PERSONAL NOTE: I decided to share my book with friends and students in mainland China because it costs too much to order a copy from USA. Enjoy it and share it with people you care and love. Peace, Steve, USA march 7, 2019 firstname.lastname@example.org blog – https://getting2knowyou-china.com
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One afternoon I was on my bicycle waiting for a student to meet me at the North Gate to the campus, when suddenly I was happily distracted by a huge potted plant, sitting right at the entrance next to the gate. And usually there is a pair of them, one on the left, the other on right side of the gate. Symmetry in aesthetics rules supreme in China, especially in architectural designs, landscaping and interior decorations, embodying the principles of balance and harmony in nature, and in the world around us. Instead of a pair of stone lions, like those in front of Peking University, symbolically to ward off evil spirits, we have two huge potted plants guarding the North Gate to the campus. These are not your regular ornamental bonsai plants on display, but huge trees now stunted, because they are grown in pots that have limited their potential for further growth and expansion. I have seen some spectacular potted plants in China, that I have not seen anywhere in the United States. My guess is that the land in many places is not suitable for planting, and so landscaping using pots, big and small, is very common in China. And with urbanization in every corner, people somehow yearn for that small plot of land to grow some onions and vegetables. Now living in small prison-like apartments in many highrisers, many of them are using pots, Styrofoam containers—square, round, rectangular—to grow something, from flowers to tomatoes, beans, and other organic vegetables.
My sister in the United Kingdom lives in one of those so-called terraced houses—known as townhouses in America—with a tiny plot of land usually in the front, but English people do not use Styrofoam containers or pots like the Chinese do in China. I saw variety of flowers squeezed into these small gardening areas in England, at the entry to many homes. They might grow some vegetables at the back of their houses, the same place where they would hang their clothes to dry on lines many feet above the ground. Most Americans do the same. But the Chinese almost everywhere in China tend to dry their clothes in front of their apartments, some even hanging on branches of trees, like the red Chinese flags on national holidays. Decades ago, people in Hong Kong and Singapore would hang their clothes on long bamboo poles, sticking out from highrisers like branches of trees. Those days are gone now in Hong Kong. The same is true in Singapore.
On special days in China it is not uncommon to see different plants or flower arrangements inside and outside some special buildings, some even along major highways into the cities, most using hundreds of potted plants, trying to create a natural environment of vibrant colors that one might see in city parks. Looking at that huge potted plant at the North Gate to the campus was a eureka moment for me,
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because for the first time it dawned in my mind that children in China are raised like you would raise a bonsai tree. China’s young people are raised like bonsai trees. That revelation came out of the blue. That led me to think of the time when I bought my first small cottage when I was studying in the university in Austin, Texas, USA, and I had this incredible feeling of freedom to do what I wanted with my front yard, with my own property, and how to make it attractive for myself and my neighbors and passers-by. I remember once when I was growing up poor and desolate in a kampong in Malaya, my love for nature and plants and flowers was planted in me, and I wanted to make the area around my village house pleasing to the dwellers and relatives who would come to visit us. The Malays were good at this and they would plant many flowers and bushes around their wooden houses not too far away. You could always smell the flowers first before you would see the houses as you bicycled along the road through a Malay kampong. I could have been influenced by them, but from small I loved the one flowering bush, the hibiscus flower, next to our kitchen and outdoor bathroom.
One day someone gave me some bougainvillea cuttings. Bougainvillea is a tropical vining shrub with bright and fanciful colors. The so-called flowers are actually modified leaves called bracts. I saw the colorful flowers eleven months a year somewhere in my village, and I always wanted to plant a few to climb on our chicken-wire fence in front of our house. It was late in the evening and mom saw what I did and she pulled the plants that I had just planted and threw them over the fence, without a word. I understood her action very well, because as far as she was concerned, any activity that was not related to farming would be a waste of time. Enjoying or planting flowers was for the rich, not for us poor farmers in the village. It was a hurtful experience for me, and I remember it when I bought my first cottage in America, now was the time to indulge in my passion for growing flowers. But growing or nurturing bonsai trees is for the serious or professional gardeners, usually.
What I saw that day of a huge potted plant was a series of images flashing in my mind of how serious gardeners would take the necessary time, knowledge, experience and patience to cultivate bonsai trees in China and in America. Bon sai is actually an art that has existed in Asia for centuries, usually associated with Japanese people. Bonsai trees are grown in small containers, regularly trimmed and painstakingly trained—yes, you can train the plants when they are small—so that they will grow up to be special, small and elegant to plant lovers all over the world. We have a bonsai center near the town where I live in America, open to visitors and tourists to enjoy.
I had the privilege of attending some classes on how to grow bonsai trees. First we learn to select a species or tree that is indigenous to where I live, grown outside or
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inside. Basically there are three choices: deciduous ones like crabapple trees, Japanese or Chinese elms; coniferous ones like cedars, spruces, pines and junipers; or tropical ones like jape, snowrose and olive trees. Some would choose to grow from seeds because it is less expensive and because you are able to control—that is the key word in growing bonsai trees—the tree at every stage of growth. Plant a tree in a training container, with the right amount of sun, water and consistent temperature, allowing it to become sturdy and strong before you train it. I had killed a few because of lack of knowledge and experience and proper care for the sensitive trees. Bonsai trees react to the four seasons, and knowing what happens to my bonsai tree during each season will ensure their survival and growth: from winter to spring, summer and the fall.
The fall is the best time to train my bonsai tree. I can choose one of four ways to train a tree: the formal upright way, allowing it to grow naturally with branches spreading evenly around it; the informal upright way, allowing it to have a more natural slant, than straight upward; the slanting way, looking windblown; and finally the more stylistic or literati way, allowing the trunk to become long and twisted with minimal branches.
So how does one train a bonsai tree? Carefully bend the trunk and branches in the direction I want it to grow. I first visited a nursery where I saw strong wires wrapped around branches to conform to a certain shape or design. I remember thinking by using the heavy duty wires, I can restrict the potential growth of a plant, and I saw different shapes of the plants all in the process of becoming the shapes the gardeners wanted for each plant. A good gardener will learn to use three kinds of wires to shape the tree the way you want it to look: Use copper wire around the trunk and branches and mold them into the shape you want. Use finer wires on the branches and heavier wires at the bottom of the trunk. If you are not careful the wire can bite into a tree and damage it. The tree will grow into the shape or design you wanted.
You have to decide if you need to rewire the tree, and train it until it holds the shape you want without the use of wires. With the help of a small pruning tool, clip off leaves, buds and parts of branches always with the purpose to achieve the shape of the tree you want from the beginning, the best during spring or autumn when the tree has plenty of stored nutrients. “Each time you prune, growth is stimulated on another part of the tree,” this according to an expert advice. “Knowing where to prune and how often is part of the art of bonsai, and learning how to do it takes a lot of practice.” And the final word of advice: “Trimming the tree is what causes it to stay small. Otherwise, it will outgrow its container.”
Looking at that huge potted plant, I could not resist the temptation to compare the
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raising of Chinese young people to the way serious gardeners would raise and shape their bonsai trees, forever on the outlook for any neglect or danger to the trees in their care and supervision. The final result is to see and enjoy the trees having achieved the shape they wanted from the start when they acquired the plants. And it is their pride and joy to share the grown bonsai trees with their friends and relatives, far and near.
When I eyed the huge tree in a huge pot, besides its beauty and elegance, like a model on the catwalk, I also sensed many problems related to the bonsai children, the adoption of the one-child policy in the 1980s, and the consequences of this in modern China, of how the youth today are behaving in schools and colleges and universities and training schools, and in marriages and divorces, and in the work places and in the society across China. And the images of potted bonsai trees help to explain how Chinese parents continue to trim and prune their children according to their expectations of what they should be, producing in the process many young people who have become parasites, and crippled in their approaches to life, study, work and marriages. What the professional gardener does is to slow down the growth of a plant, restrict its growth and potential, and shape the plant the way you want it to look. I witness daily the kinds of students coming to our campus, many incapable of facing and dealing rationally and adequately with life’s many daily changes and challenges, because from high schools to colleges, they never have to face problems on their own. Somebody is always there to offer them assistance, parents or teachers or relatives or older siblings.
The bonsai children in China today are showing many problems in their lives…blame the problems on their parents?
So it did not surprise me recently when I saw the headline in the China Daily newspapers: “8,000 Chinese students dismissed last year from schools in United States”. That was in 2014. Aha, these are the bonsai kids, I reacted instinctively and strongly. And what was the leading cause for the dismissal? 57 percent were dismissed for poor academic performance. According to the report, 61 percent of the undergraduates had a GPA of lower than 2.0, and 72 percent of postgraduates had a GPA of lower than 3.0. So what were the reasons for poor academic performance? List of the causes include: improper learning attitude, mental problems, physical problems, maladjustment to the learning environment, insufficient learning ability, inability to adjust to the American curriculum system, teaching styles and question types in exams.
What was the second leading cause for dismissal? 23 percent were dismissed for academic dishonesty which includes cheating in exams and plagiarizing, because
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students were too eager to obtain good results. Some students did not know the school regulations well. Some students were from very rich families and they did not go to America to study but to have overseas experiences. Many rich kids are doing the same in Chinese universities in China. It is party time 24/7, many now addicted to their phones and computer games and the parents are supporting their behaviors and campus life styles. Bonsai kids are conditioned to behave in certain ways, few having to make critical decisions on their own, few having to use their thinking skills, and their behavior is as predictable as the rising sun in the east.
The bonsai kids who are planning to study abroad must know that passing the IELTS (International English Language Testing System) or TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) test does not guarantee anyone the long-term planning—including fluency to listen, speak, read and write English, understanding basic adjustment to a foreign culture and its challenges, rules and regulations of its educational system, etc.—required in order to do well in a foreign country and foreign institution of higher learning. If they do not understand or use English fluently in China, what makes them think they can survive in an English speaking country? Bonsai kids are lucky especially those between the ages of 19 to 25, because New Zealand and Australia are opening their doors for all Chinese students to come and work and live in their countries for a year; 5,000 students in Australia and 10,000 students in New Zealand. A good way to prepare you to study abroad later.
And now some of the bonsai kids are subject to further humiliation as reflected in this headline, according to China Radio International on June, 26, 2015: “118 fake universities exposed by education website.” Sdaxue.com came out with the 4th list of 118 fake universities from China’s 25 provinces and regions including Beijing and Shanghai. These universities are not registered with China’s Ministry of Education, without the necessary licenses to accept students or award degrees. 39 of the schools have the word “Beijing” in their names. Many are students who did not do well in Gaokao, China’s National College Entrance Examination, or those “who are tempted to skip higher education and just obtain a diploma for better job opportunities”. These are the bonsai kids, their behaviors supported by their parents.
This is China.