Eleven years ago today, my father died. Below are the words that I spoke in farewell and tribute to my dad at his memorial service on January 25, 2001, in Roseville, Minnesota. Speaking them before 600 people was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. The first part of this tribute was written at 30,000 feet above the North Pacific Ocean as I flew home from a vacation in Thailand.
This is my annual tribute to him.
The call you dread and fear and never expect comes. It’s mom. “Joann, your father died this morning. Please come home as soon as you can. I need you.” Like an arrow out of no-where, somewhere, it hits first the head, then the heart, and slowly the pain sinks into your bones. One day you’re relaxing on the beach, washing off the stress of a difficult term, and 24 hours later you’re wandering in a daze around international airports—Phuket, Bangkok, Narita—all jammed with people, and yet feeling so incredibly alone. The words keep shouting in your soul. “Joann, your father has died,” slamming against your bones and your organs and your skin like a bullet ricocheting around a steel cavern. You try to drive them away with polite conversation, with reading, with hymn-singing, hoping against hope that driving the words away will drive the reality away as well.
But then the words and reality force their way back and the pain starts again. “Joann, your precious father stepped into glory this morning.” “Joann, your wonderful father went home to be with his Savior.” With every fiber of my being I believe these words, but don’t want to believe them at the same time. He was a precious father, but now he is lost in wonder, love and grace in the presence of Jesus.
Yet here at 30,000 feet above the Pacific Ocean, I feel just plain lost. Lost in sadness. Lost in pain. I know he’s with his Savior, but I want him here with us. How will I get through the next ten hours on this plane? How will I bear to see my mom and sister and her family at the end of this long journey? One hour at a time, one grace at a time. “He giveth more grace when the burdens grow greater; He giveth more strength as the labors increase. To added affliction, He addeth more more mercy; to multiplied sorrows, He multiplies peace.” Then it hits me. Despite the pain, I too am lost in love and grace. Sustaining grace--John Piper describes it like this: “Not grace to bar what is not bliss, nor flight from all distress, but this—the grace that orders our trouble and pain, and then in the darkness is there to sustain.” Will the sadness and the tears and the pain ever go away? Probably not. But then again, neither will the grace.
So, my beloved dad is gone. What to say? The words that scream loudest from my soul are simply, “please come back.” I know he's in a better placee, but I still want him back here. There are too many words and no words. But following are a few---just a few of the special things I remember about my dad.
He had a sense of humor. He loved to laugh and make others laugh, and he was never in danger of taking himself too seriously.
He was a servant. He would do anything for anybody anytime anyplace, from bringing coffee to my waking mom every morning to fixing church roofs to shoveling neighbor’s driveways.
He was humble. In a stuffy academic world, he was just himself.
He was generous. If there was a financial need, he gave. His giving to us seemed limitless and it gave him great joy.
He was compassionate. His heart was tender and easily broken by the pain and suffering in the world. Last month in Beijing, we visited a clothing market that the government was ready to close down. The peddlers were selling their goods at rock-bottom prices. In a crowd frenzied over the best bargain, he kept asking, “what will happen to these poor people?”
He loved Jesus. Quietly and simply, he ordered his life grounded in that love.
He was a wonderful father and I miss him so very much.
Perhaps the greatest tribute I can give will be when I come to the end of my days and people say of me, simply, “she was just like her father.”
Goodbye Dad. I love you and miss you more than words can express.
My dad was an ice-cream lover. In his honor our family will make a run to a local Dairy Queen this afternoon.
If you knew my dad and have any special memories, please feel free to leave a comment. (For those of you receiving this by email, you need to click open the site in order to leave a comment)
After teaching English in Zhengzhou for two years, I returned to Minnesota in 1986 to pursue a Master's Degree and gain more teaching experience, with the intention of returning to China a few years later. While Stateside, I started serious work on building my China library. These are the books that were key for me during that time:
1986 - 1990
Coming Home Crazy, by Bill Holm
In 1985 an oversized Icelandic-American professor from Minnesota went to Xi’an to spend a year teaching English. When he returned a year later, he published this book of essays on his experience. This was the first book that I read that caused me to smack my head and say “I wish I’d written that.” What made the book so endearing to me and others who had or were teaching in China at the time was that he was essentially telling our stories and experiences. I re-read the book last year and wrote a post titled “Still Crazy After All These Years.”
The Joy of Getting Along with the Chinese, by Fred Schneiter
In the early 1980’s Fred Schneiter, in his capacity as a representative of the American Wheat Board, arrived in China to promote the eating of bread among the rice and noodle-eating population. This book offers a light and witty tour of Chinese culture, especially as it is often encountered by outsiders who are here to do business. There are tips on everything from the rituals of banqueting and getting your taxi driver not to drive like a maniac to conducting negotiations.
The New Emperors, by Harrison Salisbury
In this book, NYT correspondent Salisbury shows how Mao and Deng ruled China, not according to Marxist principles, but in the manner of the emperors before them. It was something that I hadn’t seen before, and completely changed my understanding of China’s governance.
The Search for Modern China, by Jonathan Spence
If you’re looking for a definitive work on China’s recent history, this is it. It’s laid out much like an encyclopedia, so is a great reference book. Keep in mind, though that in Chinese history parlance, “modern China” dates from the mid-1600’s.
Evening Chats in Beijing, by Perry Link
In 1988 Princeton Professor Perry Link spent a year in Beijing interviewing intellectuals to understand the changes that had taken place in the ten years of reform. This book is a record of those conversations. We can listen in as they talk about corruption, the authoritarian nature of the state, the need for the reform of the work unit system. The reader can’t help get the feeling that pressure is building and something will blow, which it did in the spring of 1989. This book will give you understand the mood in the country leading up to the events of 1989.
Have you read any of these? What did you learn?
In 1984 I set off for China to teach English for a year. Before I left, the organization that I was working for sent me a book to read. It was the first book about China that I remember reading. Just as that one year in China has turned into a 28 year sojourn, so too that one book also turned out to be the start of my literary journey. Since then I have pretty much read every book about China that I can get my hands on.
In an effort to track that journey I put together a list of books that have been particularly helpful to me in my attempts to make sense of the Middle Kingdom. Over the course of this week I will post more information about the books and their significance in my journey.
Please note that this list obviously reflects my interests, which run in the direction of political and social history. I acknowledge the absence of great Chinese literary works.
Pre 1984 (before I went to China)
The China described by this Canadian journalist was pretty much the China that I encountered in 1984. China was drab beyond description; everything was grey – the buildings, the clothes, the sky. There was no visible commercial activity: no stores, no shops, no street sellers, no beauty parlors, no restaurants, and no cars. Because the work units still controlled nearly every aspect of an urban dwellers’ life and suspicion of foreigners ran deep, Chinese were not allowed to befriend foreigners. If Chinese I knew wanted to invite me to their homes, they first had to seek permission from their work unit. As you can imagine, it rarely happened.
1984 - 1986 (while working in Henan)
In 1984, China was only 8 years from the end of the Cultural Revolution, a ten year period of chaos that had enveloped the country from 1966 until the death of Mao in 1976. This book is a memoir of a young man who came of age in China during those tumultuous days. I remember reading this book in China and being astounded at the brutality that had taken place so recently. It helped me understand the significance of what China was emerging from, and gave me a glimpse into the suffering that my own students and their families had experienced.
White was a correspondent for Time Magazine who covered war-time China in the 1940’s. What gripped me most about this book was his account of the famine in Henan Province in 1943-1944 in which 10 million people died in the very province where I was now living. His description of the streets of Zhengzhou were horrifying, and haunted me as I explored the city on my bike.
What I hadn’t known before reading this book was the extent of US military involvement in China prior to 1949. This book tells that story, beginning with the arrival of General Stillwell in 1911. It is an eye-opening account of American attempts to influence the building of a new China following the collapse of imperial rule.
When the Japanese took over northern China in the 1930's one of the things they did was round up the foreigners in the region and incarcerate them in a prison camp in Weixian, Shandong Province. Gilkey tells the story of life in the camp. The Japanese essentially told them, "We'll man the walls, but you are responsible to organize yourselves into a functioning society," something that proved challenging for several thousand prisoners from different countries, social classes, and religions. This book would be suitable for use as a textbook for all of the following subjects: history, anthropology, sociology, psychology, and political science. For a long time, I faithfully read this book once a year.
Have you read any of these?
The Chinese web portal Netease has posted a video clip of interviews with ordinary Chinese about their ideas for 'the best life." It's a sobering look beyond the headlines of China's power and economic clout, at the people of China, most of whom are working under difficult conditions to simply better their lives.
The conclusion at the end of the video:
House, kids, and even just a portion of safe food,
these make up the best life envisioned by the Chinese people.
Simple, trivial, and yet remote.
Hard work, day after day has made us the survivors of life.
Long wait, year after year...
What on earth is the best life?
(Video link from Shanghaiist)
Update: The dates have been corrected to reflect THIS month! (Thanks, CR)
This is a reminder to my readers in the Twin Cities that I've got 2 talks coming up this week.
The first one is on Tuesday evening, January 10 at Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis. Noel Piper and I will be talking about the"Esther Expedition" -- our journey in the footsteps of Esther Nelson. The details can be found here.
Both start at 7PM.
Hope to see you there!
This week there were two interesting articles about pregnancy and childbirth customs/attitudes in contemporary China. Writing for Bloomberg, Shanghai-based journalist Adam Minter writes about the anti-radiation maternity clothes worn by expantant mothers:
Two years ago, as I waited for an appointment in Beijing, I watched a secretary place an apron over her enlarged belly. I asked if she was cold and she replied, “No, I’m pregnant.” She then explained that the apron concealed a metal mesh that protected her unborn child from the electromagnetic radiation coming from her computer.
That sounded bonkers to me. But when I mentioned this curious encounter to Chinese friends, I learned that an entire industry of “protective” maternity clothing has thrived in China for almost 20 years. Anti-electromagnetic radiation jumpers are just as necessary for a modern Chinese pregnancy as folic acid supplements. This is despite any scientific evidence proving that electromagnetic radiation harms fetuses -- some Chinese families simply believe that it does.
He goes on to write about a recent program on China Central Television that revealed that common anti-radiation smocks were only blocking out 90% of radiation instead of the 99% that was claimed, and the subsequent outcry. He then concludes:
In the end, it may not be science that destroys China’s anti-electromagnetic radiation maternity-wear industry, but rather the public's realization that expectant mothers in the West don’t wear the stuff. China often measures itself against the West to judge its own progress, which is why the Dec. 28 Beijing Evening News segment titled, “Foreign Women Have Never Heard of Anti-Radiation Clothing,” had a strong impact on other leading newspapers and websites.
Featured in the segment was a Chinese mother who lives in Switzerland -- a country idealized in China as a place of precision, good sense and cleanliness. She told reporters that when she asked her Swiss gynecologist where she could purchase an anti-radiation suit in Switzerland, “...the doctor was at a loss to answer because he had never heard of such a thing." He told her, "The amount of radiation thrown off by a computer is less than what is thrown off by the sun’s rays." It’s a simple and true point that a television news magazine, or a government agency, shouldn't have to make.
I've seen them...The first indication that a young woman in an office is pregnant is that she is suddenly wearing a heavy, usually pink, lead-lined smock over her work clothes.
I once asked a colleague about the smock and if she really believed that not wearing it would harm her unborn child. She confided in me that she didn't, but that if she didn't wear it and her child was born with some problems, then she would be blamed by her husband and family members. So to her, it just wasn't worth the risk. The power of peer pressure.
Meanwhile, over at Slate, there's an article titled "Cesarean Nation," which looks at how China became the world's leader in C-sections.
In September 2010, the Chinese Web portal Netease posted a page titled “Why Are Chinese Women Afraid of Natural Childbirth?” The headline might have sounded hyperbolic, but it was anything but. The World Health Organization had just released the results of a survey examining delivery methods in Asia. In Chinese hospitals studied in 2007 and 2008, 46 percent of babies were born though cesarean section—the highest documented rate in the world. Interspersed with photos of pretty pregnant women, in a lavender font, Netease listed its six top reasons why women in China might opt for cesarean section. Some of them weren’t so different from the explanations you might see on an American Web site (No. 4 on the list: “I’d like to have a natural birth, but I’m afraid it will influence my sex life.”), while others were more exotic. (To wit: “My mother-in-law is superstitious about dates and wants to pick the time of birth.”) The No. 1 reason on the list? “Everybody else is having surgery.”....
Masoud Afnan, chair of theObstetrics and Gynecology Department at Beijing United Family Hospital, said that “with the one-child policy, people don’t want to take any risks.” And many in China mistakenly believe cesareans to be safer for both mother and child. “As much as I try to tell patients what the evidence shows,” Afnan continued, “it’s not really so easy to convince them.”
As disposable income grew, the C-section came to be seen as the logical endpoint of the micromanaged pregnancy. Today this 21st-century brand of control mixes with ancient numerology and fortune-telling. Ding Lidan, a 26-year-old Hangzhou resident who is eight months pregnant, told me, “If a woman here gets a cesarean, she will typically hire a fortune teller to predict a good date and time of day for the operation.” Those who can’t afford to hire out turn to free fortune-telling websites or rely on their own intuition. (The sixth and eighth days of the lunar month are popular. Conversely, no one wants to give birth on Tomb Sweeping Day.) In some cities, obstetrics ward administrators consult the lunar calendar in scheduling doctors’ shifts.
Again, many expectant mothers I've known in China have told me months in advance what day their babies were scheduled to be born.
(photo source: babywise)
While serious winter seems to have been cancelled in Minnesota this year, it's going strong in Harbin, China, site of the annual Harbin International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival.
Even though I lived in Changchun (a few hours south by train) for 8 years, I could never bring myself to go NORTH in January. Maybe I should have.
Too all my friends in Harbin....WEAR MORE CLOTHES!
In a previous post (Noel and Joann's Excellent Adventure), I wrote about my upcoming journey across southwest China with Noel Piper to trace the life and work of Esther Nelson, a nurse/teacher from Minneapolis who worked in Sichuan, China from1927 to 1951.
You are invited to hear Noel and I talk about this upcoming journey at Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis on Tuesday, January 10, at 7pm.
We'll talk about her life and work, and of our plans to explore the land she loved. Here is the information from the Bethlehem Baptist Church website:
In the late 1920’s, a young woman departed Bethlehem for southwest China, where she worked as a nurse and teacher until 1951. Esther’s story rests in her letters, and it’s a story waiting to be discovered and told.
In March 2012, Noel Piper and Joann Pittman will travel to China to trace the life and legacy of Esther. They'll be seeking the land and people that captured Esther's heart, traveling to the towns and villages where she served, hopefully even finding people who remember her.
You are invited to hear Noel and Joann talk about their upcoming "Esther Expedition" on Tuesday, January 10, at 7:00pm at the Downtown Campus.
Date: Tuesday, January 10, 2012
Location: Bethlehem Baptist Church (downtown campus), room 114. Address: 720 -13th Avenue South, Minneapolis, MN 55415-1793
Oops. I left three books off my my "Best Reads 2011" list last week. Here they are:
The Places in Between, by Rory Stewart. In 2002 (!) Stewart walked across Afghanistan with a dog. That should be all you need to know to make you you grab this book and read it!
Dreaming in Chinese: Mandarin Lessons in Life, Love, and Language, by Deborah Fallows. This is a wonderful story of the dangers and delights of learning Chinese. Another one of those books that prompted me to mutter, "I wanted to write that book!"
River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt's Darkest Journey, by Candice Millard. Following his defeat in a third party bid for a second shot at the presidency in 1912, Teddy Roosevelt sets out with a team of explorers to map an uncharted river in the Amazon jungle. You'll have a hard time putting it down.
What were your favorite books of the year?
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