Education is collateral damage of rising tensions

On Aug 26, the University of North Texas in Denton, Texas, sent a letter to 15 visiting researchers from China saying it would cancel their visa program, forcing them to leave the United States at short notice amid travel restrictions due to the novel coronavirus pandemic.Immediately after that, a friend in China contacted me to ask if it was a rumor, because it is hard to believe US universities would make such a decision. Yet the news was not covered by mainstream US media outlets, which probably have bigger fish to fry than to be bothered by the “mere inconveniences” caused to some Chinese scholars.

The incident, however, hit the headlines in China as most Chinese know about the travel difficulties and therefore see the university’s move as a cold-blooded act. The University of North Texas has not given any reason for its decision-except that the researchers are associated with the Chinese Scholars’ Council. The short notice caused the scholars to scramble to terminate their rental lease, sell their cars, and buy high-priced tickets to return home, not to mention the disruption caused in their academic work.

The university probably made the decision under pressure from Texas politicians, some of whom are zealously pushing the US administration’s anti-China agenda, which has been partly created by people such as Texas Senator Ted Cruz, who found a new political life in campaigning against China after his failed presidential bid. The University of North Texas became the first university in the US to expel Chinese researchers without citing any valid reason.

According to an online petition started by one of the university’s alumni, the fields of the scholars’ work do not pose security risks to the university or the US. Having lived in Texas for about eight years, I know what the University of North Texas has done to the scholars is not part of southern hospitality.

Universities are usually seen as independent and inclusive, rather than being active participants in any anti-foreign political agenda. Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for instance, challenged an Executive Order banning international students from attending online classes. Kowtowing to political pressure at the cost of jeopardizing scholars’ research is unbecoming of any university.

The University of North Texas claims the decision won’t affect Chinese students. How convenient! Of course, UNT still needs foreign students’ tuition. But why would Chinese students seek admission to a university if its administration’s capricious decisions specifically target Chinese and Chinese only?

As the US presidential campaign intensifies, more universities could take such drastic measures hurting normal Sino-US academic and cultural exchanges. The Fulbright scholarships were already suspended and other exchange programs reduced. Now individual scholars have been given the boot. This is surprising because cultural and educational exchanges always benefit countries despite the political issues the countries have.

The Texas university’s decision attracted overwhelming criticism from the Chinese public. Even intellectuals, many of whom are pro-west, were shocked. They know the US presidential campaign partly includes the game to see which of the two candidates is tougher toward China. Yet, again and again, ordinary citizens, not the governments, have had to bear the brunt of such hostility. The visa restrictions will hurt students seeking to study in the US. The closure of the Chinese consulate in Houston, Texas, will make it difficult for overseas Chinese to get their passports renewed and Americans to get visas. And the threatened ban of WeChat would make it difficult for people to contact family and friends.

Until a few years ago, many graduates from top Chinese universities as well as high school graduates wanted to complete their higher studies in American universities. But with Sinophobia on the rise and anti-China policies enjoying bipartisan support in the US, more and more Chinese students are opting to study in China.

As education institutions such as the University of North Texas join the US administration in cracking down on researchers and scholars of Chinese origin, more overseas Chinese will feel they have become the target of distrust and discrimination.This may slow the brain drain China has been experiencing for decades.

But how exactly will it help the US? People fear the US might be moving toward socialism in the future, but I think it is advancing toward McCarthyism right now.

Originally published in China Daily.

Translation of the “Xue Hua Piao Piao” Meme

When driving my son and two of his friends home from a fishing trip, I heard the three teenagers, two of them not Chinese speakers, break out singing “xue hua piao piao, bei feng xiao xiao”. That was one of the most popular songs in my childhood, as well as a karaoke favorite. Exactly how it made its way to West Texas is a mystery to me, but I am glad.

The song is the theme music for its namesake television drama as well as a defining piece for Yuqing Fei, who retired from his singing career in 2019. The title of the song is Yi Jian Mei, which used to be simply the name of a poetic template (词牌) that determines the number of lines in a poem, the number of characters in each line and the rhyming scheme, among other things, something like iambic pentameter, the heroic couplet or the format of a sonnet. The poetic template, one of many, was most popular in the Song Dynasty (960-1279).

Most of the templates have beautiful names, but they gradually lose their initial meaning and become simply memory aids for a particular form of poetry. Yi Jian Mei (一剪梅) originally means a bough of wintersweet flower, also known as the genus Chimonanthus, or winter flower, a glorious, fragrant flower native to China.

In this song, the lyrics describe a lover pursuing his love against all odds, including the wind, snow, and physical distance. The lyrics remind one of My Love Is Like a Red, Red Roseby Robert Burns, except that the wintersweet piece shows a more gritty type of love.

To a Chinese, wintersweet blossoming in winter in snow and ice conjures up thoughts about desperate situations and how we can handle them. Wintersweet blooms in winter. Pine, bamboo and wintersweet flowers are usually called the “three friends of winter” (岁寒三友). All of them do well in the cold, and they frequently become symbols of bravery and optimism in poetry and artwork to depict how the human spirit triumphs over adversity. This is the right song to be popular at a time when the world is experiencing unprecedented difficulties during the COVID-19 crisis.

At the current moment, there have been more than 11 million confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus and 536,000 deaths. Schools are suspended. Businesses are shut down. Jobs are lost. It is a time of extreme hardships for many around the world. Yet we endure, and we will triumph. Scientists and researchers in many countries are working around the clock to develop the medicines and methods to combat the virus that has wreaked havoc on livelihood and economies.

Wintersweet flowers are also harbingers of spring. They bloom from winter to the beginning of spring. I remember how we, as students at Nanjing University, used to travel to the wintersweet mountain (mei hua shan) in the suburbs of Nanjing to celebrate the coming of spring as we walked in the beauty and scent of the sweet flowers. I hope too that the world will eventually walk out of this season of recession and devastation to celebrate a time of renewed prosperity and solidarity.

That is probably one of the reasons this little song has been popular for decades. People have always experienced difficulties: earthquakes, floods, wars, recessions, and pandemics. At least to me, this song is more than about creating a meme on TikTok. The little song symbolizes to me how much we have gone through and how much more we can expect to hope for if we keep our heads together and our hands busy in creating solutions.

I saw that many people are searching for the meaning of the lyrics to no avail, so I translated the lyrics to the best of my ability. My translation below follows the following format: original Chinese, pinyin (for pronunciation of the characters) and the English translation.

That Wintersweet
yī jiǎn méi

Zhēnqíng xiàng cǎoyuán guǎngkuò
True love is like
a wide meadow

céng céng fēngyǔ bùnéng zǔgé
With wind
With snow
I still will go

zǒng yǒu yún kāi rì chū shíhòu
Clouds will disperse
The sun will shine

wànzhàng yángguāng zhàoyào nǐ wǒ
Gorgeous rays on
Both me and you

zhēnqíng xiàng méihuā kāiguò
True love is like
A winersweet bloom

lěng lěng bīngxuě bùnéng yānmò
Freezing snow and ice
Will not triumph

jiù zài zuì lěng zhī tóu zhànfàng
Those petals bloom
On chilly bough

kànjiàn chūntiān zǒuxiàng nǐ wǒ
Catchers of spring
For me and you

xuěhuā piāo piāo běi fēng xiāoxiāo
Snowflakes drift by
North wind howls on

tiāndì yīpiàn cāngmáng
What earth
What sky
One blur

yī jiǎn hánméi ào lì xuě zhōng
Petals on a cold bough
In the chilly snow

zhǐ wèi yīrén piāo xiāng
Sweet smell drifts toward
My love

ài wǒ suǒ ài wú yuàn wú huǐ
This love I have
Never will I regret

cǐ qíng cháng liúxīn jiān
That love will stay
On and on

The Way Forward

We attended the Black Lives Matter demonstration in Abilene on June 4, exactly 31 years after another demonstration in my home country, which did not go so well.
We had feared that we, as Asians, would be awkward there, but we blended in well. To bring some levity to the situation, we Chinese are said to be like pandas; we can be both Black and white, or neither, depending on how you see it.
I aspire to be neutral, opposing police brutality against the Black people, while opposing riots and the disintegration of order that happen in many parts of the country. Partisan politics sometimes make us forget we are capable of holding seemingly opposing positions, or even contradictions.
Berlin Fang
Berlin Fang (Photo: Provided photo)
Walt Whitman once said: “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.”
On a deeper level, supporting law and order and supporting BLM aren’t that contradictory. In both cases, we choose to affirm the humanity and dignity of others. It is not even about picking sides. As one speaker at the demonstration so aptly put it: “It is not even Black versus white. It is everyone against racial discrimination.”
Some counter “Black Lives Matter” by saying that “All Lives Matter,” which is true, but it does not help. When a baby is born, you would be telling the truth by saying: “All people will eventually die.” However, the parents would not be happy with that. There is a time for everything.
This is a time for us to say Black Lives Matter when a Black man just lost his life needlessly and there is a pattern about it. If we choose not to stand with the oppressed when injustices happen, who will stand with us when injustices happen to us?
As an immigrant from Asia, I do not get to experience some of the racial tension between Black and white people. I resort to some reading to understand what is going on. From Colson Whitehead’s “Underground Railway,” I get to understand the painful past of slavery and brutality. As a side note, Whitehead won the Pulitzer prize for this book in 2017, and he went on to win the prize again in 2020 for his book “The Nickel Boys.”
Whitehead is Black and brilliant, in case anyone tries to talk down to people like him.
Then I read “I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness” by Austin Channing Brown, whom Abilene Christian University invited to speak last year. Brown’s parents named her as if she were a white male so that she does not have her applications tossed away at the first glance.
I empathize with her parents in this detail. I understand what college admission officers or HR officers might be thinking when they see a Zhang, Huang or, in our case, a Fang as an applicant. There is discrimination of another type working against us in situations like this. People judge when there is little information available. Subtle discriminations are real, and we should all fight them. It is not about what we say; it is about what we truly think.
So, what is the way forward? I don’t have the answers, but I think we need more than raising awareness.
One effective way to change attitudes about a group of people is to interact with them. I have seen some people in our community support through adoption and CASA sponsorship. Others pay lip services to equality and justice at a safe distance, retreating mostly to cozy bubbles in day-to-day living. And then you have those in neighborhoods with well-manicured lawns spreading alarm and fear about a Black teenager walking down the street, when many neighbors are heavily armed. Who is more intimidating?
I also find great value to grow empathy through dialogue.
Recently, I have been translating Colum McCann’s novel “Apeirogon,” which is about a Palestine father who lost a daughter to a rubber bullet from an Israel soldier, and an Israel father who lost a daughter to a human bomb. In their grief, the two fathers from opposing sides come together to talk to each other and then to the audiences, spreading the call for peace and reconciliation through what McCann calls “radical empathy.”
When you hear others’ stories, you see them as humans just like yourselves.
That Israel father in Apeirogon has a bumper sticker which we all should have, or better, commit to memory: “It will not be over until we talk.” When we stop talking, history will repeat itself in ugly ways.
Originally published with Abilene Reporter News, June 19, 2020


Not everyone has noticed it, but this week we have just had in human history the largest number of students and teachers taking or teaching online courses due to school delays in China. In the meantime, everyone is complaining about it as teachers, students and parents are all scrambling to adapt to the new mode of teaching. Another source of anxiety is that most rely on synchronous tools in teaching, causing an overload on servers for educational technology companies. I published an article giving some tips to make the experience better. I also heard that instructional designers are back in fashion now.

陕西省安康市石泉县城关第二小学学生通过“钉钉”直播学习。 (新华社/图)

陕西省安康市石泉县城关第二小学学生通过“钉钉”直播学习。 (新华社/图)








理想状况下,在线学习是非共时学习和共时学习的有机结合,以非共时为主,这种结合,需要有强大的整合平台,而不是让学生和老师疲于奔命,经常切换应用。课程管理软件,如Canvas, Blackboard, Moodle, Google Classroom, Schoology,  是发达国家高校和中小学学区几乎都用的软件,而国内对这种软件的使用还在摸索阶段。



减少屏幕时间的另外一个办法,是部分课程用语音而非视频,这会减少眼睛的疲劳。有时候老师的直播不过是俗称的“大头照”视频(talking head videos), 这种直播老师有的喜欢,有的很紧张,也浪费不必要的时间和流量。这种情况完全可以换成音频,让学生下载了听。需要演示给学生看的才去录像。

录像当中,屏幕录播(screencasting,又称录屏)的方式值得推广,它往往比“大头照”视频更有用,尤其是需要视觉演示的课程,如数学上的计算过程,地理上的雨水形成方式,等等。这些屏幕录播,可以通过iPad直接录,也可通过一系列软件,如Explain Everything, Showme, Screencast-o-matic等。华人创业者创办的Zoom现在风靡全美,可以共时在线授课,分享屏幕内容,也可录下来,供错过的学生回头去看。






Year of Rat is also Year of Kangaroo and Koala

Tourists visit a lantern fair marking the Year of the Rat at Yuyuan Garden in Shanghai on Jan 13, 2020. [Photo by Wang Gang/For China Daily]

As we step into 2020, we also step into a new 12-year cycle of the Chinese zodiac. The year 2020, according to the lunar calendar, is the year of shu. In English, it is simply the Year of the Rat (or Mouse).

But how did the humble little mouse get to lead the pack of the animals despite the presence of powerful animals such as the tiger and the dragon in the Chinese zodiac. One theory is that the mouse is the most versatile among all animals. A mouse can swim, run and climb. It does not fly, but it can climb to the top of the roof. In 2020, Japan will host the Summer Olympic Games. If there were an Olympic Games for animals, a mouse could be the triathlon winner.

Mice and rats can feed themselves even during a famine due to their agility and mobility afforded by their versatility. China used to be a subsistence economy in which many accorded the top priority to food. Until recently, people greeted each other with the question,”Have you eaten rice?” This greeting seems to an outsider to be an invasion of privacy, but shows the genuine care a person has for a fellow human.

While the world is seeing China as an increasingly affluent country, there are still many Chinese who live in poverty. For them, New Year resolutions probably do not include special diets to lose weight.

As we start a new year, let us pay attention to the invisible masses of people who deserve the security of food, clothing and shelter. A country’s strength comes from the way its leaders and citizens care for the poor. Hence, the fight against poverty should continue to be relevant even in the new decade.

The mouse may be the first animal in the Chinese zodiac as well as clever and intelligent (think of Tom and Jerry). But as a translator, I sometimes find the English terms mouse and rat reductive equivalents of the Chinese character of shu. The word shu is used in Chinese phrases for a wide range of rodents, including not only rats and mice, but also squirrels (called pine mice when translated back from their Chinese name), possums (carrying mice), hamsters (barn mice), chinchillas (chestnut mice), chipmunks (mixed-colored chestnut mice), and even kangaroos (mice with pouches). Given this huge diversity, it isn’t considered inauspicious to be born in the year of shu: 1924, 1936, 1948, 1960, 1972, 1984, 1996, 2008 or 2020. So if you are going to have child in 2020, consider yourself lucky. This is also the year of the chinchilla and Mickey Mouse.

The year 2020 should also be the year of the kangaroo (and the koala), as the world watches with pain and anguish the bushfires raging across Australia. These wildfires have not only claimed many human lives and displaced thousands of people, but also killed millions of animals including kangaroos (and koalas). If humans are responsible for triggering the fires, they should also have the responsibility to come together to combat the disaster and minimize the risks for the future of the Earth.

With the passing of a decade, it seems even the vision of a globalized community is drifting away. Yet despite the rise of isolationism in many parts of the world, the world remains intricately connected. As the bushes in Australia continue to burn, killing people, kangaroos, koalas and other animals, people elsewhere should also feel the effect of the wildfires and take action to prevent such fires elsewhere in the world.

As for shu, I also find it associated with the computer mouse, a liberating gadget. Let us also celebrate the ingenuity of the inventors and technologists who invented the computer mouse.

As we start the Year of the Rat, I wish you health and prosperity. I also hope that people across the world are kind to others and work to build a better world. Happy New Year!

Originally published with China Daily

Where do I find an authentic Chinese restaurant?

Food pyramidI am very biased about Chinese food, but who isn’t about their comfort food? One year, I had my car in a garage for repair and when it was done, they sent a driver to pick me up. The driver was originally from Mexico and we started to talk about food in town, which launched him into a bit of a rant.  “Mexican food here is only 8% authentic,” he fumed. I had no idea where he pulled the data, even though I was studying research methods at the time, in particular, quantitative analysis (I don’t like it, but that’s not the point here), but I said you were probably right. He continued to explain to me about the 92% of pure fakeness, gesturing wildly.  The car hit the curb twice and then it went into a dead-end, which he maneuvered out with wide sweeping turns. I didn’t know that the mention of Tex-Mex can trigger so much pent-up frustration, but I understood. I told him that Chinese food is even less authentic.  Probably below 6%. In the ballpark of 2%, I would say. That new camaraderie calmed my friend down quite a bit.

Before I came to the US, I had rarely seen any buffet. I had never eaten General Tso’s chicken. I had never heard of orange chicken. I didn’t know that fortune cookies existed. All cuisines change across borders, Italian, Greek, Mexican, but not so much as Chinese food. The change was so drastic that many Chinese dishes in the US are American inventions, really.

However, there are many choices of Chinese restaurants. As you can see from the documentary The Search for General Tso, many old Chinese immigrants came during the gold rush in California or to build railroads. When there was no more gold to dig or railroads to build, many were actually forced to become restaurant and laundry owners because businesses did not want to employ them due to the China Exclusion Act. In the early days, Chinese restaurant chefs were not real chefs to start with. However, the Chinese communities were tight and people learn from each other, good practices or bad. Things like General Tso’s chicken is actually a mixture of Chinese cooking and American fast-food management. In the documentary, the inventor of General Tso said he invented the recipe before MacDonald and KFC has chicken nuggets.


After China’s opening up in the late 1970s, there was another influx of Chinese immigrants in the US.  While the more educated ones become professors, doctors, and engineers, the less educated ones started by washing dishes in restaurants, and eventually they moved up the ladders and became restaurant owners. While older Chinese from southern China and coastal cities occupied China Towns, speaking mostly Cantonese, most new immigrants (more from Mainland China now, speaking Mandarin) start new quarters of Chinese living on the new continent, bringing their food traditions along with them.

Nowadays, some Chinese restaurants hire great chefs from China and there are many great restaurants in the US, especially in bigger cities with many Chinese. However, there are still some traditional Chinese places serving buffets or takeout lunches to non-Chinese patrons.

In smaller towns like Abilene, we have fewer choices, but if you like such restaurants, do encourage them to make authentic food instead of modified ones. Instead of defaulting to what you are familiar with, perhaps ask if they serve items you are more likely to find from China. It would be an adventure, but you will not regret such choices.

I used to call them fake Chinese food, but everyone is just trying to make a living and deserve better treatment. Besides if people fake it till they make it, it will only benefit us customers. Perhaps it is better to mention four levels that somehow correspond to my preferences.  I have to preface it by saying that this categorization is very rough and there might be good ones in each of these types. If your patience is wearing out and you do not want to read any further and just want my straight answers about authentic Chinese food, just ask them if they serve double-cooked pork (“hui guo rou”), which I will discuss later on.  I was also told that an authentic Chinese restaurant often has a kid at the counter helping as a cashier or waiter while doing math homework on the side. I won’t comment on this method. You try it at your own risk.

Here are several types and a few of my thoughts on each type of them.

Level one: Takeout

Here we have small takeout places that serve Chinese food but the best dishes you can find from Google review or Yelp include General Tso’s chicken and orange chicken. This means they only serve to the American taste. If you really enjoy eating this type of food, that is perfectly fine. I am just writing from a Chinese perspective. You may not like what I like.

More than their food, their names bother me, a lot: “Great Wall,” “Panda,” “China wok,” showing not the least imagination to create a unique identity. They just throw a few Chinese elements on the wall and hope they somehow stick and attract customers.

Level two: Buffet

They contain a lot more choices than takeout restaurants, and that is better, but usually, they serve more of the same. The food lack character in most cases. Fortunately, Buffet King in Abilene is a better one among the many I have tried, and they at least serve a good variety of Sushi and some dim sum which make it worthwhile for us to visit.

Level three: Hybrid

Some Chinese restaurants have a hybrid model catering to both Chinese and American preferences. They have a menu in English for the American patrons, but they also have one in Chinese or a bilingual format for Chinese customers. If you do not see such menus, ask for them, and then ask the waiters or waitresses to give a recommendation. If you are not sure, no problem.  Ask them to serve an authentic chicken/beef/shrimp/pork dish that appears in the Chinese menu. Or pull an app and shows a photo from reviews. If you eat in the Chinese style, the entire party share meals. If you are uncomfortable with such sharing, you probably should not worry as they provide serving utensils (ask if they forget) so that you do not touch each other’s food.

Mian Bistro (on Buffalo Gap) and Sunrise (South 1st)  in Abilene are such places. Sunrise recently changed owners and the current one is run by a mother and son. The son is a young graduate from China’s top Academy of Fine Arts, specializing in water-color painting.

In my mind, to move to this level, the restaurants should at least serve double-cooked pork. This is a popular Sichuan-style pork dish that serves as a proxy method to judge a Chinese restaurant. As a popular dish among Chinese that any chef with some self-esteem should learn to make. The double-cooked pork I like most is a place called Little Sichuan at 240 Legacy Drive in Plano. You see the length I go to to get this dish. By the way, that place is also close to a Boba place that is our family’s favorite.

No restaurant in Abilene served this dish to my expectations, which are not very high. So I have started to learn to cook this myself.


Level Four: Hometown

They serve food in the style of a particulate province such as Sichuan, Hunan, Shanghai or Guangdong. Hunan and Sichuan restaurants are popular in China, but not all restaurants who claim to be Hunan or Sichuan really make things in Hunan style or Sichuan style.  Dishes from Sichuan and Hunan are both known for being spicy, but food from Sichuan include more Zanthoxylum (花椒), a type of pepper that has a numbing effect. It is easier to make food authentically Sichuan than Hunan, as ingredients are harder to come by for the Hunan style. Some Hunan ingredients, such as air-dried pickled pork, took months to prepare. Therefore the cost is too high for restaurants to make them. Sichuan restaurants are more available. The best Sichuan-style food I found is in Edmond Oklahoma, in a place called Szechuan Bistro (1010 W Memorial Rd, Oklahoma City, OK 73114). 

Guangdong and Hong Kong cuisine is known for the barbecued or roasted meat, as well as their dim sums.  In Dallas, there is a place called Kirin Court we sometimes go to. It is a fairly interesting experience eating there too, as they push their food carts around and you pick what you need, often in small portions so that you and your family can get exactly how much you need, while sharing what you have.

Food from Shanghai, Jiangsu, and Sichuan does not have strong flavors as the Sichuan or Hunan style, but probably healthier that way. Sometimes food from Shanghai is a bit sweet. They are not as popular in America as some other ones.

Is there any Beijing style you’d recommend? I am glad you asked. I couldn’t think of any really except Beijing Duck. I have heard that the best Beijing Duck chef is not in Beijing, but somewhere in Canada. So there is that.

If you discovered a good place, let me know. I want to have a special collection of places that serve the best double-cooked pork.  I have tried it in Dallas, Houston, College Station, Los Angeles, Chicago, etc. In the future, I will start to write reviews about each one of them.

What’s Wrong With the FoxConn Deal in Wisconsin

A crow was sitting on a branch of a tree with a piece of meat in her beak.  A Fox passed by and saw the meat and immediately wanted to figure out a way to get the meat. He approached the tree and saluted the crow: “What a beautiful bird is above me. The color of her plumage is without equal. If only I could hear her sing!”

The crow enjoyed the compliments  and decided to return the favor by singing for the fox. Of course the meat fell.  The fox snatched it and ran into the woods.

For further information about the FoxConn deal, listen to this NPR report:

Foxconn Promised 13,000 Jobs To Wisconsin. Where Are They?

Aesop also contributed to this post.


Why Li Ziqi Fascinates Us

I recently discovered Chinese vlogger Li Ziqi, whose short videos of country living mesmerize over seven million subscribers on Youtube and many more in China.   Within one episode, I also became a fan. 

Many of Li’s videos show her cooking, often from scratch —  the sowing of seeds in the field or even the tilling of land with her standing on a rolling tiller pulled by an old buffalo. We then see how she waters, fertilizes, harvests, dries, processes her ingredients, and finally, the transformation of such ingredients into mouth-watering delicacies that she shares with her grandma.

Li is also a maker in rural China. Rather than using 3D printers and laser cutters, she uses wood and even beanstalk to create beautiful things. She made beds and lounge chairs with bamboo she cut from a grove nearby. She grew her own silkworm and made quilts for her grandma. She also made paper, lipstick, lampshades, and clothes drying racks, all from natural materials in her environment. We watch with amazement how she builds a home as if from a fairy tale without resorting to pathological shopping and consumerist hoarding. Like the rest of us, she was probably not born with skills to create the things we see in her videos, but she uses everything and everybody around her as her teacher. Li never attended college, but she shows us how empowering self-directed learning can be in this age of abundant learning resources.

Li puts a beautiful human face to a strange and faraway rural China. Many of her subscribers developed goodwill towards the Chinese people after watching her videos. In a way, Li redefined what Chinese culture actually means. The word “culture” actually connotes the cultivation of plants, which happens to be her forte. Rather than calligraphy, poetry, shadow-boxing and other cultural cultivation favored by China’s high society, Li connects with a broader audience as a master farmer, gardener, seamstress, carpenter, chef, and other roles she picked up along the way.

She demonstrates the Chinese culture in the tradition of China at Work by Rudolf P. Hommel, who had spent over eight years studying the tools used by the ordinary Chinese, including axes, saws, tillers, plows, fishing nets, brooms, wheelbarrows, and hammers and anvils. Li shows how ordinary Chinese farmers work and live, which enriches outsiders’ understanding of a country and its people. 

China at Work book cover

Li re-orients us to the charms of country living.  Cultural conflicts abound between country and city living almost around the world. In America, such conflict can evolve into Christmas romcoms with city lawyers finding her true love in a hometown guy with a dog, probably a shotgun, and a heavy accent.  Spring Festival family reunions in China, on the other hand, will not result in romcoms; they lead to rants or even nervous breakdowns of city wives who feel forced to stay, if only a few days, in the countryside homes of their husbands.

For decades, rural China represents an inferior standard of living and the only way to handle it is “out.” The exodus from the country divides China economically, culturally and psychologically. In such division, country living is associated in popular culture with either nostalgic laments from rural-born intellectuals, or condescending sympathy of city folks, in whose imagination countryside is a preview of hell. As someone who grew up in the countryside, I know of country living as an alternative lifestyle rather than an inferior choice. However, it is hard to convince people who have not lived in the countryside for a substantial time. Li’s charming videos finally show the simple joys of country living, which she can improve using her head, heart, and hands. While others become the product of their environment, she engineered her environment as her product. Others see problems and whine, she goes there and fixes it.

Li is a master of many trades. I doubt that any of us can learn to do all the things she does with dexterity and determination. She inspires more than she trains. To learn how to cook a specific dish, we are better off checking cooking apps for step-by-step instruction. We, however, can choose to be inspired by her, to seek the artistic transformation of mundane tasks of a day, such as cooking a simple meal. Many Chinese young couples reduce their living to their jobs and outsource adult tasks such as cleaning and cooking to hired nannies or their retired helicopter parents who have much time at their hands and plenty of zeal to help. Such outsourcing of everyday tasks reduces the creativity,  joy, and relaxation that “doing” life could offer.

I will probably continue to watch her videos for inspiration and reflection. I believe that I, too, can learn to do new things. The more we can do, the bigger our worlds will be, and I thank Li Ziqi for this lesson.

Originally published with China Daily 

The educational decoupling between China and the United State

Before the US-Iran tension, China seemed to be the number one enemy for the US. However the stock market goes up and down with news mostly about the trade war or technology (Huawei). There was a lot of talk about the decoupling of the two countries. Few talk about the wedge that these conflicts are putting in educational exchange and collaborations. 

US universities are increasingly closing Confucius Institutes which offer non-credit courses in Chinese language and culture to US students. Universities and research institutes are also firing scholars of Chinese descent due to conflict of interest concerns, especially for scholars hired through China’s Thousand-Talent program. Some cases were dismissed later on, but these scholars’ careers are ruined. Universities are also becoming more cautious inviting Chinese scholars to their institutions due to escalating tension between the two countries.  

In the meantime, media outlets such as Inside Higher Ed (IHE) is becoming a Pillbox constantly firing anti-Chinese sentiments to influence opinions of the higher-ed audiences. As one frustrated researcher wrote to Inside Higher Ed, IHE often publishes one-sided disturbing reports on China to fan the flame of sino-phobia. If you do not believe it, just search “China” from the Inside Higher Ed site. You would have thought that media dedicated to higher education would be more open-minded towards the internationalization of education. 

Conveniently, China and US are developing a rare consensus that the two should go separate ways in terms of education. China, too, wants its educational system to be more isolated.  To the Chinese government, this is a golden opportunity to reassert traditional Chinese identity and socialist ideology. Inside Higher Ed, I hope this makes you happy. 

In 2015, Chinese Minister of Education Yuan Guiren told university administrators that they should be careful using original textbooks from the west so that “we will never let western values and ideas enter our classroom.”  (See New York Times article on the topic). On Jan 7, 2020, China’s Ministry of Education posted a regulation about textbook management that says: “No foreign textbook should be used by schools during the mandatory education years [note: Kindergarten through ninth grade], and related laws and regulations should govern the adoption of foreign textbooks at the high school level.” 

In the meantime, joint programs are also taking a hit. In the middle of July, 2018 China’s Ministry of Education closed around 235 programs between Chinese colleges and universities and their international counterparts. Some of these were programs sponsored by key Project 985 universities, including Beijing University, Fudan University and Sichuan University. For the complete list, see the announcements provided by the Ministry here.

One result: less educational exchange, including Chinese students studying in the US. According to the 2019 Enrollment Survey by Institute of International Education (IIE), the recruitment of international students in the US is on the decrease (0.9%) , especially in the midwest and southern regions. One main reason for such decline is the increasing difficulty of getting a visa. This applies especially to Chinese students studying STEM subjects in the US. Even for students who have obtained visas previously, there are cases of them being checked or suspended, which adds on to the anxiety of potential students. Due to visa complications, China even issued a travel warning in 2019. Chinese students diversify into other countries such as the UK and Australia.

It certainly makes a lot of people happy that this decoupling is going on. I find it a great leap backward. What do you think?