is by far more different than any other place I’ve been in the world. All of my senses are challenged on a daily basis. The noise of the traffic and the mechanical conversations of a thousand horns rarely stop. A walk down any street can expose the nose to enticing combinations of spices and foods being fried, steamed and baked in the stores and stalls that are everywhere. And in the same block you can encounter the smell of garbage and sick that forces you to turn your eyes away for fear of what you might see. For the most part I am amazed that a city as big, wet, and hot, as Nanjing is not dominated by offensive odors. My own beloved New Orleans has something to learn from Nanjing. We did finally arrive at out destination, somewhat soggy, but nonetheless relieved that a combination of instinct and map-reading skills served me well.

Dr. Dawn G. Marsh
Department of History
Purdue University


Let the games begin

Haze and smog have not lifted in seven days.

Yesterday (Monday) marked the first day of classes here at Nanjing University and there were definitely a few bumps in the road, but nothing insurmountable. Since this is the first year that NU is hosting the program there seems to be a lot of last minute, not thought through, lack of experience moments. For instance even though we arrived last Wednesday we were unable to go into our classrooms and check out the equipment. Whoever held that ring of keys was not available till Monday morning. So my response is just stay flexible–I can keep it loose and fast when necessary. No problemo. Right?

Well there was one problem that I was not so happy about. Imagine a building constructed sometime in the early 1980s, a concrete 7 story bunker that has not received the best improvements over the years. Most of the classrooms have the old style wooden desks with attached seats, bolted to the floor, dingy fluorescent lighting, curtains over windows that haven’t been washed in decades (but that may just be the effect of local pollution’s monthly deposits).  Ok I can deal with that. Then we check out the projector and my laptop hook up — ok.

But there was one issue that was nearly insurmountable. The air-conditioner for my class was broken–apologies were forthcoming as were promises for quick repairs, but for nearly 90 minutes 55 sweaty students and one sweaty professor worked our way through the introductions and administrative tasks that are a part of any class start up. The second and third classrooms were only slightly cooler. Needless to say it is was a long, exhausting day.

I got back to the apartment and was just too apathetic to go to dinner. But here’s where this story has a nice ending. Haoyang, my TA called to ask if he could come up to my apartment to talk about the classes. It was the last thing I felt like doing. Well, it was a ruse on his part. He appeared at my door carrying a whole watermelon for me. He knows I’ve been eating watermelon, drinking watermelon juice . . . it’s just so good here. Made my day and really showed the kindness and generosity of the people here in Nanjing. It’s going to be ok . . . hot, hot, hot, but ok.

And for the foodie fans out there, here’s an ode to eating unidentifiable foods. On Sunday night, after our first faculty meeting they hosted a dinner at a very nice restaurant. We sat at several large round tables with a huge lazy-susan in the middle. The meal started with big bottles of Tsing-tao beer, fresh orange and watermelon juices. And then the dishes just kept coming and coming and coming. I did not try them all, just too much food and also one bowl that looked like organ meats (not doing that). We had fresh, huge crayfish, a whole fish (very white and delicate like sole) poached in olive oil, there were steamed buns, dumplings, several vegetable dishes of various kinds of greens, I did eat something that looked like an earthworm, but tasted like fish . . . I think it was baby eel. No seconds on that one. They served Nanjing duck, baked tofu, egg broth soup and tea soaked eggs. I know I’m leaving several dishes out . . . oh, yeah, mushu pancakes and very spicy pork filling. It was a feast and more food than anyone at our table could eat. It was memorable and I’m sure I ate some things that it was better not knowing about. I sat next to another faculty member who is vegetarian and we both kept convincing ourselves that what we just ate was a mushroom, right? Yeah . . . just another kind of mushroom. It was a memorable meal and there was much toasting going on with glasses of Tsing-tao. Now that’s how you start a semester.

Dr. Dawn G. Marsh
Department of History
Purdue University


Nanjing Walkabout

Ten years ago bicycles were a ubiquitous part of Chinese culture. But in less than a decade bicycles were replaced with cars, motorcycles and mopeds. Walking the streets of Nanjing is challenging and mentally exhausting. I took Haoyang’s (my TA) warnings seriously from the beginning and in a very short time my head naturally darts in all possible directions before stepping into any street, alley or driveway. The din of horns blowing is relentless and only seems to settle down late at night. Even from the distance of my air-conditioned apartment on the twenty-third floor I can hear them all; courtesy beeps, impatient honks and the long, loud blast of the police cars that seem to part the four-wheeled sea slowly, but surely. Moststreets here were not designed with a car culture in mind and the clogged intersections and traffic signals are chaotic to an outsider. I’m a driver, enjoy the road and earned my road warrior stripes from Pittsburgh to Los Angeles and beyond. San Francisco with a manual transmission? Did it! Chicago? Piece of cake (who doesn’t love quadrants??). London rush hour (I think that’s all the time) with wrong-side driving, certainly. Dusty roads of Baja Norte with a couple margaritas (not recommended) down the hatch . . . yes indeedy. But I cannot fathom any reason I would ever, truly, ever get behind the wheel of a car in Nanjing. Death wish, nervous breakdown . . . excluded. But perhaps what may have been the most bizarre observation was the skillful maneuvers of a woman with a very slow moped with large cart attached filled to maximum capacity with a wide assortment of coffee mugs. Not plastic mind you, but ceramic and glass cups in all shapes and colors. And as I watched her inch through the traffic not a single cup moved . . . I was transformed.

One more thing and I’ll move along. It’s Friday night in Nanjing so it must be poodle night. Yes, as in poodles . . . curly-haired dogs. On my evening stroll to locate dinner there were poodles to the left of me poodles to the right . . . I do not exaggerate. White poodles, peachy poodles and yes . . . even rainbow poodles.

Dr. Dawn Marsh
Department of History

A long day’s journey into night . . .

I arrived in Nanjing late last night after a journey that took me from Indianapolis to Dallas to Tokyo to Shanghai and finally Nanjing some 36 hours later. The trip was long and exhausting, but for the most part went off without a hitch. The 13-hour leg from Dallas to Tokyo was the longest flight I’d ever been on and now that I know I can do that without much problem my future itineraries will know no boundaries. We arrived in darkness and mist. The temperature was in the mid-seventies and a balmy breeze blowing. It felt wonderful—womb weather—as I call it. Made me think of Hawaii. Of course I was reminded that it is the monsoon season and the temperate climate will soon give way to much hotter and hence much muggier weather. Despite this gentle meteorological welcome, I’m expecting a New Orleans-style summer here. That means dodging from one air-conditioned haven to the next, walking at a poetically slow pace and an ever present do-rag wrapped artfully around my steaming skull.

Bao Wow!

My guide, Teaching Assistant and new best friend is Haoyang Yu. He is an undergraduate at the University of Pittsburgh, planning a law career. So we will have much to learn from one another as the days go by. He came by this morning to give me a tour of the campus. He’s Manchurian, so he does not know Nanjing very well. He’s very friendly and I am enjoying the courtesies he extends; holding an umbrella over me while I open mine, wanting to carry my backpack for me, etc., concern for my comfort and needs. The campus is very old and some very pretty gardens. Good places to meditate. Haoyang explains that the Nanjing classrooms are not very up to date. Most of the building was done in the 1980s, so many things need upgraded. But hey, no problem for me. I teach in the oldest building on Purdue’s campus and if you hadn’t heard . . . no phone or window in my office!

It is a rainy day here, so we stopped for a late breakfast/lunch. We had traditional breakfast. Haoyang had porridge (rice, broth, some veggies) and I had cold soy milk with a crispy bread to dip in the milk. Very, very good. We also shared a basket of bao (rhymes with wow) which aresteamed buns with meat in side. Yum! Thank goodness they have pictures of food on all the menus. That way I can just point and eat! Should be interesting.

One more quick note. Haoyang told me that my three classes are the most popular. They are maxed out, seats filled. He said “You are the most popular professor here!” I asked him to explain how that could be . . . he said students find out about professors. “Chinese students at Purdue checked you out and spread the word.” Well, this should prove to be interesting. My reputation precedes me. Who knew there was a Purdue Chinese Underground!

Till the next time.

Dr. Dawn Marsh
Department of History

Dawn Marsh – Athens, Georgia

Greetings Everyone,

While I’m not traveling with the Purdue crew this summer (who can top that Louisiana snowball research form 2011?), I am doing a lot of traveling this summer. So I thought I’d throw out my first entry. After finishing the spring semester, going right into teaching Maymester, I’m taking a short break visiting my daughter Whitney in Athens, Georgia. Most of you know she’s a chef and has a restaurant called Farm 255 in Athens. This week she was honored at a big Atlanta event and won an award for Rising Star Chef. So I came down to join in the festivities. Whitney’s restaurant centers on “farm to table” philosophy. The restaurant relies on local small farmers  using their own ethically raised meats from Moonshine Farms. But of course it wasn’t all fun and games. Whitney and the other award winners cooked for 500 guests who got to sample their food. While she did get me the VIP pass (free champagne!) I had to earn my keep by slicing a heck of a lot of beets. Left me with pink fingers.

I’ve attached a couple photos, Whitney and her partner Ben cooking at the event and also one shot of her restaurant in Athens. I’ll be heading back to Lafayette tomorrow but before long I’ll be off to China for the rest of the summer. Adventures ahead. I hope y’all are enjoying the northern plains, a truly beautiful place with so many stories written on the landscape and faces of the people who call it home. Be sure to share your stories. I look forward to reading them.

Also, if you ever find yourself in Athens, Georgia be sure to stop in Farm 255 and ask for Whitney Otawka. Tell them her mom sent ya!

Dr. Dawn Marsh
Department of History

Whitney & Ben

Farm 255.  Ask for Whitney!!