Mea culpa


I am in Gdansk doing penance for my youth.

In the summer of 1980, I was a 25-year-old copy editor at The Boston Globe. In my defense, let me say that I was very young and knew nothing about the world, though of course I thought I knew everything. One night in August, as I reported to the national/foreign desk for a 6:30 p.m. to 2:30 a.m. shift — bad enough in itself — the copy chief, Hamish Robertson, assigned me to be the Poland editor for the evening. Shipyard workers there were on strike, and for some reason people thought that was a pretty big deal. That night I edited seven stories about Poland. “Nobody’s going to read seven stories about Poland,” I grumbled to myself. “Who cares about Poland?”

As it turns out, I do.

After finishing my three-week summer course in Wroclaw, I traveled to Gdansk, on the Baltic coast, mainly because I hadn’t been there before and had just enough time. Its Stare Miasto (Old Town) is historic and charming, filled with amber and marinas and appreciation of the city’s maritime heritage. To the north, less charming but no less historic, are the shipyards.

Even without the STOCZNIA GDANSKA sign (the LENIN is now gone) visible from a nearby highway, the shipyards would be hard to miss. Their giant cranes loom over the city and have become one of its symbols, gracing countless T-shirts and mugs. I found my first sight of them from a tour bus unexpectedly exciting; in 2017 terms, this was the Room Where It Happened.

Since I first taught in Wroclaw 10 years ago, I’ve tried to learn more about Poland whenever I could. (And really, Americans, how much do you know?) This summer’s international film festival in Wroclaw helpfully prepped me for my visit to Gdansk. The open-air screenings on the Rynek, or market square, included Andrzej Wayda’s “Man of Iron,” a drama about the 1980 shipyard strikes, and “Robotnicy ’80,” a documentary on the negotiations to resolve them. I sat through nearly three bone-chilling hours of “Man of Iron” but had to leave midway through “Robotnicy”; when I Googled it to see how I might somehow finish it, I found a 1982 review by my old colleague Vincent Canby, which noted that the Public Theater in New York would be showing the film free every Saturday and Sunday afternoon indefinitely. The Lutheran evangelical center where I stayed had a couple of very attractive Solidarity mugs in the kitchen, and I toyed with the idea of liberating one but figured my Lutheran mother would strike me dead. Anyway, if I really wanted one, there were probably some for sale in Gdansk.

And there were, in the gift shop at the European Solidarity Center. Surely the workers who founded Solidarinosc could never have envisioned the museum that now stands a block or two from the shipyards. The complex is a rust-colored hulk, inside and out, and touring it is like being inside a Richard Serra sculpture, only much, much bigger. Its ground floor has an atrium with wines climbing the walls, an auditorium, galleries for temporary exhibitions (currently — no surprise — one on amber), play space for children, a restaurant, a cafe and that gift shop.  It’s slick, no question, but it does tell the story.

The seven halls of permanent exhibitions walk visitors (carrying audioguides in their choice of languages) through the strikes and their meaning in Polish history, and the world’s. The first gallery sets the stage, explaining what triggered the strikes: the firing  (just before retirement age — sound familiar, boomers?) of Anna Walentynowicz, a diminutive woman who had worked 32 years at the shipyard but belonged to a frowned-upon organization. (Among the exhibits is the cab of a crane like the one she inhabited.) The next tells the backstory, the history of Soviet repression dating back to the end of World War II.  The third — a gallery of curving white walls on a red floor, which spells out Solidarinosc on the mirrored ceiling — examines the new freedom in Polish culture (not least Wajda’s Palme d’Or for “Man of Iron”); the fourth, its repression under martial law in 1981 — chilling to those of us who, suddenly, can imagine martial law in the United States.

After four galleries I was  already exhausted. Luckily, the three remaining galleries are more conceptual than informative, ending in a room for contemplating those who have fought in the name of peace. Throughout, the faces of two men appear time and time again: Lech Walesa and Pope John Paul II.

Being a 21st-century museum, the center is filled with screens and other high-tech gadgets, some of which work better than others. (The screens can be toggled between Polish and English, but on many of them the English did not display. I, for one, would have liked to hear about how the Solidarinosc logo was designed.)  Some seem to offer too much information, but visitors may choose to consume as much or as little as they want. Newspapers displayed in the world reaction sections did not include The Boston Globe, sparing me from having to confront the work of my callow self.

In the second-last gallery, a light-up wall map  shows the dissolution of the Eastern Block (sic — one of those errors spellcheck won’t catch) as, one by one, pink nations turn white. I noted with pleasure that Poland was the first to change. In 2015 elections, Poland became the first Western country to turn right-wing “populist.” When friends feel compelled to remind me, “You know, Poland has a very conservative government,” I simply smile and say I hope Poland will also be the first to change when that particular pendulum swings back.

The Gdansk shipyards are mostly inactive now. Taking a break before seeing Agnieszka Holland’s 1981 film “Kobieta Samotna” (“A Woman Alone,” set partly in Wroclaw) in the auditorium, part of the 2017 Solidarity of Arts festival, I strolled as close as I could to the shipyard. Though just a block or two from the Solidarity center, it’s a ramshackle district, largely deserted at dusk. Looking across the highway at the mammoth brick buildings, I could see them repurposed as, say, a tech complex, the world’s largest live/work space for artists  or, worst-case scenario, more shopping malls.

As for Anna Walentynowicz, she entered my world when she died in the 2010 plane crash in Russia that wiped out half of Poland’s leadership. I often use the crash story as an exercise in classic news writing format. From clueless beginner, I’ve evolved into a dispenser of journalistic wisdom. OK, Poland, I get it now.


A flaming liberal’s Fourth of July


No fireworks for me this year (except for the illegal ones in the back alley at 3:17 a.m.); no pageants or pomp or parade.  I decided long ago to boycott all displays of nationalism this Independence Day. With a con artist occupying the White House and my opinion of the people and system that put him there at a record low, what’s to celebrate?

“Bah! Humbug,” I answered mentally when anyone asked about my plans for the Fourth. For unrepentant liberals, this holiday has felt much like the run-up to the holiday season after 9/11, when New Yorkers didn’t know what we were supposed to do. Out loud, I said I hoped to spend the day quietly at home, writing. Maybe, if I were very lucky, I’d be offered a shift ushering “Oslo” at Lincoln Center Theater in the evening, making fireworks out of the question.

But New York is “an island off the coast of America,” as Spalding Gray said, and we here think and act in our own ways. Once again, a New York institution – theater – saved the day.

There’s saying in the theater: “Keep the drama onstage.” But the drama spilled over into the house at Sunday’s matinee of “Oslo” when it became known that Hillary and Bill Clinton were sitting in G309 and G310.  I’m no longer dazzled by celebrities and VIPs. From my years at The New York Times, when visiting dignitaries (including, once, Hillary Clinton) were a fact of everyday life, I can spot Secret Service agents by the curly cords behind their ears, even in blazers and khakis instead of black suits with white shirts and ties. But on Sunday I couldn’t help wondering what might be running through the minds of two audience members who had personally lived at least a piece of the Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Army. When I took the stage at intermission, my view of the Clintons wasn’t quite as good as the chief usher had promised, but no matter. I had already taken in a late-arriving patron and had no trouble picking out Bill’s white crown from an aisle away.

After closing my doors after intermission, I heard a roar from the house and simply had to go back in. As the Clintons returned to their seats, the audience was on its feet, clapping and cheering. Hillary (who looks great, now that she’s had some rest) smiled, waved and sat down. When a second wave of applause began, Bill stood again; he knows how to work a crowd. Near the end of the play, when he appears with Yitzhak Rabin and Yassir Arafat in a video that fills the upstage wall, I could hear yet another round of applause from outside. I remembered a time when the United States had a budget surplus, no elective wars and a government we didn’t have to be ashamed of, and thought of what might have been.

The matinee buoyed me enough that on Monday I ordered Elizabeth Warren T-shirts and was actually looking forward to my one concession to the holiday: “54 Sings ‘1776’ ” at Feinstein’s/54 Below that  evening. For four years the supper club has been staging an abbreviated concert version – just the songs, ma’am – that clocked in at 50 minutes. Having seen the original 1969 Broadway production twice and adored its John Adams, William Daniels, ever since, I had always wanted to go. I checked the ethics of relaxing my boycott with my musical theater friend Carol, resident of “a blue corner of a red state,” who gave her blessing: “I think it would be a supremely ethical thing to do. The solemnity and gravity of the ending is the opposite of Trumpian populist madness.”

In one peculiar way, “1776” reminds me of “Gypsy”:  every time I plan to see it, I think, “Do I really need to see this again?” and every time I come out, I think, “What a good show!” (The last time I recall seeing it staged was with Carol in 2003 at Ford’s Theater in Washington, which brings to mind the Bush-era joke about how that president could best serve the country: “Go to the theater!”) The moment the opening drumbeat takes on a bit of swing, I’m hooked.  The memories flood back, and immediately I start to lip-sync.

This time the text was especially resonant. Adams’s remark about useless men – that “three or more are called a Congress. And by God, I have had this Congress!” – drew a round of enthusiastic applause.  And Adams’s description of himself as “obnoxious and disliked” didn’t stop him, or at least one of his successors, from winning the presidency. Adams was no saint of political correctness, what with the Alien and Sedition Acts, but he is the revolutionary firebrand star of this show.  The Tories in “Cool, Cool Considerate Men” are as smug as any modern-day Republican, though nowadays it’s liberals who are wondering if the British crown might be willing to take us back.

The cast blew a few lines, but it was only their second performance.  John Adams (Kyle Scatliffe) was tall and black rather than short, rotund and white; what was he thinking as he listened to Wade McCollum’s impassioned “Molasses to Rum to Slaves”?  The rest of the cast was all-white, young and, of course, all but two male.  I might have wished for a more multicultural cast in 2017, but maybe the “young” was more important. From my seat at the bar rail, about one-third of the audience looked old enough to have seen the original production; the rest were young, and I wondered what had drawn them to this show.

If this “1776” had been staged like “Oslo,” I could fantasize the actors standing like columns at the end, facing the audience and telling what happened to the original cast. (“Howard da Silva, having survived blacklisting in the McCarthy era, died in 1986.”  “Virginia Vestoff died of cancer in 1982, at 43.” “Ken Howard, after a long career as an actor and Screen Actors Guild president, died in 2016.” “Betty Buckley lives on and is still going strong.” “Williams Daniels lives on and has just published a memoir, at 90.”) But it wasn’t. Nor did it end with the signing of the Declaration and the Liberty Bell tolling freedom. Instead, the concert version concluded with Adams’s 11 o’clock number, ending in a plaintive “Does anybody see what I see?”

Maybe those 1,000 people who gave that standing ovation at “Oslo.” Come to think of it, Adams’s line is not far off Jefferson Mays’s curtain speech in “Oslo,” a play about diplomacy and making peace: “There! On the horizon. The Possibility. Do you see it? Do you?” It’s a start.

I’m not wearing red, white and blue today. In a couple of hours, I’ll be proudly back in usher black. That gig at “Oslo” came through.

Late bloomer


For a child of the ’60s, my resume of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll is pathetically thin; my record of political activism, even thinner. I missed the ’60s because I was too young — not quite 15 when they ended, and still stuck in rural Pennsylvania with my parents, children of the Depression whose only concern  was making enough money for a modest retirement with no pension in sight. On the first Women’s Equality Day —  Aug. 26, 1970, the 50th anniversary of woman suffrage — I desperately wanted to wear a “Don’t Cook Dinner! Starve a Rat Today” button. Not a chance: I spent the day behind their diner counter, serving truck drivers, mechanics, Hell’s Angels and other  white male working-class heroes. By the time I started college in 1972, the protests that had all but shut down campus in the infamous Spring of ’70 were over; I remember just one bomb threat my first summer there, which turned out to be a hoax. Almost immediately upon arrival, I joined the ranks of journalists, taking a vow of objectivity. (Anyway, we were plenty busy with Watergate.) For 35 years or so, I kept my opinions myself, or at least out of print.

Journalists are supposed to have a social conscience but, paradoxically, no overt political leanings that might compromise their or their publications’ commitment to fairness and objectivity. (I’m talking about real journalists.) But as I rhetorically asked an older colleague at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism last week, when’s the last time we were paid to do actual journalism — in my case, by anyone other than a Stephen Sondheim publication? (Auspiciously, Sondheim’s 87th birthday is the day I am scheduled to receive the first of the payments from Social Security, if it still exists by March, that I intend to finance my escape from this country.) So I’m finally wearing buttons: “Not My President” and “Make American Smart Again.”  And now, in my 60s, I can let my inner flower child bloom.

I can’t help envying my friend Mary, a few years older, who can reminisce about how she came to New York as a “hippie chick.” The closest I can come is being able to sing the entire score of “Hair” from memory, not least “Frank Mills,” a hippie chick’s ode to the boy she meant on Sept. 12 in front of the Waverly, as  I persist in calling the IFC Center that took over the space. Oh, sure, I wore my ERA bracelet, and we all know how much good that did. International students are routinely shocked to learn there is no explicit Constitutional protection of women’s equality, or even their personhood.

But our National Day of Mourning called for action. I declared Friday a media-free day until Bill Maher returned from hiatus at 10 p.m. (OK, so I cheated a little, reading Paul Krugman that morning. Right on target, as usual.)  I didn’t want to spend the day alone and depressed, or doing my usual Friday things and pretending it all didn’t matter. As it turned out, a carefully curated choice of activities added up  to an exhilarating weekend.

The inauguration-eve rally at Columbus Circle wasn’t even on my radar until the day before, even though my friend Dr. Carol in Memphis had written: “If I were in NYC I’d be thinking seriously about going to Michael Moore’s rally Thursday. Won’t help anything but damn, it would feel good.” I woke up that morning wanting to go. It was a straight shot on the 1 train, so I had no excuse. Expecting a crowd, I exited the station at the upper end, thinking I’d be on the fringe, but the crowd was moving up Broadway toward 65th Street, where the main entrance had been moved. I followed the crowd, passing the movie theater a friend manages, and the apartment building where I’ve had three Japanese students, and Lincoln Center, where I’ve spent so much of the last 29 years,  and Bed, Bath and Beyond, as if it were any other day. Walking was all I was doing, and that’s when the sad truth hit me: I had no idea what to do at a protest.

I thought of calling my dentist, Dr. Alan Goldstein, for tips; he’s a bona fide ’60s radical (who has written a very fine memoir that cries out to be published), and his office on Central Park West is on the rally site, so for all I know he was already there. I couldn’t find my friend who’d be arriving late from water aerobics, a Columbia faculty ex-wife who presumably weathered the ’60s demonstrations there. So I just mingled with the very Upper West Side (and admittedly very white) crowd and worked my way as far south as I could, which was less than a block. It was a strain to hear the speakers, and I’d been there at least an hour before  I glimpsed the big screen five blocks away between the taller people in front of me. I cheered when the crowd cheered, without knowing what I was cheering, but with speakers like Moore, Mark Ruffalo and Cynthia Nixon, I found it unlikely I’d disagree with anything they said — as I confirmed that night on YouTube. Dr. Carol was right.

Friday dawned gray and appropriately depressing. At high noon I was in Poland via Skype, discussing such matters as how to pronounce the English R, and at the end I thanked my student for keeping me occupied at the moment America was dying. (Dziekuje bardzo again, Kamila.)  I spent the rest of the day volunteering in the one place that, no matter what’s happening outside, always makes me feel better: a theater.

Specifically, the United Palace, the over-the-top 1930 movie palace 17 blocks up Broadway from me in Washington Heights, which is undergoing a renaissance as a cultural center. Its programming nonprofit, United Palace of Cultural Arts, was holding a full day of counter-inauguration activities, led by the actress Ellen Burstyn and titled “Inaugurate Love: Dreaming Our Nation United.” Performances ranged from Tahitian dancers to drum circles to guided movement to a singing cellist to Ms. Burstyn reciting — no, acting — poetry. Dressed in usher/mourning black, I was assigned front-of-house, which in this case meant staffing a lobby table. I gave out programs, asked people to sign up for the mailing list, accepted donations to Planned Parenthood and, as always in front-of-house, directed patrons to the restrooms. The audience was small but steady, coming and going and later returning. Even in the lobby at the United Palace, whose architectural style defies labeling — Baroque-rococo-Moorish,  with Buddhas and lion’s heads and a mural of Venus rising from the sea — every square inch offers something to look at, and I found my seven hours there oddly calming.

Thursday was just a warmup for the New York women’s march on Saturday. It took three and half hours to walk a distance I would normally cover in 30 minutes tops, from 42nd and Second (by my assigned 2:30 time slot, the original rallying point six blocks away had been closed) to the Death Star (my name for Trump Tower, just as Ivanka has become Ivita). Those 400,000 other pedestrians made the walk even slower than the M42 cossstown bus. It was by no means just a women’s march — maybe close to 50 percent men, and babies in Snuglis (not one of whom cried), and children in strollers, and people in wheelchairs, and one white-maned lady, spitting mad, pushing a sturdy walker. This being New York, there was talk of dinner reservations.

Though marching alone, I immersed myself in the sea of pink hats and signs covering just about every possible topic — lots of “lady parts” that “grab back,” but also taxes and health care and education, with Harry Potter citations (it seems I’m not the only one thinking of Voldemort these days) to quotations from The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. I now understand the excitement of mob mentality, having felt the rush that comes from WOO!-ing in waves and chanting “Hey, Hey, ho, ho, Donald Trump has got to go!” and  “This is what democracy looks like.”


“Why are you marching today?” a 20-something asked me on the first block. Wasn’t it obvious? “Uh . . . because I’m female?” I responded, then, a minute or so later when I’d had time to think, “Because I have a functioning brain.” Later, I realized I should have added the reason I’d given for chipping in to a Rockettes’ relief fund: because it’s important to show the world that Trump’s hometown wants no part of him.

Today, though barely able to walk, I marvel at how my child-of-the-’60s resume has filled out after all. Sex? Better, surely, than Marla Maples ever had, and with a far finer man. (If you’re alive to read this, it wasn’t you.) I’ve long said I plan to spend my golden years doing all the drugs I was too straight to do in the ’70s, though preferably not in the way my brother, child of the ’50s, did before he died of cancer in September. As for rock ‘n’ roll, there’s a iTunes gift card for my birthday burning a hole in my e-wallet. (Thank you, Lois.) High on my wish list is the Who’s Tommy. By Impeachment Day, I may have no more hearing left than Pete Townshend,  but here’s hoping the new regime will self-destruct, as  Nixon’s did — only much faster.

Coda: As I post, today is the 44th anniversary of my big break in journalism, Roe. v. Wade. And we’re still chanting, “My body, my choice.”



Reading list

When I was in elementary school, “The Man Without a Country” was in every school library. It was a cautionary tale about a man who, having denounced the United States in the heat of a moment, was sentenced to sail the world without hearing its name or any news of it ever again. “Isn’t that sad?” teachers would say as they recommended it for book reports, striving to instill proper patriotic values. (This was the era of the cold war, the Cuban missile crisis and the Kennedy assassination.)

Right now, it doesn’t sound so bad.

The hope that turned to devastation on Tuesday night has left New Yorkers speechless and the city feeling like a tomb. If it’s any consolation, Donald Trump’s home town rejected him soundly. (As a friend pointed out recently, Americans don’t know that to New Yorkers, Trump is a punchline.) Hillary Clinton won 86 percent of the vote in Manhattan and 75 percent in Trump’s native Queens. Unpopular Hillary did win the popular vote, just not the Electoral College, which is all that matters in our archaic system. Thousands have taken to the streets in protest.

I don’t remember ever having read Edward Everett Hale’s 1863 novella, but it seemed a good time to invest  99 cents in the Barnes & Noble e-book. The election has pushed me to the verge of becoming a woman without a country, and as much as I could use an extended sea voyage, I’m more likely to bounce between Poland, China and anywhere else I can peddle my professional wares. The country that has emerged this week is a frightening one: Washington is already being handed over to corporate lobbyists, climate-change deniers and failed Republican candidates; racist attacks are suddenly on the upswing; and, oh, it’s OK now to use an ethnic slur when talking about my landlords, right?

This is not a country I want to be part of. One of my first e-mails on Wednesday morning, to Poland, was headlined “Political refugee seeks housing.” Even being cut off by the Chinese Internet doesn’t sound so bad.

So Philip Nolan, that man without a country? (The agent of his downfall was none other than the man who is once again stirring up so much trouble in New York: Aaron Burr, Sir.) He took his punishment like a mensch, serving heroically in battle, becoming a mentor to young seamen and only once publicly betraying his sense of loss. When, on Nolan’s deathbed, the narrator enters the cabin no one had ever been allowed inside, he finds it is a shrine to the United States, whose expansion Nolan has accurately envisioned, state by state, on the map he has drawn from memory.

I read a lot, and it was my subway reading last week that finally made me understand Trump voters – and to feel real fear for the election. George Packer’s “Hillary Clinton and the Populist Revolt”  in The New Yorker explained that polarization in America – a concept I’ve been teaching all semester – isn’t just a matter of liberal and conservative, or Democrat and Republican. It’s also a matter of education. The government and the media, Packer explained, are a sealed-off “educationalist elite” out of touch with the white working class. Well, yes, I thought, that was the whole point: to educate myself out of the working class and into that elite. It turns out the working class resents us.

Then, yesterday morning, came the gut punch. On the New York Times home page, I clicked on “The Women Who Helped Donald Trump to Victory.” It was datelined “NAZARETH, Pa.” – my home town  – and it confirmed everything Packer wrote. Now I know exactly who the Trump voters are.

They’re the kids who rejected me except when they wanted to copy my Latin homework. (I won the Latin prize at junior high graduation, and the civics prize. That, along with my political science degree and my 35-year journalism career, qualified me to teach “Communicating About U.S. Business and Politics” this semester at Baruch College.) It’s often said that in America there is no life after high school; yesterday Trump dumped the fat boy who humiliated himself in desperation to be his friend. Hillary may be the eternal Tracy Flick in the movie “Election,” and maybe neither of us ever stopped being the girl whose only chance in life was to show, endlessly and perhaps tactlessly, how smart and hard-working she was.

Trump voters are the truck drivers who sat at the diner counter drinking coffee and laughing when my father, the former police chief, used to put his hand down the front of my polyester waitress uniform and cup my teenage breast to show who was boss. Yes, this is the “First Assault” I tweeted to #NotOkay. (To be fair, my father also used to say, “No one is going to do to my daughter what I did to somebody else’s.” No one did, but not because of his protection. He would have voted for Trump, too.)

Sadly, Trump voters also seem to be the nieces and great-nieces who plaster pictures of their precious baby daughters and granddaughters all over Facebook. They either don’t realize, or (as the women in the Times story indicated) don’t care, that they voted for a man who sees their little princesses as nothing but pussy – a man who referred to his own daughter as “a piece of ass.”

In short, these are the people I’ve been running away from all my life, thanks to education. (By the way, going to college football games is not the same as going to college, and going to Disney is not the same as traveling the world.) Now they have won, at least temporarily. They voted for change without thinking through what that change might turn out to be. But it won’t be long until they learn they fell for lies and showmanship. What follows won’t be pretty.

Speaking of lies, the second gut-punch of the day came when a Skype student in Poland – an intelligent, educated woman – casually mentioned that Obama is a Muslim. I gasped and fell back in my chair.

“You think he’s a Muslim?”

He eyes widened. “Isn’t he?”

First, I explained, there would be nothing wrong with it if he were, since we have the First Amendment, at least for the moment. Second, Obama the Muslim was just one of the many, many lies spread about him (including Trump’s birtherism – oh, wait, that was Hillary) by political enemies. My student was genuinely shocked. Because his middle name is Hussein, she explained, she assumed he was Muslim, and since he wasn’t her president, she had never bothered to check. My middle name is Marie, and I’m not Catholic; a friend’s middle name is Mary, and she’s Jewish. Obama has been president for eight years, and many Americans have never bothered to check. I just did a reality check with a university colleague in Poland; she, too, thought he was Muslim.

Lies spread far and fast, and they stick.

Don’t leave, say Hillary, Elizabeth Warren and even Bill Maher; stay and fight. But people serve in different ways. I’m exactly who can and should be leaving the country right now – not running away, but running toward an international audience hungry for information and reassurance about a country that has suddenly become very frightening to them, too. I’m the one who can teach – show that not all Americans support liars and charlatans, and tell what the United States is supposed to be.

I don’t see much of a market for that here.


If “chief invigilator” sounds like Lord High Executioner to you, the sophomores would probably agree.

I added that title (which I’d never heard of before) to my resume on Tuesday during the final exam for “Survey of English-Speaking Countries.” It translates as proctor, and according to the official Jinan University paperwork for my sole closed-book exam this semester, I was the one to certify that there was no irregularity, no cheating. And there wasn’t. Even if I hadn’t meticulously watched over the room during the exam, I would have known from the test scores — at least 10 points below normal for this group, with only one student breaking 90.

“If one-third of the class flunked the final exam, does that mean I’m a lousy teacher?” I e-mailed my friend Janice, who has a doctorate in education and decades more classroom experience. “A lousy exam writer? Or just that they didn’t pay attention?” She assured me I was neither and they probably didn’t.

This semester, instead of teaching English as a second language (i.e., in an English-language environment), or even English as a foreign language (in a place like, say, China or Poland), my writ was to teach journalism. I had to focus on that, not correcting grammar or pronunciation. Critical thinking and storytelling were the focus, and often I had to let the English slide.

The sophomores on the last  day of class, in the de rigueur group selfie.
The sophomores on the last day of class, in the obligatory group selfie.

When I taught oral English in Hunan five years ago, finals were in-class presentations or, for one class, a five-minute one-on-one conversation with me. Here I could do that only with my freshmen “Oral English” class, and their final presentations were my first measure of teaching effectiveness. I saw major improvements since September. One of the better students, whose rapid-fire, exhortatory style made her sound like a Party stalwart with a megaphone at the height of the Cultural Revolution, had toned it down considerably and was now communicating with her audience instead of shouting at it. (“When you make a speech,” I had advised her after a speaking competition a few weeks before, “don’t make a speech.”) Even the boys, usually too shy to speak in front of the class, showed increased confidence and fluency. Everyone passed. At the end, the questions from the future journalism majors showed they already have principles.

The sophomores’ papers for two courses were due the next day. I opted to grade “International News Comparison and Analysis” first because I thought it would go faster: the class had only 18 students instead of 24, and I would be simply reading their papers, not editing. In many ways this had been the toughest course for me to teach; I couldn’t always tell if the students were getting anything out of it. Since a number of them said, “I’ve never done a paper like this before” — comparing coverage of a current issue in English-language media from various countries — I had no idea how they would perform.

I was pleasantly surprised. Topics ranged from the new two-child policy to corruption to President Xi’s recent visit to Britain, and the students demonstrated they had learned how to think about what they see and read in the media. Even some who seemed to have ignored assignments to read two New Yorker articles and analyze their structure applied just that type of analysis in their papers. They got the message.

“English News Writing and Gathering” seemed to be a different story. I had promised a full New York Times edit on these stories, which took 60 to 90 minutes each, and found I could get through no more than six a day. The first day was very disappointing; despite decent grades in classroom exercises, four students received failing grades, apparently having no clue what makes a story or how to tell it.

And yet. One magazine-length story that first day was near-publishable (as I might have predicted, knowing who wrote it). The next day, more failed, but more could have been published with additional reporting and professional editing. There were stories on homelessness in Guangzhou and primary-school care services and Chinese students’ experiences abroad. There were far too many on Singles’ Day, China’s Black Friday on Nov. 11, and all with the same fundamental flaw: the moment had passed. Students who had not necessarily distinguished themselves in class turned in good, solid work by, essentially, not biting off more than they could chew. That is, they chose to report on campus issues – a ban on takeout food, problems at the package delivery center, noise from a busy square that disturbs dorm residents upstairs – rather than big national stories like the two-child policy or the aftermath of the Tianjin explosions. “What are the stories we can do well?” I had been asking all semester in our weekly news meeting exercise. Some got that message, too.

And the ones who failed? I did what any decent editor would do: sent their stories back for rewrites, due Sunday.

I would love to have one last follow-up class to explain my grading, my editing, the lessons I had hoped they would learn. The best I can do is to use my comments on their papers as one last teaching opportunity. I haven’t stopped forwarding news stories related to their projects – on Uber’s pulling out of Germany, reports that Zhou Enlai might have been gay, a campus newspaper in West Virginia that’s being censored.

Though only one project concerned censorship, the topic is very much on the sophomores’ minds as they contemplate their future as Chinese journalists. These digital natives are aware of propaganda and restrictions on information flow in ways they say their parents aren’t and my Hunan students just five years ago didn’t seem to be. Some still can’t quite believe the freedom of expression Americans enjoy. On the closed-book final, I repeated a true/false question from the first exam: “Americans are free to say or publish anything they want, even if it isn’t true, and no one can prevent them.” (True, under the First Amendment.) After four months of my hammering the point at every opportunity, half the class still said false.

But on an essay question asking which of the countries we had studied — the United States, the U.K., Canada and Australia – they would prefer if offered their choice of postings, nearly all chose the U.S., and of those every single one named freedom of expression as a reason:

“I would like to work in a freer environment, meanwhile learning from Americans how they exercise their freedom of speech.”

“I will have more opportunities to express what I really think.”

“As a qualified journalist, my first loyalty is to the truth. We should always insist on truth, accuracy and fairness no matter under what circumstances. We need a free space where we can express ourselves and dig out the truth to the public freely.”

As I graded the exams, on my laptop Betty Buckley was singing “Only One,” the dying teacher’s song from William Finn’s Elegies. If she had only one student worth teaching, she sings, then her life’s work was worthwhile. Here at Jinan alone, I’ve found far more than one.

And for my next number? A year or two from now, when the sophomores are upperclassmen looking toward jobs and grad school, I see a course in our future: “English for the Media.”

Christmas with Joey

Outside Shanghyai Culture Square.
Outside Shanghai Culture Square.

I thought Joey and I were finished. Almost three years had passed without a word. Oh, sure, I had mementos – his movie on a homemade DVD; the National Theatre’s 50th-anniversary special, two hours preserved on my DVR in case I ever need to see the transformation scene, which can’t take more than two minutes. But except for the memories, that was all.

Then, in late August, while waiting in the lobby of the Foreign Experts Residence, I picked up an issue of China Daily, well over a month old. And there he was, in the lead feature on the Life pages announcing news I never saw coming: Joey was in China.

What are the chances of that paper’s being on top of the pile in that lobby on that particular day? Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, he walked into mine.

War Horse, the Tony Award-winning play adapted from Michael Morpurgo’s young-adult novel about a boy and his horse cruelly separated by World War I, was coming to Beijing, and from there traveling to Shanghai and Guangzhou. Joey, a life-size horse puppet, is the star. In 2011 I was so entranced by the Broadway production that within the week I had signed on as a substitute usher at the Vivian Beaumont Theater, where I worked much of show’s two-year run. After it closed, I saw the NT Live broadcast of the original London production — not just to see Joey again, but also to hear the French and German characters in the second act speaking those languages, in contrast with the all-English New York production. Now I’d have the chance to hear the whole play in Chinese.

Joey doesn’t arrive in Guangzhou until March, by which time I will be long gone, though his portrait already graces the box office lobby of the Opera House. I didn’t make it to Beijing, but by Christmastime the show would be in Shanghai. Shanghai is the New York of China, and though I’d still be missing the best party of the year on Christmas Eve, seeing a Broadway show would feel a little like being home. So, like young Albert, who runs away from the farm in Devon on Christmas Day to look for Joey on the battlefields of France, I set off for Shanghai.

In the weeks before, I could feel him drawing closer. In the exam on the United Kingdom in my English-Speaking Cultures course, one student surprised me by answering a bonus question – “Who is your favorite figure in British culture, and why?” – by choosing Morpurgo, though for a different book. And I had bought my ticket online through an agency whose e-mail address is, aptly, ponypiao, and whose office turned out to be right behind my hotel. When I went to pick up the ticket, I expected to hear the usual: “But . . . this play is in Chinese.” Who in the audience would understand it better than I? For once, no one asked.

The venue was Shanghai Culture Square, which since the 1920s has been a racetrack, a casino, a political re-education center, a temporary stock exchange and a flower market. In 2011, the year I met Joey, it reopened as a glass-walled performing arts center with an oval flying saucer of as roof and a 2,000-seat Broadway-style house – twice the size of the Beaumont – underground. (The balcony is at street level, much like the Stephen Sondheim Theater on 43rd Street.) Broadway-style entertainment is a booming business in China these days, though the house for War Horse was only about 500 on Christmas night — early curtain, 7:15, and no, I didn’t ask if the ushers were being paid holiday premium.

The theater has a slightly curved proscenium stage, less rounded than the Beaumont’s. The stage floor replicated the design with a circle (but no turntable; it’s a touring show) with extensions to the wings. Here the show does not use the aisles, robbing it of some drama, not to mention the puppeteers’ break outside the door.

Seeing War Horse in Chinese was a little like visiting an alternative universe, and sitting in the 10th row orchestra dead center instead of a little round jump seat or outside in the smoke rings was the least of it. Press reports had suggested there would be revisions for the Chinese production – changing the setting to the Rape of Nanking, perhaps? – but no, it was still World War I in Europe, with Chinese characters replacing “Devon” and dates in the strip of cloud/sketchbook hanging over the stage. Joey was still Joey, not Zhou Wei, and Albert was still Albert, though his name came out sounding more like Al-Bairt. I heard Chinese R’s in Rose and the translated lyrics to “Rolling,” with which I sang along sotto voce. (Why not? Everyone around me was talking, and texting, and waving lighted phones in my face.)

I caught the occasional word – dui (yes) and the ubiquitous mei you (literally “have not,” meaning “I don’t have it/any” or “there isn’t any”). But, much as when I saw Hamlet in Prague and recognized all the major speeches but one, I would have known these lines anywhere. As the play progressed, they jumped out at me in between thoughts and memories.

“30 guineas! The pair of youse should be locked up!”

“Well, I didn’t do it!”

Ted Narracott receives entrance applause (mild, like all applause here), so he must be somebody, but there was no playbill in any language. The training of young Joey resonated with me in ways it didn’t when I was living with a serene 15-year-old cat rather than the skittish 2-year-old I’ve domesticated since. The transformation scene seemed odd: instead of a foal galloping offstage to be replaced by a stallion, adult Joey appears to be giving birth to his younger self upstage center. Oddest of all was hearing the Germans speak Chinese.

“You sold him? You sold Joey to the Army? Joey’s MY horse!”

The scene in which Joey meets Topthorn for the first time has the same choreography as the New York production, but not its clean precision. I have my doubts that it’s rehearsed before every show, as I watched hundreds of times while stuffing Playbills. Even so, I was reminded of the puppeteers’ skill in movements large (horses rearing) and small (the flicking of one ear.)

“On and on about your bleedin’ horse. Your cousin Billy could be dead. Half the men in the village could be dead.” But this Rose is sweet, without the forceful practicality Alyssa Bresnahan brought to the role of Albert’s mother.

Captain Stewart’s death scene played the same, though I missed the turntable. But the first-act curtain, “jump the wire”? No barbed wire! Some did appear in the second act, when Joey becomes trapped in it. But the British and German soldiers who find common cause in rescuing him untangled it much too quickly, spending more time on the coin toss to see which side would win this spoil of war.

As always, the arrival of the red-caped nurse in the second-last scene signaled that it was almost time to go home. After so many performances, I could relax, knowing Joey would not be shot. “It’s ’is ’orse! It’s ‘is effin’ ‘orse!” sounds very different in Chinese.

And then the ending:


“What is it?”

“It’s a man. And a horse.”

At the Beaumont, I would listen each night from the space between the house doors and the curtains, wondering which inflection Bresnhan would give the play’s last line: “It can’t BE!” or “It CAN’T be!”? I missed hearing the Chinese Rose as the final chorus of “Only Remembered” swelled behind her, but there was no missing the message. Once again Albert had gone to war a boy and come home a man, and once again both he and Joey had been mended.

Joey (right) and Topthorn take their bows.
Joey (right) and Topthorn take their bows.

Curtain calls followed exactly the same sequence as in New York, right down to that silly goose. Topthorn’s puppeteers took their bow, then Joey’s, before running offstage to pick up their puppets so the stars of the show could salute each other and the barely responsive audience. The cast’s upstage arc looked ragged, as if in need of a captain. But as the house lights came up, there was an unexpected second finale, presumably from the London recording: “Only Remembered,” played in English. This time I sang along in full voice.

Merry Christmas, Joey. Good seeing you again.

Endless summer

fall in GZ

Fall, Guangzhou-style

That August chill is in the air. Of course, it is December.

After last year’s cold and snow in the Northeast, this was meant to be my year without a winter, much as 1985 was my year without a spring. That year I went from China in March (winter) to Australia in April (late summer) to New Zealand in May (fall) to Tahiti (self-explanatory) and home to Boston just in time for summer there to begin. Thirty years later, I went from summer in New York to an extended summer in Guangzhou, and I must say, I could get used to it.

“What will the weather be like?” I was asked before leaving home. “Steamy is my guess,” I said, thinking back to 1985, when late March in subtropical Guangzhou, the last stop on my two-week China 101 tour, already felt like summer. And for the first month, steamy it was. All the time.

The day I arrived was gray. A few raindrops didn’t stop Angela, my administrator, from showing me some basic campus services like the supermarket before leaving me to settle in at my apartment. Nor did gray skies the next day stop Ellen, the journalism professor who had recruited me, from showing me around a little more. When we parted, I mentioned that I needed to go shopping for a few things for the apartment. “There’s a mall across the street from campus,” she said, giving what she thought were explicit directions. I set off in the lightest of summer clothes, carrying my little bright orange travel umbrella from Expo 2010 in Shanghai, but without a raincoat – unbearable in the heat.

I didn’t find the mall that day. I did find McDonald’s, by which time it had started to rain, so I took shelter and had lunch. The rain turned into a monsoon, or so it seemed to someone who had not grown up in South Asia. When it was time to go, the little Expo umbrella did not turn inside out, as so many seem to in New York, but it was thoroughly inadequate; I should have packed the bigger, sturdier Portland model. I fought my way home, normally a 10-minute walk, and arrived with clothes, sandals and skin thoroughly soaked.

The monsoon continued. The next morning I met my class for the time. I had hoped to dress like a grownup and make a good, professional impression, but the best I could do was my CUNY Journalism T-shirt, old black usher pants, the blue-and-green leopard-spotted rubbers that were never intended to go home again and the raincoat that was still stifling. My Expo umbrella joined two dozen others left outside the classroom to avoid trailing water inside. The class looked at me skeptically.

“It’s the rainy season,” people explained; when I asked, “When does it end?” they shrugged. Around early September, said the Internet, which does not shrug, and it was right. After that the weather was just steamy – all the time. For the first month, I traipsed from class to one bureaucratic appointment after another in temperatures around 100 degrees, doing next to nothing in between but going home to collapse in front of the air conditioner and think about when I could go swimming. When rain did come, it brought no relief from the humidity – just more steam.

The relief came during Golden Week on Sanya Bay in early October. When it was hot there, I could choose between the pool just below my balcony and the beach across the road. Midway through came a half-day or so of monsoon, but it did bring relief, and who doesn’t need a rainy day on a beach vacation to rest the skin and read a book?

My first few days back in Guangzhou were, oddly, chilly; oh, no, could this be fall? No, more like a cool stretch in July in the Berkshires, when you put on a cotton sweater and leggings. When those few days ended, glorious summer returned for two full months. Guangzhou seems mercifully free of the pollution that has brought northern cities like Beijing to a standstill in recent weeks; we’ve had days and days of not just blue sky, but air that felt like silk. I spent my October lunch breaks reading by the water-lily pond, just to feel the sun and that air on my skin. I continued swimming outdoors, but around late October I noticed that my first-choice pool at the Vanburgh Hotel down the street, shaded for all but an hour or so a day, was a less and less inviting place to submerge my body. I switched my allegiance to the Ramada Pearl pool, which gets full sun, paying my last visit there just a few days before Thanksgiving.

Meanwhile, I’ve enjoyed the fall foliage. Here that means trees covered with pink-purple blossoms that fall to the ground like autumn leaves, to be replaced by more blossoms. “I want all of you to look out the window and notice this!” I told the class one day, pointing to the entire row of trees outside the Main Teaching Building in full bloom. The kids smiled indulgently.

From a long weekend in once-scenic Hangzhou, now among China’s most polluted cities, I brought back a nasty cold. Right on cue, Guangzhou’s endless summer ended. From upper 80s the day I had left, the temperatures have dropped to the 50s and 60s, a good 10 to 15 degrees below normal, according to the Weather Channel. South of the Yangtze, universities have no heat in classrooms or dorms, and whatever there is in my apartment doesn’t seem to have kicked in yet. So I’ve spent much of the last month as I did my first here: collapsed on the bed, now under the heavy comforter to stay warm. My cold has lingered for three weeks and is just lifting; I coughed all through Thanksgiving dinner and a dozen classes. “Do you need to go to the hospital?” everyone asks. No, it’s a cold. “Do you want to drink some hot water?” No, I’m American. “You should wear warmer clothes.” They’re in New York.

With just about a month to go in China, I admit dreading the weather ahead, although it’s reassuring to know it hasn’t snowed in Guangzhou in 100 years. It’s been hard keeping track of time; given that summer has just ended, it feels strange to hear Bing Crosby singing “White Christmas” at the mall. I won’t escape winter completely, since I’m due home just in time for Groundhog Day. (Does the groundhog ever not see its shadow?) Between now and then, though, I’ll once again fly south to Australia, where my friend Beth has been known to describe Brisbane in January as “stinking hot.”

Bring it on.

I can cook, too

Dinner at a Hunan-style restaurant in Guangzhou.
Dinner at a Hunan-style restaurant in Guangzhou.
“But what will you eat in China?”

The question startled me. It wasn’t the standard question asked by Chinese practicing their English: “Do you like Chinese food?” It came from a longtime resident of New York City, where Chinese food is not exactly an unknown quantity.

Having been back on the China Diet for three months and counting, I have to say it: Hunan food is better than Guangdong food. (Guangdong is the southeastern coastal province that includes Guangzhou.) “But Hunan food is very spicy!” the standard practice conversation continues, followed by, “Yes, I know. I love it.” Guangdong food is not so spicy, but it turns out to be mercifully free of what I dislike about Cantonese food in the United Sates, mainly that cloying sweet-and-sour sauce. And I can now identify most dim sum, which originated here.

At the risk of writing in sentence fragments, here’s a taste of what I’ve found:

Scallion pancakes.
Scallion pancakes.
Eggy scallion pancakes thin as crepes, with just a hint of sweetness.

In Hong Kong, fried rice with minced pork and preserved olive, so perfectly cooked that each grain of rice was distinct from all the others, and the pork so finely minced that it was indistinguishable from the grains of rice.

Shrimp at the beachside restaurant on Sanya Bay on Hainan Island, swimming in a tank one minute, boiled and on my plate the next. (Nearly every restaurant in Guangdong has a wall of tanks with live seafood at the entrance.) They turned into a peel-and-east feast for a mere $7; the Cantonese wouldn’t bother to peel. Only after I had eaten the shrimp did I discover the couple grilling next door and move on to the next course: more shrimp, skewered head to tail and flash-grilled in their shells on skewers, thinly sliced potatoes, a slender eggplant butterflied – all topped with lots of garlic, pungent yet sweet.

Shrimp by the beach.
Shrimp by the beach.

Strawberry and peach nectars, a divine alternative to orange juice for starting the day. For some unknown reason, all orange juice here, even Dole from a cardboard carton, tastes as if it came out of a can. But who needs orange when the strawberry juice from Starbucks contains so much pulp it’s practically puree? Slightly weirder, there’s blueberry juice with actual blueberries floating in it. I’ve also found cherry juice (sweet memories of Poland) and pomegranate (Istanbul) and coconut palm. Instead of the Twining’s Blackcurrant I swill in New York on demand from my Mr. Coffee iced tea maker, each day I brew a liter or so of green tea, possibly from the plantations outside Hangzhou that I toured a couple of weeks ago.

I’ve always thought Chinese leftovers make a fine breakfast, especially fried rice or noodles, but here no one thinks I’m eccentric for it. Every hotel has a buffet, which usually runs about $10 to $15 if not included in the room rate. In addition to the rice and noodles, it often includes leftovers from the day before, like the stir-fried spicy cabbage or, one morning, watercress at my beach hotel in Sanya. At home, a schoolday breakfast usually consists of frozen baozi (pork-stuffed buns) from the supermarket, microwaved for a minute or two. While I’m sure the fresh-steamed ones I could get if I’d actually walk to the supermarket are better, these are surprisingly good, accompanied by a banana and a daily cup of strawberry yogurt for calcium in this non-dairy culture. On a weekend or Thursday, my free day, I might do a “brunch” of bacon and (hard-boiled) eggs. Chinese bacon is marvelous — long, meaty rectangles with very little fat. (Why is the United States seemingly the only country where bacon means mostly fat with skinny strips of actual meat?) Even better, a recent excursion to Metro, a warehouse-style supermarket chain with international foods, turned up black pepper bacon, as well as a few treats: prosciutto, bresaola (Italian dried beef) and two excellent crumbly cheddars.

Lunch or dinner may be home-cooked, or at least home-boiled. It took me two weeks to learn how the electric hotplate worked. (It will not turn on until it senses the weight of a pot on it.) But now I can hard-boil eggs (successfully), roast peanuts (less successfully), and fry rice and noodles (not as good as I can get outside). Granted, I’ve been lazy and use the hotplate mainly to boil the frozen jiaozi – dumplings stuffed with pork and corn, pork and greens, mushrooms and vegetable, and most recently little shrimp tortellini, meant for soup but just as good treated like dumplings. A dozen dipped into a simple mix of light soy and sesame oil, spiked with a little chili paste, make a fast, filling meal – especially with a garlic-heavy cucumber salad from the restaurant next door, with its leftover sauce mixed into the dipping sauce once the cucumbers are gone.

Dessert is mostly fruit, with an occasional wedge of strawberry mousse pie from the campus bakery. I gravitate toward the fruits I’d choose at home: breakfast bananas, crisp pink-and-yellow-striped apples, mandarin oranges. During melon season, I enjoyed small round watermelons, just the right size for someone who lives alone (though hard to open with a meat cleaver, the standard cutting device here), and a pale orange melon that looks like cantaloupe but has firmer, sweeter flesh. I’ve ventured outside my comfort zone, trying the infamous durian, which neither smells as horrible nor tastes as delectable as reputed, and persimmon, which I found fibrous and not nearly so flavorful as its flat-orange-tomato exterior might suggest. While pretty, starfruit and dragonfruit do little for me in terms of flavor, and pomelos I know from experience I can do without. Best dessert of all: candied walnuts. And though I try not to snack, I find it hard to pass by a bag of hot-pepper peanuts.

Dining out can be as simple as my Wednesday office-hours staple, beef fried rice with bright green soybeans at the Blue Bottle coffee shop on campus, or as elaborate as a dinner where one dish follows another, and then another, until the meal abruptly ends, as it normally does in China. But for that you need people. The very nature of Chinese dining – ordering lots of dishes to share, as opposed to one person, one plate – has always made it a group rather than a solo activity.

And it’s not so easy dining out as a single in a land of big, round tables for eight or more. My first night on campus, with no food in the apartment beyond the next day’s breakfast, I went to the restaurant next door for dinner. There I was eyed suspiciously, placed at a small, square table for two right by the door, and handed an “English” menu – no photos, just words like “maw,” which, whatever it is, I don’t eat. Unable to find anything that sounded safe except “fried rice with vegetables,” I ordered that and tea – a whopping $3 check. Since then, I’ve found myself much more welcomed when I do what I would in New York, if I still ate Chinese there: invest $20 in five or six dishes from the lavish picture menu that will last a week, and take the food to go, rather than taking up a table that will yield more revenue from someone else.

Fish heads.
Fish heads.
It’s been said that the people of Guangdong will eat anything, and any part of anything. I’m squeamish by nature about food, especially meat; I eat no dark poultry, no skin, no gristle, no fat I can possibly remove, no internal organs. (I don’t eat sushi, either, unless it’s vegetable or cooked.) All of which puts me at a disadvantage in Guangdong. When dining out, I always have a much higher discard pile – skin, bones, shrimp heads – than anyone else at the table. A student who invited me to a holiday lunch had pre-ordered “fish three ways”: deep-fried nuggets (spine and bones left in), chunks of flesh simmered in a hot pot with its skin, and the piece de resistance, fish heads Hunan style, served in broth and covered with red chili peppers. “Have some!” my student said, popping out an eye. Sorry, but no. The fried nuggets were delicious, bones and all.

For much of my time here, when temperatures were 90-plus, I couldn’t even think about malatang; now that the weather has turned and I’ve had a cold for two weeks, I most definitely can. Malatang is a ubiquitous hot pot where you choose what you want and a chef cooks it, item by item, in a communal pot of broth at full boil. Being squeamish, I avoid the skewers of meat and fish balls, whose texture I don’t like, and the pork and chicken kebabs with their fat, and the cocktail-size hot dogs. But all their flavors merge in the broth, creating a base of what for me becomes vegetable soup, full of greens, black mushrooms, thin slices of what seems to be bitter melon, water chestnut cake and the thin, crinkly tofu I like.

Chen at the hotpot spot.
Chen at the hotpot spot.
That’s street malatang, but hotpot is also served in sleek modern restaurants with long lines outside the door, like the one where my new best friend Chen, a graduate student in journalism, took me a few weeks ago. Four of us sat around a pot with a mild seasoned chicken broth in the center, surrounded by a red chili pepper broth, blazing hot in every conceivable way. Chen ordered form the Chinese-only menu, and a cart of raw ingredients appeared by my left elbow, to be dipped, cooked and eaten piece by piece: paper-thin slices of beef and lamb, meatballs, tofu skin, vegetables. Even skipping the “cow voicebox” — oh, that’s maw! — I found the food and the heat more than satisfying.

Though I try to eat Chinese as much as possible, I do backslide, which is easer in a big city like Guangzhou than in Hunan. I allow myself one burger a week – if I’m in a hurry, at the local Burger King, where the (Chinese) bacon cheeseburger is actually good; if it’s a nice day and I have time, at the Happy Monk, an Anglo-American-style pub. Its bacon cheeseburger could compete anywhere: Chinese bacon, real cheddar, dripping with juice; I use the garlic dipping sauce for the fries in place of mustard. The Happy Monk also offers a creditable Caesar salad with finely shredded chicken breast and bacon, as well as a passable plate of nachos, with avocado slices rather than guacamole. It needs far more cheese, though, and when I tried asking if shredded chicken from the Caesar salad might be added to the nachos, it was more than the waitress’s brain could handle. I will miss sitting on the Happy Monk’s patio now that the time has come to move indoors. But there’s a good Thai restaurant in the Happy Valley Mall, where my favorite dish so far is the minced beef served in lettuce-leaf tacos, along with an even more garlicky cucumber salad.

I’ve tried one French restaurant, La Seine next door to the Xinghai Concert Hall on Ersha Island, a special-occasion place to the locals. The kir was far too heavy on the cassis, but the dark, creamy mushroom soup with truffle oil was superb. I’m not sure any Provencal would recognize the orange sauce and blood orange slices on the cod Provencal — in my experience, Provencal means in a tomato-based sauced with peppers, olives and capers – but as cod a l’orange it was sensational. And a crusty French roll with butter — my first in two months.

Home again: Hunan beef.
Home again: Hunan beef.
But the best meal to date, possibly my best in the five years since I left Hunan, was dinner at a new Hunan restaurant just off campus with Josephine Song of the university’s teaching affairs office and her husband, Harry. A Hunan girl herself, Josephine knows what to look for, scouted out the restaurant and approved. The beef with lemongrass was exactly the dish Pamela Britnell and I used to order every time we went to a certain restaurant, once prompting the laoban to tell us, “You know, we have many kinds of delicious foods . . .” There were the sliced raw lotus root that I love, fried rice, stir-fried cabbage, two kinds of tofu and shrimp, all but the lotus root spiked with, if not steeped in, red, hot chili peppers. The meal cleared my sinuses, and my mind.

Only one thing could top that. Josephine has invited me home for dinner.

On deadline

Putting their heads together during the one-child assignment.
Putting their heads together during the Yangtze assignment.

Squirrel was confused. I had just handed out a sheet of paper with just one sentence:

BEIJING, Oct. 29 (Xinhua) – China will allow all couples to have two children, abandoning its decades-long one-child policy, according to a communiqué issued Thursday by the Communist Party of China.

“What are we supposed to do with this?” he asked.

“That’s up to you,” I answered. “But if I were you and had only 100 minutes until deadline, I’d start reporting it.” Others in the class had already figured that out. They jumped on the story, scouring the Internet for more information they could use before I handed out the second of five fact sheets 10 minutes later.

“I hate this already,” John grumbled from the back of the room.

“Welcome to real life. This is how you figure out if you really want to be a journalist.”

Leonard Bernstein used to own a plate that said, in Dutch: “In the concert of life, no one gets a program.” Lesson one: in a real-life newsroom, no one gets a fact sheet.

It was the sophomores’ second in-class exercise in deadline writing. The first, three weeks before, had focused on the Yangtze cruise boat accident in June that left almost 400 dead. For the second, I had thought of using the Tianjin warehouse explosion but decided the two disaster stories were too similar. Then the Chinese government handed me a gift, abandoning the one-child system of which my students are products. (Exactly one of the 24 sophomores has a sibling. Families have been fined or worse for having a second child.)

Since I can’t realistically send them out to cover the kind of local government meetings we did when I was an undergrad, I have to devise exercises that will teach them how to find facts, organize them and write news stories. They had already been exposed to such concepts as the 5 W’s (translation for non-journalists: who, what, when, where, why and sometimes how) and the inverted pyramid (lead with the most important facts, then add progressively less important details and end with the least important). For practice, I had used my Journalism 101 exercise, in which I give out sheets of jumbled facts on three classic inverted pyramid stories – the Corzine car accident, the 2008 presidential election and the plane crash that killed half of Poland’s top leadership – and had them construct news ledes, later workshopping the results in class.

Deadline writing is different. Sometimes news breaks with no warning, and you have to drop whatever you’re doing, as I had to do last week, throwing out a planned lesson in international news analysis to address the terrorist attacks in Paris. The sophomores, most of them writing on deadline for the first time, clearly felt the pressure.

For the Yangtze story, I had them choose partners – inevitably their best friends – and handed out the facts sheets. At first they didn’t realize they had been given two different sheets, with only the first two items the same. (Both began, “It was a dark and stormy night.” I had to have my fun.) “Is one right and one wrong?” Bonnie asked. “No,” I told her, “but you’ll have more than one person working a big story, getting different facts that need to be pieced together.” That was lesson two. Lesson three: the sheets contained discrepancies in facts like the numbers of people aboard the boat, how many had been rescued, how many confirmed dead and therefore how many were still missing. One team argued the figures with me for five minutes, wasting valuable writing time. “When you don’t know,” I advised them, “you say you don’t know.”

At first there was dead silence as the students digested the information, then an explosion of activity as they discussed what to do and started writing. It was immediately evident who the born journalists are, and aren’t. Gigi pounced on the story, intensity showing in her face and body language; Sheila calmly just went to work. Some found supplementary information online, and some added photos to their stories (but, curiously, no one used the three or four photos I projected onscreen as sources of descriptive material). “Do we write a headline, or does an editor do that?” John asked. “Excellent question!” I said. “In real life, reporters don’t write headlines. But at CUNY all stories are required to have heds, so go ahead.”

At the next class, after grading, we discussed the experience. “Did you feel the pressure?” I asked. General assent. “Did you feel paralyzed?” Some admitted they did. Some, especially (and predictably) the most conscientious one, had trouble letting their stories go, despite repeated “I need it now!” – just like a crack New York Times Hollywood reporter on Oscar night. Lesson four: two teams received automatic failing grades because of fact errors, especially heartbreaking for the pair who scored 59 instead of 90 for excellent additional reporting and organization.

For the second deadline assignment, I assigned partners. “You don’t always get to work with your best friend,” I explained. “Sometimes to have to work with someone you can’t stand,” as God knows I have countless times, and they with me. My real motive, though, was to pair stronger students with weaker ones in the hope that the weaker would learn from the collaboration.

This time I gave each team a single copy of each fact sheet, starting with
the one-sentence announcement, followed at intervals by sheets giving more (and somewhat confusing) information from the Party, background and statistics, reactions from ordinary citizens, and expert opinions from the United States and China.

The results were generally good. One team scored in the low 90s; most were in the 70s and 80s; and once again two teams were knocked down to 59 for fact errors, including one unlucky student who had now failed twice for the same reason. More teams than I liked had simply reorganized the facts without significantly rewriting, but the one that did rewrite made the lede worse instead of better. Everyone still needs a lot of practice.

But probably not with me. Thanks to last week’s cancellation for a sports meet, we have only four classes left, in which I need to cover interviewing skills, writing headlines versus Twitter, workshopping their final projects and course summary. These are the bare basics I feel they need to take away. The semester suddenly seems to be passing so quickly, and the sophomores have so much more to learn. In the spring, they move on to English News Gathering and Writing II – with another teacher. I think — hope — they’ll be ready.


Opera House, exterior.
Opera House, exterior.

It was time to “throw myself out into the world,” as Middle Alison says in “Fun Home,” or at least into Guangzhou’s performing arts world. I had been here two months with only one theater night, a visiting Beijing opera troupe at the campus auditorium down the street. But last week, as so often in New York, everything seemed to be happening at the same time; here as there, the season has begun. The parallel feels slightly surreal (as does the fact that, as I write, I’m listening to the New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players, whom I’ve written about for City Center Playbill, promoting their new season on

Last week, a cab driver serendipitously took me to the wrong art museum. (There are two with similar names, and despite my pointing to a map, he preferred the closer one.) It was serendipitous because the Guangdong Museum of Art had so much more to see than when I visited five years ago, but also because it’s next door to the Xinghai Concert Hall. I had been trying to find an online calendar in English for this sleek hall on the river ever since I spotted it on the night cruise. In the lobby I found not only the Guangzhou Symphony Orchestra’s season s schedule, but also flyers for the Guangzhou Jazz Festival, a night of movie music, a Menachem Pressler recital and two Vienna-style New Year’s concerts.

The first one that appealed to me was coming up that week, the symphony’s subscription concert of Mendelssohn and Rachmaninoff – each composer’s first piano concerto. Two on one program seemed odd, but they were performed by different pianists: Wang Yalun, a girl around Small Alison’s age, in a white dress with a sash tied in a big bow behind her that Alison would hate, and Sun Yingdi, a young man. He pounded the keys, at least in the first movement of the Rachmaninoff, but she had a delicate, trickling touch. Conducting was Long Yu, “China’s Herbert von Karajan . . . the most powerful figure in China’s classical music scene,” according to my old New York Times colleague Dave Barboza as quoted on the flyer.

The hall is configured much like the Berlin Phiharmonic’s home: the orchestra is in the middle, surrounded by listeners, and the cheap seats behind the musicians offer views of the conductor’s front instead of back, for a change. The acoustics are lovely, but Chinese audiences behave no better than New Yorkers. They check their smartphones throughout performances, talk with no regard for other listeners, and let their little emperors and empresses run wild. (During an encore, one father and son behind the orchestra tried to leave via the stage steps.) Two teenage girls in front of me kept talking during the concert, but at least they seemed to be discussing the pianists’ techniques. Ushers stand in the house and watch carefully, using red laser pointers to discourage bad behavior and, when necessary, entering the rows, which have enough legroom to let them.

And interior.
And interior.

The next evening, I made my first trip to the architect Zaha Hadid’s spaceship of an Opera House to see “Glengarry Glen Ross” in the smaller, 300-some-seat theater. The conversation at the ticket counter was the usual: “But it’s in Chinese.” “Yes, I know. It’s an American play I know very well. I want to hear how it sounds in Chinese.” (I refrained from adding, “That’s my idea of fun.”) David Mamet’s 1984 play about real estate agents hustling a questionable new development seemed especially a propos in today’s Guangzhou, where massive new skyscrapers are going up on every vacant lot. When I taught in Hunan, billboards near campus advertised housing developments under construction with French and Venetian themes. Why not Glengarry Glen Ross?

“Let me know what the F word is in Chinese,” wrote Georgia, chief usher at Circle in the Square, when I mentioned I was going to “Glengarry.” I didn’t hear anything over and over again that sounded as if it could be Mamet’s signature word, though at once point I was hearing a lot of dui – “right?” or “yeah.” I had thought Mamet’s sharp, staccato language might transfer well to Chinese, which I often hear as loud, abrupt and harsh, but in fact it sounded softer in translation; the park workers I had heard talking that night while waiting for my dumplings at a food stand sounded more like Mamet. Shelly Levene was as desperate as ever, but the production didn’t really come to life until the scene where the real estate office is ransacked and the actors started walking on the oversized table representing their workspace. The musical choices made me laugh: an easy-listening version of “Try to Remember” (which I often sing to my permanent neighbor Jerry Ohrbach as I walk past his grave in Upper Manhattan on my way to the pool); “Love Theme From Romeo and Juliet,” the 1968 movie of my teenage years; and the Habanera from “Carmen.”

I was back the next night, this time in the Opera Hall for Mozart’s “Magic Flute” from the Komische Oper Berlin. I had wavered; the cheap seats were sold out, and the Komische Oper has an unfortunate tendency toward Regietheater, the European trend in which directors insist on putting their own often senseless stamps on productions. (The last opera I recall seeing at the company’s home just off Unter den Linden was a version of Rossini’s normally frothy “Italiana in Algerie” in which l’Italiana is shot dead at the end for shock value.) But I wanted to see something in the Opera Hall, and “The Magic Flute” was the most appealing thing scheduled for my time in Guangzhou. (Second choice: a second-tier Russian ballet company in “The Sleeping Beauty,” “Swan Lake” and “Coppelia,” none of which I need to see again anytime soon, perhaps in this lifetime.)

It turned out to be the right choice, especially for Halloween weekend. Papageno’s birds are white owls the look like Casper the Friendly Ghost; pumping human hearts explode with love; and there’s a delightful black cat that I mistakenly thought might transform into Papagena. This arachnophobe was not pleased to see the Queen of the Night depicted as a giant knife-throwing spider, but as always her aria was worth it.

The sets and props are almost entirely animations projected onto a white wall, with precarious little ledges high above the stage for singers, presumably in safety harnesses, to stand. Standing in one spot much of the time and interacting only with projections must feel something like singing a recital. (The company brought along the Arnold Schonberg Choir Wien but used a local orchestra, the Shenzhen Symphony.) The projections didn’t always hit their marks as precisely as, say, the Zapruder film of the JFK assassination hitting Neil Patrick Harris’s T-shirt in “Assassins,” but in general they worked. (One thing that doesn’t: the hall’s hard, bare wooden steps. With latecomers admitted anytime and audience members coming and going as they please, the clacking of their heels points up a serious design flaw.) So did the silent-movie conceit, with a Buster Keatonish Papageno in a yellow suit and flat-topped hat, and narrative titles in German, with supertitles in Chinese and English. Cartoonish? Yes, but fun.

Xinghai Concert Hall.
Xinghai Concert Hall.

On Saturday night I returned to Xinghai for the week’s finale, a evening of film scores by Zhao Jiping. “That looks like ‘Raise the Red Lantern,’ ” I had thought when I had picked up the flyer, and I was right. Online research revealed it was a program by the Guangdong National Orchestra of scores by Zhao Jiping, including that film and “Farewell My Concubine.” Would it be more like the New York Philharmonic’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “Modern Times,” with the score played live, or Film Night at Tanglewood, with clips from movies scored largely by John Williams?

As it turned out, neither. No film was shown, so this was the kind of concert where, as an old boss of mine once said, “you just sit there with your feet hanging down.” That is, you actually had to listen to the music, and it was well worthwhile.

Taking the stage at Xinghai.
Taking the stage at Xinghai.

The orchestra of about 65 looked, and sounded, familiar yet different. To the conductor’s left, in place of the violins, were two dozen erhus (stringed instruments something like the Japanese shamisen); to his right, the violas were replaced by a dozen pipas (like big banjos), with cellos and basses in the usual spots. Another dozen flute and brass players sat upstage, in front of the much- and well-used percussion. Soloist Wang Shuang — dressed to the teeth first in a billowing red gown, then in a slinky gold-and-silver sequined dress – sang in that high nasal voice that Westerners may hear as a cat with its tail caught in a screen door. The audience adored her.

Without visuals or an English program, I couldn’t match the almost two hours of music to the movies I had seen, but never mind. Near the end, the composer was applauded in his fist-tier seat. The third and final encore was a clap-along march, apparently the Chinese equivalent of Strauss’s “Radetzky.”

After four nights out in a row, it is now time for an evening in front of the TV. I’m not sure when or how often I’ll be back in the concert halls; for one thing, it’s not easy getting a taxi home afterwards. But in December the Opera House has a “dance drama” called “Crested Ibises.” China’a “Firebird”? I may have to go find out.