Posted by Matthew Corcoran on 9/1/2014
This is my first chance to email anyone. My family (wonderfully for me) is considerably less privileged than the other host families -- no email, no cell phone, and no car. We are having a beyond my imagination wonderful time sharing everything. I keep reminding myself that this is New Years and vacation (eating, drinking, visiting, playing cards and majiang, laughing, talking, relaxing, walking, visiting); pretty soon I will have to return to the wake to an alarm clock world of teaching.
Michael Kozuch and I and five of the students (Nate Brevard has flown to Hunan with his family) got together for the first time yesterday and we enthusiastically babbled about the joys of being here. We went to Jingshan Park to hike up the hill and get an overlook of the city. We talked with families and held babies and wandered and asked directions and (like our entire time here) felt very welcome and like we had made a profound gesture by traveling here. Jingshan folks were very organized in printing us out names, addresses and phone numbers and giving us a schedule, so we are easily in contact with each other and organized. I realize (in the back of my mind somewhere) that you are all working and that my enthusiastic babbling might be selfishly inconsiderate. I just wanted you all to know that we are beyond safe and happy.
Until then, George
Everything I do here, from going to the bathroom with the dog to going out to eat with my family brings a story. I will do my best to share them all, but whether they appear in a coherent, organized letter or in a jumble of nutty anecdotes is beyond my control. I apologize for the latter.
My family lives in an apartment building designed for foreigners, so the TV contains a variety of shows. There are the expected Chinese stations, a few American stations with Chinese subtitles, a Korean channel, a few Japanese shows, and some other stations that vary in their nationality.
The station on which I watched See Spot Run in English my first night here was playing soccer highlights in Chinese yesterday, and a Japanese cooking show today. My favorite so far though was the Everybody Loves Raymond, dubbed into Japanese, with Chinese subtitles. Quite entertaining at late hours, I'll admit.
Yesterday was a big day for me in many ways. First, I told my host brother that I wanted to go to the bank. We headed out and I brought with me both my traveler's checks and my ATM card, which I was told would work. The first machine I went to only allowed me to take out 100 yuan (about $12.50), but then we went into the official Bank of China and I was able to take out much more. Using the machine the first time was slightly intimidating due to its being in Chinese, but the combination of my host brother and the little button in the corner that switched the language into English helped a great deal. It feels good to have some money, and with that a small amount of independence.
After going to the bank I had all this money and nothing to spend it on so I decided to try to buy a calling card. There are phone shops everywhere selling mobile phones and phone cards but finding the right one was by far the most frustrating experience so far for me in China (besides, perhaps, the midnight encounters in the bathroom with Dodo, Satan's puppy). I told my brother that I wanted a calling card so that I could call my parents and the next thing I knew we were in a cell phone shop and he was saying something about giving me a mobile phone. I said that I didn't want a mobile phone; I just wanted to be able to use, say, the phone's on the street. He seemed to understand, and 90 yuan later I had a package of three phone cards that could be used at any payphone in Beijing, and would give me some ridiculous amount of minutes unattainable anywhere in America for such good value.
My host brother called his mother just to make sure we had done the right thing, and she told him that he was right the first time and should have gotten me the mobile phone card. I was confused beyond belief, and came pretty close to sitting down in the middle of the street to have a good cry when my host brother explained what was going on. He and his mother wanted me to buy a mobile phone card, which is how people in Beijing pay for cell phone usage. Instead of buying a plan all you need to do is buy a card, plug the number on the card into the phone, and use the phone until the card runs out. My family had an extra phone at their house, so they wanted me to buy the card and be able to make calls in Beijing to them and to my other American acquaintances. This had nothing to do with the international phone card, which we successfully bought later. Feeling much better I went back to the shop, returned the payphone cards, bought a mobile phone card for fifty yuan, and now have a sweet Sony cellphone at my disposal, courtesy of my host parents.
After the exhausting financial adventures we went back to the house and I lay down to take a brief nap. Four hours later (I'm still not quite used to this whole time difference) my host brother woke me up and we headed out to celebrate the Chinese New Year. We first went to his grandmother's apartment, which was the penthouse of her apartment building and was massive, by Chinese living standards. After some ourderves (definitely don't take French) we went to this beautiful restaurant, once a Qing Dynasty royal palace, now between one hundred and four hundred years old, depending on whom I asked. The food was incredible. There were literally about twenty courses, all of which were delicious. The food here puts all American Chinese food to shame. To call chicken fingers and scallion pancakes Chinese food is a travesty.
Tomorrow morning I am meeting up with my fellow exchange students and teachers for the first time since we left the airport. I'm excited to see them, not only because I want to know how their experiences are going but because it will be nice to have a real conversation in English. It's amazing what we take for granted. I never really considered conversation a luxury but here I can rarely express exactly what it is on my mind and have it be understood. Tommorrow that should change, at least for a few hours.
I started this trip on Tuesday 8 am. We arrived in Beijing, nervous because we had no idea who our host families were. The whole group seemed to be feeling the disorientation and anxiety. We quickly got over it when a huge group of Jingshan folks greeted us with flowers and smiles. We have some real friends at this school. My host brother immediately came up to me to welcome me with a big batch of tulips (my favorite) and then introduced me to his parents who don't speak English, which will be helpful for learning Chinese. I found out later that the father studied German in Germany, so it will be a tri-lingual household. We had a fun time speaking in German as he was explaining the shower to me. BTW- the shower is just the beginning. It is one of those ones that you see in the magazine that has jets coming from all directions. It has a CD player and a lot of other buttons that I don't know what they are for. This is my private bath. You can image that I will be very comfortable in this condo.
Hello World! I was so excited to hear from so many of you. I know I've only been gone a couple days but it feels like a century. It is nice to hear from you guys because it makes me not feel so far away.
Okay New Years was amazing. I wore my new clothes and my mother had me blow dry my hair. Actually she did it for me. She seems to think I am unable to do anything by myself. When she is not close enough to help me do something she gets someone else to help me. She did my hair with just a hairclip covered in rinstones. I was very relieved to not have to wear a scrunchy. Then we went to my paternal grandparents home. I met my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and two cousins. The boy is twenty-one and the girl is seventeen. They are all very nice and invited me to there homes. Then we drove to the ''cityside." I'm not really sure what that is but it seemed like a suburb.
We went to my male cousin's friend's house. Yes a house. I didn't think there were houses in Beijing. It was very big with an enormous chandelier. It reminded me of the nouveau riche in America except it was really sparcely decorated. So then we lit fireworks for two hours. I have a new appreciation for fireworks. They are awesome. Then at twelve everyone in the whole neighborhood lit their fireworks. The sky was lite up for like twenty minutes start. I was freezing. My mother had lent me her police uniform winter coat. I felt a little silly but now am in love with this coat and want one for myself. Then we ate dumplings and came home.
Today I went back to my paternal grandparents and ate more. Everyone in my family wants me to eat six times more than I want to eat. I pretend I'm full before I'm actually full so that when they keep pushing food I can eat some without brusting. This system only works for a little while before I'm actually full. Then we went to this huge Tibetan Buddhist Temple called Yonghegong. It was amazing. There was a 18 meter high Buddha made out of one tree trunk. There were many many people there. There was so much insense lite that it was very foggy/smoking. I coughed a lot. It was the first time my host sister had been there.
Anyway, what else? Oh yeah. Today because I was cold yesterday my mother made me wear two pairs of long underwear under my pants. I do NOT recommend doing this. While one remains warmer, one finds one's movement very hindered. But whatever I do what I'm told. Also she just cut me a half of a melon and I had the huge lunch about two hours ago. I'm not that hungry. When I return y'all (yes I'm still from the South) won't recognize me because I'll be so fat. Just joking. Anyway, miss you much. Hope life is treating you well.
Hello Everybody. How are you? Sorry about the long time no write but I was busy. It is so nice hearing from all of you. Really all the boring details are so interesting here because they remind me of home. This is going to be a long one so get comfortable.
First I'll answer some of the most common questions asked in the emails I received.
Food: the food is good. The way that they eat is there are like a thousand dishes all put on the table. There is no rice, to my surprise, at any meal (unless its in porridge). Each person gets a little bowl and chopsticks. People reach across the table and take whatever piece of food they want. There is always fish because fish is the traditional food of New Years. Here are a list of some common dishes: red cabbage, beef slices, sausage, peapods, fish, dumplings (also traditional New Years Food), some meat in jellylike stuff that I don't know what it is, etc It is all really good. Pretty much everything is cooked, which I guess is good because I'm not suppose to eat raw fruits and vegetables. But I do... hope that's okay. Also I'm so glad that I practiced eating meat because my family LOVES it when I try some. Guess what I tried on Monday night. No guess. Nope. Chicken Feet! Yep. Chicken Feet! It wasn't very good. The meat was tough and the skin was really chewy. I wish I! had taken a picture. Also they don't really drink with dinner but I get water because I'm American so its okay. Um a lot of it is very spicy. Oh my new favorite thing is mantou, which is steamed bread. It's like the inside of challah but the whole thing. Also the manners aren't the same as in America... there are less of them. People talk with their mouths open, spit bones out (little bones in the fish), reach, don't use napkins, slurp soup, etc. It takes a little while to get used to. I think I'm too well trained to ever get used to. (Thanks Mom and Dad) So that's food.
Chinese: Um, my Chinese is okay but is not very good. I spend a lot of time speaking English while my host sister. I've been meeting a lot of my parents' friends in large groups and all of them talk very quickly so I have no shot of understanding. The other problem is my sister tells me new words like every other minute and I don't remember them so my starting a list. My father speaks very fast and puts is words together so I can't understand anything he says. My sister is my translator sometimes she just repeats it in slower Chinese and I understand I think its funny. I still think my accent is bad so I get embrassed easily. But the funnniest thing is how much French is coming back to me. All my forgotten French has resurfaced in exactly the place I need it the least. But there are French exchange students coming in April to my school so I'm excited to practice but I think by then I'll have forgotten it all again. (Thanks quiet a run-on sentence) Oh something funny that happened: One night my mother wanted to put on some English TV for me to watch and she put on French. I was listening and I couldn't really understand but it sounded familar. When I figured it out I started laughing and I said all westerners look the same (it was really funny in Chinese). So that's language.
Ummm.... I'll tell you about the stuff I did now because I don't remember what else people asked me to write about. Oh I got my mother to let me blow dry my own hair. Except having never mastered the art in America I wear my in a half pony tail everyday. If anyone has helpful hints I'd a preciate it because I don't like wearing my hair pulled back.
Okay, so my first meeting the American Group was on Sunday. It was so nice. I hadn't realized how much I missed people who spoke English. We all had so many stories. We went to Jingshan Hill, which is a man made hill in the center of Beijing and the only skyline view in the city. It over looks the Forbidden City.
Later that day I got sick. I had an 100.5 F temperature (I did the conversion from celcius in my head thank you very much). I got pumped full of Chinese medicine, which tasted really bitter. Then took a long nap. I was so lonely then because when I'm sick at home I get lots of hugs and kisses from my parents but Chinese people don't do that as much. (I think hugs are definately the thing I miss most. As everyone knows I am the hugging queen and I don't really give or get hugs here. It's the worst part so far) Then I took more Chinese medicine and went back to sleep. The next day I felt fine and have been feeling fine ever since. I think I got chilled on Spring Festival Eve doing all the fireworks. Now I have to wear two fleeces, my jacket (with fleece lining), two pairs of spandex, and regular jeans and shirt out. Oh and a bright baby pink scarf with little embrodered flowers on it. It is quick a sight.
On Monday I went to my Great Aunt and Uncle's apartment who are both supervisors at CCTV (China's big TV station). We ate lunch. Then I learned majing, which I am amazing at. It took me most of the afternoon to figure it out and I still don't really understand how to pay the winner but I always win so its not a problem. It is so fun. I played with my cousin, great cousin and sister most of the afternoon. It reminded me of playing Hearts all day with my Reisen cousins in NJ. I want to play all the time. Um... what else?
Yesterday I had another meeting with the Americans. We went to the mianhua (open air market) that I'd gone on the first day. It was so fun. Appartently three of my friend's brothers are best friends so they see each other all the time. I'm kinda jealous but I don't care that much. There were so many more people there than when I'd gone before. In the food area it was person to person so it was really warm. I saw three of the Chinese students who had come to Newton and one teacher, but no Googie. I think it might have been too much walking. I've been waiting to call her so as not to offend my family. I think I've waited long enough. I'm calling later today. It was so funny when I saw them. Emily (one of the Chinese students) was standing there and I was so excited to see her I ran up and gave her a big hug. Then I asked Michael (one of my teachers) was that okay, he said he had almost given her one too but stopped himself. Chinese people don't display affection very openly ! so its bad to give hugs. Then I saw Gan Quan (another Chinese student) and raised my arms to hug but stopped myself. I asked Michael if he saw it and he congradulated me on myself control. Just trust me: it was so funny.
So my friends have already started to call me 'mom'. Yep Mommy Susie shows her familar head. As most of you will know I'm everyone's mother and am trying (and failing aparently) to not be. Oh well. But with my host sister since she's only fifteen I feel like her older sister so I should take care of her. But at the same time I don't know what I'm doing so she needs to take care of me. It's hard to figure out the right combo of who's protecting who. Anyway, my hands hurt from writing for so long. Their keyboard is smaller than mine at home, which makes typing harder. Oh well I'll get used to it.
I miss all of you very much. I hope to hear from you soon.
Hello. How are you all? I hope Newton is treating you well. I'm doing great. Okay so I emailed two days ago so I think this one will be shorter... might not be.
So there have been some questions about what my host sister is like. She's really nice. Her name is WangZi, which took me a little while to figure out. The first time all the Americans met we all quickly confessed that we weren't quiet sure what our host siblings names were. But I think we've all figured it out. At least I have. Her English is pretty good ... She seems to spend most of her time studying ...
Yes I heard about the space shuttle. The way I did was kind of funny. So WangZi says, "A plane crashed, sounds like alcomba" I answered "Al Queda?" so I'm really freaked out right, another plane crashed. She repeats the word until I figure out it is Columbia. She says, "plane to sky". "A spaceship" "Yeah, oh okay." It was the biggest drop in fear ever. I was so worried but thankfully it was just the translation. Um... yeah Bush sucks. I don't want to go to war. My family doesn't either. We talk about how bad war is all the time. So if any of you could work on stopping it, I'd appreciate it. I don't really know how the Chinese are reporting about the war, because it's in Chinese so I don't understand and WangZi doesn't know most of the words in English. Oh speaking of reporting: I was watching TV recently and the news was reporting on Spring Festival travel/consumption/stuff. The reporter said and I quote, "The increase in living standard as given way to more spending on leisure, more than just necessities." For some reason this program was in English. I thought, wow that's straight from the government. I forget that the government is Communist most of the time. Beijing is so modern and there are all these stores, restaurants, movie theaters, etc., it doesn't feel Communist... It feels capitalist. Thanks to the government's new reforms it pretty much is. But I am not running the world, so I can't really tell them that they are taking the worst parts of capitalism and combining them with the worst parts of communism. Anyway, got to go. This turned out to be a lot longer than I thought it would be.
I have made some great advances in the last few days, so let me take you through them one by one.
First, and most important, there is my food situation. Most of the meals here are exquisite, usually consisting of many of the items that one can find on a menu at an American Chinese food restaurant, only indescribably better. However most meals, especially at the restaurants here, have a few items that make me, to say the least, a bit squeamish. Yet my host mother makes sure that I try every last one of them, and when I ask my host brother his opinion he always responds with "it is very delicious." What he leaves out is that the food is very delicious "to him." Let me give a few examples.
Today we celebrated my host grandmother's 80th birtday at this fancy hotel restaurent with the entire extended family. The way meals work at virtually all Chinese restaurants is that the waitors put food on the "lazy susan" in the middle of the table, and as the plates empty they bring new, more exotic courses. A typical meal will go through as many as fifteen different foods. Some of these are the expected bowls of dumplings, shrimp, rice, stirfried vegetables, noodles, pork and beef. There are also, however, the oysters, the squid, the octapus, the fish that I saw swimming in the tank at the front of the restaurant ten minutes before, completely whole with head, tail, eye balls, skeleton, and a little actual meat, and eels.
The meal at the hotel today had all of these specialties, and I tried the majority of them, only a few of which by choice. However when my host mother asks me to eat something and twelve other heads turn to see my reaction (always forced into politeness), what am I supposed to do? Eat, smile, and keep eating. That is all I can do. It appeases the crowds, but one of these days I'm gonna get sick from eating too many pork balls. (True story: That's what it said on the menu in the English under the Chinese characters... pork balls. I don't know what it meant, but it makes me wonder.)
Last night I explained to my host mother that Americans don't always like to eat so much food. I claimed that it's good to "watch what you eat" sometimes, because if you don't you can become unhealthy. She and my host brother explained that Chinese people love eating food, and that Chinese cuisine is very healthy, so I should not worry about it. She then handed me another stick of pork teriyaki. I ate it, but then firmly told her that I was full and would not eat any more (in Chinese). And for the first time she listened to me. It felt great. I finally made some progress.
Today, after the meal at the hotel, the whole family went to a kareoke establishment. Apparrently kareoke (KTV) is becoming extremely popular in Beijing. It was fun to listen to for a while, though all the lyrics were in Chinese, but after about an hour of hearing my host family take turns singing and dancing (my host father and host uncle actually waltzed together during one song) my host brother, his cousin, who is our age, and I decided to go for a walk. We soon found a pool hall and entered, relieved to have some sort of refuge for a while.
This is the second time in the last two days that the three of us have gone to a pool hall. The first time I did alright, probably going about three wins and two losses on the day, but today I was unbeatable. I won four straight games before we had to leave, but more importantly I finally did something to impress my host brother. Basing my skill as a person solely on my skills in speaking Chinese my host brother has thought that I am about as incapable as a person could be. Today I finally proved to him that I'm not completely worthless, which was yet another good feeling.
After playing pool we went to an athletic store where I made my first real purchase of the trip not including phone-cards and food. Yesterday I saw these shoes that I wanted, but we didn't have the time to stop and try them on. I asked if we could go back today, my family complied, and I grabbed my money and we headed out. They're these sort of old-fashioned-looking, navy blue, Reebok running shoes, that were listed at 299 yuan (about 38 dollars), and were "on sale," according to my host brother, meaning that they could be bargained. I tried them on, they fit well, and only 209 yuan (25 dollars) later I had some great sneakers. 25 dollars. Great sneakers. You never hear those phrases together in the U.S.. Ever. Everything here is so cheap, I love it. Cab rides across the city cost 20 yuan ($2.50). A full meal at the mall food court: 16 yuan ($2.00). It's remarkable.
The only major flaw in Chinese society that I have been able to detect so far is the driving. At least in Beijing, drivers are horrendous. Every time we get in a car, be it a cab, my uncle's car, or one of my parents' cars, we almost hit something, get hit, or cause someone else to almost hit something or get hit. Yet I seem to be the only one who flinches. It is common for cars to swerve out of the way, for bicyclists to almost run into cars, or for buses to nearly run cars and bicyclists over. And not a sound from anyone. I'm the only one in my family who ever wears a seatbelt in the back seat of the car, and most people don't even wear them in the front, though my mother is the exception. And cabs don't even have seatbelts in the back seats; every time I get into a taxi I instinctively reach for the seatbelt but find nothing. What I have learned to do is just close my eyes and sing in my head, as it is the only real way for me to relax in any car here. So far it has worked well, and I have been oblivio us to all of the chaos. As they say, ignorance is bliss.
I'm writing this from my fathers's office, and in a few minutes I will have to drive the family car back to our apartment building, about a block away. We came here by foot, but brought a computer to try to fix here on the back of a bicycle, which we rolled here. I didn't really understand what was said but for some reason my father wanted to take the bike home and leave us with the car. As I'm the only one with a license (one must be 18 in Beijing to drive), and the drive is about 150 yards down a deserted street, my father asked me if I would do it. Well, he asked my host brother in Chinese to ask me in English if I would do it. Naturally, seeking any approval I can get from both my host brother and host father, I agreed. I'm a little nervous, but if all goes well I might be able to gain a little more respect from my host family. And if all doesn't go well...
You can read about it next time.
For now, I'm gonna go get myself mentally prepared for the journey home.
Andrew, Kevin and I were walking through an alley near my house filled with street vendors, we were browsing, stopping here and there, and checking out some cheap street merchandise. I spotted a butterfly knife on a table near by and began playing around with it, flipping it open and closed etc. A young vendor lady approached me aggressively. "Hey hey, hello. I give you, 100 kuai! Ok?" I laughed at this outrageous price and kept playing with the knife. "Ok, Ok! 50 kuai! Ok?" I didnt even want the knife so I began to walk away...She grabbed my arm.
"Ok, 40" she said. - "Wo bu yao" (I dont want it) said I.
"30" - "Wo bu yao le" (I don't want it, with authority)
"Ok! 20" - "Wo bu yao le"
"Ok, ok.Hello! 10 kuai! Ey, ey! 10 kuai" (About $1.25) This didn't change the fact I didn't want it, so i continued on my way. "Hey Hey hello 10 kuai!" At this point I was about 5 feet away from the stand, my movement was constricted by the fact that she was latched on to my right arm. After six feet she got the idea I actually didnt want it, In a huff, she let go of my arm and hit my arm with the knife. It was closed, so it didnt cut me or anything, but still. Andrew laughed, who witnessed the entire thing and so did I. So did kevin when we told him. Even walking home is an adventure...
Since this encounter I have seen the saleslady numerous times and every time she offers up the knife again.
House and Hutong
I live in a 100 to 200 year old house in a hutong. A hutong is a small community of one level buildings connected by very small roads or alleys, walking down one of these small stone roads transports you out of the city, and into a small town. My hutong is complete with shops, stands and street vendors, all of miniature size. It is never quiet on the street and they are usually packed with people on foot, riding bicycles and motorcycles, and although they have trouble fitting, some people drive thier cars through the narrow streets beeping every few feet. The hutong is located directly off of Wangfujing street, a huge commecial strip. Wangfujing, along with The Forbidden City and Tianamen Square, is directly in the center of Beijing. It's unbelievable. The vast majority of the 11 million people who reside in Beijing live in apartments, condos etc. so living in a real house, in a hutong, on Wangfujing is about as ideal a living environm nt you can have in Beijing.
From Wangfujing to the outer door of my house is a two minute walk. My house begins with a large, wooden, red double door with a human sized door build into it, that faces the street. As I step through this I come into a sort of half courtyard/walkway and the inner door is close by. The house has 8 rooms, 2 bathrooms plus a wing of the house I have never been in, in which the housekeeper and my host Aunt, Uncle and cousin live. Across the house from the inner door is a sort of porch that leads to a courtyard and garden. I believe my family lives in approximately half of the entire house and the rest is rented out to other people, who I hardly see and live across the courtyard. Our two chickens that enjoy waking me up live in the courtyard, feeding them in genuinely exciting. I love this place already.
~ = lives with me
~Zeng: My host brother. He is a good guy and we get along we get along well. He loves history and went crazy when we visited 2000 year old or so tombs in Zhengzhou. English: Almost proficient. Common sayings: "Not at all" and "Did you have a good...(sleep, dinner, time etc.)
~Baba/Ba: My host Father. He laughes at almost everything I say and do, and he loves Internet Bridge. English: Slight. Common sayings: Laughter.
~Mama/Ma: My host Mother. She pays very close attention to me and talks to me in chinese when ever she thinks I'll be able to understand, which is great. English:Slight. Common sayings: "Chi guo le?"(Have you eaten?) and "Shizao ma?"(Have you bathed/showered?).
~My host Grandmother: She speaks english almnost as well as Zeng and is very concerned with my well being. However she has been in southern China since a few days after I arrived and will be there untill the beginning of march, so I do not know much about her.
~My Host Aunt: She is a very good cook and laughes almost as much as my host dad. English: Only the word chocolate so far. Common sayings: "Chi fan!" (Food!) and "Chi bao le ma" (Are you full?)
~My host Uncle(above's husband): We have never really talked. Although smiles have been exchanged.
~My host cousin(of the above parents): I think she is about 9 or 10 years old and she is full of energy. English: Basic. Common saying: "Hello!"
Dada: My fathers eldest brother. He is very nice and informative, he is a history nut like Zeng. He also smokes heavily . English: The best in the family, fluent. Memorable saying: "You like cold food, we like hot food" (comparing Americans to Chinese.)
My fathers younger brother: He is rather short but walks suprisingly fast, he finds me very amusing. English: None. Common or memorable sayings: Nothing I can comprehend.
My mothers elder brother: Enthusiastic. English: Slight. Comon saying: "Delicious!"
I have quite a few other Family members who I am not in regular contact with and do not know very well, including another Grandmother, a Grandfather and a few cousins.
The Spring Festival/Chinese New Year are a huge deal here. The festivities started by meeting up with the extended family at a hotel for a huge dinner. My Uncle(Fathers younger bro) picked us up to go to the hotel (In an S class...word). Dinner was great, in a private dining room waitresses would bring out dishes every few minutes and place them on lazy susans. There must hae been more than 20 different dishes, one of each brought to both tables. Both of my grandmothers who I sat close to paid special attention to me and admidst constant laughter, yelling and toasts, managed to get me to try every food that came out.
Then came the fireworks, since its illegal to use them within city limits we carpooled out to a suburb to a family friends place. in their house we relaxed and drank tea for a while, untill just before midnight. Then, it was time. We unloaded a couple of trunkloads of large brown boxes packed with a very wide variety or fireworks and brought them out to the middle of the street. These boxes provided about 1 hour of constant, explosions of light and sound directly over head. We had everything from long strings of small red crackers to giant cubes that housed about 40 foot long rockets. When their fuses were lit, these boxes kept spitting out light, fire and sound for minutes. My host father made sure I had set off my share. After one adrenaline pumping hour of this we finally used up everything the boxes had to offer. We went back inside to relax, I thought we were done. However, Dada soon said to me "Now we get some big fireworks, somethin like a canon, I think." I found it hard to believe that we actually had more fireworks and that he didn't classify those other ones as "big". The "big" ones were absolutely huge, brown spheres a little bigger than grapefruit were lit and dropped into tall sturdy carboard tubes. This created huge explosions that were just like fireworks you would see at 4th of July shows over Boston Harbor, except directly overhead. Eventually the top half of the tube blew up and we almost had a slight brushfire problem. But my cousins kept droppin em' in. After another hour or so it was all over and we went back inside for tea. This was possibly the most amazing night of my life.
A few days of exploring Beijing later, My family went on "holiday". We flew to the capital of Henan Province, Zhengzhou. It is a one hour flight south of Beijing and the "Motherland of China" as Dada put it. It was a great, we stayed in a 5 Star hotel in the middle of Zhengzhou and toured Henan's historical sites, of which it has no end of, for four days. I saw many very, very old things, the 2 oldest of which were a 4500 year old tree in a 2000 year old Confucian academy and a 3000 year old stone gate that was all that was left of a very old temple. I also went to the first Buddhist temple ever built it China, and the first Shaolin temple. These places were all extremely beautiful and would be just as peaceful and serene, but they were packed full with touring Chinese, all of them burning incesnce, yelling, taking pictures of their family and friends, and staring at my hair. Every day in Henan lunch and dinner were like our New Years Dinne , it was unbelievable. I made friends with the daughter of a family friend in Zhengzhou, named Tian Tian, who happened to be spending this year at Penn State as an exchange student. She was home for Spring festival. Her english was very good, so talking with her about American stuff and her college was great. On my birthday after a special dinner at the Hotel, Tian Tian took me to a dance club nearby the Hotel. They played techno, and the DJ's were nothing special, but the dancefloor shook up and down and I had a good time. My host father got worried though, and called at 10:30 and had us come back to the hotel. Henan was an amazing experience, and one that not many westerners get to have. I'm glad I got to see so much of China's history up close.
Since I got back from Henan, about a week and a half ago, I have been spending evey day exploring Beijing by foot and by taxi. China is amazing. Every day I experience things that are totally new to me. There is so much it's impossible to write it all down. I have fully explored Wangfujing and Xingshijie, another big commercial strip. I have been to the Forbidden City and to uncountable indoor and outdoor markets. I am constantly experiencing new sights, tastes, sounds, people and methods of transportation.
Wednesday was my first time in the Jingshan school, the group had a tour and introduction to principle Fan and the a few staffmembers that will be vital to us in the coming months. Friday was my first actually in class, I am in Andrews class. The teacher introduced us and wrote our english and chinese names on the board. (By the way my Chinese name is Wu Tao, Tao is the closest to Nate we could get.) It wasn't a true school day, our American group was dismissed at 9:30am and the rest of the school got their textbooks and was then allowed to leave as well.
The day before yesterday was Lantern Festival, which meant another big dinner and more fireworks, this time we had the huge boxes filles with misc. fireworks, plus the big canons all at once...crazy. By the end all we had left were very many of the long strings of those small red crackers, which we threw onto small fires that had sprung up, it was nuts.
I have an arsenal of different ways to expressing to my family that I do not want any more food, and that I am full. They are: "I'm full", "Wo chi bao le" (I'm full), Wo bu xing le (I can't eat another bite), shaking my head, "Bu, bu, bu" (No, no, no), and "Bao le" (Full). None of them, in any combination, work.
Today was my first real day of school. The first half of the day was uneventful, I sat in my seat during lectures on chem, computers, physics and english. I paid attention during the english lesson due to the fact it was the only one I could understand, the rest of the time I looked up words in a Chinese/English dictionary. The second half was much more fun. We had lunch in the cafeteria, the food wasn't great but in was better that Newton South's. After lunch Kevin and I took a walk throught a large concrete athletic area near the caf, with a track and basketball courts. We were mobbed my the youngest of the primary school students who wear little purple uniforms. They engulfed us yelling things like "Hello! How are you?" and with out us responding, "I'm fine! Thank you." They also latched on to our clothing and jumped up trying to grab my hair and Kevins headband. Later we had a meeting with the American group and talked about our day.
Right now it is nighttime here, I'm sitting at the computer in the main living room of the house. If it were day I could look to my right and view the courtyard through the large windows about ten feet away. My host aunt just brought me a plate of peeled apple slices and strawberries, which I saw for sale earlier today down the street. Right now she is in the other living room watching TV with my host mother.
DVD count: 33
Highest taxi fare paid: 27 Kuai (approx. $3.40)
Pieces of raw meat eaten (On purpose. Not fish) : 1
Favorite TV show: Modern English. It boasts a hilarious cast of actors and actresses who are bad at acting, and speak in either fluent chinese and broken english or fluent english and broken chinese. They try to teach english to whoever is watching through acting out a scene on a special topic of the day(the last one I saw was "cheating in relationships"). I have seen this show one and a half times. GET MODERN ENGLISH!
The Baby and The Cigarette
In Zhengzhou I saw a baby smoke a cigarette...
I assure you all parts of this story are true and I am in no way exaggerating. Seriously. We were visiting a very old Pagoda, or ba-guo-ta. Very close by to it an amazing scene unfolded as we walked by. A baby, no more than three was wrapped up in a ball of winter clothing, playing next to It's mother, who was sitting in a chair against a wall, smoking. The Mother proceeded to give the baby her cigarette. The baby then put the cigarette in its mouth. Soon enough the baby took the out of its mouth and connected the burning end with something in its other hand which it then through on the ground. It happend to be a small firecracker that made several small explosions. The Baby then began to scream at the top of its lungs for a few seconds and then break into hysterical laughter. This happened again except this time the baby threw the cracker under his mothers chair and got yelled at while she ran away, before the explosion, and the screaming and laughing happened agai . I was shocked and amazed...
On Monday I attended my first day of school in over three weeks. As expected it was in Chinese. The day was uneventful, except for some minor excitement at the all-school assembly in the very beginning of the day.
I arrived to school by car, as I hadn't received my bike yet, and followed my host brother into our class. Once all the students arrived we walked to the gym/auditorium where there was to be an assembly. We sat down, and soon the entire school, both students and teachers, filed into the massive room. I think the school has about 2000 students, though I'm not positive, but it is at least as large as South, if not noticeably larger.
For a while there were no abnormalities in the assembly, which consisted of a speech by the principal, the presentation of awards to students who had done well in a certain academic contest, some other remarks by administrators, and the raising of the Chinese Flag and the singing of the national anthem. Everything was going as expected until our American teachers appeared on the stage and beckoned us to come down from our seats. I had no idea that we would be appearing on stage, let alone speaking in Chinese to the entire student and faculty body. Right before they handed us a microphone one of our teachers whispered to us that we should introduce ourselves and say "a little something" about ourselves. In Chinese. The teachers had also just found out; they weren't to blame for the late notice. This lack of communication is typical with us in China. When my host family tells me to grab my jacket, sometimes it means that I'm giong to walk the dog right outside our aparrment building, while other times it me anst we're headed off to the Great Wall for the day. If I don't ask before we leave the only way I'll figure out what we're doing is by arriving at the destination. It keeps me alert, and ready for anything.
Anyway, I think I was the fifth of eight people to speak, and as my fellow Americans before me passed the microphone down the line I still had no idea what I would say. Others were saying things like "I'm looking forward to studying with you" or "I'm glad I have such an opportunity to attend this school." My Chinese, however, doesn't extend quite that far. Four speakers later the microphone was in my hand and my mind remained blank. I tend to be comfortable enough public speaking, and I wasn't uncomfortably nervous, but I didn't want to humiliate myself. Before I knew it words were coming from my mouth.
I introduced my name in Chinese, and then the English "Nasan." I still had to say something else, though, so I concluded with one of the few things I know how to say well: "I like watching movies." Sheepishly I handed the microphone down the line and stood there, wishing I could hide behind the group of teachers sitting in chairs behind us while 2000 kids lauged without abandon (the response they made to virtually all of our introductions, not just mine). I couldn't hide, though, and instead just waited the two or three minutes until we were done and then returned to my seat in the audience. It was traumatic, but hopefully my classmates will take the hint and invite me to some of the various cinemas in Beijing. I really do enjoy watching movies, so perhaps it wasn't such a horrible thing to say. I just don't think that anyone, including myself, was expecting me to say that.
After the assembly and a few classes in Chinese (I just sat and studied Chinese characters and vocab, as I cannot understand the teachers' lectures at all) we had P.E. (physical education). It was beyone horrendous. For two hours (it was the double P.E. block) I listened the the Chinese barks of the teacher who led us in marching (literally, army-style marching) running laps, stretches, and more. It certainly isn't stress management, which is what my gym class as school left off doing. I only have P.E. once a week, every Monday morning, but I dread it more than any other class.
The only thing almost as bad as P.E. are the morning exercises. The entire school lines up in flawlessly-straight rows and columns organized by class and follows the orders of my P.E. tecaher. We march in place, stretch, rotate, and freeze in the cold, morning Beijing air. My homeroom teacher loves to make sure that I'm doing all of the streches perfectly, and never hesitates to hold my arms where they're supposed to be, or push my feet so that they're completely together and aligned with those of the rest of the school. It's intense.
Besides P.E. and morning exercises school is relaxing and a great time to study and read books about China, and learn in ways totally different from those to which I'm accustomed in Newton. To make it even better the English teacher has been out due to surgery, so Susie, the only other American in my class, and I have gotten to teach the English class two days in a row. Initially we did as our homeroom teacher had asked and read the vocab in the Enlgish textbook to the class and had them repeat it, but that soon became boring. The second day the teacher left at the beginning of class so we ended the vocab lessons immediately and began a competitive game of hangman. The student who solved the puzzle got to choose the word for the next puzzle, and lead the game. The class seemed to enjoy it, and it was great to feel knowledgable again and actually be able to answer questions and help out the Chinese students.
After school Monday I tracked down my bike. My host mother came to pick us up at scool and instead of having my host brother ride the bike home with me in the car we shoved the bike into the trunk of the car and tied the hood shut with a little piece of string that my host mother had brought. The bike stuck out about three feet from the back of the car, and every time we accelerated it almost fell out onto the road. My host mother and brother weren's worried at all but I sat there staring out the back of the car watching the hood bounce up and down on top of the bike. We made it home safely but it was the most terrifying ride home we've had yet.
On Tuesday morning we planned to bike to school until my host mother said that it was "too dark" and that she would drive us. I politely told her that I was confident it would be similarly dark the next day, and I guess this made sense to her because we ended up biking to school. The traffic in Beijing is so awful it took us five minutes less by bike to arrive to school than it had taken us to drive the day before. We drove the rest of the week because one day it was "too cold" and then my brother's bike was broken, but we are supposed to bike to school every day from now on.
As an American, it is impossible to walk down the streets of a market and not here people yell "hello, hello, looka looka, very cheap, very beautuful." That is all they say, and no matter how politely or rudely I decline their offers they persist. The more agressive vendors grab me, or thrust merchandise in front of me, while others look offended that I do not buy their products. I've learned to just walk quickly with my head down until I'm through the shops, but if for an instant I lift my head up a "hello, looka looka" always pops up.
I'm off to lunch with my host brother, and then off to the theatre to see a performance with a few Americans and my teacher's Belgian friend. Then, another week of school.
It is only fitting that my first alarm-awakened official school day comes on my American colleagues' first anxiety free Sunday night of vaction.
Feeling poetic on my half hour bike ride to Jingshan:
Swarming in the dusk of red and green traffic lights,
headlights, some raw fluorescents in an occasional restaurant,
naked incandescents here and there,
but none of last night's neon.
Schooling as fish around ancient buses and sleek new autos,
much like ships and barges moored at intersections.
Pushing, struggling upstream through bike lane channels
beyond boulevard dams
Yong He Gong (Lhama Temple)
A fancy house
Within the one block east of my house there are six choices for haircuts. On the first floor of my 18 story concrete building (much like a public housing project in America) there is one. A second is the man in white jacket, pants, and hat who sets up right outside my window or in the park across the street. There are also three very narrow storefronts that Xiao Fang and I walk past on our way to the salon at the end of the block. We arrive about 10:05.
A young woman washed my hair while I sit vertically far from any sink. She adds a bit of soap and just enough water from separate bottles starting at the top of my head and then in increasingly larger circles generously lathering, massaging, kneading, finding pressure points, deeply cleansing through several layers of scalp. If I lose all my hair in the process it might still be worth it. She then gathers up and removes excess lather with her hands before beginning again focusing even more on meridians and pressure points. Finally she leads me to a sink for a warm water rinse. My only clue of time going by is that four songs have played on the stereo.
Next I return to the original chair while she rubs lotion on her hands. I'm then treated to an unexplainable head, scalp, neck, ear, shoulder, arm, hand, finger, back massage, pressure point, joint jiggling, nerve tingling, hand clapping, finger snapping, therapeutic forty minutes of magic before my haircut.
The half dozen employees are young, hip dressed in black, with red tinged shaggy hair. My grey hairs fall conspicuously on the dark sheet covering me and on the hair stylist's sharp black sport coat. Using hands, fingers, and scissors first, then comb and scissors, he proceeds to give me the haircut I want. Several interim blow-dries and quality control resnippings before he uses an electric clipper to layer the edges, trim around ears and neck, and catch the incidental odd hair still standing up higher. With a dry safety razor he shaves the hairs on the back of my neck.
Throughout this process I'm vaguely aware that signs about the store suggest prices up to 180 yuan (more than $20). I would be embarrassed if Xiao Fang insists on paying. The haircut takes forty minutes (after one more rinse and back to the chair for a spray of something). Back home for a great lunch by 11:45. The entire hour and thirty five minute experience cost 12 yuan ($1.50).
Today I went to a suburban branch of the school I'm going to now (mine is in the middle of the city) which was interesting. The school administration ( though we've known we would be going on this trip for months) told us last night that while on our tour each of us had to teach two classes of Chinese children so we had an interesting time. I taught one class of fourth graders and one class of third graders, all of whom were extremely cute and sweet. I read a book to them, while showing it on an over head projector, very very slowly and then went over the vocabulary and the concept of sharing (interesting to teach that to them in Chinese). I thought it would be a very strange and uncomfortable (since I made up the lesson on the spot) but it turned out to be a lot of fun; they were all so adorable. One class put on a play (three little pigs) which they had memorized in English for me and the next sang me a really long song (none of which I could understand but was supposedly in English). All the children were extremely excited to see foreigners, especially Americans (plus we have African American and Indian American students in our group which completely shocked them) and wherever we w nt they would scream out all the English phrases they could think of ( "the weather is very nice today", "I like your pants"....). It was a nice experience. Afterwards they took us to a private dining room (probably usually used for like government diginitaries (our school is apparentlyy really famous in China)) where a huge lunch had been spead out. All the food was extremely good and beautiful (it tasted like the kind of food you'd have in an American Chinese restaurant because everything was very sweet (they had prepared according to how they hear foreigners like Chinese food) but it was really good too).There were two kinds of Dumplings, two chicken dishes (one in like a curry sauce and the other in a sweet sauce with aubergines), a big platter of exotic fruit, a pyramid of chinese steamed buns, a huge bowl of rice, a cake shaped like a chinese chess board with the pieces included (all of which was encased in different kinds of chocolate), fried sweet potato and sesame cakes in a pyramid, plain broccoli (kind of out of place amongst everything else :) ), chicken fried coated in sesame seeds and then cut uo into long thin strips, deep-fried chicken drumsticks, huge shrimp in hawthorne sauce, a whole fried fish in fruit sauce (like strawberries and oranges and grapes and cherries and other things I didn't recognize (it was amazing) (they call this squirrel fish because somehow it looks like a squirrel, though I have no idea how, it had its tail and head flipped up into the air wish its mouth open and all the meat organized into little cubes on top and then topped in the sauce and diced fresh fruit and oither garnishes)) and boat-shaped glutinous rice dumplings filled with fruit and something which tasted like cheesecake (this was served on a plate surrounded by some sort of multi- colored, edible marzapan-ish type garnish which was carved into the shape of a double bodied dragon with foliage and roses and other flowers). It was quite a lunch (there were two identical tables set up like this, one for the the teachers and one for the students).
Several friends have suggested that they have not heard from me in a while. Perhaps you have become adjusted to the play by play of March Madness or around the clock continuing war coverage or the need to listen to weather reports about impending storms. While I am in the middle of trying to compose pieces on teaching in China compared with teaching in the U.S. and a similar piece on the difference between riding a bicycle here and there (or there and here for most of you) I have no witty thoughts today. In an attempt to satisfy you need for news from China, here are some poetic thoughts from my vault:
I stride in my orange dashiki through South Boston streets
From Broadway to L Street and back to the McCormick Projects.
My Yoruba features burnished by my native equatorial sun.
Yet I lie it is still my pasty white self in blue and black EMS garb
Navigating a sea of curious faces,
All distinct, just not as different as mine.
Peeking, staring, smiling, glaring,
Ignoring and at times exchanging with me our share of common language
Before communicating in unknown tongues.
This poem is dedicated to Cyndi Dailey-Smith who always gets a kick when I
call myself "pasty white" and to everyone who is looking for some
Hello from the other side of the world, for the last time.
I write this email from my room, now empty of all of my belongings. The closet is empty, the floor carries nothing but my chair, the window sill no longer holds my DVDs. I've assembled all of my bags by the door of our apartment, so that I have room to walk around in my room, and every time I see them piled up next to the door, containing all of the belongings with which I've lived for the last 12 weeks, I stop and realize that tomorrow I'll leave China.
I feel exactly as I felt the night before I came here; I can't believe that I'm about to cross the globe. After all, Beijing is my home. What could possibly possess me to leave it? I want to see my family and friends back in America, sure, and I miss them all, but I have family and friends in China too. Why leave them?
Today is my host brother's birthday, so yesterday I got him some presents: a basketball (the most fitting gift I could think of), and a birthday cake. When I came home my host mother saw the gifts and immediately, after chastising me for getting him too much, went out for a while. When she came back she had a present for each member of my family, numerous items for me, and a promise to send me gifts in the mail for my birthday, which was supposed to happen in China but now will happen back in the States. Never again will I give a Chinese person a present with more than one day left in China. It is impossible to avoid receiving bigger and better presents than what you give.
Yesterday, right before I left Jingshan for the last time, Susie came running into my classroom and told me I had to go outside. She practically dragged me out there to meet the entirety of one of the other classes in my grade. There, seven or eight of the class' boys grabbed my arms and legs, lifted me up in the air, and threw me as high as they could, about five or six feet above their heads, repeatedly, until I begged for them to stop. They had just performed this procedure on Nick, and would perform it on Kevin in about five minutes. Nate, Andrew and Susie weren't so unlucky to have experienced it first hand, but they got to watch from a safe distance. It was both terrifying and exhilarating, and I'll never forget it.
When I got to China, the first major issue that arose involved whooping cough. I had been exposed to it shortly before I came here, so it became essential that I find the necessary antibiotics and take them, so that I wouldn't infect anybody in China, if I actually did have Pertussis. I ended up not even needing to go to a hospital to get the medicine; one of the students who came to America this past fall had the exact antibiotics I needed at his house, because his mother is a doctor. I got the meds the day I was informed about my possible danger, and nothing ever came of the catastrophe that could have been. Now, I am on my way home solely due to a respiratory disease, somewhat similar to whooping cough. I should have taken that intitial occurrence as a warning for what was to come less than three months later. The first issue to face me during this exchange in China is almost the exact same one that will bring it to an end. Irony? Coincidence? Bad luck? You can tell me what you think tomorrow, I should be home.
I spent most of today with my favorite classmate. Because of SARS the students didn't have to go to school, so a bunch of my (and my host brother's) closest friends came over to our house, partly because today is his birthday, and partly because today is my last day in Beijing. At first there were four other kids over here, but most of them left after lunch, leaving only the girl who sits three seats in front of me. In the last four weeks or so, since she began teaching me Japanese and since I began teaching her Spanish, we've become close. There have always been a lot of kids around, though, so we haven't been able to really have any sort of unique friendship; my relationship with her has been virtually identical to the relationship I have with all of the classmates who've made an effort to be my friend. Today we got to spend a lot of time together, though, and it was amazing having a real friendship wit h a Chinese kid, besides my host brother.
She left about twenty minutes ago, and I know that I'll never see her again.
Tonight I'll stay up twiddling my thumbs and watching movies, so that I can fall asleep on the plane tomorrow and ease my inevitable American Airlines discomfort. The Nyquil I have in the outside pocket of my backpack should help just as much. At this point, I want to be home, so that I can begin dealing with the fact that I'm no longer in China. This exchange has been, and will continue to be, the most impacting experience I've ever had in my life. Everybody said that I would be a different person when it ended, and though I didn't believe them at the time, I can finally see that it's true. It was, using my favorite word to describe everything in and about China, phenomenal. I wish that it didn't have to end, but it does, so I'm going home.
If the flight goes as expected I'll see you, or talk to you all soon.