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Saturday, December 25, 2010

Place, Christmas, and the 21st Century

It is Christmas break and the celebrations have begun. Last night, after dinner out with our family, we arrived back home. Soon after our arrival I looked around me and captured an image of the 21st Century.

My dining room table, expanded for the next day's dinner, had four college-age young people at it, each with a laptop. My daughter was creating versions of Elf yourself to send to friends around the world. My Vietnamese daughter was on skype with her brother in Vietnam. Her fiance was playing a game in cyber space with our guest from Hong Kong who was sitting next to him via their computers.

I was on my computer reading my nephew's essay for graduate school, using track changes for suggestions and sending it back to him in Phoenix.

Too bad my Aunt and Uncle had to actually drive to Michigan from Mpls through Chicago to join us for Christmas. OK. Some things don't change (yet).

Friday, November 19, 2010

More than a decade ago my family and I moved to Grand Rapids. In the search of a house I kept going back to one particular neighborhood. What drew me there? Perhaps something in the built environment -- sidewalks or the small neighborhood shopping center -- reflected something appealing. I speculate that the habits of living embedded in a place -- the sense of place -- that developed during a time when the neighborhood was more homogeneous have been passed on to the new families who now come from a variety of ethnic and racial backgrounds. Places continue to develop and come into being through a variety of means.
As I contemplated all these issues recently, I sat in a coffee shop in my neighborhood shopping center, a district that everyone had worked hard to maintain. The hardware store, against all odds, rebuilt after a fire and, just this fall, a new vegetable and fruit market opened after a three years gap since the closure of the previous grocery store. The new store has much more local produce. The coffee shop, library, and ice cream shop are busy. And recently some of the local churches have joined to form the Stewards of Plaster Creek, a group that is moving the faith community toward action in restoring the creek that travels through this part of the city, providing habitat for everything from wild turkeys to salmon. Through greater attention to our impact on the community of the watershed, we try to work to bring Shalom in the place where we live.
We are attempting to form spiritual disciplines, or habits of life, that help us “know” our piece of the Earth. I believe my neighbors and I are moving closer to a fully integrated life—shalom—when we experience the joy of the neighborhood children who walk to the Tuesday evening book reading at the ice cream shop, and the excitement of locals who stop to tell us they have seen the wild turkeys on their walk. For me? I experience shalom every time I can walk into the hardware store with parts from my bathroom shower in my hand, and have the owners hand me replacement pieces AND tell me how to put it all back together.

The connection between land and community

Throughout my academic career, there are three questions that have continued to stalk me, all relating to the relationship between land and community:

What does it mean to truly “know” a piece of the Earth?

Can landscapes unconsciously tell us whether we are getting closer to a fully
integrated life—shalom—or further away?

What is the relationship between spirituality and place?

I have come to believe that the Earth is crying out for Christians to begin to take seriously their relationship to it and the relationship of the Earth to our Creator. The land suffers alongside human communities yet we fail to recognize and probe the deep connections among the suffering. Perhaps we should do as Wes Jackson suggests to begin the process of understanding,

“What if we employed our rivers and creeks in some ritual atonement? Their sediment load is largely the result of agricultural practices based upon arrogance, tied in turn to an economic system based upon arrogance…but perhaps we need an annual formal observance in the spring - when the rivers are particularly muddy - a kind of ecological rite of atonement, in which we would ‘gather at the river.’ Maybe we should ally ourselves by virtue of a common watershed…for a watershed can and often does cut through more than one bioregion. There would be nothing abstract about a common covenant among people of a common watershed (Jackson 1987, 155).”

In his book, Wisdom Sits in Places, Keith Basso describes his work with the Western Apache in recording place names. He soon learned that stories were associated with place names. Just saying a place name then became used as a moral teaching (arrows pointed at the heart). The path to wisdom involved knowing the places, the stories, and their meaning as well as walking through that space. What if the Western Apache were removed from that place?

What does it mean to truly “know” a piece of the Earth?

Can landscapes unconsciously tell us whether we are getting closer to a fully
integrated life—shalom—or further away?

What is the relationship between spirituality and place?

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Regional Geography as Narrative

I have been trying to get my students to think of regional geography of Michigan as narrative rather than as a list of "people, places, and products."

We examine the present patterns--the end of the narrative--and then try to tell the story that led up to this ending. The copper mining area of Michigan in the UP, with its universities focused on geology and engineering arose out of deep history--the exposure of some of the oldest rocks in the world and a fault line. At the same time that mining peaked, immigration from Finland also was at a height, contributing to the Finnish cultural heritage of the area. I have a neighbor in Grand Rapids who is Finnish Lutheran, from the U.P.

Every place is the result of a complex story line. What is the narrative of your "place?"

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Plains person, forest person

When I lived in Iowa, a art professor told me that students from Iowa could see more subtleties in the landscape that students from Colorado. The open, flat landscape of Iowa required more discernment of differences.

I have always been a open plains or prairie person. I've spent most of my life in the open landscape of the Midwest United States. When I lived in Iowa I had a west-facing front widow that gave me a great view of the on-coming storms. Driving across the open land you could see the rain falling from clouds in the distance. Roads were laid out in the grid pattern on this flat landscape, marking the edges of the fields whose rectangular shape originate in the rectangular survey system. Streams and rivers were lined with cotton wood trees, associated with the hot, summers of the open prairie. Pennsylvania, with its winding roads and trees, was just too disorientating and made me claustrophobic.

A few years ago I took a sabbatical in New Zealand. The trip home was a nightmare. We ended up in Auckland overnight because our flight was delayed. Then when we got to L.A. the next day it was too late to catch a flight home so we had a night (actually 3 hours) in a hotel in L.A. From L.A. we flew to Denver. When we took off from Denver and headed out over the Great Plains I could sense my body relaxing. The open plains. Home.

I have now lived in the hardwoods of West Michigan for 14 years. When I first moved here I NEEDED to go back to the prairies at least once a year. I needed to see cotton woods, open landscapes, storms rolling in across the flat expanse. I needed to be able to SEE. I even grieved over the fact that my daughters would probably be forest people rather than plains people, leaving behind 150 years of family history.

Last week I spent a few days in Abiline, Texas. Abiline is about 150 miles west of Dallas. It is open country. But it felt like the middle of no-place! As I was coming home and landing in West Michigan I saw the green trees of the landscape and the changing colors of the fall. It looked lush, green, and wooded. And it felt like home.

I have acclimated.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Thick descriptions of the neighborhood

When I was looking for a home in Grand Rapids, I kept coming back to a particular part of the city. What drew me there? It was the sidewalks, the local shopping area, the small city lots (small by American standards), and people out taking walks, talking to each other outside. And it was the presence of children riding their bikes and trikes up and down the sidewalks. My instincts proved to be right. In the end I bought a house in a part of that neighborhood that naturally forms a unit of about thirty homes. We all have a map on our bulletin boards with addresses, names, and phone numbers. It has been a rich place where neighborliness is learned and lived out daily. We all have keys to each others homes. One neighbor even told me she hoped I didn't mind because she had gone into my house during the day and used the ketchup for her child care children. She had run out. This summer another neighbor allowed her pool to become the "neighborhood" pool, deciding that the joy of letting others use it was greater than concerns over liability.

When my daughters were younger, my next door neighbor started putting up a fence. I remember seeing my daughter standing over by him, dismayed over this actions. After all, the rules were that children were allowed to cross the yards. He turned to her and assured her that the fence was temporary, meant to keep his pre-schoolers in and not my daughter out. It has since come down.

Then there was the time when multiple neighbors were gone at overlapping time periods, making pet care complicated as we all put together a schedule and the children of the neighborhood got early work experience taking care of one another's animals. And the other time when a neighboring family left for a week and forgot that they had not given us their key. I managed to get the window open a crack and the screen up to let the cat out, but squeezing the cat back into the house through the four inch opening proved to be impossible. Eventually we managed to track them down through friends of friends. The cat avoided me for the longest time.

This past week was stressful for many of us. A huge limb went down on the power lines causing a fire and a huge power surge. Just as we were figuring out what had been fried--TVs, washing machines, furnaces, computers, phones etc., a huge storm took out power for a huge part of the city for 24 hours. As we regrouped, the quality that I so value again became evident. We needed to try a phone on our lines that had not been hooked up during the power surge. One neighbor had one and brought it to my house. I passed it through the window to the next house. I was concerned about the safety of my house because of the smell of burning electric wires. I couldn't get in touch with an electrician so a neighbor called a friend who was an electrician. When I finally got an electrician to my house I took him to check out the house of an older neighbor across the street. And when we had trouble convincing the phone company that it was not our phones or houses but the melted electric wire in front of us, we passed the cell phone from person to person to talk to the representative.

Last night I went to my book club, which has evolved into a neighborhood book club. The name of the book club is, "It's about the book, stupid." The reason for the name and its becoming a neighborhood book club is that often such gatherings turn into discussions about work, school, or church. I wanted one that did not overlap with these spheres--I wanted to talk about the book and ideas! So it formed around the rule that we could not share any of these social networks, but we have ended up as a group that does share space. This is the richness of a neighborhood. It brings together people who otherwise would not encounter each other, building a network of care,trust, and yes, sometimes tensions. So here is to my neighborhood of teachers, artists, construction workers, retired nurses, landscapers, factory workers, accountants, stay-at-home parents, health care professionals, human resource directors, computer programmers, and hair stylists who are Dutch, Polish, Catholic, Reformed, Baptist, African-American, Lutheran, Finnish, and whatever. And of course, here is to the many, many children who give us joy, and the animals: cats, dogs, lizards, fish, hamsters, turtles, snakes, and gerbils.

Today as I worked on cleaning up the limbs from my yard, dropped during the storm, visiting with the others that were out walking dogs or working in their yards, I thought, it has been a hard week, but it still doesn't get much better than this.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Lessons from shaping of cultural landscapes

I serve on the planning commission of Grand Rapids, Michigan. As a geographer this is perfect! I get to think about landscapes both at work in my area of service to the community.

If you don’t know what a planning commission does, let me give you some examples. We are involved in issues related to everything from sign plans for developments, to a request to tear down a house, to an area-specific plan for a neighborhood. So what have I learned from my experiences?

Aesthetics matter. For example, signs make huge impacts on business districts or neighborhoods. They either signal that this is a community that is inviting, or they signal a lack of individual and communal concern in a neighborhood—a free-for-all. The same is true with landscaping and the placement of buildings. How things look make a difference.

Safety comes with transparency. This is often counter intuitive to many people. The actual building transparency as a percent of square feet on the side of a building that are windows makes a difference. Greater transparency has found to lead to greater safety for the public. If you can see what is happening, if transparency is greater, then confidence and trust increase.

Decision-making must be tied to standards and principles. The planning commission works from the master plan of the city, the city ordinances, and also attempts to be consistent in its granting exceptions to these frameworks. Exceptions are made within the framework of meeting the overarching principles and this is transparent, and in fact, must be stated as part of the public record. In fact, random and unprincipled decision-making gets overturned by the zoning appeals board.

Landscapes reflect issues of inequality in society and so the commission attempts to keep an even playing field. For example, one company wanted to put a cell tower up on the outside of an inner city church at the lowest possible cost, saying anything else was impossible. It would benefit the church. It would possibly provide cheap cell phone coverage for the city. But aesthetically it was not up to the standard that would be required in a wealthier neighborhood. We said “no.” They came back with a different plan that maintained the architectural integrity of the building and neighborhood. We maintained consistent and high standards for all.

In forming the city of the future, we have to be visionary but pragmatic. A planning commission is always making incremental decisions that push toward a larger master plan for the city. They could decide that there are no exceptions and leave no flexibility in moving toward that vision, or they could be pragmatic and see the vision as unattainable. These extremes lead to either public frustration or neighborhood decline. In one instance someone came to the commission for permission to add onto a building in the inner city. The commission could have given permission with the stipulation that he brought the entire building up to the transparency code, putting in more windows. But the neighborhood is in a “not yet” state. It has potential for improvement but it is not quite there. Additional windows at this point would only lead to more broken windows. The commission had to maintain the vision of what this neighborhood will be in the future, but hold this in tension with the realities of today, supporting someone who has maintained a commitment to stay in the difficult neighborhood.

How things look make a difference. Safety comes from transparency. Decision-making must be tied to principles and standards that are public. Landscapes should reflect the same equality we expect and desire in society. We must be visionary but pragmatic, holding the realities of the present in tension with the vision for the future. These are the lessons learned from being on the planning commission.

Monday, August 30, 2010

American exceptionalism

American exceptionalism is an ideology that says that the United States occupies a special place in the world--that it is unique. This emphasis on the unique in American culture goes beyond our concept of nationhood. I have been working on an article that compares US and others in terms of higher education accreditation and quality assurance. While most part of the world are obsessed with comparisons, particularly numerical comparisons and "benchmarking," the culture of higher education in the United Statues sees each institution as not comparable to any other. While other parts of the world have government bodies that mandate particular types of oversight and structures of quality control, including measures, in the U.S. we have the tradition of self-assessing through regional bodies such as the North Central Accreditation Association. And the focus has traditionally been on assessing whether you do what you say you do--are you fulfilling your mission? Generally one institution is not looking over the shoulder of another in terms of their North Central accreditation results and report. In Hong Kong, all the institutions are trying to move up in comparison to other institutions in Hong Kong when they go through their quality review.

Personally I believe the American model is the better one, with the exception of American exceptionalism which at times interferes with seeking out best practices and comparing yourself with others in order to see if how you are doing as an institution. It can keep institutions focused internally. It can continually provide an excuse for not improving--nobody does it like we do so we can't compare...

Hong Kong institutions obsess with rankings amongst reviews. U.S. institutions justify their lack of comparison. Both need to work at development meaningful comparisons FOR THE PURPOSE OF LEARNING! Higher education is about the business of learning. Any form of assessment, including comparisons needs to have this focus.

As a geographer I have always been fascinated by the American exceptionalism that shows up in discussions around family history. Everyone focuses on the unique--an ancestor who came with the Pilgrims on the Mayflower. As a geographer I have always been more fascinated by how my family fit into the larger pattern--how they were NOT exceptional. In graduate school I read the classic, Historical Geography of the United States, by Ralph Brown. Brown includes a quote about Faribault, Minnesota in the summer 1857.

" was almost impossible to get a place to sleep at any price. Real estate dealers, lawyers, and business men in general are here by the hundreds. The opening up of the land ofice has drawn them. It is estimated that over 1000 men have arrived within the last two days. Board at the best houses ranges at from 3 to 6 dollars a day."

That was exactly when my ancestors showed up in Faribault.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

The Significance of Pilgrimage

I have been reading the book, Searching for Tamsen Donner, by Gabrielle Burton. The book recalls a journey taken by Burton with her family in 1976 as they traced the route of Tamsen Donner, one of the notorious Donner party who died in the Sierra Nevada mountains en route to California in 1846-47. Burton's tracing of Donner's route is also a journey through space for herself as she searched for a route that allowed her to be wife, mother of five daughters, but also an feminist and individual.

The power of taking a journey through space, the pilgrimage, is rarely acknowledged in the present day. We have become disembodied and physically displaced people. We need to move back toward the acknowledgment of the physical pilgrimage with the spiritual and psychological pilgrimage. For example, in the Andes Mountains indigenous villages depend on the range of ecological niches found within the extreme changes of elevation to provide crops--everything from tropical crops in the lower elevations to cool climate crops like wheat and potatoes at the higher elevations. They ritual walking through space at both planting and harvest recognize the context in which village life is lived out. In fact, mutual aid among villagers is necessary in order to exploit all zones so through this ritual walking, social relations are also being recognized.

Norman MacLean, who is primarily knows for the book A River Runs Through It, wrote an equally powerful book, Young Men and Fire, about the Mann Gulch tragedy of 1949 where 12 out of 15 forest service firefighters died. In piecing together the literal steps in the tragedy, MacLean shapes the last minutes of these men into the stages of the cross. He states near the end of his account: "Among other things, it was important to me, as an exercise for old age, to enlarge my knowledge and spirit so I could accompany young men whose lives I might have lived on their way to death. I have climbed where they climbed, and in my time I have fought fire and inquired into its nature."

These are not spiritual journeys alone. Norman MacLean and Gabrielle Burton could not have taken these journeys from their arm chairs. These are physical realities and these concrete, physical journeys are necessary parts of spiritual journeys.

In the 1980s I took something of a pilgrimage. My grandfather Groves died in 1939 from injuries in a car accident. My mother still bares the scars from the accident that took place when she was 9. The absence of my grandfather from the family was always felt. He was gentle, valued education and loved his daughters greatly. He used to have them jump into his bed in the morning and they would then recite the members of Roosevelt's cabinet. His death led to my grandmother marrying again soon, and all the complications of blended families, additional children, and a stepfather with different values. My mother and her sister left home early. The absence of this one significant person led a family down a particular trajectory.

Prior to getting married, my grandfather had homesteaded in Montana. He went there with several sisters but returned to Minnesota in 1919. It was there that I took my pilgrimage. I can't say why Montana was what drew me. My grandmother would occasionally say that he talked about Montana and how beautiful it was. But maybe it was the emptiness of the plains that seemed to represent his absence from our family history.

As you go west from Minnesota the land opens up and mid way through the Dakotas cropland changes to short grass prairie and grazing land. My grandfather went west in a railroad car filled with all his belongings. He arrived in Terry, Montana in March and soon experienced a snowstorm. We have a picture of him along with two sisters upon their arrival. When I got there, it was mid summer and very hot and dry. I met up with my mother's cousin who still lived near by. We drove eighteen miles north of Terry on a gravel road, a mile through grassland, and climbed to the top of a butte. She pointed down below in the distance to a valley and the remnants of a homestead in the midst of acres of pastureland around. I left her on top of the butte and walked down to the homestead site and found a large iron stove, twisted windmill blades and other remnants of his life in Montana. That night I had a dream where he talked with me. The next day I couldn't remember the substance of the dream but could clearly remember what he was LIKE. In describing him to my mother she said, "yes, that was him."

This past semester, when I was in Hong Kong, I ended up having supper with a second cousin who I had never met and who had spent his adult life working in Asia. In a skype conversation with my mother the next day I told her that he seemed like a "Groves man." She responded without hesitation, "He must have been quiet and gentle.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Lessons Learned

For those who are interested in what I learned while in Hong Kong, the following is a newsletter article I wrote for a nonprofit consulting firm:

Cultural Challenges to Institutional Change in Hong Kong

Almost a decade ago, Hong Kong government initiated a grand experiment. At great cost, universities are moving from a 3-year university system that favors early specialization to a 4- year system with a strong general education component. The intent is to fundamentally change the educational system in order to develop the creativity, innovation, and citizenship skills needed to sustain HK in this century. During 5 months in 2010 I was part of a group of American Fulbright scholars who worked with individual universities on the implementation of change. I share here some of the cultural challenges to change that I have encountered and some principles for approaching them.

Resonate with local values: Hong Kong is a pragmatic society. This pragmatism is built on narrow, technical specialization. General Education goals involve integration rather than specialization—societal impacts of technology; ethical implications and frameworks for making choices; the relationship between China and the world, to name of a few examples. In HK the value of general education needs to be translated. Integrative learning is about educating students for the jobs they will have over a lifetime. Specialized training becomes obsolete quickly in today’s economy. Places that continue to thrive economically are those that generate new ideas and are built on cultures of risk-taking and entrepreneurship. New ideas are often found at the boundary between bodies of knowledge.

Find ways to tell the truth while saving face: All cultures want to portray their societies and cultures in the best light. Hong Kong sits between identities. It became part of mainland China in 1997, moving toward a stronger identification with being Chinese, yet there is a great deal of ambivalence due to the PRC’s political system. On the other hand, the British colonial history also leads to feelings of ambivalence. Should the portrayal of Chinese civilization be an “idealized” view of Chinese culture? Truth-telling about oneself is difficult, but even more difficult when part of the PRC and embedded within a culture of “face-saving.” Yet exploring the complexities of identities in their diversity is an essential part of a rich general education program that develops critical thinking and self-understanding. One approach around this problem could be to focus on students’ every day experiences—gender roles historically within their families, or family histories and their connection to larger themes in Chinese history. This approach may allow for diversity of perspectives to arise, grounds the subject matter in the real lives of students, and perhaps allow some of the larger pressures to be sidestepped.

Remember that learning involves relationships: In Hong Kong, much confidence is placed in quantitative measures, whether these are teaching evaluations or university rankings. Knowledge is treated as if it is “objective” and just factual. Courses can be lists of topics rather than well-developed perspectives that form a whole. This approach leads to faculty replacing their "voice" with lists of facts. Students struggle to find the meaning in learning because it is not being modeled by faculty--the faculty cannot talk about the meaning of this material to themselves personally or share their own life journeys. Yet it is at these moments of honesty and transparency that true learning occurs on the part of both the faculty member and the student. Where does this come from? It is possible that an emphasis on social harmony encourages this tendency. Yet a good teacher must have "voice" and share something of him or herself to be effective in the classroom. On the other hand, a fine line exists between transparency and advocacy. One is grounded in sharing a life journey and the other is "telling."

Keep answering the” why” question. One of the challenges in developing a general education program in Hong Kong is the "why" question. The structure and purpose of the university system has been to train workers for employment in HK (not the world). In the past, all programs and their size had to be tied to local employment needs. No “why” question was necessary. But why a liberal a liberal arts education? Certainly it is tied to creating life-long learners who will change careers many times. But also it has always included a sense of creating global citizens, adults who can contribute to civil society and the good of the whole. The “why” question in HK needs to be answered with a new, consistent, and clear vision for higher education. The universities sit at the boundary between East and West, creating an enormous opportunity to impact China in terms of the development of its civil society, and moderate its worldview.

These are the lessons I take home: Listen to find ways to frame issues to resonate with local values. Find ways to tell the truth while allowing for face saving. Remember that relationships are crucial to learning. And always, always, keep asking the “why” question. And of course, always think big: How are you going to take advantage of your unique position to impact the world?

Fulbright Canada

One of the things I have missed since returning home is writing on my blog! I've decided to keep the name of my blog and its focus on "place" and cross-cultural encounters and writings, but expand beyond my experiences in Hong Kong.

In the spirit of this change, I share here, an essay I wrote this past week on the experience of my last Fulbright Fellowship. It was for a contest--if I win I get my way paid to Ottawa, Canada for the 20th anniversary of Fulbright-Canada! I'm always open to going somewhere new :)

**I won second prize but can't make it to Ottawa. I'm hoping they send Ontario Maple syrup in place of the travel grant.

My Fulbright Experience
Janel Curry, Fulbright to Canada, 1995.

Just last week a friend of my daughter asked me why I still used a particular serrated paring knife, now bent with use (and abuse). He wanted me to get rid of it, replacing it with something new. “But,” I said, “I bought it at Canadian Tire when I was on my Fulbright to the University of Guelph, Ontario!” Never mind that this was in 1995, fifteen years ago. Such small things, everyday items, often appear insignificant. Yet they are evidence of living, not as a tourist, but as a resident, in another culture. This is the profound gift that comes with a Fulbright Fellowship.

In 1995 I had a Fulbright research fellowship to the University of Guelph. My older daughter finished kindergarten there and my younger daughter turned three. Every day I look at a photo that hangs on my wall, of the two of them together, sitting on our “chesterfield” in the living room in Guelph.

Since I am a geographer, knowledge and attachment to place define my sense of being at home. In my experience in Canada, this attachment was shaped by everything from learning that milk came in bags, to figuring out the Ontario Hydro was not a hydro-electric plant, but a utility company. And of course, it was learning that you usually didn’t go to Canadian Tire to buy tires. These are pieces of knowledge that help you understand how to navigate in another place and feel comfortable in a place. It is part of the process in geography that we call “interpreting an ordinary landscape.” But something deeper happens in the process of that navigation. You begin to develop deeper knowledge and attachment to a landscape.

The Niagara escarpment forms the frame for my Fulbright experience. Not just the physical feature but the human landscapes it shaped. Prior to going to Guelph, I thought of the Niagara escarpment only in terms of Niagara Falls. Now, it provides the structure for my thoughts, my remembrances, and my understanding of the geography of Southern Ontario. These included a visit to a peach orchard along the fruit belt near St. Catherine during harvest season—a relative of a classmate of my daughter. It meant that Niagara Falls was no longer defined in my imagination by just the falls. New friends told us to visit the Welland Canal with a view of at least three sets of locks in the distance as Great Lakes vessels bypass the falls. There we stood next to large vessels as the water poured into the lock with only inches to spare. Then there is Rattlesnake Ridge, where my daughters and I exited the yellow fields of Ontario and disappeared into the forest as we hiked up to a beautiful view of the countryside. And a one day fieldtrip organized by my hosts along the southern end of the Georgian Bay where apple orchards were giving way to ski resorts. And finally there is the memory of a glorious day we spent on a long, shallow shoreline and beach on the west side of the Bruce Peninsula. We joined the crowds armed with cameras in search of Lady slippers, learning about the unique environment that creates habitat for orchids. My daughters played on the beach and flew kites for hours. In the late afternoon I attempted to wash the sand off their bodies, drove to Tobermory, and had supper as the sun went down, on a second floor of a restaurant that overlooked the harbor. I remember seeing the ferry to Manitoulin Island below, imagining the Niagara escarpment as it extended on beyond our reach, and thinking that life did not get better than this.

These are a few of my memories, shaped by landscapes. These memories have shaped my teaching. Every year, when I teach my course on the Geography of Canada and the United States, I get to share that intimate knowledge of the Ontario landscape, and the many others in Canada I have explored since then. And this teaching is shaped not just knowledge but by attachment. These memories have shaped my career. My Fulbright research involved a cross-cultural comparison between U.S. and Canadian natural resource policy. This research stretched my imagination in terms of the range of possible policy structures available to a society—it expanded my view of “all possible worlds.” I have gone on to carry on such research in other cross-cultural contexts, ranging from New Zealand to Hong Kong. These memories have shaped my family. My daughters, though young at the time, will forever identify with being partly Canadian. Their identify formation, begun with this experience in Canada, has continued to be shaped by the international experiences that have followed. I see them comfortable with people from around the world.

But of course, as all geographers know, landscapes can change your life.

Culture shock

People often ask about culture shock when you move abroad. I have always experienced more culture shock when I return home. This is perhaps why I haven't had time to reflect on my experiences on my blog lately! The graduation open house had to be finalized, prepared for, and carried out. The yard needed to be weeded, flowers planted. The deck needed to be cleaned off. My windows and van needed to be washed. Doctor and dentist appoints had to be made and attended to. Prescriptions needed to be filled. Books needed to ordered for my fall courses. The stacks of mail from both work and home had to be sorted and in some cases, responded to. I had to find the bottom to my refrigerator after having 4 young women living in the house and not knowing whose food is whose. And call start to come, involving requests for things from you. All of life--physical and emotional--that had been left behind piles up in your absence and has to be attended to all at once. And what is most difficult is that there is nothing new. The adventure is over. And I miss my Hong Kong friends.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010


Karis and Mrs. Chung

Empty apartment, packed bags that come in at 22.9 kilos.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

The team

Hedley Freake (U.Conn, Nutrition); Paul Hanstedt (Roanoke College, English); Dave Campion (Lewis and Clark College, History); myself; Gray Kochhar-Lindgren (U.Wa-Bothell, IDS); Glenn Shive (HK American Center at the Chinese University of HK); Joe Chaney (U.Ind-South Bend, English; David Pong (U. of Delaware, Asian History).

(and there were families...)

We gathered together for a final time at the home of Glenn Shive on the ocean near Sai Kung. I have had the pleasure of working with an incredible group of Fulbright scholars over the past 6 months or so. I believe that a commitment to general education, curriculum innovation, and students probably was a strong filter in providing me with good colleagues. If one of us had to be absent at a meeting with one university, the comment always was--the rest of you would say the same thing I would anyway! That meant that we were so much on the same page that we could easily walk into a room and collaborate and work with each other. They were wise, politically astute, creative, caring, and collaborative. Hedley Freake ate more things than anyone else. Dave Campion traveled more places than anyone else (he's still not done), David Pong taught us more Chinese history than anyone else, Glenn Shive offered us more opportunities than anyone could take advantage of, Paul blogged more than anyone else, Gray avoided powerpoint more than anyone else (a real challenge in HK), and Joe dealt with rhetoric far, far more than the rest of us.
I left my contribution to someone else:

Janel Currie was the one who reached out to her fellow Fulbrighters more often and in more thought provoking ways than anybody else....
PS My theory is that people that engage in GE are a self-selected bunch, somewhat different from many in academia. More broad-thinking, collaborative, interdisciplinary and just good fun. What I don't know is if we learned it from doing GE or we have always been that way.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

The end is near

David, Ron, Dave, myself, Gary, Rodney
Polly, Hokling, Geraldine and Carmen behind me
John, Joe (another Fulbrighter in the back), Ahmer, Chris
And many others...

The Educational Development and General Education office of the Provost's office at CityU had a farewell lunch for me. They have been a wonderful group of people to work with and have been incredibly inviting to the two of us. And all farewell's or celebrations must involve a huge variety of food in Hong Kong!

Causeway Bay Times Square

Times Square in Causeway Bay on Hong Kong Island is yet one more upscale shopping area. And as typical, there always temporary displays set up around some event or special advertisement. This time it was the world soccer tournament. Shopping/Recreation/Entertainment are melded together.

Tiananmen Square Aniversary

With a fellow Fulbrighter.

I went to Victoria Park on Hong Kong Island for the gathering recognizing the 21st Anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. All week there had been skirmish between students and police over the placement of the "goddess of democracy" statue in different places in the city. This statue is a copy of the one that was in Tiananmen Square. This just increased the number of people that came out for the candle light vigil--between 115,000 and 150,000. A Hong Kong publisher also released what might be excerpts from the diary of Li Peng, one of the leaders that pushed for a military crackdown, justifying the actions but also saying everyone supported it. Nobody wants to really claim the responsibility for the disaster. Around the crisis Zhao Ziyang ended up falling from power over his opposition. I've just finished Zhao Ziyang's secret diary (he died in 2005). He was an amazing figure. He was the father of the market economy in China, but saw its relationship to democracy in that corruption was inherent in the society without more transparency, rule of law, and democratic structures. He reached this conclusion out of a pragmatic approach to societal change. Regretfully, he lost in the power struggle around Tainanmen, and corruption continues in China.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Factory Girls

I recently finished the book, Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China by Leslie T. Chang. Chang is an American who spent quite some time living in Shenzhen area in China, following the lives of several young Chinese women who came from rural areas and migrated to Southern China to work in the factories. It was especially meaningful to me because it is focused on the district right next to Hong Kong where thousands of factories are set up by companies from all over the world. This is where the factories moved when the left Hong Kong for the cheap labor of China. It is where virtually everything we use in the U.S. is manufactured. And it is in the news every day here for a variety of reasons.

In following the lives of several women over time, Chang depicts the challenge of thousands of young people living together in factory dormitories, cut off from relations in a culture that is very group oriented. Some of the migrants develop a cultural value of individualism, saying they can only depend on themselves, and don't tell parents what they are doing as they move from factory to factory, or how much they earn. They experience a move to the modern age overnight. The modern invention of the cell phone allows them to hide their mobility. In several instances, these migrants become subject to fly-by-night "self-improvement" opportunities that range from pyramid schemes that are supposed to make them rich, to learning English by machine. Disconnected from their social system, few rules exist and so they make up experience and reinvent themselves regularly to survive and move ahead. At the same time, pressures come from home to marry a local boy and send money home. In tracing the changes in one young woman's life, Chang illustrates how the money earned created an ability to be independent--to chose not to come home to live--and also changed the power structure of relationships within the family with the young and female having money and with it, power, or the ability to resist demands put on by the family structure. In the meantime, they remain disconnected from any other strong social network. Relationships come and go.

At the same time I was reading this book, I also was reading newspaper accounts of suicides in a major factory in Shenzhen. The factory, Foxconn, makes parts for Apple, Dell, HP and Sony, for example, but is Taiwanese owned. In Shenzhen they have over 400,000 workers in two plants and employ over 900,000 in China. Imagine that--almost a half million young people working in two plants!

Foxconn has experienced 13 suicide attempts since January, resulting in ten deaths. Most have involved jumping off of roofs or out of windows--all involve young people who have come to work in the factory. While this gets a great deal of press, I don't know if this is actually a high rate or not given the numbers, age, and dislocation of the workers. Such plants are all-contained with housing, stores, etc. The recent newspaper article claimed that Foxconn frequently violated the overtime guidelines in Apple's code. It appears that the limit is supposed to be 60 hour, 6 day weeks. Foxconn has the lowest costs of all competitors.

All of this reinforces my sense of the instability of China. There is great upheaval there at all levels. With this upheaval is increased social anomie and disconnectedness. In addition, despair comes from a tremendous desire to move up, but frustration at lack of meaningful opportunity. And no rule of law. It seems like a fragile society, or perhaps a fragile political system. And you can't measure development by what you see because of lack of accountability. For example, universities get money to build campuses and never pay it back.

As a colleague of mine said--a better measure of what is going on than GDP is the number of university graduates who cannot find work.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

North Eastern Islands, Plover Country Park, and Yan Chau Tong Marine Park

We hiked in the NE part of the New Territories and then on two islands off the NE coast.

Wu Kau Tang village--there was only a hiking path to the village, but it is really a short distance from public transportation. Most of the upgrading of the buildings was from the 60s and 70s when children went to England for financial opportunities and sent back money.

Notice the date at the top of the building.

The layout of houses in the New Territory village is quite standard. As you come in the front door, a cook stove is on the right and the partition for the toilet is on the left. Straight ahead the steps go to the second floor.
While some of the houses look neglected, here is a new house--the limit is three stories--it must be a planning rule or something.

We found this photo in a house--it was dated 1967 and shows two young men in front of their restaurant in England. No doubt they sent it home to their family (along with some money).

Village of Lai Chi Wo. Only two people remain in the village yet it has a new wall around it. Investors are trying to make it an important part of the marine park.

Tourism advertisements on the side of the wall of the village.

The fung shui woods in the back of the village. The vine-type vegetation is all of one plant which extends throughout the wood.

The village of Sam A, on the edge of the marine park.

These used to be rice fields.

The mangrove swamps are returning in an area that was previously used for fish farming.

Yan Chau Tong Marine Park has many different rock formations.

Cemetery along the hillside.

Crooked Island, or Kat O

The supposed major industry for Kat O has been fishing, but smuggling has really been the industry. Kat O is just inside the border of Hong Kong. You can see the shore facilities across the border in China. Those these are recent, during the Korean War, for example, when there was no trade with China, kerosene, etc. came to Hong Kong through the back door, so to speak.

One house seems to be falling in, white the one below, located next to it, is being painted.

China looms large nearby.

Square at entrance to the village in front of the Tin Hau temple.
The cows that wander freely within the country park are here as a remnant of the agricultural past. They are owned by no-one, left when agriculture left the area.

Again the juxtaposition of an abandoned building next to one being well taken care of and renovated.

The government has invested in many such playgrounds. I have to say that I have rarely seen children on them. Kat O has very few children who live there.

We ended the day at Grass Island--Tap Mun.

Banners for the Cantonese opera celebration.

I went with the Harvard hiking club (I've yet to meet a Harvard grad among them) as one of my last long outings. Everyone had said I needed to get to the outer islands, so this was my chance to do it. We started out hiking through the Plover Cove Country Park toward the shore and the Yan Chau Tong Marine Park.

We first passed through a typical New Territories village. Wu Kau Tang village was partially abandoned in the 70s or 80s. In the 60s and 70s young people left to go to Britain to start restaurants, etc. to make money. They send money home which led to the improvement of many of the buildings, but once the older generation died, many have deteriorated. Now some people are coming back when they retire--they still own their houses. In the book Factory Girls, you see this same type of practice today. The young people working in the factories send a great deal of their income back to their parents in the village to improve their homes. One of the sociological changes related to this practice today is the huge change in who has power. The young women who bring in the money all of a sudden have more power in the family than before--this can be used to just be independent from the demands of family or to engage in telling their siblings to study hard because they are paying the school bills!

We also walked through the village of Lai Chi Wo, the largest traditional village still standing in Hong Kong. Fung shui wood--only one or two days a year it can be entered and wood gathered.

The hamlet of Sam A is on the shores of the marine park. A long line of hikers came through while we were sitting there even though it seemed isolated. Mangrove swamps are growing, though formerly the land around Sam A was in rice fields or fish production.

Crooked Island--Kat O--has six villages. Officially fishing has been the main industry but you can see China in the distance. This was a route for smuggling. The marine police presence was pretty strong...

We cruised through the marine park to Grass Island--Tap Mun. The local people were having a Cantonese Opera celebration--a ten year event, but it was also held last year. Here was a Tin Hau Temple--now I know what this means. On the ocean side of the island was a beautiful area that looked much more like New Zealand.

I have seen the diversity of Hong Kong--from urban, concrete high rise buildings with levels of density greater than any place else on earth to the sound of waves on the ocean side of the outer islands.