Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Take the Museum Back to School

Yes, it’s September already. Long, lazy, unstructured days are about to become regimented schooldays full of homework, standardized tests, and organized after school activities. Sure, teachers do everything they can to make learning exciting and productive, but there is only so much they can do with the curriculum and resources they are given…

Do not despair! The San Diego Chinese Historical Museum is ready and willing to come into classrooms and welcome students into its galleries to brighten up schooldays with authentic ethnic flair. About 3,000 students experience Classroom Exhibit Programs or visit the museum in person each year.

"But my kids go to great schools with awesome teachers," you say? "Why should I talk to these educational rock stars about museum education programs?" you wonder. Well, here are a few things we offer to complement your kids’ education:

New Faces

Even when students love their teachers, new voices and teaching styles can help to recapture their attention. They also appreciate it when someone working in the “real world” takes time out of his or her day to come talk to them. Even Confucius himself said, “When friends come from afar, isn't it a joy?”


Kids love Halloween, and not just because of candy. They just enjoy the fun of acting like someone or something else. SDCHM lessons use kids’ natural inclination towards theatricality to put them in the shoes of important historical figures. Instead of just learning names, dates, and deeds, they get a feel for the motivations and experiences of real people.

Hands-on Activities

Any parent knows that kids love to touch things, get their hands dirty, and then touch even more things. Paint, scissors, magnets, and glue all play various roles in our education programs. Even big kids enjoy using these traditional supplies for more advanced projects like making “wood” blocks to print Chinese characters. Our museum tour includes several things we want them to touch to give kids a tactile learning experience. 

Arts and Creativity

It’s unfortunate that there is no standardized test for art or federal benchmark for creativity, so these skills tend to be de-emphasized and under-funded in today’s schools. But the museum has discovered how to smuggle some creativity into the curriculum through having students recreate ancient Chinese inventions, try their hands at Chinese calligraphy, or plan their own voyages of exploration.  


American history and Western Civilization are important topics, but a Eurocentric education cannot prepare our children for a globalized world. SDCHM takes a global approach to history, reveals the troublesome history of Asian immigration to the U.S., and shares the contribution Asian Pacific Islanders have made to the San Diego community since its earliest days. We also teach about pan-Asian cultural traditions like the Lunar New Year and the Moon Festival.

Local Community

The San Diego Chinese Historical Museum is a local nonprofit dedicated to collecting, preserving, and sharing artifacts relevant to Chinese American and Chinese culture and history. Booking an education program not only enriches your children’s education, it also supports a cornerstone of the local Asian American community.

Learn more about SDCHM’s education programs here:

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

A Christmas with Chinese Characteristics

 Two years ago, I spent the holiday season in Xining西寧, the capital of Qinghai 青海 Province. This city sits on the Tibetan plateau, over 1,000 miles from Beijing and the modern metropolises of China’s east coast. It is one of the last places on earth one would expect to find Christmas cheer, but it still manages to find its way there in the most unusual ways.

There are a surprising number of foreigners living in this city infused with Tibetan and Hui Muslim culture. They teach English, run coffee shops, or study Chinese or Tibetan language. Many are surreptitious Christian missionaries, but my unexpected encounters with Christmas had only the most tangential links with Christianity. If you think that Christmas in the U.S. has become too commercial and divorced from spirituality, perhaps the Chinese version that unapologetically celebrates commerce and generally ignores religion will make you feel a little better.

"Revolution is not a dinner party..." Mao Zedong
 During winter in Xining, and many other Chinese cities, the face of Santa Claus is everywhere. His disembodied head, with ample beard sprouting holiday trinkets, appears on virtually every shop window in Xining’s shopping district. Even a Cultural Revolution-themed restaurant gets into the spirit. This chain nostalgically celebrates the ‘60s and ‘70s, when all Chinese lived on communes and ate out of one big pot, while conveniently ignoring the era’s strict dogmatism and suppression of any foreign, religious, traditional, or non-Maoist ideas. Santa Claus, a symbol of everything deemed evil during this period, decorates the glass doors that open onto a gold bust of Mao Zedong. I can just picture tourists fleeing in terror as the late chairman's body rolls over in its crystal coffin on display in Tiananmen 天安門 Square.

It's Chinese Christmas, Charlie Brown!
Santa is such a ubiquitous image that as a white man with a beard, I was often called “Santa Claus” or 聖誕老人, literally “Christmas Man.” Perhaps Mao would be comforted by the fact that I more often received the moniker of his personal favorite bearded white guy: Karl Marx.  

Of course, I never witnessed anyone masquerading as the father of Communism, but Chinese Santa Claus impersonators often make appearances at public wintertime events. To my knowledge, the strange American custom of having children pose for pictures on the lap of a strange man who works in a shopping mall has thus far not caught on in China, but Santas show up for all sorts of photo ops. I met a couple of Chinese Saint Nicks at the opening of a Snow and Ice Festival at a ski resort in the mountains outside Xining. They were hanging out with Mickey and Minnie Mouse, of course. While multiple Santas might cause confusion and heartbreak among American children, teams of Santas are par for the course in China.  

Little Santas on the way to the mall
Many Chinese children experience Christmas and other foreign novelties while learning basic facts about American culture in conjunction with study of the English language, a standard part of the curriculum for most Chinese public schools. During December, a foreign teacher asked me to fill in for her during her school’s Christmas field trip. I joined a crowd of elementary school students as they rode chartered buses to a shopping mall (where else?). On the way, I led them in singing “I wish you a Merry Christmas.” I tried to teach them the first verse (“Good tidings we bring…”), but they stubbornly continued singing the only words they had learned, “I wish you a merry Christmas and a happy new year!” After singing the same phrase hundreds, maybe thousands of times, we met their parents at a grocery store in the mall. There, they picked out items that they could name in English for their parents to buy. My job was to stand at the checkout and verify that they could correctly name their purchases. To these kids (or at least their teachers) speaking English and buying stuff was what Christmas was all about.   

I'm dreaming of a pink Christmas,
because white is the color of mourning.
However, Chinese Christmas is not just the modern American holiday with commercial characteristics emphasized and religious aspects excised. Some traditions are Chinese originals, as far as I know. A Chinese friend called me on Christmas, saying that he thought of me while eating an apple on Christmas Eve. No, there is no special connection between either of us and the fruit. They say that the word for Christmas Eve in Chinese (ping’an ye 平安夜 ("silent night") sounds like the word for apple (pingguo 蘋果). Maybe they are closer in Cantonese or some other dialect. Regardless, many stores sell apples in fancy wrappers in December for use as gifts. My friend mentioned eating an apple as if it was a timeless Christmas Eve tradition, not realizing that few Americans would recognize any connection between the two.

A Chinese New Year "tree"
with Christmas characteristics
There is even one unusual and mysterious aspect of Christmas that is omnipresent in Xining year round. Instead of leaving garbage cans on the curb for regularly scheduled collection, garbage trucks blare music over loudspeakers to alert people to bring out the trash. Every day in Xining, one can hear them coming from blocks away, blaring Jingle Bells, I Wish You a Merry Christmas, or Joy to the World. I guess foreign songs and public waste collection both share an association with modernity. And perhaps the upbeat tunes lend some cheer to the dirty job of waste collection, even though they are liable to cause hearing damage at the decibel levels used.  Or maybe this is a subtle effort by Communist hard-liners to associate foreign religions and capitalist excess with rubbish. 

Christmas is not a state-recognized holiday in China, and for most Chinese, the day itself comes and goes with little to no observances. In 2012, I went to dinner on Christmas night at a Tibetan restaurant with an American English teacher and some of her Tibetan friends. We talked and feasted and I sheepishly accepted a small gift from someone I just met, with nothing to give in exchange. The Chinese have a well-developed culture of gift-giving, which is not relegated to holidays, and this was neither the first nor the last time I felt guilty for being unable to adequately return a gift. But the one gift I vividly remember from that night was neither wrapped nor purchased, nor did I understand a word of it. A Tibetan girl who also felt sheepish because she had not brought a gift, sang us a Tibetan folk song that described her homeland, the different regions, customs, dialects, and people. It was simple, beautiful, and heartfelt, a perfect gift that you will not find in any mall or anywhere in the Western world. The only thing it shares with most conventional gifts is the fact that it was made in China.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Laobaixing 老百姓: What’s in a Name?

Perpetually Dazzled, an exhibit of paintings by Li Huai currently on display at the Chuang Archive and Learning Center includes eight pairs of portraits named with eight common surnames: Wang , Zhang  , Zhou , Hu , Cheng , Huang , Liu , and Zhao . More names are given to works painstakingly produced in the style of religious icons, but in these pieces, the space usually reserved for a sacred image is a murky field of blue and black. A series of “chandeliers” painted with Chinese ink, also features Chinese names, but this time they are written in Roman letters that form flecks of light emanating from a darkly luminous center. To better grasp this imagery, it is necessary to ponder the significance of Chinese surnames and the situation of the laobaixing 老百姓in modern Chinathe common people who are called the “old hundred surnames.” 

Legendarily, the ancestor of all Chinese people, Huangdi 皇帝, the Yellow Emperor, gave 14 surnames to his sons, and these became the origin of surnames in China. Emperors honored loyal vassals and heroic generals by granting them prestigious names. Peasants often took the name of local rulers, and others adopted names of the places in which they lived. Some new names emerged when “barbarian” names were transliterated from non-Chinese languages. Sometimes people had to adopt new surnames because their ancestral names shared characters with the emperor’s name, which no one was allowed to utter. A surname could denote a sense of belonging to the Chinese empire, to a geographic region, or to a village, many of which were (and some still are) made up of people who all share one surname. Thus, names represent power, signifying who is connected to the emperor and who is connected to the land.
Today, the term laobaixing 老百姓 or “old hundred surnames” is a common term used to refer to common people. This phrase is derived from a Song Dynasty 宋朝 (960-1279 CE) text called “Old Hundred Surnames” 百家姓 that consists of 411 surnames composed into a rhyming poem, beginning with Zhao , the Song emperors surname. Generations of young boys have memorized this text to learn basic Chinese characters. The text's name indicates that of all these names, 100 were by far the most common. Today, there are about 3,100 surnames in use, but 100 of them still account for 85% of the Chinese population. Thus, the term laobaixing is commonly used to indicate the “average Joe;” it distinguishes everyday citizens in contrast to the rich and powerful.

Conjuring an image of a simpler time when China could be reduced to a hundred families can be a unifying influence on Chinese society, but the term laobaixing also separates the average, everyday citizens from those in power. The granting of surnames is also a means of ordering and controlling the masses of laobaixing by tying them to a lineage, a class, and a location. The phrase laobaixing can indicate a simple, but wholesome “Joe Sixpack” or the unknown “John Doe,” but it also carries the connotation of dirty, unwashed, uneducated, and uncouth masses.
During the opening of Li Huai’s exhibit, a guest asked the artist why the faces in her work look dark and anguished, and the artist explained that they do not represent the well-groomed elites of Shanghai or Beijing, but the common laobaixing she met while traveling in rural Jiangxi 江西 Province.  She also explained that the vacant icons covered in gold leaf represent the spiritual vacuum left by the decline of Maoism. Chairman Mao dominated the life of all mainland Chinese during Li’s youth, but now China has passed into a gilded age of materialism, and there is no single figure to fill the space in such icons, except perhaps oneself, or the gold one craves.  Many visitors are surprised to see familiar Roman letters spelling out Chinese surnames on the chandeliers, and Li explained that she made this choice to represent the cosmopolitanism and modern aspirations prevalent among Chinese today, who study English, use English names, and love clothing festooned with Roman letters, just like Americans love Chinese character tattoos.
Li Huai captures names and images of the laobaixing in traditional Chinese ink, but in very nontraditional ways. Tying it all together is one black and white photograph of a doorway in a Chinese village. A scrap of propaganda art that still adheres to it is painted bright red. The work is entitled “There, there! 哪兒!哪兒!” evoking a tourist excitedly pointing out this nearly forgotten piece of history, a remnant of an era in which the laobaixing were simultaneously lionized rhetorically and victimized mercilessly. Today’s laobaixing are still struggling, but hopeful, irrevocably attached to the past, but inexorably striding into the future. 100 surnames still account for the vast majority of the Chinese populace, but what it means to be part of this mass is constantly changing.

Come see Li Huai’s art while you can! The exhibition closes on Dec. 6,2014.

Now, you can flex your power as a laobaixing by conserving energy and saving on your power bill. SDG&E’s new app allows you to monitor your daily energy use, view bills and make payments from your phone, and access up-to-date power outage information. Download it for free here: