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Honeysuckle Sweetness

Honeysuckle Sweetness   —by Jinny Batterson

By this time in June, the school year is almost over in many parts of the U.S.  In the mid-Atlantic small town where I grew up (a long time ago), the final two weeks or so of school corresponded with honeysuckle blossom season.  As my companions and I walked to and from school  (along a half mile stretch that was uphill only one way and rarely saw winter snows), we passed by several vacant lots where honeysuckle vines had insinuated themselves into the landscape. Back then, we neither knew nor cared that many honeysuckle vines were “invasive,” non-native plants that had originally been imported from their home territory in Europe or Asia as landscape plants, later going wild and displacing or choking out local woodland flowers and shrubs. What we did know, passing the knowledge down from older to younger children, was that honeysuckle blooms produced a sweet nectar that tasted really good. The true connoisseurs among us, veterans of several years of extensive trial and error, could often pick out the tastiest, juiciest blooms—yellowed flowers that had just started to wilt, but not yet dried out.

The current-day internet, our latest purveyor of both useful and useless knowledge, provides step-by-step instructions for proper honeysuckle tasting at the following site:  http://www.instructables.com/id/Honeysuckle%3A-Harvesting-the-Sweet-Nectar-of-Life/, which also gifts us with additional basic plant information:  “There are nearly 180 different known honeysuckle species, most native to Europe and Asia, with only about twenty indigenous to the US. Honeysuckle is most often a vine, usually growing to a max of 20 feet.” 

On a recent neighborhood walk near where I now live, I found a set of honeysuckle vines. No one else was nearby. I cast aside dignity and renewed my acquaintance with this late spring/early summer treat. My skills were rusty, so the first several blossoms I picked yielded little in the way of nectar.  After a while, I began to get the hang of the harvest again. Before I wandered further, I had thoroughly sweetened my day. In a few science-based online articles about what makes honeysuckle flowers so sweet, there are chemical names I can hardly pronounce. Researchers note that hummingbirds and butterflies are attracted to many honeysuckle species.

I’ll leave the in-depth analysis to others, and settle for the seasonal sensation of having my tongue “invaded” by honeysuckle sweetness. 

Statues and Time Immemorial

Statues and Time Immemorial   —by Jinny Batterson

Growing up in our long-generation family, I sometimes would hear an older relative talk about an attitude, custom, or monument that had been around since time immemorial.  I figured the expression meant a very long time ago; rarely did I wonder what attitude, custom, or monument was under discussion. As we approach this year’s Memorial Day, I’ve thought a good bit more about what we memorialize, what we don’t, and how an aspect of human life continues to be remembered, even into “time immemorial.”

The past year or two has seen a lot of controversy about prominent memorials to Confederate soldiers and politicians.  Most of these memorials were erected well after the end of the American civil war, not as a tribute to the sacrifices of ordinary soldiers, whose graves generally were elsewhere. Rather, the statues were strategically placed to reinforce Jim Crow segregation and to buttress attitudes and institutions of white supremacy. 

During the decades when I lived in Richmond, Virginia, a former capital of the Confederacy, I got frequent exposure to several equestrian Confederate monuments along a mile or so stretch of expensive vintage homes on tree-lined Monument Avenue: J.E.B. Stuart, Robert E. Lee, and Stonewall Jackson sat astride their mounts at prominent intersections. Near where I currently live, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is embroiled in controversy about the removal or contextualization of “Silent Sam,” a Confederate memorial statue erected in a highly visible location on that campus in 1913, funded jointly by the United Daughters of the Confederacy and UNC alumni.

Back when Stuart, Lee, Jackson, and Silent Sam were installed on their pedestals, I hadn’t been born yet, but I was around when Richmond debated placing a statue of African-American tennis hero and humanitarian Arthur Ashe along Monument a bit further west. After substantial controversy about the erection and placement of the Ashe statue, Richmond’s City Council eventually approved a Monument Avenue location. Sited at the corner of Roseneath Road, the statue was unveiled in 1996 on what would have been Ashe’s 53rd birthday. Ashe has no horse, but is standing on his own two feet, holding aloft a tennis racket in one hand and a set of books in the other. A group of four children gesture eagerly toward him. Ashe had given permission for the casting of his likeness shortly before he died in 1993 of complications from a blood-transfusion-acquired AIDS infection.

During recent decades, statues of several former dictatorial leaders, including Lenin, Stalin, Moammar Qaddafi, and Saddam Hussein, have been toppled or destroyed as their regimes or dominance came to an end. Will any of these leaders be remembered centuries or millennia from now? Will they instead share a fate outlined in Shelley’s romantic poem about a fallen monument to Ozymandias, “king of kings”?:   

“Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

If, eons from now, earthlings continue to create and honor statues, my bets for meaningful reminders are not on the cruel or despotic, but rather on heroes of sportsmanship and learning like Arthur Ashe.

Ladders and Circles

Ladders and Circles    —by Jinny Batterson

On a recent Sunday morning, our congregation sang “We are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder,” an adaptation of a 19th century African-American spiritual, in a service about accountability. Even though the word “accountability” has been mouthed by those in positions of power for more than a human generation—holding teachers accountable for students’ performance, holding office holders accountable for appropriate sexual conduct, and so on—many of our current social, political, and environmental structures are not accountable, either to human or to planetary well-being.  If I understood the hymn’s relevance, its implication was that our society has failed to provide needed ladders for those in poverty or distress to climb their way out, or even to reach an escape ladder at all.  Our minister urged us to consider both personal and societal changes to bring our behavior into closer alignment with our professed values of human dignity and worth.  Later in the day, I got a second dose of “accountability audit” from social activist William Barber II, who came to Raleigh to speak at a different congregation as part of the intensification of a nationwide Poor People’s Campaign. Barber combined individuals’ stories of living in poverty with statistics about our worsening wealth imbalances, war profiteering, voter suppression, and degradation of the natural environment. He highlighted the huge gaps between what we profess as a nation founded on the principle of a “more perfect union” and the ways many of our current institutions operate.

Through both morning and evening church, I kept the image of ladders in mind. But I also remembered a different shape. In our UU hymnal, “Singling the Living Tradition,” we’ve frequently borrowed hymn tunes from other Christian traditions and tweaked the lyrics to make the language less full of “almighty God” talk and more inclusive of the glorious spectrum of humanity. During the morning’s service, I noticed that on the page facing the hymn about Jacob’s ladder was a more recent addition, “We Are Dancing Sarah’s Circle.”

Most of my life I’ve been uncomfortable with a strictly hierarchical view of the world. Of course when I was a child, I knew that my parents were nearly always in charge of our family, but as I grew up, I increasingly found that overly general mentions of ladders and of “higher” or “lower” could set my teeth on edge. I often prefer images of circles, where power and movement can flow in many directions—in, out, up, down, right, left, forward, back. I have yet to come up with any consistent long-term way to balance my needs for hierarchies and fairly fixed structures with my needs to remain fluid and adaptable—the balance shifts over time. Implying a gendered component from the names “Jacob” and “Sarah” in the facing hymns would be imperfect and incomplete—the term “pecking order,” after all, refers to hens, not to roosters. 

Most of those in positions of formal leadership struggle with issues of hierarchy and ladders, I believe. Aside from pressing a “big button” and potentially blowing the planet to pieces, or firing advisors who are perceived as insufficiently loyal, our national chief executive has few powers as an individual. He/she must rely on the acquiescence of others to carry out his/her commands. He/she must cajole, inspire, and/or bully others into doing his/her bidding. 

Those in circles of various kinds face other challenges—determining who is in charge of what can be confusing. Diffuse power can lead to overall powerlessness. Yet in many ways circles are more resilient. The absence or death of a single member, or even of a proportion of the overall membership, does not necessarily destroy a circle. Often new members step in to fill the gaps. Circle members learn a variety of skills, so that leadership can rotate with little decrease in overall effectiveness. A different hymn, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” written in the early 20th century and frequently adapted since, speaks to the long life of circles.

So let’s celebrate ladders and work to make them more accessible to all who need them, but let’s not forget that circles are important, too.

Birthing a Book

Birthing a Book    —by Jinny Batterson

As I near the May 1, 2018 official launch date of my first-ever published book, Where the Great Wall Ends: A China Memoir, I’ve been pondering the similarities and differences between creating a child and creating a book.  Both are exciting; both can be scary at times; both involve some pain and expense; both require time and energy. 

The specifics, however, can vary. The gestation period for a baby falls within a somewhat predictable range, typically 7-9 months. For a book, the period from first inkling to publication can be as short as a few months or as long as most of a lifetime. The process of going from initial cells/initial words to baby or book nearly always involves a certain amount of risk and uncertainty. There are times in both processes when I’ve been uncomfortable, when I’ve questioned why I ever decided to embark on this adventure in the first place, when what I’ve wanted most of all is for the “pregnancy” to reach completion.

In both types of birthing, I’ve benefited immensely from the help and advice of those with broader, deeper experience than mine. It is only half jokingly that I’ve complimented one of my editors on her midwifing skills. Again, some differences: the labor pains for a book are less physical, but can still be intense—for a couple of weeks now, I’ve often awakened in the middle of the night with a stray thought about one more person I’d like to alert to the book’s impending arrival. I’ve had pangs of regret for not completing the publication process sooner, so some of those who’ve already left the planet might have had a chance to view the finished product.

So now, as my mom used to say once she’d completed the dress rehearsal for a musical or theater production, it’s all over but the shouting. What sort of world will greet my China memoir?  What changes in global politics and natural environment will Where the Great Wall Ends experience as it “grows up”?  These are factors beyond my control.

I can only hope that I’ve written as true an account as I can of my experiences, and that some of what I’ve lived through will help generate greater understanding in the lives of my readers. Happy birthday, book!   

Exceeding Expectations–Three Score Years and Eleven

Exceeding Expectations: Three Score Years and Eleven    —by Jinny Batterson

My birthday happens this month.  As I age, the years tend to go by more and more quickly. Overall, it’s been a marvelous ride so far. 

Having a spring birthday is a quirk of my arrival on earth for which I’m very grateful—spring is generally such a hopeful time of year.  Most of my birthdays have long since slipped out of memory, though a few have associations that persist: 

—my 5th birthday, the first after the birth of my younger sister, when my mother staged outdoor scavenger games in our small yard. The weather was wonderfully warm and sunny; several friends came to enjoy prizes and homemade birthday cake. For one glorious day, I didn’t have to share the limelight with the cute, dimpled new baby.

—my 11th birthday, the final year I spent in the cramped first house our family lived in, before moving to a much larger house that summer.

—my 21st birthday, when I was nearly finished college and got engaged over my birthday weekend to my future husband.

—my 30th birthday, when I was pregnant with our younger child, and we staged an “over the hill party” with friends and colleagues.

—my 50th birthday, when our children were both grown and living elsewhere and I treated myself to a decadent chocolate cake.

At the time I was born, between 1940 and 1950, life expectancy for white women was between 67 and 72 years, increasing each decade. The small liberal arts school I was attending when my twentieth birthday arrived had a college springtime tradition: attaching short poems to a weeping cherry tree in front of an ivy-festooned brick classroom building. Often a handwritten copy of A.E. Housman’s “Loveliest of Trees” was among the offerings:

Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.

Now, of my threescore years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.

And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.

Back then three score years and ten seemed impossibly old—older even than my parents, aunts, and uncles in our long-generation family.

In the part of North Carolina where I now live, early spring days in 2018 have seen more than one frosting of actual snow, so warmer days and cherry trees hung with blooms are most welcome.  In our woodlands, white-blossomed cherries share center stage with white and pink dogwoods plus redbud trees whose smallish flowers are more pink than red. Along major roads and interstates this year, an extensive array of big, blowsy lavender wisteria clusters has draped adjacent trees. 

And I’ve had the chance to watch the “woodland ride” now for threescore years and eleven—a wonderful bonus. Happy springtime, y’all, wherever you spend it!       

Radio Mille Collines and the Limits to Free Speech

Radio Mille Collines and the Limits to Free Speech   —by Jinny Batterson

Each of us beyond infancy is, I believe, a product of both nature and nurture. Genetic traits and predispositions we’re born with get adjusted over time by our experiences and our successive re-interpretations of those experiences. I seem to have been born with a predisposition toward nervousness, so it’s probable that the name-calling and mud-slinging that too often inhabit media and political spaces in current-day America feel more threatening and more repugnant to me than they might to someone with a less nervous temperament.

Still, my “nurture” plays a role as well. During the 1980s, I spent two years in the economically impoverished central African country of Burundi working on rural development. Before I went, I did as much research as I could in those pre-internet days about the country I’d be living in for a time: Burundi was for most of its history a sparsely populated, geographically isolated mountainous kingdom with a preponderance of rural herders and farmers. Then, starting in the late 19th century, Burundi became first a German, then a Belgian colony, administered along with neighboring Rwanda. Neither colonial power provided much development support. During their four-plus decades of rule, Belgian administrators often used “divide and conquer” tactics, exacerbating tensions between the area’s two main ethnic groups: the Tutsis, most of whom owned and herded cattle, and the Hutus, who tended instead to farm multiple small plots owned communally by extended families in the Burundian and Rwandan hillsides, or “collines.” Since its early 1960s independence, Burundi’s trajectory has included political assassinations plus a massive ethnic conflict in the early 1970s that killed an estimated 300,000 Burundians. 

When I first arrived, I spoke none of the local language, Kirundi. I had little notion of which of my coworkers and neighbors were Tutsi and which were Hutu. Physically similar, with the same language and skin tone, Tutsis and Hutus were sometimes characterized as “talls” and “shorts” in an exaggeration of one trait that distinguishes them at the extremes. Because of intermarriage, a fair number of Burundians were and are a mixture of both groups. During my stay, I gradually built up a very basic Kirundi vocabulary. Though fluency remained beyond my grasp, I understood enough so that when I attended a local soccer game about halfway through my assignment, I recognized the derogatory use of a word meaning “short,” yelled at the opposing team by some nearby spectators. Not quite as offensive as the “n” word in American speech, the epithet was still intended to be disrespectful. 

During the 1980s, Burundi and neighboring Rwanda were relatively calm, but starting in 1993 both countries again descended into wholesale bloodletting, with the widely publicized Rwandan genocide of 1994 and a less-media-covered simmering civil war in Burundi.  Part of the build-up to the Rwandan genocide consisted of incitements by a privately owned radio station, Radio Mille Collines (Radio of a Thousand Hillsides), against ethnic Tutsis and moderates of all groups. According to a summary by the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies:

“From October 1993 to late 1994, Radio-Television-des-Mille-Collines (RTLM) was used by Hutu leaders to advance an extremist Hutu message and anti-Tutsi disinformation, spreading fear of a Tutsi genocide against Hutu, identifying specific Tutsi targets or areas where they could be found, and encouraging the progress of the genocide. In April 1994, Radio Rwanda (the official government station) began to advance a similar message, speaking for the national authorities, issuing directives on how and where to kill Tutsis, and congratulating those who had already taken part.”  The Institute has published detailed transcripts of many of these station broadcasts in English, French, or Kinyarwanda, the Rwandan local language.

After the genocide and a change of government in Rwanda, international criminal proceedings brought to trial some of the political leaders of genocide-era Rwanda, along with some of the media leaders who had helped foment hatred with their increasingly strident broadcasts. Not all ringleaders could be located and brought to justice, but 92  high-ranking defendants were indicted for their roles in a 100-day rampage that killed an estimated 800,000 Rwandans.

As we approach the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I sometimes fear for my own country and for our planet. Derogatory speech is again on the rise globally, whether from politicians, media pundits, or just disgruntled citizens and residents. Americans belonging to groups who have in the past been targets of repression and/or genocide—African-Americans, Jews, immigrants, LGBTQ persons, among others—feel the impact most deeply, but it affects us all.  As one European Jewish leader put it, “While hate speech and incitement is far too often dismissed as bigoted ranting or merely painful words, it can also serve as an important warning sign for much more severe consequences. Almost every genocide, ethnic cleansing or inter-ethnic conflict in modern history was preceded by violent words. We witnessed inflammatory public speech rise steadily before outbreaks of mass violence, whether in Nazi Germany, Rwanda or in the former Yugoslavia.”   

Of course we need to be able to express opposing views, but we need to be able to express them civilly, rather than by using name-calling, blaming, or personal attacks. Free speech is not the same as hate speech or incitement—please let us learn and teach the difference before it’s too late. 

   

Teaching about Easter in Zhengzhou, China

Teaching About Easter in Zhengzhou, China  —by Jinny Batterson

By now, I’ve spent several springtimes in various parts of China. In most places, I’ve not been very aware of Easter. Christianity is not a strong part of Chinese tradition, and at certain times and places the modern Chinese government has discouraged or even banned celebrations of the Easter holiday. Of course, most of our Easter decorations are made in China. In 2018, over 200 Chinese companies manufactured or distributed Easter decorations —might a bit of the festival’s flavor rub off on factory workers who fashion bunnies and candy and greeting cards? 

The first time I taught English in China, in 2002 in the central provincial capital of Zhengzhou, Henan, I happened to be there when Western Easter fell. Easter Sunday would occur about midway through the several weeks I spent at a private high school that specialized in preparing students for advanced study overseas. The previous week, I’d noticed that the city’s most upscale hotel had a rain-resistant outdoor display of larger than life bunnies and decorated plastic eggs. 

“Aha,” I thought, “an intercultural teaching opportunity!” 

Not wanting to be viewed as a religious proselytizer, something uniformly frowned on by Chinese authorities, I scoured the city’s markets and stores for the more secular accoutrements of this springtime festival, with help and advice from the school principal’s wife. After several shopping expeditions, I’d scrounged up jelly beans and chocolate bunnies, plus fabric, poster paper, glue, staples, and fake flowers to make Easter bonnets. I scheduled a “foreign teacher’s Sunday afternoon Easter social” for one of the larger indoor classrooms and publicized the event to all my classes and to the school staff. Although Sunday was not an official teaching day, the social drew the majority of my students,  plus a few of the Chinese teachers and staff.

“Many American towns,” I explained, “hold afternoon Easter parades. Everyone is glad when the weather turns pleasant after the chill of winter. People dress in their finest spring clothes, including elaborate flowered hats for the women. Sometimes people bring their dogs along and put costumes on them, too. In my city of Richmond, Virginia, people walk up and down about a mile of a major street which has been temporarily closed to automobile traffic. They show off their fine outfits and greet their neighbors.”

Some of the Zhengzhou teen girl students crafted elaborate flowered hats. The most chic pretended that our room’s center aisle was a fashion runway. Some English got spoken, if the conversations rarely moved much beyond the level of “Nice hat!” All the candy and snacks got eaten.

This year I’m spending springtime in the U.S.  Easter is fast approaching. I miss the pageantry and excitement that I’ve usually noticed in previous years spent in America.  The Christian message of forgiveness and redemption seems notably absent—we often are too busy sniping and snarling at each other, discussing the latest scandals on social media and rarely talking with our physical neighbors.  I wonder sometimes whether my Zhengzhou students might have been closer to the spirit of Easter than our purportedly Christian-majority U.S. has become.  How would it be to put aside our perceived differences and to take an afternoon stroll together? Even if our conversations rarely get beyond “Nice hat!”, perhaps we could make a start toward healing some of our self-inflicted societal fractures. 

Spring Hopes Eternal

Spring Hopes Eternal   –by Jinny Batterson

It was a rough winter–
Seesawing temperatures, sniffles, scandals
shootings,
Bluster and traded insults
masquerading as diplomacy.

Yet spring again comes:
Dandelions, daffodils do their duty, even in snow,
As sun-colored harbingers of later blossoms.
Local ponds welcome migrating flocks;
The woods are awash in birdsong.

The soul stirs, throwing off its
somnolent blanket.
What new creation will we grow
now that spring has come again?

 

 

Dragon Kites on Tiananmen Square

Dragon Kites on Tiananmen Square    —by Jinny Batterson

(Portions of this post have been adapted from my upcoming book, Where the Great Wall Ends: A China Memoir, due out later this year.)

A growing number of locations world-wide are sponsoring kite festivals. In the town where I now live, March winds bring out people of all ages, eager to enjoy the outdoors as winter ebbs, to search for just the right spot and orientation to launch their creations skyward. The basic homemade wrapping-paper-and-balsa-strut diamond shaped kites I flew as a child pale in comparison with the elaborate heirloom and contemporary kites that participate in some of these festivals. A quick internet search turned up an American-based kite flyers association with members in 25 countries, with at least one U.S.-based festival in every month of the year.  (http://kite.org/activities/events/event-calendar/)

One blustery spring day in 2000 on Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China, I got to see a few of the world’s most cherished, most elaborate kites. My husband and I were partway through a tourist stay in Beijing. Our first two days had been filled with organized guided tours: the Forbidden City, a nearby section of the Great Wall, the Summer Palace, some of the subterranean tunnels built under the modern city during the 1960’s and 1970’s to shelter residents in the event of a bombing attack by “the Soviets or another country,” as our tour guide put it. Now we had a free day to explore on our own. We decided to return to the vicinity of Tiananmen Square.

As we approached, we noticed several box kites bobbing and weaving in the sky above.  Once on the square itself, we found several older men preparing their heirloom dragon kites for flight. The kites, nearly fifty feet long, had extensive tails made of circles of paper glued to lightweight wooden rings, all linked together by three parallel strings that ran the kites’ entire length and could be used for steering. The rings were decorated with sturdy feathers for stability. Only when the tail was almost fully aloft was the dragon-shaped head of the kite attached and quickly pulled skyward. We watched until our necks cramped from craning upward. We had little language to express our amazement—Jim gave a thumbs up sign. Perhaps our rapt attention was language enough.

Where the Great Wall Meets the Desert

Where the Great Wall Meets the Desert   —by Jinny Batterson

(This entry is adapted from excerpts of Where the Great Wall Ends: A China Memoir, due out later this year.)

In August 2006, I got to see the western end of the Great Wall, near Jaiyuguan, a small city in Gansu province. Many years earlier, I’d first seen part of the wall near Beijing on a guided group tour. On this 2006 visit, my husband Jim and I were headed in stages by train to our first year-long China teaching assignment, in far western Xinjiang. We hadn’t originally planned to view the western terminus of the Great Wall, but fate (and some poor planning on our part) had landed us in Jaiyuguan for an overnight stay.   

We’d been able to get from our initial arrival city of Beijing as far as Jaiyuguan with the assistance of English-speaking Chinese friends and helpful travel agents. The further we got from Beijing, the fewer local people we knew.  Also, the less likely we were to encounter English-capable travel agents. Once we arrived in Jaiyuguan, we knew no one. We’d met no one on the train we could ask for help. We got ourselves and our luggage off onto the station platform. Then I approached the station clerk to buy tickets that evening for the next stage of our westward journey. I got stonewalled. Pulling out my phrase book, trying different dates, I got repeated exposure to a Chinese expression that’s become one of my least favorites: “Mei you,” (pronounced like the abbreviated version of mayonnaise), meaning roughly, “Don’t have.”

Stymied as far as immediate train travel was concerned, we located a helpful taxi driver who guided us to a comfortable tourist hotel near Jaiyuguan’s city center. Luckily we were able to arrange at least one night’s stay there. After we’d settled into our hotel room, we explored a nearby city park, ate dinner at a local restaurant, checked out some small shops, then spent a quiet night’s sleep away from a clanking, crowded train.

The following morning, we decided to do a little local touring. Using sign language, a bilingual tourist map of the area, and some basic Mandarin, we engaged a taxi to take us to the fort at the “First and Greatest Pass under Heaven,” the westernmost outpost of the Great Wall. Our driver, a middle-aged woman, would wait for about an hour while we toured, then return us to our hotel in town.

The fort was several miles west, straddling the narrowest portion of a corridor between two high hills. Our map’s brief commentary explained that it had been built to guard against barbarian invaders who could descend toward China through the pass.  Much of the fort had recently been reconstructed. It was tall, square, thick, appropriately forbidding, with concentric sets of walls and gates to keep invaders out and soldiers in. It had its own water supply. A holding pond to one side supported a luxuriant growth of shoreline willows. From the fort’s highest walls, I could see nearby wall remnants that were little more than crumbling mounds of packed earth in a parched landscape.

I saw few other foreigners. There was little English-language signage to explain the construction and history of this portion of the wall. Then a Chinese dad who sported a T-shirt advertising a Charlottesville, Virginia, pizza shop engaged me in conversation and provided some additional information:

“The fort is built mainly of rammed earth. Its initial construction occurred during the Ming Dynasty, starting in the 14th century. In addition to being a military fort, it was also a trading post along the Silk Road between China and the West,” he told me.

When I asked how he’d come by his excellent English and his American-themed shirt, the man told me he was a cardiologist who’d done part of his training at the University of Virginia’s Medical Center. Before I could ask many more questions, he politely bid me good-bye, rounded up his family, and departed the scene in an air-conditioned minivan that looked a great deal more comfortable than our taxi.     

Remnants of the Great Wall near Jaiyuguan, Gansu in northwest China