Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Persepolis tributes

Persepolis was sacked and burned by Alexander the Great in 330 BC, only about 200 hundred years after it was built.  But it must have been glorious while it lasted. Even now, 2,500 years later, what remains of it is still mighty impressive.  In comparison, we have nothing comparable in China from the same period.  

The Medes (round hats) and Persians (square hats) on the bas-relief at Persepolis were holding hands, because they were in alliance.  The Median-Persian Empire was the greatest that the world had seen up to the time.  

Numerous delegations from conquered nations were depicted on bas-relief on the walls, separated by cypress trees.  They bore tributes of cows, horses, goats, …

It must have felt great to be a Persian Emperor. 

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Persian Charity

On the way from Tehran to Isfahan, we stopped in Kashan to visit the Borujerdis House, the house of a wealthy merchant. It has a beautiful house, a rectangular courtyard, a central water channel, intricate carvings and plaster work and wind catcher towers.  A legend also says that the three wise men who followed the star to visit Jesus at his birth at Bethlehem were from Kashan.   

Wandering on the street after lunch, while others were busy texting on the Internet, I chanced upon a group of men cooking something in big cauldrons.  

They seemed friendly.  So I went close to look, and found stews of meat and vegetables.  

We did not speak each other’s language.  But their gestures seem inviting.  I believed they were actually inviting me to stay and eat with them.  One of them insisted that I at least eat some of the fruit.  I peeled and ate an apple, and thanked the man as much as I could. 

Later, I found out that they were cooking food to be given to the poor.  The day was the eve of a holiday in memory of one of the 12 Imams.  That chance encounter is one of my most rewarding moments in Iran.  I learn first hand how friendly and charitable the Iranians are. 

Monday, December 29, 2014


I have wanted to visit Persepolis for a long time.  Finally, here I am.  I have seen photographs of it before and I have had an idea what it looks like.  But I am still surprised by how big the place is, how high the platform is, and how tall the gates and pillars are.  

It is believed that Cyrus the Great, who repatriated the Jews and other displaced people to their homelands, started building the ceremonial palace around 515 BC.  And it was Darius I (the Great) was built most of it. So it was roughly around the time that Confucius, Buddha, and Isaiah were alive. Amazing.  

When I am up close to the Gate of Nations and other pillars, they look even more oversized. 

When I get up to what is believed to be the tomb of Artaxerxes II in the mountain behind and above Persepolis, the gates that looked huge a moment earlier is now so small.  And the people are no more than specks of dust, or little ants. 

Such a huge complex of palaces.  Yet it was built just to receive (and impress) delegates from other nations, not even to live in.

At the time when Persepolis was built, the Persians also built the greatest empire that the world had known up to that point.  China was in the Warring States Period then.  We are always proud of our 4,000 (some say 5,000) years of civilisation.  Yet we have nothing left from that period of the scale of Persepolis.  

Monday, December 22, 2014

My Persian cat

Here is my Persian cat.  She found me on a street in Tehran, and just would't let go. 

Wednesday, December 17, 2014


I know there are lots of antelopes in Africa, and there are many different species.  But I was still surprised to see antelopes on the menu at the Spier Hotel in Stellenbosch, where we had our conference.  The impala steak looked quite lean.  And it was surprisingly tender and tasty.  

A couple of days later, at the waterfront in Cape Town, I found Springbok.  Equally lean, tender and tasty.  

I felt slightly guilty, having seen many of their relatives running wild at Akagera National Park in Rwanda a year ago.  But they are not that much different from deers and goats, aren’t they?

Saturday, December 13, 2014


South Africa went through decades of “Apartheid”, when the blacks were segregated from the whites.  Many years of violent struggle ensured.  Eventually, however, through the efforts of people like Nelson Mandela and F. W. De Klerk, Apartheid was peacefully dismantled.  Since then, South Africa has made tremendous progress, even though many social problems remain.  Perhaps it is because of this historical and cultural background, many South African universities are very active in social engagement and service-learning.  At the TNLC conference, I learned a lot from them, and made a lot of new friends, with many potential opportunities for collaborative projects, in South Africa, Ethiopia, Uganda, Ghana, ...  

The conference dinner was held at the storied vineyard Solms-Delta.  A professor inherited a vineyard,  on which several black families worked and lived.  He mortgaged his land, and helped the families purchased an adjacent piece of land.  They then combined the land and created a big vineyard.  With the income, the families are able to send the children to school.  Many learned to play music, and there are now dozens of musicians on the land.  

Before we had dinner, professor Mark Solms told us his side of the story and introduced one of the bands.  Later, we danced to their music.  While we were dining, drinking and dancing, the world’s problems seemed far away.

It is a heart-warming story of reconciliation.  

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Talloires Network Leaders Conference

I am here in South Africa to attend the Talloires Network Leaders Conference (TNLC), an international network of hundreds of universities on civic engagement, led by Tufts University.  There are many excellent speakers.  

We were most impressed by Professor Catherine Odora Hoppers of University of South Africa. She pointed out that the area of Africa is larger than the USA and China and India and a host of other countries added together.  She made a strong case of the “Global South” as a state of the mind, rather than a geographical or economical concept.  She also observed that the Europeans and Americans are still dominating the Global South, not with military power anymore, but with culture - they are still colonising Africa without physically being there. 

Here I renew acquaintances with many people from Tufts, Talloires, Campus Compact, Minnesota, …  And I get to make new contacts with people from South Africa, Rwanda, Ghana, Ethiopia, Uganda, Pakistan, Malaysia, …  Many people are genuinely surprised and impressed that our university has made such commitment to and progress in service-learning - that we have 3,000 students (soon to be 4,000) taking credit-bearing courses on SL as a requirement. Many developing countries are inviting us to work with them, when they hear about our work in Rwanda and elsewhere.  Many people also asked about the student-led Occupy Movement in Hong Kong. 

All in all, a very successful conference. 

Saturday, December 06, 2014

4 Nobels

I have always thought of South Africa as Nelson Mandela’s country.  I vaguely remembered that he shared his Nobel Peace Prize with de Klerk, and that earlier, Bishop Tutu also won a Nobel.  But when I got to Nobel Square on Cape Town’s waterfront, there were statues of 4 winners of Nobel Peace Prizes.  The one that I totally missed was Lutuli, who was actually that first one who won a Nobel in 1960 also for his work against apartheid.  The 4 Nobel winners testify to the courage and leadership of the South African people.  

It can also be said that it is the deep racial and social problems in the country that made such courage and leadership necessary.  But which country does not have deep-seated problems?  Yet not too many has produced great man such as Nelson Mandala. 

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Jogging in South Africa - sunset

I went out jogging again, this time rather late in the afternoon.  The sun was setting and I almost lost my way.  But the view was fantastic.  

For a moment, it felt like I owned the world’s best paintings.  The eastern sky was a cottony pink, white and blue.  The western sky, on the on the other hand, seems to be on fire.  

But it was, of course, just an illusion.   In a split second, all were gone and the path was impossible to follow.  Fortunately, I timed it right and I was almost back at the Spier Hotel. 

The fact that there was no one to share the view with made it incomplete.  For a moment, however, it was most enjoyable.  And it is hard not to think it was meant for us to enjoy.  

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Jogging in South Africa

I am in South Africa to attend the Talloires Nework Conference on Service-Learning. Behind the conference hotel in Stellenbosch, there is a huge stretch of land much of which seems to be just growing wild.  

The weather is perfect: 20 degrees C, dry with a clear, blue sky.  I ran for much of an hour on dirt roads without seeing anyone.  I felt completely alone - just me and the wide open field and the mountains - exhilarating.  

Then I saw pieces of white plastic floating over a field in the distance.  When I got closer, they turned out to be free-range chicken being driven back towards their coop.  They seemed just as happy as I was.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Service-Learning Progress

In December 2010, our university’s senate approved the proposal to make service-learning a compulsory credit-bearing subject for undergraduate students in 4-year bachelor programs starting in 2012.  At that time we had no such subjects.  So we started to design them.  In summer 2011, I co-taught the first service-learning subject, as a pilot.  In 2011-12, we continued to pilot several more subjects - offered them to the students in the then 3-year bachelor programs.  

In 2012-13, we offered them for real to the first batch of 4-year bachelor degree students.  There were only 6 such subjects with 189 students.  In 2013-14, we offered 38 subjects to about 2,000 students.  In 2014-15, we expect to offer 50+ subjects to approximately 3,000 students.  In 2015-16, we expect to offer ~70 subjects to ~4,000 students.  In 2016, the first such batch of students will graduate.  We will have achieved steady state by then - until the policy changes again.  

If we are not running the largest such programs in the world, we should be pretty close.  Amazing, isn’t it?

Monday, November 24, 2014

New Rice from Cambodia

When we went to Cambodia on a service-learning project in June, the rainy season has just started, and the Cambodia farmers were planting rice.  

Last week, some of our Cambodian partners came to attend the International Conference on Service-Learning.  And they brought a bag of newly harvested rice for me.  How thoughtful of them.  

In 2010, we went to Cambodia for the first time,, with 20 students. We installed some computers, set up some networks, and taught a few workshops on information technology at a number of community centers.  By 2014, we have grown to 85 students, with a contingent of 100 people.  Our services range from solar panels, a computer laboratory in a suitcase in a tuk-tuk, an e-microscope based on an iPAD, digital storytelling, guest house management training, …, to eye examinations. It has become our flagship program, attracting attention from across South-East Asia to as far as the USA. We now have many partners there.  It has become a training ground for our staff on service-learning, and much more. 

The seeds planted are bearing fruit.  We are thankful to God who led us there.  Many challenges remain ahead, yet we are hopeful because God is reliable.  

Monday, November 17, 2014

Occupy Admiralty - New Thinking?

The crowd at Admiralty does not seem any smaller.  

They remain very passionate, hardworking, and creative.  

I believe most people in Hong Kong agree with what they demand - more open elections and more democracy.  

However, more and more people seem also to feel that continuing in this way will not achieve the goal, at least not at the moment.  

I think we the Hong Kong people have demonstrated our desire for democracy, our will to maintain discipline and our ability to remain peaceful in front of overwhelming and unreasonable power.   

At this point, it may be more productive to seek other ways forward.  Perhaps it is worth considering whether there is some way to open up the system of functional constituencies, to achieve a more open election?  Perhaps some smaller constituencies should not have too many votes?  Perhaps persons who own multiple companies should not have multiple votes?  Perhaps it should not just be company owners, but employees also, who can vote?  ...

Perhaps there are more ways to achieve open elections and democracy?